Short story: ‘Abacus’

Yay – permission to publish received! Here’s my short story ‘Abacus’, selected for the Twisted Tax Tales fundraising anthology for the Save the Tasmanian Devil Appeal. I hope you like it!

 

Abacus

Simon

Grandma Dillinger patted the cushion beside her. There was just enough room for Simon to squeeze in up there between the rolled sofa arm and her ample bottom. “Grandma!” he said, somewhat muffled, as she gave him a quick hug before leaning down and pulling a lumpy, brightly-wrapped package from her handbag.

“For my big boy,” she said.

“Ouch!” Simon said, as one of his classmates kicked his leg (accidentally, he thought) as she raced past. The house was full of his classmates – only one who was actually a friend, and only maybe, he thought glumly, after what had happened earlier – and they were making a distressing amount of noise, tearing from room to room, veering occasionally into the Christmas tree Mum had jollied them into putting up the weekend before, even though it was still November. The carpet was ankle-deep in pine needles and paper streamers.

Today was the party for his eighth birthday. “It’s actually tomorrow,” he told everyone who wished him a Happy Birthday, and if some of them looked at him oddly, he didn’t notice.

Grandma Dillinger held out the package and he accepted it gingerly, his fingers gripping what felt like a knobbly row of spikes through the thick green and purple paper. Whatever it was had a heavy, rectangular base and a rod across the top. Something Simon hated was when people asked, “What is it?”, because if you actually told them they’d never talk to you again for ruining the surprise; so he didn’t say it, though the words were definitely in his mouth. He tugged slowly at the taped-up edges, and the wrapping fell away to reveal a gleaming wooden toy, or maybe a sculpture of some sort. It smelled warm and citrusy, a bit like the oil Dad put on the deck chairs at the start of every summer. “Thanks!” he said. As the surprise was now overdue to be spoiled, it was safe to add, “What is it?”

“It’s an abacus. Handmade by your Granddad Dillinger, when he was sixty-six years old.” Granddad Dillinger had passed away before Simon was born. “It was a retirement present to himself, because he’d loved being an accountant so much. Now it’s yours.”

Simon touched the round beads. “How does it work?”

“Well, it helps you to count. Like an old-fashioned calculator. I can show you later, if you like? You probably want to be off playing.”

“Not really,” he said.

He suddenly remembered his Aunt Rebecca’s retort when he’d explained that his birthday was the next day: “Don’t take everything so literal, kid.” Then she’d scruffed Simon around the shoulders and knuckled his hair.

That was funny, because Simon wasn’t a words person at all, he was a numbers person. Grandma Dillinger knew that, and he smiled up at her, holding the beautiful abacus carefully in his lap.

(But even he, eight years old tomorrow and a numbers person, knew the correct word was “literally”.)

*

On his office door in the city, Simon’s dad had a sign that said, “Paul Dillinger, MBus(Acc), Dip.Ed, CPA”. The sign on his study door at home said, “Be audit you can be”. Simon didn’t get it, but he feared it might be an “adult” joke (he’d been caught out before), and he really didn’t want to know about that so he’d never asked. The door was closed and Simon knocked politely, the way his dad liked it.

“Dad?” He stuck his head around and peered into the dimly lit room.

“Hmm what?” His dad was scrunched up in a weird position in his old armchair. At first Simon thought he’d been asleep, but then he noticed the glow of a tablet screen under his neatly bearded chin. It cut funny shapes out of his face, hollowing his cheeks and painting his eyes into black pyramids.

“Are you coming out?” Simon asked.

“Yes, yes.”

“We’re cutting the cake now. Then everyone’s going home.” He sounded as cheerful as he felt, and backtracked. “I mean, thanks for the party though! Why’re all the curtains closed?”

“Keep the sun out,” his dad said. He was struggling to unfold himself, one of his knees creaking audibly as he stretched his long legs in front of him.

“Hey, Dad?”

“Yes, Simon?”

Simon sat in the straight-backed chair in front of the desk and leaned forward. “Did you always want to be an accountant?”

“Did I… what makes you ask?”

“You know.” As his dad finally stood, groaning a little, Simon stood too and followed him out into the hall. “Like Granddad Dillinger, and like me. Is it in our blood, do you think?”

His dad glanced at him. “I don’t believe in that ‘in the blood’ stuff,” he said. “Do you really want to be an accountant?”

“Daaaaaad. You know that.”

“Last year you wanted to be a chef, didn’t you? And as I recall, when you were four, you wanted to be a cowboy.”

Simon thought about that. “I don’t want to be a cowboy anymore. Unless,” he said slowly, “you can be a cowboy and an accountant.”

His dad laughed, a sharp bark in the quiet hall, and squeezed his arm. “Funny kid.”

“So did you?”

“Did I…? Oh, right. Yeah, I suppose I did.”

“So why didn’t Grandma Dillinger give you Granddad’s abacus, do you think?”

The big hand on his arm went suddenly still, then fell away. Simon watched it reach forward and slide open the door into the kitchen, where a burst of activity greeted them, and before he knew it Ms Priest (he still couldn’t believe Mum’d made him invite his teacher, even though she lived two doors down) had ferried him off to the dining room and he was blowing out the eight red candles on his S for Simon cake, and everyone was singing “For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow” except for Harriet and Dad, who were nowhere to be seen.

*

Harriet wasn’t his girlfriend. He was seven (eight tomorrow) and he didn’t want a girlfriend until he was ten at least. Harriet was eight and a half, and she’d already had a boyfriend (Joey, from Brisbane, for two weeks last term – his hands were sweaty, she’d confided), but she wasn’t interested in being Simon’s girlfriend either. They were more like best friends, even though each of their parental units thought they should be “growing out of that” by now. Growing out of what, they weren’t sure.

Simon hated that they’d had a big fight, right after Harriet’s sister had dropped her off and they were out the back on the swings, waiting for the other kids to arrive. It was about nothing. But then, with Harriet, it was often about nothing.

“We should get coats. Orange ones,” he’d said. They were talking about the Detectives game they’d been playing for the last couple of weeks, which took them around the neighbourhood in search of clues. Scraps of dirty notepaper with mysterious writing on it, lone shoes, that type of thing. “And gloves,” he added as an afterthought.

Harriet gripped the chains of her swing and leaned backwards, straightening her body into a flat line. She closed her eyes against the sunlight filtering through the gum trees. “We don’t need a uniform. We’re detectives.”

“Detectives wear uniforms.”

“No, they don’t,” she scoffed. “Haven’t you seen Midsomer Murders?”

Simon pressed into the rubber seat with his thumbnail, leaving a shallow scar. “Orange coats would look so good.”

“And where would we get them from?”

“The shops?” he said, mimicking her exasperated tone.

Harriet kicked away from the ground, her slow swing building quickly into a tall, sweeping arc. She almost seemed… angry? Simon sneaked a glance at her face as it flew past and it was bright red. Her eyes were still closed.

“What’s wrong?”

“Nothing.”

“Can you stop that? It’s making me dizzy.”

He watched her pump her legs harder into each downswing until he thought she’d go flying off over the fence. He looked nervously at the kitchen window. “Harriet…”

“Harriet!” she said. She sounded breathless.

“I’ll get into trouble…”

“God.” She stomped her joggers violently into the grass, staggering a little forwards and backwards until she’d come to a stop. “You don’t know anything.” She jumped up and ran inside, and Simon stared after her in bewilderment.

 

Harriet

Neither of Harriet’s parents were accountants, but they’d been counting hard their entire marriage. One, two, three… No boy yet? Surely the next one… Four… when she’d popped out, the fifth girl of five, her father had wept. No, not with joy. She’d seen the video.

They had seven children now; the youngest was thirteen-month-old Talia, and they’d finally let go of the dream of a son to carry on their trophy-making business. In the meantime, they’d barely noticed that Harriet’s eldest sister, Melanie, has practically taken over the shop, even though she was still in Year Eleven and her grades had been dropping all year.

Harriet was thinking about this as Melanie swerved her Corolla into the Dillingers’ driveway. During the ten-minute drive her sister had talked about all the usual stuff she liked talking about – a dress she’d bought on special at Dotti, her friend Shauna, Sexy Pete in her Maths class – but Harriet had noticed the little worried crease in her forehead. Harriet noticed these things.

For instance, she noticed that the other thing her parents had been counting forever was money. There was less of it all the time, it seemed; their family kept growing while the public’s demand for trophies – trophies you could actually go and look at, from experts who could help you make the right choice, rather than trophies you just clicked on and bought online – was dropping off fast. Harriet knew they’d lost the Parrot Hill Little Athletics Club last week. It was a small client, but they were at the point, apparently, where they couldn’t afford any losses. The cancellation of a major account, according to the whispered conversation she’d overheard between Mum and Melanie last night, would be a “real disaster”.

Harriet was scared to think what a “real disaster” might look like, when they’d already sold the runabout, all the good china and most of the paintings on eBay, and it had been ages since she’d had new school shoes, even though her big toes were coming through the front.

She looked at Melanie now as they sat there in the hot car, the engine running. “We’re here,” said Melanie, trying to be funny.

“Are we poor?” Harriet said. She was also trying to be funny, but it must have come out wrong, because Melanie didn’t laugh.

“No, we’re not poor. Don’t even worry about that.”

“Do we have enough money?”

Melanie sighed. “We won’t be homeless, if that’s what you mean.”

Harriet didn’t know what she’d meant, but suddenly there was a stone in her throat. “We won’t be homeless… when?”

“Ever,” her sister said firmly. “Don’t worry about it. Don’t think about it.”

“Okay.” She wished she could switch off her thoughts, just like that, but it was hard when you used to have the nicest shoes and now they had holes in them. “Bye.”

“See you at three.”

Climbing the verandah steps, Harriet angled left through the side gate and followed the pebbled path to the backyard. She’d been out there with Simon for at least five minutes, showing off the concrete burn on her arm from her epic bike stack yesterday afternoon, when she heard the distinctive clunk of Melanie’s old car changing gear and finally reversing back onto the street.

 

Paul

In the dream, Thomas was jumping higher and higher on the trampoline, his body a whip of black against the midday sun. A Christmas present the year he was nine and Thomas was seven, the trampoline had featured in many of Paul’s dreams through the years; but usually, as in life, he was the one hogging the limelight, ignoring Thomas’s whining, performing the fancy tricks. He’d never been down here, lying on his back in the grass, looking up at his brother as he spun and twisted and flew through the air.

Thomas was achieving the kinds of aerodynamics only possible in the best dreams: high, lazy quadruple somersaults, spike jumps that pinned him to the sky like a radiant Jesus on an invisible cross, layouts that floated for minutes, graceful and weightless. Paul gazed up at him in fascination. They were both their current ages, though they wore the sports uniforms of their school days. In the distance, at the end of their childhood backyard, Paul could see Simon, playing with their childhood dog, Ruby. His high school girlfriend, Leanne, sat talking with his parents on the saggy old sofas on the porch. The summer sun, as reliable as clockwork in the halcyon eighties of his memory, was warm on his skin, and he closed his eyes. The grass tickled his ear only the tiniest bit. He could smell sunscreen, the comforting-familiar hint of hot metal on the air from the steelworks three blocks away, onions frying with a soft hiss on the barbeque.

The dream shifted in an instant, as dreams do, to a pale landscape, strangely desolate and fogged with white smoke. He could sense rather than see the trampoline still looming above him, and he scrambled to his feet, reaching out blindly. Utter silence draped him like robes. “Thomas?” His knuckles met the aluminium edge of the trampoline, which felt under his trembling hands as cold and still as an antique. “Thomas!” The smoke began to thin, drifting away slowly in banks and then wisps until it was gone altogether; but even when the sun shone down through the clear, bright air once more, Paul couldn’t take in what he was seeing.

“It’s just a dream. It’s just a dream,” he told himself. But the horror was real.

It was as though the trampoline had swallowed itself. The metal frame now held together only the tattered edges of the mat; a pit had devoured the rest of it, yawning down into the earth, dark and never-ending. He screamed to his parents and his son to stay away, but when he looked around again, the backyard was empty.

He heard the distant sound of Ruby whimpering, an echo that grew fainter and fainter until it disappeared, and knew that everyone he’d ever loved had been taken.

Paul swam desperately up out of sleep, struggling as if through quicksand, breaking with a gasp into the bleached dawn light.

*

It was Simon’s birthday. No, tomorrow was Simon’s birthday – the boy seemed fixated on the distinction – but today, for the party, he was wearing his best short-sleeved shirt and had let Deb wrangle his birds’ nest hair into a rigid, wet-look version of itself. The three of them sat sedately at the breakfast table, Simon’s eyes glued to the clock for Harriet’s arrival as he munched toast neatly over his plate, Deb immersed in her book, an incongruous daub of jam on her collar. Paul flicked an occasional glance at the clock too, and stood at precisely nine-thirty, brushing crumbs off his lap. “Back by twelve,” he said.

In the cool garage he buzzed open the panel door and started his car, gliding smoothly nose-first into the peaceful morning and arriving forty minutes later at the front gates of the Rosalee Residential Community. Duly identified by the security camera, he drove inside and parked near the entrance doors, signed the register, then tracked Thomas to his favourite spot in the veggie garden, a wheelbarrow full of soil beside him.

After an hour, he hugged his brother goodbye, signed out and returned to his car.

He invariably felt worse on the drive home, but today held a particular sharpness as it was Thomas’s birthday – his actual birthday – and nobody else had remembered. Paul loved his little family without reservation (he often felt his heart lurch when he looked at his son, he wanted so much for life to be good to him), but Deb was not an especially thoughtful type and Simon, for all his quirks and sensitivities, seemed to take after her. When he walked back into the kitchen, now thronging with small people and a couple of parent helpers, Deb asked distractedly over her shoulder, “How was he? Did you give him our love?” and he replied “Yep” in a clipped sort of way before grabbing a Coke from the fridge and retreating to his study.

He crossed the room and swished the curtains together, then subsided with a grunt of pleasure into his battered armchair, as comfortable now as it had been when it had taken pride of place next to the three-bar electric heater in his first apartment. He reached behind his head for the tablet on the console table, figuring he’d spend a quiet hour or so working on the Have a Heart Foundation’s disbursement strategy.

“Not much help, are you?” a voice came bitterly from behind the desk.

Paul sat perfectly still, his arm poised in mid-air. “Who’s that?”

“What do you care?” A dark shape rose and moved slowly closer, sighing deeply. “Sorry. Sorry for trespassing. I’ll leave now.”

Paul resisted an urge to laugh. “You’re not trespassing.” He recognised the voice of his son’s friend Harriet, or maybe it was the broadness of her shoulders, swimmer’s shoulders, he’d often thought, now hitching slightly up and down. “Are you okay, Harriet?”

“Yeah.” She stood uncertainly. “Are you sure I can stay?”

“Yes, of course.”

“It’s just, I don’t want…” she gestured at the door.

“I hear you. Don’t worry. We can hide out together.”

He sensed her relax, and she sighed again, plopping with a heavy-sounding creak back into her chair. “You should probably be helping.” She sounded resigned, this time.

“I made up the goody bags,” Paul said. “I baked the cake.”

Did you?”

“Sure. It’s twenty-sixteen,” he teased.

“You wouldn’t know it at my place,” Harriet muttered.

“Deb – Mrs Dillinger – enjoys baking and cooking, but I’m better at it. She mows the lawns because I don’t do the edges right, apparently.” He shrugged, though he supposed he was invisible against the solid backdrop of the armchair. “Neither of us like cleaning, so we make Simon do that.”

She snorted. A pensive silence fell.

“I have six sisters,” she said softly.

Do you?” It was Paul’s turn for genuine disbelief, though he realised this was something he should probably know about his son’s best friend. Seven children, in that skinny brick terrace on State Street? The Bowens lived in one of the posher parts of town – surely they could afford to move out a bit further, into something bigger? Something with a proper yard?

No wonder the kid’s always over here, he thought.

Harriet asked, “Did you and Mrs Dillinger only plan to have one child?”

Strangely, the question didn’t bother him. “That was my idea. Mrs Dillinger wanted three.”

“You could still have some more. Not that I recommend it,” she said.

He smiled in the dark. “I don’t think so.”

“Simon might like it.” The bitter edge was back in her voice, though there was a hint of wistfulness there too.

“My mother definitely would,” he said. “But she understands why it’s not going to happen.”

“Oh. Is there a special reason?” Harriet asked with interest.

With a disorienting jolt, Paul remembered he was speaking to an eight-year-old. He cleared his throat and forced himself to sit up straighter. “Are you feeling better?”

She groaned, but in a half-hearted way. “I guess.”

“Maybe we should try to get back into the party spirit?”

“I guess.”

He stood and walked to the door, and after a moment, she followed. “I’ll see you out there,” he said encouragingly, watching her drag her feet down the hall. When she’d vanished around the corner, he closed the door and turned with relief back to his armchair. It stared coldly up at him like a stranger, offering none of the solace he needed.

*

“… Aaaaand so say all of us!

“And so say all of us…”

A wave of tuneless song surged briefly outside as the kitchen door swung open and closed, followed by the brisk tap of a sensible heel on the patio pavers. Paul looked up from the garden table to find his mother standing on the threshold, clearly wrong-footed.

“Hello, Rita,” he said.

“Paul.”

“Still here, then?”

“No, I’m a hologram.” A pause. “I wasn’t going to miss the cake cutting.”

“And yet…” He gestured expansively.

She hesitated, then pulled out the bench seat opposite and sunk down onto it, drawing an enamelled cigarette case from her pillow-sized handbag. “That blasted song goes on all day.”

The leaves of the lemon-scented gums at the back of the yard were a hard, glossy green, as sturdy as young flesh. Paul stared at them intensely, seeing nothing.

Rita Dillinger said, “I wish we weren’t like this.”

It wasn’t enough to break through, not after all these years. He didn’t even blink.

“I know I… made it this way. Me and Dad.”

He clenched his jaw. “Is this an apology?”

She didn’t answer. That wasn’t, he knew from long experience, an answer in itself. He waited.

A watch encircled her wrist, narrow, dark blue; she pecked its face repeatedly with her fingernail, ten or twenty times, as if coaxing it gently to start. Plainly unable to stop herself, her face twisted with regret even as she blurted out: “You weren’t watching, Paul.”

“I was ten.” And he’s happy, Paul thought. He’s happy, and you should visit him sometimes.

He said, “You know I only ever wanted to please him, right? I was trying to fill up the lawnmower, get it ready for him, when Thomas went under… He would be proud of me, I think. My practice. My family.”

“I’m proud of you.” Rita’s eyes were dry, but they pleaded with him in a way her words never would. “I forgive you.”

“I’ll forgive you too, one day. Not today.” He stretched his arm out, stilled her hand.  “But Mum, please understand. I don’t know if I’ll ever forgive Dad. And that’s okay.”

Saying the words, looking calmly into his mother’s face – he felt a ripple of magic too subtle to alter his reality but a presentiment, maybe, of a future mellowness; of an ordinary day when his mind would turn to his father’s power to control his guilt even from the grave, and he’d realise it had evaporated like mist over a lake.

He stood up and went inside, pausing at the dining room door and then pushing it slightly ajar, arrested by the tableau that came into view: Simon, using (or thinking he was using) his new abacus to tot up the number of cake slices required; Deb behind him, her palms resting lightly on his shoulders; Harriet, catching Simon’s eye from across the room, waiting for his quick, contained grin before sidling shyly over. A swelling memory of childhood’s sweetness and terribleness washed over him.

Simon spotted him and said, “Dad! We forgot that it’s Uncle Thomas’s birthday today.”

Deb looked sheepish. “We were thinking we could go over this afternoon?”

“He’d love that,” said Paul.

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