01: Well I've Been Waiting For This Moment For All My Life, Oh Lord (Phil Collins)
A cloud of dust billowed in the middle distance.
From his bedroom window, Sam Dennon imagined his tattered curtains framed a stage. The scenery outside might as well be a still life painting. Plains, gum trees, a massive bright sky. Nothing ever changed.
But now for act two.
A speck in the dust approached. It might be just a tractor. Or it might be the visitors.
“Is that them, Doggy?” Sam squinted through the summer grime of glass, into the tapering country road. Sometimes squinting helped.
Doggy nodded, aided by Sam’s finger at the scruff of her flannel neck. Doggy had long since lost both of her plastic eyeballs but Sam imagined she could see just fine. His toy dog might even see better than he could. Sam’s year six teacher at the area school told him last year he hunched too close to his books. Bad posture, she said. Sam worried he might need glasses. But people also told him he worried too much. So Sam had kept quiet about his blurry vision. He didn’t want his mum to fret about money for glasses. Anyhow, he wasn’t in the habit of staring out of windows like this. He could still read books just fine.
Sam rubbed a gentle circle onto the glass. He felt bad about it, but sometimes Doggy came in handy as a rag. Some years ago, a hole had opened in Doggy’s rump and she slowly lost most of her stuffing. These days she folded like a hanky with a head on it. But the window was only dirty on the other side.
Even through the grime, a shimmer of heat rose from the horizon, surrounding them, shielding them, separating World from Home. Sam imagined the heat haze worked like a legendary rainbow. As soon as you reached it, the shimmer disappeared. You’d never know when you’d broken through to the other side. And you’d never find the pot of gold.
The cloud of dust drew nearer.
“Don’t worry, Doggy. I’ll look after you.”
Doggy nodded again.
Sam didn’t recognise the red of the car, but it must be them. Normally, just two vehicles whooshed by on Thursdays, and not in the early afternoon. A dirty white ute functioned as Sam’s morning alarm clock, zooming eastbound at seven, westbound again at four. The second regular vehicle was Mr Gallagher’s black ute with three Border collies on the tray.
It always stung a bit to see those Border collies with their pink tongues and muppety grins. If Sam were the owner of Border collies he’d work out how to drive his mum’s Morris Minor ute and he’d take them for rides every day after school.
Every year he asked for a real dog for his birthday. Failing that, for Christmas.
“Nah, Sammy, nah,” his mum always said. “Dogs are a damn nuisance, darl.”
Before Sam was born, Della Dennon had owned a nuisance staffy who developed a taste for lamb. Sam had seen the Staffordshire bull terrier in photos. He did not remember leaning out of his pushchair to grab her white-tipped tail like that, nor laughing gummily as she licked at his chubby hands.
By the time Sam could remember things, the staffy had long since gone. Sam had never been told the real story. He imagined Farmer Jack banging on the front door one night, barging into their house, shotgun cocked.
“Besides, dog food costs money, darl. Fences cost money. In case you didn’t notice, we still don’t got a fence.”
Everything cost money. Everything except free stuff from the dump.
“Sammy!” That was his mum right now, hollering from the kitchen. “You want a baked bean jaffle, darl?”
“No thanks, Mum.”
Baked beans, of all things. His stomach was churning, as it always did when he was nervous.
Here’s the thing about baked beans and long journeys with relatives from Melbourne. He’d learned this six months ago:
You eat beans.
Your body brews a bunch of blow offs.
Uncle Mick exclaims, “Crikey Dick! Is that fertiliser or did someone fart?”
Auntie Jan says, “Mind your language in front of the boy, Michael. We’ll have to start acting like parents now.”
Uncle Mick apologises for saying ‘fart’ and cranks down his window.
Sam wondered if he had any inner-storms brewing after his one boiled egg for breakfast this morning. If he needed to let one rip he should let it out now. He wished he could let out an entire term’s worth of blow off in advance, and not need to do it again until next time he was right here, safe in his own room, with his familiar toilet nearby. He didn’t mind making smelly noises in front of his mum. Or in front of Doggy, or in front of the chooks. But they were the only ones.
The dust cloud outside his window drew nearer, revealing the shape of a sedan.
After today, Sam wouldn’t be truly alone until the end of semester. He worried about the toilets at the new school, an expensive, shined up sort of place, where he’d already sat his scholarship test. The guided tour had included mention of toilet blocks, but Sam had avoided closer inspection. He imagined stairs leading to open latrines in a dank basement, where older boys pushed you into the urinal then rinsed you off in the toilet. He saw that on a TV show one time. At his aunt and uncle’s house he planned to wake very early every morning and use the bathroom before Auntie Jan could knock on the door asking if everything was all right. Then he’d hold on for the rest of the school day.
The dust cloud drew nearer, past the leaning gum, past the big clump of wattle. Sam wished his heart wouldn’t pound like this. Yes, this was them all right. Uncle Mick was the type to put on his blinker at an intersection, even with no other vehicles in sight. Uncle Mick always did things properly. Sam aimed to do the same, but didn’t own the rule book. He was sure to slip up.
Now Sam could make out the shapes of two passengers — the shadow cast by Uncle Mick’s cap, and Auntie Jan’s curly up-do that looked like a wig but wasn’t.
“A new Ford falcon,” Doggy confirmed in a Sam kind of voice.
“Must be the 1986 model.”
Doggy dropped her gruff little voice to a whisper. “Wanna hide under the bed?”
But Sam’s mum startled them from behind, this time from the bedroom doorway.
“Well? What you want in your jaffle then, Sammy? If you won’t eat beans I got cheese or I got plain. You gotta eat, darl. I’m not sending you out into the world with a gaping great hole in your gut. That Jan’ll complain I never feed you.”
“They’re here, Mum. They just got out of their car.”
02: We Live Our Separate Lives While Counting All The Days, Till The Two Of Us Arrive In Another Time And Place (Alan Parsons)
“Go on, then. Haul yourself outside and say your giddays,” said Della.
Sam knew it was time for Doggy to exit the stage for now. He folded her in half then tucked her into the waistband of his shorts.
As it happened, Auntie Jan also carried a dog around with her. Quivering Patsy had come for the round trip. Patsy was a chihuahua-Maltese cross. Even on this fan-oven January day, nestled safely under the crook of Auntie Jan’s arm, Patsy still quivered and shivered.
“Oh, look! It’s my Sammy!” Auntie Jan flung out her dog-free arm, threatening an awkward embrace. “Does your mother not feed you, Sammy? You’re still the cutest little guy!”
“It’s only been six months since we last saw the man,” said Uncle Mick. “I was a late bloomer and just look at me now. Hulky and bulky. You’ll take after your uncle, son.”
“This younger version’ll always be adorable, though. Still got those big baby eyes! I’m guessing you still don’t appreciate cuddles, am I right, Sammy?”
Uncle Mick lowered his voice. “Call him ‘Sam’, love. For crying out loud, kid’s starting high school next week.”
Della emerged from the house more slowly. She made her way off the veranda, careful on the wooden steps. She tugged at the waist of her dress like she always did around company. Her leg was playing up again.
“Your boy’s a stunner, Della.”
“Gidday, Jan. Mick. Didn’t think you were gonna make it in time for a hot lunch, but here we all are.”
“We won’t put you to any trouble, Della love. It’s a long drive both ways in a day, isn’t it Mick?”
“You could stay overnight,” said Della. “Weren’t waiting for an invitation, were you? The place is half Mick’s.”
“Like I keep saying, this old shack is all yours, sis.”
Mum and Uncle Mick gave each other a back-slappy kind of side-hug.
Then Uncle Mick extended a hairy hand in Sam’s direction. Sam was expected to shake it.
“Give it to me firm. Firmer! That the best you got?”
“Come on in, out of this terrible heat,” said Della without gesturing. “She’s not much cooler inside, but.”
“We won’t stop, Della. We’re very spoilt. The new Ford’s fitted with air conditioning, you see. Motor’s still running…”
“Can’t stand them cold air machines myself. They spread germs.”
“Well. We shall keep our distance!” Auntie Jan laughed but Della didn’t.
This always happened. Della would invite visitors inside but visitors gave reasons for rushing away. One time, years before, Sam’s auntie and uncle had accepted an invitation for lunch and made it as far as the veranda. But they sat right there on the outside chairs and offered to share Scotch eggs out of their own picnic hamper. They sipped on their own flasks and shared expensive chocolates out of a purple box. They didn’t touch Della’s attempts at club sandwiches.
“This one hasn’t had his lunch yet,” Della said. “At least stop in for a jaffle. Or would a cold sandwich be better on a scorcher of a day like this?”
“It’s okay, Mum. I’m not hungry.” This wasn’t true, but Sam’s stomach churned as much as it rumbled. And if he ate, it’d only churn worse.
“We’ll feed him up good, Della.”
Auntie Jan must’ve entered the house at some point, Sam figured. Otherwise she wouldn’t know. Unlike his mum, Auntie Jan was the sort of person who liked things spacious and spotless.
Sam wanted to give Quivering Patsy a pat, but Patsy glared back with black and bulgy eyes. She bared her teeth in a grimace, a creepy dog version of Auntie Jan’s politeness.
“Where’s your suitcase, Sammy?” Uncle Mick was in just as big of a hurry.
“It’s heavy as all get out,” Della replied. “He’s packed all his worldly possessions.”
“Oh, he won’t need much,” said Auntie Jan. “You can get a hold of anything in Melbourne. We’ll look after the scholar, don’t you worry.”
“He likes to have his own things though, Janice.”
“Like mother, like son.” Uncle Mick laughed but rubbed his palms together like a fly preparing for some hazardous mission. “Lead me to the goods, Sam-boy. I’ll heft your treasures out to the car for you.”
As soon as he stepped inside, Uncle Mick whistled through his teeth. “Boy oh boy, nothing changes in here, does it son?”
In Sam’s opinion lots had changed. The piles had grown taller.
“Is there a carton of rotten cabbages somewhere, do you reckon?”
“Never mind. A bit of stink won’t kill us. Lead me to this suitcase of yours. Safest route, please.”
Sam always closed the door to his own bedroom. Now he opened it and let Uncle Mick stand in the doorway.
“Your mother’s done a good job of you Sam-boy.”
Sam’s bedroom was the only tidy room of the house. He always smoothed out his bedspread, kept his dresser-top clear, closed all his drawers, swept his floor and maintained a bug-free windowsill.
“Credit where credit’s due,” said Uncle Mick. “Turns out a hovel for a house makes for an immaculate kid. There’s method in her madness.”
Uncle Mick looked down at Sam, taken aback. “I actually have no idea. Aren’t you a smarty pants.” Then, more softly, “We’re all very proud of you, son.”
Sam felt warmth bloom across his chest.
“You’d better say a proper goodbye to this room. You’ll be coming back for your holidays, but take it from me, once you’ve been away for a spell this old dump’ll never feel quite the same.”
Sam nodded. He knew his mum would be repurposing his bedroom during his first semester in Melbourne. She couldn’t help how she was. Her things would creep in, eventually lining his walls. He’d have to shift her things before he could sleep in his bed again. He knew this already.
“So tell me, does this old carry bag hold together?”
“Good. Meanwhile, you do me a favour, son.” Uncle Mick reached into his back pocket and retrieved a brown envelope, even thicker than usual. “Place this on your mother’s pillow, or somewhere she’ll definitely find it.”
Sam knew what it was. He’d done the brown envelope thing before, at the end of every visit.
“You don’t have to worry about your mum, Sam-boy. Even from Melbourne, we’re all looking out for Della.”
Three minutes later the envelope of cash rested on Della’s pillow. Sam’s bag was locked inside the boot. Sam waited for an invitation into the back seat. Apart from the fresh country dusting this car looked like a showroom model, too nice to sit in.
Once he was belted in, Della knocked on the other side of his window. Sam couldn’t look her in the eye.
“Hoo roo then, my lovely big boy,” she said loudly through the glass. “Got everything you need?”
This felt different. Della never used words like ‘lovely’. And no one ever called him ‘big’. Suddenly the air felt prickly cool.
Had he forgotten anything?
Then Sam knew who his mum was talking about. He checked the waistband of his shorts. He did have Doggy, and with Doggy nearby he’d be okay.
“Naw, aren’t you gonna give your poor old mum a kiss goodbye?” said Auntie Jan, sitting in front.
Sam shook his head and looked down at his knees. Della didn’t need that sort of carry on. As Uncle Mick sometimes said, like mother, like son.
“Don’t be stingy, Sam!” Auntie Jan swivelled in her seat and tried to swat his leg.
Uncle Mick got into the car and adjusted a knob on the dashboard. “Leave him alone, love,” he said. “High school boys are like that with their mothers. It’s natural.”
The windows in this new car went up and down by themselves. Auntie Jan spoke loudly through her front window.
“At least bloody wave. Bye, Della! You’ll come and visit us, won’t you! Plenty of room in Surrey Hills!”
Uncle Mick backed slowly out from behind Della’s ute, and into the road out front.
Sam didn’t want to look back at his mum. He knew she’d be smiling but with sad eyes and he couldn’t be dealing with that right now.
“Mind out for that chook!” Auntie Jan cautioned.
Uncle Mick had already planted his foot on the brake, but not to avoid the chicken. He was looking through the car window at Della.
Auntie Jan gave running commentary. “Oop, seems you’ve forgotten something, Sammy. Your mum’s waving for us to wait. Is that what she’s doing, Mick?”
“Alls I know is, she’s hurrying back into the house.”
“What’s she up to in there? Mick?”
Sam felt embarrassed for his mother. They’d already said their goodbyes and now they’d all have to do it again. Everything took so long with Della, who had hobbled back up the steps and struggled to dislodge the front door.
“I wish she’d get that hip seen to. Does it give her much bother, Sammy? Seems even worse.”
“Leave it, love. We all know how she is about cities and doctors and sticky beaks.”
Then the three of them waited in silence, except for the sound of the motor and a low hiss of cold air.
Mum’d be sidling up the hallway right now, past the cardboard boxes bursting with newspapers and pamphlets. She’d be stepping over the pile of carpet shapes they rescued from landfill. She’d straddle the triangle of corrugated iron picked up roadside. She’d be hurrying and scurrying as fast as she could, searching through jars and pots on the shelf, or hauling bits and pieces out of a cupboard. She’d be back in a tick with something for Sam. Whatever it was, he was dreading the shame of receiving it.
Here she was, returned at last, loping towards the Ford Falcon, elbow pumping. Her other hand held something high.
Sam looked for a window crank but didn’t find one. Somehow, Uncle Mick was able to buzz Sam’s window down using a button in front. The glass disappeared to leave no barrier between Mum and the hippopotamus. It was a small pottery hippo, or maybe a rhino, with a goofy grin and protruding big teeth. Most people had piggy banks but Della had a hippo. It was heavy with coins.
“Take this,” she said, passing the hippo to Sam through the open window. “Just in case.”
“Oh, Della. For goodness’ sake, he won’t need that!”
“Just in case,” Della repeated. “You get yourself something nice in town, you hear?”
Sam knew how much money was inside the hippo. He’d counted the coins many times. He liked to tip them out, stack them, add them up, then slot them all back in. The hippo contained $11.83. Most of the weight came from one and two cent pieces.
At last the Ford Falcon was off.
Sam’s eyes watered a bit. But he cried in front of no one these days. The last time he cried in public was when he wet his pants on the slippery dip. That was his first day at primary school. He would definitely not cry now, not sharing a car with Uncle Mick.
Instead he blinked hard and dislodged Doggy from his waistband. He stroked her head with one finger.
Sam didn’t need to look back for his mum. He knew she’d be growing smaller in the distance. She’d be waving from the middle of the road, both arms big, like someone stuck on an island, attracting the search and rescue.
03: Together We Can Make This Journey (Zapp)
The Ford Falcon picked up speed and the hiss of air grew colder. Sam knew this bit of road like the back of his hand. He’d seen it for years from the school bus. He knew the gum trees, the clumps of spinifex, his favourite woollybutt. But Uncle Mick did not slow down for the school turn-off. Instead they kept driving into the hot shimmer, following the road headed east.
Eventually Uncle Mick broke the silence. “Well. We’re not gonna have to tell you to shut up, Sam-boy, are we eh?”
“You all good in the back, Sammy?”
“Was that a yes?”
“Yes, thank you.”
Sam wondered what the correct answer was. Before he could say something, Auntie Jan had changed the subject.
“Hey, I know something you’ll like. See that bag behind your Uncle Mick?That’s your birthday present from December, and your Christmas pressies in there as well.”
Sam didn’t want to riffle through the bag on the floor. It wasn’t his carry bag and he didn’t feel comfortable poking through it.
“Go on!” Auntie Jan was excited on Sam’s behalf. Quivering Patsy peered at Sam over Auntie Jan’s shoulder. Even Patsy looked excited about the presents.
Sam reached carefully into the bag and pulled out a box covered in Christmas paper decorated in shiny gold.
“Rip into it!”
Patsy the dog yipped in excitement.
Sam wanted to save the nice paper for his mother, as well as the ribbon flower. She’d make crafts out of it, or she might iron the paper flat and display it in a frame, just as soon as she got hold of a frame. Sam prepared his face to look appreciative. He was usually so overwhelmed by the presents Auntie Jan chose for him that he forgot to smile and say thank you. Sam’s best toys had all been chosen by Auntie Jan. Most of the time Sam didn’t realise he even wanted these things until he held them in his hands: The Rubik’s cube, the Star Wars Lego set, the 1000 piece jigsaw puzzles.
This was a gift he’d seen but never expected to own. A Sony Walkman.
“Thank you,” he said, slightly breathless. He couldn’t say anything else.
“Reckon he likes it,” said Uncle Mick.
“It comes with batteries,” said Auntie Jan.
Sam gently opened the box. He had seen these portable cassette players on the school bus. The older kids wore the spongy circles against their ears, heads nodding to private tunes. In his own hands, the equipment felt smooth and cool. So this is how smooth they felt in your hands. This is how they clicked open.
“Open the other present!” urged Auntie Jan.
“That little stack should see you right,” said Uncle Mick.
“I don’t know what the cool kids are listening to these days,” Auntie Jan continued, “so I asked the young bloke behind the counter at Gaslight.”
Sam had heard of Michael Jackson but the tunes on the Dance Rap and Hit City compilations were new to him.
“I’ve heard you humming when you’re concentrating,” said Auntie Jan, “but I don’t reckon the boys at your new school will listen to Patsy Cline. Not that there’s anything wrong with Patsy Cline, eh Patsy?” She pitched her voice high so that Patsy the chihuahua-Maltese cross would feel included.
Sam felt heat rise to his face. He hadn’t realised he hummed out loud. He’d been told that he hunched, squinted, blinked hard and was constantly readjusting his waistband. The school librarian had told him about the waistband thing, as if it might help him to know.
Auntie Jan reached into the glovebox for Juicy Fruit gum. Sam declined several offers. He did enjoy the taste, but soon the flavour was gone and then he’d have to ask where to dispose of his spent pieces. That would be embarrassing. So he declined all offers of gum.
Sam intended to study these tunes. He would memorise the lyrics, which were printed on the fold-out bits of cardboard. He would never hum in Melbourne, not even when concentrating.
The batteries in the Walkman lasted for two and a half hours. Eventually the music slowed down. Upbeat voices drawled and grew deeper. The gum trees outside warped and bowed and Sam fell asleep.
He awoke to no music and no car engine. Auntie Jan was mid-sentence. Something about toilets and ice creams.
Outside Sam’s window, Uncle Mick’s headless torso stood beside the bowser.
Sam had never once used toilets at a servo and he didn’t plan to start now.
“Come on, stretch your legs.” Auntie Jan ushered him out of the car. She handed Patsy to Uncle Mick, who finished filling the car with petrol.
Inside there were freezers and now Auntie Jan was requiring Sam to make a decision about ice creams on sticks.
“Cornettos, Smurfees, Gaytimes… Ew, look, Sammy! These pink ones are shaped like feet! How’s that for a giggle?”
But Sam couldn’t pick one.
“These are my favourite. There’s nuts on top and a lump of chocolate at the bottom, and a waffle cone.”
Auntie Jan was pointing to the most expensive kind.
Sam knew the prices of things because he had the job of Walking Calculator for Della at the General Store. He knew these servo ice creams were poor value for money. He and Della only ever ate ice cream on special occasions. They made a value tub last all December, spanning Sam’s November birthday and Christmas as well. Sam wasn’t the sort of person who went on outings and got ice creams on sticks.
“I’m really not hungry, Auntie Jan.” He hoped he didn’t sound ungrateful.
“Oh, Sammy. You don’t eat ice cream because you’re hungry. It melts between the cracks in your belly. Come on, don’t make me scoff gut-rot on my own. Choose something!”
“Well. I wouldn’t mind some new batteries.” Sam could duck back out to the Ford Falcon. He could retrieve the hippo of coins from the back seat. There was enough in there to cover a four pack of AAs.
“Of course. Of course you need batteries, for your music.” Auntie Jan lowered her voice. “But servo batteries are a rip off, just quietly. I’ll buy you a bulk pack tomorrow when we go to the shops in Melbourne.”
“I can pay for batteries,” Sam said quietly. “The hippo.”
“Naw, don’t be ridiculous, Sammy. Blow it, I’m having a choc-peppermint ice cream. I’ll let you have first lick, see if you like it for next time. Mick’ll want his smokes.”
Back on the road, Auntie Jan and Uncle Mick chatted lightly, breaking the silences, possibly for his benefit. But Sam kept thinking of batteries. He had thought his auntie and uncle were rich. But now he had witnessed Auntie Jan thinking about the prices of things. Della was always thinking about the prices of things too, saving a few cents here, a few cents there. Sam didn’t need new batteries. Batteries weren’t food. But he felt bad for wasting the ones that came with the Walkman. He hadn’t even managed to stay awake.
Sam looked down at the hippo beside him, with its gap-tooth grin and googly eyes. There was one thing worse than being the charity case, and that was being the charity case when you weren’t even sure your relatives could afford you.
Outside, the afternoon sky turned orange. The red Ford Falcon must have already entered the dusky mirage of outer Melbourne. Houses crouched closer together, sunset roofs with narrow-stripe spaces — tigers about to pounce. Everything felt crammed together.
At dusk they reached a particular driveway. Even mid-summer, the grass out front looked tidy and green. Sam had stayed with his aunt and uncle before, but this house was new. Using a button on his sun visor, Uncle Mick made the garage door open by itself.
Once inside the house, Auntie Jan gave Sam a guided tour. She seemed especially proud of the upstairs bathroom.
“The white towels are for you… a small one to wipe your hands after the loo…new toothbrush…” Now she was opening a fresh cake of soap.
Sam liked clear instructions, but this was a bit much. He didn’t need a blow by blow on using the bathroom.
“This is a man’s soap. We don’t need you smelling of Cashmere bouquet.” Auntie Jan tossed its cellophane wrapper straight into a wicker basket. His own mum would’ve kept that wrapper. “Now Sammy, you lay out a bath mat, turn the shower taps like so, and lather up under both arms. Water on its own doesn’t do the job. Here in Melbourne, we shower every day.”
All this time in the car Sam had been worried about releasing smelly wind. He hadn’t realised he stunk regardless.
It got worse.
“Boys your age need underarm deodorant.” Auntie Jan retrieved a can of Brut 33 from a basket, removed its lid and gave the nozzle a whiff. “Aw, pooh stink. This was a two for one deal. You can choose your own fragrance when we go to the supermarket.”
At last Auntie Jan clicked the bathroom door closed behind her, leaving Sam to deal with his filth. For how long had he stunk? Is this why the kids at his old school said he smelled funny? He thought it was because his mum liked to get things from the dump and everybody knew it. Or else it was just a thing people said, like how Simon Kelly in year ten was called ‘Smelly’, and wasn’t smelly at all. But unlike Simon, Sam really had been smelly. His face burned with shame.
In the shower he cooled his hot face under a stream of cold, then turned off the tap as he always did at home. He lathered up for longer than usual, until he felt creamy and smelled of Uncle Mick. Then he turned the water back on to rinse the soap off. Della didn’t like to waste things, including water. Here in Melbourne the steam ran smooth and warm. He stood there rinsing off for far too long. But at least he wouldn’t smell bad now.
Next he filled the hand basin and gave Doggy a gentle warm bath. He was careful not to rip her these days. He avoided getting soap where her eyes had once been.
The noise of the hairdryer startled him, but he’d need to get Doggy dry. She fuzzed up in places, just like how she used to look.
Auntie Jan had bought him new pyjamas, two sizes too big. So he wore his old ones. The elastic was poking out of the fabric, but at least they wouldn’t end up round his knees. Besides, he needed to keep Doggy safe, against his abdomen, held in tight.
Vegemite soldiers were waiting for him downstairs, at a huge table which had nothing else on it, except for a placemat and the plate of toast. Once he started eating he realised he was ravenous.
“Don’t you smell lovely.” Auntie Jan allowed herself one cigarette per day, from Uncle Mick’s pack of twenty. She sat on the kitchen bench now and side-mouthed smoke out through an open window. “Not a fan of your new jim-jams?
“They’re just a bit loose.”
Auntie Jan laughed and he felt she was laughing at him. “Did you put your dirty clothes in the hamper, Sammy?”
He hadn’t. He did all of the washing chores back home, his own and also his mum’s.
He didn’t want anyone touching his things, clean or otherwise. He didn’t want any of this. It felt like an invasion, all of it. He wasn’t a baby and he wanted to go home.
Next morning, Sam awoke to sunlight across his face. It fell across his cheek from an odd angle. A strange apricot light had changed the hue of the room. The sheets felt wonderfully soft and smelled fresh like summer. Doggy was asleep in her usual nook, between Sam’s chin and chest. She smelled like Cusson’s Imperial Leather but also a little of damp, which brought out the smell of home.
But this wasn’t home at all. The bedroom door was in the wrong place. Now someone was knocking on it.
“Are you decent?” Not Mum’s voice. Auntie Jan’s.
Sam tucked Doggy under the sheet.
Auntie Jan opened the door. A rainbow of powdery colour extended from her eyelids to her brow. Yellow circles dangled from her ears. She wore a stripy shirt all bulked out at the shoulders.
“I didn’t want to disturb you, Sammy. Growing lads need their sleep, but I’ve booked you in for a haircut at ten. You’ll need a short back and sides before school on Monday.”
Sam nodded. He’d been wondering about that. His mum had cut his hair on Tuesday, but she'd missed a few spots.
“After that, we’re going shopping!”
Sam’s heart sank but Auntie Jan clasped her hands together.
“So think of the things you might need.” Then Auntie Jan spied Sam’s carry bag, spilling its contents across the carpet. “No wonder that luggage weighed a tonne! It’s half full up with books!” Then she bent to retrieve one. “Senior fiction,” she read from the spine. “Sammy, this is a library book. You no longer go to that school. Are we going to have to send these back by post?”
“The library teacher gave them to me,” he explained. “They were having a throw out.”
But Auntie Jan looked sceptical. “All these?”
“I’m the only one who reads pulp sci-fi with monsters from outer space.”
“What about this one? Hamlet. English department. Do you understand this, Sammy?”
Sam felt like a fraud. He didn’t understand much of it. He mostly liked the sound of the old-timey words. But if he admitted that, Auntie Jan would know he liked to read aloud, haltingly to himself, same as a little kindy kid. He’d accepted the discarded copy because he was sure the boys at the city school could all recite Shakespeare by heart. He hoped his teacher would tell him discreetly what the words actually meant.
Auntie Jan spied the reptiles book now, and the 1950s encyclopaedia of native birds, the classic novels.
“What are you doing with Anne of Green Gables?”
Sam didn’t know how to answer that. Why wouldn’t he take it? You could still read it, after taping the loosest pages back in.
“Are you sure you didn't pluck these falling-apart books out of a bin?”
Sam shook his head. That’s not what happened at all. The librarian had been updating the catalogue and gave her keenest re-shelving volunteer first dibs. Sam had thought his mum might like some of them, so the librarian placed them all in his nice clean back pack. He had not dived into the bins. He wasn’t like that. He wasn’t like his mum.
Auntie Jan wasn’t being careful with his books. A loose and yellowed page fluttered to the floor.
Sam slipped out of bed and picked it up. Then he riffled through his suitcase until he found another book — his favourite of the lot — a hardback with yellowed hanks of pages taped badly back into the spine. The Wind In The Willows. Sam opened its front cover so Auntie Jan could read the inscription.
She read it aloud. “Dear Mister Samuel Dennon, best of luck at your new establishment. Do amazing things with that amazing brain of yours. Best wishes, your favourite librarian.”
The inscription was a joke because there was only one librarian, and no one called him ’Samuel’ at his old school. Also, he was far too short to be mistaken for a ‘mister’.
But Auntie Jan only thought it sweet. “Naw. You were teacher’s pet, eh? Hey, I’ll have to take you to Space Age Books in Swanston Street. Get you some new alien stories. We’re gonna make you feel right at home in Melbourne, just you wait and see.”
But right now Sam felt naked wearing his tatty old pyjamas, with his one familiar bag of things. Doggy remained quiet, a strange little lump under the sheet. But Auntie Jan’s curious gaze did not extend to the lump.
“Sammy, you get yourself washed and come down for your bacon now.”
“Bacon? For breakfast?”
“That’s what your Uncle Mick has for his brekkie. Let’s put some meat on them skinny little bones.”
“Do I really need to wash again?” Had he already worked up some stink?
Auntie Jan seemed to think so. “I just mean splash your face. And like I told you last night, throw your boxers straight into the hamper.” Auntie Jan reconsidered. “Scratch that. Chuck all your clothes straight into the washing machine downstairs. I’ll give the lot a decent soak.”
“But what should I wear to the shops?” Sam knew nothing he had would pass muster.
“Hmm. Wear what’s comfy for now. We’ll get you sorted out.”
Quivering Patsy wasn’t allowed to come. She wedged herself between the front window and the net curtain. She howled at Auntie Jan and Sam as they walked past the front windows and down the driveway, on their way to the train station.
“She’ll be fine,” reassured Auntie Jan. “She’ll have her little whinge and then she’ll fall asleep.”
Sam checked the waistband of his best brown shorts. He did have Doggy, safely nestled against the softest part of his belly.
04: Lonesome Train On A Lonesome Track, I'm Going Away, Ain't Coming Back (Johnny Burnette)
On the train, Auntie Jan sat with her handbag on her lap. Sam looked out the window and thought about all the concrete structures passing by.
He eventually decided to ask a question. “How long have trains been electric?”
“Gosh, Sammy. I wouldn’t know. Ages!”
“Where does the electricity come from?”
“From those wires up top, I guess.”
“And where before that?”
A man wearing too many clothes for summer answered from a seat nearby. “Melbourne trains were first electrified in 1919 using 1.5 kilovolts of direct current from a nearby coal station. Do you know the difference between direct and alternating current, lad?”
“Well…” Sam had read all about this in a Tell Me Why book published in the 1960s. There were plenty of things he could say about it. “I think direct current only flows in one direction—”
“Interesting answer. Smart boy you got there, missus.”
“Oh, yes,” said Auntie Jan. “This one’s a grammar boy, on academic scholarship.”
“Is he, now? What do you plan to do after you finish up there?” asked the man in the coat.
Sam had never shared his secret desire to train service dogs. He had no idea how to become a dog trainer either, so he offered a realistic answer. “I’d like to be a school librarian.”
“Aye, that’s a good job, too,” said the man.
Sam didn’t understand the “too”. The man must sense that wasn’t Sam’s real answer.
“You could be anything you like,” admonished Auntie Jan. “You could be an engineer, even. Make trains and whatnot, since you clearly have an interest.”
But Sam had already done his sums on his future. He already knew how to read and where to put the books back on the library shelf. After seven years of high school he’d be moving back home to look after his mum. The librarian at his old school would be retiring right around then. She’d probably give Sam her old job. He’d already checked it by her. “You’d make a hunky-dory librarian,” she’d said.
Auntie Jan seemed to have her own plans for Sam. “You could be doctor, a lawyer, something like that,” she continued, “or even an accountant, like your Uncle Mick.”
Sam could never be a doctor. Auntie Jan didn’t know Sam yet. She didn’t know he flatout fainted that time he cut his foot on the broken shard of pottery. And he wasn’t so sure what lawyers even did, or if there was any need for lawyers out west.
“In any case,” said the man on the train, “this smart lad of yours’ll be off to university.”
“Oh, yes.” Auntie Jan nodded and smiled.
University? This was the first Sam had heard of that. Then he realised something.
They all meant him to be stuck in Melbourne forever.
Like direct current, this was a one way trip. He wouldn’t be going home.
05: I Want To Stay Alive Here In The City (Lou Reed)
The barber draped a light tarp around Sam’s entire body so the scratchy bits of chopped-off hair wouldn’t get stuck in his clothes. It felt strange to have someone not his mum touch his head. He dislodged Doggy from the waistband of his shorts because no one could see her under the tarp. He stroked her head as the barber snipped at his hair.
Auntie Jan seemed unhappy about the whole thing, even though the haircut had been her idea. “Look at those beautiful locks” she exclaimed, “all fallen to the floor! People pay good money to get theirs that colour! What a shame… what a waste…”
But then the tarp came off. Auntie Jan changed her mind and said he looked grown up and more handsome than ever.
The Sam in the mirror looked distant and strange. The downlight hollowed his eyes out. The shape of his skull was freshly revealed. He could imagine himself as a little old man. As a skeleton.
The buildings of Inner City Melbourne were scary tall. Sam tried to count the floors as they walked, but this gave Sam a toppling-over-backwards feeling. If he wasn’t careful he might actually fall backwards and crack his head against the concrete ground.
Sam had never seen so many people in one place. Some carried shopping bags, many wore business clothes. Everyone except Sam knew where they were going. Sam wondered what these strangers did to get all their money to buy their nice clothes and their shopping. Would he really have to go to university? He wondered if in Melbourne he could earn enough to buy a house with a fenced-off yard for a dog. If Sam stayed here in the city he’d need to earn enough for that, and also enough to fill his mum’s brown envelopes.
The department store was a labyrinth extending in every direction. Sam followed Auntie Jan onto the moving stairs to menswear. Sam wondered how an escalator worked. A double pulley, he figured, wrapped around some gears.
“This way, Sam!”
If he wasn’t careful he’d get lost in this place.
“You’re a very awkward size,” said Auntie Jan after a while. “Let’s try the boys’ section.”
“Oh, Sammy. Stop apologising. Over there.” Auntie Jan pointed to signage that said Men’s Dressing Rooms. “I’ll wait. When you find a pair to fit, keep them on. Those ones you’re wearing have seen better days.”
Sam took a pile of shorts with him. The cubicles didn’t have doors, only curtains. The curtains wouldn’t close without leaving gaps. At any time, someone could barge in on you. Sam pulled Doggy out of his waistband and set her up carefully on the floor.
“You’re guard dog,” he whispered. Then he hurried to try on the shorts. He couldn’t avoid looking at the price tags. The shorts with the best pockets were the most expensive. He didn’t fit the cheap ones, but maybe he’d grow into those. He could save a bit of his auntie and uncle’s money that way. He decided to wear a new pair of brown ones. They looked a bit like his old ones, only shorter, and looser around the waist. In his hurry, the other shorts were a mess on the floor. He scooped them all up in his haste to get out.
But outside the dressing rooms, Auntie Jan was nowhere to be found.
Surely she hadn’t left the department store without him. Sam ducked from aisle to aisle, but this place had been designed to get lost in. Soon he was striding through the women’s clothing section, where every single mannequin looked like Auntie Jan.
He stepped back onto the escalator. From his elevated position he scanned the floor below for curly blonde heads. None of them belonged to Auntie Jan. Was he allowed to take the shorts unpaid for to a different department, or was that considered a different shop? He imagined a police officer following close behind, people stepping aside. He imagined himself in handcuffs.
“Oi! Stop, thief! You in the big brown shorts! You were supposed to pay for those at the other counter!”
But no one came after him. He was still alone.
He was starting to panic. If he didn’t find her, he couldn’t make his own way back to their house. In Melbourne you needed money to go anywhere. You couldn’t just walk down one long road. Back home he’d never lose Della because there weren’t many nooks and crannies in the General Store. But even if that did happen, someone would stop on the roadside to give him a lift back to his house. Here he knew no one, and he had no money to buy a train ticket.
That’s because Auntie Jan had made him take the hippo of coins back into the house this morning. Now she’d never see her nephew again. Sam would be camped here permanently, somewhere between the men’s and boys’ wear sections, splashing his face in public facilities, surrounded forever by a lifetime’s supply of ill-fitting shorts.
He checked the perfume counter, the lipstick aisle, rechecked the ladies’ apparel. Next he tried the cushions, then the toasters. But Auntie Jan already owned a shiny toaster and plenty of cushions. He took another escalator, then another then another until finally he seemed alone, surrounded by more toys than he’d seen in his life: Cabbage Patch Kids, Barbies and Jem dolls, radio controlled cars and helicopters, Koosh balls and pole tennis. He slowed to a walk. He had reached the section with high chairs and prams, and an entire row of stuffed, fluffy animals.
He had reached the Doggies — an entire row of Doggies, in every colour he could imagine. And there, right at eye-level, looking back at him, sat the most familiar Doggy. This was a factory-new version, as she’d existed before she lost her stuffing. This one was fluffy and plump, with both plastic eyeballs intact. She looked straight at Sam with puppy-dog eyes.
Sam readjusted his pile of ill-fitting shorts, clamping them under one damp but deodorised armpit. He reached out to touch her. He stroked her gently on the back of her neck. He picked her up and inhaled the top of her head. Collectively, these stuffed toys smelled unusual, like the department store itself. She smelled foreign in a strange, clean kind of way, but she’d make a good companion for the real Doggy.
The price tag said $7.99. He could buy her. He could come back another time with that hippo of coins. If he bought a friend for the real Doggy, then, maybe, he wouldn’t need to take the real Doggy to school with him. They could stay home together and keep each other company. He wouldn’t have to worry.
But the real Doggy! Sam almost let out a cry. He might have left her in the dressing room! He dropped the pile of ill-fitting shorts to the ground and rifled through them, tossing each pair aside, searching again. At last, there she was, scooped up and safe in the pile. He had not forgotten her after all.
Then his eyes travelled up — past the shiny pumps, the tan stockings, the tailored skirt. The woman who stood before him was younger than Auntie Jan.
Sam didn’t like the stretch of her smile. He slowly rose to his feet.
“Can I help you,” said the shop lady.
“Just looking, thanks.” He’d heard Auntie Jan say that. It usually meant they left you alone.
But the woman looked meaningfully at the messy pile of shorts on the floor.
“Sorry about all this.”
“And what are you hiding behind your back?”
“No one. Nothing.”
The shop lady gave him a withering look. “You gonna make me call someone?”
“Like… the police?”
“And why would I call the police?”
Sam felt his cheeks grow hotter. He was surely turning red. After his haircut, the untanned patches on his forehead would be fully pink by now, giving him away.
She knew he had lied. He did hold something behind his back. But he preferred to keep Doggy a secret these days.
The shop lady didn’t go away. Instead she folded her arms across her chest and looked like she had all day to wait.
In one slow, embarrassing movement, Sam moved his arm from behind his back, then opened his sweaty hand to reveal its contents.
The shop lady looked confused, then checked the floor behind Sam’s feet. But he hadn’t dropped anything on purpose. This was it. This is what he'd been ashamed of.
“This doggy is mine, from home,” Sam explained. “She’s exactly the same as these ones, and I didn’t steal her from the shelf. And I’m not a pants thief either. These pants, my auntie’s going to pay for them.”
The shop lady looked fit to burst with something. Anger? Laughter?
“I was just looking at these new dogs. Only looking… and remembering. That’s all.”
“That is one well-loved bit of old rag,” said the shop lady at last. “Maybe you should get your auntie to buy a replacement for that thing?”
Then she, too, was gone. Sam felt extra alone. Against all the fresh dogs, Sam saw Doggy as a stranger had seen her — she was just a bit of old rag.
Sam couldn’t wait to get out of the toy section. Suddenly all of the dog eyes were looking at him, all with puppy eyes. He wanted to buy them all. If he couldn’t buy them all, he wouldn’t buy any. That would be unfair to the other dogs. Oh, why was he like this? He was like this with socks and with pens and even with food. He was like this with ice-creams. He didn’t like things to feel left out. But there was no way around it. Something would always be left out.
He thought of the shop lady because the lady had not been panicked. He could borrow some of her calm. Surely people got separated all the time in this place. She’d have seen this exact situation many times before. Lost children. Separated families. Tearful reunions. Sam watched the news every night. Mall separations weren’t a big deal. He wouldn’t panic. No need to panic.
He would gather up all the dropped shorts. Then he would find Auntie Jan.
06: Once I Was Lost But Now I'm Found, Found, Found (Mick Jagger)
Sam found Auntie Jan in front of some mannequins. She hadn’t moved. She hadn’t been worried about him, either.
Sam had been searching frantically for a single woman alone. But Auntie Jan had bumped into a friend. The friend wore similar big earrings, the same kind of hair.
Despite the new strangers, Sam was very glad to see his Auntie Jan, who had waved her hand and jangled her bangles at him. Now she looked less like a mannequin.
“There he is! There’s our boy. Sam, this is Jason. Jason, meet Sam. Now you already know one kid for next week. Lucky I bumped into him, eh Sammy?”
Jason was half a head taller than Sam, which made him about the same age.
Jason’s mum spoke. “Are you into computers too, mister? This one got a home computer for Christmas.” She rolled her eyes towards Auntie Jan. “Jason hasn’t been off the darn thing all holidays. Pool, trampoline, computer — an endless loop — all summer long. Oh well, it’s better than watching garbage on the telly, I suppose.”
“I like TV as well,” Jason said. “The Henderson Kids, Neighbours—”
“Brain rot,” said his mother. “Hey, perhaps Sam can come round to play on your computer one weekend. You can show him how to move the tortoise around the screen.”
“It’s a turtle,” Jason said. Then to Sam, “It’s actually just an arrow. I’m learning LOGO.”
“This one’ll be our programmer.” Jason’s mother draped one arm across her son’s shoulders, beaming proudly.
“Isn’t he clever,” said Auntie Jan, though she was looking at Sam. Sam hoped she was not about to drape her arm across his shoulders. It was embarrassing enough standing here under this massive pile of neatly folded shorts.
“Well, this isn’t getting the back-to-school shopping done, is it?” Jason and his mother looked like they’d about finished with shops, though. They both carried bags of shopping. “Best of luck for Monday, Sam! You’ll love it at Grammar. We’ve had two through already and I tell you what, they’ve got everything at that place.”
07: A Growing Boy Needs His Lunch (Dead Kennedys)
Auntie Jan picked up many extra items from hangers and shelves. Now she would pay for them all.
Shop counters made Sam nervous, especially when the tally grew bigger and bigger on a digital screen. But Auntie Jan didn’t seem worried at all. Bleep, bleep, bleep went the bulk pack of batteries, the month’s worth of socks, the seven pack of boys’ undies, the sunhat, the back pack, the t-shirts and four pairs of shorts.
“Oh, yes. And the shorts he’s wearing.”
Sam felt Auntie Jan yank the tag off the back of his new brown shorts. She gave the tag to the checkout lady.
“Do you have a bin under there, love?” Now Auntie Jan was talking about Sam’s old pair of shorts, Sam’s neatly folded but scraggy old shorts, dangling from Auntie Jan's fingers as if they were rancid.
Sam wanted to disappear. He felt on stage, and wished for a curtain to close all around him. This couldn’t get any worse.
The checkout lady didn’t touch the shorts. She bent to retrieve a bin from the floor — a wastepaper basket, full of scrunched up papers and unwanted receipts. This bin wasn’t meant for old shorts. Smelly shorts, from out west. Auntie Jan dropped them straight in.
“No!” he said, despite himself.
Auntie Jan looked startled. “Sammy? What’s the matter?”
“Those are my best. My comfy shorts.”
“Wave goodbye, Sam. Hoo roo to the shorts. We can’t keep a hold of every old thing forever and ever amen.”
Sam’s softest, best-fitting shorts disappeared with a flourish, gone forever, down behind the counter.
Auntie Jan handed over the cash. She didn’t appear to check the change before snapping it back inside her purse.
“Sorry,” she whispered on their way out. “That was all a bit awkward for you, wasn’t it Sammy.”
Now Sam was embarrassed about being embarrassed. She’d bought him all this new gear. He could at least do the carrying for her.
“Sure you can manage all that lot, Sammy?”
Everything was embarrassing. Absolutely everything.
“Anyway. Those new shorts look exactly the same as your old ones. Only without the holes.”
“The new shorts do have holes.”
“One hole for my waist, two for my legs.”
Auntie Jan threw back her head and laughed. She laughed so hard and so heartily that passersby smiled in her direction. Sam hadn’t even meant to crack a joke. He’d only been making a minor correction. Normally he annoyed people when he did that. But he’d been so mortified, so keen to change the subject, that he’d forgotten to keep his pedantic trap shut.
Eventually Auntie Jan’s laugh turned into a sporadic giggle.
“Don’t know about you,” she said between spurts, “but I’m getting peckish. Follow me!”
Sam didn’t need telling twice. He wasn’t about to lose his only auntie again.
They didn’t walk far. Soon they had entered a giant food hall, full of glass cases displaying plate after delicious plate. This place was noisy. People spoke loudly and laughed at who knows what. The air smelled of perfumes, pastries and roasted nuts.
“Here, I’ll hold your things. Why don’t you go for a wander, spy what you’d like for lunch?”
But Sam couldn’t move from the spot.
“Oh, Sammy. I’m starting to learn what makes you tick, love. You plonk yourself right there and I’ll do the choosing for both of us.”
Sam kept his eye on her. Fortunately this wasn’t too hard — a moving blurry shape in her big stripy shirt and billow of blonde hair. She knew exactly where to line up, where to pick up the tray, what to say to the lunch ladies, how to make them throw back their heads and laugh.
She arrived back at the table holding a tray with four plates — sandwiches and cream cakes, plus coffee for herself and a glass of orange juice for Sam. She placed Sam’s portions in front of him. “Now, you’ll eat and you’ll enjoy it.”
They ate without talking. The nearby chatter of strangers filled an otherwise awkward silence. At last Auntie Jan dabbed at the corners of her mouth with a serviette and swallowed the last of her coffee.
“I’ve been thinking,” she said. “We could use a computer at our house. Don’t look alarmed, I’ve made up my mind. You’d work out which buttons to push on it, wouldn’t you, Sammy? Smart kid like you. Computers are the way of the future. I saw a thing on the telly about it. Everything’ll be computers by the year 2000. Mark my words. You need one, Sam. For your education.”
Sam’s heart started pounding fast. He didn’t know the exact cost of computers. But he knew it was wads and wads. Auntie Jan had already bought him all this expensive shopping, and also this expensive-looking lunch. He’d only been here one day so far.
Auntie Jan stood up and smoothed down her skirt. “Come now, you look worn out. We’ll just pop in to pick one, then we’ll get you on home for a quiet sit down.”
08: I Program My Home Computer, Beam Myself Into The Future (Kraftwerk)
The computer section of the electronics store was full of bright screens, and fluorecent tubes on the ceiling. Togther they hummed unpleasantly. The man in the necktie and name badge was soon by their side.
“I just don’t know which one to choose,” said Auntie Jan after his spiel, “but I like the look of this one, with the colours on the screen. What do you think, Sammy?”
Sam could not reply.
“I reckon he likes it, deep down. Can you deliver this afternoon?”
On the train journey back home, Sam thought only of the new computer. He didn’t think of Doggy once.
They arrived home to a cool house and a very licky Quivering Patsy. The delivery appeared soon after. A man parked his white van in the driveway and set up the Amstrad CPC across Uncle Mick’s desk. Auntie Jan apologised for tiny specks of dust and cleared a stack of papers to one side. The papers looked like bills. Sam had never liked bills. They stressed his mother out, which meant they stressed him out.
The delivery man asked Auntie Jan if she wanted to keep the packaging.
“Nah. We don’t need to display computer boxes out front for collection. Burglars’ll know we’ve got a new computer, eh Sammy.”
Burglars. Melbourne was probably full of burglars. Now Sam had another thing to worry about. He’d already spent one restless night cataloguing unfamiliar creaks and bumps.
So the computer packaging disappeared with the man. The cardboard boxes had reminded Sam of his mum. Della would like them a lot, to fill with her treasures and pamphlets.
“See if you can get a game up and running.” Auntie Jan held Quivering Patsy under one arm and hovered nearby.
The screen shone a beautiful royal blue against yellow letters.
Amstrad CPC Microcomputer 128k (v3)
Sam understood none of that but he’d work it out somehow. Maybe there would be a dictionary of computer terms in his new school library.
The diskettes of games came inside a beautiful jewel case. Its shiny plastic glass reminded Sam of all those dishes in the food hall. Again he could not decide, this time between Blocker, Donkey Kong, Dracula, Marble Madness Construction Set…
So he plucked out the one that said “Space Invaders”, because the salesman had played it for them earlier at the shop. Now he needed to type run”cat” for some reason. Auntie Jan helped him to find all the letters on the keyboard.
“Ooh, there’s the ’t’! Found it!”
Sam narrowed his eyes at the screen, leaning forward in Uncle Mick’s office chair. He didn’t realise he was squinting until Auntie Jan mentioned it.
“Reckon I’ll book you in for an eye test, Sammy.” Then she ruffled his hair, though there wasn’t much to ruffle now.
Like magic, the game was up and running. Rows of white space ships sent bullets Sam’s way, blasting through defences, descending faster and faster. Sam’s heart rate slowed. Blip, blip, blip, pew, pew, pew… Everything was rhythmic now. He could predict what was about to happen. With his hands busy, floating on rhythmic blips and pews, Sam relaxed for the first time in days.
“Ooh, Patsy, this is stressful.” Then Auntie Jan said something about getting the tea on.
Alone at Uncle Mick’s desk, Sam soon filled the hi-score table with his own name. At five-thirty he didn’t hear Uncle Mick pull into the garage. He didn’t hear Uncle Mick come in the door and he still didn’t notice anyone standing right behind him.
“What’s all this, then?”
Sam jumped. He stood up from the swivel chair that wasn’t his own to sit on. He didn’t like the look on his Uncle Mick’s face. He was always nervous around men. Apart from Uncle Mick, the only man Sam had anything to do with was his old school principal, and Sam made sure to keep out of that guy’s way.
“It’s an Amstrad CPC. I didn’t ask for it.”
Della had told Sam many times that he wasn’t to ask for things. He knew not to ask for things at the shops. He also knew not to ask sticky beak questions, like what happened to their old Staffy-cross, or who was that man holding tiny little baby in the photo album inside the box inside the shed. Was that his father, maybe? He made his own mum cry once. So he didn’t ask that anymore.
Now he felt a bit like crying himself.
Uncle Mick placed two heavy hands upon Sam’s shoulders. Sam flinched, expecting something harder from a man so big and strong.
“Oh, I know you didn’t ask for this, son.” Then Uncle Mick disappeared into the kitchen where Auntie Jan was rolling an oniony meat mixture into balls between her palms.
Sam wasn’t used to conversation happening around him. At home it was only ever him and his mum so arguments ended quickly. Sam was always one half of any conversation, so always knew what was going on, and exactly how to end disagreements. Della and Sam argued about little things, like Sam shifting the radio dial on Della. They argued about whether Sam had already fed the chooks. They argued when Sam yakked on and on about other people’s dogs. They argued because Sam didn’t really have to go to school if it was too hot in summer or too cold in winter, and Sam would insist on going anyway.
But he had no part in this particular argument. So he didn’t know how to end it. Two raised voices from an adjacent room made his heart race.
“He doesn’t need an Amstrad, love—“
“Listen to me, Mick. Just listen. It’ll give him something to talk about with the other boys at high school, and—“
“I’m not arguing with you on that point, sweetheart, but—“
“He’s such a nervy little guy, Mick. You should’ve seen him today. It’ll be good for him to have something to relax into when he gets in after—”
“Yes, but sweetheart—”
So that’s what they thought of him. A smelly, nervy, bookish little guy who was always squinting.
He reached into the loose waistband of his new brown shorts. He didn’t realise he was doing it, but he needed to scratch the back of Doggy’s head.
But this time, for the first time ever, Doggy wasn’t there.
09: Say Hello, Wave Goodbye (Softcell)
Voices from the kitchen continued to overlap. They grew louder and louder, but Sam was no longer hearing the words. Sam needed to pack his things. He’d be going home to Della. If he didn’t have Doggy, that’s where he needed to go. If Sam left, his aunt and uncle wouldn’t argue. Surely they’d want him to leave them in peace. And his mum’d want him back.
He made it halfway up the stairs to pack. Then he remembered all his clothes were downstairs in the laundry.
His mind raced. He hadn’t flat out asked for anything, but he was still the cause of all this arguing. Serious arguing. Money arguing. That was the worst kind. It was probably better if they just drove him back tomorrow. He could even take a coach and hitch the rest of the way. He could finish high school at home, where he knew everyone and where everyone left him in peace.
Once in the laundry room, he saw with dismay that the old, familiar clothes were soaking in bluish water. If he tried to pack these he’d only make a sopping, sudsy mess across two floors of velvety carpet.
He shouldn’t wait here next to the washing machine. They’d think he was eavesdropping from the other side of the wall. He could hear everything said from the kitchen, even after covering his ears.
“He’s never had anything nice, Mick. Even his underdaks were threadbare—”
“Keep your voice down, love. Little jugs have big ears.”
The voices stopped, listening out for him. Sam didn’t move a muscle.
“Hell’s bells, I hope he hasn’t run off.”
Uncle Mick didn't think of checking the laundry. He padded up the stairs and knocked on the bedroom door.
“He’s gone, love!”
“You check the upstairs toot! I’ll check the yard!”
Sam had no choice but to reveal himself. Slowly, timidly, he stepped out of the laundry and into the living area. These might've been the scariest steps he’d ever taken.
“Crikey dick, what were you doing in the laundry?” Uncle Mick beckoned. “Follow me.”
Sam went with Uncle Mick into the good room, with the hard couches and no TV.
Uncle Mick sat on a nearby chair and didn’t touch him, thank goodness. He just clasped his big hairy hands together and measured his words.
“We don’t mean you to feel bad about the computer,” he said eventually. “Your Auntie Jan is what you might call an 'impulse buyer'. You might’ve been better off with something IBM compatible, is all. But we’ll keep the Amstrad, son. Don’t you worry. No need to cry about it, now.”
Sam wasn’t crying. Not in front of Uncle Mick. He’d only sniffled a bit.
“Anyway. Tea’s about ready. Your Auntie Jan, she rolls a good rissole.”
Now that Uncle Mick had mentioned crying, Sam was struggling not to.
“Go and ask if she’d like a hand with anything, there’s a good man.”
Sam would be glad for something to do, and glad to leave the good room, where nothing felt good at all.
Auntie Jan had been listening in from the kitchen archway. She wiped her hands on her apron, dangerously close to lunging in for a hug.
“Why don’t you set the table Sammy, eh?”
Sam never knew what that meant. He and Della only ate with forks and spoons. If someone needed sauce or salt they located it for themselves.
Sam thought of his mum, eating alone. Then he couldn’t help it. His face crumpled. His entire head turned hot and then he really did cry, in big, heaving, humiliating sobs. Auntie Jan joined him down on the carpet. He hardly noticed her rubbing his back.
“I’m sorry you heard us talking so loud,” she said. “We always talk loud, me and your Uncle Mick. It’s how we are.”
“I… lost… Doggy.” Sam had to say this several times over before Auntie Jan finally understood.
“That toy I got you yonks ago? Why, Sammy, I bought that for you when you was just a tiny little newborn bub! You weren’t still carting that thing round, were you? Doggy turned to rags years back!”
Sam squashed his eyes into his kneecaps. But the sobs kept coming. He could try to explain she probably fell out of his new shorts, too loose around the waist. Or he could ask Auntie Jan to call the department store. He might’ve left her at on the floor next to the new Doggies. Yes, he was sure of that now. He’d been too busy calming his nerves, refolding the mess of shorts, scared of never reuniting with Auntie Jan, of never making it home. And now the department store might be closed for the weekend. Doggy would already be gone. Someone would’ve swept her up with a brush and shovel, mistaking her for a little dead mouse.
“Would you like to call your mum?” asked Auntie Jan in a soft voice. “Maybe that’d help, to hear Della’s voice on the phone?”
No one understood him at all. He couldn’t call his mum. She’d be outside feeding the chooks right about now. She’d hear the phone ring out, all the way across the yard, through an open window. She’d know it was Sam, too, because no one else ever called. She’d hurry to get to the phone. She’d slip on the wooden steps and injure her other leg. There’d be no one around to help her this time.
And he couldn’t let her hear him crying.
“I’ll get you a new dog toy,” said Auntie Jan. I know exactly where to find a nice fresh one, full of stuffing, eyeballs intact.”
Uncle Mick spoke from the kitchen. He’d opened himself a beer. “Losing that thing was a blessing in disguise. Kid’s too old to be carting a dog dolly round with him, stuffed down the front of his daks. I’ve been meaning to say. Boys at school’d have a field day with that.”
“Naw, don’t you listen to your Uncle Mick,” said Auntie Jan.
But Uncle Mick wasn’t finished. “You’re sporting a man’s haircut now, son. You better start acting the part, eh?”
“I know what’d help.” Auntie Jan stood up and clapped her hands to her thighs. “You can give Patsy her dinner.”
This time Auntie Jan was right. Sam’s sobs subsided to hiccups as he set about locating the Devon inside the well-stocked fridge, then dicing it methodically into Patsy’s pink dish. It calmed him to cut each cube to the exact same size.
“Since you’re heading out there, take the rubbish, Sammy. Outside bin’s next to the tool shed.”
Here in Melbourne, even rubbish went into fancy bags, bought especially for putting scraps into. Each bag smelled of lemon and closed with a draw-string tie. Della would never buy fancy rubbish bags like these, and even if she did, she’d never use them.
Outside, Sam placed the plate of cubed sausage onto the ground. He watched Patsy lick then gobble her dinner. She didn’t growl this time when he stroked the back of her head.
Sam carried the rubbish to the outside bin. The plastic stretched to a thin sheath, threatening to burst as discarded items juiced and slopped around inside. The bin had another bag inside.
Sam peered at the rubbish bag already inside the bin. Bits of old scraps revealed their forms through the lemony plastic.
Sam had always been taught to see new life in bits of old rubbish. He saw potential in things others threw away. He’d have to train himself out of this. But he couldn’t help but see what was right there — something squirming, trapped inside the bag.
A stuffed snout. A flannel strip of body. The black dot of an eye socket. If only Sam’s eyesight were better he might’ve seen Doggy blink.
Maybe he hadn’t left Doggy at the department store after all.
Maybe he’d pulled Doggy out of his shorts and left her on Uncle Mick’s computer desk.
Or maybe this shape really was a bit of old potato skin, next to a used paper towel. Or chillingly, maybe his Auntie or Uncle had stuffed Doggy into the bin, hoping he'd never notice.
Freshly hardened, freshly brave, he didn’t ever want to know. Either way, Doggy had gone forever. She’d been disappearing slowly, over weeks and months and years.
Uncle Mick was right about Sam’s shabby little dog-dolly. Everyone knew that Crybaby Sam wouldn’t go anywhere unless he tucked Doggy into his pants. Everyone back west knew his mum collected rubbish from the dump, that she kept a hoarded-up house, searching for something long since lost.
Sam didn’t know what. Della wouldn’t ever tell him, and he knew not to ask.
Act One was over. From now on, Mister Samuel Dennon would be acting like a man. This weekend he planned to watch Uncle Mick, walk like him, talk like him, use his soap and deodorant. By Monday morning, city strangers wouldn't even notice the imposter in their midst.
“Rissoles are getting cold in here!”
Sam The Man squished the rubbish down into the bin, firm and packed down tight. Then he carefully fastened the lid.
10: Further Reading
The first act of violence that patriarchy demands of males is not violence toward women. Instead patriarchy demands of all males that they engage in acts of psychic self-mutilation, that they kill off the emotional parts of themselves.bell hooks
- The work of Tony Porter, cofounder of the organization A Call to Men.
- The Miseducation of the American Boy by Peggy Orenstein, as well as her book Boys & Sex.
- Neuroendocrinology with Daniel Pfau from the 'Ologies' podcast, about why both sex and gender are false binary distinctions and far more complicated than most people think.
- The work of Professor Steven Roberts e.g. 'Young Working Class Men in Transition' (Routledge 2018), 'Gender, Masculinity and Video gaming' (Plagrave 2019, with Marcus Maloney and Tim Graham).
- The work of Michael J. Domitrz e.g. his discussion with Chris Kilmartin on Men, Sexism, and Masculinity at The Mutually Amazing podcast.
- The work of Teri Yuan at the en(gender)ed podcast e.g. the conversation with Martin Hultman about eco-modern archetypes of masculinity, among many other things.
(Sociologists talk about 'masculinities' rather than 'masculinity'.)