It’s Called Wartime by Rowan Chestnut

[dropcap]G[/dropcap]randma has a face like whipped cream. When she sleeps, reclined in Dad’s old couch, her thick snores jangle the winkles in her skin and the whipped cream dances. Grandma has lived with us ever since Dad was taken. She came to look after my sister and I. Grandma has three teeth missing from the left side of her mouth and uses the hole to smoke cigarettes. One sits there now, caught between gum and lip, smoldering, threatening to drop at any moment.

Wrapped tightly around my waist are the cold arms that are attached to my mother’s warm spongy body. She rests her chin on my shoulder and slowly rocks me backward and forward. On the floor my sister is playing with blocks. She stacks them up, high as she can, till they loose balance and fall. Grandma stirs, opens one eye and looks straight at me. The eye rolls back into her skull and she is asleep once more.

Before Dad left he gave me a turtle, I named him Alfredo. He likes to snap at flies, extending his rubbery neck from the shell and tracking his prey. The last thing Dad ever said to me was “Don’t forget to walk your turtle.” So every morning I take Alfredo to the park and back.

Beside the swings there is a giant plastic palm tree with the words ‘Willow Park’ written on it. Apparently Willow was some adventurer who found the park and used the land to farm flamingos before the war began and the flamingos were taken away, this is what Grandma tells me anyway. Now the park is just three swings that overlook a dirty, rubbish filled damn.

The air turns to patches of fog as I breathe. It rises up into the sky and looks like I’m smoking.  Dad would smoke all the time. I remember his jacket always smelt of cigarettes and leather. When he carried me on his shoulders it would crinkle and groan like a saddle, I would curl my hands in his hair and pretend that I was riding a wild animal.

“You have eyes like my son.” Says Grandma between mouthfuls of runny mashed potato. “A chin like your mother though, it’s all bony.” Grandma pushes the plate of mashed potato towards me. “Eat more,” she says. “You need to build your strength, grow big and strong like your father. Go on, eat, you’re all skin and bone.”

I look over at mum with her bony chin and watch as she cuts steak into thin strips, then again into little cubes. Blood seeps out of the pink middle and pools on the edge of her plate. My sister is squishing spinach and pasta into a thick paste that she scoops up and applies to her face. She just sits there smearing yellow-green mush all over her. Occasionally some enters her mouth, but it soon slithers back out and dribbles down her bib.

After lunch we sit by the radio and listen to an old man with a whispery voice read out a list of names. Everyone keeps quiet and the house is silent save the reading of names and the clicking of Mum’s knitting needles. This is the only time Mum knits; since Dad left I have received two scarves and a jumper as result of her labor.

When the names have all been called Mum turns off the radio and waves me over. I sit on her lap while Grandma puts my sister down for a nap. Mum and I often sit like this, it’s like we’re waiting for something but we don’t know what.

The men come once a week dressed in black and gold. They hand out rations; meat and vegetables, sometimes there is candy. They come in a black truck, the same kind that took Dad away. They are always smiling. It’s strange though, like they are actually sad and don’t know what to do, so they just smile.

When they come Grandma swears at them. She throws rocks and sticks until Mum restrains her. They drop a package at our feet and then leave us. Their smiles still clear in our minds.

My sister is covered in poo, so is Mum.

“Do you even know how to look after children?” Grandma is standing behind Mum with her hands on her hips. “Ever since my son left you have been totally hopeless. What is your problem woman?”

Mum is kneeling on the ground with my sister in her arms who is crying. She doesn’t say anything.

“I ought to take both these children away from you.” Says Grandma. “Heavens, if I had a place to go I probably would.”

Mum turns to me and asks if I can help. I grab some towels from the closet and take my sister in my arms. A bubble of snot expands and pops in her nose. Grandma leaves the room

“No! Stop it! You can’t!”

Grandma is holding Alfredo over a pot of boiling water. His legs are moving underneath him as if he is falling in slow motion.

“It has to happen child.” Says Grandma. “Rations were scarce this week. If we don’t cook him we’ve got nothing to eat.”

“No!” I grab a knife off the counter and plunge it into Grandma’s thigh. She screams and lets go of Alfredo. Alfredo falls onto the counter and then drops to the floor. He bounces a few times on the kitchen tiles before coming to rest under the dining table. Mum comes running in. Grandma is lying on the ground. She is yelling at me and brandishing another knife. I grab Alfredo and run away, clutching the shell to my chest.

When the old man with a whispery voice reads out Dad’s name for a while nothing changes. Mum keeps on knitting and I play with Alfredo. Even after the whispery man has finished we stay like this. My sister, restless and ready for her nap, begins to gargle. I still remember looking over at Grandma, her figure coiled and hunched, nursing the wound in her thigh. Her bloodshot eyes stared straight at me before she licked her lips. “That fucking bastard.” She said. “That fucking hopeless bastard.”