This is an extract from The Last Thread,
Michael Sala’s debut novel, which will be out in February 2012.
Television on. Living room swims in light and noise. The shhh from the speaker sounds like rain, so loud you can’t hear the drops.
The corridor is dark. Michaelis stops his tricycle at the bedroom door. His face makes a ghost in the orange gleam. He reaches up and rattles the handle. He hears them on the other side, Dad and his brother, and he calls out. The door doesn’t open.
‘One day, you’ll have a face like this.’
When Dad smiles, his nose curves, and you can see hair in his nostrils, a tiny forest of it. He trims it sometimes in the mirror in the hallway, but it always grows back. They ride on a pushbike, Michaelis at the front, on the bar between Dad’s arms, Constantine at the back. They ride alongside a field locked in early morning fog. The ears of rabbits rise and dip as the bike rattles past.
‘You always say they’re rabbits,’ Dad says, ‘but they’re not. They’re hares. Hares have longer ears.’
Smoke plumes from the factory in the distance. Dad’s arms tense with each push of his feet. He wears a black leather jacket that smells like an animal. The leather folds and gleams in the crook of his elbows.
In the park, Constantine and Dad pass a ball between them with stabs of their feet. Dad talks about how he used to be the star player in the army back in Cyprus.
‘This is what I used to be good at. You should have seen me.’
‘Where’s Cyprus, Dad?’
‘Oh a long, long way off.’ Dad talks to Michaelis out of the side of his mouth. ‘Concentrate on the ball. Pass it to him, Constantinos.’ Con can turn on the ball and kick it exactly where he wants to.
He’s pretending there are players around him, ready to fight for the ball, but there’s no one.
Michaelis runs between him and Dad, waving his arms. When the ball comes his way he trips over it. Dad helps him up and points to the inside of his foot. ‘This is where you hit the ball. That’s the sweet spot, where you control it. Just look, really look. See?’
Michaelis doesn’t. The ball skids off, and Dad follows.
‘Constantinos, see if you can take the ball from me.’
Constantinos. That’s how they say it back in Cyprus.
Dad is panting now, working the ball from foot to foot, talking only to Con. ‘Do you know why Holland lost, Constantinos? They didn’t have Cruyff. That’s why Argentina beat them. But one day, in the world cup, Holland will have you.’
Con steals the ball. As he runs, the ball skims over his heel and spills out in front and he guides it away.
‘Ah, Constantinos,’ says Dad, standing in his wake, bowed over, hands on his knees. Then he straightens and turns. ‘Micha-ayleees! Don’t go too close to the water! ’
Michaelis doesn’t know if he is drawn to the pond or bored by the game. Water ripples around the reeds. Something splashes at the corner of his gaze. He turns and waits. It doesn’t come again. Dad is trying to catch Con. He runs out of breath and begins laughing and coughing all at once. He says he should stop smoking, but smiles as he puts his jacket back on and takes a cigarette out from the inside pocket.
Constantine stands apart, juggling the ball, making no sound but the echo of leather and air. You swear that ball will never touch the ground. When it does, he simply scoops it up with his toes and f licks it to the other foot like nothing happened. The wind lifts his hair and lets go. Dad looks at Constantine as if he has forgotten to tell him something and Michaelis watches Dad, his face hollow at the cheeks, his paper-thin eyelids, and his teeth pulling at his bottom lip. It is fascinating, the look of the smoke unravelling into the air from his mouth, like knots coming undone.
They ride into town along the bicycle path. Naked trees separate the path from a road gleaming with afternoon traffic. Houses huddle together on the other side, bay windows shielded by small gardens. Once Mum told Michaelis about how she used to stop outside windows when she was a little girl. She’d stop on her way home from school and stand there all by herself. She did this when someone had died inside.
‘The curtains were drawn for three days. That’s how you knew. I’d stand in front of the curtains and feel sad for them inside. No, not sad, but I wanted to share their sadness.’
Even when Mum isn’t close to him, her stories are.
They pass through a cluster of trees, along another park and into the heart of town. The salmon pink path is a blur beneath them. Dad’s shoes catch the light with each turn. People queue at the stand in front of the closed department store for newspapers and thick red lengths of boiled sausage. The man hands them over in white paper bags full of steam. Rookworst. At the first bite, the juices squirt out and burn the back of your throat. When they go there, Michaelis only ever gets a small piece, but it’s rich and salty and he never finishes it.
The Pepper Shaker rises ahead: the grey, stone cathedral with a clock face in the sky, its roof narrowing to a spire pressing like a needle against the clouds. They ride past it across the cobblestoned market square and stop at Cruseo, the ice cream shop. Crystal bowls are stacked in the window, brimming with balls of ice cream that never melt, swirls of chocolate, wafers and thin tubes of biscuit. The door opens and warm air spills over them, full of waffles and coffee. Voices echo amid the creak of chairs and scraping spoons and laughter. A smiling lady behind the counter carves them their own mountain. Michaelis eats until he’s sick. It’s the middle of the day, though you wouldn’t know it from the sky drizzling onto the grey, polished stones.
Dad hunches over the table in his leather jacket and wipes his mouth with a napkin. ‘You boys have to go home soon.’
From the beginning, when you first see him, you know this will happen.
Dad drops them at the front door, stays on his bike and chats with Mum. Michaelis watches them talk from inside the doorway, Dad’s skin very dark next to Mum’s, the nervous twitch in Mum’s hands and her eyes. Then Dad is off, weaving his bike back and forth across the path. He winks over his shoulder as he rides away.
‘Did you have a good time?’
‘Oh yes,’ Michaelis answers. Constantine is already gone.
Mum stirs on the couch, fingers wrapped around a cup of coffee in her lap. She is staring out the window. The coffee is cold. She tastes it, frowns, and puts it on the table. ‘Your brother is right. We did live together once. We lived together in London. And in Cyprus, on top of a hill with no running water or electricity. But it had such a view! Your Dad’s parents brought out a jar of sparrows when I arrived. They were plucked bare and pickled and pressed together in the vinegar and your grandparents wanted me to eat one, beak and all.’
She makes a face. Michaelis can see the gums of her teeth, pink and clean. Her upturned nose grows small between her large blue eyes. She smells of patchouli, a mossy, rich scent, full of pressed f lowers. You can smell it in the house when she walks from one part of it to the other. It’s in all her clothes.
‘Oh God, those naked little sparrows. It made me sick to the stomach just looking at them!’
‘I remember that,’ Michaelis says.
‘You don’t remember anything.’ Constantine is standing in the doorway, watching them. ‘We were together, Michaelis, until you came along.’
‘And after,’ Mum says softly. ‘For a while after.’
They lived together in London and then in Cyprus, with its mountains full of dark-skinned relatives and blue sky and bright oranges and narrow, dusty trails. It’s true: Michaelis can’t remember much from back then, but he knows the stories. And when he listens to Mum, it really is as if he can remember.
An old woman lives in Cyprus in a stone house on top of a hill that looks out to the sea. She makes treats: almonds threaded together with string, enclosed in a pale tea-coloured sheath, like a length of hose. They taste sweet, full of strange spices, and the almonds make a paste in your mouth that you need a drink of water to swallow down. The almond chains reach Dad by mail. When the boys visit him, he hands them over coiled up in an old ice cream container.
‘From your grandmother,’ he says.
Although the taste makes him queasy, Michaelis eats as much as he can. It is all he knows of this woman.
Boiled potatoes tumble over one another in a silver strainer over the sink. There are scars in the metal. Steam gathers around Mum, and she smiles, running her fingers back and forth across her apron.
Crouching in front of him, she takes one of his hands in her own.
‘They’re like mine, you know, and like your grandfather’s. Artistic.’ Mum straightens, drops the potatoes back into the pot and begins
crushing them into mash, pausing to drizzle over the fat from thinly sliced bacon and onions that she has just fried.
‘You were blue. That’s how poor we were in London. We couldn’t afford the heating. We lived in a tiny f lat. The place was fine in the summer, but the winter was cold and went on forever, and you cried and cried. One wall was constantly damp. You were unhappy, sick all the time. You never slept well. Your Dad was hardly there. Sometimes I had to go out and walk the streets all by myself, I couldn’t listen to your crying.’
Her arms work at the potato masher, her bare, red elbows bent outwards. She pauses to drop in some salt. Add a pinch of this. Stir. Taste.
Her stories are strange and often sombre, but magical too. Michaelis can listen to the same ones again and again. It’s like touching stuff that doesn’t exist. Fairytales. He can imagine Mum walking the streets. She has this desperate look sometimes, where her chin tightens, her head tilts to one side, and her movements get jerky. You can hear it in her steps.
‘And your brother didn’t want you there. Soon as you were born, he tried to bury you. He would throw things in your cot. Shoes, jackets, toys, anything he could find. I came in one day and couldn’t even see your face.’
Michaelis remembers one thing about London. He remembers standing in his cot and rattling the wooden bars, and crying. The insides of his ears hurt. Some time, before or after that, Mum gives him a tablet, which tastes sweet and slightly sour. This was when Dad lived with them and now that time is gone.
Dad lives somewhere else. He smells of expensive aftershave, and every hair on his head is in place. His skin feels rough, especially when you go against the grain, as if there is sand under the surface. Dad laughs and winks and everything is a joke, and when they’re at his house, in the mornings, he chases them on all fours in his pyjamas which f lap around his wiry body and he wrestles with them, until sometimes the games go on without Michaelis, and he is left in the living room or listening from the corridor.
When Dad chases them, he calls them animals, but he lengthens and bends the last part of the word. ‘Animaaales,’ he exclaims. ‘You are both animaaales! ’ The words come to Michaelis between his own shrieking laughter, between trying to get away from Dad and rolling with him on the floor.
Then he is gone.
There is someone else in their family – Dirk: larger than Dad, heavier, without jokes. You can hear him moving a mile off, his breath and the plod of his work boots, his sigh and the creak of his belt when he sits down. Michaelis carries his last name. To make things easy, Mum says. But Michaelis can’t even spell that name. There are too many letters.
Dirk has a thick beard, large hands and corduroy pants that sag beneath his belly. His pipe moves from one corner of his mouth to the other. He smells of tobacco and leather and wood shavings. His black hair is short and curly across his large head.
On the weekend, Dirk works in the shed at the end of the back garden. When he works, his mouth disappears into his beard. He makes furniture and occasionally toys out of wood. He leans over the wood, a long, heavy chisel angled beneath his tar-stained fingers and things get made. ‘The cleverness of the man,’ Mum says. Sometimes he hammers things together and hits his own finger, cursing in a voice that rattles the inside of Michaelis’s head.
The clouds are dark grey, like the concrete from the wall is leaking up into the sky. Michaelis rides a go-kart, while the boy behind him pushes. Michaelis doesn’t pay attention and steers into the wall. The boy behind him doesn’t pay attention either, and keeps pushing.
One of his fingers gets wedged between concrete and metal and splits open. He screams. The go-kart stops and he sits there, staring at the wound. It is beginning to rain, light drops drifting onto his cheeks. A curled leaf of skin hangs from his knuckle. The tears do not come straight away. The blood holds back. Both come out at once, and then he can’t stop. He is bleeding and wailing like he was made for it. A fascinated ring of children bustles closer.
The tomatoes are swollen and dark red. Mum runs a knife along each one, before she drops it into boiling water. A thin cut in the flesh, barely visible. The skin of the tomato unfurls when it hits the boiling water, like a flower blooming. Michaelis is standing on a chair, holding the bench top for balance, looking down at the pot on the stove, watching Mum work.
‘When Constantine was your age, maybe a bit younger, about three, he got his first bike. It had training wheels.’
Michaelis’s bike has training wheels too.
‘Constantine absolutely refused to ride the bike until we took them off. I don’t think he wanted the other kids to see him needing those wheels. He fell over a few times, but he kept going. He doesn’t like help, your brother.’
Mum lifts and drops her shoulders. ‘He just never has. He’s always been his own man. When he was two, when Moessie visited, he got everyone water. He insisted on doing that by himself, too. Brought it out for us one after the other, in the same cup, like we were at church. We drank and only then did we wonder how he got the water. My father followed him into the bathroom. He was getting it from the toilet bowl.’
Mum tells these stories when Dirk isn’t around, when she has visitors. She goes on telling the stories when the visitors are gone, when it is just Michaelis and her, when Constantine is at school and they drink tea and listen to music on the record player, or when she is cooking dinner.
‘Your brother used to write on the walls when he was little. He’d do these sprawling murals from one end of the wall to the other. He’d use his own poo. Very involved, he was. He stuffed the poo into his toys as well. He had this small, red double-decker bus. I don’t know how he got the poo all the way to the back. It must have taken him a long time.’
Listen. The look on Mum’s face is more important than the story, but listen to every word and try to give her more. Put yourself inside the stories, so that the laughter can be about you.
‘Start here,’ Michaelis says.
‘I don’t know.’ Alexander looks away. Every time he breathes, a bubble of snot comes out of his nose before shrinking back inside. Mum and Dirk are drinking coffee with Alexander’s parents downstairs. The boys are upstairs, where it is quiet.
Alexander’s room is full of strange toys that Michaelis doesn’t own himself – a Godzilla nearly as long as his arm, a tub of green slime, a narrow plank on wheels called a skateboard, a bunch of Playmobil cowboys and Indians – but he’s grown tired of them. Now he wants to make a trail of poo from one end of Alexander’s room, all the way to the stairs and down them, if they have enough ammunition.
‘Come on, Alexander.’
‘I don’t know.’ He says it now in a soft, whining tone.
‘It’s now or never,’ Michaelis tells him.
Mum said this not long ago about going to live somewhere else. She said it to Dirk back home, at night, in the living room when she thought Michaelis was asleep. Michaelis likes the sound of those words, the shape of them. Now or never. Downstairs, he can hear Mum. She’ll come up sooner or later; she always comes in the end when things are quiet. Alexander pulls down his pants. They work in silence. Squat, squeeze, hold, then a careful shuffle forward, pants still around the ankles. It is easy until they reach the stairs. The stairs need great balance. It’s like a circus act. Michaelis nearly falls onto his face. He’s running out of ammo. Before he can get to the second step, a shadow falls across him. Dirk says one thing. ‘Verdomme.’
Things happen very quickly after that.
Michaelis’s head hurts all the way home. His right ear throbs with heat. Mum and Dirk are quiet in the front of the car. Constantine is grinning beside him, tapping a finger softly at the bottom of the window so that only Michaelis can hear.
‘Verdomme,’ Dirk says again. His shoulders tense and his hands clench on the steering wheel. ‘Verdomme.’
This is what he says when he is angry. And when he is really angry, Dirk says God verdomme. You want to be as far away as possible when he says that. The g is thick and heavy, because Dirk pulls it from every part of his lungs. It’s an angry thing that sleeps in Dirk’s stomach, and when he isn’t angry, he speaks in a low voice, as if he doesn’t want to wake it.
‘I hope you’ll remember this.’
Mum turns away to face the cathedral. The market square is full of people. More are pouring in through the narrow streets. Voices and music swollen with cymbals and trumpets bounce off the painted stone shopfronts and restaurants. The buildings gazing down on the square are crowded with tall, rectangular windows, some shuttered, most dark.
Michaelis floats above the commotion on Dirk’s shoulders. Everyone wears a costume. Even the Pepper Shaker, the grey cathedral rising from the buildings ahead, is dressed in blue, sheets of it that snap and billow with wind. The Pepper Shaker leans against the sky with vast, creaking arms of wood covered in canvas, and a grinning face on the clock at the top of the tower.
Dirk points at the Pepper Shaker and speaks around his pipe.
‘He’s a farmer today. En boer.’
The ball of tangled tobacco in the chute of his pipe glows red and withers. Michaelis also smokes a pipe, except his pipe is made of candy. A procession is emerging from one of the side streets, orange flags, giant heads f loating and swaying above the crowd. Over the angled rooftops, between the clouds, the moon makes a face. Poor moon, drowning in a daytime sky. Mum was crying this morning, in her bedroom, but when she came out, she was smiling and too busy to talk.
His fingers hook in the black curls of Dirk’s hair. The layers of muscle and f lesh in Dirk’s shoulders tremble when he coughs or laughs. People are singing. Nearby stands a wooden carriage, with monstrous carved faces and people and animals leaping around one another. A man winds the handle with one tattooed arm and music pours from the machine’s innards.
Michaelis could walk from head to head, he could step on people’s voices. Raised hands, beer slants in unsteady glasses, thick white foam rocking over rims. People are all around them, jostling each other, pressing close. Mum touches his foot again, as if she wants to say something, but she still looks straight ahead. Her lips and cheeks are red and between he sees pale skin. Constantine stands alongside. Only the dark hair on the top of his head is visible. It wouldn’t matter if he could see Constantine’s face. Michaelis never knows how to read it. You know Constantine’s mood from what he does. Michaelis can feel Dirk’s voice through his legs.
‘One, two, three!’
The hands of the clock in the face of the cathedral come together. The bell in the tower begins ringing. The canvas arms of the Pepper Shaker lift up towards the sky, over the many windows that glint around its black, cavernous gate. The bell sounds out big brass doles. People are cheering, and Michaelis cheers too. The pipe slips from his mouth into the gleaming darkness between people’s feet and it is too late now to be careful, too late to catch what has already been dropped.
‘One time,’ Mum says, ‘when I got really sick, Constantine found me. I was lying on the ground and I could barely make out a table leg in front of me. My whole body was heavy. I couldn’t wake up properly. Your brother shook me, it didn’t do any good; I could hear him like it was very far away but I couldn’t answer. Constantine didn’t cry. He wasn’t scared. He just went next door to Moessie for help. If he hadn’t done that, I might never have woken up again at all.’
Moessie is their grandmother. After Mum nearly fell asleep, Constantine lived with Moessie and Michaelis stayed somewhere else. Moessie’s clear eyes are buried in the soft wrinkles of her face. They light up when Constantine walks through the door, because she remembers that time when he stayed, which was meant to be short but lasted a year. Mum wasn’t allowed to see Constantine then. That was for the best, they said. Now she isn’t sure. She would hear his voice sometimes from another room when she came by.
‘It broke my heart to hear that little voice.’
‘Is your heart still broken?’
‘No, Michaelis, it’s fine now.’
Whenever they visit Moessie, they get a chocolate from a special tin. The wrapping has a gold elephant picture on it, and inside the outer layer of chocolate is a block of caramel that takes a long time to melt. An elephant never forgets. He holds the chocolate in his mouth. A sweet trickle finds its way down the back of his throat while he unfolds and f latten the wrapping, pretending that the elephant is made of real gold. Mum loves elephants. She’s always buying statues of them. Everywhere, around the house, elephants; made of metal and wood and marble, their trunks lifted.
Mum and Moessie talk in low voices and Michaelis is somewhere else in the apartment, away from them where he plays with a few of the toys that Moessie keeps in old biscuit tins for all the children that come to visit. Thunder Birds are Go.
Moessie has a small white dog, Baasje. They have the same snowy hair, Moessie and Baasje. The apartment is full of barking, and dog smell and squirming movement around their ankles. Moessie pours tea that smells of smoke. It is a mixture of Earl Grey and some other tea that sounds like a Chinese town. Only drink it in good cups. The silver strainer clinks on the cup. The tea pours through and he sees leaves in slick strands shipwrecked on the metal. The steam rises and finds the windows. Pour the tea first for yourself and last for guests. And for the coffee, you do the opposite.
Moessie’s apartment is in a place called the Bunthof. There are two apartment blocks in the Bunthof, thirteen stories high, with a car lot between them. There’s also a park and a tree-lined lake alongside that, which often disappears into fog in the morning with only the tops of the trees poking through. It looks like it has been there forever, but people made it all.
‘Even the lake?’
‘Yes, even the pond. Even the fish that live in the water, they don’t belong here, those bright orange fish. But they make themselves at home now, don’t they.’
‘Yes, like Dad.’
Gravity sucks at Michaelis’s heart when he takes the elevator to the apartment. Thirteen floors. Watch the light move through the numbers. Constantine knows about gravity. This is why spit falls from the balcony, why people’s heads explode when they jump from buildings. It makes Michaelis feel sick as the elevator shudders into motion, and then he forgets that he is moving at all. Until it stops.
He is in bed at night, with Mum’s hand moving through his hair as if it will be there forever.
‘I will always love you and Con equally. Don’t forget that. I never felt important, myself, not with ten brothers and sisters. I was invisible. And that didn’t change until I got sick.’
‘How sick did you get, Mum?’
‘I got so sick that I could hardly leave the house for two years, not even to play. And my only friend was the teacher who brought me books.’
‘Why did you get sick, Mum?’
‘It was in my kidneys. I was six, older than you are, but not by much. Your grandmother was about to send me off to school when she noticed the colour of my pee. I had to pee in a bottle for a medical exam at school. The pee was brown, like mud. While she waited for the doctor, she rubbed my neck with balm and wrapped her favourite shawl around it. I don’t remember my mother giving me that kind of attention before then, or after. You wouldn’t believe how soft that shawl was. Or maybe it is just the thought of it.’ Mum’s hand stops.
‘Time for sleep.’
‘Why doesn’t Constantine come to bed, too?’
‘Because he’s three years older. He gets to stay up later. Now go to sleep.’
‘I’m not tired.’
Constantine is out there while Michaelis lies in bed alone. He doesn’t like his brother, but he feels safer with Con in the room when it is time for sleep. His brother is never afraid.
‘Can you leave the door open?’
‘A little. But don’t make a sound or Dirk will come by and shut it.’ Then he is alone. Whether he is quiet or not, if Dirk finds out the door is open, he will shut it. Michaelis has to learn not to be afraid of the dark, that’s why. A narrow rectangle of light plays on his fingers. He pretends that it is alive. He moves the light from one hand to the other. He can hear them in the other room over the noise of the television: Mum on the phone, talking or laughing softly, Dirk sighing or talking to himself or grunting at something on the television. Those sounds never seem to come from the same place at all.
Gezellig. This is Mum’s word. ‘Nou ja, dit is gezellig,’ she says as she shrugs off her coat full of winter rain and puts on a light. Gezellig. Indoors you hear it, around talk and tea and coffee and pastries with cinnamon and clove and nutmeg, around Mum’s music. You hear it between people, and you cannot touch it because it is a feeling a place has when it is filled with the right kind of things, when it is safe, when Dirk is away.
Michaelis helps around the house when he is too sick for preschool. Sometimes he makes up how sick he feels just to be with her. Mum plays records and makes him a clear soup that has chicken and carrot and small, translucent pieces of cauliflower floating in it.
‘After I got sick in my kidneys,’ Mum tells him as they sit side by side in the living room folding the washing, ‘it felt like I was having a very long holiday. The young woman who brought me books would tell me stories just like I do with you. Mostly, though, I’d sit on a day bed in the bay window and watch the life go by in the street. There was this man who’d come past on a horsedrawn carriage, picking up the rubbish. He’d always give me a smile and leave an apple on the doorstep. I’d hear him come from a long way off, that lonely clip clop clip clop down the street. I’d watch my brothers and sisters come home from work and school. There were so many of them, living in this massive attic which had been divided into all of these parts, going off to work, bringing money home for my mother, going out again. But I was the one at home with her. I was the one that needed her. I loved the attention, but I got fat from the medicine the doctors gave me. By the time that I was eight and had to go back to school, I couldn’t walk without my legs rubbing together.’
Mum is skinny. You can see the bones in her arms and wrists, the veins like rivers on a map, chasing each other under her pale skin. There is nothing to her at all, except life, the warmth in her voice, the quickness in her large, blue eyes. It is hard to imagine her any different.
‘Yes, it was a very sad, lonely time after that.’
The washing is done. She’s thumbing through her box full of records now as she talks, drawing out each cover for a moment from the wooden box that Dirk made for her. She finally chooses a bright yellow album and turns it slowly between her hands. The Mamas and the Papas.
‘I miss London. I bought this the year that your brother was born, when your father and I were still together. We didn’t have a lot of money back then, but we were happy. Or I was happy.’ She sighs and stares at the record cover without seeing it. ‘I’ve been here too long. It gets claustrophobic, these things that build up around you, that don’t let you be anything else. It will be good to see something completely different.’
‘Claustrophobic. Close together. Everything crowding together; memories, people, all the things that they know about you. But we are going somewhere soon that is the opposite of all that. There’ll be space. You’ll get to f ly on a plane.’
‘A plane is the easiest way to get there. It’s very far away.’
‘But why are we going?’
Mum slides the vinyl record from the sleeve and puts it on the player. California Dreamin. She lifts and gently drops the needle onto the groove. ‘You ask so many questions, Michaelis. Listen. Just listen.’
Australia is an island. You can walk around it and never get off the beach. The beach is tropical. That’s why they are going, because the beaches are lovely. He knows only the beach here in Holland with its damp, clinging sand and icy water and the hot chips in a conical paper bag heaped with finely chopped onions and mayonnaise. But you have to drive forever to get to this beach, and when you’re there, you know you’ll have to go back, with all the other cars crowded on the f lat, endless road. Everyone in Holland wants to make the most of summer’s hot days.
‘We’ll be there before you know it,’ Mum says.
It never feels that way. They move so slowly, with all the traffic, that you can count birds in the trees. Michaelis has been to the beach twice that he can remember. He can count to twenty, and after that things get confused. After that he can throw out numbers but he gets the order all wrong.
Now Mum has to go and he has to stay.
‘You’ll be fine. Really. Echt waar.’
Words from home, but suddenly they are out of place. Home is too far away to imagine. Dad, Moessie, the Bunthof, Bergen Op Zoom – they are memories now. They went to Amsterdam and boarded the plane and there was nothing to see through the windows except clouds and blue sky and night. The whine of engines was constant and everything stretched and stretched.
The plane took them to a place called Sydney. For a few weeks, they lived in a warren of rooms with other people from other countries. Dirk and Mum talked about where to go next. They looked at maps and said the names of strange cities out loud and traced journeys with their fingers. Constantine kept to himself.
‘Leave him alone,’ Mum told Dirk. ‘He’s upset.’
For Michaelis there was only waiting – no more going to preschool, no more games, just waiting. Then they bought an old car and drove along a winding road through bushland with occasional glimpses of the sea. They headed to a place called Newcastle.
‘Come on,’ Mum says.
Michaelis clings to Mum’s leg and he can’t bring himself to look in at the noise and the movement of the classroom behind him. A woman unpeels his arms and traps him in an embrace. The door opens and shuts. Mum is on the other side of the closed door, walking away. He can hear her steps, rapid and jerky, full of unhappiness. He can’t smell her perfume anymore. The woman talks at him. He can’t understand a word she is saying except now, now, now.
He struggles, she holds on, her arms tensing, one bony wrist close to his mouth. Children are laughing behind him. He bites down on the wrist, writhes in the slackening of her grip, kicks her shin, and makes a break for the desks stacked against the end of the room. The carpet burns his knees as he crawls to the dark corner. He sits there against the wall.
The life of the classroom goes on. The teacher talks to the other children and they calm down. They glance sometimes in his direction, under the table, but they are kept busy by the teacher’s voice. He sees mainly their legs, skinny and bare, because it’s summer and it’s unbearably hot.
The ceiling fan turns in slow, wobbling circles like a wheel about to come off. The scrawled paintings tacked to the wall flutter towards the open window. A swollen fly skids and bounces against the glass above the opening. The children have forgotten about him. They look the same in their grey uniforms, just two different kinds – boys and girls. The girls have white socks, the boys have grey with two thin gold lines, bunched down around shiny black shoes.
The teacher crouches down and their eyes meet. Michaelis is too far away for her to reach him. She smiles tightly, and her forehead notches into an impatient frown. She speaks again, in the same tone that she used before. Michaelis stares back over his tucked up knees. She disappears.
‘How was your first day at school?’
Michaelis doesn’t answer. Mum asks again, and when he stays quiet, she sighs and walks ahead. The moment stretches out. His rage dulls. He has set it in motion, this silence between them, but he can’t break it. He wants to say that it’s okay, that he’s happy again now that they are together, he wants to tell her how bad it all was in this strange place where all of his words are useless. But he can’t open his mouth. He speeds up his stride to match hers, and stares at the cracks in the concrete path. School is behind him, yet ahead too, always ahead. He wishes that he could forget about that. Looking ahead is the worst part.
Each morning, Mum walks him up the gloomy street beneath the arch of branches, towards the school, avoiding dips and rises in the footpath where the roots are coming through. The trees make the sunlight lazy and broken. Don’t talk on the way up. The road is impossibly steep. Look straight ahead, to the end of the road, and you can see only blue sky. As if you might walk straight into it.
The teacher’s name is Mrs K. Michaelis is starting to understand some of the things she says, but not enough to make it worth listening.
His seat is at the back of the class. His gaze drifts to the window and the huge sky beyond it, the tall, wasted trees with their thin leaves. Red leaves and scrolls of bark fall with each hot gust of wind. The leaves crack into a thousand pieces when you crush them in your palm. The air is so dry that it hurts your lungs. It hasn’t rained for weeks. Back home, it’s always raining. People sit inside, smoking and eating and talking about the rain. Gezellig. The sky back home is so low that you can scoop water out of the clouds with your hand.
The classroom has gone quiet, but he doesn’t realise until it’s too late. Mrs K has come up behind him. She f licks his ear with her ruler, short and sharp like a bee sting, and walks off.
‘Pay attention,’ she says.
These are the only words she says slowly. The other children stop giggling and turn back to the front. They screw up their faces and lean over their books. Michaelis doesn’t do this. He knows that all he has to do is follow Mrs K with his eyes.
At the end of the day, Mrs K lets the children touch her belly.
‘There is a baby inside me. Feel.’
The children line up in front of her, each taking their turn. Her bare stomach is round and taut. The belly button is a knot straining at the middle.
‘Go on, touch me.’ She holds up her blouse and smiles, as if that is all it takes to be kind, to have a child inside you.
The next day, Mrs K tells the children to open their books. They will practice writing the letter f. Except for Michaelis. A boy stands at the door with a note.
‘Go with him,’ Mrs K says.
In an empty classroom, a man sits behind a kid’s desk. He is hunched over in a suit, playing with puzzles. He smiles when he catches sight of Michaelis. He takes off his jacket and rolls up his sleeves.
‘Do you want to play, too? Can you help me with this puzzle?’ Without talking, they work it out together. When it’s done, they start a new one.
‘Do you know why you’re here?’ Michaelis shrugs.
‘How old are you?’
‘Do you like school?’ Michaelis shrugs again.
The man nods as if that was the right answer. ‘Where are you from?’
‘What’s Holland like? Take your time.’
As he works on the puzzle, Michaelis begins talking. Words from home tumble into his sentences. He talks about Dad and football in the park. He tells the man about the endless rain – het regen – about his ten uncles and aunts, one for each finger, though he never saw most of them, and about snowy-haired Moessie who lives with a white dog Baasje on the top floor of an apartment block called the Bunthof. Underneath the apartment block stretches a dimly lit tunnel with lots of doors. Each door leads to a dry, stale smelling room like a prison cell, except people put bikes and old stuff they don’t need down there. Moessie is always shoving stuff out of sight; Mum said that about her once.
Michaelis runs out of words and has to draw pictures.
‘You’re a good drawer.’
‘I am born dere.’ Michaelis points to the top of the apartment block.
He has heard the story so many times that it is as if he remembers for himself. The midwife with a cigarette in her mouth. Dad turning up late and having to borrow money for flowers.
‘Very good,’ the man says. ‘You have lots of windmills in Holland, don’t you? Want to build one together?’
They mix water and f lour and it turns into glue. The man shows him how to curl a piece of white paper into a cone and cut around the bottom so that it can stand on its base. Michaelis tells the man about a windmill near where he used to live. It had windows and pots out the front overf lowing with yellow and red f lowers in spring. People lived in it. Or maybe this is a story that someone told him or maybe it was a picture. Some things become strange when you say them out loud. Dad chasing them around the house in his pyjamas. Animaaales. The man helps him put the vanes on the windmill with a thumbtack, and they blow against them from the side. The vanes don’t turn very well.
The man laughs. ‘The idea is always better when it stays in your head.’
After that, they play some more puzzles. They race each other.
‘You’re faster than me, clever boy.’ The man ruff les Michaelis’s hair. ‘You’ll be fine.’
But Michaelis knows the man is letting him win.
‘This is how I met Dirk.’
Mum stirs a pot of macaroni and milk and sultanas spiced with cinnamon and nutmeg and clove. They will eat the pudding after dinner, and the rest will go in the fridge. Mum will cut it into cold, slimy squares, Michaelis will take it to the school, and other kids will pause nearby and glance down at him with looks of curiosity and distaste. They eat different things here: pasties, meat pies, sponge squares covered in chocolate and dried, shredded coconut.
‘It was a dark time in my life,’ Mum says as she circles the spoon around the edge of the pot, ‘after your father, after what happened to me. My family didn’t want much to do with me. Dirk came up to me in a bar. He seemed so solid. He told me that we had something in common, that we both needed a good shave.’ Mum laughs. ‘He was never good with people. But he was kind to me. For a while, he was very kind to me. Anyway, out of the frying pan, into the fire.’
‘What does that mean?’
‘Nothing. It means that when you make one mistake, it’s easier to make another.’ She gives a slight shake of her head, then looks across at him and smiles. ‘No. It doesn’t really mean anything. I’m just talking.’
Dirk lies on his back on the shore. Waves foam and draw back around his feet. His belly hugs his sides. The colour has drained from his face, but his beard holds a golden film of sand. Hair plasters his chest in black clumps like seaweed. The man bending over Dirk is tanned and wiry and a lot shorter. It’s hard to imagine that he just dragged Dirk out of the water.
Dirk gets to his feet, sways, and thuds back down.
The man puts a hand on his shoulder. ‘Sit back, mate. Sit back. Take a deep breath. Just stay between the f lags next time, mate. That’s what they’re there for, the f lags. Strong rip this arvo.’
The nearest f lag cracks and straightens out again on the breeze.
Rip. Michaelis searches the water, but he can’t see anything. He doesn’t even know what he should be looking for.
‘We’re going,’ Dirk says. ‘Get Con.’
Constantine has already worked out how to catch waves across the shoreline. He tucks himself inside the glassy barrels of water that break on the sand. There are a few other boys there alongside him, but none manage it the way he does. Michaelis shouts to him. His brother turns and stares straight through him. Michaelis keeps waving his arms. The water shapes before him into a wave and sucks the sand from beneath his feet. He falls and kicks against nothing. The next wave throws him back. He splutters with a mouthful of foam.
Constantine emerges alongside, dark hair f lat against his forehead. He’s holding a jellyfish. With a grin, he drops it onto Michaelis’s belly and jogs past.
‘He wasn’t listening,’ Dirk says. ‘Verdomme. I told him three times. All I did was give him a tap on the back of the head.’
‘You hurt him. Everyone was looking.’
‘Maybe you should spend a bit more time thinking about me.’
‘Don’t be jealous.’
‘I’m not jealous, verdomme. He just has to carry on and you go running to him, pandering to every weakness.’
‘Michaelis is a little boy and you’re a man.’
‘Verdomme. God verdomme.’
‘What’s wrong now?’
‘The car. It’s stuck.’
The engine groans and revs into the stillness, the car shudders and does not move. The smell of the clutch drifts around them. They get out of the car. The sun bleeds over the dunes. Mosquitoes waft in lazy swarms through the beams of the headlights. A wall of saltbush grows larger either side. In the stillness, you can hear the roar of the sea. It is not yet night, but getting darker all the time. The soft yellow sand gathered around the tires is growing dim.
Dirk slaps his neck and stares at Mum. ‘Get in, turn the engine, and I’ll push. You boys help. Push when I say.’
Mum gets in the car.
The ignition scrapes into life and dies again.
‘No, verdomme. I said now! Are you even listening? For God’s sake! It’s simple! ’
‘I can’t drive, Dirk! ’
‘Idioot! Push! Pay attention! ’
They stop by the time it is pitch black.
‘We’re just getting deeper into the sand,’ Dirk says. ‘Turn off the lights. Wait in the car. I’ll go and get help.’
‘How long will that take?’
‘I don’t know.’
Mum crosses her arms and turns away from him. ‘All of these beaches in Newcastle, and you wanted to drive for forty-five minutes to the only one without a proper road. Well, go then.’
They sit, the three of them together in the darkness of the car, with the night and the light of a large moon pressing against the windows. Con is tapping on the door of the car.
Mum keeps her arms against her chest. ‘It’s horrible, that darkness. Anyone could be out there.’
Con shifts in his seat and leans forward. ‘This reminds me of a story I heard…’
Mum gives a short, dissatisfied sigh. ‘Don’t start, Con. Just don’t start. I don’t need you making things worse.’
Mum begins sobbing. Her shoulders shake. ‘I don’t know. I just don’t know.’
‘I don’t know why we came here. What was I was thinking?’ Constantine and Michaelis watch her in silence. Her whole body shudders with her sobs. Michaelis thinks and tries to understand. Every now and again, Mum flicks on the lights of the car, as if to remind herself of something, and you see all the insect life swirling against the shadowy backdrop of dunes, on and off, on and off, the life revealed for a moment before disappearing again.