WHEN CLARA FINALLY arrives, she is not only half an hour late, she has also brought her dog with her. It leaps from the car, Clara only just managing to hold onto the lead as she uses the strength in her arms to get herself out, her scarves catching in the door as she shuts it behind her.
‘Fuck it,' Sinead mutters as she and her daughter wave hello from the front steps of their house. ‘I told her not to bring that animal.'
The dog leaps up the stairs and Clara just lets her go. She licks Zoe all over her face and nips at Sinead's hand.
‘Down,' Sinead instructs, but it's useless. ‘We can't take her.' She looks at Clara, who is gathering Zoe in folds of chiffon, and kissing her on the top of her head. ‘You know she has nits,' she adds, but Clara continues to kiss her granddaughter.
‘I don't have nits,' Zoe says. ‘You combed them out last night.'
‘I didn't know you could catch nits orally.' Clara, who is oblivious to Zoe's attempts to squirm out of her hold, winks. ‘I'm sure they taste delicious.' She turns to Sinead. ‘Shall we go?'
First, there is the matter of the dog. It pants, hot-breathed, next to them. They cannot take her, Sinead explains wearily. ‘We're looking at houses. The real-estate agents won't want her inside.'
‘Well, I'll tie her up outside,' Clara replies.
‘I don't want her in the car.'
She'll be fine, Clara promises. Besides, if she has to take her all the way back, they'll be so late it won't be worth going. ‘And I know you don't want me leaving her at your house.'
‘Come on,' Zoe urges, sick of waiting.
‘On one condition.' Sinead has her arms folded across her chest. ‘You pay for my car to be cleaned if she's sick.'
‘Of course I would, darling.' Clara has already opened the back door and let the dog leap in on top of Zoe. ‘You know you don't even need to ask.'
It is only an hour's drive to Bundeena, but Clara's late arrival means they have to ring the agent and let them know they won't be on time. Clara sees no need. ‘It's their job to wait for us,' she says as she opens her window wide to the dust of the road. And then, because Sinead is clearly fed up, she takes the mobile phone and makes the call.
‘They'll be there all afternoon,' she says as she hangs up. Pulling the sun visor down, she checks her lipstick, rubbing at where it has bled into the corners of her mouth. ‘What a glorious day.' She looks across at her daughter driving. ‘How many houses did you ask them to show us?'
There are only four available for rent, and only one that appears suitable. The others are either too expensive or too run down, Sinead explains. Clara nods, flipping up the visor.
‘There's a couple for sale as well.' Clara takes a scrap of paper out of her bag, and looks at the addresses scribbled across it. Sinead knows Clara has looked at the places for sale before. She is always talking about buying a shack at Bundeena, although she has no intention of doing so. Sinead's plan is to rent a place together, somewhere cheap that they can take it in turns to use. With other people on the lease as well, it will be affordable for everyone.
‘So long as it's only one other person,' Clara insists. ‘I'd like to know I could have long stretches of time down there if I need it.'
When Sinead protests about the cost, Clara is no longer interested. She smoothes out her scrap of paper. ‘We'll just look at the ones for sale, then.'
‘Why?' Sinead asks. ‘You've seen them before. You have no intention of buying one of them.'
‘You never know.' Clara smiles.
‘The agents must hate you,' Sinead says.
‘It's not their job to hate me,' Clara tells her. ‘It's their job to like me.' She looks to the back seat, where Zoe is quiet, her cheek pressed against the window, her eyes fixed on the blur of trees, houses and cars, rushing past in a stream of colour. Beside her, Clara's dog lies with its nose resting on Zoe's bare knee.
‘Are you all right, darling?'
It is unclear whether Clara is talking to her granddaughter or her dog, and Zoe remains silent.
‘Are you doing your boredom trick?' Sinead asks, looking at her daughter in the rear-vision mirror.
Without taking her eyes from the window, Zoe nods.
Sinead explains: ‘She likes to experience the boredom. She doesn't want to read or talk or listen to music – it's to see how long she can go just doing nothing.'
Clara thinks it's marvellous. ‘You're meditating, darling,' and she turns to the backseat again. ‘Do you know what meditation is?'
Of course she does. Zoe's best friend has an uncle who is a Buddhist. ‘He meditates. He says that if you can interrupt someone when they are meditating then they aren't really meditating.'
‘Then you weren't really meditating.' Sinead laughs.
Zoe just rolls her eyes and turns back to the window. ‘I never said I was.'
As they leave the highway and drive into the national park surrounding Bundeena, the change is dramatic. Theirs is the only car now, and out the window there is nothing but bush: blue-grey eucalypts, sandy scrub, delicate ferns, gnarled bottlebrush, and the last remaining stalks of Gymea lilies piercing the sky. The road narrows, twisting up and down hills, pressing in close to the rocky outcrops that delineate the roll of the landscape.
‘It's beautiful, isn't it?' Sinead opens her window, breathing in the sharpness of the air. She wants her mother to also appreciate the beauty, to show how much she, too, loves it. ‘And so close to the city. That's what's incredible. Less than an hour and you're here.' She needs Clara for her plan to work. She could take out a lease with friends, but if she has Clara on board, it's one less person she will have to find, and she and her mother will have some flexibility in any timeshare arrangement they establish. It is the perfect way to have a holiday house, she thinks, and she smiles as she envisages long weekends swimming, relaxing in the garden and having friends to stay.
But, as they turn into Bundeena, she finds herself disappointed. Just slightly. And as the disappointment descends, she is aware that this is how she usually feels when she comes here. It is more suburban than she wants it to be. There are brick-veneer houses with huge extensions and a new development on the main street, the construction noisy, the scaffolding high enough to threaten something substantial. But she says nothing.
‘It's a perfect day for an ice cream,' she tells Zoe.
‘Magnum?' Zoe seizes on the offer.
‘I don't know about that,' Sinead replies. ‘We'll look at the houses, have lunch, maybe a swim and then decide.'
‘Bloody hell. Do we have to do all that first?'
Clara frowns slightly as she opens the door to the noise of the construction, and stepping out onto the pavement she adjusts her scarves, the chiffon floating flimsy in the stiffness of the sea breeze. ‘I do wish you wouldn't say "bloody",' she tells Zoe.
Sinead grins. ‘Oh, for God's sake. There are far worse things she could say.'
‘Well, I don't like it.'
‘So how many bloody houses are we going to look at?' Zoe asks.
‘Four,' Sinead tells her.
‘Bloody hell. We'd better start bloody looking then, or we'll be here all bloody day.'
Clara ignores her, concentrating instead on the pictures of properties for sale outside the real-estate agent's office. She taps on the glass and the agent, who clearly remembers her, glances up and waves.
‘Kevin.' She smiles sweetly as he comes out to greet her, and then introduces him to Sinead and Zoe.
‘So, which ones are we interested in today?' he asks, and Clara runs through the list of shacks for sale.
‘But first we want to look at the rental houses,' Sinead adds, handing him her own list.
Sitting out on the pavement, Zoe flicks stones at the tyres of Sinead's car. Clara's dog hangs its head out the window, tongue out, a sticky thread of saliva running from its teeth down the glass.
‘Pepper,' Zoe calls to her, and the dog barks. ‘Pepper,' she calls again, and the dog barks a little louder.
ACROSS THE ROAD a group of teenage girls walk down towards the ferry. Their clothes are too tight, their skirts too short. One has a T-shirt with ‘Sex Kitten' written in hot pink across her breasts; another has ‘Foxy' across her backside. Zoe watches them, and then exchanges a look with Sinead. ‘Girlie girls,' she mouths.
Sinead nods in agreement, the sight of the teenagers only deepening her vague disappointment. Joining Zoe by the car, she looks up the street at the supermarket and bottle shop and across to the construction site, before finally turning to the sliver of blue water at the end of the road.
With a map clutched in one hand, Clara makes her way down the stairs towards them. She holds onto the railing, and places one foot carefully in front of the other. It has only been three weeks since her operation and she has recovered remarkably well. In another three weeks she will start the chemotherapy, and Sinead knows this will be hard. She has seen Clara's friends go through similar treatments and knows how ill they became.
When the cancer was first diagnosed, Sinead went with her mother to the surgeon's rooms, ready to take notes.
‘I won't remember anything,' Clara had said, and Sinead had promised she would be there, keeping a record of everything he said.
High above street level, she could see out across the city, awash with rain, low clouds pressing down on the rooftops, trees sodden and swaying in the wind. In front of her, the surgeon turned his pen, point down, point up, over and over again, as he listened to Clara tell him ‘how she understood the situation to be'.
When she finished by saying that she hoped it would just be a lumpectomy and not a mastectomy, he rolled his eyes.
‘You have been reading too many women's weeklies,' he said. ‘There is no such thing as a lumpectomy. What we do,' and he leaned forward as he drew a breast on the paper in front of him, ‘is take a slice of the pie.' He outlined a triangle in the corner of the breast. ‘We need to get out the cherry, but to do so we have to take an entire piece of the pie.' He pushed the paper across the desk, and Clara pushed it back to him.
The surgeon ignored it. He reached for his file and told her he needed to ask her a few questions.
Clara listed them all: blood pressure, HRT, Epilim and anti-depressants. Sinead had no idea about the last one. She glanced sideways at her mother, who kept her gaze fixed on the doctor.
‘Not for years.' Clara sounded surprised.
No. When did she begin?
‘When I was about thirteen.'
‘Pregnancies?' The doctor scrawled notes without looking up.
‘Four.' And Clara hesitated for a moment. ‘Well, two I carried to full term. And two I terminated.'
Again, Sinead hadn't known.
‘No,' Clara told him.
He wanted to clarify the names of each of the medications she was on, and Clara searched for her record of the information.
‘You can email me,' the surgeon told her, as she covered his desk with scraps of paper.
Shamefaced, she gathered them up, crushing them into her bag.
‘Now let me explain' – he sat back in his chair, head resting against the leather – ‘the exact procedure.'
This was the moment when Sinead was expected to start writing, and she opened her book and waited, pen in hand.
‘Ah, the little scribe.' The doctor turned to her. His eyes were sharp blue, his smile supercilious. ‘Shall I speak slowly?'
She kept her gaze directly on him as she told him there was no need. ‘We'll tell you when we need you to slow down.'
‘It's important that you listen to me, and to me alone. I don't want you reading those women's magazines, or looking on Google or talking to your friends. You would be amazed at the misinformation people manage to latch onto, vulnerable people, vulnerable women in particular.'
‘And who else, may I ask, do you see other than vulnerable women?' Clara rose in her chair. She had been a beauty once, strong, fine-featured, with a patrician nose and a long slender neck. Beneath the smudged make-up, caked powder and those endless chiffon scarves that were always slightly grubby at the edges, there was a glimpse of her old dignity. Sinead reached across and took her mother's hand, but Clara brushed her aside and stood.
‘This is not going to work,' she told the doctor. ‘Thank you for your time.' The shake in her voice was barely evident.
Quickly following her mother's lead, Sinead also got up, nodding hastily at the doctor before she, too, turned to the door.
Outside the surgery, they didn't dare look at each other. They were both white-faced as they walked quickly, and silently, to the lift. It was only when the doors closed that Sinead finally spoke. He was a pig. She was so proud of Clara. How dare he treat her like that?
‘Oh God,' Clara said. ‘I left my X-rays in there.'
She wanted Sinead to go up and get them for her.
‘I need them.' She was panicked now. ‘I'm going to have to find someone else to get this out.' She touched her breast. ‘And I don't want to waste time messing around with getting the scans from one person to the next.'
The doctor was in the reception when Sinead returned. Neither of them acknowledged each other. Hating herself for blushing, Sinead leaned across the desk and whispered her request to the woman who answered the phones. Without a word, the surgeon handed the envelope over to her, nodding at his next patient as he did so.
Downstairs, Clara sat on a vinyl bench by the elevator. Her whole body had shrunk, her scarves were tangled around her neck, and her make-up formed a dark circle around her left eye. She looked as old and as ill as she was.
‘I've got them,' Sinead reassured her, holding up the X-rays.
Clara didn't even seem to notice. ‘You would think that all my years as an active feminist, a woman who had a seat in parliament as an independent, all of that -' she waved her arm and then let it fall to her side – ‘you would think I would have found it easy to tell him where to get off.' She shook her head and took Sinead's arm.
‘At least you did it,' Sinead told her, and she led her, slowly, towards the car park.
THE FIRST HOUSE they look at is the cheapest place for rent. It's an old fibro shack on the corner of a busy street, with a lantana-choked garden that drops away down the side of a cliff. A Moreton Bay fig obscures any light, and the recent rains have caused long fingers of mildew to creep up the walls.
Kevin tries the key and then kicks the door open, stepping over a moth-eaten blanket on the worn linoleum. ‘The very best in security.' He smiles. ‘A lick of paint, bit of furniture and who knows what you'll have.'
‘I like it,' Clara tells him.
Sinead looks at her. ‘No, you don't.'
‘I do, actually.'
There are holes in the walls and two of the windows are smashed. The rooms are dark and small, and the garden is unusable. Sinead points all this out to Clara. Zoe, who has been outside with Pepper, stands at the front door, takes one look, and tells them it's a bloody dump.
‘Well, I think it has charm,' Clara insists.
They drive straight past two of the other places after Clara pronounces them ‘suburban', and by the time they get to the fourth, opposite the RSL, Sinead is ready to give up. She winds down the window to let Kevin know that they won't bother with this one either, but Clara stops her. She wants to have a look.
‘Why?' Sinead asks. ‘You'd hate the noise.' She points at the club opposite.
‘No, I wouldn't.'
Sinead can only roll her eyes.
‘I'll stay in the bloody car,' Zoe informs them.
Inside, the shack is in only slightly better condition than the first place they saw. But there is, at least, light in the rooms, and the windows around the sunroom are the old wooden ones that slide open to let in the sea breeze. Out the back, a flat expanse of stiff green lawn stretches up to a rusted Hills hoist that squeaks as it turns. Perhaps, Sinead thinks, they could have a table out here, people for lunch? She knows she is stretching the possibilities to a point beyond the realistic, but it is better to cling onto some hope than to completely give up.
In the kitchen, Clara is telling Kevin that she is planning on using this or some other place as a retreat. ‘A bolthole where I can write my memoirs,' she says. ‘And a way of deciding if I ultimately want to buy down here.'
‘Well, it's yours if you want it.' He waves his hand in the air.
‘I propose we have some lunch and a think,' Clara pronounces. ‘We might also drive ourselves around and have a look at the outside of the houses for sale.'
She looks tired now. It happens quickly, a sudden fading in her eyes, a drop in her shoulders, a certain slowness in her speech, and she needs to rest.
‘About bloody time,' Zoe tells them when they eventually give up on finding the last of the places on Clara's list and pull up outside the café in the main street. ‘I'm bloody starving.'
There is a coolness in the air but they take an outside table so they can keep an eye on Pepper, who is tied up and barking.
‘She'll quieten down soon.' Clara sits back in the chair and closes her eyes for a moment. ‘Just ignore her.'
Zoe wants a hamburger – ‘not the kid's size, the grown-up one' – and a banana smoothie.
‘If you have the smoothie, then you can't have an ice cream,' Sinead says.
‘Bloody hell.' The agony of the choice makes Zoe frown. ‘What about a small smoothie and a small ice cream, like a Paddle Pop?'
‘One or the other.'
‘But that's not fair – you said I could have an ice cream.'
‘If you don't stop the bloody whining, you'll have nothing.'
‘Bloody mothers.' Zoe glowers.
‘I'll get you an ice cream, darling,' Clara tells her. ‘If you stop saying "bloody".'
Sinead begins to argue and then can't be bothered. She rolls her eyes as Zoe promises, most definitely, that she won't utter another bloody. ‘Can you get me a Magnum?'
At this point Sinead says she's going inside to order. ‘You're bloody awful, the pair of you.'
‘Don't forget I want a large burger,' Zoe calls out. ‘And a smoothie.'
TWO WEEKS AFTER Clara came out of hospital, her closest friend, Kathryn, died. She, too, had breast cancer, the cancer recurring three years after she had finished her treatment.
At the funeral, Sinead sobbed. She began as soon as she sat down, unable to stop as each person spoke, continuing long after the service had finished and family and friends gathered out the front of the church. She knew she had to go and speak to Sean, Kathryn's son, and she tried to get her tears under control. Staring up at the branches of the elm trees, still crowned in thick green leaves, she held her breath. The sky was a deep, flat blue, and she concentrated on the colour, trying to think of a name for it. Azure, cobalt, teal (no, it was too blue for teal), cyan (was that the word for blue in the CMYK spectrum – how could she have forgotten that?), turquoise, surely there had to be more names?
She could see Clara laughing with one of Kathryn's other friends, then rubbing at the edge of her eyes as she put her sunglasses back on.
‘That was a lovely service,' Sinead tried to say to Sean, but she managed no more than the first two words before she began sobbing again. ‘I am so sorry,' she told him when she could finally speak. ‘This is so inappropriate.'
She could see he didn't know how to respond. He had always been uncomfortable with her since they had sex, once, when they were both seventeen. For a brief period afterwards Sinead had thought she had been madly in love with him, while he had been quite certain that it had been nothing more than a bad mistake. Now they rarely saw each other, and she certainly never thought of him, although Clara had always kept her up to date with his news – a marriage, children, partnership in an accounting firm, an affair, a divorce. He probably knew about her as well – her relationship with Luka, Zoe's birth, and the separation when she had decided that she was perhaps more interested in women.
‘It was a lovely service.' Sinead tried to sound like she was, in fact, okay now, it had just been a minor aberration, and then as she began to cry once more Clara came over and took her by the arm.
‘I'll miss her,' Clara told Sean, and she kissed him on the cheeks.
In the car, she waited while Sinead blew her nose several times, scrunching the last small sodden tissue into a tight ball before dropping it onto the floor.
‘I'm not dead yet,' Clara said eventually.
Sinead took a deep breath. She looked at herself in the rear-vision mirror: her nose was red, her eyelids were swollen and sore, her mascara had run and she had a piece of food from breakfast still wedged between her two front teeth.
‘What a mess.'
Clara reached out and put her hand on Sinead's knee. Sinead rested her own hand on top, and looked down at the first few liver spots forming on her skin and the dried purple ink gathered at the edges of her fingernails. She thought she had washed it all off when she had finished teaching her printmaking class last night. She scratched at a flake, and then reached for her keys in her bag.
‘Shall we go to the wake?' She turned to her mother, who nodded, taking out a fresh tissue.
‘But clean yourself up first, darling.' And Clara spat on it, leaning over to wipe Sinead's face, before she could stop her.
WHEN LUNCH IS served, Sinead and Clara both wish they'd ordered a burger and smoothie, rather than lentil patties and a herbal tea.
‘Don't drink it all.' Zoe leans forward, arm outstretched, to take the glass back as Sinead takes a long sip.
‘It is hers,' Clara adds as Sinead keeps drinking.
‘It's enormous,' Sinead tells them both. ‘And I paid for it.'
Clara has a piece of paper and is jotting down figures.
‘We can do the first house or the last,' she says. ‘But it means no trip to Europe.'
Shortly after she was diagnosed with cancer, she had told Sinead and Zoe she wanted to take them both to Italy. Why not spend the money before she died, she said. Why not have fun? Sinead had been furious. It wasn't practical to organise a trip now. They didn't know how the operation would go, and how she would feel after the follow-up treatment? They were sitting in the kitchen at Sinead's house, the night warm, the cicadas throbbing outside. Zoe had the television turned up, but she had come in the moment she'd heard mention of overseas travel.
‘Can we go? Can we go?' And she jumped up and down, short sharp bounces that rattled the table and all the plates and glasses on it.
‘I don't see why not,' Clara had replied, pouring herself a third glass of wine. ‘But then you and I have adventurous spirits, my darling.' She took Zoe's hand in her own. ‘We are alike.'
After dinner Sinead had told her it was all very well to play a little ‘let's go to Europe game' with her, but not with Zoe. ‘You could see how excited she was. And you're only going to let her down.'
Why not be optimistic, Clara had insisted. They could book for six months after the end of her treatment and if she couldn't go then, well, so what? The worst that could happen was that she might lose some money on the tickets.
‘No,' Sinead had replied. ‘The worst that could happen is that you might be dead.'
The trip hadn't been mentioned again, not until now. Sinead pushes her plate away, leaving the last of the barely edible lentil patties untouched.
‘I'd rather go to Europe than rent a bloody dump,' Zoe says, and then, realising her error, grins. ‘Correction: a nasty dump.'
Sinead just looks at her mother.
‘Well, let's face it,' Clara tells her. ‘If we're assuming I'm going to be well enough to come for weekends away down here, we might as well assume I'll be able to travel to Italy.'
There is quite a difference between an hour's drive down the coast and a twenty-four-hour plane flight, Sinead replies.
‘All I'm saying is, it's one or the other.' Clara raises her hand as the waitress walks by, trying to catch her attention. ‘I can't afford both.'
LATER, SINEAD SWIMS out into the flat, still bay. The water is cool with the first autumn tides, but as she takes strong strokes forward she begins to feel the warmth of her blood coursing through her body.
Behind her Zoe is holding onto a kickboard, not really following her, just making her own way a little to the left, and beyond them both Clara leans back against a rock with Pepper beside her, her head tilted up to afternoon sun, her eyes closed.
It is almost empty. Midweek, end of summer, and only a father and his son sit on the sand. Far in the distance, a woman in pink tracksuit pants jogs to the other end, her dog following, chasing the stick she throws out into the ocean. Sinead lets herself float into shore.
It is a beautiful beach, she thinks, grateful that this, at least, hasn't disappointed her, and that she can still hope she might one day rent a shack down here, a place to get away and do some of her own work, have friends to stay. As the sea becomes shallow, she turns over onto her knees and stands, looking up to where Zoe is jumping up and down agitated on the sand.
‘There are sea lice,' she calls out, and it's true: Sinead is also starting to feel itchy.
They grab their towels and rub them over their skin until the sting begins to ease.
‘I'm not going in again,' Zoe says.
Sinead walks to the water's edge, looking out to the distant jagged line of the city opposite and then down to where the beach becomes scrub, a sharp tangle of green against the sky. A cob of corn washes against her feet and she steps back, irritated. It is the father and his son. They are tossing them out to sea as soon as they finish eating them, the gnawed ends floating straight back into shore.
‘It's disgusting,' she tells Clara in a loud voice.
‘Shh,' Zoe urges, embarrassed.
‘I want them to hear,' Sinead replies.
‘Well, why don't you just tell them directly?' Clara asks, and she tries to lift herself up slowly, holding onto the rock behind her as she pulls herself to her knees and then to a standing position.
Sinead helps her. ‘Because I'm too pathetic.' She smiles wryly.
‘I'm a little like that myself,' Clara says.
The woman in the tracksuit pants walks past them, raising a hand in greeting. They watch her head over the rocks and up to one of the larger brick houses on the water's edge.
‘I'll probably never go jogging again.' Clara sighs.
‘You never did go jogging.' Sinead gathers their towels and tells Zoe to take the kickboard and Pepper. ‘Shall we head home?' she asks, and Clara nods.
They walk back up the path to the car, Sinead leading the way, Zoe following and Clara taking her time. Out on the street, most of the houses have driveways, flat green lawns and oleander growing over the brush fences. As they pass one of the original shacks, paint peeling and garden overgrown with grevillea and bottlebrush, Sinead looks back at Clara, who has also paused to peer into the yard.
‘Now that's what I like,' Clara says. ‘If that one was for sale -' and she catches her breath for a moment before she continues to where Sinead and Zoe brush the sand from their legs and arms, as they pull their clothes over their still-damp swimmers.
It is later than they thought. They stop for an ice cream, knowing they will not go to the agent's and fill out a rental form for any of the houses, nor will they look at the last of the places for sale. Instead, they will head out through the national park and back onto the highway that leads into the city, talking about how they might come back to see the last place again (‘Not the first – it was a dump,' Sinead will insist, and Clara will continue to disagree), while in the backseat Zoe will sit, cheek against the window, wanting to experience only the boredom the whole way home.