Ash fell from the sky like snow on the day my mother died. A thick cloud of smoke engulfed the city and a hot wind passed through the hospital windows, rustling the blinds and taking the breath from her lungs with it. Grit got up my nose and in my mouth and eyes. I sneezed all morning; my face was red. I had trouble breathing. The doctors thought it was grief.
She died at noon exactly. Her profile had been still, her chest flat and square. She was white. Her colour had drained almost immediately, except for the faintest flush of pink that remained smudged along one cheekbone. This single stroke, as if she had been struck, grew, becoming purple as her temperature dropped and her arm became heavy and waxen in my hand. It was deceptively alive, this process after death. They said the oxygen mask had bruised her. It was like a birthmark, or rather a deathmark. Her cheeks had sunk, becoming jowly, and she reminded me of Whistler’s Mother. I rested her arm on the bed beside her body.
Wolfe, Rachael and I spent the remainder of the afternoon going through paperwork, hanging around sterile corridors, waiting for doctors and then nurses and then administration people to approach us in their soft-heeled shoes. Rachael was silent most of the time, smiling occasionally, standing back and fetching coffee and water for us. During those long afternoons at the hospital, before my mother let go, I would often forget Rachael was there and then I would see her head on her arms by her grandmother’s side. It was hard to imagine her as anything other than an angel. So she was a precocious fourteen-year-old – at least she had spirit.
The cloud of smoke turned the light eerie, the sun a mere amber dot with a feeble glow. Grey flakes coated cars, windows, skin – everything in its path. Faces were tense with worry and bewilderment. Wild imaginations thought it was the end of the world.
Outside, our car was filthy. Rachael waited for us, her finger tracing her name on the bonnet. Wolfe started the engine. The windscreen wipers squawked, making angles in the grime.
We drove slowly. Wolfe hunched forward over the steering wheel, the blue vein at his temple raised.
‘Do you think the fires have reached Sydney yet?’ Rachael said.
‘Hope not,’ Wolfe said.
‘Can’t they stop them?’
‘They’re pretty bad this time,’ he said.
I switched on the AM news radio station . . . Residents in Sydney’s western suburbs have reported seeing burning embers up to thirty kilometres from the fire front . . . as a result of the fire at Lithgow…
‘There you go, still the Blue Mountains.’
‘You mean Black Mountains.’
We all fell silent and let the radio announcer’s voice fill the gaps. I tuned in and out . . . due to excessive drought and higher than average temperatures . . . global warming . . . El Niño effect . . . wind gusts are expected to be in excess of seventy kilometres per hour . . .
At which point I leant in and switched the radio to FM.
Sweat gathered on Wolfe’s forehead as he scraped away the nicotine-stained wallpaper in my mother’s sunroom. His shoulders worked hard, wet patches growing at the nape of his t-shirt. The wallpaper was a velvet fleur-de-lys pattern, which used to be gold and lime, but it was hard to tell now because of the brown and yellow discolouring. For years, I had offered to get rid of it but my mother had always refused. Stubborn to the end of her days, I like things the way they are, she would say in her still-strong French accent.
‘Bloody bitch of a job,’ Wolfe moaned, the sound of the metal spatula grating. Mr Brown dozed at his feet, immune to the bits of paper landing on his fur. The paper tore off with difficulty, revealing dirty cancerous clouds that had penetrated the wall underneath, just like it had my mother’s lungs. ‘You offered,’ I said, attempting to slap Wolfe’s behind, but he was too quick and I missed him. Anyway, you owe me, I thought. Mr Brown raised his head, opened one dopey eye and buried his nose under his paw again.
My mother’s flat was a standard 1940s dark-brick block. It had four flats downstairs and four flats upstairs, each with their own balcony. There was a front garden and a driveway around the side that led to eight garages at the back, where she’d left her pea-green Renault sedan to rust.
She’d been the longest-standing resident. As a kid, I’d had few playmates in the block. Instead, I would bug our elderly residents and eventually, one by one, they disappeared: Mr Chan, a silent, ageless, Chinese man, who had apparently been a doctor in his homeland, had died one night in his sleep; Mrs Margaret Bilson had no longer been able to take care of herself, and had been moved to a nursing home by her son; and Mr and Mrs Eric and Berthe Fleischmann, Holocaust refugees, had decided to go back to Europe – to make peace, they said, before it was their time.
Mrs Fleischmann used to water the garden and feed me dinner when my mother was working on reception for the local medical centre and I still remember her hand on the hose, the skin on her sleeveless arm wobbling, and the faded green numbers on her wrist. Once, when I was too young to know better, I asked her why they didn’t have any kids. She had looked at me, pressed her forefinger into the middle of her fleshy bosom and said, ‘Why would we want to pass this on to our children? It is too much. I could not give it to anyone else.’
We lived on the knuckle of a peninsula, beside jagged cliffs that soared high out of the Pacific Ocean. For two hundred years, the foundling city had carved itself along two legs of the harbour, nestling into leafy hillsides, an insular wall against the flat, exposed land to the west; sparkling skyscrapers idled in the neck and beyond sat a shimmering pool of water like a great heaving womb (indeed our coloniser claimed there’d been a birth). On board the discovering ship a man wrote of ‘a land of milk and honey’, but he was deceived and the colony nearly died of starvation: the land was arid and harsh and isolated, just like its people.
Through the open windows in the sunroom I looked out to the communal garden where my mother had planted flowerbeds of yellow roses, white and blue hydrangeas, dark pink camellias and white gardenias. Although she had no outward patience for art, she was the one who had first taught me about beauty and colour, about light and shade and textures. It was in her blood. The smell of honey wafted from a jasmine vine, signalling the beginning of a hot summer. The wind would blow in off the ocean, over the cliffs across the road, heavy with damp and salt, and a layer of stickiness would settle on everything, eventually corroding all it touched – nothing lasted around here, even the rocks.
The white muslin curtains, curdled from smoke, had been removed. My mother used to sit in here at a small green card table, where she would play Patience or Baker’s Dozen and smoke. There would always be an ashtray and always one tendril of smoke whistling up to the ceiling. When we arrived this morning we’d found the cards laid out mid-Patience with a suit of hearts and clubs. The ashtray was full of old butts. I’d kill for an espresso, she’d say, before stubbing out her cigarette and shuffling off to make her coffee.
We threw the ashtray into a box marked junk, along with the gaudy seashell playing cards, and Wolfe piled the rickety table into the back of his truck with the rest of the furniture we would sell at auction. There wasn’t much: a glass cabinet which had held her silver service and a set of crystal goblets, a 1960s teak armchair and a sofa with orange and green wool-like cushions, a box television set from 1988, an old drop-leaf dining table and her beloved espresso machine. It was worthless and out-of-date stuff that, thankfully, we didn’t have to pay someone to take away. I stared up at a framed painting hanging on the wall. It was called Three Women, because of the three generations of women it portrayed in a kaleidoscope of mirrors; R Larkin, was scrawled in the bottom left. It was clever and the local council had certainly thought so. It had been Rachael’s first prize-winning picture. She’d come a long way since then. I stood on tiptoes and unhooked it from the nail. On the back she had written: To Mémé, with love, R.
We sorted her personal items into three boxes: rubbish, for sale and keepsake. My mother was not exactly a hoarder, but in the last years had not been able to keep up with her usual vigorous expunging. Get rid of everything, I told Rachael and Wolfe, who held up various things and yelled, ‘Bin? Or keep?’ Part of me felt as if we were invading her privacy and the other part held imaginary conversations with her. What did you keep that for? Or, Where in the world did you get that?
In the bedroom, I went through her personal papers – bank statements, tax returns, unopened mail, unpaid bills and debts. No one told you about the administrative nightmare of death.
Rachael’s backside, clad in black tights, poked out of my mother’s wardrobe. Rummaging around in its depths, she pulled out plastic bags full of god-knows-what and dumped them next to piles of clothes on the floor. ‘We should have done this when she was alive. I don’t remember Mémé being so drab, do you?’
I was about to chide her but thought better of it. We were all feeling out of sorts right now. Mémé’s clothes were going to charity; although seeing them again, I wondered if charity would even accept them: one mauve and frayed velour tracksuit, one peach floral polyester dress from Kmart, several pairs of tan slacks, a couple of long cotton skirts of various colours, some white shirts – yet somehow she’d still managed to look elegant.
Mostly I remembered her dressed in a hospital gown. She’d been in and out since her diagnosis three years ago. We’d decided to have her cremated and her ashes were currently sitting in a black urn on our kitchen bench. I didn’t know what else to do with them. It had been a short and simple ceremony, only last week, but felt like years already. A few of her acquaintances had come. We put on a light buffet lunch at the house: Rachael served buck’s fizz in a jug and Wolfe drank whisky, kind words were exchanged, people brought cards; Rachael had put a picture of my mother next to the urn. It had been taken when she was nineteen, before she left Paris; with dewy skin, baby-blue eyes and rose-coloured lips – the photo had been hand-painted – her gaze lifted towards an invisible sky, smiling, as if she were a Hollywood star.
Items flew out of the closet into the air, creating a pile on the floor. A photo album crashed against the end of the bed, splitting open and spilling half its contents. ‘Rach, be careful,’ I said, but she didn’t hear me.
‘Hmmm, interesting,’ Rachael said, backing out and holding up a green and pink sequined black dress with tulle skirting, still in its dry-cleaning plastic. ‘This is quite something,’ she said.
She took off her t-shirt, pulled the dress over her head, and shimmied it down over her curves, the seams stretching.
‘What do you think?’ She wolf-whistled and ran her hands down the side of her body, twisting back and forth in front of the mirror.
Rachael didn’t look like my mother – my mother was blonde and thin while Rachael was dark and athletic, like Wolfe – but there was a pang in my chest, seeing her in my mother’s dress, the one she had worn to our wedding dinner. I remembered Wolfe’s father’s friend Terry twirling her around the dance floor while his wife watched with a glum look on her face; Terry couldn’t understand why my mother had stayed single. A real looker like her, he’d said.
‘Rach, it’s too small for you.’
Rachael perched in front of the dressing table, finding my mother’s old lavender toiletry bag, full of crusting Estée Lauder make-up, and lavishly applied purple eye shadow and pink rouge. Mémé had used the same brush across her cheekbones. I sighed. She could have been a little more sensitive. But then it was only make-up. Old, caking make-up that would have been thrown out anyway. Rachael saw me watching from the mirror and her expression changed. A match of mischief lit in her eyes. She took the gold lid off the lipstick, wound the end of it right out to expose a long pink stick, pouted her lips and circled the nub round and round, applying layer after layer, until it smudged at the corners of her mouth and reduced the stick to a messy stub. She continued staring at me, pleased with herself, and dropped the lipstick on the dresser; she opened her mouth and smugly wiped the corners with her finger. ‘Well, hello dahling . . .’
I shook my head. What would she think of next? I ignored her. All teenagers went through phases and I had to allow for her artistic temperament. You didn’t become a brilliant artist by being well-behaved! We all had our crosses to bear, whatever they were. Anyway all those afternoons at the hospital, you couldn’t fake that, and today I could see there was something bothering her. I could see it in her face when she didn’t know I was looking – a tiny trace of worry that didn’t seem to go away. A mother noticed these things.
‘What’s going on in here?’ Wolfe stuck his head around the door. Mr Brown appeared beside him, his tail wagging.
Had he seen this display? He looked impassive. Neutral. He never read into things, not like me. Wolfe liked things to be simple. Surfing, food, sleep and sex. And love, of course. Always love, like some big leftover hippy standing on the side of the road with his broken guitar and unwashed hair, thumbing rides up and down the coast, preaching love as the answer. Except he had been born in the late sixties and had missed the entire movement. Usually, he left me to do the worrying.
‘Your daughter’s wasting time,’ I said.
The match went out. Rachael’s face crinkled into an innocent smile. She blew her father a kiss. ‘What do you think, Wolfe?’ I flinched hearing her call her father by his first name.
Wolfe looked at me, saw my disapproval and decided to assist the bad cop. ‘Better do what your mother says.’
Rachael continued to admire herself in the mirror.
‘Right, that’s it.’ Wolfe launched himself at her and Rachael squealed as he bundled her up in his arms and threw her over his shoulder. Once again that delicate line between adult and child was crossed. I could not get used to that shift.
‘Wolfe, stop!’ she squealed. ‘You stink!’ She thumped her hand against his bum. Mr Brown jumped on the bed, barking madly, his dirty paw prints all over the sheets.
‘Hey, guys!’ I said, seeing the seams of the dress pull. He swung her up and about and then the photo album caught under his feet. ‘For goodness’ sake!’ I yelled, falling to the floor to rescue the mangled pages.
Their faces were flushed, their breathing erratic. Wolfe bent over, sliding Rachael to the ground, a mess of tulle, hair and sequins; the two of them looked at me sheepishly.
‘That’s right, you two, partners in crime.’
‘Better clean that up.’ Wolfe ruffled Rachael’s hair.
She pulled away from him, fixing her hair, annoyance crossing her face.
‘Watch out, or you’ll see the back of my hand.’ Wolfe winked at me and squeezed my fingers.
‘Never did you any good,’ I said, knowing his own father had been a brute, but he just stood there grinning.
Rachael remained on the floor, amid piles of clothes, the tulle fanning out like a big tutu. ‘Yeah, good one, Dad,’ she said. Wolfe had never laid a hand on her.
‘You just watch it, missy.’ A shadow crossed Wolfe’s face and I felt a desire to touch him, but he turned and headed back to the sunroom, Mr Brown plodding along behind. I tried to fix the pages back into the album.
‘Camille, who’s that with Mémé?’ Rachael asked, holding up a single black-and-white photo she had picked up.
Two young women gazed into the distance. ‘That’s her younger sister Francine.’
Rachael snatched the album from me. It was an old one with the sticky pages that turned orange after time and eventually decayed the photos. She turned the pages: there was my mother with my stepfather on a yacht and me as a young baby and then us as a family doing ordinary things families did, like going on holiday and mucking around in the backyard and my first day at school.
‘Is that my great-grandfather? And what about these people?’
She held out a more recent photo of a group of people. It was a photograph I had sent Mémé from Paris of her parents Anton and Marie, her sister Francine and Francine’s husband Rupert, and Lucien, one of the resident artists. They stood in the garden of their home in the French countryside in front of a mural that Lucien had just painted. I’d taken the photo. I explained who they were and Rachael watched me coolly. She’d heard snippets about them over the years and vaguely knew who they were, but Mémé and I had never gone into detail.
‘Are they still alive?’
‘As far as I know.’
‘I can’t wait to go there,’ she said. ‘Have you heard from the school?’
‘Not yet.’ I had sent an application on behalf of Rachael last month to the Beaux-Arts, a renowned art school in Paris. In any case, we had been promising to take her there for years, but with Mémé ill and one thing after the other we had never made it.
She squinted at me as if weighing up whether to pursue it, then shrugged. ‘Maybe I’ll just go anyway.’
I thought back to my own experience. ‘You have her look about you,’ my aunt Francine had declared in accented English, upon my arrival as a naive nineteen-year-old. Here was my mother, unlined and assured, had she remained in Paris. She had the kind of voice that made you sit up straight, her consonants crispy and her vowels full-bodied.
I closed the album, sliding it into the plastic bag.
‘Wait a sec,’ Rachael said, wrenching the bag out of my hands. We tussled for a moment and just as I gave in, I heard a loud rip. The seam on Mémé’s dress had split, exposing a large triangle of Rachael’s skin and showering us in a rainbow of sequins.
Rachael looked at me, childlike. ‘Oops!’ She raised her hand over her mouth and shrugged. ‘It’s not like she’ll be needing it anytime soon.’
She stood up, reached for her t-shirt and peeled the dress off. It sank to her ankles, scrunching at her feet, a thistle of black tulle; she stepped out of it and left it lying on the floor. I waited for Rachael to say something or to turn and pick it up, but she slunk off to the bathroom. Oh, Rach, I thought, and knelt down to collect each coloured sequin from the floor. I found an envelope for the sequins, folded the dress, and together with the album closed them up inside a large cardboard box marked Keep.
Excerpted from Rachael’s Gift by Alexandra Cameron. Copyright © 2014 by Alexandra Cameron.
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