By Stephanie BishopFiction Hachette
The Other Side of the World
Cambridge, 1963. Charlotte is struggling. With motherhood, with the changes marriage and parenthood bring, with losing the time and energy to paint. Her husband, Henry, wants things to be as they were and can’t face the thought of another English winter.
A brochure slipped through the letterbox slot brings him the answer: ‘Australia brings out the best in you.’ Before she has a chance to realise what it will mean, Charlotte is travelling to the other side of the world.
Arriving in Perth, the southern sun shines a harsh light and slowly reveals that this new life is not the answer either was hoping for. Charlotte is left wondering if there is anywhere she belongs and how far she’ll go to find her way home …
Stephanie Bishop’s The Other Side of the World is luminous, lit up by Bishop’s gorgeous, visceral descriptions as it follows Henry and Charlotte’s migration from England to Australia in the 1960s, on the promise of new beginnings. Bishop maps their unsteady acclimatisation, and her sun-bleached skies bear witness to the incremental ructions in their marriage as Charlotte struggles with homesickness and wrangling two small children alone. Questions of race and prejudice are also sensitively explored: Indian-born, British-raised Henry is left to ponder, 'what it would be like to belong somewhere and never doubt it. To not be constantly pestered by the knowledge of your own foreignness.' Bishop excels at depicting the minutiae of the family’s tightly circumscribed world in this finely detailed study of longing and the conflict between loyalty, desire and ambition.
She would have walked, only Henry said no. The footpaths are treacherous, he told her, and I don’t want you slipping and injuring yourself when I’ve just found you alive and well. The snow has come early and the cold is fierce. No, he said, I’ll come and collect you and bring you back here, to the hotel near the river. There wasn’t room for them all in his bedsit and Charlotte didn’t want the college knowing of their situation, so Henry had booked rooms at the Royal. He’ll be driving past the river now, she thinks, checking her watch. Her husband, ever punctual. The water a dark stripe in the corner of his vision. He’ll see it as he drives straight ahead, lose it as he turns left then right. On the river there will be rowboats – the faint sound of blades smacking and cutting at the water, the creak of hull and oarlock, the call of boys.
Charlotte opens the window and pushes her face into the cold. Outside, the college grounds are empty – the air filled with the whirr of falling snow. There are no bird calls, no lawnmowers, no hum of the London train, no movement other than this drift of white. The wind gusts towards her and she steps back into the dim room. Although there is not much more to pack, her stamina has vanished. There is a glass paperweight from the market, a small blue vase for the flowers she gathered on her tramps through the fields, the photograph she stole from Henry. But the effort required to wrap these last things and place them in the box seems monumental. She crouches on the ground, tugs a sheet of newspaper from the pile and stuffs it into the vase. She slips the photograph of the children into her handbag. Altogether there is less than she expected, just a couple of boxes and a suitcase. Henry will be surprised.
Another gust blows snow into the room. Charlotte gets up to close the window and sees his car parked beside the hedge. How had she not heard his arrival? The purr of the engine and the slow crunch of wheels over gravel and ice. She had kept the window open so that she might catch the sound of these things. She didn’t expect this. He will be here any moment now. She had meant to watch for the car and use those last minutes to compose herself. To be ready; to know what to say. She starts to sweat. There is the smell of it. This frightened animal called woman. Her hands shake as she lifts the small round mirror to her face and tries to fix a smudge of blue eye shadow. She rubs a hand against the centre of her chest and walks a nervous circle, to the door and back, her heart skittering beneath her palm. Should she let him in, and invite him to sit down, or should she wait by the window and call out – It’s open – when he knocks? Then they’ll walk towards each other. Or will he find her with her back to him; she’ll turn, and each will pause, unsure of who should make the first approach. He’ll brush the snow from his coat, he’ll take off his hat. And the children? Where are they? The children.
Cambridge, October 1963-December 1964
She clambers the fence and strides out into the field. It is autumn, cold – an arctic wind blows and her coat billows behind her. Rain falls in a sudden shower, but she pushes on into the green distance and further, towards the blue rise where the woodlands begin. It is like wading into the sea, she thinks. The wind against her, the grass up at her knees. They go on for miles, these grazing lands, and the further she walks the smaller she becomes, until she is just a thin black mark against the fen. Henry must be wondering where she’s got to – she could never be lost here, but she could disappear, she thinks, as she passes the slow cows chewing frozen ground, steam rising from their flanks. She passes the pond, covered now with silvery ice, the frosted hedge of brambles. Above her the sky is mottled brown and grey and the air smells of dung and grass. The leaves on the hawthorns are gone; those on the horse chestnuts are still browning and falling. She is on her way back from the doctor’s, so it must be a Monday, or perhaps Tuesday. Dr Pascoe only sees patients Mondays and Tuesdays. How can I lose track of time like this? she thinks. Dates do not seem to matter; one day feels the same as the next. But they do matter, the doctor assured her, they do indeed. ‘You must be mistaken,’ she said. ‘You cannot be right.’
She startles at the sound of a crow. The certainty – impossible – that the call is that of her child. The sound coming towards her as she moves further away, her own voice drifting back: Lucie? Is that you? No, of course not, it’s just a bird, the baby asleep at home.
Charlotte watches the crow swoop down, coast on a low current of air and land further out. She can count on one hand the times she’s left the house alone, without the baby. And every time it is the same – how she startles at every long, high note, thinking it is Lucie.
She feels the strange phantom sense of the child’s weight against her hip, the loose stone of her head lolling, asleep, on her shoulder. The crow calls again – she sees it call, the open black beak, the silky, lifted throat – and her skin prickles. A gust of wind disperses the cry; the sound rises up then floats down over the field, coming from everywhere and nowhere all at once. Her arms suddenly ache to hold her daughter. She looks back but can’t see her bike. Where did she leave it? Perhaps it is over that way, behind the hedges. But the field appears the same from every direction. She finds her way to the fence and begins to trace a path back along the perimeter. Above her the clouds ripple and bend, moving herd-like towards a distant corner of the sky. Her stomach heaves. She stops, holds on to the fence, leans down towards the grass and vomits a string of yellow bile. She stays that way a moment, hunched over, gripping the wood and dry-retching, then wipes her mouth with the sleeve of her coat and rests her head against the railing. ‘It’ll pass soon,’ the doctor said. ‘These things always do.’ She weeps then, at the memory of his words. ‘All for a good cause now,’ he’d said. ‘All for a good cause.’
She remembers last night’s dream, that the two of them, she and Henry, were looking at rainbow-coloured paintings in Vienna. They stood before a very bright canvas, and Henry said to her, ‘It is the colour of your soul forming.’ He looked at the painting as he spoke, and she knew he was not talking about her, about her soul, but about the soul of the child now growing inside her, the child she has not yet told him about, although it is his.
She pushes back out into the field, walking faster now, puffing a little, her breath white in the thin, cold air. Icy grass crunches underfoot, her toes numb in her wet shoes. She was supposed to ride into town and ride home again, not stop like this and disappear into the wilds. If only the doctor had given her a script and sent her home. Just something to settle her. Then a cup of tea and a lie-down. Further ahead a flock of birds lifts up from the grass, sways in the sky a moment, then swerves back down to earth. She doesn’t know what she’ll say to Henry. She doesn’t want to have to tell him.
The Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards shortlist