BOOKS > VICTORIA CHALLIS
what it says on the cover:
in a name, anyway?’
Just about everything,’ she whispered.
He handed her some letters. ‘If you were right about that,
I’d know all about you.’
Shaded by plane trees, they stared at each other.
Victoria Challis and her postman, who never address each other
by name. Victoria and her politician husband. Victoria and
her mother, the ‘Great Lady’, living on the highpoint
of her wealthy suburb. And the prowler, who’s roamed
the hill for years. All of them tied together by unexpected
Chester Eagle’s latest novel examines, not without some
humour and whimsy, a variety of relationships; but an awareness
of what’s available and allowable for us now that the
women’s movement has driven wedges into the patriarchy
permeates both plot and style.
read some extracts from the book click here:
Quarrel on a lake
read about the writing of this book click
in her house, she watched him riding up the street. He knows
everyone's name, she thought, and
no one knows his.
the road, he put letters in boxes. When he felt like it he
blew his whistle. Something
in the sound, and the fact that he still bothered to do
it, made her feel a comment was intended. She took her mother's note
from the table:
I've booked the children in at Grammar and Saint Anne's.
They knew Tony of course and Saint Anne's
me they remembered you, but it's so important
to have their names on the lists. Bring them over for dinner on Saturday
if you're not doing anything else.
children were in the room next to her, and from their voices
it was clear
that a quarrel was imminent. They'd
burst in, each demanding that
she take sides
against the other. She slipped out of the house as quietly as she
could. Opening the front gate, she wondered where she could
postman was startled when she appeared beside him. 'Haven't
collected your paper yet,' he said. Obediently she
did so. 'Bit of a drama
at Moyston. All over
the front page.' She unrolled the paper.
PASSION ENDS IN TEARS
WIFE SAYS SHE DIDN'T PLOT TO KILL HIM
was a photo of a woman wearing dark glasses, with a stiff,
and another of the man who shot
her husband, clinging
hand of his wife.
COULDN'T MURDER FOR LOVE, SAYS CONSTABLE
was up there for a couple of years,' said the postman. 'I
know all the places
in that story. Don't know the cops
she asked, 'What's your name?'
‘ That's a bit sudden,' he said,
trying to stare her down. 'What's in a name, anyway?'
about everything,' she whispered.
handed her some letters. 'If you were right about that, I'd
know all about you.' He
shook his head. Shaded
by plane trees, they
stared at each other. She felt that there was something unfulfilled,
some need that had never found
object, in this man with navy trousers and a
large plastic bag
his handlebars. There was also an insatiable curiosity,
and she knew
he'd guessed that she was
on the verge of running away.
stared at the big house, as if to remind her of what she
had to lose. 'I'd
better get on with
'People are waiting
his bag. Was he trying to escape because something
he wanted hidden had been seen? 'That's not
very honest of you,'
was sunny on the porch. She sat on the cane lounge and read
about the love triangle:
McQuade told the jury yesterday that her marriage had been
under a great deal of stress in recent years, and that she
had begun a sexual relationship with Senior Constable Dennis
Dixon when he was on relieving duties at Moyston in late
1984, She said that at one stage during her affair with Senior
Constable Dixon she had separated from her husband and taken
their two children to live in Melbourne. However, just before
her husband's death, she had made a firm resolution to make
her 13-year marriage work, and had told Senior Constable
Dixon that she returned to her husband of her own free will.
will: the bloody children! What did she do but cater for
their needs, to the point where she scarcely existed?
said that initially her marriage had been very happy but
after her husband was beaten up by a group of people while
on duty several years ago, he had undergone a personality
change and had become subject to depression and violent fits
of temper. She said that he took his police duties very seriously
and suffered a great deal of stress from his work.
were calling her as they came downstairs. Even their futures
were on the way to being determined, courtesy of her mother.
A couple of years and she'd be getting 'Dear parent' letters;
she gripped the paper firmly:
McQuade said that at about 7 p.m. on the night of her husband's
death, she had answered a telephone call from Senior Constable
Dixon, who, using a disguised voice, had told her to tell
Senior Constable McQuade that lights had been seen in a deserted
farmhouse in Stony Creek Road. Then, using his own voice,
Senior Constable Dixon had said, 'I'm going to get him.'
She answered, 'Don't be stupid, Dennis,' but he hung up,
loved her children and hated being a mother. It made her
wince to hear the back door bang, and bang again as one
of them thought to close it properly.
McQuade said her husband asked her what the message was,
and she told him someone had reported seeing lights in
the house, but said it was not important. 'Then I put my
arms around him and tried to persuade him not to go.' She
said that when her husband insisted on going she believed
that at most there would be a fight between him and Senior
cats scrambled over the trellis that separated the back
yard from the front, and settled, quivering, in hideaways
near the gate. The dog woofed furiously while the children
called 'Patchy! Patchy! Don't be cruel! Don't be mean!'
Their voices were full of excitement from the scramble
they'd caused in the back yard.
an hour later she was called to the house by Senior Constable
Dixon on the police car radio, and went out to find him
I asked him "Where's Lindsay?" and he said "He's
out the back."
never occurred to me that Lindsay might have been hurt.
I just thought Lindsay would be in trouble for shooting
another policeman,' she said.
were they going to be like, her two? Lindsay— she
winced at having given him the name of the dead policeman—had
to be protected from the lethal side of the male psyche.
And Ellen ... would she be clever enough not to be trapped?
phone rang. Her mother. The children, hearing it, knew
where she was, and rushed to seize her legs. Lindsay
wanted her to pick him up; she had to ask her mother
to repeat what she'd said. The purpose of the call was
to change the arrangement. Her mother was going to a
Gallery Society function on Saturday afternoon and it
would tire her. Could they come over on Sunday?
explained why this wasn't possible, with the children
crying out that they wanted to go to grandma's straight
away. 'This very instant!' Ellen said. She explained
why this too was impossible. The sop to their disappointment
was that they would all have lunch on the porch, where
it was sunny. So sandwiches were cut, biscuits coated
with butter and Vegemite, and drinks were put on a tray.
Patch had to be allowed to join them, which meant that
the cats made their way along the fence to the back yard.
Lindsay licked the butter and Vegemite off his biscuits
before crunching them with powerful teeth. Ellen said
he had bad manners. This was discussed. When their attention
was on the dog again, she resumed her reading:
McQuade said she had helped Senior Constable Dixon into
his own car and had told him to go home to his wife, then
had returned to her own home, expecting her husband to
return soon after. When he had not returned after several
hours, she rang the Ararat police station.
lunch was finished, she said it was time for their midday
sleep. For once there was no disagreement. When they'd
settled, she took a pot of tea to the porch and studied
the paper again, wondering why the story held such fascination
touched shyly at the door.
brought you some sheets.
they traced the patterns.
beautiful. Where did you get them?
Italian. You're not allowed to ask what they cost.
loved them; they were too good for what he'd been, but perfect
for what he felt he was becoming.
we're in bed on sunny afternoons, we'll be able to pull them
over us and look up.
ours. You're not allowed to share them with anyone else.
at the impossibility, they rushed to be together, stroking
their cool lovers' bodies, warming.
lost the afternoon in each other.
can I have some tea?
went outside to wait for him.
going to buy you a tray.
spend too much on me.
want to. I want you to tell me why you emptied the house.
I want to be here all the time. I can't, but I want to. You
won't let anyone else come here, will you?
shook his head.
you sure you don't want someone else?
couldn't possibly have anyone else.
think I've got next weekend organised. You can take me to
your bush house.
his excitement, he felt a strand of doubt, of caution.
is it, darling?
got this fear that it's all going to blow up. When other
people find out, for instance.
find out in good time. Bugger them, we're going on.
smiled, feeling weak, admiring her determination.
not used to taking risks.
think I'm taking photos. Well, I will be. But a couple of
weeks later I'll have to take the family there.
can have anything you like from me.
next mountains were a wild lot. Proud precipice-gazers, vista-people,
profligate with daisies and degrees of vision, needing a
cloak of storm to make them fully dressed.
we camp out tonight, darling, or go back to your house?
what I want to do.
pitched their tent near a stream.
it gets windy we'll hear the roar of the trees up there,
and we'll be snug down here.
need a fire.
foraged for dry wood, amazing themselves with their energy.
could be a bonfire!
all be gone in an hour. Let's be canny Scots and keep it
going all night.
long as it's a big one!
crags, eminences and crests considered their visitors.
we let them stay?
them and listen.
tended their fire carefully. She got water. They sat in two
folding chairs, the thrones of their love.
we watch it, it won't boil.
watch it, then, and make it take forever.
dragon-backed mountains felt this was a good start.
me about your life. Things you haven't told me before. From
unzipped his jacket and looked down. They laughed, the willingness
was so strong.
I sing it, or tell it as a tale?
you like, darling, but bring the story here to us.
repetiteur, a rabbit, looked out of its log.
upon a time . . .
grabbed each other, laughing wildly. The fire blazed, cracking
and popping. The birds did everything birds do—snipped
insects with their beaks; soared; flitted, calling, from
tree to tree in the light blue, light brown forest.
there was a man ...
who thought he could never put himself together.
this a magical tale, darling?
at the end.
touched her hand.
I made things right for you?
did I do it?
accepted me. You see, I think men resolve most things through
their women. Their lives and their bodies.
your wife let you do that?
And we split.
let Tony do it to me any more.
we avoid it?
became abstracted, distant. Where was she? He wanted her
have I done for you, darling? Can you say?
You give me honest answers. You don't try to be anything
you aren't. Above all, you recognise me.
that first morning, by the roses?
never been so perfectly comprehended. I knew it would be
safe to be with you bemuse you wouldn't try? to distort me,
or interfere with me. You want for me what I want for myself.
That's very precious. And rare. And, I have to say, that
you're my hideaway. I come to you to be made happy. That's
another rare gift you've got.
one else has ever said so.
they didn't understand you.
felt she was validating, retrospectively, his earlier years
of manhood. If he accepted this, would he be letting himself
off too lightly, now that he was perfect? Something else
were you thinking about, a moment ago, when you were quiet?
was asking myself if I had accepted you, and I have. I've
taken you into my very centre. And I was trying to look ten,
five years ahead, and I couldn't see any thing. That means
I'm going on without hope.
was the Greek woman who always knew the future?
you think she really knew, or did she just project her fears?
ran the tips of her fingers along the back of his hand. Hold
stood up. He unzipped the front of the tent.
you afraid you've made a mistake?
haven't made a mistake. I'm here because I need to be.
on a lake
senior member of the Party was getting ready to retire. There
would have to be a by-election and a promotion into the shadow
cabinet. The leader—the foul-mouthed ex-estate agent
who aspired to be Premier—sounded out Tony on his interest
in being spokesman on ethnic affairs. Tony assured him of
his enthusiasm for the job.
said nothing of this possible elevation to his wife until
they were established in the Glenmaggie cottage, which struck
him as being a dump in an uninviting locale. But he bided
his time, and when they were on the lake in the launch he'd
rented, the engine turned off and three lines dangling—his
wife preferring to read—he told her. She asked him
who was doing the job now, and what it involved, then went
back to her book.
could scarcely contain his rage at her indifference. He wanted
to grab the book and throw it in the water, and his wife
too, for good measure; at least he'd get a reaction.
are you reading?'
Hundred Years of Solitude.'
made a sneering sound.
to aggression, she looked at him angrily.
you like to say what you mean by that?'
certainly would. How long are you giving me?'
looked at the wide, calm lake.
seems to be plenty of time.'
let her see his glance take in the children.
it's not the occasion.'
courage is failing you, is it?'
wanted to kill her there and then. Push her in. Hold her
head under, he was strong enough to do it. But the children.
He remembered his suspicions.
are you so keen on this place?' He jabbed a thumb in the
direction of the house he didn't like.
wondered where this line would lead. If, she decided, it
took them to their breaking point, then so be it.
unpretentious. If we were sufficient for each other, it would
do us very well.'
that you want to be in a luxury hotel, with service laid
on, so you can feel important. It's your vanity, and it's
more than that. You can't relate to me any more except from
a position of perceived importance. Perceived by you, and
accepted as such by everyone who knows you, particularly
me. You're going to get a move up in the parliament. What
you want is for me to treat you as more important, instead
of less because actually you're moving away from me.' 'How
am I moving away from you?'
need me less and less, except as a figure to be there, like
those token wives coming down the steps of planes with their
prime minister husbands. Platform wives.'
decided to throw it at her.
you on your own, when you were down here before?'
wondered how he'd handle it.
was someone with you?'
owner of the house.'
owner of the house?'
felt sick. He also felt disbelief, rage, curiosity. Most
of all, he felt ashamed. The bloody postman!
is utterly, absolutely and totally ridiculous!'
wanted to provoke him.
I must be out of my mind?'
stark, staring, raving mad! What in the name of God possessed
possessed me is a passion that's brought me to life again.
I was slowly dying until this happened. You can rage about
it if you must—I suppose I have to expect that—but
you'd better learn to take it seriously, and to treat it
with the greatest respect, pretty quickly, or your usefulness
for me will be over.'
felt the urge to drown her rising in him again, more savagely
read his mind.
do it. There's no easy, spectacular way out for any of us.
We're just going to have to work it through. Keep dramas
to a minimum and see what happens.'
did this fellow get onto you, excuse the pun?'
don't excuse the pun. You'll have to take him seriously too.
He's committed to me. He wants me. I don't want to fail him.
I don't particularly want to fail anybody.'
don't, perhaps, consider that, by doing what you're doing
... I mean, that the situation being what it is ...'
was getting tangled, and having difficulty keeping his voice
down so the argument didn't reach the children. She knew
what he wanted to say but chose not to give him the words.
He struggled on:
our situation, I mean. I mean my situation, now that you're
doing this. And the children's situation, if their mother's
going to desert them ..."
looked at him with contempt.
a grip on yourself. I've no intention of deserting my children.
What put that in your head? Don't imagine you're going to
force me out. I told you, there's no easy way for any of
us. You're going to have to live with it. If you can't, you
have to go.'
felt it was the cruellest thing he'd heard. And why should
misery strike him in the middle of a lake? He couldn't pace
up and down, he couldn't go for a walk to think about it.
He was stuck. Her eyes were unwavering.
bloody well look at me like that!'
you want to go back to shore?'
nodded, but felt too weak to stand.
there. I'll do it.'
started the engine. The children looked up in surprise. She
told them to pull in their lines. They swung them in, a couple
of metres of thread with a hook and a worm.
get anything, Mum!'
drove the boat towards the shore, the only one of them looking
forward. Tony sat listlessly in the stern, his line dragging.
The children commented on this; she looked indifferently
over her shoulder. She knew she'd pay for what she was doing,
later, when her strength deserted her and she felt weak.
children were impressed by the way she throttled back the
engine, drifted against the jetty, and tied the boat with
a rope. 'Did Daddy show you what to do?' Ellen asked. She
ignored the question. Tony still sat in the stern, pale and
slumped. The children told him to pull in his line. Without
shifting, he did as he was told. To the children's great
excitement, there was a fish on the line; as he pulled it
closer to the boat it swam wildly, this way and that, trying
to escape. 'Pull it in, pull it in!' the children called.
Tony pulled until the fish hung over the stern, a small thing
no longer than his hand, suspended in the air by the hook
in its mouth. The children were upset by the hook but felt
that once it was removed they could take the fish home and
have it in a bowl in their bedroom, or perhaps the kitchen.
Their mother's reaction struck them as heartless.
it back. It's undersize. You're not allowed to keep them
when they're only that big.'
been to the Alhambra, in Spain.'
it was marvellous. Why are you changing the subject?'
not. That's where it happened.'
did he do that was so wrong?'
kept reading these guidebooks. He wanted to know all about
it before he saw it.'
a good idea to prepare yourself. You should have encouraged
we got there, he started drinking beer with these English
people, and talking politics. I went off by myself.'
thought her mother, but waited.
found this place, in one of the early rooms, where you look
on to the old quarter. There's a steep drop right in front
of you. The walls were covered with those wonderful patterns,
and Arabic writing. And on either side of the window, facing
each other, were two ceramic seats. I sat on one of them.
At first I was happy being on my own, and then I started
to sense the possibilities of having someone suitable...
with the proper awareness, I think I mean ... sitting opposite.'
I know that room you mean. You can almost reach out and touch
those little white houses on the other side of the valley.'
you go there with father?'
we did. I was pregnant with you, but I didn't know it then.
It must have only just happened.'
me what you remember about it.'
whole place was enchanting. And those gardens! It was raining
when we were there but you could see how heavenly they'd
be on a warm night.'
knew her mother well.
you wish for anything?'
hope that question's not some sort of trap, Vicky ... sorry
, . . but all right, I'll tell you. I wished I wasn't a tourist,
I wished the whole palace was mine.'
Did you want father there too, to own it with you?'
of course if I'd owned it I'd have wanted him with me. What
would be the good of being there on your own? But it was
just a fantasy, a little escape into fairyland. A delightful
little dream that kept me happy for a few hours.'
few hours! Did you tell father what you were thinking?'
course I did. And he kissed me, and said we'd have our dream
for the afternoon, and when we got home, we'd make something
as good. It was when we got back that we had all those extensions
done. It was quite a modest house until then.'
house behind the elms had large interior spaces, but was
tightly designed, with prominent fireplaces, dark panelling
and rafters, and narrow leadlight windows in Australian-Tudor
style. Even the front steps were clinker brick. A long way
from the Alhambra dream, she thought, wondering why her mother
didn't say so.
it isn't as good, is it?'
mother stiffened, feeling she'd opened up too easily under
her daughter's questioning.
been a wonderful home. You were very happy there as a child.
I had an approach from an agent the other day, he asked me
to name my own price. Some diplomat's been admiring it.'
couldn't bear the thought of a sale. It would mean not having
access to her beginnings.
wouldn't sell it, would you?'
mother smiled at her anxiety.
certainly won't. It was the first and only home of my marriage.'
do think marriage is sacred, don't you?'
course I do, and so should you.'
only a social form. How can marriage be sacred unless we're
sacred? The people who marry are sacred?'
only got to look around to see that most people are far from
marriage will improve them?'
will if they put their hearts into it. Commit themselves.
It's not called a sacrament for nothing, you know.'
felt they'd reached an impasse.
was telling you how I felt, sitting on that seat.'
mother relented a little.
called the Golden Room, that place you're talking about,
I remember now. I don't know why, I thought there were other
rooms that were more golden.'
went through the whole palace on my own. Sometimes I wanted
it to go on for ever, and sometimes, because it was so exquisite
that I found it painful, I wanted it to end. And when I'd
been through the whole place, I went back to that seat.'
you're going to tell me that Tony was still off drinking
was, but I'd forgotten him by then.'
thought of the palace for a moment, and sensed that her mother
was trying to visualise it too.
tried to think my way into the mind of the architect, and
then I realised he'd already thought his way into mine.'
Challis considered this idea of her daughter's, her mind
playing on the formal gardens, the archways, sensuous water,
and the endless iteration of faith in the calligraphy on
the walls, an insubstantial plaster writing that had been
damaged and restored, but had somehow managed to survive
through the centuries as few human statements had survived
so lucidly, and felt self-satisfaction in that she had so
keenly wished to possess it. Exquisite as the palace was,
it was not overwhelming; thus there was room, need, for a
refined, superior human presence to give the building and
its gardens life. She answered:
people—not many, I'm sure, out of all those busloads
of tourists who arrive there every day—some people
would realise how much would be expected of anyone who lived
there. If that's what you mean, I believe you're right.'
took up her mother's words.
I think I'm trying to say is that those expectations are
inbuilt. The building has an awareness. When I sat on that
seat, looking at the empty seat, I knew it was the perfect
place for conversation. I was sitting in that passageway
of air, with that view on one side, and those wonderful rooms
on the other, and I could feel that they were in dialogue
because every time the light changed outside, something happened
inside, so there was an opportunity—the seats gave
you the opportunity—to talk across that flow of air
and light, that interaction, and when you've been there a
while, you realise that the building knows that you know
what's going on, and expects you to act up to that perfection
. . .'
mother felt she was being subverted. She wanted to get back
to her daughter's disgraceful behaviour.
so you've got to be good! You've got to be up to it! You've
got to have that dimension of awareness, or else you fail
the test. You're crass!'
card showed a stony mountain plateau, with snow gums and
some patches of snow.
L, Not like this at the moment, fortunately. We're in Armidale.
His highness suddenly decided he'd had enough of the sea.
Mind you we're heading for Byron Bay next, then Mullumbimby.
I'm looking forward to Queensland. The van's going well.
We sleep in it most nights. Occasionally we treat ourselves
to a motel. We've got a gas cooker but Jack likes to light
fires so we're always ducking down back roads. Lots of love,
noticing where she pinned the cards, grasped that she was
imagining the board as a map.
like to go around Australia,' he told Leanne.
you think you ever will?'
will depend,' he said grimly, 'on how many times I get married.'
treated this warily; she'd already refused an invitation
to have lunch with him.
haven't started planning your second, have you, when you're
still on your first?'
not at all sure that I am still on my first,' he said sourly.
saw the same card, with a different message, when he got
home that night. She'd left it on the dining room table,
with a book of poems open beneath it. He read the card, which
didn't interest him, then the poem:
of my days' circle, part of my blood's country,
that tableland, high delicate outline
bony slopes wincing under the winter,
trees blue-leaved and olive, outcropping granite—
lean, hungry country.
felt it was there as an appeal to him. It made him feel agitated,
because he didn't know what he was being asked, or why. He
went to the pantry. The clippings about the shooting in Moyston
weren't there any more. Something had changed. He wondered
if she was asleep. He went back to the poem:
of my days' circle,
know it dark against the stars, the high lean country
of old stories that still go walking in my sleep.
stories? He went to the door of her room.
hardly spoken in weeks. He sat on the end of the bed.
read the poem. It's terrific. Beautiful.'
know you're saying something to me, and I'm sorry because
I'm too dense to hear it.'
could hear her breathing; the sound seemed to condemn him.
not in touch with myself the way you are. I'm not so stupid
that I don't know that. I suppose it's why I'm in politics.
I need to be surrounded by people who want things from me.
I listen to them, I work out how much it's possible for them
to get. If I'm too fussy about myself, if I've got too many
fine principles, I can't operate. I know I've disappointed
you. I know there's a message in that poem. There was a message
in that story about those cops shooting each other, but you'll
have to give it to me directly. Please don't condemn me,
just tell me, and try me out that way.' '
can sleep in here tonight. Don't touch me.'
went to get his pajamas from his office.
dusty campervan stopped in the street beneath them, then
reversed into the driveway of the house opposite so that
it could be swung, neatly, with a practised hand at the wheel,
against the kerb next to her gate. A tiny figure stepped
down from the cabin.
Marj. Excuse me Mother, I'll have to go down and let her
in. Her husband died last Sunday. Ask her to tell you about
it. I think she'll be ready to talk.'
Challis went to the kitchen to put the jug on. Victoria opened
the gate and held out her arms.
back. And I'm sorry about Jack.'
who had been longing for those arms to hold her, accepted
the embrace before she looked into the welcomer's eyes.
nice thing about you, Marj, is that I think you're the only
adult I've ever hugged who's been smaller than me!'
older woman stepped back, laughing. 'Good to see you, Vicky.
And it's okay about Jack. I've finished mourning for him.
Since he had his first stroke, it's been one long period
of mourning. We had a great trip, and he died in his bed.
He never wanted to live at home again. So he went at the
right time. And thanks for the flowers.'
didn't come to the service. It would have been painful.'
you and Fred. I know about that. Where's the kids?'
at school and Lindsay's playing at a friend's. They'll both
be home soon. Come in.'
we go and get 'em, Vicky?'
and meet my mother. And when it's time, we'll all go. They'd
love to see you.'
Challis was both queenly and gracious.
this is Marj! I've heard so much about you from the children.
Are you going to come back and work for my daughter?'
she'll have me. If she needs me.'
smiled. Her mother answered.
course she does. It's the only way she can get any time to
herself. And I need her too, sometimes.'
Challis insisted on knowing everywhere they'd stopped on
their long journey.
seem to have spent as much time as you could by the sea.'
was Jack. I think there must have been a frustrated sailor
in him somewhere. Or maybe just a frustrated fisherman, because
he never caught much, for all the hours he spent dangling
like to know how he died.'
told them the story.
couldn't have had a better death. My husband died in agony.'
looked at her mother in amazement, having always been told
a car crash, coming back from Sydney. The only time he didn't
fly. The police and the people at the hospital said he died
at once. When my uncle Hendry insisted on going to the coroner's
inquest, and on me staying away, I got suspicious. Anything
Hendry said was bound to be the opposite of the truth. So
I went to the Coroner's Court on my own, some time afterwards,
and read the depositions. He'd been injured horribly, but
he was conscious, and it took them a long time to cut him
out. He died in the ambulance.'
never told me that before.'
wouldn't have done you any good, Victoria, but we're not
hiding anything from each other now, so I thought it was
time to let you know.'
paled; she'd have to imagine it fully before she could be
reconciled to it. It would mean coming to terms, a second
time, with the facts of her father's life. But not for now.
In the silence of her mother's and Marj's attention, she
breathed deeply, looking at the floor. Then she looked up.
Marj, letting her curiosity get the better of her tact, said:
you call yourself Vicky any more?'
any longer, but you can if you like.'
tried out the new name.
accepted, Marj asked a favour.
we go to get the kids, can we go in the van? I'd like 'em
to see it, and ride in it.'
finished their tea quickly. Mrs Challis started looking for
her bag, then said, 'We'll all be coming back, won't we.
I don't need it.'
deadlock made a harsh sound as the front door closed. Marj
observed that the roses by the path needed pruning.
have to train mother's friend Ziya before I'll let him do
Challis smiled on her daughter.
looking forward to the lesson. It means acceptance, in his
could feel the power running between them, and was delighted
that she too had found acceptance. She waited for them to
open, and then close, the gate, before stepping forward.
aboard! Calamity Van, I call it. You go in the middle, Vicky,
sorry, Victoria, so I've got some room to work the gears.
It's a little bit dusty there, Mrs Challis, let me wipe it
down. I didn't know we were all going to be in it or I'd
have cleaned out the cabin.'
Challis waited while the seat was wiped, then, raising her
eyebrows as a signal that she didn't mind if they laughed,
she took the high step up, hauling herself into the cabin.
'Ready to go around Australia!' she announced. Her daughter
should have let me get in first, Mother. Now I have to go
around the other side.'
thought not. 'Actually, it's a bit greasy there. Just hop
up, and slide across your mum. It's all a bit rough and ready
when you travel in a thing like this.'
doors were slammed, Marj beamed on them, and the dusty van
found its way through the busy streets to another hill a
few kilometres away. Lindsay was picked up from the Aldridges',
and sat on his grandmother's knee, but when Ellen had been
found among the scores of neatly uniformed girls at the front
of Saint Anne's, she insisted on being allowed to inspect
the living quarters. This, she thought, was the nicest possible
way of playing houses, and she persuaded Lindsay to make
the journey with her in the back—'our flat' as she
called it. Occasionally, on the way home, when their excitement
was too great, or they were simply feeling mischievous, they
pummelled with their small fists on the back of the driving
writing of this book:
book was written in 1988, when I had the third and last of
my Australia Council grants. In October 1988 I reached 55
years of age and retired from the TAFE teaching service.
I was now self-supporting, and I had all the time in the
world, so I didn’t feel free to apply for any more
grants. A few years later I made myself more or less ineligible
for such grants because I left the world of commercial publishing
and started issuing my books myself. More of that later.
wrote this book assuming it was going to be published by
McPhee Gribble but I was approached by Harper Collins/Angus
and Robertson, and transferred to that
publishing house. I never got to see their offices in Sydney because our business
was transacted by mail and over an afternoon tea with Nikki Chryster at the
Windsor Hotel. I’ve loved the Windsor since I first
saw it as a schoolboy, and regret that time and changing
fashion have reduced its high and central place
in Melbourne life.
Challis posed considerable technical problems. It’s
a tale about what the British might call an upstairs/downstairs love affair.
the development of a young woman who’s been under the dominance of
her mother; it’s about state politics (Victoria’s husband); and
about other people who don’t credit themselves with any importance.
about the difficulty of managing a passion that is pure in a world where
sordid drama is the norm, at least for the minds of average, not specially
media-consumers. If the rhetoric for understanding things is crude, how can
more developed, more refined feelings get satisfactory expression?
postman, Fred, is an observer of those he delivers mail to.
Mrs Challis, Victoria’s
mother, tells him that there’s a Peeping Tom in the area; ‘How
do you know it isn’t me?’ he replies. She takes the wind out
of his sails by saying she thought he might be the very one. The Peeping
Tom is actually
the former husband of a woman that Fred knows, and likes, called Leanne.
Leanne works in the electoral office of the local MP – Tony Decker,
the husband of Victoria Challis, son in law of Mrs Challis. The grouping
is tight. The relationships
are at best uncomfortable: then Victoria falls in love with Fred, the postman,
and vice versa. A radiant love, a perfected love, has entered the world.
It seems impossible that it can last, and after a time Victoria takes up
of her family situation and relinquishes the love. For the novelist, this
needs to seem credible, while the love between politician’s wife
and postman has to be shown as something special. Some trickery in the
and Victoria speak to each other without quotation marks.
Nor do they address each other by name. Their thoughts are shared between
the two of
them, and not
with the rest of the world. We are overhearing their minds when their
words are quoted on the page. Their love is so great that
when they take a trip
mountains the world loses its steadiness, its ‘reality’.
The mountains look tenderly upon them. The flowers listen. Shafts of
belong to them alone.
They comment on the fact that they seem able to draw energy from the
world around them, as if there is an element of robbery in their way
this is so. Victoria’s mother and her husband find
her absences exasperating. She senses that she must return to duty,
and that her times with
Fred are excursions, disappearances really, in stolen time. Victoria
has a last night with Fred, knowing that she’s going to desert
him, and deserts him. He’s heart-broken, but cannot fail to see
that life is going on around him.
ending. Another friend of Fred’s,
and of Victoria, is Marj, Victoria’s
housekeeper. She returns from a camping trip around Australia with
the body of Jack, her husband, in the back of a van. He’s had
a heart attack, and Marj decides that he was lucky, because his heart
attack was well-timed; Jack never
wanted to get back home, he wanted to travel forever. As Victoria
deals with this, and bonds with the widowed Marj, and with her mother,
see that she is
gaining strength from the fact that she’ll never ‘disappear’ again.
It’s Fred who is the loser, and he knows it. Tony, the politician,
now has a wife who will sustain him. Mrs Challis has a daughter that
proud of, not a mutinous semi-child. And the reader? The reader has
been invited to consider the mysterious ways of love, how it comes
into the world, who it
chooses as its embodiments, how it affects us, how it ends …
the book is the tale of two policemen, and how one of them
became the lover of the other’s wife, and believed that he could
have her if he killed her husband. It’s everyone’s
model of a love-triangle, a love-tragedy, and it’s a cliché.
Victoria Challis, Fred, and all the others, don’t
live according to the cliché, they fire no shots, and no
bodies fall bleeding to the ground … but the consequences
are almost as dire, the difficulties almost as great.
I was writing the book I became perturbed by the arrival
the magical elements I mentioned before – mountains commenting
on the lovers, and so on. I thought that either the book or its
author had taken leave of their senses.
But each morning, as I sat at the desk, the book pressed on,
apparently knowing what it was doing, and when I saw it finished,
it for what it was,
I saw all over again that writers have to trust what their books
intend to do. If the book doesn’t know best, you weren’t
born to be a writer.
last word about the postie’s whistle.
I had the book well underway when some query came to my mind
about posties letting residents know that their mail
had been delivered. I went to the local post office to be told
that posties hadn’t
blown whistles for years. Their union had objected to the practice
on the ground that whistles alerted dogs to the posties’ approach,
and made their jobs unsafe. It turned out that John Doherty,
my Ivanhoe postie, had been almost the
last in Melbourne to keep blowing the whistle, and he’d
just retired. I didn’t have the heart to take Fred’s
whistle from him so I left the book as it was, and I never look
at the reference to Fred’s whistle without
thinking of John Doherty who blew when everyone else had stopped
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