Raglan’s Soundsplash festival is this weekend…
From their slip of a beach facing out to Coromandel they watched the sudden corrosion of the whole sky: first a quick watercolour wash in dandelion yellow, then a scumbling and darkening over – like cloudy unhealthy urine –, which stayed. Ruth texted both children but only Mary replied: “Yup” she could see it too. But where was Thomas? And could he see it? Could he see their sky?, she asked herself stupidly. Was he alarmed or gorgeously unaware? What if it was the end of the world and she would never see or touch him again: their first-born in Whakatāne, or wherever the festival trail had taken him.
Last night Ruth had squandered her data trawling through his Instagram, following the followers, finding out where and what and who with. Greedily imagining their horny hungover languor, their teenage running around and then their leisure. His New Year’s Resolution had been to get a girlfriend, so she could only imagine.
But they’re so sensible now, compared to how we were, Ruth knew—smugly, enviously and dismissively in equal measures. Because sometimes their restraint irritated her, their risk averseness, and their self-care. Yawning easily, needing “duvet-days”, and their eyes glazing over in the face of demands. And definitely less hell-bent on digging down into the tunnels of oblivion; instead keen to stay afloat in a beautifully curated tableau of emblazoned t.shirts and ironic hats they made themselves, sharing plates – “platters” even! – and taking it easy, playing long complicated board games and making music. They’re much cooler than us, Ruth corrected herself, less wasted. So there wasn’t much to find: beaches and festivals, baches and tents and the usual suspects. The same kids he’d been with since primary school, some of them since kindy, with a few more absorbed into their beautiful orbit each year. Great kids. Really gorgeous kids.
“What are you up to?” Ryan recognised the furtive frown, her eyes straining; maybe even sensed the tragic doggedness with which she trawled, and wanted her in bed of course, not investigating the children, not now when they had a few nights to themselves. He had packed sex toys and was looking forward to making noise, he had thought of new ways to please her.
But Ruth was digging deep, fully committed to a state of loss and longing. This sort of night-time trawling was just the more obvious part of it. During the day, everything made her cry. Like this morning on the radio: a sentimental poem read out by a food writer about holding on to your little one “just a little longer”. She’d felt devastated, (then embarrassed). Even just buying a book for a colleague who’d had a new baby.
“We loved this book in our family,” she’d said a little too desperately to the woman wrapping Goodnight Moon in shiny paper. “I haven’t held a new baby for a while, so I’m a bit nervous.”
“It will come back to you. It’s like riding a bike. You’ll probably get a bit clucky!”
Oh yes she would! Ruth almost cried right then and there. Was she clucky or grieving? It had gone so fast and she was already living in a state of regret, before the second one was even close to leaving.
When they got home, Ruth went straight to Thomas’ room and stood there inhaling everything. Her son’s room. Everything was still there: every stone he had painted, card he had received, book, lego model, football cap and scarf, gimmicky key ring. She stared at the palimpsest that was his 18 years of collecting and layering and wanted to capture it, formaldehyde the whole room like a Damien Hirst heifer and calf or encapsulate it like the massive pill cabinets. But then what? She took a photo, which was blurry on her old phone in the late light, an already sentimental sepia toned cabinet of curiosity and childish wonder.
The next day she still hadn’t heard from him. It wasn’t that she was worried exactly – she’d not really ever worried about his personal safety in the way she worried about the girl – just that it was harder to make sense of the strangeness of this burnt-out sky with her family not intact, her eldest elsewhere. The news told them about the fires in Australia and slammed them with pictures of charred corpses: animals incinerated mid-flight; the blackened highways strewn with twisted bodies. Horrific.
“Let’s turn it off”, she said that night and donated more money to the Koala Fund. She refocused her worry on Mary who was still in front of her.
About Mary she worried in a conventional way. Last holidays, when Mary’s friend Lola’s mum told Ruth proudly that the kids would be sleeping in a tent, Ruth’s gut lurched. Lola had an older brother and he had friends. Lots of boys – 15, 16 maybe even 17-year-old boys, sleeping in a tent near Mary, circling the girls.
“You don’t know what it’s like being a young girl like that,” Ruth accused Ryan, as if it was his fault. Well, it was his fault he didn’t seem to know about these things. “That’s when stuff happens. It’s always a friend’s older brother’s friend. You’re very vulnerable as a girl.” He was so fucking reasonable, so naïve. Or, she thought in her mean moods, disengaged.
“But do you really think Lola’s parents would put their own daughter at risk?”
“The parents haven’t got a clue. They never do!” She was upset. “They don’t know what the boys are like, what they’re capable of. They see them as their kids. But trust me: everything that happens happens in just that sort of situation. And it could be a family in Epsom! It doesn’t have to be the ghetto. Girls just aren’t safe.” She ran out of steam, felt defeated, knew she was being ridiculous; and Mary hadn’t even gone yet.
Then Ryan said,
“Girls were safe around me at that age.”
But really, what would he know?
She’d let Mary go though and as far as she knew nothing happened.
“Did you hang out with Lola’s brother much,” she asked Mary when they got back.
“No! Why would we?” Fair enough.
At that age Ruth and her friends were always sniffing around the boys. What else was there to do? Back then the boys were still the centre of gravity, the axis on which it all hung: the gatherings, the parties, the albums to listen to and films to watch. Had the Bechdel test even been invented? When they did talk about things other than boys it was about other girls, and not very nicely. Or what to wear and do to get to the boys. Tragic really. No wonder they got poked and pashed and obliterated. Or was thinking that part of what they now called “Rape Culture”? Ruth didn’t know but she did know that by comparison the kids these days had their shit together.
One night Ruth was back in Tom’s room. They still hadn’t heard from him and she’d had a few wines. It had all gone so fast, she kept thinking, panicking, looking to blame someone, as if someone should have warned her. Of course they had, including her own Irish grandmother-in-law. Noelle had had five under five and been left to raise them in Papatoetoe without a husband or a washing machine for the bulk of it. If she got the wash on the line by ten, Noelle had liked to say, all would be well. But it hadn’t really, it hadn’t really been well; that much you could tell from the carnage in her grim wake. She hadn’t enjoyed her children and had kept a dark, cold house of lack. And she ate raw onions. This was the detail that Ruth returned to when trying to make sense of the violence and inarticulation that coursed through the family: those raw onions the only food in the corner of that big old kitchen and the never being allowed to speak at the dinner table. But perversely Noelle had liked Ruth and seen that this foreign girl loved her babies, so she’d done her the favour of telling her that while the days are long, life with young children goes by suprisingly fast. And it had.
Ruth lay on the little rank bed and inhaled deeply. That teenage boy smell: sour, damp, salty. She traced her finger through the sticky film on the bedside table, picked up a book she’d bought him (and he’d most likely never read), touched an empty can of Mountain Dew, a cream canister. Was she really going to cry again? It felt as if he had died but really he was living the dream: moving from one festival to another, one beach to another, one warm young body to another.
“Babe, come to bed.” But she didn’t want to. She wanted to curl up on her son’s little bed and weep her deep wet longing. She longed for something even before the children – some sort of pre-verbal wilderness – and had to stop herself from burying her face in the sour old sheets to deeply smell them, like she did her own discharge, taste her own blood—lately gone dark and sticky. The sign of stopping, she’d read. No longer that fresh bright and promising spring. Rusting over.
Had she even made dinner? She couldn’t remember, no longer cared. The daughter was her father’s and so self-contained, which meant it was easy to parent her lazily. But the son was from her stock: high maintenance, tricky and demanding. Nothing good enough and set to sabotage the dreamiest set-up, just to get the energy moving, just to get things pinging. Why go with the flow when you can fuck it up a bit? But now that he had stopped coming home, she missed it all. The messy energy of fighting and the scrabbling to rearrange the family dynamic into something cohesive had created texture and led to adventuring that they no longer needed so no longer made. So it had become a bit boring without him. The loud absence of his contrariness – his what she had always found to be such a difficult nature – mocked her now. She flinched at the loop in her head of night-time screaming, What’s wrong with you? You ruin everything! Why can’t you meet us halfway? And she couldn’t forget that there had been violence. Twisting his ear and hitting him. She’d later lie in bed and apply the same force to her own ear, her own head. He had always tapped something raw in her, something she had never known until she’d first seen that baby banging his head over and over again against the wooden kitchen floor.
“That’s the sign of a very intense personality”, the Plunket nurse had said. No kidding.
Why hadn’t she just given him what he’d wanted – those shoes, that game, the more expensive version? There was no denying she’d enjoyed her power in the withholding, just as she’d experienced her own father’s cruel relish, his hands behind his back and a smirk on his tall face.
Yes, she had to admit that she’d liked that high old feeling passed down to her.
And now still: “No!”, she wasn’t coming to bed, “No!”, she hadn’t made dinner, “No!”, she didn’t know what she wanted.
“Mum, why are you in Tom’s bed? That’s gross!” Mary. Standing in the yellow funnel. She did look grossed out, and a little worried. The girl glanced at the empty wine glass by the Mountain Dew and back at her mother, curled up on top of the lumpy duvet, holding what looked like a big silver knucklebone, pretending to smile sleepily.
“Mmmmm, I must have fallen asleep.”
Ruth slept in Tom’s bed until he came home from his summer holiday. She never changed the sheets and wouldn’t talk to Ryan about it. She certainly didn’t tell him that she’d pinned a little picture of herself laughing on his wall above his desk and then written a tiny message in one of his empty journals: Sorry for being a bitch. I love you so much. Also she’d taken one of Tom’s dirty t-shirts and hidden it in the stationary box under her side of the bed.
His homecoming was the familiar disappointment because of course he didn’t indulge her need to live vicariously by fleshing out the details of his summer as if in some jaunty movie breakfast scene, and instead collapsed into the exhausted, foul-tempered and laconic boy of his age. When she looked at him asleep in that bed, his features resting sweetly, his youth writ large, she saw her own brother in the top bunk and her whole body salted through with longing for that first effortless tumbling companionship of childhood.
Back in her own bed Ruth woke like clockwork at 3:56 am, covered in an oily copper-smelling film of sweat, as if her whole body had been dipped in something, or she’d been flayed. She stretched open her jaw and then slowly bit at the black room, noticing the familiar pattern of small cracks beneath her ears, then rubbed a fistful of sheet at the greasy pool on her sternum. The list was already assembling in her head, gathering force and rallying for the march to dawn—there would be no return to sleep. It had been a long time since she had reason to get up and check on Thomas and Mary, so all there was to do now was rehearse strident beginnings of emails, small speeches to colleagues and friends, things to address with Ryan. It could not matter that everything can change in a matter of seconds (or years that felt like seconds), that the whole sky can turn apocalyptic in the time you emerged from a swim at the beach and that your children will grow up and leave. Ruth must focus on the things to get on with and so lay alert in the dark, enthralled to the list items marching urgently through it.
“Rust” marks the first short story at ReadingRoom for 2023. The series will run every Saturday; the next few weeks will include stories by Catherine Chidgey, John Summers, Airana Ngarewa, Emma Sidnam and Laura Jean McKay.