How could they get to that point?
Michael Sala’s The Restorer delves into the intimate life of a family and explores the power we have over others and, more importantly, over ourselves.
‘I would defy anyone to read their story and remain unmoved. The Restorer is an incredibly powerful novel and, I believe, an important one.’ Hannah Kent
Read our extract from this powerful and moving book:
He heard it for the first time from a long way off, the engine’s noise cutting through the hum of the city and harbour, and when the station wagon rounded the corner, trailer in tow, Richard guessed where it was headed. The car pulled to the kerb just past where he sat on the steps leading to his front door. There was a man at the wheel, a woman beside him. A young boy pressed his face to the rear passenger window nearest to Richard, and there was someone on the other side whose head wasn’t turned. The trailer was loaded with cardboard boxes, a fridge, a table, the whole lot of it held in place with mismatched lengths of rope. From the look of it, he supposed it was everything they had, but it wasn’t much. At least someone was moving into the place. He’d been living next to an empty house for too long.
The door at his back creaked on its hinges. Richard threw down the rest of his coffee. It had been a hot, windless summer day, but the sun was gone. In an hour it would be dark. A breeze had sprung up from out on the ocean, and it was growing stronger. A storm was piling up beyond the terraces that blocked off the sea—he could hear it, could taste the briny scent of energy gathering to break itself across the city. The storms along this part of the coast were fierce, and Newcastle always caught the brunt of them.
The engine of the station wagon was still running. The front passenger door opened and the woman climbed out, face tilted upwards, her brown hair drawn into a ponytail. She crossed her arms and looked at the house beside Richard’s as if she were about to get straight back into the car. The next gust of wind pressed her dress—a pale, flowery wisp of cotton—against her slight frame, but she didn’t seem to notice. Then the engine cut out, and the driver came around the side of the car. He was broad, muscular, with stains under the arms of his T-shirt, and a way of moving like his hands were the heaviest part of him—the kind of man Richard enjoyed looking at, but only from a distance.
As the man jumped onto the trailer and started undoing the ropes, a girl emerged from the far passenger door. She stretched her arms behind her, took several steps, and came to a standstill on the road. She was as tall as the woman, with the same pale skin, but not as slight. Her hair was like the man’s—thick and dark, almost black—and it hung halfway down her back. The boy got out last. He put his entire weight against the door nearest to Richard to shut it and then made his way to the girl. After a moment, the woman joined them on the road. She gathered them in, her hands around their shoulders, and the three of them stared up at the vast three-storey terrace. She spoke to them, but Richard couldn’t hear what she said. The man on the trailer, the ropes slack in his hands, followed their gaze.
There was something about them, the way they were standing, that Richard would remember later, in the gloom of an early morning, with the jostle of neighbours and the blue and red lights washing across everything.
But for now there was no one to see but him. The woman had turned away. The boy kicked a discarded soft drink can along the gutter. The man glanced at him, then leaned down from the trailer and held the keys out to the woman.
‘Maryanne,’ he said. ‘Can you open up the house?’
She took the keys from his outstretched hand.
Richard tried and failed to catch her eye as she walked past and let herself in the front door. He rose to his feet and approached the man.
‘Hey.’ He extended his hand upwards. ‘Welcome to the neighbourhood. I’m Richard.’
There was something restless in the man’s deep-set eyes, but the rest of his face hardly moved. ‘Roy,’ he said.
He returned to undoing the last lengths of rope around the table.
‘Nice to meet you.’ Richard dropped his hand back to his side. He could feel the children behind him, watching. ‘Need some help?’
‘Sure? Saves the kids breaking their backs.’
Roy looked down at him again. ‘Well,’ he said at last. ‘If you want.’ He began to slide the table off the trailer. ‘You ready?’
Richard took the legs of the table and grunted with the unexpected effort as the weight met his hands. ‘Woah, it’s heavy. I love the wood, though. Is it oak?’
Roy held his end of the table easily. ‘Blue gum.’
‘Where’d you get it?’
‘Built it myself.’ Roy’s tone was less guarded now, but detached, as if his mind were somewhere else. ‘Easy enough, if you know how.’
‘That’s great.’ Richard let himself be guided along the path and up the three steps to the door. ‘I’ve always wanted to do that. Never had the talent. Suppose you cut the tree down yourself, did you?’
‘Yep,’ Roy said. ‘That’d be it.’
Richard couldn’t tell if he was being mocked. ‘Where you from?’
Roy showed his teeth, a smile of sorts, but his eyes made it a warning. ‘We’re here now. That’s the main thing.’
Richard was the one to break the stare. A flush suffused his face and neck, a prickling unease that reminded him of being singled out at school. That feeling never truly went away—you just forgot about it sometimes. He cleared his throat. ‘Well, you’ve got your work cut out for you, anyway, with this place. Wasn’t sure what’d happen to it after the fire. Good for the buyer, I guess. Isn’t it meant to be a buyers’ market?’
Roy didn’t answer. It took them a while to manoeuvre the table through the doorway, Roy issuing short, terse instructions that Richard tried to follow as best he could. Then they carried it past the front room on the left and down the hall, their footsteps resonant on the floorboards. The layout of the house was the same as in Richard’s, only a mirror image: two rooms off the hall, with the entry to the second room just opposite the foot of the stairs, and the kitchen at the back. The place was a dump—he was shocked at its condition. There’d been a fire a few years back, accidentally started by squatters. They’d at least had the good sense to knock on his door before they’d run off, and Richard had called the fire brigade, but no one had been in there since, not that he knew of. It looked and smelled worse than he’d imagined.
‘Bet you picked this place up for a song,’ he ventured.
‘Here,’ Roy said, as they swerved round the stairs, and jerked his head towards the open door of the second room. They turned the table on its side, and Roy edged in backwards, Richard shuffling after him.
They put the table down and Richard looked around. The room was connected to the kitchen at the back by an open doorway. He could see through it into the kitchen, and then out through the back door to the courtyard. The woman was standing out there, her back to the house. She didn’t turn around.
Roy was already making his way out to the street again. Richard followed him. He glanced in at the front room as he passed it, curious. That was where the fire had started, from what he could tell, right in the middle. A hole had been burnt in the floorboards down to the basement below. A single candle, that was all it had taken.
Out on the road, Roy was lifting a couple of boxes from the trailer.
‘What next?’ Richard asked.
‘We’re good. Thanks.’
Roy walked past him, staring straight ahead, and mounted the steps to the front door again. Only a slight twist in his mouth indicated that he knew Richard was still there. Richard returned to his own steps and picked up his empty coffee cup. The breeze was cooler now.
The girl came past carrying a cardboard box. There was that awkwardness in her that girls her age often had, a leaning inward. Her eyes were almost the same as her father’s, the same colour as his, and guarded, as if she did not expect much from anything or anyone. Richard lifted his empty cup in a half salute, backed into the comfort of his own house and closed his door before the wind could blow it shut.
Freya paused at the foot of the steps to look up at the house, at the window she could see on the top floor, then she tightened her grip on the cardboard box and walked inside. A draught brushed her face. It smelled of old fire—a sharp, cloying tang of burnt wood and chemical and plastic—and underneath that, rotting wood, urine, things long since dead.
The high ceiling in the first room off the hallway was ornate in an old-fashioned way, but sagging and blackened with smoke stains. The wallpaper was filthy too, and separated here and there from the walls in folds and curls. In the middle of all this, beside a charred hole in the floorboards wide enough to fall through, stood her brother.
‘Daniel,’ she said.
Her brother’s face was slack, the tip of his tongue resting against his upper lip as he leaned forward and peered into the hole. He looked like he might topple in with the slightest push.
‘Daniel,’ she said again, a little louder.
The wood creaked under him as he gathered some spit in his mouth and released it.
If her brother didn’t answer this time, she’d push him in herself.
His large eyes fixed on her, and his lips, more like a girl’s than a boy’s, broke into a smile. Without a word, he stepped back from the hole, picked up the small box he’d been carrying and came towards her.
‘We’re not supposed to come in this room,’ she said. ‘Remember what Mum said?’
He followed her down the hall, just past the stairs, into the next room, where Dad was sliding the heavy table against a wall of raw brick. The room had a single window, narrow and cracked, boarded up from the outside, but dim afternoon light seeped in through the doorway to the kitchen.
Dad looked up. ‘Not in here,’ he said. ‘Take those to your mum. And don’t waste time. It’s getting dark. The sky’s going to open up any second. Okay?’
‘Okay,’ Freya said, and went through to the kitchen.
Daniel was close behind her. When she stopped, the box he carried prodded her in the back, and she cursed under her breath.
‘What?’ Mum said. She was on her knees, wiping down the kitchen cupboards.
‘My head hurts,’ Daniel said.
Mum got to her feet, took the box from him and put it down on the bench. ‘It’s the weather. It happens with your father’s knee too.’
Daniel came in close and rested his head against her ribs. Freya put down her own box. The benchtop was damp and shiny from having being wiped over with a wet cloth, but the stains hadn’t gone away. Outside, through a row of windows, she could see a wall hemming in the courtyard, and the rooftops of neighbouring houses. At her back, Dad’s heavy steps clomped through the hallway and out the front door.
‘Do you like the house?’ Mum was speaking only to Daniel, her hand running through his hair.
Daniel nodded against her dress.
‘I knew you would.’ Mum kissed him on the top of his head and released him with a slight push. ‘And Daniel?’
Daniel turned back to her.
‘Just try to listen,’ she said. ‘Really listen. Okay?’
‘Say yes, Daniel,’ Mum told him. ‘You have to say yes when people talk to you, so they know you heard. Remember that.’
‘Go help your father.’
Mum watched him walk off, then her voice changed, now she was just with Freya. ‘You know we can make this a beautiful home, don’t you?’
‘I guess so.’
‘But what do you think, Freya?’
Freya had never liked saying what she thought, not since she’d figured out that people didn’t usually want to know. ‘I think it’s fine.’
‘It’ll be more than fine, Freya. You’ll see.’ Mum put a hand on her shoulder.
Freya gave the smallest smile she could, and stepped back so that Mum’s hand dropped away from her. Mum sighed, picked up the wet cloth, and began wiping down the cupboards again.
The wind was picking up outside, blowing in the open front door and right through the house. Dad was in the dining room again—she could hear him—so Freya went from the kitchen out through the hall instead.
As she passed the door to the basement, tucked beneath the stairs, it was banging against its frame. Freya opened it further: a set of steps descended into the darkness. She started down, but the awful smell stopped her—like there was something solid in the air, thickening as she moved through it. The floor below was hidden under garbage, plastic wrappers, empty bottles and bits of rotting newspaper.
‘What are you doing?’ Mum said from the kitchen.
Freya came back up the stairs and shut the door behind her. ‘Just thinking.’
She shrugged. ‘Wondering how many people died in this place. Smells like a lot.’
‘Don’t be horrible,’ Mum said. ‘Remember what your father said.’
‘I can’t believe you let him choose a house without you, Mum.’
Mum didn’t meet her eyes and kept cleaning. ‘That’s just how it worked out.’
When Freya went out to the trailer again, the day was gone. Time was like that, though—one moment an open sky that stretched and stretched and you were bored and waiting, and hungry in a way that you couldn’t describe, not knowing what was going to happen next or what you were supposed to do. And then. Clouds from one end of the sky to the other, shot through with flashes of lightning, the low rumble of thunder, the first drops of rain spattering and fading on the footpath and the warm road, and all of a sudden, this sense of urgency.
Freya resisted it. She stood on the road beside the trailer and looked up at the window on the top floor again. She wanted to go up there, to look out that window, so she could make out the shape of the land, discover what lay past the buildings, perhaps find the ocean, see whether it was anything as wild as she imagined it, but another part of her wanted to remain right where she was, outside, and pretend that the house wasn’t hers, that she was just a passer-by, that none of this had anything to do with her. A drop of rain burst against her forehead. She opened her mouth and put out her tongue. The next drop, against her cheek, was heavier. Then there was no waiting at all.
The last boxes they brought in were soaked. The rain was pelting on the roof. Mum was peeling away the wet cardboard of each box to reveal the things inside. The lights were on in the kitchen and the dining room—naked, dusty bulbs that didn’t quite find every corner.
The smell of rain swirled around them, full of the odour of sodden leaves and ocean and warm road that hadn’t been wet for a long time. The front door slammed shut. Dad was stamping his feet in the hall and coughing. A flash of lightning blazed through the kitchen and a rumble shook the ground.
‘Jesus,’ Dad said as he came into the room, pleasure in his tone. ‘That was close.’
With the rain beating down, and the world outside gone, they sat around the table and ate a hurried dinner of sandwiches and salad that Mum had brought with them in an esky, and then kept unpacking. Another crackling boom rattled the windows, and a gust of cool air billowed up around Freya’s legs from under the floorboards.
Daniel was hugging Mum around the waist.
‘It’s okay,’ she said, prying him loose. ‘We’re inside. We’re all safe.’ She opened another box, dug around inside it. ‘There!’
Mum held the candles up just as the next crack of thunder exploded outside. A burst of light filled the room and Freya saw everyone as if in an old black and white photograph—Dad wiping his hands uselessly on his sodden T-shirt, his eyes shadowed by his forehead, Mum beside the table, Daniel buried again into her side. Then the house, like the world beyond the windows, dropped into darkness.
Everything became louder. The house pressed in close. The rain sounded like it was crashing down on her skull. Her brother whimpered. Dad coughed and cleared his throat. A rustle came from somewhere in front of her, a metallic rasp.
‘For God’s sake,’ Dad said. ‘My hands are too wet to light this damn thing.’
‘Give it to me,’ Mum said.
‘Where are you then?’ Dad said.
‘Here,’ Mum said. ‘Give me the lighter, you take the candles.’
Freya couldn’t see them, but she heard their movement, the rasp of the lighter. Sparks, and then the sparks condensed into a flame that brought Mum’s hands into view, and then her face, and Dad beside her. Freya thought of a story in the book she’d been reading in the car, a book Nan had pushed into her hands that afternoon, in Sydney, just before they’d left. Greek Mythology. Prometheus stealing fire from the gods, Zeus chaining him to a rock, an eagle eating away at his liver, the liver growing back each night. She’d read about Prometheus and thought of Mum, the strange mixture of hope and suffering with which she lived her life, how she never gave up on anything, even when it hurt her.
Mum cupped the glow of the flame with her palm and held the lighter to the candle in Dad’s hands. When the flame took hold, Dad put the candle on the mantelpiece. Mum lit another candle behind him.
Daniel stood there between them and reached for the next candle.
‘Not you,’ Dad said as he turned back.
‘Roy,’ Mum said.
‘He’s eight,’ Dad said. ‘We don’t want the house burning down, do we?’
‘We can risk it.’ Mum lit the candle and gave it to Daniel. ‘Just put it on the table.’
Everyone watched Daniel walk to the table and put the candle down with trembling hands. After a moment, Dad walked over and shifted it to the other side of the table.
‘The draught,’ he said, without looking at anyone.
The rain filled the courtyard on the other side of the kitchen windows with a dull, constant roar. They placed more candles around the room. The flames shrank and danced while her parents set out the foam mattresses, two side by side, at either end of the table. They stayed up for a while, sorting through things by candlelight, but the power didn’t come back on, and there wasn’t much that could be done without it.
‘Go to bed now,’ Mum said at last. ‘It’s been a big day. We’ll get up early.’
‘I’m not tired,’ Daniel said.
But he was asleep as soon as his head settled on the pillow.
Freya lay down beside him. She pretended to sleep too, and perhaps she did, because when Dad’s voice lifted through a lull in the rain, it startled her.
‘Those scented candles of yours finally came in handy. I can’t believe you’ve still got them, after everything.’
‘I was smart enough not to leave them with you,’ Mum answered.
Dad laughed, but not for long. For a moment the rain took over.
‘God, I’m tired,’ Mum murmured. ‘But I don’t think I can sleep.’
‘You don’t know how to relax.’
‘Do you blame me?’
‘Never, love. It’s usually my fault.’
Freya was facing the other way, but she saw from their shadows on the wall that they were close together. She heard them kiss, saw the shape of his hands merge with the shape of her neck. Then they separated, and Mum began sorting through a box. The metallic rasp of Dad flicking at the lighter again cut through the rain, and the smell of tobacco filled the room.
‘I know I promised,’ he said, ‘but I can’t go outside. And I really need a smoke.’
Mum’s voice came back at him. ‘Can you at least do it in another room?’
Freya heard his footsteps, and then the door closing behind him.
The rain intensified. Mixing into the sickly odours of the house were more familiar ones: Mum’s incense, her candles, her floral perfume, Dad’s tobacco and that smell he had that Freya couldn’t describe but it was his alone and it reminded her of an animal that did not belong in a confined space.
The house was a drum being beaten by rain. The whole world outside was sinking. For a while she let herself imagine that she was alone, and drifted in and out of sleep until Dad returned and lay down on the mattress beside Mum. Only a single candle burned on the table.
‘I want water,’ Mum said.
‘Well, you’ve got that,’ Dad answered. ‘Plenty of it.’
‘I meant hot water. Tomorrow, I want a shower. I hope there’s going to be hot water.’
‘I’ll make it happen.’
Then Freya couldn’t hear anything but the wind and the rain. A picture sprang into her head of Nan, standing by the window earlier that day, arms by her sides, not waving, not smiling, as they’d pulled away and started driving. It had been a hot, still afternoon, no hint of a storm. She thought about the school she had left, and her friends, and whether anyone there would ever know where she had gone, or why.
A few hours, between all of that—and this.
Sometime after midnight the rain and the wind stopped. The room filled with the sound and smell of the ocean, both amplified somehow, as if it were about to pour through the windows, full of storm debris—ground-up shells, rotting wood, seaweed, the husks of marine animals, endless other fragments suspended in the salt water, all of it caught in the roar of the waves. But by then there was no one awake to hear.