JENNY SINCLAIR

 

Fourscore

My son loves the feel of hair, silky cloths, line-drying washing and hanging leaves as they brush across his face. He throws his round solid head back and laughs louder with each pass under the tassel of the red Chinese lantern that hangs from our ceiling.

I stand in the hot late morning sun while he sleeps inside, reaching down into the basket, up to the washing line and down again, blinded by white shirts and nappies, set about by tiny velveteen trousers and checked tea-towels.

Eleven pelicans ride spread-winged on the currents of the clear blue sky. At dawn there was a different flock; brightly coloured flame-belching balloons above us. From up there, the suburb has a different shape. The boundaries are hills and creeks and the widest, oldest roads, not the timber and brick barriers we use to close in the compartments of our lives, our suburban blocks.

It’s two days before Christmas. As usual, the hot weather has come too early. This should have been Christmas Day; waking early with the baby, falling over each other in our narrow kitchen as we fumbled for food to stop up that crying mouth. Then we’d sit under the tree we haven’t got around to buying, open the presents I haven’t wrapped, and exchange Christmas cards full of innocent assumptions about the future.

We could have slept through the afternoon’s thirty-five degree furnace, protected in our cool brick cave, emerging in the evening to scull champagne and scoff roast chook.

But Christmas Day this year will be cold. I may be dead by the end of this new year. “Probably not,” my doctors say. Probably not. A better than even chance. I’m thirty-eight years old, my son is one.

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The oldest woman in the world lives next door to me. Her house is dark behind shutters and a battlement of aspidistras, tree-ferns and hanging plants. Six children, twenty grandchildren, forty-nine great-grandchildren and fifty-three great-great grandchildren (so far) work day and night to keep the white stucco façade chip-free, the lawn within its rounded concrete borders, the iron railing of the fence without a dot of rust. This time of year, she lives in the south-facing front room with cut-glass windows, propped up beside the Christmas tree like Santa’s grandmother. Amongst the plastic pine needles, red green yellow blue flash in turn; under the tree are gift-wrapped bricks with sharp corners and straight edges that do her bricklayer grandson number eight proud.

She’s 151. She’s not in the Guinness Book of Records. She’s never seen a doctor in her life. Even if she did, none speak her ancient Italian dialect. She’s never lost a son or daughter, a grandson or granddaughter, great-grandson or great-granddaughter or any of the innumerable littlies. It’s the tomatoes.

In December the tomatoes are already fruiting, green baubles hanging on fifteen rows of ten plants, sucking up the goodness of sixty years’ worth of compost. Each late summer, the children and the children’s children and their children harvest, spice and boil sauces and pickles to carry them through the winter of yet another year.

She might die next year. Or the next. It seems every year there’s another baby or a wedding for which Nonna is required. One day they’ll let her go and the leaves will begin to fall from the family tree.

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I’ll be lucky to see my first and only child turn ten, let alone one hundred.

We only wanted two kids. Worked hard to get the one we have, too, joining the poked, prodded and pierced ranks of IVF veterans.

Sometimes I think it was hubris that took the second child away. “Eight in the freezer,” I’d say, with smugness borrowed from those fertile bitches who complain about yet another pregnancy, who say things like “He just looks at me and I’m pregnant.”

Other times, I think it was the girl clothes; tiny candy-striped knickers, white dresses flecked with butterflies and daisies, gifts for other people’s daughters, retracted at the last minute because I could see them on my own little girl. Hubris.

The cancer is the hormone-munching kind. It would love me to get pregnant. I won’t. Instead, I’ll devote the time and strength another pregnancy would take—nine months of illness, tiredness, doctors’ waiting rooms—to killing off the disease. I will destroy rather than create.

In this world, today, women die at twenty after losing several babies to hunger. I’ve been lucky.

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Miriam lives not a kilometre from our pretty restored heritage-era home.

Miriam’s a fat lady. Her hair always seems to be three months past a home dye job: a ball of red straw bunched on top of a mass of grey wool. Her terry toweling dresses cling to unlikely protuberances, and looking at her from the window of your car or tram, you’d suspect she doesn’t smell very good: cheap talcum powder at best.

Miriam doesn’t give a flying fuck what you think. She’s been working on that for forty-seven years and she’s very, very good at it now.

This is how Miriam spends her day: first, she feeds her cats. You’re wrong about them, too. They’re not scrofulous strays and there are only two. Then she does her dishes; every morning the same cereal bowl (red, chipped), spoon, plate and glass, arranged precisely on the drip rack in the sunlight.

She locks up and carries her heavy body down thirty steps to a concrete, piss-stained foyer. Then she walks down St George’s Road—that’s when you see her on your way to work—to the church hall.

Between 9:30 and 12:00, Miriam’s fat, red fingers wash, peel and chop potatoes and carrots. She slices cheap red beef and mixes it with pre-diced frozen onion in twelve-litre pots. This is why her face is florid and sweaty; Miriam has chained herself to this stove in the morning and the tank-like kitchen sink in the afternoon for the past seven years. No exceptions.

The food’s not great. But it’s free and it’s nutritious and every day she hears a hilarious story or is cornered by an old drunk with a tale of woe to tell, or she’s hugged by a thin girl’s track-marked arms and she remembers why she comes here.

After four she pops home for a cup of tea. Then she takes the tram to Preston, a mustard-coloured vinyl shopping jeep trailing her like a yellow dog. Going home, no one offers to help the fat, sweaty woman in the tent dress up or down the steps with her trolley full of meat and veggies. She doesn’t expect it.

In seven years, she’s fed 36,400 meals to one 187 people. She works seven hours a day, not counting overtime at Christmas and evening deliveries to sick “customers.”

The doctors give her four years, maybe five. That could be 26,000 more meals.

When she goes, they’ll miss her. No one else will notice she’s not there, waddling past the funky cafes, but the tired, the poor, the downtrodden of this town will be one hundred meals short, and hungry again.

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My hair started falling out today. One single strand slid gently from the fringe that frames my view of the world and slumped exhausted and curled up onto the page. I stopped writing and lifted it with forefinger and thumb, like a worm or other specimen. It was brown, shiny, dead.

“Tired and bald,” my oncologist said. Tired I was already; bald I’ve never been. My particular vanity has been my hair: waist-length in my twenties and still down around my shoulders. Within four weeks it will all fall out.

I have two wigs; one just like my hair, hand knotted of expensive human hair with its natural kink and glossy sheen. I bought it, via the usual well-paid intermediaries, off the head of an unknown man or woman somewhere in India. The second wig is supposed to be “fun”; synthetic, short and red to please my husband.

As well as these fun accessories to cancer, I have some soft cloth breasts stuffed with the sort of fill you find in children’s toys. Soon I’ll buy a lifelike latex number; swim-proof, jiggly and altogether grotesque in its resemblance to the flesh that was cut out of me while I slept.

I understand, too, that makeup, hats and scarves are considered helpful with the process of falling apart.

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We like to think we live in a community, an enclave in this city of three million.

Down in the “village,” in an apartment above the flower shop, there’s a man who never leaves his room. Outside, the street and shops have been painted, tiled and tizzed to tempt the moneyed shoppers; upstairs are bare boards, green pipes and brick dust on the skirting boards.

The windows are painted white, a canvas for the floral mural that faces the street.

In the milky underwater light, his room never changes. A rectangle of pastel carpet from a big house out in the suburbs covers the floorboards. From the window to the single mattress against the wall, there’s a pale track through the woven roses, worn by the feet of the children of that long-ago house.

He receives not so much visitors as messengers from the world outside. Flowers from the flower shop go upstairs to die: carnations edged in brown, droopy great ranunculi, over-perfumed roses.

On Saturdays his landlady—Tricia from the flower shop—comes herself. She brings sharp sweet apples and ripe bananas, green vegetables and grapes, a loaf or two of bread, spuds and rice. She intends to stay, to chat, but doesn’t, descending the stairs with fifty dollars and a sense of her own shortcomings.

Saturday nights he stays up late, listening to the cacophonic rhythm of the teenage bands playing the pub across the street. The voices don’t carry, but the bass guitar pulses in his dark room like a heartbeat.

Later, the fights crash into the still air of his room, the voices of young men barking and slurring, glass crashing while girls shriek and heckle. Sometimes the ambulance comes, splitting the night with a corrugated wedge of rising volume.

Sunday afternoons, Guido from the Italian grocery visits with a cardboard box of provisions: olive oil, pasta, pesto. Usually he sits for a while, drinking black coffee, saying little and saying it in Italian.

The first tram rattles by on Monday at 5:45 AM. By seven the trams are lost among the low rumbling idle, pistol-shot backfires and weary horns of rush hour.

He marks the seasons by the smells: in winter nothing much but recirculated dusty overheated air, then spring’s fresh green and a hint of open country to the north. In summer, molten asphalt flows in through the yellow fanlights above the painted windows; on the hottest days a whiff of eucalyptus smoke. Once, autumn meant burning leaves, but no longer.

From the warm glowing valves of the white Bakelite radio come the voices of ABC announcers describing handpasses and offspin, hypnotized by their own endless flow of words.

Perhaps two or three times a year the high heels on the street stop clicking, the bins in the lane are empty (no old vegetables and rotting newspapers in his nostrils); the artists across the street are out finding found objects and all the drivers are asleep, dreaming of green lights.

When those moments come, he sits at his table, clasps his hands before him, closes up his eyes and listens to the silence.

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I told someone else today.

It’s quite a job, the telling. A friend, an acquaintance, asks: When are you going back to work? When’s the next baby? Are you busy next Thursday? And I have to decide: lie, dodge, or tell?

There’s no simple way to say it. “I have breast cancer”—sounds simple, is complex. Because then come the questions, the shock, the sympathy, the advice.

So a meeting on the street or a friendly coffee-and-chat becomes a counting of the cuts already made, of my chances of sudden death. A party becomes a harrowing session of show-and-tell with a survivor (over her shoulder I see people laughing, kissing, raising glasses of champagne in toasts to Life).

I need an information card to hand out, like those cards used by deaf people. Something like: “Louise has cancer. She’ll probably be fine. Yes, it’ll be a rough time. No, you can’t ‘take the baby.’ Now she’d like to discuss the weather. Thank you.”

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Five houses to the west of us live Andrea and Peter, but mostly Andrea. He’s at work a lot. Something in IT, something something Internet, she said.

We met six months ago when I was out with the baby and the dog, not pushing the pram but marching, determined not to stop until he went to sleep. It was two weeks before I found the lump; nineteen weeks before I did anything about it.

Andrea ignored the wailing and gnashing of gums coming from under the pram’s cover and said hello to the dog instead. Most people feel compelled to say something sympathetic when the baby’s screaming. But Andrea said “Hello mister” to the dog and offered him the back of her gardening glove to sniff.

Then suddenly the baby shut up and we were together in the peaceful glow of a spring late afternoon.

Over the weeks, over coffee, she told me about their house.

A plumber’s daughter, she’d seen danger at the very first inspection. The renovation was OK, cheap and cheerful, but the yard was a mess, all invasive vines, undermining roots and poorly placed trees threatening the sewers. But they’d been looking for months at worse and worse places as prices went up weekly. Andrea wanted babies, and for babies you need a house.

The fences were high, vertical sheets of rusting corrugated iron, festooned with a sickly sweet-smelling creeper that had already immobilized the Hills Hoist, and was now caressing the downpipes on the house and shed with deceptively soft tendrils. She ignored its cream-coloured bell-shaped flowers, ripped it out and left it to dry up and die on the cobblestones of the laneway.

Then the lawn, or what was left of it. The problem was, it wasn’t all weeds. When I met Andrea, she was debating what to do about the daffodils; hundreds of thick green spears protruding from the loamy soil.

“They won’t go with the wattle,” she declared. The wattle leaned against the fence, a spiky stick swaddled in black plastic. Andrea wanted natives, birdlife, gum leaves.

Next time I visited, the daffodils were still there, forming yellow blooms inside green membrane sacs. Too much work to dig them all up and sift the soil, she said. She’d moved on to the fence line, to a midden of old pizza boxes and beer cans, evidence of past tenants. The rubbish filled two orange garbage bags. Beside them, a patch of rich wormy soil had been turned over and smooth-skinned white potatoes lay exposed.

We drank our coffees and talked about the taste of home-grown tomatoes. The baby slept in his pram and I went outside to help. Under the overladen lemon tree I found the multi-coloured slats of a painted garden bench, now deconstructed. We looked back at the house down the daffodil-lined path, between garden beds outlined by rotted, crumbling timbers. The roses against the west fence were wild and straggly, ten-foot suckers shooting up from the rootstock at their bases.

“Those are deep red when they flower,” Andrea told me. “Next door said the old bloke mulched four times a year.” She got up, stretched, bent to the base of the roses and started hacking at the stems. “Roses love a good chopping back.” My baby cried inside the house.

Last week I told her about the cancer. She told me she was pregnant. We ate lunch together, a salad of fresh-picked summer peas. I took the compost out while she washed up, and as I walked down the path between the young lavender bushes, I saw the dead stick of the wattle lying on a pile of potato peelings, banana skins and corn husks, waiting to be dug in properly.

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Half full or half empty?

Half empty when I think of what I’m losing—a breast, my hair, my second baby, my youth (they’ve prescribed me menopause, like aspirin), maybe my life. The worst of which would be the last, and the worst of that would be leaving my baby boy, taking away his mother, missing out on his boyhood, his learning to ride a bike, his first day at school, his little human joys and pains.

Half full? That’s the half I’ve drunk already: the immortal years of my late teens and twenties, when time was something to be filled, killed, sometimes subdued with drink and other drugs when the wide scope of life threatened to overwhelm; the sadder, wiser thirties when I had more, materially speaking, but expected less, existentially.

Some people can picture their futures clearly. They were the ones with plans, the ones with an answer to “What are you going to be when you grow up?”

I never could see the future. So it doesn’t worry me as much as maybe it ought to that I can’t see my forties, fifties and sixties. I always assumed I’d live to be ninety. Now I’ll settle for fourscore and ten.

Those decades are ahead of me. Or they’re not. Neither will change the shape of the life that’s been. And this, they say, is what it is to be human: to be aware of death, to know that life is (that we are, that I am) finite.

In that, at thirty-eight, calculating the odds like a bookmaker, knowing that odds are for statisticians and that what will be, will be, I’ve never been more human. We were not, we are, we will not be; just a snowflake, unique, momentary, more often than not gone before anyone sees its crystalline beauty.

 

Jenny Sinclair is an Australian writer. Since 2005, her short fiction has appeared in several leading Australian literary journals. “Fourscore” won first prize in the 2006 Fellowship of Australian Writers (Western Australia) Haddow Stuart Short Story competition. Jenny Sinclair lives in Melbourne with her husband, son and an outrageously fluffy dog.