THE KNIFE, An excerpt from the novel You Belong Here
This current issue presents text by the 2014 Sozopol Fiction Seminars fellow Laurie Steed
Mum says I have the memory of an elephant. That Jay got the brains, Emily, the beauty, and me, I never forget.
I remember sixth grade: Blair Cavaney, year five toff kicking Johnny in the nuts, not once, but twice because he looked 'weird.' Walker and me, suspended for a week because we pushed him up against the dental shed. Told him that you never kick anyone in the nuts. That if he did it again, we'd kick his head in.
I remember Di's deli. Lunch bins, these big, plastic buckets. Maybe once they'd had sand or cement in them. You picked up everyone's lunches. Pies, pasties, sausage rolls. Choc milks and OJ cartons. Heavy as shit, those bins, but you were always popular once you got back to school.
Today it's all I can do not to pry open the lid, look at all that food.
Don't even think about it, mister.
Did more than think about it. Ate it all, and didn't even throw away the rubbish. Left the bin at the door and walked on up to the headmaster's office.
There's a reason for this that's hard to explain, like the reason for balancing a knife's edge, over and over on your skin.
We ride home, Walker and me, discipline cases with broken brains and secondhand bikes, in search of something worth seeing. Cruise fourth avenue and they're developing another block. Skid into stop, thinking, we don't need more houses, not when the city's already overcrowded with empties, papered storefronts dotting the outskirts of town.
Thinking, Perth is such a liar. Always saying one thing, doing another.
I ask Walker if he gets it like I do. If we have a shot at changing things as long as we stick together. Walker goes quiet, hair falling down in front of his face. Says his family's moving back to Adelaide in November. They need to be closer to his gran, he says. She's near the end of her innings.
'Let's go,' he says, pushing back his fringe. Kickstand folds, and we're flying down Fourth. I push on the pedals to pick up speed. Sometimes I want to push them through my shoes, so they cut into my feet. Sometimes I get a knife and push the point into my arm. It leaves a mark, but no one ever seems to notice.
Walker skids, turns, and waits. I swerve to get past him. He pushes his front wheel into mine, and I bounce him off with a twist of my handlebars. We ride down to Central, dodge a bus, its back end swinging back into traffic. Mount the island. Judge the speed of the incoming traffic. Nearly mess it up, and bunny hop back onto the footpath.
'You'll be the death of me,' says Mum. She edges the blade as she opens the vacuum pack, the ham steaks sliding onto the chopping board. Our counter is pocked with misjudged slices, dices, and juliennes, most from Mum, swearing as the knife bounces out of her hand and clatters to the floor.
'Are you listening? The death of me.'
'Bit harsh,' I say, scoffing peanuts straight from the bag. 'I thought I was your pride and joy.'
'Your teacher said you called her a bitch.'
'I called her a witch. When's Dad coming home?'
'He's not,' she says. 'Can we please not do this? You're fifteen years old. Nearly an adult. Start acting like it.'
'Maybe he's running late,' I say. I pull back the curtains and pretend to look down the driveway.
'He's not running late,' says Mum, as she pulls the steaks apart.
'Is he mad? At you?'
'God. Mrs Melodrama. I was just kidding.'
Mum asks me to peel the spuds. I ask why Emily can't do it. She says, 'She's at piano. You know that, too.'
In my dream, I live in the country. Walker comes over and we kick a footy, back and forth in an overgrown paddock. I work the land. Up early, finish by three, and it's hard work, but Dad's real proud of his hard-working son.
In my dream, he comes over. We watch the football and the Eagles win game after game as he drinks his beer, and I drink my Coke. I say 'I love you Dad,' whenever Sumich kicks a goal, but he can't hear me over the roar of the television.
When's Emily getting home?'
'You miss your sister?'
'I'll have her ice cream if she’s not coming back.'
'She'll be back later,' says Mum. 'Finish the spuds.'
'I like this.'
'What do you mean?'
'Jay's at camp. It's like you're here.'
'I'm always here,' she says, looking at me like I'm a broken ring pull on a can of Coke.
She dribbles oil on the steaks, shifts them to a baking tray. When they're brown as old leather, she'll pull out the pineapple, drain the slices and put them on top. She'll dish the yellow mash — half-cheese, half-potato — onto the plates and Emily will come in just as it's being served.
Emily's my sister. Dad loves her. Mum loves her, too, more than me. It's not that she doesn't love us, she explains, but she always wanted a daughter. Auntie Sophie says she was like me when she was young, and it's a strength, I mean, who wants to be like everybody else?
We used to have family dinners around the table, wood stained caramel and my knees pushed up against the underside. The TV had to be off. We were absolutely, positively not allowed to go eat dinner on the couch, which wasn't really a couch, just a single bed with a cover Mum made from some old beige fabric.
The idea was you got to eat with your family. Mum, Dad, and kids… only Dad left for the second and last time when I was ten. That's justice; Mum and Emily mess up, and I'm the bad guy because I'm happy to say what everyone else is feeling.
Emily walks into the dining room.
'Good one. Genius stuff,' she says. 'What does that even mean?'
'Kids,' says Mum, plonking the ham steaks down at the centre of the table.
'She started it,' I say, throwing a glob of mash, which lands in Emily's hair.
'God!' Emily kicks me, takes her plate, and leaves the room. It's Mum and me. I smile, but she looks angry or sad or something, so we sit there eating in silence, and then I go to my room. I put on Faith No More really loud, 'Land of Sunshine,' repetition riff on the lead guitar, Patton's vocals, soft to start with, but you know he's about to go ape shit, maniacal cackling, mind melt carnival loop on the keys, drums kicking in with a heartbeat thump.
Walker says he sees adults smoking and drinking, and we're grown up, so why can't we? I say I can't smoke because, well, it tastes like smoke, and he says his dad was a real chimney, probably smoking up in heaven as we speak, and we laugh, though it's not that funny.
Out back at mine it's quiet; we talk there most afternoons. Seek shade in the peppermint tree, play out cricket classics on our sloped back lawn. The weeds by the garden shed is six and out, the back fence is four and, though there's no bonus for hitting the cat, we both try to do that as often as possible.
We practice footy bumps, bracing for each hit. I get Walker good, and he grabs my finger, squeezes it in on itself, and it hurts like hell. I reach back for his neck, pulling him in. He lets go of my finger. I let go of his neck. Then we start laughing. We head over to the tree, me sat centre, Walker with a head full of leaves, in the shade of the branches.
'I can't believe I'm going back to Adelaide.'
'It's not so bad.'
'No, not really. But we can ring, right?' I lift my hand to my ear. 'Uh, hello, I'm calling long distance for a Mr Walker. Yes, I'll hold.'
Walker knocks down my imaginary phone with his arm. 'Dickhead.'
We sit for a while. I pick a flake of bark from off the tree. 'Why'd you come to Perth? You said your Dad, right? A job?'
Walker pauses. He looks away.
‘Something happened,' said Walker.
'Not like that. I don't want to go back.'
'You don't have to.'
'Yeah, I do,' says Walker. Then he's quiet.
'I could come see you. You know, on holidays.'
'Good one. You don't get it at all, do you?'
'I get it, fuckwit. I'm trying to cheer you up.'
'Well don't, alright?'
'Alright,' I say and thump his arm twice. 'We playing cricket or are you going to go cry to your Mum?'
'You're fucking dead,' says Walker.
I grab my bat from under the back stairs, a Grey Nicholls Dynadrive with cherries down the meat, and we head out to the lawn. He bowls a ball, really hard, an in-swinging Yorker that cracks me on the toe.
I swear and lift the bat above me. At first he's smiling but as he sees me come at him, his smile disappears. He starts running. I catch up and hit him hard, once across his shoulder blades, then again across the side of his knee.
He falls to the ground, kind of slow motion, and he's down. He starts blubbing, real loud, and holds his leg, rocking back and forth. I drop the bat and stare at his kneecap; the purplish stain that’s already surfacing around a white, raised lump.
It looks like it really hurts.
‘I’m sorry,' I say. At least I think I say it but it sounds quiet, far away. Walker starts swearing and crying, and the leg, it's buckled, kind of bent. I try to help him stretch, but it won't straighten.
'It's okay,' I say. 'You're going to be okay.'
Mum drives me back to the psych's office that Wednesday. We park down a side street and wander up Fitzgerald. We stop when we get to 215, the brick shit house.
'You behave, Alex,' says Mum.
'As opposed to?'
'I'll be back in an hour,' she says. 'This is serious.'
When she's gone I open the screen door and intentionally let it bang shut once I'm in.
Mrs Oliver's a nice lady. Well, she's a lady anyway. Her office smells of musk and stale cigarettes, and she leaves a teddy bear on my chair for each session, which I promptly toss aside.
It's ten minutes in before she makes any sense. She asks if Mum's looking after me and I say yes. She asks me to talk to a chair. I tell her I'm not saying bugger all, 'cause only loonies talk to chairs.
Mrs Oliver leans forward. 'Why are you here, Alex?'
'I don't know.'
'Are you angry?'
I stare at her. 'I don't know.'
'Are you sad?'
'Why are you sad?'
'You got any video games?'
'No,' she says, resting her finger on her jawbone. 'Why did you hit your friend?'
'Walker doesn't mind. He knows he fucked up.'
Language, Alex. What did he do?'
I try to speak but see only Walker's face; his eyes scrunched up, a string of saliva stretching from the top of his mouth to the edge of his bottom lip.
'He didn't have to bowl the ball so hard.'
'Is that why you hit him?'
'Have you talked to your father lately?'
Think of Mum whispering on the phone, how I've not been the same since Dad left. And how the fuck would you know, Mum?
'His number's changed. I think.'
She gives me that look, like she's spotted a smudge on the window. 'You think?'
'It's cold. Can we turn the heater on?'
Wipes at the smudge, scratches it. 'What makes you think the number's changed?'
'The old one's disconnected.'
'You miss your dad?'
'Sometimes,' I say, and push my fingernail deep into my thumb.
Laurie Steed is an author of novels and short fiction from Perth, Western Australia. His work has appeared on BBC Radio 4 and in Best Australian Stories, Award Winning Australian Writing, The Age, Meanjin, Westerly and elsewhere. He won the 2012 Patricia Hackett Prize for Fiction and is the recipient of fellowships from The University of Iowa, The Elizabeth Kostova Foundation, Varuna, The Katherine Susannah Prichard Foundation, Writers Victoria, and The Fellowship of Writers (WA). His debut novel You Belong Here is expected in 2015.
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