Fern’s mother died on a cruise. A ferry cruise, a movable party, the sort that patrols the harbour on weekends. No-one saw her fall into the water, and no-one missed her until the ferry pulled in at the wharf. Then her husband realised she was gone.
Fern and I had not been friends then. I moved to her school when I was in fifth class. Fern invited me home after I had spent a week in the wearying company of Lucia Morgan, a girl the size of a grown-up. Lucia was kindhearted, showing me where the canteen was and sticking with me through the endless lunchtimes. She was not fat, but certainly not thin. She was larger than my mother. She put a heavy arm around my shoulders and called me cute. She noticed—as I never had—that I had a lisp, and in her kind voice used to chant at me, ‘Not thoggy dog, soggy dog.’ Thoggy dog became her nickname for me. Its pointlessness depressed me. There were no dogs in our conversation. I was not a puppy.
Fern asked me home after we had been sorted into our classes, and I was given the seat next to hers. We asked each other if we had brothers or sisters. She did not say, as most people did, that I must never be lonely. She had only an older brother called John who was at high school in the city. He was not there when we reached Fern’s house, sweating in the late summer sun, our feet grimy in their sandals. There was neither a mother nor a father on that day. There was a nanny, a Russian woman whose name was Anna, with dark, bushy hair and eyebrows. She gave us glasses of Milo after we’d put our bags in the hall, and then Fern took me to her room. In the room was a double bed crowded with stuffed toys, towered over by a stuffed Pink Panther, bigger even than Lucia. Afternoon sun flooded in through an enormous window that looked onto a blue swimming pool, so bright I couldn’t look at it.
Fern showed me her diary, and a page near the beginning, written nearly two years earlier. It said, ‘Today is the worst day of my life. My mother died.’ ‘There,’ she said, and closed the diary. We looked at each other. I had not thought of a single thing to say.
‘Let’s have a swim,’ she said. ‘I’ll lend you one of my cossies.’
Later, we lay on our stomachs on the edge of the pool, our faces inches apart. I could see the way her hair looked when it was wet—dark underneath the blonde. And the blonde slightly green, like the hair of all the kids who had pools.
‘Do you think I have a lisp?’ I said. I watched the water, dripping from my chin, running into the cement cracks between the pebbles.
‘Yes,’ said Fern, and I looked up at her. ‘But it’s nice,’ she said. She was frowning at me. Lucia had said the same thing, more or less.
The speech teacher lived in a house across the bridge that made me think of The Ghost and Mrs Muir; a house like a ship, its crow’s nest an attic from which you could see the river shuffling light, our school, a sailing sky beyond it. Dr Morse showed me everything, as though I had come to buy the place. It was dark, with dark wood in the window frames and the three huge staircases. There were books everywhere, and three little dogs that had exploded like a party favour when the front door was opened. And a strange smell. What was the smell? I followed Dr Morse back down the stairs after we had looked through the attic window at the view, and there was one of the dogs, hunched into the letter C on the enormous Persian carpet. Dr Morse let out an exasperated breath, and clicked her tongue as she approached it, and it scurried off. She scooped the shit up with her hand and, calling, ‘Just a minute!’ over her shoulder, was gone through a big swing door into what I knew to be the kitchen.
There were other piles of shit in the room, behind an armchair, hiding in the pattern of the carpet. Some were drier than others. The smell was not unbearable. Rank, almost sweet. Through the front window I could see my mother, sitting in her car. Everyone else was at home, with my oldest sister in charge. My mother was re-reading Middlemarch.
Dr Morse taught me to put a t in front of my s’s. This would put an edge on them, like sharpening a knife. ‘Dr Morts,’ she said to me, ‘you’ll be able to forget it soon. You won’t even notice. But for now—Dr Morts.’
At my house there was always someone home who was interested in what you were doing. My mother used to trot up the stairs with a plate of biscuits, calling to us to come down and tell her about our day. At Fern’s house it was only Anna, who never left the kitchen. Fern’s house was empty and illicit, with no-one watching. There was a room under the house that was full of clothes—not hung on racks or in wardrobes, but in collapsing cardboard boxes and strewn across the unmade single bed. There were shoes, and hats and dresses made of sliding material. The pull of that room was powerful, and Fern and I would go on playing dress-ups well into our high school years. It was partly the disorder that made me want to be there. Nothing had been laid out for us. No-one had invited us to enjoy the room, which seemed to have no purpose. No-one ever looked in. We dressed up and took each other to nightclubs—one of us would go out of the room, close the door, and then knock, often surprising the other in her jutting lacy underwear. Sometimes these dates ended with a kind of wrestling on the bed.
There was this life, and there was the other life that I was living in great privacy. The family up the road who spent a great deal of time away on their property had left me in charge of their animals: a goat, a rabbit, some cats and a dog. I had learned to deal with the dog, which stood barking at you ceaselessly unless you ran at it, whereupon it skipped away and began frisking and playing. The goat, on the other hand, ran at you, and I had learned to go into its pen with my hands out. I caught it by the horns and pushed it back. I kept it off with my foot and hip while I filled its water bowl and pulled more straw out of its bale.
The rabbit was black, and I named it Beckworth. I imagined it to be a little like Blackavar, the rabbit in Watership Down that survived a beating from fiercer, stronger rabbits. I spent a lot of time kneeling in the pen, holding off the goat, watching the rabbit. Watership Down felt very real to me. If you had seen me you would not have known I was playing. It was mostly keeping still, watching, listening to the sound of quiet. There was no-one in the house, no-one in the enormous garden. When I was there I was missing from my life. Time passed in shivering waves.
Fern preferred it at our house and so we sometimes fought over this. She liked my second-eldest brother and he liked her. She liked my mother, who was either reading or cooking, and quite often both at once. My mother said that when each of us was born she had a chance to read another book right through, without being interrupted. Mine was The Vivisector.
Everything I loved about Fern—her long, ropy blonde hair, her soft brown skin and handsome, angular face—was exaggerated unpleasantly in her brother John. He was all chin and nose and his skin looked dirty. His hair was dirty. Fern’s eyes were a startling blue, but John’s made him look mad, as though he might be blind behind their dazzle. Once he came home while Fern and I were swimming and stood by the pool in his school uniform, looking down at us.
‘Get lost,’ said Fern. She whacked her arm against the water, splashing his legs.
‘There’s a funnel-web in the pool,’ he said, pointing. Fern turned round to look. I was sitting on the edge with my legs in the water. I jumped up and ran over. There was something black at the bottom, curled like a leaf. John got the scoop while Fern climbed out, and brought the thing to the surface. The second it came out of the water it sprang to attention, front legs raised.
‘Kill it!’ screamed Fern.
John brought the scoop up near Fern’s face, with the spider rearing in the net. Fern swung at it and it was sent soaring into the garden, legs splayed. John didn’t seem to be looking at her, or at the spider. His eyes were the same colour as the pool.
We were fourteen, and lying in the grass with my dog—a gift, as a puppy, from my neighbours—and Fern said, ‘Today is exactly a year since my first sexual experience.’ She gave the dog, panting heavily next to her face, a shove. ‘Get off me. God, he dribbles.’
The rabbit Beckworth had died the year before. Mrs Wilson, at home without her children, who were all at boarding school, found it in the straw and came to get me. She stood struggling with the goat while I knelt by Beckworth’s body, which already had ants coming from its underside. I recited the rabbits’ prayer silently to myself: ‘My heart has joined the Thousand, for my friend stopped running today.’ Even in my head I added the t in front of the s. Tstopped. A week later Mrs Wilson arrived at our house with a border collie puppy, born on the property to a proper farm dog.
Did Fern mean actual sex? Or did she mean something else? I could only listen. There were an increasing number of conversations that I was having to store away like unopened presents. By this time we were at high school; mine local, hers north of the city. We rarely had the time to see each other after school, except in summer when it was light till late and we walked the dog. Fern’s father had married the second Mrs Lawrence by now, and they travelled a lot, to medical conferences and universities where Dr Lawrence could teach his revolutionary techniques. Fern was left at home with John and the nanny, Anna.
This was not long after she had told me that Anna had been having sex with her father and now was having sex with John. ‘She does it with both of them,’ she said. ‘It’s part of her job.’
The idea that Anna had to do this appealed to me. I was beginning to think that if it were left up to me I would never do it. The act of saying ‘yes’ would be more than I could manage.
Fern came at things with the body, willing to experience them before she could understand them or say them. It was possible that her sexual experience might have to do with my brother, who had become something of a legend at our high school. Indeed, I felt bathed in a kind of erotic knowingness myself when he passed by in the playground or at the bus stop, as though by association I might be a legend too. The girls I went to school with became wrecks if invited to my house, shattered and silly, collapsing into giggles if he threw himself down on to the couch with us, or appeared at the door of my room, as he was wont to do. Sometimes Fern stayed on at our house when I went out to walk the dog, or to swimming training.
‘Is Sean home?’ said Fern to me.
‘I don’t know,’ I said. I ruffled the dog’s chest.
‘Let’s go and see.’
Perhaps with some utilitarian or even Austenian idea of joining our families, Fern had begun to encourage me to take an interest in her brother John. This did not extend to encouragement of him—if he appeared while we were playing or lying on her bed she would rise up and drive him away with shrieks and blows. But she told me that he liked me, and teased me about him as though I had admitted to liking him back. She did not seem to be listening to my pleas that I was not interested in him. It was something she had cooked up, and she was intent upon it.
‘Guess what,’ said Fern on the phone one evening.
‘What?’ I had my back against the study door, the phone cord stretched to its full length. One of my sisters was demanding her turn on the phone. And our mother was calling us for dinner. ‘John wants to take you to his formal.’
‘I’m not.’ Fern laughed with delight. ‘He’s going to ask you tonight! He’s going to ring!’
‘But I can’t! I’m too young!’
‘I can’t! I’m too young!’ She always made her voice high when she was imitating me.
John did ring that night but I had gone to bed straight after dinner and I was pretending to be asleep. I tried not to think of tomorrow, when he might ring again. I hoped that I might be so hard to catch on the phone that eventually he would ask someone else.
John arrived at our house after dinner the next day, when I was in my room putting my sandshoes on, with the dog waiting, shifting and whining, at my door. I was sitting on the bed. I was wearing one of my father’s old T-shirts. It’s time. My mother called me, and I heard John come in and start up the stairs. I could not have him in my room—I jumped to my feet and met him halfway down.
This was ridiculous. He was shaming himself by pursuing me like this. I was—I found myself thinking: half his age—in fact I was three years younger than he was. Fourteen to his seventeen. The numbers could not match unless the girl, who must always be younger, was advanced. Like Fern. But I did not even own a pair of high heels. I had short hair, style-less as a boy’s. I walked my dog and looked after the neighbours’ animals. John was making a fool of both of us. ‘Come for a walk?’ he said, grinning up the stairs at me.
‘I was just going for one,’ I said.
He held out his hand to me and I ignored it, pushing past him, the dog knocking him against the wall in its rush for the front door. Claws on the wooden steps and it was out into the evening light, barking for me.
I tried to be rude to him—I had no choice, in fact, and could neither look at him nor let him anywhere near me—but was finally not able to say no. He was going to get a limousine to take us to the club in the city where the formal was being held. I would have to get a dress from somewhere. I chose where we walked, made bossy by misery, and led him back to his house, where Fern was watching TV. I could see her through the front window, slumped on a bean bag.
‘Tell her to come out,’ I said, and leaned away as he tried to kiss me.
I told my mother that John had invited me to his formal, hoping that she might forbid me to go, but she was brightly excited for me. What a triumph! A formal before I had even reached my senior years. She said she would take me to buy a dress, which showed real optimism. I could not say no to that either, but I could ruin it. I wept and raged in shop after shop until my mother agreed that we would have to find something for me to wear at home.
Picture me on the slippery seat of the limousine, letting John cover my hand with his. I am wearing a dress that Fern and I took from the dress-ups room. It is black, made of something intensely, expensively synthetic. It is clearly from the 1970s, hated decade. It is pleated. It has a belt but I cannot draw any attention to my waist and so I have chosen not to wear it and it hangs on my body like a nightie. I am wearing my mother’s black glossy high heels. I have insisted, because it is fashionable among girls at our school, on wearing a little black hat with a black net to cover my face. I’ve since learnt that this is called a fascinator.
I arrive and what I suspected is instantly clear—that John is one of the least popular boys at his school. He leads me to a table of boys with glasses, skinny necks, untended acne. Two have white tuxedoes. They fail to be properly ashamed of this and shout and crow when we approach, and one of them calls John a ‘cradle-snatcher’.
The night does not pass quickly. I go to the toilet many times. I wait in the corridor near the toilets. There are speeches, although John is not mentioned. The formal comes to an end and John and his friends are going to the party that is always thrown afterwards. I find a phone and ring my mother and ask her to come and get me, and she says that it would be rude to leave now and I must go to the party with him.
We walked home, with the sun just beginning to take the bruise of night out of the sky. There were no cars or people and so we walked on the road, as far apart as possible. We didn’t speak of the skirmish that had taken place in the rumpus room at the party, although in my body was still the memory of myself kicking like a trapped cat. We reached the Lawrences’ house first, and John turned up his steep driveway without looking at me or saying anything. My feet were not sore when I got to my house, just as the sun began pouring over the trees. The road, where the cars drive, is free of cracks and twigs and stones, and it was cool and comfortable on my bare feet. The dog was pleased to see me.
I saw less of Fern after this. I could not go to her house any more and my own house bored me—books, people, always bright noise and nowhere silent. The goat had died and the pen it had shared with Beckworth the rabbit had grass growing over the rutted ground. Only the dog remained, barking in a whisper now, and the rickety, rusty cats, tottering around my legs as I scraped the food out of the can. I spent a little time sitting on the back steps of the Wilsons’ house, listening to the silvereyes twittering and peeping in the bushes.
Eventually Fern and Sean made themselves a couple and I suppose that was the end of it. I lost my place in our friendship. I was the little sister of Fern’s boyfriend and so it was as though I was Fern’s little sister too. I don’t blame her for this. Choices have to be made. She had ascended into a different world, and she had tried to take me with her by forcing me into the arms of her own brother. It would be years before I could properly contemplate the horrible copy John and I made of Sean and Fern, like a suburban musical made out of a Hollywood movie. Me in my grotesque dress. Him mistaking his anger for desire.
There was star jasmine growing around the pool at Fern’s house and if I smell it anywhere I am reminded of her. It is the smell of quiet. Peace, for me, and privacy, a kind of safety, although I don’t know what it meant for her. Some time ago I was standing and looking at another swimming pool and I understood that it had not been Anna whom Dr Lawrence and John had been having sex with. It had not been Anna’s job.