Like Ice by Mark Brandi
Mark Brandi was born in Italy and then spent most of his childhood in a remote country Victorian pub. He now lives in Melbourne, where he writes fiction. He was the grateful recipient of a 2015 Varuna Residential Fellowship and was runner up for the 2014 NSW Writers’ Centre Varuna Fellowship. He was the 2014 winner of the City of Rockingham Short Fiction Awards and shortlisted for the 2015 Seizure Viva La Novella Prize. He was also longlisted for the 2015 International Caledonia Novel Award. His shorter work has appeared in literary journals and been broadcast on ABC Radio National. www.markbrandi.com
It stinks of shit. Heavy and sweet. Like the chow mein Mum cooked for the punters. Fried mince, cabbage and curry powder.
Dad’s lying in bed, the blankets pulled up to his neck.
“Are you okay?”
“I think so.”
Mum’s eyes. Cheap liqueur chocolates. Her mouth twitches a broken beat. Closes the window. Opens it. Looks at me. Says it with her eyes.
I didn’t know who to call.
“Dad,’ I say. Too loud. ‘Is your head okay?”
“Are you feeling sick?”
“I’m not sure.”
Mum’s candy-brittle smile. Crosses her arms. Shakes her head. “He’s just embarrassed.”
I help him sit up. Pull the blankets back – the shit is there. It’s on the mattress. It’s on the floor. There’s shit everywhere.
Mum dry retches.
He swings his legs over the side of the bed. Stands up shaky. Faded cotton undies and short-sleeve Aldi shirt. Chicken legs with hairless skin. His belly is much too big for chicken legs.
His thin, white hair is standing on end. Like a bush cockatoo.
Dad’s outside a country pub.
He just bought it.
He’s with Mum.
A gold-rush pub.
Empty for years.
Full of rats.
But there’s gold too.
Behind the fireplace.
They’ll find that later.
I tell him to put his arm around me.
“We’re gonna walk to the shower. You feel okay to walk?”
“I think so.”
We walk there. His hand on my arm. Soft fingers. Thin skin. Not like it used to be. Dried up leather. Old Blundstones in the sun.
It’s a nice bathroom. It’s better than mine. Dark-grey tiles. A special shower.
I show him how to use the mixer tap.
“I know,” he says.
“Make sure you clean your backside.”
Dad watches me mime the action of washing my arse with imaginary soap. The soap is clean and green in its little chrome tray. It doesn’t know what it’s in for.
Mum doesn’t know what she’s in for.
She doesn’t speak English.
Dad taught himself on the boat.
They’re gonna run it, he reckons.
He’s never run a pub.
He’s a train driver.
Diesel engines and punch-ups.
Aussies with big mouths.
Dad hurt his back.
Mum’s gonna be the cook.
Dad’s family are all insane.
Just ask anyone.
Mum is in the bedroom. She’s in the bedroom on her knees.
“Bloody dis-gusting.” She’s scrubbing the floor. “Filthy bastard.”
I hear the shower go on. “How did he … ?”
“Who knows? I’ll never get these stains out.”
Dad is in a brown suit.
He looks like Bob De Niro.
The judge is Lionel Murphy.
The judge says Dad made history.
A precedent, he said.
It’s about his back.
Mike Willesee wants to talk on telly.
Mike Willessee is all the rage.
But Dad won’t talk.
And Bob De Niro’s not a lawyer.
The shower goes off. So I listen at the door. The dead whirr of the fan.
“Cleaned yourself properly?”
Swish and rustle. Starched towel on flesh. I hope he cleaned himself. I hope he got all the shit off. I hope he doesn’t stink.
It’s three weeks til his birthday.
It’s my friend’s birthday.
His mum drives me home.
Double-storey brick house.
Dad is building it himself.
No need for a roof.
We’ll live downstairs.
This isn’t my house.
So drive me somewhere else.
That’s exactly what I said.
In the kitchen, we dance around it. Like the last ones no-one picked. When no-one else is left.
“Well eventually …”
“He won’t go. It will kill him.”
“What’s gonna happen when—”
“I’ll do it as long as I can.”
Steps on the stairs.
He won’t know anyway.
He comes through the door. Pants pulled up high. Jumper tucked right in. Jacket on. Smiling.
All ready to go.
Schoolbag in the back.
Windscreen frozen over.
Ice, he says.
Get the hose.
From safe inside, I watch the cascade.
The crystal flow.
Until he’s there again.
Through the glass and frost.
Just a shimmer in the morning sun.
As the ice begins to melt.
A thick woollen jumper.
His hair turning grey.
The smile won’t leave his eyes.