My feet eat up the paved path, shoe leather beating a tattoo, a forwards dance step pushes me onward. The stone buildings, breathtaking in this half-light, throw threatening shadows as the cooling sun slips down the page of the sky.
She hadn’t said anything, I wouldn’t let her. If Dee didn’t say the words it wouldn’t be true. It would be a reality that hadn’t played out and he would be sitting up in his bed, laughing that musical laugh of his, apologising for the fuss he’d made, for worrying us. I can see my father, Francis Cole, in his tartan pajamas, spots of pink on his cheeks. His wanton hair refusing to lie flat, smiling and patting my hand. Dee is standing back in the shadows like a harbinger of future tragedy, refusing to enjoy the moment. Overlaid on this scene, like a veil barely seen, Dee is pulling the cover over our father’s face.
Old stone is replaced with glass and metal, office buildings. I reach the park, the grass glitters with dew and time slows. I wait in the space between two breaths, choosing a future with or without him. I know it isn’t my decision, in one choice lies madness, but for a moment I want to hold back the tide of grief and live in a world which still has Francis Cole in it.
“Allie, you could help you know. It’s not all about wallowing. Death brings a lot of work.”
Dee stands with her back to the wall, dressed in black and holding a teacup. We have just buried our father, although I have to admit the arrangements were done almost entirely by Dee. She’s good in a crisis.
The front room of Dad’s old house is full, aunts who’ve got stouter and men with whiskey on their breath. I’m wearing a crimson dress with lime green shoes. I have raised a few eyebrows but I don’t care. Dad hated funereal black and he loved my quirky style. I pick at my nail varnish, letting Dee’s words hit the floor around her sensible shoes. She’s asking why it’s her who does all the work, when she has a full-time job and I work casual shifts picked up randomly. And I can’t answer her fairly. In an attempt to placate my sister I pick up a tray of sandwiches, curling at the edges in the unseasonably hot May afternoon. I walk among tweedy aunties on dry sherry and men with yellow teeth drinking Dad’s Laphroaig which Dee had opened. I can hear the creak of dry bones turning in his freshly buried coffin.
“Wasted on them. Cousins circling with avarice hoping to pick up a morsel or two.” I can see Dad’s red face, blue eyes blazing. “Never here when I got sick or when your mother died. And by the way, my bones aren’t dry yet.”
I stand in the middle of the living room holding the tray of sandwiches aloft for our guests. Aunts and cousins are being helped into their coats, their bat skins, by Dee whose gaze rests on me and then floats to the ceiling. She doesn’t say anything but her disappointment is licking the walls.
I carry the plates scattered with cake crumbs and start filling the blue plastic bowl in the kitchen sink. There’s no washing up liquid. Dad thought it was extravagant, he wasn’t mean but he had unusual ideas. When my friends came round after school Dad would be wearing a pajama top tucked into his trousers, sometimes a tea-cosy on his head. He said he got too hot if his ears were covered. I was delighted. I’d say “That’s my Dad, he’s an academic.” I had no idea what that meant but it sounded exciting, like a trapeze artist or a magician. Dee didn’t bring her friends home at all. She appears holding a carriage clock. I frown. “Wilfred said Dad promised it to him.”
“Isn’t that one engraved by the university? What would Wilfred want with that?”
“Closest he’ll get to a university,” Dee sits down and I notice how much older she’s looking. Jowly around the chin, lines that were sharp gone fuzzy, her thin cheeks paper-like.
I turn away and slide dirty plates through scalding water. A savage pain grips my insides and at the bottom of this well of grief boils guilt.
“It doesn’t matter, Allie. He was fine with it.”
“I know.” My voice is sharp. “You were with him.” Now accusatory.
“Look, I know you were his favourite but there were things I could do for him that you couldn’t.”
I don’t correct her, I stand perfectly still, knowing that if I make a sound it would be an animal moan.
“Sit down, Allie.”
I turn back to the washing up as my sister speaks. “Will you help me with his things tomorrow? We need to clear the house before we sell.”
“Isn’t it a bit soon?”
“He won’t need them and I have to get back to work.”
The open window brings a cool breeze into the stuffy room. Dee is taking Dad’s clothes from his wardrobe and throwing them on the bed. With each item a different story walks through my mind. The rust coloured sports jacket he wore to family dinners, the mustard shirt I can see him in clearly at a picnic in a city park where he’d fallen asleep after too many wines. He must have kept that shirt for 20 years. The smart black jacket he’d had made especially for his retirement dinner at the university, still with the purple silk handkerchief sticking out of the breast pocket.
“I think he only wore this once.” Dee flicked her fingers at the lapels and dust clouds hit the air.
“He was annoyed that Edward Morris gave a speech at the dinner. Remember how he hated him, Dee?”
“He’s still alive, Edward Morris. That would piss Dad off too.”
I noted Dee’s words, uncharacteristically crude. I start to sneeze, dust is crawling into my nasal passages.
“Get some bin liners, Allie. The rest can go to charity.”
“I hope I never see someone wandering around the city in Dad’s clothes.”
“When did that happen to anyone, except in books?”
I sneeze again. “When we’re done here, can we go through the photos?”
“They’re in the drawer under the cutlery.”
“The bin liners.”
In the sixties style sideboard in the dining room, we find boxes of documents, old birthday cards, childhood drawings by me and Dee which crackled with age. There were four boxes of loose photographs. Black and white, and colour photos that had faded to muted yellows and browns.
We pile them on the table and go through them searching for parts of our lives long forgotten. Birthdays celebrated, bicycles we learnt to ride, family holidays. Two little girls as cute as possums, as happy as the sun high above us. There were a few snaps of Mum sitting on a deckchair in the garden, painting her nails. One of her holding a baby a few days old, she was leaning to kiss her infants head. Was that Dee or me? Mum didn’t live long enough to tell us, to take us through the boxes of photos, telling us stories and Dad hadn’t a clue. A woman would know by the print of a curtain in the background, the style of a dress, what year the moment had been captured. The wallpaper looks Laura Ashley. A mother would never forget the identity of her child. I put away the last of the memories wondering how we were going to decide who was to take what.
“There’s a box we missed.” Dee reaches into the sideboard and pulls out a box which looks cream coloured but on closer scrutiny is a print of pale roses on a faded background which may once have been white. Dee takes the card from its holder on the front of the box and passes it to me. It says ‘Sylvia” in Dad’s untidy scrawl. The box is lined with lavender tissue paper and smells faintly of talcum powder. Inside are photographs and locks of blonde hair tied with ribbon. Dee opens a red velvet covered jewelry box that contains baby teeth.
“This is the start of a memory box.”
I nod. It should have contained photos of us on our first day at school, taken by Mum from the garden while we posed on the front steps. Or perhaps recipes of our favourite cakes devoured after school while telling her about our day. She didn’t know that I loved banana bread and Dee, almond biscuits.
Dee hands me a photo of a smiling woman with two small, brown haired children. I recognise the woman as someone I’d know all my life. The long straight dark hair and striking eyebrows. It is Dee, except it isn’t. Our mother is smiling, Dee rarely does.
“I didn’t know she looked like this, like you. Why did we never ask to see more photos of her, Dee? I only ever saw their wedding photo when Dad had it propped up on the piano.”
Dee’s sad eyes rested on mine. “We didn’t want to know what we were missing.”
“Did you know about the likeness?”
“I guessed. Dad could barely look at me without pain in his eyes.”
I covered her thin hand with mine, noticing the contrast between her white bony hand and mine that had spent too long at the beach.
“I didn’t realise. I’m sorry.”
We spread the photos out on the kitchen table. There are photos of our mother on the beach with us, laughing into the camera with two girls balanced on her hips. Dee and I wearing bathers with flimsy skirts, Mum in a once piece that showed her long legs. In another she bent down between us, holding my hand as I cried at the camera. I recognise our old kitchen which was ripped out in the mid-eighties, the old ceramic kettle gleams as new.
On the back of the photos in a script I didn’t recognise it said, ‘Sylvia and the girls, Manly Beach’. ‘At home’.
A couple on a rock. ‘Sylvia & Francis, honeymoon in Greece’. Another one of a woman with Dee’s face, blowing out candles. ‘Sylvia’s 21st, Sept’.
There were so few of them and the photos I held in my mind were the ones that weren’t there. Mum and Dad’s Silver Wedding Anniversary, the two of them pictured at Dad’s retirement do. There were no photos of her after 1980.
Our father was a decade older than our mother. Mum’s parents had been appalled at the age gap. She’d been so young and vital, who’d have thought that they would be burying her?
I pack the box carefully and pass it to Dee. “You have it.”
My sister nods and I don’t say it but I hope she’d finds whatever she lost along the way in the folds of that tissue paper. If our family had stayed intact she would have been Mum’s favourite, I was sure of that.