JANUARY 26, 1988
NEW SOUTH WALES
As George and Jane entered the Seabreeze, George inspected the fountain gurgling away to itself in the foyer. Someone’s kids had cleaned out the silver coins—leaving only a few greening coppers. George disliked the foyer for its humidity and decor. He’d always felt passing through it was rather like floating in an outmoded public aquarium. It had fish motifs etched into every other tile, themselves coloured in various shades of swimming pool blue. It inevitably reminded George of that cheap holiday in Blackpool years ago. Nothing more than a two-day respite from relatives during their one and only trip back home to England. He tossed a copper wish in the fountain and cursed the day they moved to this block of flats from their house on the clifftop, further down the esplanade.
Jane took the elevator, but George began to climb the stairs. He didn’t like little rooms, and who could trust an old elevator’s cables? On the stairs, George reflected on the afternoon’s events. They’d been watching the Australian bicentennial celebrations on the television at Emma’s, who was Jane’s sister. Rodney and Gavin, Emma’s boys, had not been home. Off surfing, Emma had mentioned.
Once inside their flat, Jane began the preparations for dinner by getting four sausages out of the freezer. George sat on the balcony and watched the last few surfboard riders catching waves out off Shark Island.
“Is it too dark? ” Jane asked through the screen door.
“I’m looking for them. I think I might see Rodney.”
“Why don’t I call Emma and see if the boys’ll come ’round tomorrow for breakfast? Would you like that? ”
At dusk from his old house, George had often stared over at the Royal National Park. From his old garden he used to watch the eroding pink and orange sandstone cliffs across the mouth of the Hacking River, crowned with blazing wildflowers, gold and crimson bottlebrush, blue gums, and hardy scrub. Sometimes at dusk, when the light danced off the water into the silvery leaves, George had half expected to see a black man emerge from the bush, hunting, holding a spear, boomerang, and woomera. An ancient aboriginal man, a fugitive, who had somehow managed to stay hidden and preserved for these two hundred years. George had considered his old view to be that authentic, that Australian. All that was visible from his balcony here at the Seabreeze were the stacks from the Kurnell oil refinery smoking in the distance over behind Wanda Beach.
George could hear Jane talking on the phone to Emma. None of the surfers out this late appeared to be Gavin or Rodney. There was a time, he thought, he might have wanted sons. But thirty years ago Dr. Northcliffe had said plain and simple, “George, mate, I reckon your wife’s barren.”
So that had always been that.
George unlaced his brogues, took off his socks, and rubbed his old feet. Boys of his own, he thought. And although he couldn’t quite place it, what he sensed in the night air were the beginnings of rain. As he drifted off to sleep, the last surfboard rider paddled in to shore and clouds gathered along the horizon. George dreamed himself holding Emma, at his old house with his view, and her two sons by their side. They all stood in the garden, bare toes in the dry soil, holding on to the wire fence. Like a family, they looked over the cliff’s edge to the rock shelf below, down to where Jane lay dead. She’d take her courage with her.
DECEMBER 19, 1977
In Myers department store, the virile young mannequins—with their cocked heads and self-righteous grins—looked down on middle-aged George like he was half the man they were. On the escalator, walls of mirrors fenced him in for his entire ascension. One thousand peripheral versions of himself, in profile, each trying to ignore the existence of the next. He felt his private world being turned inside out—like a punched felt hat—for all the other shoppers to see.
It was a mannequin in men’s wear who began the chiding. A youth, frozen in mid-athletic stride, said, “George, this is your life. There’s no way out, mate.”
George began to perspire. And then another started, a petrified face, barely old enough to vote. “Pay no attention to him George, but you will be the last man in your family’s line. This is the fall of the house of George,” he laughed. Then, in chorus, the whole room full of mannequins chanted:
The fall of the house of George,
The fall of the house of George.
“Stop it.” George said this aloud without meaning to.
“Stop what? ” Jane groped for his hand without taking her eyes off a fresh pile of corduroy slacks. She continued, “George, dear, are you hungry? ” He took her hand.
George looked to his feet for stability. His Sunday shoes. Solid black brogues. In order to escape, he tried to think of something real, his house, his view, the half-finished Jane Austen novel beside his bed. But what of his ride on top of the toothy, free-spirited, wooden stair? The mannequins, the mirrors, the escalators? He could trust nothing in this world, not his own individuality, not English novels, not gravity, not even his Sunday shoes. It was, after all, only Saturday.
Since Emma and sons immigrated two years ago, George felt Jane’s spirits rise. He welcomed this. He did. But, shopping for children, here in the city? Especially now, after that new surfer husband of Emma’s went and got attacked by a shark. They say he might not make it.
George, who was now outside walking down Martin Place, felt the buildings teetering around him, the clouds moving because the skyscrapers were falling. With every step he confronted a precipice. He looked down and, letting his mind wander, George jettisoned himself from his body, his clothes and brogues, and imagined himself in his garden, cooking fish over the coals. He regarded Jane at her garden, looking over the wire fence to the rocks and sea below. The smell of bream cooking, sea salt, and gum trees all bled together and soothed his mind and mood. The two boys played cricket and Emma stood by his side, her hand inside his. Together they watched the horizon. George’s gait widened, his speed increased down Martin Place. He licked his lips.
“Oh, honey, look—lamingtons.” Jane released George’s hand and ducked into a pastry shop. A little brass bell rang overhead. She approached the glass counter and bowed, studying the cakes, pastries, pies, slices, biscuits, tarts.
“What do you think of those lamingtons there, George? ” She placed her index finger on the glass, showing him.
“Excuse me, lovey? ” the woman behind the counter asked.
Jane looked up. The elderly woman’s accent was English, from the North like her own. Jane took in her questioning face for a second, then followed the woman’s gaze back over her own shoulder. Jane had been talking to herself. There was no one else in the shop. No George.
George had released his wife’s hand without a thought. The fish on the barbecue seared away, the ocean wind swept through his hair, and over the mirrored seascape the sun danced off the tiny wispy brush strokes, the wave crests, the dabs of white paint only characterizing foam, only implying the true nature of things.
It was not until George reached Pitt Street that he returned to the city, his clothes, brogues, and situation. It was a car horn that snapped him out of it. Like a bridge of sound, the horn carried him the sixty kilometres back to himself in an instant, and with a thud.
“Watch it, mate. Bit early for the drink, don’t you reckon? ” asked a voice. George turned, staggering and falling, but the bloke who said this could have been any one of the grey suits that were now stepping around him.
With his freshly shaven face against the smooth, hot cement, George forgot himself, lost Emma’s touch, misplaced his view of the sea. He was alive, yes, he was sure of it. But whose life was he inside of? What if he’d become a local? A man who could not live without overlooking the sea. A Sydneysider who needed the flat horizon, the distant bush, and the wind-battered cliffs simply to feel whole. Was he no longer British? Was he now an Australian?
George considered his new life, sentence by sentence.
Then, slowly, awkward clothes arrived, a pair of stiff shoes, some noise. He was becoming himself. He felt foreign again. He felt English.
“George, dear, you’ve collapsed in the middle of the sidewalk.” It was Jane’s voice, urgent, but nonetheless reassuring.
Jane had asked the bakery woman with the northern English accent, “My husband didn’t come in here with me? ” And as the woman shook her head, Jane pressed her lips together in a stiff-mouthed smile and left the store. Outside, the sound of the brass bell tingling over the bakery door drowned abruptly in the sea of street noise. The sandstone buildings climbed into the air surrounding her like cliff faces. A loud car horn sounded. She snapped her head to the right in time to see George lurch first towards the road, then back to the footpath, only to finally collapse onto his front. She ran through the people towards him.
Back in the pastry shop, they ate curried egg sandwiches in a small booth. George drank a vanilla milkshake. Jane sipped tea. They shared a lamington. It was all the walking. It was the heat. On an empty stomach, indeed. And it was Christmas. Goodness, so much shopping to do. They wouldn’t come into Sydney next year. The train fare was too dear, and really they could get the boys’ gifts at Walton’s in Caringbah. Jane held George’s hand. She was doing all the talking. He liked it when she talked. Her voice ran through him and soothed his mind like a scotch and water. Jane had been a nurse when they’d met. She still knew how to diagnose and disinfect.
On the train home, George began to relay his day to Jane. What had happened to him: the mannequins’ voices in Myers, the flight home to the sea. But the sight of the George’s river running underneath an oncoming bridge reassured him that he would soon be at home; so he stopped shy of telling her of his misplaced love of country, and his near death sentence. During this silence, George regained some strength, found some sense, and made the colours of Pitt Street, the temperature of the day, and the city noise drop away from his mind.
A week after the incident, his recollection of the fall was only partial. Two years later, it was unsalvageable.
SUMMER’S END, 1975
(BEEFEATER GIN, INDIAN TONIC WATER, TWO SISTERS)
NEW SOUTH WALES
The sea has no passion.” Jane hunched over and lit a cigarette. There was wind. “It’s barren and that is why, millions of years ago, we all slithered out.”
Emma asked, “Then why live so near to it, on a clifftop? ”
“Struth, as they say here. It’s an island. Water, water everywhere. Why live anywhere in Australia? ”
“Because you must have wanted to at first. But why live on a clifftop? ”
“Because he wanted to.” Jane looked out at the bleeding dusk. She smoked. “It’s because George is dramatic.” She paused. “And a verandah on a clifftop could be rather like a stage I suppose. The whole bloody country full of actors and actresses performing before the sea.” She drew on her cigarette, smiling at her own sharp summation of a theme, a leitmotif that had, until now, been undiscovered by her.
“But Jane. You’ve got to be dotty to stay here.”
“What? Leave? And let the sea be his only audience, let him become an Australian? I shouldn’t think so. We moved here because we wanted a place untouched by war, somewhere with a fresh start for our life together.”
George and Jane had met in London. He was the young schoolmaster on summer holiday. She, the nurse-in-training on leave from Lancashire. He taught Latin, geography, and cricket. She dressed wounds and liked to garden. He had a moustache and a sunburned nose. She had a long birthmark on her stomach. If he looked at it upside down, it was the shape of Italy, and the toe of its boot disappeared under her breast. After a courtship that lasted long enough to sample selected parts of Europe, they motored up to Lancashire and were married in a church that was two hundred years older than Australia. That was 1948. April 3rd. Not long after, they purchased a berth on the P. & O. sailing for Sydney.
“Another? ” said Emma, reaching for Jane’s glass.
“Yes.” They met one another’s gaze. Four smacking blue eyes with interlocking flecks of British racing green. The Firth sisters from Colne were together again. “George loves your boys, Emma. He treats them like his own. Thank you for coming.” Emma, mother of two, recent widower, was the younger sister by almost ten years.
“I knew you would never leave him here. I thought I had to come.”
“Cheers, then.” They charged their glasses. Jane saw Emma as she had seen herself a decade ago: fresher faced, more able bodied.
NEW SOUTH WALES
Jane stepped off the verandah and crossed their back lawn to her row of vegetables planted along the wire fence at the cliff’s edge. Despite last night’s rain, the coarse grass, infested with patches of burrs and bindi-eyes, crunched under her sandaled feet, the wetness flicking up on her legs, itching her skin. There lay her “hopefuls:” a few sad carrots, a tired pumpkin, an unlikely union of spices huddling together for mutual protection. It’s death row, she thought. They’d surely jump if they had any courage.
Jane squatted and poked her index finger into the earth at the foot of a tomato plant. Dry. There had been good rain last night; but she knew the sandy soil lacked depth. Besides, she thought, to plants this exposed the southerly busters are merciless on anything taller than a small boy. And the sun and salt contribute to—well, they just contribute. She rubbed the waxy skin of a green tomato on its vine and it snapped off.
The door banged behind George as he considered stepping out across the lawn.
“That tomato ripe already? ” He called from the verandah. She watched the wet, uncut grass seducing his bare feet. A vacant moment passed before he found his “take charge” face. He marched over to her, his strides measured and sure, the grass licking at his ankles.
“I picked it accidentally,” she said as he drew near.
“If you pop it on the windowsill it’ll ripen in the sun.” George looped his arm inside Jane’s and held her hand, adding, “Won’t it.” George looked out at the morning sun. “It’s going to be a humid one today, yeah? ” She didn’t answer. He turned and looked over at the Royal National Park, his eyes combing the bush for movement of any kind.
“Nothing grows here,” said Jane as she handed the green tomato to George.
“My carrots were good last year.”
“George, you never said what Dr. Northcliffe wanted yesterday. Did he say anything? ”
“Just to keep at it.” George gave his wife a squeeze. He handed her back the green tomato, saying: “Put that on the kitchen windowsill.” He turned, leaving her, retracing his steps back across the grass that was already beginning to dry.
From where she stood, the top strand of the thin wire fence clumsily followed the horizon’s line. She remained fixed there before her garden on the clifftop, alongside her hopefuls, waiting for better rain.