Authors: Georgia Blain
Allen & Unwin's House of Books aims to bring Australia's cultural and literary heritage to a broad audience by creating affordable print and ebook editions of the nation's most significant and enduring writers and their work. The fiction, non-fiction, plays and poetry of generations of Australian writers that were published before the advent of ebooks will now be available to new readers, alongside a selection of more recently published books that had fallen out of circulation.
The House of Books is an eloquent collection of Australia's finest literary achievements.
Georgia Blain has written a number of novels for adults including the bestsellingClosed for Winter, which was made into a feature film. Her memoirBirths Deaths Marriages: True Taleswas shortlisted for the 2009 Kibble Literary Award for Women Writers.
In 1998 she was named one of theSydney Morning Herald'sBest Young Novelists and has been shortlisted for the NSW Premier's Literary Awards, the SA Premier's Awards and the Barbara Jefferis Award. She lives in Sydney with her partner and daughter.GEORGIA BLAINCandelo
This edition published by Allen & Unwin House of Books in 2012 First published by Penguin Books Australia Ltd, Melbourne in 1999
Copyright Â© Georgia Blain 1999
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ISBN 978 1 74343 009 5 (ebook)Contents
Many people have helped at various stages in the writing of this book. In particular I would like to thank Katrina, Louise and Anne for their insightful advice, and Anthony, Andre and Madeline for taking me back to Candelo.
Thank you also to Ali Watts and Julie Gibbs at Penguin, and Fiona Inglis from Curtis Brown.
Finally, a big thank you to Andrew and to the beautiful Odessa Stella, who came into our life just after the final edit was completed.
My mother, Violetta, has always believed that there is a division between right and wrong, that it is possible to draw a moral line.
I'm not talking about morality in a puritanical sense, she says,nor am I talking about petty daily entanglements.
And she isn't.
She is talking about something much larger than that. She is talking about the big issues, about taking a stand with an honest awareness of how each action will impact on the universal, about not being afraid to speak out, to battle for what you know to be right.
Simple, I say to her, with a certain measure of sarcasm.
She is usually easy to rail.
The problem with your generation, she tells me,is that you expect others to do the fighting for you. You are quite happy to sit around and talk about what's wrong with the world, but you won't do anything about it â unless there's something in it for you.
She beats her fist on the table. She is on a roll.Look atfeminism today, and she lifts her eyes to the ceiling in disgust.There's no concept of united action. You get a modem, call yourself a grrrl and you never look beyond your own backyard.
I tell her that I have never called myself a grrrl.
I should hope not, she says. She barely draws a breath before she continues.What about cuts in health care? Education? Unemployment benefits? When was the last time you did anything other than sit around and complain? If you came to any of the few marches still being held, you'd see that it is predominantly my generation out there protesting.
I wish I hadn't got her started.
Fighting for others has always been her life. For as long as I can remember. She sees inequality, she sees injustice and she is in there, battling for what she believes.
I'm not talking about the general, I say.It's just that it is not always easy, on a personal level, to know what is right, and as I speak, I can see her rolling her eyes.If it isn't huge, if it isn't political, then it isn't real to you.
She looks at me without blinking.It certainly isn't of as much importance, she says.
When Simon, my brother, came to tell me that Mitchell had died, I was, once again, enmeshed in the personal. And even in that arena, even in my ownpetty daily entanglements, I was managing to shift that line, draw it anywhere in the sand, and justify its placement to myself.
I was sitting on the back steps to our building and looking at the work I had made Marco do. Four days before I had asked him to move out.
It was during the last rains that the stairs had started sinking. As the mud slid down from the hill behind us, the bottom steps slipped with it. Already rotten, the wooden posts and landing began to shift, the boards breaking under the strain, leaving only a rickety backbone of what had once been there. Enough to tiptoe carefully, from upstairs to downstairs, but only just.
Like everything in this building, they remained unrepaired.
The owner, Mr Wagner, lives in Germany and we do not know how to contact him.
Mouse once told me that he left the country because he had buried a woman in the backyard,under very sus circumstances, and he winked, knowingly.
For whatever reason, we have never seen him. We just pay our rent into a bank account, and the disrepair continues. Even when it is as dangerous as those stairs were.
And that is how they would have stayed, if I hadn't begged Marco to fix them.
Why?he asked.It's not like we ever go up there.
I told him they were life threatening. That they, Anton or Louise, could kill themselves.
Well, let them do something about it, he said.
They won't, I told him.
And they wouldn't. Anton, I think, liked the romance of it all. He bought himself a rope ladder and kept it near the bathroom window. Louise was too obsessed with the slow dissolution of their relationship to notice.
When I wouldn't let up, Marco wanted to know why it concerned me so much.
I couldn't tell him the real reason. I couldn't tell him that I did, in fact, go up there. As often as I could. Waiting until he had gone off to work, waiting until I heard Louise's footsteps on the stairs and then, when it was all clear, knocking on their door.
I just kept on begging him, until, finally, he gave in. Four days before he packed the last of his few possessions into a box and carried it up the path to the road, slamming the door behind him as he told me that I would be sorry, that I would regret my decision. Marco fixed it all; all except the bottom step, which, still rotten, had collapsed into the dirt below.
And that is where I was sitting on the day my brother, Simon, came to tell me the news.
I had been sick again. A dull nausea that had left me unable to make it to my front door. Too listless to move, I was staring out past the coral trees, out past the morning glory, out past the sea, while from above me, I could hear them, Anton and Louise, arguing again.
I am sorry, Louise would say when she knocked on my door late at night after fights such as these.I shouldn't bother you. But have you got a moment?
And I would always let her in, my desire to know what was happening stronger than my ability to do what I knew was right. I would drink the scotch she had brought with her and I would watch the ice condense in the glass until the palm of my hand was cold and sweaty. Never lying but never telling the truth.
I heard the door slam upstairs, and I jumped.
I heard Anton tell her to calm down.
I heard her open the door and slam it again, the whole building shuddering with its impact, the windows rattling, the tremor travelling down the railing to the stairs as Anton no doubt shrugged his shoulders in helpless indignation at Louise's fury.
I began to pull myself up and, as I looked down at my feet, my ankles, my legs, cramped from sitting for too long, I failed to see him. My brother. Coming down the path towards me, the pale blue of his bus driver's shirt normally letting me know who it is before he arrives.
But not this time.
When I looked up, he was there.
And he had come to tell me that Mitchell had died.two
Simon still lives at home with Violetta.
She used to worry that he would never leave. Now she just accepts the fact that he is there. Her house is large and their lives barely intersect.
In the past, their few exchanges of words were usually about the dishes, cleaning the bathroom, not leaving the laundry sitting in the washing machine for days. It was always Violetta directing the complaints, a staccato list as she rushed around the kitchen, tiny, bird-like in her high heels, picking up bowls, glasses, cups and never really putting them anywhere. Just shifting them, from one spot to the next. Sometimes Simon would look up from the paper and, not wanting any confrontation, quickly look down again.
Since my mother has been ill, Mari, who lives with her, has taken up the complaints. Not that she was silent in the past. But she would usually direct her frustration at Vi, telling her she could not bear it any longer.He is a slob, she would say.For Christ's sake, Vi, he's a grown man. You shouldn't still be picking up after him.
Once it became so bad that Mari packed her bags and told my mother that it was her or Simon. Violetta had to choose.
Don't make me do this, Violetta said.
She would, no doubt, have drawn back on her cigarette, then stubbed it out, half finished, before commencing to roll the next one. She would have told Mari she was being ridiculous. She would have promised she would talk to Simon.
And then, finding it all too difficult, she would have gone back to the report she was writing, âThe Sexuality of the Adolescent', or âCrime, Children and Incarceration', or perhaps a piece for the paper, a book review, a speech.
Her notes would surround her and the ashtray would be overflowing. She would be immersed, unaware that Mari was packing the last of her bags, closing the door behind her, locking it and pushing the key through the letterbox. Unaware that Mari had, in fact, gone.
It is not that my mother does not care, it is just that she wouldn't have wanted to know. She would have waited, certain that a phone call would come. Or a knock on the door. Mari, wanting to pick up the rest of her things.
And when Mari did turn up, two maybe three days later, Vi would have stayed in her room while Mari cleared out the kitchen cupboards. Vi would have turned up the radio while Mari emptied the shelves, quietly at first and then, realising that Violetta was not going to come out and beg her to stay, more loudly, until she was dropping each pan on the floor, not once but twice, before she put it in the box.
It would only have been when the noise became unbearable that my mother would have opened her door. Clack, clack,clack in her heels, furious at the disruption, both of them glaring at each other across the almost bare kitchen.
You're being ridiculous, Violetta would have said, arms folded.
I've talked to Simon, and seeing that Mari was not going to waver, not without a little more, she would have told her that he had promised to change.
Hardly the words Mari had hoped for but at least they were some kind of start.
Please, because Vi would have known that it would not take much more.There's no need for all of this.
Not much of a reconciliation, but enough for Mari to stop her packing, just for a moment, and for my mother to reach out and touch her arm in the absent, barely there manner that she has.
Really?Mari would have asked.
Really, Vi would have said.
And in the silence that followed, they both would have looked away from each other, uncertain. Knowing that another move had to be made. Knowing it would be Mari; Mari who would look at Vi, who would tell her how awful she looked, like she hadn't slept, like she had been smoking too much, not eating, all of which would be true. Because this is the way my mother is. Whether Mari is there or not.
I am sorry, Mari would have finally said.
I am sorry too, and they would have stepped towards each other, still hesitant, still unsure as to whether the argument really was over, my mother drumming the tabletop with her fingers, wanting to light a cigarette but trying to stop herself.
Coffee?Mari would have asked.
And as Vi nodded, Mari would have begun to search for the percolator, unpacking the boxes on the floor at her feet.
It was all right; and my mother would have reached for her pouch of tobacco, her sigh of relief audible. Mari was home and life was, once again, normal.
Simon, no doubt, would have been completely unaware of the drama. It is unlikely my mother would have told him. Or perhaps he did know but he, too, just chose to ignore it, staying in his room and watching television or sleeping.
Like Vi, he is good at avoiding.
Simon and I are not close. We were once, but it seems so long ago, it is difficult for me to remember.
At the time of his visit, we only saw each other infrequently. Sometimes I would come home and he would be there, sitting outside my front door, smoking a cigarette and staring at the scuffs on his shoes. No doubt he had been there for hours, never thinking to call before he arrived, never thinking to just leave a note and go. He would wait, his shirt untucked from the creased cobalt blue of his bus driver's trousers, too tight, his stomach bulging out over his belt, his fingers nicotine stained, never without a cigarette, his eyes far away, staring at his shoes but seeing right past them, seeing something that only he can see.
He never comes for a reason. He just arrives. When I let him in, he is large and heavy in my small flat, filling the room that is my lounge and bedroom, not wanting anything to drink or eat, not even wanting to talk about anything in particular.
Instead, he will tell me in slow halting sentences about what happened on his route that day, or perhaps he will give me a run-down of an article he read in the paper, or a movie he watched on television, a blow-by-blow description of the plot, each scene described in excruciatingly dull detail.
I try to listen, but I soon find I am cleaning up around him, washing up, hinting that I have people coming over or I am going out, making phone calls to friends, until eventually he heaves himself up and sighs.
Well, I suppose I'd better go, he says.
As we part, as I watch him making his way back up the path, step by step, not even bothering to brush the oleander aside as it slaps into his face, I wish I had tried.
It is the gap between what he once was and what he has become.
The size of it. There in front of me.
And in the face of that, I am no good.
On that day, the day that Simon came to tell me Mitchell had died, he had not been over for almost two months.
I opened the windows wide in preparation for the thick yellow haze of smoke that would soon settle. He sat, heavily, in the armchair that had once belonged to our grandfather, thumbing through a script I had been reading for an audition.
It's a film, I told him,a small part, but better than usual.
He put it down.
He is not interested in my work. Nor is Violetta. But, in her case, this disinterest is a relief. The few times she has come to a play I have been in, she has sat right near the front, leaning forward, so that I can see her staring, I can feel her staring.And afterwards, she tells me exactly what she thought. She tells me the script was didactic, the interpretation facile, the politics conservative, all the while drinking red wine and waving a cigarette in the air.
I put the script away and leant against the doorframe, one foot in, one foot out, looking out across the garden as I asked my brother how he was.
He told me he was okay, just the same, not much happening, and as I glanced towards him, I saw he was rubbing his hand nervously along the top of his thigh, unable to meet my eyes.
What's up?I asked him, and, frustrated, I turned away, rolling my eyes in irritation as I waited for him to speak.
You're so impatient, Marco would tell me when he saw me with Simon.
No I'm not, I would argue, but I would know he was right, and I would feel ashamed.
He's not that hard to talk to, he would say whenever I came home to find them both out in the garden, smoking cigarettes and seemingly managing to converse with ease; not once, but several times.
Just because he's a bus driver doesn't mean he has no opinions about the world, and Marco would raise his eyebrows to reinforce one of his favourite points: I was, and always would be, just too middle class.
And I would be furious with him.
From behind me, I could hear Simon clear his throat.
My brother's voice is soft. He often looks down as he talks; his words trail off as he realises that his attempts to be heard are floundering; half-finished sentences fall at his feet. He wasanswering me, but it was not just his uncertainty, nor just my failure to listen, it was the name that confused me, hearing it out loud after all those years, so that he had to say it again.
And I was, for a moment, relieved. It wasn't Vi. It wasn't Bernard.
He wiped his forehead with the bottom of his shirt and, despite the cool, I could see that he was hot. Clammy. The perspiration condensing near his hairline.
What happened?I asked, my surprise at the mention of Mitchell's name only just beginning to register.
I waited for him to speak. In the silence, I could hear them above me, Anton and Louise. She was sweeping the floor of the flat. This is what she does when she is agitated. He was helping her move the furniture. This is what he does when he feels guilty.
Simon, too, glanced upwards.
I watched him swallow, followed by the hesitant scratch of a cough. Wiping his nose with the back of his hand.
I want to go to the funeral, and I could barely hear him.I want to go to the funeral, he said again, lifting his head now and looking straight at me.
I did not want him to say what I knew he was going to say next. I guessed before he even spoke the words, before he even asked me if I would go with him. And I looked straight back at my brother and told him that I didn't want to go.
Not to Mitchell's funeral. Not to that.three
I do not know how Mitchell was when they took him away.
He may have hung his head, his long blond hair stiff with salt and falling into his eyes as they put his hands behind his back.
He may have been silent, knowing there was no point, staring at the gravel underfoot as they walked him back up the incline towards the road, towards the waiting car. Or he may have shouted and screamed, struggled, swore at them to keep their fucking hands off him, as they pushed him into the back, slamming the door behind him.
I do not know whether he was scared.
There on the back seat, the vinyl sticky beneath his skin, one thin leg jiggling up and down, up and down, the slap of his heel against his thong, over and over again. Staring out the window. Nothing but the black hills and the white of the headlights as they turned back onto the road and drove away from that place.
I have always imagined they were the last to leave the scene.
But that may not have been how it was.
Down by the creek bed, dry at this part, there may have been others. Wrapping chains around my mother's car, the clank of metal on metal, the groan and grind of the truck engine and the scrape of the body against the boulders, as they hauled and heaved it up to the road.
And in the hot stillness of that night, they might have stopped to wipe the sweat off their faces, the black grease from a singlet smeared across a forehead. In the sharp beam of the light from the truck, they might have seen how crushed the metal was and looked at each other.
Amazing any of them survived, one might have said, not expecting a response. Turning back to the task. Knowing they were just words, words about an accident that hadn't really touched on their lives, that would soon be forgotten, words left to drift out in the dark closeness of that valley.
Bloody amazing, the policeman might also have said. Same words, somewhere else. Words that were not left to drift. Words that came down hard. Hard as the fist on the desk.
So, what have you got to say for yourself?And as he leant forward, waiting for an answer, expecting an answer, I can only guess how Mitchell might have responded.
I can only guess how Mitchell might have felt.
Because, the truth is, I never really knew him.
The truth is, none of us did.
It was Vi who brought Mitchell into our lives. About fifteen years ago.
She would deny that, if we talked about him, which we don't.
She would say that it was a democratic process. That we all had a chance to have our say. That we took a vote.
I always listened to you, she says.I always took your views into consideration.
And, on the surface, she did.
Whenever there was a decision to be made, an issue that would affect us all, Vi would call a house meeting. It did not matter whether the question was large or small, Vi would put it to a vote. And somehow, the numbers always stacked in her favour.
We discussed Mitchell three days before we were due to go on holiday.
It is important, Vi told us,that we learn to share a little of what we have, and she waved her arm in the air to indicate all that we possessed,with others. I don't think the three of you realise just how fortunate you are.
She laid a couple of badly typed sheets onto the table in front of us. I could only just make out the heading on one â âThe Desmond Halls Placement Program'.
It has been set up, Vi explained,to ease adolescents from institutions, foster homes or disadvantaged families into adulthood. It's for kids who are about to look after themselves.
She picked up the bottom sheet and started reading out loud.Ideally, the program will work as a give and take experience. It's not only the adolescent who will benefit from their stay with the placement family, but the family themselves.
We looked at her.
Do any of you have anything you'd like to say?
Simon looked at his watch. He wanted to get back to theStewarts' house.Sounds okay to me, he said, which was how he responded to most of Vi's proposals. Evie said she needed to go to the toilet, and I said I didn't want a stranger on our holidays.Not at all, I added, in case I hadn't been heard the first time.
And I didn't. I wanted us to have time with Vi. Away from her work.
I'm disappointed in you, and she poured herself another glass of red wine, and pushed the bottle towards Simon and me.In fact, I really wouldn't have expected it, and as she looked at me through her reading glasses, she cut herself a piece of cheese from the stale block she always brought out for these meetings.Why?she asked.
I could not think of a valid justification. Not a single one.
Well, not in her eyes anyway.
I think we're all agreed, then, she said, and it was clear that the decision had been made.
When I told my father about the holiday, he made little effort to hide his disinterest.
Really, he said, but I could hear him on the other end of the telephone telling his new girlfriend, Jane, that he didn't want any salad with his meal. Not yet, he liked it afterwards, on a different plate.
You're not listening, I told him.
I am, darling, I am.
But he wasn't.
You know what your mother's like, and he tried to reassure me.Just humour her. Let it be. It won't be so bad.
He had given up on Vi's passions a long time ago. I doubtwhether he was ever really that interested, although she assures me that he was.
He changed, she tells me with some disgust.
Bernard is a QC. When they met, he was instrumental in setting up the first community legal centres.God knows what happened to him, Vi says, and it is clear that she wants to change the topic.
Simon, too, didn't care. Not all that much.
It's no big deal, he told me.
I tried:But if you came with me, and said you didn't want him, then it would be two of us. Against one. We could ask for a revote.
He wasn't interested.
And Evie was too young.
There was no point.
So, that was the way it stacked up.
That was the way it always stacked up.
Mitchell was dead and Simon wanted me to go to his funeral.
Why?I asked him and he did not answer.
I could only guess that it was some act of forgiveness. A gesture. A peacemaking. And I did not want to participate.
I stood in my doorway, listening to the clatter of plates from the flats next door, dinner being prepared, the low hum of television from the flats behind them, the sound of a car pulling out from the flats on the other side, and, from above me, from our own block, silence. I turned to go inside and then, faced with the emptiness in front of me, found myself stepping back into the garden, back to where the stairs down the cliff oncebegan, and still were if you hacked your way through the knotted vines and sticky lantana, back to where I could see up to their windows. Lights on, curtains open, and the strain of the rusted sashes with each faint stir of breeze.
Evening. Mouse raised his hand in greeting as he walked past, his smirk just visible in the dark. He knew what I was doing.
I did not bother responding.
He had locked himself out again and I watched as he forced his window open and started climbing through, head first.
I willed him to get stuck.
Or at least fall, hard, onto the floor below.
Lost your key?I asked him.
There's no rule that says you gotta use the door, and he slammed the window behind him, the glass rattling in the pane.
I was alone again. There was nothing to see. Nothing to hear. And I suddenly felt foolish.
Inside, I sat by my window and I tried not to think about Mitchell. The pages of the script were open in front of me, but I kept on looking out to the lights of the houses on the north point. Despite what I had said to Simon, the film was dull and tedious.
I was being auditioned to play a heroin addict. This is the type of part that I am always offered. Probably because, like Violetta, I am small and thin with dark circles under my eyes. As I closed the script, I saw myself, there in the reflection of the window, and I looked away.
It was not just Mitchell I was trying not to think about.
It was myself. It was the situation I was in.
I saw my reflection and I saw why the doctor had been concerned when I had gone to see her that morning.
You need to make sure you get plenty of iron, she had said,if you're going to go ahead with this.
She had given me a card for a clinic. And a letter of referral.
Give yourself a couple of weeks, she had said,before you make any decisions.
I picked up the telephone and then, halfway through dialling Vi's number, I hung up. I wasn't ready to speak to her yet. I didn't know what I would say, how I would attempt to explain the situation in which I had found myself.
I dialled another number.
Lizzie had friends over. I could hear someone laughing in the background, the clatter of cutlery falling to the floor.
It was not a good time to talk.
On the weekend, she promised.
And as I rolled myself a joint, I promised myself I would stop smoking if and when I made my decision.
But until then, if I was going to sleep, I needed all the help I could get.four
Once, a long time ago, Simon had a lot of friends.
Always late home from school, he would drift from a neighbour's house to the corner, and then on to the park, perhaps the newsagency; unaware of the time, even with the first flicker of the streetlights, he would simply forget he was meant to be home.
Vi would always tell me to go and find him.
And I would.
Always wanting to be where he was, to be part of whatever it was that the older kids did, I would know where to look for him. At the bowling green smoking cigarettes, his short pockets stuffed with stolen chalk, on the oval trying to throw boomerangs and get them to come back, out on the street playing handball, perhaps at someone's house, stoned and listening to records; it never took me long to track him down.
I would come in and tell him dinner was ready. Now.
He would look up, surprised.
But it's only five, he would say.
I would roll my eyes and show him my watch.
Unaware of how late it was, he would just be wherever he was. Completely.
And that was what drew people to him. That, and the gentleness in his nature.
You could not help but like him.
Simon no longer has the friends he used to have. There is really only myself and Vi. And we are his family.
I once asked Vi what she thought had happened to him. Why the change had occurred. But as soon as I articulated the question, I wished I hadn't. I knew I had led us into a territory that neither of us had the heart to enter.
I watched as she tried to light a match, as it splintered against the flint and failed to catch. She tried three times before she spoke, drawing back sharply on her cigarette and staring out the window, as she told me she didn't know.
It's just the way he is, she said and she did not turn to look at me.
I did not press it any further.
Because when it comes to Simon, it seems as though we constantly fail, as though inaction is the path we choose.
The morning after he came to me with his news, I did not call Vi, dreading the prospect of mentioning Mitchell's name but knowing it had to be done. I did not call my father and arrange to meet him for lunch that day. I did not ask him to speak to Simon.
I did not do anything.
I just learnt my lines, repeating them to myself in the mirroras I cleaned the bathroom that is shared by both the downstairs flats. Mine and Mouse's.
I scrubbed the toilet until there was not a trace of Mouse's footprints left. He likes to squat.It's what they do in India, he tells me whenever I complain.
I cleaned the tiles around the shower until they were sparkling.
I washed down the floor.
I wiped the basin until it gleamed.
And I played out my entire scene five times.
When I was finished, when I had learnt all I had to learn, I dumped the dirty sponges at Mouse's door, and I waited for Louise to go to work, for her footsteps down the stairs.
Louise is a sub-editor. She works shifts. When she is on the morning shift, she leaves at eight, when she is on the afternoon shift, two, and the evening shift, nine. I knew these times by heart. I still know them.
That morning she was late, and I stood, nervously, there on that bottom step, unsure as to whether I should go up, unsure as to whether I should knock on their door in the hope she had already left.
Louise does not like her job. She has told me this often. They moved to this city a year ago, and she was forced to take whatever was available.
It was Anton who wanted to come here, she once said, brushing her hair out of her face and then letting it fall back again.He thought there would be more opportunity, for his scripts, and she sighed.But he is still broke and I am still supporting him.
She would tell me she had no one else with whom shecould talk.I hope you don't mind, she would say as I opened the door to her standing awkward, unsure, a bottle in one hand, a pack of cigarettes in the other.
Once she told me Anton's work hadn't been the only reason for the move.I had a miscarriage, she said.I kind of fell apart.
Another time she told me it was because Anton had had an affair, and she had looked at me, just for a moment, as she poured herself another drink.
Who knows?Marco said when I asked him what he thought the real reason was, and he looked up impatiently from the pile of notes he had brought home to read.Who cares?
He always found Louise irritating. He had little patience for her endless talk about her problems. It was self-indulgent.
Bourgeois, I would say to tease him.
Precisely, he would say, but he would usually smile back.
He had even less time for Anton.A sleaze-bag, and he would not look at me.A spoilt rich kid dabbling in the arts.
And each time he heard the footsteps from upstairs followed by a knock on our door, he would roll his eyes.Don't, he would mouth silently as I would get up, ignoring him, opening the door to see her standing there.
I looked up to the landing at the top of the stairs and closed my front door behind me.
Before you make any kind of decision, you should talk to him, the doctor had told me, and I had nodded my head as though it was a given.
In the closed stillness of the corridor outside their flat, I knocked once, hoping she had somehow gone without me hearing her.
But she hadn't.
She was the one who answered the door. She was the one with whom I talked. The two of us, out on the landing, Louise picking at splinters in the wood, staring down at her feet as she told me they had been fighting again.
I wish I had the courage to just go, she said, her voice hushed, quiet, because she did not want him to hear. Anton, just one thin wall away.I wish I was more like you. You just took action. It wasn't working and you made your decision.
And she looked out across the overgrown garden, out across the low shrubs that cling to the side of the hill behind these flats, their roots gripping the sandy soil, only just, as she told me how lonely she felt.
If it wasn't for you, I don't know what I would do, and she lit a cigarette, holding it awkwardly in her left hand, the smoke drifting up and into my eyes.He tells me I'm mad. And now I'm starting to think I am. Now I'm starting to wonder whether I have just been imagining that he's up to his old tricks, and I watched as she scratched the end of the match into the wooden railing, one thin black line.Perhaps I have just made it all up. Perhaps he does still love me.
And she flicked her ash down into the garden.
He says he does.
I was silent.
And why shouldn't I believe him?
I did not answer her and I did not meet her gaze.
She thanked me for coming up. She thanked me for coming to see if she was all right. Because when she opened the door, I had told her that I just wanted to know if she was okay.Speaking softly, knowing he was there, just on the other side of the wall.
I appreciate it, she said, as I told her I had to get going, that I was late for work.
I turned to the stairs, the stairs I had made Marco fix, and she watched as I made my way back down to my flat. I could not see her, but I knew she was still there, leaning on the railing, watching me, the ash from her cigarette floating down, drifting past me, and into the garden below.
And I wished I had been able to speak to him.
That it was over and done with.
And not the unknown, still to be faced.five
You see, Vi says to me,the personal is, by and large, a distraction. A self-indulgent excuse.
I drum my fingers on the table. Loudly.
I am not saying always. But often. We get embroiled in trying to make our lives measure up to petty fantasies and we ignore the larger issues in life.
When she talks like this, I try to stay calm, but more often than not, I fail. I want to tell her that in her case, the global seems to be the distraction, the way of hiding from the personal. But if I begin to voice this, she gets furious.
You are being ridiculous, she says.I always gave my utmost to the three of you. I don't think you could ever say that I neglected you. You were enormously privileged, and she lowers her glasses so that she is looking me straight in the eye.
I cannot explain to her that this was not what I meant.
If ever a choice needed to be made, ever, and she pauses as she pushes her glasses back up onto the bridge of her nose,I always chose my children.
She shakes her head and I can see how much I have upset her.I loved you all, she says.I still do.
I see the dark circles under her eyes, her grey skin, soft, paper thin when I kiss her cheek, and I feel ashamed for having criticised her.
I tell her that I know she does.
But as I reach for her hand, I wish it didn't always end like this. I wish we could sometimes speak of the things we need to talk about.
Like the decision I was trying to make at the time of Mitchell's funeral.
Like Mitchell himself.
The fact that his name had remained unmentioned for so long, the fact that none of us had seen him or spoken to him for all those years, did not mean I couldn't picture him. With my eyes closed, he was there.
His bag at his feet. The zip broken, a pair of underpants, leopard print, sticking out of the opening. The dust coating his feet dirty grey.
I looked at him from the ground upwards.
Tall, thin and slightly bow-legged. Tight jeans, thongs and a checked shirt, sleeves rolled up to tanned forearms. Dark eyes looking at us, the three of us, through a fall of long blond hair. Looking at us and grinning.
This, Vi said,is Mitchell, and she turned to us.This, she said,is Simon, Ursula and Evie.
He held out his hand and the smile widened. Impossible inits breadth. Challenging the wariness that was, without doubt, evident in our faces.
Gidday, and he turned to each of us, one by one.
But it wasn't just his smile that I saw; it was his foot tapping, his mouth chewing gum, the fingers of his other hand clenched against his thigh; these small signs of nervousness beneath the bravado of that grin.
And I did not give an inch.
Simon, however, reached out to return the greeting, shy for a moment, awkward, as their grasp missed and then caught.
I just met his gaze. Without a word. And in the silence that followed, I watched as he kicked his feet in the dirt, as he scratched a hole with the toe of his thong, and as he kept on staring at me, seemingly unperturbed by my failure to acknowledge him, until, with a further widening of that grin, he finally turned to Evie.
It's not âgidday', she told him, mimicking Vi's own words to us each time we lapsed into any semblance of lingo.It's âhello'.
Vi glared at her.
That's what you say to us, and she crossed her arms obstinately.
All the time, I added, but under my breath.
And Simon kicked me, hard, on the shin.
Mitchell had been to four foster homes. He didn't tell us this. Nor did Vi. I read it in the letter from the placement program.
When I asked her why, I knew the answer I was going to get. A lecture about disadvantages. About abuse. About single mothers. About poverty. All punctuated by sharp, angry taps of her cigarette against the side of the ashtray.
What I wanted to know was whether he'd ever been in trouble, serious trouble.
Vi told me to stop being childish.Mitchell's past is Mitchell's business, and she turned back to her work.Stop being difficult and give it a try.
I looked offended. I told her that of course I would. Who did she think I was?
But I didn't. Not at first. I remember.
We were hot and cramped in the back seat. Simon, Evie and I pressed against each other, sticky skin on sticky skin, furnace blasts of air rushing in through the open window, while in the front, Mitchell stretched out and tapped his fingers on the dashboard in time to whatever tape he had put into the cassette player, singing out of tune to whatever song happened to be playing.
Reckon I've got a voice?he asked Vi in all seriousness, and I saw her looking at him, uncertain as to how to respond.
The white of his teeth was reflected in the rear-vision mirror as he caught my eye and smiled.
Pretty bad, hey?and his look was sheepish, but he did not stop. He just turned the volume up another notch and sang a little louder, grinning with embarrassment whenever his attempts to hit the note went blatantly wrong.
How come he's allowed to choose what we listen to?I asked Vi at the service station.And how come we have to listen to that?I added, referring to his singing.
It wasn't that I hated what he put on. In fact it was a relief from the usual Joan Baez or Harry Belafonte that Vi always played, and I had to admit that his singing was amusing us all.It was the unfairness of it. Simon and I were never allowed to play our tapes in the car. We always brought them with us, but they stayed in the glove box.
Mitchell hadn't even asked. One push of the eject button and Joan Baez was back in her case, replaced by David Bowie.
I had looked at Simon. I had waited for Vi's response.
Nothing. Simon had just shrugged his shoulders and Vi hadn't seemed to notice.
You never let us play our tapes, I complained to Vi as we waited at the counter.
She pushed her sunglasses up into her hair and searched for her money in her purse. She was ignoring me. But I was not going to be stopped.
How come he can?
Do you want a drink?she asked.
No, I told her.
Just as well, she said, and she held out her hand for the change.
I looked at her.
Because I certainly wasn't going to buy you one, and she turned her back on me, leaving me standing by the cash register, still waiting for an answer to my question.
Back in the car, Simon and Mitchell had swapped seats. Leaning forward into the front, Mitchell talked constantly. Asking endless questions about where we were going, the places we drove through and what Simon liked to do. Music, skateboards and surfing. He wanted to know everything. Comparing bands they liked, food, movies. He barely stopped to catch air as he leapt from topic to topic.
But it was the surfing that fascinated him the most. He had never done it before.
You surf, Ursula?and Mitchell was looking at me, grinning again.
No, I said, defiant, determined not to give him an entry, although I could see the exclusion that was going to occur. Him and Simon. Me and Evie. It was stacking up.
So what do you do?he asked.
I told him that there were other things in the world besides surfing. That I couldn't believe the ignorance of his question.
He just kept smiling, and as his dark-brown eyes focused on mine, I could feel myself beginning to smile in response, my mouth turning up at the sides. I could not help myself. But then I saw them, Vi staring at me in the rear-vision mirror, and Simon, sitting next to her and glaring, and I became all the more determined not to relent in my behaviour. Not in front of them.
When we stopped for an ice-cream, Simon told me I shouldn't be so rude.Imagine how he feels, and my brother's eyes were wide with compassion.There's all of us and only him.
He'll cope, I told him, irritated with the way he was always on the side of the underdog. Irritated with how well he and Mitchell seemed to be getting on.
And I rolled my eyes in disgust as I heard him, Mitchell, hamming it up, yet again.
Jeez, he said as Vi passed him a Cornetto,never had such a classy ice-cream.
Evie couldn't believe it. I looked at Simon, but he had turned away.
Reckon the last time I had an ice-cream was.Â .Â . and he paused for effect,four years ago.
Really?Evie stared at him. Impressed. Completely and utterly.
True, he answered, solemn, pitiful, to an extreme.
Back in the car, Simon stayed in the front seat, Mitchell in the back. Evie was sandwiched between us. Separating us. But I could still see his long thin legs in his tight jeans. The left jiggling up and down. Up and down. The tapping of his hand on his knee.
Vi put her Joan Baez back into the cassette player. Simon did not even attempt to change it, but I wasn't prepared to let things rest, not even from the back seat. I asked Simon to put Pink Floyd on. He waited for Vi's response. I waited for Vi's response.
I think we'll have something a little more peaceful for a while, she said.
See, I told her.
She ignored me.
And on we went.
Eight hours south. Hugging the coast. Small seaside towns with winding main streets. A pub, a post office, and a milk bar. Slow traffic clogging up each entrance and then dispersing out on the highway. Holding my breath each time Vi overtook a truck, clutching the steering wheel, foot flat on the floor, swearing loudly as she willed the car to go faster, faster. Swinging around a bend and being flung to the other side of the seat, Mitchell's side, where I would have been pressed tight against him if it weren't for Evie separating us. Just. And as I pushed myself up again, I could not help but touch him. Therewas no space for me to do anything else. My hand was forced onto his leg.
He looked at me, at where my skirt had ridden up my thighs.
And I looked at him, at where my palm had rested on his knee.
And he grinned, yet again, his dark eyes resting momentarily on mine.
We drove until it was dark, turning off the highway into the quiet of the country night, onto a narrow road that twisted and turned inland. It was too early for the stars, and the sky overhead was black, unbroken by lights. Nothing but the sound of the engine. Evie was asleep, Simon was asleep and Mitchell was asleep. Vi was hunched forward over the steering wheel, and in the reflection of the rear-view mirror, I could see how tired she was, the match flaring as she lit another cigarette, her face ghoulish in the momentary flame.
But it was not her I watched.
It was Mitchell.
His head rolled to one side so that all I could see was his profile, half hidden by the long blond hair. His eyelashes, dark and thick, twitching slightly as he dozed. His wide mouth, soft, his lips pale against his tan. His hands resting on his thighs, square and brown, the nails bitten down, and on his index finger, a long jagged scar.
When Vi pulled over for the second time, it was clear that she did not know where we were.
We all woke up, all of us except Evie, who stayed where she was, her head tucked into Mitchell's side as he leant forward to take the map from Vi.
Jesus, and his mouth was wide open as he stared out the window, forgetting the map for one brief moment, as he gazed out across the black of the country to the sky,look at them all.
I leant across Evie so that I could see, out past the reflection of his eyes in the window, to the thousands of stars now spread across the sky.
That's what it's like away from the city, Vi told him.
No kidding, and he shook his head in amazement as he spread the map out and traced the line of where we had been with the tip of his finger. I watched him as he paused for a moment, still stunned by the beauty of what he had seen, before telling us we were on the right road.Shouldn't be much further, he said.
And he was right.
Candelo. Right around the next bend.six
Anton was not my first lie.
But most of the untruths I had told before were small in comparison: white lies, telling friends I liked their work when I had slept through their performance, saying I was sick when I didn't want to go somewhere, breaking up with lovers and telling them I wanted to be friends when I knew, without a doubt, that this was the last thing I wanted.
These are the lies I tell.
These are the lies most people tell.
Marco, on the other hand, found it difficult to tell even these lies. He would say that he believed, always, in the truth; his eyes intent, earnest, the expression on his face one of utmost seriousness, as he explained what to him was an important principle.
But I would watch as his attempts at honesty led him into awkward complications and I would become impatient.
Just lie, I would say.It doesn't matter.
It did to him. Or so he said. Because sometimes I cannothelp but wonder whether he clung steadfast to those small truths as a ballast against the greater lie that had grown between the two of us.
Simon, too, does not lie.
Once, we broke Vi's favourite vase. The tennis ball flying too high through the air, out of reach, it hit the table and bounced to the ground, the vase clattering after it.
The glue sticky beneath my fingers, I tried to put the pieces back together, to align rose with rose, thorn with thorn. But there was no point.
Simon told Vi as soon as she came in the door. And as he held it up to show her, she said that it was not the breakage that upset her, but my attempt to conceal it.
She was just trying to fix it, Simon offered.
It was no use.
Simon was honest and I was punished.
With my brother, it is only ever truth or silence. And when he chooses silence he is stubborn, immovable.
My father, however, is a consummate liar.
One of the best, Vi says, and she does not attempt to hide her disgust.
It was my father who got me the job I had at that time, the job I still have. A part-time position. Receptionist in a law firm.
Ursula is an actor, he tells people proudly.Excellent on the telephone. Excellent voice, and when he suggests me for work, I usually get it. People know it is in their interest to do him a favour.
There is never a lot to do. I type letters, make coffee for meetings, order flowers, book restaurants and file. And in thegaps between tasks, I try to learn an audition piece, to read, to do anything but just stare out the window and let the boredom seep in.
On my first day of work, I was told that I was not allowed to make personal calls.
You must be available to answer the phone after three rings only. Always, and I had nodded to show that I understood. But it was rare that I kept to the rule. And on that day, the day after I learnt of Mitchell's death, I broke it, repeatedly.
In each quiet moment, I called Anton. Number by number. Hanging up halfway through as the realisation of what I would have to say hit me, catching a glimpse of myself in the glass doors and wondering what words I would manage to find.
Anton loves the telephone. When he is trying to work, he turns the volume on both the phone and the answering machine right down, and then covers them with pillows. When it rings, he runs his fingers through his thick curly hair and sighs impatiently, but it is obvious that he is listening, straining to hear the message, and just as the caller is about to hang up, he will lunge for the receiver.
Wait, he would say to me.
I won't be long, he would promise, his hand resting on my arm, asking me to stay.
And I would wait, stealing glances at Louise's half-read books, spines bent back and left lying open on the floor, each one discarded with the next one started, while I tried to listen to what he was saying.
Anton loves to talk, to tell stories. Stories about his travels, his impossible love affairs, the latest mess he has found himselfin, and with each tale he will shrug his shoulders helplessly as he says he doesn't understand, just doesn't understand, how it happened.
He would settle back in the chair, light a cigarette, and I would know that it wouldn't just be a matter of a few minutes. An ex-girlfriend, an old friend, a project officer from a funding agency â he would talk endlessly, his tales more elaborate with each telling. And despite knowing what he was, despite knowing that I, too, was another mess he had stumbled into, I could not resist him. I would keep going back. I would knock on his door and I would kiss him. Straightaway. Drinking in the warmth of his breath. The sea breeze through the open windows, sometimes gentle, sometimes strong enough to pull the door, slam, shut behind me, cupboard doors opening and closing, opening and closing, and the curtains lifting and falling, as I would tell him I had just come up to see him. That was all.
And he would look at me, helpless, charming.I shouldn't be doing this, he would say,but you keep seducingme.
I looked out across the city spread below me, still and distant, and I dialled his number again, this time right through, only to hang up before his telephone rang. I looked at the tulips I had arranged in the vase this morning and wished I had chosen another flower. They were already overblown, the tip of one leaf brown.
I wished I knew him better. I wished it hadn't come to this.
I wished I could trust him with what I had to say.
And I couldn't imagine how I would even begin to find the first word that I needed.
Once when I was in high school, I phoned a boy seventeentimes in one night, putting down the phone each time he answered. He had been my boyfriend. He had started seeing my best friend. His parents complained to the school that someone was making nuisance calls. They suspected it was a student. Could they do something about it?
The teacher made an announcement in class. A warning to the person who had beenpulling this stuntthat it was not on.Just not on.
Everyone knew it was me.
But I did not bat an eyelid. I did not flinch, despite knowing that each and every student in the class was looking at me, waiting to see how I would react. I just looked straight back at the teacher.
I had been furious with him, and I had felt completely justified in what I had done. It was, after all, nothing compared to what he had done to me.
But it was not fury that made me keep dialling Anton's number, hanging up two, maybe three numbers in, sometimes just before the answering machine clicked on to Louise's voice, and then trying again, in each lull during the day, knowing that the light on the switch had been red far too often for the managing partner's liking.
I'm sorry, I told him,about all these calls. It's my boyfriend, I explained.He's very ill and I've been anxious about him. He hasn't been answering.
He looked at me with concern.
Perhaps you should go home?he suggested.
I reassured him that it was fine.He's probably just asleep, I said.
When's the next audition?he asked me, wanting to appear more friendly, more relaxed, because this is the image he likes to present and he is, after all, one of my father's best friends.
I told him it was the next morning.Another junkie, I said and he laughed. Like most people, he has only ever seen a short stint I once had in a soap opera. A slow death from an AIDS-related illness.
One day, I said,I will get to play someone who is together. Perhaps even glamorous, rich and powerful.
Maybe even a lawyer, he laughed.
Maybe even a lawyer, I agreed.
Good luck, he said.
And when he walked off, I left a message for Simon at the bus depot and I tried Anton one more time, closing my eyes as I listened to Louise's message, as I let it play right through, as I paused at the end of the beep, and then, faced with the silence, found myself without words.
I hung up.
I would go and see him tomorrow.
I would talk to him then.seven
A river cut the town in two. A river that wound its way through the valley, twisting across the only way in, slicing right through the middle of the small cluster of houses and shops, and then twisting once more so that you had to cross it yet again as you left.
Three bridges. All of which have flooded and will, no doubt, flood again.
The year before we went to Candelo, it was the bridge that joined one side of the town to the other that went. Swept away as the water rose, the river choking the banks as it crept up the wide trunks of the great elms planted at the edge, forcing its way higher until the pylons eventually collapsed under the strain.
Three years before that it was the bridge that took you out of there, onto the road that leads up to the high Monaro country, where the tufts of grass lie flattened by the wind and the gums pierce the sky.
And once all three went down. No way in. No way out. No way across.
Cut off from everyone else, and cut off from itself.
It was Mitchell who navigated the last stretch, directing us across the bridge that joined two shadowy ribbons of pub, general store, police station and houses, all circled by dense hills, into one.
First left, he told Vi, following the road on the map in front of him, his hair illuminated by the single light in the roof of the car.
Are you sure?she asked him, knowing she had given him the responsibility in an attempt to make him feel part of the family, but uncertain as she always was when she handed any form of control to another. She had looked at the map earlier and she was sure it had been right.
No, it's left, Mitchell said and he passed the map to Simon for confirmation, their shoulders touching as they bent towards each other to look.
He's right, Simon said, as Vi clicked the indicator on to right.
She paused for a moment and Simon leant across the steering wheel and flicked the switch back up.It's left, he said again.
True, Mitchell nodded, clearly amused by the whole performance.
And Vi shook her head in resignation, as she turned in a direction that she was certain was wrong.
There was a shudder as we hit the dirt, and Simon told Evie she should put her thumb on the window.Stops it shattering.
She did as she was told, the warmth of her body stretchedacross my lap, her other thumb still in her mouth.
It wasn't far. Ten minutes out of town. The scrap of paper Vi had brought with her, instructions from the people who had lent us the house, told us it was about five miles. But in the darkness, lost in the first folds of the hills, it felt as though we were miles from anywhere.
Next bend should be the drive, Mitchell told us.
And it was. There, on our left, the rusted cattle grate marking the entrance, illuminated for a moment by the headlights as Vi slowed down to take the dip, so that we saw, for that one instant, the body flung over the grate, limp with no sheen in the scales.
Snake, and Mitchell was out of the car before it had even stopped, the front door slamming as Simon followed.
Don't, Vi called after him, but it was too late.
He was gone. There with Mitchell, startlingly bright in the headlights, as they picked up the long body and held it high for us to see.
It's a fucking whopper. And in the still of the night, Mitchell's voice rang out, loud and broad, as he put the tail in Simon's hands and held the head in his own, both of them stretching out the body to its full length.
I had seen my brother with death before.
I had heard him wake in the middle of the night, screaming, his pet rabbit cold in his hands, suffocated when he had rolled over to where it always slept, next to him. I had seen him turn his back on a dead bird washed up on the beach, his face white with fear, as I dared him to pick it up.
And I saw him then with a dead snake stretched out in his hands.
With all his attention focused on Mitchell, he was seemingly unaware of what he was doing. His gaze was shy, uncertain, as he stood there in front of us, the body now slack between them.
Hsss, and Mitchell bared his teeth and flicked out his tongue.
Simon laughed and I was surprised.
Hsss, and it was only as Mitchell dropped the head, as it hit the dust and Simon was left bearing the weight alone, that there seemed to be a moment of realisation.
I saw him wince, the tail slipping between his fingers, his eyes uncertain as he stared straight into the headlights, straight at Mitchell getting back into the car.
Vi turned the key in the ignition, the car rattling as we crossed the grate, the rear end slumping low, almost scraping the metal, before we were back on the dirt, the road potholed and steep as it led down to the creek and beyond that the house.
It was the trees that we saw first.
Cypresses, thick and dark, marking out the borders of what had once been a garden. The remains of a wooden gate, which was left slung low off its hinges. The road at an end, just thick long grass leading up to the black of the house.
We did not know what to expect. But this was what it was like when we went on holidays with Vi. Driving miles to strange places, places offered to her by people she did not know. People who admired her work, who thought she might need a break; somewhere to finish a paper she had to write, somewhere quiet. Places that often proved to be uninhabitable, but occasionally proved to be more than we had hoped for. Andas the car pulled up alongside the verandah, I had my fingers crossed, tight, willing something better than what I suspected we would find. Hoping it would be all right, as Vi searched for the key, the contents of her bag strewn across her lap, her door open so that she could see by the indoor light.
She swore loudly.
I haven't forgotten them, she told us, directing her comment at me in particular.I just can't find them, defensive before I even had a chance to get impatient with her.
She passed me her bag, and I began to search. Rummaging through cigarette packs, matches, loose money, scraps of paper with telephone numbers, but no keys. A chaos that used to drive my father crazy.
Not here, I told her, trying to keep the triumph out of my voice.
Maybe there's an open window, Simon suggested.
But it was Mitchell who got out of the car.This is when you need someone like me. And he looked at each of us, his eyes wide and innocent.Anyone got a crowbar?
Simon opened his own door, eager to follow, eager to be a part of whatever it was that Mitchell intended to do, and the pair of them ran across the grass and up the stairs to the verandah.
It was the fuse box that Mitchell wanted. It creaked as he prized it open, the lid clanging shut as he bent the fuse wire to the shape he needed, and, calling Simon over, proceeded to show him how to pick a lock.
Piece a cake, he told him, and just as Vi accidentally knockedthe volume on the radio, the dramatic strains of a requiem blasting out into the quiet of the night, the front door swung open with the force of both their bodies.
Jesus fucking Christ. Fucking Jesus, Mitchell swore, leaping backwards. White-faced and shaking.Jesus, and he shook his head, the colour slowly returning.
It was the music. He had thought the place was haunted. Thought he was entering somefucking haunted cathedral, and as he told us, I noticed his hands were still shaking.God, he said,I've gotta get my breath back, and he slumped down against the wall, his knees up against his chest.
It was the only lapse of his bravado.
Crouched on the floor of the verandah, not wanting to look at us looking at him, his fists curled up into two tight balls, his eyes fixed on the ground.
It was only for a moment, but for that moment none of us knew what to say.
It was Simon who broke the silence.Here, and he offered Mitchell his hand, helping him up, the pair of them standing together, looking at each other as they turned to follow us into the house.
It was, as Mitchell said, a dump.
But better than some of the places we've been to, I told him, and it was probably the first non-confrontational thing I had said to him all day.
Under the dim light of the few bulbs that still worked, it was clear that the place had not been inhabited for years.
The odd pieces of furniture that remained were covered, and underneath the cloth they rotted, rusty springs piercingthrough the upholstery. The dust was thick. Heavy, choking. Mouse droppings were underfoot. In some rooms, the boards had given way, splintering away to reveal the earth below. The beds that had mattresses sagged and creaked at the touch of a finger, stained canvas dipping low with the slightest touch.
We moved slowly from room to room. Not saying much.
We're tired, Vi said.
It's not that bad, Simon agreed.
But it was.
Later, lying on the floor with Evie in one of the three rooms we had marked out as inhabitable, I could hear Simon and Mitchell through the glass doors that separated us. Low voices just discernible in the quiet.It's a fucking hole.
I watched as they undressed, vague figures through the frosted glass, both tall and lean, and I leant closer, trying to hear the mutterings of their conversation. Nothing.
From the other end of the house, I could hear Vi's transistor radio. She was, no doubt, sitting up in the only bed that had seemed to be in relatively good condition, and reading.
Like her, I have difficulty going to sleep.
And I lay there, for what seemed to be hours, thinking about Mitchell crouched on the verandah, about the feel of his leg beneath my hand, and about the brief moment of his eyes, resting still, on mine.eight
Simon telephoned the next morning. He called to tell me that Mitchell's funeral was three days away.
There was a delay, he said.
It was early. Just before he started his shift. Squeezed into the small public phone box outside the staffroom, he was wheezing slightly as he spoke. In the background, I could hear a fly buzzing around his head, flying into the glass and then back again.
I did not understand what he meant.
Because of the way he died, he tried to explain.
I opened my curtains and looked out across the sharp heat of the morning. The ocean was harsh, too bright under the fierceness of the sky. I felt nauseous again and I had to get ready for the audition.
How did he die?I asked, and I couldn't hide the frustration in my voice, despite knowing that this would only make him slower.
They had to do an autopsy, and I heard Simon draw back onhis cigarette.I guess that's what they always do in cases like this. I don't know. Anyway, that's what his sister said.
You called his sister?
Once again, he didn't answer my question.
That's why the funeral was delayed.
I told him I was running late, I couldn't talk and could he please tell me what had happened.
He cleared his throat.
It was, and he stumbled for the word,a suicide.
And for a moment, we were both silent, neither of us sure of what to say.
Mitchell had killed himself.
Hung himself, Simon said.
I sat up slowly and pushed the sheet off me.
From above, I could hear one of them, Anton or Louise, opening a window wide, letting in whatever slight breeze drifted off the sea, and I, too, reached across the small space of my room and opened the door that leads out to the garden. Nothing. Just the still heat and the whirr of the cicadas, starting already. Early.
Did his sister know who you were?
He told me he had said he was a friend. That was all.
Please, he asked,can you come? I don't want to go alone.
I didn't answer him. Not straightaway. I didn't know what to say.
I could hear a bus pulling out from the depot, the groan of the engine as it shifted into first gear, and I could hear Simon leaning against the door to the booth, heavy against the glass.
And I agreed, wishing I hadn't as soon as the words were out of my mouth. Wishing I could take them back.
I'll go there with you, I said,but I won't go to the service.
He didn't argue.
I'll pick you up, he said.Friday morning.
He had to go. His shift was about to start.
Have you told Vi?I asked.
I've got to go, he said again.Friday morning, nine o'clock, and he hung up, leaving me with all my questions still hanging, useless, in the air.
I, too, was going to be late. I could see the clothes I had ironed hanging off the curtain railing, my diary open with the address and the time written in red, and my dinner from the night before still in the bowl next to my chair, ants swarming up the sides, thousands of them, and I watched as they carried the leftovers away, piece by piece.
It was not until I heard him, Mouse, turning on the shower, the high-pitched grate of the rusted pipes, that I actually hung up the phone and moved. With my towel and shampoo in one hand, I knocked on the bathroom door, loudly, trying to be heard above the roar of water hitting the tin bath.
What's your problem?he shouted.
I told him I was late, that I needed to have a shower quickly, that it was urgent, I had an audition. But I knew it was useless.
He started singing. Loudly. Tunelessly.
I went back into my flat, slamming the door behind me so that the whole building shuddered, the windowpanes rattling, precarious, and then still.nine
Violetta was actively involved in the first campaigns to legalise abortion.
A new sticker suddenly appeared on my school folder: âOur bodies, our choices', in bold purple.
I looked at it and I looked at her, waiting for me to ask her what it meant.
I didn't want to oblige. I didn't want another long sermon, but whether I asked or not, she would explain. So I shrugged my shoulders, stared out the window and asked her what it was about.
She told me. And it all made perfect sense. So much so that I couldn't even begin to see why there was a debate.
But, nevertheless, I still spent most of the afternoon scratching that sticker off with my fingernails. Not because I disagreed, but because it didn't go with the overall colour scheme, the pictures I had cut out and painstakingly pasted into a collage.
Do you know what you said when I saw you'd taken it off?Vi asks me.
I can't remember.
My folder, my choice, and she laughs.You were such a smart arse.
We both smile.
As I try to help Vi collate some of her papers, she remembers the details of every struggle like she would remember family members. And, invariably, the work that we have set out to do is pushed to one side as she reminisces.
We had to be extreme, she says.We had to take a black and white stance. Sometimes the only way you can get a message across is by ignoring the complexities, by pushing a simplistic truth as forcefully and as often as you can.
Take this, and she holds a copy of one of those stickers up for me to see.
I had a termination once, and she looks out the window.It was not the simple choice that we always defined it as.
I am surprised by what she says and I want to know when, but she shakes her head.
It was a long time ago. A married man. Before your father. She turns back to the papers at our feet.
Vi wants me to have a child. It has been something she has wanted for a long time. But even more so since she became ill.
I have never told her that I did try once. With Marco. For about a year.
It was more at his instigation than through my own desire. When nothing happened, he wanted to have tests, but by then I knew that it wasn't right. That it shouldn't go on.
Vi tries to push a box of files towards the door, and I have to stop her. She is coughing and the hack from deep in her chest is fierce and rough.
When I suggested clearing out her workroom, I was surprised by the enthusiasm with which she embraced the idea. And then I realised. She did not see it as a packing up, as an ending â she saw it as a clearing of the decks to make way for the new, for her next projects. And this is the way we have approached it.
On the good days I am hopeful that this is in fact what it is, but on the days when I hear that cough again, I am fearful that we have just been fooling ourselves.
Whenever I failed to get a part, Marco would try to cheer me up.
Listen to how bad it is, and he would read out two or three of the worst lines in the script, usually so appallingly that I would have to smile.
You should be relieved, he would say.Imagine having to suffer your way through this. He would read a little more, unaware of how truly expressionless he could make something sound.
A pitiful opiate for the masses?I would ask.
Exactly, and he would smile.
But even when he made me laugh, it did not lessen the hurt that usually follows a rejection. The knowledge that you are, somehow, not good enough.
And that was how it was on the afternoon of my audition. I knew I was not what they were looking for. There were five of us who had been asked to read. We were all the same height,the same build and had the same colour hair, but there was only one of us who was right. And although I had hated the role, it was as I had known it would be: once I did not have it, I wanted it.
I rang work and told them I could not come in. My boyfriend was still unwell. Worse, in fact. They understood. They like to think of themselves as a supportive team.
I caught the bus home and, with my head pressed against the window, I stared out at the grit of the day. The sky was swollen. Purple. Everything was still. Not a whisper of air. Against the vinyl of the bus seat, my shirt stuck to my back. I opened the window wide, and I closed my eyes, trying to imagine how I had felt before this nausea had overtaken me.
If Marco were at home, if everything had not panned out in the way it had, he would tell me that things would change, that there would be a turn. I would be in more constant work and, what's more, I would be getting parts I wanted.
You'll see, he would say.
I promise, he would say.
And as I thought about the possibility of those words, of his familiarity, I wished I could call him.
But I knew that what I was remembering was not the way it had eventually come to be. As the years had passed, he would still try to cheer me up, but not as often and not for as long, and I would sense in the stiffness of his shoulders, in the tightness of his neck, that he had become impatient with me, and with my life.
He once told a friend that there was nothing quite so difficult as an out of work actor.
It's your self-indulgence, he had said after I had thrown a glass at him.It's so bloody boring.
It did not stop me.
When the bad weeks came, it was not just my work. I would barely speak, furious with him for not being able to follow me in the losses that I was traversing. I would find myself remembering the Simon Marco had never met.
I used to have such a crush on your brother, my older friends would sometimes say to me.
And they did. Everybody did.
He was himself, I would say to Marco, but I knew I did not do justice to what my brother had once been.
He was shy, gentle.
And then he had retreated.
I don't know how he can bear it, I would say, thinking of him living with Vi, never falling in love, driving buses all day.
Maybe he's happy, and Marco would barely look up from the book he was reading.Maybe it's just you who can't bear the thought of his life. Maybe it's simply your expectations that have been disappointed.
Not surprisingly, his words did little to arrest the downward spiral that I had carved out for myself, that I was determined to complete. I would force myself to go back to that night all those years ago at Candelo, and I would see things that I hadn't really seen because I hadn't been there at the time.
And then there was Evie.
Clutching her joke book, her legs in the arms of her T-shirt, and her pants worn on her arms.
Why did the germ cross the microscope?
This is how I remember her.
Because he wanted to get to the other slide.
Marco would tell me that I should stop moping. That I should get on with things. That it did not do anyone any good to lie around. To wallow. And (most important of all) that there were countless people out there a lot worse off than me.
I could see that he did not intend to be harsh, that he was simply trying to help.
Are you all right?he would ask later, and as he leant forward to kiss me, I would find myself pulling away and I would see the hurt in his eyes.
It was not that he did not care. It was just that his way was not my way.
There's no point to this, he would say.You just have to get on.
Because that is what he had done. He had got on.
Look at your life, he would say, and I would know that he was holding his own up for comparison.
He had been a builder. He had run away from an alcoholic father and started work when he was fifteen. At twenty he took himself back to school and then on to university, studying at night and working during the day. His days and his evenings were full. He now works in industrial relations, and his climb up the union ladder has not only been rapid, it is also far from over.
My life did not make sense to him. It never would. He secretly felt that my moods came from too little to do. He would tell me it was up to me. He would try to offer practicaladvice. Ways of getting out of the rut, possible career changes, and then, of course, there was the baby option.
Why not?he asked.
And as he moved to kiss me again, I would close my eyes, wanting to pull away, wanting to turn my head, but not wanting to see that hurt in his eyes.
So, we tried, despite the fact my heart was never in it.
And as I sat on the bus, I looked down at my stomach. There was no sign, no visible indicator, no evidence of what I knew was there.
But it was there. And as I let the realisation seep in, I wished I knew what to do.ten
In the dark of that first night, I woke and I did not know where I was.
I whispered the word to myself. Trying it. Rolling each syllable out, smooth and round.
Next to me, Evie slept. Curled up on the mattress, covered by a sheet, the blanket kicked down to her feet, her thumb in her mouth.
Outside I could hear the branches scratching against the window, rattling against the glass with each faint stirring of the breeze. The shadows on the wall drifted, floating backwards, forwards. From the room next door I could hear one of them snoring. Mitchell, or Simon. Each intake of breath. Each exhalation.
I could not sleep.
The floor was gritty beneath my feet. Years of dust and dirt, leaves that had drifted in through cracks beneath doors, holes in floorboards, twigs, sticks, cockroaches that darted into cornersand a door that creaked as I opened it, the milky light of the moon spilling out across the corridor, crisscrossed by the branches tap-tapping against the window.
I looked from one end of the hall to the other, the darkness on either side of me, the long worn runner only just visible as I made my way, quietly, carefully, towards the thin strip of yellow light under Vi's door, letting myself in without knocking.
Already her room looked like her room. Her papers laid out on her desk, the typewriter out of its case, her dresses hung in the cupboard, her transistor radio on, late-night classics in the stillness of the night.
Who lived here?I asked her.
She put her book down, the spine bent and worn, and took her glasses off.
Some friends of some friends of some friends, and she pulled back the sheet on the other side of her bed, moving over to make space for me.
Used to my insomnia, she did not question the fact that I was up at this hour.
Why did they leave?
She shrugged her shoulders.Who knows? The manager takes care of everything now and he has his own house. She smelt of soap and, beneath that, the faint trace of cigarettes and sweet cheap perfume.
I sat on the bed next to her and looked at what she was reading.Women and Power. I rolled my eyes, and asked her if she was going to be working the whole time we were here.
This isn't work, she said.
From next to her bed I could hear the faint tick of herfather's watch. I picked it up and held it between the palms of my hands, the glass cold on my skin. He left it to her when he died. Large and old-fashioned, it has always looked out of place on her thin wrists. But it is precious to her. She loved her father. He brought her up. A Polish emigrant who worked hard to make sure she had the advantages he never had.
I held it to my ear and listened to its steady tick.
Why did he have to come?I asked and I nodded my head in the direction of Mitchell and Simon's room.
She told me she thought I had got over that.
I told her I hadn't, but she could see from the look on my face that I was just bored, that I was just trying it on.
The metal awning over the window of her room lifted in the breeze. A slow, mournful whine in the quiet.
What happened to his family?
She looked at me, and as she pushed her glasses back up onto the bridge of her nose, I could see she was weighing up how much to tell me.A lot of people find it exceptionally difficult to make ends meet. In Mitchell's case, there were a lot of problems that made it impossible for him to be at home for long stretches at a time.
It was, as I had expected, a totally unsatisfying response.
She put on her glasses and picked up her book again.
I leant over her shoulder:Gender inequity persists and will continue to persist. My mouth was pursed and my face was serious.You really find this interesting?I asked, and I yawned.
She reached for the watch, now fastened on my wrist.
Can I wear it?I asked.Just tonight?
She shook her head.
Her father had been a doctor in Poland. He was an orderly when he came out here. Cleaning floors, making beds.Too scared to fight. Too scared to change things, Vi once told me.
He worked in the one hospital for over twenty years. Night shifts. Day shifts. Whatever was offered to him, until finally, at sixty-five, he retired.
He came home that night, sat in his armchair, put his head in his hands and wept, Vi said.
And that was how he stayed. For the next three months. Until the day he died.
She told me it was time I went to bed.
I tried to argue, but she took the watch off my wrist and shooed me away with her other hand.
No more talking, she said.You either sleep here or you go back to your own room.
I closed her door gently and in the darkness of that hall I listened to each sound of that house. Each shift, each creak, each groan, each rustle of each leaf, each insect darting along each skirting board, and the slow click of another door, opening and closing.
Pressed against the wall, I watched him. Mitchell.
He was in his underpants and T-shirt, the gap between the two revealing the sharp line of his hip bones. He was looking at me looking at him. Seeing me, but not seeing me. Eyes open, but not awake. Walking towards me but not walking towards me.
Mitchell, I hissed.
He didn't turn his head.
I reached for him and then I stopped. I had heard aboutsleepwalking. Stories of people who walked miles, trying to find their way home, crossing cities, rivers, even state borders.
Vi, I whispered, opening her door just a few inches, careful not to let too much light spill out, careful not to wake him.
She looked at me impatiently.
It's Mitchell. As I spoke the words, she was up immediately, anxious that something was wrong, wrapping her cardigan around her shoulders as she followed me out to the hall.
See, and I pointed to where he stood, rocking slightly, from foot to foot, down near the entrance to the kitchen.
She told me to get back to bed, but I stayed where I was, watching her as she took his arm and guided him, slowly back up that corridor towards the open bedroom door, her hand resting gently on his forearm.
The door creaked as she opened it a little more and he started.
Can't go in there, he told her as she tried to lead him back in, and she jumped at the boom of his voice.Spiders, and he leant forward, serious, intent.Thousands of them.
As I started to giggle, she turned around and glared at me.
It's okay, she told him, and she was stroking his arm awkwardly.
I listened as she pulled back the sheets for him, as she opened their window a little wider, as she came down the hall towards me. He stayed quiet.
He's all right, she said.
Opening the door to our room, I could see Evie, there on the floor in the moonlight. The blanket still at her feet, her thumb still in her mouth, the slight flicker of her eyelashes as she dreamt.
I lay down on the mattress next to hers and I wondered whether Mitchell did this every night. Whether he got up and tried to find his way back to somewhere. Or whether it had just been a one-off. The strangeness of this place. The strangeness of us.eleven
Vi rings me often, but never about anything important. She calls to tell me about a film she saw the night before, an article she read in the paper, a distant friend who has found out she has cancer.
I ring her for similar reasons.
Nothing of significance.
Neither of us ever really listening to each other, one of us ending the conversation abruptly, suddenly bored with it, only to call the other back a few hours later.
Every so often it irritates me.
I wonder why we bother.
But I do not stop. It is like a reflex action. A blank moment in either of our days and we pick up a telephone and dial each other's number. So much so that if a significant amount of time passes without us speaking to each other, I become anxious, distracted, aware that there is something important missing, out of place, but not quite able to pinpoint it. And then I remember. I haven't spoken to Vi.
Mari, on the other hand, never calls me.
And that is why when I came home from the audition and heard her message on the machine, my immediate reaction was one of alarm.
Mari and my mother met seven years ago.
On their five-year anniversary, Mari organised a party. Lunch in Vi's garden for thirty of their closest friends. She cooked for weeks, an extraordinary Italian feast, crowned by a magnificent almond cake, three layers high and covered with crystallised violets.
Standing under the crepe myrtle, Mari gave a speech. She told the story of their first meeting. It was a story I had heard before.
It all began, and she tinkled her glass for full attention,in a women's refuge.
I looked across at my mother, expecting her to be uncomfortable with this public show of affection, and I was surprised. She was sitting at the end of the table with her chin resting in her hands. Her cigarette burned untouched in an ashtray by her side.
Her dark eyes were focused on Mari and she was smiling, just slightly, with a shyness I had never seen before.
I looked away, quickly.
Through the glass doors, I could see that the kitchen table was piled high with gifts and I wished I had thought of bringing something. I felt ashamed for not having recognised the occasion for what it was.
She was, I think, the only woman I had ever seen in that place with such ridiculously high heels.
Everyone laughed. Vi loudest of all, cigarette-husky and deep.
But what made them even more ridiculous was the fact that we were all there to paint the place.
Vi picked up her cigarette and waved her arm in the air.It was the only way I could reach anything, she called out to shouts of laughter.
I could see Simon on the other side of the garden, sitting on his own with his plate balanced on his lap, the only man in a sea of women, eyes fixed on the ground.
I remember, and Mari smiled at my mother,watching her balancing on that ladder, proselytising about the superiority of a pastel wall compared to the brilliant yellow the women had chosen, and thinking that she was truly something else. When she actually managed to convert the entire committee into choosing pale pink for the bedrooms, I knew I had met a force to be reckoned with.
Vi clapped her hands and called out, but Mari continued:Five years later and I still have no hesitation in calling her extraordinary, although I am thankful to say that the taste for pink has mellowed somewhat. She raised her glass, and I watched as they all lifted their glasses in the air.To five wonderful years.
It was difficult to believe it had been that long.
I remembered when I had first met Mari and it seemed so recent. She had been sitting in the garden, wrapped in Vi's dressing-gown and reading the paper.
We had introduced ourselves.
I had been awkward.
She was unperturbed.
A week later, Simon had told me she was actually living there.
As in living with each other?I had asked.
He had simply shrugged his shoulders.
I watched as they all called for Vi to respond.Speech, they shouted, and she eventually stood up, feigning reluctance as she took her place next to Mari under the thick mass of lilac flowers.
Even in her heels, she only came up to Mari's shoulders. Her black curls had just started to grey and I noticed for the first time that she was looking old, her olive skin pallid in the sun, her cheekbones sunken.
She produced a thick wad of notes to a loud chorus of boos.Of course, I have something prepared, and she smiled as she pushed her glasses back up to the bridge of her nose.In fact, I wanted to use this occasion to speak about recent cuts to spending on women's health, and she looked around the garden at the mass of amazed faces.
And there was, for one moment, a stunned silence.
It was hard to believe she could be serious.
But what was worse was that it was possible.
And she laughed.
I had you there, she said, raising her glass of red wine.
And the relief was instantaneous.
Thank you, she said and she took Mari's hand, holding it in her own for an instant, so brief it may not have happened.
She took her glasses off and put her papers down on the table.All of you, and she blew a kiss, her arms outstretched.You are good friends, and she looked down.
It was one of the few times I had seen my mother at a loss for something to say.
When I helped Mari wash the dishes later that afternoon, she told me she was glad I had come.
Of course I'd be here, I had said, surprised by her words.
Red wine and lazy afternoon sun had relaxed her. She put the tea towel down and rested an arm around my shoulder.
We've never really become friends, have we?she asked.
I did not know what to say. I laughed and moved away. I told her she was being silly.Too much to drink, I said.
But she was right. Mari and I have never really become friends. It is not that I do not like her. We have just kept our distance. But lately, I have tried harder. I am glad she is there. She loves my mother and she looks after her, and these things should not be taken lightly.
When I heard her message on my machine, I called her back straightaway.
She did not spend long asking me how I was, what I had been up to, before telling me she had called because she was worried about Simon.
From my window, I could see a storm was coming in, rolling in across the dark metallic grey of the sea.
Anton's washing was still on the line, flapping against the blackening sky. It would rain soon. Any minute. Heavy drops on the parched patches of grass that struggled to survive against the weeds.
I twirled the cord tight around my finger and watched the blood drain out, white.
Why?I asked her.
Unlike the rest of our family, Mari is direct. She had seen Mitchell's obituary. Simon had clipped it from the paper. She had tried to talk to him but he had told her little more than he had told me.
You'll go with him?she asked me.
The first of the rain had started to fall and I watched as Anton unpegged each piece of clothing, bundling them into his arms before they flew wild across the garden and out to sea. I could hear the windows upstairs straining against the sashes and I remembered. Lying in bed with him and hearing the crash. The entire frame ripped off its hinges and floating out, still, for an instant, before it shattered, a thousand pieces on the rocky path below.
I didn't want to talk to your mother about it, Mari said.
And I was surprised. Because she believes in confronting, in tackling, head on.
It would only upset her.
But I wanted to make sure you would look after him. Check that he doesn't do anything stupid.
I told her I had already promised Simon I would go. I didn't know if I would actually go to the service, but I would drive out there with him.
Thank you, she said.
And as I hung up, I remembered, way out, in the stillness of the ocean, Anton swimming from one point to the other. Swimming alongside me. Crossing the bay for the first time. Pulling himself up onto the rocks on the north end, the moss spongy beneath our feet, purple, blue and green plants sparkling as the water lapped over them. Telling me that he had never donethis before, and I wasn't sure what it was that he was referring to. Kissing? Kissing someone other than Louise? Or swimming from one end to the other? Telling me he shouldn't be doing this. But not stopping. And not knowing why he was saying what he was saying because I did not, not for one instant, think of either of them. Louise or Marco. Showing him a starfish. Right there, pressed against the side of a rock and him not looking, just telling me he should get back, but kissing me again. And again.
And I had thought, this is it. This is what I wanted. And I have it, right here, right now, perfect for this instant.
I tapped on my window. I knocked on the glass. I forced it open against the onslaught of wind, and I called out to him.
Anton, my voice ringing out across the garden.
He turned and he looked at me. The rain streaking down, heavy, hot, and the washing bundled under his arms.
He glanced upstairs, and then back at me, and I saw the fear on his face.
Anton, I called again, determined now to finish what I had started.
And as he ran over to my window, he was shaking his head.She's upstairs, he was saying.She's upstairs.
I told him I needed to talk to him.
Please, I said.
And I opened my front door and waited for him to come in.twelve
My friend Lizzie has just fallen in love.
After six years on her own, she is excited and wants to talk of nothing else. It is all too good to believe.
She tells me she met him at a Buddhist meditation retreat. Nine days of silence and stolen glances across a cold draughty hall. Nine days of wondering.
And on the tenth?
We snuck out to the garden without a word, she says.
At first I am surprised, even shocked, but then I am not.
Lizzie is an academic. She lectures in philosophy. Reserved and serious, she went straight from school to university and has never left. We met in first year, drinking in the bar. After two or three beers, Lizzie would become loud and sociable and I would become progressively more introverted, both of us soon realising our differences were not as marked as we had originally thought.
She tells me she has put her doctorate to one side. She has stopped meditating and stopped going to yoga.
I don't think I've ever felt like this before, she says, and she asks me for the third time what kind of tea I want.
Her lounge room is cool and calm. All white, with little sign of any inhabitation; I usually feel myself relax when I am at her house. But this time I am agitated. We have met because I need to talk to her. I want to tell her of the decision I have had to make. I want her reassurance, but glowing with her own excitement, I know I will have to wait. I will have to listen.
How many times have you been in love?she asks me.
I tell her I don't know. Maybe three.
Anton?She is cautious as she mentions his name.
Mitchell, I tell her, surprising myself as I say his name out loud.
She, too, is surprised. But only because she has never heard me speak of him.
I was only fourteen, I say, and I am not looking at her. I am wishing I had never spoken.I lost my virginity to him, I tell her, and to my horror, I am blushing.
This is what happens. You find you are revealing an intimacy, telling it as a story, and suddenly you wish you weren't. It is more painful than you have let yourself realise. It is something that should not be spoken out loud. At least, not in that way.
I am staring at the neat pile of books on her desk, hoping she will not ask me to go on,to tell, because I do not want to speak of it.
I do not know what Mitchell thought of us, of our family. He never said, and I can only guess at his bemusement.
My friends like hearing my childhood stories. We were an oddity. It seemed that no one else had divorced parents, no one else had a mother who worked, no one else ate ratatouille, and I certainly didn't know of anyone else who had gone to a nudist commune for their summer holidays (this was the year before we went away with Mitchell).
At that time this country was deeply conservative. Vi would argue passionately that it still is and I would probably agree with her, but I would still maintain that it is less so now than it was then.
Our difference was, no doubt, accentuated by the suburb in which we lived and the schools to which we were sent. Despite Vi's staunch beliefs, after she and Bernard had separated, we stayed in the well-heeled middle-class area in which we had grown up, and both Simon and I went to a very expensive private high school (coeducational but private nonetheless).
Most of my friends were envious. I was allowed to smoke dope, drink alcohol and sleep with boys. Not only was I allowed to, but I was allowed to do it at home.
Their parents did not approve.
I remember when a friend of mine once stayed the night. Her mother picked her up the next morning. Vi pointed the way to my bedroom. We were not expecting her and she opened the door to find us smoking a joint.
She complained to Vi.
She complained to my father.
She finally gave up on them and complained to the school.
Vi refused to go and discuss the matter with the headmaster. She didn't see that there was a problem at all. She also didn't see that it was any of their business. Bernard promised he would come in for an appointment, but after his secretary postponed it for him three times in a row, they eventually gave up.
But it was not just the liberty we had that was unusual. There was also the manner in which Vi liked to run the household, the procedures aimed at creating a pretence of democracy.
On our first morning at Candelo, Mitchell had to endure a house meeting.
Because it was breakfast there was no red wine and stale cheese. There was, instead, black coffee and rye bread toasted to a crisp.
Mitchell sat at one end of the table, his hair uncombed, a slight stubble on his face, his dark eyes sleepy. He hadn't wanted to get up. I had heard Simon trying to wake him and I had heard Mitchell complaining.
It's a house meeting, Simon had explained.
A what?Mitchell had asked.
I was at the door to their room, hand poised, ready to knock, ready to tell them to hurry up.
Vi likes to talk about things. I saw Simon roll his eyes and I was surprised. He was always the most patient when it came to Vi's meetings.
He looked up and noticed I was there.You could've knocked, he told me, irritated by the fact that I had just come in.
I ignored him.She wants to tell us what we have to do, I said, and as I explained this to Mitchell, I was about to add that Ihad seen him. Last night. Sleepwalking. But I changed my mind.She's waiting, I said, and because Simon was still glaring at me, I left them both, closing the door loudly behind me.
Vi gave Mitchell another explanation. She told him that she believed in a fair and open decision-making process. In treating young people as adults. In participation.
We like to hold these meetings so that everyone has a say.
Mitchell nodded, his eyes wide, trying not to look too stunned by the concept.
Obviously, I have certain expectations, and she rolled herself the first cigarette for the day, her thin fingers moving rapidly across the paper.I need to get some work finished, and when I'm doing that I like to be left alone. I'm also very tired from yesterday's drive and there's a lot to be done around the place. She drew back sharply on the cigarette and I saw her face relax with the first rush of nicotine.
She looked at Mitchell and smiled.And you?
He had no idea what she meant.
Your expectations, I told him, my eyebrows raised.You know, breakfast in bed, that kind of stuff.
Vi suggested we divide up the chores democratically. When we failed to volunteer for anything, she poured herself another coffee and drew up a roster.
Mitchell and I had the lounge and the bathroom.
Simon, the kitchen.
And this afternoon, we need to go into town and get some food, she said, ashing onto her plate.
I can do that, Mitchell offered.
We were surprised.
If you're busy.
They looked at each other, momentarily.
I could see that Vi didn't want to ask.
He reached across for the matches.I got my licence last month, and the match flared, almost singeing his fringe.Up to you, he added, scraping the tip, black lines, on the edge of the table.
Vi picked up the plates.We'll see, she said and, putting them down in the same spot from which she had taken them, she left us to get to work.
I was the one who challenged him.
Outside the door to his and Simon's room, I told him I didn't believe he had a licence.
Whatever, he shrugged his shoulders.
Show me, I demanded.
He was putting on his jeans, standing in a clear shaft of light at the foot of his bed. I hadn't meant to look, but I had put my head around the door and there he was, his clothes scattered at his feet, his jeans half on, his shirt flung across the pillow.
I guess you've had a look for yourself.
And to my fury, I blushed, turning my back on him quickly, hoping he hadn't seen.thirteen
Evie was a mistake.
None of us has ever said this out loud, but it is not difficult to surmise.
When I visit Vi now, she often wants to talk of her. After years of silence, it is hard to get used to this new mentioning of her name. But since my mother was told she has emphysema, a lot has changed.
She no longer smokes. The doctors told her she has a choice. Cigarettes or death, and she has stopped, but not without wavering. She is out for dinner and she reaches for a packet on the table near her.
Mari cannot believe it.Even if you don't mind dying, think of me, she says.Think of how I would be without you.
She also no longer works. Not in the way she used to. She has been told to rest. Until her blood pressure is lowered.
This, too, is not easy for her.
When I first used to visit her, Mari would always make her stay on the couch, a pile of books by her side. Novels.
My mother has never read a novel in her life.
And because Mari was terrified of Vi getting a chest infection, she would make an endless series of lemon and honey drinks that sat, barely sipped, by my mother's side.
I can't bear them, she would confess to me.All that garlic.
She would ask me to throw them down the sink while Mari was not looking.It's ridiculous, she would say.I'm not even sick.
But on the bad days her cough is raw and the dark circles under her eyes are deep.
She was a beautiful child, she tells me and I know she is talking of Evie.You were all beautiful, she adds,although you were the most trouble of all.
And I was. Like my mother, I was always the agitator. Twice suspended for being argumentative.
But I was secretly proud of you, she confesses and she wheezes slightly as she laughs.
Sometimes I wonder what would have become of her, and she looks out the window.
I do not know what to say. I have also wondered this. What she would have been like. Whether we would have been close.
I can't help myself, and she coughs again, a cough fierce enough to shake her whole body.
She asks me to bring her papers in to her, the next bundle to sort, and I do. Because, unlike Mari, I think that not working is more stressful for my mother than working. But when I give them to her, she wants to talk of Evie again.
She was stubborn too. Not compliant like Simon.
She was. I remember. Even with the nine years between us (eleven between her and Simon), we were already fighting.
This age difference was one of the reasons why I know she was a mistake. The gap was too large. The other was my father.
When Vi found out she was pregnant, he confessed. He had been seeing someone else. A couple of people actually. For several years.
I was only eight, but I remember it clearly. I remember their fights. Sometimes they would last all night. Both of them shouting at each other, doors slamming, waking to find one or other of them asleep in the spare bed in my room.
My father didn't want another child. He never said as much. But looking back, it is not hard to see that this was how he felt.
When he finally left, he did so without telling any of us. Not even a note. He just went off to work and did not come home, leaving everything: his clothes, his books, his records.
Vi got a letter from him two days later, telling her not to worry, and then nothing. We did not hear from him for months.
She threw all of his possessions out onto the street. Six months pregnant, tottering in her sandals, weighed down by the bundles she was carrying, refusing to stop until it was all gone. Every last thing.
Well, she said,that's that, and she poured herself a whisky, lit a cigarette and sat down at her desk to write an article.
When she went into labour, she went to hospital on her own. She packed her bags and called a taxi, dropping Simon and me at a friend's on the way.
Bernard did not visit her or the baby. He did not even ask after them. Years later, he tried to talk to me about it. He had just done a group therapy weekend and rang me as soon as he got home. He wanted to apologise. For being such anabsent father. An appalling father. He needed to know that I forgave him. And as he talked to me, he started to cry.
I was speechless.
Don't, I finally managed to say.
He told me he understood if I did not want to talk. But he needed to tell me he was sorry.
We never mentioned it again.
I assume he made the same call to Simon, and I can only guess that Simon would have responded a little more sympathetically than I had. He, too, would have been uncomfortable with Bernard's outburst, but at the least, he would have listened without judging.
Sometimes when I am visiting Vi, when I am sitting with her on the couch, or sorting her papers, Simon comes home. He stands, bulky in the doorway, and for a moment he does not know whether to come in or whether to go straight to his room.
Hi, he says, and he seems about to take a step towards us, but then he changes his mind.
I can see the hesitation on his face and I know why he falters.
He wonders whether we have been talking about Evie again.
He scratches his hand nervously and he turns to the stairs, and I know he must fear the places to which our talk could lead.
And to the funeral that neither of us has mentioned since our return.fourteen
Vi never told us what she knew about Mitchell. What was in the files. The few scraps of information she gave us, coupled with the little that he said, comprised the sum total of all I knew.
He was sixteen. He had been to four foster homes. He had never finished school. He sleepwalked. His family was poor. He wanted to surf. And he wanted to be in a band.
With the broom handle in one hand, he winked at Evie and started to sing. Badly. She wrinkled up her nose and blocked her ears.
You sound terrible, she told him.
He looked at us. Even Simon shook his head in acknowledgement.Maybe you could learn an instrument, he suggested.
Or use it to sweep, and I pointed at the broom handle, now clutched in his hands like a guitar.
He followed me into the lounge room, still singing, leaving Simon and Evie in the kitchen.
The room was even more of a mess in daylight, the curtains hanging by two or three hooks, the fabric torn and soiled, thechairs covered in sheets thick with dust, the paint peeling off the walls and the fireplace piled high with rubbish.
With my sleeve, I rubbed a circle in the dirt that coated the window and looked out over the garden, the fruit trees, the remains of an old well now choked with weeds, and the cypress trees marking the border between what had once been carefully cultivated and what lay beyond. In the distance, I could see the miles of rolling paddocks, not smooth, but punctuated by boulders, lichen-covered and erupting out of the earth, the stark silhouettes of streaky gums, and beyond that the grey-blue of the mountains, the snow country.
It was the stillness that was strange. I forced the window up. Nothing. Just the soft rush of the wind across the grass.
And I leant out and listened.
Can you hear?I asked Mitchell.
And we both stayed there, our elbows resting on the sill, not wanting to move, not wanting to break the silence.
But it didn't last. From across the courtyard, Vi began to type, the keys clattering as she wrote, followed by a long pause before she started again. In the stillness of the morning, the sound was clear, carrying through the French doors which were open wide to let in the light.
What's she doing?Mitchell asked. He lifted one of the dust sheets gingerly, uncertain as to what he would find beneath it.
I told him she was writing a paper.
I didn't know.Welfare, domestic violence, youth crime. I shrugged my shoulders.
And I couldn't answer him.It's what she does.
He whipped another sheet off a chair, this time with a flourish, the dust floating high and then falling.
Ever been to jail?I asked him, not sure how he would react but wanting to show him that he couldn't intimidate me. No matter what he said.
He lit a Winfield and sat on the window ledge.
What do you reckon?
I told him I thought he was too young.
I've been around. He grinned again, white teeth in a brown face. In the brightness of the light, I could see the scar on his knuckle more clearly. Smooth and white across his finger.
So why don't you live with your family?I asked.
He flicked the ash onto the floor.
Who says I don't?
Well, what are you doing with us?
Fucked if I know.
I was smiling before I could stop myself.
He offered me a cigarette.
Not wanting to tell him I didn't smoke, I took one. He lit it for me, leaning close, forcing me to step back.
I must have gone purple with trying not to choke, the smoke billowing out from my mouth, my nose, my ears, until I was coughing and spluttering in front of him.
This is how you do it, and he drew back, slowly, holding it in, holding it in, finally letting out a series of perfect smoke rings.
I was dizzy. Nauseous and reeling. But I persisted.
So where do you live?I asked him, in between sporadic fits of coughing.
Depends, and he butted out his cigarette, flicking it across the verandah.Sometimes with foster parents. Sometimes in a home. Sometimes on me own.
I started sweeping. My mouth tasted dry and foul, and I was concentrating on not being sick. He still hadn't moved. Leaning against the window frame, his back warm in the sun, watching me.
You know, and his voice was slow and lazy,you've got pretty good legs. Nice tan. Not bad.
And despite the fact that I was secretly pleased by what he had said, I glared at him.
You know, I said.Your dick isn't bad either. Pity you wear it on your shoulders.
He ignored me.
He looked out again at the sharp clarity of the sky above the bleached grass before slowly letting himself down from the window ledge, his gaze still fixed somewhere out beyond the garden.
I kicked the dustpan and broom towards him.
Reckon we should get this done and get down to the beach, he said. But he didn't move from where he was, standing there, staring out the window, seemingly mesmerised by what lay beyond. Miles of space. An emptiness he had probably never seen before.
I turned my back to him and went on with the sweeping. And because I was looking down, I didn't see. I just heard.
His sudden shout, loud and clear, legs disappearing over the sill as I turned around and dropped the broom, clattering at my feet. Scrambling over the verandah wall, running fast across the garden, long thick grass, towards her, Evie.
She liked to pretend she was pregnant.
She would stuff clothes, cushions up her shirt and walk around like that all day, careful of her baby.
That was how I saw her, her pillows supported with one hand, a long stick in the other, the red of her shirt startling against the golden grass and cobalt sky. And as he hurtled towards her, she dropped everything, her mouth in a wide scream as he scooped her up in his arms. So fast it was still. Just the brilliance of those colours. That is how I see it all.
Just that image.
No sound at first. And then slowly, the breeze in the cypresses, the slap of Mitchell's thongs on the stairs as he carried her up towards us, Simon and me. And Evie's scream.
It was a snake.
I still don't understand how he had managed to see it from the house. But he had. Thick and oily, rearing up towards her, while she prodded it away with her stick. Coiled in the long grass.
And as Evie continued to scream, Vi came out from her room, papers clutched in one hand, reaching for Evie with the other; she seized her out of Mitchell's hold, and she wanted to know what had happened.
Somewhere in the distance, a crow cawed.
We all waited for the explanation.
But it wasn't him who told us.
It was Evie. Still sobbing as she described the snake.
Mitchell nodded in agreement.So I ran and grabbed her, he said.
And it was me who backed him up.So quick I didn't know what was happening.
Vi put Evie down, her glasses dropping to the ground as she bent low. I watched as she reached to pick them up, thin fingers brushing Mitchell's hand as he, too, tried to retrieve them.
I had seen the alarm on her face, the fear when she had first come out to find Mitchell holding Evie. A flicker. A moment. But enough.
She was embarrassed.
So was he.
She thanked him as he gave the glasses back to her. She thanked him again as he went back down into the garden to pick up the trail of Evie's pillows and helped her stuff them back into her shirt.
And over lunch she told him she would think about him taking the car into town to do the shopping.
And to the beach?Simon asked, his open mouth full of food as he waited for her response.
Maybe, she said.As long as you're careful, and she looked at Mitchell, who nodded, solemnly.
Wouldn't be anything but, he promised.fifteen
Despite the fact that so many girls were interested in Simon, there was only ever one who went out with him.
Thirteen years old, tall, blonde, captain of the softball and netball teams, popular, and always certain of getting her own way; she cornered me outside the canteen and told me that she liked my brother.
So?With my arms folded across my chest, I stared back at her.
I want to go to the Saturday dance with him.
Well, ask him, and I moved to push past her, but she put her hand firmly on mine, the chain of her charm bracelet cold against my wrist.
I have, and her stare was cool as she repeated Simon's words, as she told me that he didn't want to go.
Well, there's your answer, but as I spoke I knew there was more to this than I had at first realised, that I was not going to be allowed to leave so easily.
I want you to change his mind, and with her hand still on mine, her body still barring my way, she told me that I had until Friday. I had to get Simon to agree or she would make it known that I was the one who broke into the chemistry lab.
There was no point in telling her that I had never done anything of the kind. Rebecca Hickson's powers, coupled with my reputation, were such that she would be believed. Despite the fact that she was lying.
And knowing I had no choice, I begged Simon to go to the dance with her.
I pleaded with him.
I don't like those things, and he did not lift his gaze from the television as I told him that that wasn't the point. The point was that she would make my life hell. The point was that it was only a small sacrifice. To save his sister. To save me.
Eventually he agreed. And on Friday, at three o'clock, he told her he had changed his mind.
I remember seeing the triumph on her face, the sheer satisfaction at having got what she wanted, what she had been denied. It did not matter that Simon left her as soon as they arrived, that he spent the night sitting outside watching Michael Arnold get so drunk that he took all his clothes off and danced naked under the flagpole; all that mattered was that she had said she was going with Simon and she had.
Anton was waiting awkwardly just inside my flat, a pool of water at his feet, dark on the floorboards, seeping into the edge of the rug, and as I looked at him, I wished I hadn't asked him to come in.
I wished I didn't have to say what I had to say.
The rain was heavy now. Loud and relentless. I knew I would need to put pots out to catch the drips from all the spots in the ceiling that leaked in downpours such as this, but I would do it later.
As we stood opposite each other, uncomfortable and without words, I remembered my determination in pursuing him and I could not help but wonder whether I deserved the situation in which I had found myself.
Because I had been determined.
Each morning, I would wake early, and extricate myself, limb by limb, from the heaviness of Marco's body.
Don't go, and, half asleep, he would try to pull me back down into the tight grip of his arms.
But I was gone.
Bare feet on bare boards, bathers still damp from the day before, I would close the door behind me and step out into the freshness of the day, the brilliance of the blue sky, blue sea and the first of the morning glory, opening purple and full to the sun.
The stairs that lead down to the beach are cracked and the path they make is overgrown. Thick, glossy mirror bush blocks out the light; dark, secret caves beneath their branches. I always stand at the top, still for a moment, and look out to the ocean. On the days when it is flat, I swim the bay; when it is rough, with king tides that sweep up to the rocks below the cliff path, I go to the pool.
And this was how we got to know each other.
I would find myself waiting, there at the top of the stairs,until I heard him coming up behind me. Setting it all in place, knowing what I wanted right from the start. Manoeuvring, piece by piece, until it was there in front of me. Anton smiling as he found me each morning waiting in the same spot, flicking me with his towel as he came down the stairs to stand next to me, asking me what it was going to be:The pool or the sea for you and me?
It was only later that I marvelled at how I failed to think of the others, at how determined I was, and when I do that, I remember Rebecca Hickson's face, and I feel ashamed. I look at myself in the mirror, and I tell myself that Anton was no Simon, dragged there against his will and refusing to participate. Despite what he would say.
But it doesn't always work.
As he stood there at my front door with his washing bundled in his arms, a peg still caught on the sleeve of a T-shirt, we could not look at each other.
I can't stay, he said, uncertain as to why I had called him in the first place, glancing nervously up to the ceiling, up to where Louise was waiting.
I know, and I moved to close the door.
I could see the rain rushing in torrents down the path and I knew that when it finally eased, the back steps would be sagging, rotting further; the rust that eats away at everything in this building would have crept a little higher into the pipes, and the paint on the walls would have peeled a little more. Slowly decaying around us.
I was pregnant.
And I felt like a fool as I told him.
It was Marco who once described Anton assomething of a used-car salesman. All charm and no substance.
It was a comment that made me wonder how much he guessed. It was a comment that I did not want to remember as I stood there opposite him, knowing that he was going to fail me.
Are you sure?he finally asked, still not looking up at me.
I told him I was.
That it was me?The ugliness of his words crossing mine.
And as the impact of what he said hit me, I knew that if I had been another person, a third person who had walked in out of the rain and stood there at my front door, listening to this, I might have felt for him, I might have understood why he said what he said, but I didn't.
All I could do was hate him.
And wonder how I had ever fallen for him.
Don't be afraid of single-minded pursuit, Vi used to say, and she would look at me, checking to see whether I was listening.
So long as what you want is a good thing.
And I would roll my eyes at the impossibility of her addendum.
And so long as you can be certain of.Â .Â . and she would pause, for one instant, perhaps for dramatic effect, perhaps to make sure that I was paying attention.
Of what?I would ask, impatiently.
Of what you are going to find at the end.
I turned to the sink, to the pile of dirty dishes, and as I let the tap run, he reached for my hand, but I pulled away.
Please, he said,don't tell her, and he glanced up to the ceilingagain, to where the telephone rang, to where a chair scraped overhead, to where footsteps clattered across the room, to where Louise leant out the window to see where he was, to see what had happened to him.
What happens, I asked him,if I want to go ahead, if I want to do this?
The window slammed closed above us.
We could hear her, walking down the corridor, to the front door, and in Anton's eyes there was only fear.
But you can't, his words a whisper, her footsteps on the landing, on the stairs, as he looked at me.
I don't know what I want, I said, the tap still running as he tried to tell me he was sorry.
But it was too late.
We could hear her knocking on the door, and as he spoke to me, he also called out to her, telling her that he was coming, not knowing whether to open it and let her in, not knowing whether to leave her or to leave me.
It is not as though he behaved in a way I hadn't expected, I told Lizzie later.I knew what he was like, and I looked away.
I knew what he was like. But I had hoped for more.
I have to go, he said.I am sorry, he said.We will talk, he said. But his face said only one thing.
I didn't want this either. My voice was low as he opened the door to Louise, standing there in the rain, not knowing why she had been left to wait; the rain coursing down her hair, soaking into her shirt.
Telephone, she said, not looking at me, just looking at him.
I'd better run, he said, but not to either of us, to no one inparticular, and as he turned to the stairs, as he disappeared from sight, she stayed where she was.
I didn't move. There against the sink, with her at the entrance to my flat.
Are you okay?she asked, and I told her I was.
Just a bit of family trouble, and, as if on cue, I knocked the answering machine, replaying Mari's message asking me to call her. I reached for the stop button, but it was too late. The message had played out.
Well, she said,I suppose I'd better go too.
But she waited, just for a moment, neither of us speaking, and as I watched the rain falling behind her, I wondered whether she knew.
Because it was possible we had all been lying. Not just he and I. But all of us.
To each other and to ourselves.sixteen
When Simon was fourteen, he took up art. Life drawing, to be exact.
He found out about it through an advertisement in the local paper and told Vi he wanted to join. Once a week she would drive him over to where the group met and pick him up again three hours later.
All housewives, I overheard Vi telling a friend, knowing she had used a term she hated because it was the only way to describe the incongruity of Simon's presence,and him.
I was fascinated. But not with the housewives.
You have a nude model?I asked him, looking at the charcoal drawings he brought home. Drawings of an exceptionally voluptuous woman lying back on a mound of velvet pillows.Completely starkers?
He was disparaging in his response.What do you reckon?
She had the most enormous pair of breasts I had ever seen.
So where does she undress?
He found it difficult to comprehend the inanity of my question.
Where do you think?
I had no idea.
She doesn't get cold?
He rolled his eyes in response.
He had his drawing on the very expensive easel Bernard had bought for him in one of his sporadic attempts at being an interested father. I watched as he worked, concentrating on perfecting the curve of the hip, smudging the charcoal with his hand, stepping back, smudging again.
She doesn't get embarrassed?I asked.
He had no idea what I meant.
In front of you?
Being only twelve, I was at an age when nudity and sex were still, by and large, a mystery. Vi had, of course, explained everything to us in long and boring detail, but I could not help but feel there was something more. Something she had left out.
I had never even kissed a boy.
I didn't know about Simon; I had always presumed he was as inexperienced as I was. He was too enveloped in his own world to even contemplate the possibility of some physical connection with another.
Do you ever get embarrassed?I asked.
He looked at me.Of course not.
Do you ever get, you know, and I searched for the word I wanted, enjoying needling him, enjoying frustrating his endless patience,a stiffie?
I stared straight at him, not blinking, not giggling, despitedesperately wanting to, and waited for his answer.
He blushed. Crimson.
I started laughing.
He turned his back to me, but I could see, from the shake of his shoulders, that he was laughing too. Not wanting me to know, but unable to hide it effectively.
Well, do you?I asked, knowing I was pushing it now.
He didn't turn around.
You can tell me.
There was still no response.
Just answer me.
It took a lot to make my brother crack.
And then I'll go.
He turned the radio up.
Just yes or no.
I wouldn't give up. Not until he lost it.
Because he drove me crazy.
And, no doubt, I did the same to him.
My father has one of Simon's drawings in his chambers. A nude that he did when he was fifteen. It hangs in a corner of the room, not readily visible to any visitor, but it is there and that, in itself, is surprising.
I like it. As an adult, I can see that it is fairly crude, but there is something jovial and energetic about this woman with her big hips, big breasts and big lips. She makes me smile. Possibly because I remember my conversations with Simon whenever I see her.
Simon still draws. But it is no longer large, overblown nudes on his easel. His pictures are small, tight portraits. Portraits of himself. He has never shown them to me, but I have seen them. Once when he came to visit, he left his book behind. I found it and I flicked through it guiltily, wishing I hadn't as soon as I had.
There was not a nude in sight.
Just Simon. Eyes averted. Looking anywhere but at himself.
She cheers me up, my father said when he came in from court and found me standing by the picture.
He kissed me on the cheek, and asked me if I was ready. I told him I was.
My father has always liked taking me out. About once a month he books an expensive restaurant, one where he is bound to bump into colleagues and clients. I think he secretly hopes I will do something slightly outrageous or bohemian, something that will enhance the eccentric image he tries to cultivate.
We had arranged this particular lunch some weeks ago. With all that was on my mind, I would have forgotten, but his secretary, Melinda, had called me at work to remind me. She was new at the job and, as Bernard said,frighteningly efficient.
On that day I was dressed for the office, and I'm sure my conservative skirt and shirt were a mild disappointment, although he never would have admitted as much. He told me I looked wonderful. A little tired, but wonderful.
He was in a good mood. An expansive mood. He had just won a long and difficult case that had been covered, extensively, by all the papers, and he ordered a bottle of MoÃ«t.
When I told him I only had an hour, he dismissed my concerns with a wave of his hand.
What are they going to do? Sack you?
He was right. I am, after all, his daughter.
So, he asked me,how is the junkie business going?This is how he likes to refer to my acting, loudly and clearly. More for the effect that he hopes it will have on those within earshot than for the value of the joke.
As I told him about the audition, how I thought I had missed out on the part, he read the menu.
I don't understand this fashion for nursery food, and he sipped his champagne.Corn beef and mash. Hideous.
I didn't bother continuing.
Realising he had been guilty of not listening, he patted my hand as he looked around the room.What we need for you, my dear, is an introduction to a rich and powerful film producer. One who is embroiled in some very tricky legal business.
I wouldn't have put it past him. And because I wanted to change the topic, I asked him about his latest girlfriend.
My father has an endless stream of affairs. He starts up with the next one while he is still with the first, so there is never a transition, a period in which he is alone. Now that I am older I can see how he does it. He is not a handsome man. But he is charming. He has limitless energy and enthusiasm.
His latest was a young lawyer called Samantha. She is only about five years older than I am. On the one occasion I have met her, she was uncomfortable. It was probably just the close proximity in our ages. But I did not warm to her.
As he told me that things had been a bittrickyin thatdepartment, I knew Samantha was probably on her way out.
So who's the next one?I asked him, and he did his utmost to look offended.
Well, and he leant forward in his best conspiratorial manner,I have had my eye on someone.
Probably more than your eye, I said.
And he laughed.
How is your exceptionally complicated love life?he asked.
I had, in the throes of first passion and over a bottle of champagne, once told him about the entire affair. Normally I liked swapping stories with him but this time I wished I had kept silent. I told him it was over. He was staying with his girlfriend and that was that.Not much I can do about it.
Hence the long face?he asked.
Hence the long face, and I looked down at my plate, wanting to talk about something else.
It was not until the end of the meal that I mentioned Simon. I had been tossing up whether to tell him, uncertain as to whether it was, in fact, something he should know, and, if so, whether he would be of any use.
Being a barrister, Bernard is well trained in not revealing anything, especially when he is caught off guard. So I was surprised at his reaction, at the sudden gravity in his manner. He put his glass down on the table and lowered the tone of his voice.
How on earth did he find out?he asked me, clearly concerned.
I told him I didn't know.
And he wants to go to the funeral?
He sat back and rubbed his chin with his hand.
Your mother was a damn fool.
I did not know what he meant.
Taking that boy on holiday with you.
I didn't remind him that he had been distinctly uninterested in the matter at the time.
He called for the bill.
Does she know about this?he asked me.
I told him she didn't.
You can't stop him from going?
When I told him it was unlikely, he made me promise I would go with him. He made me promise I would try to keep him from doing anything foolish.And call me, he said,as soon as you get back.
Like Vi, my father does not like to talk of Evie. Her name is never mentioned. And I could only presume that his distress was due to the fact that our conversation had brought up a subject he would prefer to forget.
I reached across to take his hand. It was, I suppose, a gesture of comfort, and I was as surprised as he was by my attempt.
He squeezed my fingers in his, just for a moment, and then pulled away. The waiter had brought the bill.seventeen
Vi has caught another dose of flu and is not well, but still she refuses to succumb, to see herself as ill.
I can sense her irritation as Mari takes the call each time the telephone rings. Mari turns down invitations, requests for Vi to speak, to sit on a board, to participate in a radio interview. She tells them all that she is not well and no, she doesn't know when she will be up to it.
Her voice is hoarse and cracked as she asks Mari to tell her who the caller was and what it was they wanted.
No one important, and Mari checks that Vi is warm enough, that she has everything she needs.
I try to tell Mari that perhaps this is not the best approach. My mother is someone who has always worked. She lives for her work. In all my memories of her, she is sitting behind her typewriter, chain-smoking, brow furrowed, surrounded by reports and papers.
Sometimes Simon and I would test her.
Standing outside the door to her room, Simon would giggle as I would ask her if it was okay to take some money. I wanted to buy some heroin. (This was the worst that we could think of. Although, in retrospect, telling her we wanted to join the National Party would have been far worse.)
The typewriter would not stop.
In the cloud of smoke that always surrounded her, Vi would nod her assent.
So you don't mind?I would ask again.
She would swear loudly at a key that was stuck and tell me to bring back the change.
Mari tells me that she doesn't know what choice she has.You can see how sick she is, she says.I have to stop her from working.
She is irritated with me for questioning her.
But she has nothing else, I say without thinking.
Well, I don't know what you are to her, or Simon, but I certainly hope that I am more than nothing, and she drains the pasta she is making for lunch, the steam clouding the anger on her face.
I try to placate her but I am never very good at it.
She spoons out the sauce without looking at me.You think of something, she says.
I don't know what to say.
Maybe if you and Simon made a little more effort we could go on some family outings, interest her in your lives. I don't know.
And I nod dumbly in agreement, but I am horrified at the thought of a family outing. It is not something that we have ever been good at, and I can't see how we would start now.
I promise her I will talk to Simon and she passes me Vi's plate with a look of scepticism.
Simon's room is dark and cluttered. He never opens the curtains and when I first go in, it is difficult to see.
His clothes are strewn across the floor and his bed is unmade. The portable television is propped up on a chair. Coffee cups and plates are piled up. His desk is covered with old newspapers and magazines.
I write him a note asking him to call me and then I'm not quite sure where to leave it. I fold it so it stands and rest it up next to the television aerial.
Sitting on his bed, I am for a moment at a loss as to what to do. I want to make it better for him. I want to help, but I do not know what he needs. On the few occasions when we have been alone since Mitchell's funeral, we have not been able to speak. Even attempts at the mundane seem impossible, and we find ourselves unable to look at each other, unable to complete sentences, turning towards the door, the window, any possible exit from the place in which we have found ourselves.
I go back down to the lounge where Vi sits on the couch, her lunch half eaten. Mari has put on a video and I am surprised to see that my mother is absorbed. But then it is not so surprising. She is disparaging about allHollywood rubbishbut if you actually sit her down in front of anything, she will soon be leaning forward, dark eyes intent on the screen, oblivious to any interruption.
I tell her I have to get home and she doesn't look up.
She just gives me a wave with her hand.
It is Mari who takes me to the door.
I am sorry, she says as she lets me out.I know you've been coming around a lot. I know you've been trying.
I tell her it is okay.
She says I look tired. Not so well myself.
And for a moment, I find myself about to speak, about to tell her everything, but as the words are forming, she says she wants me to talk to Simon. Vi has been worried about him.
I have never thought of Vi as a worrier. I have always assumed she just accepts the way we are, never really noticing or questioning our behaviour.
Obviously I have been wrong.
He has been more withdrawn than ever. She pauses and looks across the street.Possibly she just notices it more because she's not so busy.
Again, I find myself about to speak, but stop. I know that anything I tell her will be passed on to Vi. Instead I just let her know that I have left a message for him to call me.
And I will try him, I promise,if he doesn't get in touch.
She looks slightly reassured, although I know she will believe it when she sees it.
And because I can see the bus coming up the hill, I leave her quickly, telling her not to worry. But I have not managed to stop myself from feeling anxious.
As I head home, I find that I am thinking about all of us, the way we were and the way we are, and when I start thinking about us, when I start remembering, I always end up thinking of Mitchell again.
And I am, once again, appalled at what happened.
I am ashamed.
I look out at the late afternoon sky and I think that there must be something I can do. Something to right all that went wrong.
I just do not know what it is.eighteen
I have a lot of friends. Friends I go out to dinner with, friends I meet for a drink, friends I see at parties and friends I rarely see. But there are few to whom I am close.
Lizzie is different. She does not know the people I know and I do not know the people she knows. Our lives are separate so our time together is usually just the two of us.
When I first told her about Anton, some months earlier, she didn't know what to say but I could tell she thought I was being foolish.
I asked her why she thought I always made a mess of things.
She was about to utter platitudes, she was about to tell me not to be so ridiculous, but then she caught my eye. She does not like to lie.
I guess it's all relative, she said.
Her answer irritated me. I had wanted her to tell me what was wrong with me, how I could fix myself, how I could stop lurching from disaster to disaster, and how I could fall in love and stay in love.
I asked her if she thought what I was doing was wrong.
She was uncomfortable.
Not wrong, she said, and she paused.
She didn't look at me.Maybe cowardly. That's all.
Her words hurt.
Sitting in reception at work, feeling ill from the lunch with Bernard, I wanted to talk to her. I wanted her advice, but I was scared of her disapproval. I was scared of what I knew she would think.
Instead, I called my friend Sabine. I do not know her well, but I know her well enough to know she is not like Lizzie. Not at all.
She told me she was bored. Sick of her life. That her father had bought her a ticket to Africa and that I should go with her. There was no point in telling her I had no money.
God, me too, she would have said.It's a drag.
I told her I had to go. I was at work. I would talk to her later.
I left a message for my friend Matthew. We had talked about doing voice classes together. I asked him to call me, I said I wanted to book, and as I was about to hang up, I told him that I also wanted to talk. I needed his advice. But as I spoke those words, I knew I wouldn't ask him if he did call. I would not tell him.
I picked up my address book and I flicked through the names. Pages and pages of them, addresses scribbled out, new numbers replacing old, new friends replacing those with whom I had lost touch or with whom I had fallen out.
I started drawing up a list. Those who would tell me that I should go ahead, that I could have a baby, and those who would tell me no. And I was, for a moment, carried away with the idea that this was not so stupid. That this was as good a way as any of coming to a decision.
But then I saw myself. Reflected in the glass reception doors. And I looked ridiculous. With my book open in front of me, my pencil in one hand, and my hair a mess about my face.
This was no way to tell right from wrong. This was no way to know.
I screwed up the piece of paper, and as I threw it in the bin, I called Simon and left a message for him. I told him we needed to meet. After work. We needed to talk. It was important.
We were bored. The three of us, Mitchell, Simon and I.
We watched the flies cluster on the few scraps of wrinkled tomato left from lunch, the wilted lettuce, the smear of butter across the plates, but we did not move to put anything away.
Reckon she'll give us the car?Mitchell asked.
Don't know, and Simon stretched, lazily.
Reckon we should go and ask her now?and he looked at each of us, wanting our opinion.
We could hear her typewriter. She had only just started again. It was not a good time to interrupt her.
Better to wait, Simon said.
Just for a while, I told him.
He drummed the tabletop with his fingertips. He picked up a glass. He put it down.About an hour, you reckon?
About an hour, we told him. In unison.
Outside it was hot. Midday heat that burnt the grass white, flat and colourless.
With his back on the concrete, Mitchell lay on top of the low wall that bordered the verandah, his shirt off, letting the sun soak into the smooth brown of his chest. With his arms behind his head, I could see the curls of underarm hair, golden in the light.
Ever had a girlfriend?he asked Simon, and I saw Simon shake his head.
Me neither, not a proper one, and I watched as Mitchell swung himself up, as he leant against the verandah post, his body outlined by the bright blue of the sky.
But jeez, I'd like one, and I watched him stretch; I watched his back as he stared out across the garden.Not just someone to, you know, and as he turned, as he looked at me, I saw Simon look down, tearing a strip of rubber off his thong, staring at his feet.
What about you?and it was me he was asking this time, and I was good at the bravado, good at the game.
A girlfriend?and I raised my eyebrows as Mitchell looked at me.Boyfriends.Â .Â . and I shrugged my shoulders to signify the countless thousands I'd had.
But Mitchell had turned away, away from both of us.
I'd like to be in love, he said, but not to us. To no one in particular.
And I picked a cobweb, sticky and fine, off my leg and rolled it into a tight ball between my fingers.
I'd like to have kids, he said.You know. Kids and a wife.
Simon pulled himself up slowly from where he had beensitting. He did not look at me and he did not look at Mitchell.
Don't know when it'll happen, but, and Mitchell turned slowly to where we both were, there behind him, to me watching him and to Simon looking down at the ground, one hand on the doorhandle, one foot inside, one still outside.
He had been about to go back inside. To disappear, without a word. But as Mitchell had turned, he had stopped.
I could hear a fly buzzing near my ear, but I did not move, and in the silence that had descended, I thought I could also hear it again, the low rush of the wind coming down from off the mountains, sweeping across the paddocks.
Mitchell's voice broke the quiet.So, you reckon an hour's up?
Simon looked at his watch.No, he said.
Let's ask her anyway, and Mitchell pointed out towards the horizon, towards where he imagined the beach was.Let's go. Take your board, and with his arms outstretched, he pretended to surf, the excitement sparking in his eyes.Reckon she'll say yes?
With one hand still on the doorhandle, Simon looked at Mitchell. They smiled at each other in a moment that I later knew excluded me.
Maybe, he said.
And as the door slammed shut behind him, as he went to ask Vi for the keys, Mitchell started humming surf tunes. Badly.nineteen
Because he has been a bus driver for such a long time, Simon can get whatever shifts he wants. Although you earn more on nights or weekends, he usually gives up his highly valued hours to anyone who asks him, the needs of others always taking precedence over his own.
Sometimes I catch one of his buses home. I sit on the seat behind him and we talk awkwardly in between stops. The buses he drives are always crowded. He cannot bear to close the door on passengers, to drive past people, despite the fact that he is now prohibited by government regulation from having more than a certain number standing.
You can't fit any more on, I sometimes say to him.
He does not listen, and as the doors shut, everyone seems to have miraculously found a space.
I do not know what Simon thinks of his job. I can only guess. He simply takes the money and drives, never talking to passengers, never swearing angrily at other drivers, just doing what he is paid to do.
He has been driving since he was eighteen. Two years ago, he accrued three months' long service leave and took it. I was surprised, even hopeful that perhaps he was planning some change to his life, but he just spent it at home, lying in the darkness of his room watching television.
It's all right, he says on the few occasions when I ask him whether he likes what he does.
Sometimes I am tempted to challenge him, to ask him whether there is anything else he would like to do, but I stop myself in time, not wanting to open things up, not wanting to see him look away, uncomfortable with my question, uncomfortable with me.
Simon took up bus driving two years after he gave up on school.
Vi had tried to talk him into going to a counsellor. It was not so much that he had refused; he had just never turned up for any of the appointments she made. Or if she drove him there, he would go in and not say a word. He would just sit there, completely impenetrable.
At first, the school was also anxious about him.
They, too, tried talking to him, but it was no use, and eventually they gave up.
There's not much point in keeping him here when it's so painfully obvious he has no interest, they told Vi.
He had not handed in a single piece of homework for the entire term. His highest grade in a test had been an E. He no longer talked to any of his friends. He had given up all sport. They didn't know what to do.
Perhaps a year off, the headmaster suggested, although histone made it clear that it was more than a mere suggestion.He has obviously been very disturbed by what happened, and he looked away, not wanting to mention the accident, not wanting to mention Evie's name.School may only be adding to the stress.
Vi did not fight.
She, too, didn't really know what to do. Lost in her own grief, she just took the first concrete suggestion that was handed to her.
When Bernard heard, he offered to take Simon out for a man-to-man chat.
He picked him up with Sarah, his girlfriend of the time, and took him sailing. No doubt they would have spent the day on the harbour, drinking champagne and eating prawns, with Bernard tossing Simon the odd cheery comment about what a truly magnificent afternoon it was, losing interest in the response before he had even finished speaking. Simon came home drenched and as silent as ever.
When Vi asked why he was so wet, Bernard laughed.He's a silly idiot, and he laughed again, but he looked perplexed as he explained that Sarah's dalmatian had jumped off the boat for a swim and Simon had been convinced she was going to drown. Fully clothed, he had followed her in, trying to save her before they could stop him.
Then Bernard slapped Simon on the back and told him to cheer up.I don't know why youre looking so glum, he laughed.An entire year off â sounds like bliss to me, and with that he was gone.
So Simon left school.
And he didn't go back.
For the next two years, he stayed at home. Reading, smoking, watching television and eating.
Vi would ask him what he was going to do with his life and Simon would ignore her.
At first her questions weren't so frequent. She was more absorbed in work than ever; having buried herself in causes since the accident, fighting every fight she could, we barely saw her. But after eighteen months, she began to notice that he hadn't moved and seemed to have little intention of doing so.
Rushing out the door to get to a meeting, she would tell him that he shouldn't just waste his life away. Looking up as he tiptoed through her study, trying not to be noticed, she would ask him if he'd thought about going back to school.Or even a job?Cleaning out a pile of dirty dishes from his room, she would tell him they needed to talk.About what was up.
He would glance across at her. Caught suggesting something that they both knew she was unlikely to do, she would quickly look away.
When I get back, she would say.
Soon, she would add, and she would sigh, anxiously, as she rolled herself another cigarette and tried to work out what to do next.
It was Dawn, one of Vi's old friends from the Equal Work Equal Pay Task Force, who eventually got Simon out of the house. An ex-counsellor for troubled adolescents, she took Simon in hand. And to everyone's surprise, Simon appeared to listen to her.
Vi had been leaving piles of job advertisements inside thedoor to Simon's bedroom, research positions, political work, youth work; they all remained where she left them, until eventually she would scoop them up and throw them in the bin.
Dawn told Simon the Department of Transport was recruiting and training drivers, and he agreed to go for an interview.
I am sure that Vi was secretly distressed at the thought of Simon, her son, becoming a bus driver. When he came home and said he had been accepted, she asked him if he was sure this was what he wanted.Really?
She tried to console herself with the thought that it was bound to be a temporary measure, until he got through this difficult phase.
But it wasn't.
Twelve years later and Simon still drives buses. Five days a week.
We had arranged to meet at the depot when he finished his shift.
It was still raining and outside the airconditioned office the evening was steamy and unpleasant. Feeling ill from the champagne I had drunk over lunch, I half wished Simon wouldn't turn up and I could go home, but he was there, waiting for me, a copy of the afternoon paper in one hand (a paper that Vi hated) and a cigarette in the other. He was standing under an awning, but apart from that one small concession, he made little attempt to keep dry. I watched as the rain sluiced down, soaking into the newsprint, dripping onto his hair, his arms, and into his shoes. He did not seem to notice.
You haven't changed your mind?he asked me anxiously, and I knew he was referring to the funeral.
I told him I hadn't.
Then why did you want to see me?
I asked him if we could sit down and he led me into a small cafe opposite.
As he pulled out a chair, I saw the heavy perspiration stains under the arms of his shirt and around his neck.
He lit another cigarette.
How do you survive, I asked him,for all those hours on the bus when you can't smoke?
He just shrugged his shoulders and looked towards the door, the bell ringing as it opened and closed behind a young woman. She had a baby in a pram, and was heavily pregnant with another. He shifted his chair awkwardly as she tried to push the pram past us. There was no room.
Are you going to eat anything?I asked him, and as I reached across the table for the menu, the baby started crying, the noise high-pitched and insistent.
Simon put his cigarette in the ashtray and leant over. I watched as he pushed the pram back and forth, gently, soothingly. The woman also watched. Waiting up at the counter, she had turned at the first cry and I had seen her about to come back but then stop as Simon reached across. The rocking was working, the baby seemed to be quietening, and as she sat down, she thanked him.
He looked down, embarrassed, apologetic for having acted.
No, thank you, she said again.
And the blush spread further across his face as he scratched at a stain in the formica, head bent, eyes on the table, makingme want to reach out and still his hand; making me want to tell him it was okay, he had done the right thing.
He lit another cigarette and I told him I had seen Bernard for lunch. I told him we had talked about the funeral.
He didn't speak.
Why do you want to go?Because I had lowered my voice I was leaning forward, across the table, and as I moved towards him, he pulled back.I am worried about you.
The waitress came and I ordered a coffee. Simon ordered a Coke and a chicken sandwich.
I'm thinking of quitting.
I looked at him, surprised.Why?
He was staring out the window.Do you ever think about that time?he asked me, not wanting to meet my gaze.
I told him I did.
He scratched at the table again, lifting a piece of food with his fingernail and rolling it into a ball.
You know, it wasn't your fault, I said.The police had to take him away.
He still wouldn't look at me.
Do you ever think about him much? Mitchell?and he said his name hesitantly, wanting to say it out loud, but unsure, still scared of the effect it would have.
I told him I did.Quite a bit. Lately.
My coffee was cold. Weak and milky. I pushed it away.
You can't feel bad about it all, I said, wanting to reassure him.It was just one of those things, and I was staring at the ceiling, remembering, imagining, seeing it again: the road, the night, Mitchell.
It was the police who decided what happened, I told him.Not us. You can't feel guilty.
I hadn't been there, but I could see it as though I had.
There was a ring of Coke on the table, circling the base of his glass. Black and sticky. Ants. This is what happens when it rains. Thousands of them.
We don't have to go, I said and I wanted him to listen to me. I wanted him to hear me.You know that, don't you? In fact, it would be better if we didn't. They won't want to see us. There's no reason for us to be there, and I was leaning forward again, trying to make him look at me.
You're still coming?
I sat back. There was no point.
Yes, I promised.
And he looked relieved.I just don't want to be alone, and he scratched the back of his hand nervously.It's just, and he shook his head as he looked away, not wanting to go on.
It's just what?I asked.
He took the last bite of his sandwich and moved his chair back.
Nothing, and he heaved himself up.I've got to go.
And knowing that any attempt to make him talk was useless, I told him I'd walk with him.twenty
When I remember Simon at Candelo, I see him sitting on the verandah with Evie. It is early morning and they are side by side, hip to hip, on the top step. In the sunlight, Simon's hair is blond and his skin is the colour of gold. They each have a bowl of cereal balanced on their lap, soggy with milk, and a glass of juice on the step below them. When Simon takes a spoonful, Evie takes a spoonful, when Simon reaches for his glass, Evie reaches for her glass, when Simon shades his eyes from the sun, Evie shades hers as well, copying each of his movements faithfully.
She reads him jokes from her book, halting over each difficult word.
Why did the tomato blush?
Simon looks suitably perplexed.
Because he saw the salad dressing, and Evie slaps her thigh and laughs uproariously although I am sure she would have had no idea what it meant.
After the fifth joke, I would have told her to shut up.
But Simon doesn't.
He listens until she has had enough.
I see him as he finally gets up and stretches, tall and slim in the clear morning light. Stretching each limb with a grace and lack of self-consciousness that I now find hard to imagine.
Evie does the same.
Simon takes three steps down towards the garden and Evie follows. But when he steps out into the long thick grass, she stops.
It is the snake.
She does not want to go beyond the safety of those stairs. She does not want to move.
Wait, she calls after him and he does.
He turns back towards her. He holds his arms out but she does not follow, although I can see that she wants to, more than anything.
It takes him a few moments before he realises what she is frightened of, and he comes back through the grass, shouting loudly, stomping a flattened path, dark and sparkling with dew.
This is what you do, he tells her and he picks her up so that she is perched high on his shoulders.You make a lot of noise and you make a path.
She screams wildly in unison with his shouts, waving her arms in the air as they make their way from one end of the garden to the other.
But when he puts her back down, safe on the stairs, it is clear that she is still worried.
What about tomorrow?she asks.And the next day?
He sits next to her. And I hear him as he promises they will do it again. Each morning. They will do it together.
Promise, he says.
I didn't really expect Vi to agree. I didn't expect Simon to come out of the house, the keys glinting in the sun, as he held them up high for us to see.
But he did.
I was sitting on the verandah wall, side by side with Mitchell, learning the art of the perfect smoke ring, practising while we waited for Simon. With his mouth like a fish, Mitchell let each ring form, floating off, invisible in the glare of the day, before passing the cigarette over to me. And with my head arched back, and all my concentration focused on showing him that when it came to smoke rings, I was no fool, I did not hear Simon until he was there, right behind me, the keys held high in one hand.
Got 'em, he told us, and then, seeing me, he looked confused.
I put the cigarette out, hastily stubbing it against the bricks, the tip ground down to grey ash.
You don't smoke, he said.
She's learning, and with his head thrown back and one leg stretched out in front of him, Mitchell imitated me, mercilessly.
I punched him, hard, on the arm.
And he grinned at me.
So, are we going?Simon asked, ignoring us both.
You bet, and Mitchell leapt down onto the grass below, seizing the keys from Simon's hand.
I did not think that Simon would leave me behind. It was not what I would have expected from him, but when I cameout with my swimmers in one hand and saw them both laughing, secret jokes on the verandah, I knew they didn't want me with them.
We won't be long, Simon promised and I could see he felt guilty. I could see he was torn, but Mitchell was already starting the engine, and with one foot in, one foot out, Simon was telling me that next time I could go with them; that they wanted to surf, I would be bored, they'd be back in an hour or so, the car door finally slamming shut on his words.
I watched as Mitchell backed away from the house and then, hitting the dirt road, stalled. He turned the ignition again, revving the engine.Warming it up, he shouted back to me, his words carrying to where I stood. I could not see him but I could imagine his wink, as, with one last rev, he eventually drove off, disappearing down the dip in the road.
And sitting on that verandah, I felt bored and alone.
Go for a walk, Vi said when I told her I had nothing to do.Take Evie with you. My mother always found boredom incomprehensible. It is a luxury that she used to say she longed for, although I doubt whether she ever meant it.
I was sitting on the edge of her bed watching her type. Her ashtray was full and the floor was already covered with papers and books.
Can't you come?I asked her.
She butted out another cigarette and finished her sentence, her thin fingers rapid on the keys. Carriage return. Pause.
And she looked up at me, unsure as to what I had said.
I repeated my question.
She was staring into the distance, thinking of her nextparagraph, working it out, her brow furrowed in concentration.
Half an hour, she told me and she began typing again, furiously, not looking up as I sighed, heavily. Not looking up as I closed the door to her room with what I hoped was a pointed slam.
I knew what half an hour meant. Two hours. Maybe three.
Evie was asleep. Curled up at the bottom of a cupboard, surrounded by old games â Chinese checkers, ludo, cards, faded cardboard that had curled and browned at the edges scattered around her. I did not wake her. I hadn't really wanted her company anyway.
And walking out along the dirt road, I wondered how much of this holiday I would have to spend alone.
It was hot. Hot and still, and beneath my feet the gravel crunched with each step, stones flicking up behind me and hitting the backs of my legs. If I paused for even a moment, the flies were thick. Black and ugly, swarming across my arms and in my eyes.
When I left the road, I didn't really know where I was heading. I just walked towards the line of willows in the distance, a ribbon of dusty green against the faded hills that swelled behind them. I cut through a paddock, lifting up the barbed-wire fence with one hand while I swung my legs through the gap. The ground was uneven and dry, pocked with crusty cow pats. From a distance these paddocks looked like velvet, but close the grass was like straw, sharp against my ankles.
I hadn't expected to end up at the creek. I had just walked with my head down, carefully watching each step, so that I heard it before I saw it. The water trickling over rocks andthe gentle brush of the sagging willow branches across the surface of the stream that wound its way through the sandy banks on either side.
The water was shallow. From where I stood I could see the bottom, smooth pebbles dappled with light.
I looked around quickly before taking my shorts and T-shirt off and stepping slowly out to the middle, the deepest point reaching my waist.
Lying back with my head against one of the rocks, I let the water wash over me. Above, the sky was brilliant blue, spliced into diamonds by the drooping branches of the trees. And as I stared up, high up, I found that I was thinking of Mitchell. With the warmth of the sun on the tops of my legs and the cool water rushing underneath me, I could see him, sitting next to me on the verandah wall, his thigh resting against mine. Dark-brown eyes staring out from the shaggy fringe of blond hair. Square-tipped fingers and the flick of his cigarette out across the verandah. Smooth tanned skin, the straight flat line of his stomach.
And slowly I let myself sink down, deep down, my hair cool and wet down my back.
Coming up for air.
Before sinking down again.
Down to where it was cool and quiet.
And I imagined.
All of it.
With the slow swoop of the branches overhead.
Backwards and forwards.
Skimming the surface of the creek.twenty-one
There was a time, before Evie was born, when I was obsessed with quantifying Vi's love for us.
Who do you love best?I would ask her, over and over again.
When she would tell me that she loved us equally, I would become all the more insistent.
But you must love one of us more, I would say, determined to push her towards the answer that I feared, determined to make her say that it was Simon, Simon who was loved best, Simon who was the favourite.
Sitting under her desk, I used to take out the photo albums and look back over a past that had little meaning for me, despite the fact that it was my past. Faded black and white prints of Vi and Bernard on their wedding day, Vi awkward in a white hat with feathers, gloves and a tiny handbag. Bernard with his arm around her, smiling with the full force of his charm into the camera. Their first house together, picnics on the headland, Vi lying back on a rug, Bernard feeding her strawberries. I would turn the pages rapidly, thetissue thin and dry between my fingers, until I came to the ones I wanted.
The baby photos.
Pages and pages of Simon.
Two of me.
See, I would tell her, crawling out from where I had been sitting, tugging at her hand so that she would be forced to stop typing.
She would look down momentarily, uncertain as to what it was that I was showing her, and then turn back to what she was doing. But it wouldn't stop me. I would count them out for her: twenty-eight pictures of Simon, five of me.
When she finally realised that I wasn't going to let it go, she would sit me down and tell me about first and second children, her voice patient and well modulated. A voice she might have learnt from a family therapy book.It's not that we loved you less, she would explain.But when you were born, Simon was only two and we just didn't have the time.