SOMETHING TO LEAVE BEHIND
by Christian R. Fennell
It was the surname that got me thinking: I wonder if he’s related to Tommy Mountjoy, a guy I went to school with. When I asked if he’d heard the name, Patrick beamed at me from his desk.
“He’s my son!”
It turned out that Patrick was estranged from Tommy–had been for ten years–and was eager to know his whereabouts.
“I haven’t seen him in at least fifteen,” I said, watching the hope recede into those craggy folds.
“Oh well,” Patrick said, in a tone that suggested he’d been down this road before. “I’m sure he’s doing okay. Wherever he is.”
Patrick had been at the paper just on two months. In those days we went through typesetters like F1 drivers go through tyres. This was due to the impossible working conditions forced upon us–but mostly the production department–by the paper’s owner and editor-in-chief Gil Daisley. Although responsible for news, Gil had taken it upon himself to supervise the paper’s layout, which meant he spent more time harassing the poor typesetters than he did getting a scoop. While this gave us reporters a much-needed reprieve, it did nothing for the layout folk who copped a steady barrage of abuse. Rather than seek outside intervention most just quit. Except Patrick.
Two months in and I suspect that Gil was coming to the realisation that here was a stayer and, while his rants continued, they were tempered with a sprinkling of good-natured banter, usually reserved for late on a Friday when the paper was all but put to bed. One Friday, following a particularly tense week during which our printer went on strike and the rival paper beat us to a council corruption story, I even caught Gil and Patrick sharing a private joke.
“Looks like you’ve tamed the beast,” I whispered, handing Patrick some sports photos to scan.
“I hope so. I have to sit next to the grumpy prick.”
“True.” Then the remark that was to change everything: “Say, I went to school with a Mountjoy.”
From then on Patrick made sure he joined me at smoko–not that he expected anymore leads, although I’m sure part of him was waiting for me to turn up to work one day and announce that I’d bumped into Tommy at a club or a party somewhere. The thing is: Tommy and I were from different social circles, which in high school is tantamount to living in separate states. Tommy had his friends–most of them into surfing and any pursuit where there was the possibility of meeting girls–while I belonged to that disparate bunch of loners and misfits collectively known as nerds.
“I remember him being a good drawer,” I said, watching Patrick’s face brighten out the corner of my eye. Like father like son. I didn’t have the heart to tell him that Tommy’s talents had mostly found expression through a spray can and black felt-tip pen; that his artwork had mainly adorned public buildings and front fences.
“Wonder if he’s kept it up,” Patrick said, looking over his shoulder before lighting another cigarette. Gil made a song and dance about smoke breaks, threatening to dock our pay over lost production time. This despite the fact that Gil frequently disappeared for extended periods and came back with something stronger than coffee on his breath.
“I take it you don’t speak to Tommy’s mother.”
Patrick gazed out across the car park, which served our building and a handful of other businesses including a mower shop, a Chinese takeaway and, the butt of many lame jokes over the years, an adult book store. Gil often asked me to keep an eye out for any local luminaries seen loitering outside the latter. “What if they’re waiting for their steak-and-black bean?” I said, knowing that by keeping an eye out Gil meant keeping a camera handy. “Who cares? It’s how it looks that’s important.”
I could tell that Patrick was less than comfortable talking about this aspect of his private life so I changed the subject.
“Why don’t you drop over Friday night? I usually have a couple of cold ones. Watch the footy.”
Patrick sucked down his cigarette as if he could suddenly hear Gil approaching. “Or why don’t you come over to my place? Check out the cartoons I had published in The Herald.”
My eyes widened. “You were at The Herald?”
“Mate, this gig’s just so I can stow a bit away for my retirement.”
Patrick stamped out his cigarette. “I’ll leave the address on your desk.”
The house was about what I expected from a man who lived alone. The grass was in dire need of a mow and junk mail was strewn across the yard. Some of the weatherboards had been stripped bare in preparation for repainting; the rest were so badly flaking the paint would come off by simply running your hand over them.
I tread carefully along the verandah, which looked as dry and brittle as driftwood. At least the stained-glass windows are all intact, I thought, rapping on the door.
I heard the patter of footsteps and strained to see through the leadlight.
There was a blur of movement at the end of the hall, so I knocked again. Harder.
“Down here mate.”
Patrick stood in the driveway, grinning. “My place is out back. This is Mrs Dawes’ house. She’s deaf by the way.”
I followed him down the driveway where a second, smaller house stood behind a wall of bougainvillea. Actually, it was little more than a bungalow; one of those fibro jobs knocked up for an aging relative or, in this case, as a cheap rental.
“She live alone?”
“Unfortunately, yes. Her husband died last year. I’ve been trying to help her do the place up, but with the paper and all I haven’t had much time.
Anyway, welcome to my abode.”
There was barely room to move inside. After weaving our way through mountains of old computer equipment and stacks of books and magazines, we reached a small kitchen where Patrick took the six-pack I was holding and slotted the cans in the remaining space of his bar fridge. He kept one and cracked it open for me.
“Not having one?”
Patrick shook his head. “Been dry for ten years.” He picked up a glass of orange fizz and led me to his bedroom, which was about the only place he could entertain guests. There was one other room–this taken up by a home-made sailboard with what appeared to be a plastic shower curtain attached to the mast.
“Don’t ask,” Patrick said with a wry grin. “Let’s just say I was chemically enhanced when I built it.”
“But you don’t drink.”
“Right,” Patrick said, clearing a space on his bed. Then, reaching under, he brought out a Tupperware container with a rather pungent aroma emanating from within. “Care for a cookie?”
“These are good,” I said, thumbing through the scrapbook of cartoons Patrick had penned for The Herald. “I mean, they’re as good as what you find in the dailies.”
“They were in a daily.”
I seldom used grass myself, so you can imagine the effect a couple of hash cookies were having as I simultaneously flipped through Patrick’s cartoons and strove to maintain sensible conversation.
“How long were you with…?”
“The Herald,” Patrick said, as glassy-eyed as I no doubt was yet ten times more inured to the stuff. “I started there in ’83 and finished up around ’89.”
“Grade six,” I said, staring at an exaggerated proboscis on one of Patrick’s political caricatures. The thing seemed to be moving across the page.
“You just said grade six.”
“Oh yeah,” I said. “I was in grade six when you left The Sun.”
“The Herald,” I repeated, struggling to stay on track. “So you were a cartoonist in those days.”
“Not at all. I was a typesetter same as now but one day the staff cartoonist dropped dead at his desk and I was the only one mad enough–or insensitive enough–to finish off his skit.”
“You’re shitting me.”
I went back through the album. “Is that cartoon here?”
“After that they used to call on me whenever the regular artist was sick or on leave.” Patrick stared at some indeterminate point in the distance. “So Tommy was a good drawer then?”
“What about this one?” I said, holding up a sketch of an inflated dollar sign on a string escaping from the hand of a politician dressed in a schoolboy’s uniform.
Patrick frowned. “Much too late. That was drawn just before the recession hit.” He grabbed the book off me and for seconds afterwards I sat there with my palms outstretched as though I were still holding it.
I must have zoned out for I became suddenly aware that Patrick was waiting for me to answer a question.
“Did Tommy ever mention me?”
I saw rather than heard the question, looming towards me in large block letters. Patrick must have wondered what I was staring at. “I don’t think so,” I said, more intrigued by the way those letters sat there in mid-air than Patrick’s desperation to reunite with his son. If I’d been more lucid I might have noticed a stray tear form at the corner of his eye, dangle there for a second or two, then fall onto his open scrapbook. But the next thing I knew Patrick was offering me the Tupperware dish.
On the Monday, Patrick flashed me a knowing grin as I strode past his desk on the way to the tea room. It had taken me all weekend to feel normal again. Plenty of sleep and plenty of water seemed to do the trick. Not much different from an alcoholic hangover really, except that I had an unusually strong craving for sweets the next day.
At smoko I followed Patrick out to the car park. “What’s wrong with your leg?” I said, watching him limp out the door.
It seemed the weekend hadn’t done much for Patrick either. His lived-in face looked even more haggard this morning as he turned around on his troublesome right side.
“It goes to sleep on me sometimes.” He gave it a shake then spoke in my ear. “I take it you got home okay the other night.”
“I don’t normally use pot,” I said, glancing about quickly. “So if I appeared kind of weird the other night…”
“I hadn’t noticed,” Patrick said, as amused as I was shamefaced.
“Although you did go kind of green there for a bit. Just kidding.”
Just then Angela the receptionist appeared in the doorway. “There you are. Gil wants you to take the camera down to the kindergarten. Apparently there’s a big protest over plans for a phone tower next door.”
“Great,” I said, summoning all my Monday morning lack of enthusiasm. “Chanting mums and howling toddlers.”
“Say, what are you doing next Saturday?”
I looked at Patrick to see if he was joking. Weekend plans didn’t figure in my thinking until at least Thursday.
“I thought I’d see if that deranged sailboard in the spare room actually floats.”
Alas, we never got to christen Patrick’s dubious-looking craft–at least not together.
When Saturday did finally roll around I had the mother of all head colds and was camped out on the couch in a sea of blister packs and tissues. And after that?
Well, things kind of went back the way they had been before we discovered we had a common denominator. Having exhausted my recollections of Patrick’s only child, our relationship resumed its original status: that of work colleagues. That’s not to say we didn’t still enjoy catching up at smoko to compare notes on what we got up to on the weekend. Perhaps if I’d been more partial to a smoke–or in this case a cookie–we might have kept up our after hours revelry; but I was foremost a drinker and, well, Patrick had given that up long ago.
In the end it was a job offer that snuffed out any chance of us taking Patrick’s pot-inspired creation for a trial spin. For some time I’d been keeping my eyes and ears open for a vacancy at another paper or, better still, a PR job. While I’d grown accustomed to Gil’s idiosyncrasies, the way one gets used to a cantankerous old aunt, seeing out the rest of my career in a parochial seaside town where an unfixed pothole was big news didn’t provide much scope for the Bard in me. Not to mention my bank balance. You can measure a journo’s income by the size of the classifieds section and ours was all of one page.
So when the chance came to jump aboard the Southern Metro Star, a chunky weekly covering the south-east and boasting one of the city’s largest real estate lift-outs, there wasn’t much to think about.
Gil met the news not with his trademark profanity but with a calm indifference that grew into an unsettling aloofness over the coming days. I wasn’t worried about not getting a reference–I had plenty of contacts from four years of reporting at a local level–but I was concerned about a possible act of sabotage in the form of a spiteful phone call to the Star’s head office.
Patrick, however, put me at ease. “Gil can be a mean bastard but he wouldn’t go that low.” He limped over to the car park to stamp out his cigarette.
“Your leg still giving you trouble?”
“Yeah. I’m seeing a chiropractor tonight. He thinks it might be back-related. So when are you shipping out?”
“I’ve given Gil two weeks notice but the way he’s been acting I wouldn’t be surprised if he got someone in sooner.”
Patrick shrugged. “So take some time off.”
We stood there watching the occasional car crawl past. It was late autumn and the only traffic was local–although this didn’t seem to affect the adult book store, whose designated car spaces were always full.
By the way Patrick remained there, not bothering to light up again, I sensed there was more he wanted to say. I wasn’t wrong.
“Now that you’ll be working closer to the city, do you think you could do me a favour?”
“Sure,” I said, wondering what he could possibly want up there that wasn’t available here–short of some exotic species of weed.
“Can you keep an eye out for Tommy?”
A year passed. A new job meant new acquaintances and somewhere between chasing news stories during the week and covering local sports on the weekend I managed to grow chummy with Melinda, a sales rep in the advertising department. We went out a few times but the magic soon waned when she had me writing ad copy for the spring feature. By this time I was starting to miss the seaside hamlet whose charms I didn’t fully appreciate until now. Tyrannical bosses aside, I’d made some good friends in that part of the world and, owing to the veracity of my reporting, had gained a level of trust among the locals. Though any fantasy of returning quickly faded once Thursday arrived and I had my pay cheque in hand. But that didn’t mean I couldn’t go back for a visit…
I left early one Saturday so I could be back to cover that afternoon’s round of local footy matches. The traffic was thin and I made it in half the usual time. I drove past the paper and wasn’t at all surprised to see Gil’s ute parked out front. Alcoholic or not, the man was dedicated to his rag.
Stopping at the Lighthouse Café for what used to be my regular Saturday brunchtime treat–a toasted ham-and-cheese bagel and espresso–I bumped into Angela, Gil’s long-suffering receptionist.
“What are you doing here?”
She rolled her eyes. “I don’t mean here.”
“I know,” I said, having her on. “I thought I’d come for a drive, see if the place has changed.”
“Unfortunately, no,” she said, stepping aside to let someone in. “I take it your new job’s going well?”
“Busy,” I said, not wanting to sound too pleased. “And you’re still at the paper?”
Angela’s pained expression told me all I needed to know.
“As a matter of fact, I just drove past. Saw Gil’s truck outside.”
“That’d be right. He’s having trouble at home. Spends most of his time at the office these days.”
“I suppose Patrick’s bearing the brunt.”
At this Angela regarded me oddly, as if I’d uttered something inappropriate.
“I’m sorry,” she said, shifting about in her runners. “You obviously haven’t heard.”
“Patrick’s not at the paper anymore.”
“He’s in palliative care.”
I hadn’t intended to visit Patrick specifically, but I spent the rest of that day by his bedside at Southern Peninsula Hospice, which shared its grounds with a rehabilitation unit and a doctor’s surgery. While working for Gil, I’d covered the complex’s opening and had remarked, somewhat tongue-in-cheek, to a fellow reporter what a job the ambos would have picking the right place.
“Yeah,” he said, standing back from the gaggle of politicians and health officials. “I’d hate to come here with a broken leg and end up in the croaker ward.”
With Angela’s words fresh in my ears, I had little trouble locating the palliative care unit. While patients on crutches and in wheelchairs milled about the first two buildings, the third, enclosed on three sides by a perfectly manicured box hedge, sat there in stately repose like a private homestead. Inside, its hushed tones made me feel acutely self-conscious, as if I were entering someone’s abode.
Indeed, the look I got from the nurse at the front desk seemed to demand an explanation.
“I’m here to see a friend,” I said, at the same time switching off my phone.
I’d called work to say I wouldn’t be able to cover the footy, citing family reasons.
“What’s their name?”
The nurse consulted a list and studied me even more closely. When Angela told me how quickly Patrick had deteriorated, I cursed myself for not returning sooner. Now the nurse looked like she was about to tell me I was too late.
“He’s very tired today so as long as you keep it brief…” She stepped around the desk and led me down the carpeted passageway where pot plants and embroideries enhanced the building’s homely feel. Halfway down I snuck a peek in one of the rooms. A small hairless head turned to face me, otherwise preoccupied with something I hopefully had decades yet to prepare for.
Despite the nature of the place it wasn’t all doom and gloom. There was a certain calming tranquillity as I padded along behind the nurse, whose interrogative stance had only been in the interests of her patients. Soft music wafted from some of the rooms while in others murmured conversation could be heard. Even though I’d yet to set foot in Patrick’s room, the spectre of death was rapidly receding.
“I’ll get you to wait here a moment.” The nurse paused outside the one door that was completely closed. Not a good sign, I thought, the dread I’d just banished returning with its big brother.
“Okay, you can come in.”
A crack in the curtain lit an emaciated cheek, and as I drew nearer the Patrick I remembered–the lean, square-shouldered six-footer who could have been a swimmer in another life–seemed to have melted into the mattress. He turned towards me, blinking at the sudden intrusion of light. His eyes looked disproportionately large, set inside that gaunt face, and I realised that this was the first time I’d seen him clean-shaven.
“I didn’t expect to see you again.”
“No,” I said, knowing full well what he meant. My mouth had gone dry from waiting at the door and, together with the shock of seeing him thus reduced, I was understandably slow to respond. “I only came for a drive but I had to run into Angela didn’t I?”
“Oh,” he said, turning to gaze at the ceiling again. “She tell you what it was?”
“She tell you how long?”
“Just that it progressed quickly.”
Patrick nodded. “Then you’d better have one of these.”
A hand, uncannily large at the end of a famine-thin arm, emerged from under the sheet. While he groped about in the bedside drawer, I dragged a chair over, already sensing what to expect. Despite my vow not to go near the stuff again, I dove eagerly into the Tupperware container like a child raiding the biscuit barrel.
“I had a visit from the ex.”
Patrick shook his head. “She wouldn’t visit me. Way I used to drink.
Probably thinks I’m already dead.”
I was mindful of the need to keep talk to a minimum. But you couldn’t stop a man from reflecting on his past, setting things straight while he still had the chance. “Maybe Tommy thinks I’m already dead.”
“Tell me about the ex,” I said, partly out of curiosity, mostly out of concern we were heading down a hopeless path. My move up town had yielded nil results as far as Tommy was concerned and, as much as I wanted to reassure him otherwise, what Patrick said could well be true. “You must still be on okay terms with her.”
“We were only married eighteen months. Met at a bar. Both big drinkers back then.”
“But you’re still friends yeah?”
I could see he was getting tired, but when I made to leave he pushed the Tupperware container towards me.
“Nurse said I’ll start having trouble swallowing soon.” He helped himself to a cookie and broke off a segment. “So how’s the scribe fairing in the big smoke?”
By twilight I was stoned. Not out-of-my-head stoned like last time; more a happy to just sit there and do nothing kind of stoned. We’d exhausted our conversation–and Patrick in the process–and it was a relief to see him dozing peacefully and not have to fight for air. The nurse, much to my surprise, let me stay. I’m sure she detected a whiff of something when she came to check Patrick’s obs, but she was sporting enough not to say anything.
Finally Patrick drifted off for good and I unglued myself from my chair and made my leaden way down the passageway, past the open doors where life was slowly ebbing away with quiet dignity. A new nurse had clocked on and she glanced up curiously as I trudged past, automaton-like.
Outside it was dark and I breathed in the crisp winter air, conscious of how effortless it was. I turned around and headed back though the doors.
The nurse looked up. “Can I help you?”
“I was wondering what will happen when he can’t breathe anymore.”
“You mean Mr Mountjoy?”
The nurse came around to my side, no doubt noticing the state of my eyes. “Are you representing family?”
“Just a friend.”
“Well, you can rest assured that we won’t let him suffer, if that’s what you mean.”
“How long does he have left?”
“That I can’t say. But I would expect it would be a matter of weeks, not months.”
“I can give you this.” The nurse handed me a fold-out brochure. “It should help you to understand the process better.”
It was a step-by-step guide on what to expect in the final stages of a terminal illness. I skimmed through it at home that night and stuck it on the fridge next to the footy fixture.
Patrick died ten days later. It was an unseasonably warm August morning and I was driving to work, admiring the wattle–and the odd female jogger–when Angela texted me the news.
I rang her from work. From the noise in the background I assumed she was at the supermarket. But as it turned out, they were all there with Patrick: Angela, Gil, the new reporter, and a handful of locals who’d gotten to know Patrick in recent years.
“It’s really lovely,” Angela sobbed gently down the phone. “It’s like he’s asleep.”
I could hear Gil chatting to someone, probably a mate of Patrick’s.
Coming across as the affable boss no doubt.
“Was there anyone there…at the end?”
I remembered what the nurse said about not letting him suffer. Still, the thought of passing away without a loved one or a friend at hand seemed irredeemably sad.
“His ex-wife was with him I believe.”
I had the chance to speak with Patrick’s ex, Judy, after the funeral. It was a low-key affair, although a few newspaper colleagues from his days at The Herald were good enough to show up. The celebrant read a brief eulogy following which Gil, to his credit, gave an account of Patrick’s time at the paper. The absence of family didn’t go unnoticed; indeed, if not for Judy, one could have been forgiven for thinking that here was a man who’d never loved nor sired any children.
“Nice service,” I said after Patrick’s coffin had been lowered out of sight and the finality of his passing hit home.
“Thanks,” Judy muttered, walking demurely ahead. Then, as I broke off to my car, I heard the clatter of stilettos.
“It’s Richard isn’t it?” Judy, face flushed from her uncustomary jog, was suddenly eager to speak to me. She extended a hand. “Judy Fielding.”
I remembered what Patrick told me about meeting her at a bar. There was nothing in her prim, business-like demeanour to suggest she’d once been a devotee of saloon life.
“Patrick spoke about you. Said you worked at the paper with him.”
“That’s right. By the way, I’m sorry for your loss.”
“Thank you. Although I can’t say we were in each other’s lives very much in recent years. More’s the pity.”
Judy dabbed her eyes with a ball of tissue then stuffed it back under her sleeve. “We had some good times though. Back in the day. Patrick said you knew Tommy.”
“Only as a fellow student.” It sounded cold but I didn’t want her to think there’d been any sort of bond between us.
“I tried to get in touch with Tommy’s mother…but she didn’t want to know.”
A few stragglers filed past, nodding courteously to Judy and myself. Then it was just the two of us–standing at the kerb, at the end of a row of graves.
“Which brings me to why I stopped you just now. There are some things back at the house that Patrick wanted you to have. They’re not much but they meant something to him.”
“Sure,” I said, recalling the clutter of Patrick’s bungalow–the mostly worthless computers and magazines that should have been cleared out long ago.
“I’ll come and grab it now if you like.”
“Not today,” Judy said, reaching for the tissue again. “I’ll let you know when.”
It was then I realised she was still in love with the man.
The bay shimmered like a cut jewel as I stood surveying the near-empty beach.
I would have preferred the cove to myself but on a day like this that was being a tad ambitious. At least the only ones who’d witness my folly were an old man walking his dog and a young couple holding hands.
I trudged back up the sand and unstrapped the modified surfboard from the roof of my late 1980s Mazda. With a few tweaks and tugs I had the makeshift mast in place and the shower curtain nice and taut.
“You may as well take this as well.” Judy had said, standing at the threshold of Patrick’s spare room where the sailboard sat–as yet untried by its maker. “God knows what he was thinking…”
I already had my arms full with a box of books and magazines Patrick had intended for me–in particular his scrapbook for which I would have made the trip alone.
“If you don’t want it I’ll leave it on the nature-strip,” Judy said, noting my indecision.
“No, I’ll take it.” I was trying to work out how I’d get it home without a trailer or roof racks. Luckily, I was able to procure the latter from Patrick’s own rusted-out station wagon. “What about the computers?” I said, so accustomed to dodging those obsolete hard drives and monitors each time I entered Patrick’s abode I hadn’t given them a thought till now.
“Scrap metal,” Judy said. “They and the car.”
“Do you mind if I have a go at selling them?” I said, thinking I’d give whatever I made to Mrs Dawes now that her star tenant was among the stars.
With a flourish of the hand she indicated that they were mine to do with as I pleased.
“Just think,” she said, watching me load up the back seat. “Everything that was dear to him–there in your car.”
“Not quite.” I was sure she knew what I meant but she carried on as if she hadn’t heard.
“There’s some other stuff in bags–disks and so forth–I was going to take to the op shop. You can have those too if you like…”
The tide looked to be out, although I’m at pains to say I wasn’t much of a beachgoer–still aren’t–even though I somehow managed to get that glorified ironing board to not just float but actually sail for a bit that fine afternoon. Eventually the whole thing collapsed in a heap and I dragged the ensemble back to shore, pleased that I’d at least done some justice to Patrick’s cockeyed invention.
“She works,” I said, tying it all down. “You hear me?”
Across the waves a lone seagull gave a solitary cry. At that moment we were the only two creatures about.
About the Author:
Christian R. Fennell’s stories have appeared in various print and online journals including Quadrant, Snorkel and Antipodes. In 2012 his award-winning story “Mirage” was adapted into a radio play. He lives in Melbourne, Australia.