Mostly Sunny Skies
Bethany Cody is an Adelaide based writer of short stories, flash fiction and poetry. She has received awards in the 2018, 2019 and 2020 Campbelltown Literary Awards, a commendation in the 2018 City of Rockingham Short Story Award, highly commended in the 2020 Shire of Mundaring poetry competition and won in her age category for the 2020 November Write From the Heart microfiction competition.
The breeze is bitter and the sun peers through gaps in brilliant white clouds shifting ceaselessly across the sky. Dad looks unaffected in his shabby tank top and wrinkled denim shorts. His leg juts out from underneath our table, jittering up and down, rattling our glasses and dull silver cutlery. A young couple sitting a few tables away glances in our direction and my cheeks turn hot. Dad’s somewhere else today, watching the street outside of the cafe, the undulating movement of passersby in jackets and coats while Maddy steals chips from his plate. He mustn’t like them, he doesn’t tell her off for taking before asking.
He’s been acting weird all week, awake and out of bed before noon to eat breakfast with us in front of the TV, my little sister Maddy slouching beside him on the couch, her short curly hair the colour of hay clinging to the fabric of the seat. There’s more food in the house and we eat what we want and stay up late until our eyes hurt and we inevitably fall asleep on the couch. For a while after mum died nothing changed. Dad went to work every morning and took us to school. He packed our lunches, fed the fish, cleaned the house and called family on the weekends. Then he started sleeping more, cleaning less and six months later he lost his job. Our fish died and we wrapped them in tissue and buried them in the backyard near the shed and lifeless, withered flowerbed. We started missing days at school.
It’s the first time we’ve left the house in months, the first time dad has the energy to deal with Maddy’s tantrums and boundless curiosity. Now our food is cold. Dad’s coffee is gone within minutes, my toastie is half eaten and Maddy hasn’t touched hers. Dad forgot to ask the waitress to hold the tomatoes. When she’s finished pilfering dad’s chips she slides the plate back across the table towards him.
He says, “All done?”
We nod our heads.
“Good, let’s get going.”
The buskers along Acland Street make Maddy nervous and she folds herself into dad’s side seeking comfort. He must be nervous too because his steps are quick as we amble down the sidewalk to catch the tram headed towards St Kilda beach. Maddy bounces on her seat as we travel alongside the Esplanade and together we count the buildings we see – restaurants, a hotel, apartments, a dozen imposing palm trees keeping vigil around the war memorial in Alfred Square Reserve.
Following dad’s scuffed sneakers off of the tram, the first thing we see is the giant, looming face and gaping mouth frozen in a forever-smile above the entrance of Luna Park. Its skin is pallid and creased with amusement, the eyes deep-set, unblinking icy blue. Its nose is hooked, protruding from underneath a sunset coloured halo. It makes my tummy turn and as I look at Maddy I see her skipping around on the footpath while dad talks to the woman in the ticket booth.
Inside it’s a mechanical maelstrom. Maddy grabs for dad’s hand but he folds his arms at the last second and ignores her when she pulls on his sleeve. It’s our first time visiting the park. Mum used to talk about the four of us driving down to the beach and spending time here before she got sick but we never went. Dad always said he was busy. Sometimes it made mum upset and sometimes Maddy and I heard them shouting viciously at each other from behind their bedroom door. Only when it went quiet and one of them left the room would Maddy and I loosen our hold on one another.
“Robbie, let’s go!”
Maddy dashes past the spider ride and I rush to keep up. Dad loiters a few steps behind us, watching. He looks weird with his hands in his pockets. His smile is sad. We only just make it to the happy swing when he calls us back.
“I gotta take a leak, wait here.”
He brings his lips down on Maddy’s head in a soft, lingering kiss and scruffs my hair before heading for the toilet block. Several people pass by as we wait, the breeze lightens and carries rancid wisps of air from a nearby bin. Five minutes pass and dad hasn’t come out of the toilet. Maddy’s getting restless at my side, digging the toes of her shoes into the cement and squishing stray ants. She fidgets with the hem of her skirt while I peer around the corner of the entrance to the loo.
Maddy nods her head and I step inside. It smells like dirt and the lemony stuff mum used to clean our bathroom with. At first I don’t understand. The room is empty, silent save for the faint sound of rhythmic dripping water. I hover in the doorway, confused, until I hear Maddy call for me. When I emerge the park is a mess of colour and sound. Maddy shares my confusion when I tell her dad’s not inside.
I haven’t eaten since my toastie. My head hurts, my stomach grumbles impatiently and I wonder if Maddy feels the same. Her hand is firm and sweaty in mine. She’s four years younger than I am but she’s always been small for her age. Amongst the crowd and raucous fair rides she looks like she’s shrinking and for a moment I’m worried she’s going to disappear too. My cheeks go hot and I hold my breath until I feel a wave of emotion and panic recede. I can’t cry now or she’ll start too and I’m not good at making her stop.
“Robbie, where’s dad?”
Her face is turned away. I watch the wind displace the golden coils of her hair.
“We must’ve missed when he came out. Let’s go look for him.”
We head towards the heart of the park, past the power surge where shrill screams shoot down at us from above, the dodgem cars and the diner where our stomachs quiver and sigh at the scent of hot food, up and around the top of the park by the moon balloons and back down by the laughing clowns. Eerie looking skulls adorn the ghost train, gazing sightlessly out at the park and the skeleton by the entrance wears a black top hat and antique spyglass, staring with one glowing eye.
Maddy’s getting grumpy. I don’t know where to go, how to find dad in the sea of strangers and the soles of my feet begin to throb painfully. We catch glimpses of him in the people we pass but the longer we look the less the resemblance and the ache in my chest intensifies. I pull Maddy along with me through the curves and corners of the park towards the exit. For a moment she forgets that we can’t find dad, her round little face turns bright pink and she gets upset that we didn’t get to ride the carousel. I tell her we’ll come back once we know where dad is and after a few sniffles she seems to understand. Outside the wind whips our hair about our faces and goose bumps spring up on our arms. We can’t see dad anywhere and I bring my hand up to my mouth.
“Robbie, stop biting.”
The soft furrowing of her forehead, the disapproval between her brows makes my hand drop from my lip. Dad says it’s a disgusting habit. I don’t remember when I started. Sometimes it’s hard to stop.
“Robbie, where’re we going?”
“Let’s look on the beach.”
We cross the road and onto the pavement in front of a bright, butter-yellow building where Maddy stops to look in each of the windows at the different movie posters. A cyclist glides past us before cutting across the empty carpark and onto a footpath at the base of a grassy hill scattered in tall, dark palm trees. Maddy stumbles a few times, tired, dragging her feet and as we reach the lamppost on the corner we cross the road again. I grip her hand tightly to keep her at my side as we step onto the beach.
We walk for what feels like forever, our shoes sinking into soft, waterlogged sand. Dozens of people are out jogging and swimming, elderly couples, young mums with prams, groups of friends and big families, parents carrying sodden bathers in bags and plastic buckets filled with smelly starfish and seashells. Gleaming beige sand stretches out before us, spotted with people lazing on towels and congregating in small groups. There’s an abandoned volleyball net near the boardwalk and I think of dad. He was good at it, could’ve done it professionally before he got injured, before he met our mum, before mum got sick. A small, shorthaired dog darts in front of Maddy and as she bends down to rub its sandy belly it takes off and runs away.
She squints into the sun, “Robbie, can we go home now?”
“We have to wait for dad.”
Hours pass and the sun sinks below the horizon, the shore clears out as people leave in dribs and drabs. Sitting with our backs against the boardwalk we watch the tide drift in and out. Underneath the crash and fizz of the water we hear muffled chatter from people moseying along the Esplanade and diners sharing meals in pubs. My stomach gives one last feeble moan and Maddy falls asleep on my shoulder, the tendrils of her hair tickle my cheek. I close my eyes too.