Authors: Charlotte Wood
I heard deep raspy breaths; she was drawing heavily on a cigarette and even over the phone she sounded old and needy. I pictured the almost-empty bottle of white wine close by. ‘What’s all this guru stuff anyway?’ she went on. ‘Numerology, astrology, holistic blahblah, tantric mumbo-jumbo. A thirty-seven-year-old lawyer doesn’t need all this
certainly don’t need all this
! Bruce would be rolling in his grave. What are we going to do?’
I didn’t need any
either. But I felt sorry for Liz. She was no storybook evil stepmother. Sally and I had hardly begrudged her marrying our father. She hadn’t pinched him from Monica, our mother; Bruce had been a widower, after all. And for a few years we were still sort of numb, and kept to ourselves while Dad grieved alone and left us to our own devices. Then, as a widowed parent herself— after
death five years later—she’d always been amiably haphazard and not the least bit maternal. I think that’s why we didn’t overly resent her when we were younger: she wasn’t vying for our love. Sally and I had each other and it suited us that she was affectionately distant, not in competition with our mother over anything, and allowed our sad reverence for her to remain undisturbed.
Her focus was completely on Bruce, her husband whether living or dead. As soon as Anthony was seven, she’d sent him off to boarding school, to far-off Guildford Grammar. She’d married late, at forty, the eldest Miller sister and the last to go, and for the fact of being married at all she was grateful to Bruce every day. If he was no longer there, she wanted to be alone with his memory; his memory and the remains of his wine cellar.
? What could I do? Anthony was a grown man and, by Perth’s standards, already a successful one: a commercial lawyer, yachtsman, weekend tennis player (of minimum ability), and the owner of two storeys of heritage sandstone, a pool, a tennis court behind a disciplined plumbago hedge and, from the second-floor bedrooms at least, three river glimpses and a misty view of the Darling Ranges. He was responsible for his own actions.
Anyway, maybe he was doing the right thing. I was sorry for his kids, but Angela was a provincial Anglophile snob with a cleanliness obsession. The sort who washed your beer glass the minute you set it down, who made you feel unkempt and grubby in her company. Maybe Anthony had seen the light.
How would I describe our half-brotherly relationship? We were like long-time acquaintances. Beyond our father we had little in common. Our political views collided. Anthony was conservative and well-off, and I was neither. He was a law graduate and I was basically self-educated. There was a thirteen-year age difference and no physical resemblance. Whenever we met up, at Christmas or other family gatherings, we didn’t converse so much as banter and nod agreeably and earnestly top up each other’s drinks.
‘How’s the art world?’ he’d ask. ‘Selling any?’ He came to my exhibitions because he liked the business–social aspect, plus the chance to mingle safely with a few raffish characters.
Always we acted as brothers. But we were
We weren’t exactly brothers, and we weren’t exactly friends. We were something in between.
But this was an intriguing twist, being called on for advice. Until recently the role of the family bohemian, the black sheep, was mine.
Even his handshake was different now, loose and metallic. All those silver rings on his fingers. Another in his left ear. Silver bracelets on each wrist, a necklace of little beads and seeds and stones, and another thin chain with some sort of gemstone pendant banging portentously against his sternum. I’d never seen an ornamented Anthony before—the Old Guildfordian cufflinks used to be his limit. Add the rumpled natural fibres, a collarless shirt, rubbery sandals (no leather in evidence), floppy drawstring trousers like pyjama pants that didn’t reach his ankles, and he’d gone the whole hog, sartorially. Guru-wear, his mother called it. It looked more like grandpa-wear to me—if your grandpa was institutionalised and had got into grandma’s jewellery box.
I’d dressed up in a shirt with a collar and, for the first time, I felt like the conservative brother. ‘So, what’s happening, Ant?’ I said as I sat down. The
came out more abruptly than I’d intended. I meant it more as
How are you going?
but it came out like
What the Christ are you doing with your life?
‘What do you mean?’ he said, frowning. To be honest, he looked well. He’d lost the extra weight he’d stacked on. Of course those childhood veins had long since vanished into ruddy cheeks and freckled temples.
‘How are things? What are you up to?’
That frown at least was familiar. Was he going to answer or not? His cutlery caught the sun as he was arranging his knife and fork at right angles to the table edge.
‘I heard you’d gone vegetarian. So, you eat fish then?’
Yes, he ate fish. Apparently his new lifestyle didn’t preclude alcohol either, or his liking for good wines, and once the bottle he’d ordered had arrived he began to open up. ‘Look, I’ve embarked on a new journey,’ he began, guardedly. His fingers were still fiddling with the tableware. ‘Everything in my life has been leading me to this point.’
‘Doesn’t it always?’ I said. But I was trying to be understanding. ‘Tell me about your life changes. Who’s the girlfriend? Do I know her?’ There was a fair chance I did. My gravelly three acres of banksias and grass trees were also up in the hills. ‘Are you sure you’re doing the right thing?’
Part calming-Jesus, part-lawyer, he raised an admonishing hand. ‘Let me show you something.’ He held up the wine bottle, pointed to its label, read out its name:
Torbreck Roussane Marsanne
Its design featured two concentric circles. He tapped them with a beringed finger. His expression, very legal and wisdom-ofthe-ages, declared,
I rest my case.
‘That label says it all,’ he said. ‘It’s a personal message to me. It tells me I’m doing the right thing.’
‘Really?’ I toyed with the idea of the Torbreck wine people not only knowing of his existence but basing their graphic designs and marketing strategies around his changing emotions. ‘I thought the label was saying,
Please buy this wine
Anthony sighed and cast his eyes around the restaurant. ‘The thing is, I can get confirmation anywhere,’ he said. ‘Okay, see those napkin rings on the buffet over there?’ Two silver circles stood side by side, intersecting slightly. ‘They’re speaking to me. They’re confirming the rightness of my journey.’
‘Do the circles represent you and the new woman?’
He sighed. ‘Among other things.’
‘Are you going to tell me her name?’
‘Does it matter? Sarita. Maya. Parissa. She goes by several names. She’s the essential, fundamental woman.’
Fundamental woman. I got the picture. Cuntstruck.
He said, ‘We don’t have sex, if that’s what you’re thinking.’
Our plates of snapper arrived then, the fish engulfed by circles of beetroot and orange slices and onion and pineapple rings. Collage as much as meal. As I scraped the bright geometric toppings off my fish I almost asked whether all this round food was conveying wisdom to him.
I was running out of questions and Anthony, his cheeks already flushed from the alcohol and conversation, was still frowning. I swallowed another mouthful of wine. I was forced to raise my voice over the dour northern English voices and seagull squawks. So, this new life journey, one of tossed-in job and dumped family—a celibate journey, to boot—was being determined by serviette rings and wine labels.
‘Ant, I think you need to see someone,’ I said.
Charged with carbohydrates, the melee of eight-year-olds fled the debris of the party table. For several minutes Brian and I tried to exhaust them by organising a game of Red Rover under the peppermint trees, but the idea didn’t take hold.
Weary of manners and adult directions, first one boy then another broke away from the game and began running up the hill and rolling down again. Soon all of them were rolling and shrieking and somersaulting down the slope. Late-afternoon shadows were stretching across the park but the day’s clamminess seemed to have increased. In the heat, with the river so close, this fierce prickly game looked like madness. Over and over, hysterical, they rolled and climbed.
Behind the main clump of boys, Anthony, less quick and agile, dizzy and red-faced, grass sticking to his shirt, picked himself up and staggered up the incline once more. His legs were wobbly sticks. As he climbed he had to avoid the mob of boys tumbling down, and several times he was knocked over. He was no longer in charge of events and the rebellious horde ignored his angry protests and indignant arm-waving. That urgent noise he was making sounded somewhere between shouting and sobbing. Then he got to his feet halfway up the hill, beat his sides with his fists and started to scream.
Anthony drained his glass, leaned back in his chair, dropped his hands in his lap, breathed deeply—once, twice—as if willing the dangerous glimmer in his eyes to fade and a suitably serene expression to slide down his cheeks. ‘See someone? You mean a shrink?’
‘Well, a psychologist or counsellor or whatever.’ It sounded lame. He’d lost his father at the age of five. I tended to forget that. I’d been twelve when Mum died and eighteen when Dad did. Being five was probably worse. But at least he still had a mother. ‘You might find it very helpful, dealing with old emotional stuff.’
‘I have my own spiritual mentors,’ he declared. ‘And I’ve never been more emotionally stable in my life. In fact, I’m so calm that I don’t even resent your bloody gratuitous advice.’
‘Just because you’re calm doesn’t mean you’re not fucked up and don’t need help.’
‘And you’d be competent to judge that? With your background? A fucking painter who didn’t even go to university?’
‘Someone with more life experience and common sense than you, brother.’
He raised an eyebrow. The resemblance was extraordinary. It could have been our father, towards the end. When he was bitter and hitting the bottle late at night, and always giving Sally and me strange looks; when he realised he’d remarried too soon, the wrong woman; when he was still mourning my mother. ‘
Are you sure?’
Well, half-brother then.’
He was running a finger round the rim of his wineglass so it made an irritating thin scream. Another bloody circle. ‘You’re sure of that?’ he repeated.
I could have whacked his smug hippie-lawyer head. ‘What are you getting at?’
Anthony wore a prim smile, as if an old score was finally settled. ‘You never wondered why you’re short and olive-skinned? How incurious can you be? I hate to be the one to pass on family secrets, but you know your mother couldn’t have children?’
For a few seconds I couldn’t see. The glare off the harbour, snowy tablecloths, the swirling white ruckus of the seagulls, blinded me. The whole scene was leached of tint and shade. Strangely, I recalled the faint watercolours of Lloyd Rees when his sight was fading at the end of his life. If it were me, I’d have chosen brighter and brighter colours. But his were pale, soft yet urgent paintings that paralleled his life force. Paintings needing to be quickly said before time ran out.