For the second edition of our summer-reading list for 2019 we return to Melanie Cheng's novella 'Muse', which was published in Griffith Review 54: Earthly Delights – The Novella Project IV.
Cheng's prize-winning novella sees an aging, grief-stricken and guilt-ridden man reinvigorated when, at the urging of his grown-up daughter and her girlfriend, he returns to his long-neglected talent for drawing. This moving novella forms part of a collection of short fiction called Australia Day, which was awarded the 2016 Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for an Unpublished Manuscript and was published in 2017 by Text. In this 2016 interview, Cheng explains how her novella fits within the Australia Day manuscript and discusses the central of role of empathy in her work as both a doctor and a writer.
In 2018 Australia Day won the Victorian Premier's Literary Award for fiction, was shortlisted for the Indie Award for Debut Fiction and was longlisted for the Dobbie Literary Award, the ABIA Literary Fiction Book of the Year and the ABIA Matt Richell Award for new writer of the year. In May 2019, Cheng's debut novel Room for a Stranger will be published by Text. Room for a Stranger tells the story of Meg, a seventy-five year old unmarried pensioner, and Andy, a young university student from Hong Kong. Natural introverts, Meg and Andy – through circumstances largely out of their control – find themselves living together in Meg’s family home. Room for a Stranger chronicles the unlikely friendship that develops between the pair as they attempt to forge new relationships, confront illness and heal from past tragedies. It is a story about loneliness, friendship and compassion.
I’VE NEGLECTED HER.
Her ceilings are soft with cobwebs. Her garden is choked with weeds. Her fence leans, like buckteeth, out onto the footpath. She is getting old, and noisy. Like me, with my snorts and grunts and farts that catch even me by surprise. Her doors creak, her heating claps itself to life, and her pipes splutter up their rusty sputum.
I used to wander from room to room, hunting for memories. The ladder of lines marking Bea’s height behind her bedroom door. The sun-bleached armchair where Lola nursed Bea day and night, for months on end. I wanted to bathe in nostalgia, I never expected to find something new. But there they were, a pair of silk undies at the bottom of the rosewood chest. The Lola I knew only ever wore ankle-length skirts and chunky, orthopaedic sandals. The discovery unnerved me. Had I been the one to go first, I would have left no mysteries behind. Lola would have known my clothes better than me. She would have seen the shadows of stains long gone, and they still would have bothered her.
IT IS AUTUMN. The Japanese maple is shedding her apricot leaves. I pick a book from the shelf in the lounge room but, hard as I try, I can’t read tonight. Thankfully the phone rings – the urgent cry of the mobile Bea gave me for my sixtieth birthday. Only Bea, and a few telemarketers, ever calls me on it.
This is how we talk. We acknowledge each other’s existence, nothing more.
‘I’m coming over.’
‘What if I have company?’
She sighs. ‘Do you?’
‘Good. I mean, not good.’ She clears her throat. ‘You know what I mean.’
I hear voices, a siren, somebody’s phone.
‘Where are you?’
‘On a tram.’ She is already losing patience with me. ‘And Dad?’
‘I’m bringing Edwina.’
‘So don’t say anything stupid.’
Bea likes to have the last word and she usually makes it bite.
I sweep away the crumbs between the toaster and the kettle. I spray the stovetop with Windex and wipe it down with a sponge. It is a superficial clean. Just enough to stop Bea from worrying. Lola, with her tenacious rake, had always kept Nature at bay, but now He has re-emerged, naked and proud, to reclaim me and the house. He sends the ants in first. They trace invisible maps across the floorboards, collecting breadcrumbs as they go. The spiders follow, emerging from the heating vents to knit sticky webs in secret corners. One day, I think, someone will find me, tangled in the bougainvillea, with centipedes crawling out of my eyes.
Bea arrives at seven, on the dot. When I open the door she pushes past – blaming her bad manners on the bags of hot food in her arms. I look at the girl left behind on the doorstep. She is a pretty thing, fresh faced, with pale skin. I decide to like her.
‘I’m Evan,’ I say, extending an arm.
The girl takes my hand as if to shake it and then pulls me into an embrace. She leaves a star of wet saliva on my cheek.
‘It’s so great to meet you. Finally.’
We follow Bea into the kitchen where she is fussing around open drawers.
‘Where have you put the placemats Dad?’
‘I don’t know.’ I am still feeling the wetness on my cheek and trying not to imagine this long-limbed girl in bed with my daughter. I suppress an image of them sleeping late on a Sunday morning, naked amongst crumpled sheets.
‘Honestly, Dad. Do you ever put things back where you find them?’
‘The table can get stained for all I care,’ I say, and smile sideways at a visibly awkward Edwina.
‘Mum would’ve wanted us to use the placemats.’
Here we go. Is this how it’s always going to be? The two of us scrambling for Lola’s approval? Even when she’s dead?
Bea finds the precious placemats and we bury our heads in the food. Rice is piled onto plates and thick green curry is spooned on top.
‘So, Edwina. What do you do?’ I say and my daughter flashes me a look.
‘Ed’s an artist.’
‘Can’t Edwina speak for herself?’
‘I don’t mind,’ Edwina says. ‘But I’m hardly an artist.’
‘Of course you are!’ Bea interrupts, turning to me. ‘She was highly commended in the Archibald.’
I nod, pretending to know what the Archibald is – presumably a prize, an accolade of sorts.
‘Bea tells me you’re a bit of a painter yourself,’ Edwina says between mouthfuls.
‘Played with a few oils, back in the day. But I haven’t been near a brush in years.’
‘You should really get back into it,’ Bea says, and now I am the one flashing looks. Edwina, naturally more intuitive, or kind, sees my discomfort and changes the subject.
HER NAME WAS Ana. She owned the milk bar at the end of our street. There was a room at the back of her shop and that’s where we did it. Even now, I feel a swell in my boxers at the sound of a cash register rattling closed.
When news of the affair finally came out, everybody was shocked. Lola was beautiful. She didn’t know this – she pulled her hair into a severe ponytail and covered her pointy breasts with shapeless cardigans – but to everybody else it was clear. She had flawless skin, translucent like a half-cooked egg, and big, blue-grey eyes. Ana, on the other hand, was not beautiful. Her breasts sagged over the soft rolls of her belly, and when she wore a tight top (which was most days) big sweat-marks, like bruises, bloomed in her armpits. I didn’t love her, but she was real. She didn’t slip out of my hands like silk when I held her.
I THINK WE all relax a little once the wine has coated our insides. I make a fire and put Billie Holiday on the stereo.
‘Not this shit again!’ Bea says, but as I move to change it Edwina grabs my arm.
‘Leave it,’ she says. ‘I like it.’
She’s too nice, I think. Bea will consume her and spit her out when she’s done.
‘I’m going for a smoke,’ Bea says, and when she leaves I feel relieved and then guilty for feeling relieved.
‘I’d love to see your paintings one day,’ Edwina says once we are alone. She cups her steaming mug of tea with two hands. ‘Bea says you’re very talented.’
I offer Edwina a Tim Tam. ‘I might have a couple of things in the shed. Maybe next time you come over.’
‘I’d like that,’ Edwina smiles. The song finishes, leaving us with the spit and crackle of burning wood. I poke one of the logs. It spits some more.
‘Don’t know if you’re interested,’ Edwina begins, ‘but I do a life drawing class once a week on Smith Street. We’re always looking for new people to join.’
Before I have time to answer, Bea is back in the room, holding Shakespeare, our Persian cat, in her arms.
‘It’s fucking cold,’ she says, collapsing into the couch and burying her nose in Edwina’s hair. I feel my cheeks burn with embarrassment. Or jealousy. Or both.
‘We should probably get going.’
‘Thanks for the tea.’
‘And the wine.’
We hug and Edwina leaves a matching kiss on my other cheek. ‘No pressure,’ she whispers as she stuffs a piece of paper inside my pocket.
I watch their car disappear down Sydney Road before I pull out her parting gift. It is a flyer, with a sketch of a female nude in the background:
I WAKE UP with a headache. I look at the clock: 10 am. Shakespeare is clawing at my feet. I roll out of the warm nest of sheets and lean down to stroke him. In the kitchen there are Tim Tam crumbs under the stools and dirty mugs on the bench-top. I catch sight of Edwina’s crumpled flyer on the floor and pick it up. I’ve never done life drawing before. I wonder how it works. Does the model strip down in front of the class? Or does she emerge in a silk robe, which she lets drop at the ring of a bell? I look at the sketch again, focusing now on the underbelly of the breast. I imagine how lovely it would be to re-create that gentle upward slope of flesh and then the sudden sting of nipple.
I go for a walk. I follow the trail of clouds created by my breath. They lead me here. Every path leads me here. To the milk bar. The Chinese man who now owns it is sweeping leaves from the footpath. I feel an urgent need for Ana, electrifying Ana, with her strong thighs and brassy laugh.
I AM ALONE. Maybe it’s been cancelled. Maybe it was a joke. Maybe Bea and her lover are hiding behind a wheelie bin laughing at me. But just as I’m about to leave, Edwina arrives.
‘Evan!’ she says, kissing me again with her perpetually moist lips. ‘I’m so glad you could make it.’
‘Yeah,’ I say, schoolboy shy.
‘You’ll love it. I promise.’
We climb a groaning staircase and emerge, breathless, into a light-filled space. In the centre of the room a small radiator burns near a pile of silk floor pillows. Edwina gets to work, assembling her easel and lining up her broken sticks of charcoal. She beams at me.
‘I’m right,’ I say, holding up my sketchpad.
People filter in. A Chinese man sits on a milk crate and sharpens his pencils with a rusty knife. Others gather around the kettle, making tea and helping themselves to mugs of red wine from a cask. Fearful of conversation, I wander over to the window. A tram rattles by and a couple of rugged-up passengers step out. They bury their wet noses inside their scarves. I think of home and it feels like a wretched place – a playground for insects and ghosts.
I’m still staring out the window when the session begins. All manners practical are dealt with while my back is turned: the disrobing, the arrangement of pillows, the adjustment of the light. By the time I turn around the stage has been set. In the centre of the room, bathed in light, a white beauty.
AS LONG AS I can remember, I’ve preferred the company of women. This may be because the key men in my life were all bastards. My father admired two things: brutality and stoicism. I never saw him cry – not when he shot our dog, or beat my mother, or lost his thumb to a machine at work. For a long time he was the toughest, coldest man I knew. And then I met Lola’s dad. Back in those days there were few people in Melbourne who hadn’t heard of Professor Duvall. The week before our introduction, he’d drilled a big hole through the police commissioner’s skull, and – as he liked to point out repeatedly – saved the dirty bugger’s life.
Professor Duvall arranged our first meeting at the hospital. Lola was nervous. I could tell from the way she played with the edge of her scarf. He finally emerged from the elevator, thirty minutes late, on a cloud of white-coated underlings. He didn’t say hello but threw me the keys to his Peugeot 404 and ordered me to drive him home. It was a good-looking car, sleek black lines, tan leather interior; I should have been proud to be at the wheel of such an impressive beast. But it was impossible not to see this charade for what it was. A test.
She didn’t exactly purr in my hands but I got the three of us back to Hawthorn in one piece. Surprisingly, the professor didn’t take much notice of my driving along the way. He and Lola chatted happily on the back seat and only once did he lean forward to say, ‘Nothing quite like French engineering!’
Dinner went off without a hitch. I didn’t spill anything; I used my utensils from the outside in, just as Lola had instructed me to. I laughed at the professor’s jokes. I drank, I relaxed. By the time Lola excused herself from the table to help her mother with dessert, my guard was down.
‘Cautious, eh?’ he asked, once the women were out of earshot.
‘A cautious driver.’
‘Nothing wrong with being cautious,’ I said. The wine had given me confidence.
‘When you’ve got another man’s life in your hands you’ve got to think fast, take risks. You can’t afford be cautious.’
‘You know the difference between you and me, son?’
I gripped the edge of my chair.
‘I have the whole world on my plate, and you’ll never even get a taste.’
At that moment the women re-emerged to dispense sweet chocolate tarts with even sweeter smiles.
‘Bon appetit!’ the professor cheered, slapping his wife playfully across her aproned rump.
THE MODEL HAS short hair and a plain but pleasant face. I wouldn’t look twice at her if she walked past me on the street, but on the page she’s lovely, with creamy skin and the limbs of a ballerina.
‘Wow,’ a voice says. It’s Edwina.
‘How’d you go?’ I ask, ignoring her little exclamation and adding some last-minute shading to the fingers. ‘I can’t seem to get the hands quite right.’
I stop drawing.
‘You know it’s good,’ she says, and though she is smiling there is a bite to her words. ‘Just take the compliment.’
‘Ok,’ I say. ‘Thanks.’
‘You’re even better than I expected.’
LOLA WOULD NEVER get naked in front of me. If I happened to walk into the bathroom after she’d just had a shower I might catch glimpse of a breast, but only for a second until the towel was secured firmly in place. Sex was something we did with the lights off, fumbling under the covers, finding the pieces and fitting them together in the dark. Towards the end, we didn’t even do that.
Edwina and I are standing outside in the cold when she finally comes down the stairs. She stops at the bottom and shakes out a cigarette. Someone offers her a light. She looks different in clothes – less magical – but she’s still a celebrity in this place.
‘Who’s the new guy?’ she says, without addressing anyone in particular. I’m grateful when Edwina finally speaks up.
‘That’s Evan. My friend.’
‘Nice to meet you Evan,’ the model says and offers me a limp hand. ‘Daniella.’ She barely looks at me before flicking her cigarette to the ground. ‘Gotta go. My ride’s here.’
A man on a black motorbike stops in front of the studio. Daniella puts her helmet on. There is a puff of diesel and leather and smoke.
‘That’s not her real name,’ Edwina whispers as they disappear behind a tram.
I HANG MY best sketch on the wall. She has her back to me. A swell of buttocks narrows, in gentle curves, to a tiny waist. Vertebrae climb – a string of pearls – to that craning neck and teasing glimpse of face. I have her here, caught in a picture. Daniella.
The mobile vibrates on the bedside table and Bea’s name flashes up on the screen. The ring and flashing letters are insistent, but I can’t face her tonight. She’s angry and itching for a fight. Edwina is our new Lola and she doesn’t want to share.
I’VE ALWAYS DESPISED doctors. But I hated them even more after I got married. It wasn’t just that every doctor I met seemed to know and worship Professor Duvall. It was more than that. He had sown the seed of a delusion in my brain (which was, granted, fertile ground for such things) that the entire medical fraternity was looking down at me.
So it is not surprising that every visit I make to Dr Jayawickrama is a journey heavy with insecurity. He doesn’t deserve this. Lola adored him. Towards the end, he even made a few house calls – like a village doctor, complete with his bag of potions.
‘Do you want to have a heart attack Evan?’ he says.
‘Your cholesterol results are a lot worse.’ He turns from the computer screen to me. ‘Are you taking care of yourself?’
‘Doing my best.’
‘I’m concerned about you,’ he says, his brow furrowed. ‘This is your first visit since Lola passed. And you look terrible.’
‘Are doctors allowed to say that to their patients?’
‘We’ve known each other a long time. We’re friends.’
I’m not so sure, I think. I look at the family photo on the doctor’s desk but the people in the snapshot are strangers. Lola probably knew their names, probably sent them a handmade card at Christmas. He is confusing me with her.
‘If you want to talk…’ he goes on.
‘Thanks Doc. But I’ll be right.’
And even the good doctor Jayawickrama knows when to give up a fight.
I NEVER ASKED Lola’s father for her hand. I choked. But Lola never knew. Nobody knew. Except me. And the professor.
I had every intention of asking him. We were in the drawing room (I had never known people to have drawing rooms before) and he had offered me a glass of port.
‘Hardly life and death is it?’ he said and passed me his cigar.
‘It’s money. For some people that’s more important than life and death.’ I puffed on the cigar, which triggered a paroxysm of coughing.
‘Can’t handle the good life, eh?’ He said and slapped me hard across the shoulder. ‘That will have to change if you’re planning on staying with my daughter.’
‘That’s actually what I wanted to talk to you about,’ I said, taking a large swig of port for extra courage. ‘Sir.’
‘Really,’ he said, then before I could respond added, ‘Because if you want my blessing, you can forget it.’
I opened my mouth to speak but no words would come. Instead, my stomach purged hot gastric juice through my lips and onto the fine Persian rug.
DANIELLA. SHE’S TAKEN up the vacant room in my mind. She’s moved in and her languid legs are dangling before my eyes. I stare at the sketch on my wall and its imperfections taunt me. Soon all I can see are the faults. Her arms are too long. Her head is too small. I can’t take it any more. I tear it down.
Bea finds me in the living room with the torn paper in my hands. I don’t know how long I’ve been sitting here. It may have been an hour, or half a day.
‘Why didn’t you tell me?’ she asks.
But I’m not in the mood for her questions. ‘I didn’t realise I needed your permission.’
‘For fuck’s sake.’ She stands up to light a cigarette.
‘You know you can’t smoke in here.’
‘I can do whatever the fuck I like.’
‘Your mum wouldn’t like it,’ I say, and regret the words as soon as they’ve left my mouth.
Our eyes lock. ‘Mum’s dead,’ Bea says. ‘Do you get that Dad?’
‘You think I, of all people, don’t know that? What the hell’s wrong with you?’
‘What’s wrong with me?’ she hisses. ‘What’s wrong with me is that I’ve lost my mother and I can’t even talk to my father about it.’ She throws her hands in the air.
‘What do you want to talk about?’ I say, softer now.
The tears are falling hard and fast.
‘Forget it,’ she says. ‘I don’t even know why I bother.’
‘I’m sorry I didn’t tell you about the drawing.’
‘Just forget it.’ She scoops Shakespeare up from the floor. He purrs. He’s always loved Bea. ‘There are some groceries in the kitchen. I bumped into Dr Jay on the weekend and he said you could do with some good food.’
THIS TIME I see it as it happens. She arrives in a cognac-coloured leather jacket and frayed blue jeans. Marcel greets her at the door and ushers her into the bathroom on the second floor, where there is a bath full of paint and charcoal handprints across the walls. We stop our chatter and take our positions, either at our easels or perched upon our favourite milk crates. When she finally removes her robe, she doesn’t throw it back like a cape, but steps out of it, slowly, covering the sprinkling of hair between her legs until the last minute.
I know her curves now. I have a sense of her in my mind. This time I see different things, hidden things. Like the ladder of red lines along her forearm – it takes me a while to recognise them for what they are.
Edwina isn’t here, and during the break I wander over to the window. I look out at the street below. An old man weaves through the traffic with a half-empty beer bottle in his hand. But I’m not really watching him. I’m wishing her to me. I am pleading to the universe to bring her to me. And it works.
‘You’re getting better,’ Daniella says.
‘Thank you.’ I reply. ‘I’m getting to know you, I guess.’
‘Are you?’ she says, hugging her robe around her and cupping a mug of coffee to her lips. She looks me straight in the eye.
‘No. I mean, I don’t know.’
My nervousness pleases her. ‘You certainly noticed my battle scars.’ She lifts the sleeve of her robe and points to the scarlet marks on her arm.
‘They’re part of you. Your story,’ I say, and cringe at my own sentimentality.
She cocks her head to the side. ‘It’s not as romantic as you make it sound.’
The bell on the alarm clock rings. Our time is up.
NOBODY IS WAITING for me. Nobody will notice if I don’t make it home. Except a cat. And even he will find someone else to feed him. Her black knight isn’t here tonight. He hasn’t arrived on his gleaming black beast. I’ll just make sure she’s safe, I tell myself. There’s no harm in it.
Daniella is the last one to leave. Marcel kisses her goodbye at the door. Two kisses, European style. She starts walking. She takes a leisurely pace, stopping to look at a polka-dot dress and fix her scarf in a shop window reflection. I hang back, unnoticed – an old man with a scarf wrapped around his ears – invisible to everyone. At the intersection she stops, places a cigarette between her lips, and uses both hands to shelter the flame from a sudden blustering wind. She takes a long, slow drag, shutting her eyes and savouring the smoke as it warms her from the inside out. A car drives past and a man leans out the front window.
‘Come home with me!’ he yells.
‘Fuck off!’ she yells back.
It is a wintry Tuesday night and, apart from a few smoking patrons, the streets are empty. Daniella’s boots tap on the concrete, a soft percussion that beats a path to her door. The street she lives on is a quiet one, dimly lit. Her single-fronted terrace house is shrouded in trees and shadows. The boyfriend must be out, I think. I see her walk up to the front door in the darkness. And then she’s gone. Consumed by the big black house.
BEA INSISTS ON seeing my pictures. I shouldn’t be nervous but I am. She stands back and does some odd squinting thing before leaning in needlessly close. She moves as if to speak and then, at the last moment, stops herself. I can’t take it anymore.
She turns to face me. ‘You’re better than I remember.’
‘Really?’ Her words give me more pleasure than I could have anticipated.
‘Mum would be so proud.’
But now she’s ruined it. I think back to last night. Daniella’s house.
‘What do you like about it?’ I say, to change the subject. She could cut me down but she doesn’t.
‘I like the fluidity of the lines. I like your sensitivity for your subject.’
This is as close to a moment as we’ll get. I put my hand on her shoulder.
‘This drawing stuff is good for you. Therapeutic.’ She picks up her bag. She is always in such a hurry – to do things, to get away from me. ‘Have you been back to see Dr Jay?’
‘Such a nice man. Maybe you should pay him a visit.’
But I give her the same answer I gave him.
‘I’ll be right.’
NOSTALGIA DISTORTS THINGS. Like this photo I’m looking at now. It’s of Bea, and she is sitting on a plastic unicorn in some park. Lola is standing behind her and they’re both smiling at the camera. It’s summer and Lola is wearing a sunflower dress. It seems so perfect, I’m almost tempted to wish myself back there. But minutes after the photo was taken, Bea fell off the unicorn and knocked out a tooth on the way down. I don’t want to relive that. I don’t want to remember Bea’s high-pitched screams and her mother’s bloodied hands as we sped down Sydney Road to the hospital.
This is how I spend my time, now that I’m old. I stare at things – photos, paintings, trinkets – and I reminisce. When I was younger I used to wonder what old people did once they retired. I would imagine them playing a round of golf or having marathon coffee sessions with their friends – anything that was better than going back to my windowless office after lunch. But now I’m here. And it’s not the luxury I thought it would be.
I wake up early. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve lost any ability to sleep in. If I had one wish, I would wish for the sleep of a teenager – a deep and restful nothingness for ten or twelve hours. As it is, I wake up at least twice a night just to go to the toilet. And when I do, it takes me a lifetime to get the damn thing going, and then another lifetime to make it stop.
In the mornings I make myself an instant coffee and a piece of toast. I feed Shakespeare. Later on I go to the milk bar to get some milk, or to buy the Herald Sun. In the afternoons I check the mail, and then sometimes, in the summer months, I watch a bit of cricket. Every day I pray for some variety, and then, when my prayers are answered, I am seized with anxiety.
Now I have an aim, a goal to set my sights upon. Tuesdays. My life is a countdown to Tuesdays. Even the remaining days seem less banal. On those days I visit art shops. Art shops, I’ve found, are wonderful places. The shop assistants let me spend the good part of a day in there, exploring the shelves, trying pens out on the tiny stacks of paper provided for that very purpose. There are blank canvases stacked like fallen dominoes against the walls, and brushes with fine, silky hairs. There are thick tubes of paint with evocative names like ‘midnight blue’ and ‘fire-engine red’ and ‘grass green’ and ‘mars black’.
On this particular day I pick out a box of charcoal sticks and take them to the register.
‘That’ll be $7.80, thanks.’
I hand over a $10 note.
The girl picks change from the mouth of the register. ‘You an artist?’ she asks.
‘Yes. Sort of. Not really.’
She smiles and hands me my change.
I’M RIDING HIGH as I walk down Smith Street to the studio. I have my green Coles bag on my shoulder, and in it my sketchpad and new tools. I walk with renewed confidence, past the hipsters sipping their fair-trade coffee. I’m an artist, I think, and even they can see it.
I bound up the stairs. Marcel says ‘Hello Evan’ and I’m flattered that he remembers my name. He mustn’t remember everyone, I think to myself, only the good ones. I take up my regular spot near the window and look around the room. The Chinese man is here again. I spot Edwina chatting to some guy with a nose-ring by the hot water dispenser. She waves, and I wave back. There is only one newcomer tonight. I can tell he’s new from the way he’s sitting. He’s unsure of himself, with no way of gauging how talented he is compared to the rest of us. He gives me confidence. I pour myself a generous mug of red wine.
Marcel enters the room with a smile on his face. ‘Good evening everyone,’ he says in a loud voice to get our attention. ‘I’d like to introduce you all to our new model.’
New model. I don’t hear much else after that. She’s much older than Daniella, and voluptuous, with a head of wild grey hair. Edwina smiles at me. She’s excited. Marcel goes on.
‘Peggy’s a very experienced model. And so very beautiful, no?’
Peggy doesn’t waste any time. She immediately drops her gown and starts posing for the one-minute warm-ups. My confidence crumbles. The charcoal feels strange between my fingers – heavy and foreign. I rip out page after page, and the staccato noise of the paper tearing off the ring-bound spine attracts attention from others in the class.
I can’t do it. The lighting is off. Her head is too big for her body. Her pose is stiff and unreal. My neck heats up under my collar. I can’t take it anymore. I feel ten pairs of eyes on me as I pack up my things and make a clumsy exit from the room.
Outside, the cold air is a relief. Lola used to talk about that feeling of not being able to breathe but I’d never understood it until now. A panic attack. That’s what Dr Jay had called it.
Marcel has followed me out.
‘Yes,’ I reply. I need to come up with some explanation for my erratic behaviour. ‘I felt sick. All of a sudden.’
‘It can get a little hot up there sometimes,’ he says and hangs a cigarette from his mouth. ‘Smoke?’
I shake my head.
‘Good for you.’ Smoke billows from his nose. ‘She’s a great model, no?’
He looks at me quizzically.
‘Yes. Of course,’ I nod. ‘She’s great. I’m just not in the zone tonight.’
Marcel puts a hand on my shoulder. ‘It happens.’
WEEKS PASS. I stop eating. I stop sleeping. Bea starts dropping by. She makes excuses each time she comes: she’s in the area; she’s found an old DVD I might like. But I can see the concern, like a beacon, in her eyes. And I can see what’s happening too. My already lean face is becoming gaunt beneath its growing beard. And I’m starting to smell. And Nature is at the window, looking in.
I CAN’T BELIEVE it when it happens. In the five years since Lola’s been gone, it’s never happened before. I expect Bea to be angry but she isn’t. Just goes to show how worried she must be. Lola’s birthday. The one day of the year when Bea and I agree to put our weapons down. And this year I’ve forgotten it.
We usually pack a light lunch (with a few of Lola’s favourites, like blue brie and tea cake) and drive down the Great Ocean Road to the exact spot – the fifth lookout point – where we scattered her ashes. Lola was born in Nice, in the south of France, and she loved the water.
Thank God for Bea. She’s taken care of everything. The car is full of fuel and there is a basket of bread and fruit in the boot. All I have to do is get dressed. We find a sheltered place to set down our towels and, between mouthfuls of rich cheese and gulps of cheap red wine, we take turns reading Lola’s favourite poems. Today, Bea reads ‘The Open Sea’ by Dorothea MacKellar. She takes her time, savouring the words, waiting for them to catch the breeze and fly far out to sea.
‘Beautiful,’ I say. I mean it.
‘I thought it was a good choice for today.’
Why can’t it always be like this? I think, as I look into the foaming mouth of the ocean. It’s late June and there’s a chill in the air. I stand up. ‘I’m going for a swim.’
‘Don’t be ridiculous,’ Bea says, licking dip from her fingers and lying back on the towel. She thinks I’m joking but I’m not. I’m overwhelmed by a sudden urge to go in the water. ‘Dad!’ she shouts as I run down the beach, shedding layers of clothing as I go. I’m not wearing bathers and I run into the icy water in only my boxers. It’s like a hard slap in the face and it feels good. The sky overhead is grey and there are a few weighty clouds foretelling rain. A lone seagull circles above me, searching for food in the choppy blue expanse. I’m waking up.
HER HOUSE LOOKS different during the day. It’s one of those single-fronted terraces with a corrugated roof. I haven’t seen it from the inside but I create an image around what I can see, which is a red lamp in the corner of the window and a bookcase, bursting with books, next to the mantelpiece. I imagine a respectable amount of mess – dirty coffee mugs, discarded scarves and mismatched socks strewn across her bedroom – and maybe even a few kitsch collectables like a lava lamp or a glazed clay ashtray in the living room.
I’ve learnt a lot about Daniella these past few weeks. She doesn’t have a fixed schedule. Some days she doesn’t go out at all. Other days she’s up early and leaves the house with wet hair and a piece of buttered toast in her hand. She always sits on the left side of the tram, and on Wednesday mornings she does a pilates class at the YMCA. It’s rather amazing she hasn’t noticed me – just goes to show how invisible I’ve become.
Tonight she’s looking at DVDs at the local video store. A pimply teen is shovelling microwave popcorn into his mouth as he watches the newest release on a television mounted above the door. I read his name tag: jackson, assistant manager. I’m completely lost in this place. Bea brings me DVDs every once in a while but I hardly ever get around to watching them. Just the machine puts me off. It always starts flashing instructions when I try to use it. set time. eject. power off.
Daniella knows what she wants. She’s already at the counter, waiting for the assistant manager to take time out from his movie and popcorn consumption to serve her. I decide to make a move. I grab the first DVD I see on the weekly hire shelf and line up behind her.
Daniella smiles at me over her shoulder. I smile back. She passes the DVD case across the desk to Jackson and when he turns to fetch the disc, she speaks to me. ‘Do I know you from somewhere?’
‘I was just about to say the same thing.’
‘Your face looks really familiar.’
‘And yours.’ I pretend to stumble upon a misplaced memory. ‘Did you ever do a life drawing class?’
She blushes ever so faintly.
‘Are you an artist too?’ I say and look away.
‘Actually I was the model.’
‘Ah yes. Now I remember.’
‘But I don’t model anymore.’
‘Really? From what I remember, you were very good. Very…’ I search for an appropriate word, ‘professional.’
Jackson is happy to let us chat. He sits back down and crams another handful of popcorn into his mouth.
‘Thanks. But I had some issues with the guy who ran the class.’
‘Yeah, just money stuff,’ she says and pushes a $10 note across the counter.
‘Due back by 7 pm tomorrow,’ Jackson says, turning up the volume on the television.
‘Well, it was good to see you.’ Daniella picks up her DVD. She is slipping away from me again.
The bell on the door jingles closed, and for the first time I look at the DVD I picked off the shelf. Aliens and scantily clad women dominate the cover. ‘Think I’ll give this one a miss,’ I say, and place the movie back where I found it. Jackson merely shrugs.
I wonder if there’s time to catch her. I scan the street outside and I’m relieved when I spot her red beanie bobbing up and down near the intersection. By the time I reach her I can hardly speak.
‘What’s the matter?’ she asks. ‘Did I leave my wallet behind?’ She fumbles in her over-sized handbag. ‘I’m forever doing shit like that.’
‘No,’ I catch my breath. ‘I just wanted to ask you something.’
‘Oh?’ she says and I’m pleased to see curiosity creep into her face.
‘You see, I’ve been having my own problems with Marcel and the drawing class.’
Daniella raises her eyebrows.
‘But I miss drawing. And as you were such a good model, from what I remember at least, I was wondering…well, I was wondering if you’d be interested in modelling for me.’
She doesn’t say anything at first.
‘I would pay you well of course,’ I add.
She looks me up and down, as if appraising how much I can afford. ‘How well?’ I’m disappointed by her business-like tone.
‘Fifty dollars an hour.’
She barely hesitates. ‘Okay. It’s a deal.’
‘So I guess I should probably introduce myself,’ she says and hangs a cigarette from the corner of her mouth. ‘Seems only fitting before I get naked in front of you again.’ She puts the cigarette packet back in her bag and holds out a gloved hand. ‘Daniella.’
‘Oh yes, of course. And I’m Evan,’ I reply.
‘Evan.’ She thinks for a moment. ‘Yes, I do remember you.’
WHEN I RETURN home I see the house through Daniella’s eyes. I start at the old man smell as I walk through the front door. I cringe at the cat hair smeared across the curtains and the coffee mugs with furry rims. I can’t possibly bring her here.
I spend the next week cleaning. I fill the regular bin, the recycling bin and even the green wheelie bin with my waste. It feels good. Nature is retreating. Now I can barely see the skin of His proud chest through the fronds of the ancient ferns.
I thought Lola’s last surprise for me was the pair of silk undies in the rosewood chest. But all this time, the big one has been sitting behind a leg of the desk in the master bedroom. Our bedroom. It wasn’t like Lola to be careless, especially not with something of such consequence. It makes me think she wanted me to find it.
3.30 Merri Creek, our spot.
A few words scribbled on the back of a receipt. The note is many years old but it looks fresh, and the immediacy of the words makes me imagine some mystery man still waiting for Lola down on the banks of Merri Creek. I picture him to be tall and distinguished – because surely that’s what Lola would have been looking for, something different from me – but when I try to focus on his face I draw a blank. I wonder if he made her happy. I wonder if he made her scream. I should feel vindicated about Ana. But I don’t. We never wrote little love notes to each other. We never had a ‘spot’. Lola even did affairs better than me.
I’m tempted to tell Bea. She wouldn’t believe it at first – not her precious, perfect mother – but then I’d show her the note and even she wouldn’t think me capable of such treachery. But I know what would happen. She would make excuses. She would say that Lola was lonely, that the marriage was already over. She would look at me like she did on the day she found me with Ana, all those years ago – with hurt, disappointment and disgust, like three black clouds across the green of her eyes. I can’t compete with a ghost. I’ve tried before and the ghost always wins.
THE DAY BEA found me with Ana was the worst day of my life. Lola was doing casual teaching at the local primary school and her hours were predictable. Ana had wanted to close the shop for the afternoon and I had invited her back home. Bea wasn’t meant to finish school until three, but – as I found out months later – she had come down with a migraine (her first and last) and had been sent home by the school nurse. To this day, I live in hope that the migraine clouded what she saw when she walked into that room. I have played it out, over and over in my head. Did she see my bare arse or Ana’s swinging breasts? Did she see the hunger in the clothes strewn wildly across the room? Whatever she saw, it was enough to make her scream. A haunting high-pitched scream that still disturbs my dreams. And then she fled. She ran down the corridor and barricaded herself in her room. I looked at Ana, pulled on a pair of pants and followed at breakneck speed, nearly slipping on Ana’s abandoned stockings as I careered down the hall.
‘Bea…’ I pleaded at her bedroom door. ‘It’s not what it looked like.’
‘Do you think I’m a fucking idiot?’ she shouted, her voice wet with tears.
‘Of course not.’
‘I’m telling Mum.’
Of course you are.
‘Can we talk?’ I asked. I felt her weight lighten against the door. As it gave way she dived into the bed and buried her face in a pillow. ‘Bea, I don’t really know what to say.’
‘I still love your mum.’
‘You’re disgusting!’ She was sitting up now and she had thrown her pillow on the floor. I felt her fists beating against my chest. ‘You’re disgusting!’ she said again. And she wouldn’t stop. She just kept saying it, over and over again – ‘You’re disgusting!’ – until I couldn’t take it anymore. I wanted it to stop. I wanted her to stop. So I pushed her off me. I can still see the shock in her eyes as her head made contact with the cupboard door. And then the blood came. I remember the blood. There was so much blood.
Bea went into the emergency cubicle by herself. I could only hear muffled voices from where I sat outside. I wondered what she was saying. Was she telling them her story? At any moment I expected some stern representative from the Department of Human Services, or even the police, to come and take me away – to punish me for my crimes of being a bad husband and father, and for almost killing my teenage daughter. But the doctor was smiling when he eventually re-emerged.
‘She’s going to be just fine,’ he said. ‘Just three stitches that will need to come out in a week.’ I looked hard but I couldn’t see any revulsion in his eyes, at least nothing beyond what I was accustomed to. And then, just as he was about to leave, he stopped. ‘Is it true?’
‘Is what true?’ My heart was racing. Yes, it was true, I was an adulterer and a child abuser, and he should do his duty and report me to the authorities.
‘Is the great Professor Duvall really your father-in-law?’
THE AFFAIR BECAME the scandal of the year on our street. An Aussie cheating on the daughter of a prominent neurosurgeon with a fat Croatian woman. In those days gossip didn’t get much more titillating than that. But that was when people still took the time to get to know their neighbours – when they would wave instead of nervously eyeing each other from the safety of their front lawns. So it wasn’t long before anyone and everyone of import knew. It was a strange and embarrassing thing, to hear Lola acknowledge my betrayal out loud. Thankfully, though, I only ever had to live through it once. Because after that day she never mentioned it again.
‘So, did you get it out of your system?’ she said. Her tone wasn’t angry, more matter of fact. ‘Because if you didn’t, we’ll have to get a divorce, but if you did, I’m willing to forgive you.’ That’s how she was: clinical and practical, like her father.
Lola’s father didn’t live long enough to celebrate my downfall. He was killed by a haemorrhage so large only someone of his skill could have drained it. (God knows his registrar gave it a good go, but the professor did nothing in halves and his death was no exception.) In some ways, I would have preferred it if he had been alive at the time. Because I could have tolerated the lectures, the awkwardness, the smug looks, the I told you so’s. Anything but his ghost, taken up residence in his daughter’s eyes.
We never made love again after that. I never made love again. It was my punishment. A fair sentence, I thought.
I LAST SAW Ana in the fruit and veg shop at Barkly Square. She looked old under the fluorescent lights. Her doughy cheeks sagged. She had the shadow of a moustache above her lips.
It took some time for her to recognise me.
‘Evan,’ she finally said, with that ever-so-slight European accent she had. ‘I’m so sorry about your wife.’ She had never called Lola by name; it had always been ‘your wife’.
‘Thank you,’ I said, and in the same breath added, ‘I’ve missed you.’
Ana looked down at her basket. ‘The avocados are a bargain today,’ she said. ‘Three big ones for a dollar.’
‘I mean it,’ I said again. ‘I’ve missed you.’
A woman by the tomatoes was listening to our conversation. I couldn’t care less.
‘Evan,’ Ana said, putting down her basket and looking me in the eye. ‘Your wife’s dead.’ She moved into the checkout queue. ‘Have some respect.’
And that was the last time we met.
I ARRANGE IT for a Tuesday. Somehow it seems right to keep it to a Tuesday, for the sake of a short-lived tradition, or even as a little snub to Marcel. We organise it all through text messaging, not the most romantic of mediums – not that this is a romantic meeting after all – but she does finish her messages with a D for Daniella and a single X for a kiss.
IT’S MONDAY NIGHT, and Bea has invited me for dinner. Her home is a rented one-bedroom apartment in Northcote, which she and Edwina have made their own with a carefully selected collection of Edwina’s artwork. One piece in particular dominates the tiny space, a large portrait behind the sofa of an Asian woman with a distorted face. She watches me as I move around the room. When I go to the kitchen, it’s partly to get away from her.
‘Smells good,’ I say.
‘Moroccan tagine,’ Bea replies, and lifts the lid on the clay pot. ‘I’ve only done it once before. But it was delicious.’ In the past few months she has put on a few kilos, but it suits her. It softens her face.
‘At some artists’ workshop in the country.’
‘Tonight’s the first time I’ve seen her paintings,’ I say. ‘She’s talented.’
‘I know.’ Bea smiles proudly.
‘Can I help with something?’
‘No,’ she says, throwing down her tea towel. ‘Now it’s just a matter of waiting.’ She ushers me back into the living room. When I sit down on the sofa I can feel the Asian girl’s huge black eyes burning through the back of my head.
‘So,’ Bea begins. ‘Edwina told me you stopped going to the life-drawing class.’
‘It’s been a while. Months.’
‘I thought you enjoyed it.’
‘Then why did you stop?’
Always with the questions.
‘I don’t know Bea,’ I sigh. ‘Can’t we just drop it?’
I take another sip of the wine. ‘Where’s this from?’
‘Do you like it? Housewarming gift from a friend.’
‘It’s very…’ I look for the right words, ‘easy to drink.’
‘Oh, that’s what I was going to tell you,’ Bea says, suddenly remembering something. ‘Did you see the paper today?’
She picks up an unfolded newspaper from the magazine rack near the couch. ‘In the obituaries,’ she begins. ‘Ana Hrustanovic from Pascoe Vale.’
At the mere mention of her name I feel sick to my stomach. Bea passes me the paper. It’s opened to the obituary section. Her name is circled in blue biro. I can barely focus enough to read the small print.
13 September 1950 – 30 July 2009
Beloved mother of Adrijan and Demir.
You will always be in our hearts.
‘Why are you showing me this?’ I ask.
‘Wasn’t she someone close to you?’
I search Bea’s eyes for malice but I don’t find any there. ‘I don’t know why you’re doing this.’
‘I thought you’d want to know. She was someone you were close to, a long time ago.’
‘I never meant it, okay? It was stupid. I know. I ruined everything.’
‘Dad.’ Bea puts her glass down and sits next to me on the couch. ‘I might not have understood when I was fifteen but I understand now.’
I can’t believe this is happening. Can Lola see all of this?
‘Please, let’s not…’
‘I’ve cheated on my girlfriends.’
‘Please Bea, I don’t want to hear it.’
‘I know what it’s like. You don’t think. Until it’s all over, and it’s too late.’
The timer on the oven goes off. Bea looks at the kitchen door and then turns back to look at me. She stares at my face for what seems like an eternity, but I keep my gaze fixed on a stain on the carpeted floor. Finally, she gets up and goes into the kitchen. I can breathe again.
TODAY’S THE DAY. I wake up early but I can’t get back to sleep. As I pull on my robe I’m pleased to see the house is spotless. I almost expect to find Lola in the kitchen, making me a cooked breakfast of bacon and eggs. She’s not, but the eggs I cook are beautiful and creamy anyway.
I make the bed, pulling the sheets tight until every crease has been pressed out. I shave and throw on a pair of jeans and a jumper. When I look in the mirror, I see the face of an old man, but an old man with promise in the curl of his old lips. I lug my easel from room to room and from corner to corner, searching for the perfect location for my yet-to-be-conceived masterpiece. I imagine Daniella’s long legs stretched across the old chaise lounge in the sitting room. I picture her naked body leaning casually against the marble mantelpiece in the bedroom. I see her staring through the front window at the now bare arms of the Japanese maple tree.
I smoke my first cigarette in thirty long, tobacco-free years. I walk to the milk bar and buy a packet of Winfields from Mr Chin. He is a man of few words – of no-frills Chinese efficiency – and I’m relieved, because I’m not in the mood for mindless chitchat.
The first cigarette feels good, comforting, like catching up with an old friend. I walk. I smoke. I walk and smoke. I follow Glenlyon Road. I stroll past the gym-goers at the Brunswick Baths and the looming face of the Brunswick Town Hall. I pass the church on the corner of Sydney Road and the Brunswick Community Health Centre. I cross the Shell petrol station on Lygon Street and the Nicholson Street tram tracks. Soon I know where I’m headed.
Merri Creek. The power lines are the only reminder that I’m only five kilometres from the city. If my hearing was better I might be able to catch the rumble of a faraway tram, but mostly the air here is full of peaceful birdsong. We used to bring Bea here when she was still a little girl. I remember feeding the ducks with her, in winter, when the creek was full to overflowing. Now there’s barely even a trickle and the banks are littered with stormwater waste.
I cross the bridge, ignoring a boy spraying spiky words across its underbelly, and find a quiet spot on the opposite bank. I can’t help but think about Lola and her faceless lover. Was this their spot? What would they do once they had settled into the dewy grass? Would they hold hands and recite poetry to each other in the soft and dappled sunlight? Or would they tear off each other’s clothes and fornicate in the grass?
It’s peaceful here. I lie down, close my eyes and let the shadows run back and forth across my face. The cigarettes have had their way with me. I surrender to the moment.
SHE’S LATE. WE said five thirty and it’s already ten to six. For the past three hours I haven’t been able to do anything except stare at the face of the clock. I don’t know her, or what she likes. There’s half a litre of diet Coke in the fridge, an open bottle of red on the bench, a packet of Tim Tams in case she gets a craving and cheese crackers if she prefers a bit of salt. I put my hand in my pocket and the cold metal of the cigarette lighter between my fingers calms me. If there’s one thing I’m sure of, it’s that she’ll want a smoke.
At two minutes past six the doorbell rings and my heart pounds against my chest. Here she is, I think, not just a bunch of lines on a piece of paper, but the real thing, soft and warm and fleshy, in my hallway, my house. It’s a moment to savour. I take a deep breath.
‘Welcome,’ I say but it feels wrong, too formal.
She looks at me, her face unreadable, as she takes a long last drag of her cigarette. ‘Thanks.’
She hangs her coat on the hat stand and loiters around an oil painting in the hallway – a generic Australian landscape, all orange and grey, with a few scattered gum trees.
‘A gift,’ I explain, and she nods. ‘Not sure who the artist is.’
Silently she follows me to the front room. I’ve started a fire and it’s almost cosy. I’m pleased to see her relax a little. I pass her the $1 ashtray I picked up at the Brotherhood this morning. ‘You can smoke in here if you like,’ I say, and I see her relax a little bit more. She shakes out another cigarette.
‘Can I get you a drink of something?’
‘I’d love a scotch.’
‘I’ve got a bottle of red open?’
When I return she’s staring out the front window. Smoke is rising in soft tendrils from the lit end of her cigarette. She takes the glass from my hand and rests it on the windowsill. ‘Great house,’ she says. ‘You here by yourself?’
‘Yes.’ I take a sip of the wine.
‘Must get pretty lonely,’ she says and draws a line through the fog on the window. Her nails are chewed to the quick. ‘Old houses freak me out a little. Bumps in the middle of the night.’
‘I know all her noises,’ I say, lighting a cigarette for myself.
‘I’ve only ever lived in the family shithole and a bunch of student share houses.’ She taps some ash into the ashtray. ‘I’m just thankful when the roof’s stuck on and nobody’s used up the hot water.’
I grunt empathically.
‘So,’ she says, stubbing out her cigarette. ‘Shall we do this?’
I’m glad she is the one to finally say it, not me.
‘You are paying me by the hour, after all.’
I offer to leave the room while she undresses. ‘Here,’ I say, passing her Lola’s kimono, which was a gift from one of her Japanese students. ‘You can wear this.’
‘Thanks,’ she says and takes the robe.
I wait outside, imagining her eyeing the kimono, smelling it – wondering who it belongs to, why it stinks of mothballs – and then unzipping her boots, sitting down to take off her socks, pulling her jeans off…
A photo of Lola on the hallway table catches my eye. I must have walked past it a thousand times before but I’ve never really looked at it. I pick it up and look at it now. In the picture she’s running away from the camera – she must have been a few weeks pregnant with Bea at the time – but her head is turned. For once her blonde hair is loose and free, and she’s laughing. Really laughing.
Daniella pokes her head around the door, holding the kimono tight around her neck. ‘I’m ready,’ she says. I go into the room and stand by the easel at the window. ‘Where do you want me?’ she asks.
‘You’d probably be most comfortable near the fire.’
‘What about on the chaise longue?’
‘If that suits you.’
Silently she moves to the chaise longue and slips out of the kimono. Her shoulders slouch and her hands gather around the triangle of hair between her legs. Her skin is luminous against the red velvet of the chair. Her head rests on the nest of her arms and her top leg falls forward and off the tufted cushion.
IT’S LUXURIOUS TO have her here, all to myself. I pick up my pencil and draw. I start with her shoulder and follow the curve of her back down to her waist and then up again along the rise of her buttock. I sketch her breasts falling limply down, and her eyes looking up and out through the window. Time passes. Daylight surrenders to the warm glow of the table lamps. Shadows settle on the page like powdered moths.
‘Hmmm?’ I murmur.
‘I’ve got a cramp.’
I ask her to keep still for one more minute.
‘Lola?’ she says.
At the mention of Lola’s name I lose all concentration.
‘Lola’s my wife.’ I put down my pencil. ‘Ex-wife. I mean, not ex-wife. She’s dead. But how did you–’
Suddenly Daniella is sitting up and the pose – and all hopes for my picture – is lost. ‘Was this hers?’ she screams, throwing the kimono across the room. ‘Michael was right. This is fucked up!’
‘Daniella,’ I say, trying to stay calm as I pick the kimono up off the floor. ‘What’s the matter? What’s happened?’
‘Don’t you realise? You called me by her name.’ She spits as she speaks. ‘You called me by your dead wife’s fucking name!’
I feel my insides churn and spasm.
‘Did she pose for you too?’ she says, pulling on her jumper.
I plead for her to stay, but when I see her tear her coat from the hat stand I know she’s made up her mind. It’s over.
‘At least let me pay you for your time.’ I say and hold out two crisp fifty-dollar bills. She looks at them and for a moment I think she will refuse, but then she rips them from my fingers.
‘And don’t you come looking for me either!’ She yells and slams the door, as hard as she can, in my face.
I go back to the front room. I look around, at the scattered remains on the ashtray and at the kimono on the floor with arms outstretched. I can just see the trace of her lips on the rim of the half-empty wineglass.
EVERYTHING IS WHITE. I can’t escape it, this whiteness. White walls, white-tiled floors and a white waffle blanket with a blue trim hanging across my withered legs. They feel weird, my legs. I can’t move one of them. I must be in a hospital, I think. I spent the last six months of Lola’s life going in and out of hospitals.
I look around. There is a white bundle across the aisle but it’s hard to tell if it’s just a couple of pillows or a living, breathing, human being. A drip hangs from my arm and on the board above my bed is written: nil by mouth.
‘Well, well, well…’ A nurse says as she enters the room. She drags an intravenous pole behind her. ‘Wakey, wakey, sleepy head!’ I move to speak but all that comes out is a grunt, and it’s louder than I had intended. ‘Be with you soon Mr Bailey,’ the nurse calls from across the room. She hooks the bag of fluid up to the white bundle across the aisle.
I must have had a stroke. It’s the only explanation I can find for why half of my body feels like a lead weight, like it doesn’t belong to me anymore. The nurse looks at me from the end of the bed. She is plump in a reassuring way. She wears a lanyard around her neck, which tells me she is the nurse unit manager and her name is Pam. ‘Mr Bailey,’ she says, smiling. ‘We’ve been waiting for you to wake up.’
We, who’s we?
‘Your daughter, Bea, has been in here every day. She stays for as long as visiting hours will allow.’
Bea, of course. Forgiving Bea. There is a wetness on my cheek. Is it blood? Am I bleeding?
‘Don’t cry Mr Bailey, she’ll be here soon. Now, lift up your gown for me, there’s a good man, and we’ll give you your injection.’
I CAN ONLY see glimpses of Bea’s face through the bouquet of yellow tulips she holds in front of her.
‘I couldn’t bring you chocolates,’ she says. ‘You’re being fed through a drip in your arm.’ Behind the flowers she looks awful. Her eyes are raw from crying and her face is full of pimples.
She can see I’m trying to say something – something comforting – but the words refuse to come. Instead, she reassures me. ‘Don’t worry Dad. Today’s scans were looking better.’ She holds my hand. ‘Now it’s time to rest.’
IT’S NOT SO bad, having all these people fuss over me. At first I fought it, but that was partly for show because I know I can’t do it alone. The days begin with a shower. I can just about stand now, but in the shower I have to sit on a plastic stool as Pam waves the showerhead over me like a wand. Pam tells me what to do. She tells me when I need to stand, and when I need to stretch my arm to take the sleeve of my robe.
Breakfast is next. I have a bowl of porridge and a mouthful of canned peaches. I watch the Today show on the telly – a tiny one that Bea pays a ridiculous daily rate for – and sometimes I make small talk with Giuseppe across the aisle (who wasn’t a pile of pillows after all).
Mostly, I enjoy being touched. I can’t remember the last time someone touched me. Now I have Pam, who dresses me and moves my legs into a respectable position on the bed, and Bea, who combs my hair and shaves my shoddy beard. Even the few visitors I receive – like Edwina, and Charlie, my next-door neighbour – reach out and pat me on the knee. It’s through their hands that I’m healing.
BEA IS SITTING in the chair beside my bed, playing on her computer.
‘How did you find me?’ I say.
She looks up from the screen.
‘I want to know.’
Bea closes the lid of the computer. ‘You were lying unconscious on the floor.’
‘How long had I been there?’
‘Hard to say. The fire was out, and your body temperature had dropped by the time the ambos arrived.’
‘I feel terrible I didn’t find you sooner.’
‘Don’t be stupid. How were you to know? And what does it matter now anyway?’
‘Yeah, well… The physio seems pretty happy with you today. According to him, you might make a full recovery.’
‘That’s what he says,’ I say, but I think she senses my scepticism. ‘Have you told Dr Jay?’
‘He’s been away. I spoke to him last night.’
‘What did he say?’
‘That he was sorry.’
‘Not I told you so?’
‘Dr Jay’s not like that, Dad,’ Bea says and rubs her eyes. She still looks tired. Woefully tired.
‘All doctors are the same.’
‘What’s that supposed to mean?’
‘You know how they are. We’ve got enough in the family to know.’
Bea sighs. ‘You can’t lump them all in the same class as Grandpa, Dad,’ she says. She picks up an old magazine from my bedside table. ‘Grandpa was a bastard.’
And just like that, in one fell swoop, she lops off the profes-sor’s head.
LOLA DIED ON a Wednesday. I was standing on the front veranda, watching hot air balloons and waiting for Dr Jay.
I turned around to see Bea, in her pyjamas, cupping a steaming mug of coffee to her lips. She’d pulled down the sleeves of her pyjama top to cover her blue and trembling hands.
‘She’s not looking too good.’
She’s dying. Your mother is dying.
‘I know,’ I said, swallowing my tears and turning back to the floating balloons.
‘Dad?’ she said again, but this time she put a cold hand on my forearm.
I see now that this was a plea – a plea for me, her father, to do something. To just fucking do something. And I still can’t explain why, at this pivotal moment, I didn’t show my daughter some compassion. Why didn’t I take her hand in mine? Why didn’t I pull her into my embrace? Why was it so impossible for me to shake the guilt I felt when I saw her beseeching face?
‘I’d better go in,’ I said. And as her hand slipped off my sleeve, it left a great big open sore.
I’M TIRED. IT’S nearly five and the light is beginning to wane. Lisa, the kitchen lady, will be round with dinner soon and she’ll give me two bread rolls because she likes me.
‘Hmmm?’ I open my eyes.
‘They’re talking about discharging you.’
‘How do you feel about going home?’
‘Okay,’ I say.
Bea looks at the Who magazine in her lap. She flicks through the pages uninterestedly. I can smell the trolley of food coming down the corridor and my mouth is flushed with saliva.
‘How would you feel,’ she asks, ‘about me and Edwina moving in?’
I’d feel guilty, horribly guilty.
‘You don’t have to do that. You’ve both got your own lives,’ I say.
‘But what if we wanted to?’
I look at the television. Some old man with a posh accent is telling an excited woman her vase is worth £200. ‘And Edwina?’ I ask.
‘It was her idea.’
Why wasn’t it your idea?
‘It will be good for all of us. We’ll save on rent,’ she says. ‘Not to mention we could do with the extra room.’ She looks at me expectantly but I don’t know what else to say. I keep watching the television.
‘In case you haven’t noticed, I’m pregnant,’ Bea says. I must look confused because she quickly adds, ‘Sperm donor.’
Say something. Don’t just sit there like a stunned mullet.
Bea smiles. For once it is the right thing to say.
‘And Dad?’ she says, rubbing her swollen tummy, her pregnancy immediately apparent. ‘It’s a boy.’
I turn off the television.
‘That’s great Bea. Really great.’
A knot is forming in my throat.
‘And he’s going to need a male in his life.’
And now the tears are streaming from my eyes.
But I can’t make it stop. Because I know what it means. And I’ve wanted it for so long. A second chance.
THE HOUSE IS full of fresh flowers. Edwina’s paintings adorn the walls. The fridge is packed with exotic cheeses and homemade pesto and jams. The rooms look lived in, with undies and socks strewn across their floors.
It’s summer and the days are long and hot. Bea and I take evening walks and, with her expanding stomach and my bad leg, we fall into a comfortable pace. Today I lead her along Glenlyon Road and down towards Merri Creek. We sit by the water. I feed the ducks. Bea talks about how she is sick and tired of being pregnant. Her fat ankles stick out beneath her skirt. I smile at her. She closes her eyes and lets the sun warm her face.
I never believed it could be this way.
IT’S THE MIDDLE of the night. I look at the clock: 2.30. I can hear their feet on the creaking floorboards. I can hear their whispers on the stairs.
I sit straight up in bed.
‘What? What’s happening?’
‘I’m taking Bea to the hospital,’ Edwina says. ‘Her waters just broke.’
I jump out of bed and nearly trip over my cane, which has fallen to the floor. Edwina switches on the light.
‘You don’t need to come,’ she says, helping me up.
‘I’m coming,’ I say, and something in my voice must be convincing because she doesn’t protest again.
‘SLOW DOWN,’ BEA says between breaths as we speed down Royal Parade.
‘Does it hurt?’ I ask.
There is fire in her eyes. ‘Of course it fucking hurts!’ There’s an awkward silence before Edwina and I laugh and even Bea breaks into a sideways smile. There’s no traffic at 2.30 in the morning and we get to the hospital within minutes.
I escort Bea inside while Edwina parks the car. She leans on me and I lean on my cane. I can’t help but think what an odd pair we must make as we enter the two sliding doors. I lead Bea towards a sign that reads triage.
‘Excuse me,’ I say to the woman inside the plastic box. ‘My daughter’s about to have a baby.’
I expect her to say congratulations and send someone to wheel Bea straight up to the ward. But instead she flicks through some papers on her desk, and passes a blue form to us through the window.
‘Fill this out,’ she says.
Bea and I retreat to the plastic seats in the waiting room. I’ve forgotten my glasses and I’m useless to her, but when Edwina arrives she takes control.
She’s good for us, I think. Like glue.
I DON’T REMEMBER much about Bea’s birth. Back in those days, men weren’t allowed into the delivery suite. All I have is a hazy memory of sitting outside and chain smoking until the nurse finally called me in.
It’s cold in the waiting room. I balance a plastic cup of instant coffee on my tremulous legs. I look at the clock: 5 am. Another man and his two kids are getting drinks from the vending machine. I try not to imagine what’s going on upstairs. Every so often an image flashes before my eyes: Bea, hair plastered to her forehead, with Edwina holding her sweaty hand. A black head crowning. A rush of air. A cry. Or worse, a crash cart, and Bea being wheeled through double doors.
I must have fallen asleep. A man taps me on the shoulder. He’s one of the cleaners, and he has arrived to mop away the evening’s waste.
‘What time is it?’ I ask groggily, sitting up.
The cleaner is a big man. He could just as well have made a career as a bodyguard. ‘You waiting for something?’ he asks.
‘A little boy.’
He raises his eyebrows. ‘You the father?’
‘God, no. I’m almost seventy years old.’
‘You never know. I see everything here. All kinds of families. Families you could never imagine.’
I think of Bea and Edwina. Two mothers.
‘Do you have children of your own?’ I ask, snatching a look at his name tag, which reads drago.
Drago looks around the lobby and, seeing that the coast is clear, takes a seat next to me. ‘I have three children and one grandchild.’ He pulls a tattered photo from his wallet. Three pairs of smiling brown eyes.
‘Beautiful,’ I say.
And that’s how Edwina finds me, with another man’s family in my hands.
She has tears in her eyes.
I DON’T SAY anything to Edwina. I don’t want to spoil it. I don’t want to hear anything until I see his little face. I want to see his face first, and then hers. That’s how I’ll know everything’s okay.
At first he’s just a wriggling bundle of flesh in her arms. Like the white unformed mound that Giuseppe – now my friend – used to be. But as she unwraps his head and I see his scrunched-up little face I see that he is all me.
Poor bugger, I think.
‘Take him,’ Bea says, holding him out to me like a gift.
‘I can’t,’ I say and point to my cane. ‘I’ll drop him.’
Edwina drags a chair from the window and pushes it next to the bed. She takes my cane and points to the chair. I sit down as I am told.
‘Meet your grandson,’ Bea says and I open my arms to receive him. ‘Sebastian Evan Bailey.’ And suddenly he’s in my arms, blinking and looking everywhere and nowhere all at once. His skin is warm and pink and covered in a feathery white down. I bury my nose in the soft folds of his flesh. I breathe him in.
Now this, I think to myself, this I remember.
HE ADORES ME. When others say it I deny it, but I know that it’s true. And I’ve done nothing to deserve it. Except love him, which is easy. He’s not like Bea. When Bea was little she was hard work. She was stubborn, inflexible, strong. If anything Sebastian is too sensitive, too quick to cry, too fragile. He’s always getting sick and having fevers.
Motherhood has been good to Bea. It’s softened her. For a while it even helped her relationship with Edwina. But lately things have taken a turn for the worse. I can hear the late-night arguments through my bedroom wall. Hushed accusations followed by long, weighty silences. I don’t interfere. Except to take Sebastian away and give them some time alone.
TODAY WE’RE AT Merri Creek and Sebastian is chasing a butterfly. He’s running in circles, following the winged creature from branch to branch, flower to flower. I lay a blanket on the grass and get down on my knees.
‘Pa?’ Sebastian says. He’s bored of the butterfly.
‘Are you married?’
I smile. I can never predict what will come out of his little mouth.
‘Used to be.’
He plays with a pair of ladybirds in the grass.
‘Who are you married to?’ he says, looking up at me.
‘I’m married to your Grandma,’ I say. ‘Grandma Lola.’
A jogger runs past us, his German shepherd in tow. They pant loudly and in unison.
‘I’m thirsty,’ says Sebastian.
I reach into the bag Bea has packed for us and, sure enough, there is a box of Ribena – Sebastian’s favourite – inside. He takes the first few sips thirstily.
‘Yes, my cheeky monkey?’
He laughs. I love to see him laugh.
‘What was Grandma Lola like?’
I think of her. I think of her perfect white skin and her pale blonde hair. I think of her sitting by the fire in the front room of our house, lost in one of her books. I think back to the photo in the hallway – a moment of freedom, her hair loose and flying, her soft mouth stretched into a smile.
‘You know the butterfly you were chasing before?’
‘Yep,’ Sebastian says, and nods his head vigorously.
‘Your Grandma Lola was like that.’
‘She was beautiful like the butterfly,’ he says. It is not a question but a statement. I look down at the two ladybirds fornicating in the grass.
‘Yes. So very beautiful.’ But he’s gone. Disappeared into the bushes, chasing another butterfly.
When we get home the air is thick with the smell of melted butter. In the kitchen, chocolate chip cookies cool on a wire rack above the stovetop. Sebastian climbs onto a stool, dips his finger into a mixing bowl. The radio is on but Bea is nowhere to be seen. I pick up one of the biscuits and hand it to Sebastian. He starts to bite the tops off the chocolate chips, and I go in search of his mother. I finally find her, asleep in her bedroom, still wearing her chocolate-smeared apron. Sebastian makes a move to wake her but I pull him away, tell him to finish his biscuit. There is a suitcase in the corner of the room, half-packed with Edwina’s clothes and art history books. I lift Bea’s foot, heavy with sleep, and place it with her other foot on the mattress. I motion to Sebastian to help me and together we pick a sheet off the floor and tuck it around Bea’s body.
THEY FRAMED HER. Now she sits, in thick unpolished wood, above the marble mantelpiece in my bedroom. I objected at first, insisting she wasn’t worth the money, but in truth I was pleased with the finished piece. She looked good. Bea and Edwina kept saying I could sell her, and probably for a good price too. But I could never part with her. I think even Bea knew that.
I try not to think back to that day. I try not to remember the disgust smeared across Daniella’s otherwise lovely face. I force myself to forget the red ladder of lines on the soft belly of her arm. Daniella. I never even knew her real name.
Nowadays, when I look at the picture, it’s not Daniella at all that I see. It’s Lola. It can’t possibly be anyone else with that long arched neck and easy elegance. And there, too, in the picture, is Ana – lovely Ana – in the wide, munificent hips. But it’s also Bea. In the wistful, otherworldly eyes. Eyes that are no longer accusing me of crimes past, or crimes yet to be committed. Tender eyes. Soft. Like they used to be when she was little. Like they are becoming again, now.