Home. I go round the back way. Down the side of the garage, squeeze past the stinky, black plastic rubbish sacks that Mum’s forgotten to put out again, and then let myself through the little wooden gate and down into the back garden, down into my jungle. And it’s fantastic down here, just like something out of Tarzan. Aaarrh-ee-aaarrh-ee-arhh! Lots of big, fat stinging nettles grown up in all the flowerbeds and long, whippy grass where Dad’s lawn used to be. But it’s a bit too cold to play out here now and, anyway, it’s beginning to rain – a heavy great spit of it landing on my nose and skiing off to splash my chin. So I push my way over to the mossy brick path that leads up to the patio and then climb the concrete steps to the back door. If I stand on the top step and lean across to the windowsill, I can spy Mum through the little gap in the middle of the net curtains sitting at the kitchen table in Gramps’ old wooden chair. She looks just like Goldilocks in that story about the three bears except that she doesn’t have long blonde hair and instead of sneaking somebody’s porridge she’s reading her magazine. She doesn’t notice me peering in at her through the window so I try the back door handle but the door’s still locked. Mum’s too busy reading that magazine to get up and open it for me so I have to go back down the garden path to Dad’s old glasshouse and slide the spare key out from under the little, yellow flowerpot on the bench where I hid it on my way out to school this morning.
“Hello, dear, nearly didn’t see you there,” and I jump so much that I nearly drop the key. But it’s okay because it’s only Mrs Parker, our next door neighbour, calling out to me from over the fence. Mrs Nosy-Bloody-Parker, Mum calls her, and says that I shouldn’t talk to her because she’s just a nasty old gossip who’s always poking her nose into somebody’s business. But I don’t care because I like Mrs Parker and she always waves to me when I catch her watching me from behind her curtains. Besides, Mum won’t hear us down at the bottom of the garden – and she’s too busy reading her stupid magazine to look out of the kitchen window – so I drag an old, cracked plastic patio chair over to the fence and climb up onto it for a bit of a chat.
“Nice day at school?” Mrs Parker asks, peering out at me from behind this big, white flapping bed sheet that she’s trying to get in before it rains.
“Yes, thanks,” I say, leaning my elbows on top of the fence to steady myself. “I got ten out of ten in spelling and a gold certificate for maths at assembly.”
“Oh, good for you, Jonathon,” she says, “good for you.” And then with a gigantic tug, she lands the bed sheet in her laundry basket and scuttles off down her washing line to snatch at an angrily snapping pink towel. “I always knew you’d turn out to be a clever little boy,” she says. “Like father like son, dear, that’s what I always say, like father like son.” But actually that’s not true because Dad lives in Australia with his new wife and their baby now but me and Mum still live in Invercargill. “Still,” she says, folding the towel into her laundry basket and then picking the basket up to balance it against her belly, “I daresay your mother will be pleased with your work, too.” And then she purses her lips and stares at me as though she’s got something else to say but doesn’t quite know how to say it; then waddles across to the fence and cranes her neck to look over into our yard. “By the way, dear,” she whispers loudly, her face so close to mine now that I can smell the ginger-nuts on her breath. “How is your mother? Not crook again, is she? Only,” and she peers past me at our kitchen window, “I haven’t seen her about for a few days. Is everything alright?”
“Oh, yes, Mum’s fine,” I lie, feeling my cheeks begin to burn red. “Just busy with housework and stuff, you know how it is,” and I shove my hand down into my pocket and start to fiddle with the key, twisting it round and round my little finger. And now I’m beginning to wish that I’d never stopped to talk to Mrs Nosy-Bloody-Parker because I know what it is she’s really asking and what she really wants to know. She wants to know if Mum’s been drinking again and forgetting to look after me. But even if she has, and she hasn’t – in fact, Mum hasn’t had a drink for nearly two weeks – I wouldn’t tell Mrs Parker because she’d tell child welfare on us again like she did the last time and they’d try to take me away. And I can’t leave Mum, not on her own, because since Dad packed up and left and Gramps died I’m the only family that she’s got. “Oh, and she’s got a bit of a cold, too,” I say, taking my hand back out of my pocket and looking her in the eye. “So she’s not going out in this weather.” And I pull my hood up and wrap my arms about me and give a big shiver so that Mrs Parker thinks I’m cold.
“Oh, I see,” she says, looking disappointed. “Well, I don’t blame her then. Wish I could stay in by the fire on a mucky day like this. Meant to be snow on the hills tonight,” and she shakes her head at the thought of it and I watch her chins swing softly from side to side. “Nothing serious, then? Just a cold?” She says. “Not this pig flu that’s been doing the rounds?”
“No, not the swine flu, Mrs Parker. It’s just a cold, that’s all. She’ll be fine in a couple of days.”
“Oh, well,” she says, giving our kitchen window one long last look, “I guess that must be why I haven’t seen her about.” Then suddenly she smiles at me and I see a bit of ginger-nut stuck between her teeth. “Anyhow, dear, mustn’t keep you, must I? Not if mother’s sick. Besides,” she says, glancing up at the sky as the rain clouds gather, “stand out here in this cold much longer and we’ll be getting sick ourselves.”
“Okay, then,” I say, “goodbye, Mrs Parker.” And I quickly jump down off the chair and push my way back over to the garden path before she can change her mind.
“Goodbye, Jonathon,” she calls, but I know that she’s still there, still standing at the fence watching me because I can feel her eyes pinned to my back. So when I get to the concrete steps leading up to the back door, I turn around and give her a wave. The last thing I want Mrs Parker to see is me having to let myself in with the spare key when she knows that Mum’s inside.
“Goodbye, Mrs Parker,” I say, waving and waiting for her to go.
“Okay, dear, goodbye,” she says, and finally turns away from the fence and makes her way slowly back up her path. “But you will give your mother my love, won’t you?” She calls, stopping to look over at me again. “And you tell her that if there’s anything she needs then I’m only…”
“Yes, yes, I will,” I interrupt. “I’ll tell her. But she’s fine, Mrs Parker, really. It’s just a bit of a cold.”
“Well, okay then, you take care of yourself, Jonathon,” she says. “And don’t forget that I’m only next door.”
“I won’t,” I say. “Goodbye!” And then I shut my eyes, hold my breath, and count slowly to twelve as I listen to Mrs Parker trudge back up her path, open her back door, go inside, and then slam it shut behind her. And I’m on my own, on the back door step, in the cold, grey afternoon as the heavy rain begins to fall.
I dig the spare key out of my pocket and unlock the kitchen door, throw my school bag on the floor and kick my muddy trainers off onto the mat. “Just me, Mum,” I say, “Do you want a cuppa?” And I go over to the sink and fill the jug up. But Mum doesn’t bother to answer me, let alone look up. I guess she’s probably mad at me because she heard me talking to old Mrs Parker down in the garden when I’m not supposed to. So I decide to make it up to her and, when the jug boils, I take her mug from the table, empty out the cold tea left in it from this morning, and make her out a nice, hot fresh one. “This will warm you up,” I say, putting it down in front of her, and then I make myself a hot chocolate and take it through into the lounge. I turn the TV on and snuggle up under the big woollen blanket on the couch. It’s four o’clock and time for kids’ TV, time for my cartoons. And this afternoon it’s one of my favourites…. Mighty Mouse! Kazoom! And he’s the strongest mouse in the whole wide world, with muscles as big as balloons. Crack! And always manages to save the world in the nick of time by beating up the baddies. Thwack! But the real reason he’s my favorite is because he looks like Tiny Tim. Biff! My little mouse. Bang! The one I found hiding in the arm of Dad’s old coat which Mum had thrown out in the shed. Pow! And who I kept in my jacket pocket and fed on little bits of stolen cheese. Crunch! Which squished a nasty, sticky red when Mum stomped on him with her shoe. Splat!
“Bloody rat!” she’d screamed, bashing Tiny Tim’s soft brown head with her hard black shoe. “As if I haven’t got enough problems without you bringing vermin into the house. Just look at the mess it’s made on my carpet! You pick that thing up and flush it straight down the toilet. And don’t forget to wash your hands! Bloody kid,” I’d heard her mutter, as she banged the kitchen cupboards searching for another bottle. “Worse than his bloody father!”
But I didn’t flush Timmy down the toilet like Mum told me to. Instead, I sneaked him into one of her empty cigarette packets – one of the gold ones with the fancy writing on it – and hid him in my room, hid him in my hidey-hole. But that’s a secret, my hidey-hole, so you’ll have to promise not to tell. Because it’s where I keep all my best things, the things that mean a lot to me and that I don’t want anybody else to touch. Like Tiny Tim, fast asleep in his little gold box; the felt koala bear that Dad sent me back from Australia and which clips onto a pencil if you squeeze its shoulders together; and Gramps’ smelly old wooden pipe that Mum gave me when he died. But best of all, best of all the things that I’ve got hidden there, is my photograph of Mum and Dad: the one I found stuffed at the back of the odds and ends drawer in the kitchen and that Mum doesn’t know I’ve got. They’re standing outside the front door of the house in it and Dad’s got his arm around Mum’s shoulders and she’s squinting up into the camera because the sun is her eyes. And I really love that photo because they both look so young and so happy in it and it reminds me of how things must have been when I was little and Mum and Dad were still in love and we were still a proper family. And how things must have been before Dad started coming home late from work and Mum started throwing things at him and slamming the bedroom door. And how things must have been before Dad packed up and left for good and Mum started buying bottles. But I probably shouldn’t be telling you any of this because it isn’t any of your business. And like Mum says, family’s family and we all have our dirty little secrets but there’s some of them shouldn’t be told. So I’m just going to shut up now and watch TV because I’m missing my cartoons.
I must have fallen asleep on the couch because it’s dark and freezing cold now and some boring detective show is on. The clock on the wall says it’s nearly ten o’clock so I must have missed dinner and my bedtime again but Mum’s still sitting in the kitchen so I guess she doesn’t care. I turn the TV off and go through into the kitchen, turn the light on and see if there’s anything to eat. There isn’t but Mum’s not hungry so I just put the jug on and make us a bedtime drink instead. “Here you are, Mum,” I say, “a Milo,” but she ignores me and just carries on reading. In fact, she’s been so busy reading her magazine that I see she hasn’t even had time to open the letter I gave her yesterday from my teacher, Mrs Walsh; but that’s okay because I already know what’s in it because I opened it on my way home. Mrs Walsh says that she is worried about me again because I’ve been very quiet these last couple of weeks and my clothes are dirty and I don’t seem to have any lunch. She says she’d like Mum to come in for a chat with her about it one afternoon. But I don’t think Mum will bother going to see her as she’ll probably be too busy reading her magazine, so I pick the letter up and toss it in the bin. And then I feel a bit happier because I didn’t really want Mum coming up the school again because last time she did she’d been drinking and she ended up getting in a fight with Mrs Walsh.
“Tell me how to bring up my own bloody kid!” she’d yelled, dragging me out of the classroom behind her by an arm and yanking me down the stairs. “Interfering old bitch! I should’ve given her a bloody nose!”
But it’s Mum and not Mrs Walsh who’s got the bloody nose now. I scratch a bit of it off and rub it between my fingers, crumbling the dried blood to the floor. I should probably try giving Mum a bit of a wash because she’s beginning to smell quite bad, but then that would mean having to undress her and I don’t think Mum would like me to do that. So, instead, I go and fetch the big fancy blue bottle of perfume that she keeps on her bedroom drawers for special occasions and take its tiny glass stopper out and pour a splosh of perfume over her head. It trickles down her face like tears and makes her look like she’s crying again. But she’s not crying now because she’s happy sitting at the kitchen table in Gramps’ old wooden chair reading her favourite magazine. And in the morning, before I leave for school, I’ll turn the page for her again.
“There you go,” I say, “you smell a bit nicer now, Mum,” and then I go and fetch her the big woollen blanket from the couch in the front room and wrap it about her shoulders so that she’ll be all warm and snug in the night, like she used to do to me at bedtime when I was still her little boy. Then I give Mum a goodnight kiss on the cheek, gently pull her eyelids shut, switch the kitchen light off and go up the stairs to bed.
Michelle Cottage is published in poetry, short fiction and non-fiction. She divides her time between writing, painting, looking after her kids and caring for a menagerie of rescued animals. Her first novel, The Scapegoat, dealing with the dark underbelly of village life in rural New Zealand, was longlisted for the Michael Gifkins Award in April and is now being read by a London publisher. She is currently working on her second novel.