b e l i e v e:
the beginnings of a novel
c h a p t e r o n e
m e l b o u r n e
Do you also believe in the saints? asked Alyosha Sergei.
I believe in a pail of milk, said Theodora, with the blue shadow around the rim.
Theodora stared from the plane's window
at a tiny speck
on the blue ocean below.
That is one of my several selves, she thought, set free at last from the island of miniatures. Bass strait was not that wide, although she'd have never agreed to sail across it. Not yet, anyway.
Living in a Western suburb in Melbourne in the early 1990s wasn't chic. The year after Theodora left Yarraville, a nearby repository of industrial waste caught alight, spewing thick toxic smoke towards the wealthy eastern elite of Victoria's capital city. Her plan, in case of such an event, had always been to drive south-west, against the prevailing winds, and so escape the poison. Theodora rented a house belonging to some church people. It was old and dilapidated, but there didn't seem to be any mice, so that was good. Her brothers always said that no mice meant there were plenty of rats about, eating them. Theodora usually ignored her brothers.
Theodora had come to Melbourne to attend its illustrious University of Melbourne. She had transferred from the University of Tasmania after realising that academic study was not so much about intelligence but snobbery.
1990 began with adventures to the Botanical Gardens to see plays by Tom Stoppard and Shakespeare; bands at St Kilda Beach; and coffees in Brunswick after endless shopping journeys. Theodora had no idea how the year would unfold. She simply waited, staring at the sea and breathing in freedomfrom the island upon which she grew up.
The year did unfold, however, in ways that took their toll on Theodora's sensitive nature. By November, she had to escape Melbourne. She travelled overland to the far north where she tried to continue her study, in Katherine.
c h a p t e r t w o
k a t h e r i n e
For Theodora Goodman the pulse of existence quickened.
She hesitated less in doorways.
She ran into the receiving sun.
She sat at the yellow desk, which was no longer hateful ...
Outside Woolworths in the Northern Territory town of Katherine, Theodora found some gum-leaves collected into a small book, bound together with twine, and readable, she supposed, for anyone with time and imagination. The heat sucked all memory of a stressed sub-Antarctic existence out of her body.
The heat, in fact, was sweltering.
Theodora had come North to finish her honours thesis. She was to stay with two older missionaries, friends of her parents. Max and Ruth Spender had spent most of their lives working in either India or Northern Australia, among various tribes. Max was an imposing figure of a man. His eyes felt as if they were burning holes through your skin. Or was it your clothes?
The heat intensified.
She could not stay with the Spenders.
And decided to go home. Right home. To Hobart.
c h a p t e r t h r e e
a l i c e s p r i n g s
Ludmilla, he said, leaning forward, what a beautiful, luminous thing is faith.
He held his head to prevent it bouncing.
On her way home, Theodora spent the day in Alice Springs where she became involved in a protest. Aboriginal women were opposing the damming of the Todd River which would flood one of their sacred sites. About 100 women sat down on a cross-road in the centre of the township at noon. The bitumen burnt the back of Theodora's legs and so she sat on her carry-bag causing her water bottle to burst. When she stood up her shorts were dripping. Some of the woman pointed at her, calling out, "What happened? D'ya piss yerself?!" They threw their heads back and laughed. Theodora wondered why she felt so embarrassed. But decided to laugh, pretending she had.
Later, on the Ghan, a train which would meander, snake-like, towards the South, Theodora remembered another time when she'd wet her pants.
c h a p t e r f o u r
h o b a r t
Theodora heard dishes plunged in water.
She heard Arty flicking the legs of Eunice with a wet towel.
Mr Johnson had slammed the wire door
and gone across the yard on some mission of ... chickens.
In his absence she could see his hands plunged in moist bran or pollard,
his contained and rather animal eyes intent above the tin.
Two white chooks ran headless about the pen. Blood shot into the air and her brothers laughed. Theodora had grown up with a chook pen as her playground. The swing and the slide lived there because her uncle thought there wasn't any need to build a second enclosure for the girl. One was enough, he argued.
The child hated seeing her uncle approaching with his axe. She'd read in the Bible about Elisha who'd made the axe-head float upon a river. In her embellishments upon the story, the heads of all the fowls ever killed by her uncle would encircle the axe's head and plead with Elisha to let the axe-head sink forever to the bottom of the river. Sometimes her own little head was there bobbing up and down in the water, but it always had a body beneath the surface, she assured herself.
After the death of their parents, Theodora and her two older brothers had grown up with a great-uncle and aunt in Hobart, a port at the bottom of Tasmania, an oft-forgotten island beneath the south-east of Australia.
Auntie Alma and Uncle Jonah had a relationship filled with fire. Jonah would sometimes climb onto the roof and bellow at the top of his voice, "My wife is wonderful!" He always threatened to scream obscenities, but Theodora only ever heard this phrase thundering over the sullen suburban rooftops.
It always made the little girl afraid when their voices would start to rise. She'd escape quickly and climb into a she-oak which guarded one of the central graves in the cemetery at the back of Jonah's yard. Buried far beneath her was Mary Maguire and her tiny son, Solomon. Mary had died in childbirth and Solomon could not bear to live without his mother. The inscription engraved into the eighteenth century head-stone read:
TOGETHER IN LIFE AND IN DEATH
The paint inside the chiselled inscription was peeling away. One day Theodora decided to touch it up with red. She thought that the tombstone decorators did not have much flare. When she'd finished Theodora received a horrible beating from her aunt who said that she had no respect for anyone's property, let alone respect for the dead. Theodora thought she'd been kind. No one else ever visited the deserted graveyard.
Later, she crept back and painted golden spots onto the fresh red paint, imagining the leopards in the Song of Solomon. Those bespeckled letters often visited her in dreams, sometimes dancing, sometimes spiralling outwards towards infinity.
To be continued ...