"You’d better get this one, Sammy," Austin called. "The opposition is closing in."
Sam looked at his opponents Mouse and Gina, who were eyeballing him from just a few metres away. He jiggled lightly on his feet, ready to move a fraction left or right if necessary. He watched Austin walk up the street, turn and prepare to kick.
Austin would be an All Black one day. Sam knew that, just like he knew he wouldn't.
Austin’s kicks always went where he wanted them to go - higher than the houses but not too far away and certainly not into any of the neighbours' prized gardens.
"Just do as I tell you," Austin had told him when, for once, he'd chosen Sam on his team. And today Sam had already dotted the ball down four times on the try line - the driveway at the end of the cul de sac. He'd only duffed a couple of catches, letting Gina score. And when that happened Austin had sworn at Sam and called him an idiot, a baby and worse.
If Austin dropped the ball it was because Sam didn’t kick it properly. Austin was good at everything, cricket, rugby, soccer, maths, art, science. Sam had never ever beaten him at anything. Sam used to be good at things, but not since Austin arrived in his street and at his school last year. In bed at night Sam imagined he was as expert at everything as Austin was. That the coach was praising Sam for his ball placement, cheering because Sam saved a goal, that the teacher held up his self-portrait as a good example, put his flight essay frame on the corkboard. At least Sam was good at imagining.
"Here it comes," yelled Austin. Sam’s arms were outstretched, ready to wrap around the oval ball. He watched Austin angle the ball in his hands, retract his right leg, drop the ball and kick.
Watching, watching, all the time keeping his eye on the ball as it climbed towards the sun then started to fall. "Move, go back, can’t you see it’s gonna land over your head," Austin screamed.
Sam started to run backwards, hit the kerb, stumbled but didn’t fall. Still watching the ball he sidestepped quickly to his left and, just as Austin had ordered, the ball dropped into his waiting arms. Crash. The ball jumped out of his arms as Sam collided smack-bang with Mrs Belcher’s letterbox. Sam hit the ground and rolled over amongst pieces of shattered brown wood.
Feeling light in the head he saw the ball drop into the gutter. He looked around for his friends. They'd gone. As if they'd been whisked away by a magician’s wand. Or like trick photography in the movies when people vanish in an instant. Sam went to stand up and that’s when he saw the blood pouring from his knee and down his leg. His elbow hurt. That was bleeding too. And it felt warm and sticky on his forehead. He checked and got blood on his hand.
"Maaaaaaaam," he screamed as he stood up and sprinted to his house at the top of the street.
"Mind the carpet," said Mum as she met him at the door. "you’re dripping everywhere. What happened?"
"I fell over," wailed Sam.
Mum guided him into the bathroom and started cleaning up the cuts and grazes with a damp flannel. Dad, who hated the sight of blood, stuck his head round the door and said "nothing broken?" and disappeared before anyone had time to answer. There was more blood than real damage. Mum put a bandage on his knee and elbow and told him dinner would be ready soon. Perhaps he'd like to watch a bit of tele, take it quietly she said.
"Who smashed the letter box?" asked Dad. Sam looked up from the motor racing. He didn’t want to answer that particular question. He considered saying that Austin was responsible, but then he remembered his parents seemed to have a knack for finding out the truth. "I did, but it wasn’t my fault. Austin kicked the ball."
"Have you broken something?" said Mum, eavesdropping from the kitchen. She went and looked out the living room window. "Mrs Belcher’s letter box. Oh Sam, you’ll have to go and apologise. You can’t just leave a pile of wood where the letterbox used to be. Off you go now, go and say you’re sorry. you’ll probably have to pay for another one. That'll be your pocket money gone for the next term."
"I won't," said Sam. "What about the others? They were playing too."
"They didn’t smash the box," said Dad. "I think you’d better go over, knock on Mrs Belcher’s door and tell her what happened."
"No. She’s a grump." And Sam got up off the couch and went to his room. He lay on his bed looking at the ceiling. He would not apologise. It wasn’t his fault. It was a cruddy letterbox anyway.
Mum came into his room about half an hour later. "Up you get Sam. Go and say you’re sorry."
Mum tried to pull him off the bed, but Sam went rigid. "you’re too heavy for me to carry down the street Sam, but I’m telling you to use your legs and get down there and say you’re sorry. Then we'll have dinner."
Dad tried the quiet approach. "C'mon, get it over and done with."
"But Austin should come with me," said Sam.
"We can’t force Austin to apologise. What Austin does is Austin’s business but you can’t run away from trouble. Now get up and go and see Mrs Belcher."
"She mightn’t be home."
"She is," said Dad, "she’s out the front at this very moment, watering the plants."
Sam moaned and turned to face the wall.
"No dinner till you’ve apologised," said Mum.
"Fine, I won’t have dinner."
"Sam’s in trouble, Sam’s in trouble." Sam’s sister Lizzie was enjoying this.
"Shut-up Lizzie or I'll break your nose."
"Mum, Sam’s broke the letter box and now he wants to break my nose."
"Shut-up Elizabeth," said Dad.
While Mum, Dad and Elizabeth were having dinner, Sam left his bedroom, went out the back door and down into the bush behind the house. He sat on a clay step with his head in his hands. It’s not fair he thought, I can’t do anything right, everything always goes wrong for me. I’m such an idiot. I can’t catch and I can’t even see a letterbox that’s right beside me. He pounded the edge of the next step with the heel of his shoe. Little bits off earth crumbled and broke away.
But Mum and Dad would go on and on, day after day reminding him about what he'd done. Mum especially. She'd say he couldn’t play in the street till he apologised, couldn’t have an ice-cream till he said sorry to Mrs Belcher, blah blah blah. What if Mrs Belcher had already called the police to report vandalism and the police found out it was him and they took him to court, locked him up or whatever they did to young kids - send him to a home where you had to peel sacks of potatoes and clean toilets with a toothbrush. Sam heaved a huge sigh, stood and wiped his hands on his shorts. He climbed the bank and went along the side of the house and down the footpath.
His heart thumped. His legs felt soft and rubbery. "Excuse me, Mrs Belcher. I’m Sam. Sam from up the road. I broke your letterbox. I’m really sorry. I was trying to catch a high ball that Austin kicked. I’m sorry your letter box won’t work anymore."
"Hello Sam. Just a minute, I'll turn the tap off." She held the hose, angling it down, and walked to the tap. "you’ve made a right mess haven’t you? Are you all right?"
"Yeah, do you want me to pay for a new letter box?"
Mrs Belcher smiled. "That’s a very kind offer Sam, but that thing was dead on its feet. A strong wind would've finished it off if you hadn't. I've been meaning to get a new one for ages. Now you’ve forced the issue."
Sam felt himself go red and looked at the ground.
"I've just bought PlayStation 2," said Mrs Belcher. "Haven’t even taken it out of the box. Would you like to be the first to use it?"
Sam followed Mrs Belcher inside.
© Alison Robertson
Read our interview with Alison Robertson.