Main : Australian history, fiction, young women
Sydney, Milsons Point, 1926. Entire streets are being demolished for the building of the Harbour Bridge. Ellis Gilbey, landlady by day, gardening writer by night, is set to lose everything. Only the faith in the book she’s writing, and hopes for a garden of her own, stave off despair. As the tight-knit community splinters and her familiar world crumbles, Ellis relives her escape to the city at sixteen, landing in the unlikely care of self-styled theosophist Minerva Stranks.
When artist Rennie Howarth knocks on her door seeking refuge from a stifling upper-class life and an abusive husband, Ellis glimpses a chance to fulfil her dreams. The future looms uncertain while the past stays uncannily in pursuit.
This beautiful novel evokes the hardships and the glories of Sydney’s past and tells the little-known story of those made homeless to make way for the famous bridge. Peopled by bohemians and charlatans, earthy folk and fly-by-nighters, The Floating Garden is about shedding secrets, seizing second chances, and finding love amongst the ruins.
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The Floating Garden is a fine example how fiction can be useful in expanding our understanding of the past. It is also simply an engaging narrative. I would love to know more about her thoughts and her process for creating this. I enthusiastically recommend this book to other readers, especially those who care about Sydney, and those interested in a new type of historical fiction.MDBrady, Me, You, and Books
The Floating Garden was always going to be a work of fiction. Inspired by a suitcase full of flowers carried by a woman I had barely glimpsed, and anchored by some startling facts, I wanted to get inside other people’s skin. To taste the dust. To feel my hair shake with every excavation blast. To take other by the hand and stumble through the rubble. To conjure up how it might have felt to lose everything dear and familiar. And to bring into sharp focus the kind of people often blurred by history’s lens.
Nicole Melanson interviews Emma on the Wordmothers site, which posts interviews with women involved in the writing and publishing industry.Nicole Melanson, WordMothers
Table of Contents
Rennie Howarth lay very still beneath the linen and merino wool. Playing dead, that’s what people called it. She’d done it for hours as a child, hiding from her brother Irving as he’d stormed through the house, complaining that she’d ‘trespassed’ into his room. So it had been easy to lie as still as a corpse all these years later while her husband Lloyd left the bed, made his usual noises in the bathroom, dressed and hurried downstairs to consult his precious newspaper.
It hurt to swing her legs down from the bed, but she managed to move crab-like towards the bathroom where she splashed her face, squinted in the mirror and puffed some powder over the worst of it. She wrapped herself in her Japanese silk pyjama coat and went slowly down the stairs. When she was within smelling-distance of the breakfast room, she counted to three and applied her morning after smile.
As usual, Lloyd was walled behind the day’s headline: MILSONS PT RESUMPTIONS FULL STEAM AHEAD. Mrs Chisholm the maid turned and watched as Rennie began to rifle for a tin of cigarettes in the drawers of the dresser. Rennie lit her cigarette and eased herself into her chair. She stared down at the starched napkin jammed inside its silver ring. It looked like a doll clasped in half by the kind of corset she thankfully no longer wore, despite Lloyd’s repeated protestations that ladies looked ‘more fetching’ with some ‘good old fashioned firming around the middle.’
She held up the enamel-handled butter knife somebody had given them as a wedding present. She adored it. He did not. She angled the tiny blade so it caught the sunlight and flashed about the room. What an excellent dart, she thought. Perhaps she should hurl it at one of her paintings. Lloyd could throw it himself. She could stand in front of Blue Eucalypts at Sunset or Ochre Morning Grass as he flung knives at her like those carnival men did at the seaside. She stared at his newspaper, wondering if a review of her exhibition had made it into print. Lloyd’s posture revealed nothing. He held the Herald like a fence between them every morning, or an albatross with its great wingspan stretched out.
On the ship out from England, she’d watched as members of the crew lured and netted one of these magnificent birds. Rennie had clutched Lloyd’s arm and asked if it wasn’t bad luck to kill an albatross. He’d said something about superstition being for dimwits. The men weren’t going to actually kill it, he’d said, just take a few harmless photographs and set it free. She’d felt sick as they’d paraded the creature about the deck, its staring eye scanning the crowd. Eventually the crew had let it go. For the rest of the voyage Rennie wondered which disaster would befall them: a sinking, a grounding, a gnashing storm? Even after their ship was safely docked in Sydney, she couldn’t remove the piercing stare of the bird’s eye from her mind. It was as if the albatross had been seeing past them, beyond them into other worlds. For there were other worlds, she was sure of it; mysterious, magical planes beyond the material and mundane, the elements of which she sought to capture in her art.
She leant across the table to read the listing of throat slittings, which, according to the Crimes and Fatalities section, were up this year, followed closely by general bodily stabbings, poisonings, and a spate of back lane shootings linked, it was alleged, to the increasing reach of the crime syndicates. Woman blinds robber with flour. How resourceful some people were. ‘No drownings today?’ she said. Lloyd cracked the spine of the newspaper. The beast stirs in his lair she thought, studying his paw-like hands.
Initially, she’d mistaken his nightly physicality for passion. He’d kissed her hard as soon as she’d entered the bedroom on their wedding night, grabbing her hair, thrusting his trousers against her dress, calling her his little rag doll, his hands pushing up her thighs, lifting her skirt as he parted her legs with his advance-party fingers and rallied the impatient troops, pushing her down on the bed, turning her over, breathing into her hair as he held her wrists.
At first, she’d quite enjoyed being overrun by him. It made a change from the damp drunken fumblings of English chaps. This was marriage. It was harsh. It was their secret. During the day, it thrummed inside of her like a pulse. But when he adopted even rougher tactics, she’d realised. This was not passion. This was not love. She’d tried to resist his nocturnal advances, but he only ambushed her more ruthlessly than before until— well—how could she put it—marks had been made upon the blank canvas of her skin. Marks she’d tried to hide with fashionably high collars and long drapes of oriental embroidered scarves. Chic backless dresses became impossible, as did anything sleeveless, a hellish sentence in the Sydney heat.
Once, her friend Bertha Collins had cornered her in the bathroom at the Australia Hotel. ‘Oh that,’ Rennie had said, laughing as Bertha pointed her cigarette holder at a bruise that had escaped its careful covering. ‘It’s paint.’ ‘On your neck? ‘We artistes are a messy breed.’
And so it went on, the lies and humiliations, the daily patching up of the crumbling façade. She could see it happening all over again, tomorrow morning, and all the tomorrow mornings after that, Lloyd in his starched shirtsleeves and braces, Chisholm’s starched napkin protecting her master’s silken tie. Only the date and headlines would have changed. The same glaring light barged in through the bay windows. The purple potted orchid crouched prettily on the mantelpiece. Chisholm dispensed the same fiery coffee, and there Rennie sat, waiting for the next grenade to land.
She looked down at her side of the toast rack. As per Lloyd’s instructions, Chisholm had allocated her one wafer-thin slice. A tablet of butter perched on the lip of the butterdish. Rennie reached forward and took Lloyd’s butter and jam, slathered them on her toast and took a bite.
‘I expect all the best breakfast rooms of Sydney are abuzz this morning,’ she said. She knew she was moving away from the script, but unless she did, none of this would ever stop.
She laughed, for she could hear it now, a hum of disapproval rising like a cloud around the harbour. Who does that Mrs Howarth think she is coming out here, painting those wild, crude, formless works and passing it off as the latest thing in Modern Art? Did you see those mad cat scratches on the walls?
Rennie polished off the toast, lit a cigarette and stood by the bay windows overlooking the harbour. This view had almost been enough when she’d arrived. She’d been quite elated standing in her small corner of the sunroom, paintbrush in hand, trying to trap the glittering angles of the midday sun in the hairs of her brush, searching for ways to capture the brassy play between water and sky, with streaks of ultramarine and cerulean blue.
She turned and looked at Lloyd’s shoulders. It was so clear now, blindingly clear. She squinted at the harbour again. The wind was firing a volley of arrows at the water. There was no way out, except for one. In a way, she’d always known it would come to this. She’d given him what he’d wanted in a wife, a pretty, exotic pet to be paraded about, successfully annoying his mother, and, she suspected, avenging an old lover.
One day she’d drown herself in the harbour, give herself up to its silky caress. On the voyage out she couldn’t help but think about drowning. Everybody did, whether they admitted to it or not, tossed about on a puny raft sandwiched between the great muscle of ocean and the changeable curve of sky. When she’d put this to Lloyd he’d patted her on the bottom and told her not to be dulls, a word he’d previously criticised her for using because, he said, it sounded ‘childish and cheap.’
But drowning would not be dulls. Apparently it was almost languorous, falling downwards as if flailing through a brightly coloured dream. What was death but a change from one state to another? That’s what the theosophists had said. Well, soon it would be her turn to make headlines.
A woman of unknown identity, aged in her early thirties, well dressed, fine Italian shoes, long black hair, of pale English complexion, was found in the Harbour. The police say … What would the police say? Would they note the ‘drownee’ was a little too round for the latest straight-lined, slim-hipped fashions, or that she’d dressed rather carelessly for a woman in her position, as if she was in a hurry to leap from a life of privilege into the wash? She’d want people to know she’d been an artist.
An unknown lady with violet paint jammed beneath her nails. Yes, drowning was the best option left, except there was one tiny complication. Her brother Irving was already en route from England, arriving any day expecting to stay. Could she wait until he arrived, or should she spare him the scandal and do it today?
She heard Lloyd rise from his chair, toss down the newspaper and squash his table napkin into the cloth as if breaking its neck. Watch out for the albatross, she almost said. There was the sound of the front door opening. ‘Don’t eat anything too substantial,’ he called from the hallway, apparently unable to resist a parting shot.
He trotted out the word ‘substantial’ to remind her that despite her unusual height, she would never rival his towering dimensions, physical or otherwise. Lloyd’s hands were the size of spades. His blue eyes pierced like searchlights. His spine was erect, telegraphing to the world the newly acquired soundness of his stock. This house on the harbour was imposing. The tennis balls he fired across the net on weekends to his office underlings were executed like missiles, followed by his explosive cry of ‘shot!’ Everything about him was impressive, everything except for his pretty, unruly English wife.
Rennie rummaged through the newspaper. Lloyd had succeeded. There was no mention of her exhibition. But then again, she’d not quite failed. Her work had now been aired in both hemispheres. That was a small something to leave behind.
She sat down in his chair as Lloyd barked something about cocktails at the Australia Hotel at six o’clock sharp. In Rennie’s coffee cup there was a ripple as the front door slammed. The Australia Hotel at six o’clock? She ran to the hallway and put her eye to the panel of stained glass beside the front door. Lloyd was bathed in navy blue, his satchel tucked under one arm, marching bluely down the path. She turned to the mirror and touched her face. She wasn’t sure if the face belonged to a woman about to drown herself. Something irrepressible still burnt in the eyes.
No, it could not be today. Today should be devoted to what she loved. She’d go to the Art Gallery and look at art, remind herself how the Great Masters had persisted in the face of hardship, petty-mindedness and ridicule.
And yes—that was it—she would not come back.
She ran upstairs and threw open the linen cupboard, messing Mrs Chisholm’s neat piles. She’d read about robbers breaking into houses and walking away with people’s worldly belongings draped over their shoulders. She shook out two pillowcases and dashed into the bedroom. She wondered what she’d need, and how long would she need it—whatever it was—for. She pulled open drawers and filled the pillowcases with a tangle of underthings and scarves, gloves, handkerchiefs, shoes, a sketchbook, a tin of her favourite watercolour paints, pencils, brushes, cigarettes and the lavender flower bag she’d embroidered with geometric patterns.
She heard Chisholm clashing pots and pans in the kitchen sink, found her best hat, kidskin gloves and new season’s spring green woollen coat. She dressed quickly but artistically because today was the day. She’d lain awake planning to end it all so many times, next to Lloyd’s heaving whisky breath, hoping he couldn’t guess that through the membrane of skin and skull, his wife was plotting treachery.
She frowned as she clapped open her purse. Damnation and blast. She’d spent all her money on flowers for the exhibition. But the flowers had been beautiful, immaculate sculptures of dignity and finesse, holding their poise in the face of disaster, a view echoed by one unknown guest who’d announced the flowers were by far the best works of art on display.
She knew Lloyd kept a stash of banknotes in his davenport desk inside a cigar box. Rennie ran downstairs, found the key. Marvellous. There it was. She dropped the roll of cash into her handbag.
As she shut the drawer an envelope fell out onto the floor. She picked it up. Mr Lloyd Howarth Esquire. Rennie recognised the tight curvature of the handwriting and frowned at the return address: Mr Irving Bartlett Esq. 14 Hill Road, London, N6. That was odd. Why would her brother write to Lloyd and not to her? She’d been dealing with her brother’s travelling arrangements for half a year, fielding Irving’s endless questions about what to bring and what to leave behind as if he was about to set off into the remotest jungles of the Amazon.
But she didn’t have time to think of her brother now. She slipped the letter into her pocket, grabbed a carpetbag from the cupboard under the stairs, shoved the two pillowcases inside it and ran out of the house to be swallowed by the commotion of the harbour and the windy bright.
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