I go inside and find Zoe’s father sitting by the window, staring at the sky. He does a little jump when I come in, as if I caught him by surprise, like he wasn’t expecting to see me there, standing in his lounge/dining room in the middle of the afternoon just a few days before Christmas. That’s OK. I wasn’t expecting it either.
We’re visiting Zoe’s father and mother for a few days before Christmas in order to make up for the fact that we won’t be here for Christmas itself. Of course, everybody knows that we could be here for Christmas if we really wanted to be – there’s nothing stopping us – and the fact that we won’t be here for Christmas is simply because we don’t want to be here. So we’re staying for a few days before Christmas instead so that nobody thinks the reason why we don’t want to be here for Christmas is because we don’t want to be here at all.
That’s the general idea anyway.
The lead story in the local paper says the post office is expecting a busy Christmas although, with just a few days to go, business is still rather slow. There is a picture of a postie on the front page and the caption underneath says he is getting ready for the Christmas rush.
Outside the small brown bungalow, the hot air is pulsating with the chant of mating cicadas. Sunlight bounces off the concrete driveways of the cul-de-sac. It is only minutes to the beach.
I decide to go and lie down on the double ensemble in the spare bedroom. The room has bare brick walls, a fawn-coloured carpet with brown speckles and a pale pink roller blind. The only decoration is a packet of pot pourri which somebody has hung on the wall without removing the plastic wrapping. In the distance, I can hear the steady drone of a lawnmower moving backwards and forwards, up and down. The buzzing of the lawnmower mingles with the chirping of the cicadas to form a gigantic rhythmic chorus, calling and responding. The rhythm soon lulls me to sleep even though the double ensemble is far too soft for my liking.
Later I am woken by an afternoon breeze which blows open the blind. Sunlight floods the room, casting a white hot rectangle on the carpet. It is almost too painful to look at.
We decide to go for a swim.
Down at the beach, the surf lifesavers are already lowering their flags. The families are leaving too, heading towards their beachside apartments. They move ponderously across the sand as if every step requires careful consideration.
One surf lifesaver is teaching a group of teenagers how to run into the ocean with a board and then paddle out beyond the breakers. They do this several times, kicking up their heels and clawing at the waves, pointing their backsides towards the sky. I look for something in the ocean, perhaps a small buoy, to mark the point of return, but there doesn’t seem to be one. The teenagers all seem to know how far to go.
We have a swim and then go back to the bungalow where it is almost time for tea. Tonight we are having grilled steaks, boiled potatoes and pumpkin, even though Zoe’s father and mother both know that Zoe never eats pumpkin. I have to eat her pumpkin instead.
After tea, Zoe’s father and mother watch TV while we do the washing up. The man on TV says that tomorrow’s weather across the nation will be warm to very warm becoming hot inland. After we’ve finished the washing up, we go and stand in the driveway, having a smoke and looking up at the stars. The sky is clear but there’s no escaping the heat of the day which sticks to us like melted chocolate.
We’re almost ready to go back in again when a green car pulls up in front of a house on the opposite side of the cul-de-sac. A man gets out of the car and walks across the lawn to the front door. He doesn’t knock or anything but simply stands there, head bowed slightly, almost touching the door, as if he’s trying to see right through it. I guess he must have said something very quietly because the next moment a woman starts yelling inside the house:
Shut up you bastard
The sound slices through the still air; everything from the dark trees on the horizon to the warm concrete under my feet becomes positively charged. There’s a pause and then the woman’s voice comes again, louder now, almost a scream.
Fuck off willya
Quickly followed by:
Why don’t you just fuck off and go back to your fucking root
Nothing moves, although I can feel the ground vibrating beneath me. Maybe it’s just the tension in my leg muscles. The man stands by the front door for a while longer and then very slowly retraces his steps to the green car. He doesn’t notice us standing in the driveway, pretending to look at the stars. Or maybe he does see us but decides to ignore us anyway. He gets in the car and drives off quickly, swinging round at the bottom of the cul-de-sac and accelerating up the hill towards Ocean Drive. Everything goes quiet again.
We go back inside.
The next morning, we are woken before dawn by the sound of Zoe’s father looking for his tackle in the garage. He loads everything into the back of his 4WD and goes off to his favourite fishing spot.
The What’s New… section of the local paper has a story about a noodle bar which opened recently in town. It says that noodle bars are an exciting new eating-style trend which is popular in the city. Leon the chef has considerable experience with noodles.
We decide to go for a swim.
There are lots of people at the beach this morning walking quickly up and down on the hard sand near the water’s edge. They wear training shoes, shorts and baggy T-shirts. We find a spot near some rocks where we can undress, then walk into the ocean. The water is surprisingly cold and for a long time we simply stand there, letting the waves break against our knees. Eventually we take the plunge and once we’re in, we soon get used to it.
After a while we get out and go back to our spot next to the rocks. While we’re drying off, an elderly couple comes along and starts undressing near where we are sitting. They walk into the ocean and wave their arms about just like we did when we felt the water. The woman is the first to take the plunge while the man continues to stand, hands on hips, watching her go.
After breakfast, we ask Zoe’s father and mother if they would like to come with us to visit the local winery but they say no, they have to stay at home and do something. Later on, Zoe’s father and mother take the 4WD and drive down the coast to buy some prawns.
We spend a couple of hours at the local winery and then go for a drive along Settlement Road to look for the noodle bar. There are lots of new houses out this way – squat, cream-coloured slabs with low eaves and double garages. A sign tells us that this is our last opportunity to start enjoying the lifestyle of our dreams. We are unable to find the noodle bar.
When we get back to the bungalow, the green car is parked in the cul-de-sac again. We hear more shouting coming from inside the house and then a woman comes out carrying a baby. She puts the baby on the back seat of the green car and drives off.
A short time later, Zoe’s father and mother arrive back with a big bag of prawns. We sit around the kitchen table eating the prawns and drinking beer. Zoe’s father tells us about the time he got drunk on gin. It was his twenty-first birthday, soon after the war, and he was working in the rail yards having only recently arrived in the country. It was his job to stoke the furnaces that dried the sand they put on the tracks to stop the wheels of the trains from slipping. That’s what they did in those days; travel halfway round the world in order to stoke furnaces.
Zoe’s father tells us this story and then we are silent for a long time. I think about why they don’t put sand on the tracks any more.
Later that evening, I notice that the green car is parked in the cul-de-sac for several hours. There is no shouting coming from inside the house.
The next day, we don’t see Zoe’s father at all. He’s in bed with a migraine. We don’t see much of Zoe’s mother either. She spends most of the day in the bedroom with Zoe’s father, occasionally emerging to look for more Panadol or a glass of orange juice.
The local paper reports that Commodore Crescent has an impressive display of Christmas decorations and is likely to win first prize in the local competition for best group display. Everybody in the street has made an effort. The organiser of the street decorating competition says she is pleased with the number of streets taking part. Some of the entries, she says, are quite hysterical.
We decide to go and look for Zoe’s grandmother who lives in a big house somewhere out on King’s Creek Road. On the way, we stop at The Village Green coffee shop for a cappuccino or two. Outside the coffee shop there is a chalkboard on which somebody has written:
Don’t be discouraged – nobody is perfikt
Eventually we find the house where Zoe’s grandmother lives. It set on several acres of land overlooking a small forest with a stream, green fields all around. In the fields, chestnut-coloured horses nudge each other playfully, flicking their tails at the flies.
The car tyres crunch on the gravel driveway and a big black dog comes running round from the back of the house. We sit in the car and watch the black dog.
Zoe gets out and disappears round the back of the house. The black dog ignores her. I continue to sit in the car and wait for a signal from Zoe to say that everything is OK. After a while, she reappears from round the back of the house and makes a sign for me to follow her. I get out of the car and crunch across the gravel towards her. The black dog ignores me as well.
We go through a small green gate and down a narrow passageway with brick walls on either side. Almost immediately we’re at the back of the house. It feels warmer out here, cut off from the cooling sea breezes, and much brighter too. I shade my eyes with my hand like an explorer or early settler, and look out across the lush green lawn towards a fenced-in pool. Lying on a recliner next to the pool is Zoe’s grandmother.
Zoe takes my hand and we start to walk across the lawn which feels soft and bouncy underfoot. I can feel the air pressing against my face like a warm flannel. Zoe’s grandmother is sitting up now, watching us approach. From this distance, she looks like a bright smudge, dressed in a white nightgown, her pale skin mottled like processed meat with a dab of hair on top, light and airy like snow from a can.
I can see all of the blue pool now which, in places, has taken on the dark tones of the ocean. I can feel the ridges of wood grain in the fence posts and the spikiness of the blades of grass under my feet. Already I’m anticipating the transition from the yielding grass to the rough, unforgiving surface of the stone paving around the pool.
I look down at my feet and notice that my shoes are covered in a fine white powder. Somebody has been putting chemicals on the lawn. As I watch, the powder seems to leap off my shoes and swirl towards me, enveloping my head, tiny specks dancing in front of my eyes. I could float off into this cloud, if I let myself, disappear on the currents and eddies that carry me too far, beyond the point of return. At the same time, I can feel Zoe’s hand in mine, broader and heavier than anything I’ve ever held, like a fisherman’s lead weight, and it’s holding me down too, but only if I concentrate on it, keep on reminding myself not to let go.
Finally we make it over to where Zoe’s grandmother is sitting and take up our positions on either side of her. Zoe’s grandmother is very happy to see Zoe again after all this time, like Christmas come early, or maybe all the previous ones rolled into one. She’s not quite sure. She keeps on looking at Zoe and then looking at me doubtfully, as if to say,
Do you see her as well? Is she really there? Tell me what’s going on, please…
Instead she says: ‘There’s a woman comes to take my blood but she hasn’t been today.’
Zoe asks her if she would like us to find out why the woman hasn’t been today but the question only seems to confuse her.
‘Nobody comes to visit me,’ she says. ‘I’m on my own most of the time.’
Zoe makes a disbelieving noise and I join in so that, before we know it, we’re both saying things like ‘Oh surely that’s not…’ and ‘What about…?’ We don’t like to think of Zoe’s grandmother living in this big house all by herself. At least you’ve got the dog, we say. What kind of dog is it?
We sit like this for a while, talking about the family, who’s doing what and what happened to so-and-so, and even though I had wanted to leave as soon as we arrived, the time soon passes and I quite enjoy myself. Eventually Zoe gets up to make a move and her grandmother does likewise. We tell her there’s no need, but she does it anyway and, at the last moment, makes a slow awkward lunge at Zoe, grabbing her around the neck like someone demonstrating a new judo hold. They stand entwined for a moment and then Zoe breaks free and we leave. The black dog ignores us on the way out.
When we get back to the house, the green car is parked in the cul-de-sac again. The woman is leaning in the rear door and, as we drive past, I notice that she’s struggling to get something off the back seat, either the baby or possibly a large present, it’s hard to tell. Normally I’d say it was a baby but then again it is only a few days before Christmas.