They went straight on to the first chapter, which Roy set in Tasmania.
‘“The Prison Island?”’ Sylvie squawked, glancing at the title on the topmost page. ‘That’s no way to write about your childhood playground. Isn’t Tasmania an Antipodean paradise?’
‘Read on,’ Roy said, grimly. ‘This part is set a hundred years ago, when the island was a gaol, and a brutal one at that.’
‘Goody. It sounds every bit as gruesome as the rest.’
They settled into their work, Roy scratching away at his pad, Sylvie clattering away at the keyboard, mouthing words and murmuring as she went.
‘Another comely Irskine – Lydia, this time – “her body as of a shape and loveliness as delicate as her features” . . . Another horrible husband, a slave-driving estate-owner, awful, who treats his wife abominably . . . Another temptation, too – a convict now, not a king. Bit of a comedown, what, although Ardner sounds as dishy as Mercury. “Strong, swelling shoulders,” curvaceous loins, and the rest. Goodness, he does sound heavenly.’
Roy discovered he was stimulated by the chatter; turning to the page, the words began to flow faster. The writer came out of the closet in his head and took charge, while the nervous wreck sat back and smoked. As the days passed the words mounted up down the page, like bricks laid in reverse, creating a castle that began in the clouds and cascaded to the ground, a beanstalk growing back to the seed.
‘Oooh,’ Sylvie said, one afternoon. ‘I see what you mean. Lydia’s bored and lonely, being so far away from her people. It doesn’t help that her husband is an old fogey, and – how does he put it? – that his fire is all burnt out. No wonder she feels stuck on the island, even though she’s supposedly free.’
‘The convict stain,’ Roy intoned, ‘taints all our souls.’
A week later, he greeted her at the door with a grin.
‘You look happier than I feel,’ she said, striding in with a shiver. ‘London will be getting a reputation at this rate. For being cold and miserable.’
‘Too late,’ he said. ‘No, there’s good news.’
Sylvie put the case on the table. ‘The mine owners have given in? The silver mirror has crack’d from side to side?’
‘The colonies have been reprieved. Australia is a slave state no more, symbolically speaking.’
‘That’s a lot of alliteration. To what do we owe this honour?’
‘The latest Balfour Declaration. Signed yesterday, at the imperial conference.’
‘Blimey,’ she said, taking off her coat and hat. ‘Not one ball but four. That is a coming-out season for your country. What does it all mean?’
Roy’s shoulders slumped. ‘Everything – and nothing. It’s an admission of guilt, at least, by the government.’
‘That is good news then. Shall we work or celebrate? Or is work a celebration?’
She gave him her usual lopsided smile.
Roy felt a surge of emotion. ‘The damage is already done,’ he said, hoarsely. ‘The ship is sunk.’
‘In that case we’ll work. The band must play on, Bridgey old boy.’
As she set up the typewriter, Roy snuck a brandy.
‘Drums,’ she said, an hour or two later. ‘There’s a theme here.’
Roy looked up. He’d been doodling – a caricature, he realised, of his father.
‘Drums? Surely not. I hate the beastly things. I’d gladly skin them all alive.’
‘Très drôle,’ Sylvie said. ‘But wrong.’
She shuffled through a pile of papers, singling out a page.
‘Listen to this. “She had a sense of terror on her – increasing terror of Ardner; she was troubled by indefinite forebodings; and from the sounding of the surf. She thought of muffled drums.” And here, later, in the bit I’ve just done. “Again she heard the breaking of the sea; she had again the fancy of muffled drums, tragic drums, drums for the dead.” You see?’
Roy sat and tried to see, but it wasn’t a seeing thing. It was something that blossomed in the blackness of his mind, in the blackness of night. The boom of a bass drum beating at his ears; the boom of guns, echoing down through time, as an island was made safe for the punishment of people.
And another memory.
‘I remember it from my childhood,’ he said. ‘Holidays spent on my grandparents’ farm. Dreamy days filled with food and fables, with games in the garden, and adventures in the bush. Marred only by the pounding of the sea, the same sea that brought white people to the place. Pioneers, we call them, blameless one and all.’
‘That’s here too,’ Sylvie said, shuffling again. ‘“She saw the little, tree-topped isles as green gems on the lapis-lazuli of the land-locked water stretching to the silver whiteness of the sand of the Seven Mile Beach.”’
‘Beautiful,’ Roy murmured. ‘But with a boom like seven hundred beating drums.’
‘And lapis-lazuli? It’s like something out of Treasure Island. Something for boys.’
‘I was a boy. A young boy, not an old one.’
It was a long section but they stuck at it, missing one day because Roy had a head cold. That afternoon dragged on interminably, making him realise how dependent he had become on their sessions. He still went to the club in the mornings, to breakfast and read the papers, but if anything he was more insular than ever. His spirits rose the moment he thought about Sylvie. In a strange way, the idea and image of her had begun to inhabit him. And yet she was brash and brazen in ways Hilda wasn’t, painting her lips and nails, baring her limbs, challenging his authority in playful yet seemingly purposeful ways.