Perilous Adventures
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I'll Keep My Sea-Wall'd Garden

by Adair Jones

 ‘The day your grandmother arrived in Brisbane she saw a house floating up the river.  To a young woman from Cornwall, this was a marvellous sight.  “It’s a sign,” she said and squeezed your grandfather’s hand.  He brought her to this very house on the river and promised she could watch houses floating past to her heart’s content.’

Her mother is plaiting her hair: a dark, misbehaving tumble.

‘As it turned out, darling girl, the floating house was a sign.  In fact, every time your grandmother saw one, she fell pregnant.  She saw six floating houses.’ 

She counts on her fingers, ‘Rita, Lana’ (here she points to herself) ‘Hedy, Olivia, Greta and Clark, each of us named for a Hollywood star.  We kept her so busy, especially after Clark was born, she had no time to watch the river, or maybe she left off looking for floating houses.  She must have felt six children were enough, don’t you think?’

Lana waves a blue ribbon around Ava’s head, ‘The river winds and bends like this, not an easy course for steering a house.  “Noses about like a swine,” your grandfather always said.  Your grandmother told us the bottom was littered with sunken houses—the ones that didn’t make it—and the black ribs of ships that crashed in the night, and all sorts of wreckage.”
She cups Ava’s face in her hands and kisses her freckled nose. 

‘All done. Now skip away.’


Ava tossed in the small bed; other memories crowded in.  She saw herself in the front garden, dense with its canopy of foxtail palms and tree ferns.  There was a muddy pond, half hidden by elephant ears, framed amid a reckless arrangement of cordylines, dripping broadleaf plants, bushes with claws, and fantastic staghorns, fibrous and dangling down, with twisting shadows that looked very much like monsters.  Ava liked to swing in the low branches of the leopard tree and dangle her plaits, making her own shadows.

There was a hammock on the side of the house she had used as a swing, making the verandah rafters creak.  She had collected fallen frangipani for necklaces and swung on the gate, turned over rocks for sleeping toads, fingered a sudden burst of notes on the tuneless upright in the hall.

In the liquid moonlight, Ava looked around her childhood room with adult eyes.  Nothing was the same as when she left it; nothing either was added.  The room was frozen in time, but it was someone else who had arranged the memories.  When she left for university, choosing freedom in Sydney, Lana set to work, framing Ava’s art projects and hanging them on the wall, filling the dresser with notebooks and school work, letters, medals and ribbons.  A postcard of Big Ben and another of an Asian temple were displayed—a little too symmetrically—against a narrow row of books.   Old photographs were tucked around the edges of the mirror.  The bedside table held a stack of books, placed just so: Emma, the Lambs’ Shakespeare, and Leaves of Grass.

These things belonged to her, true.  All that was in it was familiar, and yet the room and everything in it seemed to have passed through Lana.  Ava remembered a different girlhood entirely.  It was as if someone else came to inhabit the life she’d left, the way a shell abandoned by one hermit crab comes to be occupied by another.  Here, in her old room, she was visiting her mother’s version of her life, the life Lana imagined Ava lived.

The triangular piece of wood affixed to the far corner between a window and the door had been her desk.  Sitting there, she could just glimpse the river through the shifting trees.  In high school, one afternoon, she had carved Dale into its soft pine.  Had Lana known the name was there?  Or was this one thing that remained hers alone?

It was not Dale next to her, but Marc, his body warm and heavy in sleep.  She lay between him and the wall on the narrow bed, confined, uncomfortable on this airless night.  Tonight, though they’d been together for three years, he didn’t fit.  She longed for the spaces of childhood.

She twisted away from him to face the wall.  Closing her eyes, she hugged a pillow close and tried to sleep.  Her father was down the hall, alone in the bed he’d shared with Lana.  Was he awake too? 

Earlier, hearing Guy washing up, Ava entered the kitchen and found him scrubbing a plate, splashing water on the benchtop, the floor, and on himself.  His hands shook until the plate fell.

She touched his arm.  ‘Never mind.  I’ll finish this.’

Her father stood helpless for a moment, then surrendered, leaving the room silently.  She finished the dishes and found him later on the front verandah.

‘Your mother hated these,’ waving a cigar.

‘I happen to agree.’

Next door, they heard the low throb of music and a steady hum of conversation, punctuated by occasional laughter and happy exclamations. 

Guy gestured dismissively over his shoulder.  ‘Dig in.  Those parties next door go on all night.’ 

Absently, he kicked his boot against the verandah rail.  ‘The house is yours, you know.  Why don’t you come back to Brisbane?  Live here.’

‘I don’t know, Fa.  There’s work, you know.  I have a life in Sydney.’

‘You can make a life here too.’

She stared out at the garden.

‘He wants to marry you.  Have kids.  You could raise them here.’


‘Just think about it, Ava.  It’s worth a fortune.  Riverfront.  Close to the university.’

He drew long on the cigar.  ‘I could never sell it.  And the idea of renting it out to someone…’  The words caught in his throat. 

‘She loved it too much for strangers.’

When she answered, Ava kept her tone light.  ‘And what would you do, Fa?  I couldn’t imagine you anywhere else.’

‘Live nearby.  Do what I always do.  Teach.  Write more.’   His voice caught.  ‘I can’t imagine myself living here without her.’


‘Go on.’  He pulled her hand to his lips.  ‘Get to bed.  It’s been a long day.  I’ll come in soon.  Just finish this.’  He waved the cigar.

It was hot.  Clouds had collected throughout the day, but now bright moonlight pooled on the floor.  She doubted it would rain.  There would be no sudden relief.

Closing her eyes, she saw her mother’s face.

‘We were wild, impossible girls, always laughing.  Especially at the dinner table.  One of us beginning with the tiniest titter.  Someone else would giggle and another snicker; before you knew it, laughter would scud across the dinner table, back and forth.  Drive your grandfather crazy.  Oh, our dinners were happy times!’

Lana’s voice was evervescent.

‘And the washing up.  We would often fight and bicker, argue and complain, but soon we’d turn it into a game, splash each other with suds, swat each other with towels, joke and giggle and laugh.  It was good fun, those days.’ 

Ava traced the path of a climbing rose on the wallpaper near her face.  The music from next door intruded.  Marc snored softly, his body warm.  Where he touched her, she felt part of him.  She pulled away, guilty.  This felt wrong, thinking of herself.  Not on the day she buried her mother.


Lana had wanted a large family, but there had been only Ava.  That was her first disappointment.

‘Come see what I found.’  Lana holds a froth of tulle and lace.  ‘Do you want to try it on?’

Lana untwists the wavy ropes of Ava’s hair, spreading the tresses with gentle fingers.  ‘It’ll look better this way.’  She adjusts the veil, turns Ava by the shoulders to face the mirror, beams. 

‘Rita found this veil and your grandmother’s wedding dress packed in an old suitcase in the shed.  There was a dress, and other pretty things—even the honeymoon negligee.  Hedy, the family clown, hooted and held it up against her skinny shape, walking all sexy-like.’

Ava prances and minces, draping the long veil over her arm like a handbag.  Lana laughs and claps her hands. 
‘There was something for everyone in that suitcase.  Your grandmother didn’t mind.  We took turns, one of us wearing the gown, another the veil, another the jacket and shoes.  We waved to the men passing on the boats.’ 

She laughs, shaking her head at the recollection.  She turns Ava again to the mirror. 

‘You’ll make a beautiful bride, Ava.  It will be a proud moment for me to see you happily married.’

Sadness pushed in from the edges of the memory.

She felt suddenly angry with Marc for sleeping.  The wall was unyielding.  And the night was hot, so hot, unendurable.  Slowly, carefully, she slid to the end of the bed, climbed off.  She stepped into the puddle of light on the floor and out the French doors into the night.

Down the verandah steps, onto the slate path, Ava made her way through the back garden.  Far away, she heard a night bird call, and Ava shuddered. 

She stopped at the fountain, the white marble glowing.  Because of the drought it was drained.  Dried mud mixed with dead leaves and twigs caked the bottom.  Ava took a stick and began loosening the packed mud.  In the morning, she’d clean it, really clean it.  And she’d fill it with water, damn the drought.  Maybe she’d get some goldfish and a water lily or two.  Like when she was a child.


She and Lana stand hand-in-hand on the front verandah as a delivery truck backs into the drive.

‘It’s foolish, crazy foolish, and frivolous, yes, and your father will flip, but when I saw it, Ava, I thought it would be perfect as the centrepiece of our garden.  We’ll toss in pennies and make wishes.  Every day, if we want.’

They spend the afternoon filling the fountain and planting lavender around its base.  When Guy arrives home, Ava runs to him.

‘Close your eyes, Fa, and get ready for the surprise of your life.’

She helps him down the stairs and along the winding path.

‘You can open them now.’

He opens his eyes.  Ava dances around him.

‘It’s not very practical, Lana.’ 

‘But isn’t it beautiful?’  Lana asks.

‘It doesn’t really fit here, that’s all.’

Lana pulls Ava close.  ‘We think it does.’


Ava dislodged a large chunk of mud and tossed the stick away.  She looked into the empty fountain and saw herself as a child, staring at a coin on the wavy bottom, wishing hard.

The bird wailed again, closer this time.  The eerie call highlighted the sounds all around: a cricket, low and insistent; a barking dog; the stream of traffic in the distance, the slap of waves from the river; above all the intrusive rhythm from next door.

 ‘Your grandmother planted this garden.  The frangipanis, the palms—she loved the sub-tropical plants that wouldn’t grow in Cornwall.  She put in the bamboo on the north side of the property because of a quarrel with a neighbour.’  Lana’s eyes twinkle.  ‘And now the quarrel is with the bamboo.’

The memory triggered associations so vivid Ava thought she heard the clacking of the poles and the sighing rustle of bamboo leaves.   There was no breeze tonight, and she knew it was a trick of her mind. 

She considered her father’s suggestion.  Could she ever live here, with these memories clawing at her, turning up to trip her at every moment?   She forced her mind to think of Marc as a way of keeping afloat, asleep in the bed with an arm thrown over his head. 

She saw herself then, lying face down across her bed, big enough to hold teenage heartbreak. 

Lana pats her back, ‘Darling girl, it’s a terrible thing.  A broken heart.  The very worst thing in all the world.’ 

It’s comforting; her mother like this, Lana’s voice soothing, her hand on Ava’s back, so gentle.  Suddenly, Lana rises.  The retreat leaves a hole in the moment.

She lifts her head from her sleeve, wet with tears.  She sees Lana leaning against the French doors, poised between the light of the room and darkness.  Her arms are crossed, her brow creased.  When she speaks, her words are oddly flat.
‘Best to know what he’s made of, Ava.  Better it doesn’t happen down the track.  There’s nothing worse than loving unloved, unless it’s being trapped by it.’


The thrumming music behind her stopped abruptly.  She heard the tones of playful argument.  A new disc began, slower, more melodic.  Someone groaned.  The party continued: strands of conversation and muffled laughter, the clinking of glasses and silver.  Ava stretched her bare legs out on the cool stone of the fountain.

The apartment was part of two complexes on either side of her parents’ place, erected a few years earlier as property values began to climb.  When the developer approached, Lana refused to sell.  ‘We’ll keep our sea-wall’d garden.’ 

In a string of phone conversations, Lana complained:  ‘They’ve dragged the Gibson’s house away, and I’ve heard they’re going to demolish the old Morris place.’  ‘Well, the trucks have arrived.  You’ve never heard such a racket in all your life.’  ‘We had an old carpet snake coiled on the verandah post this morning.  I’m sure it has something to do with the monstrosity they’re putting up next door.’

Ava didn’t mind.  She rather liked the effect.  The buildings on either side defined the space between them more acutely.  Lana’s garden was what they were not.

On the lighted balcony, she saw the silhouette of a woman, leaning out towards the river.  She turned and seemed to look through the shrubbery right at Ava.  They stood silently, sharing the moment and the night. 


Yesterday before she’d come into the living room to find Guy sitting in an armchair staring into the gloom of the evening.
‘Do you think she thought I was a good husband? 

‘Of course.  Of course, Fa.’ 

Ava felt she should reach out to him, hug him, hold him close in shared grief, but she could not.

‘If she died thinking I didn’t love her…”

‘Of course, she knew you loved her.’ 

What else could she say?


Again, the night bird wailed.  Ava raised her head to scan the sky, hoping to match a shape to the pitiful sound.  She saw only the placid river snaking east towards Toowong and, on the far bank, the dark scribble of trees against the sky.

As a teenager she stood on that very bank and looked across the coffee-coloured water to St. Lucia.  She’d gone with Dale and a few others to a park.  Someone brought beer; they were all a little drunk.

She had looked for her house among the twinkling lights.  It took a minute, but she found it at last.  She could tell by the fountain: a smear of white against the dusky lawn.  She saw a light go off.  Her parents must be going to bed.

Here, her friends were joking; Dale pulled her close for a kiss, Lisa shrieked as beer dribbled down her chin.  There, her father would be sitting in an armchair in an arc of light, turning the pages of his book in silence as her mother walked from room to room, switching off lights.  Ava could hear Lana’s footsteps, the creak of the loose floorboard in the hall, her mother’s heavy sighs. 

A figure came out of the house and through the garden.  Ava squinted as the person walked to the river’s edge and out onto the dock.  The wind came up and Ava saw it was Lana in her housecoat. 

A splash distracted Ava.  A leaping fish?  Or had the bird found its prey?  She rose and wandered towards the far end of the garden to the expanse of grass just before the bank grew steep.  As a child, she’d once come upon Lana here, kneeling on a square of heavy canvas, splaying as she unrolled it.

‘There you are, darling girl.  I need your help.’  Lana holds a hand out.  ‘Help me straighten this.’

The two work, pulling the canvas around.

‘When we were girls, we used to put this old tent up exactly here.  We’d bring the carpets and curtains from our rooms and all the pillows from the house.  We had a hurricane lamp that cast the most terrifying shadows—especially when the wind blew.  We played games and told stories all night, us girls.’ 

‘What about Uncle Clark?’

‘Oh no, he was too small.  Your grandmother used to worry he’d fall into the river.’

Lana puts a tent pole into a loop and the flat canvas becomes a room.

‘With your father away, I thought we could sleep here.  Have a camp out.  What do you think?  We’ll bring out the carpets and the curtains just like when I was a girl.  There’s a full moon tonight.’

Ava becomes involved then, helping with the pillows, back and forth, from house to tent.  Unprompted, she uses the secateurs to cut honeysuckle vines and winds them around the tent poles.  She gathers up fallen frangipanis and makes the outline of a path at the tent’s entrance. Lana exclaims in approval. 

The woman on the neighbouring balcony was sitting in a chair now, elbows resting on the rail, head tilted on a hand.  Her pale dress glowed.

Unidentifiable pieces of conversation floated down from the party.  Ava heard a hoot, a guffaw, then a collective roar.
The woman glanced inside for a moment then back at the river.  A man joined her.  They spoke for a minute.  Ava thought she saw the woman shake her head.  He shrugged and went inside.  The woman turned her back to him, looking out on the night once more.  Did she see Ava standing there watching?


‘Tonight,’ Lana announces with a flourish, ‘we’ll eat off the best china and drink from the finest crystal.  I’ll bring out the silver candlesticks Greta gave me as a wedding gift.  Much nicer than a hurricane lamp.’

Curtains are strung on a rope and attached to loops inside the tent. 

‘This is how we made rooms, see?  If you leave the curtains down, you get a corner of privacy.  But you can also attach the ends up here at the centre pole, like this, and it makes a multi-coloured ceiling.  An Arabian fantasy!  What do you think, darling girl?’

The Hill’s hoist presents a problem.  ‘It wasn’t here when I was a girl.  Then, we used a line on the side of the house and lifted it up with a forked branch.  Your grandmother got this later.  After we all married.  Her so-called pride and joy.’  Lana crinkles her nose.  ‘Not very attractive is it?’ 

Ava shakes her head solemnly.

‘What if we drape it with sheets and tablecloths?  It might just look okay.’’

Lana gathers Ava in her arms and kisses her. ‘Let’s bring out the other carpets, the ones from the entry and the sunroom, for under.’

She stared at the patchy grass, yellow now and sparse from thirst.  The Hill’s hoist was gone.  An exchange between her parents shook loose from the past.

There Lana stands, arms akimbo:  ‘An ugly monstrosity.  Hideous.  A scar in the garden and, what’s worse, a symbol of domestic servitude.’

‘Useful, nonetheless,’ Guy argues blandly, ‘for drying clothes.’

‘Awful, nonetheless,’ she cries with passion, ‘for looking at.’

At some point, Guy must have yielded.  The Hill’s hoist had been taken down.  But when?  Ava couldn’t remember.

She crept down the slope of the riverbank, slipping a little and catching at a shrub to steady herself.  At her feet she spied an old trowel, rusty and caked with mud.  Picking it up, she saw Lana in gumboots and an old straw hat, on her knees digging.  Ava brought the trowel to her cheek and fought back tears.

There was a wooden dock, unused for years.  Carefully, Ava walked to the end of it.   The wood was damp and cool under her feet.  The scent of silt was stronger down here, overpowering the garden’s fragrance.  Ava stared into the river.  The tide was falling and the water seemed to rush towards the bay, murky and impenetrable. 

What was hidden there?  What was lying on the bottom, rotting, rusting, offering shelter to small fish against predators, shifting in the currents?  Wreckage from as far back as Ava’s childhood.  Or Lana’s.  Longer than that even.  Broken bottles, chunks of metal, piles of bones.

Behind her, the woman was there on the balcony, her position unchanged, as if she was carved onto the frieze of a building.  The man joined her, lifted her up, guided her inside.  She resisted at first, Ava noticed, then submitting, went in.    
The fountain at the centre of the garden looked beautiful against the dark shape of the house.  It was perhaps a little grand. 
‘Here’s something you didn’t know.  A wine glass will float.  See?  Don’t they look like little ships bobbing about in a tiny harbour?’

Their dinner is marvellous.

They have cheese and sliced cucumbers, apples and watermelon, eaten on Lana’s good china.  For dessert, they fill crystal bowls with sultanas. ‘Just like a caravanserai.’  Lana’s eyes sparkle, ‘except for the crystal dishes!’

They watch the river.  Lana tells stories.  At last, she unties one of the curtains and tucks it around Ava’s mattress, singing a good-night song before kissing her tenderly.

‘Sleep tight, darling girl.’

She blows out the candle and the tent is filled with a harsh smell, the wisp of smoke fading into darkness. 

Later, Ava remembered this act as a kind of punctuation.


That day marked the end of something, though she’d never been certain what.  She dangled her legs over the river and struggled to recall.   An owl called in the distance, seeming to echo her questions.

Her mother comes into the tent eventually.  Drops a curtain, tucks it around the other mattress.  Ava has to pee, and they walk together up to the house.  A breeze comes up, rustling the gums overhead, freshening the night.  She falls asleep again holding Lana’s hand in the dark, the tent thick with the scent of honeysuckle.

She’s awake when it strikes.  She’s had a dream, maybe.  Or the strange cry of a night bird has woken her.  Perhaps it’s merely a premonition.

One moment, calm.  She’s lulled by the exhalations of the summer’s night, breathed in tempo with her sleeping mother, deep and low, and by the gentle lap of the tide on the bank.  An unfamiliar sound, a bass schwa, beginning quietly and far away, grows louder, rolls closer, until it erupts, roaring around them.  The trees creak and groan.  The earth releases the scent of dirt into the moist air.  Rain.

In the next instant, the sound grows terrible. 

Ava sits up, frozen.  Lana screams involuntarily and, to Ava, this is the most frightening thing of all.  The moment is elongated as Lana moves from the paralysis of sleep to the sound’s reality.  Under the terrible roar, there are other sounds, thuds, pocks and pings all around.  Hail.  It’s coming down fast and hard—on the tent, on the fountain, on river and lawn, and most loudly on the tin roof of the house behind them.

Lana holds her through the gauzy curtain. 

‘It’s hail, darling girl.  Nothing more.’

She opens the tent flap, and Ava sees the river churning; hailstones as big as fists white against the lawn. 

Ava started, brought back to the moment by the sound of a boat slicing through the water.  She watched the waves of its wake approach the dock and roll past, hitting the bank hard at first, then easing.  Ava drew her legs up and hugged her knees. 

Looking behind her, towards the balcony, Ava saw the woman had left the man and the party and returned to her place at the railing.  Surely, she saw Ava sitting on the dock in her white singlet and shorts. 

Turning back to the river, she thought she saw something dark swim past.


The morning after the storm, Ava wakes to a day of glittering perfection.  The hard glare of sunlight bounces off the river and hurts her eyes.  She finds Lana in the garden, dragging a wet carpet across the lawn.  Ava waits for her caresses, for her soothing tones and reassurances, but Lana merely shrugs and continues pulling at the heavy rug, her face full of unhappiness. 

Lana yanks the rug over the verandah rail and returns to the shredded tent.  She brings out the sofa pillows, placing them in the sun around the fountain.  As she returns for more, she stubs her toe and cries out.  It’s one of the candlesticks on its side in the grass.  Lana bends in fury, lifts it and hurls it into the river.  Ava runs to the front garden and hides among the elephant ears, waiting for Lana, who never comes. 

Later, she hears her father’s footsteps along the verandah.  She sees him look about silently, taking in the torn bed-linen, the sodden carpets on the rail, the lone candlestick next to a pile of cracked china and broken glasses, the discoloured pillows and stained curtains. 

‘What happened?’

‘You tell me.’

Ava remembered clearly what came next because it was so illogical.  There was no argument.  No tears or explanations.  No apologies.  No accusations.  Her father lifted his bag and carried it inside.


Ava smacked the trowel against the dock and stared at the river.  The current had slowed, and the houses, townhouses, and apartment blocks were perfectly reflected on the dark surface.  Floating houses all in a row, she thought bitterly.  A large ferry passed; the reflected houses tossed in its wake, stretched and misshapen.  As the slap of the waves against the bank eased, the reconfigured reflection seemed to mock her.  Angrily, Ava stood and hurled the trowel into the river with all her might. 

With the splash, she let go, collapsing, hugging her knees, weeping at last. After a while, she noticed the call of the owl, comforting in its constancy, and above it, a raucous kookaburra.  It would be dawn soon. 

She felt the eyes of the woman on the balcony.  There she was, Ava’s companion, staring out at the river, watching her through this star-impaled night.  Neither had any understanding of the life of the other, and yet, here they were, sharing these hours.

The current had stopped.  Shortly, it would turn then rush back.  Ava stared at the water and imagined below the bones of houses, the ribs of rusting vessels, and an old trowel lying next to a silver candlestick, hidden among the sea grass.
A light went out on the balcony behind her.  Ava turned.  The woman was an outline, a faint shadow, ghostly in her pale dress, and now swallowed by darkness.


About the Author

Adair JonesAdair Jones is a Brisbane-based writer who contributes articles, reviews and fiction to a variety of publications.  She maintains a literary blog called Word Search, which looks at reading and writing in all sorts of ways.




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