Read While I Live Online

Authors: John Marsden

While I Live (4 page)

BOOK: While I Live
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Daisy, Daisy,
Give me your answer do!
I’m half crazy,
All for the love of you!
It won’t be a stylish marriage,
I can’t afford a carriage
But you’ll look sweet on the seat
Of a bicycle built for two!

I got on a bit of a roll then and stayed up till late, looking for music tracks. It was hard because my parents sure as hell didn’t have the same taste in music as I did. I didn’t want to choose stuff they didn’t like. But I didn’t want to choose stuff that I didn’t like either. So in the end I compromised, and went for ‘Take It In’ by The Waifs and ‘There is a Mountain’ by some old hippie called Donovan.

The day of the funeral started out wet and grey. Just like you’d expect. Just the way a funeral should be. I got Gavin into his best clothes, which was a big effort. In some ways it was a typical Gavin day, when you saw him at his best and worst. He took an hour and a half to get dressed, and he whinged and complained and cried and sulked pretty much the whole time. Did I have any sympathy for him, this little stray washed up to our doorstep by the war? Did I care that the only place in the world where he’d been able to find security had now been blown up in his face?

Well, yes I did. But after an hour and a half I was totally fed up with him. Although there had been people coming and going so much in the house ever since the shootings, at the end of each day it was still Gavin and me alone together, and I was finding that pretty hard to take. I guess he was too.

Then, the moment I’d at last got him into his clothes, he disappeared outside. I was furious but I couldn’t be bothered chasing him anymore. If he got muddy, or worse if he disappeared altogether and missed the funeral, that was his lookout. I’d done all I could.

Then the next thing he’s coming back into the kitchen with a bunch of flowers he’s picked from the garden and I realise he’s done it so he can take them to the funeral. There weren’t many flowers in the garden at that time of year; he must have taken pretty much everything. A few late roses, a lot of white azaleas, a hydrangea leached of colour but beautiful in its dry coat, and even some early wattle.

Like I say, it was a morning of Gavin at his best and worst. I smacked a kiss on his forehead, which he immediately wiped off before he could catch girl germs.

Seeing Gavin walk in the door with his bunch of flowers really got to me. I was finding everything so hard to take. In particular the way in which my parents were everywhere I turned, as though they were still alive. Their presence was in every corner. This’ll sound sick, but in the same way that my mother’s blood had spread to every corner of the kitchen, her life spread through every corner of the house. Same with my father. I picked up a cookbook and there was a note in my mother’s writing, with a recipe for beer bread; I opened a drawer and found my father’s messy old address book; on the table in the dining room was the last bunch of flowers my mother had arranged, starting to wilt now. I didn’t like going into their bedroom, couldn’t go into their bedroom, because it was too unbearable. Their presence filled the room so strongly that for the first time in my life I felt there was hardly room for me in there. Maybe it was their smell, because the room was laden with that. The first time I went in after the murders I tiptoed around as though they had dissolved and spread through the room like a heavy invisible mist. I was scared to touch anything.

I got ready for the funeral myself. I wore my hair out, the way my mother liked it.

Homer arrived at half past ten. When I saw him from the kitchen window, walking towards the door, and realised that he had dressed up in clothes I’d never seen him wear before, a navy suit with a dark red tie and polished black leather shoes, I felt like I’d swallowed a small apple and it had stuck halfway down my throat. It wasn’t just that he looked so handsome. It was the fact that he had put on clothes that I knew he would have hated. And there was also my awareness that in the last few days someone had been looking after the property, feeding the chooks and putting them to bed, checking the cattle, fuelling the vehicles and filling the woodbox, and I knew for sure who that someone was.

I felt a surge of love for my older ‘brother’ Homer and my little ‘brother’ Gavin. I’d practically grown up with Homer and I’d known Gavin for a lot less than a year but I could almost see the links between us at that moment.

We got in the car and off we went. I was so sick at the thought of what was in front of me. I didn’t know if I could get through it. When I saw the crowd at the church I felt even worse. ‘Don’t these people have homes of their own to go to?’ I muttered to Homer. It was a standard joke we’d been swapping for years. He squeezed my hand.

‘What do you want to do? Sit here for a while?’

I had my head down. I couldn’t look up. ‘I guess not. I guess I’d better face it.’

‘Hey, you’ve been through some tough spots. Remember the airfield? The prison? And the prison camp? You can do this.’

‘This is worse.’

He didn’t say anything. I waited a few more minutes, then, before it became impossible, got out, grabbed Gavin’s hand, and in we went.

We got through it.

It was another, I don’t know, a week I suppose before I started to function in any way again. I felt sort of guilty waking up at all, as though it was disrespectful to my parents, as though I should mourn them forever. Anything short of that and I wasn’t a good daughter. If I smiled or noticed a song on the radio or took an interest in a programme Gavin was watching on TV I felt ashamed. If I didn’t think about them every moment of every day, if I didn’t keep their memories alive by the power of my heart and mind, then I was disloyal. And worse than that, they’d go, they’d disappear into oblivion, and they’d be truly dead then. I was the only thing, the only person, standing between them and extinction.

I seem to be quoting a lot of poems here, but what the hell, here goes with another one. Mr Kassar gave it to us in Drama one day, back a couple of years. We had to prepare a Drama presentation based around it. At first we didn’t even understand it but when he explained that it was about memory and the way when someone dies a lot of their experiences and stories and personal memories die with them, suddenly I got it.

It was called ‘The Old Man’s Dead, the Baby’s Dead’. When the old man died there was no-one left to remember the little baby he and his wife gave birth to sixty or so years ago. So it’s like now the baby’s really gone.

When he died and went to earth,
All the thousand million memories he’d had since birth
Went with him. The comet over Kakadu,
The buttercup he waved for love in playground games,
The Army Hall that fell in flames
And the baby who drew a dozen breaths and died.
No-one left now to read the words ‘Always remembered’,
In faded brown on the granite slab.
Good-bye old man! A lot went with you.
And only now can it be said
The old man’s dead, the baby’s dead.

I knew some of my parents’ stories. My father’s were all about farm life. The swaggies and Indian hawkers who called in to the property when Dad was a little kid. The silence in the shearing shed as the men sheared the stud rams with blades instead of electric shears, to avoid injuring them. The weekend rabbit drives, when the trappers gradually pushed the rabbits into nets in a corner of a paddock, getting over two thousand rabbits in a weekend. Drenching the sheep with bluestone-nicotine, and going out the next morning to see hundreds of huge white tapeworms all over the ground. The glut of cattle which led to well-bred Poll Hereford cows in good condition selling for ten, twenty, fifty cents each. And the fires and the floods. Always the fires and floods.

My mother’s stories ranged a bit wider. Some were about growing up in the city, some were about her trip overseas when she was eighteen. And some were about life with Dad on the farm. Her father was an accountant and her mother did a few different things, including catering and landscape design and radio production. And raising a daughter.

So my mother’s stories were about going to a private school where some girls were driven by chauffeurs each day, where Mum got caught putting a bra on a statue of the school’s first principal (who to make things worse was a guy), where she saw a teacher get run over by a drunk on a bicycle. And later, after she’d left school, helping her mother design a garden for Monica Duran, who insisted on having a huge photo of herself on a courtyard wall, going to a dance and finding a girl dead in one of the toilet cubicles, seeing the pandas in the Washington Zoo, and a soccer riot in Barcelona.

And, later, the fires and the floods.

I really believe that our stories make us who we are. I don’t think people are born as empty shells. They already have the makings of a personality and they have intelligence. But from the moment they’re born, and maybe before that, they start accumulating stories and it’s those stories that have the biggest effect on them.

Like the poem says, a thousand million memories. A thousand million stories. And then some.

I feel that in my short life I’ve already gone over the thousand million mark. Sometimes I have trouble believing that I’ve seen and done so much.

A week after the funeral Fi walked in through the kitchen door. I was at the table trying to show Gavin how to separate eggs, and I hadn’t heard her coming. Gavin certainly hadn’t heard her coming. He dropped the egg, shell and all, into the bowl with the whites and rushed to her like he’d been a calf on one side of the fence and she was his mum who’d been bellowing for him on the other side. Not that I’ve ever seen anyone less like a cow than Fi. She’s more deer, more antelope, more your young wallaby, the most naturally graceful person I know.

Gavin hugged her and hugged her. It was hard for me to get near her. I actually felt jealous of Gavin, no, not jealous, envious. Somehow I was getting too old for the Total, Give It Everything You’ve Got, No Holds Barred hugs. They were the best hugs of all. But when I was finally allowed access to Fi we held each other for a long time. She felt very warm.

Soon enough I got her a cup of coffee and we sat down at the table, Gavin squished up next to Fi on the same chair, holding his glass of cordial. (Another pang as I got the bottle of cordial from the pantry – Mum had made it less than two months ago and it had her own label on it, with a little sketch of fruit, and the words ‘Linton’s Lemon and Orange’ in cute printing.)

‘How have you been?’ she asked me.

‘OK.’

‘You looked terrible at the funeral.’

‘Were you at the funeral?’

‘You mean you don’t remember?’

‘No. I didn’t think you were there. I was a bit hurt about it actually.’

‘Oh my God, Ellie, we had a conversation, but you seemed so switched off that I didn’t know if you wanted me to stay away or what. So I thought I’d wait a bit, until the first rush of visitors had finished. ’Cos Mum said that you’d be overwhelmed by them at first and the true friends are the ones who are still around when the others have gone back to their normal daily lives.’

‘There’s a book from the funeral, that people signed apparently, but I haven’t been game to look at it yet.’

Fi continued. ‘So I’m here if you want me, and for as long as you want, whether it’s five minutes or a couple of weeks.’

‘Oh, Fi, I’d love you to stay, for as long as you can. For life if you want.’

‘Has it been terrible? Is that a stupid question?’

I nodded. I couldn’t speak. Finally I gulped: ‘Terrible.’

‘You want to talk about it?’

‘No. Not yet. Maybe later. I don’t know.’

There was a bit of silence. ‘Do you remember anything about the funeral?’ she asked.

‘Oh yes. Quite a bit.’ I laughed. ‘Even stupid things, like Mrs Mathers and Mrs Kristicevic wearing the same dress.’

‘Yes, I noticed that. Of course they weren’t actually wearing the same dress. That would have been a bit uncomfortable.’

It took me a minute to realise what she meant. Showed how slowly my brain was working. ‘Oh very funny,’ I said, when I did figure it out.

‘Did you notice Lee fainting?’

‘No! Are you serious? Was he there too?’

‘God, you poor thing, you really were out of it.’

‘Did he actually faint?’

‘Totally. My father was one of the men who helped carry him outside. I’ve been talking to him on the phone just about every day. He’s out of his mind. He’s written about four letters to you.’

Lee. It doesn’t seem right that someone with a one-syllable name of three letters could have caused me more than a year of complicated agonising confusing wonderful sensations, and what was worse, he was still doing it. He loved me, he loved me not, I loved him, I loved him not. Last time I’d seen him we’d made love. But then in my mind the relationship slowly died. But then in my mind the relationship flared back to life. Then it didn’t. Then it did. Didn’t. Did. Now . . . I don’t know. Yes, no, maybe, all of the above.

‘I guess Lee would know what it’s like.’

‘I guess he would, except he never saw his parents’ bodies. He just heard about it.’

I looked away and sighed. ‘I haven’t even opened the mail. There’s so much of it and I think it’s nearly all about Mum and Dad and I just think it’s going to be so depressing reading it. I don’t even answer the phone most of the time.’

‘Yeah I’ve noticed. Well, that’s one thing I can help with while I’m here. We can open the mail together and go through it and work out which ones you want to answer. If any.’

‘Oh, it’s going to be so good to have you here. I just don’t think I should let you read Lee’s letters.’

She grinned. ‘That’s better. You’re getting a bit of life back. Can I have another coffee?’

With my back to her as I poured the coffee I said slowly, ‘You see, Fi, what I keep wondering is, whether what’s happened is my fault.’

A lot of people would have jumped in right there with the comfort hugs, and said reassuring things like ‘Oh no, Ellie, whatever gave you that idea, of course it’s not your fault, you have to stop thinking like that’, and so on. Fi had more sense than that. She didn’t say anything.

I brought the coffee back to the table and sat down again. Without looking at her I said, ‘Why did they pick out this place? Of all the farms, all the properties, all the houses to choose, why this one?’

BOOK: While I Live
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