by Stephen Groak
I have always loved my sister, enough to almost kill her. I loved her when I threw a dart in her leg. I loved her when I farted in her face. I loved her when I would slog any short-pitched cricket bowl she would send my way when we played backyard cricket. I loved her when after years of play-sparring, she landed an uppercut into my solar plexus so hard I couldn’t breathe, forcing me to call on all of the thespian skills I had developed in high school theatre to demonstrate I hardly even felt it.
Three years my junior, Helen scrubbed up pretty well in a dress. She had earthy brown curly hair, light blue eyes, and broad white front teeth, the kind needed to take a huge bite out of our rural exploits. However, in shorts, T-shirt, and gum boots, she was a West Auckland country boy’s dream: she hunted eels, swam in creeks, played touch-rugby, played cricket, and would faithfully wander all through the bush with me in search of adventure. She was my best brother-sister-mate—my southern hemispherical Huckleberry Finn.
And when our own good sense got clouded over, like the sky we played under, and we took off on some harebrained escapade, the like that parents, teachers, and grownups would have a hissy fit over, Helen could always be counted on never to squeal, rat me out, or dob me in. She was the perfect childhood comrade, coconspirator, and chum.
She never said a word when we rode all through the back roads of the Waitakere Ranges on my dad’s motorcycle with no worries, no license, and only one motorcycle helmet that we took turns sharing. Mum was the word to both our parents when she found my stash of Playboy magazines that I had stored under the house for safekeeping from prying eyes. And she was as silent as the grave I almost sent her to regarding the go-cart incident.
The event had been triggered three weeks earlier by the arrival of an innocuous piece of mail.
“This came for you today,” my stepmother Marie said, as she placed an envelope, along with a plate piled high with liver and onions, in front of my father.
I welcomed the diversion from my own plate of poison, glancing briefly at the beautiful calligraphy, before my father unceremoniously tore it open, ripping through his name and address. I kept shooting furtive glances over in his direction, hoping for a distraction from the bitter smell of the meat. It was washing over me like those stinkers Pete Farqueson, aka Pete Farteson, would drop in Latin class. I held my breath and took a small bite of liver, employing my simple strategy for nasty food: start with the worst first, and reward yourself with the best last. The effect was immediate—a blast of bitterness jarred my taste buds, similar to the jolt you got when getting kicked in the nuts. I glanced up at Helen to see how she was faring. With the weary patience of Sisyphus, she was scooping up droplets of gravy with the tip of her knife before swallowing and allowing the brown liquid to roll down her throat.
“Pleasure of your company,” my dad read off the invitation. “Why can’t those pomes make a phone call like the rest of the neighbours?”
“Because they have class,” replied Marie.
I noticed Dad had not used “whinging,” as he typically did in conjunction with the word “pomes.”
“And I’d prefer if you use the word English when referring to our new neighbours. They are English…like my mother!” Marie took her place at the table with daggers in her eyes, as she grabbed her knife and fork.
Three weekends later, Helen and I were all dolled up in our Sunday best, in the living room, trying to honour our parents’ command to “stay clean” while they got ready. Actually, since we were visiting new neighbours for the first time, we had been given all the commandments: speak when spoken to; address adults as Mr. or Mrs. So-and-So; eat with your mouth closed; maintain eye contact when talking to others; use a firm handshake in greeting; do not fart—correction—pass wind in others’ company; allow other kids an opportunity to win a game…blah, blah, blah…the usual litany of parental dos and don’ts.
Yet, despite all these admonitions, and even in the relative sanctuary of the living room, I was already breaking one the rules: trying to beat my sister in a game of Chinese checkers. And for this sin, Helen was winning. Her army of yellow markers was methodically invading my triangle, and she only had two pieces left to get home. Meanwhile, my band of black pieces was still huddled together in the middle of the board, slowly marching forward. Losing sucked. Losing to a girl double sucked. Losing to your younger sister, triple sucked—no—sucked to the power of three!
“Let’s go, kids,” my dad called out.
“Coming,” I replied, forcing myself not to bolt from the room. “We can finish this later,” I lied, making sure I maintained eye contact with my sister. I may have not been the best Chinese checkers player, but I could summon a believable poker face when I needed to.
“Sure, Nigel, but I’m going to keep the board in my room for safekeeping.” Helen saw my stare and raised it with a smirk, as she picked up the board and left the room.
The Gilliam’s house was one property over from our farm, so we walked along the public metal road to the base of their driveway. My standard footwear away from school was usually gum boots, jandals, or bare feet, so I felt quite the ponce all decked out in knee-high socks and closed-toed shoes as we navigated the stones of the gravel road. My dad paused at the base of the concrete driveway before taking Marie’s arm. His gesture was not only gentlemanly but also necessary, as the incline was probably fifty-five degrees.
“How on earth would they have laid the concrete for this driveway, Dad?”
“With difficulty,” he replied in his usual terse manner.
“Hey, if the Gilliams wanted a bird’s-eye view, they should have built a tree house. It worked for the Swiss…”
Marie shot me a glance—double-barreled––blowing away the punch line as it left my lips. Humour was not part of my stepmother’s constitution, and frivolity always induced a negative emotional rash within her. The Sir Edmund Hillary-Sherpa-mountaineering joke I had ready as a follow-up never left the base camp of my mind.
Once we had huffed and puffed our way up the side of the mountain, finally reaching the summit of the driveway, Mrs. Gilliam was waiting for us, as if her elevated view came with an elevated foreknowledge of our exact arrival. Dressed in a sky blue summer dress, with hair in a high bun, she had a regal air about her.
“You must be the Sorensons,” she said with British-educated diction similar to that used by her Majesty the Queen in her televised Christmas message.
“We are, and thank you for inviting us,” said Marie obsequiously. She quickly handled all the introductions, and I thrust forward my hand upon hearing “Nigel Sorenson.” I so wanted to add “the first” after my name, swept up in the moment, but didn’t, realizing that not only was such a title redundant, but that my stepmum would probably have had me drawn and quartered on the spot for “conduct unbecoming a subject of the Commonwealth of Nations,” or other such treasonous offenses.
Before long my parents, Helen, and I found ourselves in various sections of the Gilliam’s second-story living room, segregated by gender and social standing. My dad was in one corner, beer in hand, discussing politics with Mr. Gilliam, a short, stocky man with a ruddy complexion: National Party, Labour Party, National Party, Labour Party, blah, blah, blah. The women were in another corner of the room discussing who knows what, and I found myself staring at the finest English scones I had ever seen. With their hint of butter, dab of whipped cream, and touch of strawberry jam, I was fully prepared to plow through six of those British beauties—correction—if my parents were watching, politely chew on one with my mouth closed, ready to “praise the hostess for her most gracious baking.”
“Want to check out my go-cart? My dad just built it for me.”
I tore my eyes, nose, and taste buds away from the scones and turned to Martin Gilliam. He was a somber, skinny lad of about twelve who looked like he needed to hear a dirty joke. I had a few in my back pocket but needed a little more time to suss him out before sharing my Kiwi vulgarity.
“Sure,” I replied, nodding to Helen to join me. She was across the room and had been cornered by Catherine Gilliam, a sweet girl of eight who wore a pink dress with matching pink ribbons tied around her pigtails.
The four of us plodded down two flights of stairs to the garage where the go-cart was housed. My dad drove a British-built Ford Zephyr, and I was curious to see what an English-dad-built go-cart looked like. The design was simple: a frame with four wide tires. Inside was mounted a sloped seat, a braking mechanism, and a steering wheel that looked like it had come from a junkyard.
“Have you taken it down your driveway?” I asked.
“No,” replied Martin. “My parents won’t let me. Too steep.”
Steep was an understatement. Cliff was a better description.
“Want to try?” Martin asked.
My manners, at least that was the lie I told myself, kicked in.
“Ladies first,” I replied, offering a hand to Helen. True to her carefree and courageous nature, Helen hopped in the go-cart, and before you could say Bruce McLaren, she was flying down the driveway, weaving erratically.
“Use the brakes,” I called out.
Either not hearing me or overcome with fright, Helen did not apply the brakes but continued on with her dangerous descent. It was all she could manage to zigzag across the width of the driveway, all the while gaining speed.
Propelled by gravity, Helen roared down the driveway and across the metal road before slamming into the grass curb with enough force to lift the rear wheels of the go-cart off the ground. Helen continued on, transitioning from go-cart driver to astronaut as she flew into the air and down a bushy embankment.
I hope the go-cart is okay, I thought, as I bolted down the driveway, followed by Martin and Catherine. If it’s damaged in any way, there’ll be hell to pay.
When we got to the roadway, Helen was climbing over the grassy curb with only minor scratches and bruises. Suddenly the severity of what just happened flooded over me. My best mate, my sweet sis, my beloved Helen could have been killed. I did what most caring brothers would do in this situation: I laughed—a tension-relieving, “thank you, Jesus, dodged a bullet on this one,” gut-wrenching belly laugh.
“Who’s next?” asked Helen, between nervous giggles.
Crickets. Country Kiwi crickets.
Category: Short Story