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Authors: Nadia Wheatley

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BOOK: Listening to Mondrian
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This morning. Wake at dawn as usual, even though it’s Saturday, for the witch wakes then, and rattles at the flyscreen for her cuppa.

No need to dress, Liv goes to bed in her tracksuit, for the front sleep-out is draughty and the nights are freezing still.

Creep along the hall to the kitchen, throw some kindling onto the smoulders of last night’s coal in the stove, boil the kettle (there is an electric one, but the stove takes longer), make the tea – ‘Not-too-strong-not-too-weak, girl, beats me how you can get it wrong every time’ – spread marge on two slices of bread, cut the crusts off (Gramma doesn’t put her teeth in till after her metho rubdown at half past eleven).

For a thrill today (Happy Birthday!) Liv puts a flower on the tray.

‘What’s that then?’

‘A daisy, Gramma.’

‘Take it away. You know I can’t abide flowers in a sick room.’

She sips the tea. ‘Beats me how you can get it wrong every time, girl.’

Good. I’m glad you said that. Glad you say it every morning, because every morning I need reminding how much I hate you if I am to hold my breath and do the next thing; because to do the next thing I need to feel something more powerful than disgust.

And so now Liv takes a deep breath then clamps her mouth shut and blocks the air-lock to her nose, then lifts up the seat of the commode, reaches in for the green enamel potty, and carries it (can’t go too fast or you’ll spill it) all the way down the hall (lungs yelling for air like a diver’s) and out to the dunny, and at last tips it down.

At least today she hasn’t done number twos. (Happy Birthday, Liv!)

But the sound of the flushing wakes Bruz, who wakes Johnno, who wakes Dannie, who wakes Dougie, and Liv storms into the back room and tries to bribe them with toast, for Mum really needs some sleep (Liv heard her up in the night nursing Gramma) and Liv is damned if the little buggers (sorry, brothers) will wake Mum before seven at least.

But the toaster only takes two slices at a time and there are four boys and Liv only has two hands, and it’s not long before Mum comes out, her faded chenille dressing gown clutched around her. ‘Need a hand, darl?’

‘No, Mum, you have a bit of a lie-in, I’ll make you a cuppa in a minute . . .’

But Mum stays anyway, pours the dregs from the teapot.

‘For Christ’s sake, Mum, make a fresh pot.’ I wouldn’t wish the witch’s tea on a dead dog.

But if Liv is a saint, Mum is a martyr, and so she drinks the lukewarm leafy brew, and drinks it black, because Dougie has got to the fridge behind Liv’s back and finished off the milk.

‘I’ll go up the shop and get some,’ Liv says.

When she gets back, Mum is dressed, and remembers. ‘Oh Liv. I forgot. It’s not much I’m afraid, but darl, you know how it is.’

Yes, I know. Interest rates are on the rise. The Treasurer said so the other night on TV. So now there’s an official reason for the way this whole town hurts, and Liv’s family with it.

Liv opens the package that has been carefully wrapped in recycled Santa Clauses. Two hair doodahs – one shocking pink and the other a kind of purple and cerise and yellow. A pair of stockings. A copy of the latest Mills & Boon. And an IOU for ‘1 pair Good Shoes’.

‘It’s from all of us,’ Mum lies.

‘Oh Mum. Ta.’ Liv’s mother has tried, and Liv knows it, but the present is for a girl who ties back her long fine hair with doodahs, for a girl who clads her long thin legs in stockings, for a girl who dreams of romance as she totters on Good Shoes to the ball; for a girl who is not Liv. ‘But if you don’t mind I’ll use the IOU for a pair of runners.’

Mum is disappointed. Liv wears thongs in summer and an old pair of work boots in winter, and her mother has been nagging about shoes for ages. But ‘Oh well, it’s your funeral,’ Mum sighs. ‘Happy birthday, darl.’

‘Ta, Mum.’

After a proper breakfast (eggs sausages bacon and tomato) has been cooked for Gordo, and the first load of washing has been hung out, Mum and Liv do the weekly supermarket shopping, carry it all the way home. (Gordo takes the boys to footy on Saturday mornings, not that Mum can drive anyway. But he could at least pick us up, Liv thinks as the plastic carrybags cut her hands.)

Liv unpacks while Mum goes in to give Gramma her rub-down, then it’s time to change the sheets on the boys’ bunks (they’re fixed to the wall so it’s hard to tuck in the top ones; and when you do the bottom ones you always forget, and crack your head). While the sheets are in the machine, run the vac round the back room, avoiding the race track, sucking up Lego. Now hang the sheets out.

‘Heavens!’ Mum emerges exhausted and smelling of metho. ‘Is that the time?’

Put the pies in the oven, the boys’ll be home from footy in a moment, skiting and starving.

‘Anyway, I scored a try!’

‘I scored two tries!’

‘Where’s lunch?’

‘Anyway, I kicked a goal!’

‘I’m hungry!’

‘When’ll lunch be ready?!’

‘Honestly,’ Gordo complains to Mum, ‘I can’t see why you can’t have the pies hot for when the boys get home.’

‘It’s my fault,’ Liv says. ‘I forgot.’

‘You forget every bloody week,’ Gordo says. ‘Anyone’d think it was deliberate.’

‘They’ll be ready any minute now,’ Mum promises.

So the boys disappear on their bikes, and Liv rinses the worst of the mud off their footy gear and puts it in the machine, and when the boys finally get back the pies are a bit burnt on top and there’s another scene. Liv takes the best two out to Gordo, who is washing the car. Puts the plate on the bonnet.

‘Mind the bloody duco! What, have these been through a bushfire or something!’

Liv takes the worst two pies and sits on the milk crate behind the laundry. The hills that surround the town press in on her, trapping her, while the coal smoke hangs above like a lid. It is not that today is worse than any other Saturday, but that it is exactly the same. Liv often feels as if she is stuck in some sort of time warp, in which the same things happen, over and over again.

The machine gives a thump to say that it is time to hang out the footy gear, bring in the first load of dry stuff.

‘Never mind, darl,’ Mum tells Liv’s long face. ‘It might never happen.’

It has it has it already has. And it will it will it will.

Liv gets out the ironing board.

‘I’ll do that, darl.’

Mum looks dead weary after this morning’s session with Gramma. ‘It’s OK. You go and have a lie-down, read the paper.’

Liv actually smiles as she starts on Gordo’s work shirts. Only half an hour and
World of Sport
will be on, and they’ll all sit there mesmerised, and Cinderella will escape.

Arriving at the Tower, Liv bypassed the steps that led up to the broad archway of the front entrance and clambered up a mound of rubble to one of the two narrower arches at the eastern side. Her head spun for a moment: the floorboards of the old power house were completely missing and it was a long drop to the bottom of the machine pit. Down below was a mess of broken bricks, rusty pieces of tin, corroded piping, an old fridge, even a holly tree.

‘You’ll fall down one of them holes and that’ll be the finish
of you!’
the witch’s curse rang in Liv’s head.

That’s what you think!

Facing inwards to the arch and clinging for balance, Liv stretched her right foot across the gap to the top of a brick pier, about two metres square, that had once provided the base for one of the engines. Took a deep breath, leaned all her weight onto this first foot, brought the left foot over to join it.

Secure now on her platform, Liv danced to the music that was coming through her headphones. (‘This is Radio 2LT Lithgow,’ said the man. ‘Rock till you drop!’) and as her energy filled the space, the Tower itself seemed to remember the enormous power of its past.

There’s a black and white photograph on Liv’s bedroom wall, that she cut out of the paper on the town’s last Heritage Day. It shows the tower as it once was, standing proudly with its roof on and its bricks all clean and fresh. To its left, there is a little building that looks like a church hall. To its right, the massive cylinder of the furnace itself looms above the heating stoves. Beyond this again, the great pillar of the steam hoist rises up in front of a chimney so tall that it disappears out of the top of the picture. Running between all these structures is a network of gigantic pipes. And crowded in front of all this there are the ant specks of hundreds of people.

Underneath, the caption says:

On 13th May 1907, Australia’s first blast furnace was
blown in and tapped in the presence of the Premier and a
train-load of dignitaries. Fortunately, the noise of the furnace
was too great to allow for speechmaking

And now it is that day, and Liv pulls the switch inside the power house, and there is a piercing whistle and a belch of smoke and Liv feels the earth shudder as air pushes through the pipes and the metal flows red and molten and the great creature comes to life . . .

When Liv woke, lying on the platform where she’d danced herself into exhaustion, there was an old woman sitting in the archway of the front entrance with a bunch of scarlet poppies in her lap. For a moment, Liv thought it was the witch come to worry her, and then she thought she was asleep still and dreaming the witch, and then she realised that it was just an old woman wearing a yellow baseball cap and a blue tracksuit and eating a green apple.

The woman’s lips moved, but Liv had gone deaf. The lips moved again and the woman threw an apple at her. Then Liv realised that she’d turned the sound off but left the headphones in. She pulled them out now and heard ‘Don’t you?’

‘Yes,’ Liv said, wondering what she had agreed to, and bit into the apple to be polite.

The woman sitting cross-legged on the top step was skinny, and really very old, Liv saw, and her hair was long and there were yellow streaks in the white and her lipstick was as red as the poppies that she indicated now.

‘Thought you must’ve been into these,’ she said.

Come again?

‘When you slept so sound.’

Liv didn’t have a clue what the stranger was talking about. She had seen the poppies growing around the edge of the ruins but they were just – ‘Opium poppies,’ the old woman explained. ‘Mind you, I only pick ’em for the colour, I
flowers, but there’s others who might use ’em for, you know.’

‘Not me,’ Liv said quickly.

‘There’s a good girl,’ the woman agreed. ‘What you say your name was again?’

‘Olivia Doyle.’

The woman’s forehead creased. ‘Doyle. Doyle. Wouldn’t be Charlie Doyle’s girl, would you?’

‘No. Sorry.’ Doyle was Mum’s name. Liv didn’t know her dad’s name. That was all long gone and best forgotten, Mum always said in the days when Liv used to ask. ‘I don’t come from round here.’

‘Tourist job eh?’

‘No, I mean . . . I live across the block there. At Gordons’. Bruce Gordon. He’s my’ (choke on the word) ‘stepdad.’

The woman creased up her face again. It was as if it were vital for her to place Liv. ‘
Gordon? Bruce
?’ The light seemed to dawn. ‘That wouldn’t be Menie Gordon’s boy, by any chance?’

Liv tried to think. She was just Gramma. Or Old Mrs Gordon. On her tablet bottles the initial was W. ‘Menie?’ Liv asked.

‘Short for Wilhelmina. We called her that because she was such a bitch. Oh! Pardon my French!’

‘That’s her,’ Liv said.

‘Well fancy! Menie Gordon still alive and kicking! Course, I am myself, but then I haven’t stopped in the one place long enough for Death to catch me.’

Liv was a bit embarrassed by someone saying ‘Death’ like that. ‘Don’t you live here now?’

‘Me? Here?’ The stranger snorted. ‘Oh no, the
my oyster, love. Here today, gone tomorrow, that’s my motto. Why, only ten days ago I was up at Kakadu – that was for my annual holidays, mind. Coupla weeks before that, I was in Kununurra for the mangoes. Month before that, it was Nambour for the strawberries . . .’

Liv was mystified.

‘I’m a picker, see, love?’ the woman explained. She reached in her pocket and lobbed a tiny green booklet over the gap to the platform. ‘Here, this is my Bible.’

Oh no, thought Liv, she’s going to ask me to love Jesus.

But the booklet was called
Harvest Table Australia,
Summary of Seasonal Crops Requiring Labour
. Inside, there was a calendar for every state, with lists showing all the crops and where they grew. Liv didn’t usually like books but this one was poetry to her. As she scanned the lists she could smell the fruit, feel the morning dew, even hear the laughter and friendship of the other pickers as they worked their way along the rows:

Peaches Pears Apples Oranges
Apricots Tomatoes Zucchinis Cherries
Ginger Grapes Onions Capsicums
Lettuces Potatoes Bananas Berries

And when the abundance became too overwhelming she could see the country towns with their wide main streets and lacy pub verandahs, as the rhythm of the place names built a pattern of its own:

Griffith, Orange, Leeton, Batlow,
Stanthorpe, Berri, Robinvale,
Coorow, Collie, Moora, Wagin,
Grass Patch, Dalmore, Innisfail!

Moora, Northam, Wee Waa, Williams,
Red Hill, Silvan, Manjimup,
Scottsdale, Ingham, Invergordon,
Healesville, Cobram, Balingup!

‘Just goes to show,’ the old woman was saying, ‘you can pick anywhere you go in this land of plenty! You can keep that book if you like, love. Course,’ she added, ‘that’s just the big crops, like, the basics. On top of that you have all the specialist stuff – avocadoes and asparagus, tamarilloes, kiwi fruit and figs, even herbs now that cooking’s gone posh. And since this bush tucker craze, they’re setting up plantations of lilli pilli and what have you. And then of course’ (she winked) ‘there’s always the illegal . . .’

Liv stared across the top of the holly tree.

‘Oh yes, I’ve been asked to pick that marijuana more than once in my life, love. Did it too, on one occasion, when the engine of the old bongo van blew up and I was stuck with no money in the backside of the universe. Course, those Mafia types like little old ladies. They know we won’t nick the heads. Oh, I’m not proud of myself for doing it but I don’t lay awake at nights over it either, mind. I mean, if you’re going to think like that, how many alcoholics have I helped by picking grapes? Eh? It’s people’s
decision what they do with their lives, I reckon.’

BOOK: Listening to Mondrian
8.41Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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