Author: Chandler, Carol
Date published: January 1, 2010
Journal code: IHEC
The bus moved forward towards the city, the driver braking suddenly as Lily glanced up at the video screen to see if she recognized herself. To the left of the screen there were only two people visible, a woman in a tiger print top, leaning forward, rigid and tense, and a heavy-set man in a grey duffle coat. No one else could be seen, and there was no sign of her on the monitor. What did this mean? she wondered. Was she invisible or was she simply in the video screen's blind spot?
A breeze through the window tickled her skin, her backpack brushing against her leg as she observed the exit door clearly on the screen. Centrepoint Tower was visible in the distance, jutting above the horizon like a spindle. It reminded her of the tall buildings near the harbour, where she had lived on the streets with her mother as a child, the narrow slivers of metal and glass, the riot of lights at Kings Cross.
Her heart fluttering anxiously, Lily leant back in her seat, watching as a woman in a cheap terylene dress with a paisley pattern print climbed on board. She sat down immediately behind the driver and only her back was visible as she began chattering slowly to herself, murmuring softly at first, her voice rising ever so gradually into a crescendo of intense muttering and wailing. Trying to block out what the woman was saying, Lily leant back in her seat when suddenly the woman swung around, her eyes narrowing as if challenging the other passengers to say something. Nobody moved or said anything though, so she swung back again and recommenced her muttering.
The woman's voice diminished to a mixture of humming and whispering, and Lily began thinking of the claustrophobic confines of her mother's apartment, the time they had spent sleeping on pieces of cardboard on the streets, picking bread and cakes from a bin in a bakery nearby.
For a while they had lived in a park with a derelict, people staring at them disapprovingly, a shabbily dressed old man with a young woman a quarter his age carting a child as they moved back and forth amongst the trees and bushes. Once in the evening, the man had taken Lily to a secluded area where he had grabbed her arm tightly. His dark gaping mouth had terrified her as he attempted to kiss her before she wrenched her arm free, running as hard as she could along the trail.
Glancing up at the video screen again, Lily noticed a middle-aged woman casually flicking through some notes for work, and she watched as the woman leant back as if to protect herself from the aura of filth around her. Her careful elegance reminded her of her mother since she had finally found success as a concert violinist, and Lily studied the woman's expensive slacks and cashmere scarf, sensing her tension as she crossed her legs. Her slim face with its fine features appeared slightly remote, as she brushed a few strands of sleek hair away from her eyes, elegant heavy silver rings adorning her left hand.
Sinking back into her seat, Lily's stomach knotted when she realised that her mother's apartment was up ahead. She had hardly seen her mother since leaving home ten years earlier at the age of eighteen, and as the familiar streets came into view, she pressed the buzzer, wondering why her mother wanted to see her now.
Her heart began fluttering again as she recalled her mother's increasingly disturbing behaviour, how her moods oscillated wildly so that she had come to view her as the two sides of the moon, silvery and light on the one side, dark and frightening on the other. At night, as a child she would wait for her to come home from work, biding her time as she lay in bed, staring up at a mark on the wall in the shape of a winged dragon, pretending that it might actually take her away.
On the phone, her mother had mentioned a bizarre story about a woman who had convinced her boyfriend to strangle her, and Lily shuddered now as she realised this was the ultimate act of control, to get someone else to kill you. Pulling her pink beanie down over her ears, she pressed the buzzer and left the bus, walking along a congested road, breathing in the heavy smog and fumes of traffic.
Stepping down onto the street, a disturbing image floated into her mind, almost like a premonition, and she saw her mother lying on the floor, her body sprawled out and illuminated by the blue glow of a light. The light bathed her body like an eerie blue mist, and she appeared asleep as she usually did, after passing out from one of her alcoholic binges.
An image of dark shaped leaves like wings appeared in her thoughts, shuddering in the shadows of the sky, a line of palm trees and a waving rhythm of branches, shimmering against an intense tropical sunset. The image was echoed in an Aztec print, propped up against the wall on top of an old couch, and Lily saw herself as a child, nestled in a quilt, staring up at her mother's face and the world.
Once, her mother had told her a story about climbing the narrow steps of the Leaning Tower of Pisa, spiralling towards the top of the tower.
T'll take you there, Lily/ she'd said one day, describing how she had emerged onto the summit, which was smooth and slippery like marble. She had walked towards the railing, conscious that if she leant too hard she might slip on the marble and slide off the edge of the tower.
As Lily continued walking, she had another memory of herself as a child in the apartment, staring up at a painting, a dark interior of people with pale faces and solemn clothes; her mother with one of her lovers, the wind whistling and whipping against the windowpanes as she walked into the kitchen with its stone walls; and then, down the hall, towards a door closed and locked. Her mother had told her once that she had conceived her with a stranger, and Lily wondered if the man in the apartment was her father.
Trying to distract herself from the increasingly ominous feeling she was experiencing, she walked into the corner shop, hoping to buy some fruit and flowers. Immediately, the cool dark interior of the room calmed her, the colourful rows of fruit and the delicate aroma of flowers distancing her from her disturbance.
The shop owner's familiar face appeared reassuringly normal, and she felt comforted as she bought some flowers, petals brushing her arms as she left the shop.
Turning into her mother's street, she remembered a visit to her grandmother's as a child, how they had waited for the train to move off, studying the crisscross lines of the track, like an asterisk or a spider's web, a backlog of trains and then the clacking rhythm of the train. Sipping icy cold water, she had listened to women's voices rising and falling in a crescendo, like the mad woman's voice on the bus, staring out of the window, studying the red earth and gum trees as they travelled south, passing through forests and across plains.
Her grandmother lived in one of the richest parts of the city, in an immense two-storey mansion with wrought iron balconies, and she had found the older woman intimidating, more intimidating even than her mother. Listening to their voices from the hallway late at night, Lily had heard her grandmother and mother arguing.
'The child can stay/ her grandmother was saying. 'I'll adopt her if necessary but you have to go. You're a disgrace.'
Approaching her mother's apartment, she recalled her grandmother's rejection, how the rich scarlet petals of the flowers they had brought her reminded her of a heart: and later that night, the subtle perfume on her mother's body and a slight grimace on her lips as she watched her in bed, wondering when her brightness would flip into shadows.
On another journey to her grandmother's, they had travelled in a broken down old Citroen, lying side by side, surrounded by soft crimson felt; the seats pushed up against their bodies with a suffocating closeness, springs working into her spine, rain chattering against windows, the tang of apricots on her lips.
Her mother's building was up ahead with its two large glass doors at the entrance, 'Portofino' printed across them in gold lettering. It reminded her of her mother's stories about the Leaning Tower of Pisa. She followed the path to the front door, opening the entrance door with her key, and as she walked into the foyer with its dark green carpet and fleur de lys wallpaper, she heard the sound of her mother's violin drifting down from the apartment. Ascending the carpeted staircase Lily listened to the music, rising and falling in a crescendo, like the insane mutterings of the woman on the bus, and as she turned the corner at the landing, she gasped at the sheer technical skill of her mother's playing.
Knocking at the door, Lily remembered watching her mother as a child, the sweet mournful tones of the violin, the sleeves of her long black crÍpe dress swept back from her arms as she swayed to the rhythm of the notes; a tall slender woman with copper hair pulled back in a black velvet ribbon, crystal earrings swaying slightly with the movement of the bow.
Her mother answered the door and immediately Lily was struck by the wide prettiness of her eyes, although their heavy lids had always suggested a sadness, as if she were holding back on something; a brooding appearance somehow offset by the girlish delicacy of her face. She was dressed all in black as if in mourning, a sleeveless black blouse with a silver lizard design beneath a severely cut long-sleeved black jacket. A long black skirt descended to her ankles above fashionable wooden sandals. Lily moved forward to embrace her but in spite of a lightness in her mother's manner, she detected an irritation and impatience as if she were checking herself.
Studying her now, she could see a disturbing resemblance to her grandmother. A harshness and resentment had begun to creep into her face as though things were slipping further beyond her control.
As she placed her arms around her mother, she remembered that visit to view her grandmother's body at the funeral parlour, how the old woman had appeared sunken, her face thinner, more refined so that she appeared exactly as she had as a young woman, with an alarming resemblance to her mother.
There had been a reconciliation with her grandmother before she died, and as they left the parlour it seemed to Lily that her spirit was gradually fleeing to the afterlife with the disintegration and reduction in the size of her body.
Glancing about the flat, Lily's anxiety began to increase as she noticed that her mother appeared to be finalising things. The piano in the corner had been draped with a sheet and collections of music manuscripts were piled tightly on a desk. The old mahogany chair with its padded leather seat and metal studs that she liked to swing on as a child was draped in a covering. Leaflets were stacked in a corner with ashtrays and wine glasses, and the book case with her mother's extensive collection of books had been emptied. She remembered that disturbing story again about the woman who had asked her boyfriend to strangle her, wondering if her mother was going to put the proposition to her as she glanced at some advertising leaflets on the couch.
Next to the cushions, she noticed a scarf belonging to her mother's current lover, a sinister man with pale skin and a heavy beard, and she wondered if her mother had already asked him to kill her, but he had wisely declined.
'Lily, I wanted to play something I've been practising/ her mother said, walking over to pick up her violin. 'It could be my last concert, you know.'
She watched as her mother rucked the violin carefully under her chin, studying its curved shape and dark tawny wood, mellow like honey. Observing the uncertainty of her mother's grip, she remembered the loneliness in their apartment before her mother's success, the medicine she used to give her for her stomach at night, and the pink biscuits she ate to take away the bitterness of the taste.
Remembering the intensity of her mother's moods when she was composing, she recalled how she had acted as her page turner, flipping the pages over with precision, as she concentrated on the flicking tails of quavers and the tiny black dots of crotchets, the horizontal grid of the bars and the curve of the clefs.
Her mother stopped playing abruptly and Lily felt her stomach knot as she watched her smiling distantly and enigmatically.
'Lily I want you to do something for me/ she said. 'You're the only person I can trust now.'
And as she studied her mother's face, opaque like a polished stone, she began thinking about the journey on the train that would take her back home, away from her mother forever, a wide empty field, a barrenness and strangeness, the blue light at the entrance to her hallway, the dark nooks and crannies of her house.
Carol Chandler is a fiction and non-fiction writer who has lived in England, France and Italy. Her work has appeared in Famous Reporter, FourW, Going Down Swinging, Idiom 23, Quadrant and Tamba. She has also co-edited Written in Sand and is currently editing Bondi Tides - An Anthology from the Bondi Writers7 Group.