Extract from

THE TAJ MAHAL OF TRUNDLE




 

PART 1

 

COMING HOME

 

 

    

The sisters left the city on a bright, hot day and drove north, hardly talking.

The freeway slithered forward to an unknown future.  Every two hours they spelled each other with the driving; pleased to stretch or buy tea and sandwiches at a service station. It was late afternoon when they passed the faded billboard that announced their arrival in Trundle. The slow brown river eddied round the bridge pylons as it always had. The long drab main street looked much the same.

Marie dozed in the passenger seat.

     ‘Wakey wakey.’ Ronnie squinted as sunlight blurred the dusty windscreen and cast hard light on the lines on her gamin face. ‘We’re home.’

Marie yawned and struggled upright. She carried more weight than suited her, these days.

     Ronnie swung right into the grid of side streets. Within minutes she pulled up outside a white weatherboard house where unmown grass grew lushly right up to the verandah’s edge. Ringlets of mauve wisteria dangled from the pergola. A rich, almost sickly scent of jasmine filled the air. The pair sat staring at their childhood home. Marie’s expression was nostalgic. All Ronnie could see was months of solid work ahead as she pushed back her cap of short reddish hair and began to unload the luggage. It felt strange, uncertain¾coming home.

 

*



The trouble started with the arrival of the letter from the council, advising of an application to build a residential dwelling on the vacant land next door.

     That first year back in Trundle had worked out well. Job prospects in the country were uncertain for middle-aged women, but they’d both found employment. Few nurses as well qualified as Ronnie applied at the Trundle District Hospital; already she was a supervisor. And it was a change from her previous job at the rehabilitation unit, where injured sportsmen were so like Max¾the partner she’d loved and coddled until he abandoned her. Ronnie hid her sense of loss. Marie, who was suffering her own grief at her husband’s death from leukaemia, had sunk into voluble mourning; trailing off to psychics and going over and over the details of life with her beloved Hugh.

     It had been Ronnie who stepped in and insisted they make a new start together in the house they’d inherited, back in Trundle. The decision had been wise. Marie’s depression lifted as she renewed her friendships from the past. Kitty Playfair, her best friend from schooldays, offered her work in a little gift and tea shop in town. Doing up the house took up the sisters’ spare time. They never talked about their past lives as women who’d known intimacy and loved deeply. Work schedules, the garden and discussions on colour, texture and design held at bay the forlorn neatness of separate rooms and single beds.

 

Marie read the council letter and forgot about it.  Ronnie wrote an efficient reply, objecting to a modern house in the midst of heritage architecture. They heard no more. In September, the disruption began. It wasn’t so bad for Marie, who was away during the daytime.  Ronnie worked shifts and bore the full brunt of the noise.  All through spring she endured grinding, clanking, revving, roaring. Delivery trucks potholed the road and churned up grass verges. All through summer and autumn she put up with hammering, shouting, talkback radio.  Hills of metal and mounds of wet cement spilled onto the footpath. Concrete blocks, bricks and tiles defaced the old street’s charm. Finally the new house, in all its looming ostentation, was built. There it was, and nothing could take it away. A high front wall broken by an ironwork gate was erected. For a full day, men unloaded a removal van. The new neighbours, their vehicles and animals moved in. The nightmare at least was at an end.

     So Ronnie had thought. But there was the laryngeal rooster and the tethered dog. Barking and anguished howls kept her awake after night duty. The rooster started up at dawn.

     ‘Very soon I’ll go mad,’ said Ronnie.

Marie was dashing off to work. She just smiled, that vague, infuriating smile of inaction. ‘We could go over and see them,’ she suggested. ‘I’m sure they don’t realise you work shifts. I’m late, must fly. Leave my dishes, I’ll do them later.’

     With a wave and a slam of the door she was gone. Ronnie followed the progress of her old car as it took off, jerking and backfiring, in a haze of smoke. She went to get a sleeping pill from the medicine cabinet, whose silvered mirror reflected a haggard face with a complexion like screwed-up brown paper. Her head was throbbing. She opted for paracetamol and, pressing a cool washer to her forehead, went back to the untidy kitchen. She dumped Marie’s dishes in the sink, put the kettle on to boil and stood staring out at the long back yard with its sprawling lawn and old established trees¾the magnolia and the huge camphor laurel down by the back fence.

     The garden had been let go for years. Ronnie had worked furiously there in her spare time, uncovering archways and rockeries where ferns ran riot. Marie’s style of gardening was just another of their differences. She dabbled with herbs and cottage plants, was mad on old roses.  She’d drift among her plants, a mangled sun hat pulled over her faded curls, looking as absorbed as the blonde child she’d once been, arranging a dolls’ tea party on the childhood lawn. She hummed her little tune, sniffed here and fiddled there, gathered petals to make pot pourri. Marie, the elf, the innocent; subject for a painter’s eye. Woman in a Rose Garden. 

     Who’d want to paint me? Ronnie wondered. I’m just the jealous Ugly Sister.

Funny, she did most of the work yet it was Marie who earned the compliments. Nobody admired Ronnie’s asters or dahlias. No, they exclaimed over Marie’s lavender, her hanging baskets, her heat-struck roses that unfurled and collapsed like time-lapse photographs. Her flowers just seeded, popped up anywhere. Ronnie’s had a regimented look.

 

The side gate clicked and a man walked past the window. Ronnie recognised the Indian from the house next door. She’d made no attempt to meet the new people.

     If there was going to be trouble, and Ronnie was ready to go to the council about that pest of a dog, she didn’t want the complaint softened by spurious gestures of friendship. But the last thing she needed now was a confrontation. The headache was building. She yanked at the belt of her yellow chenille dressing gown as he knocked. The light struck like a dagger. She gave an involuntary frown and shielded her eyes as the visitor introduced himself.

     ‘Good morning. I am Mr Lal.’ He smiled. ‘Your neighbour’, he added, as Ronnie was silent. ‘We recently moved in. My wife and family and myself.’

     ‘And your dog. And your rooster.’

     ‘Ah, Bimbo! Yes. That is one reason I have come to see you. That is about the fence. Also to speak about the tree down there.’ Mr Lal waved towards the boundary with his free hand. In the other he carried a glass jar of sweets which he thrust towards Ronnie as though offering a bone to an aggressive puppy. ‘These are jelabis. My wife has made them for you.’

     ‘I don’t eat sweets. My sister will like them. What do you mean…the fence and the tree?’

      ‘We are keeping poor Bimbo tethered because that side fence is full of holes. But he is barking.’

     ‘I’ve noticed.’

     ‘Yes. The noise is irritating. A good high Colorbond fence along there will fix the problem. Of course as neighbours we pay half each - agreed? And then there is the tree.’

     ‘What tree?’

     ‘It overhangs and it is making quite a mess. My poor wife, who is not well, is sweeping, sweeping. The gutters will be full of leaves, the drains will block. In this case, I am willing to pay for the removal of the branches. Of course there may be tip fees. We can negotiate on that?’

      ‘You have the nerve to tell me you want to cut my tree down?’

 The small and dapper man brushed back a lock of silvering hair.

     ‘That is correct. It is creating a problem.’

     ‘Mr Lal, you are the problem. I am a shift worker. I’ve had to put up with your noise for nearly a year now. I thought it was over when you moved in. It’s now ten times worse than before, thanks to Bimbo who I have frequently felt like shooting. I think your rooster should be strangled. I don’t like Colorbond. I don’t intend to pay for an eyesore. And if you attempt to cut off even a twig of that wonderful tree I will go straight to council and report you for defacing heritage property. I have a terrible headache and I’m going to bed. Good morning.’

     She firmly closed the door. The Indian pursed his lips, then walked thoughtfully away. He was a landlord, well used to awkward exchanges. The matter at least had been raised. The dog heard him returning and began an ecstatic crescendo of barks.

     ‘Good boy, Bimbo.’ Mr Lal patted him. ‘Keep up the noise. We’ll soon have a nice strong fence, and then you can run free.’





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