She was the eldest of seven. I was number four, six years younger.
She had a quality you couldn’t quite put your finger on; a kind of other-worldliness. I used to imagine she was the elven princess from Lothlorien (what was her name?) She was slight and had long brown hair flecked with red lights, and pale freckled skin. And she was strong. I used to watch her as a teenager running races against Pam Kilborn and a very young Raelene Boyle at the old Royal Park grass athletics track that is long gone now. But she was vulnerable as well. One summer afternoon in the garden at home, she lowered her lithe body into a striped canvas timber deckchair in the shade of the old peach tree. She might have been sixteen. That would make it 1967, the ‘summer of love’. The frame cracked and the chair collapsed, crushing one of her delicate fingers. The pain in her face burned a hole in your heart. My other more robust sister would have cursed and kicked the chair across the garden.
We had some kind of an affinity. Some relatives would have no idea what to give a scowling male teen crossing the stormy straits from childhood to maturity, but one Christmas she gave me a Donovan record, a poem on scrolled cardboard that she wrote herself, and an Antoine de Saint-Exupéry book.
Then she was grown up, and she left home. One sweltering day in January 1972 I rode the tram into sleepy Parkville and walked up blistering Gatehouse Street to her Victorian terrace house for lunch, which was a kind of hippy salad with raw vegetables and bean shoots and sultanas and unroasted unsalted peanuts; and while she made it, the house cat watched from the sideboard in the cool, dark kitchen and I sat on a tall stool by the window and watched the sunlight move across the table. Before eating, we walked to the shop in Park Drive for some bread, through eerily quiet streets of empty houses baking in the heat. This was the academic precinct, and the owners of the houses would still have been holidaying in seashell-decorated beach cabins at Somers or Merricks or Queenscliff; reading The Age on the seaweedy beaches or drinking white wine and discussing left-wing politics on shady sundecks.
After lunch, with the sun over Royal Park, we sat in the cool courtyard at the back of the house under a giant gumtree. Gumtrees and old railways sleepers were common inner-city garden features then. The cat came outside too, and arched and rubbed our legs and settled on the end of a sleeper and slept.
Years passed. Six months ago I found a letter while I was going through my old arch file. She sent it to me from Dharamsala in India in 1980, when she had already been ill for quite some time. It was what the words didn’t say. The strength was gone now. ‘Evidently,’ she wrote - she had been reading a Tibetan horoscope – ‘after my twenty-ninth birthday, things will improve for me.’ The letter went on and there was a kind of verbal lethargy, a weariness that I could read between the lines written on airmail tissue paper. That year she returned to Melbourne and she would never leave again.
The next year, two policemen knocked at my door late one night. I left the book I was reading and they told me what they had to tell me and we rode in the car. One of the policemen was very young and very nervous. “I’ve never had to do this before,” he said. “Neither have I,” I replied. She had been found in Royal Park. She was two weeks short of her thirtieth birthday.
The funeral was held in a small church on a hill at Bulla, a small village in bare rolling hills then, but surrounded by fake Georgian suburbia now. I knew all the faces in the church. They had been her school friends, but now they were in their late twenties and they were doctors and businesswomen and nuns but they still looked like schoolgirls and they had streaked wet faces and they were hugging each other.
I still have the Donovan record and the Saint-Exupéry book. I lost the poem years ago.