Her Baby Brother

At the start of every lunchtime the girls gathered in the toilet. They looked at themselves in the mirror and adjusted their ponytails, scooping them as high up on their heads as possible. They pulled their tops tight and stood sideways to the mirror, to see who had the biggest chest.

"Don Johnson is such a spunk," Foutini announced with authority.

Nichola didn't know who that was.

"Don't you watch Miami Vice?" Preti was shocked.

Nichola didn't watch any TV shows after dinner because that's when Dad watched his news programs. Nichola's chest was still flat, no matter how tightly she pulled back her tee-shirt. The girls always talked about TV shows and pop stars she didn't know or care about, and the boys talked about footy and cricket players she didn't know or care about.

Nichola wandered out of the girls' toilets towards the monkey bars. Gina was on top of the highest climbing frame groaning again. She was a girl in Nichola's class but Nichola hadn't previously paid her much attention. Gina wore the same red Adidas tracksuit every day and always tied her hair in a long black messy plait, with wisps flying out. She also had a disconcerting habit of staring at people without blinking.

Gina groaned one more time, followed with a shriek so loud it hurt Nichola's ears. Then she pulled a grubby doll out from under her tracksuit top and threw it at Nichola. It landed at her feet. The doll was naked and missing one leg. Its hair was matted and waxy, pushed out at an odd angle like an old broom.

"It's a girl," said Gina, deadpan.

Nichola leaned the doll against a tree and climbed to the top of the monkey bars to sit next to Gina. They could see across the entire playground from there.

"I had a baby brother and he died," Gina said.

"How?" asked Nichola.

Gina looked at her without saying a thing.

"Do you watch Miami Vice?" Nichola asked.

"No, I don't," Gina replied, "I don't watch any TV. I just knit."

"Knit?"

"Yes. I'm making a blanket for my dead baby brother."

"Why?"

"Cos he never had a blanket and he might be cold. Come to my house after school and I'll show you."

At first Nichola thought Gina wanted to show her the dead brother, but then she realised she was talking about the blanket. Gina's house was a lot like Nichola's, and the rest of the houses in the suburb, but it was messier. It needed painting and some other repairs. The lawn needed mowing. The grass and plants were more faded than the neighbours', but there was character in that house. It reminded Nichola of art.

Gina's mum was a sad-eyed chain-smoking woman.

"I'm showing Nichola my blanket," Gina told her.

Mrs Petrakis nodded but didn't say anything.

"Come into my room," Gina said to Nichola.

Gina's bed was unmade and her wardrobe doors were open. There were no pictures of pop stars, movie stars or footy players on her walls. Instead there were hundreds of drawings of dogs. All sorts of dogs drawn in all sorts of styles, some realistic, some cartoons, some graffiti-style, some weird Picasso style and some in the uneven hand of a little child. Nichola stared at a picture of a red setter, proud-headed, running along, his tail flying behind him like a sail. Splendid, was the word that popped into Nichola's head.

"Did you draw all these?" she asked.

"Yes," answered Gina. "I've been drawing dogs since I was six."

"Do you like dogs?"

Gina stared unblinkingly at Nichola, who quickly felt uncomfortable and shifted her gaze back to the dogs.

Eventually Gina spoke. "Have you ever seen a dog running at the park? They look more happy in five seconds than a human does in a whole year."

This time Nichola met Gina's gaze and saw that her eyes weren't sad like her mum's, but they also weren't happy like a dog's. Gina's walls were busy with dogs and her floor was busy with woolly blanket. It was huge, much bigger than the doona on Nichola's parents' bed. It was knit with a variety of wools, in an array of colours that didn't necessarily match. Some of the knitting was tight and some was loose and gappy, some was full of mistakes and some was perfect like you'd find in a shop, some even had simple patterns. Gina sat on her bed, picked up her needles and started knitting.

Nichola watched in silence for a few minutes before asking, "When's it going to be finished?"

Gina looked up. "I don't know, but I will know when it is."

"What are you going to do with it?"

"I'm going to take it to the hospital, to the fridge room where they keep the people who've died and cover them up so they can all be warm."

Nichola didn't know what to say. After a moment of silence, filled only by the clicking of knitting needles, Gina said, "My baby brother died when I was six. His name was Fizzy."

"That's a strange name."

"It's the name I call him."

"What's his real name?"

Gina didn't answer the question. Instead she said, “Fizzy, like lemonade that's so good you're only allowed a little bit every now and then."

Gina stared into space before continuing, "When I grow up, I'm going to get a dog. I haven't decided the breed yet though."

Then she returned to her knitting, so entranced that Nichola saw herself out.

"Bye, Mrs Petrakis," she said as she made her way through the ashy kitchen.

Gina's mum looked up but didn't say anything.

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