'The Space Between Us'
Alex returns home to look after her ailing grandmother and learns that a lot can change in thirteen years.
“It’s Jai…your cousin…from Perth. So I would’ve called earlier but I heard you were in Italy…”
For one month, not for the eight months you’ve been living in Melbourne, I thought, before reminding myself that Jai and his sister were children when my mother threw me out of the family for being gay. He wasn’t to blame for the space between us.
I spent a few minutes teasing Jai about his new life as a vegan Fitzroy hipster before he got to the point of his call.
“So Granny was playing cards today and she tripped getting up from the table. She’s broken her hip…surgery is tomorrow morning. I thought I should call you because I wasn’t sure you’d find out otherwise.”
Jai ended the call by promising to catch up for coffee soon.
“Sshmyhip,” Granny slurred down the phone, the combination of pain killers and rattling false teeth making her words almost indecipherable. Tears slipped down my cheeks as I realised that this could be my last ever conversation with the only family I’ve known for the past thirteen years and she was so high she probably wouldn’t remember any of it.
“Shish Franshishkasher?” she asked. I handed the phone to Frankie and poured myself a red wine. Frankie patiently asked what Granny’s pain levels were like and where the rima of the fracture was, whatever that meant, before speaking to the nurse in charge.
“She’s strong and the fracture is clean. It’ll be ok.” Frankie reassured me.“But we should organise to fly to Albany soon. Stop drinking, I’m making pasta.”
Granny came through the operation well. Every day she updated me about her visitors and the nurses and how much attention she was getting in hospital. After a few minutes I’d pass the phone to Frankie, who was enjoying using her surgical knowledge and feeling useful for the first time since returning from Italy.
Two weeks after her operation, Granny was excited to announce that she was going home. “Your mother is going away so you can come and see me and I can meet Francesca. Do you and Francesca sleep in the same bed? I only have a double bed. I hope Francesca is alright with that. You’ll need to prepare all of my meals for me, I can’t do anything. Is Francesca there?”
A few weeks later Frankie and I took a plane to Perth, hired a car and drove to Albany, the town I hadn’t stepped foot in for thirteen long years.
“We’ll go to Dylans. I need a lentil burger,” I announced as we headed down York Street looking for food.
“You don’t eat lentil burgers.”
“I used to eat lentil burgers and now I want one again.”
We pulled into a parking space on Stirling Terrace and Frankie stared out over Princess Royal Harbour, awed by its size and natural beauty. “I think it’s one of the world’s largest natural harbours,” I said, trying to summon the enthusiasm to play tour guide.
Dylans looked exactly the same as when I was a teenager. And still on the menu was their famous lentil burger.
“This tastes exactly how I remember it,” I enthused as I shoved my burger at Frankie’s screwed up face.
“Cheschifo,” She spat as she pushed my hand away.
After dinner we drove up to Granny’s stately stone house high above the harbour. The clouds hung low, obscuring the crests of Mount Clarence and Mount Melville, giving me the strange sensation that the sky was pressing down on the town.
We found Granny sitting in her favourite chair near the fireplace in the lounge room, watching her new digital TV and eating chocolate almonds.
Being in her house instantly transported me back to my youth, when we ate Sunday roasts around the dining table, savoured the tartness of lemon delicious pudding by the roaring fire and watched Grandpa leaning back in his chair and cleaning, packing and smoking his beloved pipe.
On the sideboard sat a framed photograph of me taken seven years ago, my long hair cascading like streams of molten lava, my blue eyes staring sharply, daring people to ignore me. Carefully arranged around this theatrical centrepiece were photos of family members celebrating different milestones in their lives. My younger sister at what looked like her wedding day. Was that the Greek Islands? The same sister with two children. My niece and nephew I presume. What were their names? The whole family at Granny’s 90th…
“Wow you look like your mum.” Frankie said, walking up next to me. “Is that your sister? Who are these two kids?”
I stood there in silence, trapped in a state of forced nostalgia, wondering if there was anything sadder than being surrounded by the people I’d lost, the people whose lives had gone on happily without me.
“Jai and his sister Chloe I think, ask Granny,” I finally responded. “I’m putting our suitcases away. Granny hates mess.”
My skin felt hot and clammy as dizziness overwhelmed me. Fuck. I was going to faint.
“She was a terribly messy child,” Granny remarked in an exasperated tone that made it clear she’d tried and failed to reform me.
“She still is,” Frankie responded wearily. “I’ve banned her from the kitchen because she can’t even make coffee without pouring it everywhere.”
“Then you’ll need to make all my meals for me instead… I really can’t do anything,” I heard Granny say.
I ran outside and gasped sharply as the cold air entered my burning lungs. I felt my skin rip as though someone was cutting into me with a scalpel before cracking my chest down the middle and using their fingers to break through the muscle and connective tissue, exposing my fragile heart. I choked as I felt the hands squeezing until my heart gave up and broke open, releasing the tears that flooded my face.
Once again I was drowning in a grief too big for a heart too broken to ever mend.
I shut my eyes and pictured a steel box in my head. I grabbed hold of my pain and forced it into the box, slamming the lid and locking it tight. I walked back inside, found a bottle of sherry that expired in 2003 and poured myself a glass.
The next morning we drank tea and ate scones at the restaurant at the old forts. Frankie marvelled at the view over King George Sound while Granny chattered happily. My mother was away because she was having her birthday party in Perth with all of the family and so on and so forth. I smiled and nodded as I mentally caught my tears in my hands and poured them all into my steel box. Granny took a sip of her tea and I wondered what would happen if her false teeth accidentally slipped out.
“Granny was stationed here as a sergeant during world war two,” I said when the conversation waned. “This is where she met grandpa. She was exercising her girls in the parade ground and he was admiring her legs…”
“All the men were,” Granny corrected me, her eyes sparkling and her mouth smiling slightly as she stared out the window, lost in her memories.
“And this is where the Anzacs left for Gallipoli and the western front in WWI,” I added. “That’s why the National Anzac Museum is here…” We all stared at the water once occupied by the flotilla of warships.
That night Frankie cooked pasta and sat doing a jigsaw puzzle with Granny.
“It’s Italy you know,” said Gran, showing Frankie the photo they were trying to build.
“It’s one of the world’s oldest shopping malls,” explained Frankie. “The Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II Piazza del Duomoin Milan.”
I smiled to myself as Frankie and Granny focused on piecing the photo back together while discussing Frankie’s childhood and medical training.
“I was engaged before Grandpa,” Granny said. “To Len, a dashing English man…a merchant seaman. We met at the port in Bunbury. He asked my mother if he could take me on a date… I was so nervous he had to tell me what to do.” Granny giggled. “He came to my eighteenth birthday party and asked my father for my hand in marriage.” Granny picked up another puzzle piece. “Then he sailed out of Fremantle and I never saw him again.”
“Where did he go? “Asked a shocked Frankie.
“I don’t know,” Granny replied softly. “Apparently his ship was torpedoed…no one knows.”
Frankie searched for something to say.
“I’ve been wondering a lot lately about what happened to Len, about what could’ve been…what my life would have been like...” Granny picked up a jigsaw piece and tried to fit it into the puzzle. “Ten days. That’s all we had together… ten days.”
Granny lost a lot in the war - a scholarship to study classical singing at the Royal College of Music in London, then. After the war, Grandpa moved her to a dairy farm at Manypeaks, where she raised two children and devoted her life to her husband, her church and her community.
“I’m off to bed” Granny suddenly announced. “Church is at ten.”
“We’ll be up in plenty of time to drop you there,” I responded as I kissed her cheek.
“You’re not dropping me there. You’re coming. I want to show you and your partner off. It’s lovely to have a Doctor in the family.” Granny tucked Frankie’s label back under the neck of her shirt and kissed her good night.
Well, that confirmed it. Frankie was now granny’s favourite grandchild.
The next morning Frankie attempted to nap in the church pew while Granny listened intently to the sermon. I scanned the room nervously, looking for people I recognised and who knew my mother. After the sermon, Granny proudly introduced a drowsy Frankie to everyone and I smiled awkwardly as people told me how much I look like my mother.
Back home, Frankie and I headed to the kitchen to make Italian meatballs with sugo and polenta while Granny chatted happily on the phone.
“Oh yes, they’re both here. We’re having a lovely time. Francesca has been looking after me so well. The kitchen has never seen such a commotion…wait while I fetch her.”
Granny called to me and I walked over. “It’s Uncle James. He wants to speak to you.”
I took the phone. “Hello?” I asked nervously.
“Well, well, well, Alexandra.”
My mother’s brother thanked me for looking after Granny and chatted about his wife and kids, cramming thirteen years of news into three minutes. He took my email address and mobile number and told me he and my aunty would be in Melbourne in a month and invited me to dinner with Jai. Then my cousin Chloe wanted to speak to me.
Chloe told the hilarious story of how she came to date her boyfriend and I laughed and laughed. Then she turned serious. “Dad has wanted to contact you for the longest time. He hates what has happened to you. We all do.”
As Chloe talked I looked at my photo on the sideboard, surrounded by the family I’d lost. Through all of these thirteen years, I never once dreamt that any of them would want to fill the space between us.
I closed my eyes and saw the metal box holding all of my grief and pain float up and out of my head, through the ceiling and off into the sky.
That night at dinner, Granny raised her glass of Lambrusco and made a short speech.
“You’re a very good foil for each other,” she started, sounding all formal and English. “I like you very much Francesca. Thank you for being here, for all that you’ve done for me. And you, my dear,” she stumbled slightly as emotion filled her voice. “Thank you for coming home.”