Lucy found the photo, and looked at her mum’s breasts for the first time.
It had been nestled between the pages of Cloudstreet, a white-edged Polaroid of mum sprawled in bed amid a tumble of twisted sheets. Her face is beaming beatific with the haze of morning pinking her cheeks; her shoulders are smooth and brown and perked below are two magnificent mammary mounds.
She is young in this photo, Lucy thought, a little bit older than I am now.
Her eyes are without webbings of crow’s feet, hair cut short and punkish with an easy smile. Lucy thought, she looks beautiful, and was surprised that tripping over this notion was the realization; I look just like her.
Lucy’s own nipples are the same dusky dark rose, with a light framing areola. Both of their nipples are flattened and large, and their breasts also look to have the same heft; a clearly comfortable C-cup that drooped when left without support.
Lucy wouldn’t say it of her own, but her mum’s tits were beautiful. They looked the way all those old romance novels described, the bodice-rippers her mum used to keep on the top shelf when Lucy was younger. She’d gotten her hands on a few when she was nine and fascinated by the bulging pectorals and tree-trunk thighs of the dashing heroes. In those books, boobs were always described like food – creamy and frothing above the lace edging of the gown. Or else they were painted painfully, all heaving and straining against the confines of the corset.
In this photo, Lucy’s mum gave all those damsels in distress and swooning sisters a run for their money.
‘Come help me bring the groceries in!’
At the shout, Lucy hastily tucked the photo back between the pages, and walked to the kitchen table where her school bag was slung.
Just as she was shoving the orange-edged book away, her mum came waddling in with hands full of plastic bags.
‘Luc, go to the car and grab the rest of the food please?’ she asked, tottering into the kitchen.
Lucy did as she was told, and when she came back inside her mum was already stacking soup cans in the pantry.
Lucy watched her. She watched her mother reach up, the shirt she wore clinging and stretching across her flattened chest. She watched her mum bend down and pick up another can, shirt gaping open in front to reveal no bra and nothing to hold even if she did wear one.
‘You right there, darl?’ her mum asked, and Lucy blinked at her, and then stretched out her arm to offer the can she was clutching.
‘Yeah, English reading.’ Lucy replied.
‘What are you reading?’ her mum asked, bending and gaping again.
‘Cloudstreet,’ Lucy mumbled, transfixed by the emptiness down her mum’s shirt.
For a moment her mum stopped stacking, she straightened and smiled so beautifully at Lucy that she almost resembled that bare-chested punk from the Polaroid.
‘I love that one,’ said on a sigh. ‘I should read it again some time.’
Lucy just nodded.
‘I’ll have a copy on the shelf,’ her mum said, ‘feel free to borrow it if you want.’
That night, after dinner and the nightly news and mum and dad arguing over how to stack the dishwasher, Lucy went to her room claiming homework.
She locked the door, took off her t-shirt, unclasped her bra and cupped her breasts. She splayed her cold hands around the tender orbs and squeezed. They felt smooth as petals but fit to burst like water balloons. She jiggled and bounced them, watched in the mirror as they swayed and swung. She leant forward and let them hang like pendulums. She ran light fingers across her nipples and watched them pucker then extend. Biting her lip, she pinched and twisted then rubbed in circles.
She lay her hands over both boobs, spread like she was hand-painting, and then she pressed them to her chest. She tried to level them as much as she could, squishing them to her body to try and press the roundness to flat terrain. And then she looked at herself in the full-length mirror and tried to imagine not having boobs, just like her mum.
Lucy knew the story. She knew the little kid version and the grown up truth.
Mama was sick while Lucy was growing inside.
Invasive Lobular Carcinoma.
Mama didn’t want Lucy to get sick too.
An invasive cancer that spreads through the tissue of the breast.
So, Mama waited. She waited until little Lucy was ready to come out and then she decided to take her medicine.
The tumour spread.
Mama took her medicine and she got better.
Mastectomy was recommended.
Mama got better for good.
Lucy’s family photo album is stuttering; full of stops and starts and gaps. There are photos of her as a red wrinkled babe, swaddled in blanket. Pictures of her mum holding her close, and her dad smiling proud. Flip through a little farther though and you’ll see a single shot of her mum with tubes up her nose and a weak hand waving floppily at the camera, a tired smirk on her face.
And then there’s a pause. Hardly any photos of Lucy and her mum in the beginning years. Lucy’s baby photos are posed with her dad or by herself; newborn in the bath and sucking on her toes, atop daddy’s shoulders and biting his nose.
Lucy has hardly any memories of her mum from when she was younger. She remembers wearing floaties in the pool with dad, and riding Puffing Billy with him too. But her mum is out of focus in these memories. She’s the person behind the camera, or waving from the platform.
Mum doesn’t swim they would say. Not today, pumpkin was her mum’s go-to reply.
One mummy memory Lucy does have is seeing beneath her bathers one day, at the beach, when Lucy was six and her mum was feeling brave.
Her dad was turning blue trying to puff up Lucy’s floating lady-bird toy, and mum had been sweating in the front seat watching him wheeze.
‘I think I’ll go in today,’ her mum said to no one.
Lucy squealed. Her dad stopped puffing and said something to mum that Lucy can’t remember now. And then her mum got the towels. She’d rigged them up between the car doors; the front door and back door opened and the windows wound a little down to tuck a towel between the two.
When she changed Lucy into her bathers and floaties and rash-vest her mum just did it in the middle of the parking lot, who cares who sees? But when her mum needed to get changed she had to make a fitting room in the car park.
Lucy’s dad was puffing and the lady-bird wasn’t getting any bigger. The waves were making the sound of sea-shells and Lucy could see other little kids putting their toes in the surf. She wanted to go in the water right now, so she went to tell mum. She ducked beneath the towel and saw her mum with bather bottoms on and nothing else.
Her mum had yelled. She’d grabbed the towels and wrapped herself up tight and then sat in the front seat of the car again, not talking to Lucy or her dad when they tried to coax her out to play.
Lucy never forgot knowing it looked painful.
The outline where her mother’s breasts once lay, still raised to give the impression of roundness, gone to waste.
The scar itself was puckered and pink, the width of a five-cent coin and slashed horizontal across the chest.
Slits instead of nipples.
One night Lucy was reading Cloudstreet on the couch in front of the telly.
‘Do you like it, Luc?’ her mum asked, pulling her eyes away from the dancing stars.
‘Yeah, yeah, it’s really good. I’ve cried a bit.’
‘Good,’ her mum smiled, and went back to watching the glittering starlets.
Lucy watched her mum watching the twirling woman in a rhinestone bustier, all big hair and white teeth.
‘You should read it again, mum.’
Her mum nodded.
‘No, really,’ Lucy said, and her mum looked over at her with a frown. ‘It’s just that it’s really good and I’d talk to you about it after, once you’ve read it again.’
‘Okay, darl. Leave it for me when you’re done and I’ll give it another read.’
And the next day and every day till the end of term Lucy bought her mum’s breasts to school, nestled between the pages of Cloudstreet.
She couldn’t say why. Why she wanted her mum’s cleavage with her when she read Fish and the Pickles’, the drowning and the Shifty Shadow. She didn’t show anyone her mum’s photo, as if! She just wanted it there, to remind her of something she couldn’t remember to never forget.
When Lucy got to the last day of term she bought the book home. She read the beginning again, then flipped to the end and got out her pen.
She removed her mum’s Polaroid from between the pages, turned it over and wrote; Do you miss them? on the back in a scratchy scrawl.
Lucy tucked the photo inside ‘Cloudstreet’, resting at the chapter of ‘Dwellingplace’.
© Danielle M. Binks 2011
This story placed second in Express Media’s 2011 John Marsden Prize for Young Australian Writers