They have to move because Stan, the guy in the flat above, has been creeping on Dane’s mum. She’s nervous at the best of times and uncomfortable around people. Dane does the shopping. The plastic bags cut into his hands as he walks from the supermarket and he wonders if she would feel better if they lived across the road in the high-rise – maybe having more people around would help. She’d be friends with some of the women there and someone would have told Stan to fuck off by now. There are scarier people than him in the high-rise.
He has always felt proud of their flat. It’s more homey than his friend’s places and his mum used to love finding things to brighten it up. These days she drapes scarves over bits of junk so that things look cleaner. His friends live close by and he can see the pool and the skate park from his window. He skates before and after school, swooping in and out of the concrete bowl. Grazing his knees through his jeans and skinning his arms on every fall. His mum hated it at first. ‘You’ll break your arms Dane’ she’d shake her head and light a ciggie. They couldn’t afford to lose his arms. She watched him skate one day and changed her tune, after that she’d sit on one of the park benches with a cup of tea.
It’s been over a year since she stopped leaving the house. She wasn’t sad, he could always tell when she was down. It had happened a few times when he was little, but even then she had always left the flat, she said there was nothing better than taking him to the park. They’d sit and play for hours. When she was happy, she’d push him on the swing until it got dark, telling him made up stories. When she stopped going out, everything fell to Dane. It happened gradually, like growing taller, so it took him some time to notice it properly. He found the notes in the rubbish bin and they made him feel sick in his stomach. Torn pieces of an exercise book, with scrawled writing in red pen. You are mine. Slut. He pieced together the ripped shreds on his desk in his room. He asked her about it a few days later and he realised she was afraid. ‘We should go to the police’ he said, she looked at him with tears in her eyes. ‘The police have more important things to worry about Dane’.
In a weird way, it was the smokes that kept her going. He looked his age and there was no way he could buy them for her. He could have asked one of the older guys at the skate park, but he didn’t. He hated that she smoked, it made their stuff stink. That’s why he didn’t know how he felt when she started going back out to buy them. Sometimes you had to pick and choose. It’s a good day when she gets out of the flat, even if it’s just for a pack of smokes.
Jake’s little sister Isabel had started asking if she could skate with them. She’d hang around the skate park begging to use one of their boards. she was two years younger and went to his Primary School. Sometimes they smiled at each other, but boys and girls didn’t really hang out that much. Dane liked her. She had a long brown pony-tail and wore faded blue jean shorts, no matter how cold the weather was. Jake said she was a pest. ‘Go away’ he’d yell at her when she’d ask to borrow one of their boards. One day Dane let her have a go of his. He showed her how to drop into the bowl. Set the wheels on the lip and push down hard with your front foot. He stood behind her to give her a push. One. She looked nervous. Two. She stomped her front foot down. He pushed, hard, too hard. She hit the bottom with full force, Dane was shocked at the suddenness of it. He stood at the top of the bowl, unable to move. She got up, but wobbled when she looked down at her arm. A long trickle of blood was already running from her elbow and dripping onto the ground.
Dane’s mum saw him push Isabel. Of all the days she decided to leave the flat, it had to be that one. She took Isabel inside, cleaned up her arm and put an icepack on her face. Dane wasn’t allowed to come inside. After Isabel had gone home, she sat him down at the dinner table and spoke in her deadliest voice. ‘It is never okay to hurt a woman’. He tried to explain that it was an accident, that Isabel was tough, that she had wanted to skate. There was something in the way his mum looked at him, like he’d grown into a monster that stopped him. He felt sick with shame.
Dane’s mum said some men thought it was their right to take what they wanted. She told him later that Stan had left the notes on their doorstep. She’d caught him one morning when she opened the door. He was a large man, balding, with big meaty hands. He had started hanging around the front of the building. He tried to speak to Dane. He started asking Dane questions. Was his mum seeing anyone? Did Dane ever see his cousins? When he’d asked her out, Dane was at school.
She had told Stan that she wasn’t interested but later, she wondered if she’d done the right thing. He knew that it was just her and her young son, there was no other man in the picture. He had started banging on the floor above her bedroom late into the night. During the day he’d stand, smoking at the top of the stairwell, watching them coming and going from their flat. Dane wanted to punch him.
There are nine boys who meet at the skate park, all of them from the flats. All of them with second-hand boards and hard-won skate shoes. Dane is skinny, but he is a good skater, ‘a natural’ the older guys call him, so he is one of them. He doesn’t tell them about Stan, it’s just one of those things. Everyone in the flats has a Stan. His mum wasn’t keen on them coming to the flat at first, but they came. Dane eased her into it. He brought them one at a time, asking for band-aids, toast and glasses of water. His mum loved being needed. She’d sit in the kitchen and listen to them talking about skating. She knows all the tricks now.
He finds out about the application to the South Melbourne commission when she cries at the kitchen table one night. ‘We got it D, we’re going to have a garden’. It’s no flat, but a free-standing house. He knows how rare it is to get a house. No one in the flats would pass it up. He wonders what it will be like. It means catching two trams to school. No more skating until dark. He savours the things he hadn’t known mattered until now, being able to spend all day at the pool until his fingers are spongey. The nights when his friends come over, sore from skating and his mum cooks up a big batch of 2-minute noodles. Slurping them from the bowl with chicken flavoured soup, watching T.V together, just talking crap. His friends without mums always stay the longest – after all, the high-rise is just across the street. They won’t be able to stay this late when they move. They might not visit at all. He starts waving goodbye from the doorstep, sending them off loudly. ‘Say hey to your dad for me’. Just maybe, Stan will hear and realise there are people around who can beat the shit out of him. Then everything will go back to how it was.
When she started to talk about moving, things he’d skipped over every day came into focus; the dusty plastic plants in red and pink pots along the windowsill, the sound of kids playing in the pool from across the road, the heavy round table in the kitchen with the crystal ashtray, his school pictures on the fridge. He aches with the realisation that he’s getting older. That eventually he’ll move out and leave her all alone. At least in the new place, she will be far away from Stan. She laughs for the first time in months because she won’t miss the thin walls of their flat. ‘I always think the neighbours can hear me on the can.’
She’s always telling him she feels safer when he’s home, it makes him nervous about going anywhere. He isn’t stupid. He is a skinny kid, small for his age and growing up at the flats means having no delusions about what battles he can win. Sometimes he thinks about what could happen while he’s at school and it makes him want to puke.
The day the movers come it’s thirty-five degrees at 8am, his mum is stressed. She hasn’t slept. They’ve spent days packing their stuff into boxes. The scarves had revealed mountains of things they didn’t need, but she wouldn’t leave them behind. He’d had to sneak out bundles of junk in his backpack. Dumping it in the park bins on the way to school. The boys from the skate park know. When they see the moving van, they prop their boards against the wall next to the front door and help Dane and a burly mover with a neck-beard lift their lives into the truck.
Stan is watching them pack the truck. Dane can feel the hairs on the back of his neck standing up as he heaves boxes up and down the steps. His mum wavers on the front doorstep as their stuff trickles out the front door. She’s changed into a red dress, one that she’d bought from the Brotherhood on her birthday. She’s never worn it because she worried it was too bright. There is something dangerous about that dress.
As they pick up the last of the boxes, she lights a smoke and glares up the stairwell. It’s a look that makes Dane’s palms itch. She is furious. For the first time in a year, Dane wonders if maybe he was the nervous one. Her eyes narrow as she watches the moving van pull out from the familiar curb. She signals to the sweating boys, ‘upstairs – now’. There are nine of them, they’d come back and forth from the skate park, taking turns to carry boxes and practice tricks on the pavement in front of the building. She leads the way, red dress like a beacon as they stomp up the stairs behind her. Dane is at her left elbow. He can see her hair is curling with sweat at the back of her neck. His heart beats in his throat. Seven. Eight. He looks behind them. Nine. Ten. They are all short and skinny with grazes on their bodies where they hit the concrete after every failed trick. Eleven. Stu carries his arm slung across his front, he’s just had his cast off. Twelve. Twelve steps to the top, where Stan always stands – staring down.
The screen door to his flat slams, he’d seen them coming. Dane can see the outline through the dark screen, a menacing shape. His mum plants herself in front of it, hands on her hips, they spread out on the tiny landing. They hear the clink of the lock being snibbed into place. Dane is quiet, his fingernails bite into his palms. One of the boys behind him digs a finger into his ribs. ‘Stan’ –his mum’s voice carries over the stairwell, the shape behind the screen shifts. ‘A real man does not threaten women.’ The air is thick with tension. ‘I went to the Housing Office. They know about you and your harassment. I’ve told all the women in the area about what you did.’ There is a grunt behind the screen. She takes a deep breath. Dane can see that her hands are shaking.
‘I want you to know. You have nothing to do with us leaving. Nothing. You’re a bad man, and people should know about it.’
The shape behind the screen moves forward, kicking at the metal doorframe with a bang. Dane’s flies forward, ready to protect his mum. She puts a hand on his arm, holding him back. Her voice is steady when she speaks again. ‘Boys, take a good look. This man gets off on stalking women.’ She turns to them,
‘I want you to know that it’s wrong and I want you to watch that this man doesn’t do this to anyone else around here.’
She spins on her heel and walks purposefully down the stairs. Stan screams after her, his voice higher than Dane has ever heard it,
She turns back, the rage making her face luminous.
‘Fuck you Stan. You piece of shit’.
He slams the door in their faces, the screen door shivers from the impact. Dane throws his clenched fists against the metal, pounding them against the door. ‘You say that again’ he yells, but there is silence from the other side. The other boys pull him back, Dane can tell they’re mad too. He looks around the landing and struggles to lift a large pot-plant, someone helps him. They raise it over the railings, forgetting to check that no one is underneath. It falls heavily down the three flights of stairs, landing with a satisfying crash in the stairwell below. To most of them, Dane’s mum is the only mother they’ve got. He can see it in their eyes, they don’t want them to move either. They hang their heads over the railing, looking at the dirt and shards of pot on the concrete below. ‘It’s not too far away’ Stu says and Dane’s feels the tightness in his chest loosen, just a bit.
Stan does not open the door, but he yells at them. Muffled profanities, he sounds like he’s throwing things around his flat. Out on the landing, it’s surprisingly quiet. The walls must be thicker than they imagined, they can barely hear him. They pound down the stairs. Twelve. Eleven. Ten. They whoop, clapping each other on the back. ‘Your mum’s a badass, Dane’. Nine. Eight. Seven. They scoop up their skateboards, kicking at the scattered dirt with scuffed shoes. Mrs. Patel from flat number one has already come outside to claim the plant. She’s growing a jungle in her lounge-room. Dane’s mum locks the door to their old flat, nodding at Mrs. Patel as she pockets the key. They walk across the road and she buys them lemonade icey-poles from the pool canteen. ‘We’re celebrating’, she tells the girl at the counter, who looks sixteen and has braces. She laughs at their faces when Dane’s mum hands out the icey-poles. Stoked, they can’t think of anything better in this heat. ‘I’ll back you up any day’ Stu jokes and Dane’s mum pats his good arm. They sit looking over the skate park, backs against the park bench, perched on their boards. Dane’s mum sits on the bench as the boys lick melted icey-pole off their hands. Dane watches her as she looks back at their old flat and smiles.