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Painted Love Letters
By Catherine Bateson
University of Queensland PressCopyright © 2002 Catherine Bateson
All rights reserved.
Before and After
Dad said that in Nurralloo we were surrounded by Philistines who wouldn't know a good painting if it jumped up and bit them, but at the pub they hung one of his small watercolours; a sketch he called it, and Dad got free beers. He said by the time I was sixteen we'd be rich. We'd celebrate my birthday in Paris, the city of art and lovers. Mum said, 'Don't put ideas in her head, Dave Grainger. Chrissie, don't listen to him,' and flicked her tea towel at him but later she pulled down one of Dad's art books and showed me paintings of people dancing in Paris and a Paris pub which looked a lot posher than the Station Hotel.
I didn't want to go to Paris, even though the pictures looked nice. We'd only been in Nurralloo for one-and-a-half-years. I'd had to change schools halfway through the year and explain to everyone all over again that my father was an artist and that's why he stayed at home and didn't work like the other dads, driving trucks for the council or farming. I've already been in three schools and lived in one city, one big town, seven houses, one flat and a caravan park since I was born.
When I couldn't sleep I used to lie in bed counting them on my fingers and trying to remember each place. I couldn't remember the first couple of houses of course, because I was just a baby. The first place I could really remember was Nan's in Sydney. There was a pale couch and I was never ever to put my feet on it. I had to wipe my dirty shoes on a mat that said WELCOME at the front door with a cat curled up under the words. Dad said the mat was false advertising.
Then I can remember a caravan park somewhere — it was actually in New South Wales but I can't remember the drive to get there or anything except the walking to the toilet block in the night and how it was kind of scary but kind of nice and once we saw a possum. And you had to have a shower, not a bath. Then the flat — but all I can remember is watching the television and a big fight between Mum and Dad. The flat was too small, Mum said, your father couldn't work and he was very unhappy. Then there were two or three houses edging up the New South Wales Coast towards Queensland — I get them mixed up because we didn't stay in any of them very long. Then we did this jump — Dad showed me on the map — and ended up in Taylor Street, Toowoomba where Dad went off to work nearly every day.
I remember Taylor Street because I started school while we lived there and went right through Grade One and nearly all the way through Mrs Dean's Second Grade. There were roses in the front garden, lots of them. I had my photo taken by one of Dad's friends who taught with him out at the college. He taught photography and my father taught print-making. And I got a brand new bike with a little purple basket for my birthday. I kept the bike even though it is too little for me to ride anymore. I kept it in case Mum had another baby and she nearly did, but something went wrong and it was born too early.
Then we moved outside Toowoomba and Dad stopped going to work every day although he still drove in a couple of times a week. I didn't have to finish that year at school because it would have been a waste of time. Mum and Dad argued again but it wasn't because he didn't have a studio. And Mum sat in the dark a lot, or hugged me so tightly I couldn't breathe. It had to do with the baby but I didn't like it much, although I knew I had to stay very still and let her do it.
Then, we moved to Nurralloo and I had to start all over again, but this is the best house we've ever lived in because we've got a dog called Bongo, Dad's got a studio-shed, Mum's got her own room to dream in and I've got a bedroom with a door on to the veranda which means I can go and look at the stars at night. One day, when I know enough stars, I'm going to count them, instead of the places I've lived. They've got nicer names, although they're harder to say.
These were the things you could rely on in Nurralloo, where we lived: fresh eggs every day from Mum's chooks, Stinge McPhee's early Saturday visit before he drove to Toowoomba for the races and Dad's morning ritual. He would get up, cough his guts up, make some Nescafe, sit on the front door step and light his first cigarette. My father smoked Camel cigarettes, or roll your owns when we ran out of money.
I didn't want to go to Paris, even though it is the most beautiful city in the world and the city of love, or lerv as Mum says, rolling her eyes. I didn't want to go anywhere. Nurralloo suited me fine. So when I heard Mum say, 'Well that's it, Dave, if Dr. Gregg says to get a second opinion, we'll go to the city,' my heart slid right out of my chest and made it down to the toes of my boots. I sprang out of my room quicker than Bongo bounds after a rabbit.
They were standing on opposite sides of the kitchen table. Mum's face was floury. She'd been making bread. The flour made dusty patches on her face and when she pushed her hair away, the flour clung there, too, making her look grey.
'It's probably nothing,' Dad said, 'he just wants me to have a couple of tests. He said it's probably just a really persistent bug but that I should have an X-ray, just in case. He wants to make sure my lungs are clear. There's no drama, Rhetta. There's no need to pack up and drive all the way to the city, we can do this in Toowoomba. Please don't turn into your mother over this.'
He sounded tired when he said that, and, for a minute when I looked at him he didn't seem like my father anymore, just a man who looked sick and grey and I was shocked and wanted to be back reading on my bed with Bongo sleeping on the end but it was too late. I was stuck in the kitchen, watching them and listening.
We drove back from Brisbane city the day after the seventeen men were killed in Ipswich in an explosion at the Box Flat coal mine. Fourteen men were sealed in the mine. Mum said they were already dead but it didn't matter, it didn't matter one little bit to me because my father had lung cancer. He had X-rays to prove it and a cough that wouldn't go away ever now. Mum drove all the way home, wiping the tears off her face and no-one said anything much because what was there to say? When we drove through Ipswich my mother said, 'Those poor men, those poor families left behind, wondering.' And then she sniffed extra loudly and we drove on in silence.
Dad reached for his cigarettes every so often and then stopped and his hands returned to rest in his lap. Sometimes I snuck my hand in with his and then he'd stroke my knuckles or we'd hold each other's hands until they got too hot and sweaty. The ute rattled on to Toowoomba but we didn't want to eat, so Mum drove on out of town and made us eat hamburgers and chips at the truck stop, even though we'd been vegetarians for years.
Normally I would have loved it, the salty hot fat chips, the grey meat, the surprising wickedness of it. Just as I had loved watching the television in the hotel room in Brisbane and Mum not even saying to turn it off but sitting there with me, watching anything, everything. Even "Number 96" which she hated. But that was before we knew, that was before the tests came through and now everything, even hot chips, would taste the same; dust or clouds, which, like medicine, you had to take.
Mum and I kept looking at Dad who fiddled with his paper napkin and didn't eat much. He'd clear his throat as if to say something and end up coughing and then Mum would look scared. I was angry. Dad always coughed. There was nothing new except that now he was dying even though Mum said that wasn't true, he wasn't necessarily dying, there were things they could do. But then why did we all have to act as though he was and why did we have to move because that's what we were going to do? We were going back to Nurralloo to move to Brisbane because that way Dad would have a fighting chance, Mum said.
'So much for country living,' she said, days later, throwing clothes in a suitcase, 'so much for the healthy air, home produce and all the rest of the crap. I just wish, I just wish ...'
She didn't finish the sentence and I could think of only one thing she would wish for, the one thing that silenced us, so I didn't even ask, but went on piling the books in the cartons.
People kept coming round. More people came round than I thought we really knew. They brought empty boxes, casseroles full of chops, a plate of roast lamb, a lemon meringue pie. They brought their own stories of cancer and told them in the kitchen while they made pots of tea and my mother kept packing.
'Remember Lizzie, or Dawn, or Pam,' they'd say and then there'd be a story about a breast that had to come off or another bit of someone that was removed. Most of the stories would end with the person getting better and going on to win money at the races, or First Prize for fruit cake at the Toowoomba Show. And they'd pat Mum on the back and pour another cuppa.
At school it was different. The kids had stories too. Someone's uncle had been sliced open and there it was, right through him. All they could do was sew him up again and send him home to lie in bed until he died.
'He was riddled with it,' Jacko said, smacking his lips, 'positively riddled with it.'
I had seen highway signs riddled with bullet holes and I wondered if my father's lungs looked like that, shot with lots of little holes. No wonder he couldn't breathe properly, the oxygen would go straight through those holes.
I left Nurralloo before third term properly finished. I unclipped my paintings from the lines and packed away my unfinished space project. My best friend, Lynnette Graham, hugged me, promised she'd write and even began to cry before her mother gently untangled us and led her away.
Mum promised me the new house was great — I would have a terrific bedroom, she said. I would be able to decorate it any way I liked. The back yard was huge, she said, big enough for any games I played. It wasn't, though, it wasn't acres with Mr Evan's cows. And my bedroom wasn't off a veranda: I could either have the middle room, which had no window at all, only a door leading to the sleep-out, or I could sleep in the sleep-out which wasn't a proper bedroom at all and the bathroom was just off it so I could hear the toilet flushing in the night.
'It was the best house available,' Mum said, sharply, 'close to everything; shops, the school, the hospital, so just shut up and unpack your stuff wherever you're going to sleep.'
'Rhetta,' Dad said, coming in, 'please, please.'
Please what? I wondered, but I didn't ask any more questions. I had heard what mattered. We were close to the hospital.
'Look, Chrissie,' Dad said later that night, when we drove to Kentucky Fried Chicken to get the family special — which we never would have eaten before. Mum wouldn't have let us. She didn't believe the stories about them using rats but she hated battery hens. 'The river's just down there. We'll be able to take Bongo down there for walks. And there are different things to do in the city, you'll see.'
After dinner I went into the sleep-out and stared around it. Yes, it was my same bed with the shelf for books on the bedhead. Yes, they were the same sheets, the pale blue ones with clouds and birds flying through them and a matching pillow case. Yes, my books were on the bookshelf and my ornaments, photos and hairbrush on the dressing table, and my dressing gown hung on a hook behind the door. Bongo had made his place on the bottom of the bed but even he looked dejected. His black and white tail gave only one distinct thump as I tucked myself in, careful to move my feet around him. I stared up at the ceiling and could think of nothing good about this new place except that it was close to the hospital. That was all.
When my father first told my mother the news, she had sat in the fluro light of the hotel room, on the edge of the bed and banged her fist on the blue chenille bedspread and said the 'f' word. Not once, but three times, as hard and fast as the bullets some gangster was shooting on the television screen. I had never before heard her say that word but now I knew how you could want to shock the world, the universe, with some hard ugliness of your own, when everything seemed to be so wrong, so utterly wrong and you had run out of hope for it ever getting better.
I wondered if the men in the mine had banged their dirty fists against the rock and yelled out the 'f word or whether they had turned and held each other, tenderly, the way people do in movies when bad news is delivered or disasters happen. Perhaps they had only had time to look at each other, mouths open like hooked fish, before the explosion blasted them to kingdom come.
I stared up at the ceiling and could think of nothing good in the whole world and I said the worst thing I could think. I said, 'I hate you God'. And I thought of my mother's fists and the dust motes rising from the bedspread and I said, 'F you'.
No fiery blast or thundery voice crashed from the clouds. Just nothing. The room was silent except for Bongo whimpering a little as he dreamed of the Nurralloo rabbits. Well, what had I expected? I didn't have that much to do with God, we didn't go to church at all, so he hadn't recognised my voice. Then I dragged Bongo up next to me and wrapped my arms around his shaggy, obliging chest. He smelled grottily alive, a good thick smell as comforting as soup.CHAPTER 2
Love Letters and Coffins
Dad was obsessed with the cost of funerals. He talked about it all the time. He wrote letters to the newspapers about it. One was published in The Courier-Mail and I hoped no-one at school saw it. Dad cut the letter out and stuck it on the notice board in our kitchen, right next to the card notifying him of his next hospital appointment.
Everything he didn't want, he made me write down in a notebook. He didn't want a mahogany coffin, red or white satin lining, brass or silver-plated handles and he particularly didn't want flowers.
'Tell everyone to donate the money they would have spent on wreaths to cancer research,' he said, and I wrote it down.
He didn't want: a multinational funeral home taking care of his remains, strangers saying anything at his funeral, and he particularly didn't want to be buried.
'Cremation. Wrap me in a plain shroud and cremate me.' he said.
'What's a shroud?' I asked, 'and how do you spell it?'
I wrote it down. I had a list of what he wanted and a list of what he didn't want.
'I don't want you remembering me as a sick old man,' he said, but I didn't have to write that down.
'I don't want my death mourned, I want my life celebrated,' he said. I didn't write that down.
'You can't make us not feel sad,' I said, 'it doesn't work that way, Dad.' Then I had to leave the room because he also didn't want anyone to cry.
'It's so unfair,' I said to my mother when she got home from work. 'It's all right for him to say what he wants and doesn't want. He'll be dead. What about us? What about what we want?'
Mum pulled me into her white shirt. She smelled of kitchens, oil and steam. She was waitressing at the Queen Victoria Hotel. She was a bistro girl, she told our friends, grimacing.
'The thing is, Chrissie, that when you're very, very sick like Dad is, you don't always have the energy to think about other people. I know it seems unfair, but that's how it is. Do you want me to talk to him?'
I thought about it. After each bout of chemotherapy my father came home looking greyer and as though there was a little less of him.
'No,' I said, 'don't bother.'
Dad talked to some friends of his and found a carpenter who agreed to come around and measure him up. The carpenter was a thin, long man with greying dreadlocks who didn't comment on Dad's stash of illegal pain relief, the dope he smoked throughout the day.
'Cool, man,' Bodhi kept saying as he flicked his carpenter's rule at my father's body. 'So what do you reckon, recycled timber or you got something else in mind?'
'I don't care, Bodhi, the cheapest thing you can get. I don't care if it's plywood.'
'Plywood wouldn't hold you,' Bodhi said, 'I'll get hunting. Tell you what, let me measure up your old woman and I'll give you a cheaper deal for two.'
'That's a great idea,' Dad said, pouring Bodhi out some lemon grass tea, and filling the bong, 'that way I could paint Rhetta's too while I'm still around.'
'Right,' Bodhi nodded his head so emphatically his dreadlocks bounced around like little snakes, 'like, it would be there when she needed it.'
'Dad,' I said, 'Dad, I don't know if that's such a great idea.'
I could tell that it was too late.
'What about the kid?'
'No way,' I said.
'Not Chrissie,' Dad said, 'we don't even know how tall she'll get.'
'What I want,' I said, 'are flowers at the funeral.'
'Flowers are pretty,' Bodhi said, setting his snakes dancing again.
'Waste of money,' Dad said. 'We can paint flowers on the coffin.'
'I only want my bunch.'
It felt to me that a funeral wasn't a funeral without one bunch of flowers, just like a wedding wouldn't be a wedding. Or maybe I had a picture of myself laying the flowers gently on the coffin. I could see the bunch of flowers, kind of pathetic, kind of brave, which was how I felt most of the time. The flowers and my hand were the only things I could see. I couldn't imagine how my father would go from discussing the coffin with Bodhi to actually lying in it, not breathing any more.
Excerpted from Painted Love Letters by Catherine Bateson. Copyright © 2002 Catherine Bateson. Excerpted by permission of University of Queensland Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Contents1 Before and After,
2 Love Letters and Coffins,
4 Nan and Badger,
5 Leprosy, Leonardo and Father Damien,
6 Unfinished Business,
7 The Bougainvillea,
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Yr 7 - Yr 8Dave is dying. Chrissie, Mum, Nan and Badger are going to be left behind. Because sometimes life is like that. "Painted love letters" ... a story of the heart.