Molecular biologist Elizabeth Blackburn was born in Hobart in 1948. She spent her childhood and teenage years in Launceston, and later studied in Melbourne, the UK and the US. In 2009, along with Carol Greider and Jack Szostak, Blackburn was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, becoming the only Australian woman to have won a Nobel prize in any field. Blackburn continues to research disease, stress, ageing, and our capacity to alter our lifespans. This story, one of a collection that examines each of the lives of the seventeen women who have won Nobel prizes for science, imagines Blackburn as a smart and curious girl, sensitive to the lives of those around her.
SPRING IN LAUNCESTON, late October, and Elizabeth sat on the floor in the hallway waiting for her friend Wendy to arrive. The sound of her mother opening drawers in the kitchen travelled across the lounge room. Upstairs, her brother Benjamin sang in his room, a hymn from church – words Elizabeth hadn’t believed in for months. A sad song. But Wendy could be relied on to lift Elizabeth’s mood, to talk underwater, to be a great guest for a party – like the one that would start tonight at Elizabeth’s house. All day there’d been excitement, thrills rushing through her body. This afternoon: Wendy. Later: Miss Loveling. Tonight: her Uncle Gordon, the pilot.
She must prepare her bedroom for Wendy’s arrival. Elizabeth enjoyed observing her own generosity with the girl: a spiritual flinging open of her bedroom door to show Wendy her desk, the toys she had kept since childhood, the clothes in her wardrobe, and some but not all of her treasures under the bed.
From her spot on the floor in the hallway, Elizabeth glanced up at the staircase behind her, but her room seemed far away, requiring so much energy, and someone was sure to come along the minute she rose and start to chatter at her simply because they saw movement. Her stillness here was breeding its own stillness across the house.
But. There was work to do.
In her bedroom, Elizabeth found the hairpins she’d been looking for this morning on her dressing table. The heavy volume her father had given her called Malady: A Dictionary of Medical Words and Phrases sat open on her bed to an illustration of the mature ovum. At various stages of completion were Pride and Prejudice, A Wrinkle in Time, and a copy of Charlotte’s Web wrapped in a cloth dust jacket her mother had sewn to stop it falling apart. On her desk were two pencil boxes in which all the greens, reds, browns and blues were worn down to nubs. Underneath these sat an abandoned paint box that she couldn’t bear to throw out. It was too good – her mother said it cost her father a lot – even to share with Benjamin, who would just grind the paintbrush into each pad of colour, ruining them.
In her father’s opinion it was essential she kept her desk neat, but Elizabeth had seen his desk at the surgery and had seen Miss Loveling’s desk at her two-storey house overlooking the bay in Hobart. Elizabeth knew an element of haphazardness, a principle of eccentricity, had to be introduced if she were to be an artist. Elizabeth needed a purpose. She needed an adventure. All around her were people with both.
VAL HEARD A clunk from her daughter’s room; it was hard to believe Elizabeth was tidying, but there it was.
Val headed upstairs, took the dress down from the hook on her bedroom door and slid it off its hanger. She ran her hand down its length, smiling at its softness. She’d sewn it from a McCall’s, chosen a pickle-green fabric with tiny spots. Val sang as she stepped out of her skirt and blouse and into the new dress, zipped herself up, clipped on earrings. She tipped her head forward and spritzed the back of her neck like her mother used to do. She hoped the children would play a game or put on a dance, or a little show in the lounge room for her and Pam, who had known and loved Elizabeth and Benjamin since they were born, calling them her pair of socks.
It had been Val’s idea, the invitation for Pam to drive up from Hobart. Pam had written in July to say she was starting a new children’s picture book, this time about a zoo and what happens when the animals are alone at night. In August Pam wrote to say the project was going swimmingly. In September she wrote that she was stuck and would never write another book as long as she lived. She couldn’t get the three child characters right, or even close to right. The illustrations, she said, were as frightful as figures on a biscuit tin. Any chance Val’s children would model for her? There had been times in their lives that Pam had rescued Val, and she’d recently been of great comfort when news of Gordon’s illness came so soon after the deaths of Val and Gordon’s parents.
It was settled then, Val wrote to her, which was a fun thing to say. Pam would come and stay the night – or two, or three, if she wished. She would put her in the spare room upstairs with the view of the plum trees. Val would make sure her own two children and a friend of Elizabeth’s would be available to pose. She didn’t know much about drawing but she knew plenty about children doing what they were told. She promised Pam hot meals and a good gossip, a bottle or two of wine or beer. She would make sure the children weren’t grumpy and their faces were clean.
Val opened her compact and powdered her cheeks, picturing her good and bright friend. Pam Loveling was unusual and had to be studied to be understood. No good would come of trying to comprehend her for a few minutes at a time. Better to just give up, as many had. She lived with her friend, Colleen, a woman with deep brown eyes and black hair, who played tennis and fixed musical instruments for a living. Pam went through periods of having lots of money to being very skint, although she’d never once asked Val for help in that respect. The idea of a job at a school or library or in a firm of some sort seemed distasteful to Pam. She and Colleen had moved house several times together and had holidayed in Melbourne and Cairns, Singapore and Cape Town. Recently, Pam sent the children a postcard from St Kilda beach, saying she and Colleen were having a wonderful time eating all the ice cream they could get their hands on.
HER MOTHER CAUGHT her on the landing as they came out of their bedrooms. Val had pins between her lips. Her arms were raised behind her head, pushing and patting her hair. ‘There,’ she said and smiled brightly.
‘You look pretty,’ Elizabeth said, glad she’d found the yellow-striped skirt her mother had sewn for her, and found it clean and dry to wear tonight.
Her mother put her hands out like a dancer and did a half twirl in both directions. One hand held money and a scrap of paper. ‘Here’s the list. Thank you, darling El. Quick as you can.’
Tin of peaches
Lollies for Pam
Elizabeth walked down Elphin Road towards the milk bar that was run by Mr Driscoll, who believed the world was going to end – and soon. That’s why he ate loads of chips and chocolates from his own shop, he said.
Inside, Elizabeth bundled the items from her mother’s shopping list into her arms. She asked Mr Driscoll for her father’s brand of cigarettes since she didn’t know Pam’s. Mr Driscoll’s half head of hair was always messy, his expression always sleepy, hands grimy with chip salt. No point denying yourself treats if the Americans were tinkering with the whole place anyway.
President Kennedy said there would be an American man on the moon by the end of the decade, beating the Soviets, getting there first. Winning was important to JFK and that part Elizabeth understood. At school, when she’d asked Miss Stein in science about the chances of an Australian man reaching the moon, her teacher agreed that she didn’t think it was likely. In class, Heather Price said, ‘Maybe one day we’ll all be living on the moon,’ and Elizabeth had waited for Miss Stein’s reaction before she’d made up her mind. Elizabeth liked that Miss Stein’s level of reason and logic didn’t stop her from playing pranks. Once, she brought in a dish covered with a cloth and asked the girls to gather round the lab bench. It was very hushed and when she removed the cloth they saw there was a small green object underneath.
‘Miss, what is it?’
Their teacher balled the cloth in her hand and whispered her answer to the circle of girls: ‘Uranium’. At her elbow, Elizabeth’s classmate gasped. Elizabeth and Miss Stein smiled at each other. Elizabeth delighted in the fact that, being the type of girl who pinned a photograph of Marie Curie inside her wardrobe, she could see it for the green cut glass that it was. Benjamin didn’t read the same books as Elizabeth. In his bedroom hung a picture of John Glenn beside Friendship 7.
Mr Driscoll stood over the counter reading the newspaper. He kept his eyes on the page while placing the tin and packets and the bottle of cream into a bag.
‘I know a secret,’ Elizabeth said. ‘About my uncle.’
Mr Driscoll paused. His tongue was out, pressed against his thumb, ready to turn the page. ‘You know a what?’
‘Actually, I know two secrets. One is about me.’
He took his thumb from his mouth and searched around the shop. He looked baffled. ‘Well, that seems fine, yes? Secrets about yourself?’
‘And my uncle.’
‘The one about you is probably the one to concern yourself with.’
‘Yes, okay.’ Elizabeth gathered the handles of the bag.
‘You want your change? Here.’
She watched Mr Driscoll help himself to a sherbet stick from a glass cylinder under the counter. He folded his newspaper into a tight half and stood to read it, arms folded, nibbling on the lolly, as she backed out to leave.
She’d have to hurry or she’d miss Wendy’s arrival back at the house. Ten minutes and her friend would be there and then they could fill Elizabeth’s room with the burr of their secrets. Elizabeth turned over in her mind the important news she had for her mother, who could be relied on to tell her father when he got home from work. She imagined her parents made fevered and short-tempered by the news: that their daughter planned to be an artist. At the thought of being responsible for an argument based around her, a pink orb of pleasure waxed in her chest.
Now, letting herself into the front gate, Elizabeth spied Wendy in her butterfly-print dress, a jumper round her waist and her hair in plaits, astride her bicycle, edging her way up the driveway. Elizabeth decided to tell her straight away. She piloted Wendy over to the grass where she dropped her bike and Elizabeth lay the bag next to her.
‘Guess what I’ve decided? I’m going to be an artist.’
Wendy’s reaction was disappointing. Elizabeth repeated her confession. Perhaps the sound of a bus or a barking dog made her hard to hear.
She laid a hand on Wendy’s arm. ‘An artist. That’s what I’ll be when I grow up.’
‘I thought you were going to be a scientist.’
Elizabeth scoffed – although she had to bung that on a bit. There was something so clanging, so jointed and silvery about the word scientist. How good of Wendy to remember, though. This secret only worked if her best friend (devoted, surprisingly funny, pretty, too, if a little horsey) remembered what her previous dream had been. Only if Wendy could recognise the polarity of the two occupations. Elizabeth knew one of each: her father, a doctor at a surgery on Hopkins Street, was a sort of scientist. He’d studied medicine, including the slicing open of people’s bodies. And her mother’s best friend, Miss Loveling, illustrated books for children. People knew her in Melbourne and even Sydney.
‘Can you imagine spending all day, every day, drawing?’ Elizabeth asked. Through the bag, she rolled the bottle of cream back and forth on the grass. ‘I could fly overseas and meet all sorts of people at galleries and shows.’
‘What would you draw?’ Wendy asked.
‘Plants and flowers, I suppose. Landscapes. The insides of things. The sky.’ Elizabeth thought of her uncle, now a pilot, and all those hours he would get to spend up in the clouds.
She had books to go on, examples to copy till she got better, like the intricate four-by-four-inch illustrations in Malady. Elizabeth set herself evenings with the book on her lap and sheets of paper to copy images: the cabbage-like human heart, the set of lungs spread open like a butterfly, the weight and flex of an elbow joint. She hoped to get through at least a dozen and perhaps have the drawings bound into her own secret book to be presented to her parents, casually, over lunch one day. Maybe her father would offer to buy the set and frame them on the walls of his surgery. But in the words of her uncle, she was getting ahead of herself. Coming from Gordon – kind but with only a vague interest in his niece and nephew, his face handsome and open, his wide-set clear blue eyes never quite resting on anyone – it was a fun thing to hear. When she said it to herself it was with a harder edge. Yes, of course her father would have bought a cute scribble or two when she was smaller. But she was almost fourteen. The drawings would have to be good to mean anything.
She felt despair pulling at her, and for a second or two she couldn’t think of anything good. ‘We’d better take the groceries in to Mum,’ she said. ‘Then we can go upstairs.’
IN THE KITCHEN was a storeroom under the stairs. Val took down her apron from the hook inside the door, looped it over her head and tied it behind her waist. She caught the rapid chatter, the sounds of shoes on stones, as Elizabeth and Wendy came up the path to the front door.
‘Come through,’ she called, and the girls struck in through the doorway.
Val blew a strand of hair off her forehead. She touched her daughter’s friend on the hand. ‘Wendy, how are you? What’s been the best part of your day so far?’
She shrugged. ‘Nothing’s happened till now. This is the best part.’ Wendy had a fine set of features, a thin girl with an upturned nose and a patter of dark-brown birthmarks down one side of her neck. She beamed. ‘Thanks for having me.’
Elizabeth undid the handles of the bag and unpacked the groceries on the kitchen table.
‘Benjamin?’ Val called upstairs. ‘I need to see you before Miss Loveling gets here.’
Footsteps down the stairs, the thrum of an object shuddering along the balustrades and then Benjamin came into the kitchen. He was nine years old with thick black hair he liked his mother to keep cut short. He was tall for his age. He kept his room clean and never answered back. He submitted to baths and helped his father by running out for cigarettes and lawnmower fuel. A beautiful boy, a good boy. Benjamin, like Val’s younger brother Gordon, was so obedient it was almost irritating – but imagine complaining about a son who did absolutely everything he was told. Underneath it all, Val sensed reservation, solitude, even resentment. As he grew older, Val hoped her boy might open up a bit. Her husband Stuart didn’t think it was healthy for children to be so serious.
‘Now, Benjamin, Wendy here has been invited around for tea. Do you mind very much? The only lad in the house.’
He shook his head solemnly.
‘Uncle Gordon will be thrilled to know we are all looking up at him tonight, admiring his plane and how beautifully he’s learnt to fly.’
‘Will Miss Loveling be here for it?’ Wendy asked.
‘Very much so. She’ll be delighted by it.’
‘It isn’t for hours, though.’ Benjamin said.
Val clapped her hands. ‘I know what we’ll do – a prize! How about you children all draw a picture for Miss Loveling? Whatever you’d like. And when she gets here she can be the judge.’ She patted the pockets of her apron and pulled out a comb and a milk-bottle top. She slipped them back inside. ‘I’ll find something terrific to be the prize. Elizabeth, you can get paper and pencils for everyone, can’t you? I’d best stay in the kitchen with this lamb.’
‘What if we’re not any good at drawing?’ Benjamin asked.
‘Well,’ Elizabeth said. ‘I guess you won’t win then, will you? Miss Loveling is very famous and talented.’
Val clasped Benjamin’s head to her belly and gave him a kiss. ‘There’s nothing wrong with trying to impress someone. Much to be said for it.’
Elizabeth started up the stairs with Wendy and Benjamin following, and Val turned towards the kitchen. She still had the potatoes to do, peel them under the tap and let them sit in a bowl of cold water with a tablespoon of vinegar – a rare, clever thing her mother-in-law taught her when she and Stuart were first married. She could hear the children above as she stood at the sink. Their chatter and fuss rising and falling like a passing car outside, or an aeroplane overhead.
UNCLE GORDON WOULD land the aeroplane at the airstrip a few miles away where he’d taken his flying lessons and earnt his licence. The route he’d planned would take him over Newstead at half past eight that night. That’s about as much as Elizabeth knew. In winter, Gordon had been diagnosed with an illness. Something very adult, with many syllables, oddly metallic sounding, and she had tried on three separate occasions, pen in hand, to wheedle the word from her mother so she could look it up in Malady. But Val wouldn’t repeat it, even later that night, in the lounge room. ‘And you mustn’t ask him either, if that’s what you were thinking,’ her mother had said. ‘That’s like poison.’
‘THAT’S LIKE POISON,’ Val had told her daughter, ‘doing that to someone.’
And Elizabeth had done something unexpected then, reaching forward to put her arms around her mother’s neck, lowering her onto the couch – the way a lover would, Val was alarmed to think. Elizabeth had shifted into her mother’s lap and Val had been telescoped back in time to the sensation of her daughter’s body when she was soft and small and couldn’t sit still for five seconds. Val rubbed circles across her back.
‘Uncle Gordon won’t die,’ Elizabeth said.
Then it came to Val how much she used to pretend with her daughter. Pretend to gobble at Elizabeth’s fat, fudgy arms saying, Is there gold in this tree trunk? Is there honey? Any nectar? The girl in hysterics, her hands messing about in Val’s hair, begging her to stop, saying, There’s no gold! No honey! These sweet things she remembered – she hoped her children would, too. But would they remember the other times? Things she would never admit to a minister, let alone an illustrator of books for children. An illustrator who’d never had children and could not really understand, no matter how many times she visited or sent postcards or offered to have them stay at her house, how difficult it had been to care for two small children almost entirely on her own. She was fairly sure the layers of a baby’s brain were fixed and that Elizabeth and Benjamin couldn’t possibly remember. But just as easily, Val could convince herself that of course they recalled, could feel, residually, her hot breath on their faces. The violence of I hate you on the soft spot between their shoulder blades.
The sound of a car turning into the driveway. Dear Pam. Val reached for her lipstick in the dish above the servery, uncapped it and bent into her reflection in a saucepan. She hoped the children wouldn’t come thundering down the stairs with their assortment of tearaway enthusiasm and needy chatter. Give the two of them a minute alone. Supposing, Val thought with a moment of panic, Pam had brought Colleen. Meeting Colleen at a party for one of Pam’s books had done nothing to smooth Val’s feeling of possession. Colleen was a nice woman who looked at home among Pam’s bookish friends. Val watched her – petite in a cream jacket and skirt – move from group to group and touch the arms of men and women she was speaking to, laughing. Colleen reminded Val of a fox terrier, fearless and alert. At the party Pam had watched her too and Val felt a pricking behind her eyes.
She would think about this later. Would remember these quick flashes of irritation and wonder why they kept returning to her year after year.
Val walked out to the driveway and saw just the one figure, in the driver’s seat. Relief. She breathed out and knocked on her friend’s window. ‘Pammy, dear. You made it.’
Pam wound down the window. ‘Oh, it’s good to see you, Val.’ Still only the lightest dusting of powder across her cheeks and nose and no lipstick at all; Pam had never liked the stuff. Her brown hair was in a low bun, her fringe thick across her forehead. Val reached in, trembling and strong with her grip, and grabbed her hand. Val was drinking this in: the pinprick of anticipation, the start of the evening before the children were tired and hungry and needing things from her, the anticipation of watching Gordon sail through the sky. Almost everyone who was going to be here had arrived. The food was cooling or warming as it needed to be. No one needed to go anywhere. Stuart had told her he would try to make it home for the aeroplane, and Val trusted that, yes, he would be on time.
She carried Pam’s suitcases up the front path. Inside, she set them beside the stairs. She admired Pam’s earrings and her tobacco-coloured coat.
‘Where are they, then?’ Pam asked. She pulled off her gloves and stuffed them in her handbag. ‘Your sausages? The two divine parrots? The steak and kidney pies?’
‘Upstairs,’ Val said, ‘trying to impress you with their drawings.’
‘Well, that is sweet.’
‘I have a surprise for you. It’s about Gordon.’
‘Oh?’ Pam undid a shopping bag and pulled out two packets of chocolate creams and a cool bottle of champagne. She reached across the kitchen table and set the biscuits on top of each other. ‘Is he all right?’ Val had told Pam in one of her letters that there had been a diagnosis. But Val found it difficult, even on paper, to say it, so she hadn’t.
She set her shoulders back, smiling. ‘You will see him tonight.’
‘In his aeroplane.’
Pam raised an eyebrow. ‘In the sky?’
Yes, in the sky. But Val wasn’t about to convey how excited she was for it all. Not after the raised eyebrow. Four years younger than Val and Pam, Gordon used to trail behind them, doing the girls’ bidding, fixing their bicycle tyres, helping them hide and care for the golden puppy they’d found wandering the park – it was probably no more than half a day and night but deciding what the dog should eat and where to get a blanket that wouldn’t be missed: they’d been in that together. They had all known each other so long. In the sky? Yes, in the sky.
Val turned away. In any case there were the potatoes. And drinks for them both. She poured lemonade into two short glasses that they clinked together.
‘Oh, this is going to be fun!’ Pam said.
Val fished a cube of ice out of her glass and popped it in her mouth.
HERE IS ELIZABETH, six years old, crouched beside the pond in her backyard. She wears a lemon-coloured band in her blonde hair and a white smock dress that her mother bought from a lady at the church. In Elizabeth’s hands are two frogs that she’s been gazing at for several minutes. Before they were frogs they were tadpoles. Before they were tadpoles they were eggs, but not like hen’s eggs. Picture a tiny bubble, her mother explained.
Elizabeth has seen tadpoles before. She marvels at their jumpiness, their brown bodies wriggling down, down, down like something swallowed but not chewed. Her mother has warned her not to get her dress dirty; she is taking Elizabeth and her baby brother to a magic show at the school, once Benjamin has woken from his sleep. Elizabeth would love the magician to multiply her brother. A tap of a wand on his soft, perfect nose, and three or four more infants would pop out like a string of paper dolls. She adores him. She loves when she is allowed to hold him, which is often. His neck, watch his neck, the adults around her say. She always cups his head gently.
Elizabeth lowers her hand to the edge of the pond and dips her fingers beneath the surface of the water. The frogs’ tiny legs kick at her skin. They hop off into the muck.
At the magic show there are rows of chairs dragged out from a nearby classroom. Babies in prams squint in the glare while their mothers linger at the cake stall. Tables covered in things for sale are laid out, the tables like points on a clock with the stage marking twelve, at the top. And on the stage, a sign covered in stars and the name ‘Charlie Charm’ is strung between two hooks. Children run across the sun-bathed, balloon-dotted oval.
Has there ever been such an exciting day as this?
The magic, Elizabeth tells her father when she gets home and her mother is lowering Benjamin into a bath, was real. It was all real. The rabbit that the magician drew out of his hat was white with pink in its ears and until that moment she hadn’t known that rabbits had pink in their ears. Her father makes a show of turning Elizabeth’s head to one side – ‘Now, wait a minute,’ – proclaiming that her ears are pink, too, and does that make her a rabbit? Elizabeth giggles, loving her father extravagantly when he’s like this. No. She is no more a rabbit than a frog.
‘What else did he do?’ her father asks, his face close to hers, his fingers on the yellow band in her hair. ‘The magician?’
Tricks with cards. A large, bright coin that he showed them all from the stage, circled between his fingers before disappearing then reappearing under someone’s chair. One trick where his glove ended up in the lap of another, lucky girl. With his wand, Charlie Charm had tapped a balloon and it popped and all the adults laughed. But then he tapped it a second time and it swelled up and was whole again. Elizabeth heard the rush of the adults’ breath, and the children’s breath around her. She saw her own mother’s face, open with sunny surprise. But Elizabeth had guessed what would happen to the balloon. She had known it.
IT WOULD BE a wonderful evening, full of magic. Val took out her favourite little dish, the one shaped like a lettuce leaf. She shook the paper bag of lollies that Elizabeth had bought from the milk bar into the dish, popped a cobber in her mouth. Pam had a sweet tooth, said lollies helped her draw.
‘Want one?’ she asked, turning to her friend, who plucked three or four out and arranged them in her palm.
‘I love your frock,’ Pam said. ‘You have such talent, I bet you made it in an hour.’
‘Not too far off, actually,’ Val said, winking. She was a sharp and quick dressmaker. She stitched her name into everything she sewed.
‘I’m amazed but not surprised. What can I help with in here?’ she asked.
‘Nothing at all,’ Val said.
The cooking smells cheered the room. The warmth from the oven dulled Val’s fluctuation between excitement and fear. She poured another drink, now the wine that Pam had brought. When Gordon got sick Stuart had told her, ‘Whatever happens, things will work out just fine’. Val guessed that being calm and logical were useful traits for a doctor (the smashed elbows of motorcycle accidents, the sticky infected eyes of children, heart murmurs that kept his elderly patients awake). What he likely meant, what he likely believed, was this: no matter what happened around them, their own little family would remain intact. Mother, father, daughter, son – they were a constant. They deserved robust and unbroken lifespans, so that’s what they would get.
Val, who was often seized with palpable images of the ways Elizabeth and Benjamin might die, wanted very much to have Stuart’s confidence. But her children could be hit by a car taking a corner too close to the kerb. They could drown in the sea. She and Stuart might wake one morning to find a white ladder leant up against the side of the house leading to a child’s bedroom. Scarlet fever, mumps, measles. She collected possible disasters like she collected sewing patterns. But Stuart existed methodically. He shrunk his worry down to the size of a single pea while hers flourished through her body like tumours. Her mind was a hothouse for it.
Val hadn’t asked about Colleen yet. ‘I’m so sorry,’ Val said. ‘How’s Colleen?’
‘She’s well, thank you.’
‘Well, next time you come,’ Val said breezily, ‘you’ll have to bring her. No point in her being alone down there, is there?’
Pam stilled. She smiled. ‘That would be lovely.’ She leant across and patted Val’s hand.
Val collected the wine glasses and jerked her head towards the lounge room. ‘Let’s drink in here.’
ON THE PATH running down one side of the house, Elizabeth and Wendy perched on an upturned wheelbarrow outside the low window. Inside, Val and Miss Loveling had gathered in the lounge room before tea. Wendy cupped her chin in her hand, trying to look more interested than Elizabeth knew she was. Elizabeth watched them but so far nothing much exciting had happened. Her mother sat barefoot on the couch. She had reapplied her lipstick. Elizabeth hadn’t asked, but the answer would be no. No lipstick till she was a thousand years old.
Miss Loveling shifted in her red cardigan and pale-blue skirt. She reached for her glass and finished it in one gulp. This made the women giggle.
‘What happened?’ Wendy whispered.
‘Ooh, mind the bottom of that,’ Elizabeth heard her mother say, after the giggling had stopped. ‘On the armrest, yes, that’s right.’
They watched Val pluck at a magazine, flicking the paper swiftly, her voice lowered towards the pages. She said something about stains on suede and cornflour. Something about sore feet and needing them rubbed.
‘We’ll put some on a plate with the olives. The children won’t touch them.’ Elizabeth heard her mother say.
Miss Loveling said, ‘Kitchen?’ and her mother nodded.
Through the window, Elizabeth saw Miss Loveling stand. She pulled her mother to her feet and they carried their glasses away.
That was it? That’s what adults talked about when they were alone? Foot rubs and olives delivered from the Greeks on the corner and the marks left by glasses on a suede couch? So boring. Elizabeth could imagine fifty more interesting things to talk about, right now, off the top of her head. Adults were so unfocused, so likely to bring up old news just to start new conversations. And they spent their money on foolish things: repairs to boring appliances and second pairs of the same shoes. Elizabeth would never say, of course. No one ever asked her, of course. She had better things in mind for her secret stash of notes counted nightly and tucked into a lolly jar from Paris where lollies were called bonbons and her Aunty Nuala had seen snowy baby rabbits for sale in a basket outside the Gare du Nord.
If you could stow enough of yourself away, there was more of you in the world, not less.
VAL HAD BEEN seven when Charles Lindbergh flew in an unbroken arc from New York to Paris. Newspapers showed his aeroplane and his warm and handsome face. She’d been only slightly younger than Benjamin was now – but it had been such a different time. Things had felt nimble and light.
Val had impressed upon Stuart how important it was for him to see Gordon fly the plane alone, for the first time. She lifted out six plates, setting one to the side for Stuart. She would serve his and cover it with foil to set in the oven to warm.
She watched Pam pull a cloth pencil case and black sketchbook out of her suitcase. ‘It’s the zoo book I need your children for,’ she told Val, rummaging for something else. ‘I can’t shake the idea, haven’t for years, so I figured I’d better write it so it can leave me alone.’
‘Does that happen often?’
‘Colleen calls them ghost ideas.’ Pam straightened, slipping lollies into her pocket.
‘I remember you telling me about the zoo,’ Val said. She fingered the sleeve of her new green dress. Producing things like the spotty frock would have to be enough for her. ‘I can’t imagine how your mind works. It’s a marvellous idea.’
‘If I ever finish it.’
‘You will. You have it in your sights now.’
They had been the two smallest girls in school from day one. Val, timid and sensory and interested in everything; Pam, creative and commanding and absolutely everyone’s favourite. Val had loved her for this. Now, she saw in her own daughter a need to be liked, to be seen and validated. To know more and to solve problems. A thirst like hers would be an assault on the world. Do less, Val would think when she watched Elizabeth skip from project to project. Be invisible, even occasionally. Make that your goal. But this was deeply unpopular nowadays and she was glad she’d never told Pam or Stuart. What if Amelia Earhart had remained invisible? Hadn’t that woman made the world a more interesting place in the long stretch of time since Val was a girl?
Over the years, Val had felt her body thicken with age, grow a little more with each pregnancy. There had been a third baby and that had been hard to recover from. Half her body didn’t know what the other half had endured and so it kept thrumming along for a bit as though the baby was near her, and her breasts were flame-hot, and the weight was hard to come off. One nurse told her of women who lived in the bush who never got to stay a single night in hospital with their sick newborns. This memory – of making beds and sandwiches for Elizabeth and Benjamin while she waited for news from the hospital – squeezed her very hard. And, she accepted, probably would for the rest of her life.
‘Bring those,’ Val said, nodding to the sketchbook and pencil case. ‘Quick – first I’ll show you the new bedspread and the clay jewellery bowl Benjamin made me in Sunday school.’
They wandered up to Val and Stuart’s bedroom. The house was quiet in the late afternoon. Sunlight fell across the silky oak dressing table, the wardrobe, the matching valet where Stuart kept his cufflinks and comb. On the wall hung their wedding photo. Pam had been Val’s bridesmaid in lemon silk and gloves, with orchids that almost touched the ground. On Val’s face in the photograph was the quiet confidence and polish of being young, of being garlanded in flowers, wrapped in organza.
The cream carpet was soft underneath their shoes and Val sidestepped the creak in the floor at the end of her bed. She ran a hand over the bedspread stitched all across in a diamond pattern. Her sleeping had not improved since it arrived.
At the dressing table, Pam asked, ‘Is this the bowl?’
Val nodded. ‘Turn it over.’
Pam read: ‘Mum. All my love. B.’ She let out a laugh. ‘Where did he get that from? That’s exquisite.’
‘I suspect it was what they all had to write. But I’ve no complaints.’
‘I hated Sunday school.’
‘Did you?’ Val was utterly surprised. ‘I loved it. What else was there to do? All those old people chattering away at you, slipping you barley sugars.’
‘I never could sit still. I hated being told to.’
‘And we had those baskets with our coins inside.’
Pam beamed. ‘You did love that basket.’
Talking like this was nice, on the edge of old times. Val was glad Pam would be staying at least one night and hoped it would be longer. Her heart swelled at the beautiful evening ahead with the children and the plane going by.
‘Does all that feel like a long time ago to you?’ Val asked. ‘It feels like an age to me.’
Pam seemed to think about the question, seriously. ‘Actually, could be yesterday for all I know.’
‘Huh. How strange.’ Val lay back on the bed and loosened her shoes until they dropped to the floor. ‘I’ll just be a minute,’ she said and laughed.
Pam lay beside her and they breathed in time. Val had been awake since four o’clock, no good reason. She relished the sweetness of being flat and silent on her soft bed. She closed her eyes and was aware of the scents in her bedroom in the way Pam might be experiencing them. On the bedside table she kept a silver-lidded tin filled with a scoop of potpourri, and lavender in muslin sachets in the top drawers. Other smells mingled: Stuart’s talcum powder and the fresh, sunny scent of the newly laundered bedspread. The lamb must be almost ready because its richness was there too, wafting upstairs.
Pam drew a sharp breath. ‘Colleen’s mother passed away.’
Val turned and Pam was trying not to cry. ‘What? When?’
‘The Monday before last.’
‘Oh, the pet. How is she?’
Pam lifted her hand from her thigh and tilted it. So-so.
‘When was the funeral?’ Val asked. ‘I would have come.’ The contest inside. Shame at the lie but unable to admit it.
Pam shook her head. ‘Neither of us went. They hadn’t seen each other in fifteen years.’
Val didn’t ask why. ‘What did she – in the end?’
Val exhaled deeply. She gripped the bedspread with both hands.
‘Colleen, well, she doesn’t even know what…which…’ Pam moved her hands over her torso. ‘Her sisters won’t talk to her.’
Val felt squeezed all over again. ‘I’d best check on the tea.’ She rolled onto her side and pushed herself up. She looked down at Pam and touched her shoulder. ‘Unless you want me to stay. Unless we say hang it and the kids can all eat porridge.’
‘Let them,’ Pam said, reaching for Val and sounding at once as old and as young as Val had ever known. ‘One minute? Lie down.’
Val would never get over the fear of losing her brother, who may very well survive, Stuart had said, in his matter-of-fact way. Who knew? They would all do what they could. She saw in her children the relationship she and Gordon had. A relationship with cracks and crevices. Plugging holes, ignoring each other, summoning each other’s help, picking fights, until one day it was easy to convince the other that your love was the same, even after all the years of pieces being taken out of you. Until one day your brother knocked on your door in Newstead and said with a winged smile that he was going to learn to fly, that he’d always wanted to, and although he said it was a small thing it was a skill he would like to know. She’d scoffed at that: a small thing! Imagine the man who thinks enormous things are small. Her brother would learn to fly. She felt tears coming.
Colleen’s sisters must be unfeeling or wicked, or both.
Pam echoed Val’s thought. ‘Such unkind sisters and daughters.’
How on earth Val was the mother of a daughter, a thirteen year old, she couldn’t quite fathom.
But she would have to stop all this moping. Downstairs and all around her things needed to get done. She said, ‘Why don’t you go see what the children are up to? You send them straight to me if they muck around.’
FOR THE ART prize they were in Elizabeth’s bedroom. She stood with her back against the door, holding a notepad and coloured pencils in a box. Wendy sat cross-legged on the bed and Benjamin was prattling on beside his sister’s dressing table, touching all the objects that were usually forbidden, like the photograph of Elizabeth, their mum and Gordon at Sandy Bay, and half a paper wheel of circle stickers, and novelty beer coasters bound in string, and a jar of red nail polish she’d tried once that was now all dried up.
‘Benjamin, are your hands even clean?’
Elizabeth could see that the prospect of a roast and his Uncle Gordon as a pilot, staying up late and being allowed in the yard after dark, were fuelling Benjamin’s excitement. ‘If you don’t want your dessert, later, Lizzie,’ he said, ‘will you give it to me?’
She made a face at her brother who was lovable but predictable in his greediness. ‘If I don’t want it, which I very much will, I’ll give it to Wendy.’
Benjamin made a face. ‘Fine.’ He wiped his nose on his sleeve. ‘I think we should play a game.’
‘What game?’ Wendy asked. ‘We’ve got to draw.’
‘No, that’s boring. This is a game I’ve made up,’ he said, although most likely he hadn’t. Not yet. ‘It’s called Airman and it’s just like...charades.’
‘No, charades are boring,’ Elizabeth said.
‘The game,’ he said, ‘is called Airman.’
Elizabeth thrust a sheet of paper towards him. ‘Everyone has to draw a picture to see who’s the best.’
Benjamin lifted a tin off her dressing table and stubbed open the lid with his thumbnail. Unusually for him, he was keyed up and mischievous. ‘I don’t want to.’
Wendy was very friendly about it all. Sitting forward, she said, ‘Be a sport and do as Lizzie says or you won’t get to see the aeroplane.’ Wendy liked Benjamin and he liked her as well. Elizabeth didn’t have loads of friends and she was definitely the best. The girls watched Benjamin screw up his face, almost certainly thinking hard and unable to follow the lines of logic back to the spot where Wendy had control over whether he walked outside in a few hours and what, precisely, he opened his eyes to look at.
He shook his head, darkly, and picked up a pencil.
‘Why don’t you draw an iguana, Benjamin?’ Wendy said.
‘Or a tapeworm,’ Elizabeth added, pretending to sketch.
‘Leave me alone,’ he said.
Elizabeth, while wanting to demonstrate to her mother that art was nothing to be summoned and shouldn’t be ranked, also wanted, very much, to win the prize. She was confident it would end up being money from their mother’s purse rather than the milk bottle top or the comb, and she could do with a boost to her fund in the lolly jar. She could do with reminding her mother of the talented recesses that existed in her brain. All the better to show how she’d been able to cultivate these with very little help from the adults in her life. Her talent would emerge in a way that seemed miraculous.
There was a knock at the door and Benjamin leapt up, without having made a single stroke on his paper, to let Miss Loveling in. He stood with his hands behind his back and allowed her to kiss him. She slipped a hand into a pocket of her skirt and tossed three Minties onto the bed.
‘Finally,’ Benjamin said, leaping on them. ‘Thanks.’
‘We bought some for you too,’ Elizabeth said.
Miss Loveling was taller than their mother and thinner. There was brightness in her downturned mouth while she concentrated. Her hair was greyer now and longer than was the style. Elizabeth admired how her mother read the Women’s Weekly and made slight adjustments to her hair every few months. Miss Loveling seemed more inclined to do her own thing. But still she had a lot of beauty about her and she didn’t crowd Elizabeth and Benjamin with loads of questions about their teachers and what they’d learnt at school that day. She was Benjamin’s godmother which, to Elizabeth, seemed a mistake and probably not one anybody could ever politely reverse. Elizabeth was much better suited to being the goddaughter of a famous illustrator of children’s books. Once Benjamin had even called Miss Loveling’s friend ‘Gail’ instead of Colleen.
Wendy had met Elizabeth’s sort-of aunty, had received compliments on her dress and questions about tennis, and a comment about her birthmarks before, which Wendy didn’t seem to mind. ‘Sit on the bed with us,’ Wendy invited.
‘I’ll set myself up over here, I think,’ Miss Loveling said. She motioned to the writing desk and chair beneath the window. ‘I’m getting old.’
‘I can’t wait to get old,’ Wendy said.
‘Well, older. Not old,’ Elizabeth corrected.
‘There’s a difference,’ Wendy told Miss Loveling.
‘Of course,’ she said. She picked up a pen, the blue one with the orange cap, and started making short sharp lines as though she was relieving the paper of an itch.
Wendy returned to colouring in her sheet of paper: long slices like the segments of an orange. Elizabeth pulled it closer. A hot air balloon. She turned to Pam. ‘Do you think I could go to university one day?’
Pam nodded. ‘Absolutely. And why not?’
The magic of those words while Wendy nodded beside her, looking up from her picture. Elizabeth caught her smile.
‘I have four brothers and one sister,’ Wendy said. ‘The oldest, Jackie, is about to become a teacher and what if she gets a job at our school and becomes my teacher? Can you imagine?’
Miss Loveling blanched and Wendy grinned, grateful. ‘That sounds horrible,’ Miss Loveling said. ‘I should write a book about that.’
For some time, Elizabeth had been watching her sketch a boy in knee-high socks and two girls in checkered school dresses. Elizabeth thought Miss Loveling knew more than most people about the human body. Her brother’s expressions were right there on the page, in the face of the little boy. Elizabeth was beginning to perceive a gulf between her work and Miss Loveling’s. By now, she had discarded her drawing of a pair of hands and had almost finished one of a stem of kangaroo paw.
‘Did you always want to be an artist?’
Miss Loveling nodded and Elizabeth checked to see that Wendy had heard.
‘Why do you like it?’
Miss Loveling tilted her chin up to the ceiling and her face softened. ‘You can draw something and remember it forever,’ she said. ‘Plus it’s fun and I’m terrific at it.’
The girls grinned. Pride like this was not encouraged. It was a shock to hear a grown-up say it aloud. Elizabeth asked, ‘What is your book about?’
‘It’s about animals in a zoo and what they get up to when the caretakers lock up for the night.’
‘What are your characters called?’
‘Haven’t decided. Certainly not Elizabeth, Benjamin and Wendy.’ Miss Loveling jabbed the air near Benjamin with her pen. ‘That would spoil the secret.’
‘Where’s the zoo?’ Benjamin asked, colouring.
‘Not sure. Maybe nowhere precisely. There used to be a zoo in Hobart. It had polar bears, did you know that?’
He shook his head. ‘I know it had Tasmanian tigers.’ He looked up. ‘But they’re all dead now.’
‘That’s what they think. The Hobart zoo also kept lions.’
Benjamin said, ‘I wish there were lions there now.’
‘Do you?’ Miss Loveling asked. ‘I think it would be a frightening place to live if you were a lion.’
‘Because it isn’t in their nature to be locked up. They might not live as long.’
‘Have you ever seen a real lion, in real life?’ Elizabeth asked. ‘Has Colleen?’
Miss Loveling nodded but said nothing more about it.
‘What are you doing now?’ Wendy got up and stood beside Miss Loveling. She placed a hand on her shoulder.
‘I’m looking for traces of my characters in you, and traces of you in my characters. I’ll need to make them – ooh, a bit less hearty. Their hair wouldn’t have shone this much.’
‘Why?’ Elizabeth asked.
‘There was a bite of hunger. Even here, in Tasmania, in the ’30s, when your mother and I were at school and there were lions and polar bears at the zoo.’ She put down her pen. ‘Now! Who’s ready for judging? Do we have a prize?’
‘Benjamin, go check,’ Elizabeth ordered. She needed one more minute with her artwork.
Her brother abandoned his drawing, crushing it with his palm as he lifted himself off the bed. He trotted downstairs. It was almost silent in the bedroom. They listened to Benjamin’s voice in the kitchen, Val’s low and absent-minded hmmm. Elizabeth sharpened her red pencil one last time. She pictured her mother unhooking her handbag from the hat rack in the hall and digging through, unzipping her purse. Elizabeth heard glee in her brother’s voice. She pictured Val’s face flushed from the heat of the oven.
Miss Loveling stood and moved to the doorway. ‘Val? Come up for the judging.’
Two sets of feet on the stairs, then, and Elizabeth waited to see what they’d return with. Benjamin entered the room with a ten-shilling note stuck to his forehead, his hands held up high in case it fell.
‘Wow,’ Wendy said.
‘It’s ten,’ Benjamin said, lifting it off his skin. ‘Ten!’
‘All right, Benjamin.’ Their mother smiled at the attention. ‘The competition was my idea so I thought I’d better come up with a good prize.’ Elizabeth wondered how much her mother knew about her secret jar from Paris stuffed with money.
Miss Loveling took the three drawings and laid them out across Elizabeth’s bed: Wendy’s hot air balloon floating over a vast yet unfinished green valley below, Benjamin’s circus tent surrounded by animal performers, and Elizabeth’s scarlet-fingered kangaroo paw. For a moment Elizabeth thought Miss Loveling would decline to choose a winner, on the basis that they were all children and therefore deserved special treatment. Or, worse, give the prize to Benjamin for no reason other than being the youngest.
‘Elizabeth, it’s definitely you.’ Miss Loveling turned to Benjamin and Wendy. ‘She’s done the best drawing and she deserves to win.’ They clapped dutifully and abandoned their own drawings on the bed, their interest in them now lost.
‘May I see?’ Val held out her hand to Miss Loveling, eyeing Elizabeth for permission. The countless drawings they had shared since Elizabeth was a toddler. ‘Oh, darling.’
‘Quite the artist,’ Miss Loveling told Val, and returned to her own sketchbook. Her gaze flickered between Benjamin and the paper in front. Elizabeth saw countless Benjamins in all manner of poses and expressions: crouching (perhaps at a fountain); peering (perhaps through steel bars); arms thrown into the air; pointing; laughing; sulking. One in which his mouth was a dark circle of excitement.
‘She is indeed,’ Val said. ‘Did you know, Pam, that El could draw faces – real, identifiable faces – by the time she was two, two and a half?’
Elizabeth liked this. She’d heard this story before.
‘Well, it’s a gorgeous kangaroo paw, my dear. Ten shillings for you. Benjamin? To your sister, please.’ Her mother kissed her, re-tied her apron and headed back downstairs.
VAL RAN A knife around the inside of the cake tin. Laying a hand on top she turned it out onto the wire rack, peeled away the paper to cool and turned it the right way up. With the raspberry jam it would be Pam’s favourite. A bright-yellow custard bubbled gently on the stove. Save a slice for Gordon and he and Pam could share it later tonight over coffee, or for morning tea tomorrow.
If Pam could just see Gordon stepping down from the aeroplane, unwrapping his scarf, his cheeks flushed pink from the exertion of being an aviator, she might fall in love with him. Gordon could be directed this way and that – he’d go along with being fallen in love with. Val even imagined it was the aeroplane making all the decisions, her brother blinking, sitting up, a little more awake, murmuring into the control panel, Yes, whatever you think, over to you. After almost forty years of acquiescence, perhaps Gordon’s body had decided to get on with the business of making decisions and had allowed a passing disease to take hold.
She wished she’d known about Colleen’s mother’s death from a letter – the better to know what to say.
In the fridge she found the jam and dipped a spoon in and then into her mouth. She squinted. In the backyard was the woodshed and an arrangement of native plums and swamp gums at the end of the garden. She stopped, with the spoon in her mouth. Val would love nothing more than to catch Pam and her brother sharing cake at a table in the sun, or in the backyard plucking at the leaves of a tree and smiling into each other’s faces. Stranger things had happened after people grew up together and all that good-natured fighting and name-calling had fallen away. Maybe their childhood would prove to yield all sorts of love affairs.
ALL AFTERNOON, ELIZABETH had fought off a strange tide of feeling about Uncle Gordon. The smooth white underbelly of the machine soaring from one side of the sky to the other would be magical to see. She both desperately wanted to see him in his aeroplane – maybe even a wave out the window – and desperately didn’t. Unease slivered through her at the complicated, heavy machine and all those contraptions. Her uncle was not a strong man. He was gentle and easily distracted. And he was sick.
Suddenly, Elizabeth decided she’d had enough of Wendy and needed a break, just for a minute. She looked out her window towards the garden and jumped off the bed.
‘Wendy?’ She told her to take Benjamin into the lounge room and watch the television, whatever they wanted, which of course did the trick, since Elizabeth’s house was the only place Wendy got to watch any at all. And Benjamin was out of her bedroom like a shot, urging Wendy behind him, ‘Come on, come on.’
In the backyard was the woodshed. Elizabeth had seen a whole family of spiders there once, scampering out from under a bucket like spilt ink. White cockatoos liked to perch on the gutter above the double wooden doors, rocking and swaying, lifting their claws and putting them down carefully.
A fortnight ago she had come out to unlock the doors for Gordon, who needed something from inside.
‘Uncle Gordon,’ she had said before she could stop herself. ‘Are you sick?’
That’s like poison, her mother had said.
‘Only a bit, El. Lots of people get sick, I’m afraid.’
He cleared his throat and she saw him not as a whole but as bits of a body, like the four-by-four-inch illustrations in Malady. His face was no longer his face but a cross-section, his skull an open-cut quarry. Ghoulish with its two rows of teeth alive and bared, the tongue a creature from deep inside. Gordon had been wearing a blue jumper, and Elizabeth saw beneath it to his chest cavity: his heart the shape of a vegetable pulled from the soil. When he lifted his arm to cough: an exposed elbow joint. She saw the bones of his fingers and their hard eagerness to flicker and tap.
‘Daddy’s a doctor.’
‘So you know, then. About people getting sick.’
‘You’re a smart girl. And there are many types of being sick, and not all of them – as good as your dad is – have easy cures.’
‘What’s it called?’ she whispered. ‘What’s wrong with you?’
Uncle Gordon dropped his head.
It had been the wrong thing to say, she was sure. Anything else might have been better than that. Fear that began with her mother on the couch had grown but wavered while she went to school and chatted with Wendy about hockey and tennis and whether there’d be a nuclear war soon. The fear was now a fog around her head. Uncle Gordon won’t die, is what she had told her mother and her mother had rubbed circles on her back.
Elizabeth could now see the tops of Wendy and Benjamin’s heads in the lounge room. Benjamin bobbed up and down on the couch. Elizabeth laid her hand on a tree. She should bring the washing in off the line for her mother. She looked at the pond they now kept with bright fat goldfish. Picture a tiny bubble, her mother had said about the frogs.
Now, Elizabeth’s head felt untidy, not clear, not light.
One night last week she had dreamt of the aeroplane tumbling overhead. Out of the clouds it had surfaced like a bird, Uncle Gordon a speck at the front window of the control panel. In that way of dreams, Elizabeth could feel his aliveness as though she was inside his chest cavity and Gordon had been thinking about this moment for years, this part of himself that the aeroplane would prise open. The rhythm of the plane thrumming against the sky of her childhood – for the neighbourhood in her dream had slipped to the street she played in when she was smaller.
She felt Gordon’s grip on the yoke and the tightness across his chest and shoulders as the aeroplane soared. They were tilting slightly and dipping slightly while Launceston was a still and quiet tiny town painted in fragments below. The mountains around them seemed to nod, perhaps something to scale up, up, up when Gordon grew with confidence. The river was dark beneath them, bearing boats like fish. Gordon coughed and Elizabeth wondered if the cough was related to the name of the disease she didn’t know. And then Gordon was saying something under his breath as the plane began to shudder.
What is it? she asked him.
He seemed to shush her without saying a word.
What are you saying?
They breasted the air high above Tasmania. Suddenly Elizabeth could see all the way to the beach at Sandy Bay and gulls were like crumbs on the sand and she wondered why she and her uncle should be this close to the ground. Panic shook through her and she saw the faces of her father and mother and baby Benjamin. A line of nausea drew itself across her throat. Outside, the ocean of her hometown barrelled towards them and the pines were tall and sharp.
At that moment, Gordon righted the machine. Elizabeth was rocked and her insides reassembled. She felt Gordon’s relief, balmy and wide. But another feeling was lurking too. Pages of her beloved dictionary Malady seemed to flick before her until her mind rested, like a finger finding a word in a column, on ‘despair’. A pair of emotions had propelled them. For a brief moment she had been on the edge of life but here Elizabeth was, firmly back within it. All was safe. Her uncle gave a wave from the window and slid the aeroplane out of view before she was woken by her mother: time for porridge and shoes and socks and school.
VAL SPLASHED GIN into her glass, added ice and tonic and a thin slice of lemon. She held out a beer for Pam who fixed herself a shandy without a pause in their conversation.
‘The book isn’t finished, Val. It’s barely started.’
Val grabbed fistfuls of cutlery and motioned for Pam to follow her into the dining room. ‘But that’s why you’re here. For the children to help you. Here – plate, please.’
‘I felt so good about it. And now, nothing.’
‘What about that treehouse one? With the magpies? Never thought you’d finish that, did you?’
Pam lowered herself into a chair, holding the plate aloft. She talked about her illustrations. She thought of her drawings like spells she set out to cast, knowing what needed to go into each one, but where nothing was guaranteed. ‘Sometimes they’re bewitching. Other times it’s a great big mess.’
‘Oh, love.’ Val felt like anything she said would be wrong. ‘You’ll get there.’
Pam put down the dinner plate and spun it. ‘At some point I’ll run out of oomph.’
‘Never,’ Val whispered.
‘Or at least ideas.’
Val raised her voice. ‘Children, tea time. Wash your hands.’ She paused and looked to Pam. ‘Wait for it – just watch the ratbags try to get out of it, and try me, and come down too soon to have plausibly washed their hands.’
At the table, Benjamin pondered through a prayer. Val served the meat. Elizabeth passed the gravy boat with the trout painted on its side. Wendy took the bowl of potatoes first. Val admired Wendy’s mother for having six children, though the thought that she herself might have bred that number made her shudder. Mrs MacNeish was quick-witted and skilled at stretching what must have been a meagre household budget. No holes in school dresses that Val could see. Clean teeth and faces. A sense of humour and manners among Wendy and her sister and brothers that Val found endearing.
Val liked the children to speak mildly and entertainingly at meal times. Anecdotes were welcome. A few times Benjamin had brought along magic tricks. Elizabeth liked to heft that great big medical dictionary to the table and set it to one side of her plate, chewing and running a finger down page after page, wanting to be noticed. But tonight there was no dictionary and Elizabeth sat tall in her chair.
Suddenly Val had a premonition of her daughter at a table flanked by others, a dinner in her honour, flowers in bowls.
Elizabeth and Wendy clinked their glasses of ginger ale, giggling.
Pam took up her knife and fork. ‘Colleen has ideas about what we can do with the upstairs bedroom. I’ve got no eye for that sort of thing.’
‘What about Gordon?’ Val blurted out.
Pam turned. ‘What about him? As a decorator?’
The sourness of the gin coated Val’s mouth, making it dry. ‘As a prospect. For you.’
‘For me. Ah.’ Pam took her hands from her cutlery and laid them in her lap.
Val barrelled on. ‘He is adventurous – God knows. Employed in a profession he likes. He is kind, good to the children.’
‘You could both be very happy.’
She pushed on, breathless. ‘You could live nearby, find a house together.’
Benjamin asked, ‘Is he better?’
Elizabeth looked up sharply.
‘Yes, how is he?’ Pam added.
‘Well,’ Val said, ‘he won’t let Stuart examine him so how are we to know?’
‘But what does he say?’
Val stood and picked up the dish of peas from the centre of the table. She stirred them with a spoon. ‘I wish I hadn’t brought it up.’
She needed this night to chop away at her fears. Have the butcher wrap the lamb, set a pot of peas on the stove, separate the eggs for the custard. These repeated gestures would undermine the dramatics of an ill, beloved brother, the searching wonder of him alive inside a small aeroplane, threading the machine through the sky. She would remain excited, but calm. Val owed him this. So many times as children she’d upstaged him: sulking without good reason after Gordon slid first down a grassy bank, Val running away from a family picnic and getting cornered by geese, a midnight trip for the whole family to the hospital after she’d swallowed a coin.
She sat down. The girls spoke quietly to each other. Val, not at all hungry, finished her food in silence.
THE SQUARE GREEN clock above the stove said twenty minutes past eight. The house slipped into near silence in the space after tea, before the airman. Pam shook a cigarette from its packet and insisted on starting a sink full of dishes. Benjamin perched on the kitchen bench with the jug of leftover custard and a long silver spoon in his lap. He was grinning. Val let it all slide and left them there: Pam with her hands in water, her son and the spoon.
Alone, Val angled the bathroom mirror closer and drummed her fingers across her forehead. The grind of a truck lowering its gears sounded in the distance. She hoped Stuart was, right at that moment, sliding into his car on Hopkins Street, pulling onto the road and heading for home.
Val pushed the mirror towards the bathroom wall feeling as though she had been looking skyward all day. She stuck her head into the hallway. ‘It’s almost time,’ she called.
SHE KNEW WHAT her uncle had told her in the woodshed: that lately he would fall asleep without any warning and wake up – it could be seconds or minutes later – feeling like his mind was a cloud. Or, had he said, in a cloud? When he told her, his hands were still, not shaking, as he cushioned a bit of timber in his palm. He was getting better though, and she mustn’t tell anyone, because Val was nervous and a worrier at the best of times. Elizabeth resisted asking – for a second time – the name of the disease.
But he’d earnt his licence; he had shown them the papers. He’d done all those hours. Whole days at a time, and then afterwards, if he came over for tea, he would tell them at the table about his lessons over the river and what Prossers Forest looked like from the air. How nothing below seemed to move.
Elizabeth sprung up from the bedroom floor. Panic was beginning to bloom in her chest. It all threatened to fly apart. The excitement over Gordon in the aeroplane, a real aviator. Taking flight for the first time over Newstead. It could all be lost. The conditions tonight were perfect for flying – Gordon had told her so. The night was beginning to fill up. At thirteen, almost fourteen, maybe you just ended up knowing things that weren’t yours to do anything about, but you had to hold onto them anyway.
From her desk she lifted the medical dictionary with two hands and tore through it, flicking pages at a time and then slowing to run her finger down. Truthfully, this part felt exciting, felt adventurous. The jar from Aunty Nuala now had ten shillings more. Far away, Paris was exciting. A slow-moving river where artists painted and spangled dancers were kicking out high above the city. Far away were all the cities of the world where people looked out with their arms folded at window ledges. She could draw them, and the flowers they planted, and find out what made their lives tick. And she would send letters home, to the white house in Launceston, letters to her mother that would say, Look what I’ve done. See what I’m doing.
‘I’m in the bathroom.’
Pressing the dictionary open against her chest, she left her bedroom and found her mother washing her hands at the sink. Elizabeth’s feet were cold on the tiles and she shivered.
‘Mum, what did you want to be when you grew up?’
‘Say again, love?’ Her mother turned properly and stared at the book.
‘When you were my age?’
‘When I was your age it was 1933.’
‘And things were not like that for girls.’
‘Not like what?’ Elizabeth felt her heart thudding beneath the pages of the book.
Her mother took a while to answer. ‘Want me to make you another skirt like that one?’ she asked, pointing. ‘Remind me tomorrow.’ She rubbed Elizabeth’s shoulder and eased past. Elizabeth watched her walk down the hall towards the stairs, the scent of her perfume persisting. Wisps of hair from her bun fell down her neck. She paused at the handrail and her shoulders went up and down.
Elizabeth’s fear came upon her like an object flung from a great height. What would her mother do? Who would her mother become with another person to grieve? Elizabeth remembered her uncle’s distress after the death of her grandparents. Gordon and Val lost their mother and father within a single month. Elizabeth knew her mum should know Gordon’s confession about falling asleep. But she’d been told before to stay out of adults’ business, although not in so many words. Everything she said seemed to be wrong.
THE KNIVES AND forks were lined up in rows on a tea towel, still warm from the water, when Val returned to help Pam. She told Benjamin to go put a proper jumper on. He hopped down from the bench and dashed out and Val saw that all the custard was gone.
‘He’s a good boy,’ she said. ‘Takes after his uncle.’
‘Val.’ Pam shook her head. ‘This thing with Gordon…’
‘Oh, he will be fine.’ She slotted the knives into the drawer.
‘I meant you thinking that he and I could be a pair.’
Val eased the drawer closed. She kept her eyes down. ‘I know you see me as a silly housewife, with silly ideas and every day of my life is boring.’
‘I do not.’
‘But there’s something to be said, isn’t there? For fitting in and settling down and having a life that is just…simpler.’
Pam plunged her hands into the water. ‘I’ve never put you in a position where you had to comment on my life.’
‘You and I could be closer, but I’ve been considerate of you all these years, thinking, No, it’s not fair to thrust that upon her. And so we’re close, yes, but I make sure Colleen is away when you visit. Have you never noticed?’
‘I have, yes,’ she whispered.
‘And I don’t comment on your life here.’
Val looked up sharply. ‘What about it?’
‘Nothing, is my point. I told you a serious thing earlier about Colleen’s mother and you can’t even… I won’t stay. I’ve packed for three nights, but I’ll leave in the morning.’
‘Pam, that’s silly.’ Val thought of the two slices of cake she’d set aside on a plate in the fridge. ‘Look.’ She tried to stop herself from crying and she glanced towards the front door. ‘It’s almost half past eight. Quick, please. What I said. Forget it for now. Quick.’
She held out a towel and took Pam’s hands in hers. They kept their eyes down, on their two pairs of hands, touching. Val noticed the end of a cigarette smouldering in the glass ashtray, and when she let go, Pam reached around and lit another.
Outside, in the front yard of the house on Olive Street, the cool spring air chilled Val more than it should. She thought about running inside for a cardigan but didn’t want to miss anything. She listened to the crickets and watched her friend standing next to the tall pine, patting her son’s hair. The tip of her cigarette was a pinprick glow that danced above Benjamin’s head. He leant against Pam and his body sagged. For the first time Val realised this was past her children’s bedtimes. She saw Pam’s tenderness with her sweet, lonely boy. Who else had been there all these years except for Pam? Who else would she talk to so she didn’t go mad? She’d tried to engage her husband in evening conversations to draw them closer but that had made her feel even lonelier. No one’s fault.
The sky beckoned.
Think about him, she willed Pam across the cold grass. Think about the life you could have with this man you have known for decades. Cure him.
IN THE FRONT yard, Elizabeth walked away from Miss Loveling and Benjamin and Wendy and went to stand at the letterbox to look back over their gabled roof against the night sky. The aeroplane would come from that direction, from the north. Elizabeth thought she might snap from anticipation. She pictured the muscles in her chest, in her heart. The lines of a fine drawing inside, so close to the surface. The colours of the day had gone. Across the street, nearly all the lights in the Robinsons’ house were off. So, too, the darkness of the Tyrells’ house, which was quiet behind its low stone fence and neatly spaced hydrangeas.
The pair of lights she saw now was confusing. So low to the ground, and from the wrong direction. She blinked and realised her father had arrived, slowing the car as it drew up to the house. More quickly than normal, her mother in her green dress dashed across the lawn and met him at the driver’s window. They spoke in low tones. The click of the door opening, his unfolding out of the car. In one movement he held his hat on his head and looked upwards, beaming. Elizabeth saw her brother smile. Wendy hugged herself and Miss Loveling took off her coat and draped it across Wendy’s shoulders.
More than anything, Elizabeth hoped to see the aeroplane flying overhead. The clouds and the stars would make way and this would be the beginning of Gordon’s new life, not the end.
She stood alone and waited for the sky to reveal him. The pilot and his aeroplane turning to new things in the mind’s eye.