It rained the day they moved. The rain began early, with a great quietness, the beginning of the cloud, the small steps on leaf and leaf. It was an old tree, and just a privet, but it rose up next to the window and through it she could see a slate roof, the quietest-coloured roof in the world. A Burmese dove with a salt and pepper clotted neck hopped through its branches, then, suddenly as if it had forgotten something, darted away on a horizontal path behind the house. She stood there next to the open window, half asleep, not thinking of anything, just loving the way the noise of the rain was caught in the world of the privet like fingernails on a snare drum. Rain dripped off the end of one leaf onto another now. She watched for a moment longer and then she saw the van coming down the street, and then Theo called from downstairs.
She went up to him and kissed his forehead as she had done every morning of her life, since she became a grown daughter.
“The van’s already here,” she said nervously, pouring his tea and placing it next to him on the cloth.
“Yes, and you should be dressed,” he said in Greek. She looked out of the kitchen window, so used to his manner she didn’t notice it any more, long aware of the uneasy mix of toughness and tenderness, water and oil. Only when she was making bread did they seem to be ingredients of promise.
“Father, they’re starting outside, not inside,” she said, conscious she was moving towards rebuke. The men were, too, carefully wrapping with rugs and bubble-wrap the two garden statues and the benches which only at the weekend had been covered with children and family for the last big barbecue they would ever have at the house. She hurried into her room and changed.
She made his breakfast and sat down to eat her own, cutting the bread with a knife clenched too tight and thinking in the new place it won’t be like this. Through the window she could see the walls of the newer wing of the house, slate-grey iron they’d had it covered in, hiding the old wooden walls. That had worked. Next to the dark grey she loved the white on the windowsill and doors, that lovely quiet contrast like the cuffs on the garments of a nun. Everything about the house was careful.
When the three-storey flats had been built opposite, her father had carefully put a trellis of wires tightly wrought along the top of the fence so that the creeper grew up and the tenants opposite could not look down at them from their small balconies. She got up and began to empty the dishwasher, wondering as she did so whether there was any point in putting things back into the cupboards.
By late morning it was raining hard, lines of pencil-coloured water streaking down from the sky and clouds so low that by noon the planes were sliding in and out of the grey. Outside she saw the men pause and lock up the back of the truck, and a moment later she heard the engine start and the truck pull away with very few of their possessions in it. She felt a sudden start of joy: it was too wet to move and they wouldn’t come back. They could stay.
But when she walked through the rooms of the house, that comforting thought vanished. Every room had changed. In one room all the cupboard doors had been left open. The dining room table was covered in layers of white wrapping paper and a young woman, who looked up uncertainly and smiled at her, was already wrapping the crystal glasses they had used at Alex’s wedding a decade ago.
The house had grown over the years into a large and comforting series of rooms inside, and easy spaces outside. Yet it was unpromising, built on a corner that wasn’t even square but jutted out into the streets, and on the wrong side of the street, the low side where Ashbury stopped and Canterbury began. Yet her parents had made it a home where the children had grown up and gone away to make homes of their own and come back, like swallows, full of nestlings, every Sunday, the little ones running around outside, and jumping up onto the trampoline Theo had bought to use up their energy. All except her. Alex would be helping his dad grill the fish, she would be sitting, just for a minute, between the married sisters-in-law, the garden alive with Greek and increasingly English, both flowing side by side like the white and yellow fish in the pond.
Looking round at the mess, hoping the girl was being careful, she felt a sense of disintegration, as if the rain itself was falling on the shape of her life and washing it away. She thought with puzzlement of those years when she had fretted about having to stay here, about not being able to escape into marriage. But then again, the Greek men had been unthinkable. She had grown up here and now, when it was too late, now she was happy. She crossed her arms and walked out of the room without speaking to the girl, looking the part in that small but vital role, the good spinster daughter, caring for her widowed father, letting her brothers off the hook.
She heard the old violin teacher next door begin. Scales, arpeggios, the sound of an A when someone was tuning up, the tentative sawing of a new beginner, were all music to her, if not for her father. When she was young, she’d had lessons herself and could still play at parties. She went to the window and saw a flock of birds moving, apart, yet tethered, like the four parts of a hymn on a stave moving forward in the right relationship. She always liked to hold the hymn book with two hands, sure that God would notice the women even if they were always at the back. His eyes passeth understanding, she would think privately. She could see Theo at the front with all the other men approaching a very different God, and she kept hers private.
She had walked the area every day, wind and shine, for a decade. Alex and his wife lived up the hill (well into much more desirable Ashbury) in an old house from the 1900s with a beautiful garden up on the ridge that was Hardy Street, a house called Trevail. The garden was formal and laid out with steps falling away from the house and pine trees at sentinel points, two on each side, a great achievement of symmetrical order. But on the left-hand side one great tree had been left to interrupt and interrogate all that order and it stood there just shaking its weary limbs with their crowns of spiral leaves against the sunset. She thought the garden would have been far less beautiful if the original owners had aimed for symmetry. That tree, with the sky fading behind it, disappearing into mauve then grey as you watched, reminded you that nothing was well planned and nothing would stay ordered. She would never tell Alex but she always found those views to the west out over Canterbury, Belfield, Villawood, Chester Hill, Penrith, all the way on a clear afternoon to the Blue Mountains, depressing. Looking that way made you think of things lost and never found, of turning away from the sea to something drier, and harder, a longer journey and one that would involve difficulties before it was over, much like theirs now, her father’s choice, a small modern house in Punchbowl.
Harry, she had loved. He had emptied the pockets of her soul with no effort at all. But he wasn’t Greek and although her mother had liked him, her father had not. He was out of the question. The book he had given her still lay on her dressing table and its cover had curled up slightly from the dampness in the air. She had looked into it briefly before dinner last night when everything was simmering carefully on the stove, and read a little before putting it down and heading back to the kitchen.
A week after their house had sold, she was walking up Holden Street towards the water tower, the steep walk she walked every morning, when she passed two men carrying a double-bed mattress out from a house to a van parked outside with its back doors open. Another mattress, also a double, was carefully propped against the street tree on the footpath, about to be put in the van. The weather was heating the way it did in the two weeks before Christmas, and most of the houses had some sort of decorations up, a few lights across the gable, a garland on the door, the most elaborate, whole fleets of Santa Claus and his deer, skew-whiff already on the hot tiles. The best was a nativity scene. At night people walked up here to marvel at the Christmas decorations, the dark alive with voices. Even the beading shop near the post office on Canterbury Road, which she knew was run by a soft-voiced Muslim woman in hijab, had a tinselly sign outside saying “Sale”.
As she passed she heard one of the men, she imagined the removalist, not the family moving, say, “Know what you’re getting?”
“No. Don’t care as long as it’s healthy and Gina’s OK.”
She was well past them by then and pounding on, heart beating up the hill to the grey beauty of the water tower, its grey and darker lines almost engraved in the light. But she thought about the good sense of the man’s remark all day and the naturalness of a baby being born, and people moving on confidently to somewhere nicer, maybe even a place of their own (but she didn’t think so, looking at the few possessions going into that van) but moving nevertheless and with a baby about to be born, holding onto the words as a guide or a telesma to whatever would come next.
She knew her father was in the shed packing tools. The van would be returning at any minute. She walked slowly into her father’s bedroom, feeling despite the blinds pulled up and the strange glare, as much an intruder as always. He had stripped the bed when he got up and now the quilt and blanket were squashed into a box next to the mattress, which was propped against a wall. The wardrobe was empty, just a scribble of fluff in one corner. Then she saw that the men had left one coat-hanger, an old one made of wood with a crude metal hook attached. She took it down, wondering at its lightness and width, the width of a man’s shoulders. She ran her hands over it. The wood was pale, shiny with use on the top, and holding a more modest patina on the vertical surfaces. It was masculine, shaped to hold a man’s coat properly. She turned it over, reading in faded Greek her father’s name. None of her own coat-hangers were like this: they were coloured, covered in embroidered pretty surfaces. Not plain and useful and old, not wood. She felt anxious and uneasy, felt her stomach turn. She had lived in this house since she was born. Not like her parents: they had lived in Greece and then in two other houses in the district here. Perhaps that’s why they had seemed grown-up and tough and old whereas she was none of those things. But she knew it wasn’t really that.
Now somewhere a door banged and she jumped. Then there was a clang from outside as the van returned and the big metal ramp at the back hit the asphalt. She felt as if someone might burst in on her, standing in her father’s room, thinking such strangeness, not doing anything except think, useless, clutching a coat-hanger.
The next day, on the last morning, after she had finished cleaning she went upstairs and stood by the window in the empty room. The morning was cool and thick with doves and the promise of rain. Sometimes the doves cooed as if to challenge each other, but sometimes they cooed on and on as if they were starting a long journey. She liked the seriousness of that babble.
Last night in the new house she had finished ironing some of her own things, crumpled in the packing and of course her father’s too. Ever since mother had died ten years ago, she had stepped invisibly into doing all those practical things around the house that a woman would do.
He had come in then, and watched in silence.
“Thank you,” he said in Greek. She looked up, smiling at the rare compliment. “But you should, you know, be ironing a husband’s things, not your father’s.”
He took the clothes she passed him in silence. She couldn’t speak. She knew she would live with him forever and never be, no matter what she did or how hard she tried, the daughter he wanted. That daughter would have married and left him to muddle on alone. She was left as she was: an unsatisfactory ingredient.
Her appearance near the window startled a dove that flew upwards so clumsily that she heard every beat of the motor of its wings. In the street a car moved off towards the city in a hurry as if the driver realised he was running late, and knew the day had begun and must continue. She hurried down, hearing Theo’s voice before he spoke in the car below in the street.