Grade 1, 1984

Australians all let us rejoice for we are young and free…

High-pitched, off-key children’s voices echo around the school hall. Clumpy leather shoes barely scuff the ground as bored kids swing their feet backwards and forwards from too-tall chairs. It is afternoon assembly, I am six, and we are singing the national anthem. Well. Everyone else is singing the anthem. I’m staring at the front of my school dress inspecting whether my stomach is sticking out or if I’ve sucked it in enough so that I don’t look fat.

…in joyful strains then let us sing Advance Australia Fair.

A Horse Stable, 1992

The air is heavy with the smell of oiled leather, sweaty horse rugs and musty hay. It is a thick sort of odour, the kind that clings to your nose hairs and doesn’t let go. The temperature in the little tin tack shed is nudging 40 degrees. Excited kids are chattering over the top of each other looking at photos from last week’s horse show and jostling to be the first to show their pictures to Andie, our teacher.

Andie is a wiry woman whose sun-lined skin belies her 36 years. Her voice is a megaphone even though she’s only a tiny 5’2. Her motto is yell first, yell later and she often has the under-10s in tears. She’s hard, unforgiving and has thighs of pure muscle. Her wavy blonde hair is permanently fixed in a ponytail beneath her akubra, and I’ve only ever seen her in a pair of faded navy jodhpurs and an old t-shirt.

Andie glances through everyone’s pictures politely. Among the photos of a young girl being presented with a blue ribbon for winning first place in the intermediate show-jumping is a picture from after the event. A mother and daughter unplaiting the braids in a horse’s mane. Andie stops flicking and laughs.

Oh dear! Whose awful knees are those? she chortles.

My breath catches in the back of my throat and I feel the hot rush of blood rise from my chest to my cheeks. I stutter before blurting Um, that’s my mum.

Oh, she pauses, it’s a terrible angle. What an unfortunate shot.

I grab my photos and stare at the picture. It was a terrible angle. The image was taken from above. Mum and I stood either side of my horse, whose nose was buried in a biscuit of hay on the ground. You could only see her from the waist down. She was wearing a white and navy striped t-shirt and white shorts that stopped just above her knees. Her unfortunate knees.

Mum’s weight had fluctuated over the years and even though she wasn’t overweight, all the upping and downing had left her skin a little loose. It looked like her thigh was creeping down her leg and wrinkling over her kneecap, threatening to engulf it.

I looked up from the picture at thin, muscly Andie.

I will never, ever have awful knees.

Geography Class, 1991

Two wonky lines of Year 8 boys and girls are milling around outside a classroom waiting for the teacher to arrive. It is a hot, summer afternoon and we are lethargic as our bodies digest lunch. Some of the boys are sweaty from football. Most of the girls are primped and preened and heavily doused in deodorant. I am at the front of one of the lines. Riley is next to me at the head of the other.

Mr Schmidt arrives to let us in for our afternoon double period of geography. As I pass him in the doorway, he plucks a tiny strand of my tightly pony-tailed hair, creating a loop on the top of my head.

He laughs.

I freeze.

Someone bumps into me from behind.

Why can’t you just be messy for once? Mr Schmidt laughs again, his stupid Tom Selleck moustache twitching as his mouth moves.

My body lurches the same way it does when you miss a step on the stairs.

Excuse me, I wince, turning to leave the classroom before anyone sees my tears, I have to go to the bathroom and fix my hair.

A Lounge Room, 1988

Taliah! You’re sitting too close. Move back please.

But I can’t see the television, I object.

Don’t be ridiculous. Of course you can. Move back.

A few weeks later, Mum and Dad are called to the school. I am in Grade 5 and almost 10 years old. My teacher has requested the meeting. She introduced a compulsory seating arrangement in an attempt to separate the troublemakers and the chatterboxes. Being a “good girl”, I was seated at the back of the class next to a “naughty boy”. Except, I couldn’t read the blackboard. Mrs Bloomingdale says that perhaps I should get my eyes checked. Maybe she needs glasses, she suggests.

I told you I couldn’t see the TV! I savour my moment of triumph.

We go to the optometrist. Pretty frames are laid out on little plastic shelves, sparkling under the fluorescent lights. There are mirrors everywhere.

I take the eye exam. I didn’t know it was something you could fail.

Afterwards, the adults speak in hushed tones. Whispers of ‘is it necessary?’ Apologies of ‘I’m afraid so.’ Mum and dad just look at each other and the ground for a long time.

I slump on one of the stools next to a mirror and wait. Too expensive, I manage to catch as they walk back into earshot. Do you have anything cheaper?

A sales assistant walks me over to another stool at another table and opens a drawer. She pulls out three pairs of plastic frames, the only ones in my parents’ price range. Here, which ones do you like?  My triumph crumples into defeat.

I want to cry. Four eyes. Square. I know what the taunts will be. But mostly, I want to cry because it is my fault, my defect. There is something wrong with me. And my parents have to pay for it.

Instead, I stare straight ahead as the sales assistant pushes the plastic frames onto my face. Yeah, I nod in reply, gazing through my reflection in the mirror, these ones are good.

A Nursing Home, 2010

The gravel crunches under the wheels as I pull into the staff parking lot behind the nursing home. A neat row of white rocks edge a small garden where a couple of nurses are sitting at a table, smoking in the winter sun. Lily, my blue masked lovebird, is chittering and chirping away in her cage on the passenger seat.

I hop out of the car and approach the nurses. I’m here to see Hannah, I say. They look me up and down a couple of times. The public aren’t supposed to be in this area. I’m her daughter. Mum is the Director of Nursing at a high-care residential facility and security is supposed to be tight. More to keep the residents in, I think, than keep visitors out.

Oh, one of them replies as she takes the last drag on her cigarette. Sure. Gimme a tick and I’ll go get her for you. She stubs the butt on the edge of the table and flicks it into the garden. She squints at me and shrugs.

A few minutes later, mum appears.

Hello darling girl. She smiles but I can see her taking my measurements with her eyes. I already know I’m smaller than last time and I don’t need her judgements today.

You need to stop losing weight.

My teeth clench.

You’ve lost too much, she lectures, it’s not attractive anymore.

Attractive? I burst out. Attractive. My voice cracks.

I bend over and hoist the legs of my jeans up to my knees. I shove the sleeves of my jacket up to my elbows and thrust my arms out towards her. Look! Look at me, I snap.

My body is dotted with tiny bruises in varying shades of green, brown and purple.

You think I do this to be attractive? You think this is about beauty? Vanity?

I’m screeching at her and I can’t stop so I march back to the car and fling open the passenger door. I try to be gentle with Lily as I manoeuvre her cage out of the car. It’s not her fault.

I carry her back to mum who’s still gawking at me and looking over her shoulder to make sure I didn’t make a scene.

Here. I push Lily’s cage forwards, glaring at her through the bars. Please just look after her while I’m gone.


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