It's Thursday, payday, so I was gonna buy the babies lollies, but when I come to pay Mrs Kidby at the dairy wouldn't take my money. She give me a chocolate fish, too. "You're a good lad, Rueben," she says, "the most reliable helper I've had in ages. Take the lollies as a bonus."
Then, when I was walking back home Mrs Grey from the bookshop calls me over. "Can you wash my windows for me this weekend, Rueben?" she asks. "Usual rates?" She pays twenty bucks for a couple of little windows, so of course, I says yes. Then she brings out this bag. "Comics," she says, "all kinds, came in today in a box of books. They're a bit too tatty to sell, but you know how I hate throwing out anything that's still got good reading in it. Will you take them off my hands?" There was little girls' and boys' books in the bag as well as some Marvels, and they didn't look tatty at all, to me, but there she was, holding them out, smiling her happy, fat smile, and I didn't want to upset her with a no, 'specially when we all like comics at home, even Dad.
Mrs Kidby and Mrs Grey are real nice ladies, eh, but sometimes I wish they wouldn't give me stuff, because their kids are right dicks about it.
"Beggar!" Jason Kidby yells after me at playtime and Raewyn Grey calls me a bludger, though one time, when her dad heard her say that, he didn't half give her a rocket – told her how if she ever did anything to help her mum in the shop like I do, she'd get stuff, same as me. Didn't stop Raewyn looking down her freckly nose at me, though.
Gamma's in her lounge room with the Aunties when I get there to pick up the kids.
"Hey, Boy," she calls, "You have a good day at school?"
"Yeah," I yells back, "We did volcanoes. It was choice."
"Kapai. And work, that went well?"
"Uh-huh. Got my pay here. Fish and chips for tea today, eh."
"You could have a roast instead, if you got time to wait for it. I can call your Dad and tell him to meet you here."
"Thanks, Gamma, but I can't tonight. Got heaps of homework."
"You work too hard, boy. Tell you what, I'll bring something round later – that roast and an apple pie. I stripped the old tree today, and I've been baking all arvo. Better for you than chips, and you can save your money."
Tell the truth, I fancy chips – but Dad'll be glad of a roast when he gets in, so I nod and thank her and go to the door and call "Come on youse fullas, time to go home. "
Delia, Pat and Spud come tumbling and giggling up to me, the little ones all covered in muck and smiles. Delia's still looking nice though – she's got real careful about how she looks since she turned eight
"You got lollies, Rube?" Pat asks, making his eyes all big when he looks up at me, just like a begging puppy. I ruffle his hair up.
"Not for a little grub like you," I says, "Come home and get clean, and I'll see what I got, okay?"
He knows that's a yes. He grins, and grabs my hand with his sticky one. "You're way cool Rube," he says as we head down the path, Delia following us, towing Spud along.
"He's a wonder, that boy." Gamma's voice floats through the window. She thinks I can't hear. "Real big and mean- lookin', yet just watch him with those babies – and him barely thirteen. Don't know what Rewi would have done without him." I know the aunties are all nodding, their heads bobbing like buoys on a calm sea. There's a creaking of voices, saying yes and right; and agreeing with each other about what a great kid, a nice kid, I am.
I guess it should make me feel good, but I know it means they don't know me at all, none of them.
I'm not good at all. Not a wonder. Not great, not cool, not nice. They see me when I'm doing the things I got to but that's the me that doesn't have any options.
Tonight, when the babies are sleeping and the homework's done and Dad has eaten his roast and pie and sits dozing in front of the TV, I'll go to my room and sit on my bed and the me they don't see will get his chance.
I'll sit, and reach out, and I'll call my taniwha to me. He's like my Gamma described me, big and mean-lookin', with scaly hide that shifts in colours like a paua-shell, but red, not blue. His breath is like the oven when you open it after roasting a chicken, all hot steam and fat-smelly, his teeth are sharper than tigers' in his wide, grinning mouth, and his wings roll out like an umbrella, black as. His voice roars like a whole pride of lions and his long, thin tail is never still, flicking here and there just like a snake tasting the air.
If you ever saw him, you'd be scared stupid, but he doesn't scare me because I know he's on my side.
He comes, and he eats up my anger and my pain, feeding on it and getting bigger and stronger. He swallows up the rage I feel when some kid laughs at the six inches of arm sticking out of my sweater sleeve or the hole in the arse of my shorts, and the nasty black ball that grows in my chest when Dad yells at me over some not-done chore. I got plenty enough to fill him every night, hot, evil stinking feelings, piles of really rank stuff that would make you feel sick just to look at it.
And when he's full, I send him out to burn holes into Raewyn Grey's dreams and chase out the pretty pictures she sleeps with, filling her freckled nose with the rancid smell of my hate, or I make him roar in Jason Kidby's ears so he wakes up sweating and terrified. Every night, my Dad's boss gets torn apart and tortured, for sending Dad home so tired and angry; never knowing who set the beast on him that rakes its claws through his imaginings. My taniwha visits the lady from CYPS who comes and tuts and makes notes on her pad, and tries to trip me with her words into saying that I'm not up to looking after my little brothers and sister; poking and prying round the house searching for something I've done wrong so she can take them away. Mean Mister Graham with his sarcastic jokes when I screw up in maths, and Perfect Jesse Cray who's everyone's favourite get their turn sometimes too.
And last thing, in the hour before sunrise, before he has to go sleep in the lake to save from turning to stone, I make him twist and bore his way into the through the grass and dirt under my mum's headstone, slide into her coffin and scream into her dead face the things I'd say to her if I could reach her there.
"Why?" he yells at her in my voice. "Why did you fill your stupid self with those pills? How could you leave people who loved you so much that their chests ache from missing you when they wake up in the morning, and their eyes burn from crying when you aren't there to kiss them goodnight?"
He never brings me an answer, and until he does, I can't let her rest, eh. If I don't have my taniwha to take away the bad stuff, I can't sleep for the churning in my belly and the raging in my head, and I got to sleep because Dad's counting on me, and the babies too, to keep it together. It's her or me, and she's the one that ran away.
So you see, I'm not so good.
I want to be, honest. I wish I was strong enough that I didn't need my taniwha, and I could let him fly away free. I'd manage without him, if I could, but I can't – not yet.
All I can do is keep on trying, right?