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Book extract: Dreams They Forgot

Books & Poetry

Adelaide-born writer Emma Ashmere explores illusion, deception and acts of quiet rebellion in her new book of short stories, including one in which two sisters await a predicted tidal wave after SA Premier Don Dunstan decriminalises homosexuality.

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Published this week by Wakefield Press, Dreams They Forgot follows Ashmere’s debut novel The Floating Garden and comprises 13 stories.

They feature a diverse collection of characters, and take readers from “a grand 1860s Adelaide music hall to a dilapidated London squat, from a modern Melbourne hospital to the 1950s Maralinga test site, to the 1990s diamond mines of Borneo”.

The story extracted below, The Second Wave, is set during an Adelaide beach holiday in the 1970s.

———

The Second Wave

The daughter and son-in-law of a famous French writer were crushed to death under a wall of grey water which arrived at night, and swept inland up the famous river Seine into the small town of Villequier in the north-west of France. The Great Wave, as it was called, had risen up from the itchy stirrings of a storm, the sort of orage – French for storm – respected and expected in parts of Normandy at that time. The year was 1843.

Since then, a dam has been built to dissipate the force and accuracy of such waves. The people of Villequier can rest in their beds knowing that if they are to die from something in the night, they can rule out death-by-Great-Wave. No turrets of water will sneak up and strike at local cafes and stale-aired bars, or puncture the veins of plumbing, or rip out the hairs of electricity. They can fall asleep in the crackle of sun-dried cotton sheets, listing only slightly in their dreams. Under their eyelids, a pinch of salt.

Florise Parnell discovered this fact scribbled in the margins of her mother’s notes for the revised edition of her bestselling book Impressions of the Impressionists. Flor took a breath and said, ‘So, Maman. What’s this about the wave in Normandy?’

Her mother put down her coffee bowl. ‘I know only what I’ve written there. I suppose the daughter was pulled down by the weight of her clothing. All those whale bones and petticoats. Alors. I must go.’

Later, when Flor had calmed herself, she did a little digging of her own. A series of Great Waves had rolled around the French and British coastlines devouring whole towns, appearing before there was time to ring the church bells, unstrap the petticoats, and flee to the nearest mountain range, sideways on a horse.

Flor prevaricated for several days before phoning her mother. The conversation went as she’d expected. After she’d suggested devoting a whole paragraph to the wave, the phone line hummed with silence. Eventually her mother said, ‘Ah bon,’ and hung up.

Flor’s fascination with all things marine can be traced back to the final summer the Parnells spent as a family, in a beach shack perched high up on a cliff. All night the waves fumed and gushed below, interrupted only by the screech of gulls or their card-playing, party-loving neighbours Mr and Mrs Mortimer.

After dinner Flor’s father hopped the hedge to join the Mortimers for a game of mahjong. Her mother settled down with her books. Her sister, Vevette, cut her fringe or lay with a cold flannel over her eyes to ward off headaches. Flor sat on the chenille bedspread, picking out certain tufts to leave small swear words in the weave.

The shack belonged to a wealthy but frugal relative of her father’s. it had an outside bathroom and a kitchen table you had to fold down, which pinched your fingers and bruised your knees. The front verandah was made of stone but the rest of the house was tacked together with a kind of board that bulged down from the ceilings and was streaked with rusty stains.

Flor and Vevette’s bedroom felt as if it was being dangled out over the sea. Two beds were squashed together and they had to stand on them if they wanted to get at the wardrobe. A pair of ancient venetian blinds was no match for the fierce western sun. Vevette had pinned her bedspread up over the window, but it kept falling down.

Every time there was laughter from next-door or the sound of a car doing wheelies down on the beach, Vevette stuffed cotton wool in her ears.

‘I think Dad just said “you bastard”,’ said Flor. She began picking tufts from her bedspread. B a s t

Vevette shrugged. ‘Takes one to know one.’

Vevette had been unbearable all holidays. She’d just finished school. Most of her friends had summer jobs and she’d failed to persuade their parents to let her stay behind in the city and work. She claimed to have developed headaches from the sun and salt, and – like their father – an acute sense of hearing. The slightest scrape of a sandal on the gritty floor or the radio lisping slightly off the station could send both into a rage or a sulk.

it was getting dark. Flor took out her torch to start her watch for sharks or tidal waves. She put in her earpiece and fiddled with her new bracelet transistor, carefully muffled beneath her pillow.

‘Flor,’ Vevette held out her hand, ‘give it to me.’ ‘You can’t possibly hear it.’
‘I can.’
‘What’s playing, then?’

Jump in my car. Turn it up. I don’t want to listen to Dad and the Mortimers.’

The batteries in Vevette’s transistor always went flat. Reluctantly, Flor surrendered hers – on one condition: that Vevette promise to stay awake with her, and look for sharks or tidal waves.

For several weeks, there’d been talk in the papers that an earthquake was going to tear the placid Adelaide plains away from the polite rumple of the foothills. According to a former house-painter turned clairvoyant who’d been visited by God, the quake would be followed by a tidal wave. In two days time, at 10.30am Eastern Standard Time on 19 January 1976, the city, suburbs, beaches – and the sinners – would be swept clean away.

‘Good,’ said Vevette. ‘Who wants to be left behind with the loonies and the squares.’

‘Dad says it’s a trick to make the stupid ones sell up their houses cheap. Dad says …’

‘Oh shut up, will you?’

‘Only if you tell me that story about the woman who scratched a scab on her face and all those baby spiders hatched out.’

Vevette leapt up and flicked her pillow about. ‘It’s a female one. The whine is louder.’ She grabbed Flor’s hairbrush and sang, ‘I’m mzz-quito. Hear me roar.’

Every morning they escaped the house before their parents were up, and walked along the sand to the regular tremor of waves. Sometimes the waves were so clear you could see the frills of seaweed caught in the glassy elbow of the tide.

in previous years, Vevette had christened these walks Morning Explorations and set the task of finding the morning’s Most Terrible Thing washed up overnight: a dead sailor lolling in the tide still strapped to the mast, or a pirates’ chest full of bones and skulls. But this year, Vevette scuffed along the sand, staring out at the water, twisting her hair, or shooting an imaginary gun at the squawking gulls.

Flor turned up a crab-less carapace and a spiral shark egg case. She splashed about in the rock pools and found a comb tangled with strands of long brown hair. She had visions of an elegant woman attending to her hair in the moonlight, or a mermaid singing to the dolphins at dawn.

‘That’s foul,’ said Vevette when she showed it to her. ‘Whose do you think it was?’
‘She probably got drunk and fell off a yacht. Or somebody gave her the shove.’

Mr Mortimer from next-door had begun his dawn patrol in his singlet, shorts and sun-scabbed legs, waving his magnet across the sand.

Vevette said the vibrations came up through her feet and upset her biorhythms. ‘That thing sounds like a UFO,’ she said and stalked back up to the house.

Flor raced after her. Their mother was reversing out of the drive.

Vevette thumped her fists on the bonnet. ‘Stop. Where are you going?’

Their mother frowned. She was in those cat glasses, the ones her lipstick matched, and her new zebra-stripe dress. ‘Oh, it’s nothing. Just to the city to do a little bit of this, a little bit of that. I’ll be back before the night.’

‘Take me too,’ cried Vevette.
The car raced off. Stones flicked up on the road.
‘It’s because of bloody Dad again,’ Vevette said. ‘It always is.’
But Flor thought perhaps their mother wanted to escape the tidal wave.

During the holidays, their father slept all day with the door closed. He was an airline pilot and kept odd hours. There were two things you never did on the rare occasions he was at home. 1) Ask about the weather. If anybody did, he said with a mocking voice, ‘I assure you there will be weather tomorrow.’ 2) Make any sound which might wake him up.

It was too hot for the beach. Flor played Patience. Vevette tried to make pictures appear on the television – the sound turned off – and shuffled across the room holding the plastic aerial aloft at acrobatic angles, watching the images sharpen only to fizzle out again.

‘Chinese checkers?’ Flor whispered.

Vevette kept wrenching television dials and thumping cushions against the wood-veneer casing. Flor turned to the bookshelf, to What Bird Is That?

Their father emerged at dusk and didn’t seem to notice Vevette had poured herself a glass of his beer. He shook out his pockets and gave them a few dollars. They walked to the shop. Boys whistled at Vevette. She sauntered ahead and said, ‘rack off.’

They sat on the edge of the cliff eating fish and chips as the sun caught fire and sank. Seagulls shrieked, hovering and diving about their heads. Their father joined them and threw the gulls some chips. Vevette told him to stop.

‘You sound like a fishwife,’ he said.

Flor said quickly, ‘I wonder which ones are the wives and which are the husbands. Did you know crows keep the same mate for life, and pigeons, the top-knot variety?’

‘Shut up, you little idiot,’ said Vevette.

Their father threw the rest of their chips at the gulls. ‘You both sound like these screaming birds. Be grateful you had any dinner at all.’

‘We have to be quiet around you all day,’ shouted Vevette. ‘Why shouldn’t we say what we like?’

He leaned down and slapped them both across the backs of their heads. ‘That’s why.’

Vevette ran down to the beach. Flor stayed were she was and pulled out clumps of grass until she heard their father go next-door to the Mortimers’. She ran up to the house and stood in her parents’ bedroom. Her mother had taken her holiday reading from the bedside table: Maupassant, Flaubert, Maigret.

‘As long as you can read,’ she’d said to Flor once, ‘you won’t lose the world.’

She found the After Dinner Mints in the fridge and shared them out in two equal piles. When Vevette returned, they ate the mints and sat up to watch for waves and sharks. The wind was coming up and the moon was bright, the kind their father called a bomber’s moon. Vevette turned the binoculars away from the sea towards the city. If a car went past on the road below, she watched the driveway. Their mother still wasn’t back. Whenever there was laughter from the Mortimers’ house, she trained them on next-door.

It was about midnight when Vevette said, ‘I heard a girl’s voice.’

Flor had nodded off. ‘I didn’t hear anything.’

Vevette took the torch. They jumped over the hedge and stood at the Mortimers’ windows, peering through the cane blinds. A dark-haired girl was hunched in a bean bag, smoking. The Mortimers shouted at her to come and play cards. The girl lit a match and threw it at a row of ashtrays. it flared and sputtered out in the ashtray. Another landed on the carpet. She let it smoulder before squashing it out with her shoe. Their father left the table, and tried to take the girl’s hand to drag her to her feet.

‘Get your mitts off.’ She leapt up, slammed the door and stood on the Mortimers’ verandah staring down at the sea, her cigarette flaring in the dark.

‘Hurry,’ Flor whispered. ‘Or she’ll see us.’

A car screeched on the road, its radio blaring.

‘That’s a Ford,’ said Vevette. She stepped around pot plants and fold-up chairs through the dark, towards the girl.

The girl turned. ‘Yeah. You can always tell. The revs are higher.’

The girl offered Vevette a cigarette. Flor glanced at her father through the window. He was back at the card table, tossing in one-dollar notes for another round.

‘Wait for me,’ she whispered, but Vevette and the girl had run off, the torchlight dancing across the grass.

Flor sat up waiting for her mother and for Vevette. She listened to her radio, turning it up every time Stars on 45 came on. Vevette crept in after 3am. She said she’d been at the shop.

‘Doing what?’

‘Hanging around.’

Flor slept in well past her Morning Explorations. Her mother still wasn’t back. Apparently there’d been trouble with the radiator on Willunga Hill. Her father was at the stove frying bubble and squeak. Vevette had already gone to the beach with the girl from the Mortimers’.

Flor found them sitting where you weren’t supposed to, in the shade beneath the jut of the cliffs. The girl, Rae, was Mr Mortimer’s niece. She was eighteen, one year older than Vevette. She lived in Sydney, had a strip of leather tied around her ankle, denim flares and a faded It’s Time t-shirt. She was catching the bus back to Sydney the following day, and was going to study English at university.

‘But you already parlez-vous English,’ said Flor.
Rae laughed. So did Vevette.
The surf was ferocious. Rae swam out past the waves.

Vevette told Flor to stay in the shallows to look out for sharks, and wave her towel if she spotted one. Flor watched as Vevette joined Rae, their heads bobbing in out and out of view. At one point they squealed and looked as if they were being dragged towards the rocks, but they clung to each other and managed to swim back.

Rae ran back to the shade, lay down on her towel and smiled up at Flor. She gestured for her to sit, patted her on the ear and drew out a fifty-cent piece. ‘Get yourself something nice from the shop. We should all be nice. Or so my aunty says.’

Vevette peered down at her, ‘Flor, what do you say to nice Rae?’

She couldn’t think of anything clever to say, so she said, ‘Mum says the French say niece instead of nice for the town Nice on the Riviera even though you spell it the same way.’

Vevette giggled as she rubbed oil into Rae’s back. People turned to watch as they screamed and leapt back into the surf.

Cars were crackling along the gravel road towards the shop. Flor looked at the panel vans painted with orange sunsets, women in bikinis, palm trees, and the bumper stickers: If it’s rockin’ – don’t bother knockin’. By the time she’d pushed her way through the other customers and walked back, there was no sign of her sister or Rae. She scanned the waves. Nothing. She ran up the ramp and saw them standing in the shimmer of the road.

‘Wait for me,’ she yelled.

Vevette’s hand was held out for hitchhiking. Flor’s bracelet radio glittered on her wrist.

Flor stood in the baking heat as the cars thrummed past, squinting at each one to see if it was them. Some passengers tooted or yelled, their red mouths distorting as they passed. She returned to the beach under the cliff, patting out games of Patience on her towel. She looked out at the tide, at the waves beating their approach and retreat. When it became too hot, she waited in a cave where the fishermen tied up their boats, but the limey stink drove her out. She looked for her sister along the shore. Something was rolling in the wash. She ran towards it, but it was only a clump of seaweed slumping back and forth.

A shark plane droned overhead. People ran after it. The first time she’d seen one, Flor had said, ‘Dad says no pilot can see all the sharks all the time’.

Vevette answered, ‘Sharks are attracted by blood and piss. The pilot can spot your yellow cloud from two thousand feet.’

Flor packed up her cards and trudged up the ramp. Still no sign of Vevette and Rae – or her mother.

The Mortimers let her father use the phone. Flor was allowed inside after she’d washed her feet and hands in the outside tap. The Mortimers’ house wasn’t like a beach shack. It had an indoor bathroom and air freshener in a spray can. In the kitchen there were benches and stools, a dishwasher on a stand, a Mixmaster with a padded cover. The lounge room looked out over the cliffs. There were four different cane couches, with ferns printed on big, soft cushions. A bamboo cage-chair swung from a hook in the ceiling. On the smoked-glass coffee table was a pottery bowl full of chipped-o bits of rock, names texta-ed on them: Parthenon, Pyramid of Giza, Notre Dame. The card table was draped in red-tassel felt.

Flor was directed to sit in the beanbag where Fae had sat. She looked for the burn marks, but they’d been covered with a mat.

‘Drink, sweetie?’ Mrs Mortimer prowled over and gave her a serviette for her lap and a tall glass with a straw, a paper umbrella floating in it.

Flor stared at the curves of Mrs Mortimer’s red toenails poking out over the tips of her rope-soled shoes. Her father was on the phone in the Mortimers’ bedroom. She couldn’t hear what he was saying, but knew he was talking to her mother.

‘Your dad’s had a shocking time,’ said Mrs Mortimer. Her toenails jutted from the rung of a bar stool. Her gold chain jiggled against the freckles on her neck. Diamond rings swarmed across her hands. ‘I knew Rae’s visit would cause trouble. We should never have let her come.’

Mrs Mortimer insisted they stay for dinner in case the phone rang. Afterwards Flor ran back to the house and picked holes in Vevette’s bedspread: At the Mortimers, HELP!!

She woke at dawn to the sound of the car. Her mother hurried across the grass, carrying a newspaper. On the front page there was an article. Two thousand people had waited at Glenelg to watch the tidal wave. There were strong winds. As for the waves – they barely reached waist-height. When Don Dustan arrived, everybody screamed as if they were at a Bay City Rollers concert. Beneath that, a photo of Vevette and Rae holding a placard: Decriminalise Homosexuality.

Later, Vevette rang the Mortimers. She refused to speak to anyone except Flor. She was calling from the bus station, she said. She was going to Sydney, to live with Rae.

———

Extracted with permission from Dreams They Forget, by Emma Ashmere, published this month by Wakefield Press. The short stories in the collection have been variously shortlisted for the 2019 Commonwealth Writers Short Story Award, 2019 Newcastle Short Story Award, 2018 Overland NUW Fair Australia Prize, and the 2001 Age Short Story Competition. Ashmere’s debut novel, The Floating Garden, was shortlisted for the Most Underrated Book Award 2016.

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