I walk in the door and Gran tells me that a month ago Leslie Mulligan was taken by a shark while trying to save a stranger. Imagine, a national hero. She actually says that. As though dying in a world of pain in an ocean filled with his own blood was a heroic choice.
Awake for thirty hours, I’m beyond tired and probably in shock. I thought about Leslie Mulligan for much of the flight home, only managing to relax a little after deciding to look him up, get it out of my system once and for all. I’d planned what to say. I’d be nonchalant and keep it simple. I’d shake his hand and say Hello. A lot of water under the bridge, eh? Perhaps, if it went well, in time I could reveal more.
To mask any awkwardness, I ask Gran when they’re erecting the statue in his memory. Maybe because I am jetlagged and crazy with exhaustion, I laugh when she tells me that it is already being discussed. She insists on bringing up the town website with all the proposals that have come in so far. There’s to be a vote at next month’s council meeting. The most preposterous design, hand-sketched, depicts him wrestling a shark. The poor creature is held in a headlock and Leslie, looking strangely like Norm from those Life. Be in it ads from the seventies, grins victoriously. The local artist, a year twelve student named Russell, has apparently forgotten that the shark won that particular battle.
As is her habit, Gran tells me that each time Leslie came home to visit, first alone and then with wife number one and their children, he’d asked after me. As is mine, I wonder if she ever believed my story, but don’t ask. She reminds me that she’d always talked me up; telling him, for example, that when I worked as a maid in a dotty little hotel in Dublin, I managed the hotel. More recently she’d claimed that I was a serious writer for important European magazines. She’d first told me this while visiting me after Raimond – the one I told her was the one – left to resume life in the next village with the wife I had understood to be living on another continent. You would not believe the life I have you lead, she’d chortled, hugging me close to her chest while I sobbed and wondered why, after so many years, she still felt she had to lie about me. I noticed then, for the first time, how frail she was becoming. Previously warm and comforting, that day she’d felt cold, angular, sharp-edged. I realised that Gran was a shrinking woman.
She played on that new frailty when she summoned me from overseas. She said that for all these years she’d been traipsing around the less savoury parts of Australia and the wider world to see me and now it was time to come back. She wanted to go out with a bit of dignity intact, in her own home, surrounded by her only family.
We moved into this house, about a kilometre from the centre of town, at the start of my second year of high school. It was strange at first, being off the farm. Though we had been only five kilometres out of town, it was a different life for us both. Home was now a weird little part-shop part-house that had once been a petrol station and general store. In place of paddocks and a vast garden, we had cracked bitumen and rotting wooden boards covering up the holes where they’d removed the bowsers. For a while Gran had tried to make it nice, planting a garden in pots, but she lost interest pretty quickly and everything soon died.
One good thing about living halfway up the hill like that was being able to see all the comings and goings. I entertained myself making up stories about the exploits of the locals. Not that there was much activity in a quiet town on the edge of nowhere. Once a forest, there were few large trees left between our new house and the cemetery in the centre of town. The settlers like my great-grandfather who had come to re-establish lives in the bush after the war saw to that. They’d stopped fighting in other countries only to come here and start chopping down trees. Gran’s theory was that they’d got so used to being in the trenches and bayoneting other men that they needed to keep on killing in order to feel normal.
When she began trying to coerce me into coming back, Gran told me that the district was becoming increasingly fashionable with tree-changers. There are quirky little ‘retro’ shops and bed and breakfasts spreading throughout the district. Maybe she’d forgotten that during my first years away she’d written letters filled with ideas like opening a place to sell milkshakes and souvenirs to tourists once the insurance from Granda was sorted out. She’d eventually bought the old petrol station, but I suspect much of the extra money was spent on her annual visits to see me, wherever in the world I was, around the time of my birthday. Most of the old fifties fittings are still in the shop, probably worth a small fortune on eBay, she’d said in one of her emails. Vintage is in vogue, she’d reminded me again more recently via one of our Skype calls. Maybe you could do the place up, set yourself up for the future. Then, not convinced I was listening, she’d resorted to pleading. Come home. By then I’d quit my job and booked my ticket back.
By the middle of the second year of high school, Gran wanted me to stop spending so much time alone in the house with Leslie. She said it was not his fault, that he was older than me and I was developing. I thought this was unfair. Leslie had always been welcome before, and Gran had said many times that he’d saved me from myself when everything happened with Granda. But Gran was still prone to outpourings of rage and grief, and I didn’t want to antagonise her. Whenever we went back to my place after school, I would look out for Gran at the end of her shift. When I saw her car pass the cemetery turn-off, I’d shove Leslie out the back door and we’d run through the scrub to the path that met up with the road around the bend. Each time I forced him out the back door like that, I apologised. I hoped he believed that Gran was just miserable about the job she had been doing to support us now that we had moved off the farm.
She’d cried every night after starting that job. People weren’t even treated like real people any more, she’d said. They sat in the dining area, some tied to chairs, drooling and decaying while she moved around spoonfeeding the top and wiping the bottom, just like they were babies.
She continued to worry all that year about the problem of my ever-growing breasts. Maybe it was while tending to the elderly that she came up with her solutions. You must never be in a bedroom alone with a boy. Keep yourself nice. Always remain clothed. I repeatedly broke rule number one. But in all that time alone in my bedroom the closest Leslie and I came to breaking the others was asking Elvis about his state of dress or undress in the bathroom on the day he died.
We were at Leslie’s place out of town and further up the hill the day things changed, the day I stopped keeping myself nice and stripped myself down to a semi-clothed state. His bedroom was out the back, an old curvy-bodied 1950s caravan that someone had donated to the family when child number five or six came along. Plonked between the outside dunny and the sleepout for his younger brothers, it was like having his own flat, he told me. The rest of the family were out that day, and it was unusually quiet without a stream of Leslie’s siblings pouring in and out of the small caravan and bothering us. I pretended that this is what it would be like if I was married or had a real boyfriend instead of just reliable old brotherly Leslie.
While he sat on the caravan step, I lay across his narrow bed half-heartedly trying to finish The Unauthorised (but True) Biography of Elvis Presley. I gave a running commentary – tried to involve him. Was Elvis buried in a gilded tomb like Tutankhamen? What did he think Lisa-Marie had placed there for her dad to take into the afterlife?
After a while Leslie came into the van. I put the book on the floor and told him we’d have to ask Elvis. I said we should go to Graceland, just the two of us, as soon as we were both done with school. He sat on the end of the bed and started getting weird. He’d said there were other things than Elvis Presley, that he had been going along with all this stuff since you know what and it was time to move on. He started talking about how when he was out by the river, when there was nobody else around, he felt at one with the universe. He said that standing on the river bank, waiting for a fish to bite, he would feel the hairs on the back of his neck rise and wonder if it was because he was doing what he loved most, fishing. He added that after a good catch he experienced what he thought must be true happiness. He felt strong too – like a man.
I snorted, rolled about on the skinny little bed holding my stomach, tears soaking my cheeks, not knowing if I was laughing or crying. Then he was on the bed straddling me, tickling my ribs. His face was red and he didn’t look me in the eyes. I knew what that meant. I’d been hurting his feelings since we were kids. I used to – quite perversely – enjoy making him cry. But despite what he’d just said to me, I wanted him to feel happy, wanted him to feel strong, wanted him to feel like the man he’d felt like when he was out fishing. Just like he’d been when I cried all the time after Granda died, two days before Elvis.
He kept tickling me. I hated myself so much I wanted to cry, but I faked laughter. Not knowing what to say, I reached up and kissed his mouth. Our teeth banged and his nose poked my eye and made it water, but we soon worked it out. Pulling his hand off my ribs, I shoved it up under my school dress and rubbed it back and forth outside of my knickers.
I didn’t know how much it would take to make things right again. He’d been fourteen and I was about eleven the last time I’d hurt his feelings like that. Life was simpler then. Things had changed so much in three years. So I just let him keep going. I stared at the tin roof and bit my lip while he inched my knickers down around my knees and thrashed about on top of me making weird sounds like he was going to be sick all over my face. Before then I’d imagined that when I had proper sex it would hurt. But there was nothing really, just his weight squashing the breath out of me and a mix of warmth and a dull scrapy tugging at my insides. Afterwards I was embarrassed because I didn’t bleed everywhere like I thought I should have. I lay there for a bit, not knowing what to say or feel. Noticing it was getting dark, careful to keep my eyes averted, I tidied myself up, repacked my school bag and left him lying there staring at the roof with a weird off-centre grin on his face.
Though smaller and shabbier than I recall, my old room is spotless, with new bedding and curtains, and a reading lamp on top of a pile of books. There are stickers on the spines of two of them. I must have neglected to return them to the library when, having served beer to enough locals to save an interstate fare, I fled. What if I were to return them now – The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner and I Never Promised You a Rose Garden – bleakness and madness restored to their rightful place?
I kneel on the floor beside my bed and reaching beneath the metal frame with my right arm, sweep my fingertips across the lino. Extending them towards the wall my shoulder pushes against the old bed frame. It isn’t there. How strange that Gran should retain the books but not that. Then I remember disposing of the board after our last meeting at his place. Knowing we’d reached an impasse, I’d stormed out, traipsed along the creek bed and dumped it among the wrecked fridges and decomposing animals, hoping that he would see it and come back.
Exhausted as I am, I know I will not sleep until it is night-time in the northern hemisphere. I pad back to the lounge room and press the button on Gran’s old computer. The computer is slow to boot up but fast enough for my techno-savvy gran to stay connected with me in recent years. I log on to my webmail. There is nothing from Raimond. I wasn’t expecting anything. Not really. I email him anyway. I’m here, safe. I don’t sign it. I check my bank balance. If I am to be working from home and caring for Gran, I will need a new computer, a laptop for privacy’s sake. In recent years stories written under various pseudonyms in True Confessions and Lonely Hearts have been my bread and butter.
Inevitably, I revisit the website. Apparently, as well as being a national hero Leslie Mulligan was a well-respected local boy. Though he left the town when he was seventeen, he came back regularly to visit his family for the first two decades – less frequently as his fishing fleet took him away for extended periods. The website also states that Leslie Mulligan had always planned to sell his fleet of fishing boats and come back to live in the town where he grew up. The story must have been invented by someone at the council. Gran told me years ago that once his mother died Leslie had never returned to the town.
Leslie avoided me at school for a few weeks, then stopped going altogether. One Sunday after a few more weeks had passed, he came to see me when Gran was at work. Could we go for a walk down by the creek? We walked along, close but not touching, hands in our pockets, my eyes straight ahead. We reached the usual spot on the outskirts of town, beyond the old abattoir littered with car bodies and old fridges, and sat there unspeaking on the rotting vinyl car seats that had been put into the tray of an old ute. He was leaving, he said, going up north to work on the trawlers out of Geraldton.
I looked at an old bone sticking out of the brown sludge in the creek. Since we were little kids and I’d first started tagging along behind him, I had assumed they were animal bones from the old abattoir that popped out of the mud in different places along the creek’s course.
Maybe they aren’t animals, after all, I’d said. Do you remember, I’d asked then, how when I was little Granda used to pay you to look after me when he was in town so he could drink at the RSL?
He said that he was sorry, but he didn’t want to like me in that way and he was sorry for acting like he did. It was illegal what he’d done; my gran would string him up for behaving that way. And my granda, well, he’d have killed him with his bare hands if he knew. He had to leave. We could be friends still – maybe – when he came back from fishing.
I said I was late, that I wouldn’t tell Gran it was him. He wouldn’t go to jail. It can’t be mine, he said, everybody knows it can’t happen the first time.
A week or so later he waited for me outside the school gate. He wanted to talk. He said we could go north together, stay with his auntie. We could get special permission to be together. He’d asked around, and sometimes you could.
I said I had made a mistake and it wouldn’t have been his anyway. He seemed ready enough to accept this as true. His smile was the biggest I’d seen on him for a long time. I thought maybe if I wished for it hard enough, things would go back to how they were before. I asked him to come back and see if Elvis was about. I’d made new letters to commemorate the fact that it was nearly a year since this death, and said that I had a feeling that today Elvis might have a message for us from Granda. But he said he had things to do, that he was getting too old to be messing about talking to ghosts. He said I should move on. Maybe he would see me another day. We could still go north, I said, but I was facing the back of his head. He was walking away, and I knew that we’d reached the ending.
Two days before I went into labour, I floated in the bath observing from above my grossly distended form lolling in the bathtub. Water sloshed over the sides and soaked the bathmat. The bath was not large and my knees were bent up into the position the midwife told me I would use to deliver. My breasts were huge, blue vein tracks leading to nipples sitting atop like spotlights on a roo-shooter’s four-wheel drive. I touched one nipple and was shocked to experience a tugging sensation right through to my distorted belly-button. I pinched my nipple tight and pulled hard, pretending to be a baby, sucking and stretching, trying to extract milk. I touched my stomach, hugged my huge gut and smiled at the face in the mirror, serenely and smugly, like I had seen adult pregnant women do. Sinking lower into the water I traced my fingers past the squiggling lump of baby and down between my legs. I hooked one leg over the bath edge and touched the hole where the baby would push through, circling slowly, then pressing hard against it. The throbbing ache in my stomach and groin had become so much a part of me I had just about forgotten what it felt like not to be constantly aware of weight pushing against my body. Horrified, I discovered I could only fit three fingers half way into my vagina. How would I stretch and avoid being slashed open? I screamed for my gran, who came rushing in to hoist me from the bath. She was strong enough to lift decaying old people from the bath, but not me. Clinging to my wet naked body, she pulled me to her chest, rocking me back and forth and shooshing me. I was unable to cry, terrified that I would rip apart and that she would have to drag the pieces of me down the end of the driveway to the car and take me away, down the hill and through town for everyone to see.
It has been nearly one year since Gran made what she deemed her final overseas trip to see me. She was glad, she’d said, that I had forced her to see three continents she’d never have seen otherwise. But she was done, too old to keep tootling off overseas. For the past two months, Gran has reminded me via Skype to ‘ask the Internet’ about the goings-on in the political world. She’s embarrassed, she said possibly more times than she recalls, about what is going on. Earlier tonight, she reminded me that I must learn about the horseless men and the unspeakable things they are doing to the first woman other than the Queen to ever rule us.
Then she stunned me. In all those trips we had never discussed them, those ghosts that accompanied me into every room, in every town and country I ever fled to. If it weren’t for your Granda, and what he did to us, maybe I wouldn’t have failed you and the baby ... and Leslie. Then, excusing herself, she pulled herself up on her walker frame and took herself to bed.
The night she was born they took her away to the nursery. I lay there and wondered about Leslie. I pictured him – sorting pots on a big fishing boat, throwing the ones he didn’t want overboard – finishing work and walking around Geraldton, alone, missing me and not even knowing he was a dad. I thought maybe I could go up there on the bus with the baby. I’d explain to him the story I had invented, of the stranger at the train station who’d looked a bit like Elvis Presley. I fell asleep, waking a short while later to the sound of whispering. Opening my eyes to a slit, I peeked across the room. My gran and the matron sat together. Matron covered my gran’s hand with hers. I closed my eyes and pretended to sleep while Gran wept. Until I got myself pregnant to that stranger I’d just met and shamed her, I’d never seen her cry like that – not when my mum dumped me and said she wasn’t coming back – not when I told her about Granda dressed in his old army uniform and hanging from the apple tree up the back, just two days before Elvis fell down and died in his own bathroom.
The next night, a nurse came to my bedside. They’d moved me into a tiny corner room tucked out of sight from the main ward. Curled in a ball, my face towards the wall, staring at the emergency bell, I wondered if being sad constituted an emergency. I rolled over to see the nurse standing next to me, the baby in her arms. My breasts charged with milk and tingled as she pressed the baby to my chest. The nurse walked out of the room leaving her in my arms, her rosebud mouth nuzzling into my nightie, seeking the nourishment I wasn’t supposed to allow her.
When the nurse returned to take her away I wanted to thank her. But nothing came out.
She looked down at the baby I’d privately named Lisa-Marie, stroked her tiny forceps-bruised face, and lifted her from my arms.
I doodle around the edges of my boarding pass. Boxed-in houses give way to hearts and flowers with slightly evil grinning faces. I draw a stick man with a cape and an Elvis quiff and snarl. I wonder if Leslie had been happy at any point in his adult life, with all those fish, all those ex-wives and children. I sketch an oversized pedestal for the stick man to stand on. I decide I wouldn’t have looked him up and said hello, nonchalantly or otherwise, had he still been alive. It took thirty-three years to return for good, but my guilt and shame remain too complex. I write You’d have made a great dad to Lisa-Marie where a plaque would sit, then scribble it out so that the pen pushes through the paper and stains the computer table with a blue blob. The Internet tells me that while I was still in the air earlier today a leadership spill was called but no one challenged the prime minister. The events, led presumably by Gran’s infamous horseless men, overshadowed the national apology. It takes a while to understand the significance of the occasion and to understand why people were upset by the shenanigans in Canberra. I listen over and over again to the clip I link to on the ABC news. I scan the faces in the crowd, just in case I see her. But of course the prime minister isn’t speaking to me. I wasn’t actually forced to do anything, and though I have never stopped looking, according to the records I tracked down in the mid-nineties my baby died when she was six months old, before I even started running.
They came with the papers the final morning. Face to the wall, I reached behind me for her hand, but Gran had already left the room. The matron stood beside me, one hand on my shoulder. Yes, father unknown, I confirmed.
It’s best this way ... for all concerned, she’d said pointedly.
I refused to look up as I reached for the pen. Printing my name in tight letters, I drew a tiny little heart where the dot above the ‘i’ belonged on my name. I cried and didn’t care if I shattered into a thousand shards.
I rolled over and saw a brittle woman in a beige suit take the papers from Matron and shove them into a briefcase, locking it before nodding at me. I said I needed to speak to someone, that it was important, and began to sit up. But the tight-faced woman had gone with my signed paper in her briefcase and Gran was outside, waiting to take me back home and tuck me up on the good couch in the lounge room with my old Holly Hobbie bedspread. Waiting to kiss me and say, You and me, we’re all we’ve got now, before she had to go off again and feed and wipe faces and bums.
Gran calls out my name. Do you need more blankets? She says there is Horlicks in the cupboard. She hasn’t been asleep, after all. I recall those few months I worked alongside her in the nursing home, the more lucid of the elderly claiming not to sleep, ever. I tell her I am fine, that I am going to bed now. I stand by her door and add that I am glad to be home. Pressing the button on my phone to light up the screen I peek in at her. Goodnight, Gran.
I didn’t look as the officious woman and a nurse wheeled Lisa-Marie down the corridor and away for the last time, but I could sense the gap stretching between us; sensed her disappearing further and further from my reach. One of the wheels on the plastic hospital bassinette squeaked thirty-three times, each more quietly than the last, until I couldn’t count anymore.
'Leaving Elvis' by Michelle Michaud-Crawford won the 2013 ABR Elizabeth Jolley Short Story Prize. Click here for more information about past winners of the Jolley Prize.