This is the first chapter of Jewel Sea, a novel by Kim Kelly, out now through The Author People.
Jewel Sea is the story of the Koombana, Australia's forgotten Titanic tale, a story of ambition and greed at the end of the empire, and one perfect, cursed pearl.
The heat rushes in with the opening of the door, breathless, fag-end of summer heat, and yet it’s March. Isn’t it? My blouse sticks instantly to my skin, and it’s only nine o’clock, whatever it is.
‘Roberts.’ Even my voice seems liquefied somehow, draining across the terrace boards towards the balustrade. ‘It is March, yes?’
‘Yes, Miss Everley,’ he replies, this Roberts, my driver this past fortnight home at Retreat. At all hours he’s impossibly erect, smiling, handsome: waiting at the bottom of the steps for me in the full glare of the rising sun now, his jacket is an essay on the insanity of man. I want to peel the deep-green worsted off him. He informs me: ‘It’s the twelfth – of March.’
‘I don’t believe it.’
‘Do you ever believe anything?’ Marg is following me out, keys in one hand, voluminous handbag always in the other. Humidity means nothing to her, unseasonable or otherwise – she was formed in Calcutta, mostly.
I turn on the stair between her and Roberts, and whatever I might have quipped in response leaves me in the click of the door as Marg shuts it behind her. I take in the broad, strong back of my redoubtable companion, my navigator – Marg, Margaret Carson – the twitch of her wrist as she locks the door to save one of the maids forgetting to fasten the snib inside. I look up at the house, our dear Retreat, the place where I was formed, mostly, and an odd hesitation catches me, an unfamiliar whisper of finality. This house, this haven of cool, pale stone, is a place I have yearned to leave ever since I knew how. Despite the solidity of both her dimensions and her market price, there has always been some impermanence beneath my feet here, some sense I have only ever been a visitor. I leave this house for months at a time several times a year. I don’t know why I should be even vaguely reluctant to leave her now.
Why I should sense – what? I look out the other way again, beyond Roberts and the car, to the yachts on Freshwater Bay, bobbing and billowing through their breakfast diamonds as they do every sunny day. The Indian Ocean pounds at Cottesloe somewhere behind us, but here at the sheltered mouth of the Swan it’s always calm, almost always a swimming day. And I am treading water out beyond the baths: Irene! Irene! Come back – a shark will take you! my mother calls me in from some ancient memory. I can see her waving to me, pleading from the shore, calling in to me my one abiding fear, and it’s not of sharks but that I’ll take a fatal gulp one day if I don’t keep moving. I resume my way across the lawn to the car now. Don’t stop pedalling, my motor seems to say, but I think I might be losing sight of what I’m pedalling for. In fact, I know I am, but I can’t stop for dread, or for dearness. God, Mum, but I still miss you. Is it really seven years?
‘Tigs?’ Marg is at my ear, whispering the college-days sobriquet she saves for affection and for warning, but mostly for bemusement. ‘What’s wrong?’
‘Just a little bummed,’ I whisper back, and there can be no uncertainty about that. I’m always a little bummed, a little hung-over from the night before. Stale. Sticky. God – this heat. I could go for a swim this minute, let myself drift out past Rottnest, all the way to Madagascar.
‘Poor thing,’ says Marg, with absolutely no sympathy. Why should she have any? It’s she who tidies up after me, makes sure I’m out of bed in time to meet my ship, keeps all my secrets in that handbag, too. She is my sturdy veneer of respectability, and she keeps me on the move.
I grunt and slouch into the back seat with my own contempt for myself, and she says, sighing her way in beside me: ‘Going to be one of those days, is it?’
One of those bummed-out days when I’m gruntish and rude the whole while? No, it’s not. I mutter: ‘Just contemplating Derby.’
And I am now. If it’s hot here in Perth, it will be land of the damned up in Derby – even if autumn decides to begin somewhere over the next two weeks. I can no more forego Derby, though, or more specifically Everley Station, fifty miles east and ten degrees hotter, than I can my next gin. Old Hal, dear old Dad, would never forgive me if I never came home again there – if I went as far away as I should. Neither would my sisters: Oceanna and Marie will have the children gathering bouquets of lavender lambs’ tails for me, the mulla-mulla blooms we gathered when we were small ourselves, so blue against the red desert earth, petals crumbling onto white linen as so many tiny sprinklings of sky. They’ll have polished my saddle and plaited Freckle’s mane, too. I adore my family. I have three nieces and two nephews who adore me back; I even like their fathers, because they like mine – they both work for him; our family is tied up in such a sweet bow. But, apart from the station’s more or less uncanny resemblance to a forgotten corner of hell, there are only so many relentless conversations about the cattle trade one can reasonably survive, dinner chat turning always to the latest best plan for keeping the West Kimberley free of ticks and natives, ladies’ lounging always consumed with which of my sisters is pregnant first again and who is due when.
As it is, I spent little more than a week with them all here at Retreat over Christmas, making an excuse that I had to get back to Melbourne, for the hunt with Marksy, to whom I’ve been notionally, mutually non-engaged for the past five years. I still haven’t told Old Hal the real reason for my increasingly frequent trips east over the past couple, can’t tell him that my ‘shopping’ forays entail lunching with the editor of Australian Life Weekly, can’t even tell him I have a job, for too many reasons to count. Can’t tell him Marksy and I will never marry, either, though I’ll be quizzed daily for the long, long month I’m home. Marksy Densforth is not at all fond of girls, in that way, and I’m twenty-seven years old – Harold Wellington Everley, beef baron, will work it out eventually, even if the father part of him can’t: this heifer will never breed. Not if she can help it.
‘Well, it’ll be a relief to get out on the deep blue, won’t it,’ Marg says beside me, as Roberts noses out onto the Esplanade, bound for Fremantle, for our ship. ‘Catch some breeze. You know, I do love a lingering summer, but don’t you think it’s odd that the Doc hasn’t come for the past three days?’
‘Hm,’ I reply. Indeed our Doctor, the relieving evening breeze, hasn’t visited for who knows how long, but I’m distracted now by quite another linger. Last night: Stuart. I’ve left my preventative at his place, round the bay at Mosman Park, my little rubber stopper – left it on the corner of the bath. I’m not likely to need such contraceptive insurance in the next little while but it’s annoying. I almost tell Roberts to head down that way so that I might retrieve it, just in case, but Stu won’t be there, he’ll be in town, and I’m not asking his man for it. I squeeze my temples with too many never-agains. Stuart Wakefield. I’ve had a sweet spot for him forever, since short pants, my boy up the road, and he’s awfully unhappy with Clarice, takes every chance he can to get away from Adelaide to be free of wifey, but I’m never hot-suppering with him again. I am beginning to use men as I use gin: as an excuse to avoid the truth. I can’t keep wasting time like this, wasting life, here, going back and forth along the coast, spending more time on ships than in the world. In my life. It’s what Aus Life expects me to do, scratch out my first-class caricatures for them, to satisfy the insatiable hunger so many Australians have for unwitting self-disgust, but it’s not what I must do. Amusing as it is.
A stepping stone, I’ve promised myself ever since I took on the job, half a joke with Marksy, that’s all it is. A stepping stone to London, to Paris, to Prague, to proper living, proper writing. Things to write about. Actual experiences. But I’m holding my stepping stone so close, it’s going to sink me one day if I don’t let it go. ‘Purple Daze’, she’s my baby, my little monthly column. Mine. How could I let her go?
I close my eyes for a moment and the sun stipples every sense in gold through the peppermint leaves that overhang the road, all thoughts dissolving in the singular desire for a cigarette.
Roberts swerves sharply at the corner, skidding the wheels across the gravel verge of the narrow road as another car comes on towards us, too fast for the cliff-top grade. ‘Move over!’ He punches the horn as the other driver whooshes around us with a wave, and Marg’s fingernails dig into my knee. ‘Devil’s Bend,’ Roberts mutters, before turning to apologise. ‘’Scuse me, Miss Everley, Miss Carson – but I tell you, something should be done about this bend before someone gets killed. Too many cars on the roads these days – and hooligans with ’em.’
Someone will get killed, I have no doubt. But it won’t be the fault of the bend, will it. Roberts and just about every other driver takes this corner instead of wending down the bayside Esplanade. There’s the problem and the answer: creatures of habit, aren’t we all, caught in the illusion that one way might be better than another, quicker, easier, when it would have been more prudent to take the scenic route. I should get off the ship at Broome for Singapore and keep going.
I look down at Marg’s hand, still gripping my knee, aware that I didn’t so much as blink. I am that heedless, hooligan driver myself. Where am I going? I touch the string of seed pearls at my neck, a slim thread of cool in all this heat, and I don’t know. I don’t know much but that there is something wrong with me. There must be.
KIM KELLY Kim Kelly is the author of four novels and one novella about Australia, its heritage and its people that are loved by readers all over the world. Her stories shine a bright light on forgotten corners of our past and the tales of ordinary people living through extraordinary times. Kim is an editor and literary consultant by trade so stories fill her everyday - and most nights too.