It was my sixteenth birthday and officially I wasn’t a little girl anymore, as if anybody noticed or cared. I hadn’t slept very much through the night, as usual. My eyes were sore from crying and I didn’t want to lift my head off the pillow. The nightmares still bothered me when I did fall asleep so I usually just let myself lay there for hours staring into the darkness. Sometimes I could see stars shining through my bedroom window and I watched them move slowly across the night sky. I could feel time standing still around me while the rest of the world kept spinning in ever increasing circles.
I rolled out of bed and my feet hit the cold floor. The clouds outside were grey and the wind had blown all the autumn leaves away. The bare branches against the window were pointing at me. ‘Look at the freaky teenager,’ they said.
I couldn’t bear to look at my face in the mirror, so I got dressed with my back turned. My school uniform was so drab; black shoes, grey stockings, black skirt, a white blouse and an ugly grey school jumper. I usually wore my hair tied up so that I didn’t have to be bothered with brushing it. Nobody likes red hair anyway.
I skipped breakfast as usual and gave Mum a quick kiss goodbye. ‘You should eat something, darling,’ she said as I ran out the back door. I just waved my hand and headed for my bike. ‘Don’t forget to come straight home this afternoon.’ No mention of my birthday or anything. She had probably forgotten all about it.
I climbed on my bike and rode down the laneway. This was the best bit, feeling the cold wind biting against my cheeks. It was almost like punishment, except it made me feel free. I usually liked to take my time on the way to school but I rode fast because there was something I needed to do on the other side of town first.
My breath was rasping in my throat as I pushed my way up the hill and coasted to a stop. I walked my bike through the gates of the crematorium and leant it against a tree. ‘Well, here I am again,’ I whispered. ‘It’s my birthday today, but I guess you already know that.’ The branches above swayed as I stood there in silence, tears running down my cheeks. It had been five years but it still hurt and I missed him every day. The minutes ticked away and I took a deep breath. ‘I’d better go, I’m already late.’ I walked back to my bike and rode off to school.
I was late again, of course, and got put on lunchtime detention. It was the third time that week. I didn’t mind though because it meant I didn’t have to talk to anyone or be out in the playground with all the other kids. I could just sit in the classroom and read. I hated school anyway; I was terrible at all my subjects except English. Actually, I was bad at English too because I just got zero on my last assignment. I was meant to keep a journal of all the books I had read during the year and write about them. I had read more than a dozen books and had filled up my journal; but I forgot to hand it in on time so I got a big fat zero.
Mum had tried really hard to get me interested in an activity of some sort. She said I spent far too much time sitting in my bedroom with my nose in a book. It was time I did something like making friends and playing outside. I had never told her about school and how all the kids thought I was weird.
Last year Mum bought me a guitar. I lasted one lesson because it hurt my fingers so much that I never touched it again. She then made me sign up for the school choir. She said it was because I used to love singing when I was younger and I needed to discover that again. I went to choir practice once and heard some boys laughing at me. One of them even came over afterwards and told me I was singing flat. So I never went back again. Then Mum tried netball, soccer, athletics, and a heap of other things. I proved I was completely uncoordinated and hopeless at all of them and just wished that she would give up. In the end she bought me a blank notebook in frustration. She handed it to me and said, ‘Why don’t you just write down the things you want to do?’
The notebook sat on the desk in my bedroom for months before I touched it. It was that English assignment that got me started. One afternoon, I thought I would see if I could write about how I felt about things. I sat there staring at the blank first page for ages, not sure how to start, but then the words just started flowing.
If I were to turn the clock back and start all over again, I would go back to that snowy winter night in July, so many years ago, when my mother first suggested that my father should call the neighbours to come and look after the children while he rushed her to the hospital.
Three little girls and their big brother were tucked up in bed when Mrs Smith came from next door to sit with them through the night. Outside, the icy air was filled with occasional snow showers as silver clouds blocked out the stars that heralded the impending arrival of a new baby. Somewhere in the heavens, forces were aligning to influence this baby’s destiny.
The heater in the car struggled to warm itself against the freezing night as my father hunched over the steering wheel, peering into the darkness and trying to follow the road through the frozen windscreen. Beside him my mother sat calmly, rugged up in a heavy overcoat and thick blanket. She had been through this journey a number of times before and the excitement was starting to become part of her routine. With her body aching from periodic contraction pains and the weight of the baby in her belly, my mother let her mind wander as she closed her eyes and waited patiently for the car to find its way down from the mountain pass.
She thought about her children still asleep in bed at home and how they will be well looked after for a few days; it will be exciting for them to have the routine broken and their mother away for a change. There will soon be another little mouth to feed and extra loads of washing and the older girls will have to help more around the house now. The baby’s cot has already been moved into the bedroom and small dresses and nappies unpacked, so there won’t be much to do at home at first. She opened her eyes and watched her reflection in the window, tinged with green from the dashboard lights, and sighed.
After arriving at the hospital I had been in no hurry to leave the cosy world where I was part of my mother, but eventually I poked my head out to take my first timid breath.
‘It’s a girl!’ the doctor announced as he placed me in my mother’s arms.
‘Molly,’ my mother whispered as she gazed into my blue eyes for the first time, her face still flushed and tired. The busy nurses buzzed around the room and took me away from her to be wrapped in a hospital blanket that was coarse against my soft pink skin. The hospital ward was white and scrubbed clean, cold and impersonal, but everything was shiny under the bright fluorescent lights. My mother was allowed to nurse me for a little while but I was soon taken away again so that she could rest and I was put in a crib in the nursery with a whole lot of other small babies, all wrapped in pink and blue blankets. Some were sleeping soundly and others were like me, crying for the gentle touch of their mothers.
After a week in the hospital that was spent sleeping and learning to feed from my mother’s breast, I was taken home slowly in the car, cradled in her warm arms. My father turned the car onto a dirt track at the back of the railway station, searching for the house that would be my first home. The sky was grey with a cold breeze blowing against my tiny face. Inside the house was ringing with the laughter and squeals of an excited group of children eager to meet their new baby sister.
The house and children were my mother’s whole world. She was a gentle country girl with soft freckled skin and red hair that she always kept cut short. Her days were filled with cooking and cleaning, making beds after the children had left for school, putting loads of washing on, and a thousand other tasks. Throughout the mornings she had the radio turned up loud, dancing around the house as she worked and singing quietly and moving in time to the rhythm of the music. After a short break for lunch, the afternoons were spent sewing as she made new clothes for the children or pretty dresses to sell at the local craft shop. She lost herself sometimes when sewing; moments when there was no thought of time, only the world she saw of colours and shapes as her swift fingers stitched pieces of fabric together. The extra bit of money the dresses brought in helped her make ends meet.
The afternoon sun shone through the window, casting a beam of light on her pretty face and making her hair glow in a reddish-golden halo. She stifled a yawn and looked at the clock. It was getting late in the afternoon and the kids would be home from school soon, and it was nearly time to start getting dinner ready and then feed the baby. She looked across to where I was laying in my cot and smiled when she saw that I was watching her. She was my whole world.