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Tarcutta wake

THESE DAYS I only ever see her at funerals. Which is more often than one might reasonably expect, our little set practically toppling in on top of one another before anyone's had a chance to unwrap the Merric Boyd pottery or to use the Old Holland oils and Escoda brushes willed to them by the most recently toppled. Laura, though: I believe she'll outlast everyone. She'll be there before the service, studying the photo board. Her fingers tracing the jawline and cheekbones in midair, conjuring. Perhaps remembering her hand on their face.

A portrait artist with face blindness, prosopagnosia. We thought she was joking. Then when we knew she wasn't joking, we thought her heart must be an empty room with a mud floor that anybody could walk through. We were wrong about that too. But she would sometimes mistake Ruth for me, foxed by the sharp elbows and wide Macedonian mouth, and by the loose-fitting shifts we both wore to hide our skinniness.

 

WHEN ROBIN DIES, it is my sister who drives me across the border, our funeral clothes lying flat across the back seat as she speeds past the water towers and granite war memorials of small country towns. World War II artillery mounted in front of public pools; tiny crooked cemeteries where we stop to stretch our legs, where sun has taken the colour out of everything. Fresh flowers on baby graves with headstones from 1958, 1974. Lived ten days, lived six days. The kind of loyalty to grief to which I could never relate. But I know that Ruth is thinking of Adeline – how can she not be? – of the jars of coffee and passata smashed against the bitumen, the trolley boys who came running. She was only thirty-three, the same age Ruth was on the day she came running in from the pottery to throw up in the kitchen sink and reluctantly declare herself pregnant.

At Euroa I offer to drive, and Ruth laughs me off. Esther, she says. Dearheart. You know you can't. They took your license away how long ago?

Ruth's left arm rests against the steering wheel in a blue Velcro brace. She got carpal tunnel towards the end of the '80s, and has worn the brace intermittently in the decades since. Mostly out of habit, if you ask me, though I'd never come right out and say so. At first we had all been a little bit jealous of the brace and what it stood for: that Ruth had wrecked herself a fraction for the sake of her art. It made the rest of us feel like we weren't working hard enough. I secretly hoped to catch up with her, being three years younger, but it never came about. Dabbing a brush to a canvas yields different results to throwing clay at a wheel. In any case, the rest of us eventually weakened in our less enviable fashions.

 

BY THE TIME we reach Holbrook it's nearing midday. Seventy kilometres until Tarcutta, and three hours until we need to be there. Ruth pulls into a motel and we pay for a twin room that smells of stale smoke and mouse shit, but she doesn't seem to notice. She sinks gratefully onto the bed furthest from the window.

Just a couple of hours here, Es. Then we'll be fresh for the wake.

Fresh for the wake. We shed our driving clothes in crumpled, sweaty heaps beside the twin beds. Ruth has already taken off her brace and nestled it beside her pillow. She looks more vulnerable without it, the skin of her left arm a pale sleeve. She curls up to face the wall, and her spine showing through her white slip reminds me of the skeletons of swans, their rickety necks bereft of muscle and feather.

This is how I've come to measure my own fragility. There was a time when I believed Ruth to be ageing independently of me; that I was somehow fixed in place, standing on the dock waving while she drifted off towards some bleak horizon. Now I know better. I watch her sleep: one of Edward Hopper's girls that nobody ever came for.

From the motel window I can see the hull of the decommissioned submarine looming over the park, school children clambering over it like yellow ticks on a dead black beast. I once watched this same sub dive and surface in Sydney Harbour before a crowd of onlookers. Ruth was standing next to me, holding on to Adeline's little hand. I have seen the rise and fall of so many things.

Time is not the longest distance, not as Tennessee Williams said. It is a room you can step into and out of at will, though you cannot pick anything up, cannot rearrange things the way you'd like to. Though sometimes you'll return to it to find someone else has done it for you: taken things away, locked drawers. It is a room where the titles have been wiped from the spines of all the books and the windows are nailed shut.

Ruth wakes with a sharp inhale a little after 1.30. I hear her turn over.

Esther? Bella, you didn't snooze. What are you looking at out there?

Nothing, really. Schoolkids.

You're worried about Laura.

Not worried, exactly.

Ruth stifles a yawn. Okay, she says. But if you're not ready to speak to her yet, just affect a limp or something. She's like a Tyrannosaurus Rex.

A what?

You know, she scoffs. Motion sensors. She'll know you're you just by the way you move.

Laura has developed a number of methods for recognising people. She'll wait for them to speak first. She'll memorise wedding rings, laughter, the shape of their eyebrows. Tattoos and scars are a blessing. When Nola got the mole above her top lip removed, Laura was crestfallen, because without it Nola was a blank page. She told me all of this matter-of-factly, priming a canvas in the studio of the Artists' Society. It was like being savvy to a magician's tricks, and I watched her from then on. I saw the little light that flickered on when she recognised a voice or a bit of jewellery. I asked her how she knew that I was me. By the way you move, E. It's like your feet never touch the ground. I'd be lying if I said that wasn't what started it.

I know you blame me, Es. But she knew what she was doing. Maybe it began as a mistake, but she knew.

I know that, Ruth.

And I know I should be sorry. And I am sorry that it hurt you. But even so, it was something I carried around with me. Something folded small that I could take out and look at whenever I wanted to. And you know how it was, in those days, Es. No one really belonged to anyone... Es?

All afternoon the sky has threatened rain, despite the heat. There is the kind of tension that will only be eased by some manner of violence. A pin tapped through the blackened nail of a hammer-cracked thumb.

We should get going, I say to Ruth. Come on, before it rains.

 

NOBODY UNDERSTANDS WHY Robin wanted his ashes scattered over that muddy little trickle in Tarcutta. And when we meet his sister in the front bar of the hotel, she just shrugs. Robin's three teenage daughters, all long-limbed and nervous as horses, hiding their eyes behind their dark manes: they do not know either. They sit together, elbows on the same sticky table, sipping at glasses of cola and red creaming soda. The oldest flicks her eyes up at me, tries for a weak smile, but the other two are staring at the space between their glasses and the earthenware jar on the table. If Ruth is pleased about the choice of container, she doesn't give any indication. Perhaps it's too early a work, too clumsy to lay claim to. But I don't need to run my fingers along the underneath to know her mark is there.

I never even heard him talk about Tarcutta, his sister is saying. I thought he would have wanted to be with Leonie, but it was right there in the will. He called me a few months back to make sure he had my address right. He said, You're the executor, okay? I said, Okay. But he never said anything about Tarcutta.

I see Robin, the reminders scrawled on his hands and wrists for the last ten years of his life. Call Susannah. Slowly filling in the documents, the careful block letters he would use to spell his sister's name. He rarely spoke about death or sickness or the fear of either, but his work gravitated away from the familiar watercolour landscapes and portraits to portrayals of mortality: boarded-up houses, broken timepieces, a skulk of shot foxes strung along a wire fence.

When a humpback whale washed up dead on Sandon Point, he drove there as soon as he heard to spend the afternoon sketching the decomposing beast, the ventral grooves like the ridges and furrows in a white field, the barnacles encircling the shut-tight eye, the massive penis hanging limp across the bloated belly.

It's all a bit morbid, Rob, I told him over the phone when the photographs arrived. Not something I'd have on my wall.

I heard him laugh down the line. We were as unforgiving of wall-destined art as we were of photorealism:Isn't that nice, dear? It looks just like the thing it's supposed to look like.

To hell with it, I said. These are the lemon peel years, after all. You may as well call a spade a spade.

There is no photo board at the Horse and Jockey, no reminders of what Robin or anybody else looks like or used to look like – little help to Laura, who sweeps the room with the same vague smile she uses everywhere, a look that hovers between recognition and introduction. Enough to make one believe they haven't been forgotten. Not so much as to unsettle anyone she hasn't actually met. Searchlighting, I used to call it.

She sees me standing there with Ruth, and the light goes on but I don't know who it's for. I watch her drift towards our table and think of all the things it's too late to understand. Beneath her grey silk dress I know her body is as soft as old money, as over-handled paper. Something folded small.

Esther, she finally says. Let me look at you, she says, and brings her hands up to my face. I let her look, without knowing what she is looking for.

You've hardly changed, she says, but she'd hardly know. A ridiculous longing growls through my bones. For all of us, for what we all were and didn't become. And when did longing move from my belly to my bones. When did that happen.

 

WE GATHER OUTSIDE the pub, Susannah holding the earthenware jar that is holding Robin. The sound of the trucks pulling into the service station next door is like whale song. The sky has held. Nobody has thought to cry yet.

Okay, Susannah says. She puts her hands on the youngest daughter's bony shoulders. Let's do this.

We walk single or double file along the side of the highway until finally we stand by the pitiful creek, eleven of us, our good shoes sinking into the soft mud. Susannah takes the cork lid from the jar. She dips her slender hand inside to scoop up a handful of Robin's ashes.

I remember when we were little, she says. About ten and twelve. That Christmas he gave me my present all wrapped up in red tissue paper and silk ribbon. He'd taken so much care. When I opened it there was just a rock. Not quartz or anything special. It wasn't shaped like a duck or a woman's face or what-have-you. It was just an ordinary little rock. He thought it was so funny, nearly killed himself laughing, and Dad made him sit on the back step until lunch was called. Next Christmas, I gave it back to him, wrapped even more beautifully. And he gave it back the year after, in a little wooden box Joe helped him carve. It went on like that for years, until I can't remember when. But when we were clearing up his things last week, there it was. He'd been holding onto it all that time.

She opens her hand over the water, and the rock drops into the creek with a gentle plip amid the shower of ashes.

I expect the girls to baulk at this, but they pass the jar between them, each reaching in for a handful of their father's ashes. They stand at the creek side, oldest to youngest:

I remember when he had to quit drinking, he went through his collecting phase. Some people just eat more when they stop drinking, but he collected things. So every week we'd be dragged along to a Sunday trash-and-treasure, helping him dig around for paper moon portraits or cigarette tins or whatever. Always small things, and they got smaller and smaller, until it was matchbooks. Matchbooks. At some market, I don't remember where, he finds this matchbook from the '60s, from some pub in Melbourne he used to drink at. And he says, look at this, girls, it's still got matches in it. And we say, great. Mission accomplished. And the guy says eighty bucks. Dad's still holding onto it, thinking about paying eighty bucks for six matches, and Michelle just looks at him. She didn't say anything, just gave him this look like, Dad, are you mental? And he puts them down and that's the end of the matchbooks. He just kind of got on with it after that.

I remember when Johanna was thrown from that horse. When Dad carried her in from the paddock I watched him climbing the front steps with Jo in his arms and I thought. God, I thought. She was really busted up, you know. And by then I'd started thinking that Dad was a bit useless, always forgetting things, sometimes really important things. But right then he just looked like some kind of hero.

Oh, that was going to be mine. Okay, I remember after the horse. After Molly threw me off I was afraid to get back on. I was afraid of all horses but horses were the only thing I was good at. So I was bored and sad and then Dad said, Why don't you try drawing them instead? Before that I knew words like withers and chestnut and fetlock, but I didn't know throatlatch or gaskin or stifle. I hadn't looked closely enough. I know now that's what he was getting me to do, to look closer. 'Cause you're not so afraid of things when you can see them properly.

Johanna steps forward, creek water spilling into her sandals. She bends low so that her face is close to the water, and says something beyond the reach of human hearing. Then she dips her cupped hand into the stream like she's letting go of a delicate creature.

When they pass the jar to me, I remember nothing. I remember everything at once, all the edges of our years together overlapping, and no way to lift a corner of any single instance. Robin's ashes have the weight of sand and I cannot remember his face, but places I've not seen in thirty years rise up like the heat shimmering off the rooftops of cars parked along a coastal road, all the shops closed as though it's Christmas Day – perhaps it is. But there are card games that we played on the day the bridge collapsed, the phone call to say that Whitlam was out or that Poor Fellow My Country had won, though we were, at the same time, very drunk, very young, carousing in the corner at that Blackman exhibition, and Robin running into the roiling green ocean and running into the roiling green ocean and running uneasy and beautiful and not turning around. Like something folded small. I carried it around with me. Well, yes, I could take it out and look at it again and again.

I remember how he laughed when he met me. I asked what was funny and he said he'd tell me one day. He never did.

 

RUTH SLUMPS INTO the passenger seat, graceless with exhaustion. She waves a bird-boned hand at me. 'Go on and drive then, Es. But it'll be your fine if they stop us.'

Further down the Hume I speed up to overtake a white station wagon, and we are flying then, down the right-hand lane. This is perhaps how it happens: something crashing through the line of trees, a roo or a loose horse, my sister asleep at my shoulder. There are worse ways.

Outside the windows the world has grown bleary. A confusion of native and European trees borders the highway, and beyond that the paddocks are a thin wash of grey-green. Poor man's colours, I decide. Beautiful all the same, like the grey that Gamblin make from all the leftover pigment and give away each April. Scraped-up flakes of all the other colours mixed together, so that it's different every year; some years more blue, some years more green, though you can't tell without comparing them side by side – this year and last year and the year before. How little it takes to be changed, and how difficult to know of it. How little we can see, even from here.

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