- Rosanne Dingli
Bend in a Road Somewhere
Five dishes. Spread on the table, they gave the room a hospitable air, even though I did not feel like catering for the guests above. It was still an annoying feeling I carried around after years of doing it; being forced by circumstance to host ‘paying guests’ in the upstairs bedrooms.
There was of course the consolation of the front balcony. I kept it private, to myself – the guests did not have the run of all storeys. Overlooking a short stretch of beach flanked by two arms of shrubby land, it was where I stood – when I could – to watch the sunset. When I could, I’d take binoculars out and train them on some fleeting flock of birds. Birds, birds, coastal birds; they filled the minutes between tasks. I made an effort to identify the ones that came close enough for me to make their acquaintance. The heavy volume Australian Birds sometimes served as a doorstop for the balcony door, and the curtains nearly always ballooned into the room on a coastal breeze. At night, when I closed those tall glass doors, I would sometimes be in time to glimpse a flash – or imagine a flash – from the lighthouse at Garden Island.
Five dishes. I had done well. It was not always so. Sometimes I was reduced to a platter of sandwiches which, no matter how delicate and carefully filled and cut, were still sandwiches. Today, there were some substantial lamb pies, a bowl of boiled new potatoes, a pyramid of fresh rolls and pat of butter, tiny lamingtons, and lastly, my special lemon cake.
I made sure there were plates and cutlery for everyone, and that the stack of rolled napkins was fresh, before I rang the gong.
They looked forward to supper. It was a rare evening when there was not a full complement of guests. And thankfully, the rooms upstairs were nearly always occupied, especially in the summer. There were three bedrooms, and two bathrooms, and my efforts to keep them well-appointed and clean were worth it. I even cleared out an attic room and turned it into an extra bedroom. Because how would I have managed if I did not have that resource? Signor Dimarcantonio left me the house; I would have been bereft and homeless without it.
After he died, I ran it more or less as I had as his housekeeper, with a girl coming in on Wednesdays to do the heavy work. And now there were the guests, and I occupied his downstairs suite. Ah, that suite – would that I did not have to occupy it, after the stinging memories of what occurred there. But necessity is such that one shuts the mind off to lingering reminiscences of the negative kind.
I changed the position of the bed, threw out the old mattress, and painted the bathroom walls green. They did not match the floor, which was tiled in mud-coloured clay squares with a thin white border, but it was a necessary change. The curtains too were now light fully-gathered muslin – what I could afford, in the end – which provided privacy but, I’m afraid, not enough insulation from draughts in the winter.
Listening to the guests thump down the stairs was a good reminder that this was now my living. Signor Dimarcantonio had no money to leave; he was a gambler, whose nature was of the dissolute kind; reckless and ill-considered. He did not have a very good idea about horses, their form, the jockeys, or whether they were accustomed to running in the rain or for the distances on the card. In the years I watched him lose all his money, there were only a handful of occasions he returned from the racecourse north of the wharf with jingling pockets, a fat wallet, beer on his breath, and a matching smile.
But he was foreign, and installed plumbed bathrooms, before I came to his service. It was easy to get used to the unusual luxury, and I blessed his extravagance, especially in the winter. His was the exceptional house on the row; three storeys, the largest kitchen and pantry anyone had ever seen, and no outhouse in the backyard. He gave me full control of the running of the house, as long as I learned to cook and serve some dishes from his old country. At first I thought he was a skinflint, when tradesmen and suppliers came to the backdoor demanding payment. It did not take long before I was enlightened. Most of his money ran away on a horse.
How distant those days were now; how absent that awkwardness when he asked to borrow ‘some change’. The distrust and impatience I harboured on pay days when I would stand in front of his desk, and he muttered excuses about missing notes, or not enough coin, were behind me. The last year had me garner a great deal less in wages than I should have, having me make do with the same felt winter cloche and tatty straw hat for longer than I would have. I also wanted two frocks or day dresses in the new style, and nice gloves, but it was not to be. I was also pushed to having my boots repaired again and again. The cobbler apologized, saying it was all he could do if he was constrained to put patches over patches.
But there was nowhere else to go.
And I could think of worse houses to be in than that big pink place on the edge of the esplanade, where I could watch the gulls flock, the pelicans lumber about clumsily, and dizzy cormorants flap-flap-flapping this way and that before holding out wings to dry. There were worse places; worse things to be doing than devising for my guests yet another varied supper of rolls and ham, tomato soup, salmon patties, potato muffins, and madeleines. Variation kept me interested and willing.
I loved standing on the balcony in the westerly breeze after a long day with the oven going. It was a good oven, hot, with gas jets I regularly pricked clean, and a door I blacked to a pleasing gleam every now and then. No one saw the lovely condition in which I kept the kitchen. Even Signor Dimarcantonio never used to venture there. My domain.
Did I think of change? Naturally; I wondered whether it would be like this until the end of my days, even though I arrived as a girl and was now of an age when chance could still sweep some event into my life to alter everything. But what might it be? My thirtieth birthday came and went, and I marked it by walking down the beach with a closed parasol, not caring if the sun heightened the colour of my cheeks. A person or two walking the other way smiled, and a gentleman even raised his hat. The sand was firm, packed hard by the approach-and-retreat of steadfast waves. I watched a small stingray in the shallows. It looked like an old wet hat until I saw its movement. What wondrous things it is possible to see if one is alone and not distracted by chat.
Two pelicans glided a few feet off the water towards the islands, one day after a shower. I remembered the day. Not a single flap of those wide wings as I watched them. How they stay airborne is a mystery. I imagined they were off to circle the lighthouse and fly back to me. I stopped to observe them and noticed in the distance a lady in white taffeta whose skirts were blown forward and whose hat was anchored by a steady hand. She had a deep blue waist sash. Its ends fluttered in the wind. She made me wish I could paint. My childhood sketching had shown me I would never be good at anything like that; tinkling piano keys and playing a few good tunes was all I ran to. But that white skirt had me thinking of nice thick paper and a tray of brilliant water colours, a jar of clear water, good sable brushes and … and oh, hours in which to create something real. Something that would not be eaten in less time than it took to prepare, or tunes that evaporated on the very air that held them for an instant. If only.
I saw her again – I knew it was the same woman – in light green this time, standing out against a horizon I knew would turn stormy. From my balcony, she looked tiny, fragile; but I knew she was tall and slender, a substantial figure. Always alone, like me. I had my guests, but they changed with the passing seasons, and we never said more than a few necessary sentences or cordial platitudes that meant nothing at all.
Pelicans glided in and out of sight, and I watched them finding thermals and circling high above the hot sand in summer. And she watched them too. I could see by her stance that she was just as fascinated by their flight. Turning, turning again, she headed in the direction of Peron Point, reached the crags and boulders in front of Bent Street, and stood still, looking out to where a small sailing boat plied its way between forming white caps. A strong wind was gathering, as it sometimes did just before sunset. She and I, separately, watched the boat’s progress. It tied up at the island. She then turned again and took the steps to Bent Street. If she could see me I would have waved. It was months before I glimpsed her form on the sands again.
A successful apple pie can be the source of satisfaction, and not only because of the praise one receives. It is such a common, plain dish. But bringing off a perfect one is not as easy as it seems. One must have everything weighed and timed properly, because cutting corners brings on less-than-perfect results. The pie I placed on the table one early evening in November was perfect. One wishes, at moments like that, to capture the moment in some way. One guest clapped hands, and another sliced quickly into its perfect crust, destroying the flawlessness, but producing sighs and little noises of pleasure from all present. Even perhaps because the cream was fresh from the dairy that day. Afterwards, when I had piled the dishes and checked the kettle I had put on to simmer for the washing up, I leaned against the balcony rail and looked out at the horizon. It was almost invisible, an ethereal line in the grey of sea and sky, both an identical dove’s breast colour. A single pelican flew far out beyond the surf. It was a perfect evening. Just before I drew back to pull the tall doors to and draw the curtains, I saw her, in white and blue, tracing the steps I had taken the previous day. On impulse, I raised my hand, and to my surprise, she waved back.
The warm sensation of pleasure lasted all evening.
Sitting on the end of that big bed, heel-and-toeing house shoes off, looking at the big blemished cheval mirror across the room, I often ended my day exhausted. Satisfaction did show its face on days when everything went to plan, but it was wearing thin. When I noticed that the woman on the beach would turn to see if I stood on my balcony, it was a gladdening thing. Waving to each other became, after that first summer, a kind of quotidian ritual to which I looked forward. Naturally, it did not happen every single day, since our timing did not always coincide. I was thinking just that, one early January afternoon, purchasing some much-needed tea towels at the general store, when I found her standing beside me at the counter.
Both tongue-tied, we smiled at each other, not wanting to be the first to speak. Discovery of a similar feeling in a virtual stranger is a very unwonted thing. Where was my voice?
We spoke at once.
‘We meet at last.’
‘How lovely to meet you.’
Five dishes. Spread on the table in the dining room, they provided visual pleasure before we unfolded our napkins and relaxed into a slow agreeable supper. Just the two of us, with three lamps glowing, the curtains swelling slightly, and the perpetual sound of the restless sea below and beyond the dunes.
‘There is a point at which,’ she said, ‘one loses the sound of hooves and wheels on the road, or the rare thrum of a motorcar … and one can hear only the surf.’
Her observation needed no response. We knew now, after a year or so, how pleasant a conversation could be when it is slow and free of concern or debate.
‘Oh, these salmon patties are really delicious. What is your secret?’ She was not an expert in the kitchen. Her delight in my cooking, and her appreciation of my lovely scullery, pantry, cold larder and kitchen, gave me more motivation in turn, and these days I made a greater effort than before.
‘A few flakes of coconut. I learned it from the man behind the counter at the general store.’
‘Do you remember our first meeting there?’
How could I forget it; or the sad look of confusion in her eyes on that day? ‘Of course. It was as if we knew each other long before we spoke. Besides, I shall never forget that you confided in me immediately.’
She lowered her eyes and said nothing.
‘You were in tears, Lucia.’ My voice was low when I reminded her. ‘You were restrained and polite, but you were … distraught.’
She looked down at the dishes, lifting a slice of fish and spinach pie, her delicate hands, their pellucid skin, beautiful in that light.
I passed her the tomato salad. ‘We confided in each other, Lucia. I do believe we talked and talked for an entire week.’
‘Oh, Genevieve! In retrospect, it was a very happy week.’
We continued our supper in the silence of the swashing sounds through the window, in the glow of three lamps.
Later, alone in my room, made drowsy by a last small sherry we enjoyed on the balcony, I remembered almost verbatim the conversations we had during our encounter in that shop. I remembered her voice – a low register that somehow impressed in those first minutes with its discomfort more than the actual words she said. I have nowhere to go.
I could well relate to the panicked sentiment. When Signor Dimarcantonio had accosted me, while I was making his bed with fresh sheets one Saturday morning, creeping close behind me and startling me into quite a state, I had thought the same thing. ‘You need not always be a housekeeper,’ he said, and attempted to kiss me.
It was only quick thinking – and deep repugnance – that saved me from that situation; a quick step back, a sharp response said in too high a tone, which telegraphed disgust to his presumptuous mind. Of course it did not dissuade him entirely. To some people, opposition is equal to or greater in attraction than acceptance or surrender.
Some days were a battle; pure hell. I made sure my upstairs bedroom door was locked whenever I was in my room, and that I cleaned his room when he was away from the house.
The fact that he owed me so much in back pay meant I had the upper hand in a way, and that was – ironically – an advantage. I had nowhere else to go.
When I found him lying inert on his bedroom floor one Saturday morning, quite cold and obviously dead, and when a week or so later I was advised by the notary public that the house was mine, the confusion was complete. But flooding relief was so tremendous I shook visibly for days. There was no cooking then. I made do with bread and cheese, and what was left of a pot of chicken soup.
I took no advice; there was no one except the notary, and he gave me a knowing look. In his eyes was the assumption that Signor Dimarcantonio would not have left me a whole house for no reason.
I remembered my words. ‘The reason, Dr Maempel, that I am left the house on the esplanade, is that I am owed so much in wages …’ It was an effort not to spit the words, but I was not going to descend to melodrama. ‘… that it … that what I am owed is certainly more than half what the house is probably worth.’ I stared him down.
The old Italian left me a house that was largely already mine. I recounted the truth to Lucia, whose wide eyes showed admiration for my stance. But there was understanding there for the lot of a woman on her own, even when we had started a new century and had not long ago lost a queen who impressed the world with female power.
Lucia, it turned out, had experienced similar affronts, and was turned out of her position as a schoolteacher because of malicious gossip and innuendo. ‘It could neither be proven nor disproven,’ were her words, ‘that I had anything at all to do with the frequent visits of the education inspector.’
I stood straight, in the general store that day, and made a lightening decision. ‘You must pack directly, my dear friend, and come to my house. Come now. Send your things by wagonette, right now. Come to me.’
She was astonished that I called her a friend. Encounters with all sorts of guests at my house had given me ample ability to quickly sense a person’s disposition. I was taken by her character. And those distant acknowledgements of each other’s existence – mere cordial waves – meant we were more than strangers.
‘Oh, I remember … I heard you have a boarding house.’
Boarding house. Those words had the power to crush me, give me a sense of offense, but I did not let them. By then, I was not to be defeated by two words.
In a month of comfortable rest in the attic room, where her privacy was assured with the simple expedient of a washstand, a large mirror, and the warmest of counterpanes I had, she was able to resume a calm existence.
Gratitude shone out of her, out of her eyes and skin. ‘How can I thank you?’
‘It’s nothing,’ I said. ‘You would have done it for me.’
‘You confer on me too much generosity. I’m not sure. I am much more doubtful and cautious. I want to repay … earn … share … I don’t know which word to use, because I don’t know what to do.’
I knew what to do. I knew what I wanted. I led her to my front balcony where the stretch of beach was bathed in mild winter sunshine. We had the house almost completely to ourselves. In silence, we watched seven pelicans fly in V formation towards and over the house. After a few seconds we saw them return, over our heads, wheeling without flapping a single wing, gliding on a thermal.
‘That formation is called a skein. I found it in your book.’ She pointed at the enormous Australian Birds, on a footstool behind us.
‘You love them. You find them as fascinating as I do.’
We enjoyed a long silence and darkness gathered around us.
‘If we wait a few minutes more, we should see …’
‘Three white flashes every twelve seconds. I know.’ She was right, she was used to the lighthouse now, but conditions had to be exactly right. Visibility was not always perfect. It was, we knew, just like our lives.
There is a bend somewhere in every road. Even the longest highway must have a curve in it somewhere. The trajectory of a bird is not always arrow-straight. I had not imagined that my course would have in it a curvature, a bend to take me on such a different route.
Lucia and I found in each other complimentary aspects. We suited each other’s characters; we understood each other’s failings and strengths. It only took a year to find a combination of expedients that made us feel we shared the house, and a life.
Her teaching was continued, in private, downstairs in the parlour, whose furnishings we adapted splendidly to accommodate up to seven students.
In the summer, we hosted families in the attic rooms only, moving Lucia to the largest front bedroom on the first floor, where she had a bathroom to herself, and a small writing room where she prepared lessons.
Our winters were bliss. We watched the weather from behind cold windowpanes, had a fire in the parlour, walked on the sand when the sun shone, observed the boldness of birdlife and the skittishness of seals and penguins. Our summers were heaven. We were bold enough to paddle up to our knees in the shallows, bunching up our skirts, and to take a picnic to the dunes, where we sheltered behind saltbush and feasted on a portable lunch.
We understood the necessity of frugality, but because we were no longer alone, it was a shared politic, a strategy. Instruction downstairs took place in the winter, and hosting guests was the summer provision of income.
Five dishes. I laid delicious summer suppers out for our guests; onion tart, a bowl of tossed salad greens, cheese scones and butter, sliced ripe tomatoes, and lastly, my special lemon cake. Eaten in less time it took to prepare, supper was looked forward to every evening.
Afterwards, I sometimes stood on the balcony on my own to catch my breath. Looking out towards the crags and steps at Bent Street, I remembered a form, a figure in blue and white, with skirts billowing in the wind, and a sash flashing, airborne.
I remembered, and almost saw again a steady walk, and a hand raised to wave to me as she took the steps up and away.
I turn, and there she is, dusting crumbs from the tablecloth and bringing out our tiny sherry glasses.
‘Genevieve – are you ready for something nice to finish off our evening?’
ROSANNE DINGLI has authored ten novels, four novellas, several collections of published and awarded short stories, and her collected poems. She has held a number of positions in publishing, and has lectured in Creative Writing. She is current newsletter editor at the Rockingham Writers Centre. She lives in Western Australia. The Garden Island lighthouse and locations in WA mentioned in this historical short story all still exist today. No one knows when the lighthouse was built.