At first I thought the bank had made a mistake. Some processing error or administrative glitch, which sent this letter to the wrong customer. I even checked if it was actually addressed to us. Maybe the postman put it in the wrong mail box? But of course he didn’t. It was addressed to Sandra Goddard, my mother, who had lived in this house for twenty years. The postman knew that, and apparently the National Australia Bank did too. It just didn’t make any sense. How could mum be defaulting on a mortgage, when she owned this house outright for over ten years? I vaguely remembered the day she and dad celebrated their last mortgage payment. I must have been about thirteen, as dad left before my fourteenth birthday.
The huge red letters LATE PAYMENT screamed at me from the top of the page. I was counting them for the 42nd time when mum came inside, and started unpacking the groceries. She could see I was counting so she didn’t interrupt. When I’d finished tapping the notes of the 93rd bar of Schumann's Piano Concerto in A minor on my leg, I picked up the letter and said:
‘Mum, what the hell is going on with this?’
‘I’ve told you before not to open my mail.’
‘What’s going on? You never pay anything late! Why do you have a mortgage?’
‘Ellen, it’s none of your business. Just forget about it!’
‘But if you don’t pay a mortgage on a house, they take it away from you!’
‘For god’s sake, it’s not going to come to that. I’ll sort it out.’
She side stepped round me, avoiding confrontation by leaving the scene. I heard the front door close and the car start. I went back to counting. L equals 12. A is one. T is 20. E is five. The letter had originally been a sum but now it was a sum and multiplier. I would keep going until the right number popped out. 12 times one times 20 times five. Late equals 1200. L equals one, A equals two, T equals zero and E equals zero. PAYMENT equals 94. Divided by Late, equals decimals. Decimals made me wince. They reminded me of the sum of money at the bottom of the letter.
Money was something we never discussed in our family. After dad left, I always suspected things were a bit tight. It wasn’t like we could ever afford a new car, or an overseas holiday. I don’t think dad ever paid any maintenance; back in those days I suppose it was easier for fathers to get away with disappearing, and forgetting they ever had a family. Mum wanted to spend as much time with us as possible. So she found a job as a teacher’s aide, where she worked school hours, and had plenty of holidays. After a while, we never mentioned dad anymore.
For a moment, I wished I’d never gone to the letterbox. Or been curious enough about the letter to open it. But as usual, I was bored, and the postman arriving was the first interesting thing that happened all day. How sad was that? I hadn’t counted like this in weeks, but it was the only way to slow my frenzy of anxiety. What was wrong with mum? Did she have a gambling habit? Had she taken out a loan to cover a debt to someone? Had she just been spending the money without me noticing? What if someone tricked her into giving them thousands and thousands of dollars? Was she losing her mind? She was only 54. How much money were we talking about? And why had I been left totally in the dark about this? I threw 54 in to see if it helped and after a few more minutes, finally found a number that stopped my heart from pounding. 72. The 72nd bar came to me quickly and I tapped it out on my wrist. Major or minor? Major.
With the counting over for a few moments, by mind leaped to a new minefield. Guilt. I never moved out of home because I needed mum. She was there for me through all the ups and downs of my piano career, if you can call a failed attempt at fame a career. She always encouraged me to keep going. Even if it meant going without things herself, to save up for the entry fee for another competition or the next interstate trip. When I gave up, after 15 long years of trying, I wasn’t in any state to move out. 15 times four is 60. Even if I wasn’t counting and tapping all the time, popping HP’s to get out of bed in the morning, I couldn’t afford to move out. Simple as that. I was pathetic. Mum cared for me, paid all the bills, bought all the food, looked after the house. And all the time, she was worrying about some mortgage which she obviously couldn't afford to pay, while I lounged around like a lazy, miserable freeloader. My measly income as a piano teacher didn't go very far, and mum always said she was happy for me to live rent free until I could afford to contribute. But why didn’t she ask me for help when she couldn’t pay the mortgage? I didn’t earn much, but she never even asked. And why hadn't she told me about the mortgage in the first place?