If the men push you, don’t push them back,’ my cousin Ella tells me and I have no idea which men she could be talking about.
Not her brother Richie, the oldest of eight (seven girls), my dad says it’s because they’re Catholics. I tell him so’s his family. It’s because they’re poor Catholics he says. But Richie is never around on my aunt’s house on the hill, his bedroom is still there but he is too old for it. Sometimes he comes over on the weekend, bouncing around trying to be everyone’s friend and I hide terrified in the bedrooms but I see the giant pink stuffed Hippo on top of his old wardrobe and I know he is not to be feared, really.
Nor Uncle Trev. You have to stand up to push someone good and Uncle Trev only stands after he’s called to the kitchen. Even then his beer’s always in one hand so he’d only have one free to push. My mother tells that when my aunt’s house once started to slide down the hill towards damp St. Kilda below Uncle Trev ran in, Auntie Ellie’s heart lifted until he came back out with his stamp collection. But Uncle Trev running is so unlikely.
My mother told me not to listen to Ella. She calls her the black sheep, the rebel, the fire starter and all sorts of thrilling names. She frightens me, Ella, my favourite cousin only four years above me, after that it’s the twins, Samantha and Beckie who look nothing alike. While I’m staying here. I don’t think anyone knows where my parents have gone. Maybe they have gone skiing. I resent not being taken, used to being included on adult excursions but at the same time babysitters always crawling around my eyes like flies. I am ignored and adored.
When Auntie Ellie threatens to smack me I tell her she can’t because she’s not my parent. She calls me a brat but when my parents pick me up I will hear her repeating the story and laughing. I explained to her I was an insomniac, ever since I stayed up to watch Desperately Seeking Susan on TV and when it finished it was three am, a time I’d never seen, and I couldn’t sleep again. She tells me not to be ridiculous. It’s not a problem for me, I have always devoted two hours to the world of my choice before sleeping, I can spend seven just as easily but now there is Ella in here too, whispering electrifying things in the dark. ‘Never hit a man because there are only two kinds of men in the world: the ones who won’t hit you back and the ones who will.’ I turn it over in my head like those other scraps of fascination. Misery loves company. Does it? A bird in the hand is better than two in the bush. Asking: is it true? Why? Why better?
Do they expect me not to answer her back? I love answering Ella back, like yesterday when she “accidentally” poured half a carton of milk over my head and said, ‘We can tell your mum you’ve been milking a cow.’ ‘And guess what that cow’s name was, Ella,’ I said back and Samantha and Beckie laughed and I felt so quick, so perfect sitting there covered in Anchor Light Blue. You never know what Ella might do. She is a rabble rouser. She encourages my second cousin Paul to tease me for being an Aucklander but I don’t mind being a ridiculed Aucklander if it means I don’t have to stay here forever on a cold hill overlooking swampy St. Kilda where they’ve shut down Cherry Farm, the mental house, and now you can’t go between the dairy and the bakery with the cheese straws without some person yelling something. Back in Auckland Danelle and I play Cherry Farm. Hilarious, but here I just keep my head down in the streets.
I wanted to stay with Eva and Alan in Bird Street which is too far away for the Cherry Farmers to walk up and down it and there is a dinosaur slide but Mum reminds me Alan has a disease that’s making him go blind in a hospital up in Auckland and Eva is living in our house. Mum says it’s a special disease lots of Maori men get and I wouldn’t get it and I remember the hospital room full of them, soldiers with eye patches, Alan smiling like always and doing magic tricks and me moving from bed to bed giving the soldiers gourmet jellybeans after I’d picked out all the buttered popcorn flavor for myself but I knew it was what happened when Dunedin came to Auckland, all the blinds pulled and the nurses quiet and sad.
When Ella tells me what men want I think, not Alan. Alan wants magic eyes, he tells me they will be made of glass and have stars on them, he doesn’t want that other thing but I think of Eva’s brother Gary who has a gun and shoots deer and calls me champ like a boy, that time I imagined him kissing me like Aladdin kissed Princess Jasmine, Aladdin’s mouth open and me nailed to the back of my cinema seat and I knew something had to come after the kiss but I made my mind so black and small, I squeezed Gary right out of it.
Mum says Ella has boys on the brain and I do too, but I also have mermaids on the brain and werewolves and my dad’s song Mac the Knife. I tell Ella about a werewolf’s allergies, I told Father John about them today, they say he is my granddad’s brother but my granddad is dead. No one was allowed to sit on his chair at the pub the day of his funeral. There was a red ribbon. Gary told a hunting story. Auntie Ellie pinched me when we left the priests’ home. Because of the werewolves but he seemed interested. He gave me a prayer on a piece of card with a robin on it.
‘But she’s got character,’ says my mum and I say, ‘hey Ella, you’ve got character,’ and there is silence and I wonder if she’s sleeping and I look at the clock it’s 4.15 and I look at Jesus on the wall and say, ‘goodnight Jesus,’ like I’m going to sleep but I know I’m not and Ella told me it was easy to trick Jesus, he even falls asleep before me, his head hanging down and dozy. Jesus doesn’t want that either, I tell the sleeping Ella, ‘Jesus wouldn’t hit back, Jesus would cast a magic spell,’ and I hear her awake, crying, and I feel superior because I know a spell for crying. I would cry too if I lived on a hill above St. Kilda. Tomorrow I will tell Father John I think that Jesus was a werewolf just to see how hard I am pinched.
Very hard, it turns out.
But I don’t care, roaring away from the Cherry farmers, asking Mum and Dad, who turns out were skiing, if it’s true about the two kinds of men, sitting up in the front seat where I can see everything through the window, because I am adored, adored, never ignored.
Dad says, ‘Yup,’
and Mum calls Ella all those thrilling names that I can only dream might one day be laid upon my brow and my heart soars up so high in that black Dunedin sky.
As an emerging writer Sid Walls has received a number of residencies, awards and commendations in the last eighteen months in Australia, France and Germany. Born in New Zealand, she has lived in England and France and currently lives in Australia.