I remember the long, inky black evenings at the house, a modern split-level building of chocolate-chip brick perched on the edge of a cliff by the sea. At the end of a long, winding dirt drive up-hill, it stood by itself in a defiantly untamed bush of dry schlerophyll forest, long tufts of grass and prickly acacia.
Inside were large, airy rooms, the walls painted white and rich, soft earth brown carpet. In the two bedrooms, there were vast built-in wardrobes with wide, sliding doors of honey wood and there was a mysterious Paul Klee like painting of a woman with a pointed face hanging in the hallway.
The open-plan living room was long, with an alcove for a desk, chair and filing cabinet in one corner, then a generous fireplace fronting the lounge suite of black leather cushioned furniture all the way to the great French windows leading out to the balcony that overlooked the magnificent sweep of Avoca Beach Bay down the long, steep slope of the cliff far below.
During those long, inky black evenings, my parents would carouse with their friendly hosts with red wine and cheese on crackers and cigarettes and long and impassioned conversation about politics, philosophy and nature – after a meal of barbequed meats with tomato sauce, potatoes and coleslaw. Us five children would be left to play and wander at will and I would look out through those great French windows and see the calm seas lying glistening under the floating moon and hear the gentle sighing of the imperceptible waves as they heaved themselves gently and languidly upon the shore.
Somewhere in the 1970s the McDowells were my parents good friends. Frank McDowell was my history teacher at High School, a man of short stature but lean and wiry with deep-set grey-blue eyes in a long, bony face, bald head and red, bushy beard. His wife Margaret was by contrast, a handsome looking woman with a hazel eyes and a straight bobbed light brown hair, who was taller than he was and of the solid and sensual kind – someone who had secrets. In their large bedroom, Margaret had a dressing table and on it was an ornament. A large sad-eyed china dog chained to two small puppies. For some reason, it would remind me intensely of her.
The McDowells were more intrepid bushwalkers than my parents and when we camped in national parks and bushwalked in places like the Snowy Mountains for sometimes 10 miles in a day, their well-worn but good quality equipment outshone ours.
They had proper equipment from Paddy Pallin, tall back-packs of dun brown canvas and faded japara sleeping bags of goosedown that packed down into tiny bags. They had the old black billy can and the perfect gripper for it, long-handled and firm, that I have never seen before or since. The arrival of their two children barely stopped them in their tracks. They promptly bought a papoose for the baby Mia, powdered milk and disposable nappies and the toddler Elaine soon learned that complaining about the long walks was not an option.
Together we all went to Kinchega National Park and camped by the Murray River where we swam in the muddy waters and I cooked a very well received damper in the iron camp oven, which we all had, tremblingly, fragrantly hot and slathered with runny butter and honey. We watched thousands of yellow-crested and pink Mitchell cockatoos and galahs converge screeching at the edge of a wide lake at sunset while we lounged against huge, grey-white, bone-dry logs half-submerged in the soft, red-dirt sands.
We picked up pieces of chert stone lying in the dunes, chipped like stone-age flint and long abandoned by vanished aboriginal people. We walked along the shores of the lake and saw a stunning diversity of water birds, fleeing grey kangaroos and trees covered with the matted clods of innumerable, tiny little mud and feathered nests inhabited by huge flocks of chattering birds.
I am alone in the inky night at home again, some forty years later, with a hasty meal of fried-eggs and tomato on bread, the last skerrick of ice-cream eaten from the tub and the large, crystal wine glass of some Barossa Valley shiraz. Long cold winter nights have begun and my husband John and nearly adult daughter Veronique are out. And thinking of the promising magic and beauty of those nights, I remember back then with a kind of impenetrable sadness. What did, or didn’t happen that laid all those long years since with such a sense of unspoken waste?
My husband and I have laid the floors of our apartment in a quiet suburb in the city with bamboo, stained to warm, syrupy, variegated hues but nevertheless reverberating with a sense of echoing coldness. The oil heater has to work hard to heat the large L-shaped living room with its bright, freshly renovated and painted open kitchen. Our marriage of twenty years, unmarked by any infidelity, simple and straightforward. We talk about politics, some history, issues. But our full book-cases go largely unread and with the casualness that marks our relationship, the outings occasional and plans more often than not undone.
Back in the 1970s, the McDowells eventually moved to a neat, white weatherboard cottage with a barren, paling fenced backyard and Hills Hoist in town by the river. We still visited and played with their two daughters but a mysterious sense of barely perceptible tension had pervaded the relationships between the four adults. They shouted more suddenly and vociferously in their discussions with each other, there were terser leavings and goodbyes. Margaret was talking of their family moving away to Canberra sometime, but she did not say when.
Then, one explosive night, it happened. Our family had gone home and I was trying to sleep in the room I shared with my two sisters, but was unable to because Mum and Dad were arguing with each other: Mum with at first low and impassioned tones, but with rising pitch and intensity, Dad like straws all at sea, helplessly remonstrative.
Then my sister Cathie came in to our room, bursting with the information she had gleaned with her assiduous eavesdropping. ‘Dad’s been having an affair with Margaret McDowell!’ she announced at once to me and Berenice. ‘Mum caught them kissing at the back fence in the dark at their house. Dad’s admitted that it’s been going on for some time’.
In the dark, our whole lives whizzed into a garish, ugly focus of suburban frustration, disappointment and dull ordinary things happening like sordidly secret affairs between married people who should have known better than to hurt and turn upside down the lives of those dependent on them. It was wrong, morally wrong, wasn’t it? But none of this was happening to me. Curiously I felt neither dismay, surprise nor the slightest bit of anger towards my father. I felt calm, dead calm, almost numb. I just listened and over the days and weeks that followed, thought only that my father was mortal and for that, I forgave him.
In their bedroom, Mum was hissing ‘I could see that you wanted to dance with her! I saw you looking at her, with her swirling skirt and red lipstick and her come at me eyes… ‘What are you talking about?’ Interjected my father faintly ‘I never did any such thing!’ ‘Oh yes you did!’, screamed my mother almost manic with volcanic rage ‘You were looking at her, her, HER!’…
The next few days were lived in a kind of grey, uncertain daze. I had breakfast, went to school, came back. And then one afternoon Mum gathered us three sisters together in the lounge room and spoke to us with unusual candour about the whole thing. This time she was so calm, that it was almost impossible to believe that she was the same person she had been that night.
‘Frank and Margaret are going away and your father and I are staying together’ She said ‘Your father realised it was only a temporary affair and he liked her because she was a good bushwalker’. ‘But we all got together and talked about it last night. Frank surprised me because he said he had known about it from the beginning. He was watching them to see what happened and hoping to have a relationship with me. I was taken aback and of course never would have done anything like that. I find him quite repulsive, physically.’ ‘Then Margaret got in touch with me privately and confessed to me that she no longer loves Frank. She was in love with someone else and married him on the rebound. I don’t know what they’re going to do’…
After that episode, we saw no more of the McDowells. Unseen by us, they had winged their way to Canberra or some such city to an unknown life somewhere else. Mum and Dad never even mentioned their names again. Except once. They told me that Frank had opined that I was not bright enough to finish university.
A year or so later, we had gone on a camping trip to Carnarvon Gorge National Park. A rocky, red place of ancient beauty somewhere in mid-west Queensland, where us sisters played in the quartz-strewn stony creek beds and ran laughing through the largely deserted bushy, dust-bowl of the camping grounds. It was then that I noticed a familiar tent and Khombi van. From a distance, Frank and Margaret had seen us. A short while later I saw that they were suddenly packing their tent, camping gear and belongings hastily into the car. Without a word, they drove off into the ether of the early afternoon…