Max could smell the onions frying. His favourite smells were pikelets being cooked in butter, onions frying, fish and chips in paper and liquorice. He also liked the smell of the perfume that his mother wore but he didn’t ever tell anyone that. It was called Chanel Number 5. Sometimes he wondered what numbers one, two, three and four smelt like.
One night when Max’s sister Sam was going out she took the bottle from mum’s dressing table and sprayed herself with it. Max’s dad cracked it. He snatched the bottle from Sam and threw it in the bin. Then he grabbed Sam by the arm and shook her and yelled, ‘what do you think you’re doing!’ Sam had screamed back, ‘I just want the smell of her on my skin.’ Dad shook her some more and then he cried and then Sam cried and then they hugged and cried some more. Max said nothing. He did not cry. He just watched and put on the kettle. His mum always put on the kettle when dad cracked it.
The next day Max’s dad bought two bottles of Chanel Number five, which Max knew would have costs heaps because one time he had wanted to buy it for his mum but he hadn’t had enough money. Sam kept one bottle and the other bottle stayed, unopened, on mum’s dressing table.
Max knew that next his dad would be adding a big spoon of sugar into the frypan with the onions. Dad said it was called ‘caramelising the onions’ but to Max it did not taste like caramel but it did taste really good. He knew that next his dad would add the mince. Max loved this smell too. He loved the smell of all meat cooking but especially loved the smell of mince frying and barbecues. Before, when everything was still the same, the family had had lots of barbecues but they hadn’t had one for ages. For three hundred and sixty-four days exactly.
Max caught the aroma, the smell of the mince frying along with the caramelised onions. It made him feel hungry and he knew that dinner wouldn’t be far off. He could hear his father banging cupboard doors and knew that he would be putting the large saucepan filled with water on the stove for the spaghetti. Thursday night had become spaghetti bolognaise night. A weekly schedule had been set up for all meals; Monday tuna bake, Tuesday chicken schnitzel, Wednesday curry, Thursday spag bog, Friday fish and chips, Saturday toasted sandwiches and Sunday roast beef and vegies.
Max missed his Mum’s salads. Sometimes her salads had been really weird like chick peas and beetroot with garlic, dill, sour cream and sultanas or the one where everything was grated – carrots, celery, apple, ginger, beetroot with bean sprouts and mayonnaise. Or sometimes she would just open a lot of cans and mix them together - beetroot, corn, peas and tuna. She always arranged the salads in different plates and bowls and Max liked that. It made him feel like they were having a banquet. His mum called it ‘selection of salads’; Sam called it ‘selection of shit’. Sam didn’t like salads. She said they weren’t a proper meal and that mum only served them because she was ‘too hopeless at making anything else’. Sam was happy with dad’s new weekly meal schedule and didn’t seem to mind that it was the same thing week in and week out. Max knew that his mother wouldn’t have liked it. She was always saying that she was spontaneous and liked to just do and make things on the spur of the moment. Dad had said, ‘you can’t raise kids like that.’
But Max didn’t mind too much; at least it was better than how it was at first, when dad just gave them money and told them to get chips or MacDonald’s for tea. It had been okay for a bit but then Sam had a big screaming fight with dad and he started cooking. Sam nearly always got her own way when she screamed. Max wasn’t a screamer. Mum had said he was her ‘big green eyed owl’. She said that even as a baby he would just sit and watch. Max wondered if he had ever said ‘who who’?
Max could hear his father banging a spoon on the side of the pan and new that he was adding the tomato paste. His dad always hit the side of the pan to get the paste off the spoon and then he would stir in the tomato sauce. His mum had never put either tomato sauce, or sugar, in her spaghetti bolognaise but Max didn’t tell his dad that. His dad’s spag bog tasted really good; a mixture of sweet but salty like Chinese food and Max loved that taste. Max thought about the Chinese food that he liked; sweet and sour pork, beef with black bean and special fried rice. We haven’t had Chinese for ages thought Max. Just after it happened, when the aunties and uncles were still staying with them, Max’s Aunty Laura had taken him to dinner at the Chinese place on Queens Parade.
“It’ll be nice,” said Aunty Laura “just us. We can talk.” Max had panicked before going. He wasn’t sure what he would say. He preferred listening.
At the restaurant Aunty Laura said he could order anything he liked so Max said ‘deep fried pineapple fritters with ice cream’ but Aunty Laura said, ‘you have to have some proper dinner first, then you can have desert.’ Max thought about arguing with her but she had that tight look on her face and he knew it would be pointless. One time, dad had said to his mum ‘Laura needs a good long hard.......talking to.’ Mum had cracked up laughing. Max wasn’t sure what it meant but he knew it had something to do with the tight look on her face. So Max had ordered sweet and sour pork, which tasted like pineapple fritters expect it didn’t have ice cream and there was meat in it.
Aunty Laura didn’t order any food only wine. It was actually a pretty good dinner because after one glass of wine Aunty Laura did all the talking and Max just had to nod or smile. After three glasses of wine Aunty Laura grabbed Max’s hand and said, ‘your mum loved you, really really loved you.’ Max said, ‘I know.’ And then Aunty Laura just cried and cried. Max ordered desert and his aunty had another glass of wine but when it was time to leave she couldn’t get off her chair so Max had to get the waiter to ring his dad to come and pick them up.
His dad had to sort of carry Aunty Laura to the car and she kept crying and saying she was ‘so sorry’ and that she ‘didn’t understand it’ and it was ‘the stress’. When they got home Max put the kettle on and Aunty Laura vomited and Sam got her into the shower and then helped her put on her pyjamas and put her to bed. Dad didn’t say anything but he and Max sat outside and drank their tea and looked at the stars. For Max, that was the best part of the night.
Max had nearly finished carving the number four in the three hundred and sixty-four. Every day, since the day when it all happened, Max had come and sat in the tree and carved a number. Tomorrow would be three hundred and sixty-five. He wondered if they would do anything.
The branches of the tree were covered in numbers. Max had decided, that after tomorrow, after he had carved three hundred and sixty five, that he would stop carving. He wasn’t sure what he would do instead but he knew he would still visit the tree. This is where it had happened, where his mum had done the thing that she did. Max hadn’t seen her in the tree but Sam had. Sam had to go to counselling and the counsellor had said she needed angry management therapy. Sam had said, ‘I don’t need fucking anger management therapy!’ Max and his dad had laughed when she said that but Sam hadn’t laughed.
Max had never planned on coming to the tree but on the day after it happened, his aunty, uncle and cousins visited and he had played hidey with his cousins. He had climbed the tree and hidden there. None of the cousins could find him or see him. He stayed in the tree for what felt like ages. Eventually it got dark and his aunty and uncle came outside and called his name but he did not reply.
His uncle said, ‘I hope he hasn’t run away.’
And his aunty had said, ‘that’d be the icing on the cake wouldn’t it.’
‘I wouldn’t blame him,’ said the uncle and then the aunty said, ‘so selfish’.
And Max thought she was talking about him until she said, ‘she was always so fucking selfish.’
Max didn’t know what that meant but it made him feel sick in his stomach and as though he needed to go to the toilet.
His aunty and uncle went inside and eventually Max came down from the tree. No-one said anything to him and dad heated him up some left over vegetarian pasta that mum had made the night before. The next day all his cousins and aunties and uncles came to stay and Max had the best time. He and his cousins played all day and into the night. Max didn’t go to the funeral because his Aunty Laura said he was too young and that it would be too traumatic for him. She asked him how he felt and he said ‘fine’. He heard the aunties whispering about him and that it was ‘the shock’ that was making him so silent. He realised that the aunties knew nothing about him, or his mum or the way they lived. Nothing at all.
The week after it happened was actually a pretty good week for Max. He didn’t have to go to school, his cousins stayed and they pulled all the mattresses off the beds so that they could sleep beside each other on the floor and the fridge was full of food. People kept bringing around pies and casseroles, cakes and biscuits and home made lamingtons and some people gave him money which he and his cousins bought lollies with. But each night, when his cousins went inside for a bath, Max climbed the tree and sat and carved.
He had carved the numbers with the pocket knife that his dad had bought yeas ago, before he was born, in Venice. It had a picture of a gondola on it. Dad said it was the best thing he bought in all of his years of travel. Max wanted to travel. He wanted to go to all the places that his mum had talked about; India, America, Canada, France and Italy. Mum had planned on going to those places but she didn’t ever get there. Now he knew that he had to go for her.
The back door open and Max looked down at Sam.
‘Tea’s ready,’ she said.
‘What is it?’ said Max.
‘Poo on toast.’
‘Don’t be a little fuck wit. You know what we’re having. You can smell it.’
‘I’m not hungry.’
‘Good. More for me.’
Sam slammed the door.
Max sat in the tree and waited.
‘Why did I say that?’ he thought.
But he knew it didn’t really matter. He knew that dad would dish him up a bowl and leave it on the bench and that eventually he would come outside and climb up the tree and together they would feel the carved out numbers and just sit quietly together. Dad wasn’t much of a talker either.
Then they would climb down and Max would microwave his tea while dad did the washing up and Sam went on Facebook or did texting.
The back door flung open and Sam marched out.
‘Dad said he’s not having any of your shit tonight and that you have to come down, now!’
Max did not move.
‘Did you hear what I said fuck face!’
Max did not move and did not say anything. He was putting on a brave face but inside he was scared. He always got scared when Sam cracked it. Mum used to protect him from her but now he was easy game.
‘You’re a fucking dickhead, do you know that. This is all just bullshit. Attention seeking bullshit!’
Max stayed really still and waited. He felt he was at an advantage because he knew that Sam would not climb the tree. She told him that she hated the tree. Max knew that if he waited long enough Sam would get annoyed and go inside.
He watched her go out to the front of the house. She went around the corner and disappeared. Max didn’t know what she was doing but he didn’t care because at least she had stopped yelling at him.
He was really really hungry and wanted to go inside but just couldn’t now because he knew that if he did Sam would just call him a whimp or a chicken or a looser and he just didn’t feel like he could take any more of her insults tonight. He would wait until dad came and got him.
It was so quiet in the tree. Max could see the next-door neighbours veggie patch. They had everything in that veggie patch; lettuce, tomatoes, spinach, carrots, onions and even garlic. They used to give his mum lots of things from the garden but they stopped doing it after the time when she burnt all the clothes on the line.
It had been a warm evening. Dad was on night shift. Mum had been really loud and crazy all afternoon and she had let max and Sam set the plastic pool up in the lounge room and eat ice cream for dinner and she had drank beer straight from the bottle. She was trying on different clothes and then said, ‘I hate all my clothes. I’m going to burn them.’
She took them outside and hung them on the line and then went and got the can of two stroke fuel that dad used for the lawn mower and poured it all over the clothes. Then she got a lighter and light them all and spun the clothes line around. It looked pretty amazing. She had told Max to get the camera and he did and they took photos. But then they heard a fire engine siren and then two men from the fire brigade where in the back yard and Mr Mollison from next door said, ‘she lit them, them lit them on purpose, right here in the back yard, with her kids and the neighbours and the chooks, and the wind!’
Mum had screamed at him to shut up and Mr Mollison said, ‘I’m going to report you to Family Services!’ Mum didn’t say anything, she just gave him the finger.
The fire brigade put the hose on the burning clothes and took mum inside and gave her a big lecture on fire and safety and all that. After the fire brigade men left Mum said, ‘Mr Mollison is an interfering old prick!’ and Sam said, ‘you’re fucking insane!’ and mum slapped Sam on the face and Sam ran to her room crying. Max said nothing. And mum said, ‘Hey Mr Owl, make us a cup of tea will ya?’
Later that night Max had asked Sam what Family Services was. Sam had said, ‘it’s a place where kids go after school if their mum doesn’t make them afternoon tea.’ Max felt relieved. His mum usually made afternoon tea. Pikelets. Sometimes it was the only thing she would cook for weeks. She wore her nightie when she cooked them. Before, when things were okay mum had worn normal clothes, but then all she wore were her pyjamas. But she always made afternoon tea.
Max didn’t see the thing that hit him but he sure did feel it. It whacked him on the side of his head.
He spun around and looked down and saw Sam holding up her shirt in order to make a sort of hammock. Inside the hammock were rocks and she was throwing the rocks at Max.
The next one hit him right in the chest.
‘Stop!’ screamed Max.
‘Make me!’ laughed Sam. She threw another rock and this one hit him in the arm.
‘That hurt!’ wailed Max
‘That’s the point!’ yelled Sam.
Sam continued to throw the rocks and Max ducked and swayed and tried to avoid being hit. Sam was a good thrower but Max was an expert at hiding. The rocks were only little so they didn’t really hurt. For Max it felt like a game and after a while Sam realised it wasn’t going to make any difference. He wasn’t going to come down.
She dropped the remainder of the rocks from her shirt and moved towards the tree and started to climb.
‘What are doing?’ said Max.
‘If you can’t beat ‘em join ‘em’ replied Sam.
Max could feel his stomach jumping around and was scared that Sam was coming to get him. He pushed himself over into further into the fork of the tree.
Sam climbed slowly to where he was and pulled herself up into a sitting position. Max could hear her breathing.
‘Fuck, it’s high up here!’
Max did not say anything.
Sam’s breath eventually settled and she started to look around. Slowly she realised that she was looking at number, lots and lots of numbers. She started to run her fingers over the numbers.
‘Did you do these?’
Sam ran her finger over the shapes of the number three hundred and fifty four.
‘Tomorrow is three hundred and fifty five.’
Max nodded. For a while they sat without speaking.
Then Sam said, ‘it’s a long time hey?’
Max said nothing but could feel the tears welling up behind his eyes. He did not move but could feel the warmth of Sam as she wiggled closer towards him.
‘Let me in,’ she said.
Max moved a bit and Sam moved in right beside him and he could feel the complete sides of their bodies touching. Max could feel her warmth and could smell the slightest trait of Chanel number five on her skin.
And then it happened, the wall broke and the tears began to fall. He sobbed, big fat hot tears, tears of sadness, tears of confusion and tears of terrible terrible loss because he knew his mother would never be coming back and his missed her so much.
Sam held him close and whipped his face and his nose with her shirt. He put his face into her arm and she felt so good, the right temperature, not too hot and not too cold, just like his mum used to feel. With his eyes shut and the dark of the night, his nose was more alert than ever and on Sam’s skin he could smell his mother. He burrowed in closer and Sam held on.
When Max had been little and had crawled into his mother’s arms, sometimes he would poke out his tongue and just have a tiny lick of her arm, a tiny taste to make sure that she was really his mum. Without knowing what he was doing he poked out his tongue and licked Sam on the arm. Sam did not move but held onto him. He did not leave his tongue on her arm for long but he could taste it all; his mum, his dad, his sister and himself. That one tiny bit of skin contained it all and at that moment his mum was still here with them, under their skin, in their smell and within their taste.
Max and Sam heard the back door open.
‘Dinner’s getting cold’ called dad.
Max took his head off Sam’s arm and whipped his face with the back of his hand.
‘Don’t tell dad’ he said.
Sam nodded, ‘okay.’
Together they climbed down the tree.
‘What were you doing up there little owl?’ said dad.
‘Nothing’ said Max, ‘just counting the days.’