IN 1985 I am twelve. The tropical north is nirvana, especially for a child previously so tightly pressed by English winters, closed footwear and the flat, grey monotony of a council estate. Townsville sighs into me with hot, wet breath, bringing me undone. I am unlaced, unchecked and often shoeless.
Willingly assaulted by an aggressive sun, my face freckles and the tips of my eyelashes turn blond. The sweaty limbs I throw wantonly towards the vast open sky caramelise within days as my family settles into a new home, a new life.
Our street in Wulguru is a winding cul-de-sac. Maggie's house, about halfway down, is its social nexus. She is a big, loud woman who dominates the street and keeps a watchful eye on the drama that unfolds here like a soap opera. Nobody has seen the script but she expects everyone to play a role. Even me.
Maggie's large backyard boasts the neighbourhood's only pool, and it is constantly crowded with kids. Underneath her house is a battered old snooker table with shabby green felt and an always well-stocked bar. Its shelves are crowded with promotional stubby coolers and candles stuck into the necks of empty Bacardi bottles. Maggie's elderly black Labrador, Bodie, often hides behind this bar to escape us kids and cool his sagging belly on the smooth concrete floor.
Our parents congregate daily around white plastic tables underneath a broad shade sail, while we swim in water so heavy with chlorine our eyes burn. Maggie says the caustic chemical kills all the germs from the little kids pissing in the pool, but I make a point of swimming with my mouth closed, just in case.
When our skin is wrinkled and our eyes red, we play cricket and practise cartwheels on the thick grass, or ride up and down the street on BMX bikes as the sun goes down and our parents drink too much. On Friday nights we're allowed to swim until nine. In the dark the pool is otherworldly, alien, the water illuminated by a row of sunken blue lights. We fight repeatedly over goggles and the sole lilo, dunking each other over and over, milking every minute until Maggie yells Nine o'clock...kids out of the pool! Reluctant yet regimented, we troop out of the yard.
After we leave, a thick cigarette haze spreads over the tables, trapped under the shade cloth like a great dirty cloud. My mother hijacks the tape player on the bar; she loves The Pointer Sisters, and the song 'Jump'punches out over the boisterous patio. A glass smashes. Someone swears and there's the inevitable chorus of Tax-i! Maggie yells up the stairs for her kids to Get back into bloody bed, and the sound of a snooker game clatters from under the house through holes in white besser bricks.
I'm spending the night next door at Brad and Shelley's. Best friends with my parents, they have a son a little older than me who everyone says looks a lot like Cory Haim, but I don't see it. We often end up sleeping here, even though our place is right at the end of the street; I don't mind because their house is air-conditioned and ours isn't. Well past midnight, sleep still evades me. I'm pyjama-less, clad only in knickers and a thin singlet as I poke my head out of the bedroom door, all prepubescent self-consciousness and bare limbs. I desperately need to pee and the noise negates the need for stealth, so I race on gazelle legs down the hall to the bathroom. I go quickly with the door open.
My mother's voice carries through the windows from across the yard, argumentative and rising above the rest: something about Ian Botham kicking the entire Australian cricket team's arse. She is drunk. She says He can park his bat under my bed anytime and cackles cheerily with everyone else when someone jokingly calls her a slut.
Curiosity pulls at me with insistent fingers. Brad and Shelley's spare room overlooks the backyard; if I stand to one side of the window and press my face up against the flyscreen, I can see sideways through a big gap between the smooth, stubby branches of a frangipani tree and over the fence. Fragrance overwhelms me, a dense and heady mix of tiny white and yellow blooms and the pungent wisps that drift from smouldering mosquito coils perched on thick fence posts.
I can see my mother clearly. Her dress is red and white and rucked up to the top of her thighs. She is sitting on Brad's lap, bare legs crossed. Brown wedge-heeled sandals reveal scarlet-painted toes. One arm is slung carelessly around Brad's thick neck and the other hand holds the lit cigarette my Dad has just rolled her.
She is different here. In England my Dad was a peacock and she was his unassuming and drab hen, chirping supportively beside him while he preened. She would never ruffle him. I'm not the only one who's hatched, been opened by the sun. This version of my mother favours bright colours and dangerous shoes. She smokes sometimes and drinks often. Talks more and laughs louder. She has emerged from her torpor a tropical bird – all flashy plumage, talons and squawking.
Her head lolls, one tanned leg swinging back and forth as she takes a languid drag on her cigarette. I can make out the bright-red mark her lipstick leaves on the cigarette paper, and I watch as her tongue flickers along her lower lip, searching out the stray fragment of tobacco that clings there tenaciously. She picks it off, rubs her lips together and exhales the smoke. Brad murmurs something, and she grabs his face between her hands and dips her head quickly, kissing his forehead hard and proudly showing everyone the jammy lipstick mark, sticky and livid against his skin. Her teeth are smeared red when she laughs. I am riveted by this horseplay, deaf and blind to the room around me. I realise, slowly, that somebody is standing behind me.
Michael is fourteen. He never speaks to me at school. He is almost as good a reason to be here as the air-conditioning, and my pulse trips fast beneath my skin. He scratches his stomach drowsily, his blond hair sticking up like a cockatoo's crest at the back from sleeping. He is wearing nothing but blue-and-white-checked boxer shorts. I stare at the smattering of mousey hair that covers his chest and trails down his flat belly to the elastic of his shorts, and I wonder inanely why it isn't the same colour as the hair on his head. His long arms stretch above him, brown skin taut across shoulder muscles I try not to fixate on. He yawns, scrubs at his face and says, Whatchya doin'?
I panic, acutely aware of my unclothed state. My mouth gapes, fish-like. A few awkward seconds pass and I settle for making the 'shh' sign in front of my face, jerking my head towards the open window. The opening refrain of 'The Gambler' blares briefly from below but is curtailed when Maggie yells Turn that shit off! He laughs. Stay there, he says, and leaves the room.
My stomach churns. I want to run. I want to be back in bed, but my feet are unwilling. Movement from the kitchen: the fridge hums and buzzes, opens and slaps shut.
He reappears, holding an open beer, and stands next to me at the window. Want some?
I wrinkle my nose. Yuck. No. I'm not old enough.
He shrugs, says, Neither am I, and takes a swig.
The bottle is sweating; drops of moisture slide across the cold amber glass. Michael's eyes squint as he swallows, and I hold my breath. I hear the foamy whisper as the beer settles back in the bottle. He doesn't like the taste, I'm sure of it, but he has another quick gulp as if to convince us both. Go on, have some.
I breathe out. A slow, calming breath. Just as my fingers touch glass, a scream and a splash issue from the yard, followed by swearing and another huge splash. Our heads snap round and we peer through the flyscreen and across the fence together, twin spies, shoulder to shoulder. The blue pool lights wink and shift as the water slops in choppy peaks, rising and falling in conflicting directions. My mother, fully clothed, kicks the water up with furious feet into Brad's laughing face.
Arsehole, she says. These are new fucking shoes.
He duck-dives and grabs her legs, pushing his head between her thighs and surfacing, rocket-like, hiking her clear of the water with a bellow, an aquatic Tarzan. She screams ineffectually, legs flailing. Everyone else is thoroughly entertained, cheering and whooping encouragement.
I look sideways at Michael. I think my mum is going to kill your dad.
He turns his back to the window and has another bitter swallow of beer. I doubt it, he says. She loves it.
What do you mean?
You know... He shrugs.
But I don't. Uncertainty swims in the pit of my stomach. It is acidic; I am over-chlorinated. I grab the bottle from his hand and drink, one long draft and then another. It's revolting but still I drink, grimacing, determined and eyeballing him over the curved base of the bottle.
He smirks when I finally hand it back. Feel better?
I fleetingly imagine vomiting on the floor in front of him. Instead I emit a wet gurgle, a poor excuse for a burp, from embarrassed lips. We stand in silence, our backs against the screen, taking it in turns with the stolen beer, so close I can feel heat radiating from his skin. The bottle no longer sweats but we do.
Lulled by our equitable drinking and the dull buzz that creeps up behind my ears, I fail to hear the tinny clatter of the screen door. Michael's reflexes are not so dulled. Shit. Someone's here.
So? I am all wide eyes and fuzzy head.
Michael is a scramble of arms and legs, disappearing under the spare single bed that takes up one side of the room. I am left clutching the beer. I stare nonplussed at the bottle. Footsteps sound in the hall and urgent fingers tug at my ankle.
The carpet is itchy. It smells weird up close and the curly metal springs under the bed grab at my hair as I inch sideways on my stomach and elbows as quickly as I can.
Ow! I tug at my snarled hair with panicked fingers.
My singlet works its way up as I wriggle. I am clammy, and bits of hair and dust stick to me. I feel them, like grit, under Michael's hand when he pulls my body tight into him, his palm sliding on my hip, fingers gripping my stomach, digging in hard. He is flat against the wall, as flat as he can get, and I echo his shape: limb to limb, his belly to my back. He pants softly into the nape of my neck with hot, hurried breath, and I lay still.
The room welcomes two disembodied and unsteady feet: wedge-heeled sandals and painted toes. My mother hums to herself, giddy, shifting from foot to foot. Her dress slaps to the carpet, a wet mess of candy stripes, and she jiggles her legs – an almost comical striptease that brings underwear to feet.
Cupboard doors squeak open and hangers skitter on rails as she rifles through Shelley's clothes for something to borrow. I pray silently for rapid dressing as Michael exhales sharply and presses his face to my shoulder. He is laughing and I am red-faced at the nakedness neither of us can see but both can imagine.
Then, a dark shape in the doorway. A male voice and another set of feet. Need a hand, love?
I see blue thongs and hairy ankles. I feel Michael go rigid because my father doesn't wear thongs. A hiss from my mother.
What are you... Heeey... Do you mind?
A low chuckle. A shhh. A whispered Stop it and a tangle of feet. The white louvre doors of the cupboard creak and resist as my mother steps back against the slatted wood, Brad's feet clumsy between hers. They fumble and hush and laugh under their breath like sneaky children as we cringe.
I try to move. I take a breath, about to speak. About to interrupt. The arm beneath my head curls in on me; a sticky hand clamps over my mouth. My waist is held, vice-like, and Michael's ankles snake around mine, knobbly bone on knobbly bone. I am pinned, silenced. His fingers smell like caramel and dirt, and I breathe heavily into them, unsettled.
Floorboards creak and Brad lowers himself with a soft grunt, his knees pressing into the coarse brown pile carpet. He places his half-drunk beer, nestled safely in a white polystyrene cooler, on the floor next to the bed. His hands disappear from view. My mother's feet are planted wide, pushed up on toes in the sandals she hasn't taken off. She lifts one shoed foot and the bed frame shifts as she pushes against it. She makes tiny sighing noises and I cry fat, frightened tears that slide between Michael's fingers. They stay pressed hard on my lips regardless, and I hate him.
I hate him even though the tiny hairs on his legs tickle behind my knees and the sweat on his belly sucks at the small of my back, making me want to lean in to him. Instead I open my mouth underneath his hand, baring my teeth and biting his skin, gently at first and then harder. I hate you. He growls almost imperceptibly and his other hand leaves my hip. He tangles his fingers into my hair, twisting around and pulling until finally I let go.
Brad shifts and my mother's foot slips clumsily off the bed frame, kicking over the beer. Liquid hisses into the carpet.
Shit. Brad grabs at the bottle and my mother dissolves into drunken giggles, snorting loudly as she covers her mouth. Maggie bellows from over the fence, What's taking you so long! Bring back some ice, will ya?
We lay there for a tense minute after they leave, uncertain, our breath ragged. Suddenly Michael shoves me hard, and then shoves me again, forcing me from under the bed. My head whacks on the metal frame and the carpet tears into skin, burning my elbows and knees as I clamber out into the middle of the room, Michael right behind me. We face each other, shaking. I bite my lip. I don't want to cry in front of him again.
His fists clench and unclench by his sides and his boxer shorts poke out at the front like a small tent. I can't help but look, and I flush instantly. Hot. Red. He moves a hand protectively in front of his crotch and glares at me for a second before unexpectedly lunging at me.
His tongue pushes into my mouth, pointy and frantic. He tastes of beer, and I have no idea what I'm doing so I just stand there confused, mouth open and eyes wide, staring at his closed eyes and his scrunched and angry expression. Then, just as abruptly, he stops and pushes me away.
I don't know what to say to him. I don't know what just happened. I don't even know if I hate him or not, so I just stare at him and try not to cry until finally he turns his back and walks away, leaving me standing alone in the centre of the room.
I press my face up against the flyscreen and peer sideways through the tree one more time. Across the fence, my mother sprawls across my father's lap and her fingers trail affectionately up and down his arm. He lights another cigarette for her and she kisses him in return. The music plays on and the pool is full of people. They are oblivious.
Everything is as it should be.
Nothing is the same.