THERE WERE THREE things I knew then that time has never erased.
We made a triangle, back when we lived on the curved banks of the Murrumbidgee. My mother was the angle on the top, and my father and I were the two beneath.
'Ten minutes,′ she′d warn us each night at bedtime.
My father carried books into my room, and spread them over my bed as an eiderdown. I picked each one up, in turn, and considered. My fingers crept between their covers and opened them wide. Some of his books were so old that the dye on the cloth had seeped into the pages, making them colour and curl.
'Choose,′ he said.
Our favourite was about a child who got so cross with his mother that he was sent to bed without supper. My father read how Max′s room turned into a forest and an ocean tumbled by. Max sailed off to the forest where the wild things are, and conquered them, but found that what he wanted most in the whole world was to be back home. My father liked to pretend he didn′t remember what happened next.
'Did Max find his supper waiting for him?′
'Yes,′ I said.
'Hot!′ I liked to do the punch line.
Once my father was reading, I examined him, soft in the light of the lamp. His blue eyes swam across the lines of words and down the pages. One hand cupped the book and the other motioned in the air. He knew the best parts of the story by heart; he′d smile at me as he recited them. He gnashed his terrible teeth and roared his hideous roars, but I drew close – for his scent was the musk of paper, print and glue. I rested my head on his chest, over the beat of his heart, to slip into the book.
'Time′s up.′ She banged on the door.
We rolled our horrible eyes.
Books were his passion. Rare books, curious books. He kept these mostly in the lounge room, on shelves of honey-coloured wood that soared to the ceiling. In the morning, the light spilt through the bay windows and made the words on their spines blink. I looked for him there when I woke.
He didn′t say good morning. He read to me from whatever book he held. He might greet me with a line of poetry. Or mathematics. A rhomboid is a four-sided figure with oblique angles and opposite sides of unequal lengths. Botany or biography. This was the first thing I knew for sure. When I was five, my father read books to me each morning and night.
He mused about the classification of his books, weighing up the pros and cons of various systems: alphabet, subject, colour. He explained to me that in China, at the start of the third century, books in the Imperial library were divided into four subject categories, each bound in a specific colour. I heard the concern in his voice; he wanted the books he loved to be kept safe.
He had one precious manuscript: a Book of Hours. He would part its creamy pages to show me the text. Capital letters were illuminated in red and sepia, with brushed-gold highlights. 'I could shelve it by period.′ He positioned the book up high. 'Or with the art books. Here. Or over there, with books the same colour.′ My gaze followed his hand, so I could see his quandary. But the book was bound in rough brown leather: I knew I could track it by its spine alone.
He liked one volume that had full-colour plates of iridescent fish and blue endpapers, with two bands of silver curved across its spine. He had a battered edition of Struwwelpeter with a picture of a tailor snipping off a boy′s fingers with his scissors. He kept this one low in the Fairytale section. Or up high, sometimes, with the other green books. I rescued Struwwelpeter once, spotting its olive spine in a teetering pile of books outside by the rubbish bin.
'Too many books,′ my mother said with a shrug. 'They′re heaped by the bed. They′re strewn in the hallway.Au revoir.′ She liked to speak French because she was a dancer.
WHEN MY FATHER left for work, I guarded his collection. Outside, I heard the girl next door chanting. Her rope swished; her feet slapped the concrete in time to the beat. Little Bo Peep has lost her sheep / And doesn′t know where to find them. The tut-tut of toe shoes drifted from the shed, where my mother taught dancing to girls in black leotards. But inside the lounge room, all I could hear was the sweet silence of books waiting to be read.
Every night, when my father returned home, he selected a title for himself and lifted it down carefully from its resting place on the shelf. He settled in his chair, smoothing the book open with his palm. His long fingers traced the edges of the covers as the text drew him in. From the floor where I sat to watch him read, I saw stray columns of books rise like a forest all around us and grow, and grow. When he sighed, I imagined leaves dropping from the pages of his book and falling on his lap. If he frowned, I saw tangles of roots and deep, dark shadows. I heard the rustle of paper as he turned the page.
'Dinner time,′ my mother sing-songed.
MY FATHER AND I sat on either side of the laminex table while she sat on one end. First we formed the triangle, but the curtain was open and my mother looked out. Bruce was pushing a hand-mower, shredding green grass. He was the teenage boy from next door with the throwback Elvis haircut and shirt tied around his waist. I saw his arms and face were tanned a rich brown, but his chest was an unexpected white.
We made a rhomboid.
My mother grasped the stem of her wine glass and drew an arc in the air with it. Her arm was long and bare. When she tilted her head back to swallow, the tracery of veins at her throat was visible. Her backdrop was the wall behind, hung with photos of her dancing. In one she was dressed in top hat and tails, complete with twirling black cane. She wore a red flamenco dress in another, fingers snaking above her head.
When my father moved over to the window and snapped the curtain shut, we made a triangle once more.
'Eat your carrots, Eve. They′ll make your eyes bright,′ he said.
I thought of the Polaroids on the side table in the lounge. I liked the one of the three of us laughing together on the banks of the Murrumbidgee, where the water flowed dark and deliberate.
'Louis.′ She indicated her glass was empty.
'Remember when we went down to the river?′ I pointed in its direction with my fork. I′d watched her shake her wet hair out in the sun, sparks of water piercing the air.
She glanced back at the curtains.
I repeated my question, quietly.
'Remember you got bikinis, Mummy?′
I saw she wasn′t listening; she dangled her glass. I turned to my father to see what to do next.
'Pass it to me.′
My mother passed her glass to him across the table. He clutched her wrist hard, skin and bone.
'Pay attention to us.′
'Let me go or I′ll scream.′
I held my breath until he loosened his fingers, and she put her glass down to nurse her red wrist. We watched when she walked over to the window and ripped the curtains wide. My fork slipped into my bowl; I heard its faint ceramic bleat.
IT WAS OUR to dry the dishes after dinner. I climbed up on the wooden stool so I could reach. I lifted the warm, sudsy dishes from the rack and passed them to my father.
'Don′t let them drip,′ my mother said.
When it got down to the cutlery, my movements faltered. I left the tongs until last. First I passed the tablespoon, then the spatula. The knives. A fork.
'Hurry up, Eve.′ She undid her apron.
I lifted the tongs up high in two hands like an offering. Ta da.
My father whisked them from me and brandished them, dripping. That was my cue to wriggle down from the stool. I backed away; he followed.
'I′ll roar my terrible roars...′
I shivered with delight.
'Don′t rev her up,′ my mother said.
I stepped sideways; he did too.
'I′ll show my disgusting claws...′
I turned and ran, screeching. He pounded after me on heavy monster feet.
I sprang through the door. He snipped the air. He chased me out of the kitchen, through the lounge, up the hall. He snapped at my nightie. KitchenLoungeHallHaHa. Round and round we went. HallKitchenHaHa. The walls became trees. The carpet, green moss. My heart careered in my chest. He doubled back and growled.
'Stop!′ I squealed.
He stopped. 'I′ll eat you all up.′
But I was Max, and I said, 'N-o-o-o.′
He hurled the tongs in the soapy sink water.
'Ten minutes,′ my mother said.
I moved back down the hallway and in and out of the bathroom to clean my teeth; through the kitchen to kiss my mother, who was drinking her wine; and into the dark of my room, where I waited for my father to read to me.
NEXT MORNING, THE lounge room was empty. My father was not waiting in his chair with his book. I could see gaps in the poetry section, and also in fiction. His favourite titles were gone from the shelves. There was no copy of Struwwelpeter. No Book of Hours. The long, drawn curtains muffled the sun.
'Where′s he gone?′ I plucked out a random book and held it to my ear. 'Where is he?′ From the pages, no answer. 'Where is he? Where is he?′ He had left Where the Wild Things Are behind on his chair. I pelted down the hallway to the bathroom, Sendak in hand. I hammered on the door. My voice bounced from lino to wall. 'Where is he?′ Kitchen. HallKitchenHallOh. KitchenLounge. LoungeKitchenBedroom. Hurry. Hurry! I searched his wardrobe. I checked beneath his bed. Behind his curtain. Under his blankets. BedroomHall-
My head snapped towards the dining room door. My mother used the mantel-piece in there as the barre for her warm-up.
'Where′s my father?′ I rushed through the doorway.
'Où-est mon père?′
'Where is he?′ I gnashed my terrible teeth.
'Grand plié,′ she announced, bending both knees deep.
'Wh-e-e-re?′ I howled.
She tilted my chin with her finger until our gaze met.
'I won′t lie to you, Eve. He′s gone for good.′
I saw a circle of bruise round her left eye, but that didn′t matter.
'He never said goodbye.′ I jerked my head free.
'Frappé,′ she announced, beating the floor with her foot.
'If you don′t say goodbye, that means you come back.′
'Pirouette.′ She held my gaze for each spin until she couldn′t hold it any longer, then whipped her head back and held it again.
'I′ll wait for him.′ I knuckled the tears out of my eyes. I′ll wait. I said it each time she spun back to me. I′ll wait. Over and over. I′ll wait. I knew he′d come back; I knew it for certain. I′ll wait. I′d find him there in his chair with a new book wide open on a page with pictures lit by the sun. One of his hands would cup its spine; one would motion in the air to the rhythm of the words that he read. I′ll wait.
'Changement,′ she announced. 'Plié. Jump. Switch.′
Her feet and her French made me so dizzy I fell.
'Changement.′ My mother sprung high, feet flipping in midair.
I′D SEEN QUICK shifts in my parents′ sleeping poses. On restless nights, I tiptoed down the dark hall and nudged their door open. First they slept together on their sides, like a crescent. My father′s stomach pressed into my mother′s back; their hips and knees bent softly together. One of his arms curled under her, holding her close.
In the morning I mimed the shapes they made in their sleep.
'You were like this, Dad.′ I curled my arms.
'Even in my sleep I hold her close.′
'He crushes me.′ She sighed.
One night they slept in a polygon. His arms were folded to his chest, while hers were up like a crown. The bedclothes had fallen low so I could see my mother′s petticoat and her legs, bent like she was running. His legs ran after her.
'We were chasing our dreams,′ he explained when I described what I saw, but she said nothing.
One morning I told them they′d slept with their backs to each other, on opposite edges of the bed.
'Like parallel lines that don′t touch?′ My father looked at my mother; she shrugged.
The last night when I slipped out of bed to watch them, rain was falling – a soft, whispering rain, like pages turning. A dog howled far off in the darkness. I pulled our book out from under my pillow and tucked it under one arm, slipped out of bed and peered down the hallway. Door handles glinted in the half-light. Ten steps. I paused to listen. Twelve steps more. The door of my parents′ room was ajar.
My father sprawled on his stomach in sleep, arms and legs flung out over the bare expanse of mattress in a star shape. My mother stood at the window in her slip; pearly moonlight shone through the open curtains. I followed the slow circles she drew with her hairbrush, up through the air, down through her hair. The fingers of her free hand eased one thin strap over her right arm, then her left, until her petticoat slipped down to her hips. The brush traced more circles. Up through the air, down through her long hair. The Sendak thudded to the floor. She turned to me, startled, nipples red. When he sat bolt upright in bed, she made a quick cross on her chest with her arms and backed into the window. I fled.
After he′d gone, my mother drank her morning tea in his lounge room. She sat in his chair with a china cup in her left hand, the saucer in the palm of her right. When she raised the cup to sip, it made a snout on her face. Her yellow wolf eyes watched over the top. I crossed the floor in my bare feet; those eyes, that snout, they tracked me.
'He′s not there, Eve.′
'Where is he?′
I shut her door behind me and scanned the bedroom for clues. Her hand mirror, brush and comb floated across the glass top of the dressing table on doilies. I saw her bottle of Diorissimo, with its crystal stopper to touch to the pulse. Under the bed I found the Polaroids in fragments in a lacquer box: half of his mouth, his fingers, my legs and the riverbank. I hid pieces of him under my singlet. I scrabbled through drawers until I heard the doorknob turn.
'Eve. Play outside.′
Outside was bare grass, except for the Hills Hoist, arms stretched wide. She wouldn′t let me leave the yard, but there were vantage points. I climbed the back fence to scan the surrounds for the blue Fearnes bus; I heard her say on the phone that my father had left on it. I saw the outline of the bus depot on Hearnes Hill from the top of the fence. I cupped my hands and called, 'Cooee!′
When I finished my cereal, my mother made me sit at her dressing table to brush my hair for a hundred strokes. My legs dangled from the stool. I saw the brush in her hand rise and fall in the silver mirror; I counted. One. Two. Three. Four. Up and down, and up and down. Twenty-one. Twenty-two. A sparrow landed on a branch of the tree in the front yard. The boy from next door watched the window. I knew he shouldn′t do that. Sixty-nine. My mother′s wrap grew loose and gaped on the upstroke. I knew it shouldn′t do that. Seventy-six. I glimpsed her white throat. Ninety-nine. Her armpit.
I made a beeline for the curtains and dragged them shut. She split them back open.
'Go to your room, Eve.′
I took to watching the street from my window when I was kept inside, boxed tight between curtain and glass like an ornament. I was on the lookout out for the blue bus. It might stop; he might exit.
The girl next door ate an icy pole, watching her brother watch our house. I jiggled my legs when they ached from being bent under me. I wanted to get inside our book and wait for my father there, in the forest hung with vines. I turned the pages and buried my face in his scent. Crossed my legs, folded them; splayed my feet out, held them together. The grey rows of houses bruised the soft sky, birds on powerlines turned black before dusk. I′m waiting. I whispered to him. I′m waiting for you. I whisper this still.
There are but three things I know for sure. The year I was five, my father read to me last thing at night and first thing in the morning. He disappeared before I turned six. The body′s geometry never lies.