The Wheel is Turning But the Hamster is Dead
Owing to the conflict in the Ukraine, we ask all patrons to spend no more than half-hour with a single order. The message on the blackboard had been underlined twice to assert the café’s authority on this issue.
In front of us in the line someone in a beanie said, ‘Shit,’ and shuffled outside.
‘Awful business.’ Lorraine chose to add.
Lorraine was the executor of my deceased father’s estate. She inherited this position by being my father’s “dearest friend”. When he chose to, my father described “Laurie” like a figure in a religious prophecy. In grand euphemisms at the bottom of every birthday card, he wrote: ‘Love from myself and my always delightful assistant, Ms. Laurie’. I assumed that the compliments meant they were lovers, but looking at her now, she seemed too alive and gregarious to have been my father’s lover at any stage of his shy and toxic life.
‘This is hard for all of us.’ Lorraine struggled to look sincerely sorrowful as slices of frittata were heaved into her open mouth. I held back a grin at the strange contrast of such an aesthetically pleasing person having awful table manners. I matched her relaxed attitude and bit my fingernails.
‘I know, it’s a shame to lose your father, everyone knows that. Everybody loves you.’
I should have ordered food.
‘That’s so brave.’ She paused to gnash at a spinach leaf. ‘I wouldn’t want you to think you can’t talk about these things.’
‘I should be honest with you, shouldn’t I?’
Lorraine’s hand shivered. The idea of honesty seemed to make her physically ill. I heard the dull thump of her foot tapping the metal table leg.
‘Well, I mean considering the situation you’re in, the last thing I would want you to be is uncomfortable.’
‘No, you’re not.’
Her neck spasmed lightly. ‘We sat shiva for your father, I say we but I mean they.’
‘They? Shiva? But my father wasn’t Jewish, was he?’
‘No, they were friends of ours–’ I think both of our necks spasmed at that word. ‘Mine, friends of mine, who were fond of your father and wanted to sit shiva for him. It was very sweet and lovely, the neighbours brought food.’ Her fingers knitted together in grief. ‘I was never intimate with your father.’
‘Oh, well, of course.’ I felt a trickle of sweat form on my back.
‘I mean we were very close but we didn’t have that kind of relationship.’
‘Oh, well, of course.’
‘He would only – and well …’ For some unexplained reason, the reflection she looked at in the butter knife she held suddenly silenced her.
‘Oh, well, of course.’
She said nothing back to me. Instead, Lorraine turned a napkin into a hundred tiny squares of shredded paper. They fluttered onto the plate like confetti.
‘Are you alright? You’re repeating yourself. Did I offend you?’ She looked up, gently cocking her head to the side as if she were a curious bird.
‘No, no, I mean I appreciate your honesty and bluntness.’ My foot joined hers in tapping nervously on the table leg.
‘That’s good then. I think despite us not knowing each other very well, honesty is the best policy!’ Her anxiety seemed to be melting away. ‘Your father and I did speak about you sometimes. He really did love you and he wanted me to be the executor of his will so that you would get everything you were entitled to.’
Lorraine assembled her empty crockery in a pile. Behind me a barista sighed and lowered a huge bowl of soup in front of me. The pen she now held looked like the spine of a small animal. She drove it over the forms she was now laying out on the table. She wrote as if using an ouija board to contact the dead. I looked down at my croutons being slowly drowned in dirty brown soup. I was picturing a large Titanic made of burnt sourdough and the knife-shaped iceberg that claimed her and all lives aboard. Tiny screaming butter-children and breadcrumb lifeboats.
‘You know we, your father and I, never spoke about it. About who is your mother.’
My spoon stopped in mid-air. Steam tendrils drifted off of it like cigarette smoke.
‘Your father said that your mother–’ Her pen’s black ink filled a square on the form, ‘–had tried to be an actress but she had died?’
The stories bled together. When had I said she had died? What had he said? I thought about Christmas at the old holiday home. Her side of the wardrobe. About how he had carried out her bedside table himself and lay it on the beach fire. About how I noticed it had not been opened before that. About how I had said nothing. About the kisses that tasted like stolen Chardonnay. About the man I shared them with.
‘I think she died when I was a baby. As far as I remember we never really spoke about it.’
The ink devoured another pair of squares. ‘I thought you said you never spoke about your mother.’
‘We did speak about her. Don’t be ridiculous.’
Both of us stopped trying to think of something to say.
From a filthy radio in the café, Scenes from an Italian Restaurant vibrated out. As the elderly owner walked around the tables, they started swaying their hips in time with the music, sensuously.
‘I assumed that he would keep a journal.’ Lorraine started to sign the forms seemingly at random. Each signature grew more different.
‘He did once,’ I said.
‘Why did he stop?’ Lorraine smiled through me, as if my face reminded her of something. Her mouth dropped into scowl, then recoiled back. ‘Your father said once that evidence written in his own hand would only validate his worst fears. I think he stole that from a book or a TV show.’
‘He probably did do that.’ We had both fallen back into a more measured kind of chat.
‘As the executor, I feel it’s my responsibility to tell you that you will be getting all of his belongings and personal affects and that it was me who identified his body.’
‘Oh? Okay.’ I did not know the responsibilities of an executor.
‘And that he died of heart trouble.’
‘Not an attack?’
‘No, the ambulance people said it was some kind of heart strain.’ The pen finished its task and dropped lifelessly into Lorraine’s open purse.
‘Do I need to sign anything?’
‘Not yet, soon, we almost definitely will need your father’s lawyer as a witness.’
I didn’t know my father had a lawyer. I didn’t know what “some kind of heart strain” meant.
‘I just thought I should prepare you now, here, before we begin the process for the estate.’
‘What about his house?’ I remember our home before his house. The overstuffed couch, the crockery cabinet, the second chest of drawers mounded up and left on the nature-strip as we drove away. My father had started to wear glasses. I was given apologies, encouraged to go out with cash so that he could have the house to himself in the evening. I remember not coming home for two nights and he said nothing. I remember his dirty bedsheets in the washing machine and I had said nothing. I remember slamming the door of his house. I forget his accent and the nuances of his voice. I remember the kisses that tasted like older men.
‘One of your father’s friends has offered to help sell it if you like–’
‘That sounds good.’
‘I’ll give you her number.’
Her number. I remember how warm my bed was as I listened to the ring of the unanswered phone call. The long message begging my return in voices I had never heard before. I borrowed Jerry’s car while he slept in my bed. I remember the cigarette smoke from my childhood. How small his house felt when filled with more than two people. I remember washing his body, like a corpse ready for burial. As I dried him, he thanked someone else. I combed his hair and lay him to sleep on his side. How when I went to get a bucket, I found a new dog outside. How tired the dog looked, even though it had been sleeping. I remember recognising a face among the voices I had never heard before. Apologies. I remember leaving without washing my hands. I remember kissing Jerry’s smooth body as he slept and trying not to cry. I remember seeing Jerry one more time after that night. How he had looked away from me on the train. That beautiful face hidden under a face-mask.
Perhaps I should have asked to borrow his car.
‘That sounds good.’
‘You’re repeating yourself. Are you alright?’
‘Oh, well, of course.’
Nicolas Van Der Haar is an Australian writer previously published in Aniko Press and Antithesis Magazine. He lives in the eastern suburbs of Melbourne, completing a Masters of Creative Writing at the University of Melbourne. Before that they were a freelance stage manager.