Content Notes for I Can’t Talk About That are available.
30 July 2000
Scott and I are baking a cake. I’d never made a cake before and Scott said he had but when he told me about it I think perhaps his mum had made the cake and he had only sort of helped. Gillian has plenty of recipe books, I’m good at reading instructions and Scott is enthusiastic about carrying them out so I’m optimistic that between us we’ll be able to manage something edible.
“Any ideas on what we can get you for your birthday, Scott?” Gillian had asked earlier.
“It’s Mani’s birthday, not mine…” said Scott.
“It’s your birthday in a few days,” I pointed out.
“I guess so. It’s fine don’t worry about it,” Scott said.
Scott says he doesn’t care about his birthday but I’m not sure if that’s true or if he’s just saying it. I can usually tell with Scott. But not always. I don’t particularly care about my birthday. My birthday is also Michelle’s birthday and you might think that sharing a birthday would mean that I could allow all of the attention to fall on her instead of me but unfortunately people often feel compelled to even things out.
“How are you only turning seventeen?” Michelle asked. It’s rare for her to spend time outside of her bedroom these days and I want it to be nice to see her because she is my sister and I am supposed to love her. And I do. But something between us broke that night at Tamika Wood’s Birthday Party and a year (and nine months) later I don’t know if it can ever be repaired.
“Because he was sixteen last year and that’s how time works,” I said.
“Yeah but how were you in our year at school? You must be more than a whole year younger than half the people in our year.”
“Scott skipped a year because he’s basically a genius,” I said.
“That’s not true,” he said, “I mean they did put me up a year in primary school but I think it was just because I was really annoying and they thought maybe if I had harder work to do I wouldn’t piss people off so much. I don’t think it worked though. I was still really annoying. Alan Sebastian is a genius, I’m just …irritating.”
“Well I guess you’re stuck here for another year,” said Michelle.
I don’t like to think that Scott is only here because he has to be. Would he leave, if he could? If he didn’t have Mani? He wouldn’t leave his son. But if Michelle had never gotten pregnant and Mani had never been born… everything would be so different from the way it is that it’s useless to think about.
He might leave me though, I suppose. Whatever we have between us has a time limit because Scott still thinks he ought to marry Michelle. He’s stopped mentioning it because it made Michelle too angry but I know he still thinks it.
Eventually we decided that Scott could share Mani’s birthday celebration on the grounds that Mani is probably too small to appreciate that it’s his birthday in the first place.
So Scott and I are baking a cake. Scott is doing most of the work and I’m trying to keep him on task and contain most of the mess to one area. I’d offered to clean up afterward but the dishes keep piling up, and they’re large bowls and things that don’t stack neatly the way I like to organise things before I start.
“My Mum used to make me great birthday cakes,” Scott says, “she always talked about doing something really cool but I could never decide what I wanted in time so it always ended up sort of a mess. But it was a fun mess. And then eventually I’d find a cake in the Womens Weekly Cookbook and promise that it was absolutely and definitely the one I wanted but we’d always forget about it by the time it was my birthday again so it never really happened.”
“Is that the book with the spider cake?” I ask.
“Yes!” he says. “And a lighthouse with jelly for the water. And a football field with like… coconut for the grass.”
“I think we have that one!” I say and I look through Gillian’s cookbooks until I find it. But they all require too many ingredients we don’t already have. We should have planned it further in advance.
“Maybe next year,” I say. Scott looks sad.
We put the cake in the oven and use our fingers to eat the last of the batter out of the mixing bowl.
“I don’t think you’re supposed to eat raw eggs,” I tell him.
“Actually I think it’s the flour you’re not supposed to eat,” he says, “I mean raw eggs are probably not good but it’s actually more risky to eat raw flour.”
“How do you know that?”
“I dunno. Read it somewhere.”
We eat it anyway. Scott has cake batter on his cheek and on his nose because he can’t stop touching his face. I want to lick it off him and when Scott notices me looking at him he leans in close and kisses me… and now my glasses are sticky and there is flour in Scott’s hair.
I pull away because I hear the front door open and Gillian and Michelle are home. I can’t handle the idea that they might see something so intimate as the way Scott looks at me when we’re alone. And Scott still doesn’t want anyone to know about us. About me. About him.
“Well you’ve certainly ruined my kitchen,” says Gillian.
“At least Alan Sebastian will enjoy doing the dishes,” Michelle rolls her eyes.
But when I look at the sink full of dishes I’m overwhelmed. I do quite enjoy doing the dishes when it’s all the same sorts of things in a row. On a normal evening after dinner I wash all of the glasses, then all of the plates or bowls and then all of the cutlery and then any pots and pans that are left after cooking. Scott dries them and puts them away. There’s a rhythm to it.
But this isn’t that and I try to re-arrange the bowls and spoons and measuring cups to work out where to start.
“I should do the cleanest things first so I don’t have to change the water,” I say.
I want to have a system. An algorithm I can follow. I can feel a sort of bubbling panic in my chest which is silly because it’s only the dishes.
But as usual, somehow, Scott knows the source of my distress and never makes fun of me for it.
“We’ll just do one thing at a time,” he says, “And when the water gets dirty we’ll refill the sink.”
So he washes and I dry. And he doesn’t worry about what order it’s best to wash things in and half the time I have to give them back to him to wash again because they’re not even clean.
It’s not our usual routine but it feels comfortable all the same.
It’s my birthday.
“Do you think you want to go back to school next year?” Alan Sebastian asked me. We finished year eleven last year and everyone was disappointed in Alan Sebastian’s results, especially Alan Sebastian. Nobody was really in a position to care how I’d done but I’d passed all of my exams, somehow. Even though I’d barely shown up to school toward the end.
We were supposed to do year twelve this year. But neither of us had.
Michelle had been determined that having a baby wouldn’t prevent her from finishing school… and since it had become rare for her to show any interest in anything nobody wanted to talk her out of that. So she’d gone to school while Alan Sebastian and I took the year off and we looked after Mani together. I wasn’t sure yet, whether I wanted to go back.
“I dunno,” I told him.
The thing about having a baby is that it’s difficult not to think about the future. A baby won’t be a baby forever. Mani’s a year old and everything I’ve very quickly had to learn about looking after little babies is already out of date. Every time I think we’ve got a handle on things they’re suddenly different. I keep thinking it will get easier. But it’s still hard. It just keeps being hard in different ways.
Right now it’s hard enough I don’t know what to do about later. It’s a looming sort of terror that I can’t escape.
My parents didn’t call me for my birthday. And I didn’t think they would, so I just tried not to care. I don’t want Mani to ever feel that way. I don’t want to pass him off to other people as though he’s some kind of inconvenience to me.
I can’t stay here forever. Gillian isn’t my mother and even though she hasn’t kicked me out yet I somehow feel less secure about my place here the longer it goes on.
I know it was my fault my mother couldn’t keep a boyfriend around. Nobody wanted to act as a father to someone else’s son.
My father’s wife walked out on him, left the kids and everything. And although she’d stayed until their youngest kid was grown up… I think they would probably still be married if my father hadn’t had an affair and knocked up my mum.
So I just can’t help but feel like I’m the common factor. Like I’m the kid who ruins families. I don’t belong in this one and it’s only a matter of time until it all falls apart.
And the more I take from Gillian the more she’ll feel like I owe her and I don’t know if she knows yet that I can’t possibly repay her anything.
I’d told her not to give me anything for my birthday, but she handed me a present anyway.
It’s a photo album. And there’s me. And the two and three and four and five of us.
“I’m glad you’re part of our family, Scott,” she said softly. And I spent a long time thinking about that.
And later I confess to Alan Sebastian just how scared I am. How I know what kind of family I want to provide for Mani. But I don’t know how to get there. Not from here.
“I’ll still be your best friend,” he tells me, “even when you don’t want to do this anymore. I’ll be here.”
“It’s all too much,” I say.
“Just do one thing at a time,” he says.
“In the meantime… it’s your birthday…”
The thing about having a baby is that it’s easy not to think about the future. Everything Mani needs he needs right now. And there’s no time or space to think or plan beyond his immediate needs.
And I don’t know what to do about later. But if I just don’t think about it. If I exist just right here and just right now? I can’t think of anything I’d want to change.
She used to wake me up in the middle of the night sometimes when she couldn’t sleep.
“Are you awake?” she’d ask me. Until I was.
When we were little she’d cuddle with me under the covers. As we got older she’d just sit next to me on top of the doona. Or on the floor next to my bed.
Often she wouldn’t even say anything. Sometimes she’d just cry.
“I don’t need you to say anything,” she’d tell me, “I just want to know that you’re here.”
She hasn’t done that for a long time though.
She can’t I suppose. Scott’s already here.