It is April, in 2004, in Adelaide.
I want, she says, a new mosaic to go on my garden wall.
At present there is an image of a friendly Father Sunshine of reasonable if cheerfully commercial taste. It was there when she bought the house and she’s never liked it. She wants to replace it. Her sister, Vivienne, has made a mosaic of a woodland image, rather fine, for the garden of her cottage in Gilberton. We are talking sibling rivalry here, at the ages of seventy-eight and eighty-two respectively. I feel a dull ache somewhere between the back of my throat and my breastbone. ‘Yes?’ I say.
Jeanette has silver hair that has suddenly gone white. It’s always been curly, framing a small triangular face with large hazel eyes, a bumpy nose she has forever lamented, and a thin-lipped mouth that seems unfair because she’s not a prude, nor unforgiving. As a young woman she was very thin, she thought too thin. Even now, she has slim, shapely legs, a neat bust, and wide soft hips. She’s of medium height, taller than my short, stocky Dad and her first two daughters. My youngest sister, Sally, is about her height, so Ma got one out of three.
Ma knows the image she wants.
It’s The Unicorn in Captivity: a detail from the 7th tapestry in the series known as The Hunt of the Unicorn as Lover.
The Unicorn in Captivity is well known. The original image is held at The Cloisters, the uptown annexe of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. You see copies of it here and there. In fact, I have a large framed poster of it in our front hall, though I’m not sure if Ma remembers this because she’s only visited our house in Sydney twice and – an ongoing failing – she may well not have paid attention.
The background of the picture is a forest feathered into a profusion of scattered berries, buds and opened red, blue, white and yellow flowers encircled by tendrils of curling leaves. The unicorn itself is white with slender, muscular limbs. It wears a collar and kneels within a flimsy circular fence. It has a sweet, serious face and a tufted beard like a gentle elongated goat. The thin spike of its horn seems both inevitable and surprising where it spears up from the centre of its forehead. This combination of shock and completion, together with the skill of the weaving, has to be the source of the image’s power.
My Ma looks at me over the rim of her china teacup. The ache in my breastbone throbs. I understand she wants me to offer to make her mosaic. For my part, I think the image is more than beautiful and I cannot imagine acquiring the skill to render anything other than a bastard schoolgirl imitation of such artistry. I don’t want to do it. I also understand, in a convolution of communication that is commonplace in my birth family, that she, in her turn, is picking up my reluctance. Perhaps she guesses that my response is fuelled not just by a sense of incapacity. This request is a digression, another common practice, an inessential inserted into the state of play when the essential task ahead is overwhelming. But the cards are all in her bridge-playing hands at this moment, so I smile and trust that she’ll go with my surface behaviour. She usually does. I hedge. ‘All right’, I say, ‘I’ll see if I can find someone to make it’.
Her phone – a landline in 2004 – rings. She leans back in her pale green brocade chair. She shakes her head a little. I go to answer the incoming call.
For some time, I had been keeping a notebook. The entries from that period are multiple, and disorganised. In no particular order they range from hospital procedures, Ma’s business affairs, the psychology of dying from the point of view of both sufferer and carers, and other items such as the details of her will and funeral requests. These last – stuck between a recipe for a quiche she’ll eat and the address of a woman who likes her dog – are not recent. They date from a dream – also recorded – from a year still further back, in February 2003, after which I sat up in bed in the cold morning in Sydney with a dry throat, my ears hot and the skin on my chest pricking and tingling and said out loud, ‘She’s going to die.’
This was the dream:
‘I was in this house, in Greenwich, with Rob. There were some birds trilling very loudly under a staircase. I called this to Rob’s attention. Then we went into the long, bright sitting room. I’d been worried because we were having Nick (a friend who was very ill with cancer at the time) to dinner and I didn’t want to get the day wrong. But it was the right day, and the birds and the clean morning light might have been reminding us of that…’
Then, in the hit-and-run manner of dreams – it was five o’clock of the previous day, though quite how I knew the precise time I am unsure, and now I was in a room that both was and was not the dark, over-crowded dining room at Whistler Avenue, in Adelaide in South Australia, where my parents lived for most of their married life and where my sisters and I had grown up. I was with Ma and my older sister, Pip. And my father, who had died twenty-three years before, was sitting at the chair in front of a desk pressed up against the western wall. And I said to Ma, ‘See – Dad’s there. He always comes to sit there’.
She was very pleased. It seemed as if I had known that he did this, but she had not. Then, in another convolution, he was sitting in front of the piano that was also kept in that room, except that now – in the dream – the piano had been placed against a wall where in reality French doors led out of the house, and into a portico that Ma had had built between the house and the back garden in the year after Dad had died. I don’t know why he was sitting at the piano. He didn’t play. She did.
Then I saw there was a large plate on the top ledge of the piano/desk. Maybe of dark Moroccan leather? Maybe embossed in filigrees of gold? As we looked, the plate lifted up seemingly of its own accord and rose off the ledge, hovering in the air. In the dream this felt scary, but nevertheless a good thing because it meant that Dad was present as himself, not as some wished-for hallucination, since it must been him who had caused the displacement of the plate in the first place.
Then I looked over at Ma, and I saw she’d split somehow into two, and I knew that both her heart and a hard shell had broken. But I also knew that the essential fact was that it was her beautiful spirit self that was there, and that she was very happy. I could see her smiling with a gentle neutrality as the plate mysteriously and mildly returned to its previous resting place.
Then Ma seemed to stiffen. Suddenly, she was all hard shell, and she fell. Pip said, ‘Vee, you’ve killed her’, But I said, ‘No, I haven’t, it just happened’. As I held Ma’s heavy body on the floor, I told Pip to ring an ambulance. Yet I knew that in fact Ma was okay. Because it was her spirit that was somehow causing all of this and they – she and Dad – were happy.
Do I believe in spirits? I don’t know. In my dream I did, and I do believe in dreams. I stared into the cool, black night. The wooded inner-city suburb of Greenwich is thick with creatures. You hear mopokes in the nearby forest. Rob slept on beside me.
My mother has an imperious streak. She likes things just so. At the same time, she’s also like a fawn – a fine-boned, skitter-minded thing who startles easily and, whilst not clever, she possesses an emotional intuition second to none. In the dark night, hungover with the dream, wanting to take action to push against its shock, I did know there was no way I could do anything at all with regard to a death as yet unimagined on anyone else’s part, let alone hers. But in the spacy dark it seemed right to ensure that, if death did arrive unexpectedly, I would be in a position to fulfil her desires with regard to her funeral. I know this isn’t logical. But it felt Useful. So, I made my decision and, bit by bit, on successive visits to Adelaide, always mindful of the necessity to be discreet in my efforts to avoid provoking that familiar febrile response, I gathered what details I could.
This is what I recorded in my notebook:
*Andante Spinato. (Chopin. I can remember her playing this piece in the downstairs dining room, me lying in bed in my bedroom directly above, the heavy thump of her foot on the pedal, the runs of notes.)
*Be Thou My Vision – a schoolgirl hymn. There was an aspect of my mother that was irredeemably girlish, so this fitted nicely.
*The Lord’s My Shepherd – ubiquitous in any Australian colonial Non-Conformist hymnbook.
* ‘The Bruckner Pip left the church to on her wedding’. This was more problematic. Which part of which of Bruckner’s many works might this be? Was it an imposed choice, in which case Pip might not remember it now? Philippa, my oldest sister, was the only one of the three of us to marry in a church. My mother was not one to forego an opportunity, and Pip was and is an obliging woman, so I bet the music was Ma’s choice.
*Brahms Tragic Overture. Why on earth had this re-surfaced? The overture, as I remember my mother pointing out at the time, was what had echoed through the house as my father brought my eighteen-year-old self back home from the Adelaide Police Station holding cells at one o’clock in the morning, following my arrest in an anti-Vietnam War demonstration in 1971.
* Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata. Fair enough.
* Autumn of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. Ditto
* Schumann’s Piano Concerto in A Minor. Oh. Good.
I didn’t need to ask whether she’d like flowers or not. She has a gift for flowers. It’s one of her true talents, growing them, arranging them, the making of posies, the right time, even the right way to give them. She’d want masses.
‘Will is in the study in the second drawer of Great-Aunt Flo’s desk’. This felt ugly, but money is a difficult dragon. Best to meet it head on.
But then, as time passed, she continued in averagely good health, and the dream, as dreams do, faded. I decided I’d been foolish, despite another, similar dream. Thus, when, a year and a bit later in March 2004 her illness came, despite my morbid preparations, it was as much a shock to me as to her and my sisters.
Ma had been due to have an operation to remove a large (unambiguously benign) growth from her thyroid gland. I was to fly to Adelaide on the morning of the operation, the day after the opening of my adaptation of The Snow Queen in Sydney, to help her through it as much as I could. Sally, my younger sister, would fly from Perth some days after that to help with her convalescence. Pip, who did live in Adelaide but at quite some distance from Ma, had been having a difficult time at work so in the way of my family where everyone was always compensating for whichever of us was the temporary victim, we younger two – working off a little of the guilt of distance – were trying to step up.
The Snow Queen had not been an easy gig. The brief had required naturalistic action combined with virtual reality in a folk/contemporary mix. The complexity and difficult psychology of the making and then remaking for a second season in Sydney after the first rather problematic showing in Adelaide the previous year had finally caught up with almost all of us working on the show. In our minds we’d reserved the Sydney season as the one in which to ‘get it right’ but there had been technical problems with the sound, which remained unresolved as we went into the opening night. Everyone was antsy, me included. Some shows ask too much of their makers and this show had – in the end, though only then – been one of those for me. So, unhappy and distracted, I’d put Ma’s vague complaints of digestive and eliminative problems down to nervous tension about her upcoming operation plus a tendency to hypochondria. Then she rang on the morning of my opening.
‘No. Yes. I’m not having it. You can cancel the flight’.
‘Uh…More? Mum? Why?’
‘My doctor –’. Yet another new doctor. Set that aside. ‘My doctor says I have hepatitis’.
I looked out of the long window in the sitting room into the neatly patched front garden in Greenwich. There was a small bird dotting from iron rail to tree. How does an ageing lady of finicky habits contract hepatitis? Is it even hepatitis? Has she got the diagnosis right? In shock after his sudden death, she’d told my father’s somewhat estranged remaining best friend he’d died of a brain tumour when in fact it was an aneurysm. But. Brown-black urine, it seems. Okay. That’s not good. Okay. But treatable. So, I cancelled my flight with, I confess, relief. Sally rang soon after. ‘I think I’ll go over, anyway, I just think I will’. So she was there, bless her, in the specialist’s rooms with Ma when the diagnosis came.
‘Abdominal ultrasound. There is an impression of a 2.9 x 2.3 centimetre mass in the pancreatic head, which is hypochoric. There is also intra and extrahepatic duct dilation as a result, the common bile duct measures 1.4 centimetres in its maximal diameter. There was no evidence of gallstones, it was somewhat contracted in appearance. No focal liver abnormality was otherwise identified. The right and the left kidney show no pelvocalyceal dilation. The spleen is not enlarged. There is no evidence of ascites scar.
Impression: high suspicion of a pancreatic head mass with resultant intra and extrahepatic duct dilation. ACT recommended. Appearances are highly suspicious of a pancreatic head carcinoma’.
I come back from the phone to my mother, whose head is resting on the back of the chair, her lightly-tinged yellow skin – that will be the liver – soft with powder. Her eyes are shut.
‘Who was it?’
‘Jan’. An ancient and faithful friend. Ma nods. Her large hazel eyes open. We share a look.
‘I could get someone to make the mosaic for you. It might not cost too much’. Who cares, frankly, what it costs? She shuts her eyes again.
I feel myself sliding back into the world of my childhood. When I was young my Depression-childhood, World War II-young-adulthood parents did not expect to buy what they wanted or needed. They usually made it. My mother’s sister had made her own mosaic. My mother would probably have done the same if she had ever quite organised herself for the task. Now, she waits, quietly breathing in the pale afternoon.
‘All right,’ I say, ‘I’ll make it for you’.
She opens her eyes once more. Her face warms, that lovely, open, child-like innocence. ‘Will you?’
VERITY LAUGHTON is an award-winning playwright and poet. Her more than 30 produced works have been seen in Australia, New Zealand, Korea, Japan, the UK and the USA. They include main-stage adult dramas, adaptations, plays for children and families, radio plays, a promenade community event, and a musical. Most recent productions are Long Tan (published by Currency Press), and The Red Cross Letters. She has just completed a PhD in political theatre at Flinders University and is a member of the 7-ON group of playwrights. 'Captivities' is an excerpt from a larger work in progress. Verity's poem 'The Fox Man' can be found in issue #1.Website.
(image credit: The Unicorn Rests in a Garden (from the Unicorn Tapestries) 1495–1505, the Metropolitan Museum of Art)