When I was small, my Grandfather was a magician.
He could put his pointer finger in his mouth and pull out a pop. I couldn’t see how he brought the pop from his cheek so I said, I can’t stretch my neck up that far, which made him laugh and kneel down beside me, where he did it again, right by my face, so I jumped and said, Again, Pop Again! And after that he was called Poppa, by me and by Tess, because she copied what I did, then.
Tess is my sister and is eighteen months younger than me. We used to share a bedroom and tell each other tales of The Lands. We visited The Lands at night. I was called Iris in The Lands because it was my inside name for myself and seemed a prettier coloured name than Rhea, which is my real name. Tess was called Tess, because she liked her name just how it was.
We believed The Lands floated about in space like huge spinning bubbles and each night we’d pick a different land to visit. My favourite was called The Land of Wings, where you could choose a different pair of wings to attach to your back and fly through the blue dreaming.
In the holidays we went to Lake Hayes. I thought it was the name of our house; Lake Hayes. It was only later I realised it was the name of the lake by the house. But when we talked about Lake Hayes, it included the house and the lake and the paddocks and the hills and the mountains and the lupins of every colour, which bloomed all over.
Poppa and Gran stayed with us. It was Poppa who built the house for us all to live in.
I remember it this way.
Rhea has a plastic bubble and Tess is sitting beside the tackle box.
But what do I do with it Dad? she said
Just keep a close eye on it and if we need to change spinners, you’re in charge.
Tess puffs her cheeks at the words. She sits up straight and looks at Rhea’s bobbling bubble with pity.
Poppa has his line out and Dad is rowing into the dawn. They are heading to the weeds on the north-east shore where the brown trout patch in the deep waters.
Poppa is using the lead line to get to the depths. On the surface all is still.
There is no one else on the lake. The hills are just emerging again and there is only the turn of rowlocks and crease of the water.
Rhea likes watching the water as it streams in patterns behind them. She likes the smell of her life jacket clipped tight about her.
Tess is happy and starts to sing, ‘row row row your boat, gently down the stream, merrily merrily merrily merrily, life is but a dream’.
Rhea tells Tess to be quiet, she will alert the fish.
Dad says the lead line is way behind the boat anyway and so the fish near the bait won’t be disturbed.
Rhea starts singing too, but quietly under her breath, just in case. She notices that Dad’s shoelaces are undone.
Ree! Your floating bubble’s disappeared!
It is true. Rhea reels in her line and there is nothing on the end.
Must have hit a snag. Or perhaps a fish got away with it. Did you feel anything? says Dad.
Rhea looks at her frayed line. I didn’t feel anything, she says.
Tess moves the tackle box to sit between them.
Then Poppa says, Good Lord! I’ve got one!
The line is bent backwards and he is reeling from it and Dad stops rowing and Tess is standing up and Dad is telling her to sit down and Rhea is looking at the water to see if she can see it and Poppa is laughing and saying, Hells Bells! and Dad is saying, I’ll get the net and Rhea hands it to him and Tess is standing up and Dad says, sit down Tess! and Poppa is reeling it in and reeling it in and it jumps through the surface in silver and Tess is shaking and Rhea is watching Poppa’s face as he bites his tongue and Dad is leaning over the side and Poppa is saying I’ll ease it out a little and then wind again and again the fish jumps and Poppa reels and Tess shakes and Rhea watches and Dad is tensed ready and Got it! into the net and up and over the side.
It lies a moment and then flacks wildly on the bottom of the boat.
How do we…? says Dad
Ooo, say Rhea and Tess.
I think I’ll just…says Dad.
Poppa is saying, it’s a beauty, it’s a beauty.
And then Dad lifts the oar and pounds once with a heavy thud.
The boat bobs a little.
Rhea stares at the fish’s eyes. They are bulging out of its head in round balls of surprise.
She feels everything go quiet and white inside.
Dad picks the fish up and puts it into the chilly-bin.
Tess is sitting silently with one hand on the tackle box, keeping it shut.
Let’s see if we can get another, says Poppa.
Gran collects them for choir practice every Thursday evening with one long toot on the horn.
Rhea runs out the door to the car while Tess lies on her bed pretending not to hear and thinks that perhaps this time she can get away without going, but Mum is calling up at her, Tess, Tess, they’re waiting for you! and she stumps down the stairs all black scowling hair and slams to the car.
Rhea sits in the front. Rhea always sits in the front. She asks Gran how her day has been and crosses her legs neatly.
Tess slumps in the backseat and closes her eyes.
One more stop to pick up cousin Anna and on to church. Gran grips the wheel white with her arms held rigidly straight as she pumps the accelerator. They drive forward in stop stutters and all of them alight feeling slightly nauseous.
This time fat Fred is taking choir practice. He used to sing in a cathedral choir in London and is a ‘wonderful asset’.
Rhea likes the way he uses vibrato when he sings. She is trying to copy it.
They go through the hymns they’ll sing in church on Sunday.
Anna mouths the words the way she always does. She has been in the choir now for three years and never sung a note.
Tess sings lustily.
Fred decides it is time to learn a new hymn. A rather lovely piece of choral music from the seventeenth century, he says, which I thought some of you altos might particularly enjoy. It has a wonderful harmony line.
The altos titter in the pews and clear their throats appreciatively.
Let me sing the main melody to you, says Fred. He inhales and then his rich baritone fuels the holy space from stone floor to wooden arches so they are all coated in dark chocolate hallelujahs.
There is a deep round silence after he stops.
Now, let’s try it sops, he says.
Rhea peers at the notes on the page and listens carefully to the organ as it plays. She is quick at picking up tunes and soon has the melody in her head and by the fourth verse is singing confidently.
Stop! Stop! says Fred. Someone is singing off key.
There is an uneasy silence.
They begin again and everyone concentrates hard.
Again they are stopped.
Someone in the front row, says Fred. I think we’ll take it in turns. If each child sings a couple of lines by themselves so I can check.
Rhea is worried.
When it comes to her turn she sings it perfectly.
Rhea is worried.
Tess begins in her peculiar throaty growl.
Ah! says Fred. Let’s try that again Tess.
Tess growls very very quietly. It is so faint that hardly anyone can hear and her book covers most of her face.
Louder Tess, louder, says fat Fred. But first, listen to me and then repeat.
Rhea hates him.
She hates fat Fred and his full of himself singing.
She moves closer to Tess.
They sing in odd harmony together.
Tess drapes herself in the old cape she keeps in the Dark Cupboard. I’m off to climb skeleton woods, she says.
Rhea runs after her and feels her new breasts rubbing against her sweater.
She is not sure if this is what they are meant to feel like when you run, or whether this might mean it is time for a bra.
Tess is reciting poetry under her breath against the wind over the stile to the far-flung field.
Remember me, when I am gone away,
Gone far away into the silent land
Rhea breathes in the sheep smell and likes the way it dungs against her nostrils.
Without speaking, they scale the line of sun-bleached macrocarpa.
The woodpile has been there since they can remember as a place of departure.
They both sense the odd emptiness that resides there. They walk along the spine in slow single-file, careful not to fall in the between.
The shifting wood makes them gasp.
It rattles like old bones under their feet.
You’ll need to put his shoes and socks on. He can’t do it.
Mum says it so practically.
Rhea bends down and Poppa looks at her wondering who she is and Rhea lifts his feet and smells an old man’s fear.
His shirt is buttoned up crooked and it’s the one Rhea sewed the button on for him all those years ago. It’s a white shirt and she used red thread because red was her favourite colour.
He had called her a little pet.
Poppa leans on her as she walks him to the car and it takes a long time for him to stoop at the right angle to get in the front seat.
Mum and Rhea are taking him to the Ear specialist. His ears are blocked with wax. That’s what has been causing the deafness. It needs to be scraped out and a new machine has just been brought down from up north.
In the consulting room Poppa lies quiet on the table. Rhea holds his hand with its fingernails that need cutting.
The doctor asks Rhea if she would like to look in the eyepiece and see the wax ball. She says she’d rather not thanks.
It is quiet except for the small scraping — a delicate excavation against time.
Sandcastles. Rhea’s mind turns to sandcastles and she think of that yellow bucket that was in the shape of a castle and a day when they made castles at the lakeside together and cast spells on a ring of stones.
She wonders if there is any Egyptian sand lodged in his ear. Poppa was a Captain stationed in Egypt during the war. He led his men from danger and ran for his life from a burning jeep.
It’s very compacted, says the specialist.
Poppa squeezes Rhea’s hand.
A song comes into her head:
Do your ears hang low, do they wobble to and fro,
can you tie them in a knot, can you tie them in a bow,
can you toss them over your shoulder like a regimented soldier,
Do your ears hang low?
I’m going to have to try going a little deeper says the Specialist. It’s obviously been there for a long time and it’s fairly solid. Her face has gone red.
Mum and Rhea smile carefully at each other across Poppa’s body and Rhea hears him say in her head, once more unto the breach, dear friend, once more.
Then he begins to whimper. Rhea has never heard him make such a sound before.
Mum in her practical voice says,
Do you think it really matters if his ears are a little blocked?
And the specialist wipes her face and says,
Well, I could have one more go now, or perhaps we could leave it for today…?
They all agree that it is probably best to leave it — for now.
Poppa doesn’t say anything on the drive home. None of them do.
When Rhea visited Poppa before she flew back to London a longhaired eyebrow sat up and looked concerned.
Holding his hand she led him shuffling down a passage of disinfectant.
Where are we going? he asked.
To your room, she said.
As long as we know where we are, he said.
In the room it was small and cold and old family photos were stuck with bright yellow drawing pins to a notice board he didn’t notice.
Mum helped lower Poppa into a chair by the window. Rhea knelt on the floor in front of him with her hands squeezed between her knees. Tess sat quietly on his bed with Mum and Dad.
His hair was parted by the nurses in a way that wasn’t his.
The room was relatively bare, except for them.
The other residents take things you see said Mum. His watch has gone missing.
And deposit things too! said Dad. One of them left her filled nappy in his top drawer the other day.
They sang happy birthday to you, loudly and jovially. It was not his birthday.
He joined in, laughing at the Hip hip, Hooray, Hip hip, Hooray!
He swung his hand in rhythm as if he might have been marching to a wind-up key.
Afterwards he didn’t say anything, much.
He called Tess ‘Charles’ and ate piece after piece of pretend-birthday sponge cake.
When they left, he had bits of mock cream stuck to his chin.
He gave Rhea a hug at the end and said, Goodbye dear boy.