When Dad was still here, I was his favourite. That’s not me being stuck up or anything—it’s what he used to say to me all the time. He had this thing of almost never meeting your eyes when you talked to him, but whenever he said this he would put down whatever little wooden toy he was sanding and look right at me. Even through his glasses his blue eyes pierced. “Penny,” he’d say, “Margaret’s your mum’s favourite. That’s just how it is. But that’s ok. Because you’re mine.”
The year before he died, Dad and I spent most evenings in his shed out the back. He sat at his bench and worked on his wooden toys, and I would sit in Granddad’s armchair and read. All of Dad’s books were in the shed—Mum had made him move them out of the house years ago—so there were overstuffed shelves and bookcases lining all the walls. The low bookcase by my armchair doubled as a coffee table, somewhere to put my cups of Milo. If I was writing in my diary, he knew not to disturb me, but if I was reading and ‘making faces’ he would always ask me what was wrong with the book, and I’d make my usual teenage know-it-all complaints about how the protagonist’s dialogue was just so unbelievable, and he would laugh and nod his head. Sometimes, when the mood took him, he’d drag an old deckchair out of the corner and sit by me and read too, our two dark heads together in the warm yellow glow of his single benchtop lamp.
Once, Mum asked me, “What are you two doing out there in that shed?” Margaret looked up from her bowl of cake batter and stopped stirring.
“Nothing,” I replied.
“You’re not doing nothing,” Mum said. Mum was prickly with me at the best of times, but there was something weirdly aggressive about her now. “What are you doing in there?”
I decided to humour her, this once. “I’m reading, and Dad’s working on his toys.”
Mum rolled her eyes. “Those bloody toys.”
“Mum,” Margaret said, “what do I do now?”
“Grease that tin there, darl. Look,” she said to me, “you tell your dad to stop wasting his time in there with his toys. What kind of grown man plays with toys anyway?”
“He’s not playing with them, he’s making them. He’s been getting calls from people who actually want to buy his stuff.”
"He has! He told me!”
“Well, he hasn’t told me, which means he knows those stupid little ponies are a waste of time.”
“They are not!” I loved Dad’s wooden ponies—the first one he’d ever made had been a present for me.
“He spends more money getting materials for those things than he’ll ever earn from selling them,” Mum said flatly. “Pour the batter into the tin,” she told Margaret.
I went out the kitchen door, Mum nagging me to do something about that bloody hair of mine as I went. When I entered the shed, Dad put down his cellphone. “Someone else wanting to buy your horses?” I asked.
“Horses of courses,” he replied. Then he noticed the look on my face. “Your mum?” he asked.
“Just—“ I shook my head. “It’s nothing. Just Mum being Mum.”
“Well,” and he looked into my eyes, “no matter what she says, you know you’re my favourite thing in the world. You’re my star.”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” I said, embarrassed. I sat down in my armchair and picked up a book.
It wasn’t just that Mum didn’t like me, or that she hated that I so clearly would have died before I became more like her. It was the way she treated Dad. She was a bully, plain and simple. One night, five or six months before the car crash, I woke up to hear Mum screeching at Dad for the umpteenth time. “You’re never here!” she yelled. “Even when you’re home, you bugger off to your bloody shed! If I knew you were going to spend all your time there, I never would have married you!”
Dad said nothing.
“What? That’s it?”
“Say something,” Mum hissed. “Just say something.”
Footsteps towards the front door. Dad’s tread—I recognised it. The front door closed behind him. Then I heard Mum turn the radio on, loud, and underneath that I could hear Mum putting dishes away. Cupboard doors and drawers began to slam.
The wake for Dad’s funeral was held at our house. Mostly I remember a lot of people in black, most of whom were friends of Mum’s, not friends of Dad’s. But then, Dad was never one for large groups of people, for endless numbers of friends. He wasn’t the kind of person who needed to be popular or liked. All he needed was a few people who understood him, who he could hold close. I’m the same way.
Eventually the crowd inside the house got too much for me and I escaped to the shed. But it didn’t occur to me until I entered how it would actually feel to be in Dad’s place with no Dad in it. Predictably, I closed the shed door, sat down in my armchair and cried and cried and cried. I don’t need to go over that. You’ve seen that before.
When I was done, I went to open the shed door and faintly heard Mum’s voice. I opened the door a crack and peeked out. She was standing in the backyard with a short plump woman with a brunette bob. A friend from church, I guessed. “We took out life insurance, so that’ll help,” Mum said. “And there’s all that rubbish in his shed. We can sell that. But I don’t know what I’ll do after. I’ll have to get some kind of job. God, I haven’t worked since I was nineteen. Not full time, anyway.”
“At least you’ve got your girls,” the church friend said.
“Well,” Mum said, “I’ve got Margaret. But Penelope’s always been her father’s. Always. That won’t change just because he’s dead.” Then she glanced in the direction of the shed, noticed the slightly ajar door, and walked over. I shrank back when she thrust the door open. “Of course,” she said. “You’re in here.” She looked around, at the shelves of books, at the armchair and the deckchair, at the boxes of sandpaper on the bench, at the half-finished pony lying on its side. She scoffed. “Get out here, right now,” she said. When I pushed past her, she shot me a look that told me I was on thin ice, and then she pulled a key out of her pocket, a silver key I never knew she had, and before I could say anything, she locked the shed door behind me. That’s when I knew it was over. That’s when I became an outsider in my own family.
As soon as she got a chance, Mum sold Dad’s stuff. I knew she was sneaking out there and collecting things while I was asleep, when I couldn’t do anything about it. I figured her out anyway. Not that it was hard. A few months after the funeral, I woke up in the middle of the night to hear the radio blaring from somewhere near the house. I opened the kitchen door and looked out. The music was coming out of the open shed door.
I don’t even remember crossing the backyard. All I know is I shoved the shed door open and there she was, sitting in his deckchair, with his radio on, tuned to a station he would have hated, with his low bookshelf standing half empty. A tartan-patterned duffel bag crouched at Mum’s feet, bloated with his books. “No,” I said. “You’re not doing this, you’re not selling his things, you’re not—“
She launched herself out of the deckchair (her cellphone slipped out of her lap and made a cracking sound as it hit the floor) and she pushed and shoved me back out the door. “Get in the house now,” she rasped. Her eyes were red.
The next day I found the tartan bag in her room. It was empty. And from then on the shed stayed locked.
I lasted through six months of “Do something about your hair! Take that ugly thing off! Would you stop with that bloody reading!” before I couldn’t stand it anymore.
Margaret found me in the backyard one afternoon after school, prying open the shed window with my fingers and a flat piece of hopefully strong wood. “Mum locked the door for a reason,” Margaret said.
“I don’t care,” I replied. The window was being stubborn. I took a second to consider, then smashed a glass square of the window with the piece of wood.
“Penny!” Margaret squeaked.
I used the piece of wood to clear away any pieces of glass from the frame, then reached in, undid the latch, pushed the lower half of the window up and slithered in head first, over Dad’s bench. I knocked ponies and old boxes of sandpaper off his bench as I awkwardly tumbled in.
One of the cardboard boxes rattled when I picked it up. There was a SIM card for a cellphone inside.
“If Mum asks why the shed window is broken, I’m not going to lie to her,” Margaret called through the window.
“I didn’t ask you to,” I said. “Go away.”
She flounced off. I pulled myself up and sat cross-legged on the floor of Dad’s shed, sitting in the single strip of sunlight from the window. I took my cellphone out of my school kilt pocket and swapped the SIM card in my cellphone for the SIM card in the box. I checked the inbox. Only one text message remained. “Call 707 to hear one new voicemail,” it read.
I called 707, of course. “You have one new voice message,” the nice robot lady voice said. “Message received on twenty—six—June, twenty thirteen, at four—fifty six—pm.” Scuffling. Then:
“Hi, it’s me.” A slow sigh. “I can’t believe I’m doing this. Look, I just—I just wanted to say I’m sorry. I honestly didn’t mean to pressure you. I know your situation’s really complicated, and I know you don’t want to leave your kids, especially Penny. Penny’s your favourite thing in the world, you’re not gonna leave her behind, I get that. It’s just—I don’t think you realise. See: you’re my favourite thing in the world. And not having you—“ A pause. Then the voice returned, throaty. “Not having you—it tears me up. And I just—If you really honestly feel like there’s no way you could get sole custody of Penny—if you really feel like the only way to stay with Penny is to stay with your wife—then I—I have to step away. I can’t—I can’t do this anymore. I’m sorry. I love you. I’ll always love you.”
Then the man hung up.
An hour later, the shed door opened. Mum stood in the doorway, looking down at me. I was still sitting on the floor like a little statue, my phone still in my hand. Margaret hovered behind Mum. “Go back inside the house,” Mum said to Margaret. Then, amazingly, Mum sat down on the floor opposite me, her legs crossed like mine. She picked up the now empty cardboard box by my knee, looked inside, then put it back down. Still looking at the box, she said, “Did your father really call you his favourite thing?”
My voice was all raspy. “Yes,” I said. “His favourite thing in the world. His star.”
She nodded. Then she looked at me, and this lingering weariness bloomed in her eyes, staying and staying like an ache in a bone that had broken once long ago, and had never really healed. Then very quietly, she said, “Lucky you.” ▼