Speakeasy is a fortnightly showcase of the creative writing talent at Flinders University.
Helium by Jess Miller
Christmas 2002 began with the story of a balloon.
My cousins Aisha and Hat sat cross-legged on the playroom floor beside Lex, my brother, who’d flung himself across a bean bag. I was very nearly ten years old, very nearly halfway to the roof on my tiptoes. Spitting out my words like a machine gun spits out bullets because I only ever saw extended family at Christmas. Describing how weeks ago at school we’d filled a balloon with helium. How we’d watched it bounce around the ceiling for two days, then relax, sink reluctantly down, down, until on the eighth day we were looking at a limp skin on the carpet.
When I finished, Aisha asked loudly if helium was what they meant when they talked about those huge balloons with the baskets.
‘Yeah,’ I told her knowledgably, ‘that’s what keeps them in the air.’
She thought some more. ‘What about planes?’
‘Same thing.’‘What about the moon?’
‘Yep, but that needs a lot of it. That’s why some balloons have to have normal air in them, because there’s not enough to go around.’
There was a moment of pure silence. Then her eyes widened, stretched past the size of dinner plates until she leapt up and bounded to the window, thrusting a pointed finger into the air.
‘The sun is up!’
‘Because of helium!’ yelled Hat.
‘I’M UP!’ Aisha shrieked as she jumped, ‘I’m up, it’s helium, up, up, UP!’
Lex stood up and cried, ‘On Top Gear when the Lamborghini’s speed goes up—’
‘HELIUM!’ we bellowed.
Our first play that year centred around things being up and heroes fighting to keep them up. Lex went and begged Mum and Dad for some helium balloons. We got three in the end, which were all needed for Lex’s character to drive to the moon and save it from falling. His spacesuit was gumboots, rubber gloves and a plastic bag helmet. Mum confiscated the helmet the moment she saw it, but after at least three Christmases of performances that was the only disapproval we ever got.
Can you imagine how it felt to be so absolutely loved? Watch the screen, watch us go. Imagine that as we tear into the dining room to announce that we’ve made a play, our parents’ faces spin to us and they leap out of their seats. They abandon their cups of coffee and Milo, they hang their conversations from the air like half-knitted scarves on a clothesline. They perch on the couch in the playroom, laughing uncontrollably, crying if the male lead heroically dies; they whoop and cheer at the final curtain like we deserve every award in existence.
We had them on a string. Our parents, grandparents, our older cousins: Cynthie, Dennis, Tom in his wheelchair. They dropped like yoyos down into their adult duties and priorities but always, with the flick of a finger, they leapt right back up to us.
The next time I saw Aisha and Hat it was nowhere near Christmas and their car looked out of place in the frost-laced driveway. Our Aunt and Uncle huddled beside the fire, carbon copies of themselves from last time but different, somehow. Tenser. Keener for silence. Mum boiled the kettle hundreds of times and they whittled away the afternoon watching golf on the TV.
It was clear that something was happening underneath the calm, and it was infuriating. Children are told to colour in pictures all the way to the lines; taught to fill plastic holes with shapes and backpacks with books. But this was something incomplete, something only half-coloured in, and no-one would explain what was going on.
‘Aisha, do you know what’s happening?’
‘Sure,’ she replied. ‘We’re gonna start thinking up ideas for a play.’
‘No, not with that! With everyone! Why are you here?’
She didn’t give it a second’s thought; she just shrugged and disappeared down the hallway to the playroom where the other two already were. I stared at the spot where she’d stood and all of a sudden I felt not just irritated, but repulsed by her ignorance. By Lex’s, by Hat’s. Repulsed by the idea of plays, of dressing up like adults when it was obvious I wasn’t going to be treated like one in real life. I wanted to be innocent, but I wanted to be wise. It was the first time I had ever noticed the difference.
But because it was the first time, it was only temporary; within fifteen minutes it seemed an intense overreaction and the play was once again the priority. Even when the phone rang and Mum, Dad, Uncle Alex and Aunt Bee all left in a hurry, we just assumed they were going out to buy some last-minute presents. The time of the year seemed irrelevant now. We were going to celebrate Christmas and that was that.
Four grown-ups gone meant four kids in an empty house—it meant we could eat whatever we wanted out of the fridge. We could stand up on our toes and steal the warm soft drink cans from the top shelf in the shed. And it meant we didn’t have to worry about being bombarded with the usual adult questions, how’s school and have you made any new friends and all those jaw-grinding pleasantries—at last it was we could, we could, instead of we wish we could.
‘The play could be set in the bathtub, it could be—‘
‘Could be about a man stuck in the pantry! We’d need some—‘
‘It could be set in the lounge room—‘
‘It could be set in every room!’
It was unclear who said it; it was probably Aisha. What is clear is that we stopped moving then and just stared at each other. A play that needed every room; a play that needed the audience to follow it around, to make it alive! It was going to be even better than The Lion King! Aisha announced this whilst balancing precariously on the very top of the couch, grinning like a Cheshire Cat, and her director’s enthusiasm reached for us like tree branches reach for the sides of houses. If we were those houses we would have opened our windows and let her in—damn it all, we were those houses and her branches had woven through every room and up through the chimney to the clouds. The play was ready in just under an hour, complete with a heroic death. We flew outside to the veranda and trembled with the sense of what was coming.
When the two cars rolled down the driveway, tailed by a third, we grinned at each other because now our audience would be even bigger and the applause louder. It was our other Aunt and Uncle who had joined us. They opened their doors sluggishly and fumbled with their faces before they got out; another car arrived and suddenly both sets of grandparents were in sight. Step by step they materialised, like all the animals must have for Mufasa as he waited up on Pride Rock. And we were ready too, to present our play to them like Rafiki thrusts Simba up into the air, see this, this is what we have done and love it please and love us thankyou.
‘Guess what?’ Hat called out.
Lex took a couple of steps forward and yelled, ‘We’re putting on a play!’
Mum was inside the gate and said, ‘Honey, wait—’
‘It’s going to take up the whole house!’
I took the reins, beaming, turning around to point through the lounge room window. ‘First you’ve got to stand in the—’
There was a hand clamped over my mouth; there was a warm, cosy wall of person that smelled like Mum, an arm like a shawl around my shoulders, a nose pressed to the side of my face where my hair met my cheeks. I got the sense that she wanted to lift me up and carry me away, but that she doubted her own strength.
‘It’s not the time for a play, honey,’ she murmured. ‘You know how Cousin Tom was in a wheelchair?’
I nodded, and her hand dropped from my mouth.
‘Well, we were just at the hospital. He died a little while ago. So everyone’s quite sad at the moment, okay?’
‘Can you take the other kids into the playroom for me?’
‘Please don’t tell them what’s happened, not yet.’
‘Thank you honey.’ There were dry lips pressing against my forehead. She took a step backwards and I had one final, desperate impulse to complain—but don’t you see, I am the hand and you are the yoyo, you’re supposed to come back up!—before it consumed itself. And then everything was cold. My cousin had been eight years older than me, so I knew of him more than I knew him, and I’d always assumed everyone was just overreacting and that he wasn’t really going to die. But there it was, my coloured-in picture, my sliver of wisdom that I’d hungered for. And it was a puncture in the lungs. It was being belted in the stomach. It was turning the shower off and forgetting to brace yourself for when the air freezes your skin over like a glacier.
It was nowhere near Christmas, I remembered numbly. It was only August.
I dragged Aisha, Hat and Lex away from the front steps, through the glass doors to the playroom, and explained that we couldn’t do the play. Hat burst into tears and Lex almost punched a hole in the wall—but Aisha didn’t move from her seat. She looked exactly like I had when no-one would tell me the truth; like she needed someone to colour in the picture for her.
But I did what I was told. I kept down the words, and I shook my head limply, and this is what I have to do and Tom died and I’m scared and cold and stop asking please and still love me thankyou.
Jess Miller was born in Victoria and is about to begin her third year as a BCA Creative Writer. A lover of all things British, especially accents, she aspires to one day live in Scotland and write about the most interesting people she can find. For a bookworm, she spends far too much time watching television.
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