Where silence is golden
A monk banishes our shoes into the cold night on our arrival at Ishijoin Temple on Mount Koya. He purifies us with a pinch of orange powder on our palms.
All the monk’s movements are considered and reverent – his welcoming bow, his head inclined as he listens, holding back his long, wide sleeves when they get in the way. He hands us ill-fitting brown slippers and we shuffle along the open veranda behind him, peeking into rooms with tatami floors and richly painted screens of cherry blossoms. Pilgrims in white tunics overtake us, wearing similar slippers without difficulty.
My husband and I came up the mountain by cable car to experience monastic life. Established in 816, the town of Koyasan is the spiritual centre for Shingon Buddhism. Our tatami-matted room is bare but for two legless chairs and a coffee table. Dinner arrives at 5.30pm in little dishes on lacquered trays. Shojin ryori cuisine is vegan: rice, soup, tofu, vegetables and seaweed. Simple, delicious, unrecognisable. There’s something that resembles curled green millipedes, tastes like broccolini, but crunches like fine bones. We feel guilty as we buy beer in the downstairs vending machine.
The changing room in the women’s bathhouse is empty. I undress and cover myself with an insubstantial hand towel. In the bathing area, two women covered in soap suds sit in open stalls along the wall. I teeter on a stool built for petite bottoms and copy everything they do. When I sink into the bath, water sloshes over the edge but neither woman blinks. I wallow until my skin turns red. Back in our room the monks have laid down thin futons for the night. The silence is soporific.
At 6am the chapel shivers in a golden fog of incense and the hum of orange-robed monks chanting sutras. The pilgrims sit in front of the altar, legs folded, whispering the words. It’s like meditation, except for two fidgeting westerners with pins and needles and aching bones.
After breakfast we meet a monk who has studied in Canberra. “I hope we haven’t inadvertently offended anyone,” I say. “We understand Australians are easy-going,” he replies. “We accept them as they are.”
He smiles, and I recognise the same kind acceptance we’ve received from everyone we’ve met here.
Where silence is golden was published in The Weekend Australian, Travel & Indulgence Section, November 9-10, 2013
The Flood was published in the Newcastle Herald in January 2013
At ten a.m. the radio announced the levee bank had broken.
Dora made the phone call. Regina packed the Esky. They put on their raincoats, Reggie fastening Dora’s buttons because of her sister’s arthritis. Reggie carried the emergency provisions to the veranda. Rain thundered on the tin roof.
‘Lock the door,’ yelled Dora.
‘That’ll keep the flood out,’ Reggie said and turned the key. In her rain-hat she looked like a leprechaun whose nose you rubbed for luck.
They stared over a rain-pitted lake where once were paddocks. ‘It might not come further,’ Reggie said.
Inside, the phone rang and Dora looked at Reggie over her spectacles.
‘Jason?’ said Reggie.
‘I told him we had a flood plan.’
‘He’s worried about us.’
‘Why do people always assume we need looking after?’ Dora yanked her hood forward and lurched down the steps. Reggie smiled an apology to the door, and followed.
They propped the barn doors open with upturned wheelbarrows. Inside it was dry. Dora hauled herself into the front seat, Reggie into the back. Dora took the transistor out of the basket and turned the dial. Nothing. Not even static.
‘Did you change the batteries?’
Reggie stared at her.
‘For Pete’s sake, Regina. And close your mouth. Look like that and they’ll stick us in a nursing home.’
‘Sorry.’ Through the barn doors she saw the water lapping the veranda steps. It was like strong tea with milk. ‘I could sing. Remember how Dad made us sing in ’55? Even the life savers.’
Reggie watched the approaching water swallow the steps, the cement under the clothes line, the vegetable garden, and couldn’t remember, not even in ’55, this gut-fear of the relentlessness of the tide. She had been younger then, with youth’s belief that everything, even time, could be conquered.
‘Morning tea-time,’ said Dora.
It was a relief to do something. Reggie set the gas burner in the bottom of the surf boat their father had bought after the Big Flood and boiled bottled water in the kettle. Dora spread two scones with jam and cream.
The rain finally stopped, but the tide rose inside the barn. It slapped against the hull and the boat swayed. Reggie poled them outside with an oar. The water skulked around their house, peeking into windows. Just like the woman from the government who always had a gander into the rooms off the hallway.
The boat floated over the paddocks they sold to Barry Cornish for his sheep after their father died. They floated amongst trees tops. It was fun, messing about in boats, until Reggie saw two sheep, a mother and her lamb, stranded on a disappearing atoll. She fitted both oars into their sockets.
‘She’s too big,’ said Dora.
Reggie rowed to the island. ‘I’ll hold us still if you get the lamb.’
Dora slid into the shallows. The lamb stuck its nose out to smell her and Dora hooked her arms under its body and dumped it into the boat. The mother pushed against her bleating.
‘Dora, can. . .’
Dora struggled in. The mother sheep, desperate, leapt after her. Its front legs landed in the boat, its haunches thrashing like a washing machine. The boat tipped and water flooded in. Reggie dropped the oars, grabbed the fleece on the sheep’s bum and heaved it into the boat. The oars floated away.
‘What’ll we do?’ Reggie cried.
‘Bail.’ Dora gave her a teacup.
In the river channel the current was fast and the sisters gripped the sides of their boat with their blue fingers. Stranded motorists stared. The boat skimmed over twigs, plastic bags and grass collecting like scum on meat soup. Occasionally something knocked the boat sideways, and Regina squealed. It began to pour. They hunkered down in their cold clinging plastic. The river roared like a waterfall. The lamb kept bleating.
‘Shut the bloomin’ thing up,’ yelled Dora.
‘It’s frightened.’ Reggie’s voice quivered.
Dora looked back. Reggie sniffed and put one arm around the lamb’s neck. The fleece was warm and dry so she dug her fingers deeper. A new sound joined the rush of water. Reggie leant her good ear towards it. She knew that tune. If she wasn’t scared of upsetting the boat she’d throw her arms around Dora. They sang ‘Row your Boat’. In rounds. With such gusto people applauded as they passed. The rain eased.
Reggie always thought ‘white cage’ when she saw the Morpeth Bridge. Today, lots of prisoners shouted and waved at them, pointing between the bars at the branches, sticks and gunk caught around a pylon like a pterodactyl’s nest.
‘Logjam,’ said Dora.
On the embankment people silently watched them, which reminded Reggie of how people looked when a hearse drove by.
Jason was on the bridge, waving both arms. ‘Hang on.’
‘We don’t need help,’ Dora yelled.
Reggie cupped her hands around her mouth. ‘Tell Barry we’ve got his sheep.’
‘I’ll phone the SES.’
Dora hollered, ‘We can bloomin’-well look after ourselves. I booked a room at Noah’s.’
The boat hit the logjam. Wood cracked and the boat stuck. Reggie heard thunder, and realised people were rushing across the bridge as in a game of Pooh Sticks. Behind the boat the current was insistent, lifting the stern, manoeuvring it sideways into the flow, pushing the boat the wrong way round. Branches clung to them like fingers, refusing to let go. Directly above Jason yelled into his mobile.
Dora’s back sagged. Her hood had blown back and her wet hair lay flat on her skull. Her swollen fiingers clung to each side. She looked like a defeated Jesus on the cross.
Then the branch cracked, scraped along the bow and they were free.
Clear of the bridge, the boat still facing up-river, Dora threw up a fist, looking to Reggie for all the world as if now nothing could stop her taking her flock all the way to the sea.
This story was published in the Cutwater Literary Anthology.
Everyone notices Roberta Crabtree, puffing up the steep concrete path from the ocean baths on her thick cauliflower legs. Her pink swimmers snuggle into the many crevices of her body like a pot roast tied too tightly with string. A bright blue bath towel offsets the outfit. Full of salt, her hair is an unruly grey fizz with dirty yellow tips. She waves at the cars and laughs out loud as if they exist purely to delight her. She knows most of the drivers – after all, this is a small peninsular and there’s only one road off. She waves at strangers, too. Doesn’t hurt to be friendly, she’s fond of saying.
She’s gasping by the time she reaches her street at the top of the cliff. It seems as if three container ships are moored in front of the house next door. She waves to the men in orange overalls.
‘New neighbours moving in today, Darl?’ She learns the new neighbours are from the university. Two doctors. Not real ones.
She has her morning cuppa on the ancient couch on the veranda. She’s excited, and a bit nervous, too. Whenever she thinks of university people she thinks of big words. She imagines university people having these big minds that shine like lighthouses; spinning, bursting, searching lights that warn the ordinary people like her when they get too close to the rocks. She knows now why the first thing the doctors did when they bought Old Mrs James’ house was to put solar panels on their roof. It makes sense, doesn’t it? Up there for thinking. She laughs so hard her tea splashes over the lounge. Wouldn’t Frank have loved the joke, she thinks, as she mops up the spill with her terry towelling shorts.
Mid-morning. A terrible lot of stuff has gone inside: an elephant of a stainless steel fridge, three leather lounges and three dining room tables, two double beds, a baby grand, a library of bookcases with glass doors, thousands of cardboard boxes. No doctors yet, just the same six red faces and sweat-sodden towels.
In the kitchen she washes her hands with soap like the man on Oprah showed her yesterday. Happy Birthday to you … She sings the song five times before she rinses.
She carries her best plastic jug jiggling with ice though the open front door of the house next door.
‘Yoo hoo,’ she calls. She knows the house well seeing she’s nicked in and out nearly every day for the past twenty years. Mrs James gave her a key once, just in case. She still has it somewhere.
‘Here you go, Darl.’ Her new you-beaut plastic clogs clomp on the kitchen floorboards. ‘I bought you some …’
She stares where the back wall of old Mrs James’ house used to be. In its place are concertinaed glass doors bunched so you can walk right out into the back yard. Gone is the overgrown garden of hydrangeas and wisteria. Gone is Mrs James prized tree that massed lemons like Christmas decorations. The yard is as dead flat and barren as a ploughed field.
One of the Spice Girls pops up behind the new granite counter. The skinny one with the sharp space-age hair. Bertie knows it’s not really her. The mouth is too wide. Bertie offers up the jug. The ice has melted and the condensation makes puddles on the floor.
‘Those blokes are buggered … and since your fridge doesn’t work … well, it probably works, but …’
The girl takes the jug. Her voice is a surprise – older, a little nasal, but very clipped as if she comes from England. Bertie wants to curtsy. She leads Bertie to the front door on a leash of words. ‘I’m Fiona. I’ll bring your jug back when they’ve finished. Thank you so much.’ She touches Bertie’s arm and thanks her for her thoughtfulness.
Fiona shuts the door, even though a huge box with legs is coming in the gate. Bertie feels like a cat put out for the night.
The new neighbours’ dog has a grey beard. It dances the Scottish fling around the yard and barks all day. Yap, yap, yap under the paling fence. Yap, yap whenever Bertie hangs out washing or scrounges for parsley in the long dry grass that grows in the garden beds. Doesn’t matter how much she bribes it with cheese it won’t come to her. She’s a bit miffed because dogs usually like her.
One morning, hanging out her towel after her swim, Bertie is astounded to see the dog bouncing about with a string of pearls around its neck. Just like the pearl necklace she has that used to belong to Frank’s mother. She’s never worn it, afraid his mother would reach down from heaven and twist the strand tight when God wasn’t looking.
‘If you whip those egg whites anymore, Roberta, they’ll have you up for cruelty at the RSPCA.’ And everyone would laugh, including Bertie, for it was a good joke, wasn’t it? But a little piece of Bertie would feel heavy and the sponge wouldn’t rise quite out of the tin, and Frank’s mother would purse her lips into a tight circle and make that little jagged laugh.
Bertie gets down on her hands and knees in front of the fence wearing her swimmers and her mother-in-law’s pearls. She barks at the dog. It goes berserk. It barks so ferociously all its legs leave the ground at the same time.
RRRRR, barks the dog.
RRRRR, barks Bertie.
She hears a door open.
Shaking with laughter she crawls back to the house hoping she isn’t visible over the fence, but praying she can be seen from heaven.
A week after they move in, Fiona knocks at her front door. She’s in black again. A black shift dress over black tights with black ballet slippers. Bertie bundles her into the kitchen and drains out a glass of cask wine. Bertie holds up her beer can.
‘I never drink alone,’ she says, ‘unless I’m alone.’ She laughs like a donkey, a bray from the back of her throat that makes Fiona pull back her head and blink.
‘I’ve come about the side fence,’ Fiona says.
Outside Bertie eyes the fence. It’s a good solid fence. Bit of dry rot along the bottom, a few loose planks. Nothing a couple of nails won’t fix. She’d hoicked out the nails herself so she could wiggle in to check on old Mrs James and pick some lemons.
‘It needs to be replaced,’ Fiona says. ‘Colorbond eliminates maintenance.’
Bertie’s impressed. She’s very fond of wise sayings. She wishes she was a person who could say things like Colorbond eliminates maintenance.
Fiona tells her that her partner has decided mist green is the right shade for the lilly pillies the landscaper will plant along the boundary. Bertie’s taken by the word partner. She wonders whether that means they’re not married. She tries to imagine a bride in black. Fiona raises his eyebrows and asks if that will be a problem.
‘Oh no,’ she says, ‘Frank’s mother was the religious one. Each to his own, I say.’
Fiona glances at her. Wary. Bertie smiles to reassure her.
‘So. Mist green?’ Fiona asks finally.
Bertie shrugs. Privately she thinks mist green sounds a bit wishy-washy.
Fiona leaves her untouched wine glass on the rickety table under the oleander and ducks through the loose palings into her yard. Bertie watches them clash back into place like cockeyed pendulums. The Scotty dog yaps.
The next week she discovers mist green is indeed an insipid colour. She keeps her opinion to herself because she doesn’t want to hurt Fiona’s feelings, and because the fence boxes in the dog’s fury, but mainly because the bill hasn’t appeared in her letterbox yet.
Bertie shuts the lounge room window every evening at 5.30 and turns up the TV because the new neighbours have taken to playing their musical instruments during Deal or No Deal. Frank would have tickled her if he was here. Turn off the TV and get some kultcha into ya. He knew about music. His mother played the church organ.
She doesn’t mind the piano. It’s that flute she can’t stand, all screechy like a black cockatoo in a casuarina. She wonders if Fiona is the flute. The doctors next door only play stuffy kinds of tunes that make her think of ball gowns over the proverbial pokers and hair all looped up on top. She prefers something that gets your feet tapping like the progressive barn dances down at the club where they went of a Saturday night before Frank went and died.
Fiona alludes to Bertie – no names, that would be unprofessional – in the course she lectures on Bourdieu. She explains to her students – undergraduates unfortunately, for she has only just received her doctorate and therefore is still accruing cultural capital – that one’s taste for food, clothing, art, music, one’s language, and how good one is at looking down one’s nose, are made up of subconscious influences that classify people in a hierarchy of social power.
Bertie’s penchant for a ripped couch on the veranda and camel toe track pants – Fiona pauses here for the laughter to subside – demonstrates her position as one without taste, a judgement made by the dominant class in which Fiona includes herself.
She plots Bertie’s status on a Bourdieu map: a position that has no capital, and therefore no right to an opinion on things that matter. In fact, her position is one of inevitable decline because, firstly, her class crushes any member who attempts to get above themselves, and secondly, she lacks the opportunity to acquire cultural capital at home. Fiona’s mouth twists as she thinks of, but doesn’t mention, the closed window at 5.30 each afternoon. Undergraduates don’t seem to understand irony.
Fiona embraces Bourdieu theory. She prides herself on possessing the necessary ability to objectify the position from which she views the class struggle.
Bertie mows her grass with roundup. It makes her feel powerful. When Frank retired the BHP gave him enough pallets of kiln bricks to cover his entire block. Ten years on the grass shows no respect and pushes them up like mountain ranges. At the beginning of each season she throws bucketfuls of roundup over the yard. The grass shrivels and forms a matted black carpet.
Bertie is busy murdering grass when Fiona’s husband waves a bundle of papers over the gate towards her. At least she thinks they’re for her; he looks at the ground, her crocs, the gate, the camellia tree, anywhere but at her face. She puts down the bucket and takes his papers, smiling as if she’s just been given a Christmas present but isn’t sure it’s hers.
‘It’s a toxicological study. On the effects of glyphosate on the environment. Even low exposure increases by 2.7 times the chances of developing Non Hodgkin’s Lymphoma.’
She stares at him. He blinks rapidly. She notices a fine layer of sweat on his top lip.
‘It’s a hot day, isn’t it, Darl?’
He clears his throat.
‘There’s overwhelming evidence that toxic chemicals cause developmental and neurological damage to children. I think you should read it.’
She flicks through the pages for clues, for photos of damaged children. She only finds charts, columns, numbers, equations and lots and lots of words. She grins so hard her cheeks hurt.
‘Okay, Darl.’ She puts the papers on the veranda and weighs them down with a kiln brick.
‘Fiona is three months pregnant so …’
Bertie squeals. This she understands. She wraps her arms around his neck and hugs him. He’s as rigid as the gate between them.
‘A baby.’ She claps her hands. ‘The last baby in the street was … now, let’s see … my Matty, I think.’
The edge of his mouth twitches. She wonders if a smile is trying to get out.
‘I’ll kill this grass and we’ll crack open some vino to celebrate.’
His face turns splotchy and purple.
‘Read them,’ he says, poking towards the pages. ‘I want you to read them now.’
His front door slams. The shutters in his lounge room window open. Bertie waves.
That husband’s a queer one, she thinks. But because he’s bringing her a baby, because he’s so upset that his poor little tyke is deformed or something – amazing how these days they can tell before the baby is even born – she’ll read his pages.
She tips the roundup along their fence line and sits on the front veranda. She flips the pages one by one in case he’s watching. When she reaches the end she turns back to the front. She sees that the pages are upside down.
Every afternoon until late autumn, Bertie grabs a tinnie, arranges herself on the old lounge on the veranda and surrenders to the long cool fingers of the nor’easter. These days she knits. Red wool reflects on her face like sunburn. Sunflower yellow greys with sweat. But she soldiers on. No pastel blues or pinks. Or mist green. Happy colours make happy kids, her needles click. Rainbow bonnets, vermilion booties, striped jumpers in bright primaries. It’s getting hard to close the bottom draw of Frank’s tallboy. Bertie doesn’t stop. She’s going to knit a mountain of fun around this poor little blighter’s life.
One morning Bertie finds her garbage bin has not been collected and a dirty big sticker tapes up the lid. It tells her that her bin will not be emptied until she removes all the paper, glass and plastic, and places it in her recycle bin. She sighs and wonders why they’re so fussy all of a sudden. She tips the bin over onto the footpath and shakes it until all the plastic shopping bags spill out like a pile of Christmas puddings. She grubs for ‘recycles’ through the family favourite packets, potato peelings, prawns, soggy iceberg leaves, tea bags.
Fiona cycles out of her gate. She turns down hill and then twists sharply as if she’s discovered she’s heading in the wrong direction. The bike wobbles and she’s forced to put her foot down to steady it.
‘I’m recycling.’ Bertie waves a beer can to prove it.
Fiona smiles as if the bike saddle is pinching her and rockets off in the other direction.
‘Stupid, eh.’ Bertie yells after her. ‘It all ends up at the same place, doesn’t it?’
That Sunday Fiona invites the Sociology Department to a soiree in their courtyard. The evening is warm and the sea breeze has dropped. The fountain trickles like a forest stream and the new feature lighting casts a misty green glaze over the fledgling lilly pilly hedges.
During the murmured polite conversation and smoked salmon mousse Fiona becomes aware of flickering whiffs of something rotten. Her fork makes a covert detour past her nose. Between the mousse and the lamb tagine she and her nose take a saunter around the garden.
Bertie is already in her nightie when she opens her front door to Fiona. A mottled red rash circles Fiona’s neck like a choker.
Ooh, says Bertie, and she touches her own neck.
‘Your bin is putrid.’
‘Yeah, Darl. I know.’ She reminds her about the garbage truck and the sticker. Fiona squints at her. Then she snorts. Bertie isn’t sure it’s a laugh.
‘That’d be right. And I chose tonight for our soiree.’
‘Ooh, a soiree,’ and Bertie smoothes the front of her cotton nightie.
This time Bertie can tell her snort isn’t a laugh. Not when her eyes are as black as the sea under storm clouds.
‘Do you want me to move the bin for you?’ she asks brightly.
‘Of course I want you to bloody move it.’
Bertie’s fizzy grey head appears over the fence during the lamb tagine.
‘Sorry. It’s the prawns, Darl.’
One hand clings to the fence and the other embellishes her story about what buggers them garbage men are. How recycling is as big a con as climate change making a hole in the ozone layer. Everyone is grinning. She can see they’re impressed. She beams back. But Fiona is staring at her as if she’s the thing that smells off.
‘Ooh. You’ve done your yard up real good,’ she says to cheer her up. Fiona snarls in a perfect imitation of the Scotty dog.
‘I’ll get rid of this pong, will I, and you can get back to your do?’ She waits. Fiona says nothing. The metal fence is digging into her fingers. Reluctantly she lets herself down.
After the rumble of the wiz bin fades, Max, the Department Head, raises his eyebrows.
‘So who’s your Medusa?’
Fiona rolls her eyes. Her husband moans. She tells her guests how she’s incubating a street kid. How incredible that someone with such outrageous taste – she cites the swimmers and pearls outfit – can be so banal. She feels vindicated by their laughter. Her husband joins in with the elaborate strategies they’ve developed to avoid her. Their guests are an innovative set; they come up with clever suggestions of their own. The courtyard becomes animated and loud. One suggestion calls for more wine. Another includes inviting Bertie in.
‘She only drinks goon,’ says Fiona.
Max toasts Bertie’s health with French Burgundy. Fiona’s one savoured glass of burgundy remains stubbornly on the table. She knows Bertie would miss the irony implicit in these gestures. Her colleagues won’t. She’s had enough of their fascination with a declining and diametrically opposed position on a Cartesian graph.
As she drifts off to sleep Bertie hears them laughing and chuckles. It’s real good they’re having fun. She and Frank now, they were ones for laughing. She remembered them lying in this very bed holding their stomachs so they didn’t wake the kids and Frank’s face would go fire engine red. A bit like him next door when he told her about their poor little bub. That man will have to be careful; he’s a real Heart Attack Harry if ever she saw one.
Tomorrow she’ll do something nice for them. Make them her special heart sponge. The one she used to make for Frank. Only uses 6 eggs instead of 12. She’ll write out the recipe for Fiona. And she can return those papers the husband gave her, hidden under the recipe so he mightn’t ask what she thought of them.