Short story: The turtle, by Airini Beautrais
"It is very likely that your sister has become sexually active": a short story by Whanganui writer Airini Beautrais
Dionysus is hiding in the bushes. Althea can see the curl of his hair, the jut of his chin, between the leaves. Her feet, in their school shoes, feel heavy as she nears him. Her breathing changes. A flicker of nervousness swirls around her heart and in her gluteal muscles. She concentrates on looking straight ahead. There is another boy with Dionysus, the usual one who wears too much hair product. "Show us your tits," one of them shouts as she passes. "Come on, don’t be shy." The two of them burst into laughter. The gelled boy’s laugh is a guffaw, whereas Dionysus makes a pleasant sound. It isn’t fair, thinks Althea. Something so stupid and ignorant in such beautiful packaging. It isn’t fair that despite this daily harassment, she feels tender towards him.
Philistines, she thinks. Her jaw is locked with humiliation, her feet keep moving forward. Feet can generally be relied upon, even if faces can’t. Althea doesn’t know what a Philistine is, but she likes the sound of the word, with its hard ‘ph’. His name isn’t really Dionysus.
Dionysus is the first person who has made Althea think of the word ‘fuck’ as a verb. In part of her brain, some primal part, she wants to have sex with him. Beginning as a six-year-old child, Althea has put herself to sleep every night by imagining herself in romantic situations. Up until recently, all these imaginings have culminated in a cinematic kiss. Meet me by the tōtara tree at a quarter to nine . . . No, he wouldn’t know it was called a tōtara. Meet me under that big tree at a quarter to nine. The sky is deep blue. An owl hoots softly. Their lips meet . . .
But now with Dionysus, known to everyone else as Damon, Althea imagines she is taking her clothes off. That they are taking their clothes off, throwing them around the room. There is his naked body, just as she has imagined it. How his warm skin would feel. How wet she would get. Her hands, caught in his curls. His teeth.
Althea’s mother, Rosemary, is sitting at the dining-room table, fingering the hem of her skirt. She recognises her daughters by the sound of their shoes, knows this is the oldest one without turning around.
"It’s a quarter past four," says Rosemary.
"I had a meeting after school," says Althea, truthfully. "For orchestra." She puts her clarinet case on the shelf by the door.
"Have you seen or heard from your sister?"
"No." She and Phoebe avoid each other at school. "She probably went to a friend’s house."
"She hasn’t replied to any of my messages. Do you have any idea which friend?"
Rosemary gets up and paces the kitchen. She has made afghans today. Phoebe’s favourite. Althea likes Anzac biscuits.
"I mean, no, sorry Mum, I’m not sure."
Althea walks to her room, dumps her bag, changes out of her school uniform and into a T-shirt and trackpants, goes to the bathroom and splashes water over her face. In the kitchen she selects a biscuit and pours herself a glass of milk. She considers asking if she can have an iced coffee, but Rosemary is clearly in a bad mood.
"Did you have a nice day today, Mum?" Althea takes the walnut off the top of her biscuit and eats it separately.
"Oh, it wasn’t too bad. I took Gran to the bank." Rosemary is fretting. "I’ll ring Georgia’s house first," she says, more to herself than to Althea.
"I had an OK day. My maths test wasn’t too hard."
"That’s good," says Rosemary. "Ella, or perhaps Sophie, are the other main possibilities."
Althea sits down at the piano. She gets out her Debussy book and presses the pages back. Mum is walking around the room with the phone held between cheek and shoulder. She gives Althea a look and points to the phone sharply. Althea fingers the keys. You can press them down all the way without making a sound, if you press them slowly enough. The little hammers touch the strings gently. Sometimes there is a slight hum.
"OK," Rosemary says into the phone. "I’ll try Ella."
She rings the parents of five girls. The fifth one is Min’s mother, who doesn’t speak English, but she puts Min on the phone, who tells Rosemary that Phoebe was last seen at twenty past three, leaving the school gates to meet her boyfriend at the park. Althea knows about Phoebe’s boyfriend, who has existed for several weeks already. But every time she hears the word uttered, she feels a tightening in her chest.
Rosemary knows the boy is called Jayden, but cannot bring herself to utter his name. "She has gone to the park with that boy," she says. She rakes her fingers over her scalp, pulse racing, stomach churning. Then she turns to her older daughter. "It is very likely that your sister has become sexually active."
Althea slumps onto the piano and begins to cry.
Phoebe walks slowly to the park. She doesn’t want to get there too early and seem too keen. She stops outside the dairy for a couple of minutes. If anyone sees her standing there, they will just think she is waiting for a friend who is inside. There is a message from her mum, but she will answer it later.
Jayden is waiting on a bench near the children’s playground, hands deep in his pockets, back bent, headphones in. He stares at the ground in front of him. Phoebe doesn’t think he is particularly handsome, but she likes the sulky shape his mouth makes when he is thinking. If he thinks, that is. Phoebe isn’t sure if boys really do. If you ask one what he is thinking about, he will just say ‘I dunno’ or ‘Nothing’. Georgia found Jayden for Phoebe. Unattractive as he is, he will have to do, for the time being.
"Hi," Phoebe says. Jayden doesn’t look up. "What are you listening to?" She stands in front of him, holding her schoolbag straps.
"Hey," says Jayden.
"What are you listening to?"
Phoebe laughs. "That’s pretty old-school." She sits down beside him, spreads out her fingers on either side of her. Phoebe doesn’t believe in ingratiating herself with boys. She isn’t going to pretend she likes Korn too. If this boy doesn’t like her, there are others.
"I brung my turtle to show you," says Jayden. He pulls a little oval shell out of a pocket in his bag. When he puts it on the ground, a head with red cheeks, and four tiny legs emerge.
Phoebe can see the turtle’s neck pulsing as it breathes. "Can he live out of water?" she asks.
"Yup. He can live in the water and on land."
"What does he eat?"
"He eats turtle food."
"What’s that, like meat and stuff?"
"I guess so." Jayden kicks at the asphalt. He is wearing enormous sneakers with their tongues hanging out. They aren’t school uniform. Jayden says he doesn’t give a shit about school. Phoebe knows why. Jayden can’t read.
"Let’s see if he’ll eat some grass," Phoebe says. She is going to be kind to Jayden. He can’t help it if he’s dumb and a little bit ugly. Phoebe has always empathised with the underdogs – the kids who still drooled when they were ten, the ones with funny haircuts. Phoebe is in the accelerate class at her school, but all the boys in that class are dicks. Matthew Grady, for instance, has already joined the Young Nats. Oliver Simpson says he is going to be a famous writer, and he says he has written three novels already, but he can’t even spell ‘inconvenience’.
Phoebe tickles the turtle’s head with a blade of grass, and the turtle ignores it. He looks so sad. "What’s his name?"
"Bert the turtle. Why did you call him that?"
Bert the turtle just sits there. Phoebe taps his shell, but nothing happens. "Put him on the lawn and see if he walks around."
Jayden lifts the turtle up, thumb and forefinger on either side of his shell, and places him on the grass. Jayden’s hands are big and calloused. His nails are short and stumpy, and all around them the skin is ripped and scraggy. Phoebe wonders what Jayden does all day.
Bert still doesn’t move. "I think he’s scared," says Phoebe.
"I’ll put him back in my bag," says Jayden. "Wanna go for a walk?" He picks up the turtle again, slides him tenderly into his backpack’s rear pocket. From the front pocket he takes a packet of roll-your-own and a lighter.
"You know that will kill you." Phoebe smiles.
Jayden just shrugs and smiles back. He already knows how to roll cigarettes like an expert. He licks the paper so quickly, seals it shut. Phoebe imagines him working in a factory, licking cigarettes closed.
"Can I roll one?"
"Thought you didn’t smoke."
"Oh, no, I don’t. I just want to learn how to roll them, that’s all." Phoebe likes to learn new things. You never know when a skill might come in useful. You might be in an earthquake and there might be a smoker trapped next to you, with both their hands under the rubble, and they might really need a cigarette, just to help them through. Jayden shows Phoebe how to lay the tobacco along the paper, how to leave a little gap and fit the filter in it, how to roll the whole thing between your fingers until the paper curls up. Phoebe’s cigarette looks precarious and lumpy. Jayden sniggers. ‘It looks like a spliff,’ he says. Phoebe has never smoked marijuana. She supposes she will have to, eventually.
They walk through the park, side by side. They don’t hold hands or anything. Last week, Jayden gave Phoebe a hickey. It was covered up by the collar of her school shirt, thank goodness, but she was worried about it at home. She could have worn a scarf, but it’s summer, and she never wears scarves. Mum would have known. Phoebe took a bottle of foundation from the secret makeup kit under her bed and carefully sponged it over the mark. She was proud of the way it blended in with the rest of her skin.
Phoebe and Jayden walk for a while, then sit by the pond. Jayden gets Bert out again but is worried he might run away and jump in the water, and he’ll never find him. They talk a bit. Phoebe does most of the talking, asking questions, and Jayden gives her short, unpretentious answers. They get up and walk again, and when they get to the road, Phoebe says, "I better go home. Mum will want me to help with dinner."
"OK," says Jayden. "See you." He gives her a hug, and kisses her on the mouth. Phoebe has been disappointed by kissing. It’s not at all like in the movies. It’s wet and sloppy, and you can taste someone else’s breath.
Rosemary is throwing the afghans into a tin with horses on the lid. There’s no one she can talk to. Her mother, tacked on to the family in her granny flat, doesn’t really count. Whenever Rosemary asks her for advice, all Vera says is "Oh, I don’t know, dear. That never happened to me," or "You were a good child. You never did things like that."
Rosemary fits the lid on the tin and squats down to check the casserole. Rosemary has never owned a car. She walks the couple of blocks to the supermarket, carries her groceries home in home-sewn reusable bags. All her clothes are handmade. She makes everything by hand: biscuits, crackers, bread, pastry, pasta. Butter and cheese from raw milk a friend delivers. She buys organic when she can, and avoids plastic, but it’s expensive eating well. She hasn’t got back into work since the girls were born. It’s hard for any mother, but nearly impossible for a sole parent. She would have stayed married if their father hadn’t gone off with that woman from work. She was always clean. She kept her hair long. She made love to him whenever he wanted, including lunchtimes, sometimes, or early mornings when the girls were still asleep. Even though she didn’t really enjoy it. She’d never figured out what all the fuss was about. A man heaves away, squashing you into the mattress, squirts in you, and you have babies. You get slim again, you pluck your eyebrows, you pay attention to colours. He starts coming home with an odd smell, smiling differently, his mouth lifting up on one side. You keep lying back and letting him but he leaves anyway. The children scream a lot. They have nightmares. They won’t sleep in their own beds. They go through mountains of mince, acres of school uniforms. You pay for piano lessons, drink hot water with a splash of milk to fill up your stomach. They get to teen age and behave like a pair of ungrateful minxes, tell you they hate you, blame you for everything. Rosemary knows she has to protect them, but sometimes she wants to send them far, far away. Somewhere like a boarding school, with horses. If only she had any money.
It is some relief that Althea feels as upset by the thought of underage sex as Rosemary does.
Althea sits on her carpet, legs tucked up against her chest, and stares at the wall.
She has a large collection of candles, given to her at birthdays and Christmas. All together, they have an overpowering scent, like overripe fruit. Althea likes to read by candlelight. Sometimes she puts a candle in the middle of the floor and watches its light flickering on the walls. Sometimes she writes a name on a piece of paper and holds it in the flame, watches smoke curl up. It never works.
It is completely untenable. Phoebe is fourteen and already having sex with boys. Althea will be seventeen in a few weeks’ time. She has never been kissed. She has never done anything. In fact, the closest she has come to physical relations is having a boy shoved against her by his friends in the school canteen, and they do this to everyone. She just happened to be standing in the queue behind them and happened to be wearing a skirt. The thing is, Althea is incredibly unattractive. Her hair is mousy and frizzy. There is a pimple on her chin and two on her forehead. Her nose is too long. All of these things – combined with the fact that her mother has brought her up to be weird, and that she is in the school orchestra – have sealed her fate forever. She will never have sex.
Althea looks at her books lined up on their shelf. Usually, she takes great comfort in books. But this evening she is simply reminded, head sideways on her tucked-up knees, that she uses them as an escape. The further her sister forays into the real world – the world of love bites, cigarettes and cheap vodka – the further Althea retreats into her own skin. In the hours she takes to fall asleep each night, Althea will fight something inside, give in and touch herself. She knows the shape of her breasts, the feel of the smooth skin on the insides of her thighs. Her fingertips know the textures inside her. She inserts several fingers, pushes soft at first, then harder and faster, until she comes against her wrist. It helps with insomnia. In the mornings she is always regretful. No one has ever told her it shouldn’t be done. She is not sure if her mother even knows that a girl can do this. She just feels, somehow, that it must be wrong. Otherwise why would ‘wanker’ be a rude word? After the spasms of orgasm comes the thud in the chest of remembering you are alone. You are meant to have sex with men. It’s meant to be them who do this to you.
It isn’t just that she’s never done anything; it’s that whenever a rare opportunity presents itself, her mother and grandmother quickly and effectively block her, like moral ninjas. Earlier that year, Phoebe asked their mother if she could go to Life music festival. "It’s Christian, Mum," she explained. "All the bands sing songs about Jesus. There’s no drugs or anything."
"Do you think I should let her go?" Rosemary asked Althea.
"I don’t know," Althea said. Secretly, she hoped their mother would say no. It wasn’t fair, Phoebe going off having fun while she was stuck at home.
"Will you go with her?"
"I guess so."
While she packed her bag, she imagined herself drinking booze in a tent, which was what everyone at school said happened at Life festival. She imagined herself slipping her hand down a boy’s shorts. She imagined herself going back to school with the plastic entry band around her wrist, wearing it until all the colour wore off in the shower.
She was bringing her bag to the door to put it beside Phoebe’s, when Rosemary walked in, and said "You’re not going."
"What?" Phoebe wailed. "Mum, that’s not fair. We bought the tickets!"
"I’ll ask for a refund." Rosemary sighed. "I just can’t let you go. Two girls alone on the bus. You’d have to transfer to a taxi or something at the other end. Who knows what could happen."
And that was that.
There is the sound of shoes scuffing on the mat. The door swings open and Althea hears her sister’s voice, bright as usual. "I’m sorry, Mum, I just read your message. I didn’t see it before because I was in the middle of something."
Althea hears Rosemary stalk into the hallway. This conversation is probably going to be entertaining. She pushes her door slightly ajar.
"What exactly were you in the middle of?"
Althea, alone on her carpet, starts to grin.
"Walking to the park."
"To meet that boy."
"Well, you didn’t tell me you were going to do that, did you?"
"Aw, Mum, I only organised to go there today. I was going to text you, but I forgot."
"Phoebe. You are fourteen years old, and you do not go anywhere after school without your mother’s knowledge. Do you understand me?"
There is a silence. Althea feels the blood vessels pulsing in her cheeks.
Then Rosemary asks, "Where else did you go?"
"Oh, nowhere, Mum. I just went to the park."
"I don’t believe you."
"It’s true, Mum! I only went to the park!"
"And what did you do in the park?"
Althea pictures the fort in the children’s playground, strewn with bottles in the weekend, covered in obscene graffiti.
"Nothing much. Jayden just showed me his turtle."
Turtle, thinks Althea, turtle. A long wrinkled neck, protruding. She can’t help herself. She bursts into the hall, hair flying. "Turtle, huh? So that’s what they call it," she shouts.
Phoebe looks at her, surprised, hurt. You are supposed to take my side, the look says. You are my sister. But Althea can’t be her sister, not right now.
"What are you talking about, Althea?" Phoebe asks. There is a softer tone she uses for her older sibling.
"Althea," says Rosemary, "please go and take the casserole out of the oven."
Althea walks to the kitchen. As she bends down to open the oven door, her hair falls over her eyes, and tears blur them.
"You are grounded," says Rosemary. "For three weeks."
"Three weeks!" There is the sound of a schoolbag hitting the wall. "Mum, that’s not fair. I didn’t even do anything!"
Althea overhears a muttered obscenity.
"Go to your room."
"I want a glass of milk."
"Go to your room."
Althea is standing in the kitchen, an afghan in her hand, when Phoebe walks in. Phoebe says nothing, but gives her sister another look, this time decidedly wounded. "It’s so unfair," Phoebe snaps, slamming the fridge door.
Althea does not reply. She picks the walnut off her biscuit and eats it with a small smile.
"The Turtle" features in the superb collection of short stories Bug Life by Airini Beautrais (Victoria University Press, $30), available in bookstores nationwide, and reviewed this week by Owen Marshall.
* ReadingRoom short stories appear with the support of Creative New Zealand *
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