A story by Chris Roughsedge
While I iron her son’s shirts, I amuse myself inventing the world of Dorothy’s mind; it was like a conversation and thus, less lonely. Her memories were probably like the big old mulberry tree next door. In autumn, the leaves fell to pattern the damp ground in a state of decay while the gnarled husk of its trunk remained, emptied of its finery. I chose to ignore the baffled question mark of Dorothy’s unseeing gaze, fancying I saw recognition in the milky eyes. I think I had a vague hope of some explanation, some form of regret, but in truth, they reflected what I assume to be the occasional blink of pain.
I have placed her wheelchair close to the window, not so much for the view, but for the morning sun. Pausing in my work, I look past her silver hair to the mountains. Columns of smoke spiral above the foothills, signalling the start of the bush-fire season. News from the southern states is already grim.
The responsibility for Dorothy is close to, if not already, beyond endurance. Day upon day, the bitterness has grown like an acrid ulcer within me. Last month had marked five long years with the old woman. She moved into our house when it was obvious she could no longer fend for herself. Her health deteriorated rapidly after breaking her arm from a fall and a unilateral decision was made by my husband. This was done without seeking my opinion on the matter.
‘She can’t look after herself anymore. She’ll be coming here,’ Ted proclaimed, one night during dinner. Two sentences and our fates sealed. I could not discount the possibility he had phrased it in such a way as to make it into an accusation. He said nothing more, eventually leaving me alone at the table. He never really said much anyway. To my mind, it was an insufficient solution.
There was a good nursing home for the aged nearby, a five minute drive, I would have said if he’d asked my opinion. I have looked into it already, having spoken to the director. We could visit her regularly and make sure she had everything she needed, I would say. Instead, I cleared the table and within a month I was wheeling Dorothy into the bathroom and waiting for her to evacuate her bowels and helping her take a bath. My own two children, grown up and moved on and here I am looking after what amounted to a helpless infant, only heavier and a lot less co-operative.
Dorothy rarely spoke, and when she did, it was usually something unpleasant, having been her way for as long as I can remember. My first meeting with her consisted of a sour, critical appraisal and later, equally disapproving, whenever my children entered her presence. No love lost was the saying, but I knew it to have never been sought. I have always been a quiet person, somewhat shy, though not always so compliant. In the beginning I took issue with some demands Ted made of me, considering them unjust or unwise.
I recall my first meeting with Ted at a university party, which, ordinarily I would not have attended. I had wearily acquiesced to the insistence of my girlfriend, Judy, who had her eye on a med student. I went along as a supposed ally. Ted was one of the first people I saw, when I walked in the door. He sat gloomily by himself, trying to look inconspicuous. He was an odd, out of place sort of fellow and my sympathies were immediately engaged.
I was impatient with the testosterone laden clatter of football talk and one-upmanship exuded by the men and the silly behaviour of the young women. I was a little more than impressed with this man, appearing to be indifferent to the concerns of his cohort. I had a few drinks and by then the dancing had started. Judy and the med student grabbed Ted out of his seat and I was coupled with him. He was awkward but not impolite, something I liked. He had an edge, which I mistook for maturity.
Ted wasn’t a bad man. He was just a man, like so many caught in some sort of trap. I had simply become enmeshed with him and had to accept it or leave him. Choosing the former, I believed I could save this earnest, conflicted man from himself and from his dysfunctional family, in particular, his mother. I understood how a certain variety of family dynamics could poison the innocent waters of childhood; mine was not exactly wonderful. Ted never knew his father but the tight knot of obligation he felt towards his disagreeable mother was a challenge for both of us, and he seemed unable to break from its bonds. I sustained an abiding interest in literature and had a plan to become a secondary teacher in English, with an admittedly indistinct notion I might be good at it. Instead within months of earning my degree, I became pregnant. Rose was born and then thirteen months later, Jayden.
I determined my children would not grow up in a war zone. I was not good at finding a husband but I was a good mother, an immutable fact. In my desire to protect my children from an unhappy marriage, I became a different sort of person by surrendering. My wintry, frightened husband didn’t break me, I broke myself; it was an important distinction to make. I reconstructed myself, the naive expectations and the incoherent desires of my youth, I now saw as luxuries I could no longer afford. With this denial, I was able to lavish all my love and attention on my children. The anger and regret hovered somewhere out of sight, replaced with nurture and necessity. Ted knew he had failed me, but had not the tools to rescue me from the regime of his own unhappiness.
I have always loved this room, this view over the valley. I liked to be here with thoughts particular to myself, with the dream of a life, yet to be lived. Before Dorothy, it was my vantage point, my daily consolation for the sacrifices I had made; a private indulgence prior to the precise, time-filling housework. The children, once of an age to recognize the irreconcilable nature of their parent’s relationship, found themselves unwilling to cohabit with its encumbered hostilities. They went off to university interstate and then onto post-graduates in London. The siblings could never bear to be very far apart. Perhaps the disaffection pervading the household, made them determined not to sever their love for each other. Ted, ever the shrewd investor, purchased an apartment for them in London.
With their occasional calls and emails they said they missed me, but I knew they would never be particularly homesick. Rosie went with a scholarship to study Drama, and Jayden took an MBA. I watched from afar, their graduations and the introductions to this or that partner, often via Skype. One day my son rang to say he had found the one. He seemed overwhelmed with love, somehow plumper and beaming, or perhaps it was the tinniness of Skype making it appear so. All I could do was fret about this revelation; had Jayden indeed found the one and not a cleverly masked succubus? I recognized the savagery of this thought, as the curse of a virulent form of motherhood. Of course, once I met the young woman, I was forced to modify my dark presentiment.
Rosie, grown glorious and buxom, was to play Nora in Ibsen’s “A Doll’s House”, very off West End, she was at pains to point out—but nevertheless. Even on Skype, an extravagant radiance shone from my daughter’s pale blue eyes, full to the brim with a life force I could only admire. Rosie was not about to be drawn, at least for now, into any kind of permanency, scattering her heart-broken girlfriends like feathers in the wind.
It saddened me to think, no matter how deeply I loved Rosie and Jayden I had not been able to provide them with an entirely happy childhood. Upon their departure, I found myself submerging into a variety of melancholy so profound I sought help, seeing someone for five weeks to no avail, or so it seemed to me. The therapist was skilful; both forthright and realistic, but an expectation to be promptly cured of sadness, was overly ambitious. I decided I was not depressed and refused the pills purported to alter my brain chemistry for a more acceptable iteration. Just the name of the things, Serotonin Re-uptake Inhibitors, was enough to make me run. And so I did.
I made arrangements to travel Spain much to the bewilderment of Ted, who after hearing of the plan, stared at me in disbelief.
‘I am fifty two and I have not yet been out of the country, you clearly have no taste for travel, so I am going alone,’ I said.
‘What! What on earth are you talking about Emma?’ he said.
‘I expect you to fund it,’ I continued, with an insistence surprising us both.
‘Well—if I must,’ he said, agreeing to the unaccustomed solicitation and retired to his study.
The small group tour consisted of single men and women of a certain age. It was elaborately entitled ‘The Imperial Cities Tour’. It occurred to me it could be re-titled Middle-life Divorcees Pick-up Package, as it wasn’t long before one of the superannuated gallants was trying it on with me. I made it clear, a proposed quickie with connecting rooms in a Barcelona walk-up was not my style, no matter how sexy a proposition it seemed to him. With little regret the gentlemen moved onto more pliant turf in the form of a purple coiffed matron with a fondness for flowing kaftans and roman sandals.
The only couple were a source of wonder to us all, holding hands wherever they went. If an occasion to separate temporarily presented itself, they immediately locked hands on their return. They were always easily affectionate with each other and congenial with their travelling companions, although they were entirely self-sufficient. They fascinated me, taking every opportunity to watch them, as if I might bask in the secret nature of their affection. The caftan lady, a person of seemingly endless presumption, once remarked on it in their presence. The man was shy but answered anyway.
‘We are hopeless I’m afraid, we just fell in love in our twenties and have been unable to be apart for any length of time since,’ the man said, looking to his wife for approval.
Spain offered up its glorious history to me. However, by day twenty I was exhausted by the opulence of long dead Emperors and ferocious Queens. I was left longing for something less rigorous and instructive. Queen Isabella, who ruled the country for an inordinately long time, struck me as preposterous. In 1492 she received Columbus to simultaneously fund the discovery of the New World. She made the necessary arrangements for the discovery of the New World, while politely waiting in a tent, for the surrender of a Moorish Sultan outside the gates of Granada. It seemed to me a feat more appropriate for a graphic novel.
This was before the GFC, so the Spaniards were quite satisfied with themselves, and had every reason to be so, but the exquisite, overbearing palaces and gilded tombs, left me exhausted. At least the Moors had the class to build their citadels with a gloomy grey stone, so as not to offend God and their subjects with showy opulence.
I had opted for an additional few days in Morocco, including my own guide, at a good price. I separated from the tour without remorse although another sole traveller, a nice woman of sixty-three, who sometimes sat next to me on the coach, shed a tear as we shared contact information. I lost the scrap with the lady’s details immediately.
My guide Aziz, met me at the airport. He was dressed in a black turban and a white dishdasha, falling to his ankles. A handsome face, straight, slender nose and sensual full lips sat above a slight but wiry build. He provided me with a small bottle of antiseptic gel, telling me to rub it into my hands after handling the dirty local currency, as it carried unfamiliar germs for foreigners. In Fes, his home city, he negotiated affably the purchase of trinkets and lotions from the street sellers. I didn’t want to see the famous dye vats as I heard it stank to high heaven – pretty but smelly. I hoped he would not be offended, but he agreed, saying the locals thought it amusing tourists wanted to go there. I bought a postcard instead.
We spent a morning wandering in the Medina and I grew to like Aziz’s easy manner and generous smile. I invited him to lunch at my hotel. He arrived at the restaurant, to my surprise, dressed in a fine silk suit and Italian loafers, his luxurious hair falling loose to his shoulders. I had guessed his age at around forty, perhaps a little older. He spoke English with elegant mastery; formal but still indicating an ear for the subtleties of the language.
‘I apologise for my lack of Arabic Aziz,’ I said.
‘It is no matter, it is a hard language and besides I wish to take every opportunity to practice my English.’
‘Oh Aziz, your command of English is better than most of my countrymen,’ I said. I had never felt so relaxed with anyone. It seemed a sort of revelation to me, at the time.
‘You are kind; did you know all guides are required to have university degrees, although some less reputable types circumvent it with bribes,’ he said. After we had eaten he spread a map out on the table to show me his intended route. The following morning we were to drive from Fes to Marrakesh and stay overnight before heading further south to Guelmim. From there we were to head back to the north. He traced his finger on the map, through the coastal towns of Agadir, Safi, El Jadida before entering the city of Casablanca. From there we were to continue following the coast to the capitol Rabat, where I could visit the ancient ruins of Chellah and then on to Tangier.
The police stopped drivers carrying foreigners, officially in an effort to halt drug traffickers and other reprobates, though in reality, to procure discreetly wrapped wads of cash for their trouble. As we pulled away from a checkpoint on our way out of Fes, Aziz lamented the corruption polluting his country. He kept envelopes in the glove-box, which I regularly filled with cash. It was clearly an embarrassment to him, and I always looked away when the negotiations began, for fear of shaming him. The cash did not amount to much, often no more than five Euro’s which in Moroccan Dirhams required substantial quantities of notes.
On one occasion we had stopped for coffee and petrol. He started to tell me of his sense of dishonour for this shortcoming, but he failed to continue and I didn’t insist on further explanation. He told me, the young king did his best but could not control the irregularities of his regime. He had come as close to a democracy as he dared, there were still many from the old guard to answer to.
Aziz’s manners were impeccable and I was flattered by his attention. He listened while I spoke of home and children, though I would not be drawn to any great detail, about my husband. I inquired as to his own circumstances and he told me about his family, who were originally from Palestine. His mood darkened noticeably.
‘The Israeli’s expelled us from our ancestral homelands. This period for us, it is called Nakba. It was as if we were vermin; a culture of many thousands of years eradicated, virtually overnight,’ he said.
‘It is very shameful Aziz. The British helped them do this,’ I said.
‘Yes. You know?’ he said.
‘Only as a result of my recent reading,’ I said.
‘I was two years old when my family left for Fes. I do not remember this, of course, but my father has taught me much about our history. For him I experience a great deal of respect and love. He is well-known as an academic and poet in Arab culture and studied at Cambridge. By Moroccan standards, our family are quite well off. One day I very much hope we can return to our homeland and reclaim our stolen lands,’ he paused and sipped his coffee, ‘perhaps this is a dream for one’s pipe,’ he said. I must have smiled a little too quizzically and he acknowledged he had produced an error of syntax. He made me laugh when he uttered an unexpected and complicated remark, regarding hell freezing over and the second coming.
From Marrakech we travelled south to the Guelmim-Es Semara region, on the edge of the Western Sahara. I drank an illicit glass of beer on the roof of our adobe hotel, stunned by the view as the sun set over the dunes of the vast desert. On Aziz’s enthusiastic recommendation, I read Paul Bowles story of damaged love in the desert world of ‘The Sheltering Sky’.
On our way to Tangier and the ferry that would take me back to Spain, Aziz made a detour inland to the ancient city of Meknes. He took me to a small palace off the tourist trail, a museum dedicated to a princess dating back to an ancient dynasty. For rather too many dirhams, the old attendant opened the steel gate and ushered us through a dim hall connecting to a palisade and an atrium, entirely decorated with mosaic tiles. What appeared to be an impossibly ornate wooden dome provided the roof. It was penetrated by a series of glazed apertures, allowing prisms of sunlight to fill the space. I was startled by the effect of the spectral light. After the heat and noise of the Medina outside, this cool oasis made me shiver with awe as much as the change in temperature. I felt Aziz watching me; I knew if I turned to him he would look back with his wry smile, now familiar to me. Instead I stood under the sunlit dome and closing my eyes, waited in silence.
‘It is cool, no?’ he whispered, ‘the walls are a metre thick in some places.’
The attendant had vanished and I remained still until I felt his hand enfold mine, holding it like one might an uncertain child.
‘Come, this is not really why I brought you here,’ he led me into another dimly lit hall. I brushed my other hand along the tiled wall, barely breathing, as if breath itself would dissipate the intensity of my feelings. I began to tremble and felt his hand tighten on mine. We had taken off our shoes at the entrance and the only sound was the soft slap of our bare feet on the tiled floor. We emerged once again into sunlight, dazzling me momentarily.
Once my eyes had adjusted, I saw a heavily laden orange tree in the centre of another atrium, but this one was circular and again, a dome reached above us, with a hole at its peak. The light of the midday sun settled on the tree and illuminated the oranges like lanterns. Once again, following the interior shape of the dome, were panels framed by the most intricately carved woodwork I had seen so far. On closer inspection, I noticed these carvings were Arabic cuneiform.
At ground level, the circular wall was populated with gardens of an endless variety of Roses. Some were in bloom, some beginning to bud and others still rich with green wood. The orange tree grew from what seemed like a well, but on closer inspection I saw it was a large planter, clad with tiles as all the other visible surfaces below the base of the dome. Every tile was painted with cuneiform text. Around the base of the orange tree, a shallow channel ran along the floor in which a trickle of water flowed silently from west to east. On the south side of the room a seat curved up from the stone and tile floor, as if it had grown there.
The fragrance of the roses was overpowering and I swayed a little. Aziz led me to the seat and we rested there, absorbing the strange melancholy of the place. He removed his hand from mine and I felt the loss of his touch like a disconnection from an electric charge. I turned to see tears slip down his cheeks and looked away quickly, so as not to embarrass him. Later, he explained.
The princess had the rose garden cultivated in memory of her lover. One night she had a pavilion erected beside the nearby river, Bou Fekrane; they supped on oranges cooled in its shallows. The man was a commoner and when her father, the Sultan, discovered the affair, he removed the poor man’s head for having the impertinence of falling in love with a royal princess.
The atrium was hidden from everyone except the gardener, who was sworn to secrecy until her father’s death and she herself was, still unmarried, in her middle age.
The orange tree survived for a 135 years, outliving her and everyone she knew. She left instructions a new tree was to be planted, on the demise of the last. The current docent planted the this tree twenty years before and tended to it and the rose vines, thought to be an astonishing four hundred years old. The gold tinted text, were poems burned into the dark wood of the panels above, by a master scribe. They spoke of the princess’s eternal love and the bitter injustice of tyrants.
I wrote a fragment of one poem down, as translated by Aziz.
You departed from my sight, and entered my thoughts, travelling through my eyes to my heart.
We waited together at the ferry platform in Tangier, staring out to the ominous presence of Gibraltar, a black sentinel in the approaching twilight. We could just glimpse the southern headland of Tarifa and the Costa del Sol, once the playground of cashed up British expats and now tainted by the riches of the Russian mafia. Aziz discretely pointed to a customs officer, whose job it was to watch the screen of the x-ray machine as bags flowed through, destined for Europe. The man was lolling in his chair, fast asleep.
Aziz was once again immaculately attired in his silk suit. Like an elegant gentleman from a Henry James novel, he bowed elaborately and, playing along, I placed my hand in his and he kissed it as we parted company. His gentle smile warmed me on the deck of the ferry, as it passed through the choppy narrow Straits. It occurred to me he was the most replete human I had ever encountered, and I felt cut adrift.
Among the houses in my valley, grow an abundance of native trees, often drenched in a silky white mist which would descend about them in the mornings, as if floating in a lake of milk. One could almost ignore the signs of human habitation. I concentrated on the minutiae of activity; it was one of the things I remembered about therapy, learning the art of deep observation. As a result, I had become a witness to the consonant history of the living valley; the silent fall of long leafed twigs from the majestic eucalyptus, the rustle in the roadside grasses, of skinks and the sway of the cleverly disguised stick insects.
I heard the delightful warble of Currawongs, the harsh call of Sulphur-Crested Cockatoos flashing white and yellow as they moved from tree to tree, the Goshawk’s thermal dance and silent diving for field mice. In early spring the black Cockatoos with their frightful screech, also alighted like swarms of paratroopers to pick the nuts from a copse of Casuarina trees nearby, and then with the flame of their red tail feathers, flying north. Their stay was always peremptory, gone after a week, whereas the sulphur-crested hooligans would stay for the entire season, driving everyone mad with their constant bickering.
The weather on my part of the vast escarpment, hovering above the Pacific, was persistently dramatic. With the arrival of August, fierce winds swept up from the south trailing the last of winter’s cold, thrashing the tall trees into a frenzy. Discarded leaves and twigs slapped at the windows. One night, a branch sheared off a huge gum across the street. During the trees grinding descent to the ground it brought down the power lines and slammed into our driveway. It bent the roof gutter and with its tip, scraped off the nylon netting of a fly screen, before crushing the roof of my car. It was a frightening event, waking us and our neighbours. Candles were lit and everybody peered out the windows at the snaking, spark of wires and furious thrashing of the trees, while rain and hail crashed down from the black sky.
That was a freak storm of late spring years ago, now it was early January and the scorching sunlight settled about our village. I felt the weight of it, like a dried out shroud clamping me to the house and its attendant miseries. A cigarette butt was discarded in the dry bracken beside a little used road, fifty kilometres inland. The fire began, encouraged by the hot winds flying in from the western plains. I had witnessed these holocaustic blazes in the past and they were a source of fascination, usually from a safe distance. As the blaze roared across the vast forests and tree-change holdings towards me, I felt as if I was attending some overwrought opera.
From my vantage point above the valley, I witnessed great balls of flame rising like rockets destined for the stars. Fire licked the lower branches of familiar trees in leering, caressing motions, before burrowing into their bowels. Flames conspired with the trees own oily juices to set the leaves like firecrackers, one by one, in a blaze of glorious blue, white and red. A fury of violent, hot winds crashed among the branches. A startling crack like cannon fire and the whole top half of a tree burst, blowing out incinerated branches, leaves, seeds and black flowers. I was transfixed by the terrible beauty of it, alarmed only by how these histrionics excited me.
The fire was now so close emergency workers rushed from house to house, pounding on the doors, telling the occupants to escape while they could. Sirens clashed with the crackling rush of the fire. Cars moved up the hill from the railway station low in the valley, those inside terrified, the awed faces of children pressed to the windows. The emergency workers, black with ash and fear, directing traffic, yelling into walkie-talkies. The hard stream of fire hoses pointed at the burnished rooftops of nearby houses and ineffectually, towards the elusory of incinerating gums. The birds are gone or dead from exhaustion, torched by the flames.
Ted was at work in the city oblivious to the drama at home, so intimately embroiled in his proprietary exclusions and picked over pension funds, while his mother and I were silhouetted in our high window, by the violent hearth of the valley and the afternoon light. He will be staying in the city tonight; all traffic now deviated away from the emergency. Was it capricious not to answer the loud knocking on the door, or to be dismayed by the voices of neighbours strained with terror, throwing keepsakes into their cars and forced to abandon everything? I felt inert, unable to gather the strength to recognize our vulnerability.
I stood beside Dorothy and watched the firmament whipping cinders into the boiling creek, riding the tall dying trees to exhaustion. I felt numb, caring little about my own safety and less of my mother-in-law. I turned Dorothy’s wheelchair away from the window and I knelt in front of her, looking for some form of clarification, some small semblance of contrition. The world where she now resided, knew nothing of the tenuousness of our existence. Who was this frail ghost, with whom I had shared the last five years, with her bird-like body, her small curled hands and stockinged feet, placed neatly side by side, a pose already mirroring death. I had not one thing in common with her, yet we remained so intimately linked. The old woman had become the remaining evidence of my own denial, the natural consequence of my dormancy.
I imagined my children trying to ring but the wires would be down and mobile phone access had always been a problem in our location. They were resilient; I had taught them to think carefully. Perhaps I inured them. My legacy to them was buoyancy; a grace-note crawling shyly from beneath a tyranny of restraint.
The house was now without power and it occurred to me, food will be spoilt. I believed I had cans and cereals to last us awhile, but instead of looking in the pantry, I gazed out to the garden from the kitchen window. Wild Rose bushes, hung their wilted heads in mournful lament. Only this morning, my sly allusion to a mourning princess in a faraway land, were vigorously climbing the latticework attached to the rear fence. Evening was approaching and the last vestiges of sunlight haemorrhaged a deep pink, the air thickening. Black and white cinders, rained on the grass like confetti. The mint and coriander bowed in the heat and the tiny daisy-like plant I propagated all over the garden, died as I watched. This saddened me as they were my favourite of the evergreens, although I had never learned their proper name. The only plant yet unperturbed was the gnarly old Rosemary bush; the fire would relish its sticky spikes.
The Bay tree, the Swamp Mahogany and Lilly Pilli shadowing the garden shed, were beginning to rupture and convulse. All the elements of the inferno had become alluring to me, a confederacy of nascent desires; disabling my instinct for flight.
One summer, when Rosie and Jayden were nine and eight respectively, I took them to the rock pool below a disused railway deep in the valley. It was accessed by a culvert, a head-high cylinder of concrete with just enough light bending in to announce our destination. We had to step with caution through its slippery curved floor, arriving back in the sunlight, at a high stone wall. A small hole punctured the bottom, allowing a trickle of the creek’s progress. By climbing up a set of roughly hewn rock steps, we could walk across the narrow top of the wall to the other side. Large sandstone boulders, like the fingers of a giant hand, had cracked off the rock face to accommodate the rare visitors to this place. Wallaby scat lay about the shady close. It was just open enough to allow the sun to enter in the middle of the warm day.
The pool provided by the wall was of the clearest water, cool and brackish to the taste. We could see broken branches and heaped stones on the floor of the pool. Looking closely, we watched the brown crayfish foraging amongst the debris. As I unclasped my sandals and dangled my feet in the pool, the children removed their clothes and swam like nymphs in the shallows, inventing secrets in whispers about the world below the surface or the wild dripping forest beyond the pool. They dived to the bottom of the pool to frighten the crays back into their accidental caves. After swimming and still with energy to burn, they approached the dense forest to the north of the creek. It was gloomy with overhanging trees and sharp grasses, but the shallow path of the creek led irresistibly deep into the bush. I called out to them saying I would come with them, fearful they may lose their way.
We followed the creek upstream between smooth boulders of varying sizes and though slimy with moss, we were able to pick our way through to another, smaller pool, where the children once more swam. Lifting my skirt, I waded in, feeling the prickling cold of the water lapping against my thighs. I was overwhelmed with a sensual desire, inappropriate considering the presence of my children but I went with it, surrendering to the bubbling movement of the pristine stream. My toes curling over the soft furry rocks beneath, I ventured further and parted my legs so the creek buffeted me there. That moment in the pool, with the sounds of my delighted children sprinkling among the ferns and tangled vines, I felt as if I could follow a fairy wren I saw darting into the dim forest and never return.
Later, I sat between their beds and read the first chapter from their favourite, Alice in Wonderland. ‘She generally gave herself very good advice (though she very seldom followed it), and sometimes she scolded herself so severely as to bring tears to her eyes; and once she remembered trying to box her own ears for having cheated herself in a game of croquet she was playing against herself, for this curious child was very fond of pretending to be two people.’ By then, the children had departed into sleep, but I but read on to myself, mesmerized by Carroll’s extraordinary sentences. ‘I wonder if I’ve been changed in the night? Let me think: was I the same when I got up this morning? I almost think I can remember feeling a little different. But if I’m not the same, the next question is ‘Who in the world am I?’ Ah, that’s the great puzzle!’
I closed the book and gazed at the faces of my children. The boy with his serious little frown, as if sleep was an important ritual to be endured, always the more sensitive one; and the girl with wild curls radiating across the pillow and a wicked smile, never failing to make her mother laugh. Wasn’t it a child’s right to wake every morning and to feel a little different, to become the person he or she was meant to be? I wondered if it had been like that for me and if so, when did I stop inventing myself?
Several years after Ted and I had married and Rosie had been conceived, we went out to a fine restaurant in the city, intending to stay in town overnight. For the first time, he described in depth the nature of his occupation. He seemed to relish the complications of mortgages and property investment and I knew, as a result of our relative wealth, he was successful. He related some of the stories of mortgage default and property foreclosures and appeared to be without empathy for those who had fallen victim to an inaccurate understanding of their liabilities. I asked him what he felt about his job, sometimes causing harm to others. He met what I considered an innocent question with a grimace of disgust, throwing his napkin down, upending my glass of wine and leaving me there to suffer the ensuing embarrassment. He didn’t speak to me for days and now I wondered whether I was being wilfully confrontational. I decided I had not been entirely innocent. After thirty years it was too late for apologies.
The fire had cut a twenty kilometre wide path through the forests and indolent suburbs in the west, during the past forty-eight hours. The dreariness of Christmas vacation was now deemed profound, as a result of the worst fire in a century. Houses were lost where even the bricks of the chimneys, exploded like chestnuts, farms denuded of beast and grain, cars left charred and smouldering, crackling like popcorn on the streets. An artist’s commune of cool adobe houses vitrified on the slopes of a pristine valley. Still the westerly winds pushed the conflagration ineluctably across the land toward the ocean, as if only the sea would sate its greed for calamity. An unstoppable demon had located its prey, refusing to stop until all semblance of the world of men was erased from memory.
As a fireball engulfed the car-port and greedy flames licked the bubbling paint on the weatherboards I wondered what those old bones in the living room and indeed here in the kitchen, would reveal about a life lived in our particular form of desperation.