The footbrake on Jim’s Mazda squeaked as he brought the car to a stop. He looked up at the house across the road as he switched off the engine. A memory flooded his mind: him and his father out the front of the house, on the uneven slabs of tessellated concrete, Jim trying to balance his second-hand BMX bike on two wheels for the first time. Jim was only about seven, maybe eight, at the time, and really wanted a new bike for Christmas, having witnessed most of his friends acquire their own over several months. He had no idea until much later that it was a second-hand bike, by which time he didn’t care because, by then, he’d stopped using it. On that sweaty Australian Saturday in January, Jim’s dad had tried to teach his son how to ride the bike without training wheels—what he’d actually achieved was to encourage Jim to store the bike in the shed to collect dust and innumerable cobwebs until it became more contraband than metal. That day Jim fell off his bike a handful of times, each one causing his father’s eyes to roll deeper and deeper into his skull. By the fifth or sixth time, when Jim came off and felt the singe of the scorched concrete as it grazed his calf and thigh, his dad had seen all he could. He yelled at his son, his arm cutting through the air in erratic bursts: Jim could remember words like “stupid” and “waste of money” carving up the space left by his father’s physical movements. It felt like the length of an afternoon detention at the time, but Jim now realised it was less than a minute between the outburst and his father storming off inside the house, slamming the pale, flaky screen door and causing a piercing metallic clang to permeate down their street.
Now Jim’s chronic acid reflux issue flared up as he looked away from the house and removed the key from his car’s ignition. He glanced around the street for other cars, but couldn’t see any he recognised. His younger brother and sister planned on heading over to clean out most of their dad’s place, and after some back and forth they eventually persuaded him to help. Jim took his phone from his jacket pocket, which was crumpled on the passenger seat. Ricky, his brother, had sent a text message while he was driving to the house: Hey Jimmy, leaving dad’s now. Going back home to drop some stuff and get lunch sorted for the kids. Might be back round later. If not tomorrow. Left the place open. There was a follow-up message below it, sent several minutes later: Oh, came across some stuff you might wanna go through. Left it out for you. You’ll see it.
Jim got out and grabbed the flattened cardboard boxes and black plastic garbage bags from the car boot then crossed the road. The front of the property was still just a collection of concrete and low brick fences, at about ankle height, with the only natural colour being the unkempt thorny rose bushes lining the cracked driveway leading up to the house. Jim thought about his old man getting up early every Saturday morning, putting on his baggy grey tracksuit pants to tend to his rose bushes and talk to his neighbours—or more accurately, talk at his neighbours—about the football from the night before while they tended their own gardens.
After navigating the blotches of pavement to the verandah, Jim wiped his feet on the discoloured patch of concrete before the front door where the coarse coir doormat had lain for so long. Evidently his siblings had already taken it away. He closed his eyes and drew a deep breath as his palm made contact with the door handle. He turned the knob and stepped into the house: 11 years; it’s been 11 years since I stood in this house, he thought. He was hit by the muskiness hanging in the room, buoyed by the stale air that had been trapped inside. The floorboards creaked as he slowly walked across them, the sound echoing through the empty living room. They were covered in patches of dust, interspersed with spaces where there was none. He inspected the patches, wondering what had adorned the room: was it furniture he would’ve recognised from childhood? It seemed as if only the large things had been taken so far, as only a couple of poufs and half-filled boxes remained, scattered across the far end of the room.
Jim moved through to the wood-panelled kitchen and attached dining room. There was nothing left in this room as far as he could see. The white round breakfast table that Jim remembered sitting at every night for dinner, where he was told he could not leave until he ate his vegetables, was no longer there. This, despite his father knowing how much Jim hated eating vegetables, carrots in particular—he hated how watery they were when his dad steamed them. Some of the kitchen cupboards left ajar, enough so for Jim to see that their contents had been emptied, packed up, and taken away. And, despite the kitchen and dining room being cleared out, the same musky smell from the living room lingered. It was as if nothing had lived inside the house for many years, though the opposite was true.
Through the back of the kitchen stood the sun-room, catching the afternoon rays as they cut through the eucalyptus trees lining the backyard. Jim walked through, the warm light bouncing around the room and hitting his white shirt, to spot half a dozen tall moving boxes, all still open. He walked over to one, knelt down, and began rummaging through. It was packed with knick-knacks that his dad had collected over the course of decades: snow globes from theme parks that had ceased to exist, random souvenirs from tourist traps they’d visited on holidays. His dad liked to collect such things to remember family trips, even if nobody else in the family happened to enjoy their time away. About halfway down the box, Jim found some photos in thick wooden frames caked with dust. He figured his brother must have put them in first, thinking the frames would be good enough to protect the photos from damage during relocation. He pulled one out from the top of the stack. It was a picture of him and his father, when he was about ten or eleven. The photo was captured when they were at one of his father’s regular fishing spots, a few hours’ drive out of the city. His dad used to take all of the kids there twice a year, usually during the Summer months. Jim never much liked fishing. He didn’t like it when the fish flopped about on the floor of the aluminium boat after they were yanked in. He didn’t like it how slimy they were to hold, as they wriggled about trying to escape human touch. He especially didn’t like it when his dad put a blade to their bellies and carved them in half, long ways across their body. But Jim did always like the time he got to spend with his father on those fishing trips, grinning and bearing the uncomfortable fish stuff all the while. At the time, he thought he was pulling the wool over his dad’s eyes; years later he realised that his facade was as transparent as the waters from which they would reel fish in on bright and sunny days.
Jim frowned, and put the photo frame down on the ground, away from sight. He went back to rummaging through the box, but saw only other junk his dad had collected, mostly rally car model replicas. Finding nothing else of interest Jim placed the framed photo back into the box, face down. He rose to his feet and dusted his knees with his hands. Glancing around, his eye was drawn straight to the empty room at the far end of the sun-room. The spare room had been converted into a study, but before then it was Jim’s bedroom when he was growing up. Jim’s dad had changed it almost as soon as Jim moved out, which was right after he finished high school and got a job. He’d moved the big oak desk he’d always coveted from the sun-room into Jim’s former bedroom mere days after his departure.
The oak study desk was still there, pushed up against the wall. In the centre was the box Ricky had mentioned in the text, one cardboard flap ominously opened, the contents barely revealed. Jim circled the box, slowly, his gaze fixed on it. He leaned down to open the other flaps and uncovered stacks of notebooks, all scuffed and worn around the edges. His dad never threw them out, letting them build up over the years. Most of them were records from when Jim’s dad was a junior rugby league club secretary. He had been in that role for decades, spending more and more time doing it as he worked less before retiring, at which point he did almost nothing else.
Jim picked up a small stack of the books—a mixture of deep blues and reds, because his dad had always hated pastel colours—and flipped through the pages to see how much had been written down. An envelope fell out of the front page of one notebook at the bottom of the stack. He frowned when it hit the ground, wondering why it was there. He picked it up and turned it over. “TO JIM”, it shouted to him, in block letters penned in black ink. Jim’s frown deepened. He sat cross-legged on the floor, staring at the envelope, letting a minute or more pass. Eventually, he tore the top of the envelope open with his finger, revealing a folded letter inside:
It’s been months since we last spoke, I think about 3 or 4 years since I’ve seen you. And well more than 10 since you moved out of the house. The more time’s gone by, more I realise I didn’t do as good a job taking care of you as I needed to. You’re about to turn 30 and I’m gonna die from this cancer sooner or later, but it’s me who’s still got all the growing up to do. Sorry for making you feel you couldn’t be the person you are. I’m proud of you and what you’ve done. Ricky tells me you’re doing well and happy with your job, and your partner. I still don’t get it, don’t think I ever will. But it makes me happy to hear you’re happy, and a bit hurt I pushed you away and can’t see you live your life. Things were never easy when your mother left, and I thought I knew what I was doing but obviously had no idea. I don’t know what I could do to make everything right, probably nothing. I don’t even know if I should send this. I’d probably just find some new way to screw shit up again. But I’d like you to know what I really think.
Your old man.
Jim’s widened eyes, dampened, could no longer see the words clearly. He was unsure whether those words could be read again, like some sort of classified recording programmed to self-destruct upon finishing playback, and even if he could comprehend the letters on the page once more, he wasn’t sure whether he would feel the same, or angry, or confused, or numb. Still, his fingers gripped the page seemingly of their own volition, reluctant to let go of the well that had been uncovered for the moment. His father’s words had nudged him off of his own plane of reality, and not the sound of the front door opening, nor the one of it shutting, nor the voice of Ricky calling out, ricocheting off the walls and floorboards through the gutted house, were enough to reel Jim back in from the edge.
Jesse Delauney is an emerging creative writer, living and working on Gadigal land, whose work has been published in Australian anthologies and on chain-link fences in Greater Western Sydney. Jesse was a finalist in the 2019 Better Read Than Dead short story competition, and holds a Master of Creative Writing from the University of Sydney.