By Nicole Jacobsen, for ScratchThat
The car rolled to a stop and Dad sucked in a breath.
‘It’s gone,’ he said. ‘It used to be a corner store.’ He pointed to a car sales yard. ‘We used to stop there for ice-cream on the way home, remember kids?
My brother, Ben, peered outside. I glanced back at my phone
‘I remember leaving a toy behind one time, I think,’ Ben replied
Mum turned in her seat and I glanced up in time to see her smile at him.
“That’s right,’ she said. ‘You screamed bloody murder until we promised to go back.’
Ben smiled one of his crooked smiles. He only did those when he was proud of himself.
‘We’re almost there,’ Dad said as the light turned green.
My phone buzzed. Cami again.
It was a picture of her and Alyssa, pilfered beers in hand, sunnies on, smiles wide, floating on giant rubber donuts in Cami’s parents’ pool.
My jaw clenched. I could be there right now. Instead, my butt was numb, and my ankles ached from the limited leg space. Guilt settled in my chest at the thought, but it’s not like I knew either of my grandparents. I’d just be in the way.
My grandmothers’ funeral was a week ago, and I’d met more family members at the wake than I knew existed. Yet a sense of vague recognition had ebbed and flowed as I’d examined the grief-stricken faces, all grouped together in hushed conversations.
After the funeral, a man came up to Dad. They’d shaken hands. Exchanged words. There was a coldness to their condolences, as if they’d each lost something separate. That’s when they’d arranged today’s trip. The man had said what day he’d be here and Dad had picked another day. Mum told us later the man was Dad’s brother.
We had arrived. Dad parked on the street. Dry heat pushed against my skin as we piled out of the car. I glanced back inside longingly.
‘Why didn’t we visit more?’ Ben asked. Loose pebbles crunched under our feet in the driveway.
Rust flaked as Dad lifted the metal latch on the front gate. I followed my family through a garden arbour, ducking beneath an intricate web where a golden orb wobbled. The front garden overflowed with green and brown, dead leaves collecting in decomposing piles. We weaved through vines and leafy branches that reached down in tangled knots from hanging pots. I resisted the urge to brush my hair and neck for phantom spiders.
Dad knocked and the door swung open. He called out but no one answered.
‘He’s probably out the back,’ he reasoned to Mum. We walked inside. The door shut behind me on creaking hinges
The air smelled of stale cigarettes and potpourri.
Ben followed Dad, and Mum placed her bag on the kitchen table. She separated the maroon drapes in the living room. Agitated by our movements, dust motes whizzed in the air. Mum turned a dial and the fan above the lounge shuddered and began turning.
‘Oh,’ she said, looking over my shoulder. I twisted. Dishes overflowed from the kitchen sink and food, left out to defrost, had started leaking onto the bench and growing furry spots. Mum found a plastic bin and started throwing things away.
I shifted from one foot to the other, standing under the fan as it pushed hot air around the room, ticking with every rotation.
Mum spoke as water sputtered from the faucet.
‘Becca, there should be a feather duster hanging in the cupboard.’
‘Which cupboard? There’s like a hundred.’
‘The one in the hallway.’
The hallway walls were lined with paintings of sprawling landscapes and forest animals. In the living room, photos were stacked haphazardly like dominos on every surface. Each had a different frame. Silver, wood, plain, patterned–even those free-standing ones where the photo slipped between layers of clear plastic.
As I dusted, I recognised some of the faces in the pictures from the funeral. Younger versions. Blonder. Thinner. My hand froze over a picture of me and Ben. He was missing a front tooth and I was wearing a green ribbon in my hair.
The green ribbon tugged at my mind, like a plucked string.
It was taken at a wedding reception; I think one of my aunts’. All the kids had played together, our bodies buzzing after gorging ourselves on sweets and cake.
The faces in the memory were blurry, but I knew some of them had to have been my cousins. I searched the faces as I dusted, hoping for another vibration from that pulled string.
My lips twitched when I came across a grainy black and white picture of Dad. He wore shorts, exposing knobbly knees. He looked so much like Ben.
I took out my phone and snapped a picture. I’d never seen a photo of Dad so young. I wondered if there were more, tucked away in thick albums with yellowing plastic, pages sticking together with age.
I noticed several dust free items around the room. The TV remote. The lamp beside the recliner. A stack of magazines on the coffee table. And a collection of photos in the corner, of the same woman, captured at various stages of her life. Youthful with full lips and freckles that stood out starkly against pale skin, just like me. Then sallow cheeked with thinning hair and crow’s feet.
I ventured further into the house, observations plucking at that string. An old metal tin full of colouring pencils. The tinkling of wind chimes. The lingering scent of cigarettes and moth balls. A fraying blue and green rug. A collection of china teacups painted with soft purple pansies. The soft ticking of a grandfather clock.
As I dusted the lazy Susan on the dining room table, I noticed a deep scratch in the dark wood. I traced the curved line, like an “L”, as a woman’s laughter echoed in my mind
Ben had done that. He’d dumped garden tools on the table. Mum had roused at him for the damage, but a tiny Ben had calmly reasoned it wasn’t that bad, because it looked like the first letter of grandma’s name. Lil.
The front door opened. My grandfather came inside. He looked how I imagined Dad would look if you fast forwarded a couple of decades while he stood in the sun.
He looked from me to Mum, who’d come out from the kitchen. Then he shuffled down the hall.
Dad and Ben came inside a few seconds later. Ben had a strange look on his face, like the look he used to get when he was little, and a storm came late at night. At the first rumble of thunder he would appear in my doorway, his bear clutched in a white-knuckled grip.
‘Timothy,’ my grandfather shouted from down the hall. Dad’s face fell, his shoulders dropping. I felt a lump rise in my throat as my grandfather called my uncle’s name again. ‘Timothy, I’ve lost Lil. She’s hiding somewhere.’
My grandfather re-entered the room and walked towards Dad.
‘Don’t just stand there. Help me look.’
Dad took a deep breath and placed a hand on his father’s shoulder. He turned him towards an olive coloured urn that sat on a shelf in the dining room. It didn’t need dusting.
My grandfather stared at the urn for a few seconds. Then he left out the front.
Did Dad know? Or had he found out today when he returned home after so many years?
Dad went out the front too and Ben, after glancing at the urn, walked briskly down the hallway. Mum returned to the dishes.
I stood still, twisting the feather duster between my fingers.
‘Is there anything else I can do?’ I asked. Mum nodded and pointed to a bulging black rubbish bag she’d tied off and left on the floor. I picked it up, heading out the front.
Dad was in the garden, explaining to his father that most of the plants had died. He said the weeds strangled them. He said that some were okay though, and we could leave them if he wanted.
My grandfather’s eyebrows creased as he gazed around the garden.
‘I’m not sure,’ he said. ‘I’d best check with Lil.’ The hinges screeched as he went back inside.
Dad’s eyes lingered after his father and my stomach lurched at the sadness etching lines onto his face. He noticed me and then the rubbish bag. He cleared his throat.
‘Here, I’ll show you,’ he offered.
‘That’s okay,’ I said, readjusting my grip. I smiled and, in my head, it looked like one of Ben’s crooked ones. ‘I remember the way.’
Nicole Jacobsen is a Brisbane artist, writer, poet, and aspiring editor who regularly finds herself re-befuddled by the difference between who and whom. Her background in Psychology emerges through character studies, obsessive bouts of self-reflection, and recurrent themes of mental health in her work. You can follow her work, here.