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Authors: Steven Carroll

The Time We Have Taken

BOOK: The Time We Have Taken
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Dedication

To the memory of William Francis Carroll
(1917–1984)

and

to Jean Irene Carroll (nee Williams)
born 1921

Contents

Cover

Dedication

1970

Part One:
Summer

1.
The Birth of an Idea

2.
Rita’s Day Begins

3.
Vic’s Day Begins: the Rabbit, the Field and the Observer

4.
Mrs Webster at Work

5.
A Formal Gathering on the Balcony

6.
Mrs Webster at Home

7.
Vic’s Round

8.
An Ordinary Morning

9.
The Story of Old Dresses

10.
Life Turns Another Page

11.
The Search for a Key Term

Part Two:
Autumn

12.
Introducing Pussy Cat and Bunny Rabbit

13.
Lurch

14.
A Letter is Written

15.
The Search for a Crowning Event

16.
The Guitar and the Decade

17.
The Letter is Received

18.
The Arrival of Speed

19.
Madeleine on the Old Street

20.
Perfume (1)

21.
Vic’s Detour

22.
Perfume (2)

23.
The Artist Meets With His Wall

24.
Paths That Cross and Uncross

Part Three:
Winter

25.
Pussy Cat and Bunny Rabbit Copulate, then Talk Afterwards

26.
Rita Begins Webster’s Museum

27.
At the Pub Window

28.
How Terribly Strange to be Seventy

29.
The Discovery of Speed (1)

30.
An Unfashionable Jealousy

31.
Sitting for Immortality

32.
Bunny Rabbit Eyes the Horizon

33.
Vic Eyes the Horizon

34.
Speed and After

35.
Let It Be

36.
Rita Observes Webster’s People

37.
A Passing Visit

38.
The Last Day of Winter

Part Four:
Spring

39.
The Invention of Death

40.
Confessional

41.
An Unmarked Grave

42.
The Farewell Party

43.
The Mountain Of Whitlam Comes to Centenary Suburb

44.
The Moving Hand

45.
The Discovery of Speed (2)

46.
The Art of the Engine Driver

47.
The Last of Madeleine

48.
The Unveiling of the Crowning Event

49.
The Sale of a Factory, the Sale of a House

Part Five:
Envoi

50.
The Time We Have Taken

P.S. Ideas, Interviews & Features included in a new section…

About the author

Meet the Author

Life at a Glance

The Interview

About the book

The Critical Eye

The Review

Discussion Questions

Read on

Find Out More

Acknowledgments

About the Author

Praise

Other Books by Steven Carroll

Copyright

Part One
Summer
1.
The Birth of an Idea

A
s Peter van Rijn steps onto his driveway and opens the door of his old Ford Anglia, he is conscious only of the enormous heat pouring down from the sky upon the houses, driveways and sprinkled lawns of the suburb. He doesn’t know he is about to give birth to an idea. The car is still cool as he eases himself onto the worn leather seat and closes the driver’s door. Ideas are far from his mind, sensations are all he registers. It is one of those mid-January days that hit early and hit hard, demanding the conservation of all effort — including the effort of thinking. And yet, for all this, by the time Peter van Rijn has entered the Old Wheat Road, where his television-and-wireless shop has stood for the last fifteen years, he will have given birth to an idea
of such significance to the suburb that it will become the reference point for all official events in the coming year. And the unofficial. The still point around which the wheel of the four seasons will spin. Few events will take place without someone first referring to Peter van Rijn’s brainchild, possibly the one truly inspired moment in his carefully ordered life.

He slowly backs onto the tarred road; although, now cool it will be soft and shimmering under a relentless sky by midday. The Anglia, meticulously tuned and polished, purrs up the street past George Bedser’s, where the frail, solitary, retired frame of Bedser himself is stooped over his roses. There is a wave ready if Bedser should look up, but he doesn’t. Peter van Rijn turns left at the top of his street, then right, glancing at the empty playing field of the primary school. When February begins in a couple of weeks, and the schools are back, the children of the suburb will once more assume sovereignty over the grounds, but not quite yet. As Peter passes the St Matthew’s tennis courts, the caretaker slowly raking the russet surface, his mind is dwelling silently on the tasks of the day.

He is proud of his shop and has always been careful to do all he can to ensure that anybody who opens his door will feel good about entering. It is his first rule of shops, that a customer should feel good — better
than they felt on the footpath — about being inside. He has always made sure that in winter he arrives early enough to warm the shop, and in summer early enough to put the fans to work. It is, he has always felt, a responsibility, and not just a civic one.

It was Peter van Rijn who, in the summer of 1956, first brought TV to the suburb. Peter van Rijn who displayed the latest televisions in his shop window so that shoppers and commuters might pause, summer or winter, and be pleasantly distracted as they watched the cartoon antics of a black-and-white mouse on a flickering screen. And he is now convinced that it was more than mere amusement that he offered shoppers and commuters back then when the suburb sat on the frontier of the city and those low, flat paddocks of tall grass and thistle marked the margins of Progress. His window, he liked to think, gave comfort, the way a well-lighted window in a warm shop does.

There are times even now, special events, when he sets the televisions up in the window once more. But rarely. And it is at this moment (barely aware of his hands on the wheel), as he is dwelling on the time they have all consumed, on the shop as it was then and the shop as it is now, on the suburb then and now, and all in such a way that it
feels
like history, real history, that a half-digested fact from a previous day’s casual reading suddenly surfaces. A photograph in
the local newspaper of a road junction, a few farm houses on a wide landscape, and — what caught his eye — the first wooden store to come to the community. And beneath that the date: 1870. It has since been rebuilt, a double-storey brick terrace, and is now occupied by the greengrocer, with a later date displayed upon it. The memory of the article rushes up to him with the speed of the T-intersection at the Old Wheat Road ahead of him. Scattered farms counted for nothing. Scattered farms don’t even make a hamlet, or whatever it is that lies beneath a hamlet in levels of significance. But a shop, that was different. That is where things begin. A shop marks the arrival of Progress. A shop brings with it all the latest wonders the production process has to offer. A shop, is, in short, the flag of settlement. It was — this single, wooden general store (and his conviction is absolute) — the point at which the suburb could look back and say that is when we began. And, in a flash, before he even crosses the intersection and enters the Old Wheat Road, he knows that this is the year to pronounce the suburb one hundred years old. And if nobody else had noticed the significance of the date until now, it was because it took a shopkeeper to see it.

Somewhere between the tennis courts of St Matthew’s Church and the Old Wheat Road, an idea had sprung from him like water from a garden
sprinkler. This was, indeed, a year of great significance. And, instead of stopping at his shop early enough to set the fans in motion, Peter van Rijn continues straight on to the newly completed town hall almost a mile north of his shop, along one of the two major roads of the suburb.

The car park at this early hour — it is not yet eight — is virtually empty. But the mayor’s car is in its appointed place, and Peter van Rijn strides across the car park towards the glass front doors of the town hall like a man with vital news that must be heard without a second’s delay.

2.
Rita’s Day Begins

O
h, God. He’s at it again. She’ll have to prod him. If it goes on much longer, she’ll just have to give him a good jab. But even that will only buy her a few minutes of silence. Five minutes at most. If only he could hear himself, snorting and spluttering like one of those old engines he once drove. And as soon as the word ‘engine’ enters her thoughts, she can see and smell his old work clothes as if they were in the room. It’s a good smell. Steam and soot. And something else, that sense of having been somewhere, of having travelled, and of having brought back with them the faintest scent of distant towns. His overalls, his shirt and that orange jumper she knitted for him (because he doesn’t wear enough bright clothes), which he eventually wore to work (and that was the
end of that), all drenched with the smell of engines and driving and night shifts that went on clear into the morning fill the room along with his snoring. And she knows she’ll have to jab him or she’ll get no peace or sleep.

And so she raises her arm and rolls to his side of the bed, only to find that the bed ends and if she doesn’t watch it she’ll fall out onto the floor. Has she rolled to the wrong side? No, she hasn’t. She’s rolled to his side. But he’s not there. He must be. It was his snoring that woke her. Or did she give him a prod already, and fall back to sleep, and did he get up when she did? Whatever, he’s not there and she’s run out of bed.

Rita opens her eyes, looks around the dark room (either still night or early morning), and nods slowly to herself. He’s not there, because he’s not. Hasn’t been for years. And she’s run out of bed because it’s not their old bed she’s sleeping in. That went years ago too. It’s her bed, neither small nor big. And the snoring she heard was the snoring that comes in dreams. He doesn’t even have to be here any more to disturb her sleep and wake her.

She sits up, head back. Of all the things to miss. Of all the things to retrieve in dreams. She brings his snoring back. She ought to smile at that, but she hasn’t got a smile in her. Nor a grin. He’s this lost limb that she still thinks is there sometimes. And she checks her clock and is relieved to discover that it’s
almost morning and she doesn’t have to try to sleep through the rest of the night. She’s already done that. And slept well, till this snoring of Vic’s woke her.

Now that it’s gone, she is suddenly aware of the silence of the room, the silence of the house, and the whole suburb out there. Still sleeping. No cars, too early for the birds even. It’s too early to get up, and too late to go back to sleep. And so she sits and decides to wait for the first glimmer of light to announce itself behind the thick curtains that shroud the room. Something tells her it’s not right to get up and dress and breakfast in the dark when you don’t have to, so she resolves to sit and watch and wait.

And it’s as she resolves upon this course of action — or inaction — that she hears the first sound of the day. A distant car accelerates into the new morning, breaking the all-encompassing silence, and she knows that out there life is beginning to stir. And she can see it (if she closes her eyes), she can see it all from her room. Kitchens blinking into light, kettles billowing steam, the babble of radios, the opening and closing of doors, and the first footsteps of the morning resounding out there on the porches and driveways of the suburb as a new day revs into action.

The sound of just one car can do that. Make you feel like you’re part of something. Remind you that there’s something out there, after all. And as she
ponders this, she watches with quiet wonder as the first beam of the day lights the edges of the bedroom window and the world comes back to her. Familiar, but new. And something lifts in her, lifts her heart, her chest, her whole body. She doesn’t know what, but suddenly she’s ridiculously happy. A shiver runs down her spine, and she’s delirious at the thought of a warm cup of tea and one of those thick old crumpets she bought yesterday. Now she can’t wait to get at the day. It’s the wonder that’s done that. She rests back for a moment to take it in. Where
does
it come from? And why doesn’t it come all the time? Yet even as she asks herself where all the wonder goes and why she doesn’t feel it every morning, she knows the answer. You can’t. You can’t live with wonder in you all the time or you’d just burst.

And it is only as she swings out of bed that she remembers what day it is. Wednesday. And one look at the clock tells her that the horses of time are bolting, and that if she doesn’t watch it she’ll be late. They’ll tell you, she says to herself, remembering the famous words of somebody or other as she heads for the bathroom, they’ll tell you you’ve got all the time in the world, but the fact is you haven’t got a minute to lose.

By the time Peter van Rijn is back in his shop after having informed the mayor of the significance of the
year, the business of Rita’s day is beginning. Carrying a shopping bag and fanning herself with the local newspaper, she strolls up the street that has been hers for just over fifteen years now. She came here as a young wife with a young husband and a young child in those distant days when the suburb marked the frontier of civilised life, a place so primitive she could never conceive of it as ever feeling like home. Now she is alone. Vic has gone north as he always said he would, Michael left the suburb as soon as he was old enough, and the house that was theirs became hers. And the street and the suburb that had always been beyond the pale, slowly, unobtrusively, became home.

The things she couldn’t give Vic any more because he didn’t want them (and in his heart he had moved on long before he left), the things she couldn’t give Michael because her boy had outgrown her and all the things she offered, the things she couldn’t give either of them any more (and which she had given away so freely then), she now put into the house. And the house took them in and together they grew. The French windows, the lace curtains, the brilliant white of the weatherboards, the garden lights that shone like so many full moons on summer nights, the new fence, the fancy European number on the letter box. These were the things she gave the house and that the house happily accepted. And knew she could
safely give all such things to the house because the house wasn’t going anywhere. They spoke of care, these things she gave it, and with the care came the anxiety, the dread almost, of wondering whatever might happen to the house should she ever leave it. And sometimes, because she knows she can’t live forever, she even contemplates the fate of the house when she is gone and there is no one to care for it. Somehow, she had taken this inanimate object, and turned it into a living thing. One that lived for her, and responded to her inspired touches, and sparkled with delight when she brought the painters in or added something to it that wasn’t there before, but which made all the difference. Michael, now living in the city with all his university types in the houses his parents fled from for this kind of suburb, is continually asking her why she stays. And she can’t say. How could she? How could she say that to leave the house now would be a betrayal? To live in another, almost an infidelity. Silly to think of it like that, but think of it like that she does, as she closes the white metal gate and smiles upon the gleaming white splendour of her creation. The house she has always wanted (as a child, as a young wife) is now hers. The finest house in the street. The house of her dreams.

As she strolls up her street, she takes a quiet pride in contemplating the lesser constructions along the way, or pleasantly noting a garden here or a
decorated window there that might provide her with some useful ideas. The street, once all mud or all dust and where dogs once howled like beasts from the Middle Ages, has mellowed into a pleasant walk; Rita’s place — the one they all notice, even pause at, when the street passes, even if they don’t much care for its fancy touches in the same way they’ve never cared for her fancy dresses.

Rita once demonstrated washing machines, ironing boards, blenders, ovens, anything that was new and that people were drawn to, but about which they felt uncertain. It was her job to show them the future in the form of the latest vacuum cleaners, the future contained in the present. There ready-to-hand, by those who knew how to use them. She assembled, demonstrated and disassembled the very instruments of Progress. Ready-to-hand became unready-to-hand when, say, a mix-master was broken down to its constituent parts, then, magically, ready-to-hand once more when swiftly reassembled. In this way she often amazed many a suburban and country audience. Like Peter van Rijn, she too brought Progress to the suburb, only she never thought of it like that at the time. She, who once commanded whole shop floors and country auditoriums crammed with women out for a little lunchtime entertainment as much as shopping.

But these days she’s more than content to be looking after the Webster mansion. A year ago she
answered a notice in the local paper and for the first time met Mrs Webster, who, more or less, stepped into her husband’s office and slipped into his chair, not long after the fifty-seven-year-old Webster, known by the suburb simply as Webster the factory, drove at great speed out of this world and into local history. An unfortunate accident that left the suburb shaking its head at the pity of it all.

Rita likes houses. And they respond to her. The Webster mansion, over the last twelve months, has responded to her touches, like an armchair bears the imprint of a frequent sitter. It’s a large old house, but easy to clean. Pleasant to be in, and, on days such as this, cool like an oasis.

As she turns into Mrs Webster’s street, the drooping branches of the plane trees alive with invisible cicadas, she pulls a letter for Vic out of her dress pocket and slips it into the red post box, and, as she does, there is a faint sensation of touching him, as there always is. He may have gone north to that little fishing town that is no longer little, but he’s still out there. And she knows where he is. And she can picture him there. Doing something. Right now. These are the things that matter. And the phrase ‘stay in touch’ means more to her these days than it ever did before. However fanciful it might seem, there is that faint sense of hands touching whenever she drops a letter in the post because she
knows he will pick the letter up and his fingers will be pressed to the envelope where hers once rested. She calls that touch. And why not? In many ways she’s never felt so intimate with him. It’s not simply the shared envelopes, it is the words inside. She has said more to Vic in these letters over the years he has been gone than she ever did when they shared the house whose silences, in the end, were too great for both of them to bear.

At the Webster gate she scans that long winding driveway leading up to the pillared front door and the expansive gardens of this colonial estate and has the distinct feeling (which the young Michael did years before, although he never told her) of not so much stepping into another part of the suburb, as another country.

BOOK: The Time We Have Taken
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