December 2000 – five years old.
‘What’re you doin?’
The boy looked up, mud smeared across his face, mixing in with his already dark skin and already dark hair. The whites of his eyes gleamed up at Ant and when the boy smiled his teeth gleamed whiter than any teeth Ant had seen.
‘Playing,’ the boy said. ‘Wanna play too?’
Wind ruffled Ant’s hair, straining against him. Pushing him toward the boy by the stream. He shifted, glancing back over his shoulder at the park where two women sat on a bench talking.
Ant’s fingers twisted in the hem of his shirt. ‘My Mum’s waiting,’ he said.
The boy shrugged, returning to the sticky mess he was creating now that the prospect of a playmate had past on. Water trickled across the miniature dam he had built. There was a little ship made of leaves stuck on the other side.
Ant shifted again, edging closer to look. Fingers, though slick with mud from dam building, had no trouble manoeuvring a long thick leaf around a small twig. Ant’s feet inched forward through the mud, clean white sneakers coming dangerously close to the watery mud the boy was happily playing in.
A rock, dislodged by Ant’s curious feet, tumbled down into the stream.
Dark eyes flickered up and Ant stopped, caught in the gaze of the other boy. He wondered how eyes so dark could look so bright. They were a nice colour. Like melted chocolate. The boy smiled and gestured toward a pile of sticks.
‘Grab one of those, wouldja?’ the boy asked.
Ant’s eyes went wide and he nodded quickly. He took careful steps, not wanting to disturb the boy’s creation. When he returned, he crouched down and held out the stick.
With the little ship finished, Ant leaned forward to watch the boy place it carefully in the water. His face lit up in success as it began to float until the water swept it against a rock and it tipped over. He scowled and sat back in the mud with a huff of annoyance, digging little rocks out of the mud and chucking them into the water.
Ant stood up and went to salvage the little boat. It was almost right, but Ant thought he knew how to fix it. His older brother was very good at making things. He’d shown Ant how to make a leaf boat once.
The boy’s dark gaze tracked him as he crouched back down by the edge of the water to fix the little boat. When he was done, he hesitated, looking over at the boy. Maybe he would be annoyed that Ant had taken his boat?
But the boy only watched him, eyes bright with curiosity. Ant held it out to him.
‘Want to try it?’
The boy grinned, a dimple forming in his left cheek. He nodded to Ant. ‘You do it,’ he said. ‘You fixed it.’
He watched as Ant placed the boat steadily in the water. They both held their breaths as the water took the boat out of Ant’s hands. A leaf came loose, sending the boat into a spiral, and Ant dropped his gaze down to his sneakers.
‘Aw, dang,’ the boy said, and he nudged Ant with his elbow. ‘C’mon, let’s try again. You almost got it!’
‘Okay!’ Ant said, then he blurted, ‘I’m Ant.’
The boy grinned, grabbing Ant’s arm and dragging him down the stream, ‘Tim.’
January 2001 – five years old.
He watched the boy from three rows back, pulling at the itchy black jumper Ma had made him wear. She sniffled, brushing a tissue past her nose as she listened to the boring man up the front of the room, who kept talking about going to a better place. What was he called? A Mister?
He glanced at Ma, frowning as she blinked back tears—the way Tim did when he didn’t want her to know he was upset for being in trouble. She had that set to her shoulders she got when she was mad.
Tim thought it was because of her new poofy hairstyle and the long, itchy looking black dress that didn’t match, and the way everyone stared at them as they came in. Everyone except the boat boy.
Tim tried to remember his name, swinging his legs as he leaned forward to see the boy better. He was sure it was him. He had that same brownish red hair, like the pennies Tim’s Rotten Father used to collect before Ma said Tim couldn’t see him anymore and sent him to live far away from them.
Tim leaned sideways, trying to catch a better glimpse of the boy’s face. A hand came down on his arm, holding him still in a vice grip, and Tim winced, glancing sideways at Ma. She peeked sideways at him, her eyes all puffy and red, and Tim got ready to be in trouble. But instead of telling him off, her eyes went all soft and she said,
‘Be still, rascal.’
Tim grinned, but leaned back in his seat. She was tense, probably still upset about her hair, and he didn’t want to make her any sadder than she already was. The puffy red eyes worried him. Ma never cried. Not even when she broke her leg and had to go to hospital (when Tim had broken his leg, he’d cried for hours).
Yet, his curiosity about the boat boy—and the absence of his friends (they were way up the front of the long rows of seats with Grandma Belle, listening to the Mister talking about that better place)—made him restless.
He wanted to play. He wanted to go outside with Freddie and make mud pies. Outside the long, colourful windows, Tim could make out the cloudy sky. Good weather for mud pies.
When the man finally stopped speaking, and people began to stand up, Tim jumped up and started for the front of the big, domed room.
‘Tim!’ Ma hissed as he darted off.
He was trying to see his friends, but there was a swarm of people in black surrounding them, their older brother and Grandma Belle. They made Tim think of flies, all buzzing with nonsense words and crying.
He tried to push through the crowed, annoyed that so many adults were in the way. Why were they all crying?
‘Tim!’ he heard Ma call. ‘I’m so sorry, excuse me. Sorry! Tim! Get back here!’
Someone snagged the back of his shirt, tugging insistently, but when he turned, it wasn’t Ma, it was the boat boy. His eyes were bright blue, like a summer sky, and they stared at him in wide disbelief.
‘You can’t go that way,’ he said, glancing nervously toward the centre of the crowd.
‘Why not?’ Tim asked.
He didn’t push any further in, but he didn’t give into the boy’s tug either.
The boy paused, seeming to think on how to explain. ‘It’s family first.’
‘I’m family,’ Tim said, and pointed toward the centre. ‘They’re my bestest friends.’
The boy blinked again. ‘But that’s friends, not family. If you go in, you’ll get in trouble.’
Tim scoffed. ‘That doesn’t matter,’ he said. ‘Trust me. I have to go in. They’ll be frightened without me.’
The boy’s head tilted. ‘They will?’
‘Sure. Freddie don’t speak and Genie don’t like crowds. They’re littler than us, so they’ll be scared for sure. What’re all these adults doing anyway?’
The boy was quiet again, frowning at Tim. Not in an angry way, but with that same sadness Ma had had all day.
‘They’re Mum and Dad went away.’
Tim frowned, and shot a glare at an adult jostled them sideways, pushing through the throng sobbing in the same kind of way that Tim did when he wanted the teachers to think he was hurt. ‘Went away where?’
The boy’s blue eyes dropped to the ground. ‘They went where my Nana went. Somewhere better.’
‘And they left the twins behind?’
‘Not on purpose.’
Tim scoffed again. ‘Well, then I hafta go in. They’ll be sad for sure. Come on,’ said Tim, and pulled on Ant’s arm. ‘You can meet them.’
‘Look, Ant’ said Tim, and surprised himself by remembering the boy’s name. He paused, before shaking his head and going on. ‘Look, when your friends are sad, it don’t matter if you get in trouble, you have to go make ‘em feel better. That’s your job.’
‘Tim,’ said a surprised voice from above. ‘I never knew you could be so insightful.’
Ant’s shoulders drooped, blue eyes flashing up fearfully, but Tim just grinned and looked up into Grandma Belle’s softly wrinkled face. Her eyes were the same puffy red as Ma’s, but her hazel eyes smiled down at Tim with a kindness that never faltered—even when Tim accidentally broke something.
Ma caught up to them, breaking through the crowd with a flustered and teary expression that made Tim cringe. Grandma Belle looked up, her smile softening just that little bit more. She shook her head at Ma and focused back on Tim and Ant.
‘Now,’ she said, her cheery voice a little too forced. ‘Why don’t you and your new friend take the twins on outside? I think they could do with some cheering up, and I think you’re just the right person for the job.’
Tim beamed, and turned to Ant with an expectant smile. ‘See?’ he said.
Ant just stared at him, his mouth hanging open slightly. Tim took Ant’s hand and pulled him off toward his friends. It was good to have backup, he thought, as they pushed through to the twins. They looked like they’d need a lot of cheering up.
Behind them Ma and Grandma Belle were hugging, and Ma was crying lots now. Tim frowned. He thought about going back, worried that Grandma Belle had said something to upset Ma…but then, everyone was upset today. And Grandma Belle had said that the twins were upset. She had given him the solemn duty of cheering them up.
‘What…what if they don’t like me?’ Ant said from behind Tim, staggering along clumsily. ‘What if I make them more upset?’
‘Nah,’ said Tim, glancing back with a smile. ‘You make those awesome boats, right? They’ll like you for sure. ‘Sides, aren’t we already friends?’
February 2002 – six years old.
A rock hit the pathway, making a sharp cracking sound as it splintered off into the grass.
Ant yelped and darted to the left, following the path Tim was carving into the park. They ducked into the bushes, Tim yanking Ant down as the three big kids who were chasing them raced past.
When a few minutes had gone by they stood, Ant more hesitantly than Tim.
‘Next time,’ he said, sniffling a little as he looked down at his stinging hands. ‘We should just give them the lollies.’
‘Next time I’ll kick their teeth out,’ Tim said, scowling fiercely. ‘Bullies.’
He turned to Ant and noticed the red splotches all over his palms.
‘Mum’ll be so mad,’ Ant said, tears stinging his eyes almost as much as his hands stung.
When they’d said they wouldn’t give the older kids their lolly bags, one of them had shoved Ant and he had slipped in the gravel, falling on his palms.
‘Stuff that,’ said Tim. ‘Ma will fix your hands before you go home. C’mon, lets go sit in the sandbox for a while.’
Ant held himself tight, pulling his arms in at his sides and keeping a sharp gaze for the older kids.
‘What if they come back?’
The bush was tickling his legs as it brushed back and forth in the wind.
‘They won’t,’ Tim said simply.
He took one of Ant’s hands (carefully since it was still sore) and led the boy back into the main park where the sandbox was.
Ant pulled his shoes off, placing them carefully out of the pit—otherwise Mum would be angry with him for getting them full of sand again. He liked it better without shoes, anyway. With his socks out of the way, he buried his feet in the sand, relishing the coolness that seeped into his feet.
Tim grinned, poking Ant’s feet through the sand, ‘Why d’you do that?’
‘It feels nice.’
Tim looked down at his own feet. He pulled off his shoes and copied Ant’s position. He grinned.
‘It’s nice,’ he said.
He pulled out a bag of lollies.
‘Where’re yours?’ he asked as he began untying them.
‘I … I dropped them when we were being chased.’
Tim frowned. He put the lolly bag between them, and began counting out the lollies into two piles. When he got to the last lolly, he bit it in half, swallowing one half and placing the other with the pile closest to Ant.
‘There,’ Tim said. ‘Even.’
Ant’s eyes welled up again, and he scrubbed at them furiously, not wanting to be such a baby in front of Tim.
‘Thank you,’ he said softly.
‘Tomorrow,’ Tim said, his normally bright eyes glinting with a hardness Ant hadn’t seen before. ‘Let’s steal their lunch boxes and swap their yummy food for acorns!’
March 2003 – seven years old.
The thing about love,’ said the girl at the park. ‘Is that you can never really tell if you’re in it, until you are.’
‘Whats that s’posed to mean?’ Tim asked.
Ant, standing at his shoulder, tugged on his sleeve again, but Tim shrugged him off. He was the one who’d wanted to know about the book in the first place, so Tim didn’t know why he was so worried.
The girl put aside the book, laying it open on the seat next to her. On the front cover it had the words ‘Everything there is to love’, which was the source of their coming to talk to her.
Tim wished he had his detectives hat and coat that Ma had gotten him for his birthday. An investigation like this was good practice for when Tim finished school and started really detective stuff.
‘It means,’ said the girl, ‘That love is complicated.’
When she spoke, Tim caught a glimpse of something glinting in her mouth. At first he’d thought he’d imagined it, but then he spotted it again. He wanted to ask about it, but figured he should focus on one investigation at a time. That’s what a real detective would do.
The girl had come to the park halfway through their game of tag. They’d stopped to stare at her as she sat down. She had big hair with streaks of black and pink, piercings in her eyebrows and nose, and big black boots good for stomping on things. When they’d gotten closer, they’d seen the big round earrings stretching holes in her ears, and Ant had panicked, not wanting to go any closer.
‘It’s alright,’ hissed Tim. ‘Detectives have to face all sorts of scary people.’
‘But I’m not a detective,’ Ant whispered back, his voice shakes.
Tim grabbed his hand. ‘It’s alright,’ he said again. ‘I’ll be the detective. I’ll make sure you’re safe.’
Tim knew Ant wouldn’t abandon him, so he kept approaching the girl. He half expected her to cast some horrible spell on them and turn them into toads or something. Or probably snakes. The girl looked like she liked snakes.
Except when Tim asked what the book was about, and why there needed to be such a big book about love, and the girl had answered. And her voice had been nothing at all like what a voice should be from someone so…well not scary, because Tim was a detective and they weren’t scared of anything.
‘There are lots of different kinds of love,’ she said. ‘The kind you feel for family. The kind you feel for friends. And the most important kind of love, which is when you’re in love. But I suppose there lots of different kinds of in love as well.’
‘In love?’ Tim repeated.
‘You’ll get it when you’re older,’ she said, smiling at them, her voice bright and cheerful, like she was happy they’d come to talk to her—even though she was a bigger kid than them, and usually the bigger kids hated talking to little kids. ‘All you need to know, is that when someone loves you, it means that they’d do anything to make you happy.’
‘Oh,’ said Ant, his eyes going wide in surprise. ‘That’s like what you say about being friends.’
Tim glanced sideways at Ant, grinning. ‘That’s ‘cause I’m a genius.’
The girl laughed, holding her book up to cover her face as she giggled, though Tim wasn’t sure what was so funny. Ant smiled shyly, and turned to Tim expectantly. He looked back toward the sandpit, but now that Tim had solved one mystery, he wanted to solve another.
‘What’s that in your ear?’
April 2004 – nine years old.
The blankets were tucked around him tight and warm and scratchy. Mum sat on the edge of his bed, dipping down the sides and smoothing down the blankets. He snuggled down, wriggling a little as he wormed his way further under the covers, enjoying the light scratchy feeling along his arms as he moved.
On his bedside table was a collection of bright birthday cards. At the front of them was a handmade card picturing a sandbox and two gummy lollies. He smiled, and burrowed further into his new soft pillow.
‘Goodnight Ant,’ Mum said, kissing his head with feather light words. ‘I love you.’
‘I love you too, Mum,’ he said, trying not to yawn.
She stood and the dip in the bed straightened out. Her night gown swished back and forth in a familiar comforting sound.
‘Mum,’ he asked, leaning up on his elbows. ‘Why do you kiss me when you say goodnight?’
She paused, turning back to him with a soft little smile. She sat back on the edge of the bed, smoothing back his dark hair.
‘Because I love you,’ she said, brushing hair behind his ear.
‘Do you always kiss people you love?’
She nodded. ‘Usually, yes.’
She laughed a little. Light and soothing.
‘Why are you asking?’
Ant frowned, fingers playing with a stray thread, ‘You kiss Lucy. And you kiss that lady friend of yours.’
‘Yes. Do you love her?’
Mum nodded. Her hand was a warm weight on his chest.
‘But Dad doesn’t love his friends?’
Mum laughed. ‘Because he doesn’t kiss them?’
‘No honey,’ she said, smiling. ‘Dad loves his friends. It’s just a different kind of love to how he loves you and me.’
Ant frowned. ‘So … what’s the kind of love where you kiss people?’
‘Kissing is for family, or for when you’re older and you get a girlfriend.’
‘A girl friend?’
‘Someone special you want to spend lots of time with,’ she said. ‘Someone you care about a lot. Like your Dad and me.’
Ant frowned. ‘What about my boy friends?’
Mum blinked, her mouth thinning in that way she did when she was annoyed with one of Ant’s brothers.
‘Boys don’t have boyfriends, sweetheart,’ she said. ‘Boys have girlfriends, and girls have boyfriends.’
‘But … why?’
‘Because that’s the way love works.’
‘But I love Tim,’ Ant said. ‘He makes me happy. And that’s what love is. Right?’
Mum stared at him, her blue eyes big and wide. Ant shrank down in his covers.
‘Right?’ he asked again.
After a moment, she smoothed down his blankets again, harder than normal, and said in a very quiet voice, ‘No, sweetheart. Boys don’t love boys the way your dad and I love each other. Now, don’t you worry about any of this love nonsense, okay? You’re much too young for love. You’ll understand when you’re older. Goodnight sweetheart.’
She kissed his head again, sweeping across the room in her swishy nightgown to turn off the light and shut the door.
In the dark, Ant’s bright blue eyes found the place he thought the birthday cards stood.