Authors: Anna Tambour
Tags: #short fiction, #coming of age, #literary, #children, #family, #short story, #contemporary, #australia, #rural, #rite of passage
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Tambour 2003, 2011
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story was first published in
Monterra's Deliciosa & Other
moral right of Anna Tambour to be identified as the author of this
work has been asserted by her in accordance with the UK Copyright,
Designs and Patents Act of 1988.
Father carved the
joint. "Thin for you, Dick?" he giggled.
"Please, Father." Dick
answered. He still hated the taste, and the batter he was mixing
was double chocolate to disguise as much as possible even the
texture, once mixed in.
Mother was in the
bedroom. As usual. Dick wondered who was with her this time.
Today was Dick's
birthday. This morning, Jonathon, the ex-psychiatry student, one of
Mother's currents, had visited for a couple of hours. Dick opened
to door to his knock, and Jonathon held out a gaily wrapped
package. "I stole this for you," he smiled, trying to curry favor
probably, though Dick was surprised that Jonathon had noticed
"How did you know?"
Dick asked. But Jonathon's face was blank, looking over his head
toward the guts of the house.
muttered, but he unpeeled the giftwrap to find The Complete Poems
of TS Eliot, with a "To Dick 1972, from Jonathon," scrawled on the
title page in thick blue ink. He opened it further to The Hollow
Men. "Thanks Jonathon," but when he looked up, Jonathon had already
Dick took the book up
to his room and carefully sliced out the title page. Then he smiled
at the book. It was entirely coincidence. Dick remembered other
arrival gifts, as Jonathon always had something when he came over.
Jonathon's gifts to Mother had been a pound of sirloin, a slinky
toy, a package of foam curlers that they both chortled over, then
made a mobile of, hanging now from the lamp over the dining room
table. To Dick, once before, a gift, some plastic toy that Dick
hadn't disguised his disgust over. Jonathon did well on this one,
but as usual, it was a within-grab-range impulse. It could as
easily have been The Gun Digest 1968 or a Barbie doll.
Dick knew Eliot from
the library, and had enjoyed the camaraderie of hopelessness that
he felt with Eliot, though he preferred Sassoon. But those were
private thoughts not discussed with anyone, least of all Father,
Mother, and their friends.
A series of loud gasps
and grunts whooshed down the hall and rolled into the kitchen where
Dick and his Father were now, Dick with his mixing bowl, Father
cutting up the hash cube—in family jargon, "the joint."
Father's brow wrinkled
momentarily, and then he went into the living room. In a moment,
"Ah! Brown sugar, just like a young girl should ..." blasted over
any sound other than a bomb, and Father came prancing back in, neck
extended, head bobbing to the music.
Father worked a few
more seconds at his task while Dick watched, wondering what took so
long to smash up a glob. But that wasn't the way Father looked at
it, so Dick kept his thoughts to himself. Then Father scraped the
broken up paste into the mixing bowl, and took over the mixing
himself, carefully mixing well, then tipping it into the prepared
pan, and finally using his fingers and tongue on the mixing bowl to
lick the leavings clean.
Dick put the pan in
the oven, then went to his room. The party would start soon. Father
danced off into the living room.
Theirs was only one
house of about a dozen in The Community. The Community had a
constitution, lots of money from somewhere, and a purpose "to
uplift and foster." Dick heard the whole purpose thing read out
once, and it sounded noble. He wished he had written it. The houses
of The Community were scattered in the middle of a quiet
neighborhood, though The Community houses were the only ones not
inhabited by black families. The reason there were so many
Community houses is that the collection was considered a college,
and associated with some famous college in another state, a college
with classes and real campus buildings.
Most of the people of
Father's and Mother's age had been professors of one kind or
another from another fancy college at the other side of town
(though in the informal atmosphere of The Community, Professor and
Doctor had been dropped, just leaving the plain Mr. Mrs. Miss.)
They were all officially the faculty of The Community, though Dick
never heard of any classes that he could recognize, like at school.
Nor did anyone say "faculty" except at meetings, when they said it
The recruiting team
seemed to be pretty important, though. It was Mr. and Mrs. Fox, who
went to universities and sang. Dick heard them once. They sang Puff
the Magic Dragon and Hava Nagila. Mrs. Fox didn't look like Mary
and Mr. Fox didn't look like Peter or Paul. Mr. Fox's hairy belly
showed through his shirt, Mrs. Fox's long Indian-print dress
dragged down in the front, and her long tightly corrugated hair had
bangs that jutted out in a big curl. But every time Mr. and Mrs.
Fox went recruiting, a few weeks later, some new recruits came in,
mostly pretty girls. They had to be approved and allocated living
quarters, but Dick didn't know of a time anyone was refused. Often
though, after a few months, one day a girl was here and the next
gone, with no explanation—to Dick, at least. Not that many of them
ever said hello to him, but some were nice for a while.
At the Foxes' house,
which the Foxes commanded like all the other grownups did their own
houses, Mrs. Fox was usually the only one of the Mr. and Mrs. home,
always carrying on her wide hips one or two of her children. The
house smelled of sour milk, and Mrs. Fox usually had stains on her
clothes. When they went on recruiting drives, Ellen who lived in
the house took care of the children, but only because it was a few
days, and because she didn't do much except put the bottles on the
sofa, and diaper once a day.
Ellen was a "life
model" in the college. "Rubens" was what Mr. Fox called her. Dick
wondered whether that meant that she talked about her model life,
and if so, did she tell the college students that her house
She looked like a
startled rabbit most of the time, and had a big belly all the time.
She got along well with Mrs. Fox though, although Dick never knew
why. No one else would take care of the babies.
Dick knew that Mr. Fox
was hardly ever home from what he heard. Mr. Fox had been a
professor of English literature, and as Mrs. Fox said to Ellen, and
Dick overheard from Sara, who lived in the next door house to
Foxes, Mr. Fox had Miss Prescott to stay overnight with, and Miss
Prescott lived alone in her Community house, and what could Mrs.
Fox complain about. After all, Mrs. Fox had the children, "who were
no incentive to come home to." This is what Dick heard from Sara,
who wanted to be a life model, too, but possibly next semester, she
was told. Dick thought it unfair that she had to wait, because the
stories she told were better than Ellen's.
Miss Prescott had been
a professor like Mr. Fox—anthropology. She was thin, hard, and
smelt like nothing, or at the most, typing paper. She wore
wraparound skirts and blouses that looked ironed. Her arms were
corded and tan, and her sandy blonde hair was cut off sharply to
the top of her neck.
Mr. Fox and Miss
Prescott had set up The Community Project, the downtown poor area
café. The Community had bought it with some of the grant funds, and
deciding on that was a "process of meetings" that permeated Dick's
room—not really meetings as such, but more of a lot of talk, and
then everyone storming out, and then another meeting, and then,
worry about an ultimatum of the money being cut off if they didn't
have a Project, and then the café was brought up, as someone found
out it was for sale cheap.
The day after The
Community bought the café, Dick was one of the work detail driven
out in the new van—Mr. Fox driving, Miss Prescott directing when
they piled out—to clean up the café from its previous owner, who
seemed to be an alcoholic chain smoker.
The place opened up
the next day and a work detail went in to cook. Dick didn't know
who. Father and Mother were asked to contribute hours, but they
were busy. Father couldn't because he was a psychologist for the
state, and Mother couldn't because she was busy reading Anais Nin
and Henry Miller, and thinking of writing a book about them.
Mostly nobody knew
what to cook in the restaurant, and even less, how to clean. This
was fine until one day a retired cook got food poisoning, and then
there was another meeting at Dick's parents' house. Why Dick's
parents' house again, he didn't know, but the house was in the
middle, so maybe that was it.
After that, Dick heard
Jonathon complain to Mother that he had been rostered, and couldn't
get out of working one shift a week. The good thing was that Miss
Prescott started making pies, and the place got a good review in
the newspaper. She must have liked making pies. And then at the
next meeting at Dick's parents' house, when someone said, "The
review went well. We're up for renewal," there was clapping,
yelling, and suddenly, "Brown sugar" blared out again, and the room
stampeded itself into the floorboards till way after Dick went to
Soon after, Father
began to stay away longer at work, and Mother was often not home
because in the next door, a baby sitter had moved in. Her name was
Betsy, and she wore a dress as long as Mrs. Fox, but she didn't
smell like milk. And she was curvy, and she didn't curl her hair
but wore it in braids curved over her head. She came after the last
recruiting trip. The babysitting was for Dick and his little
sister, Jane, who was only nine months old.
Mother had been
looking for a babysitter. Betsy worked free-of-charge, as all
babysitting was, in The Community. Mother called her "the wet
nurse" and laughed. Mother was conscientious about not leaving the
house with just Dick and Jane in it. She wouldn't do something like
that. "The pigs won't help if we get ripped," she explained to
Betsy, "so don't leave the house." Mother loved her Sierra dishes,
yellow and blue and green. They took years to collect. And no one
had the record collection of Mother and Father.
Dick remembered Mother
when he was a little boy and she wore lipstick and teased her hair.
He wondered why she hadn't thrown out the makeup. She had a picture
on the bedroom wall of someone who looked like her, except Mother's
hair was free-flowing. Virginia Woolf, she said, a writer. Dick
walked to the library and checked out a Virginia Woolf book, but he
returned it half-read, as he couldn't understand why the lady was
so upset all the time.
Dick liked Betsy. She
liked him, and told him stories about creatures she invented. She
invited him to play with her and the neighborhood kids, the day
after she first babysat, and he had fun. Betsy made something
weird, white and hard and soft at the same time. A big tray of it.
If you hit it hard, it was like concrete, but if you put your
finger into it, your finger would sink down as through batter. It
was just cornstarch and water, she said. Dick had a lot of fun and
met some neat kids. They all had even more fun when Betsy added
food coloring to the white stuff, and she began to throw it around,
inviting them to, too. She did something fun every afternoon, and
Dick had fun outside after school, something he hadn't before.
When Betsy was with
Jane, she got a look on her face. Dick thought it looked like love.
He liked to watch her with Jane. She sang lullabies that she made
up on the spot, really soft.
One day, just before
Father and Mother were to go out again, Dick walked into the
kitchen, but Betsy was sitting on a kitchen chair, and Father was
kneeling at her feet with his hands on her skirt, cupping her