I Don’t Need All Your Good Advice: Final

Final part of a  longer short story about a teenager still learning how to navigate tricky situations, the price of loyalty to the unworthy, and the demands of any relationship. (Go to the beginning: Part 1 )

As always constructive criticism, feedback or even a note to say hi in the comments is welcomed!

I saw Sara just one more time after that. School was over, with our, on occasions sweet but mostly long, graduation ceremony. I hadn’t seen her all day, as we were placed in different seats in the huge concrete lunch-area-slash-ceremonial-hall, then missed her during the rush of farewell hugs and tears, scribbling notes in everyone’s Year Books, and cleaning out my locker for the last time.

The school drained away. Younger students trudged back to their classes, and graduates with cars made their dash to freedom, and home, to prep for the graduation party. The crowd waiting for the specially chartered, early bus was small, and my usual seat mate wasn’t amongst them.

Home was stifling. Too empty and hot. I had hung my dress up on a curtain rod in the morning, hoping that if I stared at it long enough, it would help me decide whether or not to go tonight, whether I should continue sewing, whether I should accept any of my uni offers or just give up and become a hermit living off scraps behind Andy’s Legipops. I was placing a lot of unrealistic expectations on that dress.

It met none of them. I walked to the supermarket instead. If I didn’t go to the party, I would need junk food.

I recognised the dress first, before realising it was Sara wearing it, as she stood contemplating our usual meeting nook by the vending machines. She had her stilettos on this time, black, with matching dark eye make-up. I had been right about how intimidating she would become, particularly as she watched my approach without a smile, or a word.

“Dressed up already?” Decision procrastination had sapped my energy to the point that I hadn’t even changed from my school uniform yet. Even in flat, leather shoes we were the same height.

Professional female basketball? Top shelf grocery stacker? Possible career paths tempted me.

“Yeah, I’m heading out soon, just came down to grab some drinks’n’stuff for the trip.”

“Oh?” Despite her unusually stern expression, Sara moved closer to talk.

“Dad called.” She cleared her throat a little, and looked away.

Oh no… My hands twitched, as I wondered to what extent she would accept my comfort, but she looked back, eyes glassy with unshod tears, yet smiling.

“He said he’s sorry for everything. For trying to force me into a relationship with “a damn liar like Jo”. She ran home to mummy yesterday, and spun some great horror story. I don’t know what she asked him to do, but for once, he took my side and now he’s taking me and Mum up to Sydney tonight to celebrate my graduation… as a family.”

“Wow. That’s great, Sara.” I didn’t really know what else I could say. Maybe she heard the slight reservation in my voice, because her smile shrunk again.

“I wouldn’t worry about Jo. Nothing even happened to her, thanks to you.

Peace negotiator? Bomb defuser? Psychologist who talks people down off bridges?

“She wasn’t worth it.”

She tapped her long, fake fingernails against the vending machine, before holding my gaze again.

“No. I guess she wasn’t.”

She broke the awkward silence that followed with a quick glace at her watch. “Look, I gotta go. And you have the grad to get ready for.”

“Mmm. See ya then?”

“Yeah… sometime maybe.” We didn’t hug, and she didn’t turn back or wave as she clicked those stilettos away through the car park.

I stood by the vending machines for a while, filled with the sense that no matter what my future was, it wouldn’t contain any more late night conversations behind them.

Mum was home when I got back, and talking quietly on the phone. Pausing at the door, I blatantly eavesdropped, however she wasn’t doing much talking.

As she hung up the phone, I caught her eyes and raised my eyebrows.

She ignored them. “Congratulations, big graduate. How do you feel?”

I collapsed dramatically across the table.

“That good, huh?”

“I had a client try to cheat me out of my money after I made her a dress, and I don’t think Sara wants to be my friend any more.”

“Wasn’t Sara that girl who beat up people?” Mum had made us both tea, and brought them over to the table. “If you want my advice, and you never do, not having her as a friend doesn’t sound like a big loss. As for the other one… haven’t you heard of payment in advance?”

I sighed and accepted the tea. “Maybe you’re right.”

“Oooh, that’s a first from you.” She smiled though and a packet of chocolate biscuits joined our tea on the table.

“Was that Dad?”

“Yeeep. He wants to meet. Talk my ear off some more. Maybe over dinner somewhere. He said he’s paying.”

“Romantic.” I thought I had misjudged the mood as she stared wide-eyed at me, before giving me a whack with a nearby tea-towel.

“Just dinner! Don’t get your hopes up. Wrong choice of wine and it could be all over!”

“Wine? Sounds fancy.” I suddenly saw Mum in all her cotton uniform, broad shouldered, taller than average, shapeless, beige-ness. My fingers edged towards a spiel of measuring tape.

“Mum. I think you’re going to need a new dress.”

Scallop skirt, just below the knees, to accentuate her long legs, orange, like the one in her student photo. The blouse, cobalt blue, flaring to accentuate her curves, with a wide neckline and short puffed sleeves. It would be the outfit of a curse-proof scheme.

Mum sucked on a chocolate biscuit, her eyes lingering on ruffles of my creation. Watching her, I was finally able to make a decision, at least regarding my near future. Dresses were made to be worn. I had a few more hours left before the party to prepare.

Mum finally nodded. “Yeah, I think I might too. I guess I better put in my order now quick before they all that dress tonight and your schedule fills up.”

Am I hearing this?

She took out her wallet. “How much do you charge?”

And for one, probably transient, but still euphoric moment, everything seemed clearer.

Professional dressmaker? Worth another shot.

The End

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I Don’t Need All You Good Advice Part 6

Part 6 of a  longer short story about a teenager still learning how to navigate tricky situations, the price of loyalty to the unworthy, and the demands of any relationship. (Go to the beginning: Part 1 )

Some swearing.

As always constructive criticism, feedback or even a note to say hi in the comments is welcomed!

Say something.

The silence had expanded throughout the interior of Dad’s van and, with nothing obvious to jump-start conversation, paralysed my ability to speak. For his part, Dad seemed like he was constantly on the verge of saying something. His eyes would flick over to me, and he would suck in a breath to oxygenate all the words, which somehow got trapped in his diaphragm and the air would whoosh out again, like a sigh.

The sheer width of the car, and the roar of noise from outside as Dad’s ‘free air-conditioning’ preference had all the windows down, made it difficult to talk even when my brain finally produced the banal, “So… new car?” which got lost in the wind, and had to be repeated three times at volume, before Dad wound up a window to reply, “Yeah, you like it?”

Well… It wasn’t clean like Mum’s car, with regularly vacuumed mats and my Grandma’s lace doilies on the headrests. The van was grimy and a few soft-drink cans rolled over empty chip packets underfoot; while in the back a mass of crumbled black tarps covering some cargo. Whitish, grey dust covered everything.

We pulled up in front of the white, concrete-brick building that looked more like a community hall than a Correctional Centre. The tall fence around the side was bare of barbed wire, and young guys leaned against the railings on the balcony, chatting.

“Are they… inmates?”

“Yeah, probably knocked off from their work for the day. They’re all good kids, don’t worry. “ Dad passed me a card in a plastic sleeve. “I’ve gotta go park this down the road a bit, you go on in, show them the visitor card and tell ’em I’ll be coming along in a bit.”

What! Go in? Alone?

As Dad drove off, I lingered by the curb. If he was coming along soon, I could just wait until then.

“Hey, Miss! You with Mr Walker, Miss?” The boys on the balcony had noticed me, one was walking down the stairs. I braced for a police squadron to appear and tackle him down as he moved further from the Centre.

“You here to see Mark, Miss? I’ll show you where he’s at.” The boy was tall, and a few years older than me, but even up close didn’t seem that threatening. I followed him mutely, expecting jeering comments as I passed the others. They had all resumed their conversation however, about Dad’s van and how sick new rims would look on it.

My guide took me past the sign in desk, after quickly flashing the badge towards a police officer who nodded us through with a: “So John’ll be along in a minute? No worries.”

Down a narrow, dim hallway, lined with doors. The boy stopped by one.

“Here’s usually in here in the arvys.” He said as he opened the door.

Compared to the hallway, the room was well-lit with afternoon sun. Two beds lined up against the walls, with a table and chairs against the window. Mark had been sitting with his back to the door, flipping through a thick book, though he turned at the noise of the door.

“Rachel!”

“Hey Mar-” My words got cut off by a mouthful of shoulder at he leapt up and across the room to grab me in a hug. His body was harder, and taller, than I remembered, and his clothes cleaner, without the stink of cigarettes.

“Ahhh, I missed you! Come sit down! Do you want the bed or the chair? You’re so much taller now! You’re going to be bigger than Mum soon. Is she coming today too?”

“Um, no.”

“Oh, fair enough.” His lips twisted a little, though he smiled again as he pulled out the chairs.

“I think Dad wanted it to be just me today. I don’t know if he’s even seen her since he moved out.”

“Yeah, I don’t think so.” He sat in the middle of his bed, legs pulled up. “She hasn’t come here either. She calls sometimes, but I think visiting me in the police station made this whole thing a bit too real for her.”

I looked around at his room. The white bricks were hidden beneath aboriginal dot paintings in frames and tattered posters of cars and bands.

“This is a lot nicer than I expected. There’s no… bars or anything.”

“It’s pretty low-security, everyone here’s in for drugs, or fights, mainly.”

“Aren’t they worried you’ll try and escape?”

He shrugged, “Nah, it’s not so bad in here, and I guess they trust us not to take off. “ He caught my eye, “There’s a lot of trust here.”

Mum trusted you too. I frowned, but he had begun talking.

“They keep us pretty busy anyway. Some of the guys are really good at their art – not me though – so we make them wood frames, and boards and stuff. We can do TAFE courses, and even go out to classes or to workshops sometimes. Dad has me helping him most days…”

“Dad?”

“Yeah, the business is doing really well, he’s needing me most days now.”

The business? I felt the walls were closing in on me. The van, the whitish powder, Mark’s old connections…

My voice lowered to a harsh whisper, “What are you doing! Dealing drugs from Dad’s van! That’s fucking crazy, you’ll get caught again–“

Mark stared at me. “What the hell, Rachel, no! I’m not dealing drugs with Dad’s, though, “ He laughed, “The van does look a bit dodgy, when you think about it, but… NO!”

“Then what business is it?”

“Baking! Not hash brownies either, just before you think that.”

“Oh.” I sat and digested this for moment. The food safety certificate hanging over the desk, and business management texts on his desk by my elbow suddenly seemed obvious. “Well… I feel dumb. Sorry for thinking… ”

“Don’t, don’t. I kind of deserve it. I’ll have to make sure I’m more clear when it comes time to tell Mum.” He leaned forward. “We have a plan, sis.”

“Drug smuggling, right? OK, OK, it was a joke!”

He threw a sock at me. “Listen! Mum’s always told us, Dad left, and we had to deal with his mess. Dad reckons she kicked him out though, saying our lives would be better off without him, and I guess it was kind of true at the time, so he went.”

I opened my mouth, but he continued quickly.

“So, he got this job at the bakery, and worked there until the old boss wanted to leave, and he bought it! It’s his now. That’s where I’m working most days. And, Rach, get this, it’s making a profit! People like his stuff. I’m not working there for free, I’m getting first year apprentice wages.”

We heard footsteps coming down the hall, and Dad’s voice bantering with what sounded like the police officer from before.

Mark got up to fix him a chair. “Dad’ll fill you in on the rest of the details, but the main idea is to get us back to being a family again. If we can get them together in the same room, Dad can make his case for secon– well, more than second but anyway, another chance now that he’s made good. That’ll be your part, Rach, getting her cool enough to hear us out.”

Us. It wasn’t just for Dad, Mark wanted that second chance. His room here was tidier than I’d ever seen it; certificates embossed with his achievements spread over the walls, and his ambitions on his desk. He was trying to be worthy of that second chance.

Would Mum accept his efforts?

As Dad reached the door, Mark put his hand on my shoulder, “It’s going to be different when I get out. If I don’t let the past hold me back, no one else can either. Dad taught me that.”

Part 7

I Don’t Need All Your Good Advice Part 3

Part 3 of a  longer short story about a teenager still learning how to navigate tricky situations, the price of loyalty to the unworthy, and the demands of any relationship. (Part 1  and Part 2)

Some swearing.

As always constructive criticism, feedback or even a note to say hi is welcomed!

I would have to do it alone.

My funds consisted of change from unspent school lunches and a windfall from when hand-made hair accessories were trendy a few months earlier. While it wasn’t enough for a new machine, I could take out a newspaper ad and buy material to fit three dresses. I lay awake scripting polite refusals I would need for all those unlucky to come after the third caller.

A week passed. A week of waiting, of silent pleas and threats aimed at phone. When it acquiesced and rang, I got to experience the awful feeling of my heart’s stumbling beat, followed by a cratering sensation that started in my gut but began to swallow me whole as yet another ’16 is not too young to need it‘ life insurance seller began their pitch.

A week of avoiding my Mum, and having Sara avoid me. Distracted the failure, before it even really began, of my business dream, I didn’t mend bridges with either of of them, and so passed a week of chill and desolation.

Then: “Hi, this is Joanne Mitchell. Is Rachel Walker there?“

“Speaking.“

“Hey! I saw your ad. I’m looking for a formal dress. How much do you charge? “

Oh. My. God. I scoured the kitchen bench for: pen, paper, poise, professionalism.

“I base my costs on a, um, case to case basis.“

“Oh, right…? “

“What I mean is, depending on the cost of the material and how complex a style you want. My hourly rate is very reasonable.“ Shit, how much is reasonable? “Why don’t you come over for… a free measuring? We can discuss style and materials, costs and… y’know, stuff.“ Arrgh, stuff?

“Sounds great!“

“Really? Great! When is a good time? “

Forcing myself to write down her details in my best block handwriting, I confirmed my first appointment, then went to my room and collapsed.

The next day I had time to clean up the front areas of the house, close doors to the less organised areas, fiddle with the arrangement of my kit on the table, then stand for half an hour before our agreed time peeking through the curtains at the street outside.

My first customer was, however, punctual, as well as proof that Mum was right. I am cursed.

Joanne, long for Jo. Formerly a customer of Andy’s Legipops and name writ large on Sara’s “People To Take Out” list.

“Hey, you look familiar. “

“You take the bus? “ I was impressed with my mouth’s ability to act independently of my brain.

“Oh. Yeah, sometimes when Mum can’t be bothered picking me up. “ She dumped her gear on the table, forcing an overspill of measuring tapes and pin cushions to the floor.

“Gosh! Sorry ’bout that. “ As I stooped to collect my things, she upended a bag full of magazines, sending more gear sliding from above.

“I have a few different styles in mind… “ Through the glare of the glossy paper, I could tell they were all going to be very modern, very black and very short.

“That’s great. It’s just… that I’d like to take your measurements first… To see what will suit you best. ”

She crossed her arms, “ No worries. I’m sure you have a lot of ideas. “

Was that an invitation? Or a challenge? My fingers twitched, unrolling the measure.

“Well, actually… “ Soon I had the tape out around her waist, shoulders, hips while she fingered the samples.

“You’re a lot younger than I thought.“ She was flipping through my style guides. I had moved the magazines to their own, distant, edge of the table. “And these styles are a bit… older than I expected too.“

“Some things never go out of style.“ I ran my fingers along the dusty paper, “There was a time that people had less, and they made things to go further, last longer. The details were important. The cut of the cloth, the fit of the lines, extras like buttons, trimming… Clothing these days is so disposable, I mean, do you ever really notice what other people are wearing? “

“Not really, hey. “

The phone began ringing, but I was lost in a fog of cuts and colour considerations and ignored it. The fact that this was the girl Sara had a rough history with also receded as I critically took in her light hair and complexion, short stature and generous frame. Taking my art pad, I sketched out the long, soft lines of an A-line dress in a bright red that would accentuate her pale hair and eyes. The phone’s second attempt finally broke through the reverie.

“Rachel! I’m sorry I’ve been in the shits recently. “

Why now? “That’s OK. No worries.“

“Are you busy or something? I want to talk to you.“

“I’m busy at the moment…“

“Well, on Tuesday I’ll come past your place, OK? Your Mum won’t be home, right? Cool? OK, gotta go. See ya. “

“All good?“ Jo asked.

Mum was right. We are the victim of our own stupid choices.

For her, it was trusting in the man she loved. Loaning him money, when his credit was so bad no bank would take the risk.

Meanwhile, I had managed to get between my best friend with her inability to forgive a grudge, and my client who was the target of it.

I could, however, change that.

“You know Sara Francis, right?“

“Was that her? She’s not coming here, right? “

“Not now. Look, I know that something happened between you guys. It’s not my business, but I’ll understand if you want a different dress-maker. “

She stood silently by the table. I noticed that my my sketch was in her hands.

“Do you like it? “

She nodded. “It’s pretty good. If you can sew as well you draw… and as long as she never comes over while I’m here, it’ll be OK.“

So much for being out of the middle. On the other hand, I had not only my first client, but one who, despite the Sara threat, was sticking around. For today at least perhaps the curse was off.

Part 4

I don’t need all your good advice: Part 1

A  longer short story about a teenager still learning how to navigate tricky situations, the price of loyalty to the unworthy, and the demands of any relationship.

Some swearing.

As always constructive criticism, feedback or even a note to say hi is welcomed!

I gaped.

Sara gaped, gazing from her hand to the face of the girl she had just slapped. Some of the customers still chatted away to the Andy’s Legipops staff, unaware of the drama over by the door.

I could not believe it. I don’t think Sara did either. We had barely opened the door, and I was wondering why she had stopped, when I heard the slap and saw the reddened face the short girl Sara had attacked.

Though my brain processes had hung and sent a crash report, Sara’s victim was already moving.

“Bitch!” Now the other customers noticed.

One of the Legipops attendants leapt the counter, like he’d been practising, excusing himself as he scattered the other, less violent, patrons.

My reset brain had time to allow that this was one cool ice-cream purveyor, while mainly focusing on the task of moving myself, and a struggling bundle of best friend, to safety. Maths geometry was failing me; the milling of irritated, concerned people clientele wasn’t helping, though eventually the Legipops attendant did, sending us stumbling into the car-park with a generous shove. Well, I stumbled into the car park. Sara had collected one of the cute, café chairs as she went.

“No fights!“

“What’s your problem, Sara!“ The girl had followed us out.

“You!“ Sarah untangling from the chairs transformed into a whirl of flying hands, hair and profanities.

Since when does Sara assault people?

Neither girl was holding back. People pressed against the glass of the nearby shops to watch while scruffy teens began wandering over from the convenience store’s car park, to gather in a haphazard circle around us. It wouldn’t be long until they stopped treating us like TV, and more like a Wii game.

The girl got the upper hand though, with Sara’s hair twisted around it.

“You stupid whore!“ Sara screamed, “Let go of me! I’m finished with you, Jo!“

“Are you? I’m so sick of this! When will you drop it, Sara?“

“I didn’t start this! “

Jo shoved Sara again into the abused tables and chairs, and walked away. Frantic people inside the shop screamed, and a fleet of police and emergency services were no doubt on their way.

We’re just kids. I was unable to absorb the scene I was part of. Not juvenile delinquents. Not razor-blade carrying attackers. We just wanted some ice cream.

Banned, possibly for life, from Andy’s Legipops, we slunk back to our usual nook, in the graffiti etched space behind the shopping centre’s vending machines.

“Fucking bitch.“

“What was that all about, Sara?“

“Old shit. Old, old mean stuff. And some newer stuff. Maaaan,“ She sighed the sound out long and hard, “Just when I start to get over it, it all bubbles up again. You know the school I was at before, she and I went there. We were tight, used to hang out, study together, until we both failed a maths test. Our study notes were wrong! No one’s fault, we both do badly, but she gets pissed at me for it. Next exam, she does well, and gets caught out cheating. So she blames me, and they believed it. We both got kicked out, but not before I get treated like shit by the teachers, and like a bitch who betrayed her friend by the rest of the group. By the end, I was glad I left. “

“Damn.“

Why do words always fail at such moments? We sat in silence, while a full, bright moon made the shadows in our hole darker.

“I want to take her out so badly, make her pay.“

“Seriously? What’s the point? Do you feel better now that you’ve punched her in the face, and put us on police radar? “

“Don’t try and tell me that was your first fight. Your brother is in jail, right?“

Ouch. Is this what giving confidence means? Providing special individuals the information they need to score points in arguments?

“Mark sold weed out of his room, not gang warfare! I’ll ask him how jail is for you though, because that’s where people go when they want to take other people out. Just get over it already.“

“Whatever. I don’t need a lecture, and I don’t need all of your good advice.“

Read Part 2

The White Wine With Your Revelation, Madame?

I’m suspicious. This restaurant is too nice, too elegant for the simple process of eating. Much more classy than the sticky, old benches at Sladey’s Fish’n’chips. This restaurant has carpet! Carpet with flowery designs instead of lino that can be cleaned with a mop and bucket.

That must be why Mum told me not to eat any more bread-sticks, she doesn’t want me dropping crumbs on ground. Mum feels sorry for cleaners. She always says that she started working on the office floors before she started working at an office. She says that she knows that without dirty floors cleaners wouldn’t have jobs, but she says we should make their jobs as pleasant as possible. She says, “They’re human beings you know! Use your own bloody legs sometimes.” A lot of cleaners like my Mum.

Funny thing is though, Mark isn’t a cleaner. Mark is always, forever dropping things on the ground, and turning red when Mum does the, They’re human beings you know! speech. Mum says she hasn’t made Mark any neater, but she has definitely made him appreciate the work cleaners do.

We’re inside the fanciest restaurant ever, part of a ring of circular tables, dressed up like all the other quiet, chatty diners, sitting in high-backed wooden chairs with actual cushions. There is the constant soft shusshing noise of the chairs being pulled out for ladies. Nothing is bolted to the floor in here!

If Mark had come on time today then he could have pulled out Mum’s chair for her, and then mine. He’s Mum’s gentlemen, she says so all the time, except he doesn’t look much like one. He’s got a gross goatee shaved in thin lines down his face and a silver stud under his lip. I reckon he has a tattoo too, but I’ve never seen it. If I ever ask Mum if he does, she goes bright red and lectures me about dirty needles and HIV.

Sometimes I wonder why Mum and Mark like each other so much. If Mum has her way I won’t be getting my ears pierced before I’m married, but if I asked Mark I reckon he’d do it for me.

“This place certainly has atmosphere.“ Mum says, not looking at me or the other diners or at the room at all, just watching the door. Atmosphere! What’s wrong with the atmosphere at Sladey’s? Chip fat makes for a far more substantial atmosphere than this place. This place smells too clean.

“What if… “ Mum’s hunches a little, before shaking her head emphatically. “This is ridiculous. He gets another five minutes. “

“Maybe he got lost. “

She nods, and angles her chair a bit for a better view of the door.

Well I hope Mark appreciates how clean I am. Mum hasn’t even said a word. Generally she goes crazy if I remember to use soap! When I heard we were going out for lunch I even brushed my teeth in the water fountain, without being asked. Has she noticed? No!

At first, she was really excited, I mean, we’d just been invited to this fancy restaurant. I got pulled me out of school and everything, with her saying something about us being a package deal.

Now she doesn’t look so happy. She fiddles nervously with her hair. I’ve never seen her put it up like that, all high and curly. Generally she lets it hang loose around her neck. Mark tells her she looks like a yowie and she tells him that piercings on men stopped being cool in the 90s. Before I was born! In the really old days.

“Maybe Mark’s picking something up?“ I say, an image of a pony in my head.

“A six pack, I’ll bet.“ She is cranky to bring that up. Mark hasn’t drunk anything for years. Last time he almost got told to leave. I was so sad about it, even though I was only a four year old baby then. Mark promised us he’d never drink anything stronger than juice and he hasn’t in all the years since, and I’m six now.

“Maybe we should get him a surprise while we’re waiting? “

Mum snorts, “Seeing you with brushed hair should be a big enough surprise for him. But what did you have in mind? “ She actually looks down at me for the first time since we arrived.

“Like… “ I pretend to think about it, “ I know! How about a baby! I’ve figured it all out Mum, it won’t cost us anything! I’ll just ask God really nicely and I’m sure he’ll send us one in time for Mark to get here. He is running late. “

“Trust me, I realise. “ Mum plays with the watch Mark gave her when she started work at Logan and Flately’s Accountants. He said it looked like a business watch, for a woman who meant business. He says the dumbest things sometimes, I can’t even understand him!

“I’m sorry Clo. I know how much you want a baby brother, but there’s too much going on at the moment. Bloody Mark isn’t helping, asking me to a bloody overpriced restaurant during my bloody lunch-break and then not bloody showing up. “ She swears a lot under her breath, but I hear it.

“I would take care of the baby, I’d be so good at it. “ I say, but too quietly for her to hear. I’ve told her that heaps of time but she always says the same thing, minus the bloody everything part.

God. I say silently. Please tell Mark to hurry up. I don’t get pulled out of Year 1… well, ever, to come to fancy restaurants. Plus, if he’s any later I reckon we won’t even get to eat more than these yucky bread-sticks before I have to go back. God, You know what those babies are like after lunch! A big whiny, wet pack of wimps still wanting a nap like in Kindy. I want to be a grown-up for one afternoon. I shake my head, eyeing off the last bread-stick. He better come soon God, cos I am getting pretty tired.

So is Mum. She has stopped fiddling with the watch and now has her head in her hands.

“Kel? “

“Mark! “ I yell. Too loud! All the other people look at us. Everyone yells in Sladey’s, especially Sladey, and nobody could care less.

“Mark! “ I whisper.

“Hey Chloe. “ He whispers back, grinning. He winks at Mum, but Mum doesn’t even smile.

“Where have you been Mark? “ She generally only uses this tone on me, on the very, very rare occasion I sneak the last Tim Tam.

“Wha- who is this? “ We both stare at the boy who has just appeared next to Mark’s leg. He’s a lot younger than me, I reckon he can’t even speak yet. He actually looks like he’s only just woken up, glaring up at us with annoyed, blue eyes that are the same colour as Mark’s.

“Has someone lost him, you think?“ Mum twists to look around the restaurant.

“No Kel, he’s fine.“ Mark pulls up a chair and sits, scooping up the boy and balancing him on a leg. One of the fussy waiters practically runs over to us. He’s been itching to take our order all afternoon, but Mum only wanted more water and bread-sticks so he left us alone. Until now.

“Ready to order now? Drinks? We have an excellent selection of wines, and may I suggest- “

“Apple juice. “ Mark says, “For me and Chloe and this one. “ He puts a hand over the boy’s blonde hair. “Kel? “

“I’m fine. “ Mum still sounds cranky. She waits until the waiter moves off to talk. “Are you looking after him for a friend? What’s his name? “

“Jonathan, though usually he goes by Johnnie. “ Mark replies, his gaze flicking between the boy’s head and the table.”I’m really sorry we were so late Kel. It was a bit of a drive back, had to pick up some nappies and other gear… “

“Oh? “ Mum isn’t really sitting in the chair any more, more balancing on the edge of it. Mark grabs her hand, to keep her from standing up I think, but he’s still not looking at her, just gazing at the tablecloth. Mum says he is unable to go near a tablecloth without tying knots them that a boy scout would be proud of. She packed ours away and we eat on bare tables now. I reckon he’d like to be working on this one, except that he’s got Johnnie in one hand, and is holding Mum down with the other.

“The other reason I was late coming today Kel, was because I really didn’t know what I was going to say.“ Neither of them look good. Mark has gone a really pale, grey colour, and Mum has turned red. “I know how you don’t want any more kids. “

“Who is he Mark? “ Mum’s voice is going up. I wave at the approaching waiter, trying to tell him to keep away, but adults are so DUMB at times. He sets down three cups of juice in tall glasses between Mum and Mark. Mum is staring hard at Mark who is still tying knots in the tablecloth with his eyes.

“Is that all? “ The Dumb Man asks.

“Yes. “ Mum says in the voice she reserves for people selling Bibles. It works pretty well on him too, and he backs off fast.

“Mark! “

He bounces the leg with Johnnie a few times, and grips Mum’s hand even tighter. “A few years before I met you Kel, I was in a really awful relationship. I wasn’t such a great person back then either and it ended quickly. I haven’t seen her in years, but, “ He draws a deep and shuddering breath, “something a lot more permanent came out of it. I didn’t even know about until six months back when she finally contacted me for payments.“

“Why after all this time? “ Mum doesn’t sound so angry now, only bewildered and shocked.

“Seems like he’s been handed around a bit. Her folks, foster homes… At first, I thought I’d just send the cheques, and leave him where he was. I didn’t want to do anything to ruin this. ” He makes a gesture between himself and Mum. “I didn’t want us to end, but I couldn’t stop thinking about him. I have to be adult about this Kel, I have to be responsible. You taught me that. “

Mum doesn’t say anything, but at least she is waiting, Mark doesn’t have to hold her down any more. “You and Chloe are the greatest thing that ever happened to me Kel. “ Mark says finally looking up at her. “I became a better person knowing you, but I can understand if you don’t want…” He stops, also waiting.

Mum leans back in her chair. She reaches for my juice and sips it. Then she makes the weirdest noise.

“Pfffft. Cloe is right! Men are so DUMB. I already have two kids in my house, and you thought I couldn’t handle another? You’ve just saved Clo having to petition God for one! “ She sets my cup down, “I am really going to need something stronger then that. Where is that bloody waiter when you actually want him? “

Mark is leaning on the table now, luckily it seems to be strong enough not to tip. “So… We’re okay? “

“Well. “ Mum says looking at her watch, “You’ve got about seven minutes to buy us lunch before Chloe has to go back to school and me to work. I’m sure by the end of that time we’ll be as okay as we ever were. “

Mark’s got this big dumb grin on his face. Mum is so right about me being right about men. Like she would leave Mark to look after himself! Who would buy his razors to keep his goatee straight? Meanwhile, Johnnie is a bit too old to be a baby brother. But that’s okay, I can train him to clean up my room for me and eat my vegetables.

Mark looks at the menu, “Wow, I really should have checked this place. I can’t pronounce half these courses, let alone afford them. How ’bout a Sladey’s fish burger instead? “

Best idea I’ve heard all afternoon.

“I never get to eat at a nice place. “ Mum complains but I can see she’s packing up her purse.

“So, really, are you good with this? “ Mark asks, putting Johnnie on the table, as he pulls out Mum’s chair. He just lifts me out of mine by one arm, with Johnnie in the other.

“Yeah, I’m good. “ Mum says, then, “You’ll pull your back out. “

“Nah. Y’know, I reckon it’s about time for Chloe’s ears to be pierced, she’s almost seven now. With an ice cube and some disinfectant, I could do it this arvy. “

“Don’t push it. “ Mum warns.

“She said I have wait ’til my wedding for earrings. “ I tell him.

“Oh really? Well, “ He leans in and whispers, “Maybe it doesn’t have to be your wedding. “ Then he winks at me, and I wink both eyes back.

Australian English glossary:

lino = linoleum

bloody = an Australian/UK epithet, similar to damn

yowie = the Australian Bigfoot

six pack = how beers are often sold in Australia

Tim Tam = a delicious chocolate biscuit

Biscuit = Australian for cookie

nappies = diapers

this arvy = this afternoon