The Good Son

George told me how it would be. “Nobody wants roses any more, Mum.” Once I would have argued. Put my foot down. Told him he could do what he wanted with other people’s places but leave mine alone. Now watching him culling them one by one, I pace the lounge room and my orthotic sandals clack on the cold tiles. A ticking clock.

Since Ted died two years ago, I’ve been all at sea. The Charlotte I knew, the old tenacious Charlotte, vanished with Ted’s last breath, and a limp spectre emerged in her place, disoriented and grief-stricken. George promised to take over. And I let him. Gratefully. Anyway, he says he has big plans for this place once I’m gone.

This story appeared in our August 2023 edition.
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The retirement village will be a new chapter. It’s not one of those drab prisons. He has found somewhere I will be genuinely happy. “Shoreline Horizon Resort” it’s called. As long as he phones by 5 p.m. to confirm my place and email my documents, then I can look forward to being settled in by August. Just three months away. A few hours south, it has views to the beach. The same magical beach where Ted and I used to visit on long summer weekends.

Ted’s sister Hazel is wary of George. She doesn’t need to be. Just one of her errors of interpretation. We all make them. He lives with his girlfriend who is beautiful and smart and sane. He buys real estate like some people buy furniture. He buys big sprawling places like this and deceased estates. Rambling acreages and old factories where the owners have defaulted on the mortgage. And depending on where they are, converts them to resorts or apartments or modern high-rises. He’s bought an entire street in the Barossa over the last few years. House by house. “Probably paid off the council,” Hazel said. “Probably in bed with an Asian businessman.” But he’s building a gigantic five-star hotel. He says it will put the place on the map and the locals should be grateful. I do wonder about that. All that traffic clogging up the streets and the plans to bulldoze the homesteads and pretty jacarandas. 

George started pulling up the roses just after 6 a.m. I’ve dreaded this day. But I can cope—just—because I know by 5 p.m. things will be settled for my future. He’s organised it all and says he has the deposit ready and the Shoreline manager’s personal phone number. Mostly, it’s a relief to have him take over. Mostly. 

I stop pacing and sit rigid on the edge of the lounge. I didn’t realise how connected to the garden I was. The satisfaction of turning on the taps and watching the water spread like an array of miniature fireworks. Unusually for George, he’s covered in sweat. Looks like the Wreck of the Hesperus. Watching him straining and slashing, I feel a lump in my throat like a sharp pebble. I can’t swallow. Every rose a gift from Ted. Anniversaries, birthdays, just-because-days. Even one on the day they diagnosed him with gastric cancer. Everyone says after two years I should have “moved on”. The nights are the worst. My mind wanders, fingering the past like a rosary and trying to make sense of the future like a blind woman feeling her way around a dark street.

I suggested George get someone else to do the garden. “Times are hard, Mum. I’ll save a stack doing it myself.” But he has the money. I see it come and go from my bank account. I know about the “offshore investments”. He doesn’t know that I look. Ted would have never let him put properties in my name or move all that money around my accounts. Peering at George now, he seems to get satisfaction from pulling everything up. Like it’s personal. Mum got like this in the end. Increasingly paranoid. Always thinking someone was trying to steal her money. Always sure that Dad was having an affair with his secretary and that I was trying to poison her food. I won’t allow myself to get that way. George is a good son.

After George attacked the sprinklers those months ago, a selfish part of me wanted to sneak to the laundry after dark and fill the big blue bucket to douse the roses with water. Every night I’ve tossed and turned in bed thinking of them dying. Almost hearing them calling to me and each other. 

The brochure for Shoreline Horizon Resort is on the table in front of me. The edges of the paper are creased from me poring over it. The suite George has planned for me has three bedrooms and two bathrooms—plenty of room for Hazel to stay. I’ve followed articles about it in the paper recently. I’ve been reading everything I can. Thanks to George, I read the business section of the Australian and watch property prices go up and down. I’ve quietly devoted myself to the things that interest him.

I look anxiously at my watch. It’s 10.46 a.m. already. Still, plenty of time for him to call. The manager was firm, though. He could only hold my place until 5 p.m. today. Others want that apartment. George said he’d pay anything they asked to make sure I got a place there. He could probably buy the whole kit-and-caboodle if he wanted. 

The run-down aged care home up the road (ironically called Elite Care—Where We Care For You) has a day group that would have collected me this morning for a trip to the park. I’ve been once or twice. But it felt strange. All those defeated-looking residents smelling of urine and with food scraps caked on ill-fitting clothing. A chill runs down my spine as I recall the colour of Ted’s lips when I found him in the garden at Elite Care. The ACAT people had arranged a few days of respite so I could go shopping and get my hair done. “Seventy is the new sixty,” Hazel had said before that. “Think of Gina. Nobody treats her like a sweet old thing. She’s no financially ignorant grandma. Take my advice, it’s all about the haircut.” I had told her that trying to recapture the “old me” of a few years ago was as good as trying to chase a thylacine, however marvellous. Nevertheless, I came back from the city with a silver pixie cut, a new manicure and a bag of Haigh’s chocolate truffles for Ted … only to find him hallucinating and hypothermic after falling the day before.

George had organised for me to view a room at Elite Care last month (“just in case you need something temporary”). There was hardly enough space to shimmy between the single bed, electric lift chair and desk. And I caught the distinct odour of something dank and musty from the carpet. The nurse hurried us through, apologising to me that she had 100 other residents under her charge and dwindling staff with variable English, so perhaps I could come back another time? Admittedly I tended to the worst-case scenario, but something about the way George was that day made my stomach churn. I shudder and check my watch again. Time is getting on. Maybe I should call the Shoreline place and confirm the offer myself? But George was firm: “Leave it to me, Mum.” 

The familiar heady scent of almond blossom and lemon zest wafts through the window. But rose hips are spread on the soil like drops of blood at a murder scene. George is towering over Eglantine. A few months ago, pink saucer-shaped blooms covered her dark-green foliage. She was one of our favourites. He stretches slowly, takes his time, then, slam, thrusts in the spade, severing the roots with surprising ease. Tears prickle at the corner of my eyes. I am foolish. I am old. I am sentimental. I am also pressed up against the window. The oppressive heat burns into my palms. Next is lovely Desdemona, a gift from Ted for our wedding anniversary. For God’s sake, Charlotte, grow up. Damn you, Desdemona—show a bit of spirit!

Hazel says I’m mad giving up this house. She can’t talk! As eccentric as ever, she was tired of “conservative old Adelaide”, and on a whim moved to Toowoomba five years ago. “Bloody twice as conservative,” she said. “But the gardens, Charlotte! The sunshine. And those scrumptious young boys from the Grammar School who help in the garden. You must come as soon as possible. We’ll go on a cruise. Visit the Galapagos Islands, dance with the captain and eat caviar.” In reality, she doesn’t have two brass razoos. 

George looks up now, checks the time and smiles. I admire his perfectly symmetrical, clean-shaven face. Only his slightly protruding ears are like Ted’s. I tap on the open window, willing my legs to stop dancing. Restless legs syndrome, the doctor calls it. Triggered by stress, apparently. “George, dear—I don’t want to interrupt you, but should you call the Horizon place? They need to hear from you soon, remember?” I clutch my chest and dig my fist into my breastbone. I’ve become a nag.

In the kitchen, I run my hands over the bench tops. The only splashes of colour are my extra-large canister of orange Metamucil and three pairs of fluorescent bifocals. The bifocals were a gift from Hazel. “Don’t bother with those boring black chemist things, darling,” she’d said some time back. “Life’s too short to be dull. I’ll post you some of mine and when you visit, we’ll go shopping for more.” 

The side door clatters, and George enters. I cut a large slice of plum cake and pour some tea. My hand flitters to the landline and then away. He picks up his mobile. Praise God. He is a good son.

“I suppose I should make that call, hey?” He holds the phone up and to the side. “The range isn’t great.”

“By the window in the lounge is good. And on the veranda …”

He leans back in the chair and stretches. “But I think I’ll have a shower and maybe head to the coffee shop up the road. The range is fine there. Forget about the tea for now, Mum.”

My heart pounds. My mouth is dry and my brain thick with half-formed thoughts. It’s 4 p.m. George isn’t back. There’s no sign of his car. I pick up the brochure in the lounge room to call the Shoreline Horizon number. But I decide to dial George instead. “Leave a message.” I don’t. I pace through the house and the mostly empty rooms. The hovel of a room at Elite Care fills my mind. I haven’t eaten all day and a wave of nausea overtakes me.

It’s 4.47 p.m. I take a deep breath and call the number on the Horizon brochure. I can do this myself. The Charlotte of old would have arranged everything months ago, scorning any offer of help. A recorded voice gives me a series of options. Dial one for Rosella Suite. Dial two for the Gardenia Apartment manager. Dial three for the gymnasium and swimming pool … The message goes on and on.

Outside, I can see George’s spade and gloves are against the dry throat of the last rose. “Mum?” I hear his voice behind me. 

“Thank goodness—look at the time, darling!”


“My apartment, George. It’s 4.48 p.m. You were going to phone. Where will I go if we don’t get that place?” I know where … Where We Care For You … In my agitation I feel some of the old Charlotte resurfacing. 

“Did you really want to live at Shoreline?” he asks, flopping onto the sofa. He waves his hand, and I can smell beer on his breath. He’s been somewhere and changed into a tight designer shirt and jeans. “Last time we talked about it, you weren’t sure. Remember telling me you wanted time to think about it? Or have you forgotten?”

I’m confused. My cheeks flush. I really have no recollection of saying anything like that. 

“Don’t be embarrassed, Mum,” he says. “It’s normal to forget things. I’ll see if I can fix it for you. I just wasn’t clear what you wanted and didn’t want to rush ahead. Why don’t you have a little lie down?” 

In the months since that awful day, I’ve kept a routine. In the mornings I walk around the dry garden, forcing myself to look at the clods of upturned earth. The afternoons I spend reading the paper and, in the evenings, I pick through the meals-on-wheels tray. George has been good and called occasionally to reassure me that Elite Care have done some renovations to the bathrooms and updated the dining area. Tomorrow, George plans to take me there. We move through time by an accumulation of unforeseen turns. The sun has set on my days here. And my dreams—small as they were—have had to change. 

The phone beeping at 6 a.m. wakes me with a start. I’ve rightly predicted the text message. It’s a relief, actually. George is apologising that he can’t take me to Elite Care himself. He’ll come by tomorrow to help me settle in. In the meantime, I’m to catch an Uber that he’s arranged.

A clamour of raucous galahs dive-bomb the gum tree by the garage as I load my bags into the car. On the way, I ask the driver—a pleasant Punjabi man called Baljeet—to drop by the city, and I pay him extra to wait. Some new clothing won’t hurt and the least I can do is begin my new life looking presentable. Baljeet also stops at the bank for me and patiently waits again. Business is slow, and he says he has all day.

When we finally arrive, Baljeet helps me with my things, and I wait by the concierge desk in my new suit and heels. I clutch my handbag so hard that my knuckles are white. The manager shakes my hand firmly and takes me to his office, where he presents a sheaf of paperwork. 

I’m grateful to George. And that I watched him buying and selling properties all that time. Grateful that he put so many in my name, so now I have all I need for the complicated process of buying Shoreline Horizon Resort. The available apartment is only one of the smaller cottages, the manager apologises. The past few months, we’ve been discussing something more permanent. He’s a good man with a solid and honest work ethic. I explain I won’t be needing anything too spacious for some months yet as I have a friend to visit in Toowoomba and a couple of cruises to plan.

As I walk barefoot along the beach, I enjoy thinking about the surprise George will get in the morning when he doesn’t find me where he expects. I’m not where I expected. But the old Charlotte is very much at home. 

Kirsten Due is a poet and short story writer who lives in Darwin

One thought on “The Good Son

  • Rebekah Meredith says:

    December 28, 2023
    When I was reading this in the magazine, I thought, this is a dreadful story; what is the POINT to it? Then I got to the twist at the end! As it turned out, I quite liked the story.

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