The election year is when hunger discovered Mikey. Curled up in his tummy like a hollow kitten, purred at the pasty smell of wheat and the acid tomato sauce as mummy Bel said, ‘Just microwave pasta tonight,’ and let him press 2:00 on the keypad.
Now, after, the meatloaf is real. Mikey watches it creep from pink to grey. He waves his hand through the slice of hot wind coming round the edge of the oven door. The kitchen is a little bit cool, now the sun’s going. That is the earth turning, moving the window and home and him and mummy Jo, the park and mummy Bel and the bridge over the motorway. Now there’s only the oven light, orange like a flame.
He feels a breath. A few dry parsley leaves slide along the bench away from the open window. The herbs are all gone: over and done with. The chives are yellow and droopy and dead. The parsley is ordinary brown dead. But the other one, the one with a name like Alexander, has gone tall and covered itself in flowers like little white tongues.
‘Mikey! I’ve told you, don’t pull on that.’
Mikey looks hypnotised by the oven light. He doesn’t seem to have noticed he’s tugging the strip of laminate coming loose along the edge of the bench. Joanna could go off at him for standing so close to the oven. But she doesn’t. He’s a solemn, sensible boy, he’s known since he was toddling not to touch it. He’s just standing very, very close. This food thing, aversion turned overnight to obsession. It’s all the junk Belinda let him eat at those election events, sausage rolls and party pies and mini sushi.
He’s growing out of the jumpers he’s had since he was three. No more star chart for finishing at least half of dinner, no more cajoling him through a Happy Meal. Tall glass of whole milk every day. Height chart on the door. Look at those feet, he’ll shoot up, just you wait. The preschooler hunger strike, the paediatrician called it. He’ll be happy, should make an appointment, now they have time. Now it’s over.
Joanna goes to the window. Birds fly the day’s last patterns in the sky. Far off, but almost level with her eyes, a shape moves through the mesh tunnel that stops people from throwing rocks down onto the motorway. The bright colour of the campaign T-shirt. Why’s she got that on? Now she’s going down the spiral ramp to the park, where the big sign is, the candidate’s Photoshop-white teeth gone yellow with the sun then grey with road dust.
‘Couldn’t we get it tomorrow, when Mikey’s at preschool?’ Joanna had asked when she got in from work and Belinda said they had to go take the sign off the fence.
‘No, some bylaw, election stuff’s got to come down today.’
‘Well we’re not leaving Mikey here on his own,’ Joanna said. ‘Get Mrs Hall across the hall to mind him.’
But when the door opened against the chain, it was a man’s face in the narrow gap. ‘Yes?’
‘We were just wondering if you could keep an eye on our son for two secs,’ Belinda was saying, ‘we’re going across the road.’
‘Want me to come over there?’
‘No, he’ll knock if he needs anything. If you knock on ours, say Bellwether, it’s his password.’
‘Thanks, Greg.’ How does Belinda know everybody’s name?
Joanna said, ‘We hardly know him, I’m staying here with Mikey, I’m not leaving him.’
‘I trust the Halls.’
‘Maybe, but do you know that Sue’s there?’
‘Where else would she be?’ Belinda asked.
‘Anyway, you hate them,’ Joanna said.
‘Why would I hate them?’
‘What was it you said?’ Joanna said. ‘They never look at the two of us together.’
Joanna’s phone alarm goes off. She looks away from the window, and sees Mikey still staring into the oven.
‘Here, you turn the knob down to Keep Warm,’ she tells him.
The oven fan turns off, and the light. Mikey loses interest, goes to the lounge room and his Nintendo, car racing: leftXY
The kitchen is cool and dark and quiet. The parsley’s dropped leaves all into the sink. The chives, slumping in their macramé holder, look hanged. They’re past it, Joanna thinks. She goes to throw them out, one, two steps across the lino. Her phone murmurs in her pocket.
The evening sun would hit those windows so fiercely it’d look like fire inside. Now, though, Joanna could see all the way through these apartments to more of the sky. X’s of tape on the new glass. She felt jetlagged. Last night her sleep had barely overlapped with Belinda’s, coming home from a night-fill shift.
At least now the sun is up. It’s a time when she’d be awake anyway, on the 7.24 coming through Wolli Creek. Belinda would be gently waking Mikey from where Joanna had put him to bed.
Joanna’s phone vibrated. A message from Belinda.
Are you sure its a good idea? … To meet her tofday, I mean
Someone elbowed Joanna. The girl next to her was applying mascara using her phone’s camera as a mirror. Joanna composed a reply.
She wants to meet you. Not Mikey, she added. Mikey would think it meant aunties, cousins, another set of grandparents. They didn’t want to make promises they couldn’t keep.
Not her kids, either, Joanna added. Has she told them I don’t know.
The girl beside her put away the mascara wand, answered a message, and opened The Brothers Karamazov in an app. Joanna wondered if the girl had an equally clear view of her own screen as she conducted her life from a third of a train seat trundling stop-wise towards Ultimo. The phone demanded attention again.
I just think so close to the election, Belinda had written.
I didn’t choose for it to happen now, said Joanna. I’ve waited 8 yrs
Belinda had never met Joanna’s sister, she’d never even seen a photo until after they reunited in the comments on their cousin’s Instagram post.
Shes waited 8 years, Belinda said.
She’s, she added. Joanna wasn’t sure if she meant to correct her grammar or emphasise the pronoun.
Just tell her Im working every day, Belinda said.
True. Her ALDI job brought in twice what Jo’s scholarship did. For some itchy reason, it was that moment Joanna realised she hadn’t changed out of her overnight pad. And then her phone actually rang.
‘Hey, it’s Debbie.’
Joanna was still getting used to hearing that voice again. ‘Hey, Deb.’
‘I’m so sorry, but my Emily’s woken up spewing.’
What would I say if this were another mum at preschool, Joanna asked herself (her formula for normal interactions).
‘Ah yeah, I’ve heard that’s been going around.’
‘Yeah. We’ve been up since four. She’s not in a good way. Hope we don’t end up at Emergency.’
Words of wisdom about making ice-blocks from Hydralyte. Call me back when things settle down and we’ll work out when we’re free next.
Her sister attending to a sick child whom she, Joanna, had never met, in a house she could not picture. Damp flannels. Dry toast and weak cordial. Joanna paused before passing on the news. Because she couldn’t face Belinda’s relief, or because she didn’t want to think about her own?
If only. If only the fucking campaign event hadn’t been a Thursday. Same day Australia’s chosen for late-night shopping. If only that wasn’t the same day as the meeting with her supervisor. Fortnightly. All these facts, lined up like a run of green lights. Causality bordering on determinism.
Not green lights, red ones, every single fucking one from Kensington to Campbelltown. Joanna checked her face in the rear-view mirror. Red, but that might have been the brakelights. Maybe she wouldn’t stay for the meeting, not this time. She’d take Mikey home, cook a real dinner.
She advanced one set of traffic lights. Half an hour later than she’d said already. Though that was mostly the meeting. Her supervisor had kept her late. (Considered a leave of absence?—some breathing space?)
Joanna looked down at her phone. Notification light blinking, blue. She considered texting to say she’d be late. It wasn’t like the cars were moving. But still illegal. And Belinda wouldn’t see a message. Joanna pictured Belinda hovering at the door. Belinda, grossly subservient scuttling among chairs, passing the wireless microphone to old men who’d give interminable speeches disguised as questions. Belinda peeling cling wrap off sandwiches.
Belinda’s ALDI shirt stuffed in her handbag. She’d won the University Medal, three years back. She should have been the first to do her PhD.
One hour and 47 minutes after she left the university, Joanna pulled into the RSL carpark. Mostly empty. A bad sign. But then, not everything is a sign.
She signed in to the RSL. Past the flashing VIP Room, up a white, curved staircase. First door to the left. Two function rooms, the concertina doors folded back to double the space, unnecessarily. A man in the second row who had the mike was espousing a political position Joanna could tell he’d made up. On stage, the candidate nodded and stroked her hair, going for non-committal. Going for polite. Going for nice.
And there was Mikey, stretched on the floor behind seven rows of empty chairs. Sharing earbuds with the candidate’s kid, Sandy, who was pumping at a sky-blue Nintendo.
‘Come on, Mikey,’ Joanna said. ‘Can’t we finish this game? Please?’
Joanna looked at the sculptures of connector textas at her feet. Scrap papers with attempts to copy the party logo off a pamphlet. She flipped one over. ‘Why not just swim to the green light?: Frustrated spatiality as context and pretext for desire in The Great Gatsby.’
Belinda stood holding the mike cord. She nodded at Joanna. The man was still going at it. It was about his small business. It was about inflation. It was about the no-parking zone, which even Joanna knew was a council matter, but nobody pointed out that this was a state election.
Joanna and Mikey were leaving just as the candidate interrupted softly, ‘Is there a question in this?’
Joanna drove Mikey to Macarthur Square instead of home. Way too bright inside for this time of an evening. Her card declined on the first go. Put one of the games back for later, sweetie.
It was after Mikey’s bedtime when Belinda got home. He was still on the couch, driving laps on a bright-red Nintendo DS.
‘I guess we’ll be washing the dishes by hand for quite a while,’ Belinda said after they put him to bed.
Joanna took up her phone; Belinda, her crochet hook (front post double stitch). The yarn was ruby, soft, real wool. It’s colder out west, and all Mikey had was a parka, second-hand with a sweet, musty smell like old teddy bears (front post double).
‘This is how he’ll remember his last year with us,’ Joanna said.
‘What?’ Belinda asked.
‘From February, he’ll be away every day.’
‘We’ll see him mornings and afternoons and weekends. He’s not going to bloody boarding school.’
‘We should get him a scrapbook for his drawings,’ Joanna said. ‘I’ve got to throw out all those old drafts anyway.’
‘This whole time, he’s only missed one soccer training, and he had a sniffle that day,’ Belinda said.
Front post double crochet, front post double, chain one two, turn, back post double, back post double to the end, chain one two, turn, and Belinda lets herself look up to see if Jo’s still on her phone. She is, her face lit like a theatre mask in its flat pale light.
‘Are you talking to her?’ Belinda asked.
‘We were thinking we might get a coffee,’ Joanna said. ‘You don’t work Tuesday mornings, do you?’
frontpostdouble-frontpostdouble-frontpostdouble. Joanna added, ‘We don’t have to tell Mikey.’
‘We agreed, Jo. Not till after the election. Give us some breathing space.’
‘It’s nearly over.’
‘You want it to be over?’ Belinda said. ‘Don’t you?’
‘That’s all you want?’ Joanna typed with one thumb, the phone tilted sideways.
‘Please,’ Belinda said. ‘Wait a week, and I’ll come with you.’
‘Breathing space,’ repeated Joanna.
‘Let’s keep an agreement this time, okay?’
Joanna went to the kitchen.
‘He can play games on the computer. Or our phones. He does not need a thing especially for games.’ They’d come to this agreement last Christmas, the issue had been reopened before his birthday, but then the dishwasher broke, and that was that.
‘Coriander’s bolting,’ Joanna reported.
‘Mum says coriander always goes to seed, doesn’t matter what you do,’ Belinda said. The Nintendo’s charging light glowed accusing green.
They walked down the side of the road without a footpath. The morning was cold, the odd streetlight still glowing, confused by the shadow of a tree. Belinda looked back at their kitchen window. She could see the herbs in their tall plastic wrappers. Pot to plate. An atavistic sentiment. She’d picked them up at Coles the night before. Cheaper than cut herbs, she’d said to answer Jo’s sceptical look.
Joanna switched the hand she was using to carry the sign. ‘We couldn’t’ve asked the branch to lend us a ute?’ she said.
‘They’re run off their feet getting the banners up along the highway,’ Belinda said. They climbed the bridge, little steps down the spiral ramps.
‘Surely this’d be too steep for a wheelchair?’ Joanna said.
And then they were in the park. Past the play equipment with heads of long grass coming through the woodchips. The skate bowl dug into the ground, the plastic clatter of bodies curving up and down the concrete. The chain-link fence went all the way across the back, to stop soccer balls and dogs and kids from spilling out onto the highway. But the corner of one panel was pulled back, a triangle just big enough for an adult to crawl through, to get at the best advertising space in the electorate. Where, morning and evening, the necklace of brakelights stretches in either direction as far as you can see. Today there was a marriage proposal in black spray paint on a long, sagging cut of canvas, and a colourful banner heaving in the wind: soccer registrations.
‘I’ve got the train station Monday and Friday mornings,’ Belinda said, once the sign was affixed to the fence with 12 cable ties. ‘On Fridays I’ll drop him off at preschool a bit early.’
‘And on Mondays?’ Joanna asked, rubbing her hands together to soothe the furrows the plastic had left.
‘He can come to the station. I won’t make him hand out pamphlets. Oh, and you might have to pick him up on Thursdays. I’ve swapped Ursula some of my morning shifts.’
‘They have late-night shopping at ALDI?’ Joanna asked.
‘Yeah, but they normally roster on the schoolkids.’
‘How long will you know in advance?’ Joanna said. ‘I have supervisor meetings every fortnight.’
‘I thought that was once a month,’ Belinda said.
‘She wants to see me more often for a bit,’ Joanna replied. She stepped onto the grass to let a trio of elderly joggers pass, house keys tied into their shoelaces. ‘It’s fine. We can put Mikey down for long day care, just that one day.’
‘We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it,’ Belinda said.
Joanna laughed. ‘Now you sound like mum.’
‘You know,’ Belinda said, ‘maybe we shouldn’t both call her mum. I mean, it’s one thing Mikey has two of his own, if he goes to school and says we’ve both got the same one …’
Joanna went quiet before replying, ‘You mean, maybe I should stop calling her mum.’
now, after, again
Joanna feels her phone vibrate in her pocket. She takes another step towards the dead plants.
leftXYBupBdownAYYupupYArightBXAdown. The keys creak under Mikey’s fingers.
A noise cuts through everything, so loud he can’t smell the meatloaf any more. He drops the Nintendo to put his hands over his ears. Mummy Jo comes in from the kitchen. She looks flat and worn like a preschool doll, with the noise overpowering his every sense. Then there is another, a bang, bang, bang, a man’s voice that breaks over the sound of the siren: ‘Bellwether! Bellwether!’
The sign has been curiously vandalised. Six diamond-shaped holes gouged into the plastic, around the lettering and the candidate’s face. Belinda takes a photo, sends it to Jo. It will be useless for her sister’s guinea pig cage. The other side have taken down their sign already. Now it’s just the soccer registrations, whose last date has passed, and the marriage proposal sagging like a torn sail.
She cuts the ties that hold the sign. It falls, denting a corner. Doesn’t matter now. She could shove it, folded lengthwise, through the gap in the fence. But Belinda lifts it over the top, stretching her arms high. The clatter of wheels stops in the skate bowl. The brakelights haven’t moved since she got here. A siren howls some distant emergency.
When she reaches the footbridge, the cars are moving fast and close as the left lane runs out, each merge a tight miracle. A light rain hangs in the air, barely falling. Belinda carries the sign with the words facing out, towards the street. All the streetlights are on, now, but twice she steps off the footpath to let a jogger pass.
She hears voices before she turns the corner. There are people out the front of number 67–71, spilling into the yards of the neighbouring blocks of flats, onto the road in the spaces between parked cars. The raindrops in the air are a strobing, floating chandelier. A fire truck winks the windows blue, red, blue, red in the fallen night.
Belinda drops the sign and runs into the crowd. Forty or so people mill between the caged trees on the lawn. She spots Joanna, and then Greg and Sue Hall. Mikey’s squatting next to a tree, his hands full: the Nintendo, Joanna’s USB stick, Belinda’s swatch of crocheted jumper.
‘I rescued thesis,’ Mikey says, ‘so it doesn’t burn.’
Belinda feels something like a wave at the back of her nose. ‘You didn’t—’
Joanna says, ‘I back it up every night on the cloud.’ (But Belinda gets the feeling this isn’t what she meant to say, either.)
‘Watch it, that’ll all unravel,’ says Sue Hall, snatching at the yarn.
‘It’s all right, it’s crochet,’ Belinda says, ‘it doesn’t come apart as easily as knitting.’
‘Crochet,’ Sue says. ‘But hasn’t that got a lot of big holes in it?’
‘Not necessarily,’ Belinda says. ‘The stitches are bigger than knitting. But that makes it warmer. The gaps trap air, which has an insulating—’
‘What’s happened’, Greg is saying, ‘is that someone’s gone overboard with the Mortein in the stairs, and the spray’s gone up in the smoke detector.’
‘Where’s the sign?’ Mikey asks. ‘Are we going to put it up in the lounge room?’
‘No,’ Belinda says, then lies, ‘we’re giving it to someone, for the plastic.’
‘Can’t blame them,’ adds Greg. ‘Cockroaches bloody everywhere.’
The meatloaf has been polished off, the dishes washed and dried by hand, Mikey bathed, read to and tucked in. The sign is propped against the couch, a grassy sneaker print on the candidate’s face. Joanna messages her sister: sorry Deb someone cut holes in the sign, probably wont work for the g pigs. She attaches a photo.
‘Looks like they did it with a box cutter,’ Joanna says. ‘Like September 11.’
frontpostdouble-frontpostdouble-frontpostdouble. ‘What is it?’ Joanna asks.
‘It’s nearly spring.’
‘I’m making it big enough for next year,’ Belinda says.
‘Those origami hangers are good,’ Joanna says. ‘That you made for the herbs.’ ‘Macramé. You said origami.’
‘Shame they’re dead.’
Joanna’s phone rings the bubbly tone of Skype.
‘Hello? Hang on, it’s dark. Bel, can you turn on the light?’
Belinda goes to the switch in the kitchen instead of the one behind Joanna. She stays out of frame, silent and invisible.
‘We’ve got lino for the bottom of the cage for now,’ says the croaky voice of the speakerphone. ‘How are you?’
‘Good,’ Joanna says. She looks at Belinda over the top of the screen. ‘Honestly? Glad it’s over.’
Why not ‘we’re glad it’s over’? Belinda thinks. Why doesn’t English distinguish number in adjectives, or even between single and plural you?
Belinda stands up, stands over Joanna, until she makes a space on the couch and in the frame.
Debbie’s eyes are downcast, fixed on her interlocutors rather than the tiny lens. The ever-imperfect eye contact of the video call. She has mussy hair, a grey neckline that sags out of sight. Gym gear or pyjamas.
‘How’s work?’ Debbie asks, after a pause. How much has Joanna told this woman?
Debbie looks to somewhere off-screen, but the shout is coming from Mikey’s bedroom.
Summoned, Joanna stands, and the phone is in Belinda’s hands. ‘Hope it’s not vomit,’ Debbie says.
‘Or a nosebleed.’
‘My Eli’s been having them as well. Air’s so dry.’
Joanna calls from the bedroom, ‘It’s just the itchy blanket.’
‘Oh, just the blanket,’ Belinda says. ‘We don’t know how he does it. We tuck the sheets half a metre under the foot of the mattress, but he’ll untuck them, and then the blanket’ll be itching his feet.’
Debbie laughs, and whatever device she’s talking to, she tilts it, so her shirt appears, Tweety Bird and printed-flannel pants, definitely pyjamas.
The laugh trails off. (breathing space)
‘Want to see the guinea pigs?’ Debbie asks.
Debbie’s swinging the phone or the tablet or the laptop. A wobbly view of a window without curtains, a couch covered in some sort of sheet. She stops shakily on a construction like a miniature slum, a reluctant, impoverished aesthetic of plastic in mismatched primary colours.
‘Can you see bubbles?’ Debbie walks closer, the camera jolting with what must be her footsteps, and the blur of pixels resolves into something like a blond wig.
‘Yes!’ Belinda says.
The wig startles and takes off with a quick jerk, Belinda’s not sure if it’s from the camera or if that’s just how small animals move.
Now Joanna’s here, and Belinda hands the phone off to her.
‘You know I think,’ Belinda says. ‘I think maybe they’re wind holes.’
‘Like, to let the air through. Maybe it was flapping on the fence. Maybe coming loose.’
‘Maybe,’ Joanna replies from the kitchen.
There’s a thump, then another, followed by the tinkle of dirt grains running down the inside of a plastic bag. Joanna takes the pots to the bathroom sink to rinse. She leaves the flowering coriander. Maybe mum will know how to harvest the seeds. Joanna decides to shower. The exhaust fan is broken, so she leaves the window open. Her whole body is cold except the stinging point of the hot water.
She goes out naked to the lounge room. Belinda is gone. After the apple shampoo, something smells sharp, chemical. The kitchen window is open. The peeling strip of laminate has been glued down and clamped with masking tape. Through the window come the cars on the motorway, flowing now like a sleeper’s breath, until six in the morning or so.
Joanna opens the bedroom door. Her eyes are adjusted to the dark and she can see that Belinda’s wearing the election T-shirt as pyjamas. Now it will live in the drawer with the Your Rights at Work one that’s faded from fluoro orange to almost white, the box of pins they punched out on the university’s badge press: ‘No to HECS. No airport at Badgerys Creek. Close the camps.’ They said on the news the election night as if it were just one, just one night. Joanna wants to go put her head on the fabric over Belinda’s stomach. She imagines it damp-soft and wrinkled like a summer pillowcase, the printed plastic words adhering gently to her cheek. The snore of a motorcycle grows in the distance. She’s going to go and pull the covers over them both, even if she can’t sleep.•
Jemma Louise Payne’s work has been published in Voiceworks, Farrago, Tincture and Verity La. She lives in Melbourne, where she is studying Spanish and Latin American Studies.