– by Jacinta Mulders, SPP Writer in Residence
Photo credit: Luke Mulders
The door’s knock split her daydream in two. It was midday on a languid Saturday, and Annemieke’s parents were out. She had been laying sprawled on her back along their velvet, mustard-coloured sofa. The curtains were closed against the heat, and the light filtering through was a dense yellow. She was just fifteen. She had pushed the sleeves of her light blue T-shirt over her shoulders: cropped, bare. One arm behind her head, her pale face turned up towards the ceiling, her eyes closed. Above, a slow fan cut through the thick heat.
The knock made her stir. She opened her eyes. Ordinarily she wouldn’t have risen. But the sound had a quality to it—it prompted Annemieke to slide her feet to the floor and walk to the front hall. She ran the chain lock to one side, twisted the doorknob, and pulled the door open.
The bright sun, white and glary, caused her to squint. Out of it a voice swam.
Her eyes became accustomed to the light outside. Against the scrubby backdrop of the dirt and fences of the farm, the two steel barns, the grey green of the bush beyond, he came into focus.
‘I’m Max,’ he said, and held out a hand. He looked one or two years older. He was tall, also in shorts and a T-shirt, and had dark brown hair.
‘Mieke,’ she said, shaking it, feeling her torso shiver.
‘I came for eggs,’ he said.
She nodded, her body becoming light.
‘How many?’ she said.
‘Three dozen, I think.’
‘Give me a minute.’ She turned and went back into the house. Past the lounge, into the hall and through the side door to the cool-room where her parents kept the eggs that were ready to sell. Her skin bristled as she moved between the rooms, through the changing consistency of the light and air. She picked up three cartons, went back through the house and balanced them against her stomach as she opened the fly door. She handed them to Max.
‘One fifty, right?’ he said, putting a hand in his pocket.
She nodded, and he handed over the coins. Cicadas droned in the empty sky. ‘What are you making?’
‘I don’t want to say.’
She laughed. ‘Come on.’
‘Dad bakes, over that way.’ Max flung his arm in some indiscriminate direction that Annemieke didn’t catch.
They stood facing each other in heat and shimmering dirt.
‘Well. I should get these to him.’
He shrugged, gave her another halfway smile, and headed back towards the car. She thought she heard him murmur something hard to catch.
‘What?’ She skipped forward.
He turned. ‘It’s for angel cake!’
Her eyes snapped wider.
‘You need lots of whites!’ he yelled, and slid into the car.
His car rolled down the driveway. Annemieke slouched against a beam and raised her hand to cover her face from the sun. He honked as he joined the main road. She stayed until his car had disappeared behind the gum trees, letting the impression of him sink into her and linger. Once inside, she fell back on the couch, pushed her face into a pillow, scrunched her eyes and opened her mouth in silent scream.
‘What are these coins on the sideboard?’
Annemieke’s mother’s voice rang from the hall by the door. Annemieke was sitting on the floor against the sofa with a magazine propped against her bent knees. She knew by the volume and tone of her mother’s voice that the words were not meant for her.
‘I don’t know, Marion,’ her father yelled from the other side of the house.
Her mother, a soft figure in the scant light of the hall, held up the coins to her face.
‘Someone must have put them here,’ she called again, and began to shuffle towards the lounge room.
Annemieke looked up. ‘Someone came today. For eggs.’
‘I don’t know,’ she said, looking back at the page and wishing they would stop talking about it. ‘He said his name was Max.’
‘Kurt! Do we know anyone called Max?’
‘He was younger,’ Annemieke hastened to add. ‘Only a little older than me.’
Her father entered the room. He was dressed in two shades of dark green, a buttoned up shirt tucked into his pants. ‘The oldest Wertmüller boy is called Max,’ he said.
‘They run the bakery in the dale.’
Her mother’s eyes widened. ‘That’s a nice one. I hope you took them from the cool room, Mieke.’
‘I did,’ Annemieke replied, and left the room.
When she was out with her mother or father, and particularly when she was near the dale, she watched for Max. The few times she passed the Wertmüller bakery she snatched a look through the window but only saw younger boys wrapping bread and passing it over the counter. She grew to know the curly white ‘W’ on red backing of the bakery sign—it swam in her dreams, and whenever she saw a tray of biscuits or a cake box featuring its branding, she felt a strange, secret pleasure, as though it was a special sign meant only for her. As she grew older, the memory of her encounter with Max receded, and her thoughts became cluttered with other people and other things. But sometimes, when the days had the same type of heat as the day he came to the farm, some image of him would bubble up from somewhere, and she would remember him with an ache, deep in her belly. The hot wind, the flat, dry sky. The light and the shadows in the eucalypts. The tone of his skin, the way they’d mimicked each other’s movements, let out low laughs in the collapsing heat.
When high school finished, Annemieke moved from her Kent Flats to Sydney’s inner west. She went home as infrequently as she could, shy in the face of her parents inquisitiveness, reluctant to face the farm. When she was there, her parents asked her cursory questions. They were unsure how to behave in the face of her new life.
‘How’s the campus?’
‘Are there nice buildings?’
‘Yes. Some are a bit old.’
‘Have you made some friends?’
They also didn’t understand her subject choices: art history, film, language.
‘You already speak another language,’ her father said to her when she told him she planned on taking French.
‘My Dutch is horrible. And it’s not useful, Dad.’
‘It’s plenty useful,’ he said, retreating down the hall, leaving Annemieke to wonder what he would prefer her to be studying.
At university she started writing short reviews of art shows and feature films for the student newspaper. After, she wrote for free for a while, then finally, through a bit of manoeuvring, was picked up by a Sydney newspaper liftout. It wasn’t enough money to support her, so she worked at a gallery too. One week, her editor asked her to cover the Windeyer Prize, an annual show at the Art Gallery of New South Wales. The editor also asked her to take Liam. He was a permanent cadet at the publication who had never covered an art show before.
‘What does he usually cover?’ Annemieke had asked.
‘Liam does his own thing.’
She arranged to meet him in in the foyer of the gallery. He was tall, with hair a confused colour between blonde and brown that always, no matter how much he combed it, looked askew. His eyes were very bright and he had a lanky, lumbering gait. He held his head up, and seemed constantly to be surveying his surrounds.
Inside, they walked through rooms in silence. The summer light pooled on the floorboards. They drifted through walls of faces caught in expressions of poise, joy, surprise. Occasionally, one of them would lean in to look further, trace the line of a neck or an earlobe, examine the exact pallor of the subject’s cheek.
Annemieke felt aware of Liam’s body behind her. His shadow, soft blue, seemed always to flicker just out of her view.
She waited for Liam in the large auditorium at the front. Her eyes flit from her shoes, to the walls, roved across the statue of a man on horseback in the centre of the room. When Liam arrived he looked directly at her.
‘Want to walk back?’ he said.
‘Yes,’ she said, without thinking about it. It did not seem relevant that either of them may have somewhere else to be.
They took the road that lined the harbour. The sea’s surface rolled—small blinking eyes. Annemieke had forgotten her sunglasses and had to squint. Liam rolled up his shirtsleeves.
‘What did you think?’ she said.
‘The Denila was my favourite’, he said, referring to a sprawling landscape painting coloured in blocks of ochre and red. ‘Yours?’
‘The Nara,’ Annemieke said without hesitation, having settled on it immediately. It depicted a face: round and peaceful, floating out of a landscape of greenish blue.
‘I knew it,’ he said.
‘It’s you, in a nutshell. Weightless, serene.’
Feeling thrown, Annemieke looked out over the water. She noticed the sound of their feet scraping the bitumen walkway. She sought to steer the conversation back to a subject she could more easily grip. ‘What do you usually write about?’
‘Most things,’ he said.
She clucked her tongue.
He changed his answer. ‘I like long stories, I suppose. It doesn’t really matter what they’re about.’
‘Do you get to do much of them, at work?’
‘Sometimes. Sometimes I have to write lists.’ He paused. ‘I don’t really enjoy doing that.’
They were silent for another moment. Everything felt untethered by light and Liam. Annemieke felt laughter, weightless and gorgeous, begin to bubble from her stomach to her throat. She smiled into his face. He sent one back, his steps veering closer to her and then away.
After this, Liam started inviting Annemieke out to more of the social events hosted by the staff and writers at the magazine. He had a girlfriend, Susan, who worked at a department store in the city, but she never came. Sometimes, Annemieke would receive a prod from one of her friends about the amount of time she was spending with him. She’d laugh it off, breathlessly, and feel, at the same time, some small stone in her abdomen, which she was not particularly interested in, or could not be bothered inquiring about. Too difficult to unearth, too fragile to turn over.
Annemieke did meet his girlfriend. Without warning, he suggested they all have dinner one night at a small bar in the inner city. Annemieke would not have chosen it. Inside, it was dimly lit, with sharp, polished surfaces. The conversation was polite but stiff. As they drank, Susan became more confident—her face relaxed, and she cast out genuine, warm smiles. Liam did not talk much, causing Annemieke to wonder if she’d said something stupid.
When they left the bar, Annemieke took Susan’s arm. Together, they strode ahead of Liam, their shoes clacking the pavement and their skirts swishing together in the night. It felt conspiratorial. She was a little bit drunk, and she knew they would be too. Liam hung behind, lighting a cigarette. He pulled on it, thoughtfully, then looked towards the sky.
Annemieke gripped Susan’s arm harder. ‘Hear that?’ she said in a loud whisper.
‘What?’ Susan said, her blue eyes liquid under the streetlights as she turned to Annemieke.
‘That hum. Shh. Listen.’
‘The sound of the cars?’
‘No no. A different hum.’
Susan paused. Then yelled, ‘UFO!’, and skipped forward once or twice. Annemieke laughed, threw her head back, and found herself catching Liam’s watchful eye. Yes, she doesn’t get it.
On Friday after work at the gallery, Annemieke went out with her friend Lucy for a drink.
‘I had dinner with Liam and Susan on Wednesday,’ she said, as a waiter put down two drinks.
‘How was it?’
‘Fun,’ said Annemieke, without looking up.
They talked, it got later. Annemieke knew she would stay out later than she usually did. Lucy went to get more drinks. She took a long time. After picking aimlessly through her bag for a while, Annemieke looked up to see what she was doing, and saw that she had become caught up in a group of people who were drinking closer to the bar. This was Lucy’s temperament—flighty, distracted; something would catch her eye and she would veer off course, drawn to more present pleasures like a badly spun bowling ball. After a while of watching Lucy show no indication of coming back (despite the two drinks she was holding in her hands) Annemieke picked up both their bags and went to join her.
By the time that Annemieke arrived at the group, Lucy was talking to two men who looked about the same age as them. They were wearing suits—part of the Friday after-work crowd that Annemieke usually avoided. One of them had a shiny face and was a little bit drunk. His tie was loosened slightly from his neck and his eyes gleamed beneath his strawberry blonde hair. He was talking expansively using exaggerated gestures.
‘You don’t know what you’re talking about,’ he said. ‘Kent Flats is heaven incarnate.’
His friend sniggered. Lucy looked up at the one who had spoken, her face brushed delight. ‘Anna’s from Kent Flats! Aren’t you, Anna?!’ she said, and looked at Annemieke.
Annemieke inwardly rolled her eyes. They all, drunk and happy, looked at her.
‘What about it?’
His eyes widened. ‘What part?’
‘Out of town. The farmland near the mill.’
‘Coincidence,’ she said, smiling despite herself in the face of his obvious pleasure.
His name was Frank. He spoke to Annemieke for the rest of the night. He was keen to talk about Kent Flats and their childhood there. Though this wasn’t as interesting to Annemieke, she was happy to go along with it, and was grateful that at least she wouldn’t run out of things to say. He offered to buy her a drink more than once. When she rose to go to the bathroom, she could feel his eyes follow her, and when she returned he bunched up so she had space again to sit down. From her perspective, the connection they shared was pleasant but not flabbergasting—more to do with their home country than anything else. She trusted he would recognise this too, so it surprised her when at the end of the night he asked if he could call her sometime. She gave him her telephone number like it was something she didn’t need. She would have told Liam about it but he hadn’t been around.
With Frank, she slipped readily into a routine of dinners, weekends, sex. He wanted to see her all the time, and acted hurt when she said she couldn’t. It seemed to move quickly without any input from her. Annemieke, never having been in something quite so committed before, assumed this was normal.
After they had been together for several months, Annemieke and Frank decided to go back to Kent Flats to visit Frank’s parents’ farm. The high temperature hit Annemieke when she got out of the car. The air, dusty, fragrant, held traces of eucalyptus—that bright, balsam smell.
Frank’s mother was a quick woman who talked to Annemieke in a pointed, interested way. His father said less but thought about it more. Once they were seated, Frank’s mother made tea and pulled out a paper box from the cupboard. It was white with red branding. Seeing it, Annemieke felt a rush of recognition, forceful and unexpected. That teenage day.
The cake itself was large and buoyant, the colour of sand and white inside. She accepted a portion and balanced it on her lap, staring down at it as if it was a rare bird or flower, something that hailed from another time.
Frank hoed in immediately, carving up large segments of his portion and eating the way an adult does when they have returned to their family home.
‘Don’t you want it?’ he said to her, noisily. She hadn’t touched her silver spoon.
She shook her head lightly to orient herself, picked up her teaspoon and cut a small piece, put it in her mouth. She felt it compress between her teeth and gums. It was sweet. Her mouth was dry, and she had to use extra effort to swallow.
‘It’s good, isn’t it,’ said Frank’s mother.
Frank nodded without looking up.
‘I’m not sure what I used to buy before the Wertmüllers started making angel cake,’ Frank’s mother said, as if to herself.
‘Apricot tart, probably,’ added Frank’s dad from the other side of the room.
‘Oh yes. Frank used to love fruit tarts.’
They left in the late afternoon. Outside, the heat was suffocating. Annemieke felt sweat bloom in her armpits, and worried about it staining the light blue cotton of her dress. The sun blanched the trees against the earth and sky. Frank’s dad squinted in the face of the coming sunset.
‘Hope you make it by nightfall,’ he said.
Annemieke leaned in to give them both kisses, and thanked them for the afternoon. She walked around to the other side of the car, watched the trees bleed with heat. Annemieke understood that it had been some time since she’d returned here. Feverish wind pressed her neck and arms. Suddenly, she felt an extreme reluctance to lower herself into the car with Frank.
On the drive home, Frank tried to strike up conversation a few times. More than once Annemieke had to ask him to repeat what he’d said. She watched the gums fly past the window, the looming shadows and the gold on the road. In the twilight, insects dashed themselves across the windscreen.
‘Are you alright,’ said Frank, as they were driving through the outer suburbs of the city. It was dark outside and white lights loomed.
‘Yes,’ Annemieke said.
‘You seem distant.’
‘Sorry,’ she said.
‘My parents really like you.’
‘That’s great. They’re really nice too.’
‘They keep asking me about us.’
‘Well they’re parents I spose.’ She turned back to the window.
Frank was silent for a moment. ‘Can’t you concentrate on anything?’
‘What?’ Annemieke turned to face him in her seat.
‘Why are you so vague.’
‘Can you stop saying that?! It doesn’t fix anything.’
She paused for a moment. ‘I’m not sure what you want me to say.’
He twisted his hands on the steering wheel.
They came closer to the inner city. Frank took a turn towards his apartment.
‘Can you take me home?’
‘Sure, I can stay,’ he said and changed lanes.
‘I want to sleep alone.’ Between them, an awful silence descended. ‘Maybe we should pull over,’ she added.
He did so, awkwardly, in a side street behind a parking car. He kept his hands on the steering wheel and stared straight ahead.
‘I’m really tired from the car trip,’ she said.
‘Are you always going to be like this?’ he said.
‘What do you mean, always?’ she replied, resisting the implication in his tone.
He looked down, suddenly vulnerable in the darkness.
Annemieke hesitated before touching his arm. ‘Today was wonderful.’ Inside her, something riled against the lie of her her exaggeration. ‘Thanks for introducing me to your parents.’ She leaned forward to kiss him. He kissed her back, eagerly and fluidly, and she felt her body liven to it. But it only took her so far. Beneath her skin, her chest felt like it was harbouring something tight and compact—impenetrable, unable to be moved. Troubled, she kissed him harder, and let his tongue trace the inside corners of her mouth.
He dropped her on the street outside her apartment. Standing on the pavement in the cool air, she wished she had a cigarette. She hoisted her bag over one shoulder and bundled her jacket to her chest, feeling the pastiness of dried sweat under her arms.
In her apartment, she took a long shower. She ran the soap up and down her arms, washed the spaces between her fingers, the sides of her waist. She put on her pyjamas with care. It was eight o’clock when she got into bed. She tried to read, found that she couldn’t, so switched off her light and turned to face the wall. It seemed absurdly early to sleep, yet she tried anyway, and sank into an uncertain, shifting slumber.
The sound of the telephone woke her. She opened her eyes to green-tinged black, her hair all over her face. The ring seemed loud, insistent. She lay there, awake, hoping it wasn’t Frank and not wanting to answer. And yet, she slid her feet to the floorboards, rubbed her eyelids and went out into the hall.
‘Hello,’ she said.
‘How are you.’
‘What is it.’
Pregnant silence loomed between them.
This is, unfortunately, Jacinta’s last post as SPP Writer in Residence! We hope everyone’s enjoyed reading her four pieces as much as we have. Never fear, you can follow her on Twitter and find out what good stuff she’s doing next. We’re pretty confident this is not the last we’ll all be seeing of her and her words.
Until recently, Jacinta Mulders worked in international human rights law research at Australian National University. Her writing has appeared in Meanjin, Seizure, Oyster, Pollen and TheVine, where she worked as an editor. She recently commenced postgraduate studies overseas in creative writing.