Jason Roweth

 

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a story

Coughing Fit

July 10, 2017

The fibro-shelled kitchen-dining leaves no room to swing a cat. The table runs near wall to wall, eroded smooth, and sat on weary lino - mopped thin. There is just enough room to perch the Johnson family for meals, to sit neighbours down for a cuppa and chat… Endless tea deliveries - full cup, empty cup, full cup, empty cup - just a two-step to the kitchen, maybe a song-line-like waltz swing over the screen door dance floor - if the smiles are shining… “You are my sunshine, my only… “. This tiny room holds this working family close… Against social atomisation odds and rising consumer gods - circle the wagons.

The problems of the world are sorted in here… problems pointed at off-hand through lace curtains, washed - but white in name only - softening a small window looking south over the little garage, and to the street. Dad’s home…

“Call your father up for tea.” Pat Johnson’s evening refrain.

“What are we having?” They all knew their lines.

“Bread and duck under the table.” 

Big Dripping meals keep them strong. Vegetables are cooked until there is no doubt. Three kitchen skin layers scrubbed away each Thursday - house day - yet every meal lingers… Dripping smell.

House Thursday, little shop Tuesday, big shop Friday, church for Mum and the kids on Sunday - Dad reckons it’s just up and down like emus… “I don’t need a roof between me and the big fella.” But tonight, is Saturday night. Card night. Dad holds up his KB long-neck… “This is what makes it all worthwhile”.

As the last fork falls, Marie Johnson clears for washing-up, and catches herself happy home… She has escaped her mistake, though she has brought home reminders. She is joyous and terrified over what her Dad is calling her “belly full of arms and legs”, but she is hoping the memories of her new baby’s father fade with her bruises. There has not been much smiling lately. But the well-worn Johnson routine is healing magic.

Mum throws the green checked card blanket in another conjurer’s trick - cards, coins, pickled onions, ashtrays, Marlboros and matches… Dad’s second long-neck never left the table. Magic. Marie smiles over her shoulder, and Charlie Johnson grins in return. “Leave it, love - come and sit for a warm-up round.”

“Yeah, right.” Marie savours the warmth as she washes, and falls dreamy… But the reverie is cut short, as she feels the V8 rumble she thought she had shaken, and turns to the sink - sinking. Then - the two-tone fall of the doorbell. 

Dad doesn’t stop dealing, “Come in if you’re good looking.” His call is an eddy in the low-ceiling smoke.

“It’s too early.” Mum’s words are casual, but her face is intuition dark.

Matt had rolled the Holden across the lawn like he owned the place. He bounded the twelve front steps, there by three. He has come to reclaim his baby-girl, and his baby. “Marie home?” He blusters over the screen door slam. But the quick steps - bright summer evening sun, to shaded front porch, to dark hall - lead him eyes-wide into darkness. He sees his own face falling in the hall mirror - his collapsing courage. Now, only desperation drives him. As he hits the flouro-lit, smoke-filled dining room, he’s blinded. And where there’s smoke…

 

It is the last little fibro house on Morton street. The Johnsons have clung to their border country yard, as new neighbours - one by one - moved brick mini-mansion armies to the garish new Colour-bond borderlines. 

“How’d ya be… ratting ‘round in there?” Charlie was honestly bemused. 

Pat was more angry. “The world’s going to pot! We used to have a Blue Mountain view. It gets shady so early - I’ve given up on the garden… Nothing grows anymore.”

 

Matt stalled at the stilled dining-room door - silent, but for the washing-up clink and splash… Marie hasn’t turned. Charlie doesn’t look up, but he squares his shoulders. Pat subconsciously edges between the door and Marie. No one says a word. Matt goes to speak, but his throat catches in the smoke. He coughs. He grabs for air, and coughs again. And again. A downward spiral now, breathes smoke - coughs - breathes again. He feels like he’s dying, but no one moves to help… They are holding fast in judgement. As he backs away down the hall, Matt bends double and waves wildly across his face, trying to clear the air. He hawks so hard, he can later blame his tears on the smoke. Marie will blame hers on the steaming sink. No one says a word.

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