Whenever Dad says something, Cass pretends not to hear him. Or maybe she really can’t hear him over her music. Either way, she’s made a choice not to listen. So, I’m the only one keeping up our end of the conversation as Dad tells us the story of Turia Pitt for the twentieth time. I don’t mind that much. It’s a good story. I just hope that ignoring him makes her feel better. Otherwise there wouldn’t be much point.
We couldn’t scrape up enough money to go to Amsterdam, but I’m okay with holidaying in Australia. There’s something intimate about driving through the bush with your family. It’s as if the view from the windows is a movie that’s being shown for the first time ever, just for us. We’re getting close to Katoomba now, and the landscape is changing. The air is cooler, the trees taller and lusher. The road that we’re travelling on dips and turns like the spine of a dancer, climbing further and further upwards into the mountains. In the last hour, clouds have appeared overhead, thin and pale and backlit by the sun. If it starts raining, then I’ll have to drive instead of Dad. I haven’t trusted him on wet roads since the accident.
“She didn’t let being nearly burnt alive stop her,” Dad says, “and I think that we can learn a lot from her can-do attitude.”
“That’s right, Dad,” I say.
It’s not difficult to make a few polite comments whenever he pauses, and to maybe ask a few questions. It doesn’t take a whole lot to keep him content. That’s what I like about Dad, I guess. He has simple needs.
“Cass?” Dad says. “I was talking to you. Cass?”
I reach over and tap Cass’s knee. She takes one earbud out, slowly. She shoots me a look that’s as sour as bad yoghurt. I can hear the bass of some heavy metal thing pulsing out of the earphones.
“Dad was talking to you, Cass.”
“Is this about Turia Pitt?” She has a sleepy, slurred-together way of talking, as if each word takes more effort than she can be bothered putting in. She doesn’t talk like this around other people. Just me and Dad.
“Yeah. Do you want to listen?”
Cass turns her music off and turns to look out the window. “She was really pretty, once,” my sister says quietly. “Before she got burnt, she was really pretty. Now she’s really ugly. If I was that ugly, I’d kill myself.”
“That’s not a very good attitude to have!” Dad says.
“She’s beautiful now,” I say, before Dad can launch into a speech, “but she was beautiful then, too.”
“She has great breasts!” says Dad.
I start laughing, loudly, uncontrollably. I want to stop laughing, but I can’t. He grins at me in the rear-view mirror, delighted with his joke.
“Oh my gosh, Dad. You’re not funny!”
“I wasn’t trying to be funny,” Dad says. He’s still laughing. Cass is not laughing.
“Sexism,” she cuts in crisply, “is never funny. Jokes about women’s private parts? Are not funny. The average thirteen-year-old boy has better social skills than you do. Grow up.”
“I wasn’t trying to be funny,” Dad repeats.
I frown at Cass and shake my head, warning her to keep quiet. She gives me an acidic smile and bats her eyelashes at me. Cass’s social skills used to be worse than his are now. She taught herself how to behave, starting from nothing. And Dad just isn’t capable of that.
We last talked about it just before we left on holiday. About an hour before we were due to leave, I was in the kitchen at home, packing food into Coles shopping bags and the esky. It was nice stuff, far nicer than what we’d usually have, too nice for us to be able to get it in Katoomba. Scallops, sugar plums, artichoke hearts. Paneer, soft and white and creamy. Cardamom pods, bitter green and bushfire black. I packed up the food as efficiently as I could, each item taking up as little space as possible. Cass was standing in the doorway, watching me. I didn’t notice she was there until she made a small noise to get my attention. She was wearing a long-sleeved shirt in the thirty-degree heat. I don’t know why. It wasn’t like there was anyone in the house who hadn’t seen the scars.
She nodded at me, fiddling with her watch strap. I didn’t know if she wanted to talk or not. She walked over to the bench and flopped down on one of the barstools. I figured that it was best to wait for her to tell me why she was upset before saying too much. Sometimes it’s wise to taste a dish before adding more ingredients.
“Do you want to help me pack?”
Cass shook her head. She was sitting slumped forward on her stool, like she’d been deboned.
“I hate him,” she said.
I bent down to tuck a can of dolmades into the shopping bag. When she straightened up, she was looking at me like she expected an answer.
“He can’t help how his brain works,” I said carefully.
“I can’t help how my autistic brain works, can I?”
A few years ago, Cass’s social skills were noticeably bad. She was shunned at school and didn’t have many friends. She taught herself social skills by reading parenting books. A lot of people would have stopped trying. Cass didn’t.
“I read about this guy the other day,” she continued. “He was in a car accident, too. Similar injury to what Dad got. His cerebellum got shot to shit. He went to see a specialist, and a few years later, he’d written an award-winning novel. Other areas of the brain had taken over from where the cerebellum left off.”
“You don’t know that that could work for Dad.”
“You don’t know that it couldn’t. He won’t even try anything, Laura. He’s in denial.”
“And maybe you’re just going to have to accept that,” I said.
Intelligence has never been the most important thing to me. It’s enough for someone to mean well, and to try and be kind.
“His little girl is in pain. That’s what he’s thinking about. You’re his little girl, and he wants to help you.” I walked around the bench to where Cass was sitting.
“Try treating him how you would have treated your younger self.”
Cass sat up straighter. “I’m not like him.” She grabbed onto her left arm, sinking her fingernails deep into her skin. “I’m nothing like him.”
“I never said you were.”
“Dad does not have autism. What he has is nothing like autism.”
She slid off her stool and walked out. I didn’t follow her. I’ve always had a rule that Cass should try and make herself feel better, and I wasn’t about to change the rule then. I just hoped that she wouldn’t cry too loudly. It would’ve upset Dad.
The GPS says that we have another fifteen minutes before we reach the town. It’s a quarter past five, and the daylight is starting to seep down towards the western shoulder of the mountain. Dad is still going strong on Turia Pitt. Cass is picking pits of skin off her lips and flicking them onto the floor.
“You can control how you feel,” Dad is telling us. “Your thoughts control your feelings, and you control your thoughts. So if you want to start feeling better right now, then-”
“Dad,” says Cass, “will you shut up?”
Dad is looking at the road, so I can’t see his face. “I’m just trying to help you,” he says. His voice has gone all high-pitched and squeaky. “Why won’t you let me help you?”
“I’m not actually that upset,” Cass says. I know that she’s talking to me, and not Dad. “About the diagnosis, I mean. Labels don’t mean anything to me. I’m upset because I’m grieving for my past. I want my childhood back. That’s why I tried to do it.”
“My heart bleeds,” Dad says. He sounds like he might be going to cry. He often gets weepy when Cass talks like this.
“Dad, I wasn’t talking to you.”
“Why don’t we stop the car?” I ask. “And everyone can just walk about and calm down for a few minutes?”
“Why are you so mean to me?” Dad says.
“Dad, maybe we should all just be quiet. I don’t think that Cass wants to talk.” He takes a breath, as if he’s about to say something. “Just hold that thought, Dad. Save it for later, okay?”
“Let’s talk about this later, okay?”
Dad says nothing.
Cass puts her earphones in and turns to look out at the trees. It’s gotten dark enough, so Dad has put the headlights on. I don’t know how to help her; only Cass knows that, and she’s not telling anyone. I watch her watch the world as it rushes past outside, dark and cold and green-smelling through the open window. If this place was a dish, it would taste spicy and milky and a bit sweet. If this place was a dish, then it would leave a taste for a long time after you’d swallowed. Cardamom country.
Hannah Vesey is a second year Creative Writing student with a passion for eavesdropping on strangers’ conversations. She wants her work to foster empathy, create connections and help people understand each other a bit more. She’s currently working on her first novel.