The story is set in modern times and most of the action occurs over a period of about six months in a small town on the northeastern coast of Australia.
Just before Christmas, Kerry Matt, unmarried mother of Sarah (19 years old), Carl (nearly 16) and Harley (10 years old), all with different fathers, takes off again on one of her “little holidays” and leaves the children to fend for themselves. When she stays away longer than usual, Sarah, who works in a travel agency, sells the household furniture, arranges for the boys to holiday with Aunt Beryl “up north” at Wattle beach until their mother’s return, then takes off overseas herself. Aunt Beryl lives in a shaky de facto relationship with Bruce Trelfo, a “shonky” tow truck operator, and spends a great deal of time and money on the pokies in the local club. When Kerry does not arrive for Christmas, and still has not collected the boys by the time school begins, Carl and Harley are enrolled in the local schools, but life is difficult, not only because of the instability in Aunt Beryl’s home but also because of the bad reputation of the Matt name in the town. Carl has a hard time taking care of his brother and keeping a roof over their heads.
hen Carl turns 16 and the Social Security money she has been receiving for him is stopped, Aunt Beryl pesters Carl until he leaves school and gets a job, parking cars on Skip Duncan’s red barge, which is in competition with Wattle Lady, the yellow barge, transporting passengers and cars across to Wiseman’s Cove. A price war threatens to put Skip out of business, but the resourceful, hard-working Carl begins a service-to-customers, washing the sand and saltwater off the returning four-wheel drives and this gives their business an edge. Meantime Harley is suspended from school for fighting, and Carl has to take care of him. Joy Duncan comes to his aid, in the short term, taking Harley home with her where he bakes a chocolat