Authors: Dianne Touchell
Also by Dianne Touchell
A Small Madness
Creepy & Maud
First published by Allen & Unwin in 2016
Copyright Â© Dianne Touchell 2016
The moral right of Dianne Touchell to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted by her in accordance with the United Kingdom's
Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording or by any information storage and retrieval system, without prior permission in writing from the publisher. The Australian
Copyright Act 1968
(the Act) allows a maximum of one chapter or ten per cent of this book, whichever is the greater, to be photocopied by any educational institution for its educational purposes provided that the educational institution (or body that administers it) has given a remuneration notice to the Copyright Agency (Australia) under the Act.
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A Cataloguing-in-Publication entry is available from the National Library of Australia
A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library.
ISBN (AUS) 9781760110796
ISBN (UK) 9781743368992
Teachers' notes available from
Cover and text design by Ruth GrÃ¼ner
Typeset by Ruth GrÃ¼ner
For William George Touchell
Foster smelled it first. A bitter-hot smell like microwave popcorn popped too long. Except Dad wasn't making popcorn. Dad was making bacon sandwiches.
Foster walked into the kitchen. He could see blue flames licking the sides of the pan, the shiny white enamel blackening, long sooty fingers crawling towards the lip. A soupy gloom of darkening smoke rolled up and up until it hit the range hood like a solid mass and spilled into the space above Foster's head. It formed clouds he could taste.
Dad wasn't in the kitchen. You weren't supposed to leave pans on the stove unattended. That's what Mum always said.
Foster wasn't allowed to touch the stove. He knew how to turn it off but he didn't want to get told off. He took a couple of steps forward, arced himself up onto tippy-toes, and was suddenly and shockingly backhanded by the whooshing heat of the oil in the pan catching fire. Foster ran from the room as the smoke morphed into a pillar of bright orange.
Foster ran down the hall instinctively slapping doors ajar until he got to the last room on the left. Dad was standing at the side of his and Mum's bed sorting socks from the clean laundry pile. He wasn't doing a very good job.
âDad! Bacon!' Foster pulled at his dad's arm, the smell of smoke indistinguishable from the stinging choke of his own panic. It was the smoke alarm that yanked Dad out of his sock-coma. He ran to the kitchen, Foster immediately behind him. Foster pressed himself against the pantry door, the relentless squawk of the smoke alarm pulling his breath tighter and faster. Dad clamped the lid on the pan and threw it in the sink. He grabbed a tea towel and started flapping it about wildly, throwing open the kitchen window with such force it skidded out of the track and cracked as it landed against the frame. Foster
slid down the pantry door onto the kitchen floor and squished his ears with his fists. The smoke alarm kept going and going, Dad finally silencing it by harpooning it with a broom handle. Then Dad slid down onto the floor next to Foster.
The wall was black. There were some little blisters in the paint and mucky grease skid marks down the front of the stove and cupboards. The smoke alarm dangled from the ceiling, splinters of plastic littered around the discarded broom like flower petals. Foster held Dad's hand and their breathing gradually slowed together.
âMum's going to be mad,' Foster said.
He could no longer remember the first thing his father forgot. It came on slowly, his dad's forgetting. Like a spider building its web in a doorway. For a while Foster could walk straight through it. He felt it cling to him each time he broke it down, each time he picked the broken bits of it from his face. But then it would reappear in the same place, so fine it was impossible to see unless his eyes were trained on its exact position. Eventually it was like a veil, this forgetting. He could no longer break it, only part it to gain a quick peek of his dad on the other side of his lost stories.
His name was Foster Hirum Wylie Sumner and he was seven years old. His dad told stories. Lots of them. At night before bed, while Foster was brushing his teeth, at the kitchen table, in the car. His dad told
stories as if they were real, and long after Foster grew to realise they were just stories, he still craved them. He often asked for his favourite ones to be repeated.
âThere are stories in everything,' his dad told him. âThey are all around you, waiting to be discovered. You just have to look for them.'
On story day at school, when mums and dads were invited to come to class to read aloud, it was always his dad who came, even though he had a suit job. Hardly any dads came. It was mostly mums in jeans. But his dad would come from work in the middle of the day carrying a briefcase with a lock that popped like a dodgy knuckle, and inside would be Foster's favourite books from home. Sometimes his dad would just make a story up on the spot and even with no pictures everyone was still and quiet, his dad's voice dusting the room like bow resin, rising and falling to the rhythm of battle cries, dragons and triumphant heroes. He would walk the room while he spoke, using his hands and eyes as punctuation, circumnavigating the clusters of desks, boys' faces following like awe-struck marionettes. Dad would always kiss him goodbye afterwards. Foster wasn't embarrassed. His dad held more authority in that classroom than the teacher, Mr Ballantyne, for
the brief time he was there. He would shake Mr Ballantyne's hand before he left and all the boys would clap. Foster thought he would burst with the pride of it.
Foster's dad encouraged Foster to tell his own stories. âTell stories to whoever will listen, and then listen to theirs,' he would say. Foster liked to tell stories about knights with great quests who would battle baddies and save ladies because he knew they were his dad's favourites. Sometimes they would tell a story in tandem. His dad would stop mid-sentence, and look at Foster with his eyebrows kinked in and a pressed-lip smile and Foster would know it was his turn to tell the next bit. He saw this as a great trust. Sometimes his mum would listen and laugh at the funny bits and gasp at the scary bits but when they asked her to join in she'd say she didn't want to spoil the story.
Foster lived inside his head a lot. His dad said this was a good thing because there was so much to see there. His mum wanted him to join the local cricket team or something.
âKnow thyself,' Dad said.
âWhat's that mean, Dad? Mum talks about her thighs a lot and she thinks I should play cricket.'
His dad's laugh was always astonishing, especially when unexpected. He could crack a hole in the air with the bigness of it. It trailed off into snorty giggles before he said, âWhat?'
âHeard her on the phone,' Foster said. âShe's on another diet.'
âExcuse me,' Mum said. âI'm right here.'
âMaybe you should play cricket, Mum.'
-self,' Dad continued, chuckling, âis about being happy inside your own head. It means not letting other people tell you what stories are right and what stories are wrong. And it's an aphorism that extends to dieting.' Dad leaned across and curled a wisp of Mum's hair behind her ear.
Foster was pretty sure he knew himself pretty well. He liked books and toy soldiers and tadpole hunting and the beach. He liked going to school. He liked the routine, the unremarkable sameness of school days with lessons and bells and his best friend Blinky to eat lunch with. There were things he didn't like. He didn't like asparagus or the smell of dog food or prickly grass under his bare feet. He knew these things as surely as he knew the day his mum had put fresh sheets on his bed and the moment his dad had a new story to tell: just by feel. He was unprepared for
how much a change in someone else could wilt the pieces of himself he thought he knew best.
Foster sometimes forgot things. Mostly at school when he was supposed to be remembering. When remembering mattered most. But he forgot things other times too. Sometimes he forgot to flush the toilet or to hang his towel up after a bath. Twice he'd forgotten to return a library book on time. It never bothered him when he forgot things because the things eventually came back. Or someone would remind him. His dad called it having a hole in his head.
âGot a hole in your head today, Fossie? Better go find those library books.'
Everyone had a hole in their head at some time. Foster had thought it stayed the same size though. Not becoming bigger and bigger until even a reminder could no longer nudge the forgotten thing back into place.
So it began as only a little worry when his dad started to forget things. Foster wanted to ask him about it but he wasn't sure what to say. And once in a while there would be a small return of the storyteller, just for a moment in the car or in the bath, and Foster would think he was being silly and the forgetting had gone away for good.
Rumour had it that his grandma was the victim of spontaneous human combustion. Apparently a little fire started somewhere inside her while she was sitting alone, crocheting squares to be stitched together to make a blanket. It must have been a little fire initially because if she'd gone up like a torch she would have taken the whole house with her. She didn't, which his dad said was just as well because it was the only asset she had. So this little fire started and ate away at her with a gentle fierceness, melting her into her mattress, and leaving behind one foot still immaculately tied into a brown lace-up brogue. Foster watched his own limbs carefully after that, and even sniffed himself occasionally to make sure there were no tendrils of invisible smoke curling out from his pores. He asked
his dad why she didn't have time to beat herself out. His dad speculated that the fire was somehow magical and impermeable to the quenching effect of smothering like a normal fire. Grandma had, after all, kept dragons at the bottom of the garden, and fairies lived in their scale-creviced hides like pretty fleas. His dad said the fireflies he sometimes saw weaving about the apple blossom were actually fairies plaiting the eyelashes of the dragons so that when they yawned the ribbon of flame that escaped them wouldn't set their lashes on fire. So perhaps, his dad said, one of the dragons that sat at the end of Grandma's bed at night, protecting her from thieves and bad dreams, had sneezed and accidentally set her alight. It would have been very quick, like one of those pinwheel fireworks he loved so much. Grandma would have spun and spun and spun, faster and faster, and all the colours of her soul would have flown to the magical place where dragons rest and fairies weave.