“Mum! Maradona’s on the floor!”
It takes me a minute.
Then I see the pile of brilliant blue Siamese fighting fish slopped on the boards, covered in the rewards of my lack of vacuuming. My shocked son’s face is standing above it.
“Oh dear. Pick him up, then darling. I wonder how -”
A squeal makes me jump, and Maradona too – a second time.
“Oh my goodness, quick! Back in the tank!” But the strong, nine year-old body stands frozen.
Mentally adding emergency rescue to my list of mother skills, I swoop on the slippery escapee. But this time I squeal as the thing jumps clean out of my hands as well, and straight through the rickety hundred year-old floorboards.
* * *
For probably too long I stare in disbelief at the dark gap in the floor that has swallowed our fish. “Well… that’s something…”
“Fishy!!” he cries, scrunching his eye to peer down between the boards, screeching me back to now.
I’m drawn into a pair of deepest brown eyes in a face I love more than life itself. They are beginning to glass over. The tide inside them rising. My beautiful Oliver is trying to do what boys his age do: Not sob.
This was the final betrayal in a day that had given him his biggest yet. 2015 was the year he was going to play soccer for his school. His passion for kicking that ball had always been boundless. This year though, I’d seen his goal fuel solid friendships: A gang of boys, all with the same desire, had practised soccer to make the team every available minute. I’d watched my normally excessively shy boy, blossom.
His chin is hugging into his collar, and little droplets of his heart are scattered on the chest of his t-shirt.
“I think we might just be able to get these floorboards up, what do you think?” My arm around him tries to infuse my absolute love, my whole heart, and all my tears alongside of his own at the injustice of the day. “Grab me the barbeque slide. In the utensils drawer.”
I’ve no idea what is under these old Oregon timber boards. Over a hundred years of rubbish and rubble around the sunken footings had always stopped us from getting under there.
The ancient nails pose no resistance. “Now I know what this over-sized piece of equipment is for.” But I still grunt with the effort of jimmying the board away from its holdings. “Never seen me do this with a hamburger patty – ugh! – have you?” There is a half-smile on his heart broken little face. “It was – urgh! - for floorboards all along!”
Snap! I fall back, mimicking an upturned turtle, as the whole board pops open like the lid of a treasure chest.
His head is in the hole in a flash and out comes Maradona, looking dryer than ever on the pile of dirt hastily scooped up with him. Covering him over to stop any further fish high jump, Oliver swiftly flicks Maradona off the mound, plopping him back in to the water. His pet sinks in slow motion, to the bottom.
My son’s eyes well again.
“No, look darling, he’s alive – see his gills?” Our faces are pressed against the glass. “See? He’s trying to swim up!” Eyes smile with hope, so close to my own I could kiss them.
“Let’s leave him alone, mum.” He physically steps back from the tank, but is still staring at his limp little friend, struggling to make sense of its escapade into the big wide world. He aims the remaining dirt back toward the hole in the floor.
A clunk jumps our attention.
“What’s this then?” We squat down around the origin of the noise. He picks up what looks like a banged up old tea cup amidst the soil and tiny bits of degraded rubbish. Chipping away a bit of the dirt, a flake of royal blue appears, and some shiny white which squeaks under the irritation of his bitten boys fingernail.
Slowly the cup turns over in his hands, more dirt falling away. Then he passes it to me, slightly revolted.
An intrigued head pops back into the hole.
Smoothing my fingers over the gritty glaze, the feel of the cup reminds me of something.
My eye runs up the wall to our home’s original brick chimney, charred through the middle, which we found beneath the flimsy wall boards and exposed a couple of years ago. Then along, to the layers of caked old green and white paint, which delineate where humble kitchen cupboards use to be…
“Did you know, Gorgeous, rumour has it that this old place was a teahouse?”
He pulls his head out of the hole.
“Yes…” I nod, trying on my best looking into the distant past-face. “For all the workers travelling by horse and cart up to the powder works factory.”
“What’s a powder works?”
“An explosives factory.” Eyes spark with the inherent boyish interest in all things that shoot and blow up. “It used to be at the top of Powderworks Road, funnily enough.” He smiles at me like I’m the biggest dag ever there was, but my hope blooms that his attention might move on from his wilting fish and disastrous soccer day.
“I’m not sure where the powder works factory itself was, but I do remember reading the man in charge of building it, also built a very grand house – eleven bedrooms or something like that. His house was right up high on the hill, and looked down on a beautiful view of rolling countryside, farmland, with kangaroos and some sheep, and not another house in sight. All the way down to the lake and our beach. Can you imagine?”
He shakes his head. I think of what it all looks like now and realise why.
“It was called Ingleside House. The man, Carl Von Beiren was his name, was German. He also named the area Ingleside. It means, “The area around a fireplace”. Pretty funny don’t you think, considering he could have made the whole hillside a fireplace with his “powder”?
Now I’ve got him completely: Snorting laughter, a wide smile, eyes urging more.
“So what about this then?” We look down at the tea cup. It’s missing its handle, and has a wedge shaped piece cracked out of the small ceramic bowl. It looks dainty compared to the mugs we seem use to nowadays. I dust more soil off.
Oliver takes the tea cup off me, forgetting it was filthy and repulsive a moment ago. “What happened here? If it was the teahouse?”
“Well, I think the workers stopped here, for a cup of tea, on their way up to the powder works. They would have come all the way from the city in a horse and cart – it was only a dirt track out to Narrabeen in the 1890’s. They would have needed that tea – it would have been a long trip, don’t you think?”
“Yes. Do you think they tied the horses up out the front of our house?”
“They may just have, you know. How cool is that?”
“Yeah, pretty cool.” He looks at his new prize. “Do you reckon Von Beerman… Von…”
“Do you reckon he stopped here too?”
Sturdy wooden kitchen cupboards and a steaming pot belly stove spring into the space before my eyes. “Yes, I do. This may very well have been his cup,” I muse, using my all-knowing mother’s voice.
“Do you reckon maybe he hid some of his guns here?” His imagination is bolting away on its own horse and cart.
“I don’t know if he had actual guns. He was only supposed to be making the powder for the explosives, not the bombs or guns themselves. But some people say he was a spy during the First World War. Apparently,” I lean in, “the sap from our grass trees makes really powerful explosives, and he was sending it back to the Germans.” Deep brown eyes look anew at the grass trees planted in our backyard, which usually serve as his soccer goal posts.
By now he has rubbed away most of the dirt from the cup. There appears to be a royal blue line around the fine top lip; the little base the cup stood on long ago left on its own adventure. The remains of what I imagine to have been pretty orange flowers are spattered in the centre.
“What I do know, though, is that Von Beiren was a grand man, who loved grand things and built one of Pittwater’s most grand homes of the time, where he entertained all the grand people of Sydney.”
“You like that word don’t you?”
“Cheeky monkey. Being grrrand,” adding a sweep of my Twinings pinky finger, “meant he definitely would have drunk tea. In those times, drinking tea was a sign of high society, especially if you had a ceramic tea cup like this one. And if you were high society – ”
“… You were grrrand,” we say together, belly laughing. I can’t resist a hug, I do love this boy, with all my heart. He snuggles in.
“It think this was a man’s cup – see the blue there?” He twists the little vessel over in his hands. “What happened to Von Beerhead?”
I kiss his thick, almost black hair, with a smile. “Von Beerhead was said to have spent so much money on tea and being grand, that he couldn’t afford to finish building his powder works, or pay his workers, so he ran away. Now, that’s not very –“
“Grrrrrand!” Now his laughter is free of burden.
I turn his little face up to mine. “So, apparently, he lost sight of the prize. Wasted his efforts on worrying about being grand and what people thought of him, and didn’t just get on with doing a good job of building his powder works. Imagine how different Ingleside would have been, and how great he would have felt if he’d if he had kept working hard toward his goal?”
I wonder, in the pause that ensues, if he has fallen back into his sadness.
Then he rolls his eyes at me. “Yeah, yeah, I geddit, mum. Don’t worry about what the kids at school think of me not getting into the soccer team, just keep trying harder.”
Never ceases to amaze me. He is far cleverer than me, already, at only nine short years old. I nestle him in again, a small tear on my own shirtfront.
A flicker catches my eye.
“Like Maradona – look at him darling, he’s swimming! Half dead on the floor, falls through the floor, covered in dirt, yet picks himself up and now -” doing my best superhero impression – “He swims again!”
He rolls his eyes and laughs at his silly, daggy old mum once more.
“Now my friend, that there is your story for tonight. It is time for us all to go to sleep and leave Maradona to get over his little misadventure and become strong again. Just like you.” I touch my cheek to his and, kissing his forehead, breathe him in.
Tucking him down, snug into his bed in this drafty old house, he looks up to me, already slipping away to the peace of sleep. “Mum, is that a real story?”
I mock shock at his disbelief.
“Well, wouldn’t it be a grrand if it was?”