Kate Mahony

Behind the Scrim

On Tuesday when Guy arrives, his father refuses to go outside to wave goodbye to Mattie, who normally looks after him. Mattie, Guy’s sister, is equally brusque, responding with a curt, ‘No, leave it to me’, when Guy offers to help with her suitcase. At the doorway, lingering on the step, Mattie mutters a constant stream of instructions, as if Guy had never lived in the house before.

 ‘The water pressure’s weak. You’ll need to run the tap for half an hour to get enough for a bath,’ she says. ‘And even that will be only up to quarter tide.’

Guy wishes she would hurry up and leave and take her dampening spirits with her. Things will be easier when there’s just the old man and him. Because this time, he’ll keep the peace at all costs. Or so he told himself before he boarded the flight in Canberra.

Mattie does finally leave, but despite Guy’s best efforts, things don’t improve. His father refuses to join him in the kitchen for lunch, muttering about all the work that needs doing on the farm.

‘I’ll have to take my chainsaw to that bloody tree,’ he says, gesturing towards the window in the living room where in the breeze, a large branch scrapes against the glass.

To Guy’s relief, the old man stays put, in his old armchair in the corner. He spends the afternoon poring over the previous day’s newspaper. Guy sees that he is carefully reading it, story by story. Sometimes he seems to be perusing the same headline or paragraph, again and again. Now and then, he will take a small pair of scissors and cut out a coupon or news article and place it carefully on the top of a pile of other papers in a cardboard box beside him. Other wobbly cardboard boxes line the hallway, as if Mattie has made a half-hearted attempt to sort the mess in the cluttered homestead. The old man’s become an outright hoarder – a hoarder of paper – in his old age. So what, Guy thinks – it can’t harm him, can it?

The old man has an early tea time, as dictated by Mattie in her copious notes. He breaks his silence to complain that the potatoes haven’t been boiled enough. They are hard on his teeth. The grilled fish, on the other hand, is too soft.

‘Like mush for infants,’ he says. He gives Guy a sharp look.

Guy doesn’t reply but merely takes the plate from him and places it in the sink, before going out to the shed to gather logs for the fire.

When he comes back, he turns the television news on. He waits for his father to make some dismissive comments about whichever politician is being interviewed. But the old man surprises him by watching the screen, his face impassive. Then the sports section comes on. It’s rugby, and the old man sits up straight and points at the screen, as if he is about to shout something. He subsides again, as if he has forgotten the words before he has been able to voice them. Guy can’t think of any conversation to offer. He prefers squash, or for making business connections, golf or sailing.

He wonders if he should tell the old man about being up for a big award for the new Canberra art gallery. It might get him interested. Something they can talk about. Even if it’s just something to pass the time. But when he starts to say something, his father makes a shushing noise and stares intently at an advertisement on the television.

At ten o’clock, Guy has finally put his father to bed and washed and dried the dinner dishes. His own room is on the cold side of the house; a southerly has been gathering momentum during the evening. When he opens the door, the wind gusts through a gap between the window and the wooden ledge. He puts his pyjamas on and pulls the musty eiderdown up to his chin. He reaches up to drag on the cord attached to the light fitting. In the sudden darkness, something scuttles across the ceiling above the light. A few seconds later, he hears the sound again. Whatever it is, there is more than one. He reaches for the cord and pulls it so the room lights up again. The ancient wallpaper at the head of his bed undulates as if the backing is moving. He remembers then the two holes in the back of the wall when he opened the door to the built-in wardrobe. An image of small black mice crawling out of the texture of the counterpane comes to mind.

He tells himself not to think like this. Instead, he tries a relaxation technique he’s read about in a business magazine, instructing first his toes, his legs, his thighs and all the way up his body to the top of his head to relax. He needs to get some sleep before his father wakes at six, expecting breakfast to be ready for him.

Sometime in the night, he drifts off. When he comes to, he checks his watch: three o’clock. He wonders if it will wake the old man if he listens to National Radio in the dark. What would help would be listening to something soporific, like someone carefully enunciating a chapter of a literary novel, the kind that can’t easily be understood. He thinks of a fact he’s heard somewhere, how in the dead of night is when the highest percentage of people die. He wonders if that refers to old people only. He thinks about his father. The old man’s getting on. He looks so frail; when he went to stand up to go to bed, he almost lost his balance.

Guy turns on to his side to get back to sleep. Then he sees it. Movement at the end of his bed. Shit. A rat? A possum? His heart starts to race, like it has lately, and he feels sweat break out on his brow.

Then comes a noise he recognises; he’d know that smoker’s cough anywhere.

‘Dad,’ he says hesitantly. ‘Dad?’

‘I’m just off to milk, and then I’ll deal with that tree,’ his father says. ‘Time it came down anyway.’ He shuffles about at the end of the bed. ‘Can’t find my bloody trousers,’ he calls over his shoulder as he reaches the doorway.

Guy shoots out of bed and follows his father down the hallway. His bare feet step in something wet, then in something warm and squishy that spreads out over his foot.

He sighs. Why hadn’t Mattie warned him, given him more of an idea of what was happening? Then he remembers there had been a number of calls from her, more than usual anyway. Most times, she caught him at work, and when she was going on and on, it was often easier to turn back to skimming emails, letting what she had to say just wash over him.

But the last time she called, this time late at night, she’d been half-shouting, half-laughing, almost hysterical, or that was how it seemed to him. She’d said she needed a break, and he was to come over right now or she was taking Dad to the outpatients clinic at the hospital, putting him in a wheelchair and leaving him there.

He hadn’t responded to her comments. Mattie had always been dramatic. He’d waited, knowing she’d have more to say and it could become a long conversation. He could hear a terse whistling noise on the other end as she let out a long breath. He wondered if she had a glass of whisky beside her.

‘So?’ she asked. ‘What do you want to do?’

Do? He wanted to ask. Why should I bloody do anything for the old bastard? That’s what he wanted to say.

‘Guy?’ she cut into the silence, checking he was still on the line. ‘If you’re too busy with work, just say so. It’s up to you. You do what you want. But I have to get some time away. Otherwise … ’

‘What?’ He realised he was reluctant to know what she meant to say.

‘Don’t ask, if you know what’s good for you.’ It was an old saying from their childhood. One of their father’s. Said before he belted him; that’s how Guy remembered it.


‘I’ll kill the old bugger.’ Then came the laugh. High pitched.

He couldn’t be sure if she meant it or not. But there was no point Mattie ruining her life for that old bastard. That was why he came over.


It takes Guy a huge effort to clean up the old man and cajole him to get back into bed. And then about four o’clock, a storm comes through: high winds tearing across paddocks, howling around the house. Somehow, Guy manages to sleep through it.

Except now he’s slept in. Shit! But maybe his father has also slept in, worn out by all his exertion in the night. Guy looks out the bedroom window and sees where the gale has ripped through the cabbage trees. One is now resting against the roof of the house. Roofing iron has been torn off the garden shed.

His father’s not in the kitchen, not sitting waiting, mean-spiritedly, his pyjamas pulled tight up to his chest, at the table. Guy heads back to the old man’s bedroom. There, he nearly trips over a bundle of wet things: bed sheets and a pair of pyjamas dumped in a damp pile. It doesn’t take long to search the rest of the house: living room, Mattie’s room, the bathroom. He remembers the dodgy lock on the toilet door, but the old man’s not trapped in there, unable to free himself. Then he sees that the back door is open.

It takes him the best part of 15 minutes searching the front garden and out on the road, before he goes around the back and finds him in the garden shed. The old man, wearing a baggy pair of yellowed underpants that reach down to his knees, is sifting through a big wooden box containing rusty garden implements. He glances up at Guy.

‘I’m trying to find my chainsaw. That bloody tree needs to come down. It’s been hitting the roof all night.’

Guy has to think quickly. Perhaps distraction will work. ‘Thought I saw it in the laundry,’ he says. ‘We’ll go inside and get it.’

The old man raises an eyebrow and gives him a sceptical look, as if he knows what Guy’s up to. ‘No,’ he says. ‘It’ll be here in the shed. I know that.’

Guy tries to smile. ‘Okay, I’ll take a look this end of the shed.’ He reaches down to move a stray yard broom out of the way.

‘Don’t want to get your hands dirty,’ the old man says malevolently.

Guy feels his body go into full alert. He knows that tone: the same as when his father would yell at him, telling him he was useless, a Nancy boy. But when he turns back, the old man’s expression is all innocence.

Then it turns to agitation. ‘I’ll need to hide the bloody thing. People come and take my stuff.’ He’s waving his hands. ‘I’ve seen that woman. Taking stuff away in plastic bags.’

Does he mean Mattie? Guy stands still. He will count to ten before he says anything. He’ll go along with the old man’s confusion, if that’s what it is.

‘Okay,’ he says, ‘Don’t worry, we’ll find it, all right?’

The old man peers hard at him. ‘Who are you?’

Then Guy sees it: the chainsaw. It is on a shelf at the end of the shed. It’s in surprisingly good condition, still shiny, even. It must be a more recent purchase. He holds it out to look at, and the old man pounces on it. He pulls it to his chest and refuses to leave without it. He seems to gain an unnatural strength, lugging it back to the house with Guy following, like old times. Back in the kitchen, Guy tries to distract his father, who is now shivering in his underpants, with a cup of tea. The old man ignores the tea and puts the chainsaw in pride of place on the table.

Moments later, he seems to forget about the chainsaw and instead goes over to a cardboard box nearest the door to the hallway, anxious, as if looking for something. Guy sits at the table and sips his own tea, wondering if he should have gone for something stronger. He avoids looking at his father, at his white skinny legs and concave belly. He remembers how the old man used to seem so strong and muscular, towering over him.

‘Why does he hate me so much?’ He was eight years old when he asked his mother the question. He had waited for an answer, watching his mother’s pale, anguished face as she twisted her thin plait around her fingers.

She’d shrugged. ‘He doesn’t hate you.’ But her voice lacked conviction as it always did. She had lingered in the kitchen, keeping out of the way, when he was fifteen and the old man had thrown a chair and yelled at him for letting the bull get into the heifer paddock that morning.

That time, however, Guy had had enough. ‘You can stuff the farm,’ he’d told the old man.

Two years later, he’d done it: came to the table one morning and said he’d enrolled in architecture at the university in Wellington. The old man’s face had turned purple.

Architecture,’ he’d said, enunciating the word as if there were something repellent about it. ‘Of all bloody things. Think you’re going to get a job, do you, making fancy drawings on paper?’

Over the years, the old man never changed his attitude to Guy’s work, never acknowledged the newspaper clippings about his business and the awards he’d won that Guy sent home to his mother.

Now his father moves into the lounge and collapses into his armchair, worn out from his trip to the shed.

The rest of the day drags on, with neither of them having the energy to make conversation.

That night, as Guy helps his father get ready for bed, he notices again how the skin seems to hang off the old man’s limbs. He’s about to lift him into bed when he spots an indentation in the flower-patterned wallpaper above the old wooden dressing table. He puts his hand out. There’s a gap, beneath which the scrim seems to swell.

The old man curses. ‘Leave it alone. That’s mine. I won’t have you touching my papers.’

When Guy peers at the spot, he sees that his father has been tucking bits of newspapers into a crevice behind the wall, hiding them. His father scowls, his demeanour stiff, as if he’s about to rise up and fight him off. Guy backs away. 

He surprises himself by sleeping well that night. Perhaps he is getting used to the ways of the old coot; getting used to the noises in the house.

But when he goes to his father’s room to get him up, again he’s not in the bed.

Guy tries not to feel anxious. The old man’s a sprinter, that’s all. Always on the escape. He’s not in the house, nor is he in the garden shed. He checks the road. No one to be seen. Then he hears it. A faint roaring noise. Then a kind of spluttering. He hears it again. It’s coming from around the side of the house where the paddock is, next to Guy’s room. Now he recognises what it is. He starts to run, his shoes wet in the damp grass.

He calls out to his father.

When he turns the corner of the house, he feels his breath catch. The old man is standing halfway up a ladder. He’s swaying, waving the chainsaw. He thrusts it towards the drainpipe on the roof where a branch of a tree is resting. He’s intending to hack it off.

‘Dad,’ Guy shouts.

He takes the old man by surprise. He turns to look in Guy’s direction, lifts his arm as if to greet him. He goes to say something and then lurches to one side. He falls, the ladder twisting beneath him. Guy hears a release of breath, an anguished groan, and realises the noises are coming from him, not the old man.


After the funeral, a small graveside affair at the local cemetery, Guy makes a final tour of the house – God knows why, he thinks. Maybe because he knows he won’t be coming back. In the old man’s room, which Mattie had neatly tidied, the dressing table polished to a high hue, he glances at the hole in the scrim. The hiding place where the old man kept his treasured clippings seems unchanged. He reaches out his hand towards it, wondering if he might recognise words on the fragments of newspaper that have survived a nesting rat.

Then he catches himself at it – being hopeful, yet again. He half-drops his hand. Mattie calls out that his taxi has arrived, and he walks to the door without looking back.

Kate Mahony

Kate Mahony has an MA in Creative Writing from the International Institute of Modern Letters at Victoria University of Wellington. Her fiction has been published in Best New Zealand Fiction Vol 6 (Random House), Turbine, Takahe, the International Literary Quarterly, Tales for Canterbury (Random Static), Blackmail Press, Blue Fifth Review, The Island Review, 4th Floor Literary Journal (Whitireia), and Flash Frontier. Her story, Freedom, was awarded second place in the 2014 Takahe Short Story Competition, and The Journey received an “Honorary Mention” in the 2015 Fish Publishing (Ireland) Short Story Competition.  She lives in Wellington.