The good room
Charlie was forever fearful of the no-mans land separating the hallway and what had come to be known in his family as, the good room. He was aware of this fear in an abstract kind of way, though had it percolated within him for some time there hadn’t been an incident to date to cement it in his rising wall of anxieties. It probably manifested into a bone fide creature after he heard his older brother being admonished severely by their mother when Tim had crept in there one afternoon to liberate some after dinner mints which were held captive under the crystal dome that they were often told had once belonged to their dear Aunt Dot.
He remembered Tim peeling the mottled wrappers from the clutches of the chocolate that barely covered the remaining thin lozenge of peppermint and greedily stuffing them into his gnashing gob as they both huddled in the broom closet under the stairs. Charlie could just make out the red letters on the little crumpled brown envelopes that had discharged their innards, Red Tulip, they announced in cursive but not quite copperplate.
The smell of peppermint on Tim’s breath was intoxicating in that closed space and even overpowered the bursts of flatulence that frequently emitted from his brothers exuberant bum. After wrestling in vain for some of the crumbs and pleading Charlie reconciled that he would have to sit here and observe Tim devour the whole lot without so much as a sliver of charity from him, such was the lot reserved for younger brothers probably since time began.
This curse of being the youngest was to follow him and many siblings like him until the Vietnam War intervened where scores of older brothers were swept up in the great tide of battle never to return to resume their roles as ageist provocateurs of which sadly, Tim Lawrence Barnbell, was one.
Tim’s fingers, stained with chocolate had left an imprint or two on the polished edges of the coffee table that stood out like dogs balls to a mother whose cleaning regimen would commence as soon as it had been completed.
Charlie heard the Mason and Pearson hairbrush connect with the palm of Tim’s outstretched hand with a swoosh and thwack followed by a wince of pain.
He knew it was Tim’s hand getting the lash as his mother, not afraid of doling out the corporal punishment herself, favoured the hands before the buttocks or back of the legs as it ‘reminded you of your sins every time you touched something’; as she would say when Tim or Reg or even Daisy, who had since gone off to be married, fell foul of her faithful prosecution of the Barnbell household regimen.
After the belting, with Tim banished outside to lick his wounds, Charlie peeped into the good room from the doors edge. He looked down at his bare feet and shuffled them to align with the cracks of the floorboards so as they would be right on the perimeter of the threshold. Satisfied that his position had not breached the no fly zone he allowed himself to scan the contents of the room.
There were two flowery lounges facing each other separated by a highly polished coffee table, its chocolaty edges having been already Mr. Sheened to its former glory. Aunty Dots Chrystal dome, now relieved of its minty prisoners sat on elaborately embroidered linen weave and a little box of drinks coasters with the Southern Cross Hotel emblazoned on the lid.
Charlie’s eye caught the glimmer of sunshine that had reflected on the shiny silver guard that protected the gas heater in the fireplace that was never lit.
Charlie remembered when he was littler the day Dad came home with the heater and he and Uncle Les ripped out the old firebox and installed its replacement.
Charlie witnessed the only time the blue flames flickered into life, like a pianists hands floating over the keys in a piano roll minus the notes but instead with a woof. ‘Bewdy, it’s working’ said Uncle Les before retiring to the kitchen table to listen to the trots and drink cold beer with Dad.
Above the heater on the mantelpiece were an array of framed photos of Charlie’s Nan and Pop, Dad in his Navy uniform, Mum as a young girl on the farm and the recent family portrait where the photographer told dad to hide the arm he got cut off in the war under his jacket. Amongst the photos was his older brother Reg’s best and fairest trophy and Charlie strained to make out the engraved writing. Reg hated his middle name: Byron and Charlie loved the fact that the engraver insisted on following the club rules by etching his full name on the trophy to which he and Tim used to stir him up about it. That was back when Reg used to be around more but these days he hung around more with those ‘long hairs’, as dad calls em, at the university.
Above the fireplace hung a picture of a dark skinned lady who looked like she was Chinese or from overseas somewhere. She wore a shiny sparkly yellow top and her collar looked a bit like what father O’Grady wore, except it was yellow. She wore red lipstick like she was going out but she was looking toward the distance a bit sadly. Dad had got this when his he was on shore leave in a place called Jakarta.
Across the wall were two black and white photographs of the ships his dad served on. They were really big and in one photo all the sailors were standing to attention on the deck and looked like there were hundreds of them.
Once before the Photo went up in the good room, Charlie used a magnifying glass to try and locate his dad amongst all the tiny faces and thought he had found him for a while until one day in the kitchen he overheard his Dad telling Daisy that he was not on board the day they took the photo and was in fact getting an ingrown toenail removed at the base hospital.
Then there was the old Pianola.
Charlie recalled at time before mum got sad and she would play the pianola and sing with Daisy all the songs she knew by heart. Sometimes dad would sing along but he always had to have some Dutch courage to reach the high notes. Tim would usually dance around acting the lark; making all of us giggle and even Reg had a smile on his lips.
That was back when the pianola was in the back room where mum did her sewing and dad would read the form guide. Dad and Reg moved it here when mum stopped playing about two years ago when Charlie was eight and it hadn’t been played since.
A single framed photograph of his mother as a young girl with her beloved dog Trinket in her lap sat on top of the pianola next to the reams of rolled music.
As the clouds parted, a single shaft of yellow sunlight beamed into the room and settled on the rich patterns of the carpet on the floor. Charlie could see the floating dust particles moving slowly like underwater creatures of the deep and marveled at how so much stuff could be in the air largely unseen. He imagined germs and tiny insects amongst the drifting island of movement and for a moment became scared at the thought of this descending onto his face and into his mouth when he went to bed. Just then, the light shifted and the apparition disappeared.
The good room was like that, it was like a place where memories came and went but you could only experience it from this side. Charlie wondered if he would ever be able to remember the same things if he was on the other side of the door and inside the good room.