The River Always Flows.
BY NEIL COLEMAN
When I think about how it could have been, I often cringe. It was so easy way back when there were endless holidays, long weekends and the odd day off school. The sun always seemed to be shining as I sat by the river, watching it flowing past the tree where I sat on an old chair that Mum had thrown out years ago. God forbid that I sit in it now; I doubt that it would hold me, even if it was still there, holding sway over the river bend.
I used to imagine what lay just around the corner; pretending that a whole new world would open up to me, if only I could muster the courage to venture that far. It was forbidden territory; one that taunted me in my childhood. It was after all the river that had taken my dad away. No, he didn’t drown; although at times I wouldn’t have cared if he had. He simply packed his old suitcase with a few clothes and rowed away in the tiny rowing boat. My brothers and I were never allowed to use it. Dad always said that we were too young and that the river was treacherous. He used it to row across the river to visit our uncle on the farm opposite us.
I was confused that he didn’t go in the other direction. That was where the nearest town lay; about two miles upriver, past the derelict factory that once served the district. There was a pathway along the river that meandered as far as the factory and we often played ‘war games’ there, shooting one another with arrows either shot from home-made bows or blown through pipes which we fashioned into crude blow-pipes. Neither weapon was particularly effective which was just well, because Mum’s wrath when we injured one another was not worth the fun of the game.
When Dad left, my older brother tried to fill his place. He changed, from a fun guy, to a mean, foul-mouthed bully. He started to hit us, while Mum stood by, powerless to stop him. It wasn’t as if we had done anything to deserve the beatings. I will never forget the strange look in his eyes, as he raised a stick that he had cut from the bamboo grove near the river, before it came swishing down on whatever part of us he could hit. We tried yelling, crying, but he didn’t stop until it suited him. Mum’s only action was to keep us home from school for a few days.
The beatings came to an end when one day, he too left us after he and Mum had a disagreement about money. She claimed that he had taken the ‘food money’ she kept in a tin above the fire place. We all knew it was there and even counted it for Mum from time to time. We also knew that our brother had changed in other ways.
He had left the high school in the town when he was fifteen, a few months before Dad rowed away. Our neighbour took him on to help milk the cows for the ‘town supply,’ telling him that if he ‘did good,’ then a more substantial job was on offer. It was a sort of trial. It didn’t work out. The farmer came over one night, angry that my brother had ruined a whole day’s milk production by contaminating it with cow crap. He had been using the high pressure hose to clean up, without covering the holding tanks and the obvious happened; the shit hit the can as it were.
A shouting match ensued, involving my mum, dad, brother and the farmer. The end result? ----my brother grabbed his worn-out old bag, filled it with his clothes and headed out the back door. The last I saw of him was his back, striding down the path towards town. It was soon after that Dad left too, leaving Mum, my little sister and me. What the hell were we going to do? Mum wasn’t a saver. We had always lived very much from payment to payment--- the ones that came every month from the milk company. I remember Mum saying that we could never save for a rainy day.
With Dad and my brother gone, everything went pear-shaped. Dad had never managed to hold down a job in town for more than a few months. It would start off fine, then within weeks; he would start going in late or not at all. He and Mum used to argue, with their words getting harsher as they insulted one another. She would call him ‘a useless sack of shit,’ something that always made me wonder when I tried to visualize the possibility. Sometimes he hit her.
That made me mad. Even as a twelve year old kid, I would fly at him; beating my little boy hands against his back. He would throw me off, like a piece of flotsam that had attached itself to his legs--- I couldn’t reach much higher.
‘I hate you, I hate you--- leave Mum alone!’ I screamed. It didn’t make any difference. He just ignored me and smacked Mum again, this time across the head. She fell, sobbing and curled up on the floor. Then he strode out the door, looking back at his handiwork and on to the pub. Just as well we couldn’t afford a car----he would have driven into the river. Mind you, that could have saved us from more of his nasty moods. I knew then, that I hated my Dad.
After he left, Mum found a job at the supermarket in town. Her hours were strange; one day she would start at five in the morning, restocking the shelves, then the next, not until the afternoon and then she was on checkout duty. She liked that. My job was to make sure that my little sister was fed and didn’t stay up too long.
For a few short weeks, we began to believe that our lives were going to change; that we could ‘make plans’ as Mum like to say. Fat chance--- she blew it! After all of her bad words about Dad, she went and stuffed up. Mum had never been a ‘drinking person.’ I don’t remember ever seeing her drunk; not like Dad. Sure she had a few Shandys at Christmas and maybe on her birthday, but that was it. Now, she had some money and no Dad around to scrounge it from her, she had some sort of independence for the first time in years.
She met this bloke. He was a customer and he must have taken a shine to Mum. When Dad was in a good mood, sober and not pissing us off, I often heard him say that Mum was ‘a damned good looker.’ Well this bloke finally talked Mum into going to the pub with her for ’a’ drink. For someone like Mum, who had had a rotten time overall form Dad, this was new territory. She gave in and two hours later she was a pissed as a fart. She didn’t come home at all that night and even worse for her, she didn’t turn up for work the next day.
If she had been at the job longer, maybe they would have been more understanding, but unfortunately Mum didn’t take into account that small towns have eyes and ears. What you do is soon known by everyone. She was heard slagging off the boss in her pissed state--- you can guess the outcome. Mum was out on her arse; the trial over and done with. She applied for the dole, but that didn’t go far. At the same time, the rent went up and we were soon on the bones of our arses again. Mum got depressed and we came home from school one day and an ambulance was in the driveway.
The guy she had been shagging had come around for a freebie, but with Mum in her ‘state,’ she started to talk crazy and before long had a kitchen knife in her hand. The guy was useless. He stood by and watched as Mum slashed her wrists. At least he had the balls to call the ambulance, but he didn’t intend hanging around for the aftermath. CYFS (Children Young Persons and Family Service) were called and we were bundled into a car and taken to this ‘nice’ family for a few days. We hardly had time to gather a few bits and pieces. Mum killed herself a few days later.
‘Jesus, Tania--- you know that get them going. Shit--- we don’t wanna be here long but if you keep doing that, we ‘l never get out of here.’ I looked at my little sister. I don’t think it had quite hit her yet. I think she believed that Mum was coming back through the front door of the house where we were staying. Sure the couple who were looking after us did their best to make us feel at home, but it just wasn’t home. Tania may have only been eight, but she knew how to get me going.
‘I didn’t ask to come here! I want Mum.’ Her little face seemed to crumple up like a piece of old paper. For a while I thought she looked a lot older. I tried to calm her down.
‘Tania----- I reckon you know what’s happened. We’re gonna have to get on with it eh? We have to get ready for the funeral. Come on. Let’s give her a good send off.’ My words didn’t hit the spot, not in the way I had hoped anyway.
‘But what’s gonna happen to us then? Won’t Dad come back and get us or Grandma?’ Her voice had a pleading quality, one that I had no hope of answering without making matters worse. I could hear the couple getting ready to take us in their bedroom down the hall.
‘The social worker said that they are trying to find Granma in Aussie, but the last address wasn’t right. You know that Mum and Dad weren’t talking to them.’ Tania’s eyes were glistening with tears. I think she was just about all cried out. I had to be strong for her.
‘But can’t we go there and look for her Tom?’
‘I wish we could Tania, but I’m not old enough to get passports and get the money too. We gotta stay here for a while. I promise that one day we will find grandma.’ I crossed my fingers like Mum had taught me when I was younger, when I knew I was telling a porky. We were interrupted by a knock on the bedroom door. The couple had let us share the room--- just as well because I don’t think that Tania would have slept if she was away from me.
‘Tania--- Tom--- are you ready yet?’ Mrs Carver said as she entered the room. She cast her glance over us, satisfied that we were almost ready. ‘That’s a nice dress dear. Did you get it for birthday?’
Tania stopped her fussing around and looked at me, as if I was going to answer for her. ‘It’s okay Tania--- just answer,’ I said.
‘Mum gave it to me last Christmas,’ she said in a tiny voice and then burst into tears. Mrs Carver came right into the room and put her arms around my sobbing sister. After a few seconds, Tania’s sobs diminished, apart from the occasional hiccup sound.
‘Let it out honey. I know it’s not fare when you lose your mum, especially at your age.’ I know the lady meant it, because she and her husband had been really kind to both of us.
‘But I want to go home--- to our house,’ Tania said. I thought she was going to start her wailing again so I told her what I thought would settle her down.
‘Tania, you know what I told you last night. We were only renting the house and the landlord wants it back. We couldn’t live there alone anyway.’
‘You are very mature for your age Tom,’ Mrs Carver said as she let Tania out of her arms. Tania didn’t attempt to move away. She looked washed out and there was a look of hopelessness in her eyes. ‘How about we go to the funeral and we talk about what happens later eh?’
Tania sneaked a look at me to see if I was going along with Mrs Carver’s suggestion. I knew the lady was right so I nodded.
‘Okay, but I mean it---- I want us to go home. Dad will come back I’m sure.’ I didn’t have the heart to break the news that things were never going to be the same for us, so I just kept quiet and pretended to tie my laces again.
‘Right ----- that’s settled then,’ Mrs Carver said, relief showing on her face. ‘How about you come out to the car when you are ready and we can head off to the church. It was a command rather than a question, so I stood up and checked that Tania was following as I left the bedroom. A few minutes later we drove out onto the main road towards town. The traffic was light and five minutes later Mr Carver parked the car outside the church. There were only about six cars there, and I suspected that most of those were to do with the running of the funeral, an ugly black Hurst amongst them.
Tania had been unusually quiet during the short drive to the church. As we pulled up a few meters away from the Hurst he said, ‘Is Mummy in there---- in that box?’ Mrs Carver hesitated before answering.
‘Yes she is dear. We’ll just go into the church shall we and then they can start.’
‘Oh--- okay then. Can we sit at the front so we can say goodbye to her properly?’ ’ I was surprised at the change in her mood, but knowing her from past ‘difficulties’, I knew that things could swing around like a puppy mid-flight in a game.
I helped Tania out of the car. Before I could stop her she rushed into eh church. We followed her and even I was shocked at the emptiness of the place. Mr and Mrs Carver approached me from behind and I felt a hand on my shoulder. ‘How about we sit in the front row? I know you’re sad about there being no friends here to send your mum off.’
I must admit that I hadn’t thought about it before then, but now as I surveyed the empty church I felt tears welling up, threatening to overflow onto the floor. I knew that we hadn’t really made friends in the district. Mum and Dad had always kept to themselves. Uncles, aunts and cousins, all lived in other towns and cities or in Aussie, like my grandmother, so we were quite alone. Now, when we faced Mum’s funeral, it really hit me that Tania and I were the only family members. Tania must have had a similar realization, because once again she set up a wailing that bounced off the hard surfaces of the little church walls. I attempted to calm her.
‘Come and sit down Tania and Tom,’ a man dressed in a Minister’s garb said quietly. His voice had an immediate effect on Tania. Once again she flipped her mood. She slowly moved towards the front pews and sat, quickly followed by the Carvers and me.
The sound of the Hurst being opened and the coffin being placed on a trolley could be clearly heard from the front where we were sitting. I turned around and was surprised to that only two men pushed the ungainly trolley down the aisle. I had always imagined about six people bringing the coffin in for a funeral. I turned to Mrs Carver but she must have anticipated my question.
‘They carry the casket out later dear ,but today we don’t have enough people to help, so we’ll mange won’t we?’
‘I am sure I can help with that,’ a voice said from behind us. We all turned. A middle-aged man with long scruffy hair had just sat in the pew behind us... ‘I’m your mum; s cousin from down the line---- Mick’s the name.
His eyes were steely blue, reminding me of a guy in a horror movie I had seen a few weeks ago on Television. A shiver snaked down my spine. I didn’t remember Mum ever talking about a cousin called Mick. But there was something else about him. Those eyes twinkled and made me want to know more about him. Now was not the time.
After the coffin was suitable placed the minister addressed us. My mind retreated to somewhere else. I’m buggered if I remember what he said but all of a sudden the three men, including Mick were taking the coffin back to the Hurst. Mrs Carver told us that we were going straight back to their house where she had a nice meal in the crockpot. She whispered something into Micks ear as he slowly accompanied Mum’s coffin back to the Hurst. He nodded and they disappeared out the front of the church.
‘Aren’t we gonna burry Mum?’ Tania asked. She didn’t seem too upset----yet.
‘No dear---- it’s all been arranged. They are taking your Mum to the crematorium and then she can go to heaven.’ My sister wasn’t stupid. Maybe it would have been better to have told her something more like the truth.
Tania stomped her feet, so hard that I thought she might injure herself. ‘I want to see where they put her!’ She ran out through the door, just as the Hurst started to pull out of the car park. Tania didn’t stop. She tore out through the entrance and we could hear her screaming, ‘Mummy---Mummy!’
A shadowy figure whisked past me and followed, narrowing the gap between my fleeing sister and finally caught up with her. He swept her off her feet, just in time, as a car veered away from them, nearly colliding. The driver shouted abuse and carried on down the road, passing the Hurst and accelerating away. Mick brought Tania back to us, set her down and winked at me.
‘Thanks----Uncl----Mick,’ I said.
‘Just call me Mick--- that’s fine. Now young lady, you don’t want to be running on that busy road---what with all those crazy drivers around, you could have been bowled over.’
Tania actually looked a little guilty. She looked up at Mick, unsure how to respond. Finally she said, ‘Where’s Mummy going?’
Mick didn’t beat about the bush like the rest of us had. ‘Look princess---you know that when people die that they have to be buried or cremated--- you know what cremated is?’
Tania shook her head, looking up at Mick towering above her. ‘No---do they put cream on her?’
Mick kept a straight face while looked away, just about busting. I think it was the first time I had smiled all day. Mrs Carver took the opportunity to bring a bit of order to the proceedings. ‘No dear--- some people like to be burnt when they die and then they have a little headstone or plaque in a place they loved. Perhaps that’s what we will do in a few months when you are feeling better.’
‘But I’m not sick----does it hurt--? I suppose it doesn’t eh, cause you don’t feel anything when you’re dead---right?’
‘That’s right little one,’ Mick said. You’re a big girl; now so you understand.
‘My names Tania --- not little one or princess,’ Tania replied. ‘What are we gonna do now?’
‘We’re all going back home now--- you too Mick. I think you may want to get to know your young relatives.’
‘I was hoping you’d say that. I’ll bring my missus too, if that’s okay.
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 children’s’ 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?