Didier Coste

DAYS IN SYDNEY

Extrait n° 1, suite (p. 74 à 76). Troisième Journée.

As she was scattering pink talcum powder on the brown bottom of her adopted child, after changing diapers, still in doubt whether the mixed smells of real baby shit and artificial roses was a curse or a blessing, she said, very softly, in her velvety wrap-around voice, to Fred, her husband: “Fred, have you ever loved someone? —I love you, said Fred. —You got the question wrong, I don’t want you to tell me you love me, or we are going to have an R.D. Laing style argument! I meant: somebody else in the past... the kind of love you could never suppress, however hard you tried?” Fred was puzzled. It sounded to him like a Mills and Boon romance or the Brontes revisited. When she was in that mood, he would sometimes jokingly call her Catherine Linton Senior. Not a simple-minded guy, but he sometimes hated complications to the point of rejecting complexities. He preferred to take it on the comic side, exaggerating his favourite blue collar mannerisms, learnt from his grandfather who had been a foundry worker at Port Kembla in the twenties. “D’you mean, Carol, you loved someone this way? It’s your bloody right. Me, I don’t think I ever did, I am sort of reasonable, you should know, old girl, you’re always mocking me for it!”
The baby did not cry. She was very quiet. So was life in general these days, after the stormy early 70’s, the silence and solitude of the next ten years, and the turmoil of the mid 80’s. When Matilda had had to leave her house in Avalon and even change her name, because her mother, crazy like all the women in the family for generations, was making her life impossible, interfering with her every move, threatening her, she had thought that everything was finished for her. Even Robert, alias Youssef, had left her for a younger chick, a plump Italian secretary from the office; Jacques was light years away, and it was too late in any case; she was not going to turn to him, now that she was completely lonely and unhappy, now that he had another life as a scholar who lectured all over the world —some Sydney alumni had told her—and had presumably married a successful European artist. After she had sworn that she would never accept to be emotionally dependent. Fred was a tall, well-built man in his early fifties, his sparse hair just greying, with a Beckett-like vivid gaze in his clear bespectacled eyes.

And a good, sincere man. Intelligent and cultured. And he loved her dearly, in his slow, unassuming fashion. She could rely on him.
The baby girl, back on her back, clean and dry, was pedalling with her little legs (was she going to be short-legged? I hope not), babbling and chuckling with her beautiful wide smile. They had got her from Kalgoorlie, the daughter of a child prostitute at the other end of the continent, thanks to Fred’s friendship with a Western Australian botanist and advocate of Aboriginal land rights, with whom he had worked for years to adapt some wild flowers to make them bug-resistant in the milder weather of New South Wales. After patting La under the chin and kissing Carol in the neck, Fred left the bright, sunny room, painted pale grey, white and pink, where the smiling baby’s black face was virtually the only dark spot: “I have to call the Waterboard again; they were supposed to come first thing this morning to see what’s wrong with the water supply. No sign of life. They don’t give a damn if we go out of business. If they haven’t fixed it by midday, I’ll take the matter to Councillor Bell. She’s a Liberal old bitch, but she loves plants, she won’t let us down. Not on our account, but she cares for her frangipani!”
Life was so surprising, she thought briefly, ... and my reflexions are so banal. But, who would believe that I would become a mother and a housewife at this point? Just because I bought three potted hydrangeas on a Saturday morning and Fred, who set his eyes on me, delivered them himself at my flat in Lane Cove, with the pretext I taught his daughter at school. After all, she did not miss teaching so much. Although she would for sure, without the baby. Once she had overcome her initial shyness, she had felt so close to the children. Fred’s daughter from his first marriage, Sarah, had been one of her best students. Now that she was at Uni and had her own life, sharing an old semi in Petersham with others, they did not see much of her. She had not reacted very well to her father’s marriage with her geography teacher. A bit jealous, probably, of one or the other, or both? Although she did not live with her mother any more, it seemed she had belatedly sided with her.

Only recently, after the baby’s arrival, she had begun to visit Fred and Carol more often. She had literally fallen in love with little La (whose real name was Ella: Sarah was the one who had shortened it). Maybe she was relieved that Fred and Carol had not procreated a child of their own, or perhaps, on the contrary, she was glad to have a sister at long last? Sarah was so secretive you could not ask her such personal questions. And it’s none of my business, anyway.
Ella had fallen asleep. Her new teeth had been playing tricks on her, preventing her from sleeping well at night. She had woken up crying a couple of times in the early hours. Now she was making up for it. Carol did not feel tired. She hardly ever felt tired. Just a bit dreamy, feline, but like a domestic cat, she thought, enjoying the sun, her good health, her baby’s progress, her security. She had nestled in the green again, but not alone this time. And for ever. She went to pick up a book from the small room that she had made her own, transforming it into a studio, a den and a library. Not that she had a lot of spare time, especially with the baby, and she liked to help in the nursery, taking care of the roses or enjoying the conversation of green thumbs of all ages and persuasions. She had learnt to drive; a different woman indeed behind the wheel of the big Ford Custom ute. But there remained that part of herself, the pre-Raphaelite side, the failed painter, the admirer of Streeton, the lover of baroque music and Debussy and Fauré, the lute player, the keen poetry reader, from Herbert to Follain, the girl who fancied she could have been Alec Hope’s daughter. Sure her present state of mind and lifestyle were less morbid and just as aesthetic as that other self; she could still detect more potential vulgarity in what she was fifteen or twenty years ago than in what she was now, but something had to be preserved, something that did not belong to herself alone, a territory of the imagination, a symbolic estate, that clearing in the wilderness of reality which Jacques had once found perfectly embodied in Sydney Long’s painting The Music Lesson.
She sat in a large Indian wicker armchair, facing the baby’s wicker cradle. Her eyes dropped to the printed page:
“Half of the land, conscious of love and grief,
Half of the sea, cold creatures of the foam,
Mermaids still haunt and sing among the coves.”
Was it not the marine half that was now missing? But that half —she disagreed with the poet— had never been the colder of the two.



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