Perilous Adventures
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Olvar Wood Writers Retreat


My Father's Hands

Alexis Hailstones

Daddy says he’s taking me to the top of a mountain, but his eyes are red and tired and there’s no fun in his voice.  He’s thinking about the argument he had with Mummy, and I can feel his thoughts, all black and heavy.  Poor Dad.  He has nobody to cheer him up.  So I ask him lots of questions about the mountain because I’m good at pretending.
‘When we will get there, Dad?  What will it look like? Is it magic? Will there be snow?’   I’m not really expecting him to answer.  Dad’s not much of a talker.  Every so often, he stops fiddling around with that old red Toyota and looks over to where I’m waiting for him. ‘Don’t you ever stop babbling?’ he asks, wiping his big hands on his overalls, giving me a wink. 

I look up from the long trail of ants I’m watching and think. ‘Sometimes I do,’ I tell him, but his head’s back under the bonnet already. He loves that car.  Machines are easier than people, he says.  They don’t argue with you. 
The ants have time to carry a whole beetle away before Dad throws a bag in the car, says okey-dokey lets go and opens the door for me.

‘Mum says I have to go in the back,’ I remind him.

‘It’s okay, Rube, Mum doesn’t know what she’s talking about.’

Sorry Mum.  I clamber in and snap the seat belt shut.

Mum says it’s because she and Dad love me so much that they have to share me, but bad things happen whenever it’s Dad’s weekend.  There’s always a fight, especially now Uncle Shane’s living with us.  Dad and Uncle Shane are arch-enemies, like Tom and Jerry in the cartoons I watch at Nanna’s, but it’s never funny.    Dad shouts at Mum, Mum ends up crying and Uncle Shane gets in the way and makes everything worse.  I wish I could make him disappear, so things could be like they were before.   

When I got home from school today, I wanted to hide in the garden and never come out.  Is there ever a Tom and Jerry episode where the mouse doesn’t get hurt? I don’t think so.   Mummy couldn’t sit still.  She kept walking up to the window and looking out the blinds to see if Dad’s car had arrived.  She was biting her nails really hard and Uncle Shane kept saying ‘For God’s sake, Lucy, just tell him.  He’ll get used to it.  He’s just a bloody loser.’

Mum was saying, ‘It won’t be that easy, Shane.  You know what he’s like.’

She had a smoke, even though she’s supposed to be giving up, and when I told her cigarettes are no good for you she grumped at me.  ‘Leave it Ruby,’ she scowled.   When I asked her if she could feed Felix when I’m away, she just said ‘Of course I will,’ without looking at my eyes.

Poor Felix-the-cat.  He’s been getting skinnier ever since Uncle Shane and his growly dog Max moved in with us.  Shane and Max don’t like little girls.  Max’s eyes speak to me.  I will eat you, they say, so Felix and I run away from him. 
Usually, Mum tells Dad off for being late, but not today.  Straight away she was waving papers at him and he was stepping away with his hands behind his back so she couldn’t give them to him.  Mum’s voice started to get louder.  I put my fingers in my ears but I could still hear the shouting. Dad was going red in the face.  ‘What about my rights?’ he was yelling, jabbing his finger in Mum’s chest.  ‘She’s my kid, too, you know.’

Then Mummy put her hands over her face and cried.  ‘Please Steve, don’t.  We can’t carry on like this.’

‘Then how about thinking of me for a change?’  Daddy yelled.  ‘I need her too, but what the fuck would you care?’

The worst arguments are the ones about me. 

My tummy was about to explode, but just at that moment, the tree in the backyard called me.  Come and play with me, it said.  See if you can climb my strong branches.

I raced around the back of the house and shimmied up that tree like a possum in a hurry.  I bumped my arm climbing up so fast but my tummy started to forget about the arguing.  I stayed there while the tree told me to be calm and strong, and the leaves sang me a special song for sad girls. 

The next thing I knew, Mum and Dad were calling me back down.  ‘Felix wants to say goodbye to you,’ Mum said.  Her mascara was all over her face.  Daddy’s face was tight, and he was banging his car keys hard against his leg in a way that must have hurt.

‘Come here you, and give me a hug to last the whole weekend,’ Mum said, blowing her nose, so I folded myself up in her, and thought how much I loved her. 

‘Love you,’ she said, twirling my ponytail.

‘Love you more,’ I said. 

Daddy coughed, glaring at Mum. 

‘I gotta go,’ he said.

I looked at Dad.  Couldn’t he see Mum needed me to stay with her?  

‘Ruby,’ Dad said in a stern voice.

Should I go?  I asked Mum with my eyes.  She nodded.  

‘I’ll miss you,’ she said.

‘Miss you, too.’ 

Dad’s been thinking about those words ever since. He changes the gear and then rests his huge, tanned hand between us.  I touch the back of it, pinching the rough skin and watching as it lifts and stays for a moment before falling back into place. He has my name tattooed there, one letter for each knuckle. R-U-B-Y.  Sometimes I watch my father’s hands hammering nails into the swing he’s building for me, or turning a big spanner as he crouches next to a tyre.  They look like they belong to a busy Giant.  Their softness hides under the blisters and calluses that press against my skin when he holds my hand.

Dad glances at me.  His eyes are watery blue, like mine, but kind of misty. 

‘Don’t worry, Daddy,’ I say, but my tummy still doesn’t feel right.

Daddy presses buttons and soon the music comes on.  It’s Elvis.  I know all the words, because it’s the only CD that Dad plays.  Mum likes to listen to the silence when she’s driving, but Dad has to have Elvis for company.  

Love me tender
Love me sweet
Never let me go
You have made my life complete
And I love you so.

Dad messes my hair up and rubs the corner of his eye.  I look around inside the car. We’re not very well prepared for a trip to a mountain top.  There’s Dad’s old brown rucksack with those stupid papers drooping over its front pocket, but I think that’s all we’ve got. Dad’s a bit forgetful.  Mum gets cross with him because he doesn’t send my schoolshoes home. I try extra hard to remember them.  Luckily, there’s a big green frog in Dad’s front yard and I ask him to remind me of things when I’m leaving his place. 

The frog whispers, Hey Ruby, have you got your school shoes?

‘Whoops, no,’ I answer, clapping my hand over my mouth.  Dad makes a pretend growly noise at me because he has to unlock the house again.

‘Hey Dad, what kind of pyjamas will I wear on top of the mountain?’ He takes a long time to answer.

‘Pink,’ he says. 

That’s not much of an answer.  I’ll have to imagine the rest.  I close my eyes, to help the pictures come to me.  I know those PJs will be covered with pictures of magical creatures.  I will look beautiful, and feel like a princess.  I’ll hold my arms out and spin round and round, until I get dizzy and fall asleep in the moss.

That’s what I used to do when I was little, before Mummy met Uncle Shane.  Mum, Dad and I were a proper family then.  I’d spin around on the lawn and when I stopped the world would keep going and I’d topple into the spongy grass.  Daddy’s big muscley arms would set me up straight and lift me into the air.  Mummy would stroke my hair and call me a silly goose.  Then they’d laugh, and I’d laugh, and the cicadas of the evening would laugh, too. 

‘Tell me you’ve never called that Shane Daddy.’ 

Dad’s voice is a surprise in the quietness of the car. 

‘No way, José,’ I tell him, shaking my head.  As if. Dad really doesn’t get things sometimes.  He’s just a bloody loser.’
Dad laughs, the first time I’ve seen him laugh in a long time. 

‘That’s my girl,’ he tells me with a wink.  ‘You’re a good kid, Ruby.’

We drive across the blinking lights of our suburb, past the fibro houses crammed close together and yards full of broken play equipment. Then paddocks take over the landscape, brown and flat, going on forever, except for a cow that smiles at me, and a horse that wants to be my friend.

I think about asking Dad to play I spy but he doesn’t look like he wants to play anything.   To make the time go faster, I pretend the car’s still, and the world’s flying past us.   Then I realise my seat is really hard and I start shuffling around. 
It’s getting boring. I want to get out.

‘Is it far now to the mountain?’ I ask.  ‘How many more minutes?’

‘Not long,’ he says.  I sigh. Adults always say that.

The whirring of the car makes me want to close my eyes.  I yawn a bit, and lean over on the door.

‘Here.’ Dad passes me his jumper, rolled up, to lean on.  He got that jumper when he and Mummy were in love.  They trekked over mountains with snow on, where hairy yaks lived and old men skipped up steps as if they were teenagers. It’s brown and white and the softest wool you could imagine. It smells of him, all dusty and worn out. 

In the middle of a dream about a giant-sized Felix, Dad starts poking my ribs.

‘Oi, nearly there, sleepyhead.’ 

I sit up straight and rub my eyes.  The world has changed.  There are trees all around us.  The air feels light and fresh, and smells like the leaves on my favourite tree in Mum’s backyard.  The birds are singing and chirruping and calling out to me and Dad. My heart’s beating fast.  We’re getting close!

The car is climbing, climbing, winding around a big hill, so steep my ears feel funny.  Maybe we’re going to take off and fly, like in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.

‘Where have all the people gone?’ I ask, stretching a bit until my arms bump the roof. 

‘Most days, nobody comes here,’ Dad tells me.  ‘That’s what makes it magical.’

It feels like we’re never going to get there, and I’m getting really tired of being in this silly car, but when we reach the top of the hill, Daddy switches off the engine and pulls on the creaky old handbrake.

The darkness has completely swallowed the daytime. There are no sounds except for me and Dad and birds and cicadas. 

‘I’m hungry, Dad.’

Dad hands me a cool drink in the pink fairy flask I left it at his place last time.  I’d forgotten how thirsty I was.  It tastes a bit like Coke, which I usually have with chips.  I drink it all down in big glugging noises that Mummy doesn’t like, do an enormous burp and wipe my mouth with the back of my hand.  Dad doesn’t even say anything. 

‘Dad, I’m hungry.’   Dad’s looking out the window.  He must of heard, he’s sitting right next to me.


He looks over at me. ‘D’you drink all that Coke?’


‘Goodonya’.  He goes back to peering out the window as if I haven’t said anything.

My stomach is rumbling and I can’t stop thinking about chips.

‘Dad, you’re not listening to me.  I’M HUNGRY and I need something to EAT!’ I’m so angry I’m sliding down my chair and my feet start kicking all by themselves.

Now Dad looks at me.

‘Later, okay?  Just stop whinging while I’m trying to drive.’

He looks cross.  My bottom lip sticks out and I cry just enough to remind him I’m not happy. ‘For God’s sake Ruby, just shut up for a minute will you!’

I stop crying but I can’t help sniffing quietly.  I wish Mum was here.

Dad sighs and reaches over to mess my hair up.   ‘Just a few minutes Princess, I promise,’ he says. His voice is softer now. ‘Hey, get a look at that!’. 

There’s a city spread out below: a sea of lights.  It’s so pretty I forget about chips and sit up straight so I can see better..  It reminds me of our Christmas tree, with all the red and green lights winking and talking to me. 

Hey Ruby, they call. Merry Christmas. We love you. 

It’s a Magical Kingdom.  Just me and Dad, between the stars twinkling in the sky and the pretty lights dancing below.  I could reach out and pick up a house and move it to another spot, like a game of draughts.  Or I could just go flick and knock a car over.  Maybe I could pick up Uncle Shane’ s house and roll it between my fingers until it’s crushed, the way he crushes Max’s fleas. 

Daddy’s just looking at the view but I want to be outside.

‘Can we get out now?’   


Dad sits down on an old wooden bench for people admiring the view but I stand up cos it’s more fun and I can see further. 

‘That’s my girl,’ he says. He stands up, too, and gives me the biggest cuddle. ‘I’ve always loved you, more than anything.’

‘More than the Toyota?’

‘Heaps more.’

I know that’s true.  I’m his.  Daddy’s girl. I try giving him a big smile but a yawn gets in the way. 

‘Back in the car now,’ he says.

I’m too tired to put the seatbelt on, but Dad’s always fiddling, and he ducks behind the back of the car, opens and closes the car windows, then hops back in.  I lean against the window and close my eyes. I feel Daddy’s big rough finger stroke my cheek.  He’s singing along with Elvis. 

I start floating.  The lights in front of me are dancing, making circles and waltzing around the sky.  Must be because I’ve been spinning in my head. My eyes are starting to close, but I want to stay awake to meet the mountain creatures.  Goats, maybe, like my  Heidi story. Perhaps deer and fairies, and the green frog from Daddy’s garden. 

Dad shakes his head and leans towards me.  His fingers push my fringe away from my eyes, so lightly I can hardly feel them.

The creatures will  be here soon, telling me they love me.  They can knock on the windows when they arrive, just like in that fairy story.   Is it the three little pigs? I can’t remember.  I’m too sleepy to open the door.  Dad will let everyone in. He’ll say hello to them from me if I fall asleep before they come inside.

In the distance, a curlew calls to me.  


About the Author

Alexis Hailstones


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