She let me know early on I was not like the other kids.
As a five-year-old, Snowball the class budgie comes home to every house but mine. I’m not allowed to perform in the skit at the end-of-year concert. We are just getting started.
As a 10-year-old, I attend other kids’ birthday parties, but mine are spent at home, alone with her. I beg to have one, just once. It needn’t be fancy or take a heap of effort, I argue. She keeps saying we can’t afford squat, and I say it can be fairy bread and sausage rolls and a picnic blanket at the park. Maybe pass-the-parcel, pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey, and a three-legged race. Homemade and happy. I promise an ice cream cake at Pizza Hut or a party in the decommissioned airplane out the front of shopping mall McDonald’s isn’t necessary. I cry, I plead. She squints her eyes and says no. Those things are for others. I plan to hold my own celebration in a spare room at school, send cheerful invites, then overwhelm myself with the technicalities to the point of panic attacks. My friends’ mothers sense my agitation and cater it. She harumphs at home.
As a 12-year-old, I’m forbidden from swimming classes and slip-and-slides and excursions to the city. Teachers skate close to suspecting something, but she claims poverty and they nod understanding, not knowing of the thousands of dollars in the bank. In desperation, I beg to go on the class trip to the museum, assuring her it’ll be educational without a drop of fun. She relents as a reward for knowing my place. Also, perhaps, sensing they are almost onto her. Time to provide the exception that hides the rule.
As a fifteen-year-old, she refuses to replace any electrical goods that go bung in our house because she has ‘bad luck with appliances’, one of the many self-pitying refrains she has on speed dial. Using my $6.50-per-hour Macca’s wage, I buy us a tiny fridge, a TV and a VCR, desperate for a few essentials and sick of being teased by my classmates about our analogue existence. She complains about what I pick, saying she can’t sleep from buzzing I can’t hear. I come to comprehend how nothing will ever be enough.
As a seventeen-year-old, I ring up the government phoneline to register my university course preferences. She, still with tens of thousands of dollars squirreled away for a rainy day, huffs and puffs that she can’t afford a premium phone call. I calmly explain it’s an investment in my future and offer to pay it myself. She screams in my face that I should hang up immediately because it’s a waste of money. I learn to bide my time.
In my twenties, why do I not visit?
In my thirties, why do I plan my wedding alone?
In my forties, she is dead, and I can finally start living.
Rebecca Douglas is an Australian writer whose work has been published by Overland, The Sydney Morning Herald, The Guardian, Kill Your Darlings, Visible Ink, Verandah Journal, The Big Issue, ABC The Drum, and various other lovely places.