“Do you think Mum will be mad at us?”
Jake looked at his new boots as the frothy water swirled around his ankles.
“It would be good if Mum got mad at us sometimes. Like she used to.”
Eric looked at his little brother’s boots, but he didn’t say anything, just stood his ground and felt his socks soaking up the salt water.
“Do you think this water goes all the way to China?” Jake said and watched the water ebb back out again. “I mean, you know, do these bubbles all swim out to sea and bob along the waves and wash up somewhere on a China beach?”
“Dunno,” his brother shrugged.
“Maybe that’s where Daddy is,” Jake said finally. “In China! Yeah, that’s where he is.”
“Shut up, Jake. He’s not in China.”
The boys stayed silent for awhile, wading in a little further until the water came up to their knees, almost touching the cuffs of their upturned trousers.
“He could be,” the little boy ventured.
“He’s not in China! Mum said he’s gone to Angels now.”
“Can we go to the Angels too? I want to see him.”
“I asked Mum and she just cried and hugged me really, really hard. So I s’pose that’s a ‘no’.”
Jake’s stomach rumbled loudly.
“Don’t fart, ya little pig,” his brother chided.
“Bull. You farted.”
“Did not and Mum said don’t say ‘bull’ It’s not nice. Anyway, it’s my stomach rumbling. I’m hungry, Eric. Wanna go get something to eat. Grandma just made those biscuits with the chocolate bits.”
“Nope. Mum and Grandma are having one of their talks at the kitchen table. They’ll start hugging us again. Yuk.”
But Jake wasn’t put off, his brain clicking over to pantry raiding alternatives.
“C’mon Eric. Let’s go pinch plums.”
Eric realised their new-found freedom had more opportunities than just wading down at the beach without being watched.
The boys laboured over the cold sand, up the embankment and ran along the main street, dodging in and out of the smattering of off-season holiday makers. Then they darted around the corner of Frank’s Fish and Chippery on the corner of the Main and an unnamed lane.
Jake and Eric had discovered the laneway last time they spent holidays with their Gran. It was a lifesaver, they’d told their Mum later. They used it to escape from pursuing bullies who were after their pocket money. However, they’re mother was not convinced and their dad gave them a hiding for sneaking out in the middle of the night in the first place.
Jake pondered the incident, but then set his sights on the branches that hung over the lane from a vacant holiday house.
“They’d just be wasted anyway,” he told his brother. “They’ll fall all over the ground and then Jarrod Smith will throw them at us next time he sees us”.
Both boys pulled handfuls of branches from the tree, not bothering to pick the fruit too carefully. Eric pulled his coat off, folding it to hold half a dozen plums for later on.
They sat with their backs to the weathered, splintery wooden palings, settling for their feast when they heard an old car bouncing along the potholes just around the bend. It was headed their way.
“Better get going,” Eric told Jake. “Don’t wanna be squished flat. We’ll have to find somewhere else.”
“Would a car squish us flat?” Jake asked. The boy’s phase of asking ‘why’ never really ended, with the questions becoming more and more eloquent.
“We could be blown back up again like in the cartoons, you know, with a bike pump or something.”
Eric picked up his coat filled with plums and the boys ran back out of the laneway. Across the road, lined up along the beach front, was a series of picnic tables and pergolas. They were mostly empty. People had better things to do than have barbecues in cold beach towns in the off season.
They settled in the very first pergola they came to. It was dirty but there was no rubbish. Only a few obscene words scrawled on the walls. The barbecue was greasy from someone’s long-past lunch, with a fair covering as well of white, seagull droppings.
A slight drizzle had begun outside and cool wind picked up froth from the waves, but the boys were well-sheltered.
Eric bit into his first plum. Although bright red, it was not yet ripe. The sour juice dribbled down his chin and left telling red spots on his tshirt.
“Oh great. Mum’s going to have a fit,” he said and spat it out on the ground.
“They’re sour,” Jake said.
They sat quietly, disappointed.
“Eric, did Dad used to have spiders in his head? You know, ‘cause I was sitting on his knee one day and I saw a whole stack of spider webs up his nose.”
“Don’t reckon,” his brother answered. “Probably just snot.”
“Ew. Be better if he just had spiders.” Jake looked at the plums ruefully. “I’m still hungry. Maybe we could just ask Grandma for some bikkies?”
Eric put his hand in his pocket. “Got a dollar twenty. Maybe they’ll let us buy some chips.”
Jake told him that the chip shop looked shut when they ran past it. “Those plastic things in the doorway weren’t blowing out and the lights were all off.”
No doubt it was shut for another two weeks until the new holiday season began.
The boys made their way back around the corner and up the steep road to their grandmother’s cottage, a white weatherboard house that sat forward on the side of the hill on stilts. The bottom half of the house had been covered over to make storage rooms on one said, and a garage on the other for the woman’s little white Mazda.
Surrounding the house was a garden of pathways, steps, stone edgings, and mostly seaside native plants. Behind the house were old laundry troughs filled with herbs of all sorts. They were watered by a makeshift sprinkle system their grandmother made from old garden hoses that ran from a rainwater tank at the side.
Sometimes Eric thought his grandmother was a witch. He pictured her cooking over a large black pot in her kitchen, only the stove was replaced with a fireplace and his grandmother cackled. He was just a little scared of her, even though he knew she loved him.
He peeped in through the kitchen window as they walked past it.
Grandma was holding a dark brown bottle. There was no label on it. She pushed it across the table to their mother.
“It will only take a couple of drops. Whiskey or one of those fancy cocktails he likes would cover the smell,” she said.
Jake pulled the wire door open. It squeaked as the spring stretched tight, ready to pull the door closed again behind them. The boys walked in, famished and hopeful.
The two women looked up surprised, shocked and embarrassed.
“Where’ve you two been just now?” their mother asked. “Were you out on the porch?”
“Nar,” said Jake. “We’ve been down at the beach eating plums.”
His brother punched his arm.
“Ow. Why’d you do that?”
“I told you not to say anything,” Eric growled.
Miraculously, Eric thought, their mother ignored the answer.
“Run along. Grandma and I have things to talk about.”
“Mummee, we’re hungry.”
Their grandmother stood from the table. She hobbled over to her pantry, pulled the door open and pondered for a minute. She smiled and took down the large canister of biscuits.
“How about I make you a snack?” she smiled. The boys were a little alarmed when Grandma smiled like ‘that’ though. It was as though her mind was very much on other mysterious things.
She tipped out a half dozen biscuits into a plastic lunch box, then took a bottle of orange juice from the fridge.
“Run along kids. Run along,” she said as she handed the food to them.
Eric was surprised she had not just packed boring things, like fruit, carrots, sultanas and the stuff they usually get in their school lunches. Bikkies and juice meant they were supposed to stay away for awhile.
“C’mon Eric. Let’s go. Okay to go to the beach, Mum?” yelled Jake.
His mother waved dismissively, her red rimmed eyes trying to smile but not making it.
The wire door slammed behind them, but Eric grabbed Jakes arm to stop him, and put his finger to his lips to hush the little boy.
They stood at the back door for a moment. They could hear their mother start to cry again and their grandmother talking in muted but angry tones.
“You’re better off without him,” the old woman said, although it was not clear if she was trying to comfort her daughter or vent her spleen.
“And that Angel Rosenbloom has a lot to answer for. This is not the first time she’s broken up a home.”
Jake whispered “Who’s Angel Rosenbloom?”
“Dunno. Maybe that’s the Angel Dad’s with?” Eric responded. The wise little boy put all the pieces together, thinking about the brown medicine bottle in the middle of the table. “But I guess it means Dad isn’t dead, not yet anyway.”