PAIGE by Lucy Faerber

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On Monday morning we eat toast and blueberry yoghurt, and I feel like a bad mother when she spills the latter on mismatched pajamas. She’d wet the bed again, and too tired to deal with her, I’d changed her pants and let her sleep in bed with me, where I kept her at a literal arm’s length. It was too hot. I couldn’t stand it.

She is a monster in my bed. I wake every time she speaks in her sleep, every time she coughs or cries out. When the alarm goes off, she is a ball of striped and spotted cotton, bare arms and legs pulling her body into a ball, my hand lost somewhere in the mass of long brown hair that she will not, will not, will never let me cut again.

‘Where are your library books?’
‘In my bag. I read them already.’

Some days I don’t love her. My therapist says I’m not a bad mother, that it’s nothing to do with emotional detachment or any real feelings of hatred towards the child: it’s the situation, she likes to say to me. It’s difficult being a single mother. It’s difficult living alone in a big quiet house, where you were sure you would welcome more children or even grandchildren, where you were dependent upon the loving promise of a man who left you and your daughter alone, and your second bedroom half-painted and no tiles on the bathroom floor.

‘Is Daddy picking me up today?’
‘We better hurry, he’ll be here in 20 minutes.’

My god, all that hair. On the days that I hate her, I swear that I’ll cut it off in her sleep, that she’ll have no choice. We sit in front of the television while the news drones on about war and conflict, and she squeals and squirms every time I catch a snag with the special hairbrush that one of the mothers at the school gate assured me would work miracles.

I don’t know what I’d do without it. Heaven and Sage would leave the house looking like beggars if I hadn’t have bought it.’

Twenty-three dollars for a hairbrush and I have yet to see an actual miracle. The miracle, my own mother would say, is that I haven’t beaten her with it yet. They were her favourite. The hairbrush and the wooden spoon, and by god my brother and I kept the hairbrush industry alive and thriving during the 90s, so many were broken in half over our disobedient arses.

‘One braid or two?’
‘Two.’

I love her today. I’m guilty for being a bad mother in the night, but now that it’s Monday, I love her again. The weekends where it is just the two of us are the worst. The house is nothing but creaks and shadows, and she just sits on the floor of her room with her books, or stays up at night with a torch, reading under the covers. She doesn’t want to wear anything but pajamas. She reads books too frightening and too complex, then tells me she cannot sleep, or just wets the bed and comes to me crying.

We fight every Sunday morning. I want to go somewhere, and she wants to be alone with a book I have just spent sixteen dollars on just for her to finish it in two days. When we go out, she sits in the passenger seat and reads, ignores me when I speak, doesn’t look up so much as to check a street-sign and be sure I’m not taking her to a remote location to finally prove that I don’t love her, that she was the real reason her father left.

She’s reading a book while I braid her hair. There are only a few more pages to go, but when I finally twist on that second hairband, I snap it shut.

‘Mum, no!’
‘You can read it on the way to school. Put your uniform on.’

I try to fix my own hair. What if he sees me? I haven’t dyed my roots in months. I’m wearing clean clothes but I haven’t had a shower. I don’t know what to do with my face when he looks at me. If he says hello I get caught up in wanting to say something smug and just replying hello, then I’m the idiot who can’t speak without stammering, and he’s the one who’s wearing clean clothes and clean skin, his hair always looking like it’s just been trimmed.

‘I only had three pages left.’

She stomps back down the hallway, her blue tartan dress unbuttoned still, her shoes in her hand.

‘You can read in the car, Paige. Honestly, enough.’

I turn the television off, and she complains about that too. It’s turning into a day where I don’t love her, and I go back into the kitchen, stand over the sink with my eyes shut, running hot water over my hands until it’s too hot and holding them there, regardless. I’m a bad mother. She’s calling out to me, did I make her lunch? I’m a bad mother.

‘Ask your father for money.’

I hear his car in the driveway and hurry to place an apple and a mandarin into her lunchbox, scrambling for biscuits and a box of sultanas, the contents of the pantry raining down and spilling onto the floor he stripped but never re-polished. I’m not angry at her, I tell myself. I’m angry because he’s not even going to come in, he’s just going to sit there in his car with her daughter in the front seat and honk the horn—

‘Dad’s here!’

I’m angry because I’m trapped here in this house all day, not knowing how to fix it or sell it or set it on fire. I hear her open the front door and call out:

‘Hold on!’

And she bounds up to me like a golden retriever, her book in her hand and her backpack on, shoes double-knotted and buttons done up wrong. She turns around so I can put her lunchbox in her bag.

‘Do you have music today?’
‘No, it’s library day.’

I lean down to fix her buttons, and she reaches up her chubby little arms and hugs me tight, and kisses my cheek. She smells like strawberry soap and toast crumbs.

She says ‘I love you.’
‘Have a nice day at school.’

***

Lucy Faerber has written for the Vertigo Magazine, The UTS Writers’ Anthology and Seizure Magazine. She occasionally tweets at Your Baby Teeth.

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