Changeling’s Island – Snippet 21
During the next few weeks, as school trundled on its slow way towards the summer holidays, Tim gradually learned more about the bounds of his prison and how to use what it had. He could go online at the library. His Facebook reminded him of what a quiet desert his life was. He didn’t want to update his status, in case anyone back in Melbourne asked him why he was here. He looked to see how Matthew, the guy from junior school he’d been best buds with, before, well, before they’d moved, before Dad had gone to Oman. Before St. Dominic’s. But he didn’t comment, because he didn’t want anyone to know where he was. Or in case someone from the island friended him or something. It was like a lingering toothache that sneaked up on him when he’d almost forgotten about it.
He found the more he knew of the island kids and adults, the less they were like the zombie horde. They didn’t know anything, of course, not about real stuff in the city, but some of them were actually pretty decent. A couple of the kids said he must come fishing sometime, or on a quad-bike trail. It hadn’t actually happened yet, but they had offered. He hadn’t ever wanted them to know why he’d come here. Now he really, really didn’t.
Things people had said made him realize they thought he was here because his parents had divorced, or were getting divorced.
That story suited Tim just fine. It had a bit of truth to it.
While online, he also looked up the prices of flights. That suited him a lot less well. He’d set quite a high bar for himself, he thought, sitting on the ground, weeding. At Gran’s, there was always weeding to do. And digging his fingers in the dirt…it left him feeling stronger for some crazy reason. Well, “stronger” in “the more able to cope with all of this” sense of “strong,” not in the “picking up stupid sheep and putting them over the wonky fence” sense. That, he still struggled with. There was just such a lot of heave and carry and lift about the farm. Even the carrots he’d taken as just orange things at the supermarket took a lot of pulling out of the ground.
He’d found a shortcut across the fields, and he could walk fast and catch the bus in twelve minutes now. And he’d found his way down to sea. The day after a storm, when they’d had enough rain to make it a dripping-wet walk back through the bush from the school bus, Gran had taken them down there in the ute from the shed. The ute was a very old Ford pickup with a tub-tray, growing cobwebs. He hadn’t even known it was there for the first few weeks. Gran’s method of driving seemed to be to get into the wheel-ruts and look at the paddocks. She drove completely in first gear, so it was only mildly terrifying. She yelled out the window for directions, which was a lot worse.
“What are you doing?” he asked, clinging on to the dashboard.
“Don’t backseat drive!” she snapped, peering sideways.
“There isn’t a backseat. Mind that tree!”
She swung away from the fallen ti-tree and they scraped past several other trees and then back to the track. “Yer drive on the way back,” she said.
“But I can’t drive!”
“Yer better learn then,” she said.
“But I am not allowed to drive. I’m too young.”
“Not on the road. On the farm.”
She turned the ute at the last dune just before the sea, and faced it more or less back down the track.
Tim rapidly discovered this hadn’t merely been a scenic trip, or just to get his knuckles white clinging onto the window frame.
“The storm washed the weed up, and the rain’s washed the salt off. It’s good for the garden.”
She looked at the sea. Shook her fist at it. “And yer be off. Don’t yer be coming anywhere near here, or I’ll stick a pitchfork in you.”
“Who? Who are you talking to?” asked Tim looking at the gray angry water.
“The seal-woman. She’s nothing but trouble.” She pulled a face. “Have you got a knife?”
“No.” Knives had caused one of the boys at St. Dominic’s to get expelled only the term before. Pupils were not allowed to carry them, and while it had been tempting…It had to be something cool, not like a kitchen knife or something. Tim had never had the spare money, or really been…well, bad enough to get one. He’d wanted…sort of, to be bad, to get a bit of respect and to make up for being small and really not much good at ball sports. Now his life was too full of people who thought he was bad, and trouble, and who still didn’t give him any of that respect, back in Melbourne anyway. Did his gran think he was a mugger and a shoplifter? Why did she think he had a knife?
“Yer need one. Yer never to go near the sea without steel. I’m a fool. I didn’t even think of that,” muttered his grandmother. “Well, she’ll not come near while I’m here.”
They gathered armfuls and then carried loads of stinking seaweed up to the ute. Crabs scuttled away. Little bugs ran out of it. March flies bit at them if they stopped…
And then, when the ute tray was full, piled high, his grandmother said: “I hope yer can move the seat. It hasn’t bin moved since yer father was a boy.”
Tim noticed she never mentioned his father’s name. Hardly ever even talked about him. If she did talk about anyone, it was “my John,” and even that didn’t happen too often.
They wrestled with the seat and got it to move slightly. Then it stuck. “Can yer push the pedals all the way down?”
Tim tried. The ute lurched forward. “Foot off the clutch, on the brake,” said his grandmother.
He got the part about taking his foot off the pedal. “Which is the brake?” he asked in a panic.
It was rather a long trip back with the seaweed. Tim was exhausted, but quite pleased with himself. He’d found the concentration of driving a strain. He’d stared hard ahead so much that he imagined he saw all sorts of things out of the corner of his eye that just weren’t there when he looked properly: Potholes, logs, a small hairy manikin in a hat clinging to the outside mirror. That, which nearly sent them off the road and into the bog, was on second glance a bunch of weeds.
When they got home his grandmother said, “I need a pot of tea. And they deserve some beer. I don’t think we’re ready to try taking the ute into the shed yet. Just stop.”
Tim had gotten used to his grandmother’s ways by now, or at least the beer for the fairies idea. He set out the bowls. There were two of them to be put out, one in the barn, and one in the corner of the kitchen, each with a half-centimeter of beer in them. A bottle lasted a couple of weeks or more. He figured the mice or something must love it.
Only this time, he was tired enough to just sit there in the kitchen, and he happened to be looking at the bowl. The flat beer was a limpid brown pool in the bowl…and then it began to ripple, as if something was lapping at it. And then, all by itself, the bowl tipped a little. Tim blinked. Rubbed his eyes.
Looked. Rubbed them again.
The bowl was empty. Drained of the last drop.
It must have been a mouse he couldn’t see at this angle…or something. It was enough to creep him out. But Gran decided they’d sat about idle for long enough, so she said, “Come. We’ve got a ute to offload.” She hesitated for a second, went to the drawer of the kitchen dresser, and rummaged about. “Here,” she said, holding a flat, yellowed object out to him. “It was yer great-granddad’s penknife. Useful on the farm. I thought yer must have one.”