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Authors: Lucy Palmer

A Bird on My Shoulder

BOOK: A Bird on My Shoulder
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Lucy Palmer is an award-winning journalist and documentary maker, author and editor.

Her most recent endeavour has been as the ghost writer of
Playing the Game: Life and Politics in Papua New Guinea
by Sir Julius Chan.

Lucy lives in the Southern Highlands of NSW with her children, and is happily imperfect in every way.

First published in 2016

Copyright © Lucy Palmer 2016

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording or by any information storage and retrieval system, without prior permission in writing from the publisher. The Australian
Copyright Act 1968
(the Act) allows a maximum of one chapter or 10 per cent of this book, whichever is the greater, to be photocopied by any educational institution for its educational purposes provided that the educational institution (or body that administers it) has given a remuneration notice to the Copyright Agency (Australia) under the Act.

Arena Books, an imprint of

Allen & Unwin

83 Alexander Street

Crows Nest NSW 2065


Phone: (61 2) 8425 0100

[email protected]


Cataloguing-in-Publication details are available

from the National Library of Australia

ISBN 9781743311530

eISBN 9781743433973

Set by Bookhouse, Sydney

Cover design: Lisa White

Cover illustration: Marisa Redondo

For my children, George, Charlotte and Meg—

May you live in your father's light.


Part One



















Part Two













part one


Come to bed, you say,

I love you.

Across gloomy planets,

Great caverns of loss,

You strode towards me.

Our hearts burst with hope.

Your children love you and

Light your way.

Come to bed, you say,

I adore you.

Pale clouds are surging

Over the pitted moon,

The house sighs

As I hear you roll over.

While you sleep, your children dream

Your forgotten dreams.

Come to bed, you say,

I need you.

The news of your cancer

Like gnarled, dirty fingers, has

Snuffed out the sun

Of our long life together.

Sensing this emptiness

Your children are afraid.

Come to bed, you say,

Just hold me.

Those white pills I took

To save some of my life,

Have robbed me

Of my spirit for a while.

Your children love you

And understand your fears.

Come to bed, I say.

I need to be near you.

My life is yours.

Let me pour blue water

On your softest head,

To heal you, honour you,

My beloved husband.

Your children meet your gaze

And enfold you.

Come to bed, I say,

Comfort me.

The arid desert winds,

The great lonely spaces

I wept as I walked this ravaged land.

I prayed that you were coming

To help me find my peace.

Your gentleness and strength

Have freed your children from bitterness.

Come to bed, I say,

Let us feast on every moment.

Death may be roving,

Seeking his prey. Let him.

The life that you gave me

Has lit me forever,

Soothed my thirsting spirit.

Strong from your loving,

Your children walk the world.


The acacia pod in my hand is like a tiny sturdy boat;

two split points of its prow taper into air. It offers

itself, lies open like a raw, grieving heart.

Ten years ago, my husband became a mystery.

In a breath, a living man vanished and became ethereal, eternal.

On the day of Julian's funeral, I remember a bright sun splashing on a lawn and the faint hint of fading blossoms on tall trees. There were drinks and food on a long table, Julian's four adult sons, Oliver, Charles, Henry and Edward, talked with family friends in small, animated groups. Our three young children scampered around the garden and swung in the hammock, innocent and seemingly free of anguish.

To an outsider, it might have looked like a lovely party; it should have been another of the many celebrations we shared in our brief six years together.

Later, when everyone had gone, I opened our wardrobe. There were Julian's clothes, some still laden with his familiar scent, and row upon row of now utterly redundant medicines. In our bathroom was his partly worn toothbrush, his shoes neatly placed outside the door.

Everything unchanged; yet everything transformed.

Overnight, my marriage changed into a relationship more akin to a journey of faith. Trying to remain close to Julian, once so effortless, turned into the desolate reality of his uninhabited silence. Like a desperate appeal to an invisible God, I hoped that he could still hear me, that we were still loved. Surely he had not just abandoned us – it could not be.

So I would listen for his voice and sometimes, I believed, I heard it. I would search for him in every crowded street, often convinced that I had just caught the flash of his old oilskin coat or the back of his head as he rounded a corner and disappeared out of sight.

I would walk alone in our orchard at night and wail like a madwoman, feeling no separation between the empty, cavernous sky and my own soul. At other times I felt a sense of hope restored, momentary flashes of intuitive certainty that Julian was still here, helping me in ways that I simply could not see.

Grief was the door that opened into a fathomless abyss, where the way was long, dark and lonely. It smashed so many
certainties, and, for a while, severed me from myself: it was the crude cut between our old life and a brave new world without Julian. All the buried pain I had ever felt and tried to forget became tumbling rocks in an unstoppable torrent.

Grief was also, eventually, the friend that quietly showed me all the illusions of my life and gave me the capacity to rebuild on stronger foundations.


Today the auspicious anniversary of ten years has arrived. A manufactured milestone perhaps, but significant nonetheless. I stand in the kitchen stirring a pot of soup, thinking back over this long decade; a blur of memories has been smeared across the pages of so many indifferent days.

The clock ticks soundlessly towards the hour of Julian's death as our teenage children, George, Meg and Charlotte, mill around the kitchen.

‘What's that smell?' asks Charlotte.

‘It's either the soup or the chicken,' I reply.

‘Smells a bit burned,' she says.

It's a family joke that my cooking skills, kindly put, are rather basic.

‘It's not burned,' says Meg, coming to my rescue. ‘It's

The wood fire in the family room crackles and spits,
emanating warmth and safety. Our old dog, Stig, lies in front of the fridge, happily oblivious to everyone stumbling around him.

Have you seen my diary?

I'm sure I put my iPod down here.

Can I go to Sydney on Saturday?

I had been wondering for several weeks how I might honour this day. Should I take flowers to Julian's grave, share the day with special friends, or perform some kind of private ritual? But when the morning arrived and the children had gone to school, I sat outside with a bland sun resting on my face and realised I simply wanted to be left in peace, to look back in solitude across the years from the vantage point of time passed and emotions softened.

I have said nothing to the children about this day. Rightly or wrongly, it seems a kinder legacy. Not having Dad in their lives has been devastating enough and I do not want to remind them.

I continue to stir the pot and, in the quiet rhythm of our evening rituals, I think of Julian, the ever-present absence in our lives.

A shadow moves briefly beside me, quiet and purposeful. For a fleeting moment, I feel a light weight like a familiar loving hand resting briefly on my shoulder. My heart fills and my breathing slows. Immediately a thought flies in –
don't be ridiculous.

And yet the feeling lingers for a few seconds more. I knew Julian better than I knew anyone, and even after all these years, I still know what it feels like when he is near me though the moment passes, I allow myself to believe that something of his spirit is here. Still here.

After a rather lacklustre dinner we play our favourite word game – a round of Bananagrams at the hastily cleared table. Despite my best efforts, George wins. He grins with quiet pride – he knows I never concede a victory. Meg and Charlotte run off to their bedrooms, giggling at a private joke, keen to escape the washing-up. George is not far behind.

And so this day, which had for months loomed before me like a terrible wall, crumbles into another ordinary evening.

I sit by the fire, Stig at my feet. The telephone rings but I have no desire to speak. The answering machine clicks into life and I hear the voice of Joan, the mother of my close friend Mary-Louise, calling from Melbourne.

Hello, darling
,' she says. ‘
Just wanting you to know that we are thinking of you tonight and sending our love. We'll raise a glass to Julian over dinner. God bless


Eventually I force myself to leave the comfort of the fire and settle into bed, looking out of the window to the east, where the moon is up. Occasionally, when there are storms at sea,
I sit up and watch the slashes of unexpected light. Tonight it is bright and clear.

Julian died here late at night on 28 September 2001.

On my bedside table is a dried-out acacia pod which I picked up on a recent bushwalk with my friend Celeste. Walking with her is a balm to my soul as we fall into a simple and companionable rhythm, sometimes talking, sometimes not. Near the end, we always stop and sit by the river and eat while the churning water washes our ghosts away.

I pick up the pod and hold it in my open hand – inside there is a shrivelled seed.

Before it fell to earth, this pod's purpose was hidden, inner work; it plucked life from the empty air, the shallow sun, the panting earth. Perhaps the seeds already knew what they would be, dreaming on those long soaking days, visions of a tree, wiry and taut. I, too, still dream of the woman I am becoming; here, tight down, where nothing, I hope, can break me.

BOOK: A Bird on My Shoulder
12.01Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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