Michael had already left when Anne woke up. She staggered out into the kitchen, in her gown stained with tomato sause and her bed hair. There was a note on the table. ‘Dear Mum, going north again, Michael.’ She read it a few times, then stuck it to the fridge with a magnet. She’d leave it there until he returned. It would probably be months, maybe weeks, though a few times it had been a year
Michael was thirty-five and this was how he’d lived since he was twenty two, since his breakdown. Driving his car from one end of Australia to the other, Anne took notice of the stickers on the back of his car, Burnie, Tasmania and places like Esperance, Weipa and Humpty Doo. Michael had no money worries, he had a pension and a small inheritance left to him by his Father. He was an excellent mechanic and could fix any problem that occurred with his four wheel drive, plus he always carried spares of everything. He carried other things too, like firearms and other assorted weapons. She wasn’t sure that he was even allowed to have guns, considering his problems, but she said nothing. ‘Protection,’ was all Michael uttered when she once asked about a double edged hunting knife, with a twelve inch blade.
Michael never talked about his travels when he was home and Anne never asked. She took notice of the stickers and his complexion which varied from a light peach to a coppered bronze, depending on where he’d been. She also took notice of the scars on his arms, making sure that they were old. He hadn’t cut or burned himself for a long time now, but she could never be quite sure that he wouldn’t do it again. Communication between them was limited when he stayed, he usually only emerged from his room to eat the meals she cooked for him or occasionally sit with her and watch funniest home videos. Michael rarely laughed and if he did it was in a way that Anne didn’t like, it was as if he was laughing about something he was thinking of, not was on the television. Sometimes she’d hear him laughing in his room, where he would often sit, listening to old records until dawn.
An enigma, that’s what Anne often called him, and when she did he smiled. He smiled in a strange way that unnerved her. She often wished that they were closer, but Michael never stayed long enough for that to happen. He usually only stayed a few days, four at the most, but this time he’d stayed a week. This time had been different.
Michael had walked in early last Sunday morning, he’d been driving all night. He was tired and haggard. He took some bread and cheese to his room and she didn’t see him again until dinnertime on Monday. This wasn’t like Michael, usually when he came in after having been away for months, he’d kiss her cheek and give her a present, or at least a bag of dirty laundry. The he’d sit quietly and listen to her ramblings, quietly sipping the cup of tea she’d put in front of him. It was as the days wore on that he’d slowly become more distant, until one morning he’d be gone.
This time he’d had nothing to do with her, not even joining her for meals, he wandered the house at night like a ghost. Days went by like this, on Friday she expected him to be gone, but he was still there. Before lunch that day, some men came to the door. They said that they were detectives, they wanted to speak to Michael. She led them through to the kitchen, Michael was already there, the detectives asked her to leave them alone. Anne listened at the door, the men were asking Michael where he had been on such and such a date, who he’d been with what he’d been doing. Michael’s answers were inaudible. One of the men became angry, verbally aggressive, he called Michael ‘a motherfucking liar.’ Anne burst into the kitchen. ‘Who the hell do you think you are,’ she shouted at them. ‘Get out of my house.’ The detectives sniggered at her, but they went and she slammed the door behind them.
When Anne got back to the kitchen she heard Michaels four wheel drive reversing out of the driveway. She was disappointed, in the whole time he’d been home they had barely spoken. However on Saturday night he came back, his mood had lifted, he actually seemed quite happy. They ate a good dinner, watched the telly and even talked about the good times, back when Burt was alive and they often went to the beach and had fish and chips for dinner. Anne went to bed that night with a feeling of warmth inside her unlike anything she’d felt in years. She didn’t hear his car leave the next morning, but the note was on the table.
Anne swilled down the last dregs of her coffee and walked slowly to the laundry. As she put her dirties in the machine, she saw that Michael had left his clothes hanging on the single strip of wire that served as her clothes line. ‘Best get them off, or there won’t be room for mine,” she said aloud to herself . She picked up her cane basket and stepped out into the warm summer sun.
The night had been warm and his clothes were dry. She folded them neatly and took them to his room.
Michaels room smelt stale, as it always did after he had stayed, a left over scent from when he was teenager, re-emerged whenever he took up residence again. Anne opened the windows, made the bed and then put his clothes away. There in the top drawer, right at the front, as if he’d wanted her to find them were the undies. White with pink love hearts on them, she’d heard the police ask about them. They were stained with blood and something else. She closed the door hurriedly, hoping that when she looked again they would be gone, but they weren’t.
Later Anne burned the bloodstained cotton in the kitchen sink. The smell was vile. Anne sank into a chair, overwhelmed with a desperate unhappiness. Her head burned and her fingers ached, her heart was heavier than it had ever been in her whole life. She hoped that Michael never came home again.