In the old brown house on the corner, a mile from the middle of the city, we ate bacon for breakfast every morning of our lives. There were never enough chairs for us all to sit up at the meal table; one or two of us always sat on the floor or on the kitchen step, plate on knee. It never occurred to us to teach the children to eat with a knife and fork. It was hunger and all sheer function: the noise, and clashing of plates, and people chewing with their mouths open, and talking, and laughing. Oh, I was happy then. At night our back yard smelt like the country.
It was early summer.
And everything, as it always does, began to heave and change.
It wasn’t as if I didn’t already have somebody to love. There was Martin, teetering as many were that summer on the dizzy edge of smack, but who was as much a part of our household as any outsider could be. He slept very still in my bed, jumped up with the kids in the early morning, bore with my crankiness and fits of wandering heart. But he went up north for a fortnight and idly, at the turning of the year, I fell in love with our friend Javo, the bludger, just back from getting off dope in Hobart: I looked at his burnt skin and scarred nose and violently blue eyes. We sat together in the theatre, Gracie on my knee. He put his hand to the back of my head. We looked at each other, and would have gone home together without a word being spoken; but on our way out of the theatre we met Martin rushing in, back from Disaster Bay. Decorously, Javo got on his bike and rode home.
Not a matter of decorum, though, with Martin, who said to me shyly, knowing perhaps in his bones that nothing would be the same again,
‘I wish I could—you know—turn you on
.’ And he did, and somehow we loved each other: I held his sharp, curly little head very tightly in my arms. We slept peacefully, knowing each other well enough not to need to touch.
I woke in the morning and heard at the same moment a rooster crow in a back yard and a clock strike in a house in Woodhead Street. I walked through our house. In the rooms people slept singly in double beds, nothing over them but a sheet, brown faces on still pillows. Gracie and Eve’s boy the Roaster sprawled in their bunks. A glass fish tinked at their window.
I put the kettle on to make the coffee, stared out the louvres of the kitchen window at the rough grass and the sky already hot blue.
At the Fitzroy baths, Martin and Javo lolled on the burning concrete. I clowned in the water at the deep end where the sign read ACQUA PROFONDA.
‘The others are waiting for me up at Disaster Bay,’ said Martin. ‘I’m going back today. Why don’t youse two come with me?’
‘OK,’ said Javo, who had nothing else to do, his life being a messy holiday of living off his friends.
I rolled and rolled in the water, deafening my ears while I thought of, and discarded, all the reasons why I shouldn’t go. I popped up, hanging on to the rail, hair streaming on my neck.
‘OK. I’ll come.’
Javo was looking at me.
So, afterwards, it is possible to see the beginning of things, the point at which you had already plunged in, while at the time you thought you were only testing the water with your toe.
We picked Gracie up from her kinder and left Melbourne that afternoon. By the time we had crossed the border into New South Wales it was well into night. The camp where the others were waiting for the supplies Martin had brought was a mile from the end of the track, round a rocky beach. It was dark and the tide was right in against the rocks. I picked up Gracie, who was too scared to speak, and waded blindly after Martin’s voice. I was soon wet to the thighs. Whenever a wave withdrew, invisible crabs clattered round my feet on the spiky rocks. I could dimly see Javo ahead of me with his boots over his shoulder. My ears were full of confusion and the sea thumping. Martin helped me scramble up the last slope, Gracie clinging like a monkey to my back, and in the sudden quiet between waves I saw the gleam of the tent in a small hollow. We stumbled in. The others woke in a mass of rugs and sleeping bags.
‘Did you bring anything to eat?’ I recognised Lou’s voice.
‘I couldn’t carry it over the rocks,’ lied Martin, who had forgotten it in his haste to bring us to the place.
‘We expected you yesterday, mate,’ complained Lou gently. ‘All we’ve got left is fuckin’ flour. Where have you been?’
People were sitting up among the blankets. We got used to the dark.
‘I got held up,’ said Martin, already having forgotten the problem, and pulling his jeans off ready to sleep on his full stomach.
‘You are a little weasel,’ Lou sighed. He turned over and went back to sleep.
Copyright © 2024 by Helen Garner. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.