By Georgia BlainFiction Scribe Publications
Between a Wolf and a Dog
Ester is a family therapist with an appointment book that catalogues the anxieties of the middle class: loneliness, relationships, death. She spends her days helping others find happiness, but her own family relationships are tense and frayed. Estranged from both her sister, April, and her ex-husband, Lawrence, Ester wants to fall in love again. Meanwhile, April is struggling through her own directionless life; Lawrence’s reckless past decisions are catching up with him; and Ester and April's mother, Hilary, is about to make a choice that will profoundly affect them all.
Taking place largely over one rainy day in Sydney, and rendered with the evocative and powerful prose Blain is known for, Between a Wolf and a Dog is a celebration of the best in all of us – our capacity to live in the face of ordinary sorrows, and to draw strength from the transformative power of art. Ultimately, it is a joyous tribute to the beauty of being alive.
Georgia Blain’s remarkable novel Between a Wolf and a Dog takes its title from a French term for dusk, ‘the hour between wolf and dog’, where the grey light makes it difficult to clearly distinguish what lies ahead. Blain’s novel is a study of the messy in-between bits of life – times when it’s difficult to distinguish right from wrong, friend from foe.
The novel follows a family of four characters over the course of one rainy day in Sydney, with flashbacks to significant events. Sensitive in parts, joyous in others, Blain masterfully captures the intricacies of familiar relationships, and offers considerable insight into issues of forgiveness and mortality. Blain’s characters come first; her pace is gentle yet suspenseful, her prose clean and delicate, never heavy-handed. This compelling story resonates with the reader on a deeply personal level – exquisite and unsettling.
This is the dream: Lawrence is alone. It is not quite dark, between a wolf and a dog; a mauve light is deepening like a bruise, the cold breath of the wind a low moan in his ear.
He stands on what feels to be the highest point in a landscape that he knows to be desolate and barren, although it is too dark for him to see. Hills roll away, dry grasses beaten low by the weather; pocked boulders, dappled with creeping lichen, appear to tumble, heavy, down a steep slope.
Is it breathing he hears? Or just the night sigh?
Fear tickles the back of his neck, the hairs on his wrists bristle, his eyes widen, and the darkness is thickening.
He should not be here.
There must be somewhere he can go, a light in the distance.
Perhaps if he calls out … and he opens his mouth, but his throat tightens.
It is like an elastic band pulling in, a peg clip on his vocal cords.
He tries to speak, but his mouth is drying, the palate hard like bone, the trachea clenching, and he cannot utter a sound.
In his dream, he panics, and he tries to wake himself, aware at some level that this is only a dream, but he can’t rise from the depths; there is a weight keeping him down, the pressure — like an ocean — above him. He needs to breathe.
Calm, he tells himself. It will be all right. Calm. And so the clamp loosens, his mouth opening, his throat a little less clenched as he finally speaks.
Unable to utter more than that, a single word whispered in all that emptiness, as around him the wind builds, and he feels the cold, sour breath of night, and the rain like sharp pins slashing the clamminess of his skin.
Sitting up in the darkness, Lawrence lets his eyes adjust. He has left the window open, and it is raining, damp and miserable, seeping down from the sill onto his bed. He reaches over to close it, the swollen wood bringing the sash to a standstill, so he has to jiggle the frame, slot it into a new groove before it will slide all the way down.
He hates that dream. It leaves a rusted aftertaste, ferrous flakes in his mouth, and a panic like poison — the hollowness of sadness and despair coursing through him as he lies back down in the bed. He hasn’t looked at the clock — years of insomnia have taught him the foolishness of doing so — but the sound of the first suburban trains lets him know that he is at least on the right side of the darkest hour for those who don’t sleep. Outside the rain continues, softer now that the window is shut, and he closes his eyes, hoping he at least will find a sense of calm before morning comes, although he knows that this is unlikely. He has had that dream before, and it always leaves him, mind awake, trying to rid himself of the last vestiges of that man: a man alone, exposed, and afraid; a man he knows more intimately than he would like.
All through the night it continues to rain; heavy, relentless, ‘malevolent’ a client had called it yesterday, and Ester had looked at him across the space of her consulting room and smiled. ‘That’s a strong word to choose,’ she’d commented.
She wakes at four to a brief pause in the downpour, a stillness that descends over her house, and she sits up, her feet on the cold, bare boards, reluctant to leave the warmth of her bed, but also disturbed by the quiet. Outside, a car turns off the street, the hiss of its tyres on the wet road soft in the silence. The branches of the she-oak scrape on the roof, a familiar groan of bark on tin, and then the rain begins again, not gently but with full force, torrential sheets of water running down the windows, pouring out of the downpipes and into the streets, rising and falling with each obstacle in their path, gushing up around the wheels of parked cars, bubbling over the rubbish blocking the drains, scooping up the soil and mud and leaves and sticks and plastic, all in a rush, until they are dumped against the next obstacle, the flow continuing, unstoppable, on and on to the lowest point.
Sitting on the edge of her bed, Ester listens.
As a child, rain had made her anxious. She remembers nights by the river, the room where they slept leaking like a sieve. Whenever it rained, Maurie would put all the pots and pans across the floors, rolled towels under windows and doors, the constant drip, drip, drip of water on metal keeping her awake, along with her worry that the pots would fill and overflow, or the towels would fail to stem the leak between sill and frame, and everything would just float away.
Rain still makes her unsettled.
In the darkness of the corridor, the dog lies pressed against her door. He began sleeping there shortly after she moved to this house, disturbed by the change and wanting to be as close to her as possible. She lifts his body with her foot, the warmth of his coat soft against the cold of her skin, and he jumps, nails scratching on the bare boards, only to stand just in front of her so that she walks into him again, blind in the dark.
‘Otto.’ She doesn’t want to wake the girls. Clicking her fingers and pointing towards the kitchen, she tries to direct him to where his mat is, never used, but he ignores her.
‘Move.’ She knees him again, and he shifts slightly before sighing heavily and slumping to the ground once more, eyes open and glittering white-blue in the darkness, making sure she doesn’t leave his sight.
The door to the girls’ room always creaks when she opens it. She turns the handle slowly, attuned to the shift, and when that doesn’t work, she twists it as quickly as she can. It doesn’t really matter. Once they are asleep, they don’t wake.
The streetlight shines in through a chink in the blind. Lara hated this when they first moved here. She couldn’t go to sleep with any light on, insisting that the room was totally dark.
‘I can’t fix it,’ Ester had told her. ‘The light is there and I can’t make it go away.’
She remembers. She had sat on the edge of Lara’s bed and she had wept. In all the preceding months, she had gone into the bathroom to cry, or into her bedroom, once even hiding in the pantry cupboard, while they ran around the house calling for her, over and over again. But that night, she had just given in.
‘You’re going to have to live with it,’ she’d said.
Lara hadn’t uttered a word, not calling out as she usually did, not getting up and rubbing her eyes as she complained she couldn’t sleep. She had stayed where she was. And she had never mentioned the light again.
Standing at the entrance to their room, Ester sees the slope and curve of their bodies, the slow rise of their chests, the golden tangle of their hair, the loose abandonment of a limb, the soft pad of Catherine’s heel, and the smooth muscle of Lara’s calf. They always end up in the same bed, curled into each other; two beautiful bodies, alike to everyone but their family.
They are hers, and they are not hers. They are growing to become unique, distinct beings who will lead lives of their own in places of their own.
She loves them.
And the warmth of that is a blessing in the night, at an hour when no one should be awake. Ester breathes it in, a great draught of it, full and rich, while outside the rain continues unceasing: silver sheets sluicing down, the trees and shrubs soaking and bedraggled, the earth sodden, puddles overflowing, torrents coursing onwards, as the darkness slowly softens with the dawn.
The Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards shortlist