Henry Packer was born in the mid-1950s. It was a time when hospital nurses were slim and GPs offered boiled sweets to their younger patients.
Henry Packer was born a sickly child. By the 1960s he was familiar with both matron’s rules as well as his doctor’s gob-stoppers. He rarely endured a full week’s schooling.
Henry would stand inside his parents’ bedroom door and watch as his mother prepared for the day. Her dressing table had three mirrors and was made of mahogany. The drawers were lined with scented paper and the locks still had their original brass keys. Lead crystal figurines were traipsed with jewelry and positioned in huddles like extras in a costume drama. Her brush & comb set was mother-of-pearl framed in silver. The only regret was a stain etched by a wayward drop of nail varnish remover. In moments of introspection she would trace this scar like a faith healer in a trance; and the look on her face would cause young Henry to fret for his mother’s happiness.
The bit Henry liked the best was when his mother stretched impossibly small nylons across the lengths of her legs. Her side-saddle pose was like an advertisement in a glossy magazine. She had the most exquisite profile and her curly hair was often tucked behind her ears. Her body undulated like the art-deco statuette in the drawing room.
“Henry, don’t you get awfully bored standing there watching?”
“Only the boring get bored, mummy.”
They smiled. Three years previously she had admonished her only son on his first summer break. He hated school yet missed the routine; he had complained of having nothing to do.
“You’re a good boy Henry, a very good boy.”
Henry watches his mother stand up: it’s always a theatrical act, it’s like she’s stepping into an audition certain of landing the role.
“But run away now. I have matters…”
Henry hesitates. Not in defiance, rather melancholia. He can remember when he was never shooed away.
The sun is already bright; the arched window with the stained glass throws blasphemous colors across the hallway. The gaps between the barley twist balustrade separate shafts of summer dust and the floorboards squeak every other step. His splayed fingers bounce along the spindles like cigarette cards flicking staccato against bicycle spokes. A soft, musical thudding resonates from the seasoned wood.
The family home’s an Edwardian detached. There’s a touch of the folly about its design: Turrets and unnecessarily bayed windows give the house a whimsical feel. Even Henry’s room, the smallest of the bedrooms, has a windowsill large enough for him, a wireless and a pile of books.
His parents would buy him any book he requested. In return he was charged to keep his shoes polished to military standard.
His father instructed Henry in the art of shoe polishing. He showed his son how to spit a tanner’s worth of spittle to each toecap; how to work the diluted polish in compressed figures of eight: ?
“Infinity,” his father said, “Follow the sign. It’s never-ending. It’s never-ending. So choose your battles carefully son. Never be a rebel. Yet never submit to slavery.”
Henry agreed earnestly with his father: nodding his head seriously as he pulled his socks straight. Not certain what had been said?
“And son,” smiled his father, “never allow me to catch you expurgating for any other purpose.”
Henry drags his open fingers across the balustrade as he descends the stairs. There’s a loose spindle which clunks like a slackened piano wire. From above this dud note flutters the sound of a blown kiss.
Henry looks up. His mother is mouthing a message through a smile shaped crimson-red.
She looks like a beautiful, yet badly dubbed foreign film star. He can’t read her lips. He doesn’t care. It’s a moment of such shared joy, he trembles.
When she blows another kiss and waves him goodbye, she does so with good natured urgency. He pushes away with gusto, eager to please his mother with an athletic display as though he’d never been ill: He skips stairs, pushes his luck and challenges gravity. His skinny legs are pushed to the limit of reasonable chance yet somehow he reaches the front door on two feet. With a slippery slide across polished terracotta he stumbles to the coir matting.
The builder from next door bursts in, narrowly missing Henry’s head. He’s smiling like a victorious Burt Lancaster; bouncing on muscular legs like a man expecting to win any challenge set.
His shirt sleeves are rolled up. His upper arms match his legs. A big, square hand ruffles Henry’s hair with an instantly infectious camaraderie. “Alright kidder?”
But he doesn’t wait for a reply. He takes the stairs two and three at a time.
His mother’s gently suggestive perfume of roses and lemon is readily swamped by the bubbling audacity of sawn wood and putty.
In the garden, half way up the crazy paving, Henry recognises the flag hoisted above the shed. When his father can’t be disturbed for reasons other than compound fractures or out of control fires, he raises the family crest above his workshop.
Halfway up the garden path with nowhere to go, Henry knows from experience that his father will be hours in experiment. Henry looks up to the back of the house: His mother pulls closed the bedroom curtains like she’s posted semaphore of her own.
Henry’s half way up the garden path with nowhere to go and with only one thing to do: He hacks a gob of venom and lets fly from the front of his lips, his neck lurched forward in the pose of the unpractised.
The sticky phlegm abseils the side of his father’s shed, reaching down to the immature sunflowers as Henry slips through the gap in the fence.
The spit will lose its tackiness long before Henry’s father dares leave his bench… just as the plumber next door mistakes the waxy smear on the builder’s ear for blood.
Harry Packer says: “I bought my wife a kindle for her birthday. Then, for our wedding anniversary, I put together 5 short stories and published them to Amazon. The collective title is Peeping Tomfoolery. My wife suggests they lack Romance. My wife is correct. Nonetheless, I think I’ll write some more.”
This story is sponsored by
Jenny Schwartz — Australian contemporary romance author in love with steampunk.