It was winter when I ran away. The jonquils in Mrs Black’s garden next door were beginning to go brown at the tips and her daffodils were coming out like fresh yellow trumpets, ready to herald the springtime. I reckon it was the first Monday in August I left, when there was frost on the ground and I could see my breath in misty clouds before my face.
Our house was old, and ugly most of the time, except on rare occasions like Christmas time or when anyone came to visit; then Dora would scrub away the black dust in the corners and wash the carpets and tidy all the rooms, even the ones she knew no one would go in, and the whole place would smell of cleaning spray and lavender for a week. She was never very good with the cleaning. The doors were too high and draughts came in under them, and my bedroom was the coldest place because the window was jammed and would never quite shut. Just before I left Dora sewed clumsy little curtains and hung them up there for me.
Our backyard was just a pile of old junk that Dad had collected and never gotten rid of. He said he had too much on his mind to bother much about it. Once, Dora planted pansies in a little open patch in an attempt to make something pretty, less dreary, but Dad forgot they were there and crushed them somehow, by accident. I remember that time because I found Dora crying in the kitchen afterwards, and I watched her from the doorway until she looked up and saw me, and pretended that nothing was wrong. Funny, the things Dora cried about. She didn’t flinch when Dad shouted at her, didn’t even get teary eyed when her precious kitten ran away and disappeared or when the grandfather clock fell over in the hallway and broke her china cups, and got that awful scratch down the front; she just kind of pursed her lips and swallowed all the tears and words before they had a chance to come out, I suppose. But then, she cried when I fell off my bicycle and scraped my knee, or sometimes when dinner didn’t turn out right, or when she dropped a stitch in her knitting - just a soft, gentle sort of crying that made me stop whatever I was doing and go and wrap my arms around her and say, “Please, Dora! Don’t cry, Dora! Don’t cry!” even when I was too old for it, and she would stop at once, and smile, and wipe the tears away with her apron.
I never called her anything but Dora, because that was what Dad called her. I only knew that she was a sort of aunt, Dad’s younger sister - at least, half one, anyway. Two years after Mum died, when I was still too small to reach the water tap and tie my shoelaces, Dora came to live with us. I don’t know why. She should never have come. I suppose she didn’t have anywhere else to go, no other family or work. Dad never wanted her, but he needed someone at home to look after me every day when he went away, to cook the meals and wash the clothes … maybe he even needed someone to shout at, someone grownup and not a little boy. Maybe he hoped she would shout back, but she never did. Not Dora.
Copper Haired Boy
I always dreamed about you, somehow. I think I've been waiting years for you. I saw those twins with Down Syndrome one day and I longed to hold their hands like their mum did, even though they were grown up, and I wanted to help, I wanted to love them.
And just like magic, you appeared. To think you've been in the world for five whole years and I've only recently met you. What was I doing without you all that time? The way your hair shines copper in the sunlight and falls down your forehead as you look up with blue eyes - I was missing out on that. The way I call your name and you turn around and catch your breath. The way you, the best loved five year old I know, the one who dances in front of anyone and receives ten thousand hugs in a day, can come and wrap your arms around me with a gentleness no other little boy ever possessed. The way you make jokes that no one understands, and your laugh is the loudest. You laugh like crazy. Till your face is red and everyone else is laughing with you. And you believe that they're laughing at your comedic wit, but they're not. They're laughing because your laugh is contagious. Because you're beautiful. I know you'll never kick a ball with the same strength the other boys do, I know you struggle to speak simple words and keep up with the big brother who is ever on your mind. You're not the same, but you wouldn't want to be; people don't smile much anymore, and they're focused on things you wouldn't understand. And you have a gift they don't have.
Your teachers call you back to the classroom as you wander out to visit me in the big kids' room. "Have you fallen in love with Helena?" they ask you. You smile. A big smile. Resting a friendly hand on my shoulder, you say my name for the first time: "Hey, Helena."
I dreamed about you, before I met you, before you were born, and yet I never truly believed there could be anyone as perfect as you in my world; a smiling, copper haired boy God sent to make us laugh.
Working in a school
. “Do they speak Irish in Russia?”
. “Have you heard of the Bermuda Triangle? My theory is that there’s aliens in it.”
. Teacher: “Any questions about the maths test?”
“What does pre-cipitate mean?”
Teacher: “Is that in your maths somewhere?”
“No! It’s just a word I found in my head and I wanted to know what it means!”
. “Oh … I drew my dad a bit too fat. Then again, I guess he is, if you think about it.”
. “He was chasing me in tag and I didn’t look where I was going, so I hit my head on a pole in the playground. I had a big egg on my forehead. But it was so romantic.”
. “Look guys, I brought my pet to school. She’s Helena and you can ride her.”
Me: “If having a piggy-back on me makes me your pet, does that mean that when you wear a backpack, you’re the backpack’s pet?”
“It sounds like you’ve thought about that before.”
“I have. I think about everything.”
. “I threw butter, and I found out butter flies.”
. "Am I being really obnoxious?"
. “We had a word in schoolwork today. It was “ought”, and I was like, what? That’s not even a word!”
. "We need to brainwash Helena."
. "What? China isn't in Asia. Asia's a country. China's near Asia. China's a continent. You need to do your geography, Helena."
. "They sacrificed me in the game. They made a lot of sacrifications."
. "I don't get it, I ate heaps before I went swimming because fat's supposed to make you float, but I'm still sinking!"
. “People ask, would you rather have a million dollars or a million friends? And I’d rather have a million friends, because then I’d sell them chocolate bars for $4.50 each week and become a billionaire!”
. "Potatoes are bad. They steal the fame of carrots."
. “They should make left handed cups.”
. "Big people don’t get sad.”
. “How much pencils do you got?” (let’s just say that farm kids aren’t too concerned about grammar)
. "Did you know glitter makes everything good?"
. "That little kid’s really annoying! Don’t make eye contact. He’s always riding his bike around and wanting to do something. Oh … that sounds like me … but he’s much littler and much more annoying.”
. “My mum told me that if anyone annoys me, I should just punch them.”
. “I just thinked up a genius plan.”
. “Imagine if it rained carrots. That would be painful.”
. “Helena, did you know that your eyebrows are beautiful?”
. “You would make a perfect part of my family, because you always laugh at my jokes.”
Gravel Roads and Rubber Shoes
The strong summer rays had sapped the green life from the grass, leaving it sharp and yellow, and Joseph's tanned arms were wrapped around my neck as I carried him through the paddocks on my back; that way the long blades wouldn't scratch his bare legs, but his shoes were always falling off. Red rubber shoes. I would have to run back and pick them up again for him, and then we would keep going, over the gate and onto the reddened gravel driveway and into the farmhouse for dinner, and all the way there he'd chatter on about the sheep and little things that didn't matter but were nice to hear about anyhow ... and when we said goodbye, I would shake his brothers' hands, but not Joseph's; he was too small and I loved him just that little bit more, so I squeezed him tight instead.
It used to take me by surprise, the way things changed. Somehow I thought a six year old would never grow up and there would never come a time when the red rubber shoes didn't fit anymore; he would always walk with his hand in mine, pointing at the sheep; I would always be strong enough to carry him. It wasn't so long ago ... was it? And yet it feels like another life.
Now there's a gravel road going past my house - sort of like the one Joseph and I used to walk on - and a little lonely boy rides his bike at the end of it, making tyre marks in the dust and falling off and getting back on again. His mother wants him to wear a helmet because she's afraid that he'll hurt himself, but he laughs and tells me his helmet is sitting on his bed at home and that's where it will stay, because every ten year old boy believes he was born under a lucky star. You wouldn't think he was ten, to look at him. He's so small you could mistake him for six or seven at first. Maybe that's why he never hurts himself too badly, because he's so light. I have to get the mail at the service station so I walk up there most evenings, and he comes with me; doesn't ask if I mind, just invites himself along and rides the bike on the road next to me and asks me questions and talks about motorbikes and dogs all the way there and back. I tell him to cut his hair and he replies he wants it as long as one of the boys' at school, and I let him know how ridiculous I think it is, because that is what friends do, and he laughs at me and says he'll look just fine. He doesn't say thank you all that much, but it doesn't matter because I find his gratitude in the way his eyes shine and he laughs and says he's never had so much fun before. He's a little boy, after all, and he can focus on every moment. I used to do that. Now I watch as he shows me his new tricks, mop of brown hair falling over his face, and I know I have only a while more of this company, my friend and I going down the road and talking about nothing in particular. It will be gone before I want it to. Little boys grow up. Little shiny bikes become too small. Little rubber shoes are discarded. Only gravel roads remain, but they are not the same when they are empty; so I fill them with memories that I can keep even when everyone who walked them is gone. One day I'll come back and walk along this road just to remember, to pick up the stones in my fingers and throw them as far as I can, to watch the dust rise up in clouds, to try and picture again a brown haired boy too small for his years, leaving his bike in the middle of the road to crouch down and cup his hands around butterflies he will never catch.
Sometimes when there’s no one else home I stand in front of Mum's long mirror and stare at my reflection for a while. People say I’m a stocky little bloke. There's a dent in the middle of my chin and I've got dark sandy hair and brown eyes and freckles on the bridge of my nose. When I grin, my teeth are crooked. My writing is crooked. I stumble over my words when I read, cause that’s crooked too. And after I broke my leg last year, they set it crooked. I’ve got a funny way of walking now, and I can’t run cross country or play football like I used to, so when they do sport at school I sit out and watch. If I go to school, that is. I skip it when I can, and Mum and Dad and even Steve give me stern talks about it, but they just don’t see. Everything about me is crooked. I'm Harvey Jason and I'm the only kid in my school with a limp. I can solve maths problems faster than my principal but that kind of brightness gets swallowed up if you can’t kick a ball like everyone else can. I feel the tears behind my eyes, but they stay there, because when you’re twelve you don’t cry about being crooked. You suck it up. You pick up stones from the gravel road and throw them as far as you can and the anger sort of seems to grow small as you watch them bounce off the dust and roll til they’re still. But you never cry.
Being a Kid
He told me about the night he crept out of bed when he was supposed to be asleep and found his dad making sprinkle toast in the kitchen. His mum was watching TV, so he and his dad had a secret sprinkle toast feast before he went back to bed. He said if there’s ever a war and the soldiers come to raid his house, he’s going to get an axe, make a hole in the floor and hide out underneath his house, eating sprinkle sandwiches while he waits to come out. That’s how simple things are when you’re nine years old.
As Simple as That
All he wanted was just to see her again. Was it really so much to ask? Every day he woke up in a luxurious white bed with the sun streaming through his window and pooling on the carpet, and the coffee was there on his table, white wisps rising from the surface, and he wondered how the butler managed to bring it hot right before he woke up. He stepped out of bed and went to the window and the fragrance of the garden greeted him kindly. He drank the coffee and read the paper like any ordinary man and they came and took his cup silently, bowed heads. He had tried to converse with them, but he just didn’t know how. He didn’t know how to talk to anyone except her.
He opened the wardrobe doors wide and looked at the endless row of coats and jackets and suits and ties and trousers, all white and black and grey with no colour to them at all, and he dressed in one outfit and felt small inside it, like a little imposter with no right to be there at all. All his life he’d been too short, his hands too big and clumsy and scratched, his smile too awkward and his face too unsure to fit into a man’s suit. He didn’t feel like a man anymore. They’d taken that away from him when they gave him soft pillows and smart leather shoes. When he was with her, that was when he felt strong, not like a little frightened boy. And he wanted that back. He wanted to know that he had a purpose, someone to protect, to love. The coffee didn’t taste good to him. The bed was too soft and the garden so big he got lost in it just the way he got lost in the rows of suits. He didn’t like the abstract paintings they’d hung up on his wall or the way they moved around the house silently as if they were mourning his death while he was very plainly alive. He didn’t want it. He didn’t want any of it.
He just wanted her.
And the Earth is Silent
There's a weatherbeaten cross standing in the middle of Old Joe's cornfield. It's been there since before his grandfather bought the land, and he leaves a space around it out of the little respect and superstition he has but continues to plough and sow in that field because the land belongs to him and he doesn't intend to let it go to waste. They buried her there. The little girl with black curls who heard a secret she wasn't supposed to. But he doesn't know that.
July 5th, 2015
There used to be a young man who would sit in the pew ahead of me in the church. He didn't say much. I think he just smiled a lot. I can't remember ever speaking a word to him, but I'd see him most Sundays, dark black hair, a handsome suit, quiet and focused and different, different because he was good, and not many young men are good anymore. Sometimes he'd serve at Mass even when he lost his arm to the cancer that was rapidly destroying his body. I thought that after the amputation he would get better just like that.
He died seven years ago today. I don't suppose many people remember him. He was just so quiet. Humble men keep to themselves because they don't need validation or awards. I would like to have the copy of the letter he wrote, addressed to every member of the church; I was nine years old last I read it. But every year I remember the day he died. I remember the pride I felt to sit in the pew behind him. And I hope that I will have some of that goodness one day, the goodness that strikes a little girl, even from a distance, so that she can never forget the beauty of being different.
There’s a nobody kid at the end of the street
And he smiles at the sight of me coming
I hope someone loves him the whole of his life
Learns to sing to the tune that he’s humming.
There’s a nobody kid and he’s tough as can be
But he cries just like anyone would
And if only he knew that I’ll always be here
'Cause I’d give him the world if I could.
There’s a nobody kid and he’s restless and wild
He'll grow up, leave this place, and be free
But wherever he wanders, whatever he does
He'll always be someone to me.