Winter’s Ghost

Dead of Winter ~ Second Place
Robin Hillard


The Kellys lived in the house at the end of the street, that Jamie and I called “the last house in town,” to remind ourselves that we were stuck in the bush. The paved road stopped after the Kellys’ house, but we had to drive on, over a bumpy dirt track. Every time we passed the Kellys’ place, with its lawn and swimming pool, I wished we could stop there.

All we had was a weatherboard cottage with peeling paint. When Mum saw it she burst into tears, but George told her it was cheap. “We won’t be here for long,” he said. At first, as we reached the end of the street, he would wave at the Kellys’ house: “That’ll be us one day.”

By December the promises had stopped, and we were sweating through the Australian summer, still stuck in the bush with the dust and the flies. The Kellys’ house seemed like the beginning of civilization when we drove into town, and the end of everything on the way home, but if George said anything at all, it was a reminder not to get involved with “nosy neighbours.”

I did not like Australia and I did not like George.

We had known him back in London. When Dad disappeared he moved in with Mum, and the next thing we knew he was dragging us out here. “The sun always shines in Ozzie-land,” he said. “You’ll get a bit of colour in your cheeks.”

But we arrived in August, winter on this side of the world, and whatever George might have said about the weather, the Gippsland winter was cold.

He just laughed at our grizzles and told Jamie to toughen up. When my brother started to cough, Mum went to Vinnies and got him a jacket and bought a couple of sweaters for me. Vinnies. St. Vincent de Paul. They sell secondhand clothes for charity and George was so tight that Mum did all her shopping there: clothes, furniture, and even our school uniforms.

“Gotta be careful of the dosh,” George said, when she complained. We even had ratty old secondhand beds with stained mattresses.

Now, in the summer heat, he sat huddled on the veranda looking silly in his thick coat. He said he was cold. In December! In Australia!

“I bet it’s a ghost,” Jamie whispered, “rubbing fingers up his spine.”

The ghost of London’s winter, chasing him across the world!

“The ghost of all the nasty things he’s done,” I whispered back.

Jamie giggled, but I pressed my hand against his mouth in case George heard. We didn’t want to make him mad.

I pulled my brother inside. If George was in one of his moods we’d better keep out of the way. The sitting room was the coolest place in the house, so I turned on the fan and sprawled out on the floor. We were almost comfortable till George stormed in and switched off the fan. “It’s like a bloody freezer here!”

I thought of a freezer. A big one, like the Kellys had. Soon after we arrived, Di Kelly invited me to her place after school; she went to this huge freezer and pulled out two ice creams with the kind of wrappings they have in the shop. George was really mad when I got home, and told me to keep away from “that toffee-nosed town crowd,” so I never went to the Kellys’ house again, but as I sweated under our tin roof I wished I could jump into their pool.

George was still going on about the cold.

“You better toughen up,” Jamie said, giggling. The stupid kid. George fetched him such a swipe he ended up on the floor, screaming.

George would have hit him again, but Mum burst out of the bedroom and grabbed his arm. “The neighbours!”

That was stupid too. There was no one closer than the Kellys’ house.

It stopped George though. Which was something to remember. In Australia he was scared of the neighbours, and maybe when he hit us we should yell real loud. Jamie had the sense to scuttle outside, I wanted to follow, but with George between me and the door I had to stay where I was. And hope he would not notice me.

He headed for the bedroom, but was out again before I could move.

“What the flakin’ hell is this?” he was waving a receipt. It must have fallen from Mum’s bag. “Five hundred dollars for a flakin’ dress! You stupid cow!”

“I didn’t think y-you’d mind”

“Of course I flakin’ mind. That’s why we’re stuck in this flakin’ place—your idiot husband flashed his money around. You know what happened to him.”

Did she? Did Mum know why Dad left? We were used to him going away, but usually after a policeman came to the house. This time he just disappeared.

Mum muttered something that made George really mad. He dragged her into the bedroom, threw her down on the floor and started dragging clothes out of all the drawers.

Mum was crying and he slammed the window down. “D’you want the whole town listening in?”

She shut up.

Then he seemed to calm down. He was talking slowly, with his posh voice. “I am a junior sales manager of Argyle Electrics, and we live on my wages. That’s all the money we’ve got. And you want to swan about a flash dress? How much more did you spend? Eh?”

He shook her and, when she did not speak, answered for her in a high squeaky voice. “Just going into town, George. Just a little shopping, George.” Then, as his own horrible self, “What’s wrong with the dresses you’ve got? Your old clothes not good enough eh?” There was a thump as he knocked her onto the floor. “I’ve had told you a hundred times to keep your head down. Just like I told your Roger. You stupid bitch.”

He stormed out and headed back to the veranda where he huddled in a patch of sun.

I turned on the fan, and then went into the bedroom where Mum was still on the floor. Crying.

“What did happen to Dad?”

“Shh.” She whispered. Acting really scared. “Roger made George mad. He was so stupid.”

“I bet it was the money.” I was whispering too. I remembered how Dad had come home with a lot of new stuff, and Mum had tried to get it out of sight. I don’t know what it had to do with George, but when Mum saw him coming she sent me to Gran’s place with Jamie. When we came back Dad was gone.

Mum was burning hot from crying so I opened the window to get a bit of breeze.

I could hear music coming down the track; the Kellys must be having a party. Maybe later they would light the barbecue. That’s what Australians do when they have visitors, everyone sits on the lawn and they do their cooking outside. Last time they had what Mum called a “spit,” and roasted half a sheep. There was a bit of a breeze and, like the music this afternoon, the smell of their dinner came right down the track. It made George mad. He did not mind a bit of steak himself, but he said the smell of burning made him sick.

This time I could not smell a barbecue but George clumped inside, complaining, and slammed the front door shut. “Doesn’t anyone use their kitchen in this flakin’ place?”

Mum’s eyes were red from crying and she turned her face away, but George did not notice.

“It’s so flakin’ cold,” he said.

“Maybe it’s the ghost of last winter.” Mum’s window opens onto the veranda and she must have heard us talking about ghosts, but I wished she would shut up. She would only make George mad.

“You flakin’ stupid cow,” he said, and I thought he was going to hit her again. “That’s a flakin’ stupid thing to say.” Then, to me, “I don’t know why I brought you lot along. I thought your Mum had class, but look at her.”

That wasn’t fair. Mum didn’t have money for clothes, or make up, or for getting her hair done, so how could she look like the girls in the shop, the ones who worked with George? Was that why she wanted a new dress?

As suddenly as it started, George’s shivering stopped, and he was sweating like everyone else, and cursing the heat.

I thought about one of the shop girls. Beverly. The one George said had class. Was she the reason he got mad at Mum?

When we landed in Melbourne he was using his nice voice.

“Just hold off a little, luv,” he begged at first, when she wanted to buy us some clothes. “Let things settle down. Then we’ll take our loot and find somewhere nice. I promise.”

“Loot.” That always made trouble for Dad. It was never enough to get us “somewhere nice” and it always brought the police around. I hoped George had his loot with him, and that the Australian police would drive down the track, stop outside our gate and come bursting in to look for it. Then they would take George away.

It was not much good wishing. George was always reminding Mum how much it cost to bring us to Australia “with all the flakin’ papers.” There would not be much loot left for the police to find.

He was shivering again, and from the way he talked you’d think it was Mum’s fault. Only decent thing about the move, he said, was the climate. Missing the flakin’ cold—and here it was: “Like the ghost of flakin’ winter.”

There, he said it himself. Maybe it was a ghost, a bit of London winter coming to get him—for whatever he did before we came away.

Maybe it’s Dad’s ghost. I pushed that thought down quickly, in case he read my mind.

In December even the nights were hot, and I woke in a puddle of sweat. Someone was screaming. George.

I thought he was fighting with Mum, till I heard him shout at Dad. “Roger, y’ flaking idiot—do y’ want to bring the police around?” Then, as if he got an answer from the empty room: “Suppose the money’s marked? Did y’ think about that?” and talking more softly: “O.K. old chap, come on. Just a little drive, eh.” Yelling again: “Y’ want me to blast y’ away, y’ flakehead. Y’ll flakin’ well come.”

Jamie was awake. I climbed into his bed and held him tight, so he would not make any noise.

We heard George getting up, still yelling about a flakin’ burning car, and watched through the window as he rushed down the track. Mum went after him.

Jamie and I followed them.

George headed for the town screaming about “flakin’ Roger—flakin’ burning.”

He got as far as the Kellys’ place. Mr. Kelly came out and stood in front of him. He said something quietly, took George’s arm and walked him home. Then he talked to Mum, who pretended she had just got out of bed. Jamie and I kept out of sight.

I didn’t know want to face the kids at school. Everyone thought George was our Dad, and here he was yelling in the street like a drunk with the horrors.

But Di Kelly didn’t laugh at me, and she didn’t crawl around, pretend friendly, like people do when they smell a good story. I don’t think she told the others, because no one stared at me or acted strange. It was as if nothing had happened the night before.

But when I got home I saw the Kellys’ car, and as I went inside I heard Mrs. Kelly talking about a thing she called AA. Alcoholics Anonymous. “It made such a difference to Jack.” Jack? Was that Mr. Kelly?

I could not see George joining it, this “Alcoholics Anonymous,” and I wished Mrs. Kelly would go away—before he came back. He might not yell at her, but he would be mad at Mum. He’d say she was getting mixed up with the neighbours. Which he thought was the worst thing we could do. Even worse than buying new clothes.

“You don’t want them nosing around,” he said once, as we passed the Kellys’ house.

Mum must have been feeling perky because she spoke up, and said she had nothing to hide. “It’s not as if I robbed a bank.”

That was the first time he hit her. He gave a sideways swipe and we nearly crashed into a tree.

“It isn’t the drink,” Mum was saying now, as I pulled Jamie away from the house.

We knew it wasn’t the drink. There was something wrong with George’s head, something that made him go freezing cold on a hot day, and sent him screaming down the track, yelling at Dad.

Maybe it was a ghost. The ghost of a London winter, chasing him across the world.

“Dad’s dead,” Jamie said suddenly. “Dad’s dead in London and we’re here. We’re going to be here forever and ever.” He started to cry. “I bet George killed Dad. I bet he burned Dad in the car. That’s what he was yelling about.”

It made sense. Too much sense. I had to get Jamie away before George came back.

We ran down the track to where the town begins. To the house at the end of the street. The Kellys’ house.

“Dad’s dead,” Jamie shouted as we burst through the open front door. Mr. Kelly must have thought we meant George because he grabbed his car keys and rushed out. But Mrs. Kelly had the car.

“She’s at our place,” I said, trying to pull him down the track. “And George is going to be mad.”

“George killed our Dad,” Jamie was yelling and crying as he tugged at Mr. Kelly’s other hand.

That was when George came by, in our old car. He must have seen us with Mr. Kelly but he didn’t stop. He headed down the track in a cloud of dust with Mr. Kelly rushing after him.

“Oh. Oh. Oh.” Jamie screamed the number he had learned at school. Call 000 to get the Australian police. Our class had learned it too, but I never thought I would make an emergency call. Maybe, if I used the Kellys’ phone, George wouldn’t know it was me.

You wouldn’t believe how quickly the police came, with flashing lights and sirens, right past the Kellys’ place and down the track.

By the time we got back to our house, the police were outside with a megaphone, and George was screaming through the window. He had an arm around Mum and was yelling about a knife. We could hear Mr. Kelly’s deep voice, telling everybody to keep calm.

One of the police kept George talking while the others rushed through the front door. Then someone grabbed him from behind and we couldn’t see anything till they came outside, two policemen holding George, and Mr. Kelly following with his wife and Mum.

I don’t think they found any loot, but the police wanted to know how Dad disappeared and they gave Mum something called “witness protection” which meant she had to fly back to London and go to court.

That is why Jamie and I are still in Australia, staying with the Kellys until Mum comes back. Now, after we’ve been into town, we can stop at the house at the end of the street. And every afternoon, as we jump into the pool, I think of George shivering on the hottest days, and the ghost of a London winter that followed him across the world.

pencil

E-mail: robinhillard[at]ozemail.com.au.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email