‘The one duty we owe to history is to rewrite it’
— Oscar Wilde, The Critic as an Artist (1891)
Yellow is bold, resistant and grievous. Yellow is fat with the sun’s ferocity. Yellow sustains and destroys life. At Lillah’s funeral her women friends screened a film — her last public performance as it turned out — in which she carried the yellow scarf aloft like a pennant, tossed it skywards and pulled it down, stamped on it and threw it up again; in which she danced like a triumphant Ashkenazi who could have slain Goliath. Nothing could be further from the truth.
The DVD soundtrack had begun with savage down beats — iron door, sword and stone. Voices rose and wailed in mourning, or defeat. In flight, the scarf writhed like Lillah’s gyrating body. It flashed like light, against the dark joists of the set’s high ceiling. Pen imagined it lodging up there. Knotting and holding. In the film’s closing scene, arc shots showed Lillah touch the scarf to her breast, her thigh, her ankle, her neck, and then drop it.
Once, over coffee, Pen had told one of her more challenging friends that her writing was stuck because she couldn’t stop thinking about Lillah.
‘Close, are you?’ Friend probed.
‘Well, we don’t see each other much because we’re both busy. Mainly at Christmas. Family birthdays. No point in going over things we can’t change…’
‘Really. You can tell me,’ Friend replied, laying her hand upon Pen’s arm.
‘No, really. I can’t.’ Pen ducked her head.
‘Write about it then,’ Friend said. ‘True or not, words will flow?’
Lillah’s story was worse than fiction. Most people would fail to suspend disbelief. Or, after reading it, they would feel a strange illogical shame. Everyone knows that writers can’t help twisting things — like silk scarves, like secrets — in the service of story. Virginia Woolf must have feared as she wrote, that the men in her life read over her shoulder. James Joyce wrote his Dublin father from the safe distance of Trieste, made Stanislaus more organic, musical and funny — drew on deeper, less destructive truths. Fathers are fair game, but does propriety protect husbands from criticism? In most cases, writing about men is dangerous. For them, but mainly for the writer.
‘Lillah’s story is riddled with pain,’ Pen told Friend, and began to cry. ‘Only time will determine its telling, and she’s running out of that.’
Friend could never be trusted with Lillah’s story. She spoke too frankly. Without a qualm she would spill her guts and theirs to the world. Wariness with Friend was warranted.
‘Well where would we be,’ Friend said, ‘if writers stopped writing because their families had problems?’
Self-loathing rose in Pen’s throat. ‘I know, I know.’ She tightened the yellow scarf around her neck, tugging at the knot. ‘But I doubt Lillah would like to be subject. She’s very strong.’ Pen felt frail and vulnerable. And then guilty. By comparison, what had she to complain about?
‘Write something popular,’ Friend soothed, not literary fiction, that dirty word, heavily in parenthesis. ‘Something that will sell. About relationships or gratuitous violence. Readers like to laugh or cry.’
Pen baulked at Friend’s binary thinking.
‘Make the characters cutting.’ Friend persisted, drawing her chair closer and bowing her head against Pen’s. ‘Something I might enjoy.’
Pen hummed in a throaty way, to show her limited resistance. Pulled away; then dabbed at her eyes with a napkin. ‘Her husband’s name is Hugh.’
Friend rolled her eyes. ‘Non-sequitur. Forget him. Write her,’ she persisted, ‘or write for the market.’
‘Rubbish! I think you can.’
Pen had first seen the yellow scarf at a weekend exhibition, fluttering like a prayer flag on the dusty, sandstone walls of the Prairie Hotel; its rich colour drew her like flame. Without investing a lot of thought she had purchased it. Truthfully, she had been preoccupied with Lilla.
Ideas sometimes came to Pen in the early morning, with her partner deep inside her, propelling her towards a blissful finish, followed by decent crème on her breakfast latte. Early Sunday at the Prairie, in this heightened state, she had buried her anxious thoughts and drifted. A backdoor had opened in her brain, ushering in a plan, and to his annoyance, she had scrabbled for her phone on the bedside table to write it down. Paralysed by best intentions, she had feared a foul-weather friendship developing with Lillah.
They had married cousins from large families, whose craving for intimacy was natural, whose terror of never having their needs met was realistic. When resisted or confronted they were angry in an instant. The clashing of their egos had led to estrangements.
But was Lillah safe? Sometimes she teased little children until they cried. Why? Pen and Lillah had withstood relentless criticism from their fathers — as much as Joyce had received from his father Stanislaus — but they never talked about that because they could only withstand one generation of men at a time. Pen wrote away from her childhood, felt at home with strangers and strange at home: that old cliché.
Lillah was tough and over the years grew tougher. Twice she had left her marriage. Had he really hit her?
Pen pondered her own legacy — her peripatetic childhood spent breaking into new schools, new circles — and how she made herself do difficult things, pushed forward, stayed afloat, to survive friends as tough and controlling as her father. She was known for driving them home late at night, out of her way, for saying sorry when they stepped on her, for picking up their horses’ poop, and bills for lunch and coffee — for becoming indispensable just to know them better? In a perverse way, Pen found those who chose her interesting. Came to love them. Understand them. When it suited them, they had her back; and Pen had theirs. But she and Lillah had not chosen each other, had they? They were family. Married in. Had Lillah picked up the scent of Pen’s father beating her?
Lillah often said that Hugh screamed at her, ‘you said you’d come to bed, an hour ago.’ Were all men controlling? When she and Pen bothered to talk about it — between Christmases, Lillah seemed stoic. They shared a running gag in which one man’s monologue could be substituted for another’s — ‘So that’s all you’ve got to say,’ ‘Answer the question’; and ‘Come to bed,’ ‘Come to bed.’
But Lillah suffered more vicious lines: ‘You lazy bitch,’ ‘You’re just a waste of space,’ and ‘One day you’ll be sorry.’
Friend would find Lillah’s story popular, marketable, intriguingly unbelievable. Lillah’s fugues on family were nothing short of Gothic — but were any fiction? A man once told Pen that he was worried about the ‘me too movement’. If the women making accusations were liars, it could ruin men’s lives. Pen had dug deep within, searching for compassion for the accused men, when court evidence suggested that, by comparison, few of them were innocent. Women lost their careers and their lives.
Was family conspiratorial silence the culprit in matricide, or speaking out at the point of ignition? Pen ruled out schadenfreude in her relationship with Lillah. Ruled out duty. Overcame recoil. And decided never to tell Friend about the rope. Details like that should not be flung about.
A week after the Prairie exhibition, Pen had experimented with the yellow scarf, draping it across her walls and furniture. When she crushed the fringed end of it in the palm of her hand, it released redolent smells — dust and dung beetles, eucalyptus smoke issuing from forty-four- gallon-drums, rows of vivid scarves infused with citronella.
Then Lillah texted her with news.
Pen sat down hard on her unmade bed. Dear Girl…
Lillah texted back: I’m alright. Need help with him.
How could Pen do anything about Hugh? Had Lillah first been asked to make an appointment, before the doctor delivered the dreadful test results? Putting down the phone, Pen began to cry; then pulled bedcovers over her head. Speaking of Hugh to her husband brought coldness or anger. She prevaricated. What could be gained by rocking their own boat? Destroying one relationship for another — a doomed other.
Eventually she rose and picked up the yellow scarf from the floor in front of her dressing table. She held it to her face awhile, and then approached the window, peering through the liquid silk at her new amber world. Tried to calm down. Yellow is rarely melancholy: unless you add green, Kandinsky said. Then the colour becomes insistent, aggressive and outright disturbing. Had Hugh added the green?
Lillah had first appeared with Hugh at a family function, dressed in daisy-sprigged chiffon, a long blonde plait, fat as a python, flopped over one shoulder. The next time in a spike-encrusted dog collar and tight black jeans. And later, in jodhpurs and hunting jacket, her shoulder muscles corded, from controlling seventeen-hand horses over two-metre jumps at national trials. No physical challenge daunted her. Her father believed in education, competition, ambition. Had he beaten her?
Lillah took up dancing after the birth of her only child, from then on, flashing her perfect midriff at the extended family on Christmas days. Hugh had installed a sprung floor and dandled the baby while Lillah danced in their villa on weekends. But he forbade her returning to work until the child turned five, strongly supervising her social life on weekdays. Pen concluded that Lillah was adaptable and strong, another resilient girl who thrived on challenges. Why not just say PASS? Because things were always complicated.
It wasn’t smoking that metastasised cells in Lillah’s lungs. She didn’t smoke; and no one could be fitter. For weeks she’d complained of a lingering cough and pain in her neck. She’d felt run-down from bending over her work and practising dancing.
‘Sell your business,’ the oncologist advised, after he ran a gamut of tests, with no clue to the primary site; her body was riddled with malevolent growths. ‘There’s not much time,’ he said. ‘Christmas perhaps.’ He didn’t know Lillah.
Pen promised to have a drink with her, to talk about the situation. To compare notes. Lillah remarked that Pen wasn’t the only one now arranging to drink coffee with her, when none of them had made the time for years. But then nor had she. Now, her friends couldn’t get enough of her, she said: as if there was a time allotted for certain kinds of friendship and they hadn’t reached their quota.
‘Do you enjoy it? Seeing them?’ Pen asked. ‘All the same.’
‘Oh yes,’ Lillah replied, ‘now that I have some time.’
When hair dropped in clumps onto Lillah’s shoulders, Pen pressed the yellow scarf into her spiky-fingered hands and closed her own around them. Lillah was done with crying but they hugged. Carefully. Pen worried. Pen worried about worrying. From the outset, the scarf proved unsatisfactory, slippery, hot. Lillah would not get much wear out of it. She had tucked the remnants of her long blonde hair beneath it. Instead of gold tassels and diamante navel rings, the cord of a urine bag swung across her emaciated belly. She said she’d lost her bum. The bone in her wrist was so brittle, she said, that it could snap if she lifted a cup of coffee. Her once muscular shoulders looked frail and tilted away to the left. She walked on a lean, head tucked into her bony chest like a quizzical bird. She mentioned ‘multiple tumours’ as if everybody had them, but now that her pain relief was under control, she could speak of them without losing her nerve.
Pen overheard her on the phone to her sister who had injured her knee. ‘You should get that looked at. Try some physio,’ Lillah said, her voice alive with sympathy. Pen’s eyes filled with hot liquid.
Within a few weeks, Lillah bought a blonde, bobbed wig that looked a million dollars. Thin as a magazine model, hair immaculately coiffed, Lillah seemed complete again. Restored. Independent. Confident. Out she drove to drink with friends. She wasn’t a scarf person, although she could have learned to hide behind one. But not even a full niqab could save women from domestic terrorism.
Worn or not, the scarf imposed no burden on the planet, its desert patterns keeping company with dance fandangles — jewelled bras and girdles perhaps — tucked away in Lillah’s art-deco bureau drawer. Pen didn’t like to ask for it back. She would buy another. If Lillah died, the scarf would go to one of her sisters, who might wonder why she had bought something covered in small fossils. Such an unpredictable girl, they reminded Pen on a visit, when Lillah left the room to put the kettle on.
‘Remember that idea she had while pregnant,’ one said, ‘that her newborn baby would enjoy watching a python in a tank at the end of his crib?’
‘She must have been joking,’ Pen suggested.
‘Nooo.’ They had sucked in their breath together like big-lip damselfish.
Smoking doesn’t always kill. Hugh smoked on — in Lillah’s bedroom, throughout the house, in the car, with the child — never appearing to connect his habits with her health. Everyone agreed there was no real evidence for doing so. But hell … When he lit up, Lillah tagged it as an act of aggression and left the room. Had he thought it much too late for them both? Had Lillah contracted cancer in a lab?
After chemo failed, Lillah took up water therapy. She had nothing to lose in taking blue-sky treatments. At first, she couldn’t immerse herself in the healing tank because her urine bag placed her at greater risk of infection, but she could drink the seven daily phials of coloured water administered by a public servant. It wasn’t a rip off like Dr Tuckey in Helen Garner’s The Spare Room because this healer charged no fee and brought her hope. While attending sessions, Lillah met an Indigenous woman from the Tanami desert — you’d like her, Pen, you like the outback, she said — who’d had a difficult life but went home cured.
During the honeymoon period, one by one, Lillah’s cancer markers dropped, until she dispensed with the urostomy bag and could immerse her thin body in the healing tank. Month after month, she pushed back against her death sentence. Could she beat him — beat it? Every afternoon, she drove the family car to the water-expert. Hugh pushed her out of the marital bed and up against the wall. Shunted her to the spare room, and her friends drew closer. Every morning, one of them phoned.
‘What’s the point, of that?’ Friend said, ‘if she’s dying anyway.’
Hugh met a girl while trawling the internet. Lillah heard the sound effects of their relationship through her bedroom wall. It made her gag much more than treatment.
‘You’d think he might use headphones or keep the volume down,’ Pen remarked.
Lillah tightened the yellow scarf, which she’d taken to wearing again, draped around her thin shoulders. Hugh watched her, she said, even more intently, as if she had outwitted him by contracting a terminal illness. In any case, he’d told her that he’d been about to leave her. But he would stay now until the end. Lillah hoped he might find in the girl whatever he was looking for. Find whatever she had failed to provide for him.
‘Shouldn’t you leave?’
In such circumstances — dying — her lawyers told her, she would never be awarded access to her child.
Pen held her at the kitchen table. They rocked together, mute with incomprehension.
One afternoon, towards the end, Pen mooched with Lillah from one antique shop to the next, in search of a comfortable chair that wouldn’t worsen her neck pain. Lillah knew everything worth knowing about Clarice Clift teapots, bake-light accessories, Diana lights, and rose bowls. In the early 1900s, she said, invalid women took opium straight from the pipe, rather than from patient-controlled analgesia squeezed from a button at their wrist. She flipped a flapper dance costume onto the counter.
‘Can I use your credit card? Hugh’s taken mine,’ she asked. ‘Because I have insurance, I have to pay for everything now, even my food.’
Afterwards, over coffee and cake, for which Lillah had little appetite, they ripped into black comedy.
‘I’ve told the others, Pen, about what to do if anything happens to me. You know. And I’ve made a new will.’
‘Do you ever think of warning her? The girlfriend,’ Pen asked.
‘She’ll find out,’ Lillah said. ‘Or you could write it down. In a kind of code. So our men won’t read it.’ She turned her back on the counter to stare across the parklands while Pen paid.
‘Don’t tell me anything else,’ Pen willed Lillah. Self-hatred kicked in so hard it hurt her head. Awkwardly clutching the parcel, she helped her from the shop. If Lillah’s family knew, would they act? Having made their way from Odessa to the other side of the world.
When Lillah rang to tell her about the rope, Pen was standing in a public car park. She held onto the car door to steady her trembling. Hugh had made Lillah, and their kid, sit up late at the dining room table, to eat food he prepared over several hours, for which she had paid her share. When he harangued her for her lack of appetite and conversation, her teenage child had tried to defend her and then, admonished, dropped his head to the table and wept. Hugh lit a cigarette and swept up his wine glass — stomped out to the garden. The child fled to the relative safety of electronic worlds.
Lillah sat for a while and then began clearing dishes. The screen door slammed. ‘I’ve tied a rope to the clothesline,’ Hugh said.
At first, on the phone, Lillah had sounded composed. Then her voice dropped away, and her recount stalled. Her speech became incoherent. Pen could hear choking sounds. Crying, she thought. And then prolonged silence. Whatever else Hugh said couldn’t be spoken.
But Pen had heard enough. ‘That can’t be true,’ she said. Fierce emotions surged through her.
‘I’m alright,’ Lillah said.
‘It’s too horrible.’ Pen tried to breathe through the conversation. “What can I do?’
‘Should you call the police?’
‘Should I? Call the police?’
Pen bit her lip. She wished that Lillah hadn’t told her. Were her opioids bringing hallucinations, delusions? Paranoia? Insanity?
‘You’re lucky to be a writer,’ Lillah said. ‘You can tell things your way.’
‘You mean in general?’
‘But you’re here. You’re in my story. Aren’t you? With me.’
‘Well yes, but … not really. I can’t know exactly what’s going on … how you feel.’
‘I need some people to know things …’ Lillah’s voice sounded weary, resigned. ‘You’re a writer,’ she repeated ‘… and if the will is contested.’
She’d been hit by a freight train, she said, overloaded with emotion. ‘Talk soon.’
‘Yes. Talk soon,’ Pen conceded.
She wanted to say to take care but Lillah hung up. Pen dropped the phone and scrabbled for it on the tarmac. Grief and rage washed over her. She felt out of her depth. Drove straight home. Missed dinner. Retreated to her study. Gnawed at her fingers until they bled. Played Orff’s Carmina Burana at top volume, her hands pounding her desk. Tore up pieces of paper. Couldn’t write. Anything. But then she could. Each time she began again, hunched over, fingers poleaxing the keyboard, doubts smashing through her narratives like poltergeists shifting furniture. Her head fogged with terror.
Against all odds, Lillah reached her second Christmas, except she was moved to a hospice attached to a large private hospital and missed the family celebrations. Pen visited; the weather vilely hot. Plane tree leaves browned and shrivelled, grazing the window as they fell. Trees shadowed and cooled the ground floor room. Except for the circumstances, it was a relief when she entered. Pen carefully spooned mango cheesecake into Lillah, who nudged at the spoon and licked her lips like a baby, her eyes drifting away from the conversation in some kind of ecstasy.
Afterwards, they played music vids on the phone. Pen bent to stroke Lillah’s skeletal hand, weighed down by a spaghetti snarl of hydrating tubes and a morphine drip. Apart from her frailty, she looked almost normal, her eyes glazed by acceptance of things that would usually make her angry: laziness, small talk, stupidity.
When Pen stood up to leave, Lillah pointed to the yellow scarf tied in a bedraggled knot to the bed rail.
‘Take it home with you. Silk is strong,’ she said, as if she couldn’t care less. ‘Place it near you on your desk,’ (had she winked?) ‘when you’re writing.’
Zonked out on drugs. Certainly.
A week later, on her way to work, Pen arrived early for a visit and found Lillah’s empty bed made up in a spartan way, its crisp sheets turned at the corners. She first checked the bathroom and peered along the corridors, then searched the small rose garden outside the room, before enquiring about Lillah’s whereabouts at the nurse’s station. Patients couldn’t go missing when they were terminally ill, had to be somewhere, a staff member threw at Pen, head rising from paperwork piled on the desk.
‘Spell her name again,’ another said. ‘Unusual. Just give me the Christian name.’ No trace of Lillah could be found in computer records.
‘Lillah?’ said the overweight sister in charge, puffing towards the desk, ‘Nurse, you missed night shift handover.’
The night before, an orderly had played his mouth organ, his colleague said, while Lillah had partied with three of her closest friends and had drunk champagne. One of them had brought in the child, who laughed and cried with her. That morning at first light she had checked out. Permanently. No one had written up the notes because the ward was understaffed, and they needed her bed for an incoming patient. Pen felt at a loss. Her burning need to tell someone, anyone, especially Friend, anything about the unfairness of it all had left her. She bought a ticket to a movie at the Odeon but later couldn’t remember anything about it.
At Lillah’s funeral, women stood straight-backed like sentinels, honouring her stated wishes. Discordant music accompanied the dance, on the screen above the nave. The celebrant’s sacred robes were lined with pointless, purple sateen. Someone played the flute. Lillah had created a slide show of the important moments of her life — under a backyard plum tree, on sprung boards, on horseback, in academic gown, in pleated chiffon and coin bra tops. In her wedding photo, the bridegroom’s face had been blacked out, a partial erasure, enabling Lillah to tell her story.
Pen wound the yellow scarf around her fingers. Silk is stronger than rope but can be burned. Yellow is a colour to die for. Powerful, wise. Glorious.
Gay Lynch writes essays, novels, papers, book reviews and short stories, on unceded Boonwurrung land adjunct to Flinders University. Recent works include Unsettled (2019), an Australian historical novel launched at (ISAANZ) and ‘On Work,’ a Covid-inflected essay in Meanjin (Winter 2021). Essays and stories can be found in Best Australian Stories, Bluestem Journal, Edições Humus Limitada, Glimmer Press, Island, Meanjin, Meniscus, Griffith Review, Recent Work Press, TEXT, Sleepers Almanac and Westerly.