The day my childhood ended
‘Tom loved the Zoo’, I tell Mum. ‘You should have seen him in the children’s section, winding up the deer and goats – who were just his size. He’d stick his paper bag of food under their noses and then whip it away. He wasn’t a bit frightened, even when a goat munched right through his bag and the chaff went everywhere’.
‘And did you take lunch with you?’ asks Mum. ‘Yes, we had a picnic outside the nocturnal house. Tom blocked our entrance to it until we’d guessed which of his favourite animals was inside. It began with ‘b’ and ended in ‘y’. Emma and I just couldn’t work it out. ‘Bilby?’ suggests Mum. ‘Well done’, I reply.
‘Have you got any playing cards?’ I ask Mum. ‘Emma and I could play Snap while we’re waiting for your taxi’. ‘I think they’re in the third drawer down in the chest beside you.’ The cards are immaculate – hard laminate with crisp gold edges. Here I am, out of my depth, sitting crossed legged on the floor of Room 302, playing Snap with Emma. And winning. Alex smiles encouragingly.
Three floors below a large cedar tree shakes its spring heads. Mum looks comfortable. Yes, it’s a nursing home. But surrounded with her familiar things – paintings, side-table, photos and chairs – it doesn’t seem such a bad place to be at a point when she’s past looking after herself.
Alex chats to Mum about his voyage from Hobart to Sydney on a tall ship. Sleeping in the food store and four-hourly watches. Not getting seasick in Bass Strait when the rest of the crew were down with it – leaving plenty of food for him.
‘Would you like a hot pack?’ asks a cheery lady in an orange polo top. ‘I’m going out for lunch’, Mum replies. ‘Oh, that’s lovely’, says the lady. ‘I’ll pop back again tomorrow’.
My younger sister calls. ‘Could you’’, she asks, ‘find out where Mum’s going for lunch?’ ‘Of course, I’ll text it to you’. Half an hour before Mum’s taxi is due, the four of us are in the lift. ‘I like your hair’, Mum is saying to Emma. ‘It’s shorter than it was the last time you were here. Have you had it cut?’ ‘I can’t remember,’ Emma replies. ‘Mummy cuts it’.
Various notices are pinned to a board inside the lift. Meditation classes, a violin concert, lengthy emergency procedures. A bottle of ‘Emergency only’ water is tucked into one corner.
‘And does Helen cut yours too?’ Mum asks Alex, whose long curly hair is full of salt from Bass Strait and smoke from Sydney’s recent fireworks. He grins. ‘Alex’, I explain, as the lift doors open at the Ground floor, ‘cuts his own hair’.
Mum’s friend, who has arranged lunch for the tennis girls – all in their eighties – joins us in the foyer. ‘Weren’t you two in the same class at school?’ I ask Mum’s friend. ‘No’, says Mum, staring out the glass doors. ‘Yes’, replies her friend, ‘I think we were’.
The taxi doesn’t come. I call another. When it arrives I help Mum and her friend into it. The Indian driver sits impassive, with not a glimmer of interest in his charges. Mum’s friend is wearing leg braces that barely fit under the back seat. She should be in the front with these braces – except that she insisted that Mum take it.
As the taxi pulls out I feel cross with myself for not asking the driver to help Mum and her friend out of the car at the café. The indignity of age. Looking down at my watch I see that two and a half hours have gone by since we came to see Mum.
My mother, who for years barely sat down, has grown old. She doesn’t like it, but she accepts it. My elder sister, who died this morning, will not. A long international flight, a busy year – and a heart event takes her in the night. Her son, going to wake her the next morning before work, cannot bring her back. Nor can the paramedics.
‘Mum now knows’. This text appears from my younger sister while I’m having lunch with Alex and Emma in a café. My heart sinks. Now there is no more hiding. Now it must be true.
The phone rings while we are sitting chatting on my aunt’s verandah. I jump up. ‘I’ll get it for you’. I trace the phone ring to the kitchen, but can see no phone. As I stumble into the darkened bedroom an answer-machine clicks on. ‘Hello Nancy, it’s Tamsin here. Bernadette’s funeral will be at 10am next Thursday. Can you ring me when you get this message?’
The grandfather clock in the hall ticks on. I am alone in my aunt’s house. My aunt Tamsin, who I haven’t seen for a year, is telling my aunt Nancy that my elder sister’s funeral will be at 10am the following Tuesday. Crying and sobbing, I leave the shadowy bedroom as the answerphone clicks off.
Leaving Alex and Emma on the verandah, I return to the nursing home. Room 302 is empty, even though I look through Mum’s two rooms and bathroom twice. The floor staff don’t know where she is either.
I take a walk to collect my thoughts, but only get as far as the church on the corner. I don’t care what kind of church it is – but assume it’s Catholic because the paint is peeling and it looks in need of work. I weep freely, kneeling, thankful of being alone. I weep for my sister who pushed so valiantly to achieve over and above her family – while still making it clear they were the most important people in her life. For my mother, whose stoicism is now tinged with fatalism. For Bernadette’s family, whose peace of mind has been ripped, like a rug, from under them. For my sisters, youngest and eldest, who spent more time with my elder sister, over the years, than I did. And for myself – the sister who left Adelaide, and my family, more completely than my other sisters. The sister who stood back while her three sisters took on the lion’s share of looking after our mother.
Hearing someone enter the church I attempt to pull myself together. I stare at the stained glass windows, forcing myself to look up. Easing out of my pew I pass a woman praying. Stopping briefly I explain my tears, and accept her offer to include me in her prayers.
In the glaring afternoon light, I brush past the carefully tended gardens of North Adelaide, my eyes pools of tears. Here I am, only just getting used to the idea of being in the middle of my life, face to face with the fact that my sister, two years older, has ended hers.
Thanks to my sisters’ tact and efforts, Mum has been made comfortable in Room 302, with the support she craves and the company she needs. Perhaps this is why she hasn’t gone to pieces. Or maybe it’s that death, even for her second daughter, is less alien to her than it is to me. It could have brought her husband, my father, a little closer to her. Closer, perhaps, than the photo and single rose with which she’s kept her love for him vigil, these last thirty years.
I apologise for not being able to say anything to her about Bernadette’s death that morning. Mum simply nods. We sit and chat, taking pleasure in the fact of each other’s company. My phone rings. My younger sister suggests that I come round to Bernadette’s house. Thinking that her body might still be there, I dither. ‘Are you sure?’ I ask. ‘I think’, my younger sister says firmly, ‘that you should come. She is your sister’.
A policeman and a policewoman are pushing open the front gate when I arrive. I hang back, thinking my timing is out, but force myself to keep going. Looking ten years older than when I last saw him, my brother-in-law comes to the door. He hugs me, says how sorry he is – before ushering me in and excusing himself to give a report in the front room.
Family friends, fled from their offices in suits and work clothes, stand in quiet groups, one outside and another inside. Seeing a familiar face in the garden, I head outside. An old school friend of my elder sister gets out her mobile and shows me a happy shot of a group of eight of them, in a port in Croatia. ‘This is the afternoon that we got off the boat’, my sister’s friend is saying. ‘We had such a good time – this was taken just ten days ago’. I peer into the screen, see the smiling face of my elder sister, with no sense of what is to come. ‘Thank you so much’, I say to my elder sister’s friend, unable to look any longer.
At the front door, as I am leaving, I meet my elder sister’s youngest daughter. She weeps when she sees me, though she is talking with friends, who are just leaving. ‘I just wish you were my mother’, she sobs. At that moment, feeling her thin frame with my hands, I wish I were too. ‘I haven’t been a very good aunt’, I say, to console myself as much as her. ‘Perhaps now I can be a bit better’.
My eldest sister steps out of a car with another of my nieces. I embrace my niece – another slim frame. And then my eldest sister, who keeps her sunglasses on. My niece sobs in waves, like an animal in pain. ‘I’m so sorry’, I say. ‘I was just saying’, breaks in my eldest sister, ‘that she might put a flower in a vase next to Bernadette’s photo, just like Mum does with Dad’s photo. Do you think’, she asks me, ‘that that’s a good idea?’ ‘Yes of course. Only perhaps not just yet’. And I give my niece another hug.
My brother-in-law joins us on the pavement. He takes his weeping daughter under his arm and tells her to go inside. She doesn’t, remaining under his wing. For a moment he breaks his cover, takes a swipe at the pavement with his foot and swears at fate. Tears fill his eyes and his face relaxes. ‘Oh Dad’, says his daughter, rubbing his back, ‘don’t say that’.
* * *
‘Of course you must stay for dinner’, says my aunt Nancy. ‘Geoff, did you hear that? Helen and her children will be staying for dinner. ‘Good news’, says a voice from the kitchen. While Alex and Emma mess around in the garden with a ball, my aunt and I sit and chat. Every few minutes she returns to worrying about the flies brought into their garden by the chickens next door. She herself kept chickens in the country for over forty years. Chickens in city backyards, she implies, are out of place.
With sight so dim that she can barely see to put the peas on her fork, Nancy fusses her way through dinner, treating her husband of over sixty years with a bossiness that I’d never get away with at home. Yet we all love her, winking at each other when she makes Geoff go back into the kitchen to cut more lemon for the crumbed salmon tails.
* * *
A young woman wearing Doc Martens shows me into a recording booth, and explains how to flick on the microphone. A sound technician in Sydney asks me to recite Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled pepper, three times, to work out the right distance between my month and the microphone. For years I have wanted to speak about motherhood on national radio. But not today. Not this hot windy morning, a day after my elder sister’s heart failed her.
The young woman wearing Doc Martens comes in and quietly flicks on the microphone. I am on air. All those mornings in the car, of listening to other people speak on this program, and now it’s my turn. I look past my notes into the middle distance. Speaking from Adelaide, which I thought might be inhibiting, has the opposite effect. I speak on behalf of my three sisters, and every other mother I know. It’s only eighteen minutes of talk, after sixteen years of motherhood, and yet it feels roomy and generous. As I leave the technician tells me that, because of the time difference between the states, my segment will be on air in thirty minutes’ time.
The radio is playing when I knock on my aunt’s door. They have remembered. The three of us sit in their bedroom, with its floral curtains and pink mohair blankets, listening to the last half of the program. My voice sounds English, poised and serious. My aunt reaches over and clutches my hand. When the program finishes she tells me about Alex, then a year old, worming his way up the pink mohair blanket, gathering fluff in his clammy hands, before crawling up my uncle’s resting body and placing his forehead on my uncle’s and looking straight into his eyes.
* * *
It never rains in Adelaide. But it pours the next morning, all the way to Hindmarsh Island. Alex plugs his iPod into the hire car and entertains us with old comedy songs, Flanders and Swann, and Monty Python. Just as I once played these songs to keep them amused on long journeys, Alex now plays them for me – singing along to the lyrics.
Before long Alex is swinging open the gate of my cousin’s farm. Alex, Emma and Tom disappear to play trains. Ted makes tea, Buddha’s tears, which he remembers I like. I tell him that they think it might have been Bernadette’s heart. ‘Ah, that’s interesting’, he says, without missing a beat. ‘You know that I am the only male over fifty, from our side of the family, who doesn’t have a pacemaker’. ‘Really?’ I reply, wishing his connection hadn’t been quite so immediate.
Andrew, I tell him, insists that we divide the contents of Mum’s house on the weekend, as planned. But instead of the four sisters going through Mum’s things, as planned, it will be three sisters and Andrew, standing in for Bernadette. The four of us sisters, alone in Mum’s house, will now never happen.
My two sisters are late for lunch. Both are wearing sunglasses. My younger sister’s daughter also joins us. I feel disappointed, having looked forward to being able to talk freely. But perhaps, I tell myself, this is just wishful.
Following my sisters I choose the house soup. Not because I really feel like soup, but because it saves me from choosing. ‘Andrew got word from the coroner’, my younger sister is saying, ‘and they think it was Bernadette’s heart. The final results will take months, possibly up to a year’. My heart sinks. The three of us look at each other, all, quite possibly, thinking the same thing. I could have been any of us. It could, in years to come, be us.
I look into my red soup and force my spoon into it. We talk around things. Bernadette’s family, the funeral in a week’s time, and other topics that it feels possible to talk about. My eldest sister keeps her sunglasses on, even though we’re inside.
My last contact with Bernadette, I tell them, was a text two days before she died, sent from the airport in Paris. I’d suggested a couple of times during that week that Alex, Emma and I might drop in to see her. Bernadette suggested that we wait until she got home, before locking anything in. Good for her, I’d thought at the time.
‘When does John arrive?’ my eldest sister asks, changing the subject. ‘Tonight some time’, I reply. Tonight some time comes round all too quickly. The two hours I’d thought I might have to myself, between lunch, visiting Mum and meeting John’s plane, vanish.
‘It must have been horrible for you’, John says after a quick peck as he splits off from the queue of arrivals. ‘Yes, although not nearly as hard as for Bernadette’s family, who are devastated’. ‘I wasn’t sure’, he continues, ‘if you’d be coming back for the funeral’. ‘Whaaat?’ I say, raising my voice in the sleek cavernous terminal, thinking I must have misheard. ‘I just meant that you weren’t that close, over these last years’. ‘But’, I return, ‘we always kept in touch. We emailed a lot. She visited us last year and I supported her all through her PhD’. ‘Oh, I’m sorry’, he replies. ‘I didn’t realise’.
We drive to Hutt Street, a part of town that I remember as being full of hip places to eat. But instead there is pub after pub with security men on the pavement, interspersed with sleazy fluorescent-lit takeaways. John stops walking. ‘I thought we were going to have dinner somewhere nice’. ‘I’m sorry’, I say, cross at his petulance. ‘There used to be a lot of nice places round here. Let’s go back into town to Press. We know that’s good.’ John is not, I tell myself, my knight in shining armour. He is my travel-weary husband, uncertain of his role in my family in the days to come.
Thankfully Press takes us in. The waiter doesn’t realise quite how much we need to sit on stools either side of their very long wooden table. I order whiskey, John wine, and at last we talk.
* * *
‘I want to take the garden’, I say to John the next morning, as we walk through Mum’s house. Already it’s Friday. Tomorrow we’ll be dividing Mum’s furniture between the four families. What, I wonder, do I love enough to have in our home? What kind of thing would Alex and Emma like to remind them of my family, in years and decades to come?
I’ve already decided, I tell John, that I’ll be number four in the bidding. Over the years I’ve done the least for my mother – my younger sister by far the most. It is my youngest sister whose phone number was on Mum’s personal buzzer, in case of an emergency, and who visited her up to five times a week. It was my eldest sister who flew over from Melbourne three times in the last three months, after Mum went into the nursing home. And it was my elder sister, who just died, who organised Mum’s admission. All I did, over these past months, was to call her two or three times a week while out walking our dog.
‘What about the grandfather clock?’ I ask John. ‘Is that something that could work for us?’ ‘Sure’, he replies. ‘And this half table is lovely,’ he goes on, his voice trailing down the corridor by Mum’s bedroom. ‘And these candlesticks?’ I suggest, pointing to two long silver candlesticks on the top shelf of a large secretaire in the hall. I open the bottom cupboard of the secretaire, where wrapping paper, headed notepaper and envelopes were once kept. They still are. In one corner sit a neat stack of red and navy diaries, a record of fifteen years of appointments, a testament to Mum’s active life. Eighty-seven years of sensible middle-class living has left behind just this careful record of golf games, tennis lunches, charity board meetings, hairdressing appointments, and photos. A silent record of a life well lived. I shut the cupboard door.
Curious, I pull out the drawers of the chest opposite. Same thing. No mess. A small shock passes through me. I think of the mess in the cupboards of my own house in Hobart, and how little I’d want anyone I know to have to go through them.
Wandering outside, I take a peek in the garden shed. Apart from tools hung against one wall, there is one cupboard with an unsurprising range of insect sprays, packets of lime, string and gloves. My mother, who for years gardened as intuitively as she mothered, has left everything in order here too.
‘Helen?’ ‘I’m out here’, I return, closing the shed door behind me. ‘What about the tall walnut chest in your mother’s bedroom?’ ‘Yes’, I reply ‘it is beautiful. But I think my eldest sister has already bagsed it. Also the four bottom drawers are full to bursting with old slides. I’m not sure what will happen to them. They’re gorgeous old slides, with lots from Mum and Dad’s travels, and our early years. But’, and I shrug, ‘they’d take weeks to sort through’.
John disappears into Mum’s dressing room. ‘What’s this? he asks, pulling an old black metal box to the front of the top shelf of the wardrobe. ‘No idea’, I reply. ‘Wine perhaps? Legal papers? Here’s a chair, you’ll need it to reach that far back’. He pulls the box down from the shelf, the chair creaking with the combined weight.
‘You don’t think that it could be Dad’s old things?’ The black box, with Dad’s father’s initials along the top, is unlocked. On top is a telegram, from 1947, sent to Oxford telling him of his sister’s engagement. Wrapped in old tissue, there is a stuffed seal from New Zealand. Next a day and date calendar that Dad never failed to set. Eight clean but yellowing watch straps. Six of his favourite ties coiled into a familiar blue Tupperware box. An old silver pocket watch inscribed with Dad’s initials. A slim silver pencil, also initialised, with spare leads in a tiny holder. Cufflinks in a small square box with ‘Here’s Your’ in Art Deco writing on the lid. Three single stem silver vases, presumably kept for presents – in a plastic bag tied with string. A press photo of Dad exchanging a baton in an Oxford relay. Everything, really, bar the glasses he was wearing the week he died.
I unwrap each treasure in turn, as if from a time capsule. Unwrapping Dad’s Parker pen, I picture him using it as if yesterday. Choked with tears I show it to John. ‘What a lovely pen’, he says, seeming to understand. By now we can see the bottom of the box, at which point we start carefully repacking it before returning it to the back of the wardrobe.
As I wander through the various rooms, I notice John sitting at the dining room table, writing. ‘Is that a list?’ I ask, vaguely offended. ‘We’re not’, I add, ‘in an antique shop’. ‘Of course not’, he replies, folding the paper and slipping it into his jacket. ‘I just thought it might help you tomorrow’. I frown and stare out the window. ‘Okay’, I reply, and he hands me the list that I put in my bag.
I take the engagement telegram around to my amazed aunt, who lives just four houses away. ‘You’ve found the box!’ Nancy says, excited. The box that my father’s side of the family had thought long gone had been tucked away, out of Mum’s reach, these last thirty years. ‘And the photo albums from before Dad’s marriage’, I add, ‘they’re all there’. ‘I’m so glad’, she says, even though we both know that she’s nearly too blind to enjoy them. ‘I’ll pass them on to Ted, who will show them to you.’
Mum, too, is relieved to hear of our find. But it’s not her main concern. ‘Are there’, she asks us both, ‘things in the house that you would like for your home?’ ‘Yes, of course, there are so many lovely things, Mum. And you have left the house in such a good state. It really is a credit to you.’ She sits back in her comfortable chair, a hot pack behind her lower back. ‘I tried’, she says, and gives a quick smile.
Mum’s supper is brought in on a tray. ‘I’ll eat it later’, she says to the nurse. ‘You promise?’ I ask. ‘You’re going to have to be strong, Mum. We all have to be.’ She sighs. ‘Yes, I know I do’. ‘I’m so sorry’, I explain in my next breath, ‘but we’ve run out of day and we have friends for dinner in an hour. And I still haven’t anything to cook.’ ‘You must go then’. ‘Thank you Mum. I love you and will see you tomorrow’.
The only nice thing that I cook for supper is a braised salad with goats cheese, spinach, radicchio and wine vinegar. Although the pasta dish that I cook is pretty ordinary, my friends don’t seem to mind. We talk around the subject of my elder sister, but try not to dwell on it. Two of them talk about working for The Dark Prince – Rupert Murdoch. ‘Before long I’ll lose my job to make way for someone younger’, Juliette tells us. ‘It happens to all women once they get to my age’, she adds. ‘But what about Jordy?’ I ask. ‘He’s not too old for his job and he’s the same age’. ‘Men age differently’, she replies. ‘Experience is an advantage for them, not a threat, as it is for women’. ‘Don’t be ridiculous’, butts in James, who runs a senior recruitment company. Juliette smiles and looks unmoved. ‘That’s just the way it is in media’, she says, in a way that suggests there is nothing more to say.
* * *
Two of my nieces are leaving Mum’s house carrying large photo albums in their arms. Both are weeping. One is on her mobile. In my electric blue hire car they don’t notice me. I sit frozen in the front seat, unable to move. ‘What can I possibly say to them right now?’ I say to myself, once I have anything resembling a thought.
The only thing that everyone except me wants is Dad’s study chair. The leather seat is worn, and it squeaks. ‘Bernadette really wanted this chair’, says Andrew. ‘God knows why’, he laughs, as it squeaks under him. ‘But she did’.
It is well past noon when I notice that my younger sister has stopped saying that she wants anything. ‘You have it’, she says, again and again. ‘But what about your children?’ I ask. ‘Might they not want a table, or a painting, to remind them of all this?’ ‘No’, she says firmly, ‘they’re just things, and we already have plenty of things.’
By the time we get to Mum’s bedroom it’s three o’clock. One of my nephews pulls down the metal box from the back of the wardrobe. ‘Can we’, I ask, ‘stall on this box?’ We’ve already done so much, and this box is different’. ‘Perhaps’, says my eldest sister. ‘But then when will we do it? The house is being sold and Andrew doesn’t want to store things’. Even as we quibble, we are pulling things from the box – watches and photos and pens. And, with them, our memories.
‘Do you remember Dad’s pen?’ I ask my sisters. ‘Of course’, they reply, silent for a moment. ‘Why don’t you have it?’ suggests my younger sister. ‘You’re the writer in the family’. ‘Yes’, says my eldest sister, ‘you take it’. ‘Thank you so much’ I say, crying. ‘But what if I lose it?’ ‘You won’t lose it’, says my younger sister. ‘Just use it at home’. But, I want to tell them, I do nearly all my writing out – where I can think straight and there is no washing machine. ‘Okay’, I reply, hugging my younger sister.
The day is over. We can do no more. The dining room table is covered with objects that as yet have no takers. Dad’s school sports medals, coloured glass vases, two more candlesticks, a brass bowl, silver mustard and salt bows with tiny spoons, three sets of placemats, cutlery in green felt rolls, Art Deco coffee spoons.
Verdi’s Force of Destiny probably wasn’t the best choice of opera. Gruesome drama, however beautifully staged, is no salve for my soul. ‘Why’, I ask John, who walks two steps away from me as we leave the theatre, ‘can’t culture console?’ He shrugs, and offers no consolation. I will, I tell myself, have to find my own way through this. John has too much going on in his own life, in his own head, to extend a hand to me. As we walk on in silence, I sense how much he wants a cigarette.
My younger sister calls me the next morning. After talking through the day before, she shares with me the real details of our elder sister’s death. I listen quietly, wishing I didn’t have to be told, yet knowing that she needs to be able to tell me. It’s not the dying in her sleep with no pain version, but the grown up story that even she – a nurse who Bernadette’s children called with the ambulance – can only just bear. But for these last five days has had to bear.
‘Thank you for telling me’, I say, when she finishes. ‘I’m so sorry’, she says quickly, ‘but there’s another call coming in, and I think I know who it is’. ‘Fine’, I reply, ‘I love you’. ‘You too’. And we hang up.
The upstairs bedroom of our apartment looks different now. Bernadette’s death has come closer, now that I have shared it. I get out the photo I have of her that I keep in my bag. It’s a shot of the four of us as teenagers, on holiday in Sydney, wearing our best clothes. We are standing hanging over a white wooden fence, near the Heads, smiling into the wind.
Having been told on Tuesday the children’s version of my sister’s passing, the version I could bear to hear, I now know the adult version. And I have no choice but to bear it. None of us do. Particularly my younger sister who once looked to me for support but, but in the last ten years, since I got caught up in my own family, has stopped seeking it.
A text comes through on my phone from my cousin. ‘Need to leave soon, Ted’. As we walk through Ted’s back gate Alex and Emma look pleased to see us. But it strikes me that they don’t need to see John and me. They are completely at home with Ted, and could happily stay another week. But we don’t have another week. Instead we have a flight to catch that evening, for just a few days of school before returning to Adelaide for the funeral.
But first we have Sunday lunch with my aunt and uncle. Again my uncle cooks. Again my aunt complains. Again neither of them appears to mind. ‘Would you like more gravy on your chicken?’ she asks us in turn. ‘Mine is so dry’. ‘Yes’, I reply, thinking it best to agree. ‘That would be lovely’.
‘Did I mention that I got the dining room table and the grandfather clock?’ Nancy claps her hands. ‘I’m so glad’, she says. ‘The clock doesn’t work at the moment’, I add, ‘but I’m sure it can be made to work’. ‘Of course it can’, she replies. ‘Of course it can’.
After lunch we play Boules on the lawn. My uncle umpires so that the four of us can play. We laugh, tease and generally act as if nothing is amiss. Out on the lawn, a couple of silver balls in our hands, nothing is.
Our plane sits for an hour on the tarmac in Adelaide. A man has changed his mind about travelling, and the ground crew takes an hour to locate his baggage. When we finally reach Melbourne the terminal is empty of personnel, and there’s no sign of a connecting flight.
Emma refuses to enter the taxi queue. ‘I won’t leave the airport’, she says, her bottom lip trembling. ‘I want to see Pippi tomorrow. We can stay over there’, and she points at the airport hotel over the road. ‘But we don’t know’, I say, also tired and longing to be at home, ‘if there are any seats on the early flight. And Pippi is fine in her kennels, one more day won’t bother her’.
It’s 11pm and Emma has had enough. I queue for a taxi and Alex goes back to ease Emma into it. I don’t know what he says, but she comes without any more fuss. An hour later we are eating apples, oatcakes and chocolate in bed, sharing a room in the hotel where John regularly stays for work. Light from neighbouring flats filters through the venetian blinds. I stare at the ceiling for a long time, cry quietly for a short time, and then sleep.
‘What’s that smell?’ asks Alex, as we open our front door in Hobart early the next afternoon. ‘No idea’, I reply, heading straight for the kitchen. Sure enough, the bin and the dishwasher are full. Both are mouldy. Don’t, I school myself, get cross with John. But I do.
‘I thought you might have been at the airport to pick us up’, I begin, opening his study door. ‘Or at least have a meal ready for us. But no. Just a smelly kitchen to come home to’. I shouldn’t be saying what I’m saying. But I know why I’m doing it. I’m tired and overwrought. I’m cross with him for refusing to give me the reassurance I need – at least not in the blanket instant way that I can’t help demanding of him. I know I’m being unreasonable. I know that we’ve never been secure enough in ourselves to give each other unconditional reassurance. And that today is no different.
Beset with his own work – his unmet deadlines and lengthy to-do list – John avoids me all afternoon. It’s not that he’s without sympathy. But he shields himself from my pain, glimpsing it sideways rather than front on.
Alex and Emma are more open in their love. But, then again, they have less to hide. And, less to lose. They hug me and help me and tease me – just as usual but up a notch. I, in turn, feel incredibly grateful of their support.
* * *
Bending into a yoga pose that my body won’t assume, I explain to the instructor, through tears, what has happened. Her sympathy is immediate and she leaves me alone – returning later in the class to put pressure on my lower spine.
* * *
Rushing for flights and missing school has, for the moment, become our new normal. Today it’s a flight to Melbourne for John’s book launch that evening. Tomorrow it’s for Bernadette’s funeral in Adelaide in the afternoon.
Over lunch at a favourite haunt, Alex tells me that he doesn’t want to wear shorts to the funeral. I feel pleased, but also mindful of the hole that the last two weeks have gouged in my bank account. However I don’t want to dampen his initiative. ‘Perhaps’, I suggest, ‘we could go to one of the big department stores and see what they have?’ To my surprise, he agrees.
Alex much easier to buy clothes with, than John. For a start he’s trimmer and – as yet – has no sartorial hang-ups. After quite a bit of to-ing and fro-ing, Alex is done, a selection made – with enough left over to buy suede shoes. But then, I remind myself, a lot of things are easier when you are 16, than 46. Quietly amazed at his transformation, Alex, Emma and I leave the store.
We spend the afternoon with old neighbours, whose warm welcome Alex and Emma appreciate. Alex’s height and maturity are immediately noted. His experience on a tall ship has, it seems, become his passport out of boyhood. I should, I tell myself, be pleased at the impression he makes on friends. Gone is the awkwardness that he once displayed, the not knowing what to say that – for a time – crippled him in adult company. So why do I mind? Is it because his maturity has pushed me up a generation, into a generation in which one’s offspring start to interest friends more than oneself? More to the point, pushing me into a generation in which it’s possible for one’s sister to die?
On seeing me in the art gallery that evening, John kisses my cheek and bows slightly – in the way he often does in public. In his practiced way, he takes his audience with him, speaking to slides on the screen behind him. He speaks clearly, with warm authority – with no hint of the anxieties that wracked him during the writing of this book. Emma, at the end of the talk, says how boring it was. Alex says nothing, which suggests that he has taken something of his father in. The father that Alex has only recently appealed to for help with his homework, is also a public figure who can engage a large audience for an hour in an art gallery.
* * *
My role at my elder sister’s funeral is simple. It is to chaperone Mum. To make sure that, despite choosing to attend in a wheelchair, she doesn’t feel left out.
As the doors of the third floor of her nursing home open the next morning, there Mum is. Dressed in a black jacket with white spots, ready to go. ‘Goodness’, I say, ‘you’re early’. ‘I want to be early’, she says firmly, edging her way into the lift.
Fortunately the driver that my brother-in-law has sent for us has the same thought, and we arrive at the Cathedral early. Already the body of the Cathedral is swollen with people. I feel at once proud of how many people want to be there, and appalled at the fact of Bernadette’s body lying cold so near to me. ‘What’, asks my mother, ‘do you think the coffin is made of?’ ‘Mahogany’, I return, and take her hand in mine. ‘Your hands are so cold’, she says, rubbing them, ‘they’re even colder than mine’. I smile back. ‘I can’t stop thinking about Bernadette’, she says, and we fall silent.
As each family member enters the side door they make a beeline for Mum, bend down, kiss her cheek, and say a few words. ‘It doesn’t seem real’, Mum says quietly, in between two of these momentary visits. ‘But it is real, Mum’, I return, needing there to be no confusion. A cousin I haven’t seen for twenty-five years stoops to kiss Mum. ‘I’m so sorry’, she says, and gives me a smile. Two seconds later Mum turns to me. ‘Who’, she asks, ‘was that?’
An hour and a half later I wheel Mum’s wheelchair into the bright afternoon light. Two old schoolfriends appear to greet me. They are kindness itself – and for a couple of minutes we forget the thirty years that separate us from our earlier friendship.
Conscious of waves of people on the pavement, an incoming tide, I excuse myself to find Alex, Emma and John. For a full minute, as I enter the throng and the hearse pulls away from the curb, there is silence. I feel caught, knowing that my elder sister is disappearing forever while also feeling lost amongst a sea of people, as if at a public event. Perhaps, I catch myself thinking, it’s the same feeling.
When I spy Alex and Emma on the steps they have that same look in their eye. It’s love and fear. I hug them both. More old friends find me – even a few who claim not to recognise me. But I can’t stay, conscious that I still have my role with Mum. Alex and Emma ask to ride in Mum’s car to the gathering at my elder sister’s house. John, meanwhile, accepts a lift with my schoolfriends – which I can tell he isn’t wild about.
‘And what did you do during the service?’ Mum asks the driver. ‘I watched it on a screen in the side chapel’. ‘Were there many people?’ asks Mum. ‘It was full’. ‘Oh’, Mum replies. ‘I had no idea so many people would come’. ‘It was a beautiful service’, he says quietly. ‘Yes, it was’, says Mum. The driver takes a particularly ugly route back to my elder sister’s house. Given the last couple of hours, I know this shouldn’t bother me. But it does.
Clean cars are parked neatly along the pavement when we arrive. Caterers are set up in the garage, offering champagne in long glasses. My job, I know, doesn’t end here. I help Mum to the bathroom and then set her wheelchair by a long seat next to the back door, so that people can chat to her easily.
Against the green grass and blue sky, the kind that Adelaide is so good at, is a mass of dark suits. In their efforts to celebrate Bernadette’s life, rather than to grieve her death, her four children have chosen not to wear black. Good for them, I think. Grief can come later.
Even so, the seriousness of why we are here, on lush grass against a glorious sky, escapes no one. A man enters the group that I am talking to, near to Mum’s wheelchair. He says nothing. Is he waiting for the right moment to speak? Five minutes go by and still he says nothing. Perhaps he doesn’t know anyone, I think to myself. Perhaps he’s as shy as my husband, who is clearly at a loss in the sea of Adelaide faces.
‘Hello, Helen’, says the balding man. ‘Do you remember me?’ ‘Oh my God’, I reply, ‘it’s Tom! I’m so sorry, but I didn’t recognise you without your hair’. He blushes, we laugh and I pat his head. It’s Tom, my second cousin who, as a teenager, used to thrash me at tennis and who lived an enviable life with a swimming pool near the beach outside Melbourne. We hug and he forgives – or says he does – my tactlessness. There are, over the next two hours, a number of meetings like these.
John comes to find me. ‘I need a lift to the airport. My flight to Sydney leaves in an hour’. ‘But I can’t leave now’, I blurt out, feeling that it could be years before I see these people again. ‘Absolutely’, he replies, ‘I do understand’. Instead he calls for a taxi, and we wait for it together.
On coming back inside, I realise that Mum’s driver has been waiting a good hour longer than we’d promised. Apologising, I go in and fetch her, knowing how tired Mum must be of talking.
‘And what have you been doing all this time?’ Mum asks the driver, back in the car. ‘I’ve been reading’, he replies. ‘And what are you reading?’ plies Mum.’ ‘It’s a book about civilization by somebody Clark. I find that it helps with my work as a volunteer guide at the art gallery. It sums up the whole of Western culture, according to various periods’. ‘It’s Kenneth Clark, I think’, I pipe up from the back. But within seconds I go back to staring out the car window and replaying the day – a celebration not a wake – in my head.
I take Mum back up in the lift, and, as we pass the eating area, wave to two of her friends who were kind enough to attend the funeral. ‘Would you like some supper, Mrs Hesketh?’ asks the woman serving supper. ‘No’, Mum says flatly. ‘But Mum’, I interject, ‘you must have something. It’s been such a big day’. ‘Would you’, the dinner lady asks, ‘like an iced coffee?’ ‘Yes, I would’, Mum says, as we pass down the corridor. Mum stops and turns, ‘And a piece of cake, if you have it’.
Alex is on the pavement outside Bernadette’s house when I return in the hire car. ‘I think I’ll go for a walk’, he says to me. ‘That’s a good idea’, I reply, aware that this day must have been nearly as overwhelming for him as for me. ‘Don’t get lost!’ I call after him, and he turns and shoots me a black look.
As soon as Emma sees me, she pulls on my arm and asks when we might leave. ‘But there are so many people who I haven’t spoken to yet’, I reply. There is, I realise, one person, a medical friend, who I feel I must speak to properly before leaving. ‘Rob’, I say, tapping a tall man on the shoulder. ‘People are starting to look at me funny. A few are saying straight out that I should have my heart checked. Is this something I should be worrying about – given that I’ve never worried about it before?’ ‘Oh Helen’, Rob says. ‘I have a heart history too. It’s a ticking time bomb for all of us. But what can you do? Just live the life that you want to live, and do the work that you want to do. But you’re doing that already, aren’t you?’ I nod. ‘You’ve got two terrific children, a nice husband – and you love your work’. ‘Yes’, I reply, ‘I do’. ‘And no’, he adds, ‘don’t have your heart checked. Just live well’.
Alex returns from his walk and joins a group of older cousins. Now it’s his turn to not want to leave. His recent growth spurt, new clothes, and tall-ship voyage, mean that his cousins no longer talk down to him. Some of them even have to speak up to him, in terms of height. ‘But you can’t leave school just yet’, I overhear one of my nieces saying. ‘You have to do your final exams as well as you can. Then you can go to sea for a year and get it out of your system’. Alex listens and smiles – taking it in or zoning out, I can’t tell.
The line ‘always leave a party when you’re having fun’ runs through my head. Except this isn’t a party, and it isn’t exactly fun. And yet it’s a good feeling to see all these people, with whom I share an early connection. Yes, there is sadness in the air, especially as the light fades and darkness falls, but it isn’t grief.
But there’s grief in my eldest sister’s eyes, as she sits on a sofa bed with a friend. She rises when I near her, and we embrace. There is so much, and yet so little, to say. We both feel this. After a short chat we hug and say goodbye, before both of us go back to our respective cities in a couple of days’ time.
And there it is again in my youngest sister’s eyes. She is standing near the back door with the priest who gave the sermon – having stayed on, I assume, to learn something about the people who crowded the Cathedral that afternoon. We smile and chat. My sister and I cry, tired of being brave. He says the right things, and I admire him for it – although, for the life of me, I can’t now remember what it was.
Cindy is waiting up for us. Over the last two weeks she and Ted have showed us many kindnesses – a key to their house, beds made up on the floor, meals on the table, and cups of tea once Alex and Emma were in bed. Normally I’d be embarrassed to be on the receiving end of so much kindness. But not these last couple of weeks. Not now that life has cut right through me, leaving me raw and grateful.
Cindy prepares a quick supper – despite all the catering that afternoon the three of us are starving – and we collapse into bed. The next morning Cindy swims early. As she comes into the kitchen with wet hair I am writing this story, with my head down. Quietly she makes herself porridge and sits down at the other end of the table.
Caught in a train of thought, I keep writing. Then I look up. ‘You know, I’m not sure if I’m allowed to write this. Especially’, I add, ‘with Dad’s old fountain pen’. Cindy meets my gaze. ‘I wouldn’t worry about that’, she says. ‘Just keep writing and then decide’. ‘I suppose’, I reply. ‘Although writing this makes me think about Bernadette all the more.’
A short silence. ‘It was easier when I thought that she died in her sleep. But then’, I continue, ‘why would someone as fit as Bernadette die quietly in her sleep? Of course she didn’t. But it’s hard knowing the details. I preferred’, I finish, ‘the children’s version’.
We share another silence. Her dog moves from one sunny spot to another outside long windows. Another perfect morning. Cindy, who has a medical background, doesn’t step in to reassure. I like her for this. ‘You know’, I say, ‘my eldest sister has already booked to have her heart tested.’ Further silence. ‘In all these years, since Dad died of heart problems, I’ve never really worried about my own heart. I look after myself, and do all the right things, but I don’t carry that fear around inside me. And I really don’t want to start now. And yet I find all this creepy. I can’t help wondering,’ I add, ‘if this is why everyone has been so nice to me. What’, I ask, ‘if I’m just in denial?’
‘Hearts’, she says, ‘are such complex things. Genetics plays a role, but it’s certainly not the whole story. And it’s not nearly as important as people – like the ones in your family – make out. There are so many factors that affect your heart, across a life – and many of them are psychological. Besides’, she ends, ‘chances are that you will never really know what happened to Bernadette’.
‘Yes’, I agree, ‘I’ve always felt that the emotional side is crucial. But you know, when I said to my eldest sister – who is seeing a heart specialist – that I’d decided to do more yoga, she just looked at me blankly.’
‘Good morning’, Cindy says to Emma, who has just emerged, blinking, from the bedroom. ‘Are you hungry?’ ‘Yes, please. Very.’
‘Do you think that it would be crazy to go to the beach at Victor today?’ I ask Cindy. ‘It seems a long way to drive just for one day,’ ‘Not at all, I think it’s a great idea’, she replies. ‘It’s just what you should do’. ‘Yes’, says Alex, coming out of the bedroom. ‘Let’s go’.
And so we do, raiding Central Market for a picnic on the way – before yet again getting bamboozled by Adelaide’s road system. With no map in the car, even in the country I’m not much better than in the city. A tourist in my home state, I drive the long way round to the bit of coast where my family has holidayed for three generations.
The track to Kings Beach, which took Alex and Emma a good part of the morning as toddlers, takes us fifteen minutes this morning. ‘I can’t believe’, says Alex, turning back, ‘how short this track is’. ‘Well’, I reply, ‘it has been renovated, with all the old kinks removed. Besides you’re both so much bigger now’. ‘Let’s go on’, I suggest, ‘to the Heysen Trail’.
As we climb the familiar headland, vast cliffs rise up in the distance, abutting the sea. Alex flings himself on the grass, as he always does. ‘What’s for lunch?’ he asks, even though he knows what it will be. It’s the kind of picnic we’ve had so many times before – bread, cheese, vegetables, fruit and biscuits.
Alex runs along the top of the cliffs to the Bluff. Emma and I only just beat him in the hire car. We scale the Bluff, buffeted by winds. There are no whales today. This bit of coast has never let me down, I think to myself, and it doesn’t today.
‘I want to go down to the front beach’, says Emma from the back seat. ‘No’, says Alex, ‘we’ve done enough. Let’s leave now’. Ignoring Alex, I turn into our old street, park and hop out. ‘Come on’, I say to Alex ‘Bernadette would want us to’.
Running past the seaweedy patch of water, we find clear water near the reef on the point. Emma strips down to paddle and, before long, is surfing tiny waves. Alex sits high up the beach, drawing in the sand with his toes. Twice I cross the beach to persuade him to come into the water. ‘You’ll be sorry if you don’t’, I tell him. ‘It’s lovely. It’s only freezing at first.’ ‘No, I’m fine’, he insists. ‘Really, I don’t feel like it right now’.
Jumping waves with Emma I am soon soaked to the waist. Emma is happier than she’s been for weeks. She could be six, or eleven years old – or the fourteen she really is. Eventually Alex joins us, although he paddles rather than swims. Until today, I didn’t know that it was possible to be completely sad, and completely happy, at the same time. But I am.
We walk back up the beach, as we’ve done so many times over the past twelve years. Alex steams on ahead. ‘I’m so sorry that you’ve had to go through all this’, I say to Emma, who is dragging seaweed behind her. ‘I know how hard this last fortnight has been for you’. ‘Would it’, I ask her, ‘have been easier if you hadn’t gone to Bernadette’s funeral?’ ‘Of course not’, Emma says, matter of factly. ‘I liked her too’. We hug sideways, walking along, and I leave it at that.