‘The lady next door needs a goanna,’ says Grace, my village neighbour. She struts into my unit, wrinkled elbows poking out of fluttery sleeves.
‘What do you care?’
If I speak in a firm voice, this will calm her. She ponders my response, then shrugs, touches my mezuza, kisses her fingertips and leaves.
Grace comes to me whenever her thoughts upset her. Many other residents do too. It’s no trouble. Today I’m a bit rushed because I’m expecting my nephew’s wife to come and interview me about Jewish Perth in the fifties. She works full time and is prone to hot flushes, so she likes to come and talk to me at 7 am on the weekend. At eighty-seven, I guess I’m ready to talk whenever anyone wants me to.
One night in ’57, I was sitting at a bar in a night spot on Wellington Street, a nice place to have chicken in a basket if you’re early, a drink if you’re late. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a flash of turquoise. The girl’s French roll made her look distinguished.
‘I’m Sam,’ I managed.
She gave me the eye. ‘You must be Jewish.’
I was taken aback. ‘What makes you say that?’
‘You didn’t try to shake hands or ask my name.’
‘Don’t worry. Nice to have some space.’
She was smart. I had to act fast. ‘What is it, then?’
Her brow smoothed. ‘April’.
April of the bright eye. April, out so late on your own. I fancy you.
I asked her to dance, lit her cigarettes and took her home. We agreed to meet again. In those days, I didn’t know much but I knew this was trouble.
The way Mount Lawley is now—an inner-city suburb with fancy restaurants, plants in recycled bathtubs, million-dollar homes—it’s all rubbish. The real Mount Lawley— a Jewish suburb on the outskirts of Perth— was a thing of beauty: all dusty verges and fragrant gums. Walking under one was like going through a wall of scent. In Forrest Street, everyone knew everyone; we kids moved in packs, played street cricket and ate the rugelach scraps we were handed, safe in the knowledge that all the neighbourhood mothers kept kosher. Heaven! A neighbour did try to get Mama and D’abba kicked out so he could buy the house we tenanted, but Mama and D’abba foiled him and bought the house for 1,000 pounds sterling. That Shabbat, we had an extra meat course and a bottle of wine to celebrate.
At fifteen, I blitzed my Junior and got into Perth Modern. That’s all forgotten now that David is the academic brother of the family. He sat his Leaving five years later and won scholarships first to Perth Modern, then to UWA, where he did very well.
I did get to be the sporty brother for a little while, until David won a place on the state cricket squad and took that title as well. Well, at least I was the firstborn— but that was cold comfort to any boy who knew his Torah: Aaron to Moses, Esau to Jacob, Menasseh to Ehpraim. David looked like Frank Sinatra – if Sinatra stood six feet tall. David was liked by kids and parents alike and oblivious to his charm. Nobody could ever bear a grudge against him, least of all me. I learned not to need cricket and it was for the best. But before David was old enough, I had played cricket so much that I failed my Leaving. Mama cried. She’d never been to school and she lived through me. I was upset by her tears and passed my Leaving the following year but Mama wasn’t as pleased as I’d hoped. A milestone, I learned, has its proper time. Missing one robs the feat of its heart.
‘Why are you not eating?’ whispered D’abba.
‘I hate borscht’.
‘But we love Mama. This food, her family ate in Lithuania,’ he said. ‘So we must eat it.’
‘Stop your muttering,’ said Mama, hands on hips. ‘My Ashkenaz food not good for you? I should make chickpeas, like the Eretz mothers? You want those beans without taste, huh?’
‘Nu, Putzlein,’ sighed D’abba. ‘We are eating. Look.’ His spoon made hypnotic, conciliatory circles in the soup.
Mama sniffed. ‘Schmuel, you should study teaching at the University.’
‘No, he should be apprenticed to a trade,’ D’abba said. ‘Teaching is much work for no money.’
‘He likes children.’
‘Yes, but he will like it better to have a house.’
‘It matters nothing. He just wants to play cricket all day long.’
That was patently untrue. David had just made the state squad. I knew that further effort on my part was pointless and had not touched the bat for weeks.
Not that they’d noticed.
One morning, I took a trolley bus then a bus to the city, to see what I could find. I found a sign saying Wesfarmers, so I walked in. I got a job doing farmers’ bookkeeping on the spot.
‘Does nothing for years on end, then gets a job for the asking,’ said Mama.
‘Maybe something will come from the shlemiel,’ said D’abba.
The shortage of accountants in Perth was such that, with a Leaving, you could get six jobs in a day.
I wasn’t going to be the one to tell them that.
Before I met April, in ’55, my friend Joe and I bought a dinged Ford F100 pickup utility with rotund hubcaps. We told our parents we were going to the Maccabi Carnival, the only legitimate reason a young unmarried Jew could ever have to mingle with the opposite sex but our plan, all along, was to live in Sydney. The utility handled beautifully on the Nullarbor: I marvelled at the smoothness of the road spanning the vast, red belly of Australia. Clearly, no councillor wanted a person dying from a pothole on their conscience.
What it was to be young! We knew no one in Sydney, yet soon had a bachelor pad and plenty of friends. The Mamma cooking at the world’s best Italian place in King’s Cross took a shine to us, poor dark-eyed boys away from their mothers. One time, she even made us schnitzel with kosher veal, determined to recreate for us the elusive taste of home. I had no heart to tell her that a goy pan makes meat lose its kashrut in the blink of an eye. We ate the delicious schnitzel and Hashem made his face to shine upon us, just as He did when we were out at the races on Saturdays instead of going to Shul. We got jobs in emerging industries: first air-conditioning, then television, going national in the following year. Young people of today talk of innovation, but they’ve never known the Australia of my youth: unimaginable things coming true. The certainty of a golden future handed out smilingly to all.
When April and I left the bar, we walked through the sweet smell of gums and the song of the night cicadas, past the dark shapes of brick-post fences overgrown with ivy. I couldn’t see the turquoise dress in the dark but I could hear it swishing across April’s stockings with each step. Our heels, hers high-pitched, mine dull, clicked on the pavement in perfect harmony. When we got to her door, she made to say something. Instead, I kissed her. Something about her had made me brave.
April, you of the silky steps. April, you of the silky lips. I fancy you.
‘I want to take you out again.’
‘Are you asking me out? Just checking, because, again, there was no question.’ Her teeth were white in the night.
‘Yes. Next Saturday evening?’
‘That’s a bit late.’
‘So is this.’
‘But isn’t next Saturday supposed to be a dinner date?’
‘I can’t go out early on Saturdays.’
And here it comes.
‘Because Shabbat doesn’t go out until eight fifteen and then I need some time to get here.’ I saw my habitual limitations through her eyes and cringed.
‘Friday night instead, then.’
I sighed. How can I explain this?
‘Can’t do Friday night either. That’s when Shabbat comes in. I eat with my family.’
‘So you can’t ever go out on a date on Friday or a Saturday night?’ I could hear the disbelief in her voice.
‘Just as well I’m not looking for a husband, then’ laughed April. ‘I had one of those before and didn’t like it.’ She paused. ‘Thursday night dinner date, then. Six-thirty.’
April, you who are right for me. You who are wrong for me. I fancy you.
In 1957, I took the Ford utility back to Perth for my sister Ruth’s wedding to a boy from a good Jewish family. I thought I’d be back in Sydney straightaway afterwards. That’s a trick that time plays on you: it makes the past seem like the present. Watch out for this: if this is how you feel about something, you’ve already lost it.
Perth Jewish weddings were big in the fifties. You couldn’t afford to leave anyone out, unless you wanted to make enemies. Ruth’s was in the Adelphi Hotel, the grandest hotel in Perth, and I remember the cost—352 pounds sterling—because they sent me to pay it, and because it was almost a third of the cost of our house. How could my parents ever afford to pay this? It turned out Ruth had been saving for her wedding from an early age. Smarter than the lot of us, she was.
‘Schmulik, will you give my speech?’ asked D’abba with tears in his eyes. ‘I’m embarrassed about my English.’
I wanted to say no. But then, I’d never had to leave my home and go live in a new land. I would never speak Hebrew, Yiddish, Turkish, Arabic or Russian, like him, but I got to grow up with native English. I was the firstborn. I did it but all I remember of my sister’s wedding is dread.
Soon after, my younger brother David graduated and became engaged to a nice Jewish girl from next door. He opened a pharmacy, then offered me a job in it. I wanted to refuse but couldn’t find a good reason. At the end of each working day, David went home to his young wife and their baby son, while I trudged back home to Mama, now widowed.
‘My firstborn is unmarried,’ Mama would say at Shule. ‘He waits for the right one. We wait for the Moshiach.’
People can’t agree when it comes to a recipe for kugel but they think they know how to make a marriage. As kids, we were taught that a parent’s blessing was the most important thing for every match. But what is a blessing, I ask you, if not a feeling? When was a feeling ever a good guide? The things one needs to decide—a clear mind and a proper guarantee—one can never have when it comes to love. Love is a punt where the stakes are always higher than you can afford. So, if you win, you tell everyone but if you lose, you hide, pay your debts and promise never to do it again.
The only hope you’ve got is that the debt won’t be too big to be repaid.
‘Is that you, Schmulik?’
I unlocked the front door. Mama was sitting in the living room in her dressing gown.
‘Who else would it be?’
‘What hour do you call this?’
‘I’m a grown man, Mama. Please go to bed.’
‘Yes, Schmulik, you are grown. But is there a law that says mothers should not wait up for their grown sons?’
‘Why are you not asleep?’
‘I should go to sleep, for you to wake me when you come in?’
She must have seen something in my eyes then.
‘What could happen?’
‘Don’t answer my question with a question, like your father, peace be upon him. You went to a bar to meet girls. So?’
‘Why do you ask?’
‘Again, a question. There is no law that says a woman cannot ask her son a simple question and get a straight answer.’
‘That wasn’t a simple question.’
‘Simple enough. Unless you met a shiksa.’
I said nothing.
‘Of course you did. And who else would you meet at this hour? No Jewish girls are out now. My firstborn, talking back to his mother and meeting shiksas. As if his father of the blessed memory and his mother had never raised him.’
‘Goodnight, Mama.’ I closed the door to my room as gently as I could. A few seconds later, Mama’s voice was behind my door.
‘Schmulik. I just want to say. It is fine to meet a shiksa and have fun. You are a grown man. But it doesn’t need talking about.’
Until I met April, I could no more imagine marrying a shiksa than putting up a Christmas tree in my living room. Sure, we’d all grown up coveting Christmas trees and Easter eggs but that’s how you learned the difference between wanting something and taking it seriously.
And yet, April would make a good wife, I was sure of it. That she wasn’t looking for a husband made it much easier to think about this. I would imagine a Friday night in our house—an automatic Jewish fantasy of married life, I suppose—and see a scene straight out of a newspaper advertisement for domestic appliances. April—her hair uncovered, her French roll resplendent, a clean apron over her turquoise dress—served apricot chicken and pineapple upside-down cake to a couple of pale-haired children. And why not? Why not, I ask you? True, no Jew had ever served these but they could be made kosher. I’d praise her. I’d eat her food. It would be simple. I’d warn her not to roll up ham and cream cheese for entrée and show her my recipe for chopped eggs with onions instead. And if the candles were not lit, the challah and the wine for the blessing not set out, what of it? I was just about to do that, when my mother came in, took one look at the table, turned on her heel and left.
So much for fantasies.
I never heard people when they told me what to do but April had a knack of helping me hear myself think. With the benefit of hindsight, I can see the part she played in my leaving my brother’s pharmacy, stumbling into taxi driving and falling in love with it at first try. For the first time, I was free: master of my time, working in blessed peace. With the flag-down system still in force, my earnings depended on driving around.
Each morning, in my windshield, I got to put together Perth’s glorious puzzle: shafts of the blue ocean, wedges of golden light, silver gum-groves, cubes of white modernist building sites just emerging in Floreat. I talked to customers just enough to keep things interesting but not long enough to get involved. I worked a lot, earned a lot, and spent what little I needed. I was happy.
April seemed happy. Just sometimes, she clung to her glass in silence, a small furrow between her brows. She never complained. I wish she had: it is easier for a man to hear a woman say what she wants and do it than to pull the right thing out of thin air.
‘Of all the Jewish mothers in the world,’ said Mama in shul, ‘that I should be the one to have a taxi-driver son.’ She nodded. ‘But he is making a living. Why to complain.’
‘Will I meet your mother soon?’ asked April, sometime in the late fifties.
‘Not yet,’ I replied.
Time played a trick on me then: because it hid from me, I didn’t see it passing.
Because April allowed me my pace, I lost it.
It is not fair that I should blame her. So I blame myself, as I let Mount Lawley wear down the soles of my shoes.
The sixties were a good time. April and I had now been going out for dinner dates on Tuesdays and Thursdays for almost ten years. Nothing much had changed, except that April had cut her hair short: I mourned the French roll but knew better than to say so. On Sundays, we walked in Hyde Park or swam at Scarborough Beach; we knew how to hide when we wanted privacy.
When the seventies rolled up, I realised that, in our respective families, April and I both ended up with the role of the unmarried sibling caring for their mother. This special bond made it easier to bear witness to our mothers’ declines. We still went out on Thursday nights, but now ate in on Tuesdays, always at April’s mother’s house. We partook of pleasant, bland dishes in which pork was scrupulously avoided, served in quantities which always struck my Jewish belly as unduly frugal. April’s mother treated me with neither familiarity nor sentimentality. While I washed dishes after dinner, she listened respectfully to whatever views I cared to air. The closest in my life I’d ever come to being the man of the house.
‘Shall I meet your mother soon?’ asked April one night in the seventies.
‘She’s not well now,’ I replied.
April had another glass of wine and smiled.
I loved her silences, always companionable and without rancour. This was the closest I had ever come to true happiness.
I didn’t notice her paddling beneath the surface until much later.
As her bones grew frailer, my mother’s faith grew stronger. These days, she thumbed her Siddur several times a day, allowing nothing but glatt kosher food to pass her lips. So scrupulous was she that even the Rabbi agreed to eat at our house. Sourcing ingredients and scheduling orders at the kosher butcher’s was time-consuming. I’d rush to the shops and cook between shifts on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays and took Sunday nights to clean, keeping my Tuesday and Thursday nights for April. Mama never asked where I was going and never broached the subject of women.
I kept the true extent of my housework secret from everyone. Mama never stopped hosting Friday night family dinners. Preparing them for my growing family—my brother David, his wife and three children, his wife’s sister and brother and his wife, my sister Ruth, her husband and four children and my mother and myself—all of that now fell to me. The problem was never the cooking: it was the planning, the shopping, the setting of the Shabbat table, the clean-up, and of course the desire for credit which always comes from drudgery. I ceded the credit to my mother. That people could ever believe a frail woman such as my mother could produce such meals is a testament to the mystery of the Jewish matriarch.
Unkind of me, I know, to feel this time was wasted. It’s the strongest mark of love to spend your time in the service of another.
That April had never visited my house, yet shared my evenings on Tuesdays and Thursdays, seemed natural. A part of my private religious calendar, with each day marked a different jewel colour.
‘What are your brother’s kids like?’ asked April one evening in the early eighties as she poured us a glass of Chardonnay.
‘Growing up fast. My nephew’s at University.’
‘How time flies.’ Were those tears in her eyes? ‘I probably couldn’t have had kids anyway.’
It is only now that I am old and April is gone, as I lie in bed at night, missing her, that I play the game of seeing her life through her eyes. Then, the tortured features of her love pop out from the dark and frighten me. I awake to see the wisp of a shadow hovering around her eyes as she picks up her bottle and shuffles to her room at the end of an evening. My heart constricts at these images of her life.
How much energy had it taken her to create a world she thought I wanted, then to survive in it? To maintain the image of herself she had created for me in the Fifties—the woman who exerts no pressure, who waits for her man to work things out with his family when he is good and ready? Every day, she lay in the bed she made, ever so lightly, and I never saw it turn into a rack.
I believed her, without realising it was she who’d given me the gift of being able to take our life together for granted, she who made it possible for me to believe in us without noticing the work she put in to craft that sense of normalcy. Like any stupid man, I took her kindness at face value, never wondering whether my truth was also hers. There seemed no need. I thought of her as my wife.
The problem was, nobody else did.
She took a deep sip. ‘Your sister Ruth came to see me yesterday.’
Her tone was so casual it took me several seconds to register this in my belly. She and my sister Ruth had never met.
‘Your mother sent her to ask me to leave you alone.’ She turned her eyes towards me.
April, you of the blue eyes. I was floundering in relief like a fat fish in a bucket on Narrows Bridge.
‘And will you?’
I should have known what to do then.
How could I not know?
By the mid-eighties, both of our mothers were gone. David and Ruth had received their shares of the sale of the Forrest Street house when they married, so everything Mama had at the time of her passing came to me. I’d supported us both, so her pension accumulated unspent for years, and was mine. I had money. I was free.
But what was freedom if it was too late to have children? Together for thirty years, April and I had never even slept under the same roof.
‘You snore,’ said April after our first night on the cruise ship. ‘Not very loudly, mind.’ She smiled.
She snored very loudly indeed and kicked me all night. I knew better than to say so. I was happy.
‘Shall we make this on Friday?’ asked April in the late eighties and pointed out the recipe for spinach dip in the bread bowl in The West Australian.
My family arrived for dinner; nobody looked directly at April. I was so happy she was finally there that I didn’t care.
Looking at her with their eyes I noticed, for the first time, that she drank more than I’d expect a woman to drink. I felt miffed. We had waited for this moment for so long—could she not have made more of it? Could we not have shown off our happiness?
At the end of the dinner, holding the bottle, April pointed a fingernail manicured pink at every face around the table in turn.
‘Now that Nanny is gone, we’ll get married and live as a happy family in this house, won’t we. Tra-la-la.’ She nodded.
I watched the looks of horror and pity rise on my young nephew’s face. Not long after, the family excused themselves politely and left to return to their uncomplicated Jewish lives. April got up and withdrew with that spectre of sadness around her eyes and left the dishes in the sink.
I stayed behind and pried the cold, smooth drips of wax from the Shabbat candles off the linen tablecloth. Try as I might, I couldn’t get out the transparent smear they left behind.
In the bedroom I found April—now an elderly woman in a padded pink robe—sleeping curled up around her knees like a child, smack in the centre of the bed. Seeing her there, in my bed, after all these years, my anger dissipated. I allowed myself a moment to feel the miracle of it.
‘Family-schmamily,’ I muttered.
We didn’t ask them over for dinner again.
At night, I realise, over and over, that that was the coward’s way out. We should have had them over every Friday from the 1950s onwards. But the Fridays slipped away. The thought stayed with me, hidden, lodged between the teeth of my thought like a fibre of beef. I worried at it at night, when the pressure made the gums of my conscience swell and fissure.
To celebrate our fortieth anniversary, in 1997, we moved in together and drank three bottles of champagne. I had two glasses.
‘Shall we cook for my family this Friday?’ I asked. ‘Perhaps enough time has passed.’
‘You can,’ said April and twirled her glass. ‘I’ll pass.’
When April developed liver disease, I cooked, cleaned and changed the sheets. I was strangely happy to finally be able to do something for her. This, too, was togetherness. This, too, was intimacy. As exquisite as any other kind.
When April died with her blue eyes open, I kissed them closed.
In the fifties, when she was young, April could have had any man she wanted. Why me?
She must have found something with me or she wouldn’t have stayed. Right?
Why had she borne my family and me?
In my mind’s eye, I shuffled the still frames of our life like a pack of cards.
Old, timeworn, smelling of skin and use, the images in my mind spilled over each other. Each one more beautiful than the next. Each a reminder of my own happiness.
But what about hers?
I got to thinking about the invisible time between each frame. The time that April had spent alone. This time now cast a shadow over the stills.
It’s possible to give your life to someone and never wonder deeply about them. To accept someone unquestioningly, yet never truly notice you hadn’t really allowed them to join in.
April had borne the yoke of hope for my sake, then she got too old to leave. That was all there was to it.
I bounced like a tennis ball between the opposing rackets of gratitude and sorrow.
My family are subdued but say nothing. I find it prudent not to speak of her either. Sometimes, after a family dinner, a younger family member picks up the framed picture from my mantelpiece and asks who that is. It would appear that it’s possible to view fifty years as an unfortunate interlude.
I meet Grace in the retirement village in the early 2010s. We are in our late seventies. It is not love—in her mind, she is once again a child whereas I am not—so she needs looking after. The power of the mutual meeting of needs should never be underestimated.
It is noon and the face of my nephew’s wife, the writer, is awash with sweat as she types my words.
Grace pokes her head in again. Still in her fluttery nightie, she looks like a wrinkly little girl with sparse hair. ‘When’s breakfast? I’m hungry.’
‘I’ll make us some lunch,’ I smile.