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Elsewhere in Success
By Iris Lavell
Fremantle PressCopyright © 2012 Iris Lavell
All rights reserved.
Harry usually does the gardening, but he's out today; Louisa is cleaning up outside, sweeping the driveway. Across the road, kids are playing cricket. The boy with red hair makes contact, and yet another tennis ball skims across the road, catching the local flock of cockatoos by surprise. They fly off. Louisa fetches the ball and throws it back.
Play resumes. Next door to the cricketers, Brian starts up a chainsaw, preparing to eliminate his final tree before the onset of winter. It's autumn already, but still feels like the middle of summer. Louisa is tempted to give up on the sweeping and go inside, but she sticks it out.
The noise from the chainsaw stops and starts, but the noise goes on longer than the periods of quiet. When the chainsaw stops a mower will start up. That's how it always is. One power tool triggers another.
As she sweeps, Louisa vaguely wonders about the secret lives going on in the surrounding houses – what the women do while the men are outside with their power tools. Nothing comes to mind. Her thoughts inexplicably jump to the man who buried the lawnmower in their front garden those years ago. She thinks she understands how he must have felt. She considers her own meagre efforts – her lack of any real interest, patience, perseverance, when it comes to the gardening. He might have been something of a kindred spirit. Or maybe in a suburb called Success, he thought that failure was the only possible alternative.
Harry has taken off for an afternoon alone with Buster. They drive to the dog beach where Harry swims, with Buster watching anxiously from the shore and rushing at the waves to bark and bite at them. Harry keeps an old roasting tray in the car for Buster's drink after he has dried them both off with a ragged beach towel – a gift from Yasamine twenty or so years ago. He drives towards the Round House in Fremantle. The old convict lockup, cast as tourist attraction, is too sanitised for Harry's taste, but it's a destination with a view over the sea. They park, walk, and climb the hill to look down on Bathers Beach. He lets Buster off the lead as soon as they are out of sight and the dog races ahead.
Today, when they reach the top, there is a man playing didge, with a hat in front of him. It's not the best place for buskers, pretty slim pickings today actually, but this doesn't seem to worry the guy. He makes the didge talk and poke fun at them as they pass. Buster responds by barking and baulking at the end of the instrument, and the musician obliges by matching his sound, confusing him, and giving Harry such a buzz that he reaches into his pocket and drops a small note into the hat. He tells the guy that he used to play the sax. No more about himself, but they talk generally of music, mixes, production and fusion. It's a story he'll share with Louisa when he gets home. These small things make life worth the effort – not that he's depressed as such. There are fewer moments like this to hold his interest as he gets older, moments worth keeping for future reference. Harry and his dog hover until self-consciousness intrudes. Then they wander on down the steps and across the road, before looping back towards the carpark. It's almost five o'clock and time to be getting on, but it's still hot, and even here, right by the ocean, there is no relief.
The chainsaw has stopped, and a mower has started. People are going about their business. Louisa continues to sweep.
Past midnight the soundscape is bound to change. Security guards will be patrolling the streets. Hoons will be doing burnouts at two or three in the morning, leaving their oversized rubber tags between speed humps on the straighter sections of road. Occasionally, rubbish bins will be set alight.
These are the nights that Louisa holds her breath, waiting for the crash, tempted to pray, willing them all to calm down and go home to bed. She'll lie staring at the outline of the lump that is Harry asleep on the side of the bed nearest the window. He'll have taken something on top of something else to make him sleep. As she lies awake she'll be sending out this thought: What about your mother? Think what you're doing to her. Just think.
Technically Harry knows he shouldn't have let Buster off the lead, but he likes to see him run free. Those white-collar psychopaths on the local councils prefer to keep everything under tight control, or else it's a cynical ploy to extract funds from an unsuspecting public. They have their bloody signs erected everywhere – do this, don't do that –nenough to make a perfect saint break the law.
By the time he sees the ranger it's too late. Women in uniform have never done a thing for him. It's possible she senses this and it feeds her resentment. In hindsight he realises he made some stupid mistakes from a distance that just ended up making her more determined to hunt him down. Women are particularly good at picking up on body language. He'd tried hiding himself and Buster behind some scrub, not in a furtive sort of way, more casual than that, as if they'd decided to take the long way round, but the woman had spotted them, was onto it, and was making a beeline. If Louisa had been with him, she would have told him to smile and act nice, but she wasn't, and he didn't.
Louisa moves around to the side pergola and starts sweeping there, cleaning up the leaves of the constantly shedding evergreens, marri and jarrah, mixed with flowers from the bougainvillea. There must be a slight breeze higher up, because more leaves drop as she works. A flock of galahs passes overhead, swings round, and lands on her side of the street, where the cockatoos were earlier. She likes these birds because they're so ordinary, and because they have a funny walk with their big heads and squat bodies. She stops sweeping and watches them waddling around, picking at the grass. She wonders how she looks to them.
The woman is not amused. Harry tries charm, compliments her on the uniform. She wouldn't trust him as far as she could throw him. (By the look of her she could throw him some way.) To make things worse, Buster is now crouching to relieve himself in the middle of the footpath, and Harry hasn't brought a plastic bag.
'The council should supply them,' he says, making a grand, sweeping gesture with his hand, to indicate where the fault really lies.
'Didn't you read the signs?' she counters with what Harry considers to be an unnecessary level of aggression in her voice.
'I didn't see any signs.'
Her upper lip slips into a cynical smile. She has a notebook with her for writing out fines, which she does with practised efficiency before ripping out the page and handing it to him. She's caught quite a few today, she tells him. Don't quote me. She was just about to knock off – five more minutes and she would have missed him altogether. Rubbing salt into the wound. He's made her day. She's ruined his.
He takes a detour, swings past Clancy's and settles Buster on the back seat of the car with a biscuit bone before going in.
Louisa is creating small mounds of dirt and leaves which she will later shovel into the bin. It's been some time since they have done anything to the backyard apart from the watering. There are leaves everywhere. It's not the best weather for physical activity, but something needs to be done. Today the air is so dry and hot that the eucalypts could be easily set alight with a careless match. She stops thinking that, afraid a person can give thoughts the power to make things happen, just by thinking them. The image of a bushfire, a wildfire, jumps into her mind. Forget that, she tells herself. Think of something else – the colour of leaves changing. The leaves catch alight. She puts them out with a bucket of water.
The sun is lower in the sky. She wonders where Harry is.
Harry's thinking to have a quick drink to calm his nerves before driving home under the limit. He's just turned away from the bar with his pint when he spots Carole and Gordon in the corner of the room. Carole has seen him at the same time and is waving him over to their table, where they are waiting for a meal to be served.
'Why don't you join us?'
He places his beer on the table and goes up to order. Normally he'd have made some excuse, but he's feeling burnt and welcomes the opportunity to debrief. When he returns to the table he brings the conversation round at the earliest opportunity.
'What a bitch!' says Gordon.
'The power goes to their heads,' says Carole. 'They love their rules, don't they?'
Harry immediately warms towards them both. He's met them a few times before, but they're Louisa's friends rather than his. She catches up with Carole on a regular basis, and every now and then they bring the blokes in.
Without Louisa there, the dynamics are different. He's enjoying himself more as the evening deepens, and Carole seems more attentive than usual. Time passes quickly. Gordon turns out to be a great bloke, and Carole is becoming increasingly attractive as the night goes on. It's the beer goggles, Harry supposes. He watches himself, but Gordon seems pretty cool with the whole thing, as if he's used to it. Harry's eyes linger on the hint of cleavage in the V of her dress. Not that anything happens. Not that it will.
Still, he can't help feeling a bit guilty. They will part reluctantly after several hours. By the time he gets home Louisa will be fast asleep, or pretending to be. She'll have left the front light on for him. She's not such a bad old stick. Not bad at all.
Louisa is sweeping, sweeping, sweeping. One spot is extremely clean, a little oasis of calm in a desert of shifting dunes. She is no longer in the moment. Victor is standing bent over Tom, who is at the kitchen table doing his homework. With effort she pushes the image down and covers it up.
'Stop it,' she says. 'Just stop.'
This happens every time she does housework or works in the garden. She can't afford to think too much. She should get someone in once or twice a week.
Disciplined thinking is different at work where she communicates using PowerPoint. In the public service, she keeps it simple with dot points – none of that thing with words sweeping in from every direction in an attempt to keep people awake. It doesn't work, and anyway, she can't be responsible for everything and everyone. All she needs to do is follow the script she's been given and stick to the rules.
It has been some time now since she decided that she doesn't mind rules after all. There is safety there, keeping everything in its place. It's not easy, and that's good. It takes focus.
As Harry takes his leave, Carole leans in and plants a good one right on his lips. He feels somewhat embarrassed, but Gordon seems not to have noticed.
'We should all catch up soon,' Gordon says, and his Scottish accent exaggerates the goodwill that the invitation suggests.
'Yes,' says Carole, and then, making Harry doubt the significance of what has just happened, 'Tell Louisa I'll give her a call.'
'Okay,' he says. 'Okay, I'll let her know.'
'Take it easy,' says Gordon. 'Keep an eye out for any flashing lights.'
'No. No, I'm right,' he says. 'I'm good.'
Harry pulls into the driveway. The television is on and the door is open. Louisa is still up. He turns off the engine and sits listening to the radio before he goes in.
Louisa has the television on, but it's just background noise. She is hunched over her cup of hot chocolate, warming her hands. Surprisingly, the temperature has dropped suddenly with the onset of evening.
There is a problem she has been trying to solve for a long time now, but she can't articulate it. It's something she feels, something wordless. It's been there since she was a child, but this getting older seems to intensify things – emotional things. It occurs to her that she might be pinning everything on to Tom when it's not to do with him at all. She doesn't like the thought. It feels disloyal, as if she's been using him somehow. Things distort the more she thinks them through, the more time passes.
Sometimes she wonders about that. What if she has been trapped here forever, in endless cycles of wax and wane? What if her boy never existed, if she imagined the whole thing? What if he is a trick of the mind? Can she trust her senses, her memories of events?
She seems to remember herself as a small child travelling in the back of a car towards a mirage on a distant piece of road.
'Water,' she says to her father.
'Let's see if we can catch it,' he says.
But when they get there it has moved to the next rise, and then to the next.
They never do catch it. It makes her want to cry.CHAPTER 2
Harry considers himself to be a good listener, but not when he's under attack. Over breakfast, Louisa hasn't stopped talking for at least ten minutes. She's on a roll.
'I don't suppose it ever occurred to you that I might like a nice night out at Clancy's, catching up with friends?'
'It wasn't exactly planned, Louisa.'
'And why do you have to deliberately rub people up the wrong way? You'd think you'd have learned a little diplomacy by now. By this time in your life. I suppose you expect me to pay the fine.'
'I don't expect anything of the sort. I pay my own fines.'
'You don't pay your own fines.'
'Well, I don't expect you to pay them.'
'And what then, Harry? You leave it and the next thing you know, everything descends into chaos. Next thing we're getting threatening letters. The phone gets cut off.'
'It's got nothing to do with the phone.'
'It's not the same thing.'
'Leave it to me, you said. Leave it to me.'
'Well? What does it matter who pays the phone?'
That throws her, the art of the non sequitur, his strategic amnesia, his sheer dogged refusal to engage in her version of reality. Besides, Harry has a theory: a point is never won unless it is conceded. She seems to recognise the ploy. She takes another tack.
'While you were out kicking up your heels, I had a horrible day trying to clean up the mess.' She's looking upset. 'It's not easy you know.'
'I do most of the gardening,' he points out.
'That's not what I'm saying, Harry.' She's exasperated with him. He knows her well enough to see there's no point talking when she's like this. Better to cut his losses.
'I know,' he says, patting her arm, looking around for a way out. 'I know.' It's not what she wants, but it's the best he can do. His eye catches the appointment card on the fridge.
'What date is it today?'
'I thought you were supposed to be seeing that Lucy woman today. Have you cancelled your appointment?'
Her face tells him what he'd suspected. She's forgotten again.
'That's just great, Harry! Why didn't you say something?'
'I just did.' He smiles. It doesn't come out quite right. There is something too smug in his tone of voice. So smug that he notices it himself. So does she, apparently. She stops.
'We'll need to talk about this some more, Harry, when I get home.'
'And what time will that be? Just so I know when to make myself scarce.'
He squeezes out the last word as she turns away, but she doesn't look back.
Lucy has flowers on her desk: purple, yellow. This startles Louisa. She's told her about the flowers. Is it coincidence? Is the counsellor playing games with her? She gives her the benefit of the doubt. She decides to recount the thoughts she's been having again, about the roadside memorial. Lucy tells her to close her eyes and counts her into a state of deep relaxation.
'Tell me about the memorial, Louisa,' she says.
Louisa speaks with some effort. 'I'm driving straight up to it, but it isn't any closer. I'm getting out of the car. There's a big hill in front of me. I'm climbing this hill – it goes on forever. There are ants crawling up my legs.' Louisa stamps her feet in a frenzy.
'What's happening now?'
'They've stopped,' says Lucy. 'They've gone away. They've all gone away. Go on, keep climbing. You're at the top now. What can you see?'
Louisa calms down, becomes still. 'A cross, white cross. There's a name.'
'Tom, I think. I can't see for sure. I'm finding it hard to see it.'
'Try. Tell me what you see.'
'It's very old, very old. The wood is split and the paint is cracked. Yellowing and peeling off. There are dead flowers about. Nobody has been here for a very long time.'
'How can you tell?'
Louisa speaks slowly. 'Feels abandoned. The ground is hard, gravelly, as if the keeper of the memorial has gone away. No, more than that, there's ... a feeling of abuse. It's as if a bouquet were carefully placed here, and then kicked to pieces. There's a curled-up photograph lying on the gravel at the base of the cross, but I can't see what it's of.' She's agitated again. 'I don't want this. I don't want this, Tom.'
'He's walking away from me. Come back here, young man! Tom, you come right back here this minute! How can you be so stupid?' Louisa shifts around in her chair impatiently. 'It's not necessary.'
'What's not necessary, Louisa?'
'This ... this cross here. This pain here.' She pushes her fists into her stomach. Her face is tight with grief.
Excerpted from Elsewhere in Success by Iris Lavell. Copyright © 2012 Iris Lavell. Excerpted by permission of Fremantle Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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