Equal and Opposite

This isn’t what I wanted for you,’ she says to no one; though her granddaughter, Miley, sits in the car seat directly behind her, bobbing her head to a beat only she can hear. Sandra’s words have a vapour and they hang around longer than they are welcome. The absence of the radio makes her even angrier with him. She clubs the rounded face of the wheel with the back of her fist then winces at the strangled half-beep that comes back at her.

The rear-view mirror flickers to life with Miley’s shifting and shimmying. She’s him in features, form and fidget.   

‘Why’s Daddy in prison, Nan?’ Miley says. In one hand she clutches the last third of her banana, now mush around the edges, in the other a Sippy cup of dark purple liquid.

The wipers make rainbows on the windscreen and yet there’s no colour for what looks like a million miles ahead. Sandra’s knuckles form white peaks on the steering wheel.

‘Because he’s been a naughty boy, darling.’

‘What did he doooo?’ Miley slaps the banana flesh into her leggings and grinds it into the stigmas of the mustard coloured flower print.

Sandra takes a deep breath and swallows her granddaughter’s words, which become trapped in the clotted matter between her chest and tonsils. Sandra has to push through it as if breaking through skin: ‘He got in a fight with a cab driver.’

‘Why?’ Miley bites the nib of her cup and sucks the juice readily.

‘Because he was drunk.’

‘He shouldn’t drink should he, Nan?’

‘No love, he shouldn’t.’

‘He can’t take me to see the birdies now, can he?’ Concern perches on the ledge of her bottom lip.

‘No love, he can’t. I’ll take you.’

‘When?’ Miley’s face bunches up now. She looks to be concentrating on whether this can be taken as a promise or a good-natured placation.

‘Next week.’ Sandra holds the reflection of her eyes with her own, nods with her eyebrows, smiles.

‘Why not nowwwwah?’

‘Because we’re going to see Daddy now, aren’t we? I tell you what, we’ll go on Tuesday.’

‘I don’t want to see Daddy.’ Miley starts to bore her back into the car. She’s still clutching one of the cup’s handles and shakes it like a picket in her protest. Little shoots eject onto the car seat and into her hair. She starts to cry – long loud moans for which the tin containing them serves as an amplifier.

Knowing better than to try to soothe at this stage, Sandra reaches into the foot well on the passenger’s side with her left hand. She tries to keep her eyes on the road and reconciles herself to the fact that she’d passed three cars in the past twenty kilometres and this slice of the world was so flat the only thing she could crash into is the horizon.

‘What is the horizon anyway? The glue that sticks the sky to the ground?’ Amongst the blare of vowel sounds behind her, she couldn’t be sure if she had verbalised this thought or whether she had kept hold of it just for herself.

It’s difficult to multi-task. She’d been no stranger to it either. She’d raised three boys so considers herself something of a dab hand. She’s held back at first from getting a clean hold on her bag by her seat belt. Troubled by the distress in her granddaughter’s cries, she has become anxious, and so her yanks are fitful. But her second attempt is more fruitful. She takes herself inside her mind, into her silent panic room, sits all the way back and then dips in a slow bow; drawing the seatbelt away from her as she goes so as not to trigger its pull. Her fingernails scratch the cigarette box and she clutches it as she resurfaces.

‘Woooooooo—ooooooooooo! Woooooooo—ooooooooooo!’

Sandra’s heart throws itself against her ribcage and her lungs retract down to her diaphragm like two petty thieves caught at the scene. Both blasting sounds – inside and outside the car – grind against each other and the metal of her fillings. Her body feels like one giant pulse.

When the scream of the police van peters to its vanishing point, she realises that Miley is no longer crying. Instead, she’s tracing the tracks of the noise into the distance. Her frame seems defeated and Sandra reaches back, cigarette now leaning from her lip, to stroke her granddaughter’s shin. She chokes on the urge to weep. Opening the window, she edges closer to the wind. Some of the smoke is resilient; it hangs around in the backseat. Miley splutters.

‘Why did I bring her here?’ Sandra thinks. Again, whether it was out loud or not, she couldn’t know for sure.

The landscape is desolate. The vibrations from the sprinting police van form a mirage of the compound. They’re chasing it in their petrol-powered tin can.

She feels lost far out at sea. In each direction a murky swell is building, beating stronger against the base of her patchwork boat. What feels like a motor churns through the sludge and slosh in her stomach. The long, scorched grass sways. It’s hypnotising. It drags her into another time – the past that she drives away from and into at the same time.

He was a gorgeous little boy, then. Like a caterpillar, he wrapped himself around her waist and climbed about her stick-like frame. A squeezer. A smiler. A rough-and-tumble roll-amongst-the-cow-shit-to-see-what-it-really-smells-like-up-close kind of child. His smile was one that buzzed and fizzed in amongst other small faces and the great outdoors. Trees, fences, creeks, hedges were his playground. If there weren’t humans to play with, he’d pull dogs and cats into his games. Though cats were less willing. His child’s skin tattooed with the rebuffs and punishments of feline distaste for his unsolicited corralling.

Mischievous. Always trying to find a boundary to jump across or tear down.

When she looks back at those years, she feels nervous. That was the shape of the energy she carried around with her. Exhausted tension, even. He required so much attention. She needed to keep him busy. Like a dog, he had to be let out first thing in the morning. She found tasks for him, challenges to put his bouncing and rolling to good use. It was sapping. There was no peace from him; even asleep, he contorted; sometimes knees to chest, sometimes buried in amongst his bedclothes in a ball at the foot of his bed, sometimes unconfined to the bed at all, arms outstretched, body diagonal, bottom in the air; not even the bed frame could contain him.

He pulled her too thin even then. She was snappy and short, and too frivolous with her discipline. With great swooping brush strokes, she slopped lofty and immeasurable consequences. Overwhelmed with the policing she seesawed from overzealous slipper toting to jovial criticisms. She was just as restless and unbound as he was – consistently inconsistent.

Miley starts to hiccup and for a moment Sandra can see the prison building. She’ll be there in ten minutes, she estimates, and again reaches back to smooth her thumb along the clammy patch of skin between her granddaughter’s leggings and socks. She remembers how much Richie used to enjoy being stroked on the legs just as he faded into sleep.

Could she have had more of those quiet moments? If she did, could she have been a better parent, she asks herself. It’s only a second before she slips overboard and into the grips of her memories. She’s there then. Ten, maybe fifteen, years ago. Hard to tell.

He ran into the kitchen.

‘What’s happened?’ She asked him, almost breathless herself. Sandra was responding to the arms and legs of her seven-year-old nephew, James, being cradled in her son, Richie’s arms. He was brave, and beautiful, that little nephew of hers. Clever too, and so well behaved. Not like good old Richie, a time bomb of unaccountable misconduct.

There were little whimpers coming from James – he was like a lame deer all bundled up in Richie’s jumper. Her son was white with panic and taking deep gulps of breath.

‘We were playing on the park—’

‘I know. Were you watching him?

‘Yeah but—’

She turned away and scrambled around in the kitchen, pulling and batting at cupboards and drawers like a bear. ‘Where the hell was her first aid kit? Who had it last?’ She thought. She dropped to her knees and reached to the back of a shelf. There were spray cans, WD-40, de-icer, furniture polish. Arm in to the shoulder, she started to pat like a blind person until she felt the small metallic tin of the first aid box.

 ‘He was going too high—’

‘Then you should have stopped him, shouldn’t you!’

She pulled James from Richie's arms and laid him down the couch. Her son had barely let go of him as she propped James up. Richie wiped away the blood from James’ face and smoothed his hair in long calming strokes.

Her nephew began to cough and the sound was more liquid heaving than dry splutter. Richie opened James’ mouth looking for a blockage. He carefully fed a clean kitchen towel towards his throat. He was still bleeding. Richie wasn’t sure if he had bitten a chunk of his tongue in the fall or if there was something more serious.

‘Call Aunty Carol. Ask her to bring the car. Tell her we’re going to the hospital.

His face was blue and Richie ran to the kitchen to fetch a wet towel this time, to dab James’ face before calling Carol.

Her sister was worried but she didn’t point the finger. Sandra remembered doling out a grounding on that occasion, too spent from the ordeal to be more creative. Plus, Richie was so withdrawn for days afterwards – until he knew James was in the clear.

The beeping of the metal detector pops Sandra’s thoughts – they fizz into a mist. She’s walking through the registration area, heart pounding, before she fully gets to grips with the present tense. That trusty though somewhat risk-taking friend, autopilot, has parked the car, released her granddaughter from her fastenings, and led them both through the formalities of the prison process (including the necessary searches and related rigmarole).  

And now her heart is bellowing as she stands, aware of Miley’s moist hand in her own, waiting to be discharged into the prison proper.

They’re all huddled together, these criminal families. Like a crowd of Neanderthals kidnapped and rounded up and forced to look at the successes of civilisation. Apparently self-righteousness isn’t reserved for the pious, the elite, and the activists – these prison guards give the best of them a run for their virtuously earned coin.

Sandra takes a seat in the communal area. Miley lifts herself, all legs and arms, onto the seat next to her. There’s no lounging. The solid orange chairs are bolted to the floor. There’s a uniform curve that must fit someone’s lumbar, but it’s not hers and it’s certainly not Miley’s. ‘It’s like a stake we’re all but strung to,’ Sandra thinks.

They wait for the bell to sound – the indicator for the impending criminal procession pealing into the room. When it does, they start to strut in.

Sandra’s is puffed up with rage; she can see it shaking in his frame as he walks towards her. She needs a cigarette, her patience is frayed by now and she’d like to feel his neck between her fingers for all he’s put her through.

The sound of Richie’s weight meeting the plastic pew peaks against the initial murmur of salutations squeezing the fluorescent blue tinged room. He leans over to stroke his daughter’s face. ‘Hello sweetheart. Daddy’s missed you. Have you missed me?’ His voice is unsteady, weak, bloated with tears he’s swallowed back. Miley shakes her head away from his fingers. Richie retreats.

‘You don’t look well, love.’ Sandra says quietly.

‘I’m not well. I’m in fucking prison.’

She isn’t prepared for the attack but she defends solidly: ‘Looks like you’re having no trouble getting your hands on the gear, though.’ It was true. He had that pallor you only get the days succeeding a high or more likely consecutive highs. Sandra had come to recognise it over the years.

‘You put me on them drugs when I was seven years old and you’re actually wondering why I’ve got a fucking drug problem?’

‘Ritalin helped you, Richie.’ She breaths in through her nose, out through her mouth. She smooths both trouser legs to avoid looking up.

‘Did it fuck. It helped you and those shitty teachers. Fucking tranquiliser dart in the kid – make him docile. That’ll keep him still for five minutes.’

‘So it was my fault as always? Why don’t you start taking responsibility for yourself?’

‘Why don’t you?’ He says; and with that he opens the cage from which his mother’s grief and fury rush and roll over each other in an avalanche.

‘You know me and your Dad gave you three everything you could’ve ever wanted. How is it that it’s only you in jail, eh? Tell me that.’

His mouth stretches sideways – both the equal and opposite of a smile.

‘Probably because I’ve been the scapegoat for those two their whole lives – not all sweetness and light, you know. Mummy’s boy Kieran stole Nan’s Credit Card to buy that new bike of his, and Stephen only has Charlie to thank for those hard-working super powers of his.’ Richie puts his finger to his nose and sucks in twice for effect, ‘Look at him closely. Don’t be blinded by his lovely job, his lovely house and lovely wife and those lovely grandchildren of yours. That constant runny nose, those rants he goes on about how shit the government, his uncommonly large pupils.’

‘Now it all comes out.’ Richie continues. He leans back a little though the chair stops him at an awkward angle. His fingers knit together. ‘He’ll be as broke as you and me soon.’ Sandra pushes against the urge to grip him, pull him to her face, swipe madly at him, or scratch at his skin – just inflict some kind of pain however she can in the little time she would actually have. She looks at the poster on the wall beyond his head and counts her breaths instead.

‘Ha! And there’s not a chance you’d believe it’s true even if they looked you in the eye and told you themselves. He mimicked her voice through a contorted face intended to injure, ‘Not my Kieran. Not my Stephen. Must have been that little shit, Richard.’

Throughout this interaction Miley seems to recognise the opportunity for a soundtrack – hunkering under her chair, she uses the underside as a drum to bang out her crescendo. The beats echo off the linoleum flooring. Some heads but not many turn in the direction of the sound. One of the guards moves closer to them. Perhaps too tired, perhaps too desensitised to sound by now, it’s his stalking in her peripheral vision that alerts Sandra to her granddaughter’s offbeat thuds in her ears.

‘Come here, Miley! Stop that! Get up from there! Sit still!’ Sandra plonks Miley next to her. Again, the connection between load and prop describes what’s happening to the rest of the herd.

‘Have some fucking patience!’ Richie shoots up tall. He looks more like shadow than mass. ‘Oh, she’s getting up to mischief like her dad is she? Has she got ADHD too?’ He’s stood above Sandra, his hands clamp around the bench between them, his words spraying her face.’ She sees another shift in her periphery.

‘I am your mother.’

‘You’re a shit one.’ His fingernail digs into her forehead. Tears bleed from her eyes.

The contact seems to trigger a thought, a feeling; perhaps it’s her flesh at the other end, which forces her being onto him. Or maybe it’s the physical consequence of the warden bearing into his back and around his arms. Either way, he too breaks down into tears. As his shoulders judder, he continues: ‘I’m sorry, Mum. Please help me. Please help me. Don’t let them take me back in there. I’ll die. I’ll die. I’m not supposed to be here. I made a mistake. I’m sorry. I’m sorry sweetheart. Daddy will be home soon. We’ll go and see the birdies, OK?’

Sandra goes to put her hand to his face and is prevented from doing so by the momentum carrying her son away. The warden glares at her as if she is the criminal.