We all sat in the front room facing the driveway. Mrs Carver and MIck’s missus were making tea, sandwiches and biscuits; orange cordial for the Tania and me. From the laughs coming out of the little kitchen, it sounded like the ladies were getting on well. I was a bit annoyed----hey---- hadn’t we just had a funeral for my mum? I suppose they didn’t know her so it was more my business. Come to think of it--- wasn’t I supposed to feel down or something? Maybe when I had first heard it I felt---I’m not sure now; things just happened so fast. One minute, Tania and I were living with Mum, and then the next, bundled off to the Carvers.
‘Right--- time for a feed eh,’ Mrs Carver said. ‘Then I think we need to have a chat. Someone is coming from the welfare lot in an hour or two, so perhaps we can have a plan before they come.’ She glanced at MIck, who didn’t seem to notice, but I could tell that he did.
‘These look nice love,’ Mr Carver muttered while shoving a whole sandwich into his mouth. He received a disapproving look from his wife.
‘Make sure the kids get some dear.’
I didn’t need encouraging. I was bloody hungry. Breakfast felt like it was last century. ‘What’s in these?’ I asked.
‘Asparagus--- do you like it, Tom?
‘Never had it before Mrs Carver.’
‘I bet there’s lots of things you haven’t tried, eh Tom,’ Mick said.
‘Don’t you go getting all suggestive like you usually do Mick,’ his wife said with a slightly angry tone. He ignored her and took a loud slurp of his tea. I thought the lady was gonna reply but the sound of a car coming in the drive interrupted the conversation.
‘Oh--- I think they’re here early. Better go and top up the pot then,’ Mrs Carver said. She this strange look on her face; one of those looks that said she knew something I didn’t. She winkled at Mick. Mick, do you wanna tell them before that lot get in here?’
Mick took the hint. ‘No point in beating about the bush eh? You know we are family---so hows about you two live with us? The missus and me have had a bit of a chat--- we don’t have any kids of our own---- it just didn’t happen.’ When I looked at his wife (I still didn’t even know her name) she had this teary look, but she sat up straighter in her chair and said. ‘It’s true. We would love to have you. By the way, this rude sod hasn’t even properly introduced us. I’m your Aunty Emma, by marriage of course. Our house is pretty damn empty I must say. I reckon it’s just waiting for a couple of kids like you.’
Tania’s eyes widened as she tried to make sense of the offer. I think that she had been a bit like me—everything happening too quickly. She settled her attention on Mick. Unlike me, she hadn’t taken a shine to him. His laid back, funny ways; even in the short time we had known him had made a mark on me. We didn’t get a chance to reply, because the visitors were on the porch, knocking.
Mrs Carver put her tea down and stood up, smoothing her dress and glancing briefly in the mirror above the fireplace. I took the chance to stuff a couple of sausage rolls into my mouth. If Mum had been there, I would have got ‘what for.’ Mick just grinned and whispered---‘Go for it boy.’ I decided I liked this guy.
Mrs Carver came back into the room, accompanied by two serious looking people, a middle aged guy and a young woman. The guy introduced himself. ‘I’m John and this is Penny. ‘
‘Do take a seat,’ Mrs Carver said nervously, indicating that Tania and I should move from the couch. We both relocated to the chairs at the table, where the teapot sat alongside the food. John didn’t need much encouragement and soon had a plate of sausage rolls and cakes balanced on his lap. The lady made do with a cup of tea. I bet she was watching her weight. Mrs Carver took charge.
‘Thank you for coming---ah--- John and Penny. The children have been through a lot in the past few days and I suspect a fair bit before then. If we had more room, we would have liked them to stay longer, but we have family arriving from Australia.’ That was the first I had heard of that. I stayed silent, looking towards John and Mick. Tania carried on gnawing at a piece of cake, but there was a subtle change in her demeanour. She kept glancing at the open door. I had a feeling that things weren’t well with her. She had hardly talked to any of us since the funeral.
John spoke first. ‘That is of course why we have come. Thank you for taking care of the children. We always have difficulty getting placements at such short notice and now that you have said you can’t continue, we will need to discuss some other options. We can’t find any relatives in New Zealand--- apparently there are some in Aussie, but until we can find them--- well that’s not an option.’
Mick nodded his head when Mrs Carver looked towards him. ‘Well you can’t have looked very hard, cause we’re related--- on the Mum’s side. We saw the death notice is the paper. I know it’s still fresh for these kids, but Emma and myself have had a quick talk about all this and we reckon the best thing is for the kids to stay with us until long term plans are made. Maybe they would even like to stay permanently,’ he added with a hopeful look towards Tania.
Tania didn’t look like she was listening. I had seen that far away glaze in her eyes many times and once she’s at that place---well, it’s anyone’s guess about what comes next. Penny noticed Tania’s mood too. She attempted to break the ice.
‘Tania----what do you think about Mick’s offer? I’m sure that once we do all the normal checks and get a signed agreement, you’ll be able to stay with these nice people.’ As the lady spoke, she almost seemed to reach out to me, seeking my support. Finally after a lack of response from Tania, or me, she turned towards Mrs Carver, her friendly bearing, turning a little ‘south.’
‘Look--- let’s get this sorted out--- we have to get back to the office for another urgent case. If you are all in agreement, I suggest you gather the childrens’ things together, while John and I complete the formalities. The agreement will be good for twenty eight days and in that time we shall complete the checks and finalize the placement.’
Her last statement felt like it didn’t include Tania and me, in the ‘agreement.’ I was beginning to approach that place Tania had hidden in. It wasn’t that I disliked Mick and his lady—as I said before, I liked Mick--- but she was an unknown quantity. I simply had no feelings, one way or the other for her. Tania did though.
She dropped the cake she was nibbling and leapt to her feet. Oh no, I thought--- here she goes again. This girl was a runner. I could have grabbed her, but I didn’t. Something inside me related to how she was acting. I mean--- had we been anything more than ‘told’ about the plan? Sure they had asked, ---all too quickly. Didn’t they know that kids, even big ones like me, need to think a bit? Hell, they were always telling us to think before we act and then, when it comes to something as important as deciding where we were going to live---well it felt like all bets were off.
Tania was out the front door like a scared filly. This time, Mick made no move to follow her. He sat, looking stupid, while the other adults turned their attention to me.
‘She’s your sister Tom, Penny said. Don’t you think you should go after her? I’m sure she’s just a bit confused. We know what’s best in these cases. We’ve been dealing with kids like you for many years.’
‘I don’t think you know Jack shit miss! If you were so good at your job, maybe you wouldn’t fuck it up like this.’ I was on a roll. ‘I’m out of here!’
Mrs Carver looked like she had been struck down by a raging bull; one of those at the back of our old place, near the river. Suddenly, I knew where Tania was heading, but I wasn’t about to let on. I followed her and as I left the front gate behind, sort of in one piece after I had slammed it shut, I ran until I caught up with her. ‘Stop—where the hell do you think you’re going Tania?’
Tania had a determined look on her face. I knew from experience, that I wasn’t about to hear anything sensible in the way of explanation. It was one of those times, when I followed along and made sure that nothing too bad happened to her. One time, it had taken about three hours of keeping up with her, until she was totally stuffed. School did that to her sometimes, especially when the other kids were bullying her.
Gradually her pace slackened and she slowed to a walk, breathing heavily. Still, she remained in her little world. I often wondered if she was aware of my presence when she was like this. There was another worry. Tania often had asthma attacks when she got overwrought. I was pretty certain that she didn’t have her puffer with her. It was time to intervene, rather than wait for her to come back to earth.
‘Tania, for Christ’s sake, stop. I don’t want to carry on forever. Let’s sit under that tree there in the drivers’ rest stop. Anyway, I reckon they would soon figure out where you’re headed. They’ll be at the old place waiting.’
I had a growing feeling that I was about to do something stupid--- joining my sister in her mad run for--- what? She slowed to a slow waddle, heeding my suggestion and plonking herself down at a picnic table that had seen better days.
After a few minutes her breathing returned to normal. Come to think of it, I reckon her last asthma attack had been months ago. Did people really grow out of it? I thought.
‘Hey Tania---this is all a bit fast for me. What the hell do you think you’re doing? We have to go back.’
‘No--- they’re mean. I’m not—‘
‘Tania--- we have to--- stop being so stubborn. It’s not just about you. They will blame me.’
‘No---I’m---not-----going --- back----got it?!
‘Oh--- for fucks sake Tania!’
‘I’m gonna tell Mum you said that----‘She stopped and suddenly I was swamped by a tidal wave of a little girl crying like everything came back at her at once. All I could do was hold her. I t was then that a large truck bearing the name of one of the well-known brands of frozen foods pulled into the parking area, causing dust to spread like a gritty brown sea.
The door opened and a man in his less than thirties jumped from the truck. If my sister had done that, she would have caused serious injury. He looked at us; appearing to be struggling with some sort of response to finding two kids alone in the park. My mind was in turmoil. What the hell was I to do about Tania—and me?