Stabbing between my shoulder blades, the aim perfect as ever, my father's eyes find their mark.
For years I have told people I do not have a father. Sensing the difference in one of his own, he drove me from his house as a teenager, his eyes like rapiers. Now, the scars sleep, curled beneath my shawl of numbness. My shoulders permanently pulled back, as if to shield the place where his steely gaze was embedded.
A persistent ringing corrodes my chemical sleep until it gives way to my mother's tremulous voice. "Your father has just passed away." Her words burst from the receiver, sheared through fog like portentous calls of the Manly ferry.
My eyes remain barren, an unexpected early frost having frozen their brine.
I never thought of him as my father; certainly never as Dad - it was always, Him - the owner of the house I happened to grow-up in. I shift in seat 36A and glimpse his Germanic features. He stares back at me, azure-eyed and flaxen-haired, from my reflection ghosting the meagre aircraft window.
The plane banks clumsily and I look through the ghost to the obstinate traffic battling Brisbane's sluggish arterials. Minute cars composed in lines catch the afternoon sun, and shine like multicoloured eyes of the beast below. They watch my return, as they had watched twenty years earlier, when I fled through night to the tawdry doorway of a heckling, uncertain future.
My sentinel brother tends the arrival-lounge doorway. He raises his right hand hesitantly, in semblance of greeting. The elapsed years drag heavily at his face. I recall the unruly bundle of blonde curls that once capped his fleshy forehead. Slowly I cross to where he stands and accept his proffered hand with a brief clutch and shake. We face each other as aliens; each of us fumbling for the words of a common language.
We speed through suburbs of scalped lawn. Newly planted banksias, choking on the toxic fumes of their tar and concrete forest, combat residential soil. I picture the constipated innards of my urban Sydney, my Oxford Street. There, a few straggly plane trees cling to life amid the trampling of impatient, expensively-shod feet, the spindly trunks imbibing the urine and vomit of Saturday-night-drunks. Sullied syringes lie as they fall in back laneways, junked like forsaken lives beside graffitied walls.
I snatch a glance at my brother. He wears a permanent frown on my father's rigid profile; pretends to be engrossed in finding a shortcut through the suburban labyrinth. He drives with reckless haste toward Brisbane's outskirts, desperate to unload me onto our mother and so complete his part of the bargain. I search for something to say.
"So ... how are Helen and the kids?" I venture, splashing into the sea of silence.
"Good." He replies, and clamps his jaw firmly shut, jutting his chin as if to blockade all further conversation. His attention never strays from the road.
The precisely clipped cypress hedge girdling the Bowling Club announces we have turned into our street. A sign outside the fish and chip shop boasts it sells gourmet sandwiches, its front now painted avocado-green. The neat regimented homes stand either side of the bitumen, mimicking one another, as though claiming to house neat regimented lives.
Gravel pops like eggshells as we turn into number thirty-seven, the house I called home for my first seventeen years. Cutting the engine, he turns to me; his eyes fire and ice.
"Why did he make you Executor?" he hisses. "I'm the eldest."
"I've no idea." My voice is a strangled whisper.
"He despised you."
"Yes," I sigh, as I climb out of the car. "He did."
I steel myself for the front door. The twisted old jacaranda weeps purple tears onto the concrete steps. I purposely crush them beneath my feet. My mother stands on the other side of the screen door. She looks older than I'd imagined. Her eyes are those of a lost animal.
"Nicky!" she cries, as she sweeps aside the gauze barrier. She clutches me to her bosom.
"Hello Janice," is all I can manage, wedged between heaving breasts like tontine pillows. For a moment I felt like her youngest child again, yet I couldn't bring myself to say 'Hi Mum'.
She releases me from her clasp and frisks me with a troubled stare.
"Cup of tea?" she asks. Her usual response for all occasions.
"Sure," I answer, and follow her inside. I leave behind bruised tears on the doormat emblazoned with Home Sweet Home.
At once his cold eyes find me. From above the fireplace, he glares from a stern handsome face; immaculate in sombre army khaki. Across a beige Axminster ocean, my brother regards me with the same censuring eyes.
Janice hastily brings out the good china from the dining-room cabinet.
"Don't know why you're making such a fuss," he says to her.
"Walter! Your brother's come home."
"It's not like he's bothered before."
"Well ... he never missed a card for my birthday. Or Christmas, eh, Nicky?"
"Yeah, er, no," I say from far away.
I scramble into a chair at the table where I'd endured countless reticent meals. I hear Janice's sharp intake of breath, as if she'd splashed tea onto her pudgy hand as she poured.
"Nicky, dear," she whispers urgently, "you're in your father's place."
"Sorry." I watch her eyes cloud as I move to my patch of lustrous teak sheltered beneath its crocheted doily. I reach for a piece of buttered dateloaf and wonder which of them is going to mention the funeral.
Walter drains his cup and places it noisily back into the floral saucer. He stands to leave, shunting the chair under the table in one swift manoeuvre.
"I'll pick you up at ten then." He announces, looking at Janice.
"No need," she says. "Madison's are sending a car. Nicky and I will go in that. You and Stefan can meet us at the chapel."
I look up as the screen door slams. Janice walks over and stands behind my chair, her hands rest upon my shoulder. I stare at the wedding ring biting into her finger, conscious for the first time of age spots and crusts of skin cancers on the backs of her hands.
"The celebrant is calling by tonight, to go through the service with us."
"Okay," I say, and pat her old hands, touch the scabs.
"Maude across the road is going to play the organ."
"Good." I notice the small tremor in her voice.
"Nicky, love, I'm so glad you've come home." She squeezes my shoulder.
"Me too." I lie.
She disappears into the bedroom and returns with a large white envelope. Meekly, she places it on the table before me.
"I'll go through them in my room," I say, getting up from the chair.
She briefly allows a feeble nodding smile.
I tuck the paper remains of my father under my left arm and collect my forgotten suitcase from the hall. I head down the time tunnel to the cell of my childhood. The pale walls, yellowed with years of abandonment, still harbour their boyish secrets. They resound with muffled grief for Gary and sequestered plotting of escape. I fall against the brown chenille cover and sink into the clotted mattress. A Kiss poster, mottled with the fingerprints of time, wilts upon the wall above the bookcase bed-head. The envelope marked Nicholas, in my father's firm, precise handwriting, spews its contents. I instinctively push it back.
The fingers of the past tug at crumpled, stashed memories. A cafe appears. A small child sits in my father's lap and steals chips from his big white plate, one by one, while he pretends not to notice. Suddenly he turns, feigns surprise, and tickles my sides and belly. I giggle and squirm, delighted at being caught: delighted with his wicked game. I feel the warmth of his mighty body, revel in the closeness. Laughter ripples from my tiny mouth. He never held me again.
Janice calls me for dinner.
"Thought you'd like a nice steak for tea," she says. "You look like you could do with it, dear." She paddles into the dining-room on small feet pushed into ugly pink slippers, and catches me staring. "Bunions," she says matter-of-factly, as she places two plates on white Irish linen which shrouds the old teak table.
"Oh ... I thought you said steak." I smile at her. She looks confused, then dimples. I cut into tough overcooked meat and pulpy waterlogged vegetables, and remember that was how he liked them.
At the head of the table salt and pepper shakers, like soldiers standing to attention, secure his place.
The celebrant arrives as the mantle-clock strikes eight. He is a dumpy man with grey hair and a kind crimson face. He shakes my hand and calls me Nicholas, lightly touches my elbow with sympathetic sausage fingers. Janice fills the teapot and returns with her colourful cups, sets them out ceremoniously on the table. She drags cling-wrap from the slices of dateloaf and gravely rearranges them alongside hand-painted poppies. I listen to the ticking clock as the meticulous man outlines his service punctuated with fitful questions. He asks if I'd like to speak at the funeral.
"No," I say, "Walter can. He's the eldest."
He finishes his tea and ceases talking. His probing eyes scour the still room as if in search of something stolen or misplaced, before he hauls his bulk from the upholstered hold of the armchair. Janice shows him to the door. I force down the lingering cold tea from the bottom of my cup, eyes averted, afraid of what the leaves may reveal.
Janice returns and begins to clear away her troop of porcelain props.
"It's all been taken care of, you know," I say. "Prearranged, prepaid ... pre-bloody-everything."
"I know," she says, in a diminutive voice.
"You get everything, of course."
"Then, why me? What, as Executor, is there to actually ... execute?"
She looks at me, her eyes like breathed-on glass.
"Think I'll go to bed, love. Nighty-night."
"Night, Janice," I say, and press my lips to her cold cheek. I wonder where Valium will take her tonight.
I pass her closed door as I head to my room and stop for a moment to listen for sobbing sounds. There are none. I imagine her adrift upon a life-raft of tiny yellow pills. I lie uneasily on a musty, melancholy pillow. Old dreams gather in the dark, push forward, impatient for sleep to subdue me.
Gary smiles at me. He is the new boy in school. Taller and a couple of years older, with dark hair and profound brown eyes. He beckons with a wink and toss of his head. Together once more, we saunter along back lanes to the local football ground. From the highest level of seating in the derelict grandstand we spy through cracks in the flooring to the clubroom below. At the back of the decaying structure we slip through loose weatherboards greened by forgotten winters. Lying side by side in the dank space, we look up as daggers of daylight butcher the darkness of our secluded world. He turns to me, his mouth gaping, his chocolate eyes huge, as if seeing me for the first time. He reaches an arm across my chest and draws himself closer. I feel his hard body against mine: feel his warm closeness.
He smells of apple shampoo and freshly laundered clothes as he peels away my layers of asylum. Locked in our frantic embrace, I cling for fear of drowning in the roiled sea of forbidden emotion. The world tilts, spins out of control and explodes into flaming fragments. A strange vicid fluid tickles my sides and belly.
I lie still, unable to meet his eyes. I strive to make sense of this act of love, afraid we will loathe each other once we are vertical again. I dare to steal a glimpse into his face. His eyes are velvet with gentle knowing as he studies me. Suddenly, I know he has come to free me from the jailhouse of my father. I know a lifetime will never be long enough to spend together.
Abruptly he is gone. I stand in dark swirling mist as a tide of inadequate words lap over me. I clutch my insular shawl, draw it close to my chin. My heart cold and heavy as his granite headstone. In secret I return to his side with an arm of scarlet flowering gum snapped from the scrawny tree growing by the football field. I lay it where I imagine his shattered chest to be. I'm unable to look upon the stretch of brutal bitumen that tore him from me. His motorcycle tyres leave black marks in my sleep.
I career into morning and rub Gary from my eyes. I hide him under the covers, bury him again, and step gingerly into the treacherous maw of waiting day.
The car arrives, big, black, and shiny, in the driveway. I see it through frothy lace veiling the window as I fight my throttling collar. A capped, solemn man sits, straight backed, behind the wheel. "Judas," I warn the curtains.
In the hallway Janice stands: pale and pitted in bra and slip.
"Which one?" she asks, "blue or grey?" Two sack-like garments swing condemned from gallows in each hand.
"Mmn ... both nice," I say, looking back to the drive.
We walk to the waiting car. Me in my navy-blue suit and Janice with her painful feet forced into snug blue shoes matching her confining outfit. The driver steps out and opens the rear door. Janice wrenches a red rosebud from the ragged, thorny bush growing by the letterbox. She plunges it, a bayonet, into my buttonhole.
"Want you to look nice, love," she whispers.
I look skyward, embarrassed before Judas. I cannot find the sun. Dark clouds, like contusions, smirch a brooding sky. I wonder why funerals aren't held on sunny days.
We arrive at the chapel like movie-stars at the Academy Awards. I imagine Janice waving to the gathered circle. I help her flounder from the clutch of dark upholstery, free her from the mourning car. Women reach with gloved-fingers, searching for tears rather than autographs. We enter the chapel and take our places at the front. I sit on the hard, buffed pew between Janice and Walter. Stefan, my other brother, sits beside him; their families behind us. The celebrant nods and gives a respectfully sober smile. Nearby, Maude pumps life into the sad old organ.
I cannot tear my eyes from the burnished casket. Irises and lilies pose for him. He never had much use for flowers.
The nape of my neck twitches. Although the casket is in front of me, his eyes find my back.
The celebrant begins speaking, I cannot hear his words. I wonder if my father is really inside the casket. He must be much smaller now. I close my eyes and catch the scent of ripe apples from distant summers. It wraps about my shoulders, a familiar shawl that feels like Gary's embrace. I pull a large white envelope, marked Nicholas, from my mind and examine its contents. I recognise the faded, curling photograph clipped to the note amongst the legal documents. A gangly boy holds a silver cup. For a moment I smile with the same crooked smile. You always were the strongest. Those firm, precise words had come from his remote hand. Be there for your mother.
I turn to look at Janice. She sits silently with unfocused eyes straight ahead. Her shallow breathing the only indication she is still living. I wonder if she has found her own shawl. I suspect it may smell of the empty bottle I found hidden in the cupboard beneath the sink.
"Janice ... Mum ... think I'll come home for Christmas," I murmur.
She looks at me stupidly. For the first time I see a silver tear budding in the corner of her eye. Somehow another, its twin, grows in mine. She reaches with a speckled hand and gently pats my thigh, just as Gary would. I look back to the casket. Unfettered tears roll to freedom, but tears for whom? Snot bubbles at my nostrils. Seeping like viscous bloodied suppuration from a septic wound. Walter stands to give his eulogy. He hands me his handkerchief; his eyes blue velvet.
We step forward for our final goodbye before he will disappear forever behind ivory coloured curtains. I hesitantly approach the polished walnut husk of my father. From my lapel I pluck it. A bayonet. An olive branch.
I carefully place the rose where I imagine his folded hands should be. At once I smell his tobacco-breath. I freeze. He pins me, like a butterfly, with the barb of his barked commands. His monstrous fist gnashes into the side of my nose. The salty taste of blood percolates on the back of my tongue. I lick at the warm flow oozing from my left nostril and split upper lip. I meet his icy stare.
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