Almost A Memoir - Chapter One

Kate grappled with sleeplessness, pursued by her dreams. The temperature in the bedroom was humid and oppressive, an early February night in Melbourne. Tossing the sheet aside she squinted through tired eyes to her alarm clock. In two hours she would have to be up for work. A bead of sweat traced its way across her forehead. Such endless summer nights were like torture, made doubly worse by the fact that the house had air-conditioning installed that was rarely used. A frivolous waste of money, Kate’s mother had declared, just relax – you’ll soon sleep. Not very likely.

Rising early, Kate showered, leaving her breakfast dishes symbolic of her grievance. The working day seemed to pass in one long blur, everyone too hot to be efficient. The train ride home – one sweaty clump of strangers trying patience, pushing tolerance. Front pages of newspapers heralded the coming weather to the hour. Headline: ‘3:00am cool change for Melbourne. Perth already low 20s.’ Passengers read over shoulders, under arms, taking long, yearning looks into the future. With hope the news is shared. Like on the day Diana died…

Kate remembered the buzz in the train. Much like static electricity in the air. It was an early Sunday morning and commuters were on their way to the footy. A small, blonde woman, draped in a Brisbane Lions scarf, stood next to her, scanning through the pages of the morning’s national newspapers.
“There’s nothing in the paper.” The woman mumbled to her friend. A slight English accent accompanied her creased features.
“Then it mustn’t be true. Check further back.”
“If the Princess of Wales was dead, I don’t think it would be further back. Front page more likely.”
“Excuse me,” whispered Kate, “Do you mean Diana?” The three women scuttled together amidst the rocking of the train.
“That’s what I heard, love. But I can’t find anything official.” Kate read the woman’s concerned expression with scepticism.
“But how? And where did the man who told you hear this and when?” Kate questioned. There was a sense of panic in the centre of her chest that she couldn’t rationalise.
“ I don’t know, love. Something about a car accident.”
A man in a Carlton jumper leaned into the group, “I heard she wasn’t dead, just badly injured.”
And then another, “I heard Dodi was killed, that boyfriend of hers.”

At once the carriage seemed to come alive with searching messages being passed between strangers. Kate’s head was awash with scores of conversations, all discussing Diana.
“There’s nothing in The Age.” Someone called out.
“Or the Herald-Sun.” Replied the woman in the scarf.
The train slowed to a halt about 500 meters outside Richmond station. In a surreal moment, the voices quietened and a hush fell over the carriage.
It can’t be true, Kate thought. But she had to know.
“Does anybody have a radio?” She called to the carriage occupants. There was a varied chorus of, “that’s a good idea!” and “does your CD player get the radio?” followed by the contribution of a radio Walkman by a teenage girl with dreadlocks.
“What station?” She asked, fiddling with dials and buttons.
“Try a talk back station.” Offered an elderly gentleman.
“Try 3AW, they always seem to know everyone else’s business.” The group laughed then quietened realising the enormity of the situation. Casting awkward looks at the floor, everyone waited for news from the girl. Minutes passed. Pulling the headphones from her ears, the girl stood up on her seat.
“They just said that the Princess of Wales has been in a car accident in Paris and is in a critical condition in a French hospital.” Not a word was spoken. The girl put her headphones to her ears again and listened attentively.
“Then she’s not dead?” Whispered the woman in the scarf. She was silenced when a handful of people pulled their index fingers to their pursed lips.
“Now they’re saying,” the girl paused, a sea of eyes was on her. She blushed. Taking a deep breath she proceeded with her announcement.
“Now they’re saying that there are unconfirmed rumours of her death which they are attempting at present to substantiate.” She listened again momentarily.
“That’s it.” The train started to move again. Perhaps the driver had been listening to the same news bulletin.

Something strange happened to time. Every second became fat and pregnant and lasted for an eternity. No one spoke. Everyone’s eyes divulged the same thoughts, the same emotions. Poor, poor, Diana. Not Diana. Not so young. Not so beautiful. A thickness started to form in Kate’s throat. A wave of collective emotion rolled over the occupants of the 11:30am train at Flinder’s Street station, spilling them onto the platform as the train doors opened.

Kate put her mobile phone on its charger and set her alarm clock. Taking a cold, wet face washer from the freezer, she climbed into bed, kicked the bedclothes to one side and placed the face washer across her forehead. The weather bureau had better have got it right.

The claxon boomed across the streets, lifting up the rooves of the houses and reaching into every room. God, what’s that? The girl ran to the front door. Tumbling into her mother in the corridor, she yelled in bursts that she thought it must be raid practice and that they’d forgotten.
Her hand grappled with the key in the front door-lock: fine motor skills seemed adversely affected by the wailing. Beyond, she could see the other houses in the street with their front doors locked and curtains drawn. Her feet thudded down the concrete stairs, one, two and the girl steeped out into a fine shower of mist softly raining down on the world. A delicate veil, like her grandmother’s teraline curtains; thin yet densely woven. She squinted her eyes and pulled her arm up, instinctively protective, and navigated the paving stones, so well known, like for the first time. Fat men in hazmat suits waded down the street. An elderly neighbour, Mr Forsythe, just meters from her: a space-man.
“Get inside!” his calls were muffled through the plastic. “Why aren’t you prepared for the drill?”
“What? A drill?” the girl felt heavy. About her, the veil of mist was hitting the ground and ricocheting back up, slow motion style. She felt it climbing under her shorts, invading.
“The radiation de-contamination drill! Flyers were put in everyone’s letterbox last week. Go inside!”
“Is this stuff dangerous?” she yelled against the noise of the claxon.
“No, it’s just a test. But you must go inside. The authorities are monitoring the effectiveness of the drill. Lock your doors and close your curtains.” He turned and left, waddling away into the murky middle ground.
The girl turned and peered down her street. The beautiful sunny day had vanished as if it had never been. She walked quickly but moved slowly. She must fasten the back gate, do her job. A small patchwork beagle came into view. An old dog with an stiff gate, so quiet, emerging from the mists.
“Penny…”called the girl quietly. She inclined her head slightly to the left.
“Penny…” The dog’s ears pricked up at the call and it trotted to the girl’s side.
“Penny…” she was incredulous. Just like the beagle she had had as a child, exactly… she bent to touch her: Same short-haired velvety coat, same softness. The dog’s eyes lifted to its owner – large, deep brown eyes like the colour of the leather boot it had hijacked and kept tucked away secretively under a blanket in the double garage.
“Penny? Is that you girl?” Plain as day the girl knew the dog had died. She’d been put to sleep when age and illness had become more than her human owners could bear. To be here today the dog would have to be nearly 30 years old – The mist was slowly drenching everything in sight. The hand in front of the girl’s face was barely an outline. She lovingly patted the dog and an overwhelming feeling of lightness came over her.
“Come on girl” she cooed to her dog and holding the chain for fear of losing her, the girl moved to go inside. Reaching for the back gate handle, she pushed it open and turned to lead the dog passed her into the yard. But her hand was empty – not holding a collar – not leading Penny.
“Penny!” she called into the remnants of the blue day.
“Penny!” Her eyes filled with tears and her throat closed tight. She was transported to the moment twenty years earlier when the family had returned from Sunday school to find the dog gone.

Almost A Memoir - Chapter One

Joanna Beilby

East Bentleigh, Australia

  • Artist

Artist's Description

From the novel, Almost A Memoir, by Joanna Beilby.

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