The Shortest Day of the Year

We left Lorne late, forgetting how bad the coastal road was, and it took us hours to get back to the highway. When we were almost back in Melbourne, driving late down one of the lightless roads, Noah and I traded places and I took over the driving. White poles blinked up at us as we passed them and there was plenty of road kill to dodge at the edges. Chloe rode shotgun. The others were passed out across the back seat: Jess and Noah cuddled under a sleeping bag with their seatbelts off; Mel propped against the window like a rag doll.
‘Have you got anything we haven't already heard forty times?’ Chloe was sifting through my music again. The iPhone clacked as she tried to find something new; the only other sound was the occasional passing car. ‘Aha! This is great.’ She plugged it back into the audio jack and the car was filled with Rumours. ‘Wow, man, never took you for a Fleetwood Mac kind of guy,’ she said, nodding to the beat.
Suddenly I was 14 again, back in our kitchen at Greeves Street. There was something bubbling on the stove – pasta sauce or casserole maybe – and the music and the smell of food filled the room. Stevie Nicks was on the stereo and my parents were singing all the words, confident in the way that comes from hearing a song a million times. Dad was stirring the tomato sauce, then he stopped and grabbed hold of Mum, and was whirling her around the room, her bright scarf covering the patchy, cropped hair falling undone over her shoulders, her skinny arms keeping time with the music. She was laughing and laughing. I was still in my school uniform, sitting at the kitchen table, homework in front of me. But instead of looking at my algebra I was watching my parents being happy together.
‘My mum used to love this song,’ I said to Chloe, back in real life, my eyes fixed on the road ahead. I didn't mention that I hadn't listened to it since she died, or that hearing it now was almost breaking me, but it must have been clear from my voice.
And Chloe asked as we drove the long dark road, ‘What was she like?’
Not ‘How did she die?’ That was what most people asked when I finally gave them an in to mention Mum. In the three and a half years since Mum died, no one had ever actually asked me what she was like. The way she died had defined her; all people wanted to hear, if they wanted to hear anything at all, was what happened. But when I thought of Mum, I didn't think of her dying. I thought of her spinning around the kitchen, dancing with a wine glass filled with lime cordial in her hand, laughing as my dad took hold of her waist. I thought of the person she had been – and that was what Chloe wanted to know.
So I told her: ‘She used to dance with my dad in the kitchen.’
And Chloe laughed. ‘That is awesome,’ she said. ‘That is so awesome.’