IT HAD TAKEN Meg a long time to convince Nina. Many lengthy phone calls. During these Nina had experienced a lot of trouble staying on the line. She walked around the flat she was living in then, the tired-feeling one, from the front door to the bedroom to the kitchen; she fingered the brown edges of the leaves on her ailing maidenhair fern, crumbling beige dust onto the windowsill; she lay across the end of the bed and raised her legs in the air.
‘Are you even listening?’ came Meg’s voice, small but still stern.
With the cordless phone held loosely to her ear Nina ate half a packet of stale peanuts that left her with a bloated stomach and ripe burps for the rest of the evening. She took everything out of the kitchen junk drawer and spread it on the bench to sort. She sprinkled bicarb of soda on the mouldy grout in the shower and then discovered she was out of regular vinegar so got her laptop to see if she could use balsamic, furtively Googling with one hand, careful to turn the volume down in case an email arrived and Meg heard the ping.
When Meg was finally finished with her hectoring and Nina had hung up and taken a look at eBay and a few other things it would be 10.30 and she’d make some toast, which might mean dumping everything back off the bench and into the junk drawer, and then she’d go to bed and in the morning maybe find the bicarb in the shower and try to wash it away with plain water so that it left a chalky residue.
Meg just wore her down in the end. Nina couldn’t come up with any other explanation. It went against her values, absolutely. It was illegal. It was unethical. It was likely to be dangerous. Most of all, it was very unlikely to work, as far as she could see – and that was what really mattered. ‘You can’t just barge in and fix someone,’ she told Meg. ‘Change has to come from the person themselves.’
It wasn’t that she stopped believing this. She never did, not for one moment. But it was as if Meg ignored it so many times that it became invisible. Nina went on offering it up and Meg went on powering, train-like, right through it, again and again, and eventually Nina got tired.
SO IT WENT ahead. On a morning in the late autumn of 2009, Meg collected Nina from her flat in a taxi and they went on to the far northern suburbs, where they stopped outside the place where Amber was living – a unit, with a front window blinded by a hanging sheet and a bag of garbage lying like a corpse under the empty carport.
Meg got out. As she removed herself the car sprang up a little and Nina, watching from the far side of the back seat, saw her heavy shoulders, her white top and blue jeans that somehow, like anything worn by Meg, resembled a uniform. When had she gotten so big, Meg? So solid. A slab of a woman.
Meg hitched her jeans and set off up the path. She took small steps because the paving stones were uneven and bearded with weeds, and this made her look more muscular, meaty, like a bodybuilder constrained by her own heft. She rolled up the path and rapped on the door and it opened almost immediately, which was a surprise, and Amber came out carrying an overnight bag, with her hair stringy and her sunglasses on and her hipbones visible above the waistband of her jeans.
There was some sort of an embrace, inexpert, the bag getting in the way, and then they moved towards the taxi, and while Meg didn’t actually take hold of Amber she did follow closely and her arms seemed to be slightly raised, as if in readiness. But Amber showed no sign of running.
(‘What if she asks questions?’ Nina had said on the phone.
‘She won’t,’ said Meg. ‘Not if we’re paying.’ And then: ‘We just tell her we think she needs a little holiday.’)
Amber was in now, beside Nina, with her smell of cigarettes fresh and stale and her croak of ‘Hey, Neen’ and her feathery, sideways kiss, and Meg was cramming in last and pulling shut the door, and the driver said, ‘Airport now?’ and Meg said, ‘Yes please,’ and the car pulled away and there they were, filling the back seat as if in a macabre re-enactment of childhood family holidays.
Except that they were not children at all, they were adults, they were three grown women, and Nina was probably just freaking out – because that was what Nina did, what Nina had always done, freaked quietly and undetectably out while things went on happening around her – but as she looked down at their legs she thought that they could never have been children, sitting in the back seat of the family car. She thought that they could never have been so small, the three of them, to have taken up so little space – to have fitted with such ease into their shared realm of back seat and school shoes and kitchen stools and baths and bunk beds and night whispers and secret codes and eruptions of laughter and small, close meannesses, of pinches and hisses, of looks and private signals.
The car of their childhood: a Mitsubishi Sigma station wagon, maroon, with the little bottle of touch-up paint like liquid rubies in the glovebox and the gearstick rising from its navy leather pouch that wrinkled as the gears were changed like something living, an animal sac. Here it comes, with them in it – the three girls, and their parents in the front – driving up a black road with dry pink soil either side, and olive trees and grapevines. All day the sky has been huge, hard blue with ripped-up clouds, but now it’s evening and everything has softened, deepened, the air is thicker and the daubs of sunlight on a corrugated iron shed are buttery and gentle. A holiday, near the New South Wales border, inland; they are staying in a cabin on a working farm where the girls can swim in the river and Gwen and Robert can sit on campstools and drink wine. They have been to the nearest town for supplies, which fill the boot in their rustling plastic bags – because this is a time when plastic bags are used freely, thoughtlessly, stuffed in airy bundles into bins and forgotten. This is a time of certainty, of only ever looking outwards; this is a time of feeling your family around you like banked earth.
Meg, ten, is the Good One, and Nina, nine, is the Forgetful One, and Amber, little Bam, only five, is the Wild One, a puppy, a seal cub, naked except for blue terry-towelling shorts, rolling in the rosy dust, grime like red dye at her elbows and knees and in the creases of her babyish, soft neck.
‘Oh Bam,’ says Gwen, lifting her littlest daughter out of the dust and kissing her fat cheek, passing a hand over her sticky face, her unbrushed hair. ‘What are we going to do with you?’
And: ‘Oh Nina,’ says Robert, kneeling to look under a bed for a lost book, which Nina really did just have in her hand as she went from the bedroom to the kitchen. ‘Nina, Nina, Nina. What are we going to do with you?’
And: ‘Oh Meg,’ say Gwen and Robert, when they are ushered into the small cabin kitchen to see the wildflowers picked and arranged in a jar, and the table set for dinner with napkins folded under the cutlery, and glasses, and a jug of water with lemon slices and ice cubes. ‘What are we going to do with you?’
Nothing. Their parents will not do anything with them, Nina and Amber and Meg, because they have been classified already, these girls, identified and branded, and what Robert and Gwen really mean when they say ‘What are we going to do with you?’ is in fact something more like ‘We might have made you but we have no idea how you turned out this way; you are beyond our control and all we can do is stand by and watch.’
And they feel the wonder of their parents, these girls, and it doesn’t – yet – frighten them. To be wondered at, to be held up as a mystery, ineffable, to be gloried in – right now it’s delicious; it’s something you can get an appetite for. And so Meg smiles her diligent smile, and Nina smiles her bashful one, and little Amber opens her red lips and laughs, and her bright, wet baby teeth shine.
But Nina was not in the maroon Sigma, and she was not trying to find a book in a rented cabin on a farm near a big brown river. And Meg was not fussing with ragged flowers in the wood-panelled kitchen and calling brassily, ‘Don’t come in yet!’ And Amber was not Little Bam, rolling in the dust in her blue shorts. Gwen and Robert were not there to gaze upon them and ask fondly, ‘What are we going to do with you?’
Gwen and Robert were not there at all. They had distanced themselves. They were in their early sixties, and they were, you could feel it, immensely relieved to have at last been able to get back to their own lives.
(‘Hello, darling,’ said Gwen’s voice on Nina’s message service. ‘Just ringing to say have a lovely time in Noosa. Meg’s told me all about it, sounds wonderful, and I’m so glad that you’re all going together. Oh, sorry, did I say Noosa? It’s not Noosa is it? I keep forgetting. Anyway, wherever it is, you just have a great time and Dad and I’ll look forward to hearing all about it when you get back. We can all have a dinner or something.’)
Gwen and Robert were not there and Meg and Nina and Amber were three adults, no longer held by that close earth of childhood. They had dispersed into a wider world that had proved not to find especially wonderful their industriousness or forgetfulness or wildness. And that was enough of a heartbreak in itself, Nina thought, that what was once wonderful, whole and unquestioned – someone’s helpless and endearing forgetfulness; or someone else’s sweet longing to be grown and of service; or another person’s looseness and lushness and dusty, fleshy, laughing wildness – could have turned out to be not only not full of wonder but in fact an impediment.
(‘I used to find it charming,’ a man once said to Nina, ‘you always being late. The way you’d fly in all breathless with your buttons done up wrong and something falling out of your bag. But I have to tell you, it wears off, that sort of charm.’)
That was enough to break your heart. But then there was the inability to shed, to bust out. How could something as wispy and fluttering as forgetfulness prove to be so durable, so adhesive?
Nina glanced at her sisters, at Amber with her fallen-back head, her lax neck, her eyes closed behind her sunglasses, her pink, bitten fingertips working – blindly, hungrily – at a loose thread on her sleeve, and at Meg there on the other side, big and firm and watchful, with her dark plain ponytail like a schoolgirl’s, a netballer’s, her stern face, her chin slightly raised, eyes on the road ahead as if she were the one controlling the car.
They were all stuck, it seemed to Nina, held to ransom by qualities that were once considered harmless and even charming but had somehow become undesirable. Nina’s being forgetful had turned into being flaky and Meg’s being good to being bossy. And Amber’s wildness – well, it was hard to say if Amber’s wildness had changed, really, or just increased as it found more to feed on.
Amber was certainly the most obviously, the most spectacularly, stuck. The effects of Amber’s stuckness certainly radiated the furthest: they were, the whole family – in a surface, everyday way, and also deeper, in their deep selves – stained by it. Amber’s wildness was after all the reason the three of them were there in the taxi.
(Amber it seemed had fallen into an instant sleep, her raw-tipped fingers curled in her lap.)
But then Nina remembered with a horrible and familiar jolt that she had forgotten to close and lock the kitchen window of her flat, and as she did so felt Meg dart a look at her, and Meg said, ‘What is it?’ and Nina said, ‘Nothing,’ and Meg said, ‘Did you forget something?’ and Nina said, ‘No,’ and Meg sighed and went back to supervising the driver, and Nina sighed and thought that yes, they were all stuck, deeply and comprehensively stuck, each in the shell of what they had turned out to be, and none of them knew how to undo themselves, and she couldn’t see how this idea of Meg’s could possibly work.
(‘I’m not…’ Nina had said on the phone.
‘Not what?’ Meg had said, with irritation.
‘I’m not sure.’
‘Um,’ said Nina.
‘What’s not to be sure about?’ said Meg. ‘We have to do something. We can’t let her go on like this.’
‘Neen. She’s our sister. Our little sister.’ There were tears in Meg’s voice. ‘We have to get her back.’)
The words might have come to Nina then, as the taxi sailed towards the airport in a drizzle, in a soft grey morning. Blinking into the pearly light, she experienced an unfogging of the brain, an opening bubble of clarity. Her misgivings, her hesitations, she saw, were to do with what it was to be siblings in childhood, when there were overlaps and mergings, and the three of you looked out from the same place. There were certain things, then, that you could do to each other. But this was when you were children, before the separating, the hardening, the stuckness. When the idea of who you were – bossy, forgetful, wild – still seemed like a mantle, something you might suddenly decide to throw off, startling your parents.
Over the phone Meg had talked about standing firm and being clear. Meg had even used the phrase tough love. But what did these words really mean? What shape would they take as actions? The taxi glided to the right, changing lanes, and Nina watched water flicking up from the black tyres of the other cars and remembered Meg putting Amber on a bench in a cubby house made of greenish treated-pine logs. An adventure playground: trailing peppercorn branches, the smell of possum, faded beer cans crushed into dirt; a railway line somewhere nearby – the weighty passage of trains, the moaning of their horns.
It is dark inside the cubby house, and damp, and there is a smell like wee. Meg puts Amber on the bench, lifting her onto it so that her legs hang and kick, her jeans rucked up to show shins red with cold. Amber’s furious face, her wide mouth, tears glassing her eyes. Her beanie risen like the hat of a gnome. Her arms reaching. ‘No! No!’ she cries. And Meg’s body blocks the entrance, Meg’s pointing finger magically fixes Amber to the seat. ‘You stay there,’ says Meg. ‘Don’t you dare move.’ No door to close on the cubby house, but Meg turns and exits the dark interior and Amber does not follow. And then later, when Meg fetches her out and says, ‘Were you scared? Were you terrified?’, Amber, her face flushed and proud, her eyelashes spiky and wet, says, ‘No!’ And Meg says, ‘Of course you were.’ And Amber’s little fists go to her hips and she says, ‘I was not.’ And then there is a pause, the three of them standing there in a dim afternoon, under the trees. Nina’s hands are gummy with peppercorn sap. She opens and closes them slowly, feeling the skin stick and pull and then release. Then Meg says, ‘You’re a good girl, Bam. You did as you were told.’ And Meg drops to her knees and puts out her arms and Amber launches into them, and then Meg starts to tickle her, and soon Amber is on the ground, her beanie fallen off, leaves in her hair, her shoulders up so her neck disappears into her woolly jumper and her face looks perfectly round, red and dimpled, and her laughter is like the spray from a shaken can of soft drink.
Nina blinked herself back into the car, inhaled the dense synthetic smell from the tree-shaped yellow air freshener dangling from the rear-vision mirror, felt her sisters there beside her.
It was gone again, her clarity. She had blurred once more into general misgivings.