This is, above all, a story about failure,’ Nicole’s supervisor said.
‘It’s about an attempt to do something which failed more or less completely and our reaction to that.’
Nicole imagined he was squinting, as he often did when he was playing with one of his own ideas, but she couldn’t be sure because he was backlit by the sun glowing through the window of his narrow office. And she knew that when he said our reaction, he did not mean himself or herself exactly but a larger grouping of which they were all somehow a part.
‘This is a story about failure,’ he said again. ‘Do you see what I’m saying?’
Nicole nodded, but she wanted to shake her head. ‘Yes,’ she said.
‘Okay.’ He swivelled on his steel-armed office chair to consider his bookcase. One spidery digit arched out and fingered the spines of several books. He pulled one out, an ancient yellowed hardback, and handed it to her.
Nicole looked quickly at the cover without absorbing the title or author. This was a ritual. Whenever anyone came to his office to ask a question, they came away with a book. She had about five now, all unread, all without any particular sense that he expected them back. Nicole had no idea how he came to have any books left, what with the procession of doctoral, masters and honours students trooping to his door, not to mention the research fellows and visiting scholars. Perhaps the books themselves were breeding and this was an essential part of their life cycle?
‘Thank you,’ she said. As she headed for the open door, open by decree as protection should her supervisor decide to spring her way in a fever of sexual excitement, she found it hard to picture him ever leaving his rotating throne for any reason or pondering congress with anything beyond his bookcase.
Nicole had gone straight from her supervisor’s office to find an atlas.
The Duke of Cornwall Archipelago. She was vaguely familiar with the name, could vaguely locate it if asked to play a game of pin-the-islandchain-on-the-Pacific-ocean. Up close on the map, ragged, pretty little shapes in clumps were divided by swathes of pale blue, like groups of children in a school yard. It had been named after a random occupant of the Duchy of Cornwall, who probably never imagined that these steaming mounds of sand and palm trees even existed. Nicole wondered if the Islanders had made any progress in being able to cook a Cornish pasty.
That night, she showed the Archipelago to Tony, spread across two pages with a vast abyss dividing the islands where the crease ran through the middle of the atlas. He nodded thoughtfully, as if the map confirmed something for him.
‘Do you think this place is actually real? Or are the cartographers playing a big joke on us?’ she said.
Tony nodded again. ‘They’ll probably wonder the same thing about you,’ he said.
Nicole bit her thumbnail. Yes, she would probably have to go there at some point. It seemed like a colossal effort, tiring just to imagine it. How much easier just to read about things in books.
‘If it’s such a great idea, why doesn’t he do it,’ Tony said later as he stirred dutifully, one wrist straining to drive a long wooden spoon through the pot’s cast-iron innards. Nicole had missed the name of the dish but she knew it contained organic lentils and organic celery. Together, they were saving the planet one bland meal at a time.
‘It’s his gift to me,’ Nicole said.
‘Still, I don’t know. A thesis about failure. It doesn’t sound very promising.’
‘It doesn’t sound like you’re being very supportive,’ she said, suppressing a sudden desire to swig Riesling straight from the bottle’s long-necked mouth.
Tony straightened at this, turning to face her like an attentive scarecrow in a pose she knew to be called whole body listening.
‘You’re right. I’m sorry,’ he said, flatly. ‘Tell me about this idea in detail.’
‘I’m too tired. Let’s eat first.’ And she poured a glass of wine, watching as the golden liquid overwhelmed the interior curve of the vessel, seeking escape. Some shot upwards and splashed her hand. She licked it off as Tony watched her. Let the record show I demonstrated interest in the dull events of your daily affairs but was rebuffed, his raised eyebrows said, their hairy coils rustling and flexing.
Things fail. Things end. It’s important to know the difference. For example, her parents ended when the brakes of their 1996 Toyota Corolla failed. The aluminium crash barrier failed to stop the vehicle at the point at which the road ended.
‘Tell me about this idea that’s going to consume three years of your life.’ Her brother Glen’s voice sounded even further away – if it was possible – than Perth. Those phone lines, singing black arcs, were crossing more than a continent.
‘At least,’ she said.
‘Well …’ She stopped, pausing to draw the outline of the idea from the bottom of her lungs, where it resided like stale smoke. If she felt like this now, how was she going to sweat over this topic in the years to come? ‘Well, in 1980 the government, our government, devised a brilliant new scheme to flood the Duke of Cornwall Archipelago with export income, protein and social glue in one fell swoop. It was a project which came to be known as “Cattle Under Trees”.’
‘Remind me, the Duke of Cornwall Archipelago is …?’
‘Polynesia. Right. These trees we’re talking about: I’m seeing swaying coconut palms, wafting in a tropical breeze, with dusky maidens shaking their tropical stuff on the sand below.’
‘Coconut palms. Date palms. Oil palms. Betel palms. Fan palms. You name it, we palm it. And enough with the dusky maidens already. ’
Tony and Nicole made love, sweetly. He always called it ‘making love’, even that one time with the cheap coconut liqueur and the carpet burns and the shy scurrying back to heaped clothes in another room.
‘We must not be afraid,’ he said, ‘to use the L-word.’
Personally, she was inclined to bust out the F-word. All of the F-words.
He once made her a pavlova after she begged him to make something that was no good for them. An Australian cliché with freshly-laid eggs from the local co-op was the best he could do, but it promised to be very good indeed. She admired the way he tenderly thrashed the egg whites, the way he spent so much time gazing through the oven window, watching the shadowy-white mass within, as if daring it to do something other than be perfect.
And it had been perfect, its smell outrageous as he edged through the house, bearing it ahead of him like a royal cushion. Until he clipped his elbow nudging his way through the French doors to the deck. Nicole watched in horror at the tiny electric jerk of his arm which sent the dessert floorwards. Incredibly, even its drop was perfection, sliding through the air face up, hitting the deck squarely, cake dish first. But the dish broke, and the pavlova shattered on the greying sugar-pine.
They stared together at the pale mess, stained with passionfruit ichor. Tony laughed, a little.
‘It’s a love story,’ he said.
She phoned Glen one night, two days before the seventh anniversary of their parents’ death.
‘It’s so weird them being gone. Still.’ There was a pause in which she imagined him nodding before he said ‘yes’. ‘I didn’t used to see them that often,’ she went on. ‘But it’s very strange for them to be, well, not around, anywhere. It’s like–’ She searched a comparison, sweeping the dark hall furniture with her eyes for a box of metaphors and similes, slightly used but still serviceable. ‘It’s like you’re on stage performing and you suddenly notice that the audience has left and you have to keep performing. The show must go on, but it’s hollow.’
‘They may have left the actual theatre,’ Glen said, ‘but they’re still watching via closed-circuit TV from another room.’
She frowned, wondering which was more annoying: that her brother had recently got religion or his habit of torturing any figure of speech.
Nicole sipped at her flat white through the hole in the plastic lid. She felt somehow exposed sitting in her supervisor’s office with a coffee when he had nothing. Perhaps she should have brought him something, presented him with a hot beverage like a shiny red apple. Too sycophantic? Not bringing coffee: too self-regarding?
A cloud hung behind his window, seemingly wrapped through a tree like fairy floss. She could see his eyes today. She wished she couldn’t.
He was making that sucking sound, where air was drawn in through pursed lips at high speed, which meant he wasn’t happy. And if he was unhappy with her, she was bound to get another book whether she asked a question or not.
‘So,’ he said, ‘Not too much progress so far.’ As if an excess of productivity might be some kind of sin.
‘No, not too much. I’m still thinking things through.’ Nicole bit her thumbnail carefully.
‘All right.’ His eyes swept over her like a couple of spotter planes. And then he turned to his bookcase.
Later, outside, with her new book gripped fiercely in one hand, she looked around her. She had no need to be here and no sense of belonging. Undergrads capered on the lawns like toy animals: hugging, kissing and solving all the problems of the world with impassioned hand movements.
Who are you people? she thought.
The next morning, Nicole lay awake with Tony’s body resting half on hers. He had stirred earlier, grunted and farted, and turned over. She thought he might have woken, but he only turned again so that his face was pressed against her left breast. She reached for his hand and held it, feeling it twitch like a rabbit’s nose, in the throes of a dream.
He came awake slowly. ‘Morning,’ she said to his face just below hers, wondering if her breath was as rank as she imagined it to be.
‘Morning,’ he said, getting the number of syllables wrong.
‘What did you dream about? Can you remember?’
‘I didn’t dream,’ he said, suddenly, coming more awake and reaching for his glass of water.
Not, she thought: I can’t remember the dream. Not: I can’t remember even dreaming. Just: I didn’t dream. His eyes flickered suspiciously. Was he lying?
‘Are you having a dream affair?’ she asked.
He swung out of bed, all legs and hair and circular motion. ‘Don’t be ridiculous,’ he said.
‘It’s okay. I’m happy to share you with an imaginary woman.’ She narrowed her eyes. ‘It is an imaginary woman? Or an imaginary man? Imaginary farm animal? It’s okay: in your dreams, you’re subject only to an imaginary code of ethics which you’re free to edit. Anything goes.’
Tony stood before her, fastening the sash belt on his dressing gown. ‘You take all the fun out of everything,’ he said, and stalked from the room.
Yes, she thought, starting with my own life.
‘Just give me a snapshot of the whole thing,’ Glen said.
How fortunate, Nicole thought – after several months with this idea, a snapshot was all she seemed to have. She had two huge boxes of photocopied chapters and articles. How satisfying that had seemed, advancing through books mechanically, double-page spread after double-page spread, like working with wood or building a wall.
‘Well, uh, we pulled out all the stops. Bought about five hundred head of the best breeding stock. Bought the best of everything. High-tensile steel fencing. Special feed. And get this, computerised steel-hulled boats. Steel-hulled to protect them from rust. And computerised… Well, I’m not sure why the boats were computerised. This was 1980, and most computers were the size of a small house. The next computer to hit the Archipelago was an Apple Mac about ten years later.’
‘Huh,’ Glen said. Nicole supposed he was interested. She talked on, anyway.
‘These fancy boats are designed to allow them to move cattle between the islands. So one of these boats runs aground on the first morning. Reef’s a bitch. And the other boat is appropriated by the paramilitary police. Eight months later, the first boat is scrapped for the steel. The second is repainted with camouflage and is later lost in a military exercise involving live ammunition, along with four soldiers.’
‘So, not so good on the boats front, eh? How’d the cattle go?’
‘Not so well,’ Nicole said, ‘not so well.’
It was a painful moment for her when Tony asked if she wanted to hear about his day and she realised she didn’t – she really didn’t.
‘Um…’ Nicole said.
‘So Mary – and you remember she was asked by Chris to take on the project but only after I said I would probably be too busy because of the conference that was going to be held in Brisbane but then got moved to Auckland – Mary says “it’s her project and she’ll run it her way”. Can you believe that?’
Nicole nodded, but shakily and with furrowed eyebrows to show that, well, yes, sadly she could believe it, but alas it was all too typical of the contemporary workplace and its signature lack of values.
‘You can see my world-famous pecan pie was wasted on her,’ Tony said, finishing his glass of wine and heading back to the kitchen.
‘Wasted,’ Nicole said to herself. She was glad that he was out of the room because she found herself unable to put the fragments of his stories together into any kind of a whole that would have enabled her to respond.
She waited a minute and then followed him into the kitchen where she found him, seated, with his face in his hands, eyes invisible. He looked up at her as she put her hand on his shoulder. A moment later, he smiled.
She walked from tree to tree, zigzagging across the ocean of lawn, as if she were hiding from the sun.
There were no cattle here. Nothing beneath the trees but tiny brown shapes that might once have been leaves, and Mars bar wrappers, black and crinkled like sharks’ eggs.
‘Okay, be the cow,’ she said to herself. Nicole imagined herself to be the first of the Australian cattle brought to the Duke of Cornwall Archipelago, nosing its way uncertainly off the transport ship, heading into uncertain but promising smells and away from the stinking confinement of the shifting vessel. She closed her eyes and felt her way across the sand with cloven hooves, the sun warming her back. She headed for a palm tree and flopped down beneath it, only then daring to fully open her bovine eyes and look around at this new place.
‘What,’ she said out loud, swishing her imaginary tail to dispatch imaginary flies, ‘am I doing here?’
‘Boy, you can’t even succeed at failure,’ Glen said when she told him she was quitting her doctorate.
Nicole bit her lip, waiting for a sharp rejoinder to emerge from her throat, fully formed and vicious. But there was only silence, until she found different words, smooth pebbles from the cool river of her decision.
‘I chose not to try, that’s all.’
He laughed and then, after a moment, she laughed too.
‘You’re telling me this is some kind of weird coincidence?’ Nicole asked Tony, as he leant half-in and half-out of the doorway, hugging the frame like a piece of driftwood. ‘I quit and six hours later you tell me you’re breaking up with me?
‘Well, it is and it isn’t,’ he said. ‘Obviously, I didn’t just hear your news and then decide I needed out.’ She wanted to punch him when he said ‘obviously’ and rolled his eyes. She also wanted to kiss him. ‘But it was not unrelated.’
‘Oh? How so?’ She was back to wanting to punch him.
‘You decide to quit your job and go to art school and I encourage that, and then you change your mind and want to do a doctorate and I encourage that. And you have this idea about children in underprivileged schools in rural NSW and I strongly encouraged that. And then that idea’s no good and you pick up this other idea from your supervisor and I encouraged that, and then you dropped the whole thing.’
‘You’re dumping my arse because I change my mind a lot? That seems rough.’ The words crept out of her throat like kittens, severely beaten kittens.
‘No – and I’m not dumping your arse,’ he said with inverted finger-commas, ‘because you change your mind but rather because nothing I ever say seems to make any difference to you.’
‘But these are my decisions, Tony, for me to make.’
‘Oh, I know that. It’s just that I never seem to touch you, anywhere.’
‘Sure you do.’ The words floated before her like balloons, plastic and empty. Nicole wasn’t sure that anything she said or thought had any influence on herself either.
‘It’s like I’m some kind of peasant villager,’ he went on, ‘making my life here and you’re just a tourist, coming through and throwing coins. Everything I say is all so much colourful patter to you, you listen and then you move on, back to the airport, back to your real life.’
Ouch, Nicole thought. Did she really have to spend time with people so committed to the use and abuse of metaphor? And again: ouch.
‘But I’m kind of a tourist all over,’ she said. ‘It’s what I am.’ She was about to say ‘love me or leave me’, but she guessed he’d already reached that set of matching imperatives all by himself.
‘It’s not enough, Nicole, it’s not enough for me.’ His eyes twitched in his head like tiny insects, bright lights of pain.
‘Okay,’ she said, ‘okay.’ It was all she could think of to say. And then she began to cry, softly. But deep down in her face, deep in the roots of her tear ducts, she could already feel the tap beginning to shut off.
‘And so he just left, huh?’ Glen asked her.
So much had happened since she’d last spoken to her brother, but then she telephoned him and in four sentences it was done: key messages conveyed, post-game analysis succinctly transmitted.
‘Yeah, he left. He took some furniture.’ Nicole paused. ‘And the pot plants. Which is only fair, they loved him more than me.’
‘Huh,’ Glen said. ‘What will you do now?’
Nicole waited to see if any bright new ideas buzzed over her horizon suddenly like a helicopter. There was nothing, not even a large mosquito. ‘I’m not sure,’ she said.
‘So,’ Glen said after a while, ‘whatever happened to those cows?
‘Well they disappeared, that’s for sure. Six months after they arrived, only eight of the cattle remained across the twenty-one villages where more than 500 cattle had been distributed. The theory was that because agriculture is the job of women, along with just about everything on those islands, the women just drove them off. Or left the gates open and let them wander off.’
‘Because these women are kinda short and the cattle are, well, kinda big. And before these cattle came along, they’d never seen anything bigger than a chicken or pig. And then they get these huge, high things with sharp horns. And quietly over time they said ‘no thanks’ and let them escape.’
‘That’s the theory?’
‘Yeah, it’s a pretty good theory, I think.’
‘Before they bought these computerised boats and stuff, didn’t anyone ask the women if they wanted to share their trees with these giant cloven-hoofed monsters?’
‘I guess not,’ Nicole said.
‘Huh,’ Glen said.
‘Yeah,’ Nicole said.
The plane banked over the sea and Nicole could see the reef, now suddenly exposed like the island’s underwear.
There was a man sitting next to her. He was a retired doctor from Sydney who had practiced on the archipelago nearly thirty years ago and been infected somehow by its charm. ‘Is this your first visit to the Duke of Cornwall’s?’ he asked.
Nicole smiled politely, annoyed at herself for inwardly recoiling each time he faced her with his ruined teeth and cracking bulbous nose.
‘Yes,’ she said.
He looked at the note in her hand. ‘Letter from your boyfriend?’ Nicole chuckled. ‘Something like that. It’s a love story.’
It was a short note and she had memorised it.
I hope you are well. I am well, though still grieving the loss of our relationship. I just wanted to drop you a note to say that I think of you often and of our time together. I don’t see our relationship as a failed relationship and nor should you. We spent time together, it was good and then it ended. It was a special time in our life that finished and there is no shame in that. I will always cherish your memory.
Jeez, Tony, it’s not like I’m dead or anything, she thought.
‘What brings you to these fair isles, then?’ the retired doctor asked. Nicole looked past the broken stand of his grey teeth to tops of trees that bobbed about at the bottom of the window as the plane began its final approach. ‘Nothing in particular,’ she said. ‘Just passing through, looking around.’
‘You’re an aid worker? Or a student?’
‘Yes,’ she said, ‘kind of a student. A student of life. And for life.’
White light on the blue waves dropped from view. Nicole closed her eyes and girded her stomach for the landing.