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Sport 10: Autumn 1993


My mother's agitation with extremes was not helped by news of Aunt Cora's bankruptcy. The farm, never profitable, would have to be sold and the stock sent to the works. Aunt Cora had tried for a loan wearing her best hat and party manner but had been turned down. 'The humiliation,' my mother fumed. 'The same bank manager who was at her parties.'

News of the catastrophe came in letters from Aunt Agatha and Aunt Hermione though their styles were markedly different. Aunt Hermione sent some of her own savings to tide Cora over and some vague advice about the courage of cutting one's losses. Aunt Agatha delivered a pent-up homily of staccato sentences and underlinings which, in an earlier generation where underlining and crossing the paper at jaywalking angles was customary, would have turned the pages black. My mother, trapped between her horns of thin and fat, criticised my choice of skirts. 'If you don't watch yourself you'll be like Aunt Cora around the hips.'

'And the hips are the seat of fiduciary management,' Douglas added, rocking dangerously back in his chair. He was fond of the word fiduciary that year, a coin-counting word, every syllable precise.

Rupert had written from Singapore as if one of the family stocks had fallen but the firm was still in good hands. Fergus sent a postcard. Guess this is like the sinking of the Titanic. Still at least Cora would have gone down with page 54 a hat on. How about the fatal resemblance, Caro. Any manifestations?

For I had confided in Fergus once, thinking his two years' superiority might offer some suggestions about moving a fixed image. I used extravagant language, comparing myself to that Spanish resistance fighter frozen in the second the bullet enters him. Patently this was absurd. Other impressions, Fergus said, will override it. Spend less on clothes or something, make some conspicuous saving that will begin to undo it. Perhaps utter some pleasing clichés, such as the prodigal son, refreshed from fatted calf and a bath, must have done to please his father.

No manifestations, I wrote back. None, none. How did he never get called extravagant himself? Perhaps this was the root of my mother's concern: unlike cousin Fergus I had no rock-solid foundation, such as a bank vault. The frothy cherubs and pillars were not supported by safes. It was useless to explain to Fergus that it was not clothes or shoes—for which I had a great weakness—twenty-four pairs at last count—but an angle of my face caught in a blinding light, a trick of chiaroscuro, the face lifted above the candle, the presage that seals the character as Donne half-mockingly sealed himself in his winding sheet. My mother was a novelist manqué who had seen the way into my character as a painter chewing the end of his mull stick sees his way into a portrait that will take weeks. How could Fergus who always provided the wines and champagne for Christmas and instead of being chided was greeted as a reformed Scrooge understand that? While my gifts, chosen with agony and meant to express uniqueness, were always far far too much.

It must have been the Christmas I gave my parents a mirror—my mother commented on the shape as I brought it into the house on Christmas Eve, 'I hope that's not a mirror'—that Aunt Cora and Uncle Henry went to live in a seaside town, right on the seafront in a cottage.

'Someone's holiday home, I expect,' my mother sniffed. She had apologised about the mirror which when unwrapped showed the Brisbane Botanic Gardens where she and my father had courted. Luckily I had recognised it from an old snapshot.

'Your intentions are good,' she said, patting my forearm. 'But then so were poor Cora's.'

'I think we should leave it rest,' my father said. 'A beach cottage is not a stable after all and even if it was there's nothing to be ashamed of.' The ironmonger who had married Fenella had taken it seriously though page 55 and insisted she not invite her parents for Christmas. Instead Aunt Hermione had descended on Boxing Day with loads of gifts and Agatha and my father sent cheques. I had discovered that if I said very little and kept my newest shoes out of sight—they were peeptoes of the most blinding red— my mother's fretting and censure of me might seem neurotic.