Melbourne, January 1954
Mama had eight arms. Like the Indian goddess Kali in my encyclopaedia, her arms were everywhere at once – stirring porridge, flipping toast, pouring milk and dealing butter, marmalade and Vegemite on the worn damask cloth faster than Dad dealt cards.
Through the big kitchen window you could see gum and wattle trees shimmying in the wind. Fat roses, pansies and dahlias painted the fence red, yellow and gold and beyond them the Dandenong Ranges swelled purple against the sky. But it was Mama we watched – Dad, Tim and I. Her name was Lily May but Dad called her Bean, short for coffee-bean on account of her skin, though it looked more like toffee to me. Mama wore a blue gingham apron like you saw on ladies in fashion magazines who pulled trays of biscuits from their Early Kooka green enamel ovens. We had an Early Kooka with its Kookaburra on the front, but there weren’t many biscuits.
‘I cook because I have to,’ Mama said. ‘Darned if I’ll be a slave to it.’
She tipped porridge into four bowls without slopping even a drop and pushed them across the table. Dad put aside his paper, twirled the imaginary ends of his moustache and sprinkled brown sugar over his bowl. ‘You’re a wonderful cook, sweetheart,’ he said. ‘A great housewife. You run a tight ship.’
‘I’m not a housewife, Ed. I’m your wife and this is not a ship, nor is it one of your ruddy aeroplanes.’
We thought Dad was a dill to call aeroplanes ships but he said all air force pilots did. He flew during the war and still said Roger instead of Righto and Stand-by instead of Wait. Mama said it was time he acted less like Biggles and more like the accountant he was supposed to be.
He was right about Mama’s kitchen, though. It was tight. Red canisters stood like soldiers against the white wall, glass mixing bowls disappeared into one another like ripples on a pond and over the stove five copper saucepans hung gleaming. You didn’t have to hunt for things in our house; everything had its place. Except for Mama’s apron. When she finished cooking she flung it behind her where it caught on a gas jet or a saucepan and stayed there until next time.
‘Bertie,’ she said, sliding pancakes across the table, ‘you’ll be six next week. What do you want for your birthday?’ ‘Your locket.’
‘Uh-uh. I’ve told you before, not until you’re eight. That’s how old I was when my mama let me have it.’
‘Eight is a million years away.’
‘Two, in fact. What else might you want?’
Nothing else. Just her tiny blue forget-me-not locket. When I first opened it and found it empty I was shocked. ‘Why hasn’t it got pictures of Daddy and Tim and me? Lockets are supposed to have pictures.’
‘My locket has dreams. There’s no room in it for pictures and dreams so I just keep the dreams.’
‘I can’t see any dreams.’
The big old clock on the wall chimed seven thirty and the minute hand fell a trembling notch. The clock used to hang in Grandma’s front parlour. She gave it to Dad when he and Mama moved into their own house. ‘Time and tide waited for no man,’ she said.
‘Can I have anything else I want?’
‘All the Cherry Ripes in the world.’
She snorted. ‘You’d be sick.’
‘No, I wouldn’t. Anyway, you promised.’
‘Actually, Bertie, I didn’t.’
For my birthday she took me and Tim to the MacRobertson chocolate factory where I got to taste every flavour – caramel, raspberry, cherry and peppermint. In bed that night I clutched my tummy and tried not to look at the butter-coloured walls of my room. Normally I liked butter: I could push it into shapes – pigs, birds, faces – and when we visited Grandad and Grandma, Grandad made butter boats by dropping blobs onto hot porridge where they sailed across the dish and sank into golden puddles. When Mama painted my room I’d watched, wishing it was me holding that brush, imagining how it felt to make long golden streaks across the wall. But Mama said all my painting credits had been used up. She was still cranky about the time I stuck my fingers into a jar of Vegemite and painted a beautiful dark moth on the white kitchen cupboard.
‘Naughty.’ She’d whacked my hand.
I’d wiped smarting Vegemite fingers on my pink romper suit.
‘Oh, Roberta, no . . .’
The visit to the chocolate factory stopped me hankering after Cherry Ripes but not after the locket. When Mama was busy in the garden I tiptoed upstairs to her room to sneak a look. It was Dad’s room too, but somehow there wasn’t a lot of him in there. His two brushes lay beside hers, one for his shiny brown curls, the other for his city clothes. In the cupboard was a row of white shirts, two black suits, five ties and three pairs of shoes – everything shipshape – but it was Mama’s dresses that filled the room with the smell of ironing and musk. It was a tippy-toe room with quilts of filtered sunshine that lay over the carpet and the dusky pink bedspread. There was a slow-ticking clock that made time sound old and photos of Mama in tortoiseshell frames. One was taken on her eighth birthday. She had the locket around her neck and stared out at me as if she didn’t know who I was. She wore the locket in the other photo too, the one taken by a reporter for the Toronto Star, the day she and Dad got married.
‘I was a war bride,’ she said.
War bride? It sounded terrible. I tried to imagine my beautiful mother, battered and bruised, dragging herself up the aisle in a torn and grubby wedding gown.
She’d smiled her faraway smile. ‘It wasn’t like that. Not so you’d notice, anyway.’
The photograph showed a perfect Canadian spring day with crocuses and snowdrops lifting their faces to the sun. Mama stood among them in a pearl-grey suit, her hair a black ruff beneath a little hat. She was holding a posy of sweet peas and smiling, but her eyes were somewhere else. War bride, she said, meant war brought people together and made them into husbands and wives, even if it shouldn’t have.
I took the locket from the trinket box and opened it but Mama was right, her dreams were invisible. I put it back and pulled open the drawers that held her silky nighties and stiff brassieres and found a box, a pretty wooden box crisscrossed on the top with mother-of-pearl. And in the box, a picture of a smiling man with dark eyes and black hair who looked like . . .
‘What are you doing, Roberta?’
‘Give me that.’
‘Who’s the man, Mama?’
‘None of your business – now go.’
‘Go, I said, and don’t ever touch that box again.’
And I didn’t, because a few weeks later, I couldn’t climb the stairs. I couldn’t walk at all.
Excerpted from The Beloved by Annah Faulkner. Copyright © 2012 by Annah Faulkner.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Pan Macmillan Australia solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.