Hi all! This week I’m up to my eyeballs with the National Novel Writing Month (Nanowrimo), so I decided to publish this instead of a blog. I wrote it a few years ago. The character is based on my Uncle Les. I hope you enjoy the read:
The sound of the axe from the back yard rang clearly through the cold air as the young man climbed the front steps on the ‘big’ house. Entering the kitchen he noted the stiff way his mother was holding herself as she watched her husband splitting timber at the wood pile. Bad news.
He sat down and waited.
The sound of the axe grew louder in the silence. “The old man could still swing a mean blade,” he thought.
His mother turned to him, her face white, “Hello Paul.”
He nodded and asked, “Well, what’d the doctor say?”
“Two to six months.”
Silence for a while, and the axe continued to chop in the yard.
“How’d he take it?”
“You know your father dear, he stood up, thanked the doctor, and walked out. He didn’t say a word all the way home, and as soon as we got here he started cutting up firewood. He’s been going for an hour now.”
For a moment the axe stopped, and they heard the sound of wood clatter onto the pile in the shed. Then the chopping continued.
“I’ll go and talk to him,” said Paul and stood up. His mother turned back to the window.
He slipped down the back stairs and walked towards his father. It was a cool day, even for these parts, but his father was stripped to the waist, rivulets of sweat running down his spine. As Paul drew nearer he could hear the man muttering angrily between the axe strokes.
Paul coughed. The axe hesitated in mid-air, before falling again, neatly splitting a piece of hard wood.
The axe head lifted, “What’s up boy?”
“She’s should be son. I’d be worried if I was in her shoes too.”
“You’d better put your shirt on dad, you don’t want to catch a cold.”
His father grinned, “A bloody cold is the least of my worries boy.”
They smiled, but avoided eye contact.
The axe chunked into the chopping block, and the man turned to him, “That’s bloody great boy, you’re mum must have been thrilled!”
Paul shook his head, “You’re the first to know. I thought we’d wait for your news first.”
The man picked up his shirt, “Come on, we’ll go and tell the old girl, then we’ll drop down to the pub for a quick celebration. I reckon I could do with a break.”
An hour later the two couples were seated at a table next to a roaring fire. The publican was surprised to see them here on a mid-week day. They toasted the news of the impending birth. Cheryl was red with embarrassment as they wet the babies head a little early.
The talk eventually turned to the mans’ problem, as it had been called for several months now.
Several rums had loosened his tongue, and he told them the cold hard news. The small group sat in silence as the flames crackled and leaped in the old fireplace nearby. Eventually Paul spoke up, “Dad, I want you to tell me your lifes’ story,” he nodded at Cheryl, “you know, for the kid, when he gets older I want him to know about you, and what you did.”
The man smiled, “I’ll tell him myself.”
Paul shook his head, and stared at the floor, “I don’t reckon that’s going to happen mate,” he mumbled.
“I’ll think about it son. Anyway, who’s up for another round?”
The next couple of weeks were a busy time at the farm. The news got around the district and many people came to see the man and his wife. Each visitor was given a cup of tea, and a brief outline of the grim future. They expressed their sympathy and left after promising to help out when they could.
Paul and Cheryl were regular visitors as well. The men spending much of their time in the paddocks, tidying up the loose ends around the farm. One morning, the two of them took a break and rode to the top of a small hill that overlooked the property. Les handed his son a drink, and sighed as he gazed over the view.
“Well boy,” he said eventually, “all this is yours now. The place I gave you and mine will become one again. You’ll be the new ‘man’.”
Paul sat silently, it was not a surprise, “I’ll look after mum for you dad.”
“I know you will boy. That’s the third worst thing about my death.”
Paul looked up at him, “What are the other two?”
Les lifted his hat and scratched his head, “Number two would have to be not seeing my new grandchild, boy or girl, it would have been nice to get to know the little tacker. And number one, would have to be the fact that I’m dying at all. Bit of a shock to me son, I don’t feel old, and I’ve always looked after myself. Doesn’t seem too bloody fair boy.”
Paul smiled, “Could be worse dad, could be like Grandad, rotting in a nursing home eh?”
Les nodded his agreement, “Yep. I know now that he wasn’t joking when he asked me to shoot him. Would have done him a big favour by putting him out of his misery.”
“You know Dad, apart from what little I learn from you and mum about the old fella, I don’t have anything of his that tells me about him. You could do something for all of us before…you know.”
Les looked at him, “Like what? I’ve given you the property, mums’ got the house, I can’t do much bloody more boy!”
“There is you know. You could write down your life story. You know, tell it the way you want it, couldn’t be a better time to do it really. Not many people get the chance, always putting it off until it’s too late. Then they die and leave a bag of mysteries for their children and grandchildren to put together.”
Les thought for a while, “Yep, I could do that, but it’ll take some time. I’ll have to think about it. Not much of a writer son.”
“I’ll buy you some tapes, and a microphone, all you have to do is talk. Just tell it like it is.”
“Not much of a talker either.”
“Ok then,” snapped Paul, “leave it to me, I’ll tell your grandchildren what you were like.”
Les’ head shot round to face his son, “I can just imagine what you’ll tell them!”
“Well then, do it yourself dad. Do it for the kids who won’t get to see you.”
Les turned his horse back down the hill, “I’ll have a go boy, I’ll do it my way, in my own time.”
Several weeks later Les had his first turn. A couple of days later he emerged from hospital, gaunt and weak. Arriving at home he was positioned in the lounge room in front of the television, but an hour later hobbled into the kitchen, “Jesus, dyin’s gotta be better than that shit!” he announced to his wife. “No wonder people want to kill themselves, just watchin’ that garbage everyday would make you want to curl up and die.”
The ritual began. Every morning Les got up early and hobbled to the kitchen, made breakfast and sat down with a tape recorder and a cup of tea. He mumbled into the microphone for a few minutes before giving up in despair.
As the days went by his strength slowly returned, and he took to making little trips to the wood heap. He’d sharpen the axe and cut a few blocks of firewood, before returning inside.
His wife watched him from the kitchen window. Sometimes the boy would come over and help him cut timber, taking it slowly, talking with his father. She didn’t ask him what they discussed, understanding that it was important that they spent this precious time together.
Summer wore on. The heat was insane. Les lost weight, and grew weaker, but every morning, he would stagger downstairs to the wood pile, sharpen his axe and chop a few blocks. The effort would drain him, and he would stagger back into the house and sit in the kitchen for the rest of the day. Talking with Helen, or listening to the radio. Every now and then he would write a letter, or take down some notes.
Autumn arrived and the days darkened. Les struggled downstairs to the woodpile every morning, and would sit in the darkness until his son arrived to chop up a few blocks and pile them in the shed. Afterwards they would talk some more, and Paul would help him inside.
Helen grew frustrated with him, “How much timber do you think we need Les!” she asked him one morning, “Shouldn’t you be writing your life story for the grandchild? Stop wasting what little time you have left man.”
Les smiled at her, “I’m doing it my way luv. I always have, I always will.” She shook her head, and looked away as the tears formed.
Winter. Cheryl and Les went to hospital the same week. They were a few wards away from each other, and Cheryl made the effort to visit with the old man whenever she could. Helen and Paul visited each day for a few hours, and returning home at night. In the darkness, after the lights went out, Les would talk to his daughter in law, and she listened, growing to love the man. The baby inside her kicked frequently, eager to be out. Les liked to lay a hand on her tummy and feel the child moving. “It’s a boy,” he said many times, “impatient little bugger too. Just like his grandad.”
The baby arrived in the middle of a fierce storm. Westerly winds bought freezing rain and hail across the plains, and lightning danced across the sky. Paul, gripping the newly born infant in his arms made his way urgently to his fathers’ room. His mother followed him, limping hurriedly in his wake.
Les was a skeleton now. Painkillers had dulled his senses, turning him into a zombie. As Paul entered the room, Les opened his eyes and smiled.
“It’s a boy dad! A boy!” Paul said, tears flowing freely down his face. Les’ smiled widened, “Show me,” he whispered.
Gently, Paul lay the baby down next to his father. Les grunted as he struggled to lift his hand and lay it on the childs’ head, “What’s your name?” he asked.
Paul sat down as Helen entered the room, “We decided to call him Les.”
Helen sat next to Paul, “Cheryl sends her love, and says she’ll come and see you as soon as she can.”
Les looked up at her and nodded, “You tell her she did good. Paul, you’re the new man around the place, but don’t call little Les the boy. Call him the little man eh?”
Paul nodded. Les slumped back on his pillows, exhausted. The automatic pain relief dispenser buzzed in his pocket.
“I’m bloody tired woman,” he said eventually.
The baby stirred next to him, and began to whimper. Outside the storm wreacked havoc across the district, moving eastward towards the coast. Les took another look around the room, “Take the little man back to his mum, he’ll be wanting a feed soon.”
Paul left with little Les cradled in his arms. Helen stayed, making herself comfortable in the reclining chair. She would stay tonight. They all would.
At two a.m. Cheryl was wheeled into Les’ room, and little Les was laid next to the man. The two of them slept peacefully side by side.
Les never woke up.
The funeral was simple, and to the point. Just like Les had asked. Most of the town notables were in attendance. Alan Grubb, the long time Mayor of the little town, approached Helen afterwards and offered his condolences. She nodded her thanks. Before he left he gripped her arm, “I know that Les didn’t like me all that much Helen, and I can’t say I blame him…”
Helen shook her head, “He liked you Alan, he might not have liked some of the things you did, but he did like you.”
The little mayor nodded his bald head, “Yes, I think you’re right. Do you know, he’s the only man who never called me Grubby?”
Helen nodded, “He probably hated that name more than you did. Said it belittled you, and I can’t recall anyone calling you by that name when Les was around.”
“Thanks Helen. It’s something I really respected about the man.”
The two of them stood silently for a little while, watching the small knot of people gathered at the side of the grave.
Helen turned to Alan, “Before you offer your help, I’d like to ask you to do something for Les.”
The mayor looked surprised, but eager to please, “Anything I can do I will,” he said simply.
Helen pointed to where Paul, Cheryl and little Les, “There’s a new man now, and he’s going to need help from time to time. Someone to turn to when he runs into trouble, or needs an ear to listen, or a shoulder to lean on. I want you to be that person Alan.”
Tears sprang to the little mans eyes, “I’ll do my best Helen, and thankyou.”
She watched as Alan made his way to Paul and shake his hand. Paul looked genuinely pleased to talk to the mayor. Helen smiled and turned away. Time to go home.
It was cold when she arrived, and after she put on the kettle she moved to the small wood stove and tossed a few blocks of wood into the furnace. She was reaching for the matches when something caught her eye. At the bottom of the stainless steel wood carrier was the piece of paper. She riffled carefully through the rough cut wood and eventually dug the piece of paper out. It was a letter from Les.
By the time you read this, I’ll be gone and you’ll be feeling the cold. I’m not there to warm you up like we used to do, so I’ve left you a little present in the wood shed.
Your loving husband,
Her tears splashed onto the page, and she quickly folded it up and put it away. She lit the fire and made her tea. Looking outside to the woodshed she saw that it was packed tight with cut timber. More than enough for the winter months that lay ahead. She smiled to herself and more tears flowed.
In the days and weeks that followed, Paul would come over each day and fill the wood carrier for her and place it next to the wood stove. She would sit in her rocking chair with little Les and sing songs to him, or just nurse him in silence.
Once a week, there would be another letter, concealed amongst the timbers. Paul kept quite about the subject, and when she asked him how many more there were he shook his head and smiled.
Spring was welcomed by the little community after the hard winter, and Summer was fast approaching. One morning Paul arrived with the container of fresh wood, and approached his mother with an envelope. She looked at him, “Bit of a change son, why didn’t you leave it in the pile for me to find?”
He smiled, “It’s the last one Mum. I don’t know what’s in this one. He wouldn’t tell me when he wrote it. I sort of helped him with the others, but this one was special. I’ll let you read it in peace. We’ll see you at dinner tonight, Cheryl’s doing a roast.”
Paul slipped out quietly, and made his way back to his home on the edge of the old property. Helen sat down at the kitchen table and opened the letter.
Well old girl, it’s time for me to say goodbye. I know the last few months must have been hard on you, but Paul said he’d be keeping an eye on you, and if he hasn’t fixed the sheets on the roof of the barn you can give him a kick up the arse from me!
Helen smiled at this, and glanced at the new sheets of iron shining in the morning sun.
I’m sorry we didn’t get to do the grandparent thing luv, I really am, but that’s how it is. I know you’ll be a good grandma, just like you were a good mum. But now it’s time for you to live a little. I know that you won’t be happy with me for this, but the time has come for you to move on. Pack up your stuff and move to the coast woman, spend some of my bloody money. Paul has another letter to be opened today as well, and in it are detailed instruction as to how to subdivide the property. He can have as much land as he can handle, but our house is to be sold, and you my girl are to spend the money on a place at the beach of your choice.
Helens’ hand lifted to her throat. She couldn’t do it, she just couldn’t.
“You’re probably thinking that I’m being cruel luv, but I’m not. This dying thing has helped me think straighter than I ever have in my life. You’re not getting any younger, and neither is the house. There’s going to be a lot of work and a lot of bills coming your way soon, and Paul, as good hearted as he is, can only do so much. He has his own family now, and all the responsibilities of earning a living as well. Time for both of us to move on woman. This is the holiday I’ve always promised you, but we never had. Do it for me, and for the boy darls, but do it for yourself.
I love you Helen.
Helen wept for a long time.
That night she arrived at Pauls place with a cream tart in one hand, and Les’ last letter in the other.
Paul stood forlornly at the door as she approached, and was surprised to see her smile. “Mum, I don’t know what was in your letter from dad, but there was some bad news in mine.”
“Bad news dear,” said Helen, “Not like your father to leave you bad news.”
“Well not for me mum, but for you. Dad said I have to firmly tell you to leave the place and go to coast. He said not to take no for an answer, and not let you bugger me about by putting it off.”
Helen looked at her son, he was a man now, and behind him stood his young wife, a worried look on her face.
She smiled at the two of them, “One of you go and wake up little Les, and the other one can get me a map, we have to decide where I’m going to live.”
Paul dashed off, but Cheryl stood silently by, “I have a letter too Helen.” She handed it over, unopened to her mother-in-law.
“It’s for all of us. I helped Les with it before I went into labour.”
Helen waited until Paul returned with little Les before opening the envelope. She read it aloud.
Hello all. Sorry about not leaving my life story like you asked. I’m assuming that every one is happy about my request, and that little Les is growing into the spitting image of his good looking grandad.
Put the house on the market before summer, before it gets too hot and the grass dies off. And tell the new owners there’s enough timber to get them through the next winter!
They settled down for dinner, placing little Les in his bouncer in front of the wood heater while they ate. All of them aware of the simple legacy keeping the little man safe and warm.