Tuesday, September 18, 2012

The conspiracy

I cannot now remember who conceived the surprise for Jean and Davis’s fiftieth wedding anniversary on Thursday, September 6, 1990. What I do recall is that there was a number of carefully-briefed conspirators (purely on a need-to-know basis), and that watches were synchronized, all contingencies covered, with military precision. Forget vice-regal service, we really ought to have been in counter-espionage. My small role was to rendezvous with dear Mary Nicholson at Tullamarine, collect the merchandise, under cover of pre-dawn half-light, and to smuggle her into Government House so that she could make a deus ex machina entrance just before lunch.

Patrick had flown in from Hartford, Conn. Davis’s brother William had come over from Ireland. Most if not all of the other McCaughey children were there. Brigid operated the photographic equipment, so I hope she will not mind if I post this portion of her dossier. The merchandise, in this case, was the late and much lamented Mrs. Park. Mary D. Park, Davis’s widowed sister, was a frequent visitor from Northern Ireland, usually accompanied by her old pal Dr. Margaret Haire, though not on this occasion.

Everybody loved Mrs. Park. Apart from being a whole lot of fun (and funny), she had the Irishwoman’s knack of discovering shared connections in the unlikeliest of places. Wherever she went Mrs. Park knew someone who knew someone… even in Australia, where she had never lived. She was shrewd. She was tough. She had a vast memory bank, and the gift of excellent story-telling. She was also pretty good at croquet (Irish rules, of course), but no match for la maîtresse

Certainly no party to our conspiracy was more meticulous or better prepared. I shall never forget my first glimpse of Mrs. P. in that bleak, early-morning setting of suitcases and bustle in the arrivals concourse at Tullamarine. She was wearing a slightly flamboyant, patterned silk head-scarf and large dark-glasses, channeling Jackie Kennedy, lest she be recognized—which, in her case, seemed not an unlikely prospect. So Mrs. P. was in that moment the ne plus ultra of furtiveness, clutching her British passport, stealing glances left and right, her already sharp reflexes operating at the level of a coiled steel spring. I have never seen anyone derive quite so much pleasure from traveling incognita.

We made the drop. Headquarters were notified. Half an hour later, as we glided through the front gates Mrs. P. (still wearing the scarf and specs) physically sank in the back seat—as if Jean or Davis might be prowling the grounds with a pair of binoculars at six o’clock in the morning. We stole up the back stairs, and delivered her to the Hopetoun Suite, where she lurked impatiently for several hours, receiving secret visitors. Three short knocks, followed by one slightly louder. Everything went according to plan, and when in due course Mrs. P. appeared at the top of the stairsan entrance worthy not so much of Norma Desmond as Cleopatra—Jean said afterwards that she really did think she was seeing a ghost.

Upon much reflection in the early hours of this morning, I wonder if one can fully understand Davis and Jean without having known Mary D. Park also. She was, in a sense, the strongest, most enduring link to their life before Australia. With Mrs. P. Jean shared the double bond not only of being devoted sisters-in-law, each to the other, but also of having been for many decades the hard-working wives of Presbyterian clergymen—perfectly positioned, as dear Naomi reminded me overnight, to observe at the heart of their respective communities that “the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.”

How fortunate we are that none of these truly amazing people led hidden lives, quite the opposite.

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