The Knife (extract)
Walker says we don’t need more houses: not when our city is overcrowded with empties; when papered storefronts dot the outskirts of town. Call us boys, discipline cases with broken brains and secondhand bikes. Keep us after class for speaking our minds. But don’t you dare say we don’t understand. Ask Walker, he’ll tell you straight up: our city is dying, the people are dying, and there’s not a thing we can do about it.
I ask him if he gets it like I do. If we have a shot at changing things as long as we stick together. Walker goes quiet, hair falling down in front of his face. Says they’re moving back to Adelaide in November. They need to be closer to his gran, he says. She’s not too far from the end of her innings.
‘Let’s go,’ says Walker, pushing back his fringe. Kickstand folds and he’s flying down Fourth. I push on the pedals to pick up speed. Sometimes I want to push them through my shoes so they cut into my feet. Sometimes I get a knife and push the point into my arm. Sometimes it leaves a mark but no one ever seems to notice.
Walker skids, turns, and waits. I swerve to get past him. He pushes his front wheel into mine and I bounce him off with a twist of my handlebars. We ride down to Central, dodging a bus as we reach the corner.
Mum says, ‘You’ll be the death of me, Alex.’ She edges the blade as she opens the vacuum pack, the ham steaks sliding onto the chopping board. Our counter is pocked with misjudged attempts at efficiency, most from Mum, swearing as the knife bounces out of her hand and clutters to the floor.
‘Are you listening? The death of me.’
‘Bit harsh,’ I say, scoffing peanuts straight from the bag. ‘I thought I was your pride and joy.’
‘Your teacher said you called her a bitch.’
‘I called her a witch. When Dad’s coming home?’
‘He’s not,’ she says. ‘Can we please not do this? You’re fifteen years old. Nearly an adult. Start acting like it.’
‘Maybe he’s running late,’ I say. I pull back the curtains and pretend to look down the driveway.
‘He’s not running late,’ says Mum, pulling the steaks apart.
‘Is he mad? At you?’
‘God. Mrs. Melodrama,’ I say. ‘I was just kidding.’
Mum asks me to peel the spuds. I ask why Emily can’t do it. She says, ‘She’s at piano. You know that, too.’
In my dream, I live in the country. My girlfriend picks herbs from out back: she grabs fistfuls of chives, chops them up on the board and then straight into the pot.
In my dream Dad comes over. We watch the football and the Eagles win game after game as he drinks his beer and I drink my coke. I say, ‘I love you Dad,’ whenever Sumich kicks a goal, but he can’t hear me over the roar of the television.
‘When’s Emily getting home?’
‘You miss your sister?’
‘I’ll have her ice cream if she’s not coming back.’
‘She’ll be back later. Finish the spuds.’
Mum dribbles oil on the steaks and shifts them to the baking tray. When they’re brown like old leather, she’ll pull out the pineapple, drain the slices and put them on top. She’ll dish the yellow mash—half-cheese, half-potato—onto the plates and Emily will come in just as it’s being served.
Emily’s my sister. Dad loves her. Mum loves her, too, more than me. When pressed (and it doesn’t take all that much to press her), Mum admits she has a soft spot for Emily. It’s not that she doesn’t love us, she explains, it’s just that she’d always wanted a daughter.
We used to have family dinners around the table, wood stained caramel and my knees pushed up against the underside. The TV had to be off, and we were absolutely, positively not allowed to go eat it on the couch, which wasn’t really a couch, just a single bed with a cover my Mum made up out of some old beige fabric.
The idea was you got to eat with your family: Mum, Dad, and kids… only Dad left for the second and last time when I was ten. That’s justice; Mum and Emily mess up and now somehow I’m the bad guy.
Emily walks into the dining room.
I bow. ‘Princess.’
‘Good one. Genius stuff,’ she says.
‘Kids,’ says Mum, placing the ham steaks down in the centre of the table.
‘She started it,’ I say, and throw a glob of mash. It lands in her hair.
‘God,’ says Emily. She kicks me, takes her plate, and leaves the room. For a second it’s Mum and me, and I smile but she looks angry or sad, or something, so we sit there eating dinner in silence, and then I go to my room and put on Faith No More really loud.
'The Knife' appears in Westerly Volume 57, Issue Number 2, available via the Westerly website, to be purchased either as a single issue or as part of a twelve month subscription. It was also selected to appear in Best Australian Stories 2013 and Award Winning Australian Writing 2013.
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