When Mrs. Hawkins gets pregnant my mother takes over some of our old baby things that have been ‘hanging fire.’ Mrs. Hawkins lives over the road with a man called Mr. Hawkins and their son Dominic Hawkins. Dom is their only child and goes to Camberwell Grammar in a place called Camberwell.
I do not.
Dom is a much older boy than me. He must be nearly fifteen when Mrs. Hawkins ‘falls’ pregnant, something he does not like to talk about. ‘Falls,’ I imagined, like a branch falling off a tree in a storm. He is the first person in our street to buy the Abbey Road album. In fact, he buys two. He puts their covers up in his lounge room window facing out into the street and says he has set up a record store. They look so good. My mother, when she sees them, dropping off the old toys, says it would be enough to give you nightmares.
Dom is the best cricketer in our street because he plays for the Camberwell Grammar firsts. No one can get him out. He constantly knocks me for six over the Kilmisters’ fence. I have to leap the pickets and grab the ball before their Corgi runs out. Then he knocks the next ball straight back over the fence again. He is not allowed to hook because of windows, or square cut because of his Mum’s roses, so there are a lot of straight sixes. Six, six, six. He always talks about himself like a radio commentator, saying things like:
‘Hawkins knocks another mighty six. That one’s gone to the moon and back.’
My frustration and carrot-topped temper boils ferociously so that I often end up hurling the ball at him, elbow bent in blind fury.
‘You’re a chucker.’
Because he is much older he is for a while my best friend, although I don’t think I am ever his. I look up to him. I want those Abbey Road covers in my window, nightmares or not. One rainy Saturday, when his mother is out buying something called an eternity bra, Dom decides we should have a matchbox war. Bra is a funny word because it makes you laugh. So is eraser, because everyone thinks you are actually saying rubber and that could mean something different, perhaps something Mrs. Hawkins does not know the meaning of. The kids in our street spend a lot of time copying Mrs. Hawkins’ pregnant waddle, but only when Dom is not around or else he will cork our thighs.
We divide the matchboxes so that we have half a dozen each. We make up the rules as we go along, even though we both knew there are no rules in war. His parents’ bedroom is out of bounds. So is the room with the new basinet and mobile hanging from the ceiling, twirling gently, its branches forking out.
‘Why can’t we go in this room?’ I ask.
‘Because I hate this room.’
The aim of the game is to stalk each other through the house and try to hit the other person with the matchboxes. The harder the better. Perhaps with accompanying explosive sound effects. Sometimes it stings, but stinging is also something that makes you laugh. Because we only have six each you have to wait for a good shot so as not to waste them. A rapid exchange sees you quickly out of ammo and unarmed. You have to run away or face up to a point blank shot. Then you have to scramble about for the boxes that litter the floor. When the boxes spill their contents, we stop for a truce and put them all back taping them shut with sticky tape. I am much better at matchbox war than I am at knocking sixes over the Kilmisters’ fence. I am a smaller target.
As the game goes on Dom pegs his matches at me with increasing, wasted energy. His face grows redder.
‘You’re a chucker,’ he says.
I say: ‘Your Mum’s buying a bra,’ and he throws wildly, missing.
‘You shut up.’
‘Bra bra bra.’
‘I told you to shut up.’
‘An eternity bra.’
‘Maternity, you little suck.’
‘Bra bra black sheep.’
He is getting angry, but I don’t mind. He is trying to hurt me. I am good at dodging. Out of ammo I scurry for some boxes lying on the carpet. Several Dom had fired are lying spent by the lounge room windows. He is really pegging them. I guess it must be the repetitive friction of the chucking, because when I snatch one up, the matchbox suddenly explodes in my hand. Burning sulphur flares and sticks to my fingers in a ball of flame. I shake my hand free. ‘Aah.’
The flaming box falls to the base of the curtains. I jump in pain like a frog in a frypan, squeezing my hand under my armpit.
‘Are you all right?’
I hold back tears and grit my teeth. I know he is waiting to see if he can get an easy shot. Then Dom notices the smoking curtains and quickly forgets about my pain.
‘Quick, get some water,’ he yells, then decides to do it himself. He runs back with a saucepan filled with water while I watch the curtains smoulder. Dom splashes the water around, and then runs for another pot. I snatch the Abbey Road covers out of harm’s way.
‘Don’t worry about them.’
He throws the water around willy-nilly, fetches another pot, and
luckily manages to smother the flames with a wet cushion. He is aghast, spluttering like an Axolotl. The room is smoky, so he opens a window and flaps a magazine about to clear the air. I take the saucepan, refill it and put my hand in it.
‘What’ll we do?’
I do not think that Dom is a person who would ever not know what to do. To realise he is not is a shock to me. I cannot answer; my hand is giving me too much curry. We look at the scorched curtains, charred and blackened at the base; also the melted fibres of the carpet. In panic, or maybe it is a brilliant idea, Dom finds his mother’s sewing scissors. Carefully he chops the burnt bits out of the curtains. Then he maneuvers a heavy lounge chair over the black patch on the carpet in front of the hole he has cut, rearranging the furniture in a casual manner.
‘Maybe she won’t notice.’
Then he puts the off cuts from the curtains in the bin. After a moment he takes them out again and carrys them outside to stuff them in the incinerator.
I ask: ‘What about the smell?’
‘Can’t you smell that stink?’
He sprays some toilet air freshener about the room, but all that does is make it smell like a toilet.
Then we hear his mother’s car in the driveway, on our cricket pitch. We run out to meet her, mainly so that Dom can delay her entry into the house, in order that he might be that much older when he has to deal with the consequences. I notice his fingers are black with soot. My hand hurts like mad. There is an oil stain on the concrete with little droplets of rain on it that form a rainbow. A storm is coming. Dom offers to carry her groceries. She is waddling and puffing from her big belly. All the kids in our street, much to Dom’s humiliation, know that to get a big round belly like that his parents must have been doing it, unlike ours. Doing it is also funny, because it leaves so much to the imagination. I wonder which bag contains the eternity bra? Is it like some sort of bandage?
She looks at Dom suspiciously.
‘Why are you being so helpful?’
The pain in my hand is getting worse. There is the soft pillow of a blister forming along one finger like a caterpillar. I want to get out of there, so I let my eyes fill with water and make some excuse and take off home. Maybe it’s time I found a new friend. Over my shoulder I hear Mrs. Hawkins saying:
‘What have you done to him?’
‘Then why is he upset?’
‘I don’t know.’
‘There are other people in the world apart from you Dom…’
I do not tell my mother how I have burnt my hand. In fact, I do not tell her at all. I have to stew silently in my pain, although I quite like holding my fingers to my nose and smelling the singed hair. That afternoon a purple storm rolls over the suburbs and the branches of the trees sway wildly. Over our bubble-and-squeak, my younger brothers fighting for the last slice of bread, my mother says to my father:
‘Another baby at her age, after all this time, she won’t know what’s hit her.’
Mark O’Flynn’s most recent book is a collection of short stories, Dental Tourism (Puncher and Wattmann, 2020). He has also published poetry and extended fiction.