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PUBLISHED IN ISLAND MAGAZINE ISSUE 145
It is hard to think of something true. I could start with buttercups crisping in the heat, the woodstack blowing smoke rings, dairy cows that move like ghostships through the grass. I could say I was nine and barefooted and tipitoing the prickleweed. I could tell you all summer we lay listening to the lumber trucks pass in the valley. You might even believe me.
It was summer. That’s for sure. My mother stood at the countertop with a snapper, slivering scales with the back of a breadknife. She wiped her nose with her apron and a scale lay like sequin on the cleft of a nostril. Things I remember. My father raking soil in the vegetable garden while the cats brayed for fish-ends. Intestines in the grass. Salt and animal.
It is hard to think of something true. I catch her face in fragments. The corner of a lip, the smear of chin. She had something otherworldly, a lick of an angel about her. Afternoons, she would lounge on an easy-chair with a Home and Garden magazine and a gin. It was summer, remember that. White flooded the reading room, collided with the coffee table and spilled into rainbows. My mother’s ankles were ROY G BIV.
It is hard to think of something true. Here’s what didn’t happen. My mother was sipping her gin and my father was raking soil. A lumber truck clomped by and I made a tally mark in my Secret Diary. The cats brayed for fish-ends. I threw some mackerel gut to them on the lawn. I walked into the house and the sun was still in my eye juice, making it tricky to see. It all was too grainy and electric.
Say anything a dozen times and it starts to sound unreal. Tongue twisters do it, but so do the words help help help help. They twist into strange animal noises and curdle when they hit the air.
When I speak this story it becomes myth. I swallow the words back to make them real. I swallow the trucks, the snapper, the prickleweed and the cats. I swallow my mother slivering scales with a breadknife. Her face in fragments. The nape of a nose, the eggfleck of an eye. ROY G BIV splintered over her lemon dress. Her gin. Her Home and Garden. Her indigo skin. She had something, the lick of an angel.
In that moment she was neither dead nor alive. In the myth I tapped at her elbow for an inkling. I said help help help help and hurtled over the veranda to where my father was raking. He stood with his gumboots in the reading room, shouting down the land line at a woman in the emergency call centre. An ambulance hee-hawed down the dirt road, past the woodstack and past the dairy cows. Twomen in green habiliment crossed the lawn with their medical trunks, like a couple of ghostbusters in a B-grade movie. The cats scattered.
It is hard to think of something true. In the myth I shake in a corner by the camphor box. My mother lies indigo. In her brain she is loping down a tunnel, with bulbflowers and fantails peppered along its path. Help help help help, she might hear me say, but her defiance is Asystole. Her audacity is to flatline. The medics pull out a portable defibrillator. They tear at her lemon dress, splitting it down her chest length, and slapped stickers to her skin. In the myth they bring her back from the tunnel, kicking and cursing. And her eyes joggle behind her lids. And the indigo turns to a slow peach. My father, in his gumboots, does a little yelp. Clay clods in the carpet. The medics wipe their brows and my father gives them an A-frame hug. We are all very happy.
If you tell the truth, you don’t have to remember anything, once said somebody literary or illustrious. I have to remember a great deal and it wears me down. The thing is, the story is a little different. For a start, we didn’t have cats. We had a dog called Muttly who wore a plastic cone around his head to stop him scratching his psoriasis. We lived in a Housing New Zealand unit with a microwave in the living room, and a broken trampoline in the yard. My mother in her lemon dress. She read the TV Guide and sunk into the couch with a can of Wild Turkey bourbon and cola. It was summer. That’s for sure. The ceiling fan whirred sickly round. My father wasn’t in the garden. ROY G BIV spilled from the glass wind chime and over my mother’s face. My mother had the lick of an angel.
I went to the letterbox for a handhold of bills. Muttly followed me out, catching his plastic cone on the door edge. The sky was cloudless and stinging. Barefooted, I walked on the prickleweed to the trampoline. I slapped my hands on the black polypropylene. It was hot and sticky and black rubbed onto my palms. I thought about Mrs Graham from school. How she played the Purple People Eater song on the guitar, and we all stomped and did hand movements. I thought about how Mrs Graham was the ugliest lady I’d ever seen, but how she was really nice too. I thought that if a tidal wave came and bulldozered the whole neighbourhood, I might just save Mrs Graham before I’d save Muttly or my mother or anybody else. And Mrs Graham would say oh-you-poor-dear and play me the Purple People Eater on guitar to cheer me up. And we would all be very happy.
Stepping inside the house the sun was still in my eye juice, making it tricky to see. It was all too grainy and electric. Her face is in fragments. ROY G BIV caught her face but it was indigo which stuck in my mind. In your imagination, you can do anything you fancy and get off scot-free. So I inserted a tidal wave so gargantuan that it swallowed up the playing fields at my school. And I put me and Mrs Graham on a blow up mattress and we floated away, past the dairy and past the bus station, along the motorway overpass.
There is another story. It is hard to think of something true, but I’ll give it a shot. Say anything a dozen times and it starts to sound unreal. Tongue twisters do it, but so do the words help help help help. They twist into strange animal noises and curdle when they hit the air.
When my mother went all Asystole and flatlined I said nothing. My father wasn’t in the garden and Mrs Graham was in her beautiful house, slivering the scales off a snapper with a breadknife, or drinking gin in the reading room. Her husband might be raking the vegetable garden.
With the TV Guide at her hip, and her cheeks indigo, my mother was angelic. I tapped her elbow. I shook her shoulders. And I screamed but it only made a wheezing in the throat. Help, I wanted to say, help help help. Muttly licked at her ankles. The wind chime tinkled mockingly.
I could say it was summer. I could say I was nine. In the myth she is loping down a tunnel, with bulbflowers and fantails peppered along its path. Look back, I beg. Come on, look back. But the white light swallows her up.
There is a story I like to tell. It has cats and dairy cows and sea-smells. And there’s my mother and me on this blow up mattress. And we’re rising above it all. We are happy.