It started with a beach ball and a john dory. The beach ball landed first, with that echoing tunk noise – always sounds like metal to me – then the john dory slapped onto it. I remember because the fish fired the beach ball towards Dad’s blackberries where it punctured. It hung there, impaled on the thorns. Mick was laughing at it, he kept saying how it looked like a ball-bag, all heavy and swollen at the bottom. The fish just stared at me, morose and accusative.
But this isn’t about the fish. Once the ball had deflated fully I did the only thing a teenager would in the same situation. I picked up the fish, waggling the punk mohawk of the dorsal fin like an antenna, and started chasing Mick round the garden with it. I pumped the mouth and put on my dad voice, saying, ‘You little rat, come here. You think that homework is funny? You think being homeless is funny? I need quadratic equations ev-er-rey day at work!’
Mick was screaming and laughing as he always did when I sent dad up. No one needed quadratic equations at work, not dad in the warehouse, not Mick and me and not even our maths teacher, who just read it all out of a book.
It was all pretty funny until I saw Mick’s face change and I knew that dad had come out to see what all the fuss was about. I was saved a hiding even though I knew that he’d heard me because he was too busy staring at the fish. ‘Where the fuck did you get that?’ he shouted. ‘You thieving bastards, what’s the point of raising you right? Tell me where you got it this–‘
He never finished his sentence. The can landed corner-first on his forehead. I saw it lodge there for a second, watched dad’s eyes flicker up to try and focus on the object. I could see clearly that it said ‘SPAM’, those yellow letters bright and friendly like always. It took me a bit longer to work out why the tin was bleeding. A few seconds later there was a cascade of crashes and thuds as more tins detonated on the house and buried themselves in the lawn all around us. Mick was crying and I was holding him as splinters of roof tile and glass showered us. It was a miracle that we weren’t hurt, I guess.
Sure, I live on the edge of the end of civilisation, but the thing I still can’t understand is why we were left alone in that house after the funeral. Mum died just after Mick was born, neither of us really remember her. Social services knew we didn’t have any family left, so did the police and the school and about a hundred other people. We got lots of supportive hands on shoulders, but that was it. Just Mick and me stuck in that house, passing ramblers occasionally looking over the fence tutting about how thin and dirty we were growing.
Growing thin, there’s a phrase for you. It really doesn’t fit. It’s more like your nerves swell from the inside so that you can feel every bare millimetre of your hunger and emptiness, those gurgling hollows and aching joints. Sure, from the outside you’re emaciated but under the skin it never ends. That emptiness is the only thing that grows.
I came to realise how good intentions could be as well. You can’t eat them, I know that much. I still reckon the only reason we survived at all was because it happened again. This time it was maybe a month after the ball, the john dory and the Spam. Must have been early autumn by then, getting dark early, cold, wet days. We were in the garden again because, well, that’s where I’d chased Mick too. He’d swung at me with the chef’s knife and I’d lost it. I smashed a chair, grabbed a leg and ran for him. I had more reach without the wood being a few years older than him. I don’t even remember why we were fighting, we were just hungry and territorial I guess. We’d shared the house before dad died but after he was gone we divvied it up. I was bigger so I took upstairs, the bathroom and the beds. Mick got downstairs which meant the TV and the kitchen but that didn’t bother me because I could beat access to both out of him if I needed it. Sometimes I wonder why he didn’t kill me in my sleep.
Anyway, I had my knees on his upper arms and was shouting right in his face, nose to nose, no control. I’d raised the chair leg up above my head – I was planning on planting it next to his face – but as I looked up I saw something falling from the sky. Next thing I knew I was on my back on the lawn, feeling a heavy, liquid running down my temple. Mick was pissing himself laughing. I sat up groggily and stuck my tongue out to catch a drop. It was sweet, acidic, sharp. It took me a minute to realise it was tomato juice. I bolted for the house.
I guess the thing with the Spam shook me up more than Mick. He stayed out on the lawn dancing round in it. Whatever it was that had soaked me in rage was gone, and I had to laugh as I watched him turn red one soft splatter at a time. I laughed as hard as I could and I did until I saw the ramblers passing by our sorry contrivance of a garden fence, our hastily patched roof. I looked over at them, grinning at their bemused faces, until I realised. They were completely dry, no tomatoes, nothing falling from the sky at all. They look scared too, backing away from the house. It’s probably when I started getting afraid too.
I didn’t hang about to follow dad, I went straight back inside, grabbed all my things and hurled them to the foot of the stairs. The thudding of the fruit on the roof felt like artillery fire to me, and I sure as hell touched on shell-shock in the aftermath. It took me two days just to go near the back door, let alone to take a step into the garden.
Well, after that the rains came and went. Sometimes we’d get a few showers in a day and sometimes a week would pass and nothing. I always waited inside to find out what it was before I’d even look. Mick always brought something back in for me, assuming he could. He left the fridge right where it landed mind. Reckon that one scared even him.
We didn’t go hungry after that. The garden looked more and more like a war-zone with time but what did we care? It was raining all the goods of the world on our patch. We had melons, sausages, newspapers, little cubes of cheese and pineapple on cocktail sticks javelined in the dirt, clock radios that shattered with a cacophony of expiring bells, dice, 342 copies of Lord of the Flies (yeah, I counted), all sorts of tinned goods, the fridge of course, great sheets of corrugated iron that drifted to the ground like seeds and even once bandages, which draped themselves across the trees so that it looked like winter had snapped us up in its maw and all we could see was white frosty saliva.
I try and convince myself now that’s why we didn’t leave, back when it would have made a difference, why we didn’t just pack our bags head down the road to try and find someone to take responsibility for us. Mick said the next Spring, before–
Mick said that it felt like a summer holiday to him, like being one of the lost boys. I sure got the lost part, I can’t help but think it was my job to do something about it. Instead though, we waited and waited until winter set in and the snows fell. We got cut off, like we always did, not that it made much difference. The world wasn’t telling us anything. We’d forgotten that we were allowed to say something back.
Christmas Day was the best moment of it all. We’d worked out some funnel and bucket systems with the corrugated metal so a lot of what fell we could keep and store. I’d given up on outside so Mick had to do all the work fixing the runs to the roof; I stayed inside and crafted these half-cylinders, binding them with phone cable – that had dropped in one piece, coiling itself next to the fridge like a giant anaconda whilst we slept one night.
We heard the tinkling, a soft and harmless noise, and went to the back door. The snow was maybe two feet deep already and onto it was sprinkling flecks of pink, yellow and brown. They were sweet colours, ones that reminded me of mum, made me want to run my finger round a glass bowl and lick gooey goodness off. Mick was away in it the moment he knew it was safe.
He spun, his ragged clothes catching the colourful snow so that he took on all the colour of the world despite the twilight. I nervously managed to stick a hand out and watched as it filled up with hundreds and thousands of these things. They were sweet, they tasted like Christmas Day should.
I guess it was some time in January when the knock came at the door. There was a policeman standing next to a woman who was already bent in expectation of shy children. When I opened the door, her face to my chest, I caught the moment of surprise and the speed with which she covered it up.
I heard Mick scuttling around behind me, he didn’t know what it all meant. Me, as I showed them into the house, tried to remember how I was supposed to treat guests, I just felt a rush of guilt. They were here to help, but that just proved to me that I couldn’t. I didn’t even know what it was I was meant to do, but I’d failed in the attempt.
Still, this odd couple with the clean clothes and manners didn’t fit here. That world had gone with dad. They refused my various offers and quickly the woman interrupted me: ‘We’re here because some hikers told us you two were here on your own.’ I shrugged, she continued, ‘I understand your dad passed away last year?’
‘Can of Spam did it. Someone up there chucking food, turns out it can be a weapon.’ Her lips thinned, evaporating under the heat of the truth. ‘I used to think it fell out of a plane or something. Now…’ What could I say? It only fell on our house. I would have thought I was mad except I kept seeing the whites of dad’s eyes roll up, sliding his life away.
She faltered, but said, ‘Yes, I’ve read the reports. That’s quite some get-up you’ve got on the roof there.’
Her face broke into a mechanical grin so I knew that Mick had poked his head out from somewhere. ‘I made it, Mick rigged it up,’ I jerked a thumb at him, ‘It’s easier than picking all the food up after it’s fallen. You want to have a look round?’ She nodded.
It took a couple of hours but eventually they decided they’d seen enough. The policeman didn’t say a word the whole time. The lady ended up chiding us for lying about all that stuff falling from the sky.
At the door, just as she was about to leave, she said, ‘All sorts of people have been worried about you. The whole community wants to know how you’re doing here.’
I replied, ’They didn’t tell us. We aren’t in a community any more. You want a mince pie? They’re a bit old and broken up but they still taste good.’
‘No, thank you. You seem to be doing ok, you should be proud of yourselves. I’ve seen a lot worse.’ I grunted, for lack of any decent response. ‘I need to sort some paperwork out but I’m going to come right back here and we’ll get you two sorted out. You’ll have a lot of schoolwork to catch up on, but I have a feeling you two will be fine.’
Mick blew a long wet raspberry at the word ‘school’ and this lady smiled broadly back at him. We didn’t wave as they went back to their car. It was only as the door clunked itself closed that I realised she didn’t tell me her name.
They never did come back.