Mamamia’s senior writer Rosie Waterland has written a brutal, brave and hilarious memoir about surviving the very worst that life can throw at you. Debrief Daily has this exclusive extract from The Anti Cool Girl.
To this day, I’m not sure if my mum is genuinely bisexual, or if her brief fling with a woman was all about the cash. I suppose that if, out of desperation, you can sell your body to a bald man in Wagga Wagga whose head is covered in coconut oil, then letting a lesbian lick your clit when times are tough would at least be a much more pleasurable walk in the park.
And times were tough.
After her split with Brian the Homeowner, Mum, Tayla and I became a kind of Blue Mountains gypsy family, living with whoever would take us in. First stop was with some man Mum quickly started dating, who lived down by the local pool. I don’t remember much about him – I want to say his name was George? I doubt my mum even cared, to be honest. There was a roof over our heads, which meant she was doing her job.
At least, there was a roof over their heads – Mum could only convince her new boyfriend to let us move in if I didn’t actually reside inside the house, so she generously provided me with a second-hand caravan that I could live in out the front. ‘It will be fun!’ she said. ‘Like your own little apartment!’
I had almost come around to the idea, imagining myself hosting lavish TV viewing parties with my friends inside my state-of-the-art motor home, when the reality pulled into the driveway, attached to the back of Mum’s dinged-up Nimbus, which in the caravan’s presence now looked like a Bentley.
There was no ‘little apartment’ in sight. This thing was basically a hatchback without a motor. And I don’t know whom my mother bought it from, but there’s no doubt in my mind the man in question is certainly now in prison for something like letting a dog lick his penis, or being caught watching women in the shower while wearing a ball gown in the bushes. It took me about two days just to clear out all the old porno mags, cigarette butts and empty peanut-butter jars. Sperm must have covered every surface. I’m surprised I didn’t get pregnant just by stepping in there.
There was space for a mattress, but it was so tiny I’m not sure even the smallest standard mattress on earth would fit. Where did the weirdos who lived in these tiny caravans get their bizarre tiny mattresses? Was there a store where they all lined up, each hoping to purchase their new bed as quickly as possible, so they could hurry back to the privacy of their sad caravan and keep smothering their bodies with honey and cheese spread?
There were also a few cupboards, a small fold-out table and a sink, which, given I had no water connection, was purely decorative (you really should be concerned about your place in the world when you have a sink that’s only decorative). And to top it all off, there was no electricity connection, which meant that after dark, it was just me and my torch. Most nights I would get terrified and go inside by about 9pm, begging Mum and her random boyfriend (again – George? Maybe Trevor?) to let me sleep on the couch. I was scared of being raped and murdered, but mostly I just didn’t want to die somewhere that had recently been the scene of a jerk-off session involving peanut butter and a magazine called Miss Mama Juggs. I may have been a fourteen-year-old following her bipolar-alcoholic mum around in a caravan, but even I had standards.
Next up came a brief stay with friends Mum had made at the Lawson Pub. I didn’t mind the time we spent there, actually, since most of those people lived in and around the main strip of local shops, so whenever Tayla and I were hungry and couldn’t find Mum, we’d just walk straight into a store and get fed. I’m not sure if Mum had organised some kind of ‘feed my kids’ tab system, but Tayla and I took advantage of it regardless. We would sit at the Magic Mountain Café eating free nachos and getting that familiar look of pity from the owner, who seemed to know something about where Mum was that we didn’t. But we were so used to getting that look from concerned adults; it didn’t bother us in the slightest. We would just order as many free milkshakes as we could while we still had the chance.
After a few weeks of taking advantage of that situation, it seemed like Mum had finally found something a little more stable. An unsuspecting man, who lived a bit farther up the mountain in Wentworth Falls, was looking for a boarder to rent a room. He had three kids at home, and somehow, Mum convinced him to let her and Tayla move in, while I would stay in my jizz-infested caravan out the front.
His son and two daughters were all around Tayla’s age, and they became convinced that our mum and their dad were going to fall in love and we’d all end up in some kind of trailer-trash version of The Brady Bunch. I had zero interest in being connected to those people via marriage or any other means, and I think, despite the fact she was currently enduring the indignity of sharing a bunk bed with her seven-year-old daughter, neither did Mum. The more her possible Mike Brady made advances on her, the more she backed away. She could have very easily made a smooth transition into that man’s bed, but it turns out Wentworth Falls Brady Bunch was not a shift she wanted to take on.
So, feeling closed in, and sick of living like a nomadic gypsy (although she wasn’t the one in the fucking caravan), Mum decided it was time for us to rent our own house.
Now, renting your own house is a nice idea in theory. But my mum didn’t like to pay for things; she liked other people to pay for things, and house renting is generally something that you’re expected to pay for. She, of course, bit off way more than she could chew, and found us the nicest, biggest house we had ever lived in. The sperm caravan was sold. Tayla and I each got our own room. Even Rhiannon decided it was worth coming back and putting up with the drinking and screaming and suicide attempts if it meant she could live in that house.
But a big house and a nice house is also an expensive house, and if we wanted to stay, Mum was going to have to find herself a temporary Richard Gere to foot the bill. Unfortunately, she had pretty much depleted all of the Blue Mountains’ resources when it came to men, but my mum is a resourceful woman, and she really, really wanted to stay in that big, nice house.
Enter Pam the Lesbian.
Pam liked to wear vests. Long, baggy vests over plain t-shirts and sensible jeans. She was a lot older than Mum – I’d say about fifty – and her greying hair was styled into one of the most glorious mullets I had ever seen. She didn’t wear make-up, and her face was lined from years of doing what I assume all women with mullets do – hold the stop/slow sign at construction sites. Her voice was gravelly from years of smoking, and she drove a 1980s sports car that she proudly called ‘The Mean Machine’.
Clearly, my mum had decided that if she was going to be a lesbian, she was going to go all out.
‘Um, dude, why is your mum going out with a totally butch lesbo?’ a friend asked, after spotting Pam dropping me off at school.
‘Excuse me,’ I replied indignantly, a little proud of my new status as a child with two mums. ‘I believe the term you’re looking for is ‘‘homosexual lady with a mullet’’. And I don’t know. I think because she’s paying our rent.’
And she was paying our rent. And buying Mum lots of presents. And buying me lots of presents. It looked as though, after so many years of searching for the perfect Richard Gere to go with her Pretty Woman, Mum had found him. And he was a she.
Pam the Lesbian was besotted with Mum. Besotted. I don’t think she’d ever been in the vicinity of so much femininity in her life. She would lean over to light Mum’s cigarettes, and stare into her eyes as if she were the luckiest woman in the world. Mum would then look around at the beautiful house she wasn’t paying for, and think the exact same thing.
But I figured if anyone was lucky in the whole situation, it was me. Pam was like a mulleted ATM, and I could convince her to buy me pretty much anything I wanted. It started off small at first – going into Mum’s room early in the morning and asking for lunch money, knowing that the naked lady in bed next to her was so desperate to impress that she would definitely give it to me. I saw a pair of Billabong parachute pants in a shop at Springwood, and Pam had bought them for me within two days. ‘Ya like those, don’t ya?’ she asked, simultaneously beaming with pride and looking to my mum for approval.
‘I really do,’ I said, playing it up way more than was necessary. ‘Mum, Pam is so good to us. You really should stay with her forever.’ Ka-ching.
When my friend and I wanted to catch a train down the mountain to watch a movie at Penrith Plaza, I immediately turned to her and dramatically said, ‘Don’t worry, I’ve got this.’ Then I whipped out the state-of-the-art Nokia Pam had bought me (it had Snake and everything) and called her. An hour later my friend and I were on our way to Penrith with fifty bucks.
My conscience was starting to ping a little at this point when it came to Pam, but the friend in question was a cool one who I had been trying (and no doubt failing) desperately to impress. We had connected purely by accident – there’s no way a girl like Bianca would ever willingly initiate a friendship with someone like me. She had massive boobs and pashed boys, and I didn’t even pluck my eyebrows. But we shared a mutual friend, and when word got out that I had no curfew and a mum at home who would let me come and go as I pleased, I think she saw an opportunity to use my house as an alibi. She could come over for a ‘video night sleepover’, and then we could take off and do whatever.
The problem was, I really did just want to have video night sleepovers. Yes, I had the ability to tell my mum I was going out and not come home for two days, but I was too much of a dweeb to take advantage of it. I just wanted to sit in my room and watch TV and listen to Backstreet Boys CDs. And maybe write the occasional Oscars acceptance speech (a habit I still clung to, despite having grown old enough to understand that I most likely wasn’t going to be recognised for writing Grease 3). But, as bloody usual, I was hypnotised by cool, and Bianca had it in spades, which meant I would go to some ridiculous lengths to impress her.
Every time she suggested something that confused and/or horrified me, I would just act like I was totally on the same page. She once forced me to go to a house party with the cool group, and I spent the entire night watching TV in the living room by myself, while everyone else was in the backyard drinking from secret goon sacks. I could just never relax around those guys. It was like they spoke a language I didn’t understand; I was the clueless foreign exchange student whom nobody wanted to have awkward conversations with.
On our way to Penrith after gouging Pam, Bianca said that we should skip the movie and just ‘hang out’. ‘Hanging out’ at Penrith Plaza basically just meant you sat on the steps outside the shopping centre and tried to look cool, while a bunch of other teenagers were also sitting on the steps trying to look cool.
Sometimes you would get up and do a loop of the main street, and then you would go back to sitting on the steps. That was literally all you would do, all night. Sit on steps. Walk around street. Sit back on steps. Repeat.
I was devastated; I really just wanted to watch a movie, eat some popcorn and go home to bed. Now I knew I’d be hanging around Penrith all night, following Bianca while she talked to random boys. We ended up being approached by a car with two guys in it – much older than us, which Bianca loved. I couldn’t even talk to boys my own age, let alone two men in their twenties. I walked in silence while Bianca flirted with them through the car window. I was her mute weirdo friend, and I could definitely tell that both guys were hoping the other one would fall on his sword and hang out with me so someone would get to pash Bianca.
She accepted a ride from them, ‘just to drive around’, and before I could lecture her on the dangers of getting into a vehicle with people you don’t know, we were off. I wanted to wear my seatbelt, but nobody else put theirs on because seatbelts were for losers, so I begrudgingly left my life in the hands of a guy wearing FUBU pants. I was not impressed. I just wanted the ‘driving around’ to be over so I could stop feeling like the penalty they were accepting in order to have big-boobed Bianca sit in their car.
Then it was announced we’d be smoking pot, and although I’d spent the last few years living in a pot den, I’d never actually willingly inhaled so much as a cigarette. I was way out of my league. I wanted to impress Bianca, but driving around with two random guys in Penrith looking for a piece of hose that we could put in a makeshift bong was a little too much for me.
The bong was passed around and I refused, because I was ‘still stoned from yesterday’. I was impressed that I was able to come up with such a cool-sounding excuse on the spot. I would still be doing that in my twenties, actually, mostly when I worked at a very hipster JB Hi-Fi store. All the staff who worked in the music section were covered in tattoos and drank green smoothies out of jars and would talk about the bootleg cut of something to do with Bob Dylan something The Kills something. I never understood a word they were saying, but I wanted to fit in, so whenever anybody talked about a band I hadn’t heard of I would just say, ‘I really like their early stuff.’ That line got me out of so many embarrassing conversations. And if, as happened a couple of times, the band had just been discovered and therefore didn’t have any early stuff, I would act really smug and say, ‘Oh. I thought you were a big fan. They’ve been putting tracks online for years.’ I like to think I’m the reason many tattooed hipsters spent hours on YouTube looking for songs that didn’t exist.
Bong avoided, I spent the next half hour sitting in the back of the car with the unlucky guy who had ended up with me, and we patiently waited for Bianca and her new friend to finish mauling each other’s faces.
I could have had a revelation at that point. I could have spent the time I had to reflect on how I constantly ended up in situations where I was miserable and/or humiliated. Just like when I shat my pants because I didn’t want to miss out on playing with my sister’s friends, just like when I let the girl who smelled like cheese lick my fanny, I was once again stuck in a compromising position because I wanted to impress the cool kids.
But it would be years before I’d make that connection. Instead, as I sat there, in the back of a random car with random guys and a random bong (and, to be honest, a girl I didn’t even really like that much), I came to the conclusion that I had ended up in that position because I was being punished by the universe. It was divine intervention for treating Pam the Lesbian like an ATM. Someone with that glorious a mullet really deserved a lot more respect.
So, on my way home that night, miraculously safe after getting into a car to smoke pot with two strange men, I decided I was going to start taking my mum’s sham lesbian relationship more seriously. And I would definitely stop tricking her lover into buying me things. (Unless there was a new NSYNC CD that I really, really wanted. Obviously.)
But my decision to treat Pam with more respect was pointless. As it turned out, Pam had been planning on getting rid of us kids for a while, and just a few days after I sat in a strange car with strange men in Penrith, I found myself in another strange car. This time with my sisters. And four police officers.
I couldn’t believe I had ever felt bad about those Billabong parachute pants.
We should have seen it coming, I suppose. Since dating Pam, Mum had started drinking virtually twenty-four hours a day. Usually, she at least managed to get to her shifts at the nursing home, but since her mulleted girlfriend had arrived, things for Mum had really started to go backwards. If she and Pam weren’t out drinking somewhere, they were at home getting wasted while Tayla and I watched TV in the sanctuary of my bedroom. Rhiannon had taken to spending a lot more time at her boyfriend’s house. There was that familiar feeling in the air – all of us recognised it – like something was about to reach boiling point. It was the feeling we all got when we knew we were about to be taken away again.
WATCH: Rosie receive the first copy of her book. Post continues after video.
Which is why none of us really expected what happened that final night. We’d never dreamed that Mum would be the one to kick us out.
It was late. Maybe around 11pm. Mum and Pam the Lesbian had been drinking all day. Rhiannon was home, and she must have said something to piss Pam off, because all of a sudden Tayla and I were distracted from our TV-watching by what sounded like a fistfight going on downstairs. I told Tayla to stay put, and when I got to the living room I saw Pam whipping Rhiannon as hard as she could with a telephone cord, while Mum sat by and laughed.
I ran over to intervene, and Pam threw a punch in my direction. Now, Rhiannon and I’d had our fair share of fights while growing up, but nothing can prepare you for having a punch swung in your direction. Especially not when a very angry looking lady with a mullet is doing the swinging. I dodged it (not particularly difficult, seeing as she was drunk out of her mind), and Rhiannon and I ran over to Mum and begged her to ask Pam to leave.
‘Nah! Fuck off,’ Pam screamed. ‘Youse are the fuckin’ ones leavin’!’
Mum was laughing hysterically.
‘Tell ’em, Lisa! Tell ’em!’ Pam yelled in glee.
‘I don’t want you here anymore,’ Mum said. ‘Any of you.’
‘Mum,’ Rhiannon said. ‘You’re just drunk. You can’t make us leave. We’re your kids.’
‘You’re uncontrollable!’ Mum screamed dramatically. ‘I don’t know what to do with you anymore! I’m calling the police!’
Now it was Pam who was laughing hysterically. Rhiannon and I looked at each other, exhausted, as Mum spoke to Triple Zero and told them she needed someone to come and take her ‘unruly, uncontrollable’ kids away. They said they would send a paddy wagon.
Rhiannon told me to go back upstairs and pack a bag for Tayla and me. When I walked back into my room, Tayla was sitting on my bed, wide awake, crying.
‘Are we leaving Mummy again?’ she asked me.
‘We’ll probably just stay somewhere else for a few days. Maybe Uncle Ben’s house,’ I said, as I put some clothes in a bag. Tayla had spent more time living away from Mum than with her. She understood the drill. I took her to her room and let her pick some things to put in the bag. Then we went and sat on my bed, and quietly watched TV while we waited for the police to arrive.
About half an hour later, Rhiannon walked into the bedroom with two officers. They must have been surprised to see that the ‘uncontrollable’ children they were there to pick up were all waiting patiently and quietly with packed bags. Technically, the uncontrollable ones were downstairs, alternating between pashing, drinking and yelling obscenities about how awful we were. The officers gave us that sad look we had seen grown-ups give us so many times, and told us they would take us to the station to work something out.
Mum didn’t even say goodbye to us when we left. The last thing I remember as we walked out the front door was hearing Pam the Lesbian yell, ‘Fuck off!’ while Mum erupted into fits of laughter.
On the way to the station, I let Tayla nuzzle her head into my shoulder as I thought about all the times Mum had just been a ‘mum’. I thought about how she used to leave little presents on our beds for us to find after school. I thought about how she called us ‘sweet pea’ and ‘darling’ and would make us amazing cakes on our birthdays. I thought about the time she gave me a special book as a surprise and wrote ‘Darling Rosanna’ in the front, and how I still considered it the most precious thing I owned. I thought about how she used to stroke my hair when I was sick and the way she taught me to tie my shoes. I thought about how nothing felt as warm or as safe as a hug from her.
I looked down at Tayla and thought about how, no matter what, Mum would always be the only person who felt like home to any of us, and how torturous it was to know that the feeling was never around for long. That for each special memory, for each special hug, there were just as many sad and lonely moments when she hadn’t come through. She was our only home, and we never knew if she was going to be there. And we were all just so tired.
As soon as Pam’s money ran out, Mum decided she was no longer a lesbian and wanted us back. But it was too late. After that night, none of us would ever live with Mum again. Rhiannon moved back in with her boyfriend in Lawson, and would go on to work her arse off as a single mother of two kids. Isabella had already disappeared with her dad, and wouldn’t come back into our lives until she was a teenager. Tayla and I stayed with our wealthy uncle for a few days, during which time he decided to keep me and not her.
I was sent to a fancy boarding school, and Tayla was left to fend for herself in the foster system. She would languish there until, at sixteen, she was old enough to strike out on her own. I’ve never forgiven myself for not insisting that we stay together. She was so little, and so alone. But my mum’s brother was a successful doctor, and he wanted to spend a lot of money on my education. He thought I was special, and I found that intoxicating.
©Rosie Waterland; This is an edited extract from The Anti Cool Girl by Rosie Waterland; 4th Estate; rrp: $27.99; available in print and e book.