Viv was a city girl, living in a fast-paced world. She worked hard, went partying most nights, and (truth be told) she’d go home with just about anybody. She lived her life like there was no tomorrow. To call her a hedonist, would be understating it just a bit.
She’d plan her holidays months in advance, so she could do as much in, and get as much out of, the time she spent away. If she was going to fly, it was business class. The sooner she got to her destination, the more she could pack in to her break. And it wouldn’t hurt if she met some fun (read, rich) people who were willing to party hard like her.
Viv was an only child. Her parents had split when she was a kid, and she would spend one week with one, and the following week with the other. Then, during the Christmas holidays, it would become two weeks either way, so she could swap over for the next year. Her parents were diligently fair. She guessed it’s where she got her scrupulous nature from.
Viv was a lawyer for a small firm that specialised in contracts, especially contracts for famous people (and those wishing they were). It was a boutique business with a lucrative turnover.
One Christmas, Viv got a call from a lawyer’s assistant in another firm. She didn’t quite hear the name of the lawyer, but she thought it could have been that guy she’d met at a party last year. She couldn’t remember if they’d got it on or not, but this call was not about that. Not about snogging under fake mistletoe … not about waking up with a virtual stranger … not about the aftereffects of misguided choices. Viv was asked to come in for a meeting next week, because she’d been named in a will.
Wondering who had died, and why they thought enough of her to give her something, she rang her parents. No, they were both fine, both alive! Phew. It would be a horrible way to discover your parent had died, and Viv vowed to herself to stay in touch with them both a lot more.
On the morning of her mystery meeting, Viv got ready, with a quirky uneasy feeling. Her skin was on edge. Her entire being felt off-kilter. She had no idea who died. Viv tried on one suit; too sexy. Another outfit; wrong shoes. She just couldn’t find something to wear that felt right.
Finally, with a bed covered in clothes and a floor festooned with shoes, she got out the door.
She raced for the subway and missed the train. She ran back up to the street to find a taxi, and they were all taken. Viv started walking, and then racing, toward her appointment.
When, at last, she arrived, she was twenty minutes late. They couldn’t start without her. Flustered and apologetic, she sat down near the back of the room, and silently recognised the lawyer, but still not quite remembering his name, Ben?? Maybe. Yes, she remembered exactly what they got up to, and she felt suddenly very ashamed. She realised that this crossed a boundary that she had never anticipated; she had slept with someone, with whom she later found herself in a professional relationship. So awkward. She just wanted to decrease in size and blend into the fancy dado adorning the wall behind her seat.
The will-reading was announced. The name of the person who died was still a complete mystery to Viv; Genevieve Annalise Beauvais. She was aged 87, had been born in France, and had come to Australia with her late husband, Maurice Edmond Beauvais. She had one child, a daughter who died. When the lawyer read out the name of the late husband, Viv was none the wiser; but when she heard about the dead daughter, something sprang to mind. That daughter had the same name as her mother; Annalise Marie.
Viv’s mother had never talked about her parents. Whenever little Viv needed a babysitter, she’d go to her other grandparents. Who was this Genevieve Annalise Beauvais?
The lawyer called out Viv’s name, “Vivienne Genevieve Jones”, and she was sprung from her reverie. Glassy-eyed, she looked to him and listened intently. And this is what she heard, “To my grand-daughter Vivienne Genevieve Jones, I leave my farm just outside Nana Glen, but on the following conditions. First, Vivienne must convert to Judaism and become an observant Jewess. Secondly, Vivienne, must engage a shadchanit to find her a suitable Jewish husband within the year. Thirdly, Vivienne must live on the property and make it her forever home. The farm must stay in the family, but only if the family is Jewish. The conditions must be met within the year. Failing that, the farm will go to my sister’s youngest grandson, Rueben Israel.”
Viv was not Jewish. In fact, she was of no fixed religion at all. She had attended a Catholic school when she was little, and then tried a Christian school for six months at the start of high school. But after that, it was public school all the way. On those odd occasions when she thought she’d like a forever partner, she’d try going to mass, but would never stick with it.
Now, she had this great opportunity to own her own home. She’d been renting for so long, and the Sydney property market was so expensive, whether she rented or wanted to buy. Her mind raced and flipped between the chance of a lifetime, and the weight of commitment that came with it. Oh, and the sheer sacrifice! Her entire life, her way of living, would change completely and forever.
After the will had been read, the group of strangers began to disperse. They looked at her as they passed, knowing who she was without really recognising her. One old lady sat down beside her, and introduced herself, patting Viv’s hand in hers, “You and I have the same name, Vivienne, because I think you were named after me,” she said, shocking Viv. “When your parents decided to marry, your grandmother disowned your mother. They never spoke again, and we weren’t allowed to contact your mother. We were not even allowed to mention your mother to your grandmother. All photographs of your mother were placed face-down to remind us that she was dead to your grandmother. Each year, Genevieve would go to the State offices to ask for a copy of any birth certificates, to see if your mother had a baby. She never asked about marriage, divorce, or death. She only wanted to know if there was issue with her daughter’s union. That’s how she knew of your existence. She never followed your life, but she decided when dear old Maurie died, that she couldn’t continue living on the farm; so, she found a place in town for over-fifties. That’s where she lived until her death, Sweetie. I’m your great-aunt, and the grandson mentioned in the will, if you don’t meet the conditions, is my grandson, Rueben Israel. He’s a nice young man; very quiet. That’s him over there."
Viv followed her great-aunt’s gesture, and saw the back of a man no more than forty, sitting down talking with an elderly gentleman. She couldn’t be sure, because he was facing away from her.
He turned around, looking for his Gran, and saw her talking to Viv. She realised at that moment that he was the lawyer with whom she’d slept last year. They locked eyes, and the uneasiness shifted into a new position, but still remained with her.
He came over, and pretended that they hadn’t already met. He gently shook her hand as is Gran introduced them, and Viv sunk evermore deeply into her chair. The lush upholstery wasn’t enough to swallow her, and she remained completely visible. It felt like his eyes could see only her; she filled his gaze and felt nothing but sinking. Her whole being sunk into his stare.
Great-Aunt Vivienne suggested they meet tomorrow, if possible, and Rueben could drive them all up to Nana Glen to see the farm. Quietly, Viv said that it would be lovely, and they all exchanged phone numbers, just in case there was a problem. Rueben took down Viv’s address, and after agreeing to pick-up times, they parted ways.
In a daze, Viv walked away from the building. In a daze, she caught a train home. In a daze, she fed the cat and watered the plants on her balcony. And, in a daze she took off her boots and slipped out of her suit. Somehow, all those clothes found themselves on hangers, and all those shoes found a place in her wardrobe. The sandals and court shoes regained their positions hanging from the heels on the picture rail around her bedroom, and Viv lay on her cleared bed in her lingerie.
After a few hours, just laying there, Viv realised she was hungry. Famished, she got up and changed into her nightie, and went to the kitchen for some leftover takeaway from last night. Lucky, because she really didn’t feel like cooking. She poured a glass of wine, and took her reheated meal to the balcony to eat in the cool breeze of the evening.
A grandmother she never knew. And a grandfather too. Suddenly, she wished she had known them, and understood why they had abandoned her mother. Had they been hard-line in their religion? Was that it? She had no idea there was any Judaism in her family. After she finished her meal, Viv rang her Mum, “Why didn’t you ever tell me about your parents?”, and her intuition was validated. Her grandparents had disowned her mother for not marring a Jewish man. Her mother, in turn, was too proud to ask for help when their little shop started losing money, and when the recession hit in 1990. Her mother couldn’t bear to call when she lost her first baby in childbirth (Viv had no idea there could have been a sibling). “Why didn’t you ever tell me I could have been someone’s sister?”
She had so many questions, not least of which was, why didn’t her Mum ever reconnect with her mother when she and Dad got a divorce? “The damage was done by then, Darling. Maman had made it abundantly clear that I was dead to her. There was no going back. And I was too hurt by her cruelty.”
They talked for the longest time, and Viv came to know her mother so much more deeply. It was about 2am when they finally decided that it was time for bed, and they farewelled each other lovingly. Viv slept in fits and starts for the rest of the morning; sometimes dreaming of a farm, and sometimes dreaming of her second cousin, Rueben. And sometimes, being a little girl and visiting Grandmere et Grandpere, with Austra-Franc family names that reflected where they came from and where they came to. In each dream, Viv felt welcome; and each dream ended in a warm embrace.
At 7, Viv groggily dragged herself out of bed, and showered, after breakfast on her balcony. She relished those short moments when she could enjoy her coffee, and have bacon and eggs for breakfast, as the sun rose above. Her favourite meal was bacon and eggs!
At 8.30, Rueben arrived with Great-Aunt Vivienne, who had packed a few provisions for the trip. It would take six hours, and they would stay on the farm overnight. Viv sad that she’d be happy to share the driving, so she and Rueben swapped at Newcastle and Port Macquarie when they stopped for morning tea and lunch. It was a beautiful drive along the east coast of New South Wales, with some of the prettiest views that Viv had ever seen, and the most delicious meals (and wines) she’d ever had.
A part of her had been worried about such a long day with people she’d just met, but another part of her was completely at peace. Viv found herself asking lots of questions about her grandmother, and her own Mum when she was a girl. She could understand why her Mum had named her after Great-Aunt Vivienne; she was such a great raconteur, and boy, could she sing! Together, they sang lots of old songs that Viv’s Mum used to sing when she was little. But then, Great-Aunt Vivienne asked if Viv would like to hear some Jewish songs. When she started, it was like Viv was a baby again, hearing her mother’s softest lullabies, and she realised that her Mum used to sing psalms to help her sleep. Even though Viv had no memory, up until this moment, of being raised in the Jewish faith, she recognised those hymns.
Rueben had driven from Sydney to Newcastle and from Port Macquarie to Coffs Harbour, then down Coramba Road to Orara Way. He then took a little dirt drive for about two kilometres and then they found the gate. It was that gate that Viv recognised in her heart-memory. As they approached, Viv had a feeling she had been here before. Maybe her parents had taken her to the front gate when they were still together, and on a family holiday. She remembered her mother crying, and their car driving away.
She got out, and unlocked the gate so Rueben could drive through, and then locked it after. As he drove down the driveway lined with bay trees, Viv felt ghostly spirit arms enfold her. As they approached the house, she wistfully imagined her child-self playing on the swing that dangled from a big old oak tree. They got out of the car and stretched their weary bodies, to the scent of eucalypts and the buzzing of cicadas. Great-Aunt Vivienne handed Viv the front door key, and she turned the lock open.
Breathing in a short breath, Viv pushed the door wide, and peaked inside, to find a welcoming oval-shaped reception with doors to either side, and a mezzanine level above with stairs that came down to the left and the right. It was an impressive entrance! Together, they explored the house; all the while, Great-Aunt Vivienne told Viv stories about her mother growing up, and her grandparents living here.
They had a little creek out the back, where Maurie would go fishing, and Rueben found the old rod. They walked down to the creek, which had swollen in recent La Niña weather events, but was now subsiding. Fishing was excellent, and there was no need to call for home delivery! A vegetable garden was at the back of the house, and had continued along a permaculture fashion, so there were plenty of vegetables for dinner. This place just seemed to provide, without any effort on Viv’s part.
For so long, Viv had been used to doing and trying her hardest, and was not accustomed to just allowing things to come to her. This place was bliss. She realised she loved being here.
Again, she had another late night, up talking until the wee hours. Even Great-Aunt Vivienne stayed up late; she loved to talk! But eventually, she went to bed, and Viv immediately wondered about meeting Rueben last year. They were outside on the front veranda, sipping a Glayva in the starlight.
The question hung in the air; neither one of them wanting to broach the subject. Finally, Rueben admitted to calling himself Ben at that party, and to being quite drunk. He was not himself, and had savoured the experience. It was like he had worn a mask, or been a handsome actor with his choice of beautiful women; not like his usual self. Normally, he’d be quiet, and reserved, and extremely fearful of approaching a woman.
Viv, on the other hand, was completely herself! She was the type of girl to drink, and get laid. Men could do it, why not women too? And yet, she felt the need to live a quieter life now. She felt like becoming a one-man kind of woman. And at this, Rueben’s eyes met hers, and he smiled.