The pale blue sheet collapsed and expanded, breathing heavily with and against the southerly change that came through the valley on Boxing Day afternoon. The line stretched taut between the two great gum trees at either end of the yard, clumsily wrapped around the body of one of the trees, while the other end clung to an outstretched branch. Rosie stood between the two, holding another sheet – this one white – out in front of her to wrestle with the wind that threatened to pull her from her stubborn stance on a worn patch of grass. The noise died down and for a moment the yard stood still. She clasped the last peg onto the corner of the sheet and headed for the house. She could hear Frank in the den, the television up loud as men shouted about other men on the field. She absent-mindedly rubbed her swollen stomach and wandered into the kitchen.
Broken and distorted meals lay piled precariously in the fridge. They longed to tumble and jump out at her feet, but she expertly held the corner of her mother’s pastry dish with one hand as she fished for the bowl of potatoes at the back. She remembered her mother standing in this place yesterday clambering the pots and bowls and jugs into the fridge just so. It had taken half an hour but she had stood back with sweaty brow and hands on hips to admire it in the dim glow of the fridge before she went to join Rosie’s father in bed. Rosie had been at the table watching. She liked to watch her mother’s mouth move when she thought.
“Yep… Yep… Okay.” Frank’s hand moved to his brow, his elbow, the counter. Rosie was setting the table and paused, fork in hand, to listen.
“Just wheel the telly into his room, Mum. He’ll be fine then.” He laughed. His white knuckled hand clutching the telephone betrayed him. Rosie finished setting the table, polishing the last glass with the corner of her apron before placing it down with a thud on the thick tablecloth. She surveyed the table, a meeting of old wine glasses with chipped rims and new tumblers her cousin had gotten her as a house-warming gift. There was an old mug holding a handful of gerberas in the centre. Rosie longingly ran a finger around the edge of a mismatched, green plate as Frank muttered good-byes and I-love-you-toos before the phone slammed down onto the receiver.
“Dad’s coming down with something again. His veggies were all brown and crisp when they got home. Planted the zucchinis only last month, lost ’em already. Think maybe they stayed too long?” He laughed again. Rosie thought of the funny smell of the guest sheets that morning as she had washed them, Frank’s parents packing their car and shuffling around the house. They were gone now, and so were hers. Her father had kissed her on the cheek before he left, his old breath wheezing past her to make her hair tickle her. She remembered when he could lift her above his shoulders. The house had been full for the last week, and after last night they knew they never wanted to do it again.
“Thought living out here would give us some space, eh? You know my a mother. Better say a prayer for next year, when the baby’s arrived and you’re still fat and I’m…” He trailed off into thought and moved across the room to stand close to her.
“It’ll go alright, always does.” Rosie smiled and Frank leaned down to touch her arm.
The leftovers lay spread across the centre of the table between the two young couples. There were dishes and plates and bowls and some unnamed casserole, stagnant in its sticky pot. The smell was incredible.
“We’ll be finishing off this lot for the next year until they come back,” Frank muttered. Rosie had spent the afternoon heating up the dishes on the stove, in the oven and the microwave. The walls of the kitchen sweated and the painted roosters on the tiles behind the stove were caked with grease. Her father had laid those tiles himself, sometime in the last year, she thought. She looked up to see Ann watching her, her faced smudged behind the steam that rose from the remains of a roast chicken.
“Been so quiet down here lately, with all the shops in town closed until the end of January now,” said Ann. Her house was just up on the hill, closer to town but further from the river; at least that’s how Rosie thought of it. Ann and Joseph had been here for two years, had watched Rosie and Frank’s house appear day by day until two weeks ago, when they themselves had arrived with a large moving truck that made a horrible noise, and not soon after that two lots of parents.
“Reckon everyone’s gone down to the coast again. Nuts down there this time of year – can’t breathe without someone looking at you funny.” Joseph scowled and Frank laughed nervously, agreeing with a splutter into his beer.
Rosie carried the tub across the room, over the tiled floor, over the line where the tiles met the carpet, and over the carpet. The thick plastic clung to her hands, stuck to her skin with the sugary residue and ice. Her hands cracked when she dropped it. It fell for half a second before landing beside Frank’s left elbow. All conversation stopped. They had been discussing Ann and Joseph’s little boy, his crooked left eye and how he always held on to the corners of the house as he stumbled around, leaving smudges on the walls. Ann ran around cleaning them off with a damp cloth constantly.
“‘Jesus, Rosie!” Frank started. He exhaled and began to tap the corners of the ice-cream tub to loosen its lid.
“It was right in the back of the fridge, might be frozen half-solid.” Rosie returned, carrying the small bowls and tinkling spoons over to the table as she spoke.
“Half-solid’d be right.” Joseph stood with his knife to hand to Frank. Frank pried the top off and the tub sighed, the ice cream giving off steam into the hot air of the house.
Ann sat quietly at the other end of the table. She held in her right hand a small toy soldier, hidden under the table. She kept knocking it against the corner where the tablecloth ended. She had found it in her bag and had been knocking since they had finished eating.
Rosie spooned out the ice-cream into the four bowls, her arms sore as the spoon moved deeper under the surface of the pink-white-brown in the tub. Sitting down she watched Joseph and Frank gather theirs up, sit the spoons on their tongues and leave their mouths slightly open as the ice cream melted and numbed their jaws. The kitchen light flickered overhead and the air stood still.
She looked down at her bowl, and then looked up at Ann sitting with her spoon in her mouth. A small toy soldier sat next to her and Rosie wondered where it had come from. There was a shy drop of ice-cream on Ann’s chin.
Rosie began to stir. The bowl clanked and rustled on the tablecloth. She lifted her other hand in order to work the spoon better. The lump of ice-cream began to soften beneath her touch, began to turn to smooth, brown sludge. It worked its way up the spoon, rolling around the bowl and onto Rosie’s swollen fingers.
Frank watched and began to stir too. They all began to stir and the dull noise of moving bowls on tablecloth on table became a roar. They laughed and Rosie felt the baby kick in her stomach and she laughed more. Ann’s soldier fell to the floor but she did not notice. Joseph stirred furiously, and abruptly his spoon flicked across the kitchen leaving a trail of melted ice-cream along the carpet and into the corner where his spoon lay to rest. He grabbed another one and stood, stirring.
Rosie laughed and put her spoon on the table, then lifted the bowl to drink. The kitchen was hot and the children were sweating. The ice-cream ran like milk down their throats.
Image: Devin Young
Magenta Sheridan is a freelance writer currently studying a Bachelor of Arts at the University of Melbourne. Magenta enjoys happy dogs, grumpy cats and reading modernist literature in cupboards.