Fiction

Inheritance

FIVE OR SIX days after the funeral, or perhaps a week, Rory finally ventures out. Her father’s dog, Harpo, has been so patient, but he needs more than an amble round the backyard. And so does she. They head for the big park by the river; Dad loved this place, and she remembers walking with him here as quiet, restful. But today she enters to find it packed: wedding groups, family gatherings, couples strolling with their kids.

Saturday. She hadn’t realised. Saturday afternoon, dodging a racketty gaggle of teenagers all showing off for each other. Everyone taking photos. Selfies; group selfies. Everyone so shockingly, noisily alive.

Rory’s impulse is to bail. Just slink away – and if it weren’t for Harpo, she would. But look at him: feathery tail wagging, big golden-retriever grin on his face. Drag him off home again? No, can’t do it. Instead she jiggles his lead and ups the pace, walking away from the café, past the play area. Choosing narrower paths with fewer people, until she’s alone and can breathe again.

Under the trees it’s cooler, a hint of twilight approaching. Rory zips up her leather jacket. A Melbourne autumn, light and mild, much like the San Francisco spring she’s come from. She’d been planning to visit last summer, but the terrible fires made it seem like a bad idea. Melbourne wasn’t directly under threat but Dad dissuaded her, said it was too smoky. If she’d come, she’d have seen him; they’d have talked. If she’d come, things might have turned out differently.

Useless thought, she tells herself, and wrenches her mind away from it. She lets Harpo off the leash and he bounds ahead, nose to ground.

Another dog bursts from the shrubbery, and Rory jolts in alarm as it barrels straight at Harpo, but the two greet each other with the enthusiasm of old friends, tails slapping back and forth like furry windscreen wipers as they sniff each other’s news. The other dog’s a golden retriever too, but paler, lighter of frame.

A high voice cries out from a tree up ahead, like a bird except it’s calling ‘Harpo!’ Something moves on an overhanging tree branch, and Rory yips with fright as a black form plummets to the path. The creature lands on all fours like a big cat or perhaps an oversized bat, but the dogs aren’t startled – they leap gladly upon it, licking and wagging. Standing back, unnoticed, Rory hears human laughter mingling with their short barks of welcome. There’s a person – young – under all those flapping layers of fabric.

A dense thicket of black hair is flicked back and she glimpses the girl’s face: a kabuki mask of corpse-pale foundation, heavily black-rimmed eyes, dark lipstick. Silver rings flash on fingers tipped by indigo polish.

Good goths don’t smile, but right now this girl thinks herself unobserved, and beneath the make-up her face is alight with joy. ‘Harpo, where you been?’ she croons as she hugs and fondles. ‘Oh we missed you, didn’t we Bella? We missed our boyfie, hey?’

The second she spots Rory, the girl’s face snaps shut and she’s up on her feet with eyes narrowed and a snarl in her back pocket. Rory approaches, careful to stop a good three metres away. ‘You know Harpo,’ she says, her tone neutral as a grey pebble.

The girl lifts and twists one shoulder while dropping the other in a snaky shrug. ‘So?’

The only way goth-girl could know Harpo is through Dad, but Rory can wait. She’s used to dealing with the feral kids in Golden Gate Park, all bluster and disdain, the rescue pit bulls helping them look tough. They love their doggies, too.

With a narrow sideways look, the girl is checking out her cropped hair, her leather jacket. ‘You look different to how I thought.’

‘Yeah?’ Rory cocks an eyebrow. She doesn’t much like feeling inspected, but she’s curious. ‘How’d you think I’d look?’

‘Middle-aged,’ says the girl, clearly intending Rory to shrivel at the words. ‘And chunkier, ’cos you make cakes for a living.’

Well well, she knows about the cakes. Dog owners love to talk about their dogs – but her father, that reserved and private man, talked about her, too? Rory allows herself a smile, so faint and fleeting it’s barely there. ‘Guess my dad really spilled the beans, uh?’ She starts walking again, which the dogs take as permission to lollop on down the path. As she draws level with the girl Rory jerks her head, an invitation impersonal enough that the girl falls in, not quite beside her but just a couple of steps apart.

After a while the girl asks, ‘Is he dead? Your father?’

‘Yes, he is. How’d you know?’

She does her snaky shrug again. ‘I just knew. Was he up in the high country? He told me about the high country. Did he get lost?’

‘Lost…’ Rory’s been telling people he had a heart attack while bushwalking, but lost sounds just as plausible. Might even be more accurate, all things considered. ‘Yeah. I guess he did.’

‘He shouldn’t have gone up there by himself,’ the goth girl says in a disapproving tone. ‘’Cos, he was going blind, you know.’

Rory pulls up sharply, frowning. ‘No. He had an eye problem, but he wasn’t going blind.’

‘Huh,’ says the girl dismissively. She’s stopped walking too, but is looking off to the side of the path, not at Rory. ‘Anyway… Who’s been looking
after Harpo?’

‘The next door neighbours. Until I got back here, anyway.’

‘From San Francisco.’ The girl switches her gaze and for the first time looks straight at her. Her eyes are a startlingly intense emerald green. Rory stares, as everyone must. Coloured contacts. This girl takes admirable care with every aspect of her appearance, though admiration would just invite more scorn. The girl gestures with her chin towards the dogs. ‘We would’ve looked after Harpo, you know.’ 

Rory inclines her head, acknowledging. ‘I bet Harpo would’ve liked that.’ They walk on. We. Does this odd girl have a normal family? And might this family know someone who’d adopt Harpo, since Dad’s neighbours have said, regretfully, they can’t? Or even adopt him themselves? Am I being calculating? Expedient? Is that who I am? Is that why Dad didn’t tell me?

They’ve come to an open area, and the dogs take off, playing chasey with a couple of kelpies who’d be happy to run rings around the galumphing retrievers all day. There’s a bench well placed to watch them, and Rory sits down. The girl circles it warily, then sits too, at the far end. She leans in and sniffs loudly at the air between them. ‘You smell good,’ she says accusingly. ‘Like a bakery.’

‘Yeah? Well, I made a cake just before we headed out.’

‘And are you gonna eat it? Eat it all?’ She draws out the last word, awwwll.

‘Nope. It’s for the neighbours.’

‘That sucks,’ says the girl, but absently. She’s rearranging the layers of her clothing, smoothing them thoughtfully, even fussily. She turns to Rory. ‘You’re an orphan now, aren’t you?’

I’m forty-two, thinks Rory. Does forty-two get to be an orphan? ‘Um…yeah. I guess I am.’

‘I wish I was an orphan.’ It sounds theatrical. Rehearsed. Rory suspects the girl doesn’t care what response she gets – concerned, shocked, appalled – as long as it’s something that’ll heighten the intensity, with herself at its centre. Maybe just ignore her. But before Rory can respond at all, a flash of memory overtakes her.

I wish I was an orphan. Rory’s teenaged self, sobbing that same declaration into her pillow. Why? She can remember the ferment of long-ago emotion –
passion and anger and a kind of fearful daring – but not what caused it. Something she wanted to do or have, or not do or have, but wasn’t allowed. What could have made her wish her parents, those two calm good-natured people, dead?

Her head jerks up. ‘I just realised something.’

The girl, watching, scowls and twitches. ‘What?’

Rory rocks forward a little, hands on her thighs. In a low voice she tells the girl, ‘I said that too, I wished I was an orphan too. But I wasn’t wishing they were dead. I was just wishing I was a grown-up. Or, more grown-up than I was. You know?’

The girl chews a bit more nail polish off one fingernail, somewhat put out at having to cede centre stage. ‘Yeah, okay,’ she says reluctantly. ‘But just ’cos that’s how it was for you doesn’t mean that’s how it is for me.’

‘Yeah, no,’ says Rory, and smiles, just for a moment. ‘Ah, that’s proof I’m home, all right. No one outside Australia has any idea what “yeah-no” means.’

The girl looks up, considering the words. ‘Yeah I agree; no it’s not
like that.’

Ex-actly.’ Pinching thumb and forefinger together, Rory mimes picking up something tiny and placing it precisely down.

‘Your accent’s really weird, I hope you know.’

‘I do. Like my vowels went one way and my consonants went another, halfway across the Pacific.’ She leans against the back of the bench. The kelpies are still racing about the open area, but Bella and Harpo are done in, sprawled on the grass. Unexpectedly, she feels her shoulders relax, her chest open. She lets out a sigh that feels like it’s been held in there for a couple of weeks at least. ‘My name’s Rory, by the way.’

‘I know. Your dad told me. You know what else he told me?’ A little smirk of triumph. ‘Your real name.’ And at the same instant that Rory jerks forward waving her hands – Whoa! – to stop her, the girl’s blurting ‘Aurora!’

‘Ah, no fair.’ Rory shakes her head in disgust. ‘I’d never’ve thought…’

‘Don’t worry, I haven’t like, spread it around. Anyway, Aurora’s not that bad.’ The girl’s voice has taken on an edge; she’s staring past Rory, at something further down the path. ‘Nowhere near as bad as the hideous name my parents gave me.’ Rory looks around, following her gaze. Two figures are approaching, two men. One is taller, thinner: gangling, even at this distance. The girl turns to Rory and says urgently, ‘My name is Datura. Don’t ever call me anything else, okay?’

The not-so-tall man cups his hands to his mouth. ‘Bell-ah!’ he calls, and the light-coloured retriever lifts her head from the grass and gives a single tail thump, no energy for more.

‘That’s my dad.’ The girl gives a massive eye roll. ‘And my little brother.’ Her spine’s slumped into a C, hands thrust deep into the layers. ‘He’s adopted,’ she mutters, ‘but don’t say anything, he doesn’t like people to know.’

They are close now, just metres away. The very tall guy is also very young, Rory sees. Mid-teens: maybe fifteen?

‘Hey, Dais,’ says the lad mildly.

The girl levitates from the bench and flies at him. ‘Fuckyou­fuckyoufuckyou,’ she screeches, and the boy, at least a head taller, flinches from her, jerking his hands protectively to his face. ‘That is not my fucking name!’ Poised on tiptoes before him, quivering with fury, she suddenly drops, swivels on one foot and races away, back along the path, arms spread, a giant bat swooping low to the ground.

No one breathes till she is safely gone. ‘That went well,’ the man says. He’s wearing black jeans washed to grey and a jumper, once good, that has lost its shape; his dark wavy hair needs a cut. About her own age, maybe a few years older, maybe just more worn. ‘Hello. I’m Nick, this is Milo. I see you’ve already met my sweet little daughter Daisy.’

‘Datura,’ the boy says, looking glum.

‘Datura,’ amends Nick, saying the word cautiously, like it might go off. He manages a small, wry smile, slings a consoling arm across his son’s shoulders. ‘You’d think we’d remember.’

The boy dips his head. He looks rattled; the father does too. Understandable. Living with Miss Stroppy Goth – yeah, that could definitely make you feel like life had grabbed you by the scruff of the neck and given you a damn hard shaking.

That’s kind of how I’m feeling. Not because of the girl: because of Dad, who without a word of warning just walked off into the high country with a bottle of Scotch in his daypack and a pocket full of benzos.

‘I’m Rory,’ she says, offering her right hand first to Nick and then to the lanky son, Milo. ‘Probably best not to ask my real name.’

 

AT HOME, COMBING through the email correspondence with her father, Rory’s surprised to realise it had dwindled over the past couple of years to almost nothing. Also baffled to find no reference to his eye condition, not even the name. Did they only talk about it on the phone? And face to face last time she visited, she’s sure of that. Well, pretty sure. When was that visit, anyway? She has to stop and think. Eighteen months ago, at least.

He was always so dismissive about it: ‘my eye thing’, a minor problem, just an inconvenience. But once she tracks down the name – macular degeneration – and does a bit of research, she realises it was more than an inconvenience. Way more.

Standing by the stove waiting for the pasta to cook (she knows she shouldn’t just keep eating pasta, it’s pathetic, but somehow she can’t rouse herself to cook a proper meal, let alone eat it), staring idly at the news on SBS, Rory has a flash of watching television with her father during that last visit. How he seemed to turn his head in an odd way, side-on to the screen. Now, too late, she gets it: macular degeneration takes out the central area of vision. And what about Dad’s newfound love of audiobooks – was that because he was having trouble reading? His car: a man who’d always preferred to be the driver, all of a sudden perfectly happy for her to take the wheel. She can still see his mildly apologetic smile as he handed her the keys.

She facepalms: a hard, resonating clap. ‘Idiota!’ How many clues did she ignore? And how come she, a grown woman, his daughter, didn’t know how serious his eye condition was? Yet an erratic teenager he met in the park did?

The girl’s twisty shrug. I just knew, she said.

After her meal, sitting with a glass of wine on the back verandah, Rory looks up and sees herself reflected in the window glass. Is this what goth-girl saw when she was inspecting her? Heart-shaped face, dark-blonde hair cut short and zippy, slim build (nature’s on Rory’s side there, despite the cake), skin that’s still fresh and smooth thanks to San Francisco’s foggy climate and her weakness for high-end face creams. She’s always been happy with her looks: good enough to get by, without drawing undue attention. Whereas Miss Datura – well, the more undue attention the better.

What even is a datura? A plant, Rory knows that much, but she’s no gardener. Her San Francisco house has a tree out the back and some unkillable things in pots on the deck, but she doesn’t know their names. Dad might have a datura growing out there in the garden – but only if it’s an Australian native, and she has an uninformed hunch that it isn’t.

She pulls out her phone and searches. Datura. Oh, right, the small tree with lovely flowers like dangling trumpets. South American origin. Beautiful but seriously toxic, ‘especially their seeds and flowers’, she reads, ‘which can cause respiratory depression, arrhythmias, hallucinations, psychosis, as well as death if taken internally’. ‘Wow,’ she says under her breath. Scary.

That’s the girl in the park who flew at her brother, ferociously repudiating her given name. But then there’s the affectionate kid cuddling the dogs earlier. And before that – who was it got pally enough with Rory’s dad to know about the high country? To know he was going blind?

A spark of memory, from the jet-lagged blur that was the funeral. (The funeral, my god: how long’s it been? A week? She must ask Francine over. There wouldn’t have been a funeral if Francine hadn’t organised everything.) There was a doctor, wasn’t there? A neat woman, earnest, giving her a business card as she offered her condolences. ‘Your father’s GP.’ Didn’t she say that? Rory rummages through her bag until she finds the card: Dr Clare Ross, with a mobile number scribbled on the back. She dials, leaves a message.

Now, a text to Francine, her oldest pal, inviting her to come for – hmm. Lunch, rather than dinner? Francine’s new husband, Gavin, would perhaps not be able to join them for lunch, and Rory would rather – stop that. Gavin picked her up from the airport and drove her home after the funeral: she shouldn’t be churlish. But after ten minutes with him she’d realised he’s one of those men who has an opinion on everything and an unshakeable conviction that you want to hear them all.

Never mind that. Francine has married him, and as long as Gavin doesn’t do what her first husband did – one affair after another, each one tearing Francine apart, finally running off and leaving her heartbroken and humiliated – Rory will try to like him. ‘Lunch or dinner,’ she texts. ‘Whatever suits you.’

Her wine glass is empty. If Dad was here, they’d probably pour another. She loved sitting out here on the back verandah with him, watching the flying foxes stream overhead at dusk, talking only when they felt like it. When Mum was alive she used to take charge of their conversations, moving them through topics like the good high-school English teacher she was for forty-some years. Her cancer diagnosis came less than a year after she’d retired. The operation, the treatment: Rory, here for most of that, still flinches from the memory. Remission. Too soon, relapse, and Dad left the Met Bureau to care for her.

Afterwards, it took him a long while to talk much about anything at all.

But then he started tutoring at the neighbourhood centre, and he’d tell Rory about that. Excursions with his bushwalking group; books he’d read. News, sciencey stuff that mostly went over her head. Climate change, of course – though he’d pretty much shut down on that lately. What else? Dogs, they talked about dogs. After her last mutt died, he’d been urging her to get another one; she kept being persuaded, yet hadn’t. And Dad had been so pleased with the unexpected success of her to-order cake business. ‘The proud employer of two-and-a-half staff,’ he’d marvelled, just a month or so back. They’d laughed.

Feelings? Not so much – by unspoken mutual consent. She smiles, remembering when she got divorced, her father’s quiet relief that she didn’t think there was much to talk about.

The phone beside her on the table thrums.

She thanks the doctor for returning her call. Deep breath. ‘I wanted to ask you about my father’s eye condition. The, uh, macular degeneration.’ Pronouncing the unfamiliar words with care. ‘Doctor Ross: was my father going blind?’

‘Well, not imminently. Two years? Perhaps three? But unfortunately, he’d developed the wet form in both eyes, so… yes.’ Pause. ‘But your father had all the information, he was accessing services and seemed confident he could…’ Another pause and then, uncertainly, ‘I don’t know how much he told you.’

‘Not that much, I guess. I should’ve found out more. I can’t believe I just–’ Rory blows air out between her lips, pfffhh. ‘Macular degeneration. All I had to do was Google it. I didn’t even ask him, not properly.’

‘But even if you had asked, Rory, would he–’ The doctor stops. Rory can sense her gathering herself. ‘I will tell you, I was shocked when the police came to me with that toxicology report. Shocked. Your father must have been stockpiling the medication for two years, ever since he came to me complaining of occasional anxiety and insomnia.’

‘Oh. The police – ahm, the police showed you their report?’

‘Not the entire report, just toxicology. And I was able to show them every prescription I’d written for him. Only four, over two years; no repeats. But take all those pills together – combined with so much alcohol…’

‘I know,’ says Rory quietly. And so did he.

‘Right up until that moment,’ Doctor Ross goes on, ‘I prided myself on being able to identify patients who are depressed, who may be having thoughts of suicide. Particularly my elderly patients. But your father gave no indication. No indication,’ she repeats abruptly. She sounds angry, but Rory understands she’s just trying to control her distress.

How much more distressed would this good doctor be if she’d read the whole report?

‘Well there you are, that answers what was going to be my second question.’ Rory’s tone is lighter than she’d intended. She’d been wanting to make it easier for Doctor Ross and has come off sounding flippant. Uncaring. Maybe that’s right; maybe that’s exactly what she is.

 

‘I’M BUSY,’ SHE yells from the study the second time Harpo barks. ‘The back door’s open if you wanna go out.’ Soon after, he barks again, still standing at the front door. A mid-morning delivery? A visitor? But no one’s rung the bell.

Her fingers hover distractedly above the keyboard; she’s been holding off on replying to an email from Luisa, her assistant, who is worried about filling all the orders coming in. How much longer does Rory plan to stay in Australia? Luisa wants to ask Raul, their half-time pastry chef, to go full-time, just temporarily – but for how long?

‘I don’t know,’ Rory mutters. Every day since the funeral she’s told herself she’s got to get her act together, but the only thing she’s managed to do is write a list. It’s magnet-fastened to the fridge door: all the jobs that must be done before she can fly back to San Francisco. Even the smallest task seems insurmountable.

Harpo barks again. She pushes back her chair. Standing in the doorway, hands on hips, she fixes Harpo with a steely eye. ‘What?’

Arf, he answers, tail on rapid wag as he stares fixedly at the front door. She opens it and Harpo tries to go out just as another dog’s trying to come in. Bella, his friend from the park. The tangled knot of retrievers lurches against Rory’s legs and almost brings her down. ‘Outside!’ she yells, grabbing the door frame. ‘Outside, you idiots.’

They burst messily onto the front porch. The girl, Datura, is sitting there, perched on the balustrade, facing nonchalantly away from the house like none of this is going on.

‘Hey there.’ Rory stands nearby, but not so near as to spook her. In silence they watch the dogs romping in the front garden.

Eventually, still without looking at her, Datura asks, ‘Will you show me how to make a cake?’

Rory considers this. ‘All right,’ she says finally. ‘But I’ll just do the showing. You have to do the making.’

‘K.’

Rory points to the side gate. ‘Take the dogs round the back.’

Instead of answering, the girl springs off the balustrade, soaring over the garden bed below to make her patented four-point landing several metres away on the grass. ‘Batgurrrl,’ calls Rory softly, and as Datura springs upright she flaps her arms twice, like wings. Her face is still turned away but the curve of her cheek betrays a smile.

In the kitchen, she’s chattier. Knows just what she wants: a chocolate cake, with strawberry jam (she’s brought a jar with her) in the middle, and chocolate icing. ‘Sure,’ says Rory, hands behind her back to stop herself from helping while she directs Datura where to find ingredients and utensils. ‘Special occasion? Any lettering?’

‘Not lettering but I thought – um… Could we draw a cello on the top? Because my brother Milo plays the cello and this is for his birthday. I wanna do something special for him.’

Ah, the sibling rollercoaster, thinks Rory, who’s never been sorry to be an only child. ‘We can give it a shot. I’ll show you how to improvise a piping bag. Now, that cupboard on the left. Bottom shelf, yellow mixing bowl.’

‘He never had special things, growing up in an orphanage,’ Datura says, adding the mixing bowl to the growing array on the benchtop. ‘And it’s not like anyone else’ll make an effort. He’s not exactly popular.’

‘Uh-huh,’ says Rory. She wonders if there’s a mother in this family picture. ‘You’ll need the set of measuring cups from the middle drawer. And the sifter, too. Good. Now, time for you to preheat the oven.’

Somewhat to Rory’s surprise, the girl pays good attention. She photographs each step on her phone, asks only relevant questions, and doesn’t whine about the boring bits like creaming the butter and sugar by hand. Everything by hand: ‘You can use an electric mixer,’ Rory tells her, ‘after you know how to do without it.’

Once the cake’s in the oven, they take mugs of the herbal tea Rory’s made into the adjoining living room. She sits and watches Datura prowling about, wary and curious as a cat. The girl picks up a framed photo of a child with a lopsided fringe, taken on the steps of the front verandah. ‘This you?’ she asks. Rory nods. ‘Wow, you were almost kinda cute. So you grew up right here? In this house?’

‘I did,’ says Rory. ‘What about you?’

‘Perth. But we moved around a lot because, um…and then – you know…’ Datura seems, uncharacteristically, at a loss for a moment, then shakes the moment off. ‘Does it feel weird? Being back in the same
house again?’

‘Weird? Hmm. Actually, it is a bit. But in a good way.’

Datura puts down the photo of small Rory and resumes her prowling. She stops in front of the bookcase, checking out the large photograph mounted on the wall above: a landscape, golden light on low hills across water. ‘You took this, right? In San Francisco?’

‘Not quite. That’s Tomales Bay, about an hour away. Not far, but it
feels far.’

‘Did your dad ever go there?’

‘Not to that area, no.’ And Rory is pierced with another arrow of regret, for all the things she didn’t get to show him. They went to Yosemite, they went to Big Sur, but not to this quiet place so often overlooked. ‘It’s really beautiful there. He’d’ve loved it.’

‘He loved this photo,’ says the girl with conviction.

‘I guess he did.’ It’s only this week Rory’s realised that when her dad looked up from his favourite chair, where he liked to sit and read, he’d have been looking at this photo. ‘Did he tell you that?’

Datura does her twist-shoulder shrug. ‘He didn’t have to, I just knew.’

‘So, you visited my dad here?’

‘Just one time. Hey, I can smell cake. When will it be ready?’

‘About ten minutes,’ says Rory, glancing at the clock. The girl, she has decided, likes things to be off-kilter – weird – and to play up being weird herself. What surprises Rory is that she doesn’t mind. Datura is a big presence, big enough to fill up some, at least, of the big echoing empty she’s been wandering around in since the news about her father.

‘Ten minutes,’ murmurs Datura to herself. She leaves the photo of Tomales Bay, comes and perches on the arm of the sofa. ‘I had a dream about him.’

See? thinks Rory. Weird. Normally she dreads people wanting to relate their dreams (significant to them, boring or ridiculous to her) but this is different, this has her intrigued. ‘About my dad? What did you dream?’

‘Kinda like… You know those pictures of that saint who was into animals?’

‘Saint Francis?’

‘Yeah, Saint Francis. So, he was lying there on this mountain top, with all these birds and animals around him.’

‘My dad was lying there?’ Rory makes her face go blank. This is exactly, exactly, what she has not wanted to think about.

‘Yeah. ’Cos he was, you know, already dead. And I could see these other mountains in the distance and I thought, Oh, that’s the high country. You know how you just know things like that, in dreams?’

‘I guess.’ Rory hasn’t dreamed about her father’s death, for which she is grateful. All she wants now is to get through this conversation and out the other side, preferably with the girl none the wiser about what actually happened up there on the mountain. ‘What was the…’ Rory spreads her hands, searching for the word. ‘The atmosphere, in your dream? Was it, you know…peaceful?’

‘Well…’ For the first time, Datura looks uncomfortable. ‘Kinda peaceful, yeah. But maybe not what everybody would call peaceful? ’Cos he was, um, he was…feeding them. You know,’ she gestures at herself, fingers wafting down her torso. ‘With his body.’

‘Oh,’ says Rory. ‘I see.’ She looks down at her hands, pressed in her lap. Her fingers are plucking at each other, pulling on the knuckles. Stop, she thinks, and clasps them hard together. But how to stop the images scampering through her head? ‘Feeding them,’ she says thoughtfully, as though the words might be a clue.

‘Mm. Hey, Rory? I just realised when I started saying that… Like, if you weren’t there for the dream, you’d think – eesh, gross. Right? But it just –
it wasn’t.’

‘Yeah.’ Rory lifts her gaze to the photo of the hills, the water. Then, slowly, turns. It seems to take her a while to focus on the girl, just a few feet away. ‘You know what? Knowing my dad…he wouldn’t have minded.’

‘That’s right,’ says Datura brightly. ‘He didn’t!’ She slumps, caricaturing relief. ‘Phew!’

Rory closes her eyes for a long moment, then nods several times. The oven timer buzzes. ‘Come on,’ she says, getting to her feet. ‘Cake’s ready.’

 

SAINT FRANCIS, SHE’S thinking as she surfaces from sleep. San Francisco. In that moment between sleep and waking the connection seems portentous. She even has a fleeting sense that when she opens her eyes she’ll be there, in her high-ceilinged bedroom in the tall wooden house in the Haight. But no. She’s here, in the suburban brick house she lived in for the first half of her life. There’s a sort of background hum of herself here as a child, a sense of her parents unseen but close by; it feels very peaceful. All she wants to do is lie here. Outside, birds are singing.

Saint Francis. She looked at images before she went to sleep: a lean man, brown-robed, surrounded most often by birds. My sisters the birds, he called them. And the Wolf of Gubbio, Brother Wolf, with whom he did a deal: the townsfolk of Gubbio would feed the wolf, and the wolf would stop eating them. That had seemed marvellously significant last night.

Something comes back to her, a dream or half-conscious observation. Something about birds and – ah, her father’s birdbaths! They were empty. Dad used to fill them every day, and she hasn’t even looked. She gets up, puts the kettle on and goes out into the back garden. The closest of his many birdbaths, tucked in among shrubs where the birds can feel safe, is indeed bone dry, the only thing in it a drift of sad brown leaves.

‘Sorry,’ she murmurs, then lifts her head, up to the higher branches and the sky. ‘Sorry, birdies,’ she calls.

He’d have filled every one of them before he left, that last day. And then – then he’d have taken Harpo to the neighbours. Harpo last of all, for sure. As her coffee brews Rory imagines her father, all duties done, closing the front door, taking the tram into the city, then a bus (it’s all in the police report) as far as it could take him into the part of the high country that had escaped the fires. Walking from there, onward, upward.

So why, among all those duties done, those responsibilities fulfilled, did he not think to leave her a note? Or maybe did he think of it, and then decided not to? Of these two possibilities, which is worse?

Useless thought. But she can fill the birdbaths, at least. Caffeinated, showered, dressed, she fits the hose to the tap in the front garden and begins with the one closest, cleaning out the leaves and twigs then letting the stream of fresh water pour in.

‘Rory?’

She turns. Someone, a stranger, is standing at the gate. Not quite a stranger: it’s Datura’s father. Messy dark hair. What was his name?

‘Nick,’ she says, twisting the hose nozzle to shut the water off, walking over. He’s holding a white envelope, almost square; offering it to her. A card.

‘To thank you,’ he says, ‘for Milo’s birthday cake. That was incredibly kind of you, to help Daisy make that. I hope you didn’t mind too much. Complete surprise to me.’

‘My pleasure. And she did all the work, honestly.’

Nick smiles. ‘So she claimed.’ It’s a nice smile, but his eyes stay out of it. ‘Hard to tell fact from fiction with her. She – ah, she makes stuff up, sometimes.’

There’s something he wants to say to her, Rory can tell. If he knew her better he’d go on, but he doesn’t, so he’s stopped. She has a fair idea what it is, and a hunch that it’ll be easier if they aren’t standing either side of the front gate, looking at each other.

‘If you’ve got a minute,’ she says, ‘would you like to walk around the garden with me while I do this?’ She gestures with the hose. ‘Filling the birdbaths.’

They work their way around the garden, Nick clearing out the dead leaves and debris, Rory in charge of the water. Tentatively at first, she asks him the usual introductory questions. Conversation 101. For each question of hers that Nick answers, he then asks one in return. They’re like tennis partners finding their rhythm, lobbing easy balls across the net to each other, serve and return.

They move on to the back garden and Harpo dogs their steps for a while before getting bored and returning to the verandah. Pretty soon they’ve shared the basics of where and when – Nick growing up in Perth, moving over to Melbourne with his kids two years ago; Rory living right here in this house ‘until I was twenty, dropped out of uni and went travelling and never really came back’. What they’ve each done, and do now, for a living: her a so-so photographer, failed gallerist, successful cake maker; Nick an architect in an oversupplied market, currently ‘scavenging’ small-scale renovation and development jobs, fitting in the architecture where he can.

They relax into their conversation, take it a little further, each revealing that they were married, and are now divorced. ‘Amicably,’ says Rory. ‘I got a house in San Francisco out of it, and a nice stepson who’s married now and living in Santa Fe. My ex has retired there to play grandpa.’

‘Lucky you,’ says Nick. ‘I got full custody, eventually, and two kids I hope aren’t permanently scarred. My ex is currently in a rehab centre in Fremantle, but this time I’m refusing to pay.’

‘Mm, sounds like you had all the fun,’ says Rory. Mm, this is getting close to the bone

‘Fun all right,’ he says wryly. ‘She was always pretty out there, my ex, but in fairness she was also – well, when I met her, she was…amazing. She had this presence – when she walked into a room, it was like all the lights got turned on at once. You know what I mean?’ He looks at Rory, who nods. ‘And she could turn them off again just as fast.’

Rory frowns, fitting this with what she’s observed of Datura. Her theatricality. ‘Sounds like a performance, almost,’ she says.

‘Spot on. Everything was a performance. Before the booze took over, I used to think that’s what she was addicted to: the drama.’ Nick pauses. ‘And, I have to say, this is what worries me about Daisy. How like my ex she is. Not that she’s hitting the booze, not yet anyway, but boy, she’s so volatile. Always has been. And she’s a fabulist too, like her mother.’

‘A fabulist,’ says Rory. The orphanage: that thing about Milo being adopted never felt likely.

‘Oh yeah. Some of the things she says–’ Nick shakes his head. ‘I don’t like to think about what’s going on in her mind. I’m…look, I’m just sorry you’ve had to hear some of it, Rory. After you’d been so kind.’

Ah, she thinks, here it is. They’ve finished filling the birdbaths but she turns the hose casually onto the lemon tree to give Nick more time.

A black feather with a white tip is lying on the grass. Nick picks it up, examining it closely. ‘She told me that she said things to you, about your father’s death and the, uh – the animals. And birds,’ he adds, apparently to the feather. ‘Maybe she didn’t say anything, maybe she just made all that up. Honestly, I can’t tell any more. But if she actually did say those things…I want to apologise to you.’

‘She was describing a dream,’ says Rory, watching the steady trickle of water.

‘Even so. Even if she had a dream like that, you didn’t need to hear it.’

Enough with the watering. She goes over to the tap, turns it off, and sits down on the wide steps to the back verandah. He sits too, one step below. She waits till he’s settled. ‘Here’s the strange thing, Nick: what she dreamed is exactly what happened.’ Here we go, she thinks, gathering herself. ‘My father’s body wasn’t found for three days. Wild creatures did eat him. Bits of him, anyway.’

‘Oh, no. God.’ He sounds stricken, looks stricken. ‘Rory, I’m so sorry.’

‘It sounds horrible, I know. Like he was, I don’t know, garbage or something. Even the police weren’t keen for me to see that part of the report. But that dream of hers, the way she described it – somehow it’s shifted the whole thing for me. Now I feel like it was something – okay, this’ll sound weird too, but – I feel like it’s something he would’ve chosen.’

Nick says uncertainly, feeling his way, ‘How, “chosen”? Daisy said your father went hiking and got lost, probably because his eyesight was failing. It was an accident. So how could he have chosen an accident?’

‘Maybe that’s how it happened. It’s also possible that he had a heart attack.’ Neither is true, but for Rory to admit that it was no accident – no, she can’t do that. If she knew why, maybe – but she doesn’t, and it shames her. ‘What I know for sure is that Dad loved the high country. My parents actually met up there, bushwalking, when they were both at uni.’

Nick’s face clears. ‘So, it’s where he would’ve chosen to die, you mean. And maybe Daisy understood that, somehow, is that what you’re saying?’

‘Yeah, like that.’ It’s more than that, but it’ll do for now. ‘Hey, Nick? Change of topic but – can I say something? It’s to do with you and your daughter.’

‘Of course,’ he says, though he looks a little startled.

Rory clasps her hands and rests them in her lap. ‘Datura.’ Nick’s just sitting there, waiting for her to go on. Not getting it. She takes a deep breath. ‘That’s what she wants to be called: Datura. So that’s what you should call her.’

He grimaces. ‘I try. Okay, maybe not very hard.’

‘It really matters, you know. Especially at that age.’

They’re sitting so still that a family of magpies decides it’s safe to patrol the bit of lawn amid the beds of plants and shrubs. One flies up to a birdbath, warbles briefly to the others to let them know it’s filled again with fresh clean water.

‘When she was born…’ Nick’s talking slowly, like he’s figuring it out as he speaks. ‘When she was born and I came up with that name, Daisy, it seemed so fresh, so hopeful. I can’t–’ He stops, rubbing one hand across his forehead, his face downcast. ‘Every time she rejects it, it feels like she’s rejecting me.’ The last couple of words are so low they’re barely audible.

‘Listen, Nick: my parents chose a beautiful name for me, too, but it never felt quite right. I wanted to be called something different. Maybe your daughter will come back to Daisy, I don’t know, but trust me on this: she’ll be able to stop rejecting you quite so fiercely if you can manage to call her what she wants to be called. Even if it seems ridiculous.’

‘O-kay.’ He moves his head subtly, side to side and up and down, like he’s looking at something from different angles. ‘Datura,’ he says, trying it out as though it’s a regular word, not a bomb. ‘Datura, Datura. Okay.’ He smiles, and this time his eyes are in on it too. ‘And hey, since you’ve been so frank with me, Rory, can I ask you something?’

‘Sure.’

‘Would you like to come and have dinner with me and the kids?’ 

She would.

She does. She brings a cake. Datura, overexcited as an eight-year-old on a sugar high, immediately drags Rory off to her spectacularly messy bedroom to show off some complicated steampunky drawings, and when they emerge she spends the next half hour fending her brother off like she’s a kelpie and their guest’s a bone that must be guarded. But eventually she settles down, and when Milo is induced to play his cello after the meal, she barely rolls her eyes.

When the teens have finished loading the dishwasher, Rory offers to teach them how to play poker. ‘Can I join in?’ asks Nick, pulling up a chair. Milo seems to have a feel for cards: he wins the first few hands, then his sister applies herself and trounces them all. Rory’s never had much in the way of a competitive urge, and Nick doesn’t seem to care about winning either, although perhaps that’s just when playing his own kids.

The dogs have fallen asleep squeezed together on Bella’s bed, a head lolling here and a leg flopping there. ‘Look at ’em, so cute,’ croons Datura. They all turn to gaze at the dogs. They do look adorable. Rory takes a photo of them, and is about to send it to – her father. Oh no. It’s like a punch in the guts. She sags, then glances quickly around, hoping no one’s noticed.

‘Hey Dad,’ says Datura. ‘Can Harpo come live with us when Rory goes back to San Francisco?’

Nick slides a glance at Rory, who looks back at her cards. ‘Two dogs?’ he muses. ‘Hmm. Let me think about it.’

That inch is all Datura needs to take the mile. ‘Yay!’ she yells, jumping up, throwing her arms around Nick’s neck. Then the dogs. ‘Harpo, you’re gonna come and live with us. Look at Bella, she’s so happy!’

Rory blushes, even though none of them knows she’d been hoping – before she even met Nick! – for this outcome. She waits for Nick to sound a cautioning note to his daughter. He doesn’t. ‘You don’t have to feel railroaded,’ she says to him quietly. ‘We can talk about this later.’ He nods, smiling. Perfectly relaxed.

Don’t cross it off the list yet, Rory tells herself, but as she drives the few kilometres home she feels a little bubble of gladness, the first she’s felt in weeks. Not just the prospect of a good home for Harpo, but a reason to stay connected with this small, oddly beguiling family.

On the list in the kitchen, she puts a tick and a question mark beside Harpo. There! Still a long list, but at last she’s making headway. Now, she can answer Luisa. Sitting up in bed with her laptop, she finds the email, hits reply. Hey, Luisa. Thanks for doing such a great job looking after everything. I’ll be back in a few weeks but if you think we should make Raul full-time for now, go ahead. A month, max.

 

THE YOUNG MAN at the front door, dressed neatly as a Mormon, is in fact another local real estate agent. Rory asks him if that’s something they do: check out the obituaries in the newspaper and cold call. She’s more curious than cross, but he blusters and denies it, claiming that they regularly door-knock this street. Tightly held, highly sought after, blah blah. ‘We’d be delighted to give you an appraisal,’ he says, offering his card, struggling to keep his ardent gaze from slipping past her to the interior of the house. ‘We could make an appointment now, if you like, Ms…?’

‘Thanks,’ she says, taking his card. ‘I’ll call you.’ She takes a step back and starts to close the door.

‘Oh. Yes, any time. Sorry for your loss,’ he adds as the door clicks firmly shut.

Inside, Rory leans against the wall, head tipped back, eyes closed. I’ve really got to get my act together. It’s over a week now – closer to two – since she emailed Luisa, and all she’s done is mooch around. Nothing crossed off the list on the fridge, just that tentative tick beside Harpo.

She’d got more done her first week here, jet lag and all. Well, she’d met with the lawyer, at least, who took her through Dad’s will: uncomplicated, everything left to her. Then he’d handed her a sealed envelope. Her name, in Dad’s writing. Rory’s heart started thumping like a trapped rabbit, but it wasn’t his final note, just a page containing all the information – passwords, even – she’d need to operate his bank accounts. ‘I advise all my clients to prepare one of these,’ the lawyer had said, looking pleased with himself. She’d told him it was a brilliant idea, hoping enthusiasm would mask her disappointment.

It’s that missing note that’s stopped her in her tracks. Maybe her father didn’t write one – but what if he did? And what if she accidentally threw it out? A systematic search, that’s what needs to be made. Every day she tells herself she’s going to start, and every day it seems to be beyond her. Her brain’s as foggy as a San Francisco summer evening.

She tries to think about getting back there, to her house in the Haight, to her business. It seems impossibly far away. How on Earth does anyone do it? Get on a plane, step off on the other side of the world. Why, for god’s sake, does she live there, on the other side of the world? In a country she doesn’t even like. Whoa! Her eyes snap open. Where did that come from? San Francisco’s not America! Well it is, of course, but – it’s San Francisco. And it’s been her home for eighteen – nineteen? – years. Since she married Drew. She’s no longer married, but it’s still her home, and she’s perfectly happy there. Isn’t she?

San Francisco’s not the problem, she tells herself sternly. What to do about this house – that’s the problem. She just has to make some decisions.

She peels herself off the wall and walks towards the kitchen. What about all these people who’d like to make the decisions for her? The real estate agents: the likely lads at the door, the flyers in the letterbox, the messages on Dad’s landline. Her old friend Francine with her repeated offers to ‘help you get things organised’ – which is very kind of her, and if it were Francine on her own they’d have done it together already. But Francine now comes joined at the hip with her new husband, Gavin.   

Gavin. Just thinking of his name makes her feel tired. When he drove her home after the funeral, his nonstop talking had Rory thinking blearily that the radio was on and it was some shock jock’s endless pontificating, but no. It was Gavin. Then he insisted on seeing her inside, and once inside he wanted to look around. ‘I’ve got a great eye for real estate,’ he said, actually pointing to his own right eye. All Rory wanted was to fall down on her bed and sleep, but she had to be polite because of the lift, because of Francine, so she stood and waited, itchy with wanting him to leave. ‘You want to do this place up a bit and get it on the market,’ he told her when he was finally done. ‘ASAP!’

And when she had them over for lunch, Gavin bustled proprietorially from room to room, inspecting, assessing, while Francine told her proudly how brilliant he was at maximising potential. ‘A quick makeover on the kitchen,’ he declared. ‘Market’s going to peak in a few months. You don’t want to miss out.’

And he could be right, who knows? Not Rory, that’s for sure. She’s never been that interested in real estate, all she knows is that the dollar value of this house is not the true measure of its worth. Not to her. She understands that most people wouldn’t have this luxury, but she does.

Lucky you. She remembers Nick saying that the other day, and it’s true, even though he’d said it playfully. In that context, luck’s just another word for privilege, and Rory knows she’s been lucky her whole life. If she hadn’t, maybe she’d have more ambition, more drive. Look at her now, drifting about the house, picking things up and putting them down again. She should be doing something concrete, making those decisions. An unravelling sleeve, that’s what she’s become. 

Wait. Nick. Didn’t he say something about real estate? Yes: he does renovations, and a bit of property development. He’d know about the market, surely? Maybe he could give her some advice. He might pressure me, says an inner voice of caution. To do what? Sell the house to him; hire him to renovate. But somehow she thinks not. She hopes not, anyway.

His number’s in her phone now. She calls.

Nick comes by after dinner, and Rory shows him around the house. Mostly he just stands in the doorways, looks, nods briefly, moves on. He’s matter-of-fact and relaxed, without the avid expression Gavin wore.

Her father’s study is the last room she shows him. ‘I’ve been kind of avoiding this room,’ she says, and he looks at her, waiting to see if she wants to say more, but she doesn’t. It’s right there, the thing she’s been avoiding: the police report, still sitting open on the desk, just as she left it the day of the funeral. Reading it then was probably a mistake; it jolted her so badly she still hesitates to glance in its direction.

She gets a bottle of red wine from the cupboard and they sit at one end of the dining table with their glasses. She takes a sip, swallows nervously, dreading that he’s going to tell her – what? To do something she won’t want to do, but she’ll only know what that is when he says it.

Nick doesn’t tell her to do anything; instead, he asks her questions. Not many: enough to ascertain that, financially, she doesn’t need to sell in a hurry and, above all, she doesn’t want to be rushed into doing so.

‘Then don’t,’ he says. ‘And what your friend’s husband said, about the market peaking? Don’t worry about that either, because the truth is, no one knows. Not him, not some smarmy expert on TV, not the real estate agents.’

‘Not you?’

‘Definitely not me!’ says Nick cheerfully. He goes quiet then, thinking things over, and Rory watches, toying with the stem of her glass. She likes looking at his face. Not handsome, but pleasant. Restful. ‘So, Rory, here’s a question,’ he says. ‘What would you say you really need to do – in this house, I mean – before you go back to San Francisco? The things you wouldn’t want to leave here without having done?’

The answer is right there, like it’s written on the inside of her head. Find the note. It doesn’t even occur to her that she could say that. ‘Just, um, sort things out a bit, I guess,’ she says. Will that do? ‘Go through Dad’s paperwork.’

‘So, do that. And when you’ve done enough, just lock the place up and go. We’ll take care of Harpo. When you’re ready to come back and take the next step, come back. And meantime, we can talk.’ He makes the phone gesture by the side of his face. ‘If there’s anything you want me to do – talk to agents, get quotes – not a problem. I’ll have to charge an hourly fee but, you know, mates rates.’

‘Mates rates always welcome,’ says Rory, grinning. No one says mates rates in America. She’s glad he’s mentioned payment: part of what she’d been nervous about, she sees now, was being beholden. ‘And I’ll pay board for Harpo. Plus any vet bills of course, or other costs like, ah…’ She casts her mind about. ‘Grooming.’

‘I guess he’s your dog till you say he’s ours, so, fair enough. But good luck trying to outsource the grooming from my daughter.’

‘I’ll pay her, then. Thanks, Nick, I’m very grateful to both of you.’

‘Mm. You know what she’d do to me if Harpo didn’t come to us?’

‘I shudder to think.’ Rory mimes someone cowering in fear; he chuckles. ‘With the house, then… You don’t think I need to jump in with some renovations? Quick makeover on the kitchen, say?’

He pulls a disparaging face. ‘This house deserves more than a quick makeover, on anything. I’d say you’re better off leaving renovations for the new owner.’

‘Really?’ How Rory wishes Gavin could have heard that! ‘And when I am ready to sell, what will I need to do?’

Nick ticks the list off on his fingers. ‘A professional clean, fresh paint throughout, repair anything that needs repairing. Dress it with just enough furniture, not too much. Zero clutter. Spruce up the garden.’ He smiles. ‘Fill the birdbaths.’

‘That one I can do.’

‘And I know good people for all the rest. If you want to get any of that stuff done long distance, I can help. Totally up to you.’

She’d been feeling so daunted, more than she’d understood. To have someone reach out like this, offer her a guiding hand through the maze – Rory’s eyes prick with unexpected tears. God, don’t cry! She downs a big gulp of shiraz and leans back, letting her eyes close for a few seconds.

When she opens them, Nick’s checking his phone. Their meeting, she understands, is winding up. Rory blinks, collects herself. ‘This has been beyond useful, Nick. Listen, how about we set the meter running tonight? Call it – what, two hours?’

He shakes his head. ‘Nah. Tonight’s just been a chat, between friends.’

‘Could this friend make you a cake, then?’

‘An offer I cannot refuse,’ he says with a courtly half bow. ‘Does it have a name, by the way, your cake-making business?’

‘It does: Marie Antoinette.’ She’s glad he laughs because then she can too, and she only sounds a little giddy.

At the door there’s an awkward hesitation, both of them moving towards a hug but too tentative to connect, and then the moment stumbles past and they’re shaking hands. ‘Thanks again,’ she says, somewhat flustered, trying not to show it.

‘You’re very welcome. See you soon.’

At the gate, though, Nick turns, his face palely visible in the light from the porch, which reaches just that far. ‘Good night’, he calls softly, and the two simple words travel through the cool night air of autumn and drape themselves gently around her. Rory smiles and lifts her hand, feeling unexpectedly graceful, and seen and understood.

 

ON THE OTHER side of the creek, in a part of the park she’s not familiar with, Rory’s eye is caught by a human form standing at the bottom of the steep bank, down by the water. The person, half in shadow, stands still and dark, hands cupped loosely in front of his chest. His black tunic-like top moves oddly in the light breeze, and she recognises all at once that it’s a plastic garbage bag, slit open for head and arms, and that this is the homeless man she’s seen walking, walking, at all hours of the day and night, here in the park or in the streets of the surrounding suburbs. Always wearing the garbage bag. Or a garbage bag: they must be pretty interchangeable.

She watches from the ridge-top track opposite, while Harpo snuffles among the rocks. The man’s pose is strangely beautiful: reverential, like he’s offering a prayer to the creek. Then she sees another dark shape, squatting on a rock to one side of him and a little behind, and becomes aware, over the burbling of the water, of a murmuring exchange of voices, one light and youthful, the other older, gruff and deep.

It’s Datura, talking with the homeless man who wears the plastic bag.

Is she safe? Rory watches for a while, anxious, and gradually comes to understand that yes, the girl is safe. She couldn’t say how she knows that, but it’s irrefutable. Watching them begins to feel intrusive, like she’s eavesdropping (though she can’t hear any actual words), so she turns away and continues along the path, Harpo following. 

She makes her way to the bench where she and Datura first sat and talked, and have sat together several times since. Harpo plays with a border collie, another regular; Rory pops her earbuds in and skips through a podcast that’s not as interesting as she’d hoped.

After a while, maybe twenty minutes, the batgirl flaps down beside her. Rory tugs on the cord of the earbuds and turns towards her. ‘Hey.’

‘You saw me talking to old Alfred back there,’ says Datura. She doesn’t look pissed off, thankfully.

‘Is that his name? I didn’t know.’

‘Yeah. I took him a slab of that last cake you brought over.’

‘Did he like it?’

‘Hell yes.’ The girl looks at her like she’s gone mad. ‘Who wouldn’t like your cake?’

‘Oh. Good.’ They watch the romping dogs a while. ‘Does he live here, in the park?’

‘Sometimes.’ Datura hesitates. ‘You know the old substation? He’s got a little set-up in there. But he doesn’t want anyone to know.’

‘Hey, listen: I’ve been wondering what to do with all my dad’s camping gear. There’s stacks of it, just sitting in the garage. Would Alfred like some?’

‘Prob’ly,’ Datura nods. ‘But not right now, ’cos he’s about to head off. He doesn’t like the Melbourne winters, he goes up to Queensland. There’s a mate of his, another army vet, who’s got a shack in the Daintree. His mate’s a bit mental, Alfred says. He goes up there to look after him.’ She lets out a peal of laughter. ‘Isn’t that a kick?’

‘It is,’ Rory agrees, smiling. ‘That’s a helluva long way, isn’t it? The Daintree?’

‘Yep. Three thousand kilometres.’ Datura says the words with relish. ‘But Perth’s further, three and a half. We were gonna drive across but Dad said it’d take forever, so we ended up flying.’

‘Is that how he’ll get to the Daintree? Fly?’ Alfred on a plane, plastic-bag tunic rustling – Rory can’t make that image seem likely. It occurs to her that the old man and this girl both have their uniforms, their costumes. Protective layers that keep the world at bay.

‘Nah. He’s got a whole network of truckies, they look after him. He’s like a parcel, he told me, getting passed along the highway all the way to Cairns. Cool, huh?’

‘Very cool. Good on those truckies,’ Rory says. They sit companionably on the bench, watching Harpo and the border collie at play, but Rory’s mind’s on San Francisco, all the homeless people there. A few of the regulars in her neighbourhood she gives money to: ten dollars, twenty dollars. Buys a sack of decent dog food now and again for the feral kids’ pit bulls. Not once has it occurred to her to make friends with them. Not once.

‘Hey, Rory? That camping gear – if you don’t want it any more, I know some people who could really use it.’

Rory turns to look at her. ‘Who?’

‘They’re forest activists. You know, protecting old-growth forests. Or trying to. They always need camping gear, ’cos their stuff’s always getting trashed by the cops. And the loggers.’

Rory thinks it over. ‘Okay. My dad would’ve liked that. Not the trashing, but you know…’

‘His gear going to forest activists? Oh, for definite,’ says Datura confidently. She has her phone out, thumbs flying as she texts. ‘They’re not playing tennis in the garden of the Finzi-Continis.’ She jumps up. ‘I better get going. See ya.’

Rory holds up a hand: ‘Wait. That thing about the Finzi-Continis, what does that mean? It sounds kind of familiar.’

‘Well hey, it should, it’s something your dad used to say. That old movie, right? He loaned it to me.’ Datura gives a soft snort. ‘A DVD. I could’ve just downloaded it, but you know.’

But she hadn’t wanted to offend him, Rory understands. ‘The Garden of the Finzi-Continis. I think I remember it. About – a Jewish family? In Italy?’

‘Yeah, during the war. The Holocaust, right? They were rich, they didn’t believe anything could happen to them until it was too late. They just kept playing tennis.’

‘Why did my dad want you to see it?’

‘Last summer, when all those fires were happening? I was flipping out to him about climate change deniers, like, how can people be so stupid when it’s so freaking obvious, and he said I was right to be angry but–’ she pauses, remembering. ‘Denial is a part of how human beings cope. The more scared people are that things are going to shit, the harder they deny it. Well, some people. And he didn’t say “going to shit”, not those exact words, but it’s what he meant. Because he got it. Your dad was, like, a science guy, right?’

‘He was. A meteorologist.’

‘Yeah. Anyway, I watched the movie. And I wrote an essay, “Playing Tennis in the Garden of the Finzi-Continis”.’ She smirks. ‘Got an A.’

‘Really? Well done, you.’

‘I could get A’s all the time, if I wanted to.’ Her phone, still in her hand, flashes and pings. She opens a text. ‘Oh excellent. Leaf’s stoked about the camping gear. He can come round for it in, like, an hour, if that’s okay with you? I can give you a hand.’

‘Sure, why not?’ Calling Harpo to them, they head off together down the path.

They’re almost at Rory’s home when Datura says, ‘Hey, can I ask you something? It’s kind of a favour, I guess. For my dad.’

Rory gives her a quizzical look. ‘Ask away.’

‘Okay, so Dad could get this architecture gig, right? Designing a house off on the coast–’ she paws one arm through the air a few times, to show that it’s far away ‘–for some people who lost their place in the fires. But he says he can’t take it ’cos he’d have to go there a few times and he doesn’t want to leave me ’n’ Milo on our own.’ Huge eye roll. ‘Can you believe? He just cannot get that I’m practically an adult. Anywaaay…’

‘Would I come and be your “babysitter”?’ asks Rory, air-quoting the last word. ‘Is that the question? Answer: yes, I would. Harpo and I owe you guys. We’d be delighted.’

‘I knew you would!’ The girl darts forward and gives Rory a speed-kiss on the cheek. ‘You are manifestly awesome.’

‘You know, not many people pick that,’ says Rory modestly. ‘Full marks.’

They’ve just about got her father’s camping gear sorted by the time Datura’s friend pulls up in a station wagon that’s seen better days. Leaf’s a sinewy youth with dreadlocks and a battered akubra that he removes as he enters the house, holding it in both hands in an old-fashioned gesture Rory finds touching in its courtesy. They pack the old station wagon full, and he drives away with Datura waving from the passenger seat, the happiest-looking goth girl in creation. Rory waves back.

That evening, she looks through the drawer of DVDs, hoping to find The Garden of the Finzi-Continis. Not there; maybe her father told Datura to keep it. As she eats dinner (a vegetable stir-fry; she’s moved on at last from pasta) she tries to remember what Dad said to her, many years ago, about the film. Someone – he or her mother – told her they saw it together when they were courting. She can clearly imagine them going into a cinema together, young and full of life. But as a metaphor for climate denial? When did Dad start to take that view?

Her father had known about climate change since – well, Rory can’t remember a time when he didn’t. But the way he talked about it when she was a kid was different. Then, there was still hope: he’d believed, and therefore she had too, that knowledge would be followed by the necessary action. Hope shifted over time, fading, fading, until eventually, a few years ago, he’d said to her, ‘I don’t want to talk about climate change any more.’ 

What had she been talking about that day? Collapsing glaciers? The California fires? It doesn’t matter. What matters is that it had been weighing on him far more than she realised. She can see that now. And she hadn’t asked. She hadn’t asked.

Is that how he saw me? she wonders. Just another tennis player in the garden? Well, she is, really, isn’t she, when you think about it. Not even a climate change denier: someone who understands what is coming and yet does nothing. Someone who runs a frivolous business with the unspoken motto: ‘Let them eat cake.’

That’s why he didn’t tell her what he was going to do. That, if she’s honest, is why she hasn’t searched properly for his final note to her: because she fears there won’t be one. She wishes that didn’t make her feel so dreadfully sad.

 

HARPO WATCHED APPREHENSIVELY as Rory loaded his dog bed and food bowl into the car, but now they’re underway he’s a happy hound. Head sticking out the rear window, tongue lolling, totally up for a big adventure. When they pull up outside Bella’s place just a few minutes later, he offers one deep, carrying woof and attempts to clamber out through the few inches of window gap.

‘Harpo, Harpo!’ Rory leans over to grab his collar and pull him back. ‘We’re babysitting, okay? Set a good example now.’

Nick is nervous too. He shows her round the house again, checks she has all the numbers in her phone: his, his distant client’s, the place he’s staying, Milo’s cello teacher and the address for Milo’s music exam on Saturday. ‘They’re all on the list on the fridge too. You’re sure this is okay, Rory? Five days. You’re positive?’ he asks as he dumps his laptop and an overnight bag in the back of his car. ‘I wish I could do it all by Skype but–’

‘I’m positive. And hey, designing a house for people rebuilding after the fires – it’s practically my civic duty to assist.’

‘I was going to say that if Datura arcs up about going to school, just let her skive off, but you know what she told me yesterday? She’s decided to keep any days off for climate strike. It’s young Leaf, I think. He’s a good influence.’

‘I think so too. And you’re okay about him staying over with her?’

‘What can ya do? She’s nearly seventeen. Resistance is futile.’ They smile at each other. ‘I better go,’ he says. He reaches out and pats her shoulder, briefly. ‘Thanks.’

De nada.’ There’s no doubt about it, Nick avoids touching her. She doesn’t know why. ‘Happy trails.’

‘Call me if it all goes pear-shaped. Even if it’s the middle of the night.’

‘It won’t, but if it does, I will. Go, go,’ she urges, making little pushing motions with her hands. She waves him off, watching his car beetle off down the street. Middle of the night, eh? She’s glad not to have seen that side of Datura.

Leaf turns up that first evening. He shares the cooking with Datura, a vegan meal that turns out very well. Milo loads the dishwasher after they’ve eaten while Rory cleans up the benchtops. Half an hour later, with Datura sitting at the table studying, Leaf alongside her doing research for an upcoming forest action, and the sound of Milo’s cello drifting from his room as he practises for his music exam, Rory makes a surreptitious twenty-second video on her phone and sends it to Nick. Hashtag #babysittersupremo.

An early riser, Leaf’s gone by the time the sun’s up. Datura goes to school when she’s supposed to, and though her school is maximally alternate and she can wear whatever she wants, she sits down to breakfast on Rory’s second day without any make-up.

‘Wow,’ says Rory. There’s no point trying not to stare.

‘Do you have any idea how many chemicals are in lipstick alone?’ says Datura primly. ‘And you’re eating it all day. Gross!’

Milo’s staring too. ‘You look really good,’ he says in his slow, thoughtful voice. ‘I like you unscary.’ His sister narrows her eyes at him, raising one hand with fingers clawed. ‘Okay, still scary,’ he amends. She swipes the claws twice, quickly. ‘Still very scary.’

Leaf has a meeting the next night, and Rory finds herself on the couch with the sibs, looking for something they all want to watch. Datura has the remote and keeps clicking on things she swears will be awesome. Rory keeps vetoing them, and when the girl presses her for a reason, she says: ‘They’re all American. I just don’t want to hear American accents.’

Datura stares at her. ‘Well that’s just weird. I mean, you’ll kinda be hearing a lot of American accents when you go back to where you live, which is, like, America.’

‘I know,’ says Rory. ‘Just not right now, okay?’ But what’s really weird is that for a moment there the thought of living in America, surrounded by Americans, had seemed…ridiculous. Impossible. She’s felt like this before, too, though she can’t quite remember when. A phrase floats into her head: The past is a foreign country. But it’s not her past, it’s 

My Neighbour Totoro,’ suggests Milo. ‘I’d love to see that again.’

‘Oh yes. Yay the Catbus!’ says Datura, clicking, searching. ‘Is this the subtitled version? It is!’

Totoro, my god,’ says Rory wonderingly. ‘I watched that when I was
a kid.’

‘Totoro never grow old,’ says Milo in a wise-old-sage voice. Everybody’s happy. During the scene where the sisters are waiting at the bus stop in the rain, Milo fetches a doona and they all snuggle under it. Datura tucks her feet up and rests her head on Rory’s shoulder, like some wild forest creature who’s decided to play at being tame. Milo leans gently against her from the other side. One of the dogs, asleep on the rug, gives a gusty, contented sigh; Rory feels as though it’s speaking for her.

Next morning, before she takes Milo to his music exam, she overhears Datura at the breakfast table telling Leaf that her mother was a musician. A guitarist, in a rock band. ‘They were big,’ she says, ‘But Mum gave it up after she had me, ’cos she didn’t want to be out all the time. She just wanted to be with me.’

True or false? wonders Rory. If true, maybe Milo’s musical aptitude is his mother’s gift. That would be a positive, surely. He’s never mentioned his mother, and Rory’s not about to.

Silent and concentrated on the way to his exam, Milo comes out feeling confident he’s done well. On the way home he puts his enormous feet up on the dashboard of the car and sings a French song Rory has never heard before. Beautiful. When they get home he’s keen to take the dogs for a run in the park, and she stands on the footpath watching them lope off. His singing drifts back to her along the street, fainter and fainter.

The evening Nick is due home, he sends a text to say there’s been a hold-up. The kids go to bed; Rory sits up, reading His Dark Materials, which Datura has just given her, saying she must start reading immediately or she’ll never speak to her again. Leaf arrives; she puts the book down and makes tea. He produces a little pouch and papers, asks if she minds if he smokes some pot. ‘Go ahead,’ she tells him.

‘Would you like some?’ he asks politely, offering her the skinny joint. She shakes her head. After Leaf’s smoke, he talks to her more than he’s ever talked before, about wilderness and commitment and where one finds joy and meaning in this troubled world. He’s astounded when she tells him that her father, because of his work, understood climate change way back, before she was even born – and she’s grateful that Leaf doesn’t then ask what the hell she’s done to prevent it. Rather, he’s gracious enough to tell her that by donating her dad’s camping equipment she’s ‘honouring his legacy’.

You’re a lovely young man, she thinks, waving him goodnight as he wafts off to Datura’s bedroom.

The night is still and the house quiet when Nick finally arrives. Bella makes a fuss over him, not too loudly. Rory slips a bookmark in His Dark Materials and puts it on top of her bag, sitting by the door. He’s apologising for the delay, telling her about the client, when he spots Leaf’s pot on the side table. ‘Whose is that?’

Uh-oh. Has she been a bad babysitter after all? ‘It’s Leaf’s. He doesn’t smoke it in front of the kids. He says Datura doesn’t smoke at all.’

Nick’s still staring at it. ‘Let’s have a joint.’

It’s stronger than either of them expected. How long since she’s been stoned? Months, for sure. Years, possibly. They raid the fridge, polish off the last of the latest cake, talking with their mouths full, spooning on more cream. She tells him what she heard Datura say about her mother having been a guitar player in a rock band.

‘Yep, that’s true,’ Nick confirms. ‘And she was good. Good singer too.’

‘Why’d she stop?’

He shrugs. ‘All the usual reasons bands break up. Booze, dope, crazy shit.’

‘Not so much wanting to stay home with the adorable toddler, then?’

Nick gives her a quizzical look, but his mind’s already flickering elsewhere. ‘Music!’ he says, jumping up, fiddling with the sound system.

The opening chords are so familiar, so dynamic, Rory’s head rears up like a startled horse. ‘Graceland?’ she cries. ‘I grew up with this!’

‘You too?’ says Nick happily. ‘Yah – soundtrack of my yoof.’

‘Oh my god, every time we got in the car my mum would put this on.’ Rory’s on her feet and within seconds they’re dancing, shaking their shoulders at each other, bouncing from foot to foot, lots of arm moves. Both seem to know every word, or think they do. With each song Nick turns the volume up a bit more. ‘This one! I love this one!’

‘My favourite album ever!’ yells Rory, stoned as a cricket.

They’re yowling ‘I know what I know, I’ll sing what I said’, prancing around the room air-punching and going ‘Woop woop woop woop’ on the chorus like a couple of howler monkeys, when the music suddenly shuts off.

Do you mind?’ Datura is standing there, a blanket wrapped around her. ‘Some people are trying to get some sleep.’

‘Sorry, darling,’ says Nick.

‘Sorry,’ mutters Rory.

‘Huh,’ Datura snorts. She spots the dope pouch, and the papers, and the little wizened end of their joint. Snatches them up. ‘At your age!’ she says witheringly, turning on her heel and exiting the room. The blanket sweeps the floor behind her like an empress’s train.

‘Oh shit,’ says Nick. ‘Now we’re in trouble.’

Wide-eyed, Rory asks, ‘Does this mean we’re not going to Graceland, Graceland?’

‘Memphis Tennessee,’ he whisper-sings back. They both start laughing and once they’ve started, that’s it. Uncontrollable. Doubled over, hands pressed to their mouths, snorting, not wanting to get into trouble again. Rory stumbles to the back door, making urgent gestures, out, out, and they’re on the deck, rolling side to side on their backs, trying to shriek quietly.

The dogs come out, pee sleepily in the grass, sit there watching them. Nick points at them: ‘It’s like they’re rating us. You know: stoned humans, out of ten.’ Hilarious!

Eventually they get it together, haul themselves back indoors. ‘Oh god, my stomach muscles are going to be so sore tomorrow,’ Rory says, hands on her belly where she’s been trying to hold the hysteria in.

‘Mine too,’ says Nick. ‘Are you okay to drive home?’

Is this where he asks if I want to stay? And what will she answer?

‘Because, I can drive you if you want.’

Oh. ‘Nah, I’ll be fine,’ she says breezily. ‘It’s just a couple of k’s. I’ll stick to the back roads.’ And they start giggling again because there’s nothing but back roads between their two houses; a short-lived giggle, though, because they’re laughed out. She calls Harpo; Nick carries the dog’s bed out to
her car.

But as she drives home, notably under the speed limit, Rory has to ask herself: Does he just not fancy me? Or what?

 

THESE DAYS FRANCINE lives at Gavin’s house, which is over the river. Rory thinks of anywhere over the river as ‘the other side of town’, implicitly a major trek, but really it’s not that far: just half an hour to get there, after peak hour.

It’s the prized end house in a row of heritage terraces, all tuck-pointed brickwork and tessellated tiles, elaborate cast-iron lacework on the upper verandah. Rory knocks on the door, expecting further Victorian grandeur, but once inside she sees the interior has been gutted, replaced by a temple of glistening modernity. The kitchen is like the bridge of the Starship Enterprise: an enormous round overhead light, lots of shiny white surfaces. She feels like an alien who’s been temporarily beamed up.

‘Stunning place!’ she says brightly as she hands over her gifts. Francine exclaims with pleasure at the flowers, Gavin gives the bottle of wine an approving nod. Rory has splurged on both, a pre-emptive offering of appeasement. She’s still not told them that, despite their repeated offers, she won’t be needing their help in preparing her house for sale – but silence speaks volumes, doesn’t it? They must have got the message by now; this dinner invitation is surely a signal they’re moving on.

A glass of bubbly, cheese and crackers, sociable chat. And then, barely five minutes in, Gavin claps his hands together and says, ‘So, Rory. Made your decision about the house?’

‘Ah, not really,’ says Rory, hoping her smile appears genuine. ‘Plenty of time for–’

‘That’s just where you’re wrong,’ says Gavin briskly. ‘Now, take this kitchen makeover.’ Francine frowns and shakes her head at her husband, just a tiny shake, blink and you’d miss it; he pretends he’s missed it. ‘I know it’s hard for you to visualise, Rory, so I’ve done a bit of homework for you. I’ll just get my laptop.’

‘I thought we were going to do this after dinner,’ says Francine. ‘The fish will be ready to serve soon.’

‘It’ll only take a minute.’ Gavin’s laptop is quickly to hand. He gestures Rory to join him at the long glass table, where three places have been set. ‘Ikea has this great website where you can model your plans in 3D. See?’ He nudges the laptop towards her. She has no idea what she’s looking at. ‘I took some measurements when we were at your place,’ he says, clicking away busily. Plans rotate, perspectives shift. ‘Overhead cupboards, stovetop, island bench. All this fits perfectly into the existing space. Brilliant, eh? Sliding doors onto the back deck, replace the sash window with a–’

‘Gavin,’ Rory says. ‘Wait. Please.’

He keeps clicking. A spreadsheet appears, with lots of figures. ‘I’ve done all the costings. If you order by the end of the financial year, we’ll get a 15 per cent discount.’ He sits back, looking immensely pleased with himself.

‘Gavin, I’ve decided not to renovate the house at all. Not even the kitchen.’

His head jerks back, he fixes her with a narrow-eyed stare. ‘What?

Francine is carrying plates over to the table. ‘Here we are!’ she says. ‘Darling, let’s go over that properly after dinner.’

Rory is looking at the meal in front of her, trying to disguise her dismay. Salmon. She doesn’t like salmon, never has. Francine knows that. ‘It’s Gavin’s favourite,’ Francine murmurs apologetically.

‘Lovely,’ says Rory with a feeble smile. She shakes out her table napkin, spreads it over her lap.

‘Rory says she’s decided not to renovate.’ Gavin’s voice is harsh. He picks up his knife and fork and cuts a piece of salmon, chewing as fiercely as if it were boot leather.

‘Oh, Ro-ry,’ says Francine on a falling note of plangent reproach. ‘You could have told us. Gavin’s put such a lot of effort into these plans.’

Delicately, Rory lifts the strip of salmon skin from her fillet. The fish is somewhat undercooked, and the thin layer of fat between skin and flesh makes her stomach roll ominously. ‘I never asked him to,’ she mutters.

Cutlery clenched in each fist, Gavin thumps the thick glass tabletop, bang, like a gunshot. Both women jump and look nervously towards him. He’s glaring at his guest. ‘You don’t like me, do you Rory?’ he says.

She can feel a blush work its traitorous way up her neck and into her face. Sprung.

‘Oh Gavin,’ says Francine, ‘I’m sure that’s not–’

‘You’ve never liked me. Determined not to, before we even met.’ Everything about him – face, torso, hands – is held still, perched on the perilous edge of fury.

Suddenly it’s clear, so clear Rory can almost see it, right in front of her. The wedge – hard, heavy, sharp – that he’s trying to drive between his wife and her friend. Can she deflect it? How? ‘I just want to stay in my dad’s house as it is, Gavin. Just for a while.’ The quaver in her voice seems slight; she hopes he cannot hear it. ‘That’s all. Nothing personal.’

‘Nothing personal,’ he sneers. ‘Nothing personal. I suppose there was nothing personal about your father committing suicide, and you not telling your best friend about it.’ Here Francine yelps, but Gavin barrels on ‘Not one word. Seems strange, doesn’t it? Eh? Almost like you’ve got something–’ He breaks off, meaningfully.

Rory’s heart seems to hold its breath. She has talked to no one about the pills in Dad’s pockets, the Scotch. No one who didn’t know already: the police, his doctor. How does Gavin know? She can’t make her voice ask the question, yet the answer arrives, in a scene like a still from a B-grade movie, lit by a flash of lightning: the police report, open on her father’s desk, and Gavin standing over it, reading.

Her voice is loud and startled. ‘You snooped. In my dad’s–’ She shakes her head, trying to compute. ‘What kind of person does that?’

He leans back in his chair. Ah, he’s enjoying this. ‘What kind of person? Now there’s a question. Tell us what kind of person you are, Rory. What kind of friend you are. What kind of daughter you are.’

Aghast, she turns toward Francine, begging her wordlessly to intervene, but Francine is twisting her napkin in her hands, gaze darting like a trapped rat between them. Gavin jerks his chin in her direction, and Francine squeezes her eyes shut. Then makes up her mind.

She looks directly at her friend. ‘Well, it is strange, isn’t it, Rory? That you didn’t say a single word to me about it.’ There is a pause; Rory knows she should try to fill it with a reason, but she can’t. ‘I mean, all I’ve ever tried to do, ever, is to be a good friend to you. Help you.’ Francine sighs heavily. ‘But there you are. You’ve always been a bit like that.’

‘A bit like what?’ Rory asks, barely whispering.

‘You know. A bit of a cold fish.’

Rory looks down at her plate, at the congealing slab of undercooked salmon. She pushes it away. ‘I have to go,’ she says, getting to her feet. Her bag is over there, on the couch; she just has to get across the room to it. Now pick it up. Now walk to the front door. She is moving. Her legs don’t really feel like her own but she is moving, more or less steadily. She can sense an agitation in the air just behind her. Francine.

‘Don’t go. Rory. There’s no need for you to go.’

She keeps moving. The bag is over her shoulder, she is feeling for the car keys, the front door just a few steps away.

Gavin, still sitting at the table, exuding an oily cloud of injured self-righteousness, shouts, ‘If you leave this house now, don’t bother trying to come back.’

‘He doesn’t mean that, he doesn’t,’ Francine hisses. Rory knows he does, that it’s the whole point. ‘I’ll talk to him.’

The front door. For a horrible second Rory fears it won’t open, but it does. There is the street outside, her car nearby. Francine is saying ‘I’ll call you’ as Rory closes the door behind herself.

She has to stop a couple of times on the way home. ‘Slow and deep,’ she says out loud, making herself do it, breathe that way. Cold fish; bit of a cold fish. Pulling up outside her house doesn’t seem quite real, turning the key in the front door is like some kind of trick. There’s Harpo, in his bed; he manages to crack an eye open, then sinks back into deep doggie sleep. According to the clock, she’s been gone less than two hours.

She’s barely eaten or drunk anything but doesn’t want to: her stomach’s so tight, the thought of forcing anything down is repulsive. She takes a large glass of water out to the back verandah, even though the night is chilly, and sits there in the dark. Cold fish. Down in the ocean depths.

Some part of her mind has been breached. Going helplessly over and over what was said, getting lost in the implications. Rocking back and forth in her seat, oblivious to the small moaning sounds someone or something is making.

The creak and scrape of the side gate jerks her upright. Oh god, not Francine! Not Gavin. She’ll hide, run away, she’ll–

‘Rory?’ It’s Nick’s voice. ‘Are you all right?’ He’s walking up the stairs, onto the verandah. Stops. ‘You’re not, are you?’ He comes over, pulls up a chair so they’re facing each other. The warmth from his body radiates towards her, she can feel it, like a secret sun. He doesn’t touch her or try to hug her, and she’s grateful for that because a hug right now would dissolve her like a woman made of salt, or ice. Cold–

‘Nick. Do you think I’m a cold fish?’ she asks. She must have been crying, her voice is clogged with it.

‘Just a minute,’ he says, and goes inside, comes back with a box of tissues and the throw from the couch, which he drapes and tucks around her. ‘There,’ he says. ‘And in answer to your question: no, I don’t. I think you have admirable qualities of reserve and ­self-containment. That doesn’t make you cold. Or a fish.’

She blows her nose, several times, hard. Oh, there’s water. She sips some. ‘I need to tell you what really happened to my dad. Is that okay?’

‘Of course,’ he says, adding, ‘You can tell me anything.’

‘Anything,’ she murmurs. ‘So. What I’ve been… Wait. How come you’re here? Did Datura know I was upset?’

‘No, I did. I just–’ His shoulders lift. ‘I got this feeling. So I came over.’

So that’s who Datura gets it from, notes some part of Rory’s brain. She’d thought it might be the mother.

The story unfolds in fits and starts, in rushes and hesitations. She tells Nick about her father: the macular degeneration, his long understanding of climate change. The garden of the Finzi-Continis; the bus up to the high country. The benzos and the whisky. The absence of farewell.

He listens.

She tells him about her long friendship with Francine, and about Gavin. About what happened tonight. As she talks she finds herself replaying the scene again, but this time it’s not inside her, nor she inside it. It’s something she’s watching, a scene from a movie. ‘It seems so trivial, now,’ she says with a note of wonder. ‘I mean – climate change, f’r instance, versus a fight with an old pal?’

‘It’s not trivial,’ says Nick.

‘The worst thing is, Gavin was right: I don’t like him. And I should’ve told Francine about Dad.’

‘You were right not to like him. Francine may have been your friend, but he never was. Sounds like he’s just been looking for a place to stick the knife in.’

‘But it was her who told me I was a cold fish. How long has she thought of me like that? And you know, it was kind of surreal because when she said it, we were eating fish.’ She gestures at the table, as though it’s right there in front of her.

‘You were eating fish? Like, for dinner?’

‘Yeah, salmon. I fucking hate salmon. She knows I hate salmon.’

All this time Nick has been listening, listening, his face attentive; now his serious expression starts to wobble. ‘Was it cold?’ he asks. And then he cracks up. Rory stares at him for a moment, confounded, and then she starts laughing too. It’s not the crazy-ass hysteria of the night of the joint, but it feels good. Better than good.

‘God I’m glad you came over,’ she says at last, pulling another tissue from the box to wipe her eyes. ‘Seriously. I felt like I was – I don’t know. Like everything I thought I understood about people had flipped over and was standing on its head.’

‘I know that feeling. When I was splitting up with Cressie, I felt like that. Nobody I knew seemed the same anymore. But someone told me a really helpful thing.’ He pauses, makes a slightly sheepish face. ‘Okay, it was my therapist. I was going on about how some of my old friends were cutting me dead but other people I’d hardly known before seemed to really get what was going on and he said, “Of course, Nick. What did you expect? When one big relationship in your life changes, every other relationship will change too.”’

‘Really?’ Rory considers. Slowly, she nods. ‘Yeah. I can get that. So like in this case, Francine has a new husband. Therefore, our friendship’s changed.’

‘Yes, but it’s not only her marriage. Your father’s died, and that changes who you are too. It’s bound to.’ Nick holds his hands up, twists them like he’s working a Rubik’s cube. ‘Some people will shift further away, some closer.’

‘And maybe some completely new people come in. Like, I met Datura.’ She pauses. ‘I met you.’

The cool night air seems to draw closer, listening.

‘That day in the park,’ says Nick quietly. ‘I kept thinking about you afterwards. And then when Dais– when Datura came home with that cake and said she’d been here to see you–’ He pats his chest, just over his heart, patpatpat.

‘I’ve been wondering what… How come…’ Oh god, thinks Rory, we’re in our forties, why is this so hard? ‘Have you been waiting for me to make the first move, Nick? Or–’

He turns his face quickly away, looking into the darkness of the garden, then back again. ‘Thing is, you’ll be leaving soon. The other side of the world, Rory.’

‘I know. But I’m here now.’ The invitation hovers delicately between them, like mist.

He shakes his head, hard, like he’s trying to throw something off. ‘I can’t. I know what I’m like, I get so fucking bonded. I haven’t got the–’ He clears his throat roughly. ‘Knowing you’re leaving, if we went – if we had – it would just shred me.’

His vehemence has startled her, straight back across the bridge, back beneath her carapace. ‘Got it. Yeah, you’re right.’ She chuckles politely to let him know she’s not offended. ‘Best not.’ She pushes her chair back from the table, shrugging the soft, warming blanket from her shoulders, and stands. ‘Thanks for coming,’ she says, like a hostess at the end of a party.

Nick gets to his feet too, slowly. ‘I should be getting home.’

‘You know what?’ says Rory. ‘So should I.’ They shoot each other a wary look.

‘I’m sorry,’ he says quietly.

‘Don’t be.’ 

His movements across the verandah are slow, effortful, as though he’s wading away from her through thigh-deep floodwater, and just when his foot is on the top step–

‘Are we still friends?’ she asks. Her hand rises to her mouth as though to check the words actually came from there. She thought she was just going to say goodbye, but now the question’s out there she really wants to know.

He takes a few long strides back and hugs her. ‘If we weren’t, I’d be heartbroken.’ From the fierce undercurrent in his voice, she doesn’t doubt it.

‘Well that’s a relief,’ she says. Too lightly; why does she always make light of the important things? But when they part, some of that lightness is in the space between them, making the distance bearable.   

 

RORY’S HAD HER morning coffee, walked Harpo, given herself the pep talk. ‘You know what you have to do, now do it.’ Out loud, in a determined voice. ‘No more shilly-shallying!’ Oh god, she sounds exactly like her mother. Well, nothing wrong with that: Mum was good at getting things done.

Giving the camping gear to the forest activists felt positive, so she’ll start with finding more useful things to give away. From the linen closet she pulls out carefully stored woollen blankets, feather doonas, an excess of bed linen, and loads them into the car. She gets the stepladder and raids the high cupboards in the kitchen. An entire dinner service, barely used, with a beautiful old-fashioned pattern of roses. Was this a wedding gift? She’s about to hoist the box, but quails. Is this right? Would Mum want me to do this?

Someone takes her hand. Her mother. That’s how strong the memory is: she can actually feel her mother’s hand holding hers. First day at kindergarten, or perhaps at school. Mum is leading her across the playground, and when Rory hesitates, just as she did now, her mother bends to kiss the top of her head, then gives her a gentle push forward. Out you go, into the world.

‘Right you are, Mum,’ she says fondly, and carries the box out to the car. The bedding, the dinner service, a rice cooker, two crockpots and plenty more – all of these she takes to a place that assists refugees. On her return, just as she’s turned the car’s engine off and pulled the handbrake on, she feels something: a tap on her shoulder. But there is no one there to tap her shoulder. Someone speaks, their voice silent but no less clear for that. He did leave you a note, you just haven’t found it yet.

She goes straight to her father’s study, where the police report still sits on his desk. It has become a menacing presence, a chunk of pulsing radioactive rock. Rory draws herself up and marches over to confront it. Making herself read it again, all the way through from front to back, she finds it’s not so shocking this time, and as she reads the section on what happened to his body, she’s able to think of Datura’s dream and Saint Francis. When she closes the report, its unsettling power has ebbed away. She’s accepted its limitations: all it can tell her is what, but not why.

And now, she can proceed. She begins the search for her father’s final note by lifting and examining every item on his desk. Then the drawers, with their staplers and paperclips and magnifiers and – ah, look: the DVD. The Garden of the Finzi-Continis. Could he have–? Fingers clumsy with haste, she opens the case. No note.

On the opposite side of the room stands her father’s sturdy old four-drawer filing cabinet. Rory fixes it with an interrogator’s stare. You?

Bending to grasp the handle of the bottom drawer, labelled Met Bureau, she pulls it firmly open. The drawer is heavy with packed files documenting his long career: newspaper clippings, reports, scientific papers. Look at this: a piece about climate change from – when? 1975! ‘A climatic change of great significance to human life.’ She takes a photo of it to send to Leaf and continues her mission, flipping through folders and paper with machine-like efficiency. She finds many things, but not her father’s note.

She opens the next drawer, Finances: bank statements, tax returns, superannuation, but no note. In Family/Personal, second from the top, there’s a whole file labelled Rory’s Letters. She pulls it out of the drawer with a surge of nervy optimism, takes it over to his desk. Postcards, handwritten letters from those first few years after she left Australia to go travelling, full of enthusiastic descriptions of the people she’s meeting, the places she’s visiting.

A snapshot falls out of one letter: the Golden Gate Bridge behind her, a big grin on her face, arm in arm with Drew, who would become her husband. She’s half the age she is now, and he was almost forty, almost twice her age. Did her parents disapprove? She can’t recall them saying anything. Perhaps they did, and she just pretended that they hadn’t. Conflict averse: she remembers Drew calling her that, some years in. He’d wanted her to go into therapy for it; she’d laughed, genuinely amused. If she’d told her parents, they’d have laughed too.

Once her parents take up using email, the paper trail peters out. After digital photography, not even any snapshots.

Finally, the top drawer. Misc. She dives on a file labelled Health, gasps in shock to find it gaping, empty. Dad, who worshipped facts – how could he have binned all that information? When? Last summer, most likely, when she was still planning to visit. If his GP hadn’t come to the funeral, hadn’t been willing to talk to her, there’s so much Rory would never have understood. But – maybe it’s not about her at all. Maybe he was trying to protect Doctor Ross. She doesn’t know; won’t ever know. 

She’s down to the last few files. One for each of the bushwalking groups he’d belonged to, another full of maps. OS Travel has tickets and itineraries and ephemera going back decades, and sitting behind it is a narrow cardboard box that turns out to contain passports. Two lifetimes of passports, his and her mother’s. She looks through them that evening, sitting at the dining table with a glass of wine. The visa stamps; their photographs, each time ten years older. She has a second glass of wine and finds herself sniffling.

She plugs in the DVD player, inserts the disc she found earlier: The Garden of the Finzi-Continis. A movie made fifty years ago, when her parents were newly married and just beginning their careers, about events that took place twenty-five years before. She crosses her fingers and presses play. Yes! It plays. She pictures her mother and father sitting in the cinema together, watching this movie on the big screen, this sad and beautiful tale of doomed families caught up in a cataclysm beyond imagining. Like this one, she thinks. Like now.

In the final scene, the proud old man turns to the young woman who should have become his daughter-in-law, on his face the awful ­comprehension – at last, but too late – of what is coming. Rory, who has finished off the bottle of wine while watching, raises her hand, not in greeting but farewell. ‘Bye, Dad,’ she calls across the room. Tears are sheeting down her face. I’m drunk, she thinks. Too bad. ‘I love you. Bye.’

 

IT’S DATURA WHO insists that Rory plays babysitter again the second time Nick has to visit his distant clients. She enlists Milo in her petition as well, and between them they override the two adults’ recent pussyfooting reticence. Right up until the first evening, Rory has a prickle of uncertainty – should she still be getting close? when she’s leaving? – but then she settles in with the kids and Leaf and the dogs, everyone happy, everyone relaxed, and thinks: This is good. Been here, done this.

So it hits her with a visceral shock, two days later, to return from the park and hear shouting so loud it’s audible through the closed front door. Datura. Furious. ‘Oh no,’ Rory mutters, glancing down at the dogs as though for guidance, but Harpo and Bella are no help. She unlocks the door and the dogs charge down the hallway.

‘Why didn’t you tell me?’ Datura’s wailing from the far end of the house. ‘I could’ve–’ and then her voice cuts off as the dogs galumph into the room.

‘Hi, we’re back,’ Rory redundantly calls. She hangs her jacket and the dogs’ leads on coat hooks and walks towards the living room with a sense of dread, hoping her face doesn’t show it.

Datura’s by the kitchen counter, quiveringly distraught. Leaf is standing in the middle of the room like someone stranded by a storm. Rory takes one brave step into the room, and then another. ‘What’s up?’

‘He’s leaving,’ yells Datura. She snatches up a big bunch of flowers still wrapped in florists’ paper in both hands and starts flailing it on the stone benchtop. Flower heads fly off. She throws the mangled bunch at the wall. ‘Fuck!’

‘But, hey, you always knew I’d have to be going once this forest action started,’ Leaf says. He sounds about as shaky as Rory feels. ‘And now it’s started.’

‘I could go too. I can do stuff. I want to help.’ Datura’s pleading is even worse than Datura yelling and busting up flowers.

Leaf looks like he could start crying himself any minute. ‘I know you do, but this isn’t gonna be an action for first-timers. Believe me, it’s really not.’ He casts an anguished look at Rory: Help me!

She swallows hard. ‘Will there – are people likely to get arrested?’

‘For sure,’ he says fervently. ‘It’s gonna get ugly.’ He goes over to Datura and tries to take one of her hands; she pulls away. ‘Seriously, babe, the best way you can help is finish school, go to–’

‘Shut up,’ she screams at him. ‘I don’t care about school! I don’t give a fuck about uni! Fuck you!’ She almost collides with Rory as she runs from the room. The slam of her bedroom door shakes the house.

Rory’s gaze locks with the young man’s. ‘I’m gonna write her a note,’ he says. She finds paper for him, and a pen. He sits down at the table and writes; his hands, she sees, are shaking. She puts on music, something instrumental and soothing, and cleans up the mess of massacred flowers.

When Leaf takes his note up the hallway, Rory holds her breath, but he’s gone such a short time she understands he must have just slipped it under her door. Not cowardice, in her opinion: commitment to his cause. His backpack is ready to go, bed-roll strapped on, just outside the back door. He hugs Rory; she wishes him well and asks him to contact her if he needs anything. ‘Bail money, f’r instance,’ she says, smiling as convincingly as she can manage.

Milo gets home, ravenous as always, and she tells him what’s happened as he pours milk into a huge bowl of cereal. ‘She knew he was gonna go,’ he says, not unsympathetically, between spoonfuls. Going off to his room to do homework, he turns in the doorway and adds rather sadly, ‘I really liked Leaf.’

‘Me too.’

Rory can hear sounds from Datura’s room; she sneaks down the hallway and listens at the door. The girl seems to be stomping about her room as she talks on the phone, her voice twanging with tension. Rory can’t make out any words. Wait: was that ‘Mum’? If she’s talking to her mother, please please may this unknown woman talk sense to her daughter. Help her calm down.

Dinner prep. Bean tacos: both kids love them, and with any luck the messy conviviality of grabbing fillings from the bowls and piling them into the shells will…will…she doesn’t realistically hope it will make Datura happy, not yet, but – less unhappy? Milo answers her dinner summons, and while he feeds the dogs Rory calls the girl again. No answer. She goes to the door of her room, knocks. Opens the door.

There’s no one in there.

Rory calls Datura’s phone; the call seems to answer but then immediately cuts off. She calls Leaf’s; a recorded message announces that the phone is not in service or is out of range. There’s no capacity to leave a message.

The bedroom’s in its usual state of chronic dishevelment, but Milo looks in his sister’s wardrobe and says he thinks her backpack’s gone. Or maybe she lost it? Rory tries Datura again and this time her phone rings out. Should I call Nick? Not yet, she decides. There’s no reason to think the girl’s in danger.

Over the next hour or so, she tries Datura’s phone a dozen times. Finally, it’s answered – by a male voice leaden with authority. She catches only the word Security. There is a silence. ‘Tullamarine Airport Security,’ says the man again, the words running together in a single stream. ‘Who’s called this number, please?’

Rory gathers herself, tells him her name, asks to speak to Da– Daisy, the owner of the phone.

‘Are you the mother?’ asks the man.

Rory’s heart quails. Isn’t that the kind of question you hear cops asking on TV shows, when a teenage girl (too often a teenage girl) has fallen victim to some dreadful crime? But at that moment she hears Datura’s voice in the background, demanding ‘Tell me who it is.’

‘Family friend,’ Rory tells the security guy crisply. ‘I’ll come and pick her up. Be there in half an hour.’ Milo is watching tensely; she holds up her free hand to him with fingers crossed.

The man hesitates. Rory closes her eyes; say yes, say yes. He covers the phone, but imperfectly. ‘Jason: this woman, family friend, says she can come and pick her up. What do you reckon?’ Another long pause. Then he’s speaking to Rory again. ‘Half an hour, or we’ll be getting the police involved. We can’t be sitting here all night baby­sitting some little ratbag who decides to go troppo in the middle of Terminal Three.’

Forty-five minutes later, having narrowly avoided a hefty fine for overstaying the time limit in the drop-off area, she has Datura in the passenger seat of her car and they’re heading away from the airport. Datura, fully goth’d, mascara and eyeliner smeared across half her face, is refusing to talk to her. Fine. Rory concentrates on driving flawlessly because, above all, she so does not want any more drama tonight.

‘Give me my phone,’ the girl demands.

Rory weighs up the odds: refuse and risk another blow-up; give it to her and listen while she makes further ill-advised calls. She fishes the phone out of her jacket pocket and hands it to her. ‘Be my guest.’

Datura snatches the phone, presses a key, twists in her seat to face the window. Rory can hear, just, a voice say ‘Hello?’

‘So what the fuck happened, Mum?’ hisses Datura.

In under a minute, the girl and her mother are having a full-on screaming row. Rory drives grimly on. From what she can make out, Datura’s mother had told her (‘Promised,’ shrieks the girl, ‘you promised me’) that if she went to Melbourne airport there would be a paid ticket to Perth waiting for her. Surprise, surprise – there was no ticket, and now they’re intent on blowing each other up.

Just stop, Rory silently urges the girl. End the call, return to planet Earth. But that’s clearly not happening. The storm continues to rage – until Datura goes suddenly still. The sound of the mother’s voice, insistent.

‘I have no idea how his fucking cello exam went,’ Datura shoots back. ‘Why don’t you ask him? Oh, because he won’t talk to you, right? Mumsy’s darling, Milo the musical fucking genius. Guess he’s gotta be smarter than me, eh, because he refuses to talk to you. If I just–’ she stops, listens, then shrieks, ‘No I will not. He can – say what? No, fuck you, bitch. Fuck you twice.’

She presses end so hard it’s a wonder the screen doesn’t buckle. Nearly home, nearly home, and Rory’s awarding herself a hundred brownie points for biting her tongue on all the comments just aching to be made. She pulls the car into the driveway, turns off the engine. Immediately, Datura’s fighting with the door handle, trying to get out.

‘Wait,’ says Rory. ‘I’m not unlocking the doors until you’ve promised me you won’t run off again. You have to promise me you’ll stay here tonight. Okay?’

‘Unlock the fucking door!’

‘Datura, we will sit here all night if we have to. You need to tell me you won’t run off again. We can talk about stuff tomorrow.’

‘All right.’

Rory unlocks the car doors; the girl snatches her pack off the back seat and charges up the front steps, so like a cyclonic storm cloud Rory can almost see the flashes of lightning. As she unlocks the front door, they both hear the sounds of Milo’s cello practice coming from his room – and with that, a lightning bolt arcs to earth.

Datura charges down the hallway, flinging her pack aside as she goes, and throws open her brother’s door. Over the racket of the dogs who have bounded up to greet her, Rory hears Milo cry out in alarm. In the few seconds it takes her to get free of the dogs she sees Datura burst out of his room, carrying the cello above her head in both hands like a warrior bearing a trophy from the field of battle.

Pandemonium. Milo is after Datura, the dogs are after Milo, Rory is bringing up the rear. Those who aren’t shouting are barking wildly. The siblings are down the end of the house now, momentarily lost to view.

There is a crash, and Milo screams. Rory hadn’t realised till this exact moment how terrible it is to hear a man, even one as young as Milo, scream like this, in fear and in anguish. She makes it to the living room. Milo is on the floor by the couch, cradling his cello. The neck is sagging forward, snapped, attached only by the strings.

Datura is standing there, hands to her head, wailing, keening.

Rory runs towards her, full tilt. She has no idea what she’s going to do, and the girl doesn’t either but drops her arms, still wailing, to take whatever’s coming. No attack, not even defence. Her face is a roiling mess of emotions but Rory sees a kind of desperate courage there, and to her own intense surprise she finds herself throwing her arms around the girl, embracing her.

I’m saying something. So softly Rory can’t hear it herself. What am I saying? She repeats it again and again. Datura has to lower the volume of her wailing to hear it too. Again, again, still holding the girl close, she is saying, ‘If you only knew how much I love you.’

They are both crying. Milo is crying. ‘You can let go of me now,’ Datura says, and when Rory does so, she drops to the floor beside her brother. ‘We’ll get it fixed, bro, I promise,’ she sobs. ‘I’m so sorry, I’m such a fuckhead. But I promise I’ll get it fixed, whatever it costs. I’ll get a job, I’ll pay for it.’

Rory sinks onto the couch. The kids drag themselves up like shipwreck survivors onto a raft and they all just lie there, sprawled together. After a while Rory raises her head to check something she’s just remembered. ‘Well, look at that. Tacos, anyone?’

They eat like people who haven’t had a feed in a week. Rory makes mugs of soothing herbal teas, and everyone drinks them. Milo says he’s going to bed; his sister hugs him and repeats her earlier promise.

She comes and sits down beside Rory. ‘You need to tell my dad that,’ she says.

‘Tell him what?’ asks Rory. ‘About what’s happened?’

‘Yeah, no,’ says the girl, and they smile shakily at each other. ‘What you told me. The love thing. You need to tell him that.’

Rory makes a small sound, trying for a laugh. ‘But I can’t say that to him, because it wouldn’t be true. I like your dad, sure. But I don’t – you know.’

‘Huh. I know you do.’ Datura manages a token eye roll before it morphs into a huge yawn. ‘Anyhow. I’m going to bed now.’

So does Rory. In minutes, they are all asleep.

 

BY THE TIME Rory gets up next morning, Datura has already taken the dogs for a walk and is cleaning up the kitchen. When her brother stumbles out in boxers and T-shirt, she points with both hands to her own scrubbed-clean face. ‘See? Not scary.’

‘Oh sure, you keep tellin’ yourself that,’ croaks Milo. She headbutts him gently; he puts her in a pretend headlock.

‘Sibling devotion,’ says Rory. ‘It’s a beautiful thing.’

After breakfast Milo phones his cello teacher, who gives him the name of a luthier who can repair his instrument. (‘A luthier,’ murmurs Rory. ‘Who knew?’) The three of them go there together, Milo sitting in the back seat beside his cello, one hand resting protectively on its case. They are all quiet, anxious, as though transporting a dangerously ill patient. His teacher has already spoken to the luthier, who is kind and reassuring to Milo, and takes Datura’s phone number and email when she insists the invoice should be sent to her.

Milo, visibly lighter of spirit, asks if he can spend the day at a friend’s place. Rory detours to drop him off there, and as they drive away Datura says, ‘Can we go to your house?’

‘Why?’

‘I want to make him a cake.’

‘We could make it just as well at yours.’

‘Please,’ says Datura.

She’s ashamed, Rory realises. Can’t feel easy at home until she’s made what amends she can. ‘Okay.’

Datura has the baking basics down now. All Rory has to do is stand back and watch, answering the occasional question and offering one or two reminders to avert disaster (because this cake must not be a disaster). Once it’s in the oven they go into the living room together, just as they did the first time Datura came here.

Again the girl gravitates to Rory’s photograph of Tomales Bay. She stands in front of it, or more precisely in front of the chest-high bookcase above which the photograph is hung. She’s too close, Rory thinks, to really take the image in, yet she’s staring intently. ‘What are you looking at?’ she asks.

Datura says, ‘There’s something here.’

‘What do you mean?’

‘Something here,’ she repeats. ‘I don’t know. I think it’s something of your dad’s, but not – I dunno. Maybe, like, a present from him?’

Hairs prickle all over Rory’s body. Behind the photograph. She jumps up from the armchair, takes hold of the bottom of the frame. ‘Here, I’ll hold it out from the wall, you look behind it.’

‘Wait a second.’ Datura grabs her phone, turns on the LED flashlight. ‘Okay. What am I looking for?’

‘A letter. Could be taped there, somewhere.’

Twisting her slender body to get the best view, Datura peers at the back of the photograph and the wall itself, carefully shining the bright beam up and around. Rory holds the frame as far from the wall as she can. Be patient, be patient.

‘Nothing,’ says the girl eventually. ‘Damn.’

Damn, all right. For those few minutes, Dad’s final note had seemed so close. Rory settles the frame back into position with care, trying not to let her disappointment show. ‘Ah well,’ she says, and wanders outside to the back verandah. Through the window she notices that Datura’s still standing there in front of the bookcase, turning her head from side to side. Rory taps the glass. ‘What’s up?’

‘It’s still here.’

Rory hurries back inside. ‘Maybe it’s in a book. What do you think – a book?’

Datura does her twisty-shoulder shrug. ‘I dunno. Is there, like, a special…’ She darts forward. ‘Ooh, maybe this one! As I Lay Dying.’ She flips the pages, shakes them out. ‘Crap,’ she mutters.

Rory’s scanning the shelves. What were Dad’s favourites; what might have been foremost in his mind, those last days? She finds the book of photographs from Lake Pedder, before the lake was drowned. No, nothing there.

‘The Bible?’ hazards Datura. ‘’Cos that’s, you know, impor­tant, right?’

‘Do we even have a Bible?’ asks Rory doubtfully. Datura clicks her tongue, tsk tsk tsk, and heaves a thick tome from the bottom shelf. ‘Oh. I guess we do,’ Rory murmurs. ‘What do you know?’ The girl checks it. Nothing.

The oven timer rings and Datura takes the cake out. When she comes back, Rory’s removing books more or less at random. She’s found two boarding passes, a ticket stub, even an actual bookmark, but no letter.

‘Wait.’ Datura stands on tiptoe, trying to get a bird’s-eye view of the bookcase. ‘Is this, like, built in?’

‘I believe so,’ says Rory. She has known this room all her life and the bookcase has always been right here, in this position.

‘I think there’s a lil’ teeny gap.’

‘What? No,’ says Rory. She takes a look herself. ‘Oh my god, you’re right. There used to be a piece of fabric along here, an ­embroidered runner. Look, see where the wood’s not faded?’

‘So it covered this gap, yeah? Which is widest here–’ Datura glances upward at the photograph ‘Yeah: right in the middle.’

Rory’s staring. Right where you might prop something if you wanted someone to notice it.

‘Def wide enough for–’ With her hand turned flat and upright, Datura mimes it shifting, slipping.

They look at each other. ‘Okay,’ says Rory. ‘Let’s see if we can move this sucker.’

They unload the heaviest books, but still the bookcase weighs too much. Working together, first at one end then the other, back and forth, they manage to walk it forward a few centimetres. Datura gets a chair and stands on it, leaning forward, shining her iPhone light down into the gap. ‘This is hopeless. We have to get it further out so I can see properly.’

Back to work. They struggle and strain and manage to walk the bookcase out a hand’s width. Datura climbs up on the chair again, crouching with one hand on the wall for balance as she follows the beam of light with the intensity of a hovering hawk. Her head jerks forward. ‘Oh!’

‘What?’

‘I think there’s–’ Angling her torso, Datura reaches one arm down into the gap.

‘A letter?’

‘Dunno. It’s caught halfway but I can’t reach it.’

‘Hang on.’ It’s just a lost bill, Rory tells herself as she runs out to the barbecue on the back verandah. An ancient Christmas card, as she lifts the cover and grabs the extra-long pair of tongs. A reminder notice for some appointment, as Datura repositions herself along the top of the bookcase and reaches down, fossicking with the tongs. ‘Be careful!’

‘Got it!’ cries the girl. She pulls herself upright and offers it to Rory, firmly gripped in the jaws of the tongs. An envelope.

Rory’s name is on the front, in her Dad’s handwriting. She holds it in both hands and lifts her eyes to Datura’s triumphant face. ‘I’m scared to open it,’ she whispers.

‘Are you?’ The girl hops down from the chair, looking suddenly very serious. ‘Okay, let’s, um–’ She points at the armchair. ‘That was his favourite place to sit?’

‘Yes,’ says Rory. ‘Or out there, on the back verandah.’

‘Choose one.’

Rory points outside. 

‘Okay, you sit out there and read it, I’ll stay here and – um, I’ll be–’

‘You’ll keep watch?’

Datura’s face is transformed again with a quick, radiant smile. ‘That’s it! Like a lifeguard, you know, at the beach.’ She plonks herself down in the armchair. ‘See? I’ll be right here. You need me, just–’ she raises one arm straight above her head and waves it side to side. ‘Like that. Okay?’

Seated at the table on the back verandah, Rory looks into the garden and makes herself draw a couple of deep, slow breaths. Then she picks up the envelope and runs her forefinger under its seal. Takes the letter out and unfolds it carefully. There are three pages, from a lined notepad. The writing is very much her father’s familiar hand, but at the same time different: messier, less certain, with some lines missed and others running into each other. She takes her time; she gives it the time it needs.

The writing may be difficult to make out, but the thoughts it expresses are not. Her father took his time too, composing this letter with care and precision. Everything is there. Everything she expected, everything she’s come to understand: his views, his reasoning. Even his feelings. How deeply he desired to end his life in nature, to walk out into it ‘on my own hind legs’ and while still able to see, more or less, what surrounded him. While there was still nature to surround him.

He held this back from her, he writes, not because he didn’t love and trust her but because her knowing would make it harder for him to go, and to go alone, as he wished, as he must. ‘You will understand this,’ he says. ‘Dare I say that we are not unalike?’

She cries and laughs, she gazes out into the garden at the shrubs and trees, at the birds making use of his birdbaths.

The writing stops halfway down the third page. In the last few lines (Don’t end, she thinks as they approach, don’t end!) he writes: ‘There was a Rilke poem your mother loved. She used to recite it to me when she was ill. These are the lines I remember:

Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror.

Just keep going. No feeling is final.

That’s what I want to say to you, dear Rory. I hope it’s enough.

Except of course, for this:

love

Dad’

Time passes. Datura, she becomes aware, is sitting quietly beside her. Time passes.

‘Thank you,’ says Rory at last.

‘You’re going to stay here, aren’t you?’ Datura says. ‘You’re not going back to San Francisco.’

As soon as she says it, Rory knows it’s true. Why has it taken her so long to see that San Francisco’s claim on her has been waning for years? And now… ‘You’re right. I want to stay here.’

She can give the business to Luisa, who is so good at running it, who arrived from Mexico with nothing; that would be perfect. Renting out her house in the Haight will make her enough to live on – more than enough. Lucky you. And she can give what she doesn’t need to – to activist groups like Leaf’s, and the place that helps refugees. People who aren’t playing tennis in the garden of the Finzi-Continis.

Datura leans over, slowly, slowly, like a flower whose bloom has become too full for its stalk, and lies her head down on Rory’s forearm. Her eyes are closed. Her head is heavy on Rory’s arm but it’s a good weight, a grounding weight. ‘Are you gonna tell my dad?’

With her free hand, Rory strokes the girl’s hair. ‘Would you rather tell him?’

Datura rolls her head back and forth, the horizontal equivalent of shaking it. ‘No, I meant – are you gonna tell him the other thing?’

‘Oh. That other thing.’ Rory thinks about it, just briefly, and smiles. ‘Yes. Yes I am.’

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