“Liza,” the old man raises his head from a thick volume at his lap and nods, as she steps across the concrete stoop of her grandfather’s house and slams the door. The wooden dowel of the plastic blind bangs then bounces against a dusty pane of glass. Soft blue-grey eyes turn and stare, startled by the force of her entry.
Cool it! Liza checks her thoughts. She can’t give it away. She stomps her thick boots to dislodge chunks of snow and watches as they dissolve into the coir mat at her feet.
“No Jack?” her grandfather raises his heavy grey eyebrows.
For the last four months, Jack had accompanied her, unable to be deterred, on her weekly check-in. Pa had held out against Jack’s cheesy overtures, barely tolerating his presence. Whitened teeth, special scones and thirty-year-old malt whisky had not elicited more than a grunt.
“Nope,” Liza sniffs, her head lowers, and her shoulders slump.
“Nope,” Liza sniffs, then hiccups. Her throat catching on words, as she tastes each of them, in the hope that one might contain a spoon full of sugar. Pa stares at her, waiting.
“Just tell me Liza, I’m too old for all this guesswork. Seems you got something to say”
“He left… and ..”
“He was a fraud,” Liza’s mousy hair brushes her shoulders as she sniffs, holding back hot tears of humiliation.
“Could have told you that. Too slick. What did he take you for?”
Liza’s shoulders shake. How can she tell him? It wasn’t her stuff Jack had wanted; it was his.
“So, so, sorry,” she stammers.
“What for?” Pa’s eyes bore into the top of her head.
“The photos he took … this place …”
“What about them?”
“He put them on the internet with a false address, was taking money to rent your place as an Air Bnb.”
“Jesus. Show me!” Pa is furious. Dull white cracks widen in the leather as he shifts his weight on the chair and stands. Liza stares at the echo of his body imprinted on the chair, unable to face him as reaches for his walking stick.
She shifts her gaze to the crinkled grocery bags in her hands and drops them on the wooden table. At least she had made sure she got that right, had taken extra care. All the things Pa liked, Bushells tea, Arnotts Saos, Mainland vintage crumbly cheese, Marmite.
“Your grocery’s, Pa. I’ll make you a cuppa?” she stammers, hoping to shift the conversation. Perhaps, the oncoming dementia her mother frequently diagnosed would kick in. Pa might be distracted.
“Show me, Liza.”
Clearly, short-term memory loss was not so short.
“Um, sure. Just let me put the cold stuff away,” Liza darts into the kitchen, away from the razor gaze that gnaws at her ego. She boils the kettle and slowly returns with a cup of tea, and a dainty plate of Saos and thinly sliced cheese. She places it on the wooden stool at Pa’s side and stands, her back to the fire, her palms splayed against her chilled backside. He stares into the fire, his hands rub at his thighs, callouses catch at the coarse fibre of his overalls as his thin lips draw tight.
“Good fire Pa,” Liza offers, her eyes trained on the far wall. The fire crackles, illuminating the bricks with flickers of red and gold. Yellow tongues circle and lick a block of dense snow gum, keen to devour the tightly backed rings of timber. Pa nods in acknowledgment and waits. A thin spiral of steam wisps from the teacup at his side. Liza watches as it rises and falls, it too unable to pierce the pregnant silence.
Pa wheezes in a long exhausted sigh as he reaches for a wedge of stringybark and tosses it into the fireplace. “Out with it. All of it. The whole story.” The fire hisses and pops with delight as it welcomes the wedge of timber, consuming oil and fibre quickly, irradiating heat in a sharp blast that pushes Liza into the small space between the fireplace and Pa’s chair. Her head darts up to measure her path, and her soft-blue eyes meet Pa’s matching set. “I’m not senile you know, regardless of what your mother says. A cup of tea, won’t do.”
She has to tell him. Tell him something. But what? What will be enough to get him off her back, but not leave her in it. If her parents find out, she will be out of the house tomorrow, have to move, find a job, all that… stuff.
“Some people turned up at my house two days ago, looking for the keys to your place, said they had rented it. I told them they were confused, your place wasn’t for rent. They showed me photos, it was here definite. Said they had paid $1,000 for a week three months ago, but they cancelled cause of Covid lockdowns so lost their money, but the site was updated three days ago, said they could stay, if they just paid another $100, they could pick up the keys, and get directions. They paid and were told they could pick the keys up from my place.
“The photos – just the house?”
“Yeah and the view from the front. The ones he took that day when he first came, remember?”
Her grandfather relaxes. “That’s it, that’s all? What did you say to ‘em?”
“Refused to give them your address, told them they had been conned. They went away and came back to my place with the cops. I spent all day yesterday with cops.”
Her grandfather shuffles slowly onto the front of his chair and pokes at the fire with an iron rod.
“What did the cops say?”
“It was a scam. Everything was tied to me, including a joint bank account for the money. I had to prove I had no connection.”
“How the hell did he open a bank account in your name?”
“A while ago, he asked if we could open an account to share expenses.”
“Whoa … what expenses did you have to share ?”
“Bills and food. I let him move in with me. He said he had to sell his own place in the city. It was being shown. He needed a short-term pad for the business here till he could buy a place for us.” Liza retorts a staccato explanation that drops to a whisper, as she hears words that only underline her stupidity.
“Where is he now?”
“Don’t know,” Liza whispers, “he said he had to go away for work last week and would be out of range for a while.”
Pa sighs, leans back in his chair and stares at the fire. Charcoal cubes crumble from the obliterated stringybark as orange settles to a steady gold atop blue flames dancing in the grains of the sturdy gum. Heat radiates in a warm embrace.
“Might be time we open that 30-year-old malt, assuming it’s real,” Pa scoffs, nodding to a veneer sideboard where Jack’s gift sits unopened, complete with two shot glasses, in a dusty box.
Liza looks outside. The snow is coming down in thick, soft blobs, a dull sun is veiled by impenetrable August grey. She isn’t going anywhere.
The cap of the Scotch twists easily in her hands and she smells the mustiness of peat. It was real. Jack was a man who knew how to dress and make an impression. Perhaps he had hoped the first bite would be so good, it would flavour everything thereafter.
She passes the glass to Pa and sits in a lounge opposite him. He raises the glass and finishes it in one gulp.
“Well, I’ll be,” he exclaims softly and motions for her to drink up.
Liza gulps and waits as the golden liquid coats the back of her throat and settles like a furnace in her belly.
“Another?” Pa asks, noticing the viscous lines slowly receding into the thick bottom of each of their glasses.
She retrieves his glass and pours another. The second glass she sips, her eyes glancing surreptitiously at her grandfather as he rubs his chin, sips and then stares back at the fire.
She waits, staring into the thin columns of white that spiral from the charcoal remains of spent timber.
“Does your mother know?”
“Gonna tell her?”
Pa laughs, a rocking laugh that fills the room, hot air gushes forth as he leans into the fire, fanning the flames.
Liza stares. “You’re not upset?”
“What for? You stopped them coming. If they’d have arrived, well I might have had to get out me gun and it might have been a diff’rent story.”
“You won’t tell, them?”
Relief washes over Liza in a tidal wave and she stands then sways.
“Whoa, there girly, reckon you might a drunk that a wee bit quick.”
“Maybe,” Liza looks out the window, the sky has darkened further, and she glances at the clock perched on the sill. The small hand is nudging five, it will be dark before she can drive.
“You can stay Liza. Spare beds always made up in case of visitors.”
Really? Pa had visitors?
Liza laughs, emboldened by her alcohol-laden relief. “Sure Pa, when was that, moths probably ate the sheets since then.”
“The Prof was here last week, Liza. And he ALWAYS leaves things neat and tidy AND brings me what I need. I’m sure its fine.”
Pa snorts. “Liza, I’d starve if I had to rely on you.”
Liza’s cheeks smoulder under his gaze, her eyes drop to her upmarket hiking boots, as they scuff the broken edge of a tile.
“Nothing to be sorry for Liza, you didn’t ask if I needed it. Just doing what your mother wanted. Easier just to go along with it than argue. The chooks’ll eat the stuff I don’t want.”
Liza stares again at the clock and the bottle of Scotch. 5 pm. She had hours before sleep and who knows when she would be able to leave in the morning if the snow settled.
“So,” she begins. “Tell me, who’s the Prof?”
Pa chuckles, stares at the glass and nods to the kitchen. “Want dinner first?” Liza nods. “He’s a bloody good cook, I’ll give him that, back of the fridge – Coq au vin. Heat it up on the stove and bring it by the fire. AND if you actually brought me that sourdough – a wedge of that, or toast some of that godawful white stuff you usually bring for yourself – save the poor chooks from having to eat it.”
The chicken is soft, blended artfully with aged bacon and white wine. Liza dips the wedge of artisan “guilt” sourdough, she had purchased early that morning, into the remaining broth, saddened as the pattern of an old plate shines through.
Thank God, Jack didn’t know his “Rustique AirBnb” contained Masterchef leftovers, Liza muses as she sips at a final nip of Scotch.
“The Prof says he knows you.”
Liza chokes and splutters. What the?
“At the uni, says you’re a student. Not a good one though.” Eyebrows lift and then lower as he bends his head to retrieve shredded meat from the end of his fork. Liza’s face crinkles in an attempt to comprehend, between layers of guilt, relief and scotch.
“Professor Skoltz, the biochemistry boss?” she ventures.
“Yep, the water guy.”
“Didn’t know he liked cooking?”
“Maybe he doesn’t. He comes to work.”
“Work on what?”
Liza stares at her glass, feeling as if the thick bottom may be a portal to the twilight zone.
“The spring outback. Elixir of life they say. Biochemical gold,” Pa grins, as broth drips down his chin. Gnarled hands pick up a chicken bone and suck at the edges, drawing the last drops of flavour from within.
Was he pulling her leg? Winding her up, trying to make her look stupid, just like Jack? Waiting for the moment in the morning when she wakes up with a god almighty hangover, to laugh.
The bone rattles into the bowl, followed by a fork. Pa leans forward, shaky hands resting the bowl carefully to the chipped tile floor, and retrieves the iron rod.
He pokes at the fire, roaring it back into life. “Reckon we should put another log on if you want to stay up chatting?’ He nods towards the door. Outside, Liza knows a store of wood waits undercover, Pa brings in only what he needs for the night.
“One or two logs Pa?”
Pa smiles. “Depends.”
Liza stands, pulling on her heavy coat and thick gloves. Outside, she nestles logs into folded arms, jiggling and stacking, until she can carry no more.
“Good girl,” Pa nods as Liza returns, shuffles her jacket off and throws a log onto the fire. Sparks burst from the smouldering gum, as it splits to reveal its glowing heart. Pa wipes his chin to remove the last of dinner, takes a long swig from the glass at his side and begins.
“No one believed me you know, till I showed them my data. Then…”