By Jessie ColeNon-fiction Text Publishing
Staying: A Memoir
As children, Jessie Cole and her brother Jake ran wild, free to roam their rainforest home as they pleased. They had each other, parents who adored them, and two mysterious, beautiful, clever half-sisters, Billie and Zoe, who came to visit every holidays. But when Jessie was on the cusp of adolescence, tragedy struck, and her happy, loving family fell apart.
This heartbreaking memoir asks what happens to those who are left behind when someone takes their own life. It’s about the importance of home, family and forgiveness – and finding peace in a place of pain.
Staying is Jessie Cole’s first non-fiction book, a meditative and lyrical rumination on grief, family, place and remembrance. Staying unfolds with a lilting rhythm, expertly capturing the cultural milieu of the early 1980s, when Cole led an unencumbered childhood in amongst a rainforest home – manoeuvring the dynamics of a blended family while navigating complex feelings of girlhood.
Foregrounded by a sense of loss from its very first pages, death is delivered to readers as it’s delivered to the loved ones within Cole’s book – matter-of-factly and out of nowhere, drawing out the inability of anyone to pre-empt it or attach meaning to it.
Cole writes into this messiness with a calmness and a clear-eyed voice, with an intent yet loving eye – watchful and observant to minute fluctuations that accompany the unravelling of her family idyll. Despite the heavy themes explored in Staying, there is a constant, underlying sense of wonder at the healing powers of nature, at the ‘sense of welcome in the rolling hills, the endless green expanse of the forest’.
Cole eschews cultural narratives around grief that compel us to move on, to forge ahead. In Staying, there is immense strength and power in stasis, a way to move forward while also moving backwards.
Two weeks after I started high school, a girl from down the road came over in the afternoon after school. Chatting, teasing and laughing, my friend and I played, until abruptly the girl grabbed my arm and came up close to my face, eyes serious and full.
‘Is there something wrong with your mum?’
‘No – what do you mean?’ I had barely noticed my mother’s slow wanderings about the house and garden.
‘She just seems really sad. Has something happened?’
The girl’s face was so close I could see the light speckling of freckles across her nose. Her long, straight hair swished over my arm.
‘She’s fine.’ I was confident. ‘She’s always like that.’
Later, the girl bragged at school that she was the first to know. ‘I even knew before her. My dad told me on the way home.’ When my friend had gone, our mother called us, Jake and me, into the lounge room. Afternoon light swung in through the long glass doors, reflecting off her face. The outside grass was lush and humming with crickets.
‘There’s something I have to tell you.’ Her face was stricken. I peeked at Jake, saying nothing. Sitting down on the couches, we watched her with startled eyes.
‘Zoe’s dead. She died yesterday, in Holland.’ Her voice was pained, but she didn’t cry. She looked at us – ten and twelve – half-grown like awkward, eager puppies.
Jake breathed out in a crumpled, broken laugh.
‘She’s not joking, Jake.’ My words were stern, though I had just stifled the same sound, a kind of disbelieving titter, within my own throat.
My mother reached out an arm towards my brother. I could feel my heart banging in my chest. Jumping up, face set, I ran. Into the unbroken green of our land, I ran. I could not cry – could not breathe – and finally, when I felt I might burst, I stopped and my breaths came in sucking gasps. My sister Zoe. Brown-bodied, light-eyed, splint-legged. Songs like swelling rivers. Eyes hard and cold.
‘Yes, I’ll play, but only if you – Jessie – only if you say, Zoe is the bestest, most beautiful, kindest, most generous, most amazing sister in the whole world and I love her more than anyone else.’
But I wouldn’t. I just wouldn’t. Zoe. Taut-bellied, with a birthmark the shape of Australia on the back of her thigh. All those random moles and freckles. Her skin glimmering beneath my palms. The squeeze of her hand on my shoulder. Her sideways, slant-eyed smile.
‘Thanks, Jess – you’re a real star.’
I hid then, behind a steep hillock, in the raised roots of a gigantic camphor tree, and waited for someone to come find me.
And my mother came, tentatively calling my name. ‘Jess, Jessie …’
‘Mum,’ I whispered, my voice dry and scratchy.
‘Come on, Jess. You can’t stay here.’ My mother was still tear- less, her skin stretched tight across her face like a drum.
‘How did you find out?’
‘The police in Holland rang the police in town, and they rang Dad at work.’
‘Yeah. He thought it was one of you kids. A bus crash or something. You know there’s been those school bus crashes lately?’
‘Yeah, on the news … Mum, what happened, a car accident? In Holland?’
My mother looked down at the grass. Her hair fell forward and she slowly reached up and tucked it behind her ear.
‘She killed herself.’
Tilting her face up, my mother’s gaze was unwavering. ‘Suicide. The police said suicide.’
‘No.’ It was impossible. ‘Why would she do that? Zoe?’
Shaking her head softly, my mother looked towards the house. ‘We’d better go back, Jess. Your dad’s coming home from work early and he won’t know where we are.’
My father met us in the garden. His skin was grey and he shuffled from foot to foot as though the ground was hot. He wedged his hands roughly into his pockets and then pulled them out again, pushing off his glasses and pressing his fingers against his eyes, his mouth gaping open, a sagging dark hole. Unspeaking, he leaned towards us with outstretched arms, catching us against him in a fierce embrace. My father sobbed, with gasping, tight, dry breaths, and my mother and I stood unmoving in his arms. A wide space seemed to open up between us all and my father squeezed us tighter to try and fill the gap.
Finally my father let go and we drifted, wordless, back inside. In the lounge roomw we saw Jake was gone. With barely suppressed terror my parents called to him: ‘Jake! Jake! Jakey! Where are you,Jakey?’
‘Fuck, Janny, where is he? Jake!’
I could see my mother might cry, so deep grew the two lines between her brows.
Immobilised, I watched my parents search the house, all the island rooms. They ran out into the garden calling for him, their voices muffled, wet. ‘Jake? Jakey?’
‘He’s scared, Janny. He’s scared to come out.’
My mother found him hiding deep under his bed, tucked up in the corner with the spider webs and dust. Rolling Jake out, my parents brushed him off and scolded him softly through their tears.
‘You scared us, darling.’
‘Jake, mate, we didn’t know where you were.’
As he tried to slip quietly from my parents’ grasp, Jake’s frightened eyes entreated me, but I could say nothing and do nothing to keep the world at bay. Peering at the ground, away from my family’s shock-filled faces, I watched as the heavy tears rolling down my cheeks dropped from my chin and bounced at my feet. My tears seemed to crack the secret roundness that had encircled us – Jake and me – leaving us broken like two halves that could not make a whole.
The Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards shortlist