Winter gradually penetrates our South Pacific city. No snow, just endless rain and a bright, damp cold that seeps into our bones so we walk heavily, feeling waterlogged. The first week in July, we hear Dad march in the door and stomp down the hall. He bursts into the living room with his shoulders hulked up like a bison, hair rain-slapped flat against his head, and blood flushing hotly up the sides of his face. He's wearing his bank clothes but with sleeves rolled and tie undone, his suit jacket throttled in one hand and some papers in the other.
"Today is the day!" he says. He crosses the room between me and the telly with his stride so wide that I wonder if his undies have twisted up between his legs. "As of today, I no longer consent to be governed by Empire Haulage & Co. After a long train of abuses, underpayment, and taxes, I am hereby throwing them off." He stops by the front window, a dark silhouette against the outside light, and waves his papers at us. "Here is the paperwork for my own rig. Deposit paid." Finally, Dad can drive on contract, not for wages.
"Ooh," says Dad's sister, Auntie Myrtle. "Such manly firmness! Gives me the shivers."
"Good on you, Dad," says Rich. "That's completely awesome."
"Nice one, Dad," I say, not managing to force the flat sound out of my voice. I'm not sure if I care that much, but I glance at Dad to see if I'll be made to care.
He eyeballs me and Rich at opposite ends of the couch. "Now I'll be able to take care of you young savages."
"How do you mean, 'take care of'?" I say, thinking of the other meaning. He ignores me.
"I'm a free man. Free and independent." He leans his head back against the window pane and lets out a sigh. "Finally."
"Claiming your inalienable rights, Georgie Porgie?" says Auntie Myrtle. "Well, that calls for a celebration! What's good for you is good for us… How about a barbecue?"
"In winter?" says Rich.
"Loosen up, Sunshine," says Auntie Myrtle.
So mid-afternoon that Saturday, our half-brother, Fallu, and his dad, Kamisese, come over carrying fruit. Kamisese goes out back and Fallu lays his accordion on one end of the Formica bench in the kitchen to clean it, keeping us company while Auntie Myrtle gives me and Rich orders. We prick pallid raw sausages all over with a fork, we cut strong cheddar into fat sticks, and we boil potatoes and cut them up along with chives and boiled egg and celery, for potato salad. We mix Tang powder with water to make orange cordial, we butter a couple of loaves of sliced white bread, and we gather together paper plates, salt and pepper, and tomato sauce in its fat, red, tomato-shaped squeeze bottle. Lastly, we slice the pineapple that Kamisese brought over and break off some bananas from the ripe end of the stalk propped up in the corner.
Rich has a new piece of information about Ariel—the third dad, father of our half-sister, Shama. (We all have the same mum, but she's gone.) It turns out Ariel only drives trucks. "He won't do any other job," says Rich.
"People say he wasn't the same after he lost his whole family," says Fallu, wiping his accordion with a soft shammy, and speaking even more slowly than usual. "It was his wife and his brothers and sisters and his parents and his in-laws. Everybody. Supposably, they were all having a barby on their front lawn, and they got run down by this mad fulla in a 18-wheeler, eh, a semi-artic like your old man's."
"What?" says Rich. "Just drove off the road?"
"Smashed through their fence on purpose. That's what people say. And everyone got mowed down. And then he gets out of the cab with a can of kerosene and torches the house. A right nut-job. Then after, Ariel would only drive trucks, eh. Wouldn't try for anything else but that."
"Behind the wheel, not under it," says Auntie Myrtle. "You can hardly blame him for that."
As I wash up the dishes, I remember the sheep that Dad hit on a back road one time—back when we still lived with Mum on the farm—I remember the thud and the vast amount of blood pooling on the road and dripping from the wheel housing.
"Well, Shama didn't get run over," I say, unwilling to imagine her in such a terrifying scene.
"Shama wasn't born yet. It was ages ago." Fallu drapes the shammy around a bread-and-butter knife to get in the grooves around the keys. "She was born a lot later on. Then, when Mum moved out and left Shama with Ariel, he married this other lady. But pretty quick after that, the lady split, and Ariel blamed Shama."
"And he's holding a grudge from then till now from what I hear," says Auntie Myrtle, "and she pays for every bad thing that ever happened to him." She eats a piece of pineapple. "No wonder she's a handful."
"Half the time she asks for it though," says Rich, watching Auntie Myrtle. He nicks a piece of pineapple too and slurps while he eats it.
"Asks," says Fallu. "Asks to get her shoulder dislocated?" He doesn't look at either of them, and I notice a tremor in his long fingers as he spits on his shammy and wipes out the folds of the bellows-part of his accordion. "He should've gone to court for that," he says.
"Nonetheless," says Auntie Myrtle, ignoring Fallu's tone, "there's no denying she's her own worst enemy." Her agreement makes Rich so smug, I kick his leg. When he tries to punch me, I block his fist with a sudsy pot.
"Would you stop talking about me and get on with your own little lives?" Shama, standing just back from the doorway in the shadow of the hall, has her hands on her hips. "Since you won't help me get rid of him, feel free to keep your snotty noses out." Her eyebrows lie in a thick, black angry line across her face, and light catches only slivers of her teeth as she talks.
Auntie Myrtle suggests that it would not be so difficult to get someone else to take custody given her documented injuries.
"No way," says Shama. "Last thing I need is more parents. All I want is Dad out."
"We live in the real world, Shama," says Auntie Myrtle. "Take it or leave it."
"If that seriously is the real world," Shama says, "you can keep it. And in the meantime, stay out of my business!" Then she turns and disappears down the hall as quietly as she came. Auntie Myrtle shrugs, and we continue with our preparations in silence.
Auntie Myrtle goes to the bedroom to get changed and comes out in a drop-waist, bottle-green dress, with a long necklace of pearls, each one like a glistening white ball bearing, and her lips and nails the color of tomato sauce.
"Whoa," says Rich. "Looking glam!"
Auntie Myrtle laughs and strikes a pose, and Fallu glares down at his shammy. When we go out back, Dad and Kamisese look up from lighting the barbecue.
"You're all snazzed up," Dad says as Auntie Myrtle settles herself on a folding chair. "Prospecting, by any chance?"
"Never miss an opportunity." She laughs, crosses her legs, and sips from her glass of sherry.
Rich laughs right after her. "Not like Mum and her old-man work-shirts."
The tease fades out of Dad's face and the frown on Fallu's deepens.
"Maybe," I say, my breath quick, "maybe Mum wore work-shirts because she did some work."
"Blah, blah. You're so predictable, Rona. When are you going to get with it?" He runs his hand through his hair like Dad sometimes does, and he glances at Auntie Myrtle, who sips from her drink as if she never heard the conversation.
"Cut it out, you two, or you can stay inside tonight," says Dad.
Me and Fallu avoid Rich as we bring out food and lay it on a picnic table set against the side of the house. The six-packs, of both bottles and cans, we stack out on the grass since the fridge would keep them no cooler. To shelter us from inevitable rain, Kamisese and Dad have rigged up a large, blue tarp with tent poles and rope tied to the boundary fence, and hung at the corners with propane lanterns, which swing in the wind and cut the gloom of the sinking cloud cover.
Three men Dad knows from the pub drift down the narrow, moss-edged concrete path, squeezed between house and fence, to our small section at the back. Wearing shorts, fisherman's-knit jerseys and jackets, they seat themselves on folding chairs on the concrete slab, drinking beers, while me, Rich, and Fallu sit cross-legged on the grass on a groundsheet weighted down with bricks. Above us all, the tarp snaps now and then in the gusts of wind, and Auntie Myrtle pulls her silk wrap around her shoulders. The more la-di-da she acts, the more I despise her. The rest of us zip our jackets up to the chin, except Fallu, in flip-flops, who wraps himself in a woolen blanket.
Ariel arrives last and says he told Shama to stay home.
"She told you to go to hell, you mean," I say under my breath.
"Here," Dad says, pointing Ariel to a chair. "Take a load off."
The other guys say, Gidday mate, to Ariel, but they keep their distance.
Fallu pulls out his accordion and plays in a loud, military style, OH BRITTANIA, BRITTANIA RULES THE WAVES, and they all think he is fooling around, and one bloke marches on the spot and sings to make them all laugh, but I know by the tightness in Fallu's face and shoulders that he is mad. After he's played the hell out of it half a dozen times, he calms down, and plays his happy Bolivian song, with its familiar lilt, and I notice how his accordion breathes with him. It inhales, it exhales, and all his anger gets pushed out. His mouth is back in that getting-ready-to-smile pose. Lucky him.
"Giz another stubby, eh?" the guys call out every few minutes, and Rich or I choose a wet bottle from the stack of soggy cardboard crates and bring it over—a bottle, not a can, following Auntie Myrtle's instructions to use up the breakables first before they get drunk.
In charge of the sausages, Dad stands over the grill, waving his spatula with one hand, with his bottle in the other, while smoke spreads under the tarp ceiling before wafting out into the dull evening, which smells of charcoal and propane and a damp breeze.
"Anyone for a banger?" calls Dad when the first batch is cooked, and we all line up, bread in hand, for a sausage, and then file past the picnic table to squirt tomato sauce and get plates and potato salad.
"This one's black, Dad," says Rich, holding out his bread with the sausage Dad just put there.
"It's not black, mate, just sienna brown," says Dad, raising a laugh from the guys.
"Bit of carbon cleans out the system, bro," says Kamisese.
"Okay, okay," says Rich, taking his sausage, "but next time your system gets a scrub up."
Fallu and Kamisese start singing some of their old songs from up north, but no one else will sing. We just listen to Kamisese harmonize above Fallu's lower, fuller voice.
"What a gift you two have for music," says Auntie Myrtle. "The rest of us must've been napping when God gave out that one." Fallu rolls his eyes so far back in his head you can't see his pupils.
"Speak for yourself," says Dad to Auntie Myrtle. "I have a fine set of pipes."
"So what's taking you? Give us a song, mate," says one guy.
"Can't you see I'm busy here, slaving over a hot stove…"
The temperature drops as we lose the daylight, and we can see our breath against the lantern light when we laugh. With a full stomach and the laughing and music, I drop my grudge against Rich. Raindrops smack loudly on the tarp. Funny to have a barby in the dark and the rain.
"Useless buggers," says Kamisese. "What's the point of having a party, eh, without a song or two?"
Fallu plays some music without words, a tune he made up himself while the guys sit back eating and drinking. When they finish a beer, they call out, "Toss another one, kid?" and they smile and wink when we bring the cans over. The bottles are long gone.
"Well, I'd like to say cheers to George for buying his own rig!" says Auntie Myrtle, raising her glass.
"Too right—cheers, mate!" they say and raise their cans.
"A self-made man—good on ya!"
And Dad smiles and raises his can back at them.
When Fallu puts down his accordion to get another sausage, Ariel stands up and steps into the middle of the concrete slab. He pauses and looks around at us, and then starts singing by himself, a chanting-type of song in a foreign language. After a few bars, he raises his muscled arms and dances, his movements becoming more and more vigorous as he kicks up his legs and twirls around, arms spinning him, making him almost fly. The men widen their eyes to each other and slide their chairs backward to make more room, and Dad laughs nervously. Fallu stops chewing and just stares. The strangeness of the song is stranger because Ariel is gasping with the effort. Then he stops in the middle of the song, breathless, eyes wild.
"I – I – can't – can't do it alone," he says, mouth stretched with pain, lungs trawling noisily for air. "Can't dance alone." He looks like he might cry.
"No worries, mate," says Kamisese. "Have another beer."
"Here you go, get this down ya," says one of the guys in gumboots. "Hey, kid, bring us all another one." Ariel sits down again, takes the can from him, and stares at the top of it.
"You know what was so weird about that," Fallu says quietly to me after I sit back down. "That song was fast and happy as anything, but he couldn't let himself feel it. Not for too long anyway." I look at Ariel's face, which is now blank, and think about that terrible barby and his dead family and the mad trucker burning their house down.
When the sausages are finished, we slice the bananas long-wise and grill them with brown sugar, and we wrap them in buttered bread too. I eat too much and lie back on the groundsheet to enjoy the hurt in my stomach while Fallu picks out a new tune.
"How about a fountain out here, George?" says Auntie Myrtle, taking a sip of her sherry and arching an eyebrow.
"Will she never let up!" says Dad, but he is relaxed and we can see he's joking.
"Got something against fountains, George?" says Kamisese, teasing.
"More'n enough water coming out of the sky, I'd say," says Dad.
"You got the cash now han't you, you tinny bastard," says one guy. "Wouldn't take much to, you know, make a lady happy." He winks at Auntie Myrtle.
"You could lay down the piping yourself, no worries," adds another.
"Rightio," says Dad, "and how about everyone pitches in with the cash, and when it's done, I'll let you come over and paddle your tootsies."
"I'm already pitching in for your profit," says Kamisese, and he tips his head back to empty his can.
"You what?" says Dad turning sharply to him. I sit up when I hear that rough edge in his voice.
"You heard." Kamisese looks away quickly and crushes the can in one hand. Fallu switches to playing Waltzing Matilda with its false-cheery rhythm.
"George," says Auntie Myrtle, "he's legless. Please don't start anything."
"I'm pitching in for your profit," says Dad, ignoring Auntie Myrtle. "How the hell else would you get your spuds and caulis without me?"
"You have some nerve to mention spuds and…" Kamisese tries to stand but staggers heavily back into his folding chair. "Some nerve…after what you did."
"What'd I do?" says Dad, menacing. "Nothing, that's what." His nostrils quiver faintly.
"My cousin is…" says Kamisese, "…is – is…" He manages to stand unsteadily. "You mafia bastard." Fallu stops playing.
"Pissed as a fart," says Dad.
"Damned if you're getting another cent out of me."
"Ungrateful little shit," says Dad. "Out to undercut me and push me under." Half a head taller, Dad steps toward Kamisese and grabs his jacket at the collar, pulling him in. Kamisese swings at Dad, who pushes him away, then lets go of his collar so he trips backward. On the way down, he catches his shoulder against a tent pole, jolting the tarp and making the lanterns swing, and shadows jump violently, at which point, Fallu, his blanket tied at the neck like a cape, stands up. Skinny, five-foot-six Fallu, with his puff of soft hair.
"We know perfectly well," he says to Dad, "like everyone knows," and he waves his arm around to everyone there, "that you got them bodgies to beat up Dad's cousin and then run his station wagon off that cliff. Just to force Dad to contract from you. Don't think we're idiots."
"Fallu, this is no time for heroics," says Auntie Myrtle.
"Oh," I say, "and what time is heroics time?"
"Rona, shut up and stay out of it," says Rich.
"Yeah, Rich," says Fallu, "stick up for your thug of a dad. Anyway, we're off."
"Not so fast," says Dad. "First you tell everyone what really happened." He steps closer to Fallu. "You don't just spout lies and then think you're going to swan off, do you?"
Auntie Myrtle excuses herself, to make herself a coffee, she says, and Rich, fearless and loyal to the end, follows her.
"You set it up, didn't you," says Dad, his face dark red and a vein ridging down his neck. A swinging shadow made by a lantern makes everything look like a horror film. He twists Fallu's arm behind his back. "It was you and that gang of hoons you hang around with. Admit it!" Fallu cries out with pain.
"Admit it!" says Dad. "Admit it! Blaming me was an easy excuse for you."
Fallu, eyes squeezed shut, refuses to speak.
"Like that, is it?" says Dad and pushes Fallu over toward the accordion, which is sitting in the open case where he left it. Dad lifts the instrument to head height and lets it drop on the concrete. We hear it crack.
"No!" shouts Fallu.
"Admit it!" Dad repeats, raising his foot over the accordion.
"Okay!" shouts Fallu. "Okay, okay, I did it."
With a short, hoarse laugh, Dad stamps on it anyway, forcing a breathy note out of it even as its bellows tear.
"Now get the hell out of here. Both of you." He lets go of Fallu.
Fallu packs up his accordion, favoring one arm, and slings the case strap over his head. I go over to him.
"Fallu," I whisper. But Dad pulls me away roughly.
"Don't you get yourself involved in things you don't understand," he says, his mouth twisted up in a snarl.
Fallu crouches beside Kamisese, pulls his drunken father's arm over his shoulder and heaves him up, shaking under the weight. The two of them stagger away in the drizzle, down the wet path and out the gate.
"Listen, party's over here," says Dad to Ariel and the other three guys. "How 'bout we adjourn to the pub."
"Good plan," says Ariel, who seems back to his normal self.
"And you, young lady," Dad turns to me, "You clean up here and tomorrow we'll have a talk about your lip."
Don't think I'm going to be pushed around by you, I think, but know better than to say so.
The men all get up, pull back the tarp from over the barby, and off they go. Raindrops now fizz on the smoking coals, and there is something sad and deserted about the place, maybe because I am the only one left. After dumping all the bottles and cans and plates into a Kleensac, I sit shivering in the light rain. A hazy orange from house lights and streetlights tints the underside of the night clouds, and over the traffic noise from the avenue, I can hear a baby crying on and on across a fence somewhere, and somewhere else a TV, and now and then some barking. No wonder Mum kept leaving these guys. I no longer mail my letters to Mum. She would reply if she could, I'm sure. Well, I think I'm sure. Has she left me too? Let me go free even though I never wanted that. I stick out my tongue to catch some rain.