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 Tim’s other 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 crowd, 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 in to 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 who jostled them sideways, pushing through the throng and 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 his 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?’