The dad is in a hospital and almost all of the world will never know he was born. His three children are hunted away from any moment of comfort as they stand together but alone around his bed. The worst and most noble of their natures are fighting on a battlefield in a war watched only by the cheap walnut striped clock nailed above the door. It ticks like drips of burning plastic twine that fall and hiss tiny screams.
One son, a middle aged man is forever addled from the angry smash of alcohol and drugs. But today there will be no dabbling with those things of privacy and recreation because today is different from all others. After having lifted his head above the diorama of his own scrambled life he stands within the starched walls of a hospital and looks down at dad. He sees nothing in the bed except a thinning sliver of sunset that catches the tip of the flattened pillow. It reminds him of his own mortality.
Later that night his low tolerance for frustration will have him bested by the fleeting charm of intoxication. The soft siren sea-shanty of a neat Irish whiskey with a few codeine-rocks will give him the promise of a loving fog. He is desperate for that velvet body wrap and its warm and freshly tumbled greyness, but more than that he adores it as his closest family. There was something absolutely right about being stoned. It was not unlike an adoring coal miner’s wife watching her spent husband gleefully hurling his work-boots at the lounge room wall a minute before a hot dinner.
And that was Scot, lying alone in his bed smiling sweetly at an ant disappearing into a crack in the low plaster ceiling. Being as tiny as the insect he followed it and it turned to him as a well dressed man with an unknown face. Scot watched him removed his hat and tuck it under his arm and whisper.
“Dad might die tonight. So get ready for it.”
The daughter, a middle-aged woman stands next to Scot and she is scrambling to wrest control of the situation not knowing that she does so because she’s seeking recluse from fear. She’s always running towards something soft and warm, never knowing she is running away from something cold and strange at the same time.
“I was frightened” she slowly croaks. A rehearsal of the words she’ll mutter when she looks back at a death that has yet to happen.
“This means I cared about dad.” And she will say that when she throws the last rose on the coffin roof moments before the petals crush from fat clods of tears and drops of clay.
Those words will be for later, and she assured herself that the rose will not be read because others will see that as selfish drama. No, white is stern and noble with no other message. That will be the tone she will choose, but right now she was an animal freshly peppered with buck-shot spat from the muzzle of fear. The fantasy of her strong and powerful self was well beyond her reach now. It had already scuttled off awkwardly like a crab clattering ridiculously on polished glass seeking purchase. Without the fantasy of her powerful self she was a marooned and blinded soul with a bamboo cane on a tangled island shrinking by the endless cuts of a determined sea.
And that was Sally, too scared to cry or smile and clamped in the vice like grip of ancient adrenaline. It had her fast in flight and it had her rooted where she stood.
The third child there is calm and his name is Mark. He had been walking on a path hewn by his own hand for twenty years. His path began when he told his dad he would never see him again because the old man had lied to him. For Mark a fib was a rotted thing, but a fib from his dad was a carcass that lived and grew and spewed maggots that could never stop multiplying.
At first, the shadow of that lie would catch in the corner of his eye before it darted back to the dark, but as all carnivores do with primal learning they revisit smarter and with a quieter stealth as they approach. He knew in any unguarded moment it would return more fecund with its swollen belly. In time Mark understood that this creature was nothing but a hideous patata that was always with him swaying drunkenly above his head. If he glanced upwards it would split its corruption upon him and the temptation to inspect it was too much.
He chose to walk away from it. With a reborn urgency and with one gathered punch, he bashed a hole right through a wall of the quadrangle in his mind now relaxed that his destiny would reveal itself one day. He was freed in part, but there was another matter that slowed his new stride as can happen in thick dreams. It was the silence.
At first the phone between dad and son sat quiet and dead as stone kite. Soon it hummed and then rose to a flat note that screamed. It became white pitched and it was plasma from a welder’s arc that billowed the steam of their blood around their shared incision. Then one evening the son answered a call and heard for the first time years the sound of his father’s voice.
“I lied. I’m sorry. Can you hear me?”
Mark cried as he watched the mean touch of the maggots and their cruel house of carcass break to ashes.
“Yes dad I can hear you now. You just set me truly free.”
“You have always been free.” he chuckled. “I am the one no longer inside a prison.”
Their words were rushed but never hurried and the son laid it all out. He spoke of how mindful he was of every step that fell on the track beneath him and the dad listened and he told how he wanted to join him.
“Dad you will walk with me?” Mark slapped the side of the chair. “Be with me in my solitude and we will never be lonely again.”
They spoke of birthdays they’d never attended and people the other had never met, and they talked of places never visited and jobs they’d lost and money they’d not saved and they wept, and they laughed and the old man said the doctor said he had six months at best.
Mark was thinking about a joke they had shared a moment ago and he was still smiling.
His words were measured but never slow and his father laid it all out. He assured him he would die in six months and Mark listened and he did not say another word for twenty minutes before he said goodbye at the end of the call.
That was three months ago, and in that time the two men put spades to their buried history and asked softer questions at first.
“Son why did you move out of home and leave your room for me to clean out for a lodger?”
“Dad I was rushing to go to college. I had no time.”
“Son. You didn’t plan ahead and that’s what really happened.”
“Dad you’re right. I slipped up. Sorry.”
That moment would always comfort Mark when he drew upon it later. For his dad it was different. He used the moment as a sponge to wipe away the words from an angry young man he could not understand from many years ago. The image of a son drunk with hormones, the picture of him flush with a new body of a strong man that swaggered without responsibility was now dead. He looked at his new boy without a word and Mark put down his fishing rod and smiled as he touched him on his shoulder.
“Ok. Now we have to get this dingy back to the dock before six or they’ll charge us for tomorrow”, and he turned away and let the tear itch down his cheek as he turned the key and started the engine.
Fourteen hours later and five suburbs away Sally turned a key and opened the door of Scot’s apartment. She walked into her brother’s lounge room and took the blanket off the window and shouted.
“Get out of bed! The funeral house is going to cash the check today and they need you to tell them it won’t BOUNCE this time!”
She put the kettle on and when it rumbled she pulled up a sleeve and swept the bench of dirty dishes to the floor. The sound of the jug was hot rain in her head that couldn’t put out a fire and when the plates shattered on the floor she caught her breath.
She walked to Scot’s bedroom door and screamed. “Cunt! Get up! Now!”
Eight minutes later he walked into the room and unscrewed the cap of fish food and scattered a pinch of it onto the small tank. He crouched down and looked at the two Angel fish and tapped the glass and whispered.
“She’s here. Get ready for the bitch show.”
He stood up and scratched his thigh.
“Dads’ not dead for another three months. The funeral people aren’t busting my balls about it right now and how’d you get a key for my place anyway?”
Sally squinted and Scot scowled and for fifty minutes they got ugly as they got louder. They yelled about family pictures on walls and they screamed about walls in the family. He sucked Vodka and lime from cans and sneered about car registration and she sucked Menthols from the pack and jabbered about French polishing. There was mention of mum and a lucrative job, a Christmas Scot forgot, a neglected stamp collection that Sally let water damage and then a nasty debate about genetics.
For the remaining weeks Sally and Scot bellowed answers to questions they’d never asked while their Dad and their brother gave answers to brave questions.
“Mum told me that you were pissed off when I was born. Is that true”
“Yep. I didn’t want a third kid at that time, but you should know that your mother didn’t like you as much as the others. Truth is, she played favourites like she was betting on horses and I always loved my kids the same.”
“She was shallow?”
“Yeah and she never left because of that offer of some flash job. I tossed her out because she got in with some bloke who was into coke big time. She had to go and I made up that story for you kids.”
Mark stood up from the chair and looked at the drip beside the bed. “Yeah, I’ve known about that for fifteen years dad. I’m glad you told me anyway.”
He turned the little plastic wheel under the plastic bag.“Hey dad. You haven’t been getting any morphine. I opened it up just a bit. The pain should go in a few minutes.”
Dad smiled and looked into his garden and saw the Jacaranda tree in full bloom. Its violet flowers were covering most of the lawn and he watched as another fluttered down.
“Yeah I knew it was turned off. I had to tell you that first before any drugs got into me.” He laughed. “It’s the other type of pain that counts and I reckon we finally got it beat.”
Mark took a deep breath and turned to him with his eyes closed.
“Yes we did and we’re free now. It’s ok to die.”
Nine days later he was in the hospital and dead on the tenth. Before he got the news of that, Mark took the letter from the mailbox and there was an old photograph. It showed himself as a child with his father kneeling next to him and they were laughing. In the background was a great oak that held a tree-house.
This photo was in my wallet and it’s proof that we got it right from the start. See how happy we are and see the tree in the background? I’m at peace now that I know you always forgave me for poisoning the roots, and I’m sorry I lied to you when I said that god made it sick and that I had to cut it down the next year.
I never liked your uncle and when the two of you spent that summer building the tree-house my jealousy made me insane.
We’ve said everything we wanted to say and I’m happy and I love you. Take care.
Original artwork, © Ian Williams. 2013.