Kill Your Darlings, together with the Emerging Writers’ Festival and Monash University, is delighted to present Aileen Westbrook’s ‘Mistook’, the winner of the 2018 Monash Undergraduate Prize for Creative Writing.
I called you Missy because you were my mistake.
Actions bear fruit, my mother’s eyebrows said.
And it was a tell-tale fruit that grew a heartbeat inside my belly till I let you out in a panting slide on the bathroom floor, green hexagon tiles smirched guilt red too fast for the ambulance men to stave off the slick of shame.
Afterwards, Mum dug a hole for the placenta under the pepper tree and plopped it in. I’m not sure what part of us was buried between those peppery backyard roots. I think it was my pouch for you. From when you lived upside-down in me, fed by my arterial tree. Mum watered the grave daily, tugging the snaky hose from its slumbering coil behind the purple irises. It was as if she was washing a big stain underground.
I left Mum on the front verandah with her rosary beads amongst the frangipani petals that rained with the storm of my going. Her glasses were fogged from crying. She waved, and I waved your mitten, but if I’m not mistaken, it was with relief.
Now it’s just you, me and our Blessed Virgin. She’s only a small Virgin. I slipped her from the Sacristy that last morning at school. Was it a sin, Missy, to rescue Holy Mary from the dark cupboard where she lay discarded, thrust from sight, behind the chalices, candles and tapers? I wrapped her in flannel and tucked her into the elastic of my undies.
Was she abandoned because her blue mantle was chipped at the edges? Inside she’s purest white, plaster-of-paris to her core. Sturdy for such a small Mother Mary.
We need someone to watch over us, Missy. Let’s perch her on the stool by our bed. Missy kicks her legs in applause from her crib, rosy in a sun-drenched spot under the windowsill. It’s a sanctuary, this unwounded place we’ve found. The solace of sharing a flat with a chef who’s scarcely here except to leave leftovers in the fridge of pesto and puréed things.
From my pocket I pull out the creased note that has guided us here. It still smells of Sister Veronica: a cross between Eau de Cologne and starch, and I remember how fiercely she pressed the paper into my hand after Chemistry class that day, shh. I am looking in astonishment at my palm. I am holding a folded note in the shape of an origami fish. Inside is a crabbed message – a name – an address – a ruff of dollars. I flush and the silent corridor between us spills out
girls pleated girls –
falling paper dolls prised open –
unfolded, pricked, perforated row by row –
Who opened this memory box? Slam it shut. But the memories sidle up to me in a murk of incense. The smoky, bitter myrrh catches in the bracken of my hair, in my throat. I wanted to feel cleansed after confession, Missy. But that’s not what happened.
The memories sidle up to me in a murk of incense. The smoky, bitter myrrh catches in the bracken of my hair, in my throat.
‘Bless me Father, for I have sinned,’ I murmured and swiftly made a sign of the cross. ‘In nomine Patris, et Filii, et Spiritus Sancti, Amen.’ I knelt, head bowed, hands in a prayer triangle.
‘Father, it is six days since my last confession.’ I waited for a response, counting dead flies sprinkled like worry beads in the confession box. It was stifling in there. A coffin. More flies were trapped with me, buzzing, burring my skin with bronze-black wings.
‘Have you sinned, my child?’ His voice was liquid, a melody in black treacle. It was Father Michael behind the grille, in corpus Christi. I could tell from the Irish lilt of his Latin. Dutifully I ticked off my trinity of sins: I had fibbed to Mum, pinched a Violet Crumble, and devoured a chapter of Gone with the Wind during Mass.
‘Have you had impure thoughts?’ he prompted, thrumming his fingers impatiently. I could see a black tongue of his cassock, wedged between grille and floorboards. The mingling odours of sweat and incense, musk and stale breath were dizzying.
‘Yes, Father,’ I whispered uncertainly. When I imagined I was Scarlet, being swept away by Rhett, did that count? I raised my eyes – the cage of the grille laced my face in lozenges of light. Peppermint and cloves drifted over me in cloying waves. Father Michael’s presence loomed, a volcano behind the lattice.
‘For penance, my child, say five Hail Marys and come to my room after Mathematics.’ His voice was reproving, stern. Confused, I whispered an act of contrition and scuttled out of the confessional. Skimming past the line of Third Formers waiting their turn, a catechism of girlhood devotion, I felt bewildered.
Must I make other acts of penance to be absolved from my sins? I thought of whispers half-heard in dormitory corners. Was this what it meant to be chosen? Was I now one of Father Michael’s chosen girls? Those girls with waterfall hair, like Rose, Delores and Lillian.
‘Your hair is your one beauty.’ My mother’s voice was tart, a lemon sliver at the dinner table. Knives and forks resumed work on the cutlets. Salt was passed. Silence sifted.
Later I lay under my patchwork quilt, alone with Scarlet imaginings. My hair was the colour of a two-cent piece. Coppery-brown. Was that why I had been chosen? But I was plain. Lumpy. I rolled over, criss-crossing my arms over my chest.
The next morning Mathematics was an impenetrable forest of numbers. Where were the roots of quadratics hiding? Locked in logarithms? Desperately I climbed probability trees that branched perpetually, in search of a saviour. But there was no escaping the end-of-class bell.
In a trance I surrendered, confessionally hushed behind the cedar door where mouths and hair clips and buttons opened in a feast of pleated pushing. Holy Mary. It was my turn.
I was pressed on top of his cherry-wood desk, trying to hold it inside. His seed. Father Michael said it was the Holy Spirit he was giving me. I would be purified. Afterwards I smelled cloves and cigarette ash in my hair.
Desperately I climbed probability trees that branched perpetually, in search of a saviour.
‘Father Michael says it’s a kind of communion,’ I ventured to Sister Veronica, late one afternoon. I was her helper in the chemistry prep room, rinsing test-tubes, drying cylinders, creasing the litmus paper circles thin as communion wafers.
I cherished Sister Veronica. Her strawberry-blonde eyelashes sprayed sunrises on her freckled cheeks. She instructed me on the noble gases who floated aloof in the periodic table of existence. I want to float too, to escape my sullied, base-metal self.
‘Don’t tell,’ I pleaded, tears seeping out as I dolloped agar into the petri dishes. Tears of the penitents are wine for the angels, rang my mother’s voice in my head. I felt blotched, smirched, ruptured. Had the Holy Ghost visited me, in a sticky gel, like agar? Was this Brother Michael’s formula? Or Holy Mary’s immaculate secret?
‘Father said don’t tell,’ I said, crying undiluted shame into the petri dishes. Sister Veronica’s lips were pursed in concentration. She was frowning, freckles stark against her snowy wimple.
Now, in our new hideaway, Missy, I want to be parted from those memories of gauze wings drowned in incense. I seize the chef’s shears, the ones he uses for cutting herbs and chicken thighs. My hair falls like scythed grass in a Russian novel.
You have only a small blonde tuft, Missy. I bathe you in the kitchen sink and make a soapy pavlova of your topknot. The shampoo promises No More Tears, but mine seep out in a Noah’s flood as you doze beside me.
I miss school, Missy – the crisply starched sisters, Macbeth (we were only up to Act II), and the decorum of the Periodic Table. But not the navy-blue skirt that unzipped me. To distract us I read you Lady Macbeth’s lines and we weep spotted madness in our pillow sleep.
Afternoons I do double shifts at the bakery, taking breaks to feed you out the back. We are smugglers, you and I, behind the great sacks of flour, raisins and pumpkin seeds. We go home dusted with cinnamon and fatigue. Till the baker says I’m a health and safety risk. I check the savings in my bank account, juggling you on my hip, and withdraw.
I’ve bought a new pouch for you, Missy. On special from Target. It’s blue with lemonade stripes. And a hula hoop, for me.
We’ll go for walks when you can’t sleep. And I’ll bring my hula hoop to spin around my wrist, a whirling halo. And so we go, musketeers, sandwiched together for strolls up and down the railway parade. I pray for you to sleep. I chant Hail Marys while we spy on the morning rushes of suited people with hurry up their sleeves.
But it’s a promenade pierced with envy. Sometimes it’s too much: I turn your face to mine in the pouch and you joggle off to sleep while I roam the streets foggy with exhaustion.
Soon I forget how to sleep. You cry all the time. The chef leaves. Our Blessed Virgin gathers dust. Lady Macbeth dies. Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow. Missy and me, formula milk and no cash cow.
Our skins break out: red-pink pinpricked spots, the doctor says no it’s not meningococcal it’s milk rash. We nap in the waiting room briefly before I zip the Medicare card through the sliding doors into a summer carpark. I’m too tired to cry, all I can think of is where I can change your nappy.
there’s a zebra
crossing. Let’s go.
You are strapped to my chest in your papoose, facing the world like a conquistador.
Look. There’s a bubbler under a vast fig tree. A great mother: those arms, those branches I used to climb. A cathedral raining fig-apples, lolly-green marbles rolling over a carpet. The park is darting with coloured legs, a merry-go-round of mothers cradling banter with coffees, hoisting babies.
A great mother: those arms, those branches I used to climb. A cathedral raining fig-apples, lolly-green marbles rolling over a carpet.
In the fig tree’s shade, I peel your pouch from my tummy. I place you on the grass, my placental mammal, on a soft springy patch. You are too little to sit up. Nestle here in my arms. I had a little nut tree, nothing would it bear, but a silver nutmeg and a golden pear…
I’m watching the mother with the ponytail. She’s playing horses with her toddler and she’s left her baby in the pram by the green rotunda. But she’s a good mother. I can tell from the frill on her baby’s bonnet: it’s shading the sun. Yes, she’s a good mum, she’s not going to leave her baby alone to be snatched by a madwoman or a dingo.
Look! There she is Missy, she’s taken her bub from the pram and she’s burping her and oh my, they are trying out the swing, a two-some with the toddler.
And she is singing Ave Maria.
she’s the one.
I cannot look at your pincushion face
I tuck your ribbed singlet down
soft, Savlon-scented cotton of
my pat-a-cake girl with plump screw-on dolly wrists
you can have my hula hoop – for keeps
the empty pram
a Moses basket waiting for delivery
I tuck you into that crib under the cicadas
My heartfelt gratitude to Associate Professors Marcelle Freiman and Hsu-Ming Teo, of Macquarie University’s Department of English, for their inspirational teaching and wonderful support.