Previously published in SAND journal, Berlin and nominated for the Lord Mayor’s Short Story Prize.
LEAVE HIM WITH ME
The sea air rages at the small boy’s face, feels deep into his clothes for the pocket of warmth under his arm. The rope cuts a zig-zag into his puffy jacket. Slow tears squish out at the sides of his eyes, a snail trail down his face that sparkles a little under the orange streetlight. There is a raucous heartbeat jumping from the small boy as he watches the waves chewing at the beach nearby. The street is empty and it’s only lonely barking dogs left with him. The rope is holding him at the elbows. The view is stop-start with lamp post, beach, car park, beach and the low scrub floats and dips with the slick air. He sees a little light way out to sea, blinking at him. He tries to blink when it does but can’t tell if it works. A beacon or a boat, something floats out there. The small boy doesn’t like boats. He likes sand. He learnt at school that it was made up of crushed shells so now he stoops over the small particles looking at the thousands of colours and wonders how they got so pulverised. It’s rough when it whips at your bare legs but soft when you lie in it. He would like a house made of sand, to run his hands along the walls and feel the soft shapely stuff under his fingers. The pole digs into his spine. When he tilts his head it disappears into the swooping, starry sky. The door to the pub opens and out walks the smell of stale beer. He isn’t disappointed when it isn’t his Dad. The small boy feels happy right then. His Dad will be coming out soon with shaking legs and a flu-like red face. He might even hold the small boy’s hand when they walk home.
There will be the slow five-minute walk with the rope dangling from Dad’s shoulders and the slight listing of his hair to one side, the silent streets shrouded with heavy Casuarina trees and the careful steps up the paving stones to the front door, open. Then they will both turn into their bedrooms and Dad will fall asleep with his boots on. The small boy will creep into the room, see his Mum’s sleeping face turned towards the door, and undo the thick worm shoelaces. He will be too scared of waking Dad to take the boots off. He will watch from the doorway the heave of his huge chest and the two caves in his nose. He will wait there for a little while then slowly shuffle across the hallway to his room. The silence always makes him sleep.
Won’t be long now, he thinks. Till his Dad comes out and unties him. Lets him stretch his arms, asks him if he got enough fresh air.
The small boy stands in the doorway of the kitchen watching his mum cut the onions. She wipes the little tears away with the back of her hand causing the swooping silver knife to fish-flash around her head. They eat dinner while the sun is still out and there is no sign of Dad. After dinner the small boy asks if he can go down to the beach.
He wanders down through the streets, yapping back at the little dogs along the way and counts the houses he has been into on one hand. He squats in the sand and sticks little twigs in a circle. The brash sea air eats at his hair and spits redness onto his cheeks. The stepping of time across the sky begins to pucker the blue with dark grey. The little sticks gather piles of sand beside them as the wind picks up. He doesn’t go near the sea, not in this darkness.
Dad is not there when he gets in. Quick ruffle and a pick peck on the cheek from Mum then to bed where his heart rate grows and grows until he hears the car in the drive, the heavy footsteps, the scrape of the back door and the feel of his Dad walking into the house.
The next day he takes the same walk but this time there is someone running in front of him. A dash of burnt hair that rushes down to the beach. He stretches his calves into a run and his arms flap and hang like tentacles beside him. The redhead is racing down the sand hills sending cascades of icing sugar after his fast feet. The small boy catches him at the end of the pier. They watch each other’s rib cages bursting for air. Nothing is said, just the quick eyeing of runners and scrapes on elbows. The redhead walks to one end of the pier and peers over the edge at the jelly-blue water. The small boy wonders whether or not to follow him and then does. To watch the slow waving of kelp stuck to the pylons. They fall into step with one another. Quick paced to the corner store after school to share a Calippo and dawdle home. They don’t know what secrets are so don’t share them. He doesn’t know where the redhead comes from. The small boy turns off into his street first but keeps watch while the redhead walks into the twilight.
Heat and time, these things are falling shadows behind them as they run, the small boy behind the redhead, down to their spot on the pier. The planks are faded, hollowed out and covered in squid ink. One night on the walk home from the pub with the thick rope that reminds the boy of camels dragging behind him, he asks his father if he can borrow some fishing line from the shed. He would like to try and catch a crab. Dad says its okay and he can look for some line in the shed tomorrow.
Mum is in the kitchen when they get home. She looks cold in her nightie standing at the sink. Her hands are under the hot water tap. The small boy sees the steam rushing out of the open window. He walks slowly down the hallway to his bedroom. The voices are low. He hears the tap stop and his Dad’s heavy boots stop. He wonders if they will leave each other. That is what happens. The small boy knows. He can’t sleep from the shouting. His head is heavy, thinking heavy thoughts, and then light again as he thinks about the space ships silently orbiting above him. He can’t remember the difference between a space ship and a satellite. Which one is real, he thinks.
The small boy is in the shed before school, before Mum and Dad are even awake; Dad on the couch and Mum has closed the bedroom door. The shed is dusty and full of spiky objects, empty cans of paint and nails scattered everywhere. He climbs in among the cobwebs to wrestle a tangled line from a pile of sinkers. He doesn’t know what else he needs but he packs the fishing line into his backpack. Running down the road to the beach barefoot on the asphalt burning holes in the bottom of their feet, the liquid horizon is glimmering in front of them. They run to the edge of the pier and splay their legs wide over the edge. The lines disappear sneakily into the water and they watch them keenly for a little bob, a tug, something. The wind starts pestering the people on the beach and picks up the lines, hauls them out of the water and sends them flapping in all directions. There are no weights on them and the two small boys feel foolish but laugh and punch red patches into each other’s arms. They don’t say much on the walk home. The small boy reaches the front garden, skips up the paving stones to the front door, lets it slap behind him. He is halfway through a loud hello when he hears the voices, sharp, hurting. The small boy walks in and flushes red, they are talking about him. He wants to say that he doesn’t care. But this is for the adults. He shifts and wiggles until he is unnoticed and in the kitchen. The arguing goes on and nothing will stop it. He puts his finger into the Nutella jar and feels down to the bottom.
They are in the shed, both of them, looking for sinkers. They start playing one of their games, Mums and Dads. They have played it before. But this time it is dark and musty and they have goose feather fat jackets on. The small boy tells the redhead to lie in the corner. He storms in, having had a long day. He lies on top of the redhead and they stare at each other full in the face. They start moving up and down and before long they are red in the cheeks with nostrils flared and full of dust. There is a hot feeling in the small boy’s pants, some feeling he can’t quite get to. It is elusive and unknown. He keeps wiggling. He hears Mum shout out teatime and they stop momentarily, breathless and feeling inexplicably bad. Then they keep going and the heat intensifies to some unobtainable point. It doesn’t make sense this lovely feeling, this sweet hot squishing together. They don’t know where they are headed, but they have no time, so they stop. They sit up.
Alone in his bedroom, the small boy looks down at his potbelly. Watching it breathe in and out. The house around him is shuffling with the sound of possums and groaning with the movements of Mum and Dad, avoiding each other, not talking. He has one hand on his belly feeling the tiny beat in there when Dad walks in with his coat on. He is a tower of raspy hair and eyes that skirt around the small boy. The small boy reaches over for his Rossi boots and wriggles them over his fat socks.Dad walks out and the fly screen bangs behind him in the empty night air. The small boy runs through yelling bye to Mum and lets the screen bang behind him. There is a crackle of cold air snapping at his cheeks. His Dad is standing at the gate looking up at the spectacular night sky falling heavy with stars. The small boy would like to ask what he is looking at but he knows his Dad will think that is a stupid question. Because he is looking at the stars and that is obvious. The small boy knows it is not that obvious. What is he thinking while he is looking? What bits does he look at more? The questions will never be asked and never be answered. He will have to learn to guess. They walk along the streets and keep looking up at the sky. His Dad says, “It’s cold tonight.”
The small boy stands with his back bending around the pole while happy noises from the pub clatter out to meet his ears. He stands there thinking of tomorrow, of the cold day when redhead and him will crawl up the sand dunes and then roll down until every single centimetre of their skin in covered with sand. In everywhere. He will have to have a bath when he gets home because Mum will yell if she finds puddles of sand all over his room again. Yell like she sometimes yells at Dad, scary yelling, her face turning into someone he doesn’t know. The small boy and the redhead will run over and around every dune they can reach. They might clumsily tie a sinker onto the fishing line and pull in piles of kelp. Then they will go home and lie in the shed together, wrapped in their huge jackets, and get hot in the face. They will never end, the days like this, they never will. The small boy knows that. He knows that with a certainty which also tells him that his Dad will leave the pub eventually, his fingers will be wet with beer and cold glasses, and he will un-tie the small boy again. Some things in life are certain for everyone, he thinks.