Authors: Fiona McFarlane
âPhilip,' my mother said when they returned from the spa, âI'm worried about Glenda. I hope you're looking after her. She seems subdued.'
Glenda, uncharacteristically immobile with aromatherapy, lay across the couch waiting for my mother to leave as the boys stacked brightly coloured plastic blocks around her feet.
It's not that Glenda doesn't get on with my parents. It would be difficult not to get on with them. They're tanned, wear crease-free clothing, and play sociable tennis. They love Glenda and the boys with the kind of generosity that means they'll come by for an impromptu visit and, if we're out, wait in their car until we get home. Glenda will sigh as we pull into the driveway â a small sigh that I can hear but the boys can't.
âWe were just passing,' my mother will call, extracting herself from the hot car with the plucky expression of a dehydrated dog. My father's arms will be full of bread rolls and newspaper cuttings and a book Glenda mentioned she liked the sound of a week ago. Our house feels smaller when they're in it, more untidy.
My mother has expressed her concern at our practice of allowing the boys out to play unsupervised in the neighbourhood. She once discussed it with me in the garden, where only the magpies and I could hear her.
âIt was fine when you were young,' she said, with her thin, tanned voice. âBut things aren't the same these days.'
âThey never go more than three blocks away,' I told her. âAnd we have Neighbourhood Watch.'
âYou know I don't often comment on your parenting,' she said, looking around the garden, from fence to fence, window to window, as if scouting for disguised dangers about which I know nothing.
The boys' social life may be confined to two or three streets but it's still complex, fluid, and frequently involves Glenda and me in unexpected situations. James, then, on this hot afternoon, experiencing the injustice of being barred from home, the humid repetitive earthbound feeling of not occupying the ocean floor: James goes in search of his brother on his silver-pedalled bicycle. As soon as he received this bicycle from his grandparents â for no reason, I might add, it just arrived one day â James customised it with stickers of half-men, half-monsters. Glenda's reaction to the stickers was: âYour grandfather gave you that bike and he isn't going to like these.' I couldn't tell you the exact moment Glenda began living as if my parents were watching her every move through secret cameras embedded in unnecessary gifts.
âThis one is especially gruesome,' I said, inspecting a particular sticker. It featured something green which appeared muscular despite its delicate tentacles.
âI know,' said James, conspiratorial. âHe doesn't eat. He photosynthesises.'
This is the bike James rides away on, basically homeless. That's how his head seems â small and homeless. I look at the china cabinet, then at Glenda.
âYou can take the boys to the hardware store tomorrow,' she says. âThey love it there.'
That's true. Even Greg never fails to be impressed by the number of small shiny things in the world.
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
This is what I think happened. James found his brother one street away at the Wolfsons', and Greg was unhappy to see him. The accumulating sorrow â evicted from home and now unwelcomed by a brother. I know the Wolfsons' yard well because I've negotiated it when tipsy. It's all paving, swimming pool, and plants in pots. Bev Wolfson holds parties lit by candles and the moist glow of this obstacle-course greenery. Glenda and I wonder if their plants are fake because we're jealous of their swimming pool, despite the temporary feel of its above-ground installation.
âImagine having a swimming pool like that,' says Glenda. âI'd spend all day in it, naked.'
My answer to this is that I would reapply her sun cream.
This is the world of patio foliage and older boys that James has entered, the flimsy pool full of children, water coming over the side like surf. Greg damp but dressed and ready to leave, the brief argument, James sullen and imploring, Bev Wolfson shimmying around with towels and Diet Coke and painted toenails. Greg is unimpressed at James's arrival because he has plans to meet his friend Tony, whose older brother is a shopping- centre security guard. When were these plans made? Some interior minute we couldn't monitor. Greg makes phone calls when we least expect it, curling his entire body around the phone, giving and taking quick instructions and behaving afterward as if nothing has happened. He sends emails from my computer. Every now and then I surprise him at my desk, looking like a small efficient workday version of me. At any given moment he could be making arrangements to meet up with a security guard one Friday when we are tired and lax and stunned by the end of the week.
A street away, safely at the Wolfsons', Greg is shrugging his shoulders and agreeing to let James come along to an empty shopping centre. There are times when he shrugs that way at me too, slouchy and resigned. It's like I'm literally on his back. Then he shrugs and I'm off.
The bicycle stays at the Wolfsons' because Tony's security- guard brother has a car. Bev Wolfson will find the bike later, after the rainstorm, stickers wet and peeling, collapsed among the pot plants in a blur of mosquitoes. The police report doesn't give the colour of Tony's brother's car; let's say it's blue. My first car was blue â almost navy. It shook on the highways and leaked in every kind of weather. My parents wanted to buy me a new one, but I insisted on paying for my own. Glenda filled it with apple cores and covered the door of the glove compartment with the fruit's stickers. Tony's brother's car is only minimally insured because the sound system is worth more than the car itself. This is the kind of information you can pick up about a person. Glenda's sister works in an insurance call centre and we had her check him out. She typed his name into the system with those long pearly artificial nails that make her do everything with the last-minute flicks of a flamenco dancer. Tony's brother drives his car to work, although he could walk; the shopping centre is only three blocks from his house, through the roundabout at Hughes Road and across the car park. It's true these places aren't designed for pedestrians. Who knows what might happen to security guards, leaving shopping centres alone on foot at dawn.
Tony sits up front and our boys climb into the back. They fasten their seat belts without being asked, just as they always do. Tony's brother looks over his shoulder from the driver's seat. He's good-looking, sports promising jowls, grooms a bit of stubble, and wears a zip-up jacket.
He asks, âHow old is this kid, anyway?'
âEight,' says Greg.
At the same time as James says, âI'm eight.'
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
The boys have been to this shopping centre hundreds of times, but not when it's empty and not behind the scenes. They'll enjoy this, James because he likes knowing how things work, Greg because he likes knowing things other people don't. Tony's brother takes the boys into a room and says, âThis is my office.' James and Greg both know it isn't exactly an office. They've visited me at work. But there are more interesting things to touch here: switches, telephones, television screens. James finds a map of the shopping centre and walks his fingers around it. He's particularly good with maps. He brings them home from school and sits at the kitchen table to colour them in. This, I think, is what our table was made for. James enjoys school in the same way that Greg enjoys ball sports. This week he has learned about unusual underwater animals. Dense, dark-water fish with built-in light globes. Poisonous rockpool octopi. Sea lilies.
What if we'd had two girls? Bev Wolfson has two girls, twins just a little older than Greg. Last time I saw them, they were in the kitchen sharing headphones, each with a pod in one ear, jumping up and down in sync. Glenda would like a girl â it's something she'd like, but doesn't feel she needs.
âYou know what,' she's said more than once, âone day your mother will walk in here and give me one, gift-wrapped.'
âAll right, boys,' says Tony's brother. âLet's take a walk.'
Now that they're in the shopping centre it doesn't matter what time of day it is. The lights are dimmed and for hours it will be evening. The place looks as if it's just been evacuated after a disaster warning. James is thinking about the time. I know he thinks about it because it's often a topic of conversation for him.
âIn a minute,' he'll say while I'm combing my hair or brushing my teeth, âMum's going to come in here and tell you we're late.'
And she does.
Greg is walking up front with Tony's brother. Tony's on the loose, stopping and starting, running ahead, falling behind. It's like he's playing tennis with himself. He's one of those kids. He gets nosebleeds, but on him they look macho: blood on his lip, making fists. He's chunky and quick, checking things out. He'll exchange a few words with James.
âHey,' he says. âThat huge Christmas tree is hollow.'
They're in the central court of the mall now, and it's set up for Christmas. There's a plush red-and-gold Santa's throne, looking vaguely degenerate on a stage. There's tinsel and holly, fake snow, and a bright green three-storey Christmas tree â fifteen metres of plastic pine. I wonder how they assemble those enormous trees, how many pieces there are to them, and where they live for the months they aren't required. James is wondering this too as he inspects the tree, the globes of red and gold floating in it, the fact of its hidden cavity. His gaze follows it up and up among the shopping-centre levels that are strung together with escalators and boughs of synthetic holly and the cameras whose video screens Tony's brother is supposed to keep an eye on. And being James he is struck by the tree's undersea immensity in the half-light. The end of the sun comes through the skylight above them, and it's like looking up from the other side of water.
Greg is on Santa's throne. Here comes his voice â girlish and convincing. He's saying something like âI am the lord of all I survey, of half-price CDs and ladies' underwear and small white fences designed for keeping kids in line while they wait to see Santa.' Greg is a keen observer of concrete objects and we have high hopes for his sense of irony.
âJames,' he says. âGet up here.'
âHey,' says Tony. âWhy are all the escalators blocked off? They're stopped anyway.'
This is when Glenda looks out the window and says, âWhere are those boys?'
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
What's Tony's brother doing now? What do security guards do in empty shopping centres? Here are some possibilities: They stroll around with torches, wearing caps and pretending to be burglars. They window-shop. They pluck tiny spiders out of fake foliage. I've heard that celebrities sometimes come to malls after hours and things are kept open for them. Princess Diana did, sometime in the eighties, on one of her visits. She strolled and chatted and did some shopping. I've also heard that in the eighties, shop mannequins were modelled on her features. It must have been quite a life, shopping amongst yourself in an empty store at night.
Could be Tony's brother is noticing a lot of things at once. The rain that's started up â brief, sweaty summer rain, with the sky yellow and no clouds that you'd noticed. Tony fooling with the escalator barriers, trying to swing them back or push them aside. James heading toward his brother on the throne. Something about James is that he's always neat â no laces undone, nothing creased, never sloppy, like a miniature version of my father. Glenda always says âHis hair falls in a natural part' with a kind of subdued wonder, because hers doesn't. Could be that Tony's brother is sitting on the raised red stage smoking a cigarette and knowing no one will stop him. He must bring girls here.
âSo, James,' says Greg, kicking affectionately at his brother, âwhat do you want for Christmas?'
âA new china cabinet.'
Greg laughs. He has a spooky laugh, man-sized, though he's not a man. James's face gets the look it does when he's made Greg laugh: happy and speculative. There's always the risk that Greg will stop.
âGet up here,' Greg says. âI'm Santa.'
James sits on Greg's knee.
âHey,' calls Tony, halfway up the escalator, âthis tree's so big you could sit in it.'
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
Glenda makes a call to Bev Wolfson. The rain stops while she dials. Bev says, âGlenda! Come for a drink. The boys are probably in the yard. They'll be among the hordes. Why don't you come over? Bring Phil.'
Bev's talking so loud I can hear her. I shake my head at Glenda and Glenda shakes her head into the phone.
âDo you mind checking, just quickly?' Glenda asks.
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
Where's Tony's brother at this moment? Checking out a noise in a loading bay? He may have a walkie-talkie somewhere in his zip-up jacket. The smoke from his cigarette is going up up up.
âWhat about you?' says James. âWhat do you want for Christmas?'
âI've got a list,' Greg answers. âI've sent it already.'
This concerns James. He knows, in a solemn and informed way, that Santa Claus isn't real. He assumes Greg knows this too, but now he isn't sure. He looks up to the second-floor mezzanine, where a diminished Tony is circling the tree like a compact angel, inspecting it from all directions.
âWho'd you send your list to?' James asks.
âTo Grandma and Pop. Who else? They give the best stuff.'
James knows this â we all know this. Even Glenda has buckled under the pressure.
âMum and Dad give good stuff,' says James.
Greg says, âMmm.' Then he says, âIt's all educational.'
Maybe Tony's brother is right there, thinking about Christmas, the nuts and candles and bad wine, the old people who knew you when they were young. He leans against the stage, removes his jacket, places his walkie-talkie beside him. Tony has finally found himself the perfect position: a bench, the balcony rail, a small step into the tree. He yells down to them, his voice echoing and enormous.