The Question by Catherine McNamara

Abel Tanner had a question. It was not a question he could ask his wife, as it had not occurred to him before her death. The question first entered his mind as he returned through the garden holding an empty rubbish bin, and saw the thin gilded hook of the moon above their roof. The front of the house showed three illuminated windows where his three daughters – Dolly, Margot and Lou – were certainly on their phones speaking to boyfriends, or watching films. He could hear his neighbours.

This was when his mind began grappling with the apparitions before him. The harbour of trees and the explosive nectar of flowers. How the suburb had long ago been staked out on raw earth, seeded with piping and wires, each property acquired through sacrifice and transaction. How in kitchen hubs children learned core behaviour, and on mattresses men and women bore the weight and liquids of each other; and before bathroom mirrors the young discovered primal coils of hair. It was an old neighbourhood, and before his wife died Abel had refitted the fretwork of the balcony with a rich imported hardwood, swept up in seeking the original tones of the house.

Now all that mattered was the question.  

Recently he and the girls had flown back from Italy, where he had communed with his wife’s family, a year after her death. The girls, too, had brought out their high school Italian, and been thoroughly alluring. He had proudly seen that in the slow theatre of the streets of Florence and Rome. How, flourishing, they would be followed by a dozen eyes. Dolly received a half-serious marriage proposal from a journalist.

In Venice they had found the church of Santa Maria dei Miracoli, where his wife’s grandmother had been baptised. Each girl trod up the arched bridge over a canal opposite the church with its marble panels and playful form, awaiting a gap in the tourists for her photo to be taken. Together they were outrageous, anyone would say. Impossible to separate, always arms linked or fingers drawn across cheeks and words inserted, connecting, cooing. Dolly posed first in her shoulderless white top with ballooning sleeves and tight bodice, her brown belly showing. Then Margot had to be egged on, wearing a crotchet tea-cosy hat and outsized vintage sunglasses. Lastly Lou climbed on the red brick wall and straddled her long legs either side, her silver harem pants flattened by a gust of wind, arms outstretched with little puffs of rebellious hair in her armpits, a skimpy bottle green top showing the uncontained shift of her breasts.

That day Lou climbed down tearing her pants on an unseen rusted bolt, and she walked across to Abel who had managed to stem his tears. Lou was the arduous, blue-hearted one who wrote songs and cooked goulash on Wednesdays in winter after work. She held him at length, slamming her front into him while the other two talked to a pair of gondoliers, melding words in his ears and her black eyes pulling back and sturdy.

And now Abel gripped the empty rubbish bin, standing on grass in the old elegant suburb where houses had been divided into cheap flats and were now being restored to aching glory. The moon had advanced and faded. Abel could not re-enter the house. For the answer had chased down his question, and he knew which one of his daughters would go first, even though he would wrestle this knowledge to the ground as if it were a lion sprung at him from the dust, and he could feel those jaws around his own skull and the crack of bone; the soft red flight. He could not unlearn this, he knew.

Catherine McNamara grew up in Sydney, ran away to Paris and ended up in West Africa co-running a bar. The Cartography of Others was finalist in the People’s Book Prize and won the Eyelands Award (Greece). Love Stories for Hectic People won Best Short Story Collection in the Saboteur Awards.