That period in her life
by Claire Duffy
Shelley Abraham knocked on the front door of a brown-brick flat-roofed suburban house. She looked down the driveway at the weeds growing up amongst the little white flowery shrubs and waited. She pushed the doorbell a couple of times and listened to the chimes ringing inside the house. A few moments later, the front door flew open and Maxine Spinner’s ten-year-old sister, Chloe, stood there with an idiotic grin on her face. Maxine came sliding around the corner just behind Chloe.
‘Get out of the way, you pipsqueak,’ Maxine said. She yanked at Chloe’s shoulder and pushed her aside.
‘I got here first,’ Chloe said and elbowed her way back in front of her sister.
Maxine tugged at Shelley’s arm and dragged her past Chloe and into her bedroom. Clothes, shoes, and jewellery lay scattered everywhere. Shelley stood at the door, not knowing what to do. Maxine walked carelessly through the mess on the floor and sat in front of her dresser. A pale yellow scarf and a pair of dark brown tights dangled over the mirror. She leaned in and looked intently at her face, then brought both hands up and slid her first and second fingers along the skin below her eyes. Shelley had seen girls in TV ads for face-cream do this. She walked over to the mirror and bent down to look at herself over Maxine’s shoulder. She considered the skin beneath her own eyes too. She thought it was fine, although she noticed that the walk to Maxine’s place had messed her frizzy hair. On either side of her forehead, the supposed bangs that Maxine had cut into her hair the last time she had been there had become cloudy puffs. She tried combing her fingers through the frizz the way Maxine did to flatten the unruly hair but it sprang up again.
‘Where’s your mum?’ Shelley said looking around the bedroom.
‘At work,’ Chloe said from the doorway, where she was leaning on the doorframe. Shelley turned her head and watched Chloe rub one big toe back and forth on the carpet just inside Maxine’s room.
‘She’ll be home later, won’t she, sis,’ Maxine spoke to the dresser mirror, and stared at Chloe’s reflection. Chloe looked at the pale tufted carpet in front of her and nodded.
Shelley wondered what sort of job their mum did that kept her out at night. Then she remembered her own mum had to stay back at work sometimes when the books didn’t add up.
‘Seen Dolly? It says scarves are in this summer. You need a scarf with that top, Shell,’ Maxine said to Shelley’s reflection. ‘Chlosey, go and get that cream one of mum’s, the one with the tasselly ends,’ Maxine said to her sister. Then she tilted her head back and stretched her eyebrows as high as they would go. ‘I’ll tie it in a bow if you like.’ Maxine’s voice strained because of the arched position of her neck. She dropped her head forward again, opened a messy tray of eye shadows and used her long fingernails to pick out the little black brush.
‘It’s OK, I don’t need a scarf,’ Shelley said, but Chloe had already gone. She watched Maxine in the mirror as she applied sky-blue makeup to her upper eyelids. Shelley noticed in the reflection that there was a bra lying on the edge of Maxine’s bed. She looked to her right and there it was, looking lost and discarded yet pretty and desirable. The top of the cups was made from pink and white polka dotted fabric, and the bottom half was plain white. There was a tiny white satin bow between the cups.
‘Got one?’ Maxine’s hand was poised in the air in front of her face, the blue-tipped brush barely a centimetre from her eyelid, as she watched Shelley’s reflection. Shelley looked down at her chest—she knew the bumps were there but they didn’t show—and then back at Maxine’s reflection. Shelley still wore children’s sized clothes.
‘Nup,’ Shelley said, and sat on the corner of the bed.
Maxine shifted her focus back to the mirror and reapplied the little brush to her eyelid.
Chloe returned with the scarf and lassoed it around Shelley’s neck. ‘Yihaa!’ Chloe said. Shelley dropped to the floor and began neighing. She reared up onto her knees and pawed her hands in front of her. Chloe pushed Shelley’s shoulders down so she was on all fours again, and then mounted her back. She gripped her thighs around Shelley’s waist, and Shelley trotted out of the room. In the hallway, Chloe used the reins to steer Shelley around the corner.
‘Shouldn’t we be going?’ Maxine yelled from the bedroom.
* * *
Shelley sat on a slatted wooden bench in the open-air courtyard at the centre of the shopping mall. She gazed at the windows at the front of McCawley’s Ladies Wear while she waited for Maxine to arrive from school. In the reflection of the shop window, she watched herself fiddle with her plaits and then she noticed the yellowy-green leaves on the tree beside her flutter in an eddy. Beyond that, she could see the shadowy reflection of the green school jumpers on the students who were milling around in the courtyard behind her. She watched a girl from her class emerge from the milk bar, wander from one group of students to another, and then leave with a boy from another form.
On the inside of the store window, the mannequin’s face stared upwards at a spot under the covered walkway just outside the shop. The mannequin held out one elongated, cupped hand. The orange and white jumper the mannequin was wearing had dolman sleeves, and Shelley remembered how much trouble dolman sleeves were. The billowy batwing sleeves caught on stuff whenever she reached to take hold of something.
‘Let’s go,’ Maxine said, as she arrived from an alleyway behind Shelley. She dumped her bag next to Shelley’s beneath the tree and they went into McCawley’s. The air inside the shop was stale, and a radio murmured beneath the counter just inside the doorway. A song Shelley recognised, Skyhook’s ‘Horror Movie’, began to play. Mrs McCawley watched the girls and then began tidying the little carousel of dainty crystal earrings she kept near the cash register.
Maxine looked through a rack of blouses. Shelley followed along and felt the fabrics. A chemical smell drifted off the blouses and Shelley wiped her wrist across her nose.
‘Go and look at the bras,’ Maxine said close to Shelley’s ear. Shelley looked back at Mrs McCawley to see what she was doing. Mrs McCawley was staring through the glass front door into the courtyard. She slowly lifted one of her hands and gently pressed it against the bun of dark brown hair at the back of her head. Each finger moved dreamily to locate all of the bobby pins that were holding the bun in place. It was as if the hand was moving without Mrs McCawley noticing, Shelley thought.
Maxine nudged her and pointed with a look towards the back of the store.
Shelley wandered past a carousel of bell-bottomed trousers and began sliding one bra after another along the rack. She looked at the size tags, and then at her chest.
‘Can I help you, luv,’ Mrs McCawley said. Shelley turned to find Mrs McCawley beside her. Mrs McCawley was close to sixty and, Shelley suspected, was used to school-girls messing about in her store. The elderly woman held her hands in front of her and slid them over each other, as though they were itching to do something.
‘Nah, just looking thanks,’ Shelley said.
‘Well, call out if you need a hand,’ Mrs McCawley said and wandered back to the front counter where she took a newspaper from the shelf below. Maxine appeared from the other side of a rack of loosely knitted vests.
‘Old bat can’t wait to get her hands on you.’ Maxine flicked through the first few bras along the rack and selected a pale blue trainer bra.
‘Here, try this one.’ She grabbed the next two white bras and slipped them into Shelley’s hand. ‘And take these too.’ The tag on one of the white bras was 12B, and the other was 14A.
‘Go and put the blue one on,’ Maxine said. She led Shelley to a cubicle, pulled the curtain across its doorway and left Shelley alone. Behind the curtain, Shelley dropped the bras onto the white plastic chair in the corner of the cubicle. She pulled her school jumper over her head and unbuttoned her uniform. Goose bumps formed on her arms as she let the uniform fall to the floor. In the mirror stood a girl wearing a white singlet and brown briefs. She stood looking back at the reflection of herself. Her legs were darker between the top of her socks and the line where her uniform ended. Her thighs were white and fleshy, and her singlet hung like a tube over her torso. She held the size 10A blue trainer bra up to the bumps on her chest. She recalled Maxine’s insistence that she needed a bra when she was changing for PE, so Shelley pulled the singlet over her head and dropped it on the floor with her other clothes. She tugged at the bra straps to unclip them from the hanger. When it was loose, she threaded her hands through the shoulder straps and manoeuvred her way into the bra. She was just pulling it down over the bumps on her chest when Maxine whispered through the curtain.
‘Have you got it on yet?’
‘Yeah,’ Shelley said. She stopped moving and stared at the reflection of the curtain behind her. She hoped Maxine wouldn’t pull it aside and see her almost naked body.
‘Put your uniform back on over it and bring the two white ones out,’ Maxine said.
Shelley stared at the reflection of the curtain and imagined Maxine walking away from it. She pulled the trainer bra off and flung it on the seat with the other two bras.
Shelley was buttoning up her uniform when Mrs McCawley slid the top half of the curtain aside just enough to poke her head into the cubicle. Shelley spun around and looked up at Mrs McCawley. Through Mrs McCawley’s reading glasses, which were still perched on the end of her nose, Shelley noticed uneven clumps of black mascara on her eyelashes and a brown splotch in one of her blue eyes. Mrs McCawley blinked and Shelley didn’t move.
‘How did you go? Is your mum coming in?’ Mrs McCawley pulled the curtain open once she saw that Shelley was dressed. The lace insert across the front of Mrs McCawley’s blouse was at Shelley’s eye level. Shelley could see the firm white fabric of a bra through the gaps in the lace. Shelley leaned to the right of Mrs McCawley and looked past her into the shop, but it was empty. She turned to the plastic seat in the cubicle and picked up her jumper and the hangers. Shelley placed first one white bra, then the second, and finally the blue trainer bra into Mrs McCawley’s outstretched hand.
‘Think I’ll wait till mum’s with me,’ Shelley said as she flicked her jumper over her shoulder and sidled out of the cubicle. Maxine was gone.
* * *
Shelley stepped off the bus at the shops and followed Maxine’s instructions to her dad’s new house. It was the first day of the August school holidays and Shelley was staying over at Maxine’s for the weekend. Gall Oaks lined the street, creating a dim tunnel along the footpath. Shelley walked up the hill past the orange-brick church that had tennis courts at one side, and a huge empty car park on the other. She continued on past one more street until she spotted what she was looking for: a white painted house on a corner block.
Cotoneasters covered in red berries grew out of control along the side fences, and the Oak on the nature strip had branches that spread over the yard and onto the roof where they hung over the tiles. Maxine was lying on the grass in the front yard and Chloe was doing cartwheels, which Maxine appeared to be scoring. Chloe completed a cartwheel and spotted Shelley.
She ran over to the footpath, where she met Shelley, and they walked arm-in-arm back to the tree, where they tumbled onto the grass next to Maxine.
‘Hey, Pip, haven’t you got music practice?’ Maxine prodded Chloe’s legs until she stood up. Chloe dragged her feet along the narrow cement path and went in the front door. Shelley and Maxine followed her inside, where the air was steamy and smelt like cooked vegetables. Maxine led Shelley into her bedroom, which had a tiny window with a broken blind, and greying paint on the walls. Condensation dripped down the window, and Shelley could hear cooking sounds coming from the other end of the house.
‘When dad first moved in, there were still toenail clippings stuck in the carpet. Dad reckons the old man who used to live here died right there.’ Maxine pointed a long finger at the floor in front of them, and then leapt onto the bed. She sat in the middle of the bed, drew her long legs up to her chest, and wrapped her arms around them.
Shelley leapt across the carpet too and rolled onto the bed. She could feel the strap of her new bra straining against her shoulders as she lay across the bed. She settled on her tummy and looked over the edge of the bed to see if she could see any toenail clippings tucked into the carpet fibres. There was only a strand of Maxine’s straight black hair lying on top of the thin carpet. She sniffed and dust went up her nose.
‘Hey, Terry’s coming round later,’ Maxine said. Shelley turned and watched Maxine’s long fingers and perfectly shaped nails comb through her fringe. ‘He reckons you need a boyfriend,’ Maxine said.
Shelley had met Terry once. He and Maxine had been play fighting on her dad’s front lawn just after he had moved in. Eventually Terry overpowered her and picked her up around her waist. She waved her arms and legs trying to make him put her down. Shelley remembered the praying mantis that she had held by its body once. Terry and Maxine were laughing but Shelley thought he was mean. Maxine said Terry drank beer and took his shirt off in the hot weather. Shelley imagined his smooth tanned skin against Maxine’s body.
‘Do I?’ Shelley said.
‘Well, don’t you want one?’ Maxine said.
Shelley rolled onto her back and looked at the ceiling. The spherical white light shade stared down at her; a collection of dead insects formed an eye-like pupil at its centre.
‘Maybe,’ Shelley said. She rolled onto her side and leant her head onto her bent arm.
‘You can meet Rob when Terry comes around later. We’re going to the drive-in in Rob’s car, so you have to come,’ Maxine said.
‘Dad wants to know if you like corned beef?’ Chloe said, appearing around the edge of the doorway.
‘Yes,’ Shelley said. Just then, they heard Mr Spinner yelp. A tap went on in the kitchen and then they heard a saucepan clanking against the sink.
‘You girls, come and set the table,’ Mr Spinner called from the kitchen.
* * *
‘Not too late, alright?’ Maxine’s dad called as he stood in the light on the porch with a damp apron still drooping beneath his belly. Shelley wore platform shoes and brown flares that she had convinced her mum to buy for her now that she was ‘old enough’ to wear a bra. Maxine had applied glitter to Shelley’s cheekbones while they were jammed in the bathroom after dinner. Maxine giggled as they approached the yellow and white Datsun 180B idling at the curb. Terry, his brown hair wavier and longer than Shelley remembered, was holding the back door of the car open. Maxine stooped beneath his arm and disappeared into the back seat. Terry flicked a wave to Maxine’s dad, grinned and dipped his head into the dark interior of the back seat.
Shelley walked carefully along the cement path towards the front passenger door, remembering Maxine’s advice not to catch the hem of her flares under the front of the platform shoe. The last thing she wanted to do was trip over and land on her hands and knees in front of everyone.
Shelley opened the front door and slid into the seat. She closed the door and the interior light blinked off before she caught a good look at Rob sitting in the driver’s seat. Without saying a word, Rob pulled away from the curb, and in the back seat, Terry grabbed Maxine around the waist and pulled her to him. Shelley snuck a look at Rob as he was negotiating a corner. He had curly brown hair to his shoulders, like Terry, and tanned skin on his face and neck. His nose looked sunburned, the passing streetlights highlighting the flakes of skin on his nose. Shelley guessed that he worked outdoors. He might have been a brickie, given the shape of the muscles pushing against his short-sleeved shirt. When they stopped at an intersection, Rob turned to Shelley. She thought that his eyes looked strange, as if he wasn’t well or as if he had to tip his head down to see properly.
‘Hi,’ Shelley said. She looked into her lap and smoothed a crease in her trousers. She noticed that the door to the glove compartment in the dashboard had a strip of black tape holding it closed, but the stereo looked new. Rob stuck out a hand and turned on the stereo. The Ted Mulry Gang song, ‘Jump in my car’, blurted from the speakers. The lights changed to green and Rob accelerated. They passed beneath a street light and Shelley looked at the back of Rob’s hand, which was resting on the gear stick. There was a dark freckle on the wrist bone and blonde hairs on the back of his hand. Shelley stared at the road ahead and slid her hand onto Rob’s thigh. She had heard Maxine and some other girls talking about this kind of thing and hoped she was doing it properly. She wondered how far it was to the drive-in; how long she would have to keep her hand there and whether she should move it or not.
* * *
‘You’re dropped.’ Maxine made the announcement over the telephone to Shelley. It was the second week of the holidays, and Shelley was back at her home. She was sitting at the breakfast bar, listening to the Science Show on the radio. She leaned across the bench and turned the volume knob to Off. The silver-ridged dial gave a satisfying click.
‘Why didn’t you tell him you had your period?’ Maxine said. Shelley could tell Maxine had cupped her hand over the mouthpiece because her voice seemed enclosed all of a sudden.
‘I didn’t have my period,’ Shelley said.
‘Well, he reckons you did. It was on his face in the morning.’
Shelley gazed out the kitchen window at a cloudbank that was rolling in from the south and spreading across the bright blue winter sky and remembered that night. Shelley had been trying to follow the film, The Magnificent Seven. Yul Brynner’s character had just seen the lookout’s signal, letting them know that the Mexican bandits were about to attack the village. Rob’s beery breath reached her before his lips did, and the movie disappeared behind his head. Then he was fumbling with her fly and she felt a sudden sharp stinging pain as Rob pressed his blunt fingers into her vagina.
‘Let’s get out of here,’ Rob said. ‘What about a bit of sightseeing?’ He looked around at Terry in the back seat.
Shelley, encouraged by Maxine, returned the speaker to its post outside her window, and Rob drove to the Mt Ainslie lookout. As soon as they parked, Shelley could hear Maxine and Terry groaning in the back seat. Rob cracked another beer, took a few gulps, leaned across, and began kissing her with cold, wet lips. He tugged her pants down below her hips, and then he manoeuvred himself clumsily into Shelley’s foot well. He nuzzled his face into her groin, pulling at her legs, but Shelley’s platform shoes were too big for her to move her legs out of the way. Rob reached a hand up, and in a practiced motion, popped Shelley’s door open.
‘Get out, will ya’, Rob said.
Shelley shivered as she stepped out of the car and tugged her trousers up again. It was dark on top of the hill and Shelley could see the lights of the streets below, all fanning out from the hill. Somewhere down there was Maxine’s house, and beyond Black Mountain her own. Rob pulled himself lizard-like onto the tarmac, and then led Shelley to the edge of the car park and down a grassy slope. Rob lay down on the slope, jamming his beer can into a tuft of grass a couple of times until it stayed upright. He tugged Shelley’s trouser legs and she crumpled on the grass near him. He yanked Shelley’s trousers and underwear down her legs and undid his jeans zipper. When he lay on top of her, a beery belch issued from his mouth and into her face. Shelley guessed what was coming next and pushed him off her. Rob cried out as he rolled onto the grass, and then he vomited.
Back in her own kitchen, she held the phone to her ear and watched the clean white cloud sliding across the sky.
‘I’ll miss you,’ Shelley said to Maxine. Maxine was moving to Melbourne to live with her mother and stepfather. Shelley leaned her forehead onto the window next to the breakfast bar and breathed onto the glass. She opened her mouth, pressed her lips onto the glass, and rolled her tongue around and around the way Maxine had shown her. Shelley pulled her head back and looked at the globule shape she had made in the steamy patch on the glass.
‘Did you notice how no one bleeds when they’re shot in cowboy films?’ Shelley said into the phone.