The day begins in disappointment.
In the fish trap that goes up and down like a blind, we catch only leaves and a long stick. Worse, again there are no muddies in the crab pots. I’m beginning to doubt that in my garden, the little green line is spinach, for the tweezer shapes look like the blades of ordinary couch grass. GG labours over the fish trap, the wire box that once protected the lemon tree. He’s made a fish trap once before on my insistence- sometimes I’m a matriarch – but it got crushed under the pontoon.
“Nothing’s going to crush this. It’s got so many brackets, it’s probably overengineered”, he says.
I ask can we put ropes on it, and use it as a trawler, towing it behind the boat?
I’ve watched C, s professional fisherman, and a few illegal fisherpeople, trawling up the creek, their boats moving slowly, nets behind.
“ That’d break it. After all this work!”
A few days ago I shouted from our jetty to F and S:
“Lets have drinks one night from our jetties.
“Drinks at 6?”
At 6.10 I look across to see if they’ve arrived. Between us is Pink House S’s beach,the longest strip of sand in the bay, that ends in front of their house. It’s low tide. F has set two little café tables at least 4 metres apart, not just 2 metres, along with chairs and charming little vases of flowers. I run up to the house and call to GG that it’s really happening and to hurry, turn off dinner and serve up for K, only noticing as I do that the chicken isn’t cooked. So I just serve her up vegetables. I’ll run back and take off the chicken. Suddenly, it doesn’tseem enough for us all. So I pull out the daunting chicken wings from the box freezer, throw them unthawed into a bowl and rather than spicing them painstakingly with an assortment of spices, just douse them with half a bottle of sweet chili sauce.
Down on the beach, we sip our drinks and chat. It’s a beautiful, calm, balmy evening, and in this light and with this tide, you wouldn’t know it was mud flats. We could be on a beach anywhere, and it feels like a holiday.
We talk about how to get oysters off the rocks. F and S often do it.
How do you tell a bad one? I ask.
Just the smell, says F.
GG and I talk about how much we love this bay.
“When I travel, it’s here I yearn for,” I say.
F admits she didn’t like the bay at first – she prefers open sea, and golden sand. She adds that she’s just bought a house, this week, for an air BnB, in nearby Pearl Beach.
“I’d like a fire,” she suddenly breaks off to say. It seems sheer joy, to decide have a fire just for the fun of it, on an almost beach all to ourselves,. Laughing like kids , we all scamper around collect and arrange sticks. She produces a lighter, but the sticks barely smoulder. I find ferns because in summer I learned how flammable they are. But the fire still doesn’t take so I promise firewood, run up to the house, take the chicken off the BBQ and serve it out for K, put the chicken wings on the BBS instead and add three small kumera, and grab a three logs from the fireplace. But by now, the fire is roaring.
“The ferns did the trick”, says F.
When the party’s about to break up because everyone’s hungry, I remember the chicken wings and run back for them, wondering how to transport them. I decide to serve them in a lettuce lined plastic box and take small plastic boxes for plates, forks for all, and stick under my arm a roll of kitchen towels for serviettes.
Everyone devours them and heaps praise on my cooking, as if I’d been very inventive but it was only that sauce bottle. I think they seemed delicious because of good company, sea air, and the delight of the evening. Or is that how you become a good cook?
GG texts me all the way back: “Leaving now.” “Traffic jam”. “Stopped at chemist”. “At Bunnings: only one gas bottle allowed, so got big one.”
“Get spinach seedlings”.
“What they got?”
“Nothing. Rocket. Parsley. Chives. You want?”
Is everyone becoming farmers?
“Packets of seed?”
“Found them. What you want?”
“Spinach. Carrots. Tomatoes.”
K is sneezing with an allergy and its true, the bedroom smells mouldy. Both of us are allergic to mould, but she’s extremely allergic to dust. I tell her to sit on the deck and I methodically clean her room, pulling out the bed and vacuuming behind it, under it, behind the drawers, the cupboards. I take out a big mat, her bags. I take down her curtains with their linings and hang them in the sun. One of them slips and falls- I din’dt use pegs- onto the cabin roof. I’ll get it later. I’m that sort of person. Enough is enough. That’ll do. I’ll do it later. My mother was beautiful and violent and spent her life scrubbing. Until in the middle of writing my last novel, I’d never worked out that in her, those three were connected. Beauty, Violence. Scrubbing. I think because of my mother, I’m very slapdash about cleaning. I’m so slapdash, it embarrasses me in front of other women, but I cannot bring myself to clean. But now I must. After two hours, I still can’t find where the smell comes from.
“Maybe outside it’s coming from outside”, she calls from the deck, where she’s gazing at the river. I’m working so hard, I’ve stripped down to my undies,
I go out the back door and walk the narrow alley between the back of the house and a terraced wall of stones that someone probably built in the depression. I often picture these families, for they built the original houses of the village. Some houses have lots of terracing, some, like ours, just a little. I imagine the houses with lots of terracing were ruled by strong matriarchs of women who demanded their men terrace the hillside for vegetable gardens. Our house didn’t have such a matriarch, for this and the wall up a side path is the only stonework.
I find what K suspected. Just under her window, there are two cracks in the fibro, and one of them ends in a large gaping hole.
I text Ian, the builder who rescues our house over the years when we have money. A new bathroom instead of the old one built 40 years ago, insulation in the roof that made summer bearable, the leaks in the living room, and the marvellous, hard-working flying fox.
“A hole in the back wall seems to be mouldy, outside K’s bedroom. She’s allergic to mould. Can you please help?”
GG arrives 3 hours later, elated. I’m elated too. I run down, catch the boat and help him tie up.
His news is that DB has cleaned the barnacles off the boat, and it now planes. We’ve been asking DB for months to clean it, and it never happened.
“Do you think it’s because we’ve become locals?”
His other news is that B will come up to cut up the fallen trees tomorrow or the next day. He says Brutus needs to go bush.”
GG with his one arm can’t cut up trees and then times I’ve tried to saw, I scarcely made a dent in the wood. My artist father was a great handyman, but he always sent me away. Sawing and hammering was not for girls. At least I’ve taught myself to hammer now, but I missed out on all that early boy mind. It’s being here that eventually taught me the simplest things. Like, which way to turn off a tap if you can’t see the stream of water. I’ve asked that of my women friends in a café in the city. Which way does a tap turn off? They sit miming tap turning off, and sometimes guess it wrong.
We unpack the boat. He has dozens of bags. Again, it’s like moving day, without the furniture. And then K points out that we shouldn’t touch shopping that might’ve been touched by someone else. We shouldn’t touch it for five days, because the virus lasts on surfaces for five days.
“We should put the chicken and fish away, but nothing else.”
We gaze at her. Is she right? She’s probably right. But what sort of world is this, that you can’t put away the shopping for five days?
We decide to put the shopping away anyway, and afterwards, wash our hands, singing “Happy Birthday” twice.
We’ll probably be alright.
I wouldn’t be, in the city.
Written March 27, 2020.
While he’s in the city, I sleep in his study. I wake always about 6.45. In the precious few minutes before I must get up to make K’s breakfast- she won’t eat breakfast if left to herself- I gaze out the two windows that face not the sea but the bush, windows to bushland. At one window, the hill runs from the bottom window frame to the top frame and it’d go beyond, if I could see through the wall, beyond a huge sandstone rock coloured orange and apricot and cream, that I used to gaze anxiously at, fearing one day it might roll onto this quaking house. Always disaster awaited me. But then I was told by old timers, old river people, that this sort of rock is known as a sinker rather than a floater, and you can trust sinkers; they’re just tips of an iceberg, and my iceberg tip is sandstone orange and apricot and cream. So underneath my tip might be a vast rock. There’s something that pleases me in knowing this. I remember when I lived in the desert for 18 months, I longed for the sea, and so I comforted myself by knowing that way underneath, there was a huge underground sea.
Ferns and zanthorreas are everywhere to the side of my iceberg tip, and tiny lime green and grey-green plants I have no names for, though I’m sure someone has, and a shy little vine with purple berries that are sweet delights though never a meal- how did the old people find enough? The path I can see from here – I’ll call it a path that though it’s only a track for water and the small night animals that I sometimes hear- meanders from the bottom of the window frame up the hill to the window frame’s top, where there’s a stand of angophora glowing gold and pink in the soft morning light. There’s sweet, pungent, aniseed-tasting sarsaparilla over to the side of the path, and sometimes I pick the leaves, stuff them in the teapot and pour on boiling water. It’s sheer pleasure, the plucking of the leaves, the bunching of them into the teapot, the sparkling stream of hot water. The teapot was a gift from GG long ago, with a naively-painted picture of a quaint village in front of a lake with people rowing- he gave it to me long before we ever owned this house, ever thought of it. He’d laugh if he heard me say it, but did he have second sight? And then sipping the pale, sweet aromatic tea, a tea that tempts you to read poetry.
Out the other window there’s the lacey intricacy of the bush, more zanthorreas, and beyond, B and N’s two water tanks under an almost suburban garage roof that they us for collecting rain. B and N built the house with friends, one of them a famous architect, then they realized it was too difficult to live here with their babies, so we lost them to Melbourne. They haven’t lived here for ten years or so, but because we helped them out in tiny ways, easy for us, they allowed us to use their water, and that’s a huge gift. Before their gift, we often ran out of water and would have to go back to the city and cower there until it rained heavily, enough to fill our tanks again. It’s their generosity, their water that keeps our vegie garden going, and that will keep us going, once I become a farmer.
When I’m in the city this is what I crave, gazing at this meandering path with its embroidery of leaves.
I can’t hear K’s heavy footsteps in the big house, so I linger, listening to bird calls. That one there! It’s such a rich, thick sound – am I listening to one bird, or two. How could it be two, with no conductor bird standing before them, twig baton raised? Does one bird, out of its side long eye, see the other puff its chest, hear the other breath, do they sense each other’s indrawn breath, do they signal “now”? No, it’s so perfect a unison, it must only be one bird singing.
And then K slams a door upstairs, and the day begins.
But in the dark of night, at 3.40 AM precisely, while sleeplessly I lie listening to Zola’ Lasommiere on librivox, the reader’s voice suddenly stops. Just like that. A sudden cessation. I flatten the sheets between me and my computer so I can see it. The internet lights are out. Why are they out? I listen for the murmur of the fridge, the soft chug chug as it changes motion, and all I hear is silence. The deep silence of the bush. There’s a wallaby eating grass- the soft catarrhish old man sound in its throat. I swing out of bed- I’m sleeping in GG’s study while he’s away-and, suddenly aware something has gone wrong, I run out bare-footed in the dark, and open the fridge door. No light. We have no power. What’s happened? With no power, our freezer full of food for forever will go off! I grab the torch I keep in the kitchen and hold it to the little computer screen off on the side, wall that tells us how good the power is, and the power’s low. Normal on a good sunny day is 12 or beyond. Now It’s 11, and that’s not so low. Why would it cut out at 11? It’s cut out before, but at 10. 6. And slowly, forcing my sleepy brain to function, I work out that perhaps it was in the tens before everything shut down, which allowed it to bounce a little higher.
I go into K and sit on her bed and wake her gently.
“We’ve got no power,” I say.
She’s awake immediately, a child of her father.
“It’s easily fixed . Put on the generator.”
Sometimes she’s a child, sometimes she’s as old as me, or older. Are we all like that? Or is it only autistic people?
“At this hour? What about F and S? It’ll wake them up, give them an awful fright.”
And we speak of another couple whose boat arrived this afternoon. I used to be the woman’s closest friend, but I’m often clumsy and stupidly offended her husband. I forgot that in a couple, you must have a good relationship with two people. I don’t know how to retrieve my mistake. When I see her on her jetty, my heart crunches. This afternoon, I tried to stop gazing at her, but my eyes had a life of their own. We all live with many griefs, large and small.
Now we both think: Her husband might storm up our stairs, might shout:” How dare you!”
“He’s not the shouting type,” K says.
“He’d use the generator if his power broke down,” I say.
“You have to do it,” she says. “We can’t let the food go off. If he comes up here, just say –“
She loves acting out which she does now, arms outstretched, voice like anything out of the soap operas she loves-
“You want us to starve?”
“But he’d probably like that!”
I take heart from her and take the torch out to the deck (we’ve never worked out how to install lights on the deck and often eat only by moonlight or candlelight ) where we keep the generator, and I’m comforted by knowing it has plenty of petrol. GG is a dependable person, much more than me, and prides himself in keeping all systems ready to go. If we were caught short, he wouldn’t be able to live with himself.
My torch light startles the wallaby and it thumps away, crashing through the listening bush. Somehow this is reassuring, that nature is there , despite the world in chaos.
The generator roars into life, scattering the sleep of our neighbours and the peace of stars silently floating upside down in the bay. Despite the racket, I pull out the choke, hold it for 20 seconds, push it back in and the generator roar goes up a notch, maybe two, maybe three. It’s like the firing of a cannon. Fifty yards away, you couldn’t have a conversation in such a din. I itch to switch it off, but I manage to control myself, leave it on and go inside and sit on K’s bed.
“You need only keep it on for a half hour,” she says, again the daughter of her father.
“He’s done that?”
“He told me once.”
So I sit anxiously on her bed, and we hold hands like lost children in a forest, watching the steps, fearing our neighbour.
She repeats her previous success: “All you have to say is: do you want us to starve? “
It’s even better the second time. We both giggle.
It’s a long half an hour. I keep running out to check the computer. At last the needle says that the power has climbed up to 12.1.
“Enough”, K says.
So I go out to the deck and switch the generator off and the sudden silence seems as alarming as the din.
The needle wavers, then settles at 11.4.
I call it out to K.
“That’ll do,” says K from her bed.
“There might be sun in the morning,” I say. “Or if there isn’t, we’ll run it again.”
She settles down in her bed, pulling the blanket over her head, and I go back to my bed in GG’s study. I no longer need a story to fall asleep by, and I’m wakened in a stream of golden sun.