My father was sitting on my doorstep. He was wearing khaki shorts, his bare head was exposed to the full bore of the sun, and he was holding a pineapple. I hadn’t a clue what he was doing there. He hadn’t given me any warning.
As I crossed the street, I raised my hand, but his eyes were closed and he didn’t see me until I was standing right in front of him.
‘Dad. What are you doing here so early?’
‘Relax,’ he said. ‘There’s nothing to worry about.’
I looked at my watch. It wasn’t yet eight-thirty and I wasn’t in the mood for him. I’d walked home to save on bus fares after working a ten-hour night shift and I needed a shower and sleep.
‘Did you knock?’
‘No,’ he said. ‘I didn’t knock. I didn’t want to wake anybody. I was just going to leave the pineapple on your doorstep, but then I sat down to rest for a minute and you turned up.’
The neighbour’s dogs were barking. My father frowned at the pampas grass that grew wild along the length of the broken fence.
‘Your neighbours need to train those bloody kelpies to stop barking.’
I held out my hand.
‘Here, Dad. Grab hold.’
‘I’m all right,’ he said. ‘No need.’
I’d had twenty-nine years to get used to Australia; its boiling summers, long days with no distinct parts – hot in the morning, noon and night – but I still couldn’t stomach the heat or the glare that came off every footpath and every parked car. My father was the opposite. He was made better by the sun; it made him buoyant and, though he was sixty-five, on that morning I was much more beaten and tired than he’d ever been.
‘Do you want to come into the flat for a minute?’ I asked.
‘If that’s all right.’
‘We’d best be quiet, though. Janice won’t be out of bed yet.’
But Janice wasn’t home. As soon as we were inside the hall I saw she’d left the bedroom door open and it was clear the bed hadn’t been slept in. I’d made the bed and it was just as I’d left it. We’d had an argument about money before I left for work and when I was walking out the door she said, ‘You’re boring now, Paul.’
She said this in the cool and expert way my mother used to say things about couples who sit in cafes reading the newspaper and not talking to each other. ‘They’re boring each other,’ she used to say. ‘They’re probably only days away from divorce.’
My father looked into the bedroom, just as I had done. He suspected Janice of straying, just as he’d suspected my mother.
‘Janice must be out,’ I said.
I straightened my shoulders and tried to hide my worry and fatigue. I was at the end of a long run of night shifts, and I wasn’t in the mood for a grilling.
He looked into the bedroom again. ‘Where do you think she is?’
‘Keep your hat on, Dad. She’s probably just popped out to do some shopping.’
I owed my father some money, and mentioning shops was a mistake. He was well off and enjoyed his riches, but he didn’t like giving money away, not without arrangements for its ‘fair return’.
When I was eighteen my father asked me to have a drink with him. It was the first time he’d asked to meet me in a pub and he picked the day and time of the meeting months in advance.
‘It’s time we had a proper man-to-man chat,’ he said.
It was a perfect spring day, a gentle day, and we sat in the corner of the dark pub under a TV screen, in a suburb miles from his surgery, and even further away from my university digs.
‘It’s time I told you a few home truths,’ he said.
‘OK,’ I said. ‘Go ahead.’
‘Well, for starters, I knew your mother was up to no good years before she left us.’
As far as I was concerned, she hadn’t left us when I was ten years old, she’d left him. She’d got sick of him and found somebody else. I was only ten, but I wasn’t stupid. I’d heard her say, ‘Men shouldn’t talk as much as you do, Richard.’
My father sipped his beer slowly and looked at the TV screen above my head.
‘She was a very good liar, your mother,’ he said.
I was too angry to speak.
What he’d said got me in the gut, a weird kind of wetness low in my stomach.
I’d have got blind drunk that day if I’d had some spare money of my own but I had to listen to him curse my mother with nothing but a warm glass of beer froth in front of me.
When he came back to the table after ordering another round, he put the drinks down on our corner table and sat close and, after a moment, as though he was a different person, he put his hand on my knee.
‘I’ll tell you something now,’ he said. ‘Even pretty eyes commit crimes. You should bear that in mind when you start making lady friends.’
‘Right,’ I said.
‘You prefer ladies, don’t you?’
‘Of course I do,’ I said.
‘Well then,’ he said, ‘You’ve been warned. You thought your mother was an angel because she looked like one, but you were completely wrong about that.’
I didn’t want to hear any more. I told him I needed to use the toilet and I went to the bar and used the last of my money to pay for our drinks. I wasn’t going to say goodbye, I couldn’t stand him anymore, but he came round the corner, and saw me.
‘What are you doing?’ he said.
‘I need to go back to uni. I just remembered I have to meet my tutor.’
My father and I had lived alone together for seven years and, for seven years, when he got home from work, I’d be stuck with him, trapped with his talking in the kitchen or lounge, and if he wanted me when I went into my bedroom, he’d barge in and I’d have to yawn my head right off its hinges to get rid of him. Nearly every weekend I’d pretend to be going into the city to see a film with friends and instead, catch the bus to an internet cafe three suburbs away, where I’d drink coffee and play games online.
He followed me to front door of the pub. ‘Did you hear what I said? Were you listening?’
‘Yes, but I have to go to a lecture.’
‘You’re a stinking liar,’ he said. ‘I’m staying on and I’ll finish these beers. I don’t like people who waste time and money. Do you follow me?’
‘Yes,’ I said.
He opened the door for me and saw me out to the street.
We saw very little of each other after that spring afternoon; once or twice a year, my birthday and Christmas, but that changed when I married Janice. On our wedding day, at a small outdoor ceremony by the lake, he gave me our wedding gift; a Tartan picnic flask, six blue plastic cups, and a matching rug.
‘You’ll have a family of your own, soon,’ he said. ‘And I want to help you along. I can help you get on with things. I can help you sort things out.’
After the wedding, he formed a habit of stopping by the flat, donating furniture, giving me loans, calling me late in the night and saying things like, ‘I’m just around the corner. Have you got a minute?
And here he was again, only two months since his last visit, standing beside my kitchen table and holding a pineapple in the crook of his arm.
I turned my back to him and checked the whiteboard on the fridge to see if Janice had left me a message. She hadn’t. I pretended to check the clock over the sink and looked into the backyard. Her bike was leaning against the shed, but her helmet wasn’t in the basket. She might be gone for good and my father would be here to see it happen.
As I turned round to face him, he gave me the pineapple, offered it to me as though it were something of great value.
‘It fell off the tree when I was heading home last night,’ he said. ‘What a glorious country, eh?’
‘I don’t really like pineapples, Dad. Why don’t you give it to somebody at work?’
‘Give it back to me, then. It’s not going to waste.’
I gave it back to him.
‘You should eat more fruit,’ he said.
‘You’re right,’ I said. ‘I should.’
I thought he was going to leave but he sat at the table and put the pineapple in his lap.
‘What do you want to drink?’ I said. ‘Will a cup of tea do?’
‘That’d be nice.’
I opened the fridge and looked out to the backyard again. The neighbour’s ginger cat was curled up, asleep, on the Greek family’s trampoline.
‘Sorry, Dad. There’s no milk.’
There was always milk in the fridge. Janice bought two litres every night when she went to the 7- Eleven on the corner for her cigarettes.
‘Then I’ll have water,’ he said. ‘Do you have ice?’
‘You don’t want a beer?’
‘Christ, no,’ he said. ‘It’s too early. I’m working today.’
‘What time do you start?’
‘I’m supposed to be there by nine. But there’s no mad rush. I’ve arranged for the locum to do the mornings.’
There was no ice in the ice tray, but I rummaged in the freezer as though there was hope it might be found. The breeze from the frost took some of the heat off my hands.
‘Does she usually go out so early in the morning?’ he asked.
‘Sometimes,’ I lied. ‘She likes going for walks.’
‘Is she still selling buttons?’
‘No, she quit. And it wasn’t buttons, it was sewing equipment . . .’
‘I know that.’
He sat down again, but didn’t pull his chair under the table. I thought he’d be leaving soon.
‘How have you been?’ he said. ‘How are you keeping?’
‘I’ve been well enough, thanks, Dad. The nights are hard, but I like the quiet hours when the patients are sleeping. And the walk home is good.’
He looked at the ceiling fan.
‘Is that broken?’
‘Yes. The landlord’s coming to fix it soon.’
He looked at the window.
‘Didn’t she leave you a note or anything? Didn’t she tell you where she was going?’
‘No, Dad. I’m not her minder.’
I sat up in the chair and put my shoulders back, tried to make my body look bigger, tried to hide my panic. But it made no difference. I was work-wrecked and nervous and he could see it. Janice was gone somewhere, and it might be for good this time.
‘How about you, Dad?’
‘I could use a bit more help,’ he said. ‘The locum’s pretty good, but my secretary’s always behind. Things are getting to be too much for us. I’ve been wondering if I should retire.’
We were silent then and the only sound came from the traffic in Ormond Road, the delivery trucks beeping as they reversed out of the Mornflake warehouse.
Maybe you need a new secretary,’ I said.
‘Don’t be daft, son. I’ve spent too long training her. Anyway, the patients like her. She keeps teddy bears behind the desk for the kiddies.’
‘That’s good then,’ I said. ‘Surely the fact that the patients like your secretary’s much more important than paperwork.’
‘You’re right, son,’ he said. ‘Of course, you’re right.’
The baby in the flat upstairs started howling.
‘It’s too hot in here,’ I said.
I stood and opened the back door and, as soon as it was open, the ginger cat jumped off the trampoline and ran into the kitchen and sniffed at the cupboard door under the sink, walked to the door and looked at us for a moment, then sat.
‘Is that yours?’ he said.
‘No. It belongs to the upstairs neighbour.’
‘Why does it come in here?’
‘That’s what cats do,’ I said. ‘It wants food, I suppose.’
‘It stinks,’ he said. ‘Is it neutered? You should tell those Greeks upstairs that neutering is a relatively cheap and simple operation.’
There was no air coming through the kitchen door and the backs of my knees were sweating.
I stood up from the table.
‘Listen, Dad. I might have a bit of a sleep now, if that’s all right.’
He stood and looked over at the pineapple on the draining board.
‘I’ll get out of your hair then, will I?’
We faced each other across the table and we were breathing in unison.
‘OK. Stay for a bit,’ I said. ‘I can sleep later. Let’s go into the lounge room.’
I stopped in the hallway and told him I’d be in soon.
‘I just want to open the bedroom window.’
Janice had cleared out most of her clothes. I couldn’t check the bedside drawers without my father wondering what I was doing, but I knew the drawers would be empty, too. She’d threatened leaving, but I didn’t believe she would, not like this, not this suddenly, not without a final warning, not without a last chance. People didn’t end marriages this way, without warning, without second chances.
I got two glasses of orange juice and brought them into the lounge. My father was standing by the window and he’d unclenched his jaw, let his mouth hang open. I saw how he might look in repose, when there was nobody else around. He’d let me see him, not as strong, and not as calm. He was thinking about my mother, and I sensed it there in his slackened mouth and, for a moment, I thought of her too, the memory that always came to me first, though I didn’t want it to.
It was a few months before she left home, a winter’s day, and the three of us were eating lunch in a cafe. She told the waitress she wanted something that wasn’t on the menu. She asked for a ‘large onion sandwich’. The waitress was still at our table when my father laughed at her. ‘Precisely how large is a large onion?’ he said.
My mother stood, got out of her seat.
‘The waitress knew what I meant,’ she said. ‘Everybody else knew what I meant.’
He tried to apologise, as he often did, by saying, ‘Oh, pet. Don’t feel that way.’
She came round to his side of the table. She’d hung her coat over the back of my father’s chair and she needed him to sit forward to get at it.
‘Move,’ she said.
He turned round to her, put his hand on her arm, and tried to console her as best he could, as he often did, by holding onto a part of her.
‘I said move,’ she said, ‘you slow, deaf pig! I need my coat.’
My father didn’t move quickly enough. She wrenched the coat from behind his back.
‘You’re embarrassing me, Richard,’ she said. ‘Get off my bloody coat!’
I stood in the lounge room doorway and held the glasses of orange juice and looked at him, waited for him to see me.
‘Oh, hi,’ he said. ‘I’ve turned on the fan for you.’
‘Thanks, Dad. I got you some OJ.’
I sat down on the end of the settee and he sat in the armchair near the door. As we sat, we crossed our legs, left over right, a genetic tic, something we always did when we sat down.
‘I think I’ll call Janice,’ I said. ‘I’ll ask her to bring some milk and ice back with her.’
‘All right,’ he said. ‘I should be heading off soon anyway.’
‘OK,’ I said and felt the phone warm in my hand.
He waited for me to check for messages, but there were none. She was gone.
‘She’s on her way home,’ I said. ‘She says she’ll be back soon.’
‘Where is she?’
‘I don’t know yet. But I think I’ll try and get some sleep now.’
I thought he’d leave then, but he didn’t. He was going to stick it out, wait with me until she came home – or didn’t.
‘I’ve been meaning to ask you,’ he said. ‘Have you given any more thought to taking the exam?’
He was talking about the mature-age medical school exam. He’d reminded me of it the last time we met, and the time before that.
‘Not yet,’ I said, ‘but I will.’
‘Do you think you’ll work as a nurse for the rest of your life?’
‘I might, Dad. I like it.’
‘How’s your blood pressure been of late?’
‘Normal, Dad. It’s normal.’
‘Do you still get those dizzy spells? Maybe while I’m here I could check your pulse?’
‘I can check my own bloody pulse. There’s no need.’
‘You look a bit flushed. A bit iffy around the gills.’
‘There’s nothing wrong with me. I’m just real hot, Dad. It’s just stuffy in here. I feel like I’m wearing a bear suit.’
‘I see,’ he said. ‘You never did warm to the heat.’
He laughed at himself, like a school boy.
‘Good one,’ I said. ‘That’s a good one.’
We were silent and he scratched his arm while looking out the window. A Mornflake truck was reversing out of the factory warehouse.
‘There might be fleas in here,’ he said, ‘from that cat. Have you been bitten?’
‘No. I haven’t been bitten. It was probably a mozzie.’
‘There’s a lot of sand,’ he said. ‘In the carpet.’
We lived fifteen minutes from Bondi Beach and that’s part of the reason why we paid so much rent for such a cramped, gloomy flat. I wanted to move out to the suburbs, just for a few years, and save some money for an air-conditioner and a trip back to London, but Janice couldn’t stand the stench of the suburban sticks and so we stayed and bought three fans; so that made four fans, including the overhead in the kitchen that was busted.
I looked at him and jiggled my glass, swirled the juice round as though it had ice in it, and said nothing about the sand.
‘You can check your mobile phone again if you want,’ he said.
‘I’m not worried, Dad. She’ll be here in a minute.’
He stood. ‘I should be going,’ he said. ‘I’ll see myself out.’
‘OK, Dad. Thanks for coming over. I’m sorry I wasn’t very good company.’
‘You’re tired, that’s all. And you’ve never liked the heat.’
We stood in the hallway, near the front door. His hands were stuffed inside his khaki pockets and he didn’t look like he was ready to go. In this in-between state, this waiting, this not coming or going, he’d usually be the one to make the first move to action. But on that morning, he stood stock still, and looked right at me. I didn’t want to speak, and he didn’t either, so I opened the front door and stepped outside and waited for him to follow. I was in a bad state, sweating and nervous, and even though I didn’t want to be left alone, I didn’t know how to be this way with him watching me.
‘Goodbye,’ I said.
I’d already turned to go back inside when he stepped back onto the porch and took hold of me. He hugged me, long enough for me to feel what went on beneath his chest, and I closed my eyes as he held me, and there was no rush from either of us to get it over with, and I held him with the same strength as he held me.
He let go first, but it wasn’t to be rid of me. He wanted to say something. He took hold of my wrist.
‘I hope things will work out for you, son. I wish you luck.’
And so he knew Janice had gone, and he’d probably known for a long time that she’d leave me, and maybe he hadn’t come to rub my nose in it. Maybe it wasn’t that at all.
‘OK,’ I said. ‘OK, Dad.’
Saying ‘OK’ meant nothing, but as I held my breath, and watched him walk down the path, I hoped he’d realize that I wanted to say more, and that I just didn’t know how to take the chance. He’d know, wouldn’t he, that I was too surprised to speak? Maybe he’d have seen that I was too afraid to do anything, or say anything, that might bring my emotions to the boil. I was too busy shuddering to say anything more, and I hoped he knew that, and that he realized, that morning, I loved him.
This story was shortlisted for the 2012 BBC International Short Story Award.
Photograph courtesy of Dennis Weiser