Distance between worlds

A COUPLE OF years before her death, I took my great-grandmother, Gabi, to St Vincent's Hospital in Melbourne. She'd developed cataracts on both eyes and was finding it impossible to play bridge.

"I haff a present for you," she said when I arrived at the door of her St Kilda flat. She fumbled for my hand and pulled me inside. The flat was neither flash nor modest. On the walls hung a couple of dim seascapes in plain gold frames. On the mantelpiece, above a small gas heater, sat a china vessel of hard lollies. "Iz immaculate, my place, no?" she was fond of boasting. Until her eyesight failed it was, but now crusts formed on crockery and toilet edges.

She ushered me into her bedroom. From a teak chest she felt for a drawer handle. "Look, darlink," she instructed, handing me a parcel of damask napkin. "Open it."

Inside the napkin was something I recognised immediately and not without disappointment. It was a heavy gold necklace embedded with sapphires – the last relic of my family's Hungarian nobility and the only treasure that had escaped wartime pillage. "I hid it in my bra," Gabi was fond of telling family gatherings, at which my grandfather – Gabi's son-in-law – whispered, "It vosn't in her bra. It voz in ze ozer place."

"Gabi," I said. "I'd never wear it. But thanks anyway."

"Off course you vear it. Put it on." I did, over my grey T-shirt, and thanked her.

"You don't like?"

"No, yes, I do, thank you."

"You know, ven ve escaped to Austria, I hid it in my bra."

"I'm very touched, Gabi."

"Iz elegant, no?"

"It is. Thank you."

We arrived at the ward well before her appointment. A kindly nurse handed us a form and I guided Gaby's fingers to sign it. Despite her shaking hand, her signature was assured. "I don't like to vait," she announced. "I am not a young vooman." She looked expectantly in the direction of the nurse, who'd since left us. A thought made her beam. "You know," she pointed a shaky finger somewhere between the vacant reception and me, "I am not her mozer. I am not her grandmozer. I am her great-grandmozer. Vot do you say to ziz? Do I look like a 98-years-old vooman?"


THE ODDS AGAINST Gabi regaining her former vision were long, but a week later she was ready to be collected from hospital. She hadn't 'seen' me in a while. Perhaps not properly for years. So I wore a neat dress and on the way to her ward I strapped on the heirloom necklace, remembering, momentarily, where it had once hidden. When I arrived at her room she was sitting upright on the bed, varnished fingers threaded through the straps of her handbag, eyes locked on the television, feet well shy of the floor. Her eye sockets were swollen but her eyes were clear, fixed on Wheel of Fortune. She glanced my way without recognition, I smiled, and she observed me without acknowledgement.

Alarmed, I spoke her name, and she frowned. Her eyes focused on the necklace and scanned up to my head. "Oh my Got!" she hollered. Oh my Got.

Fifty years ago, silenced by fear, she'd witnessed unspeakable atrocities as her head was forced down by soldiers' boots. She'd watched in silence the shootings of her son and her husband, the rape of her daughter (my grandmother). She didn't utter a sound for months, or so went my grandmother's account. But now, pointing at my head, she hollered with abandon.

"Vot haff you done! Vy did you not go to my hairdresser?" Across the corridor, a patient looked at Gabi, at me, at my hair. It was cropped short against my head.

"Dear Got! Before you looked so chic, like a movie star. Now you look like a tramp, like a boy!" I recalled her avowal of unconditional love on my sixteenth birthday: "I alvays luff you no matter vot – even if you become murderer, Christian or homosexual – I alvays luff you." And as I drove her home a familiar, familial guilt set in my stomach. I didn't want her vision to return.

Gabi observed our journey back to St Kilda in childish wonder, pointing, remarking, exclaiming, scoffing, turning her attention to the car's interior, which she studied with suspicious glee. "Vot for iz zis pole?"

"It's the gearstick, Gabi. So I can change gears."


A FORTNIGHT LATER I forgot to visit, or couldn't bring myself to, and the next fortnight I forgot again. After a while this became a habitual oversight until I telephoned, I don't know when. But her line was disconnected. Alarmed, I phoned relatives and learned that she'd moved, that she'd decided to put herself into a home – not an ordinary home but a serviced apartment block for the elderly.

"It voz a dirty flat," she explained when I visited there. "Ziz iz much better." We sat in a sun-filled, linoleum-floored common room lined with vinyl armchairs and fake palms. Gloria Estefan piped softly from somewhere in the room. A woman in powder-blue slippers sat near us and read Woman's Day. Gabi said little of my neglect but: "You are an ungrateful child!" Her voice had become a shout and it occurred to me that her hearing, too, was deteriorating. The woman with the Woman's Day sighed. I leaned toward Gabi and took her hand. It was loose-and-thin-skinned, sun-blemished and knotted. Her nail varnish had chipped, her cuticles yellowed, a lacework of veins and tendons bulged blue and purple. "Gabi," I said, "keep your voice down. We're disturbing this woman."

Gabi turned toward the woman and pointed at her. "You are disturbed!" This was a common lexical problem among the European members of my family. My grandmother sometimes terminated phone conversations with: "He is hung up."

I felt guilty or embarrassed enough to take Gabi out of the home to see a film. She was finding it increasingly difficult to walk and her ankles spilt over the tops of her shoes. Her pantyhose gathered in folds around the flesh that once flattered her knees. I'd always known her this way, but old photographs attested to others' recollections of her as an elegant beauty. One showed a firm-limbed tennis player with a brassy, sun-kissed face. Another showed her in a fitted chiffon dress at a vast Venetian restaurant, small lamps at each table. Her shoulders were bare and her arms toned; she wore a jewelled choker, her black hair was brilliant and her face was in splendid profile, turned smilingly toward someone out of the picture.

At the Longford cinema, where An Angel at My Table was playing, Gabi had difficulty climbing the stairs, but she waved off my attempts to help and paid for both our tickets. "You are a child," she said. "Children don't buy tickets." We were ushered to seats at the rear of the cinema. "No," she said. "I vant to sit in ze middle of ze middle." The usher explained that in this cinema, seats were not allocated. People who bought their tickets earlier were already seated in the centre seats.

"I haff been in zis country for 50 years!" her voice threatened a shout. "Fifty years! I haff built my business from nozink. I vant to sit in ze middle of ze middle."

We sat in the middle of the middle. It was true enough: from nothing she had built her lavish restaurant, famous for crumpli and schnitzel, the sale of which in the 1960s funded the purchase of two flats and a soap-manufacturing business run from the back of her fabric shop in Acland Street. From there she imported showy oil paintings wholesale from Madrid and sold them to her bridge partners, her doctor, her cleaner, hotel chains, unwitting friends.

The film had run a few minutes when Gabi turned to me and hissed: "Vot iz ze little boy doink?"

"It's not a boy, Gabi. It's a girl. It's the writer, Janet Frame, when she was a little girl."

"Very ugly little girl. Couldn't zay find a pretty girl?"

Our hissed exchange continued more or less in this fashion until Janet Frame realised her writing talent, the credits rolled and Gabi turned to me and croaked: "Vell? Did she get a bestseller or not?"


THE FOLLOWING YEAR my grandmother – Gabi's daughter – died unexpectedly. At her funeral my mother checked her face in a compact mirror to ensure her mascara hadn't run. Stupid with grief and fury, I obliged when Gabi signalled for me to come and sit beside her. I inched up to her and nuzzled my head into her breasts. "Iz terrible," she croaked. "Did you see ze cheap hat Mici is vearing? And zat dress!"

I wanted, very badly, to forgive her; to believe her materialism was something strong and beautiful about Gabi. Our family, she once told me, had been filthy rich and dirt poor several times in the course of their lives. "But!" she added triumphantly, "Ve alvays had a clean tablecloz on ze table!" I wanted to think this outlook was somehow profoundly dignified and richly philosophical, an authentic, vestigial resistance to past atrocities. I wanted to believe I would've liked her when she was young.

When she died a year later, a few weeks short of her 100th birthday, I felt nothing. Perhaps relief. I'd moved to Cape York and didn't return for her funeral. She'd wanted to be buried at the Jewish section of Springvale Cemetery but she was cremated and her ashes spread on someone else's roses. Mounting debts saw me sell the heirloom necklace to an estate auction house in Townsville. Its history is gone, the cash long since spent, the 'bra' story lost its currency as I constructed my new-town identity. Other stories remain unretrieved in my memory as many relatives have died, lost contact or dispersed across Australia, their histories severed and dissolved. When I returned to Melbourne some years after Gabi's death, the Hungarian voices had disappeared from family gatherings, and now my first child is born, I ache for them, endlessly, senselessly, almost obsessively. Yet Gabi's is the one voice that remains with me, like tinnitus. I want to think I can summon the others', in my mind's ear, today. But I can't.

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