The first time Mum promised to stop drinking, she poured the remaining few drops in her wine glass over the back railing, and handed the empty ‘Class of 1967, North Sydney Girls High’ glass to Carly. Once washed and dried, the glass stayed on the kitchen cupboard’s top shelf for three weeks and two days. That was a period Carly thought of as ‘the return of Real Mum’.
Real Mum’s pale green eyes were clear and her warm coffee breath woke Carly for school, sometimes with a song. Carly’s favourite was Save your kisses for me: she’d croak along to the bye bye baby bye bye part, her voice raspy with sleep. When Real Mum was in an especially good mood, she’d also dance while helping Mitch and Boo get ready for the bus, swinging her hips as she tossed sandwiches into lunchboxes, swept uniforms off floors, squeezed feet into shoes.
Real Mum had returned in time to see Carly play Nana in Stanford Primary’s production of Peter Pan. She’d sat next to Dad in the second row, bright-eyed and grinning, and took Carly and her best friend Peg out for a frothy hot chocolate the following afternoon. But then, without warning, on the night of Carly’s thirteenth birthday, she disappeared again.
It was the sixth of November, 1984, a Tuesday, the second worst day a birthday could fall on after a Monday. The day was a lot like any other, apart from the terrifying few minutes Carly stood in front of her class, her face on fire, while the rest of 6B warbled Happy Birthday—‘not the monkey version!’, Mr Jensen warned—and apart from a birthday tea of fish and chips, lemon squash and cake.
She couldn’t figure out what set Real Mum off. Had it had something to do with the banana cake Dad picked up from Coles? Mum had stabbed three candles into the sticky brown icing, saying she could only find eight and that three would more fittingly represent thirteen. Carly had seen a packet of twenty in the cupboard, so she knew her mum had lied. But she had no clue why.
Real Mum had given Carly gifts that were far too babyish for someone who’d soon be wearing a blazer and catching the Number 4 to Stanford High: a pastel pink t-shirt that said ‘I love Stanford’ and a pudgy plastic doll with dimples and her own wooden swing. Carly was careful not to seem ungrateful; she said ‘thank you’ and swung the doll back and forwards on the swing for as long as she could bear. So it can’t have been her fault that Real Mum fled out the back door, slamming it so violently Carly’s ears hurt and Buddha, their cat, fled down the hall.
Still stunned from the door slam, Carly crept from her bedroom to the kitchen, where she spied the ‘Class of 1967, North Sydney Girls High’ glass standing for all the world to see on the kitchen bench. Pale pink lipstick on the rim, a shallow pool of poison lurking inside.
She stomped into her bedroom, too upset to help Boo into his pyjamas or to give Dad a kiss goodnight. She pulled the quilt over her head and cried. Her party was just four days away and Real Mum was gone. She lay in bed for hours, sweating in her too-tight nightie and jumbling up her sticky sheets. Her eyes were heavy and sore, but sleep wouldn’t come. As she listened to Dad’s footsteps pacing up and down the hallway, muttering swear words to himself, she vowed to never ever trust Real Mum again.
Carly’s biggest ever birthday party and the first to take place outside the confinement of her family’s backyard was due to start at 9 am. Carly, Dad, Mitch and Boo crept out of the house while the monster lay snoring under a beach towel on the couch. Carly would rather die than risk the monster, its voice booming, breath sour and thick, cornering her friends, grilling them about whether or not they’d started their periods or had their first kiss.
The party was at Stanford Skateway, a red-bricked building that could be seen all the way from Stanford Primary, thanks to the enormous pair of white roller skates attached to its roof. They were even larger than the wooden cross on the nearby St Andrew’s Church, but the Minister’s petition to have them removed had been unsuccessful. People said he was getting a bigger cross shipped over from China, but that could’ve just been a rumour. Anyway, Carly had begged her parents for a ‘Super Skater Birthday Package’, which included skate hire for ten people, a separate ‘party zone’ area, birthday cake and lollies, and they’d shocked her by agreeing.
The only hitch had been deciding who to send the invites to, since Carly only really liked Peg. The Ross twins were tolerable when they were alone, but when together they spoke a weird twin language that earned them a combined nickname: ‘the aliens’. Carly invited the aliens anyway, as well as two of the popular girls: Amanda, who was Dad’s boss’s daughter, and her friend Kylie, both of whom Carly had seen gliding around Stanford Mall in matching roller skates, shiny white boots with two red stripes up their sides. She only invited Amanda to make Dad happy and Kylie because Amanda was never seen without her.
The three other girls, who Carly chose with the help of Eeny, meeny, miny, moe, all ticked ‘Yes. I’d love to come to your party!’ on their roller skate-shaped RSVP cards. Though they’d rarely ever talked to Carly, they were happy to put on friendly smiles and fake polite voices in return for two-and-a-half hours at Stanford Skateway.
It wasn’t until the Chicken Dance that things started going downhill. Dad blamed the two creaming sodas Mitch had downed one after the other for him being more manic than usual. Paired up with Boo, Mitch was doing the quack-quack quack-quack thing with his hands, when his skates slid in opposite directions, and he fell whack on his back. He started howling and the DJ stopped the music mid-da-da-da-da.
Carly looked down at her sobbing brother. Her first thought was: was this it? Was her biggest ever party over already? She pictured ambulance men storming the rink, her guests quietly removing their skates out of respect. She then felt ashamed of herself. How selfish to think such a thing, worry about something so small, when poor Mitch could’ve broken his back. Luckily though, Mitch likened himself to Superman; nothing kept him down for long. After Dad ran onto the rink to give his back a rub, Mitch sprang up, smiling through his tears, the music started again, and the competition resumed.
Carly and Peg were announced the Best Chicken Dancers, and although Carly knew it was only to make up for the near-death of her party, her heart thumped with pride. Even better, the prize was a raspberry Zooper Dooper ice block each, the sucking of which gave Carly a credible excuse to skip the speed skating session and avoid being exposed as the beginner she really was.
When the monster stumbled in, the speed skaters were gliding around the rink like gazelles, the screech of their skates competing with Footloose blaring from the speaker system. Carly was slurping her Zooper Dooper when the monster’s eyes, glazed with drink, found hers. She inhaled suddenly, shards of ice burning her throat. Spinning around, she spotted Dad near the DJ booth, helping Boo put his skates back on.
‘I thought your mum wasn’t—’ Peg started.
Carly heard a loud pop and twirled back around. The monster was now in the Party Zone, standing on a chair, reaching for a balloon. It wore Dad’s Apple t-shirt, a freebie that came with the family computer, and the old trackies Real Mum had worn to paint the boys’ bedroom. Carly imagined Amanda saying her mum was a hobo.
‘What’s she—’ Peg began again.
But Carly was already hobbling towards the monster. The grey carpet felt like quicksand under her skates. She waved at Dad, until he stood up and processed her panic. Time seemed to slow down as he moved towards her, his face folded in a frown. Carly prayed that Footloose would never end, that it would hold Amanda and Kylie in their skating trance, soaring around and around the rink forever.
‘Beatie!’ Dad whispered. ‘What are you doing?’
‘Party’s over, Jason.’ The monster hugged a red balloon. ‘This birthday will not be celebrated!’
‘Beatie.’ Dad punched the balloon from its arms and the balloon bounced off the trestle table. ‘Please. Stop. Now.’
‘I can’t let it go on!’ The monster elbowed Dad out of the way and lurched towards the table. The table was dressed in rainbow-coloured plastic, a pile of presents on one end, a square three-layered sponge cake with ‘Happy 13th Carly!’ swirled on top in hot pink frosting on the other.
‘Beatie!’ As Dad lunged at the monster, he trod on the ends of a clump of blue streamers, snapping them from the wooden beam above.
‘Oh, Carl.’ Peg rolled up to Carly. ‘Your mum hasn’t been this nuts for ages.’
Carly tried to open her mouth, but it was frozen shut. She’d never been so mortified in her life. Amanda and Kylie had slid to the side of the rink and were now leaning against the metal barrier, staring at Carly while catching their breath.
‘Okay, let’s go.’ Dad put his arms around the monster. ‘Back soon, Carly.’
‘Carly, you’re not allowed to be thirteen!’ The monster’s eyes were pinholes, cheeks mottled red, hair matted clumps.
‘Shhh,’ Dad hissed. ‘Enough!’
‘Promise me you’re not!’
‘I’m not,’ Carly whispered. Perhaps it wasn’t as silly as it sounded. Maybe she wasn’t thirteen anymore anyway; she was as good as dead. Two of the most popular girls from Stanford Primary were just five metres away, arms folded, and smirking like they were watching a particularly juicy episode of Sons and Daughters. How could her life not be over?
Carly viewed the rest of her party through watery eyes. She followed Peg around the rink a few times, then Dad arrived back at the skateway and called them in for cake. Just the sight of the cake with its Barbie doll pink icing made her queasy. As her guests sang Happy Birthday she knew the glee in their voices had less to do with her and more to do with the anticipation of relaying every last humiliating detail of her party at recess on Monday. Everyone except Peg.
Peg had been Carly’s best friend since she’d arrived at Stanford School in Year 3, a full set of Charlie’s Angels dolls stuffed inside her Adidas backpack. She showed her solidarity with Carly now by crumbling the piece of cake on her paper plate with her fingers and not putting any in her mouth.
That evening, Carly didn’t leave her bedroom until after she heard Dad tell Boo to turn his light off.
‘There you are.’ Dad stood in the doorway that separated the kitchen from the living room, soapy water dripping from the yellow washing-up gloves on his hands. ‘I saved you some tea. Tuna bake.’
Carly spotted the monster lying on the couch, dirty bare feet up on the armrest, and felt warm tears roll down her face. ‘I’m not hungry,’ she said.
‘Are you okay?’ Puddles of suds formed on the floorboards.
Before Carly could speak, the monster groaned. ‘I feel terrible.’ It slowly sat up, its hands wrapped around its head. ‘I’m so sorry.’
‘Are you?’ Carly felt her lips tremble.
‘Of course I am.’
‘You ruined everything.’ Carly’s voice wobbled.
‘It’s a difficult time for me. It’s hard to explain but I’m so sorry.’
‘You always say that! Then you do something else stupid!’ Carly felt heat rise up her neck to her face.
‘I know, Carly. I’m a bad mother.’
‘You always say that too. I’m sick of it!’
‘How about a drink of water?’ Dad offered. ‘For both of you?’
‘She can have mine. She’s obviously thirstier than me,’ Carly said.
‘Come on, Carly. Sit down. Mum has apologised.’
‘What else can I say, Carly?’ The monster whined.
‘Nothing.’ Carly flopped onto the beanbag.
‘It’ll never happen again.’ The monster stretched out its arms. They were thin, pale, and smeared with blue bruises.
‘I’ve heard it all before, Mum.’
‘I promise I’ll never drink alcohol again. Is that better?’
‘Only if you really mean it.’
‘Cross my heart, hope to die.’ The monster drew an invisible cross on its chest with its finger.
Dad placed two large glasses on the coffee table. When he smiled at Carly she wondered whether his eyes had sunken slightly into his face.
‘Thanks, Dad.’ She looked down at her Wonder Woman pyjama top, a birthday gift from Mitch and Boo.
‘Cheers, Jason.’ The monster picked up a glass and gulped noisily, letting water dribble down its chin. ‘Ahhhh fresh water. Delicious!’
‘Tastes like dirt,’ Carly mumbled.
‘Yum, Stanford’s finest dirt blend.’ The monster picked up the second glass and drank it too. ‘I feel healthy already!’
Carly allowed herself a tiny smile. She knew the monster was still a bit drunk, but it was hard to stay angry when glimpses of Real Mum were trying to break through.
By the time she went to bed, Carly felt better. They shared the last piece of birthday cake while she showed Mum her presents. Peg had given her the cassette tape of No Secrets by Carly Simon, who Carly was named after. Mum’s No Secrets record was so scratched it kept playing ‘so vain, so vain, so vain, so vain’ until someone nudged the needle along to the next song, so she was thrilled with Carly’s replacement. She blew her nose a couple of times and her eyes went all watery when she said, ‘Thirteen is unlucky, so unlucky’. But she did keep her promise. For twenty-nine days.
When she broke it, they were at Dad’s work Christmas barbecue and, that time, things ended up a million times worse than Carly could’ve ever have imagined.