"Exotic Illnesses" - third chapter (part 1 of 2)
On Friday morning before school, Mum announced that she was headed to the pub with Shelly that evening for after-work drinks and would be late home. This was strange behaviour. I hadn’t known Mum to stay out late, or to say the word “pub”.
I spent the whole day at school wondering if that meant Luke would also be home alone that night, unattended. I didn’t know why my mind kept returning to it.
At lunch, I’d taken to sitting at the table closest to the road, my back facing to Rosemary, watching cars pass by. Rosemary stopped trying.
After school, I returned to an empty house. I walked into the spare bedroom down the hall, past Mum and Dad’s room, and just before my room. At some point, maybe three years prior, Dad had converted it into a study. He bought a P.C and a desk. He’d installed dial-up internet, for which Mum continued to pay long after Dad had lost interest.
It was the only room that Mum had no reason to enter, and so, despite Dad having spent very little time in there, it reminded me the most of him. Mum had been slowly removing ephemera from other parts of the house that were borne of Dad – black and white photography of birds, a recliner in the living room where he read the paper – but she left the study untouched.
I approached the study’s sparse bookcase. The purchase of the P.C. had aligned with Dad’s brief interest in spiritual arts, black magic. There were a row of books with names like Mastering The Dark Arts and The Spirit Within Us; they all sounded like fictional textbooks for Hogwarts students. I picked up the second book and flipped to a random page. Spatterings of words on the page had been highlighted in green, red, purple. Every few lines a sentence would be massacred by a highlighter singling out words within it. This was something Dad did when he was particularly unwell, looking for hidden messages from invented enemies in books, papers, anything with prose.
I booted up the P.C and it groaned like a grandparent. I checked the phone was hung up before connecting the dial-up modem. I started my search: Monty Python.
Luke never clarified how many Monty Python movies there were, and we’d connected over little else at that point. I came across a Monty Python fan-site which listed the three canonical Python movies. Luke and I had already seen two of them. The general consensus from the site was that the remaining film, Meaning Of Life, was their worst. I felt filled with a panic, as if I’d been told I had a terminal illness. My visits to Luke weren’t sustainable beyond this final movie, I knew that. I’d been given a ticking clock on our connection and felt a sudden impulse to move things along further. I wasn’t totally clear where I wanted to move things with Luke to, only that I was now unsatisfied simply being around him while we watched the videos. I was hungry for something that I hadn’t eaten before, and couldn’t describe.
I stayed up late, first with an English assignment, and then because I was curious to see Mum when she came home. It was nearly midnight when a taxi pulled up and Mum stumbled through the front door, her face relaxed and elastic, her eyes reddened.
“Why are you up?” she slurred. “You should be in bed.” She hiccupped and walked towards the kitchen. I followed her.
“Did you have a good time, Mum?”
She leaned underneath the faucet in the kitchen, drinking directly from it. Water spilled down her neck and blouse. “Yep.”
“Can I ask you something, Mum?”
She wiped her face. “I’m really tired, Thom.”
“It won’t take long.”
Mum sat at the table and she was swaying, even in a seated position. She couldn’t focus her eyes on me.
“Dad’s doing a lot better, Mum. He’s on his meds and he’s teaching me how to drive. He seems heaps better.”
Mum turned to leave. “Great for him.”
“Is he ready to come home now?”
Mum approached and crouched towards me. She kissed me on the cheek. I could smell beer and perfume and other people’s cigarettes. “Goodnight, Thommy.” She stumbled into her and Dad’s bedroom without closing the door. She started snoring.
I walked into the room. Mum was sprawled out on her bed, face down, in her clothes. The lights were on. I carefully removed her shoes and jacket, placed the duvet over her, and opened the window so she had a nice breeze.
I woke up at nine the next day. Mum was on the couch in a robe, channel-surfing. She looked pale and sickly, and she smiled when she saw me. “Thom, can you make me a cup of black tea? Really strong.”.
In the adjoining kitchen, I steeped a teabag in her mug for longer than normal, the liquid getting darker and darker.
Mum spoke to me without getting up from the lounge room. “I feel like shit, Thom. I forgot why I don’t drink anymore.”
I didn’t say anything. I discarded the teabag and handed the mug to her. She reacted like I’d given her a life-saving vaccine, muttering thank-you, thank-you.
“I might ride my bike to Luke’s today, Mum.”
“Alright. Shelley’s probably rather hungover, as well. She was really hitting the vodka hard last night.”
“Alright.” Mum sharing all these grown-up things about drunkenness made me want to put my hand in the garbage disposal.
I changed into a plain blue t-shirt and shorts. When I walked towards the front door, Mum was still in the same spot on the couch.
She turned to face me. “Hey, Thom. About your dad.”
I was silent, but stopped.
“I know you asked me about him last night.”
“I just can’t have your father live here, Thom,” she said, sipping her tea. “But I’m glad he’s doing well.”
“Well, what would it take?”
“For him to be able to come back? What does he need to do?”
Mum made a scoffing sound, like the question was unfathomable. “It’s not like that. He doesn’t need to do anything. He and I just don’t live together anymore. You can visit him as much as you want, mate.”
“You’re so full of shit, Mum.” I braced myself for her to flee from the confrontation, or to dismiss it as ‘theatrics’ and to behave all wounded. But she didn’t.
“You don’t know him very well, Thom,” was all she said. She didn’t even look at me.
I muttered and stormed off. When I got to the front door, I closed it with more force than I normally would, to represent the concept of slamming the door without actually doing it.
On my bike ride to Luke’s, I dreamed of better ways to advocate my position to her. Evidence I needed.
But mostly, I spent the time hating her.
Shelly answered the door with none of her usual gusto. As Mum has promised, she was clinging to life. She was in pyjamas and had no make-up on and she looked older, like a witch had cursed her. She groaned something about Luke being inside and gestured towards the houses’ innards. I entered and watched Shelly go to the master bedroom and close the door behind her, like a full stop at the end of a sentence.
Luke already had the Meaning Of Life cassette cued up. He’d heard me coming.
“Can we do something else today instead?” I asked him.
Luke stared at me like I’d just suggested drinking sewer water. “Why?”
“I dunno. Do you wanna go for a bike ride or something?”
Luke grabbed a shiny, red BMX bike from the garage near his mother’s car. Unlike my bike, which was too cheap to even have a brand, his bike was proudly embraced by the company that made it. I asked him if ever rode it and he said no. “I’ve had it for a while and never had a chance. Mum drives me to school.” I wondered what other expensive things Luke had hidden away thoughtlessly, never using, and felt a pang of envy.
We rode together into town, past rows and rows of burned sugar-cane, ready for harvest. Luke and I rode slowly so we could talk. He was telling me about the Python film we’d yet to watch. “It has some gross scenes, but it’s still funny – and it’s not gross or gory like a horror movie. Do you watch horror movies?”
I had to consider my answer, like I was being interviewed. I didn’t watch horror movies -- I couldn’t -- but it wasn’t because they were too scary. The real answer would be too long and felt too intimate. It would feel like opening my body up and handing Luke my guts.
Dad had started watching horror movies when I was ten -- this was around the time of his preoccupation with magic and the dark arts started. But he was stuck renting old horror movies from the video store or catching them as they screened on television channels. He would take handwritten notes on the movies into a little off-brand notebook and then read the notes afterwards, scrunching his face up in concentration. Something about it seemed slightly surreal to me, and I’d never questioned it.
The Rosella Cultural Centre sometimes pushed a projector screen into their auditorium and screened films they could get for cheap while they were technically still in theatres. In practice, though, it meant the mostly showed family films or arthouse films, and even then, with no real consistency or predictability. It wasn’t a real cinema; the whole thing had the look and feel of a child dressing in her mother’s gown, ill-fitting and so cute.
So, for Dad, this meant driving one hour south to Mackay to watch the new release horrors. Mackay was the closest ‘city’ to Rosella, and we treated it like the big smoke, but its population was only eighty thousand and had another sugar-cane-based economy.
Back when I was ten, Dad was pathologically avoidant of being alone for any long stretch of time. He hardly ever worked by then -- he’d only spend a few hours a week at the garage, and only when they’d call him in to help with a tractor engine.
When Mum and I would leave the house for school or work, we’d return home to Dad, all eager for our attention and hungry for company. It’d been the happiest period of my life -- Dad would help me with homework, and then I’d watch him and Mum cook dinner together. I’d sit at the kitchen island and watch them giggle and touch each other, like parents in television shows. Dad’s unwillingness to be alone is why I didn’t question it, when, one day, he’d announced he was taking me to Mackay to watch a real horror movie in a real cinema.
It’d been a school day. After Mum had left for work, Dad put me in his car, and we’d headed south to Mackay. Dad had brought a clipping from the The Mackay Mercury with movie showtimes at the Regal Theatres, and he’d timed it so that between eleven A.M. and two P.M. we could squeeze in two consecutive horror movies and be home before Mum.
In the one-hour drive to Mackay, Dad had phoned my school on his Nokia and told the office administrator: “Thom won’t be in today because he’d so very ill. He’ll be fine tomorrow, though”. After he’d hung up, we both laughed at the administrator’s confused tone, as if we’d make a crank call.
The first horror movie we’d watched had been something about British teenagers who get haunted by a demon they conjured via oujia board. The theatre had been mostly empty except for me and Dad, which was good, because Dad had brought with him his notebook and pen. He’d taken notes throughout so earnestly, I’d felt embarrassed by it.
It was the first time I’d considered Dad’s behaviour from the perspective of another person.
The next movie was Jeepers Creepers 2. We’d not seen the first Jeepers Creepers. It didn’t bother Dad – he’d been studious and observant and took pages and pages of notes as each teenager was slaughtered by the monster. I’d asked Dad to put his notebook back in his bag when we left the darkness of the theatre and walked to into the lobby, where other people could see us. Dad had turned to me and said, as serious as he’d ever been: “Thom - who cares what any of these people think? They’re not going to survive it anyway.”
I’d been confused what “it” was, but Dad’s confidence cut through any shame I’d had in him furiously scribbling while we’d walked past crowds of strangers.
On the way home, Dad had debriefed with me about his notes. He’d said he knew there was “something big happening” in the near future, something otherworldly and destructive, and that “movies and films are often unwitting predictors of the future” and you can study the future by taking note of them. By then, he’d torn the pages out of his notebook and folded them neatly in his pocket to keep them safe.
We’d passed someone hitchhiking, a backpacker wanting to bypass Rosella for the beach. Dad had pulled over to pick her up. To me she’d seemed like a full grown-up, at least twenty, but she might have been younger. Dad had told her we’d drive her to the Rosella bus stop so she could hitch the rest of the way to the beach. She’d had an accent but spoke good English and she’d told us she was from France.
Dad had then told the hitchhiker that France is one of the few countries likely to spared in his theorised apocalypse. The hitchhiker had nodded politely and asked to be dropped at the side of the road instead. Dad had done as she asked, and I’d watched her as she got out of the car and walked away, uncomfortable, thumbing for a different car. Dad had turned to me. “I guess people aren’t ready to hear the truth, Thommy.”
It was four-thirty when we’d got home. Mum was due back from work. Dad had told me to change into my school uniform and pretend I’d gone that day. I’d done exactly what he’d told me.
Dad sat by reading the newspaper as I’d told Mum “school was good today”, feeling like I was in on some magnificent prank. Mum had been solemn-faced, grave, and had turned to Dad slowly and said: “Graham, they called me at work when he didn’t turn up – where did you take him? Don’t make our son lie to me.”
They’d both started screaming at each other then, about Dad being irresponsible and Mum being unprepared for the apocalypse, and many other things. They’d slammed doors and both wept openly and weren’t paying attention to me anymore.
Soon, they’d stopped making dinner together and Dad stopped helping me with homework, sleeping in his recliner most days and nights. The garage had stopped calling him. Mum would drag a spare mattress into my room and sleep on the floor beside me, locking my bedroom door. She would never explain why, and I didn’t sleep properly the whole year.
I was still ten when Dad had come home with a face like a melted candle. He’d announced to Mum and me both that he’d found Uncle John next to a shotgun, his head blown off, and Dad had then fallen to heap in the ground. Mum had shoved me into my room and closed the door and then I’d heard her muttering Graham, Graham, Graham to comfort Dad as he screamed and wailed.
Two months after Uncle John’s wake, Mum had picked me up from school and said the police had made Dad go to hospital until he was better. She’d said this while wearing sunglasses and finding a station on the radio, as if the matter was uncomplicated. I’d asked her what he did to make the police think that? She’d sighed. “He was yelling at a tourist in Main Street not wearing any clothes. I don’t know, I wasn’t there. You can visit him on Wednesdays.” That was it.
And it had all started with horror movies.
“I guess I just don’t have the stomach for them,” I said to Luke as we started getting closer to town. He laughed in a teasing sort of way.
We passed by the sugar mill, a looming complex of warehouses and two smokestacks which overlooked the town and sometimes billowed smoke. Luke turned to me as we crossed the road. “Hey – how does the mill turn cane into sugar?”
I shrugged. I had no idea – they harvested the cane, took it to the mill, smoke came out the stacks, and sugar was somehow the product.
Luke laughed. “Are you sure you’re from this town?”
We passed by the petrol station and bus depot and slowed down in front of Pioneer Park. It was a rectangle of green manicured lawn, with a playground and memorial to some local military veteran. Luke and I stopped there and approached a table on park’s fence line.
A couple of younger kids played on the swings and the slide, chirping and whistling like birds. Their young mother or babysitter sat by them and read a magazine. It was the same magazine Mum always read in the hospital car park on Wednesdays, but that issue had a photo of Angelina Jolie’s face with the words Angelina spills all! in a white, bold, font.
“I know you don’t have any friends,” said Luke, balancing his bike against the table and sitting down. He said this with no preamble.
“At school. You sit by yourself.”
I feel my heartbeat in my throat and my face flush. “I…”
“It’s okay, I don’t care. I think you’re funny,” Luke said. “There’s a kid at the Anglican School who just transferred from your school – Harvey Baldwin – and he told me about you.”
I remembered Harvey Baldwin being fat and barely more popular than me. When he transferred to the Anglican school a week before, there was no sense of loss. No grief over Harvey. I hated him so much in that moment. “Harvey was talking about me?”
[continued due to character limit]