I sit beside my mother on the blue Ventura bus. It snakes its way through the back streets of Box Hill. We have been travelling for nearly an hour. Already the trip is long, from Mentone beach into Surrey Hills. We did not have time to think or to decide on the clothes we might wear, or the books we might bring to read on this long journey. We could not stay a minute longer.
It happens like this. On Friday nights my father drinks himself into a stupor. Most times he falls asleep on his chair in front of the television. He leaves us in peace, but sometimes the drinking starts earlier before Friday. It might begin on a Wednesday. On days like these, my father does not go to work. Instead he drinks and sleeps, sleeps and drinks, and in between times he looks to us for company and for fights.
He looks especially to my mother, but she pretends she does not notice him and the more she pretends the more angry he becomes until in an explosion of rage he throws a radiator at her, as he did this morning, or he rips off her dress, as he did last week, or he tears out her hair.
Last week we left to stay with my big brother and his new wife in Hawthorn but we have overstayed our welcome there. This week we visit a friend of my mother’s who has said that my mother and the two little ones can stay the night with her, but we older ones will need to fend for ourselves.
And so it was decided. We older ones will catch the blue bus back to our home, but we will not go inside. We will sleep in the garage if we are brave enough to sneak into the backyard and otherwise we will fend for ourselves in the outside world.
The bus drops us off two stops before our house. We do not want our father to see us from his front seat in the lounge room. We walk around the block and approach our house from behind. Even from behind, our house does not feel safe. There is a vacant block behind the grey paling fence that divides the back of our house off from the next as yet unbuilt property. We will spend the night there.
My brothers climb the fence and sneak into the back yard to collect three towels off the washing line. We left them there the day before, after we had been swimming. We will use the towels as blankets.
Mine is a yellow towel. It is summertime. A hot night. I do not need a blanket. I use the towel as a mattress, a thin mattress that cannot cushion me from the rocks and rough bits that stick into my body every time I try to turn over in my sleep, but it is a comfort nevertheless. The two boys offer the towels to us three girls as an act of gallantry. They are strong boys. They can do without.
I look at the stars and imagine myself far away even as I marvel at the idea of my twelve-year-old self as this homeless person. How they would marvel at my school. How shocked they would be. Families from my school do not sleep out of doors at night because their father is drunk.
The next morning we go to Mass. The priest in white and gold vestments raises the host to the altar in the Hosanna chorus and I look down at my dirty fingernails, dirtier than usual for all the grit of my stony dirt bed the night before and I marvel at the way life can seem so very different from the outside.