My publisher told me it would only be a small print run and she wasn’t kidding. But at last I found it. Are Those Skeletons in My Closet? Written and illustrated by Pansy Lytton-Fosse. Not one, but six copies, in a tiny bookshop attached to a café just a couple of streets back from the seafront. It was under Humour and I’d been looking in Biography. When I thought about it, that made sense.
I gazed with a motherly pride at my own cartoon cover of assorted eccentrics, con-artists and fruit loops peering out from a jumbled collection of rather bizarre fashion statements. then I returned the slim paperback to the shelf made my way into the café and ordered a chai latte. I pulled my own copy of Skeletons out of my bag and opened it at the first chapter, punctuating my reading with giggles, chuckles and outright guffaws, in the hope that some of the other customers might take the hint.
So, I had become an author and an illustrator, albeit an overwhelmingly unknown one; all thanks three people and what happened back in 1988.
Violet Parsons had never married. There were certain aspects of marriage which did not appeal to her, aspects which had not appealed to her mother either, which was why there was a gap of sixteen years between Violet and her younger sister, Poppy.
Another reason for Violet’s single status was the fear of perpetuating Lytton blood. Great-Grandmother Lavinia had been a Lytton. During the First World War, she had worn voluminous satin trousers, smoked cheroots, cropped her hair, rouged her lips carmine and painted large, pictures of people rolling around with their legs in the air and screaming. “Well, life is a bloody scream, isn’t it, darling?” had apparently been her only explanation for her art.
The only explanation that the Parsons family had been able to give for Great-Grandfather Parsons marrying Lavinia was that he must have lost his marbles as well as his right eye in Flanders. Even Lavinia’s own children, the legitimate ones anyway, and Parsons to the marrow, had hoped that by careful breeding they could strain every trace of their mother out of the family gene pool.
Nevertheless, from time to time, Lytton blood did appear. There had been Uncle Archie, who, during the nineteen fifties had painted nude women with understandably pouting nipples, wearing tin helmets and playing ice hockey in Sydney, New York, Paris, Florence and London; constantly relocating his studio to keep ahead of angry husbands and even angrier creditors. And now, to Violet’s growing alarm, there were signs that Lytton blood was pulsing in Poppy’s veins.
For a start, there was her sister’s name. She had been christened Lily, but at the age of twenty had changed it. “If I’m going to be named after a flower, I’ll choose one that suits me,” she had declared. “I’m not white and languid, I’m bright red, blowsy and breezy!”
Then there were her clothes. Poppy decked herself in loud, singing colours, swinging fringes and floating scarves, with not a tweed skirt or a twinset in her wardrobe. She wore enormous earrings and jangling bangles and sat in wine bars with people Violet had never met, but who were unlikely to be the kind of people she would want to meet.
The final proof of Lytton blood had come at the beginning of that year when Poppy, at the age of thirty-six, had enrolled in the New South Wales College of the Arts. True, she had only so far done a great many pencil drawings of boxes, balls and cones, but Violet knew with dread that it was only a matter of time before her sister branched out into subjects much less innocuous.
There were times when she wished that Poppy would just disappear, but under the terms of their mother’s will they were joint owners of the house in Menzies Avenue and Poppy showed no inclination to live anywhere else.
While Violet waited for the day to arrive when she would have to forbid Poppy to bring a rude drawing into the house, something much worse turned up on her doorstep. His name was Gerald Fosse and he said that Poppy had invited him.
Gerald was very tall and thin, with a wild bush of dark hair and an even wilder beard. In the space between was a pair of bright, almost black, eyes, which Violet could only describe as wicked, and a long, thin nose. He was dressed in a yellow, paint spattered shirt with the sleeves ripped out and a pair of green corduroy trousers, also paint spattered, with his knees poking through them. On his back was an easel and at his bare feet was a grubby, bulging sports bag. While Violet stared in horror, the beard parted to reveal a wide, white smile as wicked as the eyes.
“Didn’t Poppy tell you I was coming?” he asked.
Temporarily speechless, Violet was unable to answer that question. But then Poppy herself came flurrying down the hall in a swirl of mauve muslin and tinkling bells. “Gerald!” she shrieked. “You found us!” She flung herself at the apparition, aiming a kiss into the middle of the beard.
Across the avenue a pair of curtains twitched and Violet hurriedly closed the door. “Who is this?” she quaveringly demanded. “Who is this?”
Poppy was happy to explain. Gerald, like her, was a mature age art student. He had a very important painting he needed to finish, but his lodgings were too small and his landlady was allergic to turpentine. “So I told him he could stay here,” she said cheerily. “He can have Mother’s old room.”
“Only for a week or two, Vi,” Gerald assured her. “Not a problem is it?”
It’s amazing how quickly the mind can work, even when it’s in shock. Violet began to list the problems. Mother’s room was cold, it was draughty. She, Violet, was herself allergic to turpentine….
“‘Tis not. You are not,” was Poppy’s brisk reply and she ushered Gerald down the hall. “Come along, darling, I’ll show you where you’re to be.”
Violet could feel one of her headaches coming on. How many of the neighbours had seen this Gerald person crossing her threshold? She made a pot of tea and sat down weakly at the dining room table.
After a nerve-rackingly long time in Mother’s room with Gerald, Poppy appeared and gave her sister a sunshiny smile.
That’s him settled,” she said. “And honestly, Vi, you won’t know he’s in the house.”
“I will know,” moaned Violet. “The whole neighbourhood will know!”
“So?” Poppy poured herself a cup of tea. “We’re allowed to have guests aren’t we?”
“He’s ghastly! Absolutely ghastly!” Violet struggled to express the depth of her feelings. “He’s filthy dirty and scruffy and positively evil-looking. He’s probably injecting himself with marijuana as we speak!”
“He’s lovely!” said Poppy. “I might even marry him. I’ve been thinking perhaps I should have a baby before it’s too late.”
Violet could only receive that information with a strangled croak. Lytton blood and this Fosse person’s blood combined. Her worst nightmares hadn’t even come close!
With shaking hands she put down her cup. “I think I have to go to bed. Something is upsetting me….the turpentine, no doubt.”
Violet lay awake far into the night, torn between leaving her door ajar so that she would hear if Gerald tried to creep into Poppy’s room, or pushing her dresser up against it in case he tried to creep into hers. He was probably capable of doing both in the one night. Finally she fell asleep while trying to decide and woke in the morning unmolested.
When she tried to get into the bathroom, she found it locked. “Gerald’s having a shower,” Poppy called from the kitchen. “He does, you know. Every morning.”
In the days that followed, Violet’s darkest fears – of Gerald sitting smoking with his feet on the meal table, Gerald sprawling drunk on the hearthrug playing one of those obscene CD things on Mother’s radiogram, Gerald opening her doors to scores of drug-crazed friends who looked exactly like him – proved to be groundless. Apart from roaring backwards and forwards to college on the back of Poppy’s Harley, he lived a hermit-like existence in Mother’s room and Violet hardly ever saw him. But she hardly ever saw her sister either, because Poppy was in there with him.
Whatever they were doing, they were doing very quietly, but didn’t mean it wasn’t highly immoral. On Saturday afternoon, Gerald and Poppy had been doing whatever they were doing for three hours. Violet could bear it no longer. She had the Parsons’ good name to protect and protect it she would, whatever the cost.
Dragging the vacuum cleaner out of the cupboard, she plugged it in and began savagely thrusting it over the hall carpet. Then, knocking briefly on Gerald’s door, but without waiting for a reply, she boldly vacuumed in.
The first thing she saw was Poppy’s bottom, or derriere as Violet preferred to call it. Thirty years had passed since the last time she’d seen it, but it was as round and rosy as she remembered it. Poppy, completely naked, was standing with her back to Gerald, looking at him over one shoulder. Gerald, fully clothed, was seated on Mother’s bed, busily working at a canvas on his easel and only glanced up and smiled vaguely as the vacuum cleaner howled into the room.
Hitting the off button with a sharp kick, Violet grabbed the first thing that came to hand, a lace runner from Mother’s dressing table, and draped it around Poppy’s waist. “What will people say?” she choked. “What will they say?”
Poppy turned around slowly. Knotting the lace runner like a sarong, she surveyed the room with wide, cool eyes. “Do you see any people?” she asked. “Apart from us, that is.”
“What will people say?” Violet could only repeat her question over and over like a mantra.
“I don’t give a stuff what anybody says,” was Poppy’s terse reply. “All I’m doing is posing for Gerald so that he can enter my portrait for the Bradbury Prize.”
The Bradbury Prize was a twenty thousand dollar award given every year by the Arts Council. It was a highly prestigious event and people came from everywhere to see it.
People came from everywhere to see it!
Violet was a lady. She had always been a lady. She had poise, manners and self-control: everyone knew that.
“Never!!” with a wild scream she wrenched the canvas from Gerald’s easel and hurled it across the room. “Never!!” In a spray of anguished spittle, she grasped him by the front of his shirt and shook him. “You disgusting, lecherous beast! You will not exhibit a naked portrait of my sister in the Bradbury Prize or any other place. Do you hear me?”
Very quietly, Gerald stood up. Gently removing her hands from his shirt, he smoothed the front of it, then placed his hand over his heart. “Madam,” he replied. “I do hear you, and you have my word, my solemn promise, it will not happen.”
He turned to Poppy. “Time I was on my way, Poppy-petal, I think.”
“If you’re going, I’m going, too!” was her stout reply, and with amazing dignity for someone wearing nothing but a dressing table runner, she strode out of the room.
Two hours later they were both gone. The only evidence that Gerald had ever been there were the dark hairs clogging the plughole in the shower and a strong smell of turpentine in Mother’s room.
For a day or two, Violet felt a little ashamed of her unladylike outburst, although not of her sentiments. But then she realised that it had been her finest hour. Gerald was obviously a weak character and she had put him in his place. As for Poppy, well, blood is supposed to be thicker than water, but when it is Lytton blood…. Poppy could do what she liked, as long as she wasn’t doing it in Menzies Avenue and as long as she was fully clothed at the time. Life for Violet from now on would hopefully be free from embarrassment and most pleasant.
All the same, she decided she wouldn’t attend the Bradbury Prize Exhibition. She couldn’t help feeling just a slight unease. But that was put to rest by a phone call that evening from Poppy. It was a brief call, just four words: “He kept his promise.”
Ah, the sweet taste of victory! Violet allowed herself a small glass of Mother’s sherry and switched on the television. She never watched the news because it was always so unpleasant, but she did like to watch the weather forecast.
“Finally,” said the newsreader, “We’ll take another look at the winning painting in this year’s Bradbury Prize.”
The camera zoomed in on a large portrait of a nude woman. It was a rear view, showing rounded pink buttocks, curvaceous hips and a plump waistline. The woman was glancing coyly back over her shoulder and her face, one eye closed in a provocative wink, was the face of Miss Violet Parsons.
“Portrait of a Lytton Lady,” the newsreader informed her. “By Gerald Fosse.”
Twelve months later I arrived, Pansy Lytton-Fosse. So, that was me, Auntie Vi’s worst nightmare; an artist and a writer with both Lytton and Fosse blood coursing through her veins. It’s early days yet, but I’m on my way.
Poor Auntie Vi, she did survive being the subject of the winning portrait in the Bradbury Prize. In fact, it netted her more invitations to afternoon tea than she’d ever had in her life before. The local Football Club asked her to be their official mascot, although she did decline that one. She always believed that the portrait itself had disappeared into merciful obscurity. What is probably more merciful is that she was never told that it hung, and hangs to this day, above the public bar in the Cock and Bull Hotel
After everything I have said, and it is all gospel, following her initial dismay at the newest bud on the family tree, great-aunt Violet loved me and I loved her. I do have a drop or two of Parsons blood in me and I shall ever be grateful that she taught me the correct way to drink sherry; daintily sipping out of a teensie glass with my pinkie cocked in the air. None of my friends knew that.
Perhaps more importantly, she also taught me how to crochet a toilet roll cover.