The old lady across the road died alone but at a good age after a good life, well, that’s what the family said as they stripped her house of all its fixtures, fittings and 1960s furniture. They singled me out from the group of neighbours on the front verandah and asked me if I would like anything from Mary’s junk, er, they cleared their throats, her mementoes and stuff. I raced home to my mother and being politely greedy I raced back with her message that we’d take anything they didn’t want, and also Mary was a lovely old gal. She was too, she used to worked at the university and was clever, always keeping up with radio bulletins and had newspapers delivered from London and New York.
Mrs Anglesea and her toddler were standing at their front gate, wiping eyes and sniffing about poor Mr Roberto gone, gone forever. No more bark-bark said the toddler. Mary’s terrier Mr Roberto had been bundled into a pet carrier and taken to the local vet. The carrier came back empty. Even my mother blinked at that. But to help the family with their clear-out, she gave them a load of flattened cardboard boxes from a high-end removalist company. My mother didn’t know they cost money so it wasn’t until she saw them in the back of some bloke’s ute did she twig that they’d sold them on.
So it was with the feeling of recompense that we were offered, and graciously received said my mother, a framed drawing of a grey English village, a chrome-legged brown laminated table and an armchair. I was pretty annoyed we hadn’t been given the choice of some of the good things like her TV or bookcase or favourite figurines but I had already spotted a woman trundling them out to her white van. I knew she sold stuff on eBay and sent them a million miles away. I wondered if Mary had followed her belongings or left her soul in the house like my mother said she would have.
The funeral was delayed for totally lame reasons. Mary loved her garden and her rusty Holden was being packed full of bright flowers in pots, and uprooted plants in plastic bags, to be rolled away down the road to some market. They missed her shiny trowel tucked behind the water pipe. It also gave the family time to scrub the house, from top to bottom as my mother said, and to plan an auction with the real estate agents. The agents needed to estimate the value of the old weatherboard house without soiling their sleeves if they brushed against something older and wiser than they were. They parked their expensive cars on Mary’s neat green lawn. I figured my knuckles were going to stay white. Stupid really because I didn’t always like Mary. There was this time once when I snuck off school and came home with hot chips. I was just about ready to slop on the tomato sauce when Mary knocked on the door. She gave me a lecture and said she’d tell my mother – and she bloody did.
It turned out we couldn’t go to Mary’s funeral, I had an exam and my mother had work, but it was a shame because I wanted to see how many people knew Mary and how many of her ancient friends were still alive. And I’d never been to a funeral. I wanted to see a genuine coffin so I could picture Mary safe just like she was in her bed on the day I found her.
That armchair we got, you couldn’t call it an easy chair, had polished wooden arms and legs, and the legs must have been sawn off because being an old lady Mary had shrunk and was small. The leg ends had black rubber stoppers pushed on, I guess to stop the chair skating across the floor when she sat down. The seat and back cushions both had blocks of foam inside which had flattened to mush over years of sitting and reading those big newspapers. The back and the seat had solid springs in their frames, covered with sort of tapestry material and I figured my mother thought she could buy new cushions and even if we didn’t like the chair, it would make a good seat for our indoor cat. Well, the cat wouldn’t go near it and I reckon it smelled rank so it was put in our garage.
Eventually the chair was joined by the laminated table, which was as solid as a rock, but had no purpose except to stack our own junk onto it. The drawing of the English village had been on Mary’s wall since before I was born and I think she must have visited the place or maybe she was from there, I don’t know, but this drawing gives me daydreams and I like it even though there are no people in it. After my mother hammered in a nail, I made sure the frame hung straight. My mother said everything of Mary has gone now so we’ll never know her story behind it.
Yeah, everything had been wiped clean and that fine little house was sold at auction. I was at school and missed it. The flurry of bidding was great fun, my mother said, because a developer was overlooked and a nice family has bought it. The girls were nice and Mary would have approved the fact that they went to university. One bad thing happened, they didn’t like trees. Mary loved her memorial tree, she called it that, her husband planted it ages ago, or about fifty years anyway. It took three days but the team of tree loppers finally brought down that big old tree in the front garden. Neighbours were dead against removal, we nearly got a protest group going, but in the end I was glad I had to go to school and couldn’t hear the whining of the chainsaws and the scream of the tree as it twisted and split and branches fell.
Further along, my mother said we have to clean out this garage, and she did the power stance with hands on hips. The council clean-up day was coming fast and I already had my buckled bike and fractured boombox on the footpath beside the old budgie cage. We reckoned they wouldn’t last long, just like the time we put the useless dishwasher out and it vanished in about ten minutes even though the electrical cord and plug had already been snipped.
We both looked at Mary’s little chair. We both looked at each other. Hmm, said my mother, is it of any value? I shrugged, it looks genuinely fake if you know what I mean, she probably paid heaps for it years ago when it had longer legs. If it ever had longer legs. We can put it out for collection, said my mother. We can, but what if one of the family sees it, what if the neighbours recognise what we’re doing? I said. Yes, a bit disrespectful, said my mother, and didn’t say almost on a par with Mary’s family. We hatched a plan and decided to leave Mary’s small chair out for collection. Just, not outside our house. It will be snapped up in a flash, said my mother. I doubt it, I said, it was only special to Mary. I could see her sitting in it, rustling those newspapers.
Next night we put on dark clothes and joked about black face paint and woollen beanies. I wore gloves. With a big effort, the chair being more bulky than it looked so it wouldn’t fit in the boot, I pushed and shoved it into the back seat of my mother’s car. Anyhow we didn’t want to look like we were actually nicking stuff by putting it in the boot. With real cunning we’d chosen a house in a neighbouring suburb with a high block wall and steep driveway. The idea was that they couldn’t see us leave our little surprise on their nature strip.
At about ten o’clock on a moonless night, we drove towards the end of this road with pretty bad street lighting and my mother decided to turn off the headlights. Except for my churning guts, we cruised quietly to the house and braked. My mother waited while I struggled to get the chair out of the car. It wasn’t too heavy and I lifted it out and put it down on the damp grass beside a pile of shadowy bits and pieces. I patted Mary’s chair goodbye. I saw a man walking down the darkened driveway. I jumped back into the car and said go, go, go, how they do in the movies. It would have been good if the tyres had squealed. I knew if an oldie lived in that house, the chair had a chance at survival.
We rocked on home and told each other stories about the next life of that stumpy chair. What if we were spotted and someone brings it back to us? I said. Or we’re reported to the police, said my mother. Days later when I came home tired and dirty from Friday sport, my mother waved the local newspaper at me. Oh geez, I thought. On the front page there was this photograph of a man with Mary’s chair and he said it was the biggest find of his life. Apparently Mary’s family are contesting ownership. Oh well, we didn’t want it, said my mother. Even the cat didn’t want it, I said.
♥ Gretchen Bernet-Ward