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Authors: Alex Miller

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Watching the Climbers on the Mountain (3 page)

BOOK: Watching the Climbers on the Mountain
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•

The western verandah was glassed in, resembling a large gallery, and remained relatively cool in summer until the early afternoon. Inside the verandah the dark oiled cedar slats of the venetian blinds lay three-quarters closed against the glass. As the house was raised on timber piles four metres from the level ground, the intense white brilliance of the day streamed upwards through the blinds and saturated the room with a glow of light, as if the particles of air were themselves the source of this illumination. Ida Rankin came and went quickly from the adjoining kitchen. She was barefoot and in this light her arms and legs had the sheen of vigorous good health. Her movements were imbued with a sense of purpose. She was in a hurry.

When he came out onto the verandah Ward Rankin did not sit at the table nor did he make any move to assist his wife. Instead he went to the far end of the room and stood peering down through the inclined slats of the blinds, scrutinising the approaches to the back steps. The blazing light lay vertical ripples of shadow on the sharp planes of his face as he stood squinting at the ground below.

Ida Rankin returned with a large oval dish of hot pikelets. Placing it on the table, she said flatly, ‘He went for a swim with the children.' She did not look at her husband but went back to the kitchen the moment she had put down the dish. At her words he turned from the window and watched her leave, then stood frowning as he heard her talking familiarly with the resident colony of kitchen garden birds, whose incessant chattering was the only noise outside. When she came back with the pot of tea they both sat down at the table. She had brought her own pile of mail and busied herself examining it. For a while neither spoke. He watched her, however, as if he were expecting her to say something, and as the minutes went by he grew more fidgety. Finally, when the voices of the children returning from the creek could be heard, he asked abruptly, ‘Was he wearing togs this time?'

She laughed, both impatient and incredulous, as though she had just heard of some ridiculous ineptitude that had been perpetrated by someone she already despised. ‘I'm not sure,' she said almost gaily. ‘He had a towel around his waist.'

It was clear that Ward Rankin was intensely irritated by his wife's manner. She continued to eat pikelets and to rip open mail as if nothing were amiss. ‘Didn't you call out to him?' Rankin demanded, his annoyance hardening into anger. ‘And ask him?'

She was careful to keep a neutral tone, aware of how much this was provoking her husband. She did not look at him. ‘After what was said, I'm sure he would have been wearing something.' Her mail consisted principally of a mass of correspondence from members of the Country Women's Association and the local chapter of the Red Cross. During a visit to town some months ago she had been charmed into a burst of public spiritedness and had agreed to coordinate the efforts of these two groups in a fund-raising carnival to be held the day after Christmas. Among the daunting pile of business before her now there was, however, a welcome postcard from her younger brother. It was a picture of the main street of Gympie, a coastal town in the southern part of the state, where he had gone at the beginning of the year to take up his first job as a clerk in the butter factory. Surprisingly he was enjoying himself. ‘Gil sends his love,' she said. And now she did look at her husband, proffering the postcard. ‘He's looking forward to coming up for Christmas.' And when Rankin ignored it she placed the card on the cloth in front of him. ‘Would you like to see what he's got to say?'

Their eyes met.

‘We agreed that you would keep a check!' he said sharply.

‘I'd have felt ridiculous,' she answered, ‘shouting a question like that at him from the kitchen window.'

He turned the card over, glanced at the writing then at the picture of the street, and let it fall from his fingers.

‘I'm not concerned about how you feel,' he said with the same measured pedantic tone in which he had spoken to the stockman earlier that morning—he might have been charging his wife with stupidity. ‘It is Janet I'm worried about.'

‘Who else?' she said as the children came bounding up the steps. Janet Rankin was first through the door. She was followed by her younger brother, who struggled after her as if he were trying to keep pace with an altogether freer being than himself.

Janet Rankin went straight up to the table and snatched a pikelet from the dish. She ate it at once, stuffing it greedily into her mouth without bothering to butter it. She was startlingly like her father. Small and fine-boned, with a thin face, she had the same wary eyes as he did, grey and restless, whose aloof expression conveyed her sense of her own personal superiority over the individuals and conditions around her. It was an expression, however, which served to mask her innermost feelings. She smiled at her father and wiped her mouth with the back of her hand. Like her brother she was naked except for a pair of underpants. Her dark hair was dripping wet and lay in long thin strands like water weed across her bony shoulders. There were goosebumps on her shivering skin and around her nipples the swollen rose-pink aureoles of puberty shone and accentuated her nakedness.

‘Get something dry on before you catch a chill,' Ward Rankin said.

‘He's not coming,' she pronounced. Her gaze remained steady on the dish of pikelets. ‘He's gone.'

For an instant Ward Rankin thought his daughter meant the stockman had left the station, had really gone, walked off the place as men sometimes did after accidents or disagreements, offended and suspicious, saying nothing. He even saw an image of Crofts' solitary figure tramping down the road in the direction of town. ‘Gone where?' he exclaimed. His wife looked at him, an echo of his anguish in the sharpness of his query.

‘What do you mean?' she asked uncertainly, turning to her daughter. ‘Where has he gone?'

Only the girl's pale lips betrayed the satisfaction she derived from her parents' reaction. ‘Can I have another pikelet?' she asked quietly, gazing fixedly at her father.

‘No you can't!' Her mother's voice was severe.

‘He went to the Pinnacles,' the girl continued, unmoved by her mother's irritation and now wringing water from her hair onto the floor. ‘Exploring. You know.'

‘Get dressed this minute!' Ida Rankin said angrily. ‘That goes for the pair of you!'

After the children had gone Ward Rankin got up, avoiding his wife's gaze, and left the verandah. In the half-light of the sitting room once more, with the door closed, he took out a bottle of whiskey from the cupboard next to his desk, and as he poured a good quantity of the liquor into the glass he grimly delivered himself of a string of obscenities.

•

At the deepest level of her being Ida Rankin knew that she was not complete. She had never fully articulated it, even to herself. It was a conviction she was accustomed to living with. The nearest she got to sharing it with another person was a peripheral sense that her mother had probably felt something like it too. She didn't know what the remedy for this condition might be and she didn't examine possibilities in any intellectual way. When the burden of this conviction forced itself into the forefront of her feelings she thought of the landscape. There was nothing else to balance her need, no event grand enough to match it.

Within a few minutes of his leaving the verandah she had dismissed her husband from her mind. She stepped under the shower and turned her face upward to the chill rush of water. Making sharp breathy noises she rubbed herself vigorously all over with both hands before stepping out. The water came directly from a five-hundred gallon tank above the bathroom. For lack of enterprise rather than money the bathroom was an extremely primitive affair—no more than the tall enclosed tankstand. It stood several yards from the north-east corner of the house. The walls were unpainted corrugated iron and the floor was concrete. As she soaped herself Ida Rankin moved in and out of thin spears of sunlight that dissected the cool interior, and in the corners of the ceiling frogs held themselves above her in clusters, their bulbous backs gleaming with a deep aniline-green like lustrous ceramic vessels.

Her thoughts ran on from looking forward to her brother's stay, to the annual holiday at Yepoon, by which time all the fuss with the carnival would be over. Impending activities thronged her mind, reassuring her that everything was normal. Patterns of familiar events unfolded, were enacted and re-enacted—her sixty-kilometre drive alone into town this afternoon and the meeting with the other committee members was also a pleasant part of this anticipated action. And then she thought of her daughter's departure from home in February to begin form two at boarding school. Two years ago she would have been dreading this; now she was looking forward to it. She had lost both of them. The boy still sometimes searched her eyes for their earlier intimacy. But she knew that was gone for ever. The girl had him. She'd taken him with her into some other reality. And what was incredible to Ida Rankin was that she felt no loss. That she felt, indeed, as though she were gathering her scattered self into a whole again.

She finished working up a lather and stepped under the downpour of heavily mineralised bore water. It felt warmer now. As a young girl, after a terrifying climb during which she had more than once been unable to retreat or go on, she had finally stood alone on the towering white sandstone pinnacle of Mt Mooloolong. In a trance of fear and exhaustion she had gazed down at the forest hundreds of metres below and she had believed then that she would jump from the pinnacle. There were odd disjointed moments in her life when she was convinced she had jumped that day and that somehow the jump was still going on. She had no other memory of coming down the rock face.

The original impulse to undertake the adventure had arisen from a need to equal by some magnificent feat the superior status enjoyed by her five older brothers, one or other of whom seemed always to be winning a difficult competition or achieving a significant goal, while she just went on being herself year after year. The importance of this motive had been overshadowed for her by the experience of the climb itself.

She was twelve when she climbed Mt Mooloolong alone. The extraordinary feat altered her view of herself; it revealed a potential within her which the ordinary demands of her life did not require her to call on. Her knowledge of this potential, and her failure ever to invoke it again, underlay her uneasy sense that she was incomplete. It was also why, at certain critical periods of her life, she had turned more readily to the landscape for reassurance than to people.

Among the local community Ida Rankin had a reputation as a good organiser if only she could be got going on a project; she was a reluctant starter but a determined finisher. Her acquaintances did not understand this and it made them cautious in their relations with her. The truth is that she was more interested in ideas than in getting things done. This quality of her mind did not reveal itself in any clearly measurable way at meetings or picnics or during any of her habitual social exchanges, and there was only one person who had ever understood it: her old mother, the once powerful matriarch of the Sturgiss homestead. She had worried about her only daughter because she herself had struggled for a lifetime to suppress a similar quality of her own mind, and never with complete success.

Ida Rankin had not met anyone with whom to share her interest in ideas.

Nothing productive had ever come out of it. But at times she felt isolated by the sense that there existed this unexplored territory into which, if she cared to, she might venture; her consciousness of it sometimes drove her into a state of contemplative inaction from which, until now, the practical needs of her family had revived her. Entry into this region of herself had never become imperative. The needs of others had prevailed.

In her bedroom after the refreshing chill of the shower, Ida Rankin dressed carefully in a simple grey linen skirt and a white blouse. For jewellery she wore a single string of pearls. She was in the car before midday. Relaxed and alone in the cool interior with the windows closed she drove the gleaming blue Ford away from the homestead and along the narrow track at high speed, trailing a plume of grey dust and whirling star grass. And as she hurtled along, leaving the timbered country behind and heading out across the open downs, she began to experience a rising wave of optimism, unaccountable and slightly unreal—despite a faint cautionary voice which she managed to ignore. Ida Rankin laughed aloud, tossing her head back and increasing the pressure of her foot on the accelerator. She was laughing at an image that had come vividly and unannounced into her mind: the stockman was standing naked in the sun against the smoky foliage of the tea trees, his arms raised, poised in the instant of diving into the clear water of the swimming hole. It was how she had seen him as she had come over the bank to call the children a month ago. ‘Togs,' she said aloud, hearing the absurdity of the sound, and she laughed again.

The car ripped across the raised ribs of a cattle grid and it swayed dangerously before once again settling on the uneven road. Ida Rankin kept her foot down.

two

The next morning Ward Rankin emerged from the house much earlier than usual for this time of the year—others might start their day early but he could be generally relied upon to be the last one up. As he came down the steps from the eastern verandah the sky still carried traces of a livid violet dawn. But he wasn't looking at the sky. He was in pain and on his way to the outside toilet where he could groan aloud without the rest of the household listening to his distress. He had not been to bed. He had forced himself to work till late the previous evening and had dealt with all the outstanding business on his desk. Feeling morally revived he had rewarded himself afterwards with a large whiskey. Even more encouraged, he had dusted off a book and sat with it for a long time, thinking. Having the book in his lap had been an aid to pleasant thoughts. His mistake had been to open it. He had sensed this the moment his gaze struck the small black print. He had possessed the presence of mind not to attempt reading the book; but instead of putting it back on the shelf at once, or simply closing it, he had glanced at a few disconnected sentences—as if he might outwit the demon in wait there for him. But the old familiar cadences had called up sensitive memories and spoiled his tenuous optimism. But it was the smell of the volume—its pungent aroma of disuse—which had depressed him even more than its contents. It was the smell of himself, of his own decay, that reached him.

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