Read Digging to Australia Online

Authors: Lesley Glaister

Digging to Australia

Digging to Australia

A Novel

Lesley Glaister

for Pete
with love

Empompey polleney,

Pollenistic,

Empompey, polleney,

Academic,

So fa me,

Academic,

Poof, poof.

These are words to clap with rapid slapping hands in a playground full of girls. They are words to chant so fast that they spill like glitter off the tongue, dazzling the girls who don't know. Mystifying the girls at the edges who lurk in doorways and long for the bell to go.

They are also a way of stopping thought. Not forgetting entirely, for that is impossible. But a means of jolting a memory off its track. A barrier of gibberish.

PART ONE

1

Mama told me, a very long time ago, that an ancestor of ours had been transported to Australia. The ancestor's name was Peggy, and all she'd done was steal a peacock. She was sent on a convict ship to Australia and never seen again. Fancy stealing a peacock. That's all that is known of Peggy. I don't even know whether the peacock was alive or dead. And that matters. Did she steal it for its beauty, or for her dinner?

We were standing in the kitchen and Mama was filling my hotwater bottle. My bare feet were cold against the floor.

‘Where's Australia?' I asked.

She pointed at the floor. ‘The other side of the world,' she said. ‘As far away as you can get.'

I considered this. I already knew the world is like a ball. Bob had demonstrated with an orange how it moves around the sun. We used the orange for the sun and his globe for the earth. Of course, the scale was all wrong. To get the proportions right, he said, I would have had to carry the orange into the centre of town.

The globe was beautiful. It was an old heavy thing on a rickety stand. The land was all brown as mud and the pale sea netted with fine lines, meridians and tropics, things that had no meaning for me, although I liked the names. Sometimes I would spin the globe round and round so that it rattled and rocked and then read the name of the place where my finger pointed when it had stopped: Madagascar, the Tropic of Capricorn, the Solomon Islands, Peru.

‘What's it like in Australia?' I asked.

‘Topsy turvy,' Mama said, screwing the lid on my bottle and wiping it with a tea-towel. ‘Their seasons are all upside down. They eat their Christmas dinner on the beach.'

I went to bed that night thinking how glorious that must be, the crackers and the pudding and the holly against the gold and blue of sand and sea. I could just picture Peggy in some sort of long, old-fashioned dress but otherwise looking just like Mama, with the peacock strutting beside her on the shore, a purple paper crown upon her head.

One birthday – when I still believed my birthday was in June – Mama and Bob gave me a book. I was disappointed. I wasn't much of a one for books. Boring, I thought as I unwrapped it, although I looked pleased. Mama had made the wrapping paper herself, potato prints in powdery paint that came off on my fingers. On the flyleaf she had written, ‘To Jennifer, Happy Birthday, Love from Mama and Bob, June 1964.' The first ‘e' in Jennifer was altered, as if she'd started to write something else by mistake. I put the book on the shelf in my room and didn't look at it again for ages. It wasn't until I was ill, feverish and fretful and bored, that Mama began reading it to me. The book was
Alice in Wonderland
.

Mama sat on the edge of my bed reading. Her voice was monotonous and soothing. She paused periodically to wipe my face with a cool flannel. The room was cold, for Bob insisted that we keep a window open in every room in all weathers, except fog. This was extravagant because it meant keeping the stove roaring all winter to feed the radiators, but it was one of Bob's foibles. Our lives were ruled by Bob's foibles. I think this was a good one though, for we rarely suffered from colds. The lace curtain stirred slightly in the breeze. Mama shivered, but I burned. The sun shone coldly into the room, sharpening the edges of things so that they hurt my eyes. I kept them closed and listened to Mama, and her voice was something safe and solid to hold onto in the helter-skelter of my fever, something healthy.

‘Starve a fever,' Bob proclaimed, and so I had not eaten for two days. Mama, who went along with Bob in most things, eventually sneaked me up a terrible nourishing drink – raw egg beaten into milk – and stood over me while I drank it, tears of disgust standing in my eyes. The story was silly, I thought, until she came to the part where Alice falls down the hole, and I had to open my eyes to stop myself from feeling as if I was tumbling downwards past cupboards and pictures and jars of marmalade on shelves. ‘
Down, down, down
,' Mama droned, ‘
Would the fall never end? “I wonder how many miles I've fallen by this time?” Alice said aloud. “I must be getting near the centre of the earth
.”' I wondered if it was possible, not to fall of course, but to travel somewhere, through the earth, to get to Topsy-Turvy Land, the Antipathies, Alice called it, but I knew
that
couldn't be right.

Mama put the book down. ‘All right?' she said. ‘I'll have to stop now, it's time to cook Bob's dinner.' Mama had a gap where a tooth had fallen out. Not a front tooth, but one at the side that you could only see when she smiled. She rarely smiled properly because of this, especially in public, but sometimes she forgot. She smiled at me as I lay in bed though. I know because I saw the dark gap in her mouth and it gave me my idea. I would dig to Australia.

Down at the end of the garden, past the lawn and the vegetable plot and the fruit trees, was a patch that was mine. I had grown nasturtiums and radishes and marigolds but I was fed up with gardening, nothing turned out like it looked on the seed packet. I did like to be outside though. I like activity and fresh air. I loved to dig.

When I was well enough to go downstairs wrapped in my dressing-gown, my legs weak and fuzzy, I had a look at Bob's globe. I put one finger on the tiny smudge that was Britain and reached my arm round to find the opposite side of the world. It wasn't quite Australia, it was a place in the Tasman Sea. The nearest speck of land was called Loyalty Island. But it was near enough. I don't think I really believed I could do it. Certainly I knew it wouldn't be easy or quick. I was prepared to take weeks, months even. Bob said it would be impossible, but that only spurred me on. If it had never been done before, then that was the best reason to try.

I had been excused the daily dozen while I was ill, but as soon as I was better Bob insisted that I join them again. It was a dull morning, a school morning. Bob took off his dressing-gown. Mama hastened to the curtain and twitched a gaping corner shut.

‘Come along then,' Bob said. ‘Breathe.' He began to inhale and exhale loudly, swinging his arms backwards and forwards in time with his breaths. He had his back to the fireplace, feet planted squarely apart. Bob was naked. His body was pink and plump beneath a curling grey fuzz. His chest made me think of gorilla breasts and his paunchy belly cast a discreet shadow on the soft giblets beneath.

Mama slipped out of her dressing-gown. She stood behind me, as always, so that I could not see her, only hear a rustle as the soft fabric crumpled on the floor.

‘Come along, Jennifer,' Bob said. I never had the gumption to refuse, not then. I unbuttoned my pyjamas and took them off.

‘Shoulders back,' Bob said and I stood up straight between them, aware of Bob's eyes on my naked front, and Mama's on my back. ‘Now, breathe in … and … over and …' and we embarked upon the stretching, the toe-touching, the arm circling and the ungainly joggling about the spot. The open window sucked the curtain against it with a sad gasp and an oblong patch grew damp with rain. I wondered, as I always did, why it was called the daily dozen when there was never a dozen of anything as far as I could tell. This was another of Bob's foibles, this morning ordeal. I think it was his worst. No, the worst was the nakedness. We weren't allowed clothes for the exercises, that was bad enough, but what was even worse was that Bob wouldn't wear clothes at all in the house.

Mama and Bob had both been naturists once, they had met at a camp-site where everyone frolicked naked in the sun. That's what they said, only all I could think of was brambles and goosepimples and rain. Mama had changed her mind gradually over the years. She thought bodies terribly boring, she confided to me once, when there were so many lovely clothes to wear. Mama went along with Bob in the mornings though, and I thought little about it. It was just what we did.

‘And down and down and down and down,' Bob continued, breathless now, stretching one leg to the side and bending his knee like an archer so that his belly drooped almost to the floor. The grey curls on his chest were moist with sweat. ‘And cease,' he said finally.

2

I had no proper friends at school, that was why I didn't like it. It wasn't because I was stupid that I never answered questions, it was because I was shy. I couldn't have friends like the popular girls because I didn't know how. It would have been all right if I'd been the same as them but I felt that I was different. I could never ask a friend round for a start, because Bob, being retired, was always there, and always quite bare. I couldn't let anyone else see his giblets and his great round woolly bottom, all creased from his chair. Word would have got round and they would never have stopped laughing. And he was an old man, all grey and done-for, not like the fathers I sometimes noticed dropping their daughters off at school, with black or brown hair and shirts and ties and cars. Bob wouldn't get a television either. Not everyone had one then, but the popular girls did, and they invited their best friends home for tea and
Blue Peter
. Everyone wanted to be friends with those girls. Bob said that televisions gave off gamma rays that rotted the brain. Instead we played games. The family that plays together stays together, he used to say, rubbing his hands and squelching his behind on his leather chair, and my heart would sink.

It was later that I started to dig the hole. It was a hot day marooned in the middle of the summer holidays, and I was twelve, already old enough to know that it was an impossible venture. But it was something to do. In the beginning the digging was easy. The soil was loose and I had got down a foot or more before it became really hard work. The soil grew darker and harder, packed solid, and there were stones, great knuckle-like flints and shards of slate that jolted the spade and refused to give. I had to get down and grub them out of the earth with my hands. There were worms threaded in the earth, and sometimes I sliced one into two flinching pieces with my spade. I was sorry to hurt them, but Bob said that both halves would live so that there'd be two worms instead of one. Mama said that was nonsense and only the half with the head would live. And I still don't know whether either of them was right – or whether both halves die. There were centipedes too, and millipedes, and other grubs and scuttling creatures, and fine roots stretching from somewhere. I worked hard with my mind on another place, a place where I partly belonged because of Peggy the ancestor. I worked until there were blisters on my hands, thinking of buried treasure, ribbed caskets opening to spill gold doubloons and pearls. And soon I knew for sure that I would never get anywhere. Not this way. I had made a trench that I could stand in up to my waist, but that was nothing. Our garden backed onto a footpath, hidden from view by a high wooden fence, but we were above the footpath, so that even with all my digging I still hadn't reached the level of the ground behind. If I crouched in my trench I could get my head below the surface and breathe in the private smell of the earth, and feel the coldness. The soil was complicated, seen close to, not haphazard. It was an arrangement of filaments and pebbles and grains and damp-looking living things. It was a live thing in itself, and that surprised me. I licked the earth and recognized the taste of potatoes.

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