The Pavlova Debacle
1. The first of the two dead uncles
The one of them, the road rose up to meet him. He was the one they called Jesus on account of his beard and his look of kindness. There was a phone call in the middle of the night to say that Uncle Jesus had hit the dust and wasn’t coming back.
Ever after that any phone call in the middle of the night meant curtains for someone and neither Caramel nor her mother went to answer it.
At that time Caramel’s mother was still dressing as a geisha girl. She would lacquer her black hair dead straight and plaster her face in foundation then stick talcum powder to it until it was white as a hotel towel. But when Uncle Jesus came over from Adelaide for one week in April, she was so happy that she forgot about the makeup. She had no time for it; all her time was taken up with laughing.
The week Uncle Jesus died, Caramel received a present from him in the post. She was allowed to open it even though it wasn’t Christmas for another eighteen sleeps. Inside the bubble wrap inside a brown envelope was one blue candle and one pair of novelty shoelaces.
The blue candle was short and round and it had a thick white line around its middle. Caramel made the line into a story because that was something she liked to do. Because the line was straight along the bottom but dipped up and down at the top like a radio wave, she made it into the road that Uncle Jesus was driving down when it rose up to meet him.
The shoelaces said I Love Australia with a heart to mean love. That’s because your heart is where you keep all your love and if someone breaks it you’re stuffed. These were the shoelaces that would end up implicating Caramel and her mother in the pavlova debacle, but at the time, all it seemed to prove to Caramel was that even though people might be dead they can still send you Christmas presents.
Uncle Jesus was run over by his own car. What happened was, he slowed down for a corner and was shunted by the car behind him which had been doing 140k right up his arse for hours. Like a human cannonball, he shot through the window, over the bonnet and on to the road. His driverless car then ran him over at full speed.
When he died he could never make Caramel’s mother laugh again and neither could anyone else.
2. Inside a mountain
Ted, who was not yet four, was sliding up and down the length of the kitchen in his socks. Poppa was meant to be looking after him but instead he was outside on the back porch smoking a roll-your-own and talking to his Jack Russell.
As Ted slid up and down, backwards and forwards and sideways over the wooden slats, he passed underneath the chippie and a pot filled with boiling water tipped on his head.
Ted’s death could have been avoided with a simple flick of the wrists. All Poppa had to do was turn the pot handles in towards the stove. But it didn’t cross his mind.
It was Sunday but Poppa wasn’t at church because he was a heathen. Caramel’s mother and her mother’s mother came home, freshly smug from confessing their sins, to find Ted’s blond head soaked, bloodied and boiled on their wooden kitchen floor.
Ted had lived all his life in a tiny house inside a tiny town inside a mountain. He never knew he would be Caramel’s uncle one day, let alone the first of Caramel’s two dead uncles. His death did not precipitate a phone call in the middle of the night; it was a daytime death.
3. Satchel from the skip
On the morning of her first day of school, Caramel stood in the driveway, fingers constricted in orange mittens, holding a satchel her mother had rescued from a skip. Where it used to say Rodney Sux there was now an angry white Jif streak.
Caramel’s mother tore out to the path, pink kimono flying, running late. She wrenched out the choke in the A40 and pumped the gas with her bare feet. She shouted at Caramel to come. But Caramel couldn’t. She stood paralysed on the wet grass. Her mother leapt out, picked Caramel up on her axis like an ironing board and loaded her into the back seat of the car.
Caramel wasn’t scared of going to school. She was scared of being left there by her mother. In the back seat, she put her mittens up to her face and cried into them, the wool drinking up the tears. Leave me there forever, she will. Leave me there forever. She will leave me.
The teacher introduced Caramel to her classmates and they stared up at her with big eyes. Caramel sat down in a circle of children who were sticking pictures in books. In a magazine she found a beautiful front-end loader the colour of the ocean and began to cut around its edges. When she reached for the gluepot, it tipped over, glue crashing like a wave over the table. The boy next to her stuck his woolly elbow in it. The teacher said to Caramel, put out your hand, then she smacked it with a ruler.
At 3pm the bell went and it was all over. Caramel stood outside the front gate by the sign that said Pick Up, waiting for her mother. Her digger inside her book inside her satchel from the skip. Hands in orange mittens. Remembering not to be nervous. Looking at the sky. The sun going down.
Her dead Uncle Jesus rose up to the Pick Up sign in his Holden Kingswood, rolled down the window and asked her if she was hungry. She was. She got into the passenger seat and they shared a golden syrup sandwich. Then he was gone.
4. The maggot mountain where Adelaide used to be
Caramel had never been to Adelaide and she did not intend to. It was a lazy, fat, sweaty, infested city. Rotten dogs prowled the streets looking for food and sex. There were giant maggot mountains, from which the festering limbs and waxy ears of children occasionally appeared, accompanied by coarse Australian yelps.
Along the coast of South Australia, the whores, pimps and customers pressed each other’s flesh. Gangs of middle-aged white men in G-strings roamed its beaches searching out debauchery. Pink neon lights, twisted to form tits, arses and penises, emitted a lurid glow from the shop windows. In one particularly wealthy suburb of Adelaide, the ground was coated with a sickly, sticky dark brown substance that smelled like decaffeinated espresso.
These were the stories her mother told her.
Once, back in the Happier Times, Uncle Jesus had sent them a postcard. It was black, with a banner at the bottom that read: Nightlife in Adelaide. Caramel had stared into the blackness for a long time but could make no sense of it. Now, that was what Adelaide meant to her: a black hole where no humanity could exist.
5. The word that meant both of us
In the Happier Times there had been a single name for us. Australasia. It acknowledged our physical proximity, our similarity, our history of huddling together in trenches on behalf of another nation many, many miles across the sea. It was the name only we knew yet we had refused to identify ourselves by it. We wanted to be individuals.
That name no longer exists. It has been expunged just as the double s has been removed from German typewriters.
In the Happier Times, in pubs and dairies, Australians could walk in and mangle their vowel sounds in broad daylight without fear of being attacked. We would laugh at the way they said thongs for jandals and eski for chilly bin. Now we find those words repulsive. We find them debauched, in the same way that Australia itself has become nothing more than a skanky street whore.
As Caramel was being born, a group of delegates was meeting on the neutral ground of Norfolk Island for peace talks. They held discussions for three days. At the conclusion it was decided that there was no possibility for forgiveness. Put simply, we had become sick to death of each other and could no longer stand each other’s guts. It was decided we needed some space.
In summertime, Caramel stood her smurfs in a line on the windowsill and faced them towards the road where the A40 was parked. Smurfette next to Papa next to Brainy next to Normal. Give that Normal one a wide berth, Uncle Jesus had said.
Uncle Jesus had not believed in God, but he had believed in the right to keep his cards close to his chest. To this end, when he was alive, neither Caramel nor her mother had ever known where he was, what he was doing, why he was doing it and with whom he was doing it. They had felt it wasn’t their place to ask.
Somehow, it was this that had made Uncle Jesus irresistible. They thought of him as a giant fruitcake from which they were infrequently offered delectable, thin slices. Whenever a silence fell on them, they would stare out the window towards the main road, waiting for him to come back.
At the swimming pool, Caramel swam up and down the lane, saying please come Uncle Jesus please. Come Uncle Jesus please come. But when she got home, he wasn’t there. Uncle Jesus’ absence was charismatic, just like his presence.
7. In remembrance of Uncle Ted
Uncle Ted was a dribbler. Dribble was Ted’s salient feature: the dribble slick on his chin and the long blob of dribble darkening his shirtfront.
Now, of course, Ted is characterised less by his dribble than by his death, as if that was the sum of his achievements. But listen to this. Ted’s imagination, reasoning, motor coordination, language skills and social adeptness were already complex and sinuous. For example, he knew several words containing multiple syllables. He could brush his teeth. He could whistle, though only by blowing the wind inwards. He had an appreciation for all jokes to do with excretion. He loved animals and was usually sweet to his sister. He had an abstract understanding of how electricity worked.
Poppa was a heathen, but never more so than when he participated in bringing about Ted’s death. It chilled Caramel’s mother and her mother’s mother that Poppa seemed to have so little remorse. What they didn’t realise was that this very inability to feel guilt was what helped Poppa to live a fulfilling and long life.
8. The most terrible sin
Caramel’s mother was smart but she was a kid, and she knew better than most that kids shouldn’t have kids when they are still kids themselves. She felt bad that her wisdom of the world was so limited. She had no answers for Caramel’s questions. She didn’t know how the weather worked. She didn’t know the names for stars. She was too young even to sit a driving test.
That’s why, on the morning of Caramel’s first day of school, Caramel’s mother decided she would leave her there forever. She was tired and could have used some sleep. She was tired of looking at Caramel’s face.
But she couldn’t go through with it. It was late by the time she arrived at the Pick Up sign. Caramel was asleep on the ground, humming ‘I Can Sing A Rainbow’.
9. Civil unrest across the Tasman
Even in the Happier Times, a competitive bitchiness continually threatened to undermine our relationship. We offended each other easily. And now, everything is rooted and we can’t go back to the way things were.
This is what happened: one morning in Adelaide, a Maori man called Jeff had been reading the paper when he saw a recipe for pavlova. The headline was ‘Pav – The Good Old Aussie Fave’.
Jeff had had a shit week and something about that headline just tipped him right over the edge. He became absolutely ropable. He worked himself into such a state that he put pen to paper and wrote a letter to the editor.
Australia, he wrote. What the fuck is your problem? What’s ours is ours and that includes the pavlova. It is our dessert and you cannot have it. You cannot take Split Enz off us. You cannot take Sam Neill. They are ours. So fuck off.
Jeff felt a lot better when he’d sent off the letter and vindicated when it was published. But he did not feel so great later on that month when a mob came to his house and set it on fire with a torch, killing him.
Jeff was well connected to a network of local peacekeepers. They didn’t know who’d set his house on fire but they wanted to teach whoever it was a lesson, so they kick-started a series of revenge attacks.
Soon the whole city was on fire.
Caramel popped out of an army of frogs. She was a lily. She prepared for her solo.
Born free/As free as the wind blows/As free and the grass grows/Born free to follow your heart.
Caramel’s mother sat in the front row in a stiff yellow silk frock, face sticky white. She stared blankly at the stage, screwing the programme to shreds in her hands.
Caramel’s mother thought about Uncle Jesus’ dark brown eyes. Chocolate. The smooth brown skin. The rubbery contortions he could make with his face. The dimples either side of his mouth. She looked up at the stage and saw the very same chocolate brown eyes of her daughter, the very same smooth olive skin and the very same twin dimples.
In the car on the way home, Caramel wore a cardie over her lilypad. Caramel’s mother moved the steering wheel with one hand and stroked Caramel’s hair with the other.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Julie Hill is a journalist for the TV arts shows Frontseat and a music producer for National Radio. She also enjoys playing records. Her play Stories Told To Me By Girls is touring to a theatre near you this summer.