"Fred, I don't think that will suit this year. "
Fred's puzzlement hummed like static in her ear. She had practised this moment but she was weakening already.
Maria took the phone into the kitchen and studied the month of April under its scene of happy Sri Lankan tea pickers. Easter was late this year but Fred's internal calendar was as reliable as a migratory bird's. Every Autumn, he gathered himself up and, like the godwits, headed North.
"Come for Easter if you like but just for the weekend, ok?"
She could hear his indrawn breath, as shocked as if the magnetic pole had shifted on its axis. To tell the truth, she felt torn. It had seemed quite straightforward when she talked it over with her friends, and they didn't hold back on giving their opinions.
"Of course you should put a stop to it. He's using you. Footloose and fancy free all summer, camping in the bush, playing mountain man and guiding tourists, sleeping with the pretty ones. Then come the first frost he hitches a ride and he's under your duvet in a flash."
It was true. As reliably as the first load of firewood or the first mouse in the kitchen, the cold weather brought Fred and his bitser, sauntering up the drive. Even the kids had come to expect him and got more excited than when their father visited.
"Is Uncle Fred coming? Cool, will Sting come too? Oh choice. I'm going to show them my fort."
Fair enough, poor tykes, they didn't get a lot of male attention now that their father was on the Gold Coast. His phone calls had dwindled to a couple a year, not even at birthdays, and he hadn't been home for three Christmases in a row. Maybe Brisbane was home now - there seemed to be a new woman and plenty of well-paid work, though the kids never got anything out of that.
There was a hurt silence on the line.
"Well, think about it and let me know," said Maria crisply and she hung up the phone before she caved in completely.
She put her muddy gloves on and went back out to the garden. Last year Fred had arrived with a newspaper parcel which contained a dozen broccoli plants and, unwrapping them tenderly, he had shown her how the damp black earth still clung to their thread-like roots. Without even coming inside, he had dropped his pack on the porch and knelt to weed a patch of the vege garden. She had brought the watering can, watching as his slim fingers tenderly tucked each plant into the soil. The broccoli had done so well that they were eating the last heads long after Fred and Sting had headed South.
This year, being quite sure that she was going to say no to Fred, she had bought her own plants. She settled each one firmly into its hole and gave it a splash of water. Then she threw her gloves down in a patch of sunlight where they would dry off and went inside to make coffee. Sitting on the porch to drink it made her think of being there with Fred in the pale winter sun, waiting for the kids to come home from school.
To be fair, he did pull his weight around the place, as long as money was not involved. The firewood would be split and stacked, lawns mowed (well, that wasn't hard, they barely grew in the winter) and best of all he would take the kids to the park to kick a ball around, with Sting leaping and barking to hype up the excitement. Boys need that. Sometimes she would go with them and join in, but other times she stayed at home and savoured the quiet house in the knowledge that Xavier and Dominic were having a good time.
Maria thought back to the first winter Fred spent with her. She had met him at her friend Jude's garden party in the late summer. Jude was an old hippie and it was no surprise to find a lanky man with a greying ponytail serving punch from behind Jude's dining table. He had a broad grin and hazel eyes which held Maria's gaze a little longer than necessary as he put a glass into her hand. A full hippie beard would have put her off completely but he was clean-shaven apart from bushy sideburns. They had a laugh over something instantly forgotten and Maria moved off to talk to old friends. She assumed that if Jude was not already sleeping with the man she fully intended to - aging hippies with twinkly eyes were entirely Jude's style.
So the first pre-Easter call was a surprise. He even had to remind her how they met. To this day she could not recall inviting him to stay - surely that would be quite unlike her - but perhaps he had mentioned 'passing through' sometime.
The first image of Fred and Sting strolling up the driveway became the prototype for the years that followed. Pack on back and floppy hat over his brow, he had come whistling up to the front door shortly before dinner time on the Thursday before Easter. Xavier and Dominic had eyed him suspiciously from the corner of the couch where they had collapsed after a hectic afternoon. While Sting set about winning over the boys, Fred plunged into his pack and, with the aplomb of a magician producing a rabbit, pulled out a ziplock bag of gritty-looking brown stuff.
"What's that?" asked Maria, hoping it had nothing to do with drugs.
"Falafel mix," he said proudly. "I made it myself." Seeing that she still looked mystified he added, "You can make vegetarian burgers with it."
Oh god, he was vegetarian and she had splashed out for a chicken to roast on Easter Sunday. He dived back into his luggage and pulled out pita bread, then he took over the kitchen, mixing and frying and asking for carrots, onions, lettuce, and did she have any fresh chilies? Maria was reminded of the boys' reading book about the soup stone, but it was strangely relaxing to be the kitchen-hand for a change.
Quite sure her boys would never touch vegetarian food, she grilled some fish fingers but they tucked in to the pita pockets stuffed with falafel and salad - salad! - without even a glance at their old favourites. Sting finished off the fish fingers.
After the boys had gone to bed, and been sent back twice more, and finally settled with Sting on an old towel on their floor, Fred made one more magical rummage in his pack and brought out a bottle of wine. The first glass went straight to Maria's head and she was uncharacteristically talkative, telling yarns of her student days, long ago raves and pranks and the hilarious bacchanalia that was Orientation Week. She skipped the part where she met the boys' father.
That night he slept on the couch in his sleeping bag, and again on the second night, but on the third, after the boys were in bed, he went and had a shower and a shave, which made Maria nervous. She was relieved that he emerged fully clothed. They were on to the second bottle of wine which Maria had bought with the supermarket shopping, and after a glass or two and a chat, Fred settled down in his sleeping bag as usual. But around midnight, when the house was still, he came softly into her room, slipped under her duvet and gently showed her that perhaps she had been missing a man after all.
So come September, it had been a shock to discover him packing. True, they had never talked about him staying and it was a bit awkward wondering whether she should go off welfare and if so how they would manage as Fred seemed totally unsuited to a job in the car factory or the petrol station. The days were lengthening and the mornings were warmer but she had not yet learned that this would signal Fred's migration South. Standing on the porch after his good-bye kiss, she had felt hurt and abandoned as he called to Sting and set off towards the highway to thumb his first ride.
After he had gone she found herself humming the tune he always whistled and she remembered some of the words: something about a sleeping bag rolled up behind the couch. "Gentle on my mind" came into the chorus and it suggested that if you didn't hassle the free-spirited man he would be there for you. Yes, well.
Always one to make the best of things, Maria found that she was quite happy to have the summer to herself. She took the boys to her parents for a couple of weeks around Christmas time and they had their fill of body-surfing and rock-pooling with their cousins as they did every year. By the time they headed back to school they were as brown as their father and the soles of their feet were like leather.
Maria was offered a part-time job at the school office, where the hours suited perfectly. She had filled up her life and since there had been no contact from Fred she put the whole thing behind her. And yet, when he phoned out of the blue that second Easter, her heart gave a little skip. So three more winters followed in the same pattern, the first bottle of wine always the best as they shared the summer's stories and laughed their way to bed.
But this last summer, something had hardened in Maria's heart. It had all worn a bit thin. It annoyed her to get up and go to work at the school, leaving Fred to sleep in and mooch around at home. If she insisted, he would hang out a load of washing but she had yet to persuade him to actually sort and wash it, let alone bring it in or fold it. She felt petty because her peevishness was just like her married friends' complaints about their husbands and she and Fred weren't like that. Were they?
Maria finished her coffee and tipped the dregs into the chrysanthemums. As she went inside to put her cup in the sink she looked at the phone. Would Fred call again, to try to persuade her? Would he stroll up at Easter weekend and stay on, daring her to throw him out? Or - and her heart gave a panicky lurch at the thought - would he take his sleeping bag elsewhere and winter over under a new duvet?
The boys would be home soon. Maybe she could go up to the park with them and kick a ball around. On the way to the shed for the soccer ball, she had another look at her broccoli plants. They were standing up bravely, ready to face the winter and grow.