"Hey Ben, you wanna play footy?" James hefts an old Sherrin football in his hands.
"I can't," Ben says. "Busy."
James scowls. "Come on," he says. "Kick to kick?"
"I can't!" Ben says again. "Bugger off."
James kicks the door-frame before he leaves, and stomps down the stairs. He stops halfway and calls back, hopeful and pleading. "You can be Kouta!" he says. "I'll be Sticks."
"James!" Ben shouts. He throws a pillow at the bedroom door and it slams shut.
James continues his angry stomping down the stairs.
James sits on the front porch – the verandah, he thinks angrily – and twirls the football around in his hands.
He looks up when he sees movement out of the corner of his eye. Claudia Kishi is walking up the front path of her house.
"Hey!" he shouts, jumping to his feet. "Hey, Claudia! HEY!"
Claudia turns around and smiles at him, calling across the road. "Hi, James!"
"You wanna play footy with me?" James asks, holding the Sherrin up over his head.
Claudia shifts her weight onto her other foot. "Um," she says, "I'm kinda busy right now. Also, I don't think I know how to play Australian football... footy..."
"It's real easy," James promises, standing as close to the street as he dares. "I'll teach ya. You can be a full-forward. They get heaps of goals."
Claudia looks at her watch. "I've got a Baby-sitters Club meeting soon," she says. "And then I have to do my homework. How about next time I baby-sit for you, we'll play football – uh, footy – then?"
James feels his heart sink. "Okay," he says. He wanders back to the porch – verandah – and sits on the front steps.
He picks at the stitching on the top of the football and presses his finger against the orange valve, wondering if pumping the ball up a bit will make it easier to bounce.
Mum opens the front door. "Why don't you play kick to kick with Ben?" she asks.
"I tried," James says, turning around to look up at her. "He's busy."
"Oh," Mum says. She sits beside him and waves to Mary Anne Spier and Dawn Schafer as they disappear into Claudia's house.
"Can you have a game with me?" James asks hopefully.
"After tea," Mum promises. "What do you want for dessert tonight?"
James leans his head against her arm. "Chocolate crackles?" he asks hopefully.
"I'll see what I can do." Mum takes the football and edges to the end of the step. "Ready?" she asks. She makes a handball fist.
"No!" James says sternly. "Not like that. Thumb on the outside, Mum."
"Oh, right," Mum says. "Like this?"
James rolls his eyes. "Nuh-uh." He makes a fist and lays his thumb flat around the side of his fingers. "Make it flat. 'Cos if you hit the ball with your knuckle out, you break your thumb."
"Ohh," Mum says. She handballs the footy gently to James.
"Nobody here knows how to play," James says, turning the football around carefully so he can handball it back just like Dad showed him.
"Well, they play a different version of footy here, remember?" Mum says, catching the ball in her hands. She knocks it back to James and he catches it to his chest.
"I wish I could play on a real team," James says longingly. "Just like in Melbourne. I miss Vic-Kick."
"I know, mate," Mum says gently.
James sighs heavily and presses hard on the ball. "I need to pump it up," he says.
"The pump's in the shed. In the garage."
"Yeah." James hugs the ball against his knees and leans over to look at the toes of his sneakers. "D'you think Dad will play with me when he gets home?"
"Sure," Mum says. She reaches over and ruffles his hair. "Your brothers will be back soon. I bet Mathew and Johnny will have a game with you."
"Mm," James says. "Okay."
"You wanna help me make the chocolate crackles?" Mum asks.
James thinks for a minute. What he really wants to do is play footy.
A loud bang makes him (and Mum) jump.
Kristy Thomas leaps out of a small, rusted car, her face bright red. "Go!" she shouts to the driver. "And get that fixed, Charlie. It's embarrassing."
The car stalls.
"Whoops," Mum says, laughing. She gets to her feet. "You need any help?" she calls.
Kristy cringes and looks over her shoulder, forcing a smile onto her face. "No thanks, Mrs. Hobart. It's just the Junk Bucket..."
The car whines as Charlie tries to start it again.
Kristy makes a rapid retreat into the Kishi house.
Mum leans back down to James. "Why don't you go and see if Charlie needs any help?"
James is shy. He doesn't know Charlie very well. Also, Charlie is big, and in high school, and that makes him kind of scary.
"Go on," Mum prompts. "Take your footy. Maybe if you help him fix his car, he'll play kick to kick with you."
The temptation is too great to resist. With his mother watching as he crosses the street, James holds the Sherrin under his arm and stands near the front of Charlie's car.
"Hey," Charlie says, grinning. "You're Mathew, right?"
"James," James says. He clears his throat, trying to sound brave. "Do you need help?"
Charlie laughs and gets out of the car. "Ah," he says, shaking his head, "I think she'll start again in a minute. She just needs a rest."
"Oh." James looks at the car worriedly. He looks down at the footpath and mumbles to Charlie. "You wanna play footy while you wait for Kristy?"
Charlie looks up at the Kishi house. "Sure," he says. "I dunno how to kick that thing, though. I mean, you do kick it, right? You guys don't throw it or anything, do you?"
"That's against the rules," James says, warming to Charlie. "The ump will pull you up for that."
"The umpire, jeez," James says.
"Oh, right. So you gonna teach me, then?"
"Yeah. Come over to our yard." James leads Charlie back across the street. "Stand there," he says, pointing at the fence. "I'll stand over here. We'll just play kick to kick."
"Sure," Charlie says.
James kicks the ball right to Charlie's chest, and Charlie marks it easily. "Awesome," James breathes, pleased with his kick.
Charlie grins and turns the ball in his hands. "So now I just kick it back to you?"
Charlie boots the ball and it spins sideways off his foot and slams into the front of the house.
"Shit," Charlie says, clutching his hair. He glances nervously at James, and then laughs. "Oops."
James fetches the ball and returns to his place. "You gotta hold it like this," he says, demonstrating exactly the way Dad showed him. He kicks it again, a perfect torpedo.
"Awesome!" he crows again, just as Charlie marks it.
"So who's your team?" Charlie asks. He kicks the ball carefully. It goes straight, but hits the ground before it reaches James, and bounces in a crooked line toward the fence.
"The Blues," James says, fetching the ball. "We're gonna win the grand final."
"Oh yeah? Cool."
"Yeah." James looks down at the ball and frowns. "I wish we could go," he says longingly.
Charlie has to jump to mark his next kick. James grins proudly.
"You must miss a lot of stuff about home, huh?" Charlie asks. His next kick goes wild again, and he clucks his tongue. "Sorry," he says.
James fetches the ball from the back of the garden bed, breaking stems and branches as he reaches through the shrubs. "Yeah," he says, answering Charlie's question once he's back in his place. "I miss footy and cricket the most."
"I don't understand cricket, either," Charlie says.
James kicks the ball right to him.
"You're good at this," Charlie says, turning the Sherrin around in his hands.
"It's just practice," James says, shrugging. Inside, he glows at the praise. "I can teach you how to play cricket, too," he says. "Ben is better at it than me, but. He can bowl real good."
"You play with the Krushers, right?" Charlie asks. He punts a perfect arc with the ball, and James marks it right against his chest.
"Nope," says James. "I suck at baseball."
"Maybe I can show you how to play sometime," Charlie says, marking James' next kick perfectly.
James considers this for a minute. "I guess," he said. "I'm no good at bowling though. Pitching, I mean."
"Well, I'm not bad at it." Charlie kicks the ball back into the garden bed.
"You're rubbish at footy, though," James says.
Charlie runs at him, and James shrieks and laughs, crawling in under the shrubs against the fence. "You can't tackle me if I don't have the ball!" he cries.
Charlie's face peers at him through the leaves. "Are you making that rule up?" he asks, grinning.
"No!" James says. He pushes the ball out onto the lawn. "You can have another kick," he says.
Charlie laughs and scoops the ball up into his hands. "All right," he says. "But I'm gonna need you to show me again, I think."
James crawls out of the garden bed, dirt on his hands and knees and twigs in his hair. "No worries," he says. "How much longer does your car need to rest?"
Charlie looks across the street at his car, and then checks his watch. "Twenty minutes, I think," he says.
"Cool," James says. He holds his hands out for the ball. "That should be long enough."