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.

The strange way of things

I press my fingers to smooth the lines on my forehead. A glimpse of white at the edge of my hairline catches my attention. I yank my hair back. A half inch of white hair is coming from the roots, in sharp contrast to my natural dark brown hair. I check all over my scalp, and the half inch of white hair is everywhere. What is THAT about?!

Something rears up deep inside me. I notice the frown on my face in the bathroom mirror. I exchange it for a smile and head back into the bedroom. I decide to make the bed. Jake’s side is not particularly rumpled today so it’s an easy job.

I think about Jake. And Megan. I’ve only just woken up, so Jake must have left the house before I did, taking Megan with him. Jake teaches at the highschool so it’s easy for him to drop Megan off at her primary school on the way there.

I sit down on the freshly made bed. That’s when I notice the phone is off the hook. Well, that explains the faint buzzing I’ve been hearing – I was wondering if it was my ears acting up. I grab the receiver and slip it into its cradle. But immediately a feeling of nausea comes over me. I whisk the handset off the cradle again and my stomach settles down.

Very mysterious, really. The body is a puzzling thing. I’ll think about it later, I say to myself.

I go downstairs into the kitchen to make myself a cup of coffee. I glance out the window; I do NOT want to see Grace’s car there again, and fortunately it’s not. Don’t get me wrong, Grace is my best friend and I love her dearly, but she’s been so lachrymose lately that she’s been impossible to be around. In my mind I replay the conversation we had yesterday just before she left the house.

She’d looked sideways at me and said, “Darling, you should get out more. It’s not healthy for you to stay at home all day. It’s time you got out more.”

And I’d said, “Darling yourself, there’s so much to do here. I need to keep things shipshape.”

Grace looked unhappily at me (what else is new?). I have the thought that she’s probably always been negative about my relationship with Jake. She likely thinks I’m over-reliant on him, and maybe she’s right. What’s the phrase? – co-dependant. Yes, well, maybe we are.

The coffee’s ready so I pour myself a cup. As I take my first sip, I notice that the morning paper is in the magazine slot. I slip out the door and reach to grab out the paper. I’m surprised to see that there are several days’ worth there. Funny that we haven’t picked them up. I take them back with me to the counter to finish my coffee while catching up on the news.

But I can’t open the paper. The thought comes unbidden to me: newspapers are not my friend. I slide off the stool to toss the papers into the recycle bin.

That’s when I see the black and white turning into the street, causing a familiar feeling of panic to arise in me. Why is it that we have that reaction to policemen? And sure enough, he pulls into my driveway. I’m really not in the mood to talk to anyone anyone right now, so I slip beside the fridge where he can’t see me through the window. He knocks loudly, calling my name a couple times, then walks away back down the drive.

I berate myself. Who doesn’t answer the door when a policeman knocks? Policemen are not my friends, I laugh unsteadily.

I sit down at the counter again with my neglected cup of coffee, feeling shaken by the policeman’s visit. I glance at the telephone and notice that the light is flashing on the main handset. Five messages, it says. I remember the phone has been off the hook, so that explains why there’s so many messages. My finger hesitates over the Play button, then I hit it. I want to see if there’s a message from Jake, who sometimes calls me through the day.

An unwelcome voice comes on line. “Mrs Mackie? It’s Dr Kohl here. You missed your appointment this week and I’m wondering if you’d like to…”

Not important. I hit the Delete button.

The next message is a man’s voice. “It’s Detective Stephens here, Mrs Mackie. I just wanted to let you know I’m dropping around later this morning. It’s…ah…about the accident…”

I have no idea what that’s about. Delete!

“Gemma, pick up please!” Ah, Grace’s familiar voice again. “Have you got the phone off the hook again? That’s not healthy, darling. I’m worried…”

Delete! That woman is obsessive.

“Gemma, it’s John at Midway Insurance. I…uh…I just wanted you to know we’ve finally finished the paperwork and we’ve posted you the cheque. For the car. Uh…call me.”

Bizarre; wrong number. Delete.

The last message must be one from some time ago, because I know I’ve heard it before. My heart leaps a little. “Hey Gems, just about to head off home. I’ll pick up Megan on the way, so don’t leave the house. See you shortly, sweetheart.”

This one I don’t delete.

The queasy feeling comes back; I shouldn’t have listened to the messages.

I wander over to the fireplace with my coffee. I look at the photo of Gemma, Jake and me that sits on the mantle. How precious they are! I could not live without those two, I reflect, running my fingers over their smiling faces.

All that matters

His house stood silhouetted against the severe blue of the late morning sky, its cupolas, chimneys, gables and slate roof lines making stark contrast with the cloudless sky. Andrew leaned against his walking stick and stopped to catch his breath. He waited for the faint whiff of pride he always felt when he looked at the mansion. Luxury kitchen, ballroom, ten bedrooms, twelve bathrooms – the crowd this house couldn’t take wasn’t worth calling a crowd.

But the whiff of pride didn’t arrive, drowned out by the thought that the last time this house had seen a crowd was almost out of his memory. There was him and there was Barbara, the housekeeper. There weren’t any crowds.

Might as well move on, he thought, but the walking stick didn’t budge. The chemo was taking it out of him, no doubt about it. He shouldn’t be this out of puff after the short hike up from the stables. He’d known the walk might be a bit of a challenge, but he’d wanted to stroke Satin Sunday’s fine black nose. It was worth the trip.

What was the point, anyway? He had no appetite. Whether it was the chemo or the drab saltfree food he was forced to eat these days, it was too much of a battle to get up the stairs and into the dining room where a lifeless plate of blandness would be waiting for him.

He made his way to the marble steps, pausing half way up to lean against the balustrade. Hell, he wasn’t going to make it to the top of the steps on this lungful, so he might as well sit down for awhile. He eased on to one of the steps, positioning his walking stick where he could lean his chin against it.

Thoughts swarmed in. He was 72 years old; he had a death sentence; he had no crowds in his life anymore. Truth be told, he had nobody, really.

But he had nothing to be ashamed of. Around him lay a good deal of the evidence of his life. There was the majestic house at his back, the sprawling stables and corrals, the immense shed beside which his 45’ SeaWatch catamaran was currently aground, big enough for a good-sized family to holiday in luxury. It had been brought in this morning from the harbour, to spend a little time in drydock while Andrew worked out what to do with it.

He rubbed the end of the walking stick against the stubble on his chin. He turned his gaze inward, looking at how he felt. All he could find was tired, tired, tired.

And bored.

And alone.

I could die right here, right now, he thought, and nobody would notice until Barbara visited that unappealing meal still sitting there mid-afternoon. Further, nobody would care. The boys and their mother would head straight for their lawyers. Yes, the lawyers and the accountants would have a field day and otherwise there’d be scarcely a ripple in the universe.

His life was as flavourless as the food on his table.

He thumped the walking stick on the marble. Just because he’d been told the cancer was still moving fast didn’t mean he was about to indulge in any maudlin reflections. There would be no melodramatic surrender to the ebbing life forces and all that crap. He got to his feet.

That’s when he noticed a car pulling into the long driveway. Ah, son William’s black BMW. Not driven by William, though. By his chauffeur, what was his name anyway? – Mike, yes that was it. What was Mike doing here? Then his heart leapt a little as he saw the tiny blonde head in the rear seat. The chauffeur jumped out and whipped open the back door, fiddling with the devices on the child’s car seat.

Released, a tiny figure bounded out of the car and began racing toward the house. He stopped in his tracks when he saw the old man on the steps. “Grandpa!” he shouted. “GRANDPA! I comed to see you.” He tripped over the first step, then flew up the remainder until he catapulted himself into Andrew’s arms. “I can stay for THIS many days, Grandpa,” he said, holding up a hand with all fingers thrust out.

Andrew hugged him tightly, for a moment unable to speak. The chauffeur approached the steps, a small suitcase in one hand and a large empty cardboard box carried by its flap in the other.

“Hello, Mr Branford; you remember me, Mike Bensall. William asked me to drive Ben over – he thought it would be a nice surprise; he can stay for a few days if he’s welcome.”

Andrew ran his fingers through his grandson’s hair as the little face pulled back to beam up at him. “Thank you, Mike. He’s very welcome. He’s very welcome indeed.”

“Well, I’ve got to get the car back,” Mike said. He dropped the suitcase at the foot of the stairs, then waved toward the cardboard box, grinning. “Ben insisted on bringing his carton along.”

Ben released his grip on Andrew and barrelled back down the stairs. “It’s my boat, Grandpa. It’s my BOAT. Watch!” He clambered inside the box and began rocking from side to side. “Watch out for the big waves, Grandpa!” The chauffeur returned to the car and waved goodbye.

Andrew gazed at his grandson ruefully. He could not help but glance at the other boat on the property: the SeaWatch, elegantly perched on its double hulls, the gleaming brass of its railings visible from here.

He had collected around himself the finest of everything – and his grandson chose the cardboard box.

He had anything a body could want, and no one to share his life with.

– Except this miracle, this spicy little grandson with the shining eyes.

“Come fishin’ with me, Grandpa,” the boy shouted, sliding to one side in the big box.

Andrew walked down the steps, to play with his grandson.