COFFEE

He gently lowered the cup and saucer onto the table. Chairs and tables in outdoor cafes were often an uneven footing and he hated slopping his coffee. He lifted the saucer slightly and wedged the paper napkin underneath. A late afternoon breeze ruffled the corner, a triangular pennant responding to the air, agitating for escape. 

Even though texts did not seem to work in this upland country town, he pulled his phone out and tried again. ‘I’m getting a coffee at that big bakery cafe at the end of the main drag. Want one?’ Hit send, but nothing happened. Some little symbol was grey. What did that mean? Grey usually meant not working. Service unavailable. How many Gs did his provider provide? Not enough, obviously. Well, last time he rang and that worked, so that’s the strategy. As he went to Favourites he wondered what she’d think if the message miraculously arrived as he spoke to her and she saw he was saying the same thing.

Hi. It’s me. Where are you?

Talking to a woman from Essex who sells jewellery from around the world.

This really is a bourgeois little town, isn’t it? Trying to keep the goldrush going I guess.

She came here for a year and stayed.

A life sentence. Transported to the colonies. Sundered from kith and kin.

Exactly.

Sounds familiar. 

Silence.

Shall I order you a coffee?

Sure. Be there in ten.

After ten minutes he ordered the coffee. Her tens were usually fifteen. Or twenty. He stirred his own and sipped. Lukewarm. At least it wouldn’t make much difference, cooling further while he waited. The heat loss flattens out, quicker at the beginning then tapering off. Like relationships. 

The bag with the secondhand books he put on an empty chair at his side. Not to hide them, exactly, but not making it obvious either.

More books, she’d say, her voice carefully neutral. And he’d make some remark about being so much better at culling things these days. 

How many unread books in the house? She’d smile to prove it was OK, that she wasn’t having a go. 

Too many, he’d reply. And grin. Half grin.

The coffee arrived. Two shots: one decaf, one caf. Skinny milk. Napkin of recycled brown paper between saucer and cup.

I wouldn’t leave it too long. They don’t seem to be able to make a hot version.

He drained his own cup, she pushed hers away from her. A brown trickle leaked into the saucer, making a darker stain on the napkin.

I think I’ll stick to water. It’s still a bit too warm for coffee.

He thought about drinking hers too, but that would be too much, even though it was half decaf. Instead he gazed across the street.

Still want to try fish and chips from that place? I checked, they’re only open between five and seven. 

Sure. Now or later, when it’s cooler? 

Let’s check out the Ice Creamery first. 

Such an odd name. A place for the creaming of ice.

He ran the teaspoon around his empty cup, collecting the coffee froth for a last phantom mouthful, then stood. Picked up the bag with the books and scraped back the chair. It squealed on the concrete pavement. Walked down the street, glancing back to make sure nothing was left behind. Just the small square table tilting slightly towards the street, an empty coffee cup sitting near the edge. A brown paper napkin fluttered under the saucer like a pennant.

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SUITCASE

We’re going on a holiday soon. Somewhere unfamiliar, what’s more. Seems odd, like a forgotten skill or neglected hobby; that’s the impact of the pandemic. When I hear of friends travelling by air, some even making long-haul trips, I blanch. I’m not that brave. So we are taking an old fashioned road trip, driving up through central Victoria to Canberra, the national capital. It’s decades since I was there and it has, by all reports, changed significantly. That’s good. It was extraordinarily boring when I was there in the late 1980s. 

I wonder how our little trio will go with a long drive. The boy’s legs are in oversupply for the back seat but his mum won’t be offering to swap; she needs her orthopaedic seat. I’m looking forward to the driving, despite the legroom in the front being less than generous. There is something soothing about the always-changing always the same Australian countryside. Doubtless we’ll fill the car with stuff, even though it’s only a handful of nights away. Packing feels like an unfamiliar task. What to take, what to leave; what we’ll use, what will make the 1400km round trip without emerging from its bag. Maybe I should start putting things aside, hoping I remember everything important but knowing some vitals will be forgotten. That’s always the way.

~

After my father died I spent weeks fighting a losing battle against a house full of stuff. The place had been my grandparents home, where we moved after they died. Some of the deep cupboards in the kitchen had layers of crockery stretching back half a century. Reaching into the gloomy recess you could find a cake plate my grandmother used for her hard, tasteless scones. Thank heavens for jam. Butter and jam. And cream if it was on offer. Most of the stuff went into skips or off to Opportunity Shops. Boxes of kitchenware, crockery, glassware. Garbage bags of clothes, linen, tea towels from England. Cheap armchairs, bedside tables, that ugly 70s sideboard. Metres of books, kilos of hardware; over fifty years of stuff accumulated by three generations. One afternoon I sat in the middle of the lounge room and wept. Surrounded by piles of nicotine-stained cushions, pianola rolls, outdated travel books and ancient yachting magazines it felt like I was drowning in an ocean of meaningless things guarded by a man who I was never close to. It was the sobbing of the overwhelmed, not grief as such. Though grief did appear once; the only time I cried for that stern, unhappy man.

~

After Overwhelm Wednesday I called on my partner for help. Breathing a sigh of relief—for she had seen the impact the process was having—she immediately stepped forward and into the dusty time capsule. It made a huge difference, both practically and emotionally. I noted, with confused appreciation, the unfamiliar experience of having an ally, someone at your side. It was good, and we made steady progress. The wardrobe in the second bedroom was one of the hardest. Crammed from keel to crows nest with stuff, it was something I had to face alone. A chenille bedspread I remembered from when this was my sister’s room. Some of my high school text books. A rack of photograph albums from local outings he had taken after retirement; after my mother left him alone with his bitterness and resentment. A top shelf crammed with four old pillows, stained and discoloured with childhood dribble. Or tears. A slight shudder as they went into the skip.

At floor level, a selection of travel goods, cases and bags of various sizes. One contained new clothes he’d bought but forgotten about. Perplexingly, a modern carry-on bag was stuffed with skeins of wool seventy or eighty years old. An old shoebox tied with string had two pairs of children’s gumboots wrapped in ancient newspaper. A case, larger than the others, caught my eye. Wedged in the corner, heavy, it gave off an 80s vibe. I dragged it onto the carpet and sat down. More clothes, I thought; more everyday costumes to give an illusion of living life. But no. Here is a full bathroom kit, a light dressing gown, sets of seasonal wear. This was a tourist’s suitcase, meticulously packed  years and years earlier with all the anxious care of the first-time traveller. Cushioned by neatly rolled socks, an international power adaptor confirmed both purpose and intent. I eased open the stud of the suitcase pocket. Inside was his passport and a fold-out map of London. There was no need to open the passport to know it was unused.

*

FISHING

Another year limps towards the finish line. The path behind is strewn with discarded resolutions, unfulfilled dreams and incomplete projects. I reject the implicit invitation to reflect. What makes this particular evening special? Just another weary circuit around the sun.

This morning I continued sanding back the paint on the dingy. Ready for a fresh coat, a new beginning. Have the little craft ready for the two weeks at Blairgowrie starting next Saturday. I tried to get Bruce involved but he disappeared after half an hour. Something about needing to read the books for the coming school year. Soon he won’t come on holidays with us at all. That will leave me and Barb. I wonder what she does while I’m fishing? There are a couple of small cracks here I should fill before painting.

I do not like New Year’s Eve. Read something in the paper yesterday about it being the traditional time for existential torment. Kind of amusing, that, after I looked up the word. Maybe that’s why I have a second sherry. To silence the whispering voices. Am I a good man? A good Father? Firm, certainly. Clear in my expectations. Things should be done properly.

Hard work, the sanding; probably should have put on an old work shirt. The paint makes dust and clogs up the sandpaper. It’s a pretty warm day. Maybe I’ll get Barb to make a jug of Pimms later, while I take a shower. Bruce used to enjoy slicing the cucumber and orange when we had the family over for Christmas drinks. He does what he is asked to do.

My daughter doesn’t seem to understand I am the head of the family. The sole breadwinner. The daily grind of work is hard. I’m starting to feel dried out and the driving is wearing me down, factory after factory. As I drive I daydream about retirement. Fishing from the rocks at the ocean beach or from the dingy on the bay. Must get that garden shed delivered to Blairgowrie on the right day. They offered to erect it but I declined. Well within my skills. Anyway, I don’t want to sit around wasting holiday time waiting for an unreliable tradesman who’ll do a shonky job. It will be good to have all the fishing gear down there, not have to cart it back and forth. Although I might bring the new reel back with me. Cost a pretty penny, but I earned the right to a present for self. It was a long year.

 

ROOF

When the ceiling bulged and a ragged brown circle of dampness appeared the lightning strike of anxiety was swift. That it was in the music room made it worse. That’s where the records live. The vision of a collapsed ceiling flooding the collection was terrifying; a copy book example of catastrophic thinking. I got out the stepladder and climbed up to see what I could see. Not much, other than some weathered and chipped tiles and a rusty ravine of metal in the V of the roof. The feeling of vulnerability was intense. We’re in a La Niña cycle; it has rained throughout spring and well into summer. There has been much precipitation. A lot. It’s been very very wet. 

Rain, rain, go the fuck away, there are records that I want to play.

How to assess the problem and work out what to do? My chest tightens as I think about it. Any threat to the integrity of my home, my refuge is immensely unsettling. Until COVID I’d not realised how much I rely on the illusion of safety provided by these four wall, these rooms, this haven, this retreat. Gas for cooking, electricity for heating, clean water on tap. The basics all in place.

Dean the roofer is up there hammering and caulking as I’m on a video call to a cardiac specialist. The shortness of breath has been bothering me for six weeks now, especially during exercise. I warn the doctor that he may hear clumping on the roof. He’s fine with that, much more focussed on my medical history (that’s an hour, right there, just for the highlights) and explaining what data he needs to make a diagnosis. Your cholesterol is OK, he says, and your alcohol consumption is less than the national average. I feel proud. He explains that the heart is like a house, with muscular walls, four rooms with doors, plumbing and electricity. We need to find out what’s what. Boots thump above my head as Dean the roofer completes the pointing with a resin. They no longer use concrete to plug the gaps and fill the cracks. 

Fasting blood test tomorrow, then some tests at his rooms. After that he promises to give me an assessment of my risk of heart attack. If the pain increases, call 000 he says. I feel a jab of panic, a clutching at my chest, but tell myself this is his standard disclaimer. I imagine his notes. “Told patient to go straight to hospital ER if pain increases.” I used to do the same thing. “Encouraged client to consult their GP.” Safety first. 

Dean the roofer clambers down the ladder and gives me a colour chart for re-painting of the roof. We choose a deep charcoal, to match the window frames. It’s called Monument.