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Authors: Anna Spargo-Ryan

The Paper House

BOOK: The Paper House
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The Paper House

Heather and Dave have found the perfect place to raise their first child. The house has character, but it’s the garden that really makes it: red-faced impatiens, pockmarked gums, six upright pittosporums to keep the neighbours out. It’s a jungle. A hiding place. A refuge.

And then, without warning, that life is over.

Heartbreaking, fearless, and ablaze with a coruscating beauty all its own,
The Paper House
tells the story of a woman sinking into the depths of grief, and the desperate efforts of her loved ones to bring her up for air. A sharp-eyed, bittersweet depiction of the love between parents and children, and the havoc that it can wreak.



The Paper House



Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

Chapter Thirteen

Chapter Fourteen

Chapter Fifteen

Chapter Sixteen

Chapter Seventeen

Chapter Eighteen

Chapter Nineteen

Chapter Twenty

Chapter Twenty-one

Chapter Twenty-two

Chapter Twenty-three

Chapter Twenty-four

Chapter Twenty-five

Chapter Twenty-six

Chapter Twenty-seven

Chapter Twenty-eight

Chapter Twenty-nine

Chapter Thirty

Chapter Thirty-one

Chapter Thirty-two

Chapter Thirty-three

Chapter Thirty-four


Other Things of Note

About Anna Spargo-Ryan

Copyright page





For my dad, who has always said ‘you can’





In the garden there was nothing which was not quite like themselves – nothing which did not understand the wonderfulness of what was happening to them – the immense, tender, terrible, heart-breaking beauty and solemnity of Eggs. If there had been one person in that garden who had not known through all his or her innermost being that if an Egg were taken away or hurt the whole world would whirl round and crash through space and come to an end . . . there could have been no happiness even in that golden springtime air.

Frances Hodgson Burnett,
The Secret Garden

out on a spring morning – the kind that rose coolly in the east and set brightly in the west. I had imagined it happening, of course, given as I was to paranoia and unease, but it had come as a shock nonetheless. I lay on the empty apartment floor for hours, awaiting the tapping of her feet or the pulse of her breath, but heard only the rush of blood in my ears and shouting on the street.

It had been a long time in the planning. When we were first married, Dave took a secondment and we found ourselves in a squat house in the desert. He taught all the classes at the local school and I took phone calls at the cultural centre and in the evenings we sat together under the expanse of black and silver sky. The days were hot and long but a refrigerated truck brought ice-cream once a week and the local kids ate it with their bare feet in the dirt. Everything in the desert was red; not deep like cherries, or bright like Ferraris, but fluid and changeable. Overhead, the whir of one-person planes. Below, the ancient earth rumbled.

The town of Marree sat red and dusty on the Oodnadatta Track, near the salt plains of Lake Eyre, up through the wine region and the port towns, into the land of the Dreamtime. It had been a roaring hub of activity when the trains were still taking supplies along the old Ghan line, but that had long since been diverted to somewhere easier, faster, more efficient. It had one main road and a general store, a cultural centre and a caravan park. And a pub, of course. Even the towns on the Track that didn’t have permanent populations all had pubs.

In the desert, morning always arrived in one moment, from dark to light without interruption from hills or sea or clouds. It was dark and then it was light. Dave and I walked and talked with our hands linked, kicking up the dirt and breathing the hot air. Derelict steam engines nudged us as we walked past – giant cicadas with unblinking eyes.

‘It’s so nice here,’ I said.

‘It’s so nice here
with you
,’ Dave said, in all his marriedness.

The ladies at the cultural centre loved tea breaks. I went with them to the edge of the waterhole and they told me stories about the Dreamtime and laughed with the inside of their throats. The water was always still, like glass, even when the trees around us moved in the wind. Once the tea was finished I showed them how to look for patterns in the leaves, and Nell rubbed my shoulder and they all gleamed with promise.

We were so newly married, so fresh to our combined life, that everything reminded us of how permanently we would be joined. In our shared car, the only late model four-wheel drive we could afford, we drove into the Red Centre and we saw ourselves there: we were the pair of jabirus with their feet in the mud; we were the endless revitalisation of the hot springs; we were the infinite hum of the salt plains.

What plans did we have then? Dave with his hand on my shoulder, my hip, my belly. Dave with his face between my thighs, around my neck, on my mouth. Everything with its right time, its best time. In the evenings we put our feet on our iron window frames and rolled out the first bars of ‘Graceland’ across the flat land and we were invincible because it was impossible we could be anything else.

After two years, Dave’s secondment ended and we strode through Melbourne, red against its greyness, salt in our veins. I climbed aboard electric trains and heard the rattle of the wind in the old windows, the thud of a missing sleeper, and listened to the emphysema breath of the man asleep on my shoulder. I had breakfast on the kerb-side of an inner-city street and heard the shouts of the shoeless children, the thunder of the crop duster overhead. Every day on the train, with the
and the whirring of someone’s laptop and the too-loud conversations, I was upright, packed, ready for the next adventure.

In the evenings I sat with Dave at our table for two by the balcony and we looked out to the streets and to the people. We watched them with their grey faces and their shiny shoes and imagined them going home to their neat houses. Their Golden Retrievers would sit beside them as they watched the news, expressionless.
Dear, forty people were blown up in Afghanistan today.
Dishes in the sink.
That’s too bad. And look, a big sale at Harvey Norman.
Missionary style please.

‘Isn’t it great that we’re not them?’ we said, and touched our feet together.

I went to my job in a tall city building, watching people with briefcases and busy faces drink their lunches from cartons. I typed words on a screen and answered the phone on my desk, and on Fridays we went to the pub for a forced happy hour. I wore a blue skirt, a pink skirt, one in black and white herringbone, and only once did I remember my mother the day she came home with her hair cut short.

‘Let’s have a baby,’ I said to Dave, while I cooked.

‘Yes, let’s have a baby,’ he said.

And then, six years after we had left the tea leaves at the waterhole, I was pregnant, and we realised we had no space for a baby.

We looked at all kinds of houses: big, new ones with columns and render; little cottages with beaten weatherboard; a yellow brick monstrosity with a paved yard where there should have been grass. We looked in towns that lolled under a rainforest canopy, towns that yawned at the bottom of mountains and towns built clumsily where mine carts once rattled. But we were drawn to the rolling water. The long Victorian coastline offered seaside towns for every kind of person, whether they were the market-going type or the surfing type. We stood with the dreadlocked and salt-encrusted at Lorne, and drank lattes with the Lexus crowd at Portsea. After six weeks of looking and imagining, we ate teacakes on the western side of the peninsula and our heart stayed behind when we left.

‘That’s the place,’ I said, and Dave said, ‘That’s the place.’

If we had known, maybe we would have chosen a different house. But we stood on the hilltop and breathed the salty air and we were filled with love. It was a small place with unusual rooms, and a bull-nosed verandah in colonial green draped in a curtain of wisteria that disappeared under a haze of bees. It had white shutters and curls of worked iron. It had a name – Cabbaga – which hadn’t been on my list of criteria but which I immediately added. And the garden; a maze of established trees and crouching shrubs and flowers with bees on them and the faint trickle of water. A garden in which to wander, in which to get lost. For picnics and parties. It breathed in time with me and spat me out into the afternoon air, where the sea caught on the updraft and shot through the corridors. I watched it heave and change as day became night.

The settlement took us into the perfumed spring. Knowing that the house was waiting for us made our apartment smaller and darker.
. My body changed daily; a swimming, tumbling, hiccupping circus. I prodded tiny feet and the curve of her spine and she pushed against my hand with all her might. While I tried to sleep she rolled and flipped and I knew each infinite possibility of her.

On the very last day, we went to visit Gran. I could barely squeeze myself into a seatbelt by then; it pulled tight across my belly and we laughed while I did it because I was a grotesque, indiscernible mammal.

As we drove I said to Dave, ‘She’s been very quiet today.’

‘The books said she would run out of room,’ he said, and that seemed reasonable.

We pulled into the circular drive, past meticulous planter boxes, and waited in the pink and grey reception area, everything glossy with vinyl and lacquer. The nurse led us to the room, though we’d been a hundred times, down in the corner overlooking the lake. Gran lifted her chin to greet us, or a version of us.

‘My darling!’ she said, and her eyes were loose in their sockets.

‘Hello,’ I said. I didn’t say
Hello Gran
. They had told me not to, that it might upset her. I hugged her and my belly was a hard obstacle between us. She rubbed her silken hands over it, warm through my shirt.

‘We’re going to have a baby,’ she said.

‘Yes, we are.’

‘I can’t believe it, Shelley. I’m too young to be a grandmother!’ And her hands went around again, her hands on the body she thought was my mother’s. The still and silent body, where the baby had run out of room.

Later on we took sandwiches across the lawn to the spot we always went, underneath the magnolia tree where there was a white picnic table. The day was cool. The air scraped on our skin.

‘Shelley,’ she said, with sandwich crumbs falling from her mouth, ‘let me feel the baby kicking.’ I pulled her hand to my round and swollen body. ‘I can’t feel it.’

‘That’s normal,’ I said. ‘She’s running out of room.’

We waited, Gran looking up at me with her eyes wide.

‘Was that it?’ she said. ‘I felt a bump.’

And maybe it was, but on the way home Dave said to me, ‘If you’re still worried in the morning, we can get her checked out.’ and I waited for the tremble of knees but there was nothing.

So we went, in the morning, to the hospital. The maternity ward was full and they couldn’t help us right away. Dave and I sat in adjoining vinyl chairs, and the TV in the corner played infomercials. Time passed in the maternity ward as it did in a casino, fluorescent and artificial, and after an hour or six hours, the nurse returned and attached a band around my middle. ‘It’s called a non-stress test,’ she said. ‘When you feel the baby kicking, press the button.’

BOOK: The Paper House
5.72Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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