This story was shortlisted for the Margaret River Short Story Award and published in ‘Lost Boys and Other Stories’.
HOT AND COLD
Mum used to tell her about the rhubarb. Before they had ever planted any in the garden, before Beatrice had even eaten it, her mother used to tell her the story. She used to tell Beat the story before Liebling was even born; she used to tell her all the time and not just when Beat couldn’t sleep. She used to tell Beat over and over again like she didn’t really believe it herself.
When Beat thought about it, that was probably what she would miss the most, that there would be no stories about the rhubarb anymore. That the sick hadn’t just taken Mum’s body but it had taken her stories too.
There was just the three of them left, Liebling, Liebling’s dad and Beat. Liebling’s dad was from Alice Springs and Beat had a dad from where the rhubarb came from, England. Hot and Cold, Mum used to call them.
‘But which do you like best, Mum? Hot or Cold?’ Beat would ask while Liebling dipped her fingers into the butter. Liebling loved to eat butter. She would get it out of the fridge, in between playing in the dirt and playing in their room, slide her fingers in and scoop out the yellow mess.
‘Well, you can’t have one without the other,’ Mum would say and then laugh. Liebling and Beat would just look at her. Then Beat would pull Liebling’s hand out of the butter and Liebling would squirm unhappily.
Hot and Cold had never been in the same place at the same time. Cold was in England and now Hot was here. Mum said it was just the way it worked out. One minute it was Cold making breakfast and the next it was Hot.
Mum wasn’t there to call them Hot and Cold anymore. And Beat would have to move quickly to keep the rhubarb alive. It had been growing in the backyard but now the sun was too burning. Mum had told them the secret to growing the rhubarb; it liked to grow in the dark. And if you were quiet enough, you could hear it growing.
It was special rhubarb that came from where Beat’s dad was from. It needed the dark. Beat would have to move it out of the sunny veggie patch and into a dark place soon so that it could grow properly. Mum hadn’t had time to move it because she was lying around all the time. Beat knew she would have to do something soon or the rhubarb would shrivel up just like Mum did.
On the first morning without Mum, Beat had laid in bed until it was about ten o’clock. She could hear Liebling and Liebling’s dad in the kitchen but Beat needed to think by herself without Liebling breathing her milky breath all over her face. She had had an idea of a way that they could keep the rhubarb growing but it would mean that her and Liebling would have to set up the tent in the backyard on the small square of grass. Their backyard was mostly made of concrete, a washing line and a small veggie patch that was now brown from the sun.
Liebling didn’t ask what they were doing as she held onto Beat’s legs – while Beat balanced on a chair and tried to pull the tent off the top shelf of the cupboard or as Beat dragged the tent outside into their scraggly garden. Mum had never had time for anything but veggies in the garden. She said flowers were useless. Beat had wondered what she would have thought about all the flowers at the funeral.
Beat got the rhubarb out of the ground with a shovel and put it in an old saucepan Liebling and her had found underneath the sink. The rhubarb fit into the saucepan and Liebling patted the soil down around it, squatting over the burning concrete. Then, once the rhubarb was tucked into the pot, Beat and Liebling unfolded the tent.
‘You two right out here?’ Liebling’s dad’s voice came from behind the screen door.
‘Yeah,’ they chorused.
‘Got your sunscreen on?’
They heard his bare feet slurp off the linoleum floor and they turned back to the tent.
Liebling held a tent pole and looked confused. Beat didn’t want to admit that she had never put up a tent so she grabbed the tent pole off Liebling and tried to find somewhere to put it. The sun attacked their skin and Beat already felt burnt but didn’t want to stop. Liebling eventually wandered over to some shade and sat on the back step watching while Beat walked over the shimmery material trying to see where the poles went and sweating from her armpits.
Liebling’s dad came out holding two glasses of cordial with ice blocks clinking in them. Liebling drank hers before even waiting for the ice to chill the glass.
‘You wanna hand?’
‘No.’ Beat didn’t want to ask for help.
‘What you putting it up for anyway?’
‘Here, Beatrice, let me help.’
Beat sat next to Liebling on the back step and used her finger to stir the cordial, ice and water together so she didn’t get just the cordial left at the bottom of the glass. She tried to watch Liebling’s dad so she could remember how to put the tent up but it was too confusing. Soon, he had it standing up and had pushed all the pegs deep into the hard ground.
‘There you go. Have fun.’
He took the glasses off them and went back into the house.
Beat put the saucepan with the rhubarb into the tent and the rhubarb leaves looked blue from the light showing through the tent. Liebling came back with a cup of water to pour onto the rhubarb and Beat pushed the pot directly into the centre of the tent so that they could sit on either side of it. The six leaves of the rhubarb plant glistened with blue drops of water. The smell was wet earth and camping.
‘Go and get the winter coats,’ Beat said.
‘Because it’s really cold in England where rhubarb grows, don’t you know?’ Liebling couldn’t tell that Beat was making it up as she went along, trying to patch together the story that Mum had told them, trying to make it real.
Liebling came back with their winter jackets and they both put them on in the tent even though the weather was bloody fry-an-egg-on-your-car weather, as Liebling’s dad said. He would know, he said, he was from where it was really hot. They already knew that, he’d said that before. They started sweating more in their jackets but the blue light in the tent made them imagine that it was cold. Liebling pushed her short blonde hair off her forehead and slumped her head on the palm of her hand.
‘How much longer?’ Liebling asked.
‘Until we can eat it.’
‘Because you have to wait until you hear it growing. Then you know it’s nearly ready.’
Liebling’s dad came out of the house to tell them to come inside for dinner. The sun was starting to set and it was getting dim in the tent. Liebling asked if they were allowed to eat dinner in the tent with the rhubarb.
He looked at them, his head bent in between the tent flap.
‘Alright.’ Beat was surprised; they always had to eat at the table, every night.
They played ‘lists’ while they waited for him to bring the dinner. It was a game where you listed things that you bought from an imaginary shop but Liebling wasn’t very good at remembering and they stopped when they got to four things: rhubarb, sausage roll, Paddle Pop, socks.
Liebling’s dad brought them a plate of pasta each and they scooped the pasta up to their faces in the dark blue tent. Then he came back and collected the plates.
‘You staying in the tent tonight?’
‘Okay, I’ll get your bags.’ He paused as if waiting for something from them.
‘What do you say?’ he said.
‘Dankeschön,’ they sang out.
It was the only other language word they knew. Liebling’s dad could speak another language because he’d had a German dad.
Liebling didn’t know about her grandparents, she hadn’t met them. Beat intended on going to England to meet her grandparents and she would take Liebling away with her. People in their family were always leaving and coming back and leaving again. Beat just wanted to go somewhere once and that was it. Hot and Cold were always coming and going and sometimes Mum went with them for a few days. Then Beat and Liebling would have to wait every night for Mrs Manning to come over to cook them their dinner and she liked to eat strange things. Mrs Manning made them eat livers and go to bed too early.
After dinner, Beat remembered that the rhubarb needed candlelight to grow and she got angry with herself for forgetting parts of the story. They crawled out of the tent and the grass under their hands smelt like fresh. Their heartbeats were wild as they ran towards the back door and Beat motioned for Liebling to be quiet as they tried to get the door open without making a sound. The television was on in the lounge room and they could see the back of Liebling’s dad’s head. There was a lighter next to the stove and Beat tried to do it the way Mum used to do it.
Liebling whispered, ‘Hurry up’, her hands holding four used tealight candles taken from the candle drawer.
‘Okay, just a minute.’
Beat pressed and pressed on the small wheel on the lighter and it made a sound like ‘chk, chk’, but nothing happened.
‘Come on.’ Liebling was pushing at her arm. Beat tried again, held the lighter and pressed hard with her thumb. It sparked and they were both still for a second, waiting for something to happen. No flame. Beat tried again, pressing harder. This time a flame leapt out and they both looked at the colours blazing out of Beat’s hand.
‘Ouch.’ The wheel was hot and she dropped the lighter. The noise was small under the sound of the television but they both paused. Beat picked it up and they walked carefully into the lounge room.
‘How’s it going, girls? You ready for bed?’
‘Yes, we’re just going to brush our teeth,’ Beat said.
‘Okay, if you get scared out there, just give us a yell, alright?’
‘I left a torch on the kitchen table for you. Grab that if you want it.’
Liebling hugged her dad but Beat just said goodnight.
It was black everywhere else in the yard but the tent glowed like it was the moon, all silvery. Beat put the torch on and they followed the bulb of light to the tent. They were careful to lay their bags around the pot. Beat laid out the candles on the soil under the rhubarb and flicked the lighter on. She lit the wicks and soon the candles were sending a wavy light around the tent.
Mum used to tell them the story when she wanted Liebling to be quiet, to stop her from singing, or to stop her from restlessly clawing her way all over the furniture. She would tell them how there was a place on the moors in England where special rhubarb grew; it only grew there and nowhere else. It was called Forced Rhubarb, although it was actually really delicate because it could only grow in the dark by candlelight.
Sometimes when Mum would agree to tell them the story she would get some rhubarb from the fridge, boil the sticks in hot water and then swirl some cold custard through it. Hot and Cold dessert they called it, like their Hot and Cold dads. She told them about the rain and the way it was sometimes so light that the droplets sat on your eyelashes. She told them about the pubs she stayed in with Beat’s dad that were tucked away in valleys and about the Yorkshire puddings they ate that were as big as your head.
Beat didn’t miss her dad that much when he was away. When he was here he read books all day and didn’t want to talk. When he did talk it didn’t make much sense to Beat but the rustle of his chin on her head and the way he said ‘Goodnight my little lady’ in his accent made her feel safe. She didn’t really know why he had to leave all the time and Beat wondered if he would come back now that Mum was gone. He couldn’t come to the funeral but Beat had spoken to him on the phone and he had sounded far away.
She would have to go there, to the place where puddings were bigger than your head, to know where she was from.
Beat watched the candles lighting up the rhubarb and Liebling’s face appeared, flickered, as she sat up in her bag.
Beat had a responsibility to Liebling; Mum had told her a few days before, told Beat that she had to look out for Liebling. To help her grow up properly. Liebling loved Beat and followed her everywhere, listened to her and did what she said. It didn’t matter that they had different dads.
‘What happens now?’ Liebling was looking at Beat through the rhubarb.
‘Now the rhubarb can grow.’
‘Why do we have to be here?’
Beat saw Liebling’s small body lie down on the floor of the tent. The bag rustled around her.
‘What are we going to do now?’ the small voice called over.
‘One day soon we’re gonna go somewhere.’
‘Where are we now?’
‘I don’t think we’re anywhere.’
‘But we can go somewhere soon?’ Liebling was a lumpy shadow on the other side of the rhubarb.
‘Where do you wanna go?’ Beat asked.
‘To the rhubarb place where the wind is in your eye,’ Liebling shrieked to the roof of the tent.
‘The rain is on your eye,’ Beat corrected her.
‘Will your dad be there?’ Liebling asked.
Beat paused. ‘No, probably not.’
‘That’s okay. It’s your turn.’
‘Yeah, let’s go there when the rhubarb is ready,’ Liebling had made up her mind. Beat lay down in her bag and the candles stopped flickering, held steady.
Mum had brought the special rhubarb back, secretly, tucked at the bottom of her bag. It was the real one, the one from England, and Beat and her had planted it in the backyard together while Liebling had danced on the soil.
When the rhubarb was finally ready to eat they would all be there, the three of them, because that was how the rhubarb story ended. It ended with the three of them lined up on the couch from smallest to tallest. It ended with Beat and Liebling watching Mum curl the spoon through her dessert, slowly spinning the hot and cold parts together.