Elise had been waiting at the front door when the delivery van pulled up. Its headlights panned across the house as it swung into the driveway, casting tiny specks of light around the empty entrance hall. Elise wondered if the van’s occupants could see her, ghost-like, through the glass pane.
Two men climbed out of the van. They made their way along the brick path, past the row of agapanthus standing like wild-haired guards at its edges. Elise felt a rush of anticipation then, for the thought of everything that would be in those boxes in the back of the van: all the furniture from her and Joel’s apartment, their wedding gifts, plates and towels and vases, objects to be worn in during their lives ahead in Sydney. She wondered if her sister, Lou, and their mother had looked at the gifts before they packed them – knowing Sylvia, she would have been superstitious about it.
The men set the first lot of boxes down in the living room, and the taller man told her that they had driven all night from Melbourne.
‘Would you like a drink?’ she offered, and then remembered that the fridge hadn’t arrived. She gave them water from the tap in paper cups, and they gulped it down. When they had brought in all the boxes, they gave her a delivery form to sign. It had Sylvia’s signature on it, and Elise found her scrawl comforting.
She filled up the cups again for the men, but they were in a rush.
‘Got a pick up in Petersham,’ the short one said, and then they were gone. The van rumbled away, leaving Elise alone again in the quiet of the entrance hall.
She knew she must have locked the door after seeing the delivery men out, but Elise went to make sure. She was more anxious than she expected about being alone in the new house. She knew only a handful of people in Sydney – none of whom she felt able to call on simply to calm her nerves.
The door was locked, of course, but she stood there all the same, peering through the leadlight window, watching the passing cars.
Though she had spent so much time assuring Joel that she was fine about arriving on her own, Elise now felt angry with him. He should be here with her. Wasn’t that the point of a partnership? Facing the moves and the stress – and the joys – together?
She had an image of some time in their future, at a family dinner, perhaps, with their children – faceless blurs she found impossible to imagine – enquiring about this move to Sydney. She saw Joel forgetting, as he often did, how it had happened; recalling, even, the weight of the boxes, and how he had shuffled the furniture round. Maybe she would remember it differently, too: Lou wiping down the surfaces; or her mother in the kitchen, making tea in those awful yellow teacups from Joel’s American cousin. Maybe Elise would remember nothing, and wonder why.
It had grown dark in the house, and Elise was thankful for her mother’s practical thinking: Sylvia had suggested she pack some candles in case the electricity hadn’t been connected. She set the candles up in the corner of the living room and sliced the first box open. Inside, there were pillowslips, crisp and pressed flat. Sylvia would have ironed them before packing them away. Elise lifted them out and breathed in their clean cotton fragrance. Some of them had tiny glass objects tucked into their folds, and she let them drop into her palm like fat raindrops.
She had begun to collect these little ornaments last year. They were old-fashioned – something she associated with her grandmother. She liked their delicateness, the way they had been formed from the slightest movement frozen in time. As each was released from the fabric, Elise stood it on the windowsill, until soon there was a cluster of them in a haphazard circle – a duck, a horse, an apple, three birds, and a giraffe with neck so thin it must have been formed from a single drip of glass.
Lou loved those animals. If she had been there, she would have lined them up on the windowsill in height order, and moved them around so they shone rainbows on the walls. She was good at getting the best out of things.
Elise wished that Lou and her mother were there. It was nonsense, she knew – one of those ideas about herself from childhood that had never been shaken – but she felt that she was no good at packing and unpacking. Her mother, on the other hand, could fold. Sylvia would get the corners of fabric matched up perfectly, and then she would shake them with a competent force, and patiently press the folds so that it looked like it had just been taken from the shelf of a homewares store. Lou was just as careful, placing cup inside cup, and laying the flat items at the bottom of the box.
Elise had unpacked and packed enough times with her mother and her sister to know how good they were at it – and to know that her sense of being bad at it had very little to do with anything more than the way the smell of newsprint and cardboard made her throat close up.
She pictured Lou and Sylvia back in Melbourne, in her and Joel’s apartment. They packed all these boxes while she and Joel were in Fiji on their honeymoon. She was the eldest daughter, yet thinking about them picking up after her like that made her see herself suddenly as a child. She shook off the thought; it was just how things had worked out, with the timing of the wedding, and having to sign for the house. And Joel’s trip.
After the pillowslips, she reached towels. They were as she had hoped them to be when she chose them from the registry – butter yellow and thick – and she wondered if they would ever look as new again. She piled them one upon the other, and reached back into the box.
Joel had promised to phone her when he landed in Tokyo. She kept looking at her watch, calculating the hours since he had left. He should be there already. It was the new house, and being alone, of course, that was making her panic. But it was also a thought that she often had, her mind reaching for the farthest, most frightening possibility.
She would have heard something, surely, if there had been an accident. Joel was probably safely waiting for his luggage, or sitting on the plane waiting to disembark.
At the very bottom of one of the last few boxes, she felt the edges of something wooden; a frame that lay flat to the base of the box, it seemed. She got her fingernails under its edge and managed to raise it, awkwardly, up and out.
It was a painting that had hung in her bedroom when she was a little girl. She hadn’t seen it in years – it must have been stored in Sylvia’s shed all this time. It was surprising, this nostalgic reach on her mother’s part, that she had gone and packed it, in among all these never-used gifts: the girl, in her sea-green beret, her dirty-pink scarf (that is how her mother had described it, the muddy candy colour), and the black cat, gazing languorously from her lap.
Elise studied the girl’s beret, the way that the painter had used rough brush strokes to texture the scarf. She had never looked at it this closely. All those years, it had hung high up on the wall above her dresser so that she had felt they were watching her instead, the girl and the cat.
She was examining the wood of the frame when her phone beeped. A message from Joel: Landed hour ago. It was so perfunctory, so Joel.
Later in the evening, Elise carried a candle over to the kitchen and stacked away the new plates and cutlery, and the clunky old ceramic mugs that she had not been able to part with. When she unpacked the spices and cans and boxes into the pantry, it finally began to feel a bit less empty.
She took the candle back to the picture and stood a few feet away from it. In the dim light, only the gold flecks stood out. She moved in closer and saw that the artist had carefully placed a small piece in the eyes of the girl and the cat. They flickered at her.
Bernard had hung the picture in her bedroom. He had placed it high on the wall – too high, but no one dared criticise him – where the girl and the cat seemed to listen, as she did, most nights.
It had been twelve years since Elise had lived in that house with Bernard and her mother, but sometimes she still woke in the night, sick with a kind of dread. Occasionally, it was a nightmare, but more often it was the fright of waking; the sense that the room was closing in on her. That feeling had permeated the whole house, a tension she could never be rid of.
Even when her mother finally left him, and the three of them – the three ‘girls’, as her mother called them – had curled up together in the same bed for nights in that tiny apartment; even with her mother and her sister right there, she would wake with that terror.
That, of course, had been the worst move. There had been no careful packing, no wrapping of glasses, or sifting and sorting. They had thrown everything they could fit into a hire truck. That’s what the lawyers had told her mother: take as much as you can. After the court case, dozens more boxes had arrived for Sylvia. They contained the few items that she and Bernard had bought together. Whoever had packed them had stuffed the left-over spaces with wads of newspaper, as if to injure her once and for all with the emptiness they embodied.
Elise’s phone beeped again. It was Joel: Love u, Lis, he’d written. He would be in his hotel room now, watching television, his mind finally settling from all his meetings, returning to the idea of home.
It was late, Elise realised. She would have to go upstairs and set up the mattress on their bedroom floor.
She piled one last column of books into the little space next to the stairs, and brushed herself off. The place would need a good clean in the morning, she thought. All the building dust had settled; there was a fine layer of white powder everywhere. The painting of the girl and the cat seemed to be fading under all the dust that now coated the glass.
Turning to walk up the stairs, her eye caught something on the floor. The little giraffe had fallen from the windowsill. From where she stood, it looked like it was still intact. But when she bent down to pick it up, Elise saw that right down its neck was a fine crack. She set it back down next to the apple and the birds. She would have to wait to see if it survived the night.