It’s the main reason I’ve never enjoyed writing – this difficulty with knowing how and where to begin. It’s a particular challenge for me right now, being already at the end of the story. The story of my life, that is.
I must be plain with you. I’m no author. I don’t know how to structure my “story” in a conventional way, though I am now reconciled to telling it. Of course, whether you choose to read it is another matter, for it will surely jump about in time as my memories do. But if you possess sufficient patience, and a willingness to forgive my amateurish style, I’ll explain to you how I came to be telling the story of my life in a small Paris apartment on my eighteenth birthday, with only my faithful black cat and a bottle of Domaine Leroy Richebourg 2000 for company. I’m told the exercise may be therapeutic. If it helps to know the short of it, it’s a story of love and loss, guilt and penance. Oh, and there are secrets and subterfuge and other such things of which I’m not proud. And there’s evil – I must foreshadow that, in fairness,
for you may find it disconcerting.
Perhaps you’re questioning what a just turned eighteen-year-old could know about such weighty matters. I don’t resent your scepticism; you’re right to ask. I can tell you with certainty that no amount of reading and research will prepare you for experiencing these phenomena. Even so, perhaps you can learn a thing or two by reading about the mistakes that I have made.
When I was young – too young to understand the ways of the world – I was adamant that I would marry my mother once I was of age. I was three when I forewarned Father of my intentions, believing it to be the appropriate courtesy. It pains me to recall being infuriated by his response, which was to chuckle and ruffle the hair on my head. I was a precocious child and I found hair-ruffling patronising.
My mother was my first love, of course, which I suppose is so often the case for little boys. But once I was old enough to realise that there are different types of love and that one does not marry one’s mother, I informed my father that I would marry a woman exactly like Mother. To this he seemed to constrain his response, offering me a smile not matched by the sympathetic look in his eyes. When I was older still, I understood what the look had meant. Father, while sparing me the pain of this reality, had been thinking that there’s no one else remotely like my mother. When I came to this realisation myself, at age seven, I fell into a depression over my bleak future of platonic love and bachelorhood. I moped around for weeks, sighing and lamenting that I would never find the love of my life the way Father had.
My parents were deeply in love. I was quick to observe that my school friends’ parents didn’t act the same way towards each other as my parents did. Those couples would be polite and courteous with one another, in a way that left me feeling awkward without understanding why. If they kissed, it would be no more than a peck – often on the cheek! One day, my best friend Hugo and I had walked in on my parents kissing passionately in the kitchen and afterwards Hugo asked me whether they’d been watching “Gone with the Wind” lately. I didn’t know what he meant at the time – my parents always kissed like that, so Hugo’s drop-jawed response had baffled me. My parents never acted in that polite or courteous way other parents did either. Instead, they seemed to disagree about practically everything. They never fought, but they did have lively debates on almost every topic for, as Father often remarked, there never were two more different people to marry. They had a contrasting opinion on virtually every subject, and both were inclined to speak their mind. Bearing witness to their widely divergent and passionately articulated views was a constant source of entertainment for me as a child. Alas, the first twelve years of my happy, privileged life on the Upper North Shore of Sydney, Australia with my very-much-in-love parents is not the story I intend to tell. It was a relevant digression, though, as it provides you with some context for all that follows. You see, that life all changed with a phone call three weeks before my thirteenth birthday. And that is where this memoir must begin.
Mother and I were outdoors at our home in Sydney, waiting for Father’s call. It was a glorious spring day. The wind was blowing jacaranda petals onto our faces as we laughed and enjoyed the sunshine, not a care in the world. That’s how my life genuinely was back then. But Mother suddenly sat bolt upright, still and stony-faced, and my laughter caught in my throat as I observed her already pale complexion turn whiter. At that moment, a distinctive-looking black kitten was born on the other side of the world. Of course, I didn’t know it at the time. And, had I known, I certainly wouldn’t have comprehended how ominous its birth was, or how our lives would soon intersect.
Ah … I’ve mentioned my feline friend too early. He’s sitting on my lap now, as I dictate this memoir, and he has a way of insisting on things. I will introduce you to him properly in due course, as I must try to maintain some semblance of order to my memoir.
Back to that day in Sydney I was recounting. Mother composed herself quickly before sighing and lamenting that it was time to move indoors. When she then suggested that Marie might appreciate help in the kitchen, I had to suppress my mirth. Marie is the mother of Hugo – my best friend, whom I previously mentioned. They live together in an annex attached to our home and, by mutual arrangement, Marie is our family’s cook. I’ve known Marie my entire life. And I know that what she appreciates most is Mother staying well away from the kitchen.
At any rate, we moved indoors. I was waiting for Father’s call with keen anticipation for several reasons, but mostly because I was eager to hear whether the transportation of the wine had gone smoothly …. Ah, but you don’t know about the wine, or its significance. It seems that I’ve chosen my starting point poorly, after all. I’m not trying to delay the painful moment. It’s just that, on reflection, I should begin by explaining to you what I knew of my father at the time.
• • •
I am mindful that readers enjoy descriptions of key characters’ physical appearance and personality. I enjoy this myself when I read fiction. But this is a memoir. My story is personal. I naturally have my own biases, which may lead you to form the view that I’m embellishing or providing a subjective account. It is of the utmost importance to me that my memories be accepted as integrous! I therefore commit to giving you an entirely factual account of my life and surrounding events, notwithstanding that it will reflect poorly on me at times. So, I won’t waste time telling you that my father was “handsome” and my mother “beautiful”, although they certainly were in my eyes – perhaps less because of their pleasing physical appearance than their generous hearts and spirited souls. Instead, I’ll provide you with objective descriptions and what I know of how others perceived them.
My father was perceived by others to be rather tall, though he was only 180cm in height. I suppose it was his impressive demeanour and the way he held himself so confidently that gave the appearance of a taller man. He always wore a closely-cropped beard and moustache – even before it was fashionable to do so, for he was a man disinclined to follow trends. His nose was slightly
– yet noticeably – crooked, having been broken a number of times (hockey, rugby and boxing) and never reset. Crooked and (almost) central to his face as it was, though, his nose was not his defining feature. What drew most attention was the pure, white streak that ran through his otherwise jet-black shoulder-length hair, immediately above his right brow. The way he told it to me, when he was twelve years old he went to bed one night with a very respectable head of black hair, only to awaken the next morning with the white streak running through it. It was a mystery to everyone and naturally led to a school yard nickname of “skunk”, which he apparently didn’t entirely mind as he was well liked at school and the nickname was used jovially, rather than in a bullying way as nicknames often can be. If I were not intent on leaving my subjective biases out of my descriptions, I would say the streak became him and gave him a distinguished appearance, even when he was getting about in a tracksuit, or pyjamas. I suppose I’ve said it now. At any rate, I had heard others say the same thing over the years (albeit not about the pyjamas), so you can rely on it. Certainly, he was most often encountered in a suit or his barrister’s robes, and he was considered quite dashing about town.
Father hadn’t held a particular interest in pursuing a legal career, only commencing his law degree in 1984 for want of any better notion of what to make of his life. However, he did come to discover his true passion while studying law. To support himself through university, he worked part-time at a suburban drive-through bottle shop. There, he became fascinated by a bottle of Châteauneuf-du-Pape that sat in pride-of-place on a top shelf of the shop’s walk-in area. Although most patrons considered the presence of the “fancy foreign bottle” a ridiculous pretension, in the owner’s mind that generic bottle of Châteauneuf-du-Pape brought a sophistication to the shop that would attract clients looking for more than a six-pack of stubbies and a wine cask on their way to a party. It never had that effect, but it did pique my father’s interest. Intrigued by the beautiful, embossed bottle bearing its inimi- table logo of a Papal tiara set above the keys of Saint Peter, Father set about researching and reading whatever he could find on the topic of Châteauneuf- du-Pâpe and French wine in general. And so began his love affair with wine and with all things French.
On completing his Bachelor of Law degree in 1987, Father declined a prestigious clerkship in favour of studying French language and culture at the Institut Catholique de Paris, one of Paris’ oldest and most highly regarded universities. In January 1988, he entered France via Aéroport Charles de Gaulle on a two-year student visa, excited to finally explore the country he had felt an unwavering affinity with ever since setting eyes on that bottle of Châteauneuf-du-Pape almost three years earlier. Then, after completing his two years of study, he remained in France for another year while studying for his Australian Bar exam, intending to go straight to the Criminal Bar on his return to Australia. At least, that’s what I had always understood. But I had recently begun to realise that there were many holes in the accepted history of my father’s life during the years he lived in France.
I knew that, during those three years, Father moved from student accom- modation into his own apartment. He bought the apartment from an older couple that had befriended him – Giselle, who’s French, and her American husband, Tom. Through Giselle and Tom’s connections and numerous soirées, Father was introduced to a range of colourful characters and experiences during his time in Paris, some of which he relayed to me. When he was looking to buy a pied-à-terre, Giselle and Tom mentioned their apartment around the corner from their own home, which had previously served as accommodation for their children’s au pair. While small, it had one very important feature that appealed to my father – a private cellar (or cave, in French - pronounced “carve”). During his downtime from studying, Father visited the best vineyards of France, acquiring prestigious wines from great years to lay down in that cave. Most of these wines would not be ready to drink for at least a couple of decades. Of course, he also purchased a stock of everyday drinking wines, in particular from his beloved Beaujolais. However, the bulk of his prized bottles would remain untouched for many years. My father was a patient man.
When he returned to Australia in November 1990, he quickly established himself at the Criminal Bar and soon developed a reputation as the criminal law barrister to call if the evidence was stacked against you but there were “extenuating circumstances”. Indeed, this is how he first met my mother, some years later, in 1996.
What had not previously occurred to me, though, was the fact that my father had arrived in France with almost no personal wealth. How then did he manage to acquire his apartment and fund those expeditions to the country’s best vineyards, much less purchase dozens upon dozens of France’s finest bottles? I had never contemplated this when I was younger. Having only ever known my father as a wealthy man, that part of his story was in keeping with my experience of him. And, of course, I never had reason to question his history. That is, until about a year prior to the time this memoir begins. I could have asked him about it, or asked my mother, but this realisation came at the same time I’d begun to question other “facts” about my father. So, I had kept my suspicions to myself.
• • •
The day of the phone call, Father was in France on business. There was nothing unusual about this, as he generally returned there at least three times a year. I had spent many memorable holidays in Paris with my parents, however my mother and I never accompanied Father on his shorter trips. He attributed his solo travels to the strict policy my school had regarding absences during term and my mother’s claustrophobia. However, I’d recently begun to suspect that there was more to it than he acknowledged. What “business” did he have in France, exactly?
It’s true that my mother’s claustrophobia was heightened during our trips to France. The long-haul flight was part of it, and our Paris flat is rather small compared with our spacious Sydney home. For this reason, Father had been searching for a suitable family-sized holiday home in the south of France. After years of searching, he finally found an appropriate property. It’s just outside the Luberon village of Lourmarin – set in Vaucluse, the most beautiful part of Provence. I was thrilled when he telephoned to confirm the purchase! Ah – but this is not the phone call I foreshadowed commencing this memoir with …. I will relay that phone call shortly. The phone call about the Lourmarin house occurred a week earlier and brought much happier news, even if Father’s exuberance over finding the “perfect house” appeared to be at odds with his description of it. ‘It’s a beautiful, large home, but it’s very old,’ he’d said, ‘and it’s been let go. The wallpaper’s peeling, everything’s covered in dust and in a state of disrepair, the grounds are overgrown and all that’s lived here for some time are spiders and vermin. It smells dreadfully musty, too, but it’s made for us!’
‘Um …,’ I’d begun, digesting the description of the house for too long and missing the opportunity to get a word in.
‘It even has a name. “The Clos des Ceps!”. Can you believe it?’ Father continued. ‘There’s a lot of intriguing antique furniture we could restore, big stone fireplaces, gorgeous exposed oak beams throughout, plenty of outdoor space to grow anything we like – not just herbs on the windowsill like in Paris
– and enough spare rooms for you to invite Hugo and your other friends to stay,’ he enthused without pause. ‘There’s an overgrown vineyard we could bring back to life, and there’s even an old piano! I imagined you playing it the other day as I sat on a dusty old chaise-longue enjoying a glass of local wine. How I love to hear you play! I had a man check it over and it can’t be salvaged. I so enjoyed the image, though, that I placed an order for a new piano from Centre Chopin in Paris, to be delivered this afternoon! I could have purchased from a closer vendor, of course, but I’m pleased to finally make a purchase from them and, naturally, I immediately thought of their marvellous C. Bechstein grand! Oh, it will look conspicuously incongruous here, and it’s an extravagance your mother will surely frown upon … but I couldn’t resist. I know how you cherish the control and speed you achieve on a grand, and I simply couldn’t pass on the Bechstein.’
Whenever I stayed in Paris with Father, I booked practice rooms at the Centre Chopin – a grand piano store on rue des Pyrénées in the 20th arrondissement, a short walk from our apartment. By arrangement with the manager, I also occasionally undertook short practises on the store floor. After trying several of their wonderful display pianos, I fell in love with a C. Bechstein grand. I was elated by the news that Father had purchased that magnificent instrument for our holiday home! ‘But Papa, what about your one non-negotiable?’ I waited excitedly for his foregone reply.
‘It’s perfection; everything I’ve been searching for. I can’t wait to show you. The bottles are being relocated tomorrow by a specialist wine transport company. Jacques has arranged it. They’re in good hands.’
Jacques, a Parisian caviste whose specialty is selling the wines of Burgundy, was Father’s dearest friend. They first met twenty-four years earlier, when Father purchased some classed growth Bordeaux from Jacques’ cave. They got to talking and, discovering that they had a shared passion for wine and similar outlook on life, quickly became close. I wasn’t surprised that Jacques was assisting Father with transporting his precious wines. The “one non-negotiable feature”, which had caused Father’s search for a home in the south of France to take so long, was, of course, a cellar. But not just any cellar – his search wouldn’t have taken years had any old cellar been sufficient. No, the cellar needed to meet two specific requirements. Firstly, it had to be large enough to comfortably house Father’s collection of approximately 2000 bottles from France’s greatest domaines (including the renowned trilogy of Bordeaux vintages from 1988, 1989 and 1990). Father had carefully acquired those wines over a twenty-year period, and housed them in tightly packed, increasingly impenetrable stacks in his superb, but confined, underground stone-vaulted cave à vins in Paris. Secondly, the cellar had to naturally provide the same ideal combination of temperature and humidity to ensure the wines’ longevity as well as the Paris cave does. Jacques has always maintained that the wines drunk from that cave were in superior condition to those he’s consumed in the many larger and more grand cellars of his wealthy Parisian clients. Father attributed the remarkable longevity of his wines to the cave’s almost 100% humidity, water trickling down its stone walls after every heavy downfall of rain. The only drawback was the damage caused to the labels of the bottles – though for me that only gave those bottles a more romantic and mysterious appeal.
‘Will everything be ready for our family Christmas … this year?’ I anxiously awaited Father’s reply. Mother had indicated that she couldn’t bear another eight weeks in the small Paris flat, and it was already September.
‘Absolutely!’ he bellowed back at me. ‘I’ll return to Sydney in time for your birthday and I have a full schedule of cases until December. Meanwhile, Camille’s brother has kindly offered to oversee the work that needs to be undertaken to render the house liveable.’
Camille is Jacques’ partner, and one of our dearest friends. She lives in Paris, where she works as an art restorer for the Louvre. I was vaguely recalling that her family was from the Luberon, when Father continued – ‘Camille’s overjoyed at the prospect that we’ll be spending Christmas so close to her family’s oliveraie. But now, my dear boy, I must speak with your mother.’
And so I passed the phone to Mother, feeling overjoyed at Father’s news and wishing fervently that the next three months would pass quickly. Then, instead of leaving the room, I lurked behind the adjoining door and eaves- dropped on the telephone conversation – something I had done many times during the preceding twelve months. As I mentioned, this all occurred in the week before the phone call that changed the course of my life. But I’ve got ahead of myself yet again. I must tell you some more about what I knew of my father, and the reasons I began the abhorrent practice of eavesdropping.
• • •
There was a man who often visited Father at home. I knew him only as Boden. I sometimes wondered whether that was his first or his last name but never dared ask – Boden wasn’t a man who invited conversation and, objectively, he was rather frightening to behold. I wasn’t particularly affected by Boden’s appearance, but Hugo was always terrified when he visited. It was not so much the man’s monstrous height, the scar running down the side of his chiselled face, the sculpted muscles that looked on the verge of popping, or even the fact that he always dressed in head-to-toe black. Those factors surely contributed to the overall sense of menace he exuded, as did his gleaming hairless head and piercing dark eyes. However, it was the silent way in which he carried himself that most unnerved Hugo.
‘It’s just unsettling. Unnatural,’ Hugo had complained one afternoon, when Boden’s visit coincided with our tennis lesson. (It was about a year prior to the phone calls I have mentioned.) ‘It should be physically impossible for a man that size to just appear from nowhere without a sound or sense of warning.’ Hugo had said it very softly because, although he’d waited until Boden was inside the house, Boden seemed like the kind of man who would hear you whispering about him around corners and through walls. Even Phil, our tennis coach, had looked perturbed by Boden’s sudden appearance.
‘Don’t worry,’ I reassured Phil, ‘that was just Boden, Father’s friend.’ Later, I’d reflected on what I said to Phil and for the first time wondered what the nature of my father’s relationship with Boden was. Why had I said they were friends? While Boden regularly attended our home, he never visited for dinner or other social events. He only ever met with my father in the study with the door closed. I only even knew his name because I’d asked my mother once, when I was around four years old.
‘Oh, that’s Boden,’ she’d replied, and seemed to hesitate before adding – ‘He helps your father with some important business.’ I saw less of Boden once I started school and after that didn’t give him much thought. However, there was an occasion when I was ten or so and I came upon Boden making his way to Father’s study. Without thinking, I called out – “Hey, Boden!” – and was immediately apprehensive when he turned his entire intimidating presence towards me. Then he shocked me by smiling – a genuine, charming smile that dissolved my apprehension instantly – before speaking in a gravelly voice that would have been frightening if not for the smile.
‘Master Eskar, you’ve grown.’ He paused, considering me for a moment longer, before adding – ‘An inch in only three months. Well done.’ Then he turned and continued his usual route to enter my father’s study.
It was the first time I became aware that Boden had noticed me, or that he knew my name. At the time, I had felt chuffed by the exchange. Reflecting on it after the tennis court encounter, however, it struck me as creepy. The way Boden had so easily allayed my disquiet now appeared calculated – the perfect execution of a well-practised skill. And how had he so accurately assessed my growth? Who was Boden? What important business did he help Father with? It was suddenly inexplicable to me, that I had accepted Boden’s peripheral presence for so long without questioning it. And that’s when I began eavesdropping on my father’s conversations. I didn’t feel good about it, but the more I heard, the more I felt that such action was justified. It became increasingly clear that Father was keeping something from me, and possibly from Mother as well.
• • •
I had always felt a certain emotional distance from my father. Whereas my mother’s love is unconditional and unadulterated, my father’s love seemed … aloof at times. He loved me, without question. But it was as though he loved me … reluctantly. On many occasions over the years, I witnessed what began as a look of love and pride towards me turn into a grimace of emotional torment. I felt to blame, even though I couldn’t fathom why or how it was that I hurt my father. And then, he would grab me and hug me tightly, and it was a real hug – warm and loving – making me doubt what I thought I had seen or sensed. However, this occurred too many times for me to continue doubting myself.
And so I put these little mysteries together – Father’s inexplicable emotional distance; his frequent “business” trips to France; the mystery behind the purchase of his Paris apartment; Boden’s visits; and the deepening disquiet I felt arising from the snippets of telephone conversations I overheard my father having. It had reached the point I concluded, horrified, that my father was an assassin. Or a spy. I hadn’t settled on which when I shared my suspicions with Hugo and was open to it possibly being both.
‘Are you crazy, Ez?’ Hugo had stared at me as though already convinced of the answer. ‘Your father is a barrister. A man of law. He’s probably the mostly annoyingly law-abiding citizen I’ve ever encountered. He doesn’t even run the amber, for goodness’ sake, even when he’s late for something important and there’s no traffic. Remember that time, on the way to the chess tournament, and we were both calling out from the back seat “Go, go, go”? And instead, he dutifully applied the brakes and the clocks had already started by the time we arrived?’ Hugo continued staring at me in disbelief, but I refused to squirm. ‘The man helps the elderly cross the street,’ he continued, clearly aghast. ‘I’ve seen him. He actually does that …. He donates not only his money but also his time to charitable causes. I read in the newspaper last year that he does more pro bono work than any other barrister in New South Wales, and probably the whole country!’ When I remained silent, Hugo added – ‘And Eskar, I don’t need to remind you of all he’s done for my mother and me. Yet … now you’ve convinced yourself that he’s an assassin?’
‘Or maybe just a spy,’ I offered sheepishly, by now feeling ashamed of
where I’d allowed my thoughts to turn. ‘You know, the kind of spy that doesn’t kill. Or … only kills … um … baddies …. You know, like Bond ….’ And then I started to cry. I hadn’t known it was going to happen. It shocked me as much as it shocked Hugo, although he barely hesitated before placing an arm around me and asking what was really behind my crazy talk. ‘I need there to be a reason,’ I spluttered. ‘A reason loving me is so painful for him.’ ‘Wha— what do you mean?’ Hugo asked quietly. And then I told him about the looks and how they made me feel and I was surprised when Hugo didn’t tell me again that I was crazy. He didn’t say anything.
‘You’ve seen it too, haven’t you?’ I looked him directly in the eyes and saw the answer before he spoke it.
‘I do know what you mean, yes,’ Hugo eventually replied. ‘When you were performing at that piano recital just before Christmas last year, the one in the Utzon room. You were brilliant. I could see your father in my periph- eral vision, even as I continued watching you, and his expression was one of unmistakable pride. Then suddenly, it just … crumpled. It was as though he couldn’t bear the strength of the emotion. I couldn’t understand it, and I never mentioned it to you, but it left me feeling … sad for your father, without knowing why. That left me uneasy, so I put it out of my mind. I’ve seen it only that once, but it was precisely as you’ve described. I’m sorry Ez. I wish I could say more.’
We sat in silence for a while, before Hugo added – ‘But the answer is not that your father is an assassin, a spy or anything like that. That much I know, in my heart. And you do too.’ I sighed in wordless agreement. When Hugo then chuckled, I looked at him questioningly and a little hurt.
‘I’m sorry, Ez,’ he said, ‘it’s just that … I didn’t know whether to be fright- ened or relieved to learn that even your amazing brain can be short-circuited by emotion. I settled on relieved – now I know for sure that my best friend isn’t A.I!’ Despite my glum mood, even I chuckled a little at that. ‘Tell me about these conversations you’ve … ah … overheard,’ Hugo continued with a sideways glance.
There wasn’t a lot I could say with any certainty. Once I had started eaves- dropping, though, and piecing the snippets together with what I already knew, I became sure that Father was keeping secrets from us – from me and from Mother.
• • •
My mother was born in England in 1971. Very soon after, taking advantage of the final year of the assisted migration scheme, the family moved to Australia and settled in Sydney. Nan and Pop never lost their British accents and, as a result, their children developed a rather “refined” way of speaking “Australian”, which some people thought of as “a bit posh”. News of teenage pregnancies at the local public schools had instilled such fear in Pop’s heart that, despite having no religious affiliations, he and Nan sent their daughters to Catholic girls’ schools. The family struggled financially, but Mother enjoyed a happy childhood, which she always recounted fondly.
According to Nan and Pop, my mother – with her staunch non-conformism and unpredictability – was unfairly characterised as rebellious and cheeky by her teachers at the conservative schools she attended. I knew she had been suspended from secondary school on numerous occasions, because Pop enjoyed pulling his collection of her suspension slips out at dinner parties. His favourites included the one citing, as “reason for suspension”, my mother’s “unapologetically heretical views, conduct and influence on others” and another which stated, merely, “eccentricity”. Both were signed: “Sister Vivienne”.
Mother has what my father described as an “extremist” personality – she’s passionate and “fiery” and takes an “all or nothing” approach to almost everything in life. Perhaps because of this, she engenders extreme reactions in others. People either adore or detest my mother – no one’s ever ambivalent or indifferent about her. I adore my mother, of course, and have never understood how anyone lands at the other emotional extreme. But it has always been so, and Mother approves – she has little tolerance for neutrality or indecisiveness.
After injury caused Mother to abandon her professional ballet career, she studied social work and became a child and family caseworker. She found the role highly rewarding until one summer evening in March of 1996, when she was directed to pick up a child named Portia Rose Parkes from her foster home and return her to her parents’ care. Portia, the only child of a high-profile politician, had been temporarily placed into state care after being hospitalised in a catatonic state with numerous, non-accidental injuries that her parents couldn’t account for. With a police investigation afoot, the direction to return Portia to her parents went against all protocol. Sensing that Portia wouldn’t be safe if returned as directed, Mother instead whisked her away to a safe rural location under the care of Mother’s dear friend, Jane. Jane and Mother had been friends since primary school, and Mother trusted her implicitly. What’s more, Jane was accustomed to my mother’s way of knowing things, so agreed to take Portia in and keep her hidden without question.
When Mother refused to reveal Portia’s location to the authorities, she was charged with child kidnapping offences. Denied bail and remanded at Mulawa Women’s Correctional Centre, she soon developed an intense aversion to confined spaces. Not long after her arrest, Father received a call from an anonymous benefactor who was willing to pay for him to represent her – an offer Father accepted without hesitation, for it was his kind of case. The tabloids had a field day. A government child protection case worker, who just happens to be extraordinarily photogenic, kidnaps the daughter of a high-profile politician, refuses to reveal the child’s location or speak about her motives, and is represented by Sydney’s most enigmatic (not to mention eligible bachelor) barrister? You can imagine how the matter attracted the public’s attention.
The media was desperate for any information it could obtain about my mother and all manner of people came forward with scandalous anecdotes. They even published my mother’s Year 9 high school photo. It was alongside a picture of 88-year-old Sister Vivienne, quoted as saying that Mother “was always recalcitrant and unholy” and Sister had predicted “no good would come of her”. Sister Vivienne seemed pleased to have what she evidently took to be “the last word” on the matter of my mother, not knowing that they were very close to her own last words – she passed soon after.
Many later claimed that Gabriel Wilde had fallen in love with Sascha May Harding at first sight, and that it was this irrational love/lust that propelled him to accept what the media insisted was an unwinnable case. But Father was simply inspired to act by the fact that a well-intentioned woman had been inadvertently caught up in an ethical dilemma – she had committed a crime according to the letter of the law, but was she the criminal? For her part, Mother would later concede that she had noticed how dashingly handsome Gabriel Wilde was. Yet, she insisted her overriding concern was that he was as good at his job as the media articles about him suggested.
Within months, Father had secured Mother’s release and the dropping of all charges. Police made a number of sensational arrests in connection with their investigation into the horrific injuries suffered by Portia Rose Parkes, charging both of Portia’s parents, a number of other politicians, two magistrates and a judge. Mother was offered her job back, but the vicarious trauma associated with her years working in child protection had been compounded by the direct trauma of her imprisonment, and she knew she could never return. Jane’s role in secreting Portia away had never been uncovered, and Mother was grateful for this – not only for Jane’s sake. With all the ongoing media attention, Mother now needed Jane’s rural haven herself.
Mother attended Father’s chambers to confirm that there was no outstanding money owed or paperwork to be signed. After confirming as much, Father had thought to say more. Before he could settle on the appropriate words, however, my mother took his hand and looked into his eyes in a way he would ordinarily have found disconcerting but which, on this occasion, intrigued him. Mother thanked him for his services, and with the words “until next time” strode out. At this, Father immediately felt alarmed that Mother may have been setting off on a course of action she anticipated would again bring her into need of his services. And when she turned to give a final farewell wave, he wondered why it was only then that he noticed how enigmatic and alluring she was, and he found himself hoping that there would indeed be a “next time”. Those electric, emerald-coloured eyes of hers, which I’ve inherited, were never far from Father’s mind from that moment. But no one, apart from Jane, would see her for the next several months. And it would be another two years before Sascha and Gabriel would meet again.
• • •
The first thing I learned through my eavesdropping was that Boden spoke with my father on the telephone even more frequently than he visited our home. ‘Their conversations were mostly impossible to glean any meaning from,’ I confided in Hugo. ‘It was almost as though they spoke in code. For example—’ Reluctantly revealing to Hugo that my eavesdropping was compounded by note-taking, I produced a miniature notebook from my back pocket before continuing. ‘For example, my father’s side of a conversation on 1 August: That’s concerning .… What led you to think that?… What happened next?… Did anyone see you?… What time was it?... Good work. I’m always confident I can rely on you …. Exactly …. Very good. Goodbye. And then, an apparent afterthought – Early finish on Friday, remember …. Yes, that’s correct. And you know about the pick-up. Very good.’ I looked at Hugo and shrugged.
‘Ok …,’ Hugo shook his head. ‘That is … baffling …’
‘All the conversations with Boden have been like that – Father interrogating him before giving directions. Most of the conversations in French were with Jacques, Camille or someone I don’t know, called Pascal. The conversations with Jacques were mainly about wine and Father’s cave, and to Camille Father spoke a lot about his search for a home in the south of France. Father mentioned his conversations with Pascal to them both, but I couldn’t make sense of it. The conversations with Pascal himself were the most interesting ones. Here’s an example, based on my translation.’ I read from my notes:
‘What news do you have for me?... That’s disappointing …. Yes, I remember her well …. It could be …. she was always very reliable, but …. Yes, of course we must try. We must always try until we are successful …. I appreciate your dedication …. Yes, I will return 14 September …. Certainly. The usual method?... Perfect. Thank you. Goodbye.’
I continued to share my notes with Hugo, who could make nothing more of the conversations than I could.
‘What I don’t understand,’ Hugo put to me when I finished, ‘is why you haven’t simply asked – if not your father, then your mother?’
‘If I ask my mother,’ I explained, ‘there are two possibilities. The first is that she’s aware of what it all means and both she and Father are keeping it from me. I haven’t really entertained that possibility, because my mother and I don’t keep secrets from each other – it’s an agreement we’ve always shared. So, it seems more likely that Father’s keeping secrets from us both.’ I sighed with the heaviness of this thought.
‘I didn’t think your parents kept secrets from each other, either,’ Hugo commented, and I wished he hadn’t because he was right. ‘Ez … sometimes parents do withhold information from their kids,’ he continued, ‘you know, to protect them. Or, because it’s someone else’s private business.’ And that really annoyed me because common sense was the last thing I wanted to hear just then.
‘Someone’s going to be hurt if I ask the question. That’s all I know. So, I want to find out more before I do,’ I explained, adding – ‘For Mother’s sake, really.’
• • •
It’s time to tell you about the telephone call; the one with which I had intended to begin this memoir. Please understand that it’s painful for me and forgive my clumsy approach.
When the phone rang loudly with the distinctive international ringtone, we naturally believed it to be Father even though his call was expected some hours later. Having raced down the stairs three at a time, I was still panting when I picked up the phone in the study. ‘Papa!’ I exclaimed between breaths, as Mother arrived smiling at the door. There was silence at the other end. I stood upright, feeling myself frown involuntarily. ‘Hello?’ I asked, already feeling uneasy for no fathomable reason.
‘Eskar,’ came the familiar voice. ‘C’est moi, Jacques.’ I was taken aback. Jacques only ever called to speak with Father, but Father was in France, and Jacques was helping him with the wine transfer, so …
‘Jacques,’ I replied, and after searching out my mother with my gaze, added ‘Ça va?’ There was a pause, which filled me with even greater trepidation, before Jacques said quietly that he needed to speak with Mother. I naturally wanted to ask why, but I was too well-raised to do so. Instead, with the phone feeling like a dead weight, I held it out to Mother saying, unnecessarily – ‘It’s Jacques.’
I thought back to my mother’s pale, stony features hours before and, observing her reluctance to take the phone, wondered whether she, too, was thinking back to that moment. She walked towards me slowly and, as she reached for the phone, her hands and lips were trembling. ‘Hello, Jacques?’ she mouthed quietly into the receiver. Although Mother can speak some French, it’s so terribly difficult to comprehend that even Jacques prefers to converse with her in his limited English. I watched as Mother stood motionless, listening to Jacques. Her face gave nothing away, but she was trembling even more when she spoke again. ‘You must be mistaken, Jacques. Gabriel isn’t in Paris. He’s pottering around the cave in Lourmarin, getting the wine settled and arranging odds and ends there all week. We’re waiting for his call now, to hear of his progress. We’ll be spending Christmas in the Vaucluse this year.’ She stopped then, and I could hear Jacques’ voice on the other end of the line as tears began to stream silently down her face. She was holding the phone so tightly with her right hand that her knuckles had turned white, while her left hand shook uncontrollably. I saw these things with such clarity and detail that, revisiting them in my mind later, it was as though I experienced that dreadful moment at half speed. Suddenly, Mother clutched at her chest with both hands and her face contorted in pain as she threw back her head and let out an indescribable wail of agony, dropping ever so slowly to her knees before collapsing entirely. Marie, who by now was standing shocked at the doorway, ran towards Mother.
Tears streamed down my face as I walked, trance-like, towards the phone. Picking up the hanging receiver with the vague intention of speaking to Jacques, I instead replaced it in its cradle and dropped down next to my mother. She took me into her arms at once, and there we sat for hours, holding each other and rocking in silence apart from our wracking sobs of pain and loss. Eventually, we fell asleep on the study floor. At some stage Marie draped a blanket over us and lay pillows at our heads. We didn’t notice.
When the bright dawn light awoke me, I wished it away. I had no need to ask Mother what news Jacques delivered. Father was gone. And I didn’t know how to continue. But the longer I lay there, willing the new day away, the more I realised that my mother would need me to be strong. I knew I had lost my father, but I had Mother. She, on other hand, had lost her soul mate – the love of her life. I would be no consolation to her if I allowed myself to wallow in my grief. I knew her well enough to predict that her response would be at one extreme or another – either utter stoicism or total devastation. Contemplating how Mother had put my interests ahead of her own for my entire life, I became determined to be strong rather than compel Mother, through my own vulnerability, towards an act of stoicism she shouldn’t force upon herself. With this resolution, I opened my eyes and looked towards her. Her face was mostly covered by a mess of tangled hair, both fists were curled beneath her chin and her knees were pulled up to her chest. With immense effort, I forced myself to sit. Gently stroking her hair from her face, I whispered
• • •
We settled into our seats for the flight to Aéroport Roissy – Charles de Gaulle. We always flew Business because Mother’s claustrophobia made Economy impossible, yet she refused to travel first class even though we could afford it. She found inequity as distasteful from the favourable side of it as she had from the less advantaged side, and simply couldn’t bear any ostentatious displays of wealth.
Father had purchased an Audi A6 for her just before I began school, but she preferred the beaten-up old Alfasud she’d bought second-hand as a 17-year-old. Aghast at the elitism of the Grammar school I attended, Mother took glee in driving me there in the ’Sud. She would park it – dusty and dent-ridden – in front of the drop-off gates amid the rows of gleaming BMW X5s and Porche Cayennes that she found so vulgar in their gratuitous and ozone-damaging extravagance. Some mornings the ’Sud’s engine wouldn’t start, and Mother would be forced to drive me in the Audi. She would then park a couple of blocks away from school and we’d ride the rest of the way on the scooters she kept in the boot for such occasions. How Mother would laugh as her hair was blown across her face and she raced me to the school gates! Sometimes I was laughing so hard by the time we arrived, that tears were streaming down my face and I could barely breathe. I didn’t care about the looks we received from other kids and parents. And there were looks – Mother’s scootering to school was regarded as an eccentricity, and so it was. She had even painted her scooter purple and attached short colourful strands of plastic streamers to the sides of each handlebar, so they fluttered in the wind as she cruised along – it was a large-scale replica of the scooter she had loved as a child …. Startled out of my reverie by the in-flight announcements, I observed Mother struggling with the simple act of adjusting her lap sash. The last two days had been a vortex of raw emotion, with Mother lashing out against anyone who approached her to make rational decisions. “Egg,” was all she would eventually reply. While this caused others serious concern about her mental wellbeing, I understood what she meant. Our world had just been cracked and scrambled and would never be the same again. Being verbose or articulate about it wasn’t going to change anything.
I had been fielding calls for Mother since Jacques delivered the terrible news and was on the brink of emotional collapse when Boden unexpectedly arrived. Jacques had been in contact with him, and Boden had made arrange- ments for Mother and me to fly to France. I hadn’t been aware that Boden knew Jacques. The familiar manner in which Boden embraced my mother upon arrival also surprised me, as I had never seen them interact before. I was further bemused to hear Boden tell Mother that he would travel with us to Paris to ensure our safety for the duration of our stay, and even more so by Mother’s ready acceptance of the arrangement!
At some stage during those days between Jacques’ call and our flight to Paris, when Mother was surrounded by friends, I took the opportunity to ask Boden what had happened to my father. What he told me only increased my certainty that Father had been living a double life. According to Boden, Father had rushed from Lourmarin to Paris at short notice after receiving a telephone call from his French lawyer. Even this – that Father had a French lawyer – was news to me. One more mystery to add to the list, I mused. Father was struck by a motorcycle the following morning, Boden told me, and thrown into the path of an oncoming vehicle. It occurred on the corner of rue de Sèvres and boulevard Raspail, in Paris’ 6th arrondissement, resulting in instant death. Boden didn’t clarify whether that meant instantly upon being struck by the motorcycle or instantly upon being struck by the oncoming vehicle, and I hadn’t wanted to ask. Based on witness accounts, two motorcyclists had run a red light, and it was this detail that most made me suspicious about the circumstances surrounding my father’s death.
I had stayed with Father in Paris at least once every year since I was two years old. Each year when we arrived, Father would provide the same counsel to me, as though I’d never heard it before, on a range of matters to be vigilant about. Father would particularly emphasise pedestrian safety. ‘The French will cross the road with abandon,’ he would say, ‘but you are not French. You are not accustomed to French traffic. Not only do the French drive on the opposite side of the road to we Australians, there are also many one-way streets in Paris and it’s difficult to know from which direction the vehicles will be travelling. Don’t think that cars will stop for you at pedestrian crossings, either. For the French, they don’t exist! And when crossing at an intersection with traffic lights, never cross on the red as the French often do.’ I would nod gravely each time. ‘What’s more,’ he would continue, ‘never cross on the green until you have first looked carefully in both directions and satisfied yourself that a vehicle isn’t about to run the red light. This is commonplace in Paris – especially by motorcyclists. For the French, rules are made to be broken,’ he would say. ‘Ils font n’importe quoi!’; they do as they please! And he was right, as I observed many times for myself. As a youngster, I adhered to Father’s advice simply out of respect. Before long, however, I had witnessed enough that my adherence was motivated by pure self-preservation.
It simply wasn’t conceivable to me that Father would be caught unawares in Paris traffic. I instinctively felt that he must have been involved in some dangerous activity (international spy was still foremost in my mind) and that the motorcyclist was an assassin who’d shot out of a side street, catching Father by surprise that way. This theory was consistent with the fact that the location in which Father was killed was one he had no readily apparent reason to be visiting at all, much less in such “urgent” circumstances. And it seemed that Father had been keeping his secrets from Mother, after all. It was apparent from her response to Jacques’ call on the day of his death that she knew nothing about his change of plans – as far as Mother had known, Father was still in the Vaucluse. All this left me torn between feelings of grief and anger – an unpleasant situation for a sensitive, not quite thirteen-year-old boy to find himself in while mourning the loss of his beloved father.
These thoughts were going through my mind as our flight took off for Paris. Mother was beside me in the window seat, adjusting the eyeshades on her head and swallowing something I hadn’t seen her place in her mouth – medication to calm her for the flight, I assumed. Boden was directly across the aisle, his presence reassuring even though I didn’t understand why. ‘I love you infinitely,’ I whispered to Mother, as she had to me so many times since as long ago as I could remember. She smiled at me weakly and asked whether I’d be okay if she slept.
‘Boden’s watching out for you,’ she added, which struck me as odd even though his role in this regard had become clear. Mother fell asleep almost immediately, but sleep eluded me. Glancing at her, so beautiful yet so fragile looking, my heart ached for her even more than it already ached for my own loss. My entire mind and body demanded that I shout, scream, writhe on the ground moaning … anything to distract me from the all-consuming grief that threatened to overwhelm me. Looking around wildly for something – anything – to latch onto, to ground me, I noticed Boden watching me intently. Who are you? I wanted to yell, and he seemed to know what I was thinking and feeling. His expression didn’t change, but I sensed a certain empathy from him as he spoke softly to me across the aisle.
‘Eskar,’ he said in a soothing voice, ‘I first met your father many years ago. He … saved me. I cannot tell you the circumstances … please accept what I say in this regard.’ He paused a moment, glancing at Mother and seeming to assess whether to continue. ‘Since that time, I have been in your family’s employ. Right now, my job is to ensure that you and Sascha have everything you need.’
I wanted to interrogate Boden and extract more details from him! But on some level, I recognised that the story of how Boden and my father met was as much Boden’s as Father’s, and it was clearly personal. While I had many questions about my father, one thing I knew without doubt was that he had impeccable judgment – he would never have allowed anyone who posed a danger to us to come into our home, much less entrust him with important family business. Settling back in my seat, I snuggled close against Mother, who by then was whistling softly in her sleep. As I closed my eyes, my mind wandered to the story of how my parents had met.
• • •
Upon her release from prison, Mother stayed with Jane for several months, helping out around her property and laying low. Jane had purchased a computer some months earlier but had never worked out how to use it and Mother, who has a knack for technology, set it up for her. At some point during many sleepless nights, Mother began using the computer to write stories about a little girl whose family moved from England to Australia. Her early efforts may have been autobiographical, but they quickly became fictional. The stories related the girl’s adventures in the outback, communicating with native wildlife – you may recall the series of books, “The Adventures of Penelope Pixen”. The covers bore a hand-drawn image of a little girl standing confidently, her feet wide apart, hands on hips and chin held high. She wore three-quarter jeans, Volleys and a red-and-white checked shirt. Her pigtails were askew and a galah rested on her shoulder. Penelope’s best friend was Billy, whose language was peppered with Australian slang that he often had to explain to Penelope. The characters were lauded in reviews as good role models for children – Penelope always demonstrating courage, resilience and a sense of adventure while Billy was gentle, empathetic and kind.
Mother had only written the stories as a form of therapy, finding the
exercise a relaxing and pleasant distraction. Then Jane came upon them and, instantly enthralled, insisted they were good enough to be published. After many entreaties, Mother agreed to speak with an agent. The series of eight books was released under the author pseudonym ‘Pippy Blue’ (for Mother wouldn’t compromise her privacy) with extraordinary sales worldwide. Mother even approved the manufacture of Penelope Pixen dolls, complete with a fluffy galah attached to Penelope’s shoulder by Velcro. They were rather tacky, to be truthful, but she was pleased by the thought of her creation bringing pleasure to so many children. With the book and merchandise sales bringing a financial windfall, which she invested well, Mother had no need to contemplate her next career. So she took the opportunity to explore a country that had always intrigued her, spending a year enjoying a quiet and peaceful lifestyle on Senkoji Mountain in the little Japanese village of Onomichi in Hiroshima prefecture. There, she learned the local language and immersed herself in Japanese culture, which was particularly conducive to her healing. When the year came to a close and Mother boarded a plane bound for Sydney, she felt overwhelmed at the prospect of resuming life in Australia. Having closed her eyes as transiting passengers boarded, she was contemplating what her future might bring when she sensed that someone was watching her. Opening her eyes, she turned her gaze towards the aisle.
‘It’s you,’ she smiled at the figure looking down at her.
‘It is,’ Father replied