“Tell me a story, Bev.”
Bev looked across her bed to Deb’s, and saw her sister as a mountain cat crouched low along a tree limb, eyes burnished by the dark.
“Go on, Bev. Do it. Tell me a story.”
No, thought Bev, and rolled over, flat on her back. She placed her hands under the bulb of her skull, and relished the ‘V’ between nape and elbows. Toes pointed, she stretched her feel away from her head. Her body worked – everything in order.
“No”, she said. “I think it’s childish. I can’t just make up nonsense any old time, anyway. It’s bad enough having to share a bedroom, without having to tell you bed-time stories every night. Go to sleep.”
“I can’t”, said her sister. “I feel bad.”
Bev thought this over. It felt bad just to think about Deb’s problem, let alone to have it. She softened. She sat up.
“Are you going to tell Mum?”
“No”, said Deb.
“You could, you know.”
“Yeah.” Deb sighed. “Sure I could tell her. She’d cry and I’d cry and we’d both feel lousy. It wouldn’t change anything. What could she do about it? Why bother hurting her?”
“I guess so”, said Bev, humbled. Somehow it seemed very brave and adult for Deb to refuse to inflict pain.
“She’s got enough to worry about, anyway”, Deb continued, suddenly less generous – even oddly resentful. “It’s hard enough putting us two through school and having to work at that horrible job, without Dad going crazy as well. He really picks his times!”
That’s not fair, though Bev. It’s not as if he had any choice – any more than you did.
“What will they do to him this time?” she said, instead.
“God, I don’t know! Why should we bother? It’s not as if he’s bothered with us for years!” Deb snorted harshly. Then, as if chastened, she added meekly “Put him in a funny farm at last, I guess. Let him draw it out of his system.”
Bev nodded uncertainly. Their father had been a commercial artist, employed to draw fashion designs in dress-pattern catalogues. Always highly stylised, the limbs and faces on the mannequins he sketched had grown longer and more gaunt with every season; their colouring had paled, grown ashen, turned blue. Last catalogue, his folio figures were grotesque: emaciated corpses, stretched as if broken on a rack. Their jaws lolled. Their creator was fired.
“Do you think he’s really crazy, Deb?”
“Yup!” Deb chewed the syllable, then spat it out again. “Yup. I sure do.”
Bev sat back in her blankets and pondered. “If we tell Mum she might tell Dad.”
“No way!” A flat, emphatic statement. “And we’re not going to tell Mum anyway, are we?”
“No”, said Bev, brave and obedient.
Last summer Bev and Deb had squandered at the beach. Every weekend, and all the holidays. They even wagged a day from school. With a group of friends they’d caught the train to Geelong, and from there they’d hitchhiked down the coast. Bev had turned fourteen that week. It was the first summer she’d looked good in a bikini, and she’d sauntered around the sands all day, trying out effective hip and leg angles as she walked, as she swam, as she shook out her beach towel.
On the train coming home, an inspector had asked to see their tickets. First the others, then Deb and Bev.
“Names”, he demanded, in a disinterested tone, and not knowing any better, they’d given them.
“Same surname, eh? Sisters?” Not knowing better, the two had nodded.
“How old?” barked the ticket inspector. Deb – who was travelling on a half-fare ticket – dumped fifteen months and answered “Fourteen”.
“You?” the inspector asked Bev, and she – more tall, more solid than her sister – had whispered “Fourteen” too.
“Really?” the ticket inspector sneered. “You can’t both be fourteen, sisters!”
A moment’s awkward silence. Then Bev, the unembarrassed liar, said quickly “I’m adopted”. A self-serving faker, only part way developed.
Bev was growing up, and she learned fast. Deb could trust Bev, and she did.
“I don’t want a baby”, Deb confided.
“You’re not going to have one”, Bev reassured her, adding, confused, “I am mean, you may be going to have one at the moment, but it’s not going to really happen, is it?”
“No”, said Deb, shaking her head slowly. Both lay quiet in the darkened bedroom. Deb, sighing, added the unsaid.
“Rob wants to marry me, Bev. Me, at sixteen, married with a baby! I couldn’t bera it!”
Bev couldn’t bear the thought of it either. Deb didn’t trust Rob, and she didn’t love him. Not like she loved her sister.
“He’s getting really heavy ‘cos I won’t, Bev. He shouts things at me when he sees me at the pub. I can’t hang out with the beach crowd anymore. He’s told them all sorts of lies about me.”
Don’t cry, blossom, Bev consoled mentally. “I don’t like any of them anyway”, she pouted.
“No”, murmured Deb. “Maybe not. But I did.”
“There are lots of better people in the world than that, Deb. There are better parties than the ones they give, and better pubs to go to.”
“Yeah”, Deb agreed. “And there’s more to life than people and parties and pubs and things. I can do better than that.”
Bev remembered the beach last summer. After the pub one night, Rob had thrown a party at his parents’ beach-house. All the local kids had turned up there too. She’d got really drunk on bacardis and coke, and Jamie took her for a ride in his new van. He’d driven up to the look-out on the sand-dunes, and they’d just sat there, saying nothing. She’d had the feeling she should do the talking, and that she should know what to say. But she didn’t, and before long Jamie sighed, and drove her back.
At the house, she felt ill. She wanted to go to bed. Rob had told her she could have the room upstairs, but when she turned the lights on, someone else had already claimed the bed.
“This is my bed”, insisted Bev stoutly, yanking the coverlet towards her. The stranger took no notice.
“All right”, said Bev. “If I can’t get you to move, I’ll just have to get in anyway.”
So she did, and that was that.
“Does it feel good?” the stranger asked.
“Yes”, Bev lied. She would not breathe another word, not then or later. She nearly did, at one point – when he moved on top of her, he hurt so much, and for so long, she was just about to cry out “STOP! Forget it. Pleeease stop!” But then it hurt less, and she was so relieved she really didn’t care that less was still a lot.
She felt she was brave, and adult – like Deb about her baby, or (she imagined) like women giving birth. She felt suitably initiated, as if at last let in on a fundamental secret, and the secret (she believed) was that no matter what they tell you, it’s horrible. It hurts. Reality, she now knew, hurts.
Deb’s baby would soon be a reality, but Bev felt confident that here, reality could be thwarted. Out-manoeuvred. It wasn’t going to happen, was it? Not if Bev or Deb could prevent it. They lay there in darkness, counter-plotting.
On the morning, the two girls wagged school and instead caught a tram to the clinic. They walked in past protesters bearing placards, picketing outside. They walked square-shouldered in private school uniforms. Bev wanted to follow Deb and the woman doctor into the surgery, but the doctor told her to stay in the waiting-room, and so she did.
The uniform made her self-conscious. She placed her feet primly together, and was surprised and impressed by how long her legs had grown, shaven and smoothly brown. She looked across at the wall-mirror: all her limbs were long, straight and gleaming, like her hair. She picked up a magazine and leafed through it. She looked at least as enticing as most of these models, Bev realised, with a thrill tempered by alarm. She’d never before thought of herself as ‘enticing’. ‘Appetising’. ‘Desirable’. Foreign words. Yet she was all this; she could con with the best of them. The thought gave her pleasure, yet it also disturbed her. She put it aside, intending to take it up again later.
Deb and Bev caught a train home from the clinic. Neither had anything much to say.
“Are you okay?” asked Bev, and Deb insisted she was fine. Bev, content to believe her, was massively relieved.
“Here, I’ll tell you a story on the train,” she beamed at her sister, who smiled back wanly. To the station attendant, she held out a handful of silver and said “Two adults, thanks”.