Fiction

Birthday pony

I still have the dog my mother loved.

See that lavender heeler, roan, smiling and straining in the rear-view. See her chasing after my mother, at least a kilometre from home. See that dog flatten herself out as she stretches to reach metal – low and fast and long. See my mother as she tries not to see it, any of it, from the driver’s seat of my older sister’s off-white Commodore. My mother, maybe she’s wearing vanilla oil, a second-hand silk shirt and her favourite cheap Priceline foundation, Crème Caramel.

The V8 my mother left in once held my sister in Coles car parks at the edge of town: cheap whiskey, a boy called Bundy, petrol-station condoms. Now it’s being pushed into sixth by my mother’s butter-soft suede loafer, somewhere. You rich now, Mum? I’d joked when those shoes arrived in the mail – a box wrapped in fancy tissue and string. That was back before I started referring to her as my mother, adding a little distance of my own between myself and the person I miss most of all.

My mother’s name was – is – Cheryl. Maybe she finally saw the horizon again, the wide flat glitter of Melbourne, or that uneven heartbeat of aeroplane lights from below, those cloud-muffled night-sky winks. The promise of other things. Maybe my mother was fresh in love with a man named Steve, or Mick, or Faheem, who loved her more. Maybe my mother was still wearing her own mother’s thin gold watch; she always was. Maybe my mother just wanted to be alone.

Or maybe my mother – bent-backed from teenage horse falls, but still somehow tall – sat quietly on the back deck one last time. Maybe she stood up, straight as she could, and went back inside to survey it all: the worn-through corduroy couch; the cutoff wattle stems; the photos lining the hall – of me and my sister, from when she was still here. Maybe my mother’s loyal lilac heeler, panting pink and pacing, was already sensing something wrong. Pony, stay home, I imagine she said with whiskey-laced breath. Then, when that dog didn’t move from stockinged feet: Go on, now – get.

No one ordinary had ever taken a picture of my mother. Don’t trust photos, honey – they’re taken for the wallets of men. This is what my mother, when she was still around, sometimes said. Sure, my mother had a passport photo and a licence one: don’t we all. That was it. I have my new Ps photo, which I’ll keep for when I, one day, maybe also have to go. Full licence, manual – my mother made me: You never know what you’ll need and when.

My hair is short in that VicRoads photo. My face is broad, hard-edged, freckle-flecked. My mother’s: hers is too. I try to see if our story, my mother’s, sister’s and mine, is visible in my tiny licence picture – something calm but close to crackling, near a kind of edge. My mascara, anyway, like my mother’s always was, is blue.

Where’s my birthday pony, girls? my mother had joked the night before her 50th – the age she’d been so excited to reach. Smiling, she kept picking at the sausage rolls, drinking from her birthday-eve bottle of Baileys and pretending to check the shed for that long-imagined horse arrival – for a thoroughbred dropout – for that familiar feeling of a velvet-muzzle, breathing warmth against her neck.

Here’s your pony, dickhead, my messy-haired sister joked the next morning – trying not to beam. She had wrapped that felt-eared puppy in one of my beach towels, faded from sun. She looked so proud, my sister, in her sleep-smudged eyeliner and her beige adidas jumper three sizes too big. My sister had hidden the pup in a box beneath her bed, setting her alarm to check on it – on the hour, every hour, all through the night. She’s just a baby, my sis said, knowing that animal was too small to be left alone: all pin teeth and milky breath.

Hello, Pony, my mother – reaching out the following morning – said softly. Last night’s alcohol, sweet, and smoke, earthy, were on her breath. Welcome home, she said.

That grown dog’s just a bruised-blue roadside glow, now – my headlights lighting up her hide ahead. Pony, shit, I whisper, realising she’d run all that way behind my disappearing mother: hours on end.

See my mother driving into a roadside BP somewhere. See the Commodore’s scented cardboard leaf, ocean breeze, swaying from the rear-view. See my mother at a bain-marie breakfast, far from here. See her on the Calder, smelling of cold takeaway, menthol cigarettes and metallic breath – no longer of grief. See the freeway morning sun on my mother’s face.

Desperation in dogs also has a heavy smell – something like wood rot, like damp pine needles, a little like salt-sweet sweat. It’s okay, girl, I say, that spent heeler’s pink smile panting as she lets me pick her up.

Walking back to the car, I think of my sister sleeping down in the valley – about her patch, if that’s what you call it, dotted with browning flowers, two cigarettes wrapped in alfoil and an empty bottle of peach Absolut. I think of my sister, that last night she also left. I think about that boy called Bundy, the one we watched in the Supreme Court, smirking back at us from the dock. There my sister is, again, late that last night, in the kitchen before what will soon become The Event. Shut the fuck up, sis, she said. I love you, but don’t say anything. Go to bed.

See the whites of that dog’s eyes, the grass seeds, the swollen paws – her fur the colour of June skies, of bruised thighs, of pencil lead. A supermarket truck passes, brakes grinding as its high beams light up the two of us: me shuffling along the roadside, holding her – that panting loyal heeler, blue and roan, the one my mother loved most of all.

I’ve got you, Pony, I say into lavender fur. I got you, pup, I say again.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 4, 2020 as "Birthday pony".

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Alice Bishop
is The Sydney Morning Herald’s Best Young Australian Novelist for 2020.