I CROSSED THE front lawn and saw that my father's ute still wasn't in the drive. I kicked a piece of broken tail-light along the cement and into bushes that lined the fence. It was from his ute. He had backed into the mailbox when he drove off three weeks ago. My mother saw it happen, so did the neighbours. I was at school. My mother laughed when she told me about it later that afternoon but it didn't sound funny.
Wind caught the screen door and it banged shut behind me. My mother spun around. She was on the phone and stirring something on the stove at the same time. I knew by the look on her face that my grandmother was on the other end. She rang up every day to see if Dad was back.
"What are you doing home?" my mother said with the phone pressed against her chest. I was supposed to be at school; we both knew that. But I wasn't. I hardly ever went.
"Do something about them, will ya, for Christ's sake," she said with her eyes on the ceiling. I got up on the table and took swipes with a tea towel at flies circling the kitchen light. I knew that it wouldn't get rid of them but it kept my mother quiet. She hated flies. She hated lots of things: flies, moths, spiders, rats and my father – "the biggest rat of them all", she said.
Peppertree branches outside the window scraped against the glass. My mother stopped stirring, put the spoon down and straightened up. She ran her hand over her face and said into the phone: "Haven't we had this conversation before? If it's not Sean, it's you. Listen, I have no idea where he is. I don't care where he is and I've told you all I know, and if you keep hounding me I'm going to make stuff up."
She picked up the spoon and threw it into the sink. It clinked loudly against a saucer.
"He'll be back, Val. You know that, he always comes back. But this time I'm not going after him."
She said goodbye and put the phone back on the wall. The soup bubbled up and spilled over the sides of the saucepan. My mother lifted it off the stove and put it on a wooden board. She looked up at me; I pretended not to notice and kept waving the tea towel around. My mother stared at the glowing red stove rings. She turned off the heat and sighed.
"I've got to go into town. Want to come?"
I looked at the clock. It was quarter to three. My father usually finished work about four and if he came home today, I wanted to be here to show him my new football jumper. My mother piled the dirty dishes in the sink and turned to me.
"Come on, Sean, we'll get those jeans you've been harping on about."
I looked at the clock again. My mother saw me and frowned.
"We won't be long," she said and fluffed up her hair in the mirror.
She put a lid on the saucepan and grabbed her handbag and the car keys off the top of the fridge. I jumped down from the table and followed her out the back door.
MY MOTHER WAS singing along to an Elvis song on the car radio when we almost missed the turn. The car skidded in the gravel and stopped at an odd angle in front of the van. We always stopped at Con's Hotdog Van on the way to town. My mother had gone to school with Con and, while they weren't friends, she always pulled in at his van. I didn't know why. It was something she always did. I opened the car door and my mother bent forward and waved to Con. He waved back.
"I'll have American mustard and tomato sauce on mine," she said and gave me her purse.
I ordered the hot dogs and stood under the van's awning with its flashing lights and watched Con put two rolls on hot metal rods. He put paper bags over the rolls and picked up tongs to get the frankfurts. Warm hot-dog air from inside the van passed across my face. He tapped the tongs on the counter and smiled at me. He stopped tapping and, after a moment, looked over at my mother. She was using the rear-vision mirror to put on lipstick. While he watched her, and while she put the lipstick away and stared back out at the road at every car that flew past, I took $10 out of her purse and slipped it into my pocket.
We drove into town, eating our hot dogs, with the windows down and the radio blaring. It felt good. It always felt good. I thought of all the things to tell my father: like how I could drive a car and how I got three goals against Tamworth and Mick Potter only got one and how Smithy's ferret bit his sister's finger and wouldn't let go. We drove over a railway crossing and past a poultry farm and I thought that those kids didn't know how to handle ferrets. Not like us.
MY MOTHER PULLED in under a tree in the car park. The wind had died down. She went to the bank and I walked through the arcade to a newsagent. I flicked through some magazines, went next door and bought a milkshake and went to the bank to wait for her. I sat at a desk near the door. The bank manager had called yesterday to ask her to come in to see him. It wasn't the first time. Things in our house were never good, money-wise. My father had taken over his father's bricklaying business when he had had a stroke and lost the use of his right side. It was a good business, my grandfather said, until my father ran it into the ground. He said that my father was a useless bastard but my mother told him that he was too cunning to be useless.
It was a long time before the manager's door opened and my mother walked out. She didn't look good. Her face looked small and her eyes had red rims. She walked past me without noticing me. I had never seen her do that before. I followed her out into the street and through the car park to the car. I wanted to call out and remind her about the jeans.
When we got into the car, she rifled through the glove box and pulled out a bent cigarette. She smoothed it out straight as if she were about to smoke it but she put it back gently where she had found it. She stared out through the front windscreen. She stared out for a long time. I wanted to move around, my legs felt sore and cramped, but I kept still. I watched a Cessna pass overhead. It was slow and noisy and sounded in trouble. My mother looked at me and, with a tight grip on the steering wheel, said: "It's all gone, Sean. We haven't a cent. We've lost everything: the house, the furniture, the business, the new carpet, the telly, everything. Your father's gone through the lot."
A group of girls from my class walked past my mother's window as she said "your father's gone through the lot" but by the way they kept walking and eating their chips, I knew they hadn't heard.
"Where the hell do we go from here?" she said and looked back out, without really looking. I looked out, too. I stared at a ute directly in front of us and then I looked down dumbly at a motorbike I had drawn on the back of a bank deposit slip. I wanted my mother to look over and tell me that I was a good drawer.
A man walked past my side of the car and went to the ute. He unlocked it and got in. As he pulled the seatbelt across his shoulder, he saw my mother and me staring at him. His eyes narrowed and he looked as if he were going to get back out but changed his mind. We watched him pull out. His ute squeaked like my father's. He stopped and had a last look at us and then drove off. The brake lights lit up before he pulled out onto the main street and I thought of my father's broken tail-light and wondered if he would be home when we got back this time.
My mother turned the key in the ignition and the engine screeched and shuddered. She turned it off quickly and turned it on again and the car started. She let off the handbrake and pushed in the clutch. She looked at her hand on the gear stick.
"Jesus," she said, "I can't remember reverse, where's reverse?"
WE WERE STILL stuck in neutral when I saw him.
He didn't hear me. He glided past in a brand new cream Mercedes Sports, searching for a park. My mother looked at me and then at him. I felt weird. We watched him as he braked, looked over his shoulder and spun the big, white steering wheel around and slid back into a parking space. He turned off the engine, pulled down the sun visor, opened a newspaper against the wheel, pulled out a pen from his shirt pocket and eased back into the seat. My mother flew out of the car. She slammed the door so hard, the car rocked. My father looked up. His eyes widened as he saw her tear across the car park towards him. People stopped and watched.
"You bastard," she screamed at him through the driver's window, "you fuckin low-life bastard. Where did you get the money for this?"
She punched the window and kicked the Mercedes twice. My father leapt out of the car, saw the dent in the door and threw his hands up to his face.
"You lunatic! Look what you've done."
"At what I've done," she said and went for the car again.
My father grabbed her by the arm and twisted her around.
"It's not mine, Linda." He tightened the grip on her arm. "It's not mine. For God's sake, calm down."
My mother lunged at the car.
"Hey! Stop that, call the police, someone call the police," yelled a woman as she pushed through a small crowd and ran towards the Mercedes. I recognised her. I had helped my father build a barbecue at her house. I got out of the car and walked towards them. I stopped. I didn't know what to do. The woman touched the dent and turned to my mother,
"Look at what you've done to my car."
My mother looked at her and then at my father. He looked away. She pulled free and took a step back and kicked him hard. He gave a cry of pain and held his leg. The woman ran to his side. Her handbag slid off her arm as she bent down on one knee. My father looked up and we caught each other's eye. I looked at him and turned and walked with my mother back to the car. We got in. She breathed as if she had been held under water. We drove out of the car park. People stared but no one tried to stop us.
THE SUN WAS low and orange. It flickered between the poplars that lined the road out of town. We passed bare hills and I pictured the front of our house and then my father in the Mercedes. It didn't feel right seeing him like that, like he wasn't a part of us, like he wasn't him at all. I turned and looked at Mum's face. It was moving like wind moved over wheat fields. We passed Con's van. The lights were out, the awning was pulled down and Con's car was gone. It looked lonely propped up on blocks in the dirt without its wheels or anyone inside.