Cushla Managh

Excerpt from
The Goldilocks Zone

April 20, 1970. A shiny pink Glo-bag packed with sandwiches and slices of apple folded in paper. White socks and black leather shoes with buckles I can’t do up. Flaxen hair brushed to one side (later undone in the Wellington wind) and someone spitting on a hanky, dabbing my face clean.

Berhampore School. A large classroom with rows of windows along two sides, the sort with little panes that open outwards. Everything is white and brown: the ceiling, the hessian walls, the squares of sunlight tossed onto the varnished floor.

I don’t remember my mother letting go of my hand or me holding on and looking up at her, willing her to stay.

It’s a Monday. A birth date shared by Hitler, Napoleon and me. At playtime I conquer the jungle gym, racing hand over foot up the metal bars, first to the top and crowing about it.  Nah, nah, nah, nah, nah. My vanquished rival, a lesser country, runs to Miss Arrow and tells on me.

I don’t remember clutching a pencil cack-handed as I trace alphabet letters, or sitting in a circle at storytime, watching the teacher turn the pages of the large book, absorbed.

I’m standing by a window. A bee enters and drones its way around the classroom. It lands on one of my black leather shoes. I scream: ‘It’s stung me!’ Miss Arrow swishes it away, says the bee can’t sting me through my shoes, but I know she’s wrong. I cry and cry and cry.

I don’t remember going home or my mother asking me about my day. I don’t remember sitting on the kitchen chair and swinging my legs, telling her about the book, the jungle gym, the bee.


My mother is rocking the pram, saying ‘shush, shush’, back and forth. I stare at the baby in the pram. The baby’s legs kick at the lacy white blankets and the baby cries.

This is how I meet my sister.

We’re at a park in Masterton. I’ve been sent to stay with a family on a farm while my mother has her baby. The family lives in a big, old farmhouse with a verandah that wraps right around. I like sitting on the verandah, with the blue and pink flowers, and the bees, and the sun casting shadows on the worn boards. The house is very quiet. The girl who lives there doesn’t want to play with me, but I don’t mind. I spend my days in a white cane chair, reading Enid Blyton.

One day someone takes me to visit my mother. She has been walking around the park, waiting for me. I peer in the pram. I didn’t know my mother was having a baby.

‘I thought it would be a nice surprise,’ she says.


One morning my mother wakes to find parts of her life have disappeared. It’s as if someone reached into her head while she slept and scooped out handfuls of memories, taking this, leaving that. I’m still in her memory: drinking my milk on the kindy steps, watching the wind shake the trees at the park, dozing on my pink sheepskin rug. The hospital people say memory loss is common with ECT. We look on the bright side: it’s better than being locked up.


The house I live in has a frosted glass front door. Callers are dark shapes, fuzzy and limbless, as they wait on the porch and knock. If they stand close enough to the door I see blocks of colour and the outline of their clothes, or the profile of their nose, their hair. It’s like looking through fog, like squinting.

I’m eating a sandwich at the kitchen table when my mother knocks. I’ve never seen her through the glass but I know her shape. She’s wearing the same brown skirt she had on in hospital. Her hips and round body fill the door frame and I see the pale smudge of her face turning this way and that.

‘Cushla!’ she calls, and the longing in her voice pulls me to her. I am not allowed to open the door so I lean against the glass, press myself through its frosted pores to be reclaimed, reconstituted.

I press against the glass while my mother calls and knocks.

Later, Mrs Williams tells me Aunty June will be staying in hospital for a while longer.


These are the things I don’t remember: my mother making cheese scones for afternoon tea, the way she’d tie my shoelaces too tight and I’d moan until she redid them, her hands briskly dividing my hair into three for plaits, the look on her face when I came first in the school cross-country, how she blushed when we talked about periods.


We’re at the zoo. Baby Amanda is two or three, so I must be eight. We walk up and down, exclaiming at the lions, monkeys, bears. When we’re too tired to push Amanda any more we sit on the nearest bench and have lunch. June has brought a loaf of buttered white bread and several tins of sardines. She lays the slices of bread on her lap (it’s wide enough for four slices at a time) and carefully hooks the small oily fish out of the tins with a white plastic fork. She folds another slice of buttered bread over the top and presses. We eat quietly, without haste. Oil drips out of the sandwiches. We lick our fingers clean and let them dry in the sun.


It’s the last day of family camp. Concrete-block cabins with wooden bunks and cold floors, communal showers, a large, airy kitchen where we sing hymns and peel potatoes. Each morning I play chess with an old man, someone’s grandad. We hunch over the board and plot our moves. We drink Milo.

The grown-ups are playing soccer. Mr Williams kicks the ball and runs after it. He’s tall, with hairy legs, and pale blue eyes that crease at the corners when he smiles. I watch him running, and I think about tomorrow. My bag is packed: clothes, felts, my doll that’s almost like Barbie.

We’re going to live with our grandmother tomorrow.

I can’t stop smiling.

The grown-ups kick the ball down the field. One of the fathers intercepts it and kicks it away. It flies into the crowd, straight into the eyes of the man’s own four-year-old son. The boy falls to the ground, unconscious, and an ambulance is called.

I find out later that he has been blinded in one eye.

I only have one thought: tomorrow.


The tree is a foot-high mass of silver tinsel and tiny red balls, presiding over a dwindling pile of presents. The tree and presents are on Grannie’s wooden fold-out dining table, next to a bowl of after-dinner mints and a plastic bag full of discarded wrapping paper.

We’re in the lounge. There’s Grandad in his gold-and-brown striped La-Z-Boy chair, popping the lid off another bottle of Lion Red from the crate at his feet, and Carol freshly glamorous from Sydney, chain-smoking and cracking jokes. My six-year-old sister Amanda bounces on the couch next to me, all blonde curls and gappy teeth, and there’s me, sprawled on the prickly green couch, content to watch.

June is telling Grannie which present to open next, hands dancing as if she’s conducting an orchestra. Sometimes she looks at me but mostly she just talks to Grannie.

‘Come on, Mum,’ she says. ‘God, we’ll be here all day the rate you’re going!’

‘Hold your horses,’ Grannie says. She chooses a small parcel from under the tree. It’s for her, from June. She opens it carefully and unfolds three lace-edged hankies. They’re decorated with flowers: lilacs, daffodils, daisies. In the centre of each hanky is a large embroidered ‘V’.

Grannie holds them up so we can all see. She looks questioningly at June.

‘It’s unbelievable what people get rid of,’ says June. ‘I thought of you as soon as I saw them. I know how you like flowers.’

I’m laughing. I can’t help it. I’m laughing so hard tears are running down my face and I’m wiping my eyes with the back of my hand. I cover my face with my hands and laugh while Grannie frowns at me and June looks puzzled.

I know it’s not normal to buy people secondhand hankies from the Op Shop – hankies that have had someone else’s snot in them – and especially not hankies with the initial ‘V’ embroidered on them – when your grandmother’s name starts with ‘T’.


‘I think I have VD,’ I tell my aunt. I’ve been reading about sexually transmitted diseases at school.

She looks amused.

‘You need to have had sex to get VD,’ she says.

‘Yes,’ I say, and tell her about Mr Williams.


There’s a photo of my mother, baby Amanda and me. June is wearing a dark green jersey and one of her shapeless, plain skirts. She’s smiling at the camera but only just, as if she has had enough for the day. Baby Amanda is on June’s knee, bouncing and laughing.

I’m in my Sunday best: blue lacy frock and white knee-high socks. My bushy hair is clipped to one side. I’m standing next to June but I’ve turned away slightly. My feet are planted, arms folded across my chest, chin tilted. I’m staring haughtily at the photographer, with thunderous eyes and a tight mouth.

June keeps the photo in an album. She pulls it out each time I visit. God, you were sour that day, she says.

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