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 though. 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. 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 there was a farm that ended up in a swamp at one end. Sometimes I dreamt I was flying across that swamp, looking down on the world as I floated on my silvery wings, until I was suddenly running through water with legs of lead; the lights of my bedroom hung just out of reach of my fingers and I woke up crying as my mother came in and held me until I fell asleep again.
Dinner time each night was full of noise and bustle with everyone sitting at the dining table talking at once. The television blared away in the background as Dad listened to the evening news, competing with cutlery rattling against plates. The girls talked about things that were happening at school, or repeating jokes that were heard during the day, followed by lots of laughter. Sometimes Mum would jump in with a question and set the conversation off in a completely new direction until Dad roared at everyone to be quiet when he wanted to hear something on the news.
After dinner, my sisters could always be found in the kitchen washing the dishes. Catherine was the eldest of the girls at twelve years old; a lot like my mother, she was down to earth and sensible.
She was still wearing her school uniform and her straight brown hair hung down to her shoulders as I watched from my stool at the kitchen bench. Her hands moved with the tea towel as she dried the dishes, while her green bangle bounced up and down her arm. It caught the light and sent diamond sparkles dancing across the kitchen bench; I tried to catch them in my fingers.
Samantha was ten years old and the ring leader, always setting the direction for the other girls to follow. Her hands were covered in long pink rubber gloves as she scrubbed the dishes in the sink and then placed them on the drying rack. She had her back to me and all I could see was her long black ponytail bouncing up and down as she moved back and forth on her bare feet. Every now and then her head turned slightly and I could see the sharp outline of her face.
Jasmine was busy putting the dishes away as Catherine dried them. She was a dark and mysterious eight-year old, a little unsure of herself in the shadow of her two older sisters. She longed to be part of the inner circle with the two older girls but was often left on the outer, so she made up for it by being mischievous and full of fun. Sometimes she was quiet and moody as well, and I often caught her green eyes looking into space, deep in thought. I sometimes wondered what she was thinking, but she never told me because I was just her little sister.
As my sisters washed and dried the dishes together the kitchen became a stage filled with singing, dancing and laughter. “The marching band came down the street,” Samantha sang in a loud voice with her feet marching around the sink.
“And with her head upon his shoulder…” Catherine’s voice was higher and sweeter and it made me think of the wings of a butterfly as she danced across and put her head on Samantha’s shoulder. I wanted to cry because it sounded like such a sad song.
Jasmine joined in for the chorus as she put some more plates back in the cupboard; Catherine and Samantha always sang the verses on their own. I had heard some of the songs they sang being played on the radio during the day, but I didn’t know this one at all; the girls must have learned it at school. I tried to join in and made up the words in my little voice.
“Billy, don’t take your pillow,” I sang from my stool.
“Molly! That’s not how it goes,” laughed Catherine musically.
“Stop being annoying, Molly,” Samantha said with her hands in the sink and flicking her long black ponytail back and forth, just like the cat’s tail. She was always like that, but I wasn’t being annoying; I was just trying to join in.
“Billy, don’t take your pillow,” I started again.
“Mum! Molly is being annoying again!” Samantha called out.
Mum’s voice came back from the lounge room, “Molly, leave the girls alone. Why don’t you come in here and read a book?”