As Stars Fall : Novel Extract
by Christie Nieman
It was about seven-thirty and I was sitting out on the roof, waiting for Mum to come home. I’d been up there for ages, escaping by imagining the wattles, and the eucalypts, and the magpies and the Masked Lapwings, and the White-faced Heron, and the Australian Wood-ducks down on the dam, with their strange cat-baby cries, and when I saw the dark curly head of my mother pass through the front gate beneath me I felt a rush of joy like when I was little. Like in summer when it was still light when she got home, and Dad and I used to walk the kilometre up to the top of the drive and take a gate post each, and wait for her little silver hatchback, and she’d drive up and stick her head out and yell, ‘Hi-ho, Silver,’ and slow down just enough for us to climb on the roof and ride the little car all bumpy down the corrugated dirt road all the way home. As she walked through the gate beneath me, she didn’t look up. Lucky. I had a sense that seeing me out on the roof might inspire a fairly high crank-factor in her. Even though, strictly speaking, I hadn’t really left the house. I was just on it, instead of in it.
I closed my eyes again, feeling the heat of the last bit of the sun on my face as it slanted out from the city. And I did it again. I left this new house, new life, and let my old home overtake me, just as it was in the weeks before I left. I let it grow more real than the place I was in. More present. No longer in the past. And I really felt it. I was linked with the place. Not another rooftop in sight, just rolling paddocks on every side, disappearing into the dark valley below …
… and the sun peeking at me over the mountains to my left. And I’m up in a tree and my hair is being blown softly across my face in front of my eyes. The setting sun catches the strands so that they glow red. The mountains at my right are all blue and hazy, because the air is still full of the smoke from the fires. The big granite rock that gives the hill opposite me its oh-so-familiar outline – ‘the pinnacle’ – appears to be hovering in that blue air, hanging in space like some kind of heavenly landscape. I’m sitting in a peppermint gum and its leaves are long, thin and elegant, and they are grey-green except where they catch the sun, and then they are bright streamers of red too, like my hair.
And I look out through the leaves and see the hill sloping away from me, down to the creek where all the wattles grow. I can smell the flowers, even from way up here. The evening air is warm, and the sweet wattle smell mixes with the complicated smell of dry eucalyptus leaves. It makes me feel alive.
If I wanted, I could just step right off my tree and float on that smell. I would float down across the creek, and then over the farmland on the valley floor, all the way to the mountains. And I could float and float. All that wide, open space. All that air. It’s incredible …
My eyelids opened and my view ran into the factory wall opposite. It was such a claustrophobic sensation. So close. And everything was different to before; everything had that odd greeny-yellow tinge it gets before a summer storm and I felt like I was trying to breathe steam.
‘Flame Robin?’ Mum called again, but I knew she would be getting changed into her home clothes and I didn’t have to hurry just yet. I closed my eyes again and felt for the air of home, trying to remember the smells in weather like this, the heavy eucalyptus scent on pre-storm air.
But then I heard something. I didn’t create that sound in my imaginings. The call of a Bush Stone-curlew was rising in the air around me. I stopped and my eyes flew open. I twisted my head up and then around, looking at the sky, and then at the roof of the factory opposite, where I thought the sound had come from. But there was no sound anymore, nothing, and I couldn’t see anything there for the brilliance of the setting sun.
I shook my head to make the echoes of the sound, and the feeling that went with it – sadness, grief, loss – vanish. Why would my mind do that to me? First the parklands, and now this.
I didn’t like it here. It was making me strange.
I heard Mum climbing the first stairs of the ladder to my room.
‘Robbie, are you in your room?’
Shit. ‘Yes, Mum!’ I called towards the window. And I heard her retreat again to the bottom of the stairs.
I swung myself back in my window and went and sat on my bed. My bedroom wall was covered with photos of home – photos of me and Dad, photos of Pen-dog and Mo, photos of the hills and the bush – all framed with the stack of odd and mismatching frames I’d found at the op shop up the road. It was one of the first things I’d done when setting up my new room. I’d even framed the photograph I took of the pinnacle right after the fire, the one I’d taken from right up close when Dad and I had gone up there for a look that last day – the last day I saw him. The day he turned up at home unannounced and said he was moving away.
I don’t know where he’d been staying for that fortnight since the fire, but it wasn’t at home. And I knew that it wasn’t with that woman, either, because Amber told me she’d gone to Queensland to work for a few months. But then Dad came over and told me and Mum that he was going there too, to Queensland, the next day. He asked Mum if he could take me for a drive, and Mum had let him, hadn’t hassled him about anything, not like in the weeks before. Dad and I jumped in the Land Rover and he said, ‘Let’s go and look at the hill.’ We drove up through the bush reserve, ignoring the ‘do not enter’ signs. ‘Don’t tell your mother,’ he said. The trees were stripped totally bare. Everything was black. We stayed on the bitumen where it was safest and took it all the way to the top, to the lookout point next to the pinnacle. We sat on the bonnet of the car and looked at the vista: and at the huge rock, and the devastation all around it. There was nothing left alive.
‘It’s all ruined,’ I said.
Dad took my hand. ‘Don’t worry, honey, it’ll all grow again. Give it time.’
I couldn’t believe he was leaving. I was so angry at him for doing this to us. But it was hard because I also loved him so much. I couldn’t believe I wasn’t going to be living with him anymore. Or seeing him every day. I started to cry.
Dad got down from the bonnet and went around to stand at the back of the car for a moment, and when he came back, his voice was all husky. ‘Got your camera?’
‘Yes,’ I said.
‘You should take a picture of it all now, so you can remember the bush like this. You won’t believe how quickly it all comes back to life.’
Dad left, and a few weeks later, Mum and I left too. Before Dad told us he was going away, Mum had got herself a job in the city at a really good school, and she said that they had a place for me there too. She told me, in that hard way she now had, that it didn’t matter that Dad was the one leaving now, she’d already arranged stuff, and it was too late to change. She said it was an excellent career move for her, and that it would also be a great advantage for me to do my final years of high school there. That everything had worked out well. Well?! She didn’t even consult me. Within weeks we had packed up, moved our sheep in with the neighbour’s flock, and left Pen-dog and Magpie Mo over at the Dooleys’. And even as we drove away from our house for the city, I could see the blackened hills misting up with the faint green of new life that Dad had promised would come. But we were driving away from it.
I couldn’t see the picture on my wall anymore through the mist in my eyes. It had started to rain softly, surprisingly, and it made a much louder noise than you would expect on the tin roof just inches above my head. I blinked and got off the bed and moved over to the top of the ladder, and from there, away from the sound of the rain, I could hear onions frying. I could smell onions frying. Onion-frying is a great smell. It smells like you’re home, no matter where you are. As I climbed down the ladder I was thinking about how I was going to ask Mum if she’d had a good day at school and if she had any homework and if she’d played nice with all the other teachers. I wasn’t going to be sad. But halfway down the ladder all those jokey thoughts flew away. I could see her, hunched over the stove, stirring mechanically. She had changed out of her stylish school clothes and into a grey t-shirt and tracksuit pants. With the kitchen bright white around her she looked small, and old too, and she looked very, very alone.
Christie Nieman writes fiction and nonfiction and is an award-nominated playwright. Her short fiction features in the recent anthology Just Between Us: Australian writers tell the truth about female friendship, and other stories and essays have appeared in Meanjin, Text, The Big Issue and elsewhere. She lives in Central Victoria and is visited daily by a regular crew of wild birds. As Stars Fall is published by Pan Macmillan, and is her first novel – christienieman.com