Eddie sneezed. Dust motes flew around his head, refusing to settle. Sweat trickled under his arms, dampening his shirt. Unable to stand up straight, he struggled out of his jacket and threw it across the manhole cover beside him.
He pulled another box, marked in Texta with ‘bedroom,’ across the wooden beams. Inside, his mother’s China dogs nestled in tissue paper. The paper rustled as brown and white and black spaniels, some with bows painted on their heads, appeared. His father had hated them. Balancing one on his palm, he blew out a long breath, how could he part with them? Maybe Andrea might like them. The old man hadn’t allowed anyone into his attic, so she wouldn’t have seen them. The box felt heavy as he placed it next to his jacket.
He shoved a box marked ‘bathroom’ aside, and found another one taped tightly closed. On top, it had ‘diaries’ written in ink in his father’s careful script. Excellent.
‘Yeah, he always said he’d give it to me.’ His niece’s voice was light and airy, drifting to him from the shadows of the hallway.
‘In your dreams!’ Eddie called out. His voice echoed in the lounge, empty except for the old two seater couch, fading lace curtains and two cardboard boxes holding the front door open. A fresh breeze cooled his legs. As if the old man would have left it to anyone but Eddie. He stuck his head through the hallway door, dust assaulted his nostrils. His eyes adjusted to the gloom; Andrea was sweeping. What was the point? The real estate was coming tomorrow, they’d clean it properly. ‘Anyway, the will said it all went to me.’
‘He made a new one.’ She stopped moving, hands wrapped around the broom. ‘In my favour.’ He could just make out the grin on her face. The one that reminded him of the old man.
He patted his suit pocket, the envelope made a pleasing crinkling sound. ‘So where is it then?’
She leaned the broom against the wall. ‘It’s at the solicitor’s, Eddie. They keep a copy nowadays. Saves arguments.’
Eddie’s cheeks warmed. He stepped backwards into the lounge. ‘Not your bloody boyfriend?’
‘Yep.’ As she followed him, that grin crept back onto her face As if the old man was taking possession of her.
Eddie turned his face toward the open doorway. What had that old bastard done? The wooden house creaked as the breeze picked up. The sound of whistling and roaring wind filled his ears. Maybe this old place would collapse and crush him. Crush them both.
Andrea perched on the edge of the couch, her smooth young skin unmoving. ‘You still get the house. It’s just the horse paddock that goes to me. Because my Mum loved horses. So he said.’
‘You know the old man hated your mother. Thought she disgraced the family.’
‘That might be what he told you. Or what you chose to believe.’ She angled her head, like one of his mother’s little dogs. ‘Or he might even have believed it. A long time ago.’
The western sun shone low rays through the fluttering curtains. Light shifted around the floorboards, making weird restless patterns. His niece was wrong. So wrong. Eddie laced his fingers together. She sat staring at him, as if waiting for him to make a move.
He leaned his bulk back against the wall. ‘What about all those family dinners? All the snipes he made about your mother?’
‘He stopped that years ago, Eddie. After she left, he hardly mentioned her.’
He straightened, moved away from the wall. ‘No way. He never forgave her.’
‘You think so?’ Her voice took on the authoritative cadence of Eddie’s father. ‘Or was that you? Did you think she disgraced the family? Did you think she should never have had me? The bastard of the family? Was it you that hated her?’ She unfurled from the chair in one feline move, like a cat, like a witch’s familiar. ‘He left you the house. But he wanted me to know the truth. My boyfriend never trusted you, Eddie. And I think maybe he was right. I’m going to dig up every corner of that paddock. And if I find one shred of evidence that my mother is buried there, I’m going to the police.’
Andrea stood over the boxes, her hair flying around her head. ‘What’s in these? Why did you bring them down from the attic?’
Eddie hung on to the back of the couch, the wood hard under his hands. ‘Just a few mementoes.’
‘We’ll see.’ She bent and ripped rows and rows of tape off the ‘diaries’ box. The sound reverberated through Eddie’s whole body. He wobbled, felt his way around to the front of the couch. Flopped onto it. The sagging cushion underneath him felt as familiar as a backache, as a family member. Tears emerged from his eyes, trickled onto his cheeks.
Andrea rifled through the contents, and lifted out one soft covered exercise book. She waved it at Eddie. ‘The year my mother left. Let’s see what Grandad has to say about that.’
She stood alone, like a flagpole in the centre of the room, demanding attention.
Eddie watched as the self-satisfied grin slid into realisation - her eyes, lips and shoulders wilted together. Half-mast.
She slid across the room and sat next to him. ‘Why didn’t you tell me?’
‘Oh shit.’ He wiped his cheeks with his fingers. She handed him a crumpled tissue from her pocket. It felt soft against his skin.
‘First it was for Mum. Would’ve killed her if she’d found out.’ He blinked, his eyelashes felt heavy with moisture. He gave them a swipe with the tissue. ‘Then there was you to worry about. How could a child cope, knowing that, that…’
She cleared her throat. ‘What’s in the other box?’
‘Some of my Mum’s stuff. Thought you might like them.’
She walked over to the box and brought it back to the couch. Paper rustled and mustiness emerged as she opened the box.
A little dog with a red tongue and a curly tail sat on her palm.
Eddie leaned across and ran a finger over its shiny back. ‘My Mum was lovely. You’d have liked her. All the bad came from him.’
She passed him the little dog and picked out another one. It balanced on her palm with its head on the side, a glint in its eye. ‘So. If we dig up the horse paddock, we’ll definitely find my Mum?’
Throat too tight to talk, he nodded.
‘Do you know exactly where he buried her?’
He shook his head.
Her eyes rounded and she let out a laugh with an hysterical edge. ‘Maybe we’ll leave her with the horses, or …’ She shook her head, took in a deep breath. ‘I don’t know yet.’
He patted the dog in his hand. Maybe he’d keep this one.
Andrea’s lips rounded in a smile, not the old man’s grin, but a smile that lit her glistening eyes. ‘Thank you for protecting me.’
Eddie nodded. It was over. He leaned back on the uncomfortable couch and rubbed the soft tissue against his damp cheek.