The Birthday Present
By Deborah Sheldon
The old Ford rattled up Don Norton’s driveway. Don, sitting at his lounge room window, scowled and waited. The engine cut out with a wheeze and the car sank into its shockers. The kid was in the back and Don could just make out the top of its fuzzy head swinging from side to side. Pat was leaning over the seat and flapping a hand at the kid to help make her point, which was, more than likely, get out of the car, Josh, it’s his birthday for Christ’s sake, we’ll only be here for ten minutes. Don hunched into his imitation-leather rocker recliner and set his teeth.
Pat stepped onto the driveway, opened the rear door and hauled the kid out by its arm. She bent down and said something straight into the kid’s face, and steered him to the front door. Then they were past the window and out of sight. The doorbell went off.
“It’s open,” Don bellowed.
They came in and stood together on the edge of the rug. “Happy birthday, Dad,” Pat said and smiled.
Don looked at his watch and turned his face.
“Sorry we’re late,” she said. “I’ve got Lissy coming over for dinner and I had to duck into the supermarket.”
If mentioning Lissy was bait, he wasn’t going to bite. Don cut his eyes back at her. Pat had narrow shoulders and tiny feet, and parked between these delicate body parts were a big gut and an even bigger arse. The white tracksuit made her look like a giant bowling pin.
Don clicked his tongue. “You’re not wearing that tonight, I hope.”
Pat’s smile petered out. She pushed at the kid’s shoulder. “Come on, Josh. Give Grandad his present.” The kid hugged a toy rabbit to his chest with one hand and held a lumpy parcel in the other. He inched behind his mother. “Josh, go on, he won’t hurt you,” she said, but the kid didn’t look too sure. He advanced across the rug, brandishing the present like it was a shovel and Don was a tiger snake coiled in the shade. Don flung out an arm and gestured hurry up, hurry up, hurry up, but the kid faltered and stalled in the middle of the rug.
Don pulled back his arm and clenched his hands. “Hopeless,” he said, and the kid recoiled as if slapped.
Pat gave an exasperated peep. “Dad! Jesus. It’s okay, Josh, here, I’ll give it to him.” She strode across the rug, grabbed the present from the kid and held it out to Don. He regarded the present. It was wrapped in one of the kid’s paintings. Pat shook the present in his face. “Go ahead and take it, why don’t you.”
Don sniffed and took the present. Pat and the kid retreated to the other side of the rug and stood together stiffly like they were waiting for a camera flash to pop.
He shredded open the wrapping and dropped it over the side of his rocker without looking at it. In his hands was a melamine mug decorated with childish scrawls. Inside the mug was a pair of socks. He took them out. Black dress socks size 11-14. He put the socks back in the mug, placed the mug on his armrest and looked out the window.
“Thank you,” he said.
“Josh made the mug at kinder,” Pat said at last. “The children draw on special paper and then this company transfers the drawings onto the mugs. It’s a picture of the whole family - you, Josh, Lissy and me.”
She was dangling the bait again. Don compressed his lips. “I already said thank you.”
“Well, then,” Pat said.
The kid fidgeted the toy rabbit under his chin and hid behind his mother. Pat looked around the room for a while.
“Has old Jack come over to see you today?” she said.
“In hospital with a broken hip.”
“Oh. What about what’s-his-name, you know, that man you play backgammon with sometimes?”
“You mean George, do you?” Don said. “George, who died two months ago of a heart attack? You’re wondering if he’s popped in to say hello?”
“Let’s have a cup of tea,” Pat said.
She uprooted herself from the edge of the rug and went out back to the kitchen. Startled, the kid made a move to follow but she was already gone. He stood motionless and stricken-faced.
Don noticed that the kid was stocky like him, and had the same rosy skin tones. “Come and give your old grandad a kiss,” he whispered.
The kid flushed, turned his back, and ended up facing the bureau with its collection of framed photographs. There were a couple of snaps featuring Pat and Lissy when they were little, but most were black and white images of old or dead people way back in the day, a range of faces grinning with health and optimism, almost unrecognisable now.
“Who’s that?” the kid said, and aimed a finger.
Don didn’t have his glasses but he knew the sequence of photographs by heart. “It’s me. See what I’m standing in front of, the thing that looks like a board? That’s the side of a truck. Your grandad was a truck-driver. Did you know that? Did you?”
“I was a truck-driver for over forty years. Did you know there’s not a road in Australia that hasn’t had my tyre tracks run all over it at least a hundred times?”
The kid didn’t say anything.
Don shifted about in his rocker. “Did you know that?”
“It doesn’t look like you.’
“It’s me, all right.”
“No, it isn’t,” the kid said.
Pat came in with a tray. She placed it on the coffee table and handed Don his cup. He put it onto his side table without tasting it.
“That photo was taken a long time ago,” Pat said. “Grandad was about twenty-five, had a full head of blonde hair and weighed a lean one-seventy. Right, Dad?”
Don grunted. He was sixty-three years old today, bald, and the fat he carried plumped his skin tight and sleek like a walrus.
“Josh, I’ve got a glass of milk for you here,” she said, and took a cup of tea for herself from the tray and sat at the far end of the couch. She sipped in silence and looked brightly out the window as if there was something else to see apart from her bomb of a car.
The kid was edging along the bureau. Every so often he’d dip his head to stare at a photograph. Then he stopped and pointed with one stubby thumb. “Who are these two ladies?”
“My mother,” Don said.
“But who’s the other one? The lady with the black hair?”
“That’s my mum.”
“No, not the lady with the white hair, I mean the lady with the black hair.”
“I told you already, that’s my mother,” Don said. “Come away from there and drink your milk.”
The kid sidled to the couch and leaned on the armrest next to Pat. Don glowered at them from his side of the room. Pat started to smirk and Don felt his face reddening.
“The lady with the black hair is Grandad’s mum,” Pat said. “And the lady with the white hair is his mum’s sister, Aunty Mavis.”
“She wasn’t my aunty,” Don said.
Pat turned to the kid. “Grandad thinks that blood makes a family. Aunty Mavis was adopted. Do you know what adopted means, Josh?”
A tight ache flared in Don’s throat and he had to jut his chin to ease it. “Hell’s teeth, do you have to explain every flaming little thing to him?” He gulped at his tea, the ache in his throat wouldn’t shift. Pat was holding her face steady but he could still see that hint of a smile and the sly cast in her eyes.
He clattered his cup onto the side table. “Go on and tell me about Lissy before you bust a gut.”
So Pat launched into a rambling story about limousine rentals and decisions over dresses and issues with caterers and Don fussed around in his rocker and finally broke in. “Has she got the cheek for a white dress?”
“It’s cream,” Pat said. “Cream with tiny lilac flowers along the hem.”
“It ought to be red.”
“Well, it isn’t. It’s cream.”
Don snorted. “Ridiculous. You couldn’t pay me to go to that abomination.”
“Then it’s worked out well for everybody,” Pat said. “Don’t you want to know who’s giving her away?”
“Not particularly.” He waited but Pat kept on sipping at her tea. He wiped a hand over the back of his neck and found he was sweating. “If she asked me now, I’d tell her to go to buggery. And you can pass that onto her, if you like.”
“Can we go home now?” Josh said.
“Let me finish my tea,” Pat said and started drinking in great draughts.
Don struggled upright in his rocker. “I suppose this cream dress with lilac flowers is the size of a circus tent?”
“No, it’s regular size twelve. Lissy’s not showing too much. It’s just this little bump.”
“Mum, I want to go home,” Josh said.
Pat swigged hard on her tea. She put her empty cup onto the tray, stood, and grasped for Josh’s hand. Don’s vision suddenly misted. His oldest daughter and only grandchild were shimmering like heat-haze on a long and empty road and he drove back the tears with a flurry of furious blinks.
“I’ve got one good thing to say about Lissy,” he said, the ache in his throat getting worse, choking his voice into a creak. “At least one of my grandkids won’t be a bastard.”
And that stopped her. Stopped her cold. Her features convulsed for a second or two then fixed hard. And for one remarkable moment, she was the image of Don’s dead wife. Pat’s flinty hooded eyes glared like hers had done whenever he had come home from an all-night bender or tried to take his belt to the girls. Pat’s tight lips allowed him to glimpse, for the first time in seven long years, the mouth that had cursed him, nagged him and kissed him for most of his life. The resemblance was so uncanny that it lodged the breath in his throat like a chicken bone.
Then the moment was gone. Don passed a shaking hand over his face. When he looked up, Pat was sitting on the couch with her hands clamped together on her lap and the kid was over by the bureau perusing the photographs again.
“Patty,” Don said. “You looked like… when you were standing there just now---”
“I try and I try and I try and people ask me why I bother and I say I don’t know.” Pat smiled, but it was a mechanical twitch, a raising and lowering of her mouth with no love, warmth or humour in it. She unknotted her hands and laid them flat on her thighs. “Josh, bring me that picture of the two ladies, would you?”
Don wanted to tell the kid not to touch a bloody thing but his voice was dammed by the ache in his throat. The kid brought the photograph and Pat held it and didn’t speak for a long time. The kid went back to the bureau.
“If you hated Aunty Mavis so much,” Pat said, “why do you keep this picture?”
“I never said I hated her.”
“Why don’t you just snip her out of the shot?”
“I’ve only one decent picture of my mother and I’m not about to take a pair of scissors to it,” Don said. “It was taken at the old homestead, do you see? The house is there in the background. If I take out Mavis, I lose the house.”
Pat stared at the photograph in her lap and Don waited. He could hear the kid’s sneakers scuffing the carpet pile as he made his laps up and down the length of the bureau. Then Pat flipped the photograph and thrust it at arm’s length towards Don. The movement was fast enough to make him flinch. He opened his eyes and looked into the black and white image of the two women clenched between Pat’s white-knuckled hands. Don’s heart fluttered in his chest.
“Your mum was small and dark like a gypsy,” Pat said. “Then there’s her little sister, Mavis, that poor orphaned girl your family took in.” Pat angled the photograph so that she could see it too. “Mavis was big and blonde and blue-eyed. Everyone in the family seems to realise but you. Do I have to spell it out, old man?”
Don squirmed around in his rocker and craned his neck at the bureau. “There’s a picture there of your Grandma,” he said to the kid. “It’s the woman in a backyard with a dog. Can you see the one?”
“No,” the kid said. “I can’t see any with a dog in it.”
“It’s there, right there, right there in front of you, the woman with the dog,” Don said.
Don struggled like a fish in a basket. He couldn’t get up. His sweating palms kept slicking on the armrests. He sank back into the rocker, panting. “Love,” he said to Pat. “Could you show him?”
Pat dropped the photograph she was holding onto the couch and stood to her full height. “No one cares about illegitimacy any more, Dad. It was only a scandal back in your day. So you’re the bastard, do you hear? The only bastard in this family is you.”
Don’s heart trip-hammered against his ribs and for an instant, he actually felt faint. Then he thumped his fists into his armrests and the laminated mug containing the socks bounced soundlessly to the floor.
Instead of crying or apologising, Pat regarded him coldly. Don’s mouth gaped and worked and no words came out at first and then he spat them hard enough to make the cords on his neck stand out. “Filthy liar! You’ll be in the doghouse with Lissy if you don’t watch yourself!”
The kid scuttled to Pat and took her hand. They walked to the front door and began to shimmer again as Don’s eyes misted over.
“But what about his milk?” Don said. “He hasn’t even touched it.” And it was true, the glass was sitting on the tray in the middle of the coffee table, full to the brim. “I’ve got some cocoa in the pantry if he’d like that.”
The figures blurred into shadows and Don heard the front door open and click closed. He fought his way out of the rocker and fumbled to his knees but by the time he had the birthday mug clasped to his chest, the car was gone.