Authors: Mette Jakobsen
The Vanishing Act
SHORTLISTED FOR THE 2012 COMMONWEALTH BOOK PRIZE
âA perfectly poised, fable-like tale of loss, written with delightful whimsy, deep empathy and a beguiling sense of innocence. This book is a gem.' Graeme Base
âA beautiful, moving fable.
The Vanishing Act
is one of the best books I have read in a long time.' Eva Hornung
âThis book is a precious thing. I want to keep it in a painted box with a raven feather and sea-polished stones, taking it out when I feel the need to visit Minou on her island again. The best stories change you. I am not the same after
The Vanishing Act
Erin Morgenstern, author of
The Night Circus
âMette Jakobsen's first novel is a gossamer web, a work of fragile beautyâ¦a delightfully rendered portrayal of innocence coping with loss, of someone who has found a great deal to explore in a tiny space.'
âJakobsen's European sensibility is apparentâ¦[her] prose is stylish and she works with some fine imagery.'
âThis book is a sharp, elegantly written fable about loss, loneliness and taking comfort in what you have. The characters are redolent of some of Hemingway or Steinbeck's best.
The Vanishing Act
, surely one of the more adventurous Australian novels of the year, is a pleasure.'
Sunday Mail Brisbane
âA stunning new voice for fans of literary fiction.'
âJakobsen's debut novel is a delectable delight, a fetching fable that is both heartbreaking in its poignancy and breathtaking in its delicacy.'
Mette Jakobsen was born in Copenhagen, Denmark, and now lives in Newtown, Sydney. She has a PhD in Creative Writing and a BA in philosophy. In 2004 she graduated from NIDA's Playwrights Studio and several of her plays have been broadcast on ABC Radio National. Her novels are
The Vanishing Act
, shortlisted for the Commonwealth Book Prize in 2012, and
What the Light Hides
The Text Publishing Company
22 William Street
Melbourne Victoria 3000
Â© Mette Jakobsen 2016
The moral right of Mette Jakobsen to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted.
All rights reserved. Without limiting the rights under copyright above, no part of this publication shall be reproduced, stored in or introduced into a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise) without the prior permission of both the copyright owner and publisher of this book.
First published in Australia by The Text Publishing Company, 2016
Book and cover design by Imogen Stubbs
Cover photograph by Whitney Ott / Offset
Typesetting by J&M Typesetting
National Library of Australia Cataloguing-in-Publication entry
Jakobsen, Mette, 1964â.
What the light hides / by Mette Jakobsen.
Dewey Number: A823.4
Night still floats in the morning light. A thick and watery presence of shades and depth, of dreams and slow heartbeats. Outside our bedroom window I can see the hazy shapes of the hedges, the wild rosebushes, the long grass and the oak. I am guessing there is frost on the grass. It's winter in Mount Wilson.
Vera is asleep next to me, her arm flung above her head, her breath deep and steady. For a moment I pretend that nothing has changed, that when she wakes she will look at me the way she did before. I pull on a jumper and walk down the chilly corridor to the kitchen. I don't turn on the light before filling the kettle. I don't mind the grey darkness; I know the house inside out. We have lived here for more than twenty years. Vera and I. And Ben.
I sit at the kitchen table and look out onto the garden while I wait for the water to boil.
I loved her name straight away. Vera. It's old-fashioned, but it suits her. The first time I saw her was at a dinner party hosted in a warehouse in the inner city. I noticed her instantly. She had long hair then too and she was beautiful, but it was her dress that caught my eye. It was turquoise and shimmering, cut deep in front, and it seemed a bit too big for her. It looked like something pulled out of the dress-up box; a bit too loud and a bit too vintage for the black-clad crowd. But it wasn't just the dress that made me watch her throughout dinner. It was the way she observed her surroundings: the people, the food, the bare grey walls. She observed it all openly, curiously, as if she wasn't quite part of the scene. Halfway through the first course Vera caught my eye across the table. She lifted her glass in a toast and drank without breaking eye contact.
The person next to me told me that the warehouse had been an old flour mill and he had looked admiringly at the bare walls through black-rimmed glasses. I found the space pretentious and cold. If it hadn't been for the lampsâfloating orbs of opaque glassâit would have been an entirely miserable place. There were fifteen of them hanging at different heights and the light was so exquisite that for a moment I considered abandoning my work with wood for glass.
I am rarely shy, but that night after dinner I felt an overwhelming shyness seeing Vera walk towards me. Chet Baker was playing âAlmost Blue' on the stereo. The lamps were dimmed and the tables moved up against the wall to make space for what the host called âintimate little gatherings'. Waiters were weaving between guests with champagne and I was standing by myself at the coffee table.
âYou like to be alone,' she said as she reached me. Her voice was warm.
A waiter stopped to offer her a glass of champagne and she regarded it with the same inquiring look she had everything else that evening. Her hair fell to her waist, her dress sparkled and I thought she was extraordinarily beautiful.
I toasted her glass lightly with my coffee cup. âAnd you like to watch,' I said, realising it sounded wrong, but not knowing how else to put it.
They could have been lines out of a surrealist play. They would have sat comfortably in the dialogue of
Waiting for Godot
, which I saw once without understanding a word of it.
We kept talking, but I don't remember what we said. It was stray lines, fragments that didn't mean anything. All I remember is that I couldn't take my eyes off her and when she put her hand in mine in a way that was neither casual nor intentionally seductive I embarrassed myself by getting an erection so violent that it threatened to make me pass out.
We went back to my place and barely made it through the door. I broke the rusted zipper on her dress in the hallway and found out in the process that the soft material smelled of mothballs. We ended up on the floor next to my work boots and a spare bike wheel. I came almost immediately and she moments after, guiding my hand. I had never experienced anyone receiving me with such abandon and complete confidence. Afterwards my body felt raw, but not spent. I was hungry for her in a way I hadn't felt before and every time I had her after that the hunger grew. I tasted those long fingers, the curve of her waist, the inside of her, and it was never enough.
The kettle boils and I can hear Vera in the shower, but I don't get up just yet. It's almost light outside. As I predicted there is frost on the grass. It will disappear when the sun comes out, but the cold will remain throughout the day.
Ours is one of the oldest houses in Mount Wilson. It dates back to the beginning of the twentieth century, when early settlers escaped the hot Sydney summers in favour of a cool temperate climate. The European trees planted then stand tall in the rich volcanic soil among lilli pilli, sassafras, coachwood and ferns.
People come up from the city for the weekend. They cruise past beautiful gardens and sandstone fences. Sometimes they get out of the car on wobbly city legs and stretch as if they have endured days of driving. Our garden falls short. It sits behind a peeling wooden fence with flowers that neither Vera nor I know the names of and grass that is permanently too long. Even Vera's rose garden is so wild that it could be the setting of a fairytale. The stalks crawl up fences and wind along the ground with thorns thick and sharp. Our neighbour Rob says every chance he gets: âEvery town needs an artist.' But by the tone of his voice it's clear he believes that our street suffers because of it.
Something moves at the back of the garden. I lean closer to the window. It's a lyrebird. For a moment its curly tail feathers stand in relief against the wall of Vera's studio. Then it's gone, back into the bush.
I get up when I hear Vera leave the bathroom. I make coffee while listening to the news on the radio, I do all the same things I did five months ago.
Before it happened.
It was summer then and just like today I got up first. Vera appeared after her shower with bare feet and wet hair, wearing her faded blue kimono. She popped bread in the toaster, carried cheese and butter to the table, and I brushed her waist as we passed each other in our familiar routine. We had spent that early morning making love and I felt hot and weak in the knees and thought to myself,
You lucky, lucky bugger
. She caught me looking at her and laughed in that soft way of hers. I laughed too and considered taking her right back to bed.
âNo,' she said as I reached for her, âdon't even think about it, darling. I'm going to the studio.' She looked out the window and spotted Earl, the postman, at the end of the driveway. âPour me a coffee instead.'
I saw her sidestepping the sharp stones on our driveway and Earl handing her a bunch of letters. I poured coffee thinking about the work I needed to complete that day. I was working on what I called my ghost table. It was made from the lightest shade of grey maple. The customer lived in an architecturally designed glass house right on Pebble Beach on the south coast and I knew the table would fit the white driftwood and the grey pebbles perfectly.
When Vera came back inside she looked different.
âWhat?' I put my cup down. âWhat's the matter?'
âThere's a letter for Ben.'
It happened from time to time that letters arrived for him at our address, even though he'd lived and studied in the city for almost four years.
âWhat's the letter?' I asked.
âA dental reminder.'
âSo?' I said.
She stared at the envelope, then back up at me. âI haven't been able to get hold of him all week.'
I handed her a cup of coffee, reminding myself to bring an extra set of sheets to the workshop. The timber had bruised slightly the day before and I had to take extra care. âIt's the first week back at uni, he's probably busy,' I said.
âDavid,' she reached for her phone, âI have the strangest feeling.'
âHe was fine at your exhibition,' I said. I felt a sting from the memory. âHe was so fine, in fact, he managed to ignore me all night.'
Vera touched my cheek and managed a half-smile as she dialled his number. The sun caught her bare feet and the edge of the kimono. I heard the muted sound of Ben's voice on the answering machine and then the beep.
âBen, darling,' Vera said. âI'm worried about you. Please call as soon as you get this, call me this morning.' She hung up and looked at me. âHe's all right, isn't he?' she asked.
âOf course he is,' I said.
It's five months since that morning and everything has changed. Time doesn't heal. Sometimes I feel so awful I just want to die and on other days I am filled with a wild, furious hope that things are not what they seem, that somehow the coroner made a mistake.