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Authors: Peggy Frew

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Hope Farm

BOOK: Hope Farm
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HOPE FARM

Peggy Frew's debut novel,
House of Sticks
, won the 2010 Victorian Premier's Literary Award for an unpublished manuscript. Her story ‘Home Visit' won
The Age
short story competition. She has been published in
New Australian Stories 2
,
Kill Your Darlings
,
The Big Issue
, and
Meanjin
. Peggy is also a member of the critically acclaimed and award-winning Melbourne band Art of Fighting.

Scribe Publications
18–20 Edward St, Brunswick, Victoria 3056, Australia
2 John St, Clerkenwell, London, WC1N 2ES, United Kingdom

First published by Scribe 2015

Copyright © Peggy Frew 2015

All rights reserved. Without limiting the rights under copyright reserved above, no part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in or introduced into a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise) without the prior written permission of the publishers of this book.

Part of this book was written during a residential fellowship at Varuna, the National Writers House.

National Library of Australia Cataloguing-in-Publication data

Frew, Peggy, author.

Hope Farm / Peggy Frew.

9781925106572 (paperback)
9781925113778 (e-book)

1. Mothers and daughters–Fiction. 2. Communal living–Victoria–Fiction.

A823.4

scribepublications.com.au
scribepublications.co.uk

‘
You don't look back along time but down
through it, like water. Sometimes this comes
to the surface, sometimes that, sometimes
nothing. Nothing goes away.'

Margaret Atwood
,
Cat's Eye

I try to imagine going back. I picture it as it was, that stretch of road — the land on one side still not cleared, the trees leaning outwards, reaching as if ready to wrench free their roots and spring over the raw-edged strip of asphalt to the waiting paddocks. I see again how closed-up that bush looked from the outside, how protective of its secrets.

In my mind, I find the turn-off, the dark mouth open and fringed with branches — and I take it, and I begin to drive down the dirt road. But that's as far as I ever get. Long before I reach Ishtar's hut and long before I reach the gate to Hope itself, just short of where the bridge flattens its back and the sunken runnel of the creek sends up its cool vapours, my vision slips, slurring like the tyres of my city hatchback on the loose surface. I'm skidding, I'm sliding, I'm going too fast, into a spin; I'm slamming into a tree. Or I'm slowing down, losing power — I drift to a standstill. Or the car simply disintegrates. The steering wheel comes off in my hands, the doors unfasten and fly away, the roof lifts and vanishes, then the windscreen, the dashboard, the seat below me, and I am hanging in space. Whichever way, after that it's always the same: the gravel darkens and the trees close in, and the whole thing shuts down.

I don't believe in ghosts, but still, perhaps that is what keeps me away, even in fantasy — the fear of conjuring them somehow, of unblocking some channel, providing at last an audience for the enduring, impotent rage of a dead man. And there would be other ghosts too, and not only of the dead. There would be the ghost of my long-ago self, that girl. There would be the ghost of Ishtar as she was then: a young woman, a young mother. As I stepped into the ruined hut and imagined a trace of incense and wood smoke in the chill, there would be the spectre of our union — the possibility of us sorting things out, of getting it right, of doing justice to the bond that, however frayed, did exist.

And then, if I was to walk down to the creek and along to what, if anything, remained of Hope, there would be the echoes of that place, of those who had lived there when I knew it, with their foolhardy but ultimately gentle intentions. Freedom, tolerance — these banners, propped at exhausted angles, limp in the soupy air of a confused and bitter inertia, doubtless played a part in what happened. But I don't blame the hippies. It wasn't their fault; it wasn't anyone's fault, in the end.

Maybe what I'm most afraid would happen is this: that I invoke all of those ghosts, in my imagination or otherwise, and they rise, dragging at the air, pressing in on me. And then, somewhere on the path leading from one to the other, the hut and Hope Farm, they fall back, thin out, dematerialise — and I am left alone with the ceaseless rustle and tick of the bush, the whisper of insects, the relentless busyness of birds, the ruthless constancy of nature.

Before

It's hard to remember much from before Hope. We lived in so many places — and in my memory they've merged to form a kind of hazy, overlapping backdrop. Certain details leap briefly to catch the light: a kitchen where I climbed into a cupboard and watched a woman's feet shuffle back and forth as she cooked, the hem of her orange robe lapping; the chain-link fence of a school yard, cool under hooked fingers and tasting, when I put my tongue to it, of tears; a dog with new puppies under a verandah, lifting her head to growl when we came squirming in on our elbows, me and a girl whose name is now lost but whose pierced ears I recall perfectly — the wonder of those gold circlets entering the downy, padded lobes. None of these details are anchored though — there is no sequence, no scaffold on which to hang them.

What I do remember, as a constant, is our belongings. Our shapeless, worn duffel bags, and Ishtar's old case. There were clothes, but not many of them, and a couple of bathroom things — toothbrushes, soap. Then there were the papers Ishtar kept in a bundle in the case, and the Indian bedspread she always put on the bed, wherever we were. That was all. But I can remember every aspect, every angle and facet of those things, even down to the scratches on the suitcase — one of them in the shape of a knobbly, malformed horse's head, ears back, mouth agape.

It was always the same. We had to leave because the energy had changed — something had faded, failed, gone wrong. There was probably a specific reason, probably to do with a man, but I never needed to look that far. I just saw it coming in Ishtar, in the flattening of her voice and movements, the dulling of her colours.

She went quiet, she stopped smiling, she didn't touch me or, often, even respond if I spoke directly to her. She still went to work and upheld her domestic obligations; she never faltered in these things. In fact, as the shutting-down phase went on, she almost seemed to vanish into the endless rhythms of chores, of labour — they took on a new quality, a busy screen beyond which she was even less reachable. Slicing onions in the drab kitchen of a group house. Sweeping the hallway of an ashram. Buttoning one of the various uniforms she wore — for mopping the floors of a hospital, or changing sheets and scrubbing bathrooms in a motel — slipping my lunch box into my school bag and handing it to me without a glance as she strode to the door.

Then one day she'd come back to whichever room we had, in whichever house, and the switch would have flicked; she was alive once more — the veil lifted, her skin lit — and I'd know even before she spoke that we were packing and leaving. We were going somewhere else, to start again. And the old criss-cross of feelings would tug at me: the relief and the mistrust, the hope and the anger. And each time it happened, the mistrust and anger were stronger, the relief and hope weaker.

During these transitions something would change in the way I saw the world. Everything — an unlined curtain leaking light, a dash of spilled turmeric on a bench top, the chalky line of scalp that showed at the parting in the hair of a girl at school — seemed to become at once very clear and slightly removed, as if I was peering through a viewfinder. It was a glassy, sliding feeling, and it continued until the ending had been completed, and we were on our way to the new place, when suddenly all the details would be lost, and the girl's hair and the turmeric and the curtain blurred and swam into the uncertainty of the past.

Men were usually involved, in both the endings and the beginnings. Boyfriends, lovers, partners — whatever they were to her in the varied and loose lexicon of the circles in which we moved. I can glimpse them still, a collage of faces, mostly bearded, mostly framed with quantities of hair. I can dredge up the sounds of their voices, some of them, or a small physical detail — a bracelet of plaited flat strands of copper on a sun-damaged, ginger-haired wrist; a combination of a long nose and bushy eyebrows that called to mind the letter ‘T'. But I have no memory of any actual break-ups, of men begging or raging at having been left. I recall no messy scenes. Ishtar was so good at it, I suppose, so practised. She simply withdrew and allowed things to collapse.

This time it would be different. And I imagine now — when that pocket opens in the haze and Miller first appears, first spreads and cups his hands, first unfolds the smooth carpet of his voice — that I could tell from the beginning.

Before Miller, before Hope, she had decided we would go overseas. At night she sat cross-legged beside me as I lay on the mattress we shared, and talked about countries. She brought an atlas up from the communal bookshelf in the yoga room and turned the pages, running her hand over maps, sounding out place names.
Istanbul
.
Prague
.
Varanasi
.

For a while I held back, like I always did. It was so hard to resist though, the heat in her, the energy that hummed and leapt. When she read aloud she sounded like another person, uncertain, effortful, with her pointer finger creeping across the page. She seemed nearer to me, nearer even than all the times we'd slept in the same bed, back to back.

She got stuck on a word, frowned, peered, muttered. Then she threw me a grin. Her face was pink. ‘Gibraltar,' she said, straightening her spine. ‘Gibraltar.'

I pulled the covers up to my nose, my own mouth splitting in an unstoppable, answering smile.

We went to get passport photos at the chemist's. Mine had to be taken twice because I blinked the first time, and Ishtar laughed. ‘Be cool,' she said, and then I watched as she faced the camera, still and strong and lovely, and my throat filled with helpless, fluttering pride.

Afterwards she bought me jellybeans to eat while we walked back to the ashram. Their chemical sweetness made me feel like a little kid again. It was a Brisbane winter, clear and bright, and somewhere somebody was burning leaves.

‘I love that smell.' Ishtar's arm went round me. ‘Remember the picture, in the atlas, of the chestnut seller in Italy?'

I remembered him, olive-skinned and stern, standing with his stall and his fire in a metal burner, the street behind him shining and slick and cold-looking.

‘We'll go there,' said Ishtar. ‘We'll eat chestnuts. And spaghetti.' Then she let go and started walking faster and I had to run to catch up.

She kept the passports in her suitcase, inside a yellowy-orange envelope that closed by winding a string around a little paper button.

Then Miller came and the plans were changed. We weren't going overseas any more — we were going to the country instead, down south, to live.

‘It's a farm,' said Ishtar. ‘There'll be goats. And potatoes.'

The atlas was gone. I stood in its spot on the threadbare rug.

She folded a jumper. ‘Goats are good for milking. And wool, some of them. Angoras.' The word had a soft, fleecy sound, and in the way she said it, drawing it out, I heard another voice, and knew it must be his — Miller's. ‘Cold down there.' She pushed the jumper into her bag. ‘We'll need to rug up.'

On the maps I'd copied at school, Victoria had always looked cold, squashed down the bottom in a jagged wedge, shaded green or blue.

‘Oh, it's far,' said Ishtar, although I hadn't asked. She folded and stuffed, knelt and stood, her movements fluid, unhesitating. ‘It's a long way. Further than we've ever been.' She paused, touched her hot palm to my cheek, leaned closer and kissed me, three quick kisses that pushed me almost off balance. ‘It's going to be a whole new life.' Reaching past, she began to fold her Indian quilt, with the pink and orange pattern. Her hair brushed near my lips and I breathed her smell, sweet and smoky.

I got up and went to the window, which showed part of a brick wall and a yard with a Hills hoist sprouting from concrete. I put my face close to the glass and looked up into the sky. Flat, angry phrases slid rhythmically through my head.
Of course, of course. You should have known.

‘Angora goats,' came Ishtar's new, Miller-tinged voice. ‘And potatoes, all kinds. Sebago. Coliban.'

Of course
. I stared up at the sky and opened myself to disappointment, pinching, cold, lonely. How could I have been so stupid, to have believed in the overseas trip, in us — just the two of us — getting on a plane and taking off into some whole new life? I was as bad as she was.

‘Well, that's about it.'

I turned from the window. The mattress lay stripped, showing its stains and hollows. Our two duffel bags and her old brown case stood by the door.

‘I'm off to work now, to give this back.' She was holding her uniform, folded into a small pink slab. ‘To let them know I'm finished. I've scrubbed my last toilet.' She gave a little pretend stamp with one foot, put her free hand on her hip, and shook back her hair.

I was supposed to join in, to say something or return her smile. And, unbelievably, the urge was still there — to concede, to go to her and feel those arms round me. But I stared down at the rug, at the webbing of its exposed fibres.

She didn't notice anyway — the door swung and she was gone.

Another ending, another new start. But with a difference, and not just because of Miller. When he steps out of the murk of memory, solid and bold, his gestures sweeping with the promise of change, another figure materialises, sharp edged, beside him. It is me, as I was then: thirteen, scrawny and suddenly tall, angry and sad and full of shame and reluctance — but changing, coming into something, waking up to a power of my own.

I heard his voice first, coming from the front room downstairs, where they did the yoga classes and the satsangs. I couldn't make out the words — there was just the sound of it, rich and rolling. I went down to the hallway and looked in at them.

There was a slant of sunlight from the window, and he stood square in it, taking it all up, the honeycomb halo of his hair ablaze. Ishtar was a still shape before him, slender and dark. I could hear the words clearly now, and see the way he gestured, how every phrase had a movement to go with it.

‘Ishtar,' he said, raising his arms and widening his fingers. ‘Fierce, proud goddess.'

Embarrassment tickled in my chest, and I glanced up the empty hallway and then back at Ishtar's motionless figure. Why was he speaking like that?

‘My heart is yours. My heart and my new shovel. And a few other things besides.' A burbling, deep chuckle — and an answering nod of Ishtar's head.

So it was a joke. He was acting, putting on a show. In a moment, he would stop and return to his normal self, whatever that was.

But when he dropped his arms and stepped closer to her, his voice grew breathy, almost girlish. ‘Oh, I am so excited,' he said. Now his hands were clasped at the level of his chest, the fingers lacing and unlacing. ‘I am so happy to be on this journey with you, this path. One year, it'll take, to get set up. And after that, independence. Self-sufficiency.' Back went the great head, the tawny beard jutting. A shrill whoop flew towards the ceiling and he began to circle her, passing in and out of the wedge of light. ‘Our new life! Thank you, beautiful lady, for your love, for your gifts, for your trust.'

I lowered my eyes.

‘Oh, Ishtar, Ishtar,' came Miller's moan, and my mouth twitched in an awful, involuntary smile. Again, I glanced around for someone to share this with. Sonia the house mother, with her glasses and the black hairs sprouting under her loose chin like insect feelers, who might pad up beside me to peek in, then turn and grin and make a face, confirming that this was funny, ridiculous, not to be taken seriously. But the hallway was still empty, and when I took a last look into the room he had his arms right around her and his huge woolly head turned away from me, his face pressed against her throat. Ishtar's eyes were closed and her lips were moving. Her voice was very quiet.

‘I'm with you,' she said.

Back upstairs I sat on my duffle bag and made a shape with my hand, touching my thumb and ring finger together. I don't know when I'd learned it, or who had shown it to me. It was meant to ward off bad vibes — I didn't really believe in it, but I did it anyway. The feeling of wanting to laugh had gone away completely.

Ishtar made me go with them to the used car yard.

‘Come on.' She took my wrist, pulled me to my feet. ‘It'll be fun.'

Out the front she stood behind me, her hands on my shoulders. ‘Miller,' she said, ‘this is Silver.'

‘The pleasure is all mine.' His voice boomed, making me jump, but his eyes were on her. ‘Shall we?' He held out his arm and she took it, keeping hold of me with the other hand.

On the bus they sat together, and I sat behind on my own. Miller talked and talked, his voice dipping in and out of the rumble of the engine.

‘… has lapsed somewhat, as these places can. But that's as it should be — these things function cyclically, like the seasons … Not a difficult climate, down there. Good, rich, soil …'

I felt very far away and low down. The back of his halo of hair looked solid, densely packed. When he lifted a hand to gesture, I saw how the muscles of his arms pressed outwards against the fabric. When he turned towards Ishtar to nod, pinching his fingers in emphasis, his face came partly into view. The fleecy bronze hair ran down in front of his ears to join with his beard, and then there were his eyebrows in between, so the bits where actual skin showed — his forehead, his nose, the places under his eyes — had a sudden, beaming quality. This skin was pinkish and smooth, not like a man's at all.

BOOK: Hope Farm
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