Winning stories 2016

 

1. ICED TEA by Kathryn Hind

 

 

My old bones creak along this same route ten, twenty times a day. It starts with me flickin' up too fast from the fancy electric recliner the kids all chipped in and got me, and it ends in the loo. Well, it usually does if I'm lucky, but I guess it's not my lucky day because halfway there I've gone arse up. Now I'm stuck, layin' here in the hallway flat as a tack, the weight of my body pressing on my damn bladder. Nothin' hurts, there's no pain at all but by god I can't find the strength to get up. To think I used to wrestle rams and now I'm here, 'bout to piss myself on this shitty wool carpet. With my face shoved into the stuff I can still smell the sheep on it, the sweat and skin of the animal. I move my head back, really arch my neck till it burns, and then I see her, my Margie. The photo's all brown with age, but she's still shinin', perched on a motorbike. She's lookin' down on me, one of her oversized pregnant dresses hitched up to her knees as she straddles the beast, showing me the curve of those calves.

 

I married her, the first woman who loved me, and if things were tense sometimes it's only 'cos I was sure she'd come to her senses one day. But ten kids is what happened, a couple of 'em made from sweat and hard liquor, the rest from Margie's sweet iced tea. She only put the stuff out to brew when she wanted me, my siren of the paddocks. I'd be in the doorway of our room, headin' out before dawn sliced everything through, and she'd say to me, maybe with one of the little ones tucked up next to her: “Iced tea'll be on today.” In a few hours it'd be ready, and so would my darlin', just enough sugar.

 

She put the tea outside to get strong in the sun, the lemons turnin' to sludge, the liquid goin' this delicious, ugly brown. Sometimes I was sure I could smell it all the way down by the shearing shed, or when I was screwin' round with the tractor - a smell so sweet at the edge of all the grease and the shit caught in the undercarriage. I'd come home for smoko no matter what I was up to, no matter what I tell ya, and I dunno how she did it so synchronised 'cos on a normal day it was pure chaos, but the young 'uns, they'd all be asleep, not a peep from 'em, and the rest of the brood would be at school. And she wanted me, by god she wanted me, those sweet iced tea mornings.

 

We started with a glass of it on the back porch. Her little pot plants were dotted all around, sproutin' colour no matter the time of year, thrivin' off bath water well-seasoned by a relay of grubby kids. We'd sit under the cover I built, the plastic one that amplified the first spots of a rain, sometimes sendin' the lot of us out in the middle of the night, faces pointed at the sky. We sat there and we'd cheers our glasses together. It'd be ten in the mornin' and the flies'd be nuzzlin' into our eyes, little buggers, and she'd drink her tea so quick. Too quick for me, 'cos I liked to sit there and look at her, taste that drink long and deep and just sit, knowin' something even sweeter was on its way.

We'd be talkin' about Tommy's spelling, or the problems her sister Mauve was havin' with cash flow, about a ewe I'd found by the dam, back leg all bent up, or one turned to fluff balls by a fox. Just chattin', the way it was with her and me, our lives squished together, so much in common, every little thing about her being a big thing for me, and vice versa. I might be mid-sentence, half my iced tea left and the rest of hers would go down the gullet. Her empty glass made this chime sound on the little wrought-iron table set out there, the ornate one that dug into ya bum - we couldn't get rid of it 'cos it'd belonged to her mother. The glass'd chime and it was all systems go. We'd keep talkin' the same stuff but quieter as we scraped those darned chairs from under us and headed inside. I closed the fly-screen behind me, the only time it was ever closed real gently, without the usual gunshot bang.

 

We moved up the hallway, this one, with the carpet I'm sniffin' right now, and it was a war zone of creaks, still is, just no one to make it creak anymore 'cept me. And we kept whisperin', trying to avoid the dodgy floorboards like they were land mines, for fear of wakin’ the kids. She'd take my hand halfway down, just above where my head is now, that's the spot, and her fingers were rough from work, as rough as mine I reckon. And we were still talkin' talkin' talkin', real quiet, sometimes even arguing, about her sister, or about our middle girls who were either at each others' throats or joined at the hip, playin' out some conspiracy. All the way to the room we'd go like that, fightin' or in peace but always hand-in-hand, then she'd push the door to with her hip, leavin' just a little gap so as to hear the yelps of the young 'uns, then talkin' talkin' talkin' still, softer 'n' softer, all the way to the pillow. There was this long divot down her back where her spine was, just the right width for my fingertip. I'd run my pointer finger up and down that soft little channel, and I never ceased to be amazed at how two bodies could be manufactured to fit together, just like that.

 

What I'd give for some of that iced tea right now, the ice cubes clinkin', drips slidin' down the outside of the glass, and my darlin', right there beside me. But it must be hours gone by now, and I've not had a drop of drink, nothin'. I can't get up, not for the life of me. Can't tell if I’m too

weak or if there's somethin' completely shot. My arm's just laying here in front of me, useless as a rubber chicken, and I gotta laugh at it 'cos by god it looks ridiculous. And it's the skin of an old man, the sun's had its way with me, there's no denying it won in the end. For a sec it's like I can look at that arm and see myself the way the kids do. There's somethin' wrong with the system you see, if they expect us, in the fadin' years, to give up the way we got so used to livin'. The kids'll be shakin' their heads at me, fightin' over whose turn it is to come out and give the old fella a hand.

 

I've outlived two of 'em, my kids. If you believe in god, then tell me, how can that be? I sit in the pews, those planks too narrow, makin' my back ache. I sit there and take it, the pain and the ceremony, I take it as punishment for all I've done wrong. And there's chatter afterwards, widows and women with their hair dyed young, their eyes just waterin' 'cos they wanna help me so bad. The church, it's all right for community and all that, but if you've ever held a baby that’s still when it should be movin’, or taken the hands of your grandkids while they're stumblin' over prayers at their uncle's funeral, then you know as good as I that there is no god.

 

The first one, he came out dead. We had no idea, but Margie had been funny the whole pregnancy, cryin' all the time. I think she stayed in bed all day, barely shiftin’. I'd come in from work and she'd just be shakin' in my arms, scared in a way I'd never seen her. I just thought that must be how it's meant to go, what else was I 'sposed to think with the first.

In the hospital she was real quiet, even when he was comin' out, she was so quiet, and I could tell by the way she was sweatin', the creases in her brow, that it hurt like hell. There were too many people in the room, all havin' a geeze, and somehow the metal smell of blood was stronger than the sterile stuff covering the place from floor to ceiling. Somethin' wasn't right I could just tell, but I didn't check to see what. We just looked at each other, her and me, not a peep out of either of us. I was locked onto those olive eyes of hers, deeper and darker than I'd seen 'em, and when he finally came out, he was quiet too.

We thought that was it, that we wouldn't get another chance. I built the coffin, tapped it together in a few hours it was so small. I watched it hoverin' over its restin' place and the only thing that stopped me droppin' to my knees was to just think, well we gave that a go and it's lucky we have each other. She's stuck with just me, and gosh I hope I can make her happy. I stood as straight as I could with my arm ‘round her and when that tiny box went down, it all came outta her, all that quietness taken over by noise so desperate it took her breath, usin’ it all up, so she was panting and gasping at my suit pocket.

If I force my eyeballs right up as far as they'll go, through the door at the end of this hallway and into our bedroom, I can see the beginnings of it, the faded outline of a stain. It was another mishap, we thought, anyway, same year as the funeral. Blood at the wrong time of the month and too much of it, far too much. It came gushin' out there on the floor in the middle of the night, and she said don't turn on the light, don't turn on the light, but I did and I had to blink to get my eyes used to it, and to the blood. It was so bright, so hard to wake up to. She locked herself in the bathroom and I scrubbed and scrubbed, tryin' to get that darned mark out. She shut herself away for so long, each time I called out she said she'd only be a minute. I could hear her crying even though she was runnin' the tap to cover it up. Forgive me for I know it was wrong, but that spurtin' tap, it got me thinkin' of the water tank, the drought and all the sheep I was feedin' by hand. I'll admit I worried about that then and I wish I hadn't, wasn't the time or the place for it. She needed to do what she needed to do and I woulda hauled water for days if I had to.

 

She came out and she'd tried to cover up the redness in her cheeks and she just would not look at me, no matter how much I scooped below her tryin' to catch her eye. I got back to scrubbin' the stain and she said to stop, that she'd fix it, and she was firm and controlled in a way that only a fool would mess with. So I stopped, and we switched the light off.

 

She did a damn sight better job on that stain than me, though it took days. Soaked it in some salty stuff, then scrubbed the next day, soaked and scrubbed and finally one night she said real flat, that's as good as it's gonna get. I told her it looks great darlin', that only her keen eyes would ever notice it. And I squeezed her, but she only let me keep her wrapped up for a coupla seconds, then she pushed me off and stood at the kitchen sink, holding its metal edge and looking far out the window at the crop I was sowin' that morning. Then she started on dinner and there was the smell of the gas stove, the sound of butter gettin' goin' in the pan, and her knife, slicin' carrots dug from the veggie patch that afternoon.

 

When she finally got the chance, she was a natural mother. By god she was a good mother. Locky was our youngest and he was taken while Margie was still here. Part of me can't help but wish it'd been the other way, 'cos it was tough on her, changed her, more than those times before. He was an ocean boy, it called to him since he was a toddler. In the summer when we packed the lot of 'em up in the van and headed down the coast to Gerroa, he'd jump over the little waves that rippled

up the sand. Loved it, moved to be near it as soon as he was finished his schoolin', beatin' some of his older brothers and sisters out of home. And the ocean took him in the end. How a kid like him drowns, so fit and strong, is beyond me. They say he had some drink in him, too much, young and out for a good time, and too brave. Always too brave he was, jumpin' from tree branches like a monkey but fallin', always hurtin' himself - you hear a cry and it was Locky, another dinged up knee, a shoulder outta place, another scar below the brow. We didn't wanna teach him otherwise, didn't wanna put fear into him, 'cos what a gift to be unafraid, but in the end we got it wrong, 'cos he was taken, courage and all.

 

I've pissed myself now. It stings my thighs in the patches where my damn psoriasis has been playin' up. My face is numb where it's stuck to the carpet and I can feel grains of stuff I'm meant to vacuum digging into my skin. I'm dribblin' too, it's caked around my mouth when I move my tongue to my lips.

 

The fly-screen gunshot slams.

 

“Yoo hoo.” It's Bev, and I hate the way she lets herself in, and always through the back door, no less. “Anybody home?” What a stupid question. She's a woman from church, been visiting twice a week for the past six months, on Tuesdays and Thursdays. The ’T’ days I have to tell myself, so I can remember. She's fussin' round in the kitchen, hummin' to herself. There's ice falling against glass and liquid tinklin' on top of that. She's walking closer, the ground vibrates a little under my ear, and she must see me 'cos she gasps, a real sudden whoosh of air in so that it sounds more like machine than woman. I open my eyes and see her grey, rubbery shoes, the type you can get from the pharmacy, and then she's on her knees next to me, her perfume a big thick blanket round her, makin' my eyes water. She's made a jug of iced tea, thinks she's doing a good thing by bringin’ it each visit, but no one knows how to make it right. She rests the jug by my face, real close. She touches my head lightly and mumbles something in a panic, then she's off and dialling for help. I look through the iced tea, and I know what it tastes like 'cos she does it the same every time, headache sweet and full of syrup and colour. The wall is all funny, shiftin' through the liquid, and there's that picture of Margie, her face just below a slice of lemon, smilin' big. 

 

 

 

 

2. FREE LOVE by Joseph Ridgwell

 

 

We were standing at the bar of the Pot - Me and Ronnie that is. Serving behind the bar was the regular barmaid - The Duchess of Canvey Island. The Duchess adjusted a bra-strap - a habitual of hers - as she completed the Guardian’s notoriously difficult cryptic crossword in less then ten minutes. 

    ‘Another couple of wife beaters when ya ready Vick,’ said Ronnie.

    ‘Just give us a minute Ron, only one clue left,’ replied the Duchess without looking up from her newspaper.

    ‘What is it?’ said Ronnie.

    ‘What is what?’

    ‘Fuck me, the clue.’

    ‘Rewrite article for narration.’

    Ronnie gave the clue some thought, around ten or fifteen seconds worth. ‘Recital.’

    ‘Ooh yes, it fits, cheers Ron love.’

    ‘Course it fits. Lazy anagram. When compiling such a crossword the compiler has to consider the majority of the Guardian’s pea-brained readership. Make the answers too difficult and there will be complaints aplenty.’

    The Duchess put her paper away and poured two pints of fizzy lager.

    When the pints arrived Ronnie handed one to me and took a sip from his own.

    ‘The reason people get sick, like cancer, heart disease and shit is because they conform.’

    I raised my pint and took a sip. ‘Yeah?’ I said.

    Ronnie pulled a book from his back pocket where he always kept a book and turned to a dog-eared page. Brave New World. ‘Aldous Huxley had it down pat. Read this.’

    A paragraph or two had been underlined. I read the words. 

    

    The real hopeless victims of mental illness are to be found among those who appear to be most normal. "Many of them are normal because they are so well adjusted to our mode of existence, because their human voice has been silenced so early in their lives, that they do not even struggle or suffer or develop symptoms as the neurotic does." They are normal not in what may be called the absolute sense of the word; they are normal only in relation to a profoundly abnormal society. Their perfect adjustment to that abnormal society is a measure of their mental sickness. These millions of abnormally normal people, living without fuss in a society to which, if they were fully human beings, they ought not to be adjusted.

    

    ‘Yeah,’ I said, once I’d digested the words.

    ‘We live in an extremely abnormal society. Those who conform to this abnormality put their bodies and nervous system under extreme stress, the consequences of which ultimately lead to progressive illness or brain malfunction.’

    I took a swig from my pint. ‘So what’s the answer?’

    ‘Non-conformity. I’m not going to live like them and in fact I’m going to live the exact opposite. This of course is a tricky and difficult path to follow, but someone needs to make a stand.’

    ‘They do?’

    ‘Fucking right they do. This is a serious situation, so serious in fact that the continued survival of the species may depend on a successful outcome.’

    ‘What ya gonna do?’

    ‘I’m gonna have an open house, love-in’s, copious drugs, drink, and plenty of art and culture. And I renounce material possessions. Property is theft. Share and share alike. What’s mine is yours and vice versa.’

    ‘Even birds?’

    ‘Especially birds. Of course I won’t be sharing such things with any old cunt, just those on the same Cosmic wavelength.’

    ‘Like me?”

    ‘You’re my best friend ain’t ya?’

    ‘You’re like a brother to me.’

    ‘Well then, what’s mine is yours.’

    ‘And vice versa?’

    ‘The way I see it, it’s a two-way street.’

    Just then Tony Baloney - serial womaniser and all round hard bastard - bowled into the pub. 

    ‘Alright Ron, alright Poet. Rum and black when ya ready Vick.’

    I was known as the Poet because I’d once written a poem on the napkin of a local bistro and the owner of the bistro had had it framed and hung on the wall for all the world to see. The bistro was called Pearl’s Cafe and Pearl was dead. 

    Once he’d been served the Sausage Man turned to us. ‘Only gone and done it.’ 

    ‘Done what?’ said Ronnie.

    ‘Killed the cunt.’

    ‘What cunt?’

    ‘Sneaky Pete.’

    ‘Sneaky Pete?’

    ‘Cunt gave me no other option.’

    ‘You mean he’s brown bread?’ said I.

    ‘Dead as a fucking dodo.’

    ‘What’d he do?’ said Ronnie.

    ‘Owed me a bullseye and refused to pay up.’

    Ronnie ready-eyed Baloney. ‘You mean to say you laid a fella down over a fifty pound drug debt?”

    ‘It wasn’t the money it was the principle. The cunt was mocking me. And if you let one cunt take the piss before you know it it grows arms and legs and every cunt starts taking the piss.’

    ‘That’s you fucked then,’ said Ronnie.

    ‘Ow d’ya work that out?’

    ‘Last I heard it was still a life sentence for murder.’

    ‘I didn’t murder the prick I killed him. He was tooled up. I’ll only get done for manslaughter.’

    ‘Still looking at a six to eight stretch.’

    ‘Three years for good behaviour. Stroll in the park. Anyway I won’t be doing any bird. Take a look outside.’

    We grabbed our pints and bowled over to the window and peered outside. And there it was. Baloney’s pride and joy - a gleaming white Ford Escort RS Turbo Cabriolet. A GB sticker had been slapped on the boot and on the shelf of the back seat was a sombrero. 

    ‘Going on holiday?’ I said.

    ‘Ibiza. Season starts in a couple of weeks and with ten thousand little fellas on board I aim to be coining it in all fucking summer.’

    ‘Gonna drive all the way?’ said Ronnie.

    ‘Down to the South Coast, ferry to Bilbao, drive to Barcelona and then catch a ferry to the White Island.’

    ‘Sounds the bollocks,’ I said.

    Baloney downed his drink and slammed the glass onto the counter of the bar. ‘Only way to travel. You mugs should get ya shit together and join me over there. I’ll need a couple of runners. Hasta la vista boneheads.’

    We followed Baloney out of the boozer to see him off. It was a bright sunny day. Baloney jumped into his car and let the roof down. 

    ‘You’ll have Interpol on ya case.’ said Ronnie.

    Baloney slipped on a pair of ray-bans. ‘Had ya going there didn’t I?’

    ‘Had us going?’

    ‘About Sneaky Pete.’

    ‘You what?”

    ‘I didn’t really murder the prick, just gave him a bit of a slap.’

    ‘A bit of slap?’

    Baloney turned the key in the ignition and revved the engine. ’Broke his kneecaps.’ He roared.

    ‘You cunt.’ Roared Ronnie.

    ‘So long suckers!’

    With Baloney off the scene me and Ronnie returned to the bar of the Pot.

    ‘D’ya think we should take him up on his offer?’ I said.

    ‘Ibiza?’

    ‘Yeah.’

    Just then a beep sounded on Ronnie’s mobile phone. Ronnie read the text.

    ‘Who was that from?’ I asked.    

    ‘This bird I’ve been trying to pull for a few weeks.’

    ‘What’s her name?’

    ‘Jo.’

    ‘Sort potato?’

    ‘Right looker. Met her in Faces, got her number an that, but she keeps making excuses not to meet up.’

    ‘And what she saying now?’

    ‘Her and some mates are heading to Faces. She wants to meet me there.’

    ‘Maybe your lucks in.’

    ‘You up for it?’

    ‘Let’s go!’

    By the time we got to the Essex nightclub we were good and boozy and with the bugle on board we knew we would be out for the duration. It was Thursday evening and the popular nightspot was rammed. It was the usual Essex crowd. Gaudy designer clothes, layers of make-up, orange faces, and plenty of Colombian colds. We bought some drinks and weaved through the crowds. 

    ‘There she is over there,’ said Ronnie pointing. 

    I zoned in on the direction. A short, dumpy-looking brunette with big tits and short hair hove into view. Next to her was a tall skinny blonde with no tits and long hair. ‘Her?’ I said. ‘The one with the tits?”

    ‘Yeah, what d’ya think?’

    ‘I’d bang it.’

    We swigged our bottled lager and coined some bugle up our hooters to boost confidence levels. Then we strolled over.

    ‘How’s it going?’ said Ronnie.

    ‘Alright. Who’s ya mate?’

    ‘Joe meet Jo.’

    I held out a hand. Jo held my hand and looked straight into my eyes. ‘Pleased to meet ya.’

    ‘Likewise and who’s your mate?’

    ‘Tina.’

    ‘Alright Tina,’ said Ronnie.

    The blonde half-smiled, displaying an alarming amount of disinterest.  

    ‘Anyone want a drink?’ said Ronnie.

    ‘Got any good foot?’ said Jo

    Ronnie handed over a wrap. ‘Help yourself.’

    After the girls had disappeared to the ladies me and Ronnie had a pow-wow.

    ‘What d’ya reckon?’ said Ronnie.

    ‘Jo’s a sort, but I don’t fancy the blonde one.’

    ‘Face like a cat’s arse job.’

    ‘D’ya think you’ll get ya nuts in?’

    ‘Let’s play it by ear, see if we can get em back to yours.’

    The evening flew by in a whirl of drinking, snorting, disco dancing and flashing lights. Then the entertainment was over and we found ourselves out on the streets. Ronnie made the move.

    ‘Fancy coming back to Joe’s.’

    Jo looked to Tina. ‘Fancy it?’ said Jo.

    Tina wrinkled her nose. ‘Na, I’m going home, you go though.’

    Then the three of us - me, Ronnie and Jo - caught a cab back to my parents house. The oldies were away on holiday and it was open house at Drum Ridgwell. All three of us were high and drunk and when we got back to mine we carried on where we left off. I cracked open some beers and Ronnie lined up the bugle on my Mum and Dad’s dining table, credit cards and rolled notes to hand. It wasn’t long before the Ronnie was espousing his philosophy on life.

    ‘That’s why people get sick, cancer and shit.’

    Jo shot me a funny look. ‘Because they go to work?’

    ‘Yeah, well no, but yeah, they stress out their bodies and minds by doing shit that is abnormal. I’m not gonna live like them.’

    ‘But if ya don’t go to work you won’t ave any bees and honey.’

    ‘There are other ways of getting hold of money.’

    Just then something touched my leg. It was a foot. I looked over to Jo and she winked. What the fuck?

    ‘Such as?’

    ‘Writing a book that explains how fucked up society is and giving the world some answers.’

    ‘What, like a self-help manual?’

    ‘No, no, more like a Cosmic illumination.’

    ‘You’re bonkers.’

    ‘He’s gonna have an open house. Everyone will share everything. Possessions will be rendered redundant.’ I said.

    ‘You two sound like a couple of old hippies.’

    Things grew misty, opaque, oblique. At some point a taxi was ordered. The taxi was intended for Jo, but when it arrived something strange happened. Jo walked out to get into the car, but she hesitated and returned to the house.

    ‘I’m not getting in.’ said Jo dramatically.

    ‘Why not?’ said Ronnie.

    ‘Yeah, why not?’ I said.

    ‘I don’t like the look of the fella, he’s got an unlucky face. Why don’t you get it Ronnie and I’ll call another one?’

    Things were getting odd. Ronnie looked at me and then at Jo. 

    ‘Okay. Just don’t do anything I wouldn’t do.’

    Ronnie got in the car and then he was gone.’

    ‘What did he mean by that?’ I said.

    Jo put her arms around my neck. ‘Who cares?’

    I awoke in my single bed with Jo lying beside me. I lay there and pieced together the events of the night. A strange night if ever there was one. What the fuck was Ronnie’s girl doing in my pit? Some of Ronnie’s words floated through my sozzled cranium.     

‘Share and share alike. What’s mine is yours and vice versa.’

 

    When Jo awoke she appeared visibly upset. 

    ‘What ave I done?’ she kept saying.

    ‘What d’ya mean?’

    ‘I’m meant to be with Ronnie not you.’

    ‘Maybe you had a mental aberration.’

    ‘I wonder what Ronnie will say.’

    ‘Don’t worry. As long as you’re on the same Cosmic wavelength he won’t care.’

    ‘On the same what?”

    ‘Forget it. Fancy a pint?’

    ‘Yeah, I need one.’

    In the pub it was obvious Jo was embarrassed by what had happened and was worried what Ronnie would think.

    ‘If you don’t say anything I won’t,’ I said.

    ‘But he’ll know, you know what he’s like. It’s them eyes of his, David Bowie eyes. He has that way of looking at you, like he has this sort of power.’

    ‘I’ve heard that said before.’

    After a couple of drinks Jo called a taxi. When I got home Ronnie was waiting outside my parents front door.

    ‘Where ya been?’ he said.

    ‘How long ya been there?’ I said.

    ‘Just got here. So what happened?’

    ‘What happened?’

    ‘With you and Jo?’

    ‘I shagged it, why?’

    Ronnie’s face dropped and for one fleeting moment he looked like a lost little boy. 

    ‘How could ya?’

    ‘What d’ya mean?’

    ‘I told you how much I liked her.’

    ‘No, you told me we were gonna share and share alike. How you were gonna have an open house. What’s your’s is mine etc.’

    ‘Only if you were on the same Cosmic wavelength and after the stunt you just pulled, you’re no longer on it.’

    ‘You’re joking ain’t ya?’

    ‘See ya around sad boy.’

    ‘Ah come on Ronnie?’

    ‘Fuck off!’

    A few days later I was told Ronnie and Jo were an item. Ronnie stopped going to the Flower Pot. A few months later I heard that Jo was pregnant and that her and Ronnie were getting married. Not long after I was told they had left the UK and were living on a small island in the Mediterranean. It was around this time that I left the UK and didn’t return for five years. The next time I saw Ronnie he was in prison. As for Jo she eventually ran off with another of Ronnie’s good friends. For a leopard, as the saying goes, doesn’t change its spots.  

 

 

 

 

3. LUCKY by Catherine Greer

 

“It's a father's duty to give his sons a fine chance.”

George Eliot, Middlemarch 

 

It was his first time overseas. He’d travelled to Sydney with a grey suitcase, no wheels, impossibly heavy, and a bottle of Rye whiskey from the duty free. I found him, shy and lost, in the arrivals bay. He smelt of stale smoke, with the face of a drunk or a farmer baked hard by sun and bad luck. 

My father.

Seventy-two and sounding like he smoked a pack a day, he shook my hand and coughed. ‘Well hello, there! Finally made it down under.’

‘Dad. It’s a long way from Langenburg. How was your layover in Vancouver? Find your way 

around the airport okay?’

‘Sure did.’ He glanced down the terminal. His eyes had the panicked look of a smoker 

needing a hit. When I reached for his bag, he stopped me. ‘I can carry it,’ he said, ‘keeps me fighting fit.’ 

We walked toward the exit sign. He gestured expansively at the crowd. ‘You got yerselves a lotta Chinamen here in Australia. We only have the one, Ching, he still runs the Chinese café in town. Him and his family. Them Ching girls are the waitresses. His missus is the cook.’ 

‘Yeah, Dad, I remember.’ 

I wondered what he’d say to Leila when he met her. She was at home making a feast for him; she’d been to Flemington markets at six that morning to buy coriander and Chinese cabbage, then to the Fish Markets for fresh crabs. She’d spent a fortune on the crabs. Sweet boy, she said, swinging her black waterfall hair over her shoulder, he’s your father, so we honour him. With expensive crabs. 

The crabs probably cost more than his suitcase, more than his pleather jacket, and I understood why Leila had convinced me to buy his ticket. She made me a better person than I was on my own. Your father’s an old man now, Chris. You haven’t been home in years. He needs to visit you. 

He might have needed to see me, but I wasn’t so sure I needed to see him. Memories crawled across our conversation like spiders, making me itch. The relatives in town, people who’d died that I barely remembered, places I hadn’t thought about, not even once. 

The doors opened. We stepped into a wall of humidity outside Terminal 1. 

‘Geez whiz,’ he said, ‘ it’s hot as hell here in December! Nothin’ like our winter in Saskatchewan.’ 

I explained about the southern hemisphere, the heat of a Sydney summer. And through it all I remembered the snow: the winter I spent in rubber boots when it was forty below, when he’d stayed too long at the greyhound track and couldn’t pay the heating bill. When he was going to do better at the next race, with the next dog. 

The cigarettes were always on the kitchen table beside his black leather bible. He read it without fail every night, when he came home from the track with an empty wallet and more hope than he had a right to carry. He’d gamble on a Saturday, and drive us to church on Sunday in his ‘72 Lincoln Continental, polished like a baby over a skeleton of rust. 

Leila wanted me to honour him. 

I walked quicker than he did toward the ticket machine. He was breathing hard and fast and talking about his funeral he’d prepaid, the fancy flat screen TV they threw in with the deal. Everyone in town was getting one. It was a bang up offer. ‘So you won’t have to pay a cent when yer old Dad croaks, not a penny. No sir, not one penny.’ 

I stopped and tapped my credit card. He whistled at the number. ‘Thirty-seven dollars to park in this place?’ 

‘Yeah, well, you were late. Parking’s expensive in Sydney.’ 

He nodded wisely. ‘Seems like most things is different here.’ He looked at my Volvo SUV. ‘Not bad, not bad. Somebody’s done quite well for hisself. Up on yer luck, are you?’ 

I considered the crapshoot of being born his kid, and always hearing the same old story: about needing just one more chance at the track. About luck. 

I popped the electric locks and slid into the leather interior. ‘Not luck, Dad. I work sixteen- hour days at the bank. Not the ponies or the dogs or the Lotto.’ My laugh turned sour in my mouth. He took off his bifocals and cleaned them with his shirt. ‘You got all this now. Well, you had 

a good start. You loved the books and your basketball and that coach. Remember that chance I got you, the lucky break? “Coach,” I sez, “you can have my boy but you need to get him a scholarship.” And he did, yes sir, I told him and he did.’ He clapped me on the back. ‘Yer old Dad did good.’ 

He clicked in his seatbelt and patted the dash. ‘Drive me over to yer place. Wanna meet your lady-friend. Bet she’s a looker.’ 

I thought about running to school in the winter dawn to shoot baskets while the janitor cleaned the gym. Studying in the weight room when the hydro was cut off at home. The empty fridge when I was a boy straining to become a man. And the scholarship I earned to get myself out. 

My father hummed beside me, watching the cars speed by. 

‘Sure, Dad,’ I said. ‘You gave me a fine chance. I learned everything I needed to know from you.’ 

***

© 2018 by Limnisa.