Saturday, September 19, 2009

Children of the Lie Chapter Two



The brightness woke her, breaking suddenly through the tangle of morning dreams. She turned to the clock on the bedside table, drawn by the sound of its calm, ordered was just before eight. She felt remarkably refreshed for such a long journey and so little sleep. Perhaps it was the excitement of the new. Even though the room did not look so strange, did not look Indian, there was a feel to it, a heavy, musty smell to the air which was completely new and exotic.

The room was large, high-ceilinged and simply, but beautifully furnished. It could have been nothing else, given Anne and Richard's great love of antiques and their impeccable taste. Richard had been hard at work, thought Jo, as she ran her eyes appreciatively over the rich sheen of the mahogany wardrobe which graced one side of the room. He spent his weekends scouring antique shops for bargains. Every now and again, when he had the time, he would restore a piece himself. There was something very forgiving about wood, he would say, even if it had been badly treated, as it invariably was in India. He liked, so he said, the sense of salvation which came with the restoration of a piece to its former and intended glory.

The walls of the room were painted a light honey cream, as was the woodwork, and the bright, white ceiling beamed down upon a floor of small, triangular Italian tiles in rust and yellow. It was a room which seduced the sun. Even the creeping patch of darkened damp, which reached up from the floor in one corner, did not seem out of place. Jo was yet to discover that in India a room without mould is no room at all. The bedside table was of richly burnished teak with a fine trim of thin mahogany on both drawer and door. She reached out and pulled at the small, well-polished brass handle, but the drawer revealed no forgotten treasures

By the door stood a small side table with delicately carved legs, also in mahogany. Its rich sheen was accentuated by the stark, white linen mat which dressed it. A white, china ball of a vase offered up full, firm rosebuds in the freshest shades of lemon.

She stretched beneath the sheets in the equally impressive four-poster bed. In a way, it was almost too good to be true. Strangely, she felt comforted by the presence of the mouldering corner. She wasn't sure she believed in perfection, wasn't even sure she knew what perfection was. She had met too many damaged and broken people from 'perfect families' or in 'perfect relationships' to know that perfection was more likely to be a perception than a state.

There had been the girl in the hospital. She was barely seventeen and she might once have been pretty, it was hard to tell, marked as her face was by ripped, raw lines. She continued to tear at herself each day, never allowing the wounds to heal. They sedated her and cut her nails as close as possible. There was even talk of removing them, but they had feared she might then mutilate herself with something more lethal.

Not that any of it helped. She continued to claw at her face as if driven by some obsessive urge to mortify the flesh: her punishment, her penance, no-one knew. So they bandaged her hands during the day when she could be more easily watched and, at night, they tied her hands to the safety bars of her bed. Her parents visited her each day, either one or the other and sometimes together. They were kind, they were understanding, they were patient and still the girl refused to talk and tore at her face. Jo overheard the nurses talking at one time: "I really can't understand it, her parents are absolutely wonderful with her and apparently they have the most perfect family."

"Well, there must be a reason. You don't disfigure yourself like that without a reason.”

"All I know is that I have never met such reasonable people as her parents. They co-operate in every way with the doctors and do everything they can to help her."

"Maybe they are too perfect. Perhaps that's the problem, they aren't real."

Jo remembered the nurse’s words, long after, when she herself had begun to suspect that to be real involved more than a little wear and tear; like the child's teddy bear, soon rendered shabby by the sheer force of life and love. It was the same with furniture, where the nicks and chips and marks of time married with the rich patina of old age to impart an imperfect beauty which boasted of unique character and experience. No two pieces would ever age in quite the same way, even though they may have entered life looking almost identical: It was the same with people.

The sunlight was beginning to gain strength and now pushed forcefully into the room. The tall, narrow window was curtained on either side in heavy cream cotton. The fact that the curtains were not closed was one very good reason why she was awake so early, she told herself. She had been barely aware of falling into bed, let alone registering the undressed window...still, it was nice to be woken by the enthusiastic freshness of morning light. As if in acknowledgement of her approval, the sunlight flashed brightly in the mirrored door of the wardrobe and teasingly lit the pink, cut crystal handles on either side. It was a lovely room of cream, yellow and richly polished woods. It was a room in which to rest, to escape, to hide for however long the world threatened. But there was no reason why this world should be threatening; it was hers to explore.

She crept from the bed and crossed the cool, tiled floor to the window, but even here there was not much of India on offer ... just the shabby, weather-stained side of another building; one very large tree, dressed with large, wide leaves, each well coated in dust; the roof of the small entry porch; a portion of the driveway and one still soundly sleeping watchman, clutching his gate in the distance. But India would have to wait - unpacking and then finding her way to the bathroom were first on the list.

Her suitcase sat on the floor where Richard had left it the night before. She had probably brought all the wrong things but they would be in a better state hung up than crushed in the case. The cavernous wardrobe opened to reveal an ordered row of heavy wooden hangers and the sharp tang of lavender. She felt obliged to hang her clothes as neatly as possible. The house was quiet even as she worked. Richard and Anne were probably still asleep. She felt almost guilty being awake although the house was so large they may well have been up for hours. Not that she could hear any other movement, just the sound of her bare feet on the tiled floor, her own soft breaths, and, from time to time, the soothing call of doves nesting outside her window.

The bedroom door opened into a long hall. The first door she tried revealed a small store room, sparsely equipped with plastic buckets, small brooms made of twig and one rather black and obviously well-used sponge mop. It was a large house and she had little sense of direction at the best of times and almost no recollection of which way she had walked when she arrived the previous evening. She did, however, recall passing doors which led to a verandah and decided it would be a pleasant place to sit and wait for the others to wake up.

Her sandals gave back little sound on the tiled floor and, having made what seemed to be a circumference of the entire apartment, she finally came upon tall French doors, glassed at the top and through which she could see an assortment of cane chairs and what appeared to be a verandah.

The apartment comprised the entire first floor of what had originally been home for the large extended family of one of Bombay's old and successful dynasties. But times had changed and, while they were exceptionally good at making money, the family had faltered when it came to the task of breeding. From a group numbering close to fifty in the old days, the count was now down to one. To be fair, some family members had moved away and it was not uncommon to see letters arrive at Mehta Mansions bearing a London or New York postmark. But, unfortunately, there had been far more deaths than births and the family representation in this grand old house was now reduced to a single representative, Mrs Mehta, who was the grand-daughter of the man who built the house, but who had managed to retain her illustrious name by sensibly marrying another Mehta. This was not difficult in India, where it was considered a necessity to marry within one's community in order to maintain caste purity.

In her late sixties, Mrs Mehta was a widow and now dutifully wore white. Her husband was one of the first to boost the ever-increasing ranks of the family dead and had now notched close to twenty years of annual memorials, complete with photo, in the Times of India. It was not, of course, a photo of him as he had been before his death, looking ill and older than his fifty years. It was, instead, a photograph taken when he was in his thirties - in his prime - and at a time when Mrs Mehta still wanted to believe that she loved him. In fact, every year on the anniversary of his death, when the photo appeared in the paper with a brief but suitable notice of memoriam, Mrs Mehta would weep pitifully and be forced to take to her bed for the rest of the day.

But for the rest of the year, Mrs Mehta managed her widowhood admirably. There were those, in fact, who would say she rather enjoyed it. No doubt they would have been the ones who had not noticed her bruises, or rather, had chosen not to notice her bruises while Mr Mehta was very much alive. For the sad truth of the matter was that the respectable Mr Mehta used to beat his wife quite regularly. This in itself was not unusual, the society being such that the beating of wives was considered more of a norm than an exception and, if bruises were noticeable, they were always ignored.

Everyone knew that husbands must occasionally beat their wives to bring them to heel and while such things do occasionally get out of hand, it was always best ignored, happening as it did within the sacred realm of marriage. For the battered woman, there would be no comfort from her own family, who would invariably turn against her in such a situation, as Mrs Mehta discovered on the one and only occasion when she prevailed upon her family for help. A woman must endure such things, because a break-up of the marriage would bring shame to her and her family. At the time, Mrs Mehta had been conscious of her two sisters, as yet unmarried, and such a scandal would have destroyed any hopes they might have had of being well-matched, perhaps of being wed at all.

And so she kept quiet and endured, knowing as she did that this was the lot of woman. Whatever happened, she would be blamed. It was common knowledge that no man beat his wife without good reason and, if he did have good reason, after all, as one friend told her, these things happen between every husband and wife, why should she want to air her dirty linen in public?

Mrs Mehta would have been the last person to air her dirty linen anywhere, but she was unfortunate in that, not only did Mr Mehta beat his wife in the time-honoured Indian tradition, but he enjoyed it and it did, very often, get quite out of hand. He had especially liked to beat his wife around her breasts, for there, the damage was not seen by others. There were times when he would make her stand naked in front of the mirror and tell her she was such a black bitch that he would have to beat her even harder, just so the bruises would show. It was not true, of course. Mrs Mehta was quite pale of complexion and the bruises showed very well indeed and for that she was grateful. If she had been darker, then it would only have meant more pain. The gods had been good to her.

Mrs Mehta occupied the top floor of the building and while her financial situation was sound, she did consider it prudent to lease out the two lower floors of her home. The money was useful, because much of it was paid in the black and safely lodged in a Swiss bank. There was little alternative for foreigners who wished to find accommodation in Bombay. But more than that, she would tell herself sadly, this was a house meant for people and the echo of empty rooms was too painful a reminder of a world long passed.

Mrs Mehta's one great regret was that the Thompsons did not have their children living with them. She herself had never been able to conceive and it grieved her greatly that the big rooms did not ring with childish laughter, as they had once done, so very many years before. "A house is not a home without children," she would sigh to herself on the days when she slipped into melancholy at the thought of her own familys’ poor record.

The ground floor was let to Mr and Mrs Patel. They were old friends of the Mehta family and Mrs Mehta had been happy to reach a compromise to help them out..She had forgone the benefits of black money, that was true, but she could rest comfortably in the knowledge that she had proved a reliable friend, and even more important, she could be sure that the right kind of people were living in her house. Foreigners didn't matter so much because, invariably, they would leave, but one couldn't be too careful when it came to leasing property to Indians. The rent control laws were such that, once they were in, it was nigh-on impossible to get them out. One had to be very, very sure that they were suitable tenants from the outset.

When Jo finally found her way onto the verandah she was delighted to find that it overlooked a small courtyard garden. A wooden balustrade ran its length and on the other side, two sets of double French doors in dark polished wood opened to inner rooms. With curtains drawn, Jo could only surmise that they led to the dining room and perhaps the lounge. Three lights were hung along the verandah, suspended on brass chains like great orange tear drops. An assortment of chairs and three small, round tables were placed appropriately along the expanse of small, grey and green tiles. Each chair, in faded, woven cane, proffered a plump pillow of dark green linen. The tables were of dark wood, set on a solid central base which finished in three, fat claw-like feet. Around the edge of each was a decorative panel of inlay work...gracefully flowing sprigs of flowers in honey-coloured teak wood. Each table was topped with a circular slab of shiny grey marble and each held a bowl of yet more yellow rosebuds.

Jo wondered if they came from the garden below, but as she leaned over the rail, she could see only a profusion of red. The rose-filled garden beds bordered a neat, square patch of heat-dried lawn. Surprisingly, despite the heat, the roses appeared to be flourishing. Not so the lawn. There was every indication that the spindly youth in ill-fitting trousers and grubby shirt who was wielding a hose below, gave a greater share of his attentions to the rose bushes.

This was not necessarily unreasonable for the roses were Mrs Mehta's pride and joy. She had spent time in England in her youth and had returned, determined to have her very own rose garden. Only red roses, of course, for Mrs Mehta was something of a romantic and liked the idea of having a single red rose on her breakfast tray each morning. As luck would have it, red was also her favourite colour and so the garden was a source of great joy for her. Her only regret was that the roses had no perfume, but, it was this variety which grew best in Bombay, and one took what life offered, even if it were not perfect. The abundant supply of roses was therefore a top priority for the gardener, the state of the lawn, being by necessity, incidental.

"May I get something for you madam?"

Jo turned toward the sound of the voice. A slight young woman in a brown and cream sari stood behind her. This must be the maid. Anne had mentioned her.

"Some tea would be nice," said Jo. The young woman nodded, smiled and hurried through the door as if delighted at the prospect of being useful. Jo turned back to the garden and saw that the young man had now sensibly placed himself in the shadow of the enormous banyan tree which grew in one corner. If his hose had been long enough, he would have sat down and leaned against the thick, winding knot of trunk which emerged from the earth, but it was not his karma. The shade he could have, but stand he must, aiming his hose in a desultory fashion toward the grateful roses.

Jo barely heard the soft footfalls of the maid as she returned with the tea, but at the sound of a tray being placed on the marble table top behind her, she turned and pulled out a chair to sit down. "Thank you very much," she said, with a smile and the young woman lowered her eyes and hurriedly retreated through the door.

She poured the tea slowly, the steaming golden liquid illuminating the almost transparent, fine, white china cup. She leaned back in her chair and drank slowly, her eyes settling on the bountiful, full-leaved beauty of the banyan tree, curling, creeping, rope-like toward the sun. It was so solid, thick-bodied and immovable. It brought back memories of the acrid tang of the huge peppercorn tree under which she had cried as a small child ...for who knows what ... watching the full drops of her tears collapse in the dust, distracted finally by this miracle of her own making, in that easy way of moving from pathos to play which is the gift which young children possess.

The tree had been her protector, a welcoming, all-encompassing mother, with such a curtain of waving, thin green leaves, decorated in season with the hard, pink, shiny balls of the never-picked peppercorns which withered and browned with time...finally dead, only to be reborn. It had been something large, solid and reliable in her life. She and Anne played house in the tree, although Anne had done little more than disturb the tranquility and sanctity of her secret place.

But the small country town, with its hot, dusty streets which glared chalk-white in summer, was a place of soothing silences and comforting familiarity for a child. It had been a good place to grow up. The tree was Jo's first refuge, her second, the generous figure of Mrs Nelson, who lived across the road. Her small cottage backed onto a tiny yard, completely paved with brick and trellised over with vines. It was a magical place, cool in summer and bright with the sound of birds making a meal of the ripening grapes, and in winter, fresh with the bricks washed by the rain and the sun filtering through the now leafless weave of winding vine.

Mrs Nelson loved to cook and Jo loved to watch. There was little talking. Each wanted only the company of the other. Mr Nelson was long dead and Mrs Nelson's children long grown and living on the family farm a few miles out of town. Her two tall, brown, strapping sons would visit on Sundays, bringing their wives and a gathering of young children. During the week, Mrs Nelson would pickle the vegetables and make jam and marmalade with the fruits which invariably arrived each Sunday. The rest of the time she would bake on her old, black, wood stove, its fuel kindly cut by one or other of her sons.

Jo would sit in the kitchen, watching Mrs Nelson at work, sometimes sorting through the raisins for her, removing the odd pebble or forgotten piece of twig and always licking the spoons and mixing bowl whenever another cake or batch of biscuits went into the oven. When the baking was finished, they would sit, each with a cup of weak, milky tea, although Mrs Nelson would have hers sweetened with three teaspoons of sugar, and there would always be an offering of something freshly baked. Jo's favourites were the little marmalade cakes, each one puffed and golden in its paper case, sharp with the tang and shred of orange peel from some of Mrs Nelson's best home-made marmalade.

They left the town when Jo turned fifteen, because her mother thought that she should complete her final two years of high school in the city. Her mother had never liked the country and now it was time to leave. It was her father who faded in the city. Her mother's migraines lessened somewhat, but still managed to appear from time to time as needed. Certainly she never found it necessary to regain enough rude health to take over the role of housekeeping once more. That was left in Jo's capable hands.

"You're up early," came Richard's hearty voice. "Glad to see that Mary brought you some tea. It's a nice little spot, isn't it?"

"Yes it is," replied Jo. "I hardly feel as if I'm in India at all."

"That's the whole idea," laughed Richard. "Home becomes something of a sanctuary in this part of the world," he added more seriously. "But don't tell Anne I said that. She hates the place and she complains enough as it is without thinking I agree with her."

"But do you?" asked Jo.

Richard rubbed his broad fleshy face, rumpling his already unruly eyebrows and sighed: "I prefer to think as little about India as possible, simply because after three years here, I find the whole thing intensely tedious. For me, India is a place to be to do a job. I do not like it as a culture, nor particularly as a country, but I have some good friends here, including Indians, and on dark, warm nights, I even come close to feeling something which approximates fondness. To me, India is something which I can best appreciate in three ways: at night, from a distance or in photos. But, despite the problems, I do have a good life here. I do not like the place, but I do like my life...if that makes sense. I will be very happy to leave when the time comes and I will not be particularly interested in returning. If I do, it will be purely to see friends."

"But is it so bad?"

"Everyone has their own definition of what is bad," Richard replied. "Let's just say that this is not the easiest place for anyone who demands cleanliness, efficiency or justice Anne does. Some people are more flexible than others. Some people want to escape from all the rules and India is probably a good place to do that; some people do sincerely love the place, God knows why, but they do. For me, India is a problem without a solution, at least not one that I can see. More importantly, it's not my problem.”

Richard was not the sort of person to waste his time on things which he did not consider to be his concern. He had a fairly similar attitude to other people's problems as well and had been less than interested when Anne attempted to tell him about the collapse of Jo's marriage and her subsequent breakdown. It was not that he did not care, he was in fact a compassionate and caring man, it was more that he was a practical man, a careful man, and if he wanted to be truthful, which he rarely did, he would have to say he had enough problems of his own without becoming involved in anyone else's.

Somewhere deep, somewhere hidden, he knew he had a soft spot for India, but he was unsure whether this derived from real love or a desire to balance the scales, to counter Anne's hatred. It was not that he disagreed with much that she said, rather that he considered such an outpouring of passion to be a waste of time and energy. He was a man who believed in prudence in all things, whether they were physical, psychological or emotional. It was an attitude which had served him well so far and one which he saw no need to change.

The farther set of double French doors swung open and Anne emerged with the words: "Breakfast is ready." Dressed in tailored, navy blue linen slacks, pulled in at the waist with a gold-buckled, blue leather belt and topped with a crisply ironed cream cotton shirt, she looked casual but elegant. Jo looked down at her own loose dress and knew that she had managed the casual, but somehow missed the elegant. But she was comfortable, that was the important thing and competing with her much younger, much prettier sister was going to get her absolutely nowhere. She jumped to her feet and said: "Great, I'm starving."

The breakfast had been laid out in the dining room, with dishes set on the buffet which stretched along one side of the room. It was not a particularly inspiring piece of built-in furniture, but it was useful so it had been retained. Anne quickly gave orders when they moved in that it should be painted the same colour as the walls to make it as unobtrusive as possible. Humble and unappreciated as it was, the buffet still managed to muster enough self-respect to graciously present an impressive feast.

There was a large bowl of muesli, freshly-made, with shreds of sweet, raw apple; a plate of mangoes, some cut in half and scored, with the vivid yellow, richly perfumed flesh offered up in moist squares; yogurt, thick, white and creamy made with the Bulgarian starter which Anne bought in bulk from the health shops in Australia; and a kedgeree, that traditional English dish which had been appropriated by the British in the old days of the Raj. The original Indian dish, known as kadgeri, was made of rice garnished with onions, lentils and eggs, but it was the British who added the fish, and so it became a mixture of rice, cooked flaked fish, hard-boiled eggs and peas, probably no longer recognisable as the Hindi dish called Khicari, but very popular with foreigners. Traditionally, it was made with smoked fish, but Anne had resorted to canned salmon, smoked fish not being readily available in Bombay and the sort of thing to which others took exception should it be included in the hand luggage when flying back into the country. She had bound it with a curry-flavoured bechamel sauce, seasoned with nutmeg and garnished with freshly chopped coriander. Next to the kedgeree stood another hotplate with mushrooms broiled in butter and tomatoes baked with basil and grated cheese.

"This looks absolutely wonderful," said Jo. "You eat better here than I do at home."

"Let's just say this is the sort of place where one needs to make an effort in all respects," said Anne. “Anyway, this is a welcome breakfast for you. It's something we only do on weekends, so don't expect it to be a daily event."

"Thank heaven's for that, I'm very much a slice of toast and cup of tea sort of person in the morning," said Jo, helping herself to the muesli.

"Mary will bring the toast in a moment," Anne added. “And the coffee ... or would you prefer more tea?"

"Coffee will be fine."

"There's some sweet lime juice in the jug at the end of the buffet," said Richard, coming up behind Jo. "The fruit looks like a yellow orange and the juice tastes like a mixture of lime, lemon and orange. It's quite sweet and rather nice if you would like some."

"I think I'm obliged to try as much of the local offerings as possible," said Jo, smiling as she reached for the jug. They carried their plates out onto the verandah and sat at the small table upon which Mary had now laid a starched, white linen cloth, lace-edged and decorated with hand-embroidered blue-bells. There were matching napkins by each side plate.

Two curious crows flew from their home in the banyan tree to join the gathering, although they kept a discreet distance at the far end of the verandah, perched in a neat pair on the edge of the railing, their bright, black eyes ever alert for any discarded crumb. These coarse-voiced scavengers, with their burnished black backs and gleaming grey necks thrived in India because they were both clever and brave. They were not much liked, these raucous, cawing birds, but the pair who arrived for breakfast at any rate, seemed totally unaware of any image problem they might have had and sat patiently waiting.

"I think we should give them some fish," said Jo.

"No, don't encourage them," said Richard. "They are just as likely to come and take it for themselves. The waiters at the Willingdon Club have to put covers on the food because the crows kept swooping down and snatching the meat off the plates as they carried them to the tables."

"So these aren't vegetarian crows.,”laughed Jo.

"Most definitely not, dedicated carnivores, and no bones about it," replied Richard, laughing at his own attempt at a joke.

"They're not even averse to a little piece of person,” said Anne.

"What do you mean a little piece of person?" Jo asked, as she cast a concerned eye in the direction of the crows.

"Well, the Parsis have their Towers of Silence, the place where they lay the bodies of the dead for the vultures to pick clean, just near here, on Malabar Hill and what the vultures don't take care of, the crows certainly do," said Anne toying with the remains of kedgeree on her plate as if suddenly suspicious. "We have a friend who has a bungalow which backs on to the Hanging Gardens, which are adjacent to the Towers, and she keeps a very close watch on what is cooking when they have a barbecue. There are plenty of stories around about crows dropping choice bits onto the balconies of the high-rise buildings near the Towers." she continued. "Although I have to say I can't imagine a crow dropping anything once it gets its claws into it.”

"It may sound morbid, but I think I would like to see this place," said Jo.

"Not possible, my dear," countered Richard. "Unless you happen to be a dead Parsi or a Parsi pall-bearer and, since you have to be born a Parsi, that is not likely, at least not in this life."

"I'll organise some coffee," said Anne, standing up to make room for Mary to clear away the dishes. "Richard will tell you some more about the Parsis if you are interested."

“Yes," said Jo, somewhat taken aback by the prospect that not too far away a body was being systemically shredded by some sharp-beaked bird. She wasn't sure that a gathering of scavenging vultures and crows tearing at the offering of flesh would make for a place of silence, but it was a comforting name all the same, for a place which hid such bloody carnage.

The Towers had been built on the crown of Malabar Hill and were, in fact, seven circular walled enclosures, massive, brooding, vine-wrapped and well hidden from below, and prying non-Parsi eyes by thick, wild vegetation and a ramble and straggle of trees, Richard told her. Their proper name was dakhmas or receptacles for the dead, and they provided an effective, if inhospitable and necessarily brief, resting place for a succession of cadavers. She could picture it in her mind even as he talked, see the broad, blue roof of sky and fringe of palms, the view for sightless eyes turned upward; the rough-edged cement walls, brightly striped with the white excrement of well-fed birds, holding solid, silent ceremony for the ritual within.

The sheeted corpse would be brought in through the double doors, carried on a stretcher by four, white-robed, hereditary bearers, to its allotted place within the tank, and there, disrobed, laid upon the grey, stained concrete and offered innocent and naked to the waiting birds. The heat, dressed in the rich smell of death, becomes a final shroud and the surrounding garden gathers voice and cracks and breaks at the sun's dry pull while the carrion birds, of bright, bold beak, keep ready watch. This was a still, hard, silent place; where the birds hold fast on ceremony...repeat for death, the dance.

Once the body has been picked clean, the bones are thrown into a central pit lined with sand and charcoal to filter the rain-water and avoid polluting the earth. It was this fear of polluting not only earth, but also fire or water which led to the establishment of this traditional Parsi method of corpse disposal which dates back to ancient times. It was the prophet Zoroaster, some three thousand years ago, who enjoined his followers not to defile the three sacred elements: earth, fire and water. The dead could, therefore, be neither cremated nor buried. It was good news for the vultures, who have performed their task with religious dedication ever since.

And it was Zoroaster, that fabled Persian prophet, who first brought a radical new teaching to the world...the treatment in purely ethical terms of the ultimate nature and destiny of not just humanity, but the world as well. It was ironic therefore, that his followers should choose to make their home in India where, the people believed, that not only was destiny inexorably fixed, but that man should make no move to change it. The world, they said, could not be reformed nor renovated. For India believed, and still believes, in the cosmic order of eons, which cycle eternally in a never-ending round, from eternity, through eternity...never to be touched by any act of man nor deviated from its rooted course.

And it was in India that the Parsis were perhaps seduced, just a little, from Zoroaster's teaching, for the way of man is so easily deviated. He had said that the world was corrupt, not by its nature, but by accident and it was human action which would bring about its reformation, its salvation. It was in action, in engagement, that wisdom and truth could be found. The task was to change the world, not escape from it. They were words which rang hollow against the ancient stones of India.

In the beginning, taught Zoroaster, had been Ahura Mazda, the Lord of Life, Wisdom and Light, Creator of the Righteous Order; but there had also been his antagonist, Angra Mainyu, the Demon of the Lie, who, when the world was made, set about corrupting it. The first character of creation therefore had been light, truth and wisdom, into which had entered the darkness, the deception, and the lie. It was man's duty to eradicate this lie, to illuminate the darkness. Such themes have echoed down the ages and found voice in numerous languages: Greek, Latin, Hebrew, Arabic and every tongue of the West.

Where they did not find voice was in India for this was and is a world where all courses are implacably set, whether it be the course of the sun, the moon, the stars, that of an animal, the orders of the castes, or the traditions of Indian life, where all truth and virtue and hope of salvation lay in preserving all that had been done before, no matter the cost, exactly as taught by those who had gone before, without protest, without judgement, without any thought or hope of change. Not surprising therefore that so many should choose a life of non-being, a numbed waiting through this life, and the next, and the next, and the next. Neither was it surprising that the Parsis should lose more than a little of themselves in their isolated ignorance within a world of non-being.

They had originally come from Iran, in the 8th Century and landed at Sanjan, on the coast of Gujarat, the state north of Bombay. The local Rajah, it was said, told their high priest that he could admit only a few of the refugees as there was little room to spare. He presented the priest with a bowl, full to the brim with milk. The priest took the bowl and dropped a portion of sugar into the milk to show that, just as the milk could absorb a little sugar and not spill, simply be a little sweetened, so would his people blend into the local community. Other voices claimed that it was a small coin and not sugar which the priest dropped into the milk. The latter would perhaps be more appropriate, since the Parsis subsequently proved to be quite talented at making money.

“Do you think they’re the sweetener in the milk?”: asked Jo.

“I think the coin is a more appopriate symbol if only because sugar would have changed the flavour of the milk , or if you like, the Parsis would have changed the flavour of India and they haven’t really ... India has changed them. They’ve made their way though. A lot of them have been very successful. They’ve had power in their day but things are different now. Like the coin they have been submerged but have retained their own shape. The Parsis have been in India for over a thousand years and have remained separate. It seems incredible to us, given the nature of our country, that they could do that, and yet, given the rigidity of religion and caste in India, I suppose it's not so surprising. They had their ways and they stayed with them, and anyway, they weren't allowed to rock the boat, so I guess they didn't have much choice. At the end of the day India always wins in her own way ... people think they protect themselves from her but they can’t.”

“So you think that they are really assimilated?”

“Not so much assimilated as seduced. They become Indian even as they strive to remain Parsi and yet because they are neither completely one thing or the other they never really belong to one or the other. They would be better off if they could assimilate. I mean, it works for us. It seems crazy when you come from somewhere like Australia, where we expect people to assimilate within a generation, that people can stay apart like this...for more than a thousand years." Richard shook his head. “And it’s hard to see where it has got them. They haven’t really saved anything, they are dying out ... because they have always married amongst themselves, not only do they have a high percentage of children born with physical or mental defects, but their numbers are dwindling because their fertility levels have fallen. Also, if a Parsi woman marries out of the community, her children will not be considered Parsis. It's okay if a man marries out, so I guess they are getting a bit of fresh blood, but there's only about eighty thousand or so of them in the world, with most of them living in Bombay. "

"It's funny, isn't it," said Jo. "In their striving for purity, for perfection, they have instead created imperfection and guaranteed their own extinction?"

"Ah, yes, well many things become crystal clear with hindsight, don't they? Let's get some coffee, it should be ready by now."

They walked back into the dining room where Anne was pouring coffee into large cups of fine, white porcelain. “Well, have you two finished talking about death? I can't say it's my favourite subject for a Saturday morning, or any morning for that matter. Too morbid."

"Well, you can't live with your head in the sand, ‘ answered Richard. defensively. "It's a fact of life that people die and it's another fact of life that those who remain have to make decisions about disposing of what's left. I can't say I fancy ending up as bird seed! I guess burning is very effective, but if I should happen to be presented with the final solution while I'm living here, I think I'd like to be popped in the chiller and freighted back home. I would prefer to be well and truly incinerated in an Australian crematorium, rather than char-grilled on an Indian funderal pyre, with the left-overs scattered God knows where. To my mind death should be kept as simple as possible!"

With one look at the expression of horror which suffused Anne's face, Jo knew it was time for a conversation change. "These cups look very French," she said hesitantly.

Richard sugared his coffee and stirred slowly. He looked pleased with himself. Close to a smile.

"Yes," said Anne quietly, we picked them up last time we were in Paris. She looked as if she had seen something extremely unpleasant, as indeed, she had. It was the talk of death, which bothered her, somehow it seemed to breathe nastily behind her back in India. It frightened her in a way it never had before. But it was not just the talk of death which had upset her, but also Richard's obvious relish at raising a subject which he knew she found upsetting. It was not even so much what he said, but the way he said it. He had wanted to upset her. Sometimes she felt as if she hardly knew him anymore; no, that was not really true....she did know him, it was just that there seemed to be more and more parts of him which she did not like, but then she didn't seem to like very much at all these days. She dismissed the shadows in her head and said to Jo: "You can have it with hot milk, if you like au lait, although it will have to be minus the croissants. You can compromise with a coconut biscuit. This is India after all."

They walked back onto the verandah where Richard had settled himself back into his chair and was reading the newspaper."Here's a bird’s-eye view of India for you," he said, waving his paper at Jo. "Just a normal sample of the morning news:Forty Seven Die At Wedding ...someone apparently stored the flour in old chemical drums; the dogs started dying first; Train Derailed: Twenty Dead ....increasingly common, it's forty years since the Brits left and maintenance is not a word in the Indian vocabulary; Two Hurt In Bomb Blast...the answer to everything these days; Banana Vendor Murdered...someone didn't like his bananas! Twelve Women Raped...very popular way of keeping the lower castes under control, used by members of the upper castes and the police, of course and, Twenty Dead: Illegal Liquor...appallingly frequent. They have the most ridiculous liquor laws in this country so the illegal stuff is big business, unfortunately, there are no safeguards and most of the stuff produced is lethal. No-one seems to mind too much, because it's usually the lower castes who end up dead since they can only afford the cheapest and most inferior liquor. They probably figure they can afford to do without a few of those." There was a new edge to his voice as he finished reading.

"Every day it's the same," he went on, the frustration feeding into the words, "a litany of death and destruction...murder, mayhem, rape; people killed or maimed because of corruption, incompetence and selfishness. Any one of these stories would be considered horrendous back home, but in India they are a daily event. It surprises me that there are so many of the buggers left, given how good they are at killing themselves."

"I don't know why you bother reading the paper if it upsets you so much," said Anne, "and anyway, there's no to swear."

"Because that," said Richard, lowering the paper and turning to face her, "would be burying my head in the sand and I do not choose to escape from life that way. If this is India, then I will turn and face it...even if it does take the edge off my breakfast." He retreated once more behind the newspaper, noisily slurping his coffee, as if in one final gesture of disgust.

"How long has Mary been with you?" said Jo, once more casting herself in the role of mediator.

"Since we moved in," said Anne. "We inherited her really. She was working for the German couple who lived here before us and they asked us to keep her on. I had my doubts about servants from the beginning, dirty and dishonest seemed to be the two words most commonly used about them. Still, if one is to make any contribution at all to this country, the best thing you can do is employ someone. Then it's a matter of trying to keep them reasonably honest, reasonably useful and reasonably clean."

"But is Mary like that?"

"No, she isn't too bad compared to a lot of them. She is Christian and that is supposed to make them marginally more honest and possibly a bit cleaner, although I still have to pick her up on things like putting freshly washed dishes on the floor to dry and throwing food scraps out of the windows. In this country, the garbage bin is usually the nearest window. They have got to be the filthiest people on earth!" Anne shuddered.

She was revolted to the core of her being at the filth she saw around her, for the pure virgin ruled her star-born nature. How could one live in peace, she could well ask herself, when the cloth which had wiped her cup might be one and the same which had just done sterling service on the kitchen floor, or even worse, mopped up the toilet bowl? Not that the latter was likely given the cultural aversion to even touching toilets in order to flush them ... putting one’s hand to something so polluted was the task of those who by caste had been born so low that additional pollution could take them no further. If one couldn’t find a Child of God to take care of the toilet it presented major problems indeed, at least to the Indians, for it was the expatriates who were most likely to find a way around the difficulty by employing Christian servants who were very concerned with caste, but less worried about pollution, saved as they were, by a different faith and a more practical God

Anne had been quick to appreciate the benefits of having a Christian servant who was prepared to take on any task, unencumbered by the awful weight of maintaining religious purity, for it meant that there were few occasions which demanded the use of outside labour. She abhorred those times when it was necessary to allow others into the pristine sanctity of her home, for, in order not to pollute, sandals would be removed at the front door and even dirtier feet would then make their way across well- scrubbed floors. Even worse, it seemed that sandal removal was impossible to carry out without a wall being readily available against which one could steady oneself ... and from every hand would come a parting gift, the mark of the land, a smudge of black, a smearing grime, wiped endlessly. It threatened to engulf her and even worse, to consume her ordered world.

How could this be so, she asked herself, at least in the early days, in this place in which washing was a ritual daily event? The answer was that they washed, yes, they took the water and they scrubbed at themselves and, in the doing, they were purified. Any dirt which remained was incidental and, while water may well remove pollution, it is soap which removes dirt and, as many Indians very well knew, the use of soap causes, at best, an assortment of skin problems and, at worst....well, one simply fades away. So, just as the great River Ganges was eternally pure despite its rich diet of chemical waste, human leavings and the half-burned bodies of the dead, so could all water, just a splash, remove the soul-threatening stain of pollution, for water was a sacred thing, pure in itself and Indians do not wash to cleanse themselves of dirt, but to cleanse themselves of sin.

And so it was that the young man whom Anne had once seen on a visit to the Elephanta Caves had, in all faith in his purity, blown his nose into the muddy puddle of water at his feet and then washed his hands in that same sacred pool. Anne, overcome with nausea, had shuddered at the thought of ever shaking hands with an Indian again. She did of course for there were certain things one simply had to do. And, as Richard explained, there was little point in being paranoid about such things as dirty hands when one continued to breathe.

Out there, he had said, are millions of people blowing noses, spitting, defecating, urinating out in the streets, amongst the garbage and the corpses of dead animals. Even the cleanest air has some two hundred thousand assorted bits and pieces of flotsam in every lungful and this could well be as high as some four hundred million per gasp in the rich soup which circled Bombay. It was undoubtedly a potent brew of pollution particles, mineral fragments, stray viruses, bacteria, fungi, rusts, moulds, algae, pollen ....microscopic particles of life and death which form the breath of both ourselves and the world.

Anne thought at the time that Richard had a way of saying the worst possible things in an effort to make other things seem better. He would have called it pragmatism. Anne wasn't sure what to call it, but somehow, she had felt better, if only because his explanation carried her phobia to such a ridiculous degree she decided there were some things it was simply better not to think about. The closing of mind to the truth of our eyes is one of the most useful of human traits; especially when survival is at stake.

Mary walked out on to the verandah and began clearing away the cups. She had a sweet face with a trim, pointed chin and a flat, round nose. Her black hair, shining with sticky coconut oil, was plaited at the back. It reached to her waist. There was an aristocratic gracefulness to the glide of her hips as she walked back through the door with the tray, it was almost a slow dance beneath the soft, flowing folds of her sari.

"How old is Mary?" asked Jo, as the last flicker of diaphanous cloth fled through the door. "She doesn't look very old."

"I think she is in her early thirties," replied Anne. "She supports her family. She and her husband have three little girls and I think his contribution to the household is to drink and spend money. She's a nice girl, really, and she does work hard, although I have to wind her up every six weeks or so because she starts to forget things. God, that sounds awful! But, in so many ways, a lot of these people are like robots. They are not paid to India not expected to think...especially someone at her level, so they don't! They are simply programmed and the better the programming, the easier and more peaceful your life is. They don't ask questions, they just do things. We had one classic incident shortly after we moved in which convinced me that I really was dealing with another way of thinking, or rather non-thinking, altogether.

“I arranged to have milk delivered and showed Mary how to put the milk in the boiler and to use the thermometer which would tell her when it was sterilised. She reads English and the thermometer had a level marked sterile. Anyway, the next morning I came down and she had had problems with the thermometer. I had a look at it and could see the mercury had become separated and was stuck so I knocked it on the counter a few times and freed it. Then I put it in a cup and boiled the kettle and poured some of the water on it to test it. That I thought was the end of that. About a month later, I was making yogurt and I had put the milk into the boiler with the thermometer when Mary came into the kitchen. She looked surprised and said: "But Madam, you have the thermometer in the milk boiler."

“It was about this point that I had the oddest feeling that things were not as they should have been. "Yes, and where do you put the thermometer when you boil the milk in the morning, Mary?" Surprise, surprise, guess where the thermometer went - in the cup, next to the kettle, so it could have boiling water poured over it to show if the milk, some three feet away, was sterilised!"

“I don't believe it," said Jo.

"I can't say I wanted to," replied Anne. "But I have learned in this country that anything is possible and that being rational simply does not come into it. If there is a maxim it is: assume nothing! We would expect a five-year-old to question how the thermometer in the boiling water could have anything to do with the milk in the boiler, but not Mary. This was what Madam had asked her to do, or at least what she thought Madam had asked her to do and so she would do it. She is neither willing, nor able, to question the relevance of things and so moves through life like some kind of robot. Maybe it makes the whole, horrible place that much easier to bear."

"But couldn't she learn to ask questions," pushed Jo. "Couldn't you help her to learn to think?"

"It wouldn’t do her any good, in fact the opposite. This is a society where people are not expected to think and where most people, are simply not allowed to think. If I make her that much other than what she is allowed to be, then it makes it impossible for her to go back and work for Indians, should she have to. We will leave and then what? Yes, she might get another job with foreigners and she might not. The best thing I can do for her is to make her as competent as possible while allowing her to remain as much herself as possible. It would not be kind to do otherwise. You can't treat people here the same as we do at home because this is another world. In our terms, it is primitive, even barbaric, and while I hate myself for becoming a part of it to a degree, I would hate myself even more if I made Mary into someone who could no longer function successfully in her own world. This is her country. It is better that she stays as she is."

"But just seeing how differently you live, that there are other ways to treat people, won't that change her?" Jo persisted.

"Perhaps a little, but not so much. She really does not absorb a lot. She just 'is' and she 'does.' It is as simple as that. In fact, sometimes, it even seems peaceful to me...just 'being' with no responsibility at all for one's life, pushed and pulled at the whim of others certainly, but then she always has someone or something else to blame. She has her place and she stays in it. This is a country where people are, in effect, institutionalised from birth...that's what the caste system does, puts everyone behind bars, from the highest to the lowest. They may be gilded at the very top, but they are still bars."

"I haven't even seen much of it yet and already I'm exhausted," said Jo, leaning back in her chair and stretching her arms behind her head.

Anne reached out for her cup and drained the last remnants of her coffee. It was no longer hot and she pursed her lips at the cold bitterness. "You know, I did find it terribly difficult to get used to having her in the house .. it was like an invasion of my space. In the first few months I could hardly wait for Saturday night ...that's when Mary goes home ..she comes back on Monday morning. It was only then that I felt free. That sounds terrible, doesn't it?"

"Not really. I think I'm fairly possessive of my own space too," said Jo. "I don't think I would like having someone else wandering around my house, even if they were doing the work."

"I think the worst part of it is that there is someone in the house that you treat as less than a person," Anne went on," someone with whom you keep a distance, someone with whom you maintain a rigid, formal relationship and yet all the while they are sharing your home with you. It's just so different to being at home where you might have someone working for you but they could become a friend. But here it's not possible, the differences are too great and more than that, if you ease the rules, act less formally, it just makes things worse. They have to be a little bit scared of you, not in a physical sense, but in terms of truly believing that you do mean what you say ...that you will sack them if they do not do what they are supposed to do."

"Would you really sack her?" Jo found herself already feeling protective toward the sweet-faced Mary.

"I don't know. Probably not, given that the family is dependent on her wages and given the miserable quality of life for most of these people...but the important thing is that she believes I would. At least I think she does. In a way, it's worse for them working for Westerners because they simply get used to being paid more and being treated better. It makes it so hard for them to go back to working for Indians, if they should have to and there's always the chance they may have to because expatriates always leave.”

“Do you feel guilty because you’re not staying?”

“A little I suppose,” Anne admitted, looking uncomfortable at the thought. ”It’s because you like to think you can help and you know that when you go there’s nothing more you can do. You can only hope things will be okay for them because there’s no way you can send money in to them, or gifts even...the system is just too corrupt to be reliable in that way. They are on their own and there is no way of knowing what will happen to them. Oh, it’s not so bad if they get another job with expatriates but if they have to go back to working for Indians...” Her voice trailed off and she chewed irritably at her lip in the way she had done as a small girl when she felt embarrassed or ashamed.

“But surely it’s not that bad,” said Jo.”I mean, it is their country and they must understand it better than you. Perhaps it seems worse to you than it does to them.”

Anne snorted in response. “I’m sure it seems worse to me but I also know it seems pretty bad to them. You would not believe the way most Indians treat their servants, even those who are well educated, well travelled and who appear so sophisticated and civilized. It’s truly hateful, and cruel. It is one of the things which I find most difficult to understand and impossible to the way, don't be surprised if you find a skinny little boy sleeping on the doormat downstairs. He works for the Patels, who live on the ground floor, and that is his bed. They have the money, of course, to provide something better, but don't consider it necessary. The other four or five servants probably share a piece of floor which would be about as big as a small bathroom. The only thing that matters here is that people must know their place and remain in it... things like decency and justice are irrelevant by comparison. At the end of the day it’s all about power, nothing more, nothing less. They really don’t see that they are being unkind to their servants. It’s a totally different way of thinking, a totally different way of seeing the world.

"In fact, when we moved in here, Mrs Mehta told us that our servants’ room would take four people. I was horrified. With a single bed and a wardrobe, there is about six inches to spare. Mary thinks it is a palace, which I guess it is when you consider where most servants sleep. And what really gets me," continued Anne, with a rising note of passion in her voice, " is that at the same time as they treat these people so badly, they believe that they cannot live without servants. There is this stupid game where the master and mistress abuse the servants and the servant cheats them in return and does as little work as possible, but they are locked together in the belief that they cannot do without the other. It's like a very bad marriage, with everyone playing destructive games and no-one knowing how to stop.”

Jo looked up sharply, wondering if the comment were directed at her but Anne kept on talking without taking a breath and Jo decided it was not, and so she nodded sympathetically at her sister instead. "This is all they know, Anne went on, “all they have ever known. In India, you are meant to scream at your servants and they are meant to cheat you. That's the way it is, that's the way it has always been. It's all mad. The Indians think it is wonderful having servants and the wealthier ones may have as many as six or seven, scrappy boys in the main, with perhaps a senior servant and an older man as cook, but, in so many of the houses I've seen, the walls are grubby, the paintwork is grimy, the furniture and floor is wonder just what they do, but then you realise they are not really there to work, they are there simply so their employers can boast about how many servants they have. It's all part of the Indian dream, that everyone wants to be a god, everyone wants to have someone else to beat. That's what the caste system is about.” She stopped talking and her mouth opened and closed twice, as if she were breathless. She looked at Jo sheepishly. “I suppose I’m sounding a bit obsessive. Sorry. I’ve raved on enough and it doesn’t mean anything to you anyway. The trouble with this country is that we spend too much time talking about the things we hate about it."

"Well, you do," said Richard, folding his newspaper and frowning at the inky blackness of his fingers. "Let's go for a drive and show Jo a little bit more of Bombay. I'll just go and wash this mess off my hands and meet you downstairs."

Jo followed Anne out through the front door and onto the landing. The stairwell was dim and daubed with the by now, familiar, perfume of dust and mould. A wooden staircase led down; the steps worn smooth, most of them having lost their once brief coat of paint, although teasing remnants still lingered at the edges and around the banisters. A frail light filtered into the gloom from a tiny window set high up on the top floor. As they walked down the stairs, the dust danced in a brave, but brief beam of sunshine which shone, as if for a moment, to show them the way.

When they reached the ground floor, Jo glanced quickly at the mat which lay in front of the door marked PATEL in bold, brass letters, half expecting to see a dark, sleep-shrunk shape. But it was empty; no sign of the 'lost boy.' This was not surprising, of course, as it was well past midday and boys who sleep on mats do not remain on them long after daybreak.

"How is mother?" Anne asked. "Did you see her before you left?"

"Oh yes, filial duty well and truly done. She is excelling, as usual, at her chosen profession of martyr. Didn't think I should be running away, as she put it. She seems well enough, although something is always wrong with her. The migraines, fortuitously, have followed dad to the grave, so that's one thing. Just a bit of arthritis these days, the odd heart palpitation and her ankles swell from time to time... I don't mean to sound insensitive," said Jo, turning to Anne with a guilty look, it's just that I can never remember her as being other than sick somehow and I have run out of whatever sympathy I ever had."

"Yes, I know what you mean. It does seem to be a never-ending litany... even when she writes, although at least with a letter you can put it down and stop listening when you have had enough. How is the house looking? I worry sometimes that it really is too big for her."

“It's fine. Agnes still comes in to clean three times a week and takes her out to do a bit of shopping. She's a gem, that woman, I don't know how she stands it. But then maybe she doesn't get to see the Katherine Blackman that we do. Maybe she saves all the misery for us and behaves for Agnes because she needs her. That would be in keeping with her philosophy of life, wouldn't it?"

Anne nodded in reply, staring intently up the stairs as if willing Richard to appear. Which he did , of course, as it was really only a matter of time. "Come on you two, into the car," he said cheerily, ending yet another of the interminable mother conversations which littered the lives of both women. They smiled at each other as they walked out to the car. Richard was right, they both knew that he thought they spent far too much time talking about their mother, chewing over old, dry bits of information for no other purpose than that they still existed. It was a bond between them though and that was something he did not understand.

It was a bond which he could also have shared, if he had wished, for the mother returns to us all: or perhaps we seek to return to her. It is the mother who is before all...the eternal beginning. It is she who welcomes us to the world, or who turns her face at our arrival. It is she who holds the first dominion over us, the greatest power: to create or destroy, to embrace or devour, to live or to die. It is she who holds in her hands the key which opens the way to all, or turns in the lock to hold us fast. For the mother is unconconscious life which gives birth to conscious ego. It is through her, within her, that we find eternal self-renewal.

She has many faces. She is the one of many names: Cybele, Ereshkigal, Danu, Ishtar, Inanna, Astarte, Isis, Ariadne, Aphrodite, Shakti, Kali, Mary, Gaia. It is she who is praised as the Mirror of Justice, Seat of Wisdom, The Potent One, Gate of Heaven, Cause of our Joy, the Mistress of the Labyrinth, Health of the Sick, Refuge of Sinners, Morning Star, Divine Grace, Comforter of the Afflicted, Queen of Peace, The Untouched One, Tower of David, Tower of Ivory and House of Gold. By her signs she is known: in the flashing mirror; upon the throne of wisdom; at the gate of life; in the glitter of the morning and evening star, in the milk-giving cow and the mighty horns of the bull.

It is in the earth that she lives eternal, squatting, big bellied, full-breasted: creating, protecting and destroying. She is the bright light of birth and the black light of death. And to all those who wear her mantle comes power, but more often because of what we hope them to be, rather than what they truly are.

Some, like Katherine Blackman, are more powerful than most, not because they have more power than other women, but because they refuse to own their own power. Instead, they allow it to live and to grow, in primitive ignorance. It becomes therefore a power without discipline, a crude, even bestial thing which lives for itself and of itself and comes in the darkness, to drink at the wellsprings of others. And when it showed itself in dreams, which came, knocking at the door of childhood, it would always be in the shape of the spider, enormous in its blackness, creeping of leg, bloated of belly; sucking; slowly devouring her young.

And yet, the two girls knew not what they feared, for when the dreams had fled in the fresh wash of morning, their mother looked nothing at all like a spider. She was dark, to be sure, with black, cropped hair and heavy eyebrows, but one could take the resemblance no further. A tall, spare woman, she was always immaculately least on those days when she was well enough to be dressed. Her clothes had a no-nonsense, determined air about them and the sensible walking shoes which she favoured, were purposeful in the extreme. Pleated skirts were a mainstay of her wardrobe and they would be teamed either with soft lambswool twinsets or fine, cotton blouses and smart, fitted jackets. The twinsets were, the choice for days spent indoors and the jackets provided an air of purpose on those occasions when it was necessary that she venture into the outside world. The shoes were suitable on either account for, when Katherine Blackman did choose to rise from her bed, she made sure that she had both feet firmly planted on the ground.

There was no denying she had determination when it suited her and it had suited her to disobey her family and destroy all their High Church hopes when she married the black-haired, black-eyed boy she met at her ballroom dancing class. For he was not, as many may have hoped and especially her parents, one of their own kind he was a Catholic. While in l940's Australia such an aberration did not lead to the young lovers being tortured, and even murdered, as such inter-faith alliances frequently do in modern-day India, it was still generally regarded with dismay. There is little doubt that murder may have entered the minds of one or two individuals on either side of the stricken families, but such things did not and do not generally come to pass in the quiet suburban streets of Adelaide.

But marry him she would and, with her family sure in the knowledge that any fruit of the union would have to be raised in that 'popish faith', they grudgingly acquiesced and quietly followed her to the altar, albeit with a niggling sense of horror walking companionably at their respective sides. But their shame was shortly to be put out of sight, if not out of mind, for within a week of the tumultuous day, the newlyweds headed north to the tiny country town of Hamilton Bridge, where Charles had secured a job working for a company of grain and feed merchants. It was a chance for new beginnings; the pity of it was that Katherine hated the country and was less than pleased about this particular beginning. She took one look at the straggle of buildings draped across the dusty, brown dry of the valley and felt a surge of rage at her husband's deception. She had trusted him and he had failed her already.

Admittedly, it was high summer and the winter rains would bestow a gentle green to transform this pastoral scene, but sadly, what could not be transformed was the shabby little house built before the turn of the century, set at the end of a narrow street which led listlessly, but eventually, to the town's rubbish dump. She had walked across the tiny verandah, with its wander of cracks threading the faded green of old paint, beneath the corrugated shroud of rusting roof and disappeared through the creaking screen door; into the cool of the gloom.

Her husband stood by the gate, watching, worried. She said not a word and that bothered him most of all. There was good cause to worry for hers was a nature which brooded on past hurts, both real and imagined; a nature, scorpion like which knew how to wound and which could neither forgive nor forget. Life had taught her that people were weak, unpredictable, even deceitful and it was this knowledge which made her world seem like so much shadow, insubstantial and transient. No-one could be trusted, especially those who were meant to love her.

The young Charles did not let her down. Her expectations were more than met. It is hard to say if she ever truly believed all his talk of an important job, a large salary and a big house, but neither did she expect an insignificant job in a forgotten country town, a painfully small salary and a tired and tiny little house lost at the end of a dusty street. She believed in her dreams and she did not take kindly to having them shattered. But in truth it could have been no other way for she would have chosen no other kind of man. He was her destiny, whether she knew it or not simply because she needed someone like him, someone to spoil things, in order that life could fit the dress she had made for it.

All the same she was bitter, for such a theft is the hardest of all to forgive even for those who have the will to do so. With her promises at the altar barely behind her and the glittering fragments of her dreams at her feet, she informed her husband, with quiet but stubborn determination, that he was a fool and not only would any children with which they should happen to be blessed, not be brought up as Catholics, but neither did she want to be confronted with any displays of his own faith. It seemed she cared not a whit for the soul of her husband, but then, neither did she care for the God of her family and, as a result, Jo and Anne received a relatively heathen upbringing, which, considering the circumstances, perhaps stood them in better stead.

Their father, however, kept a flimsy grip on his soul by occasionally slipping into the Catholic Church, set high on the hill in solemn watch over the tiny town. It was here that he made his quiet prayer of penance and begged God’s forgiveness for his weakness and for pity on the lost souls of his children. Such moments brought little comfort, although they served to blur for a time the vision of the burning flames which lay always before him. But the succour did not last beyond the kneeling and he quickly discovered that true comfort could only be found in the arms of God's other servant on earth: that ancient bringer of peace and blessed oblivion, faithful companion through the ages to the tortured souls of all creeds: Our Lady of the Veil, she who bids us drink and in whose soothing draughts we may embrace the forgettings of dismemberment.

It was she and she alone who could cast his pain to the four winds and rock him into restless sleep. But it was also she who, offering herself at his parched lips, would kindle his rage and feed the inner flames with which he burned both himself and those whom he loved the most, his wife and his daughters.


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