Read an excerpt from Like a Moth Between Your Hands
The Engel’s place has got to be the biggest house Lotte has ever seen, at least for a family as small as the Engel’s. Mr. and Mrs. Engel only have the one son, Johnny, after all, and a small, blind dog named Polly who Mrs. Engel is prone to carrying around like a breathing purse.
Rumour has it the Engel’s came into their fortune following the death of Mrs. Engel’s bachelor cousin who had devoted an entire career to the sugarcane fields up north, only to be crushed beneath one of the oozing machines he was supposed to be a master of. It makes more sense than the alternative anyway, which is that Mr. Engel, a larger than life sort of guy with yellowing teeth and less sense than hair (in which it is important to note that Mr. Engel has very little hair), somehow managed to make his fortune on his own.
Lotte’s mother hesitates at the gate, her gloved hand light on the latch. The party already seems to be booming, if the roaring jazz and distinct bray of chatter are anything to go by.
“We could go home,” Lotte says gently, ignoring the twist in her own belly that wants to go inside. Wants to see Heather and Joanie. Wants to leave their empty home behind them, if only for a night. Lotte’s only been to the Engel’s home once before for a soiree not long after the Engel’s had built the house, and even then she had been enamoured with the size and scope of it, with the modern red brick walls and sloping, tiled roof. It had reminded her then, as it does now, of the ginger bread houses found in store windows over Christmas, sprinkled with icing sugar like an apology for Brisbane’s December.
There is no snow by the Engel’s house now, just lurching gum trees and neatly trimmed hedges. There’s a jacaranda tree resting heavy as a bruise across the right of it and leaking lilac blooms all across the drought crusty grass. Lotte can almost taste the heavenly smell of brandy-laced trifle and the barbeque already burning round back.
“We’re here now. We don’t need to stay long, I suppose,” Beatrice says, stepping through the gate.
If it had been loud outside, in is like being stage side at Festival Hall. The jazz booms from the Engel’s turntable, and people take up nearly every spot of space in the house, draped over the white leather sofa, or pasted against the creamy walls. It’s all bouffants and shift dresses and bright smears of lipstick, linen suits and fat bottomed cigars and martinis and mint juleps and stingers.
“Bea! Bea Salman! I never thought you’d make it. It’s been far too long since we’ve seen you out of Sunday Mass.”
Mrs. Engel descends upon them in a cloud of gin and garish costume jewellery and one of the ugliest dresses Lotte has ever seen. With Polly tucked at her side, yipping, she’s only able to sweep Beatrice into a one armed hug, which Lotte’s mother stiffly returns.
“Well, we wanted to pay our respects to the man of the hour,” Beatrice says, and Mrs. Engel nods eagerly, swerving slightly as she releases her.
“All the children are in the den, Charlotte,” Mrs. Engel says, and Lotte blinks, dismissed, as Mrs. Engel grips her mother by the elbow and leads her out towards Johnny or Mr. Engel or both.
Finding her feet, Lotte wanders out of the living room, through the kitchen and beyond. She sticks her head into the den only to be met by a swell of pimply necked boys from Saint Lawrence’s and a few girls from her class at Saint Margaret’s, hunkered down around a board game with a jug of lemon squash. They blink gormless at Lotte, who backs away quickly, stepping back through the house and beelining for the sliding door to take her outside.
She finds Heather and Joanie standing at the far end of the garden, their heads bowed together as they let the smoke from the barbeque drown the smoke from Heather’s cigarette. It’s still early enough in the evening that they don’t need their own lights, but there are a few lit candles set up on risen tree roots anyway, flickering in cloudy jam jars.
“I guess I owe you, Joanie,” Heather says, cocking a hip when she sees Lotte. “I didn’t think there was a chance in hell that Mrs. Salman would come to this thing.”
“I told you – Mrs. Engel is impossible once she’s decided on something,” Joanie says.
“And she told my mum that she wanted every single one of us from church to see Johnny off.”
Heather snorts, in agreement or disdain, Lotte doesn’t quite know.
“You look good,” Lotte hums, in lieu of a reply, and Heather grins, flipping her hair back off her shoulder. She’s out of the blouse and box pleat skirt tonight, instead dressed in a spotted mini skirt and a horizontally striped sweater that seems to be conspiring to make her look as womanly as possible.
“Doesn’t she? I wish I could pull off any part of that.”
Lotte frowns, but quickly covers it. Joanie is in the same too-small shift from church, the same scuffed saddle shoes. Her make up is painted differently though – better than it usually is, and Lotte knows that means that Heather did it for her, settled in at Heather’s house, on her neat, single bed. Lotte scoffs.
“After the way you guys were harping at me for cruising without you last weekend, you go and do this without me,” Lotte says, oddly cross, but Heather only rolls her eyes.
“You know you have a standing invitation. Besides, you weren’t at school yesterday and I needed someone to practice my new rouge on.”
“I was sick.”
Heather hums, like she doesn’t quite believe her, and it’s enough to make Lotte flush.
“Lotte, I think Mrs. Engel’s trying to make your mother the new Polly,” Joanie says, changing the subject. Her brow furrows as she looks passed them back to the inside of the house. Heather snorts.
“Maybe she thinks she can absorb some of your mother’s class if she keeps her close enough.”
Lotte grins, despite herself.
“How long have you guys been here, anyway?”
“Long enough, believe me. Everyone’s already blitzed. I’m amazed half of them are still standing.”
“I thought that’s what Mrs. Engel’s parties were known for.”
Heather laughs, dropping her cigarette and rubbing the sweat and the smell off her hands on her skirt.
“Well she’s got to get people here somehow.”
Joanie stiffens, tearing her gaze from the house and back to Heather and Lotte. Her brow furrows, her lips curl. It only serves to make Joanie look all the sweeter though. The softness of her face has always been ill-cut for anger or sternness, like her body isn’t quite practiced enough in feeling it.
“Don’t be such a bummer, Heather. Mrs. Engel can be very generous. She’s been really kind to Mr. Pond and to my mum.”
“Only so she can be the first to hear the gossip from the front lines. She’s worse than my mother, and that’s saying something.”
Joanie’s frown deepens, and Lotte opens her mouth to reply, only to be stopped.
There’s a noise behind them and a number of the candle lights dip out, knocked over, and they turn in time to see Mr. Engel lurching towards them, stinking of cheap beer and scotch whiskey, his pants half undone. He staggers closer, reaching out to clap a fat hand on Heather’s shoulder for balance before seeming to realise exactly what he’s done. He swerves, eyeing the curve of her appreciatively.
“You girls sure grow up fast,” he booms, laughing. If he sees the sneer curling at Heather’s lip, he doesn’t acknowledge it, just tightens his grip. “Always glad I didn’t have a daughter, you know? I don’t know how your old men keep the boys off’a ‘ya.”
“The boys aren’t usually the problem, Mr. Engel,” Heather replies through tight lips.
She quivers a little under his weight as Mr. Engel struggles with the fly on his trousers.
Finally he pushes off her, shoving Heather into Lotte as he staggers off, dropping his pants enough to piss against the back fence of his yard.
“He’s such a freakin’ skuzz,” Heather hisses, and Lotte reaches out to pull Heather and Joanie with her to the other side of the garden, away from their urinating host. Heather looks just about ready to go off, her forehead creased, her lips still curled, and so Lotte is oddly relieved when Joanie pipes up again.
“Hey, isn’t that Adelaide Jones?”
“No way,” Heather twists immediately, stepping up onto her toes and trying to get a look. “Jeez, I think it is.”
Through the partying crowd, they can see her, clean and clear as anything. She appears almost like a mirage, unearthly pretty with her thick black hair and her kohl rimmed green eyes. She has on a clean turquoise micro mini shift dress and a pair of wicker platform heels that leave her head and shoulders taller than everyone else here.
“I can’t believe she showed up,” Heather says breathlessly, and Lotte watches Adelaide stride across the floor and help herself to a one of the premade cocktails on the outdoor bar. “Is her mother here?”
“I don’t think so,” Lotte answers, scanning the crowd.
“Who’d she come with then?”
“Johnny Engel might have invited her. It’s his party, after all.”
Heather scoffs at that. She peels a cigarette out of her clutch and lights it quickly, tilting her hip to the side as Adelaide looks over at them. For a second, Lotte thinks she might come over, but she doesn’t, her body stoppered as, instead, she walks over to a neat group of Saint Lawrence’s boys Lotte only half recognises.
“What the hell?” Heather whispers loudly, and then, “Shit.”
She stumps her cigarette out before she even takes a drag as the back door slides open again and Johnny Engel steps out, already dressed in his army fatigues.
Johnny Engel is greyhound thin with a long, uneven nose and a shock of sunburnt red hair. He’s paler than Lotte ever thought someone could get this close to the coast, and sometimes she wonders if she looked close enough that that pale skin of his would grow translucent and she would be able to see his pulsing veins and his twitching organs. The parts of him that make him Johnny.
He waves awkwardly at them as he comes outside, and it’s Heather who waves back, dead cigarette still in hand so that the smoke trails in uneven zigzags through the night.
Behind Johnny, steps Marilyn Duke, a weasely looking girl the year below them at Saint Margaret’s. She has on no make up and her hair is limp and under styled, so that the blonde shines not like gold, as Lotte’s own does, but like the sand that follows you home from the beach, stuck down your bathing suit and to the soles of your feet.
All the same, she looks nice, Lotte thinks, and never nicer than now, with her hand tightly clasped in Johnny’s as they dodge the partygoers and duck out the side gate, their heads tilted together and their grips white knuckled in the others. Long after they disappear, Lotte can still hear their feet, Marilyn’s kitten heels clipping down the main road.
“Marilyn and Johnny Engel,” Heather says, voice little more than a low whistle. “I hope she gives him something to remember her by.”