By Emily SpurrUnpublished Manuscript
A Million Things
Nine-year-old Rae has been living with her mum and her dog, Splinter, in Melbourne's inner west. But when she wakes up to a grizzly sight in her family shed, she has no option but to close the door and look after herself. For weeks she maintains the facade of a child-being-cared-for, evading her teacher's and friends' notice. She does her homework, feeds herself and Splinter, lights incense sticks and fills her diffusers, and roams the neighbourhood. She avoids her backyard at all costs.
Soon cracks start to appear, as the neighbours become aware of the absence of Rae’s mum. Next-door neighbour Lettie has her own secret sadness, and a house full of objects cannot make up for the things she has lost. The two become unlikely friends and allies, but when Lettie begins to realise Rae's mum isn't coming home, Rae's fragile world is burst open.
Emily Spurr's prose is sharp and tender. The story is completely engrossing and the friendship between Rae and Lettie is beautiful and satisfying. The reader feels all of Rae's anxieties and fears, and we hold our breath with hers throughout the book. The characters are vividly drawn, particularly Lettie, whose dialogue pops on the page and who is one of the most fully rendered older women in Australian fiction. A Million Things is a meditation on the importance of community and of being vulnerable to other people, especially when we least want to be.
The next weekend I was more organised. We were up early. I packed snacks and a bottle of water for Splinter. We crisscrossed neighbourhoods. When we came to a street or alley, we walked it. Moving further and further out, or in, depending on the direction. We’ve been to the CBD, Splinter wasn’t a fan; Kensington, I liked the little houses; up and down the Maribyrnong with it’s riverside parks and lots of people for maximum anonymity; West Footscray, Seddon and Yarraville are good places to blend in too, there are lots of kids. We’re learning all the streets. We quite like the river trail around Footscray, but that’s best on rainy days, otherwise there’re too many cyclists on the bike path, and rainy days aren’t that common. So today we’re doing neighbourhoods. Up and down the streets. I like to look at the houses. Though maybe like’s not the right word. I wonder what it’s like to live in them. I like the imagining but not how it feels when I stop. I still look though. I remind me of you when Splinter was still so puppy he tripped over his own paws and we’d pull-walk him through the hot streets after dinner. You’d point out all the things you liked. This door. Those flowers. And we’d image what we’d do to each house, if it were ours. We’d do this every night, even though by the end of the walk you’d frown and go quiet. By the time Splinter grew into his paws and walked properly on the lead you stayed home, mostly, and Splint’s and I were only allowed to go as far as the parks. We go where we like now. I like the houses with front porches the best. Around Seddon they have tables and chairs and hanging pots with lush green leaves or flowers tumbling down the sides. I never see anyone sitting on the seats out the front but a lot of them have cushions. They look comfortable. And pretty. Often the tables have the chairs arranged like someone was just sitting there but stepped away. Sometimes people come out, usually to get in their car or walk off. Never to sit on those chairs with the nice cushions or put their feet under the tables with the pots on top. All that lovely greenery hanging down and no one sits under it. Sometimes I stand at a gate and stare at it all. I stand with my hand on the latch. Maybe I live there. Maybe those are my cushions. The backpack’s pretty empty by the end of the day, when we’ve eaten the snacks and I carry the water bottle in my free hand. The gates don’t squeak when you open them. The first time I just sat on the seat and looked back down the street. Nobody saw me. Nobody came out. I pick the houses that feel the most loved. The ones that really look like people sit there, not the ones like Christmas church Jesus displays that you know are for looking not sitting. I stop at a house with a pink front door. It’s shiny and has a heavy black knocker that looks like an acorn. The table’s dusty when I touch it. But the cushions are large and soft. Soft like cushions you’d have inside. Splints doesn’t sit. He stands, claws tapping on the wooden boards as he steps from foot to foot, watching. Making me nervous. I motion him to sit but he steps back and knocks over a pot. It cracks loudly and rolls in a semi-circle, soil spilling over the boards as the plant falls out.
I’ve caught my breath a bit when we find the next house. Its cushions are yellow and pink. Perfectly matched to the pansies growing in the hanging baskets on either side of the porch step. They’re not those oversized ones, these cushions. They’re the size you could fit easily into your bag. Some of the houses have smaller than backpack sized hanging pot plants, others have little garden ornaments. Wire twisted into animals or delicate little birds sitting on the ends of pots. The sort of things I imagine families go and buy at garden centers on the weekends, or maybe they’re given as gifts. Some of them are really quite small. The kind of small that easily fits into a side pocket of a backpack. It’s really cold now, lip numbing cold. We move on. The sun’s dipped out of sight, leaving that not-quite-dark light that drains colour away. I’m glad of your jacket, the army green one you bought online from the States. It nearly touches the ground on me, with lining so thick I can’t bend my arms properly but it’s warm and waterproof. And it has lots of pockets. A car door slams in another street. The smell of woodsmoke takes the edge off the cold in my nostrils. This house has a lantern hanging with a candle in it. A candle that looks brand new. I open the gate; it squeaks ever so slightly, more like a sigh. I step in. There are plants with leaves like big soft grey lambs ears. And a tiny little snail made from rusting metal, the shell part of its back actual shell. I crouch down and reach out, the arm of your jacket crumpling softly in the quiet. I close my fingers around it. It’s satisfyingly heavy in my hand.
I jump up. A woman in lycra pulls her bike up to the gate. I step back, my foot sinking into the soft soil of the garden bed.
‘What are you doing?’
She gestures at the snail in my fingers. I look over my shoulder and shoot out a quick glance at Splints. His face pops up out of some bushes.
The woman swings her leg off her bike and click-hobbles closer, her bike shoes making her walk funny on the footpath.
‘What are you doing with my snail?’
I drop it back into the garden, it rolls under some of the lambs ear leaves. I point at Splinter. ‘I’m walking my dog.’
She’s standing in front of me now, blocking the way with her bike. She leans down into my face.
‘So, what were you doing with my snail then?’
‘I was just looking.’
‘Someone’s been pinching things from front gardens around here.’
‘It’s not me.’ I meet her gaze.
The Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards shortlist