By Alfred Marks
Dave comes on the Cronulla Street Mall, hoping the kids will remember what day this is.
The early breakfast punters are dotted under their umbrellas. Daughter Zoe likes to meet before the noisy brunch crowd fills the cafes with their cappuccinos and newspapers.
Dave is looking forward to seeing the kids and the grandkids. Seems longer than three Sundays. He sniffs the baker’s yeast and the coffee. It’s a top autumn day. The light pure this time of year. Skies of faded opal, sea like blue ink. The time of perfect weather.
The mall has always had position, wedged between the calm bay and the strong ocean. Dave remembers before the mall was built. Blocking the street brought change. The eating houses and the brand name beach gear and the groovy décor shops moved in. The furniture store, the bike shop, the hardware store moved out. With the uncaring birds roistering down to sleep in the surrounding parks, those old shop keepers slapped the padlock on the front door of their premises for the last time and disappeared.
Progress? Some supermarkets closed then opened again. Just changed their fittings so they could charge more and stock more crap. Locals like himself just go for the basics. The surf shops popped up again. They belong to the beach.
Dave moves past the saved front of the Commonwealth Bank topped with a hat of luxury units. At their appointed café, he sits outside under the sails and orders a coffee from the teenage waitress.
He notes the acacias about the mall are no longer saplings but sturdy young trees, their tiny leaves trembling on their stems. Council planted the fashionable acacias in the mall, but what was wrong with planting good, old-fashioned Aussie gums? Anyway, acacias, he learnt, are the wattle family. Natives at least. Their pretty shapes go down well in the mall. He first saw these acacias in Africa as a hitchhiker before backpackers.
Years later Dave went back to Africa on business. He’d thought about expanding the factory down Taren Point by building a mezzanine floor. Aah, Taren Point, him doing the physical and mechanical stuff, Meggie accounting for every penny. She’d knock off to be at the house when the kiddies walked home from school. Now the mums pick ‘em up in those monster SUVs. Irregardless, the partner in Africa had done a runner and the whole thing had fallen through. He’d been as mad as a cut snake. Now he just sees it as business—ups and downs.
The acacias have corkscrewing pods like apple peelings. They remind Dave of those huge screws at the factory in his apprenticeship. They core into his boyhood, the way brother Reggie would drive his fist into Dave’s chest and twist his knuckle into Dave’s sternum.
Dave and Reggie shared a room in the shabby fibro, a couple streets back from Elouera Beach. You could hear the surf drowning out Reggie’s snores in the southerly. But in the offshore westerly you couldn’t hear the water and Dave would have to wrap the cushion round his ears again.
Their desk had a red crayon line down its middle. Reggie’s side had the drawers. One each. So Dave was always guilty of being in Reggie’s space. Reggie was the older brother and snaffled the top drawer. Dave was saddled with the bottom drawer which sagged and wouldn’t pull out right.
The invisible red line ran across the room dividing it in half. At school Reggie learnt about the Rabbit Proof Fence. “Don’t cross the Rabbit Proof Fence,” he would warn. Mostly Dave could, but if Reggie was in a mood, Dave would cop a pummelling. The two girls in their room squabbled over stuff that a bloke just couldn’t understand. Mum and Dad in the front room crook on the whole mob.
Shame about Reggie. People said he was the best surfer in the Shire since Bobby Brown and the best goofy footer before Occy. He’d done good, Reggie, but never married. He’d bought a fancy unit up the Gold Coast and then passed away sudden.
Beth had gone off to Canada and married. Once in a blue moon she’d fly over all snowbound and her kids talked like Yanks. They’d taken her husband, Jim, to The Royal National Park and got him to stand on an overhanging rock above the sea. Then they showed him where he’d been standing. Beth hadn’t been happy. Come to think of it Beth had never been happy.
Thelma had stayed here and she kept in touch with Beth. Easy nowadays with E-mails and those phone gizmos. But even now the sisters didn’t really get on. Dave had never worked out which of them was the prickly one. He reckoned they both were.
Meggie had tried with Thelma, handled her with kid gloves but Thelma had always kept a touch to herself. With the sisters-in-law a bit iffy, the cousins hardly knew each other. At best, the whole mob would meet up for Christmas. Dave reckoned it was a pity the rellies not holding together.
Even so, they were happy back then. The fibro had a ripper backyard for cricket and footy and Dad’s veggie garden. Where all those villas are, it was all bush. Him and his mate Norm the Hobbit, who was just Norm back then, built a secret flying fox, in there. Norm come down the fox too fast one day, and hit the tree so hard that the whole bush area shuddered. When he hit that tree, Norm, who is Pentecostal, started speaking in tongues. The poor bloke walked around dazed all day, talking to someone who wasn’t Dave. Dave and Norm still laugh about the flying fox. Dave will bell Norm later, see if he’s going to the footy.
Norm the Hobbit got his nickname later in life. Dave and his mates had been gob smacked when Norm had said he had never been to Bondi Beach.
“I got my own beach right here in Cronulla,” Norm had said. “You know Lord of the Rings? There’s the Hobbits. I’m a Hobbit. — I live in The Shire.”
* * *
“Earth calling Dave, like hello.”
Dave looks up to see Zoe. His shoulders rise. He won’t say nothin’.
“Off with the pixies, Dave. What were you thinking?” Since she was little she has called him Dave, taken liberties.
“Nothin’ much. Just when we were kiddies.”
Her night shade hair, her brown eyes are grades darker thin his, more intense like her personality. Her brother is fair like Meggie his mother.
She sits down, that sure in her movements like her mum.
“Luke and the kids at nippers?” Dave asks.
“Thank goodness,” she replies. It’s a relief for her to be shot of them for a while.
“Will they come round the unit after?”
She frowns, scrunches her pony tail. Her under-the-pump habit. “Not today, Dave. I have to drive the girls to separate parties and Toddy needs a sleep. He was up very late last night.”
“Righto, next time.” He’ll put it under his hat with the other next times.
Dave’s coffee arrives. The froth in the cup looks like a little cedar tree.
“I didn’t order this,” he says but the waitress has already turned away.
“You probably did, Dave. What did you order?”
“A long white.”
“You mean a flat white.” Her warm, generous woman laugh. “Dad, trust me there is no such thing as a long white.”
“I just want an ordinary cup of coffee,” says Dave.
“That’s a flat white.”
It isn’t the same but Dave won’t argue. She has inherited her mother’s iron will and deadly argument gene. But he can’t turn up a little come back.
“It’s just coffee got up like a union jack,” he says.
Of course, she bites. “Dad, computers, mobile phones and barista coffee are here to stay.”
Dave smiles. Nothing is here to stay.
They are always having a lend because he doesn’t like the modern gadgets. He gets the gist but sometimes he gets stuck. Then they help, but they give him a shellacking.
Easy in cafe life, she catches the waitresses’ eye like Dave never can and orders a healthy fruit juice. But it must be prepared a certain way to release the enzymes. The waitress confirms it is. Cool, she will have that.
“Shaken not stirred.” Dave jokes.
She looks at him blank.
“It’s a line from James Bond.” Dave says.
“Oh, Daniel Craig.”
Dave allows himself another hidden smile. Her hifalutin fancy order, the avenue of swanky cafes and restaurants in the mall. Down at the beach there used to be just the milk bar with all the signs for ice-cream and soft drinks and lollies and you could get the best hamburger and a milk shake for a few bucks. The food was just as good and you got value for money. And they had just as good a time.
* * *
‘Well, good-day, Davo. Good-day sis.” Jake has arrived. Dave wonders when he turned from father to pal. Well, maybe the pal will remember.
“Hello dad, would be nice,” he says.
Jake’s broad smile. In his twinkling blue eyes echoes of Meggie making Dave’s heart lurch.
Dave takes for granted Jake’s razor cut, the smart shirt clinging to the gym-carved pecs, the hooked-in sunglasses, the dressy blue jeans. Even as a kid he dressed smart and quiet. Nothing lairy.
Jake never stopped here. Went inner city so he wouldn’t have to commute, rode his bicycle to work. Then he went out east.
Dave knows Jake’s mob are under the weather again. He’d phoned last night to check if they were coming. Dee on the blower, couldn’t hardly talk, two kiddies raising such a rumpus. “I’ll keep them home, Dave, rather than spread their germs. Must fly, bye-bye.” Those young ‘uns have always got colds. It’s their feral kindy.
“Hold up near Captains Cooks,” says Jake.
“Unusual,” says Dave. “That bridge is never crowded.”
“That’s because you drive retiree hours, Dave.”
“Tom Ugly’s was slow last night,” says Zoe. “Not on the bridge, on the approaches and you can’t turn round.”
“Passport checks,” Dave stirs. “Before you cross the water to god’s country.”
“You guys think you walk on water,” Jake fires back. “The world ends at the George’s River. There’s other places.”
“Not for me,” Dave says. He lays it on about god’s country when outsiders have a go. Sydney sends up Shire people skiting: “The Shire this, The Shire that.” It’s an urban myth like when people were on about Volvo drivers.
“What’s yours, sis?” Jake asks.
“She tells him about her wanker concoction.
“I’ll go one of those.”
The brother and sister talk school friends. Couples settled where they grew up.
When Meggie passed away, they had been waiting for Dave, this son and daughter. He thought he’d called the family meeting but they had been way ahead. Already talked things over. Gave Dave adult advice in his own living room where he’d tickled them as kids till they almost peed themselves. Jake had lectured on while Dave saw the boy inside the man. “Look dad, they’re building a hole,” he would say, when they passed an excavation site.
Now he’s a corporate, with a grand high poohbah job title, which means nobody knows what he does. Talks nine figure money. Takes gentle swipes at his father’s tin pot, wound-up business that backed him all those years of study.
Zoe had used all her logic inherited from Meggie. Could he have reminded her of the little girl who had shelves in her tummy for the food? Or the pest kid sister who would mortify her brother in front of his school mates by talking to him in the playground. She was never academic, just street smart, with a damn good job, before she married and was taken over by the three kids.
“No use, Dad, rattling round that big house, it’s reached its use-by date.”
They would never know the wrench.
Dave bought the unit with the proceeds of the house. The unit doesn’t overlook the beach. Too rusty and windy beachside for him. He overlooks the blue inlet and the park, with the cheeky lorikeets and the crows crying tragedy.
* * *
The waitress brings the wanker concoctions and they order breakfast. Smashed avos and strange salads for Jake. Gluten free pancakes made with motherless milk for Zoe. Dave orders beef sausages, bacon, real chooks’ eggs, from a real mother, hash browns, mushrooms, toast and jam and an ordinary, commoner, every day cup of coffee.
Zoe’s eyes widen. “Dave,” she says, “do you know how much cholesterol you just ordered, let alone the fat that settles round your organs.”
“Special treat,” he says.
Her hand comes up to her opening mouth. “Gawd, Dave, don’t tell me it’s your birthday.”
“Not my birthday, but somebody’s occasion.”
“He’ll be buggered before he lets on”.
* * *
The breakfasts comes and brother and sister slink, time-poor looks at their watches before they have finished eating. Their fingers drum the table in withdrawal waiting for their mobiles to ring.
“And what have you lined up for the day, Dave?” Jake asks pushing aside his plate with its uneaten blob of seaweed.
“Haven’t made up me mind,” Dave says. “Might see if Norm the Hobbit is going to the footy. Then again I might have a hot date.”
“Taking a bath this arvo, in your birthday suit Dave,” Zoe teases,
Dave nearly blurts it. No. bugger ‘em.
“I have some pals to catch up with,” says Jake, now openly gesturing to his wristwatch.”
“I need to finish the girls’ party dresses before Luke gets them home from nippers,” says Zoe, checking the time on her phone.
“Game over then,” says Dave. “Tell the broods Poppy says hello.”
* * *
Dave passes the acacias on his way back to the unit. That was an even shorter breakfast than usual. Hit and run kids. Dave sighs. They have their own lives.
“Oh, hello Mr. Jackson”
Some strapping six foot bloke and change greets Dave. Wife and toddler with him, baby in the pram. Dave stares, thinks it might be that sweet Trent kid when Dave coached the under-nines.
“That you Trent?” he wants to say but plays it safe. “Good mate, good, how’s yourself?” Maybe it isn’t Trent.
The wife is looking him over, smiling. She knows he’s Zoe’s dad.
“I’m good, yeah good,” says the gravel voice of the six footer. Those under-nine voices were like little flutes.
“Can’t complain, nobody listenin’ anyway,” says Dave.
“And Jake has a house out east or something?”
“Yeah, just had brekky with him and Zoe. She’s got a place near the dunes.
“We bought Mr. Bland’s place, Shane’s dad.” says the six footer. “You remember Shane.”
“Course mate,” He doesn’t.
“I saw Shane the other day,” says the big bloke. “He bought into that plumbing business near your old place.”
“Well, good on him.”
“How’s Mrs Jackson?” asks the wife. “What a lovely lady. In the business, running the tuckshop, still coaching tennis?”
Dave feels the knot in his throat. “Meggie passed away two year ago, this month, love. In the time of perfect weather.”
“Oh, Mr. Jackson,” says the wife, “I am so sorry. She was an amazing lady.”
“I know love, I know,” says Dave. This is too hard. He needs to lighten this and put them at their ease.
He looks at them both and winks. “Course you didn’t have to live with her.”
They look at him astonished, then laugh. He’s just easing the tension.
Dave kids the toddler, asks name and age, makes polite comments, says his goodbyes.
* * *
Dave rounds Gunnamatta Bay where the ferry is docked waiting on another trip. Who was that bloke anyway? Meggie would have known. Head for names and faces, Meggie.
Dave pushes his palm up under his jaw, locking it. He nearly told perfect strangers what he wouldn’t tell his own kids. Meggie died two years ago today. In the time of perfect weather. Wouldn’t you think the kids would have remembered? Wouldn’t you think they would have come up with him to Woronora this morning to visit Meggie’s grave. Just stand there a few minutes. Mongrels. Well, that’s not right; they are good kids. Meggie raised them right, don’t you worry. They’re just modern parents, hard pressed, running kids everywhere, working crazy hours. It’s just an oversight. But wouldn’t you think they would have tumbled to his hint about somebody’s occasion. He should have told them. shamed them to hell. No, bugger it, they should have remembered. How Meggie would have liked to have seen them there.
Dave watches the little green and gold ferry, proud in its Aussie colours, chugging up the channel, going over to Bundeena. He reckons the ferry is the last thing in The Shire that hasn’t changed. But he better phone Norm the Hobbit soon, to see if he’s going to the footy this arvo.
Go Sharkies. Dave had measured his life waiting for the Sharkies to win the Grand Final. Then they’d won it the year after Meggie passed. Since that season, Dave hasn’t been so fussed on the footy. But Norm the Hobbit might want to go.
Course, he’d promised he’d leave The Shire the year the Sharkies won. Jake had taken the piss saying, “Have you packed?” Dave had been over a barrel.
At his unit Dave goes into the underground parking to get his car to drive up to Woronora. He pats his mobile in his pocket, making sure it’s there. Every time he gets used to a model, the company stops supporting it. Having his mobile, he won’t have to trip upstairs to his unit to phone Norm on the landline. It’s only one flight but he’s always up and down. He should have bought a ground floor place for when he can’t manage the stairs. But he’s fine for now. Besides, there might not be a ground floor unit. They might cart him off to a nursing home. He can hear them saying it already. “Dad, you’re too old to look after yourself anymore.” Then there is the step after that. Underground dwelling forever. The basement unit so to speak. The rotting chamber. The changes never stop
Yet there’s something about The Shire that takes it all in, that never changes. That still remains the good old Shire. Like it had a spirit, a heart. He should write a book about it. A memoir. “From Dunny Man to De Sal.” by Dave Jackson. Yeah, catchy title.
But he better phone Norm the Hobbit. Soon as he gets out from under all this concrete where the mobile won’t work. See if Norm’s going to the footy. Keep the lonesome old bugger company. Dave sometimes wonders who keeps who company?
Him and Norm, two old hobbits at the footy.
Yes, he is a Hobbit too. Not so much as Norm. He’d done some travelling. Him and Meggie even did some cruises. But he’d always come home.
Too right. He’d die here, they’d put him next to Meggie— in god’s country.
About the author:
Born in South Africa, Alf Marks spent his early childhood in that country before moving with his parents to Zimbabwe (then Rhodesia) where he grew up. After emigrating, he earned a degree in Journalism in Canada and an M.A. in Education in the USA. His journey subsequently took him to Australia where he has lived for many years.
He has worked as a reporter, a teacher, and an old wares and antiques dealer.
His African stories have been published in various magazines in Australia and South Africa. His Australian themed stories have been published in journals in Australia and the USA.