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Authors: Vincent O'Sullivan

Owen Marshall Selected Stories (56 page)

BOOK: Owen Marshall Selected Stories
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‘I played a bit of golf myself,' said Dad. ‘It wasn't my sport of choice, but in business it's useful to be able to play golf without making a goat of yourself. Especially in Asian countries, you develop a sense of business opportunity and personal trust by playing together.'

‘So deals are made on the course.'

‘Not so much that, but Japanese and Singaporean businessmen like to get a sense of your personality that way.'

‘Were you any good?'

‘Not really,' said Dad, ‘but it got me to the table without too much embarrassment and I had good products to sell. Do you know anything about mechanical engineering?'

‘No.' I thought that was the end of the conversation, because Dad said nothing for a long while and hummed quietly.

‘What is it you do know about?' he asked finally, and I almost congratulated him on holding onto one line of thought for so long.

‘I'm still at varsity, studying English and History.'

‘You do the roof spraying as a part-time thing then?'

‘That's it,' I said. Life was too short to tease out absolutely fact and fiction. The end justifies the means when you're talking to someone
like Dad, and the thing was to keep him as happy as possible it seemed to me. ‘What would you do if you could have your time over again?' I asked him.

‘Over again?'

‘Would you live your life differently if you had a choice — a different job, different country, stuff like that.'

‘I was always a good organiser.' Dad seemed quite interested in the self-analysis. ‘My mother and father were muddlers and I reacted against that, I suppose. Logic, systems, the application of reason — that's what I brought to business. People sneer at administrators because they don't understand the skills involved.'

‘You did okay, though.'

‘People think it's paper shuffling, not real work,' said Dad. He seemed about to say more, but then closed his eyes briefly so I prompted him while he still had a chain of thought.

‘So what is important for a manager?'

‘People not policy. The best systems in the world are useless if you don't carry your staff. People skills make the difference from the factory floor to the boardroom, that's what I say.' And Dad said it with surprising coherence. It was surely the best I saw him in all the time I was there, and gave me a glimpse of the person he had once been. It was perhaps achieved with some effort, however, for afterwards he concentrated on rubbing his hands, and making sly sheep's eyes at me. ‘So are you in some sort of business?' he said finally.

‘I'm keeping you company.'

‘Ah, yes, that's right.' Dad's voice had the pretence of assurance, but his soft expression was one of increasing bewilderment as his mind moved from the steady recollection of the far past to the morass of the present. ‘Yes, of course, that's right, yes,' he said to comfort himself, looking over to the abandoned trike in the neighbouring section. The child had vanished without us noticing.

Dad leant back and closed his eyes; I returned to my swot notes.
No way was I going to risk another squash trip with him on the pillion seat, although I felt stale from lack of physical activity. I was envious of the happy gaggles of golfers who straggled over the well-kept course, and whose laughter carried quite clearly to me. I wondered if any player there ever glanced across at Dad on his patio and had some premonition of their future.

Dad snored for an hour and a half beneath the luminous warm cloud of the summer, and then woke with a good deal of lip-smacking and fidgeting. For another half an hour he hummed and half sang snatches of songs from the forties and fifties, some of which had become popular again. He wasn't conscious of me during this time and I carried on working while the opportunity was there. Finally his awareness circled out and he became quieter, coughed softly in a slightly self-conscious way and regarded me from beneath the thatch of his eyebrows. I said nothing. I wanted the mood and relationship to be of his making, rather than always imposing reality as I saw it on Dad's variable world. I made coffee for us both, and settled in my patio chair again, still without a word. It wasn't a ploy for my entertainment: let Dad kick off, and I'd just run with the ball. Dad began in his own good time.

‘Tell me about your time in Ecuador, Warren,' said Dad in his reed-bed whisper. So the sun was over the yard arm, or some such thing.

‘It's mostly forest in Ecuador and very hot. They have a lot of insects and bats, but a very shaky economy.'

‘Any rats?' asked Dad.

‘No rats. It's an odd thing, there's an indigenous tropical lily there and its pollen inhibits the breeding of rats. Ecuador is the only country in the world completely free of rats. They have monkeys with coloured bums, though, and those fish that reduce horses to skeletons in no time at all.'

‘But no rats, eh,' said Dad.

‘Absolutely not, Mr Ladd. You say that you don't give a rat's arse
there, and the locals have no idea what you're talking about. On the other hand there's scorpions as big as saucers and beetles bigger than tortoises to do the scavenging.'

‘And are the tortoises any threat?'

‘Only to the babies,' I reassured him. ‘In Ecuador babies are always left in hammocks, never on the ground where the tortoises can get at them. Even so you notice that a lot of children there have a toe or two missing.'

‘How long did you have to stay there, in Whatsit?'

‘Oh, I was in Honduras for a couple of years. I had to oversee the establishment of professional development best practice guidelines for the drug cartels.'

‘But no rats at all, you say?'

‘I brought one of the Venezuelan lilies back, and I'll put it in your room. No rat will come near the place, believe me. The pollen may make you sneeze a bit, but as for the rats it's adios amigo.'

‘And the turtles?'

‘It's too dry for them here, and MAF won't let you bring them in because of the possible diseases,' I said. ‘You should have a really good sleep tonight.'

‘Well, the nights seem to be getting longer.' Dad's tone was glum. ‘I can't seem to get my joints comfortable for any length of time.'

‘Maybe we can suss out where those pills are.'

‘I suppose it's always warm in Guatemala?' said Dad.

‘But in the rainy season,' I said, ‘the water comes so high beneath the pole houses that you can hear the alligators scraping their tails against the piles, and the giant toads cluster on the windows until the light is blocked out.'

‘Rats are mighty swimmers, the buggers,' said Dad.

At some stage the little girl next door had reclaimed her trike and was again circling intently: I think the three of us were slightly dizzy. Dad gave a yawn which displayed a lower lip like that of an elephant, and massaged his face. I wondered if Angeline would notice if I took
an inch or two off his eyebrows, but then reminded myself that neither he nor I would feel any better as a result. Boredom is not often a productive motivation. I wondered also about the mutual effects of our time together, whether the consequence of the meeting of my youth and his extreme old age would be a more intermediate and beneficial setting for us both: a median view of life.

That day's evening meal was the last I needed to consider, for Angeline and her husband, marriage restored if all went well, were to be back next morning. A sense of closure gave significance to the occasion, and I went out to Angeline's deep-freeze and found a heavy pack of pork slices. A few games of squash and I would burn off the fat from the desirable crackling; in Dad's case surely he didn't have enough time left for cumulative diet-related diseases to be a threat. ‘I thought we'd treat ourselves to pork, Mr Ladd,' I said, and got together carrots, potatoes and peas as a counter to that indulgence.

‘Ah,' said Dad, ‘I could do with a drink.'

‘Okay, but we're not having as much as last night.'

‘Eh?'

‘Nothing. You're just not going to rip into it the way you did last night, though it was my fault.'

‘What happened last night?' said Dad.

‘Nothing,' I said. ‘You slept like a dead man because of the booze.'

‘Who's the dead man?' asked Dad.

‘We'll have one bottle of red with the pork,' I said, and Dad nodded.

I moved Dad into the lounge, and put a tray on his lap as preparation. There was something on the television about rearing livestock in barns in the American Midwest — all very American Gothic, and Dad had difficulty in getting a handle on it. I tried to keep his interest up as I cooked dinner. I didn't want him getting his papers out again and recycling them endlessly. ‘Looks like a pretty big operation they've got going on those farms,' I said, coming in to
give him a very moderate top-up.

‘What's that?' Dad was gazing at the screen as if it were a box of snakes.

‘All those cattle indoors for months, aren't they?'

‘Cattle — is that what they are?'

‘Aren't they?'

‘Look sort of funny,' he said. ‘It's dark, isn't it. I reckon there's something wrong with the picture.'

‘It's just being inside, I suppose.'

‘Who wants to watch cattle inside all the time? What the hell is this all about I want to know,' said Dad. He had a good point arrived at in a roundabout sort of way.

Dad enjoyed his pork. He did take eternity cutting it up, but I resisted the urge to do it for him. Many of the peas escaped him and lay on the tray, his lap, or the carpet around him like green beads. We had a packet of shortbread biscuits for afters, and a cup of coffee.

‘Is Viv coming in?' Dad asked. He always spoke fondly of his dead wife.

‘No.'

‘What about the children?'

‘Angeline comes back tomorrow.'

‘Tomorrow,' said Dad with surprise and emphasis, as if he had been convinced her return was to be the present day, or any day other than tomorrow. He steepled his hands and worked his long, loose face like a pantomime actor. ‘And you are again?' he said.

It was the one day we hadn't had an outing and so without bothering about any confusing preamble of intent or agreement, I stood Dad up in a scatter of peas and we went out into the warm decay of the summer day. The golf course was all vague nature in the twilight. Houses we passed were at their best, blemishes hidden, and weeds not readily distinguished from their invited cousins. It was a slow outing. Dad's walking stick was varnished, and had a rubber stopper on the end, and he lingered as ever to poke at things: unusual
letter boxes, shrubs intruding across the footpath, a dog turd. ‘How long have I lived here?' he asked. Death can be a sudden fall of the curtain, the cataclysmic closure; it can also be a gradual deprivation of those aspects of consciousness we need to remain in touch with the world. Dad at times seemed in a dinghy drifting further and further out from the rest of us on the shore. ‘I'll need to get back to work tomorrow,' he said.

‘What's so important?'

‘My son, Theo, is joining the board. It's what I've always wanted.'

‘That's really great,' I said. ‘I bet he'll give you a lot of support.' My landlady said Theo had drowned in Nepal, and hadn't liked his father anyway, so in regard to his son at least, Dad's loss of short-term memory was a blessing for him. ‘Well, you haven't got the skills to make a contribution at that level, have you,' he said candidly. ‘And no degree.'

‘You're right.' I didn't need reminding about such things.

It took us a while to complete the small suburban block and the dusk was more pervasive by the time we reached home again. Dad would have walked right past the gate and begun another slow circuit, but I directed him up the path from which he swung at a few parched flowers with his stick.

‘So who are we visiting here?' he asked.

‘We live here,' I said.

‘Like hell we do,' but nevertheless Dad was willing to come inside and be surprised by every room all over again. ‘We've had our dinner, have we?' he wanted to know, and, with rather more diffidence, ‘Are you staying the night?'

‘I'm Brian, here to keep you company.'

‘You'll have to excuse me if I don't entertain you. I've a good deal of work on. Business, you know.'

‘That's fine.'

After sundown the bad times came for Dad — well, other world
times at least. It showed in his increasing uneasiness and fidgeting. As well as all the stuff with his hands, he pulled strange faces, puckering his lips, or stretching them in an exaggerated and mirthless grin, shooting his bushy eyebrows aloft, and clamping his lower jaw out. All a quite unconscious exhibition of gurning. I wondered if it was a sign of lesser, gremlin personality traits normally suppressed by the deliberate imposition of an integrated character; a sort of geriatric possession having nothing to do with right or wrong. We began the laborious process of getting him ready for bed.

And it was marked not just by mutual effort, but mutual indignity. He wasn't sufficiently supple, or balanced, to soap himself in the shower: arthritis made it difficult for him to raise his arms above his shoulders, or to touch his own feet. I stood in the doorway of the shower to help, lathered his wobbly head, watched the shampoo suds slide over the corrugations of his collapsed chest. Dad gasped happily in the hot jet and the swirling steam, and would have fallen several times had I not gripped his elbow. He was all bone and tendon, and the nails on his big toes were thick, opaque and yellow. As we stood together afterwards in the bathroom and I dried his bum and cock with a lush, blue towel, the incongruity of it all gave me a brief laugh, and Dad chuckled just to follow suit. Two strangers — Dad couldn't even remember my name — so intimate, so innocent, together. ‘Is it morning, or night?' he whispered. His hair stood up damply and his eyes roamed in their deep sockets.

BOOK: Owen Marshall Selected Stories
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