Mum is in love again. You can see it in her skin.
“Kiri,” my Aunty Jacqui says to her when she comes for afternoon tea, “You’re positively glowing. Makes me sick. You look as fresh and youthful as Tilda, here.”
Putting down her teacup, my mother laughs her beautiful carefree laugh, the one she’s found again recently, since she’s met Hamish.
Hamish is a really, nice man. Everyone says so. Mum met him at the car yard where he sold her a little runabout, traded-in against our old Merc and some desperately-needed cash. There was the insurance to set up, and the change of registration, and by the time the sale was complete Hamish had asked her out, and weeks later he moved into her room in our rented house on Hideaway Street.
Around the road, my Gran reacted by sucking in air over her teeth and muttering words like ‘decency’ and ‘children involved,’ but swept up in her sparkly new romance, Mum didn’t care, and after a while Gran got over it.
Hamish has been living with us since June and Mum couldn’t be happier. Every couple of weeks he buys her supermarket flowers. He lets her choose girly DVDs from VideoEzy and he drives us girls to school whenever she’s running late, which is often. Once, Mandy and I stayed with Gran while he took Mum for a grownups-only weekend to some flash lodge on Lake Okataina. The pair of them came back all giggly and lovey-dovey, and Hamish smiled and declared it was ‘worth every last cent.’ I wanted to say there are no such things as cents anymore, but Mum would have thrown a hissy-fit about me being cheeky, so I held it in.
Now he wants to come to my parent-teacher interview at school. He saw the notice on the counter and mentioned it, causally.
When we’re alone after dinner, I say to Mum, “Hamish doesn’t have to come.”
“I know he doesn’t have to love, but he wants to.” She wipes a wisp of hair out of her face with a sudsy hand.
“But it’s not like he’s my Dad,” I argue. I must’ve sounded whiny because Mum drops the dish brush in the sink and gives me a hard look.
“You know, Tilda, you should be grateful that Hamish takes an interest in you two girls. You girls just don’t realise how rare that is.” She says ‘us girls’ but she means me. I shrug and put the plates away. She’s so in love, there’s no talking to her.
On interview night, Hamish comes straight from the car yard and meets us outside my classroom. Mum makes a fuss as he squeezes his big body into a school chair. I sit between him and Mum, facing Mrs Ediker. My teacher explains that my grades have slipped since last term. She’s says I need to improve my work habits for college next year. “And…” Mrs Ediker tips her head to the side “…you seem a bit withdrawn these days, Tilda, not your usual chatty self.”
I don’t know what to say to that, so I clamp my lips together and focus my eyes on Annalise Cho’s lino cutting displayed on the wall above Mrs Ediker’s head. Next to me, the shaking of her body, tells me Mum is crying.
“Oh baby!” she says, slipping her arm around my shoulders, and pulling me to her. It’s been ages since I’ve breathed in Mum’s scent: a faint mixture of Charlie perfume and Vo2 conditioner. It seems familiar, but not quite right, as if being with Hamish has changed the way she smells.
“I know it’s been hard for you, sweetheart,” Mum blubs, “but honestly, things are going to be okay now.”
Focusing as hard as I can on the rigid lines of Annalise’s lino cutting, I force the tears back, but they come anyway. Hamish reaches out and rubs my knee. I want to jerk away, but he’s watching. I catch Mrs Ediker’s relieved smile, as if, at last, everything is out in the open.
Mum must’ve told the school about Dad leaving. Otherwise, they would’ve wondered why she ordered two copies of our class photos. We haven’t seen him much since then: maybe two or three times, and always with supervised access. Mandy and I don’t like going, but Mum says we have to make an effort because he’s our father. Dad tries to be upbeat, but we know it’s an act for the horse-faced lady who pretends to be reading her book, but listens to everything we say. Dad keeps telling us girls he’s changing his life around, getting himself the help he needs. He’s says he’s off the booze now, and he’s been attending anger management classes. That’s why I don’t tell him about Hamish and about Mum. Those anger management classes might not be that good. Riled up, Dad can be mean. Gran says it doesn’t pay for little girls to be in the road when that happens. And anyway, that horse-faced lady is always listening.
After the parent interview, Hamish offers to take me for ice-cream.
‘A little something to cheer Tilda up,’ he says. I beg Mum to come, but she says she has to get back to Gran’s to collect Mandy. I watch her as she pulls out of the school carpark in the little runabout Hamish sold her. I get in Hamish’s car on the passenger side. The dairy is on our way home, so for once it doesn’t take long.
Before bedtime, Mum makes an official family announcement.
“Hamish is taking all us up to Rainbow’s End in the weekend!” The way she clasps her hands like a prayer, I know she’s pleased that Hamish is taking us on a family trip. She can be over-sentimental sometimes.
Mandy is so excited she looks up Rainbow’s End on the library computer and writes out a list of the rides she wants to do; the Motion Master, the Pirate Ship, the Corkscrew Coaster, and the Fearfall. It’s all she talks about for days.
Then, the night before the trip, Hamish rats me out to Mum, telling her I haven’t done my homework yet and perhaps I should stay home with Gran. Mum gets on her high horse and says Hamish is right; only girls who behave deserve nice treats. In the morning, I get up early and finish all my homework because I can’t let Mandy go without me. Hamish smiles that smile of his, and says how wonderful it is that I’d finally got my act together because now all ‘his girls’ would be going.
At Rainbow’s End, we go on all the rides on Mandy’s list. She’s tall for her age, but she’s still too short to go on some of them. We buy lunch at what Mum calls ‘obscene prices,’ and eat them at one of the park’s picnic patches. I grab my sandwich and move away to eat it on the grass. At the table, Mandy is arguing with Mum about going on the Fearfall next.
“No way, I’m going on that!” insists Mum, laughing. “Waste of a perfectly good sandwich. And they cost us enough!”
Hamish brings his pie over and sits down by me. I wiggle away a bit, but he leans over and whispers in my ear. There’s a blob of pie gravy on his chin.
Mum looks over at us. “What are you two conspiring about over there?” she calls.
“Nothing you need to know, Kiri my darling!” Hamish shouts back, bold as.
“Tell me, too!” Mandy demands.
Balling up my sandwich wrapper, I get up quickly, “You know what? I’ll go on the Fearfall with you, Mandy.” I pull her by the arm, so she’ll come. She almost gets her leg stuck, I’m dragging her so hard. It’s lunchtime, so there’s hardly any queue.
Dropping 18 floors at 80 kms per hour is terrifying, but when you’re 13 like me, you know there are worse things. Mum is waiting for us at the bottom with Hamish.
It’s a long drive and when we get home it’s late, so we get fish and chips.
Afterwards, Hamish says, “You go up Kiri-love. I’ll sort things here.” He starts wrapping up the newsprint and squeezes it into the bin. He doesn’t bother to take it out. Tomorrow, the kitchen will stink because of him.
I wait in the bathroom for ages, but when I come out Hamish is there.
“It’s okay,” I say in a loud voice as I cross the hall to my room. “I don’t need anyone to put me to bed.”
“You’re right. You’re not a baby. I should probably check on Mandy…”
Like he already knows I’ll open the door and step back.
So when my Aunty Jacqui says Mum is positively glowing, it makes me sick, too.
It makes me want to put my finger down my throat and vomit.