An experiment in second person

The air was thick with the smell of paint but you didn’t complain. If anything you enjoyed the newness that came with white walls and the chemical pong of freshly laid lino.

The floor boards gleamed with varnish enough to act as mirrors and you thought for the first time ever you might be able to invite one of your school friends into this house, if only during the day when your father was not drinking.

The filth of the old house fell away and you began to take pride in wiping down the benches after breakfast each morning.

At night you looked out of the window above your bed and tried to imagine you were living in some foreign country closer to the equator than here in Cheltenham on a busy main road in the new AV Jennings estate where every house matched its partner in all but number.

By then you were the oldest child living at home, so you had first choice. You took the bed closest to the window and your younger sister was happy to look across to the sky from her bed on the other side. The two of you took turns to be the last to say goodnight in an interminable game of who’d be the last to speak, and although your father had told you to leave the venetian blinds alone, only to open them in the morning and to close them at night using the cord that adjusted the light, ever since your arrival you’ve pulled the blind up to the top of the window frame so that you and your sister could both get a complete view of the night sky from this large window that was nothing like the windows from the houses in which you’d lived in the past.

These old houses blocked out the light with tiny windows that were designed to minimise heat loss, but here in Cheltenham when people no longer feared the cold and heat so much as they did when your parents first arrived from Europe, you could have windows that took up whole half walls and more.


For weeks the ritual of going to bed, of raising the blinds, of staring at the night sky until your eyes grew heavy and you fell asleep was your favourite activity until one morning at breakfast when your father decided to check on your room. Not so much to see whether you had made your beds – your father never seemed troubled by such things – but to see whether you’d done as you were told.

Most mornings you remembered to put the blind to rights before you left your bedroom for breakfast but on this morning, an autumn morning when the weather was beginning to turn, your father asked,

‘Which one of you pulled up the blind last night?’ His face was frozen over as if just a few inches under the surface of his skin an army of soldiers were gearing up for attack.

Your tongue stuck to the roof of your mouth.

‘Why shouldn’t we fix our blind any way we want?’ your sister said to your father in a voice that stunned you for its audacity.

Your father grabbed your sister by the head and threw her against wall with all the force of his army and she let out a cry.

He let her loose and she slumped into a chair while he turned and walked back to the lounge room to his favourite seat by the fire and you looked at your sister and worried about brain damage from the force of the blow.

Your sister began to cry then, quiet tears and you felt like George Pell on the third day of the hearing into child sexual abide.

You could not take responsibility for your crime.

14 thoughts on “An experiment in second person”

  1. Powerfully written. I think the second person works well. It enables one to stand above the action while at the same time being IN it. ”Your father” comes to life as the violent tyrant he could be, terrifying ‘You’into betryal.

  2. A powerful story, Elisabeth. There was only one person committing a crime in this story, and it wasn’t the narrator. Most of us committed misdemeanours as children for which we didn’t take responsiblity when the threat of the punishment was violent or out of proportion to the misdemeanour.
    What a shame the father couldn’t delight in the night sky with his children.

  3. It amazes me how these things stay with us, Louise, those misdemeanours that can seem so trivial in retrospect but at the time seem enormous. Children have a lot to handle. Thanks.

  4. Oh, Elisabeth. The shock of the violence against the gentle narrative of the shiny new home was like a physical slap.
    In fact, I imagine that is exactly what the experience was like.

  5. I was going to comment, and I guess I am, about there being nothing wrong with A V Jennings homes and I bet the area where they are is quite nice now……although being on a busy road, maybe not. But I was shocked by the end of your post. Whatever happened in history to make some men think that such an action can be in any way defensible?

  6. You’re right, Andrew, the area along that main road in Cheltenham is not so ‘nice’, though the houses themselves are okay, albeit bland.

    You have to wonder again what gives anyone the right to treat children so cruelly but sadly it still goes on today. Witness the Royal commission against child abuse.

    Sure, most events happened a while ago but some such events go on today. Thanks, Andrew

    1. Thanks, Kirk. I enjoy a good experiment, but the outcome is unpredictable, rather like the experience of a child – or adult for that matter – who’s suddenly shocked.

  7. You’re not the girl you used to be and so it makes sense you’d use the second person here. I’m not sure it adds a great deal in this particular case because it’s an omniscient narrator who’s doing the talking. It might’ve been more effective if the narrator had been the sister who was thrown against the wall, someone with something invested in the telling. I’ve just finished reading ‘The Summer Without Men’ by Siri Hustvedt and there’s a scene in the book where the protagonist feels she has to mediate an instance of classmate bullying. She runs a poetry class and so, over the course of a week, has each member of the group—including the victim—write about the events from the perspective of one of the other girls and then share it with the class; each day a different girl. Afterwards the teacher writes:

    “The story they all took home on Friday was not true; it was a version they could all live with, very much like national histories that blur and hide and distort the movements of people and events in order to preserve an idea. The girls did not want to hate themselves and, although self-hatred is not at all uncommon, the consensus they reached about what had happened among them was considerably softer than [what had actually happened].”

    It’s one thing to try to put yourself in the shoes of a much younger you. A different thing entirely to take on the role of your sister. What must she have been thinking answering him back like that? Well, of course, she probably wasn’t thinking. We don’t think at times like that; we react. Anyway I hope you’ll forgive me but I found myself writing this as I was doing the dishes just now. See what you think.


    No one spoke. I looked at you and you couldn’t speak. Or wouldn’t speak. And I knew in that instant—the kind of knowing that transcends rational thought—it would have to be me.

    ‘Why shouldn’t we fix our blind any way we want?’ I said in a voice that stunned you for its audacity; a slap in the face but it was too late. My father grabbed me by the head and threw me against wall with all the force of his army and I cried out. Or perhaps I cried before I hit the wall. I’ve worn out the memory so maybe you can tell me.

    He let me loose and I slumped into a chair as he turned and walked back to the lounge room and his favourite seat by the fire. I could feel you watching me and I wonder now what you might’ve been thinking, probably something practical about how to treat concussion. But still you said nothing.

    So much for you and your words.

  8. Wow, Jim. That’s impressive, both your rendition of my second person story and Siri Hustvedt’s prose about bullying. We all have different versions of the same events depending on where we’re coming from. Thanks, Jim.

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