She Sells Sunshine- Chapter 1 Book Excerpt
Posted on January 2, 2018
A little over two years I posted up the first chapter of my manuscript, She Sells Sunshine here on the blog. It was a little unorthodox, but I figured why not? At the time, I only had three chapters written and still didn’t know what actually happened in the story from there. In 2017 I finally finished the first draft, and then in the second draft, I cut over 12,000 words, and most of that was from the first three chapters. I really needed those chapters in order to know that I had a story, that I had a book in me, but I have been studying writing and literature at uni steadily since then, and I knew what should stay and what had to go. I am proud of how much work I have done, but there is so much still left to do. I am about ready to let the book go out to beta readers now.
Well, today is a big, deep breath day. Today it is 25 years since I saw my father and brother, Bob and Grant, drown in an irrigation channel in country Victoria. It is a hard anniversary that still leaves me breathless, this grief that I have carried with me since I was eighteen years old, just a girl, since they stopped breathing. She Sells Sunshine is a story about losses and how we live with them, and through them, and I thought it was fitting that today, I re-release my first chapter in its third draft form, unrecognisable as it is from the one that I published here in 2015. Actually I have changed the format so that there are no chapters, but here is the first bit of it. Because it is a part of the grief that I have carried for 25 years, and also part of the gratitude for having lived through that. It is writing that is filled with grief and hope, because those are two things that can go hand in hand.
Happy New Year, and thanks for reading x
She Sells Sunshine
Draft # 2
‘Come away, O human child!
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand, For the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand.’
The first book was small, the size of a paperback novel, the spine slightly cracked. Inscribed on the inside cover in my sister’s handwriting was a date, Wednesday, September 17, 1975.
The story began with a fluttering of eyelashes.
‘Mama?’ She murmured, her voice full of sleep.
‘Yes, my darling, wake up, wake up!’ Her mother sat on the bed beside Lucy, stroking her face, tracing the curve of her brow with two fingers, trailing them down by the temple and the silky cheek.
She smiled, breathing life into the whisper,
‘I love you, Lucy Ra Brown’.
Louder, brighter, her face alight in adoration,
‘I wondered, would you like to touch the colour yellow?’
‘Touch the colour yellow, Mama?’ piped the voice of her three year old.
‘Yes, I know a place that we can go. We can do it today; it will be magical, darling, you’ll see.’
She ran her hands through the little girl’s soft hair.
‘Come, I have pancakes and hot chocolate waiting in the kitchen, your favourites! But first, I need a cuddle.’
Lucy leaned into her, and planted a small kiss on her mother’s cheek.
They ate breakfast, and left the house, driving through the bustling streets, up past the sprawling cemetery and by the zoo, listening closely for the roaring of lions or bears, and then they headed west, away from the city. They meandered slowly for hours through twisting roads in the green patchwork countryside, until a flash of colour in the distance caught Lucy’s eye.
‘Mama, it’s the yellow!’ She squealed. Cresting a small rise in the road, a vision of gold appeared before them. It looked as though all of that colour had been tipped from the rainbow into the paddocks below. Lucy’s eyes widened, as she pointed ecstatically.
‘Mama, Mama, look! We found where the sunshine sleeps!’ She bounced up and down on the car seat, both of her hands pressed against the passenger side window. Her mother gazed across at her, and then spoke softly,
‘Shall we go and touch the flowers; touch the colour yellow? It will be like dancing in the middle of the sun.’
The books of Viv’s past, the classics and the poetry, the big hardcovers on art and flowers, which used to be contained within a couple of small bookshelves, these were gone. Instead, lining the shelves and girding the room were the spines of hundreds of cloth bound books. The bindings of them were many different shades of yellow. I stared unblinking at the spectacle of it. I recalled an article that I had read just a few weeks earlier about a seventeenth century Dutch manuscript that had been rediscovered in a French library. Loosely translated as A Guide to Colours for Water Colour Painting, the manuscript contained hand painted colour charts illustrating the subtly different shades that colours go when water is carefully added in delicate brush stroke gradations. The beautiful blocks of colour in the featured photos had seemed to swim gently on their thirsty pages, appearing fluid still, as though trying to flow free from the confines of paper, to leech out from the past and colour the present.
The old detective, Paul Asher had gone out to get us both some coffee as I sat and read that first book. Between the covers, Viv and Lucy slept within the yellow fields, toasting marshmallows by a fire nearby. I looked up as Paul returned. He handed me a paper cup bearing the flowered art of some, doubtlessly bearded stranger. Putting aside the book and peeling the lid off the coffee, I gratefully inhaled the aroma from the steam.
‘Thanks Paul, pity there’s nothing stronger to add to it.’ I smiled wryly at him, ‘so, how much of it have you read?’ He shrugged, clearing his throat.
‘I read the first three or four, and then I just picked some books randomly from the shelves and opened them in the middle. They seem to, uh.… travel further from the realms of sanity as they go on.’ He looked at me from under long lashed eyes, almost shyly and said, ‘I started to call them the books of sunshine, not very original I know, but I had to call them something.” He shrugged again, self-consciously. I nodded, smiling joylessly,
‘The books of sunshine… Yes, that seems fitting. It looks like Viv found a happy place. God knows, she needed one.’ We both shook our heads in silence, until Paul spoke,
‘She must have been writing them for years. I couldn’t guess when she began, except maybe that it must have been after Aaron left.’ He paused to glance at me through slightly narrowed eyes, making his wrinkles appear deeper than they were. ‘Did she never give you any clue? You never came back before now, did you?’
The nagging guilt surged to the surface as it had done again and again since I had had answered the call and learned of my sister’s death.
‘We wrote. We spoke, rarely, on the phone. She seemed as okay as you could hope to be, under the circumstances. Of course I didn’t ever think that she had gotten over Lucy’s disappearance, but this.’ I closed my eyes to block out the sight of the room for a moment, wishing that the books, but also their whole reason for being would disappear. ‘I never suspected anything like this’. I opened my eyes to the unchanged landscape of yellow, and swallowed dryly, ‘I couldn’t come back, you know. It’s not that I was heartless. You must have thought me so, I suppose a lot of people did, but Viv knew, I mean, she understood.’ I looked up at Asher, who shook his head sadly. I rambled on, ‘my son has autism, you know? Around the time that Lucy vanished, Stephen disappeared too, in a way. He was eighteen months old when he seemed to withdraw into himself. He stopped talking. He wouldn’t let us touch him.’ I looked at the policeman wearily, ‘It’s not terribly politically correct to say so now, but it took years for us to find a way back to him, years.’ I rested my forehead on my fingers, ashamed and self-conscious despite myself. ‘I know that it’s not the same, but I couldn’t leave him, and we couldn’t bring him to Australia. I didn’t know about any of this.’ Tears began to well and seep, falling onto the page below. I wondered if this yellow spined room of pages had grown inured to tears, over the course of time.
We lay on our backs in the grass, squinting up at the blue, our heads hanging dizzyingly over the cliffs edge, under the lowest horizontal wire of the fence. The surf crashed onto the rocks far below us. Viv lifted a slender arm to point out a ribbon of birds unfurling in the sky above. She said, like it was a fact that she knew something about,
‘It’s the ibis that do that.’ I pulled a face, nodding sagely, sniffing the air, as she expounded, ‘funny birds, ibis. Or are they ibi? I wonder where they’re flying to?’ I closed my eyes, seeing the warm red as the sunlight fell through my eyelids, straight onto my eyeballs.
‘Dunno, China, maybe?’ I felt dozy, with the smell of green all around, but Viv sat up all of a sudden, grabbing my hand. She stood, and pulled me reluctantly to my feet, beckoning me towards the barbed wire fence on the horizon, her face animated with an intrigue that I couldn’t begin to read. I frowned as she held the rusted wires apart for me to climb between, but bent down and clambered through anyway, whining,
‘Where are we going?’ I could see very well where we were going. My voice went high, ‘We’re not allowed over here, Dad’ll kill us.’ She offered up her continuing footsteps as reply.
We skirted by a track and across a paddock encrusted with black-hearted daisies, towards our destination. Before us was a shallow valley of long, green grass, in the middle of which stood a windmill and the ruined remains of an old house, the lone chimney standing sentinel. There, behind it was the abandoned caravan, nestled in beneath a great, gnarled peppercorn. The old wooden trailer, slightly warped on the sides, was painted a once shade of white. The wheels were flat, sunken into the dirt, planted there as inextricably as the tree. I swallowed nervously, and looked around furtively, to left and to right. The place was deserted; my heart thudded in my chest.
Viv turned to me, smiling triumphantly. Taking my hand again she set us off on a run through the long grass, until there was no space left between the caravan and us. Opening the flimsy little door, first she and then I stepped up inside the trailer and took in the dainty interior with surprise. It looked built for dolls. The sun streamed in through small paned windows onto the spotless wooden cupboards and drawers, which had been carefully painted in several shades of pastel colours. Pinned above the cupboards were dozens of photographs, postcards, little drawings and poems carefully inscribed in a girlish hand. A washstand with a Laminex cover stood to one side, and next to that a tiny cooktop, and a table with a gleaming black Singer sewing machine bolted into a panel in its surface. The sewing machine was embellished with red and yellow painted flowers, with a crank handle. Viv ran her hands over the metal, sighing
‘It doesn’t have a speck of dust on it, Cynthie! Isn’t it lovely! I wonder if it still works?’ I murmured a distracted reply from the back of the caravan. I had never seen anything like it in my life. I stroked the embroidered curtains admiringly and began opening cupboards, examining the delicate china and folded linen and lace within with growing wonder, musing,
‘Isn’t it funny that all of these things are in here, as though it’s just come back from a roving holiday?’ Viv smiled, running with it,
‘Maybe it carries ghosts on holidays, and nothing ever ages or wears.’ She waved her arms extravagantly in a feebly ghoulish impersonation. ‘Wooooooooooooh!’
Dropping her arms, she nodded at me, and winked.
’Check the meat safe Cynthie. What do you think ghosts eat when they’re on holiday?” I stuck my tongue out at her and proffered the tin of sardines that I found inside towards her. She rolled her eyes and cranked the handle of the sewing machine.
‘I wonder who sews? It surely isn’t Mr Wylie?’ She arched an eyebrow jauntily, ‘unless maybe he secretly comes in here at night and sews glamorous knickers and negligees for the lay-dee ghosts?’ I tittered at the thought, and tossed her an apple from my satchel.
‘We should make this our cubby.’ I pulled a book, red cloth bound, from my bag; it was Five Have a Wonderful Time.
‘You know, I think the Famous Five had a caravan adventure. I’m sure I’ve read that one.’
There was an unearthly roar from outside, followed by a series of thumps on the outside wall of the caravan, and then came the words,
‘You fucking little bitches! Get out of there! I’ll fucking kill you!’ The voice howled, fully ripe with violence. Wide-eyed, I grabbed Viv’s hand and began to sob. A hot spurt of wee trickled down between my legs as the door was flung open with such force that it should have ripped right from its hinges to fly across the paddock. The caravan shook as though an earthquake had struck, and the china still rattled on the shelves, as Viv screamed,
‘Run!’ Pulling me bodily behind her, she pushed past the hulking form of Mr Wylie with the force of her shoulder and the advantage of height from the step above, sending him crashing backwards into an old woodpile under the peppercorn. It was a truly terrifying miracle. I stole a glance back at him as we fled, and saw the rolling cascade of emotions that spilled forth from his face as he struggled to get up. I ran faster than I had thought possible, across the valley and up the hill, scrambling over the relative safety of the perimeter fence, and sprinting onwards to one of our hidey-holes, a dank out-building behind the milking shed.
‘Did he follow? Are we safe, Viv? Viv?’ My words a breathless, whispered sob, as I clung to her.
‘Be quiet Cynthie.’ She pressed her finger to my lips, spooning me on the damp concrete. We listened to the innocuous quiet flowing in from all directions, until we were breathing normally again, reassured that he was nowhere near.
I realised that I had left my satchel behind. I carried all of my most precious things inside it. At this precise moment these items were my Famous Five book, a lucky ladybird coin purse with three shiny coins inside, two aggie marbles, an autograph book, and my greatest, most furtive treasure, our mother, Lovely Christina May’s golden locket brooch. The brooch was oval shaped and domed, crimped delicately around the edges, with a glass back, in which a single golden curl lay nestled.
I had pocketed the locket during a nocturnal snooping foray into our father’s room months earlier. As he had worked his useless toil on his knees in the garden, I had opened drawers and peered inside cupboards and mysterious boxes, the contents of which had been not exactly mysterious to me, since I had secretly examined them many times before. The wedding brooch was my favourite. It lived within a twisted square of faded cerulean silk inside a grey card box, and underneath it was a photograph of the dear, departed Lovely Christina May herself. There were no other photographs of our mother that I had ever seen. In this one, she lay atop a fallen tree trunk, roots askew, in front of a lake filled with dying trees. Wearing a loose, soft floral frock, she smiled shyly up at the person taking the photo, and her hand reached outwards, as though imploring something of the unseen photographer. When I was smaller, I had liked to pretend that it was my own infant self that she had been reaching for, though she had left me here when I was a baby, had run off with Agnes Ellis, and had only come back when she was as good as dead already.
I did love that photo, but not as much as I loved the locket, with its smooth dome, and the curl within. We didn’t know anyone other than our mother who had had blonde curls. The one time that I had asked Clara about it, she had shaken her head and frowned before turning back to the stove, unforthcoming as anything. There were no photos of Agnes Ellis.
I considered the implications of losing all of my other treasures and decided that I could bear the loss, but the locket was another matter. Something of my dilemma was obviously writ upon my dirty face, though Viv mistook it for trauma. My sister kissed me on the cheek, performing her transformation yet again from playmate into surrogate mother, and said,
‘Don’t worry Cynthie. He was probably drunk. He won’t even remember that he saw us by the time he sleeps it off. He won’t tell Dad.’ She gave me a quick hug,
‘Don’t be scared.’ Tears rolled down my face, as I thought about the confession that I was going to have to spit out before we could devise a plan to get my satchel back from Mr Wylie’s caravan. Viv stroked my hair, mistaking my guilt for its opposite measure, and then teased me, pushing me gently away from her,
‘Poo, Cynthie, you smell like wee!’ I giggled, and followed her like a kitten, into the cool safety of the house.
‘So many people go mad, or take their own lives, when faced with something like the disappearance of a child, it breaks them.’ Asher said, weighing up a book in his hand.
‘Are we calling this madness then?’ I asked. He screwed his face up thoughtfully,
‘I’m not sure what we should call it, Cynthia. You tell me when you’ve finished reading.’ He waved the book gently at the air in front of me, ‘How much of it do you think you’ll read?’
‘Oh, as much as I can take, I suppose, there are so many. I’ll have to pack them up and ship them home, unless I want to stay here for,’ I looked at the shelves lining the room, ‘well, for longer than I had planned to stay.’ He tilted his head to one side and segued.
‘I suppose that you would be her next of kin? Do you know if she had a will? There are a lot of other things left to sort out here. How long will you be staying?’ Biting my bottom lip I answered,
‘God, I hadn’t even thought of that. I can’t think of anyone else that she would have named as next of kin, but we haven’t been in touch very much over the last few years. I’ll have to look through her things. Is it alright for me to take the keys from you, so I can come and go as I please?’
‘Of course.’ he pulled the keys from his pocket and dropped them onto the table. I paused, adding,
‘My ticket says that I’m here for ten days, but I can change it if I need to.’
‘Well, that keeps your options open. There’s a lot to take in. Do you want to be alone with it all? He leaned against the doors, looking as though he couldn’t wait to leave.
‘Shall I leave you here now?’ I did want to be alone, I realised.
‘Yes, yes please Paul. Thank you for your help. I’ll stay here and read a little more, I think.’
Paul shrugged himself back into his coat, looking around again,
‘Will you keep me in touch about the funeral arrangements? I’d like to pay my final respects to Vivian.’ I nodded.
‘Yes, I’ll let you know. I’m going there in the morning, to the funeral parlour, I mean.’
‘Good,’ he put a firm hand on my shoulder, ‘ is there anyone who can go with you tomorrow? Or I can come, if you need the support?’ I stared at him, jolted from my thoughts,
‘Oh, no, thank you, I’m all right. I’d rather do it alone’ I said, wondering if I would feel so brave when faced with the shrouded body of my sister. Was that how she would be? Shrouded in a shroud? Shrouded in secrets? The word swam into an absurdity that I could hardly pronounce in my head, and I pulled myself back into sense. The jet lag must have discombobulated me. I remembered to ask,
‘Paul, does Aaron know? ‘ He nodded.
‘I called him after I called you. He didn’t say much; it must have come as a shock. I don’t think that he and your sister had much to do with each other, after everything was settled.’ I shook my head, remembering Viv’s letters.
‘No, they had nothing to do with one another, to my knowledge. It’s sad, really. Did he ask to be informed about the funeral at least?’ Paul shifted uncomfortably.
‘He didn’t say much, but you know, it was a lot for him to take in.’ I didn’t think that it was so much to take in, the garden-variety death of an elderly woman, even if she was your ex-wife, it couldn’t have been much of a shock, surely, not after everything else.
‘Do you think that you would be able to pass his number onto me? You could just text it to me, if that’s all right?’ His hands were deep into his jacket pockets, making him look hunched over.
‘Yes, I’ll do it when I get home. Let me know if there’s anything at all that I can help you with,’ he nodded at me, ‘I’ll leave you to it then.’
I smiled at him and raised my hand to a half wave
‘Thank you, I appreciate it.’
He turned to go, when I remembered, and halted his departure with a final question,
‘Where did they find her…’ I paused for a breathless second,’ her body? You said that it was here, inside the house. Where, exactly?’ The question came as a surprise even to me, more so than the answer,
‘It was here, actually, in the lounge room.’ He gestured to where I sat ‘she was found on the floor at the foot of this chair.’
After he left, I walked back out through the double doors, deeper into the house, switching on lights as I went. The rest of the house looked normal enough. If anyone had have visited, they would not have noticed any obvious signs of obsession, just a common shabbiness not unusual in the houses of old people. I peeked into Viv’s bedroom. The bed was unmade. There was a book on the nightstand, and a half finished glass of water. In the big round art deco mirror attached to the low dressing table, I saw my brown haired old lady self reflected. There were dark smudges furrowed under my eyes. Seeing them there nudged the realisation of my fatigue into place, and I yawned into the glass. I picked up and put down each of the objects on top of the dressing table. The lack of things, rather than what sat there spoke most eloquently to me, there was no tray of favourite jewellery items, nor any lipsticks, perfumes or skincare bottles. A loosely knotted silk scarf and a hair clasp sat on one side, while a postcard image of a colourful Chagall painting was propped up against the other side and that was all, besides a fine layer of dust.
I walked into the next room, and saw that it must have been Lucy’s. That it was preserved, shrine-like didn’t surprise me; whoever believed that there was any chance of their child returning couldn’t pack up their things and put them away, even after forty years, could they? That task would be mine now. There were pictures of Ida Rentoul-Outhwaite’s faeries on the walls, like a little army of protective sprites watching over the white woven cane bed, with its teddy bears and dolls gathered on top of the lilac coverlet. I looked at the window above, pushing aside the faded curtains to scrutinise the latch, through which it had been surmised that my niece must have vanished, though there had never been any evidence, only theories. The windowpane looked innocent enough, with its flaking paint and dust. I sat on the bed and took up a patchwork doll with yellow hair and pink cheeks. Her woollen hair was matted; I stroked her velvet dress and tried hard to imagine a three-year-old girl sleeping with the dolly in her arms, slumbering there in peace. I stared hard at the framed picture of the happy blonde child on the bedside table, but I was unable to conjure any vision of her that lived outside of the frozen images captured in photos.
In the kitchen I made myself a pot of black tea and took a deep breath. I should have returned. Did no one know about this, was she so alone in the world? In her early letters she had written about the torture of leaving the house, when every small blond girl was her child, from behind, from a distance. I had known something of that grief myself, though I had never mentioned it to Viv. For the longest time I had also scanned the happy faces of small children, though in my case it had been dark haired little boys, wondering what our lives would have been if Stephen had been like them, happy, affectionate, unencumbered with fear. I couldn’t have returned. I don’t think that she really understood that. I picked up another of the books that I had brought with me from the lounge room; it was the yellow of the everlasting daisies from the bush at the edge of our childhood farm, Gorleston. I opened it at the beginning.
Peering out the windows of the plane just after dawn, Lucy could see the sky and clouds reflected in the many dams and ponds dotted below as they rose up high, above and away from the airport.
‘Mama, look, they’re just like hundreds of little mirrors for the sky to look into!’
Her mother smiled, stroking her hair, watching the mercurial surface of the little face as she peered out in wonder,
‘I see, my baby, how lucky the sky is to have such wondrous mirrors!’
‘How long until we get to London, Mama? Will it be before lunch, or will we get to eat in the clouds?’ Her eyes shone as brightly as any mirror for the sky.
‘Oh, we’ll be eating lunch in the aeroplane Lucy. I think we might be having a few meals up here before we get to London, darling. Actually, I’m pretty sure that I heard the stewardess say that there would be hamburgers and strawberry milkshakes for lunch, what do you think of that?’
Lucy jumped up and down in her seat before leaning back contentedly.
Ploughing through Viv’s blue ink, I travelled in time with them back to London. My tea grew cold as they hopped on and off red double decker buses, picnicking in little gardens, looking at mummies in the museum and feeding ducks and swans in English gardens. They had afternoon tea at The Ritz, and patted tigers at the zoo. They dressed in coats, scarves and matching red boots.
Then, one sunny autumn morning, they came to visit Stephen and I, turning up to surprise us, ringing the doorbell repeatedly until I answered, in a pretty green dress, and pink slippers with flowers on the toes.
In the book of sunshine, Lucy beamed up at me, her long blonde curls falling to and fro in front of her face,
‘Hello Aunty Cynthie! I’ve waited so long to meet you!’
Beckoning me down with her outstretched arms, she threw them around my neck.
‘Where’s my cousin? I’ve been longing to meet him!’
And stepping out from behind me, letting go of my dress, Stephen simply smiled in delight, as he saw her, and said, as if he was a different child altogether, one who talked and showed affection,
‘Hello Lucy!’ He cuddled her tightly, and as we looked fondly on, they wandered off through the house and into the garden hand in hand, while Viv and I stayed inside to catch up on the lost years between us.
Back in Northcote, I put my head down on my hands and cried.