For years I have been counting down to turning fourteen years and nine months old – eager to take a job and begin working at McDonalds as soon as I am legally able. I’ve been working unofficially at other retail and hospitality places since I turned twelve. But those bosses often took advantage of the fact I couldn’t legally be on the books, underpaying me and sometimes not paying me at all. I feel disempowered in so many parts of my life; but hitting puberty when you live in poverty with erratic and unpredictable parents is its own special kind of waking nightmare.
There are times when there is no money for sanitary items, and I resort to cutting up towels to use as pads. This is particularly anxiety-inducing when it happens on school days. and while I won’t know it until I am in my thirties, I have endometriosis, which will grow throughout my bowels and around my uterus in adulthood. Heavy bleeding and extreme pain, especially when you have little or no access to pads, tampons, heat packs and painkillers, make hard days even harder.
I also don’t own a complete school uniform, and this is problematic when an incorrect uniform is treated as a punishable offence. I hate how often I am punished for things completely outside of my control. I know I have no choice but to work as much as possible – I need to be able to provide for myself financially so I can meet these basic needs and better focus at school. I am determined to go to university, but I am repeatedly told that this requires exceptionally high grades. Though I am often internally overwhelmed, I am also entrepreneurial and scrappy, always looking for opportunities to make ends meet. While I’m not treated as one of the ‘pretty girls’ at school, I am often told by adults that I have the height, face and hair for modelling and acting. So I keep an eye out for any of those kinds of opportunities, in the hope of making some money.
As fate and timing will have it, the same week that I can finally go for my McDonalds interview, I also go for my first acting audition. I had asked my parents and with their permission planned for the trip. Mum was supposed to take me, but on the day she is in a terrible mood and doesn’t get out of bed. I am too scared to travel so far by myself and I have no money; but thankfully my sister Lisa steps in, finding some coins hidden in one of Mum’s drawers, and she agrees to accompany me.
On a sunny day in spring Lisa and I leave home to catch a bus, a train, and two more buses so I can audition for a feature role in KFC’s upcoming Christmas commercial. On the train, for the two hours it takes to get down into the city, Lisa brushes and braids my hair.
We have never been to this part of Sydney before, and with limited resources and no map, we inevitably get lost, catching the wrong bus, and having to walk for several blocks. I arrive at the audition an hour late and perspiring. But I am dressed neatly with two braids in my hair and am told they will make an exception; I will still be permitted to audition.
I sit with empty hands in a lobby with several stunningly beautiful girls, each holding professional photographs and printed résumés. My mouth is dry from the hot walk and panic of being late. I feel like an imposter next to these polished girls, and am worried that my poverty and inexperience is carried on me like a stench, which in hindsight it may well have been. But when I finally get called in, the audition is actually really fun; the adults are kind and friendly as I join them in a large, quiet and air conditioned room.
They don’t seem bothered when I explain that I have no photographs or documents to give them. They nod along as I speak and then instruct me to talk about my favourite part of school, and to not hold back. I begin to explain how I love creative arts, and how enjoyable it is to take clay and shape the materials in my hands, until I am eventually looking at a pot or vase or some kind of vessel that I can call my own. I move my hands as I talk, and noting their encouraging cues, I give more details and speak enthusiastically. When I am done they smile, thank me for coming, and let me know they will be in touch.
Lisa and I leave, and getting on the correct bus this time, head back to the train and arrive home within a few hours. At dinner Dad asks me about the audition, and I explain that Lisa took me. He shoots a dirty glance at Mum. She avoids his gaze but isn’t apologetic.
A few weeks later, during my first shift at the local McDonalds, my dad calls the store and lets me know that my audition was successful; I will feature in this year’s KFC Christmas commercial. He is proud of me and says I have to let my boss know that I will need a day off soon in order to go and film. My manager is really happy for me, saying that won’t be a problem, and I am ecstatic.
For being in the commercial I will be paid $2000 for the one day! I plan to use my money to get new school shoes, runners, and a complete uniform.
When I get home from work that night Mum is clearly excited about the news of my successful audition. She has cut some carrots and celery for me, and pushes the bowl in front of me, explaining that girls who go on television need to ‘eat well’. As we will be filming from early in the morning, Mum books a cheap hotel for the night before filming, so we can travel down the day before.
When the day arrives, instead of getting ready for school, I pack an overnight bag, and Mum and I head to the train station. One bus and two trains later we arrive at a small hotel near a strip of shops. We will film tomorrow at a house production have booked. I am so nervous and excited that I can hardly sleep. Mum’s mood is low and she leaves me alone in the hotel for a while that night but she returns before I am asleep. In the morning everything goes smoothly. We arrive on set together and on time.
I have so much fun filming the commercial – I think I could do this forever. I get to bite into freshly made KFC all day long; everyone is friendly and happy to answer the numerous questions I ask about how things work. The director talks me through the way all of the details, even the colours of the clothing I have been dressed in, are chosen with intention. There is yummy catering for lunch, and when we wrap, I am tired but really proud of myself.
It is only that evening on the way home that things go wrong. Mum’s behaviour becomes increasingly erratic as we head to the first train station. She is walking so fast I struggle to keep up with her, and whenever I speak to her, she ignores me. Getting on the train I sit beside her, only to have her get up and leave the carriage. Initially I think she’s just seeking out the train toilet, so I stay seated and wait. But she doesn’t return, and some time later, as the train pulls into Hornsby Station, I spot her through the window as she exits the train and heads quickly down the platform.
I grab my bag and leg it out of the carriage before it departs with me inside. I give chase and catch up to her on the next platform over. She scowls at me but says nothing. I stand a few metres back and watch her, incredibly confused.
When a train arrives and she gets aboard, I follow her on. When she sits, I sit beside her. She responds to this by getting up again and leaving the carriage. But this time I don’t wait. I follow her. She takes a seat, I again sit beside her, she again gets up and moves carriages.
We repeat this pattern three or four times before I work out that this train is definitely heading to Newcastle. We will be on it for a while so I give up trying to sit next to her and find a seat a few rows down but in the same carriage. She stays seated and, closing her eyes, appears to go to sleep. I am tired but am not willing to risk closing my eyes.
Almost two hours later the train pulls into Cardiff Station and I watch Mum swiftly get up and exit the train without so much as a glance in my direction. She still hasn’t spoken to me since we left the set. I disembark and follow her at a distance as she walks out of the station and down the main road. It is dark now and getting late – it has been a long day. Mum comes to a bus stop and begins to read the timetable. I wonder if she is just pretending to read so that I can catch up with her, so I approach.
Assuming we will be waiting together for a bus, which I am confident I will hear arrive, I place my bag down on the bus stop bench and turn to look in the shop window behind us. The window is filled with beautiful skirts and dresses. I allow myself a moment of indulgence and think to myself that maybe I will buy myself one when I get the money from today. Two thousand dollars is, after all, more than enough for the school uniform I need.
It can’t have been more than a minute or so before I turn back around and find that both Mum and my bag are gone. I look up and down the street but can’t see her. I am not sure what to do, so I sit on the cold metal bus seat and wait. I have no phone, no jacket, my wallet is in my bag, and I don’t know where Mum has gone. I have never tried to walk home from here, except along the train tracks themselves, but I know I am several kilometres from our house. My guess is it would take me maybe an hour to walk along the roads, and I am scared to attempt it alone this late at night.
So I sit for a while in the spot where I had placed my now-missing bag, and wait in the quiet hoping Mum will reappear. It is mid-week, the shops are closed – the only noises are coming from the pub and Chinese restaurant up the hill. I can see my breath in front of me as I wait, and don’t know how long I sit there before it occurs to me that Mum probably isn’t coming back. If a bus arrives I actually have no money with me to be able to get on. I have no choice but to try to walk home alone.
I walk, and I walk, and after a while I start to cry. I don’t know what the time is.
Over an hour of walking, when I eventually walk in the front door at home Dad is sitting at the table, coffee in front of him, looking very worried.
‘Amy! Where have you been? Your mother has been home for two hours!’
I cry and explain that Mum left me at the bus stop and took my bag. He tells me Mum arrived home in a taxi and has been refusing to say where I was, and that my bag is on the kitchen bench.
She never explains why she did it. But a few weeks later, when the production company deposit the pay for my day of filming, I discover my parents gave their bank account details, not mine. They keep all of the money. I am enraged but have no power. I never see a cent of that payment and I never audition for another television commercial.
This is an edited extract from Tell Me Again by Amy Thunig, published by UQP, out now.