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So Many Years.

Updated: Dec 12, 2023

Another free short story. A Christmas tale from an unexpected perspective for you. Let me know what you think.

I know I’m obsessive, but I can’t stand a chipped windscreen. I need to see the road ahead with absolute clarity. I’d phoned around, and every windscreen repairer was booked out in the lead-up to Christmas, so when they called and told me they’d had a cancellation on Wednesday, I jumped at it. Wednesday is the day I set aside for Jay, but I knew he wouldn’t mind, especially if I took him to lunch while we waited.

Real Food - Real Fast’ blinked pink neon in the café window. It felt like we’d walked onto the set of ‘Happy Days’. Stools lined the counter, and booths on the opposite wall were reflected in the mirrors. Burgers sizzled on hotplates amidst the aroma of onions frying in old grease.

‘Grandad, why can’t we go to Macca’s?’

‘Mummy doesn’t like you having Macca’s, Jay.’

‘But you’ve tooken me before.’

‘Taken Jay, not tooken. Yes, I did, but we need to have lunch near where the car is being fixed.’

Elvis sang ‘Blue Christmas’ through scratchy speakers as I lifted my grandson onto a stool. The waitress immediately placed menus in front of us.

‘I’ll let you gentlemen take a look at these, and I’ll be back in a moment to take your order.’

‘Thank you. What would you like to eat, Jay?’

‘Can I have fries, Grandad?’

‘I’m not sure they have fries, Jay.’

‘Yes, Grandad. It says, ‘fries’ right here.’ Jay said, pointing to the menu with dimpled fingers.

‘So, it does.’ I said trying not to sound surprised as I wondered how smart my four-and-a-half-year-old grandson had become.

The waitress returned and asked with a smile, ‘So, what’ll it be, boys?’

‘We’ll have a bowl of fries to share and a cheese and salad sandwich on wholemeal bread, cut into quarters, please. I’ll have a large flat white. What would you like to drink, Jay?’

‘I’ll have the same as you, Grandad.’

I shook my head and said to the waitress, ‘One flat white and a decaf cappuccino,’ indicating the size for Jay’s ‘coffee’ between my finger and thumb. The waitress winked in understanding.

‘Grandad, I need to go to the toilet.’

‘Really? Didn’t I ask if you needed to go before, we left this morning?’

‘Yes, you did, Grandad. But I didn’t need to go then. I need to go now.’

‘Alright.’ I lifted Jay off the stool. He energetically skipped ahead. We completed the necessary interruption, delayed by Jay’s fascination with the hand drier, and returned to our stools just as our lunch arrived.

‘Two coffees, fries, sandwiches and side plates to share.’ The waitress placed the food and a small bowl of tomato sauce between us. Jay dragged the fries towards him.

‘Thank you. What do you say, Jay?’

Sanks.’ Jay said through fries churning in his mouth.

‘Eat nicely, please, Jay. There’s no need to rush. You don’t want a tummy ache.’

‘Okay, Gwandad.’ Jay replied as he gobbled the next mouthful.

‘Don’t eat so fast, Jay.’

‘But you said we’re sharing, Grandad, and I know how much you like fries.’

I laughed, ‘I promise I won’t take any more than my share. Now, how about having some sandwich?’

The door to the cafe opened, and December’s heat punched in. An elderly man shuffled through the door and took a stool at the counter’s far end. I recognised him instantly. It had been twelve, no thirteen, years since I’d last seen him. So many years had passed, years that had clearly been unkind to him, but the old man was undeniably my father.

‘What’s wrong Grandad?’

‘Nothing Jay. Don’t forget your drink.’

‘It’s okay, Grandad. I’ll have my coffee after my fries. You can have all of the sandwich if you like.’

‘Thanks, Jay. Do you like the Christmas decorations?’ I asked, trying to distract him from demolishing the fries so ravenously.

‘They’re okay. What do you think I’ll get for Christmas, Grandad?’

‘I don’t know, Jay. What would you like Santa to bring you?’

‘I think I should get an iPhone. I’ve been good.’

‘Remember, we spoke about this last week. You should be good because it’s the right thing to do, not just because you’ll get a present.’

At the end of the counter, the waitress approached my father, ‘You’re late today, Wayne. What will you have? We’ve got the mixed grill you like.’

‘Let me have a moment to think, gorgeous. Bring me a white coffee with two sugars while I decide.’

He took bifocals from his shirt pocket, lifted the menu and pushed it back and forth, searching for focus. I was surprised to see he still wore his wedding band. I had assumed he’d discarded it during his years overseas with the bargirl who was nearly thirty years his junior. Then as the pandemic swept the globe, he returned to Australia and moved back in with my mother, as if he’d never been away.

‘Grandad, what do you think Santa will bring you?’ Jay’s question snapped my thoughts back to the present.

‘Well, Jay, I’m not sure. You know, I’d like one of those finger paintings like you did for Nanna.’

‘Okay. I'll paint one for you.’

‘Thanks, Jay.’

I used the mirror behind the counter to watch the waitress as she placed coffee and sugar in front of my father. He poured sugar onto his teaspoon until it overflowed, repeated the process, and then stirred his coffee with excessive vigour. The sound of the spoon chiming on the side of the mug turned every head in the noisy café.

‘Are you boys okay?’ The waitress asked.

‘Yes, thanks. I’m sorry about the mess.’ I said, looking at the tomato sauce that Jay had used to practice his finger painting on the counter.

The waitress seemed unfazed. ‘No problem. This one seems quite the little artist. Is there anything else you need?’

‘I think we’re good, thanks.’

The waitress checked on the other customers, collected their empty plates and returned to stand in front of my father as he continued staring at the menu.

‘So, Wayne, what’ll it be?’

‘I’m still trying to make up my mind, honey.’

‘Wayne, you always have the mixed grill special on Wednesdays.’

‘No, I don’t. Today I think I’ll have eggs, bacon and mushrooms. Oh, and sausages, beans and toast, and make sure the toast is golden, not pale or burnt.’

‘Okay, mixed grill special, hold the tomato. The usual, coming up.’

I recalled his speech to me on my wedding day. He put a Scotch in my hand and said, ‘On my wedding day, when I was just like you, son, my uncle pulled me aside and said, “Good that you haven’t got her up the duff yet.” Good advice, but too late. You were already on the way.’ He laughed. He’d always fancied himself as a ladies’ man.

I looked at the countertop as Jay’s tomato sauce masterpiece expanded. For as long as I can remember, my father demanded subservience from all of us, but especially from my mother. Every night she had to serve him dinner. The potatoes might have been in front of him, but he demanded that she put them on his plate. I longed for the day when she’d say, ‘They’re right there in front of you, Wayne. Can’t you help yourself?’ but that day never came. Things might have turned out differently if only she had stood up for herself just once. His misogyny and coercive control, stole any self-worth my mother might have once had.

Thirteen years had skipped past. Now I needed to decide if I should reconnect with my father. Was our estrangement a punishment for him or for me? Was it a punishment at all? Maybe I should just walk up to him and say hello. Would he know who I was? Should I anticipate a handshake or a punch? Surely, he would recognise me, his oldest son.

‘Grandad, I need to go to the toilet.’ Jay interrupted my thoughts.

‘Really, Jay! You’ve just gone. You don’t just want to play with that hand drier again, do you?’

‘No, Grandad. This time I need to do a poo!’ Jay roared, causing the waitress to glance over with an empathetic smile.

‘Come on then.’

I lifted Jay off the stool and looked down the counter to where my father was pushing egg yolk around with a crust. Maybe I could just say hello as we pass and speak to him when we return. Jay took my hand and dragged me hurriedly towards the bathroom. As I levelled with my father and reached to tap his shoulder, Jay pulled on my other hand, ‘Grandad, hurry.’

My grandison’s plea focused attention on his more urgent need. I glanced at my father in the mirror as we rushed into the bathroom.

As soon as Jay finished, I washed his hands and let him play with the air drier while I washed mine. The bathroom door slammed behind us as we exited, causing my father to look up from his plate. As his eyes looked into mine, time stopped. My head swooned in a kaleidoscope of fading water-colour memories. Was this an opportunity to reconnect with my father? My heart pounded. I opened my mouth to speak just as he returned to stare at his empty plate.

I paid the bill, clasped Jay’s little hand and walked out of the café, resolving to focus my love on the family closest to me. A weight had lifted from my shoulders. I finally felt confident that fate had delivered an outcome that was meant to be, free from assumed guilt of losing my father so many years ago.

Text copyright Pete Mitchell. Images Google freestock. Note, this is a work of fiction, any resemblance to real people or events is unintended and purely coincidental.

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