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.
Laura McPhee-Browne is a reader, writer and social worker from Melbourne. She is currently working on her first collection of short fiction. You can find her at Laura McPhee-Browne.