Commended, Page Seventeen Story Awards. Published ‘Page Seventeen’, 2008
When I arrived back in Melbourne I had to shield my eyes against the sun’s intensity. The heat seeped into everything around me and I felt disoriented – in my years away I had condensed my memories of the city into an icy grey.
In Alex’s kitchen I held a cold glass of beer against my forehead. Alex had been waiting for me; she kept her makeshift turban on in spite of the heat. Below it her eyes were hollow pits. She downed her drink in one huge swallow.
‘So, part of this cleansing diet was freshly squeezed juice, and I was having a laugh about how the beetroot makes your pooh bright red, and someone looked at me and said, geez, that doesn’t sound right.’
She shrugged and topped my drink. ‘So I went to the quack for a check. I guess you could say that in a roundabout way beetroot does have life saving properties.’
Her laugh startled a dove waddling past Alex’s old cat Question, lying sprawled in the shade outside. Only the slightest flick of his tail showed his interest. The terrible heat made the scene outside seem removed, like everything was in some kind of surreal vaccuum.
Or perhaps that was me. I reached again for the beer.
‘So where do you go from here?’
She shrugged. ‘Who knows? Day by day really. Things could change at any time.’ The conversation seemed to empty her; she shrank into a chair at the table to catch her breath.
Voices broke into my groggy afternoon sleep. The air in the little back bedroom was limp and stale, and the room was crowded with lurching boxes. I felt hemmed in by the overflowing family leftovers, to me, an outsider, it was oppressive junk. I slipped down the back hall and out into the yard.
Alex’s daughter Eve sat on the back steps smoking. She looked up at me without smiling.
‘Well, stranger,’ she offered. ‘You’ve aged.’
‘It’s been a while.’
She ground out her cigarette and turned to stare at the sagging row of tomatoes along the back fence. Two doves perched on the clothesline, eyeing the compost pile. The sun was still too bright.
‘Alex seems well.’
Eve grunted, and wound her long fingers together. ‘How long are you here for?’
One of the doves flew away.
‘Don’t know really. A few weeks maybe. I’ll see.’
‘What about things up north?’
‘Oh, I pretty well call my own shots.’
Eve’s mouth stiffened. She gathered up her cigarette pack and lighter and led the way back into the house.
In the kitchen Alex’s younger sister Mandy slumped at the table with her daughter Kim, while Alex perspired at the stove. Old school photos of Eve curled under magnets on the fridge door. Alex looked up at me.
‘Michael, would you mind?’
Alex handed me the oven gloves and I carried the huge pot of boiling soup over to the table. Just being near it made me sweat.
‘Soup?’ cried Kim. ‘In this weather?’
Eve sniffed. ‘It’s always soup.’
‘I happen to like soup.’
‘Yeah, in the winter,’ scoffed Kim.
Beside me, Mandy kicked her daughter under the table.
‘All right, all right.’ Kim held up her hands. ‘I love soup. The hotter the better.’
‘Well I like soup,’ declared Alex. ‘I like making it. It’s like brewing up a life force – a pot of goodness. It makes the kitchen all cozy and it makes me feel good and I will make soup until I die.’
‘Mum!’ Eve threw down her spoon.
‘I’m a salads girl myself,’ said Kim, fanning her mouth theatrically after a mouthful.
Alex nodded thoughtfully. ‘Salad’s good. Maybe tomorrow.’
Eve’s chair scraped along the lino. ‘I’m going to watch the news.’
The silence that followed was almost textured. I caught Alex’s look as I raised my spoon. I turned to Kim.
‘You, I can’t get over. The last time I saw you, you were … twelve? How’s uni?’
She snorted. ‘Cool. A bludge.’
Mandy gave her a push. ‘A bloody expensive bludge. Don’t say that in front of your dad.’
‘Where is Pete?’ Now that he had been mentioned it felt safe to ask.
‘Night shift,’ answered Mandy. She reached for the wine.
‘Should save the marriage,’ Alex said to me the next day, as we tried to escape the heat in the shade of the plane trees along St Kilda Road. It was too hot for the city, but it was one of those ideas that takes root.
‘They only see each other every now and then, one comes as the other goes. Mandy’s like a river, she just goes with the flow. Even when Pete gets in the way, she just swirls her way around him.’
‘She seems happy enough.’
‘Oh, she has her wine cask. I don’t think she’s all that bothered.’ Alex leant against a tree and lit a cigarette. Behind her an English backpacker gestured at the huge coloured creature anchored in the moat outside the gallery. Like an enormous carnivalesque growth, it leered happily against the uniform grey walls of the building.
‘Just what the fuck is that?’ the tourist demanded of his friend.
‘When did you start smoking again?’
‘Only recently. Seems a pretty tame risk now.’
‘Does Eve know?’
‘Oh she’s furious. Says I can’t do anything right. When I try to be healthy I get sick, and then when I’m sick I refuse to be healthy.’ Her draw on the cigarette was so deep that smoke continued to punctuate her words. ‘I see this time as the Land of Treats. Enjoy all the stuff that’s bad for me before I’m too far gone.’ She winced and ground the cigarette into the footpath. ‘Eve’s my little stormcloud – she’s always unleashing upon unprepared people. A tempest in homypeds.’ Alex sighed and secured her turban. ‘Sometimes it scares me though, just how angry she is.’
The backpacker kept gesticulating at the statue. His friend just shrugged. We turned away.
Chinatown was bustling. The noodle bar, where we met Eve for lunch, was hot and crowded. I backtracked along the street for a bottle of wine. When I got back, Alex seemed worn. She left to go to the bathroom. Eve rounded on me immediately.
‘Take her straight home after lunch.’
‘For Christ’s sake, she’s exhausted. She needs to set limits.’
‘She’s enjoying herself.’
Her stare was molten. ‘That’s not the point.’ Eve broke off and frowned. ‘Did you know Dave’s around again?’
I couldn’t hide the fact that I was shocked.
‘He’s like a vulture, simpering around, pretending he’s devastated.’
‘I’m not,’ Eve snapped.
‘No, I’m surprised Alex would have him back.’
The waiter arrived with two bowls of fragrant soup. Alex had ordered for me when I went for the wine.
‘She says,’ continued Eve, ‘he makes her happy, that she doesn’t care enough to be upset anymore.’ She glanced scornfully at her mother’s empty place, at the soup steaming heavily into the air. ‘I actually caught him lifting money from her purse one day. She said she doesn’t keep much on her anyway, and he just stays away when I’m around now.’
‘I wouldn’t have thought she’d … ’ My words wafted into the aroma of our meal.
There was a trace of a smirk on Eve’s face. ‘Mum’s not as capable as you seem to think. She does need to be taken in hand.’
I looked up to see Alex weaving her way through the tables towards us. Beneath her bright scarf her face was wan and tired.
I don’t tend to loiter in supermarkets, but the air conditioning was irresistible. I found myself cruising the deli and dairy sections, filling my basket with cheeses, smoked salmon, pâté. At the checkout my bill was enormous, and I was too shamefaced to put anything back. I bought wine in the bottle shop, to make my extravagance look deliberate.
There was an old blue Holden in the driveway when I got back to the house. A feathered Indian charm hung from the rear vision mirror, and a crumpled packet of Winfield lay wedged against the windscreen.
Inside, the house was dark and smoky. The remains of carrots and onions lay on the table, and the inevitable soup simmered on the stove. Two empty glasses sat among the debris. Alex’s bedroom door was shut.
I crammed my bag of indulgences and wine into the fridge, and left the house.
Mandy was peeling spuds when I appeared in her backyard. She waved happily, wine cask beside her. Kim was out and Pete would be at work till 3 a.m. I dragged her to the bus stop.
We walked along the beach from Elwood into St Kilda proper. I immediately regretted it – where was the seediness I’d hated but felt a part of? Wine bars and shops full of expensive uselessness lined the background for the artfully constructed people who strutted along Acland Street. It was a scene of overwhelming surface effort. I dragged Mandy towards the old Village Bell, only to find it was now a ‘retro’ wine bar called ‘Jackie O’.
The Esplanade was as shabby as ever, but crowded with tourists and students, and the atmosphere was self consciously maintained rather than nonchalant. I felt old and shut out. I bought yet another jug. Mandy laughed into my moodiness.
‘Sure Dave’s an arsehole, but what the hell?’
‘Eve says he’s stealing from her.’
Mandy nodded. ‘I know, but Alex knows too, and really it’s up to her. If she doesn’t care enough to do anything about it, then what’s it matter? She can’t take it with her.’
‘You make it sound imminent.’
She glanced at me keenly. ‘Yes.’
Loud laughter from the bar charged her word; it seemed to echo malevolently in the sodden atmosphere. When someone knocked our table I glared angrily, looking for an outlet.
Mandy watched me closely. ‘You’re still not a good drinker. You seeing anyone?’
‘The best time. Reckon it’ll go anywhere?’
‘Who knows?’ I shrugged. You never know.
It was late when I got back, and I was unsteady and clumsy as I ransacked the fridge. I felt rather than saw Alex appear in the doorway behind me.
‘Good night?’ she asked.
‘Sorry, I didn’t mean to wake you.’
‘That’s okay. I don’t sleep too well these days.’
Mandy was right, I wasn’t a good drinker. I felt mean and aggressive. I sneered, ‘Yeah, so I hear.’
Alex shifted in the doorway. ‘And from the sound of it you have an opinion.’
‘Smoking again is one thing, but surely there’s a limit?’
Her silhouette stiffened, and she reached out and flicked on the light switch. I started. She stood there in an old green dressing gown, and I don’t know whether it was the washed out fabric, grubby and faded, with strands of pulled cotton hanging lifelessly from it, or Alex’s unscarfed and exposed head that shocked me most. Shabby tufts of hair clung feebly to her bald scalp, giving her unflinching gaze a poignancy I had to quickly turn from.
‘Why did you come?’ she said to my back. ‘You can’t face up to anything, you just skirt around the edges. There is really only one issue here. Frankly, I don’t give two shits about anything else.’
She flicked out the light again, and I stood, still and ashamed, listening as she shuffled slowly away from me.
I lounged on the retaining wall in the car park of the Monash Medical Centre; it was still achingly hot. Around me people in dressing gowns and wheelchairs loitered with visitors, smoking defiantly; stretching aching limbs. Like me they’d had to get outside, even the stifling humidity was better than the bitter antiseptic smell of the corridors.
Alex emerged from the building, clutching her shoulder bag. Her turban was, as always, carefully constructed and immaculate. At the bus stop we felt rebellious and flagged a taxi, pausing at the drive-in bottle shop. The sky had turned slate, and the horizon glared dark and ominous. At home we opened folding chairs on the porch outside and settled down for the storm. The cooling breeze was intoxicating.
‘How much longer is the treatment?’
‘Next week’s blast is the last one,’ she said, and raised her glass looking sheepish. ‘I know I should be more diligent – should take notice of Eve and her fuss – but … ‘ She shrugged. I thought of the patients in the Monash carpark, their worn smiles in the dazzling sunlight. Their inevitible return to the fluorescent starkness of the wards.
Question prowled around my chair and flopped dramatically. I reached down to scratch his head, and his purr filled the air around us.
‘I should really think about heading home.’
Alex nodded. ‘The chemo makes me pretty sick for a week or so, it’s probably best.’ She reached out a hand to me, and I held it hard as the cool change finally arrived.
‘It’s been really good to have you here,’ she smiled.
‘It meant a lot to see you again.’ The first drops of beautiful rain thudded the ground. Alex whooped. She leapt up, arms outstretched to the sky.
‘The heavens have opened!’ she bellowed into the sudden deluge. ‘Hallelujah!’
I only took a handful of photos while I was in Melbourne. One is of Alex, in one of her brightly coloured headscarves, leaning laughing on the Princess Bridge. Behind her, Southbank was such a surprise to me that it shimmered like a mirage; part of the dazzle of the sky, of Alex’s laughter.
It took me so long to use up the roll of film that I’d forgotten about the shot. When I found it, years later, at the beginning of endless photos of my new son Sean, the ground seemed to shift a little, and I was moved enough to stick it to the wall. I wished I’d found it soon enough to share with Eve and Mandy when I got their letters – Eve’s brief and so restrained it was agonising. Now it is too late; the gesture, into such an absence, would seem largely empty. Without Alex the bridge across all that territory is lost. Whenever I look at the photo, Alex smiling into my now hectic home, I feel as if I have moved, finally, beyond the tangled mess of my roots.
From Flinders Street Station I’d sent Alex a postcard. While the city streets stilled steamed from the recent storm like an enormous vat of soup, I wrote that going back had been bewildering, as everything had shifted and nothing had changed.
In the photo she laughs back at me as if to say, I know.