A bastard act

Papa had always enjoyed walks, especially the long, head-clearing kind.

Though he tolerated the meanderings we used to take together as a family, he was at his best after having lugged a heavy backpack over forest trails for days, tracing mountains and beaches with his hiking boots, drawing from the source of perfect solitude and silence.

It was only later that he began enjoying walks of a different nature: the unplanned, unattended, and unencumbered by compos mentis kind. On these he’d turn up at the side of highways with an axe, scratching his head and asking the responding constable where that expletive tree he had to fell was hiding, or asking for Nancy, my mother. Once he’d wandered off, leaving the tap running on the 22,000-litre tank. Days later he called to complain both about the lack of shower water and the length of green patch that had erupted on the paddock. Such things attract snakes, he’d said. From the cottage to the closest shop might have been seven kilometres, but he walked it. Blazing heat, not so much as a bead of sweat, not even when he commanded that responding constable to mind his own expletive business.

– Needed pesticide, he said, shaking stones from his boots over the shredded paper littering the floor of my car. – That’s all.

– It’s not the first time though, is it, Papa?

– Not the first time what?

– That you’ve been caught shoplifting.

– I had no intention to steal anything. I’ve been a loyal customer for forty years! Len never minded if I took what I needed. I always pay what I owe.

– Len died a decade ago, Papa.

– I drew up his will you know. That ratbag son got everything.

We left town through the back roads, past the houses and their stories and their front lawns that extended out to the roadside. That one’s wife died of a stroke, I was informed as we drove by a cream brick home. Their kids are on the ice somewhere up the north coast. This used to be a good street, not so much anymore. And as I listened to Papa’s community broadcast, it occurred to me that it wasn’t the late Spring heat that had left everything breathless: the town had puffed out on its own accord. I tapped at the fan button, bashed at it, though it was already bombinating at maximum, circulating hot air from outside in. At least the roads had improved. Fewer potholes, more signage. Our drought-relief taxes at work.

A plastic drum announced the entrance to our family property: an untitled puzzle-piece of bushlands, dry gullies, grazing paddocks and fruit trees, connected to properties optimistically baptized as Annapurna, Spofforth, and adjacent to the region’s token patch of national parklands. Bottlebrush trees lined our driveway, they stooped in quiet exhaustion as I drove by, insect- and birdless, their leaves scratchings of green on a flaxen canvas.

I parked at the front steps to the cottage. The windows and doors were wide open. A radio chattered from somewhere inside.

– Where’s Jess, Papa? I said, crouching to look under the verandah.

– She’ll be about.

I saw him bent over the rear window of my hatchback, his frame tall and grey, like a rubber obelisk. He pulled at one of the stickers, peeling it off. – I see you are still obsessed with this nonsense, he said.

– What nonsense?

He crumpled the paper in his fingers, waggled his hand for a few seconds before it came unstuck and flew off into the aloe vera. – The disruption. The noise. I’ve seen it on the television. A stupid girl glued herself to the pavement. If she were flattened by a truck, it’d have been her own fault.

– You do know why we’re protesting, don’t you.

– I’m waiting to see my daughter on the screen, chained to a street lamp. I tell you the only thing going extinct in this country is common sense.

– You used to advocate for peaceful, civil disobedience.

– There’s a distinction between political activism and anarchy. I’m surprised you haven’t been arrested yet.

– Maybe criminality skips a generation.

Papa grunted something, words words words expletive words, we’ll see who falls on the right side of expletive history, then kicked his other boot off into the grass, and stomped inside. – I s’pose you’ll be wanting your tea, he said just as the screen door thwacked against its frame.

I threw my backpack on the bed in my childhood room, inspected the bare wardrobe cupboards, the mouldy carpet. My graduation certificate still hung on the wall, dusty, but straight. From underneath the bed, I fetched my red football, which was still pumped and taut. I threw it in my backpack. The dog I found slung over the piano pedals, biting and licking her front paws.

A green tea with milk stood on the table, next to a black coffee in Mama’s favourite mug. I poured them both down the sink, and watched as they coalesced and vanished down the drain. I prepared myself another cup. Papa had seated himself in his armchair, cup in one hand, a law journal in the other. He was leafing through the pages, licking his index finger every second turn.

I sat down on the arm of the chair.  – Papa.

– Mmm?

– I think it’s time we spoke about getting you some help around the place. I can’t keep driving up every time you decide to go on one of your strolls.

– No one says you have to.

– Maybe someone to just drop in now and then. Someone you can call when you need something.

– I don’t need a nurse if that’s what you’re implying.

– I didn’t say that.

– And besides, I’ve got your mother.

– Papa, please.

– You needn’t worry about me. Things are just fine.

I stared down at him.

He sighed, closed the journal, and removed his glasses. – I’ll tell you if I need help. How’s that?

I kissed his forehead. – Promise?

– I’ll commence immediately in fact. Go grab the shovel will you?

Behind the workshed, beneath the fig trees, lay a mound covered in a silver tarpaulin. The corners were weighed down by house bricks. A small cloud of flies escaped as Papa rolled away one of the bricks. He stood staring, hands on his hips.

– They’ve got to be buried, he said. They’re already starting to attract vermin. I’ll have to get some pesticide.

– How many?

– Fifty or so I’d estimate. Scattered about the grounds.

The flying fox corpses were lined in a row, face up, their stiff, translucent wings stretched crookedly outwards, crinkled and dark.

– There are more than fifty, I said, wiping my eyes.

– Maybe.

– Did you report it to Parks and Wildlife?

– There’s hardly a need to bother the authorities. It’s my land.

– It’s a heat stress event. Tens of thousands are dying all over the country!

– We’ve had a few warm days.

– They’re only going to get warmer. It’s going to be another record summer..

– Here we go, Papa said waving his hands, conducting the invisible orchestra. He dragged the tarpaulin away.

– This is exactly what I’m talking about, I said. – It’s happening in your own backyard, and you’re still caught up in this denialist propaganda.

Papa turned to me and took the shovel from my hands. – Propaganda? It’s called healthy scepticism. You’re a scientist, you should appreciate that. Now, did you come to help or chastise me?

I grabbed the shovel back. – Are you happy that we’re destroying the planet?

–  Life would be easier if we did, wouldn’t it?  Papa said. – Erase it all. Nothing left. No expletive responsibilities.

– Responsibility, I said. I let the word resonate, hoping the irony would hit its target.

– Let’s dig the hole over there, Papa said. – We’ll plant strawberries over it. Nancy loves strawberries.

I thrust the shovel blade into the earth with as much power as my body permitted, pretending to myself that each fragment of dry soil launched over my shoulder represented an ethical divestiture of my fiduciary duty. Or so Papa would have formulated it.

* * *

The nights were hot. Papa slept badly. He cried out Mama’s name at midnight, whimpered it through his mosquito net before sunrise. I heard banging coming from his bedroom. I slept in the living room and kept watch over the doors. As far as I could tell he didn’t leave the house. During the day we took walks through the bush, circumnavigating our differences by speaking only of the town or the cottage, or of the fate of one of his acquaintances, and sometimes of Mama: her cooking, her piano students, her throaty voice. We visited her grave down by the dam, brushed away the dust and leaves, pulled weeds. I helped him count and sort his pills, discussed weather forecasts in only the most superficial of manners. Conflict was avoidable under those terms.

* * *

Sweet relief arrived in a green van, loud music, news of my life. I slapped shut my laptop, and skated down the stairs. Adele inspected herself in the vanity mirror, then lowered her window. Chilled air nuzzled my cheeks. Her mouth tasted like smoke.

– How is he? she asked.

– Same. He has his good moments.

– Saving the bad ones for me.

– He’ll be fine.

– Hey, if I can’t handle one old crank, I’m not going to be of much use to the world.

Adele and I were sitting wedged against each other on the couch when Papa emerged from his room. We were sharing photos on our phones, waving our hands in the air, searching for mobile reception.

– The entire cabal is here, he said. – Don’t think about making this house your international headquarters.

Adele ruffled her dreadlocks. – Don’t worry. The internet out here’s not good enough to support a global conspiracy as healthy as ours.

Papa laughed. A single ‘Ha!’. – No expletive traffic to stop either I’m afraid.

– And how are you, your Honour?

– Me? I’m fine. It’s the world that’s gone mad.

Papa folded a newspaper under his arm, and headed for the door.

– Where are you going? I asked him.

He held up the paper, and waved it like fan. – Toilet breaks are still authorised around here, aren’t they?

Adele and I took some towels, and walked to the creek with the dog.

– No offence, but it’s a tad gruesome, Adele said as we passed Mama’s grave.

Gum leaves scattered about the headstone. Mama’s unsmiling face, black and white, gazed back out to the cottage through a gleaming decorative frame. Laying on top of the marble burial vault was the sheet music for Chopin’s Nocturne in E-flat major, Op. 9, No. 2, its pages yellowing in a plastic sleeve.

– That was her favourite piece, I said.

– Not the music. The fact she’s buried metres from your house. And that your father goes on as if she’s still in the land of the living.

I took Adele’s hand and squeezed it. – It’s alright, you can sleep in my bed tonight if you’re scared of ghosts.

Adele and I laughed. She pulled her hand away from mine.

The creek still carried water, but the trickles that defied the long dry ran slowly: they hid beneath stones, avoided the dead moss. We climbed down the hardened bank by the swing, and wet our feet in the pool. Dragonflies touched down on the surface of the water. One landed on my knee.

– It’s really beautiful, Adele said. – Sometimes I think even I could live in the country, but I soon regain my city girl senses.

– I miss it sometimes, I said.

– It’s a hard situation.

– What is?

– Your father. He can’t stay here alone. Not anymore.

The wind blew warm on my face. – Maybe we could move up here for a few months, just until I can organise some care.

– You said it yourself. He won’t allow it. And he won’t leave.

– He wants to die here, I said.

– A self-fulfilling prophecy.

– Won’t you stay?

Adele rolled up her pant legs, and splashed water over her tattooed calves. – You know you can’t ask me to do that. Things are already complicated.

I took off my t-shirt, and let the sun warm my bare chest. – It’s only complicated if you make it. We could be happy here, despite everything.

– We could be happy. But not here.

– Sorry.

– Don’t worry, Adele said.

– I can’t leave him like this.

– No, you can’t.

– What would you do?

– I don’t know. I’m not in your position.

– Imagine for me.

Adele stood up. – You should decide.

– Where are you going?

–  I’m tired.

– Are you really leaving?

– You know I care about you.

The wind changed direction, blowing in from the north. I wrapped the towel around my shoulders. – I care about you too, I said.

We walked back to the cottage in silence. Adele held my hand in hers the entire way, twirling my rings and cleaning my fingernails.

When we arrived I called out to Papa, but no one answered. The front door was open, as was the shed’s. Adele checked the shed and outdoor toilet while I looked around and under the house. The tractor, the ute, and the beat up old bicycle were all there. Outside the front door, a full set of boots and shoes.

– Do you think he’s gone off again? I asked.

Adele shrugged.

We went to the fruit trees, back to the creek, cried out his name to the bush. I left a message on the number the constable had given me, and went back to the cottage to get my car keys. The scenarios projected themselves: Papa walking along the road into town, lost in the bush without water, lying dead in the paddock, looking for Nancy in the places she used to go.

– We weren’t away that long, Adele said. How far could he have got?

I’d just fastened my seatbelt when I saw him meandering through the trees towards the cottage, stooping under branches, pulling out weeds as he went. He was wearing his wrap-around sunglasses, and carrying a can. It was hot and his face was red.

– What’s happened? What do you want? Papa said, frowning.

– We thought you’d wandered off again, I said.

Papa sat on his chair in the verandah, and placed the can at his bare feet. – Don’t be ridiculous.

– Where were you?

– Around the place. Weeding.

Adele and I looked at each other. – I’ll make some tea, Adele said.

I nodded at the can. – What’s that?

– Nothing, he said. – Are you going to interrogate me all afternoon?

I went around to the side of the house, where Papa couldn’t hear me, and left a false alarm message with the constable.

* * *

I convinced Adele to stay the night so we could talk. We drove Papa into town to fetch beer and vegetables for dinner. He wanted steak, which he insisted we cook on the barbecue outside despite the hot breeze and total fire ban. In the cellar we found three bottles of vintage red that Mama had bought Papa for his fiftieth birthday. We opened all three at the same time and toasted the things we had in common: our families, food, the good fortune to have been born in a wealthy, stable political and economical environment. That Adele and I had opted not to study law at university roused a stirring tribute from Papa, who said that, while the rule of law was important, it sometimes wasn’t. It was a clear night and the stars shone with immaculate density. Mama’s record collection played in the background. We went to bed happy and full and drunk, Adele swore she would never forget me as she stroked my hair. She breathed tobacco and red wine into the pillow, and told me I had to promise to visit her in Japan, and maybe think about accepting a teaching position myself. Live my own life. As she spoke, whispers of smoke tickled my nose, so faint I barely noticed them.

* * *

A rap on the door woke me. A man and woman in yellow firefighting tunics stood under the porch light. They seemed worried, impatient, unapologetic. I recognised their faces from somewhere, or some time. They asked for Papa, and greeted me by name, remarking on how much I’d grown.

– We’re calling in around the area, the woman said. – There are fires up in the national park near your property. They’ve swept across the park, but being as dry as things are, and given the winds, we can’t tell how fast and in which direction things will move. We’re advising people to leave early, by the morning. Follow your bushfire plan, prepare the house and your things and animals. It’d be best to leave the property before it moves to the roads.

They asked me the number and names of the people staying in the cottage. – We’re setting up a meeting point at the sports centre if you need somewhere to go, the man said.

After they’d left, I waited on the verandah and listened and breathed the air. I walked down the driveway to the road, and looked up to the hills. Though I couldn’t see it, and could barely smell it, behind the wind, in the darkness, something vibrated, like the long drone of a low string.

I turned on the radio and all the lights, roused Adele, told her to get dressed. Papa was already awake when I opened his bedroom door. He was sitting up in bed.

– Have they come for me? he said.

I told him about the fire, and that he needed to get ready to leave. Adele packed food while I went through the rooms filling plastic shopping bags with photos and papers and collectibles. I took several specimens from Papa’s cowrie shell collection, his brass telescope, random USB sticks. There were a lot of Mama’s clothes in suitcases in the spare room. I emptied out one suitcase onto the floor, and left the clothes untouched in a pile. Papa was still in his bed when I returned.

– I don’t care what they said, he said. – I’m not being evicted from my own house.

– No one is evicting you, I said. – It’s an evacuation.

I made for the closet, but before I could open it Papa pushed himself from the bed, and planted his hand on the closet door.

– I want to get our things from the safe, I said. – Then we’re all going. We’ll go to town. Once it’s safe, we’ll come back, I promise. There’s a bushfire, do you understand?

His eyes blazed. – I understand perfectly well. I thought I was unambiguous. I’m not leaving. I’m not leaving the cottage. I’m not leaving Nancy.

I held his gaze for as long as I could. – Papa, Mama’s dead.

– Get the expletive out, he yelled. – Expletive, expletive.

I did what he said.

Dawn attempted to shine through the smoky shadows that were sweeping around the cottage. A helicopter whirred in the sky somewhere. A mob of roos bounced through the property, already ahead of us.

The cars were ready and idling. Jess sat in the passenger seat of Adele’s van, looking on as Papa hosed down the walls and verandah. With Papa busy outside, I slipped into his room, opened his closet, and pulled out some spare clothes. I found his hiking shoes standing next to the can he was carrying the previous day. It was empty, and smelled of petrol. I opened the safe. The combination was unchanged: Chopin’s birth date. As I closed the front door and left the cottage, I didn’t look behind.

Adele tooted the horn. – Get in, Bill, she said to Papa. You can either come with us or wait for the firies.

Papa ignored her.

– Emily, Adele protested. – We can’t wait around forever. Call someone.

I went to him. – It’s time to go, Papa, I said.

His eyes were watering, and his hands shaking so fiercely, whatever invisible force he was fighting against might have been the entire world.

– Mama says we have to go, I said, and I took his hand and placed Mama’s wedding ring on the end of his little finger. – She says it’s going to be okay, she’ll be here waiting for you.

* * *

Bulging curtains billowed across the skies beyond the trees, the sun pulsing like a broken lighthouse behind them. Our convoy moved slowly along the road into town, phantoms in the haze. We passed a rural firefighter car, and I slowed down to tell them that we’d left the property. One of them greeted Papa. I asked for an update on the fire.

– Not the worst we’ve seen this year, a man wearing goggles said.

– Do you think… do you think someone started it?

– Someone? he replied. – We don’t know yet. But if it was someone, I’d say it’d be a bastard act.

I looked at Papa, who was silent, his eyes burning holes into his feet.

At the sports centre, people were asking after neighbours and making phone calls in between setting up plastic chairs, and handing out bottles of water. Dogs and cats sat in their owners’ laps. Blank stares, screaming children. A woman named Helen approached us and took Papa by the elbow, and led him to a group that was seated around a television. I went to the bathroom and cried myself dry.

– It’s going to be alright, Adele said, stroking my hair. – Everyone’s safe.

Hunched over the sink, wiping my eyes. In the mirror I appeared ghoulish: sunken-eyed, dirty hair. Adele’s reflection smiled at me, my compatible opposite. I wanted to thank her, to hug her, to not let her go, to pull her down to the cold tiles, to confess my weaknesses. But all I could think about was how things might have been different had I acted sooner, been a better daughter, a better lover, been more assertive, protested, insisted, pleaded. All these reproaches encircling a single image in my mind, that of an empty can locked away in a safe behind a closet door in the bush.

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