I got the call when I was too far away to do anything about it. There was a pile of marking to get through, but that had been the case even before the call.
I’d rented a holiday house from a friend of a friend. And they’d probably bought it and all its contents from the children of an elderly deceased lady, or of one who had recently been moved to an aged care facility. Her bookcases were still crammed with Reader’s Digest omnibuses and craft books; Advanced Macramé, Crocheted Endings. The kitchen cupboards were stacked with earthenware plates and mismatched glassware and crockery, and these anodised aluminium cups that reminded me of the photographic version of my childhood, which is really nothing like the childhood I can actually remember.
The rent was only one hundred and twenty-five a week, because I was a friend of a friend and because it was the middle of June. The wind came right off the Pacific to whine under the doorsills and through the gaps between the old weatherboards, and to rattle the windows in their poorly made frames.
I’d gone there to dry out, from you as much as anything else. Okay, from you and only you, because I was still drinking and I had no intention of drying that out. Straight vodka or watered whiskey out of the little blue anodised cups, which I considered taking with me when I left. It was inherited bric-a-brac, after all, and this friend of a friend hadn’t had time to develop real emotional attachment to any of it. So the cups, to a lesser extent the books on crochet and macramé, and some sixties plastic swizzle sticks I’d found in the third kitchen drawer – I was already thinking of those things as mine.
I was trying not to think about you. I had all this work to do and I’d bought a pair of glasses with small lenses and thick frames so that only a limited amount of the world was in focus at any one time. I thought they might minimise peripheral distraction, help me keep my attention on what was in front of me. You probably know it didn’t work out that way. But the glasses made me look like someone who drank Laphroaig instead of Jameson and worked with a typewriter instead of a laptop, and I liked that.
There was no good place to buy coffee near the house, so there was no good reason to leave it. I made drink ice in the freezer of the ancient Kelvinator and read most of a book on anaesthesia that was written in the forties. If those things didn’t keep me happy, they at least kept me a reasonable and safe distance from unhappy. I’d say anaesthetised, but that would be too obvious and not entirely true. I played chess and Scrabble against myself, and the essays on Jeffers and Riding stayed unread and unmarked on the kitchen table.
In the weeks I was there, the sky never grew lighter than the colour of bruised mushrooms. When I drove to the ocean, it was grey and hungry in the James Reeves sort of way. Maybe every second or third day I drove to the ocean and just sat in the driver’s seat, watching the container ships crawling after each other so that I could tell where the horizon was, though most days the sea was the same colour as the sky and if not for the ships you wouldn’t have known any difference between them.
Some afternoons there was a girl on the sand with her dog, a black wolfish mongrel she’d throw pieces of driftwood for. He churned the wet grey sand under his paws, chasing whatever she threw.
Yeah, I thought. I know how that is. I know exactly how.
Down on the beach, the wind pulled at them, made their hair and her loose clothing ripple. Like the two of them were only shapes cut from cloth.
Cloth girl with her cloth dog. My fingers would always creep to the door handle but wouldn’t push it down.
Yes, it was because she looked like you. There are worse reasons for wanting to talk to someone. Because they look like they have money, or they’re beautiful or they look like somebody famous – those are worse reasons.
Anyway, it was because she reminded me of you that I finally got out of the car and went down to the beach to ask her about her dog, or whether she lived nearby or something similar. Maybe I asked if she knew a good place to get coffee. I don’t remember what I asked because, whatever it was, she didn’t answer. She just pushed her hair off her face and asked if I was the one driving that blue Skyline. All her clothes were shapeless, and only the wind whipping the fabric up close to her skin brought any kind of definition.
When I nodded she said, Yeah, I thought so, and threw a stick for the dog. Nobody just watches the ocean. Not in this weather.
I’m just watching the ocean, I said. The dog came back with the stick. Why, what are you doing in this weather?
I’m just walking my dog, she said. He doesn’t give a damn about the weather. Sweet stupid thing, and she threw the stick again. Then she smiled and looked at me from behind her wind-whipped hair. Maybe, she said. Maybe you’re just watching the ocean.
And I was still trying not to think about you, or the holiday house I’d once rented with you; its own mismatched glassware, or how we’d made love against kitchen benches and spat gin into each other’s mouths. Carrying everything back out to the car on the morning we left, your tired grin above a box of groceries we hadn’t managed to get through, or the carton of bottles that we had.
But it was no good and I remembered everything. The arguments, the ugly carpet. The way the sound of the hot water system found its way into our dreams and we dreamed of the same things for six nights. How the firewood had been cut from old railway sleepers, and the bolts glowed red hot amongst the embers. Sleeping in the car at the side of the highway on the way home. The trucks shuddering by and your breath clouding the window, the early light cold, almost blue, and oh god – if I could have kept things just like that. If I could have stopped time at the side of the Hume with you sleeping and your hair across your face and me just watching you sleeping, the trucks shuddering past. Well, you know I would have.
I think maybe the girl knew this. Maybe even knew that she reminded me of you. But she was good about it. Or she didn’t have to be good about it, because she didn’t care either way. Her dog lay on the wooden decking outside with his legs stretched out ahead of him, and when I said that he could come in she said, No, he can’t, and he stayed out there, looking woeful. It seems strange to me now that I never learned the dog’s name. It could have been Samson or Solomon, something biblical. The girl shook the rain out of her coat and left it by the door.
Then when the call came through, she was asleep on her stomach, her long legs still slightly parted and the damp sheet pulled up across the backs of her knees. I stumbled naked to the front room with the phone, not wanting to wake her, tripping over a power board, a lone shoe. When I answered my voice sounded thin and hostile. I stood looking out the window. The sky had grown dark and the dog had fallen asleep out on the decking. There was the pile of paperwork that had never left its manila folder, and your mother on the line asking why I hadn’t answered the home phone or the work phone, why I hadn’t returned any of her damn messages.
Three days, she said, and as she kept talking all I could think about was how I should have gotten out of the car that morning. I should have walked along the highway and thumbed a ride back to Melbourne with one of the truck drivers. Then you would still be asleep in the passenger seat. The light would still be almost blue, your hair just-so across your face, and this little cluttered house with its storm and its sleeping dog and its anodised aluminium cups would be a dream you were having. I would be standing naked at the window of the dream, watching the sky grow dark. There would be a box of groceries on your back seat, and you would be okay. You would be safe.
Your mother said sudden. She said collapse, she said supermarket fucking car park, and I don’t remember how I answered any of that. I don’t remember what I said before hanging up. Just that after I’d hung up, I pulled a book down from the shelf and turned to Chapter Three: Suitable for a lampshade, or a handkerchief. And how I just stood there with the book open at page sixty-two, waiting for those words to mean something.
Readers voted ‘Suitable for a Lampshade’ by Josephine Rowe their favourite story in the 2010 ABR Short Story Prize (later the ABR Elizabeth Jolley Short Story Prize). Click here for more information about past winners of the Jolley Prize.CONTENTS: FEBRUARY 2011