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It’s cold, dark. The light from the back door stretches only as far as the apricot tree. The orange tree is beyond it, near the back fence. It’s not easy to know what I’m picking without the light of my phone, which tonight I forgot. Once I get three oranges, I glance back down the gentle slope toward the house. The old place looks the same as it did thirty years ago when I was a kid. The sunroom on the left, the bathroom to the right, and my parents’ bedroom in the middle.
Something shifts behind me. I turn but there’s only blackness, with a few random branches and leaves barely visible through the gloom. The dim would swallow me whole if I were to walk into it. Like I am ten again, I quickly step back toward the light where it’s safe. I won’t truly be out of trouble until I get inside, and the closer I get to that goal, the more afraid I become. I accelerate to a jog down the slope, taking care not to slip on the wet grass, which would be fatal. When I reach the back door, I’m convinced something will come from around the corner of the house to grab me, or someone lurks behind me, and has been waiting until I open the back door, so they could get inside and slaughter us all.
I know I shouldn’t feel like this – at my age of almost forty – but at night, I’ve always been terrified of my parents’ backyard. I scuttle inside and enter the living room, where my two children are watching a movie. The Neverending Story. Artax is about to die in the swamp of sadness. I’d forgotten this part, how awful it is, and doing a quick mental calculation (are they old enough to watch this?) I run over to Rosie, who’s only eight, to cover her eyes.
“Is it too scary, Dad?” Alex asks from the couch on the opposite side of the room.
“Can I keep watching?”
“Maybe we’ll just skip over the creepy bits tonight, because of Rosie. What do you think?”
“You’re a good kid,” I tell him.
The next morning, I am organising the kids, as they are about to leave. Interrupting them from Minecraft on the iPad, I ask, “Your mummy’s going to be here any minute, do you have everything you need?”
“Yes, Dad,” Rosie and Alex say in unison. I bet they don’t.
“Do you have your schoolbooks and lunch boxes?”
“Yes, Dad,” they repeat. They always leave something behind, which I then must drop over to the house Alice and I once shared.
“Alex, do you have your piano book and aerial outfit?”
“Rosie, what about you, do you have your unicorn? Remember last time, when you left it here?”
“Yes,” she says, going red.
“So, we’ll see each other next Saturday, right? Maybe we’ll go to roller rink or the trampoline park on Sunday?”
“Trampoline park, trampoline park,” Rosie shouts. I knew this would get her excited. Alex simply looks at his phone, which hasn’t stopped beeping all day. I’ve been trying to engage with him since yesterday when they arrived, but he seems more interested in what his friends are saying as they send message after message. He’s usually the one who tells me what’s going on at his mother’s house, and I rack my brain for something that would interest him, in the hope he will bring it up once he’s back with her.
The gravel in the driveway crunches under the weight of a car.
“Mummy! Mummy!” screams Rosie.
I walk to the window to see Bruce has driven her in his new Mercedes. It’s large and grey. Alice took our family car, a Honda, which they could have driven today, but obviously they’re making a statement.
“What a tool,” I mutter.
“What?” Alex says, glaring at me, while Rosie runs for the door.
“Nothing,” I say. “Hold on Rosie, come and give me a kiss goodbye.”
She hesitates, itching to leave, but with my arms out, I cajole her, “Come on, Munchkin, Daddy needs a hug, we won’t see each other for another week.
“You, too, Alex,” I say, as he tries to slink past. He’s thirteen, way too old for displays of family affection.
“Bye, Daddy,” Rosie says. They disentangle themselves from my arms and escape out the door.
Bruce and my ex-wife get out of the car. Of course, they do a big family hug right there. I mean, I wouldn’t mind so much except for the fact that Bruce is so successful and loves to show it off.
The old house is lifeless after the kids leave. My parents are holidaying in Queensland, as they always do during winter. For now, until I find something permanent, this will have to be home. I’m glad they’re not here. My mother wouldn’t be able to stop asking questions about Alice, and what’s going to happen now that Bruce is on the scene, trying to suggest I should have stayed with her, in between telling me about what all her friend’s children or my cousins are doing. It usually starts with, “You’ll never guess who’s had a baby!”
I never did work out how to avoid this. My father’s approach is to disappear into his shed, saying he has to work on a new house design.
I should be revelling in the freedom of isolation, but all I can think about are the empty rooms. Sitting in the living room watching television, the long hallway beckons, which I will have to walk down to get to bed. Past the darkened kitchen, dining room and my parent’s closed-up bedroom, there are so many cupboards, cavities under beds, crevices and dead spaces someone could hide. If I were some crazed maniac, I’d sneak into houses during the day and wait until my victims came home to come out and kill them.
The more I think about this, the more I wonder why I picked the bedroom at the far end of the house. I should have gone for the sleepout. It’s close to the living room, the back entrance and has two exits. I’m just glad it’s not windy tonight. I had the television on trying to drown out every creak, groan, and subtle shift in air temperature, but trying to be brave, I turned it down for ten, fifteen minutes before bed, cataloguing every noise, rationalising what they could be, telling myself it’s just the old floorboards, or a possum on the roof.
There’s a knock at the front door. Friends and family come to the side door where the driveway is. I’m not expecting anyone, and at nine at night it seems a weird time for someone to visit.
I open, and see a tiny woman in front of me, my age, maybe a little younger.
“Hi, I’m Cath from next door,” she says. It’s freezing tonight, but her outfit, a big puffer jacket covering her body and beanie shielding her head, seems a bit much, given she only walked forty metres to get here.
“Hi, I’m Michael.”
“So, we,” she turns around to indicate another person, and it’s only then I realise there’s someone standing near the front hedge, “we heard you’d come to stay. We’re having a community drinks thingy next Saturday afternoon, and we wondered if you and your children would like to come?”
“Sure,” I say, “my kids will be here then, so we’d love to.”
“Oh great,” she turns around again to look at the person. I am pretty sure it’s a man. I can only see a silhouette, dark clothing, a beard maybe, “we’re quite new to the neighbourhood. I mean, we’d heard a lot of stories about how close everyone is, you know, given what’s going on, so we thought we should come over.”
“Sorry, what’s going on?”
“Oh, you haven’t heard?”
“No,” I say.
“There’s a peeping Tom in the neighbourhood.”
“Shit a brick!” I say, not meaning to swear. “Is that still happening?”
“Yeah. You say, still happening?” she again turns to look at her accomplice. Now I know why he’s standing there, and she keeps turning to him. She looks at me, like I am about to say something else, but I don’t.
“Sorry, sorry,” she says, “I didn’t mean to, I mean, it’s just a bit disturbing.”
“Yeah, no worries,” I say. “When I was growing up, there were always stories, but you know, this area of Canberra, the older suburbs of the city, the big blocks, the old houses, the odd layout to the streets, they do have a bit of strange feel to them.”
“Yeah,” she says.
“Yeah, have you walked about at night, like coming home late from the pub, or just going for a midnight stroll, you know, like in summer? I mean, not now, it’s too bloody cold.” Why do I keep swearing?
“No,” she says, adjusting her coat like it’s some sort of shield.
“Well, just how dark it is for a start. I mean, did you notice how all the streetlamps are old, few and far between, and hardly throw out any light, like someone wanted it to be all dim and murky?”
“Right,” she says. She pulls down her beanie, and retreats half a step.
“And how all the trees, like the pines and the old eucalypts, the way they shimmer at night, I always thought it felt like they’ve been witness to stuff, you know.”
She turns around, and I can see she’s considering running back to the person near the hedge.
“Look,” I say, “if there’s anything I can do, or anything you need, just come over. Let me give you my phone number.”
Her jumpiness, the guy she has with her, and her outfit give me a shot in the arm, like what am I scared of? After she leaves, I strut around the house, loud like I’m huge and can take on anyone. Still, I check all the entrances and windows throughout the house, double and triple checking they’re locked, before retreating to my room.
My phone pings. A text message from Alice. Trust her to send it at this time, hoping to interrupt my sleep but I wish she or someone else would send more, alerting anyone outside I’m in here and still awake. They won’t come in if I’m still awake.
Alice’s text is about her birthday, which is coming up, and Bruce wants to take them all to Fiji for two weeks. Of course he does. But our court order says they’re going to need my say so to take the children out of the country, especially for that long. The problem will be telling the kids they can’t go, when an overseas trip to a tropical island would seem to them almost too good to be true.
I’ve tried to suggest a couple of times their new situation is no good, the weekends away, them staying over at his house, but Rosie and Alex just don’t get it. And after almost a year and half of Rosie and Alex visiting Bruce, it’s not like I can diss them going to move in with him at the end of the year either. They’re just so excited about it.
I mean, how do you tell your daughter that her going to live with another man, not her father, could potentially bring on early puberty for her; or that as she gets older, she will practice flirting with him. Alice didn’t get it, well, she didn’t reply to the email I sent about these things. To her, it’s all about Bruce, the man-wonder, who she started dating within six months of us splitting.
I wake up at three a.m. Something outside roused me, I think, but I convinced myself I needed the toilet. This happened a lot when I was a kid. I would drink too much and wake up busting, and then, not wanting to get up, would try falling back asleep with my bladder full. When I finally did get out of bed, the oil heater would be burning, throwing light and heat up and down the hall.
Tonight, as the heater lays cold, I use my phone to light the way, waiting for the tell-tale creak from someone behind me about to strike. I try to confuse them by turning on the television in the kitchen as I pass through and not flushing the toilet after I piss. My plan works. I get back to my bed unscathed, but don’t get back to sleep until six a.m. as I have a feeling they are waiting for me to fall back asleep.
I snooze until nine thirty. In the state between slumber and consciousness, I think I am back home, lying in bed beside Alice. I reach out, expecting her, warm and soft, to be beside me. I stretch, grasp, but find nothing. Alone, the bed beside me, cold and empty.
To take my mind off this and the kids after I get up, I spend most of the day in my room, cleaning out my old stuff, as my parents want to sell the house. I moved in here at thirteen, out of the sleepout because I was the oldest and my parents thought I needed a space away from my two siblings. Complete with double bed, bedside tables, a dresser and wardrobe, all my grandmother’s furniture, the room is still littered with my possessions.
Behind my school backpack in the wardrobe is a small white suitcase. Looks like something out of one of the Hitchcock movies Dad so loves. I’ve never seen it before, but it’s got his name on it: Peter McCallum. A combination locks adorns each clasp, but they’re not engaged, so I open it. Nothing inside but his old camera. He bought it the same year I met Alice. The day he got it, he raced around the house taking pictures of everything he saw, Alice included. He hovered around her, shooting her, shooing me out of the way if I got in the frame. She tried to seem flattered, but I could tell it made her feel uncomfortable, so I suggested I take a picture of her. Dad stopped and looked down his nose at me, like I was talking drivel again. “This is special equipment,” he said, “and can only be handled by people who know how to use it.”
Holding it in my hands now, I look through the lens, work the telephoto mechanism, zooming in and out. I wish the kids were here. I’m better when they are. Late at night, if they are asleep in their rooms, I can walk around the house, no problem. They’d be interested in the camera, and shifting into dad mode, I could do something my father never did, show them how to use it.
Alice, as usual, is late but when she finally arrives, Bruce isn’t with her. What’s more, she has things to tell me. Rosie has a stomach bug. She didn’t vomit, but was up half of Friday night with a sore tummy. Alice gives me flat lemonade and Neurofen in a Woolworths reusable shopping bag, telling me Rosie shouldn’t eat anything rich.
Something in the way she hands over the bag, like she isn’t sure how to do this, makes me think, maybe she’s still awkward around me. I mean, the knee-length skirts she always wears, along with one of her old jumpers, makes me daydream about past times, moments I had seen her remove these pieces of clothing, wriggling close, her hands and body rubbing up against me, willing, imploring me to reciprocate her desire.
I long for her to cross the threshold. I cleaned all yesterday in anticipation. Somewhere in my head I thought she might come over today without Bruce, and this would be a sign of a subconscious decision on her part, like deep down she hadn’t stopped loving me. Hope breathes into me.
She stands, unmovable, a metre or so from the door, hovering, almost like the threshold repels her, even after the kids had run in, leaving us space to chat. The longer she stands, statuesque, and the more I try to be nice, thinking how can I get her inside, the more she seems to sense this and pulls back.
She’s close enough for me to catch the scent of wool wash, which turns my mind to long days of distress and discontent between us. The jumper on those occasions took on a harsh, haughty hue, when she stood apart from me, frustrated, angry, disappointed. I wasn’t a good husband. I was worse when things got grumpy. I want to tell her how tired and old she looks. It feels like the day when she moved out, not letting me touch her, get close to her, or pull her back to me.
“So, apparently the peeping Tom who used to prowl the neighbourhood is back,” I say, hoping to engage her in conversation.
She looks at me, head tilted to one side like it might give her a better view.
“Yeah, the whole neighbourhood is talking about it.”
“Right,” she says.
“Did you ever notice anyone around, you know, like anyone skulking about or being creepy?”
“What, apart from you?”
She giggles, like what she’s about to say is obvious. “Well, the way you did look at women, even in my presence, was pretty full on.”
“Huh?!” I say.
She loves doing this, getting under my skin. Me looking at and flirting with other women still hurts her. I wish I could get a girlfriend now. I’m sure it would piss her off to no end.
“No, I didn’t!” I want to say something else, but she turns and walks back to her car, leaving me standing there. As she drives away, I get out my phone, texting her, “Well, it wasn’t like you weren’t all over Bruce from the moment you met him. Even in front of the kids, you would froth at the mouth seeing him.”
I try to think of something else to say, wanting to reproduce one of our memorable fights, when we would heatedly text each other from adjacent rooms, staying apart for hours on end, unwilling to back down. I can’t think of anything, and watch my phone, hoping for the three little dots, the typing awareness indicator. Nothing.
The party next door starts at two p.m. I say to the kids we will drop in for an hour at about four, so there’s other children for Rosie and Alex to hang with. In the meantime, bathed in a sunny, crisp, cold Canberra day, we play in the garden. The kids explore, which they love to do. Every time they come over, they find something new. I’d forgotten about the incinerator at the left back corner. The covered path beside the outside laundry, the other route down to the backdoor, used to be our favourite place to go on a hot day, running through the misters my mother would put on for the ferns. I take pleasure in finding again the stumps on top of bricks Dad put in the back corners of the garden, so we could jump the fences to neighbours to the side or behind us to retrieve tennis balls hit, or footies kicked over the fence.
While the children continue to play, I go into Dad’s shed. There are a couple of things in there I must remove, like my old skateboard, ten-speed bike, and the dead lawnmower, which Mum asked me to take to the tip.
I walk over to Dad’s drafting desk. Standing up to it, I remember imagining sketching out a building, or plotting rooms in huge structures. He never liked me doing this. I open one of the drawers. Under piles of designs I find pictures. Taken from outside of houses, they frame women in windows or through sunroom doors. Most of the time dressed, but sometimes not.
I try to stop looking but can’t. Scenarios appear in my head. Maybe these are shots Dad ordered somehow, or the women allowed him to take them. Trying to rationalise it, a pic of Alice appears. In the shot, she is seated in the loungeroom, looking down, and is in the middle of dressing. She wears one of the knee-length skirts and is naked above the waist except for a red bra.
I remember that morning. We were staying in the loungeroom, because everyone had come for Christmas and it was the only spot left for us to sleep. I must have just left the room. Earlier, we had a lay in. I wanted sex, but she didn’t because she thought everyone would hear. After I got up, grumpy at being refused, I opened the curtains, which Alice told me to shut, but I’d ignored her.
I search and search, looking for others of Alice but there aren’t any.
Stumbling into the sun outside, I hear Rosie and Alex up the back of the garden, talking to someone. Rosie is standing on the old stump next to the fence, looking into the next-door neighbour’s garden. The stumps were never put there for us kids at all. I sprint to her to pull her down.
“Hi,” It’s Cath from next door.
“Oh, yeah. Hi,” I say, trying to appear normal.
“Alex was just telling me you’ll be over soon. Why not just jump the fence now?”
“Ahhhh, I’m not sure that’s a good idea,” I say. My stomach turns.
Cath looks at me like I am stupid.
“Yeah,” I say, “I think we might give it a miss this arvo.”
“Dad!” Rosie yelled. “I really want to.” From the other side of the fence children’s laughter rings out and chatter from adults bubbles away.
“Oh, that’s too bad,” Cath says. She is not wearing all her warm clothing today.
“Dad!” Rosie says again, and I look at Alex who I think will be on my side. He’s not. He’s giving me one of his sullen looks. I’m sure if we don’t go Alice will hear about it.
“Okay, okay, but only for a little bit, okay?”
“Yay!” Rosie yells.
“Great,” says Cath, “why don’t you jump the fence.”
“Ummmmm, the kids can, I’ve got stuff to bring over, so maybe, I’ll come around the front.”
“Okay,” she says, “see you in a minute.”
I walk back down toward the house, past the apricot tree. I am so angry with myself for being scared of the backyard and house, when it was only Dad out here.
Before I get to the back door, I remember the picture of Alice. I turn around and walk back into the shed. Retrieving it from Dad’s desk, I’m not sure what to do with it. It feels dirty to hold, but I can’t let him have it.