December 2010 - January 2011


The voyage

By Murray Bail
Pablo Neruda's collection of bottle ships at his house in Isla Negra, Chile. © Magnum Photos / Snapper Media
Pablo Neruda's collection of bottle ships at his house in Isla Negra, Chile. © Magnum Photos / Snapper Media

It was not so much a headlong rush from Europe, more a slow return to Sydney, for instead of hopping onto a plane, which would have been easier, Delage had chosen to return by ship, and not one of the P&O queens, a container ship, stacked with the rectangles of various faded colours, which stopped at half a dozen ports along the way. On the ship – it was called the Romance – he imagined there would be silence. Not total silence: of all people, the manufacturer Delage knew there was always a sound of some sort, however faint, even an echo, somewhere. One of the attractions for Delage was there would be just four paying passengers. A priest who was supposed to join ship at La Spezia had cancelled. Delage would have a cabin to himself. Aside from the occasional ‘Good morning!’ and an occasional ‘Thank you’, he was looking forward, after what he had been through, to thirty-three days of peace without talking about himself, or having a significant conversation of any kind. Most things are not worth saying, yet continue to be said. What is said is a version in a different voice of what has already been said (many times before). From the moment Delage stepped onto European soil and began speaking or spruiking he became aware his voice was only adding to what had long been there. The dark trees, the streets and boulevards, the clothing of people and the expressions people arranged around their mouths, even the air they breathed, were blurry or furry with the accumulation of words, congestion in the guise of world-weariness. You would think they might have been interested in the views of an outsider, one who’d come from the opposite direction, literally from the bottom of the Earth. But no, not really – even though, unencumbered by tradition, the New World had a history of throwing up new methods, the fresh solutions. No, they showed little or no interest, preferring to remain standing in the one spot. In Vienna, in particular, to just about everything he said, these exceptionally neat, implacable figures with almost unworldly tanned faces, from skiing recently in the Alps, no doubt, almost clashing with their silver hair, remained smiling, while some – the women – kept their blue eyes on him and even began laughing. They knew their Mozart, Beethoven and Brahms. How many times would they have heard the “Jupiter”? Strauss used to come around to their houses and play the piano in the panelled drawing room. Before long they would casually, almost dismissively, recall personal anecdotes about poor Schoenberg. The daughter of one of them, Elisabeth, who he met at a soiree – spoke excellent English – took him the following afternoon to a street behind the cathedral and into the apartment where Mozart composed, among other things, The Marriage of Figaro. As he climbed to the first floor, Frank Delage realised Mozart’s feet had actually been on these very steps, which were quite worn. The rooms had loudly creaking floorboards and a few bits of fragile furniture, allowing visitors to see nothing more than the space in which Mozart and his family moved, and the view of the street he undoubtedly enjoyed from the main window. To Delage’s surprise, Elisabeth had never been there before. She had been born in Vienna, and therefore into music, everyone in her family, the Schalla family, listening and playing and nodding in tune with it; naturally she assumed he too was music-saturated, like everybody else in Vienna.

The very nature of his invented product meant he could not ignore Europe, a “vital plank”, as one of his investors said, nodding. And by normal commercial standards his foray against the ramparts of Old Europe could hardly be called a success. At the very least he hoped to have one foot in the door; now with both Vienna and Berlin behind him, he wasn’t even sure he had achieved that. Already he was thinking he might have to go back! If he did, or even if he didn’t, he decided he was going to talk less. It was something he had learnt from the implacable Austrians, the Germans too for that matter. There was something wrong with people who never stopped talking. Away from home, Australians like to be chatty, not that anyone anywhere thinks or cares about what they say. He himself was not a talkative person, not normally; but in Europe it had been necessary to make headway with the locals, somehow. To Elisabeth, he hadn’t once mentioned the word ‘piano’. After the Mozart museum they had coffee and pastries at the Sacher, where she talked about her family, the Schallas, as if he knew of them, reserving her perplexed emphasis for her father. In fact, when you added it up, it was she who did most of the talking. In reply, Delage described his sister in Melbourne, who, he said, phoned often three, four times per day. Either she rattled on about nothing really or complained about a situation way beyond her control, such as the unseasonal wet weather, or else she would report progress in her self-appointed task, for it was of no concern to her, trying to find him a wife, or a “possible wife”, as she put it. “My sister could talk under wet cement. Psychological problems there for sure. She has to spill it out. She has to be heard,” he explained, just off the Graben, not very far from where it had all begun half-horizontally, the confiding endless sentence. “There’s obviously something wrong with her,” he went on, and wanted to rub his eyes, although he knew there was nothing wrong with his sister. “She’ll talk about anything that comes into her head. We’re not like each other at all.” Put them in a room and they didn’t even look like brother and sister. “What’s her name?” “Marj – short for Marjorie.” Elisabeth pulled a face. The only thing of interest Delage could remember his sister saying was in response to their new stepfather, “He eats too much jam.” Talking is alright, as long as it makes a difference.

It’s best not to release thoughts immediately. Isn’t it best to pause? An added benefit is that it gives the impression the person is being thoughtful, accordingly someone worth listening to.

It was one of those sensible conclusions he had reached long ago but hardly ever put into practise.

Frank Delage carried around a notebook for jotting down maxims that could end up being useful one day. Not only maxims: unusual phrases and descriptions too. A green fountain pen protruded at the ready from his shirt pocket, which also indicated energy, a range of set tasks to be tackled.

“Let me see,” Elisabeth, of the Schalla family, said, and began flipping through the pages. “The human face is the most interesting area on Earth” – one of his favourites. He’d forgotten where he’d come across that. “Thinking remains thanking.” Somewhere else he’d read a description of a rubber band “the colour of a nun’s belly”, which he had immediately written down, even though it didn’t give any advice at all. It was enough for Elisabeth to tilt her chin as if she was resting on her elbows on a beach, and give a small laugh, not entirely unaffected, for it revealed to Delage the pale curve of her Austrian throat. Elisabeth was in her mid-thirties. Good of her to drop everything to show him, a stranger, around Vienna. Obviously she had plenty of time on her hands, she could do whatever she wanted. Every time he glanced at her or asked a question she was looking away.

He had filled many notebooks. Such a need to retain the thoughts of others suggested Frank Delage was undecided about himself, that he was composed of little more than the thoughts and opinions of others. And yet on one subject he had clear and confident thoughts, where he knew what should and could be done, and whenever he talked about it never borrowed the words of more articulate, stronger people. On this subject, Delage, the manufacturer, could be tenacious, sarcastic, indignant, intent on demolishing or at least reducing the opposing forces. It was a remarkable product, his, in every way an example of New World ingenuity. For many years it had consumed his energy and money earned or borrowed, mostly borrowed, leaving little or no time or money to be directed elsewhere. Delage, at forty-six and still sporting plenty of dark hair, lived alone, as his sister needlessly pointed out; although not necessarily lonely, he had become a diffident, distracted sort of man.

“Have you noticed,” she said on the third or fourth day, “the motion of the ship draws words out of us. Words that I, for one, wouldn’t normally say?”

He was conscious of the linen sleeve on the rail, almost touching his.

All around were hills and valleys, about waist-high. The sea was busy mimicking land. It was all charcoal, desolation, everywhere. To the woman the lines of foam kept dissolving into trails of lace. I could look at this all day. It was the sea, said to be soothing. And from a depth far below, as if in a mine, the power of the great long engine came up through the plates of the ship, trembling the rails and numbing most of her toes – her feet in sandals appeared unusually soft and irrelevant on the metal deck, the sandals gold with a narrow raised heel, dainty, inappropriate, although bought specially, the ship, despite its name, having no decoration of any kind, let alone softness, everything cut or cast from steel and oversized, nuts, bolts, levers, hatches, chains, rivets the size of dinner plates, an all-steel masculine complexity. What an engine; no stopping, day or night. Delage generally took an interest in, or rather, was alert to, mechanical surroundings. If asked, he could probably explain most of the parts (although the window on the bridge sloping in at an angle left him baffled). The superstructure and rails were white, everything else the ship’s owners had painted a lurid matt orange. “Imagine what their lounge rooms in Hamburg must be like.” If Delage had said something like that to the woman standing beside him, a woman of taste, inappropriate gold sandals notwithstanding, she would have rewarded him with a woman’s laugh, which had its conspiratorial aspects. There is the constant male instinct for slipping into humorous or even clownish mode to please a woman or divert her thoughts. At any moment it will happen; it was one of Elisabeth’s expectations, acquired early on. With little trouble her father could make her laugh, never her mother. Of course it can lead to embarrassing awkwardnesses, faux pas and so called ‘lead balloons’ of the most inept kind, quips or puns that miss the mark, make no sense, are too obvious, or are repeated once too often, while irony hardly ever works; and still there is the need in men to continue – clowning for women, pulling faces, being plain silly, often falling flat, it doesn’t matter. A certain carelessness is allowed. For the woman, it lightens the endurance required in dealing with the heavy, persistent presence of men. Delage said nothing, and the woman turned from the sea, and smiled anyway. She was out on the ocean, in safe hands, a warm breeze touching her cheeks; seabirds had been coming from somewhere and swooping over the ship. “Don’t say ‘boat’. It’s what the Americans say. This is a ship.” In Vienna she went about with the casual authority of the resident, while on the ship heading for Sydney she was in the hands of others, “all at sea?” Delage had grinned, where every part was a mystery, hard, thickly painted, moving forward, slightly unstable.

Murray Bail

Murray Bail is a writer. His most recent novel is The Voyage.

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