Occasionally, when the yelling became unbearable, Gem found herself in the arms of a distant lover, sometimes hiking through the forest that backed her yard that she’d grown to know so well. Often, she found herself in the shack by the beach where Beatles records played, and puzzles were completed in a matter of days. It was a hundred years old, at least, that house. The first whiff of the musty air upon arrival was welcome, the true smell of holidays. The youngest of five, Gem was always sent to sleep in the back room – where mustiness was taken to a whole new level. The dampness had harnessed a nest of mold in the corner, but other than that it was a comfortable room. As Gem fell asleep, the thickness of the air used to worry her, but now, after experiencing such sterile sleeping conditions – the rock-hard mattress, the freezing air conditioner, the plain white walls – the back room was etched in her memory as a utopia of the past.
She returned to that room often, especially when she lay in bed with her eyes open, staring into the nothingness, her mind shackled by one thought clutching onto another. She imagined the walk from the room, down the hideously tiled floor – brown, to match the wooden paneling – into the kitchen, filled by the smell of freshly peculated coffee. She knew not to interrupt her mother during the peculation process – so usually, even when she was really young, she would fill her glass with orange juice and wait in the lounge on the velvet green couch for her mother to come in with vegemite toast. She knew not to talk until her mother had drunk at least half of the black, oily drink, her morning elixir. After that, there would be a smile and maybe a hug, sometimes some talk of dreams, or planning of the day ahead. She could feel the grip of her mother’s hand as they walked down the road to the milk bar, to buy an ice cream in the mid-summer heat. But as hard as Gem tried, she couldn’t imagine her mother’s face. This bothered her, so much that she was lurched away from her sunny daydream and became rudely aware of that the mattress underneath her, so hard that it bruised her hips when she lay on her side. She’d then lay awake for hours, eyes open, blinking every so often, when the air conditioner blew icy air in her direction. Sometimes, she would drift back into memories that were dipped in a soft summer glow, only to be jolted back to her hard bed after straining to see her mothers face. It was a rude awakening, and she realized that it was better to ride the darkness and loneliness, rather than pine after a reality that didn’t exist.