I sat in the classroom during lunchtime detention with my writing journal open and stared out the window. I was worried about what Mum was going to say when she saw my school report. My marks were getting worse and worse all the time. She didn’t know that I sat in the classroom every day staring out the window instead of at my school books. I looked down at my journal and started writing again.
When I first began to be conscious of the world around me, there was a quiet house during the day when it was just my mother and I, then she would take me with her tucked up in a pram on the way to give my father his lunch. From the pram, the world outside the house was all sky and occasional tree branches stretching their fingers out to try and catch birds.
In the afternoon my sisters and brother would come running into the house in a whirlwind of noise and excitement. The air seemed to swirl with laughing children as I was such a tiny baby and they always seemed so big. A smiling face would suddenly appear in front of me, squeezing my hand then running off again. Sometimes they would sit and nurse me for a moment, as I gazed up and listened to their voices talking and laughing.
Night time was much quieter after my father got home from work. As I fell asleep each night I could hear the muffled sounds of the television coming from the next room and the rumble of trains passing by as my mother read stories to me.
I never felt as loved as those moments snuggled on the lounge next to my mother’s warm body where I was safe. I watched her lips moving as she read; pink and gentle, they changed shape so often, and every now and then I could see the tip of her tongue. I moved my lips too, pretending that I was reading silently along with her. As she turned the page, my mother looked at me and smiled.
I smiled back but my head was feeling heavy, like it was full of cotton wool. The cushions were soft against my face, with little buttons that I traced with my fingers. I wondered if tiny little people like the ones in the story lived in villages under those buttons. Then I became tiny as well, so tiny that I could crawl under the pillow button and feel long strands of cotton tickling my face.
By the time I was four years old I had grown from being a baby to be a small child with curly red hair and soft milky white skin and a trace of freckles forming across my nose. Mum called them sun kisses and said they made me look beautiful. All of the excitement from my birth had worn off with the other children and by then I was just another part of the family, although I was much smaller than the others and always seemed to be a step behind. No matter how hard I tried, I just couldn’t keep up with my sisters.
Dinner time each night was full of noise and bustle with everyone sitting at the dining table talking at once. The television blared away in the background as Dad listened to the evening news, competing with cutlery rattling against plates. The girls talked about things that were happening at school, or repeating jokes that were heard during the day, followed by lots of laughter. Sometimes Mum would jump in with a question and set the conversation off in a completely new direction until Dad roared at everyone to be quiet when he wanted to hear something on the television.
After dinner, my sisters could always be found in the kitchen washing the dishes and the room was filled with singing, dancing and laughter. ‘The marching band came down the street,’ Samantha sang in a loud voice with her feet marching around the sink. She was ten years old and her hands were covered in long pink rubber gloves as she scrubbed the dishes and then placed them on the drying rack. She had her back to me and all I could see was her long black ponytail bouncing up and down as she moved back and forth on her bare feet. Every now and then her head turned slightly and I could see the sharp outline of her face.
‘And with her head upon his shoulder…’ Catherine’s voice was higher and sweeter and it made me think of the wings of a butterfly as she danced across and put her head on Samantha’s shoulder. Catherine was the eldest and was still wearing her school uniform. Her straight brown hair hung down to her shoulders and I watched her from my stool at the bench. Her hands moved with the tea towel as she dried the dishes, while her green bangle bounced up and down her arm. It caught the light and sent diamond sparkles dancing across the bench top. I tried to catch them in my fingers.
Jasmine joined in for the chorus as she put some more plates back in the cupboard after Catherine dried them. She was six and was usually mischievous and full of fun, but sometimes she was quiet and moody as well and I often caught her green eyes looking into space, deep in thought. I sometimes wondered what she was thinking, but she never told me because I was just her little sister.
‘Billy, don’t take your pillow,’ I sang from my stool.
‘Molly! That’s not how it goes,’ laughed Catherine.
‘Stop being annoying, Molly,’ Samantha said with her hands in the sink and flicking her long black ponytail back and forth, just like the cat’s tail. She was always like that, but I wasn’t being annoying; I was just trying to join in.
‘Billy, don’t take your pillow,’ I started again.
‘Mum! Molly is being annoying again!’ Samantha called out.
‘Molly, leave the girls alone,’ Mum’s voice came back from the lounge room. ‘Why don’t you come in here and read a book?’
Pouting, I hopped off the stool and wandered into the lounge room. ‘Come and sit over here, Molly,’ Mum said, looking up as I came into the room. She had some sewing on her lap and the television was on. I could still hear the girls singing in the kitchen. Dad was sitting in his arm chair reading the newspaper; he didn’t look up when I came in.
I sat on the lounge and picked up one of my favourite picture books, the one with animals in it. I heard Mum sigh, but I wasn’t sure whether she was tired or frustrated. Dad cleared his throat loudly and Mum looked at me and smiled secretly with her blue-grey eyes, as if to say, ‘I smile just for you’. But she turned back to her sewing and I looked down at my book. I couldn’t read yet but I was going to school next year and I couldn’t wait to learn how to make sense of those black squiggles on the page. I already knew some letters and the sounds they made. ‘That one is “cuh” for cat,’ I said out loud. I wondered where the cat was; maybe he was out chasing mice. Yuk, I wouldn’t want to be a cat and eat mice.
The newspaper rustled as Dad turned the page. ‘The price of petrol is going up again,’ he said. ‘It’s a wonder anyone can make any money these days.’
‘Oh dear,’ said Mum, ‘It never stops.’ Her busy fingers painted stitches in the cloth. ‘I ran into Robyn today. You know, I think her and Paul will get married soon.’
‘What makes you think that?’ Dad replied.
‘Oh, it’s just a feeling. The way she talks about him. She was looking at flowers.’ Dad grunted and continued reading the newspaper and Mum kept sewing. ‘I think it would be lovely if they got married.’
‘It’s about time, anyway.’
‘“Duh” for dog,’ I said as I turned the page. I don’t like dogs very much because they are scary the way they bark and jump all over you. I’m glad we don’t have a dog. ‘Woof! Woof woof!’
‘Molly, be quiet,’ said Mum, ‘We are trying to watch the television. Just read to quietly, please honey.’ The needle stabbed the cloth, leaving a row of neat little stitches. ‘She will make a beautiful bride.’
‘Paul had better get a proper job first,’ said Dad. More singing could be heard coming from the kitchen.
‘They’re only young. They have plenty of time; they want to travel first.’
I turned over a few more pages. ‘“Huh” for horse.’ I had never seen a horse up close, only those ones across the road. They looked nice standing there and eating grass. I wondered what it would be like to ride one. Maybe I could be a princess and ride through my kingdom on a beautiful white horse. Everybody would come out of their houses to see me go past and I would wave back at them.
‘I wonder when the wedding will be.’ Mum was already sewing the wedding dress in her mind.
‘Is that all you can think about?’ The newspaper rustled again.
‘“Sh” for sheep.’ I like sheep; they are all soft and woolly, I thought to myself as I ran my fingers over the picture. ‘Baa, baa.’
‘Molly! I think it’s time for bed; you are being far too noisy tonight.’ I looked up at Mum quickly because she was annoyed with me. ‘Come on, let’s go and clean your teeth and I’ll tuck you in bed.’
I trotted off to the bathroom and stood on a little stool to reach the sink. I hated the taste of toothpaste; it made my tongue feel all funny.
‘Mum,’ I said as I climbed in bed, ‘Do you think I will ever be a princess on a horse?’
‘You’re already a princess, sweetheart. Now go to sleep, there’s a good girl.’
As the light went out, I lay in bed thinking about those horses again, but I wouldn’t like it if one started to run. I closed my eyes and saw the neatly trimmed hair of my horse’s mane fluttering in the breeze like the ribbons in my hair. The clip-clop of hooves rang on the pavement as I rode out of the castle courtyard; my long white wedding gown was billowing behind. I was sitting up straight in the saddle because I was a princess, moving serenely through my kingdom, long elegant legs striding across my dream landscape until I eventually fell asleep.