The Bougainvillea Tree
(Laura McPhee-Browne)

Posted on June 3, 2016 by in Lies To Live By

FullSizeRenderfor Marjorie Barnard

            I saw two summers in one year once and I won’t forget it. Only once. I had started to heal by then, and often thought of no one but myself in that way that means you might be free. My face in the mirror I had kept in storage many months was the face of a woman who had decided, who bore lines from days lived unwell. I took deep breaths and moved rather slow to keep them. Voices of friends, of shopkeepers, of bus drivers were so new it was like hearing them as a baby, and rolling around in the joy of them. My mind was tired, and as tentative as a star. I walked down streets I had always known as if they were tangled.

            I took a room in a house with a big bougainvillea in its front yard and clouds of jasmine at its back. My room faced the garden; four large windows looking out towards a vegetable patch, a corrugated iron shed. The light came through almost always and made sense against the cream-coloured walls. Shadows painted and swayed; I hung dried gum leaves in the cracks and lay down on the small bed to watch. Outside the room tomatoes fattened, and parsley went to seed. At night, the streetlight lent company to my dreams; dreams I had as deeply as fingers in maple syrup, dreams I could not remember after waking up and padding out to the toilet. I always thought it was daybreak, in that room in the nighttime.

            Across from the house were a line of garages that had names, and tenants who pottered and yelled on weekdays. I lay on my small bed and listened to them, every so often moving my spine against the springs. I listened to the man who talked to anyone who passed him by with cheer, with gumption. I could not see him from the room unless I stood on my tiptoes which I did often, wanting to watch the way his mouth moved as he brightened everything around. He was old, and pepper-grey, and laughed enough to seem happy. He wore overalls mostly, the type that are blue and long-sleeved and grubby. I felt as if he had a wife somewhere, humming and loving him and him loving her too, a big old love that would make me sigh if I knew it. I sensed his contentment near me like a plump, pink prawn.

            There was a day after I had rested for some weeks that I took a walk, to find the creek that circled the neighbourhood and to let the sun dust me. I knew before I left the house that I would pass the row of garages with their names and doors and inhabitants, and that the old man would be there, standing and talking and rubbing at his spotted skin. It was cold in my room as I dressed, and I thought of mornings in the house I grew up in, milky porridge at the waxy wooden table and a mother and father barely talking. I saw the mist floating up off the trees beyond our verandah and out across the Yarra, the hard ice windscreen of my mother’s faithful ute. It sent a shiver down the centre of my back; why did I always think of winter in the summertime?

            I moved carefully out the front door and down the concrete path set in the grass towards the small, crooked gate. The bougainvillea tree was dazzling—rich and full with dark pink flowers, bowing slightly towards the bitumen as if made shy by its own greatness. I could see that it needed pruning, that it was gasping beneath its own grandeur. I thought perhaps I would cut at it that afternoon. Across the road I saw the old man standing, looking over at me as if we knew one another, the way I had imagined he would. He yelled out at me kind, loud words and I nodded back, letting my mouth turn upwards and my eyes crease to show him. I passed by, and walked on down the faded road to where the creek licked at flora and sat for what seemed like many hours, until the sun gave way to the moon, until I was shivering in a way that felt wonderful. That day was the day I started living again, and as I passed the place where the old man had stood, the dark fitting around me like a shell, I felt comfort in his presence—a guard dog waiting to be fed.

            Weeks began and ended. Spring was waiting patiently to bloom and I was still tired, resting most afternoons in the curdled air. I took more walks, but made sure I was never too far from the house and all its flowers and vegetables and sleeping mosquitos, for fear I would tire and wilt before I had returned. I was wandering back from a morning through the grass the day I saw the old man standing close to the bougainvillea at the front of the house. It was noon, and the sun was February-hot. As I got closer I could see that he was pruning, that as he moved little limbs dropped like beautiful blood at his feet. He was whistling, I could hear it along the air, and I called out to greet him, to thank him, though he didn’t turn but whistled on; moving his head and shoulders this way and that to see where he should bite. I walked past him, smiling, and he saw me and nodded his small, wisened head. I walked on, down the path set in the grass, towards the bottle bell door. He whistled on behind me, the click of the secateurs his percussion.

 

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Laura McPhee-Browne
is a writer and social worker from Melbourne.

She is currently working on what she hopes will be her first book, a collection of ‘homage’ or ‘echo’ stories inspired by the short fiction of her favourite female writers.

You can find her at LAURA MCPHEE-BROWNE.

Our Lady Godiva
(Laura McPhee-Browne)  

Posted on November 28, 2014 by in Lies To Live By

Licking_the_Pole (1)I was the kind of kid who made it hard for people to like me. That’s what my dad always said, to my face in front of any old person on the street, and on the phone when he knew I could hear and when he didn’t. ‘Doesn’t know when to stop,’ he’d say, ‘isn’t a real man.’ He didn’t like me much. My mum didn’t used to agree with him, but I had no idea what she thought about me anymore. She’d been gone since I was five—left one night in her nightie and gumboots, her skinny arm in the sling that my dad had said she couldn’t wear, in case the neighbours cottoned on that he had broken her arm. Then there was my biggest brother Wally, and my big brother Blue, and they just plain old hated me, like they hated everyone. Except women—they loved women.

Wally and Blue lived out the back of our place in a bungalow. It was just dad and me in the house; after he’d hurt his leg real bad at the factory he just sat around the place drinking beer and watching porn on the flat screen with his hands down his pants. I hardly ever got to go out there to the bungalow but when I did I just sat on one of the piss coloured couches and looked at all the posters they had on the wall—all types of girls and women and ladies I guess you might call them, naked and spreading their legs and smiling these smiles that made my stomach feel like it had got lost somewhere down in my groin. I’d stare at them until Wally and Blue would start giving me shit— ‘Far out mate, haven’t you ever seen a pair of tits before?’ They knew I hadn’t.

By the time I was seventeen I had this bad habit. It was my secret, and I held it close to me like the newspaper in the rain. I knew nobody could know. I had a hot pulse for girls—their bodies and their hair and the way the backs of them quivered up and down as they walked past me, smelling of hidden caves and Speed Stick. Most of the boys I knew had this hot pulse—we’d talk about girls all the time we had spare, telling each other what we’d do when we had a chance to be knee-deep in them, our hands on their flesh and our tongues reaching. When the other guys would stop I’d want to keep going, would want to talk about hurting them a little bit like I’d heard Wally and Blue talk about doing when they had girls over on the weekend. Once I said the word slut, said ‘I want some slut to push down on the ground’. None of the boys looked at me after that, in the change room after footy practice; none of them except for Jamie P, who was a dickhead anyway. I grabbed an arm, shoved a few of them around to get them smiling but they just pushed me off and left me there to pull my school pants back up over my sprouting legs.

The habit started one day after school when I’d stayed back for detention and was walking home later than I usually did. The light outside was all pink and yellow and made me feel weird and then I was walking past Lily Bird’s place—the hottest girl in our year. I’d never tried to talk to Lily—girls like her went on about being taken seriously and being equal with the boys and I knew that was a load of bullshit. I knew because my dad had told me, and Wally and Blue never bought girls home to talk—only to try and get them to take off their skirts on the futon and watch Pulp Friction or The Penetrator on the bungalow video player, laughing when the girls squealed no.  I didn’t want to talk to Lily but I did want to see her.

Lily walked back from school the same way I did so I knew her house pretty well. I didn’t know which one was her bedroom but there were windows all over the joint and I could walk in the shadows made by all the big trees in their front yard to find out. I decided that if anyone saw me, like Lily’s mum with her face like a dying greyhound, I’d tell them I had accidentally bounced my basketball too hard up here from the road and was trying to find it. I didn’t even care if they believed me by then. It felt hot and sticky inside my head and I was really, really excited—like I was going to get something for free that I really wanted, which I guess I was.

After I’d found out how easy it was to watch Lily lying on her bed in her bra, and doing sit-ups on the floor in her short shorts, I started trying to see other girls in their bedrooms at night. It was easier the later it was—the darkness hid me and it seemed to be the best time to see them in front of their mirrors trying things on, or on the phone with their shaved legs up on the wall. I felt like I was good at it—I felt like sometimes maybe they knew that I was watching them and they were showing off for me. One time Sheila Kelly stopped what she was doing and slowly turned to face the window where I was crouched behind her dad’s Volvo sedan. But she never really twigged. At school I wanted to say something to Jamie P. I knew he’d love it, the little nerd. ‘I’ve seen her naked,’ I’d drop as we passed by Sheila or Pavinda or Lily. I wanted to see his eyes go big as half fried eggs on his greasy face. But I kept my secret just for myself, like a woman should be.

It wasn’t my fault when I got caught. It was just bad luck. I was so good at being still and quiet as I watched the girls and their mums and anyone I could get a look at, I shouldn’t have ever been caught. One night around 9 I was outside Lily Bird’s bedroom, pushed up hard against the branches of the giant rosebush her dad watered about a billion times a day. I was hoping so bad Lily would decide to change into her pyjamas, when she got up and walked to her bedroom door. I could see that it was her mum there, and then Lily left the room, closing the door behind her. I didn’t know where she’d gone, of course I couldn’t hear anything they’d said to each other, but I just thought she’d gone to eat ice cream, or help with the dishes, or some other lame thing that parents asked kids to do. I was standing there waiting, scratching my crotch when I heard voices just near me. There was Lily’s voice, and her mum’s, and a big old voice that must have been her dad’s. ‘Can you see Venus yet dad?’ I heard Lily say. ‘Not yet sweetie,’ he replied. Whatever they were doing, they sounded too close for me to scoot and so I stayed as still as I could inside the bush, sweat rolling down my back from the shock and the heat of it. ‘Who’s there?’ I heard. I ignored it, my body like a stiff drink. I felt the branches pull away and he was standing there, his meaty face folded into angry arrows pointing down. ‘I bounced my ball up here,’ I said, ‘I bounced it too hard and I was looking for it.’ His grip on my arm felt almost good as he dragged me away from his daughter.

The next night I didn’t head out. I watched Today Tonight with dad and he even let me choose which McCain pizza topping we had for tea. He was telling me all the filthy things he’d do to Naomi Robson if he had the chance when the doorbell rang. Dad went to answer it and I heard him say ‘Well hello there old mate,’ and then another voice I knew say ‘Hello old mate I’m here about that youngest son of yours’. It was dad’s best mate Chook who was also the head cop in our town, and even though I knew I was in trouble, I just felt relief dripping down inside my chest and my arms and my legs because I knew he’d go easy on me—that I wouldn’t be sent to juvey like dad had been when he was young. After Chook had told me off, and dad had told me off, and they’d asked me whether Lily Bird wore push up bras or those wire-free hippy ones, dad asked Chook to stay for a beer. We were all sitting on the couch with our feet on the glass coffee table when Chook turned to me and put his hand on my shoulder. ‘Don’t worry about it too much mate, the guy only cares because she’s his daughter,’ he said, and laughed loud and quick like a closing boom gate. ‘Yeah,’ I answered, ‘you’re right.’ We all had a laugh, and then dad said, ‘Let’s watch the footy’. He stood up to get another beer and chucked me the remote. I pressed play.