Sometimes, late in the day, the house becomes so glary with light it is as if the air above the sea has drifted over the cliffs and floated a hundred metres inland. In the upstairs room, cluttered with half-piles of unsorted washing, tumbled always by the sound of the churn of the waves coming up the street, Richie is saying something through a mouth half-full of hamburger.
Nadia’s midstep on the stairs from the carport after doing the shopping. Her face is red from the exertion, she’s wide-skirted, with hair pulled tight to the bun. What is he saying? she wonders as she continues to climb. Is he speaking to Emma, or to me now that he can hear me coming?
She enters the room, slinging the shopping bag onto the bench.
I’m goin’ garshing, she hears.
Emma’s daddy’s goin’ garshing.
You got batteries for the light? Nadia asks. Remember the batteries, Richie, otherwise you’ll be home in ten minutes with no fish and grumpy.
Yair yair I got ’em, he says, the last burger-lump visibly sinking through his handsome unshaven throat. I remember, he says, clearly now, and with a grin. No batteries no bloody garfish.
He gets up off the couch, steps through the chicane of coffee table, DVD stacks, clothes racks. The upper storey is almost silver with the salt of ocean light, gravlaxed, with the clean unmisspellable alphabet of the sea’s horizon in everything.
I’ll take the phone, and Emma.
Hear that, Em, Nadia says, hefting the shopping bag one last time to the narrow cupboard they use as a larder. He’s taking you.
I know, I know. See ya.
The girl was up and jumping, jiggling and skirring, circling her father’s held-out palm, which signalled ‘calm down’ and ‘just a minny’.
See ya, mummy, see ya, she cried.
When they’d gone Nadia pushed through the streaks of light to sit at the desk in her little study. Looking sideways into the oval mirror of the antique dresser Richie had salvaged from a demo, she let her hair fall loose then retied it. She looked blotchy, so she turned to face herself front on. In the heart of the dresser’s dark timber frame she saw she was flushed from the shopping, and buxom too, in her favourite Radiohead T-shirt.
Buxom. The word came unbidden to her on a gust of humour. It made her laugh through her nose and its ‘x’ triggered another word, allodoxia, which she’d recently made a note of in her workbook. Now allodoxia floated through her brain, its rhythm and meaning caught brightly in her interest, before it too kept going, as if on the sea breeze.
Just as soon as allodoxia passed another word came on uninvited, capacious, which sounded to her like something out of one of her old, and very pretentious, first drafts. She stared at the mirror and thought of the days when she used to write her own stuff. Smiling now, she thought her breasts looked less like capacious and more like two blown balloons from a children’s party, wobbling there in the reflection. But—now she was smiling even wider—that fact alone wouldn’t stop her getting down to work. Any straightening-out, any reupholstering or beautification would have to wait.
It was the work she liked most. Even when the books she was writing about were bad it was better than cleaning the shower recesses of couples absent at the mining boom. In fact ‘bad’ had ceased to be a dis in her critical lexicon, the secret lexicon she could really only hint at in the small but polite circle of the publications for which she wrote. How could she express that the books she really hated were the ones that were too obviously well made, the ones that seemed to come out of privilege and head towards seamlessness even as you read them, the ones hellbent on the covering of tracks? When she walked in the bush she could say to herself that she preferred marks left on the trunks, skeins of bark weeping off the branches, iridescent stripes on the melaleucas, the trails blazed. But the truth was that books like that were rare. They took courage. At the others, no matter what she later wrote about them, she would roll her eyes. They were the ones she thought of as bad, not bad like her parents would describe Richie as, but worse. These days the novels she loved were the ones where she could become engrossed not only in the plot and the characters but also in the madeness of the thing.
Now there was a word. Madeness. As it came to her she liked it instantly. In its awkwardness it felt like it meant something. The books that had madeness were the vulnerable ones, she thought, the risk-takers, the organic fruit, flawed but with flavour, and yet to be shipped off with tiny oval-shaped stickers to the supermarket chains.
She sometimes wondered if anyone ever picked up on this attitude lying underneath the things she wrote. It was a very difficult thing to say. Like when she mentioned in passing to her parents that she was pregnant to Richie. She knew they’d be shocked, not because he was excessively handsome, not even because he didn’t have a demonstrably sweet and caring nature, but just because he was a non-verbal communicator, plainly unacademic, hopelessly inept in predicaments such as those when he had to meet his girlfriend’s parents. Added to that he had no family money behind him.
So they’d been shocked on cue, as if tragedy had befallen the family rather than the joy of a potential new grandchild. He doesn’t suit you, her mother had said, readying the thermos and sandwiches for a football match in Geelong. Nadia knew what that was code for: he’s beneath you, not quite right. They weren’t words that could be used, however, so ‘he doesn’t suit you’ was the palliative. The lid of the thermos was screwed on tight, the sandwiches tucked expertly into the basket.
It was clear to everyone that Richie loved the ocean but he would have had to be a marine archaeologist to make her parents happy. Instead he was into diving and fishing, scrap and refuse, heavy machinery and DVDs. Back when Nadia first met him he was a cocaine-snorting, vodka-glugging, drink-driving machine. Together they’d danced themselves across the back paddock bonfire-of-a-party in the hills behind Lorne. She noticed his beautiful eyes, his even more beautiful grin. She’d also noted his wordlessness, his separateness, his sense of danger. He had no big wave story to tell, no music festival anecdotes, no seeming need, or ability, to sell his case. But he’d done stuff. She was sure of that. When she’d woken alongside him in the back of the ute the next morning she smiled quietly. There was a mist in the forest, the dawn was crisp and cold. It was what you might look for in a novel: a fresh disjuncture, an open seam, a gaping truth, the tang of the real. That’s what she felt lying there next to his sleeping face, and like the ridges of the ute tray under her hip there was no budging the feeling, no changing it, no matter how she squirmed.
She opened her laptop. She had reviewed the first volume of Günter Grass’s memoirs almost three years ago, and now she was in the middle of the second. The first volume had been published to much controversy because in it the great darling of the German postwar left had fessed up to being a cunt after all. A member of the Waffen SS. But what had shocked and appalled his fans and acolytes had only excited Nadia. Grass had been perfect grass until then, verdant and shiny, ethically green, wild and healthy. She’d found him too perfect to be interesting, too rational, and even despite the audacity of his rampant and pungent novels, too damn neat. It was with the publication of the first volume of memoir that his skeleton could finally be seen, the skull on his left shoulder, the flaw in the thing, the whole thing, his entirely fantastic arc. It was clear now that like everyone else he too would crash in the sea. She had swallowed the book whole. When the second volume had appeared she immediately put her hand up to her editor. How would it be this time? Would he have more to reveal, or would he pedal his honesty back? Whatever the case she would enjoy the task now that Mr Grass was finally a man.
She turned back to her desk and opened the hardback. Outside it was spring and she could hear the raven beaks clicking in the garden, cracking the white heath currants. The second Grass memoir had turned out to be an ingenious device. In it he semi-fictionalised himself in order to gather his children around a table and let them take prolonged and detailed pot shots at the way they’d been brought up. In this way Grass exposed himself as if through the facets of a prism, representing his life as a father and husband, as a family man who was also a famous author, by imagining how each of his children might tell the story. By this method he was crucified, ridiculed, eulogised, and made human. It was the things poking out, the misfolded collar, the petty domestic foible, that sang the story of this era of his life, when the demands of a young family repeatedly smashed the author’s rarefied hermetic tendency. It was warts and all, and all in the making. That’s what Nadia liked most about the second volume, the moltenness, the volcano still shaping the plain, the world being made out in the open.
She picked her way through a chapter, amused and entertained, annotating as she went. When she felt her usual urge for a cup of tea she got up and pushed back through the coloured doorway strips to the kitchen, the book still in her hand.
When Emma had been born premature and she had to spend six weeks in the special care nursery in the hospital there was an undertow of ‘we told you so’ about her parents’ reaction. When Richie’s mother Liz had caught the train down from Melbourne, however, her reaction was the opposite extreme. She was distraught, on Nadia and Richie’s behalf, and immediately in love with the tiny child. She would sit by the humidicrib and sing to Emma for hours. Blithe little tunes, things with the feel of 1940s Hollywood, though to Nadia it always felt as if she made them up on the spot.
But her own mum and dad always stayed a step away. As if the birth was embarrassingly imperfect, as if little Emma was imperfect, a thing produced out of schedule, in a shape unforeseen, somehow too messy, too weak, not of their kin. After their tense visits were over Nadia would sit in her dressing gown beside Emma and cry quietly through the night. The nurse on duty would bring her cups of tea. There was talk of post-natal depression but she knew it wasn’t that. Instead she was sitting there wondering about the shape of her own heart. How could I possibly be of their issue, she’d wonder. Were her feelings, her feelings as the mother of this beautiful little child, destined for cold atrophy too? Would her love also become as stretched and thinned out and awful as her parents?
She’d wonder these things and watch Emma through the perspex, right through the night. She loved the way her little daughter curled up like a leaf, then stretched, her arms flung out over her head as if she were floating on water. She was pink and perfectly small, and she wore a crocheted blue and yellow beanie that Richie’s mother had bought in the op-shop across the road from the hospital on the day she’d arrived. When a few days later Nadia’s own mother visited with booties and a beanie she’d bought at Myers, Nadia was relieved that they were quite obviously too big, more the size of a ‘normal’ baby. Even so, the tag attached to them was almost bigger than the garments themselves. Thanks Mum, they’re sweet, she’d said. Then Nadia asked her mother what childbirth had been like for her. She just came right out and asked, and before she knew what was happening it was too late to retrieve the words.
Her mother took it in her stride, said she couldn’t remember. It was different in those days, she told Nadia. For one, your father was away at Harvard when your brother was born. But no, I don’t remember having you at all.
For a moment after her mother had said this Nadia saw a gate sprung slightly ajar at the bottom of their family garden. She could leave now, she realised, slip through the gap, with Emma in the perspex box tucked under her arm. Once they were through, they could scramble together up the overgrown embankment, through the unruly grass, onto the freeway cutting. By the time they had reached the path up onto the overpass they would have passed three emergency telephones without once needing to make a call. She would have jettisoned the humidicrib in the bushes and when they reached the train station Emma would be a grown girl, in jeans and a jumper, still holding her mummy’s hand but well on the way to freedom and independence.
So what was her mother getting at with that piece of non-information? I don’t remember having you at all. Carefully Nadia retracted the lid of the humidicrib as she’d been taught by the nurses, lay the new beanie and booties gently on the change-table beside her, and reached inside. Lovingly she picked up Emma and, settling back into her chair, pushed aside her gown, pulled up her T-shirt and placed her daughter on her breast. Emma’s grip was strong. Nadia could feel her mother watching and she looked up from the suckling and stared hard into her face. But her mother’s gaze, and any chance of continuing the conversation, was quickly averted.
As she worked away and it began to get dark, Nadia wondered about the weather outside. Occasionally a loud spat of wind would hit the house. She could feel the sky becoming pent-up. When the bright salt-light through the window above her desk had begun to purple and gloam she wondered how the garfishing was going. She knew it was a case of the less wind the better. Richie would be out waist deep in the water, the net in one hand, the light in the other. Occasionally he’d look up to watch the sky developing in the north-west. Emma would be sitting back on the beach. She would have skipped and cartwheeled when they got there but now, as the dark came in, the purple into the sky, she’d be sitting still on the sand with her knees bunched up, watching the beam of her father’s gar light growing stronger on the water. Pretty soon that was all she would see. The light like a wobbly pool in the darkness. Her daddy moving it gently, side to side, as he walked back and forth through the currents of the cove.
Her time to write was limited and precious. She shook out her hair again and tried to refocus. This time she let it hang loose. She got up, made herself a second pot of tea, lit a cigarette, sat back down again. Finally she got on a roll with what she wanted to say about Grass. She found herself describing him as insouciant, one of the words she’d first fallen in love with as a teenager. These days insouciant made her think of Muriel Spark, and even though she loved Muriel Spark’s writing she’d hadn’t used the word herself for years. She’d been careful not to use it, precisely because she loved it so much when she was young. But this time there was no alternative.
In the keeping-back of the truth and in its eventual deliverance, in his addiction to linguistic and cultural renewal, Grass has always been insouciant. And like summer rain or winter sun a creative energy such as his will always be a welcome way to break the mould.
She was quite happy with the summer rain and winter sun but even so the words still didn’t approach the truth of the pleasure she was finding in the book. Capturing that would be like rearranging the furniture in the empty houses she cleaned. It’d be like changing the pictures, repainting the expensive living areas. Perhaps in another life she might be able to manage it but in this life it was not what she was employed to do.
Outside the wind died off and then kicked again. She rested back on her chair and sighed. She thought of Richie, moving slowly through the water below the bluff, with Emma watching him. She could never know what it was like for the two of them when they were alone without her. She did know, however, that between the two most important people in her life the words she loved the most were not needed. They went unspoken.
Stubbing out the cigarette she took up her pen again. There are all kinds of silences in the world, she wrote in her notebook. Some of them are filled with words, others are maintained by them.
She laid the pen aside. Pressing a key on the laptop, she felt its glow on her face. In those six weeks at the special care nursery she’d marvelled at the combination of empathy and technological savvy among the nurses. All that high emergency work, all that expensive monitoring and remembering, all that love. Because that’s what it was. A nurse from Bannockburn called Karen had told her that in the old days there was one big pot of community breast milk in the nursery. The wet nurses would all express into it and if any mothers were having trouble feeding they could take a bottle from the pot. These days things were a little more controlled. There was a rhythm of beeps and blips and infra-red lights to keep them company during the long nights, which, in its own way, was more important than a communal pot of milk. But Karen told Nadia she wished they could have both. The best of both worlds, she called it. When it was time for Emma to come home and Nadia started writing again she began to change the way she went about it. She’d only ever written straight onto the screen but now she made a point of using both the page and the screen. She’d scrawl long drawn-out notes on paper, even full paragraphs sometimes. Her writing was better for it, she knew that, it had a reality it never had before. She still deferred to the sense of efficiency that writing on the screen gave her but like the communal pot of breast milk in the nursery she saw no good reason why she couldn’t have the best of both worlds.
As the dark lowered down she pictured the stars above the cliff track, even as she sat working at her notebook and the screen. She found it comforting the way the stars appeared anew every night, the way they symbolised what was being hidden through the day. That’s what her parents didn’t understand, she thought. It was also what Günter Grass now knew. How darkness can be more revealing than light, how silence can be more eloquent than words.
Two hours later she was worried. They were late, it had been dark for too long. Through the window the warm gusts of air unnerved her. She closed the laptop, got up from the desk and made her way downstairs, through the carport and up the short driveway. She headed along the road for the cliffs and by the time she got into the tea-tree it occurred to her that the gusts only felt warm by contrast with the houndingly cold winter they’d had. At times, as they’d lain at night on the couch watching DVDs, the noise level of the gales coming off the strait outside was even a challenge to the remote. They’d have to have the volume up full bore just to hear the dialogue. More than once, as the house shook about her like a boat in high seas, she’d thought of ‘Typhoon’, the Conrad story she studied as an undergraduate. The chaos of the weather, the way it threatened to randomly throw everything upside down, had her gripping the couch arms. Richie would laugh at her when she did that. He was far more comfortable with the prospect that everything could come tumbling down. It was as if when the world was finally levelled he would somehow come into his own. He mightn’t be able to spell or be eloquent or show a paper qualification of any sort in the current circumstances but he would always understand the grammar of unexpected change. It was what he thrived on, why he liked working on demolitions. If there ever came a time when the days and nights of the world ceased to be boring, Richie would be smiling. His eyes shining. Like they were that night when they met in the hills behind Lorne.
The thing was though that he knew Emma hadn’t had her dinner, he knew also that she had her six-monthly check up with the paediatrician the very next morning. He may have thrived on change in his own life but she knew he had never wanted anything other than to keep Emma’s world stable. He was never insouciant with her, not like Günter Grass, not like Muriel Spark. Not even like Nadia herself, whose upbringing had, among other things, given her the privilege of a sentimental yearning to be free. Richie had no such repetitious desire. In many ways, despite his difficulties in work and the ordinary run of life, he was free. In his body at least, even if not in his economic circumstances. That’s what she’d sensed immediately, why she fell in love with him in the first place.
She descended the slope off the part of the cliff they called Lands End and crossed over a low creekless gully. Clouds kept serrying away across the sea in front of her, covering the stars, hurrying into the south-east. The branches beside the tracks had no choice but to bend and whisper.
She was hit with the scenario out of nowhere. Perhaps, she thought, perhaps Emma hadn’t been content to sit and watch the gar light from back on the beach after all. Perhaps she’d got up, unnerved by the purple of the sky and the smell of the storm in the air, and waded out into the water herself. On the flurries of the wind her calls of ‘Daddy’ were swept away. Nadia knew how the lightness of her little girl’s body was nothing to even the gentlest swell of the ocean, let alone the momentum and force of bigger waves. She’d be like a leaf in a rip, a frail item at the mercy of the sea. Nadia saw a single image then, of her knocked off her feet, swallowing water, her tiny fingertips still reaching for the air, the rest of her gone under …
Nadia hurried up out of the low gully and up again onto the high cliff. When she herself was six she’d become lost at the circus that came to Anglesea every summer. For two hours she’d wandered, not crying, not even looking distressed enough for someone to ask her if she was lost. When they eventually found her, her parents had had the most awful row. They had obviously been traumatised by those long two hours in which no-one had reported a lost child. The worst case scenario had roared through their heads and each of them blamed the other when the relief had come. Nadia had never heard her mother scream like she had at her father in the car going home, not before or since.
Now as she hurried along the cliff the sound of her mother’s voice returned. From the back seat it had terrified her more than being lost among the knees and thighs of the crowd, which, strangely enough, hadn’t scared her at all. She’d wandered the circus without a thought of danger and had at one stage even dared to duck around behind the Big Top to where the animals were kept and the circus people slept in their caravans. There was a strong smell back there she remembered, a dry musty smell among the cages that she had never forgotten. Now, as the memory of the smell came again to her, it made her think not only of the circus and the long grass around the cages but of the way a mother and father must trust each other so completely with the children they share. Suddenly this struck her as a difficult thing to do. In so many aspects of life Richie could be described as a loose cannon but never, up until now, with Emma. So why on earth had he left her back on the beach, all alone in the wind and purple darkness?
She rushed along the track through gusting trees, thinking that it would have been quicker in the car. At the same time though she was terrified at the thought of arriving at all. Eventually, with only one more headland to go before the cove where she knew Richie liked to fish, the weather seemed to calm. Glancing south across the water she noticed a scattering of watery stars appearing and with them she became conscious of her phone. It had been lodged in the back pocket of her skirt all the while and now she could hear it ringing. She fished it out and without stopping in her tracks punched the button and looked for who it was. She didn’t recognise the number. But then it twigged. Richie’s mum, Liz. But she never rang her mobile, only the landline. Nadia’s heart sank.
Why her heart should sink so suddenly was something that she spent a good deal of time thinking about in the days and weeks afterwards. It made no sense that Richie’s mum, living alone in her flat in Melbourne, would have been the first one notified of the tragedy. But who knows what scrap of paper would be found, what identifying item would spill first out of Richie’s old fishing bag on the beach? That was what Nadia was imagining as she stepped off the track and into the hush of moonah bushes to answer the call.
The wind had dropped. It was dark, even darker in the trees. The weather was now uncertain, but there was little or no chance that anyone else would come walking along the cliff top to interrupt or overhear the call.
It is so hard to know oneself, she wrote in her notebook later. It takes time. I always suspected it was difficult but now I wonder sometimes if it’s not impossible. Write a story about this.
In the following months she sat at her desk more than she ever had. She had not written a story of her own since she was at uni, which basically meant that she never had. But now, whenever Richie slipped a DVD into the player at night, she would slip off into the study on her own.
Hello Nadia darling.
The reception had been surprisingly clear.
Yes. Is that you, Liz?
It is, love. Look, sorry to ring you, it’s probably bath time for Em, but I’ve just had the most wonderful idea. For Richie’s birthday. You know how he loves those GoPro cameras, the ones you put on your head and that? Well I’ve got a little bit of my pension put aside and I thought that the two of us could pitch in and …
She had dropped the phone to her side. The wind had vanished completely. She was about to start crying, from sheer relief, but also from some other feeling as well. She stared out to sea through the moonah, took a breath, and listened for a moment to the phone still talking in the air. Richie’s mum, outlining her sweet inspiration to the sea.
Eventually the voice stopped and she brought the phone back up to her ear. Sorry Liz, she said, I didn’t quite catch all that. She turned, and at a gentler pace began walking on towards the cove.