Whatever happens, this is.
IT IS PEAK hour in the City of Light. A woman cycles backwards up a steep incline. The woman might be travelling home or to work. Other commuters flash past her on the busy city cycle path. There are black swans on the river. A train passes on a nearby bridge.
Wil commutes to work in the CBD four days a week. She prefers the shared cycle paths along the water’s edge to fighting with the traffic for space at the fringe of the highway. The river soothes her with its swans and cormorants, stilts and plovers. There is something about its broad expanse, its gentle current, that keeps her pedalling, despite everything.
Look again at the woman on the bicycle: Wilhelmina Blomme. She has the physique of a serious cyclist: lean and angular, almost boyish. But she is not cycling backwards. How could you? Perception is only ever partial, tentative. Perception is a game. Wil is moving forwards at considerable speed. And it’s a steep descent.
A few short months ago, Wil had been sitting beside her dear friend, Ying, when she felt compelled to confess. They were studying a day-long course on Buddhist approaches to hospice care. It was a field in which they both volunteered, if irregularly. The two friends had enjoyed a long lunch and it was almost time to go back into the seminar room. They had caught up on the usual gossip when Wil made the admission.
‘I have a major problem at work.’
‘What is it?’
‘I’m trying to see it for what it is. I don’t want to act on it, but it’s difficult.’
‘It’s such a strong pull. Physical. Intellectual. Emotional.’
‘Is he in a relationship?’
‘I have no idea. I haven’t dared ask. I am, though. The point is: I am.’
Something about giving voice to the attraction made it seem real.
‘Everywhere I look, there he is,’ Wil told Ying. ‘The image of him, but more than the image, a kind of sensory shadow, his body, a corporeal ghost. I turn left: he’s there. Right: he’s there. Like, he’s right there close.’ She placed a hand up to her face. ‘It’s as if I carry him with me.’
‘Is it a mutual thing?’ her friend wanted to know. ‘I mean, usually, you can sense it’s a mutual thing, because you’re both sending out some kind of signal.’
‘That’s it. I think so.’
‘Do you work closely with him?’
But not usually, she thought. Most of their communication was digital. Twice, perhaps three times a day. Which was what made it all the more difficult to get a handle on what was going on. It seemed there was something between them, but she couldn’t be sure. Was it mutual or not? There was something between them, yes, and yet there was also nothing.
She is mid-descent. No, she is airborne.
At home, of late, she had watched the boys playing war games with jets and fighter planes made from Lego, and felt strangely distanced from them. In some ways, she had already left them. She watched her partner, Frane, draining the pasta, steam rising in the kitchen, witnessed the shrill tap-tap of the strainer as the last of the water drizzled into the sink. She loved these three, their shared home overlooking the forest, the nest they’d made. Yet recently, she had taken to looking at them as a mourner might, as only someone who is about to instil damage into the hearts of her loved ones can.
She would get up from the chair she always flopped into after the hugs and kisses of the home-time greeting, and turn down the hall towards the bedroom she shared with Frane. She would take off her cycling gear and throw it into the laundry basket and, as she was searching for the comfortable trousers she usually wore around the house, she would sense the stranger. He was there in the shadows. She liked to shut her eyes and breathe him in and call him to life.
‘Mum! Tell Clancy to put the fighter plane down. He shouldn’t touch my things. They’re not for babies.’
The little ones stormed in, breaking the dream, as if they had an extra sense for when their mother’s attention strayed too far. They grabbed at her trouser seams, climbed onto her bed. They were territorial, all knowing. On a bad day, she despised them. And yet, so many of the observations she had made about them of late seemed all the more precious and beautiful under the premise that this could all be about to end.
How bad could it get? The tarot-card reader Ying had recommended gave a spectacularly dramatic reading. Wil could still see the card the woman placed before her: the Hanged Man. A fantasy artist had taken great pleasure in giving form to a doomed character: suspension, change, abandonment, reversal, sacrifice. The card was all blues and silvers. The Hanged Man was suspended by one ankle, the other leg crossed behind the knee, his hands behind his back. Around his head was a golden halo.
Wil was not, ordinarily, a superstitious person. But these were not ordinary days. She knew that the woman’s reading served as a warning. She needed to slow down, the tarot reader told her, to reconsider. But Wil also knew that she would not. She could not.
HER BICYCLE FRAME was white and gleaming. The tyres were black, the accessories polished silver. In the sunshine, the whole thing sparkled. The bike used to belong to a man named Alan, a lawyer. He had maintained it meticulously for ten years, then upgraded to a more expensive model. Sometimes Wil wondered about the journeys the bike went on with Alan before she came to own it last winter. Did it know the river? Did it know this hill? Had it ever been dropped before? How fast had it gone, between the legs of the lawyer? What had he taught it in the way of grace?
Lately, while completing the first part of her commute in the car, her bicycle strapped to the roof, Wil had been listening to an audiobook about wisdom. Initially she pondered what might qualify the author, a journalist, to write about such a topic. At the same time, she was interested in what he was saying, which was that wisdom was not just intelligence – it had to include emotional even-handedness and a degree of optimism. The journalist gave a list of wise people stretching back through history. They were mostly men. Mother Teresa was the only woman. It was the old whore or saint thing again, Wil supposed. She pondered this. Weren’t women, especially mothers, often perfect examples of emotional intelligence? Why the hell weren’t there more of them on the journalist’s list? Oh, but you had to be grand scale about it, of course. You had to be grand scale to be notable. In the private sphere, women had no meaning. And in the public sphere, women who were leaders were always accused of moodiness, or being flighty, or not having the required degree of emotional distance. Or the opposite: being cold.
Lately Wil had, just quietly, a bit of a handle on wisdom, or so she thought. It was something about having turned forty, perhaps. Small conflicts got to her less often, especially at work. She knew something of how things change, and how quickly. She found she could solve problems with little effort, a sense of detachment, a kind of efficiency.
But the American journalist was irritating. ‘The thing about wisdom,’ he said, in his cultivated New York accent, ‘just because you have it, doesn’t mean you get to keep it.’
Wilhelmina Blomme is mid-descent. No, she is caught somewhere. She isn’t even moving.
Less than ten minutes ago, she had reached the peak of the morning ascent and was careering down the other side, taking the gradual turn on the edge of the river bend at Squall’s End. She had already changed down gears. She was leaning forward, low. She was all eyes on the path, leaning, correcting, leaning again. She had done this many times before.
But this was something different: a shocking jolt – from what? Was there a raised obstacle? Had she closed her eyes? Somehow her shoes were released from their cleats. She had read some instructions once: find your balance; release yourself; work the corners. Sometimes she liked to recite the instructions, a kind of mantra, on the descent. But she couldn’t get it to work this time: the instructions no longer made sense. Had her helmet actually come off?
Outside the vortex of the accident, continuity could probably still be counted on. Her husband would be sitting in the study at home, making slow progress on a working drawing for a yet-to-be-built dream home. Increasingly, since the arrival of the children, Frane has seemed incapable of doing anything with speed. He earns less than half her income, running his own business at home. His contribution to the parenting is picking up the children from school and day care three afternoons a week. But as soon as she gets home, the boys fling themselves at her – and he retreats. Sometimes Frane cooks the evening meal. Mostly he falls asleep in front of the television, and doesn’t answer her when she calls for him to come to bed. This is a relationship in which she has been feeling, for some years, a terrible sense of loneliness. Perhaps they both have.
At work, the progress meeting on the North-West Project will soon be underway without her. She will not be able to deliver her work on the public relations risks of employing that new contractor. It occurs to her, apropos of nothing, that she may never set foot in the boardroom at Corp C again. She feels good about this in some ways. The corporate drama would continue, but she would miss the painting on the boardroom wall: the bold grey stormfront by David Giles. There is, amid Giles’s grey cloudscape, a beautiful yellow light. It is the sun, she supposes, refracted. It hasn’t occurred to her until now just how important that painting has been to her over the months she has spent in that job. She has always chosen to sit on the left-hand side of the chair, so as to face it. Giles was painting about people, even though the human form, in a figurative sense, was completely absent from his work. He was painting about perception and how it shifts. His storm painting granted time, in a subtle way. It granted time to contemplate that shift.
The acting deputy’s PA would probably be phoning her mobile about now. There would be some mystification about her absence, some impatience. They would postpone the meeting, once, then twice, until it became apparent that she was not returning to work. Or they would continue, today, with what they had in front of them. One always imagines oneself more indispensable than is actually the case. There are plenty of indispensable people in graveyards, and yet the world still turns.
‘Most domestic monetary setbacks are viewed through a prism of shame,’ began one of her final columns for The Tabloid, late last year. ‘Because of this, they have a potential to lead to aggression and anger.’
It’s funny how her finance-journalist voice can float into her consciousness – phrase for phrase, at inopportune times. Sometimes these floating lines remind her of her capacity to gently counsel, if not herself, then at least (with some success) her readers. But at other times, the tone is mocking. How dare she ever set herself up as the voice of knowledge? How dare she ever suppose her words have the capacity to carry the intended meaning?
‘The husband’s annual taxable income in 2006 was $16,567,’ appears her voice again now, this time from an advice column published back in 2008. ‘The wife’s annual taxable income for the same year was $83,153.’ These sentences arrive in her mind like carriages derailed as she falls rapidly down the steep northern bank of Swell River through a fringing vegetation of flooded gum, swamp paperbark, melaleuca and, finally, bare twig rush. Perhaps there is a sound something like a splash when she breaks the surface of the water, while barely a kilometre away, the glistening CBD skyscrapers twinkle in the morning sun.
As a child, Wil’s imaginative world was deeply immersed in story. She read not broadly, but deeply, inhabiting the story worlds of her favourite texts with a dedication few could match. Certain environments she passed through during the day came to life for her as settings in which the characters from stories must have actually dwelt. A flattened piece of grass in a paddock was evidence of a night-time meeting, the coming together of kabouters; the little gap of one paling in the back fence near the wood stack was evidence of Peter Rabbit and his mischief. Particular stories took seed in her consciousness and stayed and stayed. Although the practice faded some as she grew into adolescence, she was still capable of an immersive, extended form of daydream in which the presence of characters from novels and the cinema, or sometimes from her own writing, populated otherwise ordinary streetscapes or living rooms.
She’d carried with her a long time, for example, the awfully disobedient child from the Brothers Grimm story, the one who was a constant strain on her mother. When the girl died prematurely from some dramatic accident, a consequence of her not doing as she was told (again), her body was buried in the local graveyard, as was the custom then, but her arm kept sticking up out of the earth. No matter how often or how forcefully the gravediggers tried to correct the errant limb, it simply reappeared. It was not until, with some embarrassment, the cemetery gardener thought to call the girl’s grieving mother back to the grave site that things were put in order. The mother brought with her a switch with which she struck the dead girl’s arm. Finally, the limb fell obediently down as it ought to have all along, and the body was fully buried. Order would be returned: small insects and other lifeforms would now, to a soundtrack by Michael Nyman, get on with the speedy process of utter decomposition. And the mother would have some peace.
What is the moral of this story? Almost all of the children in Wil’s Year 3 class had readily provided the desired answer; but it was a stupid response. Wil blocked her ears. She loved everything about the wilful girl. She wanted the arm to go on sticking up, despite the desperate thrashing of the switch. She decided firmly that she was not in favour of stories with morals so neatly declared. Surely they didn’t do anyone any good.
Now, she thought again about the small organisms in the soil, getting to work on the flesh of the errant girl in the story. Even an arm left raised in defiance would be reduced to nothing in the end, she supposed. But wouldn’t it be nice to let it do so in its own time? For the signpost of defiance, however humble, to be legible to others who might come along behind? And so she rewrote the story’s ending every time it re-entered her imagination. The arm would not go down. She was both in awe of and emboldened by the deliberateness and courage of the girl. The story gave her strength to go on sticking up her own arm, regardless of who was brandishing the switch.
Last month, June, was a month desperate with obsession. One morning, entering Flat White Tower, Wil had seen the acting deputy a little way ahead of her. He was wearing grey suit pants and a white collared shirt, and simply watching the way he walked had sparked desire in her so fast and so quick it was almost painful to keep walking, knowing what she knew, and what he seemed to fail to acknowledge: how she needed him. Not less than twenty minutes later, she was discussing the logistics of urgent press releases with his PA when he came out of his office. He was wearing black. Did that mean it could not have been him on the stairs? Who had she been looking at, then?
‘Hello, Wil,’ he said. ‘How are you?’
‘I’m okay,’ she replied, ‘under the circumstances.’
‘How do you mean?’
‘Oh,’ she laughed it off. ‘This place, among other things. You know: life.’
She shrugged, and he smiled at her briefly, gave the PA a brief instruction about the file he was placing on top of her inbox, and went back into his office. Wilhelmina breathed out.
Emergency sirens call. The sudden shot of loss. Sometimes it seems the sirens are in the distance and receding, at other times they are so close they hurt her ears. She remembers studying a poem by Philip Larkin in high school. It was about an ambulance siren. She cannot remember the lines, exactly, only the sentiment. Was the poet disturbed by the siren, but quietly happy that it did not call for him? Yes, she thinks, sirens are always calling for somebody else. You listen, as you grow older, then the noise goes away. Until, one day, it doesn’t go away. One day it deafens – and it is you who is lost.
In her dream, the acting deputy swims back to her, deep beneath the surface of the river, and takes her hand, pulling her in his direction. They are diving towards some kind of wreckage. Is it her bike? She remembers, so many years ago, before the children were born and in the early years of her marriage to Frane, how she had stood in a broad, wide riverbed up north with her friend Jeanie, who ran the local Indigenous radio station, while they talked about the unexpected. Jeanie told her that water could descend from a rainstorm so many hundreds of kilometres away in the desert, then come barrelling down the dry riverbed taking everything in its wake. They spoke of how it could do this even on a hot, still day. ‘A day like today,’ she said. You just never knew. And so the old people’s advice was not to stand in the riverbed, which is what they were doing, of course, even as Jeanie relayed her old-people’s wisdom.
In the dream, the same one, her department is being restructured. ‘The language used by the leadership creates “cultural permission” for certain behaviours,’ she writes in a brief for the acting deputy, whom she has taken to calling by his real name, Leigh, and then she dives beneath the surface again but finds him nowhere in sight. Some kind of treasure has dislodged. A river dolphin is playing in her slipstream. Wil smiles to herself: she is carrying knowledge, but it is no longer buoyant, and she finds that despite her fitness, despite the placid current of the tired river, despite everything, she can no longer swim.
‘I know you,’ she reassures the river. ‘You can help me.’
But the river is silent, and the two of them dwell, one body in another, and the sun looks down and the breeze ruffles the leaves of the peppermint trees, and the day goes on with no regard for Wilhelmina Blomme at all.
The people’s widespread observation was increasingly true: the City of Light was all about veneers. Its centre dwelt alongside the wide, calm waters of the Swell River, and so there were great expanses of water to echo the glass of the skyscrapers and reflect the broad blue of the sky. It was possible for people in Flat White Tower to go about their lives believing there was no such thing as poverty. From Corp C’s executive suite on level ten, looking west, you could plausibly imagine there was not.
Everyone on Wil’s floor was very fond of the building’s Thai doorman, Rattuwat, who travelled all the way from Little Low via bus and train. The old man was always quick to get up off his stool and open the door or call the lifts for Wil and her colleagues. He was always smiling. It seemed he could only pronounce a few phrases in English. ‘Good morning, sir! Thank you, lady. Good night!’ She supposed few of them had ever tried him out on anything else.
Something about the doorman reminded Wil of her father, who had worked as a nurseryman when he first arrived in Australia, around the time he and her mother first met. After Wil’s parents were married, they lived off her mother’s nursing wage while her father went back to school to get his pilot’s licence. Later, when he was earning a more reasonable income and the family bought a house in the outlying suburb of Upper Bird, her father’s drive and optimism flagged. Something followed him. Back in the country from which he had come at nineteen, on the tails of the Second World War, there was some kind of scandal, a shadowy event that Wil had always suspected precipitated his move to emigrate. They never did speak about it. Often, her dad sat in the chair at the head of the kitchen table sipping his red wine and staring into space. It was this same slightly blank stare that she noted in the Flat White Tower doorman in those moments before he knew anybody to be looking in his direction. Behind the gaze, a deep, unreachable absence tinted with some long-ago grief. And then, the repeat performance: the past was gone again, as if it had never existed.
‘Thank you, lady. Good night.’
‘Ivy is teething,’ one of the school mums whose name Wil has never troubled to learn calls out as she swims past in the murky river water wearing a bikini and clutching a box of washing powder between her knees. How wonderful, thinks Wil, that someone can make such a manoeuvre seem at all elegant, and she resolves to learn the woman’s name next time she meets her, to make a friend of her somehow, if it isn’t already too late.
HERE IS A story Wil knows deeply and carries with her. It is not one for revisiting lightly. The truth is that when her good friend Ying was thirteen years old, she was abducted. Ying had been running an errand for her mother in their local business district, and when she took the shortcut back to her mother’s shop, down a quiet side lane, she was grabbed from behind. Someone forced a hessian sack over her head and threw her into the boot of a vehicle. This was in Sydney’s inner west during the summer of 1985. In the sudden darkness of the car boot, the girl listened to the sound of the tyres humming along the road, and eventually sensed a small, mottled shaft of light, perhaps a rust hole. This she focused on with everything she had.
Muted minutes shifted into hours. Perhaps she slept. In the early light of the next morning, Ying was tied by an ankle to a post in the middle of an abandoned shearing shed. The landscape was scrubby and dotted with rocky outcrops. It seemed a long way from anywhere. Ying’s captor, whose breath smelt of menthol cigarettes, forced her to wear the hessian bag over her head while he raped her twice a week, every week, dropping off tins of food and a jerry full of water, occasionally a new piece of clothing or something to make the shed vaguely more inhabitable for humans. What happened to Ying, still a child, during those weeks, months, years when nobody came, and nobody knew? ‘There were only these things for company: fleas, mosquitoes, mice, birds, snakes,’ she told Wil once, ‘and sometimes, when the light was right, the beauty of tiny dust particles dancing in the sun.’
One day during late spring a stranger, a boilermaker who had been employed to fix a broken piece of machinery on a neighbouring property, found a back route through to the shearing shed. Something about the way the man drew breath in that first instant he saw Ying gave her hope. He cut through the chain around her ankle with a bolt cutter and dropped her outside the police lockup in a town called Rylstone. Then he drove off, spooked, she supposed, by the implications. Ying sat all afternoon on the veranda of the closed police station and saw no one. When the sun started setting, she began to walk.
She didn’t know which way to go, but there were very few roads and she chose one by instinct, dodging into the bush whenever vehicles approached. She drank water from abandoned tanks, and wore thinner and thinner patches in her shoes, but eventually left the scrubby plains of the farming land for the dramatic hills and valleys of the Wollemi National Park. Here she came to rest beneath a huge scribbly gum and closed her eyes for a time. When she opened them a feral cat the size of a lynx gazed blankly at her from the rock face opposite. The animal blinked at her, licked its lips, and shifted closer, sizing her up. It turned away then and took to a subtle bush path at a trot, stopping to glance back at her as if to suggest she might follow. This, tentatively, she did.
In this manner, the feral animal led her deep into the ranges. They walked together for days, eating lizards and berries, drinking from the trickle of lightly flowing creeks. When, after six nights together, they stopped climbing, Ying recognised the mark of a railway line running atop a nearby ridge and felt a knot inside her loosen slightly. She found her way towards the line and followed it east. Within hours a station appeared. As she read the vaguely familiar name out loud – Mount Victoria – she realised her feral companion was gone.
Ying was uncertain. Something of her wanted to stay in the bush, devoid of people. So far, she’d avoided every vehicle and house for fear of confrontation. But now what she ached for most was to be reunited with her mother in their seventh-floor flat in Burwood. She knew the train would help with that. She sat on the platform, on a seat designed for would-be passengers, and when, after some hours, the train came from the west, the noise of it was so coarse and deafening that it caused her to faint. It was here that they found her, the ordinary people. She was almost fifteen.
Wil drifts low in the heavy, brackish river water, sensing the presence of other barely wriggling forms of life for which she has no language. People used to catch plenty of prawns and crabs here at the bend where salty and sweet water meet. The fresh water is meant to move seaward along the top, boosted by big volumes of rainwater flowing from the hills. Now it’s not working so well. Sewerage comes into the river. Wetlands have been cleared and backfilled. There is less rain.
Sometimes a scene from an old Peter Greenaway film spools through Wil’s mind: the dead body of a bird decomposing at unnatural speed viewed through a time-lapse camera, the feathers and flesh ruthlessly, disarmingly, stripped away by time to a dramatic soundtrack. This could so easily have been Ying’s teenage body, thinks Wil. It might be her own, now. By the end of the scene in the film, the dead bird’s body is reduced to an oily stain on the soil. And then Greenaway’s film loops, becoming a game of decomposition/recomposition that goes around and around. The corpse is there and not there, and then with another flicker, it’s back again. Rivers are different. Wil’s body will not stain the soil. The river exists in a rhythm of cycles, flushing forwards and back.
And yet, might she, too, disappear and return, disappear and return? Or will she come back to herself, despite everything? Like Ying.
Surely Wil is alive, because she is not yet floating facedown on the surface, the way that man’s body did last summer, the one she cycled past on the way to work one mid-week morning, the river quiet, the early morning light subdued. She remembers the jogger in the green-and-blue activewear speaking to an officer in uniform while police divers balanced one-footed on the end of the jetty to slip on their flippers. When Wil arrived at Corp C that day, she tracked the media releases on the local police website until the story appeared.
‘There are no suspicious circumstances,’ was the line they used.
In other words: suicide. That was the choice Wil’s father made, too, the same year she turned twenty-one. He chose his own river, though she never did see his body in it.
Before her work at The Tabloid became poisonous, before Lachlan White took a bite out of her, there was the real estate boom. During the early 2000s, when the boom really took off, everyone was falling over themselves to gossip about how much a unit at this address or a house at that address had sold for. The suburbs people once would never have voluntarily moved to were relabelled ‘the new X’ or ‘a unique urban renewal project’, and large-scale development companies moved in and bulldozed and subdivided. Developers took to rolling out the same model of new housing, row upon row upon row, decorated sparingly with an occasional green space or shopping precinct (privately managed). Then there were the endless household renovation stories to listen to over lunch.
‘It’s been almost three months without a functioning bathroom, I can’t stand it,’ people complained, as if they were hard done by for having found themselves an extra hundred-thousand dollars to spend on a 1920s Californian bungalow in Middle Marsupial.
‘My God! Where do you shower?’ colleagues and acquaintances would exclaim.
‘At the gym. We have to go to the gym.’
The receptionist at The Tabloid had been showering at the gym for nine months.
Wil wrote a feature article titled, ‘Would you buy a house you couldn’t afford if someone let you do it?’ To her surprise, the subeditors let the headline be. Later it was syndicated by the national daily. Wil’s advice to the punters, of course, was not to do so. Readers laughed with her at how ridiculous the national dream of home ownership was and shook their heads at the figures she’d collected on profits in the banking sector and the increasing state-government reliance on stamp duty from real-estate sales. But it turned out nobody thought she was actually talking about them. Writing for a broad readership was a strange beast, she realised, for sometimes just when you thought you’d exposed a scandal that must surely lead to significant change, nothing happened. Nothing at all. Patterns of behaviour had already formed en masse, and the faint consciousness of the stupidity of it all did nothing to dampen participation. People laughed and nodded at your clear-sightedness over coffee. Then they kept on, because it was what everybody else was doing.
What was she doing then, she wondered? How was her work really useful?
Nevertheless, she continued with her self-help columns on matters of personal finance, and watched as the city grew increasingly ugly in a glossy, sharp-edged sort of a way. Some parts of town were so awash with money people had to think up absurd new things to do with it: backyard jacuzzis, designer dogs, underfloor heating in a city in which summer lasted nine months of the year.
‘You need to think hard about whether you really want it,’ she overhead a senior businessman advising a junior on whether to apply for a higher paying job. ‘I mean, how many hours are there in a week? And then, you need to ask yourself, how much money is enough?’
‘I’ve got my eye on this boat, mate.’
‘Okay, so imagine this: you get the boat, the house, the car. You’ve got the wife already, the two kids? What else is there, mate?’
‘Seriously? What else is there?’
At the bottom of the river, Wil has her tongue deep inside the mouth of her lover. When she has finished searching there, she litters his chest with tiny kisses, and finds her way down his torso to between his legs. How soft the smooth skin, the gentle mushroom of the tip, the length of him, everything. How sensuous, the desiring mouth.
There is no end to it.
When Leigh runs his hands along the full length of her torso, cups her breasts close, draws her in, his body fits so close and snug it is like a thing she’d been missing for decades and hasn’t ever had the imagination to properly breathe life into. He has only to touch her this way and everything gains meaning again: it was for this, her life’s purpose.
They dwell like this for hours in another kind of suspension, infused with delirium. She can close her eyes and feel. She can know him to be fully with her, to be everything a human is capable of giving another. They can sleep a while, then reach a hand out to touch and start the whole cycle again. Triggered, seduced, drugged again, spent.
Still resting a hand against her thigh after making love, he tells her, ‘I feel safe with you.’
‘You are safe,’ she says. ‘You are safe.’
When I am dead, thinks Wil, the boys will need to learn to speak about me in the past tense. At first it won’t make sense to them. ‘My mother is not here,’ they’ll say. ‘My mother is gone.’ But weeks and months and years will go by, and they will learn to qualify. People will teach them to say things like: ‘My mother’s name was Wilhelmina Blomme, but she died before I turned two.’ (Or in Tom’s case, five.) How long, she wonders, might she continue to exist in the present tense in their private worlds? For how long might they ask themselves: ‘Where is my mother?’ Or, more directly, ‘Mummy, are you there?’ And who would they be asking? Who would they be calling to mind? What form might she take for them, after she is no longer here?
Time shifts, almost perceptibly, and Wil becomes vaguely aware that she is lying upon the crisply starched sheets of a firm, narrow hospital bed. There is something about the way sound falls in the room. The tinkle of metal. Rubber trolley wheels on linoleum. Footsteps. And there is the smell of stale urine, thinly disguised with a blend of floral antiseptic.
From here, in the ghostly white, certain patterns of habit resurface in her consciousness. There is a routine she had played out each morning in the kitchen at home, for example, of making the children’s buckwheat pancakes. The measuring of flour, water, eggs, the gentle whisking, the sizzling of butter in the pan, and then the sliding of golden pancakes onto special plates rimmed with animal prints. She added sliced banana, a sprinkle of blueberries, a dash of maple syrup. The children always devoured this meal no sooner than it was placed before them, their fingers quickly becoming sticky and berry-coloured.
Tom’s first word was, ‘More?’
And so she had developed the habit of delivering him more.
Wil sometimes regretted not having had the clear-sightedness to make more of an experiment of early-childhood parenting. Was there not some way to erode the boundaries between self and other with more subtlety, to form children in concert, instead of in opposition, for example? Or, to be a generous mother to two sons without practising subservience in the usual gendered way? We try, in whatever blunt manner we’ve inherited from our own parents, or perhaps from those around us, to train selfishness out of our children. Maybe she had tried to experiment, however subtly. And perhaps that was happening, too, at the same time as the walls were going up with thick grasping at me and mine. How cruelly a child under five could show you – daily – the contradiction and hypocrisy of what it was to be human.
But she is grateful now for the memory of whisking the flecked brown-and-grey buckwheat flour with water and egg. Perhaps this is all there is, after all: the particular forms of practice we invent and then adhere to in order to get through a normal day. Oh, how it keeps her here now, this deeply familiar domestic dance with known objects: the mixing bowl, the stainless-steel whisk, the three ingredients, the rhythmic movement of her own hand. It loops her back to that house, that body, those children, a fragile, invisible thread.
Wil’s brother-in-law, Graeme, once spent some time with her trying to explain how financiers think: ‘You’ve got to make a distinction between risk and uncertainty,’ he said.
‘How do you mean?’
‘Risks are characterised as known probabilities. So, if the nature of tomorrow’s weather is crucial to the outcome of a decision, and reliable experts have forecast a 50 per cent chance of rain, then you can work out a numeric factor for risk and make your decision accordingly. We call decision-making that takes a risk factor into account decision-making with known probabilities. You can express them numerically. Uncertainty, on the other hand, is something else, something more complex, something less reducible to simple equations. Some people will argue, rightly, that the difference between risk and uncertainty is arbitrary anyway.’
Graeme was one of those people whose talk at family barbecues shifted quickly to theories of all kinds. ‘You need a theory to cross the road,’ he’d counter his brothers when they jibed with him about his seeming inability to stick to the practised script of football and weather.
Wil grew fond of Graeme, over time. He was a financial advisor for one of the big seven banks, and the only brother in the Magner family to make a serious salary long-term. He and Wil disagreed routinely on economic policy, but they somehow enjoyed their discussions anyway. No topic was too serious or too complex for Graeme. He frequently counselled her through the detail when she was working on a convoluted article for The Tabloid, and he expected nothing in return. Plus, he just liked to talk.
‘Surely you’re never far from epistemic uncertainty, anyway,’ Wil countered at Graeme’s wife’s birthday event. ‘And the thing I hate about probability in maths is that it always uses such simple scenarios: dice or coins.’
‘True,’ he conceded. ‘But don’t we all love simplicity? People in finance – which is not a world devoid from practical outcomes on everyday lives – we make decisions on the basis of simple formulae all the time.’
Wil married Frane on New Year’s Eve 1999, the night when many thought the world might end, or at the very least run to ground on the tales of the so-called millennium bug. The two of them were emotionally and physically close then, but it seemed to her that every year since, Frane, like the shadow of her own father, had stepped a little further back from her. Increasingly, her attempts at deep conversation with him elicited shorter and shorter responses. He worked outside in the garden, or spent time handmaking wooden furniture in the shelter attached to the makeshift shed. Lately, she watched the way his attention followed the smooth curvature of a table leg, and felt doubly distanced. It was a long time since he’d studied her with a similar degree of interest. On weekends, he would come inside mid-morning to share tea from the pot, sawdust sticking to his raggedy woollen jumper, but more and more he preferred the newspaper to looking directly at her. Was his withdrawal deliberate? Perhaps its permanency had been sealed with the arrival of the children. But maybe it was just a form of habit, a subtle pattern of his own, unexamined, that gained momentum with time. Lately, there just seemed so very little left to say to one another.
While Wil’s days at the office grew longer and more numerous, Frane’s working days grew shorter. He became what the newspapers called ‘underemployed’. He sourced his clothes from op shops and discouraged her from spending her own money on anything new for him. Was this a philosophical move? She wanted to ask him how he managed to meet his share of the mortgage, but didn’t want to provoke defensiveness or suggest inadequacy, so she said nothing. He picked up regular drafting work for a local builder, and received semi-regular recommendations from the shire council. Somehow, his contribution to their joint debt appeared on the bank statement every fortnight. There must have been weeks when he had nothing else left. Wil paid the phone bill, the grocery bill, the council rates, the school fees, and said nothing to him about any of it.
Some years ago, before Tom was born, Wil had picked up a free postcard with a picture of two athletic women from the 1950s diving in perfect unison from a high Olympic springboard. The phrase beneath the photograph: ‘Aim for excellence.’ She placed it prominently on their kitchen fridge. Wil had intended the postcard for herself. She liked it. She thought excellence a reasonable aim. The postcard had been there for so long now that the corners were turning up at the edges, the bright pink lettering somewhat faded. Now she began to wonder how her husband had interpreted that message. Did it irritate him every time he opened the fridge door? Perhaps it was the accumulation of small things – precisely this – that contributed to the breadth of the gap between them. And the depth. Or maybe, as with other things, he simply stopped looking. And so, he stopped seeing.
It seems Frane is here in the hospital room, speaking in hushed tones to the specialist. There is a musicality to the doctor’s pronunciation that distracts Wil from the meaning of his words. Frane’s responses are lower in tone, generally monosyllabic. Perhaps they are not even words, which would be in character for him, she thinks, and she wants the familiarity of that to be a comfort to her, but she can’t find any sense of affection for him, even here, even now, in a place like this. He has come to visit, and that should mean something, but she can’t reach warmth with him, only emptiness, and that too is a long-familiar state.
Now she begins to properly recognise key phrases from the doctor’s carefully measured speech. There is ‘whipping forward’, for example, which he seems to have used in relation to her head, and Wil thinks of the call of the eastern whipbird she used to hear as a child in the rainforest back on the east coast. It came to her now, its characteristic call like a sudden whip-crack through the air, a tone that set you alert and made you want to hear the sound again, again. But now the doctor goes on. The brain has ‘collided’ with the inside of the skull, he says, and Wil is left pondering the prefix – col – familiar from words like collective, collude, collapse. Collide gets mixed up in her imagination with another word: keloid. Something to do with scarring. She had a dome-shaped, shiny scar of that kind once on her upper arm. From what? (Forgotten.)
The voice of the expert continues. Well educated, able to elucidate beautifully, he passes quickly over quotidian words like ‘bruising’ and ‘swelling’ and begins to take a liking to the specialist phrase ‘neural axons’, which he repeats a number of times. ‘The neural axons are like threads,’ he says, and Wil seems to know this already, remembering the intricate tentacles of the bluebottles she used to skip around as a child, splayed on the beachfront at Valla Beach, that icy, translucent blue, thinning gradually towards the tip, all the more beautiful to her because she was so acutely aware of each delicate thread’s poisonous charge.
‘It’s a secondary effect,’ says the doctor of the long thread-like arms that are the neural axons. ‘They may have been stretched and injured, but we won’t know for some time,’ he says. ‘The fine detail of this sort of damage is rarely visible on the scans.’
In the quiet, sometimes hyper-lucid white, Wil dwells in story. She recalls, in particular, an early Buddhist nun, Patacara. Of all the stories from the Buddhist canon told at the temple on Friday nights, this was the one that concerned Wil most frequently. Patacara’s story pulled at her because she so desperately wanted to change its events. As usual, she was suspicious of the intended moral. And yet, perhaps Patacara’s story was true. She was, the monks said, a real historical figure. And what would you do in her situation, Wil wondered. How would you recover?
Patacara was born in northern India, fourth century BC, where her wealthy and well-respected parents – so the story goes – were so frightened about the world’s influence on their beautiful baby girl that they kept her confined within their generous home. When she turned sixteen, after extended deliberations, they chose her a husband and made plans for the lavish wedding. But the parents were too late: Patacara had fallen in love with one of the servant boys. He too, barely more than a child, was smitten. They declared their love with stolen glances, small whispers and – once – the thrilling touch of hands as they passed one another around a dining-hall corner. This went on for many months until one night, a week before the planned wedding feast, Patacara dressed herself in servant’s clothing, sought the boy out in his quarters and escaped with him beneath the dark-grey canvas cover of a laundry trolley, out into the town and beyond.
A month before her seventeenth birthday, Patacara and her lover settled a long way from home, and were married by a local monk. They lived in a single-room house with a dirt floor, and all the labour was theirs to do, but they were happy. When Patacara fell pregnant with their first child later that year, she longed, as was the tradition, to go home to her parents’ house for the birth and postpartum period, to be looked after by her mother, aunts and maids. But the idea distressed her husband.
‘We can never go back there,’ he said. ‘They will have me killed.’
And yet Patacara was frightened by the prospect of childbirth without the familiar comfort of the women she had known since she was small.
In a desperate act of repetition, Patacara again escaped at night, this time leaving her husband and setting out alone on the road to her parents’ village. Once he realised what had happened, he pursued her and found her, eventually, stranded on the edge of the roadside several hours away, her contractions already well advanced. They delivered their firstborn together, beneath the shelter of a roadside tree, and when mother and baby were well enough recovered, they walked home. Her young husband was understanding. He was forgiving.
Two years later, Patacara fell pregnant for a second time. Again, as her belly grew, so did her homesickness. When she reached the third trimester, she begged with her husband.
‘Can’t I go home?’
‘No,’ he said, ‘please be sensible. No.’
She left anyway, under the cover of night, carrying her firstborn on her back. She travelled further this time, for three days and three nights, and was almost all the way there when a violent storm erupted. She took what shelter she could in a rest stop by the side of the path, but as soon as she lay down the labour pains began.
‘Perhaps the storm itself was angry with me,’ Patacara tells Wil as the two of them lie side by side in the narrow hospital bed staring up at the white, white ceiling. ‘The rain was falling in sheets. Then the big river flooded its banks.’ Her voice is crackly, like paper. It is the voice of an old woman.
Wil imagined vividly, and not for the first time, what it must have been like for Patacara to deliver her own child, a second son, right there at the rest stop while her firstborn moped and cried, toddling in confused circles around her. And then there was the storm, stripping the huge leaves from the teak trees and bringing together their fragrant white flowers into huge sodden stockpiles that floated by on the edge of the road. Fortunately, the labour was as sudden as it was short. Soon Patacara, exhausted, cradled a new child in her arms, drifting in and out of a wet form of sleep.
Later, in the soft light of dawn, she opened her eyes and recognised her husband struggling along the windswept road some distance away.
‘I called out to him,’ she said.
And the toddler, too, stood up and began to wave his arms at his father, but as the familiar shape approached, there was a loud crack, like the sound of a whip, and a massive tree fell. Patacara’s beautiful love, her husband, disappeared beneath it.
Still bleeding and weak, she shifted her small family along the road, dodging debris as she went. They found her husband’s body wedged hard beneath a massive trunk, the warmth already leaching from him. Patacara sat beside him and wept.
The three of them stayed with the dead body all day. In the afternoon, after some hours of reprieve, it grew breezy again and the sodden landscape shone. Rain began to fall once more. Patacara decided that to save herself and her children, she had no option but to continue the journey to her parents’ house. They would cross the river, and then it would be less than half a day’s walk.
But the river was monstrous now. She instructed the toddler to wait for her while she strapped the newborn close against her back. In the last of the day’s light, she swam well, driven diagonally by the current, and landed on the opposite bank some way downstream, where she climbed safely out. Here she swaddled the baby tightly and tied him to the raised fork of a large tree. She walked back along the edge of the river until she was far enough upstream to swim back across to the waiting toddler. When she saw his little body, one hand against the wall of the big tree where she’d left him as instructed, her chest swelled with warmth. She called out to him and raised her arm to signal that she was on her way, but the child, seeing her gesture, misunderstood. He stepped towards her and closer to the edge of the water.
‘No!’ she shouted, waving her arms. He stepped into the water. He was coming towards her. He was not stopping.
‘I said no! I said no!’
Patacara plunged back into the water, stroking madly, fiercely, forcefully, in his direction. Halfway across the river, she paused to look for him, but he was no longer there. She called out, desperately. She scanned the long edges of the bulging river. Nothing. Then she began to dive, opening her eyes beneath the surface of the dirty, debris-crowded water in the very last of the day’s light. She resurfaced, looked, called out. Dived again, resurfaced.
This went on, a repetitive, circular panic. But he was gone. She was too late. Darkness fell, complete.
‘I was calling his name but he was gone.’ Her voice like ice.
Eventually, she retreated to the other side of the river. Exhausted. Beaten. Half dead. It couldn’t get any worse, she thought. It couldn’t get any worse. A part of her would go on looking for that boy in the current, would go on looking at every river, ever after. She lay still for long moments, flagging, half blank. After some time – who could say how much? – she pushed herself to her feet and limped along, looking for the particular tree trunk where the newborn, her second child, lay swaddled. Her own limbs had almost turned to liquid. She was a wretched, disarmed piece of detritus, still bleeding from the labour. Patacara had already swallowed great mouthfuls of river water, and now her path was obstructed by refuse the river had thrown to its fringes: pieces of furniture, dead animals, cooking utensils.
When she found the tree where she’d left her newborn, the trunk was already several metres underwater. She dived. The swaddled baby was there, tightly tied and long drowned.
‘My sons,’ whispers the old woman, close to Wil’s ear. She clasps Wil’s fingers, then, squeezing them. And they are crying, both of them.
But the story is not finished.
Patacara walked all that day in the direction of her childhood village. As she travelled, the rain finally stopped and the skies turned clear. Her feet were bleeding and she had not eaten anything for a long time. She carried with her the tiny, still body of her second son, swaddled and damp. On the outskirts of her village, she saw a man, a farmer, who was coming the other way along the same path. He stopped to examine her, and his eyes were kind.
‘Do you know the family that lives in the white house down by the temple?’ she asked him, and even her voice, she realised, had changed. Perhaps it was no longer hers.
The man said he did know the family, but he couldn’t speak of them to her.
‘Ask me of any other family,’ he said.
‘Please,’ she said. ‘I have come a long way.’
The man cleared his throat, and looked down at the load of hay he had been carrying, then back to the dead infant in her arms.
‘Last night there was a bad storm,’ he said. ‘The roof on that white house collapsed. Everyone inside was killed.’
Wil held tight to the old woman’s papery hand, for here was the story’s lowest point.
Patacara’s story is a cautionary tale. A cautionary tale for girls, from a time when teenagers were locked up by their families and forced into marriages they would never freely choose for themselves.
Docile, obedient, submissive, compliant women. Remain so, the story says. Remain so. But Patacara, isn’t she extraordinary? Was her dedication to love not full? It’s a fine line to walk, the line between dissent and ruin.
Wil resurfaces in the children’s kindergarten classroom. Tom and his friends are there. The teacher and her assistant are hurling a large circle of fabric in the air and the children are rushing underneath it, singing, ‘Shake, shake the apple tree. Some for you and some for me.’ The room smells like freshly baked bread and there are vases of flowers all along the little desks in rows. Her firstborn seems angelic in this setting, like a doll, like a child in a storybook.
I am here, she calls to the children. Can’t you see me?
Tom can hear her, she is sure, but somehow he cannot reach her. She needs him badly, but she has lost him. She has lost him on the descent.
During her own second pregnancy, Wil was sluggishly tired. She could barely walk from building to vehicle without requiring a rest. She spent a great deal of time lying down. Her mind, too, was only good in short bursts. Mostly, she felt the need to do very little, and to take in as little as possible. It was such a relief, in the final weeks, to step back more fully from the world of The Tabloid and the social media circus that had become her working life. At home, she sat by the northern door in the chair she called the doctor’s chair and gazed vacantly into the strip of forest in which the small birds flittered, and the bush kept mostly still, ruffled only by the occasional light breeze. She abandoned all screens.
By then, the embryo had grown to a full-sized foetus. She read with interest articles in medical journals and in contemporary philosophy about the question of the point at which consciousness enters the living being. The general consensus seemed to be somewhere between sixteen and twenty-two weeks, although she found it hard to believe that there was a particular moment when this happened. She decided it had to be a continuum of sorts, an emerging sense of awareness as the nervous system and all its sister systems grew into complexity. Oddly, the medical literature used pain as a measuring point: the assumption being that if we can feel pain, we have a consciousness. She found this plausible, in its way, but rejected its profoundly negative approach. It seemed ironic that the medical fraternity, anchored as they professed to be to healing, should invest in this of all methods to test their theories. In contrast, what Wil felt about her state of expectance, more than any other emotion, was a quiet, private joy. We begin here, she thought, in a spark of joy shared intimately with the consciousness of our mothers. And then: how fragile. Whether through happiness or pain, how subtle and intricate and fragile the coming into life, the formation of the new human being.
When Wil first met Frane, he had been under some financial stress. During his late twenties, he and his youngest brother, Phil, had taken out an enormous business loan to buy a small independent grocery store in a run-down neighbourhood. The brothers ran it in partnership and the shop was open twelve hours a day, seven days a week. It was a lucrative venture, but one from which Frane could never fully switch off. The shop was always being broken into by young thieves after cigarettes. Often this would happen at two or three in the morning. One night when Frane was staying over with Wil in her shared student house in Urban Park, he took a call from the security firm whose job it was to let him know that the shop alarm had been activated. He needed to go and inspect the damage, speak to the police and file a report.
Frane drove off into a wild storm of hail, wind and rain. Wil remembers lying awake listening to the weather’s violence, thinking about the danger of driving under such conditions. She was right to be concerned. Halfway to the shop, a tree fell across the road directly in front of Frane’s car. His vehicle collided with it. He was lucky to escape without injury, but the incident gave him a terrible shock.
The police took fingerprints at the scene of the break-in and the following week Frane and his brother fronted up at the house of the thirteen-year-old who had burgled their store for the seventh, and what turned out to be final, time. They stood on the veranda as Frane threatened the boy’s mother. ‘If your kid breaks into my shop again I’ll fucking kill him,’ he told the woman. ‘I’m not joking. You tell him from me. I nearly died last week. If your child breaks into my shop one more time for cigarettes or fuck-knows-what, I’ll come to your house and I’ll kill him with my bare fucking hands.’
In the years that followed, long after the brothers sold the business, Frane would recite the story to friends after a few beers. Wil found the incident, and its repeated telling, increasingly appalling. She had imagined, countless times, the tree’s falling. She had marvelled at the sheer luck of Frane having escaped the wrecked vehicle alive. It was a mere fraction of an angle that had saved him: some intricate mathematical figuring involving speed and impact and road surface and weather patterns and instinct. A matter of trigonometry. Looking back, she could see that the accident had in some ways influenced the urgency with which the two of them decided they should marry.
But Wil, drawn as ever to stories, went on writing the next few chapters of that thirteen-year-old’s life in her head: the life of the little thief and his despairing mother, the directions each had taken since that night. And she never could reconcile the Frane who stood on that veranda with the tender Frane she knew so well in bed. More recently, she’d watched her husband slump before the television for hour after hour of an evening, and wished him capable of any sort of energy at all, even rage.
Curiously, on the pathway at the scene of the bicycle accident, it is a series of barely known figures – the young thief, the Thai doorman – whom Wil is able to call most vividly to mind. She has a vague awareness of people gathering around her fallen form. She can see shoes. Someone has a palm against the bare skin of her upper arm. There are people in uniforms, and then the white-blue-white-red-blue of an emergency vehicle and its lights. There is a lurching levitation as her body is lifted onto some kind of trolley.
It is only then, in the curious extreme of a body barely inhabited, that the fact of her intentions becomes clear: she will leave. She tells this to Rattuwat; she tells it to the cigarette thief. Each nods at her gravely, as if to give permission, to lend her authority, but also to suggest: Of course. It is simply what has to be done.
Less than an hour earlier, she had dropped the boys at school and day care, and blown them kisses as she walked away.
‘Bye Mum, I love you! See you at three!’
Tom frequently lingered at the threshold to his classroom, gazing lovingly after Wil and bowling her imaginary hugs, while at the day-care centre Clancy marched into the carers’ rooms well ahead of her, already set to bargain with another toddler over his favourite set of building blocks, or his lunch box, or the little red ride-on trucks lined up on the path in the garden. How was it that two children could have so much in common and yet be in the world so differently?
But she has had an accident, remember? And now it is the cigarette thief with his palm against her upper arm as she lies there on the ambulance stretcher.
‘And if you were to leave,’ he says, in a formal register not at all his own (perhaps he has been dubbed by a British documentary narrator), ‘you would need to leave the little children, also.’
‘Interestingly, we humans tend to be fairly reluctant as a species to ignore remote or improbable outcomes when the stakes are high,’ Graeme once explained in the break between quarters at Optus Stadium. ‘I might have just checked that the chamber of your revolver is empty, but that doesn’t mean I’m willing for you to point the thing in my face and pull the trigger. The problem of unknown possibilities is difficult to come to grips with.’
Perhaps this was the point in the conversation, thought Wil, at which, had she been a bloke, she would have ordered them another round of beers and said, ‘Unknown possibilities, my arse,’ and they might have moved on to talk about the specky taken by Freo’s newest forward.
But she wasn’t, and they didn’t. She let him go on.
‘Suppose you have two hundred soldiers heading off to war,’ he said, ‘and the probability is that 10 per cent of them will be killed. From the soldier’s perspective, that statistic won’t be all that reassuring. When the result is death, 10 per cent might seem like pretty poor odds. But for the general, that 10 per cent looks okay. It’s probably something he’s willing to risk to capture a town.’
‘Oh, Graeme, do your mates at the bank actually talk like this?’
‘Well, yes! My point is, in finance, we tend to take the perspective of the general, rather than that of the foot soldier. We’re looking at levelling out effect, you know? Sometimes, even beyond that, if you’re talking long-term futures and major risk, we take the perspective of the Norns.’
‘The Norns – goddesses of destiny representing the past, present and future. If you’re thinking about extreme outcomes – nuclear war, ecological devastation – no human general can command such an army. In this case you need the perspective of the Norns, who see many worlds come and go.’
Wil was appalled. She was, by this stage, regretting almost everything about her career in journalism.
‘Who do these bastards think they are?’
‘I know,’ Graeme admitted. ‘I know. Most people don’t really want to look at it. Most people really don’t want to be in this kind of business at all.’
‘And they’d be right. Wouldn’t they be right?’
‘Possibly, for the ordinary person going about living their life in the suburbs, yes, they’d be right.’
‘What are the suicide rates among financial advisers, Graeme? What are the rates of anxiety and depression?’
‘I don’t know.’
‘You don’t know?’
‘I certainly know a few who’ve suffered.’
Her mind was ticking over already with an idea for a new article. Conversations with Graeme often had this effect on her.
‘Do you know about the causal dilution problem?’
‘It’s a moral theorising problem.’
But just as he was getting out a paper bag and a pen, the third-quarter hooter went, and she never did get the explanation.
Wil’s labour with the second child had been similar to her first, except that soon after the labour was done, she lost consciousness. Twice.
There had been an episiotomy. Blood was lost, perhaps a little too much.
Like a woman in a nineteenth-century novel.
She will look back on these slippages regretfully, as if they had robbed her and her child of something they would never be able to recapture. As if they had somehow been her fault.
A blacking out, a withdrawal. Little slips of blank on the landscape of an otherwise fairly continuous narrative life.
I am with you.
I am with
YING BECAME, DURING her thirties, the kind of lay Buddhist who was virtually monastic. She had been single for as long as Wil could remember, and although she occasionally admitted to wanting to be otherwise, she did nothing to actively pursue it. She meditated morning and night and was always at the temple on full-moon day. She worked as an accountant for a large state government department, a quiet but complex occupation that had paid her bills for almost fifteen years. In recent years, she had taken a liking to the literature of the early nuns and began to bring to her conversations with Wil the curly or puzzling or sometimes blatantly inconsistent aspects of the Theravada Buddhist principles. She found the early fourth-century practice of self-immolation, for example – common among nuns in China – interesting.
‘It’s a violent act, and a denial of the first precept, ahimsa,’ argued Wil.
‘But if you are enlightened already, and your belief is that you are sending yourself somewhere particular through an act of bravery, then it can’t be read as the same thing,’ said Ying.
‘Physically, though, it’s the same thing.’
‘But if you are enlightened…how can we know what that’s like?’
Ying seemed taken by the idea. Was she? Later the same week, there was a rush of news footage on the nightly television news of monks in Tibet, setting themselves on fire in protest against Chinese interference in their country. The images disturbed them both.
‘That’s not enlightenment,’ Wil said. ‘How different is it, for example, to a suicide bomber flying into a high-rise building in New York?’
‘Very different. Nobody else is dead.’
‘But we are all disturbed by it.’
‘If you read it as dissolution of material form, rather than a deliberate act of violence, then it can be something else.’
‘My father killed himself,’ Wil reminded her. ‘It was an act of violence. Not just towards himself, but towards us, his family. Self-harm is violence. And it’s performed, deliberately, in a way that damages everyone who comes to know of it.’
Ying looked sorrowful after that and didn’t raise the question again.
In the white room, Wil is hooked up to monitors and intravenous liquids, but nothing warm or living is in contact with her body.
She recalled how, when Tom was a newborn, the midwives taught her the technique of placing the naked baby’s chest against her own, skin on skin, and talked about how this could soothe and cure the most desperate of infants. Even in cases of emergency with fever or malnourishment, this skin-on-skin technique with another human, maternal or other, could be the difference that kept a little one alive.
Why of all places, thought Wil, should a hospital be devoid of human touch?
There were safe places she could go. She could go back to Leigh on the floor of the river and lose herself in his embrace. Or she could go back to sitting on a high-backed chair with her breastfeeding infant latched on at her nipple, watching his rhythmic swallow and tug, the little blister in the centre of his upper lip still forming in all its tenderness. Colostrum: the early milk. There it is again. The prefix col: together. She remembers, too, a far earlier time, when she was barely three and there was no more beautiful place to be than on her own mother’s lap, pretending sleepiness, and her mother complaining softly that she was too big for this now, too heavy, but she held you anyway, while you closed your eyes and she went on chatting to her friend over the kitchen table as if you were hardly separate from her at all.
Cast back into early childhood, Wil remembers playing outside in the garden with the chickens and guinea pigs, a brown cow named Ugly and a black cat called Cleo. She remembers textures: the smooth, fine hair on the bridge of the cow’s nose, the constant wet at the edges of its broad nostrils, hollows that grew substantially bigger as the beast breathed in. She remembers sitting with her brother in the mud, and the smell of grass as she plucked a strand from the corner where the tap leaked to make a pile for the guinea pigs, or for the Klassens’ lonely horse next door.
She remembers coveting textures, in particular a terry-towelling shirt. It was white with orange spots and someone had gifted it to her, but it was too big. It took a whole year of opening the drawer to admire it, regularly running her fingers along the stubbly, soft fabric, before she was allowed to wear it. She can still recall her fascination with the towelling, and how she loved to smooth all the fibres in one direction and then another, watching how the colour altered subtly in the light.
Wil cannot remember nursing with her mother, but knows with a deep, bodily certainty that she spent those babyhood years consistently close. There remains a deep sense of attachment – nothing to fear – that she still feels when her own ageing mother is close, which is so rare now. Once a year? Even after she was up and walking around, as a toddler and later as a growing child, her mother’s body remained a place to retreat to when she needed it, often in order to avoid the teasing of her elder siblings. Wil was the youngest, and her mother too was the youngest in her own family, and she felt from an early age that this was a bond between them. They understood one another.
Should it fall, her final moment, now, would she know it? Would she call out? Would she be aware, truly, of anyone else’s body letting go of her own?
Would her mother know?
The truth is that when she was a child, still in primary school, there were many nights in which the late hours were spent trying to escape from her father. The family would pack into the little white Fiat her mother had bought second-hand for $600. It was a box-shaped, knockabout European car in a country town bulging with Holdens and Fords, and you could spot it at a hundred paces in any of the supermarket car parks or along the nose-to-curb angle parking of the wide main street.
Their town – technically a city, at just over 30,000 people – was small enough that it took no more than ten minutes to drive from one side to the other. This made a slight farce out of trying to drive away from their father to find somewhere safe. He drove a late-model Sigma, or sometimes the four-wheel drive from work. Wil and her brother crouched in the back of the Fiat while their mother turned random lefts and rights, across South Waterhole, down along Governor Street, lapping, usually several times, the two perpendicular streets that made up the shopping precinct known locally as the main drag. Wil would try not to look behind too often, but it fell upon her and her brother to update their mother with regular reports of whether their father’s car was still in pursuit.
The Fiat was the first car Wil’s mother had owned since she was a teenager, and she was dead proud of having earned it from her low-paid part-time job, but it was a totally unreliable machine that had let them down and stranded them more than once, sometimes on holiday, other times in shopping centre car parks in the worst of the afternoon heat. It could not really be trusted beyond the town limits. Heavily angular and solid, the Fiat was a car with character. Her mother did not drive it particularly fast, but they knew, nevertheless, that while the three of them were in it, and her father was not, they were in a heavenly safe zone, suspended somewhere above the bitumen.
Wil’s mother obeyed the modest town speed limit, and even stopped at the lights at the bridge – one of only three sets in town. Here, Wil and her brother observed their dad pull up in the company four-wheel drive directly behind them, both sets of occupants uncomfortably stationary as they waited for the lights to change. Wil couldn’t bear to look at her father’s face. When she tried, just quickly, she noticed he had no eyes for her anyway. His lips were pressed together, rolling back and forth in a movement the kids had long ago christened ‘the lippy’ – Dad’s got the lippy! they’d call whenever his anger surged. It was a habit that marked and precipitated the peak of his temper. Later, in adulthood, she would be disturbed to find herself pursing her own lips in this manner whenever her patience waned. That night, her father’s dark gaze was squarely focused at the rear-vision mirror of the Fiat, as if daring their mother to look back. Wil knew she wouldn’t. She couldn’t. She faced forward – ever forward – and if a glance behind had any cause to tempt her, she didn’t show it.
Another night, after lapping the main drag in this usual manner, their mother pulled up the Fiat in the rear car park of the Commercial Hotel. Their father’s brightly marked work vehicle slowly passed them on Capital Street, but they knew he’d do the block and come back. It was a Friday night and the Commercial Hotel was bustling, the car park almost full. They could hear the shouts and catcalls of the back-bar drinkers, the tinkle of glasses, the scoffs and jeers.
‘What are we doing?’
‘We’re going into the hotel.’
‘But kids aren’t allowed.’
‘You’re allowed in the restaurant.’
‘Are we eating in the restaurant?’
They followed their mother along the little paths between other parked vehicles and approached the lit entrance at the back of the pub. The doorman was a huge, broad-shouldered fellow dressed in crisply pressed black and white. He smiled and nodded at Wil’s mother as if they knew one another.
‘G’day Rod,’ she said, and had a few discreet words in the bouncer’s ear. He nodded again, sternly, and directed them to sit at a table in the restaurant area, glancing sideways at the kids. They could not afford a meal. Their mother went to the bar and bought them each an orange juice. They sat there for two hours, chewing on huge blocks of ice, then making finger sketches in the condensation left on the outside of their glasses. They saw their father’s car skirt the car park twice, and watched with interest as their mother drank a single glass of wine.
In the viscous black water of the comascape, Wil wants to mother all the children. She wants the infant at her breast, the rhythmic tug of his thirst for the world through her, the liquid release at her nipple of so much more than milk. She wants the small hand in her own at the road’s edge, the sticky-with-lollypop grasp of fingers to which all manner of dirt seems permanently stuck. She would do anything to help to unfold the sticky fingers beneath the gentle flow of the tap. She wants the dribble at her neck, the feet standing on her thighs when she’s seated, the tears within reach of her own sleeve. She wants to see all the children growing, she wants them all to shoot up tall, their limbs extending like the best kind of magic. She wants to mark the wall at the doorframe in every bathroom in the land, year by year by year. She wants to reach old age in houses full of noise and laughter. She wants to expand. She wants the border between herself and others to open. And then, when the children are sleeping, she wants one body – his – naked and close, pulling her towards him, keeping her sane. Is all this too much to ask?
For a second or two she ceases to exist at all.
Shadow. Pattern. Breath.
And then she is here again with a vaguely familiar question – Should I…? The what or the who morphed into blackness, forgotten.
On an otherwise ordinary Wednesday morning in a white hospital room, Wil Blomme is given a score of two to three on the Rancho Los Amigos Scale for patients exhibiting loss of consciousness. This means she is asleep most of the time, and her responses to external stimuli are mostly reflexes and not purposeful – but she is alert some of the time, sometimes for lengthy periods, and at those times her responses are appropriate to the stimulus presented. Someone has noted in her chart that noises have been shown to produce a listening response in her. This is seen as positive.
Later there is the voice of a child in the room reading tentatively out loud. ‘There is a wonderful land at the top of the tree now,’ he says. ‘It is the Land of Take-What-You-Want.’ In the story – she knows it – the children climb up the tree, only to discover themselves dowsed from head to toe by Dame Washalot’s dirty laundry water halfway up the trunk. ‘She was doing a great deal of washing that day,’ says the voice of the early reader.
In the future, Wil will remember these dives her loved ones did on her behalf, into the heterotopia of her comascape, diving to reach her, to pull her out, to pull something of their familiar one back. And she will wonder, had they not come for her in this way, would she have returned at all? Yet she fears for them, for what if she does get up out of the hospital bed one day, just slightly less the person they all knew?
That evening, when the room is white-noise quiet, something shifts. The fragment of an old sense memory wafts in on the faint scent of vanilla and falls into harmony with the present, pulling her more fully into her body. Then she finds with surprise that she is looking down at two long legs. There is the growing awareness that she still has a body and that the two legs are a part of it. The legs reach all the way to the end of the bed, long lumps beneath a white hospital cotton blanket, and there are toes. She can wiggle them.
Sleep comes again and she is taken by what she remembers of the sky, the city sky, in all its infinite blue as she was flung towards it that morning of the accident. It seemed the sky had been turning, or perhaps it was Wil doing the turning. She could hear the traffic on the Great Eastern Highway. Then she sensed the change in temperature as she plummeted. Her pores contracted. The air tasted faintly like mud. Was that air? No, it was water. River water.
Wil felt pain, a dull aching physical pain, a kind of dragging sensation deep inside her skull. But there was the turning sky again and the thought came to her, in a loose and playful, dreamy sort of way: ‘I have come apart.’ It didn’t matter – at least, it didn’t seem to matter, not in the dream.
Back in the year 2002, Wil Blomme’s early columns for the Money lift-out of The Tabloid were written about people rather than money. Barely a few years out of her arts degree, she knew nothing about markets or derivatives. She barely understood her twice-yearly superannuation statements. Hoping for work other than cleaning offices and packing shelves at Frane’s little supermarket, she had sent the city newspaper’s financial editor a brief and a pilot in the form of three columns. The focus was financial makeovers.
Wil was good at spreadsheets. She’d helped out the pensioner next door in Urban Park with a new approach to her Centrelink debt, and Maria’s new budget became the subject of Wil’s first column. The second column featured Wil’s sister, Tess, under a pseudonym, then newly divorced with three kids. Was it worth her hiring a lawyer to help her with settlement finance? Yes, it turned out, it was. Then her former philosophy professor – Alison – was offered an early retirement package. Was it worth it? Which debts should she prioritise? Wil learned to take a real-life example – a single person, a couple or a family from one suburb or another – and profile their financial situation, then consult an expert or two who would make recommendations on that household’s financial future. ‘In 1999, David and Louise, each earning close to the average wage, were joint mortgagees on a loan of $250,000,’ began another early piece. ‘They had three children in primary school. Then, Louise was diagnosed with breast cancer. She hasn’t had a day at work since.’ What should David and Louise do? Cue the personal finance advice.
Wil’s subjects differed from those featured in other columns she’d read in the sense that she profiled anybody, from single mothers living off government benefits in Lowerville to specialist doctors renovating their third home in City Beach. She found interesting variations on the norm and tackled curly questions: should fly-in-fly-out workers buy real estate? How might a long-term gay couple, unmarried, protect one another’s potential financial inheritance? Was there any truth to the myth that fostering children might be financially rewarding for welfare-dependent single parents? The punters wrote to her. ‘Thank you so much. You’ve changed my life.’ And then they started asking her questions, offering their own circumstances up as case studies. The column almost began to write itself.
Meanwhile, the city’s personal finance advisors cottoned on and began to court Wil. They wanted their names mentioned in her column. They wanted to be painted as the angels. They were mostly men in synthetic grey suits, white shirts, blue ties. Fellas who forgot to shine their own shoes. Mostly she was courteous and professional with these people. It was not a field thick with genius, and motivations were rarely well disguised, but over time a few of these advisors became friends. Tony. Adrian. And of course, her long-suffering brother-in-law, Graeme. She would be grateful, in the years to follow, for the way a few of the fellas took to looking out for her welfare, even if just a little.
A few years into the whole exercise, Wil became very conscious of the limits of the genre in which she was writing. It was self-help, through and through. Here the reader seeks, above all, correction. Readers confess and consult; the author governs and advises. As time went on, however, Wil became more and more conscious of the way in which the financial markets, coupled with the tax system, were fairly blatantly stacked against both the poor and the average earner. At the same time, she wondered how she might subtly push the limits of the popular self-help form. She wondered how her work with the column might drift into a form of philosophical or political work. And she began to edge it, subtly, in that direction. She became less inclined, therefore, towards diagnosing individual deficits, and more inclined towards very subtly critiquing social and cultural practices and systemic bias. Her project was to do this quietly and incrementally, over years, so that she took the broader readership with her.
After a time, Wil could hold her own in a conversation with the investigative journalists on matters of personal finance. Her vocabulary of buzzwords and catchphrases, fashions and policy failures relating to the personal finance sector, had grown substantially. In 2007, the year before she fell pregnant with Thomas, the editor-in-chief at The Tabloid pulled her off the freelance queue and offered her a full-time position. She took it.
So there she was, all of a sudden: a female with no formal training in journalism in an office alive with ruthlessly competitive, falsely heroic alpha-male antics. She knew she was never going to be a real journalist. She was not one of the boys. And yet she enjoyed the work she was doing, and she was good at it. While she kept on with her long-term project of the self-help column, she began to write investigative features for the business pages.
That’s when she began to gather those readers who always felt fit to comment derisively on her work. As time went on, these types of readers became something of a phenomenon at The Tabloid, and elsewhere. The sector developed a name for them: trolls. But perhaps because Wil was an early target, and her line managers hadn’t seen the likes of this behaviour before, hers was a test case. There were no clear policies or procedures in place. The police ought to have been involved earlier. If they had been, perhaps it would not have turned out so badly. She might have still had a career in journalism.
Watch out for larger fish. Creatures of prey. Boat engines. Rudders. Refine your senses. There are currents here. You cannot have known this before. No matter. Drift.
It comes back to Wil then: the way the stranger had pushed her hard against the cold metallic wall of the clunky 1970s lift in The Tabloid building on Commonwealth Street last October, her arms twisted and pinned behind her back, and between her legs the tilt of a hard, inhuman object, pressing, threatening pain and consequence should she squirm or shift or cry out. There was nothing personal about this man’s hold on her. At the edge of her ear, a damp breath, the wet of his mouth, and a blunt message delivered in a terse whisper: ‘Back the fuck off, bitch. Do you understand?’
Silence. Pressure. Pain.
‘Do you understand?’
A reply delivered as much by breathing out as by any other means.
‘Do you know what this is about? Do I have to explain it to you?’
For some moments, the stranger’s grip on her was firmer than ever.
‘Back the fuck off.’
She did not reply. Tears formed at the edges of her closed eyes. She would back off. She would not back off. She would stop. She would never stop.
‘I’ll back off.’
‘Basement level one,’ announced a polite automated voice, cheerfully indifferent to the human drama. Then the lift doors opened and the vice-like grip was released, the stranger gone. Wil thought immediately of Ying and that awful hessian sack and knew that, if anything, she was lucky the stranger hadn’t taken her with him. The lift doors closed and she shut her eyes. She had not yet moved away from the wall. She breathed in.
When someone called the lift to a higher floor and it began to ascend again, she moved, ever so slowly, away from the cold metallic panelling, found her balance and opened her eyes. On level fourteen, the doors opened, and she stepped out of the lift and into the cool fluorescent light of a foreign open-plan office. Strangers moved past her into the lift, and Wil stepped forwards. She stepped forwards, straightening her skirt.
Markets spin just like air, turning warm then cool then warm again. The words employed to describe these patterns are sophisticated, comprehensive, impeccable. The more she understood financial markets, the more she feared dreadfully for the whole system. Wil wanted to stop and assemble the long row of men at the top end in a line, to ask them, squarely, accusatively: what kind of addition is this?
For a time, her career in finance journalism completely absorbed her. She barely stopped to look at it for what it was. For the first time in her life, she had money. And the work kept coming, and she was ready for it; she was engaged by it, she picked up whatever challenge was laid down for her.
She fancied herself a whistleblower of sorts, but in fact the system itself enabled small whistles to blow. It absorbed them, and kept spinning. The headlines the subeditor chose for features went for the drama, a form of bait – but the corruption she hinted at, the insider deals she hinted at, the false confidence she hinted at – people read (or perhaps didn’t fully comprehend) and moved on.
Now, so much later, at the bottom of the docile river, she can see that all this absorption she had in her own sense of importance was part of the problem. Was this what it meant to succeed in journalism? To be onto something that felt like a hunt, that felt like you were building a case for power? Yes, it was absorbing. But wasn’t it also a form of masculine hyper-drive, a kind of aggression?
Perhaps, in a sense, she was grateful for the wake-up call that was Lachlan White. His blatant hatred forced her to question more deeply what it was she thought she was doing in the public domain.
THINK OF ALL the naked women’s bodies that have appeared floating facedown in rivers, bays and canals in the opening scenes of movies and crime novels. It seems this is something we like to do as a people, regardless of gender: to gaze longingly at a dead woman’s body in this way, to imagine that this could happen to someone we desire, or perhaps to us. The water, a kind of amniotic fluid. Does it intrigue us to dream up the murderous villain? Do we sense an opportunity for heroism (our own)?
In some ways, the swollen blue corpse is the archetypal image of beauty, ruined, as all beauty must be, eventually. And so we rehearse our mourning. And yet, isn’t there also a hint of titillation, a taste of sexual violence? Who among us wants to envisage a loved one – or ourselves – dead in this way?
Deep beneath the prevailing current, Wil consoles herself that she is different to all those other bodies. She is neither naked nor floating. She is still alive. She feels grateful for the warm blanket of water, the soft bed of the sandy river basin. Time is passing, but she will do her best not to float to the surface the way those others have floated: victims. Nor will she let the current carry her body downstream, drifting, catching, gathering detritus to frighten an innocent passer-by, as had happened, apparently, with the body of her father. Wil is not living someone else’s story. Wil will not so much as stick up a single arm.
Occasionally, when Wil was a child, her mother would take her and her brother back to South Australia, to the house in the Adelaide Hills in which Wil’s mother had spent her own childhood. Their grandmother, Dotty, was the lone matriarch by then. She’d never owned a car. ‘Walker by name, walker by nature,’ Dotty used to say, referring to her long-ago maiden name as she headed up the street on foot with her crocheted grocery bag. Dotty had lived in her home in the Blackwood Hills her whole married life. The house, built by Wil’s grandfather and surrounded on all sides by huge verandas, seemed to bulge or contract depending on how many cousins and aunties or uncles were there to visit. From her single bed on the side veranda, Wil often heard the wooden roof beams creaking with the strain of it all, and she would rest a palm on the wall as if to comfort it.
During her twenties, before she got married, Wil would stay with her lone Dutch relation in Haarlem in a tiny tenth-floor apartment overlooking Van Leeuwenhoekpark. There, double-glazed windows sealed out the cold and the noise, and a quaint little balcony harboured herbs and flowers during the short Dutch summer. Like Dotty, her father’s sister, Eva, had lived in that one building for most of her life, walking and cycling the same patterns back and forth to the workplace or train station or local market. This had been going on for six decades, this deeply embedded line-work of foot and wheel, stitched and restitched over limited ground. Not even her brother’s suicide could disrupt Eva from this fierce commitment to limited scale. She had never once visited them in Australia.
Wil couldn’t imagine herself ever being comfortable with such a stationary existence. She was her father’s daughter in that way: restless, sustained by larger scale and less predictable lines of flight. She had already moved states three times. The rammed-earth house in the jarrah forest into which she and Frane had moved almost five years ago was her longest stay anywhere. At the edge of her consciousness, always, was the itch to walk away from both the building and its occupants. To walk from everything, actually…almost.
Wisdom, according to the American journalist, had been more written about and discussed than any other concept in history. In all the ancient schools of philosophy and religion, wisdom was right at the heart of matter, he said. Perhaps it was also at the heart of Wil’s interest in Buddhism, in which the notion of practising wisdom is related to every action, big and small, every day. ‘Death is as close as your breath’ – a favourite line from the Thai monk Ajahn Chah floats back into her thoughts. And then a commentary from Ajahn Vayama: ‘What do you expect?’ she had asked of the gathering in front of her one Friday. ‘People come to me to tell me their husband has left, or their son has died or their best friend has been diagnosed with cancer. You are a Buddhist, I remind them. What is the first noble truth? Suffering, right? Life is suffering. So, what do you expect? Why are you so shocked by these things? Why did you think they would never happen to you?’
Here in the base of the river, time takes on a different scale. Wil is always underneath, drifting, and there is nothing to distinguish one minute from another. Silt is a measure of time; salt is a measure of time. Progress turned inwards, by turns either diluted or concentrated: leaking, faltering or rushing forth. Sometimes it seems that the more satisfying thing to do is not to give the outside world a great deal of attention.
She is inhaling. She is exhaling. Or perhaps it is the river that is breathing.
Fanny Balbuk Yooreel was a woman of the river. Wil had seen a photograph of her once. It was black and white, and Fanny stood tall in a white Victorian dress and stared at the photographer unflinchingly. Unlike the other Noongar people in the group portrait, Fanny was identified and named. People of the city knew her for her spirit of protest. It was said that throughout the late 1800s she would stand outside Government House, raising a fist and cursing the people within, for the building had been built right on top of her grandmother’s burial ground.
Fanny was born on the island just downstream. In the wetlands that stood to the west of the river flat before the city’s main railway station was built there, she caught freshwater crayfish to eat. And the lines she’d walked since she was a girl from birthplace to hunting ground, from burial sites to ceremonial place, she kept walking well beyond the growth of the European settlement. Over fences she’d go, in through the front doors and down the hallways of freshly carpentered houses. She walked the old ways, proud. Sometimes, Wil could sense Fanny Balbuk Yooreel trampling along still – a dogged back and forth that persisted yet, even deep below the surface of the Swell.
When Wil was a teenager, the media tycoon Kerry Packer, then Australia’s richest man, made headlines after he was revived from a heart attack he suffered while playing polo. He’d been clinically dead for six minutes. When one of the journalists asked him what it was like on the other side, he said, ‘There’s fucking nothing there, mate.’ Packer seemed visibly relieved. ‘There’s no one waiting there for you. There’s no one to judge you, so you can do what you bloody well like.’
Lachlan White was something else again. At only sixteen, and still in high school, he had launched his rare-sneaker store online. With some initial outlay from his parents, he invested in a massive social media marketing campaign, and the business took off right across Asia before extending to the US and Europe. Lachlan became the go-to middleman for rich kids, minor celebrities and diehards seeking to buy or sell highly coveted trainers. He dealt only in shoes in brand-new condition and still in their original boxes. Repeat customers earned loyalty points. By the end of 2010, before he’d finished Year 11, he was pulling in $10,000 a week. On that basis, he decided to drop out of school. Within two years he’d launched his own property development company.
Wil drove past Lachlan’s parents’ house in City Beach once, soon after he’d left school. She was filing her first profile on him for The Tabloid. City Beach was a new-money part of town, full of massive five-bedroom houses set out on sprawling, well-manicured gardens, most with parking for more than three cars. Lachlan’s father was a leading car dealer, his mother an ex-model turned fashion editor for a local lifestyle magazine. Their house was painted in two tones of grey. It was a two-storey number, set back on the higher side of Challenger Parade. There would be views of the Indian Ocean from the arched upstairs windows.
At which precise point in her reporting on Lachlan White Wil first offended the teenager she could not be entirely sure, but the first time she sensed his hatred, they were in the same room at the launch of a new development he was backing. She took in his closely cropped blonde hair, his tailored sky-blue business suit, and thought he could almost have stepped out of a brochure (perhaps he had). When he’d finished his speech and the people in the room were clapping, Lachlan White shot Wil a glance, a form of cold acknowledgement. And she saw that he knew already exactly who she was.
Online comments in response to the article ‘What might it cost to leave your partner?’:
Milly Jones: This is a good wake-up call and rings completely true from what I’ve seen through friends of mine. More please.
David Black: Typical fucking bleeding-heart approach to economics. Who taught you maths?
MeanMF: Everybody knows you’re a slut.
Sunny Miles: Thanks so much for this informative piece. I love your work.
OG: Bigger tits. Thanks.
Sunny Miles: What’s with the comments from these guys?
Mean MF: I’m going to rape you with a stick and then hang you by the neck to the Windan Bridge. Let’s watch you swing, bitch.
It was a slow four hours before the online editor closed the comments section down.
Sex is forgetting. Setting down the thread of the narrative, unravelling time. There are two bodies, a wide bed. There is his tongue between her legs. If there ever was a border between them, it is gone now, dissolved.
If there were such things as days, nights, they would be passing right here, without note. If there were such a thing as the outside world, it would be smaller now than ever, like a fleck of dust in the sunlight, both here and not here, something to wonder at only briefly.
Passing. Into the body of Leigh, her own fragility, her future, all of the hours and weeks and years she has spent ghostlike, uninhabited. Here in the great wide bed of the river, she is herself with him, his tongue at her edges until she floods, buoyant, and he carries her. He carries her, and she is everything. There is no border.
When they are tangled, when they are lost in one another’s limbs, when she opens her eyes and sees only his skin, the beautiful surface of him, they are the whole world. When she plays with him like that until he moans and shudders, when everything firm turns to liquid in her mouth, when she is drunk on him, there is no universe but this.
Wil begins to leak. She leaks into the viscous form of the river, thinning, streaming, running almost clear, and for a while her desire for Leigh quietens and dilutes. Wil loves everything and everything she pours through loves her back, and as time passes she becomes a form so quietly, so tenderly taken that even the river algae loses sense of her outline.
This is how Ying finds her. Her old friend’s voice is a shrill form of shock, not watery at all. ‘Look out!’ The hessian bag is over Ying’s head again, the rough fabric scratchy against her skin, making her eyes itch in the way she’s described to Wil so many times before. They pull the sack off and flick it into the current, where it drifts like the limp body of a dead cat, carried passively away in the dung-coloured water.
The two friends air kiss in the Dutch way, close to where their cheeks might once have been, and clasp hands.
‘It’s so good to see you.’
‘It’s good to see you, too.’
They sit side-by-side, as they have done many times before. And it feels good to have a friend.
Lachlan White’s active campaign to fuck up Wil’s journalistic career began with the arrival of several unwanted gifts. She returned to her office one day during the winter of 2011 to find that flowers had been delivered bearing her name. They were a bright, artfully arranged bunch of reds and yellows: gerberas, carnations, baby’s breath. It was not her birthday and she had nothing in particular to celebrate. At first, she was quietly thrilled. She placed the arrangement on her desk and the room seemed a better place for it. It was very unlikely to be Frane. He had never once bought her flowers, and besides, he didn’t have the means. She tried to think back through the week, to pinpoint whether there was anything she’d done to help somebody – perhaps through the column, perhaps through her voluntary role at the hospice. Maybe the delivery was a mistake: it was misaddressed. And yet there was her name on the card. Her name, and the words ‘with thanks’ and three small crosses.
A few days later the phone on the desk rang and when she picked it up there was a drowsy voice. ‘Is that the mental health review board?’ The office handset ringing was a rare thing. Everyone she knew either phoned her mobile or sent an email, and if her colleagues down the hall wanted an off-the-record chat, they did so in the hall, or in the office with the door shut, or walking to the coffee shop on the corner.
‘I’m sorry. I think you’ve got the wrong number.’
And then the line went dead.
Again, it was possibly just a mistake. But the next day it rang again, at the same time.
‘Is that the mental health review board?’
This went on, this scattering of small, strange occurrences. Things she could not put right. She flickered between one conclusion that it was all based on coincidence and another that it was part of a deliberate plan. The latter idea took a long time to gain momentum.
There’s something about a young man so good looking at this age – not quite twenty and to her way of thinking still boy-child, his body still taut with fitness. And he’s white – the dominant picture of humanity on every screen in every cinema in every city and town. A blue-eyed boy next door. Give him a salesman for a father, a man who has already modelled moderate financial success, a mother with beauty, and an education that had cost someone something. Who do you expect this boy child might become? Who would dare put limits on his future?
And yet. Something buried deep in Lachlan White’s psyche means he can’t stomach the slightest bit of criticism. What is it about a young man who can’t bear being pulled into line, least of all by a woman? Hasn’t anybody ever fully loved him? Hasn’t he ever properly loved anybody back? Why else would he do this? Why would he seek so vehemently, so obsessively, to pull somebody like her down?
She was eleven when she overheard her father crying. The sound drifted down the hallway, and Wil stood quiet, at the doorway nearest her room.
‘I tried to drown myself in the river,’ he sobbed.
He was in the living room with her mother, who it seemed was saying nothing in reply. Perhaps she was holding his hand. Wil hoped she was.
‘I couldn’t do it,’ her father said. ‘I couldn’t even fucking do that.’
Mrs Davey, the woman in her early nineties whose case Wil was writing up for a feature on the Lachlan White Property Group, seemed inseparable from the pet bird who flew swiftly about her kitchen, stopping now and then to land on her head. The view to the old woman’s backyard from her covered-in veranda was depressing: stray weeds rising up between bricks; the sharp rust stain of sprinkler water all along the old asbestos fence. Inside the house, Mrs Davey brewed her tea in a polished aluminium tea pot, once pink and green, now stained with brown, and of a kind Wil had not seen since she was a child. Wil learned the pensioner had taken out a mortgage on the house she’d once owned in full. She’d been given to believe that ‘freeing it up’ to invest in a new off-the-plan apartment series in Karratha would turn her into a millionaire and leave her disabled adult son – now in assisted living – with the very best quality of care after her death.
Revenge narratives had never been Wil’s preferred form. It wasn’t part of the Buddhist ethos. Change came, you suffered, you forgave – or more than forgave, actually. You felt compassion, even towards the rapist, the thief, the charming illywhacker who convinced you to willingly hand over your children’s entire inheritance.
‘Money is merely a form of exchange,’ her friend Tony, an investment banker, had once told her as they sat in a fancy restaurant inside a shopping mall in Singapore. ‘People think it’s more than that. It isn’t.’ The matter-of-factness of this claim, coming from a fellow Buddhist, seemed typical in some ways, but also disturbing in a manner Wil couldn’t quite explain. Who could really look at money with such detachment? Surely only those who have long had more than enough of it.
Wil’s profile of Mrs Davey sparked a set of features that ran over the full course of that calendar year. It was a deliberate and measured series: she traced Lachlan White’s chequered history with Consumer Protection on matters related to customer guarantees. Then there were problems to do with the extraordinarily high commissions and outlandish incentives – he called them ‘special packages’ – he had promised to pay but failed to deliver to brokers who had agreed to spruik his latest property developments. She found inconsistencies, too, in his self-aggrandising claims to the newspapers. Did he really have twenty-seven agents working for him across the city? The point at which her pursuit of White became something that could be called wilful was perhaps a little blurry, but it pivoted around the point at which she crossed over from pursuing a story in the public interest to defending her right to speak in the public domain at all.
How may Australian journalists have admitted lately to not following a story because of threats to their personal safety? The answer, since the widespread take up of online news, is almost 50 per cent.
‘Social media trolling of female journalists is insidious,’ ran a headline in the national daily in 2011. ‘In-house journalists are most likely to experience this’ was the finding extracted from the results of a large-scale survey published by the journalists’ union. Women respondents provided numerous examples of abuse: ‘I was sent rape threats… I had my email hacked… I was followed by a man who took photos of me and my friends… I was sent emails with descriptions of the bus my son catches to school… Somebody showed up on my front door and gave my husband a “gift” for me: a large bullet from an automatic weapon.’
Wil’s stomach somersaulted reading this article. And not just because she recognised several of the anonymised responses as things that had happened to her too. Perhaps this is why it happened, the second pregnancy. Perhaps she was looking subconsciously for a way out, a small set of brakes, a legitimate, quiet withdrawal from the battleground of public discourse. In January 2012, the first sign of Clancy appeared: a small blue line on a test strip she’d bought at the chemist en route from one interview subject to another. ‘Oh,’ she said out loud in the toilet cubicle at work. Was there some other way to live?
THERE IS SUCH a thing as a cumulative effect. Lachlan White probably just laid the groundwork for the later depths of it, the sheer and utter loss of faith in daily procedures, a furrow in time she passed into during Clancy’s first year. She remembers the day she entered this phase. She had been on her way back from work and day care, the baby in the back seat, asleep after nearly forty minutes of screaming. Three months of parental leave had gone too quickly. She’d been back at The Tabloid for ten weeks, and there, at least, nothing had changed.
It was peak hour, late afternoon, when she approached the top of the crest on the Great Eastern Highway near Upper Hill. She was travelling in the left lane when a silver car with a dark-tinted windscreen appeared behind her. They were in the eighty-kilometre zone and Wil was travelling just over the speed limit. She remembers checking. The other car was tailgating, aggressively. What was the problem, she wondered? She kept to speed and tried not to pay too much attention, but when a gap appeared on the right, the silver car shifted lanes and then drew close in parallel. She could only just see the silhouette of the driver through the tint. He was not looking at her and yet he was veering to the left, so that their two vehicles were almost touching. Wil stayed her course as long as she felt she could, but soon she too was veering left. Her wheels hit the soft edge, flinging up a sheet of tiny laterite pebbles onto the windscreen of the car behind, and she braked gently, but the silver car slowed too and nudged her still further towards the road’s edge. She was two-thirds of the way off her lane when the other driver accelerated suddenly, then pulled directly in front of her. She slammed on her brakes. Just then, the other car took off, spraying her windscreen with gravel. A crack appeared in the glass. She looked to the back seat. The baby had not stirred. Her car had stalled. She listened to faint ticking of metal.
Minutes later, she reached the centre of the local shopping district and noticed her hands lightly shaking as she slowed for the red light at the intersection. It was here, her front wheels at the line, first in the queue, that her view of the world lost its colour. It was awful, she realised. All of it. It was truly awful and it always had been and she had been looking away from that fact the whole of her life. The gigantic fast-food chain signage looming over the intersection proved it. The trees beside the road, those few strugglers that remained, collared by bitumen, proved it. ‘Look at us,’ she thought, as she watched an old man waiting to cross at the intersection, studying his swollen arthritic hands.
Time passed. It seemed that the traffic lights might never change.
The question Wil had once liked for its openness and that had once attracted her to reading more widely in philosophy – ‘How shall I fill my days?’ – returned to her at this moment as if laced with arsenic. It was a flawed question, one that assumed a person had time that belonged to them in the first place. It was not a working mother’s question. It was not a question for a woman. ‘How shall I ever empty them?’ Wil asked back, cynically. ‘How shall I ever empty them of trash?’ But then, perhaps she didn’t want them back anyway, those days. Days were fucked. Everything was fucked.
The baby in the back seat looked beautiful sleeping. That too was a form of cruelty, for he would wake. Soon he would wake, screaming into the suffocating grey, as if he knew everything already.
In the depths of her grief, what Patacara did was take off all her clothes. She could not bear to wear them. At first people tried to cover her, to console her, to take her into their homes and rehabilitate her. But she would not be consoled. She wandered naked through town and country. She would not wash. She would not speak. She would not listen to reason. Patacara roamed aimlessly until one season turned into another, and then she was offered no more comfort. People began to turn on her with stones.
There was no getting up out of bed. There was no getting up to the children. There was no getting up.
WIL COULD RECOGNISE the cycle path along the foreshore east of the city with her eyes shut: the way the sound changed as the space opened out; the huffing and puffing of new-to-exercise joggers trying their best; the children’s squeals of excitement in the riverside playground; and the distant kerthunk of car tyres drumming out a rhythm against the seams in the concrete of the traffic bridge. And then there was that feeling of closeness to the water’s edge that had her reaching to find the push and rhythm still left in her legs to round the last slight curves of the path at speed, keeping the breath steady, shifting the attention only to that spot a metre or two ahead of her front wheel on the bitumen, picking up speed on the last straight before turning west into The Boulevard, and the traffic lights, and the other vehicles, and the wait, wait, wait at the lights. At this bend, she was almost at Corp C. Another day, another series of small manoeuvres. ‘Look ever forward’ was the corporate motto, as if to quietly acknowledge each worker’s tendency to glance too often at all that was left behind.
On the lawyer’s bike, Wil Blomme has ridden her way into bleak emotions many times. Somehow the consistent application of energy, the consistency of effort over the long revolutions, the marriage of concentration and exhaustion pushes you somewhere else altogether. Wil was someone who cried often as a small child, who still remembered turning on tears in order to win sympathy from siblings when losing a board game, and yet she stopped somewhere during adolescence and seemed to give up crying all together in her twenties and thirties, with the odd exception of tears shed in the cinema. These she made sure to wipe away before returning to the light outdoors. And yet, on the lawyer’s bike, she had ridden herself into storms she did not know were brewing beneath the surface.
She credited cycling with leading her right out of the dark blank that was Clancy’s first year. She rode through the brittle closed-off heart that mechanically delivered the child its hourly, daily, nightly routine. She rode into and beyond the anger at a public discourse that locked out the very possibility of being the speaking, thinking woman. She rode into the shit and the piss and the vomit and the screaming and the blood of labour and early parenthood, through the recognition of her own failure as a parent, as a partner, as a worker, as a woman, as a human. She rode through it and beyond.
Tears came with exertion. Tears came warm with legs that shook, with shoulders that seized, with fists that gripped the handlebars too hard. Tears came not with the occasional decision to get off and walk up a steep incline, but with the knowledge that she would go on, despite the wretched bloody hills. Later, as she conquered letting go on the Falls Road descent, the tears came with a new sense of elation, the feeling of things long held on to finally falling away behind her. Cycling gifted her with perspective. It helped her see that so many of the things she’d been focusing on so diligently were decoys.
Meanwhile, those dark desires she had been too frightened to acknowledge came at her with force: an impulse to annihilate her own life; to hit the children back; to scream and to shout; and once to throw a cat clean across a room. Another, many times, to string Lachlan White from a telegraph pole by the balls. These dark thoughts: she owned up to them.
Last October, while they were together at home on the weekend, Clancy stood up on his own two feet. He was thirteen months old. She watched the gentle sway, the way the gift of independent balance travelled from his feet and upwards through the spine, neck, shoulders and registered in the seat of his brain. He stood, halfway across the room from her, and looked at her with complete surprise. ‘Look what you can do!’ she said, and he beamed at her and took his first step. The smile the child gave her then, the shock, the joy, as he raised his arms gently to counterbalance and stepped forward again, towards her. Her heart beat for him.
Clancy could walk.
Clancy could walk, and whatever it was between them that had darkened lifted away right there. It went as it had come, like a mist, and although she had never completely doubted that love for her second child was within her, she had barely felt it until then. She inhabited that morning the full force of the knowledge that she and he were here in concert, that he was because she was also. There was a subtle but deeply robust purpose to things.
And her body was her own again.
As her cycling skills developed, it was increasingly this kind of scene that was replayed to her on the Falls Road descent.
On the lawyer’s bike, she moved with sustained focus into and out of the warm air, the cool, the damp air, the dry. It was movement with attention to things, attention to both the remembered and the forgotten, attention to the lies and the truths.
And so it was on the bike, mid-descent, that she found courage. She found the courage to leave The Tabloid and the career she’d spent a decade building. Alongside the constant fear – not just of Lachlan White, but of a growing body of readers who made it their business to make her daily working life at the very least risky – there was a developing sense of doom to working on the media frontline. Digital platforms proliferated, and for as long as she’d had her full-time appointment, The Tabloid had performed an annual shedding of staff, putting particular pressure on old-school journalists and photographers – those still with the scent of newsprint or photo chemicals about them – to take a generous pay package and walk away. By 2012, when management announced another fifty redundancies, for the first time half of them were forced. After that meeting, the editor, the same one who’d hired her, told Wil that if she ever wanted to take redundancy she could do it any time she liked. In the year following Clancy’s birth, it became an increasingly enticing idea. She had cycled in. She could cycle clean out.
Wil’s consciousness is yet to arrive in hell. Perhaps it’s fallen sideways into heaven. At first she doesn’t know how she might progress. Her thoughts keep looping back, forward, back, endless circles. And because she is cycling up a steep incline backwards and that is never possible for long, something has to change.
In heaven, she finds she can perform acrobatics. The body grows flexible. There is the idea of a third child in her womb but in the middle of the second trimester it changes its mind and dissolves. She doesn’t mind. She is lighter without it. She cycles upside down. She grows wings on her back. There is some kind of tightrope stretched taut across the river, beneath the railway bridge, and as she cycles across it a train goes by, and the people on the carriages turn their faces towards her, mouths gaping. She smiles at them as they pass, lifting one hand to wave.
There were four lifts in Flat White Tower. They sat in a neat row and were encased in glass on three sides, so that you watched and were watched in turn by others as the capsules carried you up or down between floors. It was such a contrast to the clunky old lift at the back entrance to The Tabloid building on Commonwealth Street, where she had been accosted in the privacy of a small sealed room, utterly out of sight.
When Wil arrived of a morning at Flat White Tower, she would enter via the street with her bicycle and there was often a small group forming already, waiting for the next lift. She nodded at Rattuwat, and he nodded pleasantly back. The others were already dressed smartly for the office. They were going up. She was going down to the gym and showers in the basement. She often felt self-conscious, taking her bike in with her, negotiating the space, thinking about perspiration and breathing and how red her face, how figure-hugging her lycra bike kit. She pressed the down arrow and waited.
Once she had showered and changed, she took the lift again, standing there in her pencil skirt and jacket, her heels with closed-in toes, her make-up fresh. When she had started working at Corp C in January, her work wardrobe became exclusively business suits: one in black, one in navy, one in a pale Irish linen. The colour of the undershirt rotated from white to pink to neutral. The jackets had shoulder pads.
She followed a tip provided by a leading businesswoman who often appeared on the television. ‘Let them forget you have cleavage,’ she’d advised. ‘You are a cog in the machine, one of an army of thousands. You are (almost) respectable. You are (almost) listened to. You are (almost) – if they’re in the slightest forgetful – one of the boys.’
Shoes should not expose the toes. Choose dark colours. Never attend meetings without your jacket. Wil adhered to these instructions carefully. She noted, during her early weeks at Corp C, a marked difference in the way people treated her. Out on the street at lunchtime, for example, other pedestrians gave her immediate right of way. Taxis stopped for her swiftly. She had crossed a line she recognised as a class line, and it was not one she’d ever before had any interest in crossing. But it was a gendered line too, and now, more than ever, she wanted both to blend in and to smooth the way. She wanted the pay packet. She wanted the fucking respect. At Corp C, she grew to think of herself as a tourist. She was performing a kind of socially sanctioned drag.
On a bad day, she was flung into dark despondency over the naivety of her own project. And she worried: I have become an enabler of a system I have always professed to hate. And yet, as she returned to her desk each morning, hanging her suit jacket on the hook behind her, she was grateful for the bland sense of detachment, the limited purpose. She was writing speeches. She was writing speeches for a male CEO. A man in a suit. And the company did not require her to put her own body on the frontline.
The Noongar people call this bank area from which the cyclist has fallen Booneenboro. It means the place where the river is very big.
Over time, Wil began to appreciate the cycling commute to Corp C and back as a form of suspension. When she was cycling, she was living in parallel. Sometimes the familiar path became all that mattered. She was alive in the reaching up, the unclipping of the road bike from the roof of the Peugeot. She was somewhere in the strapping on of her helmet, changing into the right pair of shoes. She was in the turning on of the cycling app on her phone, zipping it into the top pocket of her backpack.
She existed, then, in the first acceleration along the shared cycling and pedestrian path at Marsh Point. She was the duk-duk-duk-duk-duk of the rattling boards along the narrow bridge above the wetlands. She was the taste of cement beneath the expressway bridge, knowing only the traffic noise, the thud-thud of tyres across metal strips that joined the bridge to the ordinary tarmac, or the hissing and releasing of the air brakes on the big B-doubles. She was the dodging of the anti-vehicle fence, the passing of retirees walking dogs, the calling out of ‘bike’ to jogging buddies chatting in lycra.
Wil was alive in soaring along this section of path fast, taking advantage of the strait, the clear vision. She was alive in flying past the playground on New Market Flat, where she has sometimes taken Tom and Clancy, and where the toy boats, bright with primary colours, once became extravagant quarters for explorers sailing to the wind. The boats were a blur now and yet she was thinking of the boys, sailing to horizons no human has ever glimpsed. And then she was upon the sharp, hazardous turn at the peak near the bend, its blind spots, the low branch of a fig to be ducked beneath, and the ascent up to Public Housing Hill, where the new apartment buildings blinked down over Bird Island and then gave way, via a quick descent, to a damper, darker section of the trail below the high-rise, the sinister little park with stairs and sharp corners, where the drug dealers met.
Wil was suspended in the passage along the edge of the golf course and the opening out of the river into broader, flatter territory, past the helipad where the sightseers dock. Often the path here was busy with people, and here it separated into two: one lane for cyclists, one for pedestrians. The city centre shot up tall silver office buildings, like arrows, skyward along the opposite bank. She pushed her legs to 85 per cent, and the sweat formed beads on her forehead and she’d sometimes clock a record here on the cycling app, her personal best, right before the flat slow curve into City South, a final hill, the bend, before the steep decline.
Which is all another way of saying, it doesn’t feel unnatural to her, this state of suspension. It doesn’t feel odd. In fact, it feels kind of natural, in part because the stranger will approach again, any moment now, and she will embrace him. She will embrace him.
Sex with her lover is such a tender form of exposure, of transformation and exchange, through heat, through the beauty of the tactile, through quivers of pleasure and joy, and sometimes through the singular resting of an open palm on a thigh while drifting lightly in and out of sleep.
The intimacy in being and doing together, in the unthreading of ‘I’ and ‘you’, in the revelation and vulnerability of nakedness. Sometimes even the lightest of touches from him brings her home to herself, to life, as if to provide anchor, and she knows this belonging here and with is the best thing there is.
Tourists who glance into the river will nod at them and assume them a natural landmark, the sun on their backs, his tongue in her mouth. And the river will say nothing, only moving her bulk to accommodate more boats, birds, small marine mammals. There will be nothing to say. It is true that this had once seemed impossible, because for so long he was not real. The apparition, a symptom of stress, perhaps, her head not right, the aching tug of desire leaching away reason, and the Buddhist monk at the temple telling her not to cling. Nothing, he says, is worth clinging to.
Except, surely, he didn’t know about this.
Sometimes, just at that moment when the light is about to fade, deep beneath the surface, Fanny Balbuk Yooreel charges right in and inhabits Wil Blomme, both of them rigid with anger. Wil is almost fully alive again. Then, just as she begins to hum with Fanny’s energy coursing through her, the old woman is gone and the darkness comes, the flow of the water turns cold, and Wil is left alone to wonder who or what opened all the doors.
Wil read a news article once about a boy who found a bottle on a beach in northern Queensland. It had a story in it, a handwritten fairytale. He and his mother were thrilled by the discovery. They had been beachcombers all their lives. They had been hoping for something like this for years, they said, and now it was here, the bottle, the story about a girl and a prince, written – the boy decided – by a girl. They resolved to keep the bottle a while on their mantlepiece, and when they were ready, they would write another chapter, and throw the bottle containing both the original and the new back into the sea.
Wil liked to think of the writing she continued to do on Lachlan White while she was at Corp C as something similar. She was putting all the material in a metaphorical bottle, adding to the work she’d done in recent years at The Tabloid, writing back to satisfy or reply to an earlier version of herself: the one who’d been stifled, muffled, belittled into walking away. She did the research at work, in between press releases for the pale, chain-smoking CEO. She’d kept all her notes from The Tabloid copied to the cloud, and as she expanded and developed and rearranged her material, checking and tracking figures and listings on publicly available databases, managing discreet enquiries via email, a book began to take shape. An exposé. She threaded this work into her days at Corp C with careful subtlety. Closed-in toes. Fingers at the keyboard. Shoulder pads. She was enjoying herself.
Clearly, she had become the kind of cyclist who rides for the descent, who plans her weekly routes according to that long, sweet reward. The Falls Road hill was her training ground. There was a time when she had approached it with anticipation and dread, but lately, pedalling the long, slow-winding ascent through Forrestvale had the feel of a kind of endurance test about it, especially in the heat. She looked forward to it. And then came the gentle curve of the final horizon: she sped up, then dropped down through the gears to gain the last possible ounce of speed. She leaned in, shoulders down, head up, scanning for traffic. Mostly there was none. The hills were so quiet she often counted as few as four cars in either direction for the full length of a ninety-minute ride. Nevertheless, one always had to imagine the possibility. What if, around the next bend, in the space she could not yet see, was a parked car, or a dog, or the body of a sun-baking snake? She found her balance and let go of the tension, recalling another instructive little phrase from her women’s cycling handbook: think down the road.
Just three weeks before the accident, to her surprise, Leigh invited her to lunch, and she found herself sitting opposite him in the café down the road from Corp C. It was not night, as she’d sometimes dreamt it, nor was it raining. She stood to get a jug of water from the self-service area and when she returned to pour it into the two small glasses on their table, she noticed her hands were shaking. They both saw it.
‘I have something I want to tell you,’ he said, after they’d gone over the small talk, the work gossip, the project around the next corner, and she’d swallowed and fallen silent too many times.
This couldn’t be happening, could it? What she’d wanted to do was to tell him something. She’d rehearsed it several times. She was going to tell him she couldn’t stop thinking about him. And yet they hardly knew each other. And the lines she’d rehearsed all sounded scripted and mundane. They worked together, they shared the same opinions, but they hardly knew each other at all. It shocked her to fully register this fact. She was suddenly conscious of her strangeness and, more than ever, of the deeply subjective delusion that came with her desire for him.
She finished her water.
Look ever forward, came the Corp C motto into her consciousness, and it was a more brittle and absurd and impersonal line than it had ever been.
‘I’ve resigned,’ said Leigh.
‘I’ve resigned from Corp C. I’ve had another offer. I know it’s kind of sudden, but I’m leaving next week.’
‘But where are you going?’ she said.
This was not information she was ready to take in.
‘There are a few people at Corp C I’d like to keep in touch with,’ he’d consoled her. ‘You’re definitely one of them.’
And then she was in the boardroom at Corp C, dressed in that fine black woollen suit she bought online last winter, wearing stockings beneath the skirt. The combination of nylon and wool against the base of her thighs was making her unbearably itchy as she sat in her chair.
‘I just need you back,’ the CEO was pleading into his mobile phone while the other members of the meeting waited for him to finish. It seemed indiscreet, his conducting such a conversation in the midst of chairing the weekly planning meeting. ‘Please, I need you,’ he said again with obvious frailty. Then the call ended and everybody watched as he looked about the room, swallowing.
If there was some important business supposed to be going on at that meeting, she ought to have been able to remember what it was. Ah! It was the speech she had written for the quarterly investors’ meeting. Someone was already reading it in the fashion of a newsreader, the intonations and emphases just so. Was it her own voice?
Those seated around the table in their greys and blacks were nodding sombrely and then, as the speech was nearing conclusion, Fanny Balbuk Yooreel walked through the door and up over the desk with a string bag full of gilgies in her hand. Wil watched as the old woman walked out again through the bold profit-and-loss chart on the PowerPoint slide. Nobody blinked.
The speeches Wil continued to write for the CEO were all nonsense now, but they were also considered an asset and the company went on paying her salary. She would soon write them for a new acting deputy, too.
In those final weeks, in the lead up to the accident, Wil was aware of the possibility that all the staff knew about her obsession with Leigh; that they knew even before she knew. And yet it was also possible that they could not and would not ever know, and that all of these things could be simultaneously true.
‘After three decades of substantial growth, the economy is transitioning,’ she had written in her latest round-up speech to the board. Of course they understood, didn’t they? To use the noun ‘transition’ was to displace more alarming words like downturn or contraction. A good speechwriter worked to emphasise this and other synonyms like flux and transformation, and to avoid more dramatic phrases like downward shift or – God forbid – steep decline. Claptrap, blarney, guff.
When she had cause to meet with others in the boardroom of late, Wil found herself turning her back on the David Giles painting. It was as if she could no longer afford to look at it. Something was unravelling in her already. And she couldn’t risk exposing herself to fragility, even in the abstract.
After her death, her husband or perhaps her mother, will discover the account with the other bank and wonder why she hadn’t declared it to anyone. This will be the thing that goes on puzzling her family, afterwards. Not only: what was her intention with all that money? But also: where did it come from? Who or what was it for? Questions will be asked of The Tabloid, of Corp C. And after a time someone will come to understand: she’d put her hand up. She’d let the editor know. She’d put her hand up and she’d held it there of her own accord, and money was given to her for that, but she had not made this known to her family. The understanding at home was simply that she was out a job, just before Christmas, but it didn’t matter, she’d told Frane, because she had another one lined up. And she’d started at Corp C early in the new year, and that was that. But that whole redundancy payout just sitting there, not even accruing a decent interest rate. What was she waiting for? Who?
The job of a speechwriter in a place like Corp C is to keep everybody’s confidence up, to normalise the deception: money is, above all, a kind of confidence trick. There are millions of people in jobs like these the world over. If the multitudes suddenly came to their senses and realised that the whole global financial system really just depended on the plaiting together of huge numbers of very fallible narratives about wealth accumulation, how quickly institutions would fall. Governments, too. Now and again, Wil couldn’t help but ponder this scenario. She was not an apolitical beast. Not even in a suit. In fact, she had already been working on her own quiet resistance project at her speechwriting desk. She was writing a book: a little exposé. And after that, there would be another. Something more radical, something more broadly appealing. She was dreaming it up. She was dreaming it up on the bike.
Hot, sweet tea with milk. The smell of Anzacs baking. The busy chirping of the native finches outside her bedroom window in the morning. The flicker of dust motes in the sunshine. The scent of eucalyptus oil in the bush after a good dose of rain. Cycling fast down the steep descent of Falls Road. Hair in the wind. Breeze on her face. Leaning in.
When Wil was a teenager there was an older boy at school by the name of Slim who began to stalk her in order to shout abuse at her. He would shout from passing car windows, in front of the crowd of children leaving school after the bell. She didn’t always catch what he said, but after it had happened several times she began to recognise the accusation: ‘Drug dealer!’ It was true that she had supplied homegrown marijuana to several of her schoolmates, but she had never been a seller. Slim was the neighbour of Wil’s friend Dee, and she knew the two families were close. But really? Dee’s parents had some pretty extreme pornography magazines piled under their marital bed. All the teenagers in the neighbourhood knew about them. Was Slim going to shout at Dee, too? ‘Porn pusher!’ Besides, were people like that really inclined to think that sharing around a bit of homegrown leaf and tip among girlfriends turned a person into a dealer?
And yet, he persisted.
After some months of this, Wil came across Slim at an indoor cricket match one school-day sports afternoon. He sniggered with his few mates as she went past.
‘Fucking drug dealer. How’s ya track marks? Show us your arms!’
Someone was carrying a cricket bat. Was it her?
She stopped then, and backtracked a little.
‘Why don’t you go and fuck yourself, Slim? God knows, nobody else is gonna do it.’
She said that. She said that and the older boy stepped down from the bleachers and hit her hard on the side of the face with a closed fist. Wil did not buckle. The whole warehouse fell silent and turned to look. Wil felt the heavy gaze of the onlookers and stood firm. She held onto her cricket bat.
‘Slim just hit a girl,’ one of the younger kids called from the nearby pitch.
Wil’s heart beat boldly against her chest. Cold seconds passed. The taller figure of Slim loomed over her, still, and she clenched her teeth and lifted her bat. She hit the boy back. She hit him sideways with a crack and he fell onto his knees. Then she dropped the bat and turned her back on him. She walked away. That boy never dissed her again.
IN THE FUTURE, there will be long hours spent in the firm, king-sized bed in Leigh’s interstate apartment, her tongue tracing the shape of his right nipple, his palm shifting upwards along her thigh. There will be a pair of eyes she can look into without ever feeling she’s plumbed their depths. There will be the smell of him on her skin long afterwards and she will begin to carry him differently, then. She will be buoyant.
But she remembered that conversation, the Thursday before the accident, when she had lingered at the edge of the kindergarten car park with Artemis, the mother of Tom’s best friend. Artemis had just revealed that her husband was having an affair. ‘I’ve asked him to leave,’ she said, ‘but he won’t. He wants the best of both worlds.’ Their conversation stopped and started and stopped again as the children moved in and out of earshot. Mostly, the boys were examining rocks in a ditch some metres away, but sometimes they grabbed hold of one another’s backpacks and looped and chased and squealed, coming close to the two women for protection, then lurching away again. The fact of the affair was marked heavily on Artemis’s face.
‘I’ve caught him red-handed, but he won’t admit it,’ she complained. ‘They say DENIAL stands for Don’t Even Know I Am Lying.’
The acronym wasn’t quite right, but it didn’t seem the best time to point that out. Wil knew Artemis’s husband. He was a handsome, intelligent man, a pilot for a charter flight company that did well out of the mining industry. He was often away for days at a time. When he was home, he was the picture of a devoted father. He put the children to bed at night. He helped Artemis with the cleaning. He tended the garden. Wil wasn’t surprised that someone else should find him attractive. She felt terrible for her friend, and understood her sense of betrayal. But at the same time, she couldn’t stop thinking about the cheating husband. She recognised his illicit desire, so completely overwhelming. She understood the mad pain of it. She thought about this even as Artemis confided in her. Wil’s identification with the traitor shocked her.
Tom bowled into her with force, then plonked to the ground with laughter.
‘Bleuggh,’ he said, pulling a silly face, then: ‘Dong!’
The boy was performing for his friends. She took his hand in hers and helped pull him up. She moved towards her car and nodded and smiled her goodbyes at Artemis, for whom she felt truly awful, and for whom it seemed nothing at all could be done. Tom was complaining. As she helped him into the car she found herself gripping him with the strongest hold.
‘Stop it, Mum!’ he said. ‘Let go!’
Some time ago, flying to the north of the state on business, she had looked down at the arid interior and noticed how severely water had shaped the landscape. Everywhere retained the mark of its aggressive flow, its relentless pursuit of the lowest point. It had shaped and shifted every grain of sand, every plant, hill and gully. Insistent, one might call it. Self-determined. Or, were it a person, single-minded.
The two friends sit together at the bottom of the river. Ying is relaying to Wil her Saturday morning visit to Lawrence, one of the hospice patients. Lawrence has advanced dementia, and Ying reports that it is increasingly difficult to visit him, because he can no longer conduct a conversation about anything at all. But her most recent visit had been a bit unusual.
‘He was so pleased to see me. His grin was so wide!’
‘What did you talk about?’
‘We just sat together. I held his hand.’
‘That’s beautiful, don’t you think?’ says Wil. She is thinking about touch, the importance of it.
‘I’ve been thinking about the law of dependent origination,’ continues Ying, and quotes it: ‘When this is not, that is not; this ceases, that ceases. I’ve been thinking about existence and non-existence. When there’s an arising, a grasping at being, like that which comes with a newborn, or when there’s a passing away and you see the energy, the life force, go it feels to me like you’re very conscious of non-existence as well. Existence is coming or going. It’s rising up, or it’s passing away. But for me, in witnessing those moments, when I’ve been with people as they die at the hospice, for example, I feel like I’ve glimpsed both existence and non-existence simultaneously. Are they both there? Do you feel they’re both there?’
Wil nods. ‘In Pali, Paticca-samuppada: “The phenomenon arises because of a combination of conditions which are present to support its arising. And the phenomenon will cease when the conditions and components supporting its arising change and no longer sustain it.” So existence/non-existence. Always in concert, yes?’
‘Everything conditioned, relative, interdependent,’ agrees Ying, nodding.
‘So, what is non-existence, actually? There can be no first cause, right? We can’t trace phenomena back to one starting point. Everything arises because of some preceding cause. So…in light of this: is non-existence a fiction? What is it that ceases to exist? What is it that arises, in the first place?’
Wil thinks again about Ying holding Lawrence’s hand and feels a lump – grief? – forming in her throat. She thinks, too, of the sight of Leigh ahead of her on the stairs at Corp C. How it was both him and not him she had needed so badly that day. It was not him on the stairs.
The river is always flowing, even when it seems too tired, too lazy. She sometimes looks down at it from height, and notices how the extent of its movement is disguised. Surfaces reflect, detract, from the greater work of subterranean shifting. Always, over time, there is more water flowing. This is the miracle, in this dry landscape: that the river’s source should triumph, persevere.
Cycling along the edge of it, the wind had always been behind her in the mornings, aiding her all the way to work. On the way home, it was different, her pedalling more aggressive. Invariably, there were small angers, minor irritations from the pull and push of the working day that she needed to settle through the pedals.
Minutes had been swallowed whole by the rhythm of her spinning wheels and Leigh had so frequently appeared and disappeared from her consciousness, calling for her attention: how she gave it.
Some days, during recent weeks and months, she had been so weakened by her obsession with him that she could barely speak. If someone at the office had asked her how she was, she would hesitate. To reveal the problem would have been a kind of defeat. This kind of thing had never happened to her before. Someone once told her that she thought broken hearts were for other people, more stupid people, those who couldn’t control their emotions, couldn’t see the truth, couldn’t see things as they really were. Fools, yes? So perhaps Wil had become one. If so, it had happened with such rapidity it was breathtaking. The thing about wisdom is, just because you have it, doesn’t mean you get to keep it.
Rivers conceal, but they cannot lie. The river will take what she needs, when she needs it. She will swell or contract. She will swallow or reveal. She can reshape herself. She does so without malice. Which is not to say that she cannot damage. That she cannot kill.
Wil once read somewhere that patients who can see the outside world through their hospital room window, particularly trees, tend to experience a quicker and more complete convalescence.
In the future, she will choose the high-rise apartment in South City for herself and the boys on this basis. She will let there be windows. She will let there be trees. They will leave Frane – all three of them – but they will need the right set of rooms in which to recover.
And yet, at the bottom of the river, her body is beginning to bloat. She is, after all, immersed. Perhaps she has simply died. If so, then the little organisms would soon come. And her flesh would soon disintegrate, piece by piece, absorbed into the form of tiny wrigglers and fish, small and large. Perhaps this is how she will survive, always becoming something else.
The expression to drill down comes to her now – meaning of course to spin a hole by force, a violent act. Drill down for value and depth. This was boardroom language, Corp C language, and it had followed her here, unbidden.
In fact, of late, at her desk on the tenth floor of Flat White Tower, she had been doing her own form of drilling down, and had been at it for months. From the password-protected files of her digital archive came a particular set of data. It was a problem she was solving with consistent effort, a sense of detachment, a good deal of efficiency. Her aim was above all to clarify the facts. She was tired of confidence tricks. She was tired of giving soft advice to ineffectual finance men in suits just like hers.
Wil had a story that revealed the Lachlan White Property Group’s networks and that implicated, among others, the state director of a leading political party. She had links, through her old mate Adrian, to several of the nation’s corporate databases, and many of them failed to register any detail at all on the various companies of which White claimed to be the director. She had a theory, too, about the identity of MeanMF. There was a friend in IT working with her on that. And he was getting somewhere. Then there was Lachlan’s new app development company, formed just last year, and his brazenly named financial solutions firm, White Capital, which came online three months ago offering ridiculously high loan-to-value ratio deals. All of it built up at a mad pace, all of it as glossy as the city itself, polished and glittering until the only thing clients and investors could see was their own reflection and a shared future they could never admit might never come.
Wil found it impossible to keep silent. Lachlan’s games left real victims. There were hundreds of people like Mrs Davey now. And former employees left without pay or superannuation, creditors left with invoices unpaid. All this, and the poster boy was so loved. The poster boy was the picture of success, the city’s golden son, as if all the light was in him, and came to the rest of us only through the likes of him. She wrote the book.
She wanted to craft a meticulously researched critique not just of Lachlan White but of the culture that created and supported the Lachlan Whites of the world, exposing the very scaffolding that rewarded his bullying and smoothed over his misogyny, that spun his greed and delusion into a glossy story of innovation and self-made success. She worked at this book. She built it up.
But here, at the bottom of the river, Wil Blomme is finally silent. Earlier that day, she had been in the middle of a steep descent. She remembers reaching down to grab her water bottle. Had there been a bump in the pavement on that section of track? Perhaps she had hit an uneven patch, and the shock of the bump had caused her to lose her grip on the handlebars with the remaining hand.
And yet she knows that path. There has never been anything uneven about it. What she knows for sure is that the carbon fork snapped. Perhaps it was a risk with the lawyer’s bike: an early carbon-frame model, a dated model. Some cyclists said you were better off leaving the carbon to the main frame and going with steel on the forks instead. Some cyclists said you had to monitor carbon hardware rigorously. It was so easy for a hairline fracture to give way to a sudden full break. Others warned of air pockets or voids in carbon forks that were not visible until breakage occurred. But the point was: her fork snapped. Had there been a foreign object in the spokes? Could it have been deliberate sabotage? There was no time for Wil to raise her hands to protect her head. And so, she fell. She fell onto the stone edging of a nearby garden and then down the hill. Her helmet should have softened the impact. Maybe it had. Who was there to say it had not?
‘He was ambitious,’ the people at work would say on hearing of the acting deputy’s resignation.
‘He was single-minded.’
But for a little while, the news of Leigh’s departure made the whole corporate narrative sag. They all knew it. Everybody propped things up as best they could. They would go forwards, and not back. Yet energy slumped. Leigh had been smarter, more efficient and better at all of this stuff than any of them, and the people around her knew it. Wil wasn’t the only one who’d listened whenever he gave an opinion in a crowded room. He’d been there a year and now he was gone, and somehow in that coming and going he’d shown plenty of them how much better things could be done, and also, perhaps inadvertently, that Corp C wasn’t everything – that there were more interesting places to be.
Meanwhile, the days passed. Leigh flew back and forth interstate, wrapping up meetings and, she supposed, beginning new ones somewhere else. Someone was hired to pack up his house. Someone was hired to pack up his office. Someone was hired to put his car on the back of a truck.
She sent another email, just before he flew east again. All title, no content.
‘Time for a goodbye coffee?’
The answer came some hours later, in the same manner.
‘Sorry. Next time?’
She typed an immediate, flippant reply: ‘Look ever forward.’ And then, a minute later, with nothing left to lose, she sent another, without a title, to which she attached the full draft of the manuscript on Lachlan White.
A kind of storm came on the bicycle, all the way home.
The flip side of wonder: disappointment. Such as she felt when she discovered as an adult that Lewis Carroll had befriended scores of little girls so he could photograph them naked. Little Alices, all. And she, one of the few girl protagonists in classic literature ever to be permitted a genuinely interesting adventure.
In the silence after midnight, she reaches a hand across the sheets of sand and finds her lover’s back, the slight curve at the base of his spine. He is grounded, asleep on his side, a quiet mountain. To think that he could have fallen here, that he could sleep, of all places, here, beside the wounded cyclist, her useless, bloated body no longer carrying children, no longer in possession even of herself. Was she without love? Had everything trickled out of her?
She reaches for his hand, shifting her hips a little closer to his, and finds instead the crease at the top of his thigh, a soft, familiar shape. Running her forefinger along the small seam at the base of him, wondering about his dreams, whether he has them, whether she’s in them. He comes, gradually, to life and the riverbed shifts a little as he turns to face her and she feels his breath, warm and close, his mouth against her own, and this, she knows, is the one thing that might bring her back. If she is ever coming back.
The comascape is a drifting sleep that burrows down into blank nothingness – like that time during a meditation retreat in Thailand when being in time dropped away altogether. Alternatively, there are shallow periods, waking dreams, difficult to distinguish from actual life, sometimes mundane and repetitive, sometimes vivid and beautiful and almost entirely preoccupied with the senses.
Close to the end, she finds herself reduced to the size of a small insect, travelling valiantly through the soft valleys and folds of an enormous white carnation. The petals crinkle around her and at the edge of their ruffled horizons there are rocky-mountain-like edges of vibrant magenta. At the bloom’s very centre, Wil is aware of an intricate curling, almost too tender to take in. Underfoot, the velvety surface of each petal seems so vast it might go on forever. It is perhaps the most beautiful landscape she has ever traversed, and she is largely content there. At the same time, she is vaguely aware that the bloom has reached its peak, and that any time now it will shift towards decay. Might she be caught in the wilting?
‘What might it cost to leave your partner?’: the title of that divisive piece written for The Tabloid some years ago. ‘One of most common financial tips the wealthy pass on to their children is this: get married and stay married,’ the column began.
‘But alas, we are not universally happy in marriage. Among the top reasons those who are not happy together stay together is financial impact. It’s a fair concern. Women, in particular, who tend to work in less stable jobs and for smaller salaries, often have no savings to speak of, and many of us could not raise the money needed for the bond on new rental accommodation if needed in a hurry.
‘The best advice I can offer to those embarking on domestic coupledom is to maintain some sense of financial independence. Will you be together forever? Statistically it is clear that many of us will not. We would all do well to be prepared. How much would it cost to leave your partner tomorrow? Here are some considerations to help you to work it out.’
This was Wil’s trademark phrase as a toddler and young child. She was a good-looking little girl. She felt people’s eyes on her and she didn’t like the feeling at all. Sitting in the trolley at the supermarket, people would stop her mother to comment: such olive skin, such rosy cheeks.
‘Stop it,’ little Wil would say to them crossly. ‘Don’t look!’
Her mother could get embarrassed by this.
‘Don’t look!’ she would say again, more loudly, elongating the second word, her eyebrows furrowed. Who were they to stare at her like that? She brushed them away with her hand, using the other to shield her face.
Inevitably, the strangers turned away, laughing.
‘I don’t know what happened to us.’ It is the voice of her husband, Frane, coming to her in the early hours of the morning in the cool, impersonal smooth of the hospital room. It will be the only direct acknowledgment she ever hears from him that something has indeed been lost. He seems to be sitting nearby, slouching probably, the only other presence in the square, milky box. Wil, who is barely there at all, responds with silence. Perhaps that is her, gently stretching the smaller fingers of her left hand.
Remember how that single morning expanded and spilled into night? You remember, don’t you? The city knew us and nodded as we passed. Our phones buzzed and vibrated in our pockets and we ignored them as we watched a child (was it Tom?) stop to kick a ball on the wet winter grass.
‘I’ve never walked along this stretch of the river,’ you said.
‘I’m still getting to know the city.’
‘I don’t feel at home here, yet.’
‘Maybe we both will, in time, together.’
Never do that. Never do that. Not hope and investment, not dreaming or trading on futures.
‘Surely you’re never far from epistemic uncertainty anyway,’ she had said once to Graeme.
‘True,’ her brother-in-law had conceded, frowning slightly as he turned the sausages on the barbie.
In the watery hallway, half-hospital, half-riverscape, the CEO is coming towards her with an iPad in hand. There’s a sense of urgency about him.
‘The March quarter figures are in,’ he’s shouting. ‘You need to come in.’
She shelters behind a sunken log until he is blocked from view and just when his footsteps get so loud she thinks her case impossible, she is surprised to find that he passes her right by. She stands up and watches him continue his journey. His stout carriage bounces from side to side as he goes.
‘The March quarter figures are in,’ he says again with the same tone, tilting his head and shouting once more. ‘You need to come in.’
And it could be the world that he is talking to, not just her alone, and this is how it happens, perhaps: various among us step forward in reply to the White Rabbit, when it could be that we’d all be better off just letting him pass us by.
There’s Tom now, reminding her of the little epigraph at the beginning of his favourite book, The Lion and the Mouse: ‘Stay together, learn the flowers, go light.’ It is a quote from the American poet Gary Snyder. ‘Remember that little poem, Mum? I love that one, don’t you?’
The hospital room is not real. The hospital bed is not real. Those legs are not hers. Those voices she thought she’d heard do not belong to her people.
‘The husband’s annual taxable income in 2006 was $16,567. The wife’s annual taxable income was $83,153.’ Wil notes the presence of these statements with a quiet recognition. They are hers.
In the future, standing before the view of trees from her new high-rise apartment, perhaps she will think back to her state of detachment in the empty hospital room, and gain understanding from it. She might recognise again her loved ones, how they had come to her. And how she had called to them, a silent song the other side of language, right in the deep blank of her loss. She had called to them – lend me your heat and warmth, the gentle close rhythm of your heartbeat – and they had come.
It was Leigh she would remember most vividly. Had she invested too much in him? She had, of course she had. And yet how she had fallen for him, even here, over and again. She had fallen.
And then there was the good doctor, again, supplying the word ‘diffuse’, a word she had always loved for the way the second half falls with emphasis on the cliff of the double ‘ff’ and tumbles down into a rare – for English – pronunciation of ‘u-s-e’ that is all loose and soft. In the Latin, in the beginning, the word was diffus and the meaning was ‘poured out’. And she found this the most useful of explanations the specialist had come up with so far. She had been poured out. It was a pouring out of herself and she dwelled now, along with other life forms, in the long, gentle in-and-out of the shallow coastal river. Perhaps resting here, more permanently, all things were more easily understood.
‘Patacara is the reason I have faith,’ Ying told her as they sat together on the long bench outside the temple, the Friday before the accident. ‘In the end, she was able to achieve the first stage of enlightenment because of her clear-sighted acceptance of everything she’d suffered.’
‘But Ying,’ Wil countered, ‘don’t forget that the reason she ends up with a place in the canon at all is to do with her respect for the rules once she’s ordained as a nun. Her sermons were all about the value of sticking to the rules! What a good girl, at last. She’s finally learned her lesson! Why have your own ideas, Patacara, when all that’s ever been required of you is that you uphold and consecrate the rules put in place for us by men?’
‘Sometimes, Wil, if I may say so, I think you place too high a value on dissent.’
To this, Wil had no immediate reply. She sipped at her bottled water and watched as the children ran rings around the standing Buddha in the temple courtyard, squealing, while Ying looked vacantly into the middle distance.
‘Do you begrudge my fledgling equanimity?’ Ying asked finally. ‘You know it’s been a long time coming.’
‘No, of course not,’ said Wil, reaching for her friend’s hand. ‘How could I?’
‘I have two children,’ Wil told the nurse through the thin film of white silk they seemed to have placed over her face, over her body in the bed. ‘Their names are Clancy and Tom.’
She wanted to see them, although she could not remember what they looked like and was no longer sure how big they might have grown. What she recalled was their liveliness, their sing-song repetition of mundane phrases, stranded on a loop somewhere between music and language: ‘We are going tomorrow; we are going tomorrow; we are going tomorrow, aren’t we Mum?’ Perhaps they were much bigger now, she thought. In a recent dream, she had been telling them to pick the feathers up from the path on the way home from town. ‘Never mind the germs,’ she said. ‘Pick them up. Pick them all up and look at them, smell them, turn them over, absorb them. Find out everything you need to know.’ And she imagined the two boys as tiny figures traversing a vast landscape of feathers as she herself had once done along the petal of a white-and-magenta carnation.
Afterwards, the nurse will phone her sister, who has been looking after the children. ‘She remembers the boys,’ the nurse will tell Tess. ‘She knows their names.’
But then Wil falls backwards, again, into the world of dark stillness. And she will show no more vital signs.
When she resurfaces alongside Ying on a crowded carriage in the city’s sprawling new subway, they are travelling alongside hundreds of other peak-hour commuters. People hold a firm hand across their bags, a form of alert protection against pickpockets. There is a digital screen with no sound, and on the screen a beautiful young woman whose skin is as white as pearl is smiling and blinking in wonder at the idea of something that hasn’t happened yet, or that might not yet happen. The subway lines are multiplying in the manner indicated by the coloured diagram on the carriage wall. Line 2, Line 10, Line 13, and the recorded voice is speaking in falsely sedate tones. Wil recognises the word ‘Booneenboro’ – apparently the name of a new station – and it is perhaps the most beautiful word she has ever heard. She turns it over and over in her mind, though she can’t remember its meaning, and when she and Ying step off the carriage and onto the platform, they enter an immensely populous stream of people that carries them upwards along several sets of escalators, then down long, poorly lit corridors and across glassed-in pedestrian bridges spanning several busy expressways. Most of their fellow commuters carry possessions of one kind or another. Most travel alone. Are they going home, she wonders? Are they leaving someone?
Ying, who is now wearing the ochre-coloured robes of the Buddhist Forest Sangha, is walking too slowly for the comfort of other commuters. People push and elbow them and raise their voices in harsh whispers as they pass. The friends struggle on. Then Wil lets go of Ying’s elbow and watches as her friend floats away with the others, up the next set of escalators and onto the grey-tiled platform of Line 24. Wil turns back, but it doesn’t seem possible to go back.
‘Ying?’ she calls.
But Wil is stranded, aloft, and her friend has drifted onto a waiting train carriage with the momentum formed by a small side estuary, an earthly ochre-coloured shape on its way to someplace else.
There was music and they were dancing. The lights in the room were spinning and they were holding hands and laughing and Leigh had his hands just so, at the edge of her waist, and she felt charged and enlivened by the connection – right there – the sense of life’s purpose in the gentle electricity of togetherness.
‘Are you going to be my stepdad?’ One day in the future, her son Tom will ask this of Leigh, who will not respond. Wil, behind the kitchen sink, will feel obliged to step in. ‘Yes, a bit like that,’ she’ll offer. And Leigh will leave the room.
She will finish what she is doing in the kitchen, then set Tom and Clancy up at the table with their toast before going to find her lover in the bedroom. He will be sitting on the edge of her bed, leaning forward, his elbows on his knees, looking pale, looking down at the floor.
‘Hey, it’s okay,’ she’ll say.
‘I’m sorry.’ Perhaps this the first thing he’ll ever say to her within the confines of her new apartment, the one with the view of the trees. ‘I’m sorry,’ he’ll repeat. ‘I don’t know what I’m doing here.’
At that point he will evaporate again, into nothing, as she has so often seen him do. And the children will call out from the other room.
Results will be mixed. What you will have broken is a strong, sacred narrative about families and parenthood. Look at the words: broken, split, separated. You will dismantle those words, peel off selected letters and crumple them in your hand. You will turn broken into okay.
There will come with all this a feeling of elation, of release. The joy in inventing a new way forward, of forging a new sort of path.
For there is nothing to fear from love.
There will be apologies, rehearsed but never spoken: I’m sorry for not leaving earlier. I’m sorry, in a way, for all those years together. I’m sorry you couldn’t voice an opinion. I’m sorry for speaking up about mine. I’m sorry I grew sideways. I’m sorry I no longer fit. I’m sorry my father killed himself. I’m sorry about the children. I’m sorry you didn’t see this coming.
Wil’s mind settles briefly on a recent image of Frane, bent over the front wheel of her road bike as he finished replacing an inner tube one Sunday. Her bike was upturned in the courtyard of their house in the hills, the old tube discarded, a deflated lemniscate at his feet.
‘Thanks for doing that for me,’ she’d said to him, in passing, with Clancy on her hip. She and Tom were searching the premises for a precious stuffed panda. In fact, it was Wil doing the searching. The boy was simply coming along in her trail, sucking on the neck of his jumper between episodes of keening. ‘He’s not here, Mummy. He’s not here.’
Wil registered Frane’s light shrug of the shoulders in reply, noting the specks of sawdust stuck to the back of his faded black T-shirt. His back remained turned to her but there was generosity in the act of service, in the care he was taking to settle the wheel back into the dropouts. Was it an act of love? Surely there was still some affection between them. A dusting, perhaps, like the sawdust, lightly persistent, easily overlooked.
Around them in the domestic airport lounge there will be men and women in business suits, speaking deals into mobile phones. The coming and going of staff, heavily made-up, formally dressed. Some kind of music will be playing. There will be coloured movement in the middle distance as flight numbers shuffle and reform themselves into lists on screens.
And here, as she leans forward, there will be the touching of knees, a hand held in hers. She will breathe him in and everything about him will electrify her. When she looks into the blue of his eyes, she will be utterly affirmed.
‘It’s so good to see you,’ he will say.
‘It’s good to see you, too.’
‘I didn’t know it could be this good,’ Leigh will say to her one morning, years from now. ‘Really,’ he will say. ‘I had no idea.’
And she will understand, for it had been a complete surprise to her, too, that such a thing could ever be just so.
Now Wil Blomme resurfaces in the cold grey air of an oncoming storm. A southern wind agitates the river and will soon bring rain. She has risen up from the depths as if having been summoned, and then she hears a child’s voice and knows why.
He is standing on the eastern riverbank, gesturing to her and calling. She can’t hear what he is saying. Her stomach knots. She was supposed to pick him up at three. She’d promised.
She starts swimming towards the small boy, then pauses. Is it really him? The child wears shorts, no T-shirt. His hair is plastered wet to his forehead. He is waving at her.
She plunges into freestyle, a rhythm of threes. The sound of her quick breath in between sets is loud inside her skull, stable against the chaotic backdrop of the storm.
‘Clancy,’ she calls out, or tries to, between strokes.
‘Quickly Mum!’ says the boy, or something like that, stepping towards her and into the river’s edges up to his knees.
Wil swims for him – under, over, under, over – and dares not say his name again.
‘Mate, you can’t get there from here,’ someone says, floating past her in a tangle of worldly debris. Is it a man in a suit? The phrase seems euphemistic, a quiet aside, a piece of worldly advice from a senior to a junior. Probably it means, ‘She’s off limits.’
Now she can hear a toddler giggling while an adult voice sings, ‘All I want is a little pony, jig-jig-jig-jig, a-jig-a-jig, jig. Not too fat and not too bony, jig-jig-jig-jig, a-jig-a-jig, jig,’ and then everyone is laughing and the room is full.
WIL BLOMME IS awake.
She is awake on the side of the cycle path leading to City South and somebody is holding her hand.
‘Can you tell me your name?’ says the voice, and Wil opens her eyes and looks into the face of a stranger.
The sunlight glitters.
‘I’m leaving,’ she tells the voice.
Perhaps this is a strange thing to have said, because the woman in uniform pauses and looks down at something else, perhaps a watch, perhaps a set of instructions.
‘Can you tell me your name?’
There are tears. Wil wants to wipe them from her cheek, but can’t seem to move her hand. Then she starts, properly, to cry, great sobs of joy mixed with the deep sorrow of relief.
‘Wil,’ she sobs.
With the help of the stranger, she sits up. The world is upright again. She brushes small pieces of gravel from the palms of her gloved hands. The sky is a deep, clear blue. The river is flowing.
‘You’ve had an accident on your bike,’ says the paramedic. ‘We believe you’ve hit your head.’
‘I fell off.’
‘Can you raise your hand?’
She can. She does it like the girl in the story. She does it in three languages.
‘Do you have any pain?’
‘Let’s see if we can get you to stand up.’
And she does, doesn’t she? There are two cormorants drying their wings on a post at the river’s edge and she can see the bicycle that once belonged to the lawyer down by the water. Its front wheel is bent and the beautiful light carbon frame – too brittle – has been snapped clean in half at the fork. The river is lapping sedately at the wheel, and Wil remembers with a shiver the extraordinary tenderness of the former acting deputy’s tongue.
Everything is going to be okay, now. Everything is okay. It’s just that Wil Blomme – as we once knew her – is no longer with us. She is no longer here.
The writing of ‘Instructions for a steep decline’ has been supported by the Victorian Government through Creative Victoria and by the Paul and Hauling Engle Fund through the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa.