Short Story: Dane’s Mum

Stan, the guy in the flat above, has been creeping on Dane’s mum. He knows this because he found the notes ripped pieces crumpled in their rubbish bin. They’d been there, on-top of that night’s cold leftovers. They made him feel sick to his stomach. Torn pieces of exercise book paper, the writing scratched and long. Angry notes, written in red pen.

You are mine. Slut. I’m watching you.

He pieces together the ripped shreds on the cramped desk in his room. And when he gets up the guts, asks his mum about them. She tries to keep her voice steady, but the hand that holds her ciggie gives her away. She says she didn’t want to worry him but she caught Stan poking notes through their wire security door one morning a week ago. The ones in the bin are new. Stan lives above them. He is a large man, balding, with big meaty hands. He hangs around the front of the building. Sometimes, he tries to speak to Dane. Is his mum seeing anyone? Does Dane ever see his cousins? Dane knows that the notes are because Stan knows how alone they are. There is no other man in the picture.

‘We should go to the police’ he says, because that’s what you do on T.V when someone is threatening you. He is sure the police will know what to do. His mum looks at him then, really looks at him. She hasn’t had her hair done for a while, so it’s different colours of red-brown. Her eye make up is smudgy, like she’s been rubbing her eyes. She flicks some ash into the old crystal ash tray next to the couch. She puts two fingers to the space between her eyebrows, like she does sometimes when she has a headache. ‘The police don’t listen to people like us, hon.’ The conversation is over.

He is 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 it looks cleaner. 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. Every landed trick is a small miracle. His mum hated it at first. She didn’t want him hanging out at the skatepark. ‘You’ll break your arms’ she’d say, shaking her head and lighting another ciggie. They couldn’t afford to lose his arms, but it wasn’t really about that. His mum was scared he’d start making trouble with the older boys.

But Dane wasn’t interested going anywhere but the skate park. She’d walked past the park one afternoon and seen him drop into the bowl. He’d whooped as he dropped, for the sheer joy of it and when he popped up at the other end, saw her watching with her hands folded over her chest. But she was smiling. After that, he didn’t have to share Jake’s skateboard. She saved for a secondhand one and had given it to him at Christmas. Over the summer she watched him skate from one of the park benches with a cup of tea.

His mum is nervous at the best of times; she doesn’t like big groups of people. ‘You know I don’t like crowds, love’ she’d say when he’d ask if they could go to Moomba or the Melbourne Show. Eventually, he just stopped asking. Since the notes, she doesn’t like to leave the house. It means that it’s Dane’s job to do the shopping. The plastic bags cut into his hands as he walks from the supermarket, past the skate park, past the pool, past the high-rise and back again. 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 else would definitely have told Stan to fuck off by now. There are people scarier than Stan in the high-rise.

It’s the smokes that keep her going outside. He could ask one of the older guys at the skate park to buy them for her, but he doesn’t. He hates that she smokes, it makes their stuff stink. But sometimes you have to pick and choose. He knows it’s a good day when she gets out of the flat, even if it’s just for smokes. Lately, Stan has been banging on the floor above his mum’s bedroom late into the night. During the day he stands, smoking at the top of the stairwell, watching them coming and going from their flat. Dane wants to punch him. His mum tells 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 to her while he’s at school and it makes him want to puke.

There are nine of them who meet at the skate park after school, all of them from the flats. They have second-hand boards and hard-won skate shoes. Dane isn’t the smallest but he’s equal skinniest with Jake. He and Jake learnt to skate around the same time. Egging each other into trying new tricks, watching the older guys land them while they fell and bled. He knows he’s good enough to be accepted now and last summer, one of the older guys even called him ‘a natural’. There’s no bigger compliment at the skate park than being a natural. That’s when he knew he was really one of them. Sometimes they come over to his place. His mum wasn’t keen on them coming over at first, but he wore her down. Eased her into it. He brought them over, one at a time. Jake first. He’d started out asking for band-aids, but it soon became pieces of toast and glasses of water. Sometimes they even sit on the couch and eat two-minute noodles, while his mum watches T.V. He knows it makes her happy to have the boys over. Dane waves them 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. He doesn’t tell his friends about Stan, it’s just one of those things. Everyone in the flats has a Stan.

Jake’s little sister Isabel has started asking if she can skate with them. She’s been hanging around the skate park for a while, begging to use one of their boards. Dane likes her. Jake calls her a pest. ‘Go away’ he yells at her when she asks to borrow his board. She’s a year younger and goes to their Primary School. She has a long, brown pony-tail and wears faded blue jean shorts, no matter how cold the weather is. Sometimes they smile at each other, but boys and girls don’t really hang out that much at school.

Jake’s at the shop buying lollies when Dane lets Isabel have a go of his board. She wants to know how to drop into the bowl. He shows her how to set the wheels on the lip and push down hard with your front foot. They practice the movements on the grass first. Their arms touch accidentally a few times and it makes him feel weird. Good weird. When she’s ready, he stands behind her on the lip of the bowl to give her a push. Just like the older guys taught him and Jake. One. She looks nervous. Two. She stomps her front foot down and leans back to balance. He pushes, hard. Too hard. Time slows as she pitches over the lip. Her pony-tail whips his face. He reaches out to grab the back of her shirt but she’s gone. She hits the bottom of the bowl with a sound that makes him want to spew. He’s at the top of the bowl, unable to move. ‘You okay?’ he croaks, and realises that the familiar hiss of wheels on concrete has stopped, no one else is dropping in. The older guys stand around the rim of the bowl, watching. Isabel gets up but she’s not crying. Good. Dane can’t hack it when girls cry. But as she turns back towards him, she wobbles and he can see that something is wrong with her arm. He see’s a long trickle of blood run from her elbow and drip steadily onto the ground. Her arm doesn’t look broken though. He’s seen enough broken bones at the skate-park to know. ‘It’s snapped in two.’ The guy to his left says, Dane turns to correct him and realises the guy is pointing at his board. The one his mum saved for. ‘That sucks, man’ the guys says to Dane, before he skates off. Dane wants to hit him but scrambles down into the bowl to help Isabel get out. 

Dane’s mum sees him push Isabel into the bowl. Of all the days she decides to leave the flat, it has to be this one. He’s helping Isabel when his mum comes up steaming, ‘Just let her go, Dane’ she gives him a look like he’s grown two heads. She turns to Isabel ‘There love, you’ll be right.’ They walk towards their flat. Dane doesn’t know what his mum has said but whatever it is has made Isabel cry. Her face is dirty and the nasty graze that runs from her shoulder down to her elbow. Her blood is very red. He’s never felt so wretched. Part of him want’s to get out of there but the other part, wants to stay, make sure Isabel is okay. He follows along, a couple of paces behind. At the door to their flat, his mum turns on him, her eyes steely. Isabel is already inside.

‘You.’ Her words are venom. ‘I have never been so disappointed in you’.

His mouth drops open and he’s still standing there long after the safety door has slammed shut. It hits him harder than his broken board. His mum thinks he pushed Isabel on purpose. With nothing left to do, Dane goes back to the skatepark and sits on a bench with his broken board, watching the older guys swoop in and out of the bowl. He imagines his mum holding an ice-pack to Isabel’s face. He wonders if Isabel hates him now. Or if his mum will ever let him skate again. He doesn’t know how he’ll save up enough to get a new board.

Jake finds him there, cradling the pieces of his board and sits down next to him. They don’t speak. ‘I pushed her’ Dane’s mouth is very dry but he makes himself talk. Jake would already know what happened by now. Word travels fast at the flats. Dane stares straight ahead, watching the skaters slide past. ‘She wanted to drop in and I–‘, he doesn’t know how to say it without it sounding worse than what it was, ‘but she fell’. He sneaks a slide-long look at Jake, who’s scuffing his left sneaker against the asphalt. ‘Sorry’ Dane says, lamely and then adds, because it’s only fair to,’You can punch me if you want.’

Jake looks at him, considering it. Hurting a sister was up there as one of the most punishable acts. He shakes his head, ‘Nah.’ The silence stretches between them and Dane finds that air is coming back into his lungs. ‘I think it’s probably time we got her one’ Jake says, gesturing to Dane’s pieces of board. ‘Sorry about your board’. ‘Yeh’ Dane says. He can’t think of anything else to say. Jake hands him the crumpled lolly-bag, ‘you can have the mint leaves’ he offers, they sit for a few more minutes, watching two of the older guys try and land a trick at the end of the park. ‘Better go see if Belle’s okay’. Jake slips off the seat and skates off, in the direction of Dane’s flat.

It’s almost dark when Dane puts his key in the door and lets himself in. He hopes his mum has already gone to bed, but he knows that it’s a cowardly thing to want. She’s sitting in the kitchen and he can tell from the almost full ashtray in front of her, she’s been waiting. He sits down, dragging his feet. She speaks in her deadliest voice. ‘It is never okay to hurt a woman’. It was an accident, he tries to explain, but the words won’t come. He didn’t mean to push Isabel so hard. But there’s something in the way his mum looks at him, that says ‘no excuses’. He feels sick with shame.

‘Some men think it is their right to take what they want.’ Dane doesn’t say anything, but he knows who she means when she says “some men”. ‘I know, mum’ he says. He doesn’t want to cry, but he can feel the tears in his eyes. She nodds. Satisfied that he is suitably ashamed and pushes a piece of paper over to him. The pink linoleum of the kitchen table is chipped and he stares at it for a bit before registering what the paper says. ‘I applied to the South Melbourne commission.’ Her voice sounds different, less hard. She waits for a few minutes, letting it sink in. ‘We got it Hon, we’re going to have a garden’. Dane’s stomach is doing flip-flops. Is this his punishment? But no, she must have applied months ago. It takes forever to get anything done in the commissions. He looks at the letter. It’s no flat, but a free-standing house. He looks up and his mum has tears in her eyes. Every commission kid knows how rare it is to get a house. No one in the flats would pass it up.

South Melbourne. Catching the tram to school. No more skating until dark. He feels like he’s already in fast forward, seeing them pack their things and leave. All the little familiarities 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 two-minute noodles. Slurping 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 late when they move. They might not visit at all.

She starts to talk about moving, and the things Dane has skipped over every day come into focus; the dusty plastic plants in red and pink pots along the windowsill, the sound of skating from across the road, the heavy round table in the lounge room 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, ‘I won’t miss the thin walls; ‘I always think the neighbours can hear me on the can.’

*             * *

It’s summer again by the time they can move into the new place. The day the movers come it’s already thirty-five degrees at 8am. His mum is stressed. She hasn’t slept. The heat wave is pushing five days now. There’s more concrete than trees surrounding the flats, it radiates heat making everything feel closed off. Even at this hour he can hear splashing and screaming from the pool. Lucky. There was no way he can go for a swim with all the packing they need to do. They’ve spent days putting their stuff into boxes. When the the scarves were moved, they revealed mountains of things they didn’t need, but she wouldn’t leave 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 now. He didn’t tell them for ages. It wasn’t until one of their mum’s found out that he had to come clean. They understood. They’re up early in the heat, skating before the older guys get there. The best time to get the bowl to yourself. 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 watches 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. Any other day Dane would have been happy to see her wearing something colourful, but today 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 counts the steps and looks behind him. Nine. Ten. His friends are all pretty short and skinny. 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’s seen them coming. Dane can see his 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 –‘, her voice wavers – ‘– 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. This time she’s addressing his friends, all skin and bone peering around each other to catch a glimpse. Thrilled to be a part of the showdown. ‘Boys.’ She turns to them,

‘This man get’s off on threatening women. I want you to keep your eye on him.’

She spins on her heel and walks purposefully down the stairs. Stan screams after her, his voice is higher than Dane expected,

‘You bitch!’

She turns back, the rage makes 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 Dane or his mum to move either. They hang their heads over the railing, looking at the dirt and shards of pot on the concrete below. Jake puts a hand on his arm, ‘It’s not too far away’ he says and Dane’s feels the tightness in his chest loosen, just a bit.

Stan does not open the door, but he starts to yell at them. Muffled profanities, it 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 shakes the roots free from the shattered ceramic pot. 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 the look on 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’ Jake jokes and Dane’s mum pats his good arm. Dane’s mum sits on the bench as the boys lick melted icey-pole off their hands. They sit looking over the skate park, perched on their boards, surrounding her. Dane watches her as she looks back at their old flat and smiles.