Jane Air

Jane Air

He’s in the kitchen she would say making eggs.

She often said things like that expecting us to make some quantum leap of understanding. He actually never existed except perhaps in her head. Or Its on the thing and we wondered what thing she meant, was it on the fridge, the stove, the wardrobe and what was it anyway; it was difficult to guess. I didn’t like her when her eyes went black, but Gail didn’t mind.

Its much better she would whisper to me in our giant bedroom When she lets the devils out.

Sometimes the woman would get up in the middle of the night and howl like a wolf and Gail would get up and watch her through the window. I couldn’t, the noise was hair -raising, and I would retreat under the blankets and take the whole menagerie of stuffed animals I owned with me.

Its just like Jane Eyre Gail would say, exhilarated, And the mad wife in the attic.

Who’s Jane Air? I would ask, imagining some faerie child made of wind, a creature through whom wild nights were driven. Gail would shake her head in disappointment with me again. I didn’t like to disappoint her but we didn’t even have an attic for a mad wife to live in and these details bothered me. Once Gail told me that if I ever told Mum and Dad about the mad woman she would have to unscrew the little toe on her foot and let all the blood run out and then she would be dead and it would be all my fault. I stayed awake for hours watching her and then I made the menagerie promise to protect her, especially Lion, who was king of my carnival of animals. Each one was named and some, the more decrepit of my animal tribe, were lovingly clothed in old doll’s clothes. But only Lion with his one eye and bedraggled tail would travel through the years with me.

I was only three but I knew with the certainty that only a young child can have, that I understood the most important things about the world. How the sea plays games with you and knows your name, how trees and leaves can speak, the language of birds, why cats tails always lay flat when they’re eating and why the tiny seeds of flowers needed the warm blanket of soil. And how Gail was beautiful. But she had some dark shadows in her even then.

She was always a very light sleeper. When we had to sleep in a doubledecker bed she forbade me to move until she went to sleep. Nights of agony with an itchy foot, the slightest wriggle was inadmissible, the terrible need to turn over. One night it was too much for me and a kind of claustrophobia overpowered me and I leapt out of the bed like a demon. She was unbelievably furious with me. But not as furious as the day she played the cello at the Eisteddfod.

Stravinsky came into me, she said later. He made me play like that.

I watched her in a velvet blue dress, too tight and hot for the early spring day and marvelled how they didn’t see how her eyes flashed. But they gave her first prize in every section and for that I was grateful. I hated watching Gail cry, heartbreaking, most of the time she made her cello cry for her.

Once she told me I was adopted and that was the only reason Mum and Dad were so nice to me. I had always called my parents by their first names, I don’t know why. But she said that I did it because I really, truly knew I was adopted and that was the absolute proof of the matter. I believed her for a very long time and when summer came that year like a huge beast caged in heat and fury and all the common flowers died and the creek became a brown weary trickle my mother found me crying over the barrenness of the world. She didn’t understand me she said. So I had to tell her that she couldn’t ever understand me because we were not related. My parents were both cross and amused with Gail over this incident but she was very angry and swore she would never speak to me again. But I knew better, Gail couldn’t hold a grudge for very long, I could.

Gail had asthma. For years I listened to her breathe, willing her to keep breathing. I would wake in the night if the pulse or rhythm of her breath changed. She was both strong and very fragile. She seemed to be allergic to everything. And she was drop-dead beautiful, heart-stopping. She would complain about the misery of beauty, how nobody ever really saw her, they just saw how pretty she was, fairytale princess of my father’s castle. Mind you she was vain and only Gail could spend hours and hours analysing each of her features and correcting some perceived flaw. I remember the day she fell off the horse and fractured some tiny unusual bone in her arm. My father picked her up as if she was one of the rarest of creatures. She was so white and her dark eyes and her hair were startling. She has bitten her lip in pain and blood had oozed down her chin. I had nightmares about it for years and it was a very long time before I forgave the horse that dropped her, I never got on one again,

I also remember the day, the very texture of the day: late autumn and the sun slants its sunset across the common, light spinning in the dead golden grasses, trees in a foliage of blood. And Gail walking across the old wooden bridge, already defiant, her shoulders set for war. She has her schoolcase in one hand and the sun is behind her making her somehow translucent. Young Joan of Arc with a wriggling bundle of brown and white fur under her other arm. Against all family decree she has bought home the kelpie which would live with us for almost sixteen years. A persistent and devoted shadow to my wild redhaired brother who fought death-defying battles against brown snakes in summer and once tied twenty balloons to his loyal companion and sent him off the roof of my father’s shed to see if he would fly. The dog landed in a tree, miraculously unhurt. I don’t recall how he was rescued or how my brother was deterred from repeating the experiment. One of his more bizarre experiments consisted of constructing an entire set of tiny rafts for a young family of kittens in order to assess their sailing abilities in the wading pool. It drove my mother into one of her rare furies.

Gail loved birds. She taught me how to talk to them, she had an odd way of slanting her eyes and pursing her lips while she made the most extraordinary range of sounds. My grandmother said she was madder than all of us put together, a singular compliment. When I was seven years old Gail decided that she and I would have to make a lifelong pact. Since my mother was a committed atheist and proof against all Catholic blandishments Gail had decided that I would have to go to Hell with Mum and she would take the pledge, whatever that was, and go to Heaven with my father. This was a very serious matter and a secret we would keep for years. It was to her credit that she forced me to get up and go to mass with her on the first Saturday of every month for five months in order to ensure that I would be blessed by the Virgin on my dying day. Like my father Gail believed in religion as a kind of insurance policy. Hell didn’t particularly bother me since I would be there with Mum but I worried about being divided from the rest of the family. It was the notion of eternity that really terrorised me. I could not imagine it and somehow it came to snap at my heels like some dreadful dog. One night I dreamt of a way to end this horror that loomed so large in my life. I do not remember the details of that dream only that it sent me sleepwalking right outside the house into the icy frost of the paddock. Consciousness slipped over me like a veil and I realised my feet were freezing and all the world was ablaze with stars and ice. My scream woke the entire house and I am not sure if my father ever slept securely after, unless he knew I was in a room where I couldn’t reach the doorhandle.

My mother loved music and you could always gauge her afternoon mood by what was playing on the ancient stereo. When coming home after school you could hear the strains of The Sleeping Beauty drifting across the creek you knew that all was well, but certain pieces of Beethoven and Rachmaninoff were invariably a barometer that storms were brewing in her kitchen. She and Gail often fought but I cannot say over what exactly except that Gail had a way of fracturing my mother’s serenity and could put all the world at odds. But she had magic, did Gail, and wisdom. Gail knew the answers to the oddest questions.

Every year after Christmas we would set out across the dead brown plains for the sea and there we would live in a huge tent that my father constructed. It started out quite small in scope according to my mother but a vision splendid overtook my Dada and each year it became more ingenious until it was like some elaborate canvas seraglio worthy of the Arabian Nights. Eventually it became the envy of the whole camping ground and visitors were brought to gaze at it in wonder and my father was satisfied. It had carpets and kitchens, an entertainment area, a whole area devoted to the activities of my brothers and sleeping room for at least twenty. My father has a military mind and the erection of this summer castle was as carefully calculated as the preparations for a war. It withstood floods and storms and refused to capsize in the tail end storms of a cyclone which laid the rest of the camping ground to waste. Naturally my father welcomed all the refugees from this summer disaster and my mother fed them. Gail loved the ritual of camping and she loved the sea. Inevitably each year her olive skin would tan flawlessly while I was doomed to the shame of wearing a white T shirt over my swimmers. She had very little use for pink zinc. She was allowed hours more than me to swim and was rarely forced to spend the mandatory time under the beach umbrella. I always envied her that. I see her now gliding through the water, more fish than human, her dark head flowing up through the green, a graceful foot breaking the surface. And squealing with delight as she catches the king of waves and flies towards the shore while the family dog runs up and own close to dementia with his inability to rescue her from this unseemly and dangerous behaviour. He was annually exhausted by our coastal trips and the responsibility of keeping us safe and well as we madly tempted the depths of fate in the untrustworthy ocean was so heavy that he aged visibly each year. His rejuvenation was miraculous and began as soon as my father began the intricate preparations necessary to dismantle our seaside world and the dog’s relief was palpable. So, too, was my father’s, who disliked and distrusted bodies of water of any description. Only on the hottest of summer days would he fling himself into the shallows for a quick dip and then beat a rapid retreat to safety. We thought he was crazy for we could not conceive of any creature not delighted by water. My mother had taught us to dog paddle and to dive but my father insisted that we be taught to swim, properly, by one of the best swimming coaches in the country. His pride in our simple achievements was inordinate.

Years later Gail and I were racing each other down the length of some pool in a luxury hotel in America when we were greeted by a round of applause from the poolside spectators. One of them, an ex-Olympian Gold medallist, was delighted to be treated to another sight of the genuine Australian crawl. We were more than fortunate in both coach and father as it turned out for Gail’s swimming skills once saved the life of my younger brother who took to canoeing on another family holiday and got himself into some very deep water.

Driving back each year over the mountain into the interior of a Monaro summer in my father’s huge green Pontiac, the haze that settles across the treeless plains and the incomparable light. Blue green shadows and streaks of silver driven across the unearthly beauty of that country, always at sunset, and the Wedgetail eagles hunting above us. Even then I knew it was dangerous country, later I would learn from yet another wise man that the Walgul nation avoided this place with a vengeance for a warrior’s soul could be lost in such a place and then he would be left to wander the earth like a seed pod. Approaching home and the dog becomes so excited his whole body is hanging out of the window of the car and Gail and I are hanging on to his back legs. The annual bloody and exhausting war that always takes place over the unpacking of the Pontiac, frayed tempers, a seething fury everywhere and then all the excitement of our forgotten Christmas presents. Time as fluid as water and the endless washing my mother embraced like some kind of ritual of ablution. For weeks the washing machine would compete with the stereo. New black shoes, so hard and unaccommodating after freedom, the nuns are looming like black sailing ships, waiting for the return of their prodigal children. Their task is monumental for the summer has uncivilised us and the sea is in our blood, the murmur and fall of waves, white hiss of foam, rocks baked golden, cliffs that sit as stately as gorgeous lions, sea anemones with their succulent demanding mouths, the secret life of crabs as they scuttle under the rocks. Tidal wash, the neap tide of midnight, sand in ears and beds and between toes. Shells and all the graceful booty of Poseidon. Stolen Banksia men from seaside gums. Snugglepie and Cuddlepot had surely never to go to school, under the sea with fierce old John Dory and Little Obelia in her seadress, her outrageous finery. School, late summer and the land is burning. Earth turns to autumn, first red creeping in the grapevine. The harvest is upon us, our Italian neighbours begin the bottling of the tomato crops, the grapes bursting off the vine, working day and night they sing and laugh and dance. It is not the time of sleep. Fabulous aromas from the kitchen where the woman of the house taught both Gail and I the secrets of Italian cuisine without speaking a word of English. Feasts of almost mythical proportions and the table resembling something out of legend; Gail and I drink red wine watered down, almost grown up, my grandmother plays the accordion, mountains of food and there’s my father sitting at the head of the table, almost a Mafia boss and all the time hating garlic. My mother always said that their feasts rivalled those of the Borgia’s, years later we understood this particular joke.

That world is all gone now, all of it. The memories of childhood shift and shape with the seasons, there is no particular order of priorities. They map countries both real and those manufactured by the imagination, they blur distinction between the real and the illusory; there is no need to adhere to strict perimeters. What was imagined was as powerful as what actually happened. Images come and go, sometimes like double exposed negatives, sometimes with an absolute clarity, others need to be teased from the backwaters of time. The ice cracking in the old sink outside, the first white hoary frost of winter, fires in the sitting room, my grandmother’s astonishing and sometimes bloodcurdling stories of past and present family members. Ghosts that presided over the kitchen table, white nappies snapping in the wind. The oil heater a huge hulking monstrosity that dominated the lounge room like a cantankerous old man. Sitting on top of the piano with our legs swinging, singing Latin hymns despite the matriarchal derailment of Catholicism.

When puberty found Gail she left me. Years later she would return. I cannot identify that moment in time when she departed from the country of our childhood only my sense of betrayal. I remember the last cracker night held at Belvedere, that is what our house was called, because it was the year my mad brother almost blew us all up. He was obsessed with home made bombs, testimony to his Sinn Fein ancestors and how he or any other member of the family remained relatively unharmed from his experiments with pyrotechnics is still a mystery. Cracker night was a very bad night for the family dog whose need to protect us from the war being conducted outside once forced him to hurl himself through the kitchen window, glass and all. My mother hated it.

The day my mother told me we were moving to a new house, I cried. This was my sanctuary, nothing would ever be the same and in a very real sense my instincts were right. Belvedere was a mansion, it was the first maternity hospital ever built in the district. It had almost thirty rooms in it and when my father bought it he decided to turn some of this huge house into flats. No doubt he imagined he would be able to rent these out to prosperous tenants but they never housed anyone but a succession of my mother’s family and associated relatives or a long and interesting succession of new arrivals from a range of countries who had come with their families to construct the tunnels for the Snowy Mountains Scheme. Frequently my mother taught them the rudiments of English and my grandmother always ensured they could swear like troopers. Their devotion to my father and his family was absolute.

So we moved into the town proper. The new house my father bought was not nearly as big as Belvedere but by the time he finished his extensions it almost rivalled it. It was here somewhere that Gail changed, her life seemed to be ruled by the rigours of a new set of criteria: fashion and pop music. These nebulous energies preoccupied her almost exclusively while she waited for the phone to ring. Another boyfriend and more tears. Only Gail could cry with such complete desolation over the certainty that no-one would ever love her. Her adolescence was one long dark night of the soul, a constancy of pain, and the winds that buffeted our once invincible world tore down structures that had been sacred to me. Watching her pain and unable to fix it, I swore to myself that I would never wait for any man to ring me whether he was God or mortal. Hopelessly I tried to refashion our world but she was no longer able to inhabit it with me.

Gail’s was no ordinary rite of passage, she was subject to strange, unfathomable diseases, blood disorders of complex rarity and a malaise that beset both soul and body. Still she retained a tensile strength that defied reason. Once we were disparaging her latest illness which consisted of the appearance and disappearance of rashes only to be horrified to discover that she had contracted an unusual form of rheumatic fever. After much consultation my parents decided that she should go away to boarding school, to the city. Far from the safe enmeshed harbour of her family it was possible that she might find her own elusive path to a new sense of identity. Her cello, sometimes her only source of solace, was to travel with her. I was devastated without her, her music had informed and shaped the sub text of my life. From school we received much censored letters which nevertheless conveyed her unhappiness. Once she successfully managed to abscond, an almost unparalleled feat in the last great bastion of Brigidine educational institutions. Her complex rebellion took many forms and while she astonished the nuns with the sheer breadth of her musical talents she refused to accept scholarships to the Conservatory of Music. She did concede to play in the School orchestra and I still remember the night she played the solo from Saint Saens. When she finally returned to us, changed utterly, she delivered the death blow to the collective family belief in her music. She would not compose, she would never play again. A dream died in my father’s eyes that night and something more subtle died within my mother. I was so angry I could cheerfully have murdered her.

Gail grew more beautiful as she grew older, on our long travels through America she was besieged by men, by Hollywood agents and other less reputable creatures. She ignored most of them. Time travelled on into marriages and children and we grew very close again. Often I would say to my friends that I could not imagine a life without a sister. She grew to wisdom, something she always had, but as she grew older she was often the only person I would consult about a particular crisis. Gail had that rare gift, she would put me to bed with a glass of brandy, tell me I was a complete fool, swear vengeance on whoever had upset me and then get me to laugh at it all. She became my harbour as I ventured into a very public life and she remained in her very private one. She taught me many things, not the least of which was a most uncharacteristic liking for the game of cricket, with the proviso that I never supported the Australians unless they were playing the British. Still I mourned, almost subconsciously, the loss of her music. One day she told me she was going to play again and had restrung her cello. Within a week she died. She was 36 years old.

For her headstone I wrote Here lies a perilous beauty. She lived. Curled next to where she sleeps is a small stone cat which yawns in the sun. The wild ducks wander over her and birds flying everywhere. It is her country now and only a matter of time until we reign in it together.

1 Comment

  1. August 19, 2008 at 6:02 am

    One of your best.

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