June 2005

Arts & Letters

Blind date

By Janette Turner Hospital

Though Peter, who is Lachlan’s best friend, is incensed by the special arrangements for the wedding, Lachlan himself does not care. All that matters is what is going to happen when his father appears. There will be an organ fanfare. Everyone will stand. Lachlan’s father has come back, the organ pipes will announce, and Lachlan will feel their low thunder through the soles of his feet. Outside there will be lightning and blinding rain, torrential and jubilant. Certainly the weather will change.

Lachlan believes he will know the moment his father steps inside the church. His father’s particular way of walking will telegraph itself down the aisle, along the dark-stained floorboards, beneath the pew. Lachlan will decode the vibrations. This is something he has always been able to do. He reads footsteps.

Perhaps his father will speak to him in passing. Perhaps, as his father stands just behind the bride and groom, waiting for the minister to ask Who giveth this woman … ?, perhaps he will turn to look at Lachlan and snap his fingers, the old sign. G’day, mate, he will murmur. Long time no see.

Lachlan vividly remembers his father’s voice: the smoky scratchy sound, soft at the edges, like a train going into a tunnel. He remembers the last words he heard his father say. “I’m sorry, mate.” When his father said that, he was hugging Lachlan so tightly that all Lachlan could think of was washing machine. His face was pressed into his father’s shirt where the collar met the yoke and there was a damp vibrating sweetness that Lachlan recognised. The smell was like baskets of clothing waiting to be ironed and like the mounds of sheet where his mother set him down while she folded and stacked. The sensation was familiar too: the sinking into softness, the smell of clean, the muted thrum against his ear.

When Lachlan’s father shows up in dreams, he trails washdays.

Now, eight years later, Lachlan can distinguish the particular elements of bleach and washing powder and steam and fabric softener, a fragrance-cluster that triggers a furtive urge. On Mondays he still sneaks into the laundry room. He buries his face in hills of sheet as soft as ice-cream swirls. He curls up in the great laundry basket and hugs towels. He will never let anyone hear him or see him cry.

“I’m sorry, mate,” his father had said on that day, the day that he left. “But I can’t breathe.” There was a momentary faltering in his father’s voice, the way a train whistle hesitates at the mouth of a tunnel. “I’m drowning, mate, and I just can’t breathe, that’s all there is to it. I’m sorry.”

Lachlan has never told anyone, not even Peter, what his father said, but as the wedding draws close he tries to tell his mother. “Mum,” he says tentatively, “you remember that day when Dad buggered off ...”

“Lachlan!” She is folding laundry and she pauses with a pillowcase suspended in front of her, astonished. He knows that her eyebrows are raised. “We don’t use language like that in this household. What a dreadful expression. Where did you hear it?”

He almost says From Pamela, but stops in time. “I heard someone say it yesterday,” he says.

“You know you’re the reason that Dad buggered off, don’t you?” his sister had said. She is 11 years older than Lachlan. “And would you please not spatter the mirror when you wash? It’s like a pigsty in here.”

Lachlan leaned over the bathroom sink. He felt sick. “I didn’t know,” he said.

“Sorry, Lockie. I know you don’t know what a mess you make. I’m just jumpy. It’s wedding jitters.”

“I didn’t know about Dad.”

“Oh.” Pamela put a hand over her mouth. “I shouldn’t have said that. But why can’t he just stay up there in Queensland and good riddance?”

The bathroom began to move like a swing. Lachlan groped for Pamela but stumbled and fell. “You know where Dad is?” he whispered.

“Lockie, I can’t hear you. Are you crying?”

“How do you know where Dad is?” he shouted.

Pamela looked startled. “We’ve always known, Lockie. Here.” She helped him get up and led him to the wicker clothes hamper. “Sit down.”

“Where is he?”

“Burdekin Dam, up in Queensland. That’s what he wrote on the note he left Mum. Gone to work on the Burdekin Dam. Fortune to be made, blah blah blah. We’ll need plenty extra for Lachlan, I’ll send back dosh for the special schools, and then he just buggered off. Didn’t fool anyone. You scared him, Lockie, that’s the sad truth. He was running away from you.”

Lachlan slithered off the clothes hamper. He felt his way across the floor and curled up on the white tile beneath the wash basin and leaned his cheek against the chrome snake of pipe. Pamela reached down and pulled him out. “Forget him, Lockie. He’s a bloody coward and a shit and an idiot.”

“No!” Lachlan protested. “That’s not true.”

Pamela stroked his hair. “We don’t need him,” she said.

“And he did send money. Mum told me.”

“Blood money. Came from a lawyer, not from him. Not a word for eight years, not one letter, and now he wants to show up for my wedding. Talk about gall. If he does darken the church door, I’m going to turn right round in my wedding dress and tell him to bugger off.”

“Lachlan,” his mother says, “is this the sort of thing you hear from Peter?”

“No,” Lachlan swears.

“Then where did you hear it?”

“I can’t remember.” Lachlan has to be careful. He dreads his sister’s rows with their mother. “I didn’t know it was bad,” he says, and that part is true. “But Mum,” he persists – casually, cunningly – “that day when Dad left, the day when the cyclone came ...”

“What cyclone?” his mother says. “There wasn’t a cyclone.”

“Yes, there was,” Lachlan insists. He pulls at his fingers, one by one, and the knuckles give off small cracking sounds.

“Don’t do that,” his mother says.

Lachlan keeps pulling at his fingers. He remembers his father setting him down on the verandah and walking into curtains of water. There was the washing day smell, the sound of waterfall, the sense of drowning. “It rained and rained all day. It was dark like a thunderstorm.”

“For heaven’s sake, Lachlan, you were two years old. You couldn’t possibly remember what the weather was like and nor can I, for that matter, except I do know it wasn’t raining because I had to walk down to the pub to find out why your father hadn’t come home. I didn’t find his note till the next day. So I had to walk half a mile and believe me, it wasn’t raining.”

But Lachlan is sure that it was. And he does remember. He remembers water churning. He remembers deluge. He sees his father suspended in weeping, taking in air through his gills. Last year, on the news, Lachlan heard about a man and a boy in a rubber boat when a cyclone hit. Tossed like matchsticks in foam, the newscaster said, both of them drowned, and Lachlan’s mother had to call the doctor because her son had turned blue in the face.

“It was pouring,” Lachlan whispers. “It was a cyclone. Dad had to swim for his life.”

“Lockie, we don’t get cyclones in Melbourne,” his mother says. “You’re seeing things again.” She feels his forehead. “You’re running a temperature.” She smoothes the stacked sheets. She leans over and kisses Lachlan on the top of his head. “I know you’re worried, Lachlan, we all are, but he’ll probably chicken out. He probably won’t even show up. That’s what he’s like.”

Lachlan can hear a roaring in his ears. There are rocks and spray and everything is green and dark and he is floundering and then everything is black.

“He’s seeing things again,” he hears his mother tell Pamela.

Pamela puts her face on the pillow next to his. She strokes his cheek. “We won’t even let him inside the church,” she whispers. “I promise. He’s such a shit.”

Lachlan turns his face to the wall.

Pamela says brightly: “Look, I’ve got something to show you.”

She puts a white satin cushion on the bed and reaches for his hand. She runs his fingers over the cushion. She lets him feel the heavy ivory lace along each edge. “It’s the ring-bearer’s cushion,” she says. “Do you like it?”

“Yes.” Lachlan strokes the satin. “It’s beautiful.” He explores the lace with his fingertips.

“And here’s your suit for the wedding.”

Lachlan trails his fingers across the satin vest, the bow-tie, the pin-tucked shirt of finest cotton.

“You are going to look magnificent,” his mother says.

My father will be proud, Lachlan thinks.

“The vest and the bow-tie are teal blue,” Pamela tells him. “Same as the flower-girl’s dress and the bridesmaids’ gowns.”

Lachlan imagines teal blue. Teal. It is a strange and beautiful word. He thinks of roses swaying underwater. He loves to press the petals against his lips. He loves the smell.

“What can you see?” Pamela asks.

“Teal roses,” Lachlan says, “that grow underwater.”

Pamela laughs. “Can you see I’m happy?” she asks.

“Yes,” Lachlan says. “There’s pink sugar all over your heart.”

“That’s not pink sugar, that’s Rodney,” she says.

Pamela met Rodney – who is Peter’s uncle – on a blind date arranged by Peter’s parents. In another week, she will marry Rodney. For the wedding, Lachlan is the ring-bearer, but it has been decided that he should not proceed down the aisle with the bridal party for fear he might step on his sister’s train or jostle his little cousin Libby in her frothy flower-girl skirt. Libby’s mother, in particular, thinks that Lachlan’s presence in the processional would be “unwise” and that “special arrangements” should be made.

Peter is incensed by these special arrangements. He finds them insulting. He believes they have both been insulted, he and Lachlan. “Anyway,” he says, “Libby’s so icky, she’d probably bump into you. I bet she wears socks with lace edges. I bet she wears lolly-pink panties with stupid little rosebuds stitched on.”

“She’s OK,” Lachlan says. “It’s not her fault. Her dress is going to be teal blue. It matches my vest and bow-tie.”

“You have to make them understand,” Peter insists. “You can’t let people treat us like this.”

A lot of things make Peter rage and fume. Lachlan wonders why he himself is never angry. He supposes he must be too busy being sad. He does not know if this is a good thing or a bad thing, but he does know that he and Peter are lucky to have each other. They are going to be related. Second cousins by marriage, his mother says. They go to the same school, a special school, a boarding school in one of Melbourne’s leafiest suburbs – Snob Hill, Pamela calls it, but you better not get a swelled head, Lockie, or I’ll put ice in your pillow – and every weekend they go home. Sometimes they both spend the weekend at Peter’s house, which is in Carlton, and sometimes they both stay at Lachlan’s, and sometimes each is alone with his family. Lachlan’s favourite weekends are at Peter’s house, but he feels guilty about this. His mother’s sorrow presses down on him like a pillow over his face.

Once, for her birthday, he stole a rose from somebody’s garden and gave it to her, and she burst into tears and went to her bedroom and closed the door. Lachlan climbed into the plum tree in the backyard until Pamela cajoled him down. “Birthdays are difficult for Mum,” she explained. “And it’s kind of weird, what you did, because Dad used to give her a birthday rose.” She laughed. “You must have got the rose-giving gene. How did you find it?”

“I smelled it. It was sticking through Mrs Watt’s fence.”

“Dad probably stole them too.”

“Is that why Mum didn’t like it?”

“You’re too much like Dad, Lockie.”

“But I didn’t really steal it. It was sticking through. It was outside her property. I just wanted to make Mum happy. I thought she’d like it.”

“She did like it, Lockie, she loved it, but it made her miss Dad. Or made her mad at him all over again, or something.” Pamela sighed. She held her little brother away from her, studying him. “Mum and me both think you’re the bee’s knees, so don’t ever forget that. But see, you weren’t supposed to happen. You came as a big surprise and it kind of messed things up between Mum and Dad. And then, you know, when you gave them the second surprise …”

“So, Lachlan, your dad’s coming down from Queensland for the wedding,” Peter’s father says. “It’ll be good to see him again.”

Lachlan pulls at his fingers. “How do you know my dad?” he asks.

“Same way we know your mum,” Peter’s mother says. “We met at the school when you and Peter were just babies.”

“My dad buggered off,” Lachlan says. “Because of me.”

“Who the hell told you that?”

“Pamela told me.”

“Well, it’s not true,” Peter’s dad says.

“Partly, maybe,” Peter’s mother says.

“There were a whole lot of reasons. As a matter of fact, your father took off with another woman.”

“For God’s sake, Benjamin!” Peter’s mother says.

“He’s going to hear about it sooner or later, from someone. These things happen, Lachlan. Your mum and your dad, they’re both terrific, but they didn’t really get on, and your dad was having an affair long before you came on the scene. It was a bit of a mess all round, but these things happen. He’s a good bloke, your dad.”

“A ladies’ man,” Peter’s mother says. “A real charmer.”

“You’re his spitting image,” Peter’s dad says.

“By now, he’s cheating on Judy,” Peter’s mother says. “I’d be willing to bet on that.”

Lachlan has many conversations with his father. There is always floodwater rising. They are always swimming for their lives.

How come you never even send me birthday cards? Lachlan asks him.

My new wife won’t let me, his father says. She’s jealous.

But sometimes his father says: I do send you birthday cards, but your mum hides them. She’s still mad at me.

Pamela’s mad at you too, Lachlan tells him.

Are you mad at me?

No, Lachlan says. Sometimes. Do you miss me?

Every single day, his father says. Sometimes he says that. Sometimes he says: Who are you?

Sometimes Lachlan’s father is in a military line-up of deserters. Which one is he? the general demands, and Lachlan moves from one manacled prisoner to the next. One man smells of football games, another of grass cuttings. Lachlan smells fabric softener and bleach. This man is my father, he says.

Fire! the general orders, and Lachlan hurls himself in front of the condemned man and dies a hero.

My son, my son, his father sobs.

Sometimes Lachlan’s picture is on the front page of every newspaper because he has invented a new kind of Braille. This is how it works, he explains on TV. He is sitting in front of his computer. When your fingers touch a word on the keyboard, he says, pictures open in your brain like buds opening. You can see what you read and what you write.

The TV producer interrupts. Excuse me, he says, but we’ve just had a call come in from your father. He’s watching the show.

I know, Lachlan says. I can see him.

“It’s Wagner,” Peter whispers. “It’s from Lohengrin.”

“I know that. We’re s’posed to turn round now.”

“Shh,” Lachlan’s mother warns.

They are in the front pew, and Lachlan is balancing the ring-bearer’s cushion on his upturned palms. The two rings are tethered to satin loops. Lachlan, Peter and Lachlan’s mother all turn to face the open church doors, and Lachlan can feel the blinding sun warm against his eyes, he can actually see it, really see it, a dazzle of gold and white. He has always been able to tell light from dark. From somewhere in the heart of the radiance, Pamela is coming toward them, her lace train and her flower-girl and her bridesmaids behind her. When Pamela approaches the front pew she is going to reach for Lachlan’s right hand, and he will hold the ring-bearing cushion against his chest with his left hand and go up with his sister to stand in front of the minister, where Rodney is already waiting. Lachlan’s mother will also step forward. When the minister asks Who giveth this woman … ? Lachlan’s mother will say: I do.

“Mum,” Lachlan whispers. “Did he come?”

“She looks so lovely,” his mother says, with a break in her voice. Lachlan knows she is crying.

Peter tugs at the back of Lachlan’s vest. “Someone’s pushing me,” he murmurs. “I think it’s him.”

Lachlan can feel a man’s hand on his shoulder. Floodwaters press him. He is floundering. He goes over the lip of the falls. Pamela touches his wrist. He is drowning in happiness.

“Dad!” Pamela says. “You’ve got a nerve.”

“You look gorgeous,” her father says.

“I should tell you to bugger off, Dad.”

“Please,” the minister says.

“You look good too, Elly.”

“You too, Jim,” Lachlan’s mother says. “You should be shot just the same.”


Lachlan tugs at his father’s sleeve. “I’m Lachlan,” he says.

“Who giveth this woman … ?” the minister asks.

Lachlan’s father scoops up his son and the ring cushion rises like a snowbird in flight and hovers over Pamela and falls. It hits Rodney softly on the head.

“Who giveth this woman … ?” the minister repeats.

“Do you remember me?” Lachlan whispers.

“I do,” his father says. “I do.”

Janette Turner Hospital
Janette Turner Hospital is a Visiting Writer-in-Residence at Columbia University. Her books include Orpheus Lost, Oyster and Forecast: Turbulence, which was published in November 2011.

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