Bill watches Joyce gather the kids for a photo. He’s seated on the front lawn, next to the overgrown bougainvillea, an oxygen tank by his side, tubes to his nose. He watches Joyce arrange the children – their adult daughters who both turned up in striped jumpers and jeans. The two of them are laughing about the coincidence. Ratty sneakers too, which can apparently be edited out on the computer. Would a dress have killed them? But he should be kind. Mel and Jennifer kissed him fondly, and Jennifer even slipped him a half-pouch of Drum. Luke, always the youngest child, is doing that funny thing where he picks up one of the small children and plays them like a guitar.
It may be their last photo, although nobody is saying that.
It’s autumn, in Brisbane. The banana tree is heavy with fruit, the ripeness just a small note in the air. Lunch is two of Joyce’s chicken and thyme pies waiting on the back patio. The girls did the salads. Luke brought a cheesecake and bright doughnuts for the kids.
First thing this morning, Joyce sat at the table on the patio and made notes on the back of an envelope, notes about how she wants everybody arranged for the photos.
The first picture to be taken on the green garden bench will be with Mel’s and Jennifer’s husbands, plus Luke’s new girlfriend, Heidi – pregnant already with a baby that Bill may or may not meet. Then in the second photo, the biological grandchildren: no adults, just the six of them along with their dying grandfather. Then, the third and final shot: all the kids, including Heidi’s two daughters from her previous marriage.
“They can’t be in every photo,” Joyce said this morning, capping her pen at the patio table.
It’s a side of Joyce that Bill isn’t fond of. If he’s honest, it drives at something in his heart. Differentiating among the grandchildren – even if in private – is crass. But, to be fair, Luke’s had lots of girlfriends, some with kids of their own, and Joyce ended up loving those as well in her own way.
Bill watches Joyce talking to Mel’s oldest. Now a handsome teenager, Zak is showing his grandmother something on his phone. Joyce is dressed in grey and green, a top and slacks and one of those big necklaces she likes to buy herself on her weekend trips away. Yes, the thing with the step-grandchildren grates, but Bill has also watched Joyce give Heidi’s youngest, Gracie, an ice-cream from the chest freezer in the shed where he keeps his old tools and truck chassis, although the business is long sold off. His wife is extravagant and tender with the girls when she allows herself to be. He’s seen her face soften as their curls bounce beneath her hairbrush.
Mel claps her hands. “Let’s do this. Let’s not eat lunch at five like last time.”
Bill watches Gracie fling herself across the grass towards him, feels her tiny hand burrow into his. He breathes in, then out. He lets himself recall that other little hand. Belonging to the boy, who must now be a man, who is not here at all.
When Bill’s father died it was to do with diabetes, not his lungs. His last months were not this drawn out – his father took it in his stride, was how Bill saw it. Fine one day, then dead a short while later, when Bill was only 33, and he and Joyce were about to buy two new R-model Macks for the business. Something to be proud of.
Bill had gone around for morning tea a few weeks before his father’s death, at the height of summer, and his mother had put him to work changing the gas bottle on the barbecue while the old man waited in the dining room, probably in more pain than he let on.
At the table, Bill wanted to ask about his health, but didn’t know how. On the wall, the heavy clock ticked. Bill ate the fancy cream cakes his mother had made.
Finally, his father asked, “How’s the Rockhampton girl?”
“What?” But you didn’t say “what” to Bill’s father. “Pardon?”
“Must keep you busy.”
Fear sliced down on Bill. Up in Rockhampton, Geraldine was good about the money. She had her own income and was proud of it. But it was affection she wanted, which was hard to give, on the telephone out in the shed, which – for the business – had a separate number and separate bills in those days. Affection in love letters, which made Bill feel clumsy. Affection for her, affection for the little boy.
Maybe he had been looking for advice, without realising it. Somehow his father knew about Geraldine, about their son. Bill never was the sharpest tool in the shed – all those years, sitting in school, not quite getting it, information going over his head, never understanding what his teachers meant about this or that, numbers and words and the names of cities and mountains, everything meaningless, him feeling drowned in it all.
The boy was the absolute spit of Bill; everybody up Geraldine’s way said so.
“Don’t get caught,” his father said. He tapped the side of his teacup, which was empty. And from nowhere, Bill’s mother came with the kettle and refilled it, not saying a word.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on August 8, 2020 as "Capricorn Highway".
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