Claire’s been hiding in her room so long she’s become sick of the unbearably familiar four walls.
Restless, but unwilling to go anywhere other than class or work this week, she has stayed put. Better for everyone, she guesses. Tonight she doesn’t have to work, and Nina called in sick for both her shifts so far. In fact, she wonders if Nina will go on calling in sick until she goes home to her family next week. Claire wouldn’t be surprised.
She walks through the empty house, aimless and bored and sick of her own noisy, self-hating thoughts. Her parents have both been working late, as usual, and Cam has reinstalled himself at Elana’s permanently, so she’s spent most of the week alone.
In fact, Claire feels as though she’s spent way more time in this house alone than she ever has in company. Especially during the last five or six years when her parents clearly decided she and Cam were grown enough to fend for themselves. At that point, her parents busied themselves with their climb up the career ladder. They stopped hiring the babysitters and housekeepers who populated their early years, leaving Claire and Cam on their own. It was a new form of benign neglect—they were given pocket money, a schedule, a strict set of rules, and a healthy fear of what would happen if they did something wrong.
Mostly, that suited Claire just fine. But sometimes she craved her parents’ time and attention. And she knows Cam did too. Instead, they had each other. When her mother was around, it took Claire roughly twenty-four hours to wish her mother would go for another promotion and leave her the hell alone. Then, of course, she regretted ever wishing for maternal attention.
Claire stops in the kitchen, opens the fridge door, and inspects the contents even though she isn’t hungry. She closes it just as quickly and wanders into the living room. Tempted by the golden, late-afternoon sun, she opens the sliding door and steps onto the terrace. She hears the sound of hammering that means her father is home.
She walks slowly down the long path to where a tall, wooden building sits, nestled among apple and pear trees in the backyard. She stops at the door and peers inside. Her father has changed from his suit into old jeans and a sweater. He fixes yet another handmade shelf to the wall. She parks herself on the step, pulls her knees to her chest, and rests her chin in her hand as she stares out into the yard. Some of the fruit trees are still blossoming, and Claire smells the softest hint of their pinkish, light perfume. Spring has sprung in the yard.
The hammering stops. First, she hears footsteps and the quiet grizzle of his voice and then feels the hand placed momentarily on her head.
He leans on the doorpost next to her, his gaze turned outward as he appraises his yard. His kingdom.
She feels as though she hasn’t seen him for an age. He’s always so late after work, later than her mother sometimes. Other nights, he’s in bed by the time Claire comes home. And now that the afternoons are getting longer, when he does get home at a reasonable time, he goes straight to the yard. Or to his shed, where he tinkers at his eternal project.
“Still not finished with this dump?” She peers around his legs into the dimly lit shed.
He chuckles, because they both know it’s not a dump. It’s beautiful. Probably the nicest shed anyone ever built in Melbourne. From the outside, it doesn’t look like much, just a regular wooden structure, but the inside is a work of wooden art, all burnished timber, high ceilings, and polished floors. He even installed high-up windows near the attic-style roof to let in the light. Claire used to tease him about them. What, so the tools can enjoy the morning sun?
He’s been working on it for years, but he’ll probably never be finished. It doesn’t matter, though. She knows it’s less about the end product and more about the process. This planning, this methodical building, this constant attention to detail, they are his version of meditation, of finding daily peace in the quiet act of doing.
It’s the same at the holiday house. When they were younger, she and Cam rejoined the army of kids who hung out there, and her mother joined her own group of lake mothers who collectively socialised and neglected over never-ending bottles of sauvignon blanc. Her father, however, contented himself with working all day at his various projects. He built their elaborate and much envied cubby house and later the bunkhouse for when the number of visitors stretched the house to its limits. After that, it was the coveted sleeping porch at the side of the house, the holy grail of spots on the hottest of summer nights. The projects were endless, and he doted on each of them until they were done.
Claire knows these projects are testament to what makes him a good lawyer. Strategy and method, they are his normal. They are his strength. Unlike her mother, for whom negotiating the levels of power is the product of her intense social masterminding, he quietly slides upward, hefted by his ability to strategise and manage big cases that succeed on the underpinnings of his quiet and calculated planning.
She also knows that this shed is his sanctuary from the world. And sometimes, she feels the urge to come and borrow his peace for a minute.
“What have you been up to?”
“Nothing much. Studying for exams,” she lies, staring out into the wealth of bloom and leaf. “The garden looks great.”
“There’ll be plenty of fruit. Your apple bloomed magnificently this year.”
She looks at the apple tree, still shedding the last of its pink blossoms. She watches petals freefall as the tree wavers in the light breeze. It is her tree. When she was six, her father told her she could choose any kind of fruit tree she wanted to plant. He was slowly turning their neat, shrubbed, uniform suburban backyard into some sort of crazy market garden. He built vegetable patches along the back fence and filled in the lawn—except for one section near the terrace, which her mother demanded he keep “normal” for guests—with an army of fruit trees of every variety that could survive the Melbourne weather.
At six, Claire had no imagination for trees and no real heed for the possibilities of nature, so she picked the only fruit she liked at the time, an apple. Claire still remembers the lush smell of the garden centre, the feel of her father’s hand with his wiry, hairy fingers clutching hers. And she remembers the feel of damp soil that passed through her hands as she sprinkled it around the young tree, pressed it around its narrow little trunk, and tucked it into its new home by the garden path.
For the next year, she helped tend it, which largely meant watering it every so often. But its inherent hardiness and independence meant it needed nothing else from her. She forgot about it for a couple of years until her father took her out into the yard and pointed out the tiny fruit finally beginning to grow. They clung to the spindly branches of the adolescent tree. That’s when it became part of the fabric of their backyard for her, a ceaseless, predictable cycle of leaf, bloom, fruit, and fall—a cycle that he watches and nurtures, but she only notices every now and again when she takes a moment out here or when he brings her the first ripe apple from the tree.
“You know, I’m thinking of getting rid of the pool at the end of summer,” he says—a reminder to her that he’s still standing behind her, also enmeshed in contemplation of the backyard.
“Why?” The small aboveground pool next to the terrace is still covered from the winter.
“Because you kids don’t use it anymore. And your mother would like a paved area on the lawn for entertaining.”
Claire rolls her eyes. Of course it’s what her mother wants.
“So, anyway, how are you? You doing okay?”
“I’m fine.” She knows he’s asking because she hardly ever comes out here and he’s curious about this unprompted visit. She tells him she’s fine because, even though her mother’s the one who puts the effort into making Claire fine, she most wants to be okay for her father. Since she started uni and supposedly became an adult, he’s the one who stands back and lets her do what she wants, however unexpected. Unless she threatens a too radical departure from the Pearson normality, he keeps quiet and lets her go, something she appreciates more all the time.
But she feels his quiet concern sometimes. And he looks at her, too, with a fondness tempered by a mild helplessness. It’s as if he’s not quite sure what to do with this alien person he’s raised, someone so unsure of who she wants to be. Because of the quiet but unflinching way he cares and never questions, she doesn’t want him to worry about her.
“Don’t study too hard.” He leaves her to it and goes back to his work.
She sits a while longer and listens to the sounds of him working as she absorbs the last warmth of the sun. The phone in her pocket beeps, and she pulls it out. It’s Mia.
Hey, are you working tonight? Robbie and I were thinking of coming in for a drink after work…
She feels a flash of guilt because she didn’t answer Mia’s last message earlier in the week. Even though she’d like to see her, Claire is glad she isn’t working because she’s nervous to see Robbie. What if Nina told him about what happened? That would be completely embarrassing. She quickly types a response. Not tonight. See you soon, though.
“Hey, Dad, I’m going inside.” She dusts down the back of her jeans as she gets up from the step and waits a beat for his response. But he doesn’t hear her over the sound of his hammering.