For the second instalment of our summer of Sunday-reading, Griffith Review celebrates Kristina Olsson's 'Shell', an excerpt from her 2018 novel by the same name, and published in Griffith Review 58: Storied Lives – The Novella Project V as part of the 2017 Griffith Review Fellowships.
Set in 1965 against the building of the Sydney Opera House and the early years of Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam War, 'Shell' interrogates the persistent notion of Australia as a neutral surface – a country uninscribed, without history or story – and questions how we mediate our view of the world and of ourselves.
Shell was longlisted in the Indie Awards for fiction - the national independent booksellers' awards.
Kristina Olsson is a journalist and writer of fiction and non-fiction. Her 2013 memoir, Boy Lost (UQP), won multiple national awards and her 2018 novel, Shell, was chosen as the first title in Scribner’s new Australian literary imprint and has since been longlisted in the Indie Awards for fiction. She also works as a mentor and teacher of creative writing. She lives in Brisbane.
On Friday night, David Malouf presented Olsson with the 2019 Johnno Award for services to writers and the writing community in Queensland.
SYDNEY, NOVEMBER 1960
THE DAY THE great man sang, heat blazed in haloes over Bennelong Point. This is what Pearl will remember later, this is what she will say: that his voice turned the air holy. Men, sweat-slicked, stood with bowed heads or hung off scaffolds, swatting at flies and tears. Few looked at the singer; they needed all their senses to hear. Needed their whole bodies, skin and eyes and hearts, to absorb what they couldn’t say: that sacredness had returned to this place. It flowed through them on a single human voice, through their bodies and the building that was rising beneath their hands.
Pearl stood with the other journalists, and watched the men grow luminous. Wept as she understood: that it wasn’t the building or the place Robeson had sanctified, but the labour. The valour of it. The modest hearts of workers. In his songs, in the faces of the men, was every story she had ever tried to write. This one too. She closed her eyes as the voice trailed away. Words formed and crumbled in her head, insubstantial. She gripped her notebook and forgot to write them down.
SHE WALKED TOWARDS the Quay in opalescent light. The city closed down, prosaic, the horizon grubby with clouds and promising nothing. It was like this sometimes – as if Sydney was within her, an idea she carried around, vaporous, unexamined. Until, on evenings like this, it revealed her to herself. She was hollowed out, impervious. As torpid as the streets.
Usually, the city was enough: a scoop of bridge as she rounded a corner, the harbour shattered by sunset. Her friends in the back bar of Lorenzo’s talking of protest, of marches, the poetics of action. She loved these nights, the conversation and argument, the taste of insurrection. They made her brave. From the Herald building to Hunter Street she would be optimistic, glad. The fight rising in her at the door of the bar, the defiance she was born to.
But tonight the air was precarious. All sandstone shadow, smudgy. She thought that time was like this too: a spongy edge, imprecise, as close and as far as memory. As her dead mother’s face. The world had turned her a year older in summer. In four years, she might die. Her mother had died at thirty-six; the calendar led Pearl towards it like a dirge badly played, like this vagrant shadow she moved through, that moved through her. As if she was porous, as if there was no substance to her at all.
She recognised it now. Fear, familiar as a friend, precise as a knife. Not of death, though for years it was what she expected: to suffer as her mother had. This might be worse, this prospect of slightness, of falling short. She’d felt its weight since she was fourteen – there would be two lives to live, the one she was given and the one her mother lost. As if loss could be recouped somehow, her family restored. As if she could save them.
Her day had begun as they always did, with the smell of newsprint and the faces of boys. There, among bold headings and columns of type, they waited: serious, smiling, patient. She ignored them at first, skimming headlines and leads. Turned pages on the potential in their eyes. But each day one, at least, forced her hand. A frantic calculation: How old, what suburb? An ache in her, whatever the answer; her brothers were there, in every young man who passed in the street, stepped off the ferry, gazed out from a page of the Herald.
Today it was footballers. Pre-season training, so they still looked coltish and soft, a bunch of neighbourhood lads mucking around in the park. One reached for a pass with a thief’s intent; she’d leaned in until the photograph blurred, until the face was no longer Jamie’s as he swiped the milk money, or Will’s as he eyed the twins’ toast.
Six years. With each one, her fear grew: they wouldn’t know her. She wouldn’t know them. Boys changed, grew jawbones and beards. Their eyes: had they sharpened with their faces and their sorrows? Had the small soft bodies she’d helped feed and wash grown hard against the memory of her? Or would they still hold her shape in new muscles in their arms and their legs, in the hands they’d once placed against her cheek at bedtime: Sing to us Pearlie? They’d been three and four when their mother died, adolescents when she’d seen them last. Now they were men. Or nearly. Who may not want to see her at all.
She stepped up her pace towards the harbour. That morning, as she closed the sports pages, her contact had called. The phone shrilling in the early quiet of the newsroom. Her heart flapped in her chest; it could only be one person, though he usually called at midday, when the newsroom rang with noise and adrenaline. But when she lifted the phone his voice was no different: soft, subterranean, as if it flowed over pebbles. There’s a bus at five-thirty. One sentence, the call over before it began. She held the receiver hard against her ear. Sometimes he paused before he rang off, and in that gap she could see him, hunched at his desk, lips parted over what was unspoken. His pale bureaucrat’s face flushed with the euphoria of risk.
A current of anticipation bolted through her, but she lowered the receiver slowly. As if his breath was contained there, all he had to tell. What have you got? she wanted to say. Is it the date, the time? But back in its cradle the receiver was mute, the bakelite dull and indifferent. So was the fashion feature unfinished in her typewriter. She glanced at its plain sentences, its tedious tone. Lifted her fingers to the keys. A cigarette burned down beside her.
Now she crossed Pitt Street in a pulse of office workers, the last of the light in her eyes. Turned up the hill towards Hyde Park. Below her the new ribs of the opera house reached up, bleached bones against the paling sky. The building failed to lift her tonight; it looked like something broken, too difficult to fix. Perhaps, as some said, it would never be finished. Her father might be pleased; a monument to politicians, he’d said, peering at the sketches in the Herald years before. But Pearl had looked at the artists’ impressions and even then felt her heart shift. Look carefully, Da, she’d said quietly. Maybe it’s a monument to us. But like some in the newsroom – Mating turtles, they laughed, a collapsed circus tent – he wouldn’t be swayed.
At the top of Bridge Street she looked left and right. Sat at the bus stop until her man appeared, tie loosed, hands in pockets as arranged. A middle-aged public servant, his countenance dulled by routine. Expressionless. She stood then; as he came up beside her she tilted her face to the sky. Even so she knew his lips barely moved as he spoke, pressing lightly over brief syllables. Melbourne, he said. Next Wednesday. Tenth of March.
He took out a handkerchief, wiped his face as if to clear some residue, a letter or noun that might betray him. Glanced at his wristwatch, then turned and walked away. Pearl watched him go. His suit ancient and loose, the pants shiny with wear. Chifley wore his suits until they were threadbare, her father once told her. People loved him for it: his humility, his insistence on staying with them. In this way, Patrick Keogh expressed his hatred for Menzies without having to say his name. It was like a code of honour, an act of resistance, this un-naming. So Pearl had learned her politics by inversion, always the positive rather than the negative, the heroic rather than the bastard. It gave her an optimism that couldn’t survive her childhood. In that moment at the bus stop, she hated Menzies more viciously than her father had.
A bus appeared on the other side of the road. It snorted and swallowed him, the man in Chifley’s suit. Pearl stood in the vacuum and watched the bus disappear.
The date ticked dangerously in her head. Tenth of March. Just over a week. In eight days the first marbles would roll, the first ballot for conscripts for Vietnam. Menzies claimed otherwise, but they all knew: it was a lottery, a deadly one, and if you were twenty and had the right birthday, the right number on a marble, you’d win a free ride to the war.
Jamie was twenty. And might have the right birthday. And next year, so might Will.
THE HARBOUR WAS a spill of darkening water. She sat on the grass at the end of the Quay and watched the sky absorb its own colour. Tried to catch the precise moment when daylight switched off. An old challenge, and she never won; tonight she turned her gaze from a lumbering ferry to find the city already faded, shrinking into shadow. When she thought of her brothers this was just as she saw them, their shapes retreating, fading to grey. Their faces refusing to be fixed.
At six-thirty she pushed herself up, walked to a phone box on George Street and dialled a number inked onto her hand. An hour later, in the dim grey light of the back bar, she listened to Ray announce the ballot date as if the leak was his own, as if he’d conjured it, as if he’d worked the contact himself. A seam of quiet triumph in his voice. Then the murmurs and barks of outrage, of civil disobedience, placards and protests. Pearl finished the wine someone had passed her, closed her eyes.
Voices rose and fell. Disembodied, they took on a menacing quality, as if they’d emerged from the rough darkness she’d walked through, the grubby streets. A dog’s warning growl, a tubercular cough. Then Brian’s unmistakable snarl: For fuck’s sake, what did you all think? That they’d cancel because we didn’t like it? She turned to look in his direction, watched him lunge at a beer jug and refill his glass. We all knew it was coming, he said, accusing the room. Now it has.
The air fell momentarily still. Then, as if at some signal, it became fraught, charged with adrenaline. Melbourne?/Why fucking Melbourne?/Where can we get a bus?/There’s enough time to drive. Usually, her voice would be with them. Instead she watched the door, longing to leave. She could not feel what they felt: the charge of energy, of excitement. It was a familiar paradox: they would all say the draft was criminal, a bastard act, but in truth the news enlivened them, validated them. She’d felt something similar in the newsroom when reports of a disaster broke. A crackling intensity, the collective sense of purpose among them: to translate a world confirmed again as incoherent, random, impersonal.
She inched sideways, dipping her head, making herself small. Tonight nothing felt impersonal, or random. For her, the talk had assumed human faces: Jamie’s, Will’s. It came to her then: if her comrades knew about her brothers, knew their names, they’d fall upon them as surely as a journalist would. The movement needed emblems. Examples. Real men, not numbers; flesh and blood. But they didn’t know them. And wouldn’t now. The decision hardened in her: Jamie and Will would not be used. She was surprised by the strength of her own conviction. Looked away to the back wall, as if her thoughts were visible, and might be read.
She had to leave, before her face betrayed her. The temperature in the room turned feverish; she skirted its edges and made for the door. As she reached the hallway a voice followed her, male, drunk: Another leak, Lois Lane. A cough or a laugh, she wasn’t sure. Hey, you’re good. Just keep screwing Superman.
SHE STOOD AT the rail of the ferry, pulled her hair into a band against the wind. Gulls shrieked in their wake: too late, too late. To one side of her a young man pressed a transistor to his ear and a woman slipped a foot from her shoe. Brian’s words rang in her head: Did you think they’d cancel because we didn’t like it? Yes, she’d wanted to say. Yes. A part of me thought it couldn’t happen. But the gulls kept crying the truth: they’d all known for months that it would. In the years since her mother’s death she’d found a mechanism for forgetting, a lever that turned her blood cool. It switched one Pearl off and another on, a girl without history or conscience. A girl unencumbered, trying life on for size. But in three words – tenth of March – her history had spoken back.
Dusk thickened as they passed Bennelong Point. In the pale light the new building was a strange oceanic creature mantling the land. Each head turned to it, a gravitational pull. God help us, said the man next to her. But now Pearl could see how its new curves pulled at the water. She’d heard that the first thing Utzon had done – before he thought about design, before he’d made a single mark on paper – was to consult the sea charts for Sydney Harbour. It made sudden sense: the building was marine more than earthly. From this angle, in this light, it was not a structure but an eruption from the sea. An act of nature rather than man, a disturbance. She stared at its massive base, a plinth for a sculpture or a ceremony, and thought about surfaces, the familiar faces of earth and water, what lay beneath. About the architect’s way of seeing.
The ferry moved them on: Mrs Macquarie’s Chair, the finger wharves of Woolloomooloo. Garden Island. She counted them off, a prayer over worry beads, before the boat arced towards Manly. She turned away then, rubbed at bare arms. The city faded gradually to points of light. In the cooling air she felt a sudden stab of guilt: for five long minutes, she hadn’t thought about Jamie or Will. It felt like a disloyalty. Another small betrayal of her brothers.
They’d run away from St Joseph’s before Jamie turned fifteen. As if they’d lashed out in their loneliness and confusion, the lengthening weeks between visits. Work, she would shrug when she finally got to them, and it was true. She’d come to journalism late, after years of waitressing and night school, the leaving certificate she’d missed out on, courses in typing and shorthand. But her love for it was instant and profound. From the beginning she was obsessed by the process; the notion of a story, what it was, what it could do, the risk and potential of it. Ideas flared in her dreams.
She’d tried to explain it to them. Told them who she’d met, who she’d interviewed: the Lord Mayor, Dawn Fraser. They sat on the grass of the playground and ate the Violet Crumbles she always brought, but their eyes were blank. Kick the ball, Pearlie, they’d say, and she didn’t resent it. They were children; they couldn’t know how it was. That walking into the newsroom was like an erotic encounter that made her forget everything else. Even them. In those early days, she couldn’t wait to start each shift. Had met each story and interview like a lover.
Still, they’d suspected: her new life was bigger than them. They knew they couldn’t compete. But couldn’t understand. Even now, eight years after she first walked into the Herald building, she couldn’t account for it herself. Wasn’t she their Pearlie? From the day their mother died, the love she’d spent on them. She’d emptied herself, hour by hour, so there’d be no room in them for suffering.
And it worked. Within the year they barely remembered their mother. A shadow figure, another baby at her breast. Then nothing. Only air stretched thin with crying, Pearl holding their father’s head against her. A year later, their Da’s ravaged face as he packed their singlets, their socks and coats into bags. And Pearl, her hands grasping theirs as they left the house, for the last time though they didn’t know it then. Wave to Da, she said as they walked to the big black car, and they would never forget how shiny it was, how thrilling and terrifying to climb onto the back seat. Pearl between them, her mouth a straight line. Wave to the woodpile, the orange tree. And they did.
She’d had one phone call from them after they fled, their voices turned manly to stop her worrying, or to stop her chasing them. A friend’s uncle ran cattle in Queensland, they said. They’d get work fencing or mustering, as labourers or roustabouts. You can’t ride, she reminded them, gripping the phone, trying for calm. They’d never been outside Sydney. The closest they’d come to horses was the milko’s mare, shovelling the steaming piles she left every morning into buckets for the vegetable garden. You’ll kill yourselves, she said.
It’ll be great Pearlie. Will laughed down the line. Jamie said, I’ll look after him. But Pearl knew who was likely the scared one, the one who’d break his bones. Look after yourself, Jamie, she said. We’ll write to you, they promised. Write to your Da, she said. But part of her was relieved.
They did write to their father. A year or more later, a note in a grubby envelope, postmarked Bedourie. We are fine and brown as nuts, Jamie wrote. We have learned to ride and fix fences. There is steak three times a week and jam tarts. In Will’s ragged hand: Da, there are ant hills big as houses. It is hot as blazes. I know how to cut balls off bulls.
Then, another year later, two? – she couldn’t remember: a postcard from the coast. Somewhere north of Brisbane, all tinted blue sea and bathing beauties. It was hard to tell whose writing. But through the scrawl she could read she’d been wrong about Jamie; it was Will who was vulnerable after all, especially in a fight. A small misunderstanding with a ringer, the card said, Will’s wrist in a cast. When it mended they might make for Victoria. They were living on mangoes and fish.
That was all. No more cards or letters, and even if there were they’d be at the dead letter office, she supposed, now that the house was gone. For months after she’d moved her father out she’d checked with the new tenants, collected notices and bills. Since the announcement of national service she’d taken another tack: electoral rolls, telephone books. Queensland, Victoria. She couldn’t find them in the phone books, and of course they weren’t on the electoral roll. They weren’t old enough to vote. To get a passport, buy a house or a beer. But they could be forced into army fatigues, given a gun. Made to shoot and kill other young men with faces they didn’t know.
The ferry slowed. Voices rose and fell around her. Two men brought their palms to their hats, an orchestration of limbs. She looked up, and between half-heard words and phrases, in the space between water and sky, she saw it: the boys had been abandoned by them all. Mother, father, sister. Through death, grief, selfishness – in one way or another, they’d each left them, disappeared. Leaving was what her brothers knew. What they expected. She turned her head to watch Manly materialise in the gloom. Of course they wouldn’t bother coming home.
FROM THE FERRY terminal she walked quickly towards the beach and the rectangle of red brick flats on the hill. Inside, the fluorescent light revealed rooms unchanged by the past few hours: there was the brief shock of crockery still cupped on kitchen shelves, photographs safe in their frames, records in their rack. They did not reassure her. She pulled off shoes and stockings, poured a drink. Sat on the back steps and peered into darkness.
The night garden was thick with dreams. Beneath the earth, beneath the eyelids of birds, in the air that came like an exhalation from the sea. Pearl listened. It always felt closer at night, the slump and hiss of waves like an old man breathing. What did old men dream? Did they remake the past, did they weep in the night? Did they dream old lives, angels, the faces of those still unborn? She knew what her father would see in his sleep. Not angels but the faces of his boys as they played in the garden, ate their porridge, waved to him from the welfare’s black car.
She leaned forearms on knees, sipped scotch. Her head reeled with the stars. Where are you? She said it aloud to fix them in their flight, the galaxies of possibility. Looked to the Southern Cross: an old habit from childhood, her mother’s finger tracing the shape in the night sky. Alpha, beta. In that lonely year at the convent, sleepless in her narrow bed, she had sought out the blue blaze of its most southern and brightest star. Acrux, Sister Jeanne had told her, and the name and the star became an obsession: when she found it she could hear her mother’s voice.
The alignment of words and stars. She straightened. Pictured the dark stone of the convent, wooden floors that reeked of phenyl. The pinched alabaster faces of nuns, their sour eyes. And Jeanne, one of them but separate, as human and ordinary as the children. She read books, told stories, laughed like a drain. Covered for her when she snuck off to see the boys. Pearl tilted her head to the Cross, burning bright. Closed her eyes, wished on Acrux. Or was it a prayer? For absolution. Mercy. That’s really all we want in our lives, she’d read somewhere, and she thought it was true.
She opened her eyes to the merciless heavens. She would start with Jeanne.
ALL NIGHT THE shush and beat of the road. Axel lay in his bed and thought that maybe the human heart was pneumatic, a fist of rubber, no more fragile than the tyres squeezing bitumen outside his window. But daylight unfurled him like a flag. He stretched his limbs beneath the sheet, spread his palms across his chest, the beat there relentless. Ka-boom, ka-boom.
He rose early and walked to the Quay, where he could sit with coffee and thick toast and watch birds wheel above the ferries. The water grey at that hour and splintered with memory, shifting in currents, dangerous. There were unguarded moments when he felt it in his body: the pull of dark water. Of immersion. Of nothing but a liquid embrace, a return, back, back.
He would emerge from these moments weightless. Lift his eyes, searching: a leaf would do, fine-veined. The press of air on his face. Or his hand on sandstone. Once, in the gardens, a ladybird, its miniature perfection. The tremble of the leaf beneath it brought him back to the world. His surviving self.
He had arrived as summer was tipping over. Even then, everything he saw or touched felt warm: each place, each sweep of landscape or seascape was mediated by heat and light, and his body moving through it. In that way, he thought, he saw with his skin, felt his way with his pores, open or closed to the elements and this light. He had lived in the dark for months of every year, among shapes hunched in snow, made new by it, and strange. This, Axel knew, had made him different. He thought of these people whose lives clustered around the harbour, their houses with open windows and doors and balconies, everything flung wide so they took great gulps of the world. The new opera house, even half-finished, expressed them perfectly, sails hoisted in currents of summer air.
When he left Sweden, winter was conceding slowly to spring. The horizon a frail line of possibility once more in the early mornings. It was a fine string that tautened his dreams; he would stand at the window not knowing if he was awake or asleep. Outside the world was more than it could be, bigger than the day to come and the night just gone. Brimming.
But he’d always loved autumn most, those days before the rain came and everything was drawn in crisp outline: slate on a roof, fronds on a pine tree, a woman’s eyelashes. The detail of things. Before the obliteration of snow. His body felt like a child’s then. Unafraid. Limbs loose, feet and fingers prickling with questions. He took long runs through forest and field, climbed trees before their leaves fell, high enough to see the village toy-like, miniature. Figures moved around as if they were singular, not part of this big pattern. He would feel a shiver of pleasure, watching.
On these adult excursions it was the child’s eye that surveyed and recorded, was imprinted with form and detail, the intricate curves and lines of the world. Once, surprised by rain as he wandered out of the forest, he ran to the bus shelter. Leaned against a post and watched fat raindrops smack onto bitumen. The realisation sudden and sure: there they were, the glass candleholders his uncle had made, the pieces that had first drawn Axel to the glass shed. They were, he saw, the precise shape of a raindrop exploding on the road, a liquid coronet. Surely it was every child’s desire to hold such a coronet in his hands, these two-second miracles splashed and strewn so extravagantly around him. That was his impulse, to crouch and capture one, two, three in a curved palm before they died away. That, he saw then, was precisely what his uncle Lars had always done in glass: translated the shapes of nature, its sculptural language and form.
And so, in a different way, would Utzon. The thought leapt with the gulls from the rail of a ferry as he watched it tack a seam across the harbour. What more was this new structure than a lush shrub the architect was coaxing from the ground? Or shards of Copenhagen china? Like Utzon, Axel knew these shapes; he’d grown up with them, they were within him. Despite the newspapers, the grumblings in the street, the building had never seemed strange to him. Always it had reminded him of a bowl, newly shattered, and of birds. From the day he’d seen the model in Höganäs it had consumed him, beaten in his head like wings.
Now, though he had been working at the site for a month, though he’d walked the same path to it every day, it still took him by surprise: the tremor of emotion as he rounded the Quay and saw the sails arcing out of chaos. As if he’d come upon a rare and beautiful animal in a stark landscape. There was no Swedish word to describe this, no English word that he knew; it wasn’t as simple as awe or even love. It was the clutch at his heart as he lifted his eyes to its curves and lines. Its reach for beauty, a connection between the human and the sublime.
HE LEFT THE crusts of his toast to the pigeons and raised a hand to Yanni wiping tables inside the café. As he moved down the Quay he passed other faces, familiar but unnamed, behind milkshake machines or piles of newspapers or flowers bunched in buckets. A spill of voices, a swell of leaves and petals in the strengthening sun. And now, something else on the periphery of his vision. A beat, an energy. There, behind the newsstand, words jagged into the air. They jerked sideways above a shifting sea of heads, placards held aloft to be read: NO WAR, OUT OF VIETNAM, DON’T REGISTER. The bodies moving beneath them at once languid and urgent, the faces smiling and snarling and smiling again.
More placards appeared, more words. Loud voices bulged into the space in front of him. He dug his hands into his pockets and turned a shoulder to the looming crowd, pushed and edged through the noise rising around him like a tide. Grimaced as his foot crunched another – Shit, man! a girl yelled – but one more push and he was on their flank. He turned then, an apology half-spoken. Förlåt. But the girl was gone, already lost inside the march.
Axel stood still. Sweat leapt from his pores. Jävlar! The curse mouthed rather than spoken as he breathed out, trying for calm. He tipped his head back, looked at the sky, wide and empty of trouble. The moment passed. He released another breath and resumed his pace towards the point. He was, he realised, thinking in his own language. Every day he struggled to find meaning in this local form of English he was expected to use. Even alone in his work shed, he fought with it, with words. Drawing, blowing, ideas spooling through loops and funnels of molten glass.
It wasn’t just a matter of mechanics, of alphabet and grammar, or even habit. There was something less tangible at play, something about the imagination, about feeling. He had grown into his craft as much through language as he had through tools; had learnt it at sentence level, thinking in simile and metaphor, using image and emotion. He had begun to understand it at his uncle’s side, this link between language and art.
But symbol and metaphor were lost down here beneath the heavy hand of heat and lethargy and a vastness of sky and ocean and air. Beneath a particular attitude, he saw suddenly what one of the protesters with their placards might sense: a kind of huddling around sameness, a retreat from risk and – despite the openness of air and sky – from exposure. He saw it plainly in the derision of Utzon in the papers, the growing clamour of voices mocking his vision. As if they were ashamed of a building that might reveal them, the soaring shapes of their dreams, the true interior of their hearts. As if they were afraid of grandeur.
Now he stopped as he approached the security gate, and looked beyond it to the Heads. Listened. The sound of incalculable distance rang in his ears. It whipped around the rock of the headlands, to him the spine of some giant sea creature, its flesh flayed by wind. Everywhere he looked in this place he saw what Utzon saw. The grandeur of harbour and horizon, of cliff and ocean, and at night, the star-clotted sky. It held the shape of the possible, of a promise made and waiting to be kept.
Then how could such a place be named by this arid language? The English he had studied at school had not prepared him for this country. Its sentences were without rhythm, flat, featureless. He understood well enough, the women especially, who spoke without guard. They were different to the women he knew at home. He wondered if it was a matter of sophistication or history or even weather, this difference. This leaning into or away from another’s sentences, or into or away from landscape, or surroundings. The things you were willing to reveal, what you were willing to hear.
Sometimes he would stand on the Quay and let the streams of people part around him like water, and he would listen. Words, phrases, perhaps a whole sentence – and I said to her she’d be a bloody fool – and he would try to hear what was there, what was in the words that made these people. Did their language make them feel a different way?
Once, standing still in afternoon sun that slanted across the water, the moving bodies, he closed his eyes. And opened them to a vision: the new building lifting its wings above the land, the water, above all these heads that didn’t know, not yet, what it might say about them. How free they were to become who they were, or could be.
HE PICKED HIS way around the site to his work shed on the eastern side of the podium. Out of habit he bent his head, looking for imaginary obstacles; he needed these few minutes to isolate his thoughts. His early work in the glass shed was solitary; for Axel this was essential. But the elements demanded it too; the mysteries of fire and water and minerals could not be roused if there was a crowd. This had been his first lesson in glass: the maker had to exclude the world, forget even himself, sometimes. You have to be present but invisible, like your soul, his uncle had told him. Axel was just a boy then; he thought the soul was a ghostly twin that lived inside people, in the heart or the head, a shadow person. Later he would understand that for Lars, for the best of them, perfect glasswork was the shadowy twin. They were constantly in search of the soul.
But that day, two decades before, the word fell into the dim air of the shed in Åfors and charged it, so that Axel felt as he did in an autumn field before a storm. Not afraid, but sensing its raw power, elementary, in the tips of his fingers and his feet. He looked for some clue in his uncle’s face, but it was unaltered, already turned to the forge. Axel did as he’d been told and retreated to a corner to watch and learn. To be invisible too.
The shed had been assembled near the water, away from the routes taken by most workmen and the storage areas for roof components and steel. This pleased him. He’d rarely worked in close proximity to others, or beneath their scrutiny. That would come when the work had developed its form, when its physical requirements exceeded his own hands. Until then his needs were not extravagant, he’d told the site manager by telephone from Sweden those months ago. Furnace and crucible pot to begin with, benches and tables and hooks. High quality sand. A maver.
Perhaps a desk and chair, he’d added after a moment.
There was a grunt at the end of the line. It’ll be basic, the man said.
But Axel could already feel the Australian sun at his back. That’s fine, he said, imagining light at the windows instead of darkness, glass pierced by the colours of the antipodes. He gathered his own favourite tools for luck, the clipping scissors and tongs he’d always used, and sent them ahead by ship.
Now he unlocked the door and went to the back of the shed, to a small table set away from the furnace. This was for thinking and reading as well as drawing; he did not believe this piece of glass could be properly designed on paper. Rather he would sit with coffee and write down words and phrases, or sketch a thought in lines and angles. There were various objects he had found as he walked to work – a piece of twine, a hair ribbon, a corner ripped from an old street map. Photographs of doorways, a slice of the harbour between old houses at Elizabeth Bay, the city in various lights.
He tacked all these to a sheet of ply beside the table, along with assorted press articles: a woman who quoted Shakespeare for a shilling outside the library, the shining faces of Olympic swimmers, Jørn Utzon sailing at Pittwater. Someone on the architectural team – Jack Zunz? – had passed on various reference books: Australian art; topography; history, both terrestrial and maritime. Even novels. This pleased him. He had learnt during his years of study in Stockholm, and his work at Åfors and Kosta, that design was rarely the result of one stream of thinking, one tool, one dimension.
Two years before, he had written Utzon a letter. Emboldened by praise for his work in Stockholm and Oslo, he picked up his pen. I am a glassmaker from Småland, he wrote. My people, like yours, know water… Then he took a breath and made his offer. Six months later, a reply: I have seen some of your work, the architect wrote. Why don’t you come to Sydney? There was no concrete brief, but Axel knew what was required: the shape of an idea to match the opera house in its scale and its flight. A piece of art that might have its own presence or, like the building, transcend the possible, the partisan. Language itself.
Now, though he had been in Sydney for weeks, there was still no contract between them; he had not even met the great man. Other architects dropped by, engineers, various foremen. The commissioned glass was mentioned only in abstract terms, in queries about the adequacy of the shed and the information he had about Sydney, about Australia, about the building and its history. There was an understanding between them all, he soon saw, that the glass project would stand alone. That it would be an accretion of observation and reflection. That Axel would render thought and impression as surely as a builder rendered a house.
So at the furnace and the table, he experimented with shape and colour, with ovoids and rings: blue, white, some of them clear, some shadowed like ice. He read and watched and walked the site, walked the city. Listened. Drew. The lines like an embarkation, a glimpse at a landscape already receding, so he had to look hard to keep it in his head. And to gather the courage to see what the lines might reveal not just about what was in front of him, but within.
He thought often of Lars as he worked, as he translated the delicate geometry of harbour and sky, the stream of light. As he tipped the pipe to his mouth and his breath inflated the bulb of glass, malleable as a lung. The memory of his uncle had entered his own glasswork like language, become intrinsic to it, a kind of conscience. He could hear it: It’s there in your hands: light and heat and depth. And: Wait for the shift. In you and in the glass. The connection between the two. That, Axel knew, was where the secret of each piece was hidden, in this tension between man and glass.
Each day, when he looked up and saw that hours had passed, when he lifted his eyes to midday light at the windows, he would greet the others who, of course, had been in the room the whole morning. Not just Lars but his mother, his father. And Utzon. Always Utzon. He felt the architect’s presence as a subtle weight in his wrists, in his shoulders, in the play of possibilities as the pipe emerged from the furnace, in the first push of breath in its throat. Then it was just he and the work, the small miracle of the gather, clear and clean from the fire. He had to be wholly present within it, lost to all else, for its secrets to be revealed. The world retreated to a bowl of light and possibility.
PEARL WOKE EARLY in dream-tossed sheets. Children had been trapped on buses, passed through windows to gargoyle faces, carried off into darkness. Her twin sisters. Were they? The straw-coloured hair, inscrutable eyes. In the dream she had lost the use of her arms, watched on as they were taken, expressionless, looking back at her over the shoulders of strangers. No sound. They’d never made much noise, hadn’t even cried much as babies. But she’d wanted them to cry in the dream, to claw, scream out, fight. Instead they’d complied with their captors, or so it seemed. Her own arms stuck to her sides.
She pushed herself upright and reached for pouch and papers. The ritual of tobacco – pinch, order, roll, her tongue against thin paper – dislodged the dream pictures. They were never literal, she knew that. For days she’d been thinking about the Freedom Ride, the black children of Kempsey and Moree. The marchers in Selma. Tried to interest the women’s editor in a story about Perkins. Was that it? She leaned back against her pillows and inhaled. Turned her face to the long sash window, where shapes emerged slowly from shadow. The nicotine did its work.
The burr of the telephone brought her back to the room. She levered herself upright, shrugged an arm through a shirt on her way down the hall.
Trouble is, the men in this country. Ray’s drawl, his lazy diction. He’d grown up poor in Marrickville and didn’t try to disguise it. His vowels remained broad and flattened, he seemed incapable of saying your or and, but beneath his street sweeper’s speech was one of the sharpest minds Pearl knew. She balanced the receiver between shoulder and chin, pushed an arm through the other sleeve. Pictured him, the crease of skin between his eyebrows, one hand raking his hair.
The army’ll make their sons into men, that’s what they’ll say. Sort ’em out. Something, fabric or skin, rubbed against the receiver, then the snap of a struck match. Menzies is counting on it.
Pearl glanced up the hallway. Had she put out her own cigarette? Distracted, she said: Menzies is a fool. Outside, a kingfisher dropped one pure note through the cool air. She shivered, pulled the shirt close. Everyone knows.
An’ half the sons’ll think the same. He went on as if she hadn’t spoken. War’s a great lark eh. Adventure, women. She heard him exhale. They’ll be queuin’ up for their bloody ballot papers, you watch.
She wanted to say, not my father, not my brothers. But the lugubrious voice rolled on. Fuck these pansy protests, they won’t change nothin’. There was the grumble of an electric jug. We wanna harden up. Then he muttered something about work, and was gone. As usual, no hello and no goodbye.
She filled her own jug and put it to boil. His words in her head: They won’t change nothin’. It was true the protests were having no impact. The phrase national service rang nostalgic in this country, with its images of clean-cut boys and bright metamorphosis: from untidy youth to uniformed men, bronzed, strong, responsible. Ready to fight for freedom. Who would reject it? In the factories and sheds, in Pitt Street? Her father, of course, she knew that. Patrick would see right through it.
Light pressed at the window. She opened the kitchen blind. First week of autumn, the sun hesitant – shy as a bride at 5 am, her father would say. As a child she’d imagined a girl in a dew-damp dress, white as the morning, its hem grubby against the grass she fled over. Later she understood better, but on those mornings when she’d willed herself to wake and sit in the early chill with him, it was part of a fairytale in which there was only the two of them, she and her father. She leaned close to smell his work shirt, shivering in her thin nightie. Shared his weak tea, watched the smoke from his durry float across the backyard.
Her own rollies had never tasted as sweet as she’d imagined. She’d thought they’d be just like those mornings, which held the deep flinty smell of her father’s breath and skin, like the embers of old kindling. She’d searched for years for precisely the right tobacco, settling recently for a blend of plum and spice she found consoling, if not sweet. Those hours with her father re-enacted in the rhythm of the match striking, the tobacco catching, the shape of thumb and forefinger around the smoke.
He could still manage one with his left hand. Every week, in a parlour wheezing with old men, she would slot a smoke between his fingers and wait as he raised it to his lips. The match lit an unalloyed pleasure in him, flushed the sorrow from his face, and on that first deep draft he would turn his head to her and smile. Crooked, fleeting. It didn’t matter. She would fill two hours with talk and politics, at least half of it on the scoundrel prime minister, all the while rolling and rolling, filling his tin with smokes to last a week. Filling the air with banter, anything but the obvious: the appalling absences, his wretched loneliness. For whole minutes, she did not have to look into his eyes.
No matter that Patrick rarely spoke now, that the stroke had taken his voice and his strength and half his memory. His eyes held everything, all that he’d lost. Spoke for him: Where are my boys? Even the twins visited, bringing husbands and grandchildren and flicking the blonde plaits they both still wore. They swept in and kissed their father and sat babies on his knee, then left again in a bubble of their own self-sufficiency. Pearl had never quite forgiven them their luck. To have one another, a mirror image, physical proof they were not alone. Patrick would smile his half-smile, his good arm around a baby, his gaze just over their heads. As if his sons might arrive at any moment.
She sipped tea. Re-lit her cigarette, brushed tobacco from her blouse, scattering the shreds of memory: her father’s voice, clear as a bell and as sure, at the kitchen table before her mother got sick, before Jane was born. Uncle Kevin was dead of the malaria he’d got in New Guinea, the stinking war still killing a year after it finished. His voice like crushed glass as he told them. He wiped a handkerchief across his face, looked around at their faces. And swore to her mother, to the boys themselves, even as they waved their baby fists: there will be no wars for my sons.
This is an extract from Shell, to be published by Scribner, an imprint of Simon & Schuster Australia, in October 2018