Newcastle Herald short story competition finalist 2018: The Family Reunion

WORTH 1000 WORDS: Each day we will publish a finalist in the Herald short story
competition. The winner will be announced on January 27. Picture: Max Mason-Hubers
WORTH 1000 WORDS: Each day we will publish a finalist in the Herald short story competition. The winner will be announced on January 27. Picture: Max Mason-Hubers

WHEN I stop the car I can see the four of them, standing under the tree by the side of the road. I get out and pop open the boot, then haul the picnic basket and two folded camp chairs over to the tree.

Patrick offers no help and barely glances in my direction. We’ve been married forty-two years. I can’t expect him to start making changes. Especially now.

Little Davey is full of life, hopping around the tree. He whacks the trunk with a stick and makes the loud sound of a police siren.

I spread out the red and white checkered picnic rug and unfold the camp chairs. Patrick settles into his without offering it to his mother. She stands next to the rug with her arms crossed and a scowl on her face.

“There’s no flies in the community hall.” She waves a hand in front of her face at the imaginary flies. “God knows why we had to come out here.”

I look at the tree to make a point, but none of them seems to notice.

Jack offers the other chair to their mother, but she shouts, “I’m not an invalid! I’ll stand.” Jack shrugs and settles in next to his brother.

I take two beers out, twist them open, and slide them quietly into the cup holders of the two camp chairs. I gently drop the two bottle caps back in the basket.

Little Davey runs to the wire fence and climbs it to the second top rung. He throws his head back and moos loudly at a nearby cow.

“He’s a brat, that Davey,” mutters Patrick’s mother. “Never liked him. Good for nothing, spoiled piece of ...”   

“Mother!” interrupts Jack. “You can’t say that.”

I think of Davey’s parents. They’d be horrified to hear those words spoken about their little angel.

I begin lifting the food out of the picnic basket and, just like last year, this gets everyone’s attention. I’ve been baking all morning. Nut-free muffins for Jack’s allergies. Crusts off the sandwiches for Patrick’s mother. And for Little Davey I put carefully selected chocolate chips on the gingerbread man.

The raisins did not go well last year.

I lift the tray of cucumber and cream cheese sandwiches to Patrick’s mother and she tilts her head slightly. She stares at the plate and, for a moment, I think she’s going to reach out and take one.

“The Lions Club caters at the community hall, you know,” she says and turns away from me. I lower the plate back down on the rug.

I wonder how many years I can do this. This is their fifth family reunion, six if you count the first, which you probably shouldn’t. That first year I’d made up an excuse to miss it and sent Patrick with the others. And then ...

I wonder how many years I can do this. This is their fifth family reunion, six if you count the first, which you probably shouldn’t. That first year I’d made up an excuse to miss it and sent Patrick with the others. And then ...

Patrick’s laugh pulls me back into the present. He’s looking at Davey on the fence. “For such a chunky little boy, he’s hardly making a dent in that wire.”

He’s right, it’s like he’s not even standing on it. I look at the camp chairs and realise it’s happening to them too. Patrick and Jack are weightless. It makes me feel uneasy and I quickly look away.

“I’m hungry!’ Davey is right next to me now. He twists his mouth thoughtfully as he looks at what’s on the rug. When he spots the gingerbread man, he gets down low to study the three chocolate chip buttons.

He tilts his head in the same way Patrick’s mother did, then leaps up and kicks his foot right through the gingerbread man.

“I hate raisins!” and he marches back over to the fence.

I want to explain. I want to tell him it’s chocolate, just for him. But Patrick’s mother clears her throat and says, “Must be off. Need to get home and take my heart medication.” This is something she always used to say. And it all made sense when I finally cleaned out her room last year and found a bottle of whiskey hidden under her bed.

Jack stands, and I know we don’t have much time.

“I’ll help you home, mother,” Jack says then he calls for Davey to follow. I raise my hand to say goodbye but they don’t see me.

For a moment it’s just Patrick and me. Cautiously, I step over to the camp chair and sit in his lap. The chair moves with my weight.

Six years ago, I could have gone with them to the reunion. There was space in the car between Jack and Little Davey and that spot was meant for me.

If only they’d made it. Patrick’s mother would have been so happy with the food at the community hall.

I put my arms around Patrick’s neck and try to look into his eyes.

It’s been a long 12 months without him.

Patrick doesn’t see me. He looks at the food on the rug and the cow in the paddock. Then he just gets up and leaves.

I stand and pour the two untouched beers at the base of the tree. I fold the camp chairs and throw the gingerbread man to the birds.

I take one last look at the wooden plaque on the tree and run my fingers over their names: Eleanor, Jack, Patrick and David.

My feet drag as I walk back to the car.

Another reunion over. 

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