9th May, 2025
The smell of burnt toast wafted across the room as Robbie walked in to the kitchen. His mother, Celandine, was at the stove trying to salvage the crust whilst his older brother, Joshua, was yelling something about pigs and goats.
“Seriously, J,” he said as he plopped down on the sofa near the door. Joshua paused, head swinging around so as to cause the long sweep of dark hair to cast shadows across his eyes.
“You’re awake, Robert.”
Robbie twitched an eyebrow. “Aye. And you’re going on about pigs, again. What’s the point?”
His brother’s brow scrunched up. “They arrested Lachlan.”
There was a heartbeat then Robbie groaned. “Oh. Those pigs.”
“You should’nae call them that, son,” Celandine said as she plated the meagre serving of toast that she’d managed to not burn. His eyes flicked sideways at her words as he slouched on his seat, folding his arms over his chest.
Then he looked at Joshua. “What’d Lachie do?” He didn’t really want to know, but it was better than letting their mother berate him further.
Joshua picked at the toast, keeping his eyes fixed on the plate as he said, “The eejit was caught with a guitar out in the streets.”
Music. Making music was verboten. A crime. Punishable by law. The fact was life. Robbie knew no other way. But, he was curious, ever since he was a bairn. Always questioning the whys and wherefores of the law. So, hearing that Lachlan was caught with a guitar – his interest was piqued. Turning to face his brother more directly, he raised his eyebrows at him.
“What the Hell was he thinking?”
Joshua shook his head, a barely perceptible motion that Robbie only caught because he was paying close attention.
“Whatever he was thinking,” he said, in a low murmur, “it’ll most likely get him shot.” Joshua glanced sharply at him. Robbie cocked his head a little to the left then slew his eyes to the side not liking the knowing look that lurked in his older brother’s eyes.
As he did so he heard the doorbell ring. Celandine paused at the stove her own gaze drifting toward the front door.
“I got it,” he said as he pushed up from the couch and crossed the floor.
Theirs was a small house on an equally small Lot in the centre of the residential sector. The kitchen/living room was situated right in the front of the dwelling with no threshold to speak of. Then again it wasn’t like they could afford some fancy home like some people. Those houses close to Council were the largest and housed the richest people in the City…they lived in the poorer part. Not that they were destitute. Those people lived in the Slum.
Robbie got to the door and lifted the latch to pull the door open a crack. Peeking through the small gap and squinting he tried to make out the silhouette on the other side. The early morning sun was a little too bright so he had to shade his eyes.
“Who is it?”
“Phil-Pips. From next door. Not gonna bite, kid,” the silhouette said, the voice amiable. Robbie opened the door more, brow furrowing as he studied the man that was revealed to him. Dark eyes met his, a crooked grin twisting the lips on the elder man’s face.
“Didn’t think you were the biting type,” Robbie said, though his tone was slightly suspicious. The corner of Pips eyes crinkled, laughter evident in their depths.
“Robert, right?” he nodded as Pips went on, “Know this is unexpected…but I couldn’t help noticing the sign at your gate.”
Robbie blinked. “Sign?”
Pips pointed back over his shoulder to a makeshift banner that was flapping in the breeze, made of cardboard and looking decidedly weather worn. Robbie blinked some more.
“Oh. That sign.”
Pips looked at him. “Yeah. You still mow people’s lawns?”
Robbie flushed, kicking himself mentally. He really needed to take that sign down. He and Joshua had stuck it up early summer to try and make a little extra money so they could help their Mam. Times weren’t easy. They’d initially been inundated by friends and neighbours asking for help, but then that had trickled to a stop as the season progressed. It was probably two weeks since the last person had called.
Robbie gripped the doorframe, tapping his fingers against the wood as he looked thoughtfully at Pips.
“Maybe,” he finally said. Pips nodded, his eyes sliding to try and look behind him.
“Could I come in for a minute?”
Robbie stiffened slightly just as Celandine called out from inside.
“Who is it, Robert?”
He said back over his shoulder, “Neighbour. Pips.”
“Ask him in for some tea, son.” Ever the hospitable one was Celandine Douglas. Robbie’s lips twisted in a wry smile at that thought then he turned back to Pips.
“Alright. Come in.”
* * *
Pips looked around the small, yet cosy kitchen not much different to his and Elliott’s. Though neither of them cooked much and there was a lot less clutter in their house. The cupboards were in the same place; the counters, the sink…but of course this dwelling had its own personal flare. A bunch of lavender hanging from a hook above the stove; the fresh aroma tickling at Pips’ nostrils. Assorted picture frames with family photos… two young boys smiling in scattered images. He and Elliott had nothing like that on their walls.
“Tea?” The woman that the boy introduced as his mother, Celandine, approached him holding a teapot. His first impression was of the pot that was being held at his eye level. Yes, it was an actual flowery porcelain item like what his own mother would’ve owned back when she was still alive. He didn’t like to think on that too much. He forced a smile, nodding slightly.
“Thanks. Black, no sugar.”
She smiled, the crow’s-feet at the corners of her eyes deepening, as she turned to pour the tea. Pips observed her for a moment; her dark hair was pulled back in a messy bun, wisps escaping around her face. Her expression was warm, even if it were a little world-worn. And, she was careful with the pouring of the tea…meticulous. Like his own mother.
Halting that thought, he glanced over at the boy. Robert was now sitting next to an older boy at the table. Obviously his brother; they had the same eyes, the same eyebrows.
“So. The mowing?”
Robert lifted his eyebrows. “I did say maybe.”
Pips chuckled. “You did.”
His brother snorted as he stood and said, “Robbie says ‘maybe’ to everything. Usually means no.” He pointed at himself. “I’m the one who usually ends up doing everything.”
Pips smirked as Robbie scowled, shoving at his brother’s shoulder. “Piss off, aye.”
“Robert,” Celandine said, scolding him gently. Reminding Pips again of his own mother. He was forever getting told off for little infractions when he was younger. Maybe if she’d lived longer he wouldn’t have ended where he did…
“Sorry, Josh,” Robbie said, but without any conviction. “Anyway, we go back to school soon.” He met Pips gaze.
Pips lifted his shoulders. “This would just be on the weekends.”
Joshua scoffed again and said, “We don’t have school. Robbie’s twenty-one.”
Pips brows scrunched together as he managed not to say the words that tingled at the tip of his tongue. The kid looked fifteen. Which, if what Joshua said was true, was definitely misleading. The lankiness of his limbs and the babyface was what had confused him.
“So, what do you do then?” Pips asked, admittedly a little curious.
A strange look flickered across Robbie’s face. Pips only just caught it, then it was gone as the kid replied in a soft voice.
“Work for the City,” he said, his top lip curling on the words.
Joshua said, rudely, “He’s a Flusher.”
“Shut up, Joshua,” Robbie said, his cheeks reddening.
Pips stared hard at the kid, surprised. Flushers were not given any respect. It was the least of the City jobs; cleaning up the waste and doing other menial tasks that the rest of the citizens would not deign to do. To hear that this boy was one of…those… it was almost worse than being a criminal. Robbie glared back at him, as if daring him to make a comment. He took the dare.
“I’ve never met anyone from the Residences who does that job.”
Robbie’s lips twisted into a bitter smile. “Aye. Wasn’t a choice. Had no aptitude for anything else after school.” That same strange flicker passed across his features again, gone as soon as Pips tried to focus on it.
“You sell yourself short,” Joshua said, his tone surprisingly gentle. Pips smiled a little, recognising a little of Elliott in the elder boy’s words. Elliott was always telling him the same thing. Robbie started to roll his eyes. His brother punched his shoulder.
“You always say that. Anyway, the things I can do…well.” Robbie shook his head. “Not allowed to do.”
Pips brow furrowed. “What do you mean, kid?”
The boy met his gaze, dark eyebrows drawn tight together. “Why’re you interested?”
Pips lifted his shoulders. “No reason. So…?”
Robbie sighed then smiled a little. “Alright. I’ll mow your lawn. For a price.”
Pips snorted and said, “We can talk price when you come over…tomorrow okay for you?”
Robbie smirked. “I could come now, but Mam needs help with chores.” The longsuffering tone to his voice held a certain amount of affection, which made Pips feel suddenly sad. His parents were long gone…but that was a history he didn’t like thinking about.
He nodded to Robbie then smiled as Celandine came over with a cup, handing it to him. He smiled in thanks and took a long sip.