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Book extract: Alex Miller's The Passage of Love

Books & Poetry

Two-time winner of the Miles Franklin Literary Award Alex Miller will be in Adelaide next week to launch the latest and most personal of all his books – or, as he describes it, “my take on fictional autobiography”.

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“[It’s] My opportunity in old age to review my life and to celebrate the lives of loved ones, and to do this in the form of story,” Miller writes of the book.

The novel’s central character, Robert Crofts, is also an author who in his mature years decides to tell the story of his struggles as a young man to become a writer. Robert arrived in Australia from England after World War II, became intent on making his mark as a writer while living in Melbourne in the late 1950s, then met and married a beautiful and well-educated woman named Lena, with the couple’s troubled relationship and individual longings lying at the centre of the tale.

The Passage of Love is the 12th novel by Miller, and follows 2013’s Coal Creek. He won the Miles Franklin award in 1993 for The Ancestor Game, and again in 2003 for Journey to the Stone Country.

The following extract is Chapter One, from Part One of The Passage of Love, which sees the older Robert Crofts making a guest appearance at a prison book club where a surprising series of questions forces him to reflect on some disturbing childhood memories. (See details of the Adelaide meet-the-author event at the bottom of this article.)

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When I drove the twenty kilometres from my home to the prison it was a soft cloudless afternoon such as we often enjoy here before the summer heat arrives. Once I’d left the last houses of the town behind, the road wound through the low hills of the box-ironbark forest. The original native timber of the forest trees was harvested in the nineteenth century to fuel the steam engines of the goldmines that then flourished in the area. In the more than one hundred years since it was felled, the forest has regrown into a modified version of its native form. Each stump of what was once a single tree now supports several trunks, giving the impression of a uniform age to the trees, as if the forest had always been there just as I was seeing it that afternoon, timeless and undisturbed. But for some time, for years, after the tree-fellers left, there must have been a disheartening expanse of bare stumps. It was this image that remained with me as I drove on.

The road emerged from the forest and passed through the old township of Maldon. The modest mid-Victorian buildings on either side of the main street remain much as they were at the time the forest was felled. When goldmining ceased in the early part of the twentieth century, the town, like the forest, was more or less abandoned. Two or three kilometres beyond the town I crested a hill and a view of extensive grasslands opened out in front of me. The treeless savannah was interrupted here and there by the bold forms of rounded hills topped with enormous granite boulders. From a distance these grey, lichen-adorned boulders looked like shaggy prehistoric beasts at rest, the progress of their journey arrested by some mysterious instinct.

A large green sign advertised the prison. I didn’t want to arrive before the scheduled time of my talk, so I didn’t drive into the prison grounds yet but parked in the shade on the side of the road. I could see the prison through the roadside trees: a cluster of new buildings, low and neat, painted a pale shade of green. Until I was invited to speak to the members of the prison book club, I’d thought young male offenders were held there, as in the dreaded borstals of my childhood in London. Among us school- boys the borstal had a fearsome reputation as a place where brutal older boys and vicious guards would tyrannise us. The idea of the place terrified us. The boys from among our number whose rebellious natures attracted the attention of the authorities and who were sent to borstal, we knew to be lost to us and to the small compass of our lives forever. I had no memory of any boy ever returning. I suppose they did return, or some of them surely did. Others, their temperament of rebellion confirmed by the brutality of the experience, no doubt moved on to prisons for adult men.

We knew from an early age that the forces of the law were not for our protection but for the protection of property. And as we and our parents possessed no property that needed protecting, the only times we saw the police in our neighbourhood streets were when they came to arrest one of our fathers, usually on suspicion of stealing someone else’s property that they, the police, had failed to protect. The friendly English bobby was not a feature of our Council estate.

In 1963, when I was a student at the University of Melbourne and was reading the English Romantics and the humanist educators of the Italian Renaissance, the borstal came to my attention once again. Though it was not prescribed reading in any of my courses, it was the Irish writer Brendan Behan’s novel Borstal Boy that left the strongest impression on me during my second year at Melbourne. In Behan’s book, the borstal of my childhood fears was vividly brought to life. The Irish-Catholic connection with Behan was real for my mother, but I never heard her invoke it against her love of England, which she required us to respect. As a boy I knew that my mother’s immediate forebears, and therefore my own, lay in unmarked graves in the yard of the ruined Catholic church at Donoughmore in Kilkenny, and while neither I nor the friends of my childhood ever thought of becoming traitors to the country of our birth, when I read Behan’s book in 1963 I nevertheless saw that in an important respect he had spoken for the subject conditions of my own caste in England, as well as for those of his people in Ireland. Behan’s description of the English doctor before whom he was required to stand naked when he was first admitted to the prison was a reminder to me of those men who were placed in authority over us as children and whose contempt we endured every day. ‘He was a dark man,’ Behan wrote of this prison doctor, ‘not very old, and very hard in an English way that tries to be dignified and a member of a master race that would burn a black man alive.’

It was these memories of my childhood, ghosts of the old shame of knowing myself despised by those in authority over me, that came unbidden into my mind as I sat in the car looking down the hill at the prison buildings. It still troubled me that I had never quite rid myself of these early insecurities. They were faded, to be sure, like tattoos on the arms of old men, but they still possessed the power to unsettle me.

Over to the left of the prison buildings the open grasslands fell away from the crest of the hill into a distant haze. On the far horizon I could just make out the bold forms of Mount Moorookyle, Mount Buninyong, and maybe even as far as Mount Warrenheip, the remains of the volcanic forces that had shaped this land. The grandeur of the setting rendered the prison buildings temporary and out of place.

It was time to go. I drove on and turned in at the prison entrance. I parked in the shade of an old peppermint gum and took from the seat beside me the copy of my book that we were to discuss. I got out and walked across to what looked like the main building. There were no signs or directions. When I checked my watch I saw it was a quarter past four. I was still a few minutes early. The count of prisoners, I’d been told, was taken at ten past four. I was expected at the reception area at twenty minutes past four. My talk with the members of the book club was scheduled to begin at four-thirty. The woman who’d invited me had been precise about these times—she’d bolded them in her email.

As I walked across the deserted car park towards the principal building I was impressed by the blank face presented by the prison to the outside world. There was no bell or handle to the door, but before I could knock it was opened by a woman in her fifties, slim and fit-looking, wearing a crisp summery dress. She looked as if she got up every morning at five and went for a ten-kilometre run along the country roads. Her teeth were even and white. She offered me her hand. ‘Hi, I’m Jill.’ Her grip was cool and firm, her manner not hurried exactly, but businesslike. ‘You found us okay then?’

‘Hi, Jill. You’re pretty conspicuous out here.’

‘Isn’t it a lovely setting?’ She might have been proud of the position of her own home. She stood to one side and I stepped past her through the door. Before closing the door she took a quick look out into the car park, as if she wanted to make certain there was no one with me.

A telephone on the desk behind the counter was making a soft burring sound, like a repeated shudder. She ignored it.

I followed her along a short passage which opened into a space much like a seminar room at one of the new universities. Four tables were arranged into a hollow square, with four chairs behind each of three of the tables, and one chair in the middle of the table at the front of the room. Copies of my back titles lay spread out fanwise on the front table. My books looked vulnerable lying there, something forlorn about this collection of prison library books with their protective plastic coverings—my life’s work! I was sure the opinions of the prisoners were going to be more challenging than the opinions of my regular book-club readers and I was feeling a little anxious.

Through a single narrow strip of window high on the wall facing me across the meeting room the rugged contours of the granite hills were softened in the hazy afternoon sunlight. The land had never looked so lonely or so poignantly beautiful to me as it did through that window just then. This place, obviously, wasn’t the brutal borstal of my childhood fears, but it was still a prison. The feeling of being enclosed and contained was palpable.

A woman of around forty was sitting at the end table facing us. She was making notes in an exercise book, an open copy of my last novel lying on the table beside her. She didn’t look up when we came in but paused to consult the novel, placing her finger on a line of the open page before returning her attention to the exercise book and writing something. Her dark brown hair was cut fashionably short and caught the light as she moved. She was wearing a fresh white blouse with short sleeves, her bare arms evenly tanned. She looked like an attractive middle-class woman. She did not look like my idea of a prisoner, and I did not feel any of that shame at brandishing one’s freedom before the eyes of the captive that Henri de Monfreid speaks of so eloquently in his book La Croisière du Haschich.

Jill introduced me to the note-taking woman. She stood up and offered me her hand confidently and looked directly into my eyes. ‘I’ve prepared some questions for you, Mr Crofts.’ She was very serious and might almost have been about to interview me for a job.

I said, ‘Please call me Robert.’

She continued to hold my gaze. I was aware of being assessed, in a way that implied the expectation of something substantial from our meeting. She evidently wished to let me know she was well prepared for her encounter with the author of the book she’d just read. Her name had vanished from my mind the moment Jill uttered it and I regretted not making a conscious note of it.

More women were coming into the room behind us through the door Jill and I had entered by. Jill introduced the women to me one by one and I shook their hands—their names flitting through my mind one after the other like bats whizzing into the night sky from the mouth of a cave. They talked with each other in low voices as they found places for themselves to sit. Once settled, they looked at me with interest. There were eleven of them. Jill took the instructor’s chair at the front table, making our number thirteen in total. Every seat was taken.

Four of the women were Asian, three Chinese and the fourth Japanese. Two of the Chinese women sat close together at the table directly across from me, the older of the two frowning at me as if she didn’t know what to expect from the meeting. When I smiled at her, she looked away and shifted closer to her friend. The Japanese woman sat alone. The third Chinese woman sat immediately to my right, the sleeve of her t-shirt touching my shoulder. The Japanese woman’s features had the closed serenity of a character from Murasaki’s Tale of Genji. She might have been the author of Ise’s line, In longing my soul has ventured forth alone. She gave an impression of being disconnected from the others—an errant spirit from a time long past to which I would never gain access or understanding. Her beauty and her exemplary solitariness. What had all these normal-looking women done to end up in here?

In choosing to sit midway along the table facing the only window, I’d claimed a view of the stony hills. Gnarled and twisted yellow box trees of great age rose from the crevices between the grey humps of the granite boulders. I spotted a pair of wedge-tailed eagles riding the thermals above the nearest hill. No sound from the world outside found its way into the room with us. Mesmerised by the slowly circling pair of eagles above the grey boulders, I realised I’d become momentarily disengaged from what was going on in the room.

The chatter had stopped. It was very quiet. They were waiting.

Jill was holding herself erect, her shoulders back, both hands spread above the table in front of her—the readiness position of a woman with a tight schedule to meet. She had a typed sheet of paper and a copy of my latest book on the table between her hands. When she saw she had my attention she picked up the sheet of paper and began to read what turned out to be a long and rather elaborate introduction of me and my writing. I recognised some of it from an old publicity blurb. She didn’t refer to the women in the room as prisoners, but spoke of them as the women—just as she had avoided the word prison when I arrived and had referred to it as the facility.

I spoke about how the idea for the book had come to me, and then made some general remarks about my approach to writing. I’d been speaking for some time and had paused with the intention of further developing my remarks when the note-taking woman cleared her throat and shifted in her seat.

I looked at her. Everyone looked at her. She said, ‘I’m nearing the end of a seven-year sentence, Mr Crofts. I’ve read all your novels. And I’ve noticed the mothers in your books all have something in common.’ She was nervous, the colour risen to her cheeks. She looked sad and beautiful. I was moved by her plight.

Was she going to tell me I didn’t understand mothers? Her eyes were red with emotion and she had trouble holding my gaze. Her fingers fidgeted with the corners of the pages of her notebook. The other women were watching her, silent and expectant.

‘What sort of thing in common?’ I said.

The note-taking woman placed her hand on the book and looked down at it. ‘The narrator’s deceased mother is an important presence in this story.’ She looked up at me. ‘Wouldn’t you say?’

‘Yes, for sure.’ She wanted me to take her seriously.

‘You could even say,’ she went on, ‘the narrator’s dead mother is the guiding spirit of the whole story.’

‘Morally, I suppose she is.’

She frowned at the book. ‘It’s almost as if he’s writing his story to explain himself to his mother. That’s what I thought.’ She looked at the other women, either hoping for their support or offering them the chance to say something. None of them spoke. She turned to me. ‘I thought he was explaining himself to his mother as a way of explaining himself to himself. Is that right?’

I said, ‘There’s no right or wrong about it really, is there? It’s up to you. We all read our own story, don’t we?’

‘I’ve noticed this presence of absent mothers in several of your books.’ She paused, her gaze steady now on mine. ‘The presence of absent mothers.’ She left it at that for a moment. ‘It’s a theme in your work, wouldn’t you say?’

I was astonished. I’d never been aware of writing about absent mothers. A strange thing happened to me when she said this. My earliest childhood memory came into my mind. This old half-buried memory had always haunted me, a kind of background tremor I could never quite rid myself of. I’d thought of talking to a psychologist about it but never had. Unsettling feelings of guilt and shame were associated with this memory. I didn’t like thinking about it.

The note-taking woman was waiting for me. I wasn’t sure what to say.

‘So can you say something to us about the theme of the absent mother in your books?’ She glanced at Jill, as if she was checking that it was okay for her to persist with this line. Jill was watching me and didn’t say anything.

I caught the faint scream of the eagles.

The note-taking woman, I supposed, must be an absent mother herself. No critic or reader I knew of had ever mentioned absent mothers as a theme in my work. But when I thought about it, as I now did, I saw they were there sure enough. In those books lying on the table in front of Jill there were bad mothers, mothers who gave away their children, absent mothers whose moral influence guided the behaviour of characters throughout their adult years, dead mothers, and no doubt others I couldn’t think of just then. All enshrined in that pile of shabby prison library books. Secretly I loved them all. I was wishing I could remember the note-taking woman’s name. I smiled at her. She didn’t smile back at me. ‘I find what you say very interesting. I mean, I’ve never thought about absent mothers in my books. But you’re right. Now you mention it, I see there are several of them.’

She nodded and took a breath, as if she’d been holding her breath in case I denied her claim or was offended by it. ‘I’m sorry, Mr Crofts. Perhaps I shouldn’t have said anything about it.’

‘No! Don’t be sorry. Please. It’s true. I’m glad you did say something.’ I was impressed. ‘I’m grateful to you for pointing it out to me. It takes readers like you to tell us what we’ve really been up to.’

A small uncertain smile of satisfaction crept into her eyes and I began to see that there was a fine tortured grace in her disciplined reserve. She surely knew something I would never know. Her emotions knew it. The hidden pain I would never be called on to endure. The anguish of a mother separated from her children. I was moved by her courage in speaking up and wanted to tell her so. And I also wanted to tell her about my earliest memory. To confess it to her. She’d made a vital connection for me, and I wanted to share my thoughts about it with her. What might she see in this memory that I hadn’t seen? She was the perfect reader for my absent mothers. ‘I’m really grateful. I hope you believe me.’

She gave me a lovely warm smile and looked down at the table, colour coming into her cheeks again.

With the flat of her left hand she covered the book lying open in front of her on the table—she might have been going to swear an oath on it. ‘It’s in at least four of them.’ Her voice was quiet, controlled, her tone confiding, speaking to me now of something intimate to both our lives, something that could cause pain and distress but also wonderment, something hidden and durable beneath the flickering surface of our daily living. ‘If you include the influence of the dead grandmother in your book about your Queensland friends, that would make it five, wouldn’t it?’

‘Probably. I believe you. You’ve obviously thought a lot more about it than I have. I’d like to tell you something that might help explain it. I’m reminded by what you say of my earliest childhood memory. You’ve seen a connection between my writing and this memory that I’ve never been aware of. I’ve never spoken about this memory to anyone, because when I think of it I feel ashamed for my father and what he was forced to do. When I was eighteen months old I was taken by him to a home for children and left there for a week while my mother went into hospital and gave birth to my younger sister.’

I waited. But she said nothing. She was watching me closely, anxious with anticipation of what I was about to reveal—the secret emotions of an abandoned child the very thing she most feared and over which she must have agonised every night of her seven years of imprisoned life, her children growing up without her.

‘I’ve only got a broken memory of that event. Nothing’s really clear to me. It’s just three fragments. They’ve stayed with me. When you mentioned absent mothers in my books, this memory came vividly into my mind at once. It’s something that must have happened to lots of children in those days, I suppose. While that week lasted, at eighteen months of age I must have been convinced I’d lost my mother forever.’

She put her hand up to her face and wiped at her eyes. When she spoke, it was in little more than a whisper. I had to lean towards her to catch her words. ‘And you still believe your mother betrayed you?’

I realised what I’d done. ‘God, no! No! Definitely not.’ But my denial was too late. ‘I’ve never thought of it like that,’ I said. ‘I loved my mother. I still love her. I thought it must have been my own fault, not my mother’s.’

Neither of us said anything. I hadn’t realised what I was saying. We sat looking into each other’s eyes. We might have been alone in that quiet room. How many children had she been forced to abandon when she came to the prison? What had happened to them? Was there a father at home with them? Or had they gone to foster homes? Were they old enough to have some understanding that it had not been their mother’s wish to desert them? Or did they believe, as she dreaded they would, that they had been abandoned and betrayed by her? Or even worse, in its way, did they think—as I’d thought—that they must have done something to deserve their abandonment? Surely I’d just confirmed her worst fear. Convinced her that her children would always feel abandoned and betrayed, for the rest of their lives, guilty for their own part in it, their memory of the event held deep in a secret place of shame.

What crime could it have been, I wondered, that had landed this woman here for seven years? I couldn’t imagine her committing the sort of crime that would earn her seven years in prison. I thought of my own children and their happy childhoods, grown now to adulthood, the pair of them, without wounds from their pasts to deal with. I realised then that it wasn’t seven years this woman was serving. She was serving a life sentence. She was never going to recover those seven lost years. The loss of those precious years was going to stay with her and with her children till the end of their days, and she knew it, and I’d confirmed her fear of this very consequence. I’d been thoughtlessly honest with her. I had to say something. ‘I greatly admire your courage,’ I said, and felt awkward saying it, conscious that my words were useless to her. I wished I could have addressed her by her name.

She reached up and pushed back her hair with her fingers and she looked at the other women, as if she wished to challenge their silence and their private thoughts, some of them surely absent mothers themselves. Then she closed her notebook and placed it carefully on top of my novel and she folded her hands on the table and looked at me, her emotions once again under control. ‘One of your characters says somewhere, I forget where, that a lifetime isn’t long enough for him to ever forget what has happened to him.’ She paused. ‘Do you think I’ll ever forget this thing that has happened to me?’

My first impulse was to reassure her that it would all pass and be forgotten one day. But I knew she would see through that lie at once and despise me for it. ‘I haven’t even forgotten that week I spent in the children’s home, have I? And that was nothing compared to what’s happened to you. How can we ever forget these things?’

‘It’s not nothing that happened to you, Mr Crofts. Because of what happened to you, your books have helped me to understand what I’ve done.’

Jill tapped the table sharply with her biro. ‘Perhaps someone else would like to ask our author a question?’ When no one spoke she looked at me and smiled, her even white teeth twinkling at me. ‘Perhaps I can ask a question. Can you tell us something about the book you’re working on at the moment? Some of the women are writing books.’

‘I’m not working on a new book.’ My life’s work was lying on the table in front of Jill. That was it. I was tempted to tell her, It’s over. I’m done. There it is in front of you. I smiled. I had my own crisis to manage. I turned to the note-taking woman and stood up. I offered her my hand. She stood and took my hand in hers. I said, ‘Good luck.’

She held my gaze. ‘Thank you,’ she whispered.

Walking across to my car from the prison, I heard the eagles scream. I stood and looked up into the sky. But I couldn’t see them against the dazzle of the evening sky. I stood gazing upwards, listening to the melancholy of their cries—it was as if they called for something lost and unattainable, to a companion of the past. I was seeing my stricken friend, the absent mother locked in the prison behind me. I had always taken my liberty for granted and had done so little with it. I looked hard for the eagles but couldn’t find them. Ever since my arrival in Australia on my own as a boy of sixteen, the cry of the eagle had signified my passionate sense of freedom. If I’d ever thought to say what I believed to be the soul of the Australian bush, I would have said, the cry of the eagle. I first heard that strange, lost cry of those great birds when I was working as a stockman on a remote cattle station in the Central Highlands of Queensland. I sat on my horse alone among the wild stone escarpments of that country and watched enthralled as a pair of wedge-tailed eagles soared into the sky above the forest, their pinions locked, circling above me in a slow dance; higher and higher they went, until I could no longer make them out, their screams audible long after they had disappeared from my sight. And then the silence and the distance closing over me, until there was just the creak of my saddle as my horse shifted its weight under me, the two of us more eerily alone in that place than we had been before the eagles’ cries.

When I drove out of the prison car park I was so distracted by what had happened that instead of turning to the right, towards the junction with the main road that would have taken me back to town, I turned left. I’d been driving for some minutes before I realised I was on a road that was unknown to me and I was going the wrong way. I kept going. I was glad to be going the wrong way. The strangeness of it was a relief. Sometimes the wrong way is the right way.

I was driving at a dangerously high speed, the narrow strip of broken and neglected bitumen dancing about in the uncertain evening light. I had no idea where it was leading me, except that it was taking me further away from the town and from my home. I was exhilarated by the speed and the danger and by my anger and the wild scheming in my head of ways I might find to meet the note-taking woman again on her own so that she and I could continue the friendship we had begun. I knew such a meeting was impossible. But still I schemed. Ridiculous and stupid.

The massive trunks of grand old yellow box trees flashed by close to the verges on either side of the car. At this speed I had only to swerve from my line by a fraction and I would collect one of these giants and meet my certain death. I didn’t mind the thought of death. Mine was the indifference to death of the drunk or the despairing lover. I wasn’t in love and I wasn’t drunk, but there was that kind of reeling in my head that we know in both these states. Now, right at this minute, along this unknown road, in the grip of this strange youthful madness, it might be just the right time for me to go. Why not? Death might even be my best option. It wasn’t the first time I’d thought of it. Perhaps there really was no way forward for me from here. Perhaps I really was finished and just had to find the courage to admit it. The observant note-taking woman in the prison had neatly removed my fictional mask and laid it to one side and placed herself close to me. I wanted to see her again. In a strange and contradictory way, she had given me hope. I pushed the accelerator pedal hard to the floor.

As I crested a low rise, the glare of the sun burst into my eyes and I caught a flash of something red ahead of me. A fox was lying curled up in the centre of the road, so still and so perfect it might have fallen asleep there. The fox’s coat had a coppery sheen in the last of the sunlight. It looked to be in the fullness of its vigour; I would not have been surprised to see it jump up and run away. But it was dead. It was all over for the fox. It was lying there alone in the open where it had sought the final companionship of its own warmth at the moment of its solitary death. I slowed to a walking pace and eased the car around the body. It had evidently been struck such a mortal blow that it had been unable to crawl to the side and take cover among the tangle of undergrowth under the box trees. I stopped the car and got out and picked up the body and carried it into the cover at the side of the road and placed it carefully on the ground. And I wept, for the fox, for its beauty, for the woman in prison, and for my own doom. I got back in the car and sat a while till I had recovered and then I drove on at a sedate pace.

I continued along the unfamiliar road well after darkness had enfolded the landscape. I saw no other cars. Eventually I stopped in the middle of the road. It was no good going on forever. Against the blackness of the night the massive scarred trunks of the great trees were thrown into sharp relief by my trembling headlights. I sat there for a long time in the perfect stillness of the night, looking at the trees and thinking about the note-taking woman in her fresh white blouse, her fingernails bitten to the quick, her eyes reddened with emotion as she spoke to me of her terrible fears. I’d almost shared with her my precious three shards of memory of the children’s home. With her I would have broken the silence of that old taboo that had lain on me and on my family all my life. I sat in the car gazing through the windscreen at the ancient trees and I told my memories to the fantasy of her presence. It was a way of keeping alive for myself something of the intimacy between us, becoming for her the voice of one of her abandoned children.

‘I’m riding in a taxi with my father through the streets of London,’ I said, telling my story aloud. ‘I’m gripped by a vivid excitement that’s edged with an uncomprehending anxiety. It’s a fine summer day. My nose is pressed against the shuddering window of the cab, London’s crowded streets and views of parks whizzing past outside, inside the exotic smell of the leather seats and the intimately reassuring aroma of my father’s pipe tobacco. The view of London’s streets that sunny day has remained with me as an ideal of what London should look like. It’s a view I’ve never quite managed to recover, though sometimes in Hyde Park on a summer day I’ve sensed the magic of its presence fleetingly, like a half-remembered dream. Although this first fragment is not an unhappy memory, its atmosphere is nevertheless touched with the foreboding that sometimes enters into even our most innocent dreams. I remember the ride in the taxi with a strange clarity that hasn’t faded with the passing of the years. I suppose it is the mystery of the journey’s purpose that accounts for my sense of foreboding—I seem to know in my infant soul that some ill is to befall me at the end of the taxi ride.

‘The second fragment is colourless. A large woman is standing at the top of a short flight of grey stone steps looking down at me. I’m being led up the steps by my father and am holding tightly to his hand. I feel the firm grip of my father’s hand in mine—he will never let me go! The woman at the top of the stairs is wearing a black apron over a long grey dress that reaches to her ankles. She is foreshortened and made even more imposing and heavy than she would have been if we’d been approaching on a level with her. And of course I’m small and my angle is even closer to the ground than that of a grown-up. I’ve no memory of my father letting go of my hand. Just the looming figure of the woman waiting for me at the top of the steps. My mother, in contrast to this massive grey woman, was small and of slight build and often described herself to us as a little mother sparrow. As we go up the steps towards this woman I’m overwhelmed by such a powerful conviction of my guilt that my emotions are brought to a frozen standstill. What terrible crime am I guilty of that has driven my loving father to hand me over to this fearful person? The memory is shrouded in a hopeless feeling of shame and a helpless desire for redemption and forgiveness. Such feelings make no sense to me as an adult, but they persist all the same in their association with this memory.

‘In the third, and final, fragment I’m being punished for the crime against my parents that has made it necessary for them to abandon me. My face is being pushed against the shiny green tiles of a wall in a long corridor that ends in distant blackness. The unnerving sound of my child’s screams fills the air. It is a fragment of terror. I’ve no other memories of the children’s home beyond the shiny green tiles of the wall and my helpless screams. Green tiles have always held a morbid fascination for me. I included a single row of shiny green tiles in my bathroom when I had it renovated some years ago. When I was inspecting his work one morning, the tiler pointed out to me that he’d made a mistake and had set one of the wall tiles crookedly. He said he would correct it. I told him to leave it as it was. “I like to see some little sign of error in things,” I said. Standing naked under the shower in the morning, there is a peculiar satisfaction for me in seeing that crooked green tile. I alone know the meaning of its skew. But I cannot say what that meaning is. It is simply meaning. Seeing the crooked green tile gratifies me.’

I fell silent. I reversed the car and turned around and drove slowly back along the road I’d come by.

I hadn’t been working on a new book since my last book had come out, now more than two years ago. Till then, for more than thirty years, whenever I finished a book, I’d always had another book waiting to be written. I’d been struggling for some time to come to terms with this. The will to write, the need, the desire to do it yet again, they weren’t there anymore—I was the forest of stumps, a dispiriting expanse of emptiness.

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This is an extract from The Passage of Love, by Alex Miller, $32.99, published this week by Allen & Unwin. Republished with permission of the author.

Author Alex Miller. Photo: Edwina Hollick

Alex Miller will be the guest at a meet-the-author event hosted by Matilda Bookshop in the Coventry Library at Stirling on Monday, November 6. Details here.

 

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