BY SOPHIE VAN WAARDENBERG
University of Auckland, ’18
2016 Adroit Prize for Prose: Honorable Mention
I spent most of my time in bed, because no one told me otherwise. It was nice there, although the sheets were not fresh, and in places there were nutella marks and pen marks. I thought that I should probably be ashamed but there just wasn’t time. I was busy being other things. I am not sure why this was considered healthy. Maybe nobody really knew what was to be expected, so they hoped for the best.
The thing is, like, when you watch films, there’s the bit where everyone bursts open, and usually it’s when the person finally dies, it’s like an eruption, right, and then the days after that, they’re just cleaning up, sweeping ash, nailing up the crockery cupboards that collapsed, buying new curtains. Everyone holds hands in a circle around a fire, and heals, or something. But it hadn’t happened. We were all still unerupted, and hot inside, and not good at showing it.
The wasps flocked to me. I’d like to think it was a personal choice thing, but it was probably just because my window was the one above the flowers, and it was open, and I was still most of the time and unlikely to hurt them. Sometimes they got caught in the netted curtains. Their wings slapped against the folds and I would have to shake them out just so they’d be a little quieter.
My grandmother bought a book for me. It was full of Christian teenagers talking about how when there was a tragic death in the family they were pulled closer to God, as if I could believe all that when there were so many flies.
At the funeral, the pastor talked about Job. He said my father was Job, tending the grain or the corn or whatever Job tended, and bad things kept on happening to Job, which is to say, bad things kept on happening to my father, but he kept going!
My grandmother nodded but in reality it was not a good speech. My father had not been happy about dying, and he had gone first.
The story is that God let Satan do whatever he wanted to ruin Job’s life, except he couldn’t actually kill him, so he killed his servants and his sheep and his sons and daughters. And Job praised God.
The church smelled like tissues that were marketed as having a lavender scent but had stopped breathing years ago.
I watched YouTube videos. I watched one where a woman blows a colony of tiny soap bubbles into a bigger soap bubble, and I watched one where animals in the wild get shown a mirror and try to attack themselves. And then I watched videos of people filming their days, scooping out melons and putting on makeup, and I decided that that would be a pretty good life, if you could do it well.
The spoons were in the spice drawer when I made breakfast for the first time since. It wasn’t surprising. All the cereal boxes had been left open, and the milk was old. I couldn’t see any way of getting new milk. It wasn’t as if any of us were going to sort it out. Mum asked for our laundry but never put the machine on. The swimming pool got greener.
I woke up mid-afternoon because the front door was knocking. It was someone’s mother from school, dressed in exercise gear, with a chilly bin.
There were songs that came up on shuffle that I always had to skip. Divine communication that I wanted to avoid. Songs they played at the funeral; terrible songs only fit for funerals.
“He wanted us to sell the viola”, Mum said on a speaking day. “He said we’d get a lot of money for it, but I don’t really want to.”
I nodded at her.
This is what my life became. I thought it was just a pocket of time. It was November when he died, and by the end of the year, I thought we’d have sealed this grief up and moved on. I think really it just made us a bit heavier and slower.
In January, Mum took me to Sydney. I had spent months eating cereal in bed and I think she wanted to walk it off me, clear me of grief habits and buy me a new dress. When we went to Manly, she took pictures of me swimming in a tiny clear cove and showed them to me. I stood in my towel and cried.
Autumn was violent. Hail popped like corn and melted like butter all over our doormats. The neighbours came around to ask us about the tree on the border of our sections. Would we pay half to have it cut down? We didn’t want to argue, but we didn’t want to see through to their side of the world, either, so we said we’d think about it.
I was given a budget to redecorate my room. I was told that if I could plan it properly, I could do whatever I liked. Maybe they thought the paint fumes would knock me back into place, or that the act of rolling blue onto every vertical surface would be therapeutic, but I played along and made my home an ocean.
But there were no beautiful curtains on sale. I’m sure if we had tried harder there would have been; we had looked in Spotlight and the Warehouse and picked the least offensive shade of pale. My grandmother made sure to tell me that I got the curtains right, even though I got the paint wrong.
We had to deal with his shirts. We sorted them into piles: patterns my mother liked, patterns she hated, patterns you could buy on any tropical island. And after that we didn’t know what to do with them.
I was baptised in the winter. “God found me,” I told everyone, “even when I didn’t want him to. Even when I didn’t think he could.” I told everyone my life was difficult and God made it easy, or worthwhile.
Maybe I really did believe what I was saying. Maybe it was just that the water was warm.