An ‘80s Tenement Love Story
by Anthony Panegyres
I don’t own a dog. In the past we’ve kept the more disposable type of pet: goldfish, hermit crabs and meal worms. Hard to form an attachment with meal worms, isn’t it? “It’s all we can manage with our lifestyle,” Dad always tells me. I’m pretty sure he’s eaten a worm or two when I wasn’t watching. He has that guilty look sometimes.
So, this dog I’m now following through the reedy marshes of the riverbank isn’t mine. Sun’s about to set, which means Dad will be home. You see, for a millisecond, when the sun sinks below the horizon, Dad flashes green. Snooze and you’ll miss it, not be super aware and you’ll miss it too.
At sunset, Dad’s Law is for me to either be at home or completely isolated elsewhere—as I am now. Nobody comes into the marshes. Not with the mud and spiky stalks, and horseflies, swamp-flies and mossies, and let’s not forget the tiger snakes. But this mongrel hangs out here. I’m visiting his home and escaping my own.
People around here call mongrels “mixers” or “bitsers.” “Mongrel sounds rotten,” they say, and the poetic ones add, “Think of the connotations.” But I’ve no problem with the word.
I’d take a mongrel any day of the week over a genetically flawed pure bred; and this one’s cute, like a miniature dingo (the bits that aren’t covered in muck). White-tipped tail is the “crème de resistance,” an apt phrase, as I’ve read that it’s an ignorant conflation of “creme de la crème” and “piece de resistance”: a mongrelized phrase.
He rolls over as soon as I see him. Might be a submissive gesture; may mean he’s been mistreated before. I wonder whether the previous owners belted the loveable mutt and he ran away.
There’s no collar. I haven’t found a name for him yet. Sure, he’s got a few ticks and fleas, and smells like marsh—all sulphurous eggs—but I don’t care. My soles sink into the oozing muck as I dig my nails in and scratch the little guy all over his tummy and chest. His tail wags with endless energy.
• • •
“Okay, Andrew,” Dad says, while we’re parked in our rusted metal box. “We’ll run through it one last time.”
“It’s fine, dad. I only need to say the truth. How we’re poor as shit.”
Dad pinches my earlobe and twists. “No joking, Andrew. This could be big for us. Where’s your mum?”
I whack his arm away. “Mum died. Six months ago.” I don’t actually have a mum. I mean I realize I must have somewhere along the line. But I never actually knew her. “Cancer,” I continue, “ate her away until mum wasn’t even there anymore. You left your job to take care of her. Didn’t feel comfortable otherwise. Drained the finances. Lost the home. That’s why we live in the crappy flat.”
“Great—but don’t say ‘crappy’.”
“And it was all worth it. Who needs money or a house when there’s love?” Even though I’m fifteen, I say the last line like a pauper child begging for a morsel in Oliver! or some other Victorian era-based film.
Dad tousles my hair. I palm it back into place. “You’re the best, kiddo. Nail it every bloody time.”
You’d never guess my father is a goblin. I say “father” but I’m sure I’m adopted. Father disguises himself as a genuine salt-of-the-earth bloke, jeans and untucked shirt type of guy. Victims don’t work out my father’s a goblin until it’s too late. They ignore his slightly pointed ears; his longer canines. The victim’s relatives almost pick up on it: “You’re not human”, “What type of person does that?” “How do you live with yourself?” The raw emotional—and often physical—barrage continues until we abscond to another town or city.
We exit the car to find Aunty Rose waiting for us outside the gates of her swanky Mosman Park home, which is perched on a hill with river views. She’s sprightly for a lady with a walking-frame. Probably should be in a home. We’ve been taking out “aunty” for lunch three to four times a week ever since our arrival in the neighbourhood—although she shouts1 as much as us. Dad says our love and tenderness has led to a change in the will. “Locked-in like concrete. Only thing we can do wrong is fuck it up.” We’ve been greasing those arteries of hers something chronic. Chicken nuggets, fries, chips, battered fish, Kentucky Fried Chicken, and when she’s after a change—we get the equivalent grease-up from elsewhere, usually Asian.
Aunt Rose, who wheels over to the car on her frame, is pretty cool. I resist pinching my nostrils, her perfume is intense and usually veils reality, but an odor still escapes at times, that’s incontinence for you. Dad insists that he “can’t smell shit” and laughs at his own joke.
I leap out of the car and help her into the front seat. Once in, I kiss her cheek. “Love your dress today, Aunty! Floral suits you.” I put her walking frame in the boot then take a back seat.
“How’s that girlfriend of yours?” she asks. “Kissed her yet? What’s her name again?”
“Nadine. Thinking of holding her hand when we next go for a walk.”
Whadoyouthink? We pash whenever we can. Nice to know Aunt Rose cares though. I’m nuts about Nadine. Think it’s love. Kind of hope that Aunt Rose doesn’t cark-it soon. Means being on the run again. Means no Nadine.
“What’ll it be today, Rose?” asks Dad. “How ’bout something exotic? Chinese?’”
Over the last year, we’ve been living in some Mosman Park flats near the railway. Dad calls them “tenement Hellholes”. He blows whatever we have with goblinesque stupidity. Goblins aren’t renowned for their financial savvy; they’re not stupid, just stupid with cash. In all other areas Dad’s as cunning as a goblin.
Perth is a beautiful place, mirrorlike sheen of the river and a golden coastline, and we’re smack-bang in-between them both. Palatial homes are on either side of our no-hoper area of flats. Our own flat is on the twelfth floor, with weirdos for neighbors on both sides. Dad has a habit of banging on the wall to no reply as one neighbor plays Star Wars repeatedly at eardrum-bursting decibels. I can’t wait until Empire Strikes Back is released to video for a change in dialogue. On the rare moments the guy leaves his room, he has this whiff of porcine sweat. He looks like the Egyptian dude in Raiders of the Lost Ark. One day I’m going to ask him to bellow: “Indi! Indi! Indi!”
And on the other side is a guy I try to avoid at all costs. All Speed. And I don’t mean the motocross. He’s always on the point of explosion, and I don’t want my head in the way of his fist when it transpires.
Aunty, dad, and I end up in the local Chinese restaurant. My role requires a fine equilibrium: I pepper the conversation with mum-lines and the rehearsed car routine: “I miss her so much you know”, “Barely recognised her at the end,” but I also have to keep the convo warm and jovial so we’re good company for her. We serve up Aunty Rose an array of golden goodies. Golden deep-fried boxing wings, crispy golden deep-fried prawn parcels, deep-fried golden crispy chicken, crispy golden pork belly. Where does she put it all?
“Should we treat ourselves to dessert, Aunty?” says Dad.
I’m feeling queasy myself. Never thought I’d admit it, but I’m longing for green food, longing to degrease my mouth.
“Want some, Andrew?” she asks me. And right then the guilt hits me like a Michael Holding bouncer2. How on earth can we hurt this kind old bag?
“Pretty full myself.”
“Look at him, Aunt Rose,” says Dad. “Too polite. All skin and bones ain’t he? Little dessert didn’t hurt anybody. Sure, you’ve got room for golden fried ice cream!”
I shake my head, and the goblin’s shoe cracks me in the shin.
He calls over the waiter. “Fried ice creams, please.”
Aunt Rose smiles as she eats. “Never had this as a child; banana split was a big deal, or pavlova or cheesecake, but not fried ice cream.” She dabs her lips with a trembling hand, then reaches into her purse. “For you, Andrew,” she says, pulling out a twenty-dollar note. “Treat Nadine to a movie tonight. Buy her some popcorn, too.”
• • •
We drop Aunty Rose off and arrange for another outing in a few days’ time. She winks at me after I kiss her goodbye, and whispers in my ear, “It’s for you.” Not sure what she means, but I sense it’s kind. By the time I think of saying something back, she’s wheeled off on her frame.
In the passageway to our room, the Darth Vader theme booms out of the swine-scented nerd’s door. Dad thumps a couple of times on his door before putting the key in ours.
“Okay, if I see Nadine?’”
“No problem,” says Dad. “You did great today, apart from that crap with dessert. Be back before sunset.”
“But that’s at seven.”
He grabs my shirt and pulls me close so all I can smell is his batter-riddled breath. “Be back before sunset.” He releases me. “Go on, have some fun before then.”
On the stairs down to Nadine’s floor, I think of how Nadine had told me that her mum: “is good on her Good Days.” I’d nodded and tried to give off an understanding vibe, so if she were comfortable, she could tell me more there and then, or, if too soon, she could open up later. One of those moments when you have to balance prying and consoling.
I wasn’t sure if I’d got the ledger right.
But as I turn from the steps leading to her floor, guess who’s in the passageway? Nadine wears a Star Trek T-shirt—she beats me in the geek states. She hurries toward me finger over her lips, and rushes past me. Over the back of her shoulder, she gives me the “come-on” signal. I follow her up the stairs all the way back to the floor I live on. She slumps against a passage wall. I hope my raised eyebrow looks cool and caring rather than just dorky. It’s not the most romantic place: the carpet has a mildew odor and there are black pieces of old gum throughout, and whoever takes care of these communal spaces tends to miss cigarette butts.
“Not a Good Day,” Nadine says.
I touch her arm to show I care, and she pushes it away.
“No offense,” she says. “Not into the whole heal-the-victim-knight-in-armor thing. Give me a second and I’ll be right.” I back off, providing her space. She times her breathing, in and out, slowly, lids closed for half a minute, until she speaks: “Okay, I’m good. And now, so that you don’t think you’re taking care of me, I’m going to hug you.”
And she does. I hope I won’t get an awkward stiffy like I did two days ago. Nadine holds my cheeks. Our faces draw closer. They call her “Freckles” at school, but to me her sandy specks glimmer. I lied before, we don’t pash whenever we can. This will be our first kiss together. My first actual kiss. We peck each other on the lips, then she peels away, her hazel eyes searching my face, as if I have an aura to investigate, then she leans in once more. Could this be more than a peck? And then Star Wars guy opens his front door and we drop our hands away.
He half-grunts at us as he passes us by, B.O. aplenty.
Nadine laughs and pokes me in the stomach. “How embarrassing,”
We discuss where we’ll go. My place is a no-no too. For myriad reasons, I don’t want her to meet Dad. Then I take the note out of my pocket. “For us.”
“We are going to the movies.”
“You work for that or is your dad pretty liberal with cash?”
“Nah, this old lady gave it to me. I told her all about us. She wanted to ensure that we both have a good time.”
“You took money from an old lady?”
“A loaded old lady.”
“Does it really matter? You took twenty bucks for what?” I think she picks up on my dismay. “We’ll talk about it later.”
I ask her whether she still wants to go and she says, “S’pose,” so we head off.
It’s only the two of us at the bus stop. She drapes an arm over mine.
“You ever have a dog?” I ask. “Would’ve loved one, myself. Always been on the move. Kind of crazy. New schools every year, sometimes twice a year.”
“And I’d really like to stay this time.”
I squeeze her hand for a reply.
“Had to give Ricky up,” Nadine says, “when mum couldn’t afford the mortgage repayments at our house. Flats are apparently too small for a German Shepherd.”
But I hear dogs barking all the time in the flats and I tell her such. Nadine explains that we’re allowed dogs you can carry reasonably about the place. “You know, large rats.”
“Bawled my eyes out at the time. Moving sucks! And you, poor guy, have had to do it over and over.”
“Do you go back to visit?”
Nadine’s hands cradle the back of my head and reel me in for more than a peck. There’s saliva and tongue involved—what I’ve yearned for, yet I discover I don’t really know what to do and almost gag.
She pats my hand. “It’ll get better, my young apprentice.”
“Now it’s time to fess up.’”
About what? My obvious inexperience? I clench up all over. The twenty bucks? Surely, she’s not on to dad? “Fess up?”
“Might be the wrong phrase. Look, I’m not using money you didn’t earn to go to the movies. It doesn’t gel with me.”
I battle it out a bit, how I wanna go with her, and why waste the cash. After to-and-froing she comes up with: “How about we spend the twenty on her?”
“Dad and I take her out for lunch all the time.” I want to add: congealing the arteries and quickening the process. If Dad knew I was with this moralistic do-gooder his own blood pressure would accelerate quicker than Allan Wells. And if Nadine knew the schemes my goblin dad and I had run in the past, she’d be bolting away from me even faster.
I let it ride. One thing Dad has taught me is that our fronts are mere illusions, but if you give the illusion some light it becomes a charm of sorts. Romanticizing our heists is a speciality of his.
“Where does she live?”
I tell her the swanky part of Mosman Park. Nadine stands up. “Well, come on then.” And we cross over to the other side of the road to the deli and another bus stop, which heads away from the cinema. “How about we get some flowers for her? Everyone loves flowers.”
I hand over the twenty, and she pops into the deli and grabs a bunch. “Gardenias and jonquils,” she announces, and hands me back change. “Take a whiff. Not only beautiful but fragrant. Like my flowers to offer more than just good looks.”
I sniff. “Like me,” I say, trying to alleviate my own disappointment about not going to the movies.
“I like you, Andrew, but it’s early days. I’ll wait to see what your true fragrance is before I pass judgment.”
You’d think the comment would disturb me, but it makes me want to impress her all the more.
• • •
Aunty has the gate open. And as soon as we enter, she’s brewing us tea. We help take vegemite, cheese and pickles on crispbreads to the garden table, with its million-dollar view of the Swan River. “My, aren’t they beautiful!” she says regarding the flowers. She kisses Nadine and me over and again. And when Nadine returns to the kitchen to fetch the teas, Aunty gives me the thumbs-up. “She’s beautiful. Think she’s a keeper.”
“You mean it?”
“Know what you’re thinking—you’re young. But that’s the way life is sometimes.”
When we’re all gathered, Aunty opens up about her own husband. How they met at a dance when she was only twenty and promised to another. “It was like everybody else in the hall had vanished.’
“He must’ve been a real looker,” I say into her ear. We have seated ourselves on either side of her—I’ve told Nadine how the secret to communicating with deaf types is to speak into their ear rather than roar away.
“Not in a traditional manner. More the James Cagney type.”
We nod, clueless to who James Cagney is.
“Had something,” says Aunty, “can’t quite put my finger on it … a warm spirit. Like you two: warm spirits.”
We have one cuppa and then Aunty insists on another, and I worry that she’ll insist on a third, and the sun will start to lower and I won’t make it home and I’ll be grounded. We continue to chat about Aunty’s younger days, rolling into the Depression, only segueing when Nadine asks about pets. “Truth be known,” says Aunty, “I miss Athos as much as I do my husband. Nobody is more like family than a dog. Kids won’t let me get another one. Too much responsibility.”
When we leave, Aunty thinks she’s whispering in my ear, only on account of her ailing ears it’s audible to Nadine, “I’ll take care of you. Your future will be bright.”
And then she holds out another twenty-dollar bill for us. “And this time don’t you dare use it on me. You two get out there and have fun!’”
“I can’t take it, Aunty,” I say, “appreciate the gesture. All I wanted was for you and Nadine to meet.”
“Rubbish,” she says, and although she’s on her walker she tries to stuff the note down my shirt.
Nadine, thanking Aunty, takes it before Aunty loses balance.
Nadine wants to hang out some more after the gates close behind us.
But as we take the bus to our stop the lowering sun is painting the clouds in citrus.
Speed Guy is outside the entrance to our flats trying to rip a drainpipe from the wall, growling four-letter expletives.
We keep back. It’s a risk either way with the sun nearing the horizon. I am eager to be home for Dad. I always like to see that green flash, it cements who he is for me, but Speed Guy is in a frenzied whirl.
Nadine shrugs and suggests we go for a walk.
“Love to,” I reply, “but I have to get home as soon as it’s safe.”
“What, you Cindy or something?”
“You know, Cind-e-rel-la.”
I laugh and the words—I love you—come out before I know it; released from me at the same time Speed Guy pulls part of the pipe away, roaring away as he bloodies his hands. Distracted, we both dart inside without him noticing.
“I’ll let you run off,” Nadine kisses me on the cheek. “Make sure you leave a shoe behind. I’ll search the Kingdom of Flats to see whose foot it fits.” She grips me tight, blows warm air into my ear, “Think you’re pretty cool too.” Letting go, Nadine pulls out the twenty dollar note and puts it in my pocket. “As long as you spend it on Aunty.”
I enter our home-for-now. Dad is hanging clothes off the railing on the sardine can of a balcony; lightsabers swish away in our neighbor’s place.
I step outside to help.
“How’d you go?” winks Dad, holding up a pair of socks. “Charm the socks off her?”
“Sort of … Actually, more the other way around.”
“That’s my boy,” he interjects.
“By the way, careful venturing out. Speed Guy is on the rampage.”
It’s a tight squeeze getting the socks and undies in between the shirts, but we’re well-practiced. “Can I talk to you? About something important.”
“Not about staying on longer again?”
I shake my head. He asks me what’s up.
“I can’t go through with this. Not with Aunty. She made us tea. How can we be involved with someone who made Nadine and me tea?”
“What do you think we’re doing, Andrew?”
“One of the old routines, Dad. Helping along the process.”
“Really, Andrew? It’s not like we’re lining her liver with alcohol. All we’re doing is showing her the time of her life. Who else has she got?”
“Don’t get smart.”
“Dad, it’s another scam. You’ve locked the will in. Ease up. Let nature take its course.”
“You still don’t get it, do you? We’re not termites, Andrew. We don’t get in there and destroy. We’re your regular type of garden ants.”
“We’re ants now?”
“Garden ants—not Argentine ants, they’re as bad as termites, not psycho ants with stingers, not warrior ants. Just the normal kind. The bore worm or beetle will tunnel through a frangipani; garden ants simply finish it off. If there’s a wounded worm, we finish it off. If there’s wood rotting away—”
“We finish it off. Get the pattern. And I’m not going to do it, not with Aunty. Not this time.”
“But it’s your nature, kiddo. Our nature.”
“I’ll be damned if it’s in my nature.”
“You can’t escape who you are.”
“I can rise above the depths you’re stooping to.”
He stops, face to the horizon, the sky now the yellows and oranges and reds of a peach skin. “Back in a tick. Don’t move.”
He tears off inside and then leaps back out with a hand mirror. He snatches my arm, twists me around so that my back is against his stomach, and lays his forearm around my chest so I can’t squirm away. With the other hand, he holds the mirror out. “Look. Stay sharp. My dad gave me the same lesson, around the same age. See your rich inheritance.”
“Interesting, Dad. What do garden ants inherit?”
He clasps me harder.
“Keep looking.” And the sun lowers, sharper than usual. And as it goes below the horizon, I squeeze my lids shut and stomp on his foot.
“Ow. But there! You saw it didn’t you?”
“Sure did, Dad.” Although I didn’t see squat.
“That’s why we do what we do. You can’t stop nature.”
I nod, so he can release me.
• • •
As soon as the shops open the next morning, I’m picking up my list of necessities from the pet shop. I arrange to meet Nadine later at Aunty’s.
And then it’s off to greet my miniature mongrel mate.
A few hours later, although embarrassed by my recent evolution into a sweaty swamp monster, I ring the bell at Aunty’s gate. I hope Nadine doesn’t mind. Had to trek all the way in the humid sun, with a loaded backpack, and something else. Couldn’t bring what I’ve brought otherwise.
Nadine comes out and is greeted by a white-tipped tail wagging and a yap or two. She jumps up and down, covers her mouth. He doesn’t look like much, but I’ve put the mongrel through the ringer: flea-bathed him, new leash, collar around his neck. I couldn’t prevent the smattering of red spots, remnants of tics removed with a treated needle, but instead of alcohol I used mercurochrome. Where on Earth do you get pure alcohol from? Dad’s lagers wouldn’t cut it, according to the pet store people.
The dog falls over at Nadine’s feet. She kneels, gives him a good rub.
“What’s his name?”
“Let’s see what Aunty wants to call him.”
Aunty is seated on the garden table, and I realise how I might not have thought this through. I suppose the dog is for Aunty, but it’s also small enough for Nadine to keep in the flats. Little guy can be held in one arm, after all. I’ve brought some dog food and dog biscuits in my backpack.
Will he be accepted by society? Will he whine away in misery? But the guy seems to be having a ball; he’s running around the yard, charging back for pats, and then he’s off again.
“He’s yours, Aunty,” I say in her ear. “What should we call him? I can help out, if you’d like. Walk him and all that.”
Aunty’s eyes glisten, but she stays mute.
She pats my arm.
“What do you reckon, Aunty? Little Dingo? Prince? River? Pirate?”
Nadine chimes in. “Charlie? Or is he a Jack? Basil? Fido?”
Aunty finds her voice, “My kids are right,” she says as our mongrel lifts a back paw and pees on a table leg. Thankfully, it’s the far leg so the spray doesn’t reach us. “I can’t take care of him, Andrew.”
“But I can help you, Aunty.”
“Wish it were so,” she replies. “Wish it were so.”
“How about a name then, Aunty? We’ll start there.”
“I’ve got a name,” says Aunty ‘Want to hear it?”
We nod. Nadine slips her arm around mine.
“Andine. But the rule is he can’t be called Andy for short. Has to be the full name. Deal?”
Takes a while to sink in; the combo reveals how much Aunty cares for us. It hardens my resolve to prevent Dad’s ant work.
Before we leave, we put some dog food and water out, and give Andine plenty of lead so that he’s got real space to roam around the yard. We haven’t had enough time to ensure he can’t squeeze under the palatial entrance gates. “He’ll be right for a night,” I say to Nadine, more for my own self-reassurance.
While we wash up the cups and saucers, I reflect over it all. Dad would never let me keep Andine—dogs being far more advanced than meal worms. But Nadine might be able to. Why is finding Andine a home is so important to me? What home am I really intending him to go to?
When we kiss Aunty goodbye, she’s quiet, her farewell lacks the usual gutsy spark, but there’s real feeling in her words: “Now listen, you two. You both take good care of each other. Do you hear me? Take real good care.”
Outside of the gates, Nadine wraps her arms around me. “That was sweet, Andrew.”
“Do you think she’ll be able to keep him?”
“Of course not,” she says and kisses my lips between sentences. Her breath is honey to me. “But it’s so thoughtful. Small enough for the flats.” My lips feel her nectar again. “You’ve thought it through! Visiting companion for Aunty and a new dog for me.” This time we pash, and I don’t gag, and I feel warm and wonderful. We keep kissing.
Then we make our way, my arm locked in hers, all the way to the bus stop.
• • •
It ended up being Aunty’s final evening.
With this type of gig, on occasion, Dad and I attend the hospital. Especially when the families are not around. Dad will often hold a hand, while the death rattle occurs. It’s a torturous sound, an inner heaving of a body pumping and struggling and clattering as the spirit leaves. Thankfully, Aunty died in her sleep.
Dad wears his Sunday best to the funeral. The family are all appreciative of his presence; how Aunty spoke so fondly of us in this her final year: “Wonderful lunches”, “Plenty of laughs and smiles”. In a couple of months’ time, when the will is read, that’ll change. The papers will be contested of course. Cursing and hate mail and threats. Dad will settle for some kind of deal and then blow it, like he always does, and then it’ll be another scam someplace else.
A new home with no Nadine.
There’s no Andine either … He vanished. Dad claimed when he arrived at Aunty’s home, our mongrel was gone. “I swear it! Family never saw him. Either he chewed through the leash or Aunty released him. Kind of symbolic, I suppose. Maybe he left when she passed?”
I don’t know where the truth lies with my goblin dad. Probably set Andine “free” himself.
The following week is especially precious. I don’t burden Nadine with the knowledge I’m leaving. I savor every outing, every laugh—and notwithstanding the grief, there are laughs. I also meet her mum on a Good Day, we listen to songs by The Village People, Split Enz, and The Pretenders, walk by the river, think of Aunty, think of Andine, navigate around Speed Guy, make lame Vader and Jedi jokes about the other neighbor.
And armed with repellent, Nadine twice braves the river mire and marshes with me. Nadine doesn’t whinge about it either, her only complaint is how our searches proved fruitless.
Nadine and me. I know now what love is.
The one thing we never do is spend a sunset together.
• • •
You can’t really call it dropping the bomb, since it’s expected, but it’s a bomb nevertheless. Dad’s all cliché central: “Hey, son,” “Know it’s hard.” “You mean the world to me,” and later that arvo, as it nears sunset, it’s, “Have your bags packed. We’re leaving in the morning.”
For a moment I think of running off—which has proven pretty ineffectual before—but dad has situated himself by the door.
“Not anymore,” I declare. “No more scheming.”
My face must appear as raw as it feels, because Dad hugs me. “No oldies, not again. We’ll only hit scumbags from now on. How’s that sound?” He brushes my wet cheeks with his T-shirt. “Next gig is the greyhound industry. It’s good work. Bit risky, but we’ll bribe the shit out of them. And if they don’t pay, we’ll sell the footage to the current affair shows. Think of it—educational, we’ll be filming, creating a story—and fun stuff: espionage work. We’ll be spies on the right side.”
It sounds convincing, but Nadine and lost-Andine anchor me down. “I love her, Dad. Know you think I’m too young for it, but I love her. Like really love her. And she loves me.”
The sun is falling in the background. “We can’t take her with us. But how about you write and see how it goes?”
As the sun sets, Dad is briefly sheened in emerald. Goblin. “Can’t take you away from the heist, hey Dad? Garden ant and all.”
“We can’t change our legacy, Andrew.”
“No more elderly?”
“It’s a deal, if you let me say bye to Nadine.”
“Sure thing. You know I love you, Andrew. Be back in an hour. Early start. I’ll have a hot cocoa ready for you when you come back.”
Nadine’s mum is having another off day, so we sit on the staircase.
“You can look at me,” she says.
I peer up from the step under my feet. I want to be dramatic, thump away like Speed Guy, show the incense. But Nadine has grown me.
“We’re moving again.”
She puts her arm over my shoulder. I know her face will be tearing up like my own.
The Star Wars nerd descends the stairs and stops by us. “Couldn’t help overhearing. You two okay?”
He’s human after all. We all smile sad smiles.
“Leia and Luke were from different sides of the galaxy but were brought together by a common cause.”
“What does that even mean?” I say. And the more charitable Nadine simply says, “Thanks.”
“Let me try again. Darth Vader told Luke that the Dark Side was his destiny, but Luke never surrendered.” He pats me on my back.
As he rolls on down the stairs, he’s left behind a more fortified me.
• • •
The first few weeks in Northam are rough. I keep thinking of Nadine, and then Andine; and Aunt Rose, who visits me in my dreams, is never far away either.
Northam’s main strip has some history, but it’s a dodgy town, with plenty of people around to give Speed Guy a run for his money; an array of down-and-outs, looking to spiral further downward rather than upward: glue and petrol and substance sniffers, street alcoholics. Settling into the new high school is hard, too; fights every day, each one surrounded by a ring of students.
But it’s not all bad. The library has become a place of sanctuary, and like any rural place, there’s enough grounded approachable types about, but I just don’t know whether it’s worth making friends. Dad will already have plans in motion. Irony is he’s losing a stack at the “dogs”—the very place he wants to bribe or bring down.
Nadine and I write and call. Being apart is scary. I wonder if her letters are getting shorter, whether there’s less to talk about on the phone, whether Dad will continue to let me rack up the phone bill.
Then one afternoon, I get a letter. Caught a glimpse of Andine. Haven’t been telling you, but I’ve been going down to the marshes.
The very next morning, I drop off a letter to meet me in three days’ time, by the marshes at 4 p.m.
I head for the train station. Left a note on the kitchen bench for Dad, too; don’t know how much time it’ll give me, but it has the lines: I’m heading off to Kalgoorlie for a while to find myself. And if you send anyone, I’ll call the Avon Valley Greyhound Racing Association and blow your cover. I end it with: Hope you’re proud of me—on a scheme of my own. Love, Andrew.
I don’t know what I’ll do for the night, but that’s a risk I’m willing to take. I’m not naïve, I know I’ll find myself back in Northam with Dad sooner rather than later.
• • •
I trudge through the marshlands. Ten minutes late. No sign yet of Nadine. And the sky is steadily glooming. Flies and mozzies, more abundant than ever, swarm all over me. And then I hear a voice yelling my name. It’s most unlike Nadine to yell, which makes it all the sweeter. And suddenly it’s as if the flies and mozzies are silent and the stench has vanished.
“He’s out there,” she says after we hug forever.
“We’ll find him.”
We resume our search. Being in the morasses becomes real again: we scratch our many bites, hold sleeves over our noses when the reek is too evil, swat away buzzing insects, get pricked by pointed stems piercing our jeans.
There’s a series of barks.
Andine arrives, more like he was before the clean-up, but though the leash is long gone, the collar is intact. We bend over him and pat away, until we’re as covered in grime as he is. The drab earth is all rainbows and butterflies.
But then Andine darts away. We shout his name. He briefly turns back, before charging off into the swamplands. I want to fall to the ground, roll around, really coat myself in muck. What does it all mean?
“He’ll be back,” says Nadine.
“Really think so?”
I know Nadine can’t be so assured. Nobody, after all, can guarantee an unforeseen future. Meanwhile, she takes my hand and leads me out of the marshes. The sun lowers further.
We exit the swamp and approach a bench on a grassed area overlooking the river.
I park myself on the bench, patting the empty space next to me. “Sit down?”
“Shouldn’t we wash up a bit first?”
I shake my head. “I want us to be together while the sun sets.” My voice is feigned confidence. Reality is, I am doing all I can to prevent my vocal cords and limbs from tremoring.
She shrugs and sits by my side. “And watch me carefully as the sun dips below the horizon.”
Copyright © 2023 by Anthony Panegyres