– by Sian Campbell
(Image credit: Jonathan McIntosh. Reproduced under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 License)
‘Jee-zus fuh-king Christ,’ G says as we slowly pull into the arrivals pickup area. Gets out, shuts the car door hard. Frankie’s just leaning against the wall, waiting casual as anything, a dirty blue duffel bag at her feet. Her white blouse is sticking to her body with sweat and it’s still only the very early morning, but she looks good – even with the goddamn Santa hat she’s got on. Baby-face, Dad always calls her. The only one of us three whose hair stayed that little-girl blonde. She’s at the wrong airport.
‘You’re at the wrong fucking airport, Frankie,’ I hear G say through the windows, as she snatches the duffel and makes for the boot. Frank gets in the back with Ned and hot air fills the car like a fever breaking out in a body. He makes a move for her straight away, all tongue.
‘Gettoff, it’s too bloody hot.’ Her accent is all wrong and I wonder why I never picked it up on the phone. She pushes his wiry kelpie frame over to the other side of the car and he actually leaves off properly for once. Ned’s getting old – six, or so, now. Has to be. Brittle brown hairs flake the car seat covers all over and I tell myself that Frankie can be the one to give it a vacuum at Dad’s. Avalon. Fuck’s sake.
‘Nice hat,’ I say.
‘Cheers,’ she says.
‘Shut the door already, will you? Why the fuck did you fly to Avalon?’ I ask.
The boot slams and G gets back in the passenger seat, wrenching her feet up onto the old blue esky. I start up the engine again. Twenty or so hours in the car at least until Dad’s. Straight, if we want to get there by Christmas morning. Cloying pangs of dread threaten to suck me under already and we haven’t even got going yet.
‘Why the fuck did you fly to Avalon?’ G asks.
‘Logic dictates that as the passenger, I’m not the one at the wrong airport,’ says Frankie. ‘Maybe you wrote it down wrong.’
‘I don’t even know how you fly to Avalon from London,’ G keeps on.
‘There was a stopover.’
‘You can’t blame us, you know. For thinking you’d be flying to fucking Melbourne airport?’
‘Just cut it out,’ I say. ‘The both of you. Put some music on or something, G.’
G fiddles with the radio, and ‘Winter Wonderland’ comes on. Michael Bublé. Christ.
‘Oh my god, you can’t even believe the snow in London right now,’ Frankie says, looking out the window at the yellow grass. I blast the air-con.
‘If you’re going to be like this the whole fucking trip,’ I say to no one in particular, turning the radio back off, ‘you can damn well walk.’
It’s an easy enough drive, once you start, although I’ve never done it before myself. G has made the drive more than a handful of times – stayed with her high school boyfriend long past the relationship’s use-by date and clocked far more hours in the car than any of us felt necessary, after work sent her south and away from his sorry arse. She knows the route, she says, she knows all the good ways. Still, she’s never done it Christmas Eve before, and never without stopping for a night or two on the way.
Frankie and Ned are both asleep in the back seat, huddled awkwardly under Frankie’s giant navy coat. It’s too cold in here – the air-con’s stuffed so there’s no striking any sort of medium between roasting and glacial. When I look at them in the rear-view mirror, I can just make out Frankie’s hand snaking out limply in mid-air. She looks vulnerable suddenly, more vulnerable than ever, and for some reason a weird sort of fear feeling starts trickling up my insides, or maybe it’s just the air-con drying me up. Next to me, G’s scoffing a Sausage & Egg McMuffin from the drive-through and washing it down with a Coke the size of her face. We’ll probably have to stop soon, judging from the way her leg has started to bounce, but Ned will need to go as well and there’s no telling what the cheap coffee I’m sculling will do to my insides, so I don’t pick a fight even though I want to.
‘Frankie still snores,’ G says.
‘Yeah,’ I say.
I remember the day Frankie was born, them handing her to me. How do you like your new sister, Mum said, and I remember thinking that there wasn’t really a good answer. Eight years old, G only a year behind me, and I thought beforehand that it would be nice having a baby around, that maybe it would let me boss it around. That maybe it would be a boy. A brother, because Janet Harrison had a little brother and said he would never have learned how to tie his shoelaces if it hadn’t been for her. Or maybe it’d be another sister but it wouldn’t be one like G, it’d be one that looked just like me, with my dark hair and weird sort of big mouth. Not fierce like G, who never needed me for anything. I thought that maybe in a way I could be its mother and I would have something of my own that G could never take from me.
But then it came out, and it was just Frankie.
Our father is old. He has emphysema, and will die soon enough, the doctors say. The fact that he’s having another baby at his age is, quite frankly, the stuff nightmares are made of, but when he calls and says he and Lisa want us all to come there’s no way out of it. You can’t say no to a man who’s dying, G says on the phone. I wire Frankie most of the money from my last gig and tell myself that Ned can probably go without his yearly shots.
G pulls over at a rest stop in the middle of nowhere, somewhere in New South Wales I figure, though I stopped paying attention to the GPS hours ago.
‘I need to stretch my legs,’ she says. We both know that what she needs is a smoke. I open the door for Ned and he bounds out, getting almost all the way to the nearby scrub before he realises we’re not following him and heads back.
‘Wake Frankie,’ I tell G. She ignores me. Says, over her shoulder,
‘Going to the loo.’
I head back to the car and pull Frankie’s hair lightly. The soft blonde hair looks out of place in my hard brown hand.
‘Frank. Do you need to pee?’ I notice her hair is a bit matted from rubbing against the back of the car seat and it makes me feel good for some reason.
‘Do you need to pee? We’re at a rest stop.’
She opens her eyes and looks at me.
‘I was having a dream you were being killed,’ she says, ‘and I just had to watch. There was nothing I could do.’
‘Come into the dining room,’ Dad said last time. ‘I’ve got something to say.’
The dinner table had been covered with a bunch of Mum and Dad’s belongings, mostly clothes but also jewellery, knick-knacks and some books. Mum’s wedding dress. The weird big painted china jug that used to be in the kitchen.
Dad had been holding a pad of Post-it notes, and as we entered the room he held it up in the air like a ref handing out a yellow card at the soccer.
‘I’m dying,’ he said. ‘You all know that already, and that’s all I want to say about it. And now we’re going to be civil, and you can each pick things out one by one. I didn’t raise any goddamn animals.’ Lisa had already taken a lot of the good stuff anyway. For the baby, she said.
‘Just don’t die on my birthday,’ G told Dad. Mum had died on G’s twenty-third birthday. It came as a bit of a shock to all of us except G. (‘She always made other plans on my birthday anyway,’ said G.)
Later when he was in bed, Lisa had told us about how when Dad’s mother died his five siblings had torn the house apart.
‘Looted the place,’ she said. ‘Your Dad was the only one who lived interstate and by the time he got there the only thing left was a pile of Grandma’s brass dollhouse furniture.’
‘Don’t call her Grandma,’ G had said. ‘She never even fucking met you.’
In the end Frankie had been the one to take the wedding dress. Nobody said a word.
On the radio, they’re debating the sexual politics of ‘Baby, It’s Cold Outside’. Progressive, for a commercial station that normally stuck to the latest celebrity crises, or maybe interviews with the Prime Minister if they were feeling particularly political.
‘Does it ever bother you that all the Christmas songs are about snow?’ Frankie asks from the passenger seat. Her Australian licence had expired last year, and she never bothered to renew it. ‘And the way people here put that fake frost stuff on their windows. I don’t know. It just feels wrong, I guess. A bit weird.’
It’s getting dark now and we’ve still probably got at least another eight hours in the car.
‘What are we going to do for dinner?’ I ask.
When we were kids and driving on holiday to Grandma and Grandpa’s, before Grandma died, we’d always pull into a town in the early evening just as everyone started getting hungry, and I never knew if Mum and Dad timed it that way or if it was just one of those things.
‘Look out for those golden arches,’ Dad would say.
‘Why do you think Mum never drove?’ I ask G and Frankie now.
Outside, everything feels quieter somehow even though I know it’s not really. Like the dark has sucked something out of the air. Everything is blue but sort of orange as well and it feels like something I’d forgotten. Like Christmas. Nobody says anything.
‘Yeah,’ I say to Frankie, ‘but have you ever noticed that those songs – ‘White Christmas’ and all that – sort of feel like our Christmases here anyway? Why do you think that is – are we just used to them? Some sort of Stockholm Syndrome, like we’re being brainwashed by the Northern Hemisphere. Globalisation. But that Santa Claus movie, with Tim the Tool Man Taylor. That movie always feels like Christmas Eve to me, for some reason.’
‘I don’t know,’ says Frankie. ‘Not to me.’
‘Whatever happened to Jonathon Taylor Thomas?’ G asks.
Suddenly, the windshield is splattered with little orange lights. We’re coming into town, bang on dinner.
‘Keep a look out for those golden arches,’ says G.
‘Hey,’ I say as Brisbane city comes into view. ‘We’re here.’
G and Frankie sit up straight, try and make out where we are.
‘We’re not anywhere,’ G says, but neither of them go back to sleep. Everything looks kind of golden.
‘Oh!’ Frankie says all of a sudden. ‘I guess it’s Christmas Day now.’ We drive the rest of the way in silence.
We pull into the driveway well past four in the morning. Lisa meets us at the door – looks at Ned, pissing on her flowerbed. ‘Your Dad’s sleeping,’ she says. ‘He couldn’t wait up. You know. Merry Christmas.’
I pop the boot and we sling our bags into Frankie’s old bedroom, the only one still the way it was before. Lisa had turned mine into a sewing room the first chance she got. Prime window real estate, she said. We dig out the wrapped parcels and put them under the tree in the corner of the dining room.
‘Don’t get me anything this year,’ Dad had said. ‘Won’t need it where I’m going.’ He meant it. We’d never gotten Lisa anything in the first place.
They’re all for the baby. For her.
‘Can we see her?’ asks Frankie.
‘It’s late,’ says Lisa, but we can tell her heart isn’t in it.
We three crowd into G’s old room. The nursery, now. She’s not even sleeping, just lying there calmly like she was waiting for us. She looks up at our faces – isn’t fazed one bit.
‘Hi,’ says Frankie. There’s nothing much to say or do. It’s just a baby, staring. Nothing else in the world for it to do except drink and sleep and shit. Someone coughs from behind us.
‘Can you believe it?’ Dad says. ‘Another daughter. I’m cursed.’
She is a week old and in a few hours we’ll open her presents for her, the presents we have carried across states and oceans. She won’t understand any of it and the clothes won’t fit for months. Dad will sit in his chair with a cup of coffee.
‘Just imagine,’ he’ll say, and everyone will.