Authors: Belinda Jeffrey
Tags: #JUV013000, #JUV014000
Belinda Jeffrey is the author of the much acclaimed novels
Brown Skin Blue
Big River, Little Fish
. Her short story âThe Hallelujah Roof' was also published in
One Book, Many Brisbanes 2007
. She has been shortlisted for the NSW Premier's Award, the Queensland Premier's Award and the Western Australian Premier's Award.
Also by Belinda Jeffrey
Brown Skin Blue
Big River, Little Fish
To those who share my family tree, especially my grandmothers; Gladys, Beryl and Judith.
To produce one long thread of silk, a weaver must never allow the silkworm to fully transform or ever emerge from the cocoon into the light.
When she was still a girl, no longer a child yet not quite a woman, my grandmother woke, one morning, to the smell of dissolving dye, bitter in her throat. She threw back her covers and ran from her bed, underneath the bedroom window, barefoot, down the passage and through the laundry where clouds of steam rose from the tub and the taste of ammonia was slivery-thick. Nausea rose in her throat. Three concrete stairs from the laundry to the backyard were ice slabs under her feet as she ran towards the outhouse at the back fence, though she fell on the ground before making it there, vomiting on the wet grass.
It was mid-winter in Sydney, the sky was a grey blanket, and the wind shook the world loose. Leaves were sucked from trees, lax roof shingles rattled like wind chimes and all along the street beside backyard compost patches and chook runs, wooden outhouse doors struggled against their latches. Against her side fence, where Jack lived, the back wheel of a bicycle spun against a twig caught in its spoke. Wind howled through the gap in his back door.
My grandmother, that girl, stood up, holding her hair back from her face, her nightgown whipping around her legs, slapping two wet spreads of fabric â from where her knees had pressed against the grass â against her skin. She shivered and wrapped her arms around herself, turning towards Jack's house before treading the path back to the laundry door. She waited a moment, wishing he would appear at the back door, or at his window, so she could explain things. If only she, herself, fully understood what was happening. Her stomach rose in her throat a second time and she swallowed it back.
There was no door on her bedroom â it was not really a bedroom â and, once inside, she opened her cupboard for her winter coat, to find only her one good dress, one jumper, two pairs of shoes and three shifts. Her coat was gone. She glanced towards the passage, wondering which of her sisters had taken it. Goosebumps rose up on her skin and she ran back to her cot, tucked the bed covers around her body like a cocoon, and closed her eyes. On the outside she could hear the sounds of the house; her sisters, Beatrice and Mavis â twins one year older than her â preparing breakfast. Her father had long gone, tramping The Hungry Mile for wharfing work. The footsteps along the passage, getting louder and pausing at her doorway, were her mother's. She said nothing to my grandmother, Pearl, but continued to the laundry, pulled up the sleeves of her cardigan to her elbows, took hold of the wooden broom and pushed my grandmother's winter coat into the dye, her muscles straining with the weight of the wool, swelling thick.
As I listened to my grandmother it was as though I was this story and it was us. I could see that red cocoon breaking through the water, I could smell the tang and see the dye swirling, pushed and sucked by invisible currents; dancing and spreading. Bleeding completely until the tub was full of red. I heard the horsehair bristles on that broom scraping the sides of the old cement tub but mostly I could sense my grandmother's fear, feel the shivers on her arms and the wet patches on her nightgown. I heard the pulse of blood in her throat as she thought about what had happened to her and what the future would bring.
I was there in some small, insignificant way, I suppose. We were there, my sister, Sally, and I. At conception, a woman possesses all the eggs she will ever have in her lifetime, losing one each month, like a broken string of beads. Unless one is saved. We would have been there, inside our grandmother, inside our mother. Each of us a tiny potential; a tiny pearl. We were, all of us, set one inside each other like Matryoshka dolls. And we are, all of us, from the one forbidden red; the river and ruin of women.
My mother says that sin is red and only Jesus can wash you white as snow if you let him into your heart and life and, unless I do, I will never be complete.
she prays for me daily.
Claim Button, fill her to overflowing with your purity that she might accept you freely so she and I can be together again.
I feel as if I am red-run through with the weight of all my sin, but I can't take all that washing white. I just can't.
My grandmother must have fallen asleep that morning when her coat was being dyed because when she woke again the house was empty. Her sisters had gone to work in the cannery, her mother to the dye-lot. It may have been the slamming of the front door that woke her, she can't be sure. But she got out of bed for a second time, to run to the outhouse. The wind had stopped, but the sky was a blanket of fog in the passing dawn. She said that the sight of it that morning was etched in her mind. Something she'd held onto all these years above so much else. Her winter coat, once beige like everyone else's, blood-red. Hanging on the clothesline in the fog, still steaming with the heat, red water dripping on to the grass.
My grandmother was made to wear her red coat as her parents drove her to the train station a few days later. She held a small leather suitcase on her knees and held back her tears. She said she remembers thinking that she'd never see Jack again because of what she'd done. A baby clutching at life inside her, my mother not yet three months grown. She was so scared of what might happen, her knuckles were white on the handles of her suitcase.
The night I ran away to find my grandmother, it was so unusually cold she had nothing else to warm my legs but that red coat she'd held onto all these years â stuffed in a box in our garage â that I had brought with me. I'd arrived with my bag, drowned from the rain like a stray kitten, on her doorstep. It only took her a moment to realise who I was and she pulled me into her arms and crushed me against her flesh. She smelled all at once of gardenias and frangipanis and coconut oil and, when she let me go, I'd left a wet imprint across the front of her. The red coat was barely across my knees, when something broke inside me and I cried and couldn't stop. I convinced myself it was the relief of being as far away from my world and all its troubles as I could get.
âAt first I kept this coat because it reminded me I was no Pearl of great worth,' my grandmother said. âBut after, well, I kept it because it reminded me that I am worth something. You'll be fine, Ruby,' she said and I cried all the harder for the sound of my name.
I fell asleep that night with Pearl's hand on my head and her soft humming beside me. âYour mother still call you Button?' she said after a while, but I was snug tight and so tired I could have slept for months.
In the next room it had already begun. The sound of a hundred thousand eggs hatching; a steady drumming. Their ravenous determination. In the light of my dreaming they were fragments of the moon turned upside down and let loose, like confetti. And I was a bride in white.
Some nights, when we were children, our mother would bring us into the kitchen to watch the moths gathering around the outside light.
Inside the house it would be dark, but outside we could see the light bulb, suspended like a small moon on a long wire, blowing about in the breeze. Our mother would stand behind Sally and me, her hands on our shoulders, and we'd watch the moths gather, following that false moon as it swung from side to side. At first I used to think it was beautiful; those moths circling and hovering, drawn to the light as if they were partners in a dance. Side to side, back and forth, mesmerised by the glow.
âEveryone needs a light in their life,' Mum would say.
And that's what I used to think when I saw those moths;
everyone needs a light.
If we had nightmares Mum used to make us stand at the window and hold out our thumb towards the moon, which was no bigger than an egg in the sky.
âClose one eye and, that way, you are almost touching the moon. Send her your troubles and, by morning, when the sun comes up, they will be gone.'
Our mother did not marry young, though she did marry quickly, she used to tell us in those rare moments when she loosened up. She and Dad married for love and love was a light and when it came you wanted to be close to it forever.
âI was a moth and your father, Brett Moon, was the light.'
In the registry office she wore a simple yellow cotton shift, lavender flowers in her hat and borrowed blue gloves from a friend. I never asked her what shoes she wore and in the only picture I've ever seen, the photographer cut them both off at the knees and it's one of those things I guess I'll just never know. It would be a comfort if my parents looked happy in that photograph. Because, to be perfectly honest, their appearance was a disappointment and I've dressed them differently in my mind a hundred times since then. In my scrapbook I designed a dozen dresses to replace the one in the photograph. But happiness isn't something you can disguise in red organza and chintz satin. Not completely.
There was only one time I ever remember Grandma Pearl, my mother's mother, coming to stay with us.
âThey are just so different,' Dad said one day after I had asked him. âYour mother likes everything done a certain way, in a certain order. She likes life to be neat and simple. Whereas Pearl is a free spirit. Your mother thinks she has no morals or regard for decent society.' I saw my father smile after saying that. âBut she was pretty amazing â a single mother in a time when it wasn't the done thing. It really affected your mother.'
It seems difficult to understand, in this day and age where there are so many unmarried mothers, that the institution of marriage was once fiercely guarded and a girl or a woman could ruin, not only her own life, but the foundation of society by whom and how and if she decided to marry.
That first night Grandma Pearl stayed with us I begged her to join us in the kitchen to watch the moths. She stood beside our mother and I stood in front, as always, only Sally wasn't beside me. I asked Mum to tell me about her being the moth and our father being her moon. Grandma Pearl laughed before the story was even told.
I turned back to glance at my mother and she had her head lowered. I felt her hand slide from my shoulder and, without saying anything, she turned and left the room. Sally, who had been standing beside the fridge, followed her and it was only Grandma Pearl and me looking at our false moon and those moths. That night it felt as if the light we all needed was slowly going out.
When we were in bed Sally whispered in the darkness, âIt's a trap.'
âThose moths just can't get away.'
I was quiet.
âI read about it in school. Moths use the light of the moon to navigate. When they see a false moon, they're disoriented and lost.'
I didn't say anything.
âOh go to sleep, then, Ruby Moon.'
When we were born, Dad insisted that he and Mum name one daughter each. Mum named Sally after her favourite childhood friend and Dad named me after his mother, Ruby, whom he'd dearly loved. She had died, some years earlier, when a Corolla skidded off the road onto the footpath where she had been standing, admiring the window front of Hastings Jewellers. Dad was never entirely happy with Sally's name, hoping Mum would have chosen her own mother's name, and their daughters would be a twin set of precious jewels. But there was too much tension between my mother and her own mother for her to ever have agreed. The dissatisfaction of our names was an evenly balanced equation, however, because Mum had never been happy with the name my father had given me, either. Though it had nothing to do with Dad's mother herself, but rather the connotations of the name. According to my mother, anything âred' was shameful. This judgment was just one of a substantial list of rules for decency and morality my mother maintained. Her job was to teach us what those opinions were and our job was to learn them.
These rules included, but were not limited to:
1. Never dressing babies in black, white, navy (or red).
2. Always wearing a petticoat under skirts.
3. Never wearing open-toed shoes with stockings.
4. Always ensuring hemlines were below the knees.
5. Never wearing an outfit with competing fabric patterns.
6. Never resting unless the house was completely clean and clear.
7. Never discussing âthat time of the month'.
8. No red lipstick.
9. Staying away from boys.
10. Marrying for life.
I don't know if there was ever a time my real name was ever used, because I only remember being called âButton'. I'd like to say there was something kind in this nickname but, I'm told, it is because I once swallowed a button. My mother discovered me in her wardrobe pulling clothes off her hangers. She found me surrounded by a mountain of her dresses and coats. I had a button in my hand that must have come free as I pulled the coat down. Apparently I heard her shout, turned my head to see her, promptly put the button in my mouth and swallowed. The doctor told her to make sure it passed through and I was teased about it from then on. Every now and then â at some family gathering â Mum or Dad (or Sally) would tell that story. I always felt ashamed, the kind of shame where you feel bad for doing something you have no control over, or even remember. I may as well have been called âsilly girl' for how that name felt. But names and judgments have a way of rubbing smooth over time, they become habitual and familiar. And you forget where they come from and what they mean. And, like a lot of things you can't change, you get used to it.
I've always pretended not to mind but the truth is Ruby sounds a whole lot less shameful to me and I'm rather fond of short skirts and outfits with competing fabric patterns â I've designed and sketched many outfits with exactly such combinations. And I happen to think that red lipstick, on the right woman, can be perfect.