A Hundred Small Lessons
1 Elsie’s house
IT WAS early on a winter’s morning when she fell—the shortest day of 2010, the woman on the radio said. From where Elsie lay, quite still and curled comfortably on the thick green carpet between the sofa and the sideboard, she could see how the sun coming in through the back door made a triangle on the kitchen floor. The light caught the pattern on the linoleum and touched the little nests of dust that her broom had missed under the lip of the kitchen cupboards.
The bright triangle changed as the minutes passed, disappearing from the kitchen to pop up first in the back bedroom, then across the busy pattern of Nile green and white tiles in the bathroom. Later, in her own bedroom, it reached almost all the way across the floor to the thick rose-colored chenille of her bedspread, before it swung around further towards the west in search of the sunroom. The pile of the carpet, from where she lay, looked like neatly sheared blades of grass, the tidy job of mowing that Clem would have done.
There was something comforting about being this close to the topography of the house. She knew this place so well. She wasn’t sure if it was an extension of her, or she of it. So this was a new kind
of exploration, noticing the way the floor sloped a little into the spare room, and how the beading sagged slightly on one segment of the ceiling.
Topography: she counted through the letters—ten. Geography; landscape. The answer to fourteen down in that morning’s crossword, where she’d been trying to make “projection” fit. She was losing her touch.
From outside, she could hear the kookaburra; he’d be looking for his food. You could set your watch by him, she thought. There were cars on the road, the squeak of the swing in the park, the rich buzz of aeroplanes climbing up from the airport, the chatter of lorikeets, corellas. All that activity; it was nice to lie still among it—although the kookaburra would be disappointed she’d put nothing out today. And then the house muttered a little too, its boards creaking and stretching as the day warmed.
It was a consoling sound.
They’d had a long chat, Elsie Gormley and this house, more than sixty years of it. It had witnessed all her tempers, all her moods, and usually improved them. It held her voice, her husband’s, her children’s, and now their children’s in turn—echoes and repetitions lodged in around the baseboards, around the window frames like those pale motes of dust that had wedged at the edge of the kitchen floor.
“Reverb,” one of Don’s young boys had told her—Don’s own grandson, she supposed: her great-grandson then. The one with the noisy guitar. “Imagine it like this, Nan: layers of echoes arranged to make it sound like you’re in a great big space.”
Well, ‘reverb,’ she thought clearly. A nice word. She liked to keep abreast of what they knew, how they lived—their magic gadgets, their shiny new phones. Like this, Nan: one swipe and it turns on.
She swiped her fingers now against the thick green carpet. Yes, she could almost hear it. All those voices; all those years.
It was lunchtime, and then afternoon, and as the sun sank lower, she wondered how cold it might get, there on the floor, overnight. She was eighty-nine years old, and her bones were brittle and tired.
The neighbors came then, one to the front door, one to the back. “Elsie,” they called, “are you there, love? Are you right?”
“I’m not here,” she said, and lay still, wondering if she could turn her head far enough to see the fiery clouds of the sunset through the windows at the front of the house.
There were sirens in the street—she could see the reflections of blue and red flashing lights on the wallpaper above her head—and then a policeman broke in through the door. By whose authority, she thought she said, but no one seemed to hear and she was onto a stretcher and into an ambulance before she had time to realize she didn’t have her shoes.
Imagine leaving home without your shoes.
It was cold in the back of the ambulance and too bright. She wanted her cardigan. She wanted to sleep. If she could move her head slightly, she might see the steps, the porch, the battered front door. If she could lever herself up a bit more. But she couldn’t.
“Rightio, love.” The uniformed man was far too cheerful for his job.
Elsie closed her eyes. “I don’t think I’m ready to go.” Her voice, this time, quite loud and clear.
In the hospital, a fortnight later on, she thought they said she was going home, but it wasn’t her home they took her to. Some other place, with a bright new apartment for her, a view down to the river, a bell she could press for attention, and meals, if she preferred it, in a hall. She had her shoes now, and her cardigan—they were bringing her mountains of stuff for such a short stay.
“What’s that word? ‘Respite?’?” she said to Donny when he came one day at lunch.
“Sort of, Mum,” he said. “In a way.”
She’d signed some papers about some people she’d never heard of, a pair called Ben Carter and Lucy Kiss. Donny’s wife Carol said they had a little boy. But what was that to do with her? Were they tenants for her house while she was here?
“Sort of, Mum,” said Don again. “Yes. In a way.”
“Well, make sure they keep up the garden. Your father will never forgive me if that rockery goes wrong.”
Clem Gormley. Now, where was he? When did they say he’d be here?
“Ben Carter,” said Don, squaring the papers. “Lucy Kiss. I think we’ve made the right choice.”
Of course, she knew what was happening; she knew where she was. The facility, she’d always called it, with its apartments for the well ones, and rooms—then wards—for those who weren’t. It was just a stop or so on the bus along from her place, and its back fence butted the sports fields where Donny’s grandkids played. She could walk home from here, she thought. Be back in no time.
She’d lived in that house more than sixty years—nearly sixty-three, she worked out as she lay the first night in her new room in her old bed and her old, cold sheets. She could remember the day they moved in, the size of their loan so cripplingly vast that she never dared to speak of it to Clem. To even put it into words. Back when the house was fresh and new. The house whose lawns her husband had so carefully tended. Rest his soul: yes. That was it.
And yet in spite of so many years, the day she fell, the day she lay there on the floor, was the first time she’d seen the way the light moved from one room to another, tracking from the back of the house to the front, calling into corners, illuminating space.
Such a lovely thing to have seen, she thought. Such a lovely day to have spent.
The modest house was sold, as the real estate agent had promised, in next to no time. “A big block like this, with the park at the back, and the shops, and so close to the city—no trouble at all,” the agent had said.
Elsie’s children, the twins, Don and Elaine, came to empty the house for the sale. Elaine swept shelves of items into bags, disposing of them in the gaping maw of a dumpster emptied once, emptied twice. Don went through things piece by piece: cutlery drawers, button boxes, the old letter rack from the high kitchen shelf. Some of its receipts and notes dated from decades before. There were photos in there too: a gallery of grandkids, an image of Elsie before her own children were born, and the house up to its windows in water during the ’74 flood. He stood a while, wiping the dust off this last image.
“That bloody flood—you know, I don’t think she ever got over it. We should have made her sell the house back then.”
“And made no money on it—who’d have bought here, after that? We’re lucky that people forget.” Elaine had the fridge door open and shoveled jars and packets into a garbage bag. “Look at this—all out of date.”
“Carol used to take her shopping once a week; some of it should be all right.” Don slipped the flood photo underneath the other pictures, and stared a while at a tiny black and white of his mother, taken almost seventy years ago. “She was so pretty, wasn’t she, when she first married Dad? This must have been when she was working at that chemist’s in the city, before we were born. She always said she felt important, behind the counter in her starched white coat.” He turned the photo over: “January 1941,” he read. “The year we were born—and that’ll be seventy years ago, soon.” He shook his head at this impossible thought. “So strange that she’ll never come home. Do you mind if I take these?”
“This milk’s two months past its date.” Elaine dropped it into the bag, bursting the carton so that the room filled with a terrible, sour
smell. “I wonder why she never went back to work—she must have been so bored. God, we should have got a cleaner in and—oh!” Her hand at her throat as a crow, big and shiny black, landed on the threshold, cocking its head to look through the door.
“You don’t mind if I take these, Elaine?”
Elaine tied the bag with a savage twist. “Whatever you like.” She glanced across at him. “You were always more sentimental than me—here.” One of the pictures had dropped on the floor. “Here’s another.” She reached down and passed it across.
It was a photo of a portrait, and Don frowned. “It’s a painting, but it almost looks like Mum.” He held it close to get a better look.
“A painting of Mum? Let me see.” His sister took it from him and went out onto the deck, studying it in the sun. “It can hardly have been her,” she said at last, folding the print—in half, then half again—and stuffing it into her pocket. “As if she’d get a portrait done like that.”
Most of the furniture went to a thrift store, along with the clothes and almost everything from the glass-fronted kitchen cupboards: the crystal, the crockery, the pots and the pans.
“Of course, she’s not dead yet,” said Elaine, which made Don wince as he set aside a painted vase he thought was his mother’s favorite and a book he remembered her reading, years ago, around the time that his father had died.
She looked small in the new place, he thought. She looked lost.
“I must get back to reading to your father,” she said when he next visited, patting the old paperback with its spotted pages and crumbly cover. “And did you bring my house keys? How will I get in when I go home?”
In each room, there was something Don balked at removing. The sideboard in the lounge where his own school sports trophies still sat arranged on one end. A plastic fern in the sunroom. The velvet-covered stool in front of his mother’s dressing table.
“Your father did that upholstery—lovely rose-colored velvet; a present one birthday,” Elsie said when he mentioned it. “He said it was fit for a queen.” She smiled. “But you’re right: I won’t need it while I’m here.” She’d watched her reflection change through the decades as she’d sat on that elegant stool, her hair fading from a warm chestnut brown down to grey and the skin under her fine chin loosening. All those crystal canisters on the dressing table; the vials of perfume she’d never quite finished. Who was keeping up the dusting and the sweeping while she was away? Was Elaine chipping her nail polish pulling out the little weeds that grew between the white pebbles in the front garden? She doubted it.
When she visualized her daughter, she saw a younger version of herself. She was always astonished when the real Elaine arrived and looked, and was, so very different.
When the new people came, they put the stool and the fern into a dumpster along with all the wallpaper—“a different pattern in every room,” said the husband, Ben, laughing—and the thick green carpet. “Last vacuumed . . .” He shrugged, glancing down at his small son. “I think Tom’s found a cockroach to eat.” Ben was taller than he stood, his shoulders curled from years hunched over writing. His dark hair was greying and he kept his glasses on top of his head, ready to read things at a moment’s notice. He looked down at his son, his hands busy with the desiccated insect, with a detached kind of appraisal.
“But these floorboards are going to look lovely,” said his wife, Lucy, taking the cockroach out of the boy’s hand. “It’s such beautiful wood. And look, they’ve left a pile of pretty doilies.” They were bundled together behind the door, and she paused for a moment, stroking the patterns on the delicate white linen runners and mats—a suite of flowers and fruit and elaborate twirling curls.
“Look at this—” holding up a star-shaped doily for her husband to admire. “So fine: the stitching’s as neat on the back as it is on the front. I wonder if they meant to take them; seems a shame that no one wanted them. Or maybe they meant them for us.”
Sitting on the floor, Tom unpacked small white pebbles from the back of a brightly colored plastic truck.
“Star,” he said, pointing to the shape his mother held. “Star.”
“That’s a beautiful word—and a whole new one.” Lucy smiled so much she was crying.
“See, Lu?” said Ben, brushing her deep red hair away from her forehead. “I knew we’d be all right here.”
They spent three weeks stripping, painting, moving. The first night they slept in the house, Lucy woke at three, disoriented by the map made by the beading on the ceiling. Which house was this? Which city, which country? In the past years they’d been all over the place—to Washington, to London, back to Sydney, and now to Brisbane.
Where they seemed to have bought a house.
“First step to feeling settled,” Ben had declared—and Lucy thought she ought to trust that he was right.
Brisbane: the place where he’d grown up. Now it was where Tom would grow up too, while Ben went off to his new job with the paper. Gadgets, inventions, and discoveries had always been the things that piqued his interest (Lucy preferred more seriously to describe it as science or technology), and he’d at last been approached to cover that round.
“I’d be mad not to give it a go—all those magnificent stories,” he’d said in Sydney when the offer was first made. “We’ll stay here until Tom turns one, then we’ll go. Come on—the next adventure!”
She had jobs that she did—administration, management. He had a job that he loved. That was how they both defined their working lives.
“You’re mad to go,” her sisters had said. “Tom’s so tiny. You need your networks.”
“Get back to work,” her mother had said. “Best way to settle into a new place.”
“You’ll have a ball,” her father had said. “A whole new city—and take your time.”
Their standard difference of opinion, thought Lucy, and here I am. She stared at the ceiling. Old bed, new house. It was the first house they’d ever bought. They’d been in Brisbane a month or so—and back in Sydney barely a year before that. She was unpacking boxes in this house that she’d packed in London, in Washington before that. She’d never thought of it as moving but as arriving, and there was a trick to arriving somewhere new—a person or a place that made it easy, or a sliver of coincidence that made her think they’d landed precisely where they ought to be.
“And now, the great Australian dream,” Ben had joked. “The kid, the house, the mortgage.” How very fast they’d made that real.
Now, in the night’s light, she looked at her husband’s face as he slept—he was always smiling, home each night with some great story, some great new moment from his day. While she made spaceships for Tom as she emptied their boxes, and began to work out where they were.
Their names had looked so slight against the weight of all that mortgage.
“In at the deep end,” she’d said to her sisters, trying to laugh. And they’d laughed too.
The floorboards felt warm as she walked to the kitchen. She liked the rich glow of the newly polished jarrah, and she liked how they felt underfoot. There was something warm about the whole house at night—perhaps it was the soft light from the streetlamps. She stood by the kitchen window, filling a glass with water, and watched as rain started to fall, smudging the reflection of the lamps
in the park into patches of brightness on its concrete path. She walked into the living room with her glass, patting a doily that she’d left on the arm of a chair.
“I know we’re not really doily people,” she’d said to Ben, “but it seems wrong not to keep some of these—they’re exquisite.” Now, as her fingers felt the stitching, she knew the tiny mats would probably hang around for as long as they lived in this house.
Elsie’s house, thought Lucy. Elsie Veronica Gormley. She’d seen the woman’s name on the contract, and she’d pressed the neighbors for any more details. Elsie must have been around ninety, they’d said, and she’d lived here a very long time. She and her husband had bought the house when it was built, back in the forties, and they’d lived here with their twins, a boy and a girl. Her husband had died—no one could quite remember when; no one had been here that long.
And then she’d fallen. And then she’d gone.
“I think they chose to sell to you because you’re a family,” the estate agent had said as she’d slid the contracts across her cluttered desk.
“We’ll look after it,” Lucy said as she signed her name and passed them on to Ben.
“Meant to be,” he said, squinting through his glasses as he signed.
There was a tiny whisper in the darkness from some of the seventeen circles they’d found drilled into the different rooms’ floors when the carpet had been taken up.
“Circumference of a broom handle,” Ben had said. “We should stopper them up.” But he hadn’t done that yet, and the wind sometimes caught at them, stirring puffs of air like little breaths.
Lucy checked on Tom and headed back to bed, rattling the front doorknob as she went by.
“We should change the locks,” she’d said to Ben earlier that day. “You should always change the locks when you buy a house.”
“What?” Ben had laughed. “What do you think is going to happen? Elsie’s going to let herself in?”
“Elsie’s family—how many keys might there be in the world?”
Now, in the darkness, her fingers fiddled with the door lock’s button. Safe and sound, safe and sound, safe and sound. It was like a line from a lullaby.
In the quietness of the middle of the night, she turned these words end over end in her head, dropping back into sleep beside her husband and his warmth.
Elsie woke at three, disoriented by the hum of an air conditioner nearby. Three in the afternoon, she thought, looking at her watch. How could they have let me sleep so long—I’ve missed breakfast and lunch, and there was a bus I wanted to catch.
She buttoned her cardigan, and as she felt around for her shoes, her handbag, her hat, she knocked the vase that Don had brought for her, cracking it into four or five pieces as it smashed against the floor. She’d never liked it—it had been a present from one of Clem’s friends when they were first married. She dropped the pieces into the rubbish bin, wondering why it was so dark. Then she heard the rain against the window and nodded. This time of year, you could expect a thundery shower on a Brisbane afternoon.
She looked into the street: it was very quiet, and although she watched and watched, no cars or buses came. Perhaps there was a strike she didn’t know about. Still, it wasn’t far to walk: through the park towards the river and then along the road.
She’d see her garden, her lilies, her hydrangeas, her azaleas. She’d see how they’d fixed the front door—Donny said it was bright red now, which she wasn’t sure about—and how the walls inside had all been stripped of their carefully papered patterns.
She smiled: there and back in an hour. She’d feel like herself
again once she was home. She’d let this strange dark rain ease up before she went.
The next morning, taking Tom into the garden, Lucy paused at the top of the stairs, registering the stray flecks of the new front-door paint spattered on the porch’s balustrade. Such a strong color, somewhere between vermilion and scarlet. Fire engine, Lucy had called it, but Ben revised it—“lipstick”—with a smile. Lucy loved how brazenly bright it was.
She scratched at a splatter, then levered the color from under her fingernail and rolled it into a ball. Their new place. Leaning out from the top of the stairs, she saw the park, the busy through road beyond that, the streaks of shiny color as the cars zoomed by. Hours of entertainment: Tom would love it.
There was a shimmer of movement and a kookaburra landed on the power line, its feathers soft and furry and its head tilted to one side, expectant.
“Hello,” said Lucy. “Are you a regular here? Look, sweetheart, isn’t he beautiful?” She turned Tom around to see the bird’s smooth feathers, its still trust.
A car came around the corner then and the bird took flight, before settling itself farther along the wire. Lucy raised her hand, uncertain if she was waving to the car, to the bird, to the house, or the morning itself. Then she helped Tom down each step.
The kookaburra sat, watching.
“Well done, love,” Lucy said as Tom reached the last tread. “The first step in being somewhere new.” She smiled. “And later, we’ll head out and explore.”
As she turned to herd his steps across the lawn, she saw footprints, smaller than her own and closely set, already pressed into the still-wet grass.