The young girl was turning the sign to closed, but stopped mid chew of her gum long enough to open the door again with a muttered, “Whatever”, in reply to Maggie’s apology. The goldfish was in a bag on the counter waiting.
“Are there any instructions to go with it?” she asked. The blonde girl with the dark roots chewed on.
“What about the water, is tap water ok?”
“Rainwater?” A teenager whose belly button ring hung that far over the band of her shorts would not put her off. Maggie noted it matched the one in the girl’s right eyebrow.
Maggie pointed to the tiny treasure chest and diver under the glass countertop.
“What about a little house, should it have one of those?”
Black nails were tapping the glass.
“Not much room in a fish bowl,” was the reply.
“I can always let him pick one later I suppose.” Maggie paid in cash and packed the fish and its new home into a box, at the last minute remembering the feed and water conditioner.
“Just in case,” she said to the girl. A raised pierced eyebrow was the only reply.
“Here’s hoping he likes you,” she said to the fish, settling it onto the front seat of her car.
“I am counting on you to help mend a big hole in a little boy’s heart.”
Driving home past vines ready for harvest, shimmering green and gold in the late afternoon warmth, Maggie felt happiness and calm she hadn’t known for a long time. She knew she could never repay the kindness of the people who helped them get through this last year and more. She and Rob had moved to the small town for the peace and quiet when Dean was born and it had lived up to that for the most part. At least until the accident that had killed Rob, just a few months before Dean’s birthday. Rob was keen for Dean to have a pet, a goldfish, on his ninth birthday.
“Just because I can’t live with furry animals, Dean shouldn’t miss out. A fish is a perfect first pet.”
It still pained Maggie that she hadn’t acknowledged Dean’s ninth birthday. Not that she could remember, anyway. Tomorrow would be his tenth. She smiled at the goldfish beside her.
“Come on Goldy, we can do this.”
Inside the cottage, Maggie settled the fishbowl onto the sideboard, moving the picture of Rob with Dean on his shoulders a little to the left. Picking the photo up again on the pretext of wiping dust from the silver frame, her thoughts returned to that day, something she did less often now. At first her grief was masked by anger at Rob for dying, even though it was an accident, the result of a young drunk driver out of control.
“Damn you Robert Stewart Harrison. You promised to love and protect us, and to share our old age. How dare you leave us without so much as a goodbye.” Until death us do part was a proviso in the wedding vows she had not been ready for. Days and months had blurred, and in her own mind she had managed, dragging herself through on autopilot until she could escape at night into medicated oblivion. She couldn’t remember when she had stopped going to work. A letter from the bank had brought her screaming and kicking back to reality. And the realisation that Avril Carter from next door had been smuggling in casseroles and cakes, and that Clive Baker had sent home a meat parcel with Dean every week, just added to the pain. Rob’s small insurance policy wasn’t going to last. She threw away the pills and took a good look at her life, present and future, and both images frightened her.
Dean had done his best to be the man of the house. He mowed half the lawn until the machine ran out of petrol. He finished painting the shed in a rainbow of colours left over from previous painting efforts of his Dad’s. Her heart ached at how he had coped alone with a semi-deranged mother.
“I am so proud of you,” she whispered at night as she watched him sleeping. “Your Dad will be bragging up there with all his mates.”
She replaced the frame next to the fish, and as a final touch tied a large red bow around the bowl. She might have enough time for a cup of tea before Dean got home from footy practice. Andrew Jacobs, Dean’s teacher and footy coach, had offered to drop Dean and his best friend Mikey home. He had also agreed to take his time.
Settled at the table with a mug of tea, Maggie flicked through the local paper. She turned to the classified section looking for someone she could afford to prune the old gum out back. An ad embellished with a heart caught her eye. She read it a second time more slowly, her hands closing tightly around the mug, heat flushing her neck and up into her cheeks.
“Beautiful lady (and Mum) who cooks real good would like to meet a nice man who is kind and can kick a football. Must like picnics and be good at jokes. See Dean.”
Dean had his own plans after footy practice.
“Mr Jacobs can we please stop off in town for a bit, I have to get something for my Mum.”
“What’s so important?” he asked.
“Oh nothing much, I just want to get Mum some flowers.”
After they dropped Mikey off at his house, Dean was very impatient to get home.
“Put your foot down Mr J, I have to get home before Mum gets back.”
“I know you don’t really mean that, Dean,” the schoolteacher and footy coach looked over the back seat. “What’s your rush? I am sure those flowers will be ok for a bit longer without water,” he nodded at the bunch on the back seat.
“Sorry. I didn’t mean for you to speed or anything. I have to hide something before Mum gets there, that’s all.”
Andrew felt his loyalty torn. He was fond of the boy, but he had promised not to spoil Maggie’s surprise and to keep Dean out as long as necessary. Dean appeared to have a secret too; he hoped the two weren’t going to collide.
Dean groaned at the sight of Maggie’s green car in the driveway of their cottage.
“I’m sorry mate, it looks like we didn’t make it in time.”
“Thanks for the lift,” Dean’s voice disappeared at the slamming of the car door.
Maggie watched her son jump the gate and take the steps two at time. His rush was halted at the sight of her tears. Twisting his hat in his hands, he was silent for a moment as if weighing up what to say, and then he burst out, his words tumbling over each other.
“It was s’posed to be a surprise, Mum! I saved my pocket money and Mr Perkins gave me some for mowing his lawn, and then Mrs Carter let me wash her dog, and I so got wet cause Digger didn’t like having a bath, and then Mr Baker said if I swept up out back, he’d give me three dollars, but he gave me five so I bought some flowers in case the guy didn’t.” Dean barely took a breath before rushing on. “You are always so sad Mum, since Dad died. It makes me sad and I just thought if I found a nice guy, a bit like Dad, you’d smile more and we could go on picnics like we used to, and maybe me and him could kick a footy in the back yard sometimes.” He moved to stand next to Maggie, barely stopping for breath.
“I was going to check them out and get them to tell jokes first in case they weren’t very good. I know he wouldn’t be Dad but if he could make you smile and we could be like a family again…Awww Mum, you are hurting me, don’t hug so hard. Please don’t cry. You can help me check them out if you want, but then it won’t be a surprise.”
Over the top of Dean’s head Maggie saw Andrew standing awkwardly inside the door, a posy of rose buds in his hand. Flushed, he tried to hide the flowers behind his back, half turning to leave.
“Sorry. I, ah, I knocked but no one heard and then I thought perhaps I could help.” He held out the flowers. “Dean, you left these in the car, I think they might need water.”
Dean took the flowers, and went to the sink, before turning with a grin.
“Mr Jacobs, do you know any good jokes?”