‘No, you can’t stop learning the violin! You can’t go through your life just giving up! We aren’t quitters Izzy!’
‘I’m not quitting Mum, I don’t like it. I’m really bad at it, I can’t get my fingers to move right and it sounds horrible when I play. Mr Samson says I’ll never be any good.’
‘Well fuck Mr Samson; we’ll get you a better teacher. Go practice, now!’
Izzy was sure the neighbours were listening to this fight, just as they listened to their neighbour’s fights. She knew her mum must be serious if she was willing to let the neighbours know about it. She stomped up the stairs, gathering as much defiance as she could. But she was only eleven, her mum was like a hundred, and they weren’t quitters. That was the first thing she’d learnt: we aren’t quitters. Her mum didn’t quit when she married her dad because she was pregnant, she didn’t quit when her older brother was a disappointing turd of a boy, she didn’t quit when her dad cheated on her then died, leaving mountains of debt and humiliation. She didn’t quit when Izzy had a childhood lisp and the other kids made fun of her and she refused to get out of bed for school. She still had scars from the scratches when her mum dragged her from under the covers, roughly dressed her, shoved her in the car and dumped her inside the school gate. And she wouldn’t quit about Izzy learning the violin.
She picked up the hated chunk of wood and strings, dragged the bow across it as roughly as she could, generating a sound that made her older brother, Alex, yell from his study ‘Shut up Izzy! Fucking get better at that or give up!’
‘I’m not a quitter remember? I can’t give up!’ She shouted back, tears of frustration running down her cheeks.
Years later it was the same thing again; sixteen year old Izzy didn’t want to stay at school. She didn’t like any of her subjects, the teachers didn’t care about her, all her friends were working or at TAFE, but all her mum would say was ‘We aren’t quitters Izzy. Make it work, stop being so difficult and just do it! It’s not that hard!’
‘Yeah Izzy, I made it through high school without whining every day.’ Alex didn’t even look away from his game to throw that one at her.
‘Yeah, but you had awesome friends at school, it was fine for you!’ Izzy shot back. ‘Why don’t you get a job or something?’
‘I’ll get a job, when I’m finished at uni. Uni’s a little more complicated than school Iz, you’ll probably never get it.’ He said, calmly ruining her next argument.
‘Errr! Mum, why does he get to sit around and do nothing while I have to go to school?’
‘He’s not doing nothing, he’s studying. Like you should be, now go do your homework! And if your dickhead boyfriend shows up I’m gonna call the cops. Don’t think he can come inside my house!’
Izzy stomped from the lounge room to the kitchen to confront her mum face to face, but Penny was sitting at the kitchen table with a cup of tea. Penny was Alex’s girlfriend, his first, at twenty-four, and she was calm, intelligent, rational, and totally out of place in their family. Izzy couldn’t understand what she saw in her brother. Usually they never fought when there were other people in the house, but she supposed Penny had been around long enough to see what they were really like. So she continued to yell at her mum. She brought up Will, her mum’s boyfriend who had started sleeping over a few weeks ago. ‘Why can’t I have my boyfriend in the house if you can have boring, stupid Will over? How come it’s ok for you?’
Her mum shouted back, and from the corner of her eye Izzy watched Penny’s face grow more serious, more stressed, as she realised that they were fighting for real. Sometimes Izzy felt sorry for Penny; she had no idea what was in store for her if she stayed with Alex.
‘Don’t fucking sit there, at my table, eating the cereal I paid for, under MY ROOF, and tell me what I can and can’t do! Now get back up to your fucking room and door your bloody homework, or I’ll kick you out!’
‘If you kick me out that’ll be giving up on me! I thought we weren’t quitters!’
‘It’s not quitting if they’re a lost cause!’
Izzy ran upstairs and slammed her bedroom door, dust falling from the growing crack in her ceiling. Darren was an idiot; she didn’t like him that much, but being with him pissed off her mum. He kept coming around in his beat-up old car, texting her from around the block to come hang out. He was also why she wanted to leave school. Not to be with him or anything, but because he’d quit school and now he worked at his dad’s shop. She knew she could make it work, she just needed to figure it all out. There was a small knock on her door and Penny’s small face peered around it.
‘Hey, can I come in?’ She asked quietly. Izzy shrugged, looking away. She wanted to be alone to listen to music; that’s what she usually did after a fight. Penny came in and sat at her dresser, holding her hands together.
‘Things don’t seem great with you guys at the moment.’
‘That’s an understatement.’
‘Yeah… I just mean. Persevering with school isn’t that bad. It’s not forever, and if you just absorb yourself in your studies, find the things that interest you and concentrate on them-’
‘I hate it. Nothing interests me there. I like make-up and hair, I’m good at those things. But I’m not allowed to “quit”.’ She angrily made the air quotations, imitating her mother’s shrill voice.
‘Well, it isn’t forever. Things will get better. I have hard times, feeling lost and alone, stuck, like there’s nothing to look forward to.’
Izzy looked her full in the face. ‘Like being with my brother?’
Penny couldn’t hide anything with her small, sincere features; pure shock and anger covered her face as she looked at Izzy. She tried to recover.
‘Well, it’s not the same thing. We have lots to look forward to. Like him moving out of home, us getting a place together-’
Izzy looked away again, trying not to laugh in Penny’s face. She couldn’t help a small smile, but said ‘Sure, sure. Don’t quit and everything will be fine Penny.’
Penny slowly stood and left, shutting the door behind her.
Over the next few weeks Izzy caught bits of what was happening. It seemed that Penny had reached her limit; she was sick of sitting in her tiny apartment, working nights, saving for a future that Alex had no interest in. Alex started his new job and the only thing that changed was that he no longer had to do the dishes. He slept over Penny’s place less and less, until the only night he was out each week was Saturday, which was when he went out with his only friends, the ones from high school.
Izzy tried to keep studying. She dumped Darren; he was becoming too much of a hassle, too handsy, too demanding. He kept giving her ultimatums: ‘Move out of your bitch mum’s place or I’ll leave you’, ‘Get out of school or I’ll never talk to you again’, crap like that. She was sick of it. She would lie on her bed listening to music, measuring time in songs, finding lyrics that spoke to her, sleeping every minute she wasn’t at school.
The day Penny broke up with Alex was one of the nights that Will was staying over. Alex was crying, his huge sagging frame lolling on the couch. Their mum tried to send Will home so he wouldn’t see Alex cry, but Will kicked up a stink and locked their mum’s bedroom door, saying she could come in when she was ready to apologise. Their mum nearly kicked the door in; she only didn’t because they’d had painters in recently and it was all clean and shiny. Izzy sat half way up the stairs, around the corner of the bannister so they wouldn’t see her, and listened.
‘Mum, I don’t understand. We were so happy! We’ve been together three years and never had a problem. I go to her house at least once a week, every single week! She said that I was immature, but I do my own washing now! Well, once, that time you showed me. What more does she want from me? She’s just impossible to keep happy! I spent almost as much time with her as I did with my mates!’
‘I’m so sorry sweetie. She just couldn’t do it. You tried and you tried, and she was just a quitter. She quit on you and she should have kept on. That’s what I did with your dad, I didn’t quit on him no matter what he did, ‘cos we aren’t quitters!’
Izzy rolled her eyes and went up to bed.
A few days later Izzy got a text from Penny: a time and a place. She thought about it, then decided she had nothing to lose.
‘Hey, I’m glad you came.’
‘Yeah, well I got nothing to do but study when I get home.’
‘That’s sort of why I wanted to meet.’
‘Well… you know I broke up with your brother last week?’
‘Yeah, of course… well. It was sort of because of you.’
‘What? What’d I do? Don’t blame this on me!’
‘No, no! I don’t mean it’s your fault or anything, I just mean… Think of it like this. When I saw you guys fighting about you leaving school, I thought that you just needed to understand each other better, to understand why you were all unhappy with each other. I came and talked to you, do you remember? Yeah. Well, I said that you just needed to persevere and then you’d be ok. I basically said what your mum says, ‘no quitters’. I wanted to talk to you today because I figured out that that’s bullshit.’
Izzy leant back, surprised. She had never heard Penny swear, let alone say anything bad about Alex’s mum. She was always extremely polite, helpful, agreeable; everything that her mum wanted Izzy to be.
‘Yes!’ Penny leant forward and started talking faster. Izzy noticed that, although there were bags under her eyes, she seemed vibrant, more alive, more present than she’d seen her in months. ‘After you said that thing about your brother I just… I realised. You were struggling; I could see that you were struggling. You hated everything about the situation you were in, you didn’t like the people around you, you had nothing to look forward to. But you’re only in high school. It’ll be over for you at the end of next year, then your life begins, you can leave home, get a job, do whatever the hell you want. Me, I was staring down the barrel of a lifetime with a sack of shit who was never going to do anything interesting. I mean, sorry, I know he’s your brother but-’
‘Oh no, I completely agree. Although now that you’ve dumped him he’s finally moving out of home. He’s started looking for a place to live.’
Penny’s eyes glazed over. ‘Oh for fuck’s sake…’
They were silent for a moment, each lost in thought.
‘It’s not just for high school. Mum’s always been like this, and she always will be. Nothing’s ever going to change. I could be dying slowly, inch by inch, being tortured to death, and if I complained she would say I was a quitter.’
Penny looked Izzy straight in the eye, as Izzy had done many months earlier.
‘Then get the fuck out.’
It took one hundred and sixty four and a half hours for Izzy to do it; almost exactly a week. The first two days she spent adrift, lost in a daze of realisation. She was sixteen, she had friends who lived out of home, she had found a place that would give her a job. Everything was there, she just needed to do it. On the fifth night she sat at the kitchen table watching her mum cook dinner.
‘I don’t know why I go to all this effort for you stupid kids. You’re basically adults and I still do everything! Pay for everything! Cook everything! I’ll serve this up and you’ll just go sit in front of a screen and not even notice what you’re shoving in your face.’
‘Alex is an adult mum.’
‘Yeah well you wouldn’t know it.’
On the sixth night she knew it was time, and the next day she absent-mindedly started packing everything in her room. She called her friend Sally to come pick her up, and when she walked out of the house for the last time she put a note on the fridge. Not a big note, just a normal one that said ‘Mum, I love you, but I quit.’