Her small hand looked pale as the sun shone warmly on it into the lounge room. A large diamond glinted in the light. The band looked too big for her finger. Her hand moved along the big glass-fronted cabinet. She watched it closely as if it were someone else’s hand, and once more hated herself for her inability to stop it. The white fingers turned the key and plunged inside. The hand half-grabbed, half-caressed, the neck of the decanter. She realised her right hand, the other hand, had been carrying a large tumbler, a Vegemite glass. She placed the glass on the cabinet shelf and quickly filled it and brought it to her lips.
The rasping self-hatred surfaced again, and she hesitated. But the insistent, astringent aroma of the sherry overcame all her hesitation and she drank deeply. Within seconds, the glass was empty, but the woman was not satisfied.
‘I shouldn’t,’ she thought briefly, but still re-filled the glass and drained it. The wine felt sour in her gullet like reflux, and the emotional pain in her head felt like it was beginning to cloud and soften.
The third glassful went down more slowly, and she thought of the decreased pace as a more civilised way of drinking.
‘It’s OK,’ she said aloud, ‘I’m on top of it.’ There was nobody in the big house to hear her.
With the decanter in one hand and the tumbler in the other, she walked over to the new lounge chair, swaying slightly on her way, and sat heavily in the chair taking exaggerated care not to spill a drop. The wall clock chimed three times, and she began to congratulate herself on waiting so long this day to answer the imperative call of the glass-fronted cabinet.
‘To me!’ she slurred and lifted the glass to her lips.
The decanter was empty when the clock struck four, and Brenda drifted in a fitful sleep.
This was the part of the day she hated – the memory would wake her and prevent her from complete oblivion. Every day it jerked her back to reality.
She was back on the podium in the State Convention Centre, behind the lectern draped with the Fabian Party banner. She could feel the warmth of the hand-picked crowd applauding her speech. A good performance tonight, and chances were she would be the next Premier. She caught her Dad’s eye in the fourth row, and saw there a gleam of pride.
At the back of the crowd, she saw two delegates talking. The first one had the West Australian folded open. ‘What is 4 Across?’ he asked his neighbour, ‘the clue is ‘bizarrely re-prime for first in State’.’
Back at the podium she remember how sharp she was in questions and answers, so the Party minders had agreed to a short session after the speech.
The man was dressed in an open-necked green knit shirt and taupe trousers, contrasting with the uniform suits and power dresses. In her memory now, the man was holding a knife as he slowly approached the floor microphone. She smiled encouragingly, wanting to be in charge.
‘Is it true, Ms Berndale,’ he asked, and she could hear the self-assurance in the familiar Geordie burr, ‘that you and your father were members of the English New Nazi Party?’ A gasp from the Party faithful. The camera closed on the woman’s face and caught that moment of horrified hesitation. In a moment she stuttered, pointed at her father, and said, ‘My father was. Not me. I was never ideologically aligned. He was. But not me.’
But the questioner was well-prepared –he must have had friends in the Party office – and with quiet scorn spoke again in to the microphone. ‘Then you had better watch this. You had all better watch this.’
As they looked to the big screens, the woman’s face dissolved to be replaced by the scene of a noisy crowd, the dark towers of York Minster the backdrop. Another stage, another microphone with a younger Brenda Berndale, hair tightly cropped and shouting, ‘This cowardly Government has failed to keep out these dirty Ottomans!’ This English crowd cheered, but the Party audience watching in the auditorium in Australia was stunned. Then an angry buzz arose from the front seats where her front bench colleagues were seated. They walked as a group to the podium and pushed the woman outside into the darkness. The audience jeered.
Back in her lounge chair the woman was crying. Again. She swore at the empty decanter.
The door-bell sounded; at first far away, but then pressed again, it sounded more insistent. Brenda Berndale was not inclined to stand and respond. But it rang again, and Brenda got to her feet feeling full of confusion and anger and walked slowly to the front door. She peered through the spy-hole. There were two aboriginal kids calling, ‘Mizz Berndale, are you alright?’ Brenda knew she had seen these kids before. They lived in the next street. The other neighbours chased them away, but Brenda had once passed glasses of Coke out to them. It was early in her campaign when she was seeking out every favourable voice she could muster.
Brenda was about to turn away, but on impulse reached out to the snib and opened the door. ‘Are you alright, Mizz?’ the younger child, a boy, asked again. Brenda was aware of their appraising eyes, and looked down at herself, and saw the tumbler still in her hand. ‘Not good drink,’ the boy said flatly, as if from experience of others.
‘No,’ Brenda replied softly, ‘No.’ Tears spilled down her face. The familiar wound in her head throbbed less doggedly. She held out her hand across the threshold. ‘Come in, kids. Can I get you a glass of Coke? Please stay and talk to me.’
Brenda stood aside and watched two little strangers obtrude upon her territory, and she had to admit to herself that it felt good.
First published in Narrator International in June 2012 [http://www.narratorinternational.com/power-drunk-ted-witham/]
My eyes were like black beads. I lay where Paul had discarded me a few moments after his room had turned to darkness last night. My arm was broken at the elbow and puffs of cotton wool had bled from it onto the floor beside me. The usual pleasant odour of baby-powder filled the room. During the night, I must have rolled because there was a soft pile of cotton wool behind my head. My smile was fixed on, giving me the impression I was happy.
I looked up to see Paul on his big-boy bed. I could see his face and his eyes, too, were part-open, just waking up to greet the morning. Another couple of seconds, now, I knew, and the world would spring into frenetic activity.
Sure enough, as I watched from my safe spot near the far wall, Paul suddenly pushed the doona aside, sprang up on to his mattress, jumped half-a-dozen times, really too fast for me to count, jumped down, scooped me up in one hand and ran through the open door into the kitchen.
Paul stopped near the marble-topped kitchen bench. ‘Mummy,’ he called, then I could see he realised something was wrong, and ‘Mummy,’ he called again with a rising note of panic. For a moment, I couldn’t see what was upsetting him, but as he swung me around the corner of the bench, I saw Mummy lying in complete stillness on the beige floor-tiles. She smelled of blood and other human bodily fluids.
Filled with horror Paul squeezed my body tight. I was appalled. I tried to think of anything that would help him in this moment. ‘Your Daddy,’ I thought and tried to communicate that thought back through Paul’s hand into his mind.
Mingled with the blood on the floor by Mummy’s side were shards of glass from a wine-glass. I noticed too the blood from a deep cut in her head.
As Paul’s forever favourite toy I can follow his feelings as they come and go across the day: the joy when he is bouncing on his trampoline; his sense of accomplishment when he runs flat out down the paved footpath near his house; his concentration when he marshals into an army his Paw Patrol Pup, his Lego people and me; his happiness when his Mummy picks him up, usually squeezing me in the process, and hugs him, and his sadness when he waits for his Daddy to come home in the hours after dinner. Lately there have been more of those sad times, but his Daddy is still his Daddy, and I thought that’s who he needed now.
I heard a crash from the master-bedroom followed by ‘Oh, shit!’ Then another boom as the bedroom door crashed shut behind him. I could hear soft bumps as Daddy lurched into the wall. He appeared at the far door of the kitchen in a haze of stale wine. Paul gripped me harder and hugged me to his chest.
Like a lion, Daddy bellowed, ‘Get out of here!’ Like a lamb before the lion’s roar, I could feel Paul’s body shrink into itself and slowly, uncertainly, Paul headed back towards his bedroom. The tears that dropped onto the wool of my head were weeping fear and incomprehension.
‘No, you orta see this, come back here,’ Daddy snarled at us. I felt we were pulled in two directions, back to Daddy or the safety of Paul’s bed. Paul reluctantly turned, looked at his Mummy lying on the vinyl tiles, and gazed up towards his Daddy.
Through his miasma of alcohol, I noted Daddy’s unshaven chin, the crumpled shirt buttoned up wrongly, the pyjama pants and thongs. His eyes averted Paul’s, but he stumbled towards Mummy.
‘Get up, stupid woman!’ he yelled, but Mummy’s eyes didn’t even flicker. I saw her chest move up and down steadily. She was breathing. Paul’s wide tear-filled eyes moved from her to his Daddy and back again.
Daddy fished in his pocket for his phone and dialled.
‘Ambulance,’ he grunted to the operator’s question. ‘4 Paperbark Rise, Lawson.’ To the next words of the operator, Daddy growled, ‘Of course W.A. Whaddya think? England? Chile?’
‘She’s on the ground. She’s out to it. She’s alive.’ Three rounds like machine-gun fire described Mummy’s condition.
The operator spoke again.
‘Cos I’m sick too.’
Paul looked up at his Daddy in greater alarm.
‘Can’t be buggered trying to wake her.’
Another beseeching glance to Daddy.
‘Now, put the baby toy down and clean up that blood,’ Daddy boomed. Paul cringed. I bristled in his hand. Paul needs me.
Paul stood still. I could feel his mind freezing.
‘Do. Your. Job.’ Daddy demanded again.
Trembling, Paul stared up. I could see redness rising in Daddy’s face and his hand rising to strike his son.
‘Pick up a cloth,’ I thought fiercely, trying to push the thought through Paul’s little hand into his mind.
Paul clutched me tighter and with the other hand reached into the cupboard for a cloth.
‘And a bowl,’ Daddy said, ‘Do the job properly.’ His hand subsided.
Paul knelt in front of Daddy, next door to Mummy. I could feel his whole body shaking. He put me down on a clean part of the floor and began dabbing at the blood near Mummy’s elbow. Daddy sloshed a little warm water into a bowl and plonked it down next to us. Paul shook as he squeezed blood into the bowl. He dabbed and wiped again. Squeezed again. Wiped again. As he worked away, I watched the little shards of glass scratch and lacerate his soft skin.
Daddy stood at Mummy’s head, watching, making sure Paul blotted up every drop of sticky blood.
When he had returned the floor near Mummy’s elbow to its original beige, Paul picked me up. A couple of sharp shards pierced my woollen skin and blotches of red appeared on me too.
Daddy snatched up the bowl and drained the reddish water and the cloth into the sink. Paul looked up at his Daddy and held open his palms.
‘Oh, little Paul,’ Daddy said, ‘Come to Daddy. That looks so hurtie.’ He gathered up Paul with me in his hand and hugged tight. I caught odours of stale wine on one side and the sweet smell of the toddler on the other. He carried us over to the sink, put us down carefully on the drainer and took another dishcloth to wash off Paul’s blood, taking care to remove all the shards from his tiny hand.
‘From Clowno, too,’ Paul insisted, and Daddy instantly tweaked out all the pointed pieces of glass from my woollen skin. Paul picked me up again.
‘Love you, my Daddy,’ said Paul.
‘Love you too, matie,’ said Daddy. I thought, Yes, he’s your Daddy, and he means it now, but in another five minutes he’ll growl again and force this little three-year-old toddler into danger again.
When the doorbell rang, Paul jumped off the bench with me in hand. The paramedics came through the front door, down the corridor and into the kitchen. Paul flattened his body against the wall of his room, watching but hiding. He did not want to be seen.
A stocky lady, the first of two paramedics, knelt on the floor. ‘What is your wife’s name?’
‘Sue,’ Daddy said. It was strange to hear Mummy’s grown-up name.
The paramedic called ‘Sue! Sue!’ and gently slapped her jaw.
She then took Mummy’s hand in hers and called ‘Sue! Sue, can you hear me? My name is Rosa. Squeeze my hand if you can hear me.’ Nothing happened. I could feel Paul’s tight muscles as he watched from his hiding place. ‘You try,’ she said to her partner.
They swapped and the big man tried.
‘Sue! Can you hear me?’ Suddenly Mummy moved and opened her eyes.
She tried to sit up, but groaned and let her head lie on the floor again.
‘So sore,’ she said, ‘What’s happened? Why are you here, Jamie?’
‘We’ll get you something for the pain soon, Sue. But you’ve been hit by something hard. That’s what’s happened.’
Daddy’s face reddened again and his eyes looked round for a weapon.
‘Jamie, behind you,’ Rosa warned. Jamie stood. He was taller and bigger than Daddy and he looked fitter.
‘You hit this woman again,’ the vehemence of Jamie’s voice hung in the air, ‘and I’ll knock you from here into a police cell. We’ll press charges today. You’ll be put away for some time.’
He turned away from Daddy. I could see Daddy’s fists curl tight, but he stood where he was.
Paul chose that moment to rush to Daddy, dropping me on the way, and wrap his arms around his legs. ‘I don’t want Daddy to go away,’ he said.
Both Rosa and Jamie looked taken aback by Paul’s appearance.
Rosa said to Jamie, ‘This boy can’t stay here if we take Sue to hospital.’
Sue tugged at Jamie’s trouser leg. ‘This boy,’ she crackled, ‘is yours, not his.’
Daddy’s face went red again. I could see his mind turning over, calculating. ‘Four years ago, you were sniffing around my wife. I knew I couldn’t trust you.’ He lunged for Jamie, but the bigger man was ready and rebuffed the attack, pushing Daddy back against the kitchen wall. Paul scuttled to pick me up.
Daddy’s anger boiled over. His forearm pushed a pile of dishes off the kitchen bench. His hands wrenched the sink tap and pulled it out causing a spray of water over the floor and over Mummy.
‘Sue,’ cried Jamie, and pulled her away from the wet. There was an easy chair on the far kitchen wall, and he helped Sue up and into the chair.
‘But Jamie,’ objected Rosa, ‘we shouldn’t move her!’
‘Done now,’ said Jamie. ‘I’ll tie this one up while you attend to Sue.’ Before Daddy could damage anything further, Jamie pulled out string from his case, making to tie Daddy’s hands. Daddy kicked out at Jamie, his thong flying off his foot towards us. Jamie was quicker. He grabbed Daddy’s right hand, turned him round, placed him in a half-Nelson hold and wrapped the cord around Daddy’s wrist. s
Paul then put a strangle-hold round my wool-and-stuffing neck, and wailed. My eyes were wide open. Maybe I would be happier if Jamie was Paul’s Dad?