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
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-
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-