By Coral Waight
The back door was wide open when I got home. Mum never left doors open. “Those damned flies,” she’d say. I looked around the yard, past the passionfruit vine, and into the vegetable garden where I often found her when I got home from school. “Hot chocolate coming up,” she’d call, wiping her dirty hands on her old gardening tee shirt. I’d throw my bag on the laundry floor, sit up at the kitchen bench and wait for her to join me.
But she wasn’t in the garden. My cat, Tibbs, rubbed himself against me, a little rougher than usual, as if he was trying to tell me something. We turned and went into the house. Mum always had the radio going. “I can’t live without music,” she’d say. But as I entered the kitchen, the only sounds were the soft tapping of the venetian blinds, tickled by a breeze from the slightly-open window, and the dripping of the kitchen tap that Dad kept promising to fix.
“Mum,” I called. She was probably in the lounge, in her favourite chair by the window, reading. She was always reading. “I’d die without a book,” she’d say. The grandfather clock gonged the quarter hour as I crossed the passage, already grinning to return her smile, but the chair sat empty and alone. It glared at me; it seemed for a moment to rear up and start towards me. I backed away and as I did, Tibbs wound himself around my legs, and we landed in a heap on the grey tiles of the passage. I shoved him off and he slid across the floor and slunk away.
A car purred along the street outside. There she was. I rushed out to meet her as she pulled into the driveway, but the car continued along the road, and I watched it turn the corner at the end of the street. I sat on the veranda step, the hot sun on my face. Tibbs came back and we waited together, knowing her car would be the next one—or the next. We jumped up every time but the driveway stayed empty.
The sun got too hot for Tibbs. He disappeared into the coolness of the passage, and I followed him. It was then that I heard a sound, a sort of shuffling or rustling, coming from my parents’ bedroom at the top of the stairs. Mum never lay down during the day. “There’s time for sleeping when you’re dead,” she’d say. I wondered what she was doing up there, and why she hadn’t come down. Why hadn’t she answered me when I called?
“Mum!” I raced up the stairs, rapped on the door, and turned the knob. Dad was sitting on the bed, his head in his hands. His usually perfect black hair hung limp, and his shoulders shook. He was holding Mum’s purple and red scarf, the one she wore whenever she went anywhere, and was winding it round and round his hand. “Dad, what’s the matter?” I asked. He jumped a bit and stared up at me. His eyes were weird and empty—and wet. I’d never seen my father cry before. “Dad, what’s the matter?” The scarf twisted, tighter and tighter.
“I’m sorry, Em,” he whispered. He wiped his sleeve across his running nose. Dad never wiped his nose with his sleeve. Never. What was going on? Where was Mum? He dropped his head again then looked back up at me. He was going to tell me something bad—really bad. I didn’t want to know. I wanted to run away—downstairs and away. The grandfather clock ticked. The venetian blinds clunked and rattled. Tibbs jumped onto the bed, pushing himself through Dad’s arms, and settling into a ball in his lap. Dad didn’t notice. Tears ran down his face, as if he didn’t care what he looked like. I cared. I wanted him to stop. I put my hands over my ears and shut my eyes.
The bed squeaked and then he was squatting in front of me. “Em,” he said. I opened my eyes. It was then I noticed Mum’s closet door was open. The clothes that usually hung so neatly were gone. The shelves were empty, too, except for Mum’s red leather gloves, the ones Dad had given her for her birthday because she’d always wanted red leather gloves.
“I’m so sorry,” he said. “I tried…I tried…” Far away, the grandfather clock gonged the hour.
I was ten when my Mum left me.