Someone has stuck a sanitary pad to the inside of the stall door. It’s raining hard outside. I stand back from the toilet, my feet shoulder width apart, to avoid stepping in the puddle of piss. Someone has stuck a pad to the inside of the door, but all I can think about is how I don’t want to move house. The band is getting ready to start. I can hear the tentative twangs and booms of the guitars and bass being taken up through the walls of the toilet. I wash my hands.
The doctor came in with one of the social workers who all looked the same and had names like Jill or Jillanne. He had broad shoulders, and clenched his jaw a lot. He sat in one of the chairs not taken by a friend or family member and leaned forward with his hands clasped between his knees and told us, in his South African accent, it doesn’t look good.
“But we still have hope. And while we have hope, even just a little bit, it is worth doing everything we can.”
It was like this for five days. Helena’s mother, Grace, looked pale and flat in the hospital bed, covered by a thin sheet under the fluorescent lights, the breathing tube coming out the side of her mouth. Helena cried in the chair in front of me, my hands on her shoulders. I didn’t say it’s okay, because it wasn’t.
The last time we had seen Grace, she had just bleached her hair. She seemed to fill the room, her loud voice, bright eyes. She smiled a lot. Helena teased her about her hair, and asked why she did it, and they laughed about it. I said it looked good, even though I didn’t really care what she did to her hair. Grace gave us some dragonfruit from the plant in her back yard, and complained about Nathan, her husband.
“He can cook, sure. But then he leaves all the bloody pots and pans on the counter for me to clean up. I left them there once, just to see if he’d do the washing up. They sat there for a week. Cheeky bastard.”
Helena looked at me, and said, to both of us, that’s what I do. Grace said it was okay, because at least I was good looking. Helena rolled her eyes. Grace always took my side in these play fights.
She looked so far away in the hospital bed.
Each year, when we were younger, my parents would take my sister and me to the beach for a week before Christmas. We’d stay in the Outrigger Resort, and go bushwalking in Noosa National Park. One time we saw two goannas crawling about a picnic area, looking for food scraps. My dad said not to get too close. My sister, Sarah, was wearing a little kid’s bikini, her pot belly exposed. We were fascinated by the giant lizards, and kept edging closer to one of them, trying to get a better look. It swung around, without a warning, and whipped its tail out. It got me on the knuckles and it stung like hell. It got Sarah right across her tummy, leaving a perfectly straight, red line. She howled and fell backwards, and we rushed back to our hotel room so mum could rub Savlon on the injury. I felt pretty smug that all I got away with was a whack on the hand.
Nathan had to make the final decision about Grace’s life support. Helena’s grandmother looked at him, crying, and nodded, and half smiled, as if to tell him it was okay, and he knew the right thing to do. He went into the ward and when he came back to the waiting room he just sat and stared at the carpet. Helena’s grandmother asked her if she wanted to go in to say one last goodbye to her mother. Helena said she was already gone.
A week later, we were at the chapel in a cemetery next to a sports arena, and rain was coming down in sheets, and the funeral director told us to take our seats at the front. Helena didn’t say anything. I said thank you. The funeral started in ten minutes, my parents hadn’t arrived. I told Helena I was going to call them.
Mum usually picked up after two rings. Four went by, and on the fifth she said hello. Her voice was shaking down the line. I asked if they were coming and she said no.
“It’s your sister. We’ve been at the police station all morning. We’re heading to the hospital now. We don’t know the whole story yet, but David’s been – she’s got bruises all down her arm. Your father is in pieces.”
The moment felt scripted – there was nothing I could say, so I only said oh my god. I asked if I should come. Then I said I probably couldn’t leave. She said it was okay.
Technically, we had our first date seven years earlier. We’d seen each other on and off since then, but were never a couple. We went to the movies, and I remember walking over the bridge afterwards, back into the city, and the way the summer sky wasn’t completely dark yet. I looked west, across the river and I could see the last fading bits of yellow sun under the dark blue that was quickly engulfing it. The river already looked black, reflecting the lights from the parklands on one side, and the expressway on the other. Helena was looking straight ahead as we walked. I reached out and took her hand, and she looked at me and asked what was wrong.
“Nothing. Just a bit awkward I guess.”
She said it wasn’t awkward until I said that. I walked her to the bus, and she kissed me. She stood on her toes and bit my bottom lip a little. I’d never been kissed like that before.
Helena didn’t want to come to my parents’ house. I couldn’t blame her. Sarah looked like she was melting away. The bags under her eyes hung low and loose as her clothes – the long sleeves she was wearing through summer to cover the bruises, and most likely the needle tracks. Dad was washing dishes. He said it was hard to tell how much of her mood swings, her erratic behaviour, was a carry-over from the meth, and what was genuine mental distress. Then he shook his head, looked down at the sink, full of soapy water.
“She’s been used as a punching bag for the last two years. It’s going to take a while.”
Kurt, my nephew, was crying upstairs.
Sarah and David moved back to Brisbane, from Melbourne, just before Kurt was born. My parents put them up in a rental they owned. That was nearly a year ago now, and in that time, besides blackening my sister’s skin, David had put holes through the walls, taken the bathroom door off its hinges, and used the grocery allowances my parents provided to pay for drugs. Kurt appeared unharmed. Mum came down the stairs holding him, eyes red and wet. She set him on the rug with his toys, and he happily started working on some project involving a truck and a plush octopus.
According to Sarah, all of this – the abusive relationship, the unplanned pregnancy, the drugs – was my parents’ fault. They raised her wrong. They raised both of us wrong. This was the last thing she yelled at them before leaving, speeding up the road in mum’s car. Kurt played quietly on the floor, and I put my arm around mum and she rested her brow on my shoulder.
Dad walked me out to my car. He had always looked so tall – all-encompassing, with his dark hair and strong jaw. Now he seemed hunched, like he was in pain. Grey and exhausted.
“Don’t call her. She’s feeling overwhelmed, but maybe send her a text. Let her know she has your support.”
I nodded. It had started raining, and mum stood in the doorway holding her grandson, bouncing him slightly. I shook dad’s hand and got in my car. Mum waved goodbye.
Last year, on my birthday, mum got me a scarf. She asked if I wore them as I took it out of the bag. I didn’t wear scarves, but I nodded, and said thank you. The ceilings were high in my parents’ house, and our voices seemed to echo in the quiet.
“How is Helena?”
I folded the scarf back into the bag and told her things were great, and we were thinking about looking for a place together. I asked how Sarah was.
“She’s good. I think she and David have decided to come back home, in a few months. Before the baby’s due.”
I said that was good, and she’d probably need the support. I didn’t talk to Sarah much since she moved down to Melbourne, but Helena and I visited her two weeks earlier. She was big and round and no longer looked like my kid sister, even though she still spoke in the same way, and I wondered how this kid was going to have a kid. Her apartment looked like it used to be a shop-front, and she showed me a broken pane of glass in the bathroom where someone tried to break in.
She said he was at work. They didn’t have a couch, but DVDs were stacked in towers around the TV in the living room.
Our unit was small. Weeknights, Helena would come home after gym, quickly make something for dinner, fall on the couch and watch reality television, then go to bed. I’d be in the study, shut away from her, she said. I didn’t want her to be involved in my life, and why wouldn’t I share with her?
She had only recently gone back to work. Last week was one month since Grace died.
I wasn’t present, I wasn’t giving, I wasn’t supportive. I was face down in our bed, trying to disappear. Helena had half packed a suitcase and it sat open at the foot of the bed. She walked in and stood there, and asked if I was upset because of what was happening, or just because I felt sorry for myself. The truth was, I’d seen my mother cry one too many times, and the woman who used to be my sister wasn’t someone I ever wanted to be a part of my life. I tried, but I couldn’t think about anything else, even though I knew Helena needed me. Instead of saying any of that, I just looked at her, struck by the irony. I had already started scrolling through real estate websites, asking friends if they knew anyone who needed a housemate. Nothing so far had made me feel more alone than this process. Conversations about rooms and rent quickly shifted gears to whether I was okay, what happened and isn’t it terrible.
She stood beside the bed and talked at me. With her mother gone, she has no one to talk to about this stuff. And with me gone – out of her life – what will she do for Christmas? She started throwing the rest of her clothes into the suitcase. She’d stay at her friend’s apartment until she found a new place.
“You can stay here.”
I wash my hands, and walk out into the main room. The band has started, playing to a scattering of people. Helena’s here, I don’t know why, but she is talking to a guy from one of the other bands playing tonight. She looks at me every now and then. I guess it’s a shame more people didn’t come out. The band plays, and Helena is talking to this guy, and all I can think about is how I don’t want to move house again.