Authors: Alexandra Cameron
What would you do if you suspected your child was a gifted liar?
Rachael is a child prodigy, a talented artist whose maturity and eloquence is far beyond her fourteen years. She’s also energetic, charming and beautiful, beguiling everyone around her. To her mother, Camille, she is perfect. But perfection requires work, as Camille knows all too well.
For Rachael has another extraordinary gift: a murky one that rears its head from time to time, threatening unbalance all the familtoy has been working towards. When Rachael accuses her art teacher of sexual misconduct, Camille and Rachael’s father, Wolfe, are drawn into a complex web of secrets and lies that pits husband against wife and has the power to destroy all of their lives.
Set in the contrasting worlds of Australia and Paris,
is a mystery story of the heart, about a mother’s uncompromising love for her daughter, and a father’s quest for the truth.
Ash fell from the sky like snow on the day my mother died. A thick cloud of smoke engulfed the city and a hot wind passed through the hospital windows, rustling the blinds and taking the breath from her lungs with it. Grit got up my nose and in my mouth and eyes. I sneezed all morning; my face was red. I had trouble breathing. The doctors thought it was grief.
She died at noon exactly. Her profile had been still, her chest flat and square. She was white. Her colour had drained almost immediately, except for the faintest flush of pink that remained smudged along one cheekbone. This single stroke, as if she had been struck, grew, becoming purple as her temperature dropped and her arm became heavy and waxen in my hand. It was deceptively alive, this process after death. They said the oxygen mask had bruised her. It was like a birthmark, or rather a deathmark. Her cheeks had sunk, becoming jowly, and she reminded me of Whistler’s Mother. I rested her arm on the bed beside her body.
Wolfe, Rachael and I spent the remainder of the afternoon going through paperwork, hanging around sterile corridors, waiting for doctors and then nurses and then administration people to approach us in their soft-heeled shoes. Rachael was silent most of the time, smiling occasionally, standing back and fetching coffee and water for us. During those long afternoons at the hospital, before my mother let go, I would often forget Rachael was there and then I would see her head on her arms by her grandmother’s side. It was hard to imagine her as anything other than an angel. So she was a precocious fourteen-year-old – at least she had spirit.
The cloud of smoke turned the light eerie, the sun a mere amber dot with a feeble glow. Grey flakes coated cars, windows, skin – everything in its path. Faces were tense with worry and bewilderment. Wild imaginations thought it was the end of the world.
Outside, our car was filthy. Rachael waited for us, her finger tracing her name on the bonnet. Wolfe started the engine. The windscreen wipers squawked, making angles in the grime.
We drove slowly. Wolfe hunched forward over the steering wheel, the blue vein at his temple raised.
‘Do you think the fires have reached Sydney yet?’ Rachael said.
‘Hope not,’ Wolfe said.
‘Can’t they stop them?’
‘They’re pretty bad this time,’ he said.
I switched on the AM news radio station . . .
Residents in Sydney’s western suburbs have reported seeing burning embers up to thirty kilometres from the fire front
. . .
as a result of the fire at Lithgow
. . .
‘There you go, still the Blue Mountains.’
‘You mean Black Mountains.’
We all fell silent and let the radio announcer’s voice fill the gaps. I tuned in and out . . .
due to excessive drought and higher than average temperatures
. . .
. . .
El Niño effect
. . .
wind gusts are expected to be in excess of seventy kilometres per hour
. . .
At which point I leant in and switched the radio to FM.
Sweat gathered on Wolfe’s forehead as he scraped away the nicotine-stained wallpaper in my mother’s sunroom. His shoulders worked hard, wet patches growing at the nape of his t-shirt. The wallpaper was a velvet fleur-de-lys pattern, which used to be gold and lime, but it was hard to tell now because of the brown and yellow discolouring. For years, I had offered to get rid of it but my mother had always refused. Stubborn to the end of her days,
I like things the way they are
, she would say in her still-strong French accent.
‘Bloody bitch of a job,’ Wolfe moaned, the sound of the metal spatula grating. Mr Brown dozed at his feet, immune to the bits of paper landing on his fur. The paper tore off with difficulty, revealing dirty cancerous clouds that had penetrated the wall underneath, just like it had my mother’s lungs.
‘You offered,’ I said, attempting to slap Wolfe’s behind, but he was too quick and I missed him. Anyway, you owe me, I thought. Mr Brown raised his head, opened one dopey eye and buried his nose under his paw again.
My mother’s flat was a standard 1940s dark-brick block. It had four flats downstairs and four flats upstairs, each with their own balcony. There was a front garden and a driveway around the side that led to eight garages at the back, where she’d left her pea-green Renault sedan to rust.
She’d been the longest-standing resident. As a kid, I’d had few playmates in the block. Instead, I would bug our elderly residents and eventually, one by one, they disappeared: Mr Chan, a silent, ageless, Chinese man, who had apparently been a doctor in his homeland, had died one night in his sleep; Mrs Margaret Bilson had no longer been able to take care of herself, and had been moved to a nursing home by her son; and Mr and Mrs Eric and Berthe Fleischmann, Holocaust refugees, had decided to go back to Europe – to make peace, they said, before it was their time.
Mrs Fleischmann used to water the garden and feed me dinner when my mother was working on reception for the local medical centre and I still remember her hand on the hose, the skin on her sleeveless arm wobbling, and the faded green numbers on her wrist. Once, when I was too young to know better, I asked her why they didn’t have any kids. She had looked at me, pressed her forefinger into the middle of her fleshy bosom and said, ‘Why would we want to pass this on to our children? It is too much. I could not give it to anyone else.’
We lived on the knuckle of a peninsula, beside jagged cliffs that soared high out of the Pacific Ocean. For two hundred years, the foundling city had carved itself along two legs of the harbour, nestling into leafy hillsides, an insular wall against the flat, exposed land to the west; sparkling skyscrapers idled in the neck and beyond sat a shimmering pool of water like a great heaving womb (indeed our coloniser claimed there’d been a birth). On board the discovering ship a man wrote of ‘a land of milk and honey’, but he was deceived and the colony nearly died of starvation: the land was arid and harsh and isolated, just like its people.
Through the open windows in the sunroom I looked out to the communal garden where my mother had planted flowerbeds of yellow roses, white and blue hydrangeas, dark pink camellias and white gardenias. Although she had no outward patience for art, she was the one who had first taught me about beauty and colour, about light and shade and textures. It was in her blood. The smell of honey wafted from a jasmine vine, signalling the beginning of a hot summer.
The wind would blow in off the ocean, over the cliffs across the road, heavy with damp and salt, and a layer of stickiness would settle on everything, eventually corroding all it touched – nothing lasted around here, even the rocks.
The white muslin curtains, curdled from smoke, had been removed. My mother used to sit in here at a small green card table, where she would play Patience or Baker’s Dozen and smoke. There would always be an ashtray and always one tendril of smoke whistling up to the ceiling. When we arrived this morning we’d found the cards laid out mid-Patience with a suit of hearts and clubs. The ashtray was full of old butts.
I’d kill for an espresso
, she’d say, before stubbing out her cigarette and shuffling off to make her coffee.
We threw the ashtray into a box marked junk, along with the gaudy seashell playing cards, and Wolfe piled the rickety table into the back of his truck with the rest of the furniture we would sell at auction. There wasn’t much: a glass cabinet which had held her silver service and a set of crystal goblets, a 1960s teak armchair and a sofa with orange and green wool-like cushions, a box television set from 1988, an old drop-leaf dining table and her beloved espresso machine. It was worthless and out-of-date stuff that, thankfully, we didn’t have to pay someone to take away. I stared up at a framed painting hanging on the wall. It was called
, because of the three generations of women it portrayed in a kaleidoscope of mirrors;
, was scrawled in the bottom left. It was clever and the local council had certainly thought so. It had been Rachael’s first prize-winning picture. She’d come a long way since then. I stood on tiptoes and unhooked it from the nail. On the back she had written:
To Mémé, with love, R
We sorted her personal items into three boxes: rubbish, for sale and keepsake. My mother was not exactly a hoarder, but in the last years had not been able to keep up with her usual vigorous expunging. Get rid of everything, I told Rachael and Wolfe, who held up various things and yelled, ‘Bin? Or keep?’ Part of me felt as if we were invading her privacy and the other part held imaginary conversations with her.
What did you keep that for?
Where in the world did you get that?
In the bedroom, I went through her personal papers – bank statements, tax returns, unopened mail, unpaid bills and debts. No one told you about the administrative nightmare of death.
Rachael’s backside, clad in black tights, poked out of my mother’s wardrobe. Rummaging around in its depths, she pulled out plastic bags full of god-knows-what and dumped them next to piles of clothes on the floor. ‘We should have done this when she was alive. I don’t remember Mémé being so drab, do you?’
I was about to chide her but thought better of it. We were all feeling out of sorts right now. Mémé’s clothes were going to charity; although seeing them again, I wondered if charity would even accept them: one mauve and frayed velour tracksuit, one peach floral polyester dress from Kmart, several pairs of tan slacks, a couple of long cotton skirts of various colours, some white shirts – yet somehow she’d still managed to look elegant.