A black cloud gathered under the water like an incoming storm around Emily’s flamingo legs. She yelped and leapt onto the grass, brushing down her shins with snatched up dock leaves as though stung by nettles.
“What are those monsters?” She cried kicking the last few from her toes. The creatures splashed back into the water.
“There're just newts silly,” Spencer laughed wading through the drifting cloud, scooping them up and spinning them through his fingers like a TV magician. “Half tadpole, half frog.”
“Nothing can be two things at once.” Emily said wrapping herself in a shabby towel.
“My uncle Roy says people are two things all the time,” Spencer shouted above the stream. “In one of his whiskey talks, he said all people live two lives. One they show the world and one they keep hidden.”
“Is that right?” Emily asked me.
“I don't know.” I watched a pair of magpies squawking at each other in a crack willow along the stream. One flew from its friend and made it sorrow. I sighed. “What I do know is I'm starving. Let's head back.”
Warm grass flattened under our bare feet as we walked through the woods. A thrum of cellos rattled the leaves ahead of us and shook teasel heads like woodland piñatas. The breeze was cold and out of place. Emily traipsed at the back making daisy chain bracelets while I thought about dad. He'd been quiet lately. I'd asked mum, and she’d said things weren't going well at work but I wasn't to worry. “He’s not himself at the moment.” So who was himself? Maybe we are two people then. And maybe sometimes they get mixed up.
“When did your dad say the barbecue would be ready?” Spencer asked as though reading my mind.
“Five on the dot.”
“Where's the dot?” Emily asked. A poppy field blossomed across her cheeks when me and Spencer burst into giggles.
We walked a while through the woods. Finches swooped between bluebirds like Technicolor fairies, frogs hopped inside pampas grass and dry sticks snapped like firecrackers underfoot. Emily tied the daisy chain around her tiny wrist and stopped. She snapped a dandelion clock between her finger and thumb. It was a gentle and precise movement, careful not to shake the head off the flower. The hollow stem in the soil breathed out, bleeding a milky tear as though grieving its loss.
She blew the seeds gently four times leaving most of the feathery spores intact. Emily was cheating, she always did with dandelions. She took in a large breath and blew the rest into the air making sure it would tell us five o'clock. As the tiny white umbrellas drifted in front of us they transformed into snowflakes.
We stood for moment. Transfixed with the magic. All three of us museum statues. A chorus of crickets disturbed the silence.
Emily was the first to speak.
“In June? It doesn't snow in June.” Spencer said, his words laden with doubt. But the snow fell heavy and fast. By the time we reached the apple orchard near home the woodland floor was white where pink blossom had been a few weeks earlier. The early red apples looked like tiny rubies encased in mother of pearl. Emily snapped off a low hanging fruit and bit.
“Ooh it's cold, like an apple flavoured ice lolly.”
Me and Spencer each took an apple. Both competing to reach higher to prove who the biggest boy was. A game I still see every day as an adult. The fruit was fresh but tart, the bitterness spread across the tongue making my taste buds flower.
“This is just making me more hungry and cold. Come on.” I said leading out of the orchard. Behind us half eaten apples dropped with near muted thuds into the thickening carpet of snow.
“Ah the adventurers return for their hearty feast.” My dad bellowed, raising a beer bottle with one hand and a thick steak on a fork like a Viking in the other. The snowfall was dying, but it still fell hard around him. Flakes caught in the pocket of his ‘Do Not Disturb the Chef’ apron me and Emmy had bought him last Father's Day. They melted on the hairs of his legs below the line of his Bermuda shorts.
He turned the meat and returned it to the grill. “Get it while it's hot.” The smell of searing beef made the inside of my cheeks tingle. My tummy grumbled then as saliva filled the cavities from a childhood of sweets and fizzy drinks.
“He thinks he's Henry the Eight.” Emily said.
“Kings don't cook their own food.” Spencer replied treading burrows in the snow to reach the warmth of the grill.
“Maybe some kings do when we can't see them. Maybe they’re two things like your newt. Who knows what kings and queens do when they're just being people?” Emily smiled when she saw the confusion in Spencer's eyes. Her argument laid eggs of doubt in the black nests of his pupils.
“Your mum went in when it started snowing. Says I'm mad for staying out here.” Dad said brushing golden corn with butter that melted onto the red coals with a hiss. “Maybe she's right. But you know what I think Bud?” He said passing me a corncob, now tiger striped from the barbecue.
“Well Bud I think it never snows in June. And it maybe never will again. So I say let’s experience it because we'll never forget this day.”
I took a bite, the butter dripping down the side of my corncob smile. I knew he was right.
Emily opted for burgers, ‘Plenty of ketchup so I can't taste the meat dad’ and Spencer had sausages hidden under a tidal wave of mustard. My dad sat in his deckchair placing a new bottle of beer in a volcano of snow he'd scooped up on the floor. We sat eating in silence for a few minutes, enjoying the moment. The cold, the heat of the food, the smoke and ash clinging to our skin, the aromas and flavours of the cooking. Two magpies landed on the roof spilling snow onto the patio flags.
“Two’s for joy.” Dad said saluting the birds with his beer.
I looked around and noticed three more in the cherry tree and another pair huddled together under the shed canopy. ‘Seven for a secret never to be told’ I thought.
“Hey Bud go fetch your mum.” Dad said now standing back at the grill, lifting another well done sirloin above his head. “Tell her the steaks are high.” Emily giggled at the joke. Me and Spencer rolled our eyes at each other.
Mum was sitting at the counter rolling a glass of white wine and turning the pages of a magazine like they’d been bitching about her behind her back. I knew she was reading the words written in her mind though. Throwing stones on a chalk pavement of worries back there. Hoping she'd land on an even number for once.
I remembered the time I overheard her talking to her friend Kitty. She'd said my dad had newspaper eyes. Kitty laughed saying, ‘What black and white with a dash of colour?’ I peeked around the door jamb to see my mum looking into the space over Kitty’s head. ‘No. His eyes are easy to read but you can never tell if he's giving you the whole truth. I'm constantly worried about what stories those eyes are holding from me.’ her voice flat and full of withheld sighs.
The sound of the magazine tearing snapped me from my thoughts. I told her dad wanted her. She turned to look in the garden then joined him without speaking a word. I stood there and watched through the patio doors as she rested her head against his shoulder.
Then they kissed. I’d never seen my parents kiss before. Sure she’d give him a peck on the cheek before he left for work, or a brushed on his lips if he brought the groceries back for her without being asked, that sort of thing. But this was a black and white movie kiss. I watched Spencer trying to muffle a giggle into his crumpled napkin. Emily just stood and watched them like me. Two frozen kids, not by the unprecedented snow but by that strange display of love between our parents.
Emily broke and ran at them, her towel falling behind her. She grabbed each of them by a leg and hugged until all three lost their balance and fell into the snow like the half eaten apples in the orchard.
I learnt something important that day watching them all. We do live two lives. We hide things to protect the ones we love, maybe even to protect ourselves at times. But I learnt something even more valuable from my dad as I watched my family through the glass doors, as they laughed and kissed while the flakes fell around them.
We keep parts of us out of sight that's true. But every now and again we need to mix it up and show everybody what we've been keeping down. We have to shake life like a snow globe and wait until everything settles so we can see things clearly again. In the end I guess we’re all newts, submerged and dry at the same time. My dad was right about another thing too. I never have forgot that day and don't think I ever will.