The morning aunt

SATURDAY MORNING AND I'm out of bed and running in the garden in my pyjamas. It is warm and Dad has made a wobbly pagoda from chicken wire and Mum has planted geraniums that have grown all over it. Nanna says that geraniums are common flowers. There are so many now that the wire barely holds them up and the pagoda is a solid block of white-pink coconut ice. The emperor camellias have been out for ages and a thick bed of their wax petals and whole fallen ones lie vanquished under the bushes. With the warmth the magpies have started to swoop in the lane and I will have to carry a branch over my head when I go down to Nanna's after breakfast. Dad says don't stay away too long because he will need me to help mow the front lawn, which is really just an old semi-tamed paddock left over from farming days long ago leading down to a pink hawthorn hedge. I wonder why my older brothers are never asked to help with the mowing.

I'm at Nanna and Pa's front gate, two hundred yards from our house, and I pick a mirror leaf from the hedge bordering the drive, fold it in two and blow a farty tune from my piano lessons:

‘Papa Haydn's dead and gone,

How his memory lingers on,

When his mood was one of bliss,

He wrote merry tunes like this.'

Now I have the freedom of Nanna and Pa's garden. I suck the honey from a long red and white bell flower, pull up and eat two fat radishes, look for kittens in the Jerusalem artichoke thicket and hide for a while behind a lean-to of palings stacked against Pa's toolshed, pretending that my evil brothers are hunting for me. I stop by the pale-blue flowers Pa calls Plumbago; Pa's bad back is crippled with lumbago and he sits on a wooden egg box to weed while Nanna bends over sniffing in her washed-out pinafore – both miserably happy, complaining and ancient. In the coming dry season the scraped-earth paths of their mazelike garden will turn grey and the soil will be crumbly and cicadas in the gums will be loud and there will be swarms of bees from the market gardener next door.

I am instructed to knock at the yellow front door. (Letter of June 1942 from Pa to his eldest daughter: ‘I have painted the front door a hideous yellow, I hope you like it...') This door leads off the decayed little front veranda directly into Aunt Ethyl's bedroom.

‘Knock first, please, Paul. We do not want to alarm Aunty Ethyl if she is getting dressed.' Nanna's warning does not deter me every time. Mostly I barge straight in and if Aunt E is at home I get into bed with her and she tells me stories and explains things about Melbourne, like how she had to sit next to a Chinese person on the tram home to her bedsit in East Melbourne. She does not seem to mind our visits but we know that we do not really know. Often my brother and I end up on either side of her and we three stare up at the raw-wood panelling and E says, ‘That is an ear or a mouse...' and her stories come out of the woodwork. E is funny and big, with hair chopped off like a man. She is quite interested in our observations and tells us that observations can be very important, as they are the basis of science and art. We don't really follow her but Mum says that E's doctor had her tested and she is very bright. Mum also says that since her latest nervous breakdown E is getting a bit thickset; her corsets are boned to hold her in but also to protect her bad back. I check all her things and want to open her suitcase but she says no. She says that the colour of her pink underpants is salmon. I have not seen a salmon so I do not know for certain.

Mum says that E should grow her hair longer and more softly, especially at the back of the neck, as the roll of flesh with the chopped-off hair looks Prussian. ‘What is Prussian?' And Mum says, ‘German,' and again I am lost.

I love E's costume jewellery, which Nanna says is extravagant. She puts big diamante clips on her grey business suit and there are brooches like branches of flowers and gold bangles and beads like my brothers' marbles. E is not one for rings, and I like to examine her hands with their short polished nails, the hands, she says with pride, of a long-serving cashier-typist. Her hands are different to Mum's, which are long and olive-skinned, with a moon in every elegant but hardworking fingernail. E's hands are ultra-clean and pink, small and plump like her immaculate little feet. ‘For someone so big' – she is a mountain range under the blankets – ‘she comes down to points,' cousin Alice once said, giggling.

Late morning and E will descend on the bathroom at the other end of the old house. Nanna will have filled the bath, dragging buckets of hot water from the kitchen, and a kettle of hot water will stand in readiness to top up the bath as it cools. After her week in Melbourne in the office E is ready for a good long soak. Then lunch (E brings big asparagus spears, which she steams and covers in unsalted butter, and a loaf of fresh crusty bread), and next she will do Nanna and Pa's washing with a lot of cursing and problems with the wringer. Later there will be ironing; a visit over afternoon tea with Edith, our mum, and hostile brother-in-law Edward, our dad; then supper, cards with the nephews and so to bed. Sunday is a sleep-in, tidying up and packing, checking the kitchen supplies for the week and reminding Nanna where things are, setting the mousetraps, lunch with Edith and that awful Edward – you never know what he is going to say next – and a long, full and frank but unresolved discussion with Edith about the situation and how it cannot go on much longer. ‘I cannot take any more responsibility, I am at the limit,' she says, and I hear this from my vantage point beneath the open kitchen window.

Then back to East Melbourne, amid less than desirable travelling company, for the working week.

Now I knock loudly at the yellow door and in answer there is a squawk and a rustling and so, intrigued, I do not hesitate but push on in and there is E in bed and her friend, Miss Sinclair, is getting out, all big and pink and making a big fuss as she pulls on Pa's dressing gown and with much clucking and ‘Dear, dear me,' hurries off. Nanna and Pa are in town for the Test match; I had forgotten they were away and that E had Sinny visiting. I stand in the patch of sunlight on the old worn Indian rug and smell E's powder and the dry tang of this old house, and motes of golden dust hang suspended in the shaft of sunlight. E looks at me over the top of the sheet, her hair sticking up, her eyes showing brightly.

‘Were you telling her a story? She did not have to go...' I say, pleased to have E's and Sinny's company but slightly scared by Sinny's sudden exit. Did I do something wrong? I want to play with Sinny too, because she also has stories and because she is interesting. The bones in her big toes were removed because of arthritis. We cannot let our dogs bounce up on her when she visits, in case there is a fall. ‘Not too steady on those pins,' warns Dad with some glee.

When I try to get on the bed E says, ‘No, dear – now go and make a cup of tea for Miss Sinclair and me.' And gives me a gentle shove in the direction of the kitchen.


MANY YEARS HAVE passed since Sinny arose with hasty dignity from that bed, dressing gown clutched at the throat. Now E is ancient, demented and bed-ridden, no longer the mountain range but flat as a plain. ‘What happened to Miss Sinclair?' I ask during one of her periods of clarity.

‘Oh, I do not know; after your Pa died I went to hospital for a long stay and lost track of most things, including her. I know that she got a Housing Commission flat and that's where she died,' says E, almost nonchalantly. But then she leans forward and confides, darkly, ‘Sinclair was important. As you know she taught me the ways of pleasure and she chose me, me alone.' And we both sigh in unison, in agreement that simple pleasures and being chosen by someone are, after all, very, very important.

E will dally with nudity and being chosen at least one more time. Once retired, E loses confidence and signs herself into a hostel but cannot abide by the rules. In her room she spends weeks speaking but not moving. She is subjected to a barrage of tests but the results are inconclusive; her body is apparently quite healthy. E conducts interviews from her bed. ‘This place is a hotbed of communists, they are on strike, no one comes when you ring the bell.'

‘What is the strike about, E?'

‘Surely you have heard?' she snaps. ‘Rising sewerage, of course; it was up to the first-floor landing. I was flown down to the ABC to give the residents' point of view, by helicopter no less. But do not tell Head Office!'

Another time she reports that her room is full of little insects that swarm on the walls, but as soon as someone comes in they disappear. A coathanger on a hook speaks to her and is also reporting on her to Head Office. Slowly it dawns on us that E's distress clusters around the time of Edith's death; we had not thought her grief had gone so deep because E denies that Edith, my mother, is dead. She is adamant that she never went to the funeral, never walked stiffly around the cemetery in the pouring rain, never tried to sit on the wet kerb near the grave or lay on Edith's bed at the wake, rigid as a Plantagenet dame on a tomb lid.

The hostel staff talk softly to E about Edith's death and E says that they are clever liars. But she starts to adjust, to get up for supper, and then in a burst of energy and against hostel policy goes on holiday, booking herself into an expensive B&B in a resort town. The Hevedon Manor eventually calls for her to be collected, and my brother and I travel up to find her and bring her back to the hostel. She is mad but co-operative and surprisingly happy; she says she had to leave because she was accused of swimming nude in the manor pool with a priest who wished to convert her.

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