On Saturday nights when Dad has talked Mum into going down for a drink, Jenny and Paul come around to look after us. We watch Gladiators and then Baywatch, up until Lotto starts, and then Anna has to go to bed. Now I’m eight, I’m allowed to stay up after Lotto and watch Baywatch right to the end. Even though Jenny has been going out with Paul for a while, Anna never speaks when he’s around and when we’re in bed she cries because she wants Mum. I know I should tell her to get in with me but I don’t because of all the flakes of skin she’ll leave behind. Instead I push back my duvet, and quietly cross the carpeted floor. Then I perch on the edge of her bed, rub my palm over her forehead, and watch as flecks of blood from her arm stain the sheet.
Jenny is our aunty but she’s much younger than Mum so we call her by her first name. She wears necklaces of threaded beads and long trailing earrings, and sometimes when she comes around she brings her tarot cards and reads the future. The last time she was here I drew the High Priestess card and she told me to listen carefully to my intuition.
‘You and I are highly intuitive people, Natalie,’ she said.
‘What about Anna?’ I asked.
‘Anna’s more like your mother.’
Mum’s not so sure about Paul because of him being Lance Tyler’s younger brother.
‘You can’t choose the family you’re born into,’ Dad says. ‘And you can’t pin all the stuff that Lance does on him.’
‘I know that,’ Mum says.
‘If you’re worried about him being around the kids then tell Jenny not to bring him when she’s babysitting.’
‘I didn’t say I was worried,’ Mum says. ‘I didn’t say that, did I?’
A few months ago Paul came whitebaiting with me and Dad out to Dad’s possy on Nine Mile Road. We left early in the morning when it was still dark and drove for a long time, and then we walked through a farm with only Dad’s headtorch to light the way. At the start of each season Dad has to get special permission from the farmer to cross his land, and he drops in a pound of whitebait every couple of weeks to say thank you. When we got to the river, Dad unwound the layers of white material from the frame of the net and fitted the different parts of the pole together. I helped Paul ease the thin metal spotters into the water, and then we all squatted on the river bank and waited. We weren’t allowed to talk much because it might scare the fish, so I drank Milo from the thermos that Mum made for me while I watched for whitebait swimming over the spotters and tried not to blink my eyes as the sky slowly brightened around us. I listened to the birds waking up and the water slapping against the riverbank, and didn’t want to be anywhere else but there. And then all of a sudden the whitebait started to run. We filled the bucket up completely and Dad took off one of his gumboots and filled that up as well.
‘A few more days like today and Christmas will be paid for,’ Dad said as he separated the catch into Ziplock plastic bags to sell to his regulars around town.
That night Mum cooked up patties that we ate with white bread and lots of butter, and when I lay in bed and closed my eyes, all I could see were tiny white fish with sharp black eyes slipping and sliding under my eyelids.
Tonight Jenny and Paul arrive on Paul’s motorbike and when they walk in Jenny has her hand in the back pocket of Paul’s black jeans. Dad slaps Paul on the back and tells him to help himself to a beer from the back fridge.
‘In fact, let’s both get one,’ he says.
After they’ve gone, Jenny tells Mum in a very quiet voice that Paul has been drinking a hell of a lot lately and she’d appreciate it if Dad didn’t encourage him.
‘You could have phoned and told me that earlier,’ Mum says.
‘Yeah,’ Jenny says. ‘I probably should have.’ And then she says, ‘He lost his job.’
‘What?’ Mum says. ‘When?’
‘A few weeks ago. He said it was because he was late to work,’ Jenny says. ‘And he was on a final warning.’
Mum sighs. ‘What’s he doing for money?’
‘This and that,’ Jenny says.
Paul has left his boots along with the helmets at the back door. When he sits on the sofa, I ask him to take off his socks so I can see the tattoo of the spider on the side of his foot. He has tattoos all over him. On one arm, there’s a knife with an eye on the blade, and on the other, a rose with Linda written across the stem in swirling black letters and 27.09.52–14.04.83 printed underneath in the same slanted writing. Linda was the name of Paul’s mother and she died when Paul was ten. Now he’s twenty and says his goal is for his arms to be more ink than skin.
‘Nothing like having a bit of ambition,’ Mum says very quietly. I don’t think Paul hears but she doesn’t say it again.
My favourite of his tattoos is the spider on his foot because when he walks it looks like a real spider scuttling across the floor.
‘It’s good to see you again,’ he says as he leans back on the sofa. And then he looks over at Anna and says. ‘Both of you.’
Neither Anna nor I are fooled. We both know he likes me the best. When he asks me to go out to the back fridge to get him another beer, I put on his leather jacket for the trip and then, as I’m walking back, I pretend to drink from the bottle even though the cap is still on, and he laughs and says, ‘You’re a bloody hard case, Natalie.’
Anna’s having a bad time of it with her skin so Mum tells Jenny not to make the bath too hot and to put lots of Pinetarsol in it. After Jenny turns on the cold tap, she tips in several capfuls of the brown liquid. The water magically turns an intense shade of yellow, and a sharp chemical smell trickles up around us.
‘Jesus what is that?’ Paul says walking past the bathroom with his jacket on again. ‘It smells like a fucking old people’s home in there.’
‘Paul,’ Jenny exclaims.
‘I’m not getting in,’ I say, and walk out of the bathroom.
‘Natalie,’ Jenny calls after me, ‘come back here.’
But I pretend not to hear and follow Paul across the worn carpet tiles of the laundry. I wait while he bends over and pulls on his boots at the back door, and then run along behind him across the grass in my bare feet. He stops behind the garage near the spot where Dad never mows and clumps of weeds grow up against the rusted tin.
‘What are you doing?’ I ask.
‘Having a smoke.’
‘Dad smokes in the garage,’ I tell him. ‘You could go in there if you want.’
Shrugging he pulls out a battered silver tin from the pocket of his jacket. He takes a thick lumpy cigarette from inside and puts it between his lips. ‘He might not appreciate me smoking this in his shed.’
I watch him flick open the top of his lighter. There’s a small flame when the twisted end of paper catches and then a crackle. He inhales sharply and holds his breath for a few seconds before blowing out a cloud of smoke.
I think it must be my turn to say something. ‘I ate some whitebait you caught.’
‘Yeah. At my friend Tracy Fleming’s house. You sold it cheaper than Dad’s.’
Paul’s breath catches and he lets out a small choking sound that turns into a cough. ‘Best you don’t tell your old man about that,’ he says when the coughing stops.
‘Okay,’ I say.
Paul laughs. ‘Good on you, Nat.’
We stand on the grass, Paul smoking and me watching. There’s a rhythm to the way he does it. He makes a noise like a hiss when he inhales, holds his breath and then lets it go; the same thing over and over. After a while I squat down, pick a daisy from the grass and start to pull the white petals away from the spongy yellow centre one by one. By the time I get down to the last three I can see how it will end, so I throw what’s left of the flower away without finishing. I glance up at Paul.
‘Can I try it?’ I ask, pointing at the half-finished smoke.
‘Probably not the best idea.’
‘Please,’ I say. ‘Just one puff. Dad lets me sometimes.’
Paul laughs. ‘Bullshit, Nat,’ he says but then he holds out his hand anyway. There’s a noise from the side of the garage and Jenny appears around the corner.
‘There you are,’ she says. ‘What are you two up to?’
I turn to Paul who has quickly drawn back his hand. ‘What are we up to?’
‘Just enjoying the evening,’ he says with a short laugh.
‘Well Natalie needs to get in the bath,’ Jenny says. She’s smiling but her voice sounds like something has caught in her throat. ‘And maybe you should go inside as well,’ she says looking at Paul. ‘At least until the kids have gone to bed.’
‘Sure,’ Paul replies.
I watch him lick his finger and thumb and pinch the end of his smoke. There’s a short sizzling sound before he puts it back inside the silver tin.
Jenny used to have a boyfriend called Clifford whose father owned one of the supermarkets in town. He drove a BMW and for her birthday bought her a heart necklace that she did up by fitting a bar through a circle. Jenny said she loved him but wasn’t in love with him and that’s why they had to break up.
I follow Jenny across the grass watching the charms on her silver anklet dip below the long hem of her skirt. At this time of night cars start driving fast down our street blasting loud thumping music out of rolled-down windows. When I’m old enough to have a driver’s licence I won’t drive a car, even if it’s a BMW. I’ll ride a motorbike instead.
In the bathroom Anna is sitting on the toilet, and Jenny picks her straight up and puts her into the bath without even asking if she’s finished.
‘Get undressed please, Natalie,’ she says in that same tight voice that she used outside.
Suddenly there is a hot feeling in my chest that spreads up into my shoulders and down my arms so that I have to clench my fists. ‘I’m not getting in that water,’ I say. ‘It smells.’
‘It’s the same way you always have it,’ she says, her beaded necklace lifting and falling quickly as she breathes.
‘It’s not.’ I dip my hand in the water. ‘It’s too cold.’
‘Natalie,’ Jenny says in her new voice.
Anna is standing in the bath bent at the waist scraping her nails across the skin of her legs. The crooks of her knees are bleeding. ‘Get in, Natalie,’ she says. ‘Please.’
‘Don’t scratch,’ Jenny says splashing water on Anna’s tiny thighs. ‘Natalie get in the bath.’
‘No,’ I say. ‘I’m not having a bath tonight.’
Jenny reaches for the flannel floating in the yellow water, wrings it out and rubs it across my face in a not-so-gentle way. ‘Fine,’ she says, her jaw clenched. ‘Clean your teeth.’
Paul is slouching on the sofa with an open beer in his hand, his legs wide apart. ‘Good timing,’ he says when I walk into the lounge. ‘Baywatch is starting.’ He’s not wearing his leather jacket anymore; instead it’s lying in a heap next to the coffee table.
I sit cross legged on the rug in front of the TV. ‘I don’t think I’d like to be on a beach with so many people on it,’ I say as the opening images flash across the screen.
‘I’d be happy on any beach that had Pamela Anderson on it, particularly in those red togs,’ Paul says. ‘Or out of them.’
‘I heard that,’ Jenny says as she and Anna come into the lounge. Anna’s face is red and shiny and her damp curls are plastered to her head.
‘So?’ Paul shrugs. ‘Who doesn’t want to bone Pammy?’
‘Paul!’ Jenny says. ‘Really?’
‘What? I’m just being honest. You don’t want me to be honest?’
She stares at him for a moment or two and then shakes her head. ‘Natalie get into your pyjamas,’ she says.
We go to the beach a lot because swimming in the sea is good for Anna’s skin. At low tide we peel starfish off the rocks and poke our fingers into sea anemones to watch them fold in on themselves. There aren’t any lifeguards where we swim, even though the rip can be really dangerous. Mum says we don’t need them. ‘We never let you go into the water on an outgoing tide,’ she says. ‘And we never take our eyes off you.’
Jenny may be in love with Paul, but I’m starting to think that she’s not so nice when he’s around.
Anna lies down on the rug next to me and Jenny starts to rub hydrocortisone cream into her skin. When she’s finished, she wraps gauze bandages around her hands and over the most fragile parts of her body, the insides of her elbows, her knees.
‘Natalie, pyjamas,’ Jenny says.
On screen Mitch’s mother has come to visit and has left her bag on the plane. She has gold hoop earrings and blonde hair tied up into a neat bun. ‘She looks nice,’ I say. ‘Do you think, Anna?’
Anna doesn’t answer.
‘And rich,’ I say.
I don’t want to wear my pyjamas in front of Paul. I don’t even want him to see my pyjamas, which have butterflies all over them. I push myself up from the rug and onto the sofa without taking my eyes off the TV. Paul lifts up his right arm – the one with the knife tattoo – and I shuffle in next to him. He’s not soapy like Dad, but sour, like raw onion on a chopping board.
‘Can I have a sip of your beer?’ I ask.
‘Natalie,’ Jenny says through gritted teeth. She sounds the way Mum does when Anna and I have frustrated her to a point that is ridiculous. Paul moves his arm away from my shoulders. ‘Best do what she says, Nat. No point arguing with her when she’s in a mood.’ He puts his hand on my back and gives me a light push.
I get down from the sofa without saying anything, but I make sure I pull the lounge door hard so that it slams behind me when I go into the hall.
Our room has light-brown carpet and pale-green walls. Above my bed are five certificates that I got at assembly. There’s nothing above Anna’s. Sighing, I yank my T-shirt over my head, take off my shorts and reach under my pillow for my pyjamas. I have a feeling like I’m about to cry. I put on my pyjamas and lie face down on the duvet breathing in the smell of laundry powder – lightly sharp and a bit like medicine – until I start to get calm, and then I sit up and take out a grey sweatshirt from my bottom drawer. I’m pulling it over the top of the butterflies when I hear knocking on our front door. I peer around our doorway into the hall and see Paul walking towards the blurred outline of a person on the other side of the frosted glass.
‘Hey, mate,’ Paul says when he opens the front door.
Even though I know the person standing there, I don’t recognise him at first because miniball season finished months ago and he’s not wearing his referee’s uniform. ‘Hey,’ he says. ‘Thanks for this.’ He hands Paul something that I can’t see and Paul takes a small plastic bag from the back pocket of his jeans and passes it across.
‘No worries,’ Paul says. ‘Have a good night.’ After he shuts the door, he turns and sees me standing there and jumps as if I’ve given him a fright. ‘Jesus, Nat, what are you doing?’
‘Nothing,’ I say. ‘Was that Mark?’
He doesn’t answer and I follow him into the lounge.
‘Who was at the door?’ Jenny asks Paul.
‘Just a friend,’ Paul replies.
‘I think it was Mark,’ I say. ‘From miniball.’
‘Natalie, go clean your teeth,’ Jenny says. ‘Why was Mark Roberts here?’ Jenny sits back on her heels and crosses her arms. Anna is lying on the floor in front of her with one knee still uncovered and glistening with hydrocortisone cream. With her bandaged hand she works the skin on her opposite forearm.
‘Stop scratching,’ Jenny says to Anna. ‘Well?’
Paul shrugs, ‘He was picking something up.’
‘What, Paul? What was he picking up?’ Jenny asks. ‘Natalie, I said go.’ There is a heaviness in the room that I don’t quite understand. Everyone except Anna is angry. I’m angry at Jenny for being so bossy and I think that maybe Paul is angry for the same reason. But Jenny is angry too. The tendons stretch tightly down the front of her throat and her white-and-green beaded earrings jiggle against her neck.
‘Just drop it,’ Paul says.
‘Just drop it?’ Jenny repeats, but as a question. ‘What is wrong with you?’
I look from Jenny to Paul and then back again. ‘Dad probably won’t mind about the whitebait,’ I say.
Jenny and Paul both turn to look at me. ‘What?’ Paul asks.
‘What?’ Jenny repeats.
‘The whitebait,’ I say. ‘That Paul gave to Mark. Dad won’t mind. And anyway, I won’t say anything. I promise.’
Paul gives a hoot of laughter. ‘See Jenny? It was whitebait. And their old man won’t mind anyway. It’s nothing to worry about.’ He takes his empty beer bottle and walks out of the lounge and I watch the spider on his foot make its way across our red-and-yellow rug. Jenny picks up the last roll of bandage, unclips the safety pin and, bending forward, finishes wrapping Anna’s leg. Lotto has just started and, when she’s done, she lifts Anna to her feet and tells her it’s time for bed.
On TV Baywatch is still on. I sit on the sofa and lean against Paul’s arm again, the one with the knife and the eye.
‘Good to finally have some peace and quiet, ay Nat?’ Paul says.
‘Yes,’ I say.
‘That sister of yours never stops scratching, does she? Not much fun.’
‘No,’ I say. ‘It’s not much fun for her.’
‘Doesn’t seem like it anyway, the way she’s always carrying on and that. It gives me the shits watching her tear away at her skin.’ He makes a sound as if he is really grossed out and then grins at me. Then he makes the sound again. Suddenly the hot feeling is back in my chest and I sit up straighter on the sofa so that I’m not leaning against him. The ads come on and Paul asks me to get him another beer and when I get back he says I can have a sip of it even though I haven’t asked. It’s fruity and bitter at the same time and I don’t really like the taste. I hand him back the bottle and sit cross legged on the floor until Baywatch finishes.
I’m still awake when Mum and Dad get home. I hear Mum talking to Jenny in the kitchen and then she comes into our bedroom to kiss us goodnight like I knew she would. First, she goes to Anna’s bed and then comes across to me. She smells like wine but also like peaches from the lotion she rubs all over her skin after the shower.
‘Mum,’ I ask, ‘do you like Paul?’
‘Jenny seems happy enough with him,’ she says. ‘Why?’
I look up at her. I can’t see her features clearly. Just her silhouette against the light shining through from the hall; the halo of curls standing out around her head. Outside a car roars past, picking up speed as it heads out of town, and I start to tell her the story. I begin with what Tracy’s mother said about Paul charging less than Dad for whitebait, and then the silver tin, and finally Paul giving Mark the plastic bag.
‘Although there can’t have been much whitebait in there,’ I say, ‘because it was a very small bag.’
She listens without interrupting me and when I’m finished says, ‘Thanks for telling me, Natalie.’ Then she kisses me on the forehead and goes across to kiss Anna again before leaving and shutting the door behind her.
‘Anna,’ I whisper after she has gone. ‘Are you awake?’
‘Mm,’ she mumbles sleepily.
‘Would you like to come in my bed?’
‘Okay,’ she says.
I pull back the duvet and she runs across the gap between our beds. Her skin feels rough and greasy against mine and the sharp smell of hydrocortisone fills my nose. I bury my face in her damp curls and hold her close while she rubs the skin of her neck with the bandaged fingers of her left hand. Don’t scratch, I don’t say. Instead I reach down and gently rake my own nails over the welts on her skin.