In the weeks and months after his Moira died he’d whittled off the callers, one by one, until even gentle Dave O’Donnell, his oldest friend, felt like a stranger when he came by to drop off a family-size pie. This was an unlikely turn of behaviour. In the resolute stare he gave Dave at the side door of the house, there was a grief that could brook no niceties, despite their history together. Dave wouldn’t be coming in. All the tasks and laughter the two old men had shared over the years became just a dwindling sound on the doorstep between them, an echo like they used to hear from currawongs under the bluestone bridge, when dusk settled in and rain was on the wind and they were called home by their mothers for tea.
Despite the fact that Dave O’Donnell was no gossip, word of the rebuff got around the district. Everyone of course developed their own opinion, from what they knew of him, any dealings they’d had over the years, in the newsagents or the store, at the golf club, on sale days in Colac, or what they knew of love and loss in their own lives, and of course how they’d felt about Moira.
His daughter Jodie had tried calling regularly since she’d gone back home after the funeral, six or eight times a day for a while, leaving pleading messages in the end for him to make contact, until he’d had to make it simple by sitting down at Moira’s rolltop in the second hall to write the letter west. Only so Jodie wouldn’t think of him rotting dead in the house and feel the need to get on a plane in Perth to come and check.
Dear Jodie, he wrote, I’m fine, so don’t worry yourself. I fancy my own company since your mother died, more and more I do. Things aren’t the same I s’pose, and it’s hard to explain, especially over the phone or even face to face. So I’m writing now and may not again. I won’t be answering your calls. You know there’s good amenities round here these days, the new hospital’s there if I need it, so there’s no need to fret. And new people have moved in next door on the Halbergs’ block and I get on well with them. So best just to leave me be. In fact that is my wish. Your father
When the couple moved in next door, on the last forty acres sold off by the Halbergs when James Halberg got too old for the machinery and the paperwork, it was more than merely customary for him to take a pumpkin over and to offer advice. All day long he’d been stooped amongst the veggies, and now he stood stiffly on the expensive stone before the big front door, the pumpkin heavy in his IGA bag. A blonde woman answered, urban and youthful, with a kind smile, and he offered her the bag by way of explaining himself.
He’d not set foot in the Halbergs’ for twenty-five years but as he followed the young woman’s chat down the wide entrance hall he could smell them. Smell Wolfgang’s old meerschaum, smell Glenys’s cards and moselle and disapproval. This lot seemed like better fare.
Already the house was under renovation but they sat at the pine bench with the lino top that he’d always known and the young woman called her husband in. An eager, pleasant man, handsome and young, with a birthmark like an island across the left slope of his nose and running down in wisps onto the smooth flat of his cheek. Ma often said, Ken remembered, a mark like that always meant something.
Sitting there in his Yakkas and flannelette shirt, he explained the pumpkin would need drying out, he’d just picked it fresh, and that if they liked he’d show them how. But they seemed to know, and knew in fact, politely though, what kind of pumpkin it was, a Jarrahdale apparently, which is actually more than he could say, Moira having got the seeds in the first place on a day out to Inverleigh.
They drank tea and he was quizzed about town a bit and also about how long his ground had been his and how hard or giving it was and the like. They were grateful and he could see they felt privileged, for the pumpkin, which they said they’d make into a risotto, whatever that was, but more for the gesture. And the information. When they’d told him their plans and the time came to leave, he felt like a notable guest and quite refreshed by it all, and when they’d closed the big door and gone inside, he ducked under the fencewire back onto his land with hardly any stiffness at all.
As the days went by he listened on the verandah to the radio and to the work they were having done next door, the nail-guns and power saws, watching the two utes in the foreground of the distant roll of hills, one blue Nissan like Dave O’Donnell’s, but newer, one a longtray he’d never even known Ford made. He watched children out on the gravel-turn in the Halbergs’ driveway, and read the breeze. He liked the sense of renewal all the activity lent to his life and felt inspired even to mow the flowing grass in his houseyard, to crop it down through the smell of unleaded and be in keeping with the renovated scene. One afternoon he took Moira’s photo off the heavy sideboard in the sitting room and carried it with him onto the verandah. Together they inspected the work. He ate toast and enjoyed his own creamy butter. He remarked happily to her photo that once again there was movement at the station.
On a Tuesday at Jonesy’s, while he was choosing chicken thighs and rump through the showcase glass, Eva told him that the young couple on the Halbergs’ were opening the place to the public. As a café, she said. Go on, he said, as if he hadn’t known, and so she asked him if he’d met them yet. She couldn’t blame him, she said, because of Moira and all he’d been through. If he hadn’t introduced himself that is. But you’d think they’d come over to say hello, wouldn’t you? Eva said.
He swallowed dryly at her sounding him out. Like a fuckin’ metal detector was Eva. Whatever he replied would just as well have been posted on the shop corkboard next to the mini-bike, the ferrets and the set of bunks. So he didn’t lie. Said he’d had a bit to do with them and that they’d told him they’d bought the Halbergs’ to open doors. So there, he thought to himself ten minutes later, coming out of Jonesy’s past last week’s footy teams on the window, nothing to run her engine on in that lot, she’ll have to backstab the new coach instead.
And so with the view of activity from his verandah, his mown grass and the light lowering on it, he was left to a new freshness, to an unexpected rising of a future not his own but at least right next door, to plans being executed rather than running to an end, ideas being born rather than dying out, and him able to observe it all, to tell the air all he saw, as if it was filled still with his own special listener. This was much better than having to be depressed with the worn-out vista of that endlessly familiar foreground, full as it used to be of the Halbergs’ last scrappy field and sheep.
He watched on the day the sign went up, barely eighty yards from his own gate, to announce to the road and all that passed along it that some grub could be had. It was, he thought, a beautiful sign. Nice colours, optimistic, but he wondered whether it was enough. He heard Moira in his head agreeing, saying it wasn’t. When he ducked under the fence to take over the broccoli, the lemons, and the last of his salad basil, he mentioned it. How it could have been bigger. The sign. Given how fast the cars go by just there. Accelerating through to the stony rises. In a blind hurry for country footy or the Warrnambool races, the Otway Fly or just for Colac. Would they think of putting another one up back along the main road a bit, as a warning of the up-ahead, of what the traveller might discover, like you see in the scrub in the outback, on the track into Broken Hill for instance?
The couple laughed gently. The husband, Sean, said: You mean like ‘Healys’ Providore 5km On Left?’
That was precisely what he meant, but for some reason now he said, Well, not exactly.
The very next day Sean’s wife, Catherine, came straddling over the wires on her long legs with a small Flora butter tub in her hand. She’d made a thing called pesto she said, with his basil. Stepping off the verandah and into the yard to greet her he admitted up front he’d never tried it and felt better for his honesty. She said he might enjoy it on toast, and so he told her about his butter. He went inside to the kitchen, sliced off a thick wedge from the wet slab in the bucket, put it in one of the last sealed gladwrapbags, and re-emerged for her to take it home and try. Now there’s a swap, he said, with peace in his voice.
Briefly then, standing with Catherine on the mown grass on his side of the fence, with the tub of pesto in his hand and his own butter in hers, he mentioned Moira.
Moira would have been interested in this, he said, looking down at the tub.
He had surprised them both. After a pause, the beautiful young woman, dressed simply but seemingly without life’s nor the district’s burdens, said: You must miss her.
He didn’t know how to respond. Her reaction was so sympathetic and direct. His face creased awkwardly and a waft of smoke seemed to come over the yard, though there was no fire nearby.
Immediately both of them regretted that anything had been said at all. To mask the discomfort he looked around for the source of the smoke, all the while knowing he wouldn’t find it. Catherine thanked him for the butter and walked away to the fence. He watched her throw her leg over the wires and then hail a paver in blue earmuffs who was repairing the stone near the Halbergs’ front door. The paver didn’t hear her until his mate pointed out that she was calling. They stood for a while, the dusty paver, with the earmuffs perched on top of his head now, and Catherine, inspecting and discussing his work. When they finished she gave a quick glance around before she went inside but it was so furtive he didn’t even have a chance to nod or wave.
Later, on the verandah with the toast and pesto and a pot of tea, he thought, it’s already there in the air. Her face, the smell of my lonely bed. I craved my solitude and now regret its coming.
Healys’ Providore opened on a Friday and was launched with a big Saturday afternoon party a month afterwards. He was invited but declined. Instead, he listened from the couch in his lounge room, with the sash window propped on the nail, to the distant celebrations.
At Jonesy’s the following week, Eva had already eaten at Healys’ the previous Sunday with her entire mob and was all praise. Dunno how they’ll survive though, she said, wrapping his schnitzels, too exy I’d say, for anything but special occasions. They got backers or family or what?
I would have no idea, Eva, he said, handing over a twenty.
Later that same day the phone rang and without thinking he picked it up. It was Moira’s sister, Genevieve, saying they’d drop in next Saturday for a visit, if he didn’t mind, as they were coming down from Ballarat for lunch at a new café in the area. He realised by the way she spoke she had no idea that Healys’ Providore was right next door on the Halbergs’ land. He gathered nevertheless that the word had spread. It wouldn’t matter how expensive it was if people were prepared to come from far and wide.
He lied to Genevieve as carefully as he could, saying he wasn’t sure if he’d be in, that he’d been helping out Dave O’Donnell with his flower farm of late and they weren’t quite done. They’d been harvesting the chrysanthemums and batching them up, also preparing the ground for the new crops as they went along. Genevieve didn’t seem to notice a thing. She said they’d play it by ear then, if he was home he was home, that they’d just drop by. Momentarily he was at a loss. He wished he could write her a letter too, explaining how he needed to be left alone. But before he’d even regained his composure she’d said cheerio and hung up.
He spoke to Sean over the fence in the middle of the afternoon on the Friday. It was the first anniversary of Moira’s passing. Sean’s birthmark looked bright as rhubarb under the white cloud of late autumn, and he wanted to know about the ground again. Said he’d been so impressed with the veggies he’d kept giving them and was wondering about a small grove of walnuts. So he told Sean he thought it would go, that nuts were high yield and once quite the rage and why not again. And wine? he quizzed Sean further. Grapes? the neighbour replied. Should do, he told him. Limestone underneath and it’s what you can’t see that counts. What’s underneath settles it all in the end.
It was a chat with a nice rapport. Sean knew nothing of Moira and it was just what he needed. As if to celebrate he gave Sean a bag of things from the garden, and as Sean thanked him and went away he thought afresh that the young man had no idea what a little new blood can do for an old bloke on a day like that.
Two days later, on the Sunday, not the Saturday as she’d said, Moira’s sister Genevieve, her husband Leigh, and friends of theirs from Ballarat, Sally and Raimondo, landed half-soused around four. There was no way he could avoid them. When they caught sight of him on the verandah as they were coming out of Healys’, he wondered whether Jodie had put Genevieve up to it. Because of the anniversary. A man cannot be left alone, he thought, pretending he didn’t hear their call.
He could duck inside, not answer the door, but heard Moira saying don’t. So he sat, and noticed in the afternoon light that the grass had grown. It stood out shiny and tousled in the dullness of the last of the Sunday.
Before long Genevieve and her gang were clambering up the front steps of the verandah, having ducked and straddled the boundary wires with shrieks of hilarity due to their drunken state. As they came in under the bullnose out of all the space he stood up from his chair to greet them.
Thankfully, because of the wine they’d drunk next door, there were no sympathetic tones or maudlin condolences for the anniversary, just laughter and the brandishing of a swish paper menu from Healys’ Providore. Genevieve said they had no idea it would be on the Halbergs’ land, not having been down since Moira’s funeral, and why didn’t he mention it on the phone? She couldn’t get over the change, she said. Or the prices, Leigh joked. All four of them nodded at that but then quickly agreed that they’d loved the food and the plonk.
Genevieve and Leigh’s friend Raimondo was dark-haired, thin and tall in a neat woollen suit, perhaps sixty or sixty-five, a little younger than the rest of them, and with an accent. He was also the sober judge, being the driver, and in the kitchen over cups of tea it was he who remembered to mention the menu.
Oh yes, chirruped Genevieve, unfurling the broad sheet. I saw it and thought well that must be Ken. How your tone has been raised old boy! she laughed. Wouldn’t our Moira be amused. They must be paying you a small fortune for the honour.
She handed the menu across the little table as he put his glasses on. Leigh leaned back on his chair and flicked on the light, then leaned back across with wine on his breath and directed him to the item with his finger. It was halfway down the wide page.
New Season Quail from The Stubble, Roasted with Caramelised Quince. Served today with Slippery Jack Mushrooms and The Neighbour’s Beans.
Under the overhead light he knew they were watching for his reaction and if he showed any concern at all they’d guess. Everything would seem about to unravel. So he concentrated hard and sat there expressionless. He was like a man peering in at himself from outside the window.
It may only have been a few seconds but when Genevieve finally spoke it came as a jolt, and he suddenly felt like he might actually explode, simply from not knowing what to do or how to think.
You’ll be in Epicure next, Moira’s sister laughed again, with what seemed a sharp smile. By the way, Leigh added, prodding again at the menu with that finger of his, Raimondo ordered it and reckoned the beans were better than both the quail and the bloody mushies, didn’t you Rai?
Raimondo replied demurely, with a smile and a quiet nod.
When the tea was finished Genevieve took it upon herself to rinse his cups in the sink. The sound of spoon and crockery grated. It was just before dark and Leigh explained how the visit was actually a breather. Next door their dessert wines were still due. Then coffee and panforte. Heading down the verandah steps they struggled this time, even seemed a little annoyed at having to get over the wires. They disappeared back into Healys’ Providore.
Not long after nightfall, he heard the sound of subdued voices, their shoes on the Halbergs’ gravel, and the closing of car doors. The engine started. The bright tail-lights of the Honda snaked out towards the new sign on the road. Headed back to Ballarat. Standing on his verandah he gave a limp wave, but without the outside light on they wouldn’t have seen a thing.
Gregory Day and Carrie Tiffany were the joint winners of the 2011 ABR Elizabeth Jolley Short Story Prize.
Click here for more information about past winners of the Jolley Prize.
CONTENTS: OCTOBER 2011