House of Sticks

Peggy Frew


She stopped the car. ‘Shit.’

‘What, Mum?’ Edie’s eyes were round in the rear-view mirror.

‘Oh, it’s ... nothing. Don’t worry.’ Bonnie noticed her window was down a bit and she pressed the button to close it properly. ‘Looks like Doug’s there.’

‘Douggie! Douggie! Douggie!’ went Edie, bouncing in her seat.

‘Douggie! Douggie! Douggie!’ went Louie, bouncing too. The baby started crying.

‘Shh, shh — you guys,’ she said. ‘Shh, Jess. It’s okay.’ She twisted and reached into the capsule to stroke the baby’s head. Jess cried harder, throwing out her red fists. Bonnie could feel tears spurting under her fingers, the furious heat in the tiny face, the mouth, warm and soft and open, the vibration of the wails. She reached further and tucked the blanket back in where Jess had kicked it off. ‘Hey,’ she said to the twins. ‘Should we go to the park for a bit?’

‘Yes! Yes! Yes!’

Bonnie took her foot off the brake, and the car started rolling forward. She pressed the accelerator, and they moved past the house and past Doug’s old yellow panel van parked out the front of it.

‘Can we go back and get the bikes?’ said Edie.


‘Why not?’

In the mirror Bonnie watched the back of Doug’s van receding, shuttered and blank.

‘Why not? Why not? Mum?’

Jess cried on.

Bonnie kept driving. It wasn’t far off dark. Another hour maybe. She turned into the street where the park was. Her scarf was too high up the back of her neck and cold air was getting in underneath it. She tugged at it, and checked the heater knob. It wasn’t working properly. She switched it off and on again, held her hand in front of the vent. The air coming out was hardly even warm.

She pulled over by the park. Looked out at the bare winter branches of the huge oaks, the swings hanging empty, the cold gleam of the slide. Everybody else, every sensible, normal person, would be home making dinner.

‘Why can’t we get the bikes, Mum? Why can’t we get the bikes?’ went Edie.

‘I’m hungry,’ went Louie.

Jess cried.

An old woman came along the street, pushing a shopping trolley. Bonnie watched her. Then she undid her seatbelt, opened the door and got out. Shut the door. Not slamming — a neat, controlled push.

Silence. Amazing.

She leaned for a moment against the side of the car. Smiled across its roof to the passing woman. ‘Cold, isn’t it?’

The woman nodded and bent her head to her trolley.

Bonnie closed her eyes and counted slowly to ten. She did three deep breaths in and out. Then she went round and opened the back door on the footpath side.

‘Let’s go,’ she said.

When they got back the panel van was gone.

Pete was in the kitchen, still in his work clothes. There was a food smell, warm, rich and salty. Three empty beer bottles stood on the table.

‘Daddy!’ The twins ran to climb on him.

‘Hi, guys!’ Pete opened his arms. ‘How was kinder?’

‘We went to the park.’

‘Did you?’ Pete glanced up at Bonnie. ‘I wondered what happened. I tried to call you.’

‘Sorry. I must’ve left my phone in the car.’ She stooped and slid Jess into her bouncer chair. ‘These guys are starving.’ She went to the fridge, opened the door. There was nothing — cheese, an almost-empty tub of yoghurt, a couple of carrots. The useless background forest of old jars and bottles, sauces and jam. ‘Oh god, sorry,’ she said. ‘I didn’t get around to doing the shopping again.’

‘That’s okay,’ he said. ‘I’ve made soup.’

‘Oh.’ She shut the fridge door and looked with surprise at the back of his head. He had sawdust in his hair. She stepped over and flicked it off. ‘That’s great. Thank you.’

‘No probs.’ Pete stood and lowered the twins into a chair each. ‘It should be ready. Pea and ham. Never tried it before.’ He came over and put an arm around her. ‘Douggie brought us a bacon bone. From some friend of his at the market.’ He gave her a don’t-be-angry squeeze.

She tried to relax her shoulders. ‘Thanks for cooking,’ she said. ‘Sorry about the shopping. I just — the day got away from me.’

‘That’s okay.’ He let go of her. ‘I’ll just go and get properly cleaned up. There’s fresh bread too.’

‘Okay.’ Bonnie took the lid off the pot on the stove. Her mouth was watering. ‘This smells amazing, Pete.’ But when she looked up he’d left the room.

‘Are you pissed off with me?’

‘No.’ Bonnie lowered her book. ‘Why?’

‘Just wondering.’ Pete came closer, sat on the edge of the bed. ‘Thought you might’ve been pissed off that Douggie was round.’

She sighed. Folded the corner of the page and closed the book. ‘So was it just a visit? Or is he after some work?’

Pete stared at the floor. ‘Work. But, you know, he brought that stuff from the market. That was nice.’

‘So why didn’t he hang around for dinner?’ The words came out with an edge she hadn’t intended. ‘I mean’ — she tried unsuccessfully for a joking tone — ‘he does like to hang around.’

‘I don’t know.’ Pete was muttering now, head low. ‘He had something on I think.’

‘A better offer?’ Shut up, she told herself. Stop being such a bitch.

He didn’t answer.

‘So are you giving him some work?’

Pete licked his lips. ‘Yeah.’

‘Pete.’ Bonnie ran her thumb over the cover of the book.

She was struggling to keep her voice even. ‘It’s just — you know what’ll happen. You know what he’s like. He’s not ... You can’t ... The thing is, he doesn’t operate like normal people, and, like Mel said, you’ve got to be clear with these people about where the boundaries lie. She said —’

‘Bonnie, would you listen to yourself ?’ He stood up. ‘Listen to what you’re saying. These people? I don’t know about Mel. Sometimes I wonder — that job of hers. It’s like she thinks everyone’s crazy.’

‘That’s not true. I just asked her for some advice about Doug, that’s all, and she said — I’ve told you what she said.’

‘Yeah, yeah, I know.’ Pete ran a hand through his hair. ‘But. Look. He’s a friend. He’s an old friend, and he ... he needs a bit of help, you know? He’s broke and ...’ He turned to face her. ‘Bon. He’s cheap. I need some help in the workshop, and he’s here, he needs the work, and he’s cheap.’

She breathed slowly, tried to speak calmly. ‘I know that. We’ve had this conversation before. What I’m saying is, either hire him or be his friend, but mixing the two things up is ... well, it’s messy and ... dangerous.’ She lay back on the pillows. She felt exhausted all of a sudden. ‘God. It’s not like he’s even a good worker. I mean, look what happened last time.’

‘Yeah, well, I’m giving him another chance.’

She closed her eyes. ‘I know I sound mean. It’s just —’

‘I don’t think I can keep talking about this now.’

‘Pete!’ She sat up straight again. ‘You always do this!’

But he’d gone.

She tossed her book onto the floor. ‘We need to talk about this,’ she said to the empty doorway. ‘We need to work something out.’

House of Sticks Peggy Frew