Authors: Sarah Armstrong
A Novel by Sarah Armstrong
ebook ISBN: 978-1-59692-834-3
M P Publishing Limited
Isle of Man
Telephone: +44 (0)1624 618672
email: [email protected]
Originally published by:
155 Sansome Street, Suite 550
San Francisco, CA 94104
Copyright © 2006 by Sarah Armstrong
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Armstrong, Sarah, 1968-
Salt rain / by Sarah Armstrong.
ISBN 1-59692-173-0 (alk. paper)
Book and cover design by Dorothy Carico Smith.
Publisher’s Note: This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
For Marion and Dick Armstrong
The rain began as the train pulled slowly up the coast, through the small towns and dairy farms. It fell lightly at first, then descended as if a solid mass of water, sweeping across the hillsides of banana palms and bowing the cows’ heads where they stood in the lush paddocks.
Every tree sliding by was a marker of the distance stretching between Allie and her mother, stretching thinner with every moment. Taking her further from their small terrace house where her mother would bucket hot water into their outdoor bathtub late at night, glowing mosquito coils scattered around the garden. Where her mother would climb naked out the bedroom window onto the roof to watch the sun rise over the city.
‘Sure you don’t want a rock cake?’ Allie’s aunt leaned over the armrest and offered the creased brown paper bag again.
‘No. I hate them.’ Allie turned to look out the window and in the reflection, watched crumbs dropping onto her aunt’s shirt as she ate.
‘Oh? These are pretty good,’ said Julia. ‘Wouldn’t win anything at the Show though. See how the sultanas are mostly near the bottom?’ She pointed with a thick finger then held the last of the cake high in the air and twirled it back and forth. ‘You know, I used to be a judge at the Show a few years ago. The youngest judge ever, until they discovered I was doing it completely randomly.’
Allie hated her aunt for seeing right into her one moment of doubt and using it to bustle her onto the train. They had been in the kitchen after breakfast, teacups draining on the sink, the table wiped clean between them and Allie ready to leave for school, when Julia started telling her what the policeman had said. There were just words stringing their way through the air, until suddenly Allie couldn’t breathe. It was as if the room had filled with water and they were sitting across the table from each other, eyes wide, holding their breath underwater. And somehow she had agreed to pack a bag and get on the train.
‘Hey,’ Julia’s hand was warm on her arm, ‘I’m going up to the buffet car. Do you want a sausage roll or something?’
Allie shook her head and kept her eyes fixed on the passing landscape as the train slowed and the paddocks gave way to a town. The rain overflowed in curtains from the gutters of small weatherboard houses and tall weeds grew high and luxuriant against back fences. She imagined her mother holed up in a town like this, sleeping in, then eating Chinese takeaway in her motel room.
Only the week before, her mother had gone to Central station and got on the first train to come along. She told Allie that the old rattler took her west, through the new brick housing estates and high up into the Blue Mountains where she could see out over the red-roofed suburbs of Sydney. That evening, sitting up at the red Formica table in the kitchen, chopping onions for dinner, Mae described how she’d got off at Lithgow to catch a train back to the city, back to Allie. She had stood waiting on the cold platform, breathing the diesel fumes and the smell of coal from the mines while the carriages shunted and groaned beside her and she wished she could get back onto her train and coast down on to the western plains, that great free expanse of land, stretching all the way to the desert.
Julia took her seat again. ‘That was Grafton we just went through. I always imagined it a much bigger place. Funny.’
From the corner of her eye, Allie watched her aunt sipping the paper cup of tea. There was nothing of her mother in Julia’s long thin nose and rosy cheeks, even though they shared the same blood. Mae was creamy and elegant. Julia was tall and moved like a man and seemed so much older than she was. In Sydney she kept bumping into the furniture and doorways in the tiny house, her work boots loud on the floorboards.
Allie turned away and pressed her forehead hard against the cool glass of the window. The last time she had made the same trip, years ago, it was Mae beside her. Her mother had traced a long finger down the window, along the lines of rain tearing thin in the wind. Allie reached out a hand to do the same. Reflected in the glass was the curved collar of her school blouse that her mother had ironed on the weekend. She shut her eyes, every muscle in her body resisting the motion of the swaying train as it carried her northwards.
At the small train station, she ran across the platform to the shelter of the tin roof, the raindrops bursting on her hot skin and working their way under her clothes. Julia waited for the guard to pass the big suitcase from the boxcar, the rain plastering her long hair flat to her head.
Allie turned to a man in a blue uniform and shouted over the sound of the rain, ‘When’s the next train to Sydney?’
‘Goin’ back so soon?’ He had missed some of his whiskers when he shaved. ‘Not until the day after tomorrow,’ he said. ‘No passenger train till then, love.’
‘What time does it go?’
Julia was beckoning to her, shielding her eyes from the rain. Allie stepped out from the shelter of the verandah and followed her aunt across the gravel car park, over the puddles and carpet of bruised purple jacaranda flowers.
‘Hop in if you like. Get in out of the rain.’ Julia lifted their bags into the boot of the car. ‘I’ll finish loading up.’
Allie sat in the front seat, water still sliding down her skin, and looked over the train tracks at the people hurrying down the main street, under the long rows of palm trees. The first time she saw the palms, she had thrilled to their thin ribbed trunks and wild bursts of fronds. When she and Mae went home to Sydney, she had longed to return and look up at the line of palm trees and breathe the humid air, thick with sugar from the mills.
Julia slammed the boot and strode around the car. ‘We could be in for some serious weather,’ she said as she got in and leaned forward to wipe the foggy windscreen with her sleeve. ‘The guard reckons there’s a cyclone up north. We might catch the tail end of it. What were you talking to the stationmaster about?’
Allie watched the train gliding away. ‘I’m going back on Thursday.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘I mean I’m going home.’
‘I know you don’t want to be here but you can’t stay down there on your own. You’re fourteen!’ Julia’s voice softened, ‘What was I to do? Really, what was I to do?’ She paused. ‘You know…’
‘But she’ll come home, Julia. She’ll get home and I won’t be there! The house will be empty. How will she know where I am?’ She saw the little terrace house as it was when Julia had hurried her out to the taxi, the beds stripped and curtains drawn.
‘Allie,’ Julia turned to look at her, ‘I don’t think Mae’s coming back. The police…’
‘How do they know?’ Her aunt’s eyes were suddenly too much like her mother’s. ‘What would any of you know about her? You haven’t seen her for years. She’s just taken off to clear her head.’ She reached for the doorhandle, but couldn’t bear more rain on her skin. ‘Tom drives her mad sometimes…she always comes back.’
‘It’s been three nights.’
‘I already told you! They had a fight. Even she says it, that she always runs away when things get difficult.’
‘I know,’ Julia sighed. ‘Mae’s always run away.’
‘And she always comes back!’
Julia kneaded the steering wheel. ‘Her clothes were on the seat of the dinghy…’
‘She always skinny-dips! See, you don’t know her at all!’
Julia nodded and started the car. ‘Let’s just go home and have something to eat…eh?’
Allie shook her head and looked out the window as her aunt drove them through town, over the wide brown river and towards the mountains, the rain drumming relentlessly on the roof of the car and stirring the fields of sugar cane, bending the tall stalks in waves. It was the very same rain that had fallen on her mother’s skin before Allie was born, the raindrops making an endless circuit from earth to clouds, the same water falling again and again for decades. She touched her tongue to the back of her hand and tried to remember the taste of her mother’s skin.
Julia drove with her legs wide and her hand resting on the column shift. The car ground slowly up the steep hairpin bends, each turn revealing the river winding across the floodplain below.
Allie spoke into the silence, ‘The police have obviously got no idea what a good swimmer she is.’
Julia nodded. ‘You’re right. They probably don’t…’ She wound her window down a crack. ‘You know, she used to swim up and down the waterhole for hours. She said the eels nipped her. It made me too scared to go in.’
Allie thought of Mae’s arms curving neatly into the water. On unbearably hot summer nights, the two of them would go down to the harbour to swim off one of the industrial wharves. Mae would skip ahead, swinging her towel and shouting, her voice echoing around the dark warehouses shut up for the night, ‘To swim! To swim!’ Allie would paddle close to the ladder, listening to the waves slapping into the massive wooden piers and watching Mae swim way out into the darkness of the harbour, her pale arms flashing over the black water. Later, they ran home through the narrow streets, the tar road warm and soft under their bare feet and their towels flapping from their shoulders like capes. Allie would wake in the morning and find the sheets and mattress damp from her wet hair and swimming costume.
‘She taught me how to swim, you know,’ she said to Julia. ‘The guy at the pool said she could be a swimming teacher and he’d give her a job.’
‘I bet he did!’ Julia started to say something else then shook her head. ‘Oh, Mae.’
She glared at her aunt. ‘So, can you swim as well as her?’
Julia changed gears as they reached the top of the hill. She turned to Allie and shook her head.
It was the same as last time, the dirt road winding into the narrow valley and the forest coming right down to the vivid green paddocks. The rain started to fall even harder and the car filled with the sound of the windscreen wipers beating back and forth. Julia stopped at a small weatherboard shop with a faded Coke sign in the window and a knot of kids in bright raincoats waiting under the shelter of the verandah. She reached for the car door. ‘Why don’t you come in with me? I’m going to pick up a couple of things. You could see if there’s anything special you’d like. Chocolate or chips…’
Julia slammed the door behind her and hurried through the rain to the shop.
Allie had forgotten the way the wet heat of the valley entered her body and slowly rose through her, as if heating and swelling her insides. She remembered the sweat beading on her mother’s skin when they came up last time, small trembling balls of moisture on her upper lip and neck. Perhaps Mae had taken the train over the Blue Mountains all the way to the desert, perhaps she was standing on the hot red dirt this very minute, looking out into the shimmering nothingness.
The back door of the car opened and a woman got in, piling bags of shopping onto the seat. ‘So, I’m Petal,’ she said. She had a tanned face and blonde hair pinned up on her head.
‘Hello.’ Allie could smell something sweet, like the joss sticks Mae bought in Chinatown once.
‘You’re with Julia.’
‘She’s my aunt. She’s my mother’s younger sister.’
‘Oh. I never knew Julia had a sister. I thought she was an only child.’ Petal began rummaging in her things, taking out bulging brown paper bags and scraps of twisted paper. ‘So, where do you live? I haven’t seen you around.’
‘Sydney. I’m only staying until Thursday.’ Allie could see the curve of Petal’s breasts through her thin shirt. Mae didn’t care if the neighbours saw her naked on the roof. An old man who lived in a boarding house across the back lane would watch from his window. ‘It’s my gift to him,’ Mae used to say.
‘Only till Thursday?’ said Petal. ‘Uh oh. I hope it stops raining for you then. They say the wet season’s going to be early this year. But you must have been here lots of times. Your family’s an institution in this place. Here it is!’ She pulled out a jar of dark golden honey, still flecked with wax. ‘This is unbelievable, it’s from the rainforest.’ She unscrewed the lid, ‘Stick your finger in. Taste it.’