the drowning sound by Anne Myers

Dad bought me the music box the year he died. I was eight. He drowned in the local pool after a hit of heroin while Mum dozed on the grass. She was barely breathing herself. From the shallow end, my sister and I watched a man being dragged out from underneath the diving platform. He was long legged and skinny and his arms flailed to the sides as they pulled him up and over the edge onto the concrete. Wet bodies circled him. At the time I didn’t know it was Dad. I saw people standing back not wanting to give the first breath, but I didn’t know they were staring at his junkie arms, a trickle of watery blood making its way down the inside of one. A few pushed and shoved through the crowd to give chest compressions but no one dared give the kiss of life.

To me, he was just a man in the deep end.

I remember I turned my back on the scene and continued to kick and splash and squeal. I could hold my breath longer than any dying man. I shot up into the air, pinning my sister by the shoulders, making her scream louder than the adrenaline-coated voices of the crowd gathering around my father.

My sister and I were back with our mother for now. The new carpet smelt funny and the curtains on the front window had been replaced by a blind. That first day she hugged us; vacantly, as though this was what she should do to get us back.

She balanced a cigarette in her right hand, ash ticking onto my shirt. She couldn’t even look us in the eye. She sat across from us next to the social worker, a smiley woman dressed in black, who talked to us like we were stupid, keeping up the conversation as though our lives depended on it; as though if she stopped we might never see our mother again. It wouldn’t have been the worst thing. I kept my mouth shut though I wanted to reach out and slap them both.

Dad was dead. Everything had changed, but also nothing had changed. Mum sat in the same cane chair, cigarette smoke mushrooming above her head, her eyes dead as the air that moved around her, flicking tv channels until she fell asleep. For dinner: frozen fish fingers, and flat lemonade in dirty glasses.

A new man came to stay, along with his dog. Darren brought with him tattoos of tigers and snakes and exotic locations with palm trees and black inky beaches. He was a man who thought he had been places but if pressed you would discover the places he had been were not so very far away. On his arms, Linda, Stacey, Cheryl. He said he was going to have Sandy tattooed onto his left calf, as if that was the clincher, the green light to move into our lives. Mum half-smiled at the suggestion, lighting up two cigarettes and placing one between his lips. She could be a real smoothie when the fancy took her.

He’d laugh rough, his mouth wide as Luna Park; so I had no choice but to look at his silver-capped teeth. They were like a mouthful of bullets shooting out at me. He drank bourbon and left his cans on the kitchen table. Our cereal bowls stuck to the Coke rings next morning. I shrugged whenever Darren spoke to me and took to painting my eyes black.

I opened the lid of the music box and Sabrina sprang upright. I wound her up as tight as she would go and then she was away, her smile fixed, her body turned out, pirouetting around and around, endlessly looking over her right shoulder, her movement as smooth as her satin covered shoes. One leg was tucked up under the pale pink tulle and the other leg was straight, attached to the base by a tightly coiled spring. On and on she danced, her curved arms held out, her soft hands turned in and that sweet smile catching the light as she moved through the air. She was the size of my little finger and turned to the music from Dr Zhivago. I named her Sabrina because it rhymed with ballerina.

Of an evening I ate with Sabrina pirouetting in front of me at the kitchen table. Mum objected, as did Darren, like I cared what he thought, but Sabrina stayed, her tutu turning softly between the salt shaker and the tub of butter. I kind of enjoyed watching Mum’s face twisting like a dishcloth at the other end of the table, silently butting out her meal of cigarettes. I would take Sabrina up to my room at night, close the lid to the music box and tuck her underneath the blankets with me.

Some days I would catch my mother staring out the window. One hand across her belly, rubbing it back and forth, the other holding a cigarette. Only once did I take the cigarette from her; it had burnt down to her fingertips but she didn’t move or even notice me. She was like a big empty swimming pool, waiting to be filled. Often she took to bed after a long afternoon of window gazing.

Sabrina watched me try and scale the fence, well, only half-watched me, for the other half she was pirouetting away from me, but I was used to that. She was the drowning sound wound up tight so the sounds of Dr Zhivago filled the garden, notes slipping across the barbeque and through the shade of trees.

I climbed the old paling fence on the kitchen side of the house. Rubber boots were the perfect footwear, bare fingers not so good. The splinters slid in like experts, but there was no not doing it. From up here I could see perfectly through their bedroom window. It was Sabrina’s idea. I could see Darren asleep, the sheet half off him, but still covered enough. I thought about throwing something at the window but it all seemed a little exposed up here. And a little pathetic. My arms ached from holding on. I jumped back down. I was thirsty. And Sabrina was getting tired, the music slowing. It was a sad sound then, the notes weighed down with a heaviness, like your chest was being sat on and life being pushed out of you, and as you surrendered to the sound, it lifted you up and out of yourself and floated you over to another way of being. Perhaps like drowning. I was never quite sure but it was something like being underwater and it comforted me. Some days I wanted that sound to go on forever.

In the kitchen I poured myself a drink and placed Sabrina on the kitchen table. I wound her back up and away she went. Mum was already up sitting in the cane chair, remote in one hand, cigarette in the other. Darren was still asleep and the bedroom door was open so I leaned against the door frame watching him sleep, sipping on my lemonade. The sheet had shifted a little further downwards. He breathed softly, surprisingly. He had drunk till the early hours. The room smelt of sweat and spirits.

He stirred and I stepped back from the door. His leg moved out from under the sheet and I could see what he had done. That green light. Sandy curled along the drowning sound his left calf. It was fresh, some dried blood. I felt my cheeks redden and I wanted to punch him. I glanced around the room looking for anything solid to throw but nothing came to me quickly enough except for the glass in my hand and without thinking I threw it as hard as I could. It hit the pillow and rolled down next to his shoulder.

He slept on.

I stood there wanting to grab that leg and claw back my mother’s name. It wasn’t his to have. And I wanted him gone. And I wanted my mother to have a shower and wash her hair and come out into the kitchen and ask what we wanted for lunch and go to the fridge and pull out ham and bread and make us goddam sandwiches.

His swollen belly was smooth and hard looking. His arms were shot to fudge, soft flesh on bones, tan lines all over the place. I took him in slowly; working my way up over his skin, drawn by some inner voice egging me on, curious as to what could make my mother like him. My eyes moved up and over his double chin and settled on his face.

He stared back at me, not surprised, like he’d been expecting it.

He rolled onto his back and the sheet slid slightly so I could see his leg hair become darker and curlier between his thighs. He stayed lying like that. One hand behind his head.

“Nice, huh?” he said, his eyes more awake than someone who had just been woken up.

I froze. I wanted to leave the room as much as I wanted to stay. “Com’ere,” he said.

He said it in a way my father might have said it. His voice soft, without the usual rough edges. He sat up and shifted himself towards the middle of the bed. He cleared his throat, the phlegm shucking at the back of his mouth before swallowing it.

He patted the sheet.

“No, thanks,” I said.

I stood in the doorway, not knowing what to do. I crossed my arms, then uncrossed them. I stared at the floor. I stared back at the dark curly hair between his thighs.

“You and me oughta hang out more, get to know each other.”

I shrugged. My left foot making small circles on the carpet.

“We got off to a bad start.”

I could hear Sabrina floating into the room. She was slowing down again and I breathed in those notes and they rippled along my arms and tracked down deep into my chest, pushing into those tight spaces, breaking me open.

Darren looked over at the clock radio and then back at me. He was about to speak and then stopped to listen. He could hear it too. Perhaps he could really hear it too. I began to smile.

“Have you wound that bloody doll up again?”

“Sabrina, her name’s Sabrina.”

“For fuck’s sake, you gotta give that thing a rest. Y’hear me? Y’hear me?”

Oh, I heard him alright.

And I was chock full of things to say. How when Sabrina turned in the afternoon and the light caught the small flecks of silver in her dress, it was like the drowning sound holding onto the most precious gift I knew. How when the drowning sound started I wanted to be back in the shallow end again, watching my father on the grass before he stood up and wandered over to the water’s edge, before he disappeared into depths I’d never swum in before. It was so noisy in my head I felt I would explode.

I turned and walked out of the room.

I stood by Mum’s chair willing her to wake, wanting her to keep sleeping, not knowing what I would do if she continued one or did the other. Her head was resting on one shoulder, her hair pushed off her face, small beads of sweat across her brow and her lips cracked and broken. I emptied the ashtray, washing it in the sink and placed it back beside her. I opened the sliding door to let in a little fresh air.

When she finally opened her eyes she saw me standing there and I kept it in, all that stuff going on inside me. We stared at each other for a bit. Her eyes blinked slowly as though she too were slowing down only I didn’t know how to wind Mum back up again. Sabrina would know. Mum moved over a little in the chair and I sat down beside her. She lifted her pale arm around my shoulder and pulled me towards her and I lay my head against her without saying a word.