This is an extract from A Loving, Faithful Animal, by Josephine Rowe – our Bloc Club book this month.
Well, i was pretty. I did use to be brave. I’m telling you. Skinny as a whippet—you could put your hands like this around my waist—and just that fast. Wipe that look off your face, girl. I’m telling you. Before I met your father. Before I …
Yes, she can hear herself. Whine whine whine. Evelyn wraps pale ivory tissue around a trio of flock deer, their taupe fuzz wearing away in patches, giving them a look of hereditary mange. If she can only get the girls to see. See her differently. Just exactly as she had been—that’s hardly demanding a great stretch of the imagination; there are photographs, after all. Then she might be able to see herself that way. Step right back up into her old joy, her old hope, some large bright room in herself that’s been closed off these past seventeen years. That could be the start. Of something. But Ru is unconvinced and of course
Lani won’t even try.
With the family of deer safely nested in the box, she tapes closed the lid. The last of it. Though Jack’s brother came by hours ago to help waltz the naked Christmas tree out of the house, and the fallen needles threaded them- selves into the weave of the stubby carpet, a trail leading from lounge to front door. These too will have to be gone by midnight, every last one, or who knows what. Evelyn hefts the candy-striped Christmas box and follows the path of needles out of the house, bumping the screen door open with a fleshy hip.
The heat, the light today. There’s something about it. Here she is stranded, miles inland, but still it calls up the sandstone coast of her youth.
The stickiness of that salt air as she walked towards the ocean baths, to the pool cut right into coastal rock. Every summer morning of her teens and into her twenty-first year. Drifting home with seawater drying on her skin, leaving delicate scuffs of salt dust, fine as baking soda beneath the fine blonde hair on her arms.
But then maybe it isn’t the heat, isn’t the light; maybe it has more to do with Jack being gone, maybe for good this time. And this is how she knows, somewhere deep down, that it’s for good. His absence whipping the years out from underneath her, like that party trick with the tablecloth, the dishes clattering back not-quite as they had been, and she’ll have to go back to being whoever she was before the table was set. Whoever she was before.
He scooped her up out of the ocean baths that last time. Told her, This is it, Kiddo, today’s the day, and carried her dripping and laughing up to the stands, where waited his duffel bag filled with a tumble of work clothes and oranges from a Mildura orchard. How long since anybody called her Kid?
She allows herself more—wallowing, Jack would call it, but it’s really too bright, too lovely to be called that, or to turn away from. The clean shock of oceanwater that rippled through her, fingertips first, as she dove from the white concrete starters’ block. No ah-ahhhing about the cold, no time to waste. Gliding an inch below the surface, fifty yards on a single breath, the day’s warmth beating down through the water. Playing knick-knack on her spine as the sun hauled itself higher. Knowing by some- thing like instinct, something like sonar, where to turn; wheeling around and feeling her toes connect and flex against stony poolside, gulping in a lungful of air for the return lap.
The swimsuits she’d owned then, she could chart the whole decade on them. A new one every year, just about.
’66 the lemon-butter yellow with pink flamingos at the hips. ’67 the emerald green two-piece with the starry thread running through. ’68 the sophisticated navy blue Jantzen with its white piping and keystone. That one she wouldn’t change even when the fashion did, she loved it that much. From age eighteen to twenty she wore it, flinging herself into the captive rectangle of ocean until finally the elastic disintegrated and the suit slumped around her brown thighs.
Once a stingray washed into the pool overnight. It must have rode a king tide across the barrier that parti- tioned the baths from the open sea, and she’d dived right in before seeing it. As she glissed across the forty-yard line it was suddenly there beneath her, down on the floor of the pool, quietly lifting its edges like an egg in a pan. Evelyn doubled back over it and floated there awhile, staring down through the nine feet of water to where it rested, immense and blue-granite coloured with a constellation of white speckles. A map of a distant galaxy, it seemed. And its wings—was it right to call them wings? She didn’t know—had the span of a Chinese kite.
How long did she hang there above it, imagining herself a silent aircraft hovering over an uncharted islet? She waited for the ray to do something, but it seemed either content enough or else resigned to a new life of enclosure. Maybe it felt safe there. Though when she came back the next morning, it had choofed off, or been forcibly removed.
Nothing quite like that will ever happen again, she’s sure—not now, not here. How could it? This long-reaching emptiness, grabbing right into you; nothing beautiful or unlikely could sneak up on you here. You’d see it coming, kicking up dust from miles away, and by the time it got here it would already look spent, secondhand. Only the cruelty is astonishing, only the toxic boredom twisting imaginations just as the wind twists the cypress. The sight of Belle, strewn through the yard … She shivers.
Before Jack, she’d believed she would always live on the coast, at the lacy green edge of things. Was that so much to want? Evelyn feels dried-out here, older than her forty years. The last time she saw a stingray it was something dreadful, a grotesque little flaunt of exoticism. A woman at the post office carrying a souvenir handbag from Thailand, the ray’s skin dried to hard leather. The white diamond-shaped cluster of tiny, bony pearls where the dorsal fin would be. Had been. Fitting, she thinks now, though the irony escaped her at the time.
It’s very unique, she’d said to the woman, and the woman—orchestrator of fundraisers for the PTA, CFA, ETC.; Ev couldn’t remember her name—smiled back at her with something like pity.
Well, a thing’s either unique or it isn’t, she’d said back over her shoulder, then moved up to the counter to collect her package.
Join our online book club for a lively discussion of Josephine Rowe's much anticipated debut novel, A Loving, Faithful Animal.
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