The Madison Gap
Projects on my desk at work were mounting up, their deadlines niggling like a persistent cough, but I put them out of my mind, switched off my Mac, and left the agency early. I had a valid excuse, to my mind anyway. Chrissy was coming to stay and I wanted to be there when she arrived.
She was due at four. By eight, she still hadn’t arrived. Conor and I gave up waiting and decided to eat.
I don’t pretend to be much of a cook and usually get home too late and too whacked to make dinner. Left to my own devices, I’ll shove a ready-made meal in the microwave, something from Fresh Meals or Youfoodz, but since this was Chrissy’s first night with us, I’d gone out of my way on the dinner front and made an effort. I poured Conor a glass of Merlot and lifted my beef casserole from the oven. Then I took a bottle of Chablis from the fridge and filled my own glass.
Conor put his arms around me and nuzzled the back of my neck. I turned to kiss him and he drew me close. ‘Do you think we’ve got time before she gets here?’
‘She was due four hours ago.’ By now it was well after eight, almost eight-thirty, and even if we’d had time, I wasn’t in the mood for making love. I was annoyed with Chrissy for being so late and not even bothering to phone. Would a text be so hard? I’d taken the lid off my casserole too soon and now it was drying out.
We were just sitting down to eat when we heard the squeal of brakes in the street outside and a jarring crunch of metal against metal. Conor and I rushed outside to see what had happened. There was a sign on the pavement in front of our house, declaring the parking spaces for residents only, and Chrissy had crashed right into it. The pole was now a steel disorder obstructing the pavement. It was going to annoy the hell out of the young mother I sometimes saw on weekends, wearily pushing her toddler past our gate in a stroller.
Chrissy stepped away from her Mazda with insouciance, as if creating a spot of wreckage in the neighbourhood was just the entrance she was aiming for. She wore a figure-hugging dress of some green slinky fabric, and high spikey-heeled ocelot striped shoes. She’d let her hair grow long since we’d last seen each other and the loose ponytail suited her. I was wearing grey baggy track pants, a faded pink hoodie that had been too often through the wash, and an old pair of espadrilles. Chrissy was chic as a Ferrari and for an uncomfortable moment she made me feel like a second-hand Holden.
We hugged after which Chrissy kissed me first on one cheek and then again on the other, an affectation, for us Antipodeans anyway, that I thought she found as awkward as I did. Her breath smelled boozy and over her shoulder I couldn’t help noticing how much gear she’d brought with her. Usually, she arrived with a single faux-leather overnight bag, but this time there were two, on the back seat, and both so full Chrissy hadn’t been able to close them. More clothes lay in a jumbled heap: trousers, shirts, jackets, and dresses, some of them still on their hangers. It looked as if Chrissy had lifted them straight from her wardrobe and plonked them any old how into the back of her car.
On the passenger seat was a half-empty bottle of green chartreuse.
‘Don’t tell me you’ve been drinking.’
Chrissy shrugged. ‘And you haven’t?’
‘I’m not driving.’
My sister laughed and proffered her cheek to Conor.
There was just enough room in our house for a guest. Conor and I lived in one of Glebe’s roughed-up terraces of shabby single-storey homes built in the 1890s. From the outside it looked as if nothing had been done with them since, but I knew from months of rackety construction and skips of building rubble on the street that a couple of our neighbours had remodelled their interiors. Conor and I told each other at regular intervals that we’d catch up with those neighbours just as soon as Conor got around to drawing up plans for the build and our bank balance had a growth spurt. Until then, my husband’s study with its flaking paint and threadbare carpet doubled as our spare bedroom.
The evening before, when we’d rearranged the study to accommodate my sister, Conor had taken the cushions off the sofa bed and made a funny face, blowing his cheeks out and rolling his lower lip in a phony pout. He was given to adopting comic poses. ‘This is getting to be bit of a habit, Lexi,’ he said. ‘Do you think she’s preparing for a final bolt?’
Bob Dylan was on the radio, singing Paint Your Masterpiece. I turned the sound down and regarded my husband. We’d been married nearly two years and while Conor was cruising comfortably into marriage 201, I was on marriage 101 and still feeling my way along our respective boundaries, discovering by trial and error what needed to be negotiated and what didn’t. ‘You don’t mind her being here, do you? You’d say, wouldn’t you?’
‘I’ll cope. It’s only a few days, isn’t it?’
‘Probably.’ I hadn’t been entirely honest with Conor about how long Chrissy might stay and was feeling a bit bad about that. When she’d phoned the week before, I’d had a hunch she was depressed, and told her there was a bed in our house for as long as she needed one. This weekend visit was her fifth, actually it may have been her sixth, since I’d moved into Mitchell Street two years before. Chrissy referred to these visits as stopovers in her life’s journey, and sometimes as respite care. ‘Diversion’ was another word she used, from the moodiness of her writer husband, she said, and the boredom of living stuck out in the Blue Mountains.
I was always happy to see her because those breaks from her own routine enlivened ours. Our routine was this: Conor and I went to work early and arrived home late, sometimes as late as seven or eight if Conor went to the gym and I went for one of my long walks around Jubilee Park. After that we’d usually collapse on the sofa, Conor with a beer and me with a cup of tea or glass of wine, then eat something unmemorable for dinner and either catch up on the news or watch a movie on Netflix. Then we’d go to bed and read our respective books. I nearly always had a novel on the go or, if I was too tired to read, I’d just flick through one of my old art books for a while. There was a stack of them under the bed, pre-loved hardbacks like Christiane Weidemann’s 50 Women Artists and Christopher Allen’s Art in Australia. Conor usually read journals on architecture and urban design, or brought his iPad to bed and carried on scanning the news. We’d read for an hour or so before lights out at eleven, or books down at ten and the lights dimmed for browsing each other.
Whenever Chrissy came to stay, she cooked at least one night, dishes that were memorable, such as a coconut curry with shrimp, or chicken with caramelised oranges. On another night she’d insist on us all going out to a restaurant or a show and I loved that she did this. The only discordant note during her visits was the noisy phone calls she made to her husband each night, but other than those, my big sister added colour. Looking back, you might say I was in her thrall.
Conor tossed a cushion at me which brought me back to the task at hand. I wiped the shelves in the wardrobe with a damp cloth, put sheets on the sofa bed and tucked them in, shook out a duvet and arranged two pillows, then sat back to admire Conor clearing his desk.
If you can refer to a man as well made, this pretty much sums up Conor. He’s tall and solid but not the least bit overweight and all the separate parts of him seem perfectly, securely fitted and well proportioned. He has grey friendly eyes, a slightly crooked nose – broken in his teens during a footy match – and he’s particular about always being clean-shaven. His hair is dark brown, almost black, which even though he’s only in his early forties, is already flecked with grey.
He knocked his papers into neat stacks and filed them under project names in three cardboard file boxes, names like Bankstown Concepts and City Stadium, and then swept his drafting compasses, set square, and rulers into a drawer. I liked that about Conor; without being too fussy about it, he was tidy, except in the kitchen where he had a blind spot, and diligent about anything to do with his work. He was fairly easy-going, never letting anything get him down and, in this way, was good for me because I have a tendency to take things too seriously. Conor’s optimism made sure the mood in our house was always upbeat. And his confidence in the future, our future, gave me faith in it too.
When he was finished, I got up from the bed, smoothed the duvet, and straightened the print of Picasso’s Dream which we’d found in an op shop in Paddington and which Conor had hung on the wall behind his desk. On the desk, as a final touch to make Chrissy feel welcome, I placed a small jug filled with creamy, fragrant freesias.
It was a nearing the end of April in 2017 when my sister came to stay.
They were troublesome times. Everyone was still trying, and failing, to understand how low America had fallen, and we were all equally bemused by Britain’s morbid decline into a fatal case of Brexit. At home in Aussie, the population reached twenty-four million, and in March, street gangs on a violent rampage through Melbourne spoiled the Moomba festival. Wherever you looked, anger flowed like molten lava. It’s still roiling and it’s not hard to see why. Too many people aren’t getting enough of what they need while the careless elite continue with impunity devouring way more than their fair share.
It seemed to me during that uncertain time that there was no one you could rely on any more and it took an effort not to fall into an apocalyptic mood. I frequently had to remind myself that despite the sorry plight the human race was fast sinking into, there were some things still right with the world, that in the increasingly jagged soundtrack of our lives, there were still songs worth hearing. I recollect it was only a few weeks before Chrissy’s arrival that Bob Dylan was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.
Two days after she arrived, Chrissy asked me if we minded her staying longer, a fortnight, by which time her car would be fixed, or maybe three weeks, she wasn’t sure.
‘Stay as long as you need,’ I said and made a mental note to get her a temporary parking permit. I waited for Chrissy to explain why she wanted to remain in Sydney longer than the usual four or five days, but she said nothing. Finally, after a few minutes watching my sister put her clothes away in the wardrobe and in the drawers of Conor’s desk, I asked her if everything was okay. ‘There’s nothing wrong is there? Is Peter home?’
‘Oh, he’s . . .’ Chrissy waved her hand vaguely back and forth in the air and didn’t say any more.
I expected her to confide in me but she didn’t explain and I had no choice but to let it pass. I assumed she’d tell me in her own good time.
Two weeks later, three guys from the Council, wearing high-vis jackets, came and replaced the parking sign. On the same day, Chrissy retrieved her car from the panel beater. She drove back to Mitchell Street via a garden centre where she filled the boot with bags of topsoil and compost, and five trays of seedlings.
‘I’m going to fix up the garden for you,’ she said.
‘There’s no need.’ I meant this. Our back yard was as ramshackle as the rest of the house but cleaning it up, let alone planting anything there, hadn’t been a priority for Conor and me. That’s not to say it wasn’t on our to-do list, but until we got around to it, the yard’s only purpose was to store our rubbish and recycling bins, Conor’s old bicycle, and the two kayaks we hadn’t used since we married. There was a crumby old Hills Hoist there as well, installed yonks ago by long-dead occupants, which I used and reviled.
As far as I was concerned, gardening was a medieval pursuit designed for people with too much time on their hands and I couldn’t see the point of growing vegetables when the Glebe Markets were just up the road.
I gave Chrissy an old grey and white chequered shirt of Conor’s to wear while she was gardening. The collar and cuffs were frayed and there were a couple of buttons missing, but my sister, as she did with whatever she wore, managed, effortlessly, to give it style, tying the shirt tight at the waist, lifting its collar against her neck and rolling up the sleeves.
Conor and I didn’t even own any tools, not so much as a handheld gardening fork, but, along with the seedlings, Chrissy had purchased a small spade and a mattock. She set to with the mattock and began turning over the soil while I dragged our old hose out from under the house and did my best to straighten out the kinks in it.
‘Do you remember, Chrissy, when I was in Grade Two and you helped me win that garden prize? We planted sweet peas, all along the back fence.’
‘Yes, and I tried to persuade you to put in flowering kale but you were having none of it.’
This time, now that she was in charge, my sister got her way. The seedlings she’d bought were all edible plants: broad beans, broccoli, and spinach, along with a young apple tree, and a variety of herbs. The only ones I recognised were mint and parsley. ‘You know I’m notoriously bad at this,’ I said, ‘especially herbs. They always die on me.’
‘Perhaps I’d better stay on then.’
I couldn’t tell whether or not she was being serious. ‘Conor will need his study back.’ I mumbled this in an apologetic sort of way because much as we wanted to make Chrissy feel welcome, I couldn’t help thinking that maybe a fortnight was long enough, a month at a stretch. I wanted both of them to be happy and could already see myself being torn between what I saw as competing demands on me from my husband and my sister.
Fortunately, Chrissy hadn’t heard me or if she had, chose to ignore it.
Within a couple of hours, she’d turned over enough soil in the yard to start planting. She dug a deep hole, placed the apple sapling in it and then pressed in a generous mix of soil and compost. Chrissy gets her green thumbs from our mother and watching her brought to mind a photo I use as a bookmark in the dog-eared Oxford Concise I’ve had since my school days. The photo shows Mum and me in the front garden at our house in Bendigo. It was taken in 1995, about six months after Mum’s first mastectomy, and her short hair is just starting to turn grey. In the photo she wears maroon and navy tartan wool slacks, black rubber gardening shoes, and a buttery-coloured cotton blouse with the sleeves folded back to her elbows. She’s tilling a straight groove with her spade along the edge of a bed of yellow and red roses, and I’m standing next to her, watching, barefoot, in pink shorts and a blue and white striped top.
During idle moments, I revisit my conversations with Mum and whenever I study that picture of us, I imagine her explaining to me the life-cycle of worms or the nutritional quality of stinging nettle. I was probably equally uninterested in both topics. What I strive for most when I think of my mother is to bring back the sound of her voice. I’d give anything to hear it again.
We’re not the only people in that photo. In the background, sitting on the concrete steps up to our front door, is my older brother Robbie. I was six years old at the time that picture was taken which would make Rob what? If I remember rightly, he’s less than eighteen months older than Chrissy so he must have been seventeen. It’s absurd that I don’t know for certain my own brother’s age or even when his birthday is. What I did know for sure was that it was shortly after that photo was taken that he left home to join the army. So much time had passed since then that he’d become a blur to me, a photo negative waiting to be developed.
‘Where’s Robbie? Do you know?’
‘Whatever makes you think of him?’ By now Chrissy was planting the spinach and she eased the seedlings from their pots without looking up.
‘I often think of him. He’s our brother. Why did he leave? And how come he’s never contacted us?’
‘You don’t want to know.’ Chrissy’s voice was trenchant.
‘Of course I do, tell me.’
‘What I said.’ Chrissy avoided looking at me and the atmosphere turned a little frigid.