Piss and Vinegar
You sit with a plastic beaker of tea in front of you. When you first sat down, the steam rose in wispy trails from the surface. Now the skin on top breaks in milky cracks as the caravan sways to the movement of your friends’ backsides over the thin bench seat squabs.
– I don’t understand, you say.
Except you do. The question isn’t why is he gone, it’s why did he take so long? It’s why hadn’t he yet? You sit with your friends, and they nod every time you pause for breath. Sometimes when you look at them, all you see are a pack of nodding dogs, the kind that people put in the rear windows of their sedans.
– All things happen for a reason.
– You’re better off without him.
You’ve told them that you’d argued and he’d left, but everyone in the caravan knows the real reason. They also think that you will be better off now he’s gone. The whole thing stings.
– I don’t understand, you repeat.
Someone passes the plate of biscuits and you pick up a Shrewsbury. The jam is a paste and sticks in your teeth. You take a gulp of tea, tepid and fatty, to wash the crumbs from your tongue.
He left yesterday. Maybe it was building this house, you think. The kids are sick of it, so are you. You’d leave if you could. Pack your overnight bag, like he did, his bloody $3 toothbrush sticking out the side pocket, as if he couldn’t just buy another. Living like gypsies while you all wait for the roof to go on, the electrics to be ready, the flooring to be laid. All living on top of each other, no wonder he was never home. You wouldn’t have been either, except you had no choice. Not really. Someone had to be here with the kids.
You put your face in your hands. You know what reaction you’ll garner. There’s a collective letting of breath, your spectators all lean forward, hands and arms circle around your back, resting in those rolls that form down your side when you bend in the middle. You want to cry, but there’s nothing there. You want the sympathy, but you know you’ve just turned into a spectator sport, a spectacle.
Miranda stands up. She’s at the edge of the bench, and doesn’t have to squeeze past anyone to get out. You sniff. Rub a finger under your eye. As though you were crying. Which you aren’t. Which you’d like to be, but aren’t. You’re going through the motions in the hope it’ll trigger some reaction that you’re supposed to have, rather than the ones you’re having. The fantasies where you leave too. The ones where it’s just you, and some music that’s playing far too loud, in the front of the station wagon. You could have a cigarette in one hand, and red lipstick. Heels on the back seat. A hitchhiker.
Miranda looks at her phone.
– It’s five, she says.
You look at her. You say nothing.
The women round the table have all drawn back into themselves. This is a criticism of them all; all of them have kids playing in the grass out in the grassy shadows of the building site.
– What are you going to feed them, Miranda says.
You just stare at her. Do you have to spell it out? Let her find something for the kids. Eggs. Stale bread toasted so it doesn’t seem quite so old. Beans from a dented tin at the back of the cupboard.
– There’s stuff in the freezer, you say.
There is. Every one of these women have bought over a lasagne, a sausage casserole, something in a neat little tinfoil pans, a cardboard lid folded over crisp breadcrumbed tops; or something else in a chipped ceramic dish splattered with bolognese at the edges, a name and number written, as an afterthought, on the bottom while the pan was held up, already full. Each woman begins to stand up, bent around the fold down table, the lip forcing their thighs on an angle, their heads ducked to miss the cabinets that run overhead.
– I’ll call them in, someone says.
The caravan rocks. The collective weight shifts and they rattle down the steps and out into the gloom. Miranda finds a saucepan from somewhere. She rattles it over the gas hobs. They aren’t lit, and you’re pretty sure you used all the matches lighting cigarette after cigarette last night.
There’s noise outside. Forces are being marshalled. Mothers are claiming their children, cramming grass-stained bodies and dirty feet into car seats. It’s just you and Miranda in the caravan now, and she’s still holding that ridiculous saucepan, still cold, still empty. It’s like a metaphor, and instead of the tears you were hoping for, there is laughter rising up your gullet.
You want to hit her. You can see it in her eyes, the knowledge that she’ll go home to her husband …Brian… that she’ll go home to him, and tell him about you, and he’ll nod his head, and say that he ‘never liked that fella’, or that he isn’t surprised, he ‘would never have married her in the first place, too bloody full of piss and vinegar’.
Jazz sticks her head in the door, and you have somewhere else to rest your eyes, something to distract you from Miranda and the saucepan.
– Found the girls, but not sure where Jimmy is, Jazz says.
You want to laugh again. Who? … Your son. One of the kids you haven’t thought much about for the last day, unless someone else asks what they should feed them.
You get up. It’s an effort. Like it’s an effort not to push Miranda’s head forward so her forehead collides with the cabinet doors. Like it’s an effort not to slam the flimsy door on Jazz’s face.
You step across the caravan’s threshold. The light is dying, but still faintly yellow and grey and blue around the edges. Black shadows of children still run in the grass, and there are squeals and calls as their mothers catch up with them.
Milling around the steps, Katie and Suze stand with Jazz.
– Where’s your brother, you say.
Katie looks back at you. She shrugs. Suze looks at her feet.
– Where is he, you say again.
The paddocks are blackening, pines silhouetted against the horizon and, in the gully, the duck pond glints, the weed and murk hidden under the dark surface.
There is a wail, and a small child cries. The cars are pulling out, the headlights sweeping across the shingle driveway, heading down the hill as the women leave, heading away to make sure dinner hits the table at six for whichever man walks through the door.
Behind you, Miranda says,
– Look, I’m going to have go too.
You turn. Her shoulders lift.
– You know what he’s like, she says.
When you turn back to the girls to talk, you can feel your voice change. It gets higher and louder. You’ve got the sense that you might laugh creeping in again.
– Where is he, you demand. Where is he, where is he, where.
The girls stand. They don’t say anything. You knew this was coming, ever since he was born with that squinty face, that lower lip that stuck out like a window sill. You loved him, but he was such hard work. From the start. He cried. He cried and cried, and you were the only one who could deal with it. You were the only one there to deal with it.
– He’ll be on the site.
You know how he likes to climb the framework. It’s easier once you’ve thought that and spoken it out loud. You might have run out of matches, but you can’t smoke batteries, and the torch is going strong. Has to, to get the kids to the toilet in the middle of the night.
You call his name. The grass spits up dew and inside your canvas sneakers, your socks grow wet. You call again, his name rough in your voice, louder than you thought. More desperate than you thought.
The torch light skids over the frames of the house. At the ends, the two gable frames stand pointing straight up like arrows, directing you to the ever darkening sky. The first stars are out, and somewhere in the back of your mind, you notice them, and then wish that you hadn’t.
Jazz is behind you, panting.
– Miranda’s gone, she says.
– He wouldn’t have gone down to the pond, would he, she says.
You turn to look at her, but there’s nothing to see, unless you swing the torch to her face like you’re interrogating her.
– No, you say. He’s not an idiot. He’s six.
– I haven’t seen him this afternoon, Jazz says.
– What do you mean, you say.
– He hasn’t been around. I can’t remember seeing him when we gave the kids afternoon tea.
You swing the torch around now. Down the hill. You walk together down to the pond. The silty mud is as black as the water, unbroken and still. When you shine the torch around the banks, there are no foot prints, no marks to show anyone has been here other than thirsty animals. Jazz shrugs.
– Maybe the barn, she says.
Back at the top of the hill, there is shouting. The girls’ voices rise and fall, but the words are lost as the two voices clash and override each other. You begin to run, jog, up the hill, Jazz close behind you, her gumboots audibly slapping around her calves. The ground is rough, and rabbit holes appear in the torch’s beam seconds before you step in them.
The barn is empty, the stacked hay bales devoid of sleeping boys, but the caravan has become a beacon, a short squat lighthouse, and outside it, the girls fight like cats.
– It’s mine, Katie screams.
– But I want a turn, Suze cries back.
– Get your own.
– I don’t know where it is.
And the frustration of it all boils in your body.
– For fuck’s sake, you two, you say.
– Calm down, Jazz says, they’re just kids.
– Where’s the other one, you say to the girls.
– Shall I call someone, Jazz says. Who should I call. Should I call Him.
She’s holding a cell phone that casts green light up and under her chin. You ignore her.
– You’ve got two of those, where’s the other, you say. Christ, I’ve got other things to worry about right now. It’s like you can’t do anything for yourselves. Have you even checked under the beds.
The girls shrug, and you fling open the door of the caravan. You lift up the squabs of the bench seat and pull aside the ply lids to get at the storage underneath. There, tucked up in Katie’s duvet, he lies, curled to the side like a cat. His hair fans out, static against a synthetic sleeping bag cover. His black lashes curve about his flushed cheeks. He has been there all afternoon.
You stand up and slam the torch into the kitchenette. You want to scream, shout, swear, but Katie and Suze are looking up at you, eyes stretched, and he is still asleep.
– Well, says Jazz. Good thing we found him before you all went to bed. She laughs.
Something guttural comes out of you. Some language-less noise. You turn out of the caravan, taking the two steps in a leap. You move into the darkness, through the electric fences and muddy cow lanes.
Out in the field, you feel freer. There is no audience here. You can breathe and the cold air catches and snags down your throat, and you think maybe you’ll actually be able to cry now. The lights of the house across the valley glow warmly in the dark, grey smoke rising against the black hills and you sit in the grass, full of piss and vinegar, as the cold seeps into your buttocks.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Laura Borrowdale is a Christchurch writer and teacher, and the editor of Aotearotica. Her work has previously appeared in Sport, takahē, Catalyst and Bravado.