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Famous Reporter # 33






There is a hole in my heart and I fall into it.

The five of us sit on Betty’s couch like peas in a pod. That’s what she used to call the three of us when we all got into her pearly bath together. We’ve come back to her house by the sea almost a decade since the last time. I’ve brought my husband and so has Jill. Terri is still in the middle.

Some months before this strange homecoming, I found myself thinking strange things. As if from a dream, a clear picture would enter me without warning. Waiting at the tram stop. Sitting at the traffic lights. Walking around the Edinburgh Gardens with the bird lady and the skate boarders on to more exciting planes. This is when I would imagine us all, out on Betty’s lawn looking over the water and back towards Melbourne. Always the sun would spook the wind.

I wanted to talk to you, Betty says, because here the phone won’t ring and your mother can’t say it’s not important. She pauses. This is just not predictable. I’m not going to disappear like that – she clips her thumb and ring finger together, but if I’m around in two years I’ll count myself lucky.

She has just answered the question I’ve been carrying around with me since I first heard of her lump. She’d waited for me to come back from a festival in Toronto to tell me. That was after her first mastectomy. She’d told me as we were having dinner at my flat, listening to her favourite Chopin Impromptu.

After she got back to her house by the sea, Betty started making quilts. She made one for me, one for Terri, one for Jill. All in different hues. She wrote to me that she wouldn’t make one for our mother as she despised the craft – but I knew the real reason all too well: our mother had always hated Betty for stepping into grandpa’s life so soon after grandma died. Betty also said in her letter that she was putting photo albums together. One for each of us. She couldn’t find three of the same albums, so they are all different. They are smallish and scrapbook like. Everything in them has been handpicked and placed in her own order, carefully chosen from the chaos of larger albums where mum and dad sometimes figure. Betty’s quilting and collating fill her time now: her days are measured by the number of patchwork squares sewn together or the number of pages left to be filled in one of her albums. She says she’s getting there – hopefully by Easter.

Cancer is a dumb killer. It has moved through Betty like a muddy wave. It has left its marks as it has moved into the territory of her body. It has moved from her breast to her lymph nodes and into her bones. The ache in her chest is not the sign of some heart failure: it is the cancer in her bones. Now her speech is hushed, her sentences broken, so she seems to be laughing louder. She swallows with difficulty. This is how, on this all too brief long weekend, I measure the progress of the wave.

Betty’s words leave us quiet, uncertain of our own words. Jill speaks so fast Terri says she can’t catch a word. Now that she’s about to leave for Europe she asks me why I don’t talk about it. An odd question. Before I get a chance to answer, she is looking past me, to the open sea. Words don’t seem to work anymore. Except for Betty, perhaps. She laughs about the way we will be when she’s gone, how she will be there, sitting on each of our shoulders like some pet parrot, parroting herself.

Faith is the memory of the past, someone has scribbled on the whiteboard next to the fridge. Terri? I add tea to the shopping list under the marmalade. Tea and marmalade remind me of my grandfather, of the way he used to make tea and toast for Betty: two cups of tea, one with a lid on it next to the other, and two pieces of marmalade toast.

Hope is the memory of the future.

And the future clatters in on us, sometimes more heavily than the past.

Right now, the memory of the future seems clearer than my memory of the past. Babies. This seems somehow irrelevant. Removed from what brought us back by the sea. But Betty’s just told me she’d love to hold my first baby in her arms. How does she know? She might well hold her first grandchild in her arms some time. Right now, though, when I think of the future, I think it’s uncanny how much I look like her. It’s not only the obvious replication of bone structure: I have her marbled legs and coarse hands, even her fingernails – the shape and the curve are the same, claw like. She looks at me. Don’t be like me, she says. Don’t let them clip your wings.

In my memory of the future, we do not have clipped wings.


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