Brisbane, December 1980: The door squeaked at Alexander’s slight push. He stood for a moment, his breath catching the rhythm of his grandmother’s uneven and gurgling wheeze. Her eyes opened – nothing wrong with her hearing. A mix of repulsion and tenderness washed over him as her scrawny right arm beckoned him in. He drew up the nearest chair and gently took the hand she held out. It was almost weightless, age spots and freckles standing out like beacons against the pallor of transparent skin with its tracery of blood vessels branching over the birdlike bones up to distorted fingers, blue at the tips. Compassion swelled his throat as Vesna’s devoted grandmother smile seemed to banish the deep lines on her cheeks. But the vertical pain creases on her forehead remained.
Her eyes flashed impatiently at Alexander’s enquiry about medication. ‘Too soon. Drugs make me sleepy. I want to talk with you.’ Her voice was soft, strained. She halted every couple of phrases, hampered by breathlessness and a need to search for the right English words. Lately her native language surfaced more easily.
‘Well young man, I will miss you being around, but that share house at Dutton Park sounds good, just a ferry trip over the river to the university. . . . It will save you a lot of travel time. . . . I hope you’re not taking on too much with working as well.’ With another deep breath, shoulders hunched up under her ears, she continued, ‘Some days I feel good, but not so many of them now. I won’t be sorry to go. . . . Everything is such an effort and I don’t want to burden your mother too much longer. Jana has been a wonderful daughter-in-law.’ Another long breath.
Turning over Alexander’s hand, and stroking it with her thumb, she said, ‘Jana helped me make an album for you, and one for your sister. . . . Don’t forget your roots. It helps you to know who you are. Remember our stories. . . . My Aleksandar and I, we are grateful to this country for taking us in, and the peace we enjoyed here even though we had our hard times. I’m sorry I insisted on leaving Crabbes Creek after that big cyclone when Aleksandar got injured.’ Vesna ignored Alexander’s nod to slow down. ‘We all liked it there before that, but he was never the same again. It was good to have our own country-people around us there. . . . We missed that in Roma. I’m glad he died before that trouble started . . . There are ignorant people like that everywhere who latch onto only one part of a story. . . .’
Alexander’s look of distress at her struggle with breath didn’t stop her. She went on, ‘But it sent us to Maroochydore and you found Freya. That was meant to be.’
He nodded again but still with an expression of concern. He realised she had things to say. And waited.
‘You never forget your homeland. I’ve dreamed about it a lot lately. Dreams and daydreams. We were happy in our own way even though we were poor . . . and all that unrest. The politics and the violence with Bulgaria broke up the family. We were lucky to leave safely after Jana’s brother got caught up in it all. . . . I’m not sure the Macedonian question will ever be solved.’ Her eyes clouded. Alexander knew the sad memories that floated. She’d recalled them more often of late.
‘It wasn’t safe for any of us. The rift was worst for your mother, and we lost a part of our family. They all live in our thoughts still. . . . We were glad that Jana and your father were married by then, it helped her. Miro has been her rock.’
Alexander pressed her hand lightly. ‘Ssh now grandma. You are out of breath. Mother will remind us of the stories. You know that.’
She stopped talking and signalled for Alexander to help her sit up and lean forward onto a pillow on the bed-table. She claimed his hand again. Breathing more easily, she continued, some fluency restored, ‘The stories are in the albums as well. You are a good boy Alexander. Very like your grandfather. With his faults too I fear. Being single-minded is a good thing, but it can also be . . .’ She struggled for the word she wanted. ‘It can be harmful . . . if it is only about doing. Don’t forget the people and the feelings. Especially remember that young woman of yours. . . . For so long your grandfather thought of the pécalba, going off to the American and Australian goldfields, as the only way to provide for us. . . . He worked so hard. He was lonely and we were lonely. . . .’ She took in a massive breath and halted momentarily.
‘There might have been another way, but he didn’t try it – just followed the tradition. He forgot we needed him for himself, not just the money he sent for the family.’
Vesna continued to lean forward onto her arms. The heaving of her chest became less and she seemed to sleep. Alexander started to ease his hand away, but she held tight and he settled again. A few minutes later, she said, ‘It is different and hard for Freya. She feels the gaps in their family stories, so many questions in her mind. . . . She is full of love. She gives it out but she needs it too. I’m not sure her Gramma understands that.
‘I know flying is important to you. But don’t give so much to it that you have no time for Freya. Be careful you don’t lose her. . . . She will understand your passions, and if you keep a balance she will be happy too. Remember to be happy.’
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