I’m sitting on a branch high up in the big Moreton Bay fig tree at the corner of the lane when Grams leaves. I haven’t said goodbye to her. I’m not going to because I don’t want her to leave me here with just Dad and Ollie.
Grams has looked after Ollie and me for years—ever since the night Mum dropped us outside her house in Fig Tree Lane. Ollie was only little. He probably doesn’t even remember Mum, but I was six and I remember her. Sometimes I wish I didn’t.
Grams tries to stuff a bulging plastic bag into the boot of the taxi. There are already two suitcases in there and her wheelie walker still has to fit somewhere. The rest of her stuff went yesterday in a removal truck, so her retirement unit will be all set up when she arrives at Gentle Shores. It will be nice for her to walk into her new unit and see her special things. She’ll feel at home. At least that’s what she says.
I think she’ll miss me. I’m not so sure she’ll miss Ollie. He can be a real pain. I don’t think she’ll miss Dad, either. He was gone a long time and only came home a couple of months ago. He’s still adjusting to life with us here in Linwood after being in Brisbane for years. Having him back feels weird. He’s like a stranger.
Dad manages to fit the walker into the back of the taxi and slams the door shut before it falls out. Grams hugs him. She looks around. Ollie comes onto the verandah and stands looking at her. She doesn’t hug him because he doesn’t like hugging or any sort of touching. I hear her tell him to be good then she blows him a kiss.
She looks around again then bows her head and gets into the taxi. Dad says something to her through the window and steps back. Her hand gives a fluttery wave as the taxi drives away. It disappears down Fig Tree Lane, getting smaller until it turns onto the main road and disappears.
It reminds me of the night me and Ollie first came to live with Grams, after they took Dad away. Even though it’s a long time ago, I remember some of it. Some bits I don’t remember, and some bits I try not to because they’re sad or scary.
The night Dad left us we were asleep in our campervan—Dad, Mum, me and Ollie. Someone banged on the side of the van. Dad sat up and hit his head on the roof. A torch shone in through the window.
‘Police. Open up.’
Mum grabbed me and Ollie and Dad opened the door. It stuck like it always did and Dad squeezed out. The police told all of us get out. They pulled everything from the camper and threw it on the ground. One of them held up a bag.
The police put handcuffs on Dad and took him away.
Then it was just the three of us until Mum dumped me and Ollie in front of Grams’ house and disappeared from our lives.
We got used to Grams and she got used to us. Now Grams has gone, and it feels like a pattern. People leave us and don’t come back. Okay, so Dad has come back but how long will he stay and what will happen when he leaves? There’s nowhere else for us to go.
Dad probably will leave because Ollie is hard to manage. He’s different. He lives in his own world. And what about our home schooling, and the cooking and shopping and cleaning and washing—all the stuff that Grams did? How will Dad cope with that?
I sit in the fig tree till the sun sets in a blaze of pink, red and orange. I can’t stay here forever. It’s time to make the best of what me and Ollie have. I slide down the tree, scraping my thighs on the bark, and run down the side of our house giving the line of palms and tangled vines on the boundary a wide berth. I go up the back steps and into the kitchen. Before she left, Grams cooked enough food for a few days. I look in the freezer and find fish fingers for Ollie and a chicken casserole for Dad and me. Ollie is a fussy eater. Fish fingers are his favourite food.
I hear the click of the keyboard as Dad works on his laptop. He’s a freelance journalist. Freelance doesn’t mean he writes for free, although he might as well do, because he doesn’t make much money.
Ollie is in the TV room, splayed out on the couch watching his favourite DVD—Finding Nemo. He watches it over and over. I know the soundtrack by heart now from hearing it so many times. Sometimes Ollie speaks like Nemo, or Marlin or Dory or one of the other characters. It’s annoying, but it’s an improvement on Thomas the Tank Engine. I know all those episodes by heart.
I put the fish fingers under the grill and the casserole and some frozen vegetables in the microwave. Dad comes out of his room. ‘Thanks, Alex. I didn’t notice the time.’
‘That’s okay,’ I mumble, dishing up the food. We sit down at the kitchen table and eat.
‘Your grandmother was disappointed you didn’t see her off,’ Dad says.
I shrug. He doesn’t push it.
‘How about going to the markets tomorrow?’ he says.
Ollie eats his fish fingers and plays with his vegetables. Dad watches him. I wait for him to say, ‘Eat your dinner. Don’t play with it,’ but he says nothing. Is he annoyed? He has one of those faces that makes it hard to tell what he’s thinking. We finish dinner in silence.
I like the markets. There are heaps of stalls with everything from food to art, jewellery to woodwork, junk to handcrafts. The bookstalls are my favourite. Grams knew all the stallholders and chatted with them when she shopped for eggs and cheap fruit and used clothes. With Dad it’s different. It seems like people know who he is, but they aren’t friendly. They look away when he stops at a stall and their eyes follow him when he leaves. It doesn’t seem to bother him, but it makes me uncomfortable.
We buy what we need, then I check out the second-hand books and keep an eye on Ollie. He’s sitting in the shade eating a banana. Dad is close by talking to a man. He isn’t a local, but there’s something familiar about him. He’s strange looking with pallid skin and dirty brown dreadlocks hanging past to his shoulders. I move closer so I can hear what they’re saying.
‘When did ya get outa the joint, Vince?’
‘A while ago.’
‘How’s the missus?’
‘She took off. I’ve been looking for her. You haven’t seen her, have you?’
‘Nah, mate. Not for yonks. Bit of a drag for you being lumped with the kids.’
‘It has its advantages. I get carer’s allowance and a few perks.’
‘Meal tickets, are they?’
‘Yeah, right. Meal tickets.’ Dad laughs a mean sort of laugh. I haven’t heard him laugh like that before. I don’t like it. ‘What about you, mate? Are you up here for the surf?’
‘Yeah, catching a few waves at the coast. Camping out in the National Park in me van and doin’ a bit of business with the tourists. I got a few other things on the go. You after some action?’
‘Maybe,’ says Dad. ‘I could use the extra cash.’
‘I’ll make some phone calls and get back to you. Be like old times.’
He and Dad get out their phones then the man fist bumps Dad. ‘Be in touch,’ and he disappears into the crowd. Dad stands looking after him, his eyes narrow and his face sort of tight.
‘Who was that man?’ I say as we pile into the Toyota.
‘Just someone I used to know. Why?’
‘He looks creepy.’
‘Creepy,’ says Ollie. ‘Creepy crawly. Like a spider.’
Dad looks at Ollie. ‘Spot on, kiddo,’ he says.