Penance (short fiction)


As published in the University of Melbourne’s women’s magazine, Judy’s Punch. 

She hadn’t meant to do it.

That’s what she kept telling herself. These things happen; nobody would find out.

Alice peered into the mirror, her eyes straining through steam, soft fingerprint stains and smudges of flicked toothpaste. She wasn’t focusing her attention on the pimples growing on her forehead – not this time. It was her lips that needed inspection. Alice examined them closely and felt them with her forefinger. They were dry, cracked. The heat today had been bewildering; sweat patches had started under the arms of her school dress and spread so they were hard to conceal. Alice felt a dry flake of skin on her bottom lip and peeled it off. She watched it flutter down into the sink until she could not distinguish it beside the bold whiteness of the basin.

Nobody would find out. Papa would not find out.

Alice wrapped a clean white towel around her naked body, and, in doing so, caught her own eye in the reflection. What she had done was wrong, very wrong, but even Alice could not deny that this was exciting. Such excitement – as long as she was careful that it was kept secret – was warranted. Girls remember these things forever. She exhaled. Nobody would find out.

Alice looked back into the mirror. She made sure, twice sure, that she looked calm and normal and plain. The bathroom was at the end of the hallway. Ma was cooking and listening to the wireless – she could hear it from here, something about King George VI, him dying, or something – and her Papa was having a smoke. Alice peeped out from behind the door before dashing across the floorboards. She did not dare to glance at the door of her parents’ bedroom, slightly ajar, or at the miniature crucifix on the end table. Alice shivered. Droplets of water fell from her hair and trickled down her neck.

Ma always called Alice for dinner at seven o’clock. Routine, Papa said, is essential for achieving grace in life. Alice thought that variety was also important, but a girl knows better than to question her papa. Alice always kept one eye on the clock, the little one that sat beside one-eared Rabbit, and the other on her homework. Sometimes, Papa would poke his head in and say, There’s my good girl.

It was lucky that Papa did not enter Alice’s room that night. She was not studying. She was not a good girl. Alice sat in the stifling heat, hair damp, her schoolbag still zipped up. She should have opened her bedroom window; she was 13, tall enough to reach it now.

At 6:55pm, Alice was writing in her notebook about the softness of Dave’s lips. She couldn’t help thinking about it, all of it. After the kiss, Dave’s smile had been so big.

Alice paused. What about God? You can’t hide anything from Him, even if you want to really badly.

That’s what Papa said. She’d tried to stop him cursing at Ma once. Be careful, because He’s listening. ‘Course He is, Alice! He knows the shithole we’re in. For Christ’s Sake, he knew it when we were in the dugout, I’ll tell you that much. Papa’s eyes were bloodshot. They always were when he talked about Berlin. Alice, give us some fucking space and go to your room.

God would know about Dave, too. He would know that she’d done a bad thing that felt nice, a thing you weren’t supposed to do.

Alice! Papa’s voice bounced off the hallway walls and knocked her backwards. You’re late! Alice deserted the notebook and rushed to the kitchen. Her palms were sweaty. A metal fork clanged against the wooden table. Papa crossed his arms. Weren’t white lies okay? She hadn’t meant to do it, so nobody need find out.

Papa closed his eyes and said Grace. Then: pass the tomato sauce. Alice stared intently at her fork as she lifted it to her mouth. She delivered the potato mash onto her tongue and swallowed. It was thick, lumpy. She reached for the salt grinder, but it wouldn’t turn, it was too tight.

Alice? She nearly spat the sausage from her mouth. Could he know? She had only told one person; Rita was her best friend. Alice, I said, how was your day? Papa lowered his cutlery. Ma stared, too. What if Rita had told her father? What if Rita’s father had seen Papa at the shops? They were mates. They were in the war together. Alice inhaled, summoning herself to be calm and normal and plain. Voice shaking, she said, “Um, it was fine, it was normal, I guess.” Papa lifted his chin. That’s good then.

It was clear to Alice what she must do.

Escaping the kitchen and Papa’s gaze, Alice sat cross-legged in bed. All was black but a round shadow, flickering. She crossed her arms over her chest, her heart, and squeezed her shoulders. Her voice was merely a whisper.

Alice said she was very, very sorry. She said she would never do it again. Never even think of it. She promised Him that she would make her Papa and Ma happy from now on. She promised she would wake up in the morning and be a new person, a good person.

When she had finished, Alice tasted salty tears on her tongue.

* * * * *

“Wake up, Alice dear.” Ma’s voice was calm, but not gentle. Alice felt her mother eyeing her. But when she opened her eyes, Ma was gone.

It took Alice several minutes before she remembered Dave and the kiss and Papa and Him and the unofficial confession. Her lips were dry, cracked. She felt a hard piece of skin on her bottom lip and didn’t peel it off.

Alice sat upright and pulled the white sheet over. A small stain protruded from underneath.

What in God’s name… Alice gaped. It was deep red, nearly brown. She glanced downwards. Spots of the same maroon dotted her nightdress. She felt a strange wet sensation on her thigh, patted it with her forefinger.


Divine Retribution. That’s what it must be. He hadn’t pardoned her, how could she have expected Him to? Alice bit her lip so hard that it hurt. She should face Papa. She should run away.

Alice took one-eared Rabbit off the shelf, pulled him into her arms and squeezed.

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