Copyright © Emily Gale 2013. All rights reserved.

No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior written permission of the publisher.

Copyright © Emily Gale 2013. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior written permission of the publisher.

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The morning it started Mum freaked out about the Christmas tree. It had been thirty degrees most of the night and I wasn’t sure if I’d been asleep for any of it. I could tell from the safety of my bedroom that Mum had woken up foul: heavy footsteps in the kitchen, cupboard doors slammed, the dishwasher drawers yanked out and rammed in again. When I walked into the living room the floors were already baking underneath the sloping glass roof. The air-con remote was in the fruit bowl on the kitchen table. I pressed the button, hoping it would cool Mum down, and kept my distance.
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Copyright © Emily Gale 2013. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior written permission of the publisher.

There was toast in the rack and everything else set out. Dad was up and dressed, watching the scene in his usual way without saying a word. He winked at me, but there was no smile. When Sam walked in I tried to give him a warning sign but, after he stuck his finger deep into the peanut butter I was about to use, I decided not to bother. It didn’t matter anyway – it was me Mum was going for, I just didn’t know it yet. I’d tiptoed around her for half an hour when it finally came out. ‘It’s almost February, that’s what it is.’ She slammed another cupboard door. ‘So what?’ I said. ‘So we were supposed to take down the Christmas decorations a month ago. It’s bad luck and god knows we could do without that.’ Dad walked out of the kitchen and Sam turned up the volume on the TV. ‘Take them down then.’ ‘I can’t, I’m late for work.’ I shrugged. ‘Leave it till later. Does it really matter?’ ‘Not to you, I’m sure. Do you ever do anything to clean up around here?’ Mum smacked a box of
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Copyright © Emily Gale 2013. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior written permission of the publisher.

porridge oats so hard on the kitchen bench that they flew out the top. Did I have to smirk at that? Of course – it was what she wanted. Now she could really let go. Mum stormed around the kitchen bench and swept the breakfast jars up from the table with one arm – the giant Vegemite that Sam got through every week, Dad’s blueberry jam and probably our last ever jar of peanut butter, because last week she’d read an article about peanuts being poison. She paused for a moment and then with the other arm she swept away my plate and knife and the trail of toast crumbs, and they shattered all over the floor. I stood there in shock. This was a new level for her. ‘You’ve totally lost it, Mum, you know that?’ ‘Can you blame me?’ ‘What’s your problem? The tree’s been there for two months and you haven’t said a word. Why are you going all schitz on us now?’ She dumped the jars on the bench and pulled her hair back so her face went tight, her eyes crazy-wide. ‘You’re breaking stuff, for god’s sake,’ I went on, wishing I’d never started. Going back to school
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Copyright © Emily Gale 2013. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior written permission of the publisher.

tomorrow was no longer the worst option. At least the routine kept us out of each other’s way. I looked over at Sam but he had his eyes on the TV and his little finger in his ear, picking out wax or shutting us out, or both. Mum was back with the dustpan and brush, noisily sweeping up shards of plate. I sat back down but kept my chair a little way from the table. ‘And go check on Essie,’ she snapped. Essie was my grandmother. ‘I was meant to see Chloe. Mum, come on.’ I looked down the hallway for Dad. What was he thinking, deserting us when she was acting like this? ‘You saw Chloe last night. You’ll see her tomorrow and every day. It’s always Chloe, Chloe, bloody Chloe!’ Mum never swore. ‘She’s bad news.’ ‘Not this again. I’ll take down your stupid decorations, okay?’ She slammed the fridge door, grabbed her huge bunch of keys and unhooked her handbag from the chair I was sitting on. Then she put her mouth by my ear but she didn’t whisper, not even close. ‘The decorations and Essie.’ I flinched and held
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Copyright © Emily Gale 2013. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior written permission of the publisher.

my ear. ‘I can’t do everything.’ As she walked around me and down the hallway she called out, ‘You too, Sam.’ My brother pressed the ‘off’ button on the remote and rolled his head back on the sofa. ‘Great. Nice one, Hannah.’ I looked at the dead-straight boughs of the fake tree I’d put together with Dad seven weeks ago. Fine, I thought, I’ll do one thing you ask, but not the other.

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We rang the bell but Essie wasn’t answering. I opened the screen door, knocked on the glass panel and called her name. My voice started out high and sweet the way you’d sing to a baby but, as the minutes passed and there was still no sign of life, it turned to a yell. The look Sam gave me, as we stood in the shade of Essie’s porch while the sun fried the grass out front, said it all. ‘Get the spare key,’ I said. Essie kept it taped inside her letterbox even though Mum had told her a thousand times it was just asking for trouble. ‘Let’s just go. We’ll tell Mum Essie didn’t answer. She can deal with it.’ My brother, the
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Copyright © Emily Gale 2013. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior written permission of the publisher.

hero. He didn’t love Essie like I did. Even so, I wished I could go along with his idea, but a bad feeling was burning holes in my gut. ‘Don’t be a wuss.’ I meant that for both of us, and went to the letterbox. The key fell into my hands as if it had been just about to drop off anyway; the sticky tape brown and dry. When I saw three newspapers in the overgrown grass I was sure it was another sign that something was wrong. Essie was a creature of habit and her newspapers were the only reason she’d stepped outside her front door in years. She never went a day without them. I gathered them up and cradled them, warm against my skin. Then I knocked loudly on the front window even though I knew there was no point – Essie never used that room. Back on the porch I pushed the papers against Sam and started to speak but he cut me off. ‘Bloody hell. What’s the old bat done now?’ ‘Sam! She could be –’ I didn’t need to finish. Not all of Essie’s habits were as innocent as reading the paper. She was reedy and only up to my shoulder, but the way she got through a bottle of gin had worried us for years. We’d known this
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Copyright © Emily Gale 2013. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior written permission of the publisher.

day was coming. The thing was, we didn’t all feel the same way about it. ‘She could be asleep,’ he said. Essie didn’t sleep and Sam knew it. Mum said you couldn’t knock her out with horse pills. Tiny as she was, Essie was on some kind of constant alert, even after six or seven gins. I stood there holding the screen door open. It had to be nearly forty degrees out here already and Essie’s house didn’t have aircon. I stroked the grooves of the key with my thumb, biding my time, and thought about all the times Essie had started a conversation with the words ‘When I’m dead . . .’. She’d say things like that just to get a reaction. In that way, and in others, Essie was like a child. That’s why Mum hated her. It was also one of the reasons I loved her. Sam took a deep breath and puffed it out. ‘You’re scared,’ I said. ‘As if. It’s just stinking hot.’ ‘Well, I am.’ ‘Just get it over with.’ He waved his arm towards the door but looked away across the street. ‘I’ve got stuff to do. Mum shouldn’t even make us come here any more.’
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Copyright © Emily Gale 2013. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior written permission of the publisher.

My hands were shaking but the key and the lock melted into each other. The smell of Essie’s house was something you’d forget until the moment you stepped into it again. Then it felt like the most familiar smell in the world. It was old wood and dusty fabric, cigarettes and the musky perfume she always wore. I dropped the key into a tin dish on the sideboard and it echoed in the silence. Slowly my eyes adjusted from the glare of outside, the shapes of the dark hallway beginning to make sense. ‘Essie?’ I called. I went first, taking small steps along the hallway runner, olive green and worn down to nothing in the middle. All the times Essie said she wasn’t well rushed into my head, along with all the times Mum had shouted at her for lying. Sam and I didn’t know about any of Essie’s lies, we were just supposed to believe Mum. I passed the good room on the left where everything was in its place. Essie’s square table: you only had to look at it to give Essie an excuse to tell you for the hundredth time that it was made by Parker. Everyone had them in those days but Essie was the first on the street. She’d say, ‘Worth
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Copyright © Emily Gale 2013. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior written permission of the publisher.

a fortune now. Don’t murder me in my bed for it, will you, darlings?’ I never knew what to say to Essie’s jokes. The table was from the 1960s – the decade Mum said Essie had dug her heels into. The four chairs had yellow padding that used to wheeze when we sat on them, the plastic sealed onto our bare legs on scorching afternoons. Not that we’d sat on them for ages. Family meals had been crossed off the list years ago and I was the only one who wanted them back, which didn’t count for much. Sam poked me in the back and we went on, past Essie’s bedroom where the bed was unmade. That was nothing unusual. Mum always used to pull the door shut as she passed by, back when she’d visit Essie with us instead of sending us on our own like missionaries. ‘I can’t breathe in here,’ said Sam. ‘Why didn’t she ever get aircon?’ As if it were too late now. ‘Sshh, I heard something.’ But it was only the click and hum of the fridge as we came to the kitchen. The bathroom door was open too. Empty. There was only one other room in the house – straight ahead, and that was where I knew she’d be.
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Copyright © Emily Gale 2013. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior written permission of the publisher.

‘Jesus, look at this place.’ Sam had stepped into the kitchen and was looking at the table piled high with used cups and plates. That mess was normal too. He circled it, his lip turned up. I suppose he was doing Mum’s job of picking at Essie over stupid little things. As if his own bedroom didn’t need to be condemned. Sam turned on the old overhead fan and took his time adjusting the speed, looking up at it as if his testosterone levels made him perfect for that particular job. I knew he was just stalling. I knew he couldn’t handle any of this and that he’d feel ashamed because he was two years older and a boy. ‘I’ll go in by myself then,’ I said. He didn’t reply. That was when my own fear stepped up a beat – my heart was a wind-up metronome set to a frantic rhythm. I took the smallest steps into the room, feeling and smelling things more sharply than ever but not letting my eyes stay on a single object for too long. Heat danced on my skin and the deep carpet seemed to reach into my thongs and brush against my toes. The back of Essie’s chair faced me. The TV was off and the light was dim. The red curtains
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Copyright © Emily Gale 2013. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior written permission of the publisher.

were drawn at the far end of the room, a shaft of light shining a pathway to a red pool on the rug by the coffee table, fed by a delicate drip . . . drip . . . drip. It was an upturned bottle. I crouched to pick it up, keeping my back to where Essie would be. Red Baroness nail polish, the one I’d bought her for Christmas. I held still to stop the film of tears over my eyes from spilling over, and set the bottle down. I wanted time to stretch out, to spare me the difference between having a hunch that Essie was dead and knowing it for sure. But I could sense her. I knew she was there. Maybe I could just pretend I’d looked. Sam was still in the kitchen. ‘Hannah?’ he called hesitantly. ‘We don’t have to do this. It’s not our job.’ I let my eyes creep across the carpet to her stockinged feet. Then a little further up until I saw her bony hands resting on her lap. Her black onyx teardrop ring, a black silk shirt buttoned to the loose skin of her neck – a large bow tied there – and, finally, up to her face. Essie’s eyes were half-open, staring into a space that was somewhere between this room and wherever she was now. Wherever people go.
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Copyright © Emily Gale 2013. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior written permission of the publisher.

‘She’s here, Sam.’ Was that my voice? It sounded separate to the rest of me. Sam swore and his shoes squeaked on the lino. I heard him walk down the hallway, dialling a number on his phone. Not triple-0. Mum. I stayed there beside her, looking at her hands. ‘Essie,’ I whispered. That’s what she liked us to call her, not Granny or Nana, which made her feel old. My body was suddenly shivering even though it was stifling in there. I kept looking at her nails, and thought how like her it was to be painting them when she died. She’d always been immaculate – red lips and nails, a shock of white hair. She had hundreds of bottles of nail polish. What would happen to them now? Mum wouldn’t want them, or want me to have them, and maybe I didn’t want them anyway. Why was I even thinking about that? Essie was here and probably warm and – Jesus – I felt sick and dry-retched. I couldn’t even stand up. The adrenalin made my body judder and spasm. I was on the other side of blind panic now, the fallout had begun. A faraway spot in my brain told me coldly that this was shock. Essie. Essie.
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Copyright © Emily Gale 2013. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior written permission of the publisher.

We weren’t going to grieve for her like a normal family would, I knew that. Mum would be angry if I cried too much for her. Sam would join in because he collected excuses not to show emotion, and Dad never thought she was anything to do with him. But I was going to miss her. She was the sort of person who’d leave a massive hole in your life no matter how you felt about her. ‘Mum’s not answering,’ Sam called from the front of the house. Having Mum here would change everything. ‘You’ll have to get her,’ I said. ‘She’s at work.’ I waited for him to get it in his own time. ‘Yeah, okay,’ he said. ‘Come on then.’ ‘I’m staying.’ I couldn’t believe I’d just said that. ‘Why?’ He was angry, probably pissed off because he still hadn’t stepped foot in this room. That just made me more determined. I didn’t want to be outside with him where he could say anything he liked about her. When the front door slammed, I flinched. I had to do something. There was a teacup not quite on its saucer, a plate of toast crusts and an
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Copyright © Emily Gale 2013. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior written permission of the publisher.

overflowing ashtray – I took them to the kitchen, stepped on the lever of the pedal bin and chucked in the crusts and the ash. When the lid slammed shut I closed my eyes. Here, Hannah darling, give me your crusts. Mum says I have to eat them. Sshh.What she doesn’t know won’t hurt her. Essie had always been on my side. Every breath was short and quick as I started to clean up the mess in the kitchen. I couldn’t have Mum or the ambos or whoever showed up thinking badly of her. My hands were shaking as I held the washing-up liquid upside down and watched as if nothing else mattered but the last of it sliding down the sides of the bottle. With my other hand I yanked the old tap and the water drummed hard against the steel as I picked up the first teacup. That’s when she called my name.

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