The Last Time I Saw Jane
An extract from the novel by Kate Pullinger
Audrey’s father killed her mother in a car accident. She did not die immediately, but in hospital seven days later. Enough time for Audrey to fly from London to British Columbia and see the damage for herself.
The telephone rang at six a.m., like an alarm hurled across the room. It was still dark outside. Audrey had always known the call would come while she was sleeping; very bad news had a way of arriving in the night.
The accident was muted and sober as far as car accidents go, slow-moving, metal and chrome remaining intact. Audrey’s father had been an excellent driver at one time, able to negotiate the mountain passes and narrow roads where they lived, in winter snow piled high as an overpass, but since he retired, his sight and his reactions had dimmed. He had a tendency to sit behind the wheel slumped to one side, as though he wasn’t driving but watching television. Audrey’s mother said that she worried that he would pull out into oncoming traffic one day. But he kept on driving, and she let him; it was too great an affront to have to give up that as well as all the other passions that had slid from his grasp with age.
As she packed Audrey remembered the last time she had been to visit. Instead of flying to Victoria she had taken the ferry from the mainland across the Georgia Strait to Vancouver Island. She had seen an eagle floating in the airstream above Maine Island in Active Pass - the sight was so familiar, even though it had been years since she was last on the boat. She couldn’t help but think of Jane. In fact, she had given herself a fright when she looked out the window and saw a pregnant woman standing by the railing. But, of course, it wasn’t Jane.
The ferry had docked and she walked down the covered ramp towards her parents, fraught with ambivalence and love. She could see them in the waiting throng. They looked tiny, as thought they’d been shrink-wrapped by the ageing process. Oh God, Audrey had thought, old age. Can there be nothing as unexpected, as demanding?
But it was not an ill-judged corner turn that killed her mother. Audrey’s parents had been out to dinner with a group of friends, couples who, like them, had been married for decades, and the widowed remains of couples, gamely joining in. They had gone for Chinese food, and all the men made jokes about going home to eat a real meal later. By the time they left the restaurant it had begun to rain, so the husbands went to get the cars while the women waited in the foyer out of the damp. When Audrey’s father was trying to explain to her what had happened, he said, ‘The damn rain, the air smelt of the sea, fresh, there was a bird - a heron - standing in a puddle in the parking lot.’ Audrey’s father brought his car in close to the kerb, so the ‘girls’, as he called them, ‘would not have far to walk’. As he came up to the entrance the small group of women stepped forward, his wife, Audrey’s mother, leading. He went to brake - he said this very carefully, as if getting the sequence of events correct would somehow make it better - but he had got so clumsy, he had so little control, his foot slipped to the accelerator and the car leapt forward, onto the pavement, knocking Audrey’s mother down, one wheel moving over her abdomen, her chest, as she lay stranded on kerb and pavement, the sound - her little cry, rubber tonnage on flesh and wool - both muffled and clear. Their friend Dorothy Jones - Dorothy Jones, her father used to say, as batty as a softball team - was clipped by the vehicle as well, she fell and broke her hip. The other women stepped back, and then ran forward, shouting, waving their hands, slapping the windscreen of the car. When he realized what was happening, in that slow moment when his wife had disappeared, Audrey’s father suffered a heart attack in front of the steering column. It was mild, but served to debilitate him even further.
Because of the speed and skill of the emergency services, Audrey’s mother took seven days to die. The nurses put the couple in the same room - Audrey’s father on a heart monitor, her mother on a respirator, wires, tubes and bandages covering every surface of her frail body, her old body with its lovely folding skin. They had to shave her hair, her clean white hair that he said reminded him of snow, snowy mountain passes, snow unwalked in, untouched; she had dyed it blonde for years before revealing this whiteness, this shining curtain, to her husband, who told his daughter that he had loved her all the more for it. Audrey’s father recovered from the accident, physically, quite quickly. He spent three days sitting and staring at his wife, watching her machine-driven breathing. The hospital staff did not have the will to remove him from the bed. She never regained consciousness, not even when Audrey, her one child, arrived. Audrey looked at her father and wished her mother could speak, if only to forgive him. But she did not.
When her mother died - in the night, after Audrey had taken her father home for the first time - Audrey conspired with her father to have him incarcerated. There was no question of criminal or civil proceedings - the family of Dorothy Jones was angry about her broken hip, but felt that Mr Robbins had been punished thoroughly - but Audrey’s father did not want to continue to live on his own in the home that his wife had made for him. He wanted to go into an institution, an old-age home, a ‘cheap one’, he said, meaning, send me to a prison, please. Audrey discovered that the standard of care for the elderly on southern Vancouver Island was extremely high, possibly the highest in the world, and the home Mr Robbins eventually went into was as pleasant as homes full of the old and alone can be. Then, in one of his last moments of lucidity, Audrey’s father told her to go back to London, go back to her life there, and to forget about him, to live as though he too were dead.
And so Audrey went back to London, shocked and shaking with grief. She had already lived many years in the city, years that had passed in a minute. She found London was a place she could sink deep into, sink everything, and yet not drown. When she first left Canada she thought it easy to forget all about where she had come from. And after she buried her mother and locked up her father she believed that forgetting was complete.
But at night when Audrey slept, regardless of whether she shared her bed or not, she dreamt of her parents, she dreamt of British Columbia. She dreamt of her days, long past, at university in Vancouver, her uncovering and devouring, her flesh-eating desire for the past. She’d given up the ghost on a degree in History, three-quarters of the way through. At the time, dropping out wasn’t a failure, it was a liberation. She had left Canada then, and gone to live in London, like a little chick of Empire returning home to roost.
And now Audrey dreams of James Douglas. In these dreams, she follows James on his journey. Water laps against the side of the ship. The year is 1819.
James Douglas was anxious to get away from Lanarkshire, to leave behind his father, and his father’s family, and to arrive in the new world, a vast unchartered place he had read about in school. At age sixteen, Scotland held nothing for him, except for reminders of what he was excluded from, what he was not allowed to be. At the port in Liverpool there was no one to wave him off. He stood on the far side of the ship ad looked towards the sea. This voyage was to take him north to north, the Atlantic grey and choppy as land and summer faded from sight. At night in his ship-bed he remembered another journey he had made, ten years earlier. This new migration was of his own volition. He was leaving Britain for a fresher place.
After four weeks crossing the Atlantic, rocking storms and steamy calms, the ship reached Newfoundland, sailed on past Cape Breton, through the Strait of Cabot, into the Gulf of St Lawrence. Their passage was smooth. The Captain told Douglas one morning that they had entered the St Lawrence Seaway, but the young passenger did not know where he had arrived, the seaway so wide and tidal that neither north nor south shore could be seen. And then, when it finally did come into view, the land was strange and wild, a barrage of colour where the forest came down to the river-sea, as the leaves changed with the season, many more shades of red and gold than James could have imagined. Some days later, through the glass, James saw small boats low to the water, close into the bank, swiftly paddled by people he took for Indians. Other days there was nothing for mile after mile, no human sign, no break in the trees.
And James, James Douglas, was heading west, as far west as he could go without falling off the land-shelf into the Pacific. This journey would take many years, and by the end of it he would be entirely remade, not one inch of his skin, not one hair on his head, of his former self would remain. Not one speck of the boy he might have been.
Audrey did not know why she dreamt of James Douglas now, why he had come back to her from books and papers she had read years ago, at university. But he had come back, and he was going to linger, and she saw that she had better get used to it.
Novel, Phoenix House/Phoenix, 1996