Changeling’s Island – Snippet 08


Tim made his way back to the kitchen. It was a bit smoky in there, lit by a single bare bulb. Two places were laid on the scrubbed boards of the big, rickety table. A plate full of food — a generous plateful — stood steaming at one of them. His grandmother was dishing a second, much smaller plate of food from pots on the stove. Tim hovered, uncertain if he should sit and where. She turned from the stove. Gestured with an elbow at the plate at the table. “Yer making the place look untidy. Sit down and eat up. It’s getting cold.” As he moved to pull the chair out, she said. “Wait. Yer’d better give it a welcome.”

She put her plate down at her place, went to an old rounded refrigerator in the corner, rummaged in it, and pulled out a bottle…of beer. Well, it was a beer bottle. She handed it to him. “Here. For your little friend.”

Tim looked uncertainly at the stubby bottle. It had a cork shoved into it. Not a new cork, either. The bottle was about half full. Not quite knowing what he should do, he pulled the cork out.

“It’s flat, but they don’t mind,” said his grandmother.

“Er. What is it?” he said, sniffing it from a distance.

“Beer. Not for you to drink, boy! Get a bowl from the dresser and put it in the corner where I won’t kick it.”

Tim did as he was told and came to the table. He was hungry, and it smelled good, even if she was crazy enough to have him pour stale beer in bowls.

“You’re supposed to say ‘Be welcome to the house and hearth,’ when you put it down. My nan taught me that. They behave then,” said his grandmother.

“Who behaves?” he asked warily.

“The little people,” said his grandmother. “Go say it, boy. He’s waiting.”

She was crazy. But what could he do? It was dark out there, and he was hungry and tired. So he did it. “Be welcome to the house and hearth,” he said awkwardly. Then he came and sat.

The food was good. More vegetables than he would have chosen to put on his plate, but the gravy was thick and herby and rich to disguise it, and the stewed meat was fall-apart tender. And there was lots of potato. Later he would say that was how he knew his gran’s cooking, there was always lots of potato.

“You like it?”

He nodded. “It’s great. What is it?”

“Roo-tail stew. They’re a pest here. What you’ll eat most of.”

Tim thought of the little hoppers on the track. It wasn’t exactly pizza or Chinese, which had been what they ate pretty often at home. But he supposed it was the nearest you’d get to delivery here.

When he got up from the table…he noticed the bowl in the corner was empty too.

But he was too exhausted to think much about it that night. He’d barely coped with being shown to a painfully neat bedroom and wooden frame bed with a patchwork quilt on it. He must have gotten his bag, brushed his teeth and collapsed to sleep in it, because he was in the bed the next morning, and his toothbrush was in the bathroom.

* * *

Áed took the welcome as both a comfort and a threat. A comfort: she knew the old ways and words, a pleasure in the tasting of the beer, as was his rightful reward. A threat: if she knew the words of welcome, it might be that she also knew the words of punishment or banishment. Áed did not sleep. Rest has a different meaning to the spirits of air and darkness, and he didn’t need much. He was wary about leaving his charge, but he made several brief forays to explore.

There was another of his kind about. His kind weren’t gregarious, and it was busy working on the farm.

* * *

Mary Ryan went to bed too, not even listening to the radio as she usually did in the evening. She had a lot on her mind. Mostly, money. She scowled to herself. There was probably money to be had from the Social Welfare at the Centerlink office. She wouldn’t take the dole for herself; it went against everything she believed in. She was damned if she’d demean herself to ask, anyway. She had her pride, and if she lost that, she had nothing. For the boy, well, it was different. But…once they started sticking their beaks in, they’d find out about her eyes. They’d say she couldn’t live here, let alone look after the boy.

She did the sums in her head again. Food, well, the basics, fruit, meat and vegetables anyway, were not going to be a problem. She couldn’t see to shoot anymore, but her father, and his father before him, had snared wallaby. The garden provided. But it was the rest: sugar, vinegar — or there’d be pretty few vegetables and no fruit in the winter. Tea, cooking oil, clothes, boots, soap, the extra electricity. She tended to sit at home in the dark most evenings, just to save that bit. You could listen to the radio perfectly well in the dark. The farm needed more work than she and her little helper could do these days, and the scrawny boy wasn’t really up to it yet either. It needed work and money, and the stock just wasn’t fetching what it used to on the sales. Dicky took her beasts in, and he said she was lucky to be getting what she got back for them.

Eventually she got up, opened the tin box, and took out the thin fold of money. It was so awkward having to turn the light on to see the value of the notes. There wasn’t much there, as she’d known. But there was nothing else. The only other things in the ditty box were worthless to anyone but her, and too precious for her to ever part with. She couldn’t see to read them anymore, either, but she knew all the words on those letters by heart anyway.

Her fallback money would just have to be enough, or she’d have to sell something. Heaven knew what.

* * *

Tim woke to the sound of a teaspoon being clattered around a cup, looked up from the pillow to see the spare figure of his grandmother pushing open the door. She put the cup down on the little bedside table. “Yer better get yourself to the kitchen pretty quick or I’ll feed your breakfast to the chooks.”

He didn’t want to be awake. He really resented being woken, but there was no suggestion that she was not dead serious. Tim felt himself simmering with the feeling of being unfairly used…and she turned to the corner of the room. “And don’t you even think of it, or there’ll be no beer.” And she walked out.

His stomach said it was hungry, and a hungry day had no appeal, even if he had no idea what the day held. Boredom here, he supposed.

There was a pot of porridge on the table. No cereal. Just a bowl, a spoon, a jug of milk, and an old sugar bowl.

“Go easy on the sugar. It doesn’t grow on trees,” said the old lady. “I cut yer lunch.” She pointed at the plastic lunchbox on the corner of the dresser. She reached into the apron pocket of her pinafore. Pulled out an envelope. “Here. That’s for the uniform. I spoke to them at Bowman’s yesterday. Look after it.”

“What?” he asked, feeling as if he were being spoken to in Japanese, for all that he understood. Uniform? Bowman’s?

“Yer got to be waiting for the school bus at half past, at the corner. Eat up, or you’ll be late. Have some more milk; it’ll cool it down. We got lots of milk.”

It tasted odd though. It had yellow stuff floating on the top of it…it wasn’t actually sour or anything. Just not normal, like milk from the Coles around the block back home.

“Is this milk all right?” he asked.

His grandmother’s hand wavered across the table. Tim noticed she didn’t look directly at the table either, but side on. She picked up the jug, held it to her nose and sniffed. “Smells fine. Fresh out the cow this morning. You can learn how to milk her this evening.”

As a reason to rush back to his grandmother’s, that wasn’t on the top of Tim’s list. As a reason to go in a hurry, it wasn’t bad. It was brisk and windy out, scudding clouds ripping across the tops of the old twisted pines. The place didn’t look so frightening in daylight. It did look run down. The fences were rusty. The wire sagged, had been mended here and there.

He walked along to the main gravel road and looked about. He wasn’t sure which way it was to the corner where he had to meet the bus. Probably back toward the airport. He’d had time now to start dreading it all. What did they know about him? About what he’d done?

A car came past in a flurry of dust…and stopped. It reversed, and a huge hairy head, with a windswept moustache, stuck itself out of the window and barked loudly.