New Zealand, 1965
Yesterday, I didn’t know a thirteen-year-old could want to be twelve again. Could want to not just forget but to un-know stuff. I’m not talking fractions or German verbs. I’m talking the understanding tattooed into your brain. Garden of Eden knowledge – now I know what Father McManus was on about at school. He might have been talking rot about evolution not being true, but shame from knowledge, oh God, yes. Not shame from knowing about boys and kissing and… sex. Babies – heck, I knew since I was eleven – above the waist, no, below the waist, no, no. That’s just embarrassing stuff. But shame is something else. The worst thing? It’s not my shame etched on the inside wall of my chest where it rubs against my heart and hurt, hurt, hurts.
One birthday. One birthday dinner to be exact.
No going back. Alice got that right. Yesterday I was a different person.
My birthday dinner at El Matador. According to Mother, Auckland’s classiest (only for all I knew) restaurant. With waiters and menus and live music and alcohol.
‘Can Lindy come?’ I asked.
‘She’s my best friend. Please.’
‘It’s time you chose better friends.’
By better she meant ones who weren’t Islanders. Ones who didn’t have out-of-work dads and mums who were always pregnant (I’d heard her telling Sister Mary Joseph it might be the Catholic way, but the frequency was unseemly).
‘Oh, and your father’s boss will be joining us,’ she said. ‘I expect you to behave. He’s American.’
‘If he were French would I not have to behave?’ A rush of air, a blur but still not fast enough to dodge her clip around my ear.
Three boring adults and me. Great birthday. She’d chosen the swanky restaurant not for me but for the American. Thanks Mother.
Mother. Calling her Carol lasted three months until she read some scathing commentary in the Auckland Star about sexually liberal, hippy parents and we were back to Mother. Mum and Dad were banned. Haughty as the Red Queen, she suited mother. If she could’ve gotten away with Mater and Pater, she would’ve done. But Father, he was a Dad.
She swanned into my bedroom, black chiffon glamour, reeking of Youth Dew and Benson and Hedges. Poor – immigrant – Catholic – Irish. That identity was long gone.
‘Put these on.’ A pair of deflated Siamese snakes smelling of Persil landed on my bed. Her pantyhose. ‘They’re more grown-up than socks.’
Pity she hadn’t thought about a more grown-up outfit than the dress she’d bought for my twelfth birthday. Lace collar and puffy sleeves; Victorian and embarrassing. It was 1967, not 1867. I was thirteen, for God’s sake. Grace Slick was my hero. Even worse, she pinned my hair in a tight bun, she called it a chignon, making me all piggy eyes and freckles.
Mother reclined on the sofa in stockinged feet, scintillating in black georgette and imitation diamonds, her black suede stilettos with mink pompoms collapsed on the carpet like tired kittens. I coveted those shoes, wanted her lipsticks and desired her nail polishes. Sometimes I wished she’d die.
Father kept glancing at his watch, fingering his clip-on bow tie and checking his wallet. Awkward but gorgeous. Dagwood Bumstead to Mother’s Blondie.
‘For God’s sake. Lewis.’ She held out her glass.
‘You look gorgeous, Carol.’ Pride and love papered his face.
‘Just pour me another gin.’
One sip of his refill and she slammed the glass down.
‘Did you forget the gin?’ she said.
Saved by the bell, Father went to answer the door while Mother scrambled into her shoes, putting her anger back on its leash.
A very American Mr Burke, with his crew cut and big smile filled our living room.
‘Stoney, this is Carol, and this is my birthday girl, Alicia.’
He took Mother’s hand. ‘It’s really Max, but most people call me Stoney.’
‘Stoney it is then.’ She blasted him with her Lauren Hutton gap-tooth smile. Someone must have told her (probably Father) that it was cute. Whoever it was, she believed them.
It must have been too much because he turned to me.
‘Well, you sure are a beautiful thirteen-year-old, Alicia.’ All he needed was a white Stetson.
My skin fizzled with pleasure. Prairie fires raced up, down, around my body. I had shifted from kid to grown up.
Stoney’s free hand held two corsages; purple orchids tied with white satin ribbon.
‘The occasion demanded something special,’ he said. ‘But you girls make the orchids look ordinary.’
He looked at me when he said it. He did.
‘You Americans are always so gallant,’ Mother said. Vivian Lee could have taken lessons in simper and drawl.
‘Shall I pin it for you, Carol?’ Father asked.
She turned her back on him and his stupid grin froze on his face. She offered Stoney the corsage. ‘Stoney will do it. Go start the car, Lewis – or we’ll be late.’
Stoney pinned the flowers above her heart. ‘Now what about you, young lady?’
‘I’ll do it,’ Mother said. ‘She’s shy. You’ll make her blush again.’
El Matador, shadowy stairs up to a darkened room crowded with oases of rosy lamplight. Wine red walls, posters of matadors in tight scarlet trousers and black ballet pumps flourished blood-red capes to taunt monstrous black bulls. Waiters glided between tables, whilst the crockery clinked and private conversations syncopated with a lazy trickle of jazz.
A scowl dressed like Fred Astaire in black tie and tails asked if we had a reservation.
‘Carpenter, party of four? I booked last week?’ Father sounded like a man pleading for a bank loan.
Wet lips pursed and one eyebrow lifted. What was his problem? We weren’t wearing gumboots. Father fiddled with his bowtie and cleared his throat while the bloke ran his finger down an unseen list.
Felt like waiting for confession when crabby Father Delaney was in the box. I hung back expecting the Maître D’ to tell Father there was no reservation for the likes of us.
‘Your table is in the annex. Someone will show you the way.’
Stoney stepped up. ‘I wonder,’ he said, taking out his wallet, ‘would you have a better table nearer the music?’
Eyes flickered at the twenty rolled like a cigar. ‘Of course, sir. Let me see what I can do, sir. This way, sir.’
A table near the dance floor. Stoney gave Fred the money. ‘Merci, Monsieur.’
Weirdo, speaking French. Shouldn’t it have been, gracias, Senor?
‘Look and learn, Lewis,’ Mother whispered to Father. ‘Look and learn.’
I looked and learned.
Father took what he got given.
Stoney took what he wanted.
Hairline fractures zigzagged under my feet like a bad cartoon.
This was another world. I’d stepped into an episode I Love Lucy. Pink linen water lilies sat on the fuchsia tablecloths and gleaming silver lay in formation at each setting. Cartoon tendrils of sweet cigar smoke teased my nose and a bottle opened with a loud sucking pop at the next table. Real champagne bubbled into glasses. Just like the movies. Swank and sophisticated. Grown up.
A waiter, ratface with pimples, held my chair and smirked. Should I sit or stand and wait for him to shove it into my knees? I looked at Mother.
‘For heaven’s sake, Alicia, sit down.’
I sat. He pushed the chair and my bottom hit the seat at just the right moment. Then the idiot flicked my napkin, ruining the water lily. I reached to take it just as his hands fumbled it into my lap. My hand bounced off his skin, and knocked the cutlery to the floor. Everyone around stopped talking and looked. Stoney smiled. Mother gave me her evil eye and Father bent to pick up the silverware. I prayed the pink lights would camouflage the red tide flooding my stupid face.
Mother dropped her clutch on the table and removed her elbow length gloves. Stoney suggested whiskey sours and Mother ordered a Coke for me after the waiter handed us leather menus.
A Nancy Sinatra lookalike in white knee-high boots, an amazing silver mini-dress and backcombed blond hair joined the band. She sang The Green, Green Grass of Home. Her voice wasn’t as good as Nancy’s, though. A few old couples danced. I couldn’t imagine dancing in the arms of a Hollywood man like Stoney. But I tried.
‘Are you ready to order, ladies and gentlemen?’ Ratface asked in a hokey French accent.
Father looked as if the choice was hanging or drowning. Stoney suggested champagne and Bluff oysters to start.
‘Wonderful,’ Mother said. She laid her hand on his arm. ‘So nice when a man knows what he wants.’
The fractures became thick cracks.
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The Odds Against a Starry Cosmos
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Father’s eyes swung over the prices and ordered shrimp cocktail for him and me.
‘And the main dish for you, Mademoiselle’? Ratface smarmed over my shoulder. His breath smelt of stale cigarettes and beer. If he thought his smirk was charming, I thought it was creepy. Mother jumped in and ordered for me.
‘She will have the chicken-in-the-basket,’ she said. ‘I read Queen Elizabeth eats chicken with her hands, so that’ll make it easier for Alicia.’
I wanted to slide under the table. The Queen ate with her hands, did she? Did Mother think I was a baby? I was thirteen. Couldn’t she let me choose something for myself? Father ordered the same, saying it reminded him of his Navy days in Boston.
‘And the lovely Molly you tell us you were engaged to?’ Mother said.
Father laughed his cheesy laugh and shook his head.
Stoney ordered a blue steak. It sounded exotic and I wished I were having it too.
‘That sounds marvellous,’ said Mother. ‘I’ll have the same.’
The oysters were disgusting grey globules of snot. Mother said she was allergic to shellfish, her glance daring Father to deny it.
When I asked if I could try some champagne, Mother said no and gave me behave yourself look before turning back to Stoney.
‘Why not, Carol, it’s her birthday,’ Stoney said pouring me a glass. ‘She’s growing up.’
‘It’s not sweet. She won’t like it,’ Mother said. The skin above her Betty Boop lips blanched.
But I did like it.
Stoney lit her cigarette and filled her glass.
‘I can’t see the band,’ she said shuffling her chair closer to him. ‘Now that’s what I call a better view.’
Father sipped his drink and smoked.
Stoney’s steak, swimming in bloody juices, streaked his napkin like a sanitary towel whenever he dabbed his mouth. Mother barely touched her bleeding lump of meat, prodding it with her fork as if she expected it to get up and trot off. I managed only half my chicken, with my knife and fork. Father finished his and swapped plates with me.
‘Forget dessert,’ she said when Ratface cleared the plates. ‘You’re obviously not hungry.’
The band played Begin the Beguine.
‘Oh, I love this,’ she said when, ‘but Lewis can’t dance to save his life. Or mine. I didn’t find out until our wedding reception. He marched me up and down as if he was on a parade ground.’ She winked at Stoney, her eyes glinting like Woolworths’ tinsel.
‘Lewis, may I dance with Carol?’
‘Sure, she’d love that.’
Stoney was a good dancer, despite Mother dancing too close to him. I hoped he wouldn’t ask me to dance. That would be worse than when Mother made me dance with her at family parties. Even worse would be if he didn’t ask me.
Stoney’s hand cabbed across Mother’s back before sidling down to the top of her bum.
Crevasses creaked underfoot.
Father fiddled with his cufflinks. Whew.
Mr Burke and Mother danced to Can’t Take My Eyes Off You and Father lit one cigarette after another, turning his Ronson lighter over and over between his fingers. Mother mouthed the words to Strangers in the Night against Stoney’s neck while he rested his American cheek on her brow.
‘Wish I danced.’ Father reached for another cigarette. ‘Want to dance, sweetheart?’
I shook my head. Hell no.
The American lowered his head and whispered in Mother’s ear. She laughed. When the song finished, that man held the chair while Mother sat, before leaning over her to light her cigarette. The cowboy, Stoney, had gone. Mr Burke loomed large and out of place. I wouldn’t have danced with him if he asked me. Mother stopped a waiter and whispered in his ear. Perhaps she wanted the toilet. I know I did. I wanted a wee and my head was fuzzy. She sat down, raised her eyebrows and nodded to Mr Burke.
The crevasses became chasms.
The band stumbled to silence.
The maître D’ laid a cake covered in pink, rambling sugar-roses before me. The whole restaurant sang Happy Birthday. My face burnt fiercer than the thirteen candles.
The cake glued my tongue to the roof of my mouth.
‘Lewis, Alicia’s tired, drive her home,’ Mother said. ‘I’ll take a taxi when the band wraps up. Stoney will keep me company.’ She flashed him her lighthouse smile. ‘And Lewis, don’t wait up.’
The ground crumbled and I tumbled like Alice into a deep hole.
About The Author
A New Zealand writer who divides her life between New Zealand, England and Cyprus.
Pushcart nominated (November 2020) by The Phare.
Winner of Reflex Fiction(2017), the Cuirt New Writing Prize (2019), Flash500 flash fiction (Summer 2019). Runner up Flash500 short story (2019), Henshaw Press Short Story Prize (2021). Shortlisted 2020 Bath Flash Fiction/Short Story Awards, Literary Taxidermy and The Impress Novel Prize, Flash500,. Published in print/online. Longlisted 2019 & 2020 Commonwealth Prize.
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