The Sleepers in that Quiet Earth
Having formed these beings she did not know what she had done.
— Charlotte Brontë, Preface to Wuthering Heights, 1850
She had planned the story and already written something that could be an opening chapter. From time to time when ideas came she would write them down in a book her mother had given her. It was not the sort of notebook she would have chosen to write in, not stories anyway, but it happened to be there when she needed it. A spiral-bound notebook, the paper rough and absorbent. The cover was the wrong colour, a fake kind of purple, a purple trying too hard, a purple that didn’t even fool small children. She wondered if it was meant to be a children’s notebook, if her mother, in her frail condition, had bought it without thinking. The cardboard cover felt like plastic. Her fountain pen would not work on the paper. She would write the story on her laptop.
But the purple notebook contained a list of recent contact details, and Dove had brought it into bed with her one evening along with the phone. She reached for the notebook early the next morning. She’d had a restless night and had woken several times, then again before five. For ten minutes or so she lay there, seeing the story in her head, the story she would write, she could write, when she had emptied her mind: that day’s work, then the bills and emails that needed attending to, calls she would have to make before the end of the day. Her mother’s caseworker had left three messages, of increasing frustration and, she suspected, hostility.
Yet her mind seemed unusually focused on the story already. She wrote down the ideas that had awoken her, then showered and dressed, but she continued to see it unfolding. Unlike in a dream, she could see details of the clothes her character was wearing, the colours of the houses and the lawns she was passing, then the bus she was riding, and where she sat on it, three seats behind two women with rose-tinted hair and string shopping bags. The bus was almost empty.
As she made her breakfast and put a load in the washing machine, she continued to see her character and hear her voice. The cat butted at her ankles, wailing. She bent down to the floor with its bowl. ‘Here you go, puss cat.’ She rarely used its name. The cat pushed its face into the biscuits and Dove ran her hand along its back. It could eat and purr at the same time, or maybe that was a growl. Dove had little affection for it, but it had had nowhere else to go. The mewling wail barely abated as it chewed its food then sat to lick its chest. But even the cat could not block out the sound of her own story in her ears as she tidied her breakfast things and went to the bathroom.
‘See you, puss.’ By the time she grabbed her bag and keys and shut the front door, the whole story was clear already, again, clearer than a dream. She even knew the weather that day, could see the sky with its shredded-tissue clouds, on that warm day in the suburbs. It was midmorning, a Tuesday. Her character’s name, Ellis, was unusual for a woman.
Ellis was visiting her father, in his home in Ashfield. Riding the bus, Ellis thought about the names of these suburbs, on this summer’s day when men like her father were busy in their gardens. Ashfield, Haberfield, Strathfield. She thought, as she pushed open the window of the bus to let in more air, how odd a name like Ashfield was, how the negative connotation of the first syllable contrasted with the romantic one of the last. How the place was, in its orderly suburban way, filled with houses and parks, cabbage tree palms and eucalypts and camphor laurels – so unlike an ashy field – but that once it must have been something like a wasteland, to gain the name. On this particular day the air smelled like a field, a great one, of hay perhaps, or wheat, recently mown. As if all its men had conspired to cut their front lawns that morning, infusing the warm air with the smell of freshly sliced grass, which Ellis breathed in as she pushed her face up to the window of the bus. She wondered if the inhabitants of Ashfield, so comfortable and untroubled, ever thought the name Ashfield odd, discordant.
It was a slow journey, but once they had turned off Parramatta Road, she didn’t mind. At this time it was a pleasant way to travel, if you were not in a hurry, though at other times the buses could be frustrating. Into town, for instance, where the journey past Railway Square and down George Street was always slow. She had not yet learned to drive, although she thought she would. Vince had urged it, especially now, but she had not been keen for her husband to teach her. She suspected that his amiable nature would change once she slid behind the wheel of his Valiant. Her father, who rarely went out these days but who held strong opinions, thought Annandale, where she and Vince lived, a lowly, seedy suburb with too many migrants and not enough footpaths, and that if she at least drove she could get away more. But Ellis’s father had never gone all the way down to the waterside and seen the gardens, the massive homes on the escarpment, and experienced the grandeur of the place. He equated Annandale with the grimy strip of shops on Parramatta Road, the crowded terraces closer to Glebe, the motor workshop on the main road, where Vince worked. Ellis suspected he had never dwelled on the name, Annandale.
Dove did not know why her character’s name was Ellis, but as she saw her alight that bus, at the stop before the gate of her father’s house, she knew without any doubt that this was her name. Lately she had been reading Wuthering Heights. It was possible that the name Ellis Bell had stuck in her mind, although every way she examined it, she could find no connection between her character, a young woman in suburban Sydney some time in the late 1960s, and that of the novel or its author or the author’s pseudonym. She was only aware that she liked names commencing with E and with the El sound especially. They seemed natural, mellifluous (a mellifluous word itself), and rolled pleasingly across the tongue and out through the lips. Eliza, Ellis, Ellen, Elizabeth, Eleanor. If she were going to have a character in a novel – and it seemed that this might be the case – she would want to utter that character’s name over and over, at least in her mind, to roll it around, easy and smooth, a sweet lozenge.
At what point she knew that Ellis had a baby she could not say. But the baby must have been there all along.
Reviewing the scenes she had already visualised – it was like pausing and replaying a film in her head – Dove now saw Ellis well before she reached the bus stop where she would alight. She saw her shifting the baby on her lap. The rose-tinted elderly women had cooed at him as Ellis had boarded and made her way past them to her seat. But after she had passed them, what Ellis did not see, preoccupied with propping the collapsible pram against her seat so it would not roll away, and settling the baby in her lap, was these two women whispering something disapproving about babies needing to wear more than singlets even if the weather was warm. One of them remarked on the absence of his sunhat, but Ellis had removed this and placed it in her shoulder bag before boarding the bus, since he was prone to flinging it off. Her father had given her the hat, and she would place it on the baby’s head again before she walked through her father’s front gate. It would make him glad to see his grandson wearing it. He was so very happy to have a grandson.
During her lunch break, Dove phoned her mother’s caseworker, then the hospital ward manager, and finally the care facility ten minutes’ drive from her home. She had been ringing every day lately.
‘Good news,’ said the Grange’s residential services officer. ‘We can take your mother soon. Possibly even next Monday.’
If there are no further hitches, Dove thought. Instead she said, ‘Wonderful. I’ve been waiting for ages. We’ve been waiting.’ Then, in case this was construed as a complaint of sorts, ‘It’s such a relief. Mum will be so much better off with you.’
She tried not to think about why the room, which last week was only a possibility, was now available.
‘And,’ he said with finality, ‘we won’t be able to . . . accommodate any other changes. Again.’
‘I realise that,’ Dove said. She would try to discuss it tonight, though her mother could only speak with great effort, rationing her words out one or two at a time. Her lucid periods were mainly in the early evenings. A month or so ago she had breathed the words, ‘Nursing home, Dove. Less trouble,’ into her daughter’s ear and reached for her hand and pressed it. Dove had spent considerable time at work on the phone, and later at home in the evenings sending emails. Except on the designated day of the move, having taken the morning off work, she had arrived at the hospital to find her mother sitting up in bed, preternaturally alert.
‘I’m going back home,’ she had declared with unusual clarity.
‘Mum, you can’t . . .’
‘Viv will be missing me.’
‘But the Grange, they’re expecting you. It’s all arranged.’
Her mother had stared as if she’d never heard of such a place.
‘He needs me,’ she said.
Dove had folded her lips together then and not reminded her mother that the cat had not lived there for two months, that her flat was on the second floor, and that managing stairs had long been out of the question. Instead she had sat down and rearranged the reading glasses and tube of hand cream on the bedside table, until her mother lay back on her pillows and closed her eyes. Her mother had spoken three languages and played principal violin with a symphony orchestra. She had given music lessons and translated documents to put her daughter through university. Dove placed her hand on her mother’s cheek, kissed her on the nose, and returned to work.
Now as she put down the phone she hoped the new arrangements would not be undone again. Perhaps she should visit straight from work. It would mean not getting home until after seven and by then the cat would be hysterical. It was slight and fussy and had cost her mother a small fortune over the years in vet’s fees. How long did Burmese cats live? She had thought about smuggling it into the hospital but had visions of it leaping out of its basket and running through the wards, the kitchens, snarling in some corner of a closet, or worse, an operating theatre, bright and sterile, ready for surgery.
But then, it was possible the cat would snuggle into her mother’s neck, as it had every night of its life, and sleep. And her mother might relax, without her medication, sleep more deeply, or for longer. Or forever. Dove wondered if the prospect she had had in her mind from time to time, of the two sleepers together, slipping quietly into death, was such a bad thing. The cat was stricken enough as it was. When she had first grabbed it at her mother’s place, it had wailed and scratched her. Her mother had been lying on the kitchen floor since the night before, unable to move. Dove didn’t want to think of the cat leaping across her mother’s legs and kneading her chest in its anguish. Her mother had still been playing the violin when she bought the cat. She would remark on the cat’s peculiar attentiveness. ‘If cats could play a musical instrument,’ she once said, ‘it would be the violin.’
Tonight, they might have a conversation of sorts. Her mother might ask about her writing. But probably Dove would just read to her again. At first she wasn’t sure if her mother was paying attention, or even enjoying being read to, but she never complained and was always quiet. Sometimes she lay there awake, saying nothing at all, and Dove would put the book down, say goodbye and leave as her mother stared into a distance no one else could see. And sometimes she simply closed her eyes and drifted into sleep.
Dove was surprised to discover her character was so stable and dependable. Ellis had developed into a good wife, a fond mother, a devoted daughter. There was no evidence of the sadness of her early years, of the great hole in her life. At sixteen, she had returned to Ashfield from boarding school, and gone to secretarial college. It was when she had commenced working in the garage on Parramatta Road, typing invoices and managing orders, that she had met Vince. She took another stenography course at night school and had just completed it when she became pregnant. Dove suspected Ellis was a little too dependable, and wondered if she was even boring or unexciting. But then she knew about Ellis’s deep and terrible fears. Sometimes these fears manifested themselves in dreams so strong they woke Ellis, and she would sit up in bed sweating and clutching her chest. Or worse, so strong that she did not wake even though she struggled violently to do so. Many of these dreams were about entrapment. Ellis would cry with all the might of her chest to be let out of some dark and stifling place, but her cries were mute, her struggles impotent. Though if Vince had woken and watched her as she slept beside him dreaming these terrifying dreams, he would have thought her sleep was benign, as peaceful as the slumbers of the dead in the quiet earth.
One of these recurring dreams involved Ellis on a hospital bed in an operating theatre. She was anaesthetised to the point where she was incapable of making a sound or a movement and yet her mind was awake and alert and she knew that the operation about to be performed was all wrong, that her organs were perfectly healthy, and that the doctors had to stop. Stop, stop, stop. She always tried to yell this, tried to claw her way through the fog of the anaesthetic, but there were no exclamation marks in her speech. She mouthed the words, and there was no noise. She tried to lift her arms and form fists but could only look at her hands lying useless and heavy like sandbags on either side of her body. Although she was surrounded by lights and covered in sheets she felt as if she had been nailed into a coffin and lowered into the ground. She wept dry, unformed tears as she realised how she was going to sink back into the fate of being sliced open and violated, and how no one would hear her, and no one would ever know. The unfairness of it. And they would never know how hard she had fought, to stay alive.
Dove sat upright in bed as she held her hands out to Ellis and lifted her free of the dream, just in time. She herself was sweating, almost gasping with the effort. The cat was pinning down the bedcovers. She nudged it aside and got out of bed. It was the early morning, when dreams were at their most powerful. She had never felt more connected to someone, more concerned on their behalf, and yet Ellis was only a character, in a story that had barely begun to be written. The cat followed her as she went down to the kitchen for a glass of water. Standing at the sink, she felt a strange urge to get dressed and drive to the hospital. At four am no one would notice or care if she slipped in. She could perhaps take the cat. If her mother was asleep she could just sit there and read.
They had chosen Wuthering Heights because it was shorter than Jane Eyre. She had read the novel, several times, but as Dove had sat beside her mother’s hospital bed in the evenings or on a Sunday afternoon, she had begun to entertain doubts about this. The story was far more complex and surprising than she had imagined. She was not sure if her mother had taken any of it in, but she had lain there for a half or an entire hour, day after day, as Dove read, neither objecting nor expressing interest in the story. Sometimes she fell asleep, and Dove would keep reading aloud until the end of a chapter. On the following visit, her mother would murmur assent if Dove offered to read and, if she suggested something else, would just shake her head and almost smile.
As she thought about it more, she became aware that she had not so much dreamed this character with the curious name Ellis, as rescued her from the soil of her imagination. Ellis Bell – the name ringing, alive with possibilities – was on the 1847 facsimile title page of the novel, reproduced in her Penguin English Library edition. It was there in the biographical notice by the author’s sister Charlotte, also included in her paperback edition and marked in her own hand, proof that she had indeed read it, and read it attentively, even though she seemed to remember a different novel altogether. And the more she considered it, the more she felt she had read the name Ellis often enough so that it had lodged in her mind like a speck of grit, eventually turning into something hard and polished.
Except her character was nothing like a pearl, waiting to be plucked from its shell. Ellis was unformed, limp. She was more like an abandoned creature that Dove had found somewhere, beside a remote road, leading nowhere. Sometimes she would lie half awake in the early mornings, feeling the cold autumn air, listening to the clock’s gentle pip pip pipping, the alarm set for six-thirty, and think of this character whom she may have dreamed up, or who may have been someone she knew, from her past, but had forgotten, or had met once, on a bus or in a shop, or was somehow connected with a novel written over a hundred and fifty years ago.
She dragged this mute creature back into being, and it was a physical effort, as hard as pulling oneself awake when one knows one is not yet there at the crack of wakefulness. It was like dragging her out of the ground itself, the soil clinging to her, damp and cold. She sat her there, in a ditch, and watched the rise and fall of her chest, and knew she would live. It was half light, barely dawn. Why had she been beside the road? Had she fallen, or been pushed from a vehicle? There was nothing else about, no cars, no people, no buildings. There was not even a sound, or any trees. The road emerged from a scrubby background and curved to the same drab vanishing point. Ellis was clad in ordinary clothes, pedal pushers and a boat-neck knit sweater, striped orange and cream. Her hair was half across her face, tangled and dirty, but recognisable as a pageboy style. It was reddish brown. But her body was half coated in black soil and her legs were oddly straight from being dragged into the light, her bare feet – her shoes were lost – pointing back towards the ditch, and rolling beyond that, the landscape disappearing in a black-green cloud.
But even as Dove dragged her from the oblivion of unconsciousness, as she heaved and struggled and swore for those last crucial metres in order to get the limp form away from where the cold earth and the dark scrub conspired to hold Ellis back, she was also seeing Ellis, in the story in her mind, in another place altogether. In the suburbs, in fact, in Ashfield, juggling her baby and stroller on that bus. It was re-running in her mind but it was not the same scene replayed, rather the same scene viewed from a different angle, and she noted new things: Ellis holding out a coin, the driver jerking the bus away from the stop, Ellis careful not to fall, sliding into the red seat halfway along, on the left, the baby on her lap. He was called Charlie. The women three seats in front, having discussed the absence of his sunhat with muted disapproval, were now holding their heads up high, gazing this way and that in the anxious manner of old people, looking out for their stop at the corner store.
Then Ellis was walking down that street in Ashfield. It was wide, lined with cabbage tree palms. She was walking along the warm concrete footpath, smelling again the scent of grass, and of dust, of boiled onion and meat dinners, from the houses she passed. Brick homes, most of them, neat, silent and unwelcoming, their front gardens fenced, with hydrangeas, lassiandra and plumbago – why were the flowers all blue and purple? – her father’s place no exception.
She had reached the front gate, she was through it, and had then turned to push it shut, listening for the latch’s oiled snick on the green wire gate, before walking up the path, when Dove realised Ellis had forgotten to replace Charlie’s sunhat, as she had meant to before she met her father, and there was nothing she could do about it.
The images in her head refused to emerge from the pages. Cathy racing barefoot across the moors. Heathcliff beside her, both yelling with delight. Wuthering Heights was not about wild free childhood at all. It was barely even Cathy’s story. Instead it was the story of a servant, the housekeeper, the only one of her generation to survive. It was orderly, controlled, quiet. The novel had been swept and folded and locked. All the interesting, passionate characters were dead and buried before their time.
How had this happened? How had its author, Emily Jane Brontë – Ellis Bell – so independent and stubborn, let this maddening, self-righteous housekeeper, this character who pretended to be much older than she was, steal the narrative like that? Dove recalled wisps of stories about the author of Wuthering Heights. Her potent imaginary world. How she refused social obligations. The visions she saw on the moors behind the parsonage at Haworth. How she once took a poker from the fire and scorched the bite of a rabid dog on her forearm. Her refusal to accept medical attention, until the hour before her death. You can send for a doctor if you like. How she then turned her face to the wall and closed her eyes forever.
As Dove read the final chapter, where a woman sat in the kitchen sewing while her young charges played with words in books, she marvelled at its author. Emily Brontë had been brave as well as stubborn. She had permitted her story to be rewritten. She had abandoned it to the control of its readers. Although she conceived it, wrote it, published it – with a dodgy publisher, against the advice of her sister Charlotte – she had then let it go, entirely. It was no longer her story. She had created a magnificent illusion. Dove thought about why she had never realised this before, and why her reading of the novel was now so different.
‘“. . . and wondered,”’ Dove read, ‘“how anyone could ever imagine unquiet slumbers, for the sleepers in that quiet earth.”’
She closed the book and stared at her mother, whose eyes were shut. It was so simple, but it did not occur to her until she was placing the book in her bag to take home. It was not just that she had read the novel at the bedside of her dying mother. She had, for the first time, read the words aloud.
When she abandoned the purple notebook and began to steal a half-hour in the morning before work, or ate instant noodles at the computer in the evening, she wrote with a sense of compulsion, almost peril. She dreaded interruption. The phone would ring. Someone might knock on the door. She feared the story would slither off and disappear like a snake into the bush. Or that she might just grab it by its tail and pick it up, only to see it transform into something quite unlike the story that had brought her awake those weeks back, awake with such clarity and urgency that she had reached for the notebook and scribbled pages of draft scenes before getting out of bed.
As her mother began to be less agitated, more compliant, the phone calls, the meetings, the arrangements, began to dwindle. Dove rang the Grange for the last time.
‘I’m sorry,’ and even as she said it she wondered why she was apologising. ‘But my mother won’t be leaving the neurological ward.’
The residential services officer cancelled the booking with cool efficiency. ‘We can refund your interim deposit,’ he said, making it seem like a very special favour when Dove knew the waiting list was long. ‘But you’ll need to invoice us.’
Back in the hospital, the staff began answering her questions with increasing vagueness. The evening nurse smiled and said, ‘Your mother isn’t suffering. Don’t worry, we’re monitoring her every day.’
Dove asked the resident outright, ‘Will she die soon?’
The resident cocked her head and shifted her folder to another arm.
‘The important thing is that she’s remaining stable. And we’re doing all we can to keep her comfortable.’
And Dove had to concur. Her mother was at peace, lying back on clean linen, her white hair, her white skin, smoothed and thin, exposing the bones of her face. Sometimes she would accept a few mouthfuls of soup or ice cream, a cup of tea. Other times she wanted nothing, waved her daughter away, her hand stiff like a dry leaf.
Dove had by then written enough of her story to begin revising it, and so she sat beside her mother’s bed with her laptop. A structure emerged. As she worked she learned to block out the noises of the hospital. And she began to understand how to suspend work, quickly if necessary, hitting the save key and closing the computer if her mother called out, or if one of the nurses came by. She began to trust that the story would stay with her, and that her character, if she were strong enough, would remain in her imagination. And it was true that just as Ellis had lain on the earth choking for air, her breathing becoming less ragged, more regular, and as she had survived the ordeal of the nightmare operation, she would survive being tucked into a corner of Dove’s life as she waited at the bedside of her dying mother.
Now that Ellis continued to live in the story that was still being written, Dove wondered at her fluidity, how she could be there in the ditch in the growing dawn, gasping and leaning on her elbows, struggling to sit up, crushed and exhausted yet clearly, undeniably, alive, and yet at the same time be walking to her father’s house. Her mother coughed softly beside her.
As she saw Ellis at that gate, Dove wondered why she was even making this visit at all, but having watched her place Charlie on the path where he would take his first unassisted baby steps and then hold her hand out and take him further up to the front door which was now being opened by her father – who was saying ‘Hi-dee-hi’ as he had for as long as Ellis could remember – she knew why Ellis was here, on the same day each week that she always visited. She knew that knowing this could be painful, and that she would have to be brave with her story just as Emily Brontë had been brave, and follow it where it had to go and then let it run ahead of her, alone. Ellis was here because her own mother was not and had not been for a long time, not since she was a baby. Dove finally understood this, and she typed this in between paragraphs, just a note in case she forgot, as her mother began to cough slightly again, a noise more like a groan. And now that Ellis was a parent, she came to prepare meals and clean the house for her father, with his only grandson. Charlie was beaming, arms out, tightrope walking, wobbling as he stepped forward, once, twice, three times, as Ellis laughed, reached out and grabbed him just in time before he fell, and swung him up to her delighted father on the front step. Dove’s mother coughed once more. She wished she had brought the cat in after all.
Excerpted from Letter to George Clooney by Debra Adelaide. Copyright © 2013 by Debra Adelaide.
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