The nominee

I hopped out of the car into the evening heat and kicked out the pain in my knee. It was still humid and I could feel beads of sweat rolling down my back beneath my cotton shirt and singlet as I walked up the path to the club.

John Best, the caretaker, was at the front of the building, in his gumboots and hosing down the concrete footpath leading up to the entrance. I avoided him and walked on the grass, over the garden and through the automatic doors into a cool wall of beer and tobacco smoke.

“Hot enough for you, Gus?” said Clive, the doorman.

“Hardly, can’t fry an egg on the roof of a car yet.”

“Geez, I didn’t think you’d let anyone touch the holden, let alone have a barbie on it. We’ll have to get her out for the sausage sizzle in January.”

“Not bloody likely.” I took off my hat and coat and put them on the front desk. To the left I noticed a black and white photo hanging crooked on the wall. It was a picture of the 1973 Snooker Team. I was in the middle of seven other men, leaning on boot of a white Kingswood, smoking a cigarette and holding a cue over my shoulder. We all had neat haircuts and dark faces, and not one of us was smiling except for Jackie Spagnolo, the Italian banana farmer. We had just won the regional finals and were half cut from the celebrations. A sign behind us read: ‘Berkley River Ex-Services Club, Visitors and their Guests Welcome’.

“Who took these photos down from the snooker room?”

“It was the Board’s idea – something about making a first impression on the guests, sense of history or whatever. I don’t think many people got to appreciate them where they were anyway.”

“Well they belong in the snooker room don’t they? Wouldn’t be any history if it wasn’t for that room, eh?”

“Hey, don’t blame me, Gus. Talk to the Board.” Clive went into the cloak room.

“Ha! The Board? What a pack they are,” I said.

I walked into the bar and ordered a beer. A few heads popped out from behind form guides and nodded as I walked through the gaming lounge into the maze of poker machines. Three members of staff, each wearing a green and red tuxedo, were gathered around one poker machine and bickering with one of the oldies. “I thought it was a one,” she said.

As I approached the red wood arch of the snooker room, the clattering melodies and coins died away and I heard the soft clicking of snooker balls. I stopped and before turning the corner into where the tables were, fixed my badge to my shirt: ‘Gus Simmons, Snooker Comm. President’.

Apart from the bright lights hovering over the tables, the snooker room was a dark chamber of faded green wall paper and wooden trimmings. Tarnished shields and thin ribbons lined the walls next to a rack of twenty or more cues of various lengths. On the far wall there were dark green rectangles, shadows of where the committee’s photographs had hung, and a blackboard. Vern Bailey had just finished writing ‘Snooker Committee meeting 7pm’ in sloping block letters and was dusting off his hands. I put down my beer and cue case and went to where he and Neville Harris were playing.

“Seven o’clock? Jumping the gun a bit aren’t you, Vern?”

“We thought we’d start the meeting earlier than usual,” Vern said. “I hope you don’t mind. Me and Neville were just finishing off this frame.”

“What if I do mind? I thought I was the bloody President. Can’t start a meeting without the damn President, can you?”

“Mate, we wouldn’t have done a thing without you,” Neville said and potted a red.

“There’s a lot to get through,” Vern said. “The ladies’ night is coming up and there’ll be a few membership applications to get through.” Vern coughed his trademark cough and lit a cigarette. “And then there’s the election for next year.”

“Well, I suppose so. Maybe we could also talk about the tournament photos. Who the bloody hell took them down?”

“I had to do it. Board said so. Didn’t you know?”

“No. I thought they at least would’ve asked the President.”

“Well they didn’t really ask so much as say.”

“We’ll just have to get them back up there then. That’ll be the first thing I’ll do.”

“Mate, you’re not the next President yet!”

“Maybe not but I’ve still got a couple of hours up my sleeve and besides, who else is gonna do the job? You? What do you think about that, Neville?”

“How’s your game Gus?” Neville asked.

“No too bad, not too bad. Been hitting straight some days, off some others.”

“We’ll have to have that game you promised some day.”

“Think you’re up to it son?”

“Maybe.”

“Neville’s been teaching me a lesson tonight haven’t you mate?” said Vern. “I’d watch out if I were you Gus, might even give you a run for you money, won’t you Neville?”

“Like hell he will,” I said. “Neville can’t even piss straight. Where’s your rhythm, your composure?”

“I’m working on it, Gus,” said Neville laughing. “But we can’t’ all play like Eddie Charlton.”

“Ha! Charlton’s overrated – nothing but fancy trick shots. I’ll show you a few of my moves after the meeting.”

Neville leaned back on the table squeezing both cheeks of his rolling buttocks above the edge. “Nice job they did on the lights in here,” he said. “It’s really brightened up the place: makes the balls stand out.”

“Fella didn’t put the covers back on properly though. Look how he’s put them on – it’s all crooked. Can’t have a ladies night with the place in a shambles.”

“Gus, that was Clive’s uncle,” Vern said scratching his bald head. “He fixed them for nothing. Pretty generous if you ask me.”

“Well I didn’t, and besides, he didn’t do it for free: Gloria gave him a counter lunch at the bistro for nicks.”

Neville cracked the blue into the middle pocket.

“Speaking of the lovely Gloria I’ve already ordered a tray of nibblies, I’ll get another beer and round up the others.” Vern slapped his boney hand on my shoulder. “Let’s go, Nev.”

At seven, the others ambled in and took their regular places around the tables – there were usually eleven of us all together, but only eight had come that evening. I took my seat against the far wall under the blackboard and tapped a pen on my beer glass. “We’d better get started I think, don’t want to be here all night do we. Vern’s most kindly put a good word in Gloria’s ear and we’ll be getting some of her finest for those who’ve had a few. Ah yes, apologies from Frank who couldn’t be here this evening due to family commitments.”

“What did he tell his wife then?” said Lowey. A few people laughed and Lowey shook one of his arthritic fingers.

“Not sure, Lowey,” I said. “But since he’s not here to take minutes, how about getting a pen and paper going?” Lowey didn’t reply.

“First thing on the agenda – it’s that time again – the election of the President for this year.”

“Been another good year, Gus,” said Vern, the others murmuring in approval.

“Yes, we’ve had another decent innings, with a few successful social events, the beach barbeque and the Eucre tournament, participation at the interclub challenge-”

“Lost to that stuck up mob from Carlingford though. Cheated if you ask me,” said Colin Simons, one of the younger chaps. Colin had miscalculated a giveaway shot on the pink, and, as a result, set the opposition on a point-scoring roll which knocked us out of the first round.

“Well if you weren’t colour blind we might’ve had a chance, Col,” someone said.

“Only sees pink after a few sherries, don’t ya, Col?”

“I though pink was your favourite colour, Col?”

“Financially,” I cleared my throat. “Financially, things weren’t as bad as we’d feared: after we paid for the damage that idiot caretaker did at the Christmas party – cost us close to eight hundred dollars to get the thing refelted – we still pulled through alright, even managed to scrap together a few bob to buy a couple of extra cues for the club. The new President would be expected to build upon these successes with, of course, the support of the Committee.” I took my glasses off.  “As you all know the current President is automatically nominated for the position unless he chooses to step down. I’d like to give it another go, keep things going but, we still have to follow the formalities, so I’d like to make a call for nominations.”

As I had expected, everyone was silent. I had been the Snooker Committee President for seven years and I was confident of being relected just as I was confident that my car would have started on a winter’s morning. “Can’t have an election without more than one nominee,” I said smiling. They were all looking down at their beers. I pretended to write something down, thinking of how I would introduce my ideas for ladies’ night when, from the corner of my eye, I saw a hand rise. It was Vern.

“I nominate Neville,” Vern said.

I saw Neville look at Vern. He fidgeted with his tie and then turned his head to the floor. I flushed and felt my heart thumping in my chest.

“Ah, sorry Vern, what was that?”

“I nominate Neville.”

“Oh. Well then,” My voice faltered. I searched the pack of eyes for a hint of dissent but they were all cast down towards the floor or at their drinks; some were looking across the room. “Well Neville, thrust into the limelight are we? I hope you’ve got some original ideas for the club’s future. Do you accept the nomination?”

“Um, yeah. I accept. Thanks, Vern.”

I heard whispers of ‘good one Nev’ and ‘hear hear’ but I couldn’t tell who had said what. Neville and Vern were whispering to one another, crouched over their beers like two old beggars. The others started talking among themselves. Laughter was coming from the main bar. I heard a woman’s voice, and then more laughter. Gloria burst into in the room carrying a tray of cheeses and biscuits and a look of relief came over Vern.

“Good evening, gents, all well are we?” she boomed.

“Better now you’re here,” Vern said. “What’ve you got for us, love?”

“Just a few cheeses darling, some edam, bit of cheddar there too, and crackers. Don’t fight over them now.”

“No, but we’d fight over you, darling,” said Lowey, his false teeth clacking as he laughed.

“I’m flattered, Lowey, but don’t exert yourself on my acccount love. Enjoy!”

Gloria waddled out and everyone started crunching. I stared at Neville’s fat face. I watched him devour three crackers topped with cheese, and counted the clicks of his jaw as he chewed. Greedy pig, I thought as he washed the food down with beer.

I tapped the pen on the table. “Alright then, finished feeding your faces? Good. Right. You know the drill, one vote each. First name’s will do, there’s only two of us.”

Everyone wrote down their votes in pencil on the back of beer coasters, and put them into a battered wine cooler. I asked Vern to put the votes onto the nearest table and delegated to Lowey the responsibility of counting.
With his shaking hands, Lowey gathered the coasters into a neat pile.

“One vote for Gus,” he said and placed the coaster on the right of the table. “One vote for Neville.” Neville’s vote went over to the left. “Gus. Neville again. Another for Neville. One more for Gus.”

I shifted in my chair and felt a sharp pain in my knee like buring ice.

“Neville. And the last vote goes to, Neville Price. Five votes for Neville, three to Gus.”

“What!” I slammed my pen onto the table. “Let me check those Lowey.”

I got up, wincing as I shifted the weight to my knee, and hobbled over to count the two piles: five votes to three. My three votes sat on the table, miserable and wet with beer, one written in my tiny, scrawled print and the other in bold blue pen: I guessed it was Lowey because I saw him chewing on the end of a blue biro and the trembling handwriting looked as if someone had written it with an electric drill.

“What about Frank?” I asked. “Can’t have an election without one of the founding members present? Frank’s got to have a vote doesn’t he? It’s in the bloody rules, you should know, Lowey.”

“Even if Frank did vote for you, mate, you still wouldn’t have had enough votes. I’m sorry, mate.”

“You’ve had a good run, mate,” said Colin. “You’ve done wonders for the Snooker Club, hasn’t he fellas?”

They all nodded their heads in a pathetic chorus of agreement.

“Well, that’s it then isn’t it?” I said through my teeth. “Congratulations, Neville, I’m sure you’ll do a marvellous job.” I hated him.

I didn’t say much else for the rest of the meeting and chose not to pass on my ideas for the ladies night. I caught Vern and Neville several times talking between themselves scheming new plots. I was so furious, I didn’t even stay for a game.

The day after I couldn’t face going to the club so I did some work in the garden and cleaned out the letterbox which was filled with leaves. I thought about going for a game in the afternoon so I called Frank but he didn’t pick up the phone. I suspected that even he was part of the conspiracy. They’d planned it all along – after all I’d done for them. I’d seen the Snooker Committee through its highs and lows and it was my idea to hold free lessons on Saturdays for the youngsters, and no one had ever raised the sort of money for the club that I had.

I slept uneasily during the following nights, recounting in my head the mutiny of the previous Saturday evening; in the darkness of my bedroom I could see the staring faces of those who I thought were my friends, people I could have counted on; Vern’s grey face and drooping eyes looking at me under the lights of the snooker table. For over twenty years I had seen that face, and now, instead of a thin smile I saw a cackling laugh and crooked teeth.

When Thurday came I went to the Bistro for dinner like I always did on Thursdays, but for the first time in about ten years I didn’t bring my cue. I vowed not to set foot in the snooker room where I’d been disgraced the night before. I ordered pork and vegetables and went to eat in the far corner away from the rabble of the other customers for fear I would have to talk to someone I knew and suffer more humiliation. Gloria came over to where I was seated and began to wipe down tables.

“I heard about the other night,” she said as she went up and down the table with a cloth, her red finger nails scratching at the plastic surface. “Try not to feel bad about it, Gus.”

“I don’t,” I said and stabbed at my plate with the fork. “The pork’s tough tonight and the gravy’s runny.”

“No one’s forcing you to eat it, darling.”

“No one’s forcing you to stand there and annoy me.”

“It had to happen some day didn’t it? You can’t be President forever, you know.”

I waited for her to leave but she stopped wiping and just stood there with one hand on her hip.

“Yeah, but it didn’t have to happen that day,” I said waving my fork at her. “It didn’t have to bloody well happen that day. After all I’ve done for that committee and this club.”

Gloria sighed. “Here we go again, Gus, always feeling sorry for yourself. You can get on your high horse at those stupid meetings but you can’t bluff me, mister.”

“What the hell are you talking about?”

“The way you treat the other men, especially Vern and Neville. You boss them around. They’re all petrified of you. For God’s sake they’re your mates.”

“Mates? They went and stabbed in the back, those mates of mine. My father served in two world wars, you know. He helped build this goddamn club. And when Joan died, I dedicated my life to this god forsaken place and is this the thanks I receive?”

“This club isn’t everything love. Snooker isn’t everything. Where do you think you’d be without the others? Huh, Gus? It’s because of them you got over Joan, you told me so yourself.”

“I was drunk and besides, they don’t care. No one does. The Board took the bloody photos down. There’s no respect left in this place.”

“That’s not true and you know it. Things change – they move on.”

“Bah! Get me another beer will you, Gloria? And a side of brandy too if you don’t mind.”

“You’re hopeless, Gus Simmons.”

“Look, I’m sorry, I don’t mean to get angry at you but you know Vern – he’s always been been a bit pissed off because he’s never been the President. He thinks it’s my fault.”

“Maybe it is.”

“Rot! And now he’s taken Neville under his wing so he can whisper in his ear and get his own way.”

“All I’m saying is that you had better not shoot your mouth off.”

“How about those drinks, Gloria?”

Gloria dropped her dirty cloth on the table and left.

A few minutes later one of the barstaff came over with the drinks. I finished the beer and then put down the brandy in one hit which made the digesting pork in my stomach grunt with satisfaction. I wandered into the bar and ordered another round. The air seemed smokier than usual and the poker machines burped out their miserable melodies with unusal enthusiasm. I rested against the bar and began tearing up coasters. Vern came out of the toilet and walked over beside me. I had thought about turning away for a moment but decided against it; I had just as much right, if not more right to be here as he did. They couldn’t get rid of me that easily.

“Gus.”

“Vern.”

“Same again thanks, Dave,” Vern said to the bartender as he lit a cigarette. “Didn’t see you for practise yesterday, Gus.”

“Haven’t heard of passive smoking have you?”

“Still wearing the old President’s badge, eh?”

“It’s mine. It was given to me. Neville will have to get a new one made, if he could organise anything.”

“He already has I think. Colin organised it.”

“That’s bloody great. Straight in for the kill.”

“Look, if you’re still upset about the meeting, then I’m sorry mate. It’s just that Neville’s worked damn hard for the committee, and the club, and lately his game’s just come along in leaps and bounds. I thought he deserved at least a nomination.”

“Really,” I said and ordered another brandy. “He got more than a bloody nomination didn’t he?”

“Yeah I reckon he did. Called democracy that.”

“Go to hell.”

Vern picked up his drink and turned to leave. “Neville feels real bad over it, really he does. But he’ll make a fine President you’ll see.”

“Why did you do it, Vern?”

“Why did I do what?”

“You know what I mean.”

“Neville will make a fine President.”

“No, but you’ve always wanted to be President, haven’t you? I think you set it up to get me out and to give yourself a better chance next year.”

“What are you talking about?

“You figured I’d never give you the opportunity: your game was never up to scratch anyway. But don’t count on Neville to be your stepping stone.”

“Gus, you’ve had a few too many I think.”

“What would you know? You could never handle your drink.”

Vern looked at me with his saggy, sad eyes. “Suit yourself. Come in for a game if you like, a few of the fellas are there. Frank’s been asking for you.”

“Get stuffed,” I said. “Another brandy Dave, and one here for Mr Democracy.”

“No thanks.” Vern left and I finished the brandy in one gulp. I watched Vern as he trudged the old path through the pokies and disappeard beneath the red arch. “Let’s see whose fit to be President,” I said to myself and went after him.

Frank and Colin were playing on the main table, a couple of local youngsters were on the far table and there was Neville, by himself, leaning on the table closest to the door, beer in one hand and cue in the other.

“Look what the cat dragged in, Nev,” said someone.

“Gus,” said Neville. “Having a hit tonight?” Neville’s pot belly ballooned out from underneath a stained polo shirt on which was pinned a shiney rectangular badge. I couldn’t read what it said but I knew well enough.

“A hit? What, keen for a beating are you?”

“You’ve been promising me a match for a while now – wouldn’t want to think that you’re gutless or something.” Neville looked over his cue and nodded in the direction of the main table and then laughed over his shoulder, gloating at his success; his fat fingers, which were dusted with blue chalk, consumed his cue like folds of putty.

“Where’s your respect?” I said. “I’m not afraid of you, ya’ bloody tub of lard.”

Neville set up the table and chalked his cue. “You can break if you like.”

“Very noble of you.” I stumbled over to the public rack and picked out a cue that was half straight and still had a hard tip. Doesn’t take a brass belt to beat a dog, I thought.

I broke the balls hard into a red riot. I should have just clipped them and tried to leave the white at the end but I was too angry and drunk to care. I swore and went to reset the scoreboard. My knee felt raw with pain.

Neville potted a red and then the blue, leaving the ball at the far end behind the black.

“Good shot, Nev,” cried Vern and toasted his drink.

“Ha! Look where he’s left his ball! Knows I’m too good on attack doesn’t he? Has to snooker me.” I just managed to scrape the white away past the black, chinking it onto a nearby red and saving the foul.

“Not much else you could’ve done there.”

“Thanks Vern, any other bright remarks?”

Neville potted another red, then the brown and then doubled a red into the middle pocket setting himself up for the black.

“Don’t stuff this one up Neville,” I said. “President’s got to have his eye in, got to be able to deliver under pressure.”

Neville smashed the black ball into the back of the pocket. The ball swished through the net and hit the bottom with a thud. He shot me a smug smile as he re-chalked his cue. I felt like ramming it up one of his hairy nostrils.

“Lucky. Hey look at this, boy,” I shouted across the room. “He can sink them alright can’t he, Frankie? I think the photos made him nervous. Maybe it was his idea to take them down: didn’t want the old masters looking on and taking the piss out of his amateur play.”

More reds went down in between the green and brown and then the blue again. A few people had gathered around the able to watch. “What’s this? The President’s match?” one of them asked.

“No,” said Neville. “There’s just one of them here.”

My turn came and I played a few short shots because I was feeling rather cut. I fouled on the green and swore as I banged the cue against the table. “This damn cue is bent. Can’t play properly with a bent cue.”

Neville won the first frame. The other congratulated him and like a bunch of schoolchildren, followed him over to his chair where they smoked cigarettes. I stood by myself, watching Vern who was hovering at the fringe of the group: I caught his eye and lowered my eyebrows hoping to pierce him with the guilt of his betrayal.

“Must be the cue, eh Gussy?” Neville parted the men with a regal sweep of his sausage hands and stepped forward. A cigarette hung from his mouth like a soggy chip.

“Yeah, it hasn’t got much going for it – like a couple of people I know.”

Neville rested his cue on the table.”What’s your problem, old man?”

“I’ll tell you my problem: it’s being beaten by a nobody with shit for brains who doesn’t deserve to be a member of this club, that’s what my goddam problem is.”

“For Christ’s sake, Gus. It’s just a-”

“Don’t you start, Vern,” I hissed. “None of this would’ve happened if you hadn’t put up this imbecile for nomination.”

“I’m not an imbecile.”

“I wasn’t talking to you.”

“Steady on, fellas,” came a call from one of the tables.

“Now you listen here, Gus,” said Neville lifting his shoulders.

“Don’t talk to me like that, sonny, or I’ll have you.”

“And do what? What the bloody hell are you going to do? Just listen to yourself – you’re flamin’ losing it! ”

“No, you’re losing it,” I said looking directly into his beady eyes.

“You’ve got to move on, Gus, let go, or whatever. Get that bloody chip off your shoulder.”

“Piss off.”

“You’re not the President anymore, Gus, and you’re not the best snooker player.”

“This isn’t about snooker, it’s about the right person doing the job and I don’t think you’re the right person. I’m entitled to an opinion aren’t I? I was playing snooker at this club when you were still sucking on your mother’s teet you witless prick, and you’ve got the hide to just waltz in here and take over!”

“Fair go mate, you’re overreacting a-”

“You all wanted to see me out, I know what you’re all thinking.” I ripped the badge from my shirt and held it up to Neville’s face. “You want this? This is the real deal pal – you’ll never deserve to wear it.”

“Maybe I’m not the right person but more people wanted me to be President than you mate. I don’t need a badge to tell me that.”

“Don’t call me mate, son. You and Vern bullied them into it,” I bellowed.

“Grow up, Gus,” said Neville and then walked out of the room. The others looked at me, shaking their heads before they filed out after him. Only Vern remained, standing in the corner, coughing at the ground.

“So you forfeit then?” I called after him and threw my badge down at the table. It bounced and fell flat on the green expanse. Suddenly I felt overcome with fatigue and the burning of my anger fell from my head down to my knee. I limped over to a seat.

“Are you alright, Gus?” Vern said.

“What do you care?”

“I was just on my way out too, but I thought I’d give you this before I went.” Vern put a thin rectangle on the table. It was wrapped in a yellow cloth which was stained with blue chalk and cooking oil. “It’s a present from the club and the committee. A sort of, ‘thanks for your service’ gift – nothing special. Aren’t you going to open it?”

“What is it? My bloody director’s fee?” I pulled away the cloth to reveal a picture of seven solemn faces and one cheeky grin. I brushed my fingers over their heads, pausing at mine and thinking of the brand of cigarettes I used to smoke, and how much I had paid for the white Kingswood we were leaning on, and of how had given up both after Joan had died. Vern was sitting on the bonnet of the vehicle. His cheeks were a bit fuller in the photo, but he still had the same bald head. I moved my eyes to Jackie Spagnolo’s white teeth and closed eyes, which now, seemed to be the only colourful thing about that black and white scene.

I shook my head. “This…”

“The Board said it was okay. ‘After all he’s done,’ they said.”

“Vern… mate…”

“Hope you enjoy it.”

“I’m…” I was still transfixed on the photo. “I’m sorry, mate.” But Vern had already walked out.

There were several visitors playing at the tables but the room seemed empty. I rubbed my knee and got up. The pain seared my entire leg as I trundled over to the faded green wall where all the Snooker Committee photos had once hung. The original wallpaper frowned from dark green rectangles and the rusty hooks, relieved of their load, curled towards the ceiling. I slid the photo on to one of them and stood back to check the alignment.

“That’s better, mate,” said one of players behind me. “Liven the place up a bit.”

“Yeah,” I said under my breath. “Livens it up alright.” I limped over to get my badge from the main table and then hobbled out of the room and into grey smoke of the main bar.

The headstone

A shining four-wheel drive hurtled down the coastline of northern New South Wales. Past the summer chorus of cicadas it moved, past the high shoulders and lines of deep blue and down into the still heat of shallow valleys. The driver tapped his fingers on the leather steering wheel as the car soared over potholes.

“As soon as you can, don’t rush” his mother had said, offering the cautionary tale of how Aunty Beth had fallen off the end of the Earth in her mini-van. As soon as he could it would be then, all the way on a Tuesday morning with a yawn and two aspirins and the smell of salt reaching into the back of his mind.

He was committed this time. The last few years in his city apartment had passed without so much as a ripple; Martin had come to stay a few times, even his parents had learned to use email so there was contact, but it was never as close as it once was. He had left and that was it. And now he was riding the wave back to where questions and confrontations awaited him.

Hunter had grown up the son of a drunk and was thankful for the escape that adulthood had given him. His money had paid for the erasure of childhood confusions and impossible interpretations of wild language and projectiles in his parents’ living room – stories that steamed through the rafters of a small town and out into the Pacific Ocean. But he had always been a good boy they had said; him and that good looking brother of his, they’ll be right, they’d said.

“Yeah, I’ll be right,” Hunter thought as he rode the perforated ribbon into the brick universe, flanked by a reception of dishevelled wheelie bins.

He mounted the concrete gutter and edged his machine into the shade. A curtain parted and the pale face of his mother appeared for a second and then faded into the darkness.

Hunter’s mother smelled exactly like he remembered – a mixture of dough and musk. She cried and laid her small forehead on his breast. He stroked her hair and toyed with the wooden hairpin she had bought in Polynesia.

“Where’s Martin?”

“He went out, down to the beach. Down to the beach, I think. Oh, Hunter! It’s been so hard on him, my poor darling. He and your father-”

“I know, Mum,” Hunter said and pulled a mobile phone from his back pocket before sinking into the weathered, floral couch of the living room. He began sweeping the cushions with his hands, lightly, like he was touching the cover of an ancient book. Grains of sand sprinkled off the edge onto the floor and onto a pile of photo albums.

“So, Martin’s arranging the funeral?”

“Yes,” Mrs Morrisey sniffed, pulling a handkerchief from inside the cuff of her shirt. “You know, Hunter, it all happened so suddenly, the impact of that stroke took five seconds to kill your father, but it’s taking longer to get at me. I don’t know how to feel, Hunter, do you? Twenty-nine years, Hunter, nearly as old as you, your father and I. He was damned I think, a man damned. Look, I found these old photo albums….”

“And the rest of the family? Uncle Robert and Thelly? How are they all getting here?”

His mother gazed at the photos.

“Perhaps I can call Trent, a friend from work, we studied together. Studied law,” Hunter pursued. “I don’t trust that solicitor of his. You know he’s dodgy.”

Photos old and blurry.

“And what about his shares?”

“Ah? Let’s not worry about that now, Hunter, ok?” Mrs Morrisey breathed out the words.

Hunter swallowed hard. He had cried when his mother called with the news of his father’s death. She had described over the phone how his father had twisted and wheezed as the stroke laid him down on the main street of his home town. Hunter had cried at work and wiped his wet eyes with a red, coarse tie in front of the entire staff. Now he felt that if he were to betray his feelings in front of his mother, this lady who was shaking, who used to shake at the sight of a dirty kitchen and publicly bemoan her weekly menthol cigarette, he would feel more ashamed than ever.

The kettle clicked. Mrs Morrisey mother scurried off into the kitchen.

  *          *          *

Andrew Morrisey’s absence moved around the house like a ghost – whenever Hunter went to fetch a beer from the rumpus room bar or when his brother smiled and the family dimples lit up his cheeks. The walls sighed and Hunter half expected his father to burst in, golf clubs over his arm, growling in alcoholic appreciation. But the house kept its secret; which suited them all. While in the town of local men and women and dogs, beers had been raised with bowed heads and the whispers metered off behind private doors.

The phone rang.

“Hello, ah, yes, Martin, is it?”

“No, Hunter.”

“Oh, Hunter. Back from Brisbane? That’s nice. Nice town Brisbane.”

“Who’s this?”

“Oh, sorry. Jack. Jack Oldfield. An old friend of Trish’s. Is your Mum in?”

“No.”

“Out is she? Down at the shops perhaps, busy downtown today. Yes, well just let her know I called – I hope she’s doing all right. I, ah, yes, well, nice talking with you.”

Hunter left the phone on the table and sat down to finish his coffee.

Martin fell through the door wearing only his wet suit and swished over the kitchen tiles. Hunched shoulders slurped down a litre of water, heaving and cracking in osmotic excitement.

“Ahhhhhh,” he licked. “Surf’s shit hot today.”

“Someone called.”

“Let me guess, Jack?”

“Yeah, who’s he?”

“Mum’s boyfriend or something.”

“Bullshit.”

“The guy’s been hanging around for ages, think he was Mum’s bridge partner or some shit.”

“Dad’s just died for fuck’s sake. How long’s this been going on?”

“I dunno. Mum doesn’t know I know. Just found out really.”

“Well, didn’t you say anything? Martin-”

“Hey, don’t blame me! What was I going to say? Can’t say anything now, she’s too upset.”

“How’d you find out?”

“Well, that’s the thing. I haven’t got any proof. He’s been over here a few times and he’s been calling, saying he’s got to talk to Mum about the bridge club, spinning some crap like that. And Mum gets all shy and takes the phone into her room, like she doesn’t want me to hear or something. I know it’s something. But he knows about you, always asking, ‘how’s your brother going?’ and ‘how’s the big businessman doing in the city?’. Sounds like an arsehole. Even though Dad was shit-faced half the time, doesn’t mean anything – Mum’s still upset and she doesn’t need guys like Oldfield hanging around for scraps.”

“I don’t want him anyway near this place while I’m here. Not before the funeral, not even at the funeral. I don’t care who he is, ok?”

“Ok, ok. Don’t lose it. But you’d better tell Mum, yeah?”

“Where is she anyway?”

“Dunno, playing cards I suppose.”

Hunter kicked away from the table. “I’m going for a drive.”

  *          *          *

It was wider back then, but creeping lawns and suburban competition had smoothed over the strip of tar that led into town. The shortcut through the backstreet had remained, as had the old A-frame house where Hunter had had his first taste of passion with Greta Simpson. A rusted Kombi out the front told him that the Simpsons had abandoned the house long ago, but he sped up past the house anyway in case the sharp eyes of old Mr Simpson were still lurking behind the balcony window. Mr Simpson had known about the party, that much was sure, and had grounded Greta for one whole month. But Hunter only suspected that he had discovered the blood on the bed, the used condom and the shame of his daughter. The flush of memory made him shift in his seat, and he pushed it away with the speed of his vehicle. And as he pressed the pedal, the road remembered and, just as it had done more than fifteen years ago, it shot him like a catapult into the main street of town.

There had been a fight in the pub the night before. The carpet was wet and covered with broken glass. A small man with a plastic cap and hardend potbelly sat on the end of the bar and crunched on a cigarette butt. With each roll of his jaw he seemed to masticate the history of the town: the drinking partners, the games and gossip.

“You know, m’boy, yer old man loved a few, that’s true, but he was a good man and a good mate,” Max said, almost gagging on the word. “Sorry to see him pass on.”

Hunter took his beer slow and waited for Max to recover.

“Yip, I’ll tell ya, he had something in yer mother too. Nice woman yer Mum. Heart of gold, what, with her charities. A woman in charity feeds the souls of a thousand men. How is she by the way? Must be hard on yers all. Bad way to go. Right on the middle of the bloody street, in front of everyone, like a sack o’ shit.”

Max raised a blood-shot eye to the ceiling, muttering to the heavens and the dry wood and cobwebs.

“She put up with a lot of shit, you know, Max. Dad coming home pissed all the time. That is if he ever came home. You should bloody well know.”

“What, yer saying it’s all my fault, are ya? I’ll tell ya this, Andy might have got on it pretty damn hard, harder than most yer might say, but he never said a bad word about none of yers. Loved yers, more than anything he did.” Max paused and wiped his nose with the back of his hand, and nodded his head as if it were causing him great pain. “Yip, especially you, m’boy, despite all that shit floatin’ around. Those were his own words I tell ya, plain as that. Faithful. Never looked twice at a bird. And well, yer mother, God bless her, running about town like that, with those fuckin’ ponces-“

“What shit floating round?”

“Load of cod’s wallop. Of course yer a Morrisey! Yer Dad knew it and so do I.”

Hunter turned away.

“Sorry about that, son. I said sorry, hey? Look, yer old man’s passed away, that stuff doesn’t matter anymore.”

“Mum never cheated on Dad. What the hell would you know anyway?”

“I’ve known yer Mum and Dad for a long time, got a lot of respect for the Morrisey’s I have, the whole friggin’ lot of yers. If it wasn’t fer yer Dad, well, son, I probably wouldn’t be here.” Max replaced the chewed cigarette butt with a fresh one. “Put me up some nights, lent me a few bob here and there. Youse were pretty well off, yer know, with that council job of Andy’s. Good man considering. Yip. And, well, your Mum and I never got on much, but you know I respect her and all. I just seemed to rub her the wrong way. But God damnit, yer had a family, more than I ever had.”

Max rubbed his unshaven chin. His face, scrawny and sickly under the artificial lights, screwed up as if he were calculating a sum in his head. Hunter remembered Max’s face from when he was young, before his mother had banned him from the family home, when he and his father would curse the sky, vomit in the back garden and fill the house with the stench of uncertainty. At their apogee, the world seemed to Hunter like a rabid place and he small and defenceless. He thought of the time when Max was holding Martin above his shoulders in a drunken game of ferris wheel. They had both fallen backwards onto one of his mother’s earthenware pots, leaving Martin with a gaping hole in his calf.

“By God, you never found out, did ya? Christ, it was all over the bloody wall, yer mother and that prick. Don’t tell me you’ve never heard of Jack Oldfield? Drives that red cortina?”

“No.”

“I can’t bloody believe it. I’m sorry to be the one to break to yer, mate. He’s an accountant or some bloody thing. He’s a dickhead if yer ask me. Maybe it was the money. He’s got plenty of it you know, and tight – like a fish’s arse. But not with yer Mum, I should hope.”

“She didn’t say anything.”

“That’s normal, son. Why would she? An’ yer father was too ashamed to do anything, poor bloke – what, with all the talk goin’ about. It were you kids that he cared about. Yip. Might have taken it out on her, but he never left her side, never stopped providing for you, God damnit.”

“This is such utter crap, Max.”

“Yip, you knows best, mate. I’m only telling you what I hear, okay? There’s some nasty rumours goin’ around, and fer ya father’s sake, don’t you believe none of the shit those people come up with. You are who you are – son of Andy Morrisey, a local legend.”

 *          *          *

Trish Morrisey sat on the couch with her legs together, biting her lip. She blew on an empty cup of tea, half smiling.

“Who’s Jack Oldfield?” Hunter asked.

Trisha pursed her lips and leant back into the lounge.

“Mum, it’s not a secret anymore. Don’t treat me like an idiot.”

“You’re not an idiot, darling. He’s a close friend. That’s all. From bridge. That’s all.”

“How close?”

“He’s just a friend, Hunter. Someone who’s helped me through the times when your father couldn’t. You remember those times?”

“That’s not what ol’ Max had to say. “

“And you’d believe that old drunk, would you? Couldn’t string a coherent thought together if one was given to him on a rosary. I can’t believe you talked to him. I told you stay away from him, what, after your brother. He played his part that Max. That’s what years on the grog does to you.”

“Mum, it’s okay, I just want to know.”

“No!” Trisha put her hand to her mouth. “Just let your father have this time,” she whispered. “This one time at his death. The cousins, your Aunty Robert, Thelly, they’re all here and want to pay their respects, can’t you just do that too?”

“And then what, it’s over?”

“What’s over?”

“You know what I mean!”

“Please… Hunter.”

“What’s wrong, are you ashamed?”

“Yes, I’m ashamed! Is that what you want me to say? I’m ashamed because I really wanted to leave. Because of your father mainly, but I was so close. So close to leaving you all. Oh!”

“But you didn’t.”

“No, I didn’t,” Trish sighed and her shoulders fell and she put her head in her hands. “Jack convinced me to stay, for your sake. For Martin’s sake.”

“So you admit having an affair with this guy?”

“I shouldn’t have to justify it to you!”

“Why did we never find out, Mum? What’s the big secret? For fuck’s sake, what is the deal with all the shit that went on? You didn’t think we could handle it, did you?”

“Your father loved you, Hunter, both of you, just as much-”

“What do you mean? Just as much as if I were his own son? “

“No, I didn’t mean-”

“Tell me!”

“Please don’t shout Hunter, sit down now, come on, just sit down please!”

Hunter reeled. His hands scraped across his scalp as he regurgitated the words he was trying to swallow. In his mind a tiny beep sounded. It grew louder and louder and filled the room. Hunter took his mobile phone from his back pocket and looked at it. He moved through the house and into the kitchen before answering. When he returned to the living room, Mrs Morissey was lying on the couch with the empty teacup resting on her stomach.

“That was Martin. The head stone’s ready to be picked up.”

“Good.”

“I’ll take my car.” Hunter stopped short of giving his mother a goodbye kiss and backed away. Mrs Morissey turned her face into the pillow.

Hunter was at the door when he heard a whimper.

“Hunter?”

“Yes?”

“What did they write on it?”

“Andrew Morrisey – loving husband and dedicated father of two sons.”

Mrs Morrisey turned to face her son and they both curled their thin lips. Hunter looked up at the clock on the wall.

“You’d better go then.”

“Yeah,” Hunter said and flexed like a spring before bouncing out the door.