He pulled with all his strength.
Two days worth of mud had dried to a crusty casing on his leg. It was a bit like playdough left in the sun. His foot was jammed in.
He took a deep breath and heaved again. There was a grating of skin against rubber then a satisfying pop as the foot pulled free from the gumboot.
Junior scratched at his ankle with fervour, trying to itch away the last half an hour of frustration. A great big itchy bite stood out on his bony little brown ankle. He grabbed the boot out of the mud and shook it upside down. Two ugly old pebbles fell out too. Junior grinned. Now he was set to go.
“Bloody stones,” he said to the wind. He loved swearing.
“Junior!” his mum’s voice rang out over the farm like a cow desperate to be milked. He sniffed at the air and smelt rain, not dinner.
He looked up the driveway to the top of the hill. The white, weatherboard house squatted safe and peeling in what was left of the light. The darkening hills rose up behind it, part covered in brush, part cleared for use. Pine trees lined the west and east fence lines, giving the borders of the farm a nice swish-swish carpet of needles. Junior imagined brown pine needles, dry and slippery beneath his feet but he knew, today, they would be wet. Winter seemed to go on forever and ever. He sniffed at the pine on the wind.
“Junior,” she yelled again, “Go down to your granddads and help him with that hedge before dinner! I’ve told you five times.” His Mother’s voice rose to a screech. She stood at the front door now, wiping her hands on a tea towel. Her hair stuck out on all sides like a bird’s nest and Junior didn’t like the nasty way her forehead creased up.
“No!” he yelled back. There was no way he was helping granddad with the hedge. Not after last time. He was not missing Cherry’s visit again. Last week he’d helped out Granddad and they’d eaten all the Fish and Chips by the time he’d got back up the hill. No way, he was not going to miss out this time.
He heaved on his gumboot again, grabbed his bike out of the mud and jumped on. He got some traction on a flat piece of rock and took off just as it started to spit. Wind whipped the raindrops sideways across his face and in to his ears.
“Junior, do as you’re told!” howled his Mum with the wind.
“No!” he shouted back “No!!!!”
“Junior!” his mother shouted again. Her voice disappeared in a spray of mud under his tyres and the tap tap of rain on his face as he roared off downhill at top speed.
“Huh haa!” he thought. He pedalled like mad, his knees nearly hitting his handlebars. He didn’t notice.
After a few minutes of hard cycling, the gravel driveway turned in to an old asphalt road and he relaxed a bit, picking up speed on the smooth slope, skidding around corners and trying not to brake. Just like his older brothers.
He decided he’d meet Cherry’s car. Then there’d be no way she’d miss him being there. She’d get the guilts if he didn’t get any kai.
In a few minutes he reached the hill and slowed right down. The uphill grind made him stand on his pedals, straining against the slope and the weather and keeping an eye on the sharp bends in case of the car. The hill defeated him and he walked the bike the rest of the way, stopping to puff at the summit. Still no sign of Cherry.
Far down below he could see the very top of Granddad’s roof, on the right, nestled in by a big old Pine tree. That tree had grown up with Granddad. That’s what he’d told him anyway. But Granddad told a lot of stories and Dad said only half of them were true and of that half, only half again were the same story he’d told before. Dad called him an old coot when he was mad with him. But never to his face.
He wasn’t in the mood to talk to the old coot. He pedalled hard again. He’d see if he could race past so fast that he was a blur. If he was lucky and Granddad was staring out his bedroom window or in the loo, he’d be alright. But he knew Granddad usually stood by the kitchen window, watching nothing going by.
He zoomed down the well earned slope, taking risky corners, bending in to it like a motorbike racer. He went so fast he nearly hooted out loud. But he didn’t want to attract any attention, so he just sort of let the joy whistle out between his teeth.
He flew past Granddad’s place on the flat, he stood upright on the pedals, high enough to see in the windows of the old white villa. He’d give him a wave, he thought, if he saw him.
The level ground slowed his rush and he wasn’t going too fast as he went past Granddad’s kitchen. He looked in and saw the old man leaning over his table.
Junior gave a double take. He braked, turned slowly on the wet road and biked back to the gate in the hedge. The hedge was looking bad.
When Junior was a bit younger, Mum used to drop him off here every other day and him and Granddad would shoot the breeze. Granddad would get out his hedge clippers and snip a little here, hack a little there till that hedge was in tip top shape. They’d begin with talking about what had happened at primary school that day and almost always end with talk about bikes and cars. Then Granddad would say “Let’s take a look at that bike of yours” and he’d pick it up and maybe take it out the back to the garage and give it some oil, whether it needed it or not, and check the tyres. When Mum came to pick Junior up again for tea, Granddad would be telling him one of his stories from when he was a boy.
These days Mum came down most afternoons to help Granddad with his chores and bring him some dinner. Junior didn’t visit so much now. Mum said Granddad was losing his memory and sometimes began to tell her the same story three times in a row. Junior didn’t like the sound of that.
‘I can hear those stories once,’ she’d said ‘but hearing the same story over and over. Well, it’s just sad.’ More like really annoying, thought Junior.
He dumped his bike in the grass and walked up the path. He knocked on Granddad’s door. No answer. He pushed and the door glided open. The hall stretched in front him, walls covered in photos. He saw one of himself all dressed up for a summer party. He looked stupid.
“Granddad?” he called. He walked down the hall, wet gumboots leaving dirty footprints twice the size of his feet. His whole body dripped like a tree in a storm. The smell of old meat hung in the damp air. He shivered and felt hungry at the same time. The house was very cold.
He rounded a corner and found his Granddad stretched out across the kitchen table. His body bent at the waist, his feet on the floor and his chest resting in the leftovers of his dinner. Junior could see a piece of ham sticking out the side of his Granddad’s old grey jumper. Some mashed potato under his shoulder. He couldn’t see his face, it looked the other way. Staring, as always, out the kitchen window.
Junior wondered if Granddad was totally dead. He reached out his hand to pat him but couldn’t do it. The rain thundered on the tin roof now. He shivered. He sucked in a little sob. He wished Granddad had had the time to finish dinner. He really liked ham and mashed potatoes. Junior turned and splashed back down the hallway. He had to tell Mum.
Mum hadn’t been down to see Granddad that afternoon. She’d told Dad she just couldn’t take it every day. “He has enough dinner to last him a couple of nights, he’ll be fine,” she’d said.
Dad had nodded his understanding and patted her on the shoulder. He’d said he’d check in on him, save her the trip. Maybe he’d forgotten, thought Junior. We’d all forgotten.
He grabbed his bike and gunned it back along the straight and up the hill. He hammered his sadness in to the hard little pedals and let the wind and rain carry it away as he battled up the long, dark road home.