The bleeding had begun to ease. Still, Jade found herself in the bathroom – the one that overlooked the creek that was really a stormwater drain but sometimes had ducks in it – rubbing her eyes in the dimly lit cubicle, just after 10 p.m., checking. Sitting on the toilet, she drew several squares from the roll. Then, she wound the paper around the crotch of her undies, creating a makeshift pad.
At first, she’d thought it a trick of nature on the eve of her twelfth birthday, and she told herself it had to be a one-off – a phantom period. No one talked about these things, about what it meant and what was lost. She had come to realise she could no longer sit on her mother’s knee without looking foolish; she could no longer crawl under the duvet in the middle of the night and call it cute. She couldn’t press her ear into her mother’s chest, just to listen. Kerri’s heartbeat – that very first sound – relaxed Jade; no matter how much it became an echo of a past they were torn from, all the people and the places they’d left. They hurtled forward, unprepared.
And yes, there were many moments when she felt she ought to tell her mother and stop stealing, stop sneaking into friends’ bathrooms when they were hanging out, stop stuffing pads or tampons inside her sports bra. Her mind kept filling with all the reasons why she shouldn’t tell, and now she was fourteen. She cared about Kerri more than anything. Jade was working a night shift with her mum, at Willow Grove Rest Home, for example. A bad daughter wouldn’t be helping her mother clean up after old people on a Friday night if she were truly bad.
Her fingers raw from rubbing them under the freezing water with waxy soap, Jade dried her hands on the blue-and-white pull-down towel. It creaked and hung loose, sagged against the yolk-coloured walls.
Jade called Kerri, she sounded listless already. These days her mother was often tired, taking naps in the afternoon, nursing headaches in the evenings. It was as if old age was catching, just from working with old people. Sometimes, Jade found it annoying. In the background of the call, she could make out the droning industrial dryers, she started for the laundry room.
‘Don’t worry,’ Jade said, ‘I’ll load them, just wait for me.’
Kerri had worked so many jobs that Jade had lost count. There had been almost the same number of schools for her to forget. Her mother was tough, no-nonsense, but happy to cuddle up with Jade on a rainy day, eat popcorn and watch TV in their pyjamas. Life could be hard, but they’d always known how to care for each other.
The third time they were living in the car – not now but when they’d left Whanganui – and had not yet found a place they could afford, or at least one that wasn’t next door to a rubbish tip or riddled with cockroaches, Kerri had worked evenings at the call centre for the Hamilton TAB. Jade slept in the backseat of the car while Kerri worked, parked outside the supermarket across the road. Wearing a beanie and tucked up in her sleeping bag, eyes closed to the blazing billboards advertising sports shoes and animal shelters. Her mum would bring her French fries from McDonald’s on her tea break, leave torn-out squares of paper with hugs and kisses scrawled in biro to let her know she was checking.
Whenever Jade woke up, finding those notes under her pillow or a small packet of cold fries on the front seat kept her from crying, kept her from worrying she was all alone in the dark.
The windows in the laundry were weeping, dripping with condensation from the soapy steam that the floor-to-ceiling driers pumped into the room. Jade ordered the trolleys of dirty laundry Kerri had collected up and then sorted the others that’d been dumped, left for the night shift.
Having opened the door of a huge washing machine, Jade thrust her arms into the laundry and, holding her breath, she tried not to smell: blood, piss and vomit. She pushed the sheets and the towels in as far as they’d go, then filled the small tray with three scoops of caustic white powder and turned the silver dial to heavy duty. First a loud click, then, rushing water. As the machine filled, water rose over discarded sheets. Bubbles making a frothy white foam. All the machines thrumming. All the laundry trolleys emptied.
Across the room, her mother followed the process in reverse. While Jade filled machines, Kerri emptied the driers. Between them, perched on two wooden trestle tables, were three small mountains of clean sheets, pillow cases and towels. Jade started to fold them when her mum called out over the burring machines, ‘We’re falling behind – start the floors.’
Kerri didn’t notice, but Jade saw it; she saw her mother, leant against the side of one machine, her hand tucked in under her right armpit. Jade didn’t ask. She wanted to be helpful. She took a mop and bucket from the cleaner’s cupboard. She got on with it.
The hallways were quiet, barely lit. When Jade first started nights at Willow Grove, she assumed everyone would be asleep. Then, she’d learnt that age made time irregular – moments that were once never-ending now came and went more quickly. For most residents at Willow Grove, the difference between night and day was determined by someone else.
Margie, one of Jade’s favourite residents, stepped out from her bedroom. She wore blue dress pants with a pale-pink cardigan and a white, silk shirt underneath. Wine-coloured lipstick. Grey hair combed, loosely plaited.
‘Good morning, Jade,’ Margie said, as if it were an ordinary greeting, as if it weren’t almost midnight. ‘Cup of tea?’ she said.
Jade nodded, set her mop in the bucket and balanced it against the door.
Margie had made her bed and arranged several floral-patterned cushions on an angle; she’d folded a brown faux-fur throw neatly at the other end. Jade hovered near the rickety tea table, nervous about sitting down, hoping her handmade pad was still in place. Margie cleared her throat loudly, and so Jade sat, careful not to cross her legs. She smiled at Margie, her chin jutting forward, nothing to hide.
Margie had prepared two teacups on saucers, a fine sugar bowl with a silver spoon between them. Residents weren’t supposed to have kettles in their rooms, but Margie pulled a small jug out from under her bed and then filled it using the tap in her ensuite. She plugged it into the wall and set it to boil on the rough linoleum floor beside them.
Margie and Jade had many late-night-early-morning talks. Margie could be unpredictable: Jade was often welcomed, but other times ignored or shooed away. Still, Margie was the closest to a grandparent Jade was ever going to get, and so even though her mother would be cross at the floors not getting done, Jade stayed.
Jade hated tea. It was sour and bitter. She avoided drinking it. Margie finished hers, and scrutinising Jade not drinking, said, ‘Did you bring it?’
From her pinafore pocket, Jade pulled a pearlescent pea-green vial of nail polish, swiped from the two-dollar shop, during what ought to have been her last hour at school. She’d almost forgotten, and then decided to wag, telling her teacher she needed the sick bay. It was true she was feeling unwell, from the pain in her stomach and lower back, but it was more than that. She couldn’t bear to break her promise, turn up to the night shift empty handed. Margie beamed, lipstick smeared on her false teeth. She held the glossy bottle close to the table lamp, twisting it, marvelling at how it shimmered.
‘You do realise it’s the middle of the night,’ said Jade.
‘Of course,’ Margie said, ‘but I was awake.’
Tea cups rinsed and stacked next to sepia-toned wedding photos and pictures of babies on sheepskin rugs, Margie washed her hands and dried them on the standard-issue towels that Kerri would be folding on her own in the laundry. Laying a handkerchief underneath, Jade pulled Margie’s hands closer, felt the roughness of her skin, all the ridges and the purple veins, skin spots and tags. Margie’s hands quivered as Jade carefully lifted her crooked fingers and one at a time, painted each nail.
‘Please keep quiet about this,’ said Jade.
‘I can’t wait to show Judy,’ said Margie.
The moon was in silver slices through the half-open blinds, and the rest of the night was black, without stars. Capfuls of ammonia bloomed in the bucket of lukewarm water. Jade twisted the handle so the mop-head flared like the woollen hair on the old thrift-store dolly someone gave Kerri for Jade when she was born. While Jade mopped, Kerri returned folded sheets and towels to stations and cupboards spread throughout the home for the day shift. Jade eased the dripping cotton strings of the mop through the wringer and dragged it from one side of the corridor to the other. Listened to the slapping sounds of water sucking dirt and dust from the floor. She replaced the smells of earth and people with antiseptic and pine.
The hallways were endless, lined with doors, a tessellating pattern for as far as could be seen, some of them shut, others ajar. The shoddy wheels on the cleaning bucket and the sound of the mop clack-clacking were too loud in the night, but it was impossible to scrub the floors quietly. As Jade made her way from one end to the other, she caught glimpses of residents asleep in their beds, their wispy-haired halos and lilac hues floating over their eyelids. They were their ghosts in waiting. For some, their breathing was indiscernible, their noses pointed to ceilings; while for others their mouths hung open, as if to taste the place before they were gone. Others, like Margie, were wide awake, sat up in surprise. Jade smiled and nodded to those who were up, asked if they’d like a drink or a book, and while some of them were grateful, happy for her to get them things, others looked down at their hands and turned their heads away.
Outside, as she emptied the grey mop water down the drain, Jade huffed warm breaths into the cold air, making clouds. Kerri tapped her shoulder from behind. Jade jumped. ‘Break,’ her mum whispered.
In the kitchen, at the far end of the long, steel bench, there were two meals in white ceramic bowls, plastic wrap stretched over each one and a post-it note with a smiley face from Gina who would have left by now. They heated their meals in the microwaves overhead and used the cork-lined trays to carry their lasagne and golden syrup puddings into the dining hall.
Eating in the hall reminded Jade of sparsely detailed stories Kerri had told her about her time at boarding school. That said, the Willow Grove dining hall wasn’t filled with oily stained-glass windows and framed with curtains dyed liturgical colours as Jade imagined of St Mary’s School for Girls. Her mother didn’t like to talk about it. She was ashamed of what she’d not become – of all the potential people told her she’d wasted – not that she said any of this to Jade, not with words. There were so many things that Kerri wanted Jade to do, but Jade didn’t want to be different – in her heart she wanted everything to stay the same. They sat down closest to the large flat-screen TV, the news playing on mute. Jade felt a wet patch on the inside of her left thigh. She’d forgotten to remake the pad after Margie’s. Her phone chimed.
‘Who’s that?’ Kerri asked.
Jade knew the at this time of night, while unspoken, was implied. She sunk her spoon into the glistening amber sponge and nodded, keeping her mouth full. The phone chimed, again.
‘You going to check it?’
Jade rested her spoon against the edge of the bowl. She lifted one leg slightly as she pulled the phone from her pocket. As she did, a warmth flooded between her legs, and while she’d learned it didn’t work that way, it felt as though she were bleeding onto the bench seat. She took a small breath, avoided eye contact with her mother.
Jade had wondered if Rachel and Pia were at the party, or if they’d bailed and watched a movie instead. They were Jade’s almost-friends, the only girls not worried about her sitting near them at lunchtimes. It wasn’t that Jade couldn’t sit on her own, it was more the other girls seemed to think it was odd to do so. Jade knew she was supposed to have friends, she was supposed to know how to make them and keep them, no matter how many times she and Kerri moved. It was tiresome, the façade of making nice to fit in, but sneaking into the bathroom with lunch only made her look bulimic, and besides, it smelled.
Her mother brought over two glasses of water and a coffee. Kerri looked at Jade, brows lifted in expectation.
‘They’re at Kaia’s,’ said Jade.
‘For a party?’ Kerri asked.
‘I think so.’
‘What do you mean, I think so?’
‘Yeah, I mean, sure … that’s where they are.’
‘Are you going to text back?’
‘I’ll leave it till morning.’
‘It’s the middle of the night and … they don’t know, Mum … they don’t know I’m at work.’
‘Why would I tell them? It’s not a real job.’
Kerri’s eyes widened.
‘I mean, it’s not a real job, for me.’
‘So now you’re better than me?’
‘That’s not what I meant—’
‘You’re better off here than at some party, fending of sweaty hands, alcohol—’
‘Mum, I know—’
‘I don’t think you do know.’
‘So, you just don’t want me to go to parties, not ever?’
‘I want you to have friends …’
The warmth between her legs was turning cold. Heart beating faster, Jade ran her fingers under the pinafore, into the denim folds of her crossed legs. There was a small damp patch.
‘Jade, I just want what’s best. I’m thinking of your future—’
Jade cut her mother off, ‘—Mum, I wasn’t invited.’
And Jade wanted to cry, because she’d heard it all before, about how Kerri had dropped out of school to have her, about how she had fought her father against the clutches of adoption, how he’d told her she’d wasted his time. He said Kerri had ruined her life, and then kicked her out. Kerri lived with her grandmother in Christchurch until she died, and then, Kerri did whatever it took to move as far away as possible – every move, they’d gone north. Now they’d reached Auckland, Jade hoped they’d stay. The moves that had once been an adventure had become unbearable, her mother’s searching for home was a hunger that could not be sated.
Jade licked the back of her spoon and put her phone in her pocket, text message unanswered. As soon as she stood up, she saw it. A smear of blood on the bench. There were napkins, used. She scrunched them up – Kerri’s and hers – and quickly wiped down the bench, folding the reddish-brown smudge in on itself and then into her pinafore pocket. As Jade walked away, she felt her mother’s eyes on her.
‘Wait,’ Kerri said.
‘What?’ Jade turned to face her.
‘I’m sorry, Jade.’
‘Me too, Mum.’
In the accessible toilet, closest to the parking lot, Jade lifted the pinafore directly over her head, checked it front and back. Then, she peeled off her jeans, and her undies too. The jeans were rust stained, and her handmade pad had shrivelled and shifted, now crumpled, brown and furry. She rubbed away at the stain on the inside of her thigh with wet toilet paper that kept falling to pieces. Standing in the cold, close to tears, she felt frustrated and then a pang of regret that she’d not been caught. Jade rinsed her undies and rolled them around under the hand dryer before pulling them on over her dimpled thighs.
In the entertainment room, all the chairs were scattered as if they’d been blown awry by a strong wind. Sometimes when Kerri scored an extra shift, Jade would help out in the room. Margie loved the flaking, brown leather recliner, close to the books on shelves she could not reach. At first, Jade had been wary about reading to the residents. It felt upside down. But she wasn’t reading fairy tales, she was reading newspapers, and novels like Wolf Hall, older classics, like Great Expectations. Jade knew her mother enjoyed this, and would loiter in the doorway to watch her reading. Jade tidied the room, folded newspapers, stacked magazines; returned books, puzzles and board games to shelves.
Jade and Kerri didn’t make up the beds at night, unless there was an accident. So, when Jade found her mother in Margie’s room, her first thoughts should have been of Margie’s welfare, and her words should have been of concern, instead she thought only that her mother had seen the green-fingered manicure, and she launched a high-pitched self-defence.
‘Mum, I can explain—’
Kerri raised her hand, palm flat against the invisible wall that had been built in the air between them. In trying to keep everything as it was, Jade had broken an unspoken promise that they would always be true to each other. Her mother was crying. She was leant over Margie’s empty bed, one hand over her mouth, fingers dripping with tears and snot and spit. She didn’t look at Jade. And all Jade could think of was how her mother was working harder than ever – extra shifts, taking care of her, the old neighbour down the road who needed gas bottles to keep warm and soup to stay alive. There were always these things to worry about. There was rent, power, water, school fees.
The sun was coming up, and barely orange hues were melting into a bruised sky that cut through the cracks in Margie’s blinds, half-opened. The grass glistened with dew. The earth was waking despite it all; the night was almost forgotten.
‘Mum, what’s wrong?’
‘There’s something I need to tell you.’
Jade flinched, stepped back, instinctively preparing herself for the words that would follow, the ones that always stole her breath, the ones she never wanted to hear, no matter how many times they were said. She did not want to move. She would not. She would stand her ground, say no this time. She would find somewhere else to stay; she would run away. Yet, as soon as she’d thought these things, she realised she’d do none of them. Jade would follow, wherever it was that Kerri would take her. But—
The room was empty.
‘Mum, where’s Margie?’
‘With the call nurse. She had a wee spill. There was a kettle. Some minor burns.’
Jade cried, there were so many lies.
‘Mum, I’m so sorry—’
‘Jade, you need to sit down.’
‘No, Mum. I need to tell you—’
And with that, Kerri reached out for Jade’s hand. But as she did, Kerri’s face crumpled, her mouth twisted and she let out a terrible sound, a half-howl. Her mother shrank back, pulled her arms in close, covering her chest. Her cheeks were flushed. Jade smelled the damp stench of her still-drying jeans. It had to be now. She had to tell her about the blood, the stealing, the nail polish, the kettle.
‘I have my period.’
‘I have breast cancer.’
Falling into each other, Kerri takes Jade into her arms and Jade takes Kerri into hers. Sitting there, embracing each other on Margie’s empty bed, Jade will tell her mother everything and her mother will listen. Jade will learn about breast cancer, about the difference between the stages, about chemotherapy and its side effects. They will speak with oncologists in hushed rooms with thick brown carpet. Jade will hold her mother’s hands as they wait to be seen in the hospital, and she will help her mother change into pale blue gowns with white trims. She will tie small bows all the way from the back of Kerri’s neck to her knees. Jade will smile into her mother’s eyes, and she will show Kerri she is stronger than she ever thought her baby could be. Jade will be the one to say, ‘We’ve got this.’ Jade will grow, and she will be much taller than Kerri soon. Jade had always wanted this, to make her mother proud. Kerri had always called her ‘My big, little girl.’
And in and out and through months of treatment, Jade will risk looking foolish and will sit carefully on Kerri’s knee while they’re watching TV at home on the weekends, she will help her mother bathe, hold her hair back while she’s puking, make the dinners and change the sheets during restless nights. Jade will take her mother’s head onto her lap and stroke her face, smooth the sides of her cheeks and run her fingers through Kerri’s thinning hair until she goes to sleep. Jade will press her head into her mother’s chest and listen to her heart beat. She will hear that heart, that strong determined heart, and she will whisper into her sleeping mother’s ear, of all the things they’ll do together, all the places and the people they’ll see when she’s better and well – and she will be.