Extract from

LEAVING GAZA

 

 

 2006

 

Israeli troops are removing Jewish settlers from the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. The ABC News shows footage of young soldiers as they invade homes and places of prayer to lead families to the buses. There is little real resistance, although men rip their shirts, women wail, and the faces of children are bewildered. Not everyone goes quietly. It was reported that a woman had set herself on fire at a police roadblock.

     The images of these poor displaced people are heartbreaking. I keep thinking how prophetic Ruth’s second novel has turned out to be. Leaving Gaza, which reflected this situation, was published several years ago. I took the book out of the library and found it a riveting read. It seemed to touch a public nerve and did very well, I hear. After nine/eleven and the Bali bombing, I suppose everyone fears that scenarios for desperate acts are a reality.

     Of course Ruth, with her own Israeli background, was very well equipped to use such a setting. She so thoroughly entered the character of the fifteen-year old Miriam that I could understand the girl’s actions and had to question my own ideas of right and wrong. Leaving Gaza was a layered story about politics and faiths, revenge and death. As I followed Miriam’s stricken manoeuvres after her eviction and separation from her family, I kept remembering that awful year when I lost my friends, Heath died and I had to sell our house.

 

 

1996

 

Chapter one

 

 

 

I saw Ruth at the funeral. At one point, when I thought she was coming over to talk to me, I turned aside to speak with one of Heath’s colleagues from the conservatorium. I didn’t see her after that. She must have slipped away. No one wanted to linger in that cutting wind. Half of the mourners were strangers to me; the Melbourne branch of Heath’s clan. When there is a death in the family, it seems the living gather in a huddle of gratitude, our respite confirmed by each piety and floral tribute. My grief refused to surface though I knew it lurked, heavy and ominous, deep in my gut. I looked numbly into the grave and shivered, thinking of the remorseless processes it signified. Fire is a cleaner end and I wished Heath had expressed a preference for cremation. The only time we spoke about it, he was quite clear that he preferred burial. He died of cancer; that slow and bitter illness.

     Helen had taken charge of the catering for the wake. An efficient daughter-in-law was suddenly a boon. I’d tried to avoid any sort of get-together but she said I must invite people, it was the done thing. Of course she was right. She was the expert on social behaviour and I thought Alex must approve of all those niceties. After all, he married her. I guessed they must have privately discussed my future, now that Heath was gone. They’d already invited me to spend a few weeks with them. Even Joe, my other son, the rolling stone, had come up with a similar offer. Alex and Joe, grown men with private lives, were strangers who flanked me at their father’s graveside. Voices were low and respectful as we muttered the Amen. It was finished. Heath was dead and my flesh and blood mothering years were behind me. My family perceived me now as needy and frail. There was no way I could possibly explain how much I wanted to be left alone.

     By consensus we turned; a little procession making for the carpark. Side by side, Alex and Helen led the way. They were a good-looking pair, Alex every inch the man about town, Helen in an outfit undoubtedly bought for the occasion. The sombre tapered skirt and fitted jacket made her seem tall and her boot heels tapped decisively. Perhaps her thoughts were busy with the co-ordination of the next stage – heating the savouries and setting out the sandwiches and cakes. Joe walked fast while Sophie, looking more joyful than a funeral warranted, clung to his arm. She met him eye to eye, her smile radiant. His little girl had grown up. It had been a year since he last breezed in. Now my granddaughter was the image of her mother; that pretty, silly young thing who’d run off and left them when Sophie was so young. Joe hadn’t missed the resemblance. He hardly seemed to know how to talk to a fifteen-year-old girl and strode in a deliberate way as if to remind us all he was merely visiting.

     Several people spoke to me solicitously or offered me a supportive arm to lean on. Was I supposed to be in a state of collapse? The scavenger painter in me knew nothing of appropriate behaviour. I was noting details of line and colour, my paparazzi eye remorselessly snapping berry reds and yellows, cast-leaf bronzes, greenish clouds suggesting hail not far away. Of course I cared that Heath was gone yet my mind was noting winter sparrows pegged along the power lines. I wanted to avoid the reality of our past, an abyss every bit as dark as that dreadful grave. As for any future … I couldn’t imagine one. I was glad Joe was going to take Sophie back to Bingara for a visit. She was delighted. Joe’s latest woman had a child of her own and was willing to accommodate his daughter. Heath and I might have raised Sophie, but she was Joe’s flesh and blood. And I needed time alone, to come to terms with everything.







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