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Hanging Upside Down

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Hanging Upside Down

by Kim Horwood

 

I could hear them coming across the vacant block beside our house. Their feet shuffled through the long grass with a swooshing sound. If a house were ever built on that block, I wondered how I would hear Mum and Dad coming home.

Through the glowing gap in my curtains, the quiet moon was bothered by my father’s voice with words too groany to understand.

In the softness of the night, Mum’s words were sharp. “I’m bloody sorry… but you spend more on beer than I do on poker machines!”

Dad grumbled. That’s what beer did to words; it punched and pummelled until words were mean grumbles.

Mum yelled words that skimmed across the night air, leaving ripples. “That bloody machine was supposed to jackpot!” She sounded certain about the jackpot. She was always certain.

I closed my eyes tighter; listening but not wanting to hear. I knew what sorry meant. Sorry, meant vegemite sandwiches – not ham. Sorry, meant the car stayed broken. Sorry meant there was no money left.

And sorry meant I had to wear that school uniform with the frayed hole on the hip. Everyone could see the colour of my undies through that hole.

Bang!

“Stupid idiot!”

Dad’s beer-words slammed at the same time as the front door.

My little brother nudged his face to my chest, his pointy elbows tucked into my ribs. I could hear a quiet wheeze on his chest. It crept in like one of those morning fogs. I wondered if Mum should take Noah to the hospital again.

“Darryl please!” Mum’s pleading distracted me from my brother’s raspy breath.

“Let me go,” her voice softened. “I’ll ring Aunty Anne tomorrow. She’ll lend us the money for the car… please let go Darryl!”

Thud!

“Useless bitch!”

Dad’s grumbly beer-words smacked my ears at the same time as Mum’s body smacked the wall.

My eyes scared open. I pulled my little brother closer so I could concentrate on the sound of his breath. Instead I heard the sounds of other moonlit nights with Mum crying a sorry cry – the cry of a pretty purple bruise. I knew the cry of a broken arm was spikey and loud; a bleeding lip was slow and moany.

“Bloody poker machine,” Mum cried, “It was… going to… jackpot… I know it was…”

I closed my eyes, picturing the poker machine with its greedy smile and rainbow eyes. Stupid bloody poker machine. I thought about its smile and I realised I had not seen Dad smile in a while. Did he smile last month when he saw my Report Card? Did he smile when I started Year Five? Did he smile last year when the doctor said he could not pour concrete anymore because of his back?

It wasn’t just Dad’s smile that changed, his eyes had changed too. Brown and kind had become dark and worried, like the eyes of a bat.

We were learning about bats in school. Miss Noyce told us they were mammals like us and their wings were like arms, its skeleton almost identical to our own hands and arms. Miss Noyce read us a story about a bat who was born in a colony in Gympie. My hand shot up that day because I remembered Dad was born in Gympie.

“Maybe your Dad’s really a bat,” said Alexandra Abrahams. And maybe you’re really a cow, I wanted to say. But I didn’t.

Maybe my Dad was a bat? I decided that I liked bats.

Slipping quietly from under my blankets, I crawled to the bedroom door and peeked my face into the hallway. When Mum saw me she sat up very straight and plain. Tucking her hair behind her ears, she smiled with just her lips. “I’m sorry. I’m OK Hannah. I just need to wash my face.” I kept my lips closed and crawled back to bed.

Dad did not speak the next morning, which I didn’t mind because the pain in Dad’s back sometimes made his words hurt too.

“Don’t worry about the money,” Mum’s voice was soft as she placed a mug of tea on the table in front of Dad, “I’ll go to the fruit shop today and talk to Gina… get another shift.”

Gina stopped Mum’s shifts after Noah had been in hospital, which I didn’t understand because he didn’t get asthma on purpose. The Fruit Shop should have missed Mum like I had missed her. Aunty Anne visited us every day for those four days. She came with bread and ham, and a book. She read the story of Rapunzel until I went to sleep, and then I dreamed I was a bat, hanging upside down in Rapunzel’s tower.

Miss Noyce told us that bats hung upside down to conserve their energy and that standing upright was “defying gravity”. I thought, maybe Dad was part bat and he needed to hang upside down to fix his back and stop his groany sound.

I felt mean for wishing Noah would go to hospital again so Aunty Anne would come with ham and Rapunzel.

I left for school that morning with a vegemite sandwich, wearing the school uniform with the hole on the hip. Since the car had been broken, I had been walking to school. When Noah starts school next year, I will have someone to walk with.

As soon as class began, Miss Noyce gave us a work-book with a bat to colour-in. Alexandra Abrahams screwed up her face. She said bats just looked black and scary. Mum says it’s easy for people to misunderstand something they’re afraid of.

Bats did look scary. But Miss Noyce said that bats thought WE looked scary and that bats would normally choose to roost in a colony that was away from “human disturbance”. I wished I was away from human disturbance – like Alexandra Abrahams.

While we coloured the picture of the bat, Miss Noyce played music. The more I thought about staying in the lines, the less I thought about melty beer-words and poker machines. While I wondered, should the bat’s wings be black or brown, the less I thought about ham sandwiches and Rapunzel’s tower. I coloured the bat’s eyes brown and kind, not dark and worried.

The music and colouring that morning made us sleepy so Miss Noyce decided we needed to move our arms and legs to wake up our brains. We walked down to the grassed courtyard, around the corner from the playground, to do star-jumps.

Alexandra Abrahams was the first to notice my pink undies through the hole in my hip.

She laughed out loud and pointed. “Hannah’s wearing pink undies!”

Everyone laughed.

“Stupid idiot!” I yelled at Alexandra Abrahams.

“Hannah!” Miss Noyce’s eyes were wide. I felt my chin crinkle; I had to bite my lip to stop my face folding into a dumb cry. I hated dumb cries. They reminded me of Mum’s purple bruises.

I tucked my hair behind my ears and smiled with my lips. Remembering Mum’s words I said, “I’m sorry. I’m OK Miss Noyce. May I wash my face?”

“Yes Hannah,” Miss Noyce replied, her eyes brown and kind.

Neither Alexandra Abrahams nor Miss Noyce would know about melty beer-words and poker machines. They didn’t know about broken cars and the sounds of swooshing grass on a vacant block. And they didn’t know about pretty purple bruises and the mean pain of a sore back.

I washed my face at one of the basins in the girl’s toilets and stared back at myself in the mirror. Brown eyes; kind, not dark and worried. I was always surprised that my face never looked as sad on the outside as I thought it would.

On my way back to star-jumps to wake up our brains, I stopped at the playground. The swings hung still, the monkey bars were cold and empty. Inviting.

I started to climb. I did not stop climbing until I was sitting on the bars that crossed at the top. I pretended I was high in Rapunzel’s tower, safe from human disturbance.

I hooked my legs over a bar so it stuck tight in the crook of my knees, before I swung down through the centre of the grid and hooked my ankles together so I couldn’t fall.

I tucked my uniform into the sides of my pink undies so nobody could see them before criss-crossing my arms across my chest and wedging my hands tightly into my armpits. I closed my eyes and let the air leave my lungs.

Hanging upside down needed no energy at all. Hanging upside down, the only sound was my heart in my ears; it was louder than ever before. I could not hear the swooshing grass, the slamming door, or stupid idiot. I could not hear Noah’s wheeze or Mum’s cry or Dad’s groany words. I could not hear them laughing at my pink undies.

I felt calmer than I had felt since Dad’s back started to hurt from pouring concrete.

For a little while I thought a lot about nothing. Before long, I could hear nothing. There was only the air in my nose and the blood in my head. Hanging upside down, I felt nothing at all. Not even sad.

*

Alexandra Abrahams ran into the reception area of the school office as fast as her skinny legs could carry her.

“Someone has to come! Quick! Hannah’s upside down! She’s stuck on the monkey bars and Miss Noyce needs help!”

Janis Jones and Audrey Clark had been the administration ladies for a collective twenty-three years, and had survived their share of school emergencies with quiet capability. They had never had a child stuck to the monkey bars. Janis frowned at Audrey. Janis had the school accounts to finish that day.

“I’ll go,” Audrey decided with a sigh.

When Audrey Clark reached the playground, the entire Year Five class was standing in a circle around the monkey bars. She had to use the backs of her hands to part their shoulders so she could get to the girl upside-down.

Audrey eyed Hannah Everett’s mop of sandy hair hanging loosely, her legs hooked over the top bar, and her feet crossed at the ankles.

Josephine Noyce, the Year Five teacher was staring at Hannah Everett’s face, her knees half bent so her fantastically tall frame was in line with Hannah’s face. Audrey Clark suddenly remembered the day she met Miss Noyce, earlier that year. “That one looks twelve,” she’d whispered to Janis Jones.

“As we get older, they all look twelve,” Janis resolved. Aha, Audrey Clark had agreed.

With her hand on Hannah’s face, a wide-eyed Miss Noyce was gently repeating her name, to try to wake her. Josephine Noyce looked twelve again, Audrey decided. She touched Miss Noyce’s shoulder hearing the distress in her voice.

“I’m guessing she’s been hanging here for about twenty minutes, but I can’t wake her!” Audrey Clark put both hands on each of Hannah Everett’s criss-crossed arms and giving her tiny body a jiggle she called, HANNAH!

Audrey tickled the girls face and neck, watching for a response. She touched her icy ears and freckled cheeks, but Hannah did not even wiggle her eyelids.

“If I hold her body, can you push her legs up from the bar?” Audrey ordered. Josephine followed wide eyed, as she reached up to give Hannah’s hooked ankles a nudge. She jiggled gently at first but then gripped Hannah’s ankles and pushed with as much force as she could manage. There was no way she was going to straighten Hannah Everett’s bent legs – her joints were locked in position.

The groundsman, a PE teacher and the Headmaster, Mr Toohey all tried but nobody could budge Hannah Everett from the monkey bars. Her arms stayed criss-crossed, her ankles stayed hooked and her knees stayed locked.

With arms folded, Mr Toohey suggested Audrey Clark call an ambulance, when no one knew what to do next.

When Darryl Everett’s mobile phone rang he was lying on the couch watching a children’s program that he could not name, while Noah sat in front of the television.

“She’s what?” He was too confused for polite words. “Yeh, I’ll come.” There was a short pause. “Nah, ya won’t get Kayleen, she’s workin’ at the fruit shop. It’s OK. I’ll come.”

When Darryl Everett ran through the school gates, Noah and Aunty Anne were trying to keep up. He was grateful to Anne for coming so quickly.

Darryl’s first instinct was to yell at his daughter. “Stop it! Stop now! It’s bloody stupid!”

Why would she want to make such a fuss, cause such a scene? He wanted to shake her until her eyes opened.

The ambulance officer’s furrowed brow made Darryl Everett’s breath stop for a moment. Before he touched his daughter, he looked into her face. That mop of hair hanging upside down he’d once brushed and those criss-crossed arms had once hugged his neck.

When was the last time he’d brushed Hannah’s hair or had her arms around his neck? He couldn’t remember the last time he had looked at her face, with its wide cheek bones and freckled nose. Hannah reminded him of a boy who’d once looked back at him in the mirror.

With the image of that face his train of thought switched track.

A memory flashed; his body crouched into a ball in the wash-house of the home he grew up in. He remembered the fear that creased up his freckled nose so his eyes squeezed shut. If his eyes could not see, maybe he would not be seen. He wished he could not hear his father bellowing through the house in a tanked-up tirade. He would eventually be found and reminded again how stupid he was. He remembered too, wondering if he was ever loved or if his father was ever sorry about the belting.

Feelings simmered in that cold space in his chest until without warning he began to quietly cry.

“It’s OK mate,” the ambulance officer comforted. “Her pulse is steady, her blood oxygen levels good and blood pressure’s normal.”

Darryl Everett looked at him, confused.

“We can’t explain it mate but her legs are locked over that bar.”

He nodded like he understood, but he didn’t really understand. What exactly was wrong with his daughter?

Then Darryl realised.

His own child was hiding in fear with her eyes squeezed shut so she could not see.

He couldn’t remember if he’d ever said sorry. So he did.

He couldn’t remember the last time he’d said he loved her. So he did.

He promised Hannah that her brown eyes would open to a life she deserved. He remembered the treasure of a daughter, the pride for a son. He remembered the love that had been eroded by the genetic sea of history repeating; the love that was now greater than the pain in his back. And so, the pain left him.

A crisp autumn breeze blew up from the bottom of the playground. Darryl Everett shivered.

Hannah Everett took a short sharp gasp of air as her big brown eyes sprung open.

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