Veritee watches the familiar sight of one or other of her parents' backs as it disappears. Separately or together. Bebe and Larry, down the hall, the steps, down the path, its concrete crumbled ... weeds thick in the cracks. Down the street, the city, the state, down Australia, down the world, down the universe. In summers edgy with heat, slatted cool in the shade; winters sliced with cold. Seasonal birds to swoop in arcs, spiral in thermals, gust away to specks.
Normal. Off and away from the chaos they've made of Veritee's universe. Larry, his flesh solid, face impassive if he deigned to look back, Bebe's body brittle on tottering heels, skin taut at her eyes, expression brittle. Unbrittle, her daughter supposes, when they meet up with friends, acquaintances, anyone. Where her mother extends soft hands she creams – left over right, left over right – day and night. Where he bulges with laughs, all bonhomie, mouth wide open, wine-stained teeth.
Bebe and Larry ... who brought her to life, the twins to follow six unsuspecting years later. Did love arrive with any of them? Along with the twins, Veritee would be easy to reach if they tried. More and more she thinks of Bebe and Larry as they or them, or the possessive: their. And pictures form before her eyes from nowhere: Bebe and Larry fond and engaged as they urge their children on in small infant talents: ring-a-ring-a-rosie, oranges and lemons, early alphabet, sums, snakes and ladders, a steadying hand on a wobbling two-wheeler, school sports: soccer for the boys, netball for her, sandy hair dragged back in a ponytail, joint applause ... she blinks. Except that these are no more than pictures of them. Never happened: no substance, no reality. The only certainty – their creed of parental neglect.
Veritee leans into the glass of the window, wraps arms across her head. No, not material neglect, never that. She sighs, holds it jaggily, breathes out. Because – money plentiful enough – they have never gone in for emptiness, the adventure of making do. Or doing without.
Isn't every room clogged with stuff ... the rooms big rooms in a big house? The worst house in the best street to Veritee since she turned 15, though architecturally very superior, she's heard related. By Larry, who else?
The sun dips down. The light changes; creamy blue then dove grey. As usual they didn't specify what timethey'd be back but it's a safe neighbourhood, isn't it?
One night, furious, choked up with adolescent bile, she remembers muttering: "Maybe they've run away from us." Suddenly the identical faces of the twins were un-twin-like; one close to pleased, the other agitated, tearful. But they're older now – eight – and Jude, younger by 10 minutes, can fret, though Jason rarely does. Her teeth clench. Over and over unaccountably angry with them, just as often she wants to hug them to bits. Right now, as usual, they're sprawled in front of one of the televisions in Larry's study or the family room.
"Family room," Veritee snorts, puckers her forehead, skews up an eyebrow – the left, which finally she's perfected for what she believes is a breezy appearance, though she feels less than jaunty. For it's not one of her death-defying days when she'd paddle a canoe over Niagara, conquer Everest, oxygen deliberately left at base camp.
Kicking her way through the clutter – cane basket, newspapers, sharp bits of Meccano, mugs, chopsticks, a steel-coloured scarf tangled about red socks – she toes the pile of the carpet and supposes Bebe might have phoned Ludmilla; Ludmilla paid to restore an order of sorts on a regular irregular basis. Lovable Ludmilla who, longing for her homeland, once confided that she, Ludmilla Latsova, opposed bringing modern ways to religion. Would forever cleave to the fundamental, the orthodox, Veritee bewildered, open-mouthed. Ludmilla who in her own country was an engineer, but who now builds order into their mess of a site.
Hurling aside Bebe's latest silly copy of Vogue with emaciated models pouting in slut gear, followed by Bebe's even sillier book Keeping Young & Lovely. At least, lolling on a hillock of pillows, Bebe doesn't go chatty, let alone mumsy with what balloons in her vapid head. Breathless, Veritee's lungs feel squeezed till she sags onto the sofa, kicks off her sneakers, hauls knees to chin. It's not always easy to be tough, rarely cry, and often enough she tries to reason that Bebe – with a not very grown-up name – and Larry, who claims he's a perennial in the springtime of his life, may not be bad-intentioned parents. Just not good.
"VERR ...?" JUDE LEANS INTO THE DOORWAY, SKINNY LEGGED.
"What?" With a head full of questions she'd like to unmuddle from the mess of the web they keep weaving, she sees Jude, his face tight with sunburn. "Come on," and leads off to the only room where she can be sure to find what she wants. Her room. Soothing Nivea on his cheeks, he doesn't protest much.
"Verrr ..." and a barking sound starts in his voice.
"Yep, hungry, yeah, yeah." She frowns under her brother's eyes. "Same as me, you know there's heaps in the fridge."
Bebe buys up big for weekends, has regular orders delivered not just to the kitchen door but as far as the kitchen table. Jokesy, Larry can suggest that she pay for another pair of hands to stack them away. Veritee, Jason and Jude are committed to helping themselves, likely encoded with mother's milk. No, Bebe herself didn't feed the twins. Her?
Though the three of them rarely sit to eat together at night, most times Jude wants to eat with her. That's when they act out what Ludmilla has taught them. Easy to slip up on the Russian cross – left shoulder to right after a ping with one finger to the head – they're okay with the words. Grace ... and, thoughts circling, this appeals to Veritee. A-sort-of-as-yet hazy lure towards something. Or a-sort-of-someone Ludmilla would fiercely declare to be God. Ludmilla never fierce but in this.
"No, no, rabid, I am not. Nor, how you say? A zealot. I conform. I like not disorder. I am orthodox," Ludmilla adamant. "Orthodox, yes."
So Veritee went to the Concise Oxford; "orthodox": holding correct or acceptable opinions esp. on religious doctrine, not heretical or independent-minded or original ...
Index finger tracing the words, this took time to absorb. Class reports consistently tell she's clever, thoughthey judge this a bit of a giggle. It seems that they really don't want her to be clever. Yet if something comes up Bebe's not bad at faking interest ... Larry unwilling to deform himself for convenience. No sinister intention, just Larry. Forehead creased, Veritee continued with "orthodox": generally accepted as right or true esp. in theology, in harmony of what is authoritatively established, approved, conventional ...
Conventional! Lips pulled to a line, colour crept over her cheeks, freckled nose, seeped to the skin of her neck. At her school everyone else's family is soooo bourgeois, soooo conventional, which to Veritee translates to cool. Her family is freakish, crackpot. Uncool. Maisie, her best friend, came up with "different", her second-best friend, Babette, alluded to them as "bizarre" before tactfully softening "bizarre" to "offbeat". Further down the line they're tagged: "oddball", "originals". But beaky-nosed, squinty-eyed Jacinta Smithers-Brown, whom Veritee stuck by when the rest seemed to hate her, and who blahhhs on as if she's Einstein about something called "fundamentalism", has come up with the unforgivable: "unorthodox". Fingering her hair, Jacinta Smithers-Brown could have been fingering a flick knife. Unorthodox! Veritee refuses it. She will not be unorthodox!
JUDE RECKONS JASON IS PLEASED WHEN, AFTER PRISING LIDS FROM A TUB of cold chicken, then spaghetti sauce to splash on potato salad and slices of meat that could be salami, they set three places among a punnet of strawberries, strawberry jam, salted peanuts and Tim Tams.
Veritee wants something more. Candles. Jude finds three ... two yellow, one blue, which he sticks in a milk jug, waits for his sister to indicate which of them is to light them. That done, they'll eat.
"No," she slaps Jason's hands about to wield knife and fork. "Grace first," and is prepared to insist, but docile for once he agrees.
"Who's saying it? St Jude or St Veritee?" And St Veritee smiles angelically to suggest Jason himself.
"If you can find the Golden Fleece, dummy, this is a snitch. Then you ... "
He waits for her to pull the words together. Last time Jason lit the candles he set the bamboo mats and a straw platter on fire, though they managed to douse them quick smart. Later, Bebe had pouted over the mats, despite Larry's reassurance that the two of them would take another trip to Bali.
Now Jason eyes the matches. "Why?" he repeats.
Jude interrupts. "Verr ... why'd you tell us Jude's the patron saint of lost causes?"
"Read it. At the library. OK?" At the library she can feel en-wombed again; nothing spiky. Claimed by a sense that what surrounds her is toned down, not radical not extreme. And if there's a smell to books it's sweet like syrup or wafts of blossom ... pink or white.
"Okay," Jude again, the pitch of his voice rising. "What's a lost cause?"
She doesn't know but has a flashing image of Bebe's and Larry's receding backs. "Dunno."
Thinner air seems to drift through the open window. Thinner light, too, and with deliberate caution, Jason scratches a match that refuses to ignite. Scratches another. Wants to yell but swallows the yell. Because in his head he rehears Larry chuckle that the three of them could have been crisped to chips, reduced to a trio of ash. As if they were lumps of wood ... and he'd felt Jude's heart thud with his. Calamitous, Bebe's contribution.
So, stiff-fingered, he holds the flame one by one to each candle, relieved when it's done, gobs of wax starting down the stems. Then, when lit up in the milk jug, he shudders, watches his sister bend to them. As if she wants to feel the heat on her skin.
"Yes, my dollink?"
"Can I come as far as the bus stop? With you?"
"Certainly, my dollink. I am proud you wish to accompany me."
Proud? If Bebe or Larry even once were proud to have her with them, they've omitted to record it by as much as a word or action in the shapelessness that makes up her life at home. Hasn't she tried often, often, often, to call the past back? Veritee jerks her fingers to make them crack. Her past. For clear signs of attachment, slurpy kisses, bear hugs.
Grass is neat to the paths. Among the flowerbeds of one garden a hatted woman bends, secateurs in gloved hand, to snip dead heads from the brilliance of an orange-red shrub. Another garden and a spaniel refuses to give up the stick a boy wants to wrest from him, while a toddler stamps feet, demanding attention from a figure stretched out on the lawn. Veritee believes she knows how the little kid feels.
Aware that Ludmilla's neighbourhood is different: strips of rag-like paint, meagre yards, alsatians, graffiti screeching between posters on walls. But here, pacing her steps to Ludmilla's, trees in new leaf are high above their heads and they arrive at the bus stop. No carpet of fag ends, a timetable remains intact and readable behind glass. Nearby, neither the postbox nor council seat are vandalised.
City bound, a No. 540 approaches; Ludmilla's bus, but she waves it on, to wave on the next and the next after Veritee establishes her cause, Veritee's hand cupped in hers. While tears she's struggling to hold back leak, spill.
"Is fundamentalism orthodox?" she hiccups out, barely understanding what she's saying, means.
Ludmilla's English can pucker and pleat but at this she displays no hesitancy. Nor vacillation. "Orthodoxy is fundamental." She tilts her head. "Every which way. You understand, no?"
"Is it ... is it ...?" She's learned how to crawl into herself but she's 15 and it's unfair. "Is it...?" Her forehead aches as if she's wearing an Alice band vice-like on her head. "Is it ...?"
"Is it what, my dollink?"
Her tongue flies free. "Some place with rules?" She falters, desperate not to shamble into silence, sniffs. "Or nothing? No trust? No one close?"
Ludmilla pulls her close, feels this child's breath on her neck. Yet this child is no longer a child and she's flooded by memory at 15 of the child she was herself in a world gone mad. The child she was forced to abandon, leave behind in another hemisphere.
VERITEE IS DELIRIOUS WITH REVENGE. SHE'S BEEN READING HEAPS ... in part perceives that fundamentalism entirely embraces particular strict and obsessive rules. Russian, Roman, Buddhist or Billy Graham ... whatever the trappings, Veritee's escape comes a notch closer. Now each day when school is out there are no more blank afternoons, minutes, hours trundling by.
She's focused, giddy with it, heart pumping, fervent; set to mull over how she's to bring in converts, gather a flock. There have to be strategies. She could of course practise with the twins even if Larry – extreme in nothing but what Larry wants – can drawl on that the only religion for a boy is sport.
Veritee flops back among the detritus of the family room. Littered with Jason's skates, Jude's soccer gear, Larry's cigarette packs, Jude's crazy drawings of My Place depicting what he must see, Bebe's sequined sandals, Bebe's nail polish, buffer and brush, Jason's GameBoy, Larry's broken drill, Bebe's attempt at knitting – another short-lived enthusiasm – Bebe's defuzzing Waxworks for her legs ...
Her ambition surprises her. No more shabby grey moods, bursts of self-pity and she takes a flight inside herself. And – an emerging believer – for the present her principles are best served by disguising her real life under Larry's and Bebe's roof. After all, just 15, she can't decamp. And impatient as she is to champion the cause – divine, righteous, holy – where exactly is she to find it, bring it to light? However, once found; she'll not blow hot and cold. There'll be no turning back
Quicksilver, her imagination lifts off, airborne. Incense, figures of saints existing in stained-glass windows, bone-white relics, eloquent words, music sonorous with celestial choirs attentive to the deep-throated voice of orthodoxy. Mullahs, sharmen – sharmans? – priests! Tier upon tier of undimmable candles glow, lit by devotees resembling herself. Aflame with purpose on this as yet mysterious crusade, an escape is possible. From their skimpy parenting, their disorder, their bubble lives ... and her sky stretches violently blue. Unappreciated, undervalued, but heady with what must flower to unbudgeable doctrine, her turn will come. Right on her side, she'll become inattentive to them. Lax and heedless of their desires; Larry avoiding eye contact, Bebe's eyes arrow slits.
No need to keep buried in her heart the glittering highway by which she's destined to speed away. From the bedlam of Bebe's surroundings, Larry's slipshod laws, their anarchy. Truth beckons and a wave of heat sweeps through her. Purposeful, she sees herself a torchbearer and near-delirious, gulps. In a world without end, she'll recruit followers, draw them to her in vast thousands to rival any old Mick Jagger reborn, Joan of Arc.
Her eyes slam shut and she's smiling. At her immediate surroundings about to bloom; colour-washed run like a rainbow. Dishes in the sink, heaped boots and books and bedclothes ... everything ... will undergo change. For willing, up on her toes, soon enough she'll jog – and in silver-trimmed Nike's – en route to heaven and heaven's rewards.
Australia, the world, the universe have become dangerously uncomplicated, and she doesn't hear them call.
"Verr ..." Wistful, expectant, truculent, the twins stand tethered side by side at the door; Jude with both knees black, Jason with a black eye. "Verr ..."
Veritee! A bolt from the blue and she's conscious that her name dovetails with Truth; out of nowhere to recall that "Verity" originates from Latin. Along with: "Amy ... beloved", "Cassandra ... one who inspires love", "Lilian ... purity", "Celestine ... heavenly" ...
She sighs. Sandwiched between "Vera" and "Verna" in What to Call the Baby doesn't her meaning state: "Verity ... the quality of being true"?
"What?' She half listens. Whatever it is the twins want of her she has a question of her own. A free-thinking-running-wild-destiny-question, which sets her gazing into middle distance. Middle distance ... out through the window to a garden that is brown grass and earth-coloured where it's not thick with weeds. Shortly dark will come down, there'll be the evening star and later a window full of moon.
Is this the last day of childhood? Her childhood? If so Veritee reckons on being pleased. And rabbit-like, catches her lip under her teeth, chews it, releases it. Sort of smiles. ♦