Dying

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Authors: Cory Taylor
by the turn of the conversation.
I sensed that she found my mother unsettling, and not entirely respectable, that
Mum’s visits were an ordeal to be endured rather than an occasion for celebration.
    As Mum had predicted, we ate lunch in the kitchen, crammed into a corner breakfast
nook where Jan had set out a salad and a plate of sandwiches on a small Formicatable.
The talk was mainly about rain and the lack of it, and about the fortunes of friends
and neighbours who were doing it tough. My mother recognised some of the names and
joined in, catching up on news of clans she had known of since girlhood, friends
who had stayed behind when she left, and made their lives in the bush, while she
was busy inventing an entirely different life elsewhere. Soon she grew restless at
the table and excused herself.
    ‘I just want to take a wander on my own,’ she said.
    Later I found her lying flat on her back on the bare floorboards of the hallway
that bisected the house straight down the middle, or had done before all of the additions
and modifications had changed things around. At first I thought she had collapsed
there.
    ‘Are you okay?’
    ‘I couldn’t take any more of that incestuous gossip,’ she said. ‘Have you noticed
how they never ask any questions about us? It’s like nothing exists beyond the boundary
fence.’
    I sat down beside her on the cool boards.
    ‘Ril used to lie here on summer afternoons,’ she said, ‘to catch whatever breeze
there was. She wouldn’t speak, only to tell the nanny to keep us away.’
    I was reminded of my father’s sulks, sometimes lasting two or three days, when he
wouldn’t say a word toanyone. I knew the fear this kind of silence can induce. You
are convinced that it is your fault, that your very existence is a provocation.
At least that was the case with Dad. He never hid the fact that he resented family
life and found the demands of fatherhood intolerable. I gathered Ril had been the
same, saddled with four children before she was fully grown herself, appalled at
the sacrifice of her youth, and of any kind of autonomy, financial or emotional.
No wonder my mother harboured so much grief. She must have imbibed it from birth,
sucked it in with the very air. And here she was, back at the source, filling herself
up with it again, as she lay sprawled on the floor in the spot where her mother had
sulked and gone silent on all those blistering afternoons.
    ‘Time to go,’ she said, hauling herself up to her feet. ‘I’ve seen enough.’
    Peter and Jan could barely disguise their relief as we readied to leave. They herded
us to the gate and beamed as we piled into the car.
    ‘Give my love to Ranald,’ they said, feigning politeness. I had the impression they
had private reservations about Ranald as well as about my mother, regarding them
both as disreputable, if for different reasons.
    ‘She’ll be back inside in a minute,’ said Mum, ‘mopping the kitchen floor to get
rid of all our crumbs.’
    As we came to the dry creek she asked Jenny to pull over and stop the car.
    ‘This is where the old dump was,’ she said.
    I followed her around as she poked in the rubbish with a stick. It was slim pickings,
but she unearthed a few old medicine bottles made of coloured glass and a couple
of blue and white fragments of china encrusted in dirt.
    ‘There were Chinese market gardeners here when I was small,’ she told me, ‘and one
or two Chinese cooks.’
    More ghosts, I thought, more apparitions floating into the picture, then vanishing
again. This time they had left a faint trail, a few shards of a rice bowl, a piece
of a picture painted on a plate, depicting a tiny boat on a lake and part of a bridge.
    Back in the car, she repeated the oft-told story of the Chinese cook my grandmother
had sacked just after she first moved to Beaconsfield as a new bride.
    ‘The cook had been working here for years,’ she said, ‘with all the men, when the
house was just a shed and the kitchen was

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