Tenderfoot

Family Man

Author

Evelyn Abadines is a solicitor who practices in Succession Law and her work has inspired a number of her short stories, including “Family Man”.

Evelyn is completing her Masters in Creative Writing at the Queensland University of Technology. As part of her Masters major project, Evelyn has decided to write a more light-hearted story than “Family Man” and is now in the process of writing her first novel – a romantic comedy about a woman who discovers her boyfriend has gone off and married someone else.

 

by Evelyn Abadines

He died last year. Jones was his family name. That's all we know. 

We don't know when, where or how he went. We don't even know who he was or what he did. We’ve just been given a job and we’re here to do it.

We're standing in the driveway staring at the average, low-set brick home. The house belongs in this coastal cul-de-sac. However, the neglect is evident in the uncut grass, moss on the pathway and the overstuffed mailbox.

We glance at each other, then take our first tentative steps into the unknown.

My hands tremble slightly as I try to find the right key. I'm slightly resentful of my boss who has delegated this frontline task to me. Three or four keys later, the right one turns easily in the lock and I push the door open.

A musty smell lingers in the air we breathe. Dead cockroaches litter the carpet. This is a barren land even for the rodents and pests.

Thick-rimmed glasses ready for use are on the armrest of the solitary chair in the room. Dentures, a coffee mug, loose tissues and moisturiser are on a table next to the chair. It looks as though Jones left one morning to get the paper and never came back.

*

I died last year. In prison. I was cremated. I don't know where my ashes went. The ashes weren't sent to my family because I don't have one. And even if I did, they wouldn't have wanted any part of me anyway.

I still remember the last moments of my life. It was 5.30 in the morning and I had been up for most of the night, much like every night since I had been thrown in here. I was lying back on the uncomfortable bed in my cold, unfeeling cell. I was re-counting the number of cracks in the paint on the ceiling above my head when a jolt of pain hit me. I clutched at my chest. My eyes bulged out of their sockets. I wanted to shout for help but no sound escaped my parched mouth. Even if I could have shouted, I doubt there would have been a quick response, anyway. I was suspended in that state for only a few minutes, though it felt like a hundred years.

My death brought welcome relief to the excruciating pain. The useless prison guards didn’t realise I was dead until the first muster and headcount of the day at 7.10 that morning. “That sicko, Jones, in 4B has finally carked it,” the prison guard chuckled to his mates.

I was still there, in the cell, hovering next to the bed looking down at the diminished shell that was my physical form, which was already succumbing to the effects of rigor mortis.  I was there - seeing, feeling and sensing everything around me. But I was dead.

*

My job is usually safe and the majority of my time spent in front of the computer drafting affidavits for disgruntled adult children who feel they have been wronged because mum or dad had not left them enough money in the will. I don’t feel so safe right now, even though I know it’s just me and my boss in this house. There’s another presence here. The air is thick with it.

Jones’ house consists of four bedrooms, two bathrooms, kitchen, dining and living rooms. There’s crap everywhere. The house, we have been told, has been empty for almost five years. We need to gather and sort out the stuff in the house into three different categories - sell, trash or donate. We also have to sift through the piles of paper littering the house to ascertain what’s rubbish and what’s relevant to the administration of his estate. My boss and I decide to split up to complete this arduous task as quickly as possible.

I walk into one of the back bedrooms. I take a photo of the room and in it are an antique-looking Singer sewing machine, a chair and four boxes full of videos, documents, photos and Christmas decorations. I open the blinds for some light. Then I get to work by listing the contents of the room on my inventory list and putting purple post-it notes on the items we're keeping. There are two boxes of uncased videos, all of them labelled “Edinburgh Tattoo” or “A Night at the Proms”.

I approach the large box full of crumpled documents and paper - a reliable filing system, then. The box of documents reveal that Jones emigrated to Australia from England in the 1950s; he left a fiancé in England who wrote him thirty five-page letters filled with love, the anticipation of meeting again and how their wedding plans were progressing. As I read on, the letters get progressively more morose and accusatory. Her last letter accused him of abandoning her; she resented the fact that for every three of her letters he only wrote one and, the clincher, of her finding another man to love. She called off their engagement.

I find an old badge that tells me he used to be a prison guard. He received a medal for his long and dedicated service. I finally reach the bottom of the box. Stuck under one of the flaps of the box is a colour photograph. I turn it over and written in blue ink in the top left corner of the yellowed photo paper is, what I assume to be, the month and year the photograph was taken. December 1974. I turn it back over and look at the family posing at the foot of a waterfall. The tropical forest around them was a lush green from the monsoonal rains. The sun high in the sky made the family squint a little , but it also made the water behind them glisten like a perfectly cut emerald. Although the colours have faded a little, I can still imagine how vibrant that day must have been. The background of the photo is so alive and happy that the family posing for the camera looks completely out of place. In the centre of the frame is a tall man wearing thick-rimmed glasses, his arm around a woman in a floral print dress. Her arms are crossed and she is unsmiling. There are three little girls who stand as close as possible to the woman, almost as if they were hiding and trying their best to stand as far away from the bespectacled man as they could without being out of the frame. The smallest girl is clutching the skirt of the woman’s dress. None of them are smiling. I feel a shiver creep up my spine. I have an urge to drop everything, run from this house and into the comfort of the outside world and the midday sunshine.

*

There are people in my house. What do these bastards want? Haven’t I been through enough? It’s not fair. I just want to be left in peace.

There’s a middle-aged man in a suit and a girl about ten years younger than the man. She’s in a suit too and in high heels. Bags are starting to form under her pale blue eyes, she’s slouching and lines that were probably invisible last year are now gouging deep burrows in her face. She looks tired and fed up, but she doesn’t look like the type to drop everything and give in. She intrigues me. There isn’t a wedding ring on her finger and her nails have been chewed right down to the skin. I can feel a deep-seated pain in this girl. For someone so young, I see that for most of her life she has carried a heavy burden with her. Something she can’t, or won’t, share with people.

I can sense their apprehension and I can sense the girl’s fear. She keeps looking around her as though she can feel me watching them. They’ve divided up the rooms they are each to inspect. I follow the man who has chosen the easiest rooms - kitchen, living room and dining room. Not as much paper in these rooms. He takes a couple of photos, writes a few items down, but I can feel he’s already given up and will wait for the girl to finish the job for him. Instead, he decides to check his emails and to return phone calls.

Disgusted, I leave the man and look for the girl. She’s in the sewing room diligently taking stock of the contents of the room. She goes through the boxes one by one. She reads my documents, tax returns, my letters, my private notes, and finally she reaches the bottom of the box and stares at the photo. The one I wanted to burn, but couldn’t. This was my family. It wasn't long after that photo was taken that they all left me - my wife, my daughter and my two step-daughters. I still don’t understand what I did to deserve that treatment. All I ever wanted was for them to love me like I loved them.

I remember I finished a long shift at the prison and headed home. All I wanted was to have my dinner and relax in front of the television with my wife and the girls. Instead, I returned to an empty house, no dinner, no TV and no girls but there was a note:

I'm taking the girls, including your daughter, and we're getting as far away from you as possible. Don't try to find us. You'll get what's coming to you. You deserve to die alone. And when you die, no-one will weep and no-one will care.

You're a monster.

*

I’ve photographed almost every room now and my inventory list is long. My suit is covered in dust and my feet throb. I’m standing in the doorway of Jones’ bedroom. This is the last room to document, but the worst of them all. The papers are piled up high everywhere. I still have an uneasy feeling of being followed and watched.

The room is dark but the bright sunshine outside tries in vain to shine through the dense rubber-backed curtains. The room is bare except for the essential pieces of furniture. A large unmade bed dominates the room. The blankets are dirty and look like they are military issue, from World War II - in Russia. A crusty bottle of Sorbolene cream and used tissues scatter the top of one of the bedside tables, which I’m sure were once white in a previous life.

As I walk into the room, to my left there is a walk-in wardrobe full of dusty suits, bell bottom polyester pants and Hawaiian print shirts. There’s an ensuite with the shower door ajar, the doors of the vanity flung wide open, flaunting four rolls of toilet paper and Imperial Leather soap. There are cockroaches on the tiles, in the basin and even on the toilet seat. I turn to my right and find an ancient television and video player waiting for some action on a chest of drawers pushed flush against the peach-coloured wall.

The sooner I begin my inventory, the sooner I’ll be back in my safe office. I take a deep breath and prepare to take on this task.

I open the top drawer and find it’s full of video cases boldly declaring they're of the “Edinburgh Tattoo” and “A Night at the Proms”. I expect these cases to be empty but they’re not. I tentatively open one of them and read the label on the video - Gag Factor 7. That's disgusting. I’m sure the other cases contain videos following a similar theme so I leave them alone.

I have an urge to look under the bed. Something is pulling me towards the bed. The carpet crunches with each step I make, the dead, dried up cockroaches yielding under my feet. Grudgingly, I kneel down to take a look under the bed trying my best not to touch the bed itself. There, under the bed, is a solitary plastic container full of what looks like photos. I pull the container towards me. The photos are of little girls dressed and undressed in various poses. Staring at me is a pair of haunting eyes in a perpetual state of innocence, pleading and pain. Painfully, I realise the pale blue eyes staring at me from the photo belong to a six year-old me.