Uncle Aloysius is Dead

By Gabrielle Blondell

“I’m sorry, Mum. I didn’t mean to cause trouble.” I kept saying this and other variations of the same in an endless loop to have something on hand when I saw her next. That would be in another 1600kms, the distance I would travel from East Gippsland in Victoria to Brisbane in Queensland.

“You see, I just wanted to drive around a bit. See things as you must have seen them when you were young.” This was almost true. I was so unsure about my law degree, thinking of finding a way out of it; driving my way through my mother’s childhood country and hoping for an epiphany. But I was angry too. Pissed off over what she’d say, if I brought up the possibility of dropping out. She wouldn’t need to practice her response. It and its variations were, as ever, close by.

I pushed the little hire car on down the snake of a highway, scanning left and right. I didn’t want another accident. “Sorry, Mum. I’m so very sorry about everything. Really I am.”

I was sorry in a way I hadn’t been before. Something had happened and I had no idea how my mother would take it. It came as a shock that I couldn’t predict her in this. Her family was ground we had not crossed together. Not once.

I was pondering the blank wall of my mother in this regard when I saw the red and blue lights flashing on the road behind me. “Shit!”

I pulled over and watched in my rear vision mirror as the police car did the same. The door opened and a cop, not much older than myself stalked the distance between my car and his with a clipboard in his hand.

“Good morning, miss,” he said, bending at the waist to get a look at me through my driver’s window. “Are you aware you were speeding?” he asked.

I took this to be rhetorical and said nothing.

“Is there a reason you might have been speeding, miss?” he asked, a small curl of copper-coloured hair peaking out from beneath the band of his cap. It glinted when it caught the sun.

“There’s been a death,” I stammered, staring at the curl.

“Excuse me?”

“A death in the family,” I said.

“Oh,” he said, allowing the clipboard of traffic citations to hang limply from his hand. “I’m very sorry.”

“Yes….thank you,” I said. “My great uncle. My mother’s uncle, actually. He just died this morning or last night. We can’t be sure….” I saw Uncle Aloysius in his chair, greyer than his normal grey with weird cousin William sitting a couple of metres from him watching television.

I wasn’t out for an exemption on sympathetic grounds. I told the officer this information because it was in me. It took up all of me, except for that bit which compulsively and endlessly wanted to apologise to my mother for being there when it happened. “I’m on my way home to tell my mother. I couldn’t do it over the phone,” I said, and I felt a tear run from the corner of my eye. I had reached a strange place.

“Well, I’m very sorry,” the police officer said, standing tall so as his head disappeared from my view, but I imagined him all the same, his eyes looking over the roof of my little car into the bush at the side of the road, his little copper-coloured coil of hair shining brightly. Mostly though, I looked at the buckle of his utility belt for that was all I could see of him. The silence was comfortable. The belt buckle, the little curl of orange hair was a respite. But then he was bending at the waist and his capped head close again with its lock of hair.

“I’ll let you off this time,” he said, as if we might meet again under similar circumstances. “But be careful, won’t you?”

“Yes,” I said. “I will be.” I planned to be earnestly good and careful, so I did not lie.

He nodded once to me and returned to his car.

***

I was crossing the border at Cann River into New South Wales when it occurred to me I could remain silent. My mother need never know I’d met and stayed with Aunt Paulina, Uncle Aloysius and Cousin William. I’d have to tell her about the car, of course. The storm, the tree coming down outside Lakes Entrance. Me, ending up stranded on top of it and spun halfway around. The couple towing the caravan, pirouetting, the caravan tilting and then slowly falling on its side, lifting the back of the car with it, the shrieking of metal on road. Waiting for the police, still perched on top of the fallen tree.  The rain driving down and then stopping suddenly, the wind swirling onto somewhere else. The couple calling from the car. The police and ambulance arriving. And then the sun coming out and the dripping of water off the trees in the surrounding forest. It is true people see things, like accidents, in slow motion. I still saw it that way, possibly always would. I could tell my mother that bit. She would not doubt me. It was only what happened next.

If I could take it back I would. I’d shake my head. Even if the question had been worded slightly differently. It could have been, “Is there anyone you can stay with in the area?” I would have said no and been put up at a motel, the sad one I’d passed on the top of the hill just before I hit the tree. Instead, the doctor at the hospital asked, “Do you have any family in the area?” and I said yes. I became chatty then, shockingly so. “My mother is from here. Her maiden name is McKinley.” This is where the first incision in my story would need to take place. A neat and precise cut.

***

I bought a hamburger, fries and a coffee at a roadhouse on the outskirts of Canberra and sat to eat. I watched travellers come and go. Most seemed to be fleeing the capital, public servants in casual clothes who would look better in suits. Still they were everyday types in a Canberra fashion, I supposed. Watching them, I started to feel I had returned to the world. I knew these people without knowing them at all. They smiled and nodded, when I did. They thanked the cashier for their service. There were no dead bodies left to sit about in chairs while a breakfast show host said it would be sunny in Melbourne that day.

I found the bathroom behind a false wall. A single public telephone hung nearby, an almost relic. I considered it. I wondered how it worked exactly, where the money went. My mobile phone had been broken in the accident and this too was a source of pain. I could ring my mother, tell her something, so she may not worry. She would have no reason to, though. I was not overdue, so technically not absent, and I needed more time. I could ring Harry and Sam, the two friends I’d been traveling with until we’d parted ways in Lakes Entrance. I could tell them about the crash at least, but not about Uncle Aloysius. I was not ready.

A woman pushed past me to gain access to the bathroom and I moved on back into the roadhouse restaurant and out through the double sliding doors toward my rental car.

***

I must have fallen into a kind of a trance. White line fever, don’t they say? It wasn’t until I was skirting the western suburbs of Sydney and the traffic became heavier that I came to again. I crawled north through Pennant Hills. For a time, a blue SUV crawled along with me in the next lane. I looked across at the driver, who nodded to me the way people do and I nodded back.

It was the doctor at the hospital I’d been taken to after the car accident, who had driven me to McKinley House. I already had misgivings about staying with family I had not met, but decisions had been made and I did not know how to reverse them.

The house was large and old. Paint was peeling from the porch. A dead plant sat in a pot beside the front door. The door was wide open, as if I was expected. A thin old lady appeared.

“Come in, dear,” she said, brusquely. “I am your mother’s Aunt Paulina.” She hustled me into a hall. “Uncle Aloysius and your cousin William are in the sun room.”

I nodded and smiled, but she did not.

Neither Uncle Aloysius nor ‘cousin’ William greeted me. My great uncle sat crookedly in a large shabby chair and appeared to be asleep, while William reclined in a smart black leather chair staring at a television screen. I decided he was thirty. He was also fat in a glutenous way and prematurely balding. William took a break from the television to stare at my breasts, before his gaze drifted back to the screen.

“Say hello to your great uncle, dear,” my great aunt said.

I approached the old man in the his old chair. His papery eyelids were closed. His thin veiny hands rested slack in his lap. “Hello, Uncle,” I said.

***

Outside Newcastle, I pulled over at the first motel I saw, the Hi-Lo Motor Inn. The manager gave me a room key and told me of a Chinese restaurant down the road, but the moment I let myself in, I sprawled on the bed and fell asleep.

Hunger woke me early. I found sweet biscuits in little plastic packets and I ate them all. There was an electric jug, some tea bags and some long life milk, so I made tea. I felt better, less shadowed by recent events.

Still once I was back in the car and heading north, I began to think of my mother growing nearer, the inevitability of her. I could see her face or a moving collage of faces, all hers, for as far back as I could remember. Different hair colours and styles, but always the dark brown eyes, the light tan skin and the small scar on the point of her chin. It was to that scar I had directed all of my admissions of guilt and apologies – the permanent marker on the wall, the vomit on the new lounge suite. Then there was the time, I had the car accident and miraculously ended up at her uncle and aunt’s house, who I had never met, being ogled by weird ‘cousin’ William. I forced my mind forward to see what would happen, but nothing did.

“We looked after your mother after it happened. She was only a little girl, then,” Aunt Paulina said crossly to me the morning after I had arrived. “We brought her up, Aloysius and I.”

“Can I have some more toast, Aunt Paulina?” William asked, his eyes on my breasts again.

“Yes, sweetie. Of course you can,” she said, hurrying back into the kitchen.

I had wanted to ask what happened to my mother’s parents, my own grandparents. When? Where? How? But Aunt Paulina was gone and I was left with a still comatose Uncle Aloysius and William, who took just enough time away from the television and my breasts to sneer at me. I stared back at him.

It was then that Uncle Aloysius flung himself upright in his chair with a roar, sat suspended with his spine rod-straight and then collapsed back again as still as before. I’d stood at the shock of it and rushed to him. I leant and touched his hand in a way I hoped was soothing.

“Don’t touch him, girl,” William growled at me. “He wouldn’t want that.”

I stared again into William’s eyes, hoping to blind him.

Aunt Paulina returned with the toast while I was stroking Uncle Aloysius’ hand.
“What do you think you are doing dear?” she asked me, as if she’d caught me stealing.

William sneered again.

“He had a kind of seizure,” I said. “I was trying to calm him.”

Aunt Paulina placed William’s toast in front of him and tousled his hair.

William smiled sweetly at her.  The old lady returned his smile.

I gaped at them both.

“William is right dear, about not touching Aloysius. You should listen to him,” she said. “He is very wise.”

***

I stopped in Taree for brunch. This time I found a little cafe boasting a big all-day breakfast. I was so hungry, I sat waiting with my knife and fork already in hand. I knew people swirled past me to the counter to order and then to the tables around me to sit. I heard the wheeze and snort of the coffee machine and the barista knocking out the used coffee grounds, but mostly I sat staring at the portion of the table where my big breakfast would appear. Ahhh, and there it was, crisp bacon, two eggs, a small sausage, a tomato and mushrooms. I worked my way steadily through the combinations, egg with a piece of bacon, bacon with tomato, tomato with mushroom, mushroom with sausage and back again, until the plate was clean.

Back in the car though, my stomach began to churn and I felt an ache in my chest. I saw the little scar on the point of my mother’s chin and I knew I couldn’t lie.

After Uncle Aloysius had sat up, roared and then fallen back in his chair and after I’d been scolded for touching him, I grabbed a lift to the local mechanic with William to check on my car. William told me he needed to get his Lotto numbers in for the $2 million draw and if I didn’t get in the ute immediately, he was leaving without me.

“I’ll be back in an hour,” he said when he pulled into the mechanic’s driveway. “If you’re not here, too bad.” He drove off.

“Well, he’s a charmer, isn’t he love?”

I found a short stocky man dipped in engine oil standing beside me. I smiled at him. “Do you know William?” I asked him.

“No love,” he said. “But I imagine you are the young woman from Queensland who came a cropper in the storm yesterday. Would I be right in that?” he asked me.

“Yes, that’s me,” I said. “How is the car?”

“Well, I’ve got to say, its not that healthy, but its not dead either,” he answered. “Come in, won’t you? I’m Joe.”

I followed Joe into the workshop and saw my little Toyota Echo up on a hoist.

“It was probably the tree which saved you and this little car, I think. Slowed you down. Cushioned the car and yourself from the ground, do you see?” Joe said.

Pressure began to build unbearably behind my eyes. I looked down and nodded my agreement with his assessment of things.

“Are you alright, love?”

I nodded again and wiped at my wet cheeks.

“Here,” Joe said.

I felt him take my elbow and ease me into a chair.

“It’s delayed shock, love. It’s really quite common, you know. A person is so caught up in things and then when its over, it all hits a person, don’t you see?”
He waved a tissue box in front of me. “Thank you,” I sniffled, taking a fistful and blowing my nose.

I sat for a time while Joe answered a ringing telephone.

“Do you have comprehensive insurance, love?” Joe asked me when he had finished with his call.

“Yes, yes I do!” I said. My mother had insisted on it.

“Well, you could ring from here, if you like. Start off the conversation and I could talk to them for you. Often you get a hire car with the deal, you know, and you could get on your way,” he said.

“But what about my car?” I asked.

“You just leave it to me. I could have it fixed for you and transport it back to Queensland when its done.” He winked then and put a finger to the side of his nose. “I have a way with those insurance companies,” he said whispered.

***

The further north I went, the greener the world became. Port Macquarie, Coffs Harbour and on through Grafton, lush and humid, after a short heavy downpour. The jacaranda trees in the main street were only foliage now. The purple blossoms I’d seen on my outward journey were gone. I recalled my sense of excitement then at the weeks I still had to decide about my Law Degree and the weeks I needed to work out what to say to my mother. On my return journey, I didn’t care about any of it. I had larger concerns.

Once I and then Joe had spoken to my insurance company, I was determined to question Aunt Paulina about my mother’s past when I returned to McKinley House.

William arrived while Joe was lowering my car to ground level so I could retrieve my things from the boot.

He scowled and motioned to me impatiently.

“Just hang on there, mate,” Joe called to him. “You wouldn’t want to be rushing Claire after she’s had such a difficult time of it, would you?”

On the way back to McKinley House, William stared doggedly out through the windscreen. I felt lighter, calmer, cared for, but exceedingly tired. I decided I would take a short nap and question Aunt Paulina once I was better up to it. Yes that would be much smarter, I thought.

***

But it wasn’t smarter. I slept and I slept. I didn’t wake until ten o’clock that evening and by then the only other person awake in the house was William.

“I didn’t win the Lotto,” he said, as I passed on my way to the kitchen.

“Oh,” I said, surprised he would talk to me at all. “I’m sorry,” I added, but he went on watching his television. Uncle Aloysius lay in his own chair under a heavy blanket, his eyes still closed.

I made a sandwich out of some old bread and Vegemite and took it to my room. It was ages before I could sleep and when I did, my mind didn’t. It placed my mother and me in my little car up on top of the tree spinning and sliding down the hill toward town. She was young, though. My earliest version of her with a thick bob of black hair, very dark eye makeup and a nose ring. I’d quite forgotten the nose ring. It seemed an impossibility now, far from the current version of her.

I dressed hurriedly in the morning, determined not to miss my chance to talk with Aunt Paulina. I took the old stairs from the first floor two at a time and imagined my mother doing the same when she was small. The thought of this made me smile. I was smiling still when I walked through to the sunroom on the way to the kitchen where I supposed I would find Aunt Paulina. William was sitting in his black leather chair watching television, where he was the night before and I wondered whether he had gone to bed at all.

“Good morning,” I said.

William grunted. I looked over to Uncle Aloysius. I suppose I did this out of politeness, that even the mostly unconscious deserved recognition. There was something odd about the way he sat. His head was no longer resting in the corner between the back of the chair and the wing at its side. It had slipped almost to the armrest. I walked across to him.

“What are you doing?” William shrieked at me, pushing himself forward in his recliner without dropping the footrest and becoming trapped in his own chair.

Uncle Aloysius’s head was angled upward from the armrest with one ear pointed toward the ceiling. His eyes were half open under colourless eyelids. They no longer looked outward or inward. They were like stones. I reached out and lay a hand on the old man’s arm. It was cold. I withdrew my hand quickly.

“William,” I whispered as loudly as I dared. “I think Uncle Aloysius is dead.”
William snorted, as he lurched upright out of his chair. “I could have told you that, Sherlock.”

I turned from Uncle Aloysius and stared at William. I couldn’t speak.

“Yes dear.” Aunt Paulina’s voice came from the doorway leading to the kitchen. “Aloysius has passed and I’ll thank you not to touch my husband again,” she said.

I removed my hand quickly and straightened. My hands was shaking so badly, I shoved them in my pockets.

Aunt Paulina took a step into the room. “We have notified the proper authorities,” she told me. “But I think this is a time for close family, don’t you?”

I nodded and then I realised she meant me to leave them. “Yes, yes, of course,” I said.

Aunt Paulina walked close by me and placed herself between Uncle Aloysius and myself. She hovered there like a ghost herself. I looked over to William. His gaze had re-centred itself back on the television screen.

***

I gripped the steering wheel tightly. “I’m sorry Mum,” I said out loud.
The traffic was much heavier when I crossed the border into Queensland. A light rain fell and the road glistened with reflections of the street lights. The closer I came to home and my mother, the more blank was my mind. It was like I knew this one thing, that Uncle Aloysius was dead, but little else. Something had happened in the past which had changed everything, but what I knew stopped there. I searched my memory for something my mother may have said, but there was nothing.

And was it odd that Aunt Paulina asked me to leave? I framed this question as if I were asking Harry or Sam and I could hear it in their voices. “Bloody strange….. freaking odd!” they would say. But I didn’t know. I couldn’t say with the same surety I might have before. I just couldn’t.

My breathing quickened as I turned off the motorway at Juliette Street. Still nothing came to me. And lying to her was not possible. She would look at me and she would know. In my mind, I had my mother come down the front steps to the driveway. I had her standing there with her arms crossed and her foot tapping, just waiting for the truth. I would open my mouth, then….

It was for real now. I drove up over the curb and parked in the driveway. I walked around the car to the boot and took out my bag, being extra careful to shut the boot again quietly. I carried it up the front steps and lowered it, while I dug in my purse for the front door key. Perhaps she wasn’t home. It would be odd, if she wasn’t. I would go in and lay on my bed, make coffee maybe, but be stuck in time until she returned. I slid the key into the lock and turned it.  My mother stood there. Her damp hair was coiled up in a white towel. The towel threatened to topple and I watched her steady it.

“Welcome back,” she said. “Did you have fun?”

“I suppose,” I said, remembering back to the beginnings of my holiday, when I actually did have fun.

“I’m just about to start dinner,” she said. “I thought a chicken curry might be nice. What do you think?”

“Chicken curry sounds great,” I said. I recognised how easy it would be to go on like this. Mum saying something, me answering, the way it had always been and then slowly my need to speak would drain away and we would be as we had always been. She would be her and I….I would be someone I used to be.

“Mum?”

She was turning away from me to go into the kitchen. She stopped and looked back. “Yes?”

“Uncle Aloysius is dead,” I said.

“What?” She said this immediately, almost without thinking, as people do, but then her face changed. It drained of colour and her eyes darkened.

“He died,” I said. “I’m so sorry, Mum.”

She stumbled a little and leaned against the wall. I went to her and lead her toward the sitting room. I helped her onto the sofa and sat across from her.
“Do you want a glass of water?” I asked, but she didn’t hear me.

My mother stared at the wall for the longest time and I waited. I waited all the time she needed to move into the past and then come back to me again. At times, she seemed a stranger to me and then her expression would flicker and I would know her again. Finally, she turned from the wall and looked at me.

“Tell me everything,” she said.

And I did.  It took me a while.

She nodded once I was done. “I’m sorry you met them,” she said. “I didn’t want you to.”

“I know,” I said.

My mother leaned forward and took hold of my hands. “I’m sorry you were there when he died, but I’m not sorry he did. Do you understand?”

I nodded. My understanding was not logical. It made no sense, but I sensed it all the same.

“They were never my family,” she said. “They treated me as if I didn’t belong always, but particularly after William was born. I left on my sixteenth birthday and I never went back.”

I saw Aunt Paulina standing beside Uncle Aloysius’s chair and William watching television again, while the paint peeled in strips from the porch. I, too, would never go back.

I looked across at my mother and I asked her quietly, “What happened to your parents, Mum?”

“They died in a car accident,” she said, “coming up the hill from Lakes Entrance. I was thrown clear,” she said, touching the scar on her chin.

© Gabrielle Blondell 2016

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