‘When are you coming back?’ the anxious voice reverberates from the door-way.
‘Never,’ I mutter under my breath, as the door slams and I skip down the stairs with a scowl on my face. Stopping upon reaching the footpath, I look around the quiet street and ponder my next move. I turn around and see the old Queenslander-style-house looming over me like a protective but vindictive parent. Although not the first time we’ve argued, it’s the first time one of us has stormed out of the house. Like mould on abandoned food, it seems ill-feelings have a way of growing and evolving. I turn my back on the house, pull a cigarette packet and lighter out of one of my jeans’ pockets and a coin from the other. I light a smoke eagerly, take a deep, gratifying-drag and look around the street once more while releasing toxic fumes into the atmosphere. ‘Heads: left; tails: right,’ I assure myself and flip the coin high in order to delay the result as long as possible. The shiny, 20-cent-piece twirls into the air and plays in the evening-light, then falls into the centre of my palm. I slap it onto my arm in my fashion. ‘Left it is then.’ I hoist the duffel-bag onto my right-shoulder, take that first step down the road, and have no idea where each subsequent step is taking me.
Enjoying the feeling of the generic dishwashing liquid and warm water on my hands, I place each dish on the drainer with a small smile at the corners of my mouth. I look out the window and spot the Hill’s Hoist clothesline; bristling with t-shirts, trousers and underwear, as if a squat, metal pine-tree patriotic shrine to Australian fashion and inventiveness. My smile deepens. I’m as alone in the home as a solitary mouse in an abandoned warehouse. Jess is at work in the city, toiling over balance-sheets and boardroom presentations, and Maddie is at kindergarten, toiling over finger-paintings and story-times. I was always frustrated with the idea, presented to us during school, of a career. It seemed a career was something to be feared like the hang-man’s noose, and school was the hourglass full of classes falling like sand until the moment of doom. Because of this the only classes I paid attention to during school were those of art. With each stroke of the brush, painting helped me ignore my thoughts of dread and also reinforce in me the fact that a life with a keyboard at my finger-tips, or a nail-gun in my hands, was not for me. Appropriately, I received a terrible overall mark, with exceptional individual marks for art; met a beautiful, career-minded young-lady; made love to her under the purple-flowered jacaranda in her university’s massive, grassed-courtyard; and married her just in time for her to give life to our beautiful daughter. And begin her career, leaving me to dispense with litres of paint and miles of canvas while taking care of household duties. I find scrubbing the shower, or making the beds, is the perfect balance to my artistic pursuits; a kind of domestic Zen. I’m interrupted in my task by the ringing of my mobile-phone and pull my hands from the water in order to answer, noticing red-paint still sits under my finger-nails. A common occupational hazard.
‘I’ll be home late,’ says Jess’s distorted voice from the depths of the city. I’m neither surprised nor particularly disappointed, as this is a routine occurrence.
‘I’ll prepare something special for dinner,’ I remark and she laughs, as the entire country is in the grip of a recession and all we can afford is sausages on bread, with a meagre salad.
‘Maybe some avocado on the bread?’ she says, hopefully.
‘Tomato sauce as well.’
She laughs again, ‘Cheese?’
‘Now you’re dreaming honey.’
Her laughter is more addictive than any drug, ‘Ok babe, I better go. Can’t wait for dinner, love you.’
‘Love you too,’ I return sincerely as the line goes silent. I complete the dishes, retrieve five sausages, place them on the sink for de-frosting, snatch the keys from the table beside the front-door and head out to pick up Maddie. The red paint under my finger-nails again attracts my attention, perhaps perilously, as I grip the steering wheel.
‘Why do you always come home late from work?’
She pauses in chewing her grilled collection of random animal parts, makes momentary eye contact with me and finishes her food while staring at her plate.
‘I always call ahead.’
‘You didn’t answer my question,’ I fire back. Neighbours five-doors-down can feel the tension between us as we sit across from each other, length-wise, at the oval-dining-table. The up-beat children’s television show coming from the adjacent lounge-room provides a strange contrast to the mood within the dining room. As the child of an abusive home, I didn’t want Maddie to witness this. The innocence of child-hood may be fraught with naiveté, but my commitment against her exposure to some of the harsher realities of adult-hood is as staunch as a mountainous island against turbulent seas.
‘Peter,’ she only uses my full-name in instances such as and similar to this. ‘I’m a financial consultant for a large corporation, and we’re in a financial crisis.’ A piece of carrot enters her mouth swiftly, via a silver fork, and is crunched noisily but in decreasing volume before she makes eye contact and continues. ‘I don’t think you understand how hard I have to work, in order to guide our young family through this mess.’
Her emphasis on the word ‘work’ bounces around in my consciousness like a steel-sphere in a pin-ball machine. As another piece of vegetable is processed behind her pouty lips, I accept my technically subordinate position within the confines of the current . . . discussion. I’m unable to consider a conversation between us an argument, perhaps through denial.
‘I just miss you sometimes, and I love you.’
‘I love you too Pete. Always have. Always will.’
I’m unable to disbelieve her, as it is in her nature to avoid the truth, but not openly lie. Pangs of jealousy and distrust leave like an un-welcome visitor and I smile.
‘Thanks for dinner,’ I say.
‘Thanks for dinner, babe.’
After prying Maddie from her DVD, we retire to bed. Never any conflict there, just the sweet pleasure of physical, marital-bliss.