Feed The Fish.
by Sian Gammie
A monophonic Waltzing Matilda blares and the man’s head bobs up from where his chin was resting on his chest. Dreary-eyed he heaves himself out of his chair. “Glasses,” he mumbles, “where has she put the wretched things?” Picking up his mobile phone and holding it at arm’s length he squints at the screen and answers, “Hello?” But there’s no one there. “Bloody stupid thing.” He tries again. “Hello!” His tone is agitated and less anticipatory. “What have I been doing?” he looks at his book upturned and askew on the floor, his glasses underneath and the increasingly large indent in his lounge chair where he’d been napping for most of the day, “I’ve just been pottering around the garden.” He’d forgotten to pick her up again.
He fixes her dinner. She prefers broccoli undercooked, carrot sweetened with sugar and the chop with the most marrow. Carefully, yet effortlessly after years of practice, he presents a precisely prepared meal. He remembers the first time he ever cooked for her. It was a simple cheese omelette on toast. He buttered her toast, not knowing as he does now that she hates the way butter melts on hot toast. When he woke her up to serve breakfast she thanked him a million times over and, he thinks, she loved him a little bit more that day. They eat in silence. She turns the radio on and leaves him to pack away the dinner. As usual he’s cooked far too much, still not used to the kids being gone.
His memory serves him right and he lets her know, “That program you like on the ABC will be on shortly.” They watch quietly until he says, “It’s the bloke from that other program we used to watch.” Without turning her head to look at him and sounding as if any response takes more effort than she would like she says, “I told you that last week.” He remembers holding her hand in the movie theatre and whispering into her ear. What was he saying to her? He can’t think of a single thing he might’ve said to make her giggle like she did. They are in the theatre again watching the film, he can feel their hands together. “…sit there,” he hears. Confused, he turns toward the voice. “I said, don’t just sit there. If you’re sleeping then go to bed!”
“I wasn’t sleeping,” he protests and for a second he believes it. But he is no longer in the theatre and the feeling of her hand in his has faded.
He’s awake when she sits on the bed beside him and for a moment he thinks she might slide one arm underneath his neck and the other over his stomach and hold him. He waits. But when he turns around she has her back to him and is rubbing cream into her elbows. “I’m tired,” he says. “But a part of me doesn’t quite feel ready to go to sleep.”
As usual she is gone when he wakes in the morning. Today she’s taken the car as he’s not to be trusted to collect her. His feet hit the floor and he pushes on the bed and stands. The effort is hardly worth it but he can’t just stay in bed all day. He eats his All-Bran and watches out the window. Crows hover threateningly over the fishpond and he’s reminded that he needs to feed the fish today. In all honesty he knows he should have fed them the day before, and the day before that. But he’s been too busy.
He strolls down the hallway in his dressing gown; hardly lifting his feet off the floor. He can hear his slippers sliding on the carpet. He knocks on a closed bedroom door.
“Come in!” he hears. Slowly he opens the door and peers inside.
“Hey Daddy,” a little girl says.
“Hi sweetheart.” He sits down on the bed next to her. “What’s my favourite girl doing?”
She jumps off the bed, picks up two plastic horses from the floor and invites him to play.
“This is mine, her name is Princess Diamond. This one’s yours.” She hands a horse to him. “Her name is Margaret.”
“Margaret?” he laughs, “That’s a funny name.”
“But Daddy, she can’t help it, she doesn’t pick her own name.”
What follows is a game where several situations present themselves in a town where Princess Diamond is more generous than Princess Diana and stops more crimes (usually committed by Margaret) than Superman.
After all the crime solving and general merriment of running through fields and jumping fences, the horses, the man and the child are tired and hungry. Without once scuffing his feet on the floor he sets off to make toasted sandwiches for lunch and they eat them on the lounge (“But don’t tell Mummy, ok?”) with the little girl squashed onto his knee, leaving the rest of the four-seater lounge bare.
The phone rings. The man jumps from the bed, leaves the empty room and runs to answer it. “Hello?”
“Hey Dad, it’s only me. Why have you got your mobile switched off?”
He wonders if this is as stupid a question as he thinks and then imagines there must be some technology-related reason that he doesn’t understand.
“Because I’m at home,” he says.
“But what if there was an emergency, Dad?”
He considers starting his ever-famous lecture about the number of emergencies that occur not actually increasing when people started buying mobile phones. He decides against it. “Then you could call me at home.”
“Anyway Dad, could you please come up some time this week and fix my cupboard doors for me?”
A smile comes across the man’s face and he wants to say, “Of course, sweetheart, I would love to!” But in fact he says, “I suppose,” and smiles to himself in secret.
While he eats his lunch, a white-bread sandwich with corn-meat and pickles, he notices that the next door neighbours on the right side are getting a satellite installed on their roof. He thinks maybe he should get one too. The kids might like that. When they come to visit.
That night he looks across the table at his wife eating her dinner. She eats very slowly these days. Her fingers are bent and stiff around her cutlery. Her face is worn but graceful, he thinks. He has an idea for a question. “How was your day with the volunteers?” he asks.
“Fine,” she says.
Without thinking, he leans back toward the stereo, hits play and Frank Sinatra begins, “Come fly with me…” His wife looks up at him, startled, and smiles. He springs to his feet, takes her hand and leads her around the kitchen floor. He holds his hand firmly against her back and they push against each other, their cardigan buttons clicking together as they dance. He gives her a slight kiss on her wrinkled skin and she tells him he needs a shave. They laugh together and as he looks around he finds himself in his chair at the dining table.
His wife looks thoughtfully at him and states, “You never surprise me anymore.”
“Sorry,” he whispers.
They watch TV in silence again and before he takes himself to bed he squeezes toothpaste onto her toothbrush and leaves it on the bathroom sink. He wipes down the mirror, fluffs her pillow and folds back the quilt on her side. He warms her pyjamas in the dryer and slips them under her pillow. When he opens his eyes in the morning he is holding her while she sleeps. One by one the kids come running in as if it was Christmas morning and join them under covers. He feels the warmth of being close to them. And the cold of his empty bed.
He rises and shuffles into the kitchen. He picks up a note from the bench, takes his glasses from the windowsill and sits down. Could you please remember to feed the fish today? he reads, All my love, xo.