Over summer, part of our gang’s routine was blocking Marcus’s dad from leaving. We wanted to pretend to drive his sports car. Usually he was busy, but this time he moved into the passenger seat. Everyone took turns holding the wheel and playacting.
When I sat down, he patted me on the knee.
‘Honk the horn,’ he said.
I felt so lucky.
Everyone jumped when the horn sounded.
‘That was fun,’ he said, and walked around the car to open the door for me. He was smiling with friendly crinkles around his eyes.
‘You can honk it next time, too,’ he told me.
He drove off and raised a hand where the roof should’ve been, waving goodbye. We chased him down the street on our bikes.
It was nearly lunchtime and the gang dispersed. Emma and I went outside the front of Marcus’s place and loitered behind a coppiced gumtree, spying on him.
Marcus skulked in the shade of a camellia bush, sucking his thumb and giving his baby sister rapid little punches to her head as she lay in her pram. Her head rolled to and fro with the impact. She started wailing and soon the sound competed with the shimmering cicada racket.
When Marcus saw his mum come out of the front door with her handbag, he stopped.
‘Come on, Marcus. We’ll be late,’ she warbled.
Marcus was a milk-fed wimpy sap, a bully. His mother thought he was an angel. No use telling her otherwise. He was in my year at school but thankfully not in my class. I was so relieved. Imagine being around him all day at school as well as on the street, where we spent all our spare time.
Secretly we called him Mucus.
Mucus, his mum and his sister drove off in their sensible forget-me-not blue family car. I’d always liked that colour. It seemed welcoming.
‘Ask if you can come over, we’re having roast chicken,’ Emma said.
Our street was widely regarded as safe. It had an awkward hairpin bend that slowed traffic and made it easy to see cars. That meant very little pausing while we played cricket, made up games, and rode our bikes.
The invisible boundaries of neighbour relations, however, were puzzling, never plainly talked about. We navigated a complicated web of whose house you could go to freely as if it were your own, which houses were totally out-of-bounds, and those houses where you needed permission from your mum before you bothered someone. Most of the front gardens were bordered only by bushes or seasonal flowers. Only one person had a proper fence and that was to keep in their unfriendly Rottweiler.
I’d been inside Mucus’s house a single time, to drop in a dinner when his sister was born. Our mothers chatted about school drop-offs while Marcus looked dolefully at his baby sister, sucking his thumb.
‘What’s her name?’ I’d asked.
His mum looked at him lovingly, waiting for him to answer.
Mucus was silent.
‘Go on,’ she said.
‘Caitlin,’ he’d spat.
Emma was my age too but went to a different school. Her dad dropped her off early every morning on the way to work.
My mum drove the rest of the kids every school day. We could fit five in the back and two squashed in the front. We always fought for the best position, which was lying in the front cavity and pretending to be the radio. Being the radio was my job because it was our car but my mother would cave in to anyone else who made enough fuss.
‘Mum, can I go to Emma’s for lunch?’
‘Yes,’ she called from the kitchen. I could hear her snickering with my younger sister about something.
To make Emma laugh I decided to wear a frock. Neither of us wore frocks. They made it difficult to ride a bike, impossible to climb trees, and the older boys would always ask us to show what was underneath.
I ran to Emma’s, two doors down, and knocked on the front door. I was hoping Emma would answer and laugh but it was her mum, who was naked.
‘What?’ she asked, crossly.
‘Nothing,’ I said, and ducked under her arm, giggling.
The roast chicken was delicious, even though the day was too hot for a baked lunch.
‘I have to help Dad,’ I said, when I was finished.
Emma nudged me.
‘Thanks very much,’ I added hastily.
‘You’re welcome,’ said her mother, who had jammed on a dress of her own for the roast chicken lunch. ‘And how nice you’re helping at home. Emma never does.’
‘Yes, I do!’ said Emma.
‘Well,’ said her mum.
I ran back home. My mum and dad were out the back, clearing blackberries. It was nasty, angry work and they were both cross.
‘Get some proper clothes on,’ said Mum. She was wrestling our goat, Betsy, over to the edge of the blackberries. Betsy didn’t want to go that way. My younger sister, clad in outsize gloves and too-big gumboots, was holding the wheelbarrow.
I dawdled back to the house.
No-one was in the front yard, so I pretended I was the only one home, standing on the front porch and twirling in my frock. Marcus’s dad returned, cruising past slowly in his sports car. I waved to him. He saw me and lifted a hand as he drove past.
The fuchsia bush was strictly out of bounds. I looked longingly at the fat pink buds. My mother wasn’t there to tell me off, so I squished one and it popped delightfully. I popped three in a row, feeling bad but not able to stop. I planned to stop after another few and hoped maybe Mum wouldn’t notice.
Marcus’s dad walked down our short driveway.
‘Hello,’ he said, ‘Where’s Mum and Dad?’
‘Doing the blackberries out the back,’ I said. I switched my hips to and fro so that my frock swayed a little.
He studied the movement and smiled. His eyes had friendly crinkles around them again. I liked that. My own parents rarely smiled with eye-crinkles.
‘Let’s have some fun,’ he said, and guided me by the arm to the rhododendron bushes of which my mother was so proud. They were so thick and luxurious that you couldn’t see past them. It was my secret place for eating food stolen from the pantry, stuff like cooking chocolate, sultanas or peanuts. I’d have to find another spot now; this one obviously wasn’t as private as I thought.
‘Lift it up over your face,’ he said, touching the hem of my frock.
I lifted it hard to make sure it covered my face. What game was this? The same yet different from the demand made by the older boys. They didn’t seem to know where to start, apart from asking all the time, but Marcus’s dad made up his own rules.
‘Close your eyes,’ he said.
‘Is this like that game the older boys play?’
He did a nose laugh. ‘Well, let’s call it Town Bike. Pull down your undies,’ he said, his voice smooth and kind.
With one hand I got them down. I heard a rhythmic noise, the same metronome beat as Marcus punching his sister in the head but it had a squelch. A breeze blew between my legs and I started to let my frock down.
‘Keep it up,’ he said. A few moments later the metronome stopped. I heard him fastening his fly.
‘Don’t tell anyone. It’s our secret.’ His friendly eyes sparkled.
I ran into the house and changed into old pants and a stained jumper.
‘What took you so long?’ said my dad.
It was a long week, with Mucus crying in the car every time he didn’t get to be the radio. On Thursday after school, he cried until he finally got what he wanted. I sat in the back with my sister on my lap. One of the older boys kicked Mucus every time he spoke, so the radio went, ‘Ow! And ow! Today ow!’
In the back we giggled.
My mum was tense and didn’t care. She just wanted to get us home so she could have a sherry.
Maybe I would get her special sherry glass out and pour her a little. She’d sit down and I’d take off her shoes to rub her tired feet. She’d be thankful and tell me she loved me. I didn’t know for sure if my mum did love me. She’d never told me, not at bedtimes like on the TV, and not even on my birthday. Certainly not like Emma’s mum, who said it all the time and gave her hugs. My mother didn’t like hugging.
I got her special glass but Mum was snappy and the chance to have a special moment was lost.
‘Mum, what’s a town bike?’
‘Who taught you that one?’ she said.
‘I don’t know. Someone from school.’
‘One of the older boys,’ she said.
‘Yeah,’ I said, relieved.
‘It’s not nice.’
I’m not nice.
‘Don’t play with them, you hear me?’
She was cross with me. It was my fault I’d carried Town Bike around in my head and not known it was bad.
Mum and Dad had always wanted a boy. I’d tried hard. I wanted to prove to them that I could be a boy; I wore tomboy clothes, eschewed dolls. I even tried joining the older boy gang on our street. They would only accept me if I showed them it. They were always asking, always hungry. I’d always said no. Therefore, I couldn’t be in the gang. I played with Emma, an only child.
I rode my bike to see Emma, two doors down. She was in her front yard eating a fruit roll.
‘Have you got any more?’ I dropped my bike on her nature strip.
‘Yep, a whole packet. Wait here.’
Her mum didn’t mind how much I ate, didn’t lecture me on being fat one day in the future. My own parents were terrified of fat people. It made sense. Thin people were more boy-like.
When Emma came back, we started scoffing while wandering down the middle of our street.
Mucus was in his front garden playing a game with the lawn sprinkler. The wind was blowing the smell of fresh laundry towards the street. Emma and I knew that baby Caitlin must shit like anything—his mum was always hanging up white squares. They flapped like wings, stretching on the washing line around the side of the house.
Baby Caitlin lay in her pram in the dappled light of the camellia. Emma and I left our fruit roll packet behind the coppiced gumtree so we wouldn’t have to share with Mucus and went to look at her.
She was so cute.
We took turns holding her tiny hands, all her fingers gripping one of ours, and making baby noises to her. Baby Caitlin had a shock of black hair and it made her look like a tiny punk rocker.
Mucus began sucking his thumb.
‘Diiiinner,’ called Emma’s mum, so we let go of Baby Caitlin’s tiny hands and ran off to our own houses.
I heard Baby Caitlin start crying. When I looked back, Mucus was next to the pram sucking his thumb and hitting Baby Caitlin in the head with little taps. Her wailing didn’t make him stop.
That weekend I was frocked up and waiting by our family car for my sister to get in, ready to visit The Rellies. The Mucus Family drove down our short drive in the forget-me-not family car.
Mrs Mucus leaned out of the passenger window and begged, ‘Could you take Marcus for a short while?’
Luckily my mum appeared, holding a casserole for The Rellies Lunch.
‘Not today, sorry,’ replied my mum, in the nick of time. ‘What’s up?’
‘We have to take Caitlin to the hospital. She won’t stop crying.’
Baby Caitlin was in the car, screaming her head off. It was giving me a headache and a soul ache. But I wasn’t going to say anything because I was sick of being in trouble and being blamed for things that weren’t my fault.
My mum considered what to do while I made a pig-nose at Mucus as he sat next to wailing Caitlin. He stopped sucking his thumb to squash his face on the car window and stuck his tongue on the glass. It looked like slimy meat.
My dad came out and closed the door. It was a matter of street honour that no houses needed locking.
‘Hi there, Andrew,’ he said to Mr Mucus, whom I knew for a fact he detested. ‘To what do we owe the pleasure?’
‘We need a sitter for Marcus; we’re off to the hospital with the baby.’
My dad grimaced as he said, ‘Sorry, mate. Mother-in-law duty! Can’t take him. Poor lass, she’s really going for it.’
Baby Caitlin screamed a notch higher and my dad winced.
‘Try Nola,’ suggested my mum.
That would mean Emma would be stuck with Mucus at her house. Poor Emma.
Mr Mucus saw me and smiled. ‘Well, that’s a lovely dress,’ he said, his eyes crinkling. ‘Can’t wait until we can get Caitlin all dressed up like you.’
‘We always wanted a boy, didn’t we?’ replied my mum, elbowing my dad. ‘Anyway, we’ve got to choof off.’
‘We’ll swap our boy if you want,’ said Mr Mucus.
I switched my hips so that the frock moved nicely.
‘Get in the car,’ my mum told me. My younger sister was already sitting in the back, looking smug for not having to be told.
I wound down my window and waved at Mr Mucus. His eyes crinkled and he raised a hand in reply.
Photo by James Coleman
Overland’s Friday Features project is supported by the Copyright Agency’s Cultural Fund.