The only black Martha owned was her hospitality gear. She didn’t like the thought of looking like a waitress at her grandfather’s funeral, but at least it was appropriately sober.

She realised this on the morning of the funeral, fifteen minutes before Russ was due to pick her up. Rudd and Gillard had disappeared into the party room. Martha stood in front of the TV, playing the iron over her slacks and last night’s black collared blouse. The heat released her odour from the seams under the arms. Martha pulled on the slacks and tucked in the blouse; she sprayed herself with Rexona. The reporters were still waiting when she came back to the living room. This would happen today of all days. There was a beep outside and Martha shut off the television.

Russ had inherited Pop’s car when he could no longer drive it, an old blue Ford. Russ had kept it the same – the beaded seat covers, the black box of cassettes – and stepping in, Martha felt a powerful sense of nostalgia. Russ actually looked good – his face was less masklike than usual. He looked almost cheerful.

“You’re having a good day,” Martha said.

“I decided something,” Russ replied. He looked at her sidelong. Her problems with Mum had put some distance between them – Russ always took Mum’s side – but she hadn’t lost her knack for reading him. “I don’t want to say too much,” he said.

Martha reached for the radio. “Are you listening to the news? The vote’s happening this morning.”

“Leave it,” Russ said. “It’s Pop’s day.”

Martha leaned back in her seat. “You’re right.” She reached down and felt the nap of the seat fabric. “I’m glad we’re going in this. It still smells like him, you know.”

“I found one of his shopping lists in the boot the other day.”

“How’s Mum doing?”

“You know. Too busy to feel anything yet.” He looked at her again. “You have to be nice to her today.”

“Fuck. You make me sound awful.”

“I’m not taking sides. It’s her dad, though – you know?”

“Sure,” Martha said. “Have you changed medications or something? Whatever it is, it’s working.”

“I’ve gone off them, actually.”

Martha stared at her brother. “Fuck, Russ, that’s… How long?”

“About a fortnight ago.”

“What does the doctor say? Does she even know?”

“I shouldn’t have told you.”

“You know how dangerous that can be!”

“To me it’s taking control. I’m sick of being under the influence.”

“I don’t want to fight. Jesus.” She offered up a silent apology for taking His name in vain.

They passed Long Bay on the left. There was a hospital out this way too, and it had become confused with the prison in Martha’s mind. Pop recuperated there after his open heart surgery, and it seemed to her when they passed through the grim arch over the driveway and located him in a low flat block that he was in prison. He had suffered a lot of confinement; in hospitals and nursing homes, in discussions of how best to handle him. No wonder he was so cussed at the end; bad temper allowed him some measure of freedom.

“We used to come this way to La Perouse,” Russ said. “Remember?”

“It’s not much of a beach, really,” Martha replied.

“It was our beach,” Russ said. “And the causeway to the fort.”

“It’s right here.”


“The cemetery,” Martha said, pointing across the dashboard. “We’ve been there often enough.”

Russ braked and reversed back to the turn. He grimaced as he put the car in gear.

“I’m sorry,” Martha said. “You missed it, that’s all.”

“Don’t worry about it.”

Russ made the turn. There was an abrupt shift in the landscape; sparse scrub replaced by the minutely tended grounds of the cemetery. There were fountains and perfect circles of lawn and flowers blue-tacked to memorial plaques; cars gave way at roundabouts and rolled into their spaces, gleaming in the sun. It was a vibrant garden of death, set down in the sand dunes.

Russ was still tense behind the wheel. “Are you alright?” Martha asked. “We can take a minute.”

“I’m fine,” Russ said. He parked and shut off the engine. “Like you said – it’s familiar ground.” He opened the door. “Come on.”

Mum stood with a crowd of relatives and her friend Bea. Bea was dressed to stand out, in an embroidered coat with padded shoulders. She was Mum’s great pal: they’d finish a six-pack of wine coolers together and then lay in bed, talking long into the night. She’d tried to make friends of them too when she and Russ were teenagers, hoping to carry intelligence back to their mother: Martha had rebuffed her as the spy she was. Still she was angling for inclusion in the family.

Bea waved to them now, putting her hand on Mum’s shoulder.

“Here we go,” Martha muttered.

Russ squeezed her hand. “Be good, now,” he said.

Russ stepped over the hedge lining the parking lot, and Martha followed behind. Mum stepped forward to greet them. She embraced Russ as though she had not already seen him that morning. Then it was Martha’s turn, a performance of warmth that set her on edge. She hadn’t seen Terry in six months, and here she was pretending everything was fine.

“I’m glad you’re here, darling,” Terry whispered. She turned to find Russ and took him under her other arm. “My twinset together again,” she said to the assembled crowd. “I don’t know what I’d do without them.”

Bea had her phone out and wanted to take a photo. Martha glared at her. “How about a smile, lovey?” Bea ventured.

“It’s a funeral, Bea,” Martha said. “It’s really not appropriate.”

“It’s just so rare to see the three of you together,” Bea said.

Martha pulled free of her mother’s arm. “I have to go to the toilet,” she said.

“It’s around the other side,” Terry said. “Don’t be too long. It’s about to start any minute.”

Martha stalked off across the lawn. She knew how it must look to the relatives – what a brat she must seem. Terry could have that prize, the pity of her aunts and cousins. Her mother loved cutting a figure.

She flung open the bathroom door and banged into a cubicle. She flipped down the toilet seat and sat, feeling through her handbag. It wasn’t a good idea – not when she was already so agitated – but Martha pulled out the bag of speed regardless. She wet the tip of one finger and dipped it as if it were sherbet, feeling it melt on her tongue. She pushed the cubicle door with one foot, enjoying the noise as it shut and fell open. Someone was listening to a transistor radio outside: the PM and his colleagues were still locked in together. The door swung back and Bea was standing there.

“What are you doing?” Bea asked. “Are you taking drugs?”

“Oh, shut up,” Martha said.

“The service is about to start,” said Bea. “Your mother asked me to get you.”

“Well, mission accomplished,” Martha said. She pushed past Bea and out into the sunlight.

She had to pull it together. It was a gardener with the radio: he had it propped up beside him while he worked on a bed. He saw her looking and smiled.

“No news yet,” he said.

Martha smiled in return and hurried around the building.

Myrtle’s daughter was helping her out of a car. Martha walked towards them.

“Steady on, Priss,” Myrtle said. Cigarettes had left her with a violent cough and a harsh, rasping voice.

Martha saw rather than heard Priscilla’s patient reply. She was a meek dumpling of a woman who’d never escaped the family atmosphere.

“Are you sure this is the place?” Myrtle asked. Her stoop was becoming more and more pronounced: even out of the car her head was bent as if to avoid a ceiling. “I still can’t believe it. We ought to be in a church.”

“Don’t take on, Mum,” Priscilla said. “This is what Des wanted.”

“He was baptised and confirmed, same as me,” Myrtle said. “He belongs in a church, not a crematorium.”

Myrtle was Pop’s sister and the family drunk. Their visits to her house always began the same way: Martha and Russ sat in the car while Terry went inside to see what state she was in. Myrtle’s husband was alive then and they sat in the kitchen with their respective poisons – whiskey for him, some sweet liqueur for Myrtle. Terry put the bottles away and then, if she’d found them sober, the children were allowed inside. Martha was fascinated by that dim house – its drawn double curtains, the damp smell of the wallpaper, the lingering smoke of the fags. Jesus and Mary were everywhere: lined up on the sideboard, framed on the walls. The place had the tang of bad magic. Somehow time had been yellowed and stilled.

Sometimes Myrtle would corner her in a bedroom and interrogate her. She wanted to know what Terry had said about her Auntie. Martha looked forward to these whispered conferences: there was something thrilling about being drawn into league with this crone.

“Hello, Auntie,” Martha said. She smiled at Priscilla.

“Martha, love,” Myrtle said. “Where’s your mother?”

“We’re about to go in,” Martha said. “Do you need a hand walking?”

“Aren’t you a doll? You can take my other arm, here.”

Martha took her elbow and the three of them shuffled towards the chapel.

“What do you think about this crematorium business?” Myrtle asked her. “It doesn’t sit right with me.”

“Pop left the church,” Martha said. “After Uncle Paddy died.”

“Yes, well, that was a terrible thing. Do you still go to Mass?”

“It’s been a while.”

“It’s different with you young ones,” Myrtle said. “I just hope it doesn’t count against him.”

“None of that, Mum,” Priscilla said. “You’ll upset Terry.”

Most of the mourners had gone inside. Terry was standing out the front with Russ and Bea and a man Martha didn’t recognise. He had a perfect head of hair and skin that had resisted a fake tan, dotted with stubborn flecks of white. He looked like a cheesy nightclub performer.

“I know it’s a bit rushed,” he said to Terry. “But it’s the only way we can fit everyone in.”

“What’s up, Mum?” Martha said.

“We go out through the other door,” Terry said. “There’s another funeral right after ours.”

Myrtle clucked under her breath, and Priscilla stiffened beside her. The old woman held her tongue.

“It’s good of you to help Myrtle, darling,” Terry told Martha. “How are you, Priss?”

“Soldiering on,” said Priscilla. “I’m sorry about Des.”

“It’s a blessing, really,” Terry said. “Somewhere he’s whole and himself again.”

“Is everyone here?” the funeral man asked. “We really should get started.”

“Are you ready, lovey?” Bea asked. She took Terry’s hand.

“I’d like you to sit with us,” Terry told Martha. “They’ve reserved the front pew.”

“You go ahead,” Martha said. “I’ll help Auntie Myrtle.”

Russ looked at Martha – with relief, she thought, at her change in demeanour. They went in procession – Terry and Bea, then Russ, then Myrtle and her helpers. The funeral man brought up the rear; when they were all inside he closed the doors against latecomers.

The chapel was carefully nondescript, with blonde brick walls and windows in lolly pink and blue. The coffin sat on a conveyor belt, like a neglected piece of luggage. The belt ended in a pair of green velvet curtains. Martha wondered if they concealed the oven that would reduce her grandfather to ashes.

There were plenty of gaps on the pews. Priscilla led her mother towards a spot on the aisle, towards the back.

“Closer, closer,” Myrtle said.

Terry and Bea stood before the casket. Terry reached out and stroked the flowers piled on its lid.

“All right, Mum, this will do,” Priscilla said, stopping three pews from the front. “I can handle her now,” she told Martha.

Martha approached the body in the box. Russ had seen him in the flesh, at the nursing home: his chest was still warm to the touch. This coffin seemed more like a symbol than a fact. Martha scuttled sideways, afraid to come too close. She sat down beside Russ.

The funeral man had taken his place at the pulpit. He obviously lived for these moments of performance. His voice was deep and rich, with the mellifluous roll of a man in love with his own powers of oratory.

“We’re gathered here today to celebrate Desmond Patrick Bradley, or as he was better known, Des. Today we are preoccupied by sadness, but even in our grief we should remember that Des led a meaningful life. He loved and was loved. Though his life was touched by loss, his daughter Therese was a great joy to him, and he was surrounded by friends and family.”

The man was pouring it like balm over them. Everything he said was true, but somehow he made it sound false. Martha bristled at the euphemistic mention of Nan and Uncle Paddy. She looked to see if Mum and Russ felt the same way. Terry sobbed quietly. Russ kept his eyes ahead, refusing to meet her gaze. He seemed absorbed by the particulars of this weird place – the two sets of doors, the conveyor belt, the curtains. She snaked her fingers amongst his, and he gave them a squeeze.

“Des was a very great fan of Nat King Cole, and we’re going to play one of his songs now. As you listen, take a moment to reflect on Des, and why he was “Unforgettable”.”

Terry made a sound like a stifled cough. She’d been through a lot with Pop. As the only living child, the care of him had fallen to her as he marched into dementia. Pop didn’t lose his grip so much as embrace unreason. He plunged into it so determinedly that it seemed a repudiation of the years he held the family together. It frightened Martha and so she stayed away. Her mother didn’t have that luxury. Terry had kept him in his house for as long as she could, organising nurses and cleaners and Meals on Wheels. She had done this despite his increasingly foul temper. Sometimes he was violent with her. Martha looked at Terry ruefully. She had not given her enough credit for that.

She was finding it hard to sit still; one foot tapped uncontrollably. Her eyes stretched wide, as if she were putting in lenses. It was the speed; its force had nowhere to go.

“And now the time comes to say goodbye to Des,” said the funeral man. “He will live on forever in our memories.”

The conveyor belt started with a jolt, and the coffin rolled towards the curtains. This little bit of theatre was unbearable to Martha. She felt like screaming. Sensing this, Russ gripped her hand.

The box passed through the curtains and, on cue, the side doors of the chapel swung open. Terry rose and her children followed suit.

“Oh, my darlings,” Terry said, gathering them close. “I love you so much.”

“I love you too,” Russ said. Pushing past her discomfort, Martha put an arm around her mother. Bea followed behind with a hand on Terry’s shoulder. Martha realised she was crying.

They moved off as a group to the side. To the relatives watching they were a family united by grief.

The edifice came apart outside; the closeness made them wary. Terry was surrounded by people waiting to express their sympathy. Russ moved off towards the Catholic section and Martha followed. It was a relief to be mobile again. Soon they were standing at the family plot.

An angel topped Nan’s marker; Uncle Paddy had a plaque mounted on a block of granite. The one was raised in tribute to a wife and mother; the other was inconspicuous – perhaps out of exhaustion, perhaps to avoid drawing attention to a source of family shame. They had died only a year apart.

“It’s so fucking sad,” Russ said.

“Which part?” Martha replied.

“Sometimes I think we’re all doomed. I mean, Myrtle’s only alive because she’s pickled her insides. We’re not meant for this world. We all seem to end badly.”

“She’s a museum piece, for sure. But that’s history, Russ. We’re not the same as them.”

“Nan, dead at forty from cancer. And Paddy was the same age as us when he… Pop losing his mind. Tragedies all round.”

“That’s why Mum named us. We were life after death.”

“She never got round to having a Mary. Maybe that’s why it won’t take.”

“But you’re doing better now, aren’t you?” Martha put a hand on Russ’ back. “Are you alright?”

“It seems very close today. The truth of things.” Russ looked at her. “I should go back. Make myself useful.”

He left Martha at the graves. Long black stains ran down the statue’s cheeks and gown: the angel had been bruised by rain and time. Soon Pop would be here too, an urn of ashes in the lap of a skeleton. Martha shivered. She was too susceptible to Russ’ view of things. His manner worried her. Despite the surface animation, he was still sad and inert. He was putting on a show: it was like that stupid advice to put your face in the shape of a smile.

He was right though about Paddy and Nan. Their deaths were decisive for all of them. Her mother’s life became a tale of endurance: the hand of God or fate forever poised to deal out further misfortune. Martha rebelled against this fatalism. There was a sort of pride in it, in exceptional suffering. Now Russ voiced it as well. It came from living at home: Terry’s influence on him was too strong. If he wasn’t careful he’d turn out like Priscilla.

In a way, Pop’s death was an opportunity, the end of a cycle of loss that began thirty-five years ago. It was a pity no one else saw it that way.

Martha remembered the PM. She looked through her bag, meaning to check the news on her phone: it wasn’t there. She must have left it at home. She’d insist on the radio on the way to Pop’s place.

She started back to the chapel. The crowd had dispersed; Terry and Bea were standing alone. It was a wonder her mother hadn’t sent Bea after her.

“Are you ready to go, darling?” Terry asked.

“Where’s Russ?” Martha countered.

“He’s gone to pick up the cakes,” Terry said. “You can ride with us.”

“He shouldn’t be on his own,” Martha said. “I don’t like the way he’s talking.”

“He’s doing much better. You’re not around to see it, but he is. He’s bright and engaged with things. Isn’t he, Bea?”

“There is a difference,” Bea said.

“We went to see Nan,” Martha said. “And Uncle Paddy. He was really intense about it.”

“We all feel things differently. And he’s at home, where I can keep an eye on him.”

“He’s off his medication. Did you know that?”

“He has to make his own decisions.” Terry looked hard at Martha and flexed one hand. “I’m getting the headstone cleaned,” she said eventually. “The man said he could do it when he adds Dad on.”

“It’s looking a bit discoloured,” Martha said. She could hear music inside the chapel: it sounded like Bette Midler.

Bea looked around. “We’d better get a move on,” she said. “Everyone will be there by now.”

They walked to Terry’s car. Bea sat beside Terry, Martha in the backseat. As they pulled out, a fresh crowd of mourners spilled out of the chapel.

“It was a lovely service,” said Bea. “I thought he spoke very well.”

“He was phony,” Martha said. “He probably has a standard speech with gaps for the dead person’s name.”

“Cynicism doesn’t suit you,” Terry said, looking in the rearview mirror.

“He sounded like a radio announcer. Can we put the radio on, actually? I want to hear what happened with Rudd and Gillard.”

“I don’t want to know about that mess. That’s what you get for voting Labor.”

“I suppose you’d rather have Tony Abbott,” Martha said.

“I don’t think he’s so bad. He’s Catholic.”

“That’s a sure mark of good character.” Martha looked out the window. She’d spent her childhood cooped up in the back, in her mother’s bad graces. It was better not to speak.

They were in Maroubra now: a world of brown-brick bungalows, the yards concreted over. Outside it was all harsh clarity, succulents in heavy pots; the interiors dim caves of Catholic or Orthodox faith. They lived with Pop for a while, after the divorce, in a house much like these. It felt like Purgatory, Terry making atonement for her sins. Martha remembered her guilty relief when they finally moved out, at the escape they were making. It left its mark on you, this part of town – it left you feeling exposed and full of shadows.

“Doesn’t Myrtle look old?” Bea said, making conversation.

“Thank goodness she behaved herself,” Terry replied.

“It’s being off the turps.”

“It was about time Priss stepped in.”

“What do you mean, Mum?” Martha asked.

“She’s cut off her supply. Won’t buy it for her.”

“But what does Myrtle do now? I mean, that’s what she does.”

“I might have known you’d be on the side of the drunks,” said Terry.

“Get off your horse, Mum.”

The car ground to a halt. Bea stiffened in the passenger seat. Terry clutched the wheel. “What did you say?”

Martha was spoiling for a fight. “She likes a drink. So what? Your life’s not so great.”

“You’re riding in my car…”

“I’m not five, Mum.”

“… and while you’re riding in my car you will treat me with respect. Or you can walk.”

“Drive,” Martha said. “The sooner this is over, the sooner we can go back to not speaking.”

Bea put a hand on Terry’s knee. Terry gripped the stick and put the car in gear. She spoke to no one in particular now; it was one of her arias of complaint.

“Such feelings she has for everyone but her mother. Such concern for the plight of an old drunk, but her grandfather passes away and there’s nothing – no offer of support, no sign that she cares. She doesn’t care. The truth is she’s a selfish little bitch, and she doesn’t give a damn about me or Dad or anyone.”

“She loves you, Terry, of course she does,” Bea said, seeking Martha’s eyes in the rearview mirror.

“No, she doesn’t,” Terry said, dragging a wrist across one cheek. “Not in any way that counts.”

Martha didn’t contradict her. She was out the moment the car pulled up outside Pop’s, slamming the door shut behind her. She stalked into the house.

The kitchen was full of women lifting the wrap from salads in bowls. Mum’s cousin Lois had taken charge.

“Can I take anything?” Martha said, loading herself with several bowls.

“There’s a professional on the scene!” Lois said. “Thank goodness. Hang on love, that one still needs tongs.” She rummaged through the drawers. “I should know this kitchen well enough after all these years.” At last she thrust a pair into the salad. “Thanks, love. There’s a table set up near the barbecue.”

Martha swung out of the kitchen. Terry was coming down the hallway. Martha walked out the back and down the steps to the backyard. She stood there, looking out.

A couple of kids – she didn’t know whose – were leading the Hills Hoist around and around. The little basket that hung from the line flung handfuls of pegs onto the lawn. The cumquat tree was in fruit, its foot still lost in a great mass of ivy. Some of the fruit had been crushed into the paths: the cement was stained a sooty orange. Pop had ruled the garden into neat squares of bed and lawn, each enclosed by paths. As children, she and Russ had run themselves ragged taking different routes around the grid. Russ stood now by the barbecue, looking intently at the cooking meat. A couple of elderly men sat together on the covered swing, their heads bent together in conversation. One rocked the swing with a single brown shoe.

Martha deposited the salads and went to check on her brother. He started when she touched his shoulder.

“You’re pretty nervy,” she said.

“You startled me, that’s all.” He turned a steak. “Where’s Mum?”

“The car ride was a disaster. Thanks for abandoning me, by the way.”

“I had to pick up the cakes.” Russ looked at her sideways. “You didn’t stir her up, did you?”

“She was having a go at Auntie Myrtle. I told her to lay off and suddenly I’m her bitch of a daughter. Anyway. There’s more to bring down.”

She turned back to the house. Terry was heading for the barbecue. Taking another path, Martha managed to evade her.

When she came into the kitchen, Myrtle was sitting at the table. The old woman’s eyes lit up.

“You’re here! Take your auntie out on the verandah, won’t you? I’m just taking up space in here.” She looked daggers at Priscilla, who was pulling plates out of the cupboards. “Give me your arm, will you, love?”

With one hand on the table and the other gripping Martha, Myrtle forced herself out of the chair. Martha was glad to leave the fray. She and Myrtle huddled conspiratorially as they walked through the dining room and hall, towards the front of the house.

Martha’s head was buzzing with what had happened in the car. She’d had an opportunity to come back into the fold – to apologise, to say that she loved Terry after all – and she hadn’t fallen for it. It felt different to their other squabbles: she was a satellite pulled free of its planet and could drift through space as she pleased.

They stepped onto the verandah. It stuck out into the garden, a brown brick apron: through a pair of sliding windows you could see Pop’s line of azaleas. A couple of worn armchairs sat there companionably, upholstered in coarse brown and white thread. Martha helped the old woman into a chair.

“Do us a favour, love,” Myrtle said. “Go get us a bottle out of the cabinet. Something sweet.”

“You’re not allowed, Auntie. Mum said.”

“You’re not on their side. If I can’t have a drink at my own brother’s wake then things have come to a lousy pass.”

She was right; Martha had no reason to enforce their rules. “All right,” Martha said. “I’ll see what I can do.”

She stole down the hallway to the dining room. The kitchen was noisy with women’s chatter and the opening and closing of drawers. No one had noticed her return.

The dining room was special, reserved for birthdays and Christmas lunch. A display cabinet took up one whole wall. It was a glamorous piece of furniture, backed with a mirror tinged the colour of diluted blood. At the press of a switch, lights came on inside and its contents – the figurines and cut glass and Pop’s liquor collection – were honoured like actors. Martha stood before it as a child, cutting the lights on and off, sure she see the things move between the intervals of light and darkness.

Everything in this house was like that, stuffed with associations: press it even slightly and it disgorged a confusing wealth of memories.

Quietly, Martha opened the cupboard and pulled out a bottle of Franjelico. She snuck back to the front.

“Aren’t you a treasure?” Myrtle said. “Sit down and we’ll pass it around.” She unscrewed the cap and held up the bottle in salute. “To Des – poor, soft Des.” She took a swig and held out the bottle to Martha. “Go on – have some.”

“What do you mean, soft?” Martha asked.

“He gave in. It was a hard thing, losing Mary and Patrick so close, but hard things happen to all of us. He rolled over after that. Went soft.” Myrtle proffered the bottle again. “Have a swig. It’s no fun drinking alone.”

Martha took the bottle and tilted it back. It was too sweet to drink neat like this.

“That’s more like it. Pass it back, now.” Myrtle swallowed again. “People get in such knots about the dead. Soon you can’t see straight, or call things what they are. Like that big-voiced nothing at the cemetery. That celebrant.” She made it sound like a term of abuse. “He had no right to officiate. Here, love, have another.”

It wasn’t so bad this time. It smoothed the sharp elbows of her nerves; Martha relaxed into the armchair. “How are you, Auntie Em? I mean, really. Mum told me about Priss.”

“What about her?” Myrtle eyed her suspiciously.

“That she’s not letting you drink.”

“Oh, there are ways around that. Kind souls like yourself. And Priss isn’t the sharpest tool in the shed. If you manage to live as long as I have I think you’ve earned the right to do exactly as you please.”

“That’s what I told Mum.”

“She seems very interested for someone who visits as seldom as she does. She always was high-handed, that one. A gossip, too.”

Martha did not disagree. They were almost through the bottle now.

“There’s something that’s been bothering me,” Myrtle said. “Would you indulge me, pet? I’d like to say a prayer for Des.”

The request took Martha by surprise. “That’d be nice,” she slurred, and bowed her head.

“No, I want to do this properly,” Myrtle said. “You should kneel when you pray.”

“Are you sure that’s a good idea? You’re pretty stiff, Auntie.”

“Just help me up.” Myrtle was already trying to force herself out of the chair. Martha gripped her behind the elbow and helped her up. She rose halfway and stopped; Martha could smell urine. The old woman subsided, her mouth set.

“Damn bladder,” she said. “Get Priss, would you?”

“I can help you to the loo…”

“I said get Priss.” Myrtle shifted uncomfortably. “Take the bottle with you.”

Martha fled into the house, the bottle grasped in one hand. The smell of urine followed her.

She was in the shit now. What could she tell Priss – that she’d gotten her mother pissed, and now she’d pissed herself? She had to get rid of the bottle. It was almost empty now, anyway: Martha shut herself in the bathroom and drank the rest down. She stuffed the bottle in the little bin beside the toilet.

She opened the bathroom door. The kitchen was quiet. She stole into the dining room and stopped again. She found herself looking at the family photo. It hung in pride of place, on the wall above the sideboard. It was a studio portrait, taken after the divorce: Terry’s family proudly intact. Mum had it copied in various sizes and handed it out to all the relatives. Growing up it was like a bus stop ad: Martha never knew when she might encounter it, mounted on a cardboard backing, sometimes in a frame. It made her feel uneasy, almost famous, the way her image preceded her everywhere.

In the photo Terry wore a blue and white scarf, her cheeks vivid with powder. Martha and Russ looked almost identical. Some twins fought their resemblance, but Martha identified so much with her brother that she fought to perfect it. She insisted on the same haircut as Russ, and it worked – in the photo she looked like a boy. Pop closed out the group in his best brown suit, his hands on Terry’s shoulders. In the father’s position.

She had to get out of here. There was a gate at the side of the house: if she was careful she could leave without talking to anyone. Myrtle was not her responsibility. Priss would find her soon enough.

Someone had left the TV on in the kitchen, the sound turned down. Rudd was speaking at a lectern, his expression pained, his family ranged around him. He must have lost, then. Martha thought he might be crying.

The kitchen was desolate without the busy crowd of women. This was its condition now. Pop’s death was the end of her involvement with these people. Pop was the family axis, the one who organised the barbecues. Now there was no one to hold them together. She didn’t care enough about them to feel this as a loss. They were stunted – bereft and dysfunctional – and Martha wanted nothing to do with them. She could press onward to places and people that didn’t make her sick with ambivalence. She could move.

Myrtle was calling for Priss from the front. Martha gathered up the bags of rubbish: that would be her cover. She rescued the Franjelico bottle from the bathroom and stuffed it into a bag. She caught herself in the mirror in her waitress black: she might as well be at work.

She walked down the back steps. The family was gathered around the barbecue, bent over their plates. Martha skirted the house, hoisting the bags as she went. Russ looked up and met her eye. His face fell, as if he knew what she was up to.

“I’m sorry, Russ,” Martha said, under her breath. He would have to fend for himself.

She let herself out through the side gate and dumped the bags in the bin outside. Already the house seemed like a separate kingdom, separate and enclosed. She had escaped. Martha walked to the shops, wondering how long she’d have to wait for a bus.