After the flood Laurie insisted he’d rebuild. But the place was a mess.
‘You don’t know when to walk away, do you?’ Bill put a beer in front of him.
‘Like I said. You don’t know when to walk away. Can’t patch either of ‘em up any more. Your house and your marriage. It’s the same thing.’
Laurie’s shoulders shook.
‘I’m sorry mate but someone’s gotta say it.’
‘What’ll I do?’
‘Yeah. I think. I dunno.’
‘I’ve got nothing.’
‘That’s not true. You’ve got——’
‘I could stay with you. Couldn’t I?’
‘No mate. No, you can’t stay with me. With us.’
Laurie looked shocked.
‘Give Ben a call. Stay with him til you’re on your feet again. He’s family. He’ll understand.’
‘I could set up in your garage. I wouldn’t be any trouble.’
‘Just for a couple of months? While I fix the old place up.’
Carol came in holding a long drink. ‘Laurie, no. Call Ben. Please.’ She walked behind Bill and put a hand on his shoulder. ‘Can’t you see?’
Laurie looked out the window. There was the house, sitting wonky on the low ground opposite; it’s stumps like dead trunks a little further up. ‘I could get a caravan maybe.’
You come over the hill at top speed and you’re right on Hell’s Bells. It’s a twitchy bend. Not much traction. The exit onto the home straight is no less treacherous. On the gas too early and you’ll be tossed.
It’s the final race of the season. What only Pierce and I know is it’ll be his last. ‘Get out on top,’ he says. Besides, he’s going to be a father—another of our secrets.
I’m watching the final laps from the garage. He closes fast on Marco Scicluna. Pass him and the title will be Pierce’s. They feel each other out—different lines, different styles. Going into Hells Bells Pierce goes low, brakes screaming red hot. His back wheel slides. Then grips. Then slides again. Scicluna slips back through. Pierce loses the front now. His machine bucks wild. It throws him half-way off. Somehow he straddles it at the edge of the tarmac and wrenches it back—guns it down the straight. But Scicluna’s long gone. As the pit-crew’s faces drop I only want to run to him. I want the last two laps to be over. I want him with me.
One lap on Scicluna hits the rubble from Pierce’s near miss, and flips. The garage erupts. Next door Scicluna’s girlfriend stares in horror at the screen.
She has caught glimpses as she’s cleared the clutter of years of emptiness. The old place breathing again through open shutters. It blinks the unfamiliar light. So many years. And all that time I walked condemned to loneliness.
She saw me first churning butter. The shock wrote itself on her face. The disbelief. The fear I tried to quell with a smile. Even at that kitchen task I wore my finery. Again when she disturbed me at the piano. I hope she thought me an elegant lady, dressed so prettily. Not a servant girl.
She caught a flash of me as I headed down the stairs, covered now with boards he put down after he put an end to us.
I saw her combing through the three volume history but she will not have found me there. For we were only man and woman to the walls of his house. I was his love and his shame. With curtains drawn we conducted our unspoken passions. He filled the trunks with the fabrics he imported and had me make my own things for our folly.
Now she’s pulling the floor up. Soon she’ll find my basement. The trunks still full of offcuts. The sewing machine as I sat at it that night. A wedding gown beneath its needle hemmed part way.
Laurel had a hectic urban energy about her—always on the move, always juggling projects. She wrote zines and worked on films her friends were making. She designed t-shirts to sell at markets. In between she managed enough time for Kale to form something with her that felt special. He was just a farm boy—wide-eyed when he got to the city. She took him under her wing. He was different, raw. A little bit exciting against the knowing cool of the crowd she moved in.
Kale loved the buzz around her. When she started her blog it was supposed to help her writing. She had an idea for a novel down the track. So she created a fictional life for herself with daily entries. He loved reading it. Seeing her imagination on the screen in all its intensity.
But after a few months the posts started to seem less fantastic. He noticed bits of real scattered through. More and more.
He’d been at the library when he read the post about her leaving her boyfriend. He raced home not knowing what to expect. There she was in her usual spot on the kitchen table, laptop open. Kale sighed with relief and went upstairs. The wardrobe door was open. Her clothes were gone. Downstairs the back door clicked shut.
It’s a long trip into town. Sometimes I read but more often I just let my mind wander. I watch the world outside passing by and listen to the world inside. I overhear intimate things.
Two women sit behind me. I do not see them. I do not look. I imagine. They regather a broken conversation.
‘…and then he dropped me.’
‘Yep. Just like that.’
I imagine the emotions of the women. The anger. The sorrow perhaps. The righteousness of having been wronged.
‘And I thought he was reliable.’
‘Yeah, so did I.’ The voice is more rueful than sad. I’m sure she is beautiful. Undeserving of such treatment. I would never. No never.
There’s a commotion as passengers bustle on and off.
‘…and now he’s with Trish.’
‘You’re kidding. But she’s…’
‘I know. Not up to his standard.’
‘Actually I was thinking of yours.’
No. Not your standard at all.
The woman laughs.
I want to tell her she deserves better. I want to turn but I’m paralysed.
‘Quick this is us.’ The pair scuttle off the tram. I watch her friend helping her hobble to the academy. The National Ballet—I pass it every day. Her hair is in a tight bun, her foot is in a cast.
The maze seemed like something different. A chance perhaps to enjoy simple pleasures. But Kylie said I was getting old. ‘OK grandpa, but let’s see what Loni and Vin are doing.’
Vin—he’d bring too much beer and junk food and a frisbee to throw. Vin’s problem was he couldn’t sit still.
We met them at the hedged archway entrance. Kylie and I went one way, Vin and Loni the other. Kylie’s approach was to race ahead, hit a dead-end, scream and race back to find a different route. I grew weary just watching her. When it took more than ten minutes to find the heart-shaped centre she swore loudly and vowed next time she’d bring a chain saw. I could hear Vin carrying on too. Pretty soon the two of them were conducting a shouted dialogue over the tops of the hedges.
It was half an hour before we all found the heart. Vin looked at Kylie and said let’s get out of here. They charged off and promptly got lost. I sat a while with Loni. After a few minutes, the silence and birdsong interrupted only by our partner’s screams, Loni leant close to me, whispered, ‘we’re with the wrong ones,’ and kissed me more tenderly than I’d been kissed for months.
I weep, in the dark hours of morning, at the willow’s memory.
That’s where we’d meet. Hold each other tight. Whisper our love. And in cowardice I kept my betrothal from her.
I told her we’d be together always—a promise I knew to be hollow.
When I saw her with another, under the willow’s sweeping branches I turned without hearing her dismiss him. But I heard her cry when she saw me, sure enough. I walked away.
Only later, mired in troubled thought, did I determine to tell her what I’d kept secret. I could withhold the truth no longer.
But like a fool I drank for courage. Too much wine. She found me unmoving from its effects; laid out at the base of our sturdy trunk.
Then, thinking me poisoned she carved out the lines I hear nightly.
Davey, oh Davey, I’ll hurt you no more
For you were the one I did truly adore
Where we lay together I now set you free
as I lay down alone beneath our willow tree
Then she turned the blade against the bare flesh of her wrist.
She took a couple of deep breaths, picked up the phone and dialled.
‘Bill, hi. I don’t know if you remember me. Shona. From the cruise.’
‘Eh.’ There was a long pause. She hoped he wouldn’t hang up. ‘Shona. Oh yeah. Shona heh? How are ya girl? It’s…um… it’s been a while.’
‘Two years, yeah. But they were good times.’
Another pause. ‘Oh yeah. Good times. Good times. What ya doin’ with yourself?
‘I just moved back to town,’ she said. ‘Thought I’d look you up.’
‘Yeah. Good. That’s good. You want to get together maybe.’
‘If it’s not too much trouble.’
‘I’m staying at the Dominion.’
‘Then we could start off there. Have a couple of drinks then I’ll show you the sights.’
‘Lovely. When would suit.’
‘Heh, I’m free tonight.’
Her heart quickened. ‘Tonight. Sure. Around six? In the cocktail bar?’
‘Sure. Good to hear from you. Shona. Yeah. Good to hear from you. See ya.’
‘See ya,’ she said.
A broad smile of relief and anticipation spread across her face. She glanced around the chintzy hotel room.
Her voice turned suddenly serious. ‘Right. I’ll wear a wire on this one. I’ll need two watchers. Henry, Paddo you set? Remember no one moves until we get what we need.’
You were the one. For years I’d said it was me and Katy all the way. I used to think it was as if I put myself in temptation’s way to prove it. I mean look at the jobs I’d had. The photography studio, then the fashion festival—beautiful people everywhere. The stint at the University—colleagues constantly getting their knickers in a twist over girls with professors and professorships in their eyes.
Where were you then? Bringing up kids in a two room flat. Doing it tough. No time for the glamourous side of life.
And I loved her. Oh how I did. It wouldn’t be fair to say we drifted apart. It wouldn’t be honest. Maybe our perfect life got too much for her. So she took the job interstate. ‘Just see how it works out,’ she’d said.
‘You and me always,’ I said.
The rest you know. I did my back. You were there at the physio sessions, always with an encouraging word. Always with a smile. And suddenly that was all I needed. It was all it took. Those fancy girls and pretty young things had been no temptation at all. But you. You I lost sleep over. You made me weak. You. Forever.
Sam had been single for five years when he met Deborah. She was an easy conversationalist with a passionate heart and a friendly manner. They dated for six months. It was never awkward the way he’d feared dating might be for someone his age.
When Deborah moved in he realised how much the place had missed a woman’s touch. She organised everything so you could find what you needed. The fridge was always stocked, the meals she prepared always fresh-cooked and delicious.
And she did it with so little fuss. With Jan there’d always been a mad scramble at the end to get a job done, washing piling up in the laundry and dinner parties that finished in tears. With Deb everything went smoothly. She really put the place in order. The guy who’d divorced her must have been off his rocker.
Jan had designed a room-sized wardrobe that you walked through to get to the bathroom. One morning Sam emerged from his shower and though the hanging space was now carefully arranged and tidy he couldn’t find his suit.
‘Honey, have you seen…?’
‘It’s at the cleaners,’ came Deb’s voice. ‘I’ve laid out the summer one for you, with the cream shirt and red and blue tie. But we’ll have to do something about your shoes…’
Tony Issley was a corporate hardnut. His face radiated craggy disdain. It was a portraitist’s dream.
He thought the sittings a waste of time. But Sonja laughed off his gruffness. She won him over. Completely.
He’d never met anyone like her. Soon he was calling from the office. ‘Sonn, it’s Tone. Gotta blow out this morning’s board meeting. You up for some painting?’
That was fine by her. There was a portrait prize closing soon and she hoped he’d let her enter the picture.
But something was troubling her. The face she wanted had softened. The tyrant’s face had become…oh god, it couldn’t be. There was no mistaking. Tony Issley was smitten. That’s what the mushy grin was. The clenched jaw turned slack, the moistened eyes and faraway look.
He called her up one night, tippsy and maudlin.
‘Not tonight,’ she said. ‘Let’s put in a full day tomorrow.’
He was on her doorstep at nine.
As he sat on the usual seat she said, ‘We’re spending a lot of time together…’
‘…so in case it matters, I’m not into guys. Clear the air. You know.’
He stared at her. Hard, as if what she said was incomprehensible. ‘I’m not guys. I’m Tony Bloody Issley.’
And suddenly the hard features she needed for her portrait were back.
Aaron became so sick of being mistaken for Mark Hodler that one night, after a few drinks, he started introducing himself as the tennis star turned shock-jock journalist.
Three instant-turnoffs later he sidled up to Agnetha. ‘Mark Hodler. You’ve probably heard of me.’
A blank look. ‘No. Sorry.’ She motioned towards an empty seat.
‘From the telly?’
‘I don’t pay much attention.’ She offered a confident hand. ‘Agnetha.’
‘How do you know what’s going on?’ he said.
Soon they were talking about all the things people could achieve if they weren’t wasting time in front of the box. The Hodler charade, the arrogance and the swagger, became increasingly difficult. Aaron realised, with alarm, that he’d played his cheap prank on a woman he was rapidly warming to. Unmistakable attraction. All the signs. He began to fidget. His heart rate surged through the red-line when she laid a friendly hand on his knee.
‘I have to go,’ he said, jumping up. ‘Sorry. Late. Gotta rush.’
Ten minutes later he wandered back into the bar wearing the jumper he’d found in the car with his hair ruffled and his sunglasses on.
‘Mark!’ Agnetha looked up surprised.
‘Oh yeah,’ said Aaron. ‘As in Hodler. People are always making that mistake.’
There were six boats out of Southampton sailing together when the storm clouds began to gather. Five turned for home. Only the Persephone chanced the gale, running hard in front of it, hoping it would blow itself out. Though it nearly knocked us down we made it through and onward to Madrid with patched sails and damaged rigging.
There we unloaded. With the holds empty we saw how the waves had weakened the planks as the bow crashed through. We’d be a fortnight making repairs. More days away from Elizabeth and little Henrietta.
You can imagine my despair when we at last returned home—my room taken, my lovely girls nowhere to be found. Our ship, it had been said, had gone down in the tempest and all of us had perished. My sweetheart, in false mourning, had fled.
I fell into a desperate melancholy, hoping only that some day she’d hear of the redemption of the Persephone and come in search of me.
I counted off each month without them by carving another little boat. Now I have a whole flotilla, but still no little one with whom to play.
I escaped my father’s tyranny for the hope of the city, but found no work there.
I’d have returned home had Davey not taken a shine to me. We were poor but, in his simple room above the bakery, we got by as man and wife. I was soon with child to him.
While at sea he’d make me gifts of bone and wood. On his last return he brought a carved boat for our month-old daughter. ‘To sail the world in,’ he said and we laughed together to hide our fear, for the little one was weak.
He sailed again next evening. Days later news arrived that the Persephone had foundered. I was alone again.
The baker, a brute, demanded his rent. He made suggestions to me if the money could not be found. So I fled that place. I knew if I took our girl she would be in peril. So, in deepest sorrow, I wrapped her in a blanket and left her at the foundling house with Davey’s boat tucked in beside her.
The baker put the sheriff after me for what he said I owed. And I was sent to this forsaken place. I dream each night of the girl that I will never see again.
My great-grandmother’s only knowledge of her mother was a small boat carved from wood. On the boat were the words our darling always. But Great-Grandmother had never really been anyone’s darling. As an infant she’d been found in a basket on the steps of a hospital.
That hospital was in a port city. During the years she spent in the orphanage there Great Grandmother created a story of her impoverished parents stowing away on a dangerous voyage to a new world.
They loved me so much they would never risk taking me, she told herself. So they put the toy boat with me in the basket to show that, one day, they’d sail back.
Mum said Great Grandmother was still waiting for that boat to return to her, even on her deathbed. ‘Perhaps that’s what death looked like to her,’ Mum said. ‘That funny little boat coming into port at last.’
And then, because it was my fifteenth birthday, Mum handed me a tiny package. I unwrapped the tissue paper and read our darling always for myself as I cradled Great Grandmother’s boat in my cupped hands.