Jolley Prize 2018 (Shortlisted): 'Ruins' by Madelaine Lucas

 

In the car we wound around the bay, which, on the map, made the shape of an ear with a tear-shaped island off the coast like a jewel earring. My mother and I were going to see the lighthouse out on the cape – or what was left of it anyway, which was not much, she told me, but stones and rubble. Sandstone stump crowning the headland.

Worth documenting though, she said, since we’re staying so close by.

We had taken up our usual positions – my mother at the driving wheel and me, her navigator. I had only recently got my licence and she had been encouraging, paying for lessons at a school for adult learners. But there was something about us living together – even temporarily, in our rented shack by the beach – that made us revert to our old roles. With my brother spending the holidays at his father’s up north, it was just the two of us that summer. I was my mother’s only passenger again, just like when I was small.

On the way to the ruins, I asked her questions about love. I was put in mind of it because of something she had said that morning, describing her work at the maritime museum. It suits me, she’d said, packing her sketching tools and digital camera, because I’ve always felt something like a lighthouse keeper’s daughter. And I had imagined that to be a lonely, captive feeling.

Also, I was thinking about the man from the beach I had been with the afternoon before. Jude. Near stranger. Still too shy to say his name out loud. That kind of intimacy hadn’t been earned, so we had rushed forward with a different kind. Would I call it love? No, but it was a kind of loving. Tenderness. He had pressed a rag of vinegar on my back and throat where I’d been stung by the needles of a bluebottle jellyfish and some fire had worked its way through my bloodstream. It could have been the venom. It could have been desire. In his kitchen we were nameless, reduced to skin on skin, mouth on mouth.

What I wanted to know from my mother was how to reconcile the fact that some people never find love? That kind, or any kind. I am sure I said it that way, ‘find’, like a miraculous, unintentional discovery, as if love was a stone in the sand. But to be found also implies that something lost has to be returned to a place of belonging, and what did I know about love and stones? I was twenty-four, and still holding out for a kind of love that felt like homecoming.

It’s just one of those things, my mother said. Like trying to explain why bad things happen to good people.

It seemed easy, I said, to understand why the bitter and selfish and cruel might remain loveless. But, strangely, weren’t they sometimes the most loved? Those who did not know how to love back. Why did we feel compelled to keep on giving?

I remembered the artist who had once sat in a gallery and invited the audience to, one by one, cut a piece from her clothes. Some people took a tiny snip from somewhere inconspicuous – a hemline or sleeve – while others sheared her suit away at the seams, snipping the straps of her underwear until she was stripped bare. Exposed. Yes, I thought, love could be something like that.

I think we like the idea that people can learn from each other and change, my mother said. That we might sort of break each other in, like horses.

All my mother’s relationship advice has something to do with animals: always date men who’ve had pets because it proves they know how to look after something and a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush, things like that.

You might be right, I said, thinking again of Jude. All he’d learned in the years he had over me. He could name the trees that cradled the house in their branches – the bluegums and bloodwoods and ironbarks – and call out all the flowers in his yard. Knew the tides, could explain how they were tied to the movements of the moon with an invisible thread, tracked the changes in the weather through the wind. On his porch he pressed a piece of spoiled fruit into my hands and taught me how to feed the birds. Maybe love, too, could be a learned thing.

My mother was leaning over the wheel, lifting up out of her seat a little to check her blind spots as we rounded a corner. She was concentrating on the road, or her mind was elsewhere, or perhaps she was afraid she couldn’t give me the answers that I wanted. Her responses grew vague. She said that we all want to believe that people can change, that it’s possible all our mistakes might lead to learning to love better, but in her experience what they say about old dogs and new tricks was about right.

There are no second chances, the only do-overs you get are with someone new. Look out the window there, she said then, at the lake.

On my side was the beach, and on hers a flat expanse of water like a silver disc dotted with black birds. Swans. Dark hooked necks like one half of a love heart. Once thought to be a rare, impossible thing. Existing in the minds of Europeans only as a metaphor. Until they came here, the great downunder underbelly of the world where water drained counter-clockwise and the seasons turned in reverse. Spring in September, smelling of jasmine and rain. Winter in July. Trees grey-green and dry all the year. Brittle, easy to burn.

This is right near the turn off to Swan Lake, my mother said. On the other side of that water there, and a little bit further south, that’s where we came to stay when Henry was little. Remember? How old were you then, eleven, twelve?

About to turn twelve, I said. Last summer before high school.

We had fun for a minute there, didn’t we? The four of us. You loved the cabins. They were set up like dollhouses, all matching.

I remembered the dunes – my mother leading the way through the scrubland in her hat and sunglasses, Henry only a young thing, riding high on his father’s shoulders. Still small enough to sit on my lap and slide down the sand on flattened fruit boxes. You could see the ocean up there, from the highest point of the hill. Holding my brother tight against my chest, his laughter as we gained speed, rushing towards but never reaching the blue.

Mornings swimming in the lake. Silver fish and black swans. Teenagers, older than me, older than I ever wanted to be, letting off fireworks at midnight. Finding their discarded shells and coils in the sand. And the little fibro cabins, six of them clustered around the inlet, all painted in a different pastel colour and decorated in a fifties style, with matching sugar and coffee jars, knitted tea cosies, prints of watercolour ballerinas framed on the walls. A liquid place. Surrounded by nothing but bush and bodies of water. Silt and soil damp beneath bare feet. Gardens of wild blue hydrangeas the size of human heads. My mother holding my shoulder beneath a lamp while my brother slept, squeezing a tick from my arm with a pair of tweezers. We played at being a different kind of family that summer, stitching ourselves together into the roles of mother, father, daughter, son. Sutures only showing in the gulf between mine and Henry’s ages, which hinted at some long-ago separation, an entire childhood, almost, between us. I was a small girl at twelve, skinny and breastless, knock-knees and crowded teeth. Smiling with my mouth closed. When people asked my age and my mother wasn’t in earshot, I said that I was nine.

But time caught up with us. By fifteen I was too embarrassed to hold Henry’s hand in public. It was the way people stared at us when I was minding him. We both looked like her, which meant we looked alike, though us women were dark where he was fair. From our ages they did not guess we were brother and sister. My thick black eyeliner, steely gaze, the way I hunched my shoulders as if in shame. Looked like teenage motherhood. Called Whore and Bastard by an old man drinking from a bottle in a brown paper bag sitting on the church steps beside the supermarket where I waited in my school skirt, Henry on my tartanned hip. Virgin Mary in blue plaid, white socks sliding down shins, waiting for our mother to bring the car around from the parking lot.

So, my mother said, after we’d driven in silence a while, you seeing someone back in the city, then?

I’m not seeing anyone back in the city, I said.

Truths like landmines in the words I did not say. Remembering Jude’s hands on my body. Dull pulse of pleasure-pain between my legs. Picking at the small splinter left in the flesh of my palm where I’d lifted myself up on to his kitchen table. His skin tasted of salt and I’d dug my fingernails in, left half moons on his back. Knots of wood knuckling my spine while down the road my mother slept through the hottest part of the day, breeze blowing through gauzy bedroom curtains but windows bare at Jude’s. The thrill of it. Kind of heat that brings rain if you’re lucky, air thick with water. Just thinking of it, I could hear my heartbeat in my ears. It sounded like I want. I want. I want.

Are you? I said. Seeing anyone up in the Mountains, I mean.

Oh no, my mother said. I mean, I have a few well-meaning ‘gentleman callers’. Neighbourly types, mainly. See me in the drive and help with the shopping bags, or pop around to give me the heads up about storms and fires. Offer to rake the leaves from the gutter for me, that sort of thing. But they just seem so … What’s the word? Old, I guess. They seem old. Time really does more damage to men, in the end – at least the single ones They just seem to go to ruin, unless someone’s looking after them.

Maybe you should go younger, I said. You could pass. You’re not even fifty.

Fifty! God, how awful. I don’t feel fifty, she winced. We should make a deal. How about, I won’t see anyone younger than you if you don’t see anyone older than me. Fair?

Gee, I should hope so, I said, though already I suspected I was cutting it fine with Jude. Old enough to be – but not letting myself finish the thought. Would have had to have been a young dad, anyway. Wondered if he had kids somewhere. If he’d been married. No ring, or discernible line where one might have been. At some point I’d started checking for these things and now I looked at every left hand, like a compulsion. As if it could help me figure out the logic of who was married and who was not, but there didn’t seem to be any. Not as far as I could tell.

Is it true about Grandy? I said. Reminded always of my mother’s mother by rings and fingers. After your dad left, did she really lob off her finger, right beneath the wedding ring?

That’s what she always told us, said my mother. Her hands had swollen so much over the years she couldn’t get the ring off, over the knuckle. She said one day she just couldn’t stand to look at it anymore. Though it could have been an accident, I suppose. Out in the country, chopping wood or something. We were with Daddy that weekend. Up at the snow with his young bird. Newly remarried then, still thinking it fun to play families with us kids. But I always believed Mum. No reason not to, though I guess she could have been making a joke of it. Always had a strange sense of humour. Even so, I think that story felt more true to her. Don’t you remember her metal finger? You were afraid of it as a baby. She had this habit of tapping it against the table when she was thinking. Used to make you cry.

I remember, I said. Or at least I think I do. It was like a suit of armour. It bent where the joint should have been.

At my grandmother’s wake, when I was four, I sat in my mother’s childhood bedroom with my older cousins while they told me stories and drank the nips of liquor they’d taken from the dresser, collected from hotels and airplanes. She’ll come back for you, they said, and you’ll know it by the tap-tap-tapping of her metal finger on the windowpane at night.

I think I just would have stuck with the ring myself, my mother said. Rather than cut off my own finger. You’d think that would be the more traumatic thing.

I guess it’s different, I said, because Grandy did it to herself. She chose it.

She chose the ring once, too, my mother said. But she was always like that. Could be brutal, when she had to be. An unsentimental woman.

I knew the story of my mother’s first memory so well it had almost become my own. Sitting between her two brothers in the backseat of the yellow Volvo on their way to the country house on the Peninsula, pulled off on the side of the road while my grandmother stood hoisting a rock in her hands above the near-dead thing. They’d hit it – that blur of grey-brown fur now slick with blood – once-wallaby – and while her brothers laughed and made jokes about eating roadkill pie, my mother had howled, stiff-limbed, knees and elbows locked in panic, great rasping breaths stringy with spit and mucus, hot tears on her red face, body turned to board but lungs expanding, filling up with her first experience of grief, until my grandmother turned and snapped: Tell me. What would be the crueler thing?

She stopped her screaming then, shut her mouth, sniffled. Trembling. But in the end, she won. Because inside the pouch had been a baby, still breathing, still warm. My grandmother unbuttoned her blouse and swaddled it, handed it to her daughter to hold, and drove to the animal hospital in the next town. Trucks and cars honking when they passed on the highway because there was my grandmother at the wheel, driving one-handed, smoking out the window, in her underwire. String of pearls around her neck, smear of blood on her jodhpurs where she’d wiped her hands after handling the joey. No stranger to gore. Had learned to assist with births out on the farm at fourteen, pulling the foals out from the mares by their legs. My uncles were stone-silent, mortified, while my mother, my tiny mother, cradled the babe. Patted the soft grey fur. Felt the fragile heart beating against her chest as she rocked it in her arms. Hushed with soothing words she imagined a gentle mama might say. Shh baby. You’re my baby now. Go to sleep baby. That’s when she knew, she told me, that she wanted children. At four years old, in her braids and handmade Liberty dress, she already knew.

And maybe she did have some knack for it, some intuition, because my mother has this uncanny way of sensing my thoughts unravelling. Picking up the thread of lapsed conversations like a dropped stitch.

It changes things, she said then. Children do. Afterwards, all that stuff is different.

Dating, you mean? And love?

I mean, you can’t even imagine it. Sometimes it feels like my capacity for love is just exhausted. All used up on you and Henry. See, the thing is, it seems so romantic at the time – like the most romantic thing you could do – have a baby with someone. To give that to them. But once you do, it kind of eclipses everything. You think you’re ready for it, but you’re not. That kind of love? It’s terrifying.

The lighthouse was close to a navy base, and as we approached, we passed cadets on the road in grey camouflage. Tall and lanky boys who looked hardly any older than my twelve-year-old brother. They ran their drills on the far end of the beach sometimes. When I lay in the sand I could see the ships in the distance, the encampment out on the point.

We parked in a dirt lot at the edge of the cliff, car wheels grinding on the gravel road. Outside, rocks and scrub and saltbush trees until the land cut away. Wind off the cove throwing grit and tangling hair. Making us silent. I could hear the waves below even when I couldn’t see them.

From a distance, the lighthouse looked jagged, like a broken tooth. But you could imagine the tower there, where it had once stood, and if you didn’t know you were looking at the ruins – that the navy had blown it up after a better beacon was built on the opposite shore – you might imagine it was only under construction. Demolished turret and sandstone rubble fenced off behind bars.

On a plaque, an acknowledgment of the traditional custodians of the land. Always was, always will be. Land stolen, occupied, returned in an act of reconciliation. Renamed in a recovered tongue. Translated from the regional Dhurga language to something like Bay of Plenty. Signs warning visitors about unstable ground.

My mother walked ahead, taking pictures with her digital camera. The job she had at the museum was new – something she’d applied for and taken up now Henry was getting close to high school. Needing less.

When I was very small, my mother didn’t work and then later, after we left my father, she switched between temporary jobs with children or plants or animals. Working part-time in a flower shop, cutting stems, moving bouquets between buckets of water, dethorning the roses with shearing scissors. Washing and clipping elegant dogs who went home in better cars to bigger houses than we did. Or being paid to look after other people’s kids at a local nursery. The jealousy I felt in that first year I was shuffled off to school, while these other babies got to spend the day with my mother. Later, weekends spent selling clothes at the markets. Leaving in the early dark, sleeping in the back of the car we called Big Red on piles of silk and denim and fur. It was a cobbled-together life, most of our things second-hand or borrowed, but still my mother had her limits. There were some things she would never do for money: sex stuff, nursing, waitressing. Though once, when she was a student, before she met my father, she had posed as an artist’s model for one of her teachers. Tied up by her wrists to a wooden cross in the nude. A naked, female Christ. Left alone for an hour while the artist went out to score. She shrugged when she told me this story – it was the eighties, she said – but made me promise not to tell my brother.

I walked around the headland, away from my mother and the lighthouse, to look down at the sea below. Wrecking waters. Something violent, I always thought, about the edge of a cliff. All that rock hacked away by salt and water and time, weathered raw. Rougher out here, near the open ocean, than at Jude’s beach. Already thinking of it as something that belonged to him because he had fixed up a house and made a life here, and I was just a visitor. Tourist town, he’d said, but home to him.

I felt my phone in my pocket then. A message from Jude, as if I had willed it. Asking after my bluestings. I told him I was healing, and when I’d rubbed aloe on my back in the mirror that morning, the welts from the jellyfish made a pattern like the points of a constellation. He asked which one and I said Andromeda. Sent a picture of the ruins, turret in the distance a broken crown.

Round here, near a trail leading to a camping ground, was a mounted sign showing a picture of the lighthouse when it was first completed. Grim-faced Victorians in black and white, sitting on the grass in front of the lodging houses. Lounging in the sun but looking already long-dead, in the way that early photographs seem to make ghosts of the living. In the picture, bungalows with wood verandahs and picket fences making crooked boundaries like a line of matches stuck in the sand. All vanished now. The bush had reclaimed what had been hacked away.

The sign also told a story about two teenagers from early lighthouse families. Keeper’s girls. Daughter of the chief and the daughter of the assistant. Sixteen and nineteen in the winter of 1887. Near-women.

They had been playing a game, had broken in to a fisherman’s hut down on the cove in a dare or desire to be close to a man other than their fathers, to look through this stranger-man’s things. The smell, maybe, of brine and leather making blood quicken and hands quiver. Sand blowing in through the open door. House creaking in the wind like the sound of boot-leather.

The chief’s daughter dressed up in the fisherman’s clothes for a laugh – his hat, too big, fell over her eyes, and his coat sleeves slipped over her slender wrists. She picked up the shotgun he kept by the door, as they all did, living so isolated out on the edge. The bullet struck the assistant’s daughter in the temple. Tripped and it went off, she told the court. All in an instant.

I dream them. They were unrelated by blood but raised as sisters. No other children for miles. Siblings had died in infancy – of typhoid fever, smallpox, accidents from rolling hoops on the cliffs. The assistant’s daughter fair and soft-faced in an oval portrait, pale ringlets topped with a loose ribbon-bow. The daughter of the chief three years younger but tall and strong-shouldered, narrow and dark. Breathless running up and down these hills. And at night, braiding each other’s hair with strips of old cotton to make it curl, threading needles by candlelight to mend the tears in their long dresses from the branches of saltbush trees. The ocean outside moving in the dark, almost animal. The rush of water breaking against rock. The beacon lighting up their rooms. Smell of kerosene and oil. Woken by the loud low heart-stopping call of the fog signals that rupture silent nights. Ships in distress. Learn to feel it in the wind and tide before it even happens but still trusting in their fathers to guide the ships in safe. Light their passage. Bring them home.

There was no further mention of the fisherman or the would-be murderess. No details of what happened to her after – whether she moved away or married or lived out the rest of her days on that cliff’s edge – nothing, except that she was acquitted at trial, since she’d meant no harm. Only skylarking, declared the judge. No one living to deny it.

I thought briefly of suicide pacts made in pinkie-promises, love triangles – but enough of ruins and islands and the dead. I held in my hands another message from Jude. Wanting a different sort of picture. Alone, and wanting me. I ducked behind a bush. Pulled down the collar of my T-shirt, stuck my phone in. Black lace on white skin never seen by sun. Captured. Sent. The rush of it. Wading into want. Salt in the air, salt on my lips. Splitting in the wind where yesterday’s kiss had caught me with his teeth. Pushing on my mouth with the back of my hand to blot blood. Straightening my shirt.

I looked for my mother, but on the other side of the cliff’s rise, could no longer see her. Brief swell of panic – a childhood feeling – of my mother moving out of sight. As if I took my eyes off her she might disappear. But as I rounded the cove and began to pick my way back towards the lighthouse I could see her there, sitting on a low wall, sketching. Black hair tucked into the red windbreaker zipped to her chin, a few strands picked up and tousled loose by the wind, hints of silver catching the light.

It is hard to explain to people who meet her now that my mother used to be a different kind of woman. I wondered sometimes if Henry could even imagine it – aviator sunglasses staring down the highway, red fingernails bitten down to the quick, cigarette burning in her left hand while she steered with her right. In the car her mother’s daughter, despite it all. Hair dyed copper from a thick paste that smelled of mud and earth and left rust-coloured rings around the bathtubs of our rented rooms. All the men who used to come to visit, leaving behind their humble offerings – flowers and wine bottles and wooden-stringed instruments shaped like strange fruits. Mandolins and banjos and parlour guitars rounded like pumpkins or papayas or chestnuts – objects for my mother to sketch, and though they were given to her to play, the beds of her fingers remained soft.

And then there was the night we came home to find the necks snapped, guitars with their bodies kicked in and splintered wood – a musical massacre. Broken bottles and shattered shards of glass, a rock through the window, my mother’s silk dresses ripped up and thrown in a heap on the floor.

Desire, I was only beginning to understand that day at the ruins, comes in many forms but almost all of them are violent. We learn this from the stories we are told about love. Struck by an angel’s arrow or drugged by a loveflower, desire wounds and I had felt its bluesting. The thought of him all through the day, like pushing on a bruise.

By the time I reached my mother, she’d finished her sketch of the lighthouse, its tumbled tower. No light now to give.

They built it in the wrong place, she said. Did you notice how it looked out in the wrong direction? Facing the open sea, instead of the cove. Caused more harm than good. Ships got their signals crossed and so they built the better one at Point Perpendicular. I suppose that’s the one I should be drawing, but I always find the ruins more interesting.

What is it about her and me that draws us to these kinds of places? Something lonely deep down in the bone. A marrowed loneliness, passed down womb to womb. We wanted to believe, my mother and I, that love could restore what was beyond repair, and if not, at least let us walk around in the wreckage.

In the palm of my hand, my phone vibrated with another message from Jude. Telling me he was at home, that he’d done enough work for the day, would leave the door open if I happened to be passing. Where are you? he said, and that, too, seemed like a kind of loving. Wanting me to be near, and if I wasn’t, wanting at least to know how far. I would come to miss this most after parting ways with someone. The absence of those messages. The beacons we make of each other. Sending our signals out and back.

I told him I was out on the cape, that I could see a tiny island in the distance.

No man is an island, he replied. John Donne said that.

No man is an island but every woman is, I replied. I said that.

All along, looking for a lover like a lighthouse or a shelter, and maybe this is what I liked about Jude. He looked like someone who had weathered a storm and stayed standing, a little lightning left in his fingers.

Maybe to be a lighthouse keeper’s daughter is to live a reckless, free-wheeling life. Dwelling on the threshold between abandon and abandonment, perched over the ocean’s violence, a father’s job to light the way for those travelling through the dark, not yours.

But no father can protect his daughters from growing and becoming the kinds of women who are bold enough to enter the houses of strange and solitary men. There is nothing that can protect them from the high wild loneliness of that place or the desires that come with it. What you might do for a way out.

Published in August 2018, no. 403
Madelaine Lucas

Madelaine Lucas

Madelaine Lucas is an Australian writer and musician based in Brooklyn, New York. She is the senior editor of NOON literary annual and a teaching fellow at Columbia University, where she is completing her MFA in fiction. She has been the winner of the Overland/Victoria University Short Fiction Prize and was shortlisted for the Griffith University Josephine Ulrick Literature Prize. She is currently at work on her first novel.