Lethe – Chapter 1
Tea and biccies
‘Brought you a cuppa and some biccies1, dear.’
Reg woke with a start.
‘Oh, sorry! Didn’t realise you were snoozing. Can’t see your eyes under that blessed hat.’
Reg pushed back the shapeless old Akubra and blinked up at the familiar figure, silhouetted against the strong afternoon sunlight.
‘I’ll just set it down here … Oh.’ Marjorie stood with the tray gripped as firmly as her knotted, arthritic hands would allow, looking in confusion at the table.
Three mugs there already, each three quarters full. Three plates which had once held biscuits, but now held only crumbs left by the magpies. Broken biscuits scattered on the grass.
‘How ever did those get there?’
She stood in dismay. The tray began to tremble, the crockery to rattle.
With a groan of effort, Reg levered himself out of his low Adirondack chair, pushed himself upright, took the tray from his wife.
‘It’s alright, Marj,’ he soothed. ‘You just forgot, that’s all, love. It’s alright.’
He surveyed the crockery in wonder. ‘Looks like we had quite a party, eh? Silly old duffers, the pair of us.’
Now it was his turn for confusion. The table was full: where to put the tray? Finally he left it precariously balanced on the chair cushion while he emptied the cold mugs of tea under the roses, strewed the remains of the biscuits where the maggies would find them, stacked the plates carefully. ‘There, all sorted!’
Now, here was another tricky problem. Reg puzzled for a moment, then stooped down, straightened with the full tray, handed it to his wife. ‘Here, love. You hold this.’ He transferred the hot mug of tea and the plate of biscuits to the table, then stacked the used crockery on the tray in his wife’s hands. ‘Job done. Teamwork, eh?’
His eyes moistened as he watched Marjorie shuffle back up the lawn to the house. How he loved her! Sixty-something years since they were wed, the 9th of December 1961, a hot early summer’s Saturday in Melbourne. She had looked so beautiful back then: a young thing dressed in lacy white, on the lakeside lawn of the Royal Botanic Garden. ‘Still does,’ he murmured. ‘Still does.’
He turned back to face the river, leaned on the broad, flat arm of the chair, and manoeuvred himself into the seat, wiggling his bottom until finally the cushion was underneath him again. He contemplated the inky water as it swirled by in sluggish eddies. Out beyond the snout of the sand slug2 a trout rose: a big one. He would go after that, one day. Damn river was full of snags these days, mind …
After a time, he glanced down to his left. ‘Ah! Tea and biccies! Bless you, Marj.’ He took a sip and grimaced. Cold again. Ah well, it’s the thought that counts. Maybe a biscuit. Although it looked as if those bloody magpies had been at them.
When the sun sank behind the poplars, the day grew chill, and Reg made his slow way back up to the house. The grass was getting long again, he reflected. It would be full of brown snakes if he didn’t get the mower out soon, but damn, it was all too bloody hard these days.
The big old house and rambling garden were getting a bit much for the two of them, he knew. But what was the alternative?
They had been at Bob’s insistence to see the old folks’ home in Cerberus, and returned home in disgust, vowing never to set foot in the place again. A converted motel, with tiny, airless rooms around a central courtyard. No guarantee of a double room, either. ‘There’s a waiting list, Mr Grant.’
They hadn’t spent sixty-something years as husband and wife, brought up two sons, to be separated at the last. No, sir: ‘they’ could stuff that right where the sun didn’t shine.
And they made you sell your house, apparently, took all your bloody money. A ‘bond’, they called it. Bloody handcuffs and leg-irons, more like. Bastards.
‘Haven’t seen Bob for a while,’ mused Reg, as Marj served the dinner.
‘Bob? Bob’s dead, dear.’
‘Really?’ Reg’s voice rose in distress. ‘When? Why didn’t anyone tell me? I’m his father, you know. I have a right to …’
‘Shh, dear, it was … ages ago. A long time. You just forgot, that’s all.’
‘Ah, of course, silly me … Yes, I remember now … Nice chop, love. Juicy.’
‘Yes, they’re good, aren’t they? Such a friendly young man, that new butcher in Alexandra.’
‘Well, it would be nice to see more of Andy, then. That’s probably who I was thinking of.’
‘Andy’s still in Vancouver, dear.’
‘Oh. I see … When’s he coming home?’
‘He says he hopes to get back for your next birthday … You know, you really should get that looked at.’
‘What? Oh, this …’ He put his hand to his forehead, then winced.
‘You should see Dr Singh.’
‘I’m not going anywhere near Singh, or that surgery. They’ll take my bloody licence away, and then we’ll be stuffed.’
‘I’m so sorry, Marj. I forgot myself for a moment there.’
‘I know, I know … It’s come up dreadfully over night. You’re going to have a nasty bruise. Maybe you should have stitches in that cut. Just look at your poor old face!’ Her voice trembled, a tear ran from her eye, became lost in the labyrinth of wrinkles.
‘I’m fine, love. I could do with some sense knocking into me, ha! Dad always said so.’
‘Yes, well … He never should have hit you like that.’
‘Who? Dad? It was the way, back then. “Spare the rod, …” and so on. Had to watch out for the teachers at school, too. Old Dooley would break out the cane as soon as look at us, haha!’
‘No, love. That horrid, nasty lout. Yesterday.’
‘Ah. Bob, you mean. Always was a larrikin3, that lad. Doesn’t know his own strength. I’m sure he didn’t mean to hurt me. Just having a lark.’
‘Not Bob, dear. Bob’s dead.’
‘Really? Well, who’s that in the woodshed, then? I thought it was Bob.’
‘No, dear. Not Bob … Perhaps we’d better see how he’s getting on. Don’t you think so?’
‘Ah. Yes, you’re probably right, love. Quite forgot about him, to be honest ... Not Bob, you say?’
Next week in Lethe:
Chapter 2 – A soft touch
Who is that in the woodshed?
biccies (Aus./Brit. infml) – biscuits (US cookies)
sand slug (Aus.) – a sand bank in a river. They collect debris and travel slowly downstream. The head of the slug is called the ‘snout’.
larrikin (Aus. infml) – boisterous young man, rogue