The headstone

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.

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I'm a creative writer and illustrator living wherever I can afford.