This story was prompted by a writing exercise from a fabulous writing group based in Bayside, Melbourne.
Lean as a whippet, face furrowed by the detritus life had thrown at him, the man relaxed his hand around the mop handle. He used to do this job in half the time but now he had to keep stopping to catch his breath. He wondered if he might be getting too old for all this. Nah, that was daft, he had always worked. He shut his eyes as a memory shoved itself in his face. His old man standing over him, wagging his finger and shouting, “You lazy little bugger, get out from under your mother’s feet and get a job.” Well look at me now, Dad.
Someone came in to use a toilet. Their thongs deposited dirt on the previously gleaming tiles. He swore and carried on, stinging sweat dripping into his eyes. When he finished, he trudged outside into the forty-degree heat. His knackered hands and shoulders thrummed, but nothing a mid-afternoon beer wouldn’t fix. He gave a thumbs-up through the window of the manager’s office and headed to his trailer at the far end of the site. As he went, he kept an eye on the vermin, the ‘clients’ he was supposed to call them. But he preferred ‘vermin’. They came, they made a noise, they left a mess.
Soon he was in his favourite place in the whole of Beachside - ironically a hundred kilometres from the coast. Surrounded by rushes, the lake behind the trailer was a place of relative peace, aside from occasional annoyances from stir-crazy campers laughing and screaming as they splashed in the murky water. There were two teenagers there now, egging each other to jump in first. Idiots, he thought, and shook his head.
He leant back in his canvas camping chair and sucked down some lager, stretching out under the shade of a gum tree. The six-pack went down like it did every afternoon, an effortless glide south, a journey shared by both beverage and man. He nodded off between stubbies, and the teenagers pointed at him and laughed at the sight of a semi-conscious old man still holding onto his precious beer.
Eventually he had to get up when he ran out of grog. Aches and pains pushed aside for another day, he meandered back to his caravan as the sun set. It was lopsided and rickety, didn’t have fancy luxuries. But it only needed to be big enough for him, and the stray cat that sometimes wandered in for a feed. He wasn’t into pets - or people for that matter - but some days it was nice to have the company. As he rounded the corner to take the path leading to his trailer, he noticed someone lurking at the door.
“What the hell?” he murmured. He forced himself to speed up though it brought on a heaviness in his chest. Was it Shelley with another quick job to do? She squeezed him dry every shift.
He peered at the figure as he approached. A slender woman, maybe in her fifties, shoulder length dark hair, capri pants, a floral top and floaty scarf. She removed her sunglasses and gave him a hesitant smile. She looked too fresh and carefree to be one of the vermin. However, that was the only logical explanation as he never had visitors.
“You’ve got the wrong place,” he said, getting in first. His aching chest made him feel irritable. “The office is down the dirt track.”
She shook her head. “I’m not here to camp. I’m here to see you, Bert Stone.” She held out her hand.
He ignored it and opened the door. “Look, just wait there a minute, I’ve got to -” He dived in and sprayed his heart med under his tongue. After a minute, he could concentrate again. As best he could after a few beers. He gestured to the woman who was waiting by the door, unruffled by the heat or his manner.
“Close the fly screen,” he said, as she joined him.
They both sat around the tiny formica table. He felt uncomfortable having a woman here, even if she was too young for him. She seemed overly confident for someone not in her own territory. He tapped on the table as a judge calling a rabble to order. He raised an eyebrow at her. “Who are you? What do you want?”
She leant forward abruptly, supported her face on a manicured hand. She stared into his eyes, making him recoil. It was the same look he gave a flailing barramundi before crushing its head. “I’m Lisa. Don’t you recognise me?”
“No, I don’t.” He sat up. “We’re not playing twenty questions, are we? I’ve got things to do.”
She opened her handbag and placed something before him. A grainy and faded photograph. Posed and stiff, a couple and a young boy stand at the edge of a footy oval. Impassive, the boy grips a cricket bat. The image sends a bolt through him. “But that’s me... Where did you get this?”
“I’ll tell you in a minute,” she said, echoing his earlier words, a smirk playing on her lips. She points to the photo. “Who are the others?”
“My wife, we separated. And that was our boy. Lee.” He squinted a while longer, and winced. “Well, it was a long time ago.”
“What happened to the boy?” she asked, a voice both soft and insistent.
His head dropped a little. Why was he being dragged down memory lane? He hadn’t had to remember any of that crap for decades. He heard the siren again, seducing him into the muddy waters. The beer had made him vulnerable, that was all. Oh what the hell, it would all be forgotten tomorrow. He let the memories come out, not to the woman, but to the boy in the photograph.
“He was a quiet one, not like his cousins. Didn’t go for all their rough and tumble, bit of a sissy you could say. But he didn’t cause too much trouble. Till he got into his teens. We split up about that time. I moved away and never saw him again.” He glowered at her. “The. End. Got what you needed?”
Her eyes were shiny and she looked up, blinking rapidly. Visibly took a few deep breaths. “Do you want to know how he’s going?”
The muscles around his mouth twitched. “Well, what do you know about him? Is he in trouble or something?” Imagining having to help out his long-lost son, he felt his mind race. He didn’t have much money but if it was an emergency, he supposed he could give Lee a place to stay.
“Don’t worry, Dad. I’m okay.” Her eyeliner was streaking despite her cool delivery.
Unable to speak, his brain imploded with multiple images. Lee hanging out exclusively with girls from the time he was five. Lee preferring dolls to guns. Lee messing up his mum’s makeup. Lee wearing his mum’s clothes (Bert always gave him a good belting for that). Bert throwing him out of the house when he found him strutting in his bedroom wearing only his mum’s bra and petticoat.
“Lee?” Jesus, was it really his little boy? Come to think, the eyes were his. But the hair, the soft jawline, the curves, the gentle cadence of her voice, the feminine demeanor...
“It’s Lisa now, Dad,” the woman said.
He shook his head, frozen.
Beneath the table, she clenched her fists and blinked slowly at him. Relaxing her hold on the hundreds of hours of voice training, she gruffly repeated herself. The sound resonated through the room, through his skull, insinuated itself into his reality.
“Lee. Lisa,” he stammered.
Now, for the first time in their lives, they saw each other.