Fiction

The other side of the river

DAVID HAD THE address scribbled on the margin of an article he wanted to finish reading in the car. Ellen didn't know the area. The name was familiar – one of those long roads that stretched for miles, sometimes a main artery, at other times dwindling into little more than a street.

"You're going to have to direct me," she told him, and he sighed as he folded the paper and pulled out the street directory.

"I wish we didn't even have to go," she said, glancing at herself in the rear-vision mirror.

"Me too," Evie agreed from the back seat, and Ellen winked at her before turning her gaze back to herself. "At least you'll have a friend there," Ellen said, as she turned the key in the ignition.

"Marni is not my friend," Evie responded. "We're not even in the same class."

It was dark already. Midwinter, and the night came early, bringing with it a chill that rushed in under the cracks of doors, around the edges of windows and up through the floor. The road was busy, a long line of cars, white headlights beaming as they inched their way home. Ellen turned the heater up, the rush of air stale and gritty, but warming on her feet as they edged out into the traffic, heading south over the river.

"You just follow this road forever," David told her before turning back to his article.

If they were staying home tonight, she thought, David would have made minestrone, or a pasta. Unlike her, he enjoyed cooking. The three of them would have eaten it in front of the television, blinds down, gas heater on. After dinner, when Evie went to bed, she would have gone back to her studio to add the next layer to the piece she was working on, or maybe she would have let it rest tonight, lying on the couch with David instead, watching a movie. She looked across at him, head bent low, still attempting to read in the dimness of the car light. She turned to the rear-vision mirror and Evie's serious face, staring out the window, and then back to the road. A few metres on, it branched and she did not know which to take.

"You're meant to be navigating," she said as she pulled over, and David looked guiltily at the map. He traced the line and told her she had to go back.

"I need you to look at the house numbers," she instructed when they were on the right road, traffic thinning, neat suburban bungalows lining each side of what had become a wide street.

"That's 420," Evie called out.

"So it can't be far now," and Ellen leant closer to the windscreen, trying to make out the digits on the low brick walls or front doors with 1940s portholes. It was going to be a matter of counting down, she decided, and as they drew near to what must be 522, she looked directly at David and rolled her eyes.

"In and out," she said.

He shrugged his shoulders helplessly: "What could I say?"

David had picked Evie up from school two days before and Matthew asked them over for dinner.

"Why us?"

"I don't know," David had seemed as dismayed as her. "I guess he's lonely. And he knows me vaguely through the paper."

 

ELLEN HAD ONLY recently noticed Matthew in the playground. She had never spoken to him, although she had talked twice to Cath, his ex-partner. They all waited together under the shade of the few wattles that grew in the schoolyard, mothers and fathers, sometimes making conversation, sometimes choosing to sit apart until the bell rang.

Like Ellen, Cath often sat on her own, leaning back against the warmth of the brick wall, staring at the sky, while Ellen sat a metre or so away, shoulders hunched, elbows on her knees, trying to hold on to the last minutes of being alone, moments to work out a technical problem, or a question of surface that had been plaguing her. She only talked to Cath because she happened to glance up and saw she had her arm in plaster.

"How did you do that?" Ellen had asked politely. She had been expecting an ordinary answer – in fact, she hadn't even really wanted to know, so she was surprised when Cath turned away sharply, wiping her eyes.

Ellen muttered an apology, coupled with an attempt at reassurance, and glanced at her watch, hoping the bell would ring soon. It did.

The next time she saw Ellen, Cath said she was sorry, "about the tears", and nodded at her arm.

It was fine, Ellen had told her, but Cath interrupted: "I've been splitting up with Matthew, Marni's father." Her words were blunt, as though she were daring herself to utter them without crying.

Ellen didn't know what to say.

"It's a good thing," Cath continued. "Ultimately."

They were engulfed by a swarm of children, Evie pulling on Ellen's sleeve as she held up her merit certificate. But, as they walked outside the school gates, Ellen saw Cath again, holding Marni's hand and heading down the hill towards the river.

"Do you reckon you'd ever want to have Marni over to play?"

"Not really," Evie replied.

That night, Ellen mentioned the conversation to David. They were sitting out the back of the house, enjoying the last warmth of a late summer evening.

"I wonder whether he broke her arm." She said the words idly, slapping at a mosquito as she did so.

"That's something of a leap." David finished his beer and turned to go into the kitchen.

Ellen felt ashamed, which only made her continue. "There's something about him I don't like," she said. "He's so ..." and she searched for the word, "masculine."

"Masculinity doesn't make someone a wife basher." David shut the door behind him, leaving Ellen outside alone. "I know," she wanted to say, but then she couldn't be bothered.

 

IN HER STUDIO, she stood at the entrance, one hand on the light switch. She had been working on a sphere, painstakingly created from leaves and twigs pinned together, the inner structure built from fallen branches. Under the harshness of the overhead globe, it looked dead, the soft range of colour fading into a single dull brown, brittle to the touch. Sitting on the floor with her back against the door frame, she looked down to the house. David was in the kitchen, putting away the remains of the meal, beyond was darkness: the room where Evie slept and then at the front, their own room. She rolled a cigarette from the secret supply of tobacco that she kept stashed at the bottom of her filing cabinet, licking the sweet stickiness of the paper before she formed a fine and perfect cylinder. The match flared too bright, dying to a dull glow as suddenly as it had come to life.

She had been with David for twelve years now. He was, she often told people, the only man she had ever loved. They had met when she was at art school and he was in his second year as a journalistHe reviewed her final-year show, picking her work out as the most promising. At an exhibition about a month later, they were introduced and she asked him out. He was seeing someone, and it wasn't really appropriate. People would think he had given her such a good write-up because he was sleeping with her. She didn't know whether he was serious or not, but she didn't give in. Perched on the edge of their stools, they drank until closing time. Sitting on the pavement at four in the morning, he told her about growing up in a country town and wanting to be a guitar player in a band. He spent a year hitch-hiking around Australia before he settled in Sydney. She had never left anything or gone anywhere, she said. She now lived only two streets from where she had grown up with parents who had always let her do as she pleased. "Ah ..." and she smiled as remembered she had completed four years of architecture before she realised it wasn't what she wanted "So I guess I left that," and she tried to stand, giggling at her poor balance. He helped her up, pulling her in as he did so, and they kissed. It was like drinking in air, she thought. Sweet and essential, and she had told him that she adored him.

Sitting on the floor, she began to unpick a fine line of leaves across the sphere, leaving her cigarette burning out on the edge of the step. The light was bad but she had an idea, a change in colour gradation to bring the work back to life. Carefully storing the smallest twigs that held the surface together, she worked slowly, wanting the shape to be right the first time round.

 

SLAMMING THE CAR door shut behind her, Ellen looked up at the night sky. A white gum stretched up into the darkness, its limbs smooth and pale, bent and graceful as it swayed slightly, silvery leaves shivering with each gentle tracing of movement against the night.

She paused for a moment, just staring, while David and Evie waited for her on the footpath.

"Look," she told them, and they too turned to glance up at the tree, remarkable for its survival along a road that boasted no more than the occasional low grevillea or bottlebrush, and then even more extraordinary for its singular beauty.

David stepped back, and she could see as he turned to face her that he too found the tree worth stopping for. He took her hand in his.

"I could cope with living out here," Ellen said, "with a tree like that." She smiled, her words uttered more to herself than to the others. But as she turned to walk through the low iron gateway, Evie stopped her.

"It's not that place," she insisted. "It's there," and she pointed further up the road.

David knocked on the door and Marni opened it, peering out at the three of them. She was a small child, thin limbs, straight hair pulled back in two tight pigtails, and dark eyes.

"Hi Evie," she muttered as behind her Matthew put his hand on her shoulder and bent down to whisper in her ear, his instruction to say hello audible to all of them.

"Hi," Evie looked down at the ground, pressing backwards into Ellen.

Inside, they stood too close in the hallway, until Matthew led them through to a sunroom off the kitchen, where a table had been set with five mismatched chairs drawn up. Ellen could hear the faint hum of a cello concerto in the background, and she looked for the stereo. It was there next to her, on top of the pine bookshelves, and she ran her finger along the titles while, from the kitchen, Matthew asked if they wanted a drink. They were poetry, and this surprised her. She leant a little closer, pulling one of the paperbacks out so that she could look at it, only to hastily replace it as she heard Matthew coming with a glass of white.

"I discovered Gerald Manley Hopkins when I was at university," and he brushed by her as he took the book out once more, the cover dog-eared, the pages yellowing. "His angst spoke to me, but more than anything it was what he did with language. Turning it on its head. Stirring up years of soft romanticism with harshness and vigour."

Moving back slightly, Ellen asked him if it was true that Hopkins was gay.

"There was a school of criticism that emphasised the possibility," and Matthew took a careful sip of the wine, tasting it slowly.

It was, Ellen soon discovered, very dry and very good. She commented appreciatively, and he held the bottle up for them both to view. It was a favourite, he said, from a tiny vineyard in the south of France. He had hunted it down from a specialist wine shop near work, giving half a dozen to Cath when they split up and saving the other half for himself.

"Cheers," David held out his glass and they clinked, glancing briefly at each other.

Ellen said she would check whether the children were okay. Standing outside Marni's room, she could hear them talking. They were playing Monopoly, and she asked them both, how the game was going. When neither of them replied, she went back to the kitchen.

David had pulled his chair out from the table, his legs were stretched out in front of him and his glass already finished. He was talking about a film he had seen the other night. It had been a slow-moving piece about the last day in a man's life, a film in which not much happened, although its very emptiness had a certain resonance when you knew the end.

"I can't say I enjoyed it as much as you did," Ellen said. "Although I'm not as anti-narrative as you are."

Matthew smiled at her. "I'm glad to hear some people are still partial to the story. I've been writing a novel," he added.

She murmured appreciatively, and David asked him what it was about. "Or are you one of those writers who hates saying?"

He wasn't. It was about a French anthropologist, a man who lived with Aboriginal people at the beginning of the twentieth century. "He turned his back on white society and then couldn't return when he wanted. It's loosely based on a true story." He took a large dish out of the oven and lifted the lid briefly. "I hope you like cassoulet?"

"Can't say I've ever had it," David confessed, and Ellen could only admire his straight-faced reply; it was not a meal either of them had been expecting. The invitation, she thought, had been for a quick dinner with the kids.

"I learnt to cook it when Cath and I lived in Paris," he told them.

"When was that?" Ellen felt obliged to ask.

"About four years ago. We took leave so I could research my book." And then he leant back against the windowsill, his forearms folded, sleeves pushed up to reveal long black hairs, shirt open at the chest, legs planted firmly apart. He looked at her directly. "You've been there," he said. "For six months in a studio."

She tried to conceal the surprise she felt at his knowledge of her life. "Yes," she answered, turning to David. "We both went before Evie was born."

"I read it in your biog." He began to serve up the food as he spoke. "At your last exhibition."

David offered to call the kids, and Ellen found herself alone with Matthew. She asked if she could help. Perhaps she could carry the plates over? He was placing each serve in the centre with perfect precision, and as she reached to take the nearest, he turned slightly to rest the ladle on the edge of the sink, his other elbow knocking her.

Surprisingly the plate did not shatter, but the cassoulet covered her suede boots and spread across the lino on the kitchen floor. She swore without thinking, bending down to wipe the sauce off her feet as he too crouched, their faces so close that she felt the warmth of his breath and the brush of his thick black hair against her cheek.

"I'm fine," she told him, stepping back as Evie and Marni came into the room.

"Your boots will be wrecked." Evie looked at the damage from the doorway, and Ellen wished they had never discussed how easily suede marked.

 

TEN YEARS LATER, when Evie left school, she told Ellen how much she had disliked Matthew. The year he had come to live with Ellen had been the worst, she said.

"I know," Ellen agreed. "I didn't like him much either.

"Then why did you do it?"

They were sitting in the back garden sharing a bottle of champagne and
cigarettes to celebrate Evie finishing her exams. Her daughter's face was like David's, Ellen thought, looking at her pale green eyes, wide mouth and slow smile, blurred slightly by the late afternoon sun and too much drink. Her temperament too: she was even-natured, reasonable and strangely distant. Sitting back, the chair precarious as she leant her body weight into it, small flakes of paint coming off the arms and curling across her skin, Ellen considered the question. It was one she used to ask herself whenever she gazed at the raw wound of missing the life she had once had, flesh no longer covered by the paper-thin layer of breathless excitement. But each time she had come face to face with that question, she had shied away. The answer was too difficult, and probably not worth the search. "I don't know," she was about to say, but then she didn't.

"He appalled me," she told Evie, "and that was what I found fascinating." She looked out across the overgrown garden, weeds creeping into each of the beds, rocket gone to seed, nasturtiums tangled sickly sweet around the base of the lemon tree.

Evie did not respond.

It was not an explanation, or at least not one her daughter would understand, just as David had also found a similar attempt far from satisfactory. Reaching across the table, she was about to pour them both another glass of champagne but she stopped. Evie was crying. Silent tears, wiped away as quickly as they appeared.

"I'm sorry," Ellen said. And she was truly sorry as she laid her own hand over Evie's. A line of ants trailed across the table top between them, running straight until they reached a small pool of spilt drink. Overhead the branches of the giant wattle next door creaked. She looked up at the sun and closed her eyes, the memory of that year with Matthew still strong enough to make her shake her head, wanting to physically remove any trace of him from her life.

"I was so happy," she said. "With you and David, and I was making these perfect beautiful sculptures that were so complete. When total destruction knocks on your door, sometimes it's very tempting to take a look."

Wiping the last of her tears, Evie ran a finger across the table. "You know I saw a review for his book the other day?"

Ellen didn't.

"It was good," Evie looked up. "It even made me want to read it."

Ellen smiled and she considered the explanation she had tried to give. It was close, she thought, but there are still certain parts of life that evade words. Every minute of every day you make a choice. And you always choose to do the right thing: to drive without crashing the car, to not walk into the oncoming traffic, to stop drinking, to not say what you think.

She remembered standing just inside Matthew's bedroom, undressing him as he undressed her and knowing that a month earlier, on the night they had eaten cassoulet, she had stood just outside this room, aware of how little it would take to step over, while in the sunroom off the kitchen, Matthew had opened another bottle of wine and David had relented, sitting back and letting his glass be refilled. She had sat with them, listening to their conversation, participating occasionally, only to withdraw again, her gaze turning to the dishes neatly stacked in the rack, the new fridge and three saucepans sitting on top of the stove. Beyond was the lounge room, carpet floral, walls painted a violet that had been popular in the '50s, a new television in the corner and a cheap two-seater couch in front of it.

She had got up to go to the bathroom, wanting to look. Inside the cupboard, there was a razor, soap, toothbrush and toothpaste, and a packet of Panadol. She stood for a moment, leaning against the shower screen. In the room next door, the girls were talking about school. Marni was asking Evie which of the boys she liked and Evie was being evasive. "All of them," she answered. "It's wrong not to like everyone."

As she stepped out into the hall, she could see Matthew's room at the end of the corridor. The blind was drawn, but she could make out the bed, neatly made, with four pillows at one end, a bedside table on one side, and on it two books and a white metal light clipped to the edge.

"I think I need to get going," she had told David when she returned to the sunroom.

He was remembering the editor of the paper when he had first joined. "He was completely straight. Middle-aged – well, probably the same as we are now – suit, tie, neat hair, very traditional, apart from the fact that he meditated. For half an hour every lunchtime. He would just shut the door and sit there, eyes closed. Everyone knew what he was doing, and not to disturb him, and no one ever mentioned it." David leant forward to top up his glass. "He was the calmest, easiest boss I've ever had."

"I have to go," she said again, knowing she would be ignored.

But Matthew heard her. "You don't look well." He was staring straight at her, his eyes dark and still, intent and focused.

"I'm just tired," she explained. "I have another show soon and I've been working long hours."

"I know," Matthew said. "It's at Gallery 4. I've been looking forward to it."

In the car on the way home, she had asked David why he never listened to her, why they had to stay so long; it was insufferable, she had said, awful, and he had glanced in the rear vision mirror to where Evie was sitting, listening to everything they were saying.

"Why was it awful?" she had asked. "Didn't you like Marni's dad?"

"No," Ellen had lied. "I did like him."

"He certainly knew your form."

Ellen glanced sharply at David, who grinned.

At home, David took Evie straight to bed, dressing her in her pyjamas while Ellen switched on the heaters. "She can't wear summer pyjamas," she said when she came in to kiss her daughter goodnight.

"It doesn't matter," David told her.

"It does," and Ellen began to unbutton the top, pushing David to one side. "Don't be ridiculous." He refused to move. "You're just going to get her cold if you undress her again."

"I'm fine," Evie agreed, pulling the doona up over her chest.

"You're not," Ellen insisted, forcing the covers down. She could feel

David's arm on her wrist, holding her back, and she shook herself free. "Leave me alone," she told him.

"No, leave her alone," he said. "Let her go to sleep."

But Ellen wouldn't. With the flannel pyjamas under one arm, she continued to try and to undress Evie, who kept insisting that she was okay. It was only when David forced her away that she stopped, and she turned to shout at him, her mouth open in readiness, silencing herself as she realised where they both were. But outside in the hall, she hissed: "Why do you have to fight me?"

"I don't," he had responded, perplexed.

 

NOW, SO MANY years later, Evie has grown and Ellen and David speak occasionally and have dinner together less often, sometimes at his house, sometimes at hers. They talk about their daughter, or work, or friends they have in common, and then they clear the table, and one washes while the other dries. It is almost as it should be, close to the way it might have been if she had never made that one particular choice.

She puts the bottle down after refilling their glasses, righting it as it threatens to overbalance on the rickety table. She had opened the door, she thinks. She had taken a look.  ♦

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