A woman is telling me she’s basically my grandmother. She tells me this while we sit opposite each other in her backyard, over the scraps of an almost-finished Christmas lunch. Although it’s not Christmas; it’s Boxing Day. From her pocket she removes a fifty-pack of Peter Jacksons, and taps the bottom of the box so a single cigarette slides out. In the box I can see one cigarette turned upward, a bloom of tobacco in a sea of butts. A lucky cigarette, a friend told me once, although that friend has long-since moved onto the more economically viable pouch. The woman—Finnie is her name, I have no idea what it’s short for—lights her cigarette, picks at the carcass of a Coles rotisserie chicken. I think about how much more depressed I am since I got Netflix. She tells me she feels as if she is my grandmother; I can call her anytime, with any problem.
“You can call me Nanna,” she says. “I’ve always thought I’d make a great Nanna.”
This woman is not my grandmother. She is not even my step-grandmother. She is my stepmother’s father’s girlfriend. New girlfriend. They met three months ago at an Irish pub nestled between two banyan trees on the side of a dirt highway leading out to the desert. That’s how she tells it. When he walked in he put his helmet on the bar next to her. He was wearing a wolf shirt, she showed him her wolf tattoo. An hour later they rode off into the sunset and et cetera.
Right now the sun isn’t setting, it’s right there in the middle of the blue-bright sky. All over South-East Queensland, I imagine people at lunches like this one looking at each other and exclaiming: It’s not just the heat, it’s the humidity! Finnie’s way of doing this is non-vocal, she fans herself with her hand and says “Wewf.” Cigarette in mouth, she grabs her dirty blonde hair and wraps it in a knot on top of her head; it stays there, a self-induced bird's-nest, no hair-tie.
“Do you want one?” she says, shaking her packet, looking over her shoulder to the house where the rest of the adults are slumped on furniture in food-induced naps. I think of an uncle somewhere, his bald head sweating onto a crocheted blanket, and smile. She raises her eyebrow and smiles back at me.
“I’m good.” A part of me wants to reach over and take it—to grant her this small corruption. I can see she thinks I’m scared—chicken shit—but I think she’s also under the impression I’m still in high school, and I don’t have the heart to tell her I have an unused art history degree and quit smoking four months ago. My chubbiness, I know, has afflicted me with eternal adolescence.
“Are you sure? They’re hybrid.” She pops the filter for effect and winks at me. “So your breath will always be minty fresh.” She puts the pack away and raises the left corner of her mouth. “Do you like it here?”
“It’s nice, yeah.” Ken’s house is a two-storey that knows it’s been lived in for forty, fifty years. The balcony railing is made of steel rods that curl and bend into a bulbous bottom. Above the doors and windows there are brown and white striped tarps, faded and fraying that have been there, surely, since at least the seventies. Underneath is Ken’s—and now Finnie’s—den: a bar, Ken’s bike, and an impressive collection of motorcycle magazines in large ready-to-topple heaps. Behind the bar is a gigantic framed picture of a bikini-clad woman straddling a Harley winking.
“That’s new.” Finnie follows my gaze and says: “I used to be a looker.” It takes me a second to fold thirty years into the girl’s body, but now she’s said it I can’t see how I missed it—the same wide-set eyes, tall cheekbones, top-heavy lips. Budget Kate Moss.
“I’ve done the place up a bit.” She’s right, although it hasn’t changed since I came here last, so much as become more of itself—surged with Finnie. There are pot plants in varying states of decay, crowded around the back door, lining the garden walls and window ledges. One sad looking chilli bush has fallen over, recently, chillies litter the ground around it like angry caterpillars. Although the lawn is as overgrown as it ever was there’s a bird bath and, in the corner peeking from between the unkempt grass, a garden gnome, faded and jolly. Someone, one of the shrieking children we are meant to be keeping an eye on, I suspect, has fashioned a tiny Santa hat for his head.
“Such a bloody arsehole that effing thing. Look at his smug little face.”
Instead I look at her, her pink zebra-print top, the fine wrinkles collecting in crevasses around her eyes, nose, mouth, the pink lipstick almost, but not, the same shade of pink as her top, smudged around the rim of her mouth, her cracked lips. I look at her looking at the gnome until she looks back at me.
Her bottom jaw juts out, she exhales, smoke washes over her face, then she butts out, adding her cigarette to the bouquet of pink-tipped cigarettes in the ashtray.
“Alright kids, we’re gonna play pin the tail or what? What do you reckon, Elle? Money on Charlie?” Finnie gets up, but before she does I catch an eye roll in my direction.
She turns away and says, “Help yourself, sweetheart.” Although she doesn’t look at me and her voice drifts off as she does.
I sit there on the bench a while, then grab some tongs and serve myself the last of the coleslaw, a piece of bread, some prawns floating in water with slivers of remaining ice.
“Do you really need that extra plate?”
I turn around, livid, to reprimand one of the snot-nosed children—Charlie, I guess—but they’re all on the other side of the backyard, in the carport. Against the closed rolling door, on a large scrap of butcher’s paper, a crayon donkey stares wall-eyed into the distance. Charlie has a bandanna fashioned as a blindfold. Finnie and the other children yell at him—encouragement, detours, slurs.
I finish my meal anyway. Then I reach over and take Finnie’s half-drunk gin. The garden snorts at me, says, “Of course.”
I turn around and look where the voice came from, right into the gnome’s paint-flecked, smug little face and say: “Nice hat fucko.”
This above is an excerpt from Issue #42 of The Lifted Brow. To read it in full alongside many other brillant works of writing and art get your copy here.
Katerina Gibson is a Brisbane writer living in Melbourne. She won the 2018 VU Short Story Prize, and has been published in Overland and Kill Your Darlings. .
Angelica Roache-Wilson lives in Brisbane and draws pictures in her bedroom of the whackdest peeps and creat(ure)s for fun.