Philomena van Rijswijk | To her mother’s country

The old road was lined with white heath. At first, Florette had called it Erica and would hold it up to the children’s ears to shake the dry taffeta bells. Sometimes, there was devil scat in the middle of the road. It had bones in it, and quickly grew a beard of white mold. The children called the growing mounds Old Man’s Whiskers, and somehow got the idea mixed up with old Pop Scanlon from Frenchman’s Hollow, who was one of twins born up the end of the gully eighty-odd years before. That first autumn, he had come up the gully in his old gray utility truck, looking for firewood. Most of all, he told Florette when she quizzed him, he remembered his father out on the veranda, smoking his pipe and rocking in a creaky old chair.

– Rock, rock… that’s what I remember, Pop Scanlon told her…the old man out there on the boards, rocking, rocking, rocking…

The past…it had always been so tantalizing… but so inaccessible. Since returning across Bass Strait to her mother’s country, Florette had been painfully aware of the past, as though there was the thinnest of membranes between her family’s history and the present.

Pop Scanlon had talked about how there’d been orchards up there then, “up the gully,” but the bottom had fallen out of the industry and the trees had been grubbed out. Now, all that remained of them were some old house foundations, the rusted parts of an ancient tractor, a big pine tree behind Florette’s place, and the hydraulic ram that still pumped water from the creek, sounding like a big old heart-beat in the middle of the night.

– Just tell me this, Florette demanded…how did you manage to grow anything up there, with the wallabies and possums the way they are?

– Shot ‘em and ate ‘em, Pop said, not unkindly.

– Ah, she nodded, once again being reminded of the fact that Tasmanians came from a different country entirely, even though they spoke pretty much the same language as “mainlanders.” It was a tough country of survival and secrets and suspicion of “t’othersiders.”

Let me first explain that Florette was not really French. Her grandfather had left the extreme south of Tasmania to fight in Ypres in the Great War, and in the process, had fallen in love with a French girl. On his return, he’d married a nurse called Olly Heim and had insisted on the name Yvette for their first child. Since then, the tradition of French names had stuck. And since she’d come to Tassie, Florette had depended on the Frenchness of her name to retain some identity in amongst the cushioned swards of moss, the creeping statue armies of heath.

– Depardieu! she would curse, almost slewing the straining yogurt out of its cloth.

-Bonjour! she had taught her four-year-old daughter, Anemone, to swear, every night at eight o’clock when the same fat possum dive-bombed from the pine onto the roof.

On Anzac Day, the year little Anemone had turned four, there was a big frost—the first one for the year. The slopes looked sifted in cornflour, the whiteness showing up the lines of old orchard trenches. The sun was already touching the tops of the willows, the uppermost branches bared now, and dyed to a pinkish color. The odd blackwood tree was the luxurious green of fairy-tale velvet, and up on the ridge the gums made the now familiar shapes of the tree-line: a ship; Napoleon’s hat; three old men at a Bar Mitzvah. Up there, there was sun. Sunlight. Sunheat. The upper world.

By the time the porridge was ready and the two children padding around in their knitted slippers, the sun would have just touched the house, suddenly lighting the frames of the windows, touching ordinary objects like candlesticks and glass tumblers with an undeserved brilliance, lighting fat drops of condensation that slid from the roof, and steaming the grayish towels left out on the line. The children would open the curtain and fight over the square of light that was warming the floorboards.

When Florette first moved to that dump in North Hobart the previous year, she would see a man walking up the road every morning, his legs wide apart as if held there by a saw-horse, and with great big soft boots on his feet. Then the new supermarket had come and he couldn’t make it across the car park entrance anymore. She watched for him out of her narrow front bedroom window, but she didn’t see him again. He reminded her of herself, stranded in this unexceptional place made exceptional only by its separateness. In those first months, everything seemed too mild: no big dirty cities, no sprawling suburbs, no clacketting and tipping trains, no big scrub, no deserts, no surf, no thunderstorms, no hot days…not even very cold ones.

Florette had only been in Tasmania six months when her boyfriend lost his job.

– I suppose you’ll move back to the mainland, his boss had said. As far as he was concerned, it would be easy to leave. People like Florette and her boyfriend were only fly-by-nights, even though they’d given up so much to come to live in a place that many of them had never even seen. As it turned out, the boyfriend had left, but Florette had stayed, and it seemed now that she would never again be cushioned by the luxury of friends or family. Perhaps that was why she had zeroed in on old Pop Scanlon, and on the limping man in North Hobart. Was she unconsciously searching for ballast, in this place where she felt so uprooted?

Although a western suburbs girl, Florette’s real history was in Sydney. It was as though real life had only happened beyond Strathfield station. Real life had once been at Haymarket, where verbose drunks sipped from brown paper bags in the back rows of the church; it was the smell of Bronley hand lotion and bath salts at Mark Foy’s department store; it was the Chinese boutique where her mother, Yvette, bought embroidered blouses and crocheted jackets.

Swaying and junketting over the harbor bridge, Florette’s mother used to point out the block of flats in Rose Bay where she had come to live from Tasmania when she was seventeen, and the spire of the church at Lavender Bay where she was married. Real life then was the Botanical Gardens where there were fig trees with branches like flabby operatic arms; it was battered fish at Manly boardwalk under the pines, and St Mary’s Cathedral where they lit sixpenny candles for “Special Intentions,” then stuck their heads inside the holy water fonts to hear themselves cooee. Sometimes, Florette dreamed that she’d gone back to live in the fibro house at Blacktown, and it was big again, like she remembered. The lounge room floorboards were polished to tigers’ eyes, and every starched doily was in its place.

– I’m home! I’m home! she’d sob in her sleep. But when she woke, she remembered that the house was no longer there, that there was an ugly gray block of flats in its place, and a wide and anonymous body of water between one place and the other.

***

Florette had grown up in a house of secrets. Her family had lived a secret life behind those four pastel fibro walls—it was the suburban way of life. The world beyond your own street was a mystery. On Saturday nights mothers came out of confession at St.Pat’s red-eyed and with damp hankies crushed in their palms; in the playground, the big girls wept and walked arm in arm all through lunch-break; fathers disappeared at night to secret meetings that even their wives knew nothing about. Florette couldn’t remember how old she was when her mother told her the secret about her grandfather. Or was it a dream? Such a wonderful man, Yvette had always said… tall and handsome, with that strong jaw. But then he was dead and a girl at school had said…Your father killed himself because he didn’t want to live with you anymore.

***

Since arriving in Tasmania, Florette had been trying to remember as much as she could about her grandmother, Olly. She had only seen her a handful of times when she was a child. She remembered how she used to wear a hairnet covered in different-colored sparkles, and dark palmy floral shifts with sturdy boots. You could see her bones were like scaffolding, her legs like fence-posts, and her eyes almost disappeared when she smiled. Florette had puked up Dispirin all over her when she’d met her off the Empress of Tasmania. Her voice was harsh and corrugated. Every morning that Florette had stayed with her, her grandmother had gone out early to squash fat green garden grubs between finger and thumb until she smelled like a hothouse. She called the chooks fowls and said washing ‘trow’ instead of laundry tub. She’d said to Florette that the old man singing at mass on Sunday sounded as though he had no teeth, and when she bought herself a new cardigan or a new garden spade, she said it would do her out.

When she was fourteen, Florette had stayed for a short week and had tried to use tampons for the first time, completely ignorant of the basics of her own anatomy. She had spent most of that week leaning over a honey-colored guitar, strumming “Donna” and “House of the Rising Sun.” She had gone into the garden looking for the narrow paths she had trod when she was younger, looking for one particular bush from which she’d picked a red fruit and had tried to stick it back on. She’d rediscovered the banana passionfruit vine and had eaten the fruit exactly the same way: pulled apart and sprinkled with a mound of white sugar. Back then, Olly had a blue budgie called Charlie.

– Let me out of here, Charlie used to say…I’m going m-a-a-d!

But there were other things only half-remembered. Of Olly trying to make Florette stand with her shoulders straight, of being pushed into the cupboard in Uncle Dieter’s room, of the way she said Your Mother as though there was more that Florette should know, but didn’t.

And it was because of those half-remembered things that Florette still hadn’t made the trip down south to see her grandmother. Too many things part memory, part dream.

***

She woke to the sun filtering dust motes that escalated upward. Under the low ceiling, the gully damp had made gray blots and prickles of shadow. Florette rolled to face the window, and the sheet of Masonite bowed and creaked under her. The curtain that was really a sheet was hanging crooked, pulled sideways by Jean-Claude’s cot. Piles of clothes sprawled wantonly, where they’d been dumped on the carpet the night before.

Jean-Claude was stretched sideways across his mattress. His summer-lightened hair straggled across the pillow and half covered his face. In his sleep, he was still a baby, although he would soon be two. His creased and dampish legs, turned outward at the hip, made that froggish shape that infants have. Pop Scanlon had said that Claude was on a good paddock. A plover screeched down on the flat and the boy’s eyelids flickered. He lurched toward his mother’s bed to pull intently at her faded cotton t-shirt. A flattened breast with a wide dark nipple puckered up at him. He leant toward it with his mouth already open and started to suck, mesmerized by the opposite nipple that he rolled in his other small hand.

***

Florette sat out in the morning sun, leaning against the gray timber wall of the kitchen, while Anemone and Claude splashed and sang in the old zinc tub. A bee hummed and landed on the side of the bath, and a light flickered for a moment on the opposite ridge. A haze of vapor hung over the gums. Back in the kitchen, the three sat at a small green table and ate until they were scraping their bowls. The phone rang and Florette bristled. She had only had it connected for a week. She walked toward it with her hand already poised in front of her.

***

The old gray Datsun crooned and roared along the road. Before leaving the gully that afternoon, she had found a couple of old photographs to show the children. She tried looking at them as though she’d never seen them before. Olly gave her a shock. She looked hard and sort of masculine, with Dame Edna Everage glasses. Florette couldn’t believe the taut sinews in her throat. There were a couple of photos of her mother, too, and Florette was surprised… She looks ugly! she thought. And there was one of herself in which she could have been the class bitch.

She tried to remember that time when she was eight or nine and had stayed with Olly. They had slept in the same room. At night, she would hear her grandmother get out of bed and sit on a bucket to pee. It didn’t seem so strange then, that she knew the sound by heart. It was the biscuit-chewing that drove her mad. Pretending to be asleep when Olly came to bed, she would lie listening to Scotch Fingers being turned to a sticky pulp in her grandmother’s mouth. Sometimes she would dig her nails into her palms, or even bite the back of her hand, to stop herself from screaming.

By Tasmanian standards, the two-hour drive to White Cliffs was almost unthinkable. There were families living in the Huon Valley who had visited Hobart only once in their lives, and had never ventured as far as Port Arthur. It was something to do with the geography of the island—the fact that nothing was in a straight line. It was when Florette turned off the main road that she started to think that perhaps they were going on a holiday. By that time, both of the children were asleep, the blond head tipped one way, the darker one tipped the other. In the dark, it was hard to believe that the river was down there. She concentrated on the road, preparing herself for rabbits or bandicoots that swerved at the edge of the gravel in the nick of time.

When they arrived at Change-y’r-day Bay, all the other houses were in darkness. A dog barked somewhere on the hill. A kerosene lantern had been left on a nail at the front gate. Before she even reached the front door, Florette knew every inch of the place… the wandering jew that clambered over a crooked trellis, the granite flagging that led to the front step, the terracotta pots of geraniums and hoya on the front veranda. She reached up and took the key from above the door, and before she saw anything beyond it, she smelled the familiar smell of old carpet and tea-leaves and mashed turnips.

Florette tugged the hallway light-cord and it flickered for a while before staying on. The lounge room light gave off a yellowish glow, washing the old gray carpet splotched with red roses, the divan covered in a crocheted blanket, the lemon crochet that had been left in a neat pile that morning. Small tables held photographs of grandchildren and great grandchildren, and over the mantelpiece, a broad-faced bride sat and a smooth-skinned groom stood and bent slightly forward for the camera.

She carried each child into the cold bedroom. Their limbs hung limp and heavy. She put them end to end on a mattress on the floor, then bent down and put her face into the eiderdown on Olly’s bed and breathed in the memory of her grandmother. She tiptoed out into the kitchen. Near the back door, sure enough, there was a bird cage covered in an old floral tablecloth. The stepladder was still pulled up against the cupboards where Olly had fallen only that morning. Broken hip, the sister had said. She squatted down and put her hand onto the old linoleum, hoping to feel her grandmother’s presence, but the floor was cold.

First filling a saucepan with water and putting it on the primus stove, Florette unlocked the back door and stepped out. There was one single step down onto a patch of grass, then a few meters beyond the house there was the dark broken shape of an elderly hawthorn hedge. She walked a little way along a sandy track and found herself standing on the beach, cold and blue-shadowed. Shallow waves made a phosphorescent line several meters away.

Late that night, Florette slid between the icy linen sheets of her grandmother’s bed. The children hadn’t stirred. Every time she started to doze off, a wave would drop itself on the sand and she would wake in fright. When you sleep in someone else’s house, she wondered…do you inherit the dreams of those who came before you?

***

The children woke early. Florette heard them chattering and giggling together, and then she dozed off again.

– Mummy, someone has let in Olly’s chooks! Anemone was saying. Florette dragged herself out of bed and followed her daughter to the back door, where she found a whole congregation of geese and ducks. She went out to the shed to look for their feed bin, and they hissed and swooned like a gaggle of French schoolgirls. While the fowls mimimimi’d and gwork’d over the pellets, Florette took a good look at the garden. One end of it was badly infested with buttercup. There were strawberry plants and bean frames everywhere. A clump of chives had gone to flower, rattling papery pompoms on top of stiff stalks. Up in one corner of the yard, there was still the abandoned shed that she had once made her own, lining one ledge with empty lemon essence bottles filled with colored waters.

The cottonwoods that Florette remembered so clearly had turned yellow, and had already lost a lot of their leaves. Anemone called excitedly from under the hawthorns and pointed to the place where a bath had been sunk into the ground, surrounded by garden and screened from the beach by the hedge. Between the bath and the house, there was a pathway of stones planted with some kind of tiny-leaved ivy.

– Look! Florette said, pointing up toward the small attic windows where a number of gray birds were flying in and out.

– Let’s have a look at the beach, Anemone decided.

With Claude on her hip, Florette was pulled past the hedge, past a mound of banana passionfruit and geraniums and some monstrous pigface-type plant, out onto the sand. Olly’s was the last house in a line of pretty cottages. There wasn’t that shanty-town look of the other holiday beaches that Florette had seen.

– There’s nothing dead! Anemone called from up ahead. And it was true. There were none of the rubbery seaweed, fish remains or dead birds that they usually found on the beach. Beyond Olly’s place, there was an almost sheer wall of pitted rock. Clumps of seagrass grew upward in every cranny, their roots hanging downward in a bleached mirror image. And in the corner of the beach between the cliffs and the house, they found a shallow cave in the rock face, lined with ferns and shrubs, and cut off from the beach by a big banksia.

– There should be a statue of the Virgin Mary in there, Florette laughed.

– It’s a cave, Anemone said breathlessly, stepping over the ferns toward the hollow in the rock face.

Milson’s Point station, Florette remembered. The train went past this solid wall of rock, and from it you always saw water oozing down, and ferns growing in the cracks. When she was at school on those stinking hot days, she would imagine that the green plaster wall beside her was that cliff-face oozing rivulets of cold clean water.

They walked up the beach, past the other half-dozen beach houses. They could see through a large uncurtained window into the back of the second last house.

-What are they doing? Anemone asked, running back to her mother.

There was a group of people gathered around a table, talking and filling their plates.

– It’s called being a family, Florette said.

Three children ran out the back door onto the beach and started digging for worms in the wet sand. Florette felt that she almost floated back to the cottage with her children, strangely unweighted to this place by the gravity of family dinners.

– Look at the mess you’ve made! the budgie accused, when the children burst inside the kitchen door.

***

– Give your grandmother a day or two before you come to see her, the nurse manager had said, when Florette rang to inquire … She’s still heavily sedated.

Florette picked a bucketful of green apples to make a pie, while the children gathered furry quinces off the ground.

– When we cook them to make jelly, Florette told them…they will all turn bright red, like Olly’s Sacred Heart picture.

– The soap on the basin is green and it smells green, Anemone sighed…and the fridge is round and yellow, and over the milk-jug there’s a pretty thing with shells hanging off it. I love Olly’s house!

– Olly’s house! Claude echoed, trying to bite into one of the quinces.

Florette let the children pick a bunch of pink nerines while she set about making Irish potato bread and apple dumplings for dinner.

That night, she went back to the beach with the kids. They searched for ripe banana-passionfruit, tearing the skins apart like soft leather to suck out the seeds. Anemone picked one of the crude pink flowers and stuck it in her hair. The pink clouds of the sunset reflected in the water reminded Florette of a crinkled plastic wallet she’d had when she was a kid. It was a warm evening. Anemone jumped on the edges of small plateaus made by the waves. There were plovers further along the beach and they’d made perfect three-toed prints on the sand. Voices carried across the water from a boat with a single light on it.

***

The next morning, Florette put the two children in the stroller and started out on the walk toward White Cliffs. She felt unreal walking along that unfamiliar road. The only sound they could hear was from a sprayer in an orchard about a kilometer away. The hawthorns along the fences were covered in scandalous red berries. There were plenty of dead things squashed flat along the road: birds, quolls, rabbits with their ears pointed sadly upward. It was so quiet, Florette wondered whether the silent people in the few houses that they passed might hear her boots on the road. In some places, they could hear water running in the ditch beside the road, or over a ledge in the creek where the willows had been bull-dozed. The piles of willow stumps were already sprouting millions of trees. They reached the shade of a strip of gums. Two cars passed. A calf lay half-on-half-off a driveway and looked dead until it flicked its ear as they walked past.

The three left the road and walked to a dam, skirting the furthest edge through a spindly copse of lancewood. Beyond the usual bracken and herringbone fern, there was a wide sward of long grass, lit lime by the low winter sun. It was a perfectly velveted hill. Anemone sighed. Claude had fallen asleep. A lone bull in the distance stopped and looked in their direction, and they turned. After that, Florette kept hearing noises coming up behind them. It was always like that. Whenever she walked north or south, she felt the invisible creeping up of things. East or west she could manage without fear.

***

The red gum had been so beautiful that year. They started off laden with big red berries, then turned into a haze of deep scarlet.

– I’d like to be a stained glass window, Florette said to the children… and have a blue cat called Matisse.

– Depardieu! Anemone replied, shaking her head.

Every chance they got, they explored the big garden. There were roses and vegetables, bulbs, fruit trees and ground covers all in together. Everything had been planted over old carpet, hay and manure. It gave the garden a certain look, as though it had all been put to bed. The grass behind the cottage was badly overrun by buzzies—a kind of twitch that spread horizontally across the ground and turned your socks into rags every summer. The place was run down. The fences needed repairing, there were gaps in the back wall of the bathroom, the doors needed painting. Some of the wattles beyond the fence had grown too big and were shading the vegetable garden. Even the small headland looked shabby—eroded and covered in a thatch of blackberries.

During the day, Florette kept the fire going on bits of driftwood and gum that she dragged home across the sand; then when the children were finally asleep in their bed, she stood with her bare feet in the outdoor bath, while a fine rain misted down on her. When the bath was full, she pulled off all the layers of her clothes, carefully piling them on a rock and standing in the open while she prickled with cold. Then she would slide down into the warmth. She would lie in the hot sunlight-soapy water a good long time, looking up into the branches of the hawthorns. She could hear the fowls squabbling over their wheat, and sometimes voices carried across the water.

Until now, Florette had always wanted to know where her life was headed. Even when she couldn’t make plans, she fussed about the future so much that it filled in her time. And now, for the first time, she’d chosen not to know where she was going. It was strange. This stillness and silence felt more purposeful than any of the striving ever had.

She’d taken some photos of the sunset. How the sun dribbled itself across the waves and onto the sand. They had swam that day. The waves had brought weed and debris into the little bay until it felt like soup. Florette had forgotten how it felt not to care about anything but eating and sleeping and staying warm. When the kids were grown, she would live like this.

In the main room, behind a bamboo curtain, she found a couple of shelves of old paperbacks, recipe books, and Readers’ Digests. She went to bed with a pile of them. In amongst the pile, she found an old photo album: the old-fashioned sort with black pages and hinges. The first photo was a small gray one of a family: five children in neat coats and hats and a man and woman, and in the background a huge ship. The next was of three boys in sailor’s uniforms with curly fringes and mischief all over their faces. There were others of long wharves, timber yards, conveyor belts carrying what looked like coal, dead trees sticking out of bare hills. There was one of a bridge that had come down and a bunch of school children being helped across the river on planks. There was one of the road covered in sea froth during a storm, children pulling each other up a hill in a buggy, identical mine houses all in a row. There was a man on a draught horse, and an old man standing outside a tiny cottage. There were others of whalers and whale boats, and a big two-story house.

The old recipe book was so silky and silent! On the first page, there were fish soups using halibut and sole, and further on there was a page on Cheap Cuts for Newlyweds. Olly would have been a newlywed in 1923, after Florette’s grandfather came back from being a stretcher-bearer in Ypres with mustard gas in his lungs and shrapnel in his neck. He must have come back to cheap cuts and Olly would have then moved onto a new chapter: Austerity Meals. You could tell by the photographs of those serious, big-faced children with blunt hair that their Sunday roast was breadcrumbs not meat, their gravy made of tomatoes, their puddings from dripping and semolina. Then there were the childhood illnesses—the sore throats soothed with butter and vinegar, the thin limbs built up with milk jellies. And the last sad chapter: Invalid Cookery. The job in the coal mines had become too much, and after four long years of not having a man at home, there he was, filling the long nights with bronchitis and the shrapnel that would never come out, would only go in deeper. That year when Florette’s mum was twelve, her father had finally given up the fight.

Something had happened to Florette’s mother, Yvette, and Florette knew that, somehow, the pieces all fit together. When she was a mere sixteen, Yvette had signed up for the duration of the war with the Australian Women’s Land Army. At twenty, she returned home, and Olly was married to an old wool-classer who would go off every few months or so, and Olly would be obliged to go looking for him, and haul him home. She had told her daughter, Yvette, that she didn’t want her coming home any more. At twenty-three, Yvette had married a man who looked like Van Johnson, and was referred to by his family as “Poor Mad Eddy.”

Florette had had no inkling of her grandfather’s suicide until she was sixteen, when her mother’s work friend had driven them to the infamous “Gap” on the edge of Sydney. She and her mother had stood at the cyclone-wire fence and peered down into the dark and the swirling waves dragging across slabs of rock. Sitting too close in the back of the car, on the way back to the suburbs, her mother had told her of the heavy parcel on top of the wardrobe, hidden inside a paper bag. “He asked me to get it down for him,” Florette’s mother remembered… “and then he was dead.”

“He always called me his girl!” Florette’s mother had always said. It was one of her too-girlish mantras.

Olly had put a piece of Manilla folder around the old recipe book, but one day it would be too far gone. Florette leafed through it, all the way to the end. There was a cross next to Chow Chow Pickles. Had her grandmother made those pickles? That simple penciled cross teased her beyond endurance.

The old yellow fridge hummed late into the night like a Tibetan monastery.

***

Anemone came in early the next morning and said that there was a lot of smoke hanging over the bay. Florette looked out the kitchen window and saw a blanket of gray over the south, lit pink underneath by a queer wintry sun. Anemone hated fire. At the age of four, she had already decided that she liked winter best, because there was no risk of bushfires.

It had been unnaturally hot for a couple of days. And now the day had arrived… the day Florette had decided to visit Olly. Her loyalty toward her mother, Yvette, made her feel torn between keeping some distance, and recreating some kind of relationship with her grandmother.

One of Florette’s Blundstone boots squeaked all the way down the polished corridor. It seemed that every room had at least one big-boned, frail old lady in it.

-Olly? she said, from the doorway of the last room. The woman looked up from a crossword and shifted her glasses…It’s me! Florette! the younger woman explained.

– How’s your mother? Olly asked, peering over tortoise-shell.

– Haven’t seen her for a while.

– And the fowls?

– One of the ducks bit Mummy on the leg, Anemone explained…and the geese go sss, sss! so Mummy takes the purple umbrella and shoos them and I get to look for the eggs and Claude tips the pellets in but sometimes he eats them… and the dams are nearly full and there was white feathers on the big one this morning and we played Baby Jesus in the cave but Claude wouldn’t let me wrap him up…

-Jesus! Claude joined in.

– How are you feeling? Florette cut in.

– If I can’t put weight on it they say I won’t be going home, Olly said… Speak to them for me, pet…see if you can make any sense out of them.

– We haven’t got the resources, the nurse said…She’ll only get rehab up in town.

***

– One last thing, Olly had said, grabbing at Florette’s hand just as she was about to go… pick up the vegetables for me on the way home… Promise?

– Cross my heart! Florette had laughed.

She drove up into the hills over White Cliffs, where you could see the town thrown like sugar cubes into the creases of an eider-down. There was a mist hanging over the farm, and crows aaarked at each other from a line of pines. Anemone was trying to make out the shapes of black and white cows in the distance.

The vegetables had been left in a waxed box beside a pine hedge. They filled the car with a delicious incense smell.

– What is it Mummy? Anemone asked.

On the way home, it started to rain. The red gums now looked faded and bedraggled, and the leaves of the wattles hung limp. A rivulet had already formed to one side of the dirt road, and the dams were looking overfull and dimpled.

Just as they arrived back at the beach house, the young woman from the next house was hauling herself out of her battered Volkswagen. Florette saw that she was heavily pregnant, and watched as the woman helped her child from the back seat. Florette waited, hoping to catch the woman’s eye, but she had turned and gone inside.

– That’s it! Florette said, holding a sprig of basil to Anemone’s nose and breathing the fragrance. Back in the kitchen, they reverently took the vegetables out and arranged them in baskets in the pantry.

Florette felt so strange…sad and wistful. Sometimes, she felt like saying to every Tasmanian she met: look, I’ve had friends, I have a family, I have brothers and sisters, I wasn’t born fully formed as an ambivalent migrant to this place…I have a history, too! I was even born of woman! My children also have a great-grandmother!

They went to the hospital twice the next week. Olly reminded Florette about the vegetables to be picked up that Friday. This time, there was a utility truck with a flat tire parked half across the dirt driveway, and in trying to edge past it, Florette had clipped the front bumper. She stopped and hurried over.

– It’s okay, a man said, coming from behind the truck…this old thing…

He had held his hand behind her back to reassure her. On the way home, when she tried to remember what had happened, she thought she remembered him touching her, and she thought she had momentarily leaned toward him. She tried to recall him, and the energy in those hands that may or may not have touched her. She kept going over it, recalling the presence of those hands, and the memory made her feel hot inside. When she fed Claude before bed that night, she wondered whether her milk was hotter than usual.

Close to midnight, a green car pulled up in the driveway next door. The lights were left on all night and shone in through Florette’s bedroom curtains. In the early hours of the morning, she dozed off, and had a disturbing dream. She was in her grandmother’s house, but she was a child again. Somehow, she realized that the place was full of snakes, and she and her grandmother both knew that they would have to kill the snakes by cutting off their heads. Florette held onto the body of one of them while Olly cut off the head. They dragged it outside and it became huge, as big around as a sheep, and it had little fin-things that were reaching up to feel the place where its head had been. Florette was horrified, and woke herself sobbing. She had always wondered whether something that was cut in two might feel the other half of itself missing. It made her think of herself–how she felt so divided, between her mother and her grandmother, between the past and the present.

The green car had gone by morning, and there were sheets and a couple of nappies on the line strung between the gums. Later that day, Florette knocked on the door and offered to mind the little girl for a while. Anemone and the child played happily for a time, but then Anemone came in crying.

– She said I’m not allowed to be her cousin anymore! she sobbed.

– Well, you’re not her cousin, Florette smiled, holding her daughter against her.

– It means she doesn’t want to play with me anymore, the child explained, exasperated.

It was such a dark, moonless night, but Florette could see the glow of the lights from next door, and the ache of it was like the saddest music.

***

Sometimes, life seemed as stark as a blank piece of tapestry canvas with only a couple of lines penciled in. And then, suddenly, some small thing would wrap every warp in satin weave, fill every corner with Byzantine color: knobbled, twisted, plaited, beaded…

Anemone had cut herself on some sword-grass in the garden, and Florette had searched the drawers of Olly’s dressing table for sticking plasters. In the bottom drawer on the left-hand side, she found the treasure drawer that her grandmother had let her look through when she was little and there were was a bad sea-storm. There was an old leather-bound missal with tissue-thin pages and hundreds of holy pictures stuck between them. There was one red felt baby shoe with leather trim and a black button. There was a yellowed lace handkerchief that smelled of lavender, and a lozenge tin of war medals and ribbons; a folded dinner menu written in German; a toffee tin full of buttons and lace, miraculous medals, bits of broken rosary beads and big brown coins. Florette fingered her grandmother’s simple mementoes, then leaned her forehead onto the dressing table and wept for that country from which she would always be exiled–the inexplicable past.

That last time that she drove to the hospital at White Cliffs, Florette visited the second-hand shop. She bought a little pair of pants and a smock for the baby next door, and a pot of rose pink dye. At home, she would tie-dye the little clothes, then she might even dye all of her underwear to a delicious cerise.

– Maybe I’ll see the vegetable man again, she hoped.

-Do you think you’ll ever settle here, Flor? Olly asked that last afternoon, with unfamiliar intimacy.

– I never thought I’d choose to leave, you know, but I thought something could make me have to go back, she said…It’s …I don’t think I’ll ever be a local, but maybe my kids will. I know it’ll be hard.

– You don’t say! Olly smiled thoughtfully…Listen, pet… Where do you think I got a name like Olly Heim from? Out of a shoe-box? You come from a long line of exiles, y’know…

Florette frowned and grabbed the big-knuckled old hand.

– When are you coming home Olly?

Philomena van Rijswijk is a Tasmanian poet, novelist and story-writer. Her second novel, The World as a Clockface, was published by Penguin in 2001. Her poems and short stories have been published in collections and literary journals in Australia, Ireland, and India. Her work was included in Best Australian Stories 2002 (Black Inc) and Best Australian Poetry 2005 (UQP). Some of her stories have been translated into Hindi by Dr. Sitesh Aloke.  Her poetry collection, Bread of the Lost, was published by Walleah Press in 2013. In 2016, she was awarded the Masterton District Fellowship, spending three weeks at the New Zealand Pacific Studio. Her dystopian novel, House of the Flight Helpers, will be published by Tartarus Press UK.

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