FoundlingReview

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He spoke Flemish, but that wasn’t the reason.

My sisters swore afterwards that this was why, as though it was the only interesting thing about him. I wanted to tell them that he could also steer with his elbows, but he’d asked me not to talk about that. It was the least I could do, really, after what happened.

I met him our second month in Cunnamulla. We liked pronouncing this one, although it wasn’t quite as much fun as the five months we lived in Manangatang. Dad rarely had rhyme or reason for our destinations: maybe he liked the names. I just packed my red suitcase with the Johnny Cash stickers and got in the car. My sisters chatted so much I didn’t need to join in.

I’m the quiet one. I guess that’s why people kept wanting to know why it happened.

A tiny outback town in the desert, where the summer heat soars and the roads are nothing but red dirt, is not the best place to take over a fish and chip shop. People don’t want a hot cooked English meal when their bones are melting, and we found that out pretty quickly. Dad was caught up in the romance of it, and we tried to be excited for him. But I was the one who had to lie when the debts found us and the calls began. I always tried to make my voice sound younger so they wouldn’t yell at me.

My sisters enrolled in school but at sixteen, I told my Dad I was ready for a career in fish and chippery. It wasn’t entirely true; I just couldn’t bear being the new girl in class again. I told him I wanted to be a fish and chipperer, but I could tell I’d got that part wrong. He just patted my shoulder, and showed me how to drop the fillets into the deep fryer so the hot oil didn’t splash my hands.

It wasn’t a complicated job, but it was mine. I shook the deep fryer baskets while Dad mixed up beer batter and told me stories. The ones I liked best were when us girls were really little,

 

back when we were a proper family. Sometimes, when there’d be one glass for the batter and a few for him, he’d talk about Mum. I never interrupted, in case he stopped. I just kept dropping the fish into the oil, wincing at the splashes.

When Anton first came in it was just me behind the counter. He ordered one piece of flake and two dollars worth of chips. Here’s the thing though: he asked for mayonnaise on his chips. I’d never heard that before. He leaned one elbow on the counter and said ‘That’s how they eat them in Europe, you know.’

I didn’t know, but I tried not to show it. He walked to the fridge and pulled out a can of Coke. He was taller than most of the high school boys; I’d watch them come into the shop for their lunch time dim sims, all awkward limbs and cracking voices. He looked only a few years older than me but moved easily, bony shoulders under his frayed AC/DC t-shirt.

When he came back to the counter he reached for the canister of straws. His watch strap caught the edge and pulled the whole thing down, pinging against the bain marie. A flood of red plastic cascaded down the glass and onto the floor, but neither of us moved to catch them. They looked so pretty tumbling against each other that we didn’t want them to stop. We just watched the straws roll around on the cracked lino, and admired their dance.

I loved him for that. A sudden, sharp flush of love from my belly that radiated out like a starburst. I hadn’t known it could happen like that. When he smiled at me and I saw he had a snaggletooth, I loved him even more.

So the Flemish wasn’t the reason, but it didn’t hurt either.

He started meeting me in the car park behind the pub after my shift. Anton had a yellow Celica and we’d sit on the hood with De Kreuners blaring through the open windows. They were his favourite Flemish band and he tried to teach me the lyrics. I’ve never been any good at words though. I’m the quiet one, remember. I just smiled and nodded as I watched his snaggletooth move. That was more than enough for me.

I didn’t even know what Flemish meant. He told me it was the language of northern Belgium, and I loved the sound of the town names. I only remember one now, Antwerp, sharp like a childhood insult. He’d just finished a year on exchange there, and was trying to get used to the dirt beneath his boots again instead of snow. Trying, but not really succeeding.

I couldn’t understand how parents could send their child to the other side of the world, to a place where they made beer from black cherries and used to hang witches on the cobblestones of the marketplace. He sighed, more than once, as he explained. I could tell he didn’t really understand either. There had been a stolen car, a drunken joyride, and a panicked mother keen to get him away from bad influences. I looked around when he said this, but all I could see were the ghost gums, digging their roots into Cunnamulla dirt. It hardly seemed a Brothers Grimm forest, wolf tails flicking behind tree trunks, but I figured he knew more about it than me.

He called me Choukelief. I blushed when he told me it was Brussels slang for sweetheart. I used to recite it to myself when he dropped me off home, standing in my white cotton underwear as I brushed my teeth. Choukelief. I wondered what kind of underwear European women wore. I wondered if he’d seen it. Sometimes, I brushed my teeth so fiercely I spat blood into the sink, specked with foam.

I’m the kind of person who always has trouble sleeping, so these thoughts didn’t help.

I liked thinking about the witches though. I imagined their mandrake roots and corn dollies, twisted into human shapes and hidden under beds. I wondered if any of them secretly knelt down and whispered ‘Choukelief’ into a black cat’s ear.

One Sunday I was thinking about them as we lay stretched out in the grass. Anton was chewing on a stalk, staring up into the blue as I spoke.

‘Do you know about the mandrake root?’

My eyes were closed, the heat building drops of sweat just above my top lip.

‘They thought that it screamed when you pulled it out of the ground, and killed all who heard it. Only witches could use it, because they had a spell to protect themselves when they dug.’

He chewed the grass stalk in his mouth for a moment, then took it out.

 ‘We have witches’ weeds here too, you know.’

I turned my head to him, the sun slanting right into my eyes.

‘Mandrake? In Cunnamulla?’

He shook his head and rubbed the tip of his nose. It was starting to get sunburnt.

‘Not mandrake – datura.   It’s just as poisonous though, same family as belladonna.’

He stuck the grass back in his mouth and talked around it.

 ‘If witches lived here, they would’ve used that, I reckon. Would’ve made them fly high, all right.’

I wiped the droplets away, and closed my eyes again.

‘How so?’

‘It’s hallucinogenic, Choukelief. They say that if you smoke the leaves or eat the seeds, it’s like an acid trip. One too many though and it’s pretty much...goodbye.’

He raised his palm to the sky, and waved. I looked past his hand and found a cloud that when I squinted, could almost be a broomstick. I watched it drift as I listened to him chew. I could smell the frying oil in my clothes; I could always smell it. He never said, but I knew he could too. I lifted my hand to check for smudges of beer batter under my nails, then dropped it before he could see.

I heard the words before I thought them.

 ‘Could you show me this datura sometime?’

The sun was veering from warm to hot, but neither of us moved. He grunted from his cocoon in the grass, and pressed his bare foot on top of mine. It seemed as good a point as any to stop talking.

When he took the blame for it later, I knew better. He told me about the plant, but it was me who made us walk down by the creek at the tail end of spring, stomping hard to scare away the snakes. It was me who made him cut the flowers, watching as he scraped the seeds into my cupped palm.

And it was me who went flying into the Cunnamulla night, searching for the broomstick cloud with my head back and arms outstretched.

I don’t remember much more.

The cuts are mostly around my knuckles. They’ll fade into pale streaks of white, and I’ll tell a different story whenever I’m asked about them. I don’t remember punching in the windows of the Celica, or trying to wrench the wheel from Anton’s grip as he frantically drove us back to town, smashed glass crunching under the pedals. I don’t remember the fuss I made in the parking lot of the hospital, biting and kicking at the hands reaching for me, screaming something about cobblestones. I don’t think they’d lie about it though.

The nurse told my father that amnesia’s a common side effect. She told him that was probably a blessing. I do remember Dad’s face though, completely pale when I woke up the next morning. When I realised my hands were cuffed to the bedrail, I couldn’t meet his gaze.

There’d been so many times he’d sat next to Mum, waiting for her to wake up. I don’t remember if they cuffed her – he’d stopped taking us into the hospital after the third episode, the one where she thought the mosquitoes were whispering in her ear as she smoked at the windowsill. Us girls would have to wait with the neighbours until he came home with his keys clenched in his fist, and the same strained expression he was wearing now.

I didn’t get to say goodbye to Anton. They wouldn’t give me his new address in Brisbane either, though his mum did come around to apologise, my third week in the hospital. My father and I sat in the day room as she told us how sorry she was, how his uncle had lined him up a good job in a factory, how she hoped it might straighten him out.

Her voice broke, and she pressed the back of her hand against her mouth. My dad passed her a tissue from his coat pocket, but his eyes never softened the whole time she was there. I wasn’t sure if he was going to tell her about Mum and let her know it was already in me, in my blood; that it wasn’t Anton’s fault. Dad didn’t say a word though, so neither did I.

There didn’t seem any point in saying that it was me, it was all me, how hard I’d had to push him. How he’d refused to crunch the seeds between his teeth, and promised to look after me, his hand in my hair.

No-one would have believed me, with my wide eyes and quiet words. And I never told them that I was the wolf, my tail flicking between the ghost gums, if only they knew to look.

 

Rijn Collins is an Australian writer with a fondness for red notebooks, black coffee, and stories about circus folk. She’s had over fifty short stories published in anthologies and literary journals, performed at festivals in Melbourne and Chicago, and broadcast on Australian and American radio. She’s currently working on a novel, and trying not to include Elvis in it: so far, so good. More of her work can be found at www.rijncollins.com.
 


Many of my stories arrive in the shape of a first line, though I often have no idea what they mean at the time.  I was on a tram when the beginning of Choukelief fell out of my pen, ‘He spoke Flemish, but that wasn’t the reason.’ I wasn’t yet sure of the language (Russian? Thai? Klingon?) or the reason, but I was so ready to find out.
That one story strand led me to a tiny outback Australian town called Cunnamulla, to red dirt and ghost gums, family fractures and belladonna poisoning. It became a tale of identity and escape, reminding us how sometimes, there is no place far enough to keep us safe. I have wondered since how the story would have turned out had I chosen Klingon, however.





 


 




  


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