“Bathwater” was originally published in Duende.
Before Thomas was born, Mum used to run a bath for me every night. After dinner and before bed, she would lead me to the bathroom. I would sit on the edge of the tub and Mum would kneel on the green tiles. She would run her hand under the tap, test the water temperature with her elbow.
Sometimes, I would tell her that I didn’t need a bath.
“It’s my job to keep you clean,” Mum would say.
During my baths, she rubbed mandarin flavoured shampoo into my hair. She rinsed the bubbles down using an old ice-cream bucket. The bubbles made my eyes sting; I would say I was turning blind. After I stopped crying, Mum would leave the bathroom door open and go back to the kitchen or her bedroom for a while. I would line up my plastic dolls along the edge of the tub and push them in, one by one. Eventually, the water would turn cold and the bubbles disappear.
When Thomas turned five, I decided I was too old for baths. And, anyway, we were in the middle of a drought. On the drive to school, we passed by farms that were yellow instead of green. In class, we made posters that said how many litres of water you could save by having a two-minute shower. There was an ad on TV with a fish who told you he would die if you didn’t turn the tap off while you brushed your teeth. Dad shut down our sprinkler system, and Thomas and I weren’t allowed to have water fights when we helped wash the car. I watched all of our plants die and their leaves blow away. All the gardens on our street died, except for Beth’s, next door. She had a hose that ran from her washing machine to a flowerbed, where she managed to keep a few white daisies alive. I wondered how long it would be before they withered and died.
Dad hated the heat and our power bills were high. When he was offered a job down south, it was hard to say no. He said, “Opportunities like this don’t come around all the time. And the seasons change when they’re supposed to down there. You kids have never lived through a real winter.”
Until then, I had only lived in two different houses. The first was in the suburbs on the other side of town, on Sapling Street. It was a rental, and we lived there until I was two and a-half. The year before Dad said we were moving, Mum and I drove down Sapling Street on our way to the mechanic. We pulled up outside our old house and Mum told me about the rainy morning when she and Dad first brought me home from the hospital. She said I cried when I saw the yellow wallpaper in my bedroom. Mum wound down the car window.
“Those trees should be chopped down,” she said. “Those branches will fall eventually and someone could get hurt.”
“So what, Mum?” I said. “It’s not our house anymore.”
It rained for the rest of that afternoon.
We had three months’ notice to leave Everton Circuit and our second home. I didn’t want to leave, but most of the time it was easy to forget what was coming. It seemed like all of us had been living there forever. It didn’t make sense that we could be anywhere else.
No one at school knew I was moving away. The same day Dad told Thomas and me about the move, Eva’s brother went into hospital. When Jack was in hospital it was better to keep things between us simple. Eva and I were friends because she liked to talk and I liked to listen, and it was better not to upset her. Tanya and Tegan called Eva a try-hard and said she was getting fat. They said she’d better watch it or she’d turn into a whale. Once, Tanya and Tegan squished their half-empty juice poppers and the sticky gladwrap from their sandwiches into Eva’s backpack. I felt sorry for her, but then Eva sat behind Tegan in class and used her scissors to snip whole chunks from Tegan’s ponytail. Eva looked after herself.
At school, three days before we left, Miss Daily led us into the hall and told us to lie down on the blue gym mats that she’d spread out like a jigsaw puzzle. She told us to close our eyes and listen to music that was really just the sound of waves crashing and guitar strings being plucked one at a time. Miss Daily asked us to imagine we were in a peaceful place, somewhere we felt safe, somewhere we didn’t need to think about anything.
“Imagine what is around you,” she said. “Concentrate on what you can smell and hear and how the ground feels beneath you.”
I could only imagine what it would be like when the removalists came, taking everything out of our house, one cardboard box after another. There would be no furniture to hide the carpet stains and no pictures to hang over the cracks that grew in the walls. I kept opening my eyes to make sure no one was watching me.
When we went back to our classroom, Miss Daily placed trays of oil pastels between our desks and handed out thick pieces of paper that were smooth on one side and rough on the other. She asked us to draw the place that we had imagined so we could pin the pictures around the classroom to make us feel more at home. Miss Daily held up a piece of paper and drew a diagonal line in red oil pastel. She showed us how you could run your finger along the line to smudge the colour in any direction.
“Instead of colouring the whole page, think about which areas you can leave blank to show where the light is coming from.”
I chose a green pastel and held it above my paper, hoping it would know what to do. I drew small spirals, thinking they were leaves on a tree, but then I changed my mind and I joined them together to make a starfish living in the ocean. When Miss Daily came around to collect our work, I told her I wasn’t finished.
“You can keep working on it at home,” she said.
As we were leaving for lunch, Eva took my hand and led me to the toilet block.
Tegan was there. She’d left the tap running in front of her while she was twisting her hair into a bun and teasing out the ends with her fingertips. She turned to stare at us.
“Want me to leave so you two can make out?”
Eva’s hand was sweaty. Tegan ran her fingers under the tap and used the water to slick down the top of her hair. Before she left, Tegan dried her hands on the back of her skirt, which she rolled to show more of her legs. She left with the tap still running. I wanted to turn it off, but Eva led me into the middle cubicle. Someone had scratched the words “your fucked” into the back of the door.
“Eva,” I said. “I should have told you already, but…”
Eva put her hand down inside her shirt. I saw her green bra she’d bought at Kmart a few weeks ago. I was still wearing crop tops. Eva pulled out a can of blue Impulse deodorant from inside her shirt and handed it to me.
I needed to tell Eva I was moving in three days. If I didn’t tell her before Friday, we would only say goodbye at the back gate like usual.
I shook the deodorant and felt the liquid inside run up and down. Eva rolled back her jumper sleeve and showed me the sore near her elbow. It was raw and red, like a piece of leftover watermelon.
“What the fuck?” I said.
“It’s called a frosty.”
“Who did it to you?”
Eva frowned and ran her finger around the outside of the sore. She snatched the Impulse back.
“Let’s see your arm. Actually, the wrist is better.”
Eva locked the door. “You’ll see,” she said.
I held out my wrist to her.
When Mum picked Thomas and me up from school, I was stretching my jumper over my hands.
“Mum, I have a cold,” I said. I told her we’d spent all afternoon outside in the wind. “I’ve been coughing and sneezing all day.”
Mum was rubbing moisturiser into her hands while we waited at the traffic lights.
“I think I have a migraine,” I said.
Eva once told me her mum suffers from migraines, which are a type of headache that stays with you for hours. She said, sometimes, the only way to get rid of a migraine is to lie down in a room with the curtains closed for a whole day, and hope it leaves you by morning.
“Maybe I have pneumonia,” I said. “Can you die from pneumonia?”
“Don’t jump to conclusions,” Mum said.
Thomas was watching us through the rearview mirror, wobbling his two front teeth with his tongue and pushing his fingers into the empty spaces in his gums.
“Stop that,” Mum said. “They’ll fall out when they’re ready.”
Mum spent all afternoon upstairs, making and rearranging piles of our things. She pulled the plastic baskets out from under our beds and stacked them at the top of the stairs. She packed the spare sheets and towels from the linen cupboard into a big plastic bag with blue stripes and a red zipper mouth. I lay on the couch, watching Thomas play Crash Bandicoot on the PlayStation. I squished my head between two pillows and pinched my face to make it red. Dad came home with Chinese takeaway from the shop around the corner. There was no point in cooking anymore since everything from the kitchen had to be cleaned away. I told Dad I was sick. He came over to me and placed the back of his hand on my forehead.
“That’s bad timing,” he said.
We ate dinner on the couch while we watched the news. I kept a blanket over me and only ate half a spring roll. Mum knew something was wrong.
After dinner I had a shower. I got undressed and saw myself in the mirror. I realised then that my body was growing. There was something different about my chest. I felt the little spikes between the tops of my thighs. They were thicker and darker than before.
Thomas ran up the stairs.
“Need my toothbrush!” he yelled. He banged on the door.
“Your sister’s in there,” Mum said. “Just wait.”
I stepped into the shower and waited for the hot water to kick in. I looked at what Eva had done to me. The sore on the inside of my wrist was smaller and not as deep as hers, but it was still open and the skin around it had formed into tiny white bubbles. The water made it sting. I told myself it wasn’t Eva’s fault. I wondered how long it would take to heal.
Before I went to bed I found Mum in the spare room. She was sorting through a pile of old medical bills and antibiotics prescriptions, deciding what could be shredded and recycled and what she needed to keep.
“Mum, I don’t think I should go to school tomorrow,” I said.
I was wearing my blue flannelette pyjamas with the long sleeves. Mum turned to me and took off her glasses. I held my hands behind my back.
“I don’t want to infect everyone,” I said.
“You’ll have to be here on your own,” Mum said. “I can’t leave work.”
I rubbed my nose. “You don’t have to worry about me,” I said.
When I woke up the next morning, everyone had left. My lips were dry from sleeping with my mouth open. I went to the bathroom and washed my hands. There were two small shadows through my blue pyjama shirt. I wondered how long I had been like this, and whether Mum had noticed.
There was a note on the back of an electricity bill on the kitchen bench.
“Leftover fried rice in the fridge. Remember, no leaving the house. Mum.”
Mum had taken the phone off the receiver, something she did occasionally, even when all four of us were home. She said she felt better when she didn’t have to think about what was happening outside.
I wandered downstairs, turned on the TV, and flicked through talk shows, game shows, and those long ads for non-stick fry pans. I thought about Eva’s brother, Jack, and what it would be like to be sick for a long time, to miss whole months of school. Eva’s brother had been in and out of hospital every few months for his whole life. Last year our school sold green and blue wristbands to raise money for Eva’s family to go to Dreamworld for a weekend.
I spent the day napping on the couch, drinking glasses of Milo, and walking in and out of each room. I sat in front of the bookcase in Thomas’ room, looking at the spines of the picture books that used to belong to me. I went into Mum and Dad’s en suite and starting taking things out of their mirror cupboard: face creams and razors, mint-flavoured floss, pill packets with white labels. I wasn’t sure whether there was something I was looking for.
From the window in Mum and Dad’s room, I saw Beth in her backyard, wearing overalls and a blue brimmed hat. She was spraying her daisies with fertiliser and trimming their stems. Beth’s daughters had both moved away to university a few years before. We hadn’t seen either of them since.
Before Mum and Thomas got home, I decided to have a bath. I turned the hot water on as far as the tap would go. The water rushed out and the pipes shuddered in the walls. I took my clothes off and looked at my boobs again. I wondered if that was the right word for them. I got in the bath and realised my legs were too long for me to lie out straight. I couldn’t push myself back and forth to wave the water up and down the sides of the tub like I used to. The hot water was making clouds of steam. I turned the cold tap off and left the hot tap running.
My skin prickled and the water rose to cover my legs. I held my wrist, the one with the frosty, over the edge of the bath and thought about how it had felt when Eva sprayed the deodorant on me. My body turned red, as if I was sunburnt.
Once, when Thomas was a baby, Mum let me stay in the bath for hours. I’d been playing outside all day, digging holes with plastic buckets and spades, pretending I was at the beach. When Mum finally checked on me in the afternoon she had tears in her eyes. My face and my arms were bright red with sunburn and already starting to blister. Mum carried me inside to the bathroom and whispered to me over and over that she wouldn’t forget about me again. My shorts were covered in patches of dirt. Mum ran the taps and helped pull my t-shirt up over my head. She looked at me.
“You’re getting taller everyday,” she said. The tears were still in her eyes. She stayed with me while I was in the bath and listened to my stories about my imaginary beach.
The mirror fogged over and the steam filled the room. I thought about how far away from our house we would be when we moved; too far to drive past if we ever felt homesick, or just wanted to see what had changed.
Once, we watched a documentary at school that said growing up was something to be proud of. There was a list of things that would change, one part after another. Miss Daily said we’d start thinking differently, too. I’d starting feeling sad or angry without knowing why. I would try dangerous things.
The water was high enough to cover my bellybutton. I was waiting to disappear. The water was so hot that I was sweating. My eyes watered, my body couldn’t keep still. I thought about all the water I was wasting, and whether I could feel my skin starting to scar. But I wanted to stay in the bath forever, still and silent in the hot water, so nothing else could change. If Mum were there, I thought, I’d tell her I lied about being sick. I’d tell her I don’t understand what’s happening, or why everything can’t just stay the same.
The front door opened.
“We’re home,” Mum called.
I closed my eyes and waited for the water to rise.
Grace Finlayson is an Australian emerging writer whose work has been published in journals such as Kill Your Darlings, Voiceworks, and Duende. She has a First Class Honors BFA in Creative Writing from Queensland University of Technology, where she won the QUT Undergraduate Writing Prize in 2013. She is heading to the Tin House Summer Writers Workshop this summer.
Image: flickr / Troy Morris