“Happy birthday, Loraine,” I said, handing her a wrapped present and card. Before I could duck out of the way, she kissed me on the nose.
Blushing, I kissed her back. “Where’s David?”
“Over there under the Banksia tree getting painted.”
I expected to see an artist in a smock and beret doing a portrait of him as Loraine took me by the hand and led me through the crowd of people, but instead there was an old Aboriginal man decorating David’s body in the traditional markings of his people. I handed him the other card and gift.
“Thanks Joel. This is my great-grandfather, Billy Collins.”
“So you’re the famous Quibbley,” Billy said, grinning as he extended his hand. “Loraine and David have been telling me all about you.”
“No secrets in our family,” David said, his smirk causing me to wonder just what he’d been telling them.
“You’re the one who discovered subspace, aren’t you?” I asked, hoping there wasn’t some other relative called Billy whose fame I was misattributing.
He grinned again. “You must have been studying your ancient history. Yes, Peter and I were only a couple of years older than you when we got our first inkling of it.”
“Hello Joel,” another man said, offering his hand. “I’m Peter Thorpe.”
“Awesome – I mean hi.”
“You’re Jack Morison’s son, aren’t you?”
“Um, yes,” I said, hoping Dad hadn’t knocked back his loan application or anything. The soles of my feet felt suddenly hot.
He scratched his chin before turning to Billy. “Perhaps he gets it from his mother.”
“So,” Peter asked, “are you interested in astrophysics, Joel?”
“I, err, yeah, the stuff we’ve been doing in school is good, but it’s pretty complicated.”
Billy laughed. “That’s why it took a genius like Peter to figure it out.”
“So, um, are you making any new discoveries?”
Peter glanced again at Billy. “Funny you should say that, Joel. Have you heard of the city of Hades and the River Styx?”
“That’s where the ancient Greeks thought dead people went.”
He nodded. “We’ve recently discovered that they’re real places, though, created in Sheol by a race called the Tivinel as a refuge after their world was destroyed. We think those ancient Greeks may have found a way into there.”
“It’s the spiritual counterpoise to subspace.”
“Peter’s our galaxy’s expert on it,” Billy said.
“How many times do I have to tell you that flattery will get you nowhere?”
“It’s true, though.”
Peter frowned. “As I was saying, Joel, after what we found in Sheol, we think there could be extraterrestrial foundations to other Earth mythology, specifically some of the Aboriginal creatures.”
“We’re particularly interested in bunyips,” Billy said, “as there’s an animal in the other galaxy going by the same name.”
“Yes, Peter and I will be spending the summer in south-eastern Victoria, talking to the Elders and visiting ceremonial sites to see if there might be a connection.”
“We’re all going down to join them straight after Christmas,” David said. “Hey, you should come too!”
“That’s a great idea!” Loraine said. “Do you think your parents would let you?”
* * *
“No, Joel,” Mum said. “You know what you’re like and I’m not about to inflict you on Mr and Mrs Collins for the entire holidays.”
“Oh, but Mum, Lorina – I mean Mrs Collins – said she’d love to have me along.”
“I’m sure she was just being polite.”
“Maybe you should ring her,” Dad said, giving me a wink.
Mum sighed. “All right, I suppose.”
They both walked out to the kitchen, leaving me to ponder the prospect of yet another Christmas holidays spent all by myself. Even worse, if those creeps from primary school got wind that David was away, I’d be dead meat for sure. I shuddered at the thought, wishing now we’d never moved here.
“I’m still not convinced,” Mum said to Dad as they walked back in.
“We could kill two stones with the one bird and go on our second honeymoon while he’s away.”
“Oh all right, then. Yes, Joel, you can go, but I want you to promise that you won’t make a nuisance of yourself.”
“Yeah, sure, anything!” I said, jumping so high off the lounge I almost hit the ceiling. “Thanks Mum, thanks!”
“I’ll have to buy you some shoes, though.”
“You can’t go traipsing all over Victoria in your bare feet.”
“Why not? It’s no different to here!”
“Do you want to go or don’t you?”
“But Mum –”
“I’ll say no more, Joel. Either you wear shoes on your feet or you stay at home. It’s your choice.”
In my mind’s eye I could already see myself traipsing barefoot across Victoria, my soles tantalised by the unfamiliar textures of that distant land, and I wasn’t about to let anyone destroy that dream. My blood boiled as something inside of me snapped. “No, I’m not wearing them!” I shouted. “No way! It’s not fair! You can’t make me!”
“Joel, come outside please,” Dad said, herding me out the back door and over to the garden seat in the far corner of the yard.
I sat as he ran his hands over his face.
“Never have I been so ashamed of being your father, Joel, and if you ever speak to your mother like that again you’ll be wishing you’d never been born. How old are you, son?”
“Yes, and heaven help us you’ll be a teenager in just a few short months, so why the hell do you have to behave like a spoiled six-year-old?”
“But I –”
“Shut it, Joel. Every time you open your mouth it’s always I – I – I. I don’t like my lunch, the kids call me names, I don’t want my hair cut, I’m not going to wear shoes and God knows what else. Can’t you think of others for a change?
“I know some of it’s my fault with all our moving around, and part of the reason for me taking the job with the community bank here was to provide a more settled environment for you. We’d hoped that, with your new school and new friends, there might have been some improvement, but oh no, you’re still the same old inconsiderate brat we’ve had to endure for far too long.
“If it were up to me you’d be grounded for the entire holiday, and if we had American-style summer boot camps that’s where you’d be spending it, but since we don’t you’d just be moping around the house the whole time, making your mother’s life even more miserable, and I’m not about to put her through that.
“I don’t care whether you wear shoes or not, heaven knows I never wore them when I was your age, but if your mother tells you to wear boxing gloves, a bow tie and a dunce’s cap to Victoria then that’s precisely what you’ll do, without argument or complaint. Is that understood?”
“I want you to go inside now, apologise to your mother and go straight to your room. If I ever have to drag you out here again, your hide will be nailed to that tree, I swear.”
“Good. Now get out of my sight, Joel.”
I stood, turned away from him and walked steadfastly inside.
“I – I’m sorry, Mum, I shouldn’t have argued with you.”
“Oh Joel,” she said, taking a step towards me, but I dashed to my room, slammed the door and pushed a chair up against it. I stood at my desk, staring at my assortment of papers, books and trinkets before sweeping them up in both arms and hurling them onto the floor.
From amongst the detritus I spotted the crumpled State of Origin ticket I’d kept as a souvenir. Quibbley the Great, what a pathetic joke that was. In truth, the only reason those thugs had walked away was because they couldn’t stop laughing at me. I wished now they had stabbed me – better to die a hero than be the whacko kid laughing stock of the world.
With tears now blurring my vision, I tore the ticket to shreds and scattered it about like confetti, before flopping onto my bed and bawling my eyes out like the spoiled six-year-old brat I’d become.