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Rocks In The Belly - Jon Bauer

Rocks In The Belly

By: Jon Bauer

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How far can you push a child before he snaps?

Rocks in the Belly tells the story of an eight-year-old boy and the adult he becomes. When he is young his mother fosters boys, despite the jealous turmoil it arouses in her son: jealousy that reaches unmanageable proportions when she fosters Robert, a child she can't help bonding with. As the connection between them grows, the son's envy triggers an event that profoundly changes everyone. Especially Robert.

At twenty-eight, still haunted by his childhood, the son returns to face his mother, who is now chronically ill. He hasn't forgiven her for what happened to Robert, and yet she isn't the same domineering woman anymore. Now she's the dependent one and he the dominant force — a power he can't help but abuse.

Written in two startlingly original voices, Rocks in the Belly is about the effortless destruction we wreak on one another in the simple pursuit of our own happiness, and a reminder that we never leave our childhood behind. A fast-paced, powerful, yet often beautiful and funny novel.

I used to tell people I was a foster child. As a boy I told that to every new stranger until it started nestling in me as a sort of truth. A truth that’s still here, keeping me from belonging. 

I used to tell people I was a foster child even though I was the only one in our home who wasn’t fostered. And now I’m supposedly a man everything about me is still fostered – my country, the history I tell people. I can’t even bring myself to belong to my own childhood. 

But I can still feel the truth of it, despite moving overseas, disavowing myself entirely of my past. It doesn’t matter where you go then, or what you do with your feelings, your truth lies in wait. My childhood always with me in much the same way my fists are always with me.

Moving away hasn’t allowed me to leave my parents behind either. I carry them in all those remembered moments they inflict on you. Mum especially. Funny that of all those steeped-in memories, the moment where she’s most vivid is from a day of supreme greyness. The day we buried Robert. Everyone gathered round the television to watch that video of him. 

Not the Robert who’d come up our path years before, hiding behind the social worker. Not that thoughtful, clever little Robert. Special little Robert. But the Robert we turned him into. 

I remember the TV was turned up too loud, Robert full of gangly smiles towards the camera while they strapped him up. His played-back face looking right at me. Someone made a comment about how great he looks in his orange outfit, and Mum managed a smile too. Then Robert’s hair was fluttering on the screen, both him and the man behind him wearing goggles. Robert all tongue and teeth and movement, his trembling brain fidgeting him with excitement. 

There is a rough edit. 

His hair is really blowing and he’s strapped to the man and screeching with a mix of fear and happiness. They shuffle him along on his bum, and from the movement of the camera you see Robert, the walls, Robert. Then, through the open door, the clouds. Great, billowing clouds in a vast sky. Robert of the Clouds, Dad always used to call him, or Robert McCloud. Our lounge bursting with people. All of them dressed in black, and carrying the colour as if it were heavy. 

Everyone crying over Robert’s happiness coming at us from inside the TV – from back in time. Crying because that’s all that was left of what he might have been. 

The camera pans to Robert perched on the edge.

“ONE” 

His tremors are still there, his eyes smiling. The man tells him to put his head back and Robert’s exhilaration erupts as a giggling squeal.

“TWO” 

He is totally still. I remember the whole room stopped too. Everyone who’d come to bury him held their breath.

The government says that children under 13 can’t sit in the front seat and anybody who sits in the front has to wear a seatbelt. Clunk-click. I don’t have to wear one in the back which is sort of a bonus to not being in the front, but really I always want to be up at the business end. 

Dad calls it that when he lets me ride shotgun. Usually only once we get round the corner from Mum and up the road a bit. I have to sit on the first aid kit cos the seat is too low.

Every time I’m climbing over he’s always getting me to say when my birthday is and my answer is supposed to be the today’s date as if it is my thirteenth birthday. I’m supposed to look smug when I say it to the police officer if they catch us, then tell them we’re off to celebrate at McDonalds. 

Dad says it doesn’t matter what you say as long as you have some facts in there with your lies. So if we get pulled over all I need to do under pressure is know the today’s date and I always know that because I have a calendar on my wall and a thermometer stuck on the outside of the window and I mark off the overnight lowest temperature every morning and check the water measurer on my window ledge for rain. 

I like the weather and when I grow up I want to be a weather man cos they’re famous and get to tell the future and people will tune in and wear different things based on what I tell them. Plus by the time I’m a weatherman technology will be so amazing that weathermen will be able to ask the weather computer, which is called Nimbus, to predict when there is going to be a bomb or a war or a car crash. 

We’ve got a new foster boy staying with us. Dad calls him Robert McCloud because he loves the clouds. He’s been here four days so far and is all sulky and soft and quiet, boring. He just sits outside in the garden a lot and looks at the clouds or reads in his room and doesn’t do anything mysterious or suspicious so that I get really bored of spying on him, really fast. 

 “Come on folks,” Mum says, leaning out the back door to the garden while I’m in the kitchen, “I’ve got to pick some stuff up but I’ll take you for a nice dinner after.” She has her foster kid voice on rather than her Mum or wife voice.  



Robert is 12 and so it might not be many days of the year until he is 13.  Plus he could lie about his birthday and have had his real one recently with his bad parents and then get another one out of us good people who are helping him out of the kindness of our hearts. Mum says good people should have children but she has only had one, me. 

We’re running towards the car like Hunchbacks of Notre Dame cos it’s raining again. This is the first time Robert has ridden in our car this whole time, except the time we went to the video shop and Mum and Dad sat up front and tried to act normal. 

“You have to go in the back too, Robert,” I say as we’re running. Mum is covering her hair with a hand and running round the car. “No he doesn’t,” she says, “Jump in the front, Robert.” 

I stop on the lawn and watch them running. I’m all stopped still and instead of thinking about what Mum just said I’m wondering why everybody makes such a fuss about rain? It’s only water. Robert looks back at me and frowns as he opens the door to the front. He gets in without needing the first aid kit and slams the door. 

Mum starts the car but then she’s standing half out of it again with smoke coming out the back and Robert’s pink face is in the warm out of the rain, water running down the car window so that he looks sadder. Mum is getting very angry and is in a rush cos of the rainwater. I wonder how many millimetres have fallen in my collector.

Every raindrop has a small grain of dirt in it. That could be the reason for the fuss? God put dirt in rainwater because the clouds need to turn into rain but they need something to turn into rain on. Like the steam in the bathroom has to turn into raindrops on the mirror or the walls or the windows. Clouds use dirt in the air to make rain, which is why Mums don’t like it when their washing gets rained on.

“YOU GET IN THE CAR THIS INSTANT OR I’LL GIVE YOU SOMETHING TO THINK ABOUT, YOUNG MAN.”

“YOU HAVE TO BE THIRTEEN TO RIDE UP FRONT.” 

I feel all little here in the middle of the lawn. 

“ONE!”

“It’s not FAIR.” 

I’m feeling sheepish. Like Dad says. So I’m on the lawn but suddenly I’ve got little black legs and my curly hair is wool. 

Only wouldn’t I be lambish cos I’m not 13? Once you get to 13 your life properly starts and you can probably be sheepish then. I’d be lambish now. 

“TWO!”

“IT’S AGAINST THE LAW!” 

Rain makes people speak loudly. Must be the dirt.

Mum is marching towards me with her scary lip. She gets it when she’s angry. Her mouth sort of goes down at one side and her teeth come out and chew at a bit of it. Like my friend Ralph’s grandma after she had her stroke. 

I run for the car but she’s got me by my wrist, the rain making noise on the car roof and I can’t hear what she’s saying but she SAYS, IT, HARDER at the same time as her hand hits my bottom and legs. 

I make a lot of screaming-in-pain noise so she doesn’t hit me as many times as she might if I’m quiet. 

The front car door opens and Robert is all dry and warm and pale. He shuts it very quietly behind him so as not to put my Mum off her stroke. Then he gets in the back and shuts the door just as quietly. Mum is pulling me up by my wrist now and saying things right into my face and there’s saliva on her lip and her hair is wet. She looks like a crazy woman and up this close I can see the black dots in her nose. 

“You didn’t get to 3,” I say but I’m trying my hardest not to cry. She shoves me into the car and slams the door almost before my legs are out the way. I’m practically on top of Robert. He moves over. 

Now there is that horrible waiting moment when Robert and me are in the car on our own and Mum is marching round the back bumper and there’s a raindrop on my nose and it has a single invisible grain of dirt in it. 

Mum is talking half to me half to herself through the car roof and huffing round to her door and I feel red that Robert is looking at me which might be why I leap forward and lock her door. Then I lock Robert’s back door next to it before he can do anything. Then I lock all the other doors and sit back and I’m in the biggest kennel ever.

Mum goes quiet. There’s just the rain and my breathing, the engine. I can’t see her face, just her blouse and waterproof coat which is a bit open. 

She doesn’t do anything for a sizzly moment. Then she pulls on the door handle a lot and screams. I think I giggle then even though my heart is going like the crappers. 

I smile at Robert but he doesn’t think it’s funny. I stop smiling and look at the car keys wobbling in the ignition from where Mum pulled on the door handle. The engine is running very quiet, sort of purring. The car really is going like a dream. ‘I’m tinkering,’ Dad says when he has his head under the bonnet. Usually when Mum is vacuuming. I hand him his tools and we pretend we’re operating on the car. 

“Screwdriver.”

Surgeons don’t have to say please or thank you. 

Robert is fidgeting in the car with me and I’m worried he can hear my heart, or my bottom ringing cos it’s like when a bell is still pinging just a tiny bit ages after it has been struck, and you wouldn’t know unless you got very close or touched the bell, but then you kill the little tiny ringing. I like that. 

I look at her tummy in the window and try not to cry. Then she says in a very different voice that I should open the door immediately. 

“You should unlock it,” Robert says but doesn’t look at me. He doesn’t look at anyone much, he must have a bad secret. 

“You have to be 13,” I say to him. “HE HAS TO BE 13.” Then I cross my arms in case they do as they’re told. Robert leans up and puts his hand on the lock. 

“No Robert,” Mum says, peeking in. “I want YOU to open the door.” 

I slouch down and look at my shoes with their little bits of wet grass sticking to them. There’s another raindrop on my nose, or it might be a tear which means it will have salt in it not dirt. Like your body needs salt to make sadness. 

Or maybe there’s dirt in tears too along with the salt and that’s why we cry, to get the dirt out. Which is why you normally feel better after you cry. Even if it is in front of Robert. 

Mum’s voice is all careful now like I am a wild horse in a meadow and she is holding a head collar. I like hearing her use that voice, even though I’m scared. If I was a hero I’d drive the car away and never come back. Plus driving away isn’t a bad idea because otherwise I’m going to be hungry in my bedroom for a very long time. 

She says my full name cos I’m in trouble and people are always formal when there’s trouble. Then she says the shortening like when I’m a good boy. I want to lock them both out in the rain, and Robert is trying to tell me something but I stick my fingers in my ears “LA LA LA CUCUMBER SAUSAGE CUCUMBER SAUSAGE!” 

His lips stop moving and I take my fingers out and Mum is saying “Try to be quiet Robert. I can handle this. Thank you for trying, you’re a good boy.” She has that wobble in her voice like she gets when she talks about Granddad. I think I’m probably dead too once she gets hold of me. 

“You won’t be in trouble,” she says. Yeah right. “Open the door and you won’t be in trouble, you’ve already had a good spanking today.” She uses a mixture of her voices saying that. “I’m sorry I lost my temper,” she says, “but its really raining and – OH HE WON’T RIDE IN THE FRONT TILL HE’S THIRTEEN, OK!” 

“When’s your birthday?” 

“May the 14th,” Robert says quietly. Then he’s looking at me like he’s wondering if that is an OK birthday by me. 

“Taurus,” I say, thinking. “Taurus people are strong and stubborn.” 

Soon as I can think straight I’m going to work out exactly how far away it is until May 14th but it isn’t that far away because this is February which means it won’t be long before I’m going to have to be stuck all the way in the back while Robert gets to be up in the business end with my Mum. 

I take my salty tears away and climb over the back seat, curl up in the boot next to the first aid kit. I’m crying and it’s raining and I’m balled up tight. I hear the thunk of the lock and my tummy vanishes and leaves a hole behind.

The door opens and the engine stops and Robert is so quiet it’s like he’s in the kennel instead of me, which is what Dad calls it when I am in the dog house. Sometimes my Dad is in the kennel and he tuts at me and smiles, ‘Your Dad’s in the kennel again’. I’m not sure my Mum has ever been in the kennel. She’d have to vacuum it first.

The boot opens and she tugs me by the same wrist she hurt earlier, dragging me along with my legs sort of running in the air and sort of on the ground. She hits me a few more times and her ring hurts my ear. I’m crying for a hundred squillion reasons, and I’m crying because I’m crying. Crying makes me sad like throwing up makes me want to throw up. 

Mum is trying to get the house keys out and talking too fast to make sense and I hate everything and how unfair not being a grownup is and that Robert is watching. I hate him most of all. And even more than that I hate his parents for being bad because if they were good like my Mum then I wouldn’t have to share her. 

Mum always says I don’t like the foster kids cos I’m an only child but I think it would be amazing to have real brothers and sisters. Sometimes I pretend I do. I think I’d like a brother until I’m 13 then I would like him to become a girl so she can bring her friends home, and I’ll like girls by then and have them as a harlem. 

Dad says he wants a harlem. If he had one maybe he might tinker with it when Mum is vacuuming?

Now I’m in my room and not allowed out until Mum says so and she tells me not to hold my breath. I hold my breath and time myself anyway. 

38 seconds. My lungs are still growing. 

I make a note on my chart. Then I take off my clothes and put dry ones on and go and look at my rain collector on the window ledge. 4mm. Which is a lot. Especially for February. I make a note on my chart. Then I imagine 4mm spread out across the whole area of where the rain has fallen. Then I imagine it all across the weather map and the weather man taking his arms and gathering up all the rain from the map and putting it in a big rain collector measurer on the official Weather Centre window ledge. I wonder how tall it would be to catch all that 4mm spread out over that far? Imagine. That’s why 4mm of rain is a lot, when I think about it like that. Cos 4mm may be the size of Robert’s doodle, but take all the 4mm fallen on the whole country and it would be an enormous doodle. It’s scary how big the world is. Imagine. 

Then I try to picture how much dirt has fallen if there has been 4mm of rain but it makes my brain itchy. 

I’m still in my room when Dad comes home. He sneaks me a yoghurt (strawberry) and an apple (apple) for dinner. Plus he gives me a talking to but is actually nice. He says it’s a bit rich to be funny about Robert being up in the business end considering he’s legal in a few months and I’m closer to being a baby than legal, and yet I still get to ride up front. 

He has a point, except for the baby thing. I ask him to tuck me in and stroke my forehead until I fall asleep. 

He tucks me in and strokes my forehead which always calms me down but he’s never done it all the way until I’ve fallen asleep, my Dad. A little bit because he always gets bored and a little bit because I have to try so hard to fall asleep fast before he gets bored that I never feel too sleepy. Plus Dad always ends up pretending to pick my nose as a joke and I always get exasperated or flabbergasted and he just laughs and kisses me goodnight but I beg for one more minute and he gives me thirty seconds. 

This is our routine ritual and doing it after what happened today makes me feel less bruised in my tummy.

“What time is Robert’s bedtime?” I say as Dad is leaving. He tells me to not pay so much attention to Robert who is older than me. Then he says “Comparisons bear no fruits,” which is one of his sayings that doesn’t make sense but you can tell it means No.

“But does he have a set bedtime?”

He hushes me and comes back and strokes my forehead some more. He smells of boiled carrots and beer. Then he says, slowly, in time with each gentle head stroke he does, without picking my nose at all, he says, “You. Are. My. Son.”

ISBN: 9781921640674
ISBN-10: 1921640677
Audience: General
Format: Paperback
Language: English
Published: 2nd August 2010
Publisher: Scribe Publications
Dimensions (cm): 23.000 x 15.200
Weight (kg): 23.0