For the past two hours the dope has been wearing off and your mother has been wearing you down. She offers you and Lucy a lift home. Even though the thought of catching a crowded tram makes you want to throw up – you can barely stand the touch of your own clothes on your skin – you turn her offer down. You tell her it will take too long.
‘It’s peak hour, the car will be just as slow as the fucking tram. Don’t bother.’ This in itself is not a lie. It will take too long, and you can’t bear the thought of being in a confined, moving space at your mother’s mercy.
Lucy has been silent and broody since you got here. The sicker you feel the more you want her to touch you. You want her to reach over the table and hold your chin with her hand, to trace her thumb back and forth across your bottom lip, then up over your top lip and back in a circle. That’s how you woke up this morning. With her running her thumb over your lips and, in that hazy limbo of sleeping and waking, you kissed her thumb. You kissed her hand. Such a nice way to be woken. Until you were awake, woken into a morning with no dope in the house. And you ached. And your body had started screaming at you. So you screamed at her, hitting her hand away from your stinging face. And she cried a bit. And you called her a fucking idiot for waking you up. Then you had sex with her because you couldn’t get back to sleep and, in a house with no gear and at least four hours until your dealer would even be up, the only thing to ease the aches and the cramps was putting your dick into the girl in the bed next to you. And you’re mean to her so often now, she’ll take any niceties you offer.
It is six o’clock by the time you are walking out your mother’s front door. You’re never more thankful to leave than when she wants you to stay. You told her that you had promised a friend you would have dinner with them. It’s lucky you didn’t go into the kitchen because the big pot of minestrone simmering away on the stove would have been too much for you to bear, too much for you to say no for the millionth time. You call to Esther down the hallway, to say goodbye, but your voice is drowned out by the opening credits of The Simpsons.
Lucy is walking down the hall in front of you holding one hand out behind her for you to take in yours. You don’t though. Your mum trails behind, one hand on your shoulder. You feel like a flock of one with two shepherds.
In the entry, almost at the front door, your mother makes one last effort.
‘You’re sure you won’t stay for dinner, love?’ The woman is persistent, you’ve got to give her that at least.
‘Okay, darling. Now, you both look after yourselves.’ She looks at Lucy when she says it. Like Lucy is supposed to look after you or at least report back to headquarters on a regular basis. Lucy is not looking at your mother though she is looking at you, right at your eyes, trying to gauge whether you will or won’t go up there for a taste before you leave.
‘Uh, I might just go to the toilet before we go.’ Lucy shoots you a wide-eyed glare, slowly shaking her head. It’s okay, it’s not what she thinks. You look at Lucy, straight back into her eyes. You can challenge her. You don’t even have to lie to her this time. She looks away, defeated but not wholly convinced. She looks at your mum. You hate the smile they exchange. It’s a sad smile, each sorry for the other. How about a smile for you? No-one smiles at you anymore. Instead, you look at the staircase to your left. You think quickly. You turn around and start taking the stairs two at a time.
‘Ed, you can use the downstairs bathroom if you want!’ your mother calls after you. You have moved quickly enough, you have done well, you’re almost at the top of the stairs before she has finished her sentence. You stop and look back down.
‘I thought the downstairs one was getting fixed.’
No, you didn’t. There’s never been any mention of it. But you know anything is plausible for you in this state. Your mum will forgive your absent-mindedness in the same way she forgives your tardiness. You will take all of their forgiveness and use it up just like they expect you to.
You walk past the bathroom and straight into your mother’s bedroom. In the half dark of early evening, the whites are blues and darker colours are blacks. You turn the lamp on your mother’s dresser on. It’s an antique and the switch is stiff and when it suddenly gives, your whole arm jerks and knocks a picture over, sending a book sliding to the floor. You stop for a second and listen for movement downstairs. Nothing, only the faint voices of your mother and your girlfriend speaking earnestly to one another, most likely planning their next point of attack. You can hear them without hearing them.
You stand the picture back up but leave the book on the floor. The picture is of your mum and your dad, taken maybe ten years ago. Just before Esther was born. Five years before your dad died. You wonder if his being dead made all of this easier for you. If it did, it is because he was the only one who could shame you. When there’s no shame left, what does any of it matter?
You walk across to the wardrobe of the bedroom and, as soon as you open the door, you see the red shoebox, still sitting there in the back left corner, behind your mother’s shoes, underneath her hanging coats. You take the box in your hands and carefully lift the lid. That box has been there for as long as you can remember. On lazy Sunday mornings when you were younger, before Esther was born and it was just you, your mum and your dad, you would crawl into your parents’ bed, lifting the doona at the bottom then crawling across the mattress between their bodies. You’d beg your dad to get the shoebox out. You wanted to see the photos of your parents, youthful, strong and handsome. At nine years old, you took your mum’s word for it that the bikini-clad girl in the picture who bore a faint resemblance to your mother was actually her. Your favourite was when your dad carefully lifted his own father’s Second World War medals out of the box and pinned them to the front of your pyjamas. The medals were so heavy they hung and sagged on your chest, dragging your pyjama top down to your belly button. Your dad would sit back, regard you as a painting he had just finished, and salute you. You would beam back and salute him too.
You carefully push the papers and the photos aside, not wanting to disturb the order. You can see what you are looking for now. Money. A whole stack of notes pushed up against the side of the box, maybe two centimetres thick, held together by a money clip that was your father’s, a birthday present from some ex-colleague or other.
‘Too much for me,’ he’d say, laughing quietly to himself, ‘too much. I could never use it.’
The only thing between you and the money now are three shining reminders. Reminders of a past you associate with childish nostalgia. You pick your grandfather’s medals up and finger the raised symbols and lettering. You think about his conscription number coming up and what he must have felt when that letter came in the mail. What would you choose? Prison or death? Death or responsibility? That’s all the army seems like to you, some kind of sentence.
A sudden shooting pain hits you right in the stomach. You hunch over and realise you’re sweating. The medals are balled up in your fist and you are holding them like they are the last thing you will ever touch. The only thing you will ever have ever again in your whole life. The nausea pushes up from your abdomen all the way through you. It’s like being swallowed. You’re staring into the shoebox now, an abyss that will never end, mementos all the way down. There are all those hundred-dollar notes standing regimented in their shoebox post. You want to reach for them. You are trying to convert them from dollars into grams in your head but the sick is making your brain throb and you can barely see anymore.
You fall down and when you open your eyes your hands are clumsily, erratically forcing the lid back on to the shoebox. You throw it back into the corner underneath your mother’s winter coats. When you walk out of the bedroom you don’t look back. Don’t look back. It’s too much. Halfway down the hall you veer into the bathroom and fall to your knees in front of the toilet. You slump over the bowl and retch and retch. Finally a mini torrent of coffee and biscuits and bile cover the porcelain of the toilet, melting down the edges. You stay kneeling for a little while longer, catching your breath, grateful that the nausea is finally receding. The aching in your limbs and in your body is back but it is bearable. What is in your hand? You’re holding something.
You look down and in your right hand you are still clutching your grandfather’s medals. His badges of bravery are shiny with your sweat. The coloured bands they hang from are creased and damp. You squeeze them harder in hope that some of the goodness from them might transfer into you. You shakily rise from the floor and slide them into the pocket of your jeans.
You slowly wash your hands. You throw water over your face and rub it into your neck. Bending down you drink directly from the tap and swirl the water around your mouth, over your teeth and then spit it out. You pause and look at the mirror. Is that face the same one you have had all your life? You look tired. You look like you need a break. You feel it too. Once you get home, that break is yours – whether she likes it or not. You stare a bit longer, your mouth weighed down at the corners, your drawn face sicker than you’ve seen it in a long time. You force your lips to curl upward. Bare your teeth. See how happy you can still be? Your drawn face, happier than you’ve seen it in a long time. That’s enough. Leave now.