“I was quite partial to oysters,” the old lady said, eyes narrowing as she peered into the tunnel that occasionally turned itself inside out into the present even as the actual present was swallowed whole.
Her mind tumbled to unexpected locations, some of which she thought she had forgotten, as indeed she had. For a period, they had lost relevance and therefore a place in her present, amongst the daily traffic of shopping, keeping house, washing and feeding herself, until these activities became unnecessary, now performed by the nurses.
These days, she wandered an unfamiliar landscape populated by figures both living and dead who presented in startling combinations. She now stared at the youngish woman on a metal chair beside her bed. It could have been anyone, and probably was.
“But we were speaking of oysters,” Auntie continued. “I had the proper little forks, silver tines, bone handles, so pretty,” she said, testing. “They’re in the top drawer of the dresser, as you might remember, along with the little glass dishes for the condiments. Lemon and pepper only, oysters are best natural.”
“I remember, Auntie.”
The old woman wanted to ask her outright, which child of whose child she was, but this would have given away more than she was willing to surrender.
She said, “I must tell that dreadful nurse person to get me a dozen.”
The visitor said, “No, I’ll get them. It’ll be a pleasure.”
Ah, Clarissa thought, unlike that creature Wilson, this girl is eager to oblige a whim.
She searched the eyes of her visitor, mapping the face to establish a connection along the bloodlines of family. It had to be a family member, for no one else came, just those wretched long-faced ewes who only now felt a certain obligation to subject themselves to the torture of this bare room, to natter about this and that, stare at what remained of her, and having done sufficient penance and proffering good wishes and a threadbare excuse, to slink away from the stench of disinfectant, the sullen linoleum and the inevitability of her encroaching demise. It gave her great satisfaction to put these self-sacrificing women to this small task or that, be it straightening pillows, fetching a magazine she would never read, a piece of fruit she would never eat.
These she used to bribe the one nurse she did like, Sister Jane, to sometimes sit with her when a curious sense of desolation seized her and the legs of the metallic furniture seemed to stab the gloom like so many stiff reeds in a frozen linoleum pond.
This visitor, she observed, had greenish eyes that looked directly into her own, unlike many others who chased butterflies.
“Stand up straight and look people in the eye,” Papa had always said. “Let people know who you are and that you’re as good as any of ‘em.”
When he had died, two of his children had gradually softened into a state of puffy, mothlike dissolution at the hands of a mother who, overnight, had turned into a pale, quivering rabbit with pink eyes. The youngest, Maisie, had decided that she was incapable of any action whatsoever, a decision she stood by even after she was married and until the babies came and she was forced to some degree, to perform, whilst still maintaining that charming, doll-like dependency on her husband. Their brother, Arthur, whom they called Bunny, eventually took up drink and pedophilia. Clarissa and the eldest, Charlie, fended manfully for themselves.
Clarissa drifted back, feeling that this was hardly a familiar face, yet one that provoked a visceral tug between them—affection? She sat easy on the stiff chair, leaning slightly forward, her face gentle, but bright.
“Intelligence I can distinguish,” Clarissa thought with satisfaction, “it’s in the eyes.”
Clarissa continued, her speech slightly hampered by a drooping lower lip. “Not what you would call a nice person, that Wilson. Devious. And of course, they won’t have decent oyster forks in here,” she said, peevish. “They have the effrontery to give you plastic cups!”
No, Wilson had the hands of a farm labourer albeit uncalloused. Capable hands, large enough to span an octave or to handle tools. There was nothing refined about her and nothing spiritual. She was the peasant standing outside the frame of Millet’s picture of rustic piety, head erect, picking her nose. Yet she went about her duties with a perverse sense of religiosity, regarding her work as a set of sacred rituals to be performed identically each day. Sister Wilson’s feet trod a grid along which she motored, stolid and unflurried as a tramcar. However, that other one, Sister Wood, despite the name, was made of stuff less stern.
“But they are looking after you, no?” the visitor said. “Mother chose this . . .” and here she stumbled for an appropriate term, “. . . here, I mean, because of its reputation.”
Clarissa now remembered a soothing ambassadorial voice assuring her that “the family” thought it best. “Not having to worry about every little thing, you know,” the emissary had bleated. “Time someone looked after you.”
As none of the so-called family felt that this duty actually fell to them, this was the solution.
The patient clenched down on her memory, forcing it to surrender a name. Marie, that was it, the elder daughter of Sylvia, the one who had conspired to remove her from all that was precious to this ignominy for no reason whatsoever.
She did not remember having stumbled across the parish wearing her best patent leather shoes in the rain, to arrive, pounding on the door of the presbytery, demanding Confession to the late Father Donnelly, to absolve her of her husband’s murder.
Having identified her visitor, Clarissa dozed.
Marie saw that the top sheet, hospital-starched and folded over the flat chest, made of her aunt a mere wrinkle in the narrow bed.
After a few moments of slumber, Clarissa said, “It was the “flu I had, wasn’t it?”
Marie knew this was not a question but a mental game of Scrabble that the old lady played, lining up the tiles that spelled S,T,R,O,K,E, laying these down and proclaiming, “FLU!” She also knew that the old woman never had the tiles to spell DEMENTIA and no one dared deal them to her.
“But you’re much better now,” Marie said. “Sister said much.”
And so she would say, Clarissa thought, as long as the bills were paid and the patient could be abandoned to solitude with impunity.
“As I mentioned,” Clarissa said, “that woman Wilson is not to be trusted. I know for a fact that it was she who took my pearls.” She held up fingers glittering with jeweled rings. “If she wants to steal these, she will have to cut them off me in my sleep!”
Marie laughed. “Oh, no one would take your rings, Auntie. I expect you’ll find your pearls eventually. Pray to St. Anthony.”
“Ridiculous. Things don’t just walk of their own accord. Oh no, I have my eye on that one!”
She closed her eyes, and there was an oblong velvet box, but when she had opened the drawer, there had been only her undergarments. In retaliation, she had tumbled its contents onto the floor.
Marie observed as her aunt dropped off again, that Great Aunt Clarissa retained something authoritative—perhaps in the sharp, aristocratic profile so unlike that of any other family member—or perhaps in the way she asserted her lingering presence.
Aunt Clarissa, she reflected, had never been the beauty. It was her pretty, plump sister who had stolen an Englishman’s heart. He had grown up in Constantinople, surrounded by ponies in silken trappings, son of a trader, a child who had smoked a hookah from the age of twelve to then run away to sea at fourteen, and thence from London to sign up for the Army—twice, under different names—who had been shell-shocked, finally emigrating to Australia to marry the charming, helpless Maisie. He had subsequently lain down his life to her in gentle, dedicated service.
On the other hand, Clarissa’s Jim was a figure prone amongst pillows, floating above a dark, creepy place under his bed where they hid gifts for Marie and her siblings when they were children.
Marie remembered crawling under the bed. There, in the dark, she had discerned the startling pink shape of a stillborn baby doll lying on its back. It was too big to fit under there sitting up and it was ghastly. Chubby and bald, it had a rigid plastic body and clenched fists, so unlike the latest baby dolls with soft, pliant bodies needful of cuddles.
“Auntie means well,” Mother had said. “She doesn’t know about toys.”
It was a way of excusing her, not for the poor choice, but for the fact that she had had no children, a condition that womenfolk regarded if not with the status of a disease, then as a casualty, saying, “Jim, the War you know.”
Yet for decades Clarissa had ministered to her ailing husband, ordering the doctor about during his visits, “In Full Control” the women liked to say behind her back. “No need to worry about Clarissa,” they said, “she rules with an iron rod.”
Marie remembered that it had once also been the authority of the perfect coat and hat, the proper forks for oysters, glass dishes for pickles or relish, never, never a jar on the table, and never artificial flowers. Authority was a tray set out for Father Donnelly with a crystal decanter of Scotch, a slim water carafe, ice in a silver bucket and little tongs. She knew these things because it had been her, who upon being asked to fetch Father his customary afternoon drink, had been caught red-handed in the kitchen slopping Scotch into a crystal whiskey glass.
“Good GOD girl!” Aunt Clarissa had scolded her then fourteen year-old self, “One always allows a gentleman to serve himself!”
Now over thirty and mistress of etiquette, Marie remembered her humiliation. Yet this had been the catalyst that later lead to profuse compliments after a dinner in their Brussels home. “Better than Le Cirque,” the American CEO of her husband’s multinational had said after her triumphant pheasant and the truffle soup. The guests had left, gushing praise for the food and conversation, yet her husband had found fault. The usual, her having “domineered” the evening, speaking of books and art, shifting the topic away from Business.
She had sensed something in the CEO, something needy, and had plucked out of her library an inspirational little book, about someone loving someone “ . . . To Death,” a book that she had found comforting, hoping it would do the same for him.
Two weeks later, the CEO had committed suicide and she knew he hadn’t read the book.
Marie’s mother had said, “Just imagine! For your thirteenth birthday, Auntie Clarrie is taking you to Sydney!”
This had been another Auntie Clarrie, one no longer chained to the bedside of the man who had returned partly living from the War. He had crossed over to the legitimate world of the War dead, taking at last his appointed place at the cenotaph.
Marie had, however, wondered why she had been the chosen one, the travel-companion.
They boarded in Melbourne, changing trains at Albury, an inconvenient switch between twin Spirits of Progress so that first Castor, then Pollux shuttled them onwards, steadily through the night. She had now forgotten a once-precious memory of whatever they had eaten in the glamorous Dining Car (surely, she had later bragged about it to her brother and sister?) them then returning to their sleeping-carriage, giggling at one another’s lurching. She remembered being bourne towards the unexpectedly attainable object of her childish imagination—Sydney!
Oh! what a voyage it had been, requiring a Brownie camera, new clothes, shoes, sponge bag and small suitcase of her own. It had been the first of many voyages she was later to take without a thought.
She came back to the present. The nurses choose to keep the blinds down. How curious. Perhaps not—penumbra reveals less, robs mirrors of power, blurs distance.
Even as she thought of nurses, Sister Wilson appeared, her face appointed with the fixed cheerful expression she wore for the doomed. She knocked briefly and advanced, unbidden.
Aware of her, Clarissa snapped, “I didn’t call for you. Go away.”
The nurse shook her head and laughed, the apologetic, prim laugh produced when a naughty child says something outrageous in company.
“You might not have, but it’s medication time and we want to get better, don’t we.”
“I won”t have it,” the old lady said. “Don’t bother.”
The nurse propelled herself in softly-spoken shoes across the floor.
“Now, now,” she said to the naughty child.
She held out a paper cup, arranged her face less unpleasantly. Her contrived smile crashed against the will of the old child in the bed, and shattered when the patient said, “Take it away!”
“I’ll do it,” Marie said.
The nurse shot Marie a petulant glance as if to say, you mightn’t mind doing this part of my job, but I don’t see you round here with a bed pan, so that Marie lowered her eyes.
“You know you must take them,” the nurse said, rattling the pills in the cup.
“Nothing of the sort,” Clarissa snapped. “Your say-so amounts to nothing. Besides, I can’t swallow.” She paused, “More to the point,” she said, “When my niece leaves I wish to use the bed-pan.”
The nurse snapped, “You used it earlier, during morning rounds.”
“Regardless,” Clarissa said, “I need to move my bowels.”
“Well in that case,” the nurse said, “in that case, we can’t have any more nasty accidents, can we. Far too many of those of late. I am busy enough as it is without having to cope with yet another sponge-bath, changing linen . . .”
She paused to allow the humiliating information to register with Marie, who pretended not to have heard.
Nurse continued, “All the more reason for you to take your pills and not make a fuss.”
Placing the cup of tablets on the table, she shoved it forward. “I do have other patients, as well you know.”
Clarissa turned her face away.
Marie, thinking wildly of tonsillectomies and the process of swallowing, said, “Perhaps with a little ice cream? Sister won’t mind getting you some.”
“That would be nice,” Clarissa said.
The nurse bristled, and veering perilously away from her professional training, briefly considered appropriating the idea as her own.
With a studied glance at the watch pined to her uniform, she said, “I’ll see if they have any, although I highly doubt it. We don’t have luxuries laid on to pander to any individual patient.”
“Still, you’ll see?” Marie said.
“Seems I have little option,” the nurse muttered.
“So kind of you,” Marie said sweetly.
“Simply doing my duty,” Nurse said, wearing a tight little mouth, as though sucking on a lemon.
Marie watched her scramble out of the swamp of muddied protocol onto drier land and into the corridor, returning with a small cardboard tub and the tiny wooden paddle that Marie was surprised still accompanied it. Such details from the past resurfaced without warning, reminding her of what she was doing here—Madame Di Gregorio, Australieene, considering returning to the land of her memories that drew her more stongly than did its people.
The nurse jabbed a fingernail under the cardboard lid.
“Here,” she pronounced, stabbing in the wooden spoon that Marie knew her aunt would abhor. “Now I’ve taken the trouble, it needs be eaten,” Nurse said shoving a spoonful before the old face buried in the pillow.
Clarissa’s dark eyes flashed in mineral fury, “Sit me up, you fool.”
The nurse sucked the lemon harder, loosened the sheet, raised the patient’s shoulders, (how thin she is, Marie thought, even for her!) and plumped pillows with such vigour that Marie expected her to dust her hands together once it was accomplished.
“Are we comfortable?” nurse Wilson said, sour.
“I am seldom comfortable,” Clarissa said.
And suddenly, there was Clarissa, in a wool coat of the finest fabric, hair tucked under a smart felt cloche with a graceful feather plume, standing beside the mantel with its antique clock flanked by two exquisite ormolu urns.
“Turn around, child, and let me see. It won’t do if the seams aren’t straight.”
Marie had turned around in the frightful hand-me-down hot pink coat someone’s mother had donated to hers, cringing at the knowledge that nothing, but nothing—not straight seams on her first pair of stockings, not the ‘mod’ heels on her new shoes—could possibly make up for the shabby, tasteless, hot pink coat. It was unbearable, the knowledge that although the coat was warm enough, it was also true that her mother could not afford to buy her something new.
In the end, the seams had been straight, the gulf between good taste and the lack thereof generously ignored, and Auntie applied supple kid gloves like a smooth coat of paint, and so they went down to catch a tram.
Marie had long ago realized that the gene responsible for a discerning eye, that ability to distinguish between real and imitation, possessed by only one of two sisters, had skipped a generation—sideways, for Clarissa had no offspring—to be bequeathed to herself. Indeed, Marie could distinguish the finest piece in an antique shop at a single glance. The tragedy was, that although this infallible skill applied to objects—paintings, houses, furniture—it utterly failed her when it came to her own kind.
Marie looked up. Clarissa had submitted.
But ice cream was trickling from the mouth stricken by the recent stroke to run down the chin, the neck, to puddle in the collar of her nightgown. The nurse scooped and jabbed the paddle into Clarissa’s labouring mouth, scooped and jabbed, smiling a frozen smile.
“There!” she finally announced, “All done.”
Dumping the spoon into the empty container, she plonked the detritus on the table in a coagulating pool, then turned herself about and walked out.
Clarissa sat as she had been left, staring ahead in silence, fists clenched on the cotton coverlet. She continued to stare as the mess on her collar seeped into her skin.
Marie sat frozen. Neither of them spoke. One half of her mind was considering reporting the nurse, the other half weighing up the consequences of doing so, extremely mindful of the fact that the retribution exacted by those accused, particularly of those justly accused, can be very harsh indeed.
Hospital sounds welled up in the slick corridors, a squeaky wheel on a gurney shrieked.
Suddenly claustrophobic, Marie thought of the marble apartment in Rome, the silky parquet floors in Milan, the grand Maison de Maitre they now had in Brussels. Of herself staring through French doors looking over the vast gardens, at the disused stables with room for four horses at the far end, thinking, how can I give up all of this? Why can’t I just let him have his lovers, endure his temper? I can learn to cope.
“A flannel dear,” the Aunt finally said. “Please fetch one.”
Released from paralysis, Marie jumped up and hurried to the hand basin and squeezed warm water through the washcloth, returning with it neatly folded.
“Do you want me to . . .?”
“For God’s sake, child,” the old woman snapped, “I’m not a cripple!”
Marie sat down and stared through the thick silence at the merciful blind.
Marie thought of that book in Brussels. It had been called Dale Loves Sophie to Death, about the epiphany that otherwise meaningless graffiti had brought about in a man whose soul was dying. She had given it to another dying man who had not read it. Perhaps there was no redemption for the truly self-condemned.
“Would you like a towel?” she offered.
“No, dear, but thank you all the same,” Clarissa said, “that little sponge bath was quite refreshing. Did I mention that Father Donnelly was in the other day? He asked me to marry him, you know. Of course, I accepted.” She put out her hands, moving them gracefully so that the jewels in the rings shot dancing sparks onto the ceiling. “However” she said, “I do feel that a diamond would be somewhat excessive, wouldn’t you agree?”
Marie did not reply.
Something white hovered between them.
“Put this back before you go. You should go, dear. Father will be here any minute.”
Marie took the cloth to the basin.
“And you mustn’t forget my oysters if you come again.”
“Of course I will, and I won’t forget.” She might have been lying. What she had come for had evaded her. It had been her need for some sense of belonging, something she no longer needed to run from, but rather, to. Perhaps it was too late, the link too broken. Perhaps she herself was too broken.
“Mind you rinse it now—thoroughly.”
Her face in the dull mirror above the basin shimmered in liquid reflection, sending her features back to her, the eyes shadowy, troubled, the mouth taut, because it had occurred to her, what if other, more insidious genes have also skipped a generation? She searched for a revelatory sign in the mirror.
She squeezed out the flannel that released a slow, cloudy streak into bright, clear water.
Maryanne Khan was born in Canberra, Australia, and has lived in Milan, Chicago, Brussels, Rome and Washington D.C., before returning to Australia. Her second home is in the North West Frontier Province of Pakistan. Her prose and poetry have been published in anthologies and literary journals in the United States and Australia. Her novel, Walking to Karachi, won a 2008 Varuna/HarperCollins Award.