Half Dark by Heather Bauchop

Half dark, wet underfoot, light reflected on small faces just level with the glass. Behind the small faces, out of reach of the light, tall figures loom. The sound of pulleys working. The sound of a belt drive turning.

The boy turns his head towards the movement – the mechanical arm raise, the angled head swivel, the strap’s downward lash across woollen shorts, the grimace of a boy, face turning to the light, turning away. The mechanical arm raise, the angled head swivel —

‘Dad?’ his hand searches. ‘Dad?’

A man’s head turns – jam jar eyes and grinning teeth – the downward lash, the limp flap of batwings and the wobble of a mortar board above heavy eyebrows – ‘Dad?’ The boy flattens himself against the wall and sidesteps past the man. Jam jar eyes. Jam jar eyes.

The next window. The silent rotation of a saw blade as the saw-miller feeds the log onto the platform. The log advances along the rollers. Behind the rotating blade, closer to the crowding trees, the bushman raises his axe. Above the bushman, there is a bird flutter of paper wings and the notes of a garbled song. The saw-miller’s head turns, he raises his arm in greeting. The saw blade turns.

Half dark. The boy has his hands out. He stumbles.

The next window. A swimming pool surrounded by a picket fence. There’s a woman standing with her back to the window. Her thighs and shoulders are white, her hair pinned to the top of her head. As her towel falls, her head turns, her mouth is an ‘O’; she retrieves her towel and turns away. Behind the cellophane waves a man’s head peers above the fence, his fingers curl over the palings. The woman’s towel falls, her head turns, her mouth is an ‘O.’  The man’s beetle eyes widen. He lowers himself behind the fence. White shoulders, white thighs, her mouth like an ‘O.’

The boy’s arm lifts, his palm is on the glass. He turns his head. Against the dark, around the corner of the grotto, a bright edge. He runs to the light.

The blue is blinding, bleached skies and the blaze of afternoon. The boy blinks.

‘Heath! Hoy!’ An arm raise, a hand wave. ‘There you are,’ a hand on his shoulder, his father’s face appears out of the sun. ‘The others are waiting in the car.’ His father grabs his hand and they walk, Heath looking back over his shoulder at the Pixie Town grotto and the castle and the pirate ship, pushing through the turnstile at the ticket gate. There’s their yellow car, doors open, his mother fanning herself with a newspaper, her brow creased, her other hand at her temple. His sister, her arms folded, is looking at her feet. Heath climbs in the back of the car. His thighs stick to the seats.

On the way home Heath practices – sitting behind his father he holds his hands in the ten to two position. He turns his hands as if they are holding the steering wheel, he turns his father’s head to make him check over his shoulder, flicks a finger when the car is about to turn, the indicators blink on and off. On and off.  Heath’s eyes pull the oncoming cars past and fling them away.

Heath turns on his headlight eyes.

‘Mum, he’s looking at me,’ his sister wails.

His mother’s mouth twitches. Heath stares at her shoulder. His mother sighs and reaches into her bag and pulls out a cigarette and fumbles for her lighter. Heath holds out his fist and flicks his thumb against the joint of his first finger. The lighter flares.

‘Mum,’ his sister wails.

His mother winds down the window. Heath exhales out the side of his mouth. Smoke billows down the side of the car.

There’s a bang from the truck in front and a waft of shit.

‘Put your window up, would you?’ his father says.

His mother’s hand reaches out. Heath grips his knee. His mother puts her hand back in her lap. ‘Look, the truck’s turning off.’

To the left, there is a distant fold of waves, a chimney billowing. Long low buildings reflect gold in the sun.

‘Make him stop looking,’ his sister wails.

Heath’s hand speaks like a duck bill: ‘Heath, stop looking,’ his hand says.

His mother’s shoulders sag; she turns her face to the window. Smoke billows. Heath flicks his fingers. The cigarette butt flies by the window. There’s a thin trail of smoke in the gravel at the road edge.

The power lines trough and peak like waves. The power poles flit flit flit past. There’s the ta-ta-ta-dum ta-ta-ta-dum ta-ta-ta dum of the bridge. Hmmmmmmm goes the tar seal. Hmmmmmmm. And later arms lift him.

In his dreams the clown’s head rotates, mouth agape. He throws the ball at the open mouth. The ball bounces off the clown’s face and drops to the floor of the stall. The man shows his teeth and picks up the ball. Heath throws another ball. The clowns head turns. Heath turns his head. His mouth opens. He wakes. He turns his head to the light.

His father stands at the kitchen bench. The back door is open. Heath gets the Vita Crunch from the cupboard and pours the cereal in a bowl. He sits on the back steps and makes a line of oat crumbs from his toe to the ants’ nest in the crack in the concrete.

‘He’s having cereal,’ his father’s voice comes from the kitchen. ‘Daughter’s not up yet.’

‘Has he got milk?’ his mother’s voice is clamped tight. A shadow folds down the steps. There’s a slosh in his bowl.

‘But Mum — ’ Heath looks up. His mother’s got on her headache face. She stands and pulls her dressing gown closed and goes back inside. He puts the bowl on the step. An ant carries a crumb down the hole. There is a march of ants. Heath reaches out his finger.

‘Bring your bowl in when you’re done,’ his mother’s voice says.

Heath looks at the ants, stands up and takes his bowl inside. His mother’s leaning on the bench, she flicks her cigarette in the ashtray beside her. She takes a sip from the mug in her other hand. She blows smoke out the side of her mouth. ‘Ta,’ she says. She turns and tips the dregs of her coffee down the sink.

His father is standing in the middle of the room. The lino swims around him like sea. His father runs his hands through his hair. Looks for land.

‘What?’ his mother asks.

His father’s eyes look out the open door. There are clouds in his eyes.

‘Not now,’ his father says.

‘I didn’t say anything,’ his mother says.

Heath stands behind the kitchen door. He draws his fingers across his lips, as he would a zip.

‘Jesus,’ his mother says.

Heath makes stitching motions, drawing a thread of silence through the skin of his lips.

‘Look –’ his father begins.

His mother turns to the sink.

Heath goes into the dining room. Through the serving hatch, he can see his mother staring out the window, the cigarette burning between her first and second fingers. There’s a sheet over the table. Heath crawls into the hut. His machine’s still there. He pulls a lever, by the table leg the doll lifts her arm. He pushes the lever back to its original position. The doll lowers her arm. Heath untangles the string from the cog and turns the guide wheel. The doll lowers her head. He returns the guide wheel to its original position. The doll raises her head. Heath shuffles over to the platform rigged above the doll’s head. Carefully, he piles the rectangle wooden blocks into a tower. On the lower platform he stands a series of cylindrical blocks.

Heath looks through the gap in the door of the hut. His parent’s faces are close together. His father has his hand on his mother’s cheek. His mother is looking down. The door to the hall opens. In the crack of the door stands his sister, rubbing her eyes.

Heath turns on his headlight eyes. His mother pushes his father away. His father turns to his daughter. His daughter lifts her arms. His father holds up his hand; the girl’s arms are suspended in the air.

Heath turns his headlight eyes to his mother. His mother lifts her arms towards her husband. Heath brings up his hand. There’s a sound like a clap. His father puts his hand to his face.

The girl’s mouth opens. There’s a wail.

Heath lowers his hand.

His mother’s hand drops to her side. Her face turns towards the dining room.

Heath turns on his headlight eyes and pulls the lever. There’s a tumble of blocks. The body of the doll is twisted, and from under the blocks, her eyes flicker closed.

From the kitchen, a voice – ‘Mama, Mama’ his sister says.

Heather Bauchop’s short fiction and poetry have appeared in a number of journals, including TakaheHeadland, Alluvia, and Poetry New Zealand‘Remembering a Place I’ve Never Been’ was published by Cold Hub Press in 2018. She won the 2018 Kathleen Grattan Prize for a sequence of poems for ‘The Life in Small Deaths.’



















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