Illustration by Jeff Fisher.
“Mum says you better get inside right now.”
Louise is already getting ready for the photo: she has one big hot-roller pinned to the top of her head and two small ones at each side, and she’s applied the skin-tinted Clearasil to the faint outbreaks on her forehead and chin. The cream is not the colour of skin but the strange pink-orange of a bandaid, or a doll.
“She says you have to come right now or you’re going to be in big trouble.”
Louise’s ridiculous hair-roller, like a poodle’s flopping topknot, makes you less afraid. She sighs with irritation, hands on hips, and her shadow throws a long shape across the surface of the pool like the elongated silhouette of your father in all the family snapshots, stretched across the foreground of the lawn as he takes a tentative photo of you and Louise on either side of your mother, in front of the rosebushes in the sunshine.
Two weeks ago, shuffling through these photographs for something to send out with her Christmas cards, your mother finally tossed the whole stack irritably down onto the coffee table. “I really have to get something professional done. Something decent. I can’t send one of these, every one’s a disaster. We’re always stuck there squinting straight into the sun.”
You all waited, silent, braced for the rest.
“There isn’t a single shot,” she added with finality, “where we don’t all look dreadful.”
And you thought, all, seeing your mother centred there in the pictures, gripping her two girls, your father nowhere – just a peripheral shadowy shape, stretched thin.
Louise stalks back inside as you splash defiantly from one side of the pool to the other in two languid backstrokes. You want to stay in until you are bleached, until your fingertips turn white and wrinkled, then lay yourself down on a towel to soak up the heat from the cement path, thinking of nothing. You float suspended, sun through your eyelids brilliant red, telling yourself that any minute now, you’ll heave yourself out. You’ll surrender this weightlessness.
Summer begins the day your father carries the armfuls of aqua plastic and piping out from where he stores them in the garage and mows the spot before laying out the heavy plastic-coated base that will become the pool. Heat rises from the ground, cicadas pulse in one long thumping vibration. Some time in the second week of December, he brings home a Christmas tree from the stall run by the scouts outside the shopping centre. When he hauled this year’s tree inside, your mother gazed at it in long-suffering disbelief, her arms folded, and when he went out again for wire to secure it she crouched in front of it with the box of decorations, glancing at you and Louise with a conspiratorial smile.
“Do you think,” she whispered, widening her eyes comically, “that they keep the dud one specially for him, every year?”
You made yourself smile, complicit, and then, as she watched, the two of you draped the tree dutifully with the balls and bells. Even when she left the room, you still worked silently and rapidly, like it was homework, winding tinsel over the outsized branches, ignoring each other.
Your mother spends the hot summer days inside, watching tennis on TV, occasionally raising her frosted glass of iced coffee delicately to her temple. In the corner the fan turns its head back and forth, stirring the thick air.
“My God, you could set your clock by him,” she sighs, looking out the window to where your father is sweeping stray leaves off the pool surface with a net.
You hover there clenched, rooted to the spot.
“It’s bad enough we haven’t even got a proper in-ground one and you girls have to put up with that stupid thing that should have been thrown out years ago,” your mother adds. She turns to you then, holding her arm out to draw you in, watching you. “He’s absolutely obsessed, isn’t he?” she murmurs.
You feel yourself nod and smile again; a sickly, traitorous smile of concurrence.
Your mother squeezes her shoulder and says: “Would you like an iced coffee too? It’s so hot, isn’t it?”
On the TV screen someone slams the ball down the court and there is a ripple of applause. The fan shakes its head slowly at you, silent and censorious, and you take a hasty swallow of your iced coffee, loaded with ice-cream, so sugary it hurts your teeth.
Each morning of the school holidays, you feel a faint, smothered panic that the pool will sooner or later be the subject for attack. You try to stay casually offhand as you change into your bathers and escape out the back door. You can feel Louise doing the same, picking up her folded towel with studied carelessness, as if the thought has just occurred to her. You slip through the house, expressionless and furtive, avoiding your mother on the way out.
“We’ll have those kids next door banging on the door for a swim every day now,” your mother says to your father, but Leanne and Chris never come in through the front door any more. They wait hopefully in their own baked-dry square of backyard with their faded bath towels.
“Climb over,” you whisper to them, glimpsing them through the palings, piling some bricks against the fence for them to step on as they scramble down.
With other kids there, you and Louise break your pattern of avoidance, and four’s better for playing whirlpool. You all run around the sides of the pool, your legs threshing the water, stirring up a slow, slopping current. After you build up a strong whirlpool you take it in turns to tumble into the middle and be spun around, outstretched. Chris doesn’t like it, and the rest of you have to wrestle him sideways to throw him in. You feel a surge of sly, teeth-gritted pleasure at his protests, his skinny, weak-limbed acquiescence. You watch the helpless ridge of his spine arching as he flounders, gasping, and your power is cool and blue and chemical. He has to learn. You girls eye each other, expressionless, as he staggers humbly to his feet afterwards, blinking and choking.
Then you grab the sides and start running again for the next turn, feeling the water resist and drag against your thighs. Out there in the centre of the vortex, when it’s your turn, you close your eyes and you can feel the current flexing like a muscle. You open your eyes and you’re in the middle of it, letting yourself be loose and helpless, staring up at the aching blue of the sky. If you could rise into that sky you would see it all spread out far below; the neat rectangles of backyards and tiled roofs, and dotted here and there, little round pools of aqua chlorinated water, like bright precious stones, full of light. Yellow grass around the edges, where water has slopped out as kids played whirlpool.
Back inside the house, it’s dim and airless, thick with the piney, December smell of the Christmas tree in the lounge room.
Your mother comes clicking across the lino in her beautiful yellow linen dress.
“It’s about time,” she says. “We’re having the Christmas photo done today, remember?” Her voice is suddenly bright, her lipsticked mouth curves into an animated smile. You can tell by her tone that the photographer must already be there. In a whisper she adds, as you turn to run, “Ten minutes. Get yourself down here looking presentable. I mean it.”
Louise is in the bedroom you share, standing at her half of the dressing-table and running a tube of bubblegum lipgloss over her lips. Her hair is looped stiffly back at the top with a rainbow comb and two tendrils curl at the front of each ear.
Your heart sinks at what’s lying ready for you on the bed.
“That’s what she said.”
Louise has hers on already. She’s thin, so it doesn’t look quite so ridiculous, but yours is tight under the arms, where it’s elasticised, then sack-like all the way down to mid-calf. “She said you have to wear your sandals too.”
You peel off your damp bathers and pull the dress on, tugging it over your chest. You try to brush your hair up and into a ponytail like Louise’s, but it’s too long and lank, and without your mother’s hairspray and tailcomb it just looks flat and lopsided. You’re sunburnt, too. You’re going to be bright pink in the Christmas photo.
The dress is squeezed across the tingling, embarrassing swell of your chest, a nine-year-old’s dress. A few weeks ago, you’d tentatively said you wanted a training bra for Christmas.
“Oh darling,” your mother replied, looking at you indulgently. “You’re barely 12, you’re nowhere near old enough for that.” Her sweetness felt as treacherous and irresistible as a tide, something you leaned into, hypnotised, as it tugged you off your feet.
“Anna,” your mother smiled kindly, her voice low, “it’s normal for young girls to feel self-conscious about their weight, sweetie.”
And you saw Louise’s triumphant smirk.
She’s giving you the same sneer in the mirror now as you pull down the dress.
“It’s just as well you have to wear a dress as shapeless as that, anyway,” she says airily, arranging the curling wisps of her hair, “because you’re so fat.”
The breath falters in your throat; hidden, mastered.
The photographer’s presence charges the atmosphere as your mother lets her voice carry lightly from the kitchen, apologising for taking up his time, offering him a cool drink.
As you come in she’s pausing to arrange a vase of roses next to the row of cards lined up beside it. They’re all from the friends she writes to every year, in Canada and England – friends she’s faithfully kept in yearly contact with since they all met 14 years ago, when she and your father went on their honeymoon cruise to Tahiti. Their cards are decorated with frosty holly and robins, sometimes crusted with glittery bells, and the ones from Canada often contain a printed page-long letter that begins: Dear friends! That’s part of December’s smell, too – the scent of these cards, cool as snow, the English ones which say things like: Gosh, hasn’t the year flown? and Christmas greetings to your two little girls there ‘down-under’!
At the beginning of each December she sits at the dining-room table writing, a stack of blank cards and a list next to her. “One day,” she says to you, “you’ll thank me for keeping up all these contacts for you; you’ll be able to stay with all these people when you go overseas.” Her own unsent cards are ready now – each completed in her neat hand, stacked in their unsealed envelopes on the table. Each waiting for a copy of the family photo.
Your father’s there, sitting on one of the armchairs in a fresh shirt.
“Wait,” says your mother, and you all listen, ready to be prompted, the photographer with his eyebrows raised enquiringly. She pauses. “Can you get the Christmas tree in the background too? You see, it’s for our Christmas card; we have a lot of friends overseas.” She turns sunnily to your father. “We met them while we were on the cruise, didn’t we, darling?”
That word in your mother’s mouth, the way she looks your father in the face to say it, her touch on his arm as she goes past, makes something turn over in your stomach, cold and glassy. You shudder. You can’t help it.
“Sure,” says the photographer, moving his tripod. Your mother adjusts a basket of white-sprayed pinecones on the occasional table next to the couch. “Do you think that looks Christmassy, Louise?”
“Well, put that little angel holding the candle there too, will you, darling?”
You have dawdled, you have spent an illicit five extra minutes in the pool after being summoned, so Louise is the favourite this afternoon. You can feel it in the way your mother’s hand drops onto your shoulders, the pressure that pushes you down, which says Just you wait.
“You sit there,” she directs, steering you, “in front of the couch, on the floor. And Louise, you’ll be on this side of me and Robert, you on the other.”
Your mother checks her hair in the oval mirror over the mantelpiece, and sits down.
“I think we’re all ready,” she says now to the photographer, raising her chin. Her long elegant legs are tucked sideways.
Next year, you think, the friends will write: You haven’t changed a bit!
You’re all touching and it feels weird. There’s your mother’s knee behind you, encased in nylon, which must be so hot today. And next to it, your father’s lanky shin. You feel it press against you – once, twice, as he shifts and leans forward.
“I put the hose in the pool for you,” he says in a low voice. “We’ll let it fill up a bit more, eh? So it’s all ready.”
Your mother hears. “Robert, do you think we could forget about that dinky little pool just for five short minutes?” she says, her voice almost breathless with forced breeziness.
You stare at the eye of the camera lens looking blankly back at you, lined up on the couch for display.
“Try to keep your eyes open and your mouth closed, Robert,” your mother says with a little trill of laughter, and you think suddenly, with dull, hopeless bitterness: He’s never going to answer.
“Everybody smiling!” says the photographer.
You know the kind of smile your mother will be wearing – radiant, triumphant, the teeth just showing. The way your father will be sitting straight-backed and uncomfortable, in the frame for once. You glance across at Louise.
It only takes a second, but you’re stunned to see her, at the exact same moment, looking back at you. Something passes between you. It’s like the reckless moment after running hard around the pool’s perimeter, when you eye one another, savage and panting, before launching Chris or yourselves into the stirring, threshing current of the whirlpool.
Then you both turn back to the camera, and you do not smile. You know Louise is doing it too; keeping her face compliant and blank. The camera snaps like teeth.
“Another one, eh?” says the photographer. “Big smiles now, girls.”
You let another dead, robot smile turn up the corners of your mouth. With your eyes you will your mother’s friends to understand, to walk to the window and tilt the photo into the English or Canadian light, frowning, seeing everything encoded there. They will see how stiffly you are sitting in this humiliating dress, cross-legged like a child, how heavy and proprietorial your mother’s hand is on your shoulder. They will imagine the weight of that hand. You understand, as the camera’s indifferent shutter clicks again, that the sundresses are about your mother, that what you’d seen in her face when you’d asked for the training bra was a tremor of terror, not scorn. All this blooms in you, too fast, the flash blinding as phosphorus.
“OK then,” says the photographer.
“Can we go now?” you hear Louise say, and you feel a thrill of fear at the sullen flatness she dares to let her voice betray. She can take this risk because the photographer is there, humming; an oblivious circuit-breaker. The photos are inside his camera now, inviolable.
“Course you can,” your father says before your mother can speak. “Too hot to be inside on a day like this, trussed up in your best clothes.”
He’ll pay for that, that trussed. You think of him picking up the towels abandoned on the path and hanging them on the clothesline each night at dusk. The final solicitous, regretful sweep of his hand he gives them before he turns to finally come inside. Heat is rising in you, prickling.
“Maybe just a couple of portrait shots of the two of you,” the photographer is saying to your parents.
You witness the opposing forces of charm and chill collide in your mother as she’s caught off-guard. She hesitates, then says hurriedly, “Yes, yes, of course,” and there it is, you’re sure of it now; you glimpse in that moment her wire-tight thoughts running ahead, grim with the need to plot exile and allegiance, the constant undertow shift of threshed, compliant water.
You run upstairs to yank the dress over your head and pull your still-damp bathers back on, tugging pins and clips from your hair as you go.
Then you’re back out the screen door, running headlong towards the turquoise-blue, brimming full now, cool and shadowed, like a watching eye about to overspill with glinting, unshed tears.