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1 hail of chips
Mummadolly’s killing them with corn beef hash, Fray Bentos pies and overdone mince. Her chips are never right.
Look at this, you’re poisoning us, says Vern.
The children’s hands are shiny with grease.
You don’t like dinner? Mummadolly’s eyes sharpen like cut glass. Her face becomes crease-edged.
The children cringe and, above them, there’s a sudden hail of chips soaked in vinegar, dart-honed points piercing walls, chairs, back-tilted heads, everything.
2 strip of lemon rind
Sometimes, Friday nights, Vern takes Mummadolly to the dance and she’ll wear her backless, stringstrapped dress with the twelve gore skirt.
She uses sticky tape to make a cleavage.
Pencils eyeliner up the back of each leg.
Pastes boot polish onto the shredded heels of her shoes.
Riordan watches Mummadolly’s face ignite with mascara, eyeshadow, vermilion cheeks and lips. She’ll spend time on each fingernail, grind the cuticles with an orange stick and let Riordan rub the back of each freckled hand with a strip of lemon rind.
Look at these hands, says Mummadolly, crooning. Look at these hands.
Riordan loves his mother’s hands.
Her fingers are big-knuckled, but otherwise bony; the gold wedding band she wears from Riordan’s father jigs and rattles and never comes off.
3 more fish than bird
Game birds are curing in their back shed. Riordan washed out the blood. Soon Mummadolly will pluck them till their puckered skin, bare and indecent white, looks so much like the littles in the bathtub that Riordan can hardly stand to look.
Yet he does.
Time and time again he’s drawn to the shed with the close stagnant air and the still-swinging birds tethered at their spiny feet.
Hush. What’s that there?
On the floor he finds a baby bird, a barely-hatched foundling that’s yellow and globular as something Mummadolly cooks.
Riordan washes it down.
No matter how much he rubs to keep it warm, there’s nothing of life there and, finally, disgusted (more fish than bird really), he throws it into the outside drain.
4 an armful of chip packets
After the dance, early Saturday morning, there’s an armful of chip packets and warm bottles of Pepsi.
Here y’are my little man, says Mummadolly to Riordan and her breath scorches hair.
She looks as if she’s melted since everything’s oozing down: black eyes are smudged; lipstick’s eaten away to the rim; and, where a string-strap has fallen, there are curled shreds of molten stickytape.
For some reason, both Vern and Mummadolly are laughing.
Soon they will chase each other along the passage and into bed.
Riordan will settle the littles, switch on the telly, and fall asleep chewing the straw inside an empty Pepsi.
5 raw at the roots
On Sunday there is roast chicken. Riordan gets a wing.
Just the parson’s nose for me, says Mummadolly while Vern carves. He loads his plate with a leg and some breast, divides the rest between littles.
Chicken flesh is serrated into uneven strings.
That’s muscle, what you’re eating, says Riordan. It’s something he’s learnt at school.
Mummadolly serves up once-frozen brussel sprouts and pale grey potatoes; everything cleaves to the spoon.
Betcha didn’t know that, says Riordan.
A bone in each hand, Vern’s mouthing skin on the chicken leg.
Makes sense, says Mummadolly, when you think about it.
Jesus, Helen. JesusChrist MotherofGod, shouts Vern.
Everyone stops and stares. The serving spoon wavers.
Something wrong? asks Mummadolly,
You’re poisoning us, says Vern. Like stigmata, flesh on his palms is crimson, raw at the roots.
Mummadolly checks the fire in her stove, which has long gone out.
Oh well, she says, scooping the lot into the pushpedal bin; you’ll not be wanting this.
And before the chicken hits bottom with a whump, all the littles’ mouths are wet with howling.
6 how to make soup
First came the game birds when Vern won at cards. Then Ken next door offloads another parcel of soup bones. Mummadolly feeds these to the dog; she has no idea how to make soup.
What’s he want, then? asks Vern when he comes home to find Lulu gnawing hamhocks again.
Who? Mummadolly paces the kitchen, sink to stove and table, then back again.
You know who.
They both look at Lulu whose brown doggy-eyes roll up, guilty, even as her teeth crack down.
Leave off, says Mummadolly. Don’t know what you mean.
Somewhere a long way off there is the rapidfire delivery of cartoons on TV. Riordan hovers by the door.
You here when Ken came over? Vern asks Riordan.
The boy looks at silent Mummadolly, nods his head.
He say anything to your mother?
Riordan shrugs. Says he pretty much came and went.
That right, Helen? says Vern.
Mummadolly makes out it’s beneath her to answer such a question.
Well there’s one thing we know – Vern holds off with a smile that comes across his mouth sideways, like it got wiped on.
Hmm? Mummadolly kicks those hips into action, sweeps towards the stove again.
He doesn’t come for your cooking.
7 other mothers make pate
At school Riordan drops Mummadolly’s Vegemite and celery sandwiches in the bin and eats only an apple. Other days he might get shrimp paste, chocolate sprinkles, jam or green bananas. For as long as he can remember, Riordan has seen food as hazardous.
When Mrs Sinclair suggested a French food theme for Bastille Day, he put his name down against cheese and biscuits since there’s nothing to cook.
Mummadolly plies Arnotts crackers with Philadelphia cream cheese and plastic wraps the lot inside his lunchbox the night before.
Other mothers make pate, Quiche Lorraine, Chicken Chasseur, crepes and sabayon. They bring teatowel-cloaked casseroles into the classroom before lunch time, release hothungry smells.
Riordan is suddenly aware he is starving.
Other mothers stay to talk and smile and watch children eat.
Casserole dishes are scraped empty.
Everyone says it was a great idea – what about blueberry pie and corn bread for Independence Day, or a proper roast on the Queen’s birthday? Riordan’s stomach churns while Mrs Sinclair oversees the dishwashing.
What’s this? Mummadolly shrieks when she opens Riordan’s lunchbox that night.
We were too stuffed for afters, he says in a rush. So I brought them home.
Mummadolly grunts. She unwraps the cheese and biscuit mound and levers off what looks like a woodchip.
Bit soft, she says, then tips them onto a plate for the littles.
8 savoury rice with peas
For tea that night there are chops and savoury rice with peas, but Riordan has consumed fine sauces, light battered crepes have coated his tongue and he is unable to eat this fare. Besides, the chops seem covered in grit from the bottom of the oven. She’s poisoning us, he thinks.
What’s up – not hungry? says Mummadolly.
The littles have made a dash for the telly and Vern leans back in his chair.
Riordan shakes his head.
Well – says Mummadolly in a drawl – I don’t eat much, you know. She then devours Riordan’s chop and grins at them with teeth that are black-riddled. My two men, she says, still grinning.
Vern whacks the table and starts laughing hack hack hack, as if a bolt’s being shot home.
What’s wrong? asks Mummadolly. Her hand covers her mouth, the over-sized knuckles white and round as sheeps’ eyes.
Riordan looks away.
Nothing, says Vern, and he slaps Riordan’s shoulder, includes him in the joke.
What is so funny? Mummadolly sits stiff in her chair.
Vern cannot speak for laughing and Riordan makes a move for the door.
9 red and green jelly crystals
On Riordan’s birthday there’s a pink blancmange from a packet mix and a fish-shaped jelly which emerges bruise purple, shuddering from its mould.
What’s that? asks Vern.
An experiment, says Mummadolly; red and green jelly crystals – she pauses to check inside the oven door which emits smoke haze.
The scout hall has been booked for weeks, invitations have been accepted, but Riordan’s wishing it was tomorrow or next week, 2050, so the whole thing could be done with.
Steam rises from two upturned bar cakes. Riordan wonders how events led to this moment, and cannot understand why Vern and Mummadolly are so pleased with themselves.
What do you reckon, Vern’s saying as he sprinkles hundreds and thousands to make fairy bread; we could run this lark as a business, start catering for birthday parties. Get a van.
Give up my day job, sighs Mummadolly.
Now hold on a minute – says Vern.
They are still laughing.
At the party, Riordan unwraps a diary, Matchbox cars, bubble bath and jocks. One of his mates has found Vern’s Roxy Music album with half-dressed women on the cover. Grandpa turns up and sits two-finger-poking at the piano, will not stop, and Paul Clutton is on the snivel at Mummadolly’s side.
Riordan wishes everyone would go home.
Come over here, urges Mummadolly; Come on, birthday boy!
Vern hits the lights.
The bar cakes are now iced and twinned and haloed with eleven candles. Riordan sees tears threaded clear as diamonds on Paul Clutton’s eyelashes.
You ready? asks Mummadolly.
Riordan nods, then shuts his eyes to blow.
They sing For he’s a Jolly Good Fellow and Vern pumps his hand, asks what he wished for.
Riordan smiles. Can’t tell a secret, he says.
There are no photos of Riordan’s father in the house. Beside the telly there’s a framed picture of Mummadolly and Vern when they got married at the registry office. Lined up on the dresser are baby snaps of Riordan and each of the littles, onetwothree, so alike their names have been pencilled on the back to tell them apart; but nowhere is there a photo of Riordan’s father.
Do I look like him? Riordan once asked and Mummadolly yelped. It could’ve meant yes or no.
So Riordan has taken to collecting the scraps he recalls, along with bits he pieces together from what is let slip.
Glasses, he is certain of, the kind with plastic arms. Eyes, brown as his own. His father’s name is Geoff Shearing (it’s on the birth certificate) and he worked as a radio operator in the Navy. So much for what he knows.
One night when Vern was playing cards, he said the bastard was short and fat, a bit like Elton John. This does not fit Riordan’s impression, but he stores the description anyway.
Mummadolly was overheard telling Aunty Ginger she left the bastard for hitting her once too often. Since the divorce papers mentioned physical and mental cruelty, Riordan thinks this might be true. Then, when Geoff Shearing fails to pay his share of the divorce costs, he added tight-fisted to the store of material on his father.
After a while, this mental composite makes Riordan doubt his sources. He begins to ask himself not what did he do to her? but what made him leave?
And with the evidence there on the table in front of him, night after night, Riordan sees the answer is not far away: Mummadolly poisoned Geoff Shearing, too.
11 Mummadolly’s Poison
Worcestershire sauce and chutney, water blended with cornflour and thickened in the pan with oily withered onions. Riordan’s eaten the sauce Mummadolly concocts and cannot believe it’s from the same recipe as Aunty Ginger’s. It never looks or tastes the same.
Here you go, Vern, says Mummadolly. It’s your favourite.
Chicken something with lots of something on rice. Crisp rice, not like Aunty Ginger’s that is sticky and white. Riordan chews on shellbacked grains and wonders why food’s never the same when Mummadolly cooks.
Vern eats with his fork in a hammer-grip, overhand.
The littles trail food from their bowls, leave mounds across the table.
Mummadolly picks over what she allows herself on a plate that’s meant for children. And even this, Riordan knows, will wind up in a scrap bucket for the chooks.
I don’t eat much, you know, she’ll say, if anybody’s watching.
Yet Riordan hears the rustles from her kitchen and uncovered the secret of Mummadolly’s hunger: Dry Weetbix she eats palm-to-mouth from the box while staring through a darkened window; bread is crumbled into hot milk and coated in pepper; apple wedges, crispbread or celery and Nutella; cheese on toast with HP sauce, these are the facts of Mummadolly’s appetite. Luminous, cold green gherkins and peanut butter spooned from the jar. Feasting that’s desperate and hurried, steeped in secrecy and guilt.
You should be in bed, Riordan, said Mummadolly when she caught him spying one night. Her voice was glottal, thick with food and unappeased hunger.
I feel sick, said Riordan, and suddenly it was true.
Get water from the bathroom, then, she said.
Down the passageway he went, bare feet iced by the lino, sensing his way past rooms where dreams simmered. And not once did Riordan think about food.