Easily the Hardest Thing
Was there any normal anymore? The others in the waiting room were at either end of a spectrum, tottering on an unfair seesaw between the obese and anorexic. The woman opposite Belinda had shoulders like a wire coat hanger and cheekbones like hooks. The man to her right looked like he had a large pet curled on his lap, but it was his belly. Belinda could feel the waistband of her navy work skirt riding up over itself and resolved something about TimTams. She had enough lap to rest a Women’s Weekly on; she turned the pages at arbitrary intervals. The whispering of the paper was to help her feel calm, composed like a good poem. Her mother said calm was infectious. Her mother said, try it. Belinda figured if yawning was, why not serenity?
Then the Venetian blinds crashed onto a low bookshelf in a waterfall of loud, unstoppable noise.
‘Darcy,’ Belinda hissed. Her son – the reason she was here, the reason for all this, the appointment, the wait, the false composure, the noise, the shrieking headache – jumped down from on top of the shelf, skittling out-of-date Reader’s’ Digests, and grabbed the head-rail of the blinds. A protruding screw dusted with plaster ripped his skin. Belinda put her magazine on the chair to her left and reluctantly got up, just as the door to the office opened.
Darcy forgot the blood and responded to the new stimulus by doing a circling, whirling 1950s Red Indian dance in the middle of the waiting room. The last patient pushed past with a tissue firmly to her nose – a sop to emotions or allergies, it was impossible to tell which.
The Homeopath called a name. ‘Beatrice?’ She spoke so softly Belinda heard her own name and started forward. But the ballerina bag-of-bones was moving with surprising vigour.
It was already past the time Belinda had been told on the phone. She looked at her watch in a pointed, does-no-one-know-the-cost-of-parking-around-here way. When she looked back up the door to the office was closed again and Darcy was dragging the broken bones of the blinds toward her.
She didn’t look at Darcy while she was taking the blinds off him. She propped them against the wall, like some shambolic, shredded set of skis and sat down. Darcy still had the end of the stripped-out chord in his hand. He wrapped it round and round his mother’s ankles, tethering himself to her. She flicked the magazine. She had no emotions left to muster. She’d gone through anger and embarrassment and pity and heartache. Ten years in a revolving door.
‘I’m at the end of my tether, end of my tether,’ he chanted. No-one in the waiting room had to wonder where he’d learnt that phrase.
Belinda didn’t want sympathy. She didn’t like the evil looks she got in the supermarket from perfect women and men in suits – as if children never played up – but at least she was used to that. The Homeopath had eyes brimming with compassion; so full in fact that they didn’t appear able to blink let alone close.
‘How much do you know about the restorative effects of homeopathy?’ the woman asked.
Belinda turned slightly in her chair so she couldn’t see Darcy over by the shelving which ran down one side of the office. He had a stem of some dried herb in his mouth.
Of course she knew what homeopathy was. She’d made the appointment hadn’t she? ‘It’s where you take a little bit of what causes the problem. Like immunization…’
The Homeopath shook her head very slightly. She had long hair. It must take her hours to wash and dry each morning, Belinda thought. She wondered if the controlled movements were because the woman was sitting on the ends of her hair and couldn’t actually move her head any further.
‘Did you have your son immunized?’
‘Yes.’ Belinda had done all the right things as a mother. All the pages in his Blue Birth Book were signed off.
The woman she’d come to for help sighed. ‘I see…’ It was not a long-suffering sigh. It was a sad-for-all-the-world sigh. ‘We have a lot to rectify.’
The Homeopath got up from her desk – and from sitting on the end of her hair – and walked over to Darcy who’d touched everything on every shelf and now seemed intent on de-winging a barley-husk angel. She took his hand without interrupting the flow of her talk, something about vital forces and miasmas and the disturbance caused by the Triple Antigen shot. Her slow, considered movements were mesmerising, like the dance of the stouts Belinda had tried to get Darcy to watch on a weekend David Attenborough documentary. Belinda had trouble concentrating on the words because Darcy was letting the stranger lead him back to a chair by the desk without protest. Without protest, she thought, an observation worth repeating. Darcy sat quietly. Just like the stout’s prey: like the stunned rabbit.
‘I’ll look up the Repertory but one thing is clear…’
Darcy was up again. The Homeopath turned those brimming eyes on him and he instantly sat, now with one leg tucked up under himself so he was higher than Belinda and could bounce like he was on a spring. He took out his mobile and started playing Worms.
‘Your son is around technology a lot isn’t he?’
‘It’s hard not to be, this day and age. He’ll be at high school soon. You know high schools. The Ritalin is not… It’s so hard doing it alone…’ All the considered sentences Belinda had lined up to tell the Homeopath splattered out over the top of each other, tripping each other up, falling against the unremitting gaze of the other woman. She wanted to convey the full depth of her fear: a child ostracized by his peers, a child unloved. It came out as clichés, about bullies and bullying. But when she looked directly at the Homeopath, Belinda could see her words being sponged up, with a now, now, and those little controlled, empathy-filled head movements. The Homeopath interrupted Belinda at the second ‘end of my tether.’
‘Our homeopathic armory was prepared in the mid-nineteenth century so we’ve had to come up with some new preparations for today’s ailments. Ritalin only attempts to address the symptoms, and as you’ve discovered, is worse than useless for you son. We have to go further and look at the deeper disturbances of the vital force. How long has he had a mobile phone?’
Belinda remembered the first one. She’d bought it for Darcy’s first day at school. He was to text her when he got on the bus each afternoon and then ring her when he was safely through the front door. From her office, Belinda would talk him through locking the door, finding fruit and muffins, not touching the sharp knife. The kitchen was always a mess when she got home around six. She’d lost count of how many phones were lost over the primary school years. She murmured a simple, ambiguous, ‘he’s had one a while.’
‘Technology is a dangerous thing. Our society is jittery. Allergic. So throw out the Ritalin,’ the woman commanded, ‘and we’ll try…’
‘I have to go to the toilet,’ Darcy whined. He pocketed his latest mobile and left the room.
‘To the right,’ the Homeopath told his back. The weight of the air on the room suddenly felt lighter. Belinda leaned forward to listen.
‘I have just the remedy. We’ve taken a small part of the circuit board of a mobile phone, diluted, highly diluted, one in a trillion parts should be the right potency.’
It sounded reassuringly scientific with all the details and precise proportions but Belinda felt a twinge of doubt. Something about protons and neutrons surfaced from science class. ‘But if it’s diluted that much…?’
The Homeopath didn’t miss a beat of her patter. ‘Diluted yes, and at each step, potentized. Water has memory. The succussion, the forceful striking of the remedy, ensures efficacy.’
They were all good, strong words, Belinda had to admit, as Darcy came back in. There was a 50 cent sized patch of wetness on his shorts. He sat down as he was told but started to drum his hands on the desk. ‘Succussion,’ he sang. He tossed his head back and drummed wildly in imitation of Animal in The Muppets.
‘Not percussion,’ Belinda hissed. She gave the Homeopath one of her perfected looks. The one that said, ‘see, this is what I have to put up with.’ It was a detachment that helped her survive, but the doctors hadn’t recognised her look for years. They’d treated her like a child abuser each time she took Darcy in for stitches or plaster. They noticed the fading bruises and the thick scabs. Then one morning in the GP’s surgery Darcy did a Tarzan swing off the lamp used to shine a light up her vagina every second year and broke his collarbone. It was the day she walked out with a prescription for Ritalin.
Anything had to better than it. It was a dangerous drug for goodness sake. And Darcy hadn’t calmed down. She remembered her own miserable years at high school – the other kids were not going to be kind to her child. It was a jungle out there and she needed him to join the herd.
The landline was ringing when they got through the door.
‘It’s me. Can I speak to Darcy?’
‘Darcy, it’s your father.’
Darcy disappeared up the hall and into his bedroom. His television blared out a greeting as he turned it on.
‘He won’t talk.’ Belinda Lego-blocked the phone into the groove between her head and shoulder to listen while she put her bag and keys and sunglasses in their places. ‘No I am not being obstructive. I am not stopping him talking to you. Ring back in five minutes.’
When the phone rang again Belinda out-waited Darcy in the kitchen. She sipped her wine and listened to him humphing down the hall.
Silence, except for the tap, tap, tap of Darcy’s heel on the skirting board.
Tapping became banging.
‘You’re a wanker.’ A final bang. Then the phone was ringing again.
Belinda spilled the wine as she slammed her glass on the kitchen bench.
‘What did you call your father?’ she shouted at Darcy. Before he could answer from his retreat to the television, she said, louder, ‘it’s rude to say that.’
She stood at his bedroom door, tired but angry. She’d be blamed for this.
‘It’s what you call him,’ Darcy said, as if this had ever been an excuse in the whole history of childhood.
‘To Aunty Dee on the phone.’
‘You shouldn’t be eavesdropping. I’ve told you.’ The phone was still ringing down the hall. Belinda did her yoga breathing. Let her diaphragm calm her.
‘Well,’ she looked at him, almost her height, cheeks still chubby and smooth, ‘well, it’s not a young boy’s word,’ she continued in her reasonable voice. ‘It’s an adult word.’
‘Like shit and fuck and cunt?’ asked Darcy. He wasn’t looking at her. He was scraping more wallpaper off his wall with the sharp edge of the Warner Bros figure he’d got at the drive-through on the way home. Burgers for the belly, The Joker to keep him quiet on the drive (once he got over the vocal disappointment that he hadn’t got Batman or his Batmobile).
The phone went quiet. Her mobile shrieked in her handbag – classical ringtones could not disguise the insistent tone.
‘Where does he learn that sort of thing?’ her ex asked as opener when she go to it.
‘He’s eleven. He’s not a baby anymore. He’s grown a little since you ran off.’ The sarcasm was heavy. It was the tone of habit – because it was all his fault for leaving. That’s when Darcy got so uncontrollable. At least that’s the way it went in her memory.
She could hear the scraping of The Joker’s cape against wallpaper from down the wall.
It was all her fault for not coping.
Indiscriminate fury flooded her inner ear, drowning out Darcy’s father. She’d heard it all before anyway.
‘If I’m such a crap mother, you take him,’ she spat. Then swung around to make sure Darcy wasn’t in the hall listening. The scraping was for once a reassurance.
‘Call him on his mobile in future. I don’t want to hear your voice,’ she hissed into her own mobile.
‘Do you know how expensive it is to call a mobile? I’ll use the landline whenever…’
‘Cheapfuck. As ever.’ Mobiles don’t make a satisfying bang when you hang up angrily, she lamented. She had that foul taste in her mouth, the one she worried was a symptom of a cancer growing inside. It made the wine, when she finally got back to it, taste less like the label promised and more like vinegar.
‘Go to bed Darcy. I’ve got work to catch up on.’
He looked like a limp stalk of celery propped against the doorjamb of her study. Stick him in a bit of water and he’d perk up though.
Getting him into the shower was a dread each evening, and then the last hurdle: bed. She tried to lose herself in a briefing paper as she waited for the noises in the bathroom to subside. Then she went in, picked up the wet towel, hung it square, put the dirty clothes in the basket, weeded the toothbrushes out of the peace lily, dragged herself to his bedroom. Darcy was not there. She went to the kitchen. Not there. Back to his bedroom.
‘Get out of the wardrobe. You have to take this remedy.’
The door to the wardrobe cracked open. ‘Why not my pills?’
‘This is better.’
‘Will you read to me?’
Belinda felt the unbearable weight of being a mother. She shouldn’t have said that to his father: it was only when she was most desperate that she wanted Darcy out of her life. She probably shouldn’t have told him to ring Darcy’s mobile either, if his addiction to technology was the problem. The cumulative guilt made her say yes. ‘Just a quick chapter.’
So after Darcy had dutifully swallowed the drops she lay on the bed beside him with his birthday book from mad Aunty Dee who gave him one every year though she’d been told often enough that he had problems concentrating enough to read chapter books. The cover was ripped across a dragon’s snout and the pages were fat and pulpy from their own contact with water.
Darcy stood up on the mattress and traced the zoo animals on the curtains as Belinda read about training your own dragon. Darcy roared at the curtain lions and bellowed at the elephants. Belinda read through until he lay back down then she kept reading until they were breathing in time. And then they were both asleep.
As if her own mother knew there was calm in the house, Belinda’s mobile beeped the first notes of Beethoven’s Fifth. ‘Skype?’ was the succinct text message.
Belinda got to her computer in the study as it burred in the most old-fashioned telephone ring possible. She clicked on the green icon and her mother’s face filled the screen.
‘You look good,’ her mother said. ‘What drug are you on?’
Her mother laughed and her dentures clicked over two thousand kilometers away and Belinda heard them.
‘Actually, I went to a Homeopath…’
‘Did you say sociopath?’ There was a slight disconnect between aural and visual.
‘Homeo-, not socio-, not psycho-’
Maybe it did sound psycho to her. Her mother was of a generation who believed implicitly what the doctor told them. No Googling to check symptoms, no second opinions required. Belinda persevered through a recount of all her new knowledge.
‘If it’s that diluted… surely there’d be nothing left in your bottle,’ her mother interrupted. ‘It sounds a bit like hocus pocus.’ But she used a kind voice, the one she’d used throughout Belinda’s divorce. ‘What did your GP say?’
‘Science and medicine haven’t a clue,’ Belinda protested. ‘This will work.’ There was no response. Her mother’s eyes were cast to the left. ‘Mum, what are you doing?’
‘Just having a little SMS chat to your sister.’
‘Where is she now?’
Belinda looked through the dusty louvers of the alcove she called her study, out at the overgrown back yard that had been hers for ten years and sighed. ‘Will she ever settle down?’
Her mother ‘mmmed.’ Belinda could hear the keys of her computer clickety-clacking.
‘Besides,’ she said, competing to get her mother’s attention back, ‘this remedy is all about succussion and water memory, and particles, so it’s physics really. The woman quoted a scientist…’ Belinda concentrated so she could get all the polysyllabic words out in the remembered order. ‘Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.’
‘I think you’ll find that’s a quote from a science fiction writer.’ Her mother always brought her back to earth. And buried her under it.
Her mother’s eyes locked on hers through the world wide web and relented. ‘Yes dear. Bringing up children. It’s easily the hardest thing you’ll ever do.’
Belinda didn’t say the unspoken – that it’d be a whole lot easier if Darcy’s grandmother hadn’t retired to the coast.
The front door was wide, presenting a rectangle of golden light to the street.
The season was changing and it was dusk when Belinda got home from work these days, and cooler, but not yet cool enough to have the heating blasting, which was the second thing Belinda noticed.
Darcy’s left shoe was near the door, his right shoe on top of his school pack halfway down the hall. Each sat in a pulsing miasma of vomited cheese-boy foot stench let loose by the heating. At the kitchen door the sweeter cheese smell hit her.
Darcy came out of his room. ‘I made us pudding,’ he said, one word for each bounce toward her. Pudding was muffled in her jacket as he threw himself into her.
The frozen Sara Lee cheesecake was sitting on top of the heating vent in the family room. It was no longer frozen. And it was not so much on top as in the vent. Darcy had followed the instructions and released it completely from its packaging. The base crumbled as Belinda tried to lift it up.
Belinda felt she had two options: screaming, or the silent treatment. She carefully put the cheesecake on the bench that divided the family room from the kitchen.
‘It’s going to be yum,’ Darcy said doggedly.
Darcy did a superman swoop around the lounge chairs, leaping one to the other. Belinda ignored him. He took the cushions off the chairs and piled them in a tottering tower. Belinda didn’t say anything as he started to climb. She was biting it back, the only thing she wanted to shout. ‘Go on, fall.’ Instead: silence.
Even with the heating now off, the room was heavy and close as she chopped vegetables and put two fatty chops on the grill. Belinda wondered if this was what hot flushes felt like. When her life would be all over.
She kept her silence through dinner. Darcy stood beside his chair to eat. She was sure he was taunting her to say ‘sit down.’ Silence. She didn’t even look at him.
They didn’t have pudding, She placed the sculptured Sara Lee in the bin, where it looked like the icing on top of the day’s usual rubbish.
After packing the dishwasher she went to Darcy’s room. She shook the Homeopathic remedy bottle vigorously to get his attention, imagining she was a succussionist – with a mariachi band perhaps.
Darcy stared at his television. Some cops apprehending an offender with requisite levels of violence. He didn’t turn. ‘Dad says it’s only water.’
‘When did you speak to your father?’ Belinda stopped the shaking, realising only after the words were out that she’d relinquished her higher ground in the silent treatment.
Darcy didn’t acknowledge he’d broken her. Still didn’t turn. ‘He rang me on my mobile.’
‘Well you should have told me.’
Belinda came fully into the room which was almost bare over years of whittling down danger points. ‘Take your drops.’
‘But it’s just water.’
‘Expensive water I have to work to pay for.’
Darcy took the tiny glass bottle off her, snatched out the dropper and glugged back the entire contents before his mother could snatch it back. She could only watch in horror.
‘Fuck, Darcy.’ She grabbed him and frog-marched him to the bathroom and tried to stick her finger down his throat over the sink.
‘Mummy!’ He made a stuck-pig squeal and bit her finger.
Belinda collapsed on the toilet and sobbed. Darcy was gone. Pain and anger and overwhelming fear competed and paralyzed her for a moment. She had no idea what to do about an overdose. But she had to do something. Phoning Emergency sounded like an over-reaction, so she ran to the computer, clicked up the whitepages, tapped in Poison’s Hotline. It was a 24 hour number.
She ran down the hall with her mobile to her ear, searching for Darcy in each room as she went.
The woman on the other end of the invisible line was calm. ‘Slowly,’ she said kindly. ‘What has your son taken?’
Belinda couldn’t believe the woman’s reaction. The Hotline operator was still laughing when Belinda found Darcy. He was in the kitchen, hidden behind the bench. He’d sat down next to the bin and was smearing gobs of cheesecake into his mouth.
‘It is yum, mum,’ he told her. ‘I rhymed mum, because it’s yum in my tum.’
Belinda hung up on the Poison woman. She remembered being laughed at for years at high school. Her cheeks flushed and she wanted to cry. Darcy grinned up at her. His tongue shot out like a lizard’s. ‘Yum, yum, yum.’ Scorned, ostracized, she’d thought she’d die. Yet here she was – high school hadn’t killed her after all.
Darcy smiled around the sweetness of his forbidden pudding.
‘If I let you play with the screwdriver, will you undo every screw in the heating vent?’ she asked her errant child. Darcy was up and at the laundry cupboard rummaging in the tools before she could finish. ‘So I can clean it,’ she said.
Belinda took Darcy’s place on the floor beside the bin. She wondered, not for the first time, at Darcy’s huge capacity to forgive and forget and move on. She reached in and picked a tiny square of cheesecake out of the bin between her thumb and index finger.
What had she been thinking? A little bit of a circuit board shaken and not stirred…
The screwdriver scrapped. A sound to take the paint off if the metal edge hadn’t already. So she sang out loudly, from down on the floor. ‘Thanks for the pudding.’
Darcy’s voice was distracted by his work with the vent. ‘Not a problem mum.’
Jane Downing is a writer of poetry and prose with over a hundred and thirty works of prose published in journals including The Big Issue, Southerly, The Griffith Review, Westerly, Island, Overland, Seizure, Hecate, UTS Anthology and Antipodes, and a similar number of poems in journals including Rabbit, Cordite, Social Alternatives, Eureka Street and Best Australian Poems (2004 and 2015). Her two novels were published by Pandanus Books at the Australian National University (The Trickster, 2003 and The Lost Tribe, 2005). One of her works was the lead story in the Grapple Annual which won the Most Underrated Book of the Year Award in 2015. In 2016 she was one of two Australians shortlisted, out of nearly 4000 entries from 47 countries, for the Commonwealth Short Story Prize.