Image by Sue Gourlay


By Sue Gourlay

Cartoons squawking, kids squabbling, toast burning, shit, run out of bread and there sits Grandad in his corner complaining about all the bloody idiots who’ll be back on the road now that school’s back.

‘I’m not going,’ screams Stevie. ‘You can’t make me.’

Robyn stares into her coffee. She thinks about yelling at her son yet again, at everyone, everything, but what’s the point— nothing changes.

Stevie screeches as Robyn pulls him all the way down the hall and out the door before piling both her children into the car.

‘Shut up, dork,’ yells Ruby, pretending to fasten her seat belt. ‘Not mum’s fault you go to school.’

‘Suck,’ snarls Stevie. ‘She’s just sucking up to you, Mum.’ He thrusts his middle finger into the face of his younger sister, but Ruby smirks back at him, before silently mouthing ‘Dickhead.’

By the time they reach the school, Robyn’s finally broken out and screamed at them both so loudly, she’s shaking all over.

‘Sorry Mum,’ says a shaking Stevie, thinking it will make it right. ‘Yeah, sure you are,’ snaps Ruby.

And it’s on again.

Robyn drives home the long way, to make sure Grandad has left for the day. The TV’s still there though and talking at her the minute she walks into the house. Robyn thinks about making the beds, doing the dishes, vacuuming the floor. She doesn’t know why, but she tries on the echidna suit instead. Of course, it’s not really hers. Grandma had made it for Ruby one birthday, but Ruby had complained it was too scratchy, ‘what with all them spikes’, and for sure it looked way too big, hanging daggy- like around the bum area. Now, as Robyn zips up the sides, combs out the mohair and straightens up the toothpicks, it doesn’t seem all that surprising to her just how real she looks, how alive she feels.

The suit had been made after that weekend in Metung, when right before their very eyes, they’d seen the usually shy little buggers waddling and scratching their way around the garden, digging up insects, nestling and fondling each other.

‘Look at the hedgehogs,’ Ruby yelled.

‘They’re not hedgehogs, you idiot,’ Stevie had yelled back. ‘They’re porcupines.’

But Grandma had smiled over and said, ‘Echidnas.’ And then, sounding like someone from the TV, she described how she’d once seen a whole train of male echidnas shuffling along in single file, spikes bristled all over the place. They were chasing a female and no matter how much that lady weaved around, the males were determined to follow her path. After a while, most of the old codgers fell away exhausted as the randy young bucks bowled straight over the top of them. That female, she just kept on walking, totally in control, finally allowing the strongest stud to mate. Stevie and Ruby had giggled behind cupped hands having to listen to their grandma talking about such things, but Grandma’s eyes had sparkled while Robyn; Robyn’s whole body had grown prickly at the thought of all that control.

By the time the kids get home from school, hair all over the place and arguing about nothing, Robyn has changed out of her suit. Instead of throwing it back into the dress up box, she folds it, neatly brushing the spines forward before buying it into a burrow of jumpers at the back of the drawer.

Grandad’s back too, sitting in his corner, still dressed in his creamy whites, cursing some bloody dickhead who bowled the jack right over onto the next green, putting him off his game and stuffing up his day completely. In the background, the television blares jive talk as Ruby and Stevie sit mesmerised by the oohs, arhs and actions of a Oprah re-run.

An’ if I wanna have a baby right now, I don’t need no man to tell me how, when, where or why not. I’m just gonna do it. You go girl! Ain’t dat da truf.

‘Bloody ugly bitches, only ever see ugly ones squawk like that,’ yells Grandad at no one in particular. ‘Decent women, like your Grandma, no way, she’d carry on like that. “Useless dole bludgers”, that’s what she would have said. Ugly, fat, never known a day’s work, making babies, scamming for handouts, conning up decent blokes just out for a night of relaxation. Grandma was right, ”You look after your man and he’ll look after you”. That’s what she said, she knew how it oughta be, how it’s always been.’ Robyn could hear his raving from the kitchen. Decent! Shit. Never mentioned his own son, did he, never mentioned his fists?

Last year, before she died, Grandma told Robyn that when Granddad was due back from the pub, she’d dab on a touch of rouge and lippie.

‘Kept him coming home,’ she’d hinted, ‘kept him interested.’

‘Bloody muck all over her face,’ Grandad had grunted, but looked at his wife with the faintest flickering of tenderness. At the funeral, instead of being sad and crying and clinging onto the rest of them, he’d stood by himself looking scared and angry. Who in hell was going to look after them now, especially seeing Gary was still on his with the truck.

Robyn yells at the kids some more to get on with their homework and they yell back that they haven’t got any and Robyn gets some food together and they sit down, dinner looking up at them just in time for Home and Away.

‘Not eating it,’ says Ruby, ‘smells revolting.’

‘Me either,’ says Stevie in rare allegiance with his sister, ‘you can’t make me.’

‘You won’t be talking like that when your father gets back,’ snarls Grandad. He shuffles his fork through the rice remembering the mixed grill his wife always, regular as clockwork, served up on Wednesday nights. Then, unpredictable as always since Grandma died, Grandad yells out of nowhere, teeth clicking and clacking.

‘And don’t speak to your bloody mother like that. Kids all over the world starving, bellies bloated, flies hanging out their mouths, ready to eat their own droppings. Bloody spoilt, you kids are. Look at me, I’m eating the shit, ain’t I?

Still not convinced the boy has understood his meaning, his grandfather flicks Stevie so hard across his ear, the cracking sound from the cartilage can be felt ringing around the child’s head, echoing and vibrating right into his heart. Stevie glares back at his grandfather, cold and hard, dreaming some more how one day, he’s going to kill him. Then and there Robyn knows that the only thing keeping her from going insane is the echidna suit.

At last, curled up foetus like, Robyn is totally composed; slow and content as if she’s commencing the torpor. Burrowing deep down into the blankets she gently twists her legs and affectionately starts stroking her own spines. Robyn wonders what Gary would think of her now; a hymoped, adorned with a single cloaca. Then again, all things considered, he probably wouldn’t notice anyways, after all, he’d usually just hopped into bed on closing time, shoved his prick into the nearest hole he could find and jiggle about until the rain came.

‘Stevie left early this morning, girl.’ Grandad says, ‘Up and out the door while I was still attending to me ruddy ablutions.’ Grandad sounds almost cheery, especially considering the time of day, as he turns to Ruby. ‘Come and give ya Grandad a kiss before school,’ he beckons. Ruby feels his rough gritty cheeks and nose hair wiping all over her smooth skin and wonders how Grandma ever got around to making a baby with him.

As Robyn drops Ruby at school she takes a quick scan of the oval for Stevie, knowing all along she won’t find him there.

‘Where’s he gone to, Ruby?’ she asks. ‘I’m real worried about him.’ But she doesn’t wait too long for the reply, what with the principal heading in her direction. Robyn knows she sure won’t have any of the answers he’s looking for.

Driving around the block, checking the local shopping centre, and down by the creek where she and Gary got used to each other when they were teenagers. Nothing. With nowhere else to go and figuring Grandad has left for bowls, Robyn heads back home, changes into her suit, this time gluing long plastic nail extensions to her finger and toes.

Stevie’s crouched under the house, smelling raw earth and looking at the faded retro chocolate box lid that’s fixed to a red gum stump by a single rusted thumbtack. Although tattered and half eaten by slugs, he can still make out the naked blonde lady cupping her breasts in her hands, just asking for some school boy to run his unwashed fingers all over her amazing pink nipples. Just like his dad before him, Stevie obliges the picture, and then starts digging around in the dirt.

He’s found that old coffee jar and now he’s emptying the contents into his lap. It’s all compliments of his Grandad’s bedside table, a razor blade, a silver cigarette lighter and a small metal funnel strapped onto a tin of fuel. And there, from a similar drawer in his mother’s room, curled up and held together with a piece of string sits the black and white photograph of his mum and dad dressed in their school uniforms, smiling out at him without a care in the world.

Stevie unscrews the bottom of the lighter and pours the fuel through the narrow funnel into a small round hold stuffed with what looks like cotton wool. He flicks the side of the lighter with his thumb and yellow sparks flash up teasingly at him. It’s his third attempt, and now the soaked wick surrenders, breaking into flame. Lighting one of the cigarettes he’s also stolen from Grandad’s room, Stevie can feel his father’s presence.

‘You’re never coming home are you?’ Stevie whispers as he pushes the lit stub into the back of his hand, skin gently hissing before finally succumbing to for a neat round hole. It hurts like crazy, just like the last time and the time before that, but Stevie refuses to flinch. ‘I hate you,’ he whispers and moving the cigarette to the photograph, he places it onto his father’s image and watches him melt out of his life forever.

In the stillness of her room, Robyn attends to her sharpened false nails, carefully painting superglue just above the quick, over the half-moons and down to her cuticles, hoping this method proves permanent. She finds the drowsing effect of the lingering fumes quite pleasant and curls in a foetal position, sniffing intermittently, while the adhesive dries. Sleep evades, however, for somewhere near, the sound of gentle footsteps coming and going cannot be ignored until, finally the reverberation stirs Robyn from her nest. Intuitively, she slows down her breathing, enabling absolute concentration. Tap, Tap, Tap. Quietly, she shuffles around the room, straining her neck, tilting her head toward the floorboards. And in one quick movement, her tongue flicks out, licking itself around a crisp juicy centipede that’s spent the last two days trying to find a way back home.

‘Where ya been?’ yells the old man. ‘Gone deaf or somethin’ I bein’ calling for me tea. I don’t ask for much, don’t complain. Just want me tea when it’s teatime. Grandma, she knew when it was teatime; never had to ask.’

‘I’m here now, aren’t I,’ answers Robyn. ‘I’ll make your tea now. But Grandad isn’t listening. ‘And another thing,’ he rambles on. ‘Grandma, she said, you know she said it, “Robyn’ll look after you. Give her and the young-uns a roof over their heads and Robyn’ll look after you.” That was the deal. What would she say now? You don’t even get me me tea. You’re sleeping all afternoon while your kids are growing into delinquents. You can’t even look after your own son, let alone get me tea. And look at the girl,’ he’s yelling now, turning his attention to his granddaughter who’s finally made it home from school.

‘You wanna watch yourself Ruby, strutting around in that uniform, thinking you is all so grown up. Like your bloody mother, not satisfied with just your dad, she had to have all the young pups following her home from school. Had ‘em hanging around her like a bitch on heat.’ Robyn’s fists are clenched so tight, the acrylic nails are piercing her skin forming half-moon shaped patches of blood in the palms of her hand. ‘Like a train of echidnas,’ she whispers to herself.

Suddenly overwrought and tired all from his own screaming Grandad beckons Ruby to his lap. ‘I forgive ya, girl, come and help your Grandad relax, you’re not that big yet that you don’t wanna cuddle. You know Ruby, it won’t be long now, ‘til your dad gets back.’ A single tear makes its way down the old man’s creviced cheek. ‘You’ll look after me, won’t you sweetheart, not like your mother, you won’t let me down, will ya, you’ll make me tea?’ He turns to Robyn. ‘You better go and find the lad. The boy’s up to no good, obvious. He’s never been missin’ this long. My Gary never went missin’. Grandma, she had control over our boy, he always did as he was told. Ruby and me, we’ll be just fine, won’t we love?’

There’s no way Robyn is going out there, black as pitch, moon barely shining, without the protection of her echidna suit. She’s not especially nocturnal, it’s just that she knows she can see better in the dark with the suit on. Robyn’s out the front door, onto the verandah toward the front gate before something in the breeze catches her senses.

Nose high, sniffing eastward, she heads back down the side pathway, pulling at the hanging bolt on the narrow door that leads under the house. With her hardened nails clinging into the dank soil, as natural as childbirth, Robyn makes the required sideways movements enabling her to crawl further into the dark.

Listen, she hears him now, whimpering like a trapped dingo. Eyes adjusting, Robyn can just make out his shape in the dim light, arms stretched forward and covered in hot little blisters like holes in a crumpet.

Robyn lowers her soft, mohair underbody gently on top of the boy, nuzzling his neck and licking his wounds, taking great care not to prick him with her sharpened spikes. Instinctively, she commences digging, mounding the damp soil up around them as she goes. ‘When your father gets back, things will be different, Stevie,’ she promises.

‘It’s your fault he went away,’ wails her son. ‘You know it is. Your fault.’ Stevie reaches his hand across to the silver lighter, flicks the flint and, holding the flame above his mother and watches the toothpicks light up like a bonfire.

Resting in front of the TV, Grandad is in and out of sleep, not watching it, but remembering, dreaming about the time he and Gary and the crew were in the fire truck. Gary kept talking, telling everybody everything would be fine. No worries, the wind had changed and they just had to wait it out. Grandad had been scared shitless, but not Gary. Jesus, his son was a hero. The other stuff, well that’s just what happens, that’s what family life is like sometimes.

The old man coughs, wheezing now, hell, he can smell that smoke for real. He opens his eyes but the air is so thick, he can’t see a thing. ‘Ruby!’ he screams. ‘We gotta get outa here.’

Ruby’s in bed dreaming her own dreams. She can hear her grandad’s voice moving up the hall and trying to break into her sleep. ‘Jesus Ruby, wake up!’ Don’t listen, she tells herself, remember the last time and never ever wants him in her bedroom again. Concentrating, she tries to break out of the slumber before falling, falling back, back into the deep.

Stevie, terrified, pinned below, is watching as his mother go up in flames.

Instinct takes over and nothing can stop Robyn bulldozing away at the dirt. She scrapes the ground with her hands and feet, cupping the soil with her fingers and toes bent. Deeper, deeper she burrows, the thick woollen lining of her suit holding back the fire from her skin. Deeper, deeper entrenching her now limp puggle wedged beneath. Deeper, deeper away from the flaming nightmare into the richness of the cool healing earth.


About the author:

Sue left school the day she turned fifteen, accomplished VCE in her forties, and went on to complete a Diploma of PWE at RMIT.

Prolific in all areas of creative expression Sue’s stories and poetry appear in various anthologies including The Boroondara Literary Awards Anthology when she won first prize. Sue recently became a finalist with Geelong Writers Prize 2023.

Sue paints and regularly exhibits her work.  Her photographic image was selected for the cover of the 2022 Geelong Writers Anthology.

Sue’s employment encompassed various roles within the media industry, including the editing of children’s books together with providing both lyrics and melodies for a range of children’s songs.

Sue regularly meets with like-minded locals who enjoy writing simply for pleasure.

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