My pencil moves over the page, emitting light shushing noises as it quickly strokes the toothed art stock in my drawing pad. I’m comforted by the sound. This is where I feel at home; pencil and pad in hand and something interesting to draw. For now my interest is on my dad’s dozing form in his favourite armchair. It’s warm outside, which might be why he’s dozed off, but then again, he sleeps a lot when he’s not at work. I think he’s depressed. It’s been seven years since Mum died in a car accident, but his grief only seems to get worse with every year that passes. I think he feels guilty about her dying. We hardly ever talk about Mum, I want to – I don’t want to forget her – but he seems almost afraid to talk about her, to remember her.
I glance back and forth between his hand resting on the arm of the chair and my paper. His hand moves and my eyes shift upward to catch his dark brown eyes trying to focus on me. I look more like him than mum, but he says I’m the spitting image of her.
‘Didn’t realise I’d dropped off. Have you been sitting there long? What time is it?’
‘It’s quarter past three, Dad. I’ve been here for half an hour. I’m about to walk up to Nanna Walker’s house; Jackson is going to meet me there so we can go to the fair together.’
Dad presses the heels of his hands into his eye sockets.
‘The fair is on today?’
‘Yeah, you coming to have a look?’ I want to sound casual, but my throat tightens around my words and I know I sound desperate instead.
‘No, honey, I think I might have an early night.’
‘Just let it be.’ The edge in Dad’s voice is a warning, but I can’t stand that he has become so reclusive.
‘Dad, just come. Jack’s parents will be there, they’d love to see you–.’
‘Lily, I don’t want to talk about this right now, I’m tired.’
I get up from my chair and follow Dad out to the kitchen as he sulks off.
‘You’re always tired! You never want to talk about this!’
Dad has his back to me, refusing to acknowledge me.
‘Dad! You’re getting worse. You used to at least visit the Walkers once in a while, now you don’t even do that. You need to get out, talk to people, make new friends, something!’
Dad spins around to face me.
‘Don’t tell me what I need to do, Lily! I know you think you know all about the world – everyone your age does – but there are a great many things you don’t understand. You don’t know what it is like to lose your partner and to wonder –’
‘Wonder what? Dad?’
Dad turns back to the cup of coffee he was making. His back is straight and rigid like a stone wall; there is no point pursuing an answer now. He’s retreated back into his protective shell, shutting out the world and the reminders of how happy he used to be when Mum was still alive, filling our house with laughter and vibrant energy.
‘Okay, well, after the fair Jackson said he wants to show me something, so I might be late. Don’t wait up.’
‘Lily? Don’t leave the town boundaries, remember?’
‘Whatever.’ Dad has been obsessed with me staying within the boundaries of Waramye ever since Mum died. The older I get, the more obsessive he seems to become.
‘What is it, Dad? I’ve really got to go.’
‘I’m sorry about biting your head off, I just –’
I cross the kitchen in two steps and hug him. I know he doesn’t mean to be the way he is, I just wish he’d get out more. Maybe then he’d lighten up a bit, not fret about me so much, and I could stop being anxious about him all the time.
‘Don’t worry, we’re good. I’ve got to go… I won’t let Jackson lead me astray, promise!’
I plaster a grin on my face before turning away quickly so he doesn’t see it slip off again. I chuck my drawing stuff on my bed as I pass my room and then head out of the house, hoping the sun will evaporate the gloom that clings to me in unchecked moments when I’m at home.
I feel the skin on my shoulders shrinking away from the hot afternoon sun. Forgot the sunscreen again.
I walk up Nanna’s drive; the garden is neat, though the grass is dead after a long summer with little rain. She’s not my real nanna, she’s Jackson’s nanna. I glance next door to Jackson’s house, the car isn’t there so they must still be out. That’s good. It means more time to hear stories. I want to know more about Pa and the mysterious people he told Nanna he met in the bush. Hope Nanna is in a good story-telling mood.
‘Nanna, it’s Lily.’ I let the screen door glide back into the frame behind and breathe in the cool air of the dark hallway. Nanna’s house is always nice and cool in the summer heat, and warm on cold winter nights. She says Pa designed the house to make the most of the summer breeze and the winter sun.
‘I’m in the book room, Lily. I’ve just made a cup of tea. Come and join me.’
Nanna says a cup of hot tea is just the thing to cool you down on a hot day. I don’t understand the logic of that at all, but it does seem to work. More Nanna magic.
The book room is crowded and cluttered. Books fill cases all around the walls, and more stand higgledy-piggledy in piles on the floor. Art books mostly. Pa loved his art books. The smell of books is like home to me.
Well, more like home than home has been for a while, anyway, since Mum died. I smile. I always smile when I think of Mum, but that’s to stop myself from crying; more for Dad than for Mum, really.
‘Here you go, dear, have a seat. Just toss old Rotgut out of the chair, he’s been sleeping there all day, no wonder his belly almost drags on the floor these days!’
I try to gently lift the old Burmese off the armchair; he weighs a ton and gives me the evil eye before slinking behind a stack of books and curling up again.
‘Going to the fair tonight with Jackson?’
‘And his friends from school?’
I look at her and she looks back at me, waiting. I’m not in the mood for getting into my feelings about being forced to socialise with the other kids from school. I don’t get them, they don’t get me, what more is there to discuss? Time to change the topic.
‘I was hoping you might tell me more about Pa’s mysterious people, you know, before Jackson comes over to pick me up.’ I glance up at the doorway, half expecting him to be standing there already. Thankfully, he’s not.
‘Ah, the Hidden folk! You know, that’s a very special tale and not something Pa would have liked me to share with just anyone. There has to be respect and trust.’
‘Because people might think he was nuts?’
‘Not so much, dear, more that he considered the Hidden folk special friends and was worried they might draw negative attention if others found out about them. There are a lot of people in this world who are happy to exploit others for their own fame and fortune. Pa wasn’t like that.’ Nanna smiles when she talks about Pa.
‘I respect the tale! You can trust me!’
‘Yes, I think I can, you’re a sensible girl, too sensible I think, sometimes.’
I know what she’s alluding to, and it makes me squirm in my seat. I fidget with the tea cup and put it down because it clatters with my fidgeting. More stuff I don’t like to talk about.
‘So, you left off where Pa had come across a girl down by the mines?’
‘Yes. He knew she wasn’t from town, and she wasn’t with anyone, and too far away from anywhere else to walk, so she had to come clean with him about who she was. Mind you, Pa was always so charming; he was very difficult to hide anything from with those sparkling blue eyes.’
The look on Nanna’s face makes me blush; I know from old photos that Jackson has his Pa’s eyes.
‘At first she pretended to be human, but once she realised he wasn’t buying her story, she told him about the Hidden folk. She told him they lived in the mines and she took him there to see them.’
‘Did he meet them?’
‘No, that was the funny thing, she wouldn’t let him meet them, just observe them. I don’t think she was supposed to be talking to him.’
‘Did you ever see them, Nanna?’
‘Then how do you know they were real? How do you know he wasn’t just telling you stories?’
‘I don’t. I often thought he must have been breathing in too many fumes from his paints.’
We giggle as we both look over at the large oil painting mounted on the wall to my right. Pa was very good painter. He taught art at our school decades ago, before he disappeared. He’d told Nanna that every painting is a message from the painter to the people who see his painting, and it’s up to those people to decipher the message. We’d looked at this painting of the hills outside the town, with their red earth, so many times, but hadn’t deciphered his message. I wonder if we ever will.
Jackson’s voice causes a familiar ripple right where my diaphragm is. He pokes his head around the doorframe of the book room and smiles broadly.
‘In here conspiring, I see!’
Nanna and I look at each other and then smile back at him, revealing nothing.
‘Ready to go, Lily?’
‘No, but I’m guessing you’re going to drag me out of here anyway?’
‘That’s right. It’s for your own good!’
‘Oh, I seriously doubt that.’
I give Nanna a quick hug and wave as we leave the room. The sun isn’t as high in the sky now, but it’s still warm. I try to dredge up some enthusiasm for this fair. If it was just me and Jackson, I think I could even be excited, but the thought of trying to talk with the others fills my boots with lead.