meet the winners of the 2021 rachel funari prize for fiction: 2nd place, “mansion” by kerrin o’sullivan
Kerrin O’Sullivan’s story, Mansion, placed second in the 2021 Rachel Funari Prize for Fiction. We look forward to bringing you our Q&A with Kerrin in the coming weeks but for now, please enjoy her award-winning story!
On Saturdays Dad takes us to the park. At least that’s what he tells us to say, if Mum ever asks. And she does.
‘Bye Dad,’ I shout when he drops Jimmy and I home before six, like Mum says he has to, because it’s the law.
‘See youse next week,’ he calls. ‘Love you big time.’
We go inside and Mum starts up.
‘Bea, what did you three get up to?’
All smiles. She takes my wrist, tickles it. What she really wants to know is: Where did he take you? Who was he with?
Her eyes dart from me to Jimmy and back. I make up something she’ll believe, something to make her happy.
‘He took us to the adventure playground.’
She raises her eyebrows. ‘That’s a first.’
‘Then we went to Toyworld—’‘Huh,’ she interrupts, ‘and he says he’s got no money.’
‘Just to look,’ I add, ‘then we fed the swans at the lake.’ My teacher, Mr Russo, says I have a good imagination for a ten-year-old.
Mum switches to Jimmy. ‘What else?’
‘W-w-we—,’ Jimmy stammers, puffing up like a truth balloon.
‘Doorbell!’ I cut in.
‘Oh, it rang?’ Mum says, looking out through the glass panel.
I frown at Jimmy, pinch his puppy-fat arm. ‘Shh.’
And there’s that stutter again. ‘W-w-we—’
‘It’s like a muzzle,’ Jimmy’s kindergarten teacher said to Mum last week at pick-up time. ‘It stops him getting his words out.’
‘Oh?’ Mum had that dead-fish look she gets when she doesn’t like someone. ‘A muzzle.’
‘Yes, Jimmy needs speech therapy. Some help before it leads to—’ Mrs Wright’s eyes searched the ceiling, ‘bigger problems.’
When the gate snapped shut behind us, Mum pulled Jimmy close. ‘And who’s going to pay for that? Talking lessons?’ She jerked his little arm. ‘Father Christmas?’
‘No one there, Bea,’ Mum says, crossing her arms. ‘So Jimmy, you were saying?’
‘M-mum,’ Jimmy winds up, the words doing battle in his throat.
‘Spit it out, Jimbo-man.’
When we’re back in our room, I’ll remind him what Dad tells us to say – but right now I break into a pirouette. Mum watches, distracted. Works every time.
‘We went to the park,’ I sing, drowning out Jimmy’s sputtering. I spin on one leg, arms curved like the ballerina who danced in the school hall for ‘Culture Week’.
Mum screws up her eyes. ‘Which park?’
‘The St Kilda one.’
‘So not the pokies then?’ she says. ‘You’d tell me, wouldn’t you?’
I fling myself forward into a handstand, scissor my legs. From upside down, I look at anything but Mum.
Once the sun sets, the neighbours in the flat opposite start rapping on their balcony. When it wakes Jimmy, Mum goes onto ours and hurls her empty wine cask at them. That’s when it really takes off. It’s like watching ping-pong, but scary.
‘You’re a joke lady,’ the skinny guy says, ripping his shirt off. ‘Why don’t show us what you got?’
‘Sure,’ she says, tapping ash from the end of her cigarette. ‘You piece of—’
‘Come inside Mum,’ I call.
Then the guy with the snake tattoo calls her the C-word and Mum drops the F-bomb so I grab a handful of dressing gown and drag her back inside. Mum has a sway up from the vino so I duck in case she swings at me. She does that since Dad left.
‘Your Mum doesn’t mean it’, Nana tells me over the phone. ‘It’s just the grog talking.’
Tomorrow night, it’ll be the same. It’s like Mum and the blokes look forward to it. Maybe she just misses fighting with Dad.
It’s Saturday morning. I sit on the kitchen stool waiting. Dad’s late, like last week. I pick out the green Froot Loops – line them up on the bench, one by one.
When I go to wake Mum, she’s propped against her pillows with her sunglasses on. ‘Don’t open the blinds,’ she says, her face whiter than Jimmy’s glass of milk.
She comes out wearing the satin robe she bought in Bali before we were born. Its peach-and-pink flowers used to be shiny bright; now they’re the same colour as the canned tuna we have on Wednesday nights when she goes to Bingo. She stands by the front window, yawning, watching for Dad’s Holden. Drops a couple of Aspro into a glass of water. The tablets fizz.
Her yawn sets me off. All I want is to sneak back to bed with my book – but it’s ‘Dad’s day’.
Bet Mum will be back in bed before we’ve even driven off.
A car toots; two weak beeps like a sick duck. It’s not the Dixie-horn honk of Dad’s Holden – and it’s not his car. This one’s orange and is coughing black guck.
Dad waves; Jimmy and I run down the steps to save him coming up. If he does, he and Mum either argue or don’t speak. I carry the box of Barbecue Shapes Mum always sends – ever since she asked what Dad gave us for lunch and Jimmy jabbered Chupa Chups before I could cut him off.
‘Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do,’ Mum calls through the screen door, sort of joking, sort of serious. How would I know what Mum would or wouldn’t do?
The car door has a big dint and it sticks, so I yank hard and Jimmy and I pile in. I stretch the frayed seatbelt over Jimmy’s chest, tight across his favourite jumper, the red woolly one Mum pinched from the charity shop. He rests his sticky-with-cereal hand in mine.
‘Where’s your car, Dad?’ I ask the back of his neck.
‘Dad, this yours?’
It’s like he’s deaf.
‘We’ll go to the park,’ he says.
Jimmy’s face lights up. He doesn’t care Dad left us there on our own once. Waved Smarties at us when he came back, Promise you won’t tell Mum?
‘But on the way home.’
‘Can’t we go now?’ I say whisper-sweet, so as not to fire him up. ‘Last week we were too late.’
‘Don’t nag, Bea, or we won’t go at all.’ He jerks the rear vision mirror left, right. ‘You sound like your mother.’
I change the topic. ‘Did your car conk out again?’
Dad’s eyes narrow. ‘Nuh,’ he says. ‘Got towed.’
‘Who towed it?’
‘Some Nazi parking moron.’
‘Council pound,’ he says, his cheek twitching. ‘And they charge a bucket-load of cash to give it back.’
I try to open the window but the winder-thing spins in my hand. ‘So whose car is this?’
‘You ask a lot of questions,’ he says. ‘Belongs to a mate.’
Before Dad left, his mates used to drop over for a beer. Simmo drove a ute with his plumbing gear in the back and Ferret rode a motorbike. This car has a sparkly silver shoe hanging from the mirror. On the dashboard, there’s a fuzzy pink cat with a wobbly head.
We drive towards the far-away city, skyscrapers zig-zagged against the sky. Dad fiddles with the mirror again, checking his reflection. Digs at his teeth with a thumbnail. ‘Looking good,’ he says to the mirror.
On High Street we get stuck behind a tram.
‘Move it, why don’t you?’ Dad hollers.
I watch people get on and off. Stroll the pavement. At café tables kids sip smoothies through stripey straws while their mums and dads chat over coffee. Maybe one day we could do that – but it’s Saturday and Dad won’t stop. We don’t ask anymore.
‘Look!’ Jimmy points, the stutter gone for a moment.
There’s a boy on a scooter, his little dog straining on the leash. It looks funny, like a cartoon.
‘Answer your effing phone, ring effing ring…’ Dad’s phone sounds with its stupid Chopper ringtone.
‘Don’t answer!’ I shout. ‘You’ll get a fine.’
He pulls out his phone and squints at the screen.
A woman’s voice, muffled. I tap Dad on the shoulder. ‘Is that Mum?’
‘Shut up,’ he whacks me back-handed. ‘I’m talking.’
‘Give me Mum,’ I make a grab. ‘I forgot to tell her something.’
‘Bloody hell,’ Dad says. ‘Sit back.’
‘Tell Mum,’ I tap his arm. ‘Jimmy wet his bed. The sheets need changing.’
‘Ha-ha, sexy devil,’ Dad laughs into the phone. ‘You are evil!’
‘E-evil,’ Jimmy chants.
The car jolts forward and there’s a woman on the crossing, bang in front of us.
‘Christ…’ Dad brakes. The seatbelt cuts into my neck. I topple sideways onto Jimmy, clunk heads. I can’t see the woman, maybe she’s under the car, maybe she’s dead.
Wham. The woman’s back, swinging her shopping bag against the panels. ‘Get off your phone, idiot! You wanna kill someone?’
At least she’s alive.
‘Bitch,’ Dad yells.
He jerks the car forward juggling the phone. ‘Babe, I’ll park and meet you inside.’
‘That wasn’t Mum,’ I say.
‘Correct,’ Dad says, eyes straight ahead.
‘Who was it then?’
Babe. Didn’t sound like a mate.
I flop back against the worn seat-vinyl. Empty Pepsi bottles. Used tissues on the floor.
I rub Jimmy’s shoulder where I landed on him. ‘Itsy Bitsy spider,’ I say, stepping my fingers up his arm. Wait for him to finish the rhyme.
He stares at his arm, silent.
‘Damn,’ Dad says, resting his hands on the steering wheel. The empty lot where we always park has a new cyclone fence around it and a giant crane pokes up. We crawl past.
The letters ‘CASINO’ glitter gold, jumbo-size. I point to a neon sign flashing green: ‘CARPARK OPEN 24 HOURS’. Dad parked there once but Security spotted Jimmy and I, and searched for Dad inside and he got into trouble. ‘Dad, park in there, just today?’
‘Nuh,’ he says, swinging a U-turn. ‘It’s a rip-off.’
He darts down side streets, stop-start, eyes flitting.
‘Can’t we come in with you?’
‘No,’ he says, turning into a lane. ‘Kids aren’t allowed. You know that.’ We bounce along bluestone cobbles. ‘You two wait in the car, nothing different.’
Barbed wire. Graffiti-ed bins. A sign, ‘No Parking’, in red.
Dad clicks off the engine and gets out. ‘There, fresh air,’ he says through the crack of open window. ‘Bring you back some treats, I promise.’
‘We’re too far from the pokies,’ I say, my face squished against the glass.
‘Princess, it’s real close.’ He crouches to lock us in and the key spins.
‘Won’t it lock?’
‘Nup.’ He stares at the key. ‘Okay, so just stay inside and keep the doors shut.’
‘I’ll be back in an hour,’ he calls over his shoulder. ‘With hot chips and Fanta.’
It’s never an hour.
The sun sinks below the fence-tops, it’s cold in the car. Too dark too, to go to the park on the way home. Dad’s never this late.
Mum’ll be waiting, television on, chicken nuggets in the oven. I dab Jimmy’s cheeks.
‘Don’t cry buddy,’ I say. ‘Dad’s out winning the jackpot.’
‘D-dad says, d-don’t tell.’
‘That’s right,’ I say. ‘It’s a surprise for Mum.’ I pass him Barbeque Shapes, one at a time. ‘Dad’s going to buy us a mansion.’
Jimmy lies flat, his head on my lap.
‘A mansion,’ I say, ‘with your own jungle bedroom.’ I stroke his head, go on. ‘Your own puppy. A barbecue where Dad can cook us sausages – and a pool for Mum. We’ll float on blow-up chairs and sip smoothies through stripey straws…’
Through the fogged-up windscreen I make out the shape of Dad, swaying and stumbling through the gloom. I try to guess if he’s won this time, try to see if he’s got the chips and the Fanta, but it’s too dark.
‘Hey, Jimbo.’ I prod him gently. ‘Dad’s back, we’re going home.’ He snoozes on.
There’s a cough from the shadows.
The handle of the car door twists and the night rushes in, the reek of booze with it.
Cigarette breath warm on my face, cool fingers on my wrist.
But it’s not Dad.