cw: domestic abuse/neglect
Desert Road, New Zealand. November 1985.
Caoimhe Connelly was blithely unconcerned that her parents were waking two hundred odd miles north, asking where the hell has she gone this time? Jandals kicked off, feet on the dash, she read the DepEd leaflet (Home Schooling Curriculum) while her kids slept in the back of Neil’s Pontiac Firebird eating the miles south to Wellington.
‘Listen to this, Babe. Key Competencies. Should be fun.
‘One––Thinking––yep, that’s a good start. Cause and effect thinking involves exploring how actions cause predictable changes … etc., etc.
‘Two––Using language/symbols/text. Finding meaning based on personal knowledge, experiences, and beliefs.
‘Three––Jeez, how many of these are there? Managing self, understanding sometimes there is no one right answer. Making decisions… yada, yada, yada. No right answer, my arse.
‘Four––Relating to others, accommodating a diversity of people by listening, seeing different points of view, negotiating, and more blah, blah, blah.
‘And Numero fivo––Participating/contributing. Challenging children to be ready, willing, and able to step up, take action, and be involved in situations and in life.
Christ Al-fucking-mighty. Give me a break. All I gotta do is teach them to do what they’re told, or there’ll be trouble. Keep stuff private. No yakking to nosy neighbors, sneaky grandparents, or police. Get the right change when I send them to buy cigarettes and read lots of library books.’
Caoimhe ripped up the booklet and tossed it out the window. ‘Easy-peasy.’
The Bay, Marlborough Sounds. March 1986.
Mum ran, bare-footed and whooping down the jetty into Neil’s arms. He’d been gone since Christmas on a fishing trawler out of Nelson. She danced around, getting in Neil’s way as he helped the postie-cum-pilot of the mailboat offload beer and groceries.
‘What did you bring me, Babe?’
Jordan roared up on his ATV to collect his supplies. Neil back-slapped his cousin.
‘Hey Jordy, you good?’
‘Yeah. The kids said you were coming in today. Liesl says come up if you guys want lunch.’
‘Yay!’ Tildy and I shouted.
‘Sounds good, mate.’
‘No thanks, Jordan, I’ve got something hot and delicious waiting for Neil,’ Mum said, winking.
Jordan blushed. Neil snorted.
Tildy laid the table while Mum reheated the shepherd’s pie. When Neil walked in from his shower, nothing but a towel wrapped around his waist, she said, ‘Christ, hadn’t realized how hungry I am.’ She hugged Neil close, nuzzled his neck. ‘You didn’t want Liesl’s foreign muck, did you? All that cabbage? I swear I hear their farts down here.’
Tildy banged the plates on the table. ‘Anything would be better than mince again.’
After lunch, Neil doled out chocolate. ‘Skedaddle. Don’t come back until teatime.’
Tildy got the nets and jars, and I grabbed the buckets. We had a crab farm to finish building.
‘Take the baby with you,’ Mum said.
It was dark when we got home. They were zonked out in the bedroom. Mum was buried under her quilt next to Neil, making pig noises in his sleep, the air thick with the tang of her special baccy and beer. Tildy closed the door and turned on the front room light.
‘We’ve an hour of power. Bathe Stefan and give him his bottle. If you get him to sleep, I’ll make hundreds and thousands of sammies for tea,’ she said, gathering the overfull ashtrays and empties littering the floor.
That night, bum-to-bum, heel-to-heel under the duvet on the sofa-bed, I wished we were at Gran’s in Nelson.
With Neil home, Mum’s typewriter fell silent. They drank and smoked and danced the week away. Tildy, me, and the baby trawled the beaches, pretending to be princesses banished by their wicked stepmother to the castle-like rocks in the bay where Tildy declared to the sea, ‘I will ride a big white horse with my trusted band of friends. I will marry a prince and have lots of babies.’ She waved her driftwood sword at me. ‘And I will love them all.’
I cheered her on and fed sand pies to Tiger Lily, the doll our real dad had brought me all the way from China. The gold embroidery edging her ruby-red jacket had frayed into long yellow tendrils, but I loved her.
One day, bored with the shore, we roamed the upper paddocks. Liesl showed us the new piglets snuggled against their fat mother.
‘Are you hungry?’ she asked.
‘Komm. I’ve made my mummy’s Spaetzle mit Käse.’
‘What’s that?’ I asked.
‘Wait and see, Schatzi.’
In the kitchen, Liesl plonked Stefan on a chair with a big cushion, tied him with a scarf, and let him shovel every noodle nub spread before him into his mouth with little fat fists. Her macaroni and cheese tasted better than the canned stuff Mum bought, and Trixie, her old sheepdog, hoovered what fell on the floor.
Liesl wrapped apple pastry slabs in greaseproof paper for us to eat later. ‘Komm back any time.’
‘She talks funny,’ I said as we walked along the beach track.
‘She’s German.’ Tildy’s voice dropped to a whisper. ‘Mum says they can’t make babies.’
‘Why not?’ I asked.
We made shell pictures on the mudflats and ate Liesl’s apple cake on the jetty while Stefan slept in the shade. Tildy read her new Mallory Towers from the Havelock library, scribbling on a scrap of paper in her pocket with one of Mum’s stubby pencils.
‘What are you writing?’
‘Words I don’t know.’
We sat on the warm boards, legs dangling until Mum shouted teatime.
I pushed my plate of Watties’ tinned macaroni and cheese away.
‘What’s up, Eebee?’ Mum asked.
‘Liesl’s was nicer.’
Mum stopped moving. ‘How would you know?’
‘We had lunch there. And she made bread with walnuts and gave us apple pie for afters,’ I said. ‘It was gorgeous.’
‘Liesl said she’d made too much anyway,’ Tildy said.
‘Then I guess you’re not hungry.’ Mum slammed the pot into the sink. ‘Bedroom. Now.’
‘I don’t want to.’ I sniffed back tears.
‘Do as you’re told, you little shit.’
‘Come off it, Keeva. They’re kids,’ Neil said. ‘Liesl was being nice.’
‘Nice my arse. Fucking sterile Hausfrau.’
In the bedroom, Mum took out her black, brass-buckled belt.
‘We are not bloody scroungers.’ Thwack! ‘Don’t you dare go there again.’ Thwack! ‘You’re my kids. Not hers.’ Thwack! ‘You eat here, got it?’
Thwack thwack thwack…
The next morning, from our sofa-bed, we watched Neil squinty-eyed behind his cigarette smoke, drinking his morning cuppa.
‘Christ. It’s not even seven.’ Mum leaned against the bedroom door in Neil’s rumpled Bowie tee, rubbing her face.
‘Mum’s not wearing pants,’ I whispered.
‘Shush,’ Tildy said.
‘What are you two sniggering about?’ Mum took a drag on Neil’s cigarette.
‘Nothing.’ We burrowed out of sight.
‘I’m giving Jordy a hand to clear the back paddock,’ Neil said, pulling on his work boots. ‘He’s putting in a greenhouse for Liesl to grow herbs and veggies.’
‘Jesus. You’ve been working your arse off at sea for months.’
‘Gotta show willing. We’re not paying rent.’
‘It’s a crappy bach. Electricity twice a day, and I wouldn’t put a dog in it. Big fucking deal.’
‘Okay Lady Muck, take your kids and shove off.’
‘Yeah? And where would I go?’
‘Exactly. Quit whining.’
‘Maybe it’s Liesl’s milkmaid tits that’ve got you going?’
‘Yeah, well, they would if I didn’t have yours, Babe.’
Two weeks later, Neil left for another fishing trip. A week later, Jordan mentioned taking his boat to Havelock for tractor parts, and asked if we needed anything.
‘I’ll come with you,’ Mum said. ‘I’m going stir crazy.’
‘What’s stir crazy, Tildy?’
Tildy shrugged and got her notebook.
‘You kids coming as well?’ Jordy said.
‘No, they’re not.’
A hundred pleases, a thousand promises got us nowhere.
‘No. I can’t shop, go to the library, and pick up the benefits trailing you three.’
‘They’re a bit young to leave alone. I’ll tell Liesl to keep an eye out.’
‘Be at the jetty by ten, Keeva.’
Tildy waited until he’d gone.
‘You don’t want anyone to know we’re not in school.’
‘Oh, you’re a snide little bitch.’
Mum and Tildy had a who’ll-look-away-first standoff. Tildy won. Mum walked to the bedroom to change. She came out wearing high heels and a floaty dress that showed her boobs.
‘For your information Miss Know-It-All, I’m home-schooling you, aren’t I?’
Tildy snorted. ‘You call library books home-schooling? We want to go to school.’
‘We don’t have any friends,’ I said, Tildy’s boldness catching.
‘Tough. Friends are overrated. They always end up shitting on you.’
‘If we’re such a bother, why can’t we live with Grandma and Granddad?’ Tildy asked. We adored Grandma, with her beads and bangles, fantastical stories and Irish rebel songs.
‘Same problem as friends.’
‘You could come and see us when you get… spoon crazy.’
‘It’s stir crazy. And leave you with that mad bitch and her Catholic mumbo jumbo? Over my dead body.’ Mum lit a cigarette. ‘Anyway, what makes you think they’d want you?’
Mum clipped my head. ‘Grandma’s full of shit. She’d have Tildy alright. Down the confessional and in the clutches of some pedo-priest putting more than Holy Communion in her mouth. Stefan she’d twist into her own fucked idea of a man. But you, Eebee. Who would want a baby orangutan at their table? Christ, not even I want you.’
Tildy put her arms around me. ‘I want you.’
‘Oh, stop blubbing, Eebee.’
‘Send us to boarding school if you don’t want us around,’ Tildy retorted.
‘Dad would pay,’ Tildy said.
‘Yeah, right. Besides, boarding school isn’t like that Blyton shit you read.’
‘Anything would be better than this bullshit.’ Tildy ran at her, fists ready, wild.
‘Cut the dramatics.’ Mum shoved her back into the sofa where she crashed into Stefan and me, crushing us both.
Tildy held Stefan, cooing into his ear. ‘You only want us here to look after Stefan. You’re just mean. I hate you. I don’t care if you’re our mother. We hate you.’
‘Piss off. Don’t expect me to bring you anything back from town.’ Mum flounced to the bedroom. Carole King’s “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow” poured from under the door.
‘Now who’s being dramatic,’ Tildy said. ‘Let’s go for a swim.’
Jordan returned alone from Havelock.
‘She didn’t show, kids. She’ll probably catch a ride on tomorrow’s mailboat. Stay with us tonight.’
We refused. We both knew Mum would skin us alive if we did.
Liesl walked down, hoping to persuade us, but Tildy politely said no again.
‘We’re not allowed. Besides, we’re used to it.’
‘I’m sure you are, Mathilde.’
Tildy smiled. She loved hearing Liesl’s accent make her proper name sing.
‘But you shouldn’t be.’ Liesl squeezed her lips until they turned the color of pumice. A wobble flicked across her chin. ‘We will come to you. Zu essen.
Jordan and Liesl returned a few hours later with each carrying a basket of food. Liesl served us something she called goulash. Tildy and I called it scrummy. The best bit was her cake bursting with berries. Liesl fed Stefan on her knee, laughing at the mess he made of them both until tears dribbled on her chin.
‘Why are you crying, Liesl?’ I asked.
‘Ach, Schnuckiputzi. I got dust in my eye.’
Tildy hooted. ‘Shnooki what?’
‘Yordan, what’s Schnuckiputzi in English?’
‘Cutie-pie, Eebee. You’re a little cutie-pie.’
‘Am I?’ I blushed. No one had called me cute before.
Tildy asked him how they met.
‘She was working in a bar in London and kept giving me extra shots with my beer. Her intentions were definitely not honorable.’ His wink brought a small smile to Liesl’s face.
‘What’s honorable?’ I asked.
‘It means she was head-over-heels in love with me,’ Jordan said. ‘Couldn’t help herself. Well, who could? I’m such a schnuckiputzi.’ Even Stefan laughed.
Later, she sang a clapping song until Stefan drifted off to sleep. ‘Backe, backe Kuchen, der Bäcker hat gerufen,’ she sang quietly.
‘Was that German?’ Tildy asked.
‘Yes. It’s about a baker baking cake. Now, little sparrows, get ready for bed.’
The next day, Liesl brought tomato soup and herb-flecked dumplings in a tureen decorated with tiny pink and blue flowers with warm walnut bread wrapped in a clean tea towel for lunch.
Tildy pulled an almost clean, crumpled sheet from the laundry basket and laid it on the table.
‘Go get some flowers, Eebee,’ she whispered.
I returned with pink and blue hydrangeas, just like Liesl’s soup pot. Tildy washed the nearly finished honey jar crawling with ants before putting the flowers in the middle of the table.
Liesl’s eyes got all weepy when she saw them, but that’s when Mum hullabalooed from the pier. Tildy grabbed Stefan, and we ran down to where Mum was waving and whooping on a big black inflatable.
‘Who wants pressies?’ she shouted.
A bloke with a beard jumped onto the wharf and secured the Zodiac before helping Mum off. He was the spitting image of Captain Haddock.
‘Surprise! Lolly scramble!’ She tipped up a paper bag onto the jetty.
We dove down, shrieking and stuffing our pockets.
‘G’day mate, Mike Abbot.’ He held out his hand to Jordan. ‘Didn’t mention nippers, Keeva.’
‘They won’t bother us, Mike.’ She turned to Jordan. ‘Mike’s heading over to Maud Island; he’s a researcher for the Conservation Department. He kindly offered to help a lady out, seeing as you left me high and dry, Jordan.’
‘I waited an hour for you.’ Jordan’s fists bunched as he leaned in close to Mum. ‘Where the hell were you? You stink of booze.’
Mike stepped between them. ‘Mate, I don’t––’
Jordan shoved him. ‘Piss off. I’m not your mate.’
Mike ripped off his moorings and roared away.
‘Liesl’s cooked us lunch,’ I said without thinking. ‘There’s plenty if you’re hungry, Mum.’
Mum charged up to the bach, burst in the door, and backed Liesl against the table.
‘Get the fuck out of here and away from my children, you fucking German cow.’
‘Watch your bloody tongue, Keeva,’ Jordan said.
‘Just because she’s barren as the bloody Gobi Desert doesn’t mean she can play mumsy with my kids.’
‘Neil’s gonna hear about this.’
Mum was raging. Wrecked, wasted, and raging. She pushed them out the door and hurled Liesl’s beautiful dish and bread after them. Hot soup splattered everywhere. Liesl was crying as she picked up the pieces.
That evening, Jordan hammered on the door.
Mum flung it open. ‘What?’
‘You and your kids leave on next week’s mailboat. Otherwise, I’ll report you to the police.’
That night, Tildy wrapped around me, singing Liesl’s song, making up the words, making them funny until the welts stopped stinging the back of my legs. Tildy drifted off. Mum was snoring. Stefan blew tiny milk breaths. The stinging came back.
The next morning, Mum made scrambled eggs, muttering bitch-kraut between ciggie sucks. ‘Eat up, then disappear. Mike’s bringing me some good shit. Tildy, make sandwiches for lunch. And you, you little bitch, stop sniveling,’ she said pointing at me. ‘Keep Stefan quiet and don’t go near that Nazi up at the farm.’
Captain Haddock turned up at the jetty in his noisy boat where we were fishing. He asked where our place was.
‘Why?’ Tildy said.
‘I’ve… ah… brought your mum a present.’
‘Wacky-baccy?’ He nodded. Tildy waved him on. ‘That way.’
Stefan, who’d been pulling at his ear all morning, began crying, his cheeks red, hot, and scratchy under my fingers. We pulled up the lines and walked to our usual beach. Once in the water, he stopped crying. Later, under the trees, he fell asleep on a bed of towels.
‘Can we have a picnic, Tildy?’
‘You betcha. Marmite and lettuce or lettuce and marmite sammies for lunch?’
‘Well now, Tildy, I think marmite and lettuce. Definitely.’ We fell about laughing.
She gave me a hug. ‘Watch Stefan. I’ll see if there are any squashed-fly bikkies as well. I won’t be long.’
Stefan woke up crying before she got back. I picked him up, put him down, sang Incy Wincy Spider, The Wheels on the Bus, Liesl’s clapping song. Still, he cried. Heavy and hot, his nappy full of smelly, runny poo, he squirmed when I tried to hug him, bumped his head on my teeth, and screamed. There was no sign of Tildy, so I stripped off his stripey onesie and shorts, bundling his yucky nappy in Tildy’s bucket. I plonked him in the shallow waters of the returning tide and let them wash over his fat legs and bum while I swished his clothes and laid them to dry on the rocks. He was happy splish-splashing, so I grabbed my yellow bucket and scrambled over the rocks to check our crab farm before the tide came right in.
The old fruit box covered in chicken wire we’d wedged between the rocks to catch the tide-born crabs was empty. Its slats were gummy and black after a couple of weeks washed by the waters, the wire curled back. The tide was running but still a way out, so I clambered over to the best rock pools. I managed to catch a few big-handed crabs, a couple of hermits, and one swifty before the rocks were swallowed by the incoming sea. They’d have to do. I was hungry, and Tildy should be back with lunch.
Back at our camp, marmite and lettuce sandwiches spilled across the sand. Further out, Tildy was mucking about in the water.
‘Tildy! Whatcha doing?’
‘Get Mum. Or Jordan. Anybody. And don’t come back. Quick, Eebee!’
I ran along the beach and rushed up the track to the bach. Mum and Mike were strung out in bed. I shook Mum as hard as I could, but she wouldn’t wake until I screamed.
‘Mum! Stefan won’t open his eyes. It’s my fault, I left him playing. Tildy’s trying to wake him…’
After the police and rescue helicopter arrived, after the howling, after the shouting, Mum cried all night.
Tildy got her wish and went to Grandma’s in Nelson.
Mum kept me home.
She said I still had plenty to learn.
Shannon Savvas is a New Zealand writer who divides her time between New Zealand, England, and Cyprus. She is a Pushcart nominee and the winner of the Fish Short Story Prize, the Cuirt New Writing Prize, and Flash500. Her work appears in various online and print publications.