This is a very Australian story, which appears in my new collection Making a Name and other stories.
Available wherever good books are sold
'All human affairs, including the most subtle affairs of the heart, are subject to the laws of economics.'
At Dirrunbirdum station, everything was much the same as usual. John had even left his cup askew on the saucer, as he always did. Marianne looked at how it shared space with the teaspoon: lopsided, like John’s smile.
They were cups she bought in Alsace, a tablecloth hand-printed by a woman in Paris. The blue of each did not quite match – the tablecloth was lighter than the cups. And each piece of crockery, because of its handmade quality, was quite an individual.
Marianne remembered wrapping each item carefully in tissue and then newspaper, placing everything she owned into tea chests to be transported all the way around the world, from Europe to a place she had seen only in photographs.
‘Dirrunbirdum station,’ John had said, from behind a stack of books and papers, ‘is a very special place.’
If only for its heat and isolation, thought Marianne much later, it certainly was. Disappointment had fleshed out her already swollen face, filled her bones with a fluid restlessness. She unpacked her things on arrival only because she wanted to recreate around her, here in the middle of rural Australia, the scenes she missed. The dining room in Valtellina, the garden in Sa Maison, the swimming pool that was a cocktail of rose petals and dill roots in Kalmthout. Could it be that John did not feel they had descended into a plane whose heat and whiteness erased their very beings, rubbing them into the landscape until they too were flat and dusty? She felt she had abandoned everything with meaning and history.
The knives had ceramic handles, and both were streaked with melted butter. Flies buzzed at the mesh that thankfully covered each window so snugly nothing but red dust could enter. Pictures she hung all around the dining room sprang, lifelike, from walls painted a uniform professional magnolia.
The walls she remembered, of the old friary in Grosseto, were uneven, anciently composed of large blocks of stone plastered and whitewashed with the trowels and hogshair brushes of antiquity. She missed those walls, and their ability to hold grey dust from narrow streets that were never really silent. She missed the uneven floors of sandstone flags that creaked and tilted, and the hollow thresholds, holding rainwater from the square of sky over the courtyard.
Here at Dirrunbirdum station, there were large terracotta pots planted with star-leaved geraniums, common daisies: pink, purple and white pelargoniums. And she had cried when she saw them. John mistook her tears for appreciation, for gladness that they had arrived in that deserted place where the only sound was the rustle of leaves from a stand of young gum trees to one side of the house.
Deep verandas, steep eaves and strategically placed matchstick blinds kept the house in shadow, and all rooms were rather dark but thankfully cool. Ceiling fans kept her papers mobile, as if possessed of a life of their own. In Alsace, in Paris, in Antwerp and Valletta they had lain flat, patient, accepting of the battering in the old typewriter, and then the assault of her blue fountain pen.
Now, Marianne cleared the table, thinking she had better start writing if her column was ever going to be sent away in time to make the deadline. John was far away, probably in the ‘top paddock’, a place she had still not seen; preferred not to see, until the worst of the heat passed. Until they had some rain to settle the dust. Until she had felt a breeze from somewhere: anywhere.
‘In March or April,’ John said with confidence, ‘we’ll get rain.’
But Marianne did not believe in rain any more. She did not think it was possible for those impermeable steadfast skies to become stained with cloud: to fill with greyness and open to release respite.
How she would run! She would leap off the veranda onto the place they optimistically called the front garden, and reach up. She would welcome the drops, drink them in: revel in their capacity to drench her, to sink past the stretched dry canvas that was her skin.
‘Why did we come here?’ she said that night. The patterned French crockery was once more on the table, on the same handcrafted tablecloth. The bowl of fruit was bright. She sprinkled water and placed ice cubes among the peaches. They were damp and cool. There were ice cubes floating in a large water jug, and ice cubes in the soup.
John looked up from the soup, which was a delicate orange colour, and raised an eyebrow. ‘Darling. Sweetheart, darling – cold soup?’
‘It’s Potage Crécy. It’s too hot to have it warm.’
He tasted a spoonful and nodded uncertainly. ‘Darling – sweetheart. Do you really hate it here?’
‘No. The colours are wonderful. The silence is just what I needed. But the dust – the heat ...’ She lowered her head. Thick curly hair almost touched the edge of the soup bowl. ‘I so used to love travelling. I adore change, movement ... all that. Do you remember moving into the cottage at –’
John cut her off. ‘It’s only been a couple of weeks. In March or April —’
‘– we’ll have rain.’
‘Darling, the money. We couldn’t just ignore the property. Someone had to come back and run it after Dad went. This place is ideal – think of the future.’
Marianne thought absurdly of a white sheet hung out to dry on a long line in the garden at Sa Maison. It cracked and flapped like a sail in the high wind, a wind that came over the Mediterranean all the way from the Greek Islands to tousle her hair and bend the heads of her marguerite daisies. Past the flapping corners of the sheet, she saw the gathered bobbing masts of a clutch of small yachts moored out in the bay. The sea was choppy and felt wet even from that distance. Marianne smelled the salt on the air.
‘What’s that? What can you smell?’ John placed his soup spoon on the tablecloth.
‘The sea.’ She smiled forlornly.
‘It’s four days away by road!’
At Dirrunbirdum station, a team of men arrived to start the shearing. Marianne and a bright-eyed girl prepared meals in the kitchen, turning out what seemed like an impossible amount of food three times a day. It was devoured in less time than it took to assemble. There would be no Potage Crécy, of course, but what looked like gallons of Irish stew, which she thought would be impossible to consume after the dozens of pies and tomato sauce they had demolished a mere couple of hours ago.
Fascination with the men, with the smells and animation of the shed, with the sheep and the buzz of the cutters, inspired her. She wrote several articles and items for her column and sent them to the paper, whose offices in London now seemed so far away. Did she still remember what it was like to leap from a taxi on the Old Brompton Road and struggle against the wind round the corner to where she and John rented the top part of a house? Did she remember the narrow stairs and the railings painted navy blue? Had she ever bought woollies and boots in Chelsea?
‘The wool is off to the yards tomorrow. Someone said there is a new buyer up from Western Australia. He’s English, would you believe?’
‘I believe.’ The smile on her lips did not quite reach her eyes.
That morning, she broke one of the French cups. It shattered on the tiled floor and she still could not find the fragment that held the ear.
The bright-eyed helper’s dismay filled the kitchen. ‘What a shame – such pretty cups.’
‘Alsace ... Alsace is very far away.’ Marianne looked at a piece of blue porcelain in her hand. ‘And we will have rain in March or April.’
‘Don’t hold your breath, now!’ The girl tilted her head wryly. ‘But we’ll have thunder, sure.’
Marianne waited. She lined the underside of the straw brim of her hat with green fabric, and spent time in the garden, holding the hose like a fishing rod, splashing dusty leaves with water, to the consternation of John and the girl, who wanted her to be parsimonious.
‘The lack of water strangles and parches.’ Her tone was mock-poetic, but sarcastic, the night a heat storm made the light in the lounge flicker, go off, and come on again in the blink of an eye. ‘And the use of it stifles.’
‘Never mind.’ She thought of the times they would hurry out to a small pavement café after dinner, jumping puddles and laughing, remembering to speak English, rather than their stiff unpractised French, to the man behind the bar.
She thought of tall narrow provincial houses, crammed and pushed together to form narrow streets. Her mind’s eye saw window boxes full of petunias and Easter lilies. ‘I want flowers.’
‘We have geraniums. And ... uh – and those other what-do-you-call-thems.’
‘Only because I water them three times a day.’
At Dirrunbirdum station, everything was awash with red mud. Terracotta pots out front almost disappeared: only their green tops and bedraggled flowers were visible from the window where Marianne watched.
‘Rain! Ah, rain – what an amazing thing. I never thought I would be so fascinated by rain. All I want to do is watch it. Look – things are floating past. Over there, see? Past the gate.’
‘The creek has broken its banks. It will be impossible to get the truck down to the road now. Or the ute. We will just have to wait it out.’ John’s voice was strained. Perhaps it was relief that he had sold off all the fat lambs before the downpour began. He had become sullen and fretful, silent a great deal of the time.
Why had she married an Australian? Was it his naked appreciation of everything European that had attracted her? He absorbed museums and galleries, overdosed on a series of history and culture lectures where he had plied people with questions. She was drawn to them: those crazy naïve questions to which she had thought no one did not know the answers. Then she was drawn to him. They sat outside noisy cafés. She led him museum to gallery, citadel to hamlet: old village to ancient archaeological remains.
They married in a clearing among Neolithic dolmens, on the night of a full moon. Her flowered headpiece and golden hair made her, he said, into a lunar goddess.
Now the moon grew out of mud, blanched and elliptical. It hung over the station for longer than a night. The sun warmed it, in spite of its watery struggle. And rain fell for most of the day.
They were stranded. No longer, thought Marianne, can we drive for eighty minutes on the dirt road to the one-pub town and drink frozen beer with the cockies. We will be here until the mud dries and cakes, and fixes us to the spot.
Still, she loved the wet. She ventured out in bare feet, getting drenched the instant she emerged from underneath the veranda. Her white dress clung to her form, and she raised her arms to the falling rain. Her hair streaked down her back, and the skin of her feet grew stained with mud and wrinkled from overexposure to moisture.
‘You’ll catch your death.’ John sounded like her mother in spite of the tight New South Wales drawl.
But she danced and ran about like a child, coming in only when her dress was stained inches all around the hem with red mud. The geranium heads were bobbing, laden with water. Marianne drank rain off the shiny star-shaped leaves.
‘We can’t afford this to go on much longer.’ John was counting the days in a different way.
Marianne looked at him in surprise. Was he going to count all seasonal changes on a till, registering their usefulness and rueing their damage? His eyes dimmed, and he no longer showed interest in the books of art history that packed their shelves. He no longer looked with longing and nostalgia at the posters she tacked to the backs of the bathroom and kitchen doors. Did he actually remember Verona, Arezzo? Did he remember Marseilles, Bruges: the Van Rijk Museum? Was he really there with her at Madrid and Nice?
John looked past her at the window, as if she was not really there with him, in the front room of the homestead on the station.
At Dirrunbirdum station, everything appeared much the same as usual. Marianne looked at the images in newly arrived photographs. The veranda looked a bit less crowded with pots of geraniums, and older plants still stood out in the patch of front garden.
In the home paddock, a small mob of newly sheared sheep looked dully into the lens. A crescent moon hung above them although it was broad daylight.
There was mud near the creek, with tyre-marks and footsteps in it that showed up clearly in the print she held in her trembling hand. She looked out of her double-glazed window at the bank of birches that nodded in the cold northern wind. The sky rested on the angle of ancient stone buildings across from where she was. Her feet rested on the guard in front of the fire, and pages of a letter and photographs lay scattered on her skirt and on the rug around her.
‘Today is the last time I will be able to write before the muster starts.’ John wrote in a hurried hand. ‘I have men coming in from all over and we shall be gone for a long while. You might be surprised at this, but I think I am finally going to be able to afford a helicopter – a little chopper to help us round the mob up in half the time.’ His words were not different to what she expected.
Marianne smiled and lifted her head to look out of the window, but her eye was caught by a shred of light sparkling on the ear of a cup. The table was still uncleared from tea. A blue cup and saucer stood on a lighter blue tablecloth hand painted in Paris. There was only one cup out, sitting properly in its cavity in the saucer. A blue-handled knife lay straight, bisecting a plate whose crumbs and smear of unmelted butter were the only remnants of her meal, apart from an empty bowl that had held some piping hot carrot soup.
‘I can’t afford the time.’ John had answered her plea for a break away from the property. It seemed such a long time ago, but it was only a matter of weeks. ‘I can’t afford the fare.’ He shielded his eyes from the sun and from her.
So she returned to Alsace alone, where she replaced the cup she broke at the station. She also went back to that boutique in Paris, where the woman sold her an identical tablecloth she immediately posted out to Dirrunbirdum station for John.
Marianne went back to Kalmthout, where she bathed once more in the sheltered pool whose water was scented with fallen rose petals, and where the roots of a clump of dill came through a crack in the side into the water. They were yellow roots, and water and light refracted to make them seem longer and more angular than they were. She floated, alone, on her back in the icy water, looking at cotton-woolly clouds, shivering slightly at the portent of rain.
She remembered Dirrunbirdum station in the midst of a rainstorm that lasted eleven days: the red mud, the overflowing corrugated water tank that flanked the house. She remembered John’s face when the rain stopped.
She thought of his face as she had seen it in Antwerp, in Valtellina and in Bruges. She thought of his face as it merged with the landscape in Australia, becoming lined and parched, struck forcibly by the sun. She remembered it drenched and splattered with mud.
‘I cannot afford to stay,’ she had said to that face.
He looked away, and nodded, and probably did not think she registered losses and gains in a different currency to his.
Outside Marianne’s window, it drizzled. Black and green umbrellas moved like winter flowers bowing to a rainstorm. The hiss of car tyres through water was very nearly audible in the room.
She rose from her chair and moved to the typewriter in the corner, stepping over wads of newspaper. The room was still full of partially unpacked tea chests. One of the photos of John’s station blew over in the draught she created when she closed a door. She missed it all – the pretty dark girl in the kitchen, the gigantic fridge, the insect screens on the windows. The longing was physical. She wanted to light a candle in that front bedroom, to look to where he lay, knowing he would already be asleep from sheer exhaustion.
She missed the high swish and rustle of gum trees in the wind, and unidentifiable birds like specks in the distance. She wanted a sky that domed so high, that became so studded with strange stars at night, that it dazzled and awed. She wanted to hear the rounded syllables of shearers, the interminable click-click of cicadas in the still heat of noon. She wanted it all so fiercely she shook, thinking of John on a horse, when he waved from a deceptive distance that took away his voice when he called.
There was a book on the table she dared not open: for what would happen if she looked upon the pictures of a Grevillea in full bloom, the strange flower of the Sturt Desert Pea, the sheer magnificence of a flowering gum?
Marianne ran her hand over the book cover. The back of her hand, the shimmer of a ring, the blur of tears starting to come, made her pause. The opal in the ring John gave her was more than a souvenir: it was a magnet, a reminder, a plea. And the fact she wore it was a promise: a pledge that she would return.