When I was a child, my aunt, Pat R., had a rich boss. She went to America with him on a cruise, and when she came back she brought amber perfume in bottles shaped like crowns. These she kept on the windowsill of the room she rented in her brother’s house. She suffered excruciating bouts of tonsillitis, and had it so badly on her return from America that her tonsils obstructed her throat. It was said in the family that they had gone septic due to a lifelong proneness to infection brought on by poor nutrition during the Depression.
My father was her younger brother. He took me to visit her in a posh hospital when she had her tonsils out. Her room overlooked a bandstand in a little park in Paddington and was filled with expensive flowers: freckled orange tiger lilies with perfect cake-blade petals and slender leaves that had never seen a snail or slug. At the time, there was one gladiolus out in our garden at Concord. It was magenta. An aunt on my mother’s side had given us the corm. ‘They’re very expensive,’ my mother said. The magenta gladiolus was her pride and joy.
Pat R. married her rich boss and the throat that had been so septic became famed for its linelessness and the things she wore around it. The collars for her gowns were handmade in Paris by Madame Ricci. Madame Ricci called her ‘the perfect model’ because she was so elegant and slim.
She moved into a mansion with a spectacular view of Sydney Harbour behind it. The first time I saw it I was nauseated by such an expanse of blue and had to vomit behind the frabogiabola bush, as my brother called a certain tree in her garden unknown to people who lived in the western suburbs. It was said that my aunt was too delicate to have children. She surrounded herself with objets d’art instead. Being lusty and inclined to trample, my brothers and I weren’t taken to see her much after that, though our father still went.
Then our family capsized, because the one magenta gladiolus was not a sufficient reward for living in Concord. We continued to live there, but our father left for another state. We still exchanged Christmas cards every year with Pat R., but after the divorce she stopped sending the cheque ‘for cherries to put in the Christmas pud’, so my mother could no longer buy herself her annual supply of underwear and grizzle loudly to the teller as she deposited the cheque that her rich sister-in-law was patronizing. She would claw the Signature with a sharp little nail to make sure the teller read it.
‘Oh’, the teller would say, ‘isn’t she …?’
And my mother would swivel about a bit on the counter to allow anyone else who might be interested to have a look at the cheque over her shoulder. She used to tick up groceries and fillet steak on the strength of her connections.
After leaving school, I moved out of home to work as a laboratory assistant in a regional base hospital in country New South Wales, and after that I moved to Melbourne and took a degree in science. I still sent Christmas cards to Pat R., but it didn’t alter my circumstances relative to hers.
The year I turned forty Pat R. turned seventy. By then she had been widowed and had moved, not down the hill, but further forward along the point to a view I heard was just as spectacular, only all to be had from indoors and no bushes to puke behind when dazzled by the magnificence. Help was hired to clean the windows and paid danger money for height, staggering height. About as high as Sydney staggers on the immediate foreshore without lapsing into vulgar apartment blocks.
About that time the brother on whose windowsill Pat R. used to range her perfume bottles died, and I had an outbreak of silverfish in my house. I lived somewhat out of my aunt’s social circle in a viewless brick bungalow, a full twelve hours from her by car. Fibre bathroom, quaint odours, recognizable to anyone trained in mycology, as I had become.
I’d been reading Aristotle on objects finding their predestined place of rest. They come to rest on our planet because it is the centre of the universe. At the same time, I’d been making a daily observation—every morning when I took my shower there’d be a single silverfish in the bath. Every morning I would flush the silverfish from the same spot with the shower water, watch it whirl clockwise down the drain to its doom, and the next morning there it would be again in exactly the same spot. One very big and very chipped old bath. One silverfish. Even when I’d squashed it the day before. What kind of phenomenon was I dealing with? I imagined the silverfish on the other side of the plug hole reassembling itself and lurking there until morning, and then resuming its predestined spot in the Great Plan just to mock and challenge me.
Thinking the death of her brother would have come as a blow to Pat R., I rang and offered to stay with her after the funeral to help her through her grief. ‘Oh’, Pat R. said, surprised—but, of course, delighted—to hear from me. ‘We’ve had him cremated already.’ And then ‘I suppose we could hold a memorial service.’
‘May I stay with you, Auntie?’ I asked before she could change her mind.
‘Oh,’ she said, laughing mildly, ‘yes, I suppose you could.’ I was curious about her view and wondered whether I remembered correctly how rich she was. I bought myself some new red pyjamas at Country Road so she wouldn’t go judging how poor I was by the state of my night attire.
Age had not wearied my aunt much in spite of her childhood malnutrition. She still enunciated everything very correctly and kept murmuring what a lovely surprise it was to see me. She explained that her brother had been a continuing Presbyterian who continued, but then lapsed, as did all the continuing Presbyterians in his parish. The Presbyterian church had been shut up for seven years. Aunt wondered whether we mightn’t borrow a ghetto-blaster from somewhere in case anyone wanted music. Then again, Presbyterians weren’t very jolly souls and no-one in the family boasted a voice, even the ones who secretly thought they had one. There was, of course, the problem of a minister, though the neighbouring parish had agreed to send one over for a fee, if we could get someone to open up the church beforehand and test the microphone over the lectern.
Uncle had been a widower whose only child lived as far away from him as he could and worked as a consultant engineer on an oil pipeline near Lake Baikal. It was impossible to reach him in a wholesome period of time, so we had to take matters into our own hands. We thought we would take photographs and send them on. I was assigned a borrowed camera. I photographed the stained-glass windows, hoping that in my short-sightedness I hadn’t included too many cobwebs. I set the lens at what I thought was a romantic blur. I photographed the back of someone silting at the organ while not actually playing it. I photographed the relatives huddled out of the hail storm in the entrance. I tried to make it look as though we’d done my uncle proud.
During the service, which we tape-recorded, my stepmother, who had come down with my father from the Gold Coast, said in a loud voice that her first husband had died of the same thing. ‘It was awful,’ she bellowed to the congregation, turning around in her pew to address those behind her, ‘he just fell down dead in the street. He had terrible piles, too. If anyone’s got piles I’ve got a good remedy.’ My father gave his prudish laugh and said, ‘Hush there, Mrs Worthington.’ (Mrs Worthington was a rash woman who, according to legend, put her daughter on the stage.) One of his sisters asked me in an undertone ‘How’s your mother?’ I was able to tell her truthfully ‘Barmy at last sighting’, while the others busied themselves with their prayer books. One was weeping, though it might not have been from grief so much as a reaction to the burning dust and cobwebs on the foot radiators.
My father had been surprised to see me and observed, correctly, ‘Oh, it’s you! It’s a long drive up from Melbourne.’ He and his wife had flown the even longer distance from the Gold Coast, but I suppose his surprise was more to do with my not having set eyes on the deceased uncle since childhood.
After the service we had sandwiches in the church hall. The minister had to rely on us to lock up, because he had another funeral to do in his regular parish. Uncle had been done at the crematorium a while ago, of course, and we were to wait for my cousin to send instructions about the ashes.
When we’d locked up and brushed the dust off each other’s bottoms, aunt and I went back to her penthouse. To get into aunt’s you have to go up in a wood-panelled lift. When the door opens at her floor, the top one, she has to scuttle across the foyer to reach the burglar alarm and turn it off before it senses the approach of felons. This is because inside my aunt’s apartment is a collection of art so valuable that it would have to be taken to Europe to be sold. It would go noticed in Sydney. Aunt thought the big one over the mantelpiece was by Caravaggio, but wasn’t sure.
Worrying about how you might not know if you had a Caravaggio kept me awake all night. Poor Pat R. is so rich she can’t let the plumber fix her taps for fear he’ll notice what they’re made of and take them. So she ties up her taps with hand towels to delay their dripping. One thing I noticed in her spare bathroom, though, was something we have in common—Aristotle’s silverfish.
Aristotle thought that music had such an effect on people’s emotions it ought to be censored. An ancient Greek awaiting the birth of Presbyterianism, the thought of a ghetto-blaster to enliven a memorial service wouldn’t even have crossed his mind. The reason Aristotle gives for objects falling to Earth is that the Earth is the centre of the universe. On the face of it, this is an extremely good theory and ought to account for the reason I was born in Sydney, because for me—no matter that I haven’t lived there for years—it is the centre of the universe. But the fact that silverfish turn up teleologically in Melbourne baths as well as Sydney baths just goes to show that the Earth is indeed spherical and that the silverfish are tending towards its centre—even if they don’t tend in an avalanche, but only one at a time—along the reverse principle of the Archimedean screw.
Aristotle could have saved Galileo a lot of trouble by asking himself where the centre of the centre was located.
I have yet to work out a similar principle regarding money. I have discarded the idea that it has a fatal attraction to swollen tonsils, along with the theory that it is repelled by magenta gladioli. All things being equal, if Aristotle was indeed correct in his surmise that objects find their natural place of rest in the universe, of which the Earth is the centre, then a silverfish in the bath ought to signal leaking taps, a penthouse full of old masters with a three-hundred-and-sixty-degree view of Sydney Harbour and a Mercedes sports car in the basement garage. The fact that it only seems to signal leaking taps might have something to do with location, that is, Melbourne’s drains being closer to the centre of the universe than Sydney’s and therefore with a higher propensity to siphon wealth away from the inhabitants and carry it off to that place where the silverfish population is at its densest.
Nothing was stolen during my sojourn with Pat R., nor did her grief at the death of her brother require more palliation than the one night. All that happened was my Country Road red tartan pyjamas imprinted themselves onto both myself and Pat R.’s white sheets. Which was a nuisance, because the difficulty my aunt has with plumbers means that all the taps in her penthouse leak, and we had to turn the ones over the washing machine on and off by hand between cycles.