Her name was Barbara. She was a big-busted, braless Texan who wore tight jeans and pink cheesecloth shirts knotted at the front. She was the reason, halfway through an overseas posting, why Mum and Dad got single beds. A few months later, he left. Mum packed up and three of us came back to the small country town of her childhood. Dad didn’t see us off at the airport. A pointless exercise, Mum told him.
We couldn’t afford to rent a house, so our names were added to the long waiting-list for council-assisted accommodation. Our financial situation was precarious, even though Mum worked two jobs. There was no child maintenance, and a divorce settlement was only forthcoming if you proved desertion on the grounds of adultery. We moved in with Nan and Pop. An interim measure, my mother said.
There were two solid doors in Nan’s house—the door to her bedroom and the door to the bathroom— both were painted white, and stood directly opposite each other, on either side of the wide carpeted hall. Each had a rattly black door knob, and an elegant, crimson-tasselled cast iron key. When it was my turn to shower, I’d turn the key tight and test the handle before hopping into the narrow bathtub. Winter or summer, a draft snuck through the gap under the door and fluttered the shower curtain; I hated the black edge licking at my shins.
The rest of the doors were hollow and made from pine. Each door was unfinished, except for a buffed coat of beeswax, and featured a round pane of glass in the upper third of the door, and a curved chrome handle. Art deco, Nan said proudly. Those glass portholes taunted my brother and me. We’d strain on tiptoes—oblivious to the evidence of our trespass smudged by pressed noses—determined to peek into the rooms beyond. Most often Nan caught us and, with a stinging flick of her linen tea-towel, banished us to the backyard. Sometimes she did not, and we’d spend half the day spying on the adult world behind those closed doors.
Great-grandfather lived in a small room at the rear of the house. He was blind from glaucoma and cataracts and deaf in both ears. He wore striped flannelette pyjamas tied high above his waist with a dirty drawstring; there were no buttons on his fly, and he didn’t wear underpants. His pyjama shirt, buttoned to his throat, billowed over his stomach from hunched shoulders. He didn’t walk, he shuffled; his black woollen slippers rasped along the linoleum, polishing a track from his bed to the toilet in the laundry, and back again. I don’t ever remember him taking a bath.
Sometimes we were allowed to go into Great-grandfather’s room. We had to speak loudly and slowly into a fluted enamel funnel, which he held to his ear. He’d nod and make throaty sounds until he tired and pushed us away with white, papery claws; his nails were yellowed, ridged, and ugly. Within months of our arrival, Nan bought Great-grandfather a bedpan and a plastic urinal bottle. His door remained closed after that. When my older cousins visited, they were determined to catch Great-grandfather using the bottle. We hovered by his door until he shuffled to his cupboard, stared wide-eyed as he fumbled in his pyjamas, found his shrivelled penis, placed it in the neck of the urinal bottle and peed whiskey-coloured urine. While they sniggered behind cupped hands, I watched Great-grandfather’s face; he looked peaceful with his head tilted back and his eyes closed. His shoulders always slumped further and further, as the bottle filled. We watched until he finished, until he shouted for Nan: Beulah, Beulah. Bottle held in his hand extended towards the door, he waited, his penis dripping onto her floor. Beulah, he’d call again, banging his cane on the wall. As soon as Nan answered, we’d run outside laughing, and hide in the willows.
There was a covered sunroom on the side of Nan’s house, separated from the lounge by a sliding door. When my uncle brought one of his girlfriends home, he’d take them into the sunroom, and inch the door closed. Tom, Nan would yell from the kitchen, Tom, I hope that door isn’t closed.
No Mum, he’d yell back and smile at us, his index finger pressed conspiratorially to his lips.
Uncle Tom was very good looking. A young Casanova, my mother whispered in the kitchen, he’ll get himself into trouble. Nan agreed. My cousins and I tried to watch him through the glass, but the sliding door shuddered against the metal tracking if we pressed against it. We knew his routine: the tallest cousin kept watch until Tom leaned over and kissed the girl, and then we’d ease the door back slightly, until my uncle and his girl were framed by a narrow slit. Entranced, we watched the kaleidoscope of hands, legs, and clothes; we listened to lips, and sighs, and vigorous rubbing. We didn’t hear Nan behind us until it was too late, until she shoved us aside and wrenched the door along the track. We watched her escort the shamefaced girl unceremoniously to the front door. Uncle Tom stood and jiggled, straightening himself. With a white-faced wink, he’d tell us to nick off outside.
After about a year, Mum met Uncle Bob. The four of us had some nice times—walks in the National Park, fish and chip dinners by the river, trips to the Sandstone Caves. Uncle Bob was a nice man with soft hands and a gentle voice. He taught us how to catch yabbies using mince and Mum’s stockings. He kicked the soccer ball with my brother and told us stories about his two little boys he didn’t see very often. He was a head taller than Mum; she fitted perfectly when he placed his arm around her shoulders.
Sometimes Nan played with us in the backyard, to give Mum and Uncle Bob privacy inside. She’d weave us baskets, belts and crowns from the weeping willows, which we’d climb to watch the workmen load delivery trucks at the cordial factory next door. If we were lucky, they’d slip us red creaming sodas through the loose plank in the fence. On the nights Uncle Bob took Mum out, Pop would rock me to sleep on his knee. Wearing his blue Ford overalls and smelling of grease and rum, he’d tap one steel-capped boot in slow four-four time and sing Two Little Boys in Blue.
On one such evening, I woke to low voices and crying. I got out of bed and followed the noise to the kitchen. It was Mum; Nan was shushing her. Uncle Bob was there. I sat in the dark, my back against the kitchen wall and listened hard, but I couldn’t make out the words. Then, in a louder voice, Uncle Bob asked Mum to leave, with him, right there, right then. My heart banged so loudly in my chest I didn’t hear her reply. I hope you can live with your decision, he said and whipped open the door. He didn’t see me. He didn’t even look back when he walked out the front door and out of our lives.
Mum went away after that, to Sydney. I’ll bring you both back a special surprise, she promised. One afternoon a week later when we got home from school, Nan was waiting for us in the front yard. She fussed with our hair, licked her thumb and wiped the corner of our mouths, and pinched fresh colour into our cheeks. Goodness, you’ve both gotten so tall, she told us, straightening our collars. Go on, go on. She shepherded us towards the sunroom. Your Mum’s home.
My father stood next to Mum and held her hand.
She looked awkward, a straight smile fixed on her face; the kind that didn’t reach her eyes, so they remained crinkle-free. Dad looked at me and beamed. He took us from Nan, and slid the door shut. He was larger and louder than I remembered; his hug smothered, and the steel press-studs on his checked shirt bit into my cheek. I love you, he said. I mumbled something and stood aside while he greeted my brother.
Dad rubbed our backs and clasped our shoulders.
On the other side of the door, Nan’s eyes met mine through the round pane of glass.
Amanda McKenzie is an accountant living in Brisbane.
© 2010, Amanda McKenzie