Fiction - Winter 2024

The Dawn

By Nell Pierce | January 12, 2024
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1. THE DAWN

Helen always begins with the dawn.

At 5:30 a.m., clad in her terry-towel robe, Helen stands on her veranda and watches the light rise. Leaves define themselves from the shadows. The night mist over the lake starts to lift. She watches until, on the opposite bank, the lean trunks of the gum trees glow in the morning light.

The dawn is reliable. Without fail, every morning, it arrives. Helen thinks that when she was young, the dawn was faster, somehow. Easily missed. Now, the dawn is slow. Helen used to say that the dawn was for Geoffrey and his birds. But now it belongs to her.


2. KOOKABURRA

The kookaburra comes at seven. By now, Helen has moved indoors and is drinking her morning tea. She hears the bird laughing on the veranda. Geoffrey would have loved the kookaburra. For bird watchers, kookaburras are a dime a dozen. But Geoff wasn’t like other birders, who crossed off species upon encountering them, as if the natural world were a checklist to complete. Geoff’s was a world of chaotic abundance.

When she was a little girl, Helen and her mother had fed the kookaburra that visited their garden. Helen can picture her mother’s hand, a lump of pink mince balanced on her outstretched fingertips. She remembers the soft dampness of the meat on her own fingers, her mother touching her wrist and reminding her to hold steady, the sharp pang of awe that went through her as the bird darted its beak over her hand to take the meat, so close to the soft skin on the pads of her fingers.

When Helen shared this memory with Geoff, his face, as she spoke, became expressionless. This was a side of Geoff that Helen had come to know over the years. Before she’d finished the story, she’d already started bracing herself.

Geoff was silent for a while. “It’s very cruel, actually,” he said, at last, “to feed birds mincemeat.” His face was hardening. “It will catch in their beaks and rot. And then their children will die from brittle bones, from calcium deficiencies.” His voice had become tight.

“I don’t know why you always have to be like this,” Helen said. “You always get so angry about things that are so distant.”

“I’m not angry,” Geoff said. “I just think it’s important that you know.”

“The bird was healthy,” Helen said. “You weren’t there, but it kept coming back, year after year. It was fine.”

They’d gone on to have a big fight, and Helen had stormed out. This was how things usually went. She walked down the dirt road along the lake, fast at first, then a little slower, looking out at the water, which appeared between the trees, until she felt calm enough to go back to the house.

“Why did you get so angry?” Geoff asked, after they had hugged, as they always did.

When she didn’t immediately answer, Geoff carried on. “You’re too emotional,” he said, sounding a little smug, and it was an almost physical effort for Helen not to get worked up again. She couldn’t put it properly into words, but when they’d talked about the kookaburra, it had seemed like Geoff was trying to take something away from her, something precious of her mother’s essence that she’d never imagined she could lose.


Helen puts her teacup in the sink. There was a time when she wrote Tea on her list. She is trying different varieties. They are lined up in her pantry: Lady Grey, Irish Breakfast, Prince of Wales, Ceylon Orange Pekoe, Oolong, Jasmine Green, Rooibos Red, Chamomile, Peppermint. Marg, who is the authority on all things domestic, has just recommended Russian Caravan, which is what Helen tried today. Smoky, she thinks.

She goes out and stands for a while with the kookaburra. He has a mischievous tilt to his head and an innocent eye. The bird stands on the veranda railing, and Helen rests her elbows next to him and looks out over the lake. She put Geoffrey’s ashes in that water. All those hours just sitting out there, with him, when he was alive. That endless waiting. And his relentless optimism: “Just another 30 minutes.” Or, “We’ve got a couple hours left till the sun’s really gone down, dusk is the best time for fish, anyway.” And then, when everything had turned purple, even Geoffrey’s face now hard to make out in the dusk, the evening chill starting to pierce their jackets and get into the bones of their hands, just when she’d given up, frustrated that they’d wasted the whole day, when they could have been home hours ago, suddenly that swift tug: a fish! Now, standing with the bird and looking out over the water, Helen hears a splash as something breaks the surface of the lake.


3. PASTRY

The kookaburra stays for half an hour or so, and then Helen goes inside to get started on her pie. Flour, salt, butter, and ice water. She assembles the required equipment. Food processor, bowl, cup measurement, tablespoons, rubber spatula, and a knife. She gets the recipe from where she has it pinned to the fridge. Helen has never made a pie crust before, but Marg swears by this recipe. Marg is a solid and unsentimental Australian woman, with a sense of humor buried deep beneath her stern exterior. As far as Helen can see, Marg moves through the world with a great confidence and a commitment to those in her community in large part through serving them food. Helen has only recently herself, with Marg’s help, begun to find a productive pleasure in cooking. Chopping. Frying. Reducing. Holding the ingredients and the implements in her knobbled hands.

Like the dawn, food is something that has changed with Helen’s advancing age. When she was younger, she never had much time for cooking or eating out. If anything, Geoff was the one who’d loved to cook. He’d throw dinner parties and prepare extravagant dishes that only vaguely resembled their names, strange soups packed full of lobster chunks and interesting-looking mushrooms he saw at the market, or summer puddings, never quite as firm as he’d hoped, the interiors too liquid and yet the bread somehow a little dry and still white in spots, turned out like something from the set of a horror film, oozing their bright red interiors onto the plate. Helen handled the weekday family meals, and hers had been a kitchen of Deb Instant Potatoes and dinners you could eat in front of the TV. Helen had liked to tell herself it was practical. She had work to take care of. To think of the hours her peers had wasted at the stove. But there had been something moral about it too. After the war, Helen had gone to visit family in Amsterdam, and there was a baby born who was the tiniest Helen had ever seen. The mother told her how she’d had to eat tulip bulbs because there was nothing else. After that, it hadn’t felt right to fuss about food.

Helen begins adding the ingredients to the food processor. After consulting the recipe a few times, she begins to pulse everything together. The food processor is a Christmas gift from her son, Simon, and is therefore the most high-end model one can find and far more extravagant a machine than she needs. Simon, as far as Helen can see, hasn’t lived a day of hardship in his life. Helen thinks: Simon has no morals about food. In fact, it’s almost as though Simon thinks it’s wrong not to eat lavishly. As if Helen had somehow deprived him in his youth, when in truth he’d wanted for nothing. Simon lives down in Melbourne and is always out at some new restaurant, spending hundreds of dollars on a single meal. When he brings his little family up to Tathra to see Helen, none of the restaurants in town are up to scratch, not even the new Italian place that everyone says is as good as anything Melbourne or Sydney could offer up. Perhaps he inherited his interest in food from his father. Certainly it is not from her. Helen can still remember back when Simon was a little boy, the time when one of her students had thrown a pizza on her car, as a prank, and neither of them had even known what it was!

Helen takes the mixture out of the machine and begins sprinkling it with ice water. She has heard, on the radio, that there are restaurants now that serve tulip bulbs. Expensive restaurants with famous chefs. She should cook that one of these days, she thinks. Tulip bulb soup. Geoff would have been excited to try it. He would have researched its benefits. Geoff was always excited by things that might improve his health. Special orthopedic shoes, dietary supplements, new research about prolonging one’s life. Anything but heeding the doctor’s orders to cut back on drinking and fix up his diet. As if he could cheat death. Helen thinks: well, in the end, he’d hardly succeeded in that.


4. GEOFF’S PLUMS

When the pie crust is done, wrapped in plastic and stored away in the fridge, Helen goes down to Geoffrey’s fruit trees, which are still holding their own in the scrub. There are three types of fruit on Helen’s property. Down at the back of the house, there are two big lemon trees. Just by the veranda, there are three plums, Geoffrey’s pride and joy. And further out from the house, on the edge of the property, halfway down to the lake, there is a quince tree that Helen planted, at Geoffrey’s insistence, that only in the past few years has finally begun to bear fruit.

Helen goes first to Geoffrey’s plums. When they’d first moved out to the coast, back when Geoff was healthy, he’d delighted in the plum trees. He was always pruning back a branch, or tying another up with string. The actual fruit yield was very low, but to Geoffrey, it hardly seemed to matter. For him, it was more about loving the trees than enjoying the fruit. They took the few plums that they were granted and put them in bottles with gin for a cocktail that they would drink one day. Over the years, they made more and more bottles and lined them up in the pantry. They called the concoction Geoff’s Special.

Geoff had made it through more than a few Specials in his time. He was known for loving a drink. That had been part of the problem, Helen thinks. Not that he really drank in a problematic way. When Geoff drank, he was always charming, always still just in control, always a little contrite the next day. No, the problem was his enthusiasm. His appetite. Geoff had such hunger for everything. He wanted to have every experience. He treasured every friend, every bird, every plum. Each meal was a celebration. He had a copious body and a big ruddy face. He was tremendously generous. Geoff didn’t have time to waste on pointless exercise, running on a treadmill or in circles around the park.

Now, down at Geoff’s plum trees, Helen inspects the branches, testing their strength with an exploratory tug, deciding which ones should be amputated, and which ones are drooping somewhat, and could do with a truss. She has very little idea what plum trees need to thrive. But she suspects that Geoffrey hardly knew much more. She picks a few plums to take up to the house.

Next, Helen goes down to the quince. This takes a little skill, as the path through the bush is narrow and overgrown, and there are snakes and also large ants, and she has suffered a nasty ant bite before. When she gets to the quince tree, she goes to work removing five yellow quinces that have come ripe. She will ask Marg for a recipe for quinces. Maybe preserved quinces or a nice quince jam. Marg will know what’s best.

Last, Helen goes around to the lemon trees, which are always laden with fruit. Helen plucks a nice big bag full and takes her cargo up to the house. She thinks that Geoff would be proud of her if he could see her now.


5. POT PIE

Chicken breasts, butter, flour, onion, carrots, mushrooms, peas, garlic, parsley, stock, and cream. The pie is for a weekend fundraiser for Threatened Shorebird Recovery, with all proceeds going toward signage and fencing to protect the eggs of an endangered shoreline bird called the little tern.

When Helen first moved up the coast, she and Geoff had gone to a beach recovery for the little tern. Back then, Marg was the Threatened Shorebird Recovery Coordinator for the Far South Coast. At their first meeting, planning for a trip to Mogareeka, Helen and Geoffrey stayed behind afterward for a complimentary cup of coffee and bickie before driving home, and Geoffrey had told Marg the story of his meeting Helen in the hospital in London: “I was doing research at the hospital institute and one of the doctors said to me, ‘You’d better go over to the ward, there’s a young Australian girl lying in bed and I don’t think she knows a soul.’ And I went over, and there she was. Feverishly beautiful.” Geoffrey told his story to Marg and beamed with the memory of it.

“But … you’re not a doctor, are you, Geoffrey?” Marg had asked, tilting her head.

“No,” Geoff said. “Research.”

Marg nodded and blew on her tea. “I’m sure I would have remembered if you were a doctor too. My husband, John, locums across a number of the local clinics.”

“Oh no,” Geoff said. “I was veterinary, actually, but I spent some time in hospitals after the war.”

“Veterinary,” Marg said. “Did that help with treating Helen?”

“Oh absolutely,” Geoff said, “She’s always been built like a horse.”

In the car on the way home, Helen was very quiet.

“We were just joking,” Geoffrey said. “She’s just trying to be friendly.”

Well, Helen thought, that’s hardly an excuse for being rude.

So things hadn’t got off to a good start. Helen had always got the sense that Marg thought she and Geoffrey weren’t true supporters of the little tern, or any of the other threatened shoreline birds. They were newcomers. From the city. Careless interlopers. It seemed that Marg was always waiting for them to leave. “If you’re still with us next year …” Marg would say. Or, “I wouldn’t expect you to be able to come, but next month we’re going down to Mogareeka again …” And somehow the subtext seemed to pass right by Geoffrey, so it was Helen who made doubly sure that they remained committed to the shoreline birds, always returning Marg’s comments with a smile and an assurance that said, “What could be more important?”

The nadir of Helen’s relationship with Marg came on the third beach trip. They had volunteered to go out after heavy rains to help find little tern eggs at the Mogareeka colony, eggs that had been washed out of their nests in the flood. With the wind blowing the top layer of sand up into their faces, stinging the skin on their cheeks, the volunteers hunted along the shoreline for eggs, which they scooped up and returned to the nests among the dunes, to be warmed by the mother terns. Geoffrey was dithering around up by the dunes, looking lost. Helen thinks now: it was only a matter of time. Later, Geoff said that he’d been distracted by a white-bellied sea eagle flying low overheard. But Helen and Marg had not seen the eagle. They were walking up toward him, quite close, when a soft crackle had drawn their eyes downward, to look at Geoffrey’s hefty orthopedic sandal. As he lifted his foot, Marg let out a low moan. There lay the remnants of one precious, threatened, shorebird egg.

Geoffrey had been despondent for weeks. Revived only by the discovery, a month or so later, of a bower bird building its blue nest down by Helen’s quince.

Helen always got the sense that Marg thought she and Geoffrey weren’t true supporters of the little tern, or any of the other threatened shoreline birds. They were newcomers. From the city. Careless interlopers.

Helen adds the stock to the pot and stirs. Back when they first met, Marg had a kind of indefatigable air. When her husband, John—the famed local doctor—grew ill, Marg carried on as if everything were normal, producing beautifully baked goods and pots of steaming tea, filling in seamlessly when her husband fumbled for a word, completing his sentences for him, guiding him into a chair. It reminded Helen of the way mothers sometimes danced around their young children, cajoling and steering them, whisking temptation and danger out of the way.

They never spoke about what was happening with John. Why he’d stopped doing his locum work, or the time he was found, disoriented, at the local shops and had to be shepherded back home. And then there came a week, then two, when Marg was absent from the meetings for the shoreline birds. Geoffrey, of course, had barely noticed. But it had been obvious to Helen. And, if anything, she’d felt a pang of satisfaction. Relief. No judgment for them that day. Helen had thought of nasty, passive-aggressive things to say to Marg, along the lines of the comments Marg usually delivered to them: “We were sorry to miss you at the meeting last week, especially with all the progress we made …” Of course, when Helen discovered the reason for Marg’s absence, she felt remorse. But still, Helen and Geoffrey hadn’t gone to John’s memorial service, much less paid Marg a visit. And when Marg returned a month or two later, she seemed just as she had been before she’d left. And Helen hadn’t thought much more about it. Life had just gone on.


6. OYSTERS

Helen puts the plums in an old 4L ice-cream container and covers them with a tea towel. The lemons go in a bag. Car keys, wallet, sunglasses. She has everything she needs. She drives her dinged-up red car to the oyster shop, which is on a little cul-de-sac off the main street. She loves driving the main street, with its blustery view of the ocean. She makes the turn for the oyster shop just before the road pin-hooks and drops down to the cluster of seaside shops opposite the beach.

The oyster shop is run by the Warrens—Marg’s daughter, Anna, and Anna’s husband, Mark. Mark and Anna sell their oysters out of the front of their home. Helen parks in the street and walks up the front path, past a child’s plastic car and a large sagging trampoline.

Helen finds Mark at the counter, accompanied by his eldest daughter, whose name Helen has forgotten, but who is looking very beautiful these days. Helen unpacks the fruit she’s brought, setting out the plums as well as a nice big bag of lemons, which the Warrens will cut up and put on the trays with the oysters they sell. In return, Mark loads Helen up with empty containers for next week’s fruit and a few jars of oysters, which Helen will eat for breakfast on well-buttered slabs of bread.

Mark is almost always at the counter, often with one or another of his young daughters, and sometimes with Anna also on hand. Helen likes that they run the place as a family, with everyone pitching in. All hands on deck. It reminds her of when Simon was a boy and Geoffrey had taken him out boating. Helen made them a flag out of a pair of Geoff’s old underpants, and he strung it up on the prow. She shakes her head now, remembering it.

There were a few times, right at the beginning, when Helen included Simon on the list. But she knows now, that was a mistake. It’s not right to need your children in that way. And Simon is a good son, calling every week or so, visiting at the holidays, at least a few times a year.

The last visits had been for Geoff’s funeral and then a few weeks later when Simon had needed to go up to Sydney for some gallery business and called in on his way through. He’d made a big song and dance about the hole in the living room wall. Asking her if she was eating proper meals, and how many glasses of wine she was drinking each evening, and if she could always remember what had happened the night before.

“So what?” Helen wanted to say. So she’d had a little fall. It was no big deal. Simon was acting as if she couldn’t cope. Her husband had just died, for God’s sake. Why couldn’t Simon just leave her alone!

By the time Geoff got really sick, there had been three bottles left of his Special. That was maybe an indication of how serious things were. When he couldn’t even have a drink. And in those days and weeks after he died, Helen had a few Specials herself. She hadn’t meant to, but when the wine cask was empty, she’d find herself in the pantry, pulling out the cork. And then one evening when she was a few drinks deep, she’d lost her balance and toppled into the wall, which was only thin plasterboard, and had given way in a sort of oblong-shaped hole down near the arm of the couch. It was an eyesore, yes, but it wasn’t really a problem. It was just one of those things. What had originally been three bottles of Geoff’s Special dwindled down to one. Helen regrets that now. Those bottles had been something left of Geoffrey. She wants to know that she’ll always be able to have one more sip.


7. FLOWERS

Sprays of golden wattle, mottled gum leaves, bright bursts of waratah, soft red kangaroo paw, and heavy bottle brush. During the week, Helen collects flowers from her garden and, when the weather is right, lays them out on the veranda to dry. Once every few weeks, she takes them around to the hospital in the neighboring town, where the nurses display them on their desks. This was the hospital where Geoff went at the end. Drying the flowers was Helen’s idea. Helen thinks: there’s nothing more depressing than watching a flower wilt and die, and from a hospital bed no less. The dried flowers have a kind of hardy resilience to them. It’s an ongoing point of consternation with Marg, who can’t understand the appeal of dried flowers at all, and who cultivates an impractical garden full of roses and European plants that use too much water and have to be coaxed to bloom. Nevertheless, as Helen packs up the flowers for her delivery, she puts aside a few stems for Marg, to say thank you for the pie recipe, which went better than she’d hoped.

Helen had been surprised to find Marg at her front door that morning late last year. Helen had shuffled out in her dressing gown, and when she opened the front door, Marg stepped over the threshold without waiting to be invited. In her hands was a large Tupperware housing a pie. She surveyed the house with cool, appraising eyes.

“Well,” she said, finally. “You’ve made quite the mess.”

Nearly three months had passed since Geoffrey had died. And though Helen had been coping fine really, all things considered, she did have to concede that the house looked a little worse for wear. The flowers from the funeral had dropped their petals and were giving off a bit of a stagnant smell. All the food Helen had received had been eaten, and some of the packaging seemed to have collected at the end of the kitchen table, where she’d been meaning to wash and return it or throw it away.

“I did think you weren’t likely to be a domestic sort,” Marg said.

Helen felt herself bristle. “Not lately,” she said.

Marg nodded. “We’ve missed you, at the meetings.”

Helen felt her shoulders soften just a little. “Yes, well, I’ve never really been much for cleaning, if I’m being honest with you,” she said.

“I thought you might enjoy this,” Marg said, lifting the pie. “I’m a bit famous for my chicken and leek.”

“Well,” Helen said, “I suppose you’d better come in for a coffee.”

“I’m not really a coffee drinker,” Marg said, “but I’ll have tea.”

It turned out there was a dismal lack of tea in Helen’s cupboard, so Marg settled for a cup of water. As she sipped, she walked down to the end of the table, where the food containers had gathered. “Would you mind if I just tidied up a few things? I think I can see one of my Tupperwares buried down there.”

Helen felt flustered. “I just haven’t quite got around to those ones yet,” she said.

“Of course, of course,” Marg said. She was already starting to sort through the stack. “No need for you to watch over my shoulder,” she added. “Why don’t you go and rest while I give these a quick rinse.”

So Helen took a shower while Marg busied herself in the kitchen. When she came out, she lay down on her bed and listened to the sounds of Marg’s industry. Another person in the house again. Clanking and rustling. She must have dozed off. When she came to, the sun was low, and Marg was in the bedroom, everything straightened and smelling fresh.

“Well, the house is looking much better,” Marg said, when she saw Helen had opened her eyes. Helen sat up, and Marg came over.

“Do you mind?” Marg asked, indicating the duvet, and when Helen shook her head, Marg sat beside her on the covers.

Beyond the windows, the tall gums glowed orange and pink in the sunset, as if aflame. Marg had opened the windows, and a breeze was coming in. Down by the lake, Helen could see two figures, one big and one small. A boy and his father, taking out their fishing boat and loading it onto their trailer. And a third shape. A dog, bounding around. The boy’s high voice echoed over the water. Now the sound of the dog in the water, splashing. The boy’s voice calling out again. Now, quiet. The car engine starting up.

“The house wasn’t too bad really,” Marg said, after a while. “You should have seen my place after John passed. I think I shocked the children. Anne accused me of letting myself go.”

Helen tried to chuckle, but it came out a sigh. “Children,” she said.

“No empathy,” Marg said.

Helen looked at Marg, sitting on the bed, and thought she looked tired. She almost wanted to reach out and pat her hand. “Thanks,” she said, instead. “I’ve been meaning to clean the table.”

“It was more than the table that needed cleaning,” Marg said. “But really, I was happy to do it.”

Helen made a sound in her throat.

“No, really,” Marg said. “It does me good to have something to do.” She turned and looked at Helen then. “That’s what worked for me, when my John died. Every evening, I’d write down all the things I had to do tomorrow. I’d put it on my bedside table, so it would be the first thing I’d look at the next day. Just four or five points. Three, even, will do. Just a few reasons to get out of bed.”

“Who told you to do that?” Helen asked.

“Nobody,” Marg said. “I had to come up with it myself.” And then, before Helen could say anything further, Marg made her get up, so she could change the sheets.


8. MARG

Marg lives in a modern house with a view out over the ocean. Her European plants are lushly green and offer passing pink and purple flowers and then look dead when winter comes. Helen thinks: these are high-maintenance plants. Even the lawn. That uncanny expanse of green. Everyone else’s lawn is yellow and brown and dry. Helen drives slowly up Marg’s drive as it curves gently on the ascent.

Marg is expecting her and comes out onto the porch as Helen parks and gets out of the car.

“Hello,” Marg says.

“Hello,” Helen calls back, reaching into the car. “I brought you something.”

“Those awful dried flowers?” Marg says. “Old age is already depressing enough.”

“Not flowers,” Helen says, “Just a few stems and some pie.”

“Well,” Marg says. “I suppose you’d better come in.”

Helen follows Marg into the house. “I’m going to make quince preserves,” she says, “from my tree. I’ve been meaning to ask you for a good recipe.”

Overhead, in Marg’s fig tree, a kookaburra has perched, looking out over the ocean. It tilts its head and lets out a long, echoing laugh.


9. THE LIST

When Helen gets home that evening, it is almost dark. She carefully climbs the stairs to the house, making sure of each foot before she lifts the lower one, and holding onto the railing. She thinks: the precautions of old age.

When she gets inside, she turns on the lights, and the place feels very cozy, everything outside disappearing into the night. Helen goes to the card table in her bedroom and takes out her notebook and pen. The old list goes into a little box by the lamp. Time, now, to make the new day’s list.

#1 THE DAWN, she writes.

#2 QUINCE PRESERVES. She has the recipe from Marg, and she takes it out of her pocket and smooths open the creases against the tabletop.

#3 FLOWERS. There is some nice kangaroo paw that has come up near the plums.

She thinks of how, at the beginning, the important thing was to read the list each morning. To look at each item as another reason to get out of bed. Now, it’s the warm feeling she gets each evening as she thinks of each item, and carefully adds it to her list. In the morning, she only glances at it very quickly. She’s already eager to get out of bed and into the new day.

It was lists that initially drew Helen to birding. She loved the little notebooks the birders all carried around in their pockets. The care they took in identifying each new species, recording the location and the habitat, if the bird was nesting or fishing or if it was old or young. Geoff scoffed at the lists, but not Helen. She understood that the lists were an act of love. And her lists are full of love too. Simple joys. The delight of waking up, of doing things, of hours and days that are hers alone. The lists are a reminder of how much there still is to treasure, proof of her ability to carry on.

Maybe that’s why she keeps her lists in a box, and never throws them away. Maybe one day, after she is gone, Simon will come to the house and open the little box by the lamp and discover them. He’ll see marg and oysters from the warrens. apple cake. chicken pie. mop floors. rooibos tea. kookaburra. quince tree. scour oven. flowers for the hospital. ocean swim. little tern. fish at bermagui. tend to geoffrey’s plums. headland walk. visit jetty. Right at the bottom he’ll find her early lists. shower. brush hair. tea with marg. And, always, the dawn.

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