According to Centrelink records, my family doesn’t exist. According to the birth registry, my youngest brother doesn’t exist either. Philly was a home birth. Mum used to reckon that was why he was born blind. Mum had a lot of ideas about why Philly is the way he is, but Dad never let her talk shit for very long.
They’re both dead now.
Jackson is older than Philly. The middle child’s supposed to be the rowdiest, but Jackson’s as docile as a lamb. He’s read the Encyclopaedia Brittanica about a million times. Those were the only books Dad had in the house.
It’s a lucky thing that they waited until I was fourteen to die because I could drive on my own by then. I can’t get my licence without taking official lessons, but I don’t need it to go into town for supplies. At first, the money Mum and Dad left behind had kept me and Jackson and Philly going. But it ran out on my sixteenth birthday.
“What do’ya reckon?” Jackson asks, looking up at me with his chin resting on the table. He likes to be hunched over.
I’m elbow-deep in the sink washing up a cake tin. Out the window, which is patched up with different-coloured glass, I could see Philly running his pudgy, soft hands over Momo the sheep. He’s only five and he hardly talks, but he loves that fucking sheep. Every day he’s out there in the heat, squatting in the dirt, running his fingers through Momo’s soft wool.
Our pantry is right next to the window. It’s a sad little cupboard with the door just barely hanging on a bad hinge. Jackson hadn’t had the heart to ask for cake on his birthday and so I had to make him one. We made that cake with the last of our chocolate.
“I reckon we should be careful,” I tell Jackson.
He rubs his chin on the rough surface of the table. “We’ve been careful for two years.”
“More careful,” I say.
Dad built us a house a couple of hours out of Yuendumu. According to the encyclopaedia, the house is technically a bungalow, but we’ve got curtains up to separate the rooms and give us each some privacy. Dad used to be especially interested in giving me space because I’m a girl, and apparently girls need privacy more than boys do. The roof leaks and the garden is nothing but hard-packed dirt and scraggly bushes, and a patch of brown grass that Momo keeps mowed down.
“Maybe I can find some work?” Jackson offers.
I look over my shoulder at him. He’s all big eyes and soft hands. Barely past twelve years-old and with the careful diet we’ve been on he hasn’t grown as much as he should have.
“No one will believe you’re old enough to work.”
“They could pay me under the table.”
“To do what? Be a chew-toy for the pig dogs?”
He doesn’t answer because he knows I’m right and he doesn’t want to admit it.
I can’t get work on a farm either, because I’m not tough enough to wrangle anything stronger than Momo. Even whoring is off the table for me. Not a lot of opportunity for that kind of work in a small town like ours, especially not when men can get it for free from the lonely women who work at the hotel and the shops.
“Maybe we could sell something?” Jackson says. “The books?”
I’d already thought of that. “Not a lot of need for those,” I say. “And sending them somewhere will cost more than we’ll get for them.”
Jackson sits up so that he can wiggle in his seat before leaning down to rest his chin again. Ours is a rough, care-worn table with knife-marks from when Dad used to play five-finger fillet and stains from where he used to carve up chooks. Jackson, Philly and I have gone through all the chooks since Mum and Dad died. As soon as any chook stopped laying eggs, me and Jackson and Philly would have chicken soup.
Jackson used to take Philly for a walk whenever it was time for me to kill a chook.
Washing up done, I dry my hands and turn to lean my hip on the sink. “Don’t you have homework?” I ask.
Jackson shrugs. “I guess. I wouldn’t mind going to the library?”
I frown and brush my hair over my shoulder, trying to picture the fuel gage on Dad’s old Hilux on the back of my eyelids. “I think we can make it into town on Thursday,” I tell him. “Just make sure that you’ve got everything sorted for when we get there, yeah? Don’t think we can make two trips if you forget something.”
Jackson nods quickly and pushes himself away from the kitchen table. I don’t think he likes being in here much. There’s nothing to do except stare at the empty cupboards and ignore the growling in his gut. At least in his room, he can stare at a book and ignore the growling in his gut. He didn’t ask about registering with Centrelink, because he knows as well as I do what will happen if they find out about us. I tried to go in as a walk-in once, just to see what they’d say, and they asked me why my brothers and I hadn’t been put in care yet. I haven’t been back there since.
Jackson wanders off to sort his home-school lessons out and I watch him go with a sinking, heavy feeling in my arms and legs like I’m being weighed down in the mud and nothing I do will help me fight my way out. I get that feeling a lot. More these days, especially when I can see our empty pantry out of the corner of my eye, so I push myself away from the sink and walk through the house to the backdoor. I pass the polaroid of our parents that was tacked up on the wall in the place where a portrait should have gone if we were a normal family.
The backdoor shrieks like a murder-victim when I open it.
Philly turns on his knees and tilts his head so that his ear is pointing at the house.
“Jackson?” he calls.
“Claire,” I tell him.
He smiles. His eyes are permanently cast down and his nose is pink from the midday sun. I take the half-broken, dried up sunhat off of the door handle, shake it for spiders, and walk across the dusty path to shove it down on Philly’s head. He accepts it without question. His fingers never stop moving through Momo’s wool. Momo is so used to this that she doesn’t even seem to notice Philly anymore. She just chews her dried up grass and stands there, mild as spring rain. There’s a bucket full of water nearby, just within reach but not close enough that she can knock it over accidentally.
“Thanks for the cake,” Philly says to me. He’s sucking on his teeth like he’s remembering the taste.
The glare from Momo’s wool is hurting my eyes. “You’re welcome,” I tell him.
“Can I have one for my birthday, too?” he asks.
I absently run my hand over Momo’s soft head. “Of course you can,” I say. There’s still two months until then. There’s still time to figure something out.
I’d thought about going to the mines. For someone like me – a nobody from the arsecrack of Australia, no education – the mines are perfect. I’m only sixteen but I can work around that. But Jackson’s too young to be alone with Philly and he’s still got his school to worry about. I gave school up after a roadtrain t-boned Mum and Dad, but Jackson gets pretty good marks even without a real teacher. He even helps Philly with his maths.
Neither of us ever got very good at braille. I hate that. I hate that Philly should be able to read by now but there’s no one to teach him. He has to make due with Jackson reading him questions.
“You’re going to have to come inside soon,” I tell Philly. I rub Momo’s head, feeling her push against my skin and nuzzle my wrist.
“Seriously, kiddo. Sun’s getting pretty bad.”
My stomach growls and I cough to cover it up. Philly couldn’t see that I didn’t eat lunch. Jackson had. He gave me sad eyes while he’d shovelled cake into his mouth like the hungry animal he’s starting to become.
Philly hunches his shoulders. “I can just drink some water.”
He sticks his tongue between his teeth and doesn’t answer me, already settling in for a sulk. He gets this way whenever I come to drag him off of Momo. Philly never really understood what happened to Mum and Dad. One day they were there; the next day they weren’t. He started coming out every day to run his fingers through Momo’s wool when he got bored of asking me where they were.
I dip down to give him a kiss on the top of his hat, but he wiggles out of my reach. Sighing, I give Momo’s head one final pat. She’s a good girl.
In town, there’s a sign for workers up in the petrol station. Jackson reads it out to me while I’m filling the tank in the ute.
“They’re not asking for education,” he tells me. “Just work experience.”
“They always ask for work experience,” I mutter. Philly’s inside the ute, tapping a half-understood rhythm against the steering wheel and so close to whinging about being bored that I can taste his tantrum in the air.
Jackson will spend the day at the library while Philly and I walk around town, bumming dollar coins off anyone I see. This is a good place for grey nomads to stop and fill up their vans, so I reckon I can get at least twenty bucks. That’ll buy a couple of cans of food. I’ll have to pay for the petrol with the mastercard that Mum had in her purse when she died. It will expire soon, but it’s still good for about fifty bucks or so according to the bills we keep getting in the mail. I don’t let myself wonder what will happen when the bank realises that no one’s paying the card off and they start calling in the lawyers.
I need a job.
While Philly and Jackson wait in the car, I head inside the servo to pay.
“Y’alright, Hayley?” Tommo asks from behind the register. He knows my name’s not Hayley, but it’s the name on the credit card and he’s playing along. He’s good like that.
I hand over Mum’s credit card and point at the job ad in the window. “What kind of work experience are you after?” I ask him.
He shrugs. “Ya know, just experience,” he says. “Working a till, coming in on time, that sort of thing.” He shrugs again. He does that a lot, so much that the sides of his flannel shirt are worn through and his neck has a rash from where his shoulders keep brushing it.
While he’s talking I watch the card machine. It’s sending my information to the bank. I don’t want to look like I’m nervous about it, but every time I use that card I can feel heat rising in my chest and a hollow, boiling tension in my gut. One day, the machine will say Declined.
“I could do that,” I tell Tommo.
He raises an eyebrow at me as the card machine dings Accepted. I can breathe again.
“You got a reference?” Tommo asks, scratching at his filthy stubble.
Of course he’ll ask about that. As if he doesn’t know, as if the whole town doesn’t know. I can feel it in the way their eyes follow me down the street. Me and Jackson and Philly are an open secret, something talked about in hushed tones but never taken up with the police or Centrelink. People are probably waiting until one of us keels over before they bring in the authorities. That’s usually how things are done.
“Nah, but how about I come in one night and work free?” I say, quickly shoving the credit card in my pocket. “You can see for yourself that I’m a good worker.”
He sucks on his teeth.
I brace myself.
“I dunno,” he says finally. “You got a Tax File Number?”
“I can get one.”
“That’ll take a month.”
“I’ll wait a month,” I say. I know I sound desperate and I hate it. So fucking much. But out of the corner of my eye I can see Jackson wrestling Philly into the backseat, away from the steering wheel and the handbrake, and I can’t feel anything but desperate when I look at them. “Come on, Tommo – a free night’s work is all I’m asking.”
Tommo keeps scratching his stubble and I try to swallow down the muddy sinking feeling, the heat in my neck rising to my cheeks. Finally, he shrugs again.
“If you come in and I like the work you do, I’ll give you a chance. But I won’t pay you ‘til you get a TFN.”
“Great, I’ll be in tomorrow night, then. Five o’clock?”
I’ll have to leave the ute at home and bike it. Jackson will have to watch Philly while I’m gone, but if I can get this job… it could save us.
“Yeah, alright,” Tommo says finally. “See you then, Claire.”
I’m halfway back to the car when I realise he used my real name.
“Did he say yes?” Jackson asks when I get back to the ute. He’s in the backseat with Philly, practically holding the kid down and looking at me through the gap between the seats.
“I’ll be in for a trial run tomorrow. Do you know how to apply for a Tax File Number?”
Jackson sticks his tongue between his teeth. “I’ll look it up when I get to the library.” He looks grim and doesn’t congratulate me, because we both know how easily this can go wrong.
Philly starts sniffling and I quickly turn the key in the ignition before pulling out of the station.
The thing about waiting a month for a TFN is that me and Jackson and Philly still need to eat. I work at the servo every night, biking there and back every day, but I’m not going to see a cent of the money I’m earning until I get that bloody number.
In the meantime, we’ve run out of food again.
“Should Philly and I go into town?” Jackson asks, watching me with his chin on the table. “Maybe pick up some coins?”
There’s no washing up to do. We haven’t eaten today. Outside, Philly’s on his knees in the dirt, running his hands through Momo’s wool. I can see the bones of his back through his thin shirt. Yesterday, I saw Jackson sliding the last of his canned beans onto Philly’s plate when he thought I wasn’t looking.
“Don’t,” I say. I haven’t told Jackson about the run-in Philly and I had with the coppers last Tuesday. They’re cracking down on ‘beggers’, apparently.
“Maybe…” Jackson hesitates so long that I turn to look at him. “Maybe I could just, you know, take something.”
I stare at him for a long time. Long enough for him to start squirming against the table.
“You talk like that again and I’ll rinse your fucking mouth out with soap.”
Jackson looks away. Before Mum and Dad died, that sort of talk would get him riled up. He’d be on his feet in a second, shouting me down and puffing up his chest so that I could see his bones under his shirt. But that part of him is quiet now. I miss it. And at times like this, I’m glad because I don’t have the energy to fight.
“If you get caught you’ll be fined or thrown in jail. Is that what you want? To finish your School Certificate in juvie?”
“I want my sister to eat something,” Jackson says quietly.
I turn my back on the kid and look back out the window, watching Philly indulge in his favourite hobby. I watch so long I think I’m going to go cross-eyed.
“I have to go to work soon.”
“Can you even make the trip on an empty stomach?”
“Yes,” I say. Probably, I think.
The working will pay off. Jackson has had to take time away from his homework to take care of Philly while I’m working, but it will pay off. Soon. We just need to get through this month. I grip the side of the sink so tight that I can feel my nails start to bend against the steel.
Jackson lifts his chin off the table, pushes himself up with wobbly elbows, and joins me at the window to stare out at Philly and Momo. His lips are working like he’s chewing on something, which just makes me feel like shit because I can’t give him anything to chew on. Finally, Jackson leans against the sink and crosses his arms over his chest.
“Momo’s getting a bit old, don’t you think?” he says.
The tone is totally different from the one he’d used to ask whether he should lift something from the shops. It’s almost casual. It takes me a few seconds to understand what he’s implying.
“I’m just saying, how long do sheep even live?”
I don’t know. “Philly loves that sheep.” I swallow hard, turning to grab a mug off of the side of the sink and fill it half-way with hot water. I gulp it down so fast I nearly send it through my nose. “Momo’s the only thing that’s kept him sane,” I finish, sniffing.
Jackson nods grimly. He looks at me and I can see the heavy purple smudges beneath his eyes. At first, they look like dark circles from lack of sleep, but they’re actually shadows. Shadows because his eye sockets are starting to thin out. Like a corpse. He’s too young to look like a corpse.
“I have to go to work,” I say. “Don’t – uh, just take care of Philly, yeah?”
Jackson nods. He looks from me to the window and then back to me. I can’t follow his gaze because I know what I’ll see: Philly on his knees, his bones showing through his clothes, running his fingers through Momo’s wool.
For the next few days, I’m woken by nightmares of Philly crying and groping around the backyard, trying to find his sheep.
I can see his silhouette through the sheet that separates our ‘bedrooms’ and sometimes I’ll lay there for hours watching his shadow breathe. Then I fall into terrible dreams.
The day after Jackson offered his casual observation, he took Philly for a walk in the morning. The boys were gone so long that the sun rose to the very highest point by the time they got back. Neither of them had been eating well, so Philly went straight to bed for a nap when they got back to the house. I was surprised that Jackson could even keep walking for that long.
By the time Philly woke up, it was nearly night-time.
“Why’d you make us walk so long?” he asked Jackson, tilting his head to the left as he spoke and tapping the table in front of him. His fingers were restless. He hadn’t seen Momo all day.
“Just felt like it,” Jackson said, lifting his shoulders and dropping them in a mirror-image of Tommo at the servo. “Exercise is good for you.”
Jackson wasn’t looking at Philly. He was looking at me. Or, rather, the pot on the stove beside me. He clutched at the back of Philly’s chair with trembling fingers like it was the only thing keeping him from launching himself at the stove.
“What are you cooking, Claire?” Philly asked.
“Just a stew,” I said. I clicked my tongue and spooned out a couple of bowls for the boys. I already ate mine. The smell was so fucking tempting and I hadn’t had a good meal in weeks. “Eat up.”
“Can I go see Momo?” Philly asked.
Jackson met my eye. I picked at a speck of blood under my thumbnail. “After dinner.”
Philly and Jackson scarfed down their stew. I gave Jackson seconds. There was plenty left, and some of it was already frozen in the big freezer so that – if we are careful – we should have enough until I get paid. Once Jackson finished his bowl, he rushed outside. After a few more minutes, Philly declared that he was finished too and left me with the washing up. The dark never bothered Philly. He just wanted to see Momo.
I had felt my pulse in my throat. Like my whole neck was throbbing with the strength of my blood pumping. I glanced at the stew pot and felt a scream bubbling up in my chest.
I’ve been having nightmares for days of Philly trying to find his sheep. I can imagine the heartbreaking wail that he will making.
That night, I stared out of the window, at my baby brother whose back was lit up by the dim lights from inside. He was kneeling in the brown grass, his back still bony but somehow straighter after a good meal. He was running his hands through white wool with the continuous, unbroken rhythm that I have gotten used to in the last few years.
On his hands and knees, Jackson stayed as still as possible, just like Momo used to. The sheep’s wool moved as he breathed. There was a bucket of water within reach. Jackson looked over his shoulder and met my eye through the window. I turned away.
Getting the wool off in one piece was tricky. I still feel sick about it. It was worth it. My brothers can eat, and in a little while I’ll be able to pay for more food and keep us alive indefinitely.
But when I look out at Jackson and I see him leaning over to shove his face into the bucket for a drink, I can’t help thinking: What happens next time Philly needs something to eat?
Author’s note: That took a turn, didn’t it? Food deserts and rural poverty are actually a significant problem in Australia. It’s also super easy for people to slip through the cracks – whether they want to or not. This is an entirely fictional account – I haven’t experienced this myself and am therefore not qualified to give a clear and accurate account of what it is like to experience these things. But I can engage empathetically and creatively. So I have.
PS – I love writing and I love eating! If you want to help with the latter (and ONLY if you want) you can maybe buy me a coffee? 🙂