This is a Writers Bloc workshop feature.
Caravan of Courage
I don’t remember the night we fled. Siobahn says that I was fast asleep on the floor of the car, oblivious to the momentous evening. Our Mum had finally had enough – the four of us had had enough years before, but it’s not the kids’ place to say, I guess.
Teagan tells it like it was the best night of her life. She had a box prepared with everything she wanted to take with her. Mum still smiles wryly about it – Teagan walking out of her room with the box ready to go, and muttering ‘About time’. She took Bridget’s hand and led her to the car. I think Mum carried me; I’m a heavy sleeper. And a middle child, so I guess no one was too fussed to ask me if I was ready to leave. My sisters often say ‘Kendall just goes with the flow’, and I guess I do.
I shouldn’t make light of our lives, it was a dreadful existence: broken teeth, split lips, fractured bones. Secrets kept from teachers and school friends.
Looking back now, I’m sure the teachers knew. The four of us would one day be high as kites, running around in the schoolyard, and the next day would be subdued, with dark shadows under our red-rimmed eyes. Those teachers weren’t stupid, but you couldn’t blame them for not asking direct questions. I’m sure those teachers saw it all the time, among other horrible existences that plagued families; they often gently asked us how we were going at home but were met with silence from my sisters and me.
Anyway, that was why it was a great night. We were escaping from what was for our working class suburb a hideously common family secret, studiously kept, and we were swapping it for a quietly serene coastal lifestyle. We were determined never to look back.
To be honest, two months into that serene life we were still bearing wounds that were apparent only to us. Mum walked us to school every day and scuttled back to the caravan without interacting with the other parents. She was afraid to speak to other people in case the broken teeth gave her away, even though she no longer had any other obvious injuries to hide. Bridget cried out in the night and refused to give up her beloved sippy-cup, even though she was in the second grade now. Siobahn was bitter and sarcastic, although it was hard to tell if that was being sixteen or if our father had embittered her forever. Teagan, twelve, was taciturn and sulky. She had been a bright and giggly primary school kid but was struggling to offer even her seventh grade friends a smile. And me? I was wetting the bed on a regular basis at ten years of age, not a popular offshoot of anxiety when you are sharing a tiny shelf in a caravan with your older sister. Mum and Teagan would wake in the small hours of the morning and, groggily, I’d watch them change the sheets. Teagan would scowl in the morning over breakfast but Mum never mentioned it. I imagine she watched all her daughters’ idiosyncrasies with a mixture of guilt and pain, but maybe relief too that she had saved us all from suffering through more years of horror.
Within three months Mum had found a job, a job that would pay to fix her teeth thank God, as well as a few new clothes. Mum’s self-worth was slowly reappearing to our delight: she ventured out more, talked more to people at the shops. It was like she was the Mum I remembered from years before. I would stand at the bakery counter and watch in wonder as she laughed at some joke from the staff. I would smile in silence, glowing in her return to confidence.
Mum had always worked, even through all the pregnancies. She was from farming stock and wouldn’t dream of sitting idly during the day. She had asked at the local hospital for a cleaning job and was welcomed warmly once a daytime position was cleared.
While we were at school she became immersed in the fascinating gossip of the small town public hospital. Over dinner she would enthral us with tales of woe: mechanics’ fingers caught in car engines, broken collarbones from school rugby scrums, gashed thighs from surfboard fins, toddlers rushed from seaside CPR. Mum was a born observer, picking up on reams of gossip while she discreetly mopped floors and emptied bins. I’m kinda proud that I take after her in that respect. She says, ‘Kendall, you don’t miss a thing, do you?’
I remember that Teagan once asked if Mum could bring home a set of scrubs because she wanted to ‘do some laboratory work’ on the rats that scurried around the caravan park bins. Mum declared her a ‘weird kid’ but bought a discarded surgical mask home and left it on Teagan’s pillow. I think Mum worried about what the experiments all meant, but I knew Teagan well enough to know that this only really showed her gigantic brain emerging. She was the smartest of all of us, without a doubt.
Six months after we left, Mum began singing while she cooked dinner on the electric grill in the caravan. She had made a few friendly acquaintances in the hospital now, and I had only wet the bed once that month. Probably the best thing was that Mum could speak her mind to anyone she wanted now, and watch whatever she wanted on our little portable television. Life felt safe and calm.
And then it happened – a threat to the ordinary domesticity that we were becoming used to.
Mum had been asked out by a friend from the hospital, to an early evening film. She was thrilled, chirping that she hadn’t been to the cinema for years. Siobahn rolled her eyes at Mum’s excited gibbering, but the rest of us smiled at each other, pleased at her high spirits.
On the dot of five o’clock, Bridget announced the mystery friend by poking her head into the caravan as she bounced a tennis ball on the step.
‘Mum, there’s a little man here!’
The three of us exchanged a glance, so surprised that the ‘friend’ was a man, that we didn’t notice Bridget’s use of ‘little’ to describe him. Thinking of it now, I suppose we had assumed that mum would steer clear of all men, and would be meeting some nattering middle aged girlfriend to weep over some romcom at the flicks. So we braced ourselves for a man to enter our little caravan of courage, only to be stunned when a very small man walked in the door. Mum nervously brushed her hands up and down her dress, straightening it, and introduced him as Eric.
I looked at Teagan, who looked at Siobahn, who looked at Mum, who looked back at Eric, and we all smiled nervously.
Mum introduced us, and Eric moved throughout the caravan to shake our hands earnestly. I remember his clothes vividly: littler versions of adult clothes, cuffed trousers smaller than my pair of jeans, and a button up shirt with vest, the sleeves looking puffed due to their largeness on his short arms. A pocket kerchief, that Teagan pointed out with a smirk after they left, was tucked into his vest and he wore laced dress shoes – a foreign item in this coastal town of thongs and bare feet.
Our mumbled hellos were accompanied by Bridget’s bouncing tennis ball. This stopped when Eric caught it mid-bounce and tossed it in the air as he said cheerfully to my Mum ‘Rose, four girls in this little caravan – you do have your hands full!’
They both laughed. Siobahn scowled at him, and Teagan stared with her mouth agape, her chin rested on her hand as she sat at our formica table.
‘Are you a dwarf?’ she shot out in her usual abrupt manner.
‘Teagan!’ both Mum and Siobahn gasped.
‘It’s alright Rose, kids are always curious.’ Eric replied. ‘Yes, I have dwarfism, although some dwarves prefer to be called “little people’’.’
Eric was leaning against the table, one leg crossed over the other in a casual stance. I remember thinking how calming his deep voice was, and how surprising that his voice was in fact deep since I would have thought looking at him that he would have a high voice. It was resonant, assured, his tone formal. We were mesmerised. Bridget had since disappeared, she was at the age where bouncing her tennis ball against the caravan trumped a dwarf visitor any day.
‘Well we better get going, we’ll miss the movie’ Mum picked up her bag and went through the dinner instructions one more time to Siobahn.
‘How are you going to drive that car?’ Teagan was arching her neck to see out the window to a big old Valiant parked nearby.
‘I have a modified vehicle, brakes and an accelerator up higher’, Eric slapped the table jauntily, stepped down the caravan steps and held out his hand to Mum.
‘Let’s go Rosie. We’ll see you later girls!’
Mum stooped a bit, took his outstretched hand and stepped outside.
‘Siobahn, keep an eye on Bridget out here!’
Teagan suddenly leapt out from behind the table and yelled out to Eric and Mum’s retreating backs, ‘Hurry or you’ll miss the shorts before the movie’.
‘Teagan!’ Siobahn and I had hissed in horror as Siobahn pulled Teagan back into the caravan.
‘What is wrong with you?’ she asked and Teagan had feigned ignorance, holding out her hands asking ‘what?’ with a smirk on her lips.
The rest of the night passed in continued conversation: ‘I can’t believe she would date a dwarf!’, ‘What are the chances of even meeting a dwarf?’, and Teagan’s brainstorming of quips, ‘How was the movie? Too brief? Short on laughs? A tall tale?’
Despite our misgivings, Mum and Eric had a lovely night, and Mum was buoyant when she came home, gabbing on about the actors in the movie and how great the ‘CGE effects’ were, to Teagan’s annoyance.
‘CGI Mum. Did he take his own cushion?’
‘What?’ Mum asked, and Siobahn cut in.
‘Teagan, let it go. Mum, what’s happening here?’
I leaned in with interest, watching Mum’s face intently.
‘What do you mean?’ Mum was putting away the dried dishes from our dinner, looking everywhere but at us.
‘A dwarf? Really? Are you seriously going out with a dwarf?’
Mum picked up a damp tea towel and started flapping it out with swift, sharp movements. ‘First of all, I’m not “going out” with anyone, and secondly, no more talk about dwarfs.’
She draped the towel over the sink and stood with her hands on her hips. ‘I thought I raised you girls to think about people’s character, not their appearance!’
‘Like Dad’s character?’ Siobahn grabbed her iPod and made to walk out of the caravan into the night. As a parting shot she looked back at our mother, who remained standing rigidly with pursed lips, and said, ‘If it’s not bad enough that we’re the poor rough kids who had to escape their violent dad, now we’re going to be the kids whose mum is screwing a freak.’
Teagan and I exchanged a wide eyed glance, and the sleeping Bridget stirred at Siobahn’s raised voice. I looked at Mum’s pale face, her hands clutched tightly, nails digging into her palms.
‘He’s not a freak. He’s a friend, a caring friend. Something your father never was to begin with. I learned my lesson Siobahn and I’m sorry I dragged you girls into that lesson. I’ll always be sorry. But I won’t have you offend a good man like Eric. I won’t have it.’ Mum had spoken so softly that her voice trailed off at the end, and she pushed past Siobahn to leave the caravan and walk off unsteadily into the dim light of the park.
Teagan and I had sat in silence, avoiding Siobahn’s gaze and then she too walked off – in the opposite direction.
Teagan had huffed, rolled her eyes and drawled out ‘drama’, wiggling her fingers in the air and turning back to her book. I remember the heaviness of my heart as I watched Mum’s back growing smaller as she walked down the ring road of the caravan park, the thumping of my heartbeat in time with Bridget’s rhythmic breathing as she slept in the top bunk. I took Teagen’s cue and returned to my maths homework to take my mind off the shift in the mood of our little family unit.
There didn’t seem to be anything Eric wouldn’t do to gain our favour: dodgem cars at the local fair (he nodded in assent to Teagan’s recommendation that she give him a ‘wee bit of help’ by working the foot pedals for him); basketball on the burning asphalt court of the caravan park after his hospital shifts (Teagan dubbed his attempt at a three point shot ‘one and a half points – to be honest’); and to all our surprise, his confident stride towards the kids’ booster seats at the local cinema, where he defiantly propped himself up higher on the low slung cinema chair, and settled back to enjoy the latest Zac Efron flick with his ‘four hot dates’ (Teagan suggesting that Eric wasn’t ‘half the man Efron was…or wait a minute…’). Siobahn watched these antics from afar, arms crossed over her scrawny pigeon chest, her scowl picture perfect of an embittered, hard done by seventeen-year-old.
Mum lapped up Eric’s engagement with ‘the girls’, his lively conversation which made her laugh, the relish she had in gossiping about their shared colleagues at the hospital, his gentle touch as he clasped her hand after dinner to say thank you, and his hand on her shoulder as he asked her if she wanted another cup of tea.
I lapped all that up to, as did Bridget who was flourishing in the peace, the quiet, the unforced smiles, and the plentiful warm embraces. Teagan was Teagan, pensively staring off into the distance and conjuring up more puns to show Eric her appreciation, in her own warped sarcastic way. And while Siobahn always scowled, she bit her tongue and coexisted with Eric in silence which in her way was at least her consent that he could stick around. It took time but he gradually had a place in our little caravan of courage.
And then, two years later, the caravan was no more. Time flew. Time did seem to go quicker now that we were happier. We were all shacked up in a nice little house near the beach, well, everyone except Siobahn. who was now at university in Brisbane – as Mum had told every person in our town several thousand times.
Siobahn had worked hard in her HSC year, and had pressed a thank you gift of a fancy fountain pen into Eric’s hands at her graduation ceremony. A truce had been made. We no longer noticed his quirks, his height, his adapted car. Eric was a rock in our maelstrom of tween and teen angst, and we loved him for it. For we now saw that our loved mother made ours a carefree existence, and a calm man in the house was a good foil for four girls with exuberant personalities.
The biggest sign that the tide had turned in our love for him happened when Teagan, Bridget and I were mooching along the confectionary aisle at the local supermarket, and overhead some teenage boys snickering about ‘the freak in the next aisle’. They were talking about our Eric, who was doing what he always did, thoughtfully loading up the trolley with healthy food for his girls.
Teagan pounced first, then I piled on top, and Bridget came in kicking at knee height. The two pimply losers were pinned against the shelves, KitKats and Snickers bars raining down on their heads as we scratched and screeched that the term ‘freak’ was ill-advised and we’d ‘kick their bony asses’ if they spoke about ‘our Eric’ that way again.
Eric stood at the head of the aisle, his mouth agape and his face as red as his signature waistcoat and cravat. The store manager stood behind him, alerted by the noise but hand over his mouth muffling a laugh as the boys scrambled out of the store, and he gave us the thumbs up as he hooked an arm around Eric’s shoulder.
We laughed about those boys for weeks after, and I think of it as the time of merriment before the great grey cloud. Because not long after the scrap at the chocolate aisle, Eric fell over in our apricot tiled bathroom, clutching his chest and calling out a feeble ‘Rosie’ that could be barely heard over the running tap.
Mum screamed down the main road to the hospital, knowing that she would be quicker driving him than calling the solitary over-used ambulance in the town. But it was too late, and not much could have been done anyway. A congenital heart condition, symptomatic of dwarfism, would always have taken him from us.
I listened intently as the doctor, clutching Mum’s hand, said he had always been thrilled when Eric celebrated another birthday morning tea at the hospital cafeteria, because it was another year cheating the odds.
Mum bent over his body at the hospital as their friends in the hospital staff came in one-by-one to pay their deep respect, and his girls moved from one side to another the mourners into the sanctum.
Teagan clasped Mum’s hand as she led us out into the ward to start the journey back home to the quiet rental on the beach.
‘It was too short a life’ she whispered.
I think I was having a cup of tea when I started reading Angie Holst's short story 'Caravan of Courage' in the Writers Bloc workshop. By the time I had read it through a few times - each read offering a unique new way to think about the story - my tea had gone completely cold. 'Caravan of Courage' is a deeply compelling story of love and trauma, it touches on the scars that are sustained by abuse and shows that they don't have to define our relationships. Holst's effortless wry humour soothes the reader, without taking the depth of feeling away from the story.
Angie Holst is a Sydney based writer. Her YA novel ‘Expectations’ was published in 2013. Her YA short fiction has appeared in Stringybark's 2014 anthology 'Fight or Flight', her microfiction in Spineless Wonders' 2014 collection ‘Flashing the Square’ and her work performed at Spineless Wonders' Little Fictions nights at Knox St Bar Sydney. She tweets @AngieHolst.