So much time

El­iz­a­beth Har­rower’s long-lost novel, is be­ing pub­lished for the first time. In this ex­tract, main char­ac­ter Zoe Howard pre­pares for her mother’s fu­neral

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

Ibreathed

April 19-20, 2014 N her mother’s room, half-ly­ing across the bed, Zoe pulled an awk­ward-look­ing book from the pile on the ta­ble be­side her. Press cut­tings. Her left hand held the cover open. Al­ready her fin­ger­prints would have smudged her mother’s, blot­ting them out. Soon, from all the books, all the fur­ni­ture and door han­dles, from ev­ery­thing every­where, her mother’s would be oblit­er­ated and never reap­pear, even though just hours ago she had breathed in this room.

Con­sciously, Zoe breathed. Min­utes be­fore, she had ar­rived from Europe, stunned by the flight, stunned to be told she was a day too late. Her head was a labyrinth of pain; she was aware of nau­sea and stiff­ness, but not re­ally of the pres­ence of her self. Down­stairs, her fa­ther and Rus­sell and the oth­ers were be­hav­ing well. Soon, she would be obliged to emerge, though ev­ery­one said rest for the fu­neral to­mor­row.

It was rain­ing. Win­ter here, sum­mer in Paris. Zoe stared through the open win­dow at the straight lines of rain. Over there, she had de­scribed Aus­tralian win­ters with new-minted, daz­zling skies. The rain. The very rain that fell a thou­sand years ago; the rain that fell on ev­ery­one who ever lived. She had a sec­ond’s prompt­ing to go out­side and stand in it, but there were the stairs and people and pos­si­bly com­plex ex­pla­na­tions.

In the book ly­ing open on the bed, she saw sev­eral pho­to­graphs of her­self. Zoe Howard in Paris Nightspot. Joseph Stranger and Friend. Zoe Howard on Film Set. Aus­tralian Girl with Win­ning Poster.

There was the much-re­pro­duced face of the Neapoli­tan urchin, now at school some­where, a haunted face that went all over Europe, over most of the world. Money was col­lected for the vic­tims of war and poverty.

Girl Pho­tog­ra­pher Para­chutes into Mid­dle East War Zone. Her mother had writ­ten, ask­ing, ‘‘Was that nec­es­sary?’’ ‘‘Of course not,’’ she wrote back. ‘‘But it was some­one’s bright idea. I came down (more or less) at the air ter­mi­nal, far, far from any shoot­ing. Have no fear, and don’t be­lieve any­thing you read in the pa­pers. I have al­ready been ad­mon­ished by mail by Rus­sell, for risk­ing my life in an un­wor­thy cause — i.e. pub­lic­ity-seek­ing and money-mak­ing in a tragic area. It was only a com­mis­sion dreamed up by a crazy friend in need of cash, but the pic­tures weren’t bad and did no harm. Rus­sell is prob­a­bly right, but it’s done now. I’ve ad­mit­ted to be­ing rep­re­hen­si­ble.’’

An­other page fell open un­der her hand. Glossy pho­to­graphs of pri­vate life. There was one taken when she and Joseph first met, years ago. There they sat at some café ta­ble, Joseph look­ing sad, bear­ish, bulky, when in fact he had more facets than the Ko­hi­noor di­a­mond, very few of them sad or bear­ish. They had had a crack­ling quar­rel that morn­ing, Zoe re­mem­bered — her fault, some hours past, and Joseph was ex­plain­ing her to her­self since he was so much older and wiser, and had once been more fa­mous than he was at present. ‘‘You like op­po­si­tion too well, my dar­ling.’’ ‘‘I rise to it, and I al­ways shall.’’ Ob­sti­nately. ‘‘But that’s a very dan­ger­ous stand, and not sen­si­ble, ei­ther. See how’’ — he took the near­est hand and traced its lines with his fore­fin­ger, mak­ing her shiver — ‘‘if I were a cold-hearted and un­scrupu­lous per­son, in­stead of my benev­o­lent self, I could ma­noeu­vre you into any frame of mind.’’

Said noth­ing, hand away.

‘‘Wild girl. Wild girl.’’ He pa­tiently took back the hand. ‘‘I’m too — in­ter­ested — in you to take ad­van­tage of you by trick­ery.’’ Look­ing into eyes. ‘‘But you, un­grate­ful girl, don’t value re­straint and tact. Don’t even re­alise. Don’t even hear. I look in your eyes and see — storm, storm. Not Zoe con­sid­er­ing Joseph’s state­ments. Not even Zoe think­ing about some­thing else, but Zoe — storm, storm.’’ Tried to pull hand away, but he held it tight. ‘‘No. You’re not go­ing to throw some­thing at me. We’re too close to­gether at the ta­ble, and it would be bor­ing.’’ He shook his head, and turned the cap­tive hand over and smoothed the palm with his thumb, mak­ing her shiver again, sigh­ing slightly.

‘‘This way of yours — I hope it isn’t in­stinc-

fiercely,

snatched tive. It would weary us. I hope it’s only youth, lack of ex­pe­ri­ence, an in­cli­na­tion you will grow out of, or some silly habit you’ve picked up from your smart young friends.’’

‘‘Will you stop talk­ing like my fa­ther? Not that my fa­ther would ever — ’’

He con­tin­ued, a very large, grown-up man. ‘‘If you were only — storm, I should not be so very con­cerned. To be young, spoilt, with a face and body, and lit­tle bits of tem­per­a­ment bor­rowed from people older than yourself, is not so un­usual. Even to be in­tel­li­gent, tal­ented — there are many such people. And that is still not very much.’’

With atro­cious con­fi­dence. ‘‘I don’t be­lieve any of those things are so bor­ing to you.’’

‘‘If you were only that, we’d never have known each other so long as this. Fiery? That’s not such a re­mark­able thing to be. The most or­di­nary thing in the world. No, you’re more ex­cep­tional than that. You must do yourself jus­tice, Zoe. While you are so vain, you do not even start to com­pre­hend what you are. Do you know how I think of you?’’

Then sud­denly, in a trance, quite silent, hand in his, night ap­proach­ing, drifts of chest­nut leaves pil­ing in the gut­ters, crunch­ing un­der­foot, ex­tra­or­di­nary Paris faces pass­ing, there was hap­pi­ness be­ing given like sweet­ness on a spoon. Joseph took the hand he held in his two hands and kissed it and placed it on his knee.

A long time ago. More than five years since she left Syd­ney and the har­bour, the stone house, par­ents and friends. Joseph had a wife in Amer­ica, an aged mother in Rome, and a flick­er­ing ca­reer as a film di­rec­tor. None of that mat­tered much to her. It was all play. Al­though at this age — twenty-five and some months — she should have felt her­self deep into her life, and ex­pe­ri­enced, she felt in­stead that it had only been a game.

In Ro­man his­tory, Zoe had been amused, not by the an­tics of the in­fa­mous Clodius, but by the de­scrip­tion of him as ‘‘a young gay liver’’ and ‘‘a de­bauchee’’. She had won­dered how gay and de­bauched one might have to be to qual­ify for such ti­tles. Now, when she could have ex­pected to have a clearer opin­ion about such mat­ters, she be­lieved that there were as many as­pects to vice as there were stars in the sky, and that quan­ti­ties of them had noth­ing to do with sex. A lack of mu­tu­al­ity, ab­sence of ten­der feel­ing, were ob­scene, but noth­ing else. In ev­ery state of life these lacks and dis­par­i­ties seemed the evils from which most sad­ness stemmed. And yet, in spite of hav­ing learned as much as this, Zoe seemed to her­self still to be wait­ing for the real be­gin­ning of her life. She had failed at noth­ing.

Sit­ting up, she let the book fall shut. Any mo­ment now her mother would come in and she would be nine­teen or seven­teen. She would smile; her mother would look be­daz­zled and lov­ing. Un­der the press-cut­ting book, she saw a smaller vol­ume. Fam­ily pho­to­graphs. Rus­sell, Lily and the twins.

Grand­par­ents, now dead. Zoe could just re­mem­ber the muted sen­sa­tion of their go­ing. It had seemed un­af­fect­ing, quite nat­u­ral and un­mov­ing, that grand­par­ents should die. They had lived in other cities, were un­fa­mil­iar ex­cept in anec­dote. As they dropped away, her mother and fa­ther showed no great sign, de­ter­mined to cast no shad­ows on their chil­dren, not to be over­thrown by emo­tion. They had each other.

Anna’s wed­ding. Zoe stud­ied this with a swoon­ing mind. David’s face looked large and smooth, his eyes lively and in­tel­li­gent, his mouth sen­si­tive and mag­nan­i­mous, ready to smile. They were mar­ried for eigh­teen months. Then out of the blue she had heard that he was in hospi­tal with some dif­fi­cult-to-di­ag­nose dis­ease. In six weeks he was dead, Anna a young widow. He was only thirty-three.

Till now there had seemed to be so much time. Since time stops, the world — which has been wait­ing for you in par­tic­u­lar — stops when you ar­rive and grow up. It must be some in-built trick­ery, some nec­es­sary blind­ness, that makes us think so. And she had felt her­self scarcely launched, still only stand­ing up to her an­kles in the ocean. When all the while hu­man be­ings dis­ap­peared con­stantly from view. Like­able men of thirty-three. Her mother.

‘‘Come on, sweet­heart. Don’t stay up here by yourself.’’ Her fa­ther stood be­hind her with a hand on her shoul­der. She twisted round to look up at him. He had lost weight.

He said, ‘‘Anna’s down­stairs talk­ing to Rus- sell and Lily. She and Stephen have come over to see you.’’

‘‘Oh, yes.’’ Zoe paused, then rose to her feet. She swayed and held her fa­ther’s arm.

The room was lit like a stage di­rected to rep­re­sent the desert at mid­day, though it was some uniden­ti­fi­able hour of night. Nu­mer­ous per­sons of a mind-jerk­ing fa­mil­iar­ity (like the crooked wooden tele­graph poles, like the weeds, strongly call­ing and sig­nalling to her through the car win­dow on the drive from Mas­cot, like the sweet breath of the con­ti­nent blow­ing through her mother’s room) sat about or walked in and out on er­rands, mak­ing her think again of the stage, of ac­tors wait­ing for a re­hearsal to be­gin. Apart from her fam­ily, Lily’s mother and fa­ther were there, Un­cle John from Mel­bourne, the Pat­ter­sons, and the Blakes, friends since child­hood, Janet Bell, her mother’s best friend, Tony Mer­son from Bi­ol­ogy, and fi­nally, Anna — now Anna Cler­mont — and Stephen Quayle.

Af­ter em­braces, Zoe sat down ex­pect­ing her mother to come in swiftly and switch off half the lights, mak­ing the room hab­it­able and in­ti­mate and like it­self. Ev­ery­one mur­mured apolo­get­i­cally about her death. Minute af­ter minute, she failed to ap­pear. Zoe’s head con­tin­ued to swoon. Her heart fell into hal­lu­ci­nated re­gions while the gath­er­ing, in­tent on cheer­ing up, ques­tioned her about the wide world.

Al­most for the first time in her life, Zoe felt her­self at the mercy of cir­cum­stances. She was never over­borne, yet she was over­borne, let­ting her­self be talked to, meek, un­able to as­sert her will, or even to be cer­tain what that was. All the things ever said about death were true. Like a light go­ing out. If her mother came in the door now, turn­ing off all the lamps, still the glow from her pres­ence would make the room vis­i­ble.

‘‘We were al­ways see­ing pic­tures of you tak­ing pic­tures.’’ Tony Mer­son eyed her in­tensely, giv­ing the im­pres­sion that his glance was tak­ing a hun­dred tiny pho­to­graphs for fu­ture re­fer ence. ‘‘You know, the para­chute one, and in the refugee camps with the kids. Liv­ing dan­ger­ously,’’ he said, tak­ing fur­ther pic­tures with his eyes.

Still her mother waited out­side the door, re­frained from smil­ing, from say­ing, ‘‘It’s like the Ho­tel Aus­tralia!’’ and ban­ish­ing the re­morse­less, shad­ow­less glare of a pub­lic place.

Zoe said, ‘‘From here it doesn’t seem worth much.’’ Across the room, Rus­sell and Anna were stand­ing to­gether. Then Stephen was in front of her. ‘‘You should look older than you do,’’ she told him soberly.

‘‘How so?’’ He sat next to her on the sofa. Tony Mer­son gave her hand a vale­dic­tory squeeze and moved off from his con­fi­den­tial perch be­side her.

‘‘So much has hap­pened, so far away. Like sci­ence fic­tion. You re­turn from outer space un-

El­iz­a­beth Har­rower

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