BY DOUG JACQUIER
Copyright is held by the author.
AS THE rain bucketed down on the tin roof, Arfer, the German Shepherd, let out a slight woof and headed for the front door. Nicholas launched himself slowly from his armchair and responded to the insistent banging. As he opened it, his grand-daughter, India, barged through, almost knocking him over with the backpack on her shoulder, concentrating solely on ruffling Arfer’s head.
“God, its freezing out there” she said, dropping her bag in the hallway and heading for the kitchen. “Why is it so dark in here?” she demanded as she fumbled at light switches, flicking them on and off. “Grumps, why aren’t you answering me?”
Nicholas said tartly, “I assumed you were addressing the universe generally.”
India sighed, gave him a perfunctory embrace, and said “Sorry, Grumps. What’s happening?”
Nicholas replied, “Don’t they teach you observation skills in Media and Communications? The powers off.”
India gave him that “Oh, God, here we go” look and did her best to look concerned. “Couldn’t you pay the bill? Oh, Grumps. Why didn’t you call?”
Nicholas replied “I am a fully up to date with whatever foreign entity owns the electricity network these days. If you’d studied Physics you’d have learnt about a concept called lightning and its ability to randomly fry man-made substances.”
“And if you’d studied Environmental Science instead of English Literature, I might live in a world that’s not totally fucked”, snapped India.
Nicholas smiled and said “So would you like a coffee?”
“Using what to boil water?”
“Watch in wonder” Nicholas said as he walked into the kitchen, turned up the hurricane lamp, fed more wood into the combustion stove and set the iron kettle on it. “I gave the barista the night off, so you’ll have to settle for instant.”
“Do you have milk?” India sighed. “Of course, you don’t. How about tea?”
“Like Henry Ford didn’t say, you can have any colour as long as its black.”
As Nicholas prepared the cups, India noticed he was limping.
“What have you done to yourself, Grumps?”
Nicholas said hurriedly, “A slight altercation with the back step as I was bringing in the wood. I’ll live.”
He well knew that ‘help’ was the beginning of enslavement and he was having none of that.
After a pause, India said, “Grumps, I need a favour” followed quickly by “It’s not money.”
“As long as you’re prepared for the answer to be ‘no’, ask away.”
“I need somewhere to live for a while. Mum and I will kill each other if we stay under the one roof any longer and I don’t have anywhere else to go.”
Nicholas said “For a week. Maximum. On one condition.”
India smiled and said “Yes, Grumps, I’ll chop the wood.”
“Make that two favours then.”
“What’s the other one?”
“Show me how to put my writing on the computer gathering dust in the lounge room.”
“Of course. I didn’t know you were still scribbling.”
Nicholas ignored what he perceived as a gratuitous insult and said “I’m still breathing, aren’t I?”
India yawned “I might just go to bed and take a glass of water with me.”
Nicholas nodded, poured her a glass from the tap and handed it to her.
“Oh my God, tank water!” India sneered, inspecting it for wrigglers.
“Well, it mightn’t be Evian but at least there’s no chlorine or fluoride in it.
“Grumps, you are seriously weird. I guess it’ll have to do.”
“Thought it might”, said Nicholas. He lit a match.
“And here’s a candle, in one of Grandma’s silver candle holders, to light your way.”
India softened. “Do you still miss Grandma?”
“I didn’t realise there was a statute of limitations”, Nicholas whispered gently. “Now, off to bed, Dropbear.”
“It’s what I used to call you when you were little. You’d appear from nowhere, leap into my lap and be asleep in seconds. Then Grace would take you off to bed.”
India quietly took her glass and her candle and headed for the spare bedroom.
“Before you go, if you’ve got any signal on your umbilical cord, tell your mother where you are.”
“No, I lost reception as soon as we hit the hills. Besides, Mum will know where I am. This is where I always come when …”
“I know” Nicholas interrupted.
“You know, you haven’t even asked me how I got here”, India challenged.
“What difference would it make?”
“None, I suppose. Night.”
“See you in the morning, Dropbear” Nicholas replied but she’d already gone.
As he stoked the stove and damped it down for the night, he muttered “Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose, eh Arfer?”
Arfer apparently agreed and, by candlelight, they shuffled off to Nicholas’s bedroom.
As he waited for sleep, he thought about India’s mother, Alice. She had been Nicholas and Grace’s shining light from the day she was born. Vivacious, razor-sharp smart and possessed of more creativity than seemed possible in one person, she both exhausted and exhilarated them in equal measure. She had a similar effect on her teachers and school friends and, later, boys and young men.
At 18, she took off to see the world and put it to rights. At an ashram in Goa she believed she’d met her “soulmate” in a wispy-bearded French artist who claimed to be a bastard child of Sartre. When she told him she was pregnant, he demanded she abort the child. Alice returned to Nicholas and Grace, heavily pregnant and suffering from what would later be dubbed Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. A more lethargic shell of her former self could not be imagined.
When her daughter was born, and prosaically named India, Alice did her best to care for her amongst the myriad inconclusive medical tests and the constant need for sleep. However, much of India’s upbringing was left to Grace and Nicholas.
India soon showed her mother’s feistiness but, as she grew, she seemed much more able to operate within the confines of school and society. In that sense she was more worldly than her mother but, to her grandparents, they always had a sense that this was a well-honed performance. What lay behind the act they could never quite tell.
Over time, Alice’s physical condition improved considerably, although she was still vulnerable to every bug circulating in the community, and she moved into her own place with India. However, Alice’s mental health was erratic at best and she had begun to display the classic mood swings of schizophrenia; hyperactive one day and showing glimmers of her younger self-confidence and creativity, and suicidally depressed the next.
Her distrust for mainstream medicine was deep, even more so for mental health professionals. What help she did seek was from naturopaths and a succession of “healers”, each one more bizarre than the next. She fancied herself as a budding healer herself but never lasted more than a couple of weeks of being fascinated with Reiki, iridology or whatever she’d last heard about.
So Nicholas and Grace became India’s refuge on a regular basis, even though she always worried about leaving Alice alone. India was a survivor. But she came less and less after Grace died. Grace was a comforter and totally trustworthy confidant. To India, Nicholas would only ever be a provider.
Nicholas watched the dark blue BMW pull slowly into the cottage driveway and saw a young man emerge, wearing sunglasses, tailored jeans, and a smart jacket over a pure white T-shirt.
Nicholas called to India “Are you expecting someone?” India emerged quickly from her room, saying as she rushed past “Its Justin, he’s come to pick me up” and intercepted the visitor before he could reach the front door. She kissed him quickly and then took his arm, steering him towards the neighbour’s horses stretching their necks over the fence in search of treats. Nicholas watched her in earnest conversation with the young man for a while and then he retreated to the kitchen to put the kettle on. No doubt some attempt at hospitality would be expected when they returned.
When they entered, Arfer’s upper lip curled and a low rumble began in his belly. Nicholas hushed him with “Arfer, that’s no way to treat a guest.” Arfer retreated to a corner, never once taking his eyes off Justin.
India nervously introduced the young man. Justin kept his sunglasses on and offered a handshake, which proved to be limp and sweaty.
“Hi, Grumps, good to meet you at last. I’ve heard a lot … “
“Not enough”, Nicholas said, glancing at India, “to know that you will address me as Mr. Goodman until invited to do otherwise.”
India’s face flushed but Justin’s face held a smile that looked suspiciously like a sneer.
Nicholas turned to India and said “India, you didn’t tell me your friend was a movie star.”
Justin slowly removed his shades and stared insolently at Nicholas.
“I don’t know, you tell me. While you’re thinking about it, would you like some tea? Of course not, you’ll want coffee”, said Nicholas, as he put the kettle on.
Seated at the kitchen table, Nicholas broke the silence.
“So, Justin, how do you make your way in the world?”
“I’m in sales. Software.”
“Ah, a master of the dark arts that India has been labouring to teach me. I fear I have been less than a perfect pupil.”
India shot back with “It would have been a lot quicker if you hadn’t kept questioning terminology and concentrated on the process.”
“Ah, yes, the crippling pedantry that is adherence to the English language” smiled Nicholas.
“Make that a crippling addiction to being a smart-arse”, laughed India. “Anyway, we should go. My week’s up”.
Justin stood and said to India “I’ll wait in the car” and shuffled out. India returned to her room, grabbed her backpack, rubbed Arfer’s head and kissed Nicholas on the cheek.
“Vintage, Grumps. Did you enjoy that?”
“No joy in an unworthy opponent.” Nicholas paused and said “I didn’t realise it had been a week already.”
India said softly, “If I didn’t know better, I’d think you might actually give a shit about what happens to me in future.”
“I do, Dropbear,” said Nicholas and jerking his thumb in the direction of Justin “… and I sincerely hope it’s not that.”
India strode to Justin’s car, grinning.
Nicholas said quietly, “Next time, Arfer. Next time you can rip his throat out.”
Doug Jacquier has lived in many places across Australia, including regional and remote communities, and has travelled extensively overseas. His poems and sAn author interview link. tories have been published in Australia, the U.S., the U.K., Canada and India. He blogs at Six Crooked Highways (wordpress.com)