a girl called Fifteen

When Alison’s first baby enters the world up north, Fifteen’s mother sends a towel embroidered with his name. Fifteen cuts each letter from a pattern of frogs and Mum sews them to the towel with a zigzag stitch. Fifteen plans for a career in fashion design while Mum calculates the postage to Tokyo. Later Alison will email He loves the towel! X and Fifteen will wonder if they’ll ever know otherwise.

Fifteen’s own baby towel lies in tatters in her wardrobe. She is a proud hoarder. Her most extensive collection is the cardboard boxes, the product of a lingering fear that she will come across an art project involving cardstock, which Mum refuses to buy. Other collections are less ordered. Unfinished scrapbooks, the mouse-shaped spoon from Tokyo Disneyland, the ribbon from the Lindt rabbit her first boyfriend gave her at Easter. In the bottom of the wardrobe huddles a pile of stained opshop dresses and an assortment of gifts: a doll-sized kotatsu table, a pile of anime comics and a curling iron with a useless two-pronged plug. There is a box labelled Things for When It Rains, in which she hides her diaries.

After they’ve wrapped the towel and stowed away the sewing machine, Mum and Fifteen take their seats at the dining table. Fifteen’s favourite chair faces away from the windows. Mum prefers the chair diagonally across, which Fifteen likes to think is because it looks out at the lemon tree and the path leading up from the driveway, so she can see Dad as soon he arrives home from work. Fifteen flicks crumbs off her placemat while Mum pours green tea into twin cups.

‘Blow on it first,’ Mum says.

Between them she places a dish of red-bean sweets left behind by their last exchange student.

‘Is there anything else?’ Fifteen asks.

‘Not until we finish off what’s in the cupboard.’

Fifteen fingers the crisscross patterns that emboss the lip of her cup. Whenever she drinks green tea, she imagines how it must feel to be a calf tasting grass for the first time. The mother cow leading the way: Watch me, take it in slowly. That’s how it’s supposed to taste.

The teacup fits between Fifteen’s palms like one half of a globe. Inside, half an ocean swells and dips as she inhales and exhales. Across the table, Mum lifts the other half to her lips.

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