Digging away in the sandpit, I glower at Andrew, resentful that I have to wear his hand me downs. We always end up with matching shirts. Every tower he builds with his bucket, I smash it down to form a moat. I don’t think he will put up with this for much longer. But he likes red and I don’t. So bashing castles it is.
Dad and Uncle Jay have come outside into the garden. They are so preoccupied with their conversation they don’t notice Andrew building and me destroying. Uncle Jay is providing details to Dad about a man at work having an affair – a friend of our parents. Losing interest in the sandpit, Andrew and I find it fascinating, and we both giggle at the adults talking.
“Shush,” I say.
Our nudges and smirks eventually give us away.
“Go inside. There are things young ears should not hear. Go do something useful,” Dad orders.
Andrew doesn’t want to stray too far from the kitchen. Aunty Donna is showing Mum how to bake her famous ‘light-as-air’ scones and Andrew wants to be near when they come out. The idea of jam and clotted cream melting over hot dough is making my mouth water, so we collect our Legos and play at the kitchen table. For five minutes we are very good sons. But Andrew has just taken my favourite yellow piece. Already miffed at the unfairness of our matching clothes, I become enraged and leap at his head, trying to grab his long hair. My chair skids and crashes down, unable to sustain its posture. Pulling us apart, Mum throws us out.
“Shush, already. Both of you…out… go to the beach and play, and don’t forget your hats.”
Our battle royale over Lego pieces is quickly forgotten with this unexpected treat. Andrew and I grin in mutual jubilation as we run out of the kitchen before Mum changes her mind. I grab my stupid cap as we race out the front door – the one I keep telling my Mother that I’m too old to wear. Andrew doesn’t bother with his and I know he’ll pay with a peeling nose tomorrow, so I don’t remind him. Hot revenge for the yellow piece. We run out the front door into the cul-de-sac, our feet shocked by the sudden change from cool tile to unforgiving gravel, edging the tarmac.
For a while we act likes puppies, darting this way and that, hopping along the asphalt road, our toes barely touching the hot surface. Every small detail, a distraction. We both take a branch from underneath Mrs Thompson’s gum tree and use them as lightsabres. Vrruummmmm, we play. Parked cars transform into spaceships, each of us taking turns to hide behind tyres and partially grown garden hedges. Everything a stage for our space odyssey. Eventually, Andrew’s branch breaks, and I run down the street elated, banging the chain link fences and beheading Mr Singh’s beloved Aggies in victory. We stop at Ms Thompson’s gate to pat Daisy, her ancient butterball Dachshund, who is desperately barking at the commotion I’m creating. Once she is satisfied with our attention, she waddles silently back to the front door’s welcome mat – an ageing guard back at her post.
We take our time to study the crushed snake in the middle of the road, multitasking with our remaining stick to chase the swarming flies and pick up its innards. Bonding over the magnetism of death. The remainder of its body is deep satiny black with a bright red underbelly, its colours so inviting, yet so dangerous. Marvelling at the contrast of bright to dark I touch the scales – slippery and now warm from the sun, they equally mesmerise and repel. Laughing, Andrew pushes the snake’s guts into my face. Backing away from the smelly gore, I fall backward onto the street, knowing I’ll have trouble sitting later. The smell of decay is prominent in the midday heat. A pungent stench reminiscent of dark places and scary situations. Andrew loses interest, drops the snake and we move on, while a murder of crows prepare to pounce.
Asphalt changes to pebbles, to grass, then succulents and sand.
We run and climb amongst rocks, carelessly stepping on sharp edges, our feet hardened by salty summers gone by. Our stick long gone, forgotten on some boulder. The boundless blue of the ocean and sky stretching so far and clear, I can almost see the curve of the earth’s surface. I chase Andrew along the beach until we both fall down exhausted, resting on the pigface growing intermittently amongst the sand dunes. I place my cap on my face, its animal ears whipping in the wind, occasionally slapping my head. Shush, go the waves. Shushhh.
My fingers dangle in the warm sand, the grains slipping past my fingertips, transforming windswept curves into a miniature mountain landscape. My eyelids keep fluttering, defying the waves’ hypnotic suggestion. The sun is warm on my hated red shirt. I yield into the dune.
“Do you like Aunty Donna?” I ask.
“She’s ok. I like her cooking.”
I nod, even though I know Andrew, who is lying on his back, can’t see me.
“She’s a bit weird.”
Shushhh, the waves go, shushhh. I stay silent and eventually we both fall asleep.
Andrew is shaking me and I hear the demand of a seagull, squawking in the distance.
“Come on. I’m bored. Let’s explore.”
Groggily I get up and put my cap back on my head. I look behind to see the shadow that Andrew and I have left on the succulent. Crushed grassy fragrance follows me in the heat, mixing with the ocean’s briny scent.
Over the dunes we push, leaving footprints that will disappear by morning. Like crabs we crawl over craggy rocks, seeking treasures amongst the warm pools left by high tide. We stare at the blue ringed octopus hiding under seaweed. He is beautiful and deadly like the snake, but we know better than to touch. Unlike the snake, he can still hurt. We watch him as he glides to find the shadiest nook in the small pool. I look around and a carnival catches my eye. A ball has been left behind. An unknown three-year-old inconsolable at home.
“Hey, Andrew. Let’s play.”
Finding a space within the dunes, we throw the ball back and forth. Andrew is laughing as he throws it higher and higher, forcing me to run in all different directions in order to catch it. I whoop as I throw the ball so high that Andrew has to run over sharp rocks to collect it, scaring seagulls who hover above, trying to find scraps in the crevices. As he comes back, he keeps grinning and refuses to throw it back to me. The sun is getting lower, warming my back, highlighting Andrew’s face. Our shadows lengthen, almost touching the shoreline.
“I’m not doing anything.”
Pointing at him, I say “I don’t want to play anymore. You won’t throw me the ball.”
“I don’t want to go home,” I blurt out.
Andrew looks at me surprised, “Why not?”
The tide is coming in. It’s lapping at the pool where the octopus is hiding. I know it will be time to go soon.
“I don’t like Aunty Donna. She comes into my room at night.”
Andrew stares at me. He drops the ball. It rolls into the water and gets sucked away. He is still quiet. He walks up to me.
“She touches me and I don’t like it.” I start to cry.
Andrew puts him arm around me.
“We’ll stay here until they leave tomorrow. It’s safe on the beach. I’ll look after you. It will be ok.” Shushhh, the waves go, shushhh.