Charlotte: a short story

It comes in waves. I vaguely remember them saying once that it would, although I couldn’t imagine it then, so I chose not to remember. I don’t know why our brains do that; choose like that. I hope I can choose to forget this whole night.

The dark surrounds me. I’ve left the lights off on purpose, because too much of anything is a distraction right now. I don’t want to see the dishes in the sink, or the boxes, or the piles of baby clothes to be sorted and folded. God I’ll be needing those by the morning. Oh God.

We moved here three months ago, me and my mum, after Shane walked out. Well, after Shane found out about the baby. Mum was lost in that big empty house and big empty bank account, and I was lost behind this big belly, so we cut our losses and said what the hell about the past let’s set up home together. It’s a good idea, right, me and my mum. She did this for me, once, carried me inside her and rubbed her full belly and dreamed, just like I’m doing now.

I bet she never dreamed things would work out like they did.

It comes now. Starts in my deepest gut and rolls forward over me, over into my back. I have to remind myself to breathe. Big breaths. Keep going. It’ll pass. Roll with it girl, roll with it.

And it’s gone.

Breathe out.

The wooden kitchen chair creaks as I stand up. I’ve got this heat pack thing that a lady at our old church gave me, she said it’s good for pain, and it is, but only when it’s really hot. Bernard. Sally Bernard is her name. I waddle over to the microwave and put it in again, pushing the buttons without thinking about it, praying it’ll be hot enough for when…oh God.

The kitchen light goes on with a click and a wash of colour bright, and Mum shuffles in, tying up her dressing gown as she goes. She’s got a cigarette between her fingers already and she’s fumbling in her dressing gown pocket for a lighter, no matter how many times I’ve asked her not to smoke near me.

“Yer right Kel?” It’s the middle of the night and her voice is raspy as a toad. She sits down in the place I’ve just got up from.

The microwave pings to announce it’s finish, and I take out the heat pack and shove it into the band of my track pants again to hold it into place. Just in time. The pain rolls in and breaks over me all over again. I put my head down on the bench and try not to make a noise while I wait for it to finish.

At the table Mum puffs and taps and puffs again. I’m leaning over the bench looking at Mum in the wooden chair, both of us in the same positions we’ve been so many times together. The words slip out of my mouth without thinking. I say them by default, because it’s what I say when I’m standing here, not because I’m thinking about it but because I’m not. She doesn’t seem to notice the difference, or any peculiarity. “Want a coffee, Mum?”

“Oh yes thanks Kel. Only two pills today though thanks love. I’m trying to cut down. You know the doctor says that even artificial sugar isn’t good for you?”

“Yeah.” I get the mugs and put the kettle on to boil while I hunt around in the cupboard for the jar of instant coffee. I’m just spooning it in when another wave comes. This one is powerful, intense, maybe more so because I can’t take refuge in the shadows of the dark.

“…yes, they’re saying now that diabetics should be careful with artificial sweeteners, and that too much of it can lead to Multiple Sclerosis of all things. Shirl Baker’s been having this one for years though, she’s the one who got me onto it in the first place, and she says…”

I slide down behind the bench into a crouch, as if I’m going to start running. If only I could. The pain holds it’s own now and keeps up, longer than before, until I can hear it as if it’s singing in my ears, making me want to moan with it. I don’t. Not with Mum here, not with the cold stark light of the kitchen glaring at me.

“…but Shirl’s got a new man now, and she swears it’s got everything to do with how much weight she’s lost. She goes out with the walking club three times a week, and on Fridays they have…”

I realise I’ve been holding my breath. When I breathe out the pain goes, and I straighten up again. I pour in the milk, stir two artificial sweeteners into Mum’s coffee, and two spoons of sugar into mine, then take them over to the table.

“Sorry it took a while Mum.”

“Oh that’s okay. Did I tell you about Merle? She bought a new washing machine the other day, and oh the trouble she’s had with it already. She did say that you could bring your baby clothes down and use it any time you want though, but the first day she had it, well…”

The chair I’m sitting in is uncomfortable, and my coffee tastes like dirt. We sit here like this for half an hour, an hour maybe; her smoking and blathering and me nursing my coffee and my pain. The clock on the oven says it’s 1:13am, which means I’ve been awake for almost twenty hours now. I can’t do this. I can’t do this any more.

She’s talking now about the debate that’s been raging over whether they should install an elevator in our apartment block and I nod and pretend to listen, but when the pain pushes into me again and I stand up and go to the bathroom, slide down with my back to the door, curl my knees up to my face and sob.

I should be timing these things. I should know how long they are going for, and how far apart they are. And isn’t there something about towels, and hot water? They always ask for those things in movies. I want to call the hospital again and ask them what I should do, whether it’s okay to come in now, but I don’t know if that’s okay. They sounded busy when I called earlier, when the pain first started. They said to stay at home for as long as I could. God I don’t even know what that means!

I’m going to call them again. I can’t stay here any more, not with her. Not with her like this. I’d rather have nobody here at all than a mother who doesn’t notice me.

She held me once. She carried me in her womb for nine months, and maybe she rocked and cradled her stomach the way I’m doing to mine. She hurt, or maybe I made her hurt. Is that what this is about Mum? Did I make you like this? When the pain is dulled for a minute I wipe my eyes and stand up. I know what I have to do.

Mum is flicking her cigarette into the ashtray when I come back through the kitchen, and reading a magazine. I grab the phone from where I left it on the table, and punch in the number for the taxi company. I know it by heart already.  It doesn’t take long for them to answer, and the lady on the exchange says there’ll be one there in about five minutes. I take my heat pack out from the waistband of my trousers and put it in the microwave again. Her name is on the label, just in case I forgot who it belonged to: Sally Bernard, 56 Acorn Road. I can’t believe she’s so organised as to write on that stuff, like she’s some kind of TV mother. I bet her kids have perfect bedrooms and only ever eat organic lunches.

Mum folds the magazine over and holds it up. “Oh look here Kel. There’s an article in here about a lady who…”

I don’t stop to listen. I put my coat on and grab the heat pack out of the microwave before it even beeps. My hospital bag is waiting for me at the front door, with clean clothes for me, clean clothes for the baby, blankets and nappies and the tiniest little singlets I ever saw to start this new life off in. The taxi is early, pulls up just as I pull the door shut behind me. I’m sobbing so hard that the best I can do is hand the driver the address and curl up in the back seat in the dark and wait for this night to end.

*

I’m on the train to Sydney when I first find out we made the news. The man next to me is reading the paper, and there it is, on page three. I guess baby-left-on-a-doorstep stories are kind of big, kind of noteworthy. They said she’s okay though, that she’s healthy and well, and that the family whose door she was left on are wanting to keep her, to foster her if they can’t locate the mother. I’m glad. I rang that doorbell like crazy before I ran, just so she wouldn’t be alone for too long. I snuggled her up as tight as I could so she’d be warm in those blankets. She wasn’t even crying when I left her. I hope they do keep her. I hope they call her Charlotte, too. Charlotte Bernard has a nice ring to it. I’ll bet she’s a pretty thing, too.

I’ll send her a present from Sydney, I think. I’ve still got the address tucked in my bag, beneath my spare clothes and my wallet and the things I’ve got to start my new life. 56 Acorn Road.

I hope they call her Charlotte.

Kissed the girls and made them cry

I KNOOOWWW!!! It’s the first day of School holidays here, and, to tell you the truth, I’ve been slacking off on Facebook all morning, and, really, I was a bit vague on what I wanted to say here anyway. I’m sorry.

This story is DEFINITELY fiction (unlike the last one, which was true). It’s also quite silly. I wrote it a couple of years ago, thinking about the town my Grandparents lived in. I miss it; in some way missing Shepparton has become my expression of missing them, not that we were ever close. But my love for hot summers and fresh apricots and scorched grass and lawn bowls tournaments, forcer biscuits, lemon butter, hydrangea bushes and brick suburban bungalows are fresh and strong, and every one of these things brings me fond memories of childhood summers in a place I may never see again. Here it is:

“Tim?”

School finished for the year last week. Heat was prickly on my skin like cactus, and me and my brother were outside painting fake snow on our windows for Mum, like we’d been doing every year since we moved here when I was six and he was eight. Now he’s 13 and thinks he knows everything.

“What”. He said it like an insult.

“You know that Shepparton thing…”

Like he could’ve missed it. It was on all the TV stations all day for about a week after it happened. That truck driver that drove through that first morning and found it was all gone I reckon he’s a millionaire now with all the interviews he’s done. They even skipped the first game of the test series against India because of it. Shepparton shepparton shepparton shepparton…we’d never even heard of the place before the whole town up and disappeared like that.

“Dad said it’s aliens.” Tim wiped off the edge of his snow with a dirty tissue.

“Yeah but what would aliens want with Shepparton? Why didn’t they take Sydney or something?”

Tim looked sideways at me and wiped his nose on the back of his hand. “Maybe they like peaches.”

Mum was real cut up about the peaches she said. You couldn’t even get the tinned ones in the supermarkets, everyone was out, and Nan loved Peach Melba on her birthday. Mum’s had to make a pav. I hated pav. I didn’t even like Tim that much, but there wasn’t anyone else around to talk to.

“I think it’s my fault”.

By the time Tim stopped laughing it was getting dark but I just kept working on my snow. It’d been three weeks and I hadn’t said anything to anyone. The guilt felt like a blanket around me; tape around my mouth.

“You made Shepparton disappear. How?”

“The grade six social. I did it. I kissed a girl.” I felt myself getting red and I couldn’t look at Tim even though it was too dark to see much anyway. He wasn’t saying anything.

It was Trace Barker, and she was real pretty, with long hair and all. We were dancing on the slow song and I kind of went for her cheek but she moved her head just at the same time so it kind of ended up her lip, but a bit left.

“I just…I …you know…wanted to see…if it…did like you said.”

“See if what did?”

“See if the earth moved. Like you said it did with Suze.”

“And did it?” Tim sounded interested now.

“Well d’uh! That’s the problem. That’s the night that Shepparton disappeared!”

I was having my weetbix in the kitchen the next morning when Tim sat down opposite me all serious.

“You gotta kiss her again.”

“What?”

“You gotta kiss her again. Come on Sam, if there’s really thousands of people missing off the face of the earth because of you then don’t you think you’ve gotta at least try and fix it?”

He’s right. All them people crying on the news. All them flowers left where it used to be. All that sad in me because only I know that it’s my fault.

Trace Barker lived on Gardener Terrace, which was a posh sounding name for a road that only really saw the arse end of town, and there wasn’t much gardening going on. Me and Tim rode our bikes over after brekky, stopped at the corner shop to get a box of chocolates. We stood in her porch, tracing the up-and-down weatherboards and wondering what the hell the rest of our plan was meant to look like. I tried to take a deep breath but as soon as I’d got my gob open there was Tim ringing the doorbell. Twice. I nearly belted him.

“What? This is what we’re here for, are ya gonna spend all day?”

“But what do I say? Come on, what do I bloody well SAY to her?”

And then it was too late, because the door opened and there she was in her Dad’s Collingwood dressing gown and her hair all sticking up stupid. And then Tim shoved me in the door and pulled it shut behind me all in one move. Far out! This is it. My bit for humankind.  

 

*          *          *          *

 

There wasn’t that much blood from what I could see, and Dr Andrews only gave me two stitches which was good I guess, because Trace brought that trophy down on me pretty hard after I kissed her. Dr Andrews didn’t believe me when I said I’d come off my bike, and I was feeling so cut up over the whole Shepparton thing that I started bawling right there in his surgery and told him everything. He was real good for an old bloke. He said it’s not my fault; that sometimes things happen that are bigger than we can understand, that even scientists are still trying to figure out half the stuff in the universe. It’s just weird stuff, or an act of God, or whatever. He said that I can’t take responsibility for something so big, that it’s just…just…

 

Except that it’s back now, so it looks like I was right after all. 

 

Dad saw it on the telly. All them people in Shepparton all back, not knowing there’d been all those weeks missing, not knowing there was anything wrong at all. All that crying all over again, and more programs missed because of the updates. Tim hasn’t said anything at all, and he’s been real nice for a change. I’m keeping out of everyone’s way, outside getting sunburned again hanging fake icicles from the roof of the garage. Everyone’s happy because things are normal again. Good for them. All I know is that next year I’m going to a boys only high school…..and after that I’ll become a monk. Or a priest. Or a lighthouse keeper. Anything, so long as it don’t involve ever kissing girls.