April got out flour from the cupboard, cracked eggs into a bowl. She read the recipe, read it again, although she’d made the dish many times before. Each afternoon when she got home from work she made pasta from scratch, whole-baked fish, slow-cooked tagines with preserved lemon. April had known nothing about searing meat or the right way to chop an onion until well into adulthood. Her own mother hated cooking, and April and Pip had grown up on meat and three veg, Chinese takeaway on Friday nights. But now April found the incremental amassing of basic skills to be satisfying, like collecting tiny nuggets of gold.
They ate late that night—buttery ravioli in front of the television—and watched the men’s quarter-final. Nate always asked April why she bothered, said he couldn’t tell the difference between fresh pasta and the stuff from the packet.
‘Just don’t do it for my sake,’ he said, spearing ravioli.
‘I’m not doing it for you,’ April said.
‘Don’t get crabby,’ he said. ‘It’s good. Delicious.’
‘I know it is,’ April said, wiping her mouth with her hand, lips greasy. ‘It’s bloody good.’
The Serbian took the fourth set in a tiebreak, sending the match to a fifth. They’d watched the Open every night. Nate had played competitively when he was young and was still obsessed with the game. He explained the rules to April again and again during changeover, talking with his hands. April had no interest. She liked to watch for the rallies: the meditative, scuffing thuds, the primitive grunts. The restless tension from the invisible crowd, and Nate, hands on his knees, eyes maniacal.
The players blurred across the court. April felt a twinge in her gut, pressed her fingers to the ribbon of silver running across her abdomen. She closed her eyes, counted the sound of hits.
On the weekend April began to shift plastic bags from the bathtub and into the hallway. A decade’s worth of old clothes were stuffed into plastic bags, lumped into the clawfoot. April felt as though she were underwater: the sea-blue curtains and the turquoise mosaic floor tiles, walls licked the inoffensive tint of a nursery. The water in the toilet bowl was a dehydrated yellow. April flushed, dropped the lid.
Pip came over in the afternoon. She stood in the bathroom and surveyed the tub. The plastic bags were like jellyfish fused into a mass.
‘It’s official,’ Pip said. ‘You’re a hoarder.’
‘It’s Nate’s stuff too, some of mum’s old things as well.’
‘How can you live like this? It’d drive me mental.’
‘We just haven’t gotten around to getting rid of it,’ April said. ‘Nate said we’ll take them to Lifeline tomorrow.’
‘Sell it on eBay, or set up a market stall. You might be able to get a bit for it, at least.’
‘It’s all shit,’ April said. ‘Sweatshop stuff. It’s worth nothing.’
Pip ripped open a bag, dumped its contents on the tiles. ‘I remember this,’ she said, sifting out a dress from the pile. ‘I loved this one.’ She held the dress against her chest. Some of the beads around the collar had come loose, dangling from the threads like fish eggs. April remembered making it, the nights she’d stayed up deep into the morning, hand beading onto the lace, squinting under the poor lighting of her mother’s living room. That was when her stomach first begun to bloat, as though she’d swallowed a rockmelon whole. She’d had terrible cramps since she was a teenager—constant rounds of Panadol and heat packs, days off school. During her last semester of TAFE, when her stomach started to expand, she’d cut out gluten, gone to a naturopath. She hated doctors, but the yanking pain made her eyes blur, so she bought non-prescription glasses off the rack from the chemist. By the time she’d finished the collection, her fingers were pinpricked to sieves.
Pip took off her top, pulled the dress over her head. ‘I thought you said it was stuff you’d bought from the shops,’ she said.
‘Most of it is.’
‘But you’re throwing it all out,’ Pip said. ‘The whole collection, I mean.’
‘It’s all junk.’
‘It’s beautiful. I’ll keep this one.’ Pip tore into the other bags. Folds of olive-green velveteen tumbled to the ground, covered the tiles like a bed of moss.
Everything was golden brocade and spidery lace. April had called the collection ‘Priestess’. It was all texture.
‘You’re making a mess,’ April said.
‘I’ll put it back.’ Pip held up a feathery dress. ‘I can’t believe you’re going to chuck it all,’ she said. ‘I’d always planned on stealing one of these. Selling it for a fortune in 50 years. Or lending it to a gallery for the retrospective. “Kindly donated by Phillipa Lewis, beloved sister and beneficiary.”’
‘Take as much as you want,’ April said, swooping the clothes back into the tub. She couldn’t bear to look at them. ‘It’s a waste of space.’ She sat on the toilet seat, pulled a loose thread from the curtain. ‘I haven’t had a bath in years.’
April didn’t know anyone else her age who still bought magazines. She spent a small fortune on them, and each week new issues arrived in the mailbox, thick and curved and wrapped in dew-prickled plastic. When she couldn’t sleep she brewed tea, sat at the kitchen table and read. And she read everything. The same fashion magazines she saved up to buy in high school, overseas editions imported from Europe that she could loosely translate from her school-level French and Italian. Food magazines, travel magazines, magazines about interior decorating, art and design. If something struck her as being particularly unusual she cut out the image and stuck it to the fridge. While she read she’d have some of whatever she had made for dessert: pineapple tarte tatins and dense chocolate tortes, cheesecakes with syrupy glazes that made her feel anchored to her chair.
April began to gain weight after the surgery, her face round for the first time since she was a toddler. She was thin as a twig at first, the bulb of her stomach deflated. She had been miserable, even before she was admitted to hospital. London was too big, too aggressive. The other international students were applying for internships, going to launches and workshops at galleries and studios every weekend, but April’s homesickness swelled in her gut like failure, her stomach an omen, sucking something away. She’d met Nate just before she left and felt guilty for wishing she were home. That was when her breathing began to constrict. For weeks she could feel something pressing against her lungs, shelling out her breaths, as though trying to scoop water with fingers outstretched.
She called her mother, who told her to go to hospital. ‘I think you’re having a panic attack, my love.’
April was in hospital for a week. When she was discharged, she went back to her cramped share flat. The food on her shelf of the fridge had started to fester. Still dopey and in pain, she sat on the kitchen floor, scraped at the fuzzy macaroni-and-cheese fused to the Tupperware. She went back to class the next week, and by the end of the course her designs were messily scrapped together, shabby replicas of the collection she’d presented at the graduate show back home that had got her the scholarship. She’d wanted to get it done and get out of there, feeling as though the city—the hazy hospital interlude—had sliced an important tendon and now she was tethered to nothing, drifting off somewhere unknowable. When her visa expired, April left the entire collection hanging from garment bags in the studio in Kings Cross and came home.
The day after April got back she went to her father’s flat, showed him the pictures she’d taken on her phone at the hospital. After the parasite was removed, a nurse had brought her the mass of tissue cuddled into a towel usually reserved for live births, and for the other kind of birth. She’d asked if April wanted to see it, the gnarled wad of it, like something belonging in a specimen jar. The overgrown teeth snarling from the ruptured amniotic sac, the tangle of black hair, like something pulled from a drain.
‘You haven’t told your mother about this, I hope?’ her father asked.
‘She’d feel sick over it,’ he said. ‘She’d have a terrible time coping with something like this.’
‘Well, what did you tell her?’
‘That I had appendicitis.’
‘Right,’ he said. ‘Good.’
April’s father scrolled through the photos, zoomed in on the screen.
‘Do you think it’s Clementine?’ April asked. She’d tried to make her voice sound casual, but felt her pulse quicken as she said out loud the thought she’d been turning over for months.
Her father smiled, shook his head. ‘Don’t be silly.’
‘I’m joking,’ April said.
‘It wasn’t a she or a he. It was just tissue. It wasn’t human.’
‘I said I was joking.’
April’s father handed back the phone. He opened the desk drawer, pulled out a stack of papers and handed them to April.
‘I’ve been doing some research,’ he said. ‘It’s fascinating, really.’ April flicked through the pages, printouts from medical websites. He’d made notes in the margins, highlighted a paragraph. ‘There was this one boy, in Czechoslovakia. He was born with 21 foetuses attached to his skull. Imagine that.’
April grimaced. ‘How did he survive?’ ‘It was a stillbirth,’ her father said.
‘God,’ April said.
‘It could’ve been much worse for you,’ April’s father said. ‘The autosite often doesn’t survive the birth. Or the parasite could have been a horrible, deformed thing, poking out from somewhere.’
‘Well it’s true, darl,’ her father said, gently. He reached for her hand, squeezed her fingertips. ‘You should count your lucky stars.’
April looked down at the picture on her phone. Its hair was darker than her own, heavy with fluid. She ran her tongue over her teeth, felt a pull at her stomach and went to the bathroom, knelt by the toilet and felt something rise.
April was too tired to drive and decided to stay the night. After dinner she had a shower, scrubbed herself to sandpaper and thought about Clementine. She stood under the burning stream until her father called out from the other side of the door. They were still on water restrictions. April flicked the miniature hourglass suctioned to the shower wall and turned off the tap. The steam was thick and she tried hard to breathe through it.
April and Pip carried a dozen bags to the car before giving up, had beers on the verandah instead. The breeze was warm and the scent of mock orange drifted from the garden. When the sun began to set, April lit a citronella candle. When Pip got bitten anyway they moved into the kitchen. April pawed through the fridge while Pip munched chips from the bench, dangling legs downy and golden.
‘Let’s get take-away,’ Pip said. ‘I feel like pizza.’
‘I can make pizza.’
‘I don’t want fancy-pants pizza,’ Pip said. ‘No figs. No blue cheese. Nothing caramelised, please.’
April picked up a recipe book from the table. She flicked through its food-stained pages, considered all the things Pip wouldn’t eat: mushroom, fennel, coriander. Her sister had eaten peanut butter toast for breakfast every day of her life. Probably still ate meat and three veg most nights for tea.
‘You wear the ugliest shit,’ Pip said, taking a sip of beer and appraising April up and down.
April looked at her blue button-down, her jeans cuffed at the ankles. ‘It’s called minimalism.’
‘You’re a teacher’s aide. Even they’re sup-posed to be reasonably hip, at the very least.’
‘I’m yet to see a reasonably hip person walk through the school gates.’
Pip licked the salt off the back of a chip. ‘All my friends used to think you were so bloody stylish,’ she said. ‘Now you go shopping constantly but wear the same old rags.’
April ignored her, ran her finger down an ingredients list.
‘All you do is work and cook and buy things,’ Pip sneered. ‘You’re practically a housewife. You’re turning into mum.’
‘That’s a horrible thing to say,’ April said. ‘And mum didn’t cook anything but sausages, remember?’
Pip shrugged. ‘Sorry, but have you seen yourself?’
April turned a page, chipped away a fleck of dried sauce. ‘Yeah, well,’ she said.
‘Yeah well, what?’
‘What do you want for dinner? I’m not making pizza.’
When Nate got home from cricket he scratched April on the head, cracked open a beer. He smelled of sunscreen and sweat and barbecued meat. April was glad to see him. The churning she often felt in her blood had been ferocious all day, and she counted on his mood to lift her own. She felt like a leech, slurping up his energy. Years ago, Nate had taken his mother to have her aura read for her birthday, and before the woman had even spoken to his mother, she’d gone straight up to Nate, held onto his wrists with her spiny fingers. She said his aura was the colour of light. She said she’d never seen anything like it.
He’d sounded proud when he told April the story. ‘You should’ve been an artist,’ April said.
‘Nah,’ Nate said, eyes lowered, but grinning. He held his hands up in front of his face. ‘Mum’s a great painter. Real creative. And my sister. But I’m useless with my hands.’
But he wasn’t. April had seen the sketches he did on the corners of newspapers, the back of receipts. Portraits of April, of the neighbour’s docile tabby that sometimes slept on their verandah. At first it had made April’s heart turn, his secret, hidden life, like she was witnessing a version of Nate’s purest self. But over time, she became resentful, the way it poured out of him. His obliviousness. Whenever she found a receipt around the house she’d throw it in the bin without checking for anything on the back.
‘What are you ladies up to tonight?’ Nate asked. ‘This is it,’ April said.
‘Come to the pub,’ Nate said. ‘Elijah’s having birthday drinks.’
‘Yes,’ Pip said, springing down from the counter. ‘Come on, April.’
April could think of nothing worse—the lights and the noise and the smell of bodies. Everyone’s slack faces amplified, like clowns. ‘Some warning would’ve been good.’ She felt irritation scratch at her skin and tried to make her face blank to hide it.
‘He just texted me then,’ Nate said.
‘You don’t even like Elijah.’
‘Course I do.’
‘You called him a turgid brown-noser just last week,’ April said. ‘You said he has the face of a potato.’
‘We haven’t been out together in ages.’
‘Yeah, we have,’ April said. ‘We went to Mick’s thing last weekend.’
‘We stayed for an hour,’ Nate said. ‘You didn’t even drink.’
‘Yeah, April,’ Pip teased, yanking her sister’s ponytail. ‘Don’t be boring.’
‘Piss off,’ April said, batting away Pip’s hand. ‘I just slaved away over a stove for you. Why are you being such a dick today?’
Nate flicked his bottle cap into the sink, cracked the bones in his wrist. ‘No-one asked you to, April.’
‘No-one asked you to slave away.’
He’d said it kindly, but for a moment April saw herself from a distance—the microscopic weight of her life. She got plates from the cupboard, cutlery from the drawer. She felt herself bashing around, everything exaggerated, the way her mother used to do when she was sick of the pair of them. April couldn’t help it; it was as though her limbs were moving on their own, possessed.
‘Pizza’s ready,’ April said, moving past Nate to get to the oven. He took a sip of beer, leant back against the fridge. ‘I’m not hungry,’ he said.
April crouched down and opened the oven door. Heat gushed over her face, burned her eyes. She pretended to fiddle with the gas nobs, and wondered how long she could stay down there in the cocoon of heat. The thought of standing up, re-entering the world made her suddenly very tired, and she felt an unsteadiness in her ankles, grabbed hold of the tray to still herself. She winced as the metal seared her skin, and it pounded right away. April could feel hot air in her lungs, as though she was roasting from the inside. She wrapped a tea towel around her hand and took the tray out of the oven.
April could feel Nate and Pip exchanging glances as she dished up the pizza. She picked a hair off one of the plates, held it up to the light. It wasn’t hers. It was fine and pale, like the hair of a small, soft animal.
Pip stood under the hot lights in the bathroom. April’s make-up—the make-up she never wore—was scattered on the benchtop. April leant against the wall, imprinted her thumbnail into the Blu-Tack oozing from the corner of a laminated Pears soap advertisement. The burn was fading, and would be all but gone in an hour. Her body couldn’t get anything to stick.
‘Please come, April.’ Pip was tracing a thin line of black along each eye, elbow resting gawkily on the tap. ‘I don’t want to hang out with Nigel Nate on my weekend off.’
‘Don’t call him that,’ April said, though she was the one who had come up with the nickname.
‘It won’t be fun without you.’
‘You called me boring an hour ago.’
‘I was joking.’
‘No, you weren’t,’ April said. She took a sip of Pip’s wine. It had gone warm and tasted acrid. ‘You’re not going to wear that, are you?’ April said. ‘You look ridiculous.’
‘I look très chic,’ Pip said, leaning into the mirror, eyes wide.
‘You look like Miss Havisham. You look like a bag lady.’
‘I do not.’
‘You’ll be overdressed,’ April said. ‘You’re only going down the road.’
‘Well, it’s mine now, and I’m going to wear it where I like.’
‘Fine,’ April said. ‘If you want to make a spectacle of yourself.’
‘If you want to make a spectacle of yourself,’ Pip mimicked, mascara wand stabbing the air. ‘I think I look ravishing.’
April watched her sister preen. She’d smeared glitter along her eyelids and they sparkled, champagne. A tangle of gold bracelets clung to her wrist, and her fringe was crooked from the home cut she’d given herself. For an instant April was taken aback by how young Pip looked, how dewy, how mystical. April felt old enough to be Pip’s mother.
You do, April wanted to say, but could not. You do look ravishing. She dipped her finger into the shimmering pot, wiped the eye shadow along her cheekbone, a cat whisker. She picked at a thread that had come loose at the back of Pip’s dress, wrapped it around her finger until it snapped. The hem was ragged, as though someone had worn the dress and run through a field. Pip’s bare feet poked out from the black lace, flexing like tiny white flippers.
When April’s mother was pregnant with Pip, April would stare at her smooth, strained stomach for hours, hypnotised by the cells forming below the skin. And, once Pip was born, April stared at her too, as she slept, as she nursed. She loved playing games with her toes, pulling her around the garden in the wagon their father built. April had plenty of friends from school, from netball and Brownies. She was daydreamy then, gentle. She would drift from group to group like a squid moving through water. But regardless of how many friends April had, no matter how much she loved Pip, there was always Clementine, in the dull sway of time after dinner, when Pip had been put to bed, their parents on the couch watching Landline, Four Corners. She was there in April’s drawings her parents stuck on the fridge, the doodles she made in the margins of notebooks.
April’s parents waited years for April to outgrow Clementine, and for a while her mother even set her a place at the table. Each night April poured her a glass of cordial, made sure she got the tomato sauce out of the fridge. Clementine loved tomato sauce.
She loved asparagus and crisp lettuce leaves. She didn’t have the stomach for milk or ice cream, and sometimes, if April’s mother was in a good mood, she let April have Clementine’s glass of hot milo after April had finished her own. Clementine liked scalding baths, so April had scalding baths, and hot-water bottles at night. Once, Clementine’s hair fell out in fist-sized clumps, so April took to the mirror and chopped her hair ragged as well.
When April was coming to from the anaesthesia, she’d seen Clementine, hazing around the recovery room. She’d grown as April had grown, was no longer bubbling with baby fat. April had barely thought about her in a decade, but in the years since the surgery, April could feel Clementine around her. She was startled by how solid she felt, real as flesh. She got flashes of them together in old age, drinking tea on a terrace wrapped in twining vines, or shopping for Canterbury bells at a flower market, both of them dripping with jewels, kaftans threaded with gold. Once, she’d dreamt her own funeral.
Pip wasn’t there, but wedged in a pew halfway down the chapel was Clementine, hair long and fine as satin, crucifix pressed to her throat.
Nate and Pip left for the pub and April cleaned up the kitchen. She put the leftovers in containers and emptied the bins. The house was pulsing, every light switched on—a bad childhood habit of Pip’s. The fluorescents were medicinal and April moved through the house, turning them off until the house was dark as a cave. She switched on the tennis and opened a magazine, skimmed through the editorial before setting it down. She turned to the screen. The blue court glowed onto the carpet, onto the couch and her hands. She felt her fingers twitch, felt them magnetise to the skin beneath her shirt.
At midnight, Nate and Pip stumbled in. Nate kissed April on the forehead, bit her playfully on the nose. April tried hard not to flinch as his body tilted over hers, was relieved when he went into the bathroom. Pip curled onto the couch, propped her calves in April’s lap. She told April about their night, slurring about this and that. When she trailed off, April thought she’d fallen asleep, until Pip rolled to her side. ‘You should be nicer to us,’ she said.
‘Did Nate tell you to say that?’
‘No,’ Pip said, eyes closed, flickering. ‘You’re scary, though. I’m scared of you.’
‘No, you’re not.’
‘You treat me like I’m a pest. Like you’d rather be talking to someone else.’
April fingered the beads along the tatty hem of the dress. The light from the screen illuminated the lace and she could see it was delicate as webs, but her hands seemed too large, fumbly as paws. She could see how remarkable it was, and found it staggering that something so intricate, so beautiful had come from her. She remembered how easily it used to throb from her; inspiration, the follow through, but now there was nothing. The impulse had been annihilated. The light weight of her life.
After a minute the shower shuddered off, the thud of the shampoo bottle slamming against the shower floor. She heard Nate call out through the bathroom wall. He didn’t know about the parasite. They’d only just met before April moved overseas, and when she came back she told him she’d had the scar for years, although it was still pink as salmon, still hurt to touch. A year after they’d been together, Pip was over, telling Nate stories about April from when they were young—the time April and Pip were sharing a bath, how April had pissed in the water and Pip felt the warm spread of it. April had cried and blamed it on Clementine.
‘Well, maybe it was Clementine,’ April had said.
‘You were obsessed,’ Pip had said, cackling with laughter. ‘I was so jealous.’
‘It was perfectly normal. I wasn’t obsessed.’
‘You kicked me out of my spot at the table so she could sit next to you,’ Pip had said. ‘And Mum didn’t say a word. I hated Clementine. She was a bloody interloper.’
‘She hated you too.’
Pip had laughed, but April meant it as a stab. She got up from the table and busied herself at the sink. By that point, she bristled with the shock of hearing Clementine’s name out loud, now a sacred thing.
April went into the bathroom and emptied the bathtub of the remaining plastic bags until the bathtub was gutted. She felt separate from her body, watched her hand turn on the tap, unbuckle her wristwatch, pour a capful of bleach into the steaming water. April undressed, climbed in. The sides of the bath were high and she felt as though she were sinking into a deep well. She could feel the boiling itch of erosion against her skin, the rotten emptiness needling at her belly begin to lift. She closed her eyes and tried to conjure Clementine in her mind, like a warm memory: Clementine as a shaggy-haired child, Clementine of the future, with icy white hair, skin like moth wings.
April had drifted off to sleep and woke in a panic, cold water in her mouth. She’d dreamed something she couldn’t quite grasp, but had a startling, fierce urge to talk to her mother, a pang she hadn’t felt in a long time. She never told her mother about what the surgeon had cut out of her, but for the first time April wondered if her mother knew, if she felt something missing, a subconscious wrench when April came out of her alone instead of in a pair. April pressed her palm to her navel, distorted by the water and the light, her stomach bloated with yeast. She remembered the blur of weeks after her mother’s funeral. She was convinced she was pregnant: the missed period, the constant nausea. But the thought of something else being inside her had made her sick with anxiety, and she was sure it was the spike in cortisol that caused her body to absorb the bud into her blood.
April got out of the bath and dressed quickly. A prickle of mania jabbed at her throat. She went into the bedroom where Nate was asleep, curled on his side. She opened her wardrobe and rifled through a box of paper junk; old letters and school transcripts, receipts for cameras and beds and bicycles. In the bottom of the box was the envelope. She got it out and stuck it in her back pocket, went back into the kitchen and found a cereal box in the recycling. She broke it down, drew the numbers and letters, the yes and no and goodbye on the box, found a dollar coin in her wallet.
April sat on the floor beside Pip on the sofa and removed the envelope from her pocket. She took out the paper and unfolded it, smoothed the crease along her thigh. She’d transferred the photos from her phone, printed them out in a word document. She ran her finger over the hair and the teeth and the grit of the parasite, of Clementine. She pressed her fingers to the coin.
Pip was still asleep when April woke, arm flung towards the carpet, as though reaching for something in her dream. It was still dark but the light was tinted, and April felt morning begin to flush the air. She leant up from the carpet, a crick in her neck. The cereal box and printout were scattered around her on the floor and slowly she gathered them into a neat pile. She sat up next to Pip and stared at her face, the way she’d done for hours when Pip was small. Her razored teeth, her scrubby eyebrows that made her look serious all the time, though she was the freest person April knew. April pinched Pip’s big toe between her fingers, feeling the heat of Pip’s ankle on her wrist, a knobbed chunk of driftwood. She willed Pip to wake, wanting to tell her how much she looked like their mother, wanting to tell her that her skin was warm and she pulsed in the dark. •
Emily O’Grady’s writing has appeared in Southerly, Kill Your Darlings, Australian Poetry Journal, The Big Issue Fiction Edition, and Award Winning Australian Writing. She lives in Brisbane. Emily won the 2018 Vogel Literary Award for he novel The Yellow House.