Roy found it hard after his wife of 52 years had passed. He had nursed her through years of lung cancer, a slow and difficult death, but with one great blessing: it gave him many months before June died to begin grieving.
But even so, life seemed to be purposeless after the funeral, after the wake, after the kids and their families has gone back to Perth and Sydney.
He got up every morning and walked along the path by the beach. He walked to the beach and turned left and walked by the crashing waves. He didn’t really notice the tides encroaching more and more and the bigger deposits of sea-weeds. Hunched in a coat and hat, he let the wind and the rain wash around him day by day.
He went back each morning to the empty house. The bed was already made. He had already made it before his walk. June wasn’t there, to talk to, to nurse.
He slept a lot. He zoned out in front of cricket, tennis.
Then one morning on his walk, the light shone gold across the waves of the sea, as the clouds scudded chased by a high wind.
‘Is this yours?’ A woman’s voice behind him above the whoosh of the wind. Roy realised that she had spoken two or three times before he had reacted.
‘I am sorry?’ He turned and saw a dark-haired woman proffering his hat which had blown off without him noticing. He stared at her hands holding the tan linen trilby. For a moment, he heard the noise of the market street in Kuta all those years ago, and felt the sticky warmth of the Bali afternoon, and heard the laughing sing-song of the stall-holder, ‘I sell it for twenty-thousand rupiah,’ and his wife’s laughing response, ‘I’ll buy for fifteen,’ and they closed the deal.
Roy now snatched the hat from the stranger’s hand, turned on his heel and walked briskly back to his empty house.
Next morning the rain had gone. Roy noticed that the waves were lapping the beach more gently and he fell into step unthinkingly with their rhythm.
‘Good morning again,’ the woman’s voice took him back with a start to yesterday.
Caught between natural politeness and wanting to be alone, Roy mumbled, ‘Good morning.’
‘The sea’s gorgeous this morning,’ the woman said.
Roy lifted his eyes. The bay stretched out in steps of blue and green, and where the sun touched it, great shards of gold lit the water from far out in the bay into where the waves crashed near where Roy and the woman walked.
Roy grunted in assent. They walked silently listening to the rhythmic crash of the surf. The woman suddenly pointed to fleeting black shapes out under the water, about 100 metres out, and a triangular fin here, and then one there
‘Dolphins,’ she marvelled.
Roy turned on his heel and walked away quickly in the opposite direction. Memories flooded in of June exclaiming joyfully over dolphins in Koombana Bay on that joyous long day in Bunbury when she had agreed to marry him.
Next morning, he walked to the beach, and turned right to begin his walk. A dog – a black collie-labrador – capered towards him and pressed a moist nose to his hand. It looked up to him pleading to be friends. The woman he had seen the past two mornings came running and apologised. ‘He’s friendly,’ she proclaimed, a little redundantly. The dog now licked his hand, rightly sensing possible rapport. Roy fondled the dog’s ears and rubbed the dog’s shoulders. The dog whickered for joy.
‘He loves attention.’ The woman seemed to echo the dog’s joy. ‘It’s his first walk since his big operation.’
Roy smiled and started to walk on. The dog followed as close as possible to Roy’s right heel, giving an occasional low bark and looking up to Roy. He was overjoyed when Roy returned the glance. The woman almost scampered to keep up with her dog and the man. She eventually caught up and installed herself on Roy’s left side.
‘She would have loved a dog, but we never could,’ Roy told her. ‘My wife. We always had to live in small apartments before we came to Busselton, and we never thought it would be fair on a dog.’ He paused, and took a breath. ‘And she died six weeks ago.’
The woman touched his arm. ‘I am sorry.’
‘No, she had cancer. Better she’s not here. Terrible pain.’ Roy found it both hard to talk to this stranger about June and also good to tell someone about her.
‘What was her name?’ the woman asked gently.
‘June,’ she echoed the name. ‘A romantic name.’
Roy chuckled, surprising himself. ‘Yes, the moon in June, and sweet June and all that. What’s yours?’
‘By coincidence, April.’
‘Another month.’ Roy chuckled again, and felt the dog’s paw gently stroking his fore-arm. ‘What do you want?’ he smiled down at the dog.
‘It’s time for his run. Put your arm up horizontally and point forward. See if he’ll obey your signal.’
Roy pointed. Sure enough, the dog sprinted off a hundred metres up the path, came to a skidding halt before turning around and bounding back to Roy.
‘He’s taken a shine to you,’ said April.
‘I’m Roy,’ he told the dog.
‘Roy, meet Dickens,’ laughed April.
As Roy bent down to rub the retriever’s soft ears a gust of wind blew the trilby hat off Roy’s head and straight into the waves. Roy looked up in alarm and ran after it across the beach. He noticed that the seaweed had disappeared, apparently swept away by the tide.
April saw his distress. His run was stopped by a cold foaming wave which soaked his shoes and trousers up to his knees. He looked agonisingly after the linen trilby hat which was now far out beyond the surf. ‘Fetch!’ shouted April. Dickens looked up at both humans and sprinted to the shore. But the dog stopped at the water’s edge, his tail high, his feet braced. He was going no farther.
April burst out laughing as she watched the balking dog, and the little hat bob out to sea. A slow smiled replaced the fear on Roy’s face. He caught April’s eye. ‘Let’s walk every morning,’ His voice was full of wonder.
Anne Lamott, Imperfect birds, Crawley WA: UWA Publications, 2010.
Paperback, 278 pages ISBN 9781742580975. RRP $32.95
Reviewed by Ted Witham
When Elizabeth Ferguson was pregnant with Rosie, she was afraid how doomed she would be as a parent. Imperfect Birds illustrates that doom.
Imperfect Birds is the third novel in Anne Lamott’s series on the Ferguson family: Elizabeth, fragile and alcoholic, clever, athletic Rosie, now 17, and writer James, whom Elizabeth married after the death of her first husband.
However, this is the first of the series to be published in Australia, and the first that I have read. In early parts of the book, I found myself lost among the cast.
I usually read thrillers and crime with tight plotting. The plot of Imperfect Birds meanders: Rosie and her two close girl-friends fall more and more deeply into addiction, while Rosie’s deceptions confuse her mother. Rosie falls in love with her science teacher, so when that relationship ends in disillusion, she attaches herself to another slightly older man, seduced by his sophistication and access to drugs.
The novel climaxes with Rosie’s parents sending her on a ‘tough love’ wilderness program in the depths of the Utah winter. This process shakes Rosie into seeing clearly her parents’ love, even though she can see their flaws.
To apply tension to this plot, Lamott cuts judiciously between points of view, mainly those of Elizabeth and Rosie. Lamott gets inside the heads of mother and daughter and stays there. Lamott describes writer James’ techniques of eavesdropping teenagers to record their idiom. Is this Lamott’s own secret to such accurate rendering of the thoughts and speech patterns of Rosie and her friends? I was gripped by the quality of Lamott’s writing. Lamott’s description of the Parkade where the Landsdale teenagers gather is a compelling mix of boredom and danger.
Literary allusions are scattered through the novel, like Rumi’s “Each person has to enter the nest made by the other imperfect birds,” from which the title is taken. Prominent use is made of Rilke to deepen insights.
Imperfect Birds is a smart and generous depiction of growing up in contemporary US and parents’ dilemmas with these adolescent children.
Published in Studio: A journal of Christians writing, No. 124, June 2012.