Kill Your DarlingsFirst Book Club pick for May is The Earth Does Not Get Fat by Julia Prendergast (UWA Publishing). Chelsea doesn’t attend school much any more – She is carer for her mother who is sinking further into depression after a trauma, and her Grandad who has slipped into full-blown dementia. Then a parcel arrives, and in it are questions – about her mother and her past self, their shared histories, and the people and place from which they’ve run. The Earth Does Not Get Fat is a powerful and gut-wrenching debut about intense suffering and fierce, searing love.

Join us at Readings Carlton this Thursday 10 May for a free in-conversation event with Julia Prendergast and KYD First Book Club coordinator Ellen Cregan!

Image: Annie Spratt, Unsplash (CC0)

Colour me grey

Shades of grey:
The possibility of uncertainty
Cambridge Dictionary

Sometimes Mum’s already sinking when I get home from school. She takes more pills, washes them down with a few slugs of gin on ice, just a dash of tonic, and finally she’s out, flat out, on the couch. After a few hours pass, I know she’s down for good.

Getting her into bed is the hardest part because I can’t carry her on my own. She doesn’t weigh much, but it’s awkward and so I put a blanket on the floor next to the couch and I move her onto that. I reach under her shoulders and move her top half down first. Sometimes her head bangs on the floorboards because I can’t hold it properly. Sometimes she opens one eye, just for a second. Still she can’t see me for the grey.

I pull the rest of her onto the blanket. Her legs thud against the floorboards like old potatoes; she doesn’t flinch. I drag her across the floor, pulling her along on the blanket. The floor in the bedroom is carpeted so the last stretch is ugly, her head to one side, nodding awkwardly against the taut blanket, mouth open. Before I try to lift her, I lay some old towels down, in case she wets the bed.

If Grandad is in a decent mood, he helps me. We usually get Mum in after a few attempts. I tuck her legs under the covers and wipe her sweaty face on my sleeve. If her skin feels like cold lasagne, I use a warm cloth to revive her face. If Grandad’s being difficult she has to stay there on the floor. I put some pillows and a doona down there to soften things up, but still, she’s left on the floor like nobody cares.

She stays in the shadowy place for a couple of days, waking briefly to top herself up. She has a pen beside her bed and she marks lines on the paper, keeping tabs of her intake. The scribble looks like a hangman scoresheet.

We’ve lived with Grandad since I was a baby. He’s all that’s left of Mum’s family. In the beginning his mind was intact. Even now, he can sense when Mum is in trouble. He gets busy in his room. He tries to fix something: a broken chair leg, the handle of a pot, anything. I hear him humming. He always hums when he’s engrossed in something: classical-sounding tunes, no lyrics. I ask him, again and again, if he wants to listen to music, but he says: No, no, I like the quiet, and then he starts humming again. He reacts to Mum’s greyness in his way even though his mind is half gone. I suppose you never get used to seeing someone you love all fucked up like that.

Mum has a pen beside her bed and she marks lines on the paper, keeping tabs of her intake. The scribble looks like a hangman scoresheet.

After we’ve put Mum to bed and Grandad is pottering away in his room, I make a start on dinner. I’m standing over the boiling pasta when I hear Grandad say my name.

I turn to him and he has shit all over his hands. At first I think he’s been into the bolognese sauce, but that’s only because I’m exhausted and I can’t see straight. He looks at his shitty hands as if he’s not sure what it is. Then he holds his palms out to me like he’s begging.

I yell at him not to touch anything. I take him to the bathroom and wash his hands and fingernails, four times with the scrubbing brush. I tell him to lean on me and I help him step out of his pants. His droopy, shit-smeared balls jangle around because he can’t balance properly.

Those undies are going straight in the bin, I say, talking to myself, reassuring myself that I won’t need to scrub that thick adult shit off his pants.

They’re my favourite ones, he says, please Chelsea, don’t throw them in the bin. They’re not itchy and they don’t dig in. He is crying. His upper chest is heaving out like a pregnant woman’s belly, dipping hollow between his ribcage so that he looks like a mangy bird, sick and pathetic.

I tell him: I’ll get you some new undies. Really comfy ones. I’ll get you a whole new packet, all different colours. You can come with me and pick out the ones you want.

They’re my favourite, he says, becoming hysterical.

Well, you shouldn’t have shat in them. I am yelling, feeling suffocated by the steamy claustrophobia of the shit.

I didn’t know it was coming, he says desperately. I was busy. I didn’t realise it was coming.

Busy, I scoff, and then I think that I might vomit because I love him so much… I remember that I must never forget.

No crying, I say. Please, Grand, no crying today. I get him into the shower and adjust the taps until he says it’s just right. Then I go out to get a rubbish bag, knowing all the while that I’ll go to bed feeling guilty if I throw out his favourite undies, knowing all the while that I’ll be up to my elbows in old man’s shit any minute.

I give him intimate instructions about how to wash himself. I show him again how to lather the soap in his hands. I bend over and mime it for him, rubbing all around. Then do it again, I say, lift up your balls, get right into all the creases and cracks.

Each day I have to remind him about basic stuff and he’s not even that old. I didn’t know you could get dementia before you were really old.

When Grandad is on the third round of lathering and rubbing, I close the shower screen and coach him from the outside. I take the filthy undies to the toilet and turn them inside out, hoping the shit will drop out in one lump. The stubborn foulness holds fast. I go back to the bathroom, using my hands and then the nailbrush, I work furiously at the basin. When I’ve finally finished, rinsed and disinfected, I open the shower door.

Time to get out, I say. Grandad is sitting at the base of the shower, shaving his legs. He has cut himself along the shin and the creamy tiles are covered in bloody water.

Don’t move, I say, taking the razor. Sit there and do not move. I rush to the kitchen and grab some bandaids and a tea towel. When I come back, he is sitting right where I left him and I take a good look at the cut. Fuck!I say.

I beg your pardon, he says and that makes me laugh because he doesn’t make the connection between my swearing and his bleeding leg. He has no idea. He’s not even looking at me. He is intent on the blood, but he’s detached from it, too – might as well be talking to the telly.

I start crying quietly then because the poor old bastard wouldn’t hurt a fly. He looks up at me and his torso disappears. His head looks as though it’s propped on his knees, long arms on either side like an albino monkey.

Never mind, he says. Everything will be fine. Just you wait and see. He turns back to his leg. He runs his fingers up his shin, inspecting the watery blood.

I start crying quietly then because the poor old bastard wouldn’t hurt a fly. Never mind, he says. Everything will be fine. Just you wait and see.

I take a roll of toilet paper from the bathroom drawer. Grandad holds the toilet paper against his shin and I dry his body. He bends forward and applies pressure to his leg.

It is pathetic. He is pathetic. I am pathetic. I should be handling it better. I’m not even done here and already the motherfucking guilt.

I dry him gently in long, deliberate strokes, along his back, across his shoulders. His veins are thick and strong and so exposed. His skin is wet and thin, like damp tissue paper. He looks older, with his wet skin and his wet hair, slick and silvery black against his bony skull. He looks old enough to have dementia.

He bends forward, holding his leg, trying to be helpful and obedient; his wrinkly old balls sag between his legs. He is helpless and endearing and revolting, like an old, ugly baby, and now I understand how mothers can love ugly babies, even when they’re crying and covered in vomit and shit. It’s because of the need. Need is very seductive.

I don’t miss one drop. I dry him gently and firmly, behind his ears, inside his ears, under his armpits, behind his knees. I do it on auto because I know his body like my own. I put bandaids over the cut and wrap the tea towel tightly around his shin to keep up the pressure. Then I roll some deodorant under his armpits and he laughs. He says it tickles. Do it again, he begs.

I give him a squirt of my body spray. Ooh that’s lovely, he says. I kiss him on the forehead and hold out his pyjamas so he can step into them. Then I blow the dryer over his hair and brush it away from his face.

I throw his clothes in the washing machine: hot water, double powder, pre-wash and soak. I stand still, my hands against the warm lid of the machine, listening to the swish of the water, mesmerised. It’s like the waves are lapping the shore, right at my feet, as if I don’t have a care in the world, as if I have nothing better to do than stand in the sun and watch the water.

Grandad comes to the laundry and stands beside me, his hand on the machine beside mine. You are a very lucky girl, he says. Do you know how lucky you are?

Grandad comes to the laundry and stands beside me, his hand on the machine beside mine. You are a very lucky girl, he says. Do you know how lucky you are?

I don’t answer him. I put my hand on his. I’m waiting for the hidden camera crew to reveal themselves, then we can all have a laugh, we can all say: Of course that’s not her real life. It’s a joke. We stand beside the washing machine a few more moments, still and content, as if life’s a holiday.

Grandad kisses me softly on the cheek and then wanders off to his room. I go to the kitchen to see if I can salvage the pasta. I dish it all up and put a bowl of shredded cheese beside Grandad’s plate. He likes to add that by himself and I’m not up for another meltdown.

I knock on his door and step into his room. He is already asleep. My school shoes are placed neatly beside his bed. He has polished them until they look like new, and they were nearly ready for the bin.

When Mum is stuck in the grey, Grandad often goes for the shoes, scrubbing the soles and wiping the surfaces with a hot cloth. He places a few drops of eucalyptus oil inside them, polishing them up until they’re so shiny, you’d think we were in the army. It’s a bit of a wasted effort on his part, because I don’t worry too much about school these days.

I say: I am a very lucky girl. I’m crying hard and kissing him. I say: I know how lucky I am. He doesn’t flinch, just sighs contentedly in his sleep. I know he can hear me. People can hear you in their sleep. I talk to Mum all the time. I tell her all the things I can’t say when she’s awake, staring at me with her eyes full of grey.

I go back to the kitchen and pour myself a gin and tonic, a double. I decide to have Grandad’s undies fresh and ready for him when he wakes in the morning.

Everything will be fine, I say. Just you wait and see.

The Earth Does Not Get Fat is available now at Readings.