Upon assembling my portfolio a few nights ago, I came across it again (of course, my stories never have the correct titles as their save names, so I opened it going, 'What on earth is this going to be?'). Here it is, for my lovely readers. I know I abandon you way too much. Don't forget about me, please!
About the Toes
My mother apparently told my father – before she had the real notion of dating him, that ‘young kid’ who couldn’t really speak English – that she refused to stay in the city forever. She was from Tallimba, a tiny town out in the middle of nowhere that breeds spiders as large as horses and thistles with points on all sides that’ll puncture a tyre if they have the inclination to. Tallimba is mostly red, with greying trees dotting the horizon, and with a dam that’s a murky haze of blue and brown with sticks floating lazily on the top. The only real colour out there comes from her mother’s roses, and they have patches of brown lurking on the leaves, just waiting to conjure the pinks and oranges into their monotonous outback palette. My grandparents, too, have conformed to a sepia-toned life – my grandmother’s flowered housedresses are crafted in muted browns, while the colours in her husband’s neatly pressed trousers and shoes match the rusting tin found covering his work shed.
My mother must have tired of sepia with flashes of russet, tired of the people she’d met who were all one and the same. When she turned 16, she fled to Sydney to find someone different, to find something new. Unimpressed by greys and blacks, she decided to move further along the coast.
She was with my father in a pub one night, and it was there she told him about the town she had decided to move to. It was a place called Wollongbar. “My grandmother lived there,” she said. “It’s nicer than here, because there’s grass and water and the people are better.”
My father, having grown up in Santiago but occasionally visiting his grandma on a farm out in Concepción, liked this notion of a place with grass and water. (He liked my mother more than he liked that notion, however, but wisely decided to keep that to himself.) My mother eventually chose him as her ‘someone different’ (she couldn’t see a similarity between her father and mine, and decided that this was for the best). They had been married for 5 years before hauling my brother and I to Wollongbar.
It’s small, and certainly green. No matter where you go, grass is the preferred floor covering. They recently built a new bypass through a paddock, and as though to compromise for the wide expanse of bitumen now plonked where there were once cows and the occasional horse, they made the dividing wall – highway to bypass – from grass. Rather than roads commanding space and demanding that trees move for them, the roads snake around trees and hills politely. You physically can’t get to the shops without traipsing through grass. My father hated that. He fully embraced his new ‘country’ lifestyle when we moved, as though this move was the thing that set him apart from other Chileans in their quest to become Australian. He went driving around the little towns near our little town to find a proper Akubra hat, an act my mother was slightly horrified by. He bought a pair of thongs and hid his sneakers in the wardrobe, carefully encased in layers of plastic so spiders wouldn’t think to hide in them. He decided he wanted to become a farmer, and that we should buy some cows and take them to market. (Thankfully, my mother is a pragmatic woman and also frightening when she wants to be, so there were no cows in our backyard.) However, when it came to walking to the shops of a morning, when the grass was lusciously dewy and the magpies were coming out to warble on the power lines, Dad preferred to drive.
“But it’s a five minute walk,” my mother protested. “You just walk along the highway and cut through a paddock. How hard is that?”
“If it’s a five minute walk, it’d be a one minute drive,” he said, possibly thinking he could drive through the paddock to avoid the grass.
“You’re not taking the car. Honestly, Mauricio, just walk. Take the kids with you.” She gestured at us – probably wrecking all her good furniture, if her retellings are anything to go by – and returned to her book.
So Dad took us to the shops, shoes tightly laced and hats jammed on our heads, legs pale from years of being encased in Sydney smoke. We toddled along the highway, passing the twenty-or-so cars that we’d later describe as “lots of traffic”. And Dad’s step began to falter as we reached the paddock and as the footpath stopped.
My brother and I didn’t care, and we continued on through the paddock. Our sneakers were wet? They would dry. Grass seeds were caught on our neatly rolled socks? Mum was magic, so she’d probably get them off.
Dad, however, cared a lot. His brand new thongs were shiny, and he hadn’t lost enough of his city ways to not care about that. His toes were also dry. He liked dry toes. But he carried the wallet, and his wife was waiting at home for some bread and eggs. So, he stepped into the paddock, toes curled upwards, and tried to flee through the grass whipping around his knees.
Chris and I were prancing around in the car park, being the idiot children we were, when we saw our father approaching. The upward-turned toes method hadn’t worked, and he had (inexplicably) thought to inch across the paddock on tip-toe. Chris and I stared at him, all prancing forgotten, as his toes dug into the red dirt beneath the grass; each step looked as though it was causing him more pain. Worse, he had to go back through the paddock to get home, and the look on his face showed that he had also realised this fact.
When he finally reached us, we silently reached for his hands, and went to buy our eggs and bread.
Fifteen years later, he still has not gotten past this, and he gleefully bought a pair of steel-capped boots to brave the paddock. That, combined with an old pair of soccer shorts, his Universidad Catolica de Chile shirt, and his floppy sunhat (the Akubra mysteriously vanishing a year after he bought it), has led to vast amounts of amusement on all our parts.
I came home for a week recently, and Dad decided to take me to the beach. Lennox Head’s beaches have so many blues that there aren’t words to describe them. My father is the only male I know to own more shoes than I do, except that his shoes are actually useful rather than purely purchased for aesthetic reasons, and the day we went to the beach he wore a pair of grey mesh water shoes. I hadn’t seen a pair of those since he’d forced them on me as a child. “Shoes at the beach?”
He didn’t respond, but kept squelching along on the wet sand, dodging the waves.
“What’s the point of going to the beach if you’re going to wear shoes and not go in the water?”
He shot me a glare. “You know exactly why.”
Of course, there was only one outcome. I hooked my arm in his. “It’s nice to be down home,” I said, casually veering deeper into the water.
“I’m glad you’re back.”
“The water’s nice.”
And a wave came, soaking Dad to his knees.
I might have gotten dunked in revenge, but watching my father gingerly step across the sand on tiptoe as he futilely attempted to drain his shoes made everything worth it.
Of all the things my father protects, his toes take the cake. For reasons I still don’t understand, he feels the insane need to protect everyone else’s toes. I remember the look of horror he gave me when I returned home from a day in the park across the road from our new place. Maybe he suspected the park was laden with syringes and I’d come home, doped to my eyeballs and with HIV, but all that happened was my feet were covered in the Northern Rivers’ trademark volcanic dirt. I bounded inside, and Mum rolled her eyes. “Oh, go wash your feet.”
Dad stared at my feet. “How did they get so… dirty?”
“She’s a child, Mauricio, they’re meant to get dirty.”
The next day at the park, Dad accompanied me. He wore sneakers, with laces tied in a complicated knot that only he knows the method for. He had, much to my disgust, crammed my feet in my own sneakers, complete with frilly socks. “Your feet won’t get dirty this way,” he explained. “Your toes can stay clean.”
My mother, after seeing me leave the house like this one too many times, hid my sneakers.
He gave me my first pedicure, having had to paint his mother’s nails frequently as a teenager. “Don’t your nails look nice?” he said, gesturing to the red polish. “You don’t want to ruin that.”
Seeing my nails chipped in two days seemed to physically pain him.
But, despite my mother’s original reluctance to date my father, their eventual marriage seems to be something that works – and not only because they’re so different they cancel each other’s weirdness out. Dad and Mum went to visit her parents in auburn Tallimba with the Acromantulas (“Tash,” Mum sighs as I read this to her, “you sell this place so well”).
One morning, Dad walked into the kitchen to see my grandpa sitting by the open fire. Dressed already in slacks and a white button-down shirt, Grandpa was putting on shoes and socks. Dad stared, awed. Despite being a farmer since he was 14, Grandpa’s feet were lily-white. As he rolled on his thick socks, he met my father’s gaze.
“Don’t like things getting on my toes,” he said quietly.
Dad looked down at his own feet, in pristine white sneakers that wouldn’t stay that way for long. “Yeah, I know what you mean.”