I actually find it a little bit annoying when people who get all high and mighty and want to make some backhanded comment about my well-known business acumen say to me in that scoffing sort of tone: Leigh, let’s face it, you’d sell your own mother! What they’re trying to do of course is draw some imaginary moral line in the sand and then make out like I would cross it while they wouldn’t. The trouble with this cunning game – aside from the fact that I should have to point it out in the first place – is that that moral line is imaginary, every moral line is imaginary, there is no line in relationship to which any moral judgement can properly be made. When I go to a conference and hear a speaker banging on about ‘business ethics’ I have to go to the toilet to puke. If I want to sell my mother, I will sell my mother. If I want to sell my sister, I will sell my sister. I’ve got five, I’ll sell them all. The point is – and this is what seems to get lost on these limp-dicked ethics types – there is no such thing as right and wrong when it comes to doing business. How else are you supposed to make a dollar?
So all right then, Jackson, I said (Jackson’s the blond baby-faced boy who started last year); all right, I said, yes, I’d sell my mother, in fact I’d be very happy to sell her – so long as I could get the right price. We’re not here for a picnic! We’re here to make money! We start from nothing, Jackson, a mewling lump of meat, it’s our job to go out there and make something of ourselves. He was an unlikeable type, with that smugness the young sometimes get when they think they know how it’s done. Yes Jackson, I said, I’ll sell my mother – I’ll sell my mother, boy, and be drinking Coronas in Cancún before you’ve even smelt the rump of middle management, let alone got up it.
The fact is, I wouldn’t have taken the idea seriously except that after only half an hour’s research (these people know nothing, honestly, wouldn’t know a bit of work if they fell over it) I found out just how much a mother could be worth. People in the States are paying upward of twenty grand for one in reasonable condition. My mother’s just gone seventy, just had both hips done, she’s not looking too badly when you put it all together. She still drives a car, she’s good with kids, she doesn’t argue. But the main thing is we don’t want her any more. She’s got some good qualities, sure – she bakes the odd biscuit, smooths the hair down on the grandkids’ heads – but she’s not really much use, is she?
She’s also – how can I put it? – been acting strangely of late. My sisters – forget it! – they can’t deal with it, they want their old Mama back, the warm understanding all-forgiving Mama they had before Dad died, before they, the sisters, got their own lives and left her home alone with a fridge full of next to nothing except the UDLs past their use-by date that she kept there just in case. But the sisters never came. And Mum went strange. At first she said she didn’t feel right and I went round and told her it was indigestion. I was in the middle of this huge international contract and the truth is – I don’t care – she was giving me the shits. She’d ring me up on my mobile and say she was having pains, maybe she was having a heart attack, and I’d race around and when I got there suddenly everything would be all right and she’d be asking could I go down the shops! You wouldn’t see the sisters, she wouldn’t ring them, she’d be too scared; I’d ring them, later. But no, they’d always be out or busy cooking or cleaning the toilet or holding their husbands’ hands or some such shit, so they couldn’t make it, they were sorry, but they were sure I had it all under control and next time, yes, for sure Leigh, no problem.
At first I got some bad reactions, telling people I was going to sell my mother, not least from the wife and kids. Around the office there was this general attitude that Leigh was being a smart-arse, trying to win some popularity points or something, saying it to stir up trouble. So all right, fuck you, I thought, let’s see who’s serious and who’s not. I sent a piece of paper around, a bookie’s board, with a table of selling prices – the figure I might or might not get for my mother – and the corresponding odds alongside. To that I stapled another sheet for everyone to write down their details; who they were, what department, what possible selling price for Leigh’s mum they wanted to pick and how much they might want to wager. Some people didn’t blink, and took it in the spirit intended (these people have a future); they studied the form guide, picked their ‘horse’ and put down their details. But then of course there were the other cock-sucking moralists like Jackson who got all righteously indignant and started circulating their own sheet of paper suggesting people boycott this ‘morally ambiguous’ scheme and register their protest with management. Morally ambiguous? It’s my mother! I think I know where I stand morally in relationship to my own mother. So I took the bets of those in favour, ignored the crap of those who weren’t, and set about selling her, as fast as I could.
The ability to think creatively, this is what will separate two apparently identical businessmen into the one who will achieve his goal and the one who will not. Creative thinking, the process of appropriating and manipulating to your own ends the wealth of ideas deposited in the many media – books, films, and so on – throughout the many centuries during which this creative urge has flowered in all its various ways and then to capitalise on them. So what quirk of the zeitgeist, I asked myself, creatively, might I enlist towards my business ends? Family collapse. Record high divorce rate. All over the place families are falling to pieces. It’s like they’ve been built wrong, as if some important supporting beam has been left out, and now under years of stress they can’t help falling apart. All over the country, all over the world, the ragged ends of ripped and torn families fall crying onto the desks of counsellors, mediators, anyone who will give them an ear. Everywhere ripped and torn husbands and wives drag each other through the courts, everywhere ripped and torn children scramble to find some comfort, some warmth, in a life more often than not devoted to dog-eat-dog savagery. Everyone’s fucked – and why? What is the missing beam? The Matriarch, people, the Mother, not the ‘new woman’, the career woman, chasing the $200k p.a. promotion plus car with her toadying office boys and her dessert wine at nine. What people want now, more than their renovations, their beach houses – what people want now is nurture. And no, you won’t find it in bread-making, you will find it only in the Queen of Nurture, the God-gifted source of all warmth and comfort, the place where Mother’s Milk began. So yes, it was not so much a mother I was selling as the idea of being mothered.
I put her on eBay for twenty thousand and someone offered me twelve. I dropped it to fifteen but that buyer went cold. I went down to ten. At seven I was virtually giving her away. I said five thousand ONO – someone emailed and asked could they see her. I didn’t like the look of him. She was sitting in her favourite chair; he looked her up and down, sat beside her, told her very openly and honestly about his marriage break-up and studied her face for sympathy. I thought she did fine. We went into the kitchen to talk. He was worried about her dying! But she’s only just turned seventy, I said, she’s got years left in her yet. He said he’d give me two thousand and not a cent more. I said I’d get four thousand for her easy and that I already had buyers waiting. He said he’d have a think about it – but then I never heard from him again.
What’s wrong with this world? Is it just me? Aren’t we supposed to be living in a free market? Am I the only one to have trouble reconciling all the politicians’ fine words about the benefits of free trade and competition with the fact that I can’t even get three grand for my mother? They go on about the power, the efficacy of the market, but all the while they let these old-world moral structures undermine it. There are either barriers to trade or there are not. If a family can get a mother for free – biological, adoptive, affinal, whatever – then why would they want to pay good money for my mother or anyone else’s? It’s not a level playing field – how can it be, when some dubious morality conspires to drive the cost of my product down?
My workmates scoffed at me, of course, and rightly so; working days I was able to shift hundreds, sometimes thousands of units, working nights I could not for love or money move my mother. I’d failed as a businessman on the most fundamental level: I had identified my market, but I could not sell my product. And now I was saddled with her, this old woman in her dotage, every day a little more shop-soiled, every day a little less attractive to the would-be buyer that I still in my mind’s eye saw knocking out of nowhere at my door.
I put an ad in the local milk bar and tacked some others to the lampposts around. I took her to the Sunday flea market where she sat in a fold-up chair with a blanket over her lap while I sat at a fold-up table with a handwritten cardboard sign and a kitty of coins in a jar. People walked by with their plant stands and power tools, their clock radios and shower caddies; some stopped and chatted, some asked the price. All raised their eyebrows and drew a sharp breath in when I told them. The morning dragged on, the stalls around me packed up. I scribbled $100 on the sign then crossed it out and wrote $50. To the only other person who stopped I said: Here, you can have her for twenty. He thought about it. Ten, I said. He shook his head.
I’m sorry, I’m not going to give her away – but even less am I going to accept the humiliation and ribbing at the office. The creative businessman always has something up his sleeve. I moved my mother in with me, sold her house at auction, split the proceeds with the sisters (they were happy) and still came out fifty grand in front. I took this money out as cash and in the tearoom that day I dumped it on the table. There, I said: fifty grand. Some people went pale, some looked like they wanted to kill me. Where’s Jackson? I said.
I went through the list, name by name, and collected my winnings – no-one for a minute thought I’d get fifty grand for my mother and no-one was game enough to say I hadn’t. I took over seven hundred dollars in total that day from my workmates, enough to cover my advertising costs and still have a few dollars to spare. I had made a profit; yes, listen, a profit – small victory you might say but isn’t it true that throughout history from small victories great ones accrue?
I let my mother stay at my place but we didn’t really get on. She’d become stupid, would say stupid things. She kept leaving the stove on and that really annoyed me. She no longer wore any make-up – it was never much, a bit of lipstick, some powder on the cheeks – and her hair went all wild and frizzed. She wouldn’t wash, wouldn’t shower. Whenever I came home from work I had to throw open all the windows and doors.
One evening I sat in front of her while she ate her meal off the tray and explained the situation. It was nice having her here, I said, it was lovely to catch up, this was more time than we’d spent together in years. But it was hard, too, I said, to see how the arrangement could last. I am a busy man, I said, and couldn’t always give her the required care. She might need to go somewhere else. Don’t you love me? she said. That was hard. I explained how it was not so much that I didn’t love her and in fact she should know that I loved her very much but more, I said, stalling, that life had got so busy lately, what with work and Karen leaving me and everything else going on. Maybe she could go and live with one of the others? Or if they can’t help out, I said, carefully, if they’re too busy too, maybe we need to think about putting you in a home? It took me ages to explain: she had a different idea of ‘home’.
That Sunday I organised a get-together: sisters, husbands, kids. We set her up in the lounge room with a cup of tea and sent the children out to play. I called the meeting to order. I explained how I had worked hard to try and sell our mother, as they all well knew, and when that plan had failed I’d divvied up the money from the sale of the family home and moved her in with me. No-one could say I hadn’t tried. But it was hard, I said, I had no free time any more. In short, if no-one at this table – listen to me – if no-one at this table is prepared to take her, we’re going to have to chuck her over the side. They all looked down, or up, at their fingernails, the ceiling. There was a whimper; we turned around. It was my boy, Jeremiah, sitting cross-legged at his Grandma’s feet, clutching hard at her ankle. (I told Karen I wanted him there; Karen said – no, I won’t.) I tried to drag him off. Come on Jez, I said, I’ll buy you an ice cream. But you’re going to throw her away, he said. The sisters rolled their eyebrows. Jeremiah let her go; I shooed him back outside. Everyone at the table had gone quiet. Well? I said.
I put her in the car and drove, out to where the suburbs end. I pulled into a siding and turned off the lights. Goodbye, I said. She didn’t understand. Goodbye Mum, I said. I helped her out. We stood together by the side of the road. I pointed: the dark sky, the sliver of moon, paddocks, fences, paddocks, all the way to the horizon. She followed my finger, she knew what I meant. She wasn’t expecting to hang around forever. For a moment she looked back, all shivery and cold in her white nylon nightie, like a child. I pointed again and she walked. With delicate fingers she lifted up the nightie’s hem and stepped over the fence.
She looked very beautiful, I have to say, walking out there across that paddock, glowing under that moon. I’d never seen her like that before. She stumbled through the tall grass until she found the scar of a creek. She didn’t turn back. She walked and kept walking until I could see her no more.
I have to admit a small part of me expected to see her turn around. But no. I waited a while then got back in. A big truck went past, throwing up dust. I certainly felt lighter. Gone, I said, gone. I flicked on the lights, turned the car around. A quick bite, I thought, an early night, then on the weekend I’d clear out her things.