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Authors: Emily Perkins

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The Forrests

BOOK: The Forrests
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BY THE SAME AUTHOR

Not Her Real Name
Leave Before You Go
The New Girl
Novel About My Wife

Copyright © 2012 Emily Perkins

All rights reserved. The use of any part of this publication, reproduced, transmitted in any form or by any means electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, or stored in a retrieval system without the prior written consent of the publisher – or in the case of photocopying or other reprographic copying, license from the Canadian Copyright Licensing Agency – is an infringement of the copyright law.

Bond Street Books and colophon are registered trademarks

Library and Archives Canada Cataloguing in Publication

Perkins, Emily, 1970-
The Forrests / Emily Perkins.

eISBN: 978-0-307-36797-6

I. Title.

PR9639.3.P47F67 2012 823′.914 C2011-908521-6

This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

Cover image: Arcangel
Cover design: David Mann and (front panel) Natalie Slocum

Published in Canada by Bond Street Books, a division of Random House of Canada Limited

www.randomhouse.ca

v3.1

For Karl, Veronica, Cass and Mary

Contents

And there is a physical bliss which cannot be compared to anything. The body is transformed into a gift. And one feels it is a gift because one is experiencing at source the unmistakable good fortune of material existence.

Clarice Lispector, ‘State of Grace’

Begin anywhere

John Cage

1.
HOME

THEIR FATHER BALANCED
behind the movie camera, shouting directions as he walked backwards and forwards in front of them. He handled the Kodak, their most valuable possession, as though it were an undulating live animal, a ferret or a snake, and it was leading him. The children took turns hunching under a cardboard box in the back garden for a sequence he told them would be funny later. When it was Dorothy’s turn she crouched like a turtle on the grass, forehead pressed into her bony knees, arms tucked down by her sides, and breathed hotly into her own skin while Michael lifted the box and placed it over her, a warm shadow, a rare private space. She inhaled it.

Clover flowers bumbled her cheeks and the cardboard smelled sandy and soft and the noises outside – a trickling bird, Michael, her sisters, their father’s voice, Daniel – were faint. A thick purple scab was escaping from one knee and the fresh skin beneath was suddenly there as the box lifted off and Evelyn said that it was her
turn now and Dot tipped sideways and rolled onto her back, the sky exploding with light, Daniel leaning in to block the sun, his face dark in silhouette. ‘I am the dribble king.’

She grabbed him by the ankles, fingers around the bones and the tight band of his Achilles tendon, and toppled him so that he fell knees first to the grass. They scrambled up and he chased her round the garden, his shins and palms grazed with dirt and grass stains, and her father shouted, ‘Not there, you’re crossing the shot,’ and everyone else joined in the game and the sister under the box called mutedly, ‘What’s happening?’ and knelt up, the box over her head and shoulders, and their father said, ‘Not yet, Eve,’ but she lifted the box from her head, dropped it and said, ‘I’m thirsty,’ and trudged back past the clothesline and into the house, bending down to stroke the heavily pregnant family cat, who was climbing up the back step in the sun. Their father kicked the box.

By the lemon tree, laden with dimpled yellow blimps of fruit, Dorothy fake-dodged Daniel and wheeled round, squaring off to chase him back, and he sprinted up the side of the house, leaping in his bare feet over the shelled front yard as though it was hot coals, up the footpath that bulged and splintered with tree roots, past the houses of their neighbours and the home beautician’s where Dot’s mother got her legs waxed, around the spilled rubbish bag on the corner, past that kid on her bike with the ribbed pink handles, and the newsagent’s and the man leaning on the wall outside the halfway house, and across the empty street past the Chinese takeaway and the baker’s whose white bread went pasty over your teeth and the butcher with the smouldering fumes out the back from the smoking system. Suddenly Daniel was nowhere to be seen. The
sour smell of potassium nitrate bloomed and the afternoon bracketed out in front of her; the street may as well have been empty. Dorothy turned and ran from the wide open space, the disappearing road behind.

When she burst through the front door, panting, and jogged towards the kitchen for a drink, Daniel was already there. He sat opposite Eve, tipped back on the chair legs. Fingers lightly anchored him to the edge of the table. Eve poured the clattering Scrabble letters out of their velvet drawstring bag, and pushed them round into a rough circle. ‘Michael!’ she called, her head tilted in the direction of the stairs. ‘Come on!’

Dorothy drained the glass of water and wiped her mouth with the back of her hand. ‘How did you get home so fast?’

‘Just generally supersonic.’ Daniel pulled the tea towel from the rung on the oven door, took the glass from her, shook it free of drops and wiped it dry. ‘We need this,’ he said, and plonked it upside down in the centre of the table.

A thick shaft of sunlight angled into the room, illuminating the fine dust over its surface like the near-invisible hairs on the children’s skin. Dorothy sat and felt something nudge against her knees. Her younger sister was hiding beneath the table. ‘Ruthie.’

‘Shh, I was going to tap,’ her sister said.

Eve pulled her out and onto her lap. ‘Are you scared?’

‘No.’ But she buried her face into Evelyn’s neck.

‘Go and get Michael.’

Ruth snuggled further into Eve, her arms clinging. Eve held the glass up to the light, squinting at the print that was still there from Dorothy’s lip. She rubbed it on her T-shirt. At the creaking of the
back door, Ruth yelped, but it was just her brother. ‘Budge up,’ said Michael, pulling a chair in. They made a circle around the table, each of them touching the upside-down glass with their fingertips. The cream Scrabble tiles spread in the round, like fragments of an ancient mosaic sun. Afternoon breath. Stillness. In the waiting silence, a mewling came from upstairs.

The bottom drawer of the girls’ dresser protuded as it always did, the runners too stiff for the girls to jam back. On top of their clumsily folded sweaters lay the cat, licking goo off two newborn kittens, so tiny, their tails abrupt.

‘Shall we get Mom?’ asked Ruth, and the others said, ‘No, she’s out.’ The children crowded round, the Ouija board forgotten. This was what they had been waiting for. The cat convulsed and another kitten emerged, blind and squeaking with a tiny rasp, its mouth hingeing a yawn, the body shaky, the paws and face so complete. The mother cat craned towards it with her rough tongue and began to clean its fur.

The Forrests had moved, when Evelyn was eight, Dorothy seven and their youngest sister Ruth not yet at school, from oh my god the hub of the world, New York City, to Westmere, Auckland, New Zealand. Dot thought her father said, ‘At last we live in a cloudless society.’ Reasons to do, she later figured, with lack of success back home, a paucity of funds, an excess of entitlement. Frank was a second son and despite the Forrest trust fund he claimed to have been ‘cut
loose
without a net’. Even after emigration he couldn’t get a break into professional theatre. He took on Westmere’s amateur dramatics society where over time he would dwindle the
membership on a diet of Brecht and Ionesco. Each month their mother, Lee to the older kids, Mommy to Ruth, would go to the bank and withdraw the allowance that they lived on. It was never quite enough to travel home, which was probably no accident, though, ‘They just don’t understand the price of
plane fares
,’ she would cry.

They arrived in late summer, drowsing from the slow flight via Honolulu, the last of the high living in a hotel pool although the beach was
right there
, into the weird openness of southern sky that came with its colours all the way down to the deserted streets, filled in the space between houses. In the first weeks they knew no one, saw no one but each other, walked only to that shop called the dairy, the fish-eyed stares of those leaning kids under the soft warmth of its awning making each Forrest child want to turn and run away.

When school finally started, Evelyn was recovering from croup and the doctor with his comb-over and dark suit ordered her to stay home. Their mother dressed Dot in the frock she’d worn to a cousin’s wedding, because she hadn’t known where to source the uniform and it was important to look well put together. Persil white, with broderie anglaise around the hem, and a satin sash. It turned out there was no uniform. The sash Dot managed to retrieve from the cistern in the girls’ toilets, and the mud rinsed out of the broderie anglaise eyelets, but nothing, not even vinegar, not even turpentine, would shift the chewing gum from where it stuck all through her long blonde new-girl American hair, and so Lee had to cut it off with the fingernail scissors, the other utensils being in a container ship in transit somewhere along the swelling blue sea.

Lee sobbed as the hair came away and Dot stood perfectly still, breath deep in her belly, and reassured her mother with a phrase she’d learned that afternoon. Michael’s new friend, Daniel, had punched her in the shoulder and said, ‘Shit happens.’ At that she’d stopped crying, brought back into herself. The chewing gum was nothing. She had spent her first day at school without Eve. Nobody even knew she had an older sister. She had been alone and had survived it.

Cartwheeling along the planked row of school benches. Pale green institutional paint, bubbled, thick and waxy. Tiny pockmarks left by the asphalt on the heels of palms. The whirl of blue sky and black ground. The hot-metal smell from the pole on the adventure playground, the taste of metal on her fingers. She pressed her palm down on the basin’s shining button, the distorted spray of water splitting the air.

On the walk home, Michael had told her that Daniel’s father lived in the halfway house down the road. This hadn’t occurred to Dorothy, that the neighbourhood men they held their breath about would have families. She’d rubbed her shoulder, still feeling Daniel’s touch. A clump of gum in her bangs batted her forehead with each step.

Their mother slowly sobered as the haircut progressed. In the small bathroom, Evelyn, still wheezing, watched with solemn interest. When it was done Dot looked like a windblown pixie, and without stopping to study the effect Lee gathered the clippings in a sheet of newspaper and went to make dinner. Eve picked up the scissors from the windowsill, turning their flashing points in the afternoon sun. She bumped Dorothy out of the way of the
mirror, lifted a strand of her own hair and began to snip, pausing every now and then to cough. When she’d gone round the front she handed the scissors to Dorothy. ‘Do the back?’ The amount of hair felt alarming in Dot’s hands, but she did it. Eve covered her smile with her palm, and looked at Dot in the mirror, her eyes glazed with croup and anarchy. The room orbited slowly around the scissors. When Eve was well they would go to school together, and then
look out
.

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