Excerpt from work-in-progress novella
Note: this piece is placed in the third half of the novella, when Emily disembarks from her boat trip around the Croatian islands and meets her brother again for the first time in years.
Short synopsis: A young girl, 18, sets out alone on a trip to Europe and experiences a disjointed sense of self and an inability to come to terms with her past — the reasons she left home.
I dragged the last of my bags off the boat with relief and dumped them on the small jetty. I looked around; the bay was surrounded by houses built into the hills and towering walls from the old town. I searched the milling groups of tourists and locals for David’s face. With a sigh I pulled my bags out of the way and dumped them against a low wall where I had a good view of the bay. I sat down on my backpack to wait.
I smoothed out my dress and placed my sandaled feet side by side. Then I smoothed out my dress again. I didn’t have high hopes for my looks after nine days on that travesty of a boat. The men on the docks continued to work around me as I waited. They shouted to each other, hefting large packages onto the boats, probably restocking for the journey back to Split. I saw Ivar and ducked my head down, scooting further up against the wall, but he didn’t seem to see me. He looked focused on loading supplies into the boat.
A small girl walked along the jetty selling wilted roses to tourists. A couple took pity on her and bought a rose, but I could see they felt uncomfortable and didn’t really want it. The heat here was oppressive. The boat had created a breeze when it sliced through the clear blue water. I pushed my hair back off my forehead and wiped at the sweat. At home in Sydney it would be freezing, probably raining and I’d be complaining of the cold rather than enduring this heat. Dad couldn’t handle the heat. He’d sweat until his shirt was covered by a dark stain and I could smell his musty odour as he walked slowly through the heat or lay in a chair in the shade on the back veranda of Mum’s house.
I shaded my eyes with my hand and squinted as I looked further down the jetty and tried to make out the town. David had said he would be here when the boat docked, but maybe something had happened. I sank back further against the wall, my mouth dry. If only the girl with the roses was selling water. I contemplated getting up and moving with my bags to one of the stores in the town, but the thought of lifting them in the heat kept me where I was.
As I wondered, not for the first time, what Dad would think of me being here, I saw someone’s brown head bobbing above the crowd of tourists and locals. A tall man, dressed in jeans and a loose, white button-up shirt, searching for someone. I raised my hand, waved and he saw me and smiled. I stood waiting in the bustling crowd. We stared at each other until he leant forward and enveloped me in his arms. He smelt like Dad. I began to cry and he held me tighter. I sagged against his body and he held me up. David leant back and touched my face. His hand was warm.
‘I’m glad you came,’ he said. ‘Maria is in the car. I thought we should meet first.’
I nodded. ‘Thank you. I— I’m glad I came, too.’
David picked up my bags and carried them through the crowd towards the town. He led us through a winding stone-paved side street with the high walls of houses covered in vines reaching up towards the sky. We came out into what was presumably the town square. Old men sat on deck chairs, smoking and watching the throngs of young people parading up and down. Tourists in sandals, shorts and bright t-shirts wandered around looking up at the old buildings.
One man chased a laughing girl, who was wearing nothing but short shorts and a bikini top, down the street and into an ice-cream shop. He picked her up and kissed her, to the cheers of a group of tourists standing nearby. Two old women gossiped at a doorstep across the street. One kept a steely eye on a small child playing at her feet. In the centre of the square a fountain was surrounded by a circular stone bath and a man held a small child up so that she could throw a coin into the fountain. I looked up at David. His face was so familiar and yet so strange. He had flecks of grey in his hair now, but still looked young. I searched for something to say to him.
‘What’s it like during the winter months?’
‘The town — what’s it like? There’s so many tourists here now,’ I said.
‘It’s not so busy. The town is closed up, mostly. A lot of the shops are open only in summer.’
‘Don’t people dislike tourists taking over their town every summer?’
‘Yes, of course, but they don’t mind the money.’
I laughed. ‘I guess not.’
‘Were you waiting for long?’
‘No, not really. I was watching all the people so I didn’t mind.’
‘Good. I didn’t want you to wait. Maria takes forever to get ready.’
‘Do you come out to the town much?’ I said.
‘No, not much these days, although Maria does for a prenatal group.’
‘Oh. I didn’t know she was pregnant.’
‘It’s hard to miss.’ He said, with a wink.
He pointed to an ornate old building at the south end of the square. The restaurant’s name was too small to make out.
‘That place has good fish. We’ll take you there one night, I think.’ He glanced at me. ‘You’re not vegetarian?’
‘No, no. I love fish. That would be nice, thanks.’
‘You were always such a fussy eater as a kid. I remember.’
‘I still don’t eat beef,’ I said. ‘Makes me fart.’
He laughed and I relaxed.
David pointed towards the south end of the town square. ‘I parked the car not far from here. Maria’s waiting. She’s looking forward to meeting you.’
I smiled and looked towards the end of the square. My hands fluttered up to my un-made-up sweaty face.
David noticed, ‘You look fine. Don’t worry.’
We reached a wide street at the end of the square. A slim woman in a long yellow cotton dress with a low bump protruding across her belly leaned against a four-wheel drive car. David called out and Maria began to walk towards us, a wide smile across her face.
‘Emily,’ she said. ‘Look at you! You are beautiful and so young. It is so lovely to finally meet you.’
She leant in kiss me, once on each cheek, and I curled my arms up around her and her prominent bump. David patted his wife’s bottom and walked past us with my bags, towards the car. Maria slid her arm around my waist and we walked together.
‘Maria,’ David said.
He held the car door open for her and she kissed him before he shut the door. I lowered my eyes, opened the back door and slid in. David jumped into the driver’s seat and adjusted the rear-view mirror. With a stutter the engine started.
Maria turned to look at me in the backseat. ‘We are not far from here, perhaps a half-hour drive. The countryside is quite plain, but I think striking. You will see.’
‘Is it hard living so far from the town?’
‘Most people commute into town to work during the summer,’ David said. ‘Besides, the tourists stay mainly on the coastline so I think you will find it very different from what you have experienced so far.’
I nodded. My mind drifted back to the alcohol-fuelled parties held night after night on the boat. I imagined this would be different.
‘It was my idea for you to travel by boat from Split,’ Maria said. ‘We have such a beautiful coastline and perhaps you needed to relax before you got here. I think it has been hard for you after your father died, yes?’
‘Yes,’ I said.
Maria smiled and settled back into her seat. I looked out the window as we drove through the outskirts of the town. Soon the palm trees and close-set terraces gave way to a wide road framed by brown- grassed plains. Whitewashed houses sat far back from the road. Some were crumbling, surrounded by disarray.
I thought how similar the wide space was to parts of Australia. I wondered if perhaps the roads between all cities were similar, in some way, with their isolation and lack of people. Here in Croatia I looked out at the houses and apartment blocks. Rundown two-story apartment buildings flashed past as the car sped towards David and Maria’s home. This scene bore no resemblance to the neon-crowded tourist traps of the old towns on any of the islands. I wound down the window slightly and felt the hot air buffet my face, drying some of the sweat from my fringe.
David looked at me in the rear-view mirror. ‘What do you think of the islands?’
‘They’re beautiful, but very different to here. To be honest, Croatia has surprised me. It’s not what I expected.’
‘What did you expect?’
‘I’m not sure. I didn’t expect all the tourists, or for Croatian people to be so courteous,’ I said. ‘One old man walked with me for ten minutes when I got lost at the markets and couldn’t find my boat.’
(More discussion here, or description of what’s going on in her head, before they reach the house.)
The car crunched up a narrow gravel driveway bordered by poplar trees and lavender fields. David parked in front of the house and I peered out the window at what was to be my home for the next few weeks. The house was different from those I had seen along the road. Although old, its walls were painted an electric yellow and the tiles leading up to the house were terracotta and dotted with pot plants placed in a seemingly random design.
I opened the car door and stepped out onto the gravel drive. A cool breeze brought relief as it ruffled through my lank hair. The lavender fields swayed in a choreographed dance then dropped their heads as the wind calmed. David was getting my bags from the back of the car as Maria gestured for me to come inside.
The air was cooler in the house. The ceilings were high and arched, wooden beams crisscrossing each other. Colourful woven rugs lay over the cool floors. Maria led me into the kitchen and opened the fridge door. She took out three glasses and a water jug infused with slices of floating lemon. She began to pour the drinks in a measured way, starting slow, then flicking the jug upwards to stop the flow of water. I sat at a wooden table with bench seats and watched her as she moved around the kitchen.
I heard a shuffle of feet and David appeared in the kitchen doorway.
‘I’ve put your bags in your room. Do you want to sleep for a bit? Maria made up a bed for you.’
I nodded; I was tired. I watched David and Maria standing sipping water in the kitchen.
‘I think I will rest, if that’s okay? It’s been a long day.’
‘No problems, we’ll have dinner when you wake,’ David said.
‘I will show you to your room.’ Maria walked past me, deeper into the house and I followed. She walked down three stairs in the hallway, holding the wall for support, to a door at the end. Maria walked through into a bright and simply furnished room with a single bed, woven floor rug and a side table holding a vase filled with lavender, no doubt from the wild fields outside. French doors led onto a small terrace with an expansive view of the blue sky and lavender fields beyond.
‘It’s beautiful!’ I said, leaning up against the door. ‘How long have you lived here?’
Maria joined me, looking out at the view. ‘It was my parents’ home and my grandparents before that.’
‘It survived the war so well.’
‘Yes, we’re lucky the house was spared. There is a basement underneath that we hid in sometimes. I will show you, if you like.’
‘Will you be okay?’ I gestured to her belly.
‘Oh, of course. I will show you, but I won’t go down there. I think you will find it interesting.’
‘I didn’t realise you were pregnant until David told me on the way to the car.’
‘It is hard to miss.’
‘I will tell you a secret. This baby, she is an astonishment. Your brother and I, we are very astonished.’
‘Do you mean a surprise?’
‘Yes,’ Maria winked at me. ‘But I am happy. It is a good time.’
‘When are you due?’
‘In about two months. So much time.’
‘Oh that’s not long at all!’
She rubbed her back. ‘It is long. I assure you. Now I will leave you to sleep.’ She hugged me. ‘We will have dinner when you wake.’
Maria slipped out of the room and shut the door. I lay down on the bed and curled up with my face turned to the open terrace doors. There was no fan in the room, but a cool breeze upset the filmy curtains and swept through the room to curl up against my skin as I lay there, thinking.
I fell asleep, waking some time after covered in sweat, my mouth dry and my clothes sticking to my body. Maria had left water on the side table and I drained the glass. It was so hot. I stripped and stood naked in the terrace doorway, although the breeze was all but gone. I stepped out onto the terrace where I was still protected from the sun by the awning, and closed my eyes. I lifted my arms and stretched, my lips opening to drink in the scent of the heady lavender, feeling the close of the day and the luxury of being in my own skin.
‘You must be Emily.’ A smooth male voice shattered my reverie and my eyes flew open in shock. Standing not three metres from me in the shadows of the house was a dark haired man, keeping his eyes firmly fixed on my face. I froze in place then turned and stumbled back into my room. I drew the curtains and grabbed a towel from the end of the bed then leant with my back against the wall, letting out a short gasp of dismay.
‘Oh. My. God,’ I said, barely audibly. ‘Who the hell was that?’
I dressed and peeked out the terrace door, but the man had disappeared. I slipped on a pair of sandals and shut the terrace door behind me. The sun-bleached grass brushed against my ankles as I walked around the house. I could smell the lavender more now as the sun began to fall in the sky. A small lizard ran over my foot, intent on some destination, and I shivered at the feel of its lithe little body.
I could hear voices speaking in Croatian as I walked around to the front of the house. I slowed and my cheeks flushed hot. I exhaled and brushed the hair away from my face, wishing I had a hair tie, as I rounded the corner of the house. David, Maria and the man who had been sitting outside my room were sitting on wicker chairs under the balcony awning. Grape vines grew around the metal of the awning, their leaves hanging limp in the still day. Maria sat next to a tomato plant that she was easing the dead leaves from, I supposed so that new shoots could come through. David relaxed in his chair, his wide-brimmed hat half covering his face.
‘Ah, Emily, come sit down,’ Maria said. ‘This is my brother, Macan.’
I glanced at him, then looked away, my face burning.
Macan had a shadow of a grin on his lips, his eyes not revealing anything of what had transpired outside my room.
‘Sit next to me.’ Maria patted an empty chair. I sat down and noticed they were all looking at me with interest.
‘Did you sleep well?’ Maria said.
‘Yes, I did. It’s a lovely room. It’s, um, nice to have a door to outside.’ I avoided Macan’s gaze.
David nodded, then rose from his chair and disappeared inside the house.
‘I think later we should go for a walk and a swim in the pool,’ Maria said.
‘Oh, you have a pool? I didn’t see it when we were coming up the drive.’
‘It’s over behind the lavender fields —a small rock pool fed by an underground spring — just a hole in the ground, really. The water is icy.’
David came back from the house with three Karlovacko beers and a mineral water.
‘Do you drink beer?’ he said.
‘I used to steal Dad’s.’
David snorted, ‘So did I!’ Then he seemed uncertain and looked away.
He sat down and we drank, trying to cool down in the heat. It was stifling even under the awning and I could feel sweat trickling down my thighs. I looked out over the fields, trying to catch a glimpse of the pool, but I only saw a haze of lavender heads drooping under the sun. I felt the presence of Macan behind me and it unsettled me. What in the hell was he doing outside my room, anyway?
Macan’s voice broke through my thoughts. ‘How long will you be here, Emily?’
My pulse sped up. ‘A few weeks.’
‘You’re welcome to stay as long as you like,’ Maria said. ‘You’re family.’
‘Thank you, really.’ We fell quiet again.
A languid chirp from a lone insect sounded every few minutes. I wondered if Croatia had cicadas. David tipped his hat forward over his face and placed his empty beer can on the ground. I leant back in my chair and relaxed.
My sandals slapped against the dusty track framed by lavender. Maria and Macan walked ahead of David and me, making their way over the uneven ground. Maria wore a large floppy hat. I could feel the burn of the sun on the back of my neck and wished I had one the same as hers to shade my face. The sun felt so much stronger than when I had been on the boat, although still not as bad as some summers up north, at home. David walked beside me, his eyes flickering over the lavender fields. I already felt more comfortable around Maria than him.
‘Do you miss Australia?’ I said.
‘This is home now.’ He glanced at me. ‘Sometimes.’
He bent to pluck one of the lavender stalks and handed it to me. I twirled it between my thumb and forefinger and the crushed flower released its perfume.
‘What did Mum think of you coming over here?’ he said.
‘She thought it would be dangerous. Dad never would have come back here and Mum would only have come with him. I tried to get her to come with me, but she wouldn’t.’ David looked at me and I stuttered. ‘She said it had been too long.’
He nodded and we walked on in silence together, but for the sound of Maria’s laughter and crickets hiding in the lavender.
‘Why didn’t you come back?’ I dared to ask. He didn’t answer straight away, but looked instead at Maria walking ahead of us.
‘Mm. Time has a habit of moving quickly when you’re not keeping track. I travelled for a while around Europe. Then I met Maria. Croatia needed rebuilding after the war and I moved here and I became involved in that, although the pay wasn’t good. But I had the skills, and a lot of young people didn’t.’
‘Surely you could have called, or written?’
‘I did once. The old man hung up on me.’
I fell silent. ‘I didn’t know.’
‘It made me angry, then I didn’t try again. I was angry at Mum, too, because she didn’t fight for me.’ He smiled, ‘I was never mad at you.’
‘You cried. I felt terrible for leaving you. You were so small and solemn back then; a skinny little girl with wide eyes.’
‘I wasn’t that skinny.’
‘You were. When I called that time I hoped I could talk to you. But thinking back, you must have been in school.’
‘I was a kid when you left.’
‘In all that time, you couldn’t have called again?’
He didn’t answer.
‘I spent weeks, months then years thinking you’d come back. Then I stopped thinking about you, I suppose,’ I said.
‘It’s funny, but eleven years seems a long time when you say it out loud. In reality it moves so swiftly. Australia seemed so far away in my head. It was easier to just keep going with life here. It got harder and harder to think about making a connection again,’ David said.
Maria called to us. I couldn’t hear what she said, but she gestured to us to hurry up.
‘We’re almost there. It’s just beyond that crest,’ David said.
We quickened our pace as Maria and Macan disappeared over the rise in the land. I could smell a cool change in the air as the lavender fields ended and the still water came into view. Maria lay in a two-piece swimsuit on her towel next to the stone-walled pool. Macan smiled when he saw us and took off his shirt and pants, diving into the pool. His body broke through the stillness of the water, ripples creating small waves that broke against the sides of the stone walls.
‘I’ve never seen a pool like this away from the ocean,’ I said.
‘It’s very old. The water flows in from an underground spring and it’s cold all year round. No irrigation system needed.’
‘You should go in, Emily,’ Maria said.
I hesitated, my eyes on Macan floating on his back in the water.
‘Go in,’ She said, urging me forward with vigorous gestures.
I gave in and pulled my dress up over my head. I slipped my sandals from my feet and lay them neatly side by side. I entered the water slowly. The cold water was like ice against my hot skin. The water ebbed against my body now that Macan and I were both in the pool. I felt the blood rushing quicker through my veins as my temperature dropped. David lay down with Maria in the shade of a tree and they talked in low voices. Macan swam towards me.
‘Hello.’ He smiled. I looked at his teeth. They were perfect.
‘Hello,’ I said to his teeth.
‘Can you swim?’
‘Yes, everyone in Australia can.’
‘Well, everyone I know. We’re given lessons when we’re young.’ I said.
‘You should come with me to the town one night. I will show around.’
‘Thank you. If we get a chance that would be nice if we all went to the town.’
He floated closer. ‘Just you and me.’
I let out a nervous squeak of laughter. ‘Well, I’m sure Maria or David will want to come. Or both of them. Probably both of them.’
‘It is okay. I can drive us. I will be your personal guide.’
‘Really, it’s okay. I think that I’ll just stay around here for a bit. Go for some walks and speak to David.’
‘Then I will go for walks and show you this countryside. It is very beautiful.’ He smiled.
I gave in. ‘Yes. Well, thanks.’
The water created a thin barrier between us and it was getting thinner as he loomed closer with his insistence on showing me around.
‘I am sorry about before,’ he said.
‘Outside your room. I sit there in the shade sometimes. It is the room I sleep in when I stay here. I did not realise you would come out, as you did.’
I sank my body further into the pool until only my head was showing above the water.
‘It’s okay. I suppose you saw nothing.’
‘You are very beautiful.’ He winked and pushed his body away from the wall of the pool. David stood up and helped Maria to stand. They made their way towards us.