Nan’s plan Judy Crozier
“Right, Nan? Cuppa tea?” Shirl was cranky, probably from nerves in all the noise and all the people in and out today. She had Nan by the elbow to the kitchen table, sat her down with Nan still gripping the big
speckled fingers - knuckles so big nowadays – and spoke loud into her face. Nan tucked her chin back out of the way. Shirl said, “Right?” Nan stretched her mouth; like always it collapsed her face all wrong because she hadn’t put her teeth in yet, forgotten again, and Shirl said, “Right.” Benny got Shirl’s attention pulling at her jeans, just back of her knee so he must have caught a bit of skin in a pinch and she said “Ow”. He was drumming the lino with his feet and saying, “Mum, mum, mum...” so she picked him up and parked him on her hip. Nan put her handbag on the table, kept the half-smile on. Over at the bench Shirl bumped bums with Nora, who was washing up with a lot of steam and pot-crashing and glass tinkling, and a big squirt of washing-up liquid. The water thundered like Niagara. Nora had come to help out before the ceremony, all dressed up in pale pink satin with flowers, and now with Shirl’s biggest apron over the top; no way Shirl was going to do housework and get married at the same time, she’d said, and Barry’d be no help. Nora’d said that yesterday, laughed and didn’t notice Barry didn’t laugh but just tipped his beercan back, so later Shirl said, had had to say really, you could tell: “Course I don’t think so, but she’s offered to help so, you know, put up with it,” while she cleared away the dishes and scraped into the bin all those vegies Nan hadn’t eaten, had trouble eating or even liking so undercooked, if anyone cared to ask. And now there he was, Barry, leaning against the doorjamb with a coffee because he wasn’t allowed to have a beer till the reception, not being a lot of help really,
though it’s awkward for a bloke in his own home with all these women running around like he had nothing to do with anything. He shifted a bit when young Jason came in. Jason went over to the fridge and opened the door for a long look, got a Coke, bent over for another look. Shirl had a cup out with a tea bag in it, plugged in the kettle, jiggled Ben on her hip while she stared out of the window past Nora and all the steam. And all those suds. Kylie was out the back you could just see even from the table through the window past the bush, with Jessica, Nora’s kid, both of them pegging up clothes and sheets on the Hill’s rotary hoist, both of them too cranky to even notice how cranky the other one was because washing clothes was not something either of them ever did. Both leaning on one hip with shoulders rounded and going slow to make the point. Barry had his eye on Jason. “Christ’s sake, Jase, close the friggin’ fridge!” “What’s got up your nose, Bazz?” The boy had a Mars Bar in his hand, and a Coke in the other. He kicked the fridge door closed. All legs now since his eighteenth. “Oughta charge you for the power you use.” “Right.” Jason never looked like he cared much what Barry said. Shirl usually told Barry that was because the kid liked him, really, and Barry’d say “Yeah, right”, but not much more probably because he liked to think it was true, and anyway it made it possible it was true if you didn’t argue, maybe. Now Jason just walked out of the room tugging at the wrapper with his teeth, like Barry’d said nothing very important, so Barry called after him, “You’ll change your tune when it’s your own bill.” But he sounded like he’d decided to be jokey about it after all. He strolled over to the table and dragged out a chair for himself. Shirl reached round Nora to the cutlery drawer for a teaspoon, Nora in the way because now it was her looking at something through the window. “Hey, Shirl,” Nora said. “What’s that worn-out patch in the grass around the clothesline? Goes in a circle nearly.” “Dunno. Been wondering myself, and it’s growing.” “Funny. Wouldn’t be the dog, would it? Boof doesn’t do crazy-dog runs around the line, does he?” Nora whooped suddenly like she often did over coffee at the shoppingtown and everyone would look; like Barry and Nan, now, turning their heads at the same time.
The kettle boiled and Shirl poured while Barry said, “Nah, Nora, Boof’s worn out his patch by the front gate where he waits for the postie, or me,” and they all laughed, Nan with her mouth closed. Shirl brought the cup of tea over to Nan, holding it away from Ben reaching across her for it because she was holding it away from him. She put the cup down and said, “Hey, Benny, here’s Dadda! Dadda want his little boy?” and she handed him over while Barry said, “Hey, Big Benny, c’m here! Who’s a big boy?” Nan said, “Ta, Shirl.” Shirl checked her watch just as the front door slammed. Donnie’s voice called out, “Mate, where are ya? It’s your best man...” and he came in in his tux and crispy new blue shirt with the frill, his face all soft and pink and shaved, and his hair slicked back behind his ears. “What am I saying – it’s the best man!” “Mate,” Barry said. “Mate,” Donnie said. “Jesus, look at you!” “Feast your eyes folks, am I a dreamboat, or what?” Nan creased her face up and laughed without the sound; Donnie was all right, in his way. Nora pulled out the plug in the sink and the water sucked away while she said, “Oh, Love,” with a big soft look for her husband. Shirl said, “Donnie, you’re just gorgeous. Now, take Bazz away and see if you can do the same for him.” The door to the backyard slammed, and Kylie came in, the laundry basket under her arm, then Jessica, both of them suddenly over being cranky because Donnie was here. Jessica said, “Dad, look at you!” and Kylie gave a long wolf whistle, so there was a bit of a laugh. Then Barry was up, handed Benny back over to Shirl, went to the bedroom for his suit and tie in the plastic bag from the dry cleaners, and his shoes, and a washbag with his brush and shaving things and aftershave, that he’d had all ready on the bed since this morning like he’d told Shirl every time she’d asked. Donnie rattled his keys, Barry said, “See you at the church,” and they were off with a creak of that floorboard and a slam of the front door, Jason’s voice through a couple of doors and a wall yelling, “See ya.”
Nora wiped her hands on the dishcloth; there were still some suds on the dishes draining by the sink. “Shirl, did you write to your dad in the end?” “No way. Told you before: he doesn’t care about me, I don’t care about him.” “But love, let bygones be bygones, y’know. It’s your wedding day, after all.” “Bygones be buggered, Nora. And I didn’t invite him last wedding either. Kylie, take this.” Shirl handed Benny over to Kylie. Ben went limp halfway to his sister and twisted around with his arms out saying, “Mum, mum, mum...”, but Shirl gave him over anyway. Kylie tipped him to the side and back again a few times and said, “Whatcha doin’ Benny, whatcha doin’ Benny,” and Jessica said, “Ooo, Benny.” “Pity you invited anyone to that one. What a disaster. Beginning to end!” Nora laughed her big whoop and Shirl said: “Too right. What was I thinking!” “But, all the same. He’s your dad....” Nora looked at Nan, finally guilty maybe since they were talking about Nan’s son, her Martin, so the girls looked at Nan too, though Shirl didn’t. Nan reached for her cup and rattled it trying to hold it since the knuckle wouldn’t go through the handle. Benny went from leaning backwards to going limp again, facing Shirl and saying, “Mum, mum, mum...” so Shirl took him back on her hip. “He’s a prick, he’s always been a prick. If he wasn’t a prick, he’d be looking after his own mum wouldn’t he, now she’s not fit, put her up in his own fuckin’ house. And his grandkids’d know what he looked like. What, Benny?” He was kicking at Shirl’s back and swaying from side to side and when she spoke to him said, “Bottle!” “Good idea.” Shirl went to the fridge for a baby-bottle of milk and gave it to him. “Jesus, we gotta get dressed!” She put Benny down. “Ooh shit!” Kylie said and Jessica giggled. They ran out of the room towards Kylie’s, and Shirl and Nora went off to Shirl’s room, Benny following with the bottle swinging from his teeth by the teat. Beyond the door, Shirl’s voice yelled out, “Jason, get dressed!” and then, “Kylie, take Benny! Come get his clothes!” So Kylie ran across the lounge, past the kitchen door, back with Benny’s little suit on a little hanger and Benny’s hand in her spare while she bent over him saying, “What’re we gonna do, Benny? What’re we gonna do?”
Nan sat in the quiet with her cup of tea. She picked it up and sipped, put it down. Somewhere outside, Boof sounded off, and there was the chesty whine of a car. There was a squeal from Kylie’s room. Nan sat for a bit more, then pushed herself to her feet and went out the door a bit stiff to the lounge, through to the little room that may as well be hers now, Shirl said, since Nan had had that turn, just enough space for a wardrobe and the pictures on the strip of wall next to it: Shirl’s dad Martin about eighteen, all legs like Jase, with a sidelong look like he might give some young girl just before he made her pregnant; Pop in his waistcoat and his hair in a flat slick and a sidelong look like he might lose so much on a horse he’d just take off somewhere forever, which he did; and a nice print of gum trees with a bit of sea. There were lots more pictures – her own wedding, even Martin’s – crowded on the walls back at her own place, in the old chest in her hallway. In the shed, on top of the back wardrobe. Some in a box under the bed she’d shared with Pop years ago. She got the teeth from the table by the single bed Shirl made up every day with that crocheted rug on it, thinking it was Nan’s though Nan had never seen it before she came here; came back slipping the teeth in as she went. Sat down in the quiet, with the female murmuring going on in the bedrooms. Jason was out first, in a sticky cloud of teenage aftershave adjusting the fat tie over the blue shirt, tugging on his tux jacket. He said, “What’dya reckon, Nan?” So Nan paid attention and smiled: “Y’look great, Jason. The girls’ll be queuing up,” and he said, “Aw, Nan,” but he went pink with a sidelong smile like he didn’t really need to be told about those girls, he already knew. He tugged and adjusted a bit, and then he said, “Just outside for a minute.” She didn’t say anything and he went out the back door, left it open and pretty soon there was cigarette smoke sneaking in acrid under the aftershave. Kylie and Jessie and Benny came in next: the girls in matching long pale pink satin with a silk flower each in their hair, faces like kewpie dolls; Benny all combed in his tiny tux with the blue shirt collar up to his chin, still dangling the milk bottle by the teat. The kitchen filled up with flowery perfume, maybe the one Nan got for Kylie last Christmas, thick as soup over the top of Jason’s aftershave, and girly voices pitched for excitement and Kylie bending over in Benny’s face suddenly saying, “Benny, you’re so gorgeous! Nanna, isn’t he gorgeous!”
There was Nora’s voice saying, “Here she comes!” and Jason was in the back door just as Nora came in, her without the apron and with a little silk bouquet to match the girls’ flowers, and then Shirl in the great sweep of ivory satin she and Nora had hunted down at the Brotherhood, perfect for it and not going to break the bank either they said, with the bodice and the laceup at the back; Shirl’s shoulders creamy as a girl’s still, though her hands looked bigger and redder than usual. There was another scent pushing in with Shirl and Nora and it was like Myer’s cosmetics department with a crowd of those women after you with spray bottles. Nan gave a little cough. “Mum, you’re gorgeous! Nan, isn’t she gorgeous!” “Shouldn’t be in white,” Nan said, but no-one heard and anyway she’d said it before, couple of times, along with, “Shouldn’t be second hand.” Shirl was a bit shaky – you could tell because she didn’t know what to do with her hands – patting her hair, smoothing down the front of her dress. “Let me tighten up the laces, just a bit,” Nora said, but Shirl said “No! Jesus, I’ll pass out!” She laughed high and breathy. “Jase, what’dya think?” She turned around, the folds on the skirt thick and smooth in a big pearl-white arc, and Jason said, “You look great, Mum,” and there was a small silence with the sun suddenly through the clouds outside and coming in the kitchen window, warm and yellow, and everyone smiled. “Time to go!” shouted Nora, and she and Shirl and the girls rustled and giggled avoiding each other’s hems to the front door, over the creaking board and out; and Jason held out his hand to Nan and she stood up and they went over the creaking board and out the front door and slammed it.
A thin wind was needling across the highway and the field over the road and the acre of hotel carpark. Barry said they were a bit early for the reception, so he went to the bar to ask for the manager, got sent past the bar through the bippety-boppety noises of the gaming machines and beyond. “Big place, isn’t it?” Nan said, but Nora was checking her purse. She said, “Would you like a drink while we’re waiting, Nan?”
Wedding guests were coming in breathy and giggling, hair messy from the wind, so Donnie sat everyone at a couple of long tables under the big screens where the horses were running in three different races. Behind the tables, punters with beers stood staring up at the horses, screwed-up tickets on the carpet around their feet. Nora and Donnie went off to get a jug and some stubbies, and the guests turned their faces to the screens like their eyes were being pulled that way. Shirl sat down and tugged at the bodice, got an armful of skirt under the table so it wouldn’t be trodden on. She leaned for a fag and reached for a stubby of beer from Nora just as she got back to the table. “Jesus, I deserve this!” Nora laughed. She put a sweet sherry in front of Nan. “There y’are.” Nan said, “Oh.” Barry was back then, saying it would all be set in about quarter of an hour. Shirl said, “Just enough time for a beer, Love,” so he could have one before the reception after all. He and Shirl clinked bottles. Nan’s sherry glass was still full when Shirl and Barry led everyone to the Orchid Room, with the dingalingaling from the gaming machines going off to the right on their way through. Nora had Nan by the elbow, with all the groups and couples ahead of them shuffling along to the reception area. Nora sat Nan next to Nora’s mum, Brenda. Donnie made his speech with a few jokes about Shirl going straight back to work after the wedding, though he should have known better given Donnie’d been there in the kitchen the other day when Barry and Shirl argued over that, and everyone watching. But Donnie’d had a few, and everyone laughed anyway. He read out a couple of telegrams, not many because most people were here at the reception. Barry said a few words then, and so did Shirl, looking like she might have given up on the bodice, which was down to her armpits, and then the soup was served with a bit of wine. “This is quite nice,” Brenda said into Nan’s face and Nan tucked her face out of the way. “Mm.” Brenda reached for the soupspoon with fuschia lips, face powder clinging to the hairs at the corners of her mouth. “So lucky Barry and Shirl could take you in,” she said. “Got the space for you.”
Nan said, ”Well…”, but Brenda wouldn’t have heard because her head was turned for a big smile to the young waiter filling her glass, and then she leaned over to a woman with red hair like polished brass who was some cousin of Barry’s. Benny was up and running across the room between tables, laughing high in a shriek till he fell down and Kylie stopped him from crying by picking him up really quick and saying, “Whoops-a-daisy, whoops-a-daisy!” Halfway through the lasagne the voices were louder and every now and then Nora’s big whoop would cut through it all; over at the big table Shirl had her head on Barry’s shoulder before Benny came climbing over his sister with his arms out and Shirl put him on her lap. The DJ was fiddling at his table, so Barry walked over and they talked and shuffled through CDs. Barry had his tux jacket off, and his shirt was out under the cummerbund. The waiters came and took away the dishes. The redheaded cousin and Brenda leaned over to talk together but then it was just their mouths working when the music started up and Barry and Shirl got up for a dance to Chapel in the Moonlight. Nan finished her glass and a waiter came over to fill it again. Shirl had her skirt lifted up in one hand and slid her thumb into the top of the bodice for a quick tug, and Barry had her around the waist. They swayed back and forth and looked into each others’ eyes; then the music stopped and Kylie was dragging Jason up onto the dance floor. Donnie and Norma were up, Donnie without his jacket too, and Nora’s mate Barb had some uncle of Barry’s by the hand, so close to Nan’s chair there was a whiff of aftershave and mothballs, and then his whole body jerking to the music ten inches from her face so you couldn’t even see past. Brenda shouted into Nan’s ear. “I told Nora I’d be happy to take you home, whenever you want, dear. You just tell me when.” Nan nodded and knocked off more wine but Brenda was looking at the dancers and tapping her finger on the tablecloth to the music. “Been a while …,” Brenda said. Nan heard that because it was in the pause between the music, but she didn’t answer because Brenda wasn’t looking at her and then it was Nutbush City Limits and Brenda was laughing because the kids had lined up with Shirl with Benny on her hip to do the Nutbush, and everyone was stepping forward and back – that uncle in an out of Nan’s face – at the same time and yelling “Nutbush City Limits!” along with the music.
Yellow Submarine was just starting when Brenda leaned over and shouted, “Take you home now dear?” So Nan leaned over for the big handbag, a bit stiff because she’d been sitting for a while. The napkin slid off her lap onto the floor. Brenda found her keys and waved to Nora, pointed at the door and mouthed, “I’ll be back”. There was a couple dancing with linked arms who had to move for Nan and Brenda to get through, and more who had drifted from the dance floor to the carpet. Brenda took hold of Nan’s elbow and held it close to the soft roll at her waist past the dingalingaling of the machines and the bar and through the glass door to the big carpark and the wind, which was a bit of a shock. A hard late afternoon light made it look like somewhere Nan had never been. Inside Brenda’s car it was warm, though it smelled of new-car chemicals. Brenda drove and talked at the same time, at first about Nora and Donnie and how good Jessica was at school, and then how it was so nice to see Shirl and Barry making it official finally after that last disaster and how Benny was pretty well behaved today though sometimes he could be a bit sooky, and then again about how Nan was lucky she had a place with Barry and Shirl, and Barry’d be so useful when it came down to selling her flat. Must be lovely to have the family around her, she said. Nan said actually she was much better now just as Brenda was recommending a physio because even old people need to keep fit. Nan said she knew that, but then Brenda was talking about macrame and craft lessons. The day was losing colour and some of the cars had their lights on, everything blurring in the gray. At the house Nan said, “There’s Boof.” He was running up and down, crouching on his front elbows and jumping up and away and back again, backwards and forwards to the front door until the women got there and Brenda took the key from Nan to open up. He squeezed past and into the house and stood over his bowl so Brenda laughed and said, “You sit down at the table here, Nan, and I’ll feed this hound. Like a cuppa?” But Nan said no, it was a bit late for a cuppa, and waited while Brenda opened up the fridge for the dog food and drawers for a spoon with a quick look at it to check it was clean, and scooped a pile into Boof’s dish. Brenda said, “There,” and then very loud, “Will you be right now, dear? D’you need anything?” But Nan said no, and thanks, and Brenda gave her a quick kiss and a ta-ta and went.
Nan sat for a bit in the quiet, like the evening after-traffic quiet at her flat – except for Boof’s sloppy gobbling – with her bag on her lap and the daylight going until outside the kitchen window there was only black. Then she got up and went to the back door and flipped one of the light switches, but forgot again they were set up differently from home, and the light went off in the kitchen instead so she turned it back on and flipped the other switch, and the backyard lit up suddenly like that painting at last month’s outdoor Art Show with the weird colours painted onto black. She wondered what it would look like on that spare bit of wall at her flat. She opened up the back door and went outside to the Hill’s hoist, grabbed hold of one of Shirl’s tea towels hanging there and started to trot, slowly at first till the stiffness wore off, around and around the clothesline. She was a bit breathless when she’d done her circuits, but she still hummed a couple of bars from ‘The Great Escape’. She always did that, and it always made her laugh.