Read Mahalia Online

Authors: Joanne Horniman

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Mahalia

J
OANNE
H
ORNIMAN
has worked as a teacher of adult literacy, and has written a number of books for children and teenagers. She and her partner Tony have two grown-up sons, and live in a place they built themselves near Lismore.

Praise for Joanne Horniman's
A Charm of Powerful Trouble
‘
A tight, intriguing, beautiful story.
'
www.theblurb.com

‘
Not to be missed.
' Magpies

Praise for Joanne Horniman's
Secret Scribbled Notebooks
(winner of the Queensland Premier's Award 2005)
‘
A deeply satisfying novel on every level …
a writer of rare skill and power.
' Viewpoint

‘
The writing is beautiful …brightened by shafts of humour …
romantic and introspective.
' Magpies

‘
Kate's emotions, her thoughts and her honesty are transfixing.
Horniman captures the anxiety and possibility of the cusp of adulthood,
using elegant, evocative prose.
' Weekend Australian

Joanne Horniman

First published in 2001
This edition published in 2006

Copyright © Joanne Horniman 2001

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording or by any information storage and retrieval system, without prior permission in writing from the publisher. The Australian Copyright Act 1968 (the Act) allows a maximum of one chapter or ten per cent of this book, whichever is the greater, to be photocopied by any educational institution for its educational purposes provided that the educational institution (or body that administers it) has given a remuneration notice to Copyright Agency Limited (CAL) under the Act.

Allen & Unwin
83 Alexander St
Crows Nest NSW 2065
Australia

Phone:
(61 2) 8425 0100
Fax:
(61 2) 9906 2218
Email:
[email protected]
Web:
http://www.allenandunwin.com

National Library of Australia
Cataloguing-in-Publication entry:

Horniman, Joanne.

Mahalia.

For secondary school students.

ISBN 978 1 74114 910 4.

ISBN 1 74114 910 X.

1. Single fathers – Australia – Fiction. I. Title.

A823.3

Designed by Ellie Exarchos (Scooter Design) and …oid design
Typeset by Midland Typesetters, Australia
Printed by Australian Print Group, Maryborough, Victoria

10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1

Now the man has a child
He knows all the names
of the local dogs.

– Japanese poem

Contents

1

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19

1

Matt loved Mahalia. He loved the smell of her, of fresh soft skin and milky sleepiness. He loved her bald vulnerable head, and the tender folds of skin on her neck. He loved her tiny fingers that clutched at his clothing and folded themselves up into fists when she slept. He loved the way she sucked intensely at her bottle and gazed at him with her cross-eyed stare. Most of all he loved the fact of her. He loved her because she existed.

On a windy August day that threatened rain, when Mahalia was exactly five months, three weeks and three days old, and Matt was seventeen and a half, he stood by the side of the road holding her against his chest in a cloth pouch, swaying his body gently to and fro to soothe her as she slept. He gazed down at her. Her skin was almost transparent, and expressions played across her sleeping face the way cloud shadows chase each other across a landscape. Matt felt the calm movement of his chest as he breathed, and the answering movement of Mahalia's body.

He stood beside the road heading north out of Lismore till almost midday, waiting to hitch out of town. Most of his possessions – three plastic garbage bags and a guitar – sat beside him, and he waited patiently, knowing it was simply a matter of time until someone stopped to give him a lift.

Lismore was an old town built on a slow brown river whose banks were choked by weeds and vines. On the hills above the town and stretching out towards the coast crept a brick-and-tile suburbia, but here, where Matt waited, were mostly high-set old timber houses. Their stumps and ageing weatherboards were askew; they had suffered a hundred years of relentless sunlight and regular floods, and somehow still stood.

An old Toyota Corona pulled up beside Matt and a young man motioned for him to get in. He never spoke as he took them on a winding road through weed-infested farmland and rainforest remnants to a village called The Channon, where Matt only had to wait fifteen minutes before a woman in an old Holden station wagon picked him up.

‘You've got a beautiful baby,' said the woman as the car moved off, spraying gravel and spinning the wheels. Mahalia flinched at the sound, but stayed asleep.

‘Thank you,' said Matt. He looked down at Mahalia, and smiled.

‘How far do you want to go?'

‘Mount Nardi. Almost to the top?'

‘That's where I'm going. You're in luck. Whose place?'

‘Julie Mitchell's. You know her?'

‘Sure do. I'm just a few places before hers. You must be her son Matt. And this must be Mahalia. My name's Therese. I've lived down the road from your mum for a couple of months.'

Matt smiled at her; he didn't mind that she already knew about him. That was what it was like when you lived in the bush: everyone knew everyone.

The Holden crunched gears and proceeded uphill. Car bodies lay abandoned by the roadside; the road up Mount Nardi killed gearboxes. They wound up through the rainforest, and the air became cooler, and moister, until they were driving into light cloud. Finally, when it seemed that the old car could bear no further punishment, they were at the driveway of Matt's mother's place.

Mahalia woke as he got out of the car, opening her eyes suddenly and staring at his face. Matt waited for the sound of the engine to recede before he made a move. He wanted to savour the silence, which wasn't real silence, but the sounds of the bush. If you listened, there was life going on all around you.

‘Hey, Mahalia, hey,' he said, jiggling her softly in the cloth pouch. She looked into his eyes; she had the most direct gaze of anyone he knew.

It started to rain lightly, so Matt left the garbage bags in the drive for the moment, caught the handle of the guitar case in one hand, steadied Mahalia with the other and made his way up to the house.

His mother was on the veranda. ‘I thought I heard a car.' She smiled, and held out her arms for the baby. Matt undid the strap of the carry pouch and released Mahalia into the waiting arms. He turned around without a word and went back for his things.

‘Where's Emmy?' called his mother.

‘Emmy's gone away for a while,' he said when he'd returned with the garbage bags and dumped them on the floor of the living room. He looked into his mother's face. ‘I don't know if she'll come back.' It was the first time he'd expressed his fear aloud. He sat down at the table.

Mahalia started to cry. It was her hungry cry. Matt got to his feet and rummaged in his bag for her bottle. ‘Have you got any boiled water?'

‘There's probably some in the kettle. Look, I'll do it.'

‘No!
I
can.' He dumped the bottle and a tin of formula on the bench.

After Mahalia had been fed and was sleeping again in a bunny rug on the floor, his mother said, ‘What happened with Emmy?'

‘Happened? Nothing. She wanted to get away. She said it was getting too much for her – the baby, and me, and . . . everything I suppose. She said she was going to stay with a friend of her mother's in Sydney, a sort of godmother or something. She gets on better with the godmother than she does with her mum. So she got on the bus and – went.'

‘When?'

‘A week ago.'

‘I see.' His mother nodded, weighing up what he'd said. She didn't look surprised, and Matt felt in some obscure way that he'd disappointed her.

‘Why do you think she mightn't be back?' she asked, in her quiet, reasonable voice. She was a social worker. She observed people's lives falling apart all the time.

‘She took all her stuff. And . . . I don't know, just a feeling I have sometimes. But she wouldn't leave Mahalia for ever – would she?'

He looked at his mother, who held his gaze for a moment and then got up and moved over to the sink. She wiped it carefully with the sponge, her head bowed, then turned to face him.

‘You know you can stay here as long as you like,' she said. ‘You're not on your own – you know that.'

When Mahalia woke, Matt took her out into the garden, upending her and carrying her firmly upside-down, her body secure against his chest. He'd carried her like this for short periods almost since she was born. He'd heard somewhere it would help her spatial development, whatever that was. The way she experienced spaces, or something. Matt wanted Mahalia to experience all the spaces of the world, fully. She looked out at the world upside-down with a solemn expression, her little mouth shaped into an o, her eyes round too. She was so calm and alert that he knew she liked being carried this way.

He took her to the looking-out spot, a cleared place which overlooked the forested valley. Matt was sure there wasn't a better place in the world. Wind had blown the cloud away now.

‘Look at that view, Mahalia,' he said. ‘Just look.' He knew she couldn't see into the distance, but he hoped the beauty would seep into her bones.

Next, he walked her round inside the house, right way up this time. Up close, she could see very well. She noticed everything. The whole world was new and full of wonder for her.

He took her into the room his mother used as a studio and showed her the masks made of leather and papiermâché.

‘What do you think of this one?' he asked, showing her a mask with a smiling face, red cheeks and yellow woollen plaits. Mahalia waved her arm at it, and tried to reach out and take hold of it. She babbled, and smiled.

He moved on to a stern-faced leather mask, with hard high cheekbones and black eyebrows. Mahalia creased her face into a scowl and began to bellow.

‘Oh, no, no, it won't hurt you!' said Matt, taking her quickly away to show her a mobile of bright satin fish that hung in front of the window. ‘Look, Mahalia, little fishies, like the ones Grannie made
you
. A red one and a green one and a blue one and a purple one.' Matt touched each fish as he spoke, and they bounced about. Mahalia stopped crying, and reached out to touch them.

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