Opening Lines: The column - Lightning recovery
Suddenly life is `gorgeous' again for Howard Jacobson's mother- in-law. Even one of her storm-racked tropical fish is magically resuscitated
Celebrated novelist Howard Jacobson's most recent novel is 'The Finkler Question', published to great acclaim in 2010. An acerbic critic and broadcaster with a passion for literature and art, he is known for his ebullient wit. Recent television programmes such as Jesus the Jew and Creation have also been widely admired.
Saturday 31 October 1998
Me neither; but twice now, with my own eyes, I've seen the dead tickled back to life.
The first time was in Manchester about 40 years ago. The second was just the other day in Balnarring, a drowsing retirement village overrun with suicidally perambulating koalas, about 90 kilometres south-east of Melbourne on the Mornington Peninsula where they make Pinots Noirs to die for.
Balnarring is home to my widowed mother-in-law. Readers of this column may recall last seeing my mother-in-law flat on her back in a campervan, bereft of memory, reading and re-reading The Gift by Kirk Douglas, content to be driven the length of the state of Western Australia if that was what we wanted to do with her. We released her finally, allowed her to return to her cat and goldfish in Balnarring, where she said she was content but where in fact she was depressed. Myself, I don't find that in the least surprising. It's death valley here. Death by quiet beauty. Come to Balnarring and you get one glimpse of heaven and wish you were in hell. But my opinion of the place is immaterial. My mother-in-law is depressed and we are here for the weekend to cheer her up.
I sit on the balcony, drink Pinot Noir, flick through my late father- in-law's German primers, and stare out to where futurity drains into the grey waters of Western Port Bay. My wife busies herself and her mother in the garden, pruning the lemon tree, gathering grapefruits, changing the water in the fish- pond. It's a big job, changing fish-pond water, and my mother-in-law has neither the strength nor the spirit for it. But then that's why we're here - to make it all appear possible again.
From the balcony I can hear Ros talking to her mother as though she's a child. "What we have to do is this ... There. Not too, difficult, eh? Look how happy the fish look!"
"Aren't they gorgeous!" I hear my mother-in-law say. The word "gorgeous" is always the clue that she's recovering her zest for life. God's creatures do it every time, provided she remembers to look; provided there is someone here to remind her to look. I hear the rich optimistic laughter of women. Progress. Soon it will be the garden worms that are gorgeous.
Zest-recovery operations proceed so well that when the storm comes, lashing the Peninsula with spiked rain, we decide to drive to Flinders for dinner, forked lightning or no forked lightning. Joy is a girl again. When she opens her handbag tonight it is not to panic-search for keys or bank books or objects she hasn't owned for 50 years; tonight she is bringing out $20 bills. Chardonnay - more Chardonnay!
I go to bed early, dejected by the noise the rain makes on the tin roof. I grew up under tiles; always something substantial between me and the elements. Live under tin and you might just as well be bareheaded on the heath, like Lear. But the women are exhilarated. Ros even comes into the bedroom and opens the curtains, so that I can have the lightning in bed with me.
The women talk and laugh until late. Joy retires about midnight. Her daughter doesn't. I hear splashing and singing in the night, and wonder if Ros is out sloshing through puddles, but the sound is coming from inside not out. Search me.
We wake to a tragedy. When the storm interrupted the cleaning of the fish-pond the fish were given temporary refuge in a rusting oil drum in the laundry. Now the three biggest and most exotically coloured are dead, floating on their sides in that geriatric way of deceased fish, as though they've slipped and had a fall in the water.
Shamefaced, Ros confesses to me that she might have murdered them. Not with malice aforethought, but as it were out of a superabundance of high spirits. The splashing I'd heard in the night was her playing hide-and- seek with them. Either they'd died when she shouted "Boo!" or they'd suffered fatal injuries when she'd scooped them up to tell them how gorgeous they were and they'd jumped from her hand, landing awkwardly on the tiles.
I tell her about the time my father brought one of my goldfish back from the dead. He'd massaged its heart. He had famously huge fingers, my father, each the size of a small banana; so it was a miracle he could find the fish's heart at all. Maybe he hadn't; maybe what he'd given it was a full body massage. It did the trick, anyway. After 15 minutes under my father's finger, with the whole family gathered spell-bound round the bowl, the fish suddenly began to gulp, twisted in the water like a torpedo, righted itself, threw my father one of those non-committal buttoned-eye looks, and took off.
"Or you could try the kiss of life," I suggest.
She plumps for heart massage. No good on the two big golden-reds. Their souls have upped and gone. But the silver and pink one begins to respond, takes in air, looks up. He's unsteady. It's no picnic dying of shock, then being shocked back into life again. I doubt he'll make it. But once he's emptied back into the pond - shock number three - he begins to circle.
"What do you think?" Ros asks her mother.
She's handled the death of the other two well. She has already fed them to the cat. No morbidities today. Depressed? Who? Her? Today she's 18, not 83. She looks so beautiful and expectant it feels a crime to leave her in Death Valley.
I speed out of there, all the same. No looking back. But I see her in my rear-view mirror, waving brilliantly, a tableau vivant representing hope
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