That’s my last duchess painted on the wall
Looking as if she were alive
I stood by the laundry door, watching a spider. It hung fat and grey in the moonlight, in a web stretching from the veranda to the bougainvillea. Drops of dew shivered as an occasional leg stretched out to test first one thread and then another. I’d been bitten by such a spider, once. On my birthday. For the life of me, I can’t remember which birthday, but I’d still been in high school. The spider had been fast asleep in my shorts as I pulled them from the line and slipped them on in the early light. At least the bite was merely painful, not poisonous.
As I stood admiring the patience of the hairy critter, my thoughts wandered to wedding cakes. The impossibility of Miss Havisham’s wedding cake, to be precise. Having spent too many of my teenage years immersed in the works of dead writers, I’d long held an image of a cake covered with spiders and beetles, gnawed by rats, dressed in cobwebs. Even so, I couldn’t work out how the cake survived all those years. Anything left on a table up here would be lucky to survive the night untouched. A wedding cake would vanish in a week, max. Cockroaches might take only a little at a time, crawling over the floor with their prize to hide in cereal boxes and dark corners, yet over a week they could steal a slab larger than any a prospective bride might slip under her pillow, the wretched insects dashing away whenever a cup was moved or the light switched on, emerging to reclaim their treasure when blackness fell.
Not to mention the possums. This old house had always been part of a nocturnal possum highway. Not that they ever came inside, of course; the dogs saw to that. (They, too, readily polished off any scraps. A whole wedding cake; that would prove no challenge, especially for Podge, who’d been known to finish of a tub of butter in minutes. His coat glistened.) Every Christmas morning, after locking the dogs inside, Dave and I gave the possums a present of left-over scones, then stood back as they ate every last bit, smearing jam and cream over their noses and paws in the process. Year after year, while Mum rattled pots and disapproval in the kitchen, Dad joined us before leaving to help with the morning masses (having already shepherded us to the church at midnight).
Then there were the ants, and the hungry magpies with their babies (who sometimes came inside to help themselves to the dogs’ leftovers), the butcher birds, even the squawking cockatoos. Most ravenous of all, however, were the rats. Everyone up here had them, although some of Mum’s friends called them possums. Why, I never knew, as the sound they made scurrying through the walls and across the roof was completely different to that of possums waking up from their daytime slumber. Not to mention the droppings; rat and possum scats can’t be confused. Miss Havisham obviously didn’t even have mice, for her cake had survived for decades, though I found it hard to believe anywhere in Merry Olde England not to be rat infested. Rat collectors were, after all, the stuff of legends. What had the woman put into that cake so rodents refused to eat it? Up here the only thing they left untouched was spilt instant coffee.
My Mum had waged a tireless campaign against all creatures filthy, her own private skirmishes to support her husband, foot soldier in the Eternal War of Heaven against Hell. Maybe that’s how Miss Havisham cake survived.
With only croaking frogs for company, I shut the laundry door and made my way to the car. I had no need for good-byes. My parents were long gone, and my aunt had finally joined them. The house had been half-closed for years anyway, and now it stood stripped of all memories, of all past, with only a vacant shell remaining. Even the furniture told no stories.
Complete with spider and possums, the place now lay in the hands of real estate agents. A stream of them had come and wandered the rooms while muttering about current climates and the state of the market. Raised amongst farmers who repeated the same mantra over their morning cuppa, I saw it as nothing more than polite small talk.
I stood beside my car and shut my eyes. Despite the calmness of the hour, my thoughts festered. The cicadas had yet to begin their daily song, although in a few hours the air would vibrate with their throbbing. It’d been a good cicada year. Summer had yet to finish, and at this hour they’d be leaving their seven-year sojourn in the depths of the earth to stagger up tree trunks and fence poles. If I had a torch handy I could easily find them emerging from the ground; I’d done so many a time with Dave and Dad, until getting out of bed in the morning darkness to watch the cicadas crack free from their shells had become a summer ritual. Then the cicadas would spread their wings to dry, desperate to vanish before the first birds of morning devoured them. They left behind only their shell, and each year Dave and I collected bucketfuls, ready to be painted and put on the Christmas tree. Despite Dad’s reassurances, I worried about what part of the eco-system was being deprived of its food source, but as the shells clung to every fence for months long after the cicadas had left, I finally came to doubt if anything actually ate them.
With a noticeable lack of enthusiasm, (although I knew no-one was watching, no-one ever watched me) I got into my car and slipped it into neutral. From force of habit I let it roll down the driveway, only starting up the engine on reaching the street. As the engine spluttered into life, I wondered if this was why Dom kept his Book of Death. If it did exist (and despite all his searching, my brother had never found it) the book was about holding onto the past, so that it could not die. So Dom would never stand outside an empty house, alone in the darkness, musing about spiders and cicadas.
I can’t remember when I first saw Sir Dom, or even heard of him. He’d always been there, looming in our lives.
Dave starting called him Sir Dom in memory of the father, a man knighted both for his money and for successfully terrorizing anyone junior to him for over half a century. Rumour had it (and I thought it a good one, as far as rumours went) that while all his contemporaries hid behind university placements or newly diagnosed asthma, Sir Dom Senior had actually volunteered for a tour of duty in Vietnam, doing so on the day he learnt both his wife and his mistress were pregnant.
Dom Junior, the product of the mistress but adopted into The Family, continued in his father’s vein: a constant bully to juniors who couldn’t answer back, condescendingly tolerant of his peers, showering toady insincerity on his seniors, blithely backstabbing all. Despised by most, his mythical Book of Death was the only reason he hadn’t been cast into oblivion. (How many pages must Dave’s name cover?) Stories swirled in Sir Dom’s wake, recounting how he recorded everything and anything that might one day be used against anyone threatening his own career. Just the thought of the Book of Death stopped most whispers.
Too stupid to forgive others their failings and so leave them in his debt, too self-centred to contemplate a world not engrossed by his own concerns, by keeping this book Sir Dom always had a scapegoat ready to be sacrificed for his own inefficiencies. Shit, (as Dave had so often said to me as we wandered the bush searching for his rocks), flows downhill. Having climbed so close to the top of the dung heap, Sir Dom simply assumed those below him would contentedly cop what flowed their way, for one day they would then dish it out in their turn. ’Twas ever thus.
A clunking of gears marked the turn away from the town. Now Dom was gone, no one knew where. I’d never inquired, simply too glad the man had vanished. Raised as I was on a diet of old movies, obviously if I knew where Dom now lurked, the chance of our crossing paths would increase exponentially.
Jason had left before Dom, and Dave not long after. I was finally alone. Which was, I kept telling myself, exactly what I wanted.
At four hours into the drive I veered off the freeway into a rest area, and threw up. Luckily the remnants of a bag of lollies (mainly red frogs and green snakes, courtesy of a service station a few hours back) missed my shoes and splattered onto the asphalt. I slumped back into the seat and closed my eyes. My stomach continued its salsa.
The smell of smoke churned through the car. For the past hour or so I’d driven past road signs blackened and buckled beyond legibility. Parts of the hillside still smouldered from the bushfires, and the air tasted burnt. In places a tree stood charred on one side yet covered with luxuriant foliage on the other, somehow spared in the fire’s disdainful leap over the four-lane highway as it exploded up the hill.
After a few moments I turned and burrowed through my things on the back seat. Pushing aside a box loaded with Dave’s stone collection, I opened a bag and ferreted out a toothbrush. The toothpaste proved too deeply buried to excavate. Settling back in the front seat I pulled at the rear-view mirror and stared woefully at my hair. By its frizz alone, the humidity must be in the nineties. The midday light bounced harshly from the mirror onto my face, highlighting every pore and blemish. Any camouflage smeared on now would just melt away. Besides, why bother? Who was here to see me? And if they did, who’d notice? Not the couple with a thermos and sandwiches set neatly on a table to one side of the rest area, nor the truckies catching up on their sleep.
Trying to ignore my bump of a nose – it must be the angle of the mirror – I wondered for the umpteenth time how other people really saw my face. When they actually looked at me. I knew it only from the inside, how it felt as I wore it. It just felt so different to the reflection looking back at me. Sitting here in the heat, the curve of my cheekbones ached, yet in the mirror they didn’t exist.
As if to spite me, the image staring out from the mirror hadn’t changed. Yet I could feel the blemishes hovering about me, a pock for everything which had happened.
The door still open, I let the car roll past the splat of undigested frogs and snakes, already cooked them into a molten mess. I switched off the mindless noise of the radio and listened instead to the stillness outside. No cars passed by, no breeze susurrated through the trees. Months of a blazing sun had bleached all colour from the world – and, it seemed, all sound. The birds were all gone. Not a note hung in the sky.
The heat slapped my face as soon as I stepped from the car. I rinsed my mouth with a bottle of lukewarm water as drops of sweat lazily chasing one another between my breasts and down onto my belly. Leaning against the door, I glanced at my skirt, now crumpled beyond recognition. So much for first impressions. My clothes reflected my outlook on life: black and predictable, a year too late to be fashionable, ruthlessly shapeless. I was almost tall enough, (but definitely not slim enough), to survive such a choice. Still, I defied even Audrey Hepburn to achieve elegance in such heat. But then, Audrey exuded far too much grace to ever throw up, and never suffered from collarbones hidden under a surfeit of flesh.
Besides, it didn’t matter. No one noticed me, which was even better.
The sun bounced off the asphalt and into my face, and after only a few moments I could feel my legs burning. I headed towards the shade of a few trees, where a family had set up an early lunch at a picnic table. Three kids sat bickering in the heat. Trying to forget my stomach, I followed a path through the scrub. Stumpy trees filtered the sunlight into patches of shadow, and the dirt beneath my feet was more than half fallen eucalypt leaves and gum nuts. The trees stretched their bumpy limbs around me. As I walked, cicadas burst into throbbing song. There were so many I could see the insects stumbling between the trees and crawling along the branches, their bodies black against the sun.
After a walk of a few minutes the path opened above a hungry ocean. The water sparkled. Shielding my eyes against the glare, I could make out some surfers floating on their boards, seals in wet suits. To them I must be nigh invisible, an insignificant dot on a windswept coast, all hope swept away by the sea breeze, hovering impotently above the waters before drowning.
The waves swelled in endlessly from the horizon, and behind the surfers I spotted a pod of twenty or so dolphins. As one leapt from the water the others followed in a game of sheer delight. In contrast, the guys on their boards counted the sets and waited for the perfect wave, paddling to catch the swelling curve then sliding off the back when finished to start it all again, hour upon hour, as morning waxed to midday then waned into the afternoon. As if there was nothing else of importance in the world. As if God did not count the minutes.
Reluctant to return to the heat of my car and the hours of driving still ahead of me, I opted for the beach. It always called. Soon fallen leaves gave way to wooden slats covered with drifts of sand. Kicking off my shoes, I hopped and skipped over the baking shore until I neared the waves, where the grains lay wet and cool. To either side, the deserted beach stretched out of sight. Lifting the hem of my skirt, I stood watching the surfers while the water swam about my ankles. The curling waves had settled to a gentle swell by the time they bathed my feet. My anklet glistened in the clear water, and two tiny fish darted about my toes.
I’d never learnt to surf, and even now barely understand the moods of the sea. With the nearest beach over an hour away from home, the ocean was an unknown world in our house of repressed emotions, where a church lady or two could always be found ensconced over a cup of tea, served with dainty helpings of scandal, piety and heavily-buttered scones. Since leaving home, I’d progressed to little more than drifting on my back amongst the waves, toes pointing towards the horizon, revelling as first my feet and then my body rose towards the heavens then fell back into the water with each passing swell. Watching my antics reduced Jason to his boyish laughter, but he always joined me, never finding the time to take me out on a board. He rarely did little more than catch a few waves before lazing on a towel beside me, grains of sand sprinkled across his brown and freckled shoulders. I can’t remember seeing him out beyond the breakers with the other surfers, although he always spoke of this youth misspent amongst the waves. Our time together had been too short to witness such things. Dave, when he came with us, had a quick dip before drifting to the rock pools to collect samples.
Instead of learning the ways of the sea, as kids Dave and I had tramped across all the acres on the bush backing onto our property, then across neighbouring lands to free-standing scrub, or wherever we could find. As we clambered past wombat holes and wattle trees in sticky flower, Dave piled rocks in his pockets; in contrast, an expert from a tender age on every scat we saw, I deciphered the marks left by every animal. I could tell – by the bend of a branch, the crush of some leaves – who’d slept in each hollow we passed, and roughly how long ago. Scratches left on the tree trunks spoke to me. As my own pockets grew heavy with the overflow of Dave’s collection, I happily followed in his wake as we scrambled from rainforest to scrubby hills and back, pausing for a makeshift lunch of sandwiches and fruit atop some rocks in a clearing between trees. As we ate, a cathedral of birds sang around us, and clouds drifted lazily across the sky. I felt this world would never end. We’d hear the crash of a kangaroo bounding through the scrub, or have an occasional echidna emerge from the undergrowth, making enough noise to rival a wombat as he snuffled past our shoes. I still love the way their snouts leave a double-holed imprint in the soft dirt.
For a while Jason came with us, during that time when his boots still carried dirt, before the days of crisp shirts and hairstyles requiring a little prompting to remain sun-kissed.
Even so, should I be away too long, I miss the aching blue of the sea, the puff of clouds in the sky, the taste of salt in the air. Some deep part of me belongs here. I love the beach most of all in winter, when passing whales fill the ocean with their song. After a stormy night, with wind-tossed waves crashing around me, I seek out a hidden spot amongst the rocks to sit and read for hours. With luck I’d find a rock pool baked by the sun, where I’d strip sit in the bath-warm water as the winter day tumbled around me. Wherever I might be, simply smelling the sea feels like coming home.
“Not there yet?” asked Dave.
“No, I needed a break.”
“You always were hopeless in cars, even as a kid. House all done?”
“All locked up and left with the agents.”
“It’s good of you to do this,” my brother continued. “Really. It can’t be easy.”
“Well, it actually wasn’t that bad,” I answered. “After a delegation from the Altar Society descended like the Assyrian wolves on Aunty Elaine’s things, well, there wasn’t much left for me to do. Besides, we did most of it when Mum died, remember? I found a few boxes of your stuff, by the way.”
“You did? Oh, that’s right. I never quite got back after my last move. Wonder what’s in them? Listen, you’ll never believe this,” and Dave launched into some convoluted story designed to take my mind off the drive still to come.
I stood staring over the waves as words poured from my brother. The world around me sparkled, and the lapping water soothed my feet. So many years of talking lay between us, until Dom had pulled Dave so deep my brother had no voice for those questions which had once filled our sibling hours. Could he still think of these things, when even the words had left him? Or had his thoughts also fallen silent, a dry river bed in the years of drought? I wanted to ask, but my words, too, were vanishing. For so long my thoughts had swirled through my mind until I thought my head would burst; now they lay quiet. That voice which had bubbled through my head since I could remember now lay barren. Instead, I could only look in confusion at my brother through the spaces eating away the bond between us.
But now, it seemed, Dave’s voice had finally come back.
“...a piece of the True Cross,” he continued.
“What on earth are you talking about?” It was always like this when talking with Dave; stop listening for but a moment, and he’d be off on such a series of tangents that it took a while for anyone to catch up. Most found it impossible to follow the unspoken links made by his leaping brain.
“Seriously,” Dave said, “the woman was totally crazy. Everything about her had faded away – her hair, her skin, her mind, even her clothes were little more than a crumpled mess. Only her eyes – honestly, I felt I was talking to a pair of eyes. The colour of amethysts, and once you looked at them it was impossible to look away. It just took me a while to realise nothing lay behind them. She said she wanted me to identify the crystals around the glass, but she more interested in talking about the bit of wood inside. As she said, it was a piece of the Cross.”
“The True Cross. Are you serious?”
“Cross my heart, forgive the pun. She really believed it. Said it’d been a family heirloom since the fourteenth century. She simply gushed about her great-great whatever, who was in the service of a Knight Templar in one Crusade or another. Totally pathetic. No, not pathetic – pathos is the word. Total pathos. Then this knight goes and renounces his earthly ways, locks his wife and children in a convent and secludes himself in one of his castles, making his vassal – this woman’s forbear – his voice to the outside world. Anyway, when the knight died, he goes and bequeaths this valued heirloom to his faithful retainer, for being a loyal and faithful vassal.”
“The Knights Templar,” I snorted. “Naturally. Amazing how no one ever admits to having a gullible pilgrim as an ancestor.” Standing on that empty beach I could easily picture the epic sweep of the movie, perhaps with Charlton Heston as the faithful vassal, plus hundreds of extras in the background. Or maybe a bit more like Anthony Andrews in Ivanhoe. Would he rescue Olivia de Hussey, or had I cast the movie all wrong? Perhaps the cross was a guilt payment to a vassal rendering services a little too true and faithful – or maybe a curse, not a payment. I’d have to think about it. For the rest of the drive, as Dave intended.
“I didn’t ask,” Dave continued, “how anyone could trace their family back to the fourteenth century. Not even racehorses go back that far. How much longer till you get there?”
“I don’t know. A couple of hours, maybe. I’m not exactly sure where I am. I suppose I’d better get going. I feel much better. Thanks.”
“Well, let me know when you’re settled in.”
A soft breeze played around my shoulders. With my back to the horizon, the light played across a crust of salt left by the recent high tide. Only my footsteps had broken it. So many footsteps in my life, but not all of them mine. Some cursed from past generations, others belonged to people I’d yet to meet. As the cool water swum around my ankles, I watched the footprints cross and blur as time wove them into a labyrinth of its own making. For a moment I toyed with the idea of what would happen should someone take them, or simply swap them around. Yet I knew it’d make no difference; I had no choice but to keep moving, to follow a path laid down before I’d even been born, simply because it was expected. That I’d end up here was inevitable.
Glancing at my watch, (my faithful, sparkly watch Jason had given me a few days before he left), my practical, dutiful self took over. Reluctantly, I left the waves, leaving fresh footprints amongst the others arcing across the singing sand.
Shoes in one hand, I hopped over the hot asphalt to my car. The throb of cicadas once more broke the silence, the vibrations fingering their way into my skull. Even so, across their noise the ring of my mobile phone danced into my thoughts. It stopped before I could unlock the car and reach my handbag, which I’d rather foolishly left on the front seat. Such was the legacy of growing up in a household where all mankind was to be trusted, and the front door lacked a key (and the house anything worthy of stealing). At least I’d remembered to lock the car, and not leave the keys in the door.
I slid into the seat and quietly swore. What I needed now was a strong coffee. At least two heaped teaspoons of instant coffee strong. Like the coffee Dave, Jason and I had once drunk by the bucketful. So I could forget, again, about the phone call I’d missed.
It hadn’t been much of a phone call. A nothing phone call, really. A typical call from a stressed-out brother to his over-tired younger sister. “Hi, Steph. Good luck for the exam tomorrow – don’t bother ringing back, I’ll stop by the old place tonight, got a few things to leave there. Look, I’ll call you tomorrow. After I’ve checked out the vending machines.”
I’d only seen Dave the once since then. To identify his body.
What remained of it.
My toothbrush still slept on the front seat. I picked it up and popped it back amongst my other things on the back seat; it’d been depressingly easy to pile the remnants of both our lives into a few boxes. (Aunty Elaine had never minded us leaving stuff at the old house; the place was big enough, and as she got less and less mobile and so lived in fewer and fewer rooms on the ground floor, she forgot about those things left in dusty bedrooms. The Altar Society, however, had been remarkably thorough; I felt lucky to have rescued what I had.)
Starting the car, I switched the radio on and set off. The music was the same, no matter how far I drove or what local station I found; none of it carried memories of the sea, or of sunshine and sand. After a little searching, I settled on the ABC, where a Test against the Windies was in its third day. (After all those camping holidays with Dad as a kid, this was the true sound of summer memories). Out of respect to my stomach, I let the car potter along for a while, with both front windows wound fully down. After a quarter of an hour or so all signs of the bush fire vanished, replaced by paddocks painted in hues other than worn-out stone. Cows and sheep, along with the occasional horse, dotted the landscape. A creek gurgled beside the road for a while before tumbling away, and wild flowers dotted the verge.
In the distance, the vastness of the ocean beckoned.