Albert sits by his son’s hospital bed. A scrawny chicken in a summer shirt, his shoulders jut upwards like folded wings, his eyelids droop. The Akubra stays on his head; Albert doesn’t stand on ceremony.
‘What are you on about, Jim?’ Albert rubs his elbow. ‘What are these things you see?’ Jim’s face is unshaven and creased; the bandages wound round his head smooth and white. ‘Come on then, I’m listening. But for goodness’ sake, get to the point.’
‘On Monday night.’ Doggedly, Jim begins again. ‘He came out from behind that linen cupboard. Came right up to the bed. Stood about where you’re sitting. Wearing white. Like an angel.’
‘Must’ve been a bit of a shock.’
‘I’ve seen him before. He comes to cut the roots away, take the tree out of my brain.’
Albert clears his throat. ‘Is that right?’
‘He says it’s getting bigger by the day, wrapping its roots round my nerves, living off my blood, stealing my oxygen.’
Albert leans back, closes his eyes. ‘So how long will it take the doctor to get rid of this thing?’
‘I told you, it’s an angel, not a doctor. I’ve had it with doctors.’
‘Okay, okay. Tree angel.’ Maybe Jim’s got it right; an angel’s what they need.
‘He goes inside my head. I can feel him in there, ripping the tendrils away, slicing them to pieces, freeing up my nerves. It’s a bloody awful fight like you’ve never seen. Well, maybe you have, Dad. In the war.’
Albert opens his eyes; Jimmy’s sweating or crying, or both. He pushes up from his chair and dabs his son’s face with his handkerchief; it’s been fifty years or more since he last dabbed this face. ‘It hurts, then?’
‘Bloody oath it hurts,’ Jim whispers.
A mottled fish washed up on the sand, Jim stares up at the ceiling. Albert surveys the shape under the sheet, trying to bring back Jim’s old legs, his flat stomach, his muscly arms. Jim’s vision is patchy but he seems to have a newfound fervour, though you wouldn’t know how, looking at his bloated body. Steroids and who knows what else. He pats his son’s hand. Both are silent, just the blip blip of Jim’s monitor.
Finally, Albert says, ‘Rennie’ll be in later tonight. None of that tree talk.’
‘Nah, she’ll be alright. She’s Buddhist.’
Jim’s wife grew up in Thailand. Albert knows about the trees in the tropics, their strapping trunks, their tangled manes. What’s the connection? Albert’s not sure. He gets to his feet. ‘Guess I’ll be off. The bus won’t wait, you know.’
‘Right. Thanks for coming.’
Albert places the chair neatly beside the bed. He tilts his hat ready for the heat, then pulls the sheet up around his son’s neck. ‘Get some sleep now.’
‘Dad. Were you scared up there?’
When Rita died, Albert thought she took these questions with her. Now here’s Jim. Thankfully Jim can’t turn his head enough to see his eyes.
Albert opens his hands, spreads his fingers, waits. Give it oxygen and it will eat you alive. He covers Jim’s hand with his own.
‘I’m so scared, Dad.’ There’s pressure in Jim’s fingers.
He lets go of Jim and gets his handkerchief out again and blows loudly. ‘Damn nose, always drips in hot weather,’ Albert replies. ‘That was a long time ago. Goodness only knows what I was thinking. Just hope no bullet’s got your name on it, I guess.’
‘Bit late for that,’ Jim whispers.
Albert moves fast for an old man. He brings his face in close, the brim of his hat buckling against the white bandages.
‘You talk like that and I’m not staying.’
Jim looks away from his father. ‘You’re not staying anyway.’
Albert bites his lower lip, then sits back down and rubs his elbow. ‘You want the radio on?’
‘No. Can’t concentrate.’
‘Good little radio, that one. I put those marks on it. In marker pen. Helps you find the stations.’
‘Thanks for bringing it in.’
‘That’s okay. You can have it.’
They sit in silence. After a few minutes, Albert says: ‘Guess I’ll be off. The bus won’t wait, you know.’
Jim doesn’t reply and Albert stays still until he sees a regular rise in the sheet above his son’s chest. He straightens up his hat and leaves.
Albert sees the military parade ground through the bus window: a few khaki soldiers going about their duties. He used to march in every Anzac Day parade with his mates, waving to Rita and Jimmy. Proud, all dressed up in a navy suit with his medals pinned on his pocket. He’d never won much in his life, the odd tennis tournament, but there he was with four medals and people standing in the cold, clapping. He didn’t know if he should have four medals, he certainly didn’t do anything out of the ordinary. He did what they wanted him to for three years and came home in one piece. ‘All the same,’ he murmurs. ‘It was something.’ He touches his shirt pocket. ‘Something to help us do what we had to. Get on with things.’
As the bus nears his son’s house, Albert wonders whether Rennie might be at work. Albert likes Rennie. He didn’t always. Quite honestly, he thought it was a bit much for Jim to ask him to accept an Asian daughter-in-law. True, it was years since the war and she wasn’t Japanese, but people would talk. And they did. The relatives, the men at work, they had a field day. Why couldn’t he marry one of his own? Not even a letter; just landed on the doorstep. All credit to Rita for kissing them both and inviting them in for a cup of tea. Six months, all up, before Jim found a job and they moved out.
Albert pulls the cord. He’s steady enough for his age but he doesn’t trust bus drivers. Gripping the back of the seat in front for support, he stands up and makes his way to the exit.
Rennie must have heard him open the front gate. She’s come out to meet him.
‘Hi, Dad Albert. How are you?’
She takes his arm and guides him along the path, around the broken paving tiles and white daisies sprouting from every crack. Inside, she says, ‘You like something cold to drink? It’s hot today.’
‘Whatever you’re having. No fuss now, Ren.’
She takes a bottle of cranberry juice and one of soda out of the fridge door. Albert likes juice mixed with soda. ‘How was Jimmy?’
She gets glasses out, pulls a box of wheat crackers down from a high cupboard above the sink.
Albert sees her hands shake, watches her wipe the juice off the bench. He takes his hat off and puts it on a chair, and waits until she sits at the table. ‘Here’s to you, Rennie,’ he says, clinking his glass against hers. He likes her a lot; wishes they’d all behaved better when Jim brought her home. Perhaps Rita can see him now, trying his best to make it up to her.
‘Don’t you worry now, Rennie. Jim’s tougher than you think.’
‘I know Dad Albert. But how can he get through this? How?’
He owes her. They all do. He wishes he had an answer.
‘I just sit there. He sleeps. He cries. I hold his hands.’
‘Do that, Rennie. What you’re doing is right.’ Albert thinks about his morning visit and wonders if he is doing right himself. That’s when he has an idea. He finishes his juice and takes up his hat.
‘I’ll be off now. And thanks for the drink.’ He leaves the kitchen, following his daughter-in-law, and pushes a $50 note under the plate of crackers. ‘You’re a good girl, Rennie. Don’t come out.’
She’ll cry when he closes the door but he leaves, anxious to get home.
Most of the drawers in the old wardrobe in his bedroom don’t slide out easily and he’s impatient. Damn drawers. Who makes such things? He forgets he fixed them so his personal things would be safe from burglars. Now they catch and jam halfway. ‘Okay, have it your own way. Make things worse,’ he mutters, pulling out neatly folded shirts, socks tucked up in pairs and beautifully pressed handkerchiefs.
Everything is thrown on the floor, even his bankbook and his veteran’s health card. He’ll have to iron everything again. Reaching way back, he pulls out a rectangular tin wrapped in a tea towel. It once contained Belgian chocolates and the smudged remains of roses stamped on its lid make it a perfect treasure box. It belonged to Rita’s grandmother, then to Rita and now, Albert.
The rubber bands dissolve in his fingers. He takes his door key and prises open the lid. On top are love letters from Rita, her elegant, even hand addressing him: My dearest Albert. They tumble on the bed and a cloud of lavender drifts over his face. He closes his eyes, brings the letters to his lips. The quilt sinks a little; someone sitting close beside him. Long, cool fingers, paper-thin skin, take up his hand. The letters fall. She lifts his hand, he touches the soft cheek he loves.
He opens his eyes; sees only the shape of his medals lying in the bottom of the tin. Someone has wrapped them up in white tissue paper. Four medals awarded to Australian servicemen after the Second World War, two round silver ones and two star-shaped bronze, all attached to heavy, striped ribbons. They need to be polished. The ribbons need ironing flat. He needs more safety pins to attach them and most important, attach them in the right order.
Jim won’t know if they’re pinned out of order, but Albert won’t do this by half.
He finds silver polish and an old pair of undies. He wipes the king’s head, round and round. Licking his lips, he whispers the questions, over and over. ‘What did you think about, Dad, when you went out into the jungle? Did you think you might die?’ Albert’s always skirted around such questions, but now it’s different.
Albert straightens up and places the shiny silver medal on newspaper so it doesn’t soil the bed cover. He takes up the next one but he can’t concentrate. He’s trying to think, to figure out what he should say. He’ll tell him he didn’t want to go into the jungle. No, it’s not true. Albert starts again. He wanted to leave the makeshift camps; he wanted to go out into the jungle. He wanted to go out into the jungle and fight because that’s why he was there. His feet were covered in raw, oozing sores. The pus glued tufts of wool from his socks to his boots. The camp was a stinking place, swamped every day by hot rain. They sat there in the mud picking insects from their arms and legs like deranged castaways.
‘Jim, I was a boy,’ Albert says softly, although there’s no one to hear him. ‘I cried for my mother, my father, my sisters. I had no girl then. I took them with me to cling to, you know, in my mind, give me strength. Like you’ve got Rennie.’
He pauses, he can’t see properly. He stops polishing. ‘But my boy,’ he whispers, carefully placing the medal next to the others, ‘you face the darkness of the jungle and whatever is in there alone. You’ll never understand it with the brain in your head, or the heart in your chest.’ Albert stares at the opposite wall as if he sees it all there: broken boots walking him on, a loaded rifle sitting in the crook of his arm. ‘That’s just the way it is, Jim.’ He takes up his polishing rag and the final medal, and starts again.
It’s stuffy in the bedroom and Albert’s nose is dripping onto his cloth again. He sniffs and stops, reaching into his pocket for his handkerchief, afraid he’ll smudge the medals. At last, they lie side-by-side, in the right order, on the newspaper.
He takes up the Pacific Star for a final look. It’s spiky and bronze with a green stripe for the jungle and a yellow one for the beach. He holds it close to the lamp, reading his name on the back. What does it mean? He went to the war on a ship. He lost some good mates in a strange country. Then he came home and they gave him these four pieces of metal, medals he’s kept hidden away in a drawer that doesn’t open. Rita used to get them out for Anzac Day and attach them to his suit pocket. But there was never any discussion. He’s never had the words.