Sport 22: Autumn 1999
Lloyd Jones — Searching for Space
My mother had known another man while Dad was away. Now that my father was back living with us she was trying hard to close off that chapter.
I was expected to know more than I did about Mr Windly and my father was disappointed that I couldn't shed more light. I loped alongside him and his gaze fetched off to the cool shadows of Hagley Park. He liked to walk holding his hands behind himself so that anything he might blurt could be passed off as an idle thought. Just an idea to float.
‘Your mother says that Mr Windly would like you to visit. Apparently. What do you say to that?’ I didn't know what to think except hurting my father is the last thing I would do. I was curious though. I couldn't think why Dave Windly would want to see me. He must have come to the house plenty of times when I was there, asleep and unknowing at the far end of the house. I had seen him on plenty of other occasions. But they were fleeting and I was incidental to his purpose of visiting, and when I thought of Dave he was nothing more than a flash in the window. Sometimes my mother forgot to empty his ashtrays and in the morning I'd see them and know he'd been here in the night. My father gazed across a field where some kids were running a ball around. ‘I was asked to pass on that message,’ he said. Then his eye caught a red streak of a kite spiralling above the treetops. ‘Remind me to get one of those. I think we should. What do you reckon?’
‘I think we should too,’ I replied.
His hand tousled my hair and I moved to his side, to his tobaccoey smell. His rough face grazed mine. ‘We're mates?’
‘Yeah,’ I said.
‘Forever,’ I said.page 84
My mother worked part-time in a real estate office, typing, answering the switchboard. I often came by there after school so we would walk home together.
A few days after Dad told me about Dave Windly he came across the road towards us, blindly waving his hands at the traffic. He didn't seem to notice me. He had eyes only for my mother and as soon as he saw her displeasure he said, ‘Ten minutes, Marie—that's all I'm asking.’
My mother continued to tie on her scarf. She snuck a look at me and decided she would say what she wanted anyhow. ‘I thought we discussed this already, Dave. You promised me you wouldn't do this any more.’ She put her hand on my shoulder, and Mr Windly raised his hand in mock surrender.
‘I'm not ambushing you. You're free to go.’ Then he noticed me and winked. ‘How's Harry? I know a place where they make the best milkshakes in town.’ I looked up at my mother, and Mr Windly said, ‘Hell's bells, Marie.’
‘Ten minutes,’ she said.
‘That's all I'm asking for,’ said Mr Windly.
The cafeteria was a few doors along from the real estate office. We were the only ones in there. My mother chose a both towards the rear and sat with her back to the street. Mr Windly brought over a tray with a pot of tea and a milkshake for me. Then he sat down beside me and gazed across the table at my mother, and said, ‘You're as lovely as ever, Marie.’
‘Doesn't matter what I say, does it?’ said my mother.
Dave leaned back to get a good look at me.
‘Harry doesn't mind a compliment passing his mother's way.’ He laughed to himself and poured my mother's cup. Then he said, ‘Do you still take milk or has that all changed as well?’ My mother threw him a look and again he held up his hands. ‘Sorry. Overstepped the mark. Sorry,’ he said again. And he looked sorry. As he sat stirring his tea my mother shook her head at him. She said that he had to try harder. Mr Windly nodded like he really was listening and taking it onboard, then he reached over and placed his hand on hers.
‘That's not what I mean by making an effort,’ said my mother.
Mr Windly took away his hand and stuck it in his pocket. He page 85 shook some change there. I drew on my straw. I was beginning to feel uncomfortable because I knew I was in the way of whatever Mr Windly wished to say to my mother. In the end he must have thought he'd say it anyway.
‘I want to meet him, Marie.’
My mother said he could forget that. Mr Windly didn't look like he was about to.
‘I want to see what kind of fellow he is,’ he said.
My mother looked at her wristwatch and Mr Windly reached around for his coat, and stood up. ‘All right, Marie. You know how to get hold of me.’ Then he remembered me. ‘Hey, sport, how's that chocolate?’ I stared inside the aluminium container and squirted up the last of the chocolate milk. By the time I looked up Mr Windly was looking calmly across the table that divided him from my mother. ‘Marie, I'm not asking your permission.’ He said, ‘I know where he works.’
‘God, Dave. You followed him!’ Mr Windly didn't deny it. He picked up the salt shaker and examined it. ‘I don't believe it. Doesn't matter what I say, does it,’ said my mother.
‘I'll wait until I hear from you, shall I,’ said Mr Windly.
My father was dead against Mr Windly visiting us. It was night time and I lay in bed listening to him argue with my mother. He couldn't see the point of it. My mother went on beating the eggs for the meal she was preparing in advance. I heard her say lightly, ‘I expect he only wants to talk to us about insurance.’
‘Oh sure, and I'm about to buy it from that fellow.’
On the night he turned up my father stood in the front room waiting and chain-smoking. I think he was nervous about what he might do. But all the accumulated hurt and resentment lifted the moment he saw Mr Windly pass through the front gate and limp up to the door. A cigarette hung from his hand. He stroked his chin and looked behind himself to seek out my mother through the walls of the house, wondering, I thought, how she could have taken up with a fellow old enough to be her father.
Mr Windly entertained with an endless supply of stories. He made my father laugh. At other, sneakier moments I caught his eyes following page 86 my mother about the kitchen. I thought my mother was aware of her effect. She smiled even when her back was turned. My father drank down his beer, then looked at the empty glass a little surprised.
Towards the end of dinner my mother took a phone call in the hall. At first Mr Windly and Dad waited for her to return. But she went on talking and finally Mr Windly said he thought he would have a smoke.
‘How about you, Ross?’ He pushed a silver cigarette case across the table for my father to pick up and admire. From where I sat I could see a neat round hole in it.
Mr Windly lit his cigarette, inhaled and turned his attention to the silver box. ‘That,’ he said, ‘I removed from a German officer. The man was sitting at a table just like we are. Only he was dead. Though, I have to say, at first glance you wouldn't have known it. This man was staring back at the open door. A bullet had hit him in the neck. Must have bust his spine, I imagine. He looked irritated, like it wasn't the right moment for him to have been shot.’
My father began to laugh but stopped himself when he saw that Mr Windly hadn't intended a joke.
‘His cigarette case stopped the first bullet. Or maybe it was the second.’
‘First or second,’ repeated my father. He nodded like he knew about these things even though he was just a primary school kid at the time Mr Windly came across the German officer.
‘Sure, I suppose it doesn't matter,’ said Mr Windly. ‘But if it was the first bullet then you can imagine he was probably feeling lucky. He was probably halfway through congratulating himself when bang! that moment of irritation set in. There you have it. The roller coaster fortunes of war. Probably why I found insurance such an easy transition.’ He stubbed out his cigarette and lit another from the silver case.
‘You own this house, Ross?’
‘Marie picked it,’ said my father.
Mr Windly looked around himself. ‘You did well. It's a sound house. Decent neighbourhood. Close to the park.’
My father reached over and pinched my cheek.page 87
‘Good for Harry.’
‘Sure. Good for anyone I'd have thought.’ Mr Windly leant back in his chair to look for my mother.
‘She won't be much longer.’
‘No. I was just wondering…two bedrooms?’
‘Three's a good number. Nice and solid. A house is the biggest investment in a person's life. You scrape and save to pay off the bloody thing, you paint it, you look after it, hell, you come to love it…then one day, who knows…a fire or earthquake. Something happens.’
‘The unexpected,’ said my father taking another cigarette from Mr Windly's case.
‘That's it,’ said Mr Windly. ‘The unexpected. I think that about describes what I have been trying to say. The house crumbles. The very thing you've poured your heart and soul in to. You can't believe what has happened. You can't believe it could happen to you.’
‘Like the German soldier,’ said my father.
‘The German fellow. Hurt and confused.’
‘Irritated, I thought,’ said my father.
‘And that,’ said Mr Windly. He was about to say something else when my mother returned.
‘I've been telling war stories,’ he said, and for some reason it produced a look of concern from my mother.
‘Are we ready for pud, then?’ she asked.
We saw Mr Windly again after that evening. My grandfather died later that year after a month in hospital with pneumonia. The pneumonia weakened his heart and when he died he was at home tying up his sweet peas. There was a will and my father inherited his house out at Brighton. There were some Trust details, legal things that my father took to Mr Windly.
My father was building spec houses along Memorial Avenue out towards the airport. He worked long hours. At night he fell into bed and was asleep soon as his head touched the pillow. My mother spoke of him as an absent stranger. She told me he woke from dreams in which he dreamt he was hammering nails. He worked every day, even weekends. We hardly saw him. Finally, my mother said this was page 88 ridiculous; he might as well be back at Manapouri. ‘Manapouri.’ Mere mention of the word brought forward a hurtful memory to my father's eye. Immediately, he cut back his hours and spent time with me over at Hagley Park.
One day in the park we ran across an old workmate of my father. He and Sonny Reardon had shacked up together on the Manapouri Project.
My mother stared back at our visitor—at his stained and broken teeth and the mane of grey flecked hair brushed back past his ears like a woman's. He wasn't like the tradesmen my father worked with, men whose eyes and features she sometimes thought of as having been shaped with the right angles they placed upon the world all day and every day. Sonny didn't look like anyone my father would know. He was unshaven and his coat had lost its buttons. But I could tell she wanted to like Dad's visitor. For Dad's sake she wanted to like him. She went to take his coat and he held up a hand to say he would keep it on, and my father laughed out loud at the private joke that excluded my mother. I could see him watching my mother for signs of disapproval. He knew she wouldn't like him remaining in that filthy great coat. Now he watched her raise the glass my father had poured her.
‘Here's to happiness,’ she said.
‘Happiness,’ said my father's friend, and he added: ‘… because everything Ross said about you I see is true.’
My mother sipped her beer and went fishing with her sly eyes.
‘Does that mean nice things?’
‘Beautiful things,’ said my father's friend. ‘Beautiful. Many times beautiful.’
‘In that case,’ she said, ‘you can come back any time.’ She laughed and my father sat back relieved.
That night she sat with me in my bedroom trying to brush my eyelids shut and will me to sleep. It wasn't working because of the laughter coming from the kitchen. My mother asked, ‘When did your father last laugh like that?’ She sat there thinking. ‘You know, Harry, I don't remember him once mentioning the name of that man.’ She page 89 said the name over to herself—‘Sonny.’ We listened in the dark to them shouting names of other men they knew down at Manapouri. It was another world that neither I or my mother knew about.
In the morning I noticed the door to the sitting room was closed. My mother came out to the hall and put a finger to her lip and I tiptoed past. The silence of the house felt heavier than normal. After my mother arrived home that afternoon she found the door still shut. This time she knocked and hearing no reply she pushed on the door and entered the sitting room. A cushion stuck inside a white pillow slip sat at one end of the couch. There was a smell of tobacco. My mother was sure she could smell that coat. She walked across to the window, pulled back a curtain, then changed her mind.
Around teatime the two of them tramped in the door with Mr Reardon's. Drawing materials, a bag, and a package wrapped in brown paper that turned out to be four cod.
‘Tonight I make special fish in coconut,’ he said.
My mother leant her elbows on the kitchen table and watched Mr Reardon cook. She said, ‘I don't think I've ever eaten coconut. It's not something that Ross would cook.’ Only she enjoyed the joke. My father never cooked. Mr Reardon, on the other hand, looked like he did it all the time. His hands moved quickly, quick as blades, and all the time he worked he talked to my mother. He had lived in the islands. When my mother asked him ‘doing what?’ he wiped his hands on a tea towel, looked around for his bag and pulled out a sheaf of drawings. We thumbed through sketches of small boys tumbling over water falls. Sketches of the marketplace and Apia's rickety main street. The lush gardens. Villages. Portraits of billiard players, planters, Samoans. He said he'd worked in an ice factory but mostly he sold his sketches to day tourists off the cruise ships. There was one sketch of a beautiful girl with long braids. My mother held up the drawing. ‘Hello. Who's this?’ she asked, and Mr Reardon went back to his frying pan.
‘Maia,’ he said softly. ‘That is Maia.’
My mother looked across to me to see if I had caught that.
‘Maia is still in Apia?’ asked my mother.
‘No, Maia is in heaven waiting for me. Waiting for her Sonny.’ He told of working in Apia's ice factory, and how Maia had never known page 90 what it was to shiver. One day, without telling anyone, she walked inside the freezer at the ice works; unfortunately the door closed after her, and as no one knew she was in there she froze.
‘Oh, that is so sad,’ said my mother.
‘Curiosity killed the cat,’ said Mr Reardon.
‘Yes, but I mean, to die like that.’
Mr Reardon glanced up to the ceiling. ‘She is waiting for her old mate to show up,’ he said. ‘Of course, it is silly to hope. After all these years how would Maia possibly recognise me.’ He looked over to my mother see that he had her attention. Then he said, ‘That is why I stay in this coat.’
‘Yes!’ he said. ‘It is true. Of course. It is so she will recognise me.’
He kept a straight face until her own expression fell into line with his. Then he burst out laughing.
‘You bugger!’ she said. ‘I am not going to believe another word you say.’
My father's friend stayed with us for a week until he found a flat in town. We all missed him. My mother especially. She'd grown used to someone else cooking for us. The day he left we came home to a pile of sketches on the kitchen table. They were drawings of my mother gardening and cooking. Others of me wrestling with Dad on the lawn. One of me on my bike pedalling for all I was worth. I looked so much like a boy that I was both pleased and embarrassed. Another of Dad with his foot up on a sawhorse smiling back at the ‘picture-maker’ caught my mother's interest. She looked at the drawing for a long while. I couldn't quite see what she had found, but there was definitely something in that drawing that disturbed her. Dad's hair, the way he looked up from under his bushy eyebrows, his carpenter's arms falling out of rolled up shirt cuffs. It was the something else that she studied, a kind of understanding, or closeness; something that approached a knowledge that excluded her. When she looked up from the drawing she looked puzzled by the world as though in some fundamental way it had gone and changed while her attention was elsewhere.
Mr Reardon's place was in Montreal Street, a big old house with white-painted fire escapes—split into three flats. Mr Reardon's was on page 91 the ground floor facing the street. Without my mother's knowledge Dad put down two months' rent to get his friend settled. From a Colombo Street trader he bought pots and pans, cutlery, crockery, a bed and a bookcase and a lamp. He took some towels and bedding from home. I went out shopping with Dad and Mr Reardon, and outside a butcher's shop window the different cuts of meat caused Mr Reardon to stroke his jaw and wince.
‘Meat's useless to me. It's too bloody tough …’
Over dinner my father told mum he was going to give Mr Reardon some money to get his teeth fixed. As my mother was slow to answer, he said, ‘You've seen how bad they are.’
When my mother failed to answer my father repeated what he'd just said.
‘I'm listening,’ she said.
‘You look like you're eating to me,’ he said.
Without looking up she asked, ‘How much?’
He told her how much and this time she laid down her knife and fork and got up to take her plate across to the sink.
‘Don't say anything, Marie,’ said my father. ‘I only mentioned it because you should know.’
‘You know what I'm going to say, don't you.’
‘If we can afford to build a house out at Brighton we can afford to help out a friend with new teeth,’ he said.
My mother's silence irritated my father more than anything she might have said.
‘The world has a strange tilt on it these days,’ he said. He stabbed angrily at a piece of potato but had not the heart for it, and threw down his fork.
‘Damn it, Marie. You've seen his teeth. The man can hardly eat. Jellies. Milk. It's all he's up to. His whole bloody mouth will fall out unless something is done about it.’
‘You didn't hear me say “no” did you?’
‘Oh no. Oh no,’ he said. ‘You didn't have to say anything.’
‘No,’ my mother said, looking right back. ‘I didn't. And I'd like to think that that's something for you to think about.’
Several days after the argument over Mr Reardon's teeth we found page 92 ourselves in Ormonds waiting in the usual booth for Mr Windly to turn up. My mother took out a hand mirror and checked herself over. She patted her hair. She said casually, ‘I don't think you need to mention this visit to your father, Harry.’ She looked at her watch. It was unlike Mr Windly to be late. She was thinking to leave him a note when he came in the door, shiny-faced, and full of apologies. He undid his coat and removed his hat and scarf before dropping into the booth.
‘You look agitated, Marie,’ he said. ‘Agitated, but still beautiful.’
She smiled weakly, and waited until the waitress put down our tray and left, before leaning across to say, ‘Now Ross is buying him new teeth.’
Mr Windly raised his eyebrows. He sat back, and I was sure I caught him sneak a look down at his wristwatch.
‘No, wait. I haven't explained it properly,’ said my mother.
‘No, no,’ said Mr Windly. ‘I just wasn't expecting to hear about teeth.’ He drew himself into the subject and asked why Dad hadn't just taken Mr Reardon to hospital.
‘That's what I said.’
‘I don't know. There was some reason. His jaw's infected. I don't know, Dave. Talking about it now makes me wonder if I'm over-reacting. Do you think I sound like a shrew?’ Mr Windly picked up his teaspoon and stirred. ‘Anyway, it's not just the teeth. Ross has outlaid left right and centre. Rent. Electricity. Furniture. Kitchen stuff. Food. Our savings, Dave. What are we supposed to build out at Brighton with. Ross is just dipping in to support someone I never knew before. He's not even a relative. He just came here out of the blue.’
‘Ross has a heart at least. I'll give him that much,’ said Mr Windly.
‘So you think it's me. I'm the one who's being mean.’
‘Marie.’ Mr Windly reached over and rubbed her hand. This time my mother didn't take her hand away. She smiled down at the table, then kind of floated up to him, and said, ‘Dave, you should try and meet someone.’
‘I have,’ he said, and my mother waggled her head happily.
‘I meant someone else. It's not too late you know. A man like you. page 93 You should have children of your own.’
Mr Windly glanced around. As usual there was just the three of us in Ormonds at this hour. ‘You remember the German fellow whose cigarette case I took? Well he had a girl and two boys. There was a photo of them. The youngest was sitting in a swing. Sweet young thing. What do you reckon, Marie. Is he the winner here?’
My mother thought for a bit then answered in a slow measured way. ‘Not necessarily. Not yet,’ she said. ‘I wouldn't say that.’
Mr Reardon was recovering from the job on his teeth, and after dinner I went around to Montreal Street with my father to bring him soups that my mother had made.
Propped up with pillows he listened to the radio Dad had given him. That's the first thing we heard out on the porch while Dad turned the key in the door. We tiptoed up the hall, my father calling ahead of us, ‘Oi, Sonny?’ In the entrance of the door we looked in the darkened bedroom where Mr Reardon lay like a dying monk. In the corner of the room the radio purred with orchestral sound. Dad whistled. Mr Reardon opened his eyes and raised a hand to his aching jaw. Dad dissolved some Aspirin in a glass of water and helped Mr Reardon into a sitting position. My father looked back over his shoulder. ‘Harry, how about tackling the dishes.’ So I went out to the pokey kitchen. Out the back the upstairs tenant was pegging out some washing. Rain began to fall and she slapped her hands on her hips. She didn't know I was at the window watching her. I finished the dishes and went out to Mr Reardon's sitting room. The walls were pinned with sketches he'd done on his travels since he left Manapouri. These were sketches of the people he had lived amongst. Shearers. Men in narrow singlets smoking and playing cards. Fence posts and straining fence wire. Smokers. Sun-filled days. Years filled with wind and rain. Sun again. Shearing quarters. Frying pans layered with rancid bacon fat. Maori laughter.
My father came in. He looked at the couch he'd bought Mr Reardon, and with his eyes measured the doorway. ‘Give us a hand with it, Harry.’ Together we got the couch through the door into the bedroom. Mr Reardon's eyelids were closed; he was back to being the dead monk, and Dad pulled the blanket up over his chest to his chin. page 94 ‘Come on, I'll run you home, Harry.’
My father stayed there that night. He returned home the next day to collect some things, his shaver and some shirts. He spent the next four days at Mr Reardon's. At home my mother made dinner in silence. She hardly spoke except to say it was time for bed. She asked me to take something for my father around to Mr Reardon's. I knew where the key was kept and I let myself in. I could hear Mr Reardon in the toilet and it occurred to me that I could get in and out there without his knowing if I was quick. I went through to the bedroom. Pinned to the wall was a sketch of my father sitting up in the couch, a blanket drawn up over him, smoking a cigarette and smiling back at his picture taker. The room smelt of sleep. The yellow light in the wireless beep beeped and the news announcer came on. One of Dad's shirts hung off the back of the couch. It was like a scene from home. Only it wasn't home.
Soon Mr Reardon was well enough to get up and look after himself and my father came home. That year Mr Reardon got a job at the Burnside abattoirs. On Sundays he came round for lunch. My mother made the lunch and set the table as if she were doing it for strangers. Dad tried to coax her out of her buttoned-up self. She said so little. Mr Reardon sat at the table grinning. Dad shrugged, and poured him a beer and Mr Reardon tossed his head back. He closed his eyes and for the time it took him to swallow it seemed he had left us for a place where he didn't have to try so hard.
I shut up about things which would have given my mother fresh cause for concern. She didn't know about those other times Dad met with Mr Reardon or his habit of turning up during our cricket matches. She didn't know about our walks in the park with Mr Reardon. She couldn't imagine what I saw one time after running ahead; I stopped to look back and was struck by the intimacy of their togetherness, the way their shoulders touched when they walked, my father with his hands in his pockets, Mr Reardon drawing a grass blade between his teeth, deep in thought.
An arrow struck my father's cheek. He glanced up and seeing me it was clear that he had forgotten I was there. For a brief moment a suspicion passed between us. He called me back, dug in his pocket to page 95 give me some money for an ice cream. As I went to take the money he closed his hand.
‘I don't know,’ he said. ‘Your mother will go off pop if she finds out you had an ice cream before dinner.’
‘I won't tell her,’ I said, and smiling he opened his hand.
He called after me, ‘Take your time, there's no hurry and watch the traffic.’
I crossed Riccarton Road to the dairy and bought an orange ripple cone. On my way back I would have run into my mother had I not looked up in time. My father and Mr Reardon were off in another direction, sitting on a bench, and my mother had just spotted them. They didn't know she had seen them and my mother didn't know that I had seen her. It was an unpleasant feeling. It felt like we were all trespassing on one another. I left the park to make a wide arc so that everyone would see me coming and there would be no surprises, although my mother was gone by the time I approached my father and Mr Reardon.
The silences at home lengthened. My mother withdrew deeper into herself. It was as though she too had entered into the fabric of the secret and that she also had something to protect.
One Sunday morning she made a final effort to get through to my father. I say ‘final’ even though at the time I had no idea that it would prove to be the case.
‘I thought we could do something different today,’ she said. Since it was Sunday morning that meant passing up the regular Sunday lunch with Mr Reardon. I could see that same thought cross my father's mind but he was determined to show a cool hand.
‘Such as?’ he asked.
‘I was thinking about the Port Hills. I haven't been up there for donkey's years.’ She stood by waiting for my father to object. She said, ‘I was thinking we could take a picnic up there. Just the two of us. Harry can play at a friend's.’
‘I can go to Michael Bevan's,’ I said.
My father closed his eyes and sank in his chair. He didn't have to say anything.
‘Well, why not?’ asked my mother.page 96
‘Marie, you know why.’
‘No,’ she said. ‘I don't.’
‘Christ, Marie, what do we normally do on a Sunday.’
‘That's my point. Just for once let's do something different.’
My mother went and stood behind him hoping. For a brief moment it looked like my father would relent.
‘No. I can't,’ he said in the end. ‘You know I can't.’
‘No, I don't.’
‘It's the one high point in his week.’
‘Then disappoint him,’ said my mother. She took her hands off my father's shoulders, and waited.
‘Marie,’ he said. ‘Where's this coming from?’ My mother took a deep breath. She looked up at the ceiling. She wiped away a tear. Hearing that my father turned around and took hold of her. ‘Marie, what is this. What's going on here.’ My mother closed her eyes. She swayed in his hands. ‘Eh? I can't hear what you're thinking, Marie.’ Then he said, ‘He's a mate. I can't just let him down.’
‘Let me be your mate. Just this once.’
My father didn't know what to say to that.
‘I feel so alone,’ my mother said then.
‘I'm here, aren't I?’ said my father.
‘Yes. You are here.’
‘Yes is right. My God, Marie.’ He acted like he had just been given a fright. He looked around for me then. ‘Your mother had me worried for a moment, Harry.’
‘All the same,’ said my mother. ‘I think I'll take Harry up to the Port Hills.’
It meant that my father would have to make lunch but he knew better than to complain.
I hadn't walked along the Port Hills for years, not since Dad was away, and my mother reminded me of our favourite places. This rock. That patch of grass. I sat in a cockpit of rock and grass, my mother beside me. The wind made it like we were flying. My mother had to keep flicking her hair from her face.
‘You can say anything. Whatever comes into your head, Harry. You're allowed to up here,’ she said.page 97
‘Well?’ she said a moment later.
‘Nothing much. I wasn't thinking of anything.’
‘I don't believe you.’ She smiled, like it was okay, and immediately I thought back to that scene of my mother staring across the field to my father and Mr Reardon.
‘You quite sure you haven't anything to say, Harry?’
‘Nothing,’ I said.
There were cyclists out on the road. Walkers. Families carrying blankets and flasks. The bus which had brought us up here passed with a new load of faces at the windows. We walked around two cars with smoking radiators. I felt my mother sneaking sidelong glances at me, waiting for me to say something. A hawk silently glided on the tops. To fill in the silence I started reciting the names of cars that passed us by. I knew them all. That one is an Austin Healy. This one a Morris. Now a Ford Zephyr. I kept on until my mother recognised one. Its blue and cream paint. Squarish windscreen.
‘That's an Austin Cambridge,’ I said, and to my surprise the driver pulled over. My mother bent in the window. She turned around and I saw her face was relaxed and happy. ‘Harry, look who's here. Mr Windly's invited us back to his house for a drink.’
The seats were firm. The leather smelt like new. I was secretly pleased we had run into Mr Windly. I felt like sitting, and it was a nice change to see my mother smiling and laughing on the road down the Cashmere side of the Port Hills. I looked out the window at the new housing. The clay still showed through the newly sown grass. We turned down a concrete drive and my mother gave a gasp at the monster house at the end of it. ‘My God,’ she said, and her reaction seemed to please Mr Windly.
The garage was under the house. This was the first time I had seen an arrangement like that, and we rose up a short flight of steps to inside the house. We bounced in there with birthday smiles, Mr Windly limping after us, holding the handrail for support. Everything smelt new. The carpets. The wallpaper gleamed back. We tiptoed and whispered at the back of Mr Windly as he gave us a tour. We stopped outside the doors of two bedrooms and we peered in at the immaculate bedspreads. It didn't look like anyone had ever disturbed them. In the page 98 kitchen Mr Windly threw open the cupboards and the fridge for my mother to inspect. The best was last. The living room opened to a vast window, the biggest I had ever seen, which looked over town and the plains beyond. It was the same view I had seen from my rock and grass cockpit. When I turned around Mr Windly was smiling back at me. ‘Follow me,’ he said, and he led the way to his billiard room.
‘What do you know about this game, Harry?’
‘Billiards. Nothing,’ I said.
‘Or snooker. I prefer snooker myself.’
My mother presented herself in the door and smiled with admiration. ‘This is so beautiful, Dave.’
‘Isn't it just. Get yourself a cue, Harry.’ He said to my mother. ‘We can have that drink after if that suits you.’
Mr Windly limped over to a shelf and picked up a blue chalk cube. ‘Chalk up, Harry,’ he said. ‘Most people only put it on after they miss. No one ever wants to blame themself for an error made.’ I watched him set himself and draw his cue back. ‘The idea is to hit through. Hit with confidence I always say or not at all.’
Mr Windly talked his way around the table. ‘In this game you have to be patient, Harry. You bide your time until the other bloke comes unstuck. Then you progress through the colours. Yellow. Green. Brown. Blue. Pink. Black.’ My mother ventured in from the door and folded her arms to watch Mr Windly pot the colours. He played his next shot and my mother laughed. Mr Windly shook his head and wondered how he could have snookered himself. ‘Look what I've done here, Harry. Hair's breath from that pot of gold and I go and snooker myself.’ He walked around the table surveying the position from every available angle. The pink obstructed a clean shot at the blue. The white, pink and blue sat in a straight line, the first two balls casting a shadow. ‘What a situation. What am to do, Harry?’ I had a feeling he knew exactly what to do and that he was just humouring me. He shook his head and tsk tsked. ‘Normally, you ask yourself, why didn't I see it coming. You think, if only this, that and the other had happened …’ I looked over at my mother. She had lost her smile but she was listening intently to what Mr Windly said. ‘There is a solution, page 99 however,’ he said, and I noticed my mother step closer to the table while Mr Windly went on with his explaining. ‘There is a practical approach and there is an imaginative approach. The practical man will play it safe, minimise his losses. He doesn't want to hit pink and give up six when he's only looking at four.’
We watched Mr Windly settle down to the practical man's stance. He set himself to play the safe stroke. His elbow went back with the cue then he pulled out of the shot. He dropped his trailing leg and straightened up. He asked me to pass the chalk. He said to my mother, ‘For the imaginative man the prize is obscured but not out of reach.’ My mother caught me looking at her and waved my interest off. She was blushing though, and I was so caught up wondering about this that I almost missed Mr Windly's amazing shot. Without fuss, without even taking time to calculate the angle he settled and drew a bead on the white ball and hit though. The white hit the cushion and nipped back behind the pink to collect the blue and deliver it to the side pocket.
My mother applauded and Mr Windly, cool as you know what, took a bow. He handed me his cue to put on the rack. ‘I'm going to make your mother that drink I promised. I expect you will want to get in some practice.’
‘Be careful of the felt, Harry,’ my mother said.
‘Oh I'm not worried about that,’ said Mr Windly. ‘He's got a nice action on him.’
‘Don't tell him that,’ said my mother. ‘It'll swell his head.’
‘Some it might,’ said Mr Windly.
I spent the rest of the afternoon knocking balls into the pockets. I tried time and again to bounce the white off the cushion like I'd seen Mr Windly do but without the same luck. I peeked through the door a few times. Mum and Mr Windly were in big comfortable armchairs pushed up to the window. I didn't want to interrupt them or to give Mr Windly the idea I was through with snooker, so I kept on knocking balls around the table until Mum came and got me. She said to Mr Windly, ‘I think you've introduced him to a bad habit.’
‘Here's hoping,’ answered Mr Windly. He bowed his head and lit a cigarette.page 100
‘I hope he won't be smoking next.’
‘Nope,’ said Mr Windly, shaking his head as he exhaled. ‘He can ruin himself on his own.’
My mother laughed and Mr Windly said it was good to hear her laugh again. Then he said, ‘You know, Marie. You can visit again. You can come here any time you like. And Harry.’
My mother looked out the big window, for the moment smiling at something distant or an idea that had just slipped in to her thoughts.
‘Good. It's done,’ said Mr Windly.
‘I can't drive, Dave.’
‘So what's the problem? I'll teach you.’
My father had concealed things from my mother. He had always pretended things were more complicated than what they actually were. Mr Windly showed her things. The big one was showing her how to drive. To start with she gripped the wheel of Mr Windly's Austin Cambridge. I think she thought that if she loosened her grip the car would wrestle out of control. Soon she relaxed. Soon she was driving on her own. The car was the key. It enabled her to get out in the world and, importantly, escape that tight space occupied by my father and Mr Reardon. No one had said it was that easy. ‘Fancy that,’ she'd say, and that look of pleasant discovery was to remain with her. Foot down, nurse the gear shift, raise the foot and press down on the accelerator. Give and take—that was something that even a piece of machinery could understand.
It was that simple. From that afternoon on my mother's life took a turn for the better. My father moved out the following winter. He and Mr Reardon moved to another flat. Eventually they would move to Queensland. By then, however, it wasn't so much a shock as a slight shifting of boundaries. Our own lives were undergoing subtle changes too. We were spending more time at Mr Windly's. Most evenings we drove up there. Mum would make dinner. I would have a round of snooker with Mr Windly. One night he said to me, ‘Why don't you stop calling me Mr Windly. I think we know one another well enough now for you to call me Dave.’ Then one night we stayed over. After that it just felt natural.