Cushla Managh

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Bridie’s scrapbook

‘What about this one?’ I hold up the recipe. Mum stops flouring the oven tray and peers at the small newspaper type.
‘Dunno,’ she says. ‘Can’t imagine the boys being keen on a mushroom flan. You know how they like their meat.’ She places the circles of pale scone dough on the tray, three rows of six and two of five.
I put the flan recipe face down on the sheets of newspaper protecting one end of the Formica dining table, and squeeze PVA around the edges. The scrapbook’s open in front of me and I carefully glue in the recipe, in between directions for Apricot Cheesecake and Five-Minute Meatballs. I smooth out the kinks in the newsprint with my fingers, wiping them on a tissue afterwards. My hands are all sticky but I don’t mind; I like peeling off the PVA once it’s dried.
Mum says my recipe collection is impressive. I’ll be able to take over the cooking soon, she says, give her a break.
The scones are nearly done. I can smell them, cheese and onion, and the big pots of salty lamb, pumpkin, potatoes and peas simmering on the stove. Mum asks me to set the tables and I jump to it, driven by hunger. Bowls of cutlery on the two long tables, glass salt and pepper shakers, fourteen big white dinner plates and four jugs of water, two on each table.
Mum smiles at me when I’ve finished. ‘You’re a good helper,’ she says.

Billy’s the first one in, like always. He swings through the dining room’s double doors in a wave of cool twilight air. The other shearers are outside. I can hear them taking off their boots, laughing while they have a last smoke.
‘Hey Bridie,’ Billy says to me. ‘How’s it going?’ He makes a beeline for Mum without waiting for a reply. Mum’s stirring one of the pots, her cheeks pink and steamy. Billy catches her about the waist, mutters something in her ear that makes her look at me and roll her eyes. She says: ‘Billy!’ and he laughs, lets her go. He saunters over to where I’m sitting and pulls out a chair, too close, smiling at me as if I’m the best thing he’s seen all day.

‘Looking good,’ he says, gesturing to the recipes in my scrapbook but with his eyes on me. ‘The way you’re going, you’re going to be as good a cook as your mama.’ His voice is warm and lazy, like gravy poured from the jug, and it makes me shiver.

A tanned, tattooed hand touches my hair, strokes it, and I sit there, staring at the scrapbook and all the white pages still to be filled. Then Mum turns to us from the stove and Billy’s hand falls, rests on the table. Mum’s eyes track his hand but she doesn’t say anything, she just carries the heavy pot over to the table and places it on a tiled hotplate in the centre.

‘I’ll wash up,’ I say, and push back my chair. Mum nods, not looking at me.   



Later, I watch her undress. The blue shirt slips off her shoulders and is tossed onto the cane chair. She yawns, a hand feathering over her mouth, then slides into bed. I move close, soaking up her warmth. She smells like vanilla.

She turns in the double bed and looks at me. Her eyes are the darkest I’ve ever seen, as black as the river at night. She sees what I’m asking.

‘It’ll be all right,’ she says.


Bees browsing in the bushes, the sound of summer, and blue hydrangeas spilling onto the broad verandah. I make my way along the side of the big house, the faded white boards creaking underfoot. The verandah’s sloping roof offers shade from the Masterton sun.

Michael’s in his usual spot. He’s supposed to be reading, he told me that last time, but he’s just pretending. I don’t blame him; the book looks boring. A kid wearing long brown trousers and a buttoned-up shirt is on the cover, doing nothing in particular.

Michael stands, letting the book slide down the side of the green couch.

‘I wondered when you were going to turn up,’ he says, scooping up a black bag. ‘I’ve been waiting ages. I was just about to give up.’

‘I had to do some stuff.' I swivel to show him my pink backpack. ‘I raided the fridge, got some food.’

Michael grins. ‘Let’s go,’ he says.

We climb and climb and climb until a thin layer of air is the only thing between us and space. At last we flop, exhausted, onto a flat outcrop of grass near the top of the hill. We moan about our sore legs then we eat the leftover chicken, the cheese, the thin white sandwiches lumpy with butter because I made them in a hurry, and we swig from the plastic bottles of warm water. We lie back in the yellow grass, stare at the sky until it feels like we’re falling off the face of the world.

I sleep for a while, maybe. When I open my eyes Michael is sitting next to me and he’s naked. He’s staring down the hill, at the Lego farm.

‘Why’d you take your clothes off?’ I ask. He’s never done this before.

He looks at me, says he wants to show me something, then he stands, picks up his bag and flings it down the hill as far as he can. It gets almost to the bottom.

‘We’re going to roll down,’ he says. ‘You’ll have to take your clothes off.’

I don’t want to, he sees that, but he just stands there until I drop my eyes, start taking off my T-shirt, my shorts, my undies, my sandals. I fold each item neatly and put it in my backpack.

We examine each other’s bodies. He’s tall and skinny, and every part of him is brown except for his thing. He’s looking at me, blue eyes wide and curious, and I shiver, like I do when Billy looks at me, but it’s different. A breeze tickles my legs, lifts my hair, strokes my arms.

‘Come on,’ he says.

I hesitate, then hurl my pink backpack far down the hillside. It bounces a couple of times, flashes of pink against the summer grass, and comes to rest not far from Michael’s black bag. A million miles away my mother hangs out the washing on the line behind our cabin. Her shirts, my shirts.

Michael’s already started rolling. He’s rolling without me and I have to catch up. I lie down and push off, fast, hard, and then I’m rolling too. There’s a moment of sky, a moment of grass, more sky and the whistling air. My knees scrape over stones and I feel the bump of dried sheep droppings under my ribs. I don’t know if I’m falling down or falling up. Hair flies across my eyes. My skin’s tingling, electric, and I can hear someone screaming. Me. Michael too. He’s a whooping blur ahead of me, legs held straight and arms clasped above his head, rolling down the hill that’s almost vertical, like a cliff of grass.

Then we’re slowing, Michael first and now me, slowing as we reach the bottom of the hill. The sky stops spinning and the grass is where it should be, underneath everything. I sit up, smile giddily at Michael. He glances up the hill and I can tell he wants to roll down again.

Instead, we dress, pulling shorts and T-shirts out of our backpacks. We drink the last of the warm water and collect our breath.

‘That was great,’ Michael says.


We clamber over the fence separating the hill from the rest of the farm. Michael hands me my backpack but for a moment both of us are holding onto it, a strap each, and he’s looking at me intently.

‘Don’t you be late tomorrow,’ he says, but I know it’s a request, a question, so I nod and head for the shearers’ quarters.



That night, as darkness smothers the farm, I’m once again watching Mum carry food to the table: rice and beef and curry. I’m sitting on a narrow bench against the wall between Col, who laughs at everything, and Billy, who squeezes in even though there’s not enough room. The men are talking loudly, every second word a curse. They’re generous with their praise for Mum, though, saying: ‘This is bloody good,’ which makes her go red. She perches on a stool at the top of the table, ready to spring up if needed.

In the noise and flurry of movement, the flash of arms and hands and forks being raised to mouths, I feel a hand on my thigh. I know whose it is, and my throat begins to close. Billy leans across, as if he’s reaching past to get the salt or the sauce, and he whispers: ‘Do you like that?’ 

His hand creeps higher, caresses my leg, touches the soft inner thigh. Forks continue to scrape across the big dinner plates and, beside me, Col suddenly laughs.

‘You like that, don’t you?’ Billy says in my ear.

I stare at the table.

His fingers slide up, under my shorts, under my undies and then he’s in, he’s inside inside inside...

I look at my mother, stricken, and she’s looking at me, and suddenly she knows. She leaps from her stool, her eyes as dark as the river in flood, and she comes to me, pushing past the outstretched arms, the men who’ve fallen silent. She wraps herself around me, pulls me away from Billy.

‘Get out of my fucking sight!’ she hisses at him, a raging torrent that would sweep him away and dash him against the rocks if she could. When I look at her I see his brains spilling out and his blood pouring and his heart sliced open.

‘Stupid cow,’ says Billy, and keeps eating.



The car’s loaded. The ancient Toyota station wagon has carried us from farm to farm for years and fingers crossed it won’t give up now. There’s just enough room in the front for the two of us. In the back are Mum’s blue shirt, her guitar, lamp and books, my scrapbook, the PVA, the scissors, my winter pyjamas. The world.

Mum’s loading the last box of clothes into the boot, swearing as she tries to fit it all in. I lean against the passenger door, waiting till the last minute to get in so the vinyl seats won’t burn.

‘Hey,’ someone says, and it’s Michael. He’s standing there in long brown trousers and a buttoned-up shirt, looking serious. He’s holding something. ‘I heard you were going. Dad said there’d been some trouble.’

I don’t say anything. What’s there to say?

He holds out a newspaper clipping. The headline says Easy Chocolate Cake.

‘It’s for your scrapbook,’ he says.

For a moment I feel the air whipping past as I roll down the hill, wheeling through the sharp grass and the sheep droppings, barely anchored to the earth.

'Thanks,' I say.






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