Cloud sweeps in from the east. It’s soon a thick grey woolly blanket that covers the sky…or the Earth, depending on which way you look at it. The air changes. It’s heavier, muggy. I feel restless and sluggish at the same time. Seems like everyone else does as well. At least they’re bothered by this weather one way or another. The kids are playing up—Reuben keeps on tugging Ariana’s hair, and she keeps pinching him. Their parents are better at masking, but I can see through them.
“It’s gotta rain,” Billy states.
“It’s gonna give all right,” Jess adds. “Surely.”
Jess gets the washing in off the line. Which I think is dumb. I can’t remember the last time our washing got rained on. It was ages ago. Yonks.
Anyways, because of this cloud, we’re stopped in our tracks. Not that we’re doing much. All we’ve been doing is digging this great big hole. Boss man says ‘external factors’ are affecting our usual work. He doesn’t go into detail. He leaves us guessing. We all have our theories but none of us really know. Doesn’t really matter, and it’s beside the point. We’ve been digging this stupid hole for so long now. Billy said if we dug any deeper, we’d end up in China. It’s not so much that it’s deep, it is wide though. We’ve made a big crater up beside the boss man’s house and we’re all a bit confused as to why. Probably some foundations for something. Some think it’s going to be another big garage so he can buy more fancy cars. Others said maybe an outhouse, whatever that means. I joked it might be an “in-house”, cos it will be in this big hole like a bunker. But I’ll tell you about that a bit later cos right now the sky is thickening. I could slurp it like a milkshake. I could reach my hand out and grab a bit.
“A piece of cake,” I say aloud, accidentally. I’m a bit embarrassed. I must’ve sounded like a dick. My cheeks feel warm and flushed.
“What on earth are you on about, fool?” Billy questions.
“Don’t you fellas reckon that the sky is so thick you could almost reach out and tear off a bit, put it in your mouth and eat it?” I ask everyone.
“I don’t need to reach out and get it,” says Jess, putting some pegs in the basket hanging on the line like a cradle. “I just open my fat gob and drink it up.”
We all laugh.
“It’s not like that for me,” I tell them. “I might be able to sniff it and even get a little taster, but I can’t have it. The sky is going ‘Here I am Max, try a bit.’ But it just pisses me off cos I’m like, ‘Yeah, you know what? I would like some of that big marshmallow.’ The sky just laughs at me. ‘Nah bro’, it says, ‘that’s all you’re getting. A tease.’ And I want to say back, ‘You can't fool me,’ but I can’t say that, can I? Cos you all know I have been fooled and I do too.”
“What’s Uncle Max talking about, Mummy?” Reuben asks Jess.
“You sure are a strange cat, Max,” Billy comments.
“I might be strange but I’m not dumb. I know it’s not going to rain.”
“It is going to rain, Daddy,” Ariana tugs on Billy’s shirt, her eyes as wide as the whole world. Billy looks at me all pissed off.
“If you say so, Ari,” he cuddles her. Jess waddles past like a penguin carrying a full tub of washing.
Atop of the hill, there’s a large light yellow house that looks like a big block of butter. It has amazing views over the inlet and out past the headland. That’s where the boss man lives with his family. I have never been inside, but I bet it’s flash. It sure is big and there are some real decent black gates and high fences protecting it as though it’s a castle. The closest we get to this palace is digging this bloody big hole nearby. We’re just peasants, we are. Bottom rung. We stay in the workers’ quarters. I’ve got a bachelor’s pad with a shared dunny and common kitchen. Billy and his whānau have the house. I spend most of my time with them. You see, I don’t have kids myself. I’m missing the key ingredient: a woman. Sometimes I’m jealous, I think I’d like to have my own kids, but other times I think maybe not. Maybe it’s best not. Anyways, I love Billy and Jess’s kids and I think they like me. They call me Uncle, even though I’m not really their uncle. I’m just an old mate of Billy’s and he’s been helping me out.
“How long have you been clean, now?” Billy asked just the other day. Billy is what you’d call a good C-word. I can’t use the C-word anymore, and some of the other words we used to use a lot. It’s because of the kids. I can’t call Jess a good B-word anymore either. But that’s OK. It’s because of Billy and Jess’s kindness I get to be called Uncle Max, which I think is cool. I don’t even miss those dirty words and most people know what words I mean just by using a single letter.
The rain didn’t come and now I feel a bit stink because I said it wouldn’t. Maybe I popped the kids’ hopes like a balloon. I can see on Jess’s face that she’s gutted and that she’s trying not to look upset. Billy is better at hiding how he really feels. If I didn’t know him, then I would say he looks sweet as, no worries. But I do know him, and he is worried. And that’s OK. I’ll let him worry a bit. Besides, I better not cause any more problems today and keep my sticky beak out of their business. I have already done enough harm.
It’s early in the morning. I can tell it’s going to be a scorcher. Not a cloud in the sky. I’m up before everyone else. I like mornings because they’re just for me. I might go over to the house and see if Billy’s awake. I know he and Jess will be moping about this morning, not talking about how no rain came. Feeling sorry for themselves but trying not to show it. Perhaps even ignoring their children’s sadness, their disappointment. If I was the kids’ dad, I’d tell them that the Devil somehow made his way up to the sky and tricked us. Gave us false hope. Cheeky Devil he is. He sure knows how cruel hope can be. The kids seem to like stories like that. But as I said, I’m not a dad and I don’t think it’s my place to tell them fibs to make them feel better.
There’s a loud rumble and a convoy of trucks. Two little ones at the start and rear like tugboats. They have “WIDE LOAD FOLLOWS” signs on them. In the middle of the pack there’s a big fuck-off one like the Titanic. Sorry about the F-word, but the kids are still asleep. The big iron gates are opened by the boss man. I can tell it’s him from all the way down here from his hat. He’s the only fella I’ve seen wearing one of them top hats for real. I wouldn’t be seen dead in a hat like that, I’d look like a dick. I bet you Billy would say, “Take that hat off, fool” as soon as he saw me wearing a hat that stupid.
I walk behind a row of apple trees to see if I can get a better nosy at what is on that big truck. It’s not something I’ve seen before. They need a crane to get it off. I leave them to it and make my way back down to the house where the kids are up eating brekky.
“What’s going on up there, Uncle Max?” Reuben asks.
“Those trucks growl louder than those annoying farm dogs next door,” Ariana pitches in. “They woke us up.”
“What is all the commotion?” Billy asks.
“Morning Max,” Jess says coming out from the bathroom, wiping sleep from her eyes.
“Morning Jess,” I say. “I don’t know what it is up there, but I can tell you it’s big.”
“We’re finally going to find out what this big hole is for, at least we’ll be put out of our misery,” Billy states.
I leave to go get ready for work. I stop in my tracks and watch the tide come in and fill the estuary like a bath. It’s another trick of the Devil, showing off all this useless water. I reckon God should have made salt visible. I probably should’ve gotten used to it by now but on days like this, it’s hard to swallow. Billy told me he’s been getting books out of the library and researching how to remove salt from seawater. He reckons that’s the future with everything drying up and all and the fact we’ve dirtied all the freshwater God gave us. I told him that he probably can’t, and he said I’m too negative and always spoil things. But it’s just what I think.
“Can we go for a swim, Dad?” Reuben asks.
“Please,” Ariana adds.
“Well after Max and I have broken our backs digging, maybe we can take you after work. Isn’t that right, Uncle?”
“Yeah, for sure, brother. I’m looking forward to a dip just as much as you kids,” I tell them, nodding to show I mean what I say.
We find that we won’t be doing any more freaking digging. There must be only so much digging a man can do. I’m so over it. Now, apparently, we’re going to be constructing a fence to go around this ditch and they’re placing this thing they’ve brought—it looks like a gigantic sink—in the hole.
“It’s a fucking pool,” says Billy in an angry tone. “How the hell did they get consent? I’ll be damned.”
Well, I don’t know much about consents but Billy sure is pissed off and even though constructing this fence is a whole lot better than that backbreaking digging, I reckon he doesn’t want to build this fence for other reasons. I’m just a bit scared to ask him why that is cos I reckon he’d bite my head off.
When we stop for a smoko, I look out at the inlet and the currents moving like a river. The plug’s been pulled. I think of all the mud crabs coming out of their burrows, darting around remnants. Starfish, shells, seaweed, driftwood laid bare on the muddy sand. The rolling hills up here are parched and golden. As harsh and as bright as the burning, unforgiving sun. It hasn’t rained for so long it’s difficult to remember what it’s like. We sit on the bank in the stiff dry grass twiddling our thumbs. All looking at each other. All thinking the same thing. All dare not mention it. Some folk shelter under the pathetic shade of the apple trees with their wrinkled leaves and fruit that look like prunes. The soil is cracked, the trees’ roots exposed. The heat makes it hard to breathe.
After the trucks have gone and while we’re still building the fence, they fill this big sink with water from the hose.
“They’re taking the piss,” Billy tells me. “It was only last week they said we needed to ration water, time our showers and shit like that. Well, where on earth did this come from? Do they have some secret supply?”
“I wonder where they found it?” I ask.
“They didn’t discover any new water supply, stupid. They just needed us to use less so they could have more for themselves.”
That afternoon there are a few scattered clouds in the sky. Jess leaves the washing on the line, and I don’t think I’ve seen Billy even look skyward. I miss their hope, as sad as it was. The sun goes behind a cloud and there’s a gloss all over the surface of the tidal flat. When the sun re-emerges there’s a sheen, then a shine. A harsh reflection. It makes the people squint and look away. I stare at the hard light. It’s difficult and it hurts my eyes.
Photo credit: Antoni Karolak