Elsie has the morning off, and we walk down to Trewly Park. We sit on a bench by the dried-up pond, with its rusted sculpture sticking out of the water.
“You should come in with me today,” says Elsie. “Jamie’ll be up and talking by now.”
“He’ll be okay, won’t he?”
“I told you, he’s fine. His face won’t be straight for a while, but he’s fine.”
“I should probably start planning lessons,” I say. “Term’s only a few weeks away.”
Elsie twists her hands in her lap. She says, “He wants to see you, Sal. I think you should go.”
And I can see it’s killing her inside.
Jamie’s propped up on a pile of pillows. He’s pretty messed up. There are rows of stitches across his face, pushing up the skin into little mountain ranges.
“How’s it feeling?” I ask.
“All right,” he says. “Nothing compared to the hiding the old man’ll give me for missing work.”
I laugh a little and sit down beside the bed. He looks me in the eyes with a trace of Kenny’s squint.
“Jeez, I’m sorry Sal. For what happened. But the way they waltzed in there ... It was so obvious, and I was so wound up by the whole – ” He stops mid–sentence. “Shit. I didn’t even ask – how’d it go?”
“One month and twelve hundred dollars.”
“Shit, Sal. Look, I’ll help you out with the money, you know I will.”
I look at him, helpless and fragile under the white sheets.
“You don’t owe me anything Jamie,” I say, tears stinging in my eyes. “You get your face smashed because of me and now you want to give me more. Everyone acts like it’s nothing ... but it’s my fucking brother who has to pay for it and no can help, ’cause I’ve let him down. Not just him ... ”
Jamie puts his hand on my arm. His palm is smooth and callused.
He says, “You haven’t told your mum, have you.”
I shake my head.
And I hate him. I hate Jamie right there. Not for saying the right things, but for meaning them. I don’t deserve someone so genuine. What I need is more fake emotion and hollow promises, something I can battle against. Please no more understanding. Please no more fucking help.
There’s another scene: mum by the phone, in the green Townsville heat, throwing back her steel-wool hair and artist’s eyes with her snide patronising calm. Saying, don’t worry about a thing. Meaning, I told you so.
6 February 1973
A month later, and my legs still stick to the car seat. I’m driving past the pub, with a storm building behind me, and a pile of finger paintings on the passenger seat. When I get home, Elsie and Jamie will be sitting on the verandah, talking and touching, my brother will be a thousand kilometres away, and I will wait patiently for the quiet death of another day.