Christine Kearney’s short story, Hookin’ In, was shortlisted in the 2014 Marjorie Graber-McInnis Short Story Award. Read her piece below. Stay tuned for the publication of other shortlisted and winning entries in the coming weeks. They can be found here.
We land and Gracie vomits. Then we go down the stairs in an icy wind and she vomits again. The crew look on, their heads cocked to one side in sympathy. A stewardess pushes two small cans of lemonade on me.
‘It might settle her stomach. For the car trip,’ she says.
The car trip is a walk in the park, I’m thinking. But I thank her and shove the lemonade in my handbag.
Bito is waiting down the escalator in arrivals, with red snowflake-pattern beanies and red jackets for the girls. We drive through quiet streets, the road smooth and black, mandarin-coloured street lights leading the way. The girls look out the window silently.
The morning is quiet, hushed. Traffic a distant whoosh and zoom, all smooth, all muffled. A single bird calls. None answer. The hush of the burbs. I’d forgotten the hush of the burbs.
The girls start school. It’s a long, cold walk in the morning. We get lost, twice and have to retrace our steps. My face is frozen and I’m cross that we’re walking, cross that we’re the hicks who’ve just flown in and that we don’t have a car yet or know the bus routes.
In the afternoon, I cash our last US dollars, sliding the notes over the laminate counter at the bank. The cashier counts out slick Aussie notes in return. The girls open bank accounts and are given platypus piggy banks. I apply for new library cards. We’ve just come back, I say. We’ve just moved back. Oh and Oh, that’s nice!
No one cares. Here is all that matters.
Every pink bun helps, declares a sign at Baker’s Delight. Pink ribbons everywhere. BIG LOTS says a large sign on the side of a bus.
Sheltering in coffee shops and the library, walking everywhere, because we don’t have a car. On the way back from school, we stop at a new cafe beside the TAB. A regular coffee costs three dollars and eighty cents. Call it four. The girls’ hot chocolate six. The prices are murderous. In the paper, I read about Roger Rogerson and a trussed up body found floating off the coast of Cronulla. The paper rallies people for a Million Paws Walk. A woman with hair swept up in a bun and a long string of pearls, leans over and lays a hand on one section of the paper.
‘May I read your paper?’
‘Yes of course,’ I say, ‘but I’ll need it back in a bit.’
‘Oh, I didn’t know it was yours!’
The girls look on wide-eyed.
We walk home. On the wall around the vacant lot, a chunky proposal in graffiti:
Further along, a black inscription:
In the predominance of order
the soul craves chaos.
We crunch home over gum seeds, leaf litter. The girls wade through drifts of autumn leaves.
Then the dog gets sick. When we get home, there’s a text from the friend who’s adopted him. Prince pretty bad, she warns. I ask if she wants me to pay for the vet.
The tips of my fingers crack and looking in, peering in, it seems as though I’m looking down into a canyon and there at the bottom, the red runs, there, under the cracked skin runs the warm, red blood. Bito gets a dry rash across his shoulders and back, and comes home from the chemist with a one per cent cortisone cream. The girls’ hair seems fine and fly-away and dry and the ringlet curls the nanny used to do in Dili aren’t possible. It’s as though the space here, in Australia even gets into the gap between one hair and the next.
The cousins come up from Tassie and we have lunch in the Botanic Gardens.
‘That’s why I don’t like native gardens,’ says the cousin’s wife. ‘Grey, green, grey, green and more shades of grey and green.’
I’m soaking it in. Nothing flashy. None of the riot and easy colour and decay of our garden in Dili. Here, things seem to seed and grow in a cautious, gnarly sort of way, mindful of the space, mindful of the continent.
‘So,’ the cousin asks, almost as an aside, ‘are you still Australian?’
We walk back from school and we’re about to step into the library when Gracie tugs at my sleeve.
‘Mum, it’s her,’ she whispers.
‘What lady?’ I ask, irritated, wanting to get out of the wind.
‘The lady who borrowed your paper.’
A lady she is. The swept up hair. The brocade brooch. The sweater with a gold fleck. She’s also sheltering in coffee shops and the library. She has no car either. We walk home.
‘When can we get a vehicle?’ Nina demands.
I check the email after tea. The dog is refusing all food. Gets into fights, then runs up and down the street looking for us. He paws at the gate of our old house. The new tenants let him in and he pads around, trying to sniff us out. He barks, whines at the front door and then seems lost.
Have you taken him to the vet? I ask his new owner. I’ll pay.
We don’t tell the girls. We agree we don’t need to tell the girls.
Long walks along the canal to school. The trees, scudding clouds and cool, high winds. And the sky. The blue sky is extraordinary. Nothing could ever go wrong under that sky, could it?
I ride into the city on a borrowed bike, rocketing over cracks in the pavement. Down around the Rex, someone has been aerosoling love on the footpath and on the back of street signs. Love, love, love. In town, everything’s new. There’s an enormous shoe store at the Braddon end of the city. Rows and rows of shoes. Shoes that fit me, unlike the tiny shoes in Asia. Everyone is getting around town in stylish black boots. I need a pair too, I decide. I try on a pair of soft, black, ankle-high boots. Boston Belle, says the label.
‘Been here long?’ I ask the sales girl.
‘About four years,’ she replies.
‘Right. It’s four years since we were in Canberra. Everything looks new!’
Outside Gus’, a lady with a pink beanie and watery, blue eyes accosts me.
‘I had friction burns on my elbows,’ she says of her first baby. ‘It was breech.’
At the DVD shop, we walk up and down looking for the first Hobbit. I ask at the counter.
‘S in-action,’ says the shop assistant.
‘In-action,’ she says.
‘I don’t know what that means.’
She sighs. ‘It’s in the action section. Aisle 3.’
At night, a rock garden of stars hanging above the roof of the flat and the weight of doonas and blankets on the bed, after years of sleeping with nothing more than a sarong. And in the morning, the stillness when we walk up to school, passing all these fine, discrete houses with no one in sight and block-out curtains in every window. But there’s something gloomy, gothic about those lifeless curtains hanging in all the windows. No need to dump the body in the harbour. Just shove it behind the block-out curtains. No one would be any the wiser.
We work out the bus route and I catch it with the girls on the first day. A boy from Campbell High taps me on the shoulder.
‘Excuse me. But this is a school bus?’
The way that statements curl into questions in Australia.
I go home and spend hours hunched over second-hand cars on carsales.com and gumtree. I ping off inquiries to different car yards and corpulent-sounding men called Kevin and Brett and Craig leave messages for me. A dealer in Phillip offers a pick-up service. I ring them and an hour later, a small, grey Toyota with 5990 sprayed across the windscreen in lurid yellow and pink pulls into the driveway. A young Indian man is behind the wheel. We shake.
‘Prince,’ he offers.
It’s a warm afternoon and we drive for miles. We putter down Northbourne. We drive into the city and we drive out again. We sail over the lake. We skirt around Parliament. We drive down towards Woden. We drive through and then past Woden and there on Melrose Drive, the whole automotive universe is represented. But we don’t stop at the city end of Melrose. We keep going, past caryard after caryard, eventually pulling up at the last dealership before the roundabout. I test drive a white hatch, a Korean car. I drive it all the way back home, with Prince now sitting in the passenger seat beside me, keeping a discrete but watchful eye on every move I make. Would he get the sack if I had a bingle?
Home to another text. Vet thinks distemper.
That afternoon, I take a seat at the back of the school hall for the girls’ first assembly. There are three flags on the dais, and only one of them is the Australian flag—it sits between the land rights flag and the ACT flag. At the start of the assembly, we sing the national anthem and then at the end the kids offer a take-off:
Australians all eat ostriches
For breakfast, lunch and tea
On Saturday morning, we go down to Braddon to hire a car. Two middle-aged men are stumped by the parking meters in Lonsdale Street.
‘2P Saturday and Sunday? Do we have ta fuckin pay?’
We pick up a car from Hertz so that we can go back to the dealer in Phillip and have a second look at the Korean hatch.
‘You can’t go wrong with a Camry,’ offers the man at the Hertz desk.
A second test drive, with the whole family, and Prince squashed in the back between the girls. Back at the yard, we huddle outside the office. Should we buy it? I go back in.
‘We’ll take it,’ I say and Prince breaks into a huge grin of relief. He looks so happy I want to hug him.
He takes us down to see the finance manager, a Scottish chap with woolly mutton chops. I eftpos the deposit. Then he lifts his head and eyeballs me.
‘And how,’ he asks, with a manic glint, enunciating each word, ‘would you like ta pay for the remaining six thousand and five hundred dollars?’
Bito and I exchange looks. With money, I’m tempted to say. We get home as another text chirps in. It’s in the spine he can hardly walk. Bito says she should give the dog to the nanny, that the nanny will give him some traditional medicine and see if he’ll pull through.
‘His manifesto was one hundred and forty-one pages long,’ announces someone behind me in the cafe.
A boy has shot dead six people in California.
‘People were saying he’s mentally disturbed but I don’t think he was. If you’re a film director in Hollywood and you can’t get laid every Friday night there is something fundamentally wrong with you. I mean, right?’ He laughs. ‘It’s quite a good narrative. Like there are no spelling errors. And when he writes poetry, he separates it from the rest of the text.’
‘Why?’ asks the girl.
‘So you know it’s poetry,’ he blurts.
At Canberra Connect I pay a small fortune to change over the rego. I borrow a screwdriver to take down the yellow NSW plates and screw the blue ACT plates in place.
‘Just the Phillips head?’ asks the woman behind the counter.
I drive home with the blue plates and the phones beeps as I pull up.
Too far gone, infection in his brain
I call Bito. He says that if they take the dog to the nanny, she would look after him and he might make it.
‘Did you tell her that?’ he asks.
‘Forgot,’ I mutter.
I hang up and starting punching in a reply. Give him 2 our nanny she might… But another one arrives. Vet said his nervous system already affected, organ failure, so v. small chance he’d survive. We’re putting him down now
I tell the girls that night and they burst into tears.
‘He was a good boy,’ I say, starting to cry myself. ‘A good boy.’
On a crisp Saturday morning, I plant three rows of garlic. I tell Gracie the garlic will be ready in spring.
‘Does spring come after winter?’ she asks cautiously.
‘Spring comes after winter.’
‘Spring’s sort of like the dry season, isn’t it?’
‘Canberra doesn’t have a wet and a dry.’
‘Well, how many months till spring?’
‘So in spring, we will have been back four months.’
A house is going up next door. A crew of brickies have arrived to lay on the skin of the house. The wet cement they slap on looks creamy, like tahini, or thick grey icing.
‘Going up quick,’ I call out to a brickie.
‘Yeah,’ he says, modest but pleased. ‘We’re hooking in.’