‘Painstaking Progress’ is another of my stories, like ‘Art and the Mermaid’, that was first published in Quadrant Magazine. It shows the difficulties of the writing process for the narrator as she tries to make sense of her family history and agonizes about the relationship with her young lover.
by Libby Sommer
I’m imagining a cloudy autumn morning. There’s a room. Half office, half bedroom. Not too large and not too small. The windows of the room face east and look out towards the ocean across the expanse of a green gully.
I picture a woman sitting on a bed with pillows behind her back. The windows are open. Perhaps it is Saturday morning. On the bedside table is a mug of tea and a photograph of the woman’s daughter on her wedding day.
The wind begins to stir the big trees outside and the morning haze is beginning to move and for a short moment the sun lightens the carpet and heavy dark wood furniture. The shadows of the curtains’ curves darken the floor, almost invisible to the woman on the bed. The morning sun lightens the CD player, the alarm clock, the piles of books stacked on the revolving Victorian bookcase.
She looks out at the water and at the triangle of beach. Sometimes it seems that nothing much changes out there, although on some days the waves break close to shore and at other times further out to sea. She can see it all from the bed, even at night time. The bed faces the beach and the ocean, and so does the desk. The room is like standing at the rail of a ship.
On the radio: ‘Waves, to me, are a reason to live,’ says the surfer. ‘When you see the roar, the jaws, there is nothing that touches it on the face of the earth.’
In June the twilight begins in the afternoon. The days close in on me, here in
this room. The infinite possibilities in the sky and the sea and the possibility of nothing.
What is this writing life? It tears me to pieces every day.
Still no rain.
During a cool night, the drought continuing, my night mare is that I am stuck in a narrow laneway unable to turn back. I get out of the car to attempt to turn it with my bare hands. But when I turn around to pick the car up, it has disappeared. I took my eyes off it for one second and it disappeared. Gone in that second that I lost sight of it. The desperation descends on me.
I snap on the bedside light just before the dawn. Dawn through the gorge. Leaves slight in a breeze, the dark green of the Date Palms. This shy light is flashing a start to the day. In fifteen minutes the gorge will come alight in all its subtleties, water flowing across rocks, white butterflies.
Two paragraphs – and half the morning gone.
The driest May in over seventy years.
She’d been relieved when he left the room, so probably it’s already ending. But she isn’t sure. She pays close attention to the surroundings, to the people in tracksuits trudging through the sand on the beach, the noise of the traffic up the hill, the static that immerses the room. He glances at her. At first he looks at her as though he expects her to speak, but she doesn’t. So he says, Don’t worry, we’ll get through it. Then is silent. She doesn’t answer. She could reassure him, could say, Yes, that’s right, it’s a small thing, we’ll get through it. She says nothing.
He’d said he hates being lonely. She said she’s lonely, horribly lonely. He said: It’s a horrible thing loneliness.
Every day my father experienced a deep melancholy about living. Sometimes it lasted, sometimes it would vanish with the night. I had a father so desperate with sadness that sometimes even life’s surprises, those very special moments, couldn’t make him forget it. It happened every day. It would come on very suddenly. At a given moment every day the melancholy would make its appearance. And after that would follow the struggle to go on, to sleep, to do anything, or sometimes the anger, just the anger, and then the despair.
In the dream I was sleeping in a motel. I saw Father, like a floppy puppet with a wooden head, sitting on the far side of a room. He had strings attached to his hollow body and was unable to speak. The intensity of my grief woke me. I sat up on the big bed and I was by a lake, the sounds of a party under the window. Headlights bounced off the bridge and into the room through the thick curtains of the motel room. A small fridge clicked in the corner. I had been crying and the bones in my chest and in my cheeks were collapsed. I kicked the sheet off, curled around a pillow and stayed like that for the rest of the night. I became aware again of the powerful wind over on the beach and the waves curling and breaking and disappearing into the cold sand all the way along the Central Coast.
Today the sea is twice the depth of blue as the blue of the sky. The clouds change shape as I watch, drifting south, melting and thinning. At the end of the day their edges will be circled with pink.
When Tom came to visit the first time I was pleased he arrived in time to see the brief pink light on the gully. From the balcony where we ate we looked out over the round bowl of the gorge, ringed with blocks of apartments and filled with cypress and palm trees. Branches like whips; leaves every shade of green you can imagine. Rosellas and cockatoos. We heard the flock of kookaburras at dawn.
Then there’s the click of the front door. He walks in. His hair is tumbled, his lips stained with sunburn; she tells him he looks like he’s had a good time down at the beach and what a good arrangement it is turning out to be. He has something to tell her. Would she like a cup of tea first? He is going in to the kitchen to make one for himself.
No, no thanks. She’s had one already. But help yourself and then tell me what happened. He opens the door out on to the balcony, hangs his wetsuit on the railing. She watches him. Little by little he reemerges, becomes agreeable to her again.
Wait till you hear this, he says. Wait till you hear this story!
His eyes are large and open, nothing hidden. His hair curly and untamed. His white cotton tee shirt sticks to him, his thongs flecked with sand. His hands large and firm, although his voice is unsure, with a note of expectancy.
In late March I’d asked my aunt at the Montefore Home for memories of Father. ‘Your father!’ she’d said. ‘I can’t tell you that. But I can tell you about your grandparents. What I know. You ask the questions and I’ll try and give the answers.’
We were sitting at a round table in the cafeteria eating smoked salmon sandwiches and drinking tea when she said something that shocked me. She’d looked into her empty cup and then looked up at me. I’d started to stand up, but she’d motioned me down. She wasn’t finished. This aunt, almost bent double with the hump on her back who moved with the aid of a walking frame.
‘I felt very sorry for your mother,’ she said. ‘I think your mother’s life really improved after your father died.’
‘So what did you write this morning?’ Tom says.
‘Nothing. Nothing at all.’
He puts the mug onto a coaster and sits at the foot of the bed and looks at her. ‘Well, I’ve got something for you. Wait till you hear this.’ He takes a sip from his drink. She gets up and turns the radio off, then gets back into the bed.
‘It’s an amazing story.’ he says. ‘It could be an idea for you, you know, something you might use,’ he laughs and moistens his lips. ‘The first thing was, I got up when it was light enough, at first light, and thought, I wonder what the swells doing. I’ll walk down to Tamarama and have a look. It was up enough so I thought, I won’t walk over to Bronte to check the swell out there, I’ll walk back up the stairs, get into my wetsuit and risk it, just go in, because I wanted to go in.’
She makes an approving noise and nods encouragement.
‘So I came back and got into my wetsuit and walked all the way back down and headed over to Bronte,’ he continues. ‘Sorry – I forgot a part there – there’s a bit of a side story. As I was going back up the stairs there was a bloke, surfer fella, went down with a blue Aloha surf board. Now remember that bit, Sof. Oh yeah, I thought. I wonder where he’s going. So I got into my wetsuit and locked the car and off I went down to Bronte. As I was walking along with my surfboard and this bloke with a goatee drove past and gave me a bit of a look. He looked at me and I looked at him wondering, What’s he looking at?’
Tom picks up his mug and looks at her.
‘Remember that, Sofia,’ he says. ‘That bloke. That’s two fellas I’ve seen this morning.’
He laughs at what he can see is her impatience.
‘Getting closer, Sof. I’m getting closer. Then I ran. I was really stoked. Good waves, the swell was pretty good. It was much better this morning than it looked last night. So I ran down to the southern end of the beach because there’s a bit of a channel there near the rocks and you can have a go. A bit easier to get in. And I was sitting there on the sand. I was pretty tired. I’d run up those stairs and back down to the beach. So I’m doing a few stretches and then a lady came up. Starts talking to me. Said, Oh yeah the waves look all right this morning and said, Oh yeah, and Okay, and then, Have a good day. She’d had a bit of a chat and then she’d walked off. So then I was just about to walk in. No. No. Hang on. I was standing up doing some stretches and I looked out and the bloke was out there by himself. The one with the blue board.
‘He’d come in. And then he’s yelling out to me. Hey! Hey! Mate, mate! And so I thought, What’s going on here? What’s going on? He was the only one out there and I was going to be the second one. So I go over and that’s when this other bloke that I’d seen in the car appears on the beach. He was standing there too about to go in.’
‘It’s incest,’ a friend said, stirring sugar into her latte as the day closed down. ‘Except he’s not related to you.’
‘So this guy with the blue board came over,’ continues Tom, ‘and says, Mate there’s a big shark out there and look at the size of the bite mark on my board.
‘A bite mark on the board. I’d say it was that big,’ he says with wide hands. ‘The shark bit the whole nose off his board. He said he’d pushed the board into the shark.
‘The other bloke who’d looked at me in his car said, What will we do? I don’t think we’ll go in here, I said. And then one of the clubby guys came down and said, Oh – because all three of us were standing there looking at this guy show us his board. I said to him, Could you get the rubber ducky out and scare the shark off for us?
‘He said, Oh no. I can’t do that. And I wouldn’t recommend you go out there. And then he said, Well, enter at your own risk.
‘So then, Justin, the bloke in the car with the goatee said, Come on. Let’s go in. We’re umming and arring. He said, I might go in close and I said, I don’t think so. Because it’s pretty deep in close. So then, this bloke took off, the bloke with the blue board and showed everyone on the beach.
‘So is that a good story for you darling? Did I tell it well? Did I?’
‘You sent me out as shark bait!’
Sofia smiles and leans back on the pillows and pulls the sheet up under her chin.
She’d said: I want you to stop spending money on me. Stop buying me things. I don’t like it. He looked at her in surprise, asked, If that’s what you want, I won’t do it. I listen to what you tell me. Is that what you want? She said it was. He started to suffer here in this room, for the first time. He said he’d go home now if that’s what she wanted. She’d let him say it.
It’s on a family holiday at the beach. We’re together, him and us, his children. I’m five years old. My father is in the middle of the picture. I recognize the big grin on his face, the way he’s smiling, the way he waits for the moment to be over. His fixed grin, a certain tidiness to his dress, by his impenetrable expression. I can tell it’s hot, that he’s weary, that he’s anxious.
It’s sunrise over the water through the palm trees. The empty beach. Living by the sea, watching and waiting. Trying to find a way to connect the pieces.
She met Tom at a party she’d gone to alone, and then he danced with her, held her closer, asked where she lived. She didn’t often go to parties.
She wishes she could remember what they did that first day. She remembers sending him down the steps to look at the swell when he first woke up. ‘Have you got a pair of thongs I can wear,’ he said. They laughed when she showed him hers that would barely cover half his foot.
You settle into a comforting routine. Just the two of you. Get up early and look out at the swell. You show your granddaughter, four year old May Ling, his photo.
‘I’m not saying I don’t like him,’ she says. ‘But I don’t like his hair.’
‘What’s wrong with his hair?’
‘It’s curly,’ she frowns.
‘But I thought you liked curly hair. You told me I’m lucky because I’ve got curly hair.’
‘But not curly hair on a boy!’
The tables are occupied outside Café Q at Bronte, the blue and white awning is down. There is a spare seat on the lounge just inside the front door and I cross to it. The parking policewoman is kept busy checking the parking meters and writing tickets. The other regulars are here, the ones who come at this time of the day. The woman with the baby. And there’s the little white dog she ties up to the post box outside. It’s like sitting in a giant lounge room at this place. The waitress takes the baby outside to play with the buttons of the public phone. People get up from their seats and stand on the pavement watching for the white sprouts of water. Whales out to sea today.
Meanwhile the sky has turned into a light translucent grey above the pink glow of the setting sun. The sea darker out towards the east. Four spiked- headed palm trees, their trunks encircled in knots.
In the school holidays, I took May Ling to my niece’s house to play with her two children. Over a cup of tea I asked my niece for memories of her grandfather, my father. I told her I’d spoken to the aunt in the Monteforie Home and that I wanted to find these things out before everyone died.
‘A lot of them are dead already,’ she said. ‘I only know they were Russian.’
‘Russia and Poland. Your great grandmother was Polish. She was Ben Gurion’s cousin, first cousin.’
‘That’s really something!’
She told me she remembered him being sick most of the time. ‘Once I got to an age that I could remember things. I remember him as being sick, but he was quite a large presence really and I remember him in the big chair and he’d have trouble getting up and I’d often help pull him up. I really don’t have memories of him though. I remember the night he died and his funeral. It was at night. I was in bed and got up and realized that Mum and Dad were in the “grown up” lounge room and Dad went to the hospital and they’d actually said “that was it” because he’d been in hospital for awhile and I went back to my room and closed the door. I had photos of all my school friends on the back of the door and they all fell off. It was the spookiest thing. I didn’t slam the door or anything. I remember the sound of the photos fluttering to the floor.’
The clouds stretch across the sky and move south.
Tom rubbed her shoulder a little. It doesn’t really matter so much, does it, darling? Sometimes he massaged her feet and she would keep on reading. This time she pulled her feet out of his hands. He looked out at the dark blue afternoon sweltering on the sea, and sighed heavily and said he felt dreadful for upsetting her.
You have Sunday breakfasts. At the table next to you three young men talk about Rugby while eating poached eggs on toast. This cove at Clovelly that is protected from the ocean swells by the rocks. Iridescent green underside of flippers, bare-chested swimmers. Pigeons watch from the cement. Snorkellers looking for sightings of blue gropers and cuttlefish among the wildlife in this eastern beach. The occasional Port Jackson shark.
A plane flies through the low hanging cloud over the cliffs. A woman by the rocks on a stone bench pats the shoulder of the man beside her in a friendly loving manner. The man’s head, with its peaked white hat, scans the horizon.
The waves brush and break over the rocks that almost enclose the cove. Boys in flippers, snorkels and short wetsuits with heads down looking for the family of gropers. Another man ducks his head down into the sea, fills his goggles with water, then empties them. With head down he floats towards the steps.
‘There’s no need to be self-conscious,’ Tom had said in the early morning light. ‘There’s no need to be. It’s the person inside that’s important.’
Through the open door the same cool wind is breaking up the sea into chunks of moving white caps over there towards the horizon. Beside an upright and steady television aerial, down there near the beach, a palm tree sways in the breeze.
You find a photograph of your daughter when she was thirty. She’s on the balcony with her own daughter. She’s wearing a pale pink t-shirt and pearl earrings and her skin looks smooth and brown. Her smile is happy and bright. That’s not how she sees herself though, that attitude of someone happy in the moment.
He asks you questions about your family.
‘What about your father?’ he says. ‘What did he do? What was he like?’
‘My father was not an educated man,’ you say. ‘Although he was well read. He was the eldest in a working class family and he left school at the age of 8. He was a self-made businessman.’
‘I remember him as being very pale,’ she continued before deciding we needed more tea. ‘Very white hands. The translucent nails. Can’t say I knew much about his personality. Only his physicality. It’s very sad. Awful.’
Tom has strong muscled legs and large biceps. His arms grip so hard you have trouble releasing them and you can feel how tired they must get from all the paddling. In his new thongs he looks brown and taut. He is very proud of his ability in the water and is ready for any emergency between the waves. Several times a week he practices his maneuvers, conditions permitting.
‘You have fun with me don’t you?’ he says.
‘We’ll get through it. Don’t worry. Everything will be okay.’
When your brother rings to see how you are, you say, ‘I had a good weekend with Tom.’
‘You mean your little surfie handbag!’ he exclaims.
‘Make sure he doesn’t get your money,’ your sister had warned.
‘What’s his name again?’ your eldest son said. ‘I keep forgetting his name.’
‘What do you expect me to say?’ said your daughter. ‘What do you want me
On the radio: ‘It’s really a beautiful day. I think God’s out there having a swim.’
‘What did your parents say?’ you ask Tom.
‘Dad said, Go for it son. Mum said, Toy boy.’
‘We used to go to visit every weekend,’ she said. ‘On, I think, a Sunday afternoon. We’d go and visit them and he had his bedroom and he had an organ in there. And he turned the organ on for us while the grownups chatted. And I remember his bed, his space, the smells of his room. Not a nasty smell. You know, there was the smell of the books. It wasn’t a weak smell. It was quite hard really. A sharp smell. A sharpish smell. Not a horrible smell. Not a bad smell. I remember his pill box next to the bed. It’s the first time I’d seen one of those pill boxes that had the times of the day on it. And his little boxy room. And Nana had the gorgeous gilt bedroom you know, and this huge bed and it was like Arcadia to a little girl. And then he had a single bed. I couldn’t imagine such a large man in that bed.’
‘Papa’s room.’ She stumbled on the word, the name she used to call him, barely able to remember. ‘I can’t remember us playing in Nana’s room,’ she added.
Last night at the Sushi Train at Bondi Junction a friend said, ‘I chatted to a man while waiting in the queue at MBF this morning. An older German man. He was so interesting. I found his stories of Germany fascinating. There are stories everywhere,’ she added with a rising inflection in her voice and an arching of her eyebrows.
But how to tell them?
She mixed soy sauce into the wasabi paste. ‘So you don’t think you could love someone your own age?’
‘Love someone at any age.’
‘You don’t love him?’
‘The other day he said to me, You’re well-educated and intelligent. Sometimes I wonder what you see in me.’
‘What did you say?’
‘I said what he wanted to hear. I said, You’re so handsome and such a good lover. I didn’t talk about my ambivalence.’
And the funeral? I said, reminding her that I was in South America when he died.
‘Such a big step in the recovery process is the funeral,’ she consoled me. ‘We lived in Bulkara Road and that steep driveway and there were stairs and everyone used to just go up and down the driveway instead of using the stairs. Nana was standing at the bottom of the stairs saying, “I can’t go. I can’t go. I’m not going.” Of course she went,’ she added softly.
‘And I wore …… odd shoes! Which I didn’t discover until later. Mum decided we were too young to go to the Crematorium so we went to the funeral – which I have no memory of now – I can’t remember where it was – funny. I remember going in the car and then Mum sent us home with a friend of hers. When we got to the friend’s house she gave us lunch and I realized my shoes didn’t match. My sister and I had two similar pairs of white shoes with little heels on them and I’d grabbed one of her shoes.’
‘I heard he died trying to pull all the tubes out.’
‘I didn’t know he had an operation. The children weren’t told. I remember the hospital, going there, walking through the courtyard. I don’t remember being in a room with him. Sick! Isn’t that funny?’
‘He asked me if he’d been a good father and did he marry the wrong woman?’
‘That’s why I think that I remember Nana saying, I don’t want to go to the funeral, it’s too upsetting. I always thought they were at war. I remember thinking, but he didn’t like you.’ She paused and looked at me, put her hand on mine. ‘Life’s not that simple though.’
Is there anything else you can remember?
‘I remember him being proud that I was smart.’ she said laughing at herself. ‘I remember it being a big thing for him. Which is sort of an old European thing.’
Tom’s skin is amazingly soft. A thin body, but strong in muscle tone. He’s almost hairless. Perhaps he’s weak, possibly too malleable, definitely vulnerable. She looks him in the face. Looks into his eyes. He touches her. Touches the softest parts of her, caresses her.
He is reticent to mix with the people she knows. He is just a boat builder, after all, and they may not take him seriously. Also, they might laugh at the way he speaks. They might laugh because this is the eastern suburbs of Sydney.
He does not consider himself to be intelligent, witty or articulate.
Sofia breathes in the salt air and remembers the taste of warm salt water on his skin. She pauses to watch as another wave rears up from the deep. A lone surfer out on the point. As she walks the surfer drops down the face of a big left-hander. He paddles into the path of the wave. Another wave and he’s kicking hard to mount it, rises to his feet before leaning into his first turn.
‘An around the house cutback is when you go out on to the face of the wave away from the pocket and turn back in to the whitewash and then rebound off the whitewash and back around,’ Tom said. ‘You’re really doing a cutback into a backhand re-entry off the foam. Two maneuvers in one. It’s a good point scoring maneuver, the one I use the most.’
‘Ask May Ling if she wants to come down for milk and cookies,’ my niece called out to her son.
‘And I have a memory of him at the Shabbas table and us crowding around him,’ she said. ‘But I think that memory comes from a photo, not from the real thing. How old was I when he died? He was very sick at my Batmitzvah. I would have been thirteen. He came out of hospital for my Batmitzvah and he came up to the Bima and I said, Can I put my arms around you? And I caught that he was wearing some sort of support thing under his shirt. I don’t know what it was and then I started to cry uncontrollably and everyone thought I was crying because it was my Batmitzvah, but I was crying because I felt that Papa was “not right”. And then he went back to the hospital and he didn’t come to the party. He’d made a huge effort to come to the Shule. You don’t remember, you don’t think about things at that age. I’d forgotten that memory and it came up. I remember thinking he was in a lot of pain and he struggled to be there.’
‘What do you do when you’re not working?’ Sofia asked Tom. ‘You’ve asked me that before,’ he’d said. ‘Not a great deal.’
‘I remember going to Nana’s house and the photos of her from before and I thought she looked just so glamorous. And going to Dad’s factory and he was working with Papa and they had a wall of stuff they’d brought back from other countries – he’d gone to Japan and brought things back and thinking he was Superman. Flying to other countries. But of course I’ve inherited Dad’s view of the world so I know that Dad, ‘the genius’, went into the family business and worked for his father for years and never really wanted to. Life was not what Dad wanted it to be – or was unable to accept what his life was – put it that way. I remember now, at the Minion at Nana’s house, Dad ….. I think he’d probably been drinking …. he was very emotional. He said if he hadn’t sold the business that his father would never had died and that he had all these regrets and on the one hand he wished he’d never been in the business and then on the other hand he wished he’d held on to the business. I think a doctor told Dad that Papa had nothing to live for because the business had gone.’
‘I heard him say that in hospital. I said to him there are so many things you can do now.’
My neice laughed bitterly, then said wistfully, ‘Yeah. All those grandchildren. I’m so proud of my children. Lovely family. That’s what’s important.’
‘Look at that,’ says the waiter looking out at the sea. ‘It’s coming from the east. You can never pick it this time of the year can you?’
He taps me on the arms, ‘Are you parked down the road?’
‘No. I’m on foot.’
I blow on the surface of the coffee, but it is still too hot.
A former heroine addict is being interviewed on the radio: ‘I was solemn, angry and unhappy,’ he says. ‘Determined to destroy myself. The heroin alleviated doubt, unease, discomfort.’
‘What was it like afterwards?’ asks the interviewer.
‘You feel very empty afterwards. I bottomed out. You have to decide, Do you want to live or do you want to die? It was a deep character flaw with me.’
On the radio: ‘Dangerous surf conditions with the time at five past nine.’
Copyright © Libby Sommer 2017
Header Image: Creative Commons