No escape

There is a place of no escape. It is in a forest, an overgrown garden, a swamp.

It is lashed with shadows. When the sun is strong, you can see clearly, then clouds cross over and you can’t make out what is lurking, ready to strike. Deep in the hidden places strange and menacing things lie in wait.

Did something move there? Have you been here before? Do you even know this place? A ray of light reveals a familiar face.

And then darkness descends again, too soon, too soon.

My mother lives in such a place. Thoughts and memories encircle her, maddening in their incoherence. Then suddenly all is crystal clear, she knows, she remembers. But she knows the crystal moments will not last, so clutches to hold onto them. She writes messages to herself on scraps of paper, then has no idea what a note says or means when she comes across one. “What’s this say?” she’ll ask, or “Did I write this?” She is consumed by the fear that something important has been lost.

As indeed it has.

At 96, my mother is lucky. She can afford to live in a small facility where she is known and loved, where every staff member understands dementia, where she is hugged and fed well. She is drawn out of her room several times a day, urged to do both familiar and creative activities. Because they know she was a drummer in the old swing bands, she is encouraged to play her snare drum. Because she was an award-winning gardener, she is enticed into the courtyard to plant and water. Because she was a fine tennis player, she is placed in front of the television during the Opens, where she follows the ball and gets excited when someone makes a great shot. She gets to listen to the music of her youth.

But there is a shadow world where the cable guy steals her purse. When the purse shows up, it turns out he’s stolen her cash and cards. She’s sure the care home where she lives belongs to her mother, and can’t figure out why all these strangers get to stay there. They are not her 8 siblings, though this lively environment must be her childhood home. She sees a woman at the shops wearing her red housecoat, and now that it’s been returned, she has to hide it so it won’t get stolen again. She can’t remember that she went out for lunch today with her granddaughter, but when the pianist shows up in the afternoon she can sing every word of every one of the old songs, and brushes her single drum with her hallmark skill and panache.

Every year God inexorably takes his 10% before moving on. The shadows deepen, the daylight hours become shorter, the underbrush more dense.

There is perhaps one escape but so far my mother’s strong feisty body has not allowed her to flee.

You win

His mother’d been fussing around on the sofa half the afternoon and now she threw down the paper she’d been reading, bouncing it off the coffee table.

“Ridiculous nonsense,” she said. “I can’t stand it. All this kafuffle about alternative facts. As if journalists have some kind of special title to the truth.”

Andy put his finger carefully into his page in the biology book he’d been trying to study. “I suppose you think politicians do,” he said, fully aware that his mother was hooking him but unable to stop himself.

“I do not,” she replied. “But I do have the sense to see that just occasionally there are two sides to a story.”

“To a story, maybe,” he said, “but not to a FACT.”

“Oh, yeah,” she replied, eyeing him in that way she did lately, as if her massive belly was giving her the right to be some other kind of malevolent being. “Give me a sample fact.”

“Well,” he said, one hand still tucked in the biology text and the other pointing to the offending belly. “Human females have a gestation period of 9 months,” he said. “Fact.”

She snorted in that unpleasant way she’d developed. “I’ll give you an alternative fact. Less than 5% of human females deliver at 9 months. I made it up but I guarantee it’s a truer fact than yours.”

It took him a second to get it, and then he remembered she’d said that technically the baby was due today. So that’s what was up her nose. Baby was going to be late.  As if he cared. The later the better, as far as he was concerned.

He didn’t deign to reply. She ALWAYS had to win, and he wouldn’t give her the satisfaction. But she’d moved to stand in front of the window, and the bulge was this grotesque thing under her flimsy shirt.

“If you’re going to stand in front of windows,” he said, dialing up the scorn, “you shouldn’t wear diaphanous stuff.” He flipped open the biology book to illustrate the FACT that the conversation was over.

“Ooooo, ‘diaphanous’,” she mocked. “Listen to you with all the growed up language.”

He could feel his face reddening as he flipped pages in the textbook. Suddenly he was aware of her standing right next to him, and he spun round – to encounter The Bulge. She’d lifted her shirt and positioned her stomach right in his face. It was veiny and stretched like a moldy balloon, and that belly button! It was obscene.

He lurched out of his chair, brushing past the offending bulge and the nasty grin on her face above it. “You win,” he shouted. “You always have to win. I’m going out. Nobody could study in this bizarre place. Go ahead and WIN all on your own.”

 

Andy stood with his hand on the door knob, ready to make peace. His time out had cooled him off. He’d gone over to Matt’s, and Matt, while sympathetic, had pointed out that females probably get antsy when baby time is coming. And that his father still being overseas probably didn’t help, nor that his mother was pretty old. Well, Andy knew all that, of course. Maybe he could cut her a little slack. It would be nice if she’d cut HIM some slack, what with his year 10 finals coming up and all, but he could be the gracious one if it came down to it.

When he went inside, she was nowhere to be seen. He slung his coat over the back of the chair, to discover there was a short note on the table.

Baby’s on the way, I’ve called a taxi. I’ll ring you when your little sister arrives.

Love, Mum

P.S. You win. Baby’s coming at exactly nine months. Fact.

His ears suddenly buzzed and he had to sit down for a second. His little sister!

Then he grabbed his coat, checking to make sure his bus pass was in his pocket. This was a time when his mother needed a man around. He knew a bit about the whole birth business, and he’d be there for her.

How hard could it be?

The Christmas Invasion

It wasn’t his fault. It was the damn ol’ grasshopper. The damn ol’ grasshopper had surprised him when it jumped onto his sleeve, so he’d batted at it. And it landed in the punch bowl.

Then crazy Grandma with her orange hair and million wrinkles had screeched, “Toby threw a grasshopper in the punch,” whereupon he’d accidentally knocked the punch bowl right off the sideboard. Which wouldn’t have been so bad if the punch bowl hadn’t hit tile floor. Fortunately there wasn’t much punch left in it, what with the grownups going back and forth to it all afternoon, steadily getting noisier and angrier.

Anyway, everyone was SHOUTING at him and at each other, so he’d made a run for the closet under the stairs. They were all still at it out there, but at least he wasn’t in the middle anymore.

He took his knees off his ears to have a listen. His mother’s voice sliced through the closet door. “What do you mean, your son? He’s our son, the last I looked, even if you’ve gone off to live in coital heaven.” And then Renee (“the so-called step-mother”, his Mum called her) had shrieked something about how she’d said this family wasn’t capable of a blended Christmas, and it wasn’t her stupid child who’d demolished the punch bowl, and she could not be under the same roof as the stupid child and its stupid mother. Then came Uncle Owen’s voice. “You might all want to consider quietening down a little,” which was more craziness because he was shouting too. It was like laser beams were firing out of everyone’s mouths.

Toby crouched down as footsteps climbed the stairs centimetres over his head. First came a clickety-clickety set, then heavier stomping ones. Dust trickled into his eyes. His mother’s voice hollered, “That’s right, run away, you coward. Go do some Christmas afternoon banging.”

At that point, Toby realised he badly needed to set up the Supersonic-Space-Shield. Now that his eyes were getting adjusted to the dark, he could see it standing against the wall. It looked like an ordinary umbrella, but Toby knew its actual powers.

“Las’ time I invite ANY of you to my housh for Chrishmas.” That was his grandmother, in her too-much-punch voice. He hurriedly set up the Supersonic-Space-Shield and switched it on, then put his fingers into his ears for good measure.

The sound shield worked fine, and after a while he pulled his fingers out of his ears. There was a tapping on the closet door. A voice said, “Toby? It’s Uncle Owen here. Wanna come out now?”

“No.”

Silence for a moment.

“Well, can I come in?”

Toby considered the request. He liked Uncle Owen mightily. On the other hand, he was gay as a fruit fly, which he’d heard Renee say and meant something was wrong with him. Also, he was a pretty big guy and the closet under the stairs was pretty small.

Toby opened the door a crack. Uncle Owen’s face looked worriedly at him. “You can come in for a while,” Toby whispered. “But you have to be quiet in here.”

“I can do that,” said Uncle Owen.

“And you can’t see when you first come in, so you have to be careful.”

“I can do that.”

“I’ll put the Supersonic-Space-Shield down so there’s more room.”

“Thanks.” There was much scrunching and moving about while Uncle Owen got himself settled. “Ow!”

“What’s the matter?”

“I’m just getting used to sitting on the vacuum cleaner attachment.” There was a long period of quiet.

“I didn’t exactly throw the grasshopper into the punch bowl,” Toby ventured.

“No?”

“I sort of pointed it there, but it jumped on its own.”

“Right.”

“And I just had a reflex that made the punch bowl fall off. You know, like, a reflex?”

“Yeah, I know about reflexes.”

“And besides, the punch bowl was stupid. Everybody was going back and forth, back and forth to it, and getting louder and grumpier each time.”

There was a pause. “Click-clack-clerk dadadada shoodabunner.”

“What’s that?” Toby asked, startled.

“I’m pretty sure it was the space alien talking to us, the one who invented the shield. He said, ‘Well, at least they can’t drink the punch anymore.’”

Toby giggled. More silence.

“Do you think any of them will like me after this?”

“Blekka-blekka shostabang blekka-blekka kerchoo.”

“What does that mean?”

“The alien says: ‘They’ll all sober up soon, and feel bad that they got a little crazy. Then they’ll love you up all the more.’”

Toby found Uncle Owen’s hand and slid his own into it.

Silence. Either Uncle Owen or the space alien made a grunting noise, then Uncle Owen said, “Do you think we should go out on the planet surface now, inspect things after the invasion?”

Silence. Then, “Okay, but I’m taking the Supersonic-Space-Shield with me.”

“Good idea. I’ll go out first and check if there’s enough oxygen on the planet.” Uncle Owen cracked open the door and sniffed loudly. “It seems fine.”

Toby followed cautiously. The planet surface looked all right. There was no sign of Dad or Renee, who’d probably been vaporised. Grandma must have been zapped by an alien stun gun, as her orange hair was on crooked and she was making loud snores on the sofa. Mum was over in the corner on her hands and knees where the punch bowl had landed, with a pail of water and a bunch of newspaper beside her, making snuffling noises.

“Let’s sneak out and sit on the swing,” whispered Uncle Owen.

“Okay. I got the Supersonic-Space-Shield.”

They climbed into the swing. “That’s very useful when the grownups get too much into the punch,” Uncle Owen commented as Toby opened up the shield.

“Clooka clinka cavoot-voot-voot.”

“What’d he say?” asked Uncle Owen.

“He says, ‘I’ll stick around to keep you company. AND if we want, we can ring Uncle Owen.’”

“Smart dude,” said Uncle Owen, as they rocked back and forth.

She’s got the Heebie-Jeebies

There were five or six of them, quite the little team. The Heebie-Jeebies were pretty much constant companions these days.

Admittedly they sat in a corner and behaved themselves when she was in her office. The orderly piles of payroll records and timesheets kept them quiet most of the time, on a good day. And today had been a good day. Beverly and Owen had smuggled in champagne and birthday cake, and then everyone had piled into her office, spilling the fizz into plastic cups. A couple of the Heebie-Jeebies had rustled around when Owen made a gushing toast about how she deserved the best, and glared at her while saying this would be the year She.Got.The.Best. But generally they’d behaved themselves. When she’d left at 5:00, she was only dimly aware of them hovering in the back seat of the car.

That all changed when she reached home and saw the driveway was empty and the house dark. The Heebie-Jeebies sprang to attention. One of them liked to trickle a cold fingernail from her collar up into her hairline, and he was the first into action. Fierce overlapping whispers followed.

“He’s not home! Why isn’t he home?…Drinking, he’s drinking…Drunk. Drunk. Drunk. Coming home drunk…You’re dead this time.” One of them struck up his familiar theme: “Run. Run. Run. Run…”

She ignored the clamour as best she could, slamming the car door behind her and making her way cautiously up the steps and into the house. The whole team held its breath while she approached the answering machine, its red eye flashing on the kitchen counter. The voice of Dan’s mate at work, sounding tentative, said, “Uh, Dan? You left your jacket on the bench. I’ll, uh, bring it over for you tomorrow.”

She erased the message. “Well, that’s nothing,” she said aloud.

The team paused for a horrified moment, then detonated a firecracker cacophony. “What do you mean, NOTHING?!? It means he’s been fired…He’s been fired…Fired again…Fired and mad….MAD!…Fired and mad and drunk…Mean drunk…BIG DANGER…You’re dead. This time you’re really dead…Run. Run. Run. RUN.”
But she didn’t run. Instead, she sang, “Oo-bla-dee-oo-bla-day” so loudly that she drowned them right out. She got out the scissors and sliced off her long hair, then stashed the scissors behind the answering machine. Two hours later the Heebie-Jeebies shrieked out Dan’s impending arrival when the truck was still at the top of the street. He staggered into the house and grabbed for her hair, only to discover that his favourite handle wasn’t there. While he roared in anger, she winded him with the chop she’d been learning in karate, and then slammed the scissors into his groin. He dropped to the floor, incoherent and already spurting blood.

Panting, she swung around to confront the Heebie-Jeebies. There wasn’t a murmur.

“Do what you like,” she said to them, grabbing her keys. “I’m hitting the road.”

Summoned by Bells

I too, am summoned by bells.*
Although I am not the Poet Laureate
Of England, nor shall ever be, those
Bells keep calling constantly to me.

Times long past, peering over tall grass
It was nodding bluebells that whispered
Knuckled hand, a purple fistful for my mother

School brought harsher bells.
Scraped knees, ragged plaits,
A race to class before the echo
Faded to a teacher’s ready displeasure

A teen in clothes-strewn bed
I woke reluctant, all at odds,
With Elvis’ latest hit chiming
On a green plastic clock-radio

Then college bell, sharp on the hour
Called to genetic coding, sonnets,
Young men with sparkling ideals.

Motherhood: the peal of bells lay quiet
’Neath shrieks, laughs, distressed cries of
Babies, toddlers, ragamuffins.

Long years in office towers
Urgent response to ringing phones,
Early morning alarms
Chimes of train stations and lift lobbies.

Now, the world quietens.
Windchimes caught by afternoon breeze,
Crisp ping of email on tablet,
Daughter calling on Skype,
Reminder to go now to the school to hear
The littlies read.

And so it comes around again…
Small folk, eager faces
Summoned too by bells.

As long as we have ears to hear, hearts to beat
Who will fail to heed the call to join the world?

 

With acknowledgement to Poet Laureate John Betjeman
and his autobiography, “Summoned by Bells”

Writing by Maurice (1) and Heather (2)

The Quiz Master

I hear her footsteps in the hall. Her tread is casual in that careful way she has. She’ll be at my study door in seconds.

I flick my monitor off, arrange my face and look blandly at her as she comes in.

“You’re here,” she says. Well, there we go. The Quiz Master has the first question on the board already, disguised as a cute little observation. Her eyes rest on me briefly before sweeping the room. They pause on the computer screen for a heartbeat, then come back to my face.

I play the game by not looking at her as if she was an idiot. Instead, I yawn and stretch, to indicate that I’m glad of the break. “It must be getting late,” I say.

“It’s after 3:00,” she says. Aha! Question #2, also disguised with a full stop at the end.

“Yeah, just trying to get these exam papers marked.” I wave at the two piles on my desk.

She digests that. I wait, popping a couple of my finger joints.

“I didn’t hear you come in,” she says. Who’d have guessed: Question #3 also pretends to be a statement.

“The game went late,” I say.

“How’d it go?” Ooops! A direct challenge with Question #4. Tricky!

“We won,” I say. “63 to 54.” Which I happen to know is true.

“The girls must have been happy.” Yes, she IS the Quiz Master, all right.

“Oh, they were,” I say. “It was a close game all the way.”

She turns back to the door. Don’t tell me it’s over so soon! But no, she pauses and does that studied casual thing, against the doorway. Her nose flares as she sniffs lightly in my direction.

“You must be pretty tired.”

It’s laughable how she asks and asks and never really asks. Fancy if she had the guts to actually throw out a question:

“Well, darling, were you off bonking someone again last night? Was it the big blond goal shooter?”

To which I could say: “Sweetheart, you really don’t want to know!”

And Ol’ Straight-Talker would say: “Actually, babe, you got that right. I don’t. You just enjoy your porn and your teenage girls and keep coming home. Can I make you a hot chocolate?”

Now, THAT would be a relationship. I feel dizzy at the thought of it but I keep looking her in the eye. The good thing about questions in disguise is you don’t have to answer.

“I’m making a hot chocolate; want one?” she says. I startle. She spooks me sometimes.

“No, I’m fine,” I say. “I’ll be up soon.”

Her eyes sweep the room again, at the doorway where my shoes are, over my clothes, my hair; into my eyes. Then she breaks into that phony little laid-back walk and disappears toward the kitchen.

The quiz is over. She’s gone.

I laugh to myself. She might be the Quiz Master, but I’m the one with the power.

And my power is growing.

Just more bad luck

It all began with bad luck at the airline counter. After queuing with the hordes for the better part of half an hour, well, like, at the end of the queue ’cause I was a bit late getting there, they told me the flight had been overbooked and my seat had been given to someone else. I mean, there I was, having to get to Port Douglas and they’re telling me I can’t get on the flight!!!??? In this contest thing at work, I’d won a free week at the Paradise Resort in PD and decided to take it up; it was a little nerve-wracking, but everybody said you can’t turn down something like that, can you? Anyway, I didn’t like being told I couldn’t go, and I didn’t like how my plans were going to have to change, and, well, it put me in tears, sobs actually, and I’m not sure how it all happened but next thing someone had me by the arm and was saying there was a seat in first class and I could have it.

After I recovered from all the trauma, they pushed me onto the plane and I got seated on the aisle (wouldn’t you know it; not a window seat). I snuck a look at the person sitting next to me. It was an older guy; he turned and smiled and politely said hello.

I didn’t say anything! I mean, how could I??!!! – Because I was pretty sure it was Bob Dylan. Bob Dylan who I went to see at the Entertainment Centre night before last. Bob Dylan who I’ve loved ever since I first heard Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan. Bob Dylan who shaped my life! I mean, he’s old like my parents but he is still so cool.

I snuck another look. My god, it WAS Bob. I mean, it was really Bob Dylan. In the flesh.

I gripped the arms of my chair and tried not to have a heart attack right on the spot. A two hour flight! Two hours to sit next to Bob Dylan, having cool conversations. I could already imagine telling my friends about that.

I decided not blow this. I was already looking a bit dim, probably, not having been able to say hello when he greeted me. I started thinking about all the stuff I could say. Like, “Oh, Bob, I’m just this hugest huge fan of yours and could I have your autograph?” Puke.

So I decided to have a glass or two of the champagne they were passing out and build up some courage. They had nibblies and stuff there in first class, so I drank and ate and worked on my plan. My strategy. Service was pretty good, partly because all the stewies were coming and up and it was, like, “Mr Dylan this” and “Mr Dylan that”.

Then I went to the loo to work on my plan a bit more, and when I got back to my seat, he was sleeping. So I had another glass or two of champagne, and worked on my strategy, and then I fell asleep.

…And when I woke up we were down on the ground and he was gone. I couldn’t believe it. Like, GONE. Like, how’s that for bad luck?

Anyway, when I got out off the plane the sun was shining, which was good after three weeks solid of rain in Sydney. And the hotel was big and pretty gorgeous, but wouldn’t you know it? – I’d forgotten my sun hat and swimmers.

Like, really a record bad luck day.

A Time for Loving

Amy slammed the door shut behind her and leaned back, breathing deeply. The doorknob had come off in her hand; they stared at each other reproachfully but that was the least of her worries at the moment. More to the point was the reproachful look on the face of the guy back at the restaurant table, shortly after he had fished a little diamond out of his pocket and she had lurched from her chair mumbling something about needing to use the facilities.

She rubbed her forehead and reflected. David was an airline pilot and she had fallen in love the moment she saw him in his stunning uniform. Admittedly, she had a thing for uniforms. She had fallen out of love not too long after that, about the third time he stood her up in order to tend to his mother’s demands. Her romantic flyboy had dissolved into a mama’s boy somewhere over the last few weeks, and marriage was suddenly ’way out of the equation. Now, here they were at a cheap Italian restaurant on Valentine’s Day, with her passion ebbing and his heading toward matrimony.

After a few minutes of appreciating the safety of a locked bathroom (although no door handle, no window, no comforts, no class), she realised that the rock in the box had galvanised something in her that had been awaiting resolution. Time to face the music and send him home to mama.

The door, however, was not in tune with her intention. Even unlocked with the door knob stuck back in, it wouldn’t budge. After circling the room a few times, she tentatively beat on the door and called out.

She recognised their waiter’s big bass voice and pictured his 150 kilos of flesh outside the door.  “Hey, who’s that? You stuck in there?”

“The door knob’s come off. I can’t get the door open.”

“My God, that’s no good.” There was some breathy pulling, a few twists of the doorknob, and suddenly a groan and the sound of something very large and soft falling to the floor.

“Hey?” she called, forehead to the door. “You okay? Is everything okay?” No response. Her heart tripped a little and she leaned against the door, calling loudly now. But the commotion outside overrode her own little hullabaloo. She picked up snippets of panicky conversation.

“Holy shit, Alphonso’s down. Mother of God…pulse…is he dead?…”

“Somebody ring the doctor.”

“Jesus Christ, pay attention, Paulo…”

“…IDIOT…the oil’s spilled everywhere…”

And a loud: “Somebody ring the fire department!”

This was followed by several minutes of chaos where Amy’s pounding disappeared into a general cacophony of shouting, crying, banging, dragging and eventually sirens. At one point she heard David’s anxious voice: “Amy, are you in there? Are you okay? They’re forcing us to leave now – I’ll make sure you get out.”

Amy slid down the door, which admittedly was feeling somewhat warmer. Either her life was in the grip of forces beyond her will or else fate was being entirely capricious. Either way, it all looked touch and go.

“Back away from the door,” someone shouted, and she did. There was a sharp blow and a cracking sound, and the door gave way as if it were a recipe being torn out of the Sunday papers. A strong arm grabbed her and swung her up into the sturdy embrace of a magnificently uniformed fireman. “Come on, gorgeous, let’s get you out of here.”

She stared into his wonderful face. “I am SO yours,” she murmured, leaning in tight.

Just a hare’s breadth apart

It was those teeth that impressed me the most. I couldn’t take my eyes off them. There were two of them, each the size of an iPhone.

About what you could expect in the mouth of a six foot rabbit, seated just across the desk from me.

He cleared his throat and I hastily shifted my gaze to meet his eyes. Big round soft eyes, framed by gold granny glasses. When my company had appointed me to be the one to deliver our pitch to the Easter bunny, I’d done my research. This guy didn’t look like the Easter bunnies of my childhood storybooks, but he did look like the photos that Wikipedia had recently published. I was in the presence of the real deal.

“Sorry about the Myxy-Mist, sonny,” he said, referring to the spray treatment I’d undergone as I came through the final length of the burrow. “It’s routine for all our Australian visitors. We can’t have you accidently bringing in the ol’ myxotosis, can we?” He looked at me intently over his glasses.

“Oh, no, sir,” I reassured him, feeling unexpectedly guilty. “The spray was nothing. No worries. Just what I’d expect, of course. I mean, we spray our own visitors when they arrive in the country.” I realised I was babbling and shut up. I was a bundle of nerves. “Sorry, I don’t mean to rabbit on,” I said, promptly groaning inside and biting my tongue.

“Well, we don’t want this to be hare-raising for you, do we?” he said solemnly. “But let’s proceed. I’m ever so keen to hear about what you have for me.”

“Well!” I said. I was feeling harried but took a deep breath and launched into my spiel. “We certainly appreciate the opportunity to show you an exciting new Easter product line. And we feel we can offer you the most astounding breakthrough in, well, in history.” He circled his paw in a move-on gesture so I cut to the chase. “As you know, my company GenuTech is a pioneer in the area of nano-tech gen-mod. That is to say, we use nano-technology to assist with genetic modification.” I paused to see if his eyes were glazing over, which often happens at this point. “Do you follow me?”

He held up a paw. A very large paw with very large pads and very large claws. “I may be a rabbit but I’m no dumb bunny,” he said, glasses flashing. “Speak, sonny. Show me the next generation Easter Egg.” He leaned in toward me.

I cleared my throat, trying to smile. “You will love this idea,” I said. “We wanted to keep the tradition of spring-time, of rebirth, renewal. We think that’s good.”

“I’m glad you approve,” he said drily, “as it IS a tradition of several millennia.”

“And we love the Easter colours that have been so popular over the last few decades.”

“How observant.” Dry as the desert. I could feel the perspiration building on my forehead.

I coughed and sped up. “So we’ve identified the genomes that give chlorophyll its green, that give tulips their reds and yellows and pinks and oranges, that give delphiniums their blue and irises their purple. And we’ve been completely successful at implanting these colour genomes into…” I paused for effect, “….into the cocoa plant.”

He raised an eyebrow at me. “So we now have…?”

“You guessed it,” I said, jubilation overtaking my nervousness. “Coloured chocolate! Chocolate in all colours of the rainbow!” I scuttled for my briefcase and popped open the latch. A cascade of eggs, bunnies and chicks poured out – a riot of coloured chocolate.

“AND,” I shouted, thoroughly on a roll, “not only that, we’ve identified the genome that gives chocolate its unique taste. So not only can we take any chocolate thing and make it any colour of the rainbow, but we can also take any organic thing and make it taste like chocolate! How’s that for an unbelievable Easter?!”

I paused, partly out of breath and partly to let the magnificence of this thing we had done sink in. The years of work, the manipulation of patents, the successes and failures, the children’s focus groups, the sheer wonder of those vivid chartreuse chocolate bunnies and the chocolate-flavoured spinach leaves!

The Easter Bunny rose majestically to his full height and hopped over to me, placing a paw around my shoulder. “That’s wonderful,” he said. “Good for you, very good work indeed.” He pushed his glasses further up his nose and began to lead me around the room. “But let me tell you a bit more about what I’m looking for. I’ve had this idea for something I’m calling ‘pet rocks’, and if I’m right, the children’s market is ripe for…”

“Pet rocks?” I breathed. “Pet rocks?!”

“Yes, isn’t it marvelous? How’s THAT for hare-brained?” he announced proudly.

Closing the door

Hopeless old drunk.

I stand in the paint-peeled doorway looking into the one-room bedsitter that my father had so recently inhabited. My stomach lurches. No wonder he kicked the bucket at age 59. Although he’d made a valiant effort in the last decade – never touched a drop in all that time, so he said – the previous 30-odd years must have turned his liver to Swiss cheese. I remember that that self-same liver is probably hell-bound in the crematorium at this exact moment, along with the rest of his used and abused body.

And here am I, stuck with clearing out the hopeless old drunk’s place. Before me stands a pathetic array of cheap, scarred, worn junk in a bedsitter in the worst part of town, requiring final distribution. I step in and close the door.

I notice his slippers sitting side by side just at the edge of the bed. I sit on the faded patchwork quilt (probably a gift from the Salvation Army) and pick them up. They’re brown plaid, seams wore out down the front so that bits of fleece are finding their way out. The rubber heels are flattened on the outside. On an impulse, I undo my own shoes and slip his on. They fit like gloves. I’d forgotten we were the same size. They are familiar in a way that I’ve been feeling all day, to my great discomfort. It’s as if a little of his soul has slipped into my feet. I almost kick the slippers off, but I don’t. I flex my toes inside them, surrendering to this feeling of profoundly knowing/not knowing my father.

I inspect the bedside table. There’s a photo of three boys by a lake. I’m not sure I’ve seen this photo before but it’s certainly Sammy, Bert and me. I’m the one holding a foot-long trout. I remember the day. It had been a good one. Dad had taken us out to Johnson Lake, where we’d spent the afternoon alternatively casting off the main pier and leaping off it into the lake. I remember the joy of catching that fish, and can feel Dad’s pride as he helped me get it off the hook.

I study the faces of Sammy and Bert. I feel a little wash of affection mixed with regret, and I can’t tell if it’s me or if it’s Dad’s slippers talking. Anyway, they sure as hell weren’t here for the service this morning – couldn’t locate them anywhere among the seven people who gathered to say goodbye to Dad.

I get up from the bed, shuffling a bit in the slippers as I cross the room. There’s an old laminated closet. Three shirts are hanging neatly in there, along with two pairs of trousers folded carefully over wooden hangers, a summer jacket, a winter coat and a threadbare plaid dressing gown. There’s a pair of shoes, old as the hills but spit-polished to a high shine. It’s hard to reconcile this neat and tidy existence with the chaotic one I knew as a boy growing up.

I close the closet door. The slippers drag a little on the threadbare carpet, where a worn path takes me through the little archway into the kitchen area. I see his teacup on the table, on its side. They said he was sitting at the table when the heart attack got him. The cup is stained with tannin and there’s a little ring of tea on the bottom. I give the cup a careful rinse at the sink.

There’s a canister of tea on the shelf, and I take out a teabag. I spill a little water into the old electric kettle, which promptly sighs into action. I find a litre of milk in the fridge. I don’t generally have sugar or milk with my tea but today the slippers seem to be calling the shots.

I bring the tea with me as I trundle over to the old arm chair in front of the TV. God, I haven’t seen a TV like that for a few years. I thumb through a magazine rack sitting at the side of the chair. There’s a Reader’s Digest, a couple issues of McLeans, and to my surprise a dozen New Scientists. Who’d have thought the old man had an interest in science?

I think about this morning at the chapel, where a couple of Dad’s old AA buddies had shown up. They’d both pumped my hand and told me what a great gin rummy player he was. “Oh, we had a lot of laughs together,” one of them had said. “He was a great guy, your dad.” They asked about me, and I told them I’m a science teacher with a wife and a couple of kids in Vancouver. They’d liked that.

There was also a buxom middle-aged woman who was dropping a few tears into a tissue. “I’m so sorry for your loss,” she’d said to me in a shaky voice, obviously feeling a lot more loss than I did. “He was a wonderful man.” I stood completely still while she patted my shoulder, neither of us able to say anything. I thought, it’s clear he didn’t break your face on numerous occasions like he did Mum’s. Obviously you didn’t see him whacking his sons around. You didn’t see what he could do to a dog that annoyed him. You didn’t see him hurling the phone through the window when the landlord called.

I get up to take the cup to the kitchen table. There’s a deck of cards there and I sit down. I surprise myself by remembering how to play solitaire with a real deck.

I hear a car pull up outside and realise it’s Sally back already with the rental. I snap the cards back into the box, kick the slippers off, and swing the door open just as she’s about to knock. She gives me a big kiss, then looks around my shoulder. A look of dismay crosses her face.

“Geez, Dave, didn’t you get anything done?” Her glance takes in the whole of this little dump. “Look at this place. Imagine living like this! What a hopeless old drunk.” She speaks with distaste but I hear a note of sympathy leaking into her tone, whether for me or my father I don‘t know.

“He hasn’t been a drunk for years,” I say. I grab a plastic bag and stick in the slippers, the tea cup and the photo. “Anyway, let’s get outta here. I’ll get the Salvation Army people over in the morning and I’ll have it finished before we have to catch the plane.”

Sally looks relieved. We step outside and I close the door firmly behind me.