THEY ARRIVE AT the town just after nightfall. Stand at the town sign looking up at it: Population 2,500, clear in the moonlight.
‘It’s 2,503. Now,’ he says.
They watch the tail-lights of the truck that had just dropped them, red lights blinking out of sight beyond a hill, away from the town. They lift their bags onto their backs.
‘Come on.’ He knows where he’s going. It’s his town, or used to be. And with his father gone, the house is his now. But when he was sent the papers, he didn’t say, It’s mine now; he said, ‘It’s ours now.’ Like they’re one. Like they’ve always been one. He walks ahead, his yellow cap a beacon in the moonlit dark.
A dog barks somewhere close, the other side of a fence. The woman jumps, hugs her heavy coat around herself, looks along the fence for signs of an open gate, broken palings. Somewhere that lets out the teeth, the snarling ball of fury. Little fluttery sounds escape her throat, the back of her nose, and the one who knows the town, Parker, reaches out and puts a big arm around her shoulders. ‘Shhh. Shhh, Paisley,’ he says in a hushed murmur, rubbing her shoulder like he wants to remove a stain. And she’s calmer now as she grips his fingers, one arm crossed over her chest.
Stick Man and Parker carry the bags. Only Paisley has nothing to carry except for her own small bag. Parker says she carries enough already. In her heart. Her empty arms.
‘See the moon, Paisley,’ he says pointing to the fat grapefruit in the sky. ‘Same one as last night. See?’
She looks at his pointing finger, follows its direction. ‘Ahh,’ she breathes. ‘Yes.’
Parker takes her hand: ‘Not far now.’ She nods. Stick Man puffs and grunts under the weight of the bag. Parker turns to him, gets a nod, a thumbs up, and they continue.
Headlights of an oncoming car dazzle the three as it slows, then passes. Someone leans from the rear window and shouts. Something harsh and rancid, but the car is gone before any of them are sure of what was said. Parker looks around, checks the car is not stopping. He hears the drag of Stick Man’s foot, doesn’t want to draw attention to it, never wants that. Just wants to make sure he’s holding up. It’s a long way for a skinny man on one good foot carrying a heavy load. ‘Let’s rest,’ Parker says. But Stick Man shakes his head, flutters his hand in a go-on motion, and Parker knows they’re nearly there anyway. One small rise, then it’s downhill all the way, over the bridge and around the corner and there it is. His old home. Their new home.
He feels a frothy, fuzzy feeling in his chest, like he’s run a long way after drinking lemonade. Like the lemonade is all around him – hissing and zinging and fizzing. It’s the house, the town. It’s Stick Man and Paisley, all of them here in the house in the town. They can be someone. Be heroes. Enormous. The fizz and froth bursts all around him.
The hill is the hardest bit. A small hill but steep, and Parker’s worried about Stick Man’s foot, his poor skinny legs. Just as he thinks he’ll have to give them all a rest, they’re at the top of the hill and then they’re coasting down, the weight of the bags pushing them into the breeze. Parker can see the river now, the ripples of light from the moon and the bridge at the bottom of the hill. A few cars are moving about in the street, motors droning, headlights cutting through the dark. No cars come up the hill, or pass them going down. The town is quiet. No one to lean out and yell at them. Parker remembers a lot about the town, now that he’s on the downward hill looking over its lights and roofs and trees, all nestled in on the other side of the bridge.
This side of the bridge has few houses. No shops. He thinks the town hasn’t changed much since he left. He can’t remember how long that is. Maybe twenty years. Maybe more. He has a feeling that the same people inhabit the town. That he will still have to sneak past the grain store so the boy with the yellow hair and sharp face won’t see him and point the rifle at him. The empty chamber. Click! He’ll be careful walking past the grain store. Just in case. Will Mr Miller still have the General Store? He hopes so. Mr Miller was kind and funny, and always called him Young fella me lad, and lifted his glasses onto his bald head when he had to look at something far away. Come to think of it, he was quite old then. Maybe Mr Miller won’t be there anymore. Maybe the General Store won’t even be there. Parker feels sad at that thought, but excited too at what tomorrow may bring when he walks the streets of the town. Just to see what has changed.
With all the thinking he hasn’t noticed how far they’ve come, and the bridge is right there now. He remembers the bridge. It lurks in the dark cracks of his memory, along with the Coxon brothers and their sharp words and cruelties. Always trying to get him alone, those Coxon brothers – get him alone and do him harm. They tied him to the bridge one day. Not on top where someone could see him and free him, but underneath where the loose plank wobbled when cars crossed, and it hit him on the head even though he pulled his head into his shoulders as much as possible. Just a tap, but lots of cars meant lots of taps and it made a big lump on the top of his head. It wasn’t till after dark he was freed. Someone saw his white shirt blowing in the breeze and thought it was a body hanging there. Which it was, but a live one. He had to say he didn’t know who’d done it. If he’d said it was the Coxon brothers they would’ve said it wasn’t, then they’d hound him even more and he’d never be free of them.
The bridge is a way into town, but it’s also a way out. He remembers that. The sound the tyres made going over the bridge out of town, that last time – bom-bom – and he’d looked back and thought: I don’t know if I’ll see you again to the town, his father, Mr Miller and lovely Miss Johnson, his Year 6 teacher with the soft yellow hair and blue eyes, who always had a kind word for him. Even after he’d grown up and moved on to high school. And he hadn’t seen any of them since.
As they cross the bridge, his eyes move to the right-hand corner, as if he may see his former self hanging there, shirt billowing out around him. He rubs at his wrist where the rope had dug in, so deep that he has a permanent scar. Only faint now. Hard to tell in the dark if the same wonky board is still there. He’ll look in daylight. The river is high; he can hear it rushing past underneath them. Must’ve been raining a lot lately. Once, when he was little, the river was so low that all the town’s junk was exposed – old tyres, radios that didn’t work, bottles, tins, old bike wheels and car parts. Spread out on the riverbed like a jumble sale. Everyone said what a sight, what a horrible mess, but no one owned up to throwing any of it there, and no one cleaned it up. When the rain finally came, the waters rose and covered it all again. Probably still there now, Parker thinks, gazing over the side into the plashing river.
He leads the way, around the corner past the pub, lights on with a few inside still lifting their pots and staring over the bar. Past the car park and the council depot, then down the street. He knows it’s the one but still looks up to check the sign. Park Street. He’d always liked the way it was nearly his name. There’s a streetlight, and he can see the house now, quickens his step. It lies in darkness, all still and waiting for them. ‘That’s it there,’ he says, and they stop and look. He waves them on. He’s described it to them, but that’s not like being there, at the gate. Their new home. They stand for a while, just taking it in, though there’s not much to see in the dark. The big peppercorn tree leans towards the fence in a way that is familiar yet startling, fingery strands bending low in a welcome bow, but the dark hulk of its body taking up more space than Parker remembers.
He reaches out and unlatches the gate. It creaks open as he pushes his way through. Stick Man and Paisley follow in silence, looking ahead to the steps, the front veranda, the door.
When he steps up to the front door he stops suddenly, strikes his knuckles lightly against his head. ‘Oh, it’s the back door. I have to get the key. Wait here,’ and he steps down, goes around the side of the house, through the wooden gate. He has a sudden panic that the key won’t be there. After all this time, perhaps his father moved it, perhaps the lock has been changed. Maybe they will have to wait till the morning after all, until he goes to the solicitor’s office. He thinks of poor Stick Man and Paisley, sleeping on the veranda, no blankets, just their coats, bare boards. He rounds the corner into the backyard and bobs down to the under-house storage gate. He pushes his hand into the dark nothingness, pats the wall and feels it. There on the hook, where it’s always been. He takes it in his hand and shuts the little wooden gate. But before he can mount the steps to the back door, a voice stops him: ‘Who’s there?’
Parker looks about, down the backyard, over the fence. And there she is, just a silhouette of a head over the fence.
‘Who is it?’ the woman says.
Parker doesn’t want to be questioned by a stranger, in his own backyard. Doesn’t want to give any answer to someone so rude. But he doesn’t want trouble either. ‘My place now,’ he mutters, loud enough for her to hear. ‘I need to get in. It’s late.’
‘Oh, you’re the son. James, isn’t it?’
He’s been just Parker now for so long, it feels strange to hear his name – James. When he’d left town for the city – bundled off really, after his mother died – he lived with a distant uncle who owned a steel business. He found work at the uncle’s factory, lugging lengths of pipe from the cutting bench to the shelves. No one called him James. He was just Parker. He nods, though he knows the woman won’t be able to see in the dark. ‘Got to go inside,’ he says, adding, ‘goodnight,’ to be polite, and he turns away before she can continue talking to him. When he gets to the door, he glances over his shoulder, and she’s still there, but turning away, her head disappearing as if she’s stepped down from something on the other side. He feels he may have been rude. But Stick Man and Paisley are waiting out the front, and it’s been such a long day for them.
He fumbles at the lock, pushes in the key and shoves the door with his foot, remembering how it used to stick a little. But it opens readily and he tumbles forward into the hallway. He sees the outline of Stick Man and Paisley through the frosted glass at the front and shuts the door behind him. Walks down the passage looking straight ahead. The rooms on either side taunt and tempt him to look sideways, but he won’t. He’ll wait until they’re all here together. He’ll take them into one room at a time, like a guide on a tour of a mansion. There’s a smell of old papers, of dust and something else too but he’s not sure what that is. Is that the smell someone leaves behind, when they die? His foot hovers before continuing past the room on his left – his parents’ room.
When he opens the front door, Paisley and Stick Man are there, surprise on their faces as if he’d entered the house by magic. Parker picks up his bag from the veranda and walks in behind them, closes the door.
He goes into the first room, the one that had been his bedroom. The image of how it had looked, back then, comes to him so quickly it could’ve been yesterday he’d last slept there. When he presses the light switch the room flares into day, and he can see that the picture in his mind matches exactly what is here. Nothing has changed. Not the carefully made bed with the folded blanket at the foot; not the striped curtains with the holes, carpet the colour of sand; and not the big dark chest of drawers looming in Parker’s memory like a huge creature in the half light of morning. A creature that could crush his former small self or lurk at his shoulder like a presence felt but not seen. Until the Coxon brothers would seemingly spring from its drawers, their faces narrow and sharp and their eyes slits of promised cruelties.
Beside him, Paisley steps forward, ‘Oh-hh,’ a descending sigh of appreciation. As if he has opened the door to something most beautiful. Something so incredibly wonderful she can only breathe and sigh. She walks to the shelf, picks up a blue bear, the one with the blue neck tie, the missing button eye. ‘So many,’ she says, putting Blue Bear back in his spot.
Parker hadn’t thought about the bears in a long while. It was only in the moment before he turned the light on, when he imagined the room as it had been, the bears arrayed on the shelf, that he readied himself for their absence. Then, in the light, they were there. Silent and waiting. Just like the house in the night. He puts his bag down on the bed. He’s already decided: the bears are Paisley’s.
They walk into each room. The one across from Parker’s is Paisley’s; the one further down is Stick Man’s. He’s already thought this through. Tomorrow, they’ll throw all the windows open, take the mats out and beat the dust from them. Wipe every surface and shake the dust from the curtains. But for now they need sleep. Especially Stick Man, who is pale and leans against the doorframe looking longingly towards the bed Parker has said will be his. Parker puts his hand on Stick Man’s shoulder. ‘Go and lie down, Stick,’ he says, and Stick Man stumbles towards the bed, collapsing in a soft heap and a small sigh. Reaches down to tug at his shoes. Parker closes the door.
He goes to his room, gathers the bears in a hug and holds them to this chest. Walks them to Paisley’s room and places them on the bed. ‘Yours,’ he says to Paisley, and she claps her hand over her mouth, stands staring down at the muddle of furry arms and legs and button eyes, then kneels and arranges them neatly in sitting positions. Mutters to them: ‘You all need a good wash. Tomorrow.’ She stands up and holds onto Parker, her head on his chest.
He can feel the sharp ridge of her spine through her coat as he pats her back. She pulls away and returns to the bears, moving them one at a time from the bed to the empty mantelpiece, straightening their limbs, talking to each one, humming to them. Parker watches for a while, then leaves, closing the door behind him. A wave of absolute tiredness engulfs him and he leans against the wall for a moment, trying to remember all the things that must be done. Now that they are here.
PARKER LEAVES BEFORE the others wake. He has to get breakfast. They’ll wake hungry and he wants to have the table laid before they’re up. He knows they’ll both sleep late. When was the last time either of them slept in a bed?
He buys bread, milk, tea, remembers Paisley’s thin bird-like limbs and goes back for bananas. He’ll do a proper shop later.
When he returns to the house there’s a woman in the front garden of the house next door, squatting and picking around at some flowers, pushing them this way and that. The garden is neat and ordered, the sort of garden he’d have himself, if gardens were important. She looks up, and he wants to look away, get the breakfast things inside and on the table, but she stands and comes towards him.
‘Hello, we met last night, well, sort of. I’m Dorothy,’ her hand is out and over the fence to him where he stands holding bags in both hands.
Parker looks at her hand, then from one to the other of his own and nods at her with a shrug of his shoulders.
‘Good to see you’ve got some supplies. Do you need anything? I have some lovely biscuits, just made last night. Tell you what, I’ll bring them in. Later. I’ll let you get those bags inside now,’ and she nods and smiles, pats at her hair as if the weeding may have put a curl in disarray.
Parker nods. ‘Thank you,’ he says and moves to the gate. Takes one look back at her as he steps up to the veranda and she’s still looking, nodding and smiling. She gives a little wave with her fingers, the way his aunt used to as she’d say toodle-oo. Parker would walk around repeating toodle-oo until his father told him to be quiet and stop making fun of his aunt. He hadn’t meant to make fun, he just loved the word, the rhythm of it, the roundness of the sound. He raises one arm as high as possible with its bag of bananas and waggles his fingers. ‘Toodle-oo,’ he says, then turns away, hoping she doesn’t think he’s making fun.
Inside, Paisley is standing in the kitchen, Blue Bear tucked under her arm. Her face is pale and her hair hangs over her eyes. She pushes it back, smiles at Parker, sees the bags and opens her mouth wide. ‘Oh, food. I’m so hungry.’
‘Go and have a shower and I’ll get this ready.’
‘In the bathroom, I showed you last night. Come on, in here,’ and he takes her arm, steers her in and checks the water temperature. ‘It’s nice and warm,’ he says, and leaves her. Goes back to the kitchen, searches through the cupboards and finally locates the toaster, a kettle. He sets the table slowly and precisely, lining up each mug with the cutlery.
Stick Man wanders in as Paisley returns, hair wet and plastered to her head. ‘Oh, the water, so warm.’ She smiles and hugs herself, and the three of them sit and eat breakfast.
‘We made it,’ Parker says, raising his mug of tea in a toast.
‘I am so happy.’ Paisley holds her mug with both hands, her face over its steam.
‘I met a neighbour today,’ Parker says, pointing in the direction of Dorothy’s house.
Stick Man and Paisley look up from their toast and tea. ‘Neighbour?’ Paisley’s eyebrows wrinkle together.
‘Next door, a woman. She seems very nice.’
Paisley bows her head, continues eating. Stick Man nods, chews his toast.
‘It’s good, to make friends,’ Parker says.
‘W-w-w-w we h-h-h have each o-oth-oth–’
‘I know, Stick. But we live here now. And other friends are good to have. We want them to come and see us when we start, don’t we? No one will know to come, if we don’t make friends.’ He raises his eyebrows, looks from one to the other. Stick Man nods. Paisley goes on eating. ‘Paisley? Yes?’ She looks up, puts the bear on the table from her lap, places it close to her plate and tears off some toast, offers it to the bear. ‘You’ll see,’ Parker says. ‘She’s very nice. She’s bringing in biscuits later.’
He peels a banana for Paisley, places it on her plate. ‘Eat up. We have lots to do today.’
BLUE BEAR IS not hungry. Blue Bear doesn’t want any new friends with biscuits. New friends always mean trouble, and there is no trouble here now. If she doesn’t talk about it, it won’t happen. It will go away. Like Parker made Hairy Man go away after he did things to her, nasty things that hurt. But then there was… Mustn’t think of that. Parker said not to think, or the Big Dark will come down again. ‘Look at the moon,’ he said, ‘look at the clouds. You have us now.’
She closes her arms around Blue Bear, sings to him soft and low then places him on the mantel. Her arms fold across herself but remember more, and she walks to the window, looks out past the dusty glass, the droopy big tree in the yard, out to the clouds high and wispy over the rooftops.
‘Paisley,’ Parker calls. She turns away from the window. Things to do. So many things to do now.
THEY TAKE THE bags out to the shed. Parker has cleared away the useless things. Some things are useful but must be cleaned: plastic chairs, fold-up canvas chairs, a card table, lengths of wood, pieces of masonite. Parker has to be ruthless, with no space for things that only may be useful. He has created a corner room, wood and corrugated iron fastened to a wooden frame. He’s very proud of it. Remembers his father’s words: ‘You’re pretty good with your hands, boy, it’s just your brain box that doesn’t work so well.’ And his mother no longer there to cover his ears, save him the hurt. But he’d always known he wasn’t as clever as others, and he’d been proud of the ‘good with your hands’ bit. That’s the part he remembered well. He wonders what his father would’ve thought of his handiwork now. The shed is quite large, so there’s plenty of space for the room. The walls don’t reach the roof, so it’s not soundproof. But Parker knows it doesn’t need to be. They want to hear what’s going on outside the walls.
Just beside the room, Parker has pushed together all the wooden crates – there’s almost enough – and flung a large tarpaulin over them. Pulled it tight and nailed it down. He’s left one end open to add more crates, when he finds some. Perhaps he could ask the woman who’s coming with biscuits. Stick Man is sitting in a corner, back against the wall. He hasn’t been able to do much. Still exhausted. All that way, with one good foot, the heavy load. And not one complaint.
Parker gives Paisley the broom to finish sweeping. There’s so much dust and dirt, it’s a never-ending job. He’d love some carpet over the concrete, or lino. That can come later. Paisley’s happy again, humming as she sweeps, dust billowing ahead of her. She lets it settle then sweeps it out the door. She’s good at repetitive jobs; she’ll keep going until Parker says it’s enough.
Stick Man pushes himself to his feet. Limps over to the odd-shaped bag and takes out the contents, placing them carefully on the stretched tarpaulin.
‘That’s not necessary yet, Stick,’ Parker says. ‘You keep resting.’
‘N-n-n-n-n no, is al-al-al-alright.’
Parker lets him get on with it. He feels he’s accomplished much on this first day. He can see the smaller pieces of something coming together into the larger picture. He’s done the shopping, seen the solicitor. ‘I’ve never owned a house. Are there things I have to do? What do I do?’ So the man had written him a list: read through papers and sign; see bank; sign some forms; change utilities into his name. (Utilities? He wondered about the word, but Mr Ward explained before he had to ask.)
‘Don’t hesitate to call me,’ he’d said. ‘We have a long association with your father here at Ward and Sons.’
Parker hadn’t gone to the bridge, and he didn’t walk past the grain store, or see if Mr Miller was still in the General Store. Some things looked very different. The chemist shop had big shiny windows filled with pretty bottles, coloured tubes and pictures of ladies with very white teeth and smooth hair. He remembered the chemist as a dark and cold place where he’d waited with his mother to collect her medicine. Though why they called it ‘medicine’ he never understood. It hadn’t worked, and she’d died anyway. Standing there looking in those shiny windows made him feel strange, like he was standing on a high bridge looking down, cars and trucks rushing past. He moved away, down the street, did the things he had to do. Seeing the rest of the town could wait.
He watches Paisley humming and sweeping, resting and looking behind her at the floor that should be clearer but isn’t somehow. He hears ‘Yoo-hoo!’ from outside in the driveway, and the neighbour, Dorothy, appears at the door, plate in hand. She’s wearing a dress with large red poppies all over it and a pair of red sandals. ‘Oh, there you are. I tried the front door but no answer. And look at you all working like Trojans here. And who are your friends, James?’
‘This is Stick Man, and this is Paisley.’
‘Stick Man! But what’s his real name?’ She looks to Parker with her brows wrinkled together, pushes her glasses back with one finger.
Parker shrugs. ‘Just Stick Man.’ He looks at Stick Man with eyebrows raised, but Stick shakes his head, turns away. Parker knows that means he doesn’t want a discussion. ‘Just Stick Man,’ Parker repeats.
‘I might just call you John. Can I call you John?’ But no one speaks, and Dorothy looks around the room. ‘What’s…what’s all this for?’ She gestures with the plate towards the covered crates.
Parker suddenly feels embarrassed. Their wondrous dreams and plans all out in the open, no longer just in his head. He looks at Stick Man, then Paisley, and they look back at him blankly. Parker scratches his head, looks at Dorothy and says, ‘Oh, don’t worry about that. You’ve brought some biscuits. Let’s go inside and have tea.’
Paisley starts sweeping again and Parker goes to her and takes the broom. ‘Just a cup of tea. We need a break,’ and he guides her through the door, rests the broom against the wall.
Inside, he sees the kitchen through the visitor’s eyes: dirty tablecloth from breakfast, dirty dishes, hole in the curtains, dust-covered bench tops. ‘We haven’t got around to a clean-up in here yet,’ he says, and they stand and look at the benches, the floor, the crowded sink.
Dorothy says, ‘That’s perfectly alright. Tell you what, why don’t I give you a hand?’ Runs her hands down the sides of her dress and pushes up the sleeves of her cardigan. ‘We’ll have a nice cup of tea in a clean kitchen,’ and she moves dishes around to run water into the sink.
Paisley stands, hands limp by her sides, her mouth a clamped straight line. She snatches a broom from beside the door, starts sweeping vigorously. Parker looks around for a task, something to clear away, but he doesn’t know yet where things will go. That’s why there’s a mess. He’s annoyed now; annoyed with Paisley, all that sweeping making dust rise up and settle on the dishes Dorothy has just washed. But he can’t say anything; he knows Paisley’s delicate outer shell is easily crushed. He finds a tea towel in a drawer and stands drying dishes while Stick Man puts them away in cupboards, any cupboard, so they’ll just have to open them all up next time to find a plate or saucepan. And Parker hasn’t got time now, with all these dishes to wipe, to tell him where they should go. His morning had started off so well. He’s annoyed with himself now for seeing all the sharp edges of the day. Wishes Dorothy and her biscuits would just go away. Then he looks at the plate on the now cleared table, little dots of chocolate pieces in the caramel-coloured biscuits, and his mouth waters.
In the light coming through the window, Dorothy could be his mother at the sink: Don’t eat all those biscuits, Jamie, come and help me here. He looks away, back to the biscuits.
Dorothy wipes the cloth around the sink, hangs it over the tap. ‘Now then,’ she says, looks around and whips the stained cloth off the table, opens drawers until she finds another cloth. ‘Oh goodness, I don’t think that goes in here.’ She holds up a bowl, puts it in a cupboard, then starts undoing Stick Man’s work, moving expertly, opening and closing cupboards and drawers until she finds the right one, her red sandals slapping about on the floor like flyswats. She finds Parker’s old board games in one cupboard – Snakes and Ladders, Ludo, Chinese Chequers – and he takes them from her to put in his room. Thinks: tonight they’ll celebrate with a game and perhaps a song from Paisley after dinner. Stick Man watches Dorothy’s quick movements from cupboard to cupboard, his head turning to follow her, face all puzzlement and surprise. And Paisley keeps sweeping, over and over, pushing the dust along in front of her, back and forth.
When they finally sit down to the tea and Dorothy peels cling wrap from the plate of biscuits, Parker is pleased again. Everything is in its place, even Paisley is smiling, eyes closed, one of Dorothy’s biscuits clamped between her teeth. ‘Nice,’ she says.
Dorothy doesn’t stay long and Parker is relieved. Too much of an effort to think of things to say, to make up for Stick’s silence, Paisley’s prattle. Parker is used to that. He thinks Dorothy probably isn’t. And when she is gone and the biscuits have all been eaten, crumbs picked up by Paisley’s tongue-moistened finger, Parker leans back and looks from one to the other. ‘Time to get back to it. We have much to do.’
They return to the shed and Paisley takes up the broom again. ‘No, no, leave that for now,’ Parker says. ‘Here, empty this.’ He taps a bag with his toe. ‘Hang them all up in the change room. The hangers are over there.’ Paisley drags the bag into the room and Parker soon hears the clatter of metal hangers and the humming la-la-la. Stick Man is busy with the plastic rods, pushing them together, easing them through the curtain fold. Parker takes the hammer and a nail, pushes a chair over to the wall and starts hammering the nail in. Paisley pokes her head out, looks up at him, nods and retreats back behind the wall.
‘Yoo-hoo!’ It’s Dorothy again. Parker frowns, unsure about all this popping in whenever she wants. ‘I meant to say…’ She stands in the doorway, hands on hips, looking up at Parker. ‘Goodness, do be careful, you could fall. Is that chair safe?’
‘Oh, don’t worry about me,’ Parker laughs, a part of him all warm and pleased by her concern. No one’s worried much about his welfare before. Apart from his mother, but that was so long ago. He jumps down from the chair as nimbly as he can, just to prove his capabilities.
‘Now, I meant to say before, you’ll all have to come over for a bite to eat sometime soon. Just a welcome meal. Maybe tomorrow evening? About six shall we say?’
Paisley has stopped rattling coathangers, and Stick Man is holding the curtain in one hand and looking at the rods, all joined together, in the other, as if he’s not sure what to do next.
‘Well, that’s very nice of you, Dorothy.’ Parker’s not sure they’re ready for a social occasion yet, but they have to make friends, new people who can help them with their plans. ‘Yes,’ he nods, looking at Stick Man, then the walls of the now quiet little room. ‘Yes, six. That would be nice.’
‘Right then,’ Dorothy turns to leave. ‘Goodness, I can’t wait to hear what all of this is for,’ she casts her arm about as she looks around the shed. ‘Bye bye then,’ and she’s gone.
Stick Man looks up at Parker, his mouth opens then closes again and he returns to his work. The rattling of coathangers and shaking out of clothes resumes from behind the wall. Parker doesn’t want them to be displeased with the idea of the new friend. He knows it will take time. This is a different way of living. And their trust grows slowly. It had taken such a long time for Paisley to even allow him to speak to her. She would turn away, wrap her arms around herself and pull her head away from him, and if there was a doorway she’d rush through it. But he kept it up. Could see her listening to him, turning slightly, dropping her arms, then facing him. And finally after weeks of this, she looked him in the eyes. Touch was another hurdle. He waited for her to touch him first. Just her fingers on his arm, the cool pressure, there in the cold stone basement, water drip-dripping down a moss-slimed wall. One hand over her swollen belly, the other resting on his arm. Stick Man’s trust was easier to gain, but he too kept his distance, watched Parker from afar and slipped away at first when Parker went after him. Later, Parker realised he was watching out for Paisley. That’s what Stick Man’s doing now. Parker looks at him frowning over his work, his wonky foot cocked out at a strange angle.
SOMETIME DURING THE night Parker wakes with a start and can’t remember where he is. He knows he’s not in the caravan. A streetlight is shining through the window and there are no streetlights to be seen from the caravan, the dark overhang of trees in the backyard blocking any light until sun-up. And the mattress is harder in the caravan, hard like a board. This mattress is soft and cloud-like, and when he turns over it’s like rolling up a hill and down the other side. That’s when he sees the dark bulk of the drawers, when he rolls over. And he remembers. One after the other, images scroll by as if on a film reel: the road, the friendly face of the truck driver, the bridge, his old room, the neighbour.
He lies still a while, staring up at the shadows of the peppercorn tree flickering on the ceiling, listening to Paisley snuffle and toss in her bed across the hall. The future stretches in front of him, vast and splendid. But there is some prickliness too; something jangling at the edges. Like a burr in a sock, rubbing and chafing quietly until you fully realise it’s there. He probes this disquiet, this sour curling at the edges of all that is good, until there’s a declaration of sorts – the meal with the neighbour, Dorothy. This is the time to share their plans. But uncertainty quivers, where before there had been only joy and eagerness. What is this new doubt? He probes some more. But each time something almost cracks open for him, he shies away. He continues like this, coming close then letting it slide away, until he is worn out and falls asleep again.
THE DINNER INVITATION hadn’t been mentioned again after Dorothy had left. Parker waits for Stick to bring it up. He knows Paisley won’t. But breakfast is a quiet affair, with everyone stiff and tired still from yesterday’s work. No one wants to move from the table, but Parker’s plan is to free the house of dust and dirt. Shake the mats, vacuum, wash and wipe. So he urges them, groaning and creaking like ancient trees, up and away from the table.
Parker’s never actually done a lot of cleaning, but he’s seen it in the movies, remembers his mother, his aunt, taking carpets out to the clothesline and beating at them with brooms. He wants to feel unburdened by the heavy darkness of the place, the dirt he knows is piled into corners, on window ledges, behind the fridge and oven. He wants someone else to appear and do it for them. Perhaps Dorothy; she was very good at the dishes and bench tops. But he can’t ask her. They’ll have to knuckle down and get it done themselves. He assigns them all a room, plus their own bedroom. Together they haul a large mat out of the lounge, a cumbersome thing, rolled up like an unco-operative body, lolling and flopping about between them. They unroll it and try hanging it on the line but it’s too awkward. He leaves Paisley sweeping and whacking at it. He puts a tea towel over her mouth and nose and ties it at the back so she won’t be breathing in the dust. She laughs and holds up her fingers, pistol style, fires and re-holsters her weapon. He leaves her chuckling to herself, stopping now and then to fire off a round at imagined foes, then back to sweeping and whacking the carpet.
Stick Man has the kitchen, which is the cleanest after Dorothy’s efforts yesterday. He’s to check the cupboards and learn where things go. Then wash the dishes and try to put them away in the right places.
Parker takes down the curtains and puts them in the bath, swishes them around with soap and watches the water turn brown. When he rinses them they’re almost cream again, and he lugs them outside, heavy and wet, dripping a trail of water through the kitchen till Stick complains. Parker slings the curtains over the clothes line, squeezing the water out. Paisley’s still belting the carpet with surprising strength. Parker stops her and they roll it up again, juggle and drag it inside and replace it in the lounge, where he shows her how to use the vacuum cleaner. But she doesn’t like the noise and rushes out of the room, hands to her ears. Parker gives her the smaller rugs to beat while he goes to work with the vacuum cleaner.
Later, when he inspects the others’ work, he announces the house is now clean. Windows and doors have been thrown wide, letting in the air and sun. They eat lunch in the kitchen, and Parker feels light and new. ‘Time to explore the town,’ he says, and Paisley claps her hands. Stick Man is happy to stay home, but Parker encourages him, ‘It’s not far, it’s a lovely day, come on,’ and Stick relents while Paisley rushes off to get her straw hat with flowers around the brim.
Outside, the street is quiet: a car crawls past, a dog crosses the street and stops to scratch an itch, and someone is bent over gardening, rasp of rake over soil. Paisley takes Parker’s arm, as she always does in new surroundings. Stick trails along behind, the soft drag of his foot punctuating their steps.
When they pass the man in the garden, he straightens up, adjusts his hat and leans on the rake. Parker nods and smiles and the man nods once, slowly, as he watches them pass. Paisley grips Parker’s arm and stops her quiet humming. When they reach the end of the street, Parker turns around and the man is still leaning on his rake staring after them. As they turn the corner a boy on a skateboard whizzes past, a blur of colour and pale matted hair. Parker can feel the breeze from his movement.
‘Watch it spazzos!’ the boy shouts over his shoulder as he glides away, one leg pumping for speed on the footpath.
Beside Parker, Paisley shudders and holds onto his arm, fingers digging in. ‘So fast!’ she says, and Parker pats her hand.
‘I-i-i-i-id…’ Stick begins, then gives up.
Cars idle past in the main street, people cross with shopping bags, others stand in groups chatting. Four girls sit on a bench facing the chemist shop, talking loudly, talking over the top of each other, laughing. One pushes another on the shoulder, ‘Bet ya wouldn’t.’
The girls stop as the three come closer. They glance at each other, and the one who would makes a sound deep in her throat and hunches forward, hand to her mouth. Another turns away, fingers pressed to her lips, convulsions of laughter following the three as they pass. Parker knows this is what happens when you go somewhere new. People stare or laugh or sometimes yell things. Until they get used to you. This is why you need to make new friends. He’ll remind the others of this later, when they have to go to Dorothy’s for a meal.
Paisley is humming to herself and looking about. She pulls on Parker’s arm suddenly and stops humming. She’s stopped in front of a clothing shop. There are baby clothes in the window: a little pink dress with a white collar, tiny pink-and-mauve shoes, socks with lace. Parker slips a hand up to her shoulder and gently presses, turning her away, coaxing her forward. She turns and starts walking. Her hand has slipped from Parker’s arm and he gently takes it and places it back.
They walk the length of the street, down to the bridge, where Parker stands looking. The whole bridge has been replaced. It is not the old rickety, clunky wooden bridge. There is no corner where he can imagine his smaller self hanging, shirt flapping. He’s pleased with this change but wonders all the same what happened to the Coxon brothers. Will he see them? Has he already passed them in the street and been unaware of it? Many people they passed looked at him. Some smiled, but most just stared for a bit then looked away. None looked like the Coxons though. And no one recognised him.
He turns away from the bridge and they cross the road, walk down Little Street to the hall. He wants to show them: proper seats, a proper stage, a ticket-box window. The hall is locked. Parker peers through the window. ‘In here,’ he says. ‘Look, Paisley, look at the stage.’ She clasps her hands in front of her, standing on tiptoes to see in the window. ‘Soon,’ says Parker, ‘we’ll have a few practice runs in the shed first.’
They turn away and head back to Main Street. ‘A proper stage and all,’ Paisley says. ‘And curtain!’ She skips ahead, holding onto her hat.
The General Store is now a shiny new supermarket, cash registers ringing and shopping trolleys whirring or creaking along aisles. Parker hasn’t brought any money. He just wants to look, try to imagine where things had once been: the dark aisle full of nails and hammers and strange-shaped metal bits, the long bench Mr Miller would stand behind in his grey coat, calling out, ‘Need some help there?’ But nothing looks the same. Perhaps they pulled down the whole building, rebuilt it. He’ll ask Dorothy. Maybe ask about the Coxon brothers too – let her know they’re not friends, just a name he remembers.
Paisley points out biscuits, ice-cream, bright containers of yoghurts, soft drinks and jams. Her head spins about as they walk the aisles and she wants everything she sees, picking up the brightest packages or containers and hugging them. An announcement comes over the loudspeaker: ‘Carolyn section seven, Carolyn section seven.’
Paisley stops and listens. ‘Carolyn? I know Carolyn.’
Parker nods. ‘But this will be a different Carolyn,’ he says, remembering the woman from the soup van, the one who always made sure Paisley had seconds whether she’d asked or not. Parker takes each item from Paisley, placing them back on the shelf.
A voice comes from behind them. ‘Can I help you with anything?’
‘We’re just looking,’ Parker smiles at her. The woman is wearing a name badge. Parker thinks it could be Carolyn, but it’s partly covered by her hair. The woman straightens the bottle of cordial he’s just replaced on the shelf. He says, ‘Thank you,’ and they move on.
The woman appears in the next aisle too, rearranging and straightening things. She glances up as they pass. Stick Man taps Parker on the shoulder, points outside. ‘W-w-w-we g-go?’ Parker nods. He’ll walk past the grain store later, by himself. Just to look. He wants to be certain that it too has changed. That the boy with the ferrety face and rifle has grown up and moved away. That there is something else shiny and new and safe there now.
HE KNOWS THIS is a better place. Tells himself again and again. But he’s tired, and his foot aches. All the time now it aches and throbs. He wishes he could say this is a small price to pay. He knows this, in his head. But in the place where he is always honest with himself, it is not okay. It hurts, and it is becoming harder to pretend it doesn’t. Here in this new place he is with the only people he trusts. Here, he has a bed, a roof, warmth, food. And he has come from a place that provided none of these. Sometimes having to sleep in the graveyard, on a tomb, just to avoid the thugs who hunted and stalked together and only picked on the old, the drunk, the crazy or those who couldn’t run. No one came to the graveyard at night. And if they did, he only had to rise up from the stone slab and they’d be gone. Yes, his sore foot should be a very small price to pay. Then why is he so full of doubt?
It’s possible Parker’s grand dream may never be achieved here in his old town. The cruel people are everywhere, not just in your childhood or in a big city. They can shoot past you on a skateboard, they can hide behind lovely young faces. But Stick Man knows them for what they are. He so wants the dream to work out for Paisley, but he has doubts that he did not have when they left the city, when it was all unlived. Is it the woman, the neighbour who brought the biscuits? She has been helpful, and she seems to like Parker. And yet, there is something that gnaws at him. Is it because she wanted to give him a name? John, indeed! He is Stick Man. He has always been Stick Man. Though for a time he was Stick Boy. He’s not sure exactly when he grew out of being Stick Boy into Stick Man. But he still remembers the teacher who’d first called him Stick Boy – ‘St-st Stick Boy’ – and the name stuck. Shunted from one foster home to the next, he ended up being called Stick Boy, Stanislav being too difficult for most people. And his speech problems meant that even he could never say his name clearly anyway. But he’s grown fond of Stick Man – had a stick insect as a pet once. So, John would not do. No, you cannot call me John. Only if I can call you Maisie, or Gladys, or… My name is Stick Man.
AS IF BY some silent prompt, they all move in the same direction – out to the shed. Perhaps walking through the town has made them remember what it is they want to do here. Perhaps it was the hall, seeing all the seats, the velvet curtains, Paisley’s eyes filling with the dreams in her head. But there is still much to be done.
Nothing is written down. To have it in print, which Paisley and Stick Man can’t read anyway, would apply a sort of tourniquet, stemming the flow of their work. There is no script. But they’ll know what comes next. They always do.
First, the practicalities. The curtains must be hung, the chairs arranged, costume changes set out. Paisley rattles through coathangers, trying to find something pleasing, the brighter the better, thinks Parker. Stick Man is assembling the curtain stand, his own design, he doesn’t like anyone to help. Parker marvels at his cleverness; thinks Stick Man could’ve been someone, given another life, different chances. For himself, Parker thinks he’s always made the most of small chances he’s been given, that he couldn’t have made much more of himself even with different chances. But Stick – well, life never really helped him, so he had to help himself. And Paisley, she had everything thrown at her, then more. But Stick is clever, thinks quick, does all the things Parker knows he’s useless at himself. We’re a good team, he thinks. Then he says it out loud, and realises he’s not actually doing anything himself. The stage. That’s his job. He’s forgotten to get more crates so he pushes the ones he has together again, readjusts the canvas, pulls it tight and nails it into place. Walks over and around the space to be sure it’s safe, no cracks or dips or weak points to trip or stumble over.
Stick has the self-standing device ready; he’s pushed the tubes up and outward, slipped the pegs into place to hold them up. The tripod legs are splayed out and stable. It’s lightweight though, and they must be careful moving around and through the curtains. Parker helps him attach the curtain ends. The only thing he’s disappointed in is that each curtain has to be opened by hand, very slowly, so it doesn’t all topple over. Stick’s clever enough, he ought to be able to figure out a way to make it more of a da-da-da-dah moment as the curtains glide open. He’ll have a chat to him later, after the first performance. After they see how it all goes. No use worrying him with it now. If they use the hall, they won’t need the curtain anyway.
‘What am I singing? Parker, what will I sing?’ Paisley calls from the change room.
‘You’ll know when we start, Paise. You always know,’ Parker says.
Paisley comes out wearing a red dress with stiff ruffles around the neck, a garland of yellow flowers and her straw hat. She stands on the stage, hands out by her sides and lifts her head.
‘Wait, wait. I’ll close the curtains, then I’ll open them, and you come out,’ Parker rushes over to each curtain, pulling them closed, then back again to open them with as much flourish as possible, without sending the whole structure toppling over. And she sings.
Paisley’s voice floats up and glides about in the closed confines of the shed. It dips and soars like some splendid bird. She flicks at her garland, at the red ruffles, and twirls about, the fabric of her dress rustling and swishing. She is radiant. She is sunlight itself. Parker is mesmerised, as always.
When she finishes, she claps her hands making little jumps on the spot. ‘Oh, it’ll be wonderful,’ she says.
‘Yes, it will. Not too much jumping on the stage though, Paise.’ Parker leans down and pushes at the crates, testing for movement. But it all feels sturdy enough.
When Stick Man stands up and goes into the change room, Parker knows it has begun, his favourite time. Rehearsal.
IN THE END they needed little persuading. Whatever opposition Paisley and Stick had to dinner at Dorothy’s disappeared after rehearsal. They were a team, and teams stick together. Paisley changed her dress. Stick Man changed his windcheater, and Parker spent some time in the bathroom slicking his hair back, combing it forward, then back again until he decided slicked back was more dressy. More in keeping with a dinner engagement. When Paisley and Stick laughed as he came into the kitchen, he didn’t mind because he felt just fine.
Before he closes the front gate, Parker dashes back to pick a small bouquet of flowers. There isn’t much to choose from, so he has to add a couple from Dorothy’s own garden, but he doesn’t think she’ll mind – they are very small.
Dorothy opens the door, resplendent in a floral dress and green glass earrings. Or maybe they’re not glass, maybe they’re a family heirloom, emeralds or some such. Whatever they are they look very nice, Parker thinks, and hands her the bunch of flowers.
‘Oh, that’s…very kind of you.’ She takes the flowers from him and closes the door behind them.
At the dinner table Stick is quiet, as usual. Dorothy tries to bring him into the conversation but he resists. Parker wishes he’d make an effort. Dorothy is trying very hard, and the meal is excellent. And she only calls him John once. Parker knows Stick finds it hard, what with the stutter and all, but he could just try to be polite. Paisley on the other hand is very chatty, not to anyone in particular. Parker worries that Dorothy may not be appreciating her constant observations: ‘Look at that picture, the lady has a very long face, but her hat is nice, and why isn’t she smiling? Maybe she had a very bad day. Maybe…maybe her cat ran away, or someone took all her things, or, or maybe,’ and this in a whisper, ‘maybe someone went away forever…’
The trick is to keep her eating, refill her plate; she doesn’t speak with her mouth full. Parker takes a generous spoonful of the delicious potato dish and deposits it on Paisley’s plate. Paisley turns immediately to the plate and they don’t hear from her for some time. Parker is pleased with the little conspiratorial smile he receives from Dorothy, and he smiles back, looks away and catches Stick’s eye. Stick doesn’t smile; he turns back to his plate, shovels another forkful of beans and gravy into his mouth. Make an effort, Stick, thinks Parker. Remember what we spoke about. We need to make new friends. New friends means an audience, it means people get used to us.
‘Now, please tell me,’ Dorothy says, wiping her mouth with the serviette and placing her hands neatly in her lap. ‘What’s with all the goings-on in the shed? You really have me intrigued. Come on now, you must tell me,’ and she lifts her hands to the table, leaning forward.
‘Well,’ Parker begins.
‘I’m going to sing.’ Paisley has finished her food and her fork clatters to the plate as she lifts her hands dramatically and starts to rise from her chair.
‘Well, yes.’ Parker puts his hand on Paisley’s wrist and presses gently. She sits back quickly, her lips pressed together. ‘We have a…’ Parker wants to blurt it out, tell her how their dream looks and how much she’ll love it and want the rest of the town to see it too. We’re very good, he wants to say, but here in Dorothy’s house with her looking at him so intently, her green earrings dancing across the table in the light, he’s suddenly unsure again.
‘Oh, go on Parker,’ Paisley says, pulling on his arm, and he continues.
‘We do…we have a performance that we’d like to show you, show everyone.’
Dorothy snaps her head back. ‘Performance?’ She pushes her glasses up with one finger. ‘What sort of performance?’
‘Oh, we have many different ones, but if I say what it is, it would…well it would spoil it wouldn’t it.’
‘Do you mean like…a play, like Shakespeare or something? Or,’ she looks at Paisley, ‘or is it a singing performance?’
‘Singing!’ Paisley says and clears her throat, but Parker doesn’t want a revelation of her voice, not just yet.
‘Not just singing,’ he says, ‘lots of things,’ his hands moving around, shaping the hugeness of what it is. ‘We just want to share it with everyone. Tomorrow night.’ Parker points in the direction of where he thinks is the shed. ‘Will you come? Will you bring others?’
‘Oh, well, I’ll…I’ll have to come and have a look won’t I? And this performance, does it cost much?’
‘Oh no, it’s free for the first one.’
Dorothy nods. ‘Right. Then I will be there. And I’ll see who else I can drum up for your audience. I’m intrigued. I just…I can’t imagine…well, I’ll see tomorrow, won’t I?’ She starts gathering plates and cutlery together. ‘Dessert then?’
A knock on the door has Paisley, Stick and Parker all stop, their eyes darting about from one to the other like small birds sounding the alarm. It’s one thing to be at a new friend’s place, but quite another to have a stranger drop in unannounced.
Dorothy comes out from the kitchen, wiping her hands on a tea towel. ‘Well, I wonder who that can be?’
They hear some talking in lowered tones, a man’s voice and then Dorothy’s, louder. ‘No, no of course not. Come in, you’re just in time for dessert, it’s apple strudel,’ and then the footsteps, the light slap-slap of Dorothy’s sandals and the man’s heavier tread.
They both stop in the doorway and Dorothy says, ‘Have a seat, Mick. Now, this is James, Paisley and…’ she stops and looks at Parker, her head tilted to one side, ‘Um, Stick…eh, Man. This is Mick, he lives a few houses up. Now, I’ll just get dessert. Cream for all?’
When she leaves the room they sit quietly, glancing at each other, until the man, Mick, says, ‘So, Dorothy tells me you’re living next door now.’ Parker nods. ‘Knew your father.’ The man looks at Parker over his glasses. ‘Not well though. And you’d gone to the city by the time I arrived.’
Parker thinks he might’ve seen the man before. Perhaps it was this morning, in the street, the man in his garden.
‘Do you know the Coxon brothers?’ Parker suddenly remembers his need to know if they are still around town. He imagines other small children hanging under the bridge, or tied up in toilet cubicles.
‘The Coxons, eh?’ Mick leans back, crosses his arms. ‘Wonder why you asked about them,’ he laughs, a sort of hrumpf, like when you can’t be bothered doing a real laugh. ‘One of them’s still around, Bernie. He’s in the bank, manager now. Ran for mayor last year. Didn’t get in but got pretty close. The other one,’ he looks intently at Parker with one eyebrow raised, ‘he’s gone to his maker. Car crash. Trying to outrun the cops.’
Parker is confused. Does this mean he’s in jail, and may get out at any time? What is his maker? Beside him, Stick Man taps his arm. ‘D-d-d-d-dead.’
‘Oh, right, like gone to God, I know that one.’ He has trouble remembering their names. They were always just the Coxon brothers to him, and to his mother if he spoke about them, though that was rarely. And he never spoke of them to his father, who he knew would say, ‘Be a man, face up to them.’ But now that he thinks about the brothers, together, as a unit of torture, he remembers there was always one of them with the ideas and the other would always follow. One would always be up close in Parker’s face, the other would never look at him. At the time Parker took it as further insult – a sort of you’re not even worth looking at, worm. But maybe that wasn’t quite right.
‘Is it the Commonwealth Bank he’s a manager of?’ he asks.
‘I was there yesterday. I might’ve seen him.’
‘Doubt whether you’d recognise him. He’s got no hair, big fat gut, wears a pair of funny little wire glasses.’
Parker doesn’t think he saw anyone who looked like that. He spoke to two people and they had all their hair and weren’t fat. One of them was a woman.
When Dorothy returns with a tray of dessert bowls, she says, ‘You’ll never guess what they’re doing, in the shed, Mick. Tomorrow night.’ But she doesn’t wait for him to guess. ‘They’re putting on a bit of a performance. And they’re not charging a cent. So, will you be there, Mick?’
He raises an eyebrow. ‘Performance?’
‘Yes, a bit of a variety show by the sounds of things, and we’ll have front-row seats. What time?’ She turns to Parker.
Parker hasn’t thought of a time; he shakes his head, plucks a time. ‘Seven o’clock?’
‘Right then,’ Mick nods, looking at Dorothy, then to Parker, back to Dorothy. ‘No worries. I’ll be there. With bells on,’ he adds, and they both laugh. Parker isn’t sure what he means, but laughs all the same just to be polite.
The apple dessert is delicious and Parker would love more but Dorothy doesn’t offer. Perhaps it’s all gone. He tries to recapture the excitement and mood of when they’d finished rehearsal. But something is missing, doesn’t feel quite right. Like they’re not ready, they don’t know what they’re doing. Yet that’s never worried him before. That’s part of it, that’s just what they do, and it all comes together. Everyone’s loved it before; they’ve fallen about laughing at Stick’s antics, been mesmerised by Paisley’s voice and, as the storyteller, Parker’s kept it all together with his voice made for radio, as he’d often been told. It will pass, this uncertainty. It’s just nerves, and he has that fizzy, shaken-lemonade feeling again. He thinks it’s probably a good thing he hadn’t been offered more dessert; he might be sick if he ate anything else.
Dorothy and Mick are talking about people and things Parker knows nothing about. Stick Man is yawning and Paisley is pretending she has more dessert, scooping the spoon into the empty bowl and up to her mouth. Mick looks across at her then back to Dorothy. Dorothy still doesn’t offer more dessert, so it really must be all gone. Paisley starts humming, tapping the spoon against her teeth, humming louder, until Dorothy turns to her and says, ‘I hope that’s not part of tomorrow night’s performance, dear.’ Paisley stops and puts the spoon down, presses her lips together and turns away. Under the table her foot strikes the floor loudly. Beside him, Stick Man taps his arm, nods towards Paisley and cocks his head. Parker gets the message and pushes back his chair. ‘Thank you, but we’ll go now. We’re tired. A very nice meal.’
‘You’re welcome. Now, we’ll be there tomorrow night.’ She walks behind them to the door. ‘Goodnight,’ she calls when they reach the gate. Parker turns and lifts his hand.
Back in the house he’s not sure if it’s been a successful dinner with a new friend or one that has made him feel uncomfortable about everything. He tries to talk to Stick Man. ‘Well, that was very nice,’ he says, but Stick is tired and just nods, then says, ‘N-n-n-nice f-f-food,’ and closes his door. Paisley has Blue Bear in her arms and is rocking back and forth on her toes and heels. She hums to the bear with her lips on its ear and goes into the bathroom. Parker waits till Paisley is back in her room, door closed, before he turns off his lamp and lies in the muted light from the street. His eyes close in spite of his brain whirring and spinning in circles of disquiet.
SHE’S MEAN AND she has funny red glasses and she won’t put more apples and cream in the bowl. She laughs and talks with the old man, and Parker likes her.
Paisley doesn’t like her. Doesn’t want to go to her place anymore, even if she has apples and cream. She’s coming to watch their performance, and she’s sitting in the front row. And Paisley will stand in front of her and sing loud and long and no one can tell her to stop. Only Parker. And Parker won’t because he likes her singing. He likes it when she sings loud and big.
Paisley turns on her side, pulls up the blankets and holds Blue Bear to her mouth. Hums a goodnight song. She remembers the goodnight song from another time, and right behind it is the big hurt. But she thinks she can keep it away now because tomorrow she will be singing. In her red dress and yellow flowers she will be beautiful. They will all tell her she’s beautiful and has a lovely voice and she will be like a princess. Then Parker will like her more than the mean lady. Mean lady can’t sing, and if she can, she can’t sing as good as Paisley.
She wants tomorrow to be here. Now. Hums the goodnight song louder, but has to stop and hold her breath because in her arms what was warm is now cold and hard and won’t ever be warm again and Parker takes her away and puts her in the ground and she won’t grow again. And the big hurt punches Paisley in the chest and she grips onto Blue Bear and thinks of the moon outside, high in the sky. Always there, no matter what.
Blue Bear’s face is wet and she thinks he’s been crying and she holds and strokes his furry head. ‘It’s alright. It’s alright. I’m singing tomorrow. I’ll sing for you.’
AS TIME MOVES closer to performance hour, Parker’s mood intensifies. This is it, this is the time for everything they’ve thought about, everything they’ve planned, it all happens, soon. He remembers how it feels to be cheered, slapped on the back, admired. All the hidden, quiet parts of him stretching and punching their way out. This time though, it won’t just be Stick and Paisley’s friends, not just those who happened to be there at the time. This is a proper performance. He breathes in, feeling his chest expand. He’s proud of what they’ve done. Looks around the shed, rearranges a couple of chairs not level in the row. Dorothy didn’t say how many would be coming, but she did say she’d found an audience for them and they’d all be there at 7 pm. It’s now six.
He’s encouraged Stick and Paisley to remember the bits from rehearsal that had worked well. ‘Remember the bit where Stick Man was a chicken. Remember? That was funny. How’d we do that?’ But no one could remember what had led to Stick dragging himself about the stage flapping his bent-arm wings and exaggerating his limp, while Parker made the chicken calls – ‘Br-arrk, br-aaaarrk!’ – from behind the curtain. They’d all enjoyed it so much they’d stopped to have a good long laugh. Even Stick, who was normally a bit more serious about things, and generally tried to avoid doing anything too comical. In the end Parker stopped worrying about what had led to the chicken bit and decided if it fitted again it would just happen.
In Parker’s plan, the shed would have a bench and window where tickets would be sold, and lollies and drinks. But not for the first night. He’d like cushions on the chairs too; they look a bit uncomfortable, plastic and straight backed. Not at all like the chairs in the hall. He jumps ahead in his mind to 7 pm, sees the audience seated, the curtains opening, eyes focused on him. He feels himself straighten and grow, rises up on his toes, clears his throat. He looks at the time although he already knows it’s six. 6.05 pm now. They should eat something, he’s a bit fizzy in the stomach at the thought of all their plans coming together finally. He imagines the one Coxon brother who’s still alive, sitting in the audience. What would he think now? Would he come up to him after, slap him on the back and say: ‘Well done, Parker, you’re a star.’ Or would he go to work the next day and find Parker’s account and take all the money out and put it in his own? Parker wonders if he’ll have to change banks now.
He’s staring into space, wondering how to go about this bank-changing business, or whether it might not be necessary after all, when he realises Paisley is standing beside him. ‘Excuse me, Parker,’ she says, and he steps back. She reaches forward and places the bear she has in her arms on a chair in the front row.
‘Paise, someone will need that chair, you might have to move him.’
‘No, it’s Blue Bear’s seat, look, there’s so many: one, two, three, four, five…so many.’
He doesn’t want to argue with her, or spoil her mood just before the performance, but there are only eight chairs set out, plus a couple of rickety canvas ones leaning against the wall. But he’ll leave it for now. Wait until they see how many are coming. Paisley steps up onto the stage and raises her arms, but not her voice, looks at Parker, and he smiles. ‘See, no singing yet.’ She drops her arms then claps her hands together. ‘Blue Bear can’t wait.’ Parker looks at the bear sitting in the front row with its little limbs stuck straight out, button eyes dead ahead, a look, perhaps, of anticipation on its face.
‘Let’s go and eat something.’ Parker takes Paisley’s arm. ‘Before people get here.’ Paisley drifts her fingers over Blue Bear’s head and allows Parker to guide her through the chairs and out of the shed.
THE KNOCK ON the door brings them to their feet with a clatter of cutlery and plates on the table. Are they early? Parker looks at the time, and it’s exactly 7 pm. The audience are here. Or perhaps it’s just Dorothy.
When he opens the door he sees Dorothy, but there are many people behind her, all craning their necks to see in and over Parker’s head. Dorothy says, ‘Hello, James, would you like us to go straight to the shed?’ She points towards the driveway.
‘Oh, yes, that’s a good idea. I’ll meet you there.’ He closes the door, runs down the hallway. ‘Come on. Get ready, they’re here and, oh, there’s lots of them.’ Paisley jumps in the air, Stick nods and they head out to the shed.
Parker can hear the chatter and footsteps as he rushes out the back door. He must get to the shed before them, welcome them as they arrive. He stumbles on the step near the shed and cannons into the door, making a dull thud. But he’s there before them. Reaches for his hat and places it on his head just as Dorothy appears. ‘Welcome to our performance,’ he says, bowing and then ushering them in.
‘Why thank you, James.’ Dorothy is wearing her dress with big red flowers and a white cardigan over her shoulders. He hopes it won’t be too cold in the shed. He’s not cold himself with all the excitement, but everyone has jackets or jumpers with them, perhaps expecting some early autumn chilliness. They enter in single file. Each person receives a ‘welcome’ from Parker. Mick is there and goes to the front to sit beside Dorothy. He flings Blue Bear from the chair to the floor and takes a seat. Paisley has gone into the change room, but Parker sees Stick Man pick up the bear, look around, then place it on an upturned pot in front of the chairs. He goes into the change room and comes back with a piece of gold cloth that he puts over the pot before replacing the bear so it reclines on gold brocade. Like a king, thinks Parker, and nods to himself.
Although it had seemed to be a lot of people on the front veranda behind Dorothy, there are still two chairs not taken. Parker waits a while in case of latecomers. Looks at his watch and decides it’s time, they will have to miss out. He closes the door, removes his welcome hat, puts the MC hat on and walks onto the stage. All eyes are on him as he bows to the audience, hands clasped. The shuffles, whispers and squeaks of plastic chairs die down, and silence falls. The kind of silence Parker has lived out in his dreams for some time. He wants to breathe it in first. But when he hears the fidgeting and whispers of fabric shifting over chairs again, he begins.
‘You have all arrived at the right place, at the right time.’ His voice is lowered to a weighty stillness. He takes this moment to look around at the audience. Strangers, apart from Dorothy and Mick. They lean forward, some with heads tilted to see past the head of someone in front. They are mostly women, only two men, including Mick. Two women seated behind Dorothy and Mick have their heads together, one with her hand up to her mouth in a guarded whisper. Parker can’t hear, of course, but he imagines they are words of anticipation. The woman takes her hand away and straightens in her chair, her gaze lingering on Parker for a moment. Just long enough for a feeling of greatness to swell in his chest. He lifts his head and looks away. When he glances back both women’s heads are bent forward slightly, and their hands cover their mouths.
Parker hears behind him the sound he’s been waiting for – the light steps of Paisley. She’s ready. ‘Miss Paisley,’ he announces, turning and bowing, reaching for one side of the curtain. Stick has started opening the other and together they draw back the curtains, a little jerkily as the stands wobble, then steady and wobble again, but ultimately hold firm.
Paisley has her head down, hands held in front of her. The audience makes little sounds of surprise, some titters of what could be laughter or wonder, Parker isn’t sure. His eyes are on Paisley. And when the curtain is completely open, her hands unclasp and her arms lift until they are held out from her body crucifix style. She raises her head and begins. Low and soft at first with eyes closed, becoming louder as her eyes open. Above the stiff red ruffles of her dress her throat ripples with the effort. Then, as if she suddenly remembers, she launches into ‘Summertime’, where, she sings, the living is ‘eea-sy’. The audience is a small moving sea of bodies and heads turning, nodding, murmuring. And Paisley continues, looking out and over their heads. She doesn’t look down to see Blue Bear regal on his throne of gold. At times she stops in the middle of a line and without skipping a beat, she hums. Parker knows this is when she has forgotten the words, but the audience don’t seem to notice, their heads swaying in time, eyes focused on Paisley.
When she reaches the end Parker can see she’s not sure that it is the end, and what should she do next. She repeats the last line a few times, rising to a shrill note that bounces off the shed walls. The audience are stunned by this unexpected finale. The two women Parker had noticed earlier turn to each other and one pulls a face like she has just seen a spider. Mick leans into Dorothy’s shoulder, his hand on her arm, and he says something that makes Dorothy laugh. The only other man in the audience puts his hand to his chin and rubs it with one finger, his eyebrows bunched together tight. The magic of the rise and fall of her voice has been broken.
Paisley looks flustered by the rustling and whispers in front of her. She breaks off, looks down and sees Blue Bear. But before Parker can tell whether she’s pleased or upset with Bear’s new seat, Stick makes his way down, scoops up Bear, the gold cloth and the pot, and places them on the stage. He kneels beside the bear, takes both outstretched paws and claps them together, looks at the audience, claps the bear’s paws again, until they catch on and there’s a smattering of claps around the shed. Parker watches their heads turning, their eyebrows rising then pulling together, but mostly he watches Dorothy. She brings her hands together slowly and firmly, four times, catches Parker’s eye – the corners of her mouth lift, then she turns away again. Parker glances at Paisley, who is looking to him for reassurance, her lips trembling, and he calls, ‘Bravo, bravo,’ and tosses a plastic flower from behind the curtain. The flower hits Paisley’s arm and she bends to pick it up. She’s back in control now, bowing to the audience, hands pressed together, then she dashes off to the change room for the next costume.
Stick Man is wearing his special black jumper with the roll neck. He lurches to his feet and mimes himself into a small box. Parker announces, ‘The amazing Stick Man.’ They’ve forgotten to shut the curtain after Paisley but he thinks the transition has worked out okay. Stick is breaking out of the box now as if it’s made of cardboard and he’s folding the edges back, stepping as high as his gammy foot will allow, then the cardboard box becomes a train as he picks each piece up and assembles the sides, miming his way around the carriage, the engine, shovelling coal and stoking up the fires before taking control and driving the train in circles around the stage, whistle blowing. The audience follows Stick Man’s movements, some with their chins resting on their knuckles, others with heads tilted away as if listening for a distant voice.
Paisley’s head appears around the door of the change room, then the rest of her body clad in a lime-green tutu and striped socks. The train stops outside the door and Paisley jumps aboard. She starts to sing fragments of any song with a train reference: ‘Chattanooga Choo Choo’, ‘Marrakesh Express’, ‘This Train is Bound for Glory’. She knows the line with the titles only and it all comes out a bit of a jumble. Especially when she launches into ‘Proud Mary’, and the ‘big wheels turning’ are those of a train to her, but Parker knows it’s a steamboat. He can see Stick is tiring, dragging himself around in circles. He stops, guides Paisley off the train with one arm scooping out and around, and he’s in the garden, watering, picking flowers to put in Paisley’s hair, alarmed when a bird swoops him, shooing a dog out and locking the gate, settling Paisley down at a table and chair with a tray of tea and cakes.
These are old routines of Stick’s; Parker’s seen them countless times. But he’s never bored. One thing leads to another, then another, and the audience never know what will come next. But Stick hasn’t heard the laughs and hoots of glee that previous audiences have given. Parker watches Dorothy; she breathes in and shifts around on the chair then her shoulders drop. Parker thinks he can hear her outward breath, a sigh, as Mick turns to her and raises his eyebrows and dips his head. Dorothy pats his arm and leans towards him, her lips moving in a whisper. The woman behind Dorothy leans forward and speaks into Dorothy’s ear. Dorothy half turns and nods. Parker wants the audience to be rocking with laughter in their seats, tapping their friends, pointing, clapping Stick’s movements, so clever and convincing. But there is no rocking laughter, just a steady sea of faces, and Parker feels unsteady for a moment, as if he is straining to see into the distance or around a corner. He looks at Dorothy again, her head bent towards Mick, his mouth to her ear, and she pulls back with a laugh that Parker can’t hear but can imagine. She pushes her glasses up with one finger and her eyes catch Parker’s, briefly, and glance away. Stick Man is doing his best work, he’s even thrown in a little of the chicken routine, flapping about the stage. Paisley turns a cartwheel, then another, her striped socks cutting an arc through the air. She bobs up and into a pirouette, lifting her arms in a ballerina pose, spinning, jumping, turning. Parker’s never seen the ballet, but he thinks Paisley would’ve made a perfect ballerina. She slides into an almost-splits, drops to her bottom and uses her hands to get to her feet again, a little inelegantly. Parker thinks perhaps she’s stretched her legs too far, as she walks off, one hand grabbing at her inner thigh. He is relieved when he hears the rattle of clothes on the hangers from the change room. She’s okay and making another costume change. Parker takes one side of the curtain and Stick the other and together they pull them closed. Parker walks out as the audience are turning to each other. He can hear mutters of, ‘Is it over?’ He breathes in deeply and begins, bringing the audience back.
‘To die, to sleep. To sleep, perchance to dream – ay, there’s the rub, for in that sleep of death what dreams may come when we have shuffled off this mortal coil…’ Parker looks over their heads – he doesn’t want to forget his lines. This is the first time he’s ever spoken them in front of an audience, a real audience.
Behind him one curtain opens in fits and starts. Paisley comes across to stand beside him. She’s wearing a high-waisted red velvet dress, the striped socks. She has a flower behind one ear and her straw hat in her hand.
‘…that makes calamity of so long life.’ Parker finishes and Paisley puts the straw hat on his head. He can feel it sitting up high, his head too big for it, and he wishes Paise hadn’t done that. It takes away from the seriousness of his words. But he can’t take it off, not now that she’s walking around him, building up to a song. He doesn’t know what the song will be, but he hopes there’s a part in it that will let him take the hat from his too-large head and hold it in his hand or gesture with it dramatically. He’s more than a little alarmed when she begins to clap, walking around him, bobbing her head in time to her hands. ‘We clap, we clap, we clap,’ she sings, ‘Da-da-da da-da-da da-dah.’
He had tried to ready himself for a hat song, but he hadn’t reckoned on the Mexican Hat Dance. Paisley stretches out her hands to him, he takes them and they tap their heels and link arms and swing about. Parker loses the hat with all the swinging and jumping. He hears some in the audience laugh, tries to make the most of it and pats his head as if looking for his hat. He’s relieved to be rid of it, but wishes it could’ve been done in a less comical way. Especially after he’d delivered his lines in such a dignified and strong voice, no stops, no words lost or stumbled over. When he finished there was that small silence where he imagined them stunned and impressed, and was about to look into their faces when Paisley had popped the hat on his head and the time for applause was lost.
Parker teeters for a moment as if he is on a ledge. He presses on his toes, steadies. Thinks it must be all that swinging around in the Hat Dance. And again he wishes Paisley had left him on stage after his speech, just a moment alone, he and the audience.
Paisley turns some more cartwheels, no more splits though, picks up Bear and waltzes about with him stretched out in her arms. Stick Man is a tree blowing in a mighty wind, then a dog cocking his leg on the tree, then the person walking the dog – dragged along, pulled back and forth. He starts to repeat some earlier mimes – locked in a box, picking a flower, eating ice-cream. He moves towards Parker, offers him the ice-cream cone as he says, ‘T-t-t-ti-time?’ Parker looks at Paisley and sees that she’s also run out of steam, swaying on the spot and humming into the bear’s ear. The audience shuffle their feet and shift on their hard chairs. Stretch their necks and straighten their spines. Mick flexes his shoulders, turns to Dorothy with a grimace and blows his breath out with puffed cheeks. Parker starts to feel their discomfort. He wishes he’d put some cushions on the plastic chairs.
Parker retrieves his MC hat, places it carefully on his head and bows to the audience. ‘Thank you, thank you for coming, to this our first performance. You have been a very nice audience, and we hope you come again.’ There’s a pattering of claps like a light shower of rain on the roof. Stick Man, Paisley and Parker bow and step backwards. Stick and Parker close the curtains, one of the stands teetering but holding firm. From behind the curtains they wait – will there be more clapping? An encore? Stick is already taking off his black jumper, Paisley is waiting, her ear tuned to beyond the curtain. But all they hear is the shuffle of feet, the scrape of chairs, muttered conversations, then Dorothy’s voice: ‘James, we’ll be off now, thank you for that. We’ll let you clean up, or…whatever you need to do now.’
Parker puts his head through the gap in the curtains, but already she has turned away and is moving to the door. She pulls her cardigan from her shoulders and pushes her arms through the sleeves. Parker hears the footsteps down the driveway, voices high and light, laughter and Dorothy’s voice, ‘Tea anyone?’, and then the shed is silent again, just the echo of Paisley’s voice and Stick Man’s shuffling tread.
It’s all over then, Parker thinks. And he’s not entirely sure what to make of it.
HE WISHES HIS cursed tongue would work properly. Wishes he could tell Parker exactly what he thinks, using all the words he needs, not just isolated, broken words. He’s been a mime for as long as he remembers. But it wasn’t always for others’ entertainment. It was Parker who’d encouraged him to use it as a way to entertain, to amaze and amuse.
Stick Man doubts whether the audience tonight were amazed or amused. He’s always been good at reading faces, others’ actions. He learnt that skill early on, at his first foster home. People always say something but mean something else. He perfected his skills at the next foster home, where Marge’s sugar-sweet words always meant you’re a burden, and why can’t you speak properly! She was big and bosomy and always hugged him when others were around. Her words were peppered with endearments and hair tousling. But when they were alone she never touched him, barely spoke to him, but always called him sweetie, especially after a whack around the legs for dropping something, not coming straight away when called or wetting the bed.
The audience tonight had clapped, sometimes laughed, sometimes been amazed by Paisley’s voice, which was spectacular but untrained and had a tendency to go off the rails. But he hadn’t needed to hear the words or watch their faces as they left to know what they really thought. ‘Come again!’ one had said in an exaggerated voice, and the shushing and laughter trailed off as they moved down the driveway.
He’d hoped Paisley’s voice could carry them through. That she would be confident and not forget her words so often. That the audience would laugh at his mimes, laugh at him if not at his actions, he didn’t mind. But that wasn’t the case. It had been a spluttering performance of mismatched songs, words and actions. If only Parker would let them practise something. Something that made sense, had a story, songs to match the action. Tell Paisley exactly what to sing. He calls it a rehearsal, but it never is that. It’s always just do what you want and it’ll all work out. That’s fine for an audience of drunks and addicts, lolling around on piss-stained mattresses. But not for the likes of Dorothy and her friends. They would’ve expected much more.
Parker had fed Paisley the dream that she could be a star. Stick understands why Parker did that: Paisley had to be brought back after what had happened. Back from that dark edge – not speaking, not eating, not singing. And her voice is beautiful. Parker said they could all be stars. Stick doubted that, but was happy to go along with it to help Paisley. In the basement of the old plastics factory, they’d brought their performances to a small audience. They weren’t all drunk or addled by drugs. Some were perhaps quietly mad, or some as sane as Stick himself, brought there by circumstance or incident. Once every couple of weeks they’d assemble in the cold basement to watch Parker’s Players, as they were known. That was when Ewan was with them, juggling balls and telling jokes. Before he’d disappeared. Stick often thinks of Ewan: where he is, what he’s doing, if he managed to get off the street, or whether the street had brought him to a lonely end.
With the house left to Parker in his old town, it was all too good to be true. Parker’s dream of travelling around, bringing their performances to people, had become something else – a home, as well as a performance base. A grand dream. Stick Man knows Parker’s heart is good, but sometimes he doesn’t see things straight and true. Parker likes the randomness of their performances, the madness and chaotic lurching around. People laugh. But sometimes they laugh because they’re drunk, or they really don’t know what’s going on. Stick had tried tonight to make a story with his actions, to draw Paisley in so it wasn’t such a mash of random things happening. But then Parker had come out with his great speech that had nothing to do with anything and no one knew what it meant anyway. Sure, his voice is good, like a radio announcer’s, so people say. And he’s been dying to slip it into a performance, but why tonight, when the whole thing was already careering out of control like a runaway horse and cart?
He wants to tell Parker all of this, but knows he can’t. Just as he couldn’t tell him exactly what he’d thought of last night’s dinner at Dorothy’s. These aren’t our sort of people, he wants to say. They laugh at us behind our backs. To our faces, while pretending something else. But there are too many words, and he cannot put them all together the way he can in his head.
THE MORNING AFTER the performance, even before he’s out of bed, Parker knows he has to see Dorothy. Has to hear from her what she thought, what her friends had thought. Stick hadn’t said much, just shrugged his shoulders, but it’s tiring for him to have a big conversation. And Paisley only wanted to talk about her singing. ‘Did they like me? Was I wonderful? I’m going to dance more next time, like a beautiful ballerina.’ He’d answered her, ‘Yes, you were a star. You heard them clapping, they loved you.’ But he has to know from Dorothy, hear it from her mouth. Can they perhaps charge money now? He’ll go and see her. Before breakfast. Maybe that’s a bit early. He’ll go right after breakfast.
They’ve run out of milk, bread and margarine, and the tea is almost gone. He’ll have to get used to shopping for three people. He’ll go down the street after visiting Dorothy. He can ask if she needs anything. An excuse to visit, then he won’t have to sound so eager.
Paisley is still in bed and Stick is sitting on a plastic chair out the back. Parker puts the kettle on and toasts the last crust of bread. There’s nothing to spread on the crust so he dips it into his weak black tea. He’d like some fruit, perhaps porridge. He’ll add it to the list. He can afford it. He’s a wealthy man now, or so the solicitor had said. ‘Am I a millionaire?’ he’d asked.
‘Well, no, but you do have quite a bit of money coming to you. You know, your father always wanted to get you back here, before he died, but it happened quickly, the illness, and he never got the opportunity.’ Parker knew about opportunities. Thought he might’ve missed a few of them. ‘Did you know the extent of your father’s wealth?’ the solicitor asked him.
Parker hadn’t known. Had no knowledge of anything his father had done or owned. He remembered only that he’d always been a disappointment to him. That others his age had been doing well at school, at sport, winning scholarships or working in jobs that required wearing suits all the time. It wasn’t until his mother died and he was sent to the city, to his uncle’s, that he had any sort of job. It’s not that his father forgot about him there in the city working in the steel factory. He did ring occasionally. And once he’d visited. But he hated the city, and only ever came that once. Parker hadn’t missed him. He did miss his mother, but even that faded after a time, and it was just him and his uncle. And then just him.
Now it’s him and Stick Man and Paisley. He still finds it hard to believe they’re all here together, in the old house. That reminds him of the great dream, last night’s performance. And Dorothy, sitting next door over breakfast with her important opinion unspoken. He gulps the last of his tea and heads out the door.
Dorothy’s door is ajar and he taps lightly, before calling, ‘Hello?’
At first there’s no answer, then he hears footsteps and Dorothy appears with a teapot in her hand. ‘Oh, James, come in. You’re just in time for a cup of tea.’
‘I’m…ah, on my way down the street and I just wondered, do you need anything?’
‘No, dear, that’s nice of you though.’ She leads him into the kitchen. Here,’ she pulls out a chair, ‘sit down.’
It’s not until the tea is made and the pot swaddled in its green-and-pink tea cosy that Dorothy mentions the performance. Parker hasn’t been able to bring it up, despite opening his mouth a number of times when her back was turned.
‘That was quite a…performance last night. Have you all had much experience with that sort of thing?’
‘Yes, we’ve been putting on our performances for, well, a few months now.’
‘And,’ she takes her glasses off, puts one of the arms in her mouth, chews on it then says, ‘What got you into this whole,’ she waves the glasses about, ‘performance thing? I mean, have you been involved on a…professional basis?’
Parker isn’t sure whether their performances have been what you’d call professional, but he tells her about his work with the Theatrical Society. The way he’d learned off by heart the lines of the main characters while waiting around to pull the curtains closed. ‘Just in case,’ he says. ‘Someone might hurt themselves and I might be needed.’ But they’d never called on him, even though he’d shown them how well he’d learned the lines, even though they’d told him his voice was very good. And even when Macbeth had broken his leg they still didn’t call on him. ‘That’s about when I met Stick Man and Paisley. So I sort of moved away from the Theatrical Society.’
‘So…what are your plans for these…performances? What is it you want to do?’
He tells her about their dream: travelling around, Parker’s Players, entertaining people. ‘It all just worked out really,’ he says. ‘When I got the house here.’
She nods, taking off her glasses again and holding them pointed towards him. ‘Hmmm,’ she says finally.
Parker can’t wait for her to stop asking questions. ‘So, what did you think?’ he says. ‘What did your friends think?’
‘Well,’ she pours another cup of tea while she speaks. ‘Paisley certainly hit some very good notes. And Stick…er…Man, well, with his limp, he moved about very well. What happened to him by the way, to his foot?’
‘He broke it when he was little, never got to a doctor to have it fixed up properly.’
‘Oh, very sad, and his face too, that awful purple mark like a big stain.’ She sips her tea.
Parker doesn’t notice the birthmark any more. It’s just Stick, just his face. One side pinkish like anyone else’s and the other like someone has thrown dye at him.
‘And yourself,’ Dorothy goes on. ‘Your voice is very good, you have a newsreader’s voice I think.’
‘So do you think we could keep going, doing more? Would people come do you think? Could we put it on in the hall, you know, down the street?’
‘Well now, James, I’m just…well it depends. You might have to practise a bit more. And you would need to do…different things, like…I don’t know, juggling or something. Maybe children might like it.’
‘We used to have Ewan, he was a juggler. But he left. We can’t juggle.’
Dorothy nods. ‘Well, look, you keep practising things, I’ll come and have a look again, and…you never know. More tea?’
‘Oh, please, we’ve run out of milk. This is nice tea.’
‘Any time you need something, just pop in. Now,’ she leans her elbows on the table, ‘I’ve been meaning to tell you about the plans your father and I had for the backyard.’
WHEN PARKER RETURNS home, Paisley and Stick Man are sitting in the kitchen. Paisley turns to him and says, ‘We’re hungry, Parker, and where have you been?’ Her voice is cross and the two lines between her eyes are pinched into furrows. Stick Man is turning a knife over, backwards and forwards on the table, and doesn’t look up. Parker realises he’s forgotten to do the shopping. His hand flies to his head. ‘I forgot!’ And he rushes out the door, leaving Stick and Paisley staring after him. His head so full of Dorothy’s talk of orchards and knocking fences down that it had completely slipped his mind.
He’s still turning the ideas over and over in his head as he carries the shopping bags back home. Dorothy had taken him into her own tiny triangle of a backyard: a lemon tree, an olive tree, an apple tree and a tiny fig tree still in a pot. ‘I have so much yard and never use it, your father used to say. He was a good man, Ivan. He loved the idea of a shared orchard.’
Parker can’t imagine his father being interested in any plants or trees. His mother had tried to cobble something together – tomatoes, herbs, some lettuces – but his father hadn’t even shown awareness that they were there, mowing right over the top of them whenever he cut the grass. He must have developed his interest later on, maybe after talking with Dorothy. Her plans were very big, and couldn’t happen without them putting their backyards together. He doesn’t want to let her down. Not after all she’s done for them: getting all those people together to come to their first performance, dinner, offering to help. She’s been a perfect neighbour. Of course he should agree to her plans. Yes, he will. Why is he even questioning it? He quickens his step as he thinks of a backyard full of trees and fruit. Remembers the community garden he’d once been involved in. Volunteered his services and turned up almost every day for the first month. He loved muddying up his hands then sitting back on his haunches surveying the growth as if it was all his own doing. But then he’d started with the Theatrical Society and he didn’t have time anymore to help out in the garden. One day he just didn’t turn up, and he hadn’t felt guilty, even when he remembered it was his day to water. There were more important things to do.
A garden in his own backyard though. He can imagine getting excited about that. He’d helped his mother in the garden sometimes – she’d let him weed or water, or put little stakes in the ground with names of the plants on them. Dorothy’s garden is small, but very neat. She knows a lot about gardens. Before long they’ll be eating their own fruit, grown right there in his backyard. He might hold off on telling Stick and Paisley about the orchard idea though. Just for a while. Until they get to know Dorothy better, the way he feels he knows her. And if they don’t like it then…well, it’s really too bad. It is his after all. Left to him by his father.
But he remembers something then. Something that makes him falter in his step, shopping bag thwacking against his leg. A small dark shadow passes across him. A welling in his chest, and a feeling of having lost something. Then it passes. The weight of the shopping in the bags tugs him back. He has to get on now. They’ll be waiting. Hungry, and not even a cup of tea to put in their hands. After that, there’s more cleaning to be done, and they can have a practice as Dorothy put it. He prefers the word ‘rehearsal’ though. Having to practise makes them sound like they’re not very good at it. As if they should go over and over the same thing to make it perfect. But Parker thinks it’s better not to be perfect, to be unexpected. It doesn’t matter then if you forget, or do something different. You can’t make mistakes then because there’s no right way to do things. There are no mistakes.
Perhaps he could have a go at juggling, or maybe Stick Man could. Now there’s a thing that you do have to practise, otherwise you’re just dropping things. He casts his mind around the house and the shed for things suitable for juggling – small tins, tennis balls, plastic cups? ‘Oranges!’ he says, holding the bag up, as if someone has asked the question. Ewan had tried to show him once how to juggle, but he never got the hang of it. He hopes Stick Man had been a better student. Paisley wouldn’t have the concentration. She’d give up after the first dropped orange.
He has renewed energy when he gets to the house. Rushes in the door ready to get Stick practising on the oranges before he has to squeeze them for breakfast. Paisley leaps to her feet, claps her hands and takes a bag from Parker. ‘I’m so hungry,’ she says, opening the bag. Stick scrapes the chair back and comes over to inspect the contents, obviously hungry as well.
‘Stick, remember when Ewan tried to show us how he juggled all those balls, do you remember how he did it?’ Parker reaches out and puts two oranges in Stick’s hands, holds a third.
Stick Man blinks, looks away, then back again. He passes one orange across to the other hand, tosses one in the air, catching it with his free hand while tossing the other orange. Then he stops, frowns, shakes his head, looking at the third orange in Parker’s hand.
‘Come on, Stick, you can remember. I want you to do juggling, like Ewan did. Just practise. You’ll get it.’
Stick Man shakes his head slowly, tries again. Gets to the same place, an orange in each hand and looking at the third in Parker’s hand. ‘Just practise,’ Parker repeats. ‘We’ll have the orange juice later.’
‘Yes, you practise, Sticky.’ Paisley takes the third orange and pushes it into Stick Man’s hand. ‘We’ll make breakfast.’ The orange drops from his hand and rolls under the table.
AFTER TWO WEEKS of watching Stick Man practise juggling, Parker had spoken to Dorothy about coming to watch another performance. ‘Make it a short one this time, hmm?’ she said. Mick might come too, but Dorothy doesn’t think anyone else can make it. Parker wishes Dorothy had been more glowing in her opinion of their performance. He has told her they’ve added something new. He knows Stick doesn’t really want to do the juggling – his mouth is tight and his brow creased as he concentrates on the oranges. Dorothy will tell them whether they’ve improved, whether they’re good enough for the hall. He thinks of Paisley’s enthusiasm, always singing and trying on costumes, and he doesn’t want to let her down.
Stick hasn’t quite mastered juggling yet. Parker had tried it himself, quietly, when no one else was around. He’d never been much good at ball games, and juggling was even harder. He couldn’t catch the ball coming down; at least Stick could do that much. Parker can hear Paisley encouraging Stick in the lounge room. ‘Good Sticky, that’s good, you can do it, keep going.’ He hears the soft thunk of the orange hitting the carpet, the drag of Stick’s foot as he crosses to pick up the fruit. He wants to think of Stick Man catching the whizzing oranges, maybe five or six of them, spinning around and tossing them behind his back or through his legs. But he knows that’s not going to happen. Ewan had been a master of juggling. Stick was not.
Parker heads outside to the backyard, stands on the veranda imagining the yard full of fruit trees. His mother would have liked that. Probably would’ve been very proud of him. Dorothy said they’d get started this week, showed him a plan of the yard and where the trees could go, space for some bulbs to come up in springtime. Dorothy’s head appears over the fence. ‘Hello,’ he calls, and she jerks her head around and almost falls.
‘Oh, James, you startled me.’
‘Looking at where the fruit trees can go? I was just looking myself.’
‘Yes, yes, I was checking on the space. I’m drawing up another plan and thought I’d better take a quick look. Well, I’ll see you later on tonight, I haven’t forgotten your performance. Remember, just a short one though, Mick and I have a few things to do.’ She waves her fingers and steps down from the fence. Parker nods to the now empty space.
When Dorothy knocks on the door later in the evening, Parker doesn’t run down the hallway to beat her to the shed. He doesn’t bother with his welcome hat, they’ve seen that already. He’s not as anxious as he’d been the first time. Maybe it’s because it’s only Dorothy and Mick, a small audience, no strangers. He’d been thinking of doing some of Macbeth’s words: From this moment the very firstlings of my heart shall be the firstlings of my hand… But as he reaches the shed and Dorothy and Mick are there waiting, Parker thinks he might let Stick and Paisley do most of the performing tonight. Stick’s been practising the juggling, Paisley’s always singing, but he, Parker, hasn’t been doing anything lately.
Paisley had rushed out to the shed when the knock sounded, and Parker can hear her in the change room rummaging around. Stick is pulling the curtain closed. Parker feels a little guilty that he’s not actually doing anything, when it was he who’d asked Dorothy to come and watch them again. He dips low at the waist suddenly and turns his arm out in a welcoming gesture. ‘Come in,’ he says, putting as much drama into the words as he can muster. He sees then most of the chairs are occupied by the bears. But Paisley has left two free at the front. He notices Mick’s glance at the bears, hears him say under his breath, ‘A captive audience here already I see.’ Parker wishes Paisley hadn’t done that. He and Stick Man are used to her ways, but others, well, others make fun. He smiles with Mick and Dorothy all the same, just to quietly let them know that he’d thought it too – a grown woman with toy bears! But he remembers the look on her face when he’d given them to her, the warmth in his chest. He clears his throat, takes the stage and introduces ‘Miss Paisley.’
The curtain chugs open, first one side then the other. After a clattering of coathangers and footsteps, Paisley arrives mid stage wearing a flouncy yellow-and-blue dress, a scarf of paper flowers. She raises her arms.
Parker steps back, watches Dorothy and Mick watching from their plastic chairs. Mick’s hand rests on Dorothy’s knee. Every now and then his fingers give a little squeeze. Paisley’s voice is, as usual, lovely. She hits some off notes, though she’d started well. Not a song Parker knows, so he’s not sure of the words. He thinks Dorothy might know the song. Her brows pull together occasionally and Parker thinks the words sound a little odd, and that maybe they’re not quite right.
Stick comes out with the oranges and starts juggling, in the background, slowly and carefully. He drops one a couple of times, pulls a face and picks it up, and Parker thinks Ewan would’ve laughed at Stick’s antics. But Dorothy and Mick are glancing from Stick to Paisley as if they’re unsure where to look. Their chairs squeak as they reposition themselves. Dorothy smooths her dress down and shuffles back in the chair. Paisley finishes and Stick moves forward, eyes on the oranges. Parker thinks he does a good job of pretending to be annoyed when he drops one, picking it up, dropping it again. Then he drops the three oranges, throws his arms up, and starts miming juggling, smiling all the while as he looks up at the imaginary balls in the air. Parker smiles to himself, then looks at Dorothy, who is glancing at her watch, recrossing her legs. And he thinks that juggling three oranges probably isn’t clever enough after all.
Stick goes into his miming routines and Parker wishes he’d thought of some new ones for tonight. Paisley comes out in a different costume, green and shiny with a stiff headpiece like a frill-necked lizard. She starts her ballet moves but doesn’t get far before Dorothy raises her hand and half stands. ‘Is there much more, James, because we do have to get going.’
Paisley stops and glares at Dorothy, lowers her head and pushes out her lip. She turns her back to them and continues, rising to her toes, hands fluttering. Stick has stopped and is picking up the oranges.
Parker says, ‘You can go, Dorothy. We’ll…keep going here,’ and he watches them leave. Dorothy turns at the door and waves her fingers, mouthing, ‘See you later.’ Parker nods, looks back to Paisley, who is trying unsuccessfully to spin on one foot. Stick goes to her and says, ‘s-s-s-s sing,’ and she does, while Stick becomes a butterfly, a bird, the rain, lost in a forest, stranded on a raft. Paisley’s voice floats around the shed, as lovely as ever, Parker thinks. Better even than before, when there had been a small audience.
ALREADY WINTER, THE frosts of autumn still icing the ground some mornings. Parker sits on the front veranda and pulls on his boots. Looks across the road at the trees, grey and twisted now without leaves. When they’d first arrived all the colours had been different, the sky blue and people’s gardens full of orange and yellow flowers. Now everything is grey and dull; even the sun is washed out and pale. But at least it’s out. Parker stands and calls through the open door. ‘Come on you two, the sun’s out. We should go for a walk.’
Moments later, Paisley’s head appears at the door, straw hat smothered in plastic flowers. She’s added too many, Parker thinks. It looks silly. ‘Maybe take the sunflowers off Paise, it’s a bit too many, huh?’
Paisley pushes her bottom lip out but she goes inside and returns minus the sunflowers. She calls, ‘Come on, Stick. We’re waiting.’
Paisley stomps down the hallway and Parker hears her voice cajoling Stick. Then he hears slow steps, the dragging foot, and they appear together at the door.
‘Sticky’s ready now.’
But Parker thinks Stick doesn’t look ready at all. He’s frowning and looking away from them. ‘R-r-r-r-really…I d-d-d…’ Stick doesn’t finish and Paisley pulls him along by his elbow.
When they reach the main street, Parker starts to wish they’d left Stick behind on the couch. He’d been happy there. But now he’s so slow, slower than usual, and he keeps waving Parker on if he turns to see how he’s going.
Paisley skips ahead, talking to herself. ‘Just another look, a little peek in the window.’ Turns to Stick. ‘Oh come on Stick, you’re too slow.’
Parker doesn’t want to spend more time looking in at the hall. Doesn’t want Paisley to be disappointed. Dorothy had said perhaps they should just stay in the shed. After all, they’d gone to so much trouble setting it up. She thinks they’re not ready for a place like the hall. ‘And to be honest, James, maybe they never will be.’ He noticed she said they not you, and that made him feel special, and he nodded, to let her know he understood. Parker can’t get to Paisley now to direct her away from the hall because he has to keep checking on Stick. Already she’s pushing ahead, running in fits and starts, holding onto her hat in the breeze. She passes a group of people standing talking on the footpath. Their heads turn as one and they watch Paisley pass, skipping now. They stare after her, turn back to each other and the women cover their laughter with their hands while the men shake their heads, hands in pockets. With one more glance back at Stick, Parker rushes after Paisley. ‘Good morning,’ he says to the little group as he passes. They look at him as if they may know him, then look away. It seems they don’t know him after all.
When he catches up to Paisley, she’s on tiptoes, hands cupped to her face, peering through the glass door of the hall, hat on the ground beside her. ‘Oh look, Parker! Someone’s been in here. Look at the flowers, all the white ribbons.’
Parker thinks it might be for a wedding, and just as he’s thinking this a woman clears her throat behind them and says, ‘Excuse me.’ Her arms are full of flowers and the scent is strong in his nostrils as she opens the door and brushes past them with her floral load. Paisley takes a step forward as if to follow her, but the woman pushes the door closed with her foot. Paisley’s lip slides into a pout and she steps back.
‘Come on Paise, she’s busy. Let’s go.’ Parker steers Paisley away from the hall and they see Stick Man on the corner, resting on a bench seat. Two boys stand nearby bouncing basketballs and staring at Stick. One boy says something Parker can’t hear and Stick Man turns away from them, sees Parker and Paisley and stands up. The boys turn to each other and cross the road, bouncing the balls as they go. ‘What were they saying to you, Stick?’
Stick Man shakes his head, points to his face and shrugs. ‘N-n-n-n-
Parker watches the boys sauntering up the street, one spinning the ball on his finger. He remembers one of the Coxon brothers used to do that. Just before he’d bounce the ball off Parker’s head. He frowns, watching the boys in their low-slung trousers walking into the milk bar.
‘Hello,’ a voice just behind Parker startles him. When he turns he sees a woman he doesn’t know, smiling and turning her head from Stick Man to Paisley, back to Parker. ‘How’s your…performances going?’ she says, clasping her hands in front of her.
Parker thinks she looks a bit like Dorothy: her dress with big flowers, her way of looking at him with her head to one side. He thinks maybe he has seen her before. Then the woman says, ‘I was at your performance, remember? Some time ago, in the shed? I’m a friend of Dorothy’s.’
Parker isn’t sure what to say. He doesn’t want to have a discussion with the woman about their performances, not with Paisley there. ‘Oh, we’re…still practising,’ he says, waving his hand dismissively.
But Paisley is delighted and claps her hands together. ‘You saw us! Oh, Parker she saw us. Were we good? Will you come again? We’ll be in the hall next time and we’ll be better.’ Her words are tumbling over each other, leaving the woman smiling and nodding.
‘Oh, it was…very interesting, yes indeed. Well, I’d better get along, lovely to see you all. Bye now,’ and off she goes with her shoes making a crisp toc sound on the pavement.
Paisley grabs Stick Man’s elbow. ‘Sticky, she saw us, we’re famous, she liked us, we’ve got to go home and practise again Parker, let’s go home now, come on, Sticky, you can practise the juggling thing some more,’ and she rushes ahead. Looks back and calls them on with both hands, like there’s an emergency, a fire behind them and they must run now.
But they don’t run, and Stick Man can’t anyway. After much encouraging and pushing along, foot stamping, shouting and pouting, Paisley accepts there won’t be any running home to practise. They walk back along the street in what Parker hopes is a dignified manner after Paisley’s antics. People were looking. He could feel their eyes on them as they passed. He’d walked slowly, even slower than Stick Man, pretending to look in windows every now and then. And if someone came out of a shop and looked up at the noise Paisley was making, Parker would look too, and pull his brows together in a frown, and once, when he had eye contact with someone, he made a tsk sound with his tongue, like Dorothy, and shook his head.
‘STICK MAN AND me, we’ll look after you, Paisley,’ Parker had said. After… She hadn’t meant to leave her there for long, just wanted to hide her until they’d gone, the ones who wanted to take her away from Paisley. But Paisley was sick, and got sicker, so awfully sick. Couldn’t talk, couldn’t walk. And Parker looked after her, brought her medicine and made her better again. At first she didn’t know what he meant – ‘Where’s the baby, Paisley, where is she?’ – so fuzzy and sore was her head. And then she remembered, had to run so fast and far on legs that wobbled, and she fell and got up and fell again until she could find her and take her in her arms. So cold and hard and a funny colour, not at all like her little Daisy, and she held her close in her blanket to make her warm again, and wouldn’t let her go. Wandered in a daze, feeling herself getting sick again. But Parker found them and took Daisy from her arms and she couldn’t stop wrapping her arms across her chest. Empty, empty now. And Parker put her in the ground. The hurt so big it made her chest feel hollow and she’d looked up at the moon until her eyes were sore and weepy. After, they’d sat under the bridge and watched the moon all fat and yellow in the sky, and that’s when Parker said, ‘Stick Man and me, we’ll look after you, Paisley.’
So why isn’t he looking after her now? The mean lady doesn’t need him. The mean lady has the old man. And now she takes Parker too, and keeps him in her house drinking tea and talking about gardens and telling him Paisley’s voice needs some training. Paisley’s voice is beautiful, everyone knows that. She’s just jealous and doesn’t want Parker to hear Paisley’s beautiful voice. The mean lady doesn’t ask her friends to come to the performances anymore. And Paisley has to sing in front of Blue Bear and empty chairs. The mean lady only asks Parker in to drink tea and talk. Not Stick or Paisley. The mean lady has eyes that are small and tight, and when she talks, her words tell a lie. Parker is not Parker when he’s with her.
STICK MAN HAD hoped for so much. All of what Parker had told them: house, own room, performances, how they could all become…no, not stars, but someone. Noticed, applauded even. Stick Man had believed. Believed it for Paisley. She was the one who mattered, and they would both be looking out for her.
But now Parker is dressing himself in new shirts and going next door to Dorothy’s. He tells them he has tea and cake but doesn’t bring any back. Paisley would love some cake. Almost every day now he is there, unless Dorothy goes out. Then he’s in the yard, digging and watering. And the fence has gone and Dorothy can come and go whenever she wants. She brings in new trees and puts them in the holes Parker makes for her. Our orchard, Parker calls it. But Stick has heard Dorothy talking to Mick. ‘My orchard,’ she’d said. ‘My orchard is looking so good now. Come, I’ll show you.’ And when they walked through, where once the fence would have been, and she saw Stick sitting there on his plastic chair on the back veranda, she’d looked at him as if it was he who didn’t belong.
And that’s how he feels. Like he doesn’t belong anymore. Like he and Paisley are just in the way. Now, if they’re out walking, and a dog jumps or barks suddenly, Parker doesn’t take Paisley’s arm like he once would have. It’s up to Stick Man to move to her side and soothe her. And he’s noticed Parker turn away, pretending not to see. But they don’t do much walking anyway now, don’t do much of anything together any more. There have been no more rehearsals, no more performances. ‘You have to learn how to juggle first. Practise that,’ Parker had said. But Stick knows he can’t, and he thinks Parker knows that too. He can juggle three oranges sometimes. But it can’t just be that. It’d have to be five, then six or seven. Then plates or knives, hats, chainsaws or…anything different. It wouldn’t matter how much he practised, he’d never be able to do that. Paisley is sad, then angry, then sad again. She’s holding performances for the bears and calling Stick to watch, or do some miming – ‘Be a tree, Stick, be a dog, a chicken, a rocket, be anything. I want to sing. I want people to clap.’ So he sits on the chair, listens and claps and listens some more. Sometimes he gets up and moves about the stage – he’s an owl, a policeman, the sun, the stars. But it’s just him moving idly around while Paisley stands with hands and head raised, voice bouncing off the walls. ‘Where’s Parker?’ she asks. ‘We need to practise. There might be people tonight. And when are we going to the hall?’ But Stick Man knows there won’t be any people, they won’t be going to the hall. And he thinks Paisley knows that too. When she finishes, she takes the blue bear and wraps it in her arms, hangs her head. Just yesterday he heard her say, in a whisper but clearly, ‘Little Daisy. Gone,’ instead of ‘the same moon, always the same one’. Parker can’t hear her say it because he’s not here. Stick tried to tell her, ‘S-s-s-sa-sa–’ but Paisley didn’t wait, she walked away with her head bent and her shoulders curving in and around her chest, like a punctuation mark – a comma, a question mark. Like a bent and broken person. And that makes Stick feel bent and broken all over again, when Parker’s dreams had made him feel tall and straight for a while. Like someone who could look after Paisley. No limp, no birthmark sprawled across his cheek and jaw, no tongue thick and clumsy in his mouth. Someone who could be of value.
PARKER COMES BACK along the street, still shaken, his heart all fluttery in his chest. He’s a little proud but also a little unsure. Can he trust what he says, this Coxon brother who has turned into someone who might look out for him? Not to push his head down the toilet, but to tell him to be careful of people he doesn’t know now that he has quite a bit of money. ‘People will find out, there are always tongues that wag, always people out to take what they can.’ That made Parker feel like an old enemy was now putting him on equal footing with anyone else: a client, to be advised.
The letter had come in the mail: Please phone for an appointment to discuss investment options for your new account. He’d thought it would be the same woman he’d seen when he first visited the bank. And then he was shown into the office with ‘Manager’ written in gold lettering on the door, and underneath the name ‘Bernard Coxon’. He was in and the door closed behind him before he had time to think about where he was. The bald, chubby man had risen from his chair and was coming towards him with his hand out. Instinctively, Parker backed away.
‘Mr Parker, James – can I call you James? – very pleased to see you.’ His hand still stretched towards Parker, and Parker stepped forward, took the hand and felt engulfed by his childhood. The handshake was firm, crushing his little finger, which was tucked up at an awkward angle. ‘Take a seat please,’ said Bernie Coxon, indicating the padded green chair facing his desk, and then resumed his seat, directly opposite Parker. Parker returned his gaze and the silence seemed incredibly long, although it had only been a few seconds, then the balding Coxon looked down through his gold-rimmed spectacles and shuffled through some papers. ‘Right then,’ he said. And they proceeded to talk about Parker’s account, his father’s money, now his, and what he could do to best make this money grow, as he, Parker, didn’t have a job.
He can’t remember why it was that he’d told Coxon about the orchard. Was it because Coxon had asked if he had plans? Or was it simply that he’d wanted to let this man, who’d avoided his direct gaze, know that he was a person who was moving forward, not the quivering mess he’d been at school, or even when he’d entered the room? Parker sat back in the comfortable leather seat, his arms flat on the armrests, very glad he’d worn his new purple shirt in readiness for tea at Dorothy’s that afternoon. Confident, after his shaky start, he wanted Coxon to know this James Parker was a different fish to the one he and his brother would have happily reeled in and tortured.
When he’d mentioned the joint venture between he and Dorothy, Coxon lifted his eyebrows, told him to be wary. Not of Dorothy, surely, just of people in general, out to get what they could from him. He assured Coxon that wasn’t the case, and it was in fact what his father had planned, and Coxon nodded slowly a couple of times and said, ‘Right, okay.’
Now, coming back home, Parker wonders: is Coxon someone he can trust? After all, Dorothy has never harmed him. Coxon on the other hand… Admittedly it was the dead Coxon, whose name he’s forgotten, who’d been the ringleader. Then Parker remembers how he’d held Coxon’s gaze, held it and stopped himself from turning away though his eyes had wanted to. That makes him feel proud, and he straightens himself, swings his arms a little freer as he walks.
His stomach rumbles, he’d left without eating lunch. Stick Man was cooking eggs, but hadn’t offered any to Parker. He’s been like that a bit lately, Stick, always sitting out the back by himself, or making a cup of tea without offering one to Parker. And Paisley now, always in the shed singing at the top of her voice. Like a child, Parker thinks. Dorothy’s words, but Parker repeats them to himself sometimes. He’s always known it to be true. She is like a child. And she has suffered so much. He remembers how he’d found her that time, after two days of asking around, rushing about the streets, all her favourite spots: train station, gardens, the shrine, worried that the hairy man may have found her first. And there she was, under the bridge, stumbling along, the child a swaddled silence in her arms, her face slick with fevered sweat, eyes out of focus. But she seemed to recognise him, stood still while he prised the child from her arms. He remembers the feel of it – like some small wooden statue, and when he peeled back the blanket and touched her face and neck, all was still as stone under his fingertips. He’d buried her because he was afraid of what might happen to Paisley if anyone found out. She is just a child herself – how could she have looked after one? But she never got the chance really. Poor Paisley. He does want to look after her. And Stick, but it’s so hard to know what Stick wants, what he’s thinking. It’s a big job, this being responsible for others, for Stick and Paisley. He wishes, just for once, someone could look after him. The way his mother used to: cleaning his shoes, packing his lunch for school, saving the best bits of chicken for him before his father could take it all. He still remembers his mother’s old red apron, the smells of gravy and chicken as he rested his head on her belly, his arms stretched around her large frame.
There are moments when Parker remembers their trip here – to the town, the house – how Stick never complained, how Paisley had clung to him when a dog barked or a car passed. And he feels a quiver of longing to return to that state. Where everything was unknown and anything possible. He said he’d make them stars, especially Paisley. Where has all that wanting gone now, for him, for all of them, to be stars? Had that been for another time, another place? Not for the town, his home town. He no longer sees them all on stage at the hall in front of the townspeople. No longer hears the cheering and cries of Bravo! All crumbled away now.
After their last performance, a few weeks ago, he hadn’t rushed in to ask Dorothy what she thought. She’d come to see him with her plans for the orchard, neatly laid out on crisp white paper. She had all the measurements set out, shaded spaces for the bulbs and little pictures of the trees, names in black ink beside them in her flowy writing. Such curly tails on her letters and all so closely joined that Parker wasn’t sure of some of the names. She hadn’t mentioned the performance, and Parker hadn’t asked what she’d thought. When she’d turned to leave she said, ‘I’m not sure your little…performances are really something the townspeople will, well you know, warm to.’
When she left he’d stood looking out at the backyard, down at the plans and up again to locate the position of an apple tree, fig tree, the little triangle-shaped garden for bulbs. And he’d taken a spade, checked Dorothy’s plans and started digging the first hole.
He loves working in the orchard now with Dorothy, taking cups of tea in her lovely clean house, having biscuits and talking about the fruit trees, all Dorothy’s plans. And when she gives him a tray of biscuits, or puts lemon in his tea, says ‘do be careful’ if he stumbles or she sees him up a ladder, he always feels his worth grow. Dorothy is looking out for him. Someone cares, someone gives to him, Parker, where before there was only him giving away, always looking out for others. The weight of that responsibility. He doesn’t feel that weight with Dorothy, it’s all lightness. He feels different in her company. Like he felt in Coxon’s company today: an equal, valued. There are times when he feels superior to the others, to Stick Man and Paisley, and when he thinks this he bows his head, ashamed yet thankful that no one else would ever know he’d had that thought.
PARKER DOESN’T GO home. He heads straight to Dorothy’s, knocks on the door and waits on the ‘Welcome’ mat, smoothing his hair down. When Dorothy opens the door he thinks she looks disappointed for a moment, as if she may have been expecting someone else. Then the smile returns.
‘Oh, it’s you James. I don’t have much time today, a bit busy-busy, you know. But…come in. There’s still some tea left in the pot.’
A half-empty teacup and the paper opened at the crossword puzzle sit on the table, as if Dorothy hasn’t been very busy at all. She takes a teacup and saucer from the sideboard and pours Parker’s tea. When he takes a sip he wants to tell her it’s not very hot, but she’s bustling around now as if she’s busy after all. She folds up the paper, tips her own tea down the sink and bundles up the tea towels. ‘Just doing some laundry,’ she says to Parker as she walks out. ‘Make yourself at home.’ He’s not sure if that means he can go looking for some of her choc-chip biscuits. He’d love one or two, but decides to wait until she offers.
He hears the washing machine kick into action at the rear of the house and expects her back through the door any moment. But Dorothy doesn’t return and he sits tapping the table, drinking his lukewarm tea. He scans the room for a biscuit jar, but Dorothy’s kitchen is all clean and clear white benches. Her biscuits must be tucked away in a cupboard. He notices a plate on top of the dresser, resting on a little display stand. He recognises it as one from his house, one that Dorothy had commented on when she was helping him go through the cupboards. ‘Oh, would you look at that, isn’t it lovely?’ Parker didn’t think much of it: funny squarish shape, flowers and a little old house on it. But Dorothy had liked it. She’d turned it over and looked at the back and held it up, smiling. Parker told her to take it, they had plenty of plates. And now here it was taking pride of place on her dresser. He must remember to see if there are more like it. He could bring them over next time he comes to tea. She’d like that. He remembers seeing an old ugly jug, very similar, he’s sure of it. Should he go and get it now? But if she comes back and sees he’s gone she’ll think he’s been very rude. He’ll wait till later. Give her a surprise.
When Dorothy returns she says, ‘Sorry, dear, I had some things to do. Time for a little bit of a sit down,’ she pulls out a chair, ‘and then I have to get a move on. So how are things next door, everyone okay?’
‘Oh, yes, we’re all fine, thank you.’ Parker feels the need to keep the conversation going, keep Dorothy occupied so she doesn’t want him to leave too soon. ‘Is Mick your boyfriend?’ he asks suddenly, and Dorothy laughs, showing all her teeth, with her head tossed back.
‘Well,’ she says, ‘he’s a boy, well, a man, and he’s a friend, so, yes, I suppose so.’
There’s a small silence while Parker folds his hands on the table and looks around the room. He considers asking her for a biscuit, but before he can ask she goes to the cupboard and brings out the biscuit jar. He takes note of the cupboard in case he needs this information some other time. She pushes the jar close to him and he helps himself to a biscuit, brushing crumbs off his new purple shirt. He remembers a young woman in the street, purple scarf covering her head, long coat. She had a pretty face, dark eyes; he’d smiled at her as she passed. He saw her again later, her arms full of shopping, and the man with the big belly and the red face, lifting his arm up towards her, waving her back. And the way she’d flinched, like she thought he would hit her. She held her shopping up in front of her, then moved away, her head bent forward. Parker wants to know who she is, why it was that the man was so angry towards her. Parker was too far away to hear, but he could tell the fat-bellied man was shouting, flapping his hands as if to shoo her away, a woman, perhaps his wife, hanging on to his arm trying to pull him away. Had she stolen something from him, said something rude to him. Or was he just like the Coxons and she just like the little boy Parker had once been? He was just there and they were bigger and meaner.
He tells Dorothy about the woman, expects her to say, Oh, how awful. Instead she says, ‘Oh, that’ll be the woman from the Muslim family. We don’t really want their type here, but…’ She doesn’t finish because at that moment there’s a quick knock and Mick lets himself in the front door, and Parker doesn’t get to ask what type the woman is. Dorothy jumps up. ‘There you are. We’d better get going then.’
Mick looks surprised, then nods. ‘Oh, okay, yes. Let’s…hit the road then.’
‘I’m sorry, James, but we have to go out. So I’ll see you again another day. Tomorrow maybe. We can talk more about the shed, I’ve had an idea.’ She winks and smiles like it’s a secret between them.
He’d like to hear more, but he nods and pushes back his chair. ‘Can I?’ he points to the biscuit jar.
He takes another biscuit and follows them out the door. Watches them get into Mick’s car. He waves as it moves away. Dorothy must’ve been very busy, he thinks, as he remembers suddenly that, unlike other times, she hadn’t even commented on his new shirt.
STICK HEARS THE front door and footsteps down the hallway. He knows it’s not Paisley, he can still hear her singing in the shed. ‘Tell Parker to come in,’ she’d said, ‘when he’s back. We should practise, tell him.’ Poor Paisley; she’s been trying out new songs, trying hard to remember the words. But her voice is thin and unsure, and her words about practising seem to come from an earlier version of herself.
‘Hello, Stick,’ Parker says. Stick lifts his hand in greeting. He notices Parker is wearing another new shirt, and he’s moving his tongue around in his mouth like he may be cleaning up biscuit crumbs from his teeth. He’s been to Dorothy’s then, not just down the street. Stick wishes he’d think to bring home a couple of biscuits for him and Paisley. Paisley would love a biscuit, even if it was one of Dorothy’s. And with disappointment heaving across his chest, Stick thinks, Parker’s changed; he’s not looking out for Paisley, and he’s cutting them out. For the first time he starts to feel nostalgic about the basement of the old factory. Wonders who is taking up his space near the half-crumbling wall. Are they using his mattress, his milk crate, and do they walk out into the bright morning to get a free coffee from the bald Italian in the café?
Just yesterday, Paisley had said, ‘I want to go home, Stick.’ She didn’t say what home was to her, but Stick thought she must mean the cold old basement, where everyone looked out for each other and no one thought they were any better than anyone else.
Parker has a cupboard open and he’s leaning in, clunking plates and cups together as he brings something out. It’s an old jug with a bright design, square shaped, unusual looking. Parker puts it on the bench and leans into the cupboard again. ‘Here, Stick, can you hold this, please,’ he says, and passes out a bowl, similar design. Parker brings out four matching bowls overall, and Stick places them together on the bench beside the jug. They are a set, and he can see they’re old, but they have no cracks or signs of use – they’re just dusty.
‘Wh-wh-wh-wh-what…? he begins.
‘They’re fairly ugly old things, but Dorothy likes stuff like this. I thought it’d be nice to give them to her. She’s such a good neighbour.’
Stick thinks of the conversation he’d overheard this morning between Dorothy and Mick, and he wonders about that good neighbour tag. ‘It’s a small price to pay,’ she’d said. Stick had been about to take his usual spot in the sun on the back veranda. He heard the voices and, not wanting to have to acknowledge their false greetings to him, he’d stopped just behind the shed. ‘I can put up with chatter and tea with a halfwit if it means I’ve got this.’ Stick imagined her waving her arms about, encompassing the backyard, their backyard. ‘And he’s harmless, you know,’ she went on. Stick had backed away, gone inside and watched them from the laundry window as they walked through the fruit trees, bending to check the label on this or that, lifting up a pot and looking about. He especially watched Dorothy, standing with hands on hips, her face half turned away but the smile easily seen. She glanced up at the house and caught Stick’s eye for a second before the smile faded. Stick hadn’t moved. He returned her gaze, wanted her to know the game’s up. I know what you are. She’d looked away quickly, taken Mick’s arm and walked back through the fruit trees, leaning in towards him. Back to her own tiny triangle of yard.
He wants to tell Parker, thinks it’s important he should know. Such an effort though, when it’s not a single word but lots of words: a story. He wishes he could use mime, but he doesn’t think Parker would understand.
He watches him wrapping the plates and jug, stacking them into a box. Tries out some words in his head: I don’t think Dorothy is as good a neighbour as you think. Or, do you know her well enough? Then he starts, ‘Y-y-y-y-you should b-b-be c-c-c-careful.’ He continues, fumbling his way through, watching Parker’s face grow darker, brows drawn together.
Parker doesn’t let Stick finish. He raises his hand, agitated, cross. ‘Stop,’ he says. ‘Dorothy is not like that, she wouldn’t say cruel things. You shouldn’t eavesdrop on others,’ and he walks away. Comes back before he gets to the door and takes the box, plates and jug clunking together through their hastily wrapped newspaper.
Stick watches him go, feeling something slide shadow-like across his chest, as Paisley’s voice rises in a wailing crescendo from the shed.
ALL YESTERDAY MORNING he’d worked with Dorothy: digging, planting, staking. It’s been getting warmer over the last few weeks. The bulbs are coming up and soon they’d have daffodils and jonquils all in flower. Despite the warm morning, by afternoon a ferocious storm had rolled in and he’d been worried their work would be undone, the small new trees flattened by hail and wind.
Dorothy had come out once in her heavy raincoat, stood pulling the hood around her face, looking at the orchard, wind flattening the coat against her legs and making her rock back on her heels. Parker stood at the laundry window watching her, and just when he thought he ought to go out and join her, she turned and went inside. Parker was relieved because he didn’t have a raincoat and preferred to watch the deluge from inside where it was warm and dry.
Once the thunder started, Paisley had wrapped herself in a blanket and huddled on the couch with a cushion over her ear. Thunder rolled around the sky, at first distant; then it seemed it was right above the house. Paisley jumped and tucked her legs up high and tight each time. Stick sat on the couch with her and Parker could see he watched for the lightning. ‘N-n-n-n-now,’ he’d say, just before the thunder crashed its way around the sky and into Paisley’s head.
Parker tried to ignore the storm and went about his jobs: tidying the laundry cupboard, searching for plates that Dorothy might like, chopping vegetables for dinner, fixing a kitchen chair that had collapsed under him. By the time he’d finished the wind had died down and the rain stopped. He went outside to inspect the fruit trees, but it was getting dark and he couldn’t see properly. He kept glancing around waiting for Dorothy to appear so they could check the state of things together. But Dorothy didn’t come out, and he’d gone inside and carried out his night-time routines: dinner, dishes, cup of tea. They’d stopped the nightly routine of a game of Snakes and Ladders, Ludo or cards. Stopped listening to Paisley singing a song or two after dinner. She’d just decided she didn’t want to any more. ‘What for?’ she said. ‘There’s no people coming, no need to practise,’ and Stick had glanced across at Parker, his eyes saying many things that Parker didn’t want to know. So there’d been no song after a cup of tea, no games, not for a few weeks. Instead, everyone just drifted off to their rooms or sat and looked at the television, the light from the screen flashing across their silent faces in the dark room.
This morning, after the storm, Parker had gone out to see the orchard again after breakfast, and Dorothy was there too. Together they walked around checking the stakes and straightening some that looked like they’d been blown sideways, pressing the soil down around the loosened roots. Dorothy declared it ‘A-okay’ apart from some leaves shredded and holed from the hail.
Parker feels at a loose end now, nothing to do in the orchard, it’s all A-okay. He’s done his jobs inside, and Stick and Paisley are huddled in the lounge room, heads bent together. All discussion stops the moment he comes into the room. He feels a strange sense of displacement. As if the world has gone on its way without him and he has to find a crack open enough to let him slip back in. Must be the storm, he thinks. All that noise and water, it’s disturbing, makes you wish for things but you don’t know what they are. He needs some air. Some exercise. Then he’ll pop in and see Dorothy. She’d told him her plans for the shed. He wants to hear more about this hothouse. When he’d mentioned it to Stick and Paisley, neither of them said anything. But they’d been like that ever since Stick had spoken about Dorothy in that awful way. It still eats at him – she wouldn’t speak like that. Parker thought Stick just wanted someone to blame, when it was his own fault really. If he’d just kept going with the juggling, maybe…but Parker knows that wouldn’t have made a difference. Things had changed. He sees all that performance stuff in a different way now, through others’ eyes. Just one big hopeful dream. He’d wanted to let them know about the shed though, especially Paisley, she still uses it sometimes, dressing up and singing to the bears. But she’d just shrugged and turned away.
He feels heartened by the thought of having a plan. A walk, then tea with Dorothy. He knows she’s home, and Mick is away for a few days, so she might like the company. Parker calls over his shoulder as he leaves: ‘Just going for a walk.’ He can’t hear whether there’s any response. Lately there hasn’t been, and he’s stopped waiting for one.
Outside, the sun is trying to dry up the puddles and lift the heavy heads of flowers and tree boughs. Parker looks around taking it all in, weak sunlight warming his face. At the end of the street he stops. The huge gum tree on the reserve has been split into two, the tree’s red innards opened up, splintered and shattered, the outer bark peeled back like skin, the splintered rib cage splayed and open to the sky. Parker stares. He cannot pull himself away. The disturbing brilliance of the red, the carnage, the absolute ruin of the once strong tree. It must’ve been the lightning. A perfectly placed strike, splitting the tree down the middle.
He turns away, hands sunk deep in his pockets. He’ll tell Dorothy about it later over a cup of tea. She may not know if she hasn’t been out yet. He crosses the street, eyes scanning front yards and the roadside for any other signs of storm damage. Bits and pieces litter the road and gutters: branches, rubbish, a child’s rattle and a bucket split at the sides. He turns down the main street and sees people sweeping out the front of shops, sees others standing talking about the storm. Hears one woman, ‘It was fierce, alright’. He wants to stop and chat to them. Tell them about the big gum tree, watch their shocked faces. But no one looks at him or moves to include him in their discussions. He’s left the house without any money, so he can’t even go into a shop and strike up a conversation while waiting for change.
He moves along the street, finds himself on the bridge before he realises. But it doesn’t hold any power over him anymore. Not now that there’s only one Coxon alive, and not the cruel one. Certainly not now that it’s a different bridge entirely. He stands looking over the railing into the brown swirling river under him. All the rubbish that used to be in the river, probably still there under the rushing water. A car drives over the bridge and the horn sounds. Parker looks up and sees that it’s Bernard Coxon, his hand lifted from the wheel in a wave. Parker dips his head and lifts his hand as the car speeds over the bridge and up the hill.
He turns away from the bridge, heads back along the street, nodding to people he passes. When he reaches the reserve he stops again at the split tree, looks at it quietly for a few moments then moves away, down the street and up to Dorothy’s door.
PARKER WATCHES DOROTHY slide the scones out of the oven. She’s set the table: small jug of milk, pot of whipped cream, strawberry and blackberry jams, teapot and cups. Outside, the sun gleams off a tin roof, the metal gate, every turned leaf. Parker leans back in his chair. ‘Oh, that smells very good, Dorothy.’ He feels like a valued guest: the good china, hot scones and whipped cream. He’s glad he’d given Dorothy the jug and plates. She was very appreciative. And now here he is, the sole guest at afternoon tea. With Mick away he won’t be coming in and interrupting their tea as he usually does.
Dorothy tips the scones from the tray into a bowl lined with a gingham cloth. ‘There you go, James. Enjoy.’ She puts the tray on the sink and sits, pushing jam and cream towards him.
Movement catches Parker’s eye out the window. He glances up and away from the scones, hand poised in midair. Stick Man, shouldering his huge bag of things, head bobbing in time with his foot drag, purple splash of the birthmark across his face. And Paisley, her empty arms, her one small bag. He watches the forlorn procession, sadness crossing his chest like a slow wing flap. He half rises from his chair. Wants to rush out, stop them – what will you do? where will you go? – wants to stop time and this slow trembling sadness. But what then? What of the other? This thing that has only just started. He’s not even sure what it is, but he doesn’t want it to end. Not yet.
He turns back to the scones. ‘Cuppa, James?’ Dorothy holds the teapot up, its crocheted cosy sliding sideways. Parker nods and takes a scone, his chest a pool of aching: dull and shapeless. And when he looks back to the window, they’ve already passed by.