The legacy of Rita Marquand

Selected for Best Australian Stories 2006

THE FIRST RITA Marquand oil painting I ever saw was at a garage sale on the sloping lawn of a huge old house in Launceston a few years ago. Ever since I was a girl at art school I have been collecting the works of lesser known and unknown Australian women painters. The collection is now quite extensive. Rita's picture was on a smallish piece of plywood, framed in an elaborate chipped gilt frame – two young girls in filmy white dresses playing among yellow grass. The grass is alive with subtle colours, the girls caught in a moment of intimate laughter. It was titled and signed on the back in red pen – "The Deedees" Rita Marquand, Fatima, 1927. I bought the painting for two dollars from a man who said it had been done by a distant relative of his late wife. This is a typical story from my files – the discovery of a new "unknown" woman painter who sets me off on a journey into the poignant past. There was so much talent, passion, beauty locked away in the lives of women before the liberation of the 1970s came along and gave girls the chance to show what they were made of.

This journey led me from Launceston to Devonport, to Blackwood Creek, to Hobart, and finally to the Huon Valley where I found at last the house called "Fatima" in which Rita Marquand had lived and painted. Along the way, I was able to collect five other pictures that had somehow been preserved – one was a glowing image of a blindfolded angel standing sorrowfully beside a burnt-out gum tree. There was a strangeness to Rita's work that fascinated me, a strangeness that I do not often encounter in the paintings of my unknown women, most of whom paint fairly simple landscapes, gardens, houses. I get pictures from op shops and skips and cellars and attics – and sometimes from kitchen shelves where they have been for two or three generations.

By the time I tracked Rita down to "Fatima" I was very interested not only in her paintings but also in the story of the lives of the two girls in The Deedees. With her large family and a small farm to manage, it is a miracle Rita ever put brush to canvas. But this is something I have discovered about my women painters: they kept their sanity by snatching moments of creative passion from the hours of duty and family responsibility.

I discovered that Dymphna and Dolores were sisters, born at "Fatima" in a small rural town in the Huon Valley. I have pieced together as best I can the story of what happened to them. I have taken the liberties of a storyteller at times, trying to imagine how people must have felt, how they must have thought about things. Some of the material I found in small diaries that Dymphna kept over the years. These were often illustrated, showing that Dymphna had inherited her mother's talent. However, I never saw a finished work by Dymphna. Between the pages of the diaries I found old letters and cards from Dolores to Dymphna, and one pale blue love letter to Dolores from a man called Geoffrey (My Sweetest Angel, Dolly...). The girls had two older brothers, a baby sister and baby brother, Sissy and Jo-Jo. The place was described as a dairy farm but, in fact, it was a small property where the Marquands kept some cows, grew some apples and kept their heads above water. Everyone on the farm – Rita, her husband Paul, and all the children – worked really hard: up before daybreak, finishing long after dark. I sat in Rita's old kitchen, at the table where she had made the bread for the family, and I listened to Margaret, the young wife of another Jo-Jo, Rita's grandson. Her baby crawled around on the wooden floor where Dymphna and Dolores must have crawled. Born in 2005, he is the only descendent so far of Rita and Paul in this generation. The older boys died in the Second World War and Sissy never had children. Margaret and Jo-Jo were amazed that anybody would be interested in Rita's paintings.


DYMPHNA WAS NAMED for an aunt who was named for the patron saint of the mentally ill (or, as they said in the 1930s, the insane). Dolores was named for the very sad aspect of the Virgin Mary. The names turned out to be, I am sorry to say, prophetic. The two girls were known as the Deedees. They were inseparable. Dolores (Dolly) was eighteen months older than Dymphna. Dolly was very bright and pretty, with softly curling brown hair, and Dymphna (Dimples) had, as it happened, a dinky little dimpled smile, and hair "as straight as a packet of candles". When in the bath, with her stringy hair wet and stuck across her forehead in strands and down her back in damp ribbons, her mother said she was a dying duck in a thunderstorm.

Apart from their connection with the painting, the lives of Dymphna and Dolores are now of a certain historic interest as they illuminate a past that exercises a fascination in the present. Television is larded with programs where innocent people are forced to relive the lives and times of girls like the Deedees, struggling with the lack of conditioner for their hair, eating bread and dripping (which is the fat that is saved in the baking dish after meat has been roasted). These programs generally emphasise the terrible difficulties of past lives. What I will tell you about the early lives of the Deedees will probably seem impossibly romantic, with a hint of paradise, in spite of what I have said about their being up before dawn.

So, on the Marquands' dairy farm they blossomed. In the spring, apple trees, plums and almonds, too, turned the hillside into a frothy springtime snow leading down to the river. Note what I said about paradise. Snow, they always called it snow, as they ran, children on legs like elves' legs, across the long grass where the red sorrel grew, wild and rough underfoot, knee-high, and they rolled over and over down the hill. Over and over and over. And then, in the summer, they picked the plums for jam and bottling and harvested the almonds to stir into the dark damp Christmas cakes and the pobbly puddings that hung for months in their calico cloths in the dairy. The girls pelted like the wind, the wind in their hair and in their eyes, danced down the hillside, falling and rolling, tumbling under the almond trees, pastel cotton dresses made by their mother at midnight, skirts flying up, pink pants rude and visible, bare feet hot and lovely, and they lay there, the dappled shadows of the leaves flittering across their faces, faces flushed and glowing. Laughter twittering up into the blossom trees, coin spots of sunlight glimmering across them. Well, was it paradise or wasn't it? This is what Rita captured in The Deedees.

The future was wonderful then. The Deedees were living and laughing – with potatoes and sausages to eat and milk to drink – and fruit – while around them was the Depression. They were in the Depression but they did not know it. They knew a copper full of boiling sheets seething in soap, sheets rinsed in blue from the bluebag, flapping on the clothes line in the sun. Running in and out diving through the flapping sheets, that were sewn down the middle with a heavy seam because they had been split and "turned" to make them last longer. Their beds were high – tall maple ends with curved edges and a raised wreath of leaves like a medallion in the centre. These were grand old beds from their mother's old home. They called them the American beds, I am not sure why, but maybe they associated them with faraway luxury. They gleamed golden by candlelight. When I came to "Fatima" and saw the beds they were still beautiful, although the surface of the varnish was now dulled. A child had written her name on one of the bedheads – "Sissy Marquand slept here" – and somebody had tried to clean it off. But the room, now a guest room, was, Margaret said, much as it had been when the Deedees lived there in the 1930s.

Above Dymphna's bed was the traditional picture of the Immaculate Heart. If you are looking for sentimental horror, this is it – the sweetly peachy smiling woman (sad) with her greenish blue cloak and her crown of rosebuds. But then, in her hands, surrounded by a wreath of thorny roses is her heart, which radiates pink and gold light and is surmounted by a hot red flickering flame. This picture would not have been seen as strange by the children. It was the normal image to hang above a bed, but if you think about it, it is really most peculiar.

Then, on the wall over Dolores' bed, hung what I thought was a print of a work of art – Madonna of the Goldfinch by Tiepolo. But, lucky for me, Margaret drew my attention to it, saying, "Rita did that. She used to copy things, apparently. I think it's so ugly, but we keep it because Rita did it. It's not original – we haven't got any originals – but I suppose it has sentimental value, you know, because she did it." This is not the only masterpiece I have found reproduced by one of my women – Georgia James used to do excellent copies of Goya – but it added an exciting new dimension to Rita, in my opinion.


NOW, I WOULD rather like to rush ahead and tell you what eventually happened to Dymphna and Dolores but, in fact, the pictures over their childhood beds are relevant to the outcome in a strange way, and so I must pause here to think about them. Life, I find, can sometimes be infused with prophecies or at least shadows and foreshadows. And I need to dwell for a moment on the "Madonna of the Goldfinch" by Rita Marquand, which hangs in the wall of memory above Dolores Marquand's old American bed. The child Jesus holds the goldfinch firmly in his left hand, tight, a bundle of taffeta bluish feathers with a bobbing scarlet head. The Holy Child is naked – a striking feature of the picture being the deep red bloody highlights on the mouth of the mother, her collar and sleeve, the head of the bird. The mother gazes downward, the child looks straight at the world, at the viewer, his deep blue eyes still, knowing, sad. Startling and sickening is the bruised red luscious cherry of the baby's lips, as if he had sucked on berries or fresh game. The flesh of the mother and child appears to be not so much alive as on the point of corruption. These observations are mine. Similar thoughts just might have crossed the minds of the Deedees, although I doubt it. Yet it is my understanding that the effects of the images above the beds entered the girls' deep imaginations.

Rita told them that long long ago, at the time of the Crucifixion, a goldfinch took a thorn from the crown-borne-crown of Jesus, and the blood from the holy brow went splashing out and landed on the head of the bird. Hence the little bird's scarlet head. Privately, the Deedees liked to puzzle over that story – if the goldfinch didn't get its red head until it pulled the thorn out of the crown on the dark day of the Crucifixion, how was it the baby Jesus was holding a goldfinch with a bright red head? Ours not to reason why, Rita counselled.

Apparently, there are about 600 known paintings of Madonna and child with goldfinch. I don't wish to burden you with a lot of academic detail, but I think it is worth knowing that in 1952, a writer named Jacques Schnier published an essay entitled "The Symbolic Bird in Medieval and Renaissance Art" and in that essay he says that the goldfinch signifies the mother herself, the mother is the lost object over which the child desires control. The goldfinch also signifies fertility and is associated with Lucina, ancient goddess of childbirth.


THESE SOMEWHAT HEAVY little messages hanging above the American beds at "Fatima" can be seen to cast an ironic shadow over the lives of the Deedees. I need here to draw attention to the matters of sex before marriage, unplanned pregnancy and abortion – matters that naturally give rise in the modern mind to the question of contraception. Safe contraception was not dreamed of until the 1960s and would not even then have been possible for the Catholic Deedees. You can see that to get pregnant before marriage in this family at that time was to go to hell in a handbasket, and you feel the problem looming, dangling like the pictures over the American beds. Who is going to get pregnant, and what is she going to do next?

Well, it was Dolores, the cheerful one with the very sad name. To the delight of the proud family, Dolores went off to Hobart to study at the Teachers' College. She was to live at the Sacred Heart Hostel, safe and sound with the nuns, the curfew and the Catholic faith. Her mother made her skirts, coats, blouses, dresses. All afternoon and well into the night the sewing machine would be going k-chick-k-chick-k-chick. Dolores would flit about and try things on and her mother, with pins in her mouth, would say, "Stand still" and "Hold up your arm" and "Stop wriggling". Auntie Bee knitted jumpers and cardigans for Dolly. Sitting by the fire or under the holly hedge her needles singing away tik-woo-tik-woo-tik. Hot-water-bottle covers. Two brown suitcases filled and folded and fluffed up with everything including a new silver compact with face powder. She took a small framed picture of Our Lady of Perpetual Succour and also the painting her mother did in the orchard, The Deedees.

When she was in Hobart, Dolores went to dances on Friday nights. She started smoking and drinking and dancing with all kinds of young men. And some not so young. To start with, she was back at the hostel by ten, but then she discovered how to climb in the laundry window after midnight, having bribed another girl to sign her in at ten. She got up on a stage and sang in the After-Dinner Conservatory. She was incredibly pretty and popular.

She was on the downward slide. Lying in bed during the holidays, she would tell Dymphna about some of the things she did, and Dymphna was amazed and fascinated and frightened for her sister's immortal soul. She would wonder how safe it was to ride in cars with men you hardly knew. Dymphna had heard of at least two girls who had been killed when a car ran into a tree and, of course, there lurked, just below the surface, the terror of pregnancy. Girls would sometimes disappear for a few months, gone to stay with relatives on the mainland, and then they would come back and stay at home with their families and never marry, scarred for life.

Dolores was kissing and hugging and driving fast into the countryside. At night, she would cuddle in dark cars beside the river. "But you have to be a virgin dressed in white and pure when you get married," Dymphna said, and Dolores said, "Maybe you do." She looked at her sister sideways from under her hair and she smiled her little winking crooked pink cherry-cherub smile. It was a naughty smile, a smile that Dymphna somehow linked with the smile in a story the nuns had told them – a girl smiles at a man who beckons her to a doorway, and in the doorway he takes her hand, and he rings the bell and the door opens and they go in and are never seen again because it was the doorway to hell.

Then, one day, Dolores told Dymphna she had a real sweetheart, Geoffrey.

"Why don't you tell Mum and bring him home then?"

"He's a Baptist."

"Have you been to confession?"


The answer came swift and defiant, and Dymphna knew there and then that the writing was on the wall and that the whole thing was out of control. To be involved with a Protestant was worse than having sex and getting pregnant. Geoffrey was going to be a lawyer and he was not a very good Baptist, smoking and drinking and dancing as he did. Dolores planned to get him to convert. Surely he would see reason. If his own family's religion mattered so little to him, why couldn't he become a Catholic? But when she lay in his arms on the grass by the river, none of this mattered, and her wicked heart sang for joy and her blood simmered with a hot excitement that sent her conscience off to sleep.


IN THE WINDOW of a smart Hobart shop one day, Dolores saw something so amazing, so desirable, so drenched in beauty that she did not pay for textbooks but bought the thing instead. It was a dress. I think this was maybe the real beginning of the end, spending the textbook money on the dress to go to the Winter Garden Dance with Geoffrey. When Dolores told Dymphna about the dress Dymphna knew in her heart of hearts that the bell of the doorway to hell was ringing.

Dymphna's head was spinning and her heart was beating fast with excitement and desire at the thought of the dress and the dance and the money and the man and the non-existent textbooks. This was the true beginning of the locked-up things that Dymphna could never tell anybody, the source of the guilt that was going to poison her life. Catholic girl meets Baptist boy – Juliet and Romeo – until something fatal and inevitable and blindingly terrible occurs, like when a plane flies into a mountain and explodes, killing all on board. Dymphna held the black box, held it in her shadowed and sorrowful heart, and it stilled her blood, stopped her thoughts, right there in the bedroom of the dairy farm in the lovely valley of the Huon.

It was Dymphna who gave up on life at that point, Dymphna who stopped eating, stopped talking. Not altogether, but she did what they called "going into herself" and she became a joyless wraith out of the reach of her family and friends. People naturally thought she was considering entering the convent and, in fact, she did feel drawn to that life but (and this is so sad and deeply ironic) she knew that she could not, simply because she would have to confess to all she knew, in due course, about her sister, and that was impossible. Somehow she could hold her knowledge back from everyday confession, but if she entered the convent, everything would have to come spilling out. She would have to spew toads of truth in the dark box of the confessional, and Dolores would never forgive her. Nobody would forgive her. Would God forgive her? God was supposed to do that, but who can divine the depths of reasoning of the mind of God? So what it amounts to is that while Dolores was going to hell, Dymphna was beginning to go, quite simply, mad. The poor Marquands and their two lovely daughters who both ended up so tragically. Margaret was very frank about this – she had no problem telling a perfect stranger that Dymphna had gone mad.


DOLORES WOULD TELL her sister about the things she did with Geoffrey, sometimes in letters, and Dymphna loved getting the cards and letters, the photographs of picnics and warm days at the beach. The secret thrilling wicked sinful parts of the letters were in secret little envelopes inside the leaves of the main letter. Here is a letter from Dolly – and she would read out the main letter at the family dinner table, driving the evil deeper and deeper into her own heart as she read, knowing she was lying. Dolores went to lectures and wrote essays and played the piano in concerts at the hostel. She described in the secret letters the marvellous miraculous dress she had bought with the textbook money. Dymphna wondered if she would ever see this dress.

She did see it. When her mother went to Hobart and brought all Dolly's things back home. It was lying in the suitcase, on top of everything, the last thing Rita had put in. It was wrapped in white tissue paper and Dymphna saw it slide out of its parcel. It slithered onto the white counterpane, underneath Rita's picture of Jesus and his mother and the goldfinch. For some reason, Rita had left the picture of The Deedees at the hostel in Hobart.

They were accustomed enough to deaths in the family – two dead babies, grandparents, an uncle in Egypt in the war, a simple aunt who drifted away from this world, a fish disappearing in an ancient Mongolian stream. But they were not prepared for Dolores, the lovely wild sister. Dolores had come home on the train from town and had died in a fevered pool of blood in the bedroom. There had never been a death like this one in this family. Dymphna was in a trance of shock, all the details of the sin and the crime flooding into her brain and heart, blocking reason, dashing reality into shards of broken clay.

In the 1930s, sex before marriage, unplanned pregnancy and abortion were highly risky enterprises. Pregnancy was OK in marriage, indeed required, but the other pregnancies were sins, and abortion was, of course, also a crime. If you saw the movie Vera Drake you would know all about that.

The bedroom curtains, white linen backed with sunlight and flittered with shadows, were drawn against the day, and Dolores lay there dead in the half-dark.

"Dymphna," Rita said, in a firm, cold, steady voice, "get your father, then call the priest and the doctor."

"Call the priest and the doctor," she said, in that firm, cold, steady voice. That was the order in which she placed them – first the priest and then the doctor. And that was the way she designated them. Not Father Gayle and Doctor Rush, but the priest and the doctor. First of all, Dymphna got her father from the deep shadows in the pungent darkness of the milking shed.

Between the telephone calls to the priest and the doctor and the inky arrival of those specialists in mortality, Rita sent her living daughter to the linen press for clean sheets, to the laundry for water and soap and towels. It was a secret now between the mother and daughter, a secret spelling the death of Dolores and its meaning. It was already a dark bond and a smudge of dirty ice between them. What would the doctor make of it? He would know what had happened for sure. But Dr Rush was a Catholic doctor. Would he describe the matter as being the result of a "miscarriage"? Death the result of excessive loss of blood. Is that what he would do? To save the Catholic honour of the family. Well, in fact, he could only half save it, since Dolores was not married. Wasn't he bound by law to report the truth? Truth. To discover the name of the person in town who had done this to Dolores, who had opened her up (ripped her open?) and let the baby out and sent her home to die? Wasn't it his duty to see that a judge would send those people, that person, that woman, that witch – to prison? To save other girls from the fate of this glittering fanciful unmarried Dolores who could not believe that this was happening? Dymphna wondered what her mother was thinking of saying to Father Gayle. Perhaps, she thought, my lies have killed my sister, lies that hid the truth she shared with me. The truth that Dolly shared with me like secrets in the white and yellow bedroom long ago, so long ago in the giggling twilight of summer childhood. Perhaps the lies have killed her after all.


"JUST LEND ME ten pounds," Dolores said, "and when I come home it will be all over and nobody will know any different." But Dymphna knew it wasn't going to work like that – they would never get away with it. Ten pounds from her bankbook was a great big sum of money. Dolores sold a coral necklace left to her by Auntie Caroline. Somewhere or other. She had a life of mysteries beyond her sister's understanding. How did a girl sell a necklace of darling little antique coral bead strung out in family prayers and unforgotten laughter? And what if their mother got to wondering where it had gone? "Oh, then I'll say I lost it," Dolores said, quite solemn, like an actress, she said that. "I lost it. The clasp was weak. I should have had it attended to, mended. I was saving up to have it mended. Just think – for a little three and sixpence I could have saved Auntie Caroline's coral necklace." She smiled. She had a cute pink pixie crooked slightly smile.

Paul came to the bedroom door and Rita went to him. They stood together in a tight embrace, silent, and then they went out to the back door and stood again together, talking, underneath the cherry plum trees. She was explaining, he was listening. He was a silent man, always. He followed his wife's lead in most things, and gynecology was her province. The blood and the pain and the sometime joy of babies in and out of the womb. Morality was also her area. She had taken on the particular role of wisdom, also practicality. You could see them, a couple, through the open door, framed in the green doorway, as Dymphna dialled the number for the exchange and asked for the presbytery. Vilma Jones at the exchange would wonder, in her wide-eyed, wide-mouthed, frizzy-haired, blue-dressed way – or perhaps she would know – why Dymphna Marquand was calling the presbytery. Why was she calling? For a blank moment of idiot shock Dymphna suddenly could not remember what this was all about. Then she remembered. When next asked for the doctor's number Vilma knew. The priest and the doctor meant a death. For certain sure. Death or promise of death.

All the time, Dolores was lying on her bed beneath the goldfinch, and the blood was drying, caking, ruby-brown and brilliant, and her father had gone back to the milking shed and Dymphna was arriving in the bedroom with the water and the towels and the clean linen from the sweet lemon linen press. And all the time Rita was firm and cool and clear-headed and cold-hearted and hating Dymphna and blaming her. She was guilty, with the black box of truth buried deep inside her heart.

The mother became the priestess at the temple of her dead child and the other child her servant, silent, obedient, afraid, doing everything required except tell the story.


YOU WILL NOTICE that Geoffrey disappeared a while back. He just went on with his life, occasionally giving a bit of a thought to Dolores Marquand, wondering sometimes what brought on the hush-hush fever that caused the sudden death of this bright and promising young woman. It occurred to me to go on another little treasure hunt, looking for the traces of Geoffrey, but that would be another story altogether.

The priest and the doctor smoothed the way for the sin and the crime to be concealed beneath a convenient felting of lies and half-truths. There was a quiet funeral to which some of the girls from the hostel (their knowing eyes lowered in respect) and two of the nuns (sad faces open as they swallowed the fictions of the fever and the death) came.

And the sequined dress lay forever after in the wooden trunk of fabrics beside the sewing machine. Buried in its coffin, waiting to be cut up into sections, divided into bits, drawn and quartered and reduced to a heap of purple scales. Why was it not destroyed at once? Things old and unwanted or wicked were always being burnt. Was the dress perhaps too strange, too exotic, too desirable, too lovely, too wicked, too powerful? Too mysterious in origin and design, too poisonous? It also obviously held the answer to the question of the death of Dolores. The family could not confront the question, let alone the answer. They prayed every night for the soul of Dolores. Dymphna went slowly spinning into what they called melancholia, as thin as a rake, as mad a hatter, locked up inside herself, never coming out.

One day, long years after the death of Dolores, Dymphna, who talked and sang a little to herself, opened the camphorwood trunk. She found two small pink dresses her mother made for them one Christmas Eve, tiny rosebuds printed on the artificial silk, the machine going k-chick-k-chick far into the night, tickling their ears as they wondered what treasures were created, what glamour was being prepared for Christmas Day, hot games under the fruit trees, roly-poly who can roll the fastest to the bottom of the hill. Hair ribbons for church, new and pale pink and silky. Straw hats. A new enormous silky flower on their mother's elegant little navy spotted dress. A handsome family walking with some dignity to church on Christmas Day with new pink dresses k-chick-k-chick. Long, long before the tragedy. Dymphna turned the dresses over in her hands, reverently, and remembered the old cherry plum trees at the back door, how they smelt when they were covered in fruit to be collected, picked and plopped and heaped into large white enamel buckets. They would take the cherries around and dish them out to everybody, the priest and the doctor included, and when they came home they would go to bed, and the sewing machine would start up, singing them to sleep. Cream, too, they took gifts of cream from their happy cows to their sometimes happy neighbours. In the milking shed they sang to the cows. Bluebird of HappinessFaith of our Fathers, and a song made up by Dolores all about how cows are silly, cows are funny. Dymphna sang the old song over to herself as she rifled through the trunk until she came to Dolores's glittering dress.

It was what was called a cocktail frock, completely covered in purple sequins, all attached by hand to a black net background, arranged in tight little scales of glitter, in the pattern of the wings of a giant butterfly – shimmering glimmering, with the back so empty and low it dipped right down to the tailbone, and no sleeves, and the front scooping in a swallow dive right down between the breasts. Like a snake it took your breath away, like a quietly singing snake, humming and murmuring and bursting into flames. Royal purple and just a wisp of the wing of a delicate evil insect, so very very beautiful. It lay in the trunk, wounded, defiant, shining, shining through its tears.

"So what do you know about this dress?" Rita had asked.

"I don't know anything about the dress," Dymphna lied.

Mostly, Dymphna had been guessing anyway. But in her clear imagination she had a picture of Dolores in the purple dress, a picture of handsome Baptist Geoffrey smoking, drinking, dancing under the palms in the Winter Garden and going – going where – somewhere the dress took her and she stood quite still while Geoffrey lifted it up-up-up over her head, brushing her fingers, tangling and catching in her hair, and then Geoffrey lifted her up and placed her on – on a bed, perhaps it was his bed and she was going to get into trouble back at the hostel because she was late-late-late. Like a late lament.

And his kisses and caresses were so sweet and so chocolate dark and she was dizzy with desire.

Then, one day, Dolores borrowed the ten pounds from her sister and told her she had sold the coral necklace, and she said everything would be all right and she started singing "cows are funny, cows are silly" and then, quite suddenly, her bottom lip unsmiling quivered and she began to sob.

The next thing she arrives at the railway station, white as a sheet and comes home and goes into the bathroom and starts to bleed and bleed. And that is all. Father Gayle blessed her and forgave her sins, firm in the belief that she had made a final Act of Perfect Contrition. Dymphna prayed and prayed about that. Dolores was at least wearing her Miraculous Medal at the time of her death and so, chances are she went to heaven. Doctor Rush did nothing special. He signed the Certificate of Death. But Dymphna was holding the centre of a whole beaded shiny slippery spider web of lies, and could only keep saying she knew nothing at all. Rita did not believe her. When Dymphna went to confession she confessed to telling lies, to withholding the truth. Father Gayle must surely have known the nature of some of the lies. The penance he gave her was an insult, so light and routine it did not touch her seething bubbling guilt – he gave her the Sorrowful Mysteries, and that was all. Dolores was buried in white.


THREE YEARS PASSED and one day poor weird Dymphna Marquand dressed herself up in a sequinned gown that had belonged to her long dead sister. She stood by the window as the afternoon sun came slanting through the glass, the rays hitting the sequins and throwing a strange pink cloud of liquid flickering light onto the white walls of the room. Then she ran, a glittering purple scarecrow down through the orchard and down to the river, the cocktail sequins of the mermaid marvel of the dress flittering and glittering and flapping. She must have tripped and fallen into the water. The family and the police and the neighbours searched the district. Nobody found her for three full days.

You could talk about madness and accidents and drowning – but not really about suicide. No, you could not speak of suicide. After Dymphna died, it seems Rita never painted again. They buried Dymphna next to her sister in the churchyard, and 20 years later her sad father joined her, and only one year after that, her mother. Their older brothers were buried in blood-soaked foreign soil.

So, as you can see, the picture of The Deedees has a very special significance for me, as does the copy of Madonna of the Goldfinch. I felt it was improper for me to ask Margaret and Jo-Jo if I could buy the goldfinch painting and so it still hangs, as far as I know, above the American bed in the old bedroom at "Fatima". A few months after my visit, I received from Margaret an envelope containing fresh copies of two small cracked black and white photographs. One was a picture of the Deedees playing under the blossoms in the orchard and the other was the Deedees again, with Rita. The girls are standing beside their mother who is seated at her easel. None of them is looking into the camera – Dolly is staring at the painting, Dymphna is staring at Dolly and Rita is intent on her work, the paintbrush poised a few centimetres from the piece of plywood. She is painting The Deedees

Get the latest essay, memoir, reportage, fiction, poetry and more.

Subscribe to Griffith Review or purchase single editions here.

Griffith Review