Snapshots of Strangers
My godfather conned us. He ran off with the family fortune, my brother’s cricket bat, and a small, secret part of my mother’s heart. We heard he had bought a motel in Queensland, but he never contacted my family again.
After Dad had worked fifteen hours a day for ten years and built up enough for us to behave like a normal family again, we decided to take a holiday. Mum suggested Queensland, and from the look on his face I thought Dad was going to simply walk out of the house and never come back, like my godfather once had. From that day, no-one at our place ever mentioned Queensland again. Queensland ceased to exist. Where Queensland should have been on the map, there was a blank. No roads and rivers, no uncharted land. Nothing. Two straight lines where the Northern Territory and New South Wales ended and fell into emptiness.
There was a part of Dad that seemed the same way. Certain words, certain times of day, certain aspects of light and shadow across the backyard fell into him and disappeared, and he would stand silent and empty for a moment or two. Over the years we watched him shrink, like he was evaporating. When I was angry I called him The Dry Man. Even his coffin was light, as if a crackly old stick lay inside. My brother, Gerard, helped to carry it down the church aisle. He said the coffin was so easy to shoulder he cried.
A week after the funeral, we go through the thousands of photographs Dad left stacked in boxes in his study. Among our family snapshots of birthday parties and days at the beach are hundreds of photographs of strange people and places. One photo shows the wreck of a car that rolled down a cliff. At the centre of another, shot in a city street in the 1960s, a man holds his hat against the wind as he hurries across the street. Some of the prints are buildings – motels, suburban houses, service stations. And beaches, mountain tops, empty fields. All places we have never been. Mum behaves as though these photographs diminish our family history. Each time she finds one she purses her lips and rips the photo in half.
‘More rubbish,’ she says. ‘As if I need more rubbish in my life. I have absolutely no idea why he put these with our family things.’
My father was an insurance adjuster. He had men followed and photographed carrying heavy objects then sent the photos to the companies that paid their disability money. He measured skid marks at the scene of accidents. He interviewed accounts clerks about their spending patterns and handed cups of tea to women crippled by machinery to see if they could hold them. For some reason he kept all of their photographs with ours, as if these strangers gave his life as much meaning as his own family did. The strangers even crept into our dinner conversations.
‘Dad, what happened to that lady who said she went blind in the accident?’ Gerard asked. Gerard loved Dad’s stories. He thought Dad and Jimmy were spies, like James Bond, fighting for justice and truth. Dad told us that on Saturday night the woman had driven her four children in the family car to the Coburg drive-in for a double Disney feature. Gerard laughed so much he spat out his peas. When I told a couple of the stories to my friend at school she said something I never forgot. She said, ‘Does your Dad hang around in the bushes taking photos of people?’
In one box we find a set of photos of my godfather before he left. Mum says nothing, sets the photos aside in a separate pile and goes on sorting. Gerard and his wife raise their eyebrows.
My godfather, Jimmy Botham, ran off when I was eight. I hadn’t noticed he was gone until my birthday. Every birthday, Jimmy and his lady friend came to tea. She was an air hostess. She was the most glamorous creature I had ever seen. Her toenails were painted hot pink. Her smooth gold hair was coiled in a bun that had no end and no beginning. She would lean down to kiss me happy birthday and hand me a Qantas carry-on bag full of lollies.
‘Where’s Uncle Jimmy? Did he send the lollies?’ I asked Dad as we sat at the table, eating party pies and sausage rolls.
‘Your Uncle Jimmy’s off spending my money,’ Dad said.
My mother handed me a cocktail frankfurt on a toothpick. ‘Your Daddy and Uncle Jimmy aren’t partners anymore. Daddy’s in business on his own now.’
A couple of days later Gerard told me he’d seen Jimmy cuddling Mum in the kitchen one night not long before he left. Dad stood behind Gerard with a trembling hand on his shoulder, then turned and left the room, pulling my brother behind him.
After Jimmy left, Mum carried on with life as if there had never been a Jimmy Botham. It was Dad and his dessication, his disappearing act, that kept reminding me how we had been wronged. Gerard’s story explained Dad’s behaviour. I imagined what it would have been like to see my mother and Jimmy Botham together. I had been robbed and I wished I had caught Jimmy Botham in the act.
The death benefit cheque proves Dad knew insurance. Mum invites us around for champagne and crayfish. I’m going to put a down payment on a house. I raise my glass in a toast.
‘No more dodgy landlords!’
‘Thanks, Dad,’ Gerard adds.
Gerard and his wife have already chosen the colour of their Mercedes. Mum stands up with a glass of champagne in one hand and a crayfish claw in the other, and announces that after all these years of cooking and cleaning house she’s going to do something she’s always wanted to do. She’s taking a trip.
I know where she’ll go, even though she says she is still thinking about it. The map of Australia has changed completely. Queensland is now marked in scarlet while the rest of the country has faded to grey.
‘You know,’ I say to Mum, ‘I was going to take a trip to Queensland myself, look up my godfather.’
‘Were you?’ she says.
She sits at the kitchen table, making a list of what to take on her trip. She keeps writing, the list getting longer and longer, the wedding ring on her resting hand clacking against the table as her scribbles become fiercer and the table starts to shake.
‘I don’t know why you would do that,’ she says without stopping her list, now at two pages.
I wait. She runs out of paper. She puts down the pen and twists the ring on her finger. I wonder whether Jimmy Botham would even recognise her now with her grey hair and papery skin.
‘I’m going on a holiday,’ she says. ‘I don’t remember inviting you.’
‘Well,’ I answer, stung. ‘I want to meet Jimmy Botham again. I want to tell him what happened when he left.’
‘What? What happened?’ Mum says, leaning back in her chair and staring at me.
‘It’s all right. I don’t blame you.’
I stand up and walk out to my car. As I pass through the lounge room I glance at the chair where Dad used to sit and watch the cricket. I remembered him waving me over, wanting me to kiss him goodbye as I clattered out of the house at night when I was a teenager, the way I sneered at him and kept walking, wobbling off in my stiletto heels and muttering ‘See ya Dry Man’ under my breath.
Investigation is in my genes. Jimmy Botham lives in a caretaker’s cottage in a motel in Tully. He drives a 1987 Corolla. He gambles on the horses every week.
‘That’s where our money went,’ I tell Gerard
‘So what? That was twenty years ago. Get over it.’
‘He was supposed to give me moral guidance. He was my godfather!’
Gerard’s wife sits opposite me nodding politely.
‘Christ,’ Gerard says. ‘Now she wants moral guidance. Next thing she’ll be suing for the thousand pounds he took with him.’
‘A thousand pounds? That was the family fortune?’
He rolls his eyes in the direction of his wife.
‘So, what, she thought we were millionaires? That’s why we lived in a weatherboard dump in Oakleigh?’
‘But … ‘ I say.
My father had no stubborn streak. A man with a stubborn streak doesn’t let his life ebb away, doesn’t go stiff and dry with regret. It must be my mother who passed on to me this need to forge onwards in the face of scorn, even while suspecting that what I am doing might be foolish. I think about that as I drive toward Tully in my rented car.
Fifty kilometres from Tully the rain starts. The air conditioning has sucked the heat out of the car and I feel a chill when the first fat drops of rain splatter on the windscreen. When I open the window for a smell of the Queensland air, the steamy heat rolls in and hits my face like a sloppy tongue.
By the time I check into my motel and unload my car it is 10:00pm. Dark, still raining, still muggy. A green tree frog squats on the floor of the shower recess. A television prattles in the room next door. Overhead the fan beats the air into moist currents that roil noisily around the room, lifting papers and rattling the venetian blinds. I lie naked on the bed in the dark, trying to sleep. At 1:00am the television next door is turned off.
For a few minutes before I fall asleep I have visions of my father in his hospital bed. We sat around him on upright chairs as his chest bubbled and snickered with the fluid trapped inside it. All that empty space inside him filled up with water and we watched him slowly drown. He woke up once and looked around at us. ‘Sorry,’ he whispered. ‘Sorry.’
The next day I stand under an umbrella up the road from Jimmy Botham’s motel, watching the caretaker’s cottage. The motel is long and flat, like an army hut, and the vacancy sign flicks on and off every three seconds. The low clouds drizzle a fine mist that settles on my leather sandals and slowly seeps through until I begin to slip on the slimy insoles.
I can see into the cottage, set to the east of the motel. The lights are on because the clouds make the day dark. A man and a woman are moving around inside. When I pull my father’s binoculars from my bag I find that the rain has soaked into them too and all I can see is fog. After a while I go back and sit in the rented car with the engine running. The air conditioning cools my sweating body and I doze off.
I wasn’t trying to harass my mother when I booked a ticket to arrive a day earlier than her. I always intended to track down Jimmy Botham. I want to confront him, explain what he did to my father. My father could never have confronted anyone. He was a watcher, a photographer, a man who lurked around the edges of people’s lives quietly noting down details of how they lived. It is my job to tell Jimmy Botham how his actions hollowed out my father, made him into the man who filled himself up with the eceits of other people’s lives and forgot about his own family. Forgot about me.
My mother arrives at midday. I turn off the car engine and peer through the drizzling rain as she stands with the hood of her pink plastic raincoat obscuring her face.
The lights in the cottage are still on, the man and woman still inside. My mother stares at the couple, then she swings around and sets off back the way she came, walking with heavy, uneven steps as though she is carrying something cradled in her arms.
So she didn’t know he was married. I wipe mist from inside the windscreen. All those years she waited and he’s married.
I open the car door and set off toward the caretaker’s cottage. My godfather is a cunning bastard. First he gutted my father, now he’s done it to my mother. I’ll have no-one.
My steps slow as I near the door, but I force myself to keep walking. My knock on the door sounds faints and hollow. I hear someone get up from a chair and walk toward the front door. I can’t remember what Jimmy Botham looks like up close. I wish I had a snapshot.
From inside the door a man’s voice says, ‘Who is it?’ As I open my mouth to answer I try to think of some other name, some other identity I can assume.
‘Hello?’ the man inside the door says. There is a rattle as he undoes the latch and swings open the door.
Before I left Melbourne, Gerard asked what I meant to say to poor old Jimmy Botham.
‘Are you going to blame him for your lack of moral guidance?’ he said. ‘Will that make you feel better about yourself? He took a bit of money as his share of the business. He comforted Mum when Dad was depressed. We should thank him.’
I felt a hitch in my body, as though someone had lifted and dropped me a few centimetres. My teeth jarred. But it was too late. I was committed to action. I refused to be like my spindly depressed father – watching, always watching. And always disappointed.
A white-haired man and a silky terrier stand in front of me at the door of the cottage. Jimmy Botham asks if I want a room. I stand there, mouth open, lips wet with rain, feeling as if I am drowning.
‘We’ve got vacancies,’ he says.
* * *
–> Snapshots of Strangers is a Winner of the Age Short Story Competition
–> Image by Elisa Gonzalez