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It smells like oranges. When you close your eyes, you’re seven years old; it’s summer and you’re back in the Coromandel. Your skin feels warm. You can taste the Rocky Road ice cream that’s running down your chin, and it doesn’t bother you. Rachel is laughing, a wedge of orange hugging her teeth. The sand sticks to your toes and you run, watching the sun dance across the ocean. Mum tells you to not to go out too far as you hit the water – it is cool and inviting. You like the feeling of having it run over your head as you bop up and down; the water tangles your hair. You feel like a mermaid. It makes you think of forks, Ariel combs her hair with one. You use yours for eating though, but you have been trying to grow your hair so that it’s long enough to be mermaid length. It’s a shame it’s not red though, just brown – how boring. Rachel’s the one with red hair – like dad’s – she doesn’t like it though. People at school make fun of her for it, but you think that it’s beautiful.
Rachel joins you as you start hunting for starfish in the rock pools. You squeal in delight as you pick one up and Rachel crosses her arms saying that it’s not fair that you got to find one and that she didn’t. You both take turns stroking it. It’s rougher than you thought it would be but also kind of soft. You’re disappointed because it’s not pink, but you call him Patrick anyway. Mum calls you both over to put sunblock back on. You place Patrick carefully back down, making sure to find the perfect circle rock to place him under. Rachel is racing off ahead, kicking sand up behind her. It looks funny because it’s hitting her on the bum. She turns around and sticks her tongue out, calling you a slowpoke. You know she’s just teasing because you came second in cross country this year, and she always says that second is the first loser. Mum always tells her off when she says that, but it doesn’t stop her from being smug about it.
When you get to Mum she’s packed up her blankets and already tucked them under her arm. She closes her book and keeps her sunglasses on when she talks to you. She doesn’t reapply yours or Rachel’s sunblock and instead wraps a towel around you both, saying that you’re leaving. She doesn’t answer yours or Rachel’s overlapping questions about why Dad isn’t meeting you all at the beach, why you’re leaving so early, and whether or not you’re still be having pizza for dinner. She lets Rachel sit in the front on the way back home, even though it was your turn. Rachel says it’s because she’s the eldest. You sit in the back seat, a towel draped over your chair and one around your waist. The sand is getting annoying as it dries. It sticks everywhere. You shake your head to the side trying to get it out of your ear. Mum tells you to stop being a nuisance and you give up. Resting your head against the window, you start to feel sick.
You open your eyes, frowning. Your tummy is rumbling. It smells like oranges. But you can smell the chemicals, and wonder how the scent of fruit is put into cleaning products. It seems like a strange thing to do, putting the smell of something that you eat, into something that you would die if you drunk. You feel hungry again and wish that you could eat.
Shivering, you regret shrugging off Mum when she told you to bring a jersey. You wrap your arms around yourself tightly, your fingernails digging into your forearms. The lady at the front desk had asked if you wanted Mum to come in as well – and feeling that you ought to be old enough to do it alone – had said that she could wait outside. You start tapping your foot quickly, trying to match the pace of your heartbeat, trying to drown out the sound.
There’s dirt under your fingernails and you wonder how it got there, you had just washed your hands again. You go back into the bathroom shaking as you look into the mirror. You have a mouth, a nose and two eyes. Nothing’s wrong with you. You’re normal. You’re perfectly normal. You scrub each nail carefully, holding your hands under the water. You watch as your hands turn red and the bottom of the mirror starts to fog up. You feel your breathing start to ease and your hands steady. Turning the tap off you dry your hands with the hand dryer. Using the paper towels to clean the mirror, soaked in three pumps of liquid soap and water; you wipe from left to right and do this for three minutes. Throwing away the paper towels, you turn the tap back on. You scrub each nail carefully, and hold your hands under the water. You watch the fog take your reflection away from the mirror, slowing distorting your features. You’re normal. You blink. Normal. You gulp in your breath; tired round eyes stare back at you in the mirror. Maybe you’re not, you think as you dry your hands with the hand dryer and go to turn off the lights holding a paper towel in your hand. You use your elbows to open the door.
You throw the paper towel in the bin at the door, and touch your nose. You sit down on the stool beside the bed this time, and touch your nose again. The sheet is creased; you stand up, and smooth it as a woman walks in. She introduces herself as Denise; you think that this is strange. It’s a strategy, you think; one to make you feel more comfortable. But she greets you, smiling too big, her eyes watching your hands glide across the bed. She nods towards the bed, and tells you to sit down, you prefer to stand, but no, she insists. You sit, your feet dangling your shoes clank together. The sound echoes as you do it a second and a third time. You don’t like the feeling, and cross your legs. She remains standing, writing notes, she writes with her left hand. You feel like a student and she’s the teacher. You can feel your movements create mountains on the sheet, you try to sit how you were when you were alone, it was smoother then.
Denise asks about your day, you shrug, and your eyes fix to the white stain on her collar. Is it toothpaste? You feel your hands start to itch. She wants to ask you some questions; she asks if this is ok. You shrug again, rolling your shoulders back and forth.
She asks how your first year at high school is going. You say that it’s OK. She asks if you’ve made many friends. You think this is rude and don’t know why she thinks that it’s necessary, obviously you’ve made lots of friends. You feel your neck starting to get hot as you cough and then nod, red creeping up your cheeks. You haven’t, but she doesn’t need to know that. She places the clipboard down on the table beside her and leans in close to you. She’s smiling again and it’s all teeth. You lean away from her and start to smooth out the sheet again; she asks if you do this often. You say no, I only go to the doctors when I’m sick. She purses her lips together. I meant smoothing out the sheets honey.
Why did you ask me that?
I’m just curious about you she says slowly. Her eyes calculating as she bares her teeth again. She asks to see your hands. They’re still red from the heat of washing them, you want to hide them but feel that this would make things worse. You place them in her hands; they are cold and smooth. She’s very gentle as she turns your hands over, hmmmm-ing and haaaar-ing. She lets go of your hands and you place them in your lap. She asks if you wash your hands a lot, more than the other kids. I guess, you say, but kids my age aren’t very hygienic. How many times have you washed them since you’ve been waiting?
Denise writes this down on her clipboard. She stops writing, keeping her pen in her hand, and resting her elbow on the clipboard. Do you often have worries, thoughts, concerns or images that bother you? Her eyes – you know – are locked on yours, even though yours are on your hands. You try to swallow the lump stuck in your throat. You’re wondering if she had washed her hands before she touched you – she’s a doctor she should of – she should be clean. But you keep imaging the germs squirming over your skin. Your breathing becomes heavy. She tells you to lean forward, she wants to listen to your heart. She leans in too close. Her breath is in your ear as she asks you to breathe in and out deeply. She says to do it twice, and waits watching you. She then tells you to do it a third time.
You wish that you had let Mum come inside now; it must be cold in the waiting room, and it always smells like old people in there. Denise is asking you questions that you’re not sure how to answer. You nod or shake your head in response, following her lead.
It’s six thirty. Rachel would just be getting home from soccer practice, you used to be in the same club when you were younger, but you don’t play anymore. Rachel has lots of awards, fourteen in total; she won most valuable player two years in a row. Mum thinks that she might get into university on a sports scholarship, you think so too, but don’t tell her that. She doesn’t clean her cleats when she gets home, she leaves them on the floor in the bathroom that you both share. Mum tells you not to clean them because Rachel should learn how to look after herself. But you don’t like the look of the brown and patches of green on top of the orange, you don’t like the contrast to the white floor.
You and Rachel don’t talk much anymore, your conversations held in grunts. She calls you a freak and her friends laugh at you, sometimes they touch their noses or mime washing their hands, and they laugh at you,
and they laugh
and they laugh.
Mum tells you not to pay attention to them, or to Rachel. That it’s just a thing you go through when you grow up. You decide that you don’t want to be fifteen, or seventeen either, she was okay when she was sixteen. You decided that you will just be fourteen and sixteen twice, that it’s nicer that way.
You’re fourteen now, (for the first time), and Mum has been giving you the talks about how your body changes but she never mentioned any of this. You thought it was a just a phase of puberty, but mum said you had to come here today. Actually, she said last Wednesday, but that was the seventeenth and you had already decided that you don’t like that number.
You started doing it at eleven, just with washing your hands three times after you ate, and brushing your teeth twice. You just knew that you wanted to be clean; there was nothing wrong with that. Mum would laugh and so would Rachel: you still don’t have any fillings. But now you have to turn the lights on and off ten times, and can’t touch door handles with your bare hands.
Mum and Richard have conversations about you behind their hands, their whispers fluttering through the gaps. You don’t hear what they say, just snatches. They sometimes repeat letters, but you don’t want to remember them, you don’t want to be what they stand for. When they see you, they talk with their eyes and their slumped shoulders.
Richard yells a lot. He says that you take too long to get ready for school in the morning. Last Monday he ripped the remote out of your hand and threw it against the wall. He didn’t like how you took all his paperwork off the table .Rachel had spilt something on them (which wasn’t even your fault.) Saying that you didn’t know why you had to place the remote in the centre wasn’t a good enough reason for him. The batteries popped out and the silver plastic broke. No one could stop you crying, he told you to grow up. You – having picked up the remote pieces – threw them at his back as he turned to grab your school bag. Screaming that he wasn’t your real dad and that you hated him. You knew that would hurt. He had turned around then, grabbing you by your shoulders, you thought that he was going to hit you. But what he did was worse – he called you a freak.
Mum made him sleep on the couch for that week but she forgave him. She didn’t let dad come back home.
It feels as if there is a string connected to your bellybutton and that your stomach is being pulled inward. It keeps getting tighter and tighter. You didn’t mean to upset anyone.
Denise says that she wants to do a blood test and asks if you’re afraid of needles. You say no – as long as they’re clean. She stands and walks over to her desk, pulling out a clear bag with a needle inside of it. She starts talking to you again, just about the weather; how it’s been quite nice lately and that her flowers at home have started to bloom and that – you gasp as you feel the needle in your arm. She starts talking louder and removes the needle. She wipes the beads of blood off with a cotton ball, that wasn’t so bad was it, she says. But you’re not thinking about the pain, you’re thinking about how uneven you are now.
Dad was a side-line coach at your soccer games. But not in the angry competitive way some of the other parents were, but in the ‘I’m proud of you for trying and lets go out for ice cream afterwards’ sort of way. Your favourite was strawberry and his chocolate. You were at Dad’s house a few weeks ago, Miss Evans was there – you’re supposed to call her Eleanor outside school, but it feels strange to do so, like you’d get a detention. She’s stiffens up around you, her arms and legs clip in at the sides and she straightens up like an ironing board. Dad says he loves her though. They had met at one of your soccer matches, you remember turning around after scoring your first goal of the season to see if he was cheering for you, but he was talking to her. She had been touching his arm and laughing.
Dad told you that he was going to marry her. You tapped your nose after every word in your plea against it. He had held your hand to stop you and said he’d get you ice cream so that you could talk about it. He pulled it out of the freezer, saying it was your favourite; he dished it into a bowl and handed it to you. It was vanilla.
Denise offers you a lollypop, you say no, but she gets you one anyway. It is purple, and has a smiley face on the wrapper. She asks if it’s okay for your mum to come in now. You say yes, and keep your eyes on the lollypop. You don’t open it; it has creases in the wrapper, and you smooth it out while they talk about you.
You want to go home. You have a test for science tomorrow and you need to study for it. But it’s getting late, you just want to have a shower and go to sleep.
You interrupt them talking, and say that you’re hungry, that you want oranges. Mum gives you that look, the one that means you’re supposed to be quiet. She says not right now and folds her arms, leaning in closer to Denise. Their heads are bowed down, and they’re talking in that voice that adults put on when they’re being serious, but are trying not to look like it.
Mum says that it’s time to leave, and you get off the bed and go to smooth out the sheets again. She puts her hand on your shoulder to stop you, but Denise says something and she lets go. Mum is holding a piece of paper and a pamphlet, she tells you to thank Denise, and you leave. Denise smiles at you when you leave, but this time she doesn’t show her teeth. Her lips are pulled tight together.
Mum is crying, but pretends that she isn’t. You both wait in the pharmacy; it smells dusty in there, even though everything is white. An old man shuffles forwards with a cane, a little boy coughs, a girl has her arm in a sling. You wonder why you’re there, you’re not sick. Mum talks to the person at the counter, and you have to wait. Neither of you sit. She leaves with a bag holding white bottles with labels that have long names.
You stop at the supermarket on the way home. Mum buys bread and milk. She doesn’t get any oranges.