Life seen through fiction…
On the coast, a parting
This story comes from an assignment to write about a conversation between friends who are parting, that has description of setting and that climaxes without drama in a decision that leads to a change in life. The characters are fictional although one of them is based on a real character. The story setting is located in a place where I lived.
MORNING. Emma places the jar of hair dye in the bathroom cupboard so that Rusty won’t see it. She looks in the mirror. A face suntanned but without the puffiness she has noticed in some of her friends. Eyes still that luminous light blue not unlike the colour of the walls of her living room. A few skin blotches brought by age and sun. The lines at the corner of her eyes a little deeper.
She glances at the poinsettia in the jar by bathroom basin, a flower she plucked from the small tree in the front garden a couple days ago. “Withering, just like me”, she thinks. “But not completely withered yet although my face is ageing faster that the rest of me”. The thought comes as she glances down at her slim and firm figure hidden by Tshirt and jeans.
She closes the cabinet and goes into the kitchen.
“It’s meusli with sliced banana. They’re from my garden, the banana that is”, she informs Rusty as he goes to the bathroom. “Orange juice on it okay instead of milk? Tea? We’ll eat in the sunroom”. Her voice that is melodic rather than deep.
The sunroom is a long, narrow space that spans most of the front of the house. The view through the windows gives onto a mature frangipani tree beyond which is the street connecting the house to the town. Few people come this way. The road ends a little further along. The timber building with its roof of galvanised iron is typical of the older houses of the town, economic but durable structures adapted to the hot summers of the region.
Emma thinks that because of its interior weatherboard wall the room was a verandah that had been enclosed at some time. To reach it they walk from the kitchen with its dining table and chairs and through the living room. A door set midpoint in the front wall with windows either side symmetrically divides the space. A light and bright, simple room. A couple palms in large red pots. Walls the same light blue as the living room. Faded curtains of dark blue pulled back. A rice paper lampshade centre point of the ceiling. A shelf higher on the wall with a dusty radio of probably 1980s vintage. It isn’t that Emma listens to the radio. She finds it musically repetitious, the commercial pop music stations anyway, and their constant ads she finds disruptive. The ABC is better though you have to choose your program and be there when it is broadcast, something Emma isn’t good at doing. Not that it matters. She hasn’t listened to the radio for what must be a good five years now.
Rooms contain memories as well as furnishings. One one side is a wooden table the legs of which had at some time been painted a creamy white and the top of which had been stained so that the wood grain showed through. Now, it shows the gourges and scratches of use and time’s passing. Four mismatched, old fashioned wooden kitchen chairs surround it. Emma bought the table and chairs from a family who were leaving town to return to the city. They asked only a low sum and offered to deliver the furniture so as to make a quick sale, Emma thought, as the wife told her they wanted to leave as soon as possible. It was a good deal so she snapped it up. That was all of seven years ago now, just after she sold up in town and bought this little timber cottage on the hill. The memory of that flows through her as she stands at the door to the sunroom.
On the other side of the narrow room is a smaller table with a solitary desk chair that Emma salvaged from a footpath in Byron. On it rests a new laptop of dull metallic grey with the white logo in the shape of a piece of fruit at its centre. A cable leads from it to a small hard drive beside it and another to a powerpoint low down on the wall. On the wall above is an oil painting in a contemporary impressionistic style showing a coastal scene. It was given to Emma by her work friend at the community college, Helen, who claimed that it is a local scene though neither Helen, her husband, Emma or anyone else she asked could figure out just where it might be. Helen bought it on a whim at a charity shop in Ballina. She told Emma there was no place for it on her walls since her husband had taken up photography and covered their walls with his prints.
They sit on the wooden kitchen chairs at the table. Eating his way through his bowl of meusli, Rusty looks up to the books on the shelf above.
“Hey, Emma. You’ve taken up tarot cards!”, Rusty exclaims on seeing a box of the cards on the shelf.
“Not so, Rusty!”, she responds defensively. “I’m surprised you haven’t seen them before. Just shows that you really are unobservant”, she adds mockingly.
“They were left by a young hippie woman. That’s how I think of her anyway, because on her clothing style and her lacksadical attitude to life that reminded me of myself at her age. She forgot to take them with her when she left last spring, after I put her up for a few days before she took the coach for Brisbane.
“Cooktown. That’s where she was going. Friends somewhere around there, she said athough she didn’t know exactly where they were. Cooktown, two thousand kilometers from here up in the tropics. Cooktown via other friends in Brisbane and others in Townsville on her way north. Those friends in Townsville, she knew where they lived and they were expecting her some time that summer.
“I guess she was something of a drifter. She wasn’t very open about herself while she was here. All I know is that she was from Melbourne and had been living in Sydney in some kind of sharehouse in Balmain for the past year and working for a company doing bush regeneration in the Eastern Suburbs. I got the idea that she was running away from something or someone but I didn’t ask. She stayed a few days, that’s all I offered anyway after we got talking at the coffee stand at the Byron markets.
“I was going to mail her cards to her if she contacted me. I haven’t thought much about her since. I wonder if she found her friends? I heard nothing more of her after leaving her at the coach stop in Byron Bay the afternoon she left.”
Minutes pass in silence. Then, in a quiet, serious-sounding voice, Emma says, “Rusty, I’m getting old. Yesterday morning I looked in the bathroom mirror and saw that the roots of my hair are taking on a tired, greyish colour. I even thought of dyeing my hair to hide it. I haven’t dyed my hair since my bottle blonde episode in my twenties, and it seems a challenge to contemplate it now. Yet, I still feel like I did when I was thirty and I’m not fat or unfit though nowhere near as fit as I once was.”
“Oh, come on Emma. You’re still the attractive young woman I’ve always known. Grey hair? So what? It’ll suit you, so I wouldn’t worry about that bottle of hair dye on the bathroom basin”.
She breaks eye contact and looks down. Rusty sees his comment has embarrassed her. He looks away and in doing so his eyes settle on the longboard in the far corner over by the desk.
“Tony’s mal, isn’t it”, he says, nodding towards the off-white surfboard, still smudged with dried surf wax after all this time.
It has stood in the far corner this past seven years and in all that time neither Rusty or Emma had said anything about it. Earlier, that had been because Rusty knew that her feelings were still raw about Tony leaving. He wanted to avoid mention of anything that would upset Emma.
Emma looks over and notices the silver locket she draped over the board when Tony left, the locket Tony gave her for her birthday. Were she to move closer she would be able to make out the inscription on it, however she knows well the words inscribed there.
Emma put the longboard in the corner when she moved in because she didn’t know what to do with the thing. Her own board, a mini-mal, was on a rack in the back room above the door to the bathroom. She doesn’t use it much these days.
It was later, when unpacking and sorting through her stuff after moving in that she opened the wooden box that contained her jewellery, what there was of it — just a few cheap pieces as well as a more expensive silver necklace that she had bought at the craft market, the work of some Byron Bay artisan. Also in that box was a small selection of earrings and a plain silver ring she never wore. And the locket. On taking the locket from that box she shed a few tears of remembrance before reminding herself of her vow to be tough and not get caught in the past. She took the thing and draped it over the nose of the longboard Tony abandoned when he left.
“Ah, Tony”, she says wistfully. A growing sense of nostalgia mixed with regret rises as she fixes her gaze on the no-longer-shiny locket. “Why did he go? And here I am, still alone seven years after his departure, my hair turning grey, my face becoming wrinkled. Is it my thinking of him causing that?”.
Emma and Tony had enjoyed a contented and social domesticity here in this coastal town. Tony worked variously as barman, builder and surfing instructor and she in the office of the local town planner. They made enough to live simply while paying off the house in Lennox Head and got around in Tony’s ageing Kombi and, when that died, in a secondhand Toyota station wagon. They were content though far from wealthy.
“I don’t think I’ve told anyone the details of our break-up”, Emma says while still looking over to the mal.
“Tony suddenly changed. I mentioned his change to a couple close friends. They told me it was just a midlife crisis and that he would snap out of it sooner or later. Just give him time. Be patient, they said. Offer to talk but if he doesn’t want to then just let it go.
“Then Anne, from down the road, she’s a nurse at the hospital in Lismore, told me confidentially over coffee in town one day, I still remember it clearly, that she thought it wasn’t just a midlife crisis. That was part of it, she said. The rest of it appeared very much like clinical depression. She advised a therapist.
“When I mentioned this to Tony he got angry. That really was out of character. After that, I noticed a tenseness about him and there was a lack of communication even though I tried to open him up.
“It just happened like this, the final act. One day over breakfast, a Saturday, Tony told me he was catching the overnight coach to Sydney that evening and going on to Melbourne. He had only a small pack when he left to be driven to the coach terminal by one of his surfer friends. I was stunned and confused and I just stood there feeling like… like I don’t know what.
“He told me that he had to go work himself out, that friends in Melbourne had suggested he stay with them awhile.
“I didn’t know that this conversation with friends who I had never heard of had been going on. I never found out. I’ve heard nothing of him since. His longboard, he left that behind.”
“Maybe one day as you’re sitting here eating your muesli and fruit juice at breakfast you’ll look up and there will be Tony having realised his incredibly stupid error in leaving you and having come back to reclaim you and start again”, Rusty says, adopting a quieter, serious tone that is more a probe to discover whether Emma thinks there is any possibility of it happening.
“No chance, I know that”, replies Emma. “That part of my life ended all those years ago. And I doubt I would start again even if he did come back. He’s gone. Long gone”.
A pause. She looks over at the surfboard in the corner. “…and maybe it’s time for the last of his possessions to go too”.
They drive into Bangalow for dinner that night, to a cafe-come-nighttime-restaurant that opened in the centre of town last year. It is the latest in a carousel of cafes that have opened, persisted awhile, then closed to be reborn as yet another cafe.
Large concertina windows installed where the brick wall once was give an uninteresting view onto the side street. The place shines with the warm glow of stained timber that contrasts with walls of artfully blotchy dark brown. Plywood and chrome chairs and tables bring a designer’s unity to the place.
“Like much of Bangalow’s main street”, Rusty says, “it’s been remade inside while retaining the shell of the old outside. Not that it’s a bad thing, although old doesn’t always mean good and desirable”.
“Like me, for example”, Emma interjects.
“Hell no Emma, you’re still in your prime”, Rusty responds with a jocular lightness that matches hers, though below her comment he knows there is that doubt, that disappointment in herself that sometimes shows through.
“What I mean is people hold onto the old even when it’s bad because they fear the changes that the new might bring. It’s like this part of the coast itself: the fear of change that haunts it like some dark demon waiting to spring forth from the shadows”.
They settle on pasta and eat it over small talk, reminiscing about people they knew or still know. They speak about how many of those people have moved on, never heard of again. A coast of transients, Rusty says.
Rusty learns that Emma’s work at the community college depends on whether council support continues. He talks about how good it has been working at the local newspaper, recounts a couple amusing anecdotes and reflects on the quirks of the editor. After the second glass of wine and a coffee, Emma carefully drives them home.
She parks next to Rusty’s van. The night is still warm, as are most late spring evenings here on the coast. There’s a closeness to the night probably the result of the humidity. Walking to the front door, Emma looks over at Rusty.
“How about we open that bottle of whisky I’ve got secreted away in the cupboard? It’s been there for two years at least. Thought I would wait for a special occasion to break it out but one never came. You’re going in a few days and I’ll never get to drink it. It will just go off and turn bad”.
Emma doesn’t have those little glasses especially for drinking spirits so she pours what she considers a reasonable amount into two larger glasses. Perhaps under the influence of second glass of the smooth, warming liquid, Emma risks a discussion she has been wanting to have since Rusty arrived.
“So, Rusty. You’re leaving soon and I’m going to miss you. We’ve been friends for a long time and you won’t be here for our periodic catch-ups. But I’m a bit concerned for you. What will you do? Where will you go? And I really want you to tell me so we can stay in contact”.
Her comment bring home to Rusty what a true friend Emma is. Has he valued that friendship enough over the years? He doubts that.
“I’ve been hoping for a quiet moment when we could talk about this. You know you don’t have to go. You can stay on here, there’s the spare room”.
“Yeah. I know. I’m a little confused at the moment Emma. I’ve been like this since Carol told me she was leaving. It’s a sort of empty feeling. I had to mull over what I would do and I’ve gone through various scenarios like buying something small down Lennox way or up around Brunswick Heads, or moving back to Sydney, but nothing’s gelled.
“That’s why I’m heading south. Sam, you don’t know her, she’s a friend from way back in my past, just a friend, that is, nothing more personal. Well, she’s invited me to stay in her place in Annandale, in Sydney. That’s when her present tenant leaves in four or so weeks. Sam’s off to Vietnam with her sister a week or so after I arrive so I’ll be house minding for a month.
“After that, there’s another old friend from those days down in Tasmania. So maybe I’ll go down there for a while. Don’t know for certain”.
“So, you are leaving”, responds Emma.
“It would be nice to stay with you here awhile but I feel I’ve got to go… new places… clear my mind. Maybe I’ll come back later and stay here awhile if the invitation is still open although I don’t know when that would be”.
They sit quietly for awhile, unspoken thoughts coming and going. After a few minutes Emma leans forward and looks Rusty straight in the eye.
“Rusty”, she says with a firmness to her voice, “there’s something else I’ve been wanting to ask you. It’s something that’s bugged me on and off over the last few years. It’s personal. You don’t have to answer. You can tell me to mind my own business and I’ll shut up… never mention it again”.
Rusty looks up, his head tilted in curiosity about this mystery comment. He waits.
“This is embarrassing”, Emma starts. “But I have to ask it and maybe it’s the wine and whisky that are giving me the courage to do that”.
A pause, but Emma’s gaze doesn’t shift from Rusty.
“My question is this. Had Carol not been on the scene, had you been unattached, would you have been interested, even mildly tempted, to start something with me?”.
Rusty doesn’t move. He keeps his gaze straight at Emma, expression unchanged. It’s as if he is stunned by the question but is now thinking about it. Or maybe the question is too hard, too confusing for him, too confronting. He’s not good at this personal revelation stuff.
Moments pass in silence.
“Err, well, not that I’ve given this any thought… the question is kind of… sudden, like, um… yeah, I guess… thinking about it now I think I would have been. Like, you’re a nice person, nice to spend time with, kind, probably nice to live with too, to share things with… life… do things together, like…”.
This, Emma realises, is as clear an answer as she is going to get. She takes it as a ‘yes’.
Her question was more a mulling over of a thought, nothing with intent or of hope for the future. Just the following of a train of thought. She didn’t really consider it likely, but, just fantasising, if Rusty does one day come back here to the coast, would there be a chance? Would she want it to happen? She doesn’t know and doesn’t want to know but deep down there lurks that suspicion that she would say ‘yes’.
Rusty rises in the pre-dawn darkness. Emma hears him moving about, loading his bag into his van. She gets up. She had been thinking about something in the early morning hours and has to tell Rusty.
She makes breakfast. Muesli and sliced banana again, and tea not so strong that its acidity leaves Rusty feeling uneasy. Again, they sit at the table in the sunroom in the yellow glow of the electric light.
Both hands clasped around her tea cup, Emma looks at Rusty and makes eye contact.
“Almost a year ago”, she starts, “Anne talked to me about Tony and our decade together and his sudden departure. She suggested that it had the makings of a good story. She noticed that I had been moping about the place for years and had been withdrawing from life. She said that first she thought I was starting to go through depression like Tony did, or that I might become a recluse. I thought that this was Anne-the-nurse talking, and in part it was. But it was more.
“Anne told me she goes to a writers group in Byron each month, at the Writers’ Centre, and that over a glasses or two of wine they read and critique each others’ work. For some, Anne said, their writing is more a form of therapy, a way of dealing with life events. They are an all-women group though that wasn’t intentional.
“So why don’t I go along with her, she said. It might break me out of this moping I’ve been doing ever since selling the house in town and buying this old house up here on the hill, up above the coast where Tony and I used to catch the swells.
“I ignored her suggestion until just a few months ago when she reminded me of it. Now, it seemed as though Anne was making sense, but the laptop that Tony had left, the thing that would enable me to participate in the writing group, long ago become victim to the salt air according to Helen’s computer geek of a daughter. ‘Kaput’ was the term she used on opening the machine and looking inside.
“Now, you see that shiny new laptop over there on the table? That’s my passport to a new life. It’s more than a replacement for Tony’s old broken computer. It’s going to be the machine on which I write to make sense of my past seven years. I”m going to do my therapeutic writing on it just like Anne explained to me. So, next week, I join that writer’s group.”
“Good move”, Rusty responds as he lifts the tea cup to his lips. “Might help you work a few things out”.
Emma leans forward, her hands folded on the table.
“Rusty”, she says in that deep tone she adopts when injecting a note of seriousness. She holds his gaze momentarily, then looks over to the longboard in the corner, then back to Rusty. “That surfboard and that silver locket, I’ve unknowingly made a shrine to Tony and to our life together. It’s a shrine to the past, to what was. I can see clearly now that this is what I’ve done.
“Now, Rusty, it’s time to take down that shrine. The little tarnished locket I’ll put back into my jewellery box, but the board, I want that to go with you.
“Like you, I’m setting out on a new life, and I hope we meet again soon to open another bottle of whisky to talk about it”.
Rusty looks back as he drives slowly down the road. He sees her standing there, the teal coloured sarong wrapped around her middle aged but still slim body, the black Tshirt below her fair hair.
Standing in front of the bathroom mirror after Rusty goes, Emma gazes at her reflection and realises that her conversation with Rusty about starting a new life has energised her. In its suddeness, in her new resolve, she decides against the hair dye, for today anyway, and walks out of the bathroom, through the kitchen, through the living room and out into the narrow room at the front of the house where she shares the odd glass of chilled white wine with her few friends.
Emma looks around the room with its long line of windows through which she sees the broad canopy of the frangipani and the street beyond, and realises that, like her, the morning is fresh and full of potential. It is a new day. It is time to start writing.
I once said to a friend who was writing a book and who had written some short fictional stories that she was lucky because as a fiction writer she could make up her entire story whereas as a journalist I couldn’t. When she gave me a copy of her manuscript to read I realised that her supposedly fictional book was more a fictional overlay to a time she went through.
Fiction draws from fact or, in her case, creates a fictional overlay to actuality. Fiction writing is that for me, too… drawing from actuality. Maybe I do that because I am not a fiction writer, just a dabbler in it to see how it goes. I draw on real people, real settings and sometimes real events to explore the fiction medium. I suppose that is the result of working in journalism where some stories call for descriptions of settings and people to situate them in some social or geographic milieu. It might also disclose a big shortcoming in my short fictional pieces. As I said elsewhere on this site, fiction for me is a plaything.
A quiet conversation
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