This is my grandmother’s house; mine since last Tuesday when the will was read, an impoverished student sitting on a million dollar piece of property. The air still carries the scent of her, the faintest hint of lavender and Pears shampoo—but there have always been odours in this house that seem to have no source: pipe smoke, aftershave, hair oil. This morning I thought I woke to the sound of her skirt swishing against the petticoat she insistently wore. I thought there was the soft click of the heels of her house shoes on the polished wood floors, muted when she got to the rugs, clear again when she’d crossed them. I thought I heard her singing and the quick snick as she switched on the electric kettle my sister and I bought her three years ago when she kept burning herself on the stove-top one. It’s a Russell Hobbs, silver, sexy and too expensive but it was the only way to make her change—tell her how much it cost so she couldn’t bear to let it lie in the pantry gathering dust.
But when I wandered into the kitchen I was alone, there was no song filled with sunlight, no lavender-scented grandmother, and the metal skin of the jug was cool against my questing fingers.
Mrs Schaeffer’s stinky little terrier is yapping next-door, obscured by the weathered grey palings but making up for his invisibility by being extra noisy. Grandma’s superannuated fluffy grey Persian sits on the fence, haughtily staring down into Mrs Schaeffer’s yard and, presumably, taunting the terrier, whose barking gets more and more hysterical. The cat’s too old to be doing that, perching there like a smartarse; she’ll fall over one day. With any luck she’ll land on the terrier and crush him.
I switch on the kettle, then open the window.
“Puss, c’mon. In.” I step aside and pretend not to watch as she sizes up the short gap between the fence and the window. At one time she wouldn’t have even looked. We all get old, I suppose.
Coffee cup and cereal bowl in hand, I go out to the sunroom—it used to be a veranda until it was glassed in ten years ago. I slide the glass panes across and feel the breeze dance through. Not quite summer, still cool enough to be comfortable, the sweating weather hasn’t started yet.
I can see down the back of Paddington, across the tops of older houses with their corrugated tin roofs, in red, white, silver, some peeling, some rusting; the newer places have tiled roofs sitting on misplaced Mediterranean-style homes, with solar hot water units clinging to the slopes a little desperately. Jacaranda trees, pregnant with purple, showy and boastful, dot the view. Three streets away and up, I can hear the noise of the coffee shops on La Trobe Terrace, sited higher than this house so the sound falls down, weaves around trees, past houses and sheds, through gates and along walkways, lifting over fences and gathering here before continuing on down the hill. Spoons clink against hardy china, coffee machines spit superheated milk into metal jugs, eggs, bacon and pancakes sizzle briskly, and the low murmur of Saturday morning voices hums, often broken by shouted laughter. The occasional car rushes by, drowning the café sounds.
I settle onto the couch, rest my breakfast on the coffee table, put my feet up on the window sill, and examine the fuchsia toenail polish, chipped away by the tyranny of closed-in shoes and general neglect. On the floor beside me is the last of the boxes I’ve been going through for a week while studiously neglecting my PhD. There are seven in all (a box a day keeps the PhD away), the others sit in the darkness of the study, and they are not your typical cardboard archive boxes from K-Mart. Wooden, stained a dark honey, their edges slotted together in beautifully dovetailed sections, with their lids secured by brass hinges, locks and small, ornate keys.
They contain, not my grandmother’s things, but her grandmother’s, remnants of a life long gone. This house has been inhabited by my family, in various configurations, since 1872. It is an archaeological site, layers and layers of habitation. Dig down and you’re sure to find the bones of my ancestors.
The key turns reluctantly in the lock, unwilling to give up its half-secrets, its unexplained slices of past lives, but my blood wins the argument: these imperfect family memories, such as they are, are mine too.
The papers and envelopes are yellowed, their edges a darker colour shading into brown and chewed by things that live in the damp parts of houses. I can smell old, old camphor—so aged that it stopped doing its job some time ago. I shuffle through the papers, scanning for hints of a place to start.
There are love letters (tender but badly spelled), from Jack to Emma, my great-great grandparents, the ones who built this house. They came from Ireland, had seven children and one day Jack walked out. There was a rumour, a piece of family apocrypha, that he was seen taking ship from Brisbane, but no one could ever verify it. Emma stayed on in the house, raised her children, often had her grown ones living there at various times when they were in financial straits, or building their own houses, or having marriage problems.
Under those, a lot of paperwork on the letterhead of the Australian Imperial Force: a piece of ancient stationery declaring itself as an ‘Attestation Paper of Persons Enlisted for Service Abroad’ and lists details of an Elijah James Edwards who joined the Army on 1st of November 1915. There’s the signature of his mother, Emma Edwards, giving consent for him to “enlist in the Australian Imperial Force for services beyond the limits of the Commonwealth of Australia”. She is also listed as his next of kin. No mention of his father.
There’s a letter from Elijah, saying how he and two cousins, Alex and Jonty, caught up in Egypt when their respective battalions were briefly stopped there.
Tell Uncle Will that we took donkeys out to the pyramids and carved our names into the stones with our bayonets (I cringe at the vandalism). The desert heat is astonishing and the stink that wafts through Cairo is unbearable some days. So many bodies packed into one city, Ma, you would not credit it. There are not enough houses and people live in the old cemeteries, making their homes with the dead because there’s nowhere else for them to go.
Along with a plaque and a memorial scroll is the notification of Elijah’s death. He was killed in action on 5th April 1917. A war medal, bronze, heavy and four inches in diameter, lies in a black case. Poor compensation in exchange for a child’s life.
I picture Emma sitting on this veranda, still and silent, in her hands the letter saying her son was shot, that he bled to death and was buried in a field of French mud, far away from home.
Here are her hands, blue-veined and pale, shaking as she goes through the tiny remnants of her boy’s life: the pips from his uniform, a silver cigarette case made from the metal of a crashed plane, a matching match case with six wax matches still inside, his AIF rising sun badge, a photo of his mother and sisters, crumpled and folded small enough to fit in his wallet, and the wallet itself, brown leather except where there is a jagged hole stained by a darker fluid around the edges, and smelling vaguely of gunpowder. The same items lie heavy in my hands now.
I go back to the photo. Emma and her six daughters all in dark dresses with white hand-made lace collars and dark hair in loose buns, with firm, slightly aggressive gazes: Vina, Sarah, Elizabeth, Tot, Jocelyn and Edith. Perched on Emma’s lap sits Elijah, about three years old, the only boy, with his hair in birth-blond ringlets, eyes steady. No sign that he won’t return, no shadow behind him, no hint that one day he would be gone from these lives.
I retrieve my laptop from the study, where it’s been sitting between two fat piles of paper—on one side a half-edited manuscript that’s lost my interest, on the other the PhD that never really had it in the first place. Back on the couch I connect up to the Australian National Archives site. There are forty-six pages of records relating to Elijah James Edwards, No. 1645, 49th Battalion of the Australian Imperial Force, digital copies of official documents and letters from Emma.
I have been advised to write to you for information regarding my son’s effects. “No. 1645 Private Elijah James Edwards,” who was killed in action in France on April 5th. Kindly let me know all particulars at your convenience.
Mrs Emma Edwards
A reply tells her these are not in the possession of the OC but when and if he has them, he will forward them to her. This is in June of 1918, over a year since Elijah died.
I see from a Certificate of Medical Examination, that Elijah was five feet eight inches tall, with grey eyes, fair complexion and dark brown hair. His only distinctive marks are moles on his body. Also he’s a Methodist, unmarried, with a thirty-four and a half inch chest. Elijah James Edwards, aged twenty years and five months when he enlisted. I read his physical description and remember my grandmother recycling one of Emma’s phrases: she’d know him if she saw his skin hanging on a bush as she passed by.
A copy of another of Emma’s letters, once again seeking advice about the whereabouts of her son’s effects and another reply, same as the previous one. In December of 1921, over three years since Elijah was killed, a further letter arrives from the Base Office at Victoria Barracks, asking for details of Elijah’s father, even though it notes that Emma alone was listed as her son’s next of kin. Apparently it was deemed more appropriate to hand the boy’s effects over to his father.
. . . in order that the instructions under the “Deceased Soldiers Estates Act 1918” may be properly complied with when disposing of War Medals &c., I shall be glad to learn whether there are any nearer blood relations than yourself to the above-named, for instance, is his father still alive. If so I shall be much obliged for his name and address at your earliest convenience.
And her curt reply, which contains only the slightest hint of what she must have felt:
With reference to yours of 30th December last, regarding next of kin of my deceased son, No. 1645 Private Elijah James Edwards, 49th Battalion, I have to inform you that I have not seen nor heard of his father since July 1904, and have no knowledge whatsoever of his whereabouts. I therefore claim to be his nearest surviving relation. He had my consent to enlist and all communications relative to him have been addressed to me.
Mrs Emma Edwards
The parcel arrives, at last, but she sends another letter acknowledging receipt and asking where Elijah’s silver fob-watch has gone. It belonged to his father, but was passed on to Elijah, the only son, the week before his father disappeared. The OC replies that no such item was with No. 1645’s belongings. Emma writes three more times and each time the reply is depressingly the same. The last piece of correspondence is dated March 1925. I disconnect from the Net.
In the bottom of the box lies a worn velvet pouch. I pick it up, feel the places where its fur has been rubbed away by anxious fingers. I tease open its mouth and tip the contents out onto the table, next to my now–cold coffee and soggy-beyond-belief cereal.
A fob-watch, silver, a sunburst pattern on both sides and engraved with Jack Edwards 1901 in a curve along the lower edge of the front panel.
I don’t touch it. I go make myself another coffee, absent-mindedly feed the cat again. This is the last box, there will be no more hints, no more letters, nothing to solve the mystery of how the watch came back.
I stand beside the table, coffee cup in one hand, and reach for the watch with the other. My fingers touch the engraved silver and a jolt runs up my arm, spreads fire across my chest, tears down to the tips of my toes, catches in my throat until it finally shoots through the top of my head. I fall, seeing the coffee cup hit the tiles before I do, shatter, spray its warm contents upward and outward.
New York, 1925
The pawnshop on the corner of 53rd and Main was small, dim behind its dusty window. Business flourished, though—the owner didn’t ask questions about the provenance of things and in return people didn’t ask him about his own beginnings. His accent was barely American, certainly not true New York. There were flat vowels, a dryness of attitude and a drawl that were Southern Hemisphere markers, laid over the remains of a brogue.
His wife (married bigamously but she didn’t know it) was Irish, plump, ruddy, violent and loud. He remembered with longing, more than once, his quiet dignified other wife, with her firm, trim figure, neatly coiffed hair, clean nails and faint lavender perfume. Some days it was hard to remember why he’d left her, especially when Brigid was yelling and the twins were squalling like fractious, malign baby birds. He thought occasionally of his other children, more and more as he got older, of the six girls and only boy. The eldest must be thirty by now, married with children of her own, the youngest, Elijah, just twenty.
He could hear wife number two now, singing happily this morning, before the day frayed her temper. She was bathing the boys and they sounded uncharacteristically calm and happy, not like the usual screaming monstrosities. Jack caught his reflection in the mirror hanging over the jewellery cabinet. Face thin, eyes faded grey, light brown hair shot through with silver; still young-looking though, but hard around the mouth. Not so bad for fifty-five. He straightened his waistcoat, pulled at the cuffs of his sleeves.
A lot of servicemen came through, word of the shop had spread by various means, a viral communication between folk of a certain stripe. When the airman arrived that day, smelling of stale liquor, eyes furtive, his uniform crumpled, Jack didn’t blink an eye.
“You take watches?” asked the airman, painfully young but brittle and hard. His voice was rough and he coughed a lot.
Jack nodded. “Depends on the condition.”
“It’s good, sir. Good nice watch, gift from my Dad.” The lie slipped off his tongue easily but Jack caught it. Lies had a certain timbre, a certain weight. A teller of tales himself, he could recognise a lie at its first syllable. The watch was stolen. No matter.
The young man’s hands shook a little as he fumbled with the flap of his rucksack. He pulled out a small black velvet bag, untied the soft cord threaded through its mouth and slid the contents onto the glass countertop. Jack felt his stomach drop away.
The watch was silver, a sunburst pattern engraved on both sides, with a thick silver fob-chain attached to the release at the top. Jack’s hands trembled as he reached for it, the floor seemed unsteady beneath his feet, shifting like the deck of the ship he boarded to flee Australia twenty-one years ago.
The timepiece lay heavy in his palm, in league with gravity, pulling down a hand from which all strength had gone. He touched the release and the casing sprang open to show a pearly white face and black Roman numerals standing with regimental discipline around the edge, and fine black hands still moved about slowly, doing their duty. Jack ran his finger across the engraving of his own name.
“Where did you get this?” he asked, voice thick.
The airman grinned, missing the older man’s tone, thinking it another chance to lie. “From my Dad, he’s gone now. I need the money more than . . . ”
Jack pulled the young man across the counter, heard the glass creak, threatening to give way under the weight. When he spoke, it seemed to him that his words were rational, his tone even, but in reality he screamed and Brigid heard him upstairs. The twins set up a surprised howling to keep his grief company.
Jack held the man steady with one hand and punched him in the face with the other, until the airman’s nose cracked and he had to spit out teeth fragments before he could speak.
“I stole it! I stole it. Some dead bloke in France. I went through his pockets—he didn’t need it.” He wept. “I stole it. Let me go.”
And Jack dropped him so he landed in a tangle on the floor, scrambled, crawled his way to the door and hightailed it out into the sunlight, the bell above the door jangling in alarm as he went.
It was 1925. His youngest child, his only son (he briefly forgot the twins), had been dead for eight years and he never knew.
Brisbane. The smell was different; somehow he thought it would be the same as when he took ship in 1904 . Over twenty years ago he left a wife and seven children behind, sailed for New York, where he had spent two years from age sixteen to eighteen. Used all the money he’d cleared out of the bank account in Brisbane to buy the pawn shop. Stayed single for a long time, although played his way through a lot of women, until he got Brigid pregnant, and found himself agreeable to remarrying. He thought it would be nice to have someone to cook and take care of him again, fondly remembering Emma’s housewifely skills. Brigid, however, was not a shadow of Emma.
There were more houses, new streets, more people and traffic around but no one recognised him. Why should they? Who would think he’d return over twenty years later? He left the men’s hostel where he had stayed the last two days and caught the tram to Paddington.
Jack got off a few stops earlier on La Trobe Terrace, and walked. His feet knew the way in spite of the intervening years. He turned off La Trobe and walked down the hill, recognised the fence and the gate he himself had hung. The jacaranda tree on the left side of the house was heavy with blooms; the mango tree on the right had grown muscular, a child’s swing hanging from one of its branches moved slightly in the breeze. He had convinced himself that Emma would be pleased to see him, that the years would have taken the edge off her hurt, that the bitterness would have faded and they would sit and talk like old friends.
The house was different, larger, a new colour. Out the back he could see where rooms had been added on. A wooden bench sat in the back garden under the shade of poinsettia trees, and a hedge wove its way around the edge of the fence. A long bed planted with tall rose bushes ran along one side of the house. There were no blooms, just thick thorny limbs, with serrated leaves.
Jack had walked away from Brigid as easily as he had walked away from Emma, although he left Brigid in a better financial position. He took only what he needed from the bank account. The news of Elijah’s death had shaken him loose from his moorings—he brooded for a week, two weeks, woke up one morning, packed a bag while Brigid took the boys to the park, and found a ship going the way he wanted. Began his journey home, unsure why he was going back, like a pendulum swinging between two points, not of its own volition, as if he could only go one way or the other.
His tread on the front steps was almost jaunty.
She opened the door and he thought how she’d aged, although in reality she looked no older than he did. Her hair was shot through with white, not grey, and the lines around her eyes and mouth were few but deep. Her eyes were the same, though, dark green and when they settled on him, recognised him, flinty.
It was never, he should have realised, going to go well. Even Emma who had forgiven his drinking and his occasional other women, had her limits. He had reached, and breached, them.
For a long moment he didn’t think she’d let him in, until she stood aside abruptly, silently and he passed by into the cool air of the house. It smelled like lavender and he saw she still kept dried bunches of it in bowls around the house. He stood and waited for her to close the door and lead the way through the house, through new rooms and corridors he did not recognise.
In the sitting room, she chose an armchair, with a pile of crochet perched on one arm. Photos lined the room, all his daughters become young women, married, with offspring of their own. He wondered about their husbands, what kind of men they had married.
Emma’s silence felt like a stone. She waited for him to speak and he didn’t know what to say. Everything and nothing seemed wrong, inappropriate.
“How are you?” and he knew it sounded as stupid to her as it did to him. She didn’t bother to reply. He nodded at the family photos. “The girls look well. The house is different. Bigger.”
Still she was silent.
He blurted: “I heard about . . . I heard about Elijah.”
She sat straighter in her chair, her face pinched by pain. He reached into the pocket of his jacket and showed her the pouch. The watch crept onto the palm of his hand and her eyes widened, a small distressed noise broke from her.
“Where did you get that?” And in her voice was the sound of all her heartbreak, all her grief. It dug into him and hooked guilt up closer to the surface than it had ever been. It sat just under his skin, itching and burning.
“A man, a thief. Brought it into my shop and tried to pawn it.”
She wanted to ask, “Where have you been?” but she didn’t. Instead she said: “What do you want?”
And he had no answer. The urge that had driven him here was formless, aimless, only an impulse but no objective beyond being back on Brisbane’s soil, beyond reaching this house.
“Why are you here?” she asked. “You left us. You left me with seven children and no money.”
Why should she welcome him with open arms after all this time? He knew suddenly that his excuses were not, had never been, enough: that boredom and itchy feet, irritation caused by crying, colicky babies, the repetition of everyday life, and a desire for something, someone, new was not enough to justify leaving her the way he had. And faced with his own failings, with the knowledge that he had done to Brigid what he had done to Emma, that he was a weak, unreliable man, he became mean.
He tried to find words, invariably came up with the wrong ones. “I want his things, Emma. He was my son. I want the war medal and anything else you were sent.” Inside himself all he found was spite and guilt.
He shrugged uncomfortably. “It all turned out. You’ve got the house. I’m his father. I want his things.”
Emma was quiet for a long moment, while he kept talking. She wondered who he was, this man, this once-upon-a-time husband. She wondered how she could have loved him, what she had loved about him, but her memory bore a thick layer of scar tissue and she couldn’t find anything to help her remember. A tightness she’d only been vaguely aware of these past twenty years uncurled in her chest, like claws releasing flesh in which they had long been buried. Something began to flow through the holes they left, and it felt like life.
She said, “is things are downstairs.”
They went down the back steps, ducking down under the low lintel. He saw the child’s bike in the yard and asked, “Do you live alone?”
She shook her head. “Vina and her husband and their boys live with me.”
His eyes adjusted to the darkness under the house. One small area was cemented, with old linoleum over the top but the rest of was an expanse of black soil. Grey stone washtubs lined one wall, and an old boiler with a hand-operated wringer for squeezing out clothes stood forlornly in a corner. A battered sofa sat on the lino, next to a stack of newspapers perched on top of an old, faded, red tin trunk. An ashtray held stubs of cigarettes—Emma’s son-in-law, Sam, was only allowed to smoke down here. A few feet away was a hole, three feet deep, four feet long, one foot wide—three of Emma’s grandsons had been digging their way through to China last week, then promptly forgotten it when ordered to fill in the hole. The shovels they used were propped up against the thick dark wooden posts.
She pointed to the old tin trunk. She wondered what treasures Jack thought their son might have had. “In there. Everything you came for is in there.”
While he clumsily moved the stack of papers, losing several of them to the floor, she picked up one of the shovels, found it surprisingly light in her hands, but just right for her purpose.
Afterwards, she emptied his pockets just to see what was there, what clues he had left and found the watch. She put it into her apron. In his wallet was some American money and a picture of a frowsy woman, round-faced and coarse and two pugnacious-looking little boys, about four years old. She threw the wallet and the photo on top of her husband.
Emma filled in the hole, threw away newspapers speckled with blood, and washed up any telltale mess. She went back upstairs and took a bath. In the evening, when she sat down to dinner with Vina, Sam and the boys, she said: “Sam? Sam, I want to talk to you about getting downstairs concreted in.”
The tiles are cool against my face; the cat’s rough tongue is scraping my forehead. There’s a small cut there. Great, eaten by a fat cat. “Piss off, puss.” I stand, balance gingerly, then make my way downstairs. There’s an internal staircase now and the under-the-house bit has long-since been built in. Grandma stored old suitcases there, a pool table no one uses anymore, boxes of recipes and patterns ages out of style, bags of ancient clothes that have never quite made it to Vinnie’s. In old milk crates piled high with dusty children’s toys, near-antique hand-painted wooden blocks mingle with Lego and other pieces of Chinese plastic. The light switch is an old hang-from-the-ceiling-and-pull style. The fluoro lights spark up and flood the room, chasing shadows away as if they’ve no right to be there.
The air is cool and dry.
In the old days (the very old days), they used to bury someone in the foundations of a house, to keep it safe, make the gods happy, whatever. A man or woman, young or old, a member of the tribe or family, or an enemy taken in war; an evil-doer or someone who’d caused offence and needed to make amends. Through the cool cement floor, I can feel a heartbeat, the steady rhythm solid underneath the bare soles of my feet. I kneel down, put my lips close to the ground, smell a curious mixture of lime and earth, and whisper: I know and I’m sorry.
There’s no change in the thud below, no sigh of relief, no angry poltergeist activity, just the contented pulse. He hasn’t haunted us. Maybe he belongs here. Maybe there simply are no ghosts.
I go back upstairs. Puss is lapping at cold coffee, the jacaranda-spotted landscape hasn’t changed. Everything looks normal. I pile all the papers back into their box.
The watch is warm in my hand, heavy as I put it back into its pouch, then into the box, under the dry, whispering papers, and drop the lid down, turning the key. The sun is bright and hot on my face. Stories swarm around me in the afternoon heat, heady and intangible, uncertain and lost, and neither time nor tears will make them distinguishable from dreams.
Originally published in Dreaming in the Dark, edited by Jack Dann.