My sister was born on a Wednesday morning in a room with lemon
curtains. The Doctor on delivery rolled his sleeves and washed his
hands, then polished his silver cutlery. At half past ten, he
glanced at the nurse and said, it's
time. My sister, as if aware of what would follow, decided
she would stay. For forty-five minutes, in fact.
When she finally emerged, fist clenched in protest, the Doctor hung her upside down and slapped her for keeping him waiting. Then a nurse with faded hair carried her over to the sink, when another, a little younger, washed her in a bowl of olive oil. After they cut her cord, they put her on a cooking scale. My sister was smaller than the rest of us, only five pounds; the weight of a blue-bird or a bag of apricots.
While she slept, my father shuffled us into the car and brushed our hair, and buckled up our seatbelts. Then he went searching for an empty car space-one with shade so the wheel wouldn't warm-and after that, he went looking for a ticket machine and loose change, and a pay phone so he could call the bowls club.
'I need to cancel my roll-up,' he said.
By the time we arrived at my mother's room, she was sitting on the edge of her bed; white-faced and out of breath, her gown as creased as a tea-towel. My father hurried to the baby.
'She's got my nose,' he said, touching his own.
My mother nodded.
'She's smaller than I expected,' he said.
My mother looked out the window.
A couple of days later, the jacaranda in our backyard started to bloom. Purple trumpets fell from the sky and dotted the driveway. Some half opened and then, not liking what they saw, decided to close back up again. My father sat under the tree with his head in his hands. My mother came home from the hospital. That night, she put the baby on the bench, then slipped into her nightie, the one with a talking pig that said I'm perfect just the way I ham. Before bed, she stood at the sink and sipped a glass of water. Then she held my face between her hands and said, Mummy isn't well.
The next morning, and for many mornings after that, I woke to the sound of crying. At first I thought the cries belonged to the baby because they started at light, before the birds, and they seemed, like all cries, to come from a child. That afternoon, I opened the door to my parent's room and saw them lying in bed together; my father was stretched flat on his back, my mother curled over him like a starfish. Her head was on his chest and her eyes were red and puffy. My father removed a handkerchief from his pocket and unfolded all the edges. For a second, our eyes met, and he looked at me if to say, so now you see.
In the months that followed, my brother and I spent entire hours, sometimes days, with our ears pressed to the wall. In the crying world, far from the playful sounds of school, I wondered what would happen to us.
My father, I think, sensed these ruffles in our days and tried to smooth them over.
'Everything is fine,' he said.
At night, he let us cook popcorn with extra salt and butter, and in the mornings, we went on adventures. On school days, we drove through McDonalds and ordered bacon and eggs. My father, unsure what to feed the baby, removed a hash brown from its packet. I chewed the crisp into tiny bits and passed them to my brother who fed her piece by piece.
'She loves this shit,' he said. 'Give me more.'
I called my sister Totty.
My brother called her Hash.
After school, we went to the bowls club. Sometimes, we stopped along the way to pat a dog or post a letter. At the bar, we made castles out of cards and airplanes out of napkins.
My father watched us, beer in hand. When he wasn't looking, we fed the baby peanuts from a plastic cup. Other times, we let strangers tickle her.
'This is our hash baby,' my brother said.
The waitress frowned.
'Where's your mother?'
'We don't have a mother.'
'Our mother's in the circus,' I said. 'She's a midget.'
That afternoon, someone reported our family to the manager and we weren't allowed back.
On the way out, my father pulled me aside.
The circus?' he said.
As we spoke, my brother climbed a tree and started shaking the branches.
'I'm a monkey!' he shouted.
My father shook his head and said, 'You're an idiot.'
Then he started joining in.
When we were older, my father would refer to this time simply as
when your mother was unwell. Years later, when we started school,
we complained about cereal for breakfast.
'We used to get McDonalds,' we said
'That was a long time ago,' my father said, 'when your mother was unwell.'
It was around this time that my aunts came to live with us. There were five of them all up; one for each day of the week
'Monday's here,' my brother called, 'and she's got fat-ass Friday with her.'
Our aunts emptied the cupboards and watered the plants, and scrubbed the floors with hot water and disinfectant. They came with suggestions and odd shaped tablets and sometimes roast chicken dinners. They tried to make sense of my mother. They made her so many cups of tea that long after they left, I still found mugs, half-full, scattered in obscure places.
In the weeks that followed, the colours returned to my mother's cheeks from wherever they disappeared to. Slowly, she started to feel better. To speed her recovery, the Doctor suggested she spend some time apart from us. My mother complained to my father about the space, but he was a man of reason who grew up to the ticking of a clock and he believed if something was ordered, then it was acceptable.
'We'll be fine,' he said.
The next day, my mother packed all her things and told us she was going away for a while. Before she left, she sat us at the kitchen table and filled our cups with cordial.
'I hate lime,' my brother said. 'I want raspberry.'
My mother cut our sandwiches into perfect squares.
'When I'm gone, look after your sister,' she said. 'Cool her milk.'
'Where are you going?'
My mother picked up her keys.
'I'm going on a holiday.'
'I'm coming too,' my brother said.
He slid off his chair.
'I would take you if I could,' my mother said, 'but children aren't allowed.'
Later that night, my mother came home in a police car. From my window, I saw the officer open the passenger door. For a while, my mother stood under the street light, straightening out her skirt. My father, who was waiting in the lounge room, met them at the door. There, they spoke in low voices, their conversation muffled.
'Maybe three or four times,' one of them said. 'Yes, where the bridge is.'
After that, my father kept the keys in his drawer.
Kate Cantrell is completing her first novel, Do you believe in always. She is an associate lecturer in the school of creative writing and literary studies at QUT.