The two made their way to the water's edge, Dan's trainer-clad feet flying to keep up, locks the colour of nutmeg flapping as he ran. Jed toted the heavy tackle box, to Dan's chagrin. He liked to play the big man when they went fishing, a role he adopted when his Dad was skippering his trawler.
The grass sparkled beneath their feet as they dumped the gear by the osier tree which slanted towards the water as if striving to drink. Jed hung his waxed jacket on a wooden tethering post and proceeded to unpack their gear while his son explored the adjacent woods.
Dan liked the forest best when he could kick the brown leaves to make them rustle and scare the redwing, but this morning the ground was soft as a cushion after the rain. A squirrel shot into view and paused when he saw Dan ambling along. Dan stooped to find a cone with which to lure it but then he heard Jed's summons and chose instead to participate in a more rewarding pastime. Spinning on his heel he ran back to the lake, happily anticipating a few hours’ fishing and quiet contemplation with his Dad.
'So why do you think your mother wanted us out of the way?' asked Jed as he adjusted the float with his powerful hands.
Dan had no idea, unless it had something to do with that man who called at the house when he was tucked up in bed. Uneasily, he tugged at his knitted scarf. He once saw the man through the window hurrying to their gate, carrying a huge piece of cardboard which knocked off his hat when he tried lifting the latch one-handed. He called him The Cowboy on account of the hat. He'd always wanted a cowboy hat, but had lately gone off the idea. Dan eyed his father's profile and tried to think what he'd look like in cowboy gear. He'd only ever seen him with a navy-blue woolly hat covering his coarse grey hair, but he'd like to bet he'd look real good in a Stetson, with silver pistols ready to draw and a gleaming sheriff's star on a black shirt.
Dan hadn't told him about the mystery man in case it made him weep. He didn't want that. He hadn't liked to see him cry when Mum's tummy lump disappeared and the baby they promised went to live somewhere else. He had undertaken then to make sure nothing ever upset his Dad again, that's why he couldn't tell him about the man Mum invited in.
His mother definitely wasn't right. No longer did she jest and joke and play pretend when Dad was away. It was very worrying. Sometimes it stopped him sleeping. He'd heard his father once say, 'Lighten-up, Francine. Don't be so heavy with the boy.' Unsure what lighten-up meant, Dan sneaked a look at his mother, who seemed the same as always except her mouth was stretched in a hesitant smile. She blamed her tetchy mood on lack of sleep. Dan couldn't take that in, not when she spent her evenings napping - at any rate the ones when the man didn't come.
Dan cast his line the way his Dad told him, his blue eyes flashing as he thought how wild Matt and Digger would be when he told them he'd actually used a rod. They still fished with nets and jars, but as Dad said he was sensible enough to handle proper equipment.
Jed nodded his approval. 'Well done, son. If that bait don't get 'em biting, nothing will.' He secured the lid on the baccy tin which held the maggots and installed it in the tackle box.
'Will you be home next weekend, Dad?'
'Sure will, lad, but don't tell your mother. Let it be a surprise, eh? Thought mebbe as it's my birthday we could go for a bite at The Lion. The break would do us good, your mother in particular.
'She's been bad-tempered lately, Dad. She won't play with me no more.' Dan felt his grievances rising and before he could stop himself wild accusations tore from his lips, charging Francine with not appreciating his needs, for sending him to bed early with no supper and no television, while she ....' Dan clamped his teeth on his bottom lip to prevent him saying more, from revealing Francine's involvement with the cowboy man.
Jed pressed his hand on Dan's shoulder. 'Don't fret, boy. It'll come right in a matter of months. Mebbe if you showed willing with your chores instead of idling the punishments would lessen.'
Dan didn't think that would make any difference, not with his mother preoccupied with another man, but he was willing to give it a try. It was only fair on his Dad.
The ensuing week was better. Dan helped Francine with jobs he'd never done before and was pleased as punch when she praised his window-cleaning, saying she'd never seen the glass so sparkling clean. However, just after Jed rang on Wednesday a strange thing happened. Dan was consuming a hot dog fresh from the travelling van and Francine was filling packing cases (which she'd lugged from the cellar all by herself) with her precious figurines. 'Don't want these broken when your Dad comes home,' she explained when Dan queried her action.
Dan nibbled the end of the bread roll. He was confused. Jed might be a tough guy, but he was mighty gentle around the house. If anyone broke ornaments in this house it was him or Mum.
Francine giggled as she planted a pink crinolined lady in the crate, the first chuckle Dan had heard in weeks. 'Don't crease your brow, Danny,' she said, her hazel eyes twinkling. 'I'm planning a surprise for your Dad's birthday.'
So was Dad, Dan thought, his mind in a turmoil over what to do, whether to reveal Jed's plan or keep quiet. He wanted to ask Matt or Digger, but Matt was away at his Grandad's farm and Digger was none too bright at the best of times. He licked a dribble of mustard off the remaining piece of sausage before popping it in his mouth. He could smell his mother's chips warming in the stove. Another time he might beg a few to round off his tea, only the mood for eating had gone. He wished his Dad was there to tell him what to do. Then he remembered Jed's wish that he say nothing and rationalized that since his request came before all this nonsense with packing cases he, Dan, should keep his promise.
However, before the night was out, as Dan climbed into his winceyette pyjamas, Francine unfolded the plan which changed everything and relieved Dan of the need for silence.
'Look at the parlour,' she said, eyeing a strip of paper suspended from the ceiling. 'Not had a lick of paint in years with your father on his boat so much and my back preventing me from assaulting the walls. But I've got plans for righting that, with the help of Cedric's brother.'
Cedric was the long-haired artist who lived opposite. Although Dan didn't know his brother he had an uneasy feeling about him, feeling certain - without Francine owning up - that he was the secret caller.
Francine went on with her account. 'It was a good idea seeking advice from Cedric's brother Duncan, him being an interior designer. He's been ever so obliging, coming twice a week with sketches for my regard.'
The breath left Dan's lips like a puff from the bellows. So that was who the stranger was, the man in the showy gear who timed his visits when he, Dan, was in bed.
Francine put the last ornament in the crate. 'I raised the money for his fee selling cross-stitch pictures to a buyer Duncan found, who wanted more when they were ready.' She crossed the room, stopping by the mirror to check her unruly chestnut hair, coiling it with slender fingers and lifting it free of her blue linen collar. She seemed suddenly carefree and Dan thought how pretty she was with her cheeks flushed and chubbier than he'd ever seen before.
And then the bell sounded in the hall, its jangle reverberating through the house, and Dan guessed, by the way his mother glanced first at him and then towards the door, who the visitor was.
The man breezed into the room flourishing his wide-brimmed hat, bowing slightly when he saw Dan. 'Pleased to meet you, young sir. Duncan Thresher's the name, Maestro of Colour, at your service.' His manner did not impress Dan, but the expansive smile embraced him and made him feel happy inside.
Francine gave him a can of Jed's beer which he drank without pause before extracting pages of paper from the pocket of a beige leather coat, fringed like the blanket on Dan's bed. Placing the can on the sideboard, now free of ornaments and picture frames, the man gazed into Francine's eyes. 'You sparkle with mischief, Madam,' he said, proffering the pages with a bow. 'Are you sure your friends know what to do?'
Francine smiled. 'They're eager as pups to oblige,
Amazin' what a pledge of free booze can do.' Duncan
'And is Daniel aware of the plan?'
Dan looked quizzically from one to the other, hoping that one of them would enlighten him. Francine pulled him close with a possessive arm, so close that his nose touched her tummy. Smelling her warmth and the gardenia talc she used every day made him feel safer than he had for ages. He was reluctant to move but, as her scheme unfolded, excitement stirred within, making his arms want to swing and his feet to skip in anticipation of being included in a real adult adventure.
Duncan Thresher playfully cuffed his ear. 'So will you play your part, young man? Keep that cheeky mouth sealed until it is a relevant time to speak?'
Dan wasn't sure what relevant signified, but he nodded anyway. Francine smiled her approval and gave him an intimate wink, and Dan mentally hugged himself with glee.
What furniture could not be transported had been stacked beneath dustsheets. Curtains were down and the pictures removed from the walls. On one small walnut table, pushed into a far corner, a shabby record player was set to play music, sixties tunes which Francine told the waiting guests was Jed's favourite. Uncle Kenny (not Dan's real uncle, but he'd always called him that) said if Francine believed that she'd believe anything, which Dan thought was unkind when she'd bought it specially for the party. Aunt Elsie taught him a lesson, though, by kicking his leg and telling him to mind his mouth. Uncle Kenny knew when he was beaten, 'cause he squatted on the lino and sulked. Nobody else spoke. They were all busy listening for footsteps in the road.
'It echoes, Mum,' said Dan, raising and lowering his voice to get the effect. 'Dad'll hate it.'
Francine shushed him and as she switched off the lights she ordered him to keep watch at the window. Thus, the cottage was in darkness when Jed arrived.
From his look-out position Dan saw his father hesitate beneath the lamp and clench his fists with irritation. Dan chuckled and shuffled his knees further on the chair until the carved wood dug in. He observed Jed advancing along the path to the front door, roughly brushing winter jasmine out of his way. Dan indicated by waving his arm that his father was on his way in.
Jed strode through the door, dejectedly dropping his haversack on the linoleum-covered floor and feeling for the light switch, missing Dan's head by an inch. A chorus of Happy Birthday greeted him, seconds before the light came on. Jed blinked, adjusting to the illumination, taking in the unexpected scene. Devoid of possessions, the room was filled with friends and neighbours, each holding a drink in one hand and a paintbrush in the other.
Dan was beside himself with triumph and delight. 'It's a decorating party,' he cried, rushing to drag Jed's rocker from the kitchen. 'Come on, Dad, sit down and have a drink.'
Ignoring Dan's outburst, Francine handed her husband a glass of apple cider. 'Happy fortieth, my darling,' she said.
'Some birthday with all this upheaval.'
'Don't you believe it,' shouted Kenny from the back. 'Wish Elsie could have come up with the idea on my big day.'
'You got extra jam on your tarts,' Elsie cried. 'What more did you want?'
Loud guffaws travelled through the gathering, followed by Dan's piping declaration that more jam on Aunt Elsie's tarts sounded like the most smashingest present.
Jed looked enquiringly at Francine. 'Am I expected to spend my birthday trimming the place up?'
'You're expected to do no such thing. You and Dan and I are going to The Lion for the night, while our remarkable friends get stuck in here. There's enough alcohol to see them through and plenty of food.' Francine ran a pink-tipped finger through his hair, 'It'll be the best birthday you've ever had,' she whispered in that voice she used whenever she playfully hid Dan's weekend sweets.
On Sunday afternoon a radiant Francine suggested that her two men go fishing while she began the clearing up. 'I want time alone,' she said, 'to dance through the cheery kitchen and saunter through the enchanting parlour.
Dan reminded himself not to mention that bit to Matt and Digger in case they thought his mother had gone nuts. Thrilled with the idea of going out, he adjusted his sweatshirt over his jeans and ducked to lace his trainers.
But Jed turned the proposal down.
Dan peered at him, unable to believe he'd heard right. 'Aw, Dad. It might be ages before we get another chance.'
Jed grinned. 'Fish don't bite on Sundays, lad. Now, why don't you pop next door and have yourself a plate of Elsie's strawberry tarts, while your mother and me catch up on some unfinished business. See, son, now that I'm forty I've got to keep abreast of family matters. And with a new baby due, I've got to make certain your Ma don't lift a finger unnecessarily.'
The concept of eating tarts until he was sick sent Dan scuttling through the door chanting, 'Fish don't bite on Sundays,' at the top of his shrill voice, but as he paused to pull the door shut, he saw Jed caress Francine's belly with his big hand and heard him say, 'Fish mayn't bite, but I sure do.'
Dan ran off, hoping his Dad wouldn't bite too hard and ruin things, not now Mum's headaches had gone and her temper had improved and a new baby was making her tummy swell. But he didn't dwell on it, 'cause the prospect of extra jam on Aunt Elsie's tarts was too powerful a thought to push out of his mind, though as he vaulted the gate to next door he thought how smashing it would be to teach a brother to fish and handle bait and use a proper rod.