The booth seats in the cafe haven’t changed. Just like before, the tufted, faux-leather upholstery smells of spoiled milk. Fifteen years later, it’s a miracle the place is still here, the view outside the streaked window unrecognisable. A strange and unfamiliar landscape has evolved since I’ve been away, and I worry my daughter will get lost in the maze.
“What am I thinking? Probably too young to remember anything about this place! Nothing familiar about it.” I say this out loud to the empty seat across the grease-smeared table. Maybe I’m too used to talking to myself after so many years in confinement.
I signal the woman behind the counter for another cup. She’s there to serve me again within minutes.
“You alright there, sweetheart? Can I getcha anything else?”
“Thanks. Good for now. I’m waiting for someone. We’ll order when she gets here.”
She smiles in return, her eyes in agreement, the simple gesture filling my soul.
Been a long time since anyone smiled at me. Leered at from across the prison yard? Yes. Rude laughter following a crude joke at my newbie expense? Yes. But an expression of warm humanity with no underlying motive but goodwill? Not since the last time with my daughter.
Which must’ve been when she was five. Can see her now, as present as the café, her face radiant, the two of us wrestling in the seeping mud, the day’s chore all done.
Said chore was laying turf. A final, mindless exercise to keep my fear at bay. To render a ten square metre area, the one flat portion of a sloping backyard, into verdant vegetation. That morning I’d spread cow manure and nutrient pellets across the dry dirt, all the weeds and rocks removed the previous day. So engrossed in the plodding movement of the metal smoothing rake I didn’t notice her standing outside the open garage door.
“Daddy? Can I help?”
I hesitated. For a second. She’d not shown interest in outdoor work before. I’d given up asking after past unsuccessful attempts. Even now, even after her request, I couldn’t give it much credence. Five minutes, tops, and she’d grow bored and return to her room. To her toys and books.
“Sure, baby. Right in time too. See those over there?” I pointed to the rolled turf stacked a metre high on two pallets at the end of the driveway. “We’re gonna fit them all in this square. Like a giant puzzle. You ready to get dirty?”
She squealed and clapped her hands. Then raced for a pallet and tried to lift one of the rolled pieces. She could only reach the middle of the stack and it didn’t move. Her small hand came away holding a corner of ripped-away black earth and green grass.
“Sorry daddy!” Her doll-like face verged on crying. “It ripped!”
I laughed to ease her angst. “It’s okay. There’s plenty. Really. And tell you what. I’ll carry them. You unroll ‘em.”
Sadness evaporated, she stuffed the bits of dirt and grass into her trackies pocket, skipped to the far end of the dirt square and stood, arms akimbo, grinning, expectant.
“Nothing like cool grass under bare feet. Always brings back fond memories. When I was a boy in Richmond.”
The next two hours we worked together - I carried, she unrolled, I made sure the edges fit close, I carried, she unrolled. Trip after trip, laughter filling the air, the toil and effort unnoticed as we transformed that hapless dirt patch into our own little emerald isle.
Throughout she didn’t lose focus. Didn’t let up in her single-minded intensity. Never once complained of aches and pains. Or thirst. Her joy was infectious, all-consuming and when we laid down the last piece she couldn’t stop jumping on the completed work, from end to end, her feet making tiny impressions on the living carpet.
Hosing it down I purposefully caught her legs in a spray, then let her grab the hose from my outstretched hand. She returned the favour and doused me head to foot. That led to tickling and wrestling, the two of us screaming and laughing, rolling around on the soaked expanse, we both soon covered in mud and blades of grass. When we lay upon it, exhausted, I longed for time to stand still. For the moment to continue forever.
Because the next day I was off to prison.
Less than a year inside and the divorce papers were signed and registered. Not having a sound marriage in the best of times, my ex had cut off communication, changed states and gender preference, and now made a distant home with another woman.
But I knew where she lived, and I kept writing, week after week, year after year, the envelopes addressed solely to my daughter. It was as if into a black hole, my words sucked from the light of day, never a reply.
Nothing came in from the outside world, stuck as I was at the Lithgow Correctional Centre. For transporting a suitcase for a friend, its hidden compartments not up to the task, revealing cakes of white powder to Border Patrol. I had no idea my business partner was drowning in gambling debts; the favour agreed to without thought. Without question.
He’d said it was gifts for his family and asked me to check it in at JFK airport after a week of meetings in New York, he claiming it’d take him beyond his luggage weight limit. He’d disappeared upon landing in Sydney, leaving me literally holding the bag. And facing prosecution alone.
Lithgow Correctional Centre. Who are they kidding? The definition of correctional - penal incarceration, rehabilitation, parole, and probation – didn’t hold up. Each man I’d seen leave eventually returned, sometimes the very next day.
What sustained me were summers. The smell of grass being mown in the outer grounds always sent my mind back to that faultless day laying turf.
One week out and free, living in a hostel, unsure of where to turn. Attempts to contact my ex, to connect with my daughter have failed. Old phone numbers don’t seem to work, with messages left unanswered. And the home address is no longer valid.
Today the hostel’s front office alerts me to a phone call. Can’t imagine who it might be.
“Daddy?” Her voice is soft, melodic, not at all like her mother’s.
Don’t know how I managed coherence in making the arrangements to meet. At this cafe. Where we used to come for brekkies. Did not know until the call that she’d returned to Sydney on her own; was living with flatmates not far away. And had contacted the prison for my parole details.
I’m looking out the window when I feel a presence on the opposite bench. We’re both lost for words as we stare at each other. For a second, I’m confused, seeing her mother instead. And she perhaps is equally confused, gazing upon a creased and age-spotted visage more akin to a grandfather’s.
I rise to my feet and reach out my hands in a clumsy attempt at a hug. She remains sitting, my arms grabbing air, the expression on her face uninterpretable. I try another tack.
“What did you think of all my letters?”
Her blank expression tells me everything. I don’t push it, though it stings to realize my ex intercepted them.
From her coat pocket she pulls out a wrinkled, folded envelope, its middle creased to a hard edge. “Never got your letters, but I’ve kept this.” Tears erupt from her eyes as she slides it across the table. “You once spoke of fond memories growing up. I have one too.”
I open the crinkled paper and my heart nearly explodes. Inside is desiccated earth and grass, a mere torn-off corner’s worth, just enough to fill a child’s hand.
About the Author
George Lancaster was raised in Japan, lived thirty years in America’s South, and since 2008 has embraced Australian citizenship. Married for umpteen years to Sydney-born Nicole and father to two adult children (who share features of his, so he reckons Nicky’s been telling the truth!). A hobby writer for years, he is finally getting paid as a freelancer.