|Publisher:||Regal House Publishing|
|Product dimensions:||6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x (d)|
About the Author
Alicia Gilmore has had stories published in Phoenix and Cellar Door, and was one of the contributing writers and lead editor of Burbangana. She was the recipient of an Allen & Unwin / Varuna Publishers Fellowship and was awarded a month long residency at the Tyrone Guthrie Centre, Ireland. She lives in Sydney, Australia.
Read an Excerpt
Her finger traced a circle in the air. The sun. Ellie held her breath as she pushed aside the curtain and drew her hand closer to the window. As her fingers moved nearer the paper that covered the glass, a frisson of daring, a spark, pulsed through her, surging from her fingertip. She felt it, imagined seeing it, a flash of the sunlight she wanted to bring inside.
She let her finger touch the paper. Against her bedroom window, it was dry and cold. It was shaded on this side of the house where the light struggled to break through the trees that grew along the fence line. Stupid house. She mouthed the words. Ellie knew what a house should look like. Her house would be bathed in sunshine. She ran her finger down the paper in a straight line. A house needed walls. She stroked across — a roof, down again — a door. A door with a handle that only she could touch. Inside was a girl. Another circle for a head atop a thin, angular body with gangly, knobbly limbs. She stopped. She knew what lived inside; she wanted what was outside. In the Before there had been grass outside — grass, trees, flowers, birds and clouds in the sky.
She let her finger flick the edge of the paper where it met the window frame. The paper was starting to curl; it had been a while since Daddy had replaced it. If she moved the paper just a bit, scratched a tiny hole, maybe she'd be able to see. Then she'd know for sure it was all still out there: the sun, the grass, the outside world. But she couldn't know. Could only draw invisible lines and imagine.
Ellie's hands hovered and fluttered above door handles and window frames. She imagined an elegant flick of the wrist. One turning hand to unlock a door or slide one of those wooden frames up and she would climb into the world outside. Such a small movement to change a life. It would take so little, and so much. Too much. She let her hands fall to her sides. She always did. She couldn't leave. She didn't know how to survive without Daddy. He protected her, had kept her with him all of these years. Daddy loved her.
'You're mine,' he had told her, 'mine.' She belonged to him.
He was out. The house was hers. Ellie stretched, stood on her tiptoes and reached her arms towards the sky. Her father's old singlet pulled against her breasts. She wore the same underwear — plain cotton singlets and underpants — that he wore. 'I'm not going out and buying bloody bras and women's things. These are good enough for you.' Ellie wasn't quite sure what women's things were. She had made do with his leftovers and she hadn't complained.
Ellie bent down and dropped to her knees. She arched her back. I'm a cat. I'm Percy. I'm not a girl. I can purr. I can growl. I can kill. She stood up. No. She couldn't. That was wrong. Killing was bad. For girls.
She heard a noise and froze. Something touched her leg. Percival. Just Percival. She touched his head. Hello, she mouthed. Hello, my baby. She looked around her and tried for the words.
'Hello, Perce.' Her voice was a rasping scrape of sound. She cupped a hand over her mouth. She'd spoken out loud, without being spoken to. That wasn't permitted. Not when Daddy was home. But he was out. The motley-coloured cat nudged her hand in return. She wondered if Percival could read her mind. It's okay. Daddy's out, baby boy. Percival sauntered towards the kitchen. He wasn't really a baby. He wasn't young at all. But he was hers.
'Are you hungry?' His replying grunt came close to a purr. He didn't make a sound when Daddy was home, unless it was to hiss. When Daddy was home, there were no snacks for Perce. No meals except for dinner. When Daddy was home there were no snacks for Ellie either. There were meals when Daddy had his meal. Daddy knew how the day should be ordered.
Ellie followed Percival through the kitchen and into the adjoining laundry. He gave a plaintive miaow and she did his bidding, spooning a little food into his bowl. She bent down to pat him and he growled.
I'm not taking your food, silly boy. I've got my own. Still, she backed away and left him alone. She turned at the doorway and closed her eyes. She didn't need to see to know where everything was. One step, two steps, three ... She put out her hands and touched a chair. She heard it scrape on the floor. Her eyes opened. She looked at the chairs around the kitchen table and straightened the one she'd bumped. They had to be even. The same distance from the table and from each other. She checked again, just to be sure.
Satisfied, she moved through the doorway and into the lounge room. Here, everything was in place. There was an old globe in the corner and, when Daddy wasn't home, she loved to touch it, tracing fingerprints around the world in endless circumnavigations. She wondered if it were really true, that there were lines that criss-crossed the Earth and other people in countries over the waves. It was tantalising, this idea of a world outside. Maybe one day she would run far away and find one of those distant lands on the globe. She picked at the skin on her back of her hand. That was a wicked thought. Wicked thoughts were wrong. Leaving Daddy was wrong.
She looked down at the electrical cord that extended from the wooden pedestal and trailed the worn carpet below. The cord was frayed and Ellie wondered what would happen if she plugged it in. Would the globe still glow, illuminating the U.S.S.R in soft crimson hues? It wasn't the U.S.S.R anymore — she knew that from the radio — but she liked to place her hands on this mark of the past. She had heard on the radio many names of places she struggled to remember, and some she had found on the globe. It always amazed her when the voices on the radio knew of these places printed in little black letters that she could touch.
'Ellie lives here ...' She placed her finger on the coast of New South Wales and let the globe spin, '... not in Far Away.' Ellie let the globe spin once more. Some lands were far, far away. Away. She mouthed the word. Far from here.
Had her father imagined adventures far beyond the dwindling seam lines of the coal coast that had reared him? Did he harbour long-buried dreams of journeying far from these dreary walls and threadbare carpet? No. He didn't need to travel the world when he held it here.
Taped very carefully to the inside of her closet door was Ellie's world. She had drawn her own map long ago, with her memories of the house, the driveway on one side, the narrow path and gate on the other, Maisie's house and yard, their street, and further down the hill, the path to the beach. She remembered there was a corner and Mummy had always held her hand when they crossed the road.
Ellie looked over at the radio on the mantelpiece. She wasn't supposed to touch it without Daddy's permission. Did she dare? If she had it playing ever so softly, she could turn it off when she heard him return, quietly enough to hear the sound of his footsteps on the path and his key in the door. She touched the dial, slightly greasy from her father's fingertips. Tentatively, reverently, she turned it until she heard a click. A little more and the soothing sound of the announcer's voice entered the room. Some words she didn't understand and then music. Beautiful, beautiful music. She clapped her hands and ran from the lounge room and into her bedroom. Ellie reached into her wardrobe and rummaged underneath an old woollen sweater until she felt smooth, cool tin under her fingertips. Her tin of treasures. She opened it, grasped something, and skipped back into the lounge room. Uncurling her fingers, Ellie gazed at the small, coloured-glass bottle cupped in her palm. Could she? Yes. Ellie turned the volume up. In this bottle, in this song, there were lingering traces of laughing nights warmed by candlelight, of unspoken promises, a princess dancing with her prince. Stories from the radio. A perfume bottle stoppered tight. Delicate, yet strong enough to survive.
Ellie imagined herself dancing with a faceless man. She spun and twirled around the room until the room spiralled and the song ended. Bracing herself against the mantelpiece, Ellie kept the bottle cradled safe against her shirt as she turned the volume down. She lifted the dainty bottle and inhaled her imaginings of her mother.
She couldn't picture her parents ever dancing, but she'd heard stories on the radio, she'd heard songs, heard their crazy, magical words of love and romance, of wine and music and handsome admirers. Had her mother dated and danced before Daddy? With Daddy? It seemed pre-post ...? Preposous? She knew there was a word but she wasn't sure how to say it. Prepost-arous? Erous? Still, Mummy had kept this little bottle.
These were the moments when Ellie forgot she was hideous. When she forgot that Eleanor Clements was scarred, unloved, and unwanted. Dancing to the songs on the radio or in her head, or drawing on the scraps of paper Daddy let her keep, she was free. Listening to the sounds of the waves, the gulls — sounds she could hear when she stood so still and quiet inside the house — Ellie would imagine herself flying and soaring into a crisp, blue sky over a crystal sea. These weren't the only times she remembered the ocean. She travelled there in her mind, some nights. Pictured herself on that shore, in her mind always heading to the ocean, looking out to the horizon, far beyond this little house fenced in by the bush and towering cliffs. There was space, freedom, on that beach. Ellie wanted to believe there was freedom elsewhere, that there was something beyond the trees and the cliffs behind the house; she wanted it to be true. The bush couldn't go on forever. It couldn't just be trees and rocks and cliffs with nothing to break up the barricade that lay between her and the rest of the world.
'What's out there?' she had dared to ask her father once.
'Huh? What crap are you on about now?'
'Over, over the cliff, over the trees.' She knew the beach was beyond the front of the house, but what was at the back? Ellie had stumbled over the words and waved an arm towards the kitchen window where the setting sun had made the paper glow.
'There's nothing there.' He had jabbed at a piece of potato with his fork. 'Just bush out west, ocean to the east. Nowhere for you to go; don't even think it.'
'No, I wouldn't, I wouldn't leave ...'
'You can't. You're only safe in here, with me.'
Ellie heard a car and froze. Stupid girl. She hadn't been paying attention. He was back. With clammy fingers she switched off the radio, ran to her bedroom, and stopped before the closet door. The sound of the car faded as it continued on its way. She exhaled. It wasn't him. She remembered then. He hadn't taken his car. He'd walked. Silly girl. Foolish girl. She pinched the skin between her thumb and fingers until there were only two deep crescent moons indented against the white skin. Stupid. Stupid. She could hear the familiar words in her head. She'd wasted time this afternoon; she'd spent too long playing. He could be back at any moment.
She placed the perfume bottle gently back into the tin next to a blurred black and white photo. She touched a fingertip to the contours of the faces, the hair, the lips. It had been taken at the beach, so long ago. Ellie and her mother were both smiling at the camera. Ellie closed her eyes, remembering the scent, the sounds, the feel of that beach. Of that day. It had been hot. One of those scorching summer days when you thought you could melt in the sun and if you took more than mere seconds to run, laughing and skipping, to the water's edge, your feet would fuse to the scalding sand. There had been a downpour in the afternoon, a storm that pierced the thick humid air and broke the heat. Ellie remembered threading her way to the shore through twisted coastal trees and whip-smooth grasses that slapped sunburnt legs. Her mother's voice, a snippet of an overheard conversation, 'Sometimes you see a person in the water and all you can do is watch them drown.' Ellie hadn't thought of those words in years.
She replaced the lid on the tin, hiding it back in her wardrobe. Could you drown inside a house? Could the air feel so thick that one day you wouldn't be able to fight it anymore and you'd just let go? Sink beneath the carpet and floorboards and never be seen again? It couldn't be impossible ... Some days she felt this house had swallowed her whole. Ellie looked down to make sure that the tin was completely hidden and closed the closet door. Safe inside where no one could touch it. Hidden inside, just like her, where only Daddy could touch her.
She opened the closet door and checked again that her clothes were folded neatly, the sweater at the back plumped up so no hint of the tin was showing. Ellie shut the door, frowned, and opened it once more. The tin was hidden, but she refolded the sweater and realigned the clothing on the shelf in front of it. Her hands fluttered in the air as she mouthed the word Okay. She closed the door and stepped away. It was okay. It would be okay. She looked around her room. Her bedspread was pulled tight, her dolls propped in their accustomed places, guarding her bed. Ellie smiled at their tenderly stitched faces. My babies. Everything was in its place.
He would come home soon. He had said he was going for a walk. Not to the pub for dinner. Just a walk. It had been different when Daddy was still working. She had known he would be out for hours. Delicious hours when she would be free of his presence, although for a while, there had been Grandmother Clements and that had been almost as bad. Ellie shuddered. Stop it, silly girl.
Daddy would be home and he would want his cup of tea. She walked to the kitchen, filled the kettle at the sink, and set it upon the stove. The burner would not be lit until he said so. She wasn't to waste the gas.
Ellie took his blue-and-white cup and saucer from the cupboard and placed them on the bench. She knew the routine. When the water had boiled she would make his strong, milky tea (two sugars, stirred three times, clockwise), place one plain biscuit on his saucer, and deliver it to him at his customary seat at the head of the table Once he had taken his first sip and deemed it acceptable, then she would be allowed to make her own. Exactly the same as his. For that was how tea was made.
She took a teaspoon out of the drawer and held it up to her face. She could just make out a bulging, blurred mass, no nose, an eye, some hair, all morphing into an odd, bulbous creature. Flipping the spoon over, she squinted and tried to make sense of the upside-down shrunken head. It wasn't a face. At least, not one she could recognise. It didn't match that long-ago girl in the photo. Ellie put the spoon down next to Daddy's saucer. She wasn't supposed to look.
Ellie straightened the spoon, ensuring it remained two thumb-widths from the saucer. Everything in its place, Daddy always said. He knew how everything should look, where everything should go.
Where had she been today? Her pulse quickened and she scratched at the back of her hand unconsciously. Where, where, where? Daddy's room, her bedroom, the lounge room, bathroom, kitchen, laundry. The whole house. She could retrace her steps. Start at the beginning and make sure everything was perfect. He would notice if it weren't. She had checked and re-checked but she had to check again. He would be home soon.
She had made her father's bed this morning. Ellie moved to the front bedroom and opened the door. Daddy kept the door to his room shut so the cat wouldn't go in. 'Blasted animal,' Daddy usually called him. 'Feral bastard' was another favourite. Ellie smiled her shy, crooked smile, one lip curled upwards, the pull of damaged nerves and muscle giving her a lopsided look. She loved her blasted animal. More than she loved Daddy. No. She bit her hand. She couldn't think like that. It was wrong. When she dropped her hand from her mouth she could see the teeth marks almost parallel to the marks her nails had made. Pain was a reminder. Bad thoughts had to be punished. Ellie closed her eyes. She loved Daddy. Daddy loved her. And he would be home soon and she had to make sure the house was perfect for him. She had to show him that she was good.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Path to the Night Sea"
Copyright © 2018 Alicia Gilmore.
Excerpted by permission of Regal House Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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