She kissed his head a thousand times but he did not stir from his deep, adolescent sleep. The mother in her wanted to shake him awake and make sure he understood every possible thing. But somehow, she managed to stand back and more like a guardian angel, trust that her love would flow into his dreams.
Author: Rosie Beaumont Page 1 of 2
She kissed his head a thousand times but he did not stir from his deep, adolescent sleep. The mother in her wanted to shake him awake and make sure he understood every possible thing. But somehow, she managed to stand back and more like a guardian angel, trust that her love would flow into his dreams.
“Here in the Manangadang Valley we value tradition and authenticity above all else. Our methods and ingredients date back hundreds of years – well our ingredients don’t. They come up on a truck every Tuesday and Saturday from Bellingary. But the way we deal with them draws on ancient methods, honed by generations from all over the Valley and still standing up to scrutiny today.
At five feet one and a half inches, I was the tallest person in my family. Together with my father, mother and twin siblings, we moved contentedly through our compact lives; effortlessly picking things up from the floor, deftly controlling the presence of mice under the fridge. Our house was naturally cooled by the shadows of all that surrounded it and the lofty ceilings inside created a sense of majesty that never failed to lift our spirits.
Norma Monkton’s rise to fame was swift. Her cheeky girlish memoir Adieu Gruyere had been an unexpected hit, becoming Australia’s second highest non-fiction seller after only six months on the book store shelves. Critics agreed the tale of Norma’s misspent youth in the cheese markets of Provence had tapped into an undercurrent of foodie melancholy that was sweeping through the nation’s bloated middle class as it adjusted to life in recession. At the age of 52, Norma suddenly found herself in the giddy celebrity world of the best selling author.
Norma’s memoir had originally been a therapeutic project ordered by her long-time psychologist, Dr Otto von Schrenk. After twenty three years of unsuccessful therapy, Dr Otto finally announced he could do no more and Norma’s fate now lay in her own shaky hands. Loaded up with medication and writing materials, she was sent home to creatively re-engage with her troubled past as the only way to unlocking any future happiness.
Despite an initial reluctance, Norma soon found the recall of her time in Provence was effortless and compelling. The tangy aroma of ageing Cheddars, the ooze of the double Bries and the skillful way Cedric and his father had nurtured their cheeses from a cool stone farm cellar to the bustling market where Norma worked, all came flooding back to her. The memories of breathless moments in the cellar with Cedric and his father also returned, often as affecting as the encounters themselves and leaving Norma in an alarmingly heightened physical state more than once.
Norma did not hold back. Her pen began to flow across the page as she relived her provincial odyssey; at the farmhouse, in the fields, on the back of the cheese cart. How alive she had been; awakened amongst the whey, enabled by curiosity and curd. Her story came to life in vivid erotic colour.
Norma got an agent and started doing media. Radio National ran an in-depth interview with her about the relationship between food and sensuality. Sunrise did a ten minute slot with her and RALPH Magazine Editor, Brad Trolley, playing quoits with plastic cheese rings and vibrators.
But beneath the glamorous media engagements and the invigorating journey back to her youth, Norma felt a growing sense of unease. In truth, France had not been kind to her, taking far more than it had given. When she found herself suddenly cast out one day, left alone to deal with the consequences of her actions, Norma realised for the first time that she was in a foreign land that had no regard or responsibility for her well-being. Madame de Brique had come to her rescue it was true but in the crude and cruel way of the Paris streets. Adieu Gruyere had glossed over those desperate final weeks in France, ending instead with Norma’s return to Australia and the start of a new life farming goats in Gippsland.
After only three weeks on the celebrity circuit, Norma disappeared. She sacked her agent, cancelled all engagements and retreated into her farmhouse to correct the record. Her triumphant return eight months later with The Cheese Stands Alone established Norma Monkton as one of Australia’s most versatile writers. Her second book marked a radical departure from the flippant, risque style of Adieu, employing an anarcho-seperatist-feminist framework to trace the emergence of dairy products as a primary source of protein in the Middle Ages.
I heard the sound of ice cubes clinking in a glass.
“Deeanne brought it back from her last visit home. She thought it might help me with my nerves and it has changed everything! I simply float through the days.”
A muffled voice in the background briefly took my mother’s attention away from the phone. “Yes, Deanne, get the door. Quickly, quickly.” She returned with a new excitement in her voice. “I have to go. I have a visitor.”
“Who is it?”
“No one you know. I have to go… Hello Marie.”
“Marie? Marie the cleaner?”
“It’s none of your business. I have to go… Would you like a drink Marie?”
And with that the line went dead.
I didn’t need a live connection to know the scene that was playing out in my mother’s living room. A hapless group of home care workers and people she’d met in mental health wards was gathering around her…
“Kava Kava for everyone Deeanne… Oh I love your shoes. The op shop? Surely not!”
My mother, Liz, would be happily bustling amongst her guests, well in her element as hostess-with-the-mostest anti-psychotic medication in the cupboard.
Once availed with their own liquid opioids, her guests would be ushered by Deeanne to an impressive polished blackwood table where they would sit quietly and wait for the proceedings to begin. Then seating herself imperiously at the head of the table, my mother would embark on a long speech about her own medical history before solemnly nodding to each guest to briefly outline their woes for the week.
For some, it was the little things in life that continually plagued them; working out how much money to hand over in the supermarket, reading the bus timetable or remembering to take their medication. For others, it was the continual habitations in their heads or the eardrum shattering thoughts of the neighbours that drove them to despair.
However large or small their problems, my mother’s weekly guests all brought a need for safety and acceptance around her table and, perhaps, reassurance from the readings she would dispense.
Tasseography, or tea leaf reading, is an ancient form of fortune telling first practiced in medieval Europe and popular amongst desperate peasants the world over. Many of my ancestors were well practiced in the art and my Great Aunt Elsbeth was notorious throughout Moonee Ponds for her ability to read the future in a cup. Elsbeth had always had a particular fondness for my mother, recognising not only that their names shared the same derivation, but that they also had a certain colour of soul. In her later years, she gave great attention to teaching the younger Elizabeth the tricks of the tea leaf trade before she herself passed on to the next realm. But it was not until my mother was well into widowhood that she took up the practice in earnest and reinvented herself as a suburban seer, attracting the adoration and spare coinage of the suburb’s most vulnerable.
Deeanne delivered a giant tea pot to the centre of the table, steam drifting lazily up from the spout. Tiny ornate China tea cups followed, each placed carefully in front of a guest and then the tea, black no sugar, was poured. When she had gone around the table, Deanne took her usual place at the right hand of my mother and enthusiastically poured herself a brew.
“Marie. Would you like to start?” my mother asked as way of an order.
All eyes turned to Marie as she silently and shakily lifted her cup. Schizophrenia had left her particularly ill equipped to deal with social situations and she withered under the weight of the group’s sudden attention. Nonetheless, she valiantly brought the cup of hot tea to her lips and with one long, loud slurp, drank the contents, careful not to swallow the leaves.
“Marvellous!” My mother peered dramatically into Marie’s cup, “Now let’s have a look.”
With the synchronicity of a chorus line, the group leaned forward in their chairs, straining to absorb every nuance of the read. Liz ‘oohed’ and ‘aahed’ as she turned the cup around in her hands.
“I see a bird – that’s terribly good luck. And a frog, see there? A little frog.” My mother tipped the cup in Marie’s direction but not far enough or for long enough to be in any way revealing. “Frogs are also terribly good luck. And I think that might be the Eiffle Tower. Goodness Marie, you are in for a big week!”
An audible sigh went around the table as everyone leaned back in their chairs and several guests reached for their Kava Kava. My mother triumphantly placed the tea cup back on its saucer and pushed it across the table towards Marie who looked the most relieved of all.
A number of managers from the Council had contacted me with concerns about my mother’s fortune telling antics. They felt the well attended weekly sessions undermined the integrity of their Home Care Program, leading staff into my mother’s social circle, or as one particularly emotional caller insisted, her cult. I always assured them I would keep an eye on things.
“How did your little soiree go?” I asked Liz during our next phone conversation.
“It wasn’t a soiree because it was in the middle of the day” she corrected me tersely. “In any case, there’s no point lecturing me because it’s a legitimate part of the new exchange economy – I checked with the Post Office. I can’t help it if people want to turn up at the house and provide a service to me and then I want to provide a service to them and we all pay and we all win. None of us win very much in our everyday lives, you know.”
“I’m pretty sure you’re not meant to bring Kava Kava into the country.” I suggested gently.
“Oh don’t be ridiculous. Deanne’s mother drinks it all the time!” my mother shot back defiantly.
“But do you really think it’s fair to people with serious mental illnesses to pretend to read their futures?”
“What do you mean pretend?”
“Well, it’s always a good luck story. How can every sign in the leaves means good luck?”
There was a pause as my mother collected herself for the response.
“I admit it is funny how the leaves seem to fall for people with a certain colour of soul. But that’s something you wouldn’t really understand, is it darling?”
And with that the line went dead.
As he entered the now familiar building, Chase collided with a group of small, unappealing children jumping up and down to music, encouraged by a librarian in a kaftan. In the middle of the room a group of young people argued loudly as they poured over newspapers strewn across a table. The only part of the scene that seemed to fit the traditional library brief was a row of ceiling fans that spun quietly and calmly overhead.
Chase stood staring up at the reassuring fans before drifting over to the New Publications stand. He pretended to read back covers as he scanned the room for his contact.
Larry was one of the best in the business and he could be hard to spot. He also had a perverse sense of humour and revelled in creating situations for Chase that involved some personal discomfort. Chase loved and hated the guy in equal measure but today the hate was winning. It was bad enough that Larry had lured him to the Kingston Public Library, but to force him to turn up three times in seven days was unjustifiable. Actually, it was worse than that. It was unAustralian and not like Larry at all.
As the minutes passed by with no sign of his partner, Chase began to wonder if he had been double or maybe even triple whammied. Despite the many systems they had in place for verification, it was possible their network had been infiltrated. The cryptic invitations to the library that Chase had found in his burger wrappers and cigarette packets were certainly typical of Larry’s style but if there was one thing the years had taught him, it was that life never delivers on comfort or certainty.
Chase mentally shifted gear and began forensically checking the room for signs of sabotage; a counter agent lurking behind a magazine or a suspicious package wedged between the photocopiers. Finding nothing out of the ordinary, he was about to abandon his mission for the last time when he clocked a man mooching about in the DVD section. The profile was unmistakable; fat bellied and bespeckled, an ageing gamer, a cynical scammer, his partner Larry Vodonovski.
Chase moved slowly but deliberately over to the DVDs and picked up a battered copy of Tropical Heat.
“I love that movie,” said Larry without taking his eyes off an equally worn cover of Fame.
“Three times,” Chase hissed back, “three times I’ve been here this week. Where have you been?”
“I’m sorry,” Larry replied unapologetically, “circumstances beyond my control. It happens.”
Chase was immediately incensed. “Don’t give me that shit. I waited here for two hours last night. I had to join a children’s poetry session to stop the librarian calling security!”
Larry turned to his partner and smiled, “I would not eat them on a boat, I would not eat them with a goat–”
“You know what, Vodonovsky,” Chase snarled, “your attitude stinks almost as much as your shorts.”
“Now, now,” Larry responded, realising his partner needed to get out of the library, “there’s no need to be like that.” He paused before delivering his news as casually as he could. “Anyway, we don’t have to hang around here anymore because I didn’t get anything. It all fell through.”
“What?” Chase’s voice rose in panic. “What do you mean you didn’t get anything?”
“Jesus, be quiet!” Larry snapped before continuing in a whisper. “The Lithuanians dicked me around so much we didn’t get to make the exchange before the cops arrived. I only just got out of the car park in one piece.”
Chase slammed the Tropical Heat cover back into its place on the shelf as Larry continued. “I hate working with the Eastern Blockers. They have no sense of time, no respect for process.”
Chase turned furiously to his partner. “Well I’m not coming back here again!”
The conversation stalled.
Larry stood turning the Fame case around in his hands before giving out a long sigh. “Actually, I’m not going to come back either. I’ve decided to give it away. The drama’s no good for my ticker.”
Chase was completely caught off guard by the announcement and took a moment to respond. “Give it away? After thirty years?”
His mind began racing as he processed the alarming implications of his partner’s decision. “You can’t stop. You’re not capable! How will you make a living?”
Larry turned to Chase and tapped him on the chest with the Fame cover. “Youtube, my friend. I’m going to start a Youtube channel dedicated to boating.”
Chase was stunned. Larry continued with growing enthusiasm. “Remember Ted Harris from the Adelaide Bureau? He has 32,000 followers on his Suduko channel and, as you’ll no doubt recall, the man is a complete tool! At least I have some natural charm. I thought I’d just fix up the Lisa Marie and head up to the Murray to shoot the first season.”
Chase’s shock turned to low level rage. “Boating! Are you completely fucking mad? Who’s going to watch a dick head like you sit in a boat?”
Larry registered the anger. “I thought maybe you’d like to come along?”
Chase gave a rueful snort and stared down at his feet. “What, and miss the opportunity to hang out here at the library?”
“Actually, I find this place a bit creepy,” Larry whispered. “It’s the silence of the fans that gets me.”
The two men looked at each other as the joke settled on their faces. Chase managed a half smile. Larry was encouraged.
“Come on, why don’t we go and find the Lithuanians and see if they want to have a beer. I reckon they might know a thing or two about boats. They certainly don’t know anything about espionage.” He gave Chase a wink.
As they walked out of the library, Larry put a reassuring arm around his old friend’s shoulder. A verse from the children’s poetry session suddenly popped into Chase Mason’s head:
O it’s I that am the captain of a tidy little ship,
Of a ship that goes a sailing on the pond;
And my ship it keeps a-turning all around and all about;
But when I’m a little older, I shall find the secret out
How to send my vessel sailing on beyond.
(verse from My Ship and I by Robert Louis Stevenson)
Christmas never went well in Meninderree but this year the day was proving particularly difficult with the tragedy of the past week still hanging in people’s hearts. Nightfall came as a welcome relief. It took the edge off the heat and the temper of the men and signalled the end of strained festivities everywhere.
Bill, drunk, sat in his usual spot on the back verandah. He peered out into the gloom as strong gusts of wind pushed the hills hoist around and around and slammed the door of the chook shed repeatedly against its rotting wooden frame. The face of Jim Curren popped into his mind as it had done throughout the day. Bill wondered if they would have been sitting together on his verandah right now if things had gone differently; old friends silently sharing a coldie in the same way they had shared the pain and confusion of so many days.
Over the years, the two men had watched their small, outback town change beyond recognition. As the drought conditions persisted, the resilience of the people gradually gave way to a slow simmering anger that grew as their hope ebbed away. BIll had been gripped early on, in only the second or third year, and it was to his eternal shame that he had not put up more of a fight as he had seen other men try to do. But in the end, Bill had been luckier than most. No one believed his wife and child had suddenly left him one night but the police could never prove anything. So the only legacy of his rage was a nickname; Double Dose Billy, on account of the most persistent rumours about poisoning.
Jim Curren had not been so fortunate. Convinced it was his failings that had led to the loss of the family farm, he had blasted away three generations, including himself, in less than five minutes. A candlelight vigil was held at the farm on Christmas Eve but it was a hollow affair. The local population were outnumbered by the media who crawled hungrily over the irresistible drama of Meninderee’s fourth family annihilation in a decade.
Stupefied and alone on the verandah, Bill fell further and further into his slow, dark thoughts. He was on the edge of consciousness when something flashed in the gloom and pulled him back to full awareness. He sat up. There it was again. A white flash in the doorway of the chook shed. Bang, the shed door slammed shut and it was gone. Then swinging back open violently in the wind, the doorway revealed the momentary image and Bill’s heart stood still.
White cotton, white skin, limp, blonde hair. He had glimpsed it before, several times over the past few days. First, down at the water hole with Jim, the last time they had met and he had thought about saying something but swallowed his words down with a beer instead. Then again, suddenly on the roadside as he drove back from the vigil. The child was unmistakable. His own bright, shining girl. The most enduring light he had ever known. A light he had extinguished out of necessity. Her mother too. Both delivered from their eternal disappointment at the way the family had turned out and Bill’s inability to change anything.
Bang! The shed door slammed shut and she was gone. Despite the persistence of the wind, the door stayed closed this time. Bill knew he had to move. He rose shakily from his seat, uncertain whether the tremor in his hands was caused by alcohol or fear. He turned to enter the house and find his car keys. As quickly as he could. Hurry, hurry. Then he heard the slow squeak of the shed door hinge behind him and froze, his legs refusing to move any further. The shed was opening again and Bill could not fight the urge to turn around and face what it revealed.
White innocence, white vengeance, stood in the doorway. Unsmiling, unforgiving, she pointed to the edge of the verandah where a large metal trunk sat, padlocked and forgotten for all these years. Terrified, Bill felt his head shake. I don’t have the key. Believe me, I’ve thought about it many times, but I don’t have the key. I threw it away.
Bang. Flash. White. Bone hard white. Screaming white. Empty eyes. Right up on him. White knuckled fear, gripping his shoulders, pushing him down. Bill’s heart stopped. Dead. Cold. Finally, some relief from the heat.
The people of Unst were proud of their town with its humble red and white buildings nestled at the base of the fierce Mountain. They knew who they were within its confines; resilient, no nonsense people content with the simple life they had maintained for generations. They also knew too much about each other to be anything but proud. A lesser sentiment would have torn the small, isolated community apart.
The history of Unst was central it its existence. The heroes and traitors of its past, the twists and turns of its evolution provided a map for the souls of its people. The detailed folklore of Unst had been written down with great care and added to by each generation. It was taught in the school and recounted in the street. Every family knew the names of the builders responsible for their home’s construction. Every business knew the reason for its origin. It was not unusual for an illustrated history of a building to be displayed at the entrance on a large wooden board and for the characters from its past to be revered as the guardians of the present day inhabitants.
Within days of returning to their homes, the people of Unst had restored the familiar rhythms of town life. The fishing boats set off from the dock each morning and reappeared with full hauls at twilight. The school bell rang out a daily tempo for the women and children, and the hotel radiated light and music every evening except Mondays. The familiar cycles of life completed the people of Unst.
Everyone was happy to be back in the town except Margaret. She took an extra week to return from the mainland and when she did reappear, was sullen and refused to reopen the Store, causing great anxiety throughout the town.
The Convenience Store was central to local life. It stocked the things people never thought they needed until they did; needles and ear-buds, twine and tape. It’s warm, cluttered interior provided a safe place to meet and share the secrets that could not be divulged in the hotel or on the street.
The Store’s absence from daily life hurt the people of Unst, unsettling their social rhythms and diminishing their sense of self. And yet, some whispered, Margaret’s behaviour wasn’t altogether surprising. The Store had a troubling history of distinguishing itself from the rest of the town and its ongoing closure was surely just another manifestation of a bigger problem.
The Convenience Store was one of the oldest buildings in Unst yet the records were silent on its origin. There were only rumours. Some said it had been built to house the barrels of fish that kept the earliest settlers alive but others whispered that it had been the town’s first morgue, hastily constructed after the unmentionable events of 1822. Whatever the truth, no names were ever attributed to the building’s creation and the only features Margaret’s family had ever displayed at the Store’s entrance were the wooden barrels stuffed with weekly specials and fishing nets.
Then, one morning without any warning, the Store’s lights suddenly came back on. This was particularly good news for the fishing fleet which had been caught in a storm the previous day, leaving many of its nets in tatters. And if truth be told, there had been a far greater need for earbuds amongst the people of Unst than anyone could have imagined. So the Store’s reopening was greeted with a great sense of relief and Margaret was quietly forgiven for her retreat from town life.
And so it was that everything appeared to return to normal. The fishing boats set off each morning, the school bell rang out through the day and the lights of the Unst Convenience Store went on and off in time with the rhythms of the town.
But something had changed.
The barrels of specials still appeared at the entrance of the Store each morning and the fishing nets and hooks hung in their usual place. But the warmth and familiar smells of the Store were gone and Margaret, who had always been such a welcoming presence, now refused to come out from the back, replaced by a sign instructing customers to leave their money on the counter.
A town meeting was called. Something had to be done. Perhaps Margaret needed an assistant. Her life had surely become lonely since Ewan had died and it was well known that arthritis was slowly crippling her hands. Or perhaps the time had finally come to address the Store’s unacknowledged past. After all, a building in Unst without a history was like a body without a soul. Even if its origins lay in tragedy, this needed to be acknowledged and the building’s guardians restored to the town. That was the way of the people of Unst. Their heritage was their strength and Margaret and the Store had shut themselves off from the past for too long.
And so it was decided. Margaret would be appointed to head a Special Committee of History and an illustrated board would be made for the Convenience Store’s entrance. The meeting adjourned in high spirit and a small group, fuelled with excitement and beer, headed out into the night towards the lights of the Store, keen to tell Margaret the good news. But within a blink, the Store’s lights went out and when the delegation arrived at its door, they found it locked. Undeterred, they carried on to Margaret’s home a few minutes further down the path – she could only just have left the building and they would surely catch her along the way.
But when they arrived at Margaret’s house they found it was also dark and silent. Their knocks and calls went unanswered and Margaret’s notoriously pesky cat, Mercury, was nowhere to be seen. A tentative step inside revealed a home that had been abandoned. The fire had not been lit for days and the food on the shelves was rotten. Later, there were whispers that Margaret’s house had been gripped with the same still cold that enveloped the Store.
The people of Unst were proud of their town. They knew who they were within its confines and were completed by the rhythms set across generations. Their past was their present and their strength. The living history of Unst could not be denied.
Indeed, it would go down in the annals of the northern region that only four weeks after being evacuated from the base of an erupting mountain, the extraordinary people of Unst had returned to their homes unscathed and re-established their ancient lifestyle. The fishing boats left the dock each morning, the school bell rang time for the women and children and every morning, just before dawn, the Convenience Store lights came on and the barrels of specials appeared out the front as if, some said, by magic.
“The thing is, Garry, I have to start thinking about my legacy because Alan is going to hell and the bastard is going to take everyone with him. This policy is the last chance for all of us to cut through, to leave our mark.
Garry sat impassively, pushing strands of linguini around the bottom of his bowl as the familiar speech continued.
“I’ve given thirty years of my life to the party and I’m damned if I’m going to let them kill me off quietly. Yes these are unpopular cuts but we have a rationale, Garry. My rationale! I developed it at the ‘89 conference and it’s never seen the light of day. The bastards never had the guts.
As he gained momentum, Neville began waving his fork around, sending flecks of salsa verde flying onto his advisor’s pristine white cotton shirt.
“Surviving three years of Labour is like surviving the Titanic, Garry. And like those desperate people floating in the Atlantic in 1912, Australians have been left with very few options. But the Nationals have a plan. We want to take the life rafts away. Not because we are sadistic maniacs. Not because we see no hope. But because we want you to swim. We want every single Australian to find his (or her) inner Thorpie and butterfly away from the flotsam and jetsam of Labor’s economic wreckage. Not cling to it until they drown!”
Garry stared out the window at a lonely street lamp glowing defiantly through the sleeting rain. He wished he was out there with it.
“You can’t be a winner until you become a fighter, Garry. That’s what my father told me. And that is what I am going to tell my electorate.”
Neville aggressively tapped a piece of paper lying on the table between the two men.
“It’s my parting gift to the voters and I want it to shine through in my final policy statement!”
Garry sighed as he moved to subdue his employer.
“It’s too radical Nev. The electorate don’t like radical, especially when it relates to their health. The focus groups are very clear on this. People don’t agree that pricing life saving treatments out of their reach will improve their resolve to stay healthy. They just want drugs.
Garry pushed the piece of paper back across the table towards Neville.
“This statement is suicide.”
“Treasury agree with me.” Neville retorted.
“No,’ Garry corrected his boss. ‘The treasury memo said that if 20% more chronically ill people were denied treatment, they would die prematurely and we would save billions on long term health care.”
“Well I like that thinking too.” Neville replied pretending his full attention was now on the last piece of garlic bread.
“We would be willfully sending thousands of people to their graves.” Garry persisted.
“Or to the gym, Garry. There could be all sorts of unforeseen benefits from a tougher approach.”
Garry looked at the time on his phone and felt his edges beginning to fray.
“It would also kill off your career two months before it’s natural death. Is that how you want to end your time as Health Minister?”
Neville leaned across the table towards Garry as far as his girth would allow. He was not for turning.
“Alan wants to see me go out in a box no matter what I do. I could have been PM you know.”
Garry looked about the crowded restaurant for the waiter and pointed down at their near empty wine bottle before reluctantly turning back to his boss.
“…Tim said I was the most cutting edge strategic thinker the Nationals had ever produced. Alan was terrified of me until that bullshit in Malaysia. And if he hadn’t lied his pants off to the Commission, excuse the pun, I would be sitting in the Lodge right now. You too, Garry. Don’t forget that. I would have taken you with me.”
“You’re taking me with you now.” Garry thought ruefully.
The waiter arrived at the table with another bottle of Hunters Hill Merlot and silently filled their glasses.
“I’ve never been able to shake it off, you know.” continued Neville. “Last week, some old duck at a Rotary lunch said she wanted to see me bled to death on television – a Rotary member!”
“Do you think you’ll go up or down?” asked Garry taking a large swig of wine.
“What?” Neville replied absently.
“Heaven or Hell?” challenged Garry. ”Which one are you going to?”
“Oh, fuck off, Garry.
When the dense bushland finally gave way to a lush green lawn, Mrs Babcock cried out with relief and, lifting her skirts, trotted at an impressive pace across the lawn towards a large white weatherboard house.
Her daughter, Eleanor, marched silently after her mother, pulling her younger sister behind her. She noted with annoyance that the pathway they had strayed from was now just a few short strides away. Her sister Olive, who had expressed no sensible opinions since leaving Melbourne, simply whimpered as she was dragged up the front steps of the house to the well lit verandah.
All in all, it took the women a full five minutes to travel the short distance from their carriage at the roadside to the door of Mr Terry’s Retreat. Their brief but unexpected detour through the bush had left them quite shaken and they presented an ashen faced proposition to their host when he finally opened the door.
‘My goodness ladies, whatever has happened to you?’
‘Oh Mr Terry, it has been too terrible for words.’ Mrs Babcock cried, throwing herself into Mr Terry’s arms. ‘As soon as we got here, Olive wandered away from the carriage and disappeared. We had to go into that dreadful bush, calling and calling, only to find her sitting amongst the leaves babbling something about the trees. I said, this is not the time for a botanical exploration Olive. We are here about your nerves. But she took no notice, and now I fear something has taken hold of her mind.’
‘Dear Mrs Babcock,’ soothed Mr Terry pulling a twig from her hair, ‘let me bring you all inside and we will find you some blankets and a cup of tea.’
‘Or something a little stronger for me if you don’t mind’, whispered Mrs Babcock. ‘My nerves have completely fallen to pieces.’
William H. Terry was unquestionably Melbourne’s most renown clairvoyant. His Books and Herbal Remedy Store in Collins Street was always busy with devotees of the spiritualist movement and those with a curious nature. The shop also served as the headquarters for the Progressive Spiritualists’ League and hosted a constant stream of international mediums including the astounding Dr Peebles and Mrs Emma Hardinge Britain.
On the last Sunday of every month, Mr Terry hosted a seance group, the Energetic Circle, at his Sandurst home several hours carriage ride from Melbourne. The Circle welcomed anyone interested in spiritualism and, as in the case of the visiting Babcocks, those in search of answers.
Mr Terry guided the women into a large drawing room, handsomely decorated with heavy mahogany furniture and a large Turkey rug. A dozen or so people stood around a piano chatting and drinking sherry. Calling to his housekeeper to fetch blankets and more sherry, Mr Terry sat the women down on comfortable chairs in the middle of the room and turned to his other guests.
‘May I introduce Mrs Babcock and her daughters, Eleanor and Olive, who are visiting us from Adelaide.’
The group made welcoming noises as they moved gently across the room towards the new arrivals.
‘The ladies came to see me in Collins Street on Friday and we spent quite some time discussing remedies for a number of their conditions. I suggested they might benefit from a visit to us this evening. And here they are.’
As the Babcocks settled themselves with their blankets and sherry, the other guests sat around them arranging their chairs into a rough circle. Several conversations began at once as they often do with the middle class.
‘It was only last week that I wrote a piece about your wonderful city for ‘The Argus’, Miss Babcock. In my opinion, your religious architecture is some of the most impressive in the country…’
‘… how could you not have heard about the suffragette outrages in London? Oh my dear they are climbing the telegraph poles and cutting the wires!’
‘… I eventually found a mixture of wormwood and laudanum was the most beneficial for my movements.’
Olive, who had remained aloof from the conversations, suddenly spoke up with such force that she brought the room’s chatter to a halt.
‘They say there are spirits in the trees. Do you think there are spirits in the trees, Mr Terry? I think I saw a spirit in the trees just earlier.’
Mrs Babcock was acutely embarassed by her daughter’s interjection.
‘For heaven’s sake Olive, Mr Terry doesn’t want to hear that nonsense.’
‘Not at all Mrs Babcock,’ Mr Terry replied gently and sitting next to Olive, took her hand. ‘I believe there are spirits everywhere. Why it was in this very room at our last circle, that we were seated just as we are now when we heard a loud tapping noise coming from the table behind you.’
Everyone turned to look at a heavy, polished wooden dining table with several high backed chairs arranged around it.
‘To our amazement, the table rose several inches from the floor and moved over the carpet, landing right where it sits now. You will note, ladies, its unusual positioning over to the far edge of the rug.’
Mrs Babcock and Olive stared at the table, clearly alarmed by its unworldly properties. Eleanor also stared silently but with her gaze directly at Mr Terry.
‘So if the spirits are content to commune with us through a table, Miss Olive, I have no doubt they will also happily occupy the trees.’ Mr Terry finished with a dramatic raise of his eyebrows and a broad smile for Eleanor.
Olive turned to her mother and her bottom lip began to tremble.
‘You see my problem Mr Terry,’ Mrs Babcock said emptying her sherry glass and looking for a refill. ‘Poor Olive is either in the midst of some dreadful preternatural attack or she has completely lost her senses and I fear I am losing mine along with her.’
‘There now, Mrs Babcock’, Mr Terry comforted. ‘The Energetic Circle is regularly visited by benevolent spirits with messages and guidance for those in need. I feel there is a very good chance that you may receive their assistance this evening.’
Mrs Babcock coloured at the thought of communing with the spirit world and immediately agreed that the evening could hold the answer to all their problems. Olive’s pale countenance and Eleanor’s steely glare suggested otherwise.