Author: Alice Khantsis
Translated by Amanda Love Darragh
The house had been a hive of activity since early morning. Not a harmoniously productive beehive, however, but the kind that has been prodded with a stick, sending its inhabitants into confusion and chaos. Mrs Fawcett was bustling about, issuing contradictory orders to the servants, holding her smelling salts to her nose and clutching her chest. Her husband was in a state of extreme irritation due to this breach of domestic order, usually the necessary prerequisite for his own peace of mind, and was cursing everything around him. The younger children were unable to sit still. They kept looking out of the window, to see whether the horse was ready, and noisily discussing all the ships they knew of that had been wrecked in the Bass Strait. Only Delia, the involuntary initiator of this commotion, endeavoured not to succumb to the general madness. Quietly humming to herself, she wandered from room to room, saying her goodbyes. She touched the rough, patterned cloth that covered the walls. She kept returning to her chest of drawers and looking inside it, as though she wanted to be absolutely sure that she hadn’t forgotten anything. It felt so strange. Was this big, cold house really about to become a part of her history? So many times it had frightened Delia with its dark corners, which had on subsequent occasions provided refuge from even more terrible things. So many voices had been swallowed up by this cumbersome furniture; even the most desperate cries disappeared without an echo. So many things had been witnessed by these mirrors in their heavy, wide frames. The house had held her tight, watched over her like a vigilant chaperone. And now it was letting her go.
The top left-hand drawer of the bureau in her bedroom stuck when she pulled it towards her, as it usually did. This was where her most valuable possession had been kept until that very morning. A thick exercise book with a dark blue leather cover, right at the bottom of the drawer. On top of it lay a pile of pale grey notepaper, covered with small, neat handwriting. For ten years – half her lifetime – her sister had existed only in these letters. Reserved and formal in the impassive accounts of her studies, and subsequently family affairs, she softened and came to life in the short notes she addressed to Delia: There was a hurricane here! A number of the windows were knocked out at school and everyone was frightened, but I thought of that storm when you and I ran in the field. I wish you were here, my dear Delia. May God keep you safe. Always your loving sister, Agatha. The sincerity of the affection made her heart ache. Words could have such a profound effect! They could be so warm, so comforting, yet there were never enough of them. Her sister’s letters were the only source of such words, and when she came to stay for the school holidays even this source dried up. Hand gestures are not the same as words, and Agatha had never learned to speak. This was what angered their father more than anything: all the money he’d given to that school, and they still hadn’t managed to turn her into a normal person! Others learned to speak and to lip-read, and then they were able to live almost like other people. Delia wanted to object, to argue that her sister had found her happiness at that school. She’d gone to live in the capital, found a husband. But their father seemed unable to forgive her for this imperfection, for being deaf.
‘Everything’s ready!’ called a voice.
‘Come on then!’ cried Mrs Fawcett. ‘For heavens’ sake, why is it taking so long?’
There were footsteps in the corridor, followed by the sound of doors slamming. Delia picked up her travelling bag and began to make her way downstairs.
‘When is this hullaballoo ever going to end? Is she leaving today or not?’ exclaimed her father from behind the half-closed door of his study.
‘She’ froze on the stairs. She wanted to curl up into a ball, to disappear, anything that would make her less of a burden to others. A solitary tree, attracting all the lightning.
‘What’s the matter, have you forgotten something?’ fussed Mrs Fawcett.
‘No, nothing,’ replied Delia, trying to compose herself. ‘Please, there’s no need to worry. I won’t be late.’
They said their farewells outside, by the gates, where her belongings had already been loaded onto the waiting cart. Delia embraced her brother and sister. Suddenly subdued, they bore these caresses patiently instead of fleeing as they usually did. Shaking her head, Miss Schultz repeated anxiously, ‘My! How grown up you are. Travelling alone, and such a long way!’
Mrs Fawcett scraped her dry lips across Delia’s cheek and said in an urgent whisper, ‘Make sure you don’t speak to anyone on the way, do you hear?’ Her father frowned and averted his eyes, ashamed of his acute and untimely anger. He was perhaps also ashamed of himself for not accompanying her to the port and, sensing this, Delia tried her best to reassure him.
The boy took his place up on the coachbox and clicked his tongue, and the horse reluctantly set off. It was turning out to be a warm, clear day: the austere, unwelcoming island was preparing to see Delia off in uncharacteristically munificent style. It was harder than she had expected, leaving the place where she had been born and lived so many years. But she was going to the mainland, to the capital! There would be so much to see and do… It took her breath away just to think about it all. Most importantly, Agatha would be there. Silent and beautiful, with her big doe eyes. Had she changed since their last meeting? Delia had been just sixteen at the time, and her sister had left the family home three years earlier.
The grey stone house with its tall English windows was already hidden from view, but for some reason she could still feel its oppressive atmosphere. She was anxious about this sudden break with her former life and at the same time acutely aware of how long she might have had to stay in that house had it not been for the letter that had arrived three days before New Year. The letter with a black border around the envelope.
Although Delia was barely acquainted with Mr Clifford, Agatha’s husband, the news of his death had affected her deeply. He was an unassuming man of modest stature, around forty years old, and he clearly adored his wife. The tenderness with which he held the umbrella over her as they stood in the pouring rain in the courtyard of St John’s Church on their wedding day had warmed Delia’s heart and made her want to know how it would feel to have someone look at her like that.
But now Mr Clifford lay in the ground, and never again would anyone’s face flush with pleasure beneath his loving gaze.
The air shuddered with the sound of a deep, bass horn.
‘Would you look at that,’ the boy drawled rapturously, shading his eyes with his hand. An enormous steam ship with dark green sides and red funnels stood at Alexandra Wharf. It was an arresting sight. ‘You’re lucky to be sailing in her, Miss Delia! I swear she’s the fastest steamer ever made!’
He almost dropped the reins. Sensing the slack, the horse slowed to a lazy walk.
‘We’ll be late, Peter,’ worried Delia.
‘No we won’t, miss,’ replied the boy, flogging the horse with his whip. ‘But what a ship, eh? She must go twenty knots, at least!’
A bright sign hung above the mooring, inscribed vividly with the words ‘Turbine Steamer Loongana, Melbourne & Launceston Express’. Clouds of smoke belched from the tall funnels, obscuring the surrounding hills. Stevedores were shouting and metal cartwheels rang out as they were pushed to and fro, laden with bundles and boxes. The steam ship bellowed again and, two octaves higher, an elderly lady dressed in lilac called to someone, using her hands as a loud-hailer.
‘Write as soon as you get there, do you hear?’
The little poodle at her feet was whining beseechingly at its owner. Delia smiled at the dog and it watched her as she walked past, its dark eyes full of tears.
Her father had decided that second class would be good enough for her, but she had no cause for complaint: the cabin was clean and comfortable. Ahead of her lay the prospect of an entire night in the middle of the stormy sea, surrounded by strangers. It was all such a novelty! Delia went out onto the deck and rested her elbows on the railing. She looked out at the hills on the horizon, the fields and pastures, the rows of brown roofs in the distance and the dense green vegetation that lined the banks of the Tamar River. From the height of the Loongana the town looked serene, as though nothing ever happened there: no grand parades, no furious storms (there was the field she and Agatha had run in), none of the misfortunes that she used to try and drown in the big fountain on Prince’s Square. If you stood close enough to feel the spray on your face, the babbling sound of the water would fill your entire head from within like little pearls, leaving no room for sorrow. And if you were take off your gloves and dip your hand in the water… But the vigilant Miss Schultz was ready to leave, hurrying you home to drink tea. Day after day, those dreary afternoon teas with little sandwiches and hard-boiled eggs were always the same. Mrs Fawcett never came down to join them, preferring to spend this time in bed; meanwhile the younger children would sit there whispering to one another, giggling and throwing crumbs on the floor, knowing perfectly well that this would infuriate Miss Schultz.
The steam ship emitted yet another black cloud and began to move, its glossy whale’s side pushing off heavily from the mooring. Those who were staying waved to those who were leaving – some gaily, others struggling to hide their emotions. One of the passengers, a red-haired girl with blue ribbons on her hat, leaned over the railing next to Delia and blew a jaunty kiss to someone on the jetty. Dimples appeared in her soft, rosy cheeks as she laughed. She was so lucky!
Bathed in the gentle early evening light, the town soon disappeared from view but Delia remained on deck, still unable to truly believe that she was leaving. Her travelling experience to date had been limited to family picnics along the coast and rare visits to her aunt in Hobart. ‘My! How grown up you are,’ Miss Schultz had said. Ah, if only! She had never felt grown up, independent, confident in her decisions and actions – not like her sister. Now, at this moment of separation from her past, she yearned for her constant, unfailing source of support.
Delia returned to her cabin and took the cherished notebook out of her travelling bag. Every time she opened it her heart beat a little faster, as though the words had been formed by the beloved hand itself. Sadly the original was locked in her father’s desk, so she had to settle for the sight of her own handwriting. But did it really matter who held the pen, when the poems themselves were so beautiful?
‘An unworthy craft sails upon the sea,’ she began in a whisper. Within these pages she could always find the right words for any situation. It was her Book of Hours, her Book of Songs. A fragment of civilisation still waiting for an archaeologist and an inexhaustible source of strength for her, the younger sister of a great man.
She still wasn’t there. Where was she? The sun was so hot it was starting to burn, and the air was full of the stench of rotten waste from the fish market. Porters were hauling boxes and suitcases and passengers kept descending the gangplank, but Delia was not among them. Finally her sister appeared, looking a little confused as she searched the crowd with her eyes. She was dressed in a dark blue travelling suit, with a little hat on her neatly arranged hair. She looked slightly older, perhaps, but her figure was still just as slender. Agatha wondered anxiously whether she would remember their language. She would have to show her everything, teach her again… However would they find the time?
Then Delia saw her! She waved joyfully and smiled, her expression almost childlike, the way it used to be. She almost ran down the gangplank, and the two sisters embraced. The sea of people continued to flow around them but they stood still, pressed against one another as though they feared that they would be parted once more.
Travelling by tram with Delia’s luggage – two suitcases, a travelling bag and two hat boxes – would have been impossible, so they chose to travel by box wagon. It might have been more expensive, but at least they could share their news without being overlooked.
She kept her widow’s veil up, so that her sister could see her face. It was unbearable, being confined to that suffocating darkness behind the crêpe when your face and hands were your only means of expressing yourself. She handed the driver a piece of paper with her address written on it and waited while he loaded Delia’s things into the wagon, then settled back on the seat. Delia sat down opposite her, peering with curiosity through the open back of the wagon. This was understandable, of course — it was her first time in a big city. A big, bustling city, full of temptations, where it was so easy to lose yourself if you were young and naïve. She would have to keep a close eye on her sister. Indeed, Delia was already looking this way and that, trying to take in everything at once. Suddenly she frowned, as though in pain.
What’s the matter?
There’s too much noise.
She hadn’t forgotten the language! At least, she remembered something. But what was she saying?
What kind of noise?
Trains, cars, trams. Boys shouting.
What are they shouting?
Delia paused as she cast her mind back, before moving her fingers.
They’re shouting, ‘Explosion in Fort Nepean! Thirteen casualties!’ It’s the newspaper sellers.
Nothing out of the ordinary, thought Agatha. They turned into Swanston Street and passed the station, which they had finally finished building, and the bridge where the flower-selling boys gathered. On one side of the road was a strip of green parkland, which used to be home to the Prince’s Court amusement park. In those days daring youths would ride the water chute, raising clouds of spray, while she and her husband sat in the tea house in the Japanese garden drinking hot chocolate. That was before Tavi had been born. How was Tavi behaving herself? She wasn’t proving too tiresome for their neighbour, was she? It was a blessing to know people who were happy to look after her daughter.
The stifling heat, the motion of the carriage and the stench from the street were beginning to make her feel rather unwell, but she suppressed her discomfort and smiled reassuringly at Delia. Her sister also looked weary. The sea would have been rough, and she must have had trouble sleeping. How many nocturnal journeys had she herself made when she was at school? Once a year at the start of the school holidays and then back again, about a dozen times in all. When the time came to board the steam ship in Melbourne she could never decide whether she should feel happy or upset. She loved her school: lessons in the bright, spacious classroom, drawing from nature in the school yard and gymnastics, for which they had to wear long tunics and bloomers. And of course the wonderful picnics along the coast – the smell of saltwater and seaweed, the blinding path of the sun on the calm water of the bay.
The best thing about school was that everyone understood you and you could understand most of them too. Most, though not all of them. Lipreading was difficult, particularly if the person talking had a moustache. Moustaches were like a form of torture. You felt so terribly helpless; there was nothing worse. Articulation exercises were another challenge. The teacher would take your hand and press your fingers to her throat as she pronounced various sounds. Her throat would vibrate in different places, or suddenly open up or contract. It was fascinating. When you tried to make your own throat work the same way, it wouldn’t do what it was supposed to. The teacher would frown and shake her head: you had to make an effort if you wanted to be anything other than an inarticulate outsider, incapable of buying bread from a stall.
This humiliating role – feeling like a stranger in her own land – upset Agatha even more than being called an ‘invalid’ or ‘disabled’. Incredulous, she tried to apply these words to herself: how could it be so? She had arms and legs, she could do anything! She could cook and clean, not to mention her writing skills. How would her life be improved by the ability to hear? It might be useful to know what the person behind you was doing, or to hear someone calling you from a distance. But the very idea of hearing seemed like a miracle, a trick, like the ability to converse with animals or levitation: it would be nice to have such talents but you could easily live without them, without feeling in any way deprived.
No, school was good: when she was there, she felt equal to others. Whereas at home… Delia was the only one who loved her, or so it seemed. She had even learned sign language so that she could be closer to her. The others felt sorry for her, tolerated her, avoided her. Their expressions spoke of many things, with the exception of love.
It hadn’t always been so. She could still recall a time when the silhouette of her mother’s figure, wearing a dress with a bustle, had glided about the house. Agatha could recall her soft, plump arms and her radiant eyes, the colour of chestnut shells. Then one day they carried her mother from the house, as motionless as a wax figure; they carried the baby out too, lying like a doll amongst flowers and ribbons. Then it was only the four of them, and for the first time Agatha felt alone, forgotten. Her father had only ever loved Adrian. He reserved all his attention, his admiration, for him alone. Because he was the first-born; because he was a boy.
Things became even worse when the new woman arrived. She had dark skin, a small moustache under her nose and a capricious, fat-lipped son. Strange smells filled the house; the light blue curtains in the dining room were replaced with dark burgundy curtains, which always seemed to be dusty, and it was all so unbearable that she felt like cutting the heavy fabric with scissors. In doing so she cut herself off from her new family, having being labelled an evil, spoilt, ungrateful little girl.
The driver turned off the avenue a couple of blocks before her school, and they drove past the hospital, past the market. She had walked up and down these streets so many times, she knew them like the back of her hand.
Is it much further? asked Delia.
No, we’re almost there.
She liked the house that she and her husband had been lucky enough to find: a brick cottage with a front garden, on a quiet street near the park. It might have been small but at least it was private, not like those terraces with neighbours on the other side of the walls. On fine days she would take Tavi for a walk in the Victoria Gardens. It was nice there – lots of flowers, fountains, white sculptures along the paths. They probably wouldn’t be going there any more, though. The new house that she’d found yesterday was not too far away, in Windsor, but they would no longer be within walking distance of the park.
As soon as they had unloaded Delia’s luggage Agatha collected her daughter from the neighbour and then busied herself in the kitchen, preparing a simple lunch. She put the kettle on for tea, sliced hard-boiled eggs and beetroot for sandwiches and fetched a glass jar full of biscuits. Every little thing reminded her of the death of her husband, in the same way that a hurricane leaves a trail of trees ripped up by the roots, which subsequently serve as a reminder of the terrible event, no matter how calm the weather. The biscuits in the glass jar, for example – these days she bought only biscuits that had been broken on their way from the factory, because broken biscuits were cheaper. Every time she noticed these little things, she was overcome with helplessness. If a husband loses his wife he might consider himself unfortunate, but he does not face the threat of poverty. What could she do? Pawn her valuables? The neighbour knew where she could get a good price for them, somewhere in the City.
The floor shook slightly under her feet, and she turned round.
Can I do anything to help? asked Delia. From the sincerity of the question and the fact that her sister hadn’t forgotten how to attract her attention when she was behind her, Agatha felt her spirits lift. Together they laid the tablecloth and set out plates and teacups. Tavi sat on the sofa holding a doll, having already been fed by the neighbour (thank God for her kindness).
How are things at home? asked Agatha, once they had both sat down.
The same as usual.
She nodded. Of course. What could possibly have changed in a house that was sealed tight like a tin can? Except for Henry setting sail from Tasmanian shores the previous year, which Delia had written about in a letter, unable to hide her relief. Stepbrothers can be even worse than stepmothers. She herself was able to stand up to him, being almost the same age, but her timid little sister was incapable of defending herself. Even now her light hazel eyes bore a modest and almost guilty expression, and her movements were awkward. It would be difficult for her to find a husband. But all the same, this new life should stand her in good stead.
Father sent some money, said Delia. A little.
Agatha laughed softly. So he was feeling guilty after all, for not coming to the funeral. Otherwise why such generosity out of the blue? Claiming to be busy, he had condemned her to shameful solitude by the grave. The teachers, her fellow students, everyone at the cemetery had seen the way she had been abandoned in her grief. Could any amount of money make up for the humiliation she had felt?
It didn’t matter, though. Self-pity is a sign of weakness.
Did you bring mourning clothes?
One dress. It’s silk.
They would have to dye an old one, thought Agatha, planning ahead. She couldn’t afford to buy new clothes. Never mind, she had enough old dresses to last her sister for a few months.
After tea, they immediately set about their respective tasks. Agatha had allocated to her sister the room previously occupied by the maid. It was only temporary, she explained, as they would be moving house the following week. While Delia unpacked her suitcases, Agatha washed the dishes. Then she sent Tavi to play in her room and went into Mr Clifford’s bedroom.
It wasn’t the first time she had attempted to pack up his things, but somehow she still hadn’t managed to complete the task. His room, like his life, was governed by order, and she was reluctant to violate it. His unaffected simplicity, his accuracy, the way he was true to himself and loyal to others – these were all qualities that Agatha had admired in her husband. People like him could be trusted. People like him, honest toilers, were the ones who made the world go round. Now, looking back at her short marriage, she saw it as the embodiment of the perfect union, where there was simply no room for arguments or passions of any kind. Drawing her away to a quiet corner on the eve of her wedding, Delia had asked, Do you love him? Agatha hadn’t known how to reply. But hadn’t their six years together been happy? Weren’t respect and understanding worth as much as love?
Agatha ran her finger along the surface of the desk, checking for dust. She picked up the round glass paperweight with the butterfly inside. She moved the notebook he used to make notes for his lessons. She would pack everything away in boxes, and then nothing would remain of Mr Clifford, of his attention to detail, of his precision and his readiness to be of service. It would stay like that in their new house, all boxed up, because by laying it out again she would simply be fooling herself and others. Creating a museum, a shrine, in the insane hope that it would somehow bring him back to life. She knew this more than anyone. Even now she felt a chill down her spine when she thought of her father’s house, where the same face watched you from the walls of every room. She wondered whether they still set an extra place for dinner, like they used to. Every day for two whole years, right up until her wedding, she had felt the same deep, superstitious fear whenever she saw the empty frock-coat sitting at the table in the dining room. It was simply hanging on the back of the chair, of course, but to her sixteen-year-old self it had looked like a ghost. In the flickering candlelight it had looked like a scene from one of the Gothic novels that she read with the other girls in the evenings in the school dormitory, huddled under a blanket with their heads together. Yes, once upon a time she had been impressionable too, like Delia. It passes as you grow older.
Now she would gather everything up: the pens and notebooks, razors and cuff-links, business cards and monogrammed handkerchiefs. She would gather it all and hide it away so that she never had to see it again.
He emerged from beneath the great glass arch at the front of the station and raised his hand to his face, as usual; the sun was shining directly into his eyes. At the bottom of the steps the intersection was seething. This was the busiest intersection in the whole of Australia, if you were to believe the newspaper sellers. Cars, trams, wagons, dray carts loaded with sacks and barrels – all moving continuously, flowing round both sides of the sandstone cathedral. No sooner did a gap appear than it was instantly filled with pedestrians. Even if you had been lulled into a torpor by the motion of your train, this view alone was enough to jolt you awake like a cup of strong tea. What a fine morning, thought Geoffrey, as he bought a copy of The Age from one of the twin boys who stood on opposite sides of the staircase like a pair of marble lions. The air still bore the traces of its Sunday purity, although the chimneys along the left bank of the river were already belching out smoke. It was a good time: Monday morning, clear and warm, before the stifling heat of the day.
As he crossed the street together with the hurrying crowd, he deliberated over his choice of route. Perhaps today he would walk straight on, towards the high-rise trading blocks whose verandas jutted out over the pavement, turning away from the fashionable promenade of Collins Street just before the Town Hall. Here shop windows gave way to plane trees and the street climbed gently and sedately towards the Treasury, glinting here and there with the copper plaques of dental consultants. Two churches on the corner marked the next turn: the Scots Church, thin and pointed like a newly sharpened pencil, and the Congregational Church, which looked like an elegant fire tower. From there it was just a stone’s throw to their own corner, which had become such a familiar sight over the thirty or so years they had been trading there that everyone referred to it as Vairs’ Corner.
Approaching it from Russell Street, as Geoffrey did now, you couldn’t help but be struck by the incongruous presence of a three-storey, French-style house with arched windows on such a calm, unprepossessing street. Who would ever have thought of opening a jewellery shop here? The trade had been represented predominantly on Collins and Little Bourke for as long as anyone could remember – which, for Melbourne, wasn’t actually all that long. This incongruity had never troubled his father and Geoffrey had grown used to it too, though it still grated on him whenever his attention was drawn to the clashing architectural styles. He still didn’t know for sure whether it had been a deliberate strategy of his father’s or a folly that had become a success by chance. His father liked to say that the Collins Street jewellers were frequented by rich women and actresses, who might have a fancy for diamonds one day and cars the next. But Bourke Street attracted people of all backgrounds, rich and poor. They drank beer, they liked to enjoy themselves, and if they were feeling particularly indulgent they would call into a jewellery shop on the spur of the moment to buy an inexpensive ring for their wife. Since a women’s restroom had opened on the same corner, the number of visitors had gone through the roof. Had his father foreseen this way back in 1877?
The stocky figure of the manager was briefly visible in one of the first floor windows. He always arrived earlier than the others, along with the assistant salesman. Strictly speaking, Geoffrey didn’t need to be there so early. He could absent himself at any point during the working day if he had personal affairs to attend to. But today was the last Monday of the month, the day they changed the window display.
‘Hello, Freddy,’ he called, greeting his assistant as he entered the shop.
‘Good morning, sir.’
They rarely had any customers at this hour. The mosaic floor shone spotlessly; equally pristine were the tall glass cabinets where the necklaces and rings were displayed, resplendent on their beds of black velvet. Geoffrey left his hat and cane in the little cloakroom and set to work on the window, which he never entrusted to anyone else.
He usually began planning it in advance, varying his route when he went out for lunch on Friday in order to look at the other window displays. He sought inspiration amongst the smartly dressed crowd, imagining various options, but when he arrived at work on Monday morning he never knew how it would turn out. It was always a matter of improvisation.
Bright pink, transparent tourmaline, set in a ring of white gold. A few pearls. Moonstone set in silver. An amethyst would look perfect just there, but that would never do because it was the sunniest corner of the whole intersection. A pale blue sapphire, then. And opals, of course – to hell with the Queen and her superstitions! Luxurious black opals, their raspberry brilliance perfectly complementing the tourmaline. And a scattering of white opals. There was no need for diamonds or gold: far better to attract attention more subtly, to let the eye be drawn first by the play of colours and only then to notice the shapes and forms. What had been selling well over the last couple of weeks? The pieces designed by Vanessa, of course. This brooch, for example, and that necklace.
He went outside to gauge the overall effect and was happy with what he saw. Naturally! Their window displays always stood out from the others, which were indistinguishable from one another. Even the shop itself – which was designed in the French style, with an abundance of mirrors and velvet door curtains – attracted those with a penchant for the elegance of the Vieux Monde.
Now he could go upstairs to the workshops. The working day had already begun: the telephone was ringing in the post room, and the air was thick with the high-pitched whine of the burnishing machines and the smell of hot solder. The sound of heavy footsteps on the stairs was followed by the appearance of the master smelter.
‘Hello,’ said Geoffrey. ‘I was just coming to see you. Vanessa won’t be coming in today, or tomorrow for that matter, so there’s no need to light her furnace.’
The master smelter was a tall man, perhaps even taller than Geoffrey himself, with long arms like a gorilla. The corners of his mouth twitched involuntarily, and the expression on his face clearly indicated that he felt Geoffrey could have informed him of this earlier. Nevertheless, he said nothing.
Now Geoffrey had to pass the same message on to the shop manager. He found him in one of the storerooms on the second floor, where he was weighing a sheet of gold for the chaser. She was patiently waiting a little way away, her pretty head with its waves of curls tilted on one side.
‘She’s not coming in?’ the manager repeated anxiously, once the chaser had taken the gold and left the room. ‘Is she unwell?’
‘It’s nothing serious. She’s gone to Daylesford with our aunt, to take the waters. That’s all.’
Once he had finished his morning business he went back down to the shop. A customer had come in, and Freddy was showing him some inexpensive rings. He might have looked like a simple country fellow but he knew the business well, so there was no need for Geoffrey to get involved. Before he had the chance to grow bored, the little bell over the door jingled and two women came in. One of them, quite young but quite plain, was wearing an old-fashioned black dress with puff sleeves, which gave her a drab and hopelessly provincial air. To his considerable astonishment, the other wore full mourning dress, which was elegant and evidently well made. Geoffrey greeted them both courteously, though with greater reserve than he usually addressed his female customers.
‘Good morning,’ answered the girl with the puff sleeves. Her companion remained silent, merely raising her heavy crêpe veil. Two tiger’s eyes – large and light brown, with an incredible moiré gleam – looked directly at him and then at the ground, as though someone had lowered the blinds. She must have been no more than twenty-five years old, and she was the image of a theatrical diva from a postcard. That neat little bow-shaped mouth. The way her dark brows formed a bold flourish against the background of her matt white forehead. A perfect composition.
‘How may I be of service?’ asked Geoffrey.
‘We would like to pawn a brooch,’ said the younger woman.
He reacted with the requisite degree of astonishment.
‘I am obliged to remind you that this is a jewellery shop, madam. Perhaps you would like me to direct you to a pawn shop?’
Her plain face took on an expression of alarm.
‘I’m sorry, we heard–’
‘From whom?’ Geoffrey asked softly, taking care not to frighten her off completely. Satisfied with the name she gave, he nodded.
‘I can examine it to determine its value. If I like it, I’ll take it. I usually pay more than the pawn shops, but the redemption period is shorter. It’s for you to decide.’
The beauty in mourning remained silent, as though the proceedings did not concern her at all. The girl with the puff sleeves took a case from her bag, which contained an enormous gold brooch. It was composed of a pair of intersecting spades set in a ribbon frame, which bore the inscription ‘Cooee’. Only the Federation coat of arms could rival it for banality, but in combination with the pair of magnificent tiger’s eyes this trinket was worth taking.
Geoffrey examined the brooch, weighed it and named his price. The younger woman turned to her companion and made several rapid gestures with her hands.
Damn! For the first time in his life, he’d been duped by a fake. This beautiful woman was a deaf mute! Was there anything in the world more absurd? It was monstrously absurd. Unnatural, even. However, it was too late to retract his offer.
She clenched her fists, leaving her thumbs sticking up, and brought them together abruptly so that her knuckles met.
‘We agree,’ said the younger woman.
Geoffrey wrote a cheque and held it out to them. The older woman took it and nodded her thanks.
‘Don’t forget,’ he warned them. ‘Three weeks.’
When the door closed behind them, he returned the brooch to its case and took it to the safe where the pawned items were kept. Whistling, he returned to the counter. ‘Well, did he buy anything?’ he asked.
‘Yes, sir,’ answered his assistant, glowing with pride. ‘He wanted something cheaper to begin with, but I talked him into a topaz ring.’
‘Excellent, Freddy, excellent!’
The day flowed on, following its own meandering course. The shop was increasingly busy with customers – mainly housewives who had come to shop at the Eastern Market, the proximity of which was beneficial to their business, despite its questionable reputation. Then came the tourists, dutifully buying inexpensive souvenirs featuring patriotic symbols. But no matter how busy he was, Geoffrey couldn’t stop thinking about the deaf beauty. She would come back, he told himself, feeling a flutter of excitement in his chest. The deep mourning meant that she must be a widow, pawning simple family heirlooms and anxious to make sure she got the best price for them. A widow, and deaf into the bargain… She was unlikely to have any independent source of income and she certainly wasn’t a servant, judging by her clothes. Of course she would come back.
It was already past midday when an unfamiliar middle-aged gentleman edged his way into the shop. He approached the counter rather self-consciously and peered around.
‘I’d like to see Mr Vair,’ he said.
‘At your service,’ replied Geoffrey.
‘Oh, sorry. I’m looking for…’
‘My father, perhaps?’
The man nodded with relief. Like a trapped hare, Geoffrey thought with disdain.
‘I’m afraid he’s away at the moment. Would you like to leave a message?’
Flustered, the visitor dug his hand into the pocket of his waistcoat and brought out a small object wrapped in a handkerchief, which he placed on the counter. It was a man’s watch, with a decorated gold body. Judging by the thickness of the chain and the quality of the gold it had been made locally. It wasn’t brand new, though its exact age was difficult to determine; it might have been ten years old, or fifty. But no more.
‘Give this to him… He’ll know what it is.’
‘Yes, and… Could you tell me the way to the Tourist Bureau?’
‘Certainly. Keep going until you reach the first main intersection, turn right and head down to the Town Hall, then cross the road. You can’t miss it.’
After seeing the man out of the shop with a certain relief (there was an oppressive air about him, which was at odds with his own mood), Geoffrey put on his hat and went outside. The summer day was at its peak, and loaded trams rolled past one after the other. He thought about his sister. What was the weather like in Daylesford? Pleasant and mild, no doubt: perfect holiday weather. He crossed the street and slowed down as he approached the white facade of the Parer’s Crystal Café. Vanessa liked to come here for lunch because it was near the shop, so she didn’t waste any time. But he didn’t have to eat here today. There were plenty of good places with the right atmosphere (he might have called it Parisian, if he’d ever been to Paris) to choose from. Or he could simply go for a walk – why not? He could go to The Block, where society women came to stroll and surreptitiously look one another up and down. Visitors from London might turn their noses up and accuse the locals of lacking taste, but this was just their way of trying to put the upstarts in their place. None of them liked to think that such a place might exist in the backwoods of the Empire, that an assemblage of wooden shacks could have grown into what it was today: Marvellous Melbourne, Queen City of the South. The luxurious buildings, the French-style avenues – which other city in the Federation could boast of such things? What did Sydney have to offer? All they could do was dash off envious lampoons in their Bulletin.
Light-footed Mercury hovered above the editorial offices of The Age, a metaphor for Melbourne: young, modern and full of energy. Glancing into a shop window as he walked past, Geoffrey winked at his own reflection.
This city, so cleverly laid out by Hoddle and stitched together with no expense spared, suited him down to the ground.
 Tiger’s eye – a semi-precious stone; a variety of quartz