Sport 12: Autumn 1994
Gabrielle Muir — The Gorse Thicket
for my sisters
On her first day back at her old school she was late. The gorse would not let her through. In the three years she had been away, the gorse had grown up and had spread right across the gully. Now it presented itself, a spiky barrier, green and vigorous, broader than a football field, higher than her head. Nearer its base, it had grown old, the bare branches all knuckled and sinewed, with here and there an isolated thorn jutting like a magnified bristle. The ground beneath the gorse stretched away, naked and dusty, until it became twilit, secret and dense. Her ear caught the dry rasping sound of branches scraping together in the wake of some small animal as it scuttered deeper into the thicket—a rabbit, or a possum perhaps, or a cat, or—much worse—a rat. Peering into the gorse she thought she saw, for one electrifying moment, rats seething over the roots, hundreds of them. She blinked in horror but when she looked again there was nothing, only the tangle of roots and branches regaining their stillness in the uncertain, rat-coloured light. Somewhere to her right, from a long way in, a bird shrilled, and seconds later a flock of starlings rose up out of the thicket and flew away above her head, their calls loud and alarmed. Craning her neck, she watched them fly off towards the state houses until they settled, a small black cloud on the roof of her own house, then she turned again to face the wall of green. The gorse nodded back at her. She would have to go around.
The footpath she hurried along was new but the gorse already hung over in many places where she had to step off the path and walk on the bitumen, which was also newly-laid—so fresh, the smell of boiling pitch made her lungs contract. The tarred gravel attached itself to the soles of her shoes as she went and before she could get back on to the path she had to keep stopping to scrape the stones off on the edge of the guttering. Once, as she did this, she saw her brother’s initials carved into the cement, and the corrugated imprint of the sole of his college shoe. He must have done that at the start of the school year, before she and her little sister had come home. Nana was too old to keep them any longer, so they were back with their mother and their big brother, this time for good. She remembered her first ever day in primary school—Primer One, her brother leading her up to the page 26 teacher because their mother was working and couldn’t get the time off. The teacher was a lady with hard-looking hair and beads around her neck that disappeared down the front of her dress. She remembered her brother letting go of her hand, and the teacher saying, Now I’m going to show you something very interesting—but it turned out to be nothing, and when she looked around again, her brother had gone.
Now as she stood in the gutter scraping tar off her shoes her brother sped by on his bicycle, loose gravel pinging in the spokes. She shouted out for a dub, but he only pumped his legs faster, yelling back at her over his shoulder, Can’t. Late. Before her mother sent her away to join her little sister at Nana’s house across the harbour, the gorse had been only knee-high, but she had been afraid of its spikes even then. Her brother would have to coax her along the thin track that wound through to the roughly-mown paddock on the other side. He used to say the quicker they went, the less it would hurt, and he would try and get her to run. He made a game of follow-the-leader out of it. He would jog ahead of her, calling, Swerve here. Go left. Go right. If she got muddled with left and right, which she often did, she would run straight into a gorse bush. Then all she could do was stand there, rigid with panic, while he gingerly plucked the young branches back to free her, swearing under his breath at her clumsiness and her fear, mindless of the fact that his own bare legs were covered in scratches and little spatterings of blood.
When she was sent to Nana’s, no one told her she would be living there. She thought she was going for the weekend, to see her little sister who had nice toys, and tidy clothes, and pink lino on the floor in her bedroom, and a gap between her two front teeth, and long, long black hair that their nana brushed a-hundred-strokes every morning till it shone with blue and green and purpley streaks, like coal. Her little sister owned ribbons, and cardigans, and socks that stayed up, and shoes that were not lace-ups like her own, but which fastened with a strap and a buckle. She had a doll’s pram too, and in it lay a doll dressed up to look like a bride, with a mouth like a perfect pink rosebud.
She understood somehow that her sister had been given all this to make up for the fact that she didn’t live at home in the dirty house with the unmade beds, and the piles of dirty washing, and the stacks of dirty dishes. But she also knew that she would never swap the house and her mother and her brother for her sister’s life, not ever. Not even for the bride-doll which her sister would never let her play with.page 27
But she was left at Nana’s, and when she asked about going home, no one answered. Her nana clipped her nails right back because they were filthy, and cut her hair off because it too was unclean, and sent her to a new school dressed in hand-me-down clothes because Nana wasn’t made of money and couldn’t afford to buy them both new things every time they wanted them. Her nana made her hold hands with her little sister each morning when they set off for school, but as soon as they rounded the corner, out of the old lady’s sight, they dropped hands quickly. They hated each other.
She knew how to pray, and every night she asked God to bless her family, even her little sister and her nana, even the father she had seen only once but whose image she polished and treasured till the memory of him shone like a bright medal. Her brother and her mother she saved till last, blessing them and telling God about them, and asking God to keep them safe until she fell asleep, sometimes even forgetting to say Amen.
At first, whenever her mother visited she expected to be taken home, but gradually she gave up asking, especially as the visits became shorter, and the time between them longer, and the look on her mother’s face when she visited made the dull ache that lived in her heart swell—and with such a ferocious pain she thought her chest would burst open. The visits would all end the same way—in smacking and crying because she thought her mother came only to see her and refused to share the attention with her little sister.
Nana’s house was near the sea, and once or twice over the summer her brother might turn up. Just turn up without warning, wearing shorts made from cut-off trousers, and a shirt without buttons. He would have one or two friends with him, and they would have spent all day at the beach, and be thirsty and sunburnt, and maybe have lost their bus-fare home. Nana would pretend to be angry, but would give them each a tall glass of water with ice in, and their bus-fare if they needed it, because Nana liked boys. Sometimes the boys would twist up their wet sandy towels into thick snakes and flick them at the girls, but mostly they laughed and shouted at each other, shadow-boxing and feint-kicking, their aggression only half-concealed. At these times, if she caught her brother’s eye, he would look quickly away.
Come sunset she and her little sister would trail along behind the boys and their flicking towels as they walked down to the bus-stop, and when the bus came, her brother would leap aboard without saying good-bye, and race page 28 his friends to the long seat across the back. But as it pulled away, he would turn, his face small and white in the bus window, despite the sunburn, and would raise his hand to wave. And she would stand there waving back till the bus turned the corner. Even when it was out of sight she waited, listening till the far-off noise of the engine blended with all the other sounds that make up a still evening in summer.
Then winter would come, and after three winters the visits had tailed off almost completely. Once she got sick, and she was left in a chair, wrapped in a blanket for three days, during which time she was spoken to by no one except ghosts. Doubt began to grow that she would ever get home. By the third winter, past hoping, she went on waiting. That last winter she willed them to come. She would stand in the freezing hallway of her nana’s house and stare and stare at the frosted glass panels of the front door until she could see right through, and down the path, and down the road, and along the harbour, and then into her own street, and she could see her letterbox, and the path leading up to her house, and the door opening, and her brother running down the front steps, his breath steaming ahead of him. Sometimes too she could see her mother looming on the other side of the frosted glass, about to raise her hand to press the bell on Nana’s front door, which throughout the winter remained locked, as if to keep out the cold.
Then Nana fell over one day, for no reason. The two girls helped her to bed and got her water, and the old lady went to sleep for a day and a night. When she woke up, she rose from her bed as if nothing had happened, but her speech and her step had slowed, and over the next few weeks, got slower and slower. So their mother took them back, and Nana went into hospital and stayed there. The big-armed woman, whose slap could knock you across a room, shrivelled up under the white hospital sheet until she became nothing more than a piece of leather stretched taut over tiny brittle bones, her hands like bird claws, clinging to the edge of the counterpane.
At first she and her sister made too much noise. They spoke to their mother and she would press her palms to her ears. It was because they had grown accustomed to shouting at Nana whose deafness they acknowledged, but never fully accepted, believing instead that she heard when and what she wanted. When they asked her for something, she was deaf, but if they whispered to each other, or conspired together in a rare moment of friendship, she heard them—even if they were way down the other end of page 29 the house, even if they were outside in the garden. At home there was no garden, just long grass at the front, and a packed clay yard out the back with an old forty-four-gallon drum for burning rubbish, and a pit dug into the ground for the stuff that couldn’t be burnt.
That first day back at her old school, her mother had taken their little sister early, but the older two had been left to fend for themselves. Having dressed herself and made her own breakfast, she was sure she would make it to school in plenty of time. As it was she arrived late, and had to hide behind the milk-shed while everyone else lined up at assembly and marched into class under the beady eye of the headmaster, Mr Brownlie, who had smacked her around the legs for having lollies at school in Primer Two.
Hiding behind the milk-shed, she wondered if anyone would remember her, or whether they would treat her like a stranger. She couldn’t decide which would be worse. All the first day strategy, worked out so carefully the night before, had gone completely out of her head when she confronted the wall of gorse. Now she cowered behind the shed, her stomach churning to the smell of rancid school milk, and when someone whispered her name and touched her on the shoulder, she almost wet her pants in fright.
It was a boy whose name she couldn’t remember—someone she’d never once thought of since she’d been away—but here he was, saying, I remember you. And he was in her class. They went in late together. The teacher wasn’t angry, and the class regarded her with curiosity, not hostility. Coming in with the boy had saved her. She remembered his name; it was Lawrence someone, but at lunch-time everyone called him Larley. After school he offered to show her a short-cut through the gorse.
It was easy after that. She learned there were many short-cuts through the gorse—as many as there were kids who passed that way going to and from school. She would be dawdling home from school, vaguely aware of a group of three or four kids straggling home ahead of her, when suddenly one of them would peel away, and appear to walk straight into the thicket. She learned to look through the gorse, not at it, and in this way, eventually she found her own paths.
In the early summer, towards the end of her last year in primary school, the gorse bloomed, and she swam beneath its surface through a sea of yellow flowers. Sometimes she and her sister walked home through the gorse together, but she liked it better when she was on her own and she could take her time, examining the treasures and the mysteries gathered that day in the page 30 net that was her life—lines from poems and stories out of the school journal, scraps of conversation that would replay themselves word for word in her head—the things she overheard, the things that were said to her, the things that she said to others. Much of it was jettisoned and forgotten immediately, but some of it she kept, believing it would stay lodged in her mind forever, ready for her to recall at a moment’s notice whenever she wanted. And if there were other things trapped in her net that she would rather not have kept, but which stayed with her anyway, she only distantly admitted how deeply inside herself she buried them.
She repressed too the new awareness that a certain group of girls in her class were not children at all, and that their first-hand knowledge of sex united them in an exclusive secret circle. That these girls had hair between their legs, breasts, and periods filled her with envy and disgust. While she was clever, and could answer all the questions the young male teacher put to the class, they lounged in their seats, the buttons of their summer blouses undone to the point where he could glimpse the line of bra against the swell of warm brown skin, if he cared to look. And he did. Or else, in the bluebottle heat of the afternoon he would take the class out on to the field for a game of softball, and he would position himself behind the prettiest one, lean over her, and pretend he was teaching her how to swing the bat. This picture stayed in her mind: their four hands clasped around the bat, with the teacher breathing hard, red in the face and bent over the girl, who kept her eyes levelled on the pitcher, and blushed. It made her ache. She recognised her need to be loved and at the same time buried the certain knowledge that she wasn’t.
Her mother was too busy, too tired, too sad, too preoccupied with her own dreams and nightmares. Her brother had long since become a stranger—allied to their mother—and the one who meted out punishment, where and when required, in her name. They fought. In the hours between after school and when their mother got home from work, the house resounded with their battles—she and her brother, she and her sister, her brother and herself against their sister, and the two sisters against their brother. Yet it never happened that her brother and little sister united against her, and though she noticed it, she never once let herself wonder why.
Because she thought she knew. Those two needed her. She was their middle-man, the one who translated for them. They did not speak to each other often, except through her, and she believed she knew them better than they knew each other. She would sometimes come home after school to a page 31 silent house—her brother would be at his desk in his bedroom, drawing fighter planes, and her sister would be lying on her bed in the room the two girls shared, her bride-doll clutched to her chest. She would throw her schoolbag on the other bed, then amble through to the kitchen to do the dishes, the radio up as loud as it would go, till her brother came in and yelled at her to turn it down, and she in her turn shouted for her sister to come and help with the dishes—then the fighting would begin. She felt she could walk into the house and set it going like a motion picture.
Then it happened that coming home from her last ever day in primary school, the bag slung across her shoulder weighted down with exercise books, and the sun bearing down from a stone-white, windless sky, she hesitated a moment before entering the thicket, and was, in that moment, lost. Even without a breeze, the gorse stirred softly and gave off thick waves of heat as she skirted along its edges, searching for a way in. She inhaled shallow draughts of lifeless air and loneliness. She would have been glad if someone—even her little sister—had come along, but not a soul was passing. And, with the stillness of the air and the shifting of the gorse, she had almost made up her mind to stick to the footpath and go the long way around, when out of the corner of her eye she saw something shining. It was her brother’s bike, lying just inside the wall of green, its front wheel still turning, and clamped beneath the carrier, their little sister’s schoolbag. She waited for the wheel to stop spinning, and then all she could hear was the gorse as it ticked, and popped, and whispered in her ear. The bike’s front forks pointed out the way they had taken, and abandoning the path, she stepped forward into the thicket to follow them.
Her brother heard her before he saw her, and by time he saw her, it was too late, though at the first snap of a rotten twig in the undergrowth he had jerked himself up from where he knelt, and now he stood with his hands dangling stupidly at his sides. And there they suddenly found themselves— facing each other over the body of their younger sister who lay as he had taught her—one arm across her eyes, and her chubby legs played stiff as a doll’s. Otherwise she held herself perfectly still.
The little girl, obedient and only half aware, heard the dry rattle of gorse bushes springing apart and closing together, and when she dared to open her eyes again, found herself all alone in the clearing where she lay for a long time staring up at the tiny patch of white sky above her head.page 32
That night, under a fat moon, the centre of the thicket began to steam like a head of damp woolly hair, except that the air was terribly dry. The rats were the first to notice, then, quickly, all the other creeping, crawling, scurrying things (not the sleeping birds, who never even woke) began to run. Anyone watching at the perimeter, where rampaging gorse met tidy footpath and newly-sealed road, would have seen what happened next. Rats, hundreds, thousands of them came pouring out of the thicket, falling over each other, squealing and biting in their panic to get away. They swarmed over the footpath and filled the street, and in a broad stream they followed the road as it wound up towards the state houses. Anyone watching would have seen the gorse at their backs bursting into sudden bloom, and great clouds of orange flowers rising up to meet the moon. The rats spread across the front lawns and into the back yards of the darkened houses. People turned over in their sleep at the stink of singed hair as the rats ran past beneath their windows. They ran on until they reached the bush-covered hills that towered behind the estate, and even within the safety of the tall trees, the rats never stopped running.
In the morning the people woke to see the charred remains of the thicket— all black and silver ash, and as flat as the footpath and the road that encircled it. Many had dreamt they heard thunder in the night and believed the fire had been started by lightning. One girl believed nothing and said less. One boy, on the brink of manhood, believed he had somehow escaped punishment for the evil he had done, until he went out on a day just before Christmas to burn rubbish in the rusting forty-four-gallon drum that squatted in the back yard.
First he loaded the drum with armfuls of cartons and newspapers, and the discarded exercise books of his sister’s last year in primary school. Then he went back inside and took an over-sized box of matches from the window-sill above the kitchen sink. Outside again, he stood for a few seconds beside the overflowing drum and watched the wind page lazily through his sister’s books (the handwriting was so neat), before he thrust his fingers, without looking, into the match-box. Then he screamed and threw the box away as if he had been bitten. Attached to his thumb was a finger-length snake of bright green gorse, and more than an inch of thorn had gone in under his nail, embedding itself beyond the quick. He broke off the piece of gorse and shook it free, but the thorn remained. The boy sank to his knees in the dusty yard and clenched his hand between his thighs, blood from his page 33 pierced thumb welling as he howled out for somebody’s sympathy or forgiveness.
But his mother was doing overtime, wondering how she was going to pay for Christmas, and his sisters were in their bedroom with the door shut, and the radio up as loud as it would go. And the wind paid no attention, but went right on fluttering the leaves of one of his sister’s exercise books, went right on reading her story.