Some mornings the light burns a hole in my eyes that I call living. I think of you trussing river stones to your pockets, one for every unwritten book, one for Vanessa, one for Leonard and one for Vita. This happens when my daughter is away and the whole house swells like a tidal shore. Through the plate-glass windows leaf shadows flicker on the shiny parquetry floor.
I picked her up last night, her hair in a French braid. Her father spoke briefly about splitting the cost of her braces in the car park of a fast-food chain. And it was as if a barrier were being broken down between us; me swapping the anxiety of a mother with an infant for one whose child has bloomed into puberty. Now she needs me at a distance. Now I can walk away and be the weekend parent if that’s what she chooses. I told them both this. No more court orders to defend. No more absurd claims or imputations. No magistrate to prevail over me like a headmaster imposing his churlish intimidations.
(For what man doesn’t know the empty satisfaction of winning and losing? How the ability to hurt can be a weapon!)
Never mind dad or the boys who tried to bully me. I knew a lot of them at school but they were not my friends.
Claire and I would walk by the river at dusk and on weekends, dreaming up a suffragette revolution. We’d practise throwing stones from the footbridge into the canal just to see who could throw the furthest. Smooth pebbles with streaks of quartz flung into the stream. We’d listen to the sound of the fall: like a hoof clop or the lob of a ball.
Something her father excels in is ball games. He’s not partial to cricket or tennis but he enjoys competitive squash. When I say I’m not going to fight any more he shrugs with exaggerated charm. Then he tells her to hug me. At first she is reluctant: the little girl whom I’d grafted to my hip and carried through parks and forests wrapped in my arms. Nowadays I am banished from her room. Her hands draw imaginary walls, capsules that she calls her ‘personal space’. After all I’m the everyday parent, the one who makes up the rules. I’m not the abstraction or the fantasy. I’m the caretaker who tells her to clean her teeth and checks her maths homework.
It is after sunset but the sky is soaked with dark light. Traffic swirls around an island of shops. Teenagers are eating chips, burgers and the salt wafts from cardboard cartons. Her arms are crossed, she hasn’t budged but just this once he prompts her. She slides into my body, into my arms.
The first time she crawled up my belly she was blind in the middle of the night, sensing the milk of her first feed. She fumbled for my nipple and sucked. I didn’t even have time to buzz the nurse for help. My womb ached, the skin like a paper bag, creased by nine months of carrying her before the surgeon’s cut.
He came to visit me the morning after her birth, bleary-eyed, his hair matted like kelp. He kept his distance by the side of my bed. Then he left quickly for his office in the city. I locked myself in the bathroom and sobbed. (The act was symbolic; the freedom of my mind being shut and bolted.) He hadn’t thought to ask if I’d showered. I had the feeling that if I ate one more mouthful my bowels would rip and the staples that fastened my layers would burst apart. Nevertheless, the ward staff served a breakfast tray. I tried to shower but couldn’t stand straight for the pain. The saline bag connected to a drip in one hand meant that I couldn’t properly lather soap. I passed clots like aspic that smelt tart.
(V, how did you fathom so immeasurably the heat and violence of a poet’s heart caught and entangled in her body?)
That evening he rocked her in his arms for a few hours and watched football in the TV reception. But when he left the Maternity ward she wouldn’t settle. I swear she never did. Once he held her in his big warm hands she was never the same.
There are days when he isn’t shooting me down, when we can joke about the trouble our daughter has caused: a bond that can’t be broken as we grow old. Those days are rare but maybe this is one of them.
She’s loquacious as ever on the drive home. She tells me she wants to get to know me and that I don’t really know her. For the first time she asks me if I like being a writer. I say that it’s not always pleasurable. (In truth, it is barely conceivable when I am washing the dishes and putting her to bed!) ‘Well at least it’s fun some of the time, Mum,’ she quips, approvingly.
The radio plays ‘Reckless’, a song by James Reyne I used to listen to when I first tripped backwards, over my heart. We drive past the lap pool where I used to swim and I think of you passing time at the crossroads, chattering nonsense, the lucidity of prose. I could taste the unwritten words and drown in the warm air of evening.
We enter the driveway and I tell her I’m glad she’s home. I reverse, power steer past ugly cement bricks into our narrow berth. I’ll always miss our house with its coal hearths, the timber verandah, the old cherry blossom tree, the bones of our cat and our terrier buried beneath the maple and the flaky, termite-ridden jacaranda.
She tells me she can’t remember the past any more. What if the past were happier than the present, she asks? What would be the point of remembering? Last spring when our rabbit perished from a virus there were no tears. It was as if she had already anticipated the grief, and I was the one left sobbing.
There is a small anxiety when she’s not here. It’s like the feeling you have of being all over the place, and not writing. Making a mess of things, when there isn’t the time to lose oneself in words.
(My dearest V, there are no voices speaking over the pain of existence, the birds speak English and are monolingual. I have never dreamed of a dead mother …)
But maybe I cannot live without words. Each one maddening as a stone thrown into the river, heavy as death, polished and weathered, breaking the mirror of this world before it remakes and I see with clarity.
I stop myself from the blur of this confession. We have supper and soon after it’s her bedtime. I sit down, numb for maybe half an hour; stupid, shocked and exhausted by the evening’s measures. (And it’s not a pose. No, I’m beyond worrying about doing nothing about dirty dishes and laundry!) I can feel the cold canals of my youth, the leaden river percolating, bilge water seeping, scarcely … the first sentence.