When I was writing my first novel, The Paper House, I had a lot more of the story in me than what ended up on the page. It's a magic realism book, packed with metaphor and different ways of understanding things, and I had to work through a lot of ideas to get to the core of those I wanted to keep.
It wasn't easy to know what I wanted to say about the baby in this story. She dies in the first chapter, and the story follows my main character, Heather, and her grief, through a strange reality. There were almost infinite ways I could have treated the loss and the character of the baby. I probably tried half a dozen different approaches to giving a concreteness to the child she missed.
In the course of writing and editing, I cut more than 100,000 words. This chapter was one of those cuts.
The house hid behind its cloak of fog. I pulled my body through it and the mouse trailed behind me, searching in the low visibility with its satellite ears. ‘I don’t have any food for you,’ I said to the mouse, clawing and pawing at the curtains of fog. ‘I’m just trying to get home.’
I thought of the snail, crushed into the ground.
I thought of the room, and its flickering lights.
I thought of the woman with the blue and white mouth.
I thought of myself, alone by the sea.
The wind came and blew the fog apart, and under its net I found the lemon tree full of spiderwebs. I went into the house, out on to the deck, collected my sketchbook from where it vibrated under the wicker chair.
On the very last page I drew a curled bone and a row of dancing bees and trees that dripped with olives as big as pears.
I drew a tortoise on its journey from one end of the creek to the other, its self-containment. I drew a mosquito in the bowels of an ox, a bird in a blue nest.
I drew a twist of paper bark (Melaleuca styphelioides) and some smaller nandinas (Nandina domestica)—natives that wouldn’t rob the plants of space or water, that would offer shelter to the wandering wildlife and to any little girls passing by.
I picked leaves from the sugar gum (Christmas lights still strung in its branches, too difficult to pull down) and glued them to the paper.
I painted a fairyland door with a pink knocker and a dripped in its miniature leadlight window.
In the distance, behind the Medusa tree, maybe I had the ruffled edge of a white dress. Or it could just have been those new-breed petunias with their frilled faces in the clean air.
I leaned into the paper and out from the paper and turned it this way and that in search of exactly the right notes, of precisely the absolutely perfect garden.
Fleur came in with a brown paper bag and called from the kitchen, ‘Is anyone home?’
I pushed the sketchbook garden back under the chair, told it to wait until Fleur had gone again. The half-beaked currawong sat on the balcony railing and sang right at me, through me. ‘I don’t have any lizards,’ I said. But it kept sitting there with its face twitching. I pulled out my sketchbook again and drew a clean pond with another, smaller currawong. ‘Sorry mate,’ I said to the bird. ‘Best I can do.’
I wondered why I had never put a swing set on the flat part of the grass, and why I hadn’t pulled out the pittosporums, which were so ugly.
Deep in the garden, a giant slept and waited. I felt his hands near my throat and under my skin. I would impress him with my drawing. No snails. Only things I liked, things Grace must like.
The bird laughed at me in its shrill way. I listened for the neighbours’ voices, that kid who was always falling over and the mother who never seemed to worry much about it, and I heard them say things like, Did you hear the lady in the beach house died? or maybe it was just, Have you got your drink bottle packed? or maybe nothing at all. I felt the aloneness deep in my chest, where my heart was beating.
Fleur burst through the balcony door. She looked right into my eyes, frowning and furious. ‘What the fuck, Heather? Get inside.’ She laid me out on the couch, with the pink blanket that smelled of sex and afternoons, and while I watched pictures move across the screen she stroked my hair and said Shhh. Not in a maternal way, but as though I were birthing a calf in an open field.
Sylvia came with her tin of biscuits. She sat next to me and I touched the soft fabric of her summer dress.
The three of us ate the biscuits. We had brandy snaps and lemon things with cream inside, and shortbread pricked with a fork. Fleur made three cups of tea. Mine came in a dainty cup with an elaborately curved handle and a gold fleur de lis. I let the bag sit in it until the tea was deep red.
My sketchbook hummed from out on the deck.
Sylvia put her hand on my back, her warm, soft hand. Heat ran through to my insides, and they stopped quaking for a moment.
‘Where is David?’ she said.
I didn't know.
I splashed in the water.
‘Is late. After seven.’ She went to the kitchen and banged pots against the stove top, opened and closed the fridge. ‘Don’t worry,’ she said. ‘I make something.’
Fleur flicked past the news and watched a cartoon I remembered from a different time. 'What do you wanna watch?' she said. I didn't want to watch anything. I wanted to finish the garden and take it to Noel, trade him my picture for the girl in the white dress.
I didn't care.
Her voice parted the reeds.
The house filled with Italian plumes: onion and garlic and tomatoes with seeds. They carried the essence of salt; I had sat with them at the beach house with the shuttered windows thrown open. I remembered Fleur with her head down at the table, and my mother, before, blonde and pink, laughing and quivering in the wind.
'You like ragu,' Sylvia said, in a way that wasn't a question. 'You like sponge roll.'
She laid out the table-for-two-for-four, with red gingham placemats I had never seen, and porcelain plates with scalloped edges, and tarnished forks with their fingers bent outwards. The windows steamed up, hiding us from the outdoors and its giants, cocooning us and our ragu.
But I heard it anyway, the humming reverberation of the red earth.
Sylvia sat between us, at the table-for-three-for-four (temporarily), and the fourth chair stared back at us and I wondered again where Dave might have been. She grated long flakes of parmesan (locally sourced) and poured plump glasses of red wine (locally vintaged). We were safe with her, Fleur and I, safe at the table even with the fourth seat empty.
‘Sylvia,’ I said, and Fleur looked at me through her dusty eyes, ‘do you believe in magic?’
She clapped her hands and we floated through flour. ‘Yes, English garden. Of course I believe in magic.’
Dave came home at a quarter-to-nine.
'Sorry,' he said, kissing my cheek, 'I went for a drive. Just needed a breather.'
'Sylvia fed us,' I said.
'That was nice of her.' He disappeared into a hot shower, singing Elvis hits in his rollercoaster voice. He would be twenty minutes, at least. Fleur and Sylvia still sat at the table, huddled around a shared secret, whispering and laughing. My sketchbook shook and rattled; the whole house moved, an earthquake of amateur art.
I cracked open the door—looked back, no one had noticed—and took the sketchbook from its borrowed chair. The night was still and hot and dry. A chorus of cicadas sang their radio static song, and the air teemed with its nighttime army: mosquitoes and moths and tiny sandflies.
I carried my sketchbook, open to the very last page, and watched for a sign that the garden had changed, that I had drawn the right things, that I had captured the place where Grace would be safe.
‘Is this it?’ The sounds tore at my throat, saturated in the hot night. ‘Is this what you need?’ I ran at the pittosporums, the ugliest trees in the world, those upright, unflappable trees. I ran at them and through them and past the Japanese maple and past the Alice in Wonderland pond and down to the creek, which lapped and snored as though nothing was changed.
I got to the shed and kicked off my shoes, propped my sketchbook against the wall. Knocked once. Nothing. Knocked again. No one answered.
At the bottom of the big door was a smaller door, a fairy door with a leadlight window. I opened the little door and peered inside.
The room was empty.
I stood under the canopy of leaves with mud between my toes. In my chest, dozens of chrysalises. Their inevitable rebirth. They burst out of my body and shot into the night, where they strung themselves up along the expanse of black sky—fireflies, or fairy lights, or stars.
I caught the bus to painting class, sat at the front with my bag in my lap and my eyes straight ahead. Had I looked behind, I might have seen a spectre, might have lost my nerve. The sketchbook drummed and hissed, secure under my arm, filled to the very back page, which was exactly right.
The driver whistled. When we stopped at red lights, he checked himself out in the rear-view mirror. He seemed young, for a bus driver. I thought about asking for a different bus driver, but he had the right uniform, so I didn’t.
My stop was ten minutes’ walk from the community centre. I carried on along the main street, with the sun on one shoulder and the moon on the other. I would get the garden right. I would paint it in all the colours I had and I would take it back to him and have a tea party with Grace.
Shyama had whale sounds playing through her stereo.
The Barbaras 1 and 2 stood at their easels in orthopaedic shoes.
Barbara 3 had a bit of an envelope and a pen shaped like a seahorse. She didn’t mention the bistro, but I watched her draw a glass of ice, and the cubes all had faces.
I took out my sketchbook and opened it to the last page. The garden stared out at me. I filled in its lines and its gaps and its holes, slapping and smashing brush against paper. I tried oils and acrylics and watercolours in every shade imaginable. I splashed at it with impermeable ink, curled the creek around with a tapered bamboo brush. I scratched away the layers with my fingernails to reveal the flowers caught beneath, rubbed them with oil pastels, fashioned them faces in plasticine.
The Barbaras 1 and 2 judged me from the sides of their eyes, safe behind their canvas walls with their rolling hills and their threesomes for seniors. But Barbara 3 smiled and moved her easel closer to mine.
‘Now you’re getting it,’ she said.
I plucked out a regiment of weeping cherries and they cried into the valley, where the giant slept.
I painted a grassy bank that sloped into the water and I filled it with paper boats and lizard captains. I drew poppies like flat hands, the colour of seashells.
I tossed glitter in gold and silver and tiny red polkadots to make galaxies.
I carved a canyon deeper than night and crawling with madness.
I found a green pencil and coloured the grass and the leaves. I found a pink pencil and coloured the bellies of rabbits and the inside of eyelids.
I found a blue pencil and coloured the edge of her mouth and the meetings of fungi.
Shyama put her hand on my shoulder. 'Lesson's over.'
'Okay,' I said. 'I'll finish up. I can close the door behind me.'
The lights clicked off in the hallway. I listened to the murmur of people leaving—see you next week, shall we get a drink, glad you're feeling better. I sat on my stool and pretended not to be a crouched intruder waiting to attack a painting.
The air-conditioner clunked to a stop.
My brushes clogged in minutes. I ran water through the paints and flung them at the canvas before they could dry out. Colour after colour. My canvas became a botanical mardi gras. The room roared with the heat of the late afternoon and the trapped air but I threw line after line at the canvas, east and west, inside and out.
I painted through the time Dave would call Jenny Greer's rooms to find out where I was, and I painted through the time I should have been making dinner for everyone else, and I painted through the time I might have been looking for Grace. And it didn't matter because here I was, with her in the picture, her dark hair or her fair hair, her olive skin or her pale skin, her rosebud mouth and her white dress.
Though it grew dark outside I was illuminated by my new garden, my improved and glorious and glowing garden. I poured brown water into my drying paints and watched as it careened and cascaded from one tree to the next, the surging creek and the pounding ground.
I painted a little girl with a white paper dress, watching her reflection change in the moving water.
And finally, gratefully, I pushed out the pittosporums,
smeared them with the very stuff I was made of,
painted and painted until I had nothing left to paint
and then I painted some more
and when it was done, I breathed.