David tracked the tin of battleship grey paint against the wide summer sky as the container plummeted to the ground. Paint sprayed over the marigold bed at the base of the two-storey house, then coated the concrete path that led to the front door. His mother appreciated the generous rooms, high ceilings and the curve of the lounge bay window, which faced the quiet street.
His father, still up the ladder, swore through clenched teeth as he flicked his brush with a flourish into the flowerbed below. Petals pasted themselves into the globs of paint around the roots.
David watched his father descend, his mouth working with determination as he placed his unsteady feet carefully on each rung. Eddy was dark-haired, slightly overweight, with perfect teeth, handsome with brown eyes that almost appeared to be black, and square swollen hands.
How come I can't do this? I've got no feeling in my fingers. and my feet too.
Elaine, David’s grandmother, rushed to the dining room window. She squinted at her son through her bifocals.
She was taller than his father was, with a lined white face. “Has someone fallen off the ladder? I heard ...,” his grandmother called out as she unhooked the dining room window off its latch to open it wider. Elaine placed her hands apart on the sill to take in what had happened. She tucked a few strands of faded auburn hair behind the earpiece of her glasses. David watched her survey the colour that now enveloped most of the garden and the front path. The drunken looking pot was now squashed out of shape leaning to one side.
“Oh no! Look what you’ve done Eddy. What a mess!” she exclaimed, an appalled expression overlaid her usual tenor of disappointment.
Bloody hell! If she gets involved we'll all be bossed around. Never hear the end of it either.
His father rubbed his swollen fingers, the corners of his mouth drooped and his shoulders slackened. David waited to see if his father would find a way to blame him for his own accident. He might yet cuff him around the ears.
“David, quickly get the yard broom!” Elaine ordered, as she trotted onto the path, wearing Eddy’s gumboots. Then she shook the contents of the tin of turpentine over the concrete to dilute the paint.
“David, hosed it into the garden. We’d better clean this up before your mum comes home from the shop!” She sighed. “It’s where everyone can see it Eddy! You’ll never make any money on this place if it’s left like this! Don’t you think Connie’s got enough to cope with already!”
His grandmother cast a black glance at his father. “It’s just another bloody disaster for me to fix, Eddy!”
Eddy stood silent chewing the inside of his cheek before taking up the hose. “My fingers and toes are numb. No wonder I dropped the tin!” He inspected his hands critically, held out palms up before him.
My God! It’s just like being in the bloody army again when she gets going! Manoeuvres training for the big push to wipe out the Gerries. It’s a bloody minefield all right, never know when the mother’s going to interfere; issuing out all these bloody instructions. Katherine skipped along the concrete path with her friend Mary.
"I'm telling Mum on you," she said.
"Go away from here," said Elaine, "Can't you see we're busy here!"
Katherine put her finger in a patch of paint," Oh look!" she showed Mary then
wiped it on the back of David's shorts, and started chanting David spilled the paint, My brother spilled the paint."
Elaine swabbed the path with an old broom, pushing the liquid towards Katherine who squealed and both girls ran off back to Mary's house up the road.
His father assessed the damage to the lawn. “Pull out all those bloody flowers, son and throw them in the rubbish. I’m going to have a cup of tea in a minute – dry as a wooden god!” Eddy bit his bottom lip. Elaine and Eddy went inside.
David dumped the plants in the bin, and dug over the paint-smothered earth.
His grandmother called from the window, “Come inside and have some Anzac biscuits, son. Your dad’s drinking tea already while you’re out there still working hard.”
David went inside and raked through other things to think about as his father and grandmother talked.
“Great biscuits, these were, Son,” his father said as his grandmother passed the plate to him. “We named them after the Australia and New Zealand Army Corps. See? The first letters spell ANZAC. We fought together in the desert in the North Africa campaign in World War II.”
Oh, God! Here I go again, the images are in my bones now, entrenched. Why can’t I stop thinking about it, get it out of my mind? I never wanted to go to war in the first place. Licensed to murder we were, manipulated into it by the bloody government while the MPs sat about on their arses in Parliament.
David nodded while he sipped his tea.
“We used to eat them in the desert. Shared them with our mates.” Eddy said.
“Hearty ingredients too: rolled oats, coconut, and treacle. Gave the soldiers plenty of energy. I used to pack them up in tins and send them off to you. Lots of mothers did.”
I’m not going to thank her for it, then she’d think she’d really got me. Screwed in the army and screwed by my mother. What more could an ex soldier wish for, eh?
“You never said in your letters that you’d ever received them. Some sort of acknowledgement would have been nice.” Elaine narrowed her eyes at Eddy.
“Do you know I counted twenty-three flies in my tea in the desert one morning.” Eddy looked into his cup.
I never wanted to get started on this but she needs to be a taught a lesson, always thinks she’s right and you can never argue with her just like the higher ups in the bloody army “Shut up and do it Shorty number 23971.”
Elaine interrupted his thoughts, “Well, Son. I hope you tipped that lot out!” Her mouth drew down at the corners.
It’s no good her pulling faces like that, she hasn’t got a bloody clue about what hard yakka it really was.
“No, of course not. I had to drink it, Mum.”
Her cup stopped half way to her lips, “Oh Eddy! I brought you up better than that!”
“What was a man supposed to do? We never had enough water.”
She still has absolutely no idea, and if I keep explaining all this I she won’t change her mind; she’ll always think she’s right. She’ll never shut up, and if I do talk about it she’ll want to know all the details. I don’t want to know them, I wish I could forget. After all these years of peace. Well no peace here for me obviously. I’m so ashamed she’s my mother. No thanks!
“Oh Eddy; don’t tell me you swallowed all those flies!” Her cup waited in front of her.
“Then we had to shave using the dregs.” Eddy laughed, savoring his mother’s look of consternation.
Elaine rose from the table but remained in place. “But you don’t have flies in the desert, surely, Eddy?” She was anxious to leave the room before he said any more.
“Jerry corpses, Mum. Buried with their legs and arms sticking out, sort of like they were welcoming us.” He laughed. “The flies fed on their rotting flesh.”
I can smell it now, that stench of rotting flesh, flies feasting on the corpses, spreading dysentery and diarrohea - almost made me sick. Some of my mates couldn’t stand it. I put my arm around Jock while he spewed up from the back of the truck; he was weak from the trots. I was afraid he’d fall out when he threw up. He was tearful but I didn’t say anything. Poor bugger. The desert wind almost blew all his stuff back onto us, had to roll the tarps down pretty quick.
“How disgusting, Eddy! Why didn’t you Kiwis bury them properly?”
I can feel the motion of the truck as it sways and grinds across the desert to El Hammam, its sand in my mouth crunching when I grit my teeth. Used to make me think I’d broken a tooth. God if I’d got toothache out there what would I have done? Sand in my mouth, up my nose, down my pants, bloody awful it was. Insidious, just like the enemy and the army- penetrating everything. Stretch was on driving duty that day, glad I wasn’t. Had to look after Jock; poor bastard! He’d had a letter from his girlfriend telling him the Yanks were in Auckland and they were giving the girls presents of stockings and other stuff.
“Use your imagination. Why do you think we didn’t? The Jerries mined them, Mum.” His father’s eyes looked glazed.
Elaine was speechless; she sat down again slowly and studied her son for a few seconds. She glanced at David as she spoke. “This poor kid has no time to himself. You’re expecting him to work as hard as a man. He’s still got his paper round you know.”
My God, these people don’t know what hard work is, flies in your tea, sand in your flies. Bloody Churchill telling us there were better days ahead. We thought we’d all be sent home after that, but oh no! Not us! Monty said we had to rehearse these divisional manouevres. He said we needed training for a ‘vital imminent operation’. What a toff! Imminent. Lovely! Imminent death more like it! I don’t know how we did it. Aye there’s the rub- some of us never came back did we? We couldn’t all come back home. Am I lucky to be back? I don’t know. I can’t answer that one.
Eddy addressed the dark green painted walls of the dining room. “I can still taste that bloody desert sand.” He ran his tongue over his teeth.
David steeled himself for the inevitable argument to follow.
“Fill the teapot up for me, will you, Son?” his father asked, handing it to him as his grandmother glanced malevolently at her son. She grabbed the pot out of David’s hand before she finally went into the kitchen. When she returned, she took off the woolen tea cozy to stir the tea, replaced the cover, and pulled the skirt down. “Better make another one of these.” Elaine jerked her head towards the decaying cozy, stained with tears of tea. “David, bring me one of your old woolen jerseys later and I’ll unpick it to make a new one.” She watched him slowly drinking as his father poured another cup for himself.
“Here; have another Anzac, David.” She pushed the heavy biscuits on a frilly bone china plate toward him, which his father stared at for a long time.
Anzacs, yeah well that’s what we were all right. Like those biscuits- eaten up; consumed by the pointless effort we had to make. Can’t forget that either. I’d better not eat any in case I spew them back up again. My gut isn’t happy today.
“Another one of those bloody dinner sets you bought with my soldier’s pay, Mum.”
Here it comes, David thought.
“Yes. Only a few pieces left now.”
“I thought you would save all that pay I sent you for a house deposit. You know that? A man has to house his family for heaven’s sake.” Eddy’s eyes darkened with anger as he stared at his mother, willing her to dare to argue.
“You were single then, Eddy. Have a something to eat before you go outside to fling some more paint around.” Elaine pushed the plate over to him.
“Stretch was a mate of mine. He was so scared we put him in a cave so he wouldn’t have to fight,” Eddy told her.
Elaine remained silent.
“When we checked on him the next morning, he’d died of shock.” David's father was silent for a few seconds. “Frittering away lives and money… Well there’s not alot of difference between them is there Mum? You burned through all my money. No wonder Connie and I are so poor!”
“If you’d stopped drinking all those years ago you would be better off by now. And that’s no way to talk to your old mother.” She looked at David. “Is it David? You wouldn’t talk to your old nanna like that would you?”
David was relieved he already had his mouth full. He chewed slowly to avoid being drawn in.
Eddy got up from the table. “I think you’d better go up the ladder this time, Son. I’ll show you what to do.” He splayed his fingers then opened and shut them a few times.
“He can’t do that. He’s only a boy!” Elaine objected.
“He’s man enough to learn, though, aren’t you, Son? It’s man's work, and he needs to know how to do it for when he gets a place of his own.”
At least I can pass this on to my son, something pure. I can get to know him again, and he doesn’t have to have some sergeant bawling him out, leaching away his initiative and confidence.
David nodded and gathered up the cups and saucers to take into the kitchen.
“For God’s sake, that’s woman’s work, Son! Your bitchy grandmother will do that for you.” Eddy frowned and for an instant, his mouth looked grim like his mother’s did.
David stared at the surface of the table and waited.
“He was helping me, weren’t you, Son?” Elaine gave David a wink, then he looked from his grandmother to his father, and replaced the crockery back on the table.
“We don’t want a gutless boy in the family, Mum. It’s bad enough that he won’t play rugby.”
My God, I hope he doesn’t have to waste all he’s learned on another war. He needs to toughen up though, just in case. Unless he can get out of it. I couldn’t. Maybe he’ll be clever enough to leave the country in time. Who knows what the future will throw up?
His grandmother rolled her eyes at David who waited for his father. He smiled briefly at her, checking first that Eddy was not watching him.
Eddy slowly opened the new tin of paint David had fetched from the garage. His father squatted stiffly on his haunches, stirring and as he leaned over the tin, David noticed his father’s shirt stretching tight across his shoulders and back.
Oh hell my toes are tingling again. I thought it was only a desert thing, dehydration maybe. You need to drink a lot out there; now I can’t stop. Wouldn’t drink meths of course, but at times I just want to open my throat and pour down the drink whatever it is. It’s like money; I can never have enough of it.
Then Eddy flicked his cigarette onto the lawn. “You’re the number one son, you know that? The number one.”
His father might still say or do something that David did not expect, although he always felt special when he called him Number One. He had only recently begun to call David this, since he joined AA and stopped drinking.
“But Dad, there is only one son.” He cringed; suddenly aware he was answering his father back.
He’s a good kid, smart too. He’ll need that. I hope I don’t ever hold him back, stop him being himself.
His father threw his head back and laughed, coughing a bit afterwards, as the stirring stick changed direction, “That’s right, son, and you’re the one!”
David smiled, squatted down on his haunches too, and held the tin steady with both hands like the vicar did with the chalice when he blessed communion wine.
Despite the earlier disaster, his father still appeared normal although most days he drank several pots of tea at breakfast before he went off to work at the dairy. “Right, Son, you take over now. See how I’m using this flat stick? Stir it in one direction and then the other, then lift the stick up and repeat.”
David stopped and shook his fingers quickly as if they were cold, then he stretched them slowly. A frown appeared between his eyes.
“Don’t worry, son. You’ll have a man’s hands soon. They’ll get stronger. You’ll be surprised what you will be able to do!” His father laughed. “Change direction now. Give that other hand a rest. Good idea to be ambidextrous when you’re painting.”
He’s still a bit weak, needs to get out on the rugby field, that’d build him up. Glad I’ve got kids though, I can give them a start to a better life. Katherine’s a rebellious little bitch though, pain in the backside, that one.
Eddy tipped a quarter of the paint into the lopsided old pot. “Stir all that residue at the bottom of the tin through the rest of the paint; otherwise, it’ll be too thin, and won’t cover properly. The pigment sinks to the bottom. You understand?”
David nodded. His arms were getting tired.
“Now we have to put some turps in, makes it’s easy for you to apply.” Eddy added a few drops of turpentine in several small amounts. “It won’t be so heavy for you to carry with this little bit, but as you grow and your muscles develop, you’ll be able to take up a heavier quantity.” Eddy smiled at David and raised his eyebrows. He handed the pot to David with his cleaned paintbrush and one of his dad’s old Jockey vests, now a painting rag. It felt so much bigger than his did.
“Put your rag in your back pocket, Son, like a real painter. Now, go up the ladder, and I’ll hold it here on the bottom 'til you reach the top. Watch where you put your feet.”
David slid one hand onto the rungs in front of him as he ascended with the paint and brush in his other hand, paying attention to his footholds.
His father squinted into the bright light as he looked up. “When your arm gets tired, just swap hands. It might be difficult at first, but with practice your arms will get stronger like a man’s.”
Aches soon crept into David’s arm and shoulder muscles but he felt elated as he watched the paint glide onto the weatherboards, fascinated that it began its life as a liquid and yet didn’t run straight down the wall.
“Make it look professional so people will think we had a painter in.” Eddy chuckled from below. “And make sure there are no drips, no ‘curtains.’ If the paint gets too hard to apply, come down and thin it with more turps.” Eddy continued to monitor David from below.
David could not answer his father as the work absorbed all his concentration and, at the same time, he felt he was not there at all. He marvelled how he as a twelve-year-old boy could create a professional house-painting job. People would think a grown man had done it; both father and son were in on this conspiracy.
When Stan and Aroha came to inspect his work they would be surprised. Aroha was his mother’s cousin from the rural town of Masterton, and Stan was his father’s AA sponsor and his mate from the war. David imagined Aroha’s dark eyes would show her surprise. She would say “Whacko!” at his professionalism, while Stan would be more low key, asking him when he could make a start on their place.
He listened to Eddy’s and his grandmother’s voices drift up from the dining room as he stuffed the paint liberally under the edges of the weatherboards.
The window opened wider as his grandmother leaned out to inspect his work, her eyes squinting in the glare of the bright light.. “Same old story, eh? Got you working out there while he drinks tea in here. What a painter you are, Son. I’ll give you half a crown later.”
David continued working. He went down for more turps, stirred the mixture, and then went back up the ladder.
“That boy’s a good little worker, you know, Edward. I wanted you to paint my Khyber Pass Road boarding house when you came home from the war, and you never lifted a finger.”
I’m not getting drawn into that skirmish, knew she would throw something at me. He’s a good kid. God, I miss my own father. Arcs of blood up the bedrooom walls when he hemorrhaged from TB, my mother’s arms around him. Maybe she misses Dad more than she lets on.
David's father forced a laugh. “Too busy looking for a wife, Mum!”
“You always were a selfish boy, Edward. Remember, you jumped out of that taxi at the Grafton Bridge traffic lights when you found out that Mary lived too far away out in Onehunga.”
Eddy laughed again and choked a little on a mouthful of tea.
She thumped the table with the palm of her hand. “The boy shouldn’t be up the ladder, painting. You're a man aren't you? It’s a man’s work.”
I couldn’t get up there to do it, I know I’d fall off.
Eddy rubbed his fingers. “He’s got to learn some time, Mum.”
David paused to listen to his grandmother’s reply, but there was only silence. Just when he thought their conversation was going to end, his father said, “He can help me, can’t he? What’s wrong with you, woman!” The edge in his voice was back.
“David likes helping his dad. You ask him,” Eddy challenged her.
“Edward, even though you’re my only child, you give me as much trouble as a whole bloody tribe of kids!”
His father spluttered on his tea and let out a yelp of laughter.
“He’ll be hungry now. I’ll give him some more Anzacs and a drink of orange cordial.”
“He eats more than I do, and you encourage him.” His father sighed.
“Well you know what it’s like at his age. You used to eat a lot then, too, don’t you remember, Son?” His grandmother looked at Eddy over the top of her glasses.
Since there was a pause, David watched through the top of the window.
Elaine flicked her cigarette into the ashtray on the table. “He’s getting tall like his mother now. Probably be taller than you, Eddy.” She laughed and raised her eyebrows then raised her chin a little in defiant victory.
“Another streak in the family! He’ll be tall like his mother. In the desert, we always called the tall blokes ‘Stretch.’”
“I suppose they called you Shorty.” Elaine smiled at Eddy who then came over to the window and looked up at David.
“How’s it going, son? Looks good. Looks really good.” His father gave him a proud smile.
I wish my father could have taught me how to paint. He died in 1930 during the Depression when I was thirteen before he could do anything like that. Poor bugger. I used to go and meet him off the bus after work and he would be bent double with asthma, grabbing hold of the picket fence by the bus stop, the hair on the back of my neck would stand up, and I would put my arm round his shoulder, and get him to put his arm through mine and we’d walk slowly home. I remember thinking, “He’s ready Eddy. Your dad’s not going to make it.” At least I’ve got Connie and the kids. Sometimes that’s not enough though.
David continued to be immersed in his task. His father withdrew.
“I could still be using all those rooms in my old place if you’d decorated them for me when I asked you to.” David glimpsed his grandmother inhale her cigarette smoke and then tilt her head back to blow it out towards the ceiling, painted black by Eddy after the current fashion in smart coffee bars.
“Don’t be stupid, Mum. You couldn’t fix those rooms up with that leaky roof! New wallpaper would just peel off in the damp.” Eddy rolled his eyes at the ceiling.
“I asked you and asked you, Edward Cross. But did you help? No! You did not! And I’ve been a widow since 1929, with no husband to help me. Remember that!” Her free hand clenched.
I wonder if she ever went on like this with Dad? Can’t remember. Life’s so short, and she just isn’t grateful for hers.
“I sent all my Army pay home, though, like a good boy. Remember that?” His father stood and placed both his hands on the table.
Elaine pulled back from him and tucked in her chin.
David heard his grandmother replace her cup on the saucer. He continued to watch them both, listening for the punch line, asking himself who would be the winner in this round.
“You wouldn’t fix up that house I was leasing yet you expect your twelve-year-old boy to paint yours.”
Eddy sat down again. “Look, there’s so much to do. We even have to patch this roof with bits of sacking soaked in bitumen paint. This old joint’s falling to bits too.”
The aroma of strong pipe tobacco smoke from his father’s pipe drifted out the window.
David continued and she turned to face his father. “Get that boy off that ladder! He should stop now!” She looked out the window at David, indicated to him she was trying to free him from the job.
“I’ll take him down to the shop when I change shifts with Connie.”
“You’re not going to have him working in the shop too; after he’s done all that!”
Eddy came outside briefly with his cup in his hand. “That painting’s pretty good, Son. Very professional.” His father inspected his work while he sucked on his pipe. “I have to go and relieve your mother now.” His father held the ladder while David climbed down. “Your mother will never know you’ve been painting, will she?”
How funny, David thought. No one will know it was only done by a kid.
“You’re a bloody good painter, Son. Did you know my father was a painter? He was a sign-writer on the railways. When he was seventeen he went back to school with all the eleven and twelve-year-olds so he could pass the matriculation exam to qualify for the job.” He looked into David’s face. “I wish my dad had showed me how to paint. Anyway now I’m passing what I know on to you. Save you lots of money when you get your own place.”
I’ve got to help my boy get a good start. I know my dad couldn’t do that for me but now I’ve given up the booze I can at least do that for him and then that’s really for both of us.
David smiled. It was good to be doing things with his father like other boys; Dan’s father showed him how to paint too, and let David help them when he went round there.
They sat down to a lunch of cheese sandwiches his grandmother made. The pudding for the boarders’ dessert rattled on the top of the stove steaming in its saucepan of boiling water.
“Still some biscuits left for you, David.” Elaine pushed the plate over towards him. “Some time I’ll show you how to make them. All you do is –”
“Come on, Mum! He’s a man not a girl! Finish that, Son, and we’ll get changed and go and relieve your mother in the shop.”
Elaine looked surprised then disappointed as they left the room.
His father looked handsome in his open-necked taupe shirt and clean grey shorts. He wore his black shiny hair parted sharply down the middle like Clark Gable, in Gone with the Wind.
As the Holden turned into Jervois Road, David asked his father about his hairstyle. David's hair was fine and difficult to manage like his father’s and was light brown like his mother’s hair. She called it ‘Dishwater blonde’.
“Do you have to use Brylcreem every day, Dad?”
His father laughed, ruffled his son’s hair, and then he flitted his eyes back to the windshield. “You need to put the Brylcreem on pretty thick. Has to be kept in place with something.”
Dan’s thick curly hair was cut in a Tony Curtis style and David regretted his would never look like that. “And that makes it stay in place all the time, Dad?” David turned to him, thinking how he would have to use his father’s Brylcreem until he bought his own.
“You have to ‘train’ it, Son.” His father glanced at his own hair in the mirror and smoothed it on one side with his hand. “Have to do it the same way every day, so it gets used to it. I’ll show you how I do mine then you can do yours the same. But don’t copy me with the booze, Son. Ah, that’s another story isn’t it?” Eddy sighed.
“But your father taught you how to paint and now you’re teaching me, eh?” David smiled at him.
Eddy laughed, “That’s right. I’m handing it on to you now.” David's father gave him a wide smile as the Holden passed the Gluepot pub at the top of College Hill. “You’re learning all this stuff for when you’re a man. You’re a good boy, Son.”
David sat up straighter in his seat; he felt his shoulders had just grown wider.
Getting used to the smell from the gasworks down the road was always the first task David assigned himself whenever he worked in the dairy. While he served customers, his parents would go into the cupboard under the stairs with a flashlight to do a stock count on how many crates of Dominion Bitter beer, Johnny Walker whisky, and Gordon’s gin they needed to collect from the wines and spirits wholesalers.
The shop was quiet; Eddy leaned on the counter beside David. “This is my sideline, Son. Something that brings in a little extra money. I know it’s illegal but these blokes finish work too late to get enough drinks before the pubs close at 6 o’clock. Helps pay for the house – that mortgage is always round my neck like a noose!” His face was grim for a second.
“My paper round’s a sideline, eh?” David smiled, happy he could please his father by being like him.
“That’s right. But it should be ‘under the table’ so the bloody government can’t tax you.”
David’s mouth opened slightly. “Ah! So that’s why you and Mum have the boarders, eh Dad?”
“You’ve got it.” His father squinted, and a short silence followed. “It’s a big flash house but we’ve got this stinking second mortgage. The previous owners left some money in the house so we could buy it. Now we have to pay them off as well as the bank. You understand?”
“Both the sly grog and the boarders’ dough went on the booze before, and we got behind with our loan payments but we’re catching up now. You’re mother’s a very good manager with money.”
The stars were out in the night sky, which had only just darkened. Light from a full moon slanted through the edges of the narrow curtains in David’s bedroom, as they blew gently inwards in the warm breeze. David tried to reconcile two versions of his father. It was as if his father’s nature was sometimes split, and by the time he worked out how to deal with one version, the other one would pop in for a visit.
He remembered one night when his mother came into his room after she had finished at the dairy. She sat on his bed as he was reading. She looked at her hands as she spoke, turning her wedding ring on her finger.
David thought how pretty she was with grey-blue eyes like his and high cheekbones like Joan Crawford. She wore a full-skirted navy and white cotton dress with white piping; though it was frayed and faded, she still looked glamorous.
His mother looked at the floor when she asked him to lend his father twenty pounds from his Post Office account because he was short of money.
“You’ll get it all back, Son,” she said.
Later, instead of paying him in full, his father spent half the twenty pounds on a bike he’d promised David and returned the remaining ten pounds to him. His mother left him the difference under his pillow, which she took from the money she’d saved for the land taxes.
David tried to reconcile these two versions of his father. He decided he would not mention how much he had in his Post Office account. He hid the book downstairs in the garage, under his father’s workbench. He knew he was a poor liar and thus unconvincing if he was asked to say how much money he had. If he avoided mentioning the account balance, he wouldn’t be asked again to lend any of it.
“I think I need a new sideline, Dad,” he said as they drove to the dairy at seven o’clock one sunny Sunday morning.
David saw his father as a strong man, his rugby legs strained his shorts, and his jet-black hair was always in place. He decided he wouldn’t mind being like this version of Eddy – this man in charge of things. “Hey, Dad I had a sideline before, didn’t I when I delivered papers?”
“Of course you did. You are a true Cross, always got something extra going on, like your Dad. So what do you think it will be this time?”
“You know that old lady next door? The one who wears shorts all the time? I could mow her lawn. I was thinking… I could knock on her door and ask if she would like me to do her lawn every week.”
Eddy changed lanes smoothly in the rusty old van at the traffic lights at the top of College Hill. “Of course, that’s how you get your sideline. You see people doing something and you offer to do it for them. Wonder how much she will pay you?”
Before the lights changed to green, Eddy glanced quickly away from the road to watch David. Eddy slowed down the vehicle as it approached the broken concrete of the dairy’s service lane where two men waited with big overnight bags to carry home their sly grog.
“Some more satisfied customers,” Eddy said, as he waved to them briefly. “I shouldn’t be selling this stuff, knowing what damage the booze can do. However,” he sighed, “that’s another story isn’t it?”
A young thin cat with new kittens hissed at their feet as they walked past her cardboard box and up the moss-covered path to the back door of the shop.
The next day, after school, the weather was still fine with a slight breeze from the harbor, and a clear blue sky with cumulus clouds that brushed the hills in the distance. David went next door in his gardening clothes to Miss Allen’s and knocked on her front door. His stomach turned over and his mouth dried up. He knew if he got the job, his father would be so proud of him but his mother would tell him he was still working too hard.
David knocked on the door again then heard slow footsteps approaching along the hallway. Miss Allen opened her door. David’s tongue stuck to the roof of his mouth, his cheeks burned. “Hullo, Miss Allen. I’m David from next door. I could mow your lawn for you every week, Miss Allen.” Phew! I said it. Now what?
He tried to read Miss Allen’s face: the pouches on both sides of her chin and her round black glasses’ frames; he tried to anticipate her reply in them. She had fewer lines than his grandmother did but more bumps and hollows.
“What a good idea, David. I don’t like doing them at all. Not at all!” Her voice seemed to echo as if far away from the situation and at the same time, he felt taut with relief.
Miss Allen came out onto the front porch in her black tapestry slippers. “Come, and I’ll show you where everything is.” They stood on the front lawn while Miss Allen pointed to the edges of the lawn, which had to be clipped as well. “Have you got a sharp pair of clippers to do the edges with, David?”
David used them on his own lawn, and nodded, pleased that he knew what she meant and that she would be confident that he was experienced.
Then Miss Allen led him under the big drooping pepper tree, dipped her head under its canopy, and parted some of its leaves until her vision was clear again. “See over here?” She pointed to the far corner under the tree. “That’s where you can put all the lawn clippings.”
“Yes, I can do that, Miss Allen.”
She indicated where the hand mower was kept in the garage under the house then showed him the back lawn and asked him to do the small grass verge by the road.
“Yes, that’s all right.” He remembered when his father sold illegal liquor; he tried to keep the customers happy, reassuring them.
Miss Allen said she would give him five shillings each time he did the work. “And remember you have to catch all the grass and put the clippings under my pepper tree.”
David heard Miss Allen’s voice echoing faintly now his heartbeat had quieted a little. Five shillings! Two half crowns – I'll buy some fluorescent yellow Teddy Boy socks with my first pay, and some orange ones next week.
“Hey Mum, I’ve got a sideline! Mowing Miss Allen’s lawn! Five bob a time!”
His mother’s mouth tightened and his grandmother, who peeled potatoes for the men’s dinner, paused with a curl of skin dangling from her knife. Constance finished shaking water onto Eddy’s shirt, before ironing it. “A new job, eh? Just like your father.”
His grandmother beamed at him.
“Well, David, you mustn’t get too tired you know. You’ve got high school homework now. Remember you have to leave yourself enough energy to do it,” his mother said with a serious expression.
David looked out at the clear sky through the window, above Miss Allen’s roof.
His mother sat down on an old armchair raising one leg up onto the wooden stool in front of her. “Put the kettle on, Nana. We’ll celebrate. That’s very good, Son. Your father will be proud of you.” She placed his father’s shirts on her lap and rolled them up to keep them damp for the iron.
His grandmother returned from the kitchen with a tray of tea things and chocolate wheaten biscuits on the rose and gold plate as Constance rubbed the calf and shin of her left leg.
In the bathroom the next morning, David watched his father shaving with his electric razor.
“Now, son, when you have a sideline you always need a back-up plan.”
Eddy paused while he twisted his mouth into one side of his face, and did his right cheek. “In case something goes wrong, you know? If you have a lot of rain in warm weather, the lawns grow faster and the push mower won’t cut them. You understand me?”
“Yes, Dad.” David sighed, which blew out his cheeks a little.
“Just listen. That’s when you use our motor mower. Keep a check on Miss Allen’s lawn and try to keep to your original plan of using the push mower if you can.”
David looked at his father’s right bicep, which was tensed bigger on the arm he was shaving with.
“The mowing will help you with your painting, won’t it? Build up your arms a bit, and then it won’t hurt so much when you’re painting above your head.”
There was a warm salty breeze blowing in from the sea as David mowed into the edges of Miss Allen’s lawn.
“Hey, mate. You’re at the wrong house aren’t ya?” His classmate Dan Dailey came through the gate and crouched on the lawn in front of him.
“This is my new sideline, eh? Five bob a go.”
“Five bob. Pretty good, eh? Hey want to come down to the beach to see some girls?” Dan gave him the thumbs up signal, and raised his eyebrows.
David surveyed how much work he had done so far. “I gotta do this, Dailey. If I don’t finish it today, the long grass will be too hard to cut.”
“Where are your muscles, Crossy? I’ll give you a hand, mate.”
David gave Dan the clippers for the edges. He tried them out, flexing the handles quickly so the blades crossed repeatedly like anxious legs.
“Won’t take long,” Dan said. “Then we can burl down to the beach.”
He worked in front of the dahlia border, though David was slightly disappointed that the job would only now be worth half as much.
After they finished they collected one half crown each from Miss Allen and were on their way to the beach. The soles of their feet burned slightly from contact with the bitumen road surface, which held the heat from the sun.
“I might come down next week, give you a hand.” Dan kicked a stone towards David who replied with a kick that shot it back to Dan.
Down on the cliffs above the water’s edge, the sun’s glare and heat were severe. Dan took off his shirt, spread it out against the rock face, and leaned his back onto it. Then he picked up a handful of pebbles and spun them one by one across the flat water of Waitemata Harbour.
“Who’s the strongest?” Dan got to his feet and pressed David back against the rocky ledge, which protruded into David’s back. They wrestled until David turned Dan over on his side, pushing his mate’s arm up his back. Dan winced with clenched teeth.
David felt sorry for him and stood up.
“You’re a strong little bugger, Crossy! Bet you can’t beat this! See?” He flexed his biceps at David. "Look at that. Feel it, Mate!" He offered him the arm nearest to David who hesitated, until Dan urged him again.
“Boy! They’re hard, Dailey!” He looked surprised and impressed.
“Course they are. Now show me yours.”
How can I get out of this when I don't have anything to show off?
He took his shirt off slowly, made a show of rolling it into a ball, and placed it behind his head against the rock face.
Dan grabbed David’s arm and raised it to show the biceps. “What do you think you’re doing, Mate! Where do you keep them?”
David mumbled, “Mine are slower to grow but they’ll be bigger, you wait! Quality takes longer!”
Dan threw more pebbles, his arms and ‘wings’ below them rippled as he did so. David consoled himself that at least his mate was skinny like him but he had to admit Dan’s muscles were better defined.
“Have you got hairs yet, Mate?”
David stalled with silence. Do people really talk about that?
Dan grew impatient, got up, and stood over him. “Come on. Show us."
David remained still; his hand poised in the air ready to throw a stone into the sea. The shot became a poor one as he struggled to reply.
“Oh, come on. Give us a look.” Dan fought with David to pull down his shorts but David held on to them too tightly.
I'll definitely lose this round –Dan will be bigger in all this stuff. “Get out of it Dailey!” he grunted.
They dropped to the ground, David grabbed Dan around the throat. Dan’s eyes bulged and he squawked, tried to push his opponent off. David gave up, frightened he had the strength to scare his mate. He got up, looked at his watch and said “ Gotta go Dailey! Race you!”
He was afraid Dan would catch him up and a serious fight would follow. His sweat was cold as it dripped from his nose. He didn’t look round till he was almost up the steps leading to the road. Dan was slowly making his along the beach. The heat seemed to have been sucked out of the bright though tarnished sunlight.
David kept running till he reached home.
Constance loaded hearty portions of minced beef onto plates of different patterns, set out on the bench beside the stove. “Where have you been, Son? You’re quite late. I’ve been waiting for you to help me. The boarders are waiting too.”
David sensed a trap, as though she knew what he’d been doing. Whatever he said his mother would still find him in the wrong. Constance dished out portions of cabbage. Elaine swirled the wire soap cage of Sunlight soap through a sink full of tired water to rejuvenate suds.
“I’ve been down at the beach with Dan Dailey.”
“There’s something about him...”
She never likes my friends.
He waited for the reason.
She wiped up gravy from the bench, before she looked at David who had picked up two plates to take into the dining room. He waited for his mother to dish out mashed potatoes. Dan was sure to be another of his friends whom she didn’t like.
“He’s too old for you.”
That night at bedtime, David closed the curtains in his cramped sun-porch bedroom, before he looked in the mirror at his upper arms. He told himself that they were beginning to look like a man’s arms now that the sinews stood out as shadows in the light when he flexed them enough. Dailey had missed that his biceps weren’t completely flat – Dailey had to agree with that. Muscles and a deep voice, that’s what he wanted. It was peculiar that Dan was so far ahead of him.
David reviewed how his voice cracked when he wrestled on the rocks, surprised and delighted that it sounded so deep, another indication his body’s timetable was more advanced than he had at first thought.
He really was a man already, even if he didn’t yet look completely like one. He could already do things that men do like having a sideline, and after all, he had trained his hair just like his dad’s.
He wondered if the growth of bodies follow a predictable sequence, like the houses he’d seen being built to the plan nailed onto a piece of plywood on the builder’s bench. He looked proudly at his penis, touched it affectionately, put on his worn striped pajamas with the holes under the arms, the too-short legs, and tied the cord in a bow at the front. He picked up his Just William book from his little study table, got into bed, and turned on his side to read until he fell asleep.