Excerpt from In The Mood
Summer Hill, 1946
Catherine pulled a load of sheets in from the line, dry already by mid-morning in this balmy weather. A low wooden fence, and the temperaments of the women who lived there separated her and Pam’s back gardens. Runner beans and tomatoes, planted neatly in squared-off rows, ran all the way down the back of Pam’s. A henhouse on one side, empty now because her cock wouldn’t stop crowing at three am – and a henhouse without a cock is a pitiful thing, said Pam. Last year Pam had culled the chickens one by one – Catherine didn’t know and didn’t ask where the beheadings took place – and invited her to the feast. ‘It’s Harriet tonight, with turnips, carrots and spuds from the garden.’ In Bondi the most their neighbor had ever offered them was a G & T.
She must have grown up on a farm, Catherine assumed, but no, Pam had grown up in this very house. A far cry from Catherine’s childhood where, even after the last maid had left them and there was hardly enough money to cover the grocer’s bill, the garden was for dahlias and prize-winning rhododendrons. It would no more have occurred to Catherine’s mother to raise and kill a chicken than to fatten up and slaughter the family cat.
In Catherine’s backyard the borders flourished in a messy tangle of daisies and wild climbing rose. Quite beautiful, thought Catherine, although she knew Pam despaired of her. The fence between them was a leaning gap-toothed paling affair, neither of the women interested in mending it although Pam surely would have been capable.
But today Pam’s garden was starting to resemble Catherine’s. Tomatoes rotted on the vine and three stakes had fallen over and not been set right again. Were they home? The kitchen curtains were drawn back, and a pair of tea towels flapped on the line, but the back door was closed, and no sound of radio or voices disturbed the heavy quiet.
‘They’re called melting moments,’ she told Pam, standing a few minutes later at Pam’s front gate. ‘I had to use lard for shortening but I think they’ll still be quite nice.’ She was absurdly pleased at how well they’d turned out.
‘Don’t they look lovely,’ said Pam. ‘Won’t Des be pleased with these?’
‘Shall I say hello? I’m dying to.’
‘He’s in his room, pet.’
‘But come up and have a cup of tea.’
‘I don’t want to disturb – ‘
‘I’ll set us up on the verandah.’
‘Just a quick one, then.’ She could keep an eye out for Robert from there.
‘Has he told you what he’s been through yet?’ asked Pam, once they were settled. Flowering vines curled around the wrought iron lacework of the front verandah, shading them from the blasting sun and filling the air with competing perfumes. Sharp sweetness of jasmine and liquid musk of wisteria, confusing Catherine’s nose and lodging in her throat.
‘I’ve been crying my eyes out at what Des’s been telling me.’
‘Robert won’t tell me anything.’
‘Dear, I’m sure you don’t want to know. Des stays in his room all day and he speaks of nothing else. He’s weak, the doctor said, but … what’s the use?’
‘To be intimate,’ said Catherine fiercely. ‘To be close again. Robert and I never had any secrets from each other before the war. We were the best of friends.’
Pam laid her hand on Catherine’s arm. ‘I don’t know how we’re meant to manage this. I really don’t.’
So it wasn’t just she and Robert who were finding things hard, thought Catherine, irritated with herself. How typical that somehow she’d thought they might have been. Pam bit into a biscuit and thick yellow cream oozed onto her fingers.
‘We went to Callan Park the other day, to see the army psychiatrist.’
Catherine choked on a crumb. ‘A psychiatrist? Surely … is it that bad?’
‘Oh just to get a little bit of advice, you know,’ said Pam quickly. ‘About Des’s nightmares and … all that. You know. He stays in his room.’
‘Well.’ Catherine didn’t know what to say. People didn’t speak of such things. Except Lewis. That gave her courage. ‘Was it helpful?’
‘They said it was up to me. To be bright and cheerful and not to say he’s changed and not to mind when he says I’ve changed and not to ask questions and to make sure everything is as it was before he left.’ Pam looked about herself doubtfully, checking perhaps to see that nothing had changed during their conversation.
Catherine bit down hard on this information, tasting its bitterness and its wisdom. This was the advice everyone gave. It must be right. She must use it, she told herself. She must make it work.
‘Is it helping, do you think?’
Pam’s china-blue eyes swam with tears. ‘I don’t get the chance, do I? He stays in his room.’
She felt soft and small in Catherine’s arms, like a little animal.
‘There there, there there, it will be all right.’
Before now it had always been Pam comforting her, and that’s what she’d said to her, over and over last year. Laughable, ridiculous, but nevertheless it comforted. Catherine held on as a gale of sobs shook Pam’s soft back.
‘I couldn’t look at him. I met him at the train and he was so thin, like a skeleton.’
‘I’m sure he didn’t notice,’ said Catherine, picturing the scene. Crowds of men and women surging towards one another around the train, announcements echoing around the grand sandstone walls and flocks of pigeons fluttering up to the eaves. ‘He wouldn’t have known.’
‘Not known?’ Pam’s voice was gasping and breaking, fighting to speak through her tears like a hiccupping child. ‘I couldn’t touch him. He looked like a stranger. My Desmond! Why didn’t anyone warn me? And so I said hello to his bag instead. I picked it up and hugged it and then we had to walk home.’
Pigeons fell to the ground in Catherine’s mind’s eye. Announcements stuttered and halted and not even the departing train made a sound. Steam rose and Pam and Des stood still in the moving crowds of silent people, all of them avoiding each other’s eyes.
‘I walked the whole way home in front of him. In front of him! I didn’t want anyone to know he was mine. My Desmond! A whole hour, me with his bag. I was dragging it on the ground by the time we got to Spring Street.’
‘What did Des do?’ whispered Catherine.
‘I don’t know, do I? I didn’t turn around. He just followed, I suppose. Like he was no better than a dog. We got home and I said why don’t you settle in and he went into his room and he hasn’t come out except to go out the back. It’s been two weeks!’
Catherine tightened her arm, hugging her close.
‘I’m sure everything’s going to be all right.’
‘You’re a dear,’ sobbed Pam. ‘I’m sure it will be. It’s just hard, that’s all. Getting used to things. We can’t have any of the kids around because he can’t stand the noise. The party is cancelled and all my plans, and – oh! None of it is how I imagined it would be. Sometimes I just wonder, what on earth was the point? He volunteered, you know. He might not have had to go.’
‘Don’t say that,’ said Catherine fiercely, with a conviction she hadn’t known she had. ‘We won, didn’t we? And look, both of us have our men back, and we have our homes.’ Wildly she tried to think of some other, less personal reason to justify it all. ‘We all have a future now, don’t we?’ She desperately needed Pam to agree. ‘We can make plans and count on things now.’
Excerpt from The Cleanskin:
Halley was catering for a dance party being held in the community hall out past Main Arm, a scattering of communes and farms and a corner shop, deep in the bush twenty minutes drive west of town. She went early in the station wagon, filling the boot with the rice balls and nori rolls she and Matt had made that day. She’d wanted to hire staff to help with serving, but the people organising the event said they would help her. Which meant, no doubt, another night of doing everything single-handedly, thought Halley on the way there, already tired at the prospect.
When she arrived the DJ was practicing, and a loop of cartoons was being silently projected against one wall. The hall itself was a beautiful thing, made twenty years ago of local red box and cedars in a hexagon, the windows and platforms and a stage arranged around the sunken dance floor. Whatever theory it was they’d been trying of stepping down into a sacred space, it meant something here. Deep into the night these events could become magical. Hearts would open, a feeling of joy and love would permeate this hall full of strangers, and Halley would believe in the goodness of people again for a little while. That’s why she still signed on for these things. That and the money, of course. Five dollars for a rice ball was a good deal whichever way you looked at it.
Three hours later as she cleaned a broken bottle out of the sink in the toilets she was reconsidering. Benny was here, drinking and throwing up into the bushes, part of the crowd of teenagers unwilling to pay the entry fee yet drawn like children to see what the adults were up to. They were having their own party, complete with bonfire, just outside. A girl was crying, huddled against the wall of the toilets; another girl had her arm around her, murmuring to her as she hiccupped and sobbed. A woman in one of the cubicles was talking loudly about how these children were spoiling our dance parties and our community. What community? Wondered Halley, as she swept up the broken glass.
‘Benny?’ she called, standing tentatively at the edge of the group gathered around the fire. ‘Benny…’
He turned to look at her. ‘Mum?’
He frowned at her, appalled, thought Halley. She scuttled back to the kitchen, peering out the window to look for him from time to time.
The young people were gathered around bottles and piles of stones, the girls barely dressed, the boys likewise, their smooth hairless torsos extending up like sculpted marble, pillars of youthful masculine energy. Old men planned wars to deal with young men like these, thought Halley, her eye drawn unwillingly down the muscled back of a boy who looked about seventeen, his jeans riding so low that the hills of his buttocks rose above his leather belt, the grooves of muscle on his lower stomach drawing her gaze downward as he turned. She started as his eyes met hers. She looked away to the other side of the campfire where figures were silhouetted against the flames. Like cavemen. Like people at the end of the world. The music swirled up like the wood smoke into the moonlit sky. Tonight was the spring equinox.
A girl was dancing out there to the music blasting from the speakers inside. She had the expressive, adorable cuteness of a 1930s comedienne, droll expressions flitting across her face at lightning speed as she mimed the words to the song. ‘The dog went – growl. I went – ahhh!’ She moved loosely, coordinated in the way few people are, talent oozing from her fingertips, her body seeming to say things with just a twitch or angle of a hand or leg. And so quick. With each phrase of music her limbs told a different story. Sexy, funny, innocent, sensual. She wore a loose-fitting white dress, cloudy with lace, and cowboy boots. Halley noticed with a start that one of the boys staring at her was Benny.
‘Benny, don’t,’ she pleaded in her heart. That girl was a heartbreaker. But she was looking right back at him as she told her story and sang her song, Halley realised, dread dragging at her.
‘It’s statutory rape.’
Halley turned back to the counter. A woman stood there. Halley was not even sure if this woman was talking to her. Psychological problems merged into mobile phone conversations merged into drugged states merged into one-sided conversations with aliens around here. You never could tell.
Halley smiled professionally. ‘Rice ball?’
‘I said if your son touches my daughter it’s statutory rape.’
Halley stared. The woman had short, well-styled grey hair and wore a loose tunic made of expensively rumpled linen. She spoke with a slight German accent.
‘If you want to talk to me you can come around the side,’ said Halley.
The woman disappeared.
‘You all right if I leave you here for a minute?’ Halley said to the girl working alongside her, the one volunteer helping this evening.
‘I’ll be fine. What about you?’
‘I’ll let you know,’ said Halley, wiping her hands on her jeans as she approached the side window where the woman was waiting.
‘I don’t understand what you’re talking about.’ Halley’s mind flashed on the boy she’d involuntarily ogled a few moments ago, and she thought of Benny. That word, rape. It was so frightening, always.
‘Oh come on. I’ve heard of slack mothers but this is ridiculous. He’s outside there staring, you know, your son.’
This woman was daring to call her slack. This woman, whose daughter was out there too, after all.
‘I …’ Oh God. ‘I don’t …’ Halley shook her head, trying to clear her mind. It was two am and the music was thumping. She and the woman were leaning towards each other to be heard, too intimately close to one another to effectively attack and defend.
‘What are you talking about?’ She gave up. She would have had the words, once, to put this woman in her place. To assert her own membership in the class this woman evidently came from. What had happened? Too many rice balls. Too early in the morning. Too many arguments and days spent cleaning. She longed for Sug. She longed for bed. She longed for a cigarette, staring into the rainforest, sitting on her front verandah. But this was about Benny. She roused herself. ‘Who are you?’
‘My name is Anna Muller, and that’s my daughter, Gretchen. She’s fourteen.’
Halley turned to look where the woman’s finger was pointing at the dancing girl.
‘She looks at least eighteen. And quite beautiful,’ added Halley.
You’d think this might have softened any mother’s heart, but not this one.
‘I have great hopes for Gretchen,’ continued Anna Muller, unmoved. ‘I don’t see why she’s messing around with your son.’
‘Honestly, I don’t see what I’m supposed to do,’ said Halley, shocked into frankness by this woman’s own. ‘I didn’t even know she existed until five minutes ago.’
‘Talk to your son.’ Anna Muller looked outraged. ‘You’re his mother. He must listen to you. Tell him she is too young for a relationship. Tell him to stay away from Gretchen.’
Maybe it worked that way in other countries, thought Halley, defeated, as she carried boxes and supplies out to the car. Maybe for Anna Muller, a tiger among mothers, an empress, it worked that way. Or maybe it worked that way for the mothers of daughters. But then she remembered herself at that age. She was only sixteen when she met Dom. It certainly hadn’t worked that way for Halley’s mother, and it didn’t work that way for her.
It was almost afternoon when Benny walked into the kitchen, yawning. ‘Morning, Mum.’
He was wearing just a pair of black jeans and white tennis socks, even though it had been cold enough earlier to leave a frost on the grass. He walked past her into the living room and sprawled on the couch, reaching for a bowl of left-over spaghetti Bolognese that he must have left there after he got home from the party.
Halley climbed stiffly to her feet. She had been going through the cupboards on her hands and knees with a dustpan and broom, sweeping for weevil eggs and cockroach droppings. She kept all her groceries that didn’t come in tins in plastic containers, yet that didn’t stop insects of all descriptions nesting in the kitchen.
‘We need to talk, Benny. About Gretchen.’
‘I love her, Mum.’
Halley’s hand, reaching out to stroke his curls, froze in mid air. She jumped back, her fingers splayed, as though she’d just touched a fence that turned out to be electrified.
‘Love?’ She couldn’t stop herself. She couldn’t help herself. Her face must have shown her feelings.
‘Yes.’ Benny put the bowl down and jumped to his feet defiantly. ‘Love!’
‘Benny.’ Halley stalled for time. ‘Benny.’ She needed to hold him here until she could work out what to say. ‘Sit down, would you. Please?’
‘Her mother’s upset because she doesn’t know me. She thinks I’m just after sex. But I’m not. Gretchen knows I’m not.’
Halley smiled, unwisely allowing herself to express her relief. ‘That’s not what I’m worried about.’
That took the wind out of his sails. He collapsed back into the couch. Had he grown taller lately? Wondered Halley. When he sat like that, his knees almost reached his shoulders. She could still remember him perched there, holding up a book for her to read to him, the couch seeming huge and comforting, enveloping her little boy.
‘No.’ She sat down next to him, carefully, as if he were an animal that might get up and bolt.
‘I saw her mum having a go at you out there last night.’ Benny snorted. ‘Ja Kommandant! Statutory rape!’
Halley smiled, ashamed, yet pleased to be complicit, even in this off-colour joke, with him.
‘You know it would be, though, don’t you?’ she said tentatively.
‘Statutory rape? I would never rape.’
He was such a lovely person, thought Halley, always. In any circumstance he had such a sweetness to him. Always in trouble as a child, and still somehow so often upsetting the adults around him, he nevertheless never became hardened or cold. He never was anything but this eternally optimistic, loving person. Even when he messed up so badly you thought it could never be made right, he believed it could be. He knew you would forgive him. He knew it would all be okay. She remembered once crying when they left an expensive gift shop in Byron Bay where he had somehow managed to bring down a whole shelf of glassware. She didn’t understand how. She had looked away, it seemed to her, for a millisecond. He had taken her hands and brushed away her tears. ‘It will be all right, Mummy darling. It will be all right.’ That was the term he used for her as soon as he started talking, and had used for her right up until he was about … oh. She couldn’t remember when it had ended. ‘Don’t cry, Mummy darling. It will be okay.’ And it had been. The store manager called and told her they would say it was an accident and claim the damages on insurance. Somehow Benny’s mischief always came with a dose of Benny’s magic.