Toongabbie House

* Warning: This short piece is about domestic violence. While it does not depict graphic violence, the feelings conveyed may be difficult for readers who have been in or are still in an abusive relationship.

In the small TV room one entire wall is covered with wallpaper featuring a river, mill and forest scene. The image doesn’t create an air of tranquility as one may expect. The picture of flowing water does nothing to reduce the stifling heat, and in some ways, makes the experience of being in that room more unbearable. The TV room is his domain and the tacky, fake forest doesn’t make it a place my little sister or I want to be.

The afternoon sun is unrelenting and the heat rising off Old Toongabbie Road radiates across dry, bindi infested lawns into flimsy, squat houses. It beats through worn fibro walls and makes you hate the season. The blinds are drawn shut but the intended shade brings no relief. Inside is just hot gloom.

There are blow flies buzzing up against the panes and some laying dead on the sills. Maggots make some of the dead ones move slightly, like their tiny ghosts are clinging on, resisting fate.

I am visiting my aunt and uncle in Toongabbie. Inside their house it smells like sweat socks, dog and grease.

My little sister and I while away the afternoon sitting on an old couch in the TV room, with fans on, sipping Fanta. I stare at the river, mill, forest scene a lot. I notice that it is starting to peel off the wall on one corner.

The TV is on. The cricket commentator’s nasal tone drones in the background. We don’t pay attention to it. We play with our dolls and look at books we brought with us for the visit. We occasionally venture to the front porch and sit on the faded, red concrete steps until the heat becomes too much and then we retreat back to the couch.

Time passes and it is evening now.  My parents, sister and I are sitting at the laminate kitchen table. I can see the golden street light glow dimly outside the kitchen window. I can smell the road wafting in with dry night air.

Moths thrash themselves against the back screen door. My mum, little sister and I are working on a puzzle. My mum and aunt are quietly chatting.

I hear the truck pull into the drive way. The front screen door swings open and bangs sharply shut. The huge, hulking bulk of man enters the sweltering house. It is my uncle.

Muscle, fat and a dirty Bonds singlet.

His entry marks a shift in our mood. Our bodies stiffen. The air suddenly thickens and becomes heavy.

My aunt is standing at the sink with her back to us and the door that leads into the kitchen. She is washing dishes. She uses a steel wool soap pad on the meat burnt pan. She is wearing a sleeveless summer dress and I watch the muscles in her arm work as she scrubs.

It’s almost 8pm and we have already eaten. When she hears him enter the house she quickly places a plate of oven warmed food on the table and returns to the sink.

He walks in. He doesn’t acknowledge we are there. His face is like pale brick. He is sweating profusely. He is slick and I see the sweat stains around his armpits.

He mutters “What’s this shit?” as he peers down sideways at his meal.

I can feel my aunt’s body cave inward slightly. She keeps washing dishes and doesn’t turn around.

With disgust in his voice he says  “I’m not eating this shit”.

I feel scared. The tension makes my stomach hurt. I look down at my hands resting on my small knees. I raise my eyes just enough to see my parents look acoss at my aunt.

My mum twitches and fidgets in her seat. Her brother is behaving badly again. I can feel her tense up. She lights a cigarette. I see my dad start to mutter something under his breath.

I feel like my back has something heavy pushing down on it. Something is gripping my heart. I look down again.

Slowly, without uttering any other words, he picks up the plate of meat, veg and gravy with one of his beefy hands. He walks to the screen door which leads to the back yard and without warning hurls the plate out into the darkness.

I hear the plate shatter on the hard baked earth and the dogs’ chains rattle as they bolt toward the food.

My uncle lets the door go and it slams against the frame, bouncing several times until it settles.

He walks to the fridge and takes a bottle of beer for himself and one for my dad.

My aunt never moves from her place at the sink. She isn’t washing dishes now. She is frozen.

I feel sick. I look down.

Without looking at her he says “git Chinese”.

She doesn’t move. She doesn’t speak.

He stares at her with narrow eyes and asks “Are you fuckin’ deaf woman?”

She turns slightly and says in a low  tone “Aw right, I heard ya”.

He gives her a menacing glare and leaves the kitchen. He walks into the TV room. I hear him collapse his monstrous body into the leather recliner. I know he is now watching cricket, drinking beer.

My mom and Dad, little sister and I are still sitting at the table. My aunt is now in the hallway, on the phone, calling the Chinese restaurant to place his order.

Standing in the shadowy hallway, talking on the phone, she appears  as sad and defeated as the brown, sun burned turf that surrounds the house.

I am so relieved he is in another room now. I hate that man.

My mom says something about that not being right. My dad sits, legs crossed in his chair, hunched over, sipping his beer, shaking his head slowly.

She returns to the kitchen and utters something about him being tired, working hard all day. She makes excuses for him. She is unable to look at us directly. It’s as though she is ashamed but I don’t understand why.

She moves around her kitchen like a mouse in a cage.

I watch my aunt. At that moment, before my eyes she seems to become smaller in stature. She shrinks and becomes less present. It’s like a part of her just drifted away out the back door into the yard with the dogs. It’s like she is attached to one of those chains.

Only now do I understand that she couldn’t be fully present. She had to make herself as small as possible. She had to send a part of herself away and die a little in order to remain alive. She dies a little every day.

The cricket commentator drones on in the background. Dad sips his beer, mum smokes and my aunt returns to the sink to finish the dishes.
February 19, 2017