Her mother was calling but Clare ignored her. Clare was in the corner of the backyard behind the shed looking for dead insects. Clare knew it would be an order to do another chore. She was busy sucking on the lolly that she had taken without permission, and she was picking her nose. She looked up and saw her mother’s hand come down on her arm. Clare let out a cry and wondered what it was for – the lolly or the nose picking? Then the hand came down again and she knew it was for both.
“How many times have I told you not to do that?” Her mother’s red face loomed over her as she yelled. “Your nose will fall off. And no lollies without my say-so. Didn’t you hear me call?”
“No.” Clare rubbed her arm.
“Get yourself down to the kitchen. I want you to go and see Aunty Alice. Be quick about it. We have to get to the ridge and meet the Lismore bus. Your brother’s due on it.”
Her brother had been doing some odd jobs in town for pocket money – a bit of mowing, a bit of garbage removal. He even had a trailer for his bicycle. He always had someone giving him a ride in and out of the valley when he needed it. Sam liked getting out. At the end of the week, he and Clare would often count out his earnings on his old bed. He was always saving up for something. This time it was for a mobile phone. They pretended they were bank tellers. Sam was generous. Each week he’d give her five dollars so she could buy treats or the things she needed for insect collecting.
Clare rubbed her arm again and pushed back her lank hair from her face. Then she walked down the incline to their fibro house that needed paint as well as many other things. She knew she had to, yet again, go and borrow something from Aunty Alice. Her mother wouldn’t do the asking herself. She would always send her daughter or son. Ever since her father left to work in the mine they seemed to have it harder. Clare thought it would have become better because her Dad was supposed to send money home. She noticed that her mother had bought some new things but she and her brother hadn’t got anything new for a while. She didn’t ask her mother. Clare figured she’d be punished. Clare had even asked Sam, but he said he wouldn’t ask because he thought he’d get the same treatment. “You know I’ve heard some people talk when they thought I wasn’t listening,” he’d added, his huge, brown eyes fixed on his sister. “They say Mum’s a bit of a bitch.” Ashamed, Clare had said nothing. She knew what the word meant, all right.
At the back door, Clare stopped for a moment and wondered why her mother was not behind her. Then she saw the shed door open and thought she must have gone in there.
Clare was staring at the clock on the kitchen wall when her mother appeared in the small cold kitchen. Her mother rinsed her hands under the tap then dried them with an old hand towel. It was then that Clare realised her mother was wearing lipstick and a new pink dress that fell just below her knees. Her mother gave Clare an empty jar and said, “Sugar. About a cup of white sugar.” Clare stared at the jar. “Tell Aunty I’ll send her down some cake when I finish baking it.”
Clare stepped back to avoid being hit and said, “Why can’t you go to the corner store when we pick up Sam?”
“Never you mind, Clare. Now go.” Clare left the kitchen then paused in the doorway long enough to see her mother get a box out of the top cupboard. She was about to open it but turned around slowly. Clare quickly moved out of view and walked out of the house, slamming the screen door behind her. She wondered whether there was something in the box her mother didn’t want her to see. Perhaps that was why she didn’t want her near the kitchen cupboard and the lolly jar.
At the end of the gravel driveway, Clare looked up the road. There was no one around. As she shut the front gate, she noticed a dead bee on the ground. She picked it up. It was a blue-banded bee which had turquoise stripes on its abdomen. It was intact. She would add it to her insect collection which she kept on the windowsill of her bedroom. She placed the bee in the letterbox for safekeeping. She’d collect it later on the way back from Aunty’s.
She watched the dust rise as she walked along the unsealed road. The rains would come in a couple of months and it would be her brother’s birthday. He would turn thirteen. Clare was only nine. She was looking forward to getting older so she could live in town. A friend of hers at school had a sister who lived in town.
Her brother wanted to be a truck driver or pilot because he liked the idea of travelling around. He had a map of the world in his bedroom. Clare wanted to be a receptionist because she wanted to wear makeup and nice clothes like the Winston girls from the farm near the main road. Sam thought all the poor people lived right in the valley just like him and Clare and their family.
A kestrel dropped and grabbed what looked like a dead lizard. When she reached the spot, there was still some flesh stuck to the road. She kicked at it with her sneaker. It would take her a few minutes to get to Aunty Alice’s gate. Aunty Alice wasn’t really her aunt. Her mother insisted Clare call every female neighbour this and every male, uncle. The only exception to the rule were the Winstons. It was Mr. and Mrs. Winston. Sam and Clare nicknamed Aunty Alice, Swampfrog or Swampy. That was their secret name for her.
When Clare reached Swampfrog’s front gate, she thought she could see Aunty on the front verandah through a gap in the greenery. She barely moved from this position these days. Clare slowly made her way up the overgrown driveway, letting the jar bump against her leg as she walked. She was thinking about the box her mother had in the cupboard.
Swampfrog’s front yard was filled with a variety of trees and shrubs– palms, wattle, ginger, lantana. It gave the impression of a jungle. Clare counted six parrots on one of the trees. Swampfrog had a pet python, Monty, which she let inside the shack. She wanted to be close to nature. The kitchen had folding glass doors that Swampfrog had got from the garbage tip years ago. She liked to keep them open and this meant that all sorts of animal visitors came and went – possums, lizards, frogs. It was like an animal hotel. As she walked toward the house, Clare looked at the ground for dead insects.
“That you, Clare?” Swampfrog called from the verandah.
“Yes, Aunty Alice,” she replied.
“What does your mother want this time?”
“A cup of sugar. I’ve got a jar to put it in.”
“She’s got you well-prepared. Isn’t your father sending you money?”
Clare climbed the rickety steps carefully, pushing the palm fronds out of the way. “I don’t know.” Then she remembered what her mother had told her to say. “Mum said she’d send you some cake.”
Swampfrog was wearing a large, sleeveless floral dress. Her fat arms seemed to ooze out of it, Clare thought. “Your mother said she’d send me some tomato relish that last time when she borrowed vinegar but I never saw any of it.”
Fact was that Sam had given it to one of his friends because he had done Sam a favour. Clare took a good look at Swampfrog and was sure she had gotten bigger than last time. She looked like a fleshy mountain on top of the old couch on the verandah. Her rolls of fat curved like foothills on her belly under her dress. The wart on her right cheek looked like it had got bigger as well.
“Ron made me some lemonade the other day. It’s in the fridge. Some people are coming up to stay. It’s like a hotel here. Go fetch some for us, will you?” Clare knew people came and went, just like the animals. She used to stay at Swampfrog’s with her brother when they were young and their mother needed a babysitter. Sometimes during the school holidays, they were there for days.
Clare knew Swampfrog was in the mood to talk because she had offered her a drink. If she was lucky, Swampfrog might even give her a lolly as well. Clare walked into the shack and into the kitchen area where she ended up kicking over a red plastic bucket near the sink. She had been distracted by the diamond python draped on the rafters. It wasn’t moving but below it was a puddle. Clare guessed it had peed. There was some parrot poo on the windowsill. She looked at the glasses carefully to make sure they were clean and filled them with Ron’s lemonade. Clare suspected that Swampfrog and Ron had a thing going. That was what Sam had said. That meant they were girlfriend and boyfriend.
Clare came back onto the verandah and put Swampfrog’s glass down on the cut tree stump which served as a coffee table. Not that Swampfrog drank coffee. She believed it was bad for her health because it contained caffeine. Clare sat in the old armchair next to her. Swampfrog then reached under the couch and brought out a jar of lollies. Fruit jubes. “Take as many as you like,” Swampfrog said after she’d taken a handful for herself. Clare began to look for the dark purple ones. The blackberries. “Go right ahead, Clare. Your mother’s not here,” Swampfrog joked and slipped some yellow ones in her mouth. Clare found eight of her favourites. Clare put four in her pocket for later and ate the rest. When Swampfrog had swallowed the jubes, she took a sip of lemonade. Clare could see she was ready to talk. “Your brother is a right little businessman. Did you know that?”
Clare shook her head.
Swampfrog continued, “Ron says he’s got initiative. And he’ll make someone a good husband one day.” Clare thought it was a little strange hearing Swampfrog talk like that about Sam as he wasn’t even out of high school yet. “And you, you could be a scientist. Did you know that?” Clare had no real idea what scientists did except for Marie Curie. And she was dead. “You could do something with animals. I mean, you like insects and all.”
That was true, Clare thought. She liked insects.
“Oh, and by the way, I’ve got a jar full of them that Ron saved for you. They’re on the kitchen bench.”
Clare leaned over to look inside.
“Get them when you get the sugar.” Swampfrog lit a rollup cigarette that was lying on the wooden stump.
“You know, there’s something I have to tell you about women. Some women don’t know how to make a man happy.” Clare noted that Swampfrog was going to give her one of her wisdom talks. That was what Sam called them. Swampfrog continued, “They whinge and nag and can’t keep a man happy. Then there are those who will just blab about other women because they have nothing better to do. Then there are others who do both.” Swampfrog took another puff of her cigarette. “And you know what I think, Clare? Women don’t always like women. They get jealous of each other. Want what the other has. And I can understand why men don’t always like women. Sometimes small things are too important for women. Way too important. Women can be such a bunch of mad cows!” A parrot landed on the front veranda and began to walk around. Swampfrog continued, “Men, now they do it differently. They have a few rums and then fight it out on the lawn. Women just tell stories about each other and then find themselves stared at and whispered about.” Swampfrog stubbed the cigarette out in the cracked saucer on the tree stump. “Get me another lemonade, will you?”
Clare went back into the kitchen and looked up at the python. It had gone. Perhaps it was outside. The jar full of specimens was on the kitchen bench and it had some beetles in it. She got the jug of lemonade out of the fridge, took it outside and placed it on the stump table.
“As I was saying, no wonder men don’t always like women. And women don’t always like women because, Clare, as I was saying, we can be such a bunch of mad cows.” Swampfrog lit another cigarette and inhaled deeply. “But me and Ron, we’re soulmates.”
Clare looked puzzled. She had no idea what a soulmate was. She thought of the soles on her sneakers. Perhaps it had something to do with that.
“Now, girl, do you know what a soulmate is?’
“It goes with your shoes,” Clare answered.
Swampfrog threw her head back and roared with laughter. Her fat arms trembled like jelly. “No, girl. No! It is when a man and a woman have a special relationship. When they are meant to be with each other forever and ever. They’d do anything for each other. Like Ron and me.”
“Are my Mum and Dad soulmates?”
“I don’t know, girl.”
Clare thought that perhaps they weren’t because they weren’t together as her father was away working in the mines.
“Now be a good girl and do me a favour before you go. Go fill that bucket in the kitchen with water from one of the water tanks out the back.” Clare nodded. She didn’t mind doing things for Swampfrog.
A path made of recycled concrete pieces led to one of the old tanks next to the shack. The tap on the first tank seemed stuck. Clare couldn’t budge it. She went to the next one behind it and stopped with a start. Swampfrog’s pet python was lying on top of it and its huge tail was dangling in front of the tap. She looked carefully, wondering if she could get to the tap without touching the animal. Then she thought better of it. There was no way she was going to go anywhere near it. Sam wouldn’t be afraid of it, but she imagined it would wrap itself around her and chew into her like a fruit jube before swallowing her. Clare went back inside.
“I can’t get the taps to work on the tanks, Aunty. I tried and tried. They’re stuck.”
“That’d be right.”
“Maybe your soulmate could do it for you?”
Swampfrog threw back her head and roared with laughter. She wiped the tears from her eyes. “Yes, Ron’s coming over this afternoon. He’s going to make me dinner.”
“I have to go home now. Mum has to pick up Sam.”
“Can’t she get some sugar from the corner store?” Clare shrugged her shoulders but she felt embarrassed. She didn’t want to answer questions about her mother. “Go to the cupboard then and see what’s there. And there’s a plastic bag lying around that you can carry the jars in.”
Clare looked for the python but it wasn’t around. She filled the jar and carefully screwed the top on. Then she grabbed the insect jar and went outside.
“And I want some of that cake,” Swampfrog said.
“Yes, Aunty.” She walked down the stairs then turned back to Swampfrog. “Thanks for the lollies and lemonade.”
“You know you can always come here, Clare, if you need something. I’ve told your brother that as well.”
“Thanks.” She felt the fruit jubes she had put in her pocket.
Clare’s mother was waiting for her at the end of the driveway in the car. “What took you so long?”
“Aunty wanted to talk.”
“Did you get the sugar?”
“Yes.” A shiny red truck beeped and passed them. It was the electrician Clare had seen around lately.
“You go back home and fold some washing. It’s in the laundry. I’ll go get Sam.” Her mother sped off and Clare began walking up the road. She shook the jar full of sugar as she went along, but carefully held the insect jar in the plastic bag with her other hand. A little way up, a kestrel flew over her. She wondered if it was the same one she had seen earlier. She looked up and turned, wondering where it would go. In the distance, she saw that her mother’s car had stopped next to the shiny red truck that had beeped at them. Clare waited to see what would happen. Then her mother sped off.
When Clare got home, she got the bee out of the letterbox and went to her bedroom to put it and Ron’s specimen jar on her desk. She would deal with it all later. After that, she put the sugar on the kitchen bench and dragged a chair to the cupboard and looked into the shelf she saw her mother go to earlier in the day. Behind the large instant mashed potato packet, she found a cardboard box. She took it out and stepped off the chair. At the kitchen table she opened it. It was full of twenty and fifty dollar notes. She figured that this must be the money her mother got from her father. Her mother was saving it. But what for? She calculated that her mother and brother would be back in a couple of hours. She tipped some of the money out on the table and began to count quickly. She made hundred-dollar piles with the twenty and fifty dollar notes. She had made fifteen piles so that meant one and a half thousand dollars. She looked at the kitchen clock and knew she had no more time. There was still plenty of money in the box. She messed up the piles on the table and put the money back in the box, making it look like she had found it. She slipped a twenty into her pocket but then put it back.
Clare went to her room and above her bed was a poster of a blue triangle butterfly. Her brother had given it to her last birthday. She got a box from under the bed in which she kept all her insect paraphernalia – jars, sticky labels, tweezers, scissors. A breeze toyed with the faded blue sarong that covered her window above her desk. Swampy had given it to her a while back. She sat down and carefully picked up her bee and looked at it. She thought it was one of the most beautiful bees in the world with its fluffy back, big green eyes and turquoise stripes. It was much prettier than the bumble bee. She put it in the jar, labelled it and put it on the windowsill. She realised that she needed another spot for the jars as she was running out of room. She thought perhaps she could put her less colorful specimens on top of her bookshelf near the window. She poured out the contents of Ron’s jar. The only intact bodies were of a Christmas beetle, a Rhinoceros beetle and a large ant. She threw the latter out the window with the rest of the bits and pieces of insect.
Clare didn’t say much to her mother or her brother when they got home, and at dinnertime, she ate the baked beans on toast and ice cream in silence.
“What’s wrong with you?” Her mother asked.
Sam looked at her and knew she had plenty to say. Later that night, he knocked three times on the wall that separated his room from hers to indicate the coast was clear. Clare stepped barefoot onto the cold wooden boards in the hallway and slipped into his room. He was counting his money. It was laid out on his bed. He was writing figures on a notepad.
“I’ve bought myself a prepaid mobile phone. People can ring me direct to do work.” He inclined his head towards the desk. “Over there.” Clare picked it up. Swampy was right. Her brother was a right little businessman. “So, what’s up?” he asked.
“There’s something going on.” She sat on his bed and gave him a couple of Swampy’s fruit jubes. Clare went on to explain what she’d done and seen that afternoon in the kitchen. “And there was a red truck. Mum stopped to talk to someone in it when she went to get you.”
Sam picked up the paper he was writing his sums on, screwed it up and threw it in the bin. “How much money was in the box?”
“I didn’t have enough time to count all of it. A lot. More than yours.”
Sam gave a laugh. “It wouldn’t take much to be more than mine.”
“I only counted one and a half thousand.”
“Want to look?” She got up from his bed and put her finger to her nose to scratch it.
“Stop.” He got a handkerchief from his pocket and handed it to her.
“I wasn’t going to do anything.”
“Keep it. You’re not a baby anymore, Clare. You’ve got to stop picking your nose. You’ll have no friends.”
“I don’t do it in front of anyone.”
“Well, how come everyone knows about it?”
Clare felt ashamed and looked down at her feet.
“Come on.” He patted her arm with his tanned hand then handed her a five-dollar note “Let’s check that box on the weekend when she’s at the market with her friend,” he suggested. “That’ll give us plenty of time.”
On Saturday, their mother wore another new dress. It was floral this time. Clare and Sam waved their mother off from the front porch. “Don’t worry, Mum,” Sam called. “We’ll have the house clean for you when you come back. Take your time.” He smiled at his sister when he finished saying that.
As soon as the car was out of sight they ran into the kitchen. Clare dragged the chair to the spot where she could get up and retrieve the box easily. She moved the instant potato mash packet out of the way and grabbed the box. She turned and handed it to Sam.
They each worked on the piles of money and counted up several piles in a couple of hours. There was five thousand dollars there.
“Why hasn’t she put it in the bank?” Clare asked.
Sam looked at the back screen door. “I don’t know.”
“What’ll we do?”
“See where else she’s hidden stuff.”
“But where could that be?”
“Under the mattress. People hide things there and in their wardrobe.” Sam looked at the kitchen clock. They had time. They went into their mother’s room and lifted each corner of the mattress. Sam even slid under the bed on his back to see if there was anything they’d missed. There was nothing. Then they began rummaging in the top of the wardrobe. They pulled out blankets and sheets but there was nothing.
“Maybe that’s all there is,” Clare suggested.
“I don’t know. I’ve got a feeling.” He rubbed his chin. “Where wouldn’t anyone go?”
Clare looked around the room then went to the window and looked out at the backyard. “The shed. She found me at the shed the other day and I got a couple from her.” Sam grabbed a torch and they rushed out the back door and up the yard. Sam unbolted the shed door and stepped inside. Clare followed. It took them a moment to adjust to the darkness inside. He turned on the torch. There were some spider webs over the back window.
“Dad’s tool chest?” Clare pointed.
“No, too obvious. A place where no one would look.” He surveyed the shed slowly. “There.” He pointed at the dusty, old medicine chest covered by an old hessian bag. It was behind their father’s workbench. They began to pull it out.
“What the!” Sam cried out when he saw there was a shiny new padlock on it.
As he tried to get up he banged his head on the workbench. He heard a tinkle and looked down. A key had fallen onto the floor. Rubbing his head, he grabbed it and slid it into the padlock. It opened easily. And inside there was money. Loads of it.
They dragged the cabinet to the centre of the shed. All the notes had been divided up and were held together with rubber bands. He took out a wad of notes and began counting. “A thousand.” Then he got another and counted. “A thousand. The notes are organised in a thousand dollar lots!”
“Do you think she stole it?” his sister asked.
“No. She’s stashing it. She’s got some plan. I could’ve got a phone with this. She knew I wanted one.” He picked up an old hammer and slammed it on the workbench. “I hate her.” And again. “I hate her.” And again. “I really hate her.”
Clare began to cry.
Sam threw down the hammer and looked at his watch. “We have to put back everything as we found it.”
“The key?” Clare sniffed.
“I think she hung it from the workbench.” As he spoke, he felt around the edge of the workbench from the back to the side. “If I can’t find a hook or nail, I’ll leave it on the floor. She’ll think it came off.”
“What are we going to do?”
“Don’t worry about it, Clare. Let me deal with it.” He continued feeling around the workbench. “Found it.” He put the key on the nail on the side edge of the workbench. He looked around to check that everything appeared untouched. “Let’s get out of here.” They strode down to the house.
The phone rang in the kitchen. It was Nancy, the neighbour their mother went to the markets with on Saturday. “Oh? Who’d she goes with?” Sam asked. “Right. I’ll tell her you called, Aunty Nancy.” Sam hung up. He looked at his sister. “Something’s going on. Mum hasn’t gone to the markets with Nancy for a while. Nancy thinks she’s gone to Lennox Heads with one of the women from Ballina.”
“What’s she up to?” Clare asked. Sam was staring out the window. “Sam?”
Sam didn’t answer. Clare got up and went to the cupboard and raided the prohibited lolly stash. Sam got some lemonade from the pantry. They both sat silently as he filled a couple of glasses with ice and poured the bubbling drink until it spilled over the glass and onto the table. Neither of them cleaned it up. They didn’t say anything to each other for a while. Clare could see she wasn’t going to get anything out of her brother. He was in one of his moods.
She went to the laundry and got the duster and rags to do the cleaning. She began in her mother’s room. She cleaned her dresser and opened her mother’s wooden jewellery box which was full of colorful necklaces, earrings and bangles. Nothing expensive. Nothing that was real like pearls or diamonds. Clare took out a beaded glass necklace her mother had got from the secondhand shop last year. She put it on. It looked strange against her faded cotton dress and her straggly hair. She put it back where she found it. She stood up and looked around – the double bed, a couple of wardrobes, a chest of drawers, the dresser and stool. Nothing fancy. Then she went to the sitting room and looked at the vinyl couch and armchairs, the old TV and coffee table. Someone had given them the lot. She walked to Sam’s room. It was much like hers – a bed, a desk and chair, and a wardrobe. He’d hung a noticeboard above his desk and a map of the world next to it.
She couldn’t get the thought out of her mind. Where had her mother got the money? And why was she hiding it? Why wasn’t it in the bank?
She went into the kitchen. Sam was talking on the phone. When he got off, she didn’t question him. He had a frown on his face that would keep a guard dog away. She got the broom and began sweeping the bedrooms. She figured he’d talk to her when he felt like it. He made several phone calls as she worked in the different rooms. She figured Sam would have a plan just like their mother had. Clare looked at the clock. It was 2pm.
She went outside and saw that her brother was preparing his bicycle trailer. The old medicine chest and the cardboard box full of money were on it and Sam was tying it all down. “We’re going to see Swampy and Ron. They know what’s going on. Dad’s coming tomorrow.”
“Dad’s going to sort this mess out. Mum’s been fooling around with some married electrician.”
“The man in the red truck. She wants to leave us, Clare!”
“How do you know?”
“I’ve asked around.” He turned his back to her. “Now go get some of your things. We’re staying at Swampy’s tonight.”
“What about Mum?”
“Dad’s going to deal with it. Go!”
Clare walked slowly to the house. The first thing she packed into her school bag was the blue-banded bee jar. Then she looked at the rest of her insect collection and began to cry.