The faded stain pokes up between my bare toes and I focus on individual threads of the shagpile looking for differences in colour. Beyond my foot the change is obvious, the brown blotch sweeping outward. They say it happened the Christmas I was five, stumbled backward on a toy car and landed on the corner of the coffee table. Head wounds bleed profusely, that’s how it got so big. I don’t remember, and the scar is hidden on the back of my skull. The only thing I remember is waking up Christmas morning to find my mother gone.
“We go through this shit every year, Marcia” Rod says, the anger snapping out between his perfect teeth. I stopped mentally referring to him as ‘Dad’ the year I turned seven, unsure if he’d ever actually deserved the title. For Christmas he’s wearing his good mission-brown Stubbies and a Camel cigarettes singlet.
The fan struggles to shift the scorched air, succeeding only in bothering the tinsel on the wilting Christmas tree. Auntie Lorraine uses the cover of the Boney M album to fan herself, the sweat carving canyons in her heavy foundation.
“Honey,” she oozes, dropping the cover and picking up the arm of the record player. “Sometimes you just create memories.”
“Like me hitting my head on the coffee table.”
The needle slides across the vinyl and ‘Rasputin’ exploded through the speakers.
– his drinking and lusting and his hunger for power became known –
“There was never any fucking Christmas treasure!” Rod backhands a champagne flute abandoned on the sideboard, mimosa exploding onto the floor, bubbles disappearing into the carpet. “And turn that disco shit off.”
The glass tumbles and stops at my foot. The wire door slams leaving Auntie Lorraine and I glaring at each other, ‘Rasputin’ playing on.
hey hey hey hey hey hey
“Marcia…” Auntie Lorraine says, using the knuckle of her pointer finger to dab at tears which might spill.
“Like you care, Auntie Lorraine.” I boot the glass in her direction and reach for my Christmas basketball, bright and unblemished, abandoned in Rod’s threadbare orange armchair.
The wire door slams extra loud behind me, I make sure of it.
On the concrete driveway I sit on the ball, resting in the partial shade of the wild jasmine. The record player falls silent. I wonder why either of the adults who call themselves my ‘parent’ would think a basketball an appropriate present for a thirteen year old girl. This is how they are able to look me in the eye every Christmas Day and tell me my mother never hid Christmas treasure. But I see us hand-in-hand, with matching shimmering pink fingernails, searching the house, the garden, her smile framed by frosted lipstick, reflecting my own excitement.
But did it happen? Or did I create an alternate Christmas without Rod and Auntie Lorraine, Boney M, mimosas and Melbourne Bitter. Eight years on the few photos I have merge with faded memories and half remembered stories so I don’t know what’s real and what’s imagined anymore.
I throw the basketball against the brick wall, over and over again, the rhythm simple and soothing until Auntie Lorraine screams from the window to shut the fuck up.
What the hell did she expect I’d do with a basketball?
I flip her the bird and hurl the ball one last time at the wall, slamming it into the bottom row of bricks with enough force to dislodge several.
The ball bounces back at an awkward angle and rolls toward the road. I run to the wall to inspect the damage before Rod and his backhand arrive to follow up. Inside the hole I see the pale green weatherboards of the original house and vague memories of Rod bricking over it. Reaching into the cavity my fingers caress the boards, as though touching the blistered paintwork will bring her back.
I hear a cement mixer and the feel of hot, shifting sand beneath small feet; my mother’s laughter ringing out accompanied by the chatter of the sprinkler; the smell of wet grass and beer. The sun flashes on my mother’s necklace, the silver lady replaced with the words ‘make a wish’.
On my stomach, I stretch out and squeeze my hand between the bricks and boards, wishing the space would expand so I could wrap my arms around the old house, or crawl into the space, back into a world before Rod and Auntie Lorraine.
My hand brushes brittle paper and an awkward exploration turns up a box. Hooking my fingers around it I carefully pull it towards the hole. It’s small with a separate lid, both wrapped in paper, ripped and discoloured with cockroach shit but the tiny yuletide angels are recognisable, grinning above their tiny harps.
Inside Boney M starts up again. I stand and look through the window. Rod and Auntie Lorraine are pressed together against the wall, making up. Rod’s hand gropes beneath her short paisley skirt. A fresh mimosa in Auntie Lorraine’s hand tilts at a dangerous angle.
Knowing neither will bother me, I bob down and pull the box free of the bricks and crumbled mortar, jamming the bricks back into place. If Rod looks straight at it he will see, but he rarely walks up the driveway. I race barefoot over the burning ground, across the back porch, carefully prising open the back wire door. The box stays close to my chest, just in case either of them wanders into the kitchen as I cut through then slide down the hallway and into my room, fixing the chair beneath the door knob.
I sit on my unmade bed and stare at the dirty box, the size of a pair of baby shoes. Christmas Treasure. Any lingering acceptance of the shit spun by Rod and Auntie Lorraine is gone.
I count to six and lift the lid, peer in. There is treasure. A tiny fold away clock; a packet of hair bobbles, the elastic disintegrated and the ends loose in the bottom; hair clips with butterflies. And beneath the balls and glittering insects the word ‘wish’ disconnected from its chain, tarnished with age and neglect.
The place I keep shut up, crumbles like the brick veneer. I lay down clasping the ‘wish’ pendant knowing it’s what I see around my mother’s neck in my memories. My fingers curl into a fist and my body curls around my fist. I wish for her to come back. But more than anything, I wish to know why she walked out. I can understand leaving Rod, but not me. Please tell me, I pray to God, to Santa, to David Cassidy, to the crickets screeching outside; why did she go and not take me too?
* * *
I wake with a start. The crickets are silent as are the bedsprings on the other side of the thin plasterboard wall. My hand is cold and empty, the ‘wish’ pendant gone. The breeze blows my curtains in and out, my plain white curtains replaced with fairies dancing on fabric, backlit by the streetlight.
Yelling shatters the quiet; female voices tearing at the space beyond my door. I freeze recognising both of them. The loudest belongs to my mother.
The bedroom door groans and I tiptoe down the hall to listen. The Christmas lights flash, casting obscene shadows on the wall behind them.
“Stay away from me. Stay away from Marcia. And stay away from Rod.” My mother’s words border on hysterical.
“Or what?” Auntie Lorraine takes a step closer, the two profiles almost identical.
“Look who’s here.” Rod swaggers into the room, a Melbourne Bitter long-neck in hand, walking around my mother to clap an arm around his sister-in law’s shoulder, the bottle resting just above her breast. “I’d know your sexy voice anywhere.”
Lorraine smiles up at him through fake eyelashes.
“You promised, Rod.” Mum is pulling at the long plait hanging over her shoulder.
“That you’d stay away from her.” She’s pacing on the spot, tiny steps going nowhere. “Sheryl says Lorraine’s been hanging around the yard waiting for you to knock off. Is that why you’ve been coming home late?”
“What’s it to you.”
“I’m your wife. –”
“Nag, nag, nag. That’s all I ever get. You on the other hand…” He pulls Lorraine closer to drain the bottle. She grins at Mum and slips her arm around his waist, bending with him when he reaches to place the empty bottle next to a small box wrapped in glittery angel paper.
My hand grips the door frame. Lorraine giggles and snuggles into Rod.
“Get out. Get out of my home.”
“C’mon. Let’s blow this place,” Rod says, leaning in to kiss Auntie Lorraine full on the lips.
“Rod!” Mum is crying. “Don’t do this to me.”
“You’ve done it to yourself.”
He turns and Mum picks up the empty beer bottle.
“No,” I scream.
My five-year-old legs are short and I reach her too late, the bottle connecting with the back of my skull on the upswing. Facedown, warmth thickens my hair and spreads red, soaking into the new carpet. Mum wails. The sickening crunch of bone on bone and glass shattering. Mum’s eyes unblinking, staring into mine. The night closing in on me, carrying the sound of the cement mixer and the pop of a champagne cork.
First published in Literary Mix Tapes’ inaugral edition “Deck the Halls”, 2010
Original image from Interior Design