She suspected the dog was dead. For three days he didn’t come when called. It was during that bleak spell at the beginning of July, day after day of rain and squally wind. She stood at the sun room door and yelled, ‘Ringo Ringo Ringo!’ On the third day she stopped putting out fresh food. She thought he must be dead under a bush somewhere, his scruffy little carcass cold and soaked.
When the weather cleared slightly she threw on a Japara and went out searching, because she knew that was what her husband would have wanted. She checked the shed and the laundry, the only dry places Ringo might have been. She poked along the back fence among the agapanthus. She looked under the fig tree where he slept in summer, but he wasn’t there either. Then she decided he must be under the house, if not dead then too sick to come out. The small doorway hung open. It had hung open for thirty-five years, since her husband’s last attempt to repair it. She stooped and peered in but it was too dark. She called out, ‘Ringo Ringo Ringo!’ She didn’t want to crawl under there on her hands and knees. She was frozen. She thought, Well Ringo, that’s the end of you. He was sure to smell. She guessed she would have to pay a man to remove him.
In the night, her husband started blaming her.
‘You never liked that dog … You feed him those awful dry kibbles … You banished him from the house as soon as I was gone … Now you’re leaving him to die all alone …’
She didn’t believe in ghosts, but after living with a man for five decades it was hard to get him out of her head.
‘I have never disliked Ringo,’ she defended herself, ‘except when he farts under my nose. You know my views. Animals belong outside. As for feeding him dry food, you would too if you had to clean up the mess!’
She had no answer to the last charge. She felt guilty. She went to sleep hearing snuffling under the floor, which she knew was imagination. She dreamt Ringo was smoking cigarettes. He had a hole in his neck. He put the cigarette in the hole and sucked. He was having a wonderful time. She warned him, ‘Don’t you burn the place down.’ Then she woke up. She could still smell smoke.
The sun came up early, but it remained cold. She rugged up. She wore her husband’s leather gloves and took a torch. When she pushed the little wooden door fully open the top hinge came away. It hurt to see the place falling apart, a hundred minor things going bung. She remembered how they’d cherished it in the early years, their obsessive renovations, their searches through building yards for exactly the right period fittings. Objectively, she recognised that the house had always been a bit of a monster – too big, too steep, too fiddly in its woodwork, a late Victorian show-off – but she was protective of the youthful feelings that she had shared with her husband.
It was surprisingly dry underneath. She couldn’t see more than a few yards. It was all compartmentalised, a maze of brick footings more complicated than the walls above. Crouching, crawling, wriggling, she followed the heating duct. It ran like a great silver sausage under the boards, forking off left and right to the various rooms. ‘Ringo!’ she huffed. ‘Ringo! Ringo!’ Her bad knee kept catching. She was afraid it would lock. Wouldn’t it be just perfect if she got stuck down here with the bugs and spiders? She cursed the dog, vowed that if he wasn’t dead already she was going to wring his disobedient neck.
Eventually, she worked her way up to the space under her bedroom, where she could almost stand. Even before things took shape in the torch-light she felt the cardboard under her feet. The bare dirt had been floored over with flattened cardboard boxes. In the middle was a thin mattress and a nest of blankets. ‘No,’ she gasped. It was a proper campsite. Polystyrene boxes. Clothes dangling from the joists. ‘No,’ she said, as if someone was playing a joke. Her heart was banging, because the clothing hung like bits of a man. She swung the torch left and right, afraid he might be there in the dark. She looked back behind her, the only way in or out. She shone the light into every nook. The air reeked of cigarettes. She said, ‘It’s all right, I’m looking for my dog.’ A stupid thing to say. What would she have done if someone had answered? She squatted there for a minute, breathing hard and trying to think. Then she shone the torch at a particular spot and caught the glaze of Ringo’s eyes. He was curled up near the wall, looking at her with complete indifference. She blurted, ‘You bloody little shit!’ and grabbed him by the scruff. She sent him scuttling towards the gap in the brickwork. Anger and fear made her head spin. In her rush to get out she kicked over a plastic bucket. The contents slopped everywhere. She exited like a four-legged bug, her skinny behind in the air. Her spine scraped the boards and somewhere along the way she banged her head. She said ‘Dear God’ when she saw daylight, though she wasn’t the least religious.
She shut herself in the kitchen and locked the door. She stood by the phone, thinking, What if he’d been lying in bed? What if I’d burst in on him? She couldn’t get over how lucky she’d been. Her head hurt. She looked to the microwave clock. Not yet nine. She guessed he was an early riser. Or maybe he had slept somewhere else last night. Maybe she’d scared him off yesterday when she poked her head in and hollered for Ringo.
Rather than the police, she called her son. He worked for a health insurer and was dozily beginning his day.
‘Philip, I need you to come over,’ she said as calmly as she could.
‘I’m at work.’
‘I know. I’m sorry. This will sound crazy. I have an unwelcome guest. There’s a man camping under the house.’
‘He’s gone now. But all his things are still there.’ As she spoke she recalled a neat hole in the duct above his mattress. He had been getting his share of heat. No wonder Ringo liked it down there. ‘I want you to come over,’ she said.
Waiting for Phillip, it occurred to her why she had avoided the police. She was afraid what her choir friends would think. Once a week, in the old Rechabite hall, they sang songs about human solidarity. They performed at amateur festivals and raised money for Oxfam. It therefore seemed wrong to sick the police on her intruder. Much better if her son could talk to him.
She heard the grumble of his four-wheel-drive out front. He always parked on the nature strip now, a no-no when his father was alive. He rapped on the sun room door and she let him in. He hugged her distractedly, looking about as if the intruder might be lurking behind the furniture.
‘It’s all right,’ she said. ‘I know what to do. We’ll put everything in a cardboard box and leave him a note.’
Phillip wanted a full account of everything that had happened. He listened incredulously, several times erupting into complaints. ‘You crawled under the house! Christ, Mum, you should have called me!’
‘I didn’t know there was someone under there. I was chasing the bloody dog.’
‘We could be dealing with a nut case. You know that?’
He looked down at the polished floorboards, his brow half-cocked.
‘He could be back,’ she said.
‘I’m calling the cops.’
‘Don’t be stupid.’
She won out after considerable argument. Phillip folded when she made it clear she would tell the police the man had her permission. It was her private business, surely. Phillip accused her of recklessness. He accused her of naivety and misplaced kindness. But in the end he put on old work-clothes that had belonged to his father and went out to the wooden door.
‘What if he’s in there?’
‘I don’t know. Be friendly. Invite him up for a coffee.’
‘Jesus, Mum! I’m not doing that. The guy’s trespassing. I’m not inviting him into the house.’
She realised she didn’t really want this either. She wanted him gone.
Her son shone the torch into the dark. ‘Hello! My name’s Philip. Can we talk?’
No answer came back.
‘You go left and left,’ she told him. ‘Under our bedroom.’
He went down on his knees and she watched the ponderous wobble of his middle-aged behind. Then he was gone. Twice she heard him repeat his introduction. She sensed condescension. He could have been talking to a kid. Five minutes later he reappeared pushing a polystyrene box stuffed with towels, underwear, soap, shaving gear. Ringo rode on top, leering stupidly.
‘Stinks in there,’ said Phillip, and went back for more.
She had to restrain Ringo from following.
Phillip retrieved two more boxes, blankets, loose clothes, a dirty mattress that he folded and trussed up with rope, and a pair of steel-capped boots. The boots were huge, size fourteen, which made the man a giant. His possessions clogged the path, too much for anyone to carry around at once. She guessed he had been gathering things for a while, storing them. Without poking too closely into the boxes, she saw that he had all the basics. Bottled water. Packets of noodles. A quarter loaf of bread. A small saucepan. Most astonishing: a little gas-bottle and a one jet burner. He had been cooking meals under there! It made her think about everything else a person needed to do. She wondered whether he had washed his clothes in her laundry. No, she would have seen the evidence. He was probably going to a laundromat. But where had he been emptying his bucket? Please, not under her weeping cherry! She’d noticed a smell around the irises. When had that been? Two weeks ago? A month? Probably he’d moved in when the weather turned cold. Late autumn. She wondered if she’d seen him around. Tried to recall down-and-out men. A big man. You saw them in the supermarket, or more properly in the bottle shop. But that didn’t match what Phillip had brought out. There were no bottles.
‘Can you fix the door?’ she asked him.
‘You can pull it to.’
He did as he was told, wedging a stick under the bottom edge so it wouldn’t blow open with the first gust of wind. She thought a shut door, even an unsecured shut door, spelled a clear message. They went inside and she provided Phillip with garbage bags to seal the man’s things from the weather.
‘It’s sunny,’ he objected.
‘It might be a while before he comes for them.’
Phillip trudged out again while she sat at the breakfast bar with pen and paper. She fretted over what to write. How do you soften ‘Go away!’? Maybe she could point him to emergency accommodation. A lady she sang with, a much younger woman, worked in community housing. But what was the name of the organisation? She was still fretting when Phillip returned.
‘You don’t need to write anything, Mum.’
‘I want to do it properly. There must be shelters. Can you look on your phone for me?’
‘He can do that for himself,’ said Phillip, trying to remove his father’s old jumper. His head was caught. ‘We’re talking about a home invasion. Technically a home invasion.’
She let that slide. All she wanted was for the world to work properly. There should be schemes in place. Grudgingly, he produced his phone and thumbed in ‘homeless shelters Melbourne’. The organisations that came up were all churchy. She wrote down several numbers. When she wrote the note she found herself printing in big capital letters. She understood she was writing for a person with limited education. Without explanation – his bagged possessions were explanation enough – she listed the charities and their phone numbers. She would have left it there, but it seemed too curt. So she added, I hope things turn out well for you, and on a further afterthought, Carol.
‘Why tell him your name?’
‘Consideration. We’re human beings, aren’t we?’
Phillip sticky-taped the note to the biggest garbage bag. Before returning to work he advised her to stay inside and lock the doors. If the man caused any trouble she should immediately call the police. ‘I’ll pop by tonight on the way home.’
She found she could see the top of one of the pink garbage bags from her sewing-room window. She made herself lunch and ate it listening to ‘The World Today’ on the radio. Her husband had listened to this program religiously. He liked to know the world’s hotspots, the ins and outs of other nations’ troubles, where the bombs were going off. It narrowed the places they went for holidays. His favourite destination was New Zealand. It was safe. The people were almost Australian.
She looked again out her sewing room window. The wedge of pink was still there. It was hard to relax. She couldn’t read, couldn’t sew, couldn’t do the sudoku in her magazine. She made a pot of tea and drank three cups. She considered what to eat for dinner. Looked at recipe books. Anything to distract her from the window. She sorted through choir scores. She had a difficult new harmony to learn, but couldn’t sing a note. The window pulled at her. And every time she succumbed there was the top of the bag. She pushed her face against the glass, looking down the sheer wall. She saw part of the tied-up mattress and all of Ringo. He was fast asleep in the sun.
Phillip arrived before dark. She heard his vehicle, then the sound of his shoes along the side of the house. He was checking on the bags. He appeared at the sun room door with Ringo in his arms.
‘Mum, I think you should stay with us tonight.’
‘I’m all right. You don’t need to worry.’
He put the dog down and came inside. ‘Please, Mum. I’d feel better.’
They drove half an hour through heavy traffic. She called Phillip a worrier, but it was gratifying to know he was concerned for her. And if she was honest, she was glad to escape the house. Her mind had been playing silly melodramas, featuring an angry man, a sad man, a sick man . . . Her imagination was exhausting her.
Her granddaughters, nineteen and twenty-one, hugged and smooched her. They made a fuss. Poor Nana! What a terrible ordeal!
‘Not so terrible,’ she said.
Phillip’s wife Sally arrived home with Indian food. They ate it in the sitting room with plastic spoons from plastic containers. Carol found she couldn’t kneel around the coffee table with the others. Her knee. So she perched in the recliner – Nana in state, the girls teased. They tore up flatbread for her, offered her morsels of their meals – a mouthful of rogan josh, a kofta ball. She felt herself benefitting from company.
Mouth wet with curry, Phillip made a farce of his heroism under the house. He was good at sending himself up. ‘Hello,’ he squeaked. ‘My name’s Phillip. Can we be friends?’
The girls giggled at the idea of their dad confronting a dangerous man. He was soft and round, a lamb.
‘Oh, he had everything down there,’ said Phillip. ‘All the comforts of home. Stove. Ducted heating. And there’s Ringo snuggled on his bed.’
‘The little turncoat!’ Carol laughed.
The girls didn’t know what a turncoat was. Sally had to explain.
‘I wasn’t so wrapt in his hygiene arrangements,’ said Phillip.
‘We’re eating,’ Carol warned.
The girls told how they used to peep in the door when they were kids. They had been afraid of spiders. After seeing Lord of the Rings it became Shelob’s lair. They had boasted about it at school.
Phillip told a story about Peter, his older brother, seducing a girl under their bedroom.
‘When was that?’ Sally wanted to know.
‘I don’t believe you,’ said Carol.
They smirked at her, because Peter was her golden boy. For ten years now he had lived in Surabaya, teaching the International Baccalaureate.
‘No, Uncle Peter would never do that,’ the girls laughed.
‘At least he had the good grace not to tell me,’ Carol said, happily parodying herself. ‘Your father, well, he was shameless!’
Later there was merlot, and she sat up till ten. There was a fuzziness in her tongue and teeth. She remembered kissing someone’s merlot lips long ago. Maybe her husband’s lips, maybe not. Maybe she was making it up. People drank beer when she was young. Women drank sherry. Facts had fuzzy edges. Time was fuzzy.
‘I’m going to bed,’ she announced.
When Phillip drove her home the following morning she was relieved to see that all the bags had been removed. The door was still wedged shut. ‘Problem solved, I guess,’ Phillip said. He hollered for the dog.
‘Wouldn’t surprise me if he’s gone,’ she mused.
She wasn’t sure how she felt about this. Her husband had bought Ringo the week he retired. They had walked miles together before he got sick. For a while she had walked Ringo herself, but had seen his heart wasn’t in it. Dogs grieved. He was very old now. She had thought he was ready to die, not go off with a stranger.
Phillip clapped his hands and yelled. ‘Ringo! Ringo!’
‘I’ll let you know if he comes back,’ she said.
That night she was woken by music – a faint, tinny sound. The song was personal. Her sons had sung it to her as teenagers, generally to rile her. ‘Oh Carol, you got me eating my heart away . . .’ She lifted her head from the pillow, incredulous. Could he really have gone back under? Was he taunting her? She listened with more anger than fear. She felt herself mocked, her forbearance thrown back at her.
‘You bastard!’ she growled out loud.
Tossing off her quilt, she jumped up and took a dizzied step. She wasn’t aware of falling, just of the sudden ebb in her head. The pain cut in later. She was sprawled on the carpet, spikes of lighting up her thigh. Instinct held her still through the worst of it. What had she done? Her hip? The song came at her in goading spurts, the bouncy piano, the silly adolescent words. The infuriating part was that she anticipated them. She was preserved in solid kitsch. ‘Oh Carol, nobody’s done it before, Oh Carol, you can do it some more . . .’ After maybe a minute she shifted her leg experimentally and rolled painfully onto her stomach. She brought her knee up under her, bracing herself. Her free movement convinced her that nothing was broken. But she lay there a few seconds longer, recovering, bristling at the song. ‘Oh Carol!’ She pictured him waving his phone about beneath her. Then she took a breath and hauled herself up. The pain was manageable, but she was disorientated. The music was no longer beneath her. It floated about her head. She had the impression that the man had miraculously moved. The song passed through walls. It was in the street.
She progressed slowly to the window and pulled aside the Holland blind. The man was a silhouette on the footpath. He was not as big as she had imagined. He wore a heavy Parker and a beanie and had a dense beard. It was too dark to see the expression on his face. The tilt of his head meant he could have been looking anywhere, but all at once, with the song in fade-out mode, he raised a hand and walked away. It could have been a wave, could have been a fist. She imagined she saw a digit – thumb or finger – pointing briefly up. She perceived a John Wayne theatricality. But what he meant to communicate was baffling.
She tried to go back to sleep but couldn’t. Her coccyx throbbed. She was a fiery zig-zag of bones.
She considered the man’s behaviour. Could she regard his choice of song as a friendly gesture? Or had he been baiting her? She thought about his ambling retreat, his raised hand. It seemed dismissive, contemptuous. If she allowed herself to think this way, it followed that he had raised his finger at her. Flipped her the bird, as the kids said. ‘Fuck you, Grandma!’ But what had she to go on? A figure moving in the dark. It was just as possible he’d raised his thumb. The image had more resonance in her memory, a lackadaisical ‘All good’ or ‘Good luck’. But she also realised that a raised thumb could mean the same as the American bird. Her coarse-mannered father had used it that way. The uncertainty perplexed her. It was the difference between feeling safe in her bed and not.
Phillip dropped by on his way home. She mentioned her fall, but not her late night visitor. ‘Nothing serious. Just a bruised bum,’ she said.
He told her to be more careful. He cited poor Mr Campbell, who rose from his chair and broke his hip. Brittle bones. Then there was pneumonia from laying flat too long in hospital. Poor Mr Campbell was kaput. Phillip frowned, realising that death wasn’t a subject to talk about to his eighty-year-old mother.
‘I’ll come around Sunday and fix the door,’ he promised. ‘I’ll put a lock on it.’
‘Thank you,’ she said, but felt a lock had become irrelevant.
‘Ringo’s not back?’
For several nights she slept without interruption. The man was letting her be, she decided. That helped her give retrospective sense to their encounter. She began to believe he had said goodbye. The longer he stayed away, the more plausible became his benevolence.
She missed choir because she was still sore. The other reason, and she faced it squarely, was that her confidence was down. She’d lost her equilibrium. Her nights remained expectant, the world provisional.
She had phone calls from singing friends. She said she was getting over a cold. A woman named Margaret knocked on the door one afternoon.
‘We’ve missed you,’ she said.
Carol invited her in. On Wednesday nights, at choir, she avoided her, but today, feeling inwardly bruised, she appreciated her kindness.
‘For you,’ said Margaret, presenting her with a Timorese song-book. Margaret had been to Timor Leste five times. She had raised money for schools and a toilet block.
They sat at the breakfast bar drinking tea, and Margaret talked about their mutual friends. Someone’s daughter was graduating from ANU. Someone had come through chemo. Her gossip was gentle and respectful. She had a knack, Carol realised, for weaving people together into a story. It was all down to words. Many of the singers hardly knew each other, but Margaret presented them as a community. Carol was vaguely ashamed of having looked down on her. She had thought her somewhat manic, an empty vessel who desperately filled her life with other people’s business. But now she saw her determination and inventiveness. Margaret lived what she only sung about. She wove little nests of comfort.
‘Something odd happened last week,’ Carol volunteered.
She told a story about a man squatting under the house. He was a good man who had nowhere to go. In the story Carol directed him to more suitable accommodation. In the story he played her an appreciative song on his phone. In the story he waved genially in the dark, a man acknowledging his sister.
Carol saw the emotion in Margaret’s eyes. It was a contagion. She knew she would feel silly afterwards.
In fact she felt wonderful for hours after her friend had gone. She felt wonderful until the cold dusk.
Then the night started over.
Image: Kate / Flickr
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