THE FICTIVE SELF
The house by the river belonged to an old man whose relationship to George Meshaw was complicated but easily covered by ‘cousin’. He had lived there alone, with a painting that was probably a Bonnard. Now he was in a nursing home, following a stroke, and George’s mother had taken charge of the painting. It was her idea that George should live in the house until it was clear whether or not their cousin was coming home. She had flown up to Sydney for the day, and George met her for a late lunch. George’s mother wore a dark Melbourne dress and asked the waiter for ‘Really cold water’, between remarking on the humidity and the jacarandas—you would never guess that she had lived in Sydney for the first thirty-one years of her life. She bent her head over her handbag, and George found himself looking at a scene from childhood. His mother was on the phone, with the orange wall in the living room behind her. As he watched her, she bent forward from the waist, still holding the receiver. Her hair stood out around her head: George saw a dark-centred golden flower. He couldn’t have been more than six but he understood that his mother was trying to block out the noise around her—he folded like that, too, protecting a book or a toy when ‘Dinner!’ was called—and that this was difficult because the room was full of the loud jazz his father liked to play.
Over the years, George’s mother’s hair had been various colours and lengths, and now it was a soft yellow sunburst again, still with that central dark star. She produced a supermarket receipt from her bag and read from the back of it: ‘Hair Apparent. Do or Dye.’
‘The Head Gardener,’ replied George. ‘Moody Hair.’
They were in the habit of noting down the names of hairdressing salons for each other. His mother said, ‘Also, I saw this in an airport shop: “Stainless steel is immune to rust, discoloration and corrosion. This makes it ideal for men’s jewellery.”
George and his mother had the same high laugh—hee hee hee—and otherwise didn’t resemble each other at all. The Bonnard was beside her, done up in cardboard and propped on a chair. When George asked what it was like, his mother said, ‘A naked woman and wallpaper. He needed an excuse to paint light.’
The house by the river was spacious and built of bricks covered in white render. It was late spring when George moved in, but the rooms on the ground floor were cold and dark. There were mortuary--white tiles on the floor, and the lights were fluorescent tubes that looked as if they would be fatal to insects. They had to be switched on even in the middle of the day. George remembered that his mother had described the house as ‘Mediterranean’. Ridiculous second-hand visions—a turreted pink villa with terraced gardens, a bowl of red fish at a window—had opened at once in his mind.
He had been back in Sydney for four years and still swam gratefully in its impersonal ease. In Melbourne, where George had lived since he was six, he had wanted to write about modernism in Australian fiction for his PhD. After some difficulty, a professor who would admit to having once read an Australian novel was found. At their first meeting, she handed George a reading list made up of French and German philosophers. When George settled down to read these texts, he discovered something astonishing: the meaning of each word was clear and the meaning of sentences baffled. Insignificant yet crucial words like ‘however’ and ‘which’—words whose meaning was surely beyond dispute—had been deployed in ways that made no sense. It was as unnerving as if George had seen a sunset in his east-facing window, and for a while it was as mesmeric as any disturbance to the order of things. When despair threatened, he transferred his scholarship to a university in Sydney. There, George read novels and books about novels and was wildly happy. He taught a couple of tutorials to supplement his scholarship. Recently, with his thesis more or less out of the way, he had begun to write a novel at night.
A loggia with archways ran along the upper floor on the river side of the house. That was where George ate his meals and sometimes came to sit very early, as the park detached itself from the night. Koels called, and currawongs—the birds who had whistled over his childhood. Fifteen minutes by train from the centre of the city, he lived among trees, birdsong, Greeks. The Greeks, arriving forty years earlier, had seen paradise: cheap real estate, sunlight for their stunted children. Fresh from civil war and starvation, they were too ignorant to grasp what every Australian knew: this was the wrong side of Sydney. Where was the beach?
There were mornings when George left the house at sunrise, crossed the river and turned into a road that ran beside the quarried-out side of a hill. The sandstone was sheer and largely obscured by greenery: giant gum trees fanned against the rock, and native figs, vines, scrub. Brick bungalows cowered at the base of the cliff and skulked on the ridge above—it seemed an affront for which they would all be punished. In the moist, grey summer dawns, George felt that he was walking into a book he had read long ago. The grainy light was a presage. Something was coming—rain, for certain, and a catastrophe.
Opposite the quarry, on the river side of the street, driveways ran down to secretive yards. They belonged to houses that faced the river, with lawns sloping down to the water. A sign warned that the path here was known to flood. But bulky sandstone foundations and verandas strewn with wicker furniture soothed—these houses were merely domestic, nothing like the foreboding on which they turned their backs.
After Pippa moved in, George often came home from his walk to the smell of coffee. They would drink it and eat Vegemite toast on the loggia, and then George would go to bed. Pippa, too, kept irregular hours. Saving to go overseas, she was juggling waitressing with part-time work in a sports store, and George could never be sure of finding her at home. That was fine; the idea was that they would live independently—at least so it had been settled in George’s mind. In her second year at university, Pippa had been in his tutorial on ‘The Fictive Self’: a Pass student whose effortful work George had pitied enough to bump up to a Credit at the last moment. Not long ago, he had run into her near the Reserve Desk at the library. Her hair lay in flat, uneven pieces as if something had been chewing it. As the year drew to a close, a lot of students looked like that: stripey and savage. She had only one essay left to write, ‘in my whole life, ever,’ said Pippa. A peculiar thing happened: she held out a piece of paper, and George feared he would see a note that began, Help! I am being held prisoner . . .
It was an invitation to a party. Pippa shared a house in Coogee with a tall, ravishing girl called Katrina. When George arrived, Katrina was standing by the drinks table on the side veranda, talking about her cervix. He placed his six-pack in a plastic tub of ice, and Pippa told him a few people’s names. George had left Marrickville on a warm day, but by the time he crossed the city, a southerly had got up. Every door and window in Pippa’s house stood open. The dim corridor and all the rooms were full of cold air. In his T-shirt and loose cotton trousers, George moved from one group of people he didn’t know to another, trying to get out of the draught. The girls didn’t seem to notice it. They were Sydney girls, with short skirts and long, bare arms. Recently, George had gone to an opening at a gallery in the company of a visiting lecturer from Berlin. The artist was fashionable, and the gallery’s three rooms were packed. Over dinner, the German woman expressed mild astonishment at the number of sex workers who had attended the opening. ‘Is this typical in Australia?’ she asked. George had to explain that she had misunderstood the significance of shouty make-up, tiny, shiny dresses and jewels so large they looked fake. Eastern suburbs caste marks, they identified the arty, bookish daughters of property developers and CEOs. George was still adjusting to them himself, after Melbourne, where the brainy girls wore stiff, dark clothes like the inmates of nineteenth-century institutions, with here and there an exhibitionist in grey. Pippa had stick limbs, that chewed fringe, a sharp little face. She would have made an excellent orphan: black sacking was all that was needed, and heavy, laced shoes. But she came out of the house in scarlet stilettos and leopard-print satin, and found George on the back patio. He had taken refuge there, in the lee of the kitchen door.
Ashamed to mention cold to this waif, George conjured a headache. Pippa offered Tiger Balm and the use of her room. The windows there were open: Katrina could be heard describing a minor surgical procedure on her ovaries. But when George shut the door and lay down, he was out of the wind at last. A long painting, purple and blue swirls, hung on the wall facing Pippa’s bed—George closed his eyes at once. Long ago, his mother had been a painter. A few survivors from that era—severe, geometric abstractions—could be seen in her flat in Melbourne, but for a long time now her involvement with art had been confined to the upmarket school where she taught.
George fell asleep. When he woke, Pippa was there on the end of the bed, unbuckling her sandals. She flexed her toes, then sat sideways and swung her feet up. They were small, chunky feet, George noticed, and her toenails were painted blue. Katrina passed down the corridor, saying something about her menstrual cycle. George wondered what she was majoring in. Gender Studies? Performance Art? Obstetrics?
‘Communications,’ said Pippa. She was drinking bubbly; it was the late 1990s, so people still called it champagne. The soft white plastic cup dimpled under her fingers, and Pippa remarked that she was stuck. The house would shortly be reclaimed by Katrina’s aunt, who was returning from Singapore. Another house had been found for the girls—Katrina’s family had several at their disposal—but it wasn’t available before the beginning of March. Katrina was moving home for the summer, but there were reasons why that wasn’t an option for Pippa. George told a lie about the purple painting and learned that it was the work of Pippa’s boyfriend, Vince. ‘He’s back at his folks’ place in Mudgee, to save money so we can go travelling next year.’ She spoke of ‘Asia’, of ‘Europe’, collapsing civilisations in the sweeping Australian way.
In Marrickville, over Vegemite toast one morning, Pippa asked whether the barking wasn’t getting to George. He hadn’t noticed it but now heard the high, repetitive protest that went on and on. ‘He’s lonely, poor love,’ said Pippa. ‘And bored. Stuck in a yard by himself with nothing to do for hours.’
‘Greeks,’ said George. ‘They don’t like animals indoors. It’s a Mediterranean thing. The Arab influence.’
Pippa said that in Mudgee they were exactly the same. ‘And no one in Vince’s family’s ever been outside New South Wales. No way do they know any Arabs, either.’
A few days later, she told George that the dog’s name was Bruce. He belonged to ‘a hippie dipstick’ called Rhiannon, who was renting on the cheaper, landward side of the street. Pippa had grown up in a country town and still talked easily to strangers. Bruce was a kelpie cross, George learned. ‘Twelve months old. Rhiannon got him from the RSPCA. She drives him to an off-leash park when she’s got time, but she works in some mall up in Chatswood, so she’s got this huge commute. And then Tuesday night’s the ashram, Friday night’s the pub. She’s not a bad person, she just hasn’t got a clue. You should see her yard: she’s bought Bruce all these toys, like a dog’s a child.’
Pippa had offered to walk Bruce when Rhiannon was busy. ‘He’s a working dog, he needs exercise. Guess what she said? “Dogs should run free. It’s demeaning for an animal to walk on a lead. It does really confusing things to their auras.”’
It was good of Pippa to have tried to help, said George.
‘I just feel so sorry for that poor dog.’
She said the same thing a few evenings later. Bruce was barking again. George heard him all the time now. It was difficult not to hold Pippa responsible. ‘I love animals,’ she went on.
‘That must be why you eat so many of them,’ said George. He didn’t intend unkindness but was opposed to illogic. Pippa’s fondness for broad, blurry statements twitched his nerves. ‘I love India,’ she once announced, after watching a documentary on TV. She had never been there. George, who had, most certainly did not love India. He could also see that these declarations weren’t really about animals or India but about Pippa: what they proclaimed was her largeness of heart.
She was saying that she had considered being a vegetarian. ‘But the thing with personal food restrictions is they make eating with other people really difficult. They destroy conviviality.’ She brought out ‘conviviality’ in the way people had once said ‘England’ or ‘Communist’: as if it settled all discussion. George detected a borrowing: Pippa had come across the word somewhere and been impressed.
George looked on cooking as time stolen from books. When he invited Pippa to move in for the summer he hadn’t thought about arrangements for food. He would have been content to go on as usual, defrosting a pizza or grilling a chop. But the day after she moved in, Pippa said, ‘I’m going through a Thai phase. You can’t cook Thai food for one.’ The cold, white, murderous kitchen filled with the scent of coriander and lemongrass pounded to a paste. George kept the fridge stocked with riesling and beer. Pippa stir-fried fish with spring onions and purple basil. She served a salad that combined ginger and pork.
With nothing said, they had divided the house between them. There were three empty bedrooms on the upper floor, but Pippa installed herself in a room off the hall. She liked to lie reading on a divan that stood under an aluminium-framed window. There was nothing else in what must have been the old man’s living room; he had dotted cumbersome furniture throughout the house. Any one of his rooms would have done as the set of a European play—the forbidding, minimalist kind.
Paperback novels accumulated around the divan. George looked them over one day when Pippa was out. Most were second-hand, and all had been published in the past twenty years. Pippa read nothing older, nothing in translation and very little that didn’t concern women’s lives. Her knowledge of history was cloudy. Referring to a biography of Joan of Arc that she planned to read, she placed its heroine in the Napoleonic Wars. George’s own novel sang inside him. He was taking apart everything he knew and putting it back together differently in ruled A4 notebooks. He used a laptop for his thesis, but his novel had woken an instinct that mingled superstition and veneration, and he was writing the first draft by hand.
Summer intensified. George and Pippa ate mangoes for dessert. Their flesh was the same colour as the wall behind George’s mother on that long--ago day with the phone. The memory of that scene kept following George around. It said so much about his parents: for a start, the invasive way his father played records full blast so that he could hear them no matter where he was in the house. And why hadn’t his mother turned down the volume before answering the phone? Think first! George wanted to shout. She often remarked that women of her generation had been deceived. He knew that this meant, I was deceived. It was her way of alluding to his father’s girlfriends. She had left when she could no longer ignore them; the latest one had turned up on Christmas morning with a present for George. But the reason George and his mother ended up in Melbourne was a man she had met at a party. He lasted two years, just long enough for her divorce to come through, then scampered home to his wife.
Pippa produced a dish of bananas prepared with turmeric and cream. That was the evening two boys came to the door in search of the old man. They looked like teenage real estate agents, with ties and short, waxed hair, but suggested melodrama because they arrived during a storm. Lightning turned the sky biblical behind them. For a blazing, vertiginous instant, the iron veranda post was a cross. The boys shouted at each other in Vietnamese, over the downpour, and everyone shouted in English. At last, George wrote down the address of the nursing home, and the boys plunged back into the rain.
Set in Sydney, Paris and Sri Lanka, The Life to Come is a mesmerising novel about the stories we tell and don't tell ourselves as individuals, as societies and as nations. It feels at once firmly classic and exhilaratingly contemporary.
Pippa is a writer who longs for success. Celeste tries to convince herself that her feelings for her married lover are reciprocated. Ash makes strategic use of his childhood in Sri Lanka but blots out the memory of a tragedy from that time. Driven by riveting stories and unforgettable characters, here is a dazzling meditation on intimacy, loneliness and our flawed perception of other people.
Profoundly moving as well as wickedly funny, The Life to Come reveals how the shadows cast by both the past and the future can transform, distort and undo the present. This extraordinary novel by Miles Franklin-winning author Michelle de Kretser will strike to your soul.
'Michelle de Kretser knows how to construct a gripping story. She writes quickly and lightly of wonderful and terrible things…A master storyteller.' A.S. Byatt
About Michelle de Kretser
Michelle de Kretser was born in Sri Lanka and emigrated to Australia when she was 14. Educated in Melbourne and Paris, Michelle has worked as a university tutor, an editor and a book reviewer. She is the author of The Rose Grower, The Hamilton Case, which won the Commonwealth Prize (SE Asia and Pacific region) and the UK Encore Prize, and The Lost Dog, which was widely praised by writers such as AS Byatt, Hilary Mantel and William Boyd and won a swag of awards, including: the 2008 NSW Premier's Book of the Year Award and the Christina Stead Prize for Fiction, and the 2008 ALS Gold Medal. The Lost Dog was also shortlisted for the Vance Palmer Prize for Fiction, the Western Australian Premier's Australia-Asia Literary Award, the Commonwealth Writers' Prize (Asia-Pacific Region) and Orange Prize's Shadow Youth Panel. It was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize and the Orange Prize for Fiction. Her last novel, Questions of Travel, received 14 honours, including winning the 2013 Miles Franklin Literary Award.