“The medals mother was wearing when she died”

My wife has died. Six months ago it was, and I still say it like that – my wife has died. As if it happened a few minutes ago or yesterday. It seems to make the loneliness easier to bear. And letters still come for her. I wonder sometimes how long it takes for death and absence to filter through to distant friends and the bank and the Reader’s Digest. I went to the bank the other day and said to the little girl behind the glass in a loud and desperate voice, ‘My wife has died and you must stop sending letters to her about anything whatsoever. Please understand,’ I said, ‘my wife will not borrow money from you. She will not be requiring a Visa card.’ The girl was very nice and got the manager and he apologised and all the other customers in the queues looked sorry but they looked away. Then of course the next day the bank sent Marjory a letter about interest rates. I tore it up.

I tore up the letter and threw it in the fire and it curled and went brown and wouldn’t seem to burn. Not like the things from Reader’s Digestthat flare up and spurt out sudden flames of green and blue and purple. I burned a lot of Marjory’s things in the garden incinerator. Things I couldn’t bring myself to sort or think about. Like Christmas cards and letters and the half-finished tapestry of the Laughing Cavalier. How could you, Dad, the girls said when I told them. The Laughing Cavalier, they said, very shocked. I never liked the cavalier myself, and half of him seemed to me to be of no use to anyone. But Anne said she would have finished it and turned it into a shopping bag. Then Elizabeth started arguing and said it should have been framed and hung in the hall just as it was. I must say I was glad I’d already burnt the thing. Susan had the sense not to say anything. So nobody knew which side she was on. She’s like that.

No nonsense about Susan. Never has been. It’s lucky she lives the closest so that it was natural for her to help me with Marjory’s things, the clothes. Susan just came round every day for a week or so and folded things up into boxes and then she got St Vincent de Paul to come. ‘I’ll put the shoes in the garbage,’ Susan said, and I was scarcely listening. But suddenly I had a memory of Marjory years ago at a party in her red satin dress and the red shoes we bought in Venice. I went rushing into the bedroom where Susan had what looked like dozens of pairs of old shoes on the bed. They were all sad and brown and grey and black. One white pair and a few pairs of coloured slippers, pastel. ‘The red ones,’ I said, ‘what have you done with your mother’s red shoes.’ They were already in the rubbish tin mixed up with some celery. I fished them out and Susan looked at me strangely and said nothing. I said the shoes reminded me of very happy times – Venice and the party, and so on – I said. Susan said where would I put them and she looked down at my feet. I had a clear understanding that she wondered in the moment if I was going to dress up in her mother’s things. Nothing further from my mind, and my feet are size eleven.

I keep the shoes on the floor of the wardrobe alongside my own shoes. I fancy the ghost of Marjory dances in and out of the wardrobe. I’m sorry I didn’t keep a dress of two hanging there. I even looked in the doorway of St Vincent de Paul one day, half thinking I’d go in and buy one of Marjory’s dresses, but I couldn’t stand the smell of the place.

And I came away from there knowing that the only thing I really wanted was the shoes. She loved them so. For some reason I can not explain, I could not bear to keep Marjory’s holy medals. I believed they should have been buried with her, but the sister at the hospital put them in a little box and gave them to Susan. ‘Your mother’s medal, Susan,’ she said, and pressed the box into Susan’s hand. ‘She was wearing them when she died.’ So Susan took them home and in her very sensible and literal way she wrote in pencil on the lid of the box, ‘The medals Mother was wearing when she died.’ It was the Johnson & Johnson box that had contained six thin oval bunion plasters. And all Marjory’s dear medals – Perpetual Succour, Philomena, Miraculous, Scapular, Mater Dolorosa, Little Flower – plus two Pius Xs, one attached to a crucifix. All her medals in the thin black drawer that slid in and out. Susan wrote on the lid and came round and gave the box to me. But I said, ‘You have them, Susan. Or share them up with your sisters.’ Susan said nothing and she took the box away. I can’t say how much that box offended me. And Susan’s label – ‘The medals Mother was wearing when she died’. And the date.

She died on the eighth of November and soon it will be May. I wish the bank and theReader’s Digestand the girls would leave me to my thoughts. But Elizabeth and Anne have both rung me today to tell me in their differing ways that Susan has done something unforgivable. Nothing, I said, is unforgivable. This is, they said. But what has she done, I asked, what has she really done. ‘She has sent Mother’s lace tablecloths and pillow shams and handkerchief sachets to the second-hand stall at the Maytime Fair.’ I said if they had wanted those things they should have taken them. They didn’t exactly want them, they said, but they should not have gone onto the second-hand stall at the convent. Actually, Elizabeth said, it’s the antique stall. Dealers come with magnifying glasses and snap things up and take them off and sell them for a fortune. I said they should be happy with the pieces of fine jewellery their mother left to them. And the china and crystal. I look around as I speak and think the house is almost empty. The china cabinet used to be so crowded with daffodil-pattern Royal Doulton.

I stop listening to the girls. I close my ears and think of Marjory’s bright red shoes waiting for her in the wardrobe. I go deaf. I go stupid. (He is so deaf, they say. So stupid. Susan gets away with anything.)

I learn to cook and weed the borders. Old world pastel pansies that Marjory loved so much. I walk the dog and look up at the sky and think it’s going to rain. Marjory’s floral bookmark flutters from the pages of the last book she was reading. Ivanhoe. She liked to read. Six months and it seems to be a lifetime and I miss her so. I have her shoes. And what I do not tell Anne and Elizabeth is this: I think that with the tablecloths and pillow shams that Susan sent to the Maytime Fair, there would have been some other things. I think Susan sent the medals. Someone, I believe, will buy the bunion-plaster box of medals for a fortune or a song. And the strange thing is – it doesn’t matter to me. I don’t care.

Fair Game – a Tasmanian Memoir – extract


The beginnings of this story I want to tell you go back long ago, to May, 1996.

I was living in Melbourne, and had given a workshop on writing, in Canberra, at the National Library of Australia. I had been staying with the Halligan family, Marion being a close friend. When I returned home I received a postcard from her daughter Lucy, and it was this card from the National Library that inspired me to set off on a project that has ended up here, at my desk in Castlemaine, Victoria, with the petals of the plum blossom twisting in the spider web that hangs from the golden ash. With the blackbirds.

Lucy’s card is one of at least eighty cards that she sent me over the years, each card bearing a lively, ebullient message, often in black ink, on the back. This collection of cards is for me a treasured memorial to Lucy who died from the complications of a life-long heart condition in 2004. The pictures on the cards, and the messages, reveal something of Lucy’s charm and wit, and her loving nature.

The card in question is a print of an entrancing coloured lithograph that was produced in London in 1832. The title of the picture is ‘E-migration or a flight of fair game, 1832’, and it was created by Alfred Ducote. Printed in black ink from one stone, hand-coloured. In 1975 the National Library of Australia bought the lithograph from the Dr Clifford Craig Collection. So just now I looked for information on Dr Clifford Craig, and discovered that while I lived in Launceston for the first 23 years of my life, with my playhouse and the pear tree, Dr Craig was living there, nearby, with his family and his collection of antiques which included the lithograph. Imagine. If I had only met Dr Craig, if I had only seen some of the objects in his collection of antiques, I could have contemplated this image long, long before 1996. But I confess that today was the first I had heard of Dr Craig.

I will get to a description of the picture in due course, but right now I am off on an investigation of Dr Craig. To summarise – he was born in Melbourne in 1896 and died in Launceston in 1986 (I rather like those twisty dates). He became surgeon superintendent at the Launceston General Hospital, after the resolution of an eight year dispute between the Tasmanian State Government and the local branch of the British Medical Association who had banned their own members from working in Tasmanian hospitals. Heavens – that’s all I know about the dispute, but it sounds interesting. I am getting my information from the internet, and I daresay I could dash off on an investigation into the matter, but I feel I must get on with what I set out to do. In 1963 Clifford wrote a book on the history of the Launceston General Hospital, but I’m not tempted to read that. There’s a portrait of him in the Museum and Art Gallery in Launceston, but I don’t recall having seen it. Next time I go there I will look for it. The most important thing about him, to me, is that in his collection of antiques he had the picture of the butterflies.

Ah, the picture. A flock of softly multi-coloured butterflies hovers across the whole frame. They diminish in size from left to right, as they recede into the distance, flying away from the viewer. They don’t have the bodies of insects – they are all beautiful women with elaborate hairstyles, graceful arms and tiny feet. Beneath them lies the sea on which there is a sailing ship, and a small rowboat. The sun in the sky seems to be rising. In the left bottom corner of the frame is a small sketch of a cliff on the top of which are some pale biscuit-coloured Georgian buildings in England. Everything is pale, etiolated, except for the vivid butterflies. Between the buildings and the edge of the cliff, stand four tiny women wearing long blue dresses, white caps, and aprons. They seem agitated, and two are wielding brooms. There are two speech bubbles. What are they saying? ‘I’d be a butterfly’ and ‘Varmints’. Then in the opposite corner, where the ship is coming in, stands a group of little men in grey, one with a wooden leg. Castellations and soldiers with guns in the distance. On a rock in the foreground, is a fellow with a tall butterfly net, reaching up and out. In his speech bubble it says: ‘I spies mine.’ In the very far right of the foreground stands a plump priest in his white surplice and dark stole. ‘I sees a prime’un,’ says one of the men, and adds: ‘Get ready clargyman.’ And etched into the dusty brown hill behind the group are the words: ‘Van Diemen’s Land.’

So what is going on?

This lithograph is a satirical (yet strangely poignant and lyrical) record of the arrival in Van Diemen’s Land in 1832 of the Princess Royal, the first ship to bring non-convict women from England to be the wives and servants of the men in the colony. There were two hundred  women on board. There were also nine children who have never been identified by name. Nine children who have disappeared from history.

This ship with its cargo is uppermost in my thoughts right now, but I do need to return to Dr Craig for a moment, before flying on with the Princess Royalbutterfly girls.

As I read about Clifford Craig online, I had a feeling I knew one of his sons when I was at university in Hobart. I sent an email to an old friend, Michael FitzGerald, and he said he had been at school with the Craig boys. We can’t work out what has become of them since. Perhaps they have a presence, a trace, online, but I can’t locate it. However Michael recalled the fine manners of the elder one who had been Head Boy at the Launceston Church Grammar School. A group of boys, including Michael and the boy Craig, were invited to sing at Matins in the church of St Mary the Virgin in a tiny town called Hagley, outside Launceston. After the service the ladies of the parish provided a lavish morning tea. Now I must quote (with permission) from Michael’s email: ‘The choir members ignored the parishioners, rushed forward and fell on the food which they devoured before everyone’s startled eyes.’ The Head Boy, master Craig, however, had the grace and presence of mind to converse politely with the clergyman and the congregation. The others were in due course castigated by the Headmaster, Mr H. Vernon Jones. I realise I don’t need to name everyone in every narrative, but sometimes the names themselves are irresistible in their music and their weight. And it seems that not only did Dr Craig have possession of one of my favourite pictures, but he also had at least one well-mannered son, probably two.

Going back to Virginia Woolf’s Between the Actsfor just a moment, there is a comment about a Mrs Swithin being awakened in the morning by birds ‘attacking the dawn like so many choirboys attacking an iced cake’. Lovely!

Then there’s Mr H. Vernon Jones – I can’t let his name just slip by without a peep into his history. He had a fascinating sister. Several sisters, one fascinating. My two sources for information here are about as far apart as two publications could be. One is a small booklet called Keeping Up With the Jonesesby June Gee. It’s a family history of the Tasmanian Jones family. There is no publication date, but I see it cost me $6.95, so it must be quite old. In one photograph there is the date 1979 on a plaque. It was published by Mary Fisher Bookshop in Launceston who have published a number of invaluable little books on Tasmanian topics, some others of which are in my collection. The National Library was unable to pinpoint the date of publication for me. The Jones book tells a sweet and sweeping story, illustrated by intriguing black and white photographs. Maddeningly it has no page numbers – these need to be supplied by the reader. And the narrative offers tantalizing glimpses of other stories not told, such as the story of Captain Paterson who took his family on a cruise of the South Sea Islands. ‘Fijians stole his youngest son, and he was not recovered for sixteen years.’ What? But that’s all you get. More importantly, the stories that are not told – not even hinted at – are the stories of the Jones ancestors who came to Van Diemen’s Land as convicts. This information is in my second source, Bad Faithby Carmen Callil. It is possible, even probable, that the Jones family of today (2014) is proud of its convict past; but such pride is a fairly recent development in Tasmania where even official records of the dark past were deliberately destroyed, and where people worked on acquiring a form of gentility and respectability that denied many of the discomforting truths of the past.

On the Jones family tree as supplied by Carmen Callil, there are five convicts. Imagine, five! (A statistic from 1836 says that at that time seventy-five percent of the population were convicts or ex-convicts or the descendants of convicts. So you can see, quite a lot of families were mixed up in crime.) The Joneses of today are probably delighted to know of their ancestry. All that is far enough away to have become romantic. But the nine children of Henry (1864 – 1929) and Alexandrina (1871 – 1958), if indeed they had any knowledge of their transported ancestors, were respected members of Tasmanian society (a farmer, two dentists, a doctor, a headmaster) and were not about to reveal that knowledge. I am a fourth generation Tasmanian, and as far as I know there are no convicts on my family tree, but I can’t be sure. Perhaps there are one or two.

Bad Faithis the story of a French Nazi collaborator, Louis Darquier de Pellepoix (1897 – 1980) who was married to Muriel Jones (1893 – 1970), one of the sisters of H.Vernon Jones, the headmaster whose students gobbled up the goodies after Matins without a word to the ladies who had provided the repast.

Louis Darquier de Pellepoix was in fact the Commissioner for Jewish Affairs (1942 – 44) during the Vichy government, controlling a staff of over a thousand, and was responsible for sending nearly 13,000 Jews to death camps. He used the persecution of Jews to make a fortune from corruption, despoliation, looting and bribery. He was a successful conman, able to spin fantasies about himself on a grand scale in order to win the trust of others. His wife Muriel Jones was also most ready to spin great fantasies about herself. She was a skilled pianist and actor, an alcoholic, and by 1916, when she was twenty-three, she had left Tasmania for the mainland, where she married another theatrical performer, Roy Workman. They went to England. How she met Louis remains a mystery. She, who was falsely known at the time as Lady Workman-Macnaughton, married Louis, he being falsely known as Baron de Pellepoix, in 1928. As the Baron and the Baroness, after the wedding, they made a brief visit to Tasmania where they both seem to have delighted the family with their glamour. By the end of 1929 they were in New York, and the world was sliding into the great Depression. Myrtle never saw Tasmania again. She is described thus in Keeping Up with the Jonses: ‘a most accomplished musician. She married Baron Darquier de Pellepoise (sic) and lived chiefly in Paris and Madrid.’ Otherwise she is simply a name among so many in that little book.

Having realized that she was the sister of the man who reprimanded the greedy choirboys at the parish afternoon tea in Hagley, I couldn’t resist following, if ever so slightly, her history, not imagining it would take me to the wartime extermination of French Jews.

Now down to earth and back to Hagley.

Many a detail in text these days comes from the unreliable treasure trove of the internet, but it so happens that I am familiar with the church of St Mary the Virgin in Hagley, and in my library there’s a booklet about it. I confess to collecting such things, the booklet on the Joneses being part of the collection. When I went to look for the Hagley one just now I was in danger of becoming side-tracked into churches almost anywhere else – Western Australia, Alsace, Salisbury, Granada, or into such treasures as Gertrude Bugler’s Personal Recollections of Thomas Hardy, or, believe it or not, The Tasmanian Exercises in Arithmetic,a faded orange booklet, next to and resembling, FrenchSentence Tables for Schools.

The foundation stone at Hagley was laid by Sir Richard Dry (another name I treasure) in 1861. Sir Richard was born in Launceston, Tasmania in 1815. His father had been a political prisoner sent to Van Diemen’s Land in 1804 for his part in an Irish rebellion. The father was granted his freedom in 1818. Richard was one of the leaders in the Anti-Transportation League which worked to stop the transport of convicted British criminals to the island. In 1858 he was knighted by Queen Victoria, and in 1866 he became the first Tasmanian-born Premier of the state. He lived on the Quamby estate near Hagley, a property of 30,000 acres developed by his father, and he financed the building of the church. The tower and spire are dedicated to Lady Dry, who, I should say, established the National Trust in Tasmania.

You don’t need a lot of history of St Mary’s here, yet, but I can record memories of turning off the main road at Hagley and driving up a slight hill, along a narrow roadway lined with hawthorns and English trees, with bushes clipped into shapes like big buns and cakes, towards the narrow bluestone church with its tower and slender spire. You would have to call it graceful. I imagine daffodils – I don’t think I ever saw daffodils there, but my imagination is coloured by, perhaps, BBC dramas where to have a romantic church with a spire is to have a scattering of spring bulbs.

The Hagley booklet fascinates me, but I know I must resist the temptation to quote from it in detail – mind you, it’s packed with lovely glimpses of the past that you won’t find on the internet. The author of the booklet is E. G. Scott. (I once briefly dated a Scott from Hagley – possibly related to E.G. I like to think it’s a small world.) The bluestone for the building was quarried nearby, the freestone came from Kangaroo Point in the south of the island. How did they get the freestone from Kangaroo Point to Hagley in the 1860s? In carts drawn by draught horses I suppose, along raggedy roads. And ah-ha – Sir Richard’s head gardener designed the grounds – remember the shrubs like cakes – but the gardener remains nameless in the text. When Sir Richard Dry died in Hobart in 1869, a state funeral was sent from Hobart to Hagley, a distance of 210 kilometres. Pause to imagine. I had better quote from E.G. Scott. ‘For four days the procession, headed by a horse-drawn hearse, traversed the long rough road from the capital in the south, stopping on the third night in Launceston where the body was laid in state at Holy Trinity Church.’ The next day the procession travelled to Hagley, to St Mary the Virgin, where the body was buried in the presence of the Governor of Tasmania. Gosh.

I love this booklet about the Hagley church. One of its charms is the fact that everybody generally has two initials and a surname and a place of origin. Oh, and a title – they are all Mr, Mrs, unless they are Miss, in which case they get a first name. Miss Fanny Viney. There is also a Miss Home of Launceston, no Christian name. Nice surname. Such precise placing of the cast.

One time I went into the churchyard at Hagley. Very ancient plots in one corner, plots surrounded by rusty, broken iron work. But over in a newer section I found the grave of a child. Amy-Lee Josephine Stewart – her surname in very large block capitals. She died in 1973 when she was nearly two. The information was on a metal plaque attached to an upright stone. The grave was decorated with china figurines of animals – small teddy bears, cloth rabbits, and about a dozen expensive china replicas of characters from Beatrix Potter. None was stuck to the marble of the grave; it was possible to pick them up. But it was clear that they had not been disturbed for a long time. I marvelled at the fact that it was possible to leave these things on a grave under an oak tree, and trust that they would be there next week. Amy-Lee had been dead for about twenty years when I visited the grave. What, no vandals? What are graveyards coming to? I suppose you feel the approach of doom – yes – the next time I went there, a few years later, happily seeking out Jemima Puddleduck and friends, the grave was desolate, untended, abandoned, forlorn. I know I took photos on both visits, but the only ones I can find in my inadequate filing system are the ones from the second visit. I had for some reason forgotten that a good third of the plaque – greenish, probably copper – is taken up with a shallow sculpting of Little Bo Peep and her dancing (unlost) sheep. The stone is laced with florets of greeny grey lichen, the grave itself a jumble of dead leaves and, I think, straw. In a tired black plastic flowerpot lounges an eyeless ragged cloth rabbit, head tilted back, front paws crossed on his chest, one ear dangling. Beside his flowerpot, a few everlasting daisies, pink, white, yellow. Three Beatrix Potter figurines, faded and chipped, remain. Perhaps the most offensive object is an empty glass coffee jar, part filled with dirty water. None of this quite suggests vandals – just the passage of time in the churchyard, the passage of time. In small print on the headstone: ‘That which is you dwells above the mountain and roves with the wind.’ So here you have a coming together of Kahlil Gibran, Beatrix Potter and Little Bo Peep. It is difficult to analyse, yet it, among the straw and leaves and lichen, speaks of the depth and pain of grief with a peculiar eloquence.

With my true and deeper focus on the butterflies flying to Van Diemen’s Land, I find that the headstone image of Bo Peep and her flock chimes ever so faintly with the lithograph.

I have wandered, roving perhaps with the wind, off course from my contemplation of the butterfly women of 1832, they roving also with the wind. I know that frequently in this narrative I will waver, will veer off course, but I know also that I do this in the service of the narrative itself. Just a warning.