Any time you open a door, you never really know what you’ll find on the other side. I stuck the key in the lock but could already see shapes moving behind the frosted glass. Swinging the door back, there was mum halfway down the hall, still wearing her dressing gown even though it was well after four. She shuffled down towards me, then past, my stepfather following behind.
‘Your mum’s not well. I’m taking her to the hospital. I’ll get someone to come over before dinner. Call you as soon as I can.’
I walked into the empty house.
‘Love you, Mum,’ I called back, too late.
I was nine and alone.
Mum looked great in skirts with slits high up the sides. Apparently I’d told her she had fantastic legs but not so great knees.
As a treat for my first school holidays, mum and I caught the ferry into the city to see a movie—Disney’s Fantasia—and buy some new clothes for winter. Walking out of the quay, men high up on worksites threw her currawong whistles. She laughed and waved, but I got cranky without really knowing why, protective I guess of my mostly fragile mum who in these moments was more the actress from years past. When we got home I dug out the scrapbook and fingered through old press clippings from the social pages when she and dad were married and her full-colour shot, now faded to pastels, from the cover of TV Week. You could almost smell hairspray rising from the pages, her dark hair done to a tee, high and full.
It wasn’t the first time mum had gone in for treatment. Before I started school, my sister and I had to go and live with other people for what seemed like months. She stayed at Isabelle’s, which wasn’t far from our place, but I got shipped to my aunt’s across the Spit bridge. I remember the smells of warmed tinned vegetables and boiling corned beef, endlessly glugging on the stove. It felt like another world, with grace before meals and church on weekends and cousins who were bigger and frecklier than any of my friends.
Uncle Phillip was welcoming though, and he’d take me down under the house and show me the mini world he’d built behind the garage, where tiny trains circled endlessly, weaving through tunnels and cuttings, past stations with waiting people who could never get on. I remember waving goodbye when I left, but I can’t find any memory of coming home.
I didn’t want to visit, but I desperately wanted to see her, so we drove over after an early tea. My stepfather went ahead while we waited in the foyer and avoided picking up the well-fingered women’s magazines.
‘I’ll just check she hasn’t already got visitors.’
She never did.
Mum sat on the edge of the bed, her eyes down and hands folded. It seemed to take all her strength to lift her head and open her arms. I dived in, hugging through to her bones beneath the marshmallow dressing gown. I told my news of school and footy and a birthday party I’d been to, then went and got a drink so my sister could have some time with her.
Walking down the corridor, I peered into other rooms. They were all just like mum’s, with strangers sitting perched on chairs or on the end of their beds staring at the walls or windows, barely a flicker as I passed. I couldn’t believe mum was like that when we weren’t here. But after a few visits, I started to realise she was.
I’d just turned 11 when my stepfather determined I was old enough to know what they thought was going on. ‘Your mum is sick. She’s going to be fine sometimes, even extra happy. But every now and then she’s going to be low. When she’s depressed—that’s when we are going to need to pull together.’
‘Low’ was the euphemism for mum being in the darkest of places. Catatonic, suicidal, without hope. That part was never explained, so I just had to work it out for myself. And the ‘support’ bit was another whole story. No-one told us that it barely mattered what we did. When the demons took hold, no-one could make them stop taunting and torturing her.
I guess you can’t really blame him. Looking back now, she would have been torturous to live with, but he must have known that pretty well before he got into it. He was aware she’d already tried to kill herself once before they got together, yet he still made the call. In sickness and in health, he stepped into our place, our house, with nothing much more than his dinged up Valiant, a wardrobe of seventies brown shorts, long white socks, polyester shirts, plus the baggage of his previous marriage.
Then there were his kids. Five of them, loud and quick as a flash, all older than me and my sister, the eldest twice my age. They’d grown up out west, then been briefly civilised on the north shore. Every other weekend, heralded by a newly overflowing fridge and a clinking crate of Swing fizz, I’d brace myself for the onslaught. God knows what went through mum’s mind as their rumbling footsteps came up the path on Friday nights.
Early on it was kind of terrifying. Exhilarating and scary at the same time. Newly met strangers crawling all over our house, taking up the offer with glee to treat the place like their own. Feet that smelt different, up and over armchairs, turning on TV shows I’d never dreamed of even asking to watch. Horror movies late at night that I’d watch with one eye from behind the couch. Eating wherever and whenever they wanted. Sandwiches and bowls of cereal straight after dinner. Swearing and wrestling. Competition for everything—bags this and bags that—from the chicken leg to the best seat in the car. I watched in awe and got what was not already taken.
Sometimes mum would revel in it, playing upbeat host and comedienne supreme. She had a new audience who hadn’t heard her stories or jokes, and they naturally found her recollections of working in radio and television captivating and hilarious. I’m sure it beat the farmyard stories of their vet father, his tired memories of what he missed out on growing up in postwar Wagga.
But at other times the surge of step-kids was just too much. She’d bear up under the strain across the weekend, herding us around the zoo or dragging us back off the beach. When they were finally shipped back to their other home after Sunday roast she’d wilt, then fold herself into their upstairs bedroom. My sister and I would know this week we’d be making our own lunches and waving ourselves off to school each morning up the back lane.
My stepfather might have been a vet, but he hated animals. I’d always wanted a dog. Eventually I was allowed a border collie pup, which we named Minnie. He drew the line at letting her inside the house. ‘Animals stay outside. End of section.’
Even though I was only eight, I got up early every morning and fed and walked her before school. It had only been six weeks when I left her nosing the glass door after our morning walk to get ready. I came back down to eat my breakfast with her on the back step, but she was gone. I blamed my stepfather’s ban, and started a graffiti wall on the inside panel of my wardrobe, using texta to scrawl the worst words I knew. Most I’d learned from his own kids.
I’ve never been able to hang onto bitterness for long, and he worked hard to connect with my sister and me. His humour, favours, his crazy and colourful kids and the adventures we’d have together, made me part of a real-life Brady Bunch. At the snow, he walked me like a jolly puppet, my small bare feet on his rough boots, my arms bent back above my head held by his strong hands. He let me peer through his binoculars at distant birds and whisper their names on day trips to the national park and later rubbed cream where my tired legs had brushed the stinging nettle.
When I was 12, he identified what two doctors had missed. I’d been vomiting for two days. He came home from work and crouched close next to me. He asked me to roll onto my stomach, and pulled one of my legs back behind my bum. A hot poker rammed through me. I’m sure the neighbours heard my scream.
‘Appendicitis. That’s how you tell if a cow’s has burst.’ I spent three weeks in hospital after the operation, draining the poison from my gut. I felt he’d saved my life. Over time, I handed him not just my affection but also my absolute trust.
The honeymoon was well past by the time the recession bit deep. I’m not sure if mum knew or even cared, but my stepfather had borrowed against our house, and when the property market went bust, he and his brother lost everything. His brother went to jail. Mum went back into hospital, and then back again every year when the jacarandas turned the edges of the harbour purple. We swapped our two-storey home near the water for a semi that edged up against the main road that ran down towards the beaches. ‘It’s a great location. You can walk to school and you’re heaps closer to your mates.’
The new little house struggled to cope with our accordion-style family that expanded and contracted with a familiar if not comfortable rhythm. Now every weekend, mattresses were on the floor, rooms were shared, showers queued for, and the second loo out the back that smelt of lawn mower often the only choice. The kitchen was a ruck of shoulders, a tussle of reaching arms, and heads hitting left-open cupboard doors. But midweek it felt empty, and would have been silent if not for the constant hum of traffic whizzing past the front gate.
By the time I hit my teens, my sister was spending every hour locked in her room, cramming for her HSC. TV was banned after six so she wouldn’t be distracted. My stepfather was increasingly absent too, commuting to chicken sheds at the foot of the mountains or working back late in his Ag Department office block in the city. I was left to hold mum up and fill the space around her. After a while I would run away to the park with friends and we’d steal smokes from one of the dads who worked for a cigarette company, then chew Wrigley sticks and hope no-one would sniff the stink when we snuck back for tea.
I didn’t really suspect anything—even notice—at first. She was mum’s best friend and had been the one to introduce them. She and my stepfather went back even further—they’d studied at Sydney Uni together, and were part of a broad Catholic society that over time became their social set. I went to the same school as her three sons, and the eldest was my best mate. Her youngest boy would come to ours after school. So it made sense that we saw a lot of them. But over time I started to get an inkling that she and my stepfather were now more than just old friends.
Sure, he was an open, expressive guy with a truly warm spirit that still played to the beat of the free-loving sixties. But occasionally I’d catch a glimpse of a look between them, or a brush of their hands in a doorway after dinner that made me feel uneasy. The synchronicity of their arrivals home after work in the evening—she to collect her son and he coolly to greet my brave-faced mum—seemed too consistently coincidental. I listened from my bedroom as he saw her out with a whisper. Later he picked at his reheated dinner accompanied by the silence of the TV, my mother sitting stoically in an armchair beside him.
When a friend’s sister told me she’d seen them holding hands in a café on the other side of the city, I started watching them even more closely. At a party I saw them disappear upstairs, but was too scared to follow. They came back a bit later, again a few minutes apart, each looking to reconnect with a new circle of conversation, avoiding one another for a time. A few weeks later she arrived to collect her son and her blouse was unbuttoned way too low for a TAFE teacher, while he trotted in next, his shirt heavily creased and thinning hair dishevelled.
But all I had were observations and second-hand intelligence. They were adults—old friends, and I was just a kid with a wild imagination living in a wilder household. I had no idea how deep the truth might cut my mum. But I knew it could be fatal.
We sat facing off, in the small sitting room off the kitchen. I’d been angry, goading him to challenge me for days. Finally he’d called it on.
‘What’s eating you? Come on. We don’t keep secrets here’.
But this was all about secrets. ‘I dunno.’ I grasped for more courage, rather than the right words.
I didn’t think I was ready. It wasn’t private. The rest of the family were just there, through a half-opened door in the back room finishing off the chicken and chips and wiping up the thick yellow mornay with their fingers and licking them while they talked loudly, and listened and laughed. I almost wanted everyone in there to hear. Except mum.
‘It’s almost holidays. Then you’ll get a break. And your mum’s doing okay.’
‘She’s not okay. It’s not okay.’
I was a lanky 15-year-old David confronting this giant figure with what might well be an imaginary slingshot and spit-ball stones. I was dead scared; it was a fear like nothing I’d felt before. Only a few weekends before, he’d play-wrestled with a 20-year-old boyfriend of one of his daughters. It soon spiralled into a battle for dominance of the ape-king versus the pretender. We all sensed danger. The combat became more and more fierce, and his elder sons moved to break it up. There was venom in his eyes, set in his reddened face. Silver-back prevailed. The two young lovers split soon after.
If I said it—when my words spilled out across the carpet—they could never be taken back and would then ripple and resonate through the years for me and many others. But I had to heave the words from my heart. They rasped up past my throat and squeezed through my teeth. ‘I know you’re having an affair.’
I stared across at him. My legs were shaking hard, my heart pin-balled off my ribs. The sound from the back room washed around me. I watched his ruddy blush rise from his neck to his forehead, face hot, now scarlet. He tightened his grip on the woven cane armrest, and I thought he was about to stand.
He began to speak but I didn’t need to hear what he said. I listened hard, but would never receive his words the same way again. He denied everything. Unthinkable. They were just the very best of friends. They supported one another. It’s not easy. I was too young to understand. But at the same time, he said he’d make an effort to get home earlier.
It was over. I went out and walked and smoked and bought more cigarettes at the fish shop. The smell of old oil and the taste of tobacco made me want to vomit. I tried in the back lane behind the shops but couldn’t.
Approaching the end of high school, my sister long gone, I juggled time spent over my books, with my girlfriend, my mates and time with mum. Study rarely won and mum fared little better.
Mostly she was well enough, and we’d sit together before dinner for an hour or so most weeknights, filling her void before her absent husband would finally make it home. She’d turn off the talkback and put on a record that one of her step-kids had given her—Yellow Brick Road or Neil Young or Joni Mitchell—and she’d tell me about her day. She had started nannying for local families and she’d tell me the curious things their preschool-aged kids would get up to. The work wasn’t demanding and I think she got real joy from it. She had a way with kids—with young people generally. Her guinea-pig-treatment at the hands of psychiatrists had slowed her sharpness in adult company, but younger people were more forgiving and less quick to judge.
Even then I had a sense these were precious times that I’d later value. Like my sister, moving out—getting away would be a priority for me too once I had finished school.
Soon it was the middle of January and my HSC results were out. I told myself they were okay, but in truth I was a handful of marks short of what I really needed. Though not as bad as her eldest son. We stood together at the bar and he ordered a schooner of scotch for himself and a beer for me and clunked glasses at our misfortune. We didn’t know what was in front of us, but I had more of an inkling and later wished I’d shared more of the secret with him.
Two weeks later my stepfather told mum as they drove home after the annual camping trip. Four hours alone sealed in a car for him to explain why he was leaving and what was going to happen, and for her to stare out the window and cry. He dropped her off and never stayed in the house again. At least he let her keep the place.
I knew I had to confront the two of them. I wanted to make sure mum wasn’t hurt any more than was inevitable. The three of us—him, her and me—had the iciest of meetings while the break-up was still raw. They denied they had lied to me. Ever. They were still just good friends, but they couldn’t predict the future. Within a fortnight she’d left her husband, and they were living together less than a kilometre from where mum and I lived.
Despite everything that had happened, some people were surprised I didn’t invite either of them to my wedding. I wrote a letter to them explaining my reasons, and they replied, gracious and wishing us both the best. One of my ex-stepsisters refused to come as a show of solidarity.
Gradually we all lost touch. Some of them stayed in contact with mum, but even that became more and more sporadic. I sometimes think that hurt her more than losing her second husband or her best friend.
During her final years mum’s mental health had gone full circle. Where once she was sunshine or cloud, with occasional storms, now darkness was the norm. I’d visit most weeks, in between work and commitments to my own new family. She’d be relentlessly morose and absolutely joyless. I’d talk at and around her to fill the blankness, never expecting much back. Occasionally, when she let me know her sky had lifted, I’d breathe out and enjoy some time without the burden of knowing how hard she was doing.
I spent all Saturday one December with her. It was sunny and she had a brighter edge than usual. We had breakfast at her local Spanish café that served strong coffee and warm smiles. Then she suggested a walk, then asked if I could help her do some shopping, then if I’d stay for a cuppa after we unpacked the groceries onto her well-stocked shelves. I didn’t see her moves then as holding on. When I got home before dinner, I commented how well she seemed. ‘I should have taken the kids. They would have enjoyed having some time with her like that.’
Then Monday dragged as Mondays can. I sat in the overcrowded meeting. The mushroom-phone hummed conference-call jargon. I wasn’t anywhere near the same page, so excused myself and called mum just to check in. She didn’t answer. Or call back. I phoned my sister. She’d had a row with mum the day before about something unimportant. Later I called mum a second time, maybe around five. The phone went to message bank again, so I drove away from the office and into the glow of brake lights over the bridge. I turned the radio off and headed towards her in knowing silence.
Everyone who had ever mattered to her turned up to her funeral.