Left to his own devices, Stephen learns about the simple things in life - like fishing, and cricket, and climbing trees - and the importance of family. Soon Lola entrusts Stephen with a great secret, and he realises that Lola has become more important to him than just an aunt who sends him money - she's now a friend.
|Publisher:||Allen & Unwin Pty., Limited|
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|Age Range:||8 - 10 Years|
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The Simple Things
By Bill Condon, Beth Norling
Allen & UnwinCopyright © 2014 Bill Condon
All rights reserved.
'Give your aunty a hug.'
I want to make Mum happy.
'Go ahead, Steve.'
I want Dad to be proud of me.
'Goodness me. He's not very keen, is he?'
And I don't want to make Aunty Lola feel bad. But I'm shy. You can't switch that off like a light. It's stuck on tight. I don't like hugging, except if it's Mum.
Mum's smile is only just hanging on. 'It's not because of you,' she tells Aunty Lola. 'Meeting new people is difficult for Stephen – isn't it, sweetie?'
Dad mouths something that I can't quite make out.
He steps closer and whispers. 'Go for gold.'
'Let's forget it,' Aunty Lola says. 'It's clear the boy is having a hard time, and that's fine, because so am I. In fact, you'll have to excuse me – I have a terrible headache and I need to lie down.'
She puts on a scary face. Or it could be her normal face. I can't really tell. Then she stares at me as if she's trying to set me on fire with her eyes, before marching off. The march ends when Aunty Lola walks into her bedroom and slams the door.
'Oh dear,' Mum sighs. 'This isn't going to be easy.'CHAPTER 2
Ever since I can remember, at Christmas and on my birthday, Aunty Lola has sent me her love and ten dollars. She's really my great-aunt, but her Christmas and birthday cards always say 'Love from Aunty Lola'. I've never met her before because she lives a long way from my home in the city. To me, the most real thing about her is that ten dollars. I always write back to say thanks, as soon as Mum reminds me. But I never send her any love. I don't want to lie. How can you love someone you don't know? You can't, not even for ten dollars, twice a year.
Now, after driving all day, we're here at her house. I sit with Mum and Dad on the back steps. In front of us is a small patch of knee-high grass and two rickety buildings, one small, one large. Beyond a sagging fence is a steep hill which leads down to mudflats and mangroves. Dad says there's a river out there at high tide. It doesn't look like one of those views you see on TV travel shows – the ones where the water's blue and there's yellow sand and sunshine. Uh-uh. I don't think anyone would come here for a holiday, unless they liked stinky mud. It's a freezing day, too. That makes everything worse.
'It must be pretty here when the water rolls in,' Mum says.
'Can we go back home?'
'We just got here, Stephen.'
'But I miss Blue.'
'Uncle Mike is looking after her. She's okay.'
'How about if we stay for another whole day, and then go?'
Mum folds her arms to keep warm.
'Why do you want to go home? It's nice here. You'll have fun.'
I look at the ground.
'Aunty Lola doesn't like me.'
'That's not true. You just got off to a bad start with her. She'll come around.'
'That's right, Steve. Don't take any notice of Lola. She's a grumpy old biddy.'
'John. Don't say that.'
'Well, okay, maybe that's a bit harsh. But she isn't the warmest person I've ever met.'
Mum looks at me. 'Lola can be sharp sometimes – a little bit snappy. But she's a good person, deep down. I saw a lot of her when I was growing up. She was happier then. Now she's got some aches and pains. That can make people cross. She doesn't like getting old. When she was young she rode horses and was a very good swimmer. She can't do those things now.'
I wouldn't like it if I couldn't swim any more.
'Does that help you understand how Aunty Lola must feel?'
'We're the only family she's got left.'
'Where are her family, Mum?'
'Her brothers and sisters died ages ago. The only one of their children who was close to her was my cousin, Molly. She's gone to live in England now, but before she left she rang me and we had a long talk. She said Aunty Lola hasn't been well – she had a fall and Molly had to take her to hospital. And now, with Molly gone, she's all alone.'
Dad takes over. 'So we thought it'd be a good plan to come out here and see how the old girl was doing. Make sure she's okay.'
Mum nods. 'It's our job to look after her. That's what families do.'
'Will we have to look after her for long?'
'Not really. We can only stay here till her birthday. That's three weeks from now. Then school goes back. And Dad and I have to start work again.'
'It'll be gone in a flash, Stephen. And you might even like it here.'
I don't think so. It already feels like I've been here too long.CHAPTER 3
Dad knocks on Aunty Lola's door. Mum is beside him. I follow, a cup of tea on a saucer wobbling in my hand.
The room is as dark as a cave. Aunty Lola lies on the bed. Her hair looked short before but now it's long and fluffed out on the pillow behind her head. Like a parachute.
'Here will do.' She clears a space on her bedside table. The tea splashes when I put it down.
'Too late to be sorry. It's done now.'
This is like when you meet a barking dog and you're not sure if it's going to bite you. Dad told me you can't let an angry dog know how scared you are. Or it'll attack for sure. You have to talk soft and walk up to it real slow. And watch its eyes.
'We'll let you spend some time together,' Mum says. 'So you can get to know each other.'
What? They're leaving? No! I can't watch her eyes on my own! I need help!
The door opens and Dad and Mum sneak out.
Somewhere in the darkness a clock ticks off the seconds. I silently count each one – five ... fifteen ... twenty-five.
Maybe Aunty Lola will go to sleep. Then I can sneak out, too. Thirty-five ... forty-fi —
'So you're Stephen.'
'Well then. Tell me about yourself.'
'What kind of things do you want to know?'
'Whatever you'd like to tell me. Off you go.'
'Um ... I sit next to Keysha Bennett at school.'
'Nooo. I don't have a girlfriend.'
'But she's nice, is she?'
'I suppose. She's good at spelling. I'm okay but not great. I like handball. I'm not the best one. Liam is. He's one of my friends. The other one is Alister.'
'Only two friends?'
'A small but select group, no doubt.'
'Right ... we hang out a lot. Talking and stuff. Alister collects coins and Liam has a pet rat. I collect stamps and I like video games and dogs. But I don't like cats. They make me sneeze. Um ...'
'Ran out of things to tell me, have you?'
'Well, now you can ask me something if you like.'
'Okay.' There's only one thing I can think of. One important thing. 'How old are you?'
Aunty Lola's eyes open wide as an owl's. 'Why do you want to know that?'
'Because Mum said it was your birthday soon but she didn't say how old you'll be.'
'Your mother is respectful. A person's age is private.'
'But I don't know anyone who's really, really old. So I've got no one else to ask.'
Aunty Lola leans forward. I lean back.
'You say "really" far too often, Stephen. One "really" in a sentence is quite enough. Work on that, will you?'
'Now, about my age. I don't suppose it matters all that much if you know. How old do you think I am?'
I put a hand under my chin and twitch my lips from side to side. Dad does the same thing when he's thinking.
'You don't have to say it to the very day.' Aunty Lola sighs. I can tell she's not very patient. 'Ten years either way will be good enough.'
'I think you could be about ninety. Around that. But not quite a hundred yet.'
She flashes those owl eyes again.
* * *
'You have no idea about age. Do you, Stephen? No idea at all.'
'I'm about to turn eighty. If you must know.'
'What does it feel like?'
'Heavens above, you do like asking personal questions. It feels – oh, I don't know. Do you plan to be a detective when you grow up?'
'I don't know. I haven't really thought of that before. Dad says I might be a vet because I like dogs. But I don't like snakes. So if you had a sick snake I don't think I'd want to fix it. I like elephants, too ... A detective might be a good job.'
Aunty Lola slides down in the bed and closes her eyes. This is my chance to get away.
'Are you asleep? You don't have to answer if you are.'
'I am not asleep.'
There goes my chance.
'Do you have another question?'
'What are your hobbies?'
'Aw. I'm going to have my own blog. When I see a movie, I'm going to write stuff about it. And I'm going to put in about music and books and if anything fun happens. And I'm going to have a comments part so people can write to me. You can write too, if you like.'
'Your blog will just have to get by without me. The world's gone mad with all this blogging rubbish. If I wish to write stuff about my life, I'll enter it in my diary. That's much more sensible. Don't you agree?'
Dad told me I should go along with whatever she says. That way I won't get into trouble.
'Hmm. That's one thing in your favour. You say "yes", not "yeah". "Yes" is much better.'
'I've been practising. Mum doesn't like it when I say "yeah".'
'She's teaching you well. Keep up the good work.'
I nod again. Probably nodding is the safest thing to do with Aunty Lola.
'Lovely. Are we finished now?'
'I think so.'
'Stephen.' She reaches her hand across to me. Her fingers almost touch mine, but not quite. 'If I've sounded angry at all, I didn't mean it.' Her voice is softer. 'It's just that I'm not used to young people and their ways. I should be because I was around them for many years. I was a teacher.'
'Mum's a teacher, too.'
'Yes. I encouraged her to do it.'
'Mum's pretty smart. I bet you are, too, Aunty Lola.'
'Perhaps once. A long time ago. Now I'm out of touch. I get crotchety.'
'But Mum said you were good, deep down.'
'Did she? Well let me tell you, you have to go a very long, long way down to find the good bits – and they're few and far between.'
That's pretty much what I thought. But I don't tell her. I just give her a goodbye smile and turn to leave.
'One thing before you go.'
'You look like the kind of boy who would be better at shaking hands than hugging. Is that true?'
Aunty Lola clicks her fingers.
'Well, is it true or not?'
'I'm still working it out.'
'I don't have all day. Hugging or shaking hands. Pick one.'
'Er ... I usually only shake with Blue. Not with people. Blue's a cattle dog. So that's probably not counted as really shaking hands. Mum says I'm a good hugger. But I don't know if she's only saying that to be nice. Maybe you should ask her.'
Aunty Lola breathes out long and low, like a tired old dragon. She moves her hand away from me.
The clock becomes very loud again. Ten seconds ... twenty ...CHAPTER 4
Mum is waiting outside the bedroom.
'Did you have a good talk, Stephen?'
'It was okay. Aunty Lola is nearly eighty. Did you know that, Mum?'
'Yes, I knew that.'
'Does that mean she'll die soon?'
'Nooo! She'll be with us for a long time.'
'So you like her, do you?'
'I'm not sure yet. Sometimes she's scary.'
'And she's probably not sure of you yet. Just be nice to her – that'll win her over.'
The door opens and Aunty Lola wobbles out of her room. Now her hair is tied back again. That makes it easier to think of something nice to say.
'I reckon your hair looks better when it's long, Aunty Lola, like it was before. It's pretty.'
She raises her right eyebrow. That makes her left eye close. I think I might be in trouble, because the eye that is open doesn't look very friendly.
'I've worn my hair this way for over sixty years,' she says. 'And I shall keep it this way.'
I look at the patterns on the carpet. Carpet patterns are as interesting as books, if you look really closely at them. It's better than looking at Aunty Lola. She's not very tall but her stare is huge.
'Come here, you.'
As I look up she waggles one finger in front of her face. I edge closer.
'It has been many years since anyone has called me "pretty". I never expected to hear it again.' She puts her hand on my shoulder. 'You're mistaken, of course, but thank you.' Then she turns away as if I'm not even there.
'I've prepared some sandwiches for lunch. We'll have them in the kitchen.'
Mum calls out to Dad. 'John – Johnny. Come and have lunch with us.'
'On my way, Rache.'
I follow Aunty Lola into the kitchen. She walks like she's on a boat, kind of rolling from side to side. One of her legs might be shorter than the other. Maybe she fell off a horse a long time ago, and hurt her leg. Or maybe that's just how old people walk. I'd ask her, but she might not want to talk about it. I'll get Dad to ask her later.
Once everyone is at the table it's as if the adults don't see me any more. Suits me. I'm happy just to eat. The chicken sandwiches are the best. The meat is soft and it's white bread. Not that good-for-you kind that Mum always buys.
* * *
'It's so nice to see you again, Lola.' Mum takes a sandwich and passes the plate to Dad. 'It was ten years ago that we were here. Can you believe it?'
'Oh yes. I was sure you'd forgotten me.'
'We always meant to come back before this. But Stephen came along, and John's been busy with his work. And then I went back to teaching. Well, you know how it is. Time just gets away.'
'It does. But we make time for those we care about. Don't we?'
Mum looks at her sandwich. It's the same as me looking at carpet patterns, but not as interesting. Then she says ...
'I'm really sorry that we've been so neglectful, Lola. But the main thing is, we're here now.'
'Yes, that's true.' Aunty Lola's face looks softer, happier. 'And I'm glad of it, Rachael. Very glad ... but it's such a long trip for you.'
'You're not wrong.' Dad gets away with talking with his mouth full, but I'm not allowed. 'I was starting to think we'd never get here.'
'I enjoyed the trip,' Mum says. 'I know someone else who did, too.' She touches my hand. 'Didn't you, Stephen?'
'It was pretty good. We played lots of games.'
'Then I'm pleased.' Aunty Lola wipes her nose. I don't think there was anything yucky poking out. Probably just itchy. 'But that doesn't change the fact that it was a marathon effort to get here. And there was no reason for you to come.'
'I think there was a very good reason,' Mum says. 'Your eightieth birthday's coming up. That's important.'
'No it isn't. I've had quite enough birthdays already.'
I slurp lemonade from a long, tall glass. Mum tops up her cup with hot water. It's a good time for me to check out the sandwiches. Most of the chicken ones are on the bottom of the pile.
'Lola,' Mum says.
'John and I were having a talk on the way up here ...'
'We both thought that it would be a good idea if – would you like to tell her, John?'
'No, no, you do the honours, Rache.'
Aunty Lola taps a spoon against her cup. 'Someone better tell me – and quickly. I can't guarantee I'll be around if you're going to turn this into a mini-series. I'm old.'
'Okay then,' Mum says. 'How would you feel about coming home with us when we leave? We'd love to look after you for a little while.'
'Just for a holiday.'
'But if you liked it there, we'd be more than happy if you stayed. For as long as you wanted. It's warmer. Good for your arthritis. We're close to the beach. There's nothing better than strolling along the sand, looking at the surf.'
Mum gives me her 'help me out here' look, so I do.
'I let Blue run on the beach sometimes, Aunty Lola. You can come with us. You don't have to go into the water if you don't want to.'
'Now there's an invitation too good to pass up,' Mum says. 'There are all sorts of activities you could do; groups you could join. I'm sure you'd soon have lots of friends.'
Aunty Lola holds a teacup to her lips, tilting it just enough so that she can drain the last of the tea. Then she stares into the empty cup, saying nothing.
Dad chimes in, to help Mum out.
'There's no need for you to answer now, of course. Just think it over for a while. No pressure. But, like Rache says, you'd be welcome.'
'I don't have to think it over.' Aunty Lola doesn't look at Mum or Dad. 'Thank you for the offer. But no thank you.'
Excerpted from The Simple Things by Bill Condon, Beth Norling. Copyright © 2014 Bill Condon. Excerpted by permission of Allen & Unwin.
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