I don’t remember the night we fled; Siobahn said I was fast asleep on the floor of the car, oblivious to the drama that had unfolded that momentous evening. Our Mum, Rose, had finally had enough; we’d 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. Rose still smiles wryly about it, Teagan walking out of her room with the box ready to go, and muttering ‘About time’ as she took Bridget’s hand, leading her to the car. I shouldn’t make light of it, 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 one day would be high as kites, running around in the school yard merry as can be, and the next day subdued, with dark shadows under red rimmed eyes. Those teachers weren’t stupid; but you couldn’t blame them for not asking questions. Who would want to be involved in such a banal drama; we certainly didn’t, and that was why that night was a great night. We were escaping from what was for our working class suburb, a hideously common domestic tragedy and swapping it for a quietly serene coastal lifestyle. We were determined never to look back.
To be honest though, two months into that serene life we were still bearing little 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 always fearful to say too much lest 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 a beloved sippy cup even though she was in the second grade. Siobahn was bitter and sarcastic although it was hard to tell if that was the persona she had adopted for her adolescence or whether our father had embittered her forever. Teagan was taciturn and sulky; she had been a bright and giggly primary school child but was struggling to offer even her seventh grade colleagues a smile. And me? I was wetting the bed on a regular basis, not a popular off shoot of anxiety when one was 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, pain but maybe relief too that she could nip it all in the bud, rather than us all suffering through ten more years of the drama.
By three months Mum had found a job, a job that would pay to fix those teeth thank God as well as a few new clothes. She 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 fascinatingly gossipy world of the small town public hospital. Over dinner she would enthral us with tales of mechanics’ fingers caught in car engines, broken collarbones from school rugby scrums, gashed thighs from surfboard fins, toddlers rushed from poolside CPR. Mum was a born observer, and eaves-dropped all the information she needed while she discreetly mopped floors and emptied bins. 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.
By six months Mum began singing while she cooked our basic dinners on the electric grill in the caravan; she had a few acquaintances in the hospital, I had only wet the bed once that month, and Mum could speak her mind and watch whatever she wanted on our little portable television without fear or recrimination. Life felt safe and calm.
And then it happened; a threat to the ordinary.
Mum had been asked 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 we all smiled at each other, pleased at our Mum’s high spirits.
At 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!’
We three 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 to welcome a dwarf into the fold. 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, shaking 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 largesse on his short arms. A pocket kerchief, as identified to me by Teagan after they left, was tucked into the vest and he wore laced dress shoes which were a foreign entity in this coastal town of thongs and bare feet. Our mumbled hellos were accompanied by Bridget’s bouncing tennis ball, only to be 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!’ as they both laughed. Siobahn scowled at him, and Teagan stared 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. Yes, I have dwarfism, although some dwarves prefer to be termed ‘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 stood transfixed, Bridget since disappeared; she was at the age that 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 back and looking out the window to a big old Valiant parked nearby.
‘I have a modified vehicle, brakes and 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 had asked and Teagan had feigned ignorance, holding out her hands asking ‘what?’ with a slight smirk on her lips.
The rest of the night passed in continued ‘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?’
Mum and Eric had a lovely night as it were 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 dismay.
‘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 leant 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 dwarves.’ 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? He had a good 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 her pursed lips twitching slightly, 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 who’s 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 learnt 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 meeting Siobahn’s gaze and then she too walked off into the night in the opposite direction to Mum.
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 its beat 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: 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 (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 and recall anecdotes from her past, and his gentle touch as he clasped her hand after dinner to say thank you, or 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 the caravan of courage.
And then two years later the caravan was no more. We were all shacked up in a nice little house near the beach, well everyone except Siobahn. She 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: he was a rock in our maelstrom of tween and teen angst, and we loved him for it. For we now saw that a loved mother meant a carefree existence, and a calm man in the house was a good foil for four girls with exuberant personalities. We knew the tide had turned in our love for him 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’, 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 gave us the thumbs up as he hooked his 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 like an insider 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 and the doctor, clutching Mum’s hand, said he was always thrilled as 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 the staff came in one by one to pay their deep respect, and his four girls moved from side to side to let another mourner into the inner sanctum of love. 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 to our Mum and this time she meant it.
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