Just Add Al
by Anne Booty
You’ve blunted Al’s eye liner and she’s gonna kill you.
Still, you mustn’t forget your tennis racket otherwise your death will have been futile. At assembly that morning you pick at the black tape on the handle, sticky glue finger nails like molasses. Eventually, the Head calls your name and you move to the front, nodding to the P.E. teacher to press play. The opening is epic played this loud, dispatching magpies from nests, awakening a mass of two hundred children. When the organ drops out, you get your axe into position and begin to strum. You may only be eleven and this may only be lip syncing to Faith dressed as a bearded kangaroo, but a girl has to start somewhere.
At lunch that day as you eat your soggy Vegemite sandwiches, you remember it’s Saturday tomorrow and now all you can think about is going to World Expo ’88. You doubt it’ll be anything like seeing Mathilda The Boxing Kangaroo back in ’82 but still, it will be fun. Because your time there is precious, you know you’ll make every minute of it last. You think you’ll enjoy Austria the most. You’ve always felt an affinity to to it, because to get Australia you just add “al”.
On Sunday, Nanna. Your palms sweat at the thought of it, but if you’re lucky you’ll get to stay in the house and leaf through ancient photo albums of long dead family members whose names you never remember. If you’re really lucky, she’ll have made green jelly and ice-cream. You try to think of the good things Sunday will bring, but still your palms sweat and your belly twists like swirled lollipops.
Austria was as you had hoped and more. You’ve never left home before and now, as you pull into Nan’s drive, all you can think about is some place far away.
Looking up from your walkman, you spy her through the mess of jasmine, there in her rocking chair, a web of crochet on her lap. The TV is on loud. Laurel and Hardy, or something with Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland in it.
After a roast followed by orange jelly and custard, the adults go lie down, shooing you next door with your sister. Al flies through the yard with gusto, not even stopping to put her shoes on as she levitates above bindis, because everything for your sister is easy. The scent of rice and spice wafts warmly in your direction.
You have stopped to climb the lemon tree. Stopped to think about Austria and that dagwood dog you ate. You want to turn back but he’s seen you, snout popping bubbles from the water. You begin to shake. Your body is wound in magnets, you are drawn to him. Every single bindi pierces through your sandals and into your sole. Every single stone is there to prick you, make you bruise. Neon- bruise. Hell, you even dream in bruises. The crickets stop their lazy afternoon hum and turn their heads in shame. The world gives up on you, child, when you are with him.
That night as your parents drive back to your house, you play Wham Make it Big as loud as you can on your walkman. You fast-forward to Freedom and close your eyes but you don’t cry because water doesn’t fall in the places it should. Everyone in this sunburnt land knew that.
The next day at school you get called out for day-dreaming several times. You’d been drawing all the things that aren’t in the world, but should be. Dragons, unicorns, bunyips, the Loch Ness monster. You’re particularly fond of giant kangaroos, like Mathilda, The Commonwealth Games mascot with her boxing gloves and winking eye. You asked Santa for the toy version of her when you were younger, but Christmas morning brought a cuddly dog with puppies in her zip belly instead. So, this is your way of creating what you couldn’t have. Fists curled, lips snarled, your ‘roo is fiercer than the original. Sometimes you draw her with battle scars. A tear down her side, a broken tail. You cannot pinpoint the moment when she starts becoming Kangarooni. It’s like how He-Man’s cat transforms from Cringer into Battle Cat: start off sweet and friendly but one day you have to shake off the chains and become ready for battle.
You look down at your own feet and imagine your school shoes splitting to reveal two long thin marsupial paws with sharp black claws. Would the other kids scream and run away? Can you imagine the phone call to your parents?
“Ah, we’re terribly sorry, but ah, your dawwwter seems to be turning into a kangaroo! You’ll have to pick her up. Immediately! We are a school for human children, we don’t teach animals!” Your tail would appear next. Shooting out like an arrow from your butt, you’d upturn all the desks in the room. Cute but fierce, they wouldn’t be able to get anywhere near you.
You hear your name again, once maybe twice or three times, and your focus lifts. Your teacher is dragging you by the arm to the front of the class. It hurts and you are embarrassed but you stare at the carpet – dark blue with pale yellow lines – while he makes fun of you and your pictures. He tears up the one of Kangarooni while the other children laugh, and you watch the pieces flutter to the bin as he draws a circle around where you are standing and calls it your island. You are not to leave your island until the end of class, a whole fifteen minutes away. The pale yellow lines on the carpet are broken and you follow them with your eyes from one side of the room to the other, like static on the telly in-between channels.
That afternoon at tennis, you think about Kangarooni as you hit the balls so hard Coach has to stop and check if you’re alright. I’m alright you say as your next serve whacks Melissa Pearse straight in the nose. Everyone on the court runs round like headless chickens mopping up blood and calming Melissa down. Coach looks over at you with a raised eyebrow and a look that says “Really?” You shrug back. Feeling powerful yet idiotic you turn and walk to the taps, taking a long drink of water. It’s hot from a long day in the sun but you barely flinch as it burns your mouth.
Two weeks later and its Friday night and you are in a strange bed. You are navigating corners and shadows, cutting them down and ordering them with your mind, your eyes prick with water. It is your first sleepover at his house. You don’t speak up to your parents about not wanting to be here because HE tells you that if you do it will kill Nan and you can’t bear the thought of her blood on your hands.
In between your sister’s snoring, you hear a creak in the hallway and your heart drops. The doona is wrapped around you, a shield, even though it’s too hot. You pretend to be asleep when he walks in and folds back the covers. His hand is on your arm and it moves along your body like maggots. He begins to pull you from the bed. You have no choice but to follow, out of the bedroom, down the stairs and into that awful room. As your feet hit the cool concrete of the garage, your fingers graze the freezer. You hear the electricity thrumming in its belly as he unlocks the door. You imagine eating a green iceypole like a kangaroo eats grass as he pulls you under water.
When you get back to bed that night you are a wreck. No tail or clawed paw to save your life. You tell yourself over and over that you are saving your grandmother but it doesn’t stop you shaking. You wonder if you will ever sleep again as you hear the bunk creak and your sister begin to climb the ladder. She quietly slips under the covers and cocoons herself around you.
And just like that you have ceased being alone. If you tell your grandmother it will kill her, but you have no intention of telling your grandmother anything. The next weekend when you visit, the yawns from your parents starting up as they shoo you away, past the lemon tree and across the field of bindis, you have had a week to prepare things with your sister and you no longer dawdle to dream of faraway places.
Today you walk together.
You do not lag behind, because your sister has your hand, and each step you climb to the front door, you climb together.
His wife greets you both, walking around in her slippers, something simmering in a pot in the kitchen, this woman who shares her soul with a terrible man. You notice in detail for the first time their wooden crucifix above the TV. How Christ’s face is so serene when it should be set in a howl for all the things he must have witnessed here. That’s when he appears at the top of the stairs. His flaccid mop of greasy black hair, the camel-coloured woollen vest, navy blue trousers, feet grotesquely bare, hair sprouting from toes; it is the audacity of their exposure you hate the most. A flag pole thrust through conquered soil.
You look down and see your feet are twitching, growing longer by the second, course dark wild animal fur sprouting everywhere.
Your hands go next. Replaced by big, red boxing gloves, like huge cherries.
You snort with intent.
You turn to your sister and see that her back has sprouted feathers and her feet have become talons. Her mouth is no longer covered in that soft pink lipgloss she is so fond of and her eyeliner has smudged as her face becomes that of an eagle’s.
You and your sister move forward as he moves backwards. His wife is unsure what to do, she is rambling now, hesitating at the phone but who would believe the story of two girls turning into animals right there in her living room?
Whilst your sister turns to pin the wife down with her clawed foot, you are jumping, knocking over pot plants and the TV before steadying yourself. He is at the top of the stairs now, holding to the rail with one hand, the wall with the other, his face a blank, awful canvas. You lean back into your tail, making sense of this beautiful new form of yours, and with one swift kick he is tumbling down the stairs and kapow! goes head first onto concrete. His wife manages to break free from your sister’s talons and pushes you both aside, screaming at you to stop. You want to push her too and that statue of Christ, with all your might, you are snorting and roaring and boxing at the air, but your sister stops you. Instead you leave. You sister flying, you leaping over the field of bindis and lemon tree and back into your grandmother’s house where you go to the fridge for a second helping of green jelly and custard and sit down to watch the end of an old black and white movie. In between mouthfuls you smile at your sister and squeeze her hand.
A few Sundays later and its tiggy by the lemon tree. You touch the branches with your tennis racket, as your sister nudges you. You turn to see him standing under the house, along with a handful of removal men and their van. He’s not been at all well since the fall and they’ve decided to move south, Tasmania apparently, where their daughter lives with her children.
There are boxes stacked outside the room he used to take you to, and you decide to sneak over to tear holes in them, letting all of his awful things be exposed.
You are tired of the world turning its back on you.
“Shoo! Shoo!” you hear the removal men saying. “Bloody kangaroo! Been chewing at your boxes.” But as they lean closer their eyes pop.
You have cleared the fence by now and are bounding off into the distance. You grunt and howl with victory, your sister flies above you. When your parents find your sister’s blunt eyeliner and your tennis racket lying at the base of the lemon tree, they hear a commotion coming from the neighbour’s house. Like magnets they are drawn, closer and closer, until they stand by a torn box and look within.
Australian native Anne Booty lives in Shoreham-by-Sea, a stone’s throw from Brighton on the south coast of England. Her shorts and flash can be found at Maudlin House, Lee Rourke’s Scarecrow Magazine and Pulped Fictions: An Anthology of Microlit. When not writing speculative fiction, Anne works as a film music supervisor for SixtyFour Music in London.
Image: Greg Rosenke/Unsplash
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