Caravan by Jenni Mazaraki
Jenni Mazaraki is a writer living on Wurundjeri land (Melbourne). Her short story collection I’ll Hold You was highly commended in the Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards for an Unpublished Manuscript 2020. Her work has been published in the Australian Poetry Journal, The Suburban Review and Empty House Press. She is currently undertaking a PhD in Creative Writing.
I wash my hands at least thirty-five times a day now. Debbie says not to but she wears mascara with clumps on each lash so I don’t take much notice of her.
Down by the river there are cans in small piles. Caught in the branches where the flood made a mess. They look at me from where they lie in the sun. One almost blinds me and I turn away. I can hardly bear their menace.
Ron took me to his caravan once. I only had to open the door for the whiff to smack me. He didn’t care about changing his sheets, felt no need, liked how soft they became over months of wear.
Two days after the crash they let me leave. I’d had enough of the beeping of machines and the rustling of hospital gowns. In all honesty, the invisibleness of it all was too much—nurses smiling without looking, doctors looking without seeing. The TV crews came through, bursting about the room like it was a stage, setting up lights and wires and directing the reporters with their fluffy mics and faces full of makeup. Their smiles dropped to the floor when the cameras switched off, only to be picked back up when the cameraman pressed on.
I gave an obedient account, thanked the rescue team and the hospital staff. I don’t know what they saw. There had been no time to brush my hair. With my hospital bracelets and colour coding of my chart, alerting them all to my condition. In there, I was my condition, a 6 pm news story for families eating dinner in front of the TV. Stitched up and dulled with a thing. Neat little capsules distributed at regular intervals without prompt. I felt no pain until Debbie picked me up from the hospital. She took one look at me dressed in the spare clothes that she bought from the Salvos and said, They’re fine, I told you so. No protest from me. I put my grateful face on.
It’s not only the water that’s the danger, but the stuff that’s in it, floating around like it couldn’t be bothered knowing its place. Some of them took photos and filmed themselves in their precariousness. Before it rose up and reached my place, I started my engine and tried to get the hell out. I imagined my lungs filling up with the mess, imagined myself falling in mad defiance below the muddy surface, clawing at nothing that would hold my body up.
The caravan floated down the street. Ron’s sheets finally touched water, mixing in a putrid tumble with everybody else’s lives. I thought of him as they pulled me out of the car, half-drunk from my terror. A nylon rescue rope wrapped around me in bright shades of orange and yellow. All the shouting confused me but eventually I understood and grabbed hold, pulling the line taught, grasping over and over again as the water tried to send me sideways down the road. Didn’t notice I was bleeding. My head foggy, thought I had freed myself.
Everything rushed away with the water. A procession left town without fanfare. Following each other with arms filled with children or cats. An odd troop of travellers with nowhere to go but away. Everything was gone or broken or ugly with thick ooze from the river. They warned us about the sewage, but Debbie reckoned it was all fine. She saved some stuff—her big bag bulging under her arm. The only thing I saved was Mum’s ashes, the small urn was watertight and fit neatly in my pocket. Everything was mixed up like me and Ron twisted in his sheets. Two caterpillars making a cocoon.
When the rain came, I knew what it was trying to tell me.
Bits and pieces stick to me now. I see all the invisible things. I see the sigh that Debbie makes before she’s even thought to breathe it. I see the molecules in my cup of tea, with its murky mix hiding the bottom until it’s all in me. Water rushes over me but I never feel clean. I imagine a parade of everything on my skin. In the shower I watch invisible bits of me run down the drain. That night with Ron was the night the rain started and kept going. Ron handing me another can of beer before he kissed me soft in his caravan. The pelting of water on metal above us.
Sometimes I think of Mum at the sink with her hands all sudsy, singing her church songs, winking at me as she hits the high notes.
Two towns over we stayed in the community sports centre, side by side, warm bodies in sleeping bags on painted lines meant for basketball games. Debbie insisted we huddle for warmth, me on one side of her, Ron on the other. I inhaled his scent from over the top of Debbie’s night-time chatter. I have all I need really, at least that’s what I told myself. I can live without my crystals, the ones that catch the light each morning. I can live without my bed. They told me I’m lucky, that the old guy next door didn’t make it. Couldn’t swim.
In my sleeping bag I shifted around, slipping on the thin foam mattress, I drifted into a light sleep. Debbie snored gently, adding to the buzz of other snorers in the room. Ron’s hand reached over Debbie, searching for my face.
You’re the only girl for me, ya know that don’t ya?
Yeah, I know Ron, I muttered as I slapped his hand away.
At school they taught us about the river and the banks and what happens when it floods. They told us to seek higher ground, to leave early, to abandon our stuff. I raised my hand rarely in class, but this time, I wanted to know. What happens to the fish when the river breaks? The teacher reeled off facts. Floods are good for fish, they always find refuge, and there are more bugs and creepy crawlies washed into the river for food.
Sometimes after school in summer, me and Debbie went down to the river and jumped in. My legs strong, kicking the water away from me, never seeing the bottom, wary of rusted car parts and rotting tree branches beneath me.
Debbie didn’t care about the fish, thought I was weird for asking. Her and Ron got together after our last year of school. She helped Ron set up his own place in the same park as me and Mum. Refused to move in with him until he proposed. They both helped with Mum’s funeral, said nice things like, at least she’s not in pain anymore, she’s looking over us from heaven. Ron had a soft spot for Mum, always saved her a cutting or two from one job or another. She was convinced he was a magician when he showed her how to put rusted nails in the pot to make her hydrangeas turn blue. Thirsty plant that one, I can hear Mum saying it now, tipping the cooled kettle out over the soil. I wish I’d saved some of Mum’s things—the crystal cat and the snowdome that sat on the windowsill next to her bed in the caravan. Mum would have said it’s my fault they got washed away. She would have said that I shouldn’t have done the thing I did. That the flood was my re-tri-bu-tion—she would have said it exactly like that, with her lips pushed out like a fish gasping for air.
Mum didn’t like help from anyone. She told me not to expect a thing from anyone else. Kept herself away from other people’s mess and danger. Closed our curtains each night as soon as the air cooled, made sure not to smile at certain types. Don’t want to encourage them, she explained on our way back from the laundry block, our baskets heavy with clothes straight from the machine. She didn’t like to leave the clothes on their own. Who knew what kind of hands might touch them, her whole body tense, God only knows.
She’d dance, spinning me in the small space of our van, my lungs emptying out the day with each turn. Whitney Houston, Cyndi Lauper and Stevie Nicks filled every precious corner, direct from the portable radio. Mum showed me how to take care of myself—use a needle and thread, repair a hinge, drive a car. She never missed church. Sat in the same spot each week. Said she didn’t mind the young reverend, even if it looked like he still couldn’t grow a beard. Told me she’d be happy for him to do her funeral. Mum went straight home after each Sunday service, never stayed for the biscuits or conversation. Mid-week she’d return to the grey bricked building and vacuum the floors. Sometimes she’d take me with her and I’d help do the flowers.
Mum told me and Debbie to walk in the middle of the road on our way home from parties. Preferring the wide expanse of bitumen to the dark paths with shrubs and trees that hands could reach from. With our bodies warm with booze, we didn’t feel the cold, or the danger.
Mum always said Debbie could have been her daughter—both of them with the same wild hair that broke hairbands. Mum said that I looked like my dad, but I wouldn’t know anything about that. Whenever Debbie came over, Mum gave her the Royal Doulton cup, the one I gave her all those Christmases ago. That I had saved for with my money from pulling weeds and raking gardens after school. Sat there in the op shop window with the price tag dangling, torturing me for weeks before I could go in and claim it with a handful of notes and so many coins jangling against each other like dull chimes from my pocket.
You’ve got a good one in that Debbie, Mum would say each time after she left. Shaking her head softly as though she had just been visited by an apparition. Cleared the cup away as though Whitney Houston herself drank from its edge. I didn’t like thinking about the way that Debbie could make Mum forget her pain for a bit.
Mum stopped breathing during a heatwave. I let her hand go only when it started to cool. The reverend gave a nice sermon. Said that Mum’s presence each week bolstered him on rough days, like a sailor seeking the horizon for guidance. I hadn’t thought about that, how Mum affected anyone other than me.
The street is dry now but I can’t go back home. Ron moved in with Debbie and her mum down by the beach. I would have thought they’d be sick of the sight of water. They’re saving for their own place. Debbie’s still waiting for a ring.
Judy helped me set up the new caravan. She teaches down at the primary school. A lot of work still needed to get the school right again. Most people help each weekend, but it’s not ready for the kids yet. Some people still talk about the flood, but not me and Judy. I’ll go over to hers later tonight and have a drink. After that I’ll go back to the start again. New sheets, new everything.
Up on the hill, my new place has views and my new neighbours seem OK. The laminex is green, a slightly lighter shade than the benchtop where Mum used to keep the biscuit tin and the ceramic pig salt and pepper shakers, bumping up against each other. I have a cuppa each morning, spooning in exactly half a teaspoon of sugar, just like Mum taught me. I run my hand across the bare window ledge as I sip, brushing away droplets of condensation as they drip down the glass and wipe my fingers dry on my jeans. Ron gave me some hydrangeas before he left. I’ll scatter Mum’s ashes under the blooms, water them in and wait to see what colour she’ll turn them.