Walking on Trampolines
There is a moment in panic when time stills, suspended like Chinese lanterns across a street, and in that instant you can fool yourself that everything will be all right if you just stay calm.
There was a polite knock at the door, a short, sharp rap, like a cough, followed by a series of much louder ones, fists hammering against the wood.
I took Josh, who was flailing around the hotel room and tripping over the white sheet he was holding to his chest as if it could somehow cover what he had done—what we had done—into the bathroom.
“Josh,” I said, holding his shoulders and trying to keep him still long enough to look him in the eye, “we’ve got to stay calm. I’m fairly sure that’s Annabelle out there, and we’ve got to try to explain why you’re here before she comes in and rips both our heads off.”
Josh’s eyes opened wide as the reality of the situation dawned on him.
“Oh, fuck,” he said, helpfully.
But it was too late—we both heard the hotel-room door open, and with it, the arrival of Cyclone Annabelle.
I peeped out to see her standing beside a terrified-looking duty manager, clutching a set of master keys in his hand, then shut the bathroom door as quietly as I could.
“Joshua,” Annabelle’s voice cut across the room, dripping icy courtesy. “Come out of that bathroom now, and Tallulah, could you come out too, please?”
It was the please that did it.
I had known Annabelle Andrews since we were just girls. I had seen her angry; I had heard her hiss and steam and yell like a banshee when things had not gone her way; I had seen her weep, knock to the ground a man in a nightclub who had been rude to her, reduce several others to tears. But I had never, ever seen her be polite.
Truly petrified now, I pushed Josh out the door to face her and locked myself in.
In a matter of seconds, after a few muffled shouts and one big bang that must have been the door slamming, it fell silent.
I lay down on the tiled floor, letting its coolness embrace me, and as the hotel room’s air-conditioning system buzzed quietly in the background, I closed my eyes and remembered.
I was twelve years old when Annabelle Andrews sashayed into my life via my seventh-grade classroom, straight past Sister Scholastica, who was attempting to beam out her usual introduction.
“All right, girls, please meet the latest addition to the Saint Rita’s family, Annabelle Andrews, who has come to our lovely Juniper Bay from Sydney, where she— Annabelle, we haven’t chosen a seat for you yet.”
“That’s all right, Sister,” Annabelle replied. “I’ll just sit here.”
Not “May I sit here?” Not “Is there anybody else sitting here?” But “I’ll just sit here.”
Dropping her books on the desk next to mine, Annabelle grinned from ear to ear, sat down, and claimed me as her own.
“What’s your name?” she whispered as Sister Scholastica
flapped around us, clearly upset by this diversion from the usual proceedings.
“Tallulah,” I whispered back.
“De Longland,” I answered. “But nobody calls me Tallulah—everyone calls me Lulu.”
She never from that moment on called me Lulu; it was always Tallulah. “Tallulah de Longland,” she said slowly, ignoring me and letting all the Ls in my name loll about lazily in her mouth before passing judgment.
“That,” she announced, “is a seriously glamorgeous name.”
Annabelle liked to hitch parts of words together, hooking them up to form new ones, making her own language. She would eventually allow me to share in this language, and if I came up with a word she particularly liked, she’d exclaim in a mock-English accent, “Tallulah, that’s brilltaking!”
Annabelle’s language quickly became a way for us to speak to each other that pretty much excluded everybody else—which suited Annabelle just fine.
“After all,” as she would tell me again and again as she dragged me away from Stella Kelly and Simone Wilson, who up until Annabelle’s arrival had been my closest friends, “why should we waste time with people who are—let’s be honest, Tallulah—bordinary?”
At the end of that first morning, during which Annabelle had stood—or rather sat—her ground and refused to budge from her position next to me, it was a done deal, and we were, for better or worse, best friends.
God, I loved her.
She was hilariocious.
I sometimes wonder if Annabelle chose me purely because of my name. Stuffed to its nylon seams with Tracey Stewarts and Lorraine O’Neills, Tallulah de Longland was about as glamorgeous
as it was going to get at Saint Rita’s School for Young Ladies, or, as Annabelle called it, Saint Rita’s School for Young Lesbians.
But choose me, for reasons I could never really understand, she did, and when I first started going to Annabelle’s house, in all its glorious mayhem, with her mother Annie’s dramatic announcements and her father, Frank, absentmindedly wandering about, I used to worry that it would all be taken away from me.
I thought that Annabelle would open those green cat eyes of hers and see that I didn’t belong there.
She would wake up one morning, realize that I was an intruder, and toss me back to the Traceys and Lorraines, where I really belonged. “Oh my God, Tallulah,” I imagined she would cry, “I never realized you were so tediocre!”
But she never did, and eventually, somewhere along the journey of our daily walks home, arguing about whose house we would go to, I stopped expecting her to.
Annabelle’s house, known throughout the Bay as “the River House,” sat guarded by twin gargoyles at its gates, its roof lines slowly disappearing beneath a cloak of intertwining branches, and its garden tumbling all the way down to the river.
“I live in a jungle,” Annabelle would sigh dramatically every time we got to her front gate. She was right, but this ignored the fact there was a beautiful, if crumbling, house underneath it, and somewhere within its beehive walls were Annabelle’s parents, Frank and Annie.
Everyone knew who they were, of course, the arrival of the Andrews in our small coastal town akin to someone letting out a flock of peacocks on our front lawns. Both well-known artists “from Sydney,” everyone kept repeating, as if it were another country, which, I suppose, it may as well have been.
My first visit to the River House was on a Friday afternoon after school, beginning with Frank opening the front door with a flourish and holding out a tray of cakes: “You must be Tallulah,”
he said. “Come in, come in, I have made you some round lamingtons! What do you think of that?”
What did I think of that?
Lamingtons had always been my favorite cakes, but everyone knew they were square, not round.
Covered in chocolate and coconut and shaped like dice, Frank’s version was more like misshapen marbles. My mother, Rose, I thought, would have a fit if she saw them.
I also thought that Frank Andrews was the most wonderful man I had ever met. He was old-school-Hollywood handsome; his face, like all the Andrews men—was a beaten-up road map of deep ruts and jagged edges, crossed tracks and lines like cliff drops falling from cheekbones.
He was tanned walnut brown, long and lean, his sinewy arms and legs always encased in a white Bonds singlet and olive-green shorts, both covered in paint. “If I ever die and leave you destitute, Annie,” he’d said one day as we all lay on the grass that tumbled down to the river, “you have my permission to cut off one of my limbs and sell it as a Frank Andrews original.”
“Just one, Frank?” Annie had replied.
Frank laughed and pulled the Greek fisherman’s cap Annie said was welded to his head over his eyes.
He was beautiful, Frank Andrews, and I think I was probably a little bit in love with him from the moment he opened the door and offered an unsure twelve-year-old the worst lamingtons she had ever tasted in her short life.
We had sat at the table that first afternoon—Frank, Annabelle, and I—eating them, while Annabelle’s eyes rolled with every bite and his crinkled at the corners with mischief.
“What? You don’t like them, Belle? What do you think, Tallulah de Lovely?”
“I think they’re very tasty, Mr. Andrews,” I’d said, as Annabelle snorted sarcastically.
Then Frank smiled his wonderful smile at me. “When you’re ready,” he said, “you can call me Frank.”
Whenever I came upon him in that house—and that was how it always felt with Frank, that you didn’t so much see him as come upon him unexpectedly—he would always say something that made me feel really good inside; he would call me Tallulah de Lightful or Tallulah de Lovely, and Annabelle would say, “More like Tallulah de Mented,” and the three of us would laugh like hyenas.
I suppose I didn’t meet Annie that visit, because I should imagine everyone would recall their first brush with Annie Andrews.
Annie, with her burnt-copper hair tangled in bobby pins and scarves. With her scarab beetle brooches and bracelets snaking up her arms. You could, as Annabelle always said, hear Annie long before her actual entrance—and it was always an entrance with Annie, even if she was just returning from the bathroom.
The only quiet thing about Annie was her voice, low and raspy; sometimes to hear it you had to lean right in to her, right in to her Annie-ness.
“Men love it, Lulu,” she told me once at the River House, and I had no reason to doubt it. Even if Annie hadn’t been with Frank; even if she hadn’t married into Australian art royalty, their 1964 wedding making the cover of the Women’s Weekly under the banner “The Perfect Picture”; even if she hadn’t re-created that cover in one of her own paintings, replacing Frank’s head with a peacock’s and her own with a fishhook, Annie would have found a way to get noticed.
They certainly noticed her in Juniper Bay, where Annie had told the local paper, The Bayside Bugle, shortly after they arrived, the family had moved to find some peace and quiet.
“Frank and I need to paint,” she’d said. “You can’t imagine the incessant demands on our time in the city, the ridiculous things we’re asked to join and do.
“We’re artists, not public servants, and not everyone seems to be able to grasp that.”
I’d read Annie’s short interview as eagerly as anyone else in the Bay, including the various members of the art-appreciation societies and galleries who quietly crossed the Andrews off their potential patron lists.
“So you went to the Andrews’ house?” my father, Harry, had said that night at dinner—a typical feast served up by my mother, Rose: roast lamb, herbed potatoes, butternut pumpkin mash, sweet potato gratin, mint peas, honeyed carrots, bread rolls, butter, and gravy, followed by rhubarb crumble with double cream. (“Honestly, Lulu, it’s a wonder you’re not gargantormous,” Annabelle used to say, “it really is.”) I nodded as I swallowed a mouthful of peas.
“And . . .”
“And what?” I said, rolling my eyes in a repeat of Annabelle’s performance earlier that afternoon.
“And did they roll you in honey and make you bay at the moon? Did they whisk you away to an opium den? Did they”—Harry gasped—“pierce your ears?”
I was the only girl at Saint Rita’s whose ears remained bare—Rose would not let me pierce them. “Very funny, Harry,” Rose said, coming in with more potatoes, but behind Harry’s teasing lay the sort of gossip that had ignited around Juniper Bay ever since the Andrews had turned up like exotic cats on the prowl. It was the most exciting thing that had happened there since a suitcase full of American dollars had washed up on Wattle Beach in the fifties—“Mob money,” everyone had said, thrilled at the very sound of the words.
The Andrews were usually described as “Australia’s premier artistic family,” their branches sprinkled with painters, sculptors,
architects, playwrights, and poets. They were famous and infamous at once; people who had never stood before a painting in their entire lives still knew who Annabelle’s family was.
Frank’s father, “Craggy Jack” Andrews, was one of the world’s most respected landscape artists, granted the honor of an Australia Post stamp bearing his image. Annie had famously said to a reporter on his death: “Well, at least we can all still lick the back of his head.”
Frank’s mother, Christa, still alive, still hurling paint at enormous canvases from rickety ladders in her whitewashed studio, was famous in her own right for her work, and for taking back Craggy Jack time and time again, shamefaced and pinpricked at her door, after one of his frequent disappearances.
Fergus, Frank’s older brother, was a documentary filmmaker, a man who traveled the world tracking down rare and endangered species, lost tribes, and—Annie said—loose women.
There was, it seemed, no great affection between Annie and her brother-in-law; Annabelle told me once there had been a flurry of letters between lawyers, and very nearly a court case, when Annie had said to a reporter of Frank’s famous brother, “Oh yes, Fergus is marvelous, the way he ventures to those remote, undiscovered places, and impregnates all the women.” Frank had made Annie apologize, and it had all blown over, but the following Christmas, according to Annabelle, Fergus sent everyone glass beads from Ghana—except Annie.
Annabelle could imitate Fergus perfectly. I can still see her, squatting in her backyard, staring into a nonexistent camera, saying: “And so to the Wahi-Wahi people—as the sands shift in their drought-ravaged region, where to, for them?” while I howled with laughter on the grass.
There was an entirely different tempo at the Andrews house. Instead of running screaming from one of my twin brothers’ endless pranks—fake spiders in our shoes, itching powder in
our sleeping bags—Annabelle and I would sit barefoot in the lounge room listening to Frank’s record collection: “Now what you can hear in this bit, girls, is Coltrane’s three-on-one-chord approach—can you hear that? There!” he’d say, shaking his head back and forth.
Annie would come in with her glass of wine and begin to dance; if Annabelle was in a good mood, she’d join her, and I would sit on the rug drinking them all in, Frank, Annie, and Annabelle, and wonder how I got there.
My own family, by comparison, seemed impossibly dull, something I hadn’t really noticed before Annabelle entered the picture. Even Simone and Stella, who I’d known since kindergarten, seemed to fade into the background when she was around; next to her vividness, my oldest friends seemed like sepia cutouts of themselves.
Until the arrival of the Andrews family, my own world had been enough, but in theirs I had glimpsed something completely irresistible—the promise of more. Harry and Rose sensed it too, and after my first visit to Annabelle’s house, Rose insisted my new friend come to mine, a prospect I fretted about all week.
But I needn’t have worried. Annabelle loved my house from the moment she set foot in it. She loved my parents, and Rose’s cooking. She even loved Mattie and Sam, my six-year-old brothers, twin catapults of mischief.
“I want to go to your house, Tallulah, come on, let’s go see Harry and Rose,” she’d say.
“No, we went there yesterday, and anyway, why can’t we go to yours?”
“Because, Tallulah, as you well know, we may not actually be able to find mine.”
I never did understand why Annabelle was so keen to come to my house; it seemed so tediocre.
But years later, when I thought of my childhood home, I
would ache for it. I would close my eyes and go back to the street with its hot footpaths and its sprinklers pirouetting on front lawns. I could smell the freshly mown grass and hear my little brothers’ voices, yelling for Annabelle and me to come and play with them.
“Hey, Lulu; hey, Annasmell, want to kick the ball around?” I hated them calling Annabelle “Annasmell,” but she would just laugh and yell back: “No, thanks, we don’t play with mini-minors.”
After school, we would walk all along Plantation Street, past the Deans’ and the Hunters’ and the Delaneys’, until we would come to my house—a home that, to my eternal shame, had a huge sign out the front that read: DE LONGLAND PLUMBERS—PLUMBING THE DEPTHS OF EXCELLENCE.
The first time Annabelle saw that sign, I thought she would have a conniptionary.
“Oh my God!” she shrieked. “?‘Plumbing the depths of excellence,’ you have got to be joking, plumbing the depths of . . . oh my God, I’m going to wet my pants.”
Finally noticing that I was not laughing quite so hard, she stopped clutching at her stomach, sat down, and said, “Actually, it’s really very good.”
I sat down beside her in the gutter, and she put her arm around me.
“Tallulah,” she said, “I’m not laughing at you. I think that if I needed, you know, some plumbing done, I would want someone who, who, you know, could plumb my excellent depths.”
We both burst out laughing, and my shame faded to two bright dots on my cheeks.
Then we went inside, where Rose was waiting for us with afternoon tea, singing to herself and smiling, so everything was all right.
Our house might have looked like every other one on Plantation Street—apart from the fact that ours had boasted a huge sign advertising Harry’s plumbing business—but things behind the front fence were a little more complicated.
Rose suffered from anxiety and depression, the anxiety coming in panic attacks that left her backed into a corner with startled eyes, the black dog of depression growling in her ear, leaving her weeping at the kitchen table, her floured hands moving restlessly through her hair, and Harry hovering helplessly nearby.
“Come on, Rosey,” he’d say, “buck up—Lulu will make you a nice cup of tea, won’t you, love?”
Sometimes it would work, she would look up and wipe her cheeks and say, “I don’t know how you put up with me, Harry,” but other times she would just sit there, lost, until my father, with his red plumber’s hands, would go to her, saying: “I know, love, I know,” kissing her hair and trying to find her in his great big arms.
“It’s not her fault, Lulu,” Harry would say to me, while I stood eight years old and bewildered outside her bedroom door. “She’ll come out when she’s ready. Let’s have a game of Monopoly, hey, just the two of us.”
Rose’s childhood family, Harry told me, had been broken.
Not strong and steady like ours, he said, but a home full of leaking pipes and creaking floorboards, cold draughts and doors hanging off hinges that no one cared about enough to mend.
A mess, Harry said, just a mess, and when a thirteen-year-old Rose ran away from it, no one came looking for her.
“Just as well,” Harry said.
I hated hearing about the house Rose came from, hated the people in it who had not bothered to look for her, hated that something they’d done to her somehow did something to us.
Rose was ultimately placed into a foster home where two middle-aged sisters stood on either side of her at their great wood-burning stove and taught her the secrets of measuring, of timing, of adding
just enough butter. They took her hands in their own to stir with a wooden spoon, to ladle, to whisk, to dollop, to ice.
They saved her, she said.
At night the three of them would stand at a long oak table in the living room, spread with paper patterns for Rose to cut out, pins to attach to fabrics, ribbons and buttons to take from jars and sew. They gave her restless hands something to do, and it was there in that house that Rose first began naming her favorite dresses.
“Shirley,” she’d said, picking up a polka-dot halter-neck to wear to her first dance; “Maria,” she’d announced, taking out the sensible black tunic she wore to work on Saturday mornings in the haberdashery department of David Jones; “Myrtle,” she groaned at the pleated white shift the sisters insisted she wear to her weekly tennis lessons.
When I was little, I would steal into her room and peek in the box at the bottom of her wardrobe, where she kept three of her most beloved dresses. Pressed between sheets of white tissue paper lay Audrey and Constance, after the two sisters who had first put a pair of scissors in her hands, and Grace, who she was wearing the first time she met Harry.
I loved Grace—she was buttercup yellow, with a Peter Pan collar and a row of pearl buttons down the front to the waist, which fell into a pin-pleated skirt. Grace had two deep pockets and in one of them, still, a rose-pink handkerchief, with the letter R in the corner, embroidered by one of the sisters. I would take the hanky out and put it to my nose, before folding it carefully and putting it back in the pocket.
It smelled like my mother, when she was happy.
The year I met Annabelle, Rose’s wardrobe rustled with Phoebe, Greta, Betty, Alexis, Madeleine, Lauren, and Kitty, perched on their padded hangers like a line of gorgeous chorus girls.
She would wear variations of these dresses for years, changing their styles to suit the decades, but not their names, each becoming as familiar to me as sisters. Only Grace and Audrey and Constance remained untouched and irreplaceable, folded between the layers of tissue paper for little hands to caress and wander over.
I could read Rose’s mood by the dress she was wearing: Phoebe and the rest of the girls for good days, a succession of shapeless shifts for the bad. I called the shapeless shifts Doris—I don’t remember when I christened them that, I just know that sometimes, when Rose had been sitting at that kitchen table for far too long, it gave me some kind of comfort to say to myself, rocking back and forth on my bed: “It’s okay, she’s just having a Doris day.”
One night, after Annabelle had been at Saint Rita’s for a whole term, she asked me to sleep over at the River House, and when I got there I saw that Frank had laid out two sleeping bags on the back lawn, a gas lantern beside them.
“It will be magical, girls, you wait,” he’d said, striding back and forth from the house to bring us pillows and books and packets of chips.
We had grumbled, I remember, moaning about mosquitoes and sticks in our bums, but Frank was right.
We lay under a tablecloth of stars thrown across the sky, and later, when the moon rose above us, and the opossums began to scurry along the fence line, we whispered our secrets to each other.
“Dad drinks,” Annabelle said, her head on my shoulder.
“I know, I’ve seen him.”
“No, Tallulah, you’ve seen him drink a glass of wine; sometimes he drinks a lot more than that.”
“I didn’t know that.”
“No. I hate it, so does Mum.”
“What does he do?” I whispered, scared of the answer.
“That’s not so bad.”
“Yes it is, he sings and dances and shouts his stupid poems and grabs at things in the house and goes on and on about them: ‘Look at this statue, Belle; look at this flower. . . .’?”
“He’s embarrassing, Tallulah, he’s so . . . much.”
“What does your mum do?
“She says, ‘You’re a fool, Frank,’ and goes to bed.”
“What do you do?”
“I just wait until he falls over, and then I go to bed as well.”
Annabelle wriggled her body beside me, her words coming out in little puffs of frost from her mouth.
“Tallulah,” Annabelle said, “why do you call your parents Harry and Rose? I mean, I call mine Frank and Annie because they’re—well, they’re not your usual sort of parents, are they? But it seems kind of weird that you do.”
I turned my body toward her, so we lay facing each other, our heads close, and explained that I didn’t have the usual sort of parents either.
I told her about Rose’s depression, and about how she had never really been—apart from the baking, that is—a “mother” type of mother, especially after the twins came, when she had stopped being any sort of mother at all for a long time.
I told how I had looked after the twins myself—how Harry and I had—and how it was around that time that I started calling her Rose, and how my father became Harry by default.
Then I took a deep breath and told her about my mother’s wardrobe.
“Rose names her dresses.”
“She names them, all of them.”
I told her about all the girls—Phoebe and Kitty and Greta—and about how Rose gave them each personalities, stories about where they had come from and what they had seen.
I told her and waited, eyes closed, for her judgment.
“Wow,” she breathed, “that’s really astoundible.”
Our breath danced in the night air.
“So,” she said, snuggling into me, “who do you like the best?”
Saint Rita’s had a courtyard right in the middle of it, and in the middle of that stood a huge macadamia tree with fading colored benches at angles beneath it for rumpled tunics to sit on.
“Meet you at the tree,” girls would say to each other, and if anything was going to happen at Saint Rita’s, it was going to happen under those branches.
I was sitting on one of the benches waiting for Annabelle between classes one day when two pairs of stocking-clad legs stood in front of me.
Stacey Ryan and Jacki Goldsmith.
The Piranha Sisters.
“Hi, Lulu,” Stacey said.
“Hi, Lulu,” Jacki echoed.
I looked at their feet.
“So,” said Stacey, “I was wondering if you could help me with a little problem I’ve got.
“The thing is,” she said, “I’m going to this party on the weekend, and I was thinking of wearing Lucy, but then I thought maybe Amanda would be better, you know, because she’s so much fun, but Jacki thinks maybe I should wear Ashley because she gets so jealous if I leave her behind . . .”
It took me a minute to digest what they saying, a minute to
understand that she was making fun of my mother, and another minute to wonder who had told her.
Stacey was still talking, saying. “What do you think, Tallulah, who should I choose?”
I stared at her, knowing that by the end of the lunch hour, the whole school would know about my family, know all about my mad mother and her chorus line of dresses and her weepy, floury hands.
“Stacey,” I said, “my mum, she’s really great most of the time but—”
A blur of chocolate pleats and olive-brown arms pinned Stacey against the tree. Annabelle Andrews, green eyes flashing.
“Actually, Stacey,” she said, “Tallulah’s mother’s got a name for you too.”
“Really?” Stacey challenged.
“Yeah,” said Annabelle, “it’s Stupid Fucking Bitch.”
Stacey struggled beneath Annabelle’s grasp while beside me Jacki just shifted her feet, opening and closing her mouth like a demented salmon.
“And if you ever,” Annabelle hissed in Stacey’s ear, “say anything to anyone about this, I will shove your arse clean through your ears, do you understand?”
Stacey nodded, bit her lip.
“Right,” said Annabelle, letting her go. “Glad that’s sorted.”
Then she took my hand and led me away.
“?‘Shove your arse clean through your ears’?” I said. “?‘Shove your arse clean through your ears’? Bloody hell, Annabelle, what are you? One of the Kray brothers?”
We were at my house later that day, replaying what had happened: I was doing my Jacki demented-fish imitation, and Annabelle was rolling on my bed laughing.
It had taken us about two minutes of detective work to suspect that Mattie and Sam had told Jacki’s little brother, Marcus, about Rose, and then it had taken ten cents each to get them to admit it.
Later that night, I thought about Annabelle, appearing like an avenging angel in a pleated tunic and how I had never, not even for one second, thought it could have been her who had spilled my family’s particular brand of beans.
“Swear,” she had said that night under the stars.
“I swear I will never tell about Frank,” I said. “Your turn.”
“I swear I will never tell about Rose,” she echoed. “Now choose.”
Annabelle said we had to each pick one star out of the sky and make our vow upon it.
“Right,” she said, pointing at the sky, “see that little one right there, there near the Big Dipper, that sort of fuzzy-looking one? That’s mine.”
I pointed to another.
“Mine,” I said.
“Okay,” said Annabelle, “now hold my hands.”
We had knelt toward each other on the damp grass that night, locked eyes, and promised we would never betray each other.
I had felt her hands digging into mine, closed my eyes, and meant it.
I never really considered that one day it would all change, that it was in fact changing right beneath our feet as we walked back and forth to each other’s houses.
Little ripples were forming below the concrete that would eventually split and divide us like the tectonic plates they taught us about in Geography. I had no idea about those cracking, shifting plates beneath us; I didn’t even feel them moving.