The Birthday Party
Long red cuts ripple along the contours of Mona’s face as she blows out the ten candles on her birthday cake. Three are extinguished, trails of smoke emerging like fingers. She blows again and the final seven flames collapse.
“Mona, here, take the knife. Cut it now.”
Mona looks down at the plate she is holding. The cake is shaped like a hedgehog, its spikes glimmering as shards of glass. The skin on her face feels tender like charred ambers. A tenuous pile of paper plates extends from her grandmother’s frail wrist and is thrust aggressively under her chin. The sun is hot on her neck and she feels her dress simper closer to her flesh. She does not recognize the hands that hold the plate on her lap. At the tops of her vision, her grandmother’s pink cap swims like a blank face against the flat green lawn.
Mona is now 9 years, 4 months and 18 days old. She knows this because she keeps a small chalkboard shaped like a daisy above her bed where, every day, she chalks a fresh line. She is sitting on the cool, wooden toilet seat in the downstairs bathroom. Her body is curled together on the seat and a book rests on her knees. She is not looking at the book, but instead at the frail, green tiles that pattern the walls and floor. The light sickens.
It is Sunday and she is thinking about how she does not want to go to school the next day. Her friend has a new friend. A girl called Jane that Mona has never liked. The new friends have begun to sit together at break times in a small alcove off the playground, chewing stubbornly at the delicate ends of raw spaghetti sticks.
“Mona, don’t be ridiculous. Why would you possibly want to eat raw spaghetti sticks. Here, take your grapes.”
Mona remembers the sky, leaden and grim. The grey uniforms twisting in collapsed circles behind her. She remembers nudging the taut flesh of the grapes folded into the pocket of her duffle coat as she watched the two girls, noting their hair lacing in the breeze. She remembers twisting the edge of a nail slowly into the muscled surface of a grape. Suddenly its flesh had flown ejectile across the innards of her pocket.
The front door slams and, outside, a dog begins to bark.
Mona recalls now where she is and notices the book open on her knees. She grabs it and clambers off the toilet seat.
Her grandmother and a strange elderly man are standing at the open doorway in the hall. The man is tall but stoops slightly and there is a large brown poodle at his feet. The man’s neck seems bent somehow and his shirt bags away from his chest. His clothes hang like his skin, stretched.
“Oh, Mona. Come and meet Steve, Steve and his dog, Henry? Yes, Henry. Come and say hello.”
Mona looks at Steve. He turns his head towards her, but won’t look her directly in the eyes. His face is so set it seems carved. As she moves closer, stepping lightly upon the sloping wooden floors, his face bends, softening at the edges. There is something vulnerable in the way he holds himself. Mona feels her innards tense and she wants to look away, but she can’t. He holds out one slim wrist to greet her. It shakes so violently that Mona flinches and her hand stops an inch from his fingertips.
It is a few weeks after Steve appeared in Mona’s house. It is mid morning and the leaves trail flames behind them. There is an abandoned railway line that runs above the town and adjoins the north side to the west. It is usually empty, known for the town’s only acts of crime, a few muggings, one mythologized rape. The tracks afford a view of the flat industrial plain and the bleak hills beyond. In winter the hills appear as bruised hordes drowning the small houses in shadows.
Mona is sitting curled atop a rugged fence at the west end of the abandoned railway line, her book-bag at her feet. She is quiet and motionless. She thought her absence from school might have filled her with vigor, with a feeling of adulthood, instead she feels simply numb. She looks to her right and notices a form emerge at the north end, a stick figure cut black against the sky. She turns away and stares over the tops of the fields. Corn peppers her retinas.
Suddenly she hears a breath rasping above her shoulder. She turns. Steve is leaning with his chest against the fence Mona is sitting on. He is staring, like Mona, over the tops of the broken fields. She finds the silence terrifying.
“You bunked off school?”
“It’s pretty frosty out.”
“I guess. Your dog’s cute.”
“Thanks. He can be.”
Mona and Steve have become friends. Every afternoon, as the school bell breaks the frozen silence, Steve walks his dog Henry along the abandoned railway line that joins the north side of the town to the west, the direction of Mona’s route from school to home. In the perishing afternoon, the odd pair walk side by side, Mona’s small strides rushing besides Steve’s easy ones. Their limbs retain a respectful distance and their voices are soft, barely more than murmurs. Henry totters a few meters ahead, digging amongst the dead strawberry bushes that line the tracks.
Mona has never been inside Steve’s house because he has never invited her in. He lives in a small white house with shutters that were once a deep green, but are now peeled and faded. Its front hedge reaches out into the street and catches upon people’s jackets as they walk along the pavement. In the backyard there is a rusting climbing frame the previous family left behind them and leaves crowd its legs.
Mona wants to see inside his house. She has begun to find reasons to ride her bike along his street, slowing down as she moves past his fecund hedge. She plays words he has spoken to her on repeat in her head as she rides, forming them into musical phrases. There is something about the curvature of his body that makes Mona sad.
The days become colder. Mona’s hands, clutching at the brakes on her bike, become increasingly senseless and alien as she rides past Steve’s small house. She sometimes thinks briefly about her friend and Jane and about their raw spaghetti fingers as she rides, but not for long. She has begun to sit alone at break times, at the edge of the school field, clawing the frozen earth with one hand and clutching her knees close to her chest with the other. She finds herself wanting to brush Steve’s fragile spine with her fingertips. In art class she paints the same picture over and over. The canvas as a large grey sky and, in one corner, two black figures: a small curled form and a thin stick figure.
The house where Mona and her grandmother live is large and bare. It is a nervous place where unopened letters bristle. Mona is sitting on the edge of the wooden stair, she leans her head against the cool banister. She hears the phone ring. Her grandmother lets out a startled cry that meanders amongst the dry wooden furniture and the bare walls. She listens as her grandmother rustles over to the phone, picks it up, and murmurs in a hushed voice “Hello.”
“Oh, yes, hello there. Oh, that would be lovely, I know we would both enjoy that. Tomorrow? At 3? Mona and I will see you then.”
Mona closes her eyes. She cannot stand her grandmother’s hushed tones. She scrapes the wooden banister roughly with the end of her finger (she has chewed her nail almost down to the cuticle).
Mona and her grandmother are standing upon the cracked concrete doorstep of the small, white house. It is 3 on a Saturday afternoon, and Mona seems unsure of herself in a blue floral dress and shiny brown shoes. Behind them branches lurch and the whining of a bicycle grows louder. Mona clasps her hands to her sides and thinks of the way raw spaghetti strands crack against teeth. The old woman ferrets anxiously inside her bag and Mona knows she is wondering whether Mona will behave herself.
The figures bristle on the front step, they tidy themselves. They hear barking, a ferocious yapping that seems unreal, like Mona’s hands at the end of her arms. And then, the door opens. The small frame pulls back to reveal a greying man, thin, dressed in jeans a size to big for him. He beckons the pair inside and shuts the door behind them.
The rooms are blank. No pictures or photographs conceal the tired floral print on the walls. The pair follow the man into the living room. There is only one red couch and the man indicates that the two should seat themselves. Mona’s grandmother does, making a show of the whole procedure in her tired, anxious manner. Mona doesn’t move but only looks at the table in the center of the room—a poorly concealed makeshift table of taped-together cardboard boxes. The man sits down next to the old woman and leans over to pour tea from a chipped teapot. Mona stands nervously beside the table and watches the man’s hand shake as he pours, sending rays of tea spiralling over the red carpet.
“Steve, you remember meeting my granddaughter Mona, don’t you?”
Steve shudders and the cup he is holding lurches to one side.
“Yes, yes I do. It’s nice to see you.”
Mona smiles nervously and her fingers flutter against her floral dress.
“Mona turns ten next week.”
“Is that right. Well, happy birthday for next week Mona.”
Mona cannot control her hands. The fingers are wrenching themselves away from her palm in violent spasms, and she feels their virulent intrusion into the hushed quiet.
“You knew it was my birthday next week.”
Mona’s syllables are so sparse they barely disturb the awkward silence. As soon as she speaks, she flushes deep red. Steve looks up sharply, a look of deep pain flashing across his cheeks. He begins to tremble and Mona looks down at the carpet.
“Mona, dear, what do you mean Steve knew it was your birthday. He wouldn’t have known that.”
Mona’s grandmother rustles her clothes like a chicken. She is perplexed. Meanwhile Steve begins to change, unfolding his skeletal limbs into puffed-up curves. Suddenly his arm breaks out and flings the full teapot across the room. It crashes against the wall and cascades of tea spray about the room.
“Get the fuck out! Get out! Get out! Get out now!”
Mona, Mona’s friend and Jane are sitting upon a row of dilapidated swings that perch at the north end of the abandoned railway line. Jane is tall for her age, and she wears bell-bottom jeans. Mona looks with disgust at her bright green leggings and old turquoise sweater with a red dinosaur on its front. Jane wears a string of pearls around her neck. Jane and Mona’s friend laugh and chatter violently, Mona tries to laugh, tries to join in, but every time she opens her mouth a wave of nausea floods her body.
The air is cold now and flocks of birds scatter the grey sky.
Mona stops swinging. The icy wind rustles about the girls, whipping voices and hair up in gusts, but Mona feels herself cut off.
“I heard my mum and her friend Mrs. Brimley talking about that old guy, the one with the funny dog.”
“He gives me the creeps. But his dog is kinda funny.” As Mona looks out over the fields, she doesn’t feel the wiry blue string cut into her palms like cutters into dough.
“What did they say about him?”
Somewhere, a dog begins to bark and blood squeezes along the blue string Mona’s hands clutch.
The two girls don’t notice Mona’s swing is now empty.
Mona is running away from the swings along the tracks. She is running away from the sound of barking that rears louder. She clasps her numbed hands to her sides. The houses, flat grey brick against a grey sky seem unreal, terrifyingly so. Clouds of rapid breath outpace her. The dog barks again, sharper. She flings herself off the sides of the track and down the frosted bank. As she runs, her toes slip along the smooth, green tips of the grass. Her body tips forward and falls, weightless, to the base of the bank. Her body is still, crumpled. Wisps of air rise from her lips.
Closer now, a dog barks.