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Authors: Cate Kennedy

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BOOK: Like a House on Fire
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Instead she reminisces with a sweet, sad smile about his patience, his bumbling good intentions. ‘What a shame you never thought to take photos on those trips,' she says fretfully. ‘Your father would have loved a record of them.'

Chris jumps again as the car beeps at him accusingly, and he shifts against the sheepskin seat-cover. His mother sighs, looks out the window. ‘He loved coming up here with you,' she repeats, half to herself.

It's nauseating, this revisionism; it infuriates him. This, he thinks savagely, this is the best she can summon: the two of them travelling alone to enact a ceremony in the presence of no lifelong friends, no neighbours who care enough, no extended family, in a place whose symbolism is wholly an invention.
This is the reality
, he imagines saying to her,
just you and me, your 35-year-old son who you cast as the perennial bachelor, this pitiful pilgrimage I can't wait to be finished with
. The words rage in his head, smoking like acid in behind his clamped mouth. He sees the sign to the lake come up over a crest, and the car's computer beeps at him again, like his father nudging him in the ribs, wordless and critical, as Chris snaps on the indicator.

Of late, his mother's started inviting him over to dinner during the week, and he's been realising with a sinking feeling that she's delaying serving the meal until later and later in the evening.

‘Just stay and watch the news with me,' she'll say then, topping up his wine after they've washed the dishes, and Chris watches it, itching to be gone. ‘You could always stay the night, if it's too late to drive home,' will be her next gambit, and he can't stand the studied casualness in her voice, the pretence of spontaneity. ‘Your bed's all made up. You could just shower and go straight to work in the morning.'

‘Mum, I've really got to go …'

‘Grab a towel and there's plenty of clean shirts up there, just have a shower and drive to work straight from here,' she repeats, and behind the warmth in her tone he can hear the steely undercurrent she'd used on him as a child to make him do as he was told.

He knows where all these invitations are leading, and already feels exhausted with the thought of what hopes will have to be quashed before much longer.

Soon she won't camouflage her disappointment so well, and then she'll raise the stakes. ‘I don't understand why you can't just
stay
,' she'll say petulantly. ‘I know you'll think I'm stupid but I feel nervous here alone in the house at night.' She will pause, he is certain, and then add, ‘And it's not as if you've got a wife and children at home waiting, is it?'

The whole campsite looks different — enlarged with signposted nature trails, composting toilets, designated fireplaces. Chris thinks of gathering wood all those years ago, his father's lecture, as they walked, about snakes and bushfires. The way he'd taken a trowel he'd brought along specially and dug a shallow rectangular hole for their campfire, and laid the sticks out in a grid.

His mother puffs a little as she walks up the sandy track from the car park, and Chris consciously slows his walk down. The thought that she might want him to say something, some kind of spoken farewell on the jetty, fills him with a queasy panic. It was bad enough doing the eulogy at the funeral, then he'd amazed himself by breaking down afterwards, while he was talking to the minister at the reception. The other man had stood patiently, holding a cup of tea, as Chris snuffled into a handkerchief, fighting to regain his composure. How could he even begin to tell this stranger what he was really grieving for? He'd taken a breath before realising he couldn't even articulate what it was himself. Just the strain of the day, he thinks now. Keeping it all together.

They reach the jetty that he remembers, and his mother makes a little exclamation of relief.

‘Oh, this is lovely,' she says. Her voice is trembling. ‘I don't want to say anything, Chris. I just want to do it. But it's so hard. I should have opened the box and saved some, to keep for myself.'

He hurriedly feels in his pocket for some kind of container. ‘We'll pop some ashes in the camera bag,' he says. ‘Then you can take some home with you and scatter them under the roses, maybe.' He's desperate for a quick solution, to stop her dissolving into maudlin helplessness; he's the one with the resolve. ‘The camera bag,' he repeats with an indulgent chuckle. ‘Imagine what he would have had to say about that!'

He's rewarded with a wan smile. ‘Better than a matchbox. Remember how he always hated me smoking, till I finally gave up?'

Chris walks to the end of the jetty and extracts the box from the bag, crouching on the weathered boards to open it. Inside, there is a square polystyrene tub, securely sealed with tape. He picks at it.

‘Here,' says his mother, surprising him. She hands him a pair of nail scissors and he holds their sharp coolness in his hand for a moment, pausing.

In a minute
, he thinks, stalling.
Not just yet
.

‘Lovely we've got the place to ourselves,' she murmurs. ‘I'd hate there to be anyone else here. Lovely to have the privacy.'

Chris glances up, out across the glittering water, wishing he'd worn his sunglasses. He has a sudden clear memory of his father, sitting in the dinghy, both their rods swinging without bait and the fishing forgotten. His father had sat squinting out at the glassy still surface of water all around them, disconcertingly unfamiliar in his cotton sports shirt and towelling hat.

‘Don't reckon we'll catch anything, do you?' he'd said.

Chris remembers shaking his head.

‘Not that it matters, though. Just good to be out here, isn't it?'

It's funny, he'd forgotten that moment until now. His father's hopeful smile.

Chris rises and takes a photo of his mother standing on the end of the jetty in her red blazer.

‘Pick up the box,' he calls, peering into the viewfinder. She hesitates, then lifts it, holding it close against her chest, square and plain against her flowered scarf. Chris imagines her looking in the mirror that morning, trying the scarf on, lifting her chin in that way she has, every small decision an aching effort. He wishes he'd told her she looked nice, when he'd arrived at her door. Her expression as she faces the camera, obedient and tremulous and trying not to blink, makes his throat feel tight; there is a stinging behind his eyes. He takes the photo, then hurries back over to her and slices open the tape. He lifts the lid off and sees conflicting emotion on her face as she takes one panicked glance into the tub, her jaw clenching as she jerks her eyes away, over at the water again.

‘You,' is all she says.

No possibility that Chris might be permitted to feel the same violent shirking resistance, no likelihood that he will just be able to stand and upend the box and shake its contents into the water without touching them. No. Now that push has come to shove, it's going to be him.

A handful of coarse sand is what it feels like. That's all. He pinches some of it between his fingers and lets it sift down into the water. He remembers that they had both crouched here with saucepans and cleaned them with river sand, then filled them to pour onto the grey ashy coals of the campfire, the day they'd broken camp to go home. His father had trodden the coals down, crushing them neatly, scattered some soil over the top just like Chris is scattering the contents of the box now over the water. Small handfuls. That smell of wet ash, and the cicadas beating like the ticking of a clock, and his father giving the site one last glance around and saying, ‘Great spot anyway, don't you reckon, Chris?'

Why hadn't he answered with enthusiastic assent? What would it have cost him to give his father that, instead of a shrug, just for the small mean pleasure of feeling his father turn away, defeated? He scoops up another handful and spills it into the water. A drift of grey and white particles swirls on the surface and disperses. He can't believe this is all that's left, this dust and grit, pounded down from something as hard and unyielding as bone.

‘Goodbye, Alan,' he hears his mother whisper, over and over, until the box is empty.

The two of them stand there as she mechanically folds and refolds the calico bag, weeping, shifting in her uncomfortable shoes.

Why hadn't he answered? He stoops and rinses his hands in the shallows, sick with the memory, the waste of it. The heat of the afternoon makes a chorus of cicadas gust up; still that throbbing tick like a heartbeat, measuring out the uncounted hours.

‘You OK to go?' he says finally.

By the time they are back at the car, she's recovered herself sufficiently to wonder if they might get back to that gift shop before closing time, so she can buy those other frames. They can be gifts, she tells him, her animation returning with this new sense of purpose, for the ladies in the book club, to thank them for all the support they've given her.

Chris thinks they can probably get back there by 4.30. As he nods and agrees what a nice gesture it would be, he sees a small smear of ash on the lapel of her jacket, and absently, tenderly, without interrupting her, he brushes it off.

Laminex and Mirrors

Laminex and mirrors, that's me. Or at least that's meant to be me. That's my own particular jurisdiction, I discover when I arrive at dawn on my first day at the hospital and am solemnly handed gloves, a cloth and a spray bottle.

The other cleaners have got their pace down to an art, and it is the pace of the patients themselves, shuffling along the hospital corridors with their drips and tangled tubing; the slow, measured perambulation of those with an endless, unvarying stretch in front of them.

The cleaners spin out their morning's tasks, glazed and unhurried. I don't get this at first. Not quite eighteen and fresh out of school, I'm saving money to go to London and I'm eager-beavering my way through my allotted duties on this holiday job, intent on making a good impression.

Marie, the head cleaner, is annoyed with me when I finish early on that first day and seek her out, conscientiously, for another job. I surprise her in the linen cupboard, feet up on a chair and the daily paper opened to the births and deaths.

‘I've finished!' I announce as she looks up, startled and sprung.

‘Have you now?' She smiles thinly, a cup of tea and two biscuits balanced on her palm. ‘Well, Dot's on bedding today and Noeleen's doing floors. So you can … clean out the ash bins.'

At the grand entrance to the hospital stand two tall black bins for cigarette butts and other detritus abandoned by hurrying visitors, things smoked and gulped and discarded as nervous relatives pace outside. Inside each can is a toxic soup of ash, butts, coffee and polystyrene. I tip each bin into the industrial skip, groping for the high-pressure hose, the smell of them making me turn away and retch until tears come to my eyes. The smell will stay hanging on me all day, burned and stale; Marie's revenge on me, I realise belatedly, for working too briskly.

We break at 7 a.m. to sit in the kitchen and drink tea from thick cups while the catering staff stands at the huge industrial benches stirring gigantic tureens of custard and tomato soup. Dot tries to sell us mail-order cosmetics and cleaning products. She's nervy and keen to please, cheerfully volunteering for the unpleasant jobs. I've never met anyone like Dot, whose hair is backcombed into an actual beehive and who blinks hard with watery-eyed nervousness when anyone addresses her directly. While we're restocking the paper towels in the toilets, though, she tells me the best-value toilet paper to buy, the one that's rolled more tightly than the others, so you get more. It's criminal, in Dot's opinion, what those toilet-roll companies are allowed to get away with.

‘Well, thanks for the tip,' I say as she heads off along the corridors with a wheelie bucket and mop, ready to attack the expanse of cafeteria floor. Lysol is still stinging my nostrils from the emptied ash bins, now sitting pristine back at the entrance, and I have already made a lifetime vow this morning to never smoke.

One of the patients calls me back when I've finished cleaning his room. An old bloke, ex-Army.

‘You look like a lovely girl,' he rasps, grabbing for my wrist. ‘There's a few dollars in my bedside table there, how would you like to do an old man a favour and go down to the kiosk and buy me a packet of smokes?' He names the brand, his gaze upon me steady and desperately hopeful.

Under no circumstances, the matron has already told me, her lips stiff with disapproval, am I to comply with this request. The man's dying, his lungs already clagged with tar, it's unbelievable. He tries it on with everyone.

I smile apologetically at him. ‘Sorry, Mr Moreton.'

‘Matron's got to you, has she?'

‘Sorry, but yes.'

‘Dunno what's gunna kill me first,' he mutters.

I give his breakfast tray an ineffectual rub. He hasn't touched his poached egg, and I can't blame him — it's sitting there like the eye of a giant squid. Mr Moreton has an oxygen mask, but tells me he hates using it.

‘Feel like that thing's choking me,' he says. ‘Like in the war.' Constrained in his bed, he lies with his fingers constantly rubbing each other, missing the smokes.

BOOK: Like a House on Fire
7.41Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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