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book cover for Moments of Meaning Moments Of Meaning
a novel by Charlotte Vale-Allen

The only time the shaking stopped was when she was in the pool. So she spent as many hours a day floating in the heated water as she could. Numb. Being turned a dark brown by the sun without any of her usual efforts. No suntan oil. No after-sun lotions. Nothing at all. Just out there, floating around the hotel pool from ten in the morning until after four in the afternoon. Turning brown.

Away from the water, in her room, or walking along the streets, the shaking would take her over. Internally. Aside from an almost unnoticeable tremor in her hands, nothing showed on the outside. A fact that seemed extraordinary to her. That she could be shaking herself to death on the inside and look unchanged on the outside. Amazing. Somehow, she thought, it would have been infinitely more appropriate if she'd looked altogether the way she felt.

Every so often, that last scene would replay in her mind and she'd stare at it, her breathing stopping almost altogether as she watched it run through. And at the end, she'd be gasping for air - as she had been in reality - and running backward; running wildly as a dreadful animal whine came pushing up out of her throat.

She tried not to think about it.

And kept remembering the story about the camel lady. Not all of it. Just the essence. Because, at first, she'd found it very difficult to tune in to what the woman was telling her. So she'd missed parts here and there.

A woman alone. With camels. Walking her way across the Nullarbor.

She'd taken off her dark glasses in order to see the land below more clearly. And, without thinking, had turned stiffly to ask the woman in the seat beside her, "What is that, do you know?"

The woman had stood halfway up out of her seat, leaned past Lyle - her perfume enveloping Lyle very pleasantly for several seconds - then had sat down, smiling, saying, "We're passing over the Nullarbor."

She'd said it: Nulla-bore.

And then she'd started telling Lyle about the camel lady. Lyle had begun listening after a few moments, captivated by the story. And by the idea of being alone. With camels. Crossing the Nullarbor. She visualized the woman. Grey-haired, perhaps. And strong. With a very straight spine, fiercely erect posture. And eyes much-lined at the corners from squinting directly into the sun.

There'd been a part having to do with wild camels coming out to attack the tamed ones. And Lyle had once more had to break her silence to ask, "Wild camels?"

The woman, obviously gratified to have an interested audience, had explained, "Camels were brought here around the middle eighteen hundreds, or so. Somewhere along about then. Beasts of burden and so forth."

Lyle had said, "Oh," and nodded and returned her eyes to the sights below. Staring down through the cloudless sky at the convoluted land-swirls and strange, beautiful patterns of the earth below. Its odd colorless colors and mesmerizing rises and falls. What looked to be roads, every now and then, that came from the horizon and ended nowhere. Lines intersecting the vast emptiness. Seeing all this while the woman's voice had continued telling about the camel lady. Lyle had absorbed it, awed by the idea of all that strength and independence. Going alone across the Nullarbor, accompanied only by camels. Walking. She desperately envied the camel lady, wishing she had that sort of adventurous, determined spirit. Seeing a projected image of herself as someone strong, and erect, and clear-eyed, squinting defiantly into the sun.

She hadn't any idea at all what she'd been doing. Running. Waving down a taxi and gasping out, "The airport. Take me to the airport."

"Tullamarine?" the driver had asked.

"Yes. There. Take me there."

One first-class seat available on a flight departing for Perth. Already boarded, with eight minutes to take-off. She'd paid in cash for a one-way ticket and run. Boarded the plane and sunk into her window seat. Aware then for the first time of the shaking. In her throat and stomach. Feeling as if the skin had dissolved from her bones and she was a chattering, rattling skeleton with dark glasses. Seat-belted into place. Until the plane had been well and truly airborne. And was following the coastline on a perfect, cloudless afternoon. The view compelling and starkly beautiful.

She'd refused the offers of drinks and food, requesting only a glass of water so that she might belatedly take her Dramamine tablet; preferring to sit, gazing down at the land below. As if some message might be written down there for her. Laid out with branches and rocks. Perhaps with a smoking fire to draw her attention. The shaking had diminished some after the first forty minutes. She'd closed her eyes, saw it all happening again, and the shaking overtook her full force. She'd opened her eyes, looked out. Then asked the woman next to her, "What is that?"

She tried very hard not to think about any of the things that had happened during her stay in Melbourne. Because as soon as she started remembering, her chest shrank, her lungs seemed to deflate. She'd made such an effort to adapt to Ian's ways, to understand him, the country, the people. Loving the country, the people - for the most part. Which was why, she couldn't bring herself to leave now. And so was staying on, on the very edge - both of the country and of her decision to return home.

At moments, she felt oddly peaceful when she thought of where she was. Insulated somehow by the exceptional beauty of Perth, its orderly layout, its mix of architectural styles, the broad avenue of palms running along the riverfront. And the black swans on the river. They fascinated her.

She'd taken a walk in the late afternoon of her fourth day at the hotel. Turning left out of the Sheraton, toward the river. So pleased by the sight of the palms. And astonished by the swans. She'd stood at the water's edge and half a dozen of the larger birds had come waddling up out of the water anticipating being fed. And, aloud, she'd apologized, saying, "I'm sorry. I don't have anything to give you." She was disappointed when, as if understanding her words, the birds had clumsily turned away, making their way back to the water. She promised herself she'd come again the next morning with bread or rolls from her room-service breakfast.

Then, rather like an echo, she'd heard herself talking aloud to the swans and had laughed. The laughter alien, odd; creating an instant feeling of guilt. She couldn't, shouldn't laugh. Should she? No, no. It's all right, she'd told herself. Good to laugh. All right to laugh. She'd remained at the water's edge for half an hour longer before making her way back to the hotel, shaping as she went her plan to return to feed the swans on the following morning. A small, but definite destination. One decision made.

And, thereafter, had begun each of her days in this city by making her way down to the river to feed the swans, quietly reassured to see others on a like pilgrimage. Tour buses, too, unloading people whose necks were heavily hung round with cameras and whose hands stretched eagerly toward the birds.

She felt mentally and emotionally paralyzed, unable to do more than pick at the room-service meals she routinely ordered; floating away her days in the hotel pool, making her early-morning trips to the river with her paper napkin filled with toast or rolls. Whatever identity she'd once had was gone. Destroyed along with everything else. Ian ... She couldn't, wouldn't. Fought off the trembling, told herself to remain calm. Get up, go down, walk out, feed the swans.

Into her second week. She stood watching the swans retreat from her, asking herself, Why don't I go home? I ought to go home. There's no point to my staying here. Why don't I go?

Because Perth is beautiful, is clean, has me quietly caught. And I'm not yet ready to relinquish so much beauty. Summer here and I like the idea that I'm so close to the Indian Ocean, to the river, the palm trees, the swans. I'm not prepared to return home, face winter, the cold. Or all those too-long hours of flying needed to get me home. Not ready. I'm not.

She dusted the crumbs from her hands, lit a cigarette and stood trying to think, watching a group of people from one of the tour buses feeding the swans, taking photographs. Finding it almost impossible to think. Feeling ghostlike. As if Ian had succeeded in destroying her, too. No! She shook her head to clear it and drew hard on her cigarette. Thinking of the camel lady. Thinking, I have no capacity for heroics. Or for small assertive, independent acts. Or for making decisions. I don't know what to do.

His morning stop by the river marked the start of his workday. He'd drive into the city, park in the layby at the shore and watch the swans being fed. Enjoy a quiet cigarette, then start up the drive to the office. He'd started the routine without plan. It had simply evolved after that first morning when he'd been utterly unable to face going directly into his workday after the horrendous night with Mag. He'd needed something - anything - to remove him from reality for just a few minutes. And the river, the swans had offered that. Kept on offering that. So he stopped for ten or fifteen minutes each weekday morning.

He could get his thinking done, seemed able to see his life with more clarity at these times. Trying to be grateful - working hard at that - for all he did have. Trying not to bemoan the failures. Spilt milk. What was the point of going on and on about that? None. Just as there was no more point to asking why things had to be the way they were and wondering if they'd change. Nothing would change. Time had spelled that out to him all too clearly. So, get on with it, his common sense had told him some time back. Get on with it.

He was aware of her the first time. Just aware. His eyes passing over her. Another someone - no doubt a tourist - there to admire the swans. He gave her no thought, smoked out his cigarette and looked at her a second time as he drove past. Nothing very much registered.

The next morning, she was there again. Unusual. The tourists didn't too often come back a second time. So he took a closer look. She was wearing the same dress she'd worn the day before. Navy blue. A little shorter than the popular look just then. The girls wearing those long, flowered skirts and skimpy skivvies on top, with those godawful wedgies. This woman was wearing shoes. Ordinary shoes with heels perhaps two inches high. The girls thinking those wedgies, those thick soles, made them look good. They didn't. Shoes looked good. He looked again at her feet and ankles, mentally congratulating her on resisting fashion.

Midday, he went over to Miss Maud's on Murray Street to get a sandwich from the takeaway, then walked back up Murray and he found himself thinking about that woman. It occurred to him he hadn't looked at her face. Which was too bad. He really should've taken note of her face. Now, he'd probably never be able to remember anything more of her than her shoes. And he had to smile to himself, thinking that. Unlikely he'd remember her in any event.

But she was there again on the third morning. Standing surrounded by the swans, tearing up pieces of bread and dropping them to the ground. He watched, noting how absorbed she seemed to be in this act. As if it was something very serious. Which struck him as a little odd. He continued to watch, this time seeing her whole. Not just a pair of shoes.

The same navy dress, same shoes. A tallish woman, very tan. With long bare arms and legs. Slim, long-bodied. With shoulder-length dark blonde hair. And an attitude of great concentration. He couldn't quite make out her features and wished he was closer, just in order to satisfy his curiosity, to know what she looked like.

When she'd finished with the bread, she backed away and went to sit down on a bench nearby, opening the large, red canvas bag she carried. She lit a cigarette, set the bag down on the bench beside her and crossed her legs. Gazing straight ahead. She seemed unaware she was being watched, so he continued to indulge himself, studying her; noticing she had quite graceful hands. They moved smoothly. The cigarette going to and from her mouth until it was smoked down. Then she dropped it, stepped on it, retrieved the stub end and set it down on the bench beside her. Crossed slender legs once more.

With a start, he looked at his watch, saw the time and started up the car. He'd overstayed. And pulled out, taking one last look to see she was lighting another cigarette.

During the course of the day he was surprised to find himself thinking about her, wondering if she'd be there the next morning. Wondering, too, if she'd be wearing that same dress. Thinking about the aura of frailty about her, despite her dark tan. Something vulnerable about those bare arms, the graceful hand gestures, the seriousness with which she fed her crusts of bread to the swans.

Years ago, Mag had had an aura about her, too. A brightness, gaiety. I haven't changed all that much, he thought. Leastwise not for the bad. To the good, I'd say. But Mag. Is it chemical? he wondered, considering articles he'd read, things he'd heard. Or is it something I could never give you, Mag? Thank God for the kids. And the life wasn't bad. Not really.

He couldn't have said what prompted him to do it. Curiosity. Or loneliness. He wasn't ashamed to admit to being lonely. It might have been that. In any case, the next morning he climbed out of the car and went to sit beside her on the bench. Sat down and lit a cigarette, then looked at his feet. Feeling foolish. What was he thinking of? Never mind, he told himself, looking over at those swans swimming nearer in to the shore. Anyone might sit on a bench, share a bench with a stranger. He glanced sidelong at her, then away. She was younger than he'd thought. Not young. Well, not old. Just not a kid. Thirty-five or so.

She wasn't aware of him for several moments. She was thinking about it again: that moment coming through the door. The shaking started up and she opened her bag for a cigarette. Got one out and groped inside the bag for her lighter. A hand appeared in the air in front of her. A hand with a cigarette lighter. She looked at the hand, held the cigarette to her mouth. A flame appeared. She drew in. The hand went away. She said, "Thank you," to the air where the hand had been. Felt herself going through that door again and her throat seized, closed; the shaking again in control of her.

"Good start to the day," he said, returning the lighter to his pocket, "coming down to see the swans."

She nodded, trying to get past the blockage in her throat.

"I've been coming every morning for years now."

She nodded again, venturing to turn her head somewhat in order to see him, attach the voice to a face. A middle-aged man with a pleasant face, fairish hair. A rather battered look to his face. But so pleasant. An overweight, middle-aged man with very blue eyes. He smiled at her.


"Yes." Her voice was no good, hadn't been since it happened. The rattling inside, as if her chest was filled with empty tin cans and every breath she took sent them crashing against each other noisily.

"On holiday?" he asked lightly.

She shook her head. "No." Then thought about it, changed her mind and said, "Yes."

His eyes registered a degree of confusion. She saw it and thought again how pleasant-looking he was. Comfortable-looking. He made her feel the way she had the first time she'd seen her house. Knowing at once she'd buy it because it offered the potential of comfort.

"Are you from here?" she asked, wondering what had happened to his nose. It looked as if it had once upon a time been broken.

"Lived here all my life." He smiled at her.

"It's beautiful," she said soberly, eyes on the river. "Very beautiful. What I've seen of it." For no valid reason, she added, "I'm supposed to be in Melbourne."

"Well," he said companionably, "you're better off here. It's better all round." And was rewarded with a slight smile. Her head turned and the corners of her mouth lifted.

"You're the first person I've spoken to here," she said. "Except for the hotel people. And they don't count. I did speak to a woman on the plane. As we were passing over the Nullarbor." Saying it the way the woman on the plane had. Feeling stupidly proud of her retentiveness. "She told me about the camel lady."

He nodded, listening.

"You've heard of the camel lady?" she asked.

He nodded again.

"You're the only two people I've talked to," she said, looking at the cigarette between her fingers. "That sounds strange." Her voice lost most of its volume.

"Strange country for you," he said, understanding. She was shy. Terribly shy. "It's not always that easy," he went on, "talking to people."

She looked at him, visually agreeing.

"Not something I do myself all that often," he added, "talking to people. New people."

"It's not the same as business," she said. "That isn't the same. Talking to people all day long. But you're not really talking. Oh, sometimes. But so rarely."

"What've you seen of the city?" he asked. "There's a lot to see."

"I've walked some."

"You need someone to take you around," he said, deciding he'd show her. He enjoyed showing off the city. "Would you like a bit of a tour?"

Perhaps, she thought, I should be afraid. But I'm not. Not at all afraid. Had Ian killed that, too?

She answered, "Yes," and sat waiting to hear what he'd say next.

"Jimmy Ballard," he introduced himself, reaching for his wallet and a card, presenting her with the card.

She accepted it, staring down, seeing the print but not reading the words.

"Lyle," she said. "My name is Lyle Maxwell."

"I knew a girl once named Lyle," he said easily.

It aroused her interest.

"Did you?"

"Journo. C grade. When I was with the paper. Years ago. Nice girl she was, Lyle."

"A journalist?"

"That's right." He smiled, He did have a nice smile. Small white teeth. "Second Lyle I've met."

"I've never met another," she said, wanting to reciprocate, return the smile but unable to. So many things she couldn't force herself to do. Smiling being one. "I was furious with my mother for naming me that. When I was young. Now, it's just a name."

"That's how it happens," he said, dropping his cigarette to the ground, grinding it carefully under his heel as she watched. "It all changes, getting older, seeing things differently."

She thought then about the flights. The one from New York to Los Angeles. Changing terminals, airlines. Boarding the second plane. Stopping first in Honolulu. Seeing the tourists in the airport and the miles of too-brightly-lit shops. Macadamia nuts crated, ready to be sent anywhere. Then reboarding the plane. She'd taken another Dramamine and dozed off. To land again at four a.m. in Pago Pago. Reeling off the plane, hearing the music. Seeing the troupe of natives singing and dancing. Beautiful smooth-looking faces, lovely music. The air soft. Palm fronds slapping together in the darkness. Moths death-dancing in the spotlights focused on the small stage area. She'd stood watching, listening; wanting to laugh and cry simultaneously. So touched. Wishing, as she did less and less each passing year, that she'd never surrendered her doubtful talents. There were so many shifting images here she might, some other time, have captured. So she'd stayed there, smiling, dim-eyed with fatigue; fearful of arrivals, disillusionment, getting old, traveling alone, living. Hopeful of too many nebulous possibilities, and of miracles.

Jimmy watched her eyes go vague and used those few seconds to study her face. A face that wouldn't stand out in a crowd. Unless you were the sort to attempt to read beneath surfaces. Then, you might be arrested by this woman's face. Because there was a quality to it. A fine face, he thought. Straight nose, firm chin. Her mouth. He was stopped by her mouth. And by the fact that when he spoke she looked not only at his eyes but at his mouth as well. As if she'd never seen someone in the actual act of speaking, forming words. Her mouth looked soft, revealing. Whatever she felt might be reflected in the tensing or relaxing of her lips. Not the eyes as was usual, but the mouth.

"What is C grade?" she asked, abruptly back in the present.

He was late. What was down in his diary for the day? Nothing that couldn't wait until Monday.

"A grade or two down from the top," he said distractedly, deciding. Brightening. "Look, why don't I give you a tour? Would you like that?"

"I might be crazy," she cautioned quietly.

He caught her meaning and smiled. "You might be. I probably am. It's a fine day and I'm proud of the city." He looked past her at the nearby buildings. "Come on," he coaxed. "Do us both good." Returning his eyes to hers, he said, "You've nothing to fear."

"I know that," she said, all seriousness. "All right. Yes."

"Good! My car's just here."

She looked at the car. A dusty, dinged, comfortable-looking station wagon. "This is very kind of you, Mr. Ballard," she said, moistening her lips. Wondering what she was doing, not caring. Such a pleasant man. The worst he could do was kill her.

"Jimmy," he corrected, slipping his hand under her elbow to assist her up from the bench. "It's all anybody ever calls me."

As they walked toward the car, he could hear Mag's voice shrieking. Bastard! Bloody bastard! He held open the door as Lyle slid in, waited until she'd settled herself, then closed the door and went round to the driver's side. Feeling everything in him lifting. An adventure. A break in the routine.

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