Walleah Press

Famous Reporter 41 : July 2010



Famous Reporter 41




The Smell of Books

          The night my mother dies, I see her standing in my garden. It is past midnight: a navy blue, moonless night with rain oiling down my windows and when I look up from my book for a moment, disturbed by the tick of some night creature across the roof above me, I see her as clearly as I see the pages before me. My apricot reflection in the window is superimposed over her like a badly developed photograph: a strange negative, my startled face across her flat, thin figure, ugly in a brown coat and blouse slick with rain. She stands outside my window with her hands by her sides and rain dripping from her fingernails. Watching me.

          It will not be until the next afternoon that I will get the phone call from my sister. Even through the bad connection I will be able to tell that she is still afraid of me, as if a book, a cheque in the mail, my picture in a newspaper somewhere, have rotted something within me. I can hear my mother in her voice. The funeral is on Wednesday in a few days' time, she will tell me. Uncle Ray will read the eulogy - I will not have to worry about taking on any responsibility as the older sister - I can just relax, enjoy the trip down to Tasmania and leave as soon as it is over. She is sure that I have plenty of work that I will need to get back to as soon as possible: another book launch perhaps, or an unfinished manuscript. The dial tone in my ear will be what I will remember most about that conversation: its smooth, consistent rudeness.

          I will go into my office and stand in the middle of the room with my arms folded around me as if I am cold. I will not cry. I will be thinking about my mother, about her face in my window and the way she had stared at me blankly, as if she were not aware of who I was, as if my face had reminded her of someone that she could not quite recall.

          You must understand something about my mother. About myself. There are rooms in my house that twist  my stomach every time I walk into them, there is such a sense of her about them. A certain shade of lighting, a sudden harmony in the curtains and the rugs and the sofas that all at once remind me of her living room, her bedroom. Sometimes I wake up and I can smell her, taste her in my mouth as if she has been there in my room, leaning over my bed. A smell of bleach, old blankets, of sour fruit juice; a smell that I associate with the cold, early hours when my room is colourless and the sudden light of the bathroom burns my eyes as I spit her taste into the sink. She did not understand me the way she understood my sister: my sister's emotional transparency, her desire for acceptance. My mother was a girl in her presence, living out her life as a friend, not a parent, while I revolved slowly on the outside of their sisterhood, refusing to mimic what I saw. I read books, cross-legged in my room and wrote poems and stories in the dark, never quite understanding their shared laughter.

          If my mother had died then, when I was still a teenager, I would have been relieved. If she had died when I was in my twenties, I would have seen it as an opportunity to show my sister how much I had really cared: I would have read a stirring eulogy, cried into a tissue and leant against her shoulder as if, now that we were motherless and alone, we would have to care for each other. If she had died in my thirties, I would have felt a twinge of sadness, discontented because we had never seen eye-to-eye as they say. But she will die when I am forty-seven and I will not care.

          I will return from the funeral with flowers and a headache and a physical soreness in my limbs: an emotional bruising from the guarded conversations of my relatives, the curious stares. There will have been people there that I have never met, people I have never even seen before: children with wide eyes, unwilling to talk to me or to brush against my coat; hostile in their distance as I wait in the foyer after the service, talking to their parents. When I return, I will open my front door and go straight into the laundry and push the flowers deep into the rubbish bin, scrubbing the smell from my hands until my fingers sting.

          Many years later, I will begin to write again. I will write about a funeral, an arrangement of roses smelling of musk and death, about a woman avoiding her sister's eyes and speaking instead to her mouth, to her birthstone brooch. I will write the blackness of it all, the dark comedy in the way that we masked my alienation in the middle of a tragedy so large that only when I am seventy-three will I be able to understand it. The tragedy of a mother who is afraid of her daughter's silence; the tragedy of a daughter who lives out her life in the smell of books, never understanding what it was about herself that was so repulsive.

          I close my book and turn off the light. My reflection disappears from the window and it is only my mother and me, staring at each other in the darkness. My last memory of her will be this: her thin shoulders in the rain on the other side of my window, her hair slowly taking in water, growing flatter and darker, her face sticky with damp and her eyes in shadow. Unable to hear me if I speak.

          This is the part I will never write.

Sarah Annesley has had literary fiction and poetry published in Etchings, Poetrix 31, Positive Words magazine and Short and Twisted 2009 and won second place in the 2008 International Women's Day Young Women Writers' Award. She was a finalist in the 2008 Wirra Wirra Vineyards Short Story Awards and has been published in the 2007, 2008 and 2009 Tabor Adelaide anthologies where she has just completed a BA majoring in Creative Writing and English. She is currently working as an editor with Sid Harta Publishers.