I’d like to thank author Catherine de Saint Phalle for this guest post on the impact of loss on a community. Catherine has had five novels published in France. In 2003 she moved to Australia because the sky is bigger and the people are warmer. A French tutor, she also curates a small art gallery in Brunswick, where she is ensconced with her partner, a poet and bookseller. Her most recent book is On Brunswick Ground (Transit Lounge, $27.99). You can buy her book here.
My father used to tell me: “Death is just a curtain. Nothing to worry about. All you have to do is walk through it – just like going into another room.” One morning, in his usual high form at ninety, he remarked to my mother: “I’m going to die tonight.” She laughed and told him not to be ridiculous. But after a perfectly ordinary day, he had an aneurysm. In a way, my father robbed us of his loss. It was, in fact, as though he’d only walked out of the room. All my subsequent life, I have sensed his presence, as if he’d not died at all, as if it were all a mistake.
I never felt so close to Brunswick as when Jill Meagher’s death taught me to look at it properly. A woman died, and we were all unmanned. We no longer went about our ordinary business; our world had changed. Estate agents, accountants, artists, shopkeepers, walked abreast at the peace march in her honour up Sydney Road. The memory of Jill Meagher was a beautiful living thing that made us look out for each other, care for strangers, and connect beyond our private needs. Suddenly something larger was tapped into, something we didn’t quite understand and could only feel. It happens when there is an earthquake and the most unlikely countries join in to help. It happened, on a far larger scale, when the NHS was created in the wake of the war and the bombing of London. Many personal stories then probably had the same potency as Jill Meagher’s, the same Spring-like power of renewal, the same tragic fecundity of certain mythologies, which can give rise to a forgetting of private interests, and to a remembering of core values.
At that time, a woman to whom I gave French lessons, arrived looking distraught. She told me she couldn’t stop thinking of Jill Meagher. She was almost ashamed of her obsession with the death of a stranger, and couldn’t understand why she was mourning her as she would a family member. As we talked, little by little I realised that Jill Meagher’s loss was making her touch other losses she hadn’t dealt with. Suddenly a woman dies and we all wake up. We start to feel again, and so are more able to say our goodbyes. Surely an important part of loving is to face up to loss. When we do, another part of us seems to open up. Her reaction made me wonder if my own mourning of my father had not been more a numbness, than a farewell.
Loss is a strange word, as smooth as a pebble. Every time we lose something, our sense of the sacred is reactivated and we realise how timely and precious we are to each other. When Jill Meagher died, the sadness of it rippled through the streets of Melbourne, you could feel it in the air, in the screech of the trams, in the weight of people’s footsteps. The fact it happened on a lane in Hope Street added to my sense of awe – as if this beautiful woman were a kind of Persephone snatched into the Hades. People were talking about it in pubs and in bars, in shops, on public transport. As soon as night fell, the streets were pervaded by her loss. Lamartine’s words welled up in my memory: “You miss one person and the world is depopulated.”
Once, when I was about five, in the middle of August, I was walking in Paris with my father. When we reached the Champs Elysées, it was empty right up to the Arc de Triomphe, not a car in sight, not a policeman, not a passer-by, no one. My father promptly lay down on the asphalt in the middle of the avenue with arms stretched out and his face drinking in the sun. I sat in the crook of his armpit as if I had just jumped out of one of his ribs. “Look, Catherine, there is only us!” I can still hear the strength of his glee. As he lay there laughing, the world seemed to spin around. Only now do I mourn his untamed joy, that was such an essential part of his nature. A nature that has gone from the world for ever.
Here is the blurb for On Brunswick Ground:
‘A fresh and sparkling book that strikes deep notes as it flows along.’ Helen Garner
In the Melbourne suburb of Brunswick, a female narrator, who remains unnamed is trying to come to terms with the absence of Jack, the man she loves. In a bar she meets Bernice, a radio personality, in her late thirties and flirting with IVF. Finding a job as a gardener, she discovers that her co-worker, Mitali, has an unresolved mourning that attracts other deaths into its orbit. Later on, she befriends the resolutely mysterious bar owner, Sarah, and her daughter, Mary, who has, for potent (and as yet unrevealed) reasons, converted to Islam and donned a burqa.
The lives of these women are characterised by love and loss, and are woven together by their shared grieving at the senseless murder of Jill Meagher.
On Brunswick Ground traverses the world of longing, grief and personal loss with an assured and literary touch. It is a novel that is also heart-warming, and affirming. Catherine de Saint Phalle truly understands the surprising ways in which tragedy and loss can tighten the bonds of friendship and community.
‘Like the suburb it depicts, On Brunswick Ground teems with lives at once familiar and strange, all beautifully lit by the glint and warmth of Saint Phalle’s prose. Shadowed by local tragedy, we come to care for these characters as much as they care for each other; with wry humour and in unexpected ways.’ Roger Averill