RED STOOD AT the corner of King Street, where one of the lanes broke off it, one-way and hazardously narrow, taking in as always the young women passing her by. This one: teased hair, pierced nose, a dingy tat on her neck, patent-black Doc Martens. This time, the other woman checked her out too, stared at her cape.
So she said, ‘And you think what?’
The girl frowned and quickly looked away. Not so tough after all. Fifty-five kilos. Plump or thin, and caped like now, it was easy for Red to scare people. The girl slouched away down King St, ahead of Red, her feet in the heavy Docs touching the footpath not-lightly.
A guy did an about-face and bolted off between the cars tangled at the lights. Sudden movements were usual. The King Street traffic was heavy and slow. Red cruised the footpath avoiding the prams, the strings of ambling friends who took up the width of the path, the buskers with the big guitar cases, mostly empty of coin. Children did well busking, there was still hope there. Even now, she couldn’t stop thinking, who is the thinnest here? She had always been the thinnest. At her best: forty-two kilos aiming for thirty-eight, with red rimmed eyes and limp hair, thinner than the other annies and druggies. Window shopping, finding her reflection, she still didn’t quite recognise herself. So curvy and replete.
Newtown, postcode 2042. Red promised herself that when she came to leave home, when she’d saved a gazillion, she would only ever live in suburbs where zero was the second numeral in the postcode. Ideally, followed by another zero. She had a horror of country towns. She’d been to one once, on a school camp. It reminded her of the tuckshop. She’d been forty-six kilos then. A few years back, their Year 10 English teacher had brought in a huge bouquet of gum tree leaves and got everyone to touch and smell the leaves. Much laughter, snorting, and then someone had squealed because there was an incy black spider. They’d been reading Jack Davis and Kim Scott, but none of them had been camping or been on a bushwalk or met an Aborigine other than the ones who came to give talks at the school or the other ones amongst the beggars outside the Dendy. What about you, the teacher had said to Alicia, ‘You’re Gadigal mob aren’t you?’ Pale brown Alicia didn’t actually like the silence and everyone now staring at her, so she’d shrugged. It had made Red angry, the teacher talking to Alicia like that.
NEW-IN-TOWN. In a way she was new here, in this guise. New with a new/old self. Personally, she was sick of liquid identities, crew-cut girls slouched over the cash register in their Franklins uniforms; the big boys with bulgy gym-arms and Maori tats that may as well have said, ‘Fuck me, I’m a sheep’; the uni students in onesies, dressed as soft-toy animals from Kimba, or Animal Farm minus the revolutionary spirit. Never a wolf. And the married people with musical children and caring looks fixed on their faces, who strolled over from their huge terraces in Newtown Heights to shop at the organics place and the tea shop, and who sometimes bought four books at once from Better Read Than Dead.
The only reason her mother, Roxanne, could afford to live here, was because she’d bought their shoebox twenty years earlier with Gran’s help when Red was born. Red’s young single mum: it was Roxanne’s fortieth birthday the next day. Red was now exactly half the age of her mother. Roxanne had never wanted to be ‘mum’: they called each other by first names. Though Red’s gran was Gran to Red, and to everyone else, Rosie.
Red left the corner and stepped in to Holy Sheet. This was another of the shops that other people went to. The dancing job was bringing in more money than she’d ever earned at Kmart.
She touched the towels folded on the shelves, running her gaze over the wall of colour. ‘A set of those blue towels, please.’ She picked up a soap. It smelt of sandalwood. Rox would like that too. They weren’t used to splurging. She wanted to give Roxanne something super special for this birthday, it being the big four-O.
That morning she’d found her mum staring at her face in the mirror, pulling at her cheeks, running her hands through her shoulder length hair looking for greys. Her mother was lean-faced and beautiful and now, suddenly, Red was too. Still looking at her reflection, Roxanne said, ‘We could write to Britain’s Most Embarrassing Bodies.’ She was only half-joking.
‘I don’t have a problem with it.’ This wasn’t exactly true. Red swished the cape back off her shoulders so that it hung in loose folds down her back. It had been a mixed first couple of months with the cape.
‘It’s amazing you don’t have any stretch marks.’ Roxanne lifted up her own T-shirt and pulled down her jeans a bit, examining the faint whip marks along her hips, her pierced belly-button with the blue diamond, the minute sag of flesh beneath. At that point, Red had left the bathroom, saying ‘Boundaries Roxanne, boundaries! Remember what Gretel said about boundaries!’ Gretel being Red’s former counsellor. They weren’t sisters. They weren’t besties.
She’d longed to be beautiful like her mother. Instead she’d been thin. Rox and Gran had tried to use the right words, then threats, then pleading with her to eat. It was best when they used no words, only then did she have the inkling of an appetite. When Gran didn’t ask, ‘Why, Red?’ and her mother didn’t tearfully fall for popular theories like, ‘Did someone interfere with you as a child?’ And when the ladies at the cafeteria didn’t frown at the waste of food on her untouched plate each night.
Red wished she could forget her before-cape body. Her skin had been loose over the bones. She could pick it up and stretch it, then let it drop. She even thought of cutting. The memory burned at her, how much she’d hurt herself, and Rox and Gran, screaming at them that if they’d just shut up, she might eat. That’d been a lie. She’d aimed to be the thinnest annie in Newtown. Why not Newtown and Enmore? Some ambition; to be limited to forty kilos and a couple of noughts in the postcode. Other kids she knew aimed to go to uni, or NIDA or overseas with their band. Other kids she’d known had already done all those things.
ON THAT FATEFUL morning of months ago she had creaked off the bed expecting her usual groggy labour, the ache in her bony knees, but instead had staggered, off-balance and weighty towards the floor. Forty kilos heavier, she’d almost doubled in size overnight. Then the discovery of the cape. She spun round like a cat, trying to see it all. A red cape was stuck somehow across the skin of her shoulders. And looking down, she found herself with two creamy, cleavaged breasts. And a round stomach. And no jutting, accusatory hip bones.
Standing on the edge of the bath so she could see herself in the cupboard mirror, her breasts really were something. Instead of being small things above two fanned rows of ribs, they bounced above a narrower waist. Her nipples seemed smaller and less frighteningly dark. On her fat-starved breasts they’d looked like large flat mushrooms, poisonous to touch.
She’d then gamely turned around, lifting her cape. And there was the most amazing backside she’d ever seen. She couldn’t stop touching herself, running her hands over her buttocks and thighs, feeling the soft roundness of her knee caps, the swell of her belly, the swoop-out of her breasts, the way, when she reached down, even her cuny was plumper. Her eyes glowed, the grey circles of doubt gone.
‘Roxy!’ She’d capered about her mum’s small bedroom at the front of the house, wiggling her bum and laughing. ‘How weird is this?’ she’d cried over the look of horror on Roxanne’s tumble-haired face.
‘Shut up, it’s me. It’s me!’
‘Oh my god!’ Roxanne had reached for her mobile, to take a picture. ‘Oh my god, that’s my arse from when I was your age!’
There she went, losing the boundaries again. ‘Don’t post it to Facebook. Don’t ring your friends.’
Roxanne pulled Red to the bed, hugging her daughter close, crying, ‘Oh, oh, oh you’re so different, and healthy and gorgeous!’ Red smelt her mother’s familiar sleep smell, a combination of hospital-pine and Rox’s own aromas.
‘I can’t seem to take the cape off. It’s stuck on.’
Roxanne gave it a tug.
‘Ow! Don’t.’ It hurt like crazy.
In the bathroom with the light on and beside the frosted window, Roxanne carefully examined the cape where it met her daughter’s shoulders.
‘Could you get some local and cut it off?’ asked Red. She’d put up with a leftover rim of red cloth along her shoulders if she had to.
‘I think there’s capillaries here, right at the edge of the thread.’ Roxanne peered closely at the cape, and indeed Red could feel her stroking her. The cape at the edge of her skin carried sensation. ‘I can see threads of capillaries and veins.’ Roxanne lifted up Red’s hair to see how the cape fitted there, and Red felt a sweet ripple of sensation flow between her neck and the cape’s edges. She blushed. It felt nice.
‘Can it do anything?’ asked Roxanne. ‘Are you connected to the Internet?’
‘Too many movies, Rox.’ Red gave it a flap. ‘I need new undies. New everything.’
‘Can you grant wishes?’
‘I wish you’d shut up.’
‘You’ll need plastic surgery.’
‘Wish you could afford it.’
Red slumped down on the edge of the bath, the cape flopping around her to her hips. At least it was not too long. She smelt it. A hint of woodland-something. ‘But what about these legs, Roxanne!’ she said, jumping up again to reveal her sultry hips, rounded thighs, and calves that tapered in to ankles. She stood again on the bath-rim to see herself in the small mirror. ‘I don’t even hate myself like this,’ she said letting out a sigh of satisfaction. Now that was a foreign feeling.
They’d rung Gran. On the door opening, and Red standing there buxom and radiant, Gran had staggered, hand to heart, then wept. ‘My baby, my little baby is back!’ she’d cried, squeezing Red’s sweet flesh. ‘Not on the door-step Gran,’ Red muttered, edging her grandmother over the threshold.
‘Stand still,’ said Gran, walking around Red with a frown of concentration, tugging and rearranging the cloth. Red could feel her thumb and finger rubbing the cape. A seamstress by trade, Gran reckoned it was a smart polymer. Understandably, it didn’t have a wash or fabric label, nor where it was made. ‘Not China,’ asserted Gran. ‘I say, made in Italy.’ Gran was always working to improve their lot.
NAKED IN HER red cape, high heeled black boots, and a wolf glove that ran halfway up her arm, Red danced teasingly close to the edge of the Vanguard’s and The Imperial’s stages in the semi-dark and the semi-light. Burlesque suited her, it turned out, after all those years at Newtown Performing Arts High School. She thought she might have found her calling. The big, bad wolf stalked, nipped and licked all along her voluptuous leg to her almost naked sex. He ravished her as she pouted in mock-protest. She covered herself with the cape, swept it open, lay on its soft red sensations as the wolf ate her. The crowd wanted to eat her up too. It was exhilarating, being rosy, plump Red. At home alone in her bedroom, she completed what the cape and her wolf had started. Her appetites had changed.
Roxanne thought Red was still working at Kmart at Broadway Shopping Centre on the to-midnight shift, and catching the 428 home. When Red had started at primary school, they’d eat dinner together at the RPA hospital canteen, Red in her school uniform, Roxanne in her nurse’s blue. It was sweet, it was cosy, she’d do her homework there. It was their home away-from-home. Since the cape and the weight-gain, the ladies in the buns and hair-nets gave her generous serves and admiring glances. She’d dyed her hair auburn, and they all of them loved it.
When Red tired of being seen in the cape and guys looking at her lasciviously, she pulled a loose hoodie over it, then her skinny jeans and ballet flats. She tied her hair back in a pony-tail and felt halfway normal. No longer thin, she was invisible to the annies and druggies in the streets of Newtown. She still checked them out though; couldn’t stop the mental calculations.
Red decided to monetise her Little Red act. She didn’t want to live on the clubs’ week-to-week bookings, so took the show online. Eat and be eaten, was the basic theme. The studio forest was a haven for big, bad wolves. She worked with one of the producers from the club, and they layered in Victorian overtones and a series of prowling, handsome wolves, whose real names she was indifferent to. She hired an erotica writer to develop new story lines. They added another camera, dubbed in voices, in various languages, with subtitles for the hearing-impaired. The weekly live hour of Red-chat sent the fans ballistic. She was voluptuous and old-world salacious, her gaze lascivious yet virginal and ironic. The like-clicks and virtual cash-register went crazy. They talked of filming in Central Park later that year.
‘GRAN TOLD ME she was in Kmart last night, and you weren’t there,’ said Roxanne coming in from her shift, kicking her shoes off in the living room, wriggling her toes in her pantyhose.
‘Really? Maybe I was on break.’ Red continued to lay the table with bowls, milk and cereal. The kettle was set to boil.
Roxanne slid into her chair. ‘Gran said she asked someone where you were, and they said they hadn’t seen you in weeks.’
‘I guess I work in a different section. What was their name?’ Red turned to face the kettle.
‘Look at me please while we’re talking about this. What are you doing if you’re not at Kmart?’
Red sat down at the far end of the table, which wasn’t that much a distance away in the small kitchen.
‘Rox, I’m twenty now. I make my own decisions.’
Rox leant across and grabbed the cape. ‘Talk to me or I’ll pull so hard you’ll need an ambulance. While you live in this house, you’ll tell me what’s going on.’ Red could feel her cape scrunched in her mother’s fist, and her finger nails where they were stabbing into the cloth.
‘Let go! –I have an act. A live show, and one on YouTube. But Rox, I’ve made a heap of money.’
‘Is it one that Gran or I would enjoy seeing and want a copy of for Christmas?’
Red shook her head.
‘Is it porn?’
‘Erotic burlesque. There’s a difference.’
Rox let go of the cape, her arm lying exhausted across the table, her other hand gesticulating. ‘First anorexia. Now this.’ With a spread of her hands she took in everything, Red’s curves, the cape, the room at large. ‘Is it because your father left? Or because I work long hours? Didn’t I go to enough school events?’
Red got up to dunk the tea bags into the cups. She sloshed in the light milk and a couple of sugars each.
‘I never got the birthday parties I wanted!’
‘But you did, you did! Gran and I pushed ourselves inside-out over those parties.’
‘Just kidding.’ It was too easy to prod the guilt-ducts with Rox. Luna Park, putt-putt golf, a disco, ice skating, Zone-3. She’d had them all.
Rox looked at her with slow blinking eyes, then picked up her tea. ‘Later then.’ She walked tiredly through the small square of their living room, past her abandoned work shoes, down the short length of the hallway to her bedroom. She raised her voice a little. ‘I’m calling Gran this arvo.’ Then the bedroom door closed.
Tears welled. They hadn’t even had breakfast. Rox loved, loved, loved having breakfast with Red now that she was actually eating. And Gran. Gran!
LATE THAT AFTERNOON, Roxanne woke to the thump of Red throwing herself on the soft leopard plush of her bed, crying. She sat up, befuddled from being woken early, patting her distraught daughter.
‘I don’t want it on me. I’m sick of it. I hate it.’
Rox slipped out her ear-plugs, threw aside her eye mask and felt more alert. Then she remembered.
‘I want to go back to the way I was.’
‘But you were ill. Your blood sugars were terrible. Your bone density was miserable. ‘We were so worried…’
Her mother’s embrace was like a larger deeper, darker, safer cape. Red stifled a groan of pain as Roxanne’s hand brushed against the bruised seam of cape and skin.
‘I was at the park…’ sobbed Red.
‘I’ve told you, don’t go there alone.’
‘It wasn’t dark, it should have been fine.’
Roxanne braced herself. She placed two fingers on Red’s wrist. She started counting. Her girl’s heart was racing. Then she saw the swelling bruises on her daughter’s shoulders.
WHILE ROXANNE WAS still fast asleep, Red had set off down King Street to Sydney Park. She wanted to location-scout the forest; never mind what Rox and Gran said. When she showed them her bank balance, then they’d see what she was on about. At the Princess Highway lights she waited to cross the stretch of bitumen to the park. An Emirates plane flew low overhead toward Mascot. She’d never been on a plane, but knew all their insignias.
She wandered through the eucalypts and paperbarks, then into a clearing of stiff bracken, then back into another section of forest, listening to the distant hum of traffic between planes. They’d need to film between plane take-offs. Then she heard ‘Red, hey babe!’ and turned to see three guys advancing through the trees towards her. She almost said hello, thinking she must have known them from school. ‘C’mon, get your gear off,’ one of them called out. She ran. Out of the forest and into the field they chased her, so close that she felt hands grasp at her cape, screamed at the hard pull, heard a thud behind her when he lost his grip. Now some men and women were running toward her, appearing over the rise, one of them with a toddler on her hip, parents from the playground area. The police were called. She was driven home.
AS SOON AS Gran arrived, Rox sat her down in the living room, the setting for their most serious talks: the shows were over. Over.
‘It’s not porn,’ said Red defensively. ‘And I always vanquish the wolves,’ she added.
Gran told her she was living in a fantasy. Roxanne said she was disappointed in the decisions she’d made.
‘I’m not going back to retail.’
Rox and Gran weren’t budging. Red had to delete her YouTube channel that same afternoon.
They didn’t know that her fame lived on in the back-street art of Newtown; her favourite, a Bansky-styled figure of Little Red leading a toweringly large grey wolf. There was talk on the street that the image was a genuine Banksy. That he’d been. Or, that fans continued to ask for her autograph. Evenings, she worked at her former club managing the artists and the shows. Occasionally she’d do a private, guest-only performance, but not so often that Gran and Rox got wind of it. The annies and the druggies, and the kids experimenting with tats and gender and cutting and piercing and costumes and living away from home; she watched them, still. Sometimes she felt tender towards them, the ones who were struggling. So many were. They’d not been dealt her good hand, to wake gifted with a famous story and a physical repleteness like nothing she’d experienced before. This was her good fortune, to be Red, the most glorious of metaphors.
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