Bones of Contention
M.T. O’Byrne (Victoria University of Wellington)
Sitting in the car, Mable thought it a miracle that her brother had lived as long as he had. She looked at herself in the rear-view mirror. Her mascara was smudged. She was too old for mascara now, she thought. She took a tissue from her purse and wiped her eyes clean. In doing so, she revealed those markings of age that none but the rich and vain escape. And looking upon these lines and spots, she wondered what her brother would have looked like if he had lived, if he had not gone fishing on the lake by himself, if he had not disappeared from her life.
A man in a suit and hat knocked on her car window. Mable dabbed her eyes with her stained tissue. The man opened the car door. His tie was done up in a double Windsor knot. His grey suit seemed out of place, or, rather, out of time. His craggy face betrayed a life spent in the outdoors. He removed his hat and greeted Mable with a perfunctory gesture of his arms, tried to say something to accompany the gesture but appeared overcome with emotion and managed only a whistle.
‘Father,’ the woman said.
‘Mable,’ he replied.
When the news that her brother Billy’s skeletal remains had been found within the ruins of St Mary’s Church in the drought-reduced lake Eucumbene, Mable had not thought of him, but of her father, whom she had not seen in thirty years. Of all the things she could have worried about, how she would cope on seeing Billy’s remains, or react on seeing her father, were not among them. She had dwelt, instead, upon what she would call her father when she met him again. Given that she blamed him for Billy’s death—as her mother had done—and had not talked to him in such a long time, ‘father’ seemed the most appropriate appellation.
‘The police are waiting for us down by the old church,’ he said, holding out a hand, which Mable refused.
The lake was not far, but far enough that two people estranged by loss would find the silence of their walk difficult to bear, each undoubtedly contemplating what they might say to alleviate the tension, but each equally unsure of how to begin, or, if they were to begin, whether or not such a conversation would become a prelude to an old argument. And so the only thing exchanged between the two was an impassive glance as one might give to a stranger in the street.
Waiting for them at the ruined church was Walter, the former police detective who had investigated Billy’s disappearance back in 1959. Walter looked much older than Mable’s father, although the two were coevals. A dark wooden cane supported him like a brace upon an old building; he stood derelict, his eyes vacant.
‘Good afternoon, Mr Longworth, Miss Longworth,’ Walter said.
‘Afternoon, detective,’ Mr Longworth replied.
‘It’s just Walter, now, Mr Longworth.’
‘Well then, Walter, please call me James and this is—’
Walter stood up straight as if he meant to move, but just pointed to a brick pillar, which marked the entrance to the ruined church.
‘They found the remains… they found your boy over there, by the pillar, lying inside the church.’
There was not much Walter could say. He might have told them that they had found most of Billy’s skeleton in this location; that, obviously, there was no way of determining death after so many years, and so on. He knew the Adaminaby police had already informed James of their investigations and that the original finding of accidental drowning would stand. James had gone to see the remains earlier in the day, before Mable had arrived.
‘Just here, you say, Walter?’ James asked.
James placed his hand on the ruined pillar. Mable walked across the threshold and stood watching him. He rubbed his thumb along the brickwork, and then, walking inside, knelt upon the soil-covered church floor. Mable brought her hand to her mouth, but she could not bring herself to comfort him. Watching her father upon the ground she felt pity; not so much a pity for him—although she was not beyond feeling compassion—but a pity for all who suffer loss.
A gust of wind blew dust into Mable’s face. When the wind had settled, her father was standing before her. Mable looked at him and thought how frail he had become. She watched as he fetched a handkerchief from his suit pocket and wiped his face.
‘I’m sorry,’ he said.
Mable looked away. She saw Walter making his way back to the shore along the dried-out lakebed, each step taken with the exactitude of a man, who, even with a cane, was wary of falling.
‘You were right… you and your mother, I mean. I shouldn’t have let Billy go fishing alone. I’m sorry.’
Mable did not answer, but looked upon the place where her brother’s remains had been found. She recalled that day when most of the buildings in Adaminaby were moved to the town’s new site to make way for the dam. She saw Billy’s gleeful face sticking out of the church window, felt her heart beat, heard the discordant notes of the church organ and saw Mr Mantovani fall to his knees and recite some ancient prayer.
How wonderful those days had been, she thought. Back then, the world had been made up of washed-out coloured days as if everyone had existed in a perpetual summer. Cicadas had played continuously through the years. Adventures were had and evidenced through motley mercurochrome-coloured grazes. And milk had come in glass bottles with foil caps.
‘Please, what?’ Mable asked, angry that her reverie had been interrupted.
‘Please, forgive me. We’re neither of us young any more—’
‘Billy’s still young. Was young… too young to go fishing by himself on the lake.’
‘Yes, yes. You’re right, Mable. But perhaps we could… well, now that we’re both old, I mean, and me with…’ He paused and looked up at the sky. ‘That we might mourn Billy as a family?’
‘Oh, please, family? What’s that? We haven’t been a family since Billy went missing. Family? You killed that, father. You never took responsibility. What kind of a father lets a ten-year-old boy go out on a boat alone?
‘Mable, you don’t know what you’re saying. He was a free spirit. To have kept him cooped up in the house, to have cut off his need for adventure… all boys crave adventure. And Billy most of all.’
James stopped talking. The memory of Billy’s adventures recollected for him the face of his son, a face that remained unchanged and full of life.
He returned to the spot where his son’s remains had been found, knelt, and then gathered handfuls of soil as if trying to recover his boy from the ground.
Mable had had many years to think about her brother’s death and of late had come to regret somewhat her accusations against her father. And yet, despite her father’s contriteness, his words recovered in her the emotions of a heart-stricken youth. But how? she wondered. She still believed her father had been foolhardy in letting Billy go fishing from the boat all by himself, but perhaps her harsh words, her assignation of blame and her long estrangement were overdone. Now, seeing her father upon the ground, sobbing, clutching at the soil, made her think that she had kept alive within herself an immature rage that time should have dissipated. A father must bear a daughter or son’s love and hatred equally, she thought, and see still his child as that being who had once thought him beyond reproach, as all daughters and most sons do. Mable bit her lip.
‘Billy was a rascal. He… he was a ratbag, dad, and no mistake,’ she said, using the very same phrase her brother had often used.
James heard this word, dad, and sniffed.
Mable knelt by his side and put her hand upon his shoulder.
‘I think we should go now, dad.’
The two of them stood up, James reaching out for his daughter’s stabilising arm. Father and daughter looked upon the bare soil. Then assisting each other, they walked down the old church stairs and made their way slowly to the shoreline.
‘Strange he was found in the old St Mary’s church, don’t you think?’ Mable said. ‘I mean, given that he left Old Adaminaby in a church.’
‘I remember you telling me about that. Didn’t you say he was playing the organ while the church was on the back of the truck?’
‘I did. I was so angry with him.’
‘Because he always used to get me in trouble. I was supposed to look after him.’ Mable said.
Above her, a Black Kite appeared motionless in the sky.
‘You did look after him.’
Back at the car, Mable suggested they retire to the Snow Goose for a drink.
Adaminaby was not far.
They stopped at the Big Trout, a monument to Adaminaby’s fading tourism industry. The fish looked tired, as if it had swum up stream in order to spawn, but had been arrested in its efforts by a net, packed in ice, and delivered to an artist, where it had then been replicated on a larger scale in immortal fibreglass. It belonged to that golden age when machines and skilled men heralded an illimitable and prosperous future. But that future had never materialised—or else it had been shipped to the big smoke—and like many other country towns of its type, Adaminaby had atrophied: some of the shops were bordered up; almost everything seemed to be for sale, even the churches; people were moving on.
In the Snow Goose, father and daughter went unrecognised.
‘How did he make the organ work?’ James asked, placing their drinks on the table. ‘Don’t they need electricity?’
‘I learned long ago not to ask how Billy did anything. I used to think he had magical powers. He invented pupil-free days, you know.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘That holiday we had in the summer of ’57 when he and Li Kuan went yabbying at Frying Pan Creek. He made that holiday up. He wrote a letter to the headmaster.’
‘You don’t say?’
‘A letter from the New South Wales Department of Education, no less. It looked very professional. He made me promise not to tell.’
‘That’s not like you.’
‘He paid me. He paid Li Kuan, too, for delivering the letter.’
James drank his beer, and stared.
‘Do you remember when Billy blew up Mr Stanley’s bonfire?’ James said, turning his beer glass around. ‘Sent ashes everywhere. Set the washing on fire, too. I remember old Mr Stanley coming into the office, cursing like you wouldn’t believe. “Your son…” he said. To calm him down, I made up a story about how Eucalyptus sap sometimes gets trapped in branches and explodes.’
‘It was an unopened can of passionfruit pulp,’ Mable said.
‘You knew about it, then!’
‘I did it.’
‘Well, isn’t that something.’
‘I didn’t like Mr Stanley.’
‘Nobody liked Mr Stanley.’
An old woman in a yellowing white dress appeared before them. Her skin was dark and leathery from too many years in the sun. Her hair was dyed black, but not done at all well as stains could be discerned on her forehead. Taken as a whole, she reminded Mable of an urban ibis.
‘Mable, is that you? It is, isn’t it? I never forget a face. And Mr Longworth? It is Mr Longworth, isn’t it?’ The woman said, flapping her arms.
Neither James nor Mable recognised this woman. Observing this lack of recognition, the old woman announced: ‘It’s me, Val. You remember, Mable, I was Miss Gold Coast in 1964. I wrote you.’
‘Valerie Nielson. Yes, I remember you.’
‘Of course you do.’
Mable looked upon this woman and saw no resemblance to the pretty girl she had once known. How strange, she thought, that she could not reconcile the two images in her mind. If imagination were partly liberated from memory, then it would have to be a most fecund imagining that would result in the person before her now.
Val sat down. ‘You must be here for your son. I’m so sorry. But at least you’ve found him, eh. That’s something, isn’t it?’
‘Darl, are ya comin’?’ a large man in a tight suit called from the doorway.
‘That’s Herbert,’ Val said. ‘He’s taking me to a dance in Jindabyne. Well, it’s nice seeing youse again. Hooroo.’
And with that she was gone.
‘Was that really Valerie Nielson?’ James asked.
‘I suppose it must have been,’ Mable said.
Father and daughter continued to recount tales, mostly about Billy. As the sun went down, more and more people from the Old, and then the New, Adaminaby came into the pub, some of whom recognised the Longworths. The most amusing encounter was with Cocky, who was the son of a sheep farmer also called Cocky, and of whom many believed the writer, Patrick White, had discerned his philosophy concerning the reason sheep farmers always repeated what they said. Clearly, this son—now as old as his father was in 1959—was no different in that regard.
‘Yeh, well, it’s good seein’ ya again,’ Cocky said. He then paused as if recalling their first meeting, or pondering something of deeper significance, before looking up, repeating his sentence word for word, and then departing.
Seeing Cocky again reminded them both of others they had known, such as the Heinrichs—a young couple that had moved from Melbourne to Brisbane for the sun, but then had moved to Adaminaby because of leopard-tree seedpods.
A leopard tree had stood in the Heinrich’s Brisbane garden and used to drop seedpods like rocks on the roof, day and night. The sound of the pods hitting the roof was so distressing that Mrs Heinrich had demanded that they move somewhere cold enough that nothing from the tropics could survive and, for some reason, ended up in Adaminaby just after its relocation.
‘Billy used to throw rocks on their roof,’ Mable said.
‘I know. While they were having supper. Poor Mrs Heinrich fairly screamed the place down. Her husband told her it was hail, of course, but she wasn’t happy with his explanation and ordered him to check outside. I went in to the garden to see what was going on. Mr Heinrich was staring up at the stars. I said, “Evening, Albert” as if nothing had happened. He asked me if I’d seen any falling stars.’
‘What? Did he think it was meteorites?’
They both laughed.
‘And then… and then in the morning, they found leopard-tree seedpods on their front garden. I had no idea where Billy got them from.’
‘He never told me. I just thought it was more of his magic.’
‘He was magical, wasn’t he?’
Father and daughter sat quietly for a while, looking upon the customers at the bar. The pub was not as crowded as it used to be. Things change.
‘They’re still there, you know,’ James said matter-of-factly.
In one of those coincidences of thought, which often occur in families, James and his daughter decided that they should go and visit their old house. In the car park, they collected rocks.
M.T. O’Byrne is an Australian writer currently studying for an MA in Creative Writing at Victoria University of Wellington’s International Institute of Modern Letters. He has previously been published in The Westerly, SWAMP and Black Denim Lit.