Mum is driving as fast as she can. We’re three hours out of Melbourne, on our way to Bright, though our reason for travelling isn’t so colourful. Nan lives there, and she doesn’t have long. My eyes are heavy as I drift in and out of sleep. Cold June downpours have drenched the roads, lending a miserable air to the countryside. A truck barrels down the freeway and kicks up the rain—it looks like we’re driving behind water nymphs.
‘Almost there,’ Mum says and changes the playlist. The familiar clap and jingle of Whitney wanting to dance with somebody flows from the speakers. This melody always gets my toe tapping, only this time it causes me to think.
Five years ago, standing in a nightclub, intoxicated from too many vodka lemonades. A boy I was interested in from my class at University had urged me to come along to an eighties night. In fear of being poked and prodded, I had spent my high school years too scared to attend parties. As that gangly guy with a lispy voice, I’d been an unwilling target for the cruel taunts of youth. I’d only been out to my friends for a few months and I’d never been to a ‘gay bar’. The place itself represented something of a holy grail—the promised land. Upon entry, men dressed in heels and fairy-floss coloured wigs greeted me, the venue shrouded in smoky haze and lambent light. We danced and danced, surrounded by inebriated men. We ended the evening walking down the street holding hands. The sky stained light blue and a puff of wind lifted his hair. I faced him and had my first kiss.
A few months after flirting with disco I told my parents. We sat in the living room drinking cups of tea.
‘I like men.’ I said. As the words rolled off my tongue, it felt like I was leaping out my seat with the fabled song by Diana Ross chiming overhead. I thought Mum and Dad would freeze like children who had done something wrong. Instead, Dad smiled. Mum cheered.
‘We always assumed. You never showed much interest in girls. Do you remember? One of our favourite activities was getting ice cream after school and you only ever wanted the male server at the milk bar to scoop yours.’ Mum then gave me a hug.
After ripping off that parental band aid, my news became easier to share with anyone willing to listen. It became part of my identity: Henry, brown hair, brown eyes, homosexual. One day, standing in line to order coffee when asked my name, I said I was gay.
‘Okay Gay, well here’s your latte.’
There was still one closet that remained: Nan. Turning to Mum one day I said I wanted to tell her. When I was fourteen Nan had once said something flippant about the ‘pansy’ boy next door who pranced around in a dress—that comment took hold like a root. She’d lived through a different era. But I resolved myself that this was my news to share. Not Mums, not Dad, not anyone else’s. Mine, alone.
Mum supported me. ‘She’s alone up there and you haven’t visited in a while, she’d love to hear from you and see who you’ve become. You know she’s getting doddery, so better late than never!’
While growing up, we spent our family holidays in Bright. I loved being there when I could stomp on the golden leaves and watch my breath turn silver. Taut and regal, Nan would watch me from the kitchen window, with one arm curled around a mixing bowl. Her baking was famous throughout the town, but so was her irascible temper. She once told off three children for walking too leisurely past her house.
As I got older, I made more excuses not to visit. Sport at school, study at University. Until it just became avoiding her to save from confessing my not-so-secret secret. Several months ago, I visited. Driving up, I rehearsed over and over what I would say.
My car crunched against the gravel as I pulled into her driveway. Nan was sitting on the porch, nose down in a book. Her mop of pewter hair had thinned since Christmas and she struggled to give me a hug.
‘Henry, about bloody time you visited,’ she croaked, and I followed her through the front door. ‘I’m always going down to Melbourne. It’s good to see you here at last.’
The sweet and acrid scent of oranges wafted through the house as she pulled out a cake from the oven. She lost her grip on the tea towel wrapped around the tin and smack! The cake fell to the floor and splattered everywhere.
‘Jesus. These old bones. Everything is falling apart.’ She said as her face turned pink. I guided her to a seat and rushed around scraping splotches off the floor, then made us some tea. The elixir that somehow makes everything better.
This was my moment. I handed her a cup, sat down across from her and took her hand. It was soft but veiny like a map, and her verdant eyes twinkled in the diminishing afternoon light.
‘Nan, I’m gay.’ I whispered. ‘I was too scared to tell you.’
‘That’s why you stayed away so long? You foolish boy.’ She leaned over and gave me a kiss on the cheek.
The triumphant shrill of Whitney finishes. I jerk awake. I remember Nan dropping the cake, the crumbs on the floor, yet I remained mute—I didn’t tell her. My cheeks are wet, thinking of her lying supine in palliative care. What if we get there in time? My heart skips several beats and I bite my lip, watching the countryside turn into a muddy watercolour painting.
Another song with trumpets blasts from the speakers.
Zachary Pryor is a New Zealand writer, painter and change manager living in Melbourne on Wurundjeri land. He writes short stories, flash fiction and is currently trying his hand at writing a novel about a relationship gone wrong. He tweets at @ZackJPryor and posts what he reads on Instagram at @literature_lad.