The cardboard sign is soggy with rain, the inked letters running like inching centipedes off the edges and dropping, armoured segment by segment, to pool in the brittle-sharp grass beneath.
I’ve parked behind a mustard yellow ute, rusty lace line its wheel hubs and the tyres are a tacky flat, merging into the asphalt like it had only meant to pause on this dark, dreary day, but instead gave a heavy sigh of defeat and died.
My car door sticks so I climb out the window and leave the keys in the ignition. The house is familiar though I’ve never been in this part of town before. The driveway is cocooned on both sides by gnarly paperbark trees, their skin peeling off in layered sheets. Someone (Mum? Nan? My year three teacher?) said spiders enjoy the trees’ creased patches of moist skin, like the corners of elbows and behind knees, to lay their eggs. Be careful, they said, when you strip the bark. They scuttle faster than an eye blink on their eight prickly legs. I never did mind spiders. The way they watch from dark corners or disappear between glances. From the branches hang the beards of old men, the hairy lichen trailing greenish-grey on the ground and twitching in the heavy wet air. It’s stopped raining, which is a blessing.
The tables are set up edges to points, odd angles and uneven on the cracked pavers lined with black-green moss. It’s a maze, twirling from the curb to the garage and back to the road, bargain hunters wandering the narrow paths like faded ghosts: avoiding eye contact, hands skimming over plastic, wood and bone.
Stacked high on the closest table are white dinner plates and bowls, edged with a periwinkle blue and chipped like someone’s tried to eat them. They’re the same set of tableware everyone must own at some point in their lives; Mum’s still using the set we grew up with and keeping the fragile faux china for Christmas lunch. Mum’s set’s missing a bowl I once threw during a teenage tantrum and I still ache remembering how she’d burst into tears afterwards. Mum was so fragile after the divorce.
There are crock-pots missing lids, a guitar with four strings and a touch lamp decorated in washed-out violets that I know, without being told, has three settings. I wonder if this one turns on and off by itself too?
There’s a saucer of yellow baby teeth, like tiny pills, sharp and jagged and smooth in spots and I palm a few teeth, letting them tinkle together. I was one of those lucky children who lost both front teeth at the same time and thrilled playing with the new gap with my tongue. A gold coin each seemed like all the money in the world and the Tooth-fairy had written a tiny note in writing so small I joked I needed a spyglass to read it. The cost for the teeth is a broken promise. How odd but I guess I have plenty of those. I let the teeth drop back in the saucer one at a time: plink, plink, plink.
My eye catches the familiar shape of an old record player, its needle snapped off and the plastic cover scratched, and beside it is a tiny pretty vial- a perfume bottle. Its tag is tied with a frayed faded red ribbon, marked Virginity in a shaky hand. Inside is a silvery liquid mixed with pink glitter and I swirl it gently to make it sparkle. It hums of innocence, naivety and awkwardness - a reminder that makes my neck flush.
First kisses hang off coat hangers amongst the mouldy fur coats, bristling as if they’re alive when I paw through them, and, I wonder, is my first kiss here? I lost it on a dare in a dark tent during a school camping trip when I was barely thirteen; chapped lips that tasted like strawberry lip balm and the onions we had on our burgers for dinner. These kisses are too wet and earnest to be mine.
Oh, and look at this! A jar of time lost from waiting at red traffic lights! I give it a shake and open it a pinch. It smells like cheap cigarettes and impatience; it sounds like Father’s tongue clicking against the roof of his mouth.
“I saw it first,” an elderly woman, long and thin like a weed, hisses lowly and jerks the jar from my hands. She screws the lid on until it squeaks and hugs it to her bony chest. She’s wearing a silky champagne-coloured nightie, like that of a young bride, a black trench coat flapping open with its belt drifting behind her from one loop like a tail.
“Sorry,” I murmur and scrub my wet palms against my jeans when she moves on towards the smells of summer stacked like records in a box: dew touched honeysuckle and mangos, cut grass after a storm, and sea salt. The woman’s nose wrinkles up in disgust and yet she lingers. I want to take a closer look too, but the woman makes me nervous so I follow the whispers instead.
“I want to be an astronaut,” a furless teddy murmurs, one glass eye shattered and the other hanging by a thread. His name was Casper. I thought he’d been lost during our move from Baranduda to Bankstown when I was small.
“A marine biologist,” says a bald Barbie. It had started off as a trim, but then I’d wondered what she’d look like with no hair. Mum hadn’t been impressed.
“Happy,” says a plastic dinosaur, its bumpy skin covered in permanent scribbles. My brother had drawn on all his toys.
“I’m sorry,” I say even though I don’t know why.
The toys are jumbled in a cardboard box beside the unwanted babies in pickle jars, their open pink mouths sending bubbles to the surface as their little fists bat against the glass. I adjust a topless top hat that sits askew on one of the jars so the baby can see out and I’m tempted to take one home, but the price tag makes me wince.
I reach the last of the tables butted up against the dimpled metal of a garage door, above it a warped basketball hoop set into the crumbling brick the colour of my mother’s bubble and squeak: the eggs and crushed tomatoes turning the mash a sunrise pink. It makes me nauseas and a little homesick.
A dog kennel is tucked beneath the table and I crouch to look inside. A little girl looks back. She tucks her blonde hair, light as fairy floss, behind her ears as she studies me, her little legs crossed at the ankle in torn purple tights. She plays with the burst skin of a yellow balloon still trailing its curled ribbon.
“This is my house. You’re too big to visit.”
The kennel smells like coppery rust and bleach.
“Oh, okay.” A strong wave of melancholy sweeps through me like a wave of lukewarm water and I ache to know why.
I hurry on, skimming over the wrapped birthday gifts never received, the empty pet collars with unfamiliar names and trays of broken Christmas ornaments sparkling like stars.
I pause at a dollhouse on the last table; its roof is missing and its dolls huddle on its porch looking uncertain where to go next. Beside it sits a basket labelled Grief 5o¢ full of marbles: cat’s eyes, clearies and clouds. No one would buy them-grief can only be given away. I try to swap one of my griefs for one more aged, its edges less jagged and tasting more like mothballs than salt. All I manage to do is refresh my own: a wet early morning darkness, a sudden jerk, a wail of tyres and a breathlessness that makes my chest ache and my limbs go numb.
I glance back towards my car, drawn to the sirens and flashing blue and red lights, and blink hard in the haze of the grey dawn. My car window is open and I can see myself stretched out over my steering wheel as if I’m just resting.
The old lady in the nightie steps up beside me, the little girl grabs my hand with sticky fingers.
“Oh,” I say.
We watch together as I’m taken away.