Cheryl By Sophie G. Whiting

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An odd family in-joke takes on a life of its own

The washing was left out in the rain, sopping masses of denim and wool. We blamed it all on Cheryl.

Mum constantly shuffles in her seat while she records videos with her whiteboard. Her natural environment was the classroom panopticon, fluttering from one tiny desk to another. But now, squeaky voices shout her name in glee through the computer screen every morning. Recuperating from last night’s cartoon binge, a couple kids loudly yawn. Dave’s off in the spare bedroom, entrenched in his empire of yellow paper folders and corporate jargon. Door closed, headphones on. Emerges for lunch and dinner. Texts me when he wants coffee.

I remember Cheryl’s introduction. A dirty coffee cup nestled deep amongst clean dishes. Dark drops staining the gleaming white plates on the lower rack. We all checked to see what had been hit by the coffee’s wrath, silently fuming. It was a break in the usual cycle of packing and unpacking the swaths of lunch plates and dinner bowls. We all wanted someone fresh to blame amidst the usual line-up of characters. But no one had the guts to admit it. If we all went along with it, it might as well be true. She became Cheryl the troublemaker, the scapegoat. I’ve never known anyone named Cheryl. The name conjures aging secretaries and outspoken grandmothers at family gatherings. Oh no, Grandma Cheryl’s spiked the punch again, what a rascal. She was once a high school sweetheart in a circle skirt, but since then time hasn’t been so kind. That’s our Cheryl. But it was a hard “ch”, like ‘cherry’. ‘It’s the bogan pronunciation’ Mum reasons. Cherry Red Cheryl.

I call Natalie on Tuesdays. She never keeps the same nail varnish for over a week. A Rolodex of colour, shimmering emeralds to childish pink. Obnoxious red clinked against her coffee cup. She put it up to her nose first, then paused. ‘I forgot to add the sugar’, she declared. Her pixelated eyes blank as she stared into the mug.Her bleached hair was up in a haphazard bun. My nervous system was off on holiday. We quickly ran out of things to talk about, but at least I got to see her. See pixels in the shape of her.

I stood in front of the sink, looking through a viewless window. The carrot tops were playing happy families in their ceramic dish on the windowsill. They were from a winter soup. A proper one. I even poached a chicken in spices, no need for the store-bought stock stuff. It made me understand those old recipe books: The Joy of Achieving Something. The remnants of my soup were doing very well on my altar of kitchen scrap seedlings. I didn’t remember giving them fresh water this morning. Turnips, carrots and swedes were boasting delicate leaves. Soon the roots will start fighting for space. If I give them dark safe soil, will I have a crop by next winter? The avocado forest outside looked quite welcoming. I read up on them and I need to wait ten years before I actually get an avocado from any of them. Behind me, the dining table gradually dissolves into a sea of puzzle pieces. I find a couple pieces on the floor. Bits of the Basket Case, the Jock, the Princess.

There was a little surprise awaiting me when I emptied out the recycling. A crunch under my feet. It hit my nose almost instantly, the sharp freshness of menthol. The mint had grown from under the house and started to peek out from the slats in the verandah. Directly in my path, as if it were placed there for me. An old Italian couple had lived in this house before us. They planted all the herbs they’d ever need. Most of them died off in the years when the house was empty. Almost as an act of spite, the rosemary and mint stayed strong. You could set them on fire and the bees would still return for spring flowers. Mint needs to be grown in pots, that’s the rule. Otherwise it’ll grow wild. Their roots are probably deep under the house, becoming the bedrock of the neighbourhood. Twisting highways curling under concrete and construction sites, stretching out over decades and postcodes. They persist under the rows of sealed-off kingdoms, with moat-like fences. I dumped the junk mail and envelopes into the recycle bin.

The streetlights drowned out the stars that night, making way for their own constellations. Slithers of soulless white light streamed through my window; and there was silence in its crispness. The stairway to the attic was neatly packed away above my head. A knock in the dark, then two. It sounded too close. A tiny crack caused a little column of dust to fall as something pushed downwards, wanting to get out. No movement, no thoughts.

I quickly lunged towards my lamp and I looked up to the attic entrance. She was a culmination of every old face I’d ever seen. The elderly faces from the library, the groups shuffling to and from the supermarket. All the family portraits briefly glimpsed through strangers’ windows. She was all of them. She was none of them.

‘Oh! Sorry to wake you, dear.’ Her voice was soft but cracked.