She can see them skinny legs riding away on their bicycles, their little bums in their shorts going up and down and them standin up on the pedals of them old bikes, boys bikes too, not good for a girl to be riding, do themselves a damage.
Still, they were her girls, and they could be worse, she supposed. Runnin around with boys or drinkin or up to god knows what. All those two wanted to do was go fishin. Even the boys don't go fishin around here. Well, she never seen them anyway. Them stupid girls. The only time they ever come back with anything it's catfish and she makes em throw it away. Filthy stuff. They whinge about it of course, but she says to them, she says I don't want to be poisoned by my own daughters, you get those filthy fish outta here right now and why don't you go inside and do your hair you look like a pair of broomsticks in the wind. They laugh and throw themselves down into the shade under the tankstand. The coolest place in the summer they reckon. God knows what they was cookin up, but you can be pretty sure it wasn't plans for helping their mother around the house.
The girls sat under the tankstand and waited she went inside before they got out their packet of Peter Stuyvesant and lit one each and lay down on their backs so they could see the underside of the tankstand and bits of the galvanized iron tank between the boards. They felt happy there - just like the women in the advertisements before the movies. They ran the silk-bodied cigarettes between two fingers and tapped the ends. Sometimes the Peter Stuyvesant ads., real moving pictures too not slides, were better than the films themselves. Anyway, they felt really suave, and stretched their freckled teenaged thighs and dreamed of having money, and a tan, and a boyfriend who drove a big car and did something in the city - they didn't know or care what. And they would visit each other, they said, and be rich and travel together too, and always keep each other's secrets. Susan thought she would probably marry first, because she was the oldest, Francie agreed because she was only thirteen and wasn't quite sure what happened when you ran away with a boy, especially one from the city, who didn't understand anything and looked at you as if you were an idiot. 'Yeah, but what do you do out here?' one of them had said to her and looked up and down the main street. She'd looked too and couldn't see anything then, although her days seemed full enough, even in the Christmas holidays. 'I ride my bike,' she said and he looked blankly, so she said 'sometimes' and he'd got back into the big blue car and folded his arms.
She couldn't imagine going anywhere with him although he had rich skin. As if the money rubs off on it. As if he spent mornings rubbing twenty dollar notes into the skin so the yellow brown golden dye came off, rubbed in, until he was burnished with the money. Brown. And a clean white shirt that was so clean he must just have put it on. He treated her like a cousin. No, Francie couldn't run away with someone like him.
She wanted someone like. She couldn't imagine. Someone like. Someone who didn't treat her like a cousin. Someone who was exciting and could see down the highway as far as it would go and make her breath slide out of her. He'd take her hand then and they'd just walk away. Somewhere, down the highway. But she couldn't imagine just what then. She pictured herself and this apparition dissolving in the heat haze, gone forever. She couldn't see what might happen over the rise. She wanted some dry hand to hold to understand the big acres around here with. Not around here, somewhere, somewhere where no one knew her, where she could be a princess. Opaque, even to herself.
She agreed, yes, they would run away together, she and Susan. They would go to the city together. They would have adventures. They would get married and visit each other always. Yes. Someday.
Susan went on and on about it though, so Francie agreed again. She had nothing else to suggest. Really. She was happy now lying under the tankstand and smoking cigarettes while the world was outside and they were alone and secret. Francie liked secrets. She was excellent at keeping them, and sometimes invented them for herself just so she would know something that no-one else knew. It was something you could be certain of, that was real, a secret that you had invented yourself. It had a privacy, a wholeness that was hard to contradict.
Sometimes she invented secrets about her family. Sometimes about Susan - but she never told her, never. Susan would have laughed anyway, told her she was an idiot, dug her in the ribs with her elbow and laughed again, breaking the fragile clever secret thing.
Francie never told, that's why Susan felt so safe talking. Anything, she could say anything and Francie wouldn't tell. This was due to the smoking, Susan thought. If Francie told anything, Susan would dob her in about the cigarettes. That's why Susan always made Francie look after them. No-one would think of looking under Francie's mattress for anything. Francie knew nothing about nothing, and was scared of boys, and would do whatever Susan told her to do.
She'd take her to the city and the boys would all come then. She's the pretty one, but only thirteen yet. No tits, but the boys liked her best. Because she didn't care about them and they could sense it. Like animals, that's what boys were like. You could smell it in their clothes, on their hair. The way they were afraid, the way they would shift their eyes away from you and look down the highway like it was going somewhere. She would go down the highway some day, she would take herself off and go. Just like that, with pretty Francie to be with. They would go to the city and get a nice little flat, with hot and cold taps in the kitchen and have a toilet inside and everything would be really new and clean and the boys would come to say hello to Francie and then they'd fall in love with her, Susan, instead. And she would take a long time to choose. She would choose the tallest one, the handsomest one, the one with the most money. A nice car. They would drive off to a bigger, clean house and Francie would. Francie would come and visit and put her little soft hands around the fragile tea cups and drink it in small sips like she always did. So elegant. Private. She would close the door and she and Francie would talk about secret things all afternoon. They would talk softly, their voices barely rising over the blue carpet. They would in soft eddies with such intimacy. And then Francie would go home to their flat. Then Susan would be her own self again, filled up to the hard edges.
Susan couldn't wait to get out of this dump where everyone knew your business - if you went with anyone they called you a slut. A slut. What would they know. Even so Susan was saving herself until she went to the city and found someone worth being called a slut for. Someone who knew something, been somewhere, understood things she didn't.
She flicked the end of her cigarette so that the ash flew off, intact, onto the ground, a trick she'd learnt from a boy who came from Sydney. She remembered that boy. His blond hair, his tanned wrists, paler on the inside she noticed as he flicked the cigarette.
Sometimes, when she rode her bike, she dreamt of having that calmness, that belonging in the world, that manner of understanding. But for the moment she couldn't get away, had no money, nowhere to go except the stinking city their mother said wasn't worth visiting. That was full of dangers and problems and noise and waste. The city that was No Place For Any Daughter Of Mine Do You Hear Me My Girl.
Susan and Francie finished their cigarettes and washed their mouths out at the tank tap, the wet dust splashing up on their feet, and went inside to face their baggy old mother. Her dress hung around her body like the skin of a large animal. She moved around in the kitchen getting tea ready, not looking at them, her girls, the ones she loved more than even a mother was supposed to. When Jack took off and things got really tough she'd sit on the front verandah and dream of getting away, from the girls, from everything, sending the kids away to a home, giving them up. But it wasn't decent, no matter what, they all said, she loved those girls and would do the best she could for them. 'You two come and help with the tea. You should've been home hours ago.' The girls looked at each other and rolled their eyes. Their mother grunted her own reply 'Set the table and hurry up about it.' They moved towards the cupboards, and laid out the knives and forks on the laminex table, salt and pepper in the middle. Glass of milk for them each, their mother said they were too young for tea drinking. Teacup for Mum. Susan sat down and stared at Francie doing something at the sink, Mum giving her a nudge with her elbow 'Move over luv.' Her mother's hips moving Francie's flesh. The fabric of their clothes making a small hushing sound together. Too much woman flesh. It made Susan's skin crawl.
By the time winter had come, and the town grown greyer and more isolated than even the summer holidays, Francie's breasts had grown a bit and Susan had decided to leave school and get away, whatever the cost. She saved any money she could, conning Francie into paying for the cigarettes. She packed her old globite schoolcase with as much as it could fit and went down to the highway to wait.
Francie saw her go and knew that the dream was happening right now. She stood out the front, in the yard and didn't say goodbye but watched as cool as a scientist watching a secret betray itself.
Susan waited on the highway, sitting on the old globite like she was waiting for the school bus. She looked up the highway, expecting something, but not knowing what shape it might be. Her knees poked out from under her dress and she scratched her dry skin, her nails leaving white tracks. She wanted Francie beside her, but wanted to be alone too. It wouldn't be right. Susan didn't know, some secrets are so secret, she thought, you can't even let on to yourself.
Francie supposed she would have to tell Mum, but not now. Later. When she could think about it. When she had time to understand; for now she wanted to see her sister on the highway, soak it up before she forgot. The light, the trees. The unlikely gleam off the globite. The thin legs. She could already hear her mother. 'Youse girls, I knew you'd be in trouble sooner or later,' she'd say, with Francie standing innocent before her with the box of matches hidden in her palm.
(c) 2006 Chris Mansell
Previously published in Australian Short Stories (Australia) and New Quarterly (Canada)
To read 'Bright tells the truth about Paradise' go to University of Canberra, Monitor on line, http://www.canberra.edu.au/monitor/reports/2005shortstories/bright.htm