I remember when Rodney Fletcher first started coming for dinner.
I was almost fifteen. My brother Joey was eighteen and a half. Dad was working at a home building company at the time, in the main office. ‘I’m in charge of the money,’ he’d say, ‘who gets paid what, how much profit we make. I keep the ship running.’ Looking back, I know he was the Chief Financial Officer.
Mum was a stay-at-home mum, who in the morning sent me to school and my older brother to university, did the laundry, hoovered the carpet, all that a kind of stuff. I’d often come home and find her either on the phone chatting with friends, or hosting them in a little afternoon get together. They’d sit round the living room on the settee and chairs with the solid square arm rests that faced the brick mantelpiece and sip on straws that looped from tall glasses filled with ice and amber liquids. Grey wisps of cigarette fumes wafted throughout the room like steam from the chorus of their chatter.
On the mornings of those days she’d say to me and Joey ‘I’ve got Terry’s and Ben’s and Andy’s mums coming over this afternoon, so why don’t you bring them home here and they can go home with their mums.’ Most times Joey would be at uni, but I would dutifully swing open the flyscreen door at around four o’clock with a gaggle of boys and the occasional sister, dump our bags in the hall and raid the biscuit tins in the kitchen cupboards, or heap towers of Weetbix in bowls, cover them in white sugar and douse the lot with milk.
The mothers would call and we’d yell back, which seemed to satisfy them. They never came out and checked we were all there. I guess if they heard our voices they knew. Whatever the case, it was never a priority for them to look in on us. Mum might, but only to ask if we had enough to eat, or to warn us against picking on the cake she’d just made, or picking on each other. Once she came across Joey standing very close to one of my friend’s sisters, but she just smiled and asked if they needed anything.
Sated on milk and biscuits we’d eventually raid their little haven, but there was nothing worth eating off the plates they had. It all smelled of vinegar and olives and smelly cheeses. After a while they’d all get up and thank each other for the afternoon. I liked Mrs Kerrigan, Andy’s mum. She often wore a kaftan with leather sandals. I liked how it flowed and how its colours wrapped themselves around her ample bosom. Mostly they wore dresses, but mum and a few others tried slacks every now and then. ‘I don’t think it looks masculine,’ Mum once said to the group, and she turned around and ran her hands over her butt. They all agreed slacks were a good thing. That was happening now. Women were getting out and making choices.
One afternoon Mum told the gathering that she had a guest from Dad’s work coming over. She explained that Dad hadn’t been at the company very long, and it was a bit of a promotion for him, so he was keen to meet the other business heads. I thought she sounded proud of the old fella. Andy’s dad was a builder, Terry’s dad worked in the bank and I wasn’t sure what the other kids’ dads did. The mothers in my Mum’s cohort left a bit earlier that afternoon.
Mum fussed around in the kitchen with unusual intensity, with electric beaters whirring and vegetables being diced and sauces made with a focus that exceeded Dad’s when he was working on the house repairs. She finally stepped back from the orange laminated bench and eventually said, ‘Boys, I’ve just got time for a shower and a change of clothes. What you see there is a salmon mousse, and there’s steak Dianne to follow. I just hope the oven won’t be too hot for the lemon delicious afterwards. Don’t you boys go touching anything.’
Then she exited the kitchen, leaving us staring at the pink moulded mass in the shape of a plump and sunburnt fish lying awkwardly on a white platter of seaweed. It smelled fishy too. We wondered what we were having.
When she reappeared not long after it was like Superwoman’s change from her secret identity. Her hair glittered with hairspray and fell to her neckline in dancing curls, she had deep blue eyeshadow and mascara on, and she wore a slim line halter neck one piece in chequered brown and white that hugged her figure but flared out at the feet. I could smell perfume too.
‘What do you think, boys?’ she said. ‘Not too much shoulder?’ She curved her right shoulder forward and ran a set of pearlescent nails across it. ‘Do you think Dad and his colleague will be impressed?’ Then she said,
‘You two go and shower and get dressed. Mikey, you put on the nice shirt I bought last weekend and Joey the checked shirt you got for your birthday. And both put on long pants and a clean pair of shoes. And deodorant, especially you Joey. When you’re done you can help me make the toast triangles for the mousse.’ As we clambered up the stairs she called, ‘And don’t leave the floor in a swamp!’
Scrubbed clean, dressed as mum directed, wet hair combed flat, we were cutting the crusts off triangles of toast when the doorbell rang. Mum dusted hands down her apron and pulled it off, pushed her hair back a couple of times and said, ‘How do I look, boys?’
The front door swung open and Dad appeared in his daily three-piece pinstripe alongside his colleague, a rakish generously haired man in a purple flared suit and a spotted cravat that spread itself across his arched lapels.
‘Phoebe, darling,’ said Dad, ‘let me introduce Rodney Fletcher, Head of Design and Marketing at Strongbuild Homes. Rodney, my wife Phoebe Warton.’
Mum approached the pair with an extended hand but Rodney stepped back and said,
‘My goodness, Dennis, you’ve trapped a princess!’ He leaned forward and took Mum’s hand in both his, raised it to his lips and placed the lightest of kisses on it. ‘Forgive me, Mrs Warton, but what an absolute honour. Look at you!’ He stepped back again with open arms. ‘It’s splendid! What is it, Carla Zampatti? It’s a rayon cotton mix, yes? You wear it so well. Dennis, your wife is an absolute goddess.’
I’d never seen Mum blush so much, and for a woman who had often told us to always have a conversation piece in your pocket, she was stunned silent.
‘And these are your two sons,’ said Rodney.
‘Michael, Joe, say hello to Mr Fletcher,’ said Dad, ‘and shake his hand properly.’
Dad had taught us to shake with a firm grip and look the person in the eye, so I did when Rodney held out his hand. ‘Michael, he said, ‘how do you do. And Joe, how do you do.’ Joey snorted, but I was swept up like Mum. His smile enveloped me, and shining eyes dazzled above a massive and conspiratorial grin. ‘Fine sons, Dennis,’ said Rodney. ‘Good strapping lads, eh? Play a lot of sport? Chasing girls yet?’
‘I think they’re a bit young for that,’ said Dad.
‘Never too young, never too old,’ said Rodney. ‘But I am remiss.’ He reached over to the hall table and picked up an enormous bouquet of flowers – banksias, hydrangeas, grevilleas, in muted golds and pinks – and proffered them to Mum. She took them and was immediate obscured by their size. Rodney reached over though and said, ‘Here, this goes with them,’ and placed a delicate kiss on her cheek.
Mum giggled. ‘Oh dear, these are lovely. You shouldn’t have.’
‘Of course I should,’ said Rodney. ‘Of course I should. In fact had I known I was entering the presence of royalty I would have emptied the entire florist.’
Mum giggled again and stammered, ‘I should put these in water,’ but didn’t move.
Dad said, ‘How about a drink for two thirsty men, darling?’
“I’d love one,’ said Rodney. ‘What ever you have available. I brought a Beaujolais too, just in case.’ He wielded the bottle high in the air for all to see.
Mum, mumbled something behind her shrubbery and Rodney said,
‘I’m looking at your magnificent home, Dennis, and Phoebe.’ He stood in the archway which opened into the living room where Mum had held her gathering earlier this afternoon. ‘It’s splendid,’ Rodney was saying. ‘The club chairs, the clinkerbrick fireplace. It’s real, yes? You haven’t covered it over with gas, have you?’
We hadn’t, and Joey and I had had many a grubby day emptying out the ashes of the briquettes from the fireplace, in exchange for a good rub down in front the flames after a shower in winter.
‘And this artwork?’ said Rodney. Over the mantlepiece hung a large rural scene, a valley that was half English in sentiment and half filled with local vegetation. A man in the corner was returning from a hunt with a pheasant over his shoulder, accompanied by a fluffy hound of some kind.
‘Oh, it’s a print,’ said Dad. ‘It’s nothing really.’
Rodney turned sharply and said,
‘Art is good, Dennis. Art tells us who we are. Australia is emerging as an artistic haven. You’ve heard of Brett Whiteley, yes?’
‘We’ve seen some of his works,’ said Mum. She’d managed to put the flowers down for a moment and was revisable. ‘At the Art Gallery, you remember, darling? When your lawyers shouted us that evening.’
‘Dennis,’ Rodney said, his arms outspread before the living room, ‘you are a bastion. This is a marvellous achievement. What a home, hey boys. You’d be thrilled to live here, yes?’
‘Let me fix you a drink,’ said Dad. ‘What’ll it be, a beer perhaps?’
‘Do you have a white wine?’ said Rodney.
‘We do,’ Mum said spritely. ‘I’ve got some to accompany the first course.’
‘Oh, you must let me see,’ said Rodney. ‘Can I let your princess show me her kitchen?’ he said to Dad, and chased Mum into the kitchen where she proudly showed off her mousse. Rodney of course was rapt. He plunged his face right down up on it. I thought he was going to push his nose in all the way, but he stopped just in time. He took a deep breath and let out a small and blissful moan. Then he rose with a radiant smile.
‘Such a perfume. Really Phoebe, you’ve gone overboard. I think I have eaten my fill already, just by looking at it. And the colour, look, Dennis, it is magnificent!’ He leant in close to Mum and said, ‘Is it wicked if I ask, is it Margaret Fulton?’
Mum beamed and nodded vigorously. ‘But I added a little thyme too,’ she said.
Rodney held his hand to his chest and lifted his gaze upwards, as if searching the heavens. ‘What a blessing Margaret has been for Australian cuisine,’ he said. ‘Have you ever tried Elizabeth David?’
‘No,’ Mum said. ‘Who’s she?’
‘The 1950’s doyenne of domestic French cuisine who taught us all how to do French food.’
‘Oh, I find all those sauces and fats too fiddly,’ said Mum.
‘Ah but that was the secret to her success,’ said Rodney, ‘she made it simple, so we can all do it. I’ll bring a copy over next time I come and we can try something out.’ He turned to Dad who was backing out from the fridge with a green bottle. ‘There will be a next time I trust.’
‘Of course,’ said Dad, and held the bottle up to scrutinise the label. ‘What have we here. A Moselle. Is that acceptable, Rodney?’
‘Of course,’ said Rodney and added, ‘as the ad goes, it’s just right for any occasion.’
Dad poured a glass of wine and said, ‘Why don’t we men head into the living room while Phoebe finishes her kitchen work here?’
‘Excellent idea,’ said Rodney. He handed Mum the glass of wine and said, ‘Is this one for you, Phoebe?’
Mum grinned triumphantly at Dad and said, ‘No, that was meant for you, but yes, Dennis, I’d love one, thank you for offering.’
We left her in the kitchen, and upon Rodney’s invitation, joined the men in the living room. A mix of peanuts and chips stood ready on a snack tray on the coffee table. Dad walked over to the stereo and put a record on. Sinatra. Rodney loved it. ‘I saw him once, in New York. He was every bit as good as they say. I saw Elvis too, god bless his rocking soul.’
Mum appeared in the background laying the table. Rodney nudged the snacks in my direction and Joey and I scoffed them. Dad said,
‘We’ve not been to New York. I went to San Francisco once for a building convention when the boys were young. The year after the Transamerica Pyramid opened.’
‘Great piece of design,’ said Rodney. ‘Did you get down to any of the hip places at all, like Polk Gulch or the jazz clubs at Fillmore?’
‘I don’t think so, but we did the zig zag street and the Golden Gate. Security was a bit tight, as there had been the first of a spate of killings that became known as the Zebra Killings.’
‘They were dreadful,’ said Rodney. ‘The failure of the summer of love, along with the Manson family.’
‘I’d love to get there one day,’ said Mum, and she removed her apron and came to join us. She sat cross legged on the settee and leaned forward, her wine glass dangling between thumb and middle finger.
‘Oh, you should,’ said Rodney, ‘and take the boys. It’s a city of liberation. An avatar for what Sydney is becoming.’ He leant over to me and added, ‘Michael, I think your mother wants a top up.’
‘Thank you, I will,’ said Mum as Dad directed the bottle in her direction.
‘Why not?’ said Dad and held the bottle up to examine its contents. ‘Plenty more in the fridge. Let’s make a night of it. Joey, hop into the kitchen will you and pull another one of these out of the fridge.’
Joey left and Mum said, ‘You’ve travelled a fair deal by the sound of it, Rodney.’
‘I left home early,’ he replied. ‘My father is a military man – a career in the forces – and we, well let’s just say we don’t see eye to eye on a lot of things.’
‘And where do they live now?’ said Dad.
‘The UK, in the Cotswolds. Cutest little village. It’s central to all his ex-army mates.’
‘And when did you last see them?’ Mum said.
‘Oh goodness,’ said Rodney, ‘let’s see. I’m forty-six now, and I was what, twenty-two at the time. My older sister had just had a baby, and I went for the christening. So it’s been a while.’
‘You should go back,’ said Dad.
‘I know,’ said Rodney, ‘but airfares the way they are and the time taken to get there. Once you get over the jetlag it’s time to come home.’
Mum stood and called us all for dinner. Rodney continued to impress us all with his stories and ideas, that seemed, even to me as a thirteen-year-old kid, somehow daring, and progressive, if a little scary as well. He told us that design would drive the future, that consumerism was all about the new, and creativity was all. When Dad involved numbers and figures, he agreed but added the necessity to inspire by quality, that an elevated aesthetic would produce better numbers than the production line.
He enthused over the salmon, and the steak and told us how the best meats are served a little bit pink, just like Mum had done. He’d worked with Milan, in Rome, in Paris and New York, in furniture houses, with interior architects and specialist fabric manufacturers. He’d worked in Halston’s studio in New York and had met Versace well before the brand was launched.
Mum’s lemon delicious was a hit too, with its air light sponginess and rich lemony cream. We had Blue Ribbon ice cream with that, served from a silver bowl using a scoop like the Mr Whippy guys had, the one with the blade that fashions a perfectly round ball of ice cream. As he talked, Rodney would often touch Mum’s forearm, or lean back and smile at Dad as if they were confreres in some grand scheme. And he plied us with the Coke that Mum had bought us for the occasion.
Dad let us stay up while they had coffee and dinner mints in the living room. Rodney made sure we were well supplied with mints. Joey and I were starting to yawn when Rodney declared it was time to depart, and followed up with effusive thanks to Mum for such a wonderful night, and to Dad for such a superb home. Dad called him a cab. When the cab signalled its arrival with a short blast of its horn, he bent over and place a hand on each of our shoulders and said, ‘You boys are going to have great lives, live them well, hey? And here’s a little something I stole from your Mum and Dad.’ He gave us the last two of the dinner mints, still wrapped in their dark brown envelopes. With a last thank you, a solid two-handed handshake with Dad and a kiss on Mum’s cheek, we watched him descend from the porchlight along the front path and get into the cab.
Dad closed the door and announced, ‘Success!’
‘I think he is utterly charming,’ said Mum.
‘Darling, you wowed him. Great job on the meal.’ And he gave her a kiss on the cheek where Rodney had left his.
‘What did you think, boys?’ said Mum.
Joey and I looked at each other.
‘He talked a lot,’ said Joey.
‘He could talk the leg off an iron pot,’ said Dad.
‘But it’s all so interesting,’ said Mum. ‘He’s full of ideas.’
‘That’s what you pay these creative types for,’ said Dad, ‘and believe you me, I know what he’s being paid. What’d you think Mikey?’
I had felt wrapped up in him, like Dorothy in the tornado, and thought we were on the cusp of a great adventure.
‘He’s very positive about stuff,’ I said.
‘It’s what we need,’ said Dad. ‘I think we can learn a lot from people like Rodney.’
And with that we were ushered up to bed while Mum started clearing up the table.
* * * * *
As promised Rodney showed up in a month’s time with a folio bound copy of Elizabeth David’s A Book of Mediterranean Food. He arrived with Dad again, his arms full of gifts for us boys (books and comics), a bountiful bunch of flowers for Mum, and wine and bread for the meal. And, of course, the book.
‘Tonight,’ he announced we make a simple but exquisite, seafood marinara, with a bottle of Burgundy from la France.’ He held up a dark bottle then dumped his foodstuffs on the kitchen table and kissed Mum lightly on both cheeks ‘Like the Italians do, il bacetto.’ Mum giggled and began fussing about the kitchen.
Rodney pulled out an envelope from inside his suede jacket and announced. ‘I’ve brought you all some tickets to see Metamorphosis at the Nimrod,’
‘Is that theatre?’ said Dad.
‘Starring Steven Berkoff no less,’ said Rodney, handing Mum the tickets.
‘We never get to the theatre, do we?’ said Mum.
‘We got to see Superstar a few years back,’ said Dad.
‘There’s five tickets here,’ said Mum. ‘Are you suggesting the boys come too?’
Rodney smiled and opened his arms wide in our direction. ‘Of course,’ he said, ‘show this stuff to kids early on. Get them accustomed to the world. Berkoff is very avant garde.’
‘Well I don’t know if the boys will understand it,’ said Dad. ‘But if you think so. There’s no – you know what – in it is there?’
‘Sex?’ said Joey. I punched him.
‘No,’ said Rodney, no sex, just a cockroach maybe,’ and he winked at us as he tittered over his joke.
Mum was putting piles of packages on the kitchen bench.
‘I bought all the stuff like you said, Rodney,’ she said, and extracted from the fridge plastic bags of fish and mussels and scallops and prawns. Joey and I grimaced at the sight, but Rodney said ‘Boys, you’ll love it. You’ve been fishing with you dad, no?’ and he looked at Dad.
Dad backed out of the fridge where he had been looking for beer and looked up sheepishly. ‘We’ve tried fishing haven’t we lads?’ he said, and added, ‘Beer, Rodney?’
‘Grazie,’ said Rodney.
Truth was Dad had tried to take us fishing once, but he had no real idea what he was doing, and we both thought he was trying his best to be what a father ought to be, but failed dismally. Joey got his finger caught on the hook, and when I cast out the line swung around the neck of the man next to me. The man stood stiff and erect as Dad slowly picked the hook from the man’s collar and unwound it about his head. Dad’s profuse apologies must have engendered pity in the man, as he gave the three of us a flathead each from the schools flopping inside the bucket at his feet. Of course we had to confess to Mum that we hadn’t caught them. She said she wasn’t keen on fish and would have a sandwich instead, but Joey screwed his face up at the flathead, so Mum cooked him a sausage and ate the fish after all.
‘I had a lot of trouble getting some of the materials though,’ Mum said. Like this tomato paste and the cheese. I had to go to that Italian grocer place you phoned me about. I’d never been in such a shop. It was fascinating.’ She pulled a triangular chunk of hard cheese out of a square of waxed paper.
‘Parmigiano-Reggiano,’ announced Rodney, ‘from Emilia-Romagna.’
‘Parmesan,’ said Dad.
‘It’s not like the parmesan in the carton we buy in Coles,’ said Mum.
‘Stinky sick cheese,’ said Joey.
‘Not this one, Joey,’ said Rodney. He cut a slice off the block and handed it to Joey. ‘Smell this, it’s real parmesan’. Joey backed away, but Dad cut a slice for himself and said, ‘Mmmm, you’re right, this is quite good.’
Rodney stood next to Mum and opened the cookbook he had brought at the recipe.
‘It doesn’t have any quantities,’ said Mum.
‘That’s right,’ said Rodney. ‘Cooking is flair and taste, and Phoebe, you have flair. I can feel it.’
Mum giggled. She pulled a wet roll of paper out of one of the plastic bags and unwrapped it. White and pink fish fillets flopped on to the kitchen bench next to a bag of slimy green prawns. Dad offered to shell the prawns and Mum began dicing the fish.
‘No, no,’ said Rodney. ‘If you hold the meat that away you’ll cut yourself. Here let me show you.’
He stood behind Mum and put his arms around here and his hands of top of hers. Then he curled her fingers so the nails held the fish and her knuckles extended over the top.
‘This way protects your fingers; they are always behind the knuckles, so the knife can’t touch your fingers. You should chop everything this way. It feels odd at first, but after a while it becomes second nature.’
He held her hands while they sliced four or five chunks off the salmon fillets. When he let go, he said, ‘Lovely polish by the way.’
Dad was watching. Rodney said, ‘Here, Dennis, you have a go,’ and Mum offered him the knife. Rodney went to put is arms around Dad, but said ‘Goodness, Dennis, you’re way to beefy for my delicate reach. Boys, your dad is a big man.’ Dad smiled, pushed on the knife and yelled in pain as it sliced into his finger.
The marinara was actually pretty damn tasty, even with the seafood, and Joey and I gobbled it up. The cheese wasn’t stinky either. Dad spent the meal holding his hand up in the air wrapped in gauze to stem the blood, and eating the spaghetti with just a fork. ‘You twirl it like the Italians do,’ he said. Every now and then he stopped and swilled the glass of wine that Rodney had poured. ‘Never really tried French wine before, but this goes well with the meal.’
* * * * *
The theatre night was weird. Not just because of the play, but everything. On the whole a good kind of weird, but weird nonetheless. The play was about a bloke who turned into a cockroach overnight and his family reject him, and he eventually dies.
Dad sat next to Mum who sat next to Rodney who sat next to me. Joey was meant to meet us straight from uni, but was late, and Mum was getting flustered. Rodney talked excitedly about everything on stage and in the book the play came from. He was pointing to all the stuff on stage – most of which was a kind of iron cage crossed with a four-poster bed. Rodney touched Mum’s arm a lot as he spoke about the man who wrote the book of the play and the main actor who was out from England. Dad nodded a lot, and Mum looked around anxiously for my brother.
The lights went down, and, just before anything happened Joey shuffled past others in audience to join us. Then the man/cockroach appeared. Joey and I laughed, but I was thrilled at the same time. The actor playing the cockroach was really clever how he moved about the bed and floor like a cockroach with his arms crossed under him and his bum in the air, and little jerky movements like the cockroaches under the house we try to squash before they escape into the dark. The family was odd though, as they moved about in big jerky movements with their arms all akimbo and their faces stretched taut.
But the end was true to life, as the cockroach man lay on his back and slowly curled his arms and legs up.
At the end Rodney sprang to his feet and offered Mum his hand to help her rise. Then he turned to us and said, ‘It’s brilliant, yes? What did you think, lads?’
‘It’s weird,’ I said. Rodney bent low and then rose again, as if he was bowing to an imaginary audience.
‘I know, right?,’ he said. ‘Like life itself. Anything can happen.’
I had a coke out in the lobby. Joey had a beer, which he hid behind his back after each sip. While Mum and Dad shared a champagne, Rodney kept on talking about the show, pausing occasionally to greet other people from the audience. He was very striking in his vibrant blue checked suit, with an open white shirt showing off his chest. Dad still had his work suit on, but Mum had dressed for the night with a flowing kaftan in swirling colours of red gold and green. Her hair was up, making her much taller than both Dad and Rodney, and I saw plenty of men in the audience looking at her.
Each time Rodney met someone he knew he gave them a big hug and then introduced him to us, in enthusiastic tones. ‘You simply must meet Brian, he works at the Palace theatre,’ or ‘Jack and his lovely wife here are great supporters of the arts.’ It was always ‘You must say hello to my colleague Dennis and his ravishing wife Phoebe, lovely people.’ And he’d kiss the woman if there was one and hug the man.
The whole place seemed alive and exciting. Everyone talked about the play and other plays they’d seen and wasn’t it a pity the Old Tote was in administration as it was so necessary for the arts to get corporate funding when the current government was coughing up so little. Although there was the new Sydney Theatre Company being created next year. Then back to the play tonight because wasn’t so and so marvellous, and the lighting and minimal stage: Berkoff is a master. In the middle of it all Dad said,
‘I’m not fully sure I understood it though,’ and someone said, ‘You’re not really supposed to, it washes over you and hits you in your gut,’ and everybody laughed.
‘I found it quite unnerving,’ Mum said. ‘It leaves a big question mark. How do we see the world? That sort of thing.’
Rodney was ecstatic. ‘You see,’ he said, ‘I told you you have flair!’ and he kissed her hand like a gallant knight might a lady’s. ‘This is where ideas come from, seeing things in new ways, letting new forms emerge.’
Driving home Mum asked Dad what he thought of it all. He said, ‘Like I said, I’m not sure it means anything really, but it was odd. They were there afterwards though to get money out of me.’
‘How so?’ said Mum.
‘You heard the cry for corporate funding. I was the only money man there, everyone else worked in the arts. It was ‘drop the hint to Rodney’s new friend’, he controls the purse strings in a rich housing company.’
Mum slapped his thigh playfully. ‘I think you’re reading too much into it,’ she said. ‘They were just a bunch of interesting people having a good night out. Isn’t that right, boys?’
Joey rolled his eyes and said ‘Yeah, right.’ I didn’t know what to say, so just shrugged. Mum said, ‘Joey, don’t be so sarcastic. Take it all in.’
Then Dad said,
‘How was the beer, Joe?’
Joe startled and said, ‘I’m eighteen, Dad.’
‘I know, son,’ Dad said. ‘I like seeing my boys grow up. In fact, I regard it as a good night overall. I liked Rodney’s bit about ideas. That’s what we need, new ideas. His figures are good too. He’s making sales, with his new ideas.’
* * * * *
The dinners became a regular feature. Mum and Dad would often invite other guests along too. I suspect they enjoyed being part of an in crowd. Many a mother at the school canteen said to me, ‘You tell your Mum to add me to the dinner list, Mikey.’ Some of Dad’s colleagues would come, although we were never graced with the presence of the guy who was his boss and owner of the company. I met him once at a company picnic. His name was Fred Harvey, and he was a brash beefy guy who hailed from Wollongong and had built the business from scratch.
Dad was pleased with his social world. He often sat at the dinner table admiring Mum as she heaped praise on Rodney as he told some humorous – and,, increasingly over the months risqué – tale. Dad said to me once, ‘There’s a bit of cachet around all this you know.’ He felt he was the boring numbers man who wasn’t so boring after all. I don’t know what he hoped to achieve with it, whether it was just social elevation or if he was searching or something more inside himself. His clothing gradually changed too. He stopped wearing ties to dinner, and tried a range of jackets – suede, denim and checks. He wore shirts that clung more closely to his torso; Mum would run her hand over his chest and sigh, then proffer a little peck on his cheek. Initially he responded coyly to her approach, but after a month or two he welcomed it, and on occasions turned his head to greet her lips to lips.
Rodney often spoke freely about sex too. At first Mum tried to exclude me from the conversation, but Rodney insisted I stay. ‘He’s fifteen, Phoebe, he knows it all already.’ He often repeated that it was the twentieth century, people should be free to have the sex they want. Mum and Dad guffawed at this, affecting embarrassment, but I noticed they spent more time in their bedroom, especially on the weekends, with the door closed. They’d come out after about an hour looking flushed and scramble haired, with a look on their faces that said, ‘You don’t know what we just did.’ We so did. It was obvious, and more than a little bit gross.
Mum meanwhile was in her element. She practised the most elaborate dishes she could find, bought bottles of expensive wine (‘She’s draining my credit card,’ said Dad and turned for a kiss) and spent long hours searching out fresh or obscure ingredients. She adored Rodney and lavished him with hugs and kisses as much as she did Dad. She’d turn to her guests and say, ‘This is Rodney. He is the most delicious morsel,’ and give him a big squeeze and kiss. Rodney was always careful not to meet her lips with his though; perhaps, I thought, he was conscious of Dad’s presence.
I joined in as much as I could and became the delivery boy for much alcohol, and expanded my palate from hot chips or Weetbix to an assortment of cheeses, olives, dips and meats (or viands, as Rodney called them). I liked the way the adults treated me like one of them. I didn’t feel like I was a kid, but a respected member of the group.
Joey spent less time at home. He had mates in a football club and, off and on (more off) a girl on his arm. I asked him once if he liked Rodney and the dinners and he said, ‘He’s left of centre, Mikey. Look at him.’ At the time Rodney was regaling a table of ten with stories of life in Milan, when he played Arlechino in an amateur Commedia dell’arte troupe. He was snorting like a ruffling pig into Mum’s high collar on her pants suit to a round of guffaws. I saw her run her hand along his arm as he pulled away from her to continue his story.
For his part, Rodney once declared, across a half dozen empty bottles on the stained linen tablecloth, that our house was a real home, and great shelter from the storm of his life. ‘Phoebe – and you, Dennis – are to be congratulated for your exploratory minds, your cultural tastes and the solid foundations you have set in this wonderful home.’ He then led a round of applause.
He took Mum – and occasionally Dad – to art galleries in inner Sydney. She would come home full of enthusiasm for what she’d seen and press Dad to buy something. ‘He introduced me to his friend Jason who is an artist, and showed me his works. They were amazing. Most of them nudes, a few women and lots of men, in dark greens and blues, all very artistic. We should invest Dennis. There’s good money in art.’
Works did appear on the walls over time. Abstract pieces, coloured shapes and oddly drawn figures. There were some attractive smokey views of Sydney Harbour I liked, and a large piece in pastel shades with bits of piping stuck on the front which Dad said set him back a small fortune, not that he could see why.
Looking back, all this activity alienated Joey. He spent less and less time at home, often staying at student houses in Camperdown or Newtown. On the days he was home he was sullen and uncommunicative. He resisted Mum’s attempts to draw him out about his studies or his love life, or friends or football. He’d taken up boxing at uni and was getting pretty ripped. He pulled up his shirt and showed me a rigid platter of muscles on his stomach. Then he said, ‘You’re in sixth form next year, Mike. After that, get out as soon as you can.’
He told me once he came home unexpectedly and found just Mum and Rodney at dinner. They were seated next to each other sipping red wine with the remains of meal on their plates. Candles flickered on their faces. Rodney was saying,
‘You’re a very special woman, Phoebe.’ He picked up Mum’s hand and he blushed.
Joey walked in and said, ‘Really, Rodney? Is this what you want?’
Rodney and Mum separated, and Rodney said, ‘Hello Joe. Been to the gym?’
Mum got up and collected the plates with a loud clatter. Holding the two plates in her hand she said, ‘We have had a celebration. Your Dad was meant to be here but was detained at work, but he said to go ahead anyway.’
‘Celebrating what?’ said Joey.
‘Your father has persuaded his boss Frank to make a $3,000 donation to the Vagabond Gallery in Paddington, to help start up an artist’s collective for the development and display of new directions in art. So, you should be pleased.’ Then she strode into the kitchen with the plates and returned with a tiramisu. ‘You can have some if you like, Joey, I made it myself.’
Rodney leant over and took her hand when she sat, and then kissed her on the cheek. ‘Marvellous,’ he said, ‘you are absolutely marvellous.’ Then he turned to Joey and said, ‘You see? There are no secrets here. We don’t have secrets. Come, come and join us and have some of what I am sure will be a sumptuous tiramisu.’
I tried some left overs the next day. It certainly was sumptuous, a rich coffee cream with macerated sponge. Joey said he ate it reluctantly, but I could tell he enjoyed it. He went up to bed straight after.
I went to slept that night certain it was going to be a great Christmas.