Ramesh had known Gerry for years – eight, in fact; as long as he and Henry had been together – but this was, in a way, like meeting him all over again.
‘This?’ Ramesh asked, holding up a ceramic figurine of a rabbit, and Henry shook his head. But the watermarked Hopper print in the bathroom he couldn’t bear to part with. He carried it to the sunroom and put it in the small pile of things they were taking home.
Gerry was not his father, of course, and so he felt no right to his belongings, or to the decisions about them. He did not understand what was special; which objects were freighted with memory. Henry’s father had moved into an aged-care facility, so they were down from Sydney for the weekend to help him get settled. It was a solemn, tedious task.
Ramesh stopped trying to guess, and started cleaning the place instead. In the end it had all been too much for Gerry. It was as if the dementia had caused blind spots where he would have once seen weeds in the paddocks; dirt smudges around the light switches. Ramesh filled a bucket with hot water and sugar soaped every wall in the house, moving methodically from one end to the other. When the water turned grey and tepid, he hauled it outside and tipped it over the grass. Afterwards he felt the throb of satisfaction provoked by manual labour and drying streaks. The place seemed to him lighter.
Gerry’s property was five acres. It was where Henry and his sister, Niamh, had grown up, though the house was not the same: their childhood house had been razed in the Ash Wednesday fires. This, too, made cleaning out the place difficult. The normal artefacts of a childhood had been cremated long ago and what was left was strange. It was the residue of a man who’d learned to live alone: pale-blue skirting around the bottom of the mattress, threadbare handtowels embroidered with rosebuds, cheery fridge magnets. All the appliances were old and heavy, but in good condition. His iron, which had gathered black dust, was the sturdy kind no longer sold; the elastic on the ironing board cover sagged.
Saturday evening they drove to the nursing home and signed the ledger by the front door to confirm they were taking Gerry out for a few hours.
‘Niamh’s doing a roast,’ Ramesh said, trying to distract Gerry from watching Henry fill the boxes with his neat print: name, time, relationship to resident. The pen was fixed to the table with a cord.
‘It’s like I’m a bloody parcel,’ Gerry said.
‘It’s like we’re signing a guestbook,’ Henry said.
‘We’re kidnapping you,’ Ramesh said conspiratorially.
‘Good,’ Gerry said. ‘You can cut me up and dump me in the reservoir instead of taking me back to that – prison camp.’
But in the car Henry jollied him along with silly jokes and a string of remember-whens, and he became peaceable. Ramesh thought of the emotions shifting quickly, like weather systems, the way they did in toddlers. The old man’s eyebrows were unkempt. There was a stain on his shirt roughly the shape of the African continent: such indignity in old age! He thought of his own parents, both still in good health, back in England. The thought of either of them developing the uncertain shuffle of the dementia sufferer made him desperately sad. And what about him and Henry, both hurtling towards fifty? Would one of them become the other’s carer?
In the front seat, Gerry was telling a story he’d told a million times before – the story of Niamh, three years old, chasing the rooster away from the chickens, bellowing at him to leave them be – and Henry was laughing as though he’d never heard it before. Ramesh blinked at the dark scrub outside and wished for a swift, lightning-strike death. Later, he thought, probably in bed, he’d tell Henry about it, and Henry would tease him for being maudlin and kiss him until he’d forgotten what he’d been sad about.