It’s Christmas Day, late afternoon, and Michael O’Shea is walking down the side of Mount Dandenong Tourist Road, Olinda.
Staggering a little. He’s nice and sozzled. Cooked. It’s warm, even here in the hills. Sunny and bright.
Curiously, there’s not a car in sight as he makes his way to his house, on Dodds Road.
His brother Sean insisted on driving him home, after a smashing Christmas feast at their sister Karen’s, on account of Michael being pissed as a newt, as Sean put it.
The brothers had a minor brawl that almost came to blows, over whether Sean would drop Michael off at his doorstop, not on the main road. “No, no, you’ll drop me right here, it’ll be great, thanks,’’ said Michael.
“No, let me get you to your house, you’re too drunk…..” said Sean.
Michael: “No, drop me here, I said..” and so on, and so forth.
Michael being the oldest, by 18 months, and the most stubborn, he won the argument, with Sean swearing and hitting the steering wheel as he stopped to let Michael off.
Michael chuckled as he headed down a rather steep hill. He was now a little weary, he realised. He stopped in front of a tree for a piss and was halfway through when he heard the car motor.
A little Japanese model. Quiet. In good nick, thought Michael, absently, ever the ex-mechanic. Manual. But someone was crunching the gears something shocking.
Just as he was zipping up his fly, he turned and saw a flash. Brakes squealing. A deep thud. Searing pain.
And that was the end of Michael O’Shea.
The Honda’s gears crunched but the tyres held firm as Zarah Metcalfe swerved around the diabolical Dandenongs corners and zipped up and down hills en route to her ex-husband’s home in Belgrave.
It was Christmas Day, late afternoon, and Zarah’s nerves were completely shot through. She was pretty sober – well, she’d had a few sherries making the trifle this morning.
She felt she needed a few beverages because she was stressed to the max. A good table red would hit the spot right now.
“You need to slow down. Calm down,” said a little voice in her head. But she was too frazzled to listen.
Six months before, her mother had died, and her father couldn’t cope. Lately he’d started acting erratically, leaving the stove on after a cup of tea, leaving the front door wide open, leaving dirty clothes on the floor at his house in Belgrave.
He’d called that morning to say he couldn’t do Christmas this year. It was too sad. “I’m sad, too Dad, but I’m coming around and we’ll have lunch,’’ said Zarah.
She’d dropped her kids, Cooper and Jackson, off at her ex-husband Darren’s house that morning, after they’d opened their presents.
At her Dad’s that morning, she roasted a chicken and made a trifle, with copious sherry, and laid the table with festive decorations as she vacuumed, cleaned the grotty bathroom and put some washing on.
Dad, meanwhile slumped on the lounge chair, nursing a whiskey or four, as he flipped morosely between silly Christmas movies on TV. She shook him awake for lunch and he downed a few bites before falling asleep in his dining chair.
Zarah allowed herself some tears as she gazed at a photo of her mum, Jess. “I wish you were here, Mum,” she sobbed. She picked up Dad and put him to bed, switching the air conditioning on, as it had warmed up.
It was time for Zarah to go to work. She was a bartender at the Burvale Hotel. Her shift started at 5pm.
She’d left a note for Dad and was getting into her Honda at about 4pm when she got a phone call from her ex husband’s bimbo girlfriend, Mel.
“Sorry, ah, Saaaahrah,” said Mel, “can youse come and pick Jackson and Cooper up? Right now?” She had a nasal accent and an irritating upward inflection.
“We’re due at my Mum’s at five,” Mel continued. “She’s in Werribee, at the other side of town. We have to leave.”
“Well the boys will have to go with you,” replied Zarah. “You know I have to work tonight. That was the deal.”
“Sahhhrah, they’re not my kids,” said Mel, with a decided edge to her voice, keeping it low, presumably so Darren couldn’t hear. “They’ve been fucken little pricks, if you wanna know the truth. I’m not puttin’ up with them one more minute. Youse can have ‘em.”
Zarah did not have the strength to argue. She said OK. She had never brought her kids to work. Her boss, Larry, would be angry. But she had no choice.
The roads, on the way to Darren’s at Kilsyth, were eerily clear.
Zarah’s mind kept screening three films in her head, one after the other: her Dad, was he losing his mind? Fucking Mel, and Zarah got angrier by the minute at that bitch who’d stolen her husband and now hated her kids. And work. She couldn’t afford to be late. But she had to bring the kids.
She drove the curves of Olinda, one after the other. Her phone rang on the seat beside her. She turned for a second to see who it was.
Then a thump. She screeched the car to a halt and got out.
Her heart stopped. She’d hit someone. An old man. He was flat on his front. Motionless. She looked around. No one in sight.
The car had just a faint abrasion. The sun shone through the trees. Birds chirped. She took his pulse. Nothing. She held her hand up to his mouth. No breath.
As if she were a robot, she returned to her car, got in and drove off. She would tell no one. Her Dad relied on her. Her kids lived for her. She couldn’t go to jail.
“Sorry old man. I didn’t mean it. It’s been a shitty Christmas. For both of us.
“Merry Christmas,” she added, and started to laugh, hysterically, tears coursing down her cheeks as she revved the engine and headed for Darren’s place.