The Villa mob were back from the city and back in their old place near the creek bed and everyone thought we should have a cook-up that night. Mum was making salad with her boomerang arm Dad had given her. Grace and I were on the couch waiting for Dad to come home. I looked at Grace’s bright pink lipstick. Her eyes were like sizzling jewels brought to life. She was wearing a bold singlet and denim cut-offs shorter than our neighbour’s two-year-old’s. I saw under her hand on the other side of the couch she had her oversized New York T-shirt ready to change into, as if half-accepting defeat.
Dad walked in but didn’t say anything. He didn’t look at us and when Mum came over to greet him he backed into the bedroom and shut the door. Grace gave me a look and flipped open her hand mirror, checking her makeup. Mum had left the salad bowl next to me and I looked at the contents – the tomatoes red with energy, the onions peppering my eyes. It was about as beautiful as my mother. I was surprised to see her curled to the window, her back to us, watching the red dust tides.
We waited for Dad to come out of the bedroom. I didn’t know what he was doing in there, or how long he’d be. I thought he’d just need to take a piss and put on his favourite T-shirt that we got him for his birthday. Mum warned me not to go in but I went up and put my ear to the door. It was the only door in the house and it always held a fascination. I thought I could hear the hum of radio, though our radio had been broken for a year or more, that’s what Dad had said, unplugging it and putting it under the bed for safe keeping. I rested my head on the ground and nudged my eye under the door. The bed was tucked up neat. Was my father under the sheets, wrapped up? I smelt cigarette smoke and peppermints – the strong kind he got from the petrol station.
I felt my hand crushed, and saw Grace standing on me. I yelped and quickly got up, calling her half-formed names.
‘I’m not stupid,’ she hissed in my face and gripped my arm. I pinched her and then the door opened and we withdrew from each other.
My dad had shaved his beard and moustache – it was the first time we’d ever seen him clean-shaven. He was wearing olive-green cargo shorts and a button-up shirt I had never seen him actually wear but recognised from the wedding photos of him and Mum.
He said nothing about Grace’s outfit, maybe to discourage a comment about his own appearance, and as usual I was the one picked on. He put a hand on my forehead, almost covering my eyes and said, ‘You mind your manners, tonight. Especially with them old people.’
I shunned a smart response, feeling my tongue seethe.
My mother came to our side and Grace flashed me a snide look that was better than nothing from her. Even when Grace mangled my hair it was better than being ignored.
‘We ready?’ my mother asked.
My father nodded and went outside to inspect the car. We had packed it this morning – after the cook-up we’d leave as a big mob for the falls, stay there until Sunday and then head home in time for the kids to go back to school. Our car was packed up like a real blackfella’s car, dirty mattresses flapping out of the window, unregistered plates, red dirt and rust on the bonnet. All someone needed to do was give it a paint job proper way – dots and that.
My mother was watching my father checking the water level under the bonnet.
‘He’d be too hot in that shirt, eh?’ she asked us, to make sure she wasn’t the only one seeing what she was seeing.
Grace made a vague noise of agreement. Of course he’d be hot, it was January, school holidays. The time of year where we spent our days with our eyes on the clouds, hoping they’d live up to their promise. Mum went back in the bedroom and emerged ten minutes later, holding a grey T-shirt but frowning as if she couldn’t find the one we all knew as his favourite. ‘I’ll bring this,’ she said, folding it up into a small square and slipping it in her bag, the one the women had weaved for her. I picked up the salad bowl and carried it out to the car.
Grace and I walked to the Villa place. When we got there the place was really full with mobs of people. I saw the kids my age first, sitting by the Esky with the fizzy drinks. The kids Grace’s age were listening to music from one guy’s big red headphones, and I maybe had heard the song before; maybe Grace had let me listen to it on one of those nights Mum and Dad were out and she’d let me sit on her bed and tell me the story of Grandmaster Flash, how he got his name, he was an electrician.
I saw the old ones look at us, and I was shy. Mum grabbed me by the hand and said, ‘Give Aunty Elaine a kiss and Aunty over here. Go and show them who you are.’
When the women kissed me I felt like I’d been turned into a boab tree, their skin was deep and I felt myself shrivel up. I didn’t like talking about myself. Sometimes they’d want to know whether Mum had taught me how to make quandong jam or how I was going at school and sometimes they’d forgotten my name and thought I had a brother but they were interested in me all the same. They touched my hair and gave me hugs that crushed my ribs. After I had been there for long enough they switched into language, my ears would skip over and I looked down at the dirt.
The adults were playing Country and Western, though I could hear some beats in the corner. Grace was there with a group. I went over, beside two of the Villa kids, Joanne and Dec.
‘Hi,’ Dec said to me, smoothing his long hair back behind his ears. I didn’t know how his hair was so straight. He was looking at Grace and Grace was looking at him in a way that was predictable for me.
‘So how come you’re back?’ I said. Grace gave me a sharp look like a slap.
Joanne said, ‘Dec went to lock-up.’
‘Yeah,’ Grace said. I could hear her heart hammering out of her singlet top next to me.
‘Cars.’ Dec half-smiled. ‘And a few bottle-os and that. Now we’re back here.’
They got to talking about songs they liked, Dec was talking about Dr Dre. Grace signalled at me to leave.
‘I know that stuff too,’ I protested.
‘Shit, man,’ Grace said. ‘She’s only ten years old.’ And they all laughed.
‘Go on,’ she said, drumming her fingers, pointing them in my ears and in the direction of the younger kids.
I knew Grace wouldn’t tell anyone, but she’d been training me up. She was serious about touch football. We’d take it out the back and when I had the ball she’d sing out, ‘Go on, run at me, see if you get past me.’ And I’d run some, the footy heavy, almost slipping off my chest and I’d try to be quick and dodge her but somehow I’d charge right into her and she’d hit me like she was a concrete block and I’d go straight to the ground, remembering to still hold the footy and she’d scream at me and press my ear into the inside of my arm. There wasn’t much point in telling her there was no tackles in touch. She said to me, ‘They’re not letting me play footy. But next year, I’ll be in with the boys. I’m better than them.’ She easily wrestled the ball out of my grip, her nails needles, grazing my face as she got up. She kicked the ball so close to my skull I felt my head blow. It could be difficult to get back to my feet, still finding it hard to breathe, but I would watch her kick and chase the ball without a care – as if she’d run across all three deserts, no problem.
Food was the best thing about gatherings, I reckoned. I walked to the food table, keeping a lookout for Dad. I got in trouble for eating too much at these things. He said I ate more than my share. I had to wait for the Elders and it wasn’t my place.
The barbecue smell brought warmth to my cheeks. There was no sign of Dad with the other men. Mum’s vibrant salad wilted next to the corn chips, rice crackers, dip, sausages, sticky chicken sticks. I eyed off the food. Dad and Grace usually hit me before the food did. But they weren’t there to stop me and I stood for a little while at the table, feeling like the fifteen-kilos-overweight ten-year-old I was. I picked up a kebab and took a bite, the satay sauce running down my lips and onto my shirt, an old one of Grace’s. Caught, I put down my paper plate and the rest of the chicken stick. The party and people went on without me. I saw my mother side by side with the other women. They were encouraging her to dance to the music and it didn’t take much until she was moving her bare feet on the dirt with them, a smile slinging to her face. I felt it as she looked over at me and I felt like running to her and kissing her hands and she was mouthing some words to the song I didn’t know but understood as ‘I’ll look after you’. I forgot about Dad and Grace and the shame job. I piled up my plate and went to sit down.
My dad didn’t seem to be minding his manners. He was normally so tight with the mob. It was a shock to see him sitting by himself on a deck chair drinking a can of beer. He’d come into the feed aggressively friendly as if he’d wanted to put people off from mentioning his cleanly shaven profile. Like those teenagers who come home from the city with edgy haircuts and eyebrow piercings, looking at you like, ‘I dare you to mention it, kid’. My father had slipped, like the time he rolled his ankle at the Bungle Bungles and he went down like a lizard in a hole.
‘How’s the salad?’ Mum said. She’d come over to fix my hair, sprung up with the endless ruffling.
‘Good. Make sure you get ’em greens into you, girl.’
I missed my dad’s loud voice in the mix. His stories of roo-hunting and tourists in trouble. I wanted him to laugh. Before I was born, and a few years after, when Grace and I were too young to remember, Dad worked as a diver and they lived in Broome. When they moved here, he got a job at the council, working different jobs. I don’t know as much about him as I do about Mum. Grace reckons he can’t read but we should never tell him we know. Grace says he’s not too nice but we don’t choose our fathers.
That night a lot of mob talked to me but mainly I circled through the stations of Dad and Mum and Grace. By the time it was 9 p.m. and the sun had set, Dad’s shirt was soaked at the sides from the armpit and at the neck. Mum looked worried about Dad but she didn’t go over there, no one did, because he had found an old newspaper and held it close to his face.
‘Mad sounds,’ Grace was saying, her head bumped up tight against Dec’s, the red headphones tying them together.
I wanted to stay awake for the ghost stories but I didn’t make it.
Mum or someone must have carried me to a sleeping bag and I came to this conclusion jolted upright by Grace sneaking in beside me, a lo-light torch strapped to her wrist. Before we lay down, Grace’s head by my feet because she said I gave her nits, she pointed the torch in my eyes and said, ‘He’s so into me.’
‘What does it feel like?’ I asked. I slipped a sock off my foot, and the cool air caught the pool of sweat between my toes.
She didn’t pinch me for speaking to her. She just lay back and I could see her teeth and her eyes and she began to hum. This track I knew, ‘It’s Like That’. She stopped to say, ‘Phew! That reeks, man. Put your socks back on, you idiot.’
We woke up at dawn, the kids shaking the bugs out of the sleeping bags onto each other, the grown-ups looking worse than last night. We ate cold sausages and onion for breakfast and there was leftover cream cake, too, if we remembered our toothbrush. We went to the cars. There were hugs and kisses to make your back hurt even though it was only a two-hour drive to the falls. Mum and Dad and Grace and I squeezed our butts into our car, the seats already burning with a day that had started without us. Dad seemed okay now and Mum had brought coffee for him and her in a thermos. Grace asked if she could have some and Dad said yes. He took his shirt off and hung it in the window to keep the sun out of our eyes.
‘The Falls’ was originally published in Heat and Light. It is republished here courtesy of UQP.