Chapter 1

2013-4 Revn

© Ramesh Nair

 

BURNING BUSH

 

 

                            1.    THE PORTRAIT OF A LADY

 

 

 

      Faith has no remit to reconcile the whims, ceremoniousness and atrocities which pockmark our world; I’m recollecting one distant week, marked both by my Bar Mitzvah and the mutilation of my future girlfriend’s face. Had such a calamity not engulfed her, might we have married? She thinks not, at least happily. I’m not so sure…

 

     Consider me ‘White,’ at least by nickname.

     The bushfires of my youth weren’t the calamities which now almost keep to German train timetables. The hubris of homo sapiens! ‘Wise man’ needed to wise up from the delusion we could gas the planet with impunity. Back then, politicians could still milk public apathy, denying our liability for climate change.

      For part of Christmas Eve I watched TV with Blanche, my older sister. My sole sibling was absorbed by aerial footage of the orange-yellow clamour about to stalk Sydney. A cousin’s property had recently been consumed by an arsonist’s bushfire. This family and their pets were saved, singed but secure. ‘This is gonna spread,’ my sister prophesised. ‘It’ll be a Black Christmas tomorrow, I feel it.’

     Blanche’s passion for art consumed almost any subject, including the wildfires. Our paternal aunt deputised for our mother, who’d flown overseas yet again. Working on the dictum that for neglected children, stupidity is to curiosity what weather is to climate, our aunt forbade Blanche to venture beyond Sydney’s outer suburbs. Her concerns of our disaster-sightseeing were the bushfires to spread proved groundless. My sister had no need to thrill seek, rubberneck, or wring her hands when she could paint. Art was the metabolism which kept Blanche’s inner fires meaningful.

     My sister had been stymied, unable to complete her current painting project. It featured her unfortunate refugee friend, who’d been invited to spend Christmas with us at our uncle’s and aunt’s place. Blanche overpainted the bulk and started afresh, without Zee in the composition. This time she’d depict the view from our house of a sky scorched by bushfire pollutants. Contemplating her sun’s citrus hue, I said, ‘Mother would be reminded of a Jaffa orange. Perhaps she’s eating one of those right now, fresh off the tree…’

     From the balcony of her second floor bedroom, Blanche painted. Her turbulent sky was arguably knockoff Van Gogh, but her feelings were scarcely less heartfelt. Onto her canvas she jabbed and pelted azure, ultramarine, purple, violet, navy, ochre, grey and even black for the ash-laden winds. The sun appeared as an incandescent coal within her writhing aerial impasto. Blanche elevated her burning sky into a psychodrama; the heartache of all embattled homeowners. I was bemused she had the urge to embark on such fraught subject matter for the Christmas period. I preferred her newly minted, contemplative Chinese-style watercolours of carp or goldfish undulating their way through a garden pool. I knew she aimed to present this pair to our aunt and uncle for Christmas.

      There was no need for me to take photographs of the sky the next day, of what became known as the Black Christmas bushfires. Photos were superfluous when my sister’s paintbrush was able to penetrate to the heart of the matter. She often treated her camera as if it were the ideal traditional child; seen but not heard. For a senior at high school, her artistic facility was precocious. G-words from g-f--d to g----s were bandied about her output, which if she heard made her fu----s. Blanche felt such well-meaning effusiveness smacked of hostages to fortune.

     Aunt Bianca was more impressed by these artistic feats than either our mother or our banker father. She invited us over for Christmas Eve lunch when she discovered her brother was still at work. ‘Send this message to your father’s P.A. : Noble Truth for the day : big sister invites him to drive over and join us if he gets this before 1430. If he doesn’t receive this on time, it means he needs to up the daddy quotient.’ Our aunt could’ve sent this verbal memo directly to what Blanche joked was ‘Daddy’s P.O. Box number’ where this stood for ‘Paterfamilias’s Office.’ In fact aunt Bianca had probably done so, but was only too aware her absent-minded financier brother required badgering. This also communicated she was on our, rather than his side. Bianca and her husband Max lived only a few blocks away from us. When mother boomeranged overseas yet again, we saw our aunt probably more often than some feuding but still cohabiting couples did of each other.

     We returned early in the evening to a vacant house, carrying foil-covered plates of leftovers. ‘Well, I’m not gonna phone to check. Not on where he is-- or if he’s famished-- or wants auntie’s food warmed,’ Blanche murmured as she picked up the receiver.

     ‘Then who are you about to call, sis?’

     ‘Can’t you guess?’ Her voice curled in curiosity. ‘Funny. Zee’s phone number is disconnected.’

     ‘It was engaged before, wasn’t it?’

     ‘Yeah.’

      We stared at each other, my throat suddenly parched. ‘The bushfires? Surely not, sis?’

      We scanned the news updates on multiple channels. Nothing untoward. Blanche decided to phone mother. She was overseeing renovations to the apartment where her parents had lived until they perished in a car crash. While I waited for my turn on the phone, my thoughts gravitated elsewhere.

       After half an hour we heard the intercom buzz from the locked front gates. Though our aunt did turn up late on occasions, she possessed the remotes and keys.

      Blanche glanced quizzically. ‘Hey. You expecting anyone at this time?’

      ‘Nope. Maybe one of your unsuitable ex-boyfriends needs some TLC?’

      ‘Hah.’ As she walked over to answer the intercom she added, ‘Go jump in-- the proverbial… Wonder if dad got drunk and lost all his keys. Hah. Poetic justice.’

     ‘That’s not poetic, sis.’

     ‘Neither is he.’

     ‘Give our old man a break, Blanche.’

     Silence was her reply. Then, civilly, ‘Good evening. Who’s there please? Who? Speak up please…’

     Foreboding uncoiled. The police, perhaps?

     As I walked over, I heard, ‘Ohmygawd! Why didn’t you phone? Yeah, I’d tried but it was engaged-- are you okay? Hey, you sound--funny… I’m opening it now, don’t leave!’

     She turned to me and hollered, ‘Get the first aid, I’m going out to get her!’ She raced out into the murk.

     ‘Who is it?,’ I yelled back, as the motion sensors activated the security lights.

     ‘Zee!’

     Our first aid kit could fill a gym bag or as aunt Bianca put it, ‘Enough Christmas stockings to hose-up a multi-limbed Hindu God.’ Her husband, Max, was a plastic and reconstructive surgeon. He’d stocked almost everything there. This was no commentary on our propensities for accidents which had so far been negligible, touch wood. Once for a neighbour’s cat, uncle Max had used the material here along with his home surgical kit. Her left ear had been partially bitten off by a dog. The owner subsequently told us the vet was awed by the quality of his suturing for a wriggling, semi-anaesthetised animal.

     Blanche returned, one hand steadying a pushbike’s handlebars, her other arm around the shoulders of our friend, Zee. My sister walked slowly, with an observant deliberateness of manner. Our friend trudged. Had I not known of Zee’s recent quandary, there seemed nothing too much the matter. Someone had merely called unexpectedly after having cycled for some time, perhaps seeking help after a minor brush over gravel. Even before Zee neared for me to discern details, her exhaustion spoke. For friends paying a visit for R&R, my sister would’ve been obviously garrulous, even flirty, from fifty paces away. Since we’d been expecting Zee to party with us from Christmas Day, this scene turned more ominous by the minute.

     As I ran over Blanche said, ‘Take her bike, don’t touch her!’

     Zee’s voice, weak, tired, ‘Hello, my friend…’ I wondered if a high pitched wheeze overlaid her gasps and words. I tried not to stare at or imagine the mess underneath the surgical face mask which she’d donned. Its centre was already a bullseye bloodstain.

     ‘Ambulance, Blanche?’

     ‘Phone, dude! Get uncle Max on the line, pronto!’

     ‘Ambulance?’ Zee tittered. At first I wondered if she was drunk, but I couldn’t smell any alcohol fumes. If inebriated, she couldn’t have cycled from her foster home to here. ‘I have had worse days. No ambulance, please.’

     ‘Leave that to us!,’ I heard Blanche say as I raced indoors for the phone.

      As soon as I said, ‘Zee’s here, she’s in a bit of a state,’ our aunt replied after a gasp, ‘Keep her there, Max and I will be over right now!’

     When Blanche helped Zee to the lounge, I could no longer avoid staring into the teen’s face. The bandages and packing were stained, dark and grimy. Then I saw, under what should’ve been her nares, semi-congealed clots of blood.

     My sister’s voice thinned and wavered. ‘Zee, where’s your nose?’

     ‘It is safe in my rucksack.’

     Blanche verged on tears, asking, ‘Does this hurt, sweetie?’

     I’d already opened a dressing pack and unscrewed a tube of antiseptic cream. I could’ve appeared like a chimp staring at a typewriter as I pondered the packet of paracetamol tablets. Our uncle would be redoubtably peeved if we went ‘silly pilly’ to his patient.

     ‘There is no pain, Blanche. Only tiredness. I shall prevail, thank you.’ Zee fixed me with her hypnotic blue-green bulls-eyes. ‘Please, a cool drink, thank you.’ It was hard to tell if one eye was bruised, but her conjunctivae were equally and glaringly bloodshot.

     I rushed back with a glass and bottles of juice as well as water. Blanche was saying, ‘-me, in your own time. What a horrible day, who did this to you? Shall I call the police?’

     Then, with nasal cavities partially exposed, blood beading down her philtrum, Zee chuckled despite her mangled nerve endings. ‘The day will turn out great! A-O-K as you say, A-okay! No police, no, I insist no police until I say so! They beat, I take it like a man, I bike here!’

     ‘W-what?!,’ we stutter-chorussed.

     ‘My day will end A-Okay, yeah! I now have the proof not to return, ever. No more hooey! Chop suey to bigots!’ To our amazement, Zee guffawed so lustily a blood clot flew onto the sofa’s cream leather. She noticed and scooped up its splatter between an index finger and a cotton wool ball. Our aunt had previously remarked on Zee’s fastidiousness.

     I whispered, ‘Blanche, we’re in over our pocket money grades…’

     ‘I want to live with you, or your aunt! It is now my turn to have my way!’ Zee’s tone was emphatic.

     My sister’s lips wrenched in what was supposed to pass for a supportive smile. She teared up before dabbing her eyes with the clean bandage already to hand for Zee’s wounds. Blanche blurted between sobs, ‘If it’s where you want to live-- safely-- you can stay our way-- with me, with us-- any day of the week!’

     Due to my sister’s emotional dishevelment, I donned rubber gloves for the nursing. ‘Let me know if anything’s sore, kiddo…’

     I could’ve sworn she batted her eyelashes at me. ‘Nothing here bothers me,’ she said with soft determination.

     ‘Yes Zee, but when uncle Max comes over, you must tell him where it hurts, like up there. He’s the doctor.’

      ‘Nowhere. Having no nose, so by definitions it can not hurt.’ I’d never before struck such black humoured nonchalance. I couldn’t fathom her earlier note of glee, when she maintained today’s events for her would turn out ‘AOK.’

     Zee harboured complexities like nobody’s business. This, how shall I put it, carapace of her psyche was alien to my experience both then and now. Aunt Bianca told my sister Zee had been evaluated by psychologists preceding her arrival for treatment. Max, all piety for professional propriety, hadn’t informed his wife of their conclusions. Multiple personalities, or one highly traumatised hull; a victim of circumstance, the battling liberated woman stifled by her homeland’s traditions?

     I’m tempted in media-speak ‘to edit for greater clarity’ a.k.a. ‘rewrite,’ Zee’s words as I recall them. Westernising or translating such responses does not humanise them : instead, this colonises our thoughts within their heads whilst kicking out their own into limbo. She said what she said, expressed in tonalities which often appeared as incongruous to this gauche male teen as Cantonese opera might sound to the hallejulah-aficionados of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. She underscored the difficulties even our culturally mashed-up family faced. Granted that people have universally similar emotional responses, how much leeway do we apply to their words when they’re unfamiliar with our idioms? If Zee spoke her native tongue and we were able to understand this, would we be in any lesser state of bemusement? Modernity may have to cope with billions of people, but the comprehension gaps don’t pack any tighter. Historical fiction writers dealing with their own societies almost have it easy, since they can turn the clock back without the fear its dial will accrete horological symbols unknown to them.

     This young refugee’s baffling stoicism continued, unabated, by the time our uncle and aunt drove by. Father arrived a few minutes later and wondered what all the fuss was about. The person all at sea wasn’t the fugitive victim but him, the homeowner.

 

  

                                *                          *                              *

 

 

     Blanche and I initially met her mere weeks before this smoke-wreathed visitation :

     ‘Please call her ‘Zee,’ and nothing else! This is her personal choice, not ours! No, we don’t know what this is, a nickname, a proper name so rare that no Afghans recognise it, an obscure noun she’s decided to recruit instead… ‘Zee’ is what she prefers to be known by, weird though this must sound. It’s apparently been this way for some time. At least since before her nose was hacked off. Shows you how headstrong she can be, to reinvent herself so comprehensively…’ So advised Max and Bianca after we were introduced to her. If either of them knew Zee’s ‘true’ name, the one her dead mother had chosen, they weren’t telling.

     The magazine profile published before her arrival referred to her simply as ‘Zee.’ No mention this was a nickname selected by herself. At this time there was no indication our aunt’s ploy to have her out of harm’s way would succeed. If her security was such an issue, it seemed odd the magazine used her graphic full-page portrait, on the cover no less, though they remained coy on any identifiable details of her prior life. Of course, the sole reason this article saw a global circulation was the insistence of its writers and editors to expose regional brutality on women. In the end, there was no doubt Zee would be safer in Australia. Everyone was safer in Australia, by common consent, where future misogyny towards female prime ministers would be of a lesser order. Terrorists over there in Asia, or those who’d nearly murdered her, would’ve no qualms over hunting her down even in a district hospital or women’s refuge.

     Max’s and Bianca’s London-based adult daughter had blabbed to my sister about Zee’s recent arrival in Sydney. Davinia and my sister chatted by phone from time to time, partly due to shared musical tastes. Davinia was trying to establish herself as a cellist, whereas classical piano played concubine to Blanche’s primarily painterly ambitions. [ Meaning my sister let off steam by playing the piano.] Blanche was also contemplating whether to head for a Parisian or London art college after her International Baccalaureate.

     Cousin Davinia and my sister shared an artistic acquaintance who bisected their age difference, the daughter of a VIPolitician. Currently studying multimedia in Paris, Maria had just released performance art films which showcased herself spreadeagled nude on a floor within a circular frame of junk food. Discreetly pegged cupcakes pixellated her modesty. This was her edgy update of Leonardo’s ‘Vitruvian Man,’ his iconic nude male drawn in two superimposed poses within a circle. In her film she proceeded to pick off and eat the excess calories, titling her conspicuous consumption ‘Maria Antipodeanette.’

     Maria’s mischievous student life would be inconceivable to Zee, who’d never previously been out of her homeland until she fled for her life. Uncle Max worked as a volunteer surgeon twice a year, shuttling between various sites usually near the Himalayas. This was how they’d met. He’d introduced Zee to Bianca during his last stint, when our aunt broke her architectural tour of the Subcontinent to visit his refugee camp.

     My sister and I knew Max and Bianca aimed to fly his patient to Sydney on compassionate grounds. We’d assumed Zee would at least be processed initially in a migrant centre in the same manner as other refugees. Our uncle and aunt hadn’t disabused us of this presumption. It took the phone call from Davinia before we knew not only had Zee arrived in Sydney, but she was actually staying in Davinia’s old bedroom. This was unprecedented. Max almost never talked about his patients to us, let alone invited any around. Nevertheless, their preceding secrecy seemed more than doctor-patient confidentiality. We hoped Max’s ‘Mission Impossible,’ restoring Zee’s face to its natural beauty, would succeed. There was no chance of this given the resources in a refugee camp. As for her chances in Australia, time would tell, except on an authorial note it usually doesn’t. Time eventually shows, only fate tells.

     My sister and I had been over at Bianca’s for dinner as recently as last Sunday, when nothing seemed amiss. The aroma of French polish and another, more citrus scent wafted from the home’s guest bedrooms. Our aunt had remarked some surgeons on conference from overseas would be staying over. They’d probably be sleeping at eccentric hours due to jet lag.  Normally she’d be at Bianca’s on various art-related matters a few times a week. Her aunt’s hint combined with the unappealing prospect of small talk with such academics meant Blanche stayed away until the next weekend.

     I’d picked up the phone. ‘Is your father there? No, I thought not… Would you two darlings like to come over now? We have a new house guest! This was supposed to be a surprise, though I gather my Davinia has already spilled the beans somewhat… Sorry to pull the wool over your eyes.’

     ‘Yep, no worries auntie. Blanche is dying to meet her! You and I know if you’d told us beforehand who was in the works, my sis wouldn’t be able to keep away.’

    ‘Absolutely! It’s her first plane flight, we didn’t know how she’d cope with this, immigration, plus how her wound fared…’

    ‘If she’s not in hospital she’s all right?’

    ‘According to my husband, as well as she can be. And you know how he hates to talk about his patients!’

    ‘Yes auntie. You know how Blanche says, ‘discretion is the soul of valium, since if medics talked about their work, I’d nod off and sleep like a log.’ This doesn’t apply to uncle Max, mind you. But it was inspired for you to claim Japanese bowel surgeons were over at your place.’

    ‘Oh, my niece says that, does she?’

    ‘B-by the way auntie, what do we call, um, Zee?’

    ‘Zee!’

    ‘Zee it is, then.’ My aunt didn’t need the reminder of Blanche’s presentation to the Dalai Lama. My sister, in fully mercurial mood, had addressed him as ‘Mr Lama.’ This was positively obsequious compared to her ‘Yo, Dalai! How’s ya holiness doin’?,’ which brought the pagoda down. [ His holiness beamed at her effrontery and emitted Four Noble Titters.]

    ‘Zee would love to meet people around her age. Really, I feel she’s grown up far too abruptly. The first casualties of refugees are childhood… Look, you and Blanche speak slowly, but not pedantically. Don’t gabble, don’t swallow your vowels. ‘Med-i-cine’ has three syllables, not ‘medsin.’ ‘Would you,’ not ‘wudya.’ Speech tip-toes through the typeface, it’s not a water slide.’

    ‘Yes aunt Bi-an-ca. We shall pro-nounce.’

    ‘Otherwise, just be yourselves. She’s not a nun, you know.’

    ‘Great!,’ I said without thinking.

 

     After my sister gained her driver’s licence, father gifted her a new Volkswagen. A car fulfilled her request for a delayed Bat Mitzvah present. VW was father’s choice of marque, despite the manufacturer’s Thirtiessomething backstory. Mother consented, swayed by the Beetle’s exemplary safety features and ‘fem-appeal.’ Blanche only placed art brushes or Cancer Society daffodils in its flower vase. [ Such were the whims and coin tosses within our family that mother accepted the VW, even pork eating by the rest of us. However, she couldn’t countenance the music of Wagner, though this anti-Semite died well before the ovum which spawned Hitler had met its final solution.]

     Our aunt had given Blanche a house key, gate remote and keypad code when our mother’s absences mounted. I appreciated her need for female company due to our simmering family dramas.

     We rang the doorbell as we unshod inside the entrance. Unlike our home, street shoes were rarely worn indoors. Bianca’s Filipina housekeeper greeted us. ‘Ah, Miss Blanche. The two of you take your shoes over. They’re in the garden. She’s lovely, but I feel so sad seeing her, like when she smells the flowers… At church tomorrow I pray to our Lord Jesus Christ your sweet uncle will work miracles! The wrath of the heathens we shall overcome!’ Esmerelda part-warbled her last statement, snatches of a vaguely familiar hymn.

     Blanche touched Esmerelda’s nearest forearm. ‘Blessings to you.’ This was a favourite phrase of aunt Bianca’s, one we wished our parents had more cause to use.

     I whispered, ‘Is this Zee that Esme’s referring to? I mean, smelling flowers? But how--’

     ‘Our Lord and Saviour allows all blessed women to smell His floral bounties!’ Esmerelda, overhearing me, finished on this almost clarion note. I wondered if the Lord’s great unblessed might mutiny on these bounties, but nodded my respects to Esme. I’d already learned a South-East Asian with God on her side was unarguable with on points of perspective and immovable on tenets of faith or gastronomy.

     My sister hadn’t made a beeline for the garden through the nearby French doors. Something in Bianca’s lounge had drawn her attention. A substantial stone Buddha sat, lotus, in its corner with an unimpeded if squashed view of their TV screen. Acquired just a few years ago, Bianca estimated he’d been carved around 200 A.D., give or take a century. [ Though our Jewish mother said ‘Common Era,’ C.E., rather than A.D., Anno Domini, Blanche and I disregarded the distinction. A.D. or B.C. it was for us, though my sister sometimes teased our aunt ‘B.C.’ could easily stand for ‘Before Confucius.’] Despite its nose in Nirvana and clean breakages through the torso, the general state of preservation and aesthetic standard were exemplary. When I’d first seen this Buddha, I wondered why our wonder-surgeon uncle hadn’t honed his skills closer to home. Surely it would only have taken some moulded cement to make this dark-faced Buddha’s nose less Sphinx-like.

     ‘Look!,’ Blanche said, crouched to eye level with Buddha, as if she were about to reprise her notorious salutation ‘Yo, Buddha, what ya got there, new mags?’ Thankfully Blanche desisted, but the sculpture’s missing nose was fixed. The spanking new attachment was paler than the stone. The missing finger and other surface losses remained unsullied.

     ‘Incredible they’d do just this.’

     Blanche said, ‘Guess it was his idea. Can’t see how auntie would allow it, though I guess she doesn’t have much say-- I mean, it’s his relic.’ She reached out and stroked the nasal repair, from the tip down to its join with the original stonework. ‘Feels kinda soft. Guess it can be removed once Zee’s gone.’

    ‘Why did they choose such a different shade, sis? It sticks out like a sore thumb.’

    ‘It’s the modern way of archaeology. Complete but contrast-- it’s no longer cool to promote the object are more intact than it really is. C’mon-- let’s go and meet the cover girl!’

 

     Our aunt and another hatted female stood beside the thigh-high garden maze. Its mandala design was readily apparent from the upper level of the half-timbered home. Blanche and I had often played hide-and-seek as toddlers within its inviting green alleyways. I’ve lost count of how many times we unwittingly completed a pilgrimage by stumbling upon its core. From this epicentre of the maze rose a stylised pagoda spire. The Antipodean bent towards practicality over ritual or art conferred on it another lease of life, as a bird bath.

      The guest’s tee and jeans revealed a willowy figure, delicate but not skeletal. To my surprise her height possibly surpassed our aunt’s, who my seventeen-year-old sister had outgrown by last year. Zee appeared to wear espadrilles, while Bianca wore kitten heels.

     They turned around after Blanche’s yo-hoo yodel. An affronted user of the mandala’s birdbath squawked off. Zee’s numerous arm bangles simmered, a pointillistic shimmer as she waved to us. If their metal was valuable I wondered how she’d clung to them despite privations. As we neared, I saw Zee’s adornments lay within the stylistic patter of college sophisticates or out-of-AfroAsian metropithecines. Our aunt owned similar bangles from her student travel months in Nepal and India. Bianca didn’t wear them any longer save for an Asian art foundation’s fancy dress fundraiser. Nor did they meld with Davinia’s aspirational Burberry-Sloane style.  It would’ve been in our aunt’s character to loan or gift them to someone more suitable.

     Zee’s face seemed leaner than Blanche’s or mine, while avoiding what uncle Max termed ‘anorexia dales under cheeky hills.’ Her lips were fuller than European specs, perhaps a coy hint she could eat more without putting it on. Under today’s clear sky, the stoic character hinted in her magazine cover portrait bloomed into both beauty and personality. Each photo nails only one main perspective to its mast, or story masthead. Those published for her profile were specifically framed for the missing centre of her face. This underscoring of stigma, the aura of newsworthy victimhood were muted in the flesh. Greenish bandages or packing lay between the escarpments of her photogenic cheekbones. Her shoulder length locks were a charcoal-chestnut compared to the near black of her published photos.

     Zee’s capacious blue-green eyes were vibrant stunners, what my sister termed ‘the missing plus-factor from sculpture.’ Blanche gasped beside me. Close up, their interpersonal impact was heightened by her exceptional eyelashes. The length and lushness of these awnings made me wonder if they’d been extended. As she looked at us directly, devoid of skittishness, a sense of friendly scrutiny came over me. Suitably enough, I felt Zee was assessing us both as exotics and as social equals. I fancied each of her eyes processed one domain, shades of left brain/right brain, to merge both into some cross-cultural 3D. Her animated expression almost mocked catwalk models’ return-of-the-Mummy blankness.

    ‘G’day, how are you?,’ I blurted before sensing our aunt’s eye rolls behind Zee.

    ‘I am so glad to meet you,’ Zee said to my sister, hand outstretched. Careful articulation, a slightly husky accent of Middle-East-to-middle-brown indeterminacy, specklings of reserve. ‘Gracious greetings to you. Both. I have the honour to meet the nephew and niece of my sponsors.’

     I heard my sister suppress a titter. After their handshake, Blanche hugged Zee warmly enough to make those bangles chime. Both smiled from mouth to eyebrows.

     Despite Zee’s absent hair covering I’d hung back. I was cognizant of Muslim proscriptions, like Ultra-Orthodox Jews, against cross-gender physical contact. I was delighted when she turned to me, eyes twinkling, hand outstretched and said, ‘You too please?’ Then came my fleeting hesitancy on how firmly should I squeeze a Muslim girl’s hand under these circumstances. Was she courteously adapting to what she perceived were our Western ways? As a fifteen-year-old who didn’t want to come across as effeminate, I squeezed with moderated vigour when my palm sensed hers wouldn’t be instantly let go. I noted for future use that Zee lingered with her fingertips caressing, or should that be assessing my skin texture. In return I just felt the leatheriness of her residual manual calluses, which I owned up to on only the fingertips of my left hand. Go for it! I took the plunge and moved in for the hug. Short, sweet. A scent which I recalled was a favourite of Bianca’s with keener, more antiseptic top notes from the vicinity of her nasal packing. I avoided her eyes close up, aware of the potential for backchat from my hormones or pheromones.

     ‘I feel, I just know, I will become as they say, bosum buddies with you two Jews.’

     Pause. Our aunt cleared her throat, briefly. No worries, since Blanche and I had been conditioned at moments such as this to mentally repeat, only the beholder can make this awkward.

     I had to laugh. ‘Bosum buddies? Sounds cool mate, I mean, Zee!’

    ‘Zee, your English is wonderful!,’ Blanche said, surreptitiously treading over my nearest big toe. ‘What were you and auntie admiring as we entered, the petunias?’

    ‘These are petunias,’ our aunt said to Zee, pointing to the pink and lavender clusters nearby.

     Zee nodded. ‘Mmm, yes! What I find the more amazing is this tree, the…’

    ‘Eucalyptus,’ our aunt said.

    ‘Yes, thank you so much for the reminder! Eu-ca-lyp-tusss… I now think of another word. Like ukelele? The traditional instrument of your Aborigines people?’

     ‘Not like ukelele,’ Blanche said. ‘Ukelele belongs to the Pacific Islands near the equator. They’re called Hawaii. My brother can show you his ukelele. It’s something he can play. Ukeleles are favourite instruments of big Americans who want a jolly time. You see, they fasten-- this means, they can hold one end of it in the rolls of fat around their belly buttons.’ As it was visible under her gathered-up blouse, Blanche pointed to her own, though the lack of flab hampered any illustrative potential.

     ‘The ukelele of the Hawaii people is made of this euca-lyptusss wood?’

     ‘No, dear,’ our aunt said. ‘Ukelele and eucalyptus bear no relationship. This eucalyptus is native to our country.’

     ‘Is the ukelele of Hawaii an instrument of the Hawaii Jews? So you play this?’

     ‘My nephew and niece are both accomplished musicians. My niece plays the piano, my nephew the violin. Blanche was joking about the ukelele. This is her sport called, ‘Ribbing the younger brother.’ They may play a Mozart sonata for you some time soonish?’ Our aunt’s remnant plucked eyebrows arched inquiringly towards us.

     ‘It’s Adam who started the whole rib business,’ muttered Blanche. ‘Feminist payback now.’

     ‘Zee, lots of Jews play the violin,’ I said. ‘Though not our mother. We can play you a movie, ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ some time. No ukeleles on the soundtrack, though.’

     ‘Is this movie educational?,’ Zee asked.

     ‘It’s not a film you’d like to see,’ our aunt said.

     ‘I follow your advising at all times.’ Zee went up and patted the nearest eucalyptus’s stringy bark, tugging one strand which almost came off. She folded the free end beneath another loose strand to prevent this. ‘I feel for this tree. At first, it looks suffering. But you say it drops this wooden skin like other trees drop leaves.’

    ‘Yes, it sheds bark like others shed leaves,’ I said. ‘Any trees in your homeland play the same tricks?’

    Her blue-greens clouded. ‘I can not understand. How do trees play tricks?’

    Bianca smiled. ‘My nephew is speaking colloquially. I was hoping they’d teach you such things. To speed things up, what he’s simply saying is does anything where you come from also peel away?’ She wiggled some bark for her guest.

    Zee’s tone cruised on without taking graver inflections. ‘No, only in human people. I mean only in people. Men with burns peel away like the big time. Women in burns, they have little, how you say, domes. They may peel thinner, but they die more quickly. You are lucky in this country. Trees peel often, people peel less, true, false?’

     My sister and I, unusually, were lost for words. From war wounds it seemed grotesque to cite nasty cases of sunburn, no matter what their peel factor. The amount of money spent on sunblock in this country probably far exceeded the resources available in Afghanistan or the refugee camps for all cases of burns. We could never again look blandly at eucalyptus trunks.

     ‘More beautiful flowers please!,’ Zee said.

     Blanche and I found ourselves sandwiching Zee as she bent over, removed the upper bandages from her nose, then sniffed the blooms. This was a mystery drama almost in out back yard. We glanced at each other, almost certainly thinking likewise. Can she really smell or this a way of being gracious, pretending as though she has the capability to appreciate scent, to fully indulge her hostess’s efforts and taste?

     ‘Nice,’ she said.

     ‘What about those orchids over there?,’ I asked. After a became aware of a trenchant glance from Bianca, I added, ‘Auntie, why not? Aren’t they more, um, involving than petunias or magnolias?’

     Bianca clapped her hands, chop-chop. ‘I think Zee needs to get out the sun. Max has left instructions about this. Oh, and Esmerelda’s just waved to me that refreshments are ready.’

     Zee said to me and Blanche, ‘Flowers for another day please, when I have smaller, lesser, fewer, fillings.’

 

     I had guessed Bianca was making stuff up about refreshments, but we smelled freshly brewed coffee after we entered. As usual, Blanche and I served instead of Esme when we visited.

     ‘Tomorrow afternoon I want to put Zee’s English to the test. Zee is going to accompany us to the theatre!’ Bianca beamed like a hostage to fortune, aka a bright idea of Baz Luhrmann’s to film a feel-good sanitised Australian epic. ‘I don’t need to book extra tickets for the three of you. Lalith has pulled out and donated her ticket to me. The de Krester woman has something she wants her to read ASAP.’

     Blanche and I were scheduled to attend the matinee with Bianca’s group, using our parents’ subscription. Father had already indicated last week he was too busy to attend.

     ‘You know it’s Shaw’s ‘Pygmalion,’ right?,’ I said. ‘Won’t this be, um, somewhat challenging?’ I’d studied this play at school only last term.

     ‘Challenges are for me!,’ Zee said brightly. ‘Have no fear. I can not object to the pig in it, especially if the Jews also watch it.’

     ‘Zee,’ Blanche said. ‘The play ‘Pygmalion’ isn’t about farm animals--’

     ‘Understandable mistake. It’s about Poms,’ I said.

     Blanche wrinkled her nose. ‘Dude, you wanna be a writer post-acne, and that’s the wittiest you can manage?’

     ‘So these ‘poms’ are not pigs?’

     ‘No they’re most definitely not,’ Bianca said. ‘The title is a Greek name, one we don’t much use. I’d hoped my nephew might coach you on the work. But this is not an auspicious start…’

     ‘You want me to spend time with Zee before tomorrow?’

     ‘Mind your gaps,’ said my sister, tapping the side of her nose.

     ‘Yes please!’ Zee nodded emphatically. ‘Both of you will help, will you both not, yes?’

     ‘Count me in,’ Blanche said.

     Did our student for the day need to know ‘Pygmalion’ featured a working class girl who’s the subject of a bet, not that anyone had made a bet with our surgeon uncle on whether he’d succeed with Zee? In the end, Zee seemed absorbed by George Bernard Shaw’s theme of how much learned accents and manners could transcend social bulkheads.

     I wondered whether we should, or could, call her anything other than ‘Zee.’ As the ideas and images from this play were itemised for our guest, I became more convinced of the reasons why she’d selected her enigmatic nickname. Its advantage was to lack any significant cultural, ethnic or social anchors. She really was a Pygmalion in her own fashion, not wanting others to judge her by compartmentalised preconceptions. Over subsequent hours I felt Zee’s openness and forthrightness were tempered by a certain seniority, not so much premature aging as the implosion of anything child-like or childish. Her enthusiasms weren’t those of an impressionable adolescent. In greater likelihood they stemmed from the drive of an auto-didact. Bianca had already told us what Zee wanted to become were she given a fighting chance over the next decade.

     Blanche remarked later to me, ‘Hey, I know reading the grisly article coloured our first impressions-- but, something about her made me sense underlying emotional ravages-- I mean, even if it wasn’t written all over her face…’ I couldn’t disagree about Zee’s survivor’s fortitude, which her dancing girl trappings and casual attire couldn’t dispel. Had the malleable metal of her bangles been substituted by those of titanium, steel, or the ceramic of Bianca’s Chanel watch strap, then fashion followed psychology.

 

 

 

                         *                                *                                *

 

    

      Adjusting for mother’s French birth, our parents named Blanche after father’s sister, with the bonus remembrance of a pet bunny from mother’s early life. Mother must’ve vainly hoped her childhood pet might serve as an omen for a daughter nearly as placid.

     Father’s forebears were pioneers, with some even in the first post-Aboriginal settlements. Mother’s side emigrated from Britain, Europe and the near East before and after World War II. Father told us he didn’t let on to anybody in the family until well after the knot was tied, one of her distant ancestors happened to be Karl Marx. However, the two of them did inform our paternal grandparents before the engagement that she was related to between one and three Nobel science and economics laureates. The precise tally depended on how much ethnic chest puffing expanded the conventional boundaries of kin relationships. As for ancestral deference, the four of us took a short European holiday after Blanche’s Bat Mitzvah. This ceremony had been observed after a special trip to Israel, since mother no longer had close relatives in Australasia.

     Our economically conservative father, doubtless having premonitions of offspring-related hypertensive spikes, returned home for work reasons rather than crossing the Channel with us to London. Before afternoon tea at the Ritz, my sister insisted on a trip to Highgate cemetery. Here mother was compelled to film her daughter by Marx’s memorial. Blanche beamed under her red beret. She also gave the thumbs-up to mother with her red varnished fingernails. As though this wasn’t enough, she embarrassed mother and me by informing other tourists, particularly a group of Venezuelan pilgrims, about ‘great-great-great-great-uncle Karl.’ Me, I shrugged and patted mortified maternal shoulders. ‘It’s just a phase,’ we said to each other almost concurrently. Mother had the last word. ‘After this, your father would even welcome your sister painting her nails Greenpeace green…’ [ To be fair to our old man, he wasn’t one of the barking mad conservatives who denied the importance of human-induced climate change.]

     Our paternal grandparents raised their children in a nominally Anglican household. Father by his own admission was no fervent churchgoer, and he was barely more secular than his parents. Despite the pioneering origins of our paternal ancestors, they boasted few high connections to Australia’s 19th century political establishment, at least until its closing decade. Most had converted to the Church of England by this time, for reasons of social and by extension economic advancement. Naturally, shrewd business skills, education, strategic marriages and changes of name, not to mention family lore of bribery other assorted commercial skullduggery all contributed to our socio-Darwinian ascent. Progressively more buried as economic prospects advanced was parallel family tales of our first Australian pioneers’ Jewish and Aborigine ancestries. These either didn’t stem from legally-recognised marriages, or had the other party sufficiently whitewashed in the eyes of the law. Hence, no extant birth certificates from these decades attested to our genetic profligacies. No matter. Nowadays our genes strip bare the most well upholstered morality annals. DNA is an indelible epistolary genealogist. Future generations may find it droll that before genomics and social media the requisite powers lay in the persuasiveness of a family’s facade. During the late Victorian era onwards, when social tolerance creaked open, several Jews married in. Mother set no precedent by her mixed marriage, except those before her were Anglican converts, periodic Freemasons or non-observant. None of the latter wore skullcaps, at least in surviving photos. Besides, references to circumcision veered more to documentation of absence rather than absence of documentation. By our times, it was no big deal when I was foreskinned for residual historic reasons. Yet it took the previous generation to swing the social pendulum back at least a degree from our upwardly mobile conventionality.

 

 

     Aunt Bianca had told us she’d ‘grown close to Buddhism’ after high school, though she was coy over specifics. She never admitted to any through-a-trap-door conversion epiphany. She implied her reorientation was the product of numerous small steps rather than daring leaps of faith. Blessed are the meek, or at least those who prefer the virtues of nuance and resist hectoring from over-varnished pulpits. Curiously, Blanche and I never heard our aunt utter, ‘I am Buddhist.’ One of aunt Bianca’s nearest invocations, the religious equivalent of to-smoke-but-not-to-inhale, was ‘I follow many of their teachings, totally in spirit if not to the letter.’ My sister did gain Bianca’s avuncular concession she wrote ‘Buddhism’ for each census’s question on religious affiliation. During one Christmas dinner when my sister put her on the spot, ‘Auntie, why don’t you say you’re Buddhist but believe in every religion’s eat-ups?,’ Bianca was outwardly unflustered. ‘Dearest Blanche, I couldn’t agree more with the Buddha’s teachings, unless I fully understood them. I’m all for fuzz. I believe in a spiritual journey, for sure. If this ends in something Godlike, who am I to object?’ To us as pre-teens, this was an adult taking advantage of minors to be self-indulgently paradoxical, when we had to be particularly nice due to the presents we’d just received. We concluded if society inferred she was Buddhist, Bianca wouldn’t object to this for ease of usage, the way Chinese used Western first names as tokens of familiarity. [ She was fond of saying, ‘Pigeon holes are made for the pigeons, not for the sake of the wood.’] Nowadays, writing about these times, I relish such quirky expressions of humility and doubt-worthiness. If I’m asked what events in my childhood engaged the budding writer, a strong contender is my aunt’s ‘I couldn’t agree more with what’s been said, unless I understood it.’

     As an undergraduate, Bianca studied commerce to placate expectations, with comparative religion thrown in for her own edification. During her readings she chanced upon an obscure German scholar, Friedrich Schleiermacher. This theologian’s essays on Christianity downplayed his era’s emphasis on religious dogma. Schleiermacher’s originality was to stress life, the lived humanity of religious experience, over laws. [ The way, I guess, it finally took a subequatorial pontiff to promote this refreshing perspective.] To adapt comic Anna Russell’s quip that certain singers had resonance where their brains ought to be, dogma-centric theologians make do with spiritual resonance in lieu of thought.

     Bianca said her young adulthood found compelling the humility and simplicity of Buddhism’s ‘Four Noble Truths.’ In lieu of grand claims about God, these proposed that all is suffering, the root of suffering is desire and there exists a route to void desire. The Buddha’s teachings show this way. As appealing for her was Buddhism’s ‘Middle Way,’ which ostensibly steered the middle ground between asceticism and hedonism. She interpreted these teachings as theological diffidence over whether prayer was obligatory, even if God existed as a thing. She didn’t seem to wildly disagree with the notion a higher divinity existed as a process of love. After all if God existed as a goal, a suffering of sorts was implicit. Searching for such Higher Meaning could potentially digest itself by that unquenchable desire itself. A Godly ouroboros.

     Outwardly our aunt’s life coasted as leisurely as our mother’s. Bianca didn’t mind my sister calling her affectionately ‘a Buddhist who brunched,’ since her family’s investments meant she didn’t need to work. She was a stalwart of Sydney’s socialite art circuit, talking of Monet, Michelangelo, or Maitreya. The still point of her turning circle weren’t the contemporary dealer galleries so much as the Art gallery of New South Wales and its burgeoning Asian holdings. By virtue of her social standing and closeness to influential and/or wealthy collectors, our aunt’s battling Buddhism was accepted very early on, despite earlier generations’ slit-eyed suspicions of unconventionality. Blanche speculated the screws of what we later termed the ‘Lumpen Practicaliat’ would’ve tightened had our aunt shaved her head without a chemo alibi or taken to saffron monastic robes for everyday wear. [ Since Karl Marx had coined the creepy, heavy term ‘Lumpen Proletariat,’ we his frivolous descendants thought we ought to adapt this for the materialistic post-communist era. ‘Lumpen Practicaliats’ were behind Bianca’s need to study something ostensibly ‘useful’ in university, rather than a pure humanities menu. For the generation who conceived us, being a regular bloke and the proprieties of ordinariness were still stifling presences. Beware when some expression or display might be misconstrued as mocking the eerily repressive, easily wounded nature of Antipodean averageness.]

     Our father didn’t follow his big sister down her ‘Oriental dabbling,’ as he put it to me much later, after I became a parent myself. He denied any religious dalliances during his youth or early adulthood. During one of our infrequent intimate talks, this one only a few days after my Bar Mitzvah, he conceded, ‘Son, since you ask, no, it isn’t that my parents would’ve been aghast at the thought of me with with an orthodox or fundamentalist Jewish woman. [ I rarely heard him say ‘Jew’ without some qualification such as ‘European’ or ‘orthodox.’] It’s just I couldn’t for the life of me see how I could fall in love with a woman of strict religious observance.’

     He didn’t consider Blanche’s Bat Mitzvah or my Bar Mitzvah the year afterwards counted as fundamentalism. Just as father didn’t expect his degree of church attendance to influence our genuflective enthusiasms one way or the other, mother understood the same applied to Judaic rituals. These would go ahead only if we were comfortable with the idea, which we were. I had mine in Sydney, since I couldn’t be bothered to fly to Israel for the religious package deal. If mother was disappointed I didn’t follow in Blanche’s footsteps, she didn’t vent this in my presence. I knew Blanche felt the same way about the cultural significance of her Bat Mitzvah. Nonetheless she wished for an Israeli observance. She had no greater desire than me to hear relatives gush in Hebrew which we knew to only a rudimentary level. However, my sister at this stage took an interest in the architecture of the Holy Land. [ She was peeved to discover as a non-Muslim she wasn’t allowed into Jerusalem’s Dome of the Rock.] Father couldn’t help but voice the obvious : ‘I’m very proud first your sister and now you agreed to these. You guys know how much they mean to your mother, to her half of your ancestors…’ Sure we did, dad. At this point father paused, his gaze steering away. I absorbed his distracted, faraway tinge, musing how weighted was his editing out of ‘You know how much these mean to us.’ I guessed he didn’t want to be put on the spot by being asked how much his wife’s religious heritage meant to him, though we both knew the answer was asymptotically close to nothing.

 

     Max’s and Bianca’s were a decade older than us. Our aunt had children relatively early. Her university degree was disrupted by pregnancy, so she didn’t graduate until her kids were in primary school. Each of them left Australia soon after high school. Davinia was a cellist in London, interspersed with work for a high-end cultural travel company. Their Aspergers-like son was circling over the finishing touches of the extra revisions to his economics PhD thesis at the London School of Economics. Both were based in a Kensington maisonette owned by Bianca. On Davinia, we heard our aunt mention to others, ‘The cost of living is so steep in central London. She needs rooms of her own until her musical career takes off.’ There was no corresponding mention of assuring her daughter’s future success in the tourist industry.

     Bianca visited London not just for her children. Our aunt’s vagueness tantalised whenever she intimated, ‘Oh, there’s something over there which may interest/help our director.’ No name was needed for us to surmise this was her dear friend, the long-serving head of the Art Gallery of New South Wales. He was a British Orientalist for whom Bianca was but one of many benefactors, allowing Sydney to expand its Asian art holdings. [ An unstated goal was to ensure Australia wasn’t an outpost which principally drew long white crowds to its art exhibitions.] My sister and I rather liked the Art Gallery of New South Wales as  a building. A runty boarding school little brother of the British Museum, plonked under far better sunlight. Its facade loftily name-dropped Europe’s great artists, engraved in its tanned sandstone like Mosaic commandments from Western Thought. Between close family and friends, Bianca speculated a patrician Briton faced lesser hurdles in promoting non-Western art here than anybody both locally born and educated. Those of my generation found it tough to credit such cultural cringes still existed in our ostensibly liberal chatter-clatterati. [ ‘Intelligentsia’ seemed too much like effete Euro café socialism for the Aussie talkback radio-tabloid journo spectrum. ] My sister assured me our aunt wasn’t far off the mark based on her own experiences.

     More of our paternal grandparents’ objets d’art had found their way into Bianca’s care than to our house. Mother didn’t much care for them, apart from some British Regency and French 19th century furniture which she gladly accepted. Elderly cousins of hers who’d visited our place remarked they were reminded of similar items in their childhood Viennese home, stolen by the Nazis. Blanche was no furniture buff. She enjoyed spending time at our aunt’s home, exploring their eclectic art collection : Australian, European, Buddhist, East Asian, plus ‘Max’s stuff.’ Conspicuously absent were paintings by Australian masters. It wasn’t that these were disliked by Bianca or Max, but as so many in Bianca’s circle collected Sydney Nolan et al, she looked elsewhere to express her tastes. ‘Otherwise it’ll be like sharing the same toothbrush!,’ she said to my sister. Once for Bianca’s birthday my sister painted an acrylic of a wall where our aunt’s Buddhist scroll paintings and thankgas were displayed. In this painting Blanche had removed most of them. Above the vacated section she’d written the names of Australian painters, in the fashion of the Sydney Gallery’s walls. Below this she’d painted three words, NOLI NOLAN TANGERE, in wordplay to Jesus’ warning to Mary Magdalene. Do not touch me, ‘noli me tangere.’ Bianca also introduced many in her circle both to Blanche and her precocious artworks. This was gallant of our aunt, to cultivate future buyers for my sister’s output. Blanche was very interested when informed punters talked about art in general. She was less enthused if they settled on chatter about what they owned or would like to collect. After the latter, she might return home and speculate to me whether antiquarians and collectors, like some dog owners, aged in synch to resemble their pets.

 

     During our aunt’s undergraduate days, she’d spent the holidays between the academic years travelling around Asia. Her spiritual interests had grown so much during her freshman semesters that she postponed all study for the coming year. Funded by a well-timed bequest, Bianca used this time for what she called her ‘tourgrimage,’ in which she traced the various Buddhist pilgrimage sites as a sympathetic undecided. She contracted gastroenteritis in Nepal shortly after her arrival in Lumbini, the historical Buddha’s birthplace. First impressions couldn’t have counted, for it was in this condition our Eat-Pray-Puke first met Max. The medical student helped nurse her out of dehydration. To friends she told, ‘My future husband came along as a knight with his shining rehydration salts and bags of saline.’ To older and more squeamish relatives, she told us she said Max’s path had crossed with hers, since he’d volunteered to help the needy in the Third World.

     Max, in keeping with Bianca, had also arrived in Nepal for idealistic reasons. He’d signed up for a short student elective at a missionary hospital. His spare time was partially spent mucking around with members of his university’s alpine club. Some here acted as if spiritually disoriented chicks in unfamiliar environs were susceptible to mountaineering chat-up lines such as ‘the treacherous beauty of the Himalayas, where under every gasp of breath sounds a prayer. Here it’s an avalanche or stumble away from eternity,’ etc. Bianca abbreviated her tourgrimage to return to Australia when his Nepalese elective concluded. Their relationship became serious as she regained weight.

     Bianca’s youthful travel bug eased into art collecting, which became a serious interest once her children entered school. There’d be no wall-mounted plaques of ascending waterfowl on her walls. Max’s antique-retentiveness populated a display cabinet of historical surgical implements. This bundle of laughs, which any viewer might conclude conflated sadism with surgery, Bianca understandably banished to the confines of his home office. We understood the only strangers invited to view these comprised proselytising door-knockers of evangelical, Seventh Day Adventist or Mormon persuasion.

     My sister and I couldn’t rouse much enthusiasm for Asian religions. Blanche and I were interested in the topic of historical East-West contacts. I was fascinated by Alexander the Great’s campaigns, particularly those through what is now Iran, Afghanistan and Persia. I was bemused by how this figure, generally eulogised as the supreme Western military leader [ i.e. the anti-Genghis who conquered in the appropriate directions ] had adopted indigenous clothing and tastes from his time in Iran. Blanche and I were equally fascinated by the Ming dynasty Chinese Muslim admiral Zheng He, who’d explored so much of the Pacific and Indian oceans. Our aunt was predictably absorbed by the exploits of seventh century Chinese monk Xuanxang, who walked from China to Northern India and returned decades later. He was credited with introducing the first major Buddhist texts to China.

     Max’s student elective in Nepal altered his life. Not only did he meet Bianca there, but his taste of mission hospital work defined the moral trajectory of his future career. After Max qualified as a plastic and reconstructive surgeon, his volunteer work recommenced in earnest. Initially he returned to mission hospitals in Nepal. Soon he divided his time between this and the Afghan refugees in Pakistan from the time of the Soviet invasion onwards. Most of his patients in the refugee camps were landmine victims, particularly children. Our uncle almost never talked about the kids on whom he operated. Only after I entered university did he remark on the number of child amputees. Youngsters with more than one limb shredded or blown off rarely survived to reach refuge. Numerous children lost hands or arms when picking up explosives such as cluster bomblets, many more were blinded. There was no let up in these particularly tragic cases, which started during the Soviet occupation and continued after their departure, into the warlord and Taliban eras.

     At least twice a year, Max devoted a four to six week stint for his foreign operations. Other overseas surgeons rotated with him, enabling his camps to have at least one full time plastic surgeon equivalent on the roster throughout the year. He lived for his work, which made him partially inured to the congestion, dust and austerities of these wearying Subcontinental postings. My sister and I never heard him moan about their physical rigours and discomforts. Max’s volunteer sites of Nepal and Pakistan also suited Bianca, since these areas contained a rich Buddhist archaeological heritage. The osmosis of marriage caused him to share many of Bianca’s art interests. [ However, his penchant for the archaeology of surgical implements remained invincibly one-sided. Our wider family nicknamed his home office with their displays, ‘the torture chamber.’] Bianca often went on art holidays which also took in the Indian Subcontinent. Despite her early days of student backpacking, her minimum standards of accommodation had increased since then. She always visited Max for a couple of days or so during his overseas postings. However, she never stayed for longer in the staff accommodation. As she said to Blanche, ‘Just because I’m visiting my honey to see how he’s doing? Doesn’t mean I’m obliged to stand by my man through thick fly infestations and thin air conditioning.’

     My sister had asked more than once whether we’d be able to visit our uncle’s posts in Nepal or Pakistan. I guessed this was largely an offshoot from her admiration of Leonardo da Vinci’s drawings, particularly of human anatomy and the grotesque heads. Presumably our aunt was on her wavelength. She brushed Blanche off with, ‘Those aren’t places for children. Your mother wouldn’t allow it, anyhow. You know I’ve never even taken our own kids there, even once, to see their father!’ We grew to understand Max didn’t want us there as disaster tourists, unqualified to help, merely ogling those far less fortunate than us. [ Comprehension came when I read of circusses and vaudeville shows from as recently as a century ago. Showcasing exotic natives or deformed locals was stock entertainment. Had we been raised in those eras and with their attitudes, I could well imagine proto-Blanche and myself pestering our parents for ringside seats…]

     Bianca often organised further Asian excursions during school holidays, initially for her two children and subsequently with us. Our parents seemed quite happy to get us out of their hair for a fortnight now or then in our aunt’s capable hands. As a family unit we generally travelled to Europe, North America and Israel, the places where our maternal relatives largely lived.

     Both Max and Bianca were in northwest Pakistan at the time he acquired the Gandharan Buddha. This was the same one with the missing nose which was coyly repaired just before Zee’s arrival. Current Pakistan and Afghanistan covered the territory of ancient Gandhara. Alexander the Great had subjugated this area, seeding it with Greek colonies which survived for a while. When Buddhism spread to these lands, Hellenistic styles influenced the area’s subsequent art until the Muslim conquests. Surviving examples of Gandharan Buddhist art were extremely popular with collectors from Japan to America. As Blanche said to me, ‘The male figures look sorta classical Greek-- but with the style knobs turned or oriented in our direction.’

     Max didn’t wander the bazaars looking for or looking at art during his postings overseas, certainly not near the tribal hinterlands of Pakistan. ‘How could I, Blanche? There’s no time, even if I wanted to. The volume of patients! Anyhow, kidnapping foreigners is hardly unheard of hereabouts. I hear the Pashtun euphemism for this roughly translates as, ‘involuntary timeshare.’ Downtime is to unwind, not traipse around as a tourist… I should add that your aunt, I’m meaning this in the best possible way, is distraction enough when she does turn up, all to briefly…’ We didn’t delve into what ‘distraction enough’ meant.

     Our uncle was a champ. The equipment and consumables which Max calculated he might require for each stint, he ostensibly paid for himself. The stuff was often freighted out from his private group practice in Sydney. He used cooperative NGOs, even the UN, to transport them to where he worked, whether in Pakistan or Nepal. Reliance on the local postal system was the bottom of the barrel option, since endemic pilfering didn’t spare humanitarian supplies. [ Indeed, medicines from Western countries proved a choice target since they weren’t counterfeit.] In practice, father and Max’s private surgical colleagues defrayed the purchase costs for these supplies. This meant Max wasn’t in the position of volunteering his time and paying cash for the honour of operating in uncertain conditions.

     When Bianca turned up to see how her husband was faring, she invariably brought in her luggage extra material for his surgical needs. This particular year, she coordinated the Pakistani leg of her trip with an invitation to a wedding in Lahore, that of a friend’s son. Her friend’s grandparents were too frail to attend any wedding in Australia, so a massive homeland wedding with all the bells and elephants had been prepared. She went to see Max before these celebrations. During her two days at his field hospital she chatted with many of the staff and local health workers. Serendipitously, she’d brought along some photos of her own art collection. She showed these to those women who, during casual conversation, wondered about the interiors of Australasian homes. They’d been packed with the intent of showing to some art and antiques enthusiasts whom her friend knew in Lahore. Local staffers were surprised to learn his wife owned pre-Islamic antiquities from this region. Word of this rippled out-- Aussie Surgeon Sahib makes a surprising splash-- as it does in tribal societies, beyond the confines of the refugee clinics.

     Our uncle’s side of the story was too laconic : in my sister’s parlance, ‘He wouldn’t be able to talk himself out of his swimming trunks at a supermodels’ nudist swim.’ Our aunt gave several descriptions, of variable verbal Photoshopping, to us and significant others : ‘Max called, asking me to return ASAP after the wedding. I hadn’t planned to do so, but in all our years of marriage the only other time Max said ‘something’s come up’ was with his own cancer scare. I could tell from his tone something was wrong. He wouldn’t say what, except it didn’t deal with his health, thank goodness! I phoned home just to check on the kids but they were fine, nobody there had heard from him recently. When I returned north, nothing seemed amiss at the camp. Everyone seemed to be going about their business as before. When I asked a nurse if his rosters had been changed in any way, she said no. I was taken aback by Max’s expression when I caught sight of him. He’s pretty unflappable in those refugee situations. He didn’t look frightened, just chastened, I’d say.’

     ‘Max told me five days after I’d left the camp a pickup truck drove up to the gates. Not a vehicle affiliated with any of the aid agencies or local government. A crate in the back was supposed to be for him. Security wouldn’t let the drivers through. They didn’t like the look of the guys or the vehicle, though neither looked threatening, at least for local standards. Remember, this part of Pakistan is basically a ‘please leave your gun before entering the saloon’ region. Except with conservative Islam, there ain’t no bars hereabouts. Though relief supplies usually came in similar crates, this one lacked any form of documentation or accredited couriers.’ Max told me security wondered whether I had bought something locally and this was a case of late delivery. It seems often when a woman buys something here, it gets delivered with her husband’s name, not hers. I gather their rationale is that it’s being sent to a household rather than to a specific person, with the husband as the titular head. So this part raised no suspicion in itself… Anyhow the crate was offloaded. The guards didn’t want my wrath on their heads if it was returned to sender. There was an envelope attached to the consignment, actually a thank-you card. Max had an interpreter translate. No return address was given, but eventually security had a fair idea of the source and the owners of the truck.’

     ‘Guards opened the crate and discovered the stone Buddha, rather nicely packed in straw. Also they found recycled materials once used around consignments of food and medical aid. Nothing else was found inside. The card stated this was a gift, thanking him for the treatment he’d given some patients. This was in the plural. There were no clues on their identities. Max mainly operated on Afghans from across the border. Recall these boundaries were drawn a long time ago with no consideration about tribal ranges. Many of the local Pashtuns are related to Afghan Pashtuns. The writer of the note could have been referring to blood relatives or even close friends and families of these friends. Staffers with local knowledge strongly believed the truck was connected with a local smuggling ring. Opium, looted antiquities, both, who knows?’

     ‘Dear Max leaned on a local staffer to persuade a member of this ring to come for a chat. He came armed, but even assault rifles are standard male accessories there. Max asked the interpreter to say he was deeply grateful for the thought, but he’d have trouble with shipping. How was he going to get an export licence if he didn’t have the signature of a registered antiquities dealer? Max had the gumption to suggest the donor make a cash gift to the refugees in lieu of this gift! Max confessed he almost let slip, ‘This is what the Buddha would’ve wanted.’ Checked himself in time. References to the will of infidel idols doesn’t go down well in these parts. Just recall those poor Bamiyan blown-up Buddhas, though this hadn’t yet happened.’

     ‘According to Max, this intermediary was all sweet reasonableness.  The guy said they knew Max had no problems with his own crates of medical supplies arriving intact. It would not be difficult for this to be trucked the same route in reverse down to Karachi. He wouldn’t tell Max anything about the identities of those who’d been helped by surgery. The smuggler, if indeed this was who he was, seemed at pains to get across they were honourable. They didn’t steal foreign aid, unlike corrupt government officials. They didn’t run protection rackets against the refugee camps or other good causes. They could arrange documentation to indicate this wasn’t antique, but a recently made garden ornament or interior decoration item. Max got the point this gift was in genuine thanks, so turning it down would be a severe breach of etiquette. Max tried to make the emissary believe the main reason for this meeting wasn’t to return it. The guy was hopefully left with the impression Max’s main worry was how to get it home without undue scrutiny.’

     ‘At least now I can joke over this whole storm in a teacup. To think Max tried to return it to sender, then got his knickers in a twist this might cause terminal offence to touchy tribals! Of course he did the right thing to accept under these circumstances. Later, after I took photos of this and sent it to those collectors in Lahore, I learned people there would have paid quite a bit to own such a splendid specimen. Those smugglers were turning down a fair wad of cash to give Max a token of their esteem. Yes, I did wonder if we could’ve palmed this onto a good home in Pakistan. We didn’t make the attempt for fear these people would find out. They mightn’t be pleased if they thought we’d sold this on and quietly pocketed what could’ve been their cash.’

     ‘In the end, I spilled the beans to my friend in Lahore. She was very understanding. We used her family’s local address, with some docos to indicate these were contemporary decorative items. They had household items posted from Pakistan to Sydney, plus rellies of hers run an export-import business. If this had fallen through, we had whatever stratagem the art smugglers had up their sleeves.’

     ‘I haven’t had the Buddha appraised, since there’s no way I’m going to donate this to any museum. It’s not that I want this badly, I don’t. But I don’t want us or any receiver to have questions asked about its provenance. It is some consolation there are many even finer items out there in private hands. I gather there’s more than one collector in Pakistan itself who has hot items from Kabul’s museum. From the time frame, this couldn’t have been looted in Afghanistan or nearer by, specifically for Max. Almost certainly it had been taken earlier, but was already in their smuggling pipeline. Maybe whoever the grateful local was, they were already thinking whether to thank my husband. Then I had to come along, blab to the wrong person, show photos of my Gandharan art, generally leaving the impression I wouldn’t say no to more. The breaks in the middle of the sculpture are obviously recent. It’s a deliberate cut, to smuggle in easier pieces. This is what I regret the most. Survived nearly two thousand years with only a missing nose and finger, then it gets disembowelled by looters...’

     When my sister asked at a different time to when this tale was retold to us, ‘Auntie, would you guys have gone to the same effort were the gift not a Buddhist relic but something more modern?,’ Bianca paused then agreed. She added a caveat, ‘It’s not a good idea to upset smugglers. We would’ve never accepted anything, though, if we’d suspected it was burgled. Looting from a long gone monastery, in a place where similar stuff has been vandalised, there’s at least fifty shades of grey…’

 

 

                                  *                         *                           *

 

 

     Blanche couldn’t help but mention patch-nose Buddha during our first day with Zee, but without any reference to its repair.

 

 

 

 

 

 


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

                        

 

 

 

 


            

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Comments

I have read the first few pages and will get back to it. The pace is great and there is an energy that permeates the story. I ondr if occasionally the phrases are so complex the reader's eye stumbles. However, very clever. I look forward to reading more.