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OUR BOOKS > VICTORIA CHALLIS

Victoria Challis
Novel
Written by Chester Eagle
Edited by Nikki Christer
Cover painting 'Two women (black dress)' 1989 by Vicki Varvaressos, courtesy of the artist and Niagara Galleries, Richmond
First published 1991 by Harper Collins, Sydney
58,400 words
2,898 copies printed
Electronic publication 2006 by Trojan Press
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Here’s what it says on the cover:

‘What’s 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 bonds …

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.


To read some extracts from the book click here:
The opening
Lovers
Mountains
Quarrel on a lake
The Alhambra
Postcard
Victoria Challis

To read about the writing of this book click here.

The opening

Trapped in her house, she watched him riding up the street. He knows everyone's name, she thought, and no one knows his.

Criss-crossing 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:

Darling I've booked the children in at Grammar and Saint Anne's. They knew Tony of course and Saint Anne's assured 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.

The 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 go.

The 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.

DEADLY PASSION ENDS IN TEARS

POLICE WIFE SAYS SHE DIDN'T PLOT TO KILL HIM

There was a photo of a woman wearing dark glasses, with a stiff, pallid face, and another of the man who shot her husband, clinging to the hand of his wife.

I COULDN'T MURDER FOR LOVE, SAYS CONSTABLE

'I was up there for a couple of years,' said the postman. 'I know all the places in that story. Don't know the cops though, they were after my time.'

Abruptly she asked, 'What's your name?'

‘ That's a bit sudden,' he said, trying to stare her down. 'What's 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.' 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 its object, in this man with navy trousers and a large plastic bag on his handlebars. There was also an insatiable curiosity, and she knew he'd guessed that she was on the verge of running away.

He stared at the big house, as if to remind her of what she had to lose. 'I'd better get on with my round,' he said. 'People are waiting for these.' He patted his bag. Was he trying to escape because something he wanted hidden had been seen? 'That's not very honest of you,' she said, retreating.

It was sunny on the porch. She sat on the cane lounge and read about the love triangle:

Mrs 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.

Free will: the bloody children! What did she do but cater for their needs, to the point where she scarcely existed?

She 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.

They 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:

Mrs 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, she said.

She 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.

Mrs 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 Constable Dixon.

Two 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.

Half an hour later she was called to the house by Senior Constable Dixon on the police car radio, and went out to find him injured.

‘ I asked him "Where's Lindsay?" and he said "He's out the back."

It never occurred to me that Lindsay might have been hurt. I just thought Lindsay would be in trouble for shooting another policeman,' she said.

What 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?

The 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?

She 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:

Mrs 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.

When 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 for her.

> back to TOP


Lovers

Love of loves.

They touched shyly at the door.

I've brought you some sheets.

Inside, they traced the patterns.

They're beautiful. Where did you get them?

They're Italian. You're not allowed to ask what they cost.

He loved them; they were too good for what he'd been, but perfect for what he felt he was becoming.

When we're in bed on sunny afternoons, we'll be able to pull them over us and look up.

Let's try it.

They undressed.

They're ours. You're not allowed to share them with anyone else.

Laughing at the impossibility, they rushed to be together, stroking their cool lovers' bodies, warming.

Kiss my breasts.

They lost the afternoon in each other.

Please can I have some tea?

She went outside to wait for him.

I'm going to buy you a tray.

Don't spend too much on me.

I 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?

He shook his head.

Are you sure you don't want someone else?

I couldn't possibly have anyone else.

I think I've got next weekend organised. You can take me to your bush house.

She touched him.

Love of loves.

In his excitement, he felt a strand of doubt, of caution.

What is it, darling?

I've got this fear that it's all going to blow up. When other people find out, for instance.

They'll find out in good time. Bugger them, we're going on.

He smiled, feeling weak, admiring her determination.

You're not used to taking risks.

He nodded, accepting.

They think I'm taking photos. Well, I will be. But a couple of weeks later I'll have to take the family there.

He nodded.

You don't mind?

You can have anything you like from me.

> back to TOP


Mountains

The 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.

Will we camp out tonight, darling, or go back to your house?

Stay here?

That's what I want to do.

They pitched their tent near a stream.

If it gets windy we'll hear the roar of the trees up there, and we'll be snug down here.

We'll need a fire.

They foraged for dry wood, amazing themselves with their energy.

This could be a bonfire!

It'd all be gone in an hour. Let's be canny Scots and keep it going all night.

She hugged him.

So long as it's a big one!

The crags, eminences and crests considered their visitors.

Will we let them stay?

Watch them and listen.

They tended their fire carefully. She got water. They sat in two folding chairs, the thrones of their love.

If we watch it, it won't boil.

Let's watch it, then, and make it take forever.

The dragon-backed mountains felt this was a good start.

Tell me about your life. Things you haven't told me before. From the inside.

He unzipped his jacket and looked down. They laughed, the willingness was so strong.

Will I sing it, or tell it as a tale?

Anything you like, darling, but bring the story here to us.

The repetiteur, a rabbit, looked out of its log.

He began.

Once upon a time . . .

They 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 ...

Ein mensch.

... who thought he could never put himself together.

Is this a magical tale, darling?

Only at the end.

He touched her hand.

Have I made things right for you?

Yes.

How did I do it?

You accepted me. You see, I think men resolve most things through their women. Their lives and their bodies.

Did your wife let you do that?

No. And we split.

don't let Tony do it to me any more.

Can we avoid it?

She became abstracted, distant. Where was she? He wanted her back.

What have I done for you, darling? Can you say?

Yes. You give me honest answers. You don't try to be anything you aren't. Above all, you recognise me.

Remember that first morning, by the roses?

I've 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.

No one else has ever said so.

Then they didn't understand you.

He 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 was nagging.

What were you thinking about, a moment ago, when you were quiet?

I 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.

Who was the Greek woman who always knew the future?

Cassandra.

Do you think she really knew, or did she just project her fears?

She ran the tips of her fingers along the back of his hand. Hold me darling.

They stood up. He unzipped the front of the tent.

Are you afraid you've made a mistake?

I haven't made a mistake. I'm here because I need to be.

> back to TOP


Quarrel on a lake

A 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.

He 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.

He 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.

'What are you reading?'

'One Hundred Years of Solitude.'

He made a sneering sound.

'Very fitting.'

Hypersensitive to aggression, she looked at him angrily.

'Would you like to say what you mean by that?'

'I certainly would. How long are you giving me?'

She looked at the wide, calm lake.

'There seems to be plenty of time.'

He let her see his glance take in the children.

'Perhaps it's not the occasion.'

'Your courage is failing you, is it?'

He 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.

'Why are you so keen on this place?' He jabbed a thumb in the direction of the house he didn't like.

She wondered where this line would lead. If, she decided, it took them to their breaking point, then so be it.

'It's unpretentious. If we were sufficient for each other, it would do us very well.'

'Meaning?'

'Meaning 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?'

'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.'

He decided to throw it at her.

'Were you on your own, when you were down here before?'

She wondered how he'd handle it.

'No.'

'There was someone with you?'

Silence.

'Who was it?'

'The owner of the house.'

'The owner of the house?'

He felt sick. He also felt disbelief, rage, curiosity. Most of all, he felt ashamed. The bloody postman!

'That is utterly, absolutely and totally ridiculous!'

She wanted to provoke him.

'So I must be out of my mind?'

'Absolutely stark, staring, raving mad! What in the name of God possessed you?'

'What's 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.'

He felt the urge to drown her rising in him again, more savagely than before.

She read his mind.

'Don't 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.'

He sneered again.

'How did this fellow get onto you, excuse the pun?'

'I 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.'

'You don't, perhaps, consider that, by doing what you're doing ... I mean, that the situation being what it is ...'

He 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 ..."

She looked at him with contempt.

'Get 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.'

He 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.

'Don't bloody well look at me like that!'

'Do you want to go back to shore?'

He nodded, but felt too weak to stand.

'Stay there. I'll do it.'

She 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.

'Didn't get anything, Mum!'

She 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.

The 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.

'Throw it back. It's undersize. You're not allowed to keep them when they're only that big.'

> back to TOP


The Alhambra

'You've been to the Alhambra, in Spain.'

'Yes, it was marvellous. Why are you changing the subject?'

'I'm not. That's where it happened.'

'What did he do that was so wrong?'

'He kept reading these guidebooks. He wanted to know all about it before he saw it.'

'It's a good idea to prepare yourself. You should have encouraged him.'

'When we got there, he started drinking beer with these English people, and talking politics. I went off by myself.'

Typical, thought her mother, but waited.

'I 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.'

Her mother softened.

'Really? I know that room you mean. You can almost reach out and touch those little white houses on the other side of the valley.'

'Did you go there with father?'

'Yes, we did. I was pregnant with you, but I didn't know it then. It must have only just happened.'

'Tell me what you remember about it.'

'The 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.'

She knew her mother well.

'Did you wish for anything?'

'I 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.'

'Yours? Did you want father there too, to own it with you?'

'Well 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.'

'A few hours! Did you tell father what you were thinking?'

'Of 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.'

The 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.

'But it isn't as good, is it?'

Her mother stiffened, feeling she'd opened up too easily under her daughter's questioning.

'It's 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.'

She couldn't bear the thought of a sale. It would mean not having access to her beginnings.

'You wouldn't sell it, would you?'

Her mother smiled at her anxiety.

'I certainly won't. It was the first and only home of my marriage.'

'You do think marriage is sacred, don't you?'

'Of course I do, and so should you.'

'It's only a social form. How can marriage be sacred unless we're sacred? The people who marry are sacred?'

Her mother snorted.

'You've only got to look around to see that most people are far from sacred.'

'And marriage will improve them?'

'It will if they put their hearts into it. Commit themselves. It's not called a sacrament for nothing, you know.'

She felt they'd reached an impasse.

'I was telling you how I felt, sitting on that seat.'

Her mother relented a little.

'It's 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.'

She ignored this.

'I 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.'

'And you're going to tell me that Tony was still off drinking beer.'

'He was, but I'd forgotten him by then.'

She thought of the palace for a moment, and sensed that her mother was trying to visualise it too.

'I tried to think my way into the mind of the architect, and then I realised he'd already thought his way into mine.'

Mrs 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:

'Some 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.'

She took up her mother's words.

'What 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 . . .'

Her 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!'

> back to TOP


Postcard

Leanne's card showed a stony mountain plateau, with snow gums and some patches of snow.

Dear 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, Marj.

Tony, noticing where she pinned the cards, grasped that she was imagining the board as a map.

'I'd like to go around Australia,' he told Leanne.

'Do you think you ever will?'

'That will depend,' he said grimly, 'on how many times I get married.'

She treated this warily; she'd already refused an invitation to have lunch with him.

'You haven't started planning your second, have you, when you're still on your first?'

'I'm not at all sure that I am still on my first,' he said sourly.

He 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:

South of my days' circle, part of my blood's country,

rises that tableland, high delicate outline

of bony slopes wincing under the winter,

low trees blue-leaved and olive, outcropping granite—

clean, lean, hungry country.

He 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:

South of my days' circle,

I know it dark against the stars, the high lean country

Full of old stories that still go walking in my sleep.

What stories? He went to the door of her room.

'Tony?'

They'd hardly spoken in weeks. He sat on the end of the bed.

'I read the poem. It's terrific. Beautiful.'

'Is that all?'

'I know you're saying something to me, and I'm sorry because I'm too dense to hear it.'

He could hear her breathing; the sound seemed to condemn him.

'I'm 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.' '

'You can sleep in here tonight. Don't touch me.'

He went to get his pajamas from his office.

> back to TOP


Victoria Challis

A 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.

'It's 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.'

Mrs Challis went to the kitchen to put the jug on. Victoria opened the gate and held out her arms.

'Welcome back. And I'm sorry about Jack.'

Marj, who had been longing for those arms to hold her, accepted the embrace before she looked into the welcomer's eyes.

'The nice thing about you, Marj, is that I think you're the only adult I've ever hugged who's been smaller than me!'

The 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.'

'I didn't come to the service. It would have been painful.'

'For you and Fred. I know about that. Where's the kids?'

'Ellen's at school and Lindsay's playing at a friend's. They'll both be home soon. Come in.'

'Can we go and get 'em, Vicky?'

'Come and meet my mother. And when it's time, we'll all go. They'd love to see you.'

Mrs Challis was both queenly and gracious.

'So this is Marj! I've heard so much about you from the children. Are you going to come back and work for my daughter?'

'If she'll have me. If she needs me.'

Victoria smiled. Her mother answered.

'Of course she does. It's the only way she can get any time to herself. And I need her too, sometimes.'

Mrs Challis insisted on knowing everywhere they'd stopped on their long journey.

'You seem to have spent as much time as you could by the sea.'

'That 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 a line.'

'I'd like to know how he died.'

Marj told them the story.

'He couldn't have had a better death. My husband died in agony.'

She looked at her mother in amazement, having always been told the opposite.

'In 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.'

'You've never told me that before.'

'It 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.'

She 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:

'Don't you call yourself Vicky any more?'

'Not any longer, but you can if you like.'

Marj tried out the new name.

'Victoria Challis?'

They all laughed.

Feeling accepted, Marj asked a favour.

'When we go to get the kids, can we go in the van? I'd like 'em to see it, and ride in it.'

'Let's go now.'

They 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.'

The deadlock made a harsh sound as the front door closed. Marj observed that the roses by the path needed pruning.

'I have to train mother's friend Ziya before I'll let him do it.'

Mrs Challis smiled on her daughter.

'He's looking forward to the lesson. It means acceptance, in his eyes.'

Marj 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.

'All 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.'

Mrs 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 laughed.

'You should have let me get in first, Mother. Now I have to go around the other side.'

Marj 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.'

The 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 cabin.

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The writing of this book:

This 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.

I 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.

Victoria Challis posed considerable technical problems. It’s a tale about what the British might call an upstairs/downstairs love affair. It’s about the development of a young woman who’s been under the dominance of her mother; it’s about state politics (Victoria’s husband); and it’s about other people who don’t credit themselves with any importance. It’s 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 critical media-consumers. If the rhetoric for understanding things is crude, how can more developed, more refined feelings get satisfactory expression?

The 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 the challenge 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 narrative approach is required.

Fred 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 into the mountains the world loses its steadiness, its ‘reality’. The mountains look tenderly upon them. The flowers listen. Shafts of light 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 of sustaining love.

Perhaps 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.

And 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, we 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 she’s 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 …

Haunting 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.

When I was writing the book I became perturbed by the arrival of 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, and loved 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.

A 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 blowing.

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