Read Sixty Lights Online

Authors: Gail Jones

Sixty Lights

Contents

Cover

About the Author

Dedication

Title Page

Part One

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Part Two

Chapter 21

Chapter 22

Chapter 23

Chapter 24

Chapter 25

Chapter 26

Chapter 27

Chapter 28

Chapter 29

Chapter 30

Chapter 31

Chapter 32

Chapter 33

Chapter 34

Chapter 35

Chapter 36

Chapter 37

Chapter 38

Chapter 39

Chapter 40

Part Three

Chapter 41

Chapter 42

Chapter 43

Chapter 44

Chapter 45

Chapter 46

Chapter 47

Chapter 48

Chapter 49

Chapter 50

Chapter 51

Chapter 52

Chapter 53

Chapter 54

Chapter 55

Chapter 56

Chapter 57

Chapter 58

Chapter 59

Chapter 60

Acknowledgements

Copyright

About the Author

Gail Jones teaches literature, cinema and cultural studies at the University of Western Australia. She is the author of two collections of short stories,
Fetish Lives
and
The House of Breathing
, and one previous novel,
Black Mirror
, which won the Nita B. Kibble Award.

For my brothers, Peter and Kevin Jones

Sixty Lights
Gail Jones

PART ONE
PHOTO
-
GRAPH
:
LIGHT WRITING

“There has never been a time without the photograph, without the residue and writing of light”

Eduardo Cadava

1

A VOICE IN
the dark: “Lucy?”

It was a humid-sounding whisper. She wanted this, this muffled gentleness, swathed in sheets scented and moistened by the heated conjoining of their bodies. This tropic of the bed. This condensation of herself into the folds of a marriage. The late night air was completely still. Insects struck at the mosquito net, which fell, silver and conical, like a bridal garment around them. Lucy watched a pale spotted moth sail slowly towards her face, land on the net, deposit its powder, and lift unevenly away. It was waving like a tiny baby hand in the darkness.

This is what she had seen, earlier that day: An Indian man had been climbing the bamboo scaffolding of one of the high colonial buildings, with a large mirror bound to his body by a piece of cloth. His white dhoti was flapping and his orange turban was atilt, and he hauled himself with confidence from level to precarious level – altogether a fellow who knew what he was doing – when some particular gust or alarum that carried the dimension of fate caused him to misjudge his footing and fall through the air. Because he could not release the mirror, but clutched at it as though it was a magic carpet, he landed in the midst of its utter shattering, and was speared through the chest. The quantity of blood was astounding. It
spurted everywhere. But what Lucy noticed most – when she rushed close to offer assistance along with everyone else – was that the mirror continued its shiny business: its jagged shapes still held the world it existed in, and bits and pieces of sliced India still glanced on its surface. Tiny shocked faces lined along the spear, compressed there, contained, assembled as if for a lens. She simply could not help herself: she thought of a photograph.

And only later, in deep night, did Lucy rise in distress. She found herself bolt upright, staring at the darkness, and seeing before her this man who was horribly killed. He had died quickly, she supposed, because his black eyes were fixed open and his mouth was mutely agape, but there he was, halted in time. She saw the elements only now: the shade of the tamarind tree into which he fell, the lifting of startled crows in a flapping explosion, a woman who stood with her blue sari spattered bright red, the children who hurried forward to gather fragments of mirror, Bashanti, her servant, weeping into her dupatta. The community of the accident. The gory congregation. Two men appeared with sackcloth to carry away the body in a sling. Lucy remembered stepping backwards when she realised that blood was soaking her satin-covered boots, and seeing her own miniaturised face retreat and disappear.

In bed the man beside her turned over, half-awake. His dark humped shape set the mosquito net aquiver.

“Lucy?” he enquired again.

He sounded almost loving.

She will remember this utterance of her name when she meets her own death – in a few years' time, at the age of twenty-two. It will signify the gentleness that briefly existed between them. For now, however, she senses the baby stir
within her, aroused by her night terror and her pounding pulse, and feels entirely alone. She is stranded in this anachronistic moment she can tell no-one about, this moment that greets her with the blinding flash of a burnt magnesium ribbon.

2

IN 1860 THE
eight-year-old child, Lucy Strange, and her brother Thomas, aged almost ten, were doubly orphaned. It was during one of those Australian summers when the sky was so fiery and brittle that it could barely sustain incursions of flight, so that birds, sun-struck, fell dead to the ground. Earth cracked open, flowers bleached and dropped away, household dogs, their tongues lolling, lay panting on their sides. The children returned from school to the lattice-shaded verandah of their wooden house to discover their mother, Honoria, stretched on a long wicker chair (a chair Uncle Neville would later call a “Bombay fornicator”), fanning herself and appearing as if some artist had tinted her face pink. Her belly was enormous and seemed suddenly to have arrived: the children had no recollection of it gradually growing. They dimly apprehended the fact of pregnancy – or at least as Thomas had worked it out, with cartoonish imprecision – but it did not explain why Mama, who had been so sweetly attentive, had become this rather heavy and irascible woman, almost entirely immobile, who was so self-absorbed as barely to acknowledge their existence. As they climbed the steps to the verandah she paused in her fanning, smiled a half-smile, but said nothing at all; they saw her reach for a glass of cold water which she pressed against her cheek, rolling it
distractedly, back and forth. Tiny droplets of moisture adhered to her face.

Although on this day Lucy wished to approach and speak to her mother, she found herself hesitating. Instead she tickled the belly of her sprawled-out spaniel, Ned, and wondered how long she must wait here, in this blazing afternoon, looking at her mother's swollen bare feet, and the fan that now rested against her face, obscuring it in a deckle-edged circle of flowers. This fan imprints itself on Lucy's heart, for it is from this day that her life enters the mode of melodrama, and this little partition between them, of such oriental blue, will register for ever the vast distances that love must travel.
Duck-egg blue
, she will recall as an adult.
My mother's chysanthemum fan was duck-egg blue.

Thomas called from inside and Lucy trailed away. She washed her face at the enamel basin and held it too long underwater without knowing why, her eyes open to the bubbles of her own expiration.

When at last it came, Honoria's birthing shuddered every space in the house. Mrs Minchin arrived, and later Doctor Stead, but Father must have known that even twenty midwives and doctors would not suffice. Honoria's cries were ragged and hysterical with premonitions of doom. The baby, a daughter, was born alive. It was yellow and ugly, Mrs Minchin told the children. They understood that it had been too newly formed to survive and that some vague meaty piece, part of its body, perhaps, had not broken away, but had stayed within their mother to poison and destroy her. Lucy was afraid of Mrs Minchin. She bore a purple birthmark that lay across one third of her face, so that she looked always to be moving in her own private shadow, and the girl, superstitious, took this stain as the sure sign of a more general darkening. Besides, this woman
knew such terrible things. She knew of bits of baby that might detach and go internally astray. She had carried swabs of bloody cloth from lying-in rooms to incinerators. She had held the jelly of foetuses and pressed the hands of dying women. She was a woman connected to transformations and negations of the body never quite spoken aloud. In the three days it took Honoria Strange to die, during which time the hectic blush travelled from her cheeks, down to her chest, and then to encompass her whole body, so that ice in canvas packs was applied everywhere to cool her, Lucy convinced herself that the midwife Mrs Minchin was to blame.

When news of the death came, it was Thomas, unsuperstitious, who burst into tears, and Lucy who was undisturbed and curiously composed, having already surrendered her mother to the power of the birthmarked shadow. Ned commenced a long and sorry howling. Father shut himself away in the bedroom. Then Thomas, embarrassed and at a loss, disappeared for a whole day. So Lucy was left to wander alone in the parched garden where she plucked at dried flower-heads and crumbled them between her fingers, and watched dusty light shift and fluctuate across the dead grass. She tried to trap skinks and crickets under upturned flowerpots, so she could burn them with her magnifying glass. Finding no animals or insects, she burnt holes in her smock. It satisfied her, this brief destructive concentration. She liked the smoke, the tiny flame, the appearance of a black-ringed hole – all those fiery perforations that damaged the cloth so irreparably. It was like being a criminal; Lucy felt the serious pleasure of doing something forbidden. The chickens in the pen watched her, their amber eyes stupid. Lucy ran at them and shook the wire so that she could see them scatter. She swung her magnifying glass as if it was a deadly weapon. She hated the chickens because they pecked at her knees when she fed them, and because they knew.

In the house, bereavement settled as an abstract quality of distortion. For some reason Mrs Minchin, a childless widow, had been invited to stay; her deplorable presence made Lucy rather silent and disengaged. She would not talk to this woman, nor would she look at her. Thomas also acquired an isolating intensity, devoting himself to self-enclosing regimes of study. From the Mechanics Institute he brought home books on electrics, astronomy, biology and railways. He seemed to have forgotten about his sister and his childhood, and worked away emphatically, like an over-industrious adult. As to their father: he was absent; he was unrecognisable. He did not get up each morning, as he had done for years, to catch the horse-drawn tram to the Bank of Australasia, but stayed hidden in the house, lingering in the musty bedroom in which his wife had died. Lucy caught a glimpse of him once, in a wedge of disclosure, when Mrs Minchin took him a jug of water. It was late in the afternoon and he was sitting on the edge of his bed, hunched over, hands clasped together, dressed only in brown-and-white striped pyjama bottoms. Tea-coloured light illuminated one side of his face, and with his yellow complexion and unshaven aspect he looked like one of the tramps near the hotel that her mother had warned her about. Moreover his skin had developed some kind of rash; his forearms and chest were coloured crimson. The child was scandalised. As she lay on the verandah with Ned, her face buried in his fur, she thought of the dozens of ways in which she might murder Mrs Minchin. In the periphery of her vision lay the long wicker chair on which she imagined her mother, still pregnant, intangibly returned.

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