ellyanne opened the car door and crawled into my bedroom. Her face was puffy and pale and fuzzed-over. She just came in and said: "Ashmol, Pobby and Dingan are maybe-dead." That's how she said it.
"Good," I said. "Perhaps you'll grow up now and stop being such a fruit loop."
Tears started sliding down her face. But I wasn't feeling any sympathy, and neither would you if you'd grown up with Pobby and Dingan.
"Pobby and Dingan aren't dead," I said, hiding my anger in a swig from my can of Mello Yello. "They never existed. Things that never existed can't be dead. Right?"
Kellyanne glared at me through tears the way she did the time I slammed the door of the ute in Dingan's face or the time I walked over to where Pobby was supposed to be sitting and punched the air and kicked the air in the head to show Kellyanne that Pobby was a figment of her imaginings. I don't know how many times I had sat at the dinner table saying: "Mum, why do you have to set places for Pobby and Dingan? They aren't even real." She put food out for them too. She said they were quieter and better behaved than me and deserved the grub.
"They ain't exactly good conversationists, but," I would say.
And at other times when Kellyanne held out Pobby and Dingan were real I would just sit there saying, "Are not. Are not. Are not," until she got bored of saying, "Are. Are. Are," and went running out screaming with her hands over her ears.
And many times I've wanted to kill Pobby and Dingan, I don't mind saying it.
My dad would come back from the opal mines covered in dust, his beard like the back end of a dog that's shat all over its tail. He would be saying: "Ashmol, I sensed it today! Tomorrow we'll be on opal, son, and we'll be bloody millionaires! I can feel those bewdies sitting there in the drives, staring back at me. Checking me out. Waiting. They're red-on-blacks, Ashmol, I'll bet you anything! There's rumours going that Lucky Jes has taken out a million-dollar stone and a fossilized mammoth tooth with sun-flash in it. We're close, boy. Close. There's definitely something in that earth with the name Williamson on it!"
His excitement always caught ahold of me. I would get a tingle down my neck and I would sit there with my ears pricking up like a hound's, my tongue hanging out, watching my dad's eyes darting around in his head. They were strange eyes blue and green and with a flicker of gold in them. "Eyes like opals," my mum once said with a sigh, "only a little easier to find."
Well, while Dad was pacing around the yard brushing himself off a bit and swigging from a stubby of V.B., Kellyanne would say, "Dad, be careful! You almost trod on Pobby with your fat feet! Watch what you're doing!" But Dad would be too excited to do anything but say: "Aw, sorry, princess. Did I tread on your fairy-friends?" That was Dad. Me and him never took Pobby and Dingan seriously one bit.
But there were others who did. The older, softer sort of folks in Lightning Ridge had sort of taken to Pobby and Dingan. They had totally given up throwing Kellyanne funny looks and teasing her about them. Now when she walked down Opal Street, some of the old-timers would stop and shout: "G-day, Kellyanne, g-day, Pobby, and how's Miss Dingan doin' today?" It made you want to be sick all over the place. Lightning Ridge was full of flaming crackpots as far as I could see. It was like the sun had burnt out their brains. Now, I was as much a rockhound as the next kid, but I wasn't crazy enough to talk to imaginary friends, I'll tell you that for nothing. But one time Ernie Finch let Kellyanne enter Dingan in for the Opal Princess competition because Kellyanne had a cold. I'm not kidding. And the judges voted Dingan third place, and Nils O'Reiordan from the newspaper came and took photographs of Kellyanne with her arm around Dingan's invisible shoulder, and made out he was asking Dingan questions and everything. It was embarrassing. When the newspaper came out there was a picture of Kellyanne wearing a little silver crown over her long blond hair, and underneath there was this sentence saying: Two Opal Princesses--Kellyanne Williamson (aged eight) and her invisible friend Dingan, who won third prize in this year's Opal Princess competition. Plus, every time we went to Khan's, Mrs. Schwartz would hand my sister three lollies and say, "There you go, Kellyanne. One for you, one for Pobby and one for Dingan. They look like they're both doing good." Everybody knew everybody in Lightning Ridge. And some people even knew nobody as well, it seemed. Pobby and Dingan fit into that little town just fine.
"Find anything today?" Mum asked one night when she'd got back from her job on the checkout at Khan's and me and Dad were relaxing after a hard afternoon's work out at the claim.
"Potch. Nothing special."
I could see Kellyanne through the window over Dad's shoulder. She was sitting out back on a pile of stones talking to Pobby and Dingan, her mouth moving up and down, her hands waving around like she was explaining something to them. But all she was really talking to was the night and a few gallahs. And if she was honest she would have admitted it there and then. But not Kellyanne.
"Where's my little girl?" Dad asked.
"Outside playing with some friends," said my mum, fixing my dad a look straight between the eyes.
"Pobby and Dingan?"
My dad sighed. "Jesus! That girl's round the twist," he said.
"No she isn't," said my mum, "she's just different."
"She's a fruit loop," I said.
"I kind of wish they were real friends, Mum," Dad said. "She don't seem to get on with the other kids around here too much."
"What d'you expect?" said my mum, raising her voice and putting her hands on her hips. "What d'you bloody expect when you drag your family to a place like Lightning Ridge? What d'you bloody expect to happen when you bring up an intelligent girl like Kellyanne in a place full of holes and criminals and freaks?"
"I still say Kellyanne could do with some real-live mates," went on my dad, as if he was talking to someone inside his beer.
Mum had stomped off into the kitchen. "Maybe they are real!" she shouted back at him after rattling a few plates together. "Ever thought about that, ye of little bloody imagination?"
My dad pulled a face. "Who? Pobby and Dingan? Ha!" He drained his beer can, positioned it standing up on the floor and stamped on it until it was a disc of metal. Then he threw me a wink as if to say: "Here comes the next wave of the attack, Ashmol!" And it came.
"Damn, Rex! You make me so bloody angry. Honestly! You haven't found any opal in two years. Not a glimpse of it. And opal's real enough for you. You don't stop dreaming about it and talking in your sleep to it like a lover! Well, as far as I'm concerned your bloody opal doesn't exist either!"
But that was a stupid thing for Mum to say, because the shops were full of opal and there were pictures of it everywhere and everybody was talking about it and the Japanese buyers forked out a whole heap of dollars for it. That's a fact. I saw them doing it with my own eyes out at Hawk's Nest.
Well, after my mum said this stuff about opal and after she'd done her usual piece about there being no money left in the tin under the bed, Dad sulked around a bit and kicked a few rocks around out in the yard. But then suddenly the door swung open and he came in full of energy like a new man and with a strange smile on his face. And what did he do? He started asking Kellyanne about Pobby and Dingan and how their days had been and what they were doing tomorrow. And he had never done that before in his life, ever. But he did it in a voice so you weren't too sure if he was joking around or not. Kellyanne was studying his face carefully, trying to work him out for herself. And so was I. And so was Mum. And then Dad asked Kellyanne if he could run Pobby and Dingan a bath. And he asked straight-faced and honest-sounding and Kellyanne eventually said yes, that was all right, but only she was allowed to dry them after it.
I said: "Dad, what the hell are you doing? You know all that Pobby and Dingan stuff's just horseshit! She'll never grow out of it if you talk like that!"
And Dad answered, looking at his feet: "No, Ashmol. I think I've been unfair on Pobby and Dingan. I think that they do exist after all! I just haven't, like, recognized it until now." He grinned and rubbed his hands together and disappeared into the bathroom to run the taps while Kellyanne stood there glowing with pride and flashing me a smile from the doorway which made me feel sick. I looked at Mum, but she had a contented look on her face and started setting about making tea and cookies. I sat at the table feeling like someone had marooned me on a desert island.
Well, I don't like thinking about it, but from that moment on my dad became a total dag. Now when he got up in the morning and woke up Kellyanne for school he would wake up Pobby and Dingan too. Yes, he would. He started talking to them like they was real people. And he wasted all kinds of money on buying them birthday presents too--good money that could have gone into a better generator if you ask me. Oh, yes, Dad had himself some fun by going along with the Pobby and Dingan thing. One time he even took Kellyanne, Pobby and Dingan out to the Bore Baths in the ute. When I ran out to join them with my towel around my shoulders, my dad shouted: "Sorry, son. Can't take you today, Ashmol. Not enough room with Pobby and Dingan in here." He waved out of the window with a big smile on his face and drove off thinking he was a funny kind of bloke. Sometimes Mum would ask him to come and help with the washing up. But no! Dad was helping Pobby and Dingan get dressed or helping them with their homework. Kellyanne loved it. But Mum went a bit strange. I don't think she could decide if she was angry or pleased that Dad had become mates with Pobby and Dingan. And I think even Kellyanne began to realize pretty soon that Dad was only doing it to get back at Mum for having a go at him or something. He wasn't a very subtle sort of bloke, my dad, when it came down to it. He drank too much for a start and spent too much time underground in the dark.
Excerpted from Pobby and Dingan by Ben Rice. Copyright © 2000 by Ben Rice. Excerpted by permission of Random House. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.