The Curator

By Gabrielle Blondell

“Have you spoken to Sam yet?” Marcus’s voice comes on strong through her car’s sound system. Too strong.

Gillian adjusts the volume. “I will. I promise. I’m just getting my head around it,”

Marcus snorts.  “I don’t know what there is to get your head around. It’s a wonderful opportunity for you. You know this. Sam will know this!”

It’s true. Her husband, Sam, will know it. Sam will have their bags packed and their flights booked, and her installed amongst the other installations at the National Gallery of Victoria, but its she who is stonewalling.

“Well, you can only hold them off for so long, you know. There are others who would kill for the job!” Marcus yells because its second-nature to him to do so.

“Alright Marcus! For goodness sake! I’m on my way to pick up my niece and take her to the symphony for her birthday. I’ll get back to them tomorrow.”

Gillian hangs up on him. It is how most of their conversations end. There is no acrimony. Marcus, the owner of the private gallery where she works, makes it easy, that’s all.

Gillian waits at the intersection through the second traffic light change. It’s peak hour and she wishes she had taken the Chevron Bridge and skirted the traffic through the back of Carrara instead of attempting the Esplanade. She wasn’t thinking. She hasn’t been thinking properly since the offer from the NGV.

It isn’t that she can’t see herself in Melbourne. She can. She even likes the cold weather. And the position…It is perfect for her, but a hard ball has formed in her stomach.

The traffic lights change to green again and this time she makes it across. She looks at the clock on the car’s dashboard. It’s five-thirty, which means she has two hours to pick up Rachel, park at the station and catch a train into the Southbank for the performance at seven-thirty. It’s doable, she decides, but only if she turns off and takes the back streets through to Labrador and then onto Helensvale, where her sister, Suzanne, lives.

Her phone rings again. This time it is Sam.

“Hello,” she says.

“Hey darling, so you got going in time?” he asks.

“Yes. Yes, I did!” Gillian doesn’t mean to sound irritated.

“Just checking. And tell Rachel happy thirteenth birthday for me, won’t you?”

“Sure, I will, Sam and thanks for checking,” Gillian says.

“Ok. I’ll see you later tonight then?”

“Yep.”

Sam hangs up and she turns right onto Kambari Street.

***

Gillian knocks on the door. She can hear Suzanne yelling to Rachel inside. The door is wrenched open and her sister stands before her in a grubby pair of track pants and a jumper with a pulled thread at its centre.

“Hey sis,” Suzanne says. “Come on in. Rachel’s grabbing a jacket, I think.”

Gillian steps into the house. She doesn’t mean to be shocked and she shouldn’t be, but she always is. There is such disorder. She immediately wants to tidy, but knows from experience what will happen if she does. She follows Suzanne toward the kitchen at the back of the house and sits at the island bench which is, like every other surface, covered with an astounding assortment of things. They are common objects to be sure, but its the arrangement which disturbs her the most. A hammer lies on the draining board by the kitchen sink along with a tin of paper clips and a brown teddy bear. It’s disconcerting.

“So how are things?” Suzanne asks her, leaning on the kitchen bench across from her. “How is Sam?”

“Things are good. Sam is well.”

“That’s great. Sam is a good man,” Suzanne says.

Suzanne often says this, as if good men are a rare thing.

They are silent for a time. Gillian knows her sister is waiting for her to leave so she can resume her life. “Suzie, we really have to go if we are to get into the city by 7:30.”

Suzanne looks relieved. She calls down the hall toward the bedrooms. “Rachel, Aunty Gill says to move it!” More quietly, she says to Gillian, “She’s starting to experiment a bit with makeup, so don’t be too hard on her.”

“Why would I be hard on her?” Gillian is offended.

“You know, how you like to……”

“I do not!”

“Right….right.” Suzanne nods at her in mock agreement with one hand on a jutting hip. It is an old gesture, one Gillian can remember from their childhood. She hates it now as much as she once did. They hear footsteps approaching and they both drop their disagreement.

Rachel appears. Gillian cannot look anywhere but into the face of her niece. The makeup is too much, too thick, too vibrant. Rachel’s delicate lips are blood red and her eyelids are coloured in with a dark purple. She looks as if she has been assaulted.

***

“Mum says you studied Fine Arts; that you were a painter,” Rachel says.

They have boarded the Brisbane train and found seats where they can face each other and talk.

“That’s true,” Gillian says, looking into Rachel’s bruised eyes.

Rachel frowns before she continues, “So why didn’t you become an artist?”

“Because I wasn’t good enough. I knew none of my paintings would hang in a gallery and I suppose I wanted only the best for the galleries. That’s why I became a curator.”

Rachel nods seriously. “Did it hurt?”

“Did what hurt?”

“Did it hurt when you realised you weren’t very good? Mum said it made you sad.”

Gillian can tell this has been a recent conversation between her sister and her niece and she feels anger, old and stale. Suzanne is too free with other people’s histories. “I was disappointed for a while, yes.”

“Mum said you destroyed all your paintings.”

Of course Suzanne did, Gillian thinks.

“She said you were a perfectionist and couldn’t bear them anymore.”

Gillian sighs. “Your mother was right and perfectionists don’t make good artists, but they make very good curators.” Gillian watches a smile form on her niece’s face and the small quick nod which almost always follows it. Whenever she thinks of her niece, she sees this nod, this swift affirmation.

“You are good, aren’t you?”

“At curating, you mean?”

“Yes.”

The job offer from the NGV swings into Gillian’s mind again. “Yes, I’m good and I like it much more than I liked painting.” This truth surprises her. It feels like it comes from her younger self, when questions of like and dislike were everything. Gillian decides, if she were to choose as she once had, she would choose Rachel over her sister, Suzanne.

“So what about you? What kind of life do you see for yourself?” she asks Rachel. “Do you think you might try for the Conservatorium?” Rachel plays the flute in a youth orchestra and has shown some talent.

“I’m a bit like you, I guess,” Rachel sighs. “I don’t know whether I’m good enough.”

Gillian realises how much she likes her niece. She is honest like her mother, but not brutally so.

“You need to find that out though. You need to struggle and the Conservatorium will bring it to the surface if its there,” Gillian says.

The train jolts as it stops at Loganlea Station. A young man with blue hair takes the seat beside Rachel. He immediately pulls out a book. It is Kafka’s, Metamorphosis, and Gillian feels the prickle of tiny legs on the back of her neck.

Rachel and Gillian don’t talk much, mindful of the boy with the blue hair. Rachel is thinking about work again. If she is so good at what she does, why the hesitation over the position at the NGV? But the more she thinks about it, the less she knows.

***

Gillian and Rachel walk together towards the Performing Arts Complex, but the silence from the train hangs on between them. An image of Sam leaning on the kitchen bench watching her cook comes to her. He has that warm glint in his eye, as if he is studying her so he can love her more. Again, she feels the tiny feet on her neck.

When they reach the line at the box office, the spell is broken and they are themselves again.

“Let’s buy a program,” Gillian says.

Rachel nods enthusiastically.

They take their seats in the second tier of the hall and Rachel opens the program. “They are playing Mozart’s Concerto in G!” she says excitedly. “You know that is one of the most difficult flute pieces there is?”

“Yes, I’ve heard,” Gillian says. Rachel has told her many times. The orchestra enters and sits, opening their music to their first piece. On the program it says: Mozart, The Magic Flute K. 620: Overture.

The audience lights lower and the conductor walks onto the stage. First, there is applause and then not a sound as he nods to the orchestra and raises his baton high. In all the world, it seems the quietest time there could be. They watch for the baton to fall and the hall to fill with sound. Gillian squeezes Rachel’s hand and Rachel squeezes back. And then the opening chords are with them, swelling as if coming from within their bodies. Gillian and Rachel are perfectly still as the violins begin to play and then the flute comes in and rises above them. Gillian is swept back and forth by the music. She imagines a banquet and a ball, women’s gowns swishing as they pass each other, the arrival of royalty. She feels summoned by the music and then it is over.

Rachel whispers, “The Concerto is next. The hard one.”

Gillian squeezes her hand again.

The flutist stands and positions herself by the conductor. The audience welcomes her with applause and the string section begins. The flutist is on her toes and swaying slowly when she brings the instrument to her lips and she pushes her sound above the others. It floats there with the most intricate of fingering. Rachel’s fingers flutter on the hand rest between them in response. The flute drives the other instruments to greatness when they are called upon to answer back. The music is a glorious wall of sound, so pure. Gillian hears a sniff beside her and glances to Rachel, who wipes a tear from her cheek.

The applause which follows the overture swells like it is music also and some people stand in ovation. Rachel stands too and then Gillian beside her. The flautist bows and returns to her seat in the woodwind section and silence falls again, even deeper now. Gillian looks over at the program open in Rachel’s lap and sees that a piece from the opera, Carmen, is next. She sits back and waits.

The cellos begin, short and deep. The the violins come in tripping over the top and the flute sways in clear and pure – a blast of percussion – and then back again. The music takes Gillian in a spiral and she sees herself on the street in Melbourne. She knows it is Melbourne because there are real trams. Next she sees herself walking down a residential street, old worker’s cottages on either side. She lets herself in to one of them and hangs a coat she has not yet bought. She enters a small kitchen and makes tea. The pot is small too; the kind she has coveted in the past. There is something odd about the arrangement of her things.

Gillian is aware the music has stopped. She claps and it begins again. This time, she sees herself dress for an evening out. She steps into a long gown. She looks around for Sam. She expects to see him a in tuxedo lounging on the sofa, waiting for her or talking on his phone in the garden, but then she knows he is not there.

The music builds. There is a menace to it and Gillian comes to. She has forgotten to check the name of the piece and Rachel has shut the program, so she cannot tell. All too soon it is over and they are on their feet. Their applause forces an encore. This one she knows. It is Barber’s, Adagio for Strings. It is soothing after the more violent piece. The strings take control and the motions of the bow are long, drawn out. Gillian’s heart expands with the music until she can barely breathe. She wants it not to be true. She wants to go back to Sam in her mind and place him on the sofa or in the garden of her future house amongst her other precious things. She needs his warmth, but he has gone. Worse still, he was never there. She feels abandoned, even though it is she who has done the abandoning. The room is full of sound now. It pushes on the walls and she feels there can’t be any more room for it, not within her or beyond, and then it releases itself and drops quietly. It takes up its beginnings again as if some calm has been found at last. But there is nostalgia too for those simpler times, even if those times be only minutes in the past.

***

“Are you alright?” Rachel leans toward her across the void between the seats in the train. Their knees are almost touching.

“Yes,” Gillian nods. “It’s just the music. So beautiful,” she says. She looks over to Rachel, sitting happily in her seat and so ready to start her life. “Did you enjoy it?” she asks.

“Yes. Yes, I loved it. Thanks a bunch, Aunty Gill!”

“Do you think you might go to the Conservatorium after all?” Gillian asks.

“Absolutely. I really want to know now,” she says.

Gillian feels a tearing in her chest. She reaches out and takes one of Rachel’s hands. “Sam wishes you a happy birthday, sweetheart.”

Rachel smiles and then follows this with her little nod. “I’ll ring him tomorrow.”

~

© 2016 Gabrielle Blondell

%d bloggers like this: