Rusty red. Jammed into a corner in the front yard, handlebars askew, frame mangled, seat torn, matted stuffing spewing on to the dirt. Toys spread across the concrete veranda – a deflated ball, broken cricket bat, a baby’s toy faded green and blue. Beside the door, a cardboard box crammed with empty beer cans. The front door is open.
Down the passage, voices jostle for air time. Kids’ voices. A man sounds above the rest.
Tansy, Tansy. Are you getting up?
A child appears at the front door. She is in pyjamas, hair tousled. She stands, staring out, hand on the door. Her eyes meet mine as I walk along the pavement, towards the school. For a moment, we regard each other. I register the pale face, steady gaze.
I had read the notice in the school newsletter – Volunteers needed to listen to children read, help with Breakfast Club.
Small uniform-clad figures cluster about low tables. The smell of toast and warm, milky milo hangs in the air. A shrill pealing sound signalling the start of another school day reverberates from a speaker high on a wall. Kids pile out the door, half-eaten slices of toast in hands, crumb and vegemite – smeared faces.
The girl appears in the doorway. Six, maybe seven years old. She pushes a mass of blonde hair from her eyes, walks up to Leila who is manning the toaster, points to the row of jars.
Cream cheese. No butter.
Please. She adds as an after-thought.
Where are your brothers, Tansy? Breaky at home? Leila jams down the toaster.
Well, glad you came in. Leila hands the girl two pieces of toast. Come earlier tomorrow. I’ll make milo.
The girl nods, balances the toast on one arm, picks up a pink bag featuring the faded outline of a Barbie doll, heads out the door.
Just listen to each child read. Talk about the book.
Tansy pushes open the door, stares at me. She is wearing the school T-shirt, blue and yellow together with what might be cotton shorts or pyjama bottoms, pink cotton, creased and grimy.
Hi Tansy. I hear you like reading stories.
She nods and sprawls on the mat, hair falling across her face. She scratches at her ankle, working at the edge of the faded pink sneaker. Her legs are speckled with mosquito bites and streaked with dirt.
I’ve got no socks. Cooper didn’t put any out for me.
Cooper’s your brother?
Yeah. He’s Grade 3. I got no mum.
- We can get socks.
She shakes her head at the white pair I choose, dives her hand into the box and comes up with socks decorated with fairies.
Back in the reading room, we pull off the sneakers and wrestle with the socks which are a size too big.
OK, how about we read something now?
Tansy nods, settles on the rug.
Not a real dog. It’s a lump of stuffing encased in corduroy. A piece of string is tied around the corduroy dividing it into two lumps, one larger than the other, a head and a body.
Tansy is seated on a chair outside the classroom, knees drawn up to her chin, arms round the corduroy shape, tight against her chest. Her face is closed, eyes down.
She points to the lump of corduroy. I can’t go in. Dog doesn’t want to.
This is your dog?
Does it have a name?
Ok. How could we help Dog come into class?
He wants a drink.
Well, let’s get him one. I’ve got a bowl. I find the lid of a drink bottle in my bag.
Tansy follows, watches the bowl being filled at the tap, pushes the corduroy lump towards the bowl.
Is Dog OK to go into the classroom now?
She nods, pulls at the door, slides through.
A group of children wind their way around the path beside the creek. The biggest child is about eleven, sandy hair, a spatter of freckles across his nose. He is pushing a shopping trolley loaded with cans, tomatoes, beans and fruit, and two loaves of bread. One loaf lurches from its wrapping, spilling white slices of bread over the base of the trolley.
Beside him walk two younger children, a boy and a girl. They are eating slices of white bread, gouging huge holes in the centre with their teeth.
A few metres behind, Tansy dawdles. She has torn a slice of bread into pieces and is trailing crumbs as she walks. I am reminded of Hansel and Gretel dropping crumbs, trying to find a way home. Two sparrows hop along in Tansy’s wake, pecking at crumbs.
The oldest boy recognises me, nods hello. Tansy looks up, squinting into the sun, raises a hand and goes on eating. She stops and watches as I walk by.
Tansy. I hear the older boy urging her to keep up.
They disappear around a bend.
The tooth fairy didn’t come.
Tansy is seated on the rug in the reading room. She grimaces, revealing a gap between her front bottom teeth.
Well, maybe the fairy was busy last night. Did you put the tooth out in a glass?
She shakes her head. Nah, I put it in the beer holder. Dad said to.
Maybe the fairy missed that. How about you put it out again tonight?
Tansy nods, lies down on the rug.
Tansy is too excited to read today. She bursts through the door of the Reading Room, tumbles on to the mat.
It’s Kaiden’s birthday tomorrow. We’re going to the pool. We’re having balloons. My cousins are coming. We’re having a cake. And lollies. Dad’s getting a big cake.
She throws out her arms to show me how big.
Great! Sounds like fun.
I find the book about birthdays. We read it together, Tansy is pouring over the pages, counting the candles and the balloons in the pictures.
We’re having a cake like that one. Kaiden is getting a present.
Next day, Tansy is late. She arrives, pushes the door open with a bang, slumps on the rug.
Hey, you tired from the birthday? How did it go?
Her hair falls across her face and she picks at a scab on her leg, her voice muffled through the hair.
We didn’t go. Dad didn’t have any money.
She looks up, brightens momentarily. We might have a party with our cousins soon. Dad said.
I put the birthday book back in the box. We read a book about African mammals.
The locker with Tansy’s name on it is empty. No grimy pink bag. No stuffed – in lunchbox or reader spilling from a book bag. No bunched tissues or screwed up empty packets.
I loiter beside the locker like a thief.
Breakfast Club. Maybe she is having a late breakfast.
Leila is wiping down the benches. She looks up, pushes hair from her eyes.
No – they’ve gone. They moved. Just up and went. They might come back. Nice kids. I miss Tansy. Poor kid.
She resumes wiping the tables.
The house is closed. Door shut. No voices. No child at the door. The pile of toys has gone. Junk catalogues protrude from the letterbox. On the porch, the box of beer cans has overturned, spilling across the concrete, clumps of green and silver glinting in the sunlight.
I turn to go, and see the bike, still there, jammed into the corner of the yard. Handlebars turned out, frame mangled, stuffing spewing from the seat. It looks stuck, half hidden in the bushes.
I hear them behind me, muffled giggles, shuffling feet, as I turn into the delicatessen aisle of the supermarket. Teenagers, a girl and a boy, arms entwined, heads together. There is something about the girl, the way she holds her head, the set of her shoulders, tangled blonde hair half-caught in a messy bun. They feel my gaze, look up.
Tansy. I move towards her.
They freeze, eyes holding mine. I take in the kohl-rimmed eyes, baggy pants, black jackets and sneakers, the edge of a green tattoo peeking from the neck of her windcheater.
Tansy, it is you?
She hesitates, face frozen. Then the boy nudges her, whispers something too low for me to hear.
She shrugs and turns away. They make their way up the aisle, his arm pulling her towards him. I follow, shopping basket heavy at my side.
At the checkout, I see her hand hover over the magazines clustered on a rack. She grabs a magazine, turns suddenly.
Hey. She looks for me in the queue, holds the magazine aloft.
I can read now.
Her eyes hold mine and we both smile.
He pulls at her and they move through the glass doors to the car park.
And I move on, the shopping basket on my arm, feeling just a little lighter.