Goodbye by Joanna Marsh

As she gazes at the photo, the memory of coconut oil almost smells real. Her parents wore their tans like medals as they posed in front of their second-hand camper. She was there too, just a little tyke at the time, believing that the world was her playground to explore.

The next album is of Spain. This time it is Rosalie who is the little tyke, while she and Malcolm smile over her with their proud –as-punch expressions. Janice begins to flick through, marking her favourite pictures with an orange sticky tab. She will need to be conservative with her selections, there is only so much space available in two suitcases. 

Rosalie appears in the doorway. With a shock, Janice is brought back to reality as she regards her now grown daughter and the new look she has given herself. 

“What have you done?”

“It’s no big deal.” Rosalie replies. “It’ll be hot in Queensland.” 

Rosalie’s obsidian hair that usually hangs like a blanket around her shoulders is now bluntly short. Janice expects that it will appear playful, set against a yellow sundress and a brightly coloured mask but under the current circumstances, it appears desperate and wild. Janice coaxes Rosalie back to the bathroom to make a few adjustments at the nape of her neck. Her eyes catch the half used bottles of expired perfume in the mirrored cabinet. These days her only perfume is disinfectant and bleach.  

Perhaps she too will change her hair when they begin their new life. She wonders if Malcolm will approve. She doesn’t want to upset him. It has been four years since they have shared the same air; since they have breathed in each other’s presence. She has heard, however, that there are still some beauty salons in Queensland. It would be so nice for someone to touch her, even if it were just to wash and cut her hair. It would be so nice for Malcolm to touch her, after all this time. 

Two suitcases each. That is all they are permitted. There is no time and no money to put things in storage, and really, what is the point? With each passing day, there is less chance that they will ever be able to return. The looters can have a field day with all that remains. 

For the past week Janice has been playing a game of elimination. She puts everything she loves into the centre of her lounge room. It dominates the space and the miniscule suitcases in the corner cower at the weight of it all. She picks up two objects at random. This time it’s a small china vase that belonged to her grandmother and a framed photo of Rosalie, Malcolm and herself at the beach. 

“Which do I love more?” she asks, putting on a Northern English accent that reminds her of her father. 

He would have chosen the photo, but then, she was going to be with Malcolm and Rosalie, and there were beaches in Queensland. So the photo isn’t so precious. It goes to the elimination pile and the vase lives to see another round. 

It isn’t healthy to skip the allocated walk. Janice knows this. Despite the enormity of the task that still needs to be completed, she obligingly dons her thick mask, wraps a blue tartan scarf tightly around her neck and pulls on her woollen jacket. The collar scratches at her neck and she readjusts the scarf. Rosalie is down the stairs seconds later.

“How is the packing going?” Janice asks as she squirts sanitiser into her palms and then buries them in her jacket. 

“Getting there,” Rosalie replies.

 The bitter winter engulfs them as they step outside.

“I can’t believe that we will be with dad in less than a week!” Rosalie pulls her coat tightly around her.  “Are you nervous?”

Janice considers the question for a moment. Nervous. She hadn’t thought about it that way. 

When Malcolm had packed his own two bags all those Christmases ago, had he been nervous? Did he realise then, that he would be locked out, unable to return? He’d had a choice. They’d had a choice, of sorts. But with Janice and Rosalie both without jobs, Malcolm had been their only hope. The application process had been extreme to say the least. Close to 40 pages and four months of waiting. Finally, with mixed emotions, he had been granted the chance to take on the job that had been offered to him almost six months prior. 

Usually, Janice and Rosalie would meander, taking advantage of the time allowed outside. Today the cutting wind prevents any enjoyment in the routine. They walk the fastest route, along the chain link fence, heads bowed at the cold blast that pushes against them. Posters, signs and padlocks of different shapes and sizes adorn the fence. The signs are interjections and commands, ‘Wash your hands for the greater good!’ and ‘Keep your distance’. The handmade posters are illegal. The most provocative are usually torn down fairly quickly, but they can’t keep up with the production. Janice reads one that has remained for over a week now, ‘Prisoners in our own homes!’ She continues along the path in silence and wonders about the padlocks. She imagines herself adding to the eclectic collection; a symbol that she too lived on this side of the fence, once. The thought sends an unexpected shiver of fear through her and she shakes it out. Rosalie looks in her direction with suspicion.

As they turn a corner, two men cross to the other side of the street. Her eyes meet theirs for an instant but Rosalie won’t look up. They may be Rosalie’s age and Janice aches for the loss of opportunity that Rosalie has endured. She hopes that there will at least be a chance for Rosalie to meet someone in their new life.

They continue until they reach the wrought iron gates that are now permanently open. The diggers within are also a permanent fixture, humming away as they move dirt from one plot to the next. The women walk along the centre path until they reach the familiar road to the right. Still they have another 600 metres to go until they find their destination. There are so many to visit now. Five in this row and then they need to go further down the main road until they can see the other four. 

Both Janice and Rosalie have a fine-tuned system. With only a set time allowance, they have around three minutes to visit each grave. They all look the same and it can be tedious. Janice spends the time reading the headstones and then searching up a memory that she may not have thought about for a while. Sometimes she gives herself a theme, like food. She walks from grave to grave summoning up a moment in time for that person. 

Today, morbidly, her brain repeats the word death, and she can’t escape it. She stares at her mother’s grave and recalls her final day. She can see the clear walls of plastic, and her body, which is so petite in the large white bed. Her face barely visible due to the ventilator. It was quick for her mother. There hadn’t been time to exchange words. Her father was different. He had a week to grieve his wife before he too was struck down. The hospital bed, surrounded by thick clear walls was the closest Janice had been allowed in twelve months. Before he went in, he had called her. A video call. His hacked coughing terrified her and the inevitable was clear. He’d been granted six final days in hospital. Janice visited him twice. His final breathless words were strained and brief.

Malcolm has escaped that horrific reality. Being the distance that he is, he’s had a perfect excuse for not visiting in the last hours. He doesn’t fully understand the unfairness of being so close, yet so far away from loved ones in their final moments. There are only a few cousins left now and they are all working towards their own Visas. Neither Rosalie nor Janice have seen them in person for at least a year. Janice looks at her watch. They need to start moving back. She’s been questioned before when only out by five minutes. Luckily she was only fined rather than detained. There are rumours that detention, even for half an hour, can be your death sentence. She whistles in Rosalie’s direction but the muffled sound is taken by the wind. It doesn’t matter. Rosalie is just as careful with her time and doesn’t need the reminder. Together they take the second route back to the apartment, passing the anonymous soldiers who line the streets.

Time is running out and Janice needs to make the final call on the things she will pack. She goes back to her photos and takes one from each album, it’s a hard decision but one she must make. She creates a new album full of memories. Memories of the people she has lost and the freedoms that she enjoyed. Malcolm has requested a painting from the wall. It takes up so much space in her small suitcase, she climbs the stairs to seek out Rosalie. Perhaps she has some extra room. Rosalie is sitting on her bed. Her suitcases are zipped and tight, their contents straining against the fabric. She is looking at an old National Geographic, her brows furrowed. 

***

Janice wakes in a cold sweat. She walks unsteadily to the bathroom and splashes water over her face. Another nightmare. She picks up the thermometer and aims it at her forehead. The shrill beep is an affront in the still, sleepy morning. 36.5 degrees. A flashback from her dream. A chart with her temperature recorded again and again. She banishes the thought as she switches off the light and heads to the kitchen. 

While the kettle whirs and takes its time, Janice finds her numerous bottles of pills and begins her morning. The little lumps stick uncomfortably in her throat as her protesting muscles force them down. The dream will not leave her. Plastic and glass everywhere. Monitors, tubes, masks. She’s in a hospital bed. Malcolm and Rosalie’s anguished faces look in through the transparent walls. A newspaper headline flickers to mind: ‘First case in Queensland since 2023’. That’s her. She knows this without it being said. It is her nightmare after all.

Rosalie is up early too. The two sit in silence across the bench, too anxious to say a word. Janice won’t dare tell her about the night. She wonders if Rosalie was able to sleep. Rosalie fixes herself a coffee, the smell of the instant granules, turning Janice’s stomach. She misses Malcolm’s fresh coffee. The four suitcases are standing by the door, they have less than four hours before they must leave. 

Janice takes her shower first, washing her hair and body thoroughly. Her right leg seems to jiggle uncontrollably and she directs the hot spray over her thigh in an effort to calm it. She’s broken a few of her own rules this morning. The long hot shower creates steam and dampness in the bathroom. But who cares! Let the mould grow. They’ve had their final phone call with Malcolm whose nervous energy was almost palpable through the handset, and now the countdown is on.

Finally, there is a knock at the door. Very precise. 9:30am as instructed. Two soldiers greet Janice and Rosalie coldly. Their faces indistinguishable behind the protective masks. They hold up thermometers for the women and a thousand ants feel like they’re crawling over Janice’s skin. She manages to avoid scratching. They stay standing in the doorway. 

Satisfied with their temperatures, the soldiers then produce swabs. The women open their mouths compliantly and long sticks are pressed to the back of their throats. Both Janice and Rosalie gag but stay in place, the scraping intrusion familiar. Next it is their nostrils. This one is worse. Janice feels the burn that seems to touch back into the tender place connecting her nose to her throat. Usually she would sing out in distress, but she won’t in front of these two. The door is closed in their faces and they are left to wait. Five minutes feels like an hour as they wordlessly stare at the back of the door. Memories of the dream, and images of her mother and father torment Janice as she waits. Her skin prickles with sweat despite the cold and she begins to worry that they will come back to her with a positive result. How can she be so hot right now?

The knock, identical to the previous one, signals that the soldiers have returned. It’s good news. Their results are acceptable. Janice and Rosalie are given masks sealed in plastic. The soldiers watch as they rip open the packaging and attach the covers over their nose and mouth. Another squirt of sanitiser and then they are led to a van. The icy air whips around them but still Janice feels hot. They are alone in the back of the van and the windows are tiny. Not much to see. 

“How did you sleep?” Janice finally asks Rosalie.

“Not so great,” she replies.

“Me neither.”

They attempt more conversation but the tension between them makes talking difficult. 

“I don’t feel well.” Janice says

“You’re fine mum. Don’t stress.”

The airport is so different to how Janice remembers it. It is quiet and sterile. Perspex walls have been built, leading people to the different counters. The soldiers leave them and the women follow the signs and path to the first counter. Rosalie has the documents. She has checked them numerous times at home and at least three times during the trip over. They present the paperwork to the screened counter and wait. Janice goes to bite her nails but then realises it is not possible. She clenches her jaw instead.

They walk through the Dettol coated scanners and gates, and are finally led to a small waiting room. Just enough room for the two of them really. Rosalie is getting excited. She pulls out her book and tries to read. Janice doesn’t even bother. She stands and looks out of the window, huge aeroplanes are parked at different entrances. The itchy feeling returns and she indulges in a little scratch while no one is looking. 

“I’m going to miss mum and dad,” Janice says.

“They’re headstones, mum.” Rosalie doesn’t look up.

“I don’t know how I’ll manage the heat.” 

“Mum, think about the freedom. Think about how nice it will be to manage the freedom. And dad! We’re finally going to be with dad.”

Janice paces across the window. Rosalie doesn’t want to hear about her fears right now. The planes are so big, so heavy, how can they possibly fly in the sky? She stupidly recalls an old plane disaster film she once saw. She imagines breathing masks falling from the ceiling and panicking flight attendants. But would it be like that now? There might not be flight attendants, and how do the oxygen masks fit over the masks they already wear? She counts the runway lights in an effort to block out the thoughts.

Someone appears at their door. A flight attendant, just like the old days, slim and pretty with a smart suit and hat. The only difference is the matching face shield she now must wear. She does a final temperature check and provides another squirt of gel for their hands before leading the women to the plane’s gate. Janice’s right leg is shaking uncontrollably. Rosalie notices and frowns. Janice gives it a subtle little punch and marches on. Passports are inspected one final time and then Rosalie takes a step over the threshold ready for her new life. Janice hits a wall. Her leg won’t move. Rosalie goes to grab her hand but then remembers that they must not touch.

“Miss?” the attendant enquires.

Janice doesn’t respond. Her breathing begins to labour but she tries to hide it. She stares at the tunnel leading to the plane. She stares at Rosalie. Images of hospital beds, gravestones and plane disasters tumble and crash.

“Mum!” Rosalie urges.

Tears pool in Janice’s eyes. Tears spring from Rosalie’s.

“Mum!” she shouts, trying to snap Janice back to reality.

Deep breathing isn’t possible. Her breathing in fact is becoming shallow and her head feels light. She pictures her home, back in the city, dark rain sloshing in the doorway. She needs to be there, where everything is familiar and normal. A lump of pain rises in her throat.

“Rosalie,” she croaks, “I’m sorry.”

“No!” Rosalie screams, tears now streaming down her cheeks.

The attendant looks worried and confused, she doesn’t know how to react. Her concern about Janice’s actions is evident and she is reaching for the internal phone. 

“I can’t. I can’t go with you.” Janice’s voice is mildly calmer now that she allows the words to leave her lips. 

Rosalie presses her fingers to her eyes.

“Please mum,” she says, straining to keep her voice controlled, “we need to be together. You, me and dad. There is no life here.”

Janice takes a deep, shaky sigh.

“I love you, Rosalie. Be happy. Give your father a hug for me.” 

She blows a goodbye kiss to Rosalie, turns around and walks away to the sound of Rosalie’s shrieking cries.

Joanna Marsh is a teacher and writer who lives in the not so sunny town of Woodend. Alongside her passions for child-rearing, teaching and cooking, Joanna also likes to walk many kilometres around her mountainous home and then write to clear her constantly chattering brain.

1 thought on “Goodbye by Joanna Marsh”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *