When I first began to be conscious of the world around me, there was a quiet house during the day when it was just my mother and I, then she would take me with her tucked up in a pram on the way to give my father his lunch. From the pram, the world outside the house was all sky and occasional tree branches stretching their fingers out to try and catch birds.
In the afternoon my sisters and brother would come running into the house in a whirlwind of noise and excitement. The air seemed to swirl with laughing children as I was such a tiny baby and they always seemed so big. A smiling face would suddenly appear in front of me, squeezing my hand then running off again. Sometimes they would nurse me, as I gazed up and listened to their voices talking and laughing.
Night time was much quieter when my father got home from work. As I fell asleep each night I could hear the rising and falling sounds of the television coming from the next room and the rumble of trains passing by as my mother read stories to me.
I never felt as loved as those moments snuggled on the lounge next to my mother’s warm body where I was safe. I watched her lips moving as she read; pink and gentle, they changed shape so often, and every now and then I could see the tip of her tongue. I moved my lips too, pretending that I was reading silently along with her. As she turned the page, my mother looked at me and smiled.
I smiled back but my head was feeling heavy, like it was full of cotton wool. The cushions were soft, so soft against my face, with little buttons that I traced with my fingers. I wondered if tiny little people like the ones in the story lived in villages under those buttons. Then I became tiny as well, so tiny that I could crawl under the pillow button and feel the long strands of cotton tickling my face.
As I closed my eyes and listened to my mother reading, those early memories seem to come out of a fog, with dimly remembered images of things, people and places forming a jumble of hazy pictures. I felt that time started from the moment I was born and all these people around me came into existence in the same moment.
By the time I was four years old I had grown from being a baby to be a small child with curly red hair and soft milky white skin, and a trace of freckles forming across my nose. Mum called them sun kisses and said they made me look beautiful. All of the excitement from my birth had worn off a bit with the other children. By now I was just another part of the family, although I was much smaller than the others and always seemed to be a step behind. No matter how hard I tried, I just couldn’t keep up with my sisters and they seemed to be interested in more grown up things than I was.
We had moved away from the mountains to a town near the coast because of Dad’s job on the railway. This new world was the bright green of a huge backyard, a big house with a verandah across the front, mango trees, mulberry trees, and lots of open space in between.
Over the road from the house was a farm that ended up in a swamp at one end. Sometimes I dream I am flying across that swamp, looking down on the world as I float on my silvery wings, until I am suddenly running through water with legs of lead; the lights of my bedroom hang just out of reach of my fingers until I wake up crying and my mother comes in and holds me until I fell asleep again.
Dinner time each night is full of noise and bustle with everyone sitting at the dining table talking at once. The television blares away in the background as Dad listens to the evening news, competing with cutlery rattling against plates; the girls talk about things that are happening at school, things they want to buy at the shops on the weekend; which friend said something to someone and upset them; or repeating a joke that was heard at school during the day, followed by lots of laughter. Sometimes Mum jumps in with a question and sets the conversation off in a completely new direction until Dad roars at everyone to be quiet when he wants to hear something on the news.
After dinner, my sisters are always in the kitchen washing the dishes. Catherine is the eldest of the girls at twelve years old; a lot like my mother, she is down to earth and sensible. She is still in her school uniform and her straight brown hair hangs down to her shoulders as I watch from my stool at the kitchen bench. Her hands move with the tea towel as she dries the dishes, while her green bangle bounces up and down her arm. It catches the light and sends diamond sparkles dancing across the kitchen bench; I try to catch them in my fingers.
Samantha is ten years old and the ring leader, always setting the direction for the other girls to follow. Her hands are now covered in long pink rubber gloves as she scrubs the dishes in the sink and then places them on the drying rack. She has her back to me and all I can see is her long black ponytail bouncing up and down as she moves back and forth on her bare feet. Every now and then her head turns slightly and I can see the sharp outline of her face.
Jasmine is busy putting the dishes away as Catherine dries them. She is a dark and mysterious eight-year old, a little unsure of herself in the shadow of her two older sisters; she longs to be part of the inner circle with the two older girls but is often left on the outer, so she makes up for it by being mischievous and full of fun. Sometimes she is quiet and moody as well, and I often catch her green eyes looking into space, deep in thought. I sometimes wonder what she is thinking, but she never tells me because I am just her little sister.
As my sisters wash and dry the dishes together the kitchen becomes a stage filled with singing, dancing and laughter. “The marching band came down along Maine Street” Samantha sings in a loud voice with her feet marching around the sink.
“And with her head upon his shoulder”, Catherine’s voice is higher and sweeter and it makes me think of the wings of a butterfly as she dances across and puts her head on Samantha’s shoulder. “From where I stood I saw she was crying…” I want to cry as well now because this sounds like such a sad song.
Jasmine joins in for the chorus as she puts some more plates back in the cupboard; Catherine and Samantha always sing the verses on their own. I have heard some of the songs they sing being played on the radio during the day, but I don’t know this one at all; the girls must have learned it at school. I try to join in and make up the words in my little voice.
“Billy, don’t take your pillow” I sing from my stool.
“Molly! That’s not how it goes” laughs Catherine musically.
“Stop being annoying Molly” Samantha says with her hands in the sink and flicking her long black ponytail back and forth, just like the cat’s tail. She’s always like this, but I’m not being annoying; I’m just trying to join in.
“Billy, don’t take your pillow” I start again.
“Mum! Molly is being annoying again!” Samantha calls out.
Mum’s voice comes back from the lounge room: “Molly, leave the girls alone. Why don’t you come in here and read a book?”
Pouting, I hop off the stool and wander into the lounge room. “Come and sit over here Molly” Mum says, looking up as I come into the room. She has some sewing on her lap and the television is on. I can still hear the girls singing in the kitchen. Dad is sitting in his arm chair reading the newspaper; he doesn’t look up when I come in.
I sit on the lounge and pick up one of my favourite picture books, the one with animals in it. I hear Mum sigh, whether she is tired or frustrated I’m not sure. Dad clears his throat loudly and Mum looks at me and smiles secretly with her blue-grey eyes, as if to say ‘I smile just for you’. But she turns back to her sewing and I look down at my book. I can’t read yet but I’m going to school next year and I can’t wait to learn how to make sense of those black squiggles on the page. I already know some letters and the sounds they make. That one is “cuh for cat” I say out loud. I wonder where the cat is now; maybe he is out chasing mice. Yuk, I wouldn’t want to be a cat and eat mice.
The newspaper rustles as Dad turns the page. “The price of petrol is going up again” he says. “It’s a wonder anyone can make any money these days.”
“Oh dear” says Mum, “It never stops.” Her busy fingers paint stitches in the cloth. “I ran into Robyn today. You know, I think her and Paul will get married soon.”
“What makes you think that?” Dad replies.
“Oh, it’s just a feeling. The way she talks about him. She was looking at flowers.” Dad grunts and continues reading the newspaper; Mum keeps sewing. “I think it would be lovely if they got married.”
“It’s about time, anyway.”
“Duh for dog” I say as I turn the page. I don’t like dogs very much because they are scary the way they bark and jump all over you. I’m glad we don’t have a dog. “Woof! Woof woof!”
“Molly, be quiet” said Mum, “We are trying to watch TV. Just read quietly to yourself please honey”. The needle stabbed the cloth, leaving a row of neat little stitches. “She will make a beautiful bride.”
“Paul had better get a proper job first” said Dad. More singing could be heard coming from the kitchen.
“Oh, they’re only young. They have plenty of time; they want to travel first.”
I turn over a few more pages. “Huh for horse.” I’ve never seen a horse up close, only those ones across the road. They look nice standing there and eating grass. I wonder what it would be like to ride one. Maybe I could be a princess and ride through my kingdom on a beautiful white horse. Everybody would come out of their houses to see me go past and I would wave back at them.
“I wonder when the wedding will be.” Mum was already sewing the wedding dress in her mind.
“Is that all you can think about?” The newspaper rustles again.
“Sh for sheep”, I like sheep; they are all soft and woolly, I think, as I run my fingers over the picture. “Baa, baa.”
“Molly! I think it’s time for bed; you are being far too noisy tonight.” I look up at Mum quickly because she is annoyed with me. “Come on, let’s go and clean your teeth and I’ll tuck you in bed.”
I trot off to the bathroom and stand on a little stool to reach the sink. I hate the taste of toothpaste; it makes my tongue feel all funny.
“Mum” I say as I climb in bed, “do you think I will ever be a princess on a horse?”
“You’re already a princess, sweetheart. Now go to sleep, there’s a good girl”.
As the light goes out, I lie in bed thinking about those horses again. I wouldn’t like it if one started to run though. I close my eyes and see the neatly trimmed hair of my horse’s mane fluttering in the breeze like the ribbons in my hair. The clip-clop of hooves rings on the pavement as I ride out of the castle courtyard; my long white wedding gown is billowing behind. I am sitting up straight in the saddle because I am a princess, moving serenely through my kingdom, long elegant legs striding across my dream landscape until I eventually fall asleep.