This summer, we’re unlocking some of the best fiction from the past seven years of Kill Your Darlings for you to relax with by the pool.
This story originally appeared in print in Kill Your Darlings Issue 23, October 2015. To unlock more great Australian fiction, become a KYD Member from just $14.95.
The Shaws went down to the cottage on Scotland Island every weekend for two years. Hector Shaw bought the place from some hotelkeeper he knew, never having so much as hinted at his intention till the contract was signed. Then he announced to his wife and daughter the name of a certain house, his ownership of it, its location, and the fact that they would all go down every Friday night to put it in order.
It was about an hour’s drive from Sydney. At the Church Point wharf they would park the car, lock it up, and wait for the ferry to take them across to the island.
Five or six families made a living locally, tinkering with boats and fishing, but most of the houses round about were weekenders, like the Shaws’ place. Usually these cottages were sold complete with a strip of waterfront and a jetty. In the Shaws’ case the jetty was a long spindly affair of grey wooden palings on rickety stilts, with a perpendicular ladder that had to be climbed getting in and out of the boat. Some of the others were handsome constructions equipped with special flags and lights to summon the ferryman when it was time to return to civilisation.
As Mr Shaw had foretold, they were constantly occupied putting the house in order, but now and then he would buy some green prawns, collect the lines from the spare-bedroom cupboard, and take his family into the middle of the bay to fish. While he made it obligatory to assume that this was a treat, he performed every action with his customary air of silent, smouldering violence, as if to punish misdemeanours, alarming his wife and daughter greatly.
Mrs Shaw put on her big straw sunhat, tied it solemnly under her chin, and went behind him down the seventy rough rock steps from the house. She said nothing. The glare from the water gave her a migraine. Since a day years before when she was a schoolgirl learning to swim and had almost drowned, she had had a horror of deep water. Her husband knew it. He was a difficult man, for what reason no one had been able to discover, least of all Hector Shaw himself.
Del followed her mother down the steep bushy track, not speaking, her nerves raw, her soundless protests battering the air about her. She did not want to go; nor, of course, could she stay when her absence would be used against her mother.
They were not free. Either the hostage, or the one over whom a hostage was held, they seemed destined to play forever if they meant to preserve the peace. And peace had to be preserved. Everything had always been subordinated to this task. As a child, Del had been taught that happiness was nothing but the absence of unpleasantness. For all she knew, it was true. Unpleasantness, she knew, could be extremely disagreeable. She knew that what was irrational had to be borne, and she knew she and her mother longed for peace and quiet – since she had been told so often. But still she did not want to go.
Yet that they should not accompany her father was unthinkable. That they should all three be clamped together was, in a way, the whole purpose of the thing. Though Del and her mother were aware that he might one day sink the boat deliberately. It wasn’t likely, because he was terrified of death, whereas his wife would welcome oblivion, and his daughter had a stony capacity for endurance (so regarding death, at least, they had the upper hand); but it was possible. Just as he might crash the car some day on purpose if all three were secure together in it.
‘Why do we do it?’ Del asked her mother relentlessly. ‘You’d think we were mental defectives, the way we troop behind him and do what we’re told just to save any trouble. And it never does. Nothing we do makes sure of anything. When I go out to work every day it’s as if I’m out on parole. You’d think we were hypnotised.’
Her mother sighed and failed to look up, and continued to butter the scones.
‘You’re his wife, so maybe you think you have to do it, but I don’t. I’m eighteen.’
However, till quite recently she had been a good deal younger, and most accustomed to being used in the cause of peace. Now her acquiescence gnawed at her and baffled her; but, though she made isolated stands, in essence she always did submit. Her few rebellions were carefully gauged to remain within the permitted limits, the complaints of a prisoner of war to the camp commandant.
This constant nagging from the girl exhausted Mrs Shaw. Exasperation penetrated even her alarming headaches. She asked desperately, ‘What would you do if you didn’t come? You’re too nervous to stay in town by yourself. And if you did, what would you do?’
‘Here. I have to come here, but why do we have to go in the boat?’ On a lower note, Del muttered, ‘I wish I worked at the kindergarten seven days a week; I dread the nights and weekends.’
She could think a thing like that, but never say it without a deep feeling of shame. Something about her situation made her feel not only, passively, abused, but actively, surprisingly, guilty.
All Del’s analysis notwithstanding, the fishing exped-itions took place whenever the man of the family signified his desire for some sport. Stationed in the dead centre of the glittering bay, within sight of their empty house, they sat in the open boat, grasping cork rollers, feeling minute and interesting tugs on their lines from time to time, losing bait, and catching three-inch fish.
Low hills densely covered with thin gums and scrub sloped down on all sides to the rocky shore. They formed silent walls of a dark subdued green, without shine. Occasional painted roofs showed through. Small boats puttered past and disappeared.
As the inevitable pain began to saturate Mrs Shaw’s head, she turned gradually paler. She leaned against the side of the boat with her eyes closed, her hands obediently clasping the fishing line she had been told to hold.
The dazzle of the heavy summer sun sucked up colour till the scene looked black. Her light skin began to burn. The straw sunhat was like a neat little oven in which her hair, her head, and all its contents were being cooked.
Without expression, head lowered, Del looked at her hands, fingernails, legs, at the composition of the cork round which her line was rolled. She glanced sometimes at her mother, and sometimes, by accident, she caught sight of her father’s bare feet or his arm flinging out a newly baited line, or angling some small silver fish off the hook and throwing it back, and her eyes sheered away.
The wooden interior of the boat was dry and burning. The three fishers were seared, beaten down by the sun. The bait smelled. The water lapped and twinkled blackly but could not be approached: sharks abounded in the bay.
The cottage was fairly dilapidated. The walls needed painting inside and out, and parts of the veranda at the front and both sides had to be re-floored. In the bedrooms, sitting room, and kitchen, most of the furniture was old and crudely made. They burned the worst of it, replacing it with new stuff, and what was worth salvaging Mrs Shaw and Del gradually scrubbed, sanded and painted.
Mr Shaw did carpentering jobs, and cleared the ground nearby of some of the thick growth of eucalyptus gums that had made the rooms dark. He installed a generator, too, so that they could have electric light instead of relying on kerosene lamps at night.
Now and then his mood changed inexplicably, for reasons so unconnected with events that no study and perpetuation of these external circumstances could ensure a similar result again. Nevertheless, knowing it could not last, believing it might, Mrs Shaw and Del responded shyly, then enthusiastically, but always with respect and circumspection, as if a friendly lion had come to tea.
These hours or days of amazing good humour were passed, as it were, a few feet off the ground, in an atmosphere of slightly hysterical gaiety. They sang, pumping water to the tanks; they joked at either end of the saw, cutting logs for winter fires; they ran, jumped, slithered, and laughed till they had to lean against the trees for support. They reminded each other of all the incidents of other days like these, at other times when his nature was in eclipse.
‘We’ll fix up a nice shark-proof pool for ourselves,’ he said. ‘We own the water frontage. It’s crazy not to be able to cool off when we come down. If you can’t have a dip here, surrounded by water, what’s the sense? We’d be better to stay home and go to the beach, in this weather.’
‘Three cheers!’ Del said. ‘When do we start?’
The seasons changed. When the nights grew colder, Mr Shaw built huge log fires in the sitting room. If his mood permitted, these fires were the cause of his being teased, and he liked very much to be teased.
Charmed by his own idiosyncrasy, he would pile the wood higher and higher, so that the walls and ceiling shone and flickered with the flames, and the whole room crackled like a furnace on the point of explosion. Faces scorching, they would rush to throw open the windows, then they’d fling open the doors, dying for air. Soon the chairs nearest the fire would begin to smoke and then everyone would leap outside to the dark veranda, crimson and choking. Mr Shaw laughed and coughed till he was hoarse, wiping his eyes.
For the first few months, visitors were nonexistent, but one night on the ferry the Shaws struck up a friendship with some people called the Rivers, who had just bought a cottage next door. They came round one Saturday night to play poker and have supper, and in no time weekly visits to each other’s houses were established as routine. Grace and Jack Rivers were relaxed and entertaining company. Their easy good nature fascinated the Shaws, who looked forward to these meetings seriously, as if the Rivers were a sort of rest cure ordered by a specialist, from which they might pick up some health.
‘It was too good to last,’ Mrs Shaw said later. ‘People are so funny.’
The Rivers’ son, Martin, completed his army training and went down to stay on the island for a month before returning to his marine-engineering course at a technical college in town. He and Del met sometimes and talked, but she had not gone sailing with him when he asked her, nor was she tempted to walk across the island to visit his friends who had a pool.
‘Why not?’ he asked.
‘Oh, well…’ She looked down at the dusty garden from the veranda where they stood. ‘I have to paint those chairs this afternoon.’
‘Have to?’ Martin had a young, open, slightly freckled face. Del looked at him, feeling old, not knowing how to explain how complicated it would be to extricate herself from the house, and her mother and father. He would never understand the drama, the astonishment, that would accompany her statement to them. Even if, eventually, they said, ‘Go, go!’ recovering from their shock, her own joylessness and fatigue were so clear to her in anticipation that she had no desire even to test her strength in the matter.
But one Saturday night over a game of cards, Martin asked her parents if he might take her the next night to a party across the bay. A friend of his, Noel Stacey, had a birthday to celebrate.
Del looked at him with mild surprise. He had asked her. She had refused.
Her father laughed a lot at this request as though it were very funny, or silly, or misguided, or simply impossible. It turned out that it was impossible. They had to get back to Sydney early on Sunday night.
If they did have to, it was unprecedented, and news to Del. But she looked at her father with no surprise at all.
Martin said, ‘Well, it’ll be a good party,’ and gave her a quizzical grin. But his mother turned quite pink, and his father cleared his throat gruffly several times. The game broke up a little earlier than usual, and, as it happened, was the last one they ever had together.
Not knowing that it was to be so, however, Mrs Shaw was pleased that the matter had been dealt with so kindly and firmly. ‘What a funny boy!’ she said later, a little coyly, to Del.
‘Is he?’ she said indifferently.
‘One of the new generation,’ said Mr Shaw, shaking his head, and eyeing her with caution.
‘Oh?’ she said, and went to bed.
‘She didn’t really want to go to that party at all,’ her mother said.
‘No, but we won’t have him over again, do you think? He’s got his own friends. Let him stick to them. There’s no need for this. These fellows who’ve been in army camps – I know what they’re like.’
‘She hardly looked at him. She didn’t care.’ Mrs Shaw collected the six pale-blue cups, saucers, and plates on the wooden tray, together with the remnants of supper.
With his back to the fire, hands clasped behind him, Mr Shaw brooded. ‘He had a nerve, though, when you come to think of it. I mean – he’s a complete stranger.’
Mrs Shaw sighed anxiously, and her eyes went from one side of the room to the other. ‘I’m sure she didn’t like him. She doesn’t take much interest in boys. You’re the only one.’
Mr Shaw laughed reluctantly, looking down at his shoes.
As more and more of the property was duly painted and repaired, the Shaws tended to stop work earlier in the day, perhaps with the unspoken intention of making the remaining tasks last longer. Anyway, the pressure was off, and Mrs Shaw knitted sweaters, and her husband played patience, while Del was invariably glued to some book or other.
No one in the district could remember the original owner-builder of their cottage, or what he was like. But whether it was this first man, or a later owner, someone had left a surprisingly good library behind. It seemed likely that the builder had lived and died there, and that his collection had simply been passed on with the property from buyer to buyer, over the years.
Books seemed peculiarly irrelevant on this remote hillside smelling of damp earth and wood smoke and gums. The island had an ancient, prehistoric, undiscovered air. The alphabet had yet to be invented.
However, the books had been transported here by someone, and Del was pleased to find them, particularly the many leather-bound volumes of verse. Normally, in an effort to find out why people were so peculiar, she read nothing but psychology. Even after she knew psychologists did not know, she kept reading it from force of habit, in the hope that she might come across a formula for survival directed specifically at her: Del Shaw, follow these instructions to the letter! Poetry was a change.
She lay in a deckchair on the deserted side veranda and read in the mellow three o’clock, four o’clock sunshine. There was, eternally, the smell of grass and burning bush, and the homely noise of dishes floating up from someone’s kitchen along the path of yellow earth, hidden by trees. And she hated the chair, the mould-spotted book, the sun, the smells, the sounds, her supine self.
They came unto a land in which it seemed always afternoon.
‘It’s like us, exactly like us and this place,’ she said to her mother, fiercely brushing her long brown hair in front of the dressing table’s wavy mirror. ‘Always afternoon. Everyone lolling about. Nobody doing anything.’
‘My goodness!’ Her mother stripped the sheets off the bed to take home to the laundry. ‘I thought we’d all been active enough this weekend to please anyone. And I don’t see much afternoon about Monday morning.’
‘Active! That isn’t what I mean. Anyway, I don’t mean here or this weekend. I mean everyone, everywhere, all the time. Ambling round till they die.’ Oh, but that wasn’t what she meant, either.
Mrs Shaw’s headache look appeared. ‘It’s off to the doctor with you tonight, miss!’
Del set her teeth together. When her mother had left the room with her arms full of linen, still darting sharp glances at her daughter, Del closed her eyes and raised her face to the ceiling.
Let me die.
The words seemed to be ground from her voiceless body, to be ground, powdered stone, from her heart.
She breathed very slowly; she slowly righted her head, carefully balancing its weight on her neck. Then she pulled on her suede jacket, lifted her bag, and clattered down the uneven stone steps to the jetty. It always swayed when anyone set foot on it.
When the cottage had been so patched and cleaned that, short of a great expenditure of capital, no further improvement was possible, Hector Shaw ceased to find any purpose in his visits to it. True, there was still the pool to be tackled, but the summer had gone by without any active persuasion, any pleading, any teasing, from his wife and daughter. And if they were indifferent, far be it from him…
Then there was another thing. Not that it had any connection with the place, with being on Scotland Island, but it had the side effect of making the island seem less – safe, salubrious, desirable. Jack Rivers died from a heart attack one Sunday morning. Only fifty-five he was, and a healthier-looking fellow you couldn’t have wished to meet.
Since the night young Martin Rivers had ruined their poker parties, they had seen very little of Jack and Grace. Sometimes on the ferry they had bumped into each other, and when they had the Shaws, at least, were sorry it had all worked out so badly. Jack and Grace were good company. It was hard not to feel bitter about the boy having spoiled their nice neighbourly friendship so soon before his father died. Perhaps if Jack had spent more time playing poker and less doing whatever he did do after the Saturdays stopped…
On a mild midwinter night, a few weeks after Jack Rivers’ funeral, the Shaw family sat by the fire. Del was gazing along her corduroy slacks into the flames, away from her book. Her parents were silent over a game of cards.
Mr Shaw took a handful of cashew nuts from a glass dish at his side and started to chew. Then leaning back in his chair, his eyes still fixed on his cards, he said, ‘By the way, the place’s up for sale.’
His wife stared at him. ‘What place?’
‘This place.’ He gave her his sour, patient look. ‘It’s been on Dalgety’s books for three weeks.’
‘What for?’ Del asked, conveying by the gentleness of her tone her total absence of criticism. It was dangerous to question him, but then it was dangerous not to, too.
‘Well, there isn’t much to do round here now. And old Jack’s popped off –’ (He hadn’t meant to say that!) Crunching the cashew nuts, he slid down in his chair expansively, every supra-casual movement premeditated as though he were playing Hamlet at Stratford.
The women breathed deeply, not without regret, merely accepting this new fact in their lives. Mrs Shaw said, ‘Oh!’ and Del nodded her comprehension. Changing their positions imperceptibly, they prepared to take up their occupations again in the most natural and least offensive ways they could conceive. There was enormous potential danger in any radical change of this sort.
‘Ye–es,’ said Mr Shaw, drawing the small word out to an extraordinary length. ‘Dalgety’s telling them all to come any Saturday or Sunday afternoon.’ Still he gazed at his handful of cards, then he laid them face down on the table, and with a thumb thoughtfully rubbed the salt from the cashews into the palm of his other hand. It crumbled onto his knees, and he dusted it down to the rug, seeming agreeably occupied in its distribution.
‘Ye–es,’ he said again, while his wife and daughter gazed at him painfully. ‘When and if anyone takes the place, I think we’d better use the cash to go for a trip overseas. What do you say? See the Old Country…Even the boat trip’s pretty good, they tell me. You go right round the coast here (that takes about a week), then up to Colombo, Bombay, Aden, through the Suez, then up through the Mediterranean, through the Straits of Messina past some volcano, and past Gibraltar to Marseilles, then London.’
There was silence.
Mr Shaw turned away from the table and his game, and looked straight into his wife’s grey eyes – a thing he rarely did. Strangers were all right, he could look at them, but with relations, old acquaintances, his spirit, unconscious, was ashamed and uneasy.
‘Go away?’ his wife repeated, turning a dreadful colour.
He said, ‘Life’s short. I’ve earned a holiday. Most of my typists’ve been abroad. We’ll have a year. We’ll need a year. If someone turns up on the ferry one day and wants the place, that is. There’s a bit of a slump in real estate just now, but I guess we’ll be okay.’
And they looked at each other, the three of them, with unfamiliar awe. They were about to leave this dull pretty city where they were all so hard to live with, and go to places they had read about, where the world was, where things happened, where the photographs of famous people came from, where history was, and snow in cities, and works of art, and splendour…
Poetry and patience were discarded from that night, while everyone did extra jobs about the cottage to add to its attractiveness and value. Mrs Shaw and Del planted tea trees and hibiscus bushes covered with flowers of palest apricot, and pink streaked with red. Mr Shaw cemented the open space under the house (it was propped up on columns on its steep hillside) and the area underneath was like a large extra room, shady and cool. They put some long bamboo chairs down there, fitted with cushions.
Most weekend afternoons, jobs notwithstanding, Del went to the side veranda to lean over the railing out of sight and watch the ferry go from jetty to jetty and return to Church Point. She watched and willed, but no one ever came to see the house.
It was summer again, and the heatwave broke records. Soon it was six months since the night they had talked about the trip.
Always the island was the same. It was scented, self-sufficient; the earth was warm underfoot, and the air warm to breathe. The hillside sat there, quietly, rustling quietly, a smug curving hillside that had existed for a long time. The water was blue and sparkled with meaningless beauty. Smoke stood in the sunny sky above the bush here and there across the bay, where other weekend visitors were cooking chops, or making coffee on fuel stoves.
Del watched the ferries and bargained with fate, denying herself small pleasures, which was easy for her to do. She waited. Ferries came and went round the point, but never called at their place.
They lost heart. In the end, it would have been impossible even to mention the trip. But they all grieved with a secret enduring grief, as if at the death of the one person they had loved. Indeed, they grieved for their own deaths. Each so unknown and un-understood, who else could feel the right regret? From being eaten by the hillside, from eating one another, there had been the chance of a reprieve. Now it was evidently cancelled, and in the meantime irretrievable admissions had been made.
At the kindergarten one Tuesday afternoon Miss Lewis, who was in charge, called Del to the telephone. She sat down, leaning her forehead on her hand before lifting the receiver.
‘Del, your father’s sold the cottage to a pilot. Somebody Barnes. He’s bought the tickets. We’ve just been in to get our cabins. We’re leaving in two months.’
‘What? A pilot?’
‘Yes. We’re going on the Arcadia on the 28th of November. The cabins are lovely. Ours has got a porthole. We’ll have to go shopping, and get injections and passports…’
‘Of course we are, you funny girl! We’ll tell you all about it when you get home tonight. I’ve started making lists.’
They were going. She was going away. Out in the world she would escape from them. There would be room to run, outside this prison.
‘So, we’re off,’ her mother said.
Del leaned sideways against the wall, looking out at the eternal afternoon, shining with all its homey peace and glory. ‘Oh, that’s good,’ she said. ‘That’s good.’
‘The Beautiful Climate’ is from A Few Days in the Country: And Other Stories, by Elizabeth Harrower (Text Publishing). An earlier version of the story appeared in the 1966 anthology Modern Australian Writing, edited by Geoffrey Dutton.