THE ODYSSEY

Jasmine ran a bath in the old tub, letting her fingers fall under the brass faucet, testing the temperature of the water. She loved that the bath was in the bedroom. It felt decadent, like a Parisian brothel. The water was hot and steamy and she added her own concoction of oils; olive, ginger and lemon. Then she sprinkled rose petals in the water and climbed slowly into the tub, adjusting her body to the heat.
So what now? What was she going to do with today and all the days that stretched out relentlessly in front of her? She looked down at the crimson and deep pink rose petals floating around her. Perhaps jasmine flowers would have been appropriate given her Christian name but rose petals felt more exotic. Tea was steeping in the china cup. Jasmine didn’t believe in tea bags or supermarket ceramics. She reached out her hand for the flowery teacup and sipped from it, savouring the taste of herbs, breathing in the fruity scent of her bath while lying in her own tub. She now had her own fragment of the world, where things could be arranged as she wanted them. Her life belonged to her, it seemed.
She smiled but a shadow, was ever present, at the edge of consciousness, clouding the brightness like the mountain she could see from the bathroom window. It was majestic, powerful and slightly overwhelming. She could hear the breeze catching the wind chimes she had hung from the rickety wooden awning that morning. Their musical tinkling made her feel at home.
Home. Would this be the one? She’d moved into the cottage after years of wandering.
A couple of years in Byron Bay, sleeping on the sofas and off the goodwill of friends. She’d worked the markets once her savings had been spent. Savings accumulated from a job in a dress shop, serving spoilt middle-aged women. Evening she walked along one of the most beautiful beaches at sunrise and in the mornings she’d watch the early morning yoga enthusiasts saluting to the sun.
She’d briefly moved in with a guy, appropriately named Storm. She’d met him through the sofa-offering friends and moved into his small place out at Mullumbimby. He turned out to be a man manifested from her mother’s warnings.
Jasmine’s mother, Olivia, was still beautiful, however that beauty had been buried beneath layers of bitterness like a jewel covered with dust and grime, no longer able to shine.
“Never rely on anyone else, Jasmine. Everyone will let you down in the end.” She would put a finger to her nose as if parting with sage advice but succeeding only in looking comical. The wine glass would have been filled and emptied a good many times by now. Always a negative woman, she would become almost Shakespearean in her tragic gestures after a cheap bottle of red.
It was as if with Storm, Jasmine had pushed all the ‘don’t’s’ into a big machine which had projected an image on a wall. The image of Storm. She had so loved that name. Tempestuous, exciting. Like the metallic smell which emanates when thunder beckons. Electric. Dangerous. With gun metal grey and purple bruises under her eyes, shocked at how much she had accepted and passed off as her own fault, she’d packed her red holdall and taken a bus south. Not knowing where to get out she had taken a series of buses going south, until she arrived at the small town of Bega, southern New South Wales.
Creeks wound their way through the green paddocks straight out of the pages of picture books, with cows and horses grazing. Mountains thickly covered with trees. She’d found lodgings in the house of an eccentric local woman called Imogen. Imogen could sniff out a suffering soul with the air of an aristocratic cat sniffing out lunch, and welcomed Jasmine into her home. She’d named the house Nanda, the Sanskrit word for joy. Jasmine enjoyed her time there, mixing with all the broken people who turned up at Imogen’s door, getting drunk on rhubarb wine and surviving on a diet of homemade soup. The wine and the soup endlessly supplied by the obliging Imogen. Like birds with broken wings they healed themselves before it was time to take flight again.
Jasmine stayed there until the frosts began. The cold was too much for Jasmine and the outer scars, if not the one’s that went deeper, had healed. It was time to move on.
This morning she had woken with the kookaburra’s and padded barefoot through to her very own kitchen. Ran her hands over wooden cupboards feeling the grooves and pulled out her old teapot from one of them. She held the teapot under the tap to warm it before adding dandelion leaves. It was ancient and tannin stained. Her maternal grandmother, Freya Spring, had left it to her. She had been a kind woman, so different from her sour daughter, Jasmine’s mother. She had tipped the boiling water over the leaves and left it to brew. The special cornflower blue teapot, the only possession that had always been with her on her journeys. The teapot had been wrapped in newspaper and placed with care in her red holdall many times.
As she waited, various cities and country towns filled the corners of her mind with fractured memories of friends made and lost once she’d moved on, always with broken promises to keep in touch. May be she’d inherited her wanderlust from her father. She’d never known him but her mother had said that he was a sailor. Of course at other times her phantom father had been a circus performer, a writer or an artist. Depending on her mother’s mood and the story she was telling. Still her words rang in Jasmine’s ears.
“You’re just like your father.”
Words not said with pride but spat with reproof. She imagined a tall man, too sensitive to stay around Olivia’s sharp tongue. But what sort of man would leave his child?
Once the tea was poured she added honey from a warmed teaspoon to the amber fluid in her cup. She wrapped her hands around it and breathed in the herby aroma before carrying it carefully through to her room to run her morning bath.
Now surrounded by the petals of roses she allowed her mind to wander. She had lived by the sea, taking long walks along the shore, beachcombing for treasures cast adrift. Wood washed smooth by the sea and tiny seashells. She’d lived in the hills where the air is cooler, surrounded by trees and odd people hiding from life. She’d tried cities where everyone wore uniforms of neutrals; black, grey and navy. No time to stop, marching on like sombre soldiers, unsmiling and upright. Then there were the country towns which had driven her half crazy with their narrow mindedness and slow, drawling music.
The cottage she had moved into earlier that week was small and timber clad. She’d made her mark on it by painting the walls in her favourite shades of lilac, lime green and aubergine. Hung posters, pastel scenes from Europe with French writing, on the wall. Covered the plain chairs with Indian silk throws and blankets knitted in brightly coloured wool. Rolled out rugs, collected from a handful of overseas trips, on the worn floorboards.
She didn’t have much to do that day. Jasmine had put the house in order like a small hurricane working backwards. Fixing things up and enhancing the charm already there. She’d given herself a week to settle before she approached the local market. Jasmine made ornamental hair clips covered in glass beads and silk flowers. She planned to sell them on a stall at the market. She had begun to make decorative hand mirrors and brushes on to which she glued pearls and shaped wire. Her grandmother had always said that Jasmine would have been happy in another century, with her love of delicate beauty and fine antique lace.
It had been an abrupt exit from her last home. She had been renting a room in a poet’s house in a small town called Bellingen, nestled in the hills like a jeweled necklace in the décolletage of a lovely woman. She’d loved the river winding through the town, the Bohemian feel and the local people.
The poet had been interesting; older and quiet. Their relationship had been unexpected. He was a confirmed bachelor living a solitary existence and Jasmine danced in with her henna tattooed feet which didn’t keep still for long. She had intrigued Oscar, the poet whose work was no longer fashionable. He had already made money as a stock broker and lived on the proceeds. Jasmine reminded him of women of the past, although not his past. She swept through the rooms of his house, her hair seeming to flow like party streamers. Her skin smelt of lemons and spices.
Jasmine couldn’t say what had made her leave. She had become comfortable with Oscar and Bellingen. A feeling she wasn’t used to. Fear of loss made her sever the ties she had forged. Now she wasn’t sure whether she felt grief or relief. But first came guilt as she pictured Oscar, making sandwiches for her journey, her journey away from him. His kind face offering assurances of a commitment not asked for. He had a wonderful way of being grateful for whatever she offered him, no matter how small or inconsequential. And what did she feel for him? This man who respected her as no other had before him. Through the idyllic first days of a new love affair still the voice of her mother echoing through the joy.
“Never rely on anyone else, Jasmine. Everyone will let you down in the end.”
And hadn’t they? So far.
Much later she sat on the deck, her long red hair pulled back and held by a tortoise-shell clip. Dressed in an emerald green silk robe, her pale face drawn into a frown. Jasmine placed her damask covered journal on the table, took out a pen filled with violet ink and began to write. Since childhood Jasmine had written in her journal every day. It gave an anchor point to her turbulent life. A life sailing on the breeze like a leaf. Or a magic cloak which landed when the wind died down and stayed until it took it up again, soaring through the air, never looking back, always looking toward the next place. She pulled her graceful legs under her as elegant fingers ran a pen nimbly across a blank page.
The sun was going down between the trees by the dam. Jasmine squinted as it slowly sunk away, giving in to the indigo velvet sky of dusk. Pen clamped between her teeth, thinking about what to write and what to leave out. A stray curl brushed her face. Jasmine immediately tucked it behind one ear.
As with all change there was re-birth. Jasmine’s life was playing it’s song with her accompanying the notes with her own voice. Giving it depth and a timbre not there before. All this coming together whilst Jasmine sat, unaware of the tiny flicker of life starting to grow within her. Oscar would leave his mark yet.

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THE MEMORY BOX

My feet eat up the paved path, shoe leather beating a tattoo, a forwards dance step pushes me onward. The stone buildings, breathtaking in this half-light, throw threatening shadows as the cooling sun slips down the page of the sky.
She hadn’t said anything, I wouldn’t let her. If Dee didn’t say the words it wouldn’t be true. It would be a reality that hadn’t played out and he would be sitting up in his bed, laughing that musical laugh of his, apologising for the fuss he’d made, for worrying us. I can see my father, Francis Cole, in his tartan pajamas, spots of pink on his cheeks. His wanton hair refusing to lie flat, smiling and patting my hand. Dee is standing back in the shadows like a harbinger of future tragedy, refusing to enjoy the moment. Overlaid on this scene, like a veil barely seen, Dee is pulling the cover over our father’s face.
Old stone is replaced with glass and metal, office buildings. I reach the park, the grass glitters with dew and time slows. I wait in the space between two breaths, choosing a future with or without him. I know it isn’t my decision, in one choice lies madness, but for a moment I want to hold back the tide of grief and live in a world which still has Francis Cole in it.
“Allie, you could help you know. It’s not all about wallowing. Death brings a lot of work.”
Dee stands with her back to the wall, dressed in black and holding a teacup. We have just buried our father, although I have to admit the arrangements were done almost entirely by Dee. She’s good in a crisis.
The front room of Dad’s old house is full, aunts who’ve got stouter and men with whiskey on their breath. I’m wearing a crimson dress with lime green shoes. I have raised a few eyebrows but I don’t care. Dad hated funereal black and he loved my quirky style. I pick at my nail varnish, letting Dee’s words hit the floor around her sensible shoes. She’s asking why it’s her who does all the work, when she has a full-time job and I work casual shifts picked up randomly. And I can’t answer her fairly. In an attempt to placate my sister I pick up a tray of sandwiches, curling at the edges in the unseasonably hot May afternoon. I walk among tweedy aunties on dry sherry and men with yellow teeth drinking Dad’s Laphroaig which Dee had opened. I can hear the creak of dry bones turning in his freshly buried coffin.
“Wasted on them. Cousins circling with avarice hoping to pick up a morsel or two.” I can see Dad’s red face, blue eyes blazing. “Never here when I got sick or when your mother died. And by the way, my bones aren’t dry yet.”
I stand in the middle of the living room holding the tray of sandwiches aloft for our guests. Aunts and cousins are being helped into their coats, their bat skins, by Dee whose gaze rests on me and then floats to the ceiling. She doesn’t say anything but her disappointment is licking the walls.
I carry the plates scattered with cake crumbs and start filling the blue plastic bowl in the kitchen sink. There’s no washing up liquid. Dad thought it was extravagant, he wasn’t mean but he had unusual ideas. When my friends came round after school Dad would be wearing a pajama top tucked into his trousers, sometimes a tea-cosy on his head. He said he got too hot if his ears were covered. I was delighted. I’d say “That’s my Dad, he’s an academic.” I had no idea what that meant but it sounded exciting, like a trapeze artist or a magician. Dee didn’t bring her friends home at all. She appears holding a carriage clock. I frown. “Wilfred said Dad promised it to him.”
“Isn’t that one engraved by the university? What would Wilfred want with that?”
“Closest he’ll get to a university,” Dee sits down and I notice how much older she’s looking. Jowly around the chin, lines that were sharp gone fuzzy, her thin cheeks paper-like.
I turn away and slide dirty plates through scalding water. A savage pain grips my insides and at the bottom of this well of grief boils guilt.
“It doesn’t matter, Allie. He was fine with it.”
“I know.” My voice is sharp. “You were with him.” Now accusatory.
“Look, I know you were his favourite but there were things I could do for him that you couldn’t.”
I don’t correct her, I stand perfectly still, knowing that if I make a sound it would be an animal moan.
“Sit down, Allie.”
I turn back to the washing up as my sister speaks. “Will you help me with his things tomorrow? We need to clear the house before we sell.”
“Isn’t it a bit soon?”
“He won’t need them and I have to get back to work.”
The open window brings a cool breeze into the stuffy room. Dee is taking Dad’s clothes from his wardrobe and throwing them on the bed. With each item a different story walks through my mind. The rust coloured sports jacket he wore to family dinners, the mustard shirt I can see him in clearly at a picnic in a city park where he’d fallen asleep after too many wines. He must have kept that shirt for 20 years. The smart black jacket he’d had made especially for his retirement dinner at the university, still with the purple silk handkerchief sticking out of the breast pocket.
“I think he only wore this once.” Dee flicked her fingers at the lapels and dust clouds hit the air.
“He was annoyed that Edward Morris gave a speech at the dinner. Remember how he hated him, Dee?”
“He’s still alive, Edward Morris. That would piss Dad off too.”
I noted Dee’s words, uncharacteristically crude. I start to sneeze, dust is crawling into my nasal passages.
“Get some bin liners, Allie. The rest can go to charity.”
“I hope I never see someone wandering around the city in Dad’s clothes.”
“When did that happen to anyone, except in books?”
I sneeze again. “When we’re done here, can we go through the photos?”
“They’re in the drawer under the cutlery.”
“The photos?”
“The bin liners.”
In the sixties style sideboard in the dining room, we find boxes of documents, old birthday cards, childhood drawings by me and Dee which crackled with age. There were four boxes of loose photographs. Black and white, and colour photos that had faded to muted yellows and browns.
We pile them on the table and go through them searching for parts of our lives long forgotten. Birthdays celebrated, bicycles we learnt to ride, family holidays. Two little girls as cute as possums, as happy as the sun high above us. There were a few snaps of Mum sitting on a deckchair in the garden, painting her nails. One of her holding a baby a few days old, she was leaning to kiss her infants head. Was that Dee or me? Mum didn’t live long enough to tell us, to take us through the boxes of photos, telling us stories and Dad hadn’t a clue. A woman would know by the print of a curtain in the background, the style of a dress, what year the moment had been captured. The wallpaper looks Laura Ashley. A mother would never forget the identity of her child. I put away the last of the memories wondering how we were going to decide who was to take what.
“There’s a box we missed.” Dee reaches into the sideboard and pulls out a box which looks cream coloured but on closer scrutiny is a print of pale roses on a faded background which may once have been white. Dee takes the card from its holder on the front of the box and passes it to me. It says ‘Sylvia” in Dad’s untidy scrawl. The box is lined with lavender tissue paper and smells faintly of talcum powder. Inside are photographs and locks of blonde hair tied with ribbon. Dee opens a red velvet covered jewelry box that contains baby teeth.
“This is the start of a memory box.”
I nod. It should have contained photos of us on our first day at school, taken by Mum from the garden while we posed on the front steps. Or perhaps recipes of our favourite cakes devoured after school while telling her about our day. She didn’t know that I loved banana bread and Dee, almond biscuits.
Dee hands me a photo of a smiling woman with two small, brown haired children. I recognise the woman as someone I’d know all my life. The long straight dark hair and striking eyebrows. It is Dee, except it isn’t. Our mother is smiling, Dee rarely does.
“I didn’t know she looked like this, like you. Why did we never ask to see more photos of her, Dee? I only ever saw their wedding photo when Dad had it propped up on the piano.”
Dee’s sad eyes rested on mine. “We didn’t want to know what we were missing.”
“Did you know about the likeness?”
“I guessed. Dad could barely look at me without pain in his eyes.”
I covered her thin hand with mine, noticing the contrast between her white bony hand and mine that had spent too long at the beach.
“I didn’t realise. I’m sorry.”
We spread the photos out on the kitchen table. There are photos of our mother on the beach with us, laughing into the camera with two girls balanced on her hips. Dee and I wearing bathers with flimsy skirts, Mum in a once piece that showed her long legs. In another she bent down between us, holding my hand as I cried at the camera. I recognise our old kitchen which was ripped out in the mid-eighties, the old ceramic kettle gleams as new.
On the back of the photos in a script I didn’t recognise it said, ‘Sylvia and the girls, Manly Beach’. ‘At home’.
A couple on a rock. ‘Sylvia & Francis, honeymoon in Greece’. Another one of a woman with Dee’s face, blowing out candles. ‘Sylvia’s 21st, Sept’.
There were so few of them and the photos I held in my mind were the ones that weren’t there. Mum and Dad’s Silver Wedding Anniversary, the two of them pictured at Dad’s retirement do. There were no photos of her after 1980.
Our father was a decade older than our mother. Mum’s parents had been appalled at the age gap. She’d been so young and vital, who’d have thought that they would be burying her?
I pack the box carefully and pass it to Dee. “You have it.”
My sister nods and I don’t say it but I hope she’d finds whatever she lost along the way in the folds of that tissue paper. If our family had stayed intact she would have been Mum’s favourite, I was sure of that.