ONCE A MONTH, Mrs Murphy took him on a trip to the other side of town. For these journeys she always made sure Geordie’s shirt and shorts were ironed, and that his face and fingernails were scrubbed clean. She herself was always dressed in a grey raincoat, with a scarf around her head, even when it was hot. After leaving the house, she would take him by the hand and lead him to the bus stop. He was only permitted to take one toy with him at a time, and today he was carrying an aeroplane.
On the bus, they sat at the front, and Mrs Murphy peeled him a mandarin. He’d never seen a mandarin before he’d met Mrs Murphy, or a custard apple, or a grape. Some fruits had skins on them that you could eat as well, others that tasted bad and you had to spit them out. When people wanted to get off the bus they pushed a button on the wall. Geordie counted the traffic lights as the bus zoomed past the familiar car yards and factories and supermarkets. After sixteen intersections, small houses became big houses, with fountains and gardens and statues with no clothes. When he got to twenty, he began counting all over again.
‘WHY DON’T YOU go and play?’ his real mother said, nodding at a section of the room, where there was a plastic jungle gym with a slide and a small seesaw. The bars of electric light shining from the ceiling hurt his eyes. The doors at each end of the room were locked, with guards standing beside them, holding what looked like walkie-talkies. A few younger kids were rolling around on the tiled grey floor and spitting at each other. The other mothers mostly held their children on their laps, but Geordie sat straight backed at the table, next to Mrs Murphy.
His real mother sat opposite and was scratching her face. She’d torn a scab on the side of her cheek and the blood looked like little red beads pressed against her skin. Her hair used to be blond but now only the ends were fair; the rest of it was a mousey grey colour. And without lipstick and all that other stuff she looked like she was sick. Every visit was the same, lasting exactly until the big hand reached the bottom of the clock, which was when he and Mrs Murphy were allowed to leave.
‘Why don’t you go and play,’ she repeated, pointing at the jungle gym. One of the toddlers had removed his nappy and was now smearing shit against the slide.
Geordie wheeled the aeroplane back and forth along the length of his arm, as if it was trying to take off, but had run out of fuel.
ON VISITING DAY, he and Mrs Murphy always got off the bus at the same stop, across the road from IKEA. His real mother now lived in a big building with lots of other women. Mrs Murphy would take his hand again as they stopped at the high gates with circles of barbed wire that looped along the top. There, a man with a rifle sat inside what looked like a cubby house, with a peaked roof and windows. Mrs Murphy would pass him papers and, after the man with the rifle read them, he pressed a button and the gates magically parted like walls in a cartoon. Inside the gates, they trailed through a car park and up on to a footpath. As soon as they stepped on a rubber mat, two glass doors slid sideways and they passed yet another man with a gun at his side, who always looked them up and down.
At the counter, Mrs Murphy had to show one more important person lots of papers and photographs. Everyone was dressed the same, in dark-blue uniforms with gold buttons and caps that were like baseball caps but bigger, with shiny peaks. Geordie was tall enough to see over the counter, where he could see himself on a TV. Sometimes he would pull a face or wave, until Mrs Murphy rested a hand on his head and told him to behave. After that, Mrs Murphy placed her handbag and mobile phone into a plastic tray. The tray was dropped onto a wide belt that dragged it into a machine. He always walked first through the door that wasn’t a door, but more like a frame in a set of monkey bars, and Mrs Murphy followed. On the other side, the machine slid out the plastic tray and Mrs Murphy collected her things.
‘THE FOOD IN here is shithouse,’ said his real mother. ‘Everything they serve up looks like spew.’ Like most of the other women in the room, she wore green tracksuit pants and dirty white runners, as if they were all on the same team at a sports carnival. ‘I told ’em I wanted to work in the kitchen, but they’ve got me in the laundry. Motherfuckers.’
Geordie watched her wipe her nose with the back of her hand and rub it on the leg of her pants. Mrs Murphy cleared her throat and plucked a fresh handkerchief from her dress pocket. She passed it over to his real mother, who slapped her hand away. ‘Should never’ve been here in the first place.’ She kicked Geordie under the table. ‘You told the coppers what happened, right?’
THE WORST PART of visiting day was always after they’d walked through the door that wasn’t a door. Two guards would appear and lead them down a corridor, which smelled like the toilets at school on Fridays, after they’d been cleaned. The guards walked them into a small room and the door would magically close itself behind them. Here, Mrs Murphy had to put her handbag and phone into a locker. She removed her raincoat and scarf, which revealed curly grey hair and a baggy white dress with black spots. The coat and the scarf, too, had to be left in the locker. Then, she disappeared behind a curtain that almost reached the floor. On some visits Geordie could see her kicking off her slip-on shoes.
‘I’M GOING TO get out of here, you know,’ said his real mother. ‘I’m, like, totally innocent.’ She was chewing on her thumbnail and jigging one leg up and down. A kid on the shit-smeared jungle gym fell to the floor and another child was crying. Since his real mother had been taken away that night, Geordie had been living with Mrs Murphy and her husband. They had no kids of their own and were pretty old, but they let him play video games and eat ice-cream. Their dog was called Piper and every afternoon Geordie was permitted to walk the dog down to the park. He had a whole room to himself, and Piper was even allowed to sleep on his bed.
Geordie lifted his metal aeroplane above the table and made a rumbling sound as he traced an arc through the air. ‘Quit doing that, Geord,’ snapped his mother. ‘I got a fuckin’ headache.’
AFTER MRS MURPHY vanished behind the curtain, it was always the time he hated the most. Geordie automatically sat on a chair, kicked off his runners and removed his socks. The guard would put on thin rubbery gloves, kneel and inspect each shoe, feeling within, and turning the socks inside out. Then came the worst part – it made him feel small and grimy, as if he were being punished over and over for something he hadn’t done: he had to pull off his T-shirt and hang it on the back of a chair. The guard would frown and cross his arms and wait for Geordie to complete the next step. With trembling knees, Geordie would stand up, grab the top of his shorts and lower them. Next came the underpants that fell around his ankles. The guard helped him step out of them and, shivering, Geordie would hug himself. Goosepimples rose on his arms and legs while the guard felt through his clothes and patted inside the pockets. Next, Geordie had to spread his feet while the guard looked through the gap in his legs. Then he would feel rough hands from behind, grabbing the cheeks of his bum and pulling them apart.
‘I HATE IT in this dump,’ his real mother said, making a fist against the side of her head. ‘You’re so lucky, Geord–’ she kicked him under the table again, ‘–you’re so lucky to be free.’ She glanced at the clock on the wall, her eyes following the second hand around the face. Another baby began crying and one of the prisoners stood up from a table nearby and demanded cigarettes from the teenager who was visiting her.
‘Remember when we lived in the caravan, Geord? With Uncle Blue? They were great bloody days. We were free as a bird.’
Over the years, Geordie had been introduced to lots of uncles but never his real father, who was also in prison. Sometimes he and his mother would move in with one of the uncles and sometimes it was the other way around. At the caravan park Uncle Blue had been the manager and never, ever charged them rent. His mother said it was because they were related, like family, and family shared everything.
But the caravan stank of cigarette smoke and burnt sausages, and the floor was always muddy. When it rained the windows fogged and water leaked onto his mattress. Whenever the generator broke down, the milk in the fridge went sour and the frozen pizzas began to melt. They didn’t have their own bathroom and whenever he needed a pee, even in the middle of the night, he had to walk to the shower block on the other side of the park.
But he’d had a secret hiding place, in the crawl space beneath his bed, where his mother shoved empty wine casks and Hungry Jack’s containers. Sometimes he’d stay hidden there for hours, listening to his mother talk to his uncles, or even to herself when she was drinking a lot.
After he finished his shift, Uncle Blue liked to come to their van and share his pipe with her mother. It was a weird sort of pipe, Geordie always thought, made of glass you could see through to where the smoke curled and floated.
‘REMEMBER WHEN BLUE used to give you money?’ she said, spreading both hands on the table. Her fingers were stained brown from smoking rollies.
Geordie looked at the floor, not wanting to talk about Blue. Whenever an uncle didn’t want him around, Geordie would be given a few coins and told to go to the shops or to simply bugger off for a while. When they were renting a flat in Waterloo he used to go to Maccas across the road. When they were staying with Uncle Ted, he would go next door and watch cartoons. When they were living in the caravan, he used to walk down to the beach and smash stranded bluebottles with a rock. Sometimes he’d ask his mother for a brother or sister, someone he could play with when he was told to go outside. But his mother would tell him that her insides were busted up, that nothing could grow inside her now.
‘Sometimes Blue’d give me money too,’ she added. ‘And holy fuck – I could do with it now.’
AFTER THE GUARD checked between the cheeks of his bum, he was allowed to put his clothes back on. Today, while he was tying his shoelaces, the guard picked up the toy aeroplane and tried to pull it apart. He turned it in his hands and snapped off a propeller. He squinted into the little windows and spun the front wheel. Over time, Geordie had tolerated a teddy bear being ripped open, a football deflated and a toy mobile phone jimmied and cracked in half. It was the price he had to pay, Mrs Murphy had once explained, to be able to see his real mother again.
When he was handed back his broken aeroplane, Mrs Murphy came out from behind the curtain and took his hand in hers. The guard opened the door and led them down a corridor with no windows. An alarm rang from somewhere else in the building, and they came upon a closed door. Geordie knew by now that to get through the closed door the guard would have to wave a card at a black box that flashed a red light, and then a green one. On the other side of the door would be the visiting room, with all the other real mothers. And his own mother would be waiting for him, at the same plastic table, the one in the corner with the uneven legs.
‘I’M GUNNA GET off,’ said his real mother, fingering a hole in the sleeve of her shirt. ‘Once we get this trial over, I’m definitely gunna get off.’ When she smiled, her teeth looked like rusty nails. ‘We’ll go back to the caravan and live like queens!’
When Geordie moved in with Mr and Mrs Murphy, they gave him a whole bedroom, with his own wardrobe and TV set. In the lounge room there was an old-fashioned piano where he pecked out tunes he heard on the radio. They also had a car with a square window in the roof, where the sun shone through. When the car was parked they let him stand on the back seat and stick his head through the opening. On Sundays they drove to a lake and Mr Murphy cooked steaks on a barbeque. The Murphys did not hit one another; they did not even yell or argue. One day they all took a trip on a ferry across Sydney Harbour and visited a zoo.
‘My trial’s tomorrow,’ she said, still jigging her leg. ‘You know my trial’s tomorrow, don’t you?’
Geordie nodded, and with his finger turned the remaining aeroplane propeller. The man in the suit who was helping his mother to get out of prison had told him over and over what to do: his mother would be in the courtroom during the trial; he, Geordie, would be in a room nearby with Mrs Murphy, and all he had to do was look at a computer and tell the screen what had happened that night, what he’d seen when he’d looked out from under the bed. All he had to do was tell the truth.
‘Once I get out,’ she added, laughing, ‘we’ll have a party. We’ll have party and invite all the uncles.’
When his real mother smoked the pipe that you could see through, she was like a car that drove too fast. She’d run around the outside of the caravan and punch the walls. Or pull off all her clothes and try to eat them.
The night that it happened, there were two uncles in the caravan with her, Uncle Blue and Uncle Ted. Geordie was hiding under his bed, in his secret place.
It was the same night the police took his real mother away. They dragged her off in handcuffs, while she screamed and tried to kick them. Uncle Blue had been the one with the knife, the one who’d stabbed Uncle Ted lots of times. But tomorrow, during the trial, he’d change his story, change the story he’d told the cops. He’d tell them it had been his mother all along, that she’d been the one who’d killed the uncle called Ted.
He knew that sometimes it was wrong to tell a lie, but at other times it was right. Besides, he liked his new parents, Mr and Mrs Murphy, and his new bedroom painted blue. He liked having a dog and a piano and going to the zoo.
The second arm of the clock finally reached the bottom, where it read ‘30’, and a short alarm sounded. The other visitors stood up and began murmuring goodbyes. Geordie slid off his chair and took Mrs Murphy’s hand. She always smelled sweet, like grass after heavy rain.