Daniel Whittaker has left some unusual instructions in his will: in order for his three children to collect their generous inheritance, they must hand-deliver letters addressed to strangers from their father's past. Who are these people and what was their significance to Daniel?
For his eldest son, Richard, there are hidden motives for his impatience to settle the will. His sister Evonne is still hurting from decades of her parents' disapproval. The youngest sibling, Kelly, believes she knew her father best.
As Daniel's children carry out his last wishes, each of them must confront their entrenched ideas about their father, and reconsider their own lives. What they discover is beyond anything they imagined.
|Publisher:||University of Queensland Press|
|Product dimensions:||6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.80(d)|
About the Author
Cass Moriarty lives and writes in Brisbane. Her debut novel, The Promise Seed, was longlisted for the 2017 International DUBLIN Literary Award, and shortlisted for the 2016 People's Choice category and the 2013 Emerging Queensland Author category in the Queensland Literary Awards. She has a Bachelor of Business?- Communication degree from Queensland University of Technology, and has worked in public relations, advertising and marketing. She and her husband have six children.
Read an Excerpt
And so, look at them. His family. Gathered on the edges of the artificial grass, the dark hole yawning from its centre. Each afraid of their own mortality so rudely addressed. Frightened of stepping too close, in case of experiencing the vertiginous rush that might pull them in – up becoming down, sky becoming sea, gravity a mirage.
Three-year-old Eden steps forward to add his drawing to the others. He deliberates, staring at the polished rosewood coffin hovering as if by magic, at the wreaths and flowers of every colour that sit atop the burnished lid. He squats on the ground, folds his drawing into a rough semblance of a paper plane, and throws it triumphantly across the gap. At that very instant, his tangle of limbs – soft and pliable and clumsy – wobbles in a precarious dance at the edge of the grave ... and Richard reaches out to pull his nephew back. The laughter. Relief. Black suits and black dresses flapping, the mourners released from their frozen aspects of grief.
The deep, haunting tones of 'Danny Boy' startle everyone into silence. A woman behind Richard begins to weep; small, hiccupping sobs.
'I should never have let you choose the music,' he mutters.
Kelly glares, her eyes red-rimmed behind her sunglasses. 'For your information, Dad loved this song.' She shifts her weight from one foot to the other. She complained earlier of a blister on her left heel. New shoes. Black. Not her style. Conservative court shoes, purchased reluctantly for the occasion as she will probably never wear them again.
'Where is Grandma?' Violetta, her enunciation perfect, the clipped tones of her pre-pubescent voice carrying across the sea of black.
'She's in there. Underneath Grandpa.' Victoria, her twin, all-knowing.
Richard shushes his daughters as a murmured aside passes between their cousins Kara and Ben, the words missionary position. He silences their levity with a glare that would halt a train.
The sky a sweeping dome of china blue; wisps of white floating. A winter sky, clear and sharp, in the midst of high summer. The air dry and crisp. The drought has withered the buds before they can ripen, stopped the leaves from unfurling. Thin leafless boughs, skeletal, echoing what lies under the earth in this place.
As the strains of music fall away, Reverend Peterson resumes speaking in his rumbling, gravelly voice. 'Friends, we are gathered to commit Daniel Jeremiah Whittaker to his final place of rest ...' The timbre of his voice rises and falls in a background hum, the tone more comforting than the words of peace and love and everlasting life, heard at a dozen other funerals. The shrill caw of a crow cuts through like an insult.
A breath of wind brings the smell of freshly turned soil, the fragrance of the many bouquets; it ruffles the drawings on the coffin. Inside, his body lies in repose, his hands clasped across his chest, resting on his medals. His children had discovered them by chance in the days before the funeral, had never seen them before – as if their father had never wanted the medals to be found.
His son and daughters huddle with their partners and children: the inner sanctum of the chief mourners. They are flanked by their close friends and even a few of his own acquaintances (those still standing; not a great number. More lost each passing year. Lost. Is that what he is now? Here, in this place so familiar? Is he lost now too?) Then on the fringes – like the dregs of a receding tide – the friends of friends, the work colleagues from so long ago, the hangers-on, the nosy; the people for whom a funeral is an occasion to dress up, to come forth with just the right amount of propriety and respect. To be swept up in the hymns and the ceremony, to show their faces, their presence duly noted. To join the throng of mourners and to consider life, not only the life of the one now gone, but also their own.
To look into the void.
Reverend Peterson stops talking. A respectful calm ensues, broken only by the caw of the crow and the sigh of the wind, and a ringtone (Bach?), quickly muted.
The gauzy clouds do little to dispel the sun's expanding warmth, the promise of another still, hot day ahead. Those unfortunate enough to remain standing crowd nearer under the shelter, the closeness of other bodies preferable to the rising heat overhead. Men run their fingers around their collars. Women lift the hair from the backs of their necks. Those seated lift their thighs from the sticky plastic chairs with small, sucking noises.
The Reverend lifts his head from his silent prayer, signals sanction with a glance. Amidst muffled murmurings and stifled coughs, they rise as one.
They shuffle forward now, towards the basket of rose petals and the pail of earth. Dust to dust. All eyes are on Richard as first-born: his movements stiff and formal, a full head of grey hair, his face a chiselled mask, his imported three-piece suit. His body betrays the encroachment of his sixth decade, yet his stance – one foot slightly behind the other, a fight-or-flight posture – is a remainder from childhood.
Does being here, burying his father, make him feel like a child again?
He scatters the blossoms and a handful of soil. Reaches into his pocket for a crisply ironed handkerchief to wipe his hands. Dabs at the corner of his eye, a subtle movement, noticed by no-one.
Evonne next, looking every day of her fifty-eight years. Dry-eyed, but her sadness written in hieroglyphic wrinkles. Loss inscribed in plain view. Those years of IVF took their toll, and with nothing to show at the end. Children have always flocked to her: her nieces and nephews, the children of friends. Attracted to the persona they sense, as children sense these things – her forgiving nature, her capacity for fun, her appreciation of the ridiculous. And yet, on occasions such as these, it seems the absence within her expands.
Finally, the baby of the three, Kelly, with her red-rimmed eyes and her once only shoes. She alone bows her head, with its helmet of ash-blonde hair, and takes a moment. Perhaps she is conjuring up the good times, memories to sustain her through the whirl of relatives and finger food and cheap wine that is the wake to come.
Serendipitous that she farewells him at the age he fathered her. Their late-in-life surprise. Her siblings already teenagers, Richard angling to leave home, and Evonne – at fourteen – amidst the quagmire of her burgeoning personality. Into that mix a sunny baby with a thatch of blonde hair and a ready smile. Perhaps Kelly kept everyone sane for a few years. Perhaps she had kept her parents together.
The ceremony dwindles to the last few stragglers. No rose petals left. The mass of black has transformed into a river of mourners making their way towards the teahouse. Richard strides ahead to see to arrangements, pausing at the top of the rise to watch those dawdling over the graves of others: friends or family, or strangers with interesting headstones. Gravel crunches underfoot. Mynah birds swoop and play. The sound of heavy machinery signals the preparation of another grave for another somebody who is now a nobody.
Adjoining the green baize, the three rows of plastic chairs sit empty under the white marquee. The unsecured corners of the tarpaulin flap against the upright poles with a regular, dull thump. A few discarded orders of service lift in the gentle breeze.
Two men in blue uniforms remove the bands that lowered Daniel Whittaker into the ground, and begin to shovel from the pile of soil. One whistles.
So, that's that, then.
Eighty-eight years. It's a long time to keep secrets.
Evonne sat forward in the deep leather armchair, her arms folded across the bulge of her generous stomach. She regretted that second helping of pasta. If Libby were here, she would be running her fingers over the matching tooled leather desktop, making witty comments about the heavy law tomes on the shelves, opening a window – making herself at home. Making Evonne feel comfortable. But the solicitor had been very clear: Daniel's children only. No partners, no grandchildren, just the three of them, for the reading of the will.
Her sister sat on the sofa, tracing the burgundy patterns with her forefinger. Kelly's large silver earrings jangled when she moved her head. She looked thin, thought Evonne, thinner even than when Mum had passed. Her clothes hung from her frame; her blouse dipped too low. Evonne had hugged her when she'd arrived, embraced her with an urgent need to reconnect with that child-like sense of sisterhood, now that both their parents were gone. Kelly had felt frail, as though she might snap if Evonne gripped too hard. She felt tears prickling beneath her lids and blinked them away before they could emerge.
The heavy drapes and soft furnishings cocooned the room in a muffled silence. Even the traffic noise was muted. There was only the insistent ticking of an old-fashioned carriage clock, marking the seconds as they passed.
The door opened and John Hardcastle entered his office, accompanied by Richard. The solicitor apologised for keeping them waiting, even though it had been Richard they were all waiting on. Her brother went first to Kelly, who stood and opened her arms; the two held each other for a moment. It was Richard who let go first. He moved to Evonne and gave her a one-armed hug where she sat, his cologne too strong, his intimacy forced. He squeezed her shoulder and sat in the other armchair. The three siblings looked at John Hardcastle, expectant. He had settled his bulk behind the solidity of his desk. He straightened the blotter and placed a pen next to it. He cleared his throat; the signal, Evonne realised, that he was ready to begin.
'Thank you all for coming today, and may I say again how sorry I am for your loss. Your father was a client when I first met him but over the years he became a friend. I'm honoured that he appointed me as executor of his estate and I hope to carry out my responsibilities in accordance with his wishes.'
Richard shifted in his chair. 'Steady on, John. I feel like I'm in an Agatha Christie novel.' He turned to Kelly. 'You be Mrs Peacock. I'll be Colonel Mustard.' He let out a gruff laugh, which sounded more like a snort of exasperation.
'I think you'll find that's Cluedo,' said Kelly. 'And if it was meant to be funny, I hardly think it's appropriate.'
Richard raised his hands in a gesture of surrender. 'Not being funny. Not at all. I do think it's a bit strange that Dad didn't appoint me – or the three of us, for that matter,' he corrected, '– as executors, but ...' He gave the solicitor a wan smile. 'But I have every confidence in you, John.'
'Thank you, Richard, and I apologise for the formality,' John responded. 'But Daniel has attached very specific instructions and – if I might say so – some rather unusual conditions to his last will and testament.' He paused, and Evonne sensed the solicitor marshalling his thoughts and gauging the atmosphere. 'What I am about to tell you will no doubt come as a surprise. But I want to assure you before we begin that Daniel was entirely clear in his instructions to me. As you know, he has been my client for over fifty years, since I first started with the firm, and he remained lucid until the last. In fact, he updated his will only a couple of years ago, after your mother died. And no matter how unconventional you may find his last requests, I assure you that, from a legal standpoint, the will is sound.'
'You make it sound as if he's left everything to a home for orphaned cats or something,' said Richard.
'No, no, nothing like that. Daniel has provided for all of you more than adequately. I'm merely forewarning you that there are some conditions attached and that, much as we might debate the moral grounds of Daniel's decisions, the document is legally watertight.'
'Why on earth would we contest Dad's will?' said Kelly.
'Now hold on,' said Richard. 'No-one's talking about contesting anything. I think you'd better back up and explain exactly what you mean, John.' Evonne heard an unfamiliar waver of apprehension or anxiety in his voice.
'Certainly. Perhaps we should begin with the contents of your father's estate.'
John Hardcastle handed a photocopied page to Evonne and one each to Richard and Kelly. Evonne rummaged in her tote bag for her reading glasses. The sheet listed her father's assets and investments. He had always been wealthy, even while they were growing up. Evonne could not remember ever wanting. Quite the opposite – she had come through her adolescence with a particular embarrassment at the sheer number of dresses and skirts her mother brought home, both for herself and for her daughters, the quality of food on the table, the sporting equipment provided to Richard at the first mention of interest, the exotic holiday locations she admitted to her friends in a cautious way, unsure of their reactions. She had felt the humiliation of wealth unearned, the sharp barbs of jealousy.
She had never been privy to the details of her parents' income. That was 'a private matter'. All three children had been encouraged to become independent from their first jobs delivering newspapers, washing cars or mowing lawns; Evonne had followed her own path, as had her siblings, and she had been incurious as to her father's position.
A movement at the window caught her eye: two pigeons squabbling over the shadiest spot. Her father had hated pigeons – rats of the skies, he called them. He was forever installing complicated spikes to deter them from perching outside his office and, later, on the roof of his house. A vivid picture emerged in her mind – her father in his shirtsleeves, high on a ladder, trying to attach the ugly pointed plastic to his guttering. She remembered the flutter in her stomach, her fear that he would fall. The precariousness of the ladder.
But he had descended without incident, and Evonne had expelled her held breath.
She returned to the sheet of paper that so neatly delineated her father's financial position. He had been a real estate agent for most of his adult working life, employed for several years by one of the major firms before opening his own office – a hole-in-the-wall in Ashgrove, tucked behind the supermarket, with a dripping enamel sink and a back door that led onto a filthy lane. He had hired a sign writer to stencil Whittaker Real Estate above the shop front, and furnished the room with a couple of desks, although it would be another year before he could afford a secretary.
His business flourished and he sold it over three decades later to the same firm where he had worked all those years earlier. By that stage, he had five Brisbane offices and over forty employees. Upon retirement, he took his wife on a three-month cruise to celebrate his seventieth birthday.
Evonne cast her eye over her father's investment portfolio: a list of shares, stocks and bonds from fields as diverse as mining, banking, the IT industry, childcare and theatre companies; both Australian and foreign interests. She had heard him mention these a few years ago, at a family dinner. Richard – pale and wan, his job precarious as the top dogs of the banking fraternity tumbled like so many dominoes – had made a throwaway comment, something about their father being lucky he was in property. Daniel had barely glanced up from his roast lamb.
'Most of my money's in shares,' he said.
'What?' sputtered Richard.
'I said, most of my money, about ninety per cent, is invested in the share market.' He had taken another mouthful of meat.
Richard was apoplectic. 'What? You can't be serious. You'd know better than anyone not to over-commit to the share market.' He glared at their father. 'Why haven't you mentioned this before? How much of our money's gone down the great GFC black hole?'
He had realised his mistake as soon as it came out of his mouth and at least, Evonne recalled, had the decency to look shame-faced.
Their father had finished chewing his lamb, swallowed, sat back in his chair and wiped at his mouth with a napkin.
'On paper, "our" money is mostly disappearing,' he said. 'More every day.' He had fixed Richard with a steely gaze. 'But as it's actually "my" money, I don't suppose you have anything to worry about.'
'But ... your future ... all you've worked so hard for ... I don't understand why you aren't more upset. We've been talking about the crisis for months now and you've never said a word.'
Their father had sighed and held his glass of wine to the light. After a deep draught, he had said in a low voice: 'If it's my money, and I'm not worried, then I don't think you should be worried, either.' And with that, the conversation was ended, and the state of his financial affairs was not discussed again.
Excerpted from "Parting Words"
Copyright © 2017 Cass Moriarty.
Excerpted by permission of University of Queensland Press.
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