The Mucky Foot

“Come on then, love,” Poppa calls from his armchair in the warm living room of my grandparents’ Gold Coast waterfront apartment. Home lies a thousand kilometres to the cooler south. I love the heat of Australia’s Queensland.

“Coming, Poppa,” I call. I slip my nightdress over my head and skip into the breezy front room. The sun streams through the gaps in the vertical blinds. The plush cream carpet massages my toes as I stand in front of Poppa’s brown chair and look up at his cheeky dimpled grin.

“Come on then,” he repeats.

I crawl over Poppa’s slipper-clad feet onto the arm of the large cool leather armchair. Gently, I lower myself down on his bony thigh and soften into his frail, slim body. My head rests against his pale blue cashmere cardigan and my ear presses against his chest. His lungs rattle as he wheezes. I breathe deeply, enjoying the faint perfume of this morning’s cologne. My hair feels cool around my neck, still damp from my bath. My cotton nightdress curls around my ankles.

The last of the harsh Queensland sun beats down on the pavement outside. A gentle cooling breeze blows off the glistening water of Runaway Bay and enters through the veranda door. Poppa shivers. My hand brushes against his. His smooth soft skin feels paper-thin. Prominent blue veins run the length of his arm. He breathes short, shallow breaths.

The odour of Nana’s lamb chops wafts from the kitchen. Nana sits at her antique bureau, bent over a letter. The Chinese boy sits in his frame above her head eating his noodles. The slender bronze dragon looks back at me from his place on the edge of the desk.

Poppa reaches for the book I’ve placed on his lap. His hands shake gently as he opens it.

 

Mary had a little lamb

Its feet were black as soot

And everywhere that Mary went

He stuck his mucky foot.

 

“Poppa! That’s not what it says!”

“Well you read it then, if you know better,” he says gruffly, pushing the book shut.

I pry the pages open again.

“‘And everywhere that Mary went that lamb was sure to go!’” I declare.

“Show me where it says that,” Poppa wheezes. I stare at the black letters and then look up at him.

“That’s what Mummy says the words are.”

“Well, maybe Mummy can’t read. Look, it says it just here,” he jaunts, pointing to the dancing letters on the page.

I look up and see his perfectly straight grin under his dark manicured moustache. The dimple on his left cheek deepens. His milky blue eyes twinkle. His soft pale grey curls frame his wrinkled face. He repeats,

 

Mary had a little lamb

Its feet were black as soot

And everywhere that Mary went

He stuck his mucky foot!

 

Poppa’s chest tightens as he coughs and spews into his handkerchief.

I look back at the pictures searching for a clue to confirm my version of the story. Mary smiles up at me, her pretty white lamb by her side.

“Okay, that’s enough.”

Poppa shuts the book. A rush of wind leaves the pages. He drops it on the wooden table beside him. The lamp rattles.

“Oh John, stop teasing the poor girl!” Nana calls from her seat at the bureau. Her frail back faces us as she bends over her letter. A heavy cardigan hangs from her dainty shoulders.

Nana rises and shuffles towards the kitchen.

“Kerry, John, it is time for supper,” she calls.

Poppa flashes his teeth and wheezes as I gently climb from his knee. He rises slowly from his chair, stopping midway to catch his breath. I grip his long delicate fingers and together we follow Nana into the kitchen.

Nana’s daintily dressed antique table hosts a large green salad. Juicy chunks of tomato and crisp asparagus stalks decorate the glossy green leaves. Bright segments of elegantly arranged pawpaw adorn a nearby plate. Sparkling grape juice fizzes gently in a crystal jug. Nana lays a platter of lamb chops next to the salad. Poppa sinks into his seat and we wait while he catches his breath.

A soothing breeze blows off Runaway Bay as we begin our evening meal.