Leaving Laurel

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Wednesday 3 November 2010

My thoughts became background music for an immeasurable beat there, perhaps only enough time it takes to breathe in deep, perhaps a decade.  For a second, I got to swim unconscious and dreaming, but now I’m plonked back into clock time.

But then, what is time anyway, except something some innocent, stupid monk invented in the eleventh century as an aide to something ineffable, and which we’ve turned into something to flagellate ourselves with?  Whatever the length of the beat of respite from myself, something has prodded me aware again, like being woken up from a dream that was perfectly good while you were in it but which falls off the bone like long-roasted meat now you’re shivering out of it.  I’ve been sitting here in my chair at home in McKinnon daydreaming about the last time Naomi and I were at Wartook.  I search for the spike that brought me awake and yes, there she is, of course.  There is Laurel, in the flesh, in the world, at Wartook.

We were last down there – or over there, or whatever we do when we go west from McKinnon to our bush block in the shadows of the Grampians – in late December, just after Christmas.  It does not feel possible that Laurel was there with us then, not even a full year ago.  It does not seem in the least bit possible because she feels so far gone, for so long.

Time is not linear.  Whoever came up with that idea is a kook.

Time is not linear, and my memory is not reliable.  I hate that idea, I really do.  It scares me.  My memory kids me around, delivering up bits of dialogue I discover later, upon consultation with someone else – if their memory is any more trustworthy than mine – was not in fact said by me in the kitchen but was said by someone on Radio National to Naomi in the lounge room.  Or was not said at all, but only imagined by me.  So was Laurel really at Wartook in December, angry, upstanding, when it is already the November following?  Yes, of course she was.

That was only 11 months ago.  And 11 centuries.  Laurel was there, exhausted but angry, and we stared dumbly from behind our respective newspaper and book as she shoved her furious feet into Naomi’s awful pair of pink rubber shoes with the holes in them at the front door, flung it open and slammed it shut behind her.

In the silence ensuing Laurel was four years old – all that curly hair then, the white blonde that would darken as her years increased into a mousy brown by her teenage years, hidden underneath colours out of a packet, of black, red, blonde, with steps shaved into the sides, ageing her parents.  But at four, her hair was still white, and she still had a temper.  Another slammed door, into her bedroom, tears and throwing of books on the other side.

Funny what lasts to stab you 40 years later which at the time was just another day, after a full shift at work and before dinner, the irritations of a commonplace Tuesday.  Laurel, showing me that day’s kinder picture painted on crinkle-edged paper.  That little voice, coming back from the past like a scent, all high and indignant.

“Mrs Kennedy is silly, Daddy.  Well, she is,” said over her shoulder to her mother.  “She said that rocks aren’t pink.”

Another newspaper, a seventies edition, and a growling belly.  A distracted father, inured a little to the transience of that little voice by hearing it yesterday and tomorrow, drudged out by work.

“Well, rocks aren’t really pink, sweetie.  They’re usually brown.  You know that, we saw them last week, remember?”  A flick to the sports section, an article about Peter Crimmins being dropped for that year’s Grand Final, the poor bugger.

Then a tearful girl, retreating to her room.  A bewildered father resurfacing.  What’d I say?

Gee, when I think back – a baby myself at 25.

Later on, the remonstration.  “We saw them, Daddy.  We saw the pink rocks!”

And we had, too.  The first trek I took her on, pre-dawn so I could get the shot of Redman’s Bluff as the sun came up.  Everything pink before the mist came and covered it over again and a little girl whined all the way back down to the car.  The rocks pink where the sun hit them.

“You’re not listening to me!” she said, after she returned, sweating and limp, 34 years and five minutes later, from where she’d been sitting on the seat just outside the front door.  Naomi and I had shared an uncommon uncomfortable silence in her absence, the cicadas outside and a giant rock springing up between us and what we weren’t yet ready to face.

“Listen to what I am trying to tell you, parents!  I need you to be real about how this is,” she said, her body drooping now.  And then having to drag herself to bed after her outburst, and move between there and the chair outside for the next two weeks, the job still doable at that stage, transportable in the laptop computer, no partner, no children, only the closest couple of friends to remain now her life was beginning to fall like her skin off her bones slowly, and then not so slowly over the next few months.  She never did get back home after that.  After we left Wartook, Laurel came back to McKinnon with us.

We sat then where I am sitting now in the back room and watched a movie about biology.  She was wrapped up on the couch in her blanket at the end of January, not so angry so often now, four weeks on.  I was wrapped up in my rage on the chair, trying to hold it in, it spilling out like pomegranate at work, in the toilet, in the car.  Now, we sat, Naomi home from work, watching a movie about biology, the complexity within a cell.  The whole replication thing – some little machine coming along and unwrapping the DNA like a gift, reading the ingredients to make every type of protein, like a cake recipe.  Then the RNA flying away, out of the cell, out to make another one.  Wasteful, extravagant life and it surprised me, that feeling of awe, followed by a spurt of anger at a god I do not believe in.

Once I walked outside into the 1979 version of the backyard, a newly-purchased Police album soundtracking out the screen door.  No pergola in this backyard, the gum tree still in the back top right corner.  Eight year old Laurel in the middle of the grass, tear-stained from the morning’s dead cat in the gutter, ants already working in and out of its mouth.  Two of the outside chairs facing each other to form a table, a white sheet from the hall cupboard over the top, a makeshift altar.  Upon it were the best things offered up:  the white teddy Bobo, the collection of ceramic horses and dogs and cats, the Enid Blyton books.

I can see out into that yard from where I am still sitting here in this chair.  I can see Naomi moving in the kitchen like from the bottom of the sea.   Her face is drooping while she moves from the fridge, then out of sight to the bench where she is chopping something.  Her hair, like mine, has greyed.  When we first met, that first holiday away together – geez, with Dave and Gracie, to Venus Bay.  In that house we stayed at for two weeks, we scored the room with the leadlight mirror on the wall next to the bed.  We watched ourselves moving together, keeping it quiet, in the wonder of a good fit.

I really hope that the strands haven’t torn from their moorings, but you never can tell until afterwards, can you?

I’ve started remembering my dreams again, just as I’m beginning sometimes to panic in the daytime because I can’t conjure Laurel’s face up so easily.  But at night, she’s all there, it’s all still there.  It’s like pouring in honey, followed by a punch in the gut.  I cannot say whether I would prefer the months where I felt too numb to sleep but slept more than usual, remembering none of my dreams at all.  Now they won’t bloody stop.

Last night’s double, like something out of a seventies cheesy movie, Laurel looking back at me, hair intact, long and curly, the steps long grown out, but now with those awful highlights she had a couple of years ago.  Trees all around, a reprise hike, ending at the top of Redman’s Bluff.  I forgot for a second whether we actually did that, or whether it was only a dream.  But we did.  No real sign then of the breath that would be drained from her lungs three years later, except that now we know it was hidden, awaiting unwrapping, inside the recurrent episodes of bronchitis that were beginning to plague her already.  She took more frequent hiking stops that year.

The dream I had last night after I peed was swirly.  A walk through a dark smoky hallway like something out of a bad eighties video clip.  A figure up ahead of me.  A second of incomprehension when it turned and I realised that the figure ahead of me was me.

I stood in the shadows of our bedroom last week and watched Naomi staring out the nine-paned window at the street, at a car moving away.  She had been shuffling about in the cupboard in the spare room to find the piece Laurel had showed us on the couch after the biology doco, embarrassed and laughing.  Some of the poetry she’d written as a teenager, an ode to a boy who had ruined her life irreparably by breaking her only heart:

Ten thousand times my thoughts walk
towards you and
ten thousand times I walk them away.

What is the point in me walking to
spaces where
nobody is and you do not remain?

I actually thought it was pretty good, you know, for a 17 year old.  Much more restrained than some of the other stuff she showed us before she couldn’t bear the shame any longer and packed it all away.

I unpacked it all again yesterday.  I wish she’d gone on writing.  She kept it up for a little longer than most, had a few published.  Before she sent the first one off, she asked Naomi to proofread it.  She’d typewritten it onto a piece of paper, after several attempts getting an intact 12 lines without any mistakes.  Put it into an envelope with a 41 cent stamp on the front, a stamped, self-addressed envelope inside.  Six months later, an acknowledgement, a complimentary copy.  I found the envelope yesterday, with a golden wattle stamp on the front, commemorating Australia Day 1990.  That would have made her 18 or 19.  I can’t find that book she was published in anywhere.  Got on the internet this morning, and with the clunkiness of a moron managed finally to order the back editions that are available.   I am scared her poem will end up being in edition 2, the only one not available from that year, and I will throw the remaining books around the room, breaking glass objects.

Naomi and I are going to Venus Bay in December.  A change of scenery and all that.  Avoid the whole Christmas thing, just for the first year.  The thought of us going away together bubbles a little in my gut, takes a few seconds to identify as fear.  It has gotten a little too easy to not bother looking at each other when we talk, out the sides of our mouths, barely moving our lips.

She suggested yesterday unexpectedly that we reprise where it all began – and indeed where Laurel began, though we didn’t know that part yet.  Surprise in Naomi’s voice as she sat at the computer for her turn to clunk away.  Up on the screen, the house we stayed at when we first went to Venus Bay, now an accommodation joint, unrecognisable from the shack it was the first time round.  Available up till Boxing Day, willing to slug us for the privilege.

The first morning at the patchouli version of Venus Bay, I woke and Naomi’s side of the bed was crumpled and empty like the paper packets from the sausage rolls we’d eaten the day before on our drive up here, or over here, or whatever we did when we travelled from our respective homes in Melbourne east to a summer holiday at Venus Bay.

A tiny place still, but back then, in 1970, a population you could hold in one hand, and not much there.  Sort of the way we liked it, even back then, the four of us wandering around like goons, smoking joints, feeling the lurve.  The house was the one Dave grew up in, his parents newly moved to Melbourne, following after their kids, doing the reverse of a late-middle-aged seachange.  Venus Bay, named after the trading vessel of George Bass, the bloke the Strait was named after.  The good ship Venus.

See, there's where the distinctions blur because I have a snapshot memory now of us sitting out on the beach the night we got there, singing Sex Pistols  lyrics and bubbling, but it couldn't have happened like that because that song was about another seven years into the future.  Listened to at the house of my younger brother, myself already the father of a seven year old, an older, more responsibly-citizened version of myself, almost 30.  The 30 of the seventies was like the 45 of the now.  Old enough to know better, I suppose people would say now, but geez, it wasn’t all quite so fake and uptight back then.

But this memory is real though:  Naomi's side of the bed crumpled.  Barely light.  A sweet chill in the air, though it is late December.  The back door of the house open.  I walk out and stand on the back steps, the concrete cool underneath my bare feet.  The garden runs away from the house down to the back fence.  A little gate in the fence and beyond that, the sand and the water.  Naomi stands on the shore, facing the sea.  Her black hair is drawn off her face by the breeze, running down her back in waves.

She is stepping out of a pair of shoes, wearing a jumper and nothing else.  As I watch she takes that off too, and steps into the water.  It is the most erotic thing I have ever seen.  I feel from 30 paces away the tiny white hairs stand up on her legs as she keeps walking until she is submerged in the sea.

When I reach the shore, drops of rain have begun to fall.  They plop onto the sand, bounce off the water.  When I reach Naomi, she is lying on her back in the middle of the sea in the rain.  She smiles, without opening her eyes, knowing it is me.

(c) Copyright 2010  Sue Stevenson

An Uncorporate Life


Tuesday 2 November 2010

Yesterday evening the manfriend and I drove down to Thai Angels for some takeaway.  While we waited half an hour for it to be cooked, we went for a walk around the side streets of West Footscray, down Warleigh Road and exploring the newly-formed Beaurepaire Way and adjacent streets, a new housing development on the site of the old Southern Tyres land.

Unbearably neat townhouses run along the length of Warleigh Road too, across the road from that old white Victorian house I went and looked at when it was for sale years ago, another lifetime ago when I was trying to find a house that would make everything okay inside my soul, out the tail end of a six-year illness and a marriage, me so unbearably messy, everything hanging out of me like sausages.

Now the Victorian has across from it a long row of townhouses in the current style, two storeyed, combining dark brick with lighter rendered areas, clean lines, every surface clean, straight lines, the landscaped gardens corporate style - completely inoffensive, like corporate art, wanting to make a statement and an impression without actually saying anything.

Down Beaurepaire Way is a children's playground, new and pristine, safe with its coating of rubber underlay.  Next to it is a large, grassed public area with a sign saying Keep Off the Garden.  The row of townhouses which run down two sides of this area have a bit of green for their eyes to rest upon.  It does give a nice feeling of space, and even a slight nod to community living.  It is not, however, apparently a space they're allowed to muddy up by placing their defecating, orgasming, farting, dying bodies upon.  A corporate public space, for show.  (Or, depending on your view and your selling point, an iconic space).

The long white Southern Tyres building and its art deco round-windowed office building still stand facing out the other side, onto Cross Street and the Sydenham railway line.  Many of the windows have been broken by disaffected 14 year olds asthmatic at the ambivalence of West Footscray on the one hand going pretty, on the other hand its new footpaths and walkways no more inclusive and welcoming than the previous incarnation.

The townhouses proposed for this site are ones I could never afford.  A one-bedroom apartment is yours for the bargain price of 340 grand.  A two-bedroom deal up on Warleigh Road will set you back closer to half a million).

We walk back along Cross Street and then round the back of these two buildings.  From here we are facing once again the public grassed area further out in front of us.  Its pristine safety is separated from this view by temporary fencing, from the as-yet unreconfigured mess of old abandoned buildings.  More townhouses ran off to the left of us, and as we walk towards them I think that if I was a new inhabitant of one of those townhouses, I would prefer it to stay how it is right now, the old buildings and their now-vacant land space, dirt turned to mud, glutted with water from the recent rains, the earth just lying there in the rest of being fallow, barren but honest space.

Earth breathing while it can, until another 40 townhouses get slapped down upon it, each one taking up 96% of its available footprint, blocking out the view of the Sita Bus Lines building with its red and yellow sign up on Sunshine Avenue, on the other side of the train line.  I've never seen that bus lines building from this angle before.  I've driven past it and ridden past it in a train carriage hundreds of times and thought it ugly, with its concreted yards and rows of buses lined up facing the wall, like kids in trouble at school in earlier times.

Perhaps it's just the chilliness of the air that suddenly fills me with melancholy.  Unseasonably chilly, making me feel like there should be a football game on the telly and a coat round my shoulders.  A melancholy come in suddenly sharp and tart like lemon on the tongue, right on the back of a moment of gratitude as I walk the streets with my beloved, in anticipation of a good meal, good company, a public holiday the next day, a spacious, workless day of meditation, yoga, walking, lovemaking, cooking, writing, of being inside a body and a life with mess, waste and tears, joy, snatches of hope, and music, and fear.  A real, Velveteen rabbit life, everything belonging.  An entirely uncorporate sort of a life.