By Tom O’Connell
Dad drives really fast like he’s busting to go toilet. It’s scary, but he lets me sit up front, so I be brave. I hold my seat when we go around corners and pretend I’m in a spaceship. Mum doesn’t really like adventures, so I can only have them on weekends.
Dad speeds towards a yellow light, but it tricks us and turns red. We’re getting all the reds. We stop so fast my bag does a flip. I slap my seat like Dad and go, Come on! The bag has my new Amiga in it, from Dad and Grandma.
The next light’s red, too. My foot is angry and kicks the door. Dad says, “Woah, cowboy!” But I’m not a cowboy; I’m just a kid who wants to play Amiga. Dad understands. He says, “Ah, yeah … Nearly Monday.” Then he wags his finger and does his Mum voice: “Absolutely no fun on weekdays!”
I feel bad for laughing.
Tell ya what, Dad says. “I’ll speak to her. If she’s in a good mood, she might let you play for twenty minutes.”
“Yesss!” I say, punching the air.
Dad smiles and puts in the cassette of his favourite group, Talking Heads. He plays my favourite song, the Fa Fa Fa one. When he asks what we listen to at home, I say, “I don’t think Mum likes music.” He scoffs and says, “that’s like not liking being happy.”
I like being happy, I tell him.
He thinks for a minute and says, “I like being happy, too.”
* * *
We arrive at the shoebox, which is what Dad calls our flat. It’s a building with four storeys – not the kind with beginnings or happy endings. Our place is littler and squishier than Grandma’s – which is where Dad lives – but it has a fireplace and there are hedgehogs in the bushes. I like the echo echo echo when I stomp up the stairs. One time Mrs Blood told me off for stomping. I still do it, but only when Dad’s around.
When I get to the top, I turn and say, “Hurry, slow coach!” Dad says maybe he should stop smoking. I tell him Mum says that, too. He says nothing.
No one answers, so I keep banging. Dad joins in. We laugh because our banging sounds like a bunch of stomping dinosaurs. Boom, boom, boom! The door opens and Mum is there, frowning. I don’t think she’ll say yes to Amiga.
“Hi Mum!” I say and I go for a cuddle.
Someone coughs from the other room. Mum’s friend Louise must be over again.
“Where have you been?” Mum asks. I’m about to say, Grandma’s! But Dad is faster.
“Traffic was shit.” he says.
“Don’t swear in front of him.” Mum says.
I put my hands over my mouth to keep the laughing inside. Dad winks at me, so I take the bag and say, Mum, look what I got! Maybe if she sees what Dad got me, she won’t be mad.
Mum shakes her head. “You didn’t …”
I don’t think she knows what it is. “It’s Amiga!” I say. “It plays Super Frog!”
Dad puts his hand on my head and says, “I wanted to do something for my son.”
“His birthday’s in three weeks!” Mum says.
I feel a smile coming. Go away, smile!
“About that,” Dad says. “I want him to spend it with me.”
Now there’s an even bigger smile coming. I push it away so Mum won’t see. I don’t want her to be sad, but having my birthday at Grandma’s would be really cool. They let me have all the best stuff, like pizza and cake and the nice cereals that Mum won’t let me have because they’ll rot my teeth.
“You’re joking,” Mum says. “I told you we’re going to my sister’s. It’s done.” Dad goes to say something, but Mum shoots him down, says, “I can’t believe you bought him that. You still owe me three hundred pounds, remember?”
“I know,” Dad says. “You won’t let me forget.”
Mum raises her hands like she’s lost something.
Dad says, “That thing’s from Nan.”
Mum shakes her head and says, “That’s even worse!”
“I don’t even have twenty quid for petrol,” Dad says.
“You have nothing?”
“Brilliant,” she says. “What about driving cabs? You through with that?”
“For now,” Dad says. He looks at me, ruffles my hair and says, “Bloke I know’s got me onto something better, dun he?”
Mum says she doesn’t believe this. She pulls me by the wrist, saying, “Go inside now, honey.”
I wave Dad goodbye. I can tell they’re gonna do yelling again.
Louise appears in the doorway, wearing her weird clothes. She takes my hand and we go into the living room.
“Bugger!” she says and she rushes to clear her leaflets off the table.
I sneak a peek. They have surfers and planes and big beachy trees on them.
“Look!” I say. “I got Amiga!”
I miss her response. Sometimes it’s hard to understand her because she’s from another country. She says I can play my Amiga until Mum comes back. We set it up and I put in Super Frog. I’m on the floor and Louise is on the couch. I cheer because in Super Frog I jumped on all the baddies and collected all the coins. Maybe I’ll beat James’ high score.
“Did you see that!” I say.
Louise says “yes,” but I don’t think she did. I can tell she’s listening to Mum and Dad shouting on the stairs.
* * *
I open my eyes, not sure where I am. Then I hear crying and remember.
Mum’s next to me. The crying wakes her, too. She grumbles, rolls over and says, “Good morning, Mr Six.”
Now I’m awake! Today’s my birthday!
“Morning, Mum,” I say.
Mum asks if that’s Emily she can hear. Emily is my new baby cousin. I met her for the first time yesterday. She likes when others make a fuss about her.
We go into the kitchen. Auntie is there giving Emily milk from her booby. She asks if Emily’s crying woke us. We answer together – I say yes; Mum says no. Mum tells Auntie not to worry about it. She says it’s nice to get a jump on the day. Uncle calls me over. He’s cooking bacon and eggs. Their kitchen is bigger than ours, but it’s messier. Uncle is holding his hand up for a high-five.
“Happy birthday, champ!” He says.
He tells me all about when he turned six. He talks like he thinks I’m a baby.
After breakfast I’m allowed to open presents. Auntie goes around the table taking pictures of me from all sides with her special camera that makes pictures right away. Everyone is laughing and having fun. Then Emily ruins it by doing her favourite thing: cry. After that, the grown-ups stop what they’re doing and it’s like it’s not my birthday anymore.
Even though I’m mad, I be a good boy. Mum tells me to colour in one of my new colouring books. “It’s good manners,” she says. If I do it, Auntie will know I’m grateful.
My feet get angry again when Mum and Auntie leave the room. They want to kick the chair, so I let them. I wait for someone to tell me off, but no one does. My uncle is somewhere looking after Emily, and Mum and Auntie are outside smoking. I listen to them while I do colouring; they haven’t shut the door all the way.
Mum is talking about the bruise on her eye again, even though you can hardly see it anymore. Auntie reaches over and gives her a cuddle.
“We’ve got to do it,” Mum says when she pulls away. “He’ll never change. I’m just scared I’ll be hated for it.”
Auntie says, “The boy’ll come around. It’s for the best. Look at our father.”
Mum looks ready to cry.
“Just go,” Auntie says. “It’s the only way you’ll be happy.”
She puts out her cigarette and looks inside.
I look away, go back to colouring Turtles. That’s when I see my mistake: I’ve coloured Michelangelo red, like Raphael. I know it’s Michelangelo because he’s the one with nunchakus. I slam the book closed and kick the chair. Dad wouldn’t do this. He wouldn’t get me a stupid baby’s colouring book!
* * *
The bell has ringed, so James and I go outside to play our version of Lemmings. Real Lemmings is on Amiga. Dad got it for me for my birthday – and a bike, a car that shoots missiles and a sweat shirt with sharks on it. I had to wait until the weekend after my birthday to get them.
Instead of the playground, James and I play on the long brick wall that kids sit on to have their lunch. James is a lemming and the other kids are obstacles. I tell James what to do so he doesn’t walk off the edge. A few other boys play as well, but they don’t know the rules; they don’t have Amigas like James and me.
James walks on tippy-toes. When he gets to the edge, I shout, “Build!” James reaches in his bag for pretend wood and builds a bridge to walk over. James is good at pretending. He’s my best friend. Or maybe Blake is.
If our mums say it’s okay, James is going to sleep over on Friday.
When we get back to the classroom, our teacher makes us play spelling games. I know all the words already because Mum and I practise every night. It’s the only game she plays.
At the last bell, I grab my bag and wait over near the door. James’ mum is there to pick him up so I say, “Bye! See you tomorrow!” When James is gone, I remember we forgot to ask about the sleepover.
My teacher waits with me. She tells me Mum called the school and that someone else is picking me up today. I smile because I’m sure it’s Dad!
Louise is out of breath when she gets here. Her red hair is everywhere, like she forgot to brush it. She comes over, smiling and smelling of cigarettes. I try not to look at her dirty feet.
Louise says sorry for being late. The teacher just looks at her.
* * *
Louise doesn’t drive like Mum or Dad. She goes slow – calm slow, like she doesn’t care how long it will take. Maybe all grown-ups have their own way of driving. I wonder what mine will be.
Louise’s car smells like flowers and cigarettes. Because we left late, there’s not much traffic. I play a game where I bite my teeth together whenever our car passes a street light. It feels weird if I miss any, but if I can do them all for the whole drive, I feel good inside. Louise talks to me while I’m playing. I only answer when we stop at lights; she doesn’t understand that I can’t talk and play at the same time.
When we get to the building, I go in first and stomp up the steps, counting as I go. I stop when I remember who I’m with. Mum could find out. Louise hasn’t noticed. She’s dreaming. Her face looks different.
When she gets to my step, I pat her back and say, “Why are you sad?”
She puts on a big huge smile and says, “I’m not, Kiddo!” But her eyes haven’t changed.
We knock on the door and wait. I wipe my feet on Sprinkles, our doormat cat, like I’m giving him a scratch. Mum is taking ages. There’s strange noises coming from inside. Banging and grunting. I get a weird feeling in my tummy.
The door opens and Mum gives me a look. “I’m sorry I wasn’t there to get you,” she says. “Come on, I’ve made you a sandwich. Lou, have one too. I need to finish the loaf.”
I tell her I don’t want one.
“Please,” Mum says. “Don’t be difficult. You’ll be hungry later.”
The kitchen looks different, and when Mum opens the fridge I see there’s almost nothing inside. She’s done a big tidy.
The sandwich has cheese and mayo. Louise eats hers over the sink.
“Where’s the plates?” I ask.
Mum and Louise look at each other.
Mum says, “Just eat your sandwich.”
* * *
Mum asks again if I’m okay. I answer Mm, or she’ll ask again. We’re in Louise’s car, but Mum’s driving. She’s going super fast. Like Dad. I feel sick, but don’t tell anyone.
“Hey,” Louise says to me. “Did you know Australia’s got the best beaches in the world? I can’t wait to show them to you. Maybe you’ll grow up to be a surfer.”
What a dumb thing to say. I say nothing, just look out the window. It’s dark. I go cross-eyed and the lights look like fireworks. My brain won’t stop thinking about our flat, or how Mum paid the grunting men to put plastic on our couch and take it away. She says we don’t need our things anymore. Even my new bike. But I do need it – Dad hasn’t teached me how to ride yet.
Soon we are on this long road with lots of lanes. Louise finally gets that I don’t want to talk so we’re silent, all three of us. I don’t want to think, so I try the teeth game. Everything out the window is the moving screen and I’m controlling imaginary Sonic. He runs automatically. Biting my teeth together makes him jump. He has to jump over all the light posts or else he’ll get squashed and die. It helps me forget about my tummy for a while, but it’s a lot harder to play here than on the streets near home. We’re going too fast. Sonic goes jump, land, run. Jump, land, run.
My teeth are chattering fast and loud. Even Mum notices. They think I’m cold, or maybe scared. Louise asks if I’m all right. I can’t stop to explain the game because if I do Sonic will die and I’ll feel weird inside. I know I’m making them worry and that makes me worry. My jaw is hurting. I look out the front window and see the light posts don’t stop for ages and I’m thinking, What is this stupid road? I get more and more worried because I know I’m getting tired and I’ll have to stop soon and Louise is asking the same question still, with her weird way of talking, getting louder and louder, and now she’s so loud she’s yelling, and it makes me scared, sad and annoyed, and I … I can’t help it: I sick all inside Louise’s car.
* * *
Mum and Louise give our bags to the man at the desk. Then we find my auntie, uncle and Emily at ‘the gate’. That’s what Mum calls it. It doesn’t look like one to me – just people in chairs.
Emily is in Auntie’s arms. She’s crying again. I know why: it’s really hot here and all the adults are ignoring her. My uncle squats down to ask if I’m feeling better. I say something back, but am still worrying about my cousin. Auntie is bobbing her up and down. How would that stop someone from crying?
I say to Emily, “Hello,” and I squeeze her squirmy baby feet. She stops crying and looks at me, like trying to figure out if I’m on her side or the grownups’. She likes my silly faces. When Mum sees our game, she starts crying. This makes me want to cry, too.
Later, Auntie sits me down in one of the big chairs. Like everyone else, she wants to talk to me about Australia. She pulls out a map. Apparently Sydney is the most famous, but we’ll be living in the Queen’s Land. Maybe if it belongs to the queen, it will be like England.
Auntie asks what I’ll miss most about home.
“My dad,” I say. But it’s okay. He’ll visit.
Auntie doesn’t speak for a minute. She rolls up the map, but can’t get the rubber band on. Her hands are too shaky. We’re both sad now, so she changes the subject. She explains what’s different about Australia.
They have koala bears there, she says. And kangaroos. She starts pretend-punching, like a boxing kangaroo. When she realises I’m not going to join in, she says, “You’ll love the weather in Australia – it’s always sunny there.” “Here,” she corrects. She reaches into her bag and pulls out a brown cowboy hat. “I got this for you. It’s real leather. You’ll need it!”
“What are those dangly things?” I ask. Auntie gives me a look. “Thank you, Auntie,” I say. I wait a few seconds and ask again.
Louise and my uncle come over with Burger King. Uncle has heard my question.
“Keeps the flies away, mate,” he says. “Lotta flies in Australia. Like a desert.”
Auntie puts the hat on my head. It’s too big; it covers my eyes.
“Don’t worry, she says. You’ll grow into it.”
But I don’t want to grow into it. I start feeling sick again. I don’t want to live in a place with flies and cowboys! I want to build a snowman family with Dad and go for drives in his car!
Everyone is looking at me, smiling at me, the adults.
“Mum,” I say, panicking. “James was going to sleep over on Friday! I didn’t … I didn’t ask his mum! We didn’t tell school that I’m—! I didn’t say bye to anyone!”
None of the adults speak. Emily watches, trying to understand. Mum comes over and hugs me. I’m crying so hard I can’t breath. She pats me on the back – not too hard, but hard enough.
* * *
Tom O’Connell is a writer, editor and tea enthusiast. He has a Bachelor of Writing and Publishing and has had work published in various anthologies, including [untitled], Crack the Spine and Page Seventeen. Follow his writing at artofalmost.wordpress.com