Before dinner, Gran was allowed one glass of beer. Dad would bring the lager, tall and golden with a thin head of froth, to her Electric Lift Recliner where she sat watching evening television. Sometimes it was The Garden Gurus, sometimes it was an 80s British comedy sketch. Usually we had the sound turned off. She’d lean forward and crane her neck, and we’d often find her shaking with mirth at someone pruning nectarine trees.
Gran was canny. She drank fast and slipped the empty glass onto the low table beside her chair, out of sight.
‘Have you had your beer, Mum?’ My father would ask.
‘I’m not sure, love,’ she’d say. So he’d pour another glass, which she accepted with grateful humility. And we would sit together, the three of us, in the lounge room and watch the silent tv.
By the time tea was served, Gran was full up on lager and didn’t eat much. ‘Your mother had balls,’ she’d say to me.
‘Mum.’ Dad would protest softly, pressing his fingers into the stubble of his jaw, as if trying to locate a pulse.
And the lady on the television would smile toothily, wielding secateurs with one gloved hand, demonstrating the correct places to make the cut. That’s how things went in our house.
Although Gran spoke about my mother in the past tense, she only lived a couple of blocks away. Tuesdays and Thursdays at 4.30pm she would stride through the shop door, march to the Streets ice-cream freezer, and stare hard at the selection. After some consideration she always reached in and took a Bubble O’Bill. Then she’d nod at me behind the counter. ‘You good?’
‘Yeah,’ I would reply.
She’d open the wrapper and bite down on the head of the Bubble O’Bill. We’d both look out at the street.
Once we saw an old man become airborne. He was walking his labrador on a string, when a ute drove by with three barking kelpies on the back. The labrador lunged, and the man’s body followed, curving through the air in a parabolic arc. Mum and I looked outside at the perfect moment, to see a man fly. He landed flat on the footpath. My mother went out and put him back on his feet.
Mostly, not much happened. Mum would scrunch her ice-cream wrapper and pocket it, and give me a nod as she left.
When Mum and Dad were starting out together, they went fossicking in the Tanami desert. They drove a ’79 Datsun with their first baby on the back seat. The car got bogged in sand. Mum tried everything to get unstuck, but it sank deeper and deeper. Dad pulled a breadboard from the boot. ‘Try this,’ he said.
Mum shoved the board under a back wheel and put Dad in the driver’s seat. She pushed from the rear. The back tyre grabbed the breadboard and the Datsun shot forward, fishtailing to firmer ground. Mum fell face first into the sand. ‘Keep going,’ she yelled, through a mouthful of grit.
Dad never learned to drive. He kept looking backwards as the car hurtled away from Mum. The new baby blew bubbles and laughed. Dad told this story to demonstrate how calm I was in a crisis. ‘You were good as gold the whole time,’ he said. ‘You were good as gold.’