Winners of the 2014 Olga Masters Short Story Competition
First prize was awarded to Honeytree Thomas of Preston, Victoria for her story Chalk.
In addition, the judges awarded honourable mentions to Sophie Overett from Camp Hill, Queensland for Our Feet on the Dash; Melanie Napthine of Frankston, Victoria for Nosebleeds and Carmel Lillis of Yarraville, Victoria.
The first prize winner in the emerging writers section (for writers under 21) was won by nineteen-year-old Jessica Southern Reid of Bermagui for her story The Boxing Day Test.
The judges of the open section were Sue Masters, Olga Masters’ daughter and executive producer for drama at SBS; Mark McKenna, author of a number of prize-winning books, among them An Eye for Eternity: The Life of Manning Clark; and Mary Cunnane, freelance editor and publishing consultant.
The judges for the emerging writers section were Max Murch, Sean Masters, Georgie Murch and Tim Masters, all of whom are Olga’s grandchildren.
The organisers are most grateful to the Future Leaders project for providing the prize money.
By HT Thomas
Honeytree Thomas is a literary fiction writer with a passion for music, poetry and myth. She has a Diploma of Professional Writing and Editing, and a Master’s in Creative Writing from RMIT. Her short fiction has been recognised locally and internationally. She lives in Melbourne with her partner and two children.
Cael came home real late tonight. I know ‘cause I heard him slam up against the torn fly-wire. I know ‘cause I heard him cussing and the clang of his keys on the verandah, his big boots scuffing the wood. Then I heard the door bang shut and the wind whispering up the hall like a warning. Jim must have heard it too ‘cause all of a sudden he was at my bed, tugging at my nightie, eyes bright under the shock of sand-white hair that falls across his face.
‘S’annah, S’annah you ‘wake?’ he cried. ‘Wanna sleep here, with you.’
‘Ssh Jimmy,’ I hissed. ‘You better not start kickin’ in your sleep again or I’ll make you go back to your bed, right?’ I wriggled closer to the wall and Jimmy clambered up onto the mattress, his limbs clumsy as a foal’s. He stared at me for a while, his blue eyes caught in the moonlight. Then his eyes blinked once, twice, closed like blinds and I just watched his ribs rising and falling.
When I was a baby I slept heavy like a drinker. An angel baby, Rea said. I imagine her pillowy shape bending over my cradle, her ear to my chest to listen for that reassuring thump. And there I am, so small and perfect, halo of hair like a newborn duck. My name is Susannah. I am as still and peaceful as the lily itself. It was Cael who named me. Susannah of Babylon: the virtuous one. As if he’d sculpted me out of history with his own two palms. He would watch me from the doorway, all strong lines and shadow, his coarse hands caressing the neck of a half-drunk bottle, my dipped-lights of eyes scanning the dark.
When I was three and Rhys seven, before Jimmy was born, Cael moved us here to the outskirts of Colac. We came from Bendigo after Cael got a contract job writing for the Colac Herald. He said he’d rather be writing novels. I don’t remember Bendigo. Rhys says it was a hole. Just like this place. He says thank fuck we didn’t end up in one of the public housing flats they were building back then, to deal with the migrants. We got a proper house, small as it is. Dull weatherboard shack on Barry’s Road, surrounded by farmland. I remember the day that Council came to upgrade the dirt road. Cael stood on the verandah, resting his brown arms on the splintered post, his singlet hanging from his armpits as if defeated by the heat. I was jumpin’ out of my skin with excitement. Kept tugging at his shorts, asking questions. Cael, Cael, I said. Look! Wanted to know what the machines were doing. Then Rea came out with a tray of cold drinks, saw Cael standing there, all tense like, eyes scowling, and told me to shush. Said Cael was busy workin’. I got so angry then. My hands clenched into small fists. I glared at her. She don’t know his thoughts. I wanted to push her away. Cael’s hand fell gently onto my shoulder. It’s alright, Susannah, he said. My fists uncurled. I smiled at Rea, a wicked smile. Rea put the drinks down.
The window above my bed is gleaming. At it I see the shadow of a moth. I hear the muted banging of its wings against the glass. I listen for Cael, two rooms away, the scrape of his boots on the kitchen floor. Rhys is snoring like an old dog, stretched out on the wire bed beside us, his right arm bent and dangling off the edge as if broken. I think about shoving an old sock in his mouth, lift my body off the pillow, look for something to throw at him. But Jim stirs and sighs in his sleep next to me and I flop backward, burying my head in feathers.
After the road was fixed Cael gave me a piece of chalk. He said it was brittle and not to snap it ‘cause chalk is valuable, a secret gift for people like us. He said it’s made of dead sea-organisms compressed over centuries into sedimentary rock, and can hold a lot of water in its natural form. He said it’s porous, kinda like a sea-sponge. His grey eyes glinted in the sun like small stones. Words are freedom, he said. Powerful. He squatted down on his tanned calves, showed me how to make patterns on the asphalt. I drew a sea-sponge. Afterward he blew the chalk away with a kiss, and the pattern on the black tar blurred, lifted, scattered like dust, and my heart leapt in my chest like a wild thing.
From the kitchen come the muffled sounds of voices. A glass breaks. I hear the sudden bang of a door slam shut. Cael’s voice is thunderous. Rea sobs. I shut my eyes. Listen to my heart go ba– Boom ba–Boom ba–Boom. The dull clap of skin on bone. I hold my breath. Lights rattle. Cael’s boots are coming up the hall.
‘Get up,’ he barks, throwing the door open. He hauls Rhys off the camper bed. Rhys’ blanket slips down his skinny legs. He blinks, dazed. Jim sits up next to me with a cry. I squeeze his hand, hard. ‘OUT, OUT. Go into the kitchen. Go and take a look at your mother,’ Cael roars.
Jim bawls. Rea, he means Rea. Rea has done something. Cael’s eyes are dirty like the sea in a storm. He pulls Jim and me from the sheets, drags us into a line on the floor. Rhys tries a smile, looks bored almost, though it’s probably for show. My legs are shaking. Jim’s hand grips the edge of my nightie.
We march into the kitchen. I see Rea huddled on a chair, staring at her hand-sewn dress with faded flowers on it. She looks small and bloated and anonymous like a sea thing. Her cheek is red. Jim has a rash on his arm from the heat, and he keeps rubbin’ at it, scratching it raw. He is staring at Rea like he’s gonna bawl. I watch his eyes jump from her to Cael and back again. Rea doesn’t move. Not even when Cael clocks Jimmy over the ear and tells him to stop scratching at his scars like a leper. I freeze. His face is sculpted, handsome, even when twisted. He is powerful like a statue. I wonder if Rhys is gonna stand up for Jimmy. He’s in high school now. Says he won’t take shit from anyone. But Rhys just stands there looking self-conscious. Jimmy’s quiet now too, stunned. I focus on the light bulb dangling high above the laminex table, a tiny sun suspended on a cord. If you watch it carefully you can see it vibrating. Cael says the current’s too strong and that’s why the globes blow so often. Cael says whaddaya expect from government housing.
When I was nine Rea sat me down on a chair on the verandah and put a wooden bowl on my head. She said my hair was a bird’s nest and a breeding ground for nits. I cried ‘cause I had shiny brown hair that Cael said was beautiful. But Rea was firm. She hacked away at it ‘till it fell in a heap on the floor. I looked like a boy when she’d finished. I hated her. Rhys laughed. It was my birthday. I got an old suitcase from the op-shop, and a lipstick. The colour was so bright, so red and the paint smelt like talcum powder. I puckered my lips like I’d seen Rea do. Then I danced into the lounge, looking for Cael. I found him on the couch, drinking steadily from a bottle. He looked up at me, stared long and hard at my face. So long I blushed. I smiled at him and toyed with my fringe, my foot pirouetting under the shift that Rea sewed. He didn’t smile back though. I saw his eyes were filmy and strange. I made a face like a fish and blinked and ran outside to find Jim, all the while wiping at my red mouth with the back of my arm.
‘Go on, little Rea. Say it.’ Cael squats down so that she can hear him. His mouth on her ear, voice loose at the edges. ‘Tell your children,’ he drawls. His giant body is tensed as if he might suddenly jump. He grips the back of her chair with his fingers. ‘Tell them you’re a piece of shit. That’s what you are, isn’t it?’ He is taunting her now, smiling, an ugly smile, all twisted at the corners. I wipe my hands on my bare legs; try to look away but Cael talks so loud that my eyes jolt back in line with him. I want to put my hands out, to stop him talking. I see water streaming out of Rea’s eyes, and I wonder if she’s leaking. And Cael is showing me, how to get the water out.
Sometimes Rea wakes us in the middle of the night. Takes us out into the fields behind the house. Hides us in the haystacks. She makes a bed in the hay for Jim. It’s a game, she says. You have to be quiet now, hold your tongues. I did once, to impress Rhys, and it was strange holding that quivering thing in my fingers. It felt unnatural like a sea slug out of water. Rhys reckons it’s a muscle. We burst out laughing but Rea held her hand over our mouths. I struggled against her. I’m not that chatty anyway, not like most people. All my words are in my head, swirling ‘round in there like butterflies in a strong wind. On a good day I catch one of those words in a net and fish it out, and then I go sit on the asphalt at the edge of the road and write it out slowly with the chalk that Cael gave me. Porous is one of those words. I like it ‘cause it makes me think of a sea- sponge. And then I think of holding it in my hand and squeezing, so tight that the knuckles go white, and I just watch all that water fall. Rhys says I’m not writing. He says it’s just scribble. But I know; I know I’m telling a story. I’m like a magician, weaving stories with a magic wand.
Cael’s hand is on her neck. He’s leaning on her now, pushing her down. I can almost hear the bones creak. I try to scream but I have no sound. The bird in my chest is flapping. Rea’s face is in her dress, buried in the flowers. She struggles for breath. A muffled sound comes from her throat. Cael pulls her head back swiftly and forces her to look at us. Her mouth hangs open.
‘I’m a piece of shit,’ she gasps.
All the water is gone.
She has a chalk mouth. It hangs from her cheeks like a blurry line on tar. Cael, unsteady on his feet, swigs the whisky, glances over at us as if surprised we are still there. ‘That’s good,’ he says. ‘Children, tell your mother what you think. Tell her she’s a bit of shit. Go on.’ He looks tired. The eyes are hollow. ‘Tell her, Rhys!’ he barks. I turn quickly to Rhys, pleading with my eyes. Don’t! Rhys won’t look at me. His eyes shine fierce and his chin juts out like Cael’s does.
‘You’re a piece of shit, Mum.’
Jimmy slips past us to Rea and holds onto her leg like a stunned mullet. Rea is nodding, almost without moving. Her hand pats Jim’s hair but her eyes are vacant. I choke back a sob. Try to get her to look at me, so I can say sorry. I’m sorry.
‘Susannah?!’ Cael bellows.
‘Come here, Jim,’ I say. I pry his fingers from Rea’s ankle and pick him up in my skinny arms. I turn to face Cael. ‘I won’t say it,’ I whisper. Cael’s eyes lock into mine. He stands over us and raises the back of his hand. The bird is wheeling. The wings of the bird beat too close to the glass. My heart breaks and breaks. Cael lets out a small, strange laugh. His hand drops. He picks up the bottle. I hug Jim against my chest and wobble slowly down the hall. I feel Cael’s eyes on me, cool as stone.
In the dark I listen to the boys breathe, toss and turn, think of words, as many words as I can and I string them together, randomly at first, a game of sounds and rhythms and then I whisper them in the still air and they flap off like paper butterflies, silent witnesses. The sheets are hot, tangled in my legs. Rhys begins to snore. I step out of bed and the house is quiet so I sneak out through the kitchen door, careful not to bang it. Outside the air is clammy and sweet smelling like rotten fruit. I step barefoot down the wooden stairs, cross the grass and slip onto the cool expanse of road. This road leads out of Colac, Rhys reckons. I don’t know what’s out of Colac. I see the haystacks in the field where Rea took us, held us down, silenced our laughter with her hands. I squat down by the road edge, knees jutting out from my nightie that is too short, and draw a wobbly line with the chalk. The line is blurred, indefinite. I draw another line. And another. And suddenly the words come tumbling out, hundreds of them, like magic. And they come alive then and I watch them scrawl their way across the tar in animation, moving letters, ants and butterflies, marching and flickering across the surface, on a journey out. The bird in my chest is singing. I blow on the surface with a lungful of breath and watch them soar.
Emerging writer winner:
The Boxing Day Test
by Jessica Southern-Reid
My favourite day of the year has always been Boxing Day. It was the big day. The day where all of the family would come out to our farmhouse and have Boxing Day lunch together. It was the only day of the year when my Nan made all of the boys promise not to fight, and year after year they would break this promise. Once, the neighbours even called the police, but when the local coppers turned up and saw who it was fighting, they started placing bets on the outcome and helping themselves to potato salad.
We would spend days preparing for the big lunch. Dad always took pride in the fact that he could point to most of the things on the table and say that they were from our farm. There were potatoes, carrots, corn, asparagus, rhubarb, and every other manner of vegetable to be collected, a beast to be killed and butchered, and every possible variation of Christmas pudding, trifle and pavlova to be cooked. The best bit was always when Dad killed the beast, usually one of the bigger steers, and all of the kids crowded around while he carved it up, with the help of some uncle or other. There would be dogs begging for scraps and alcohol flowing, and the kids were always allowed a sneaky sip of Dad’s rum.
The best Boxing Day ever was the year that I turned twelve. It was a very dry year and we didn’t have quite as much money to pay for stock feed. Because of this, some of the family came to stay in the days before Boxing Day, to help get everything ready, and although I didn’t realise it at the time, to pay for everything between them, as we couldn’t afford it. Dad didn’t get to say that the produce on the table was his as we didn’t have enough water to keep the plants alive. It was still Christmas, and it was still wonderful as all of the family was together for the only time that year, and the uncles still argued and the aunties still gossiped and asked me if there was a special boy in my life. But it was different. Dad had new wrinkles under his eyes and mum had a permanently worried look on her face. At least, she did before the wine set in and she started gossiping away with the aunties.
It hadn’t rained for almost five months and it was a very hot summer. The day started with a drive into town to go for a swim at the beach, trying to fit all of the cousins into two cars in what was probably a slightly less than legal format. Usually we would just set up a waterslide in the front paddock, down the big hill, but there wasn’t enough water this year. Probably a good thing we gave it a miss, as in past years it was affectionately known as the slip and bleed due to the stony nature of the front paddock.
On return from the beach, the various mothers ordered their children into their clean clothes, fresh off the washing line, buttons were done up the whole way, jam and toast and dirt was cleaned off the faces of the toddlers, and we were given our marching orders for the annual family photo. This year, it was a spectacular one, as the aptly named ‘Billy’ the billy goat broke his tether and charged for the fully laden table with malicious intent plainly in his eye. The camera was set on a tripod with a timer. It took about five photos, which gave us a stop motion movie of both of my grandfathers, one of whom is almost blind, leaping up as if they were fifty years younger, to tackle the billy goat and wrestle him away from the table. The food, thankfully, was saved, although Billy did have his revenge on the tablecloth eventually, but that would be in years to come.
Lunch came with the sound of Christmas crackers, bad jokes and an argument about who ate the last of the potatoes that one of the uncles had had his eye on. Chickens were milling around under the table, getting in the way, overcurious, only to be put back in their place by each dog who wanted to be first in line to get the scraps. It was still special, as the Boxing Day lunch always is, but it was missing something. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it until one of the uncles exclaimed that veg just wasn’t as good this year. Woolworths just didn’t do as good a job as Dad did. There were a few chuckles, but Mum and Dad just looked grim. It was about then that I realised that maybe we were in a worse situation drought-wise than Mum and Dad had been letting on. A quick glance at the demoralized look on my brother’s face told me that he had just reached the same conclusion. Grandma, sensing the change in atmosphere, stood up and announced that it was time for dessert. The pavlova was cut and the presents were handed out by a mysterious drunken Santa who looked remarkably like one of the uncles in fancy dress. It was time for the most important part of the day.
Now it is widely agreed in my family that cricket is not usually an exciting spectator sport. However, this all changes when you take away the traditional setting of professional players in pristine whites playing on neatly mowed pitches. We play in the driveway, where the grass is so thick that dad has to slash it with the tractor as the old ride on mower just isn’t up to the task. We abide to the basic backyard cricket rules, no LBW and over the fence is out. We all get to have a bat and a bowl, which gets a little dangerous when the drunker of the aunties are in. The spectator stands had to be moved back onto the verandah after a cracking hit sent the ball flying straight at Poppy, shattering the beer bottle at his feet. There were shrieks from all around, but Poppy continued to doze, oblivious to the perilous situation.
What happened next can only be described as some kind of two part miracle. Part one came when one of the uncles hit the ball with such force that a small crack appeared on the surface of the bat. This particular uncle had been in bat for far too long and we were all out to catch him. The ball went soaring over the fence into the long dry grass of the front paddock and no man’s land, from where, one could safely assume, it would never return. However, we were all mistaken, for at this very moment, one of the aunties had chosen to go and relieve herself in the middle of no man’s land, given that it was substantially closer than the loos. Thus, we were all rather surprised when she emerged from the thigh high mass of brown grass, with her dress held up in one hand and the ball triumphantly in the other. She quickly dropped her dress to protect her modesty, but thankfully not the ball, and Dad stepped in to have a bat.
Now the second part of the miracle came when a freak lightning bolt struck the huge old tree at the end of the driveway. It made contact with a resounding smack, and after a series of smaller cracks, ricocheting down the trunk, one of the larger limbs came crashing to the ground. Poppy abruptly woke up and fell out of his chair. We all stood, open mouthed, watching as flames surrounded the head of the tree. This was not the miracle, this was, in fact, the complete opposite. With the land this dry, a fire would destroy the property and everything on it in a matter of hours. The miracle was when Dad, a man who had been hovering at the breaking point for the last few months, fell to his knees, hands to his face, and wept.
As we stood there, unable to comfort him, the rain came. It was just spitting at first, then sprinkling. And then the heavens split. The fire was almost immediately doused, and Dad removed his head from his hands, looking at the sky in disbelief. Raindrops mingled with the tears on his cheeks.
I think we all cried a bit this day. The rain went on for a week. It wasn’t enough to break the drought. But it was enough to make a difference. It was enough to ensure that we would survive another year. And we did. And the next Boxing Day, Dad proudly pointed out that almost everything on the table had been grown on our farm.
Runners up 2014
Summer in a Small Town
by Janine McGuiness-Whyte
Rain last fell on December 21; five arid weeks have since wound away. Isy follows cracks spreading in her sun-baked yard, wetting each crevice in a vain attempt to close the gap. Buckets of tank water won’t stop the dry line, travelling from rusty front gate to the left corner of her house. She feels as though everything could tumble within this fractured landscape.
With her finances fried, Isy began packing tomatoes in November. On Friday the packing line gals are warming up to the weekend, freedom’s peeking over a tower of polystyrene boxes. Co-worker Wendy breaks the no-chat rule, stirring Sal, ‘I’ve gotta stubby holder on my ride-on mower, if you’d like to come over and mow my paddocks.’
‘Yeah, right; I lost a child in my own backyard yesterday, the grass is long enough to tickle pussy.’
The supervisor interrupts, ‘Come on ladies, enough talking, we’ve got a pallet to go and no-one’s leaving until it’s done.’
From the box near her left elbow, Isy places a truss of tomatoes on the scale; it’s underweight so she snips off a likely duo from another truss and pops it in the punnet tray. Perfect. No scars, no blossom rot, no caterpillars, no splits. She sends it down the line.
A block away, a retired man in his fifties turns up Beethoven on the stereo, pushes the repeat button, and shoots his sleeping wife. She had been convalescing on the couch. Alone with this palliative care, he opens the front door, allowing the afternoon sun to stream into the hall, and then returns to the living room to sit in his favourite armchair. He rests the rifle under his chin, resigned to pulling the trigger. A neighbour rings police two hours later, to complain about the loud music.
On New Year’s Eve a newish friend calls her ‘an amazing woman’ then repeats a light kiss on her lips. It leaves her confused. ‘Lordy, I haven’t been kissed by a man in over eight years.’ She was thirty-four when her husband departed. Death being the cause, not divorce. One separated friend said, ‘You’re so lucky, your husband’s dead, you don’t have to put up with this bullshit.’ Isy felt the weight drop in her chest, like stones once thrown from Hepburn Springs’ bridge. Ker-plunk. No words rise to the surface, just sheer disbelief and a ripple of agony that floods everything. After some calculation, ‘Oh hell, I haven’t been kissed for over ten years.’
It’s benchmarking Tuesday; Isy hates benchmarking, because speed’s valued over quality. Isy takes a certain pride in even in this shit job, all her punnets look good, even when it means the arduous trimming and screening of oversized, damaged, or just plain ugly fruit. Isy averages six minutes per box. When benchmarking, five boxes are packed as fast as possible. Some packers become a whirling frenzy of fruit, secateurs, and stalks. Management uses benchmarking as a tool, to get hardworking folk to work even harder, and faster, even when the temperature in the shed’s nearing forty degrees. Isy resents this manipulation of herself and others.
A low noise draws Isy’s attention; she looks up. Outside the open shed-door dairy cattle are ushered down the road by a farmer, to a less barren paddock. The cows move slowly, mooing, refusing to be hurried. Everyone smiles.
‘There go the girls.’ Wendy, a farm gal, can call magpies to the door. Even this job has good moments. They’re brushing up against Mother Nature every day, keeping company with Willie Wagtails, caterpillars, crickets and boxes and boxes of tomatoes.
On Tuesday evenings, Isy goes to life-drawing at the community hall. This is where she met Dylan, a charming older man with an interesting past. When her teenage son, James, needs help moving a large sculpture he’s constructed from scrap metal, Dylan offers to assist. Isy cooks Dylan dinner out of gratitude, and the three of them have a pleasant evening talking about art, music, their town and local eccentrics. As Dylan’s leaving he asks, ‘Can I call you?’
It seems a strange question, as they exchanged phone numbers a year ago. Isy shrugs her shoulders, ‘Yeah, I guess. You’ve got my number.’ After shutting the front door, she wonders… ‘What’s that about?’
The phone call comes a week later, she’s on the train, approaching the last station, and reception’s abysmal. Dylan’s sentences are cut to pieces, and as the train passes through a tunnel the call ends. Isy worries that he might think her rude, so she calls him from the car-park.
‘Sorry, about that. I was on the train coming back from Melbourne..’
‘That’s okay. I said I’d call, so I called. I might ring next week, if that’s alright?’ There’s a sudden chill in his voice.
‘Sure. Pop over for a drink if you’d like. If my car’s in the drive, that usually means I’m home.’
‘Perhaps. I’ll see.’ He sounds distant.
‘Alright.’ Isy thinks, ‘Have I misread the signals?’
He asks, ‘What are you doing now?’
‘I’m just heading home now to get some dinner and watch the telly. I’ve got work tomorrow, so I’ll take it easy.’
‘Yes, you’ve got work in the morning. I’ll call you during the week, if that’s okay?’
Again with the calling question, Isy’s too tired for the circular nature of their conversation. ‘Okay, see you later.’
She pauses behind the steering wheel, before starting the engine. ‘What the fuck was that all about?’ She shakes her head, and pushes an old cassette into the player. Yes, it’s 2013, but her car’s from 1995. REM drowns out her misgivings. Just friends. Treat him like any other friend. This thought brings a little clarity, and she embraces Michael Stipe and all his sexual ambiguity, allowing the longing in his voice to resurrect yearning for past loves.
There’s one small supermarket in town. Yesterday the cheerful woman at the checkout was arrested for murder. Diana’s husband was found in the backyard of their previous beachside home; his body had been dismembered, and each section placed in a plastic shopping bag. The new tenants found a bagged foot beneath the lemon tree, when burying their beloved Jack Russell, Deefer.
Darryl went missing over three years ago.
‘I can’t believe my check-out chick has killed someone.’ Isy tells James.
‘How can she chat about the rising price of cat-food after murdering her husband?’
‘Maybe we’re all capable of violence?’ he offers.
Isy looks at the computer game he’s playing. ‘I hate those games.’
‘Don’t worry, Mum, I’m smart enough to know the difference between reality and gaming.’
Isy walks away. It’s pointless to argue, as she and James have divergent opinions on this subject. Isy thinks of Diana, she always seemed so cheerful, although she’d been displeased when a pensioner asked for a discount on an item that was already marked down as a daily special.
‘I hate pensioner day,’ Diana had said, ‘that’s the fourth one wanting something for nothing.’ Tough woman.
Early Thursday evening, Dylan shows up on the door step with a bottle of wine,
‘Come in. I’ve just got home from work, so I’m still hot and sweaty; and a bit green.’
‘Perfect time for a wine.’ He passes sauvignon blanc into her hands.
‘Thanks. You didn’t need to B.Y.O. we have a bottle chilling in the fridge.’
‘Well, open the cold bottle and keep that one for next time.’
James is in his room, at the computer. Isy knocks on his door, and leans in, ‘Dylan’s here.’
Isy goes into instant self-analysis, ‘Okay, so it might be the manoeuvre of a woman wanting a chaperone, or perhaps I just want my son to extend his social circle and get off the internet for a short while.’
It doesn’t matter, after half an hour of polite conversation, James returns to his room as Dylan prepares to leave. He places his glass on the kitchen sink, and then steps closer. Too close.
‘Do I get a kiss?’
The request surprises Isy, but she pecks him on the cheek.
‘Can’t you do better than that?’
She laughs. ‘What?’
‘I think you’re lovely.’
‘Thanks. You’re lovely too.’ Not a witty or smart response, but Isy’s not prepared for flirtation after a day of packing tomatoes. Now she feels flustered and just wants to boil the kettle and open her mail.
‘I’ll show you to the door.’
As he drives away, she feels the gathering self return. For the moment she needs to ignore Dylan, and tomatoes.
‘A cup of tea and then I’ll get back to that painting.’
The colours were merging beautifully.
Friday, around 3pm, the man starts wandering into her thoughts. Through the tiredness and rhythm of pruning and packing trusses, Isy feels slightly happy on remembering Dylan’s flirtatious advances. The excitement and awakened lust are a surprise. She takes a swig from her water bottle to cool down, trying to focus on the fruit in her hand, but then she strays.
A woman had been walking her dog along the beach, as she did most mornings. They found her body below the cliffs. She was sixty-seven, and the newspaper reported ‘no suspicious circumstances’. But the helicopters overhead made the town feel uneasy.
Isy wonders aloud, ‘What’s happening in this town? Are all people, all life forms, just flotsam or jetsam?’
‘No idea, Mum.’ James carries a bowl of cereal down the hall, to munch in front of the television.
‘Are you coming around for a drink? I have oysters and champagne.’
‘I hate oysters.’ But she’s curious about Dylan’s studio. ‘I’ll just a have a quick drink. If that’s okay?’
‘Of course. See you in ten minutes.’
‘I need to get changed.’
‘See you in fifteen minutes then.’ He hangs up before Isy can reply.
Dylan lives on the hill, and whilst driving up the narrow dirt road Isy tries to avoid rabbits skittering from verge-to-fence-to-impulsive crossings. The farm gate’s open and music emanates from the shed as she heads down the drive. He’s listening to Deep Purple; she follows Ritchie Blackmore to the open door. Dylan puts down his paint brush and beams a welcoming smile.
‘So, you found me.’ He kisses her lightly on the lips.
‘Yes. Now, you do realise you’re flirting with me?’
‘Of course. Am I too over the top?’
‘Nothing outrageous. I just wanted confirmation.’
‘What would you like to drink? I’ve already started on a local riesling.’ A glass is held up as evidence.
‘That will do just fine. Thank you.’
As Dylan pours a glass, Isy wanders over to look at his current artwork. It’s a woman in amber hues, sprawled on a couch. Isy recognises the model.
‘That’s Jill, isn’t it?’
‘Yes. From a sketch I did in life-drawing. Do you like it?’
‘I love the colours. They’re not what you’d expect. It’s like she’s on fire.’
‘I’m on fire.’ He moves closer and wraps an arm around her waist, drawing Isy towards him.
‘Where’s that wine?’ She breaks from his embrace and seeks the glass, which Dylan has left atop the bar fridge. ‘This is one well-equipped studio: fridge, wine, hammock… You’ve got it all.’
‘Not everything.’ He looks at Isy. ‘But, yes, I could live in my studio if I needed to.’
‘Come inside the house. The views are better.’
Dylan locks up the shed, and Isy follows him to the main house where they’re greeted by an old chocolate Labrador, the dog immediately starts sniffing Isy’s crotch.
‘Boulder! Come here. Too much like his owner.’
Isy smiles briefly, refusing to respond, and then distracted by beauty.
‘Look at that sunset. It’s incredible.’
‘Come sit down,’ Dylan pats the seat beside him on the worn brown leather modular lounge.
Isy sits down, but not too close. He shifts to nestle alongside, draping his arm around her shoulder.
‘Yes, it’s lovely,’ he says, looking at the view, whilst his long fingers touch the skin of her neck and trace the area just beneath her shirt.
Isy takes another gulp of wine.
It was only one kiss, and a bit of a fondle, but as Isy drives home she thinks, ‘Shit, they’re not officially separated. This is too fucked up for me.’ The car parked on the corner, with the serious looking man inside, suddenly makes Isy look twice. And, on opening her front door, James, with some concern, tells her about two loud noises like gunshots that’d sounded nearby. A third BOOM follows, as they stand in the hall. At that moment, Isy never wants to visit Dylan again.
The following day, neighbours are talking about the explosions that rattled their windows. After some investigation a friend with CFA connections provides more accurate information: some bloke’s in trouble for exploding illegal fireworks in a high density neighbourhood.
Monday’s hellish; the tomato crop’s huge after a hot weekend. Wendy rushes in just after nine o’clock, ‘Sorry I’m late; a pelican shat on my windscreen.’ That’s the last laugh for the day. At ten o’clock, Ray, the supervisor announces, ‘No-one’s going to morning tea until we’ve packed two thousand punnets.’
‘That’s against all OH & S rules. No break!’ Isy seethes, until they’re granted morning tea at eleven o’clock. Isy visits the toilet and sees her face in the mirror, reflected as a red, surly orb from pent up rage. ‘This job is really fucking with my health.’
She swallows an anti-inflammatory tablet with her muesli bar; as yet another muscle aches from repetitive action.
After returning to the packing line the supervisor slams down a packet of tomatoes on the bench. ‘Another punnet that’s overweight. You don’t seem to understand…every tomato you give away means that we are less able to pay our debts, which means we are less able to pay your wages.’ His anger offends us all. ‘Watch your scales; it’s as simple as that.’
Isy mumbles, ‘Hang around an arse-hole for too long and you start to feel like shit.’
Many of us are tempted to walk out, but few jobs are waiting, and household bills are rising. Each woman hatches escape plans, as we pluck, snip and pack; turning assorted trusses into presentable punnets. Bosses emphasise teamwork in shit jobs, because no individual wants to abandon the team and consequently increase the suffering of others. The film, An Officer and a Gentleman, climbs into Isy’s head. She looks towards the door. No man in uniform’s about to enter this hell-hole.
It’s another thirty degree day; four consecutive days of heat. Isy wades into the shallows after work, the water’s crystal clear; small fish scoot away from her footsteps. Crabs hurriedly hide in their holes. The sand beneath is clean and still holds the patterns of a rougher sea. Isy walks until the water reaches her upper thigh and then dives. It’s her favourite time of day, five o’clock and the gulls and water-birds are leisurely looking for morsels on the rocks. Isy tightens the muscles in her belly and back, stretches out her legs and swims like a mermaid, ‘The sea and I; submerged within a beautiful ecosystem. If I get eaten by a shark, that’s okay.’
‘Slavery’s still alive and well,’ Isy realises. ‘Might as well be picking cotton, as packing tomatoes.’
‘I’ll give you the heads up. You’ll be benchmarking all afternoon, if you don’t speed things up.’ Ray threatens.
They haven’t finished picking in the glasshouse. The packers have a hard time on a hot day, but the pickers exit wet with sweat. One picker’s a refugee from Burma, another from hospitality (and glad not to be working nights and weekends), another young woman has recently arrived from Vietnam. We all work hard, for twenty dollars an hour.
‘I don’t want to die packing tomatoes,’ Isy says to another packer, Leanne, heading to the lunch room.
‘That is a possibility today,’ Leanne smiles, weakly.
At the sink, Isy asks a co-worker, ‘How was your weekend, Nyan?’
‘Not so good. There was a fire in the refugee camp in Thaliand, many people die; my wife lost some of her family.’
‘That’s terrible, I’m so sorry.’
‘But my brother is okay.’
‘How long has he been there?’
‘Ten years.’ He holds up fingers to compensate for his stilted English.
‘I was there for eight.’
Isy offers milk for his coffee, before sitting down at the table to digest this news. Nyan eats lunch outside. He sings as he walks, or works.
‘We don’t know how lucky we are,’ Leanne’s packed tomatoes for over five years.
‘I suppose if we don’t know misery, we’ve got nothing to contrast our happiness against.’ Wendy started packing three years ago.
‘I dunno. I wouldn’t mind a-la-carte happiness seven days a week – I think I could handle that.’ Sal’s packed for four seasons.
‘You can only do that on pills.’ Isy’s the new girl.
Isy’s car’s covered in dust. The roads get worse with the dry weather. She’s just washed the day from her hands and the dirt from her face when the phone rings.
‘What are you doing for dinner?’ Dylan asks.
‘Nothing planned. I’ve just got home from work. It’s been a shit day.’
‘I’ve cooked Thai Chicken, would you like some?’
‘Sounds good, but I dropped my car at the mechanic for a service, so I’m grounded.’
‘Not a problem. I’ll pick you up.’
‘No messin’ around; just friends. Okay?’
‘See you in ten minutes.’ He hangs up before Isy can think of an excuse.
It’d be nice for someone else to cook dinner.
James is watching television.
‘I’m going out for dinner. Do you wanna buy a kebab?’ Isy flashes ten dollars.
‘Sounds good to me. Thanks.’
Isy quickly changes out of her smelly work clothes into a cotton dress. She gives James an affectionate peck on the head, which he resists. As she steps outside the evening’s warm against her skin.
Dylan arrives promptly, in a 1967 Jaguar. He opens the car door for Isy, and she slides into the leather seat as though she’s Marianne Faithful being collected by Mick Jagger.
Dylan smiles, saying, ‘Open up the centre console.’
‘There are glasses in the glove box. Pour yourself a drink.’
And the tomato day just floats away.
Corellas fly in a screeching flock, to land in a near-dead tree, covering the branches like white blossom. Full of good-natured argument, they gather at dusk to take stock. At this time of year, they’re the noisiest birds in the area. The plovers are quiet after spring; when they face-off cars in defence of their chicks, with often sad results.
After Dylan’s tasty dinner, Isy asks about a picture of a woman hanging on the wall.
‘I painted that in 1980, shortly before we married.’
‘It’s your wife? How long have you been married?’
‘Over thirty years. We just co-habit now, like sister and brother.’
All the doors in Isy’s heart slam shut.
‘Come on; don’t look at me like that. We fell out of love long ago, and agreed: no lawyers. She’s a bookmaker, one of the best, and travels a lot, following the horses. She’s in Japan at the moment. What about you, are you in relationship?’
‘No,’ Isy thought it was obvious. Isn’t ‘widow’ tattooed on her forehead? She decides there’ll be no fooling around tonight, no matter how charming Dylan becomes.
He puts on music, B.B. King, and holds out a hand to dance.
‘Well,’ reasons Isy, ‘dancing is okay. There’s nothing wrong with dancing.’
Her head falls against his chest as they move to the blues; Dylan seems saddened, so she holds him closer. He responds by kissing her neck, then lips, and she manages to keep most of her clothes on.
‘I want to go home.’
‘I’ll take you home, don’t worry. We’ll just finish our glass.’
Once home, Isy pieces together certain contradictions; Dylan’s been unfaithful before, he loves his wife but isn’t ‘in love’ with her, they sleep in separate beds, but share the same house. Nothing makes sense. She recalls the scene from Jane Eyre, when Jane discovers the existence of the mad wife and runs wildly across the moors, away from Mr Rochester. Isy feels sluttier than Jane, and less prone to running across paddocks, but the despair’s shared, their men had disappointed. The hidden truth is equivalent to an untruth.
Wednesday is her oasis. Isy loves this day at home. A list starts on Tuesday night; all the tasks for Wednesday are written, but rarely completed. A painting might consume an entire day, and that’s fine, the shambolic house can wait.
Around seven o’clock in the evening, the phone interrupts.
‘Are you coming around?’
‘Well, “Hello” to you too.’
‘Life is short; I need to talk to you.’
‘Yes, I need to talk to you too.’ She needs to say goodbye, not over the phone.
So Isy jumps into her old Toyota, avoids the rabbits, and drives up the dirt road to Dylan’s house. He’s been drinking, and starts another glass. He kisses Isy hello, and then pours her a drink. Isy smiles, she did need a drink, but could never keep up with Dylan’s intake of alcohol.
‘Let’s sit down and get comfortable.’
‘Okay, but all clothes stay on tonight.’
‘We’ll just watch TV then, nice and harmless.’
‘You love it.’
Isy doesn’t reply, because maybe this is the truth; she doesn’t need to pledge commitment to an unattainable man. His wife is her out. As he distractedly plays with her nipples, Isy doesn’t hate the surge of life filling her body; she accepts his kiss and returns some distracted passion.
‘How many times have you been unfaithful?’
He doesn’t know the number. ‘I’m not a good man.’
‘You’re a good man, you’ve just strayed.’
‘Do you like me?’
‘I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t like you.’
‘Will you be my lover?’
He’s such a man-about-town, but such a boy in the bedroom; a sixteen-year-old in a sixty-four-year-old body. The deep tenderness that’s lacking is replaced by dirty fun- because he’s habitually unfaithful? The safety barrier he places around himself is a poorly constructed replica of teenage lust.
He removes her clothing as quickly as a pick-pocket steals a watch. Suddenly she’s naked. She looks deeper into his eyes and he melts in her arms. Then Isy withdraws, ‘I can’t do this.’
‘I think you can.’
‘Look, I haven’t had sex with my wife in over five years.’
‘I’m sorry about that, but you’re still married.’
She remains celibate despite her body’s readiness, because she can’t commit to a rake, and he might need those shabby defences in the future.
Isy reads a mistresses’ website, which states that men who cheat on their wives are usually narcissists; this seems plausible. She never thought she’d be attracted to an older man, and it’s not his body that holds her interest; Dylan’s deep voice, his use of language, his smell and his love of music and art make her feel very comfortable, and happy. But separate from him, she can’t ignore the fact that he lies to his wife, and is therefore very capable of also lying to her. Isy doesn’t want to practice deceit.
On Saturday night, Isy dances with friends on the pavement, under a cafe verandah overlooking the sea. It’s a warm summer night, and a light breeze is blowing. The band’s playing Fleetwood Mac and Isy moves like Stevie Nicks, flying into the night. As her dress swirls around her legs, and the music returns her to teenage heaven, Isy finds a deeper love and respect for the friends that live so joyously. They know nothing about Dylan. She knows exactly what they would say, because she’d say the same, ‘Run, woman, run.’
When the phone calls come, she doesn’t answer, for forty-eight hours. He messages, ‘Call me.’
Isy rips weeds from the burnt garden. Everything’s drying to a crisp, even the native plants are dying. But some weeds love this weather. There are fucking opportunists in every environment.
There’s no denying the ache in her chest, and the dampness in her eyes. Isy’s meeting friends for dinner. She’d be out of town; it should be safe to ring Dylan.
‘Hi. I just wanted you to know that I miss you. And I’ve been avoiding your calls because I need to get over you, not for any other reason.’
‘I know. I understand. I’ve missed you too.’ He sounds restrained, polite, and this only makes Isy sadder.
‘I’m having a curry with some friends soon, so I thought I’d just give you a call, where you couldn’t tempt me.’
‘You tempt me.’
Something is breaking; she can feel the familiar snapping. Isy feels foolish: a sucker who’s fallen for the wrong man. Her friends are soulful; they have lots of laughs and enjoy a good meal. But when they part Isy experiences such an expansive emptiness. Before getting back into the car, she walks down the tree-lined street, embracing the warm night. A dark silhouette flies overhead. Isy looks directly skyward, and sees another. Birds flying at this time of night? Bats. They reel and chatter, gathering in a tall tree in someone’s backyard. Isy stands fixated, as bats continue to fly overhead in large numbers. She wants to lie down on the grass and watch them, but wants to get home to her son even more.
Wandering the supermarket aisles, before heading home, the grocery choices seem heavy and dull. Isy grabs cat food, teabags and milk, and lastly, a chocolate for James. It‘s been another kebab night. He doesn’t seem to mind; quite the opposite, he loves the kebab shop and is learning a little Turkish in the exchange. Isy decides to cook a roast for lunch tomorrow, like her father did, every Sunday afternoon. Her father didn’t touch another woman after her mother died at twenty-nine. Isy adored her father; but cherishes her difference. Isy loves all words, even those saved for cursing; her father never swore. She loves physical affection; her father had difficulty in even saying ‘sex’. Isy lacks his clear-cut moral views; she’s aware that everything has shadows.
In a nearby town, a woman’s wakened at four in the morning by a loud bang. A sixteen year old girl has walked onto the main road and into the path of an oncoming car. There’s speculation about suicide, drugs and psychosis. A newspaper reports that the debris included a mobile phone, a pair of shoes and a life jacket. The girl died at the scene. Another small white cross is planted on the grassy verge.
On Sunday night Isy answers Dylan’s call, and drives one last time through his gates.
‘Why haven’t we been married for ten years? And had kids.’
‘Kids! I finished having kids at twenty-nine. You can have kids.’ Isy was feeling agitated, swinging between frustration and sorrow. Nothing’s working tonight. For some stupid reason she says, ‘Thank you.’ Actually she knows the reason, so she says ‘Thank you’ again. Dylan’s made her feel more lustfully alive in these past weeks than she’s felt in ten years. But it’s useless. Tentacles of depression are also moving in, Isy can feel the lowering of her self-worth, and the renewed grief for everything lost – a daughter, a husband, a father, a mother…
‘I’d better go.’
Dylan sits on the bonnet of her car and she wraps herself around him, but keeps her feet on the ground, running kisses up his neck, holding the lobe of his ear gently between her teeth, and then finds his mouth for that final goodbye.
As he moves to close the gates after her car, he leans into her open window, ‘I love you madly.’
‘Love you too.’ It’s the truth. And it’s also a lie. Such things are possible.
After three intense weeks, she now feels ignored; a shelved toy. Dylan’s wife has returned. Isy doesn’t want to cry over him, doesn’t even want a relationship beyond friendship, but still misses the interaction. They were only playmates really; and now this long silence. It hurt. She starts watching for his car, vaguely hoping that he might drive by. Dylan’s like heroin, and her veins are hungry for relief.
Before she succumbs to this idiotic addiction, Isy recalls that Dylan voted for the Liberal Party during the last election, and impulsively asked for fellatio when driving in his Jag, she had been dumbstruck whilst the speakers continued blasting Steppenwolf. Really, it’s time to go cold turkey. She walks down the street to buy a few groceries. She meets a friend, Marie, and they pop into the pub for a drink. Many of the locals are there and they join a cheerful table. Isy spots Dylan across the room, she gives him a wave; and he turns away. He’s talking to a woman she knows, a recent widow. Isy notes his stance: the way he leans to say words directly into her ear, standing a bit too close and giving his full attention. Nausea rises. ‘Bastard.’ Snubbed and duped by a pathetic lascivious player.
‘Who’s that?’ Marie asks.
‘No-one. Let’s get outta here.’
Summer is ending. March arrives, but brings another week of hot days – five days above thirty degrees. Isy wishes she was on holiday. She can’t afford to quit tomatoes outright, but applies for a better job. At five o’clock each hot day, she swims, floats and swims, washing work from her body and attempting to clean Dylan from her mind. The latter hasn’t been totally successful, only managing to dilute the craving, and poorly bandage the pain.
As Isy hangs out the washing, a bird with a different sound attracts her attention; on one branch a wattle bird’s watching, he’s not responsible for those vocals. Isy looks closer, and a rainbow lorikeet looks back. She gathers James’ dry t-shirts in her arms, keeping an eye on her spectator. It starts to rain.
The bare bones
By Lindsay Fogarty
To say that the trouble was between Sam and me would be myopic. Yet even 20/20 vision, if one is looking in the wrong direction, wouldn’t be good enough. Back then the only person (besides me) who would’ve been able to see the truth, or so I believed, had died three years earlier. I’m near on thirty now, and still reflecting with gratitude that I was mistaken.
Sam blows the bakery cake’s nine candles with such gusto that his shock of crow-black hair whisks the icing and plasters his billowed cheeks. I’m cackling uncontrollably, until Jim, our father—although about that I have my doubts—presents Sam with one of the two dreams every country lad lives for: his own air rifle. My laughter dies as sure as if I’d been shot, and my cocked jaw stiffens. Sam dandles the rifle in the cradle of his arms, as if he needs convincing that it’s real, and I too sense its weight—heavy as a month’s bolt of winter rabbit skins. Such a bonzer pressie will, for weeks, surely quell that other boyhood desire—a horse.
This indelible Saturday in October ‘63 is a major day for me too as I look on gobsmacked. Is it that Sam had the guts to ask for a pea rifle, or that he got one? It shoulda been mine. A homemade shanghai—that’s all I got for me ninth birthday. Wincing, I spit a rent crescent of premature thumbnail and suck its stinging wound. I only dare imagine a rifle for my twelfth birthday: I doubt I’d have the balls to ask. If Mum were still around it’d be a different story I bet.
She was gravely ill, which I didn’t realise though she lay in bed for weeks. I thought she was just sick. I didn’t know that the cake she made for my eighth birthday would be her last. Jim knew there wouldn’t be a ninth, but it was worse than that. He’d been told the Sarcoidosis would’ve been treatable had it been diagnosed sooner. The doctor’s blunder was a fishbone in my father’s throat; he couldn’t talk about it. So, we were never told, not for years; not by him anyhow.
Jim’s not one for talk anyway, unless he’s drunk; then he’ll sprout crap like, “I’m scared of nothin’,” but I know better. He didn’t even let us go to Mum’s funeral. Heck, we ain’t been to her grave once in the three years since she died.
Relatives and family friends call me Little Bluey, because I have my father’s name and his red hair and freckles. What I ain’t got, though, is his favouritism. Things’ve never been what you might call tight between us. If there had been a time, before Mum died, I’ve forgotten when and why things changed for the worse. Sam calls him Dad; for me it’s ‘Father’ or ‘Sir’ but not ‘Dad’—it’s never come natural. I said “Jim” at the table once and only once. He didn’t raise his head from the meal or thin his lips. He just quietly said, “Don’t ever call me Jim again.” I’ve not known fear like those few long moments.
Outside, I trample Sam’s shadow like a mutt scenting a bitch on heat. “Come on Sam. When ya gunna give me a burl? Come on Sam. Let’s see if I can do it.” Eventually I’ll wear him down.
“I told ya, after me. If ya keep buggin’ I won’t give ya a go.” Breaking the barrel, Sam massages a pellet into position at the coaching of his animated tongue. He locks the barrel and hefts the gun to sight without a glance my way. He dents ringing tins, puts leprous-blue lemons out of their misery and at the bottle dump squeezes diabolo pellets down beer-bottle necks. But I do my best to mar it for him with my earbashing. I must sound like a yowling tomcat outside a bedroom window.
“Just five minutes Sam. Fair crack, yer got it all day.”
Sam’s sullen stare could break a drought. A thundering moment lingers. I watch his lips move, but I swear it’s Father’s voice I hear. “What are ya, a dill? I’ll tell ya something for nothing. I’ll give yer a go but after that rack off.” I’ve got to him all right, though his acrid snipe has me unnerved, bristling with goose bumps.
Sam thrusts the rifle at arm’s length and my first touch of it triggers a warm tingling that creeps up my forearms. The Daisy, she feels natural, weighty, and eager to do my bidding. “Can I ‘ave some slugs?” I ask with an open palm.
“I’ll give ya another when ya used that one,” he says making a show of who’s wearing the boss’s hat, shoving the slugs into a trouser pocket; matter-of-factly, indifferent like.
Why does he ‘ave to be like that? It spoils everything. But despite Sam’s pettiness, the thrill of having my turn spurs me on, for although I dislike being hotheaded I don’t find the willpower to think about it either. I beeline it for the hayshed and scout for hapless mice while prowling atop the lucerne bales. The briny, sweet mingling of beaded sweat and remnant icing tantalises my roving tongue as ten-scurrying minutes sneak by and I ain’t squeezed the trigger.
“Time’s up.” Sam breaks the silence.
“Orr, come on Sam. I ain’t had a shot yet.”
“Ya had ya chance, now give it back.”
Hoping beyond expectation I implore him. “Just five more minutes, I promise. Cross me heart and ‘ope to die,” I says, making the mark on my chest.
“Na, give it back now,” he says, “or I’m telling Dad,” and he means it.
Gritting my teeth and shoving the butt to my hip, I fire aimlessly into the hay. I want to chuck the rifle, I can see the stock cracking on the baked dirt floor, but self preservation impels me to think twice. I toss it onto a bale and with a heaving chest stride to the water tank and drink my fill, but it doesn’t quench the fire.
Heading inside and wiping hands on my daks I brush the demoted shanghai; yank it from the back pocket and halt. Its kill-notched handle is anachronous of better times and I cast it at the laundry’s raw, slab-timbered wall. I half hope it snaps and that Father finds it. I want nothing of his when they’re only token gifts, leftovers after buying top presents for his cosset son.
I’m spiked to the lounge and staring at the dusty, black and white wedding picture of Mum on a wall of dog-eared tarpaper, overlooking an empty vase. Angelic, with dark and wavy curls, veiled eyes and a thin, soft smile, she had been the peacemaker between Father and me. Her memory echoes better times.
Your father’s had a hard day Jimmy, and you’re as filthy as a chimney sweep’s boy. For all I can tell beneath all that dirt you could be Billy Brat from under Bumpkin Bridge, so you get out of that clobber and have a good tub-up like your father told you.
I wanta know where she’s buried. Shit! Why ain’t I thought about that till now? How can that be? Why ain’t I wondered about it before? Did I try and forget about her? I must ‘ave tried to forget her … I’m sorry Mum … I don’t wanna forget anymore. But yer not coming back are ya, Mum? I got to find ya, if I can just visit ya it’ll be alright … I know it … The river, that’ll do for starters.
From under the tank stand I grab the handline and the can of worms covered in moist earth and head for the snaking tree-line in the bottom paddock. To the red gum where—for her last birthday present—I pocket-knifed ‘Jimmy + Mum’ inside a heart. The place where we sat and fished and talked: here I make my confession.
Mum, you probably don’t want me sayin’ this but it’s true. I don’t like Father. There ain’t much to like really. He’s either not talkin’ or he’s yellin’; he can’t cook; I’m scared of ‘im when he’s drunk. He likes Sam more than me but ya know that. Most of the time, I hate ‘im more than anyone. Is he really me father? As soon as I can get a job and leave, I’m gunna. There I said it and I ain’t takin’ it back.
The coffee river, although it’s less agitating than Sam it’s more miserly, so I leave the handline set and knotted to a green branch. Rambling the grazed, alluvial flats I flick mud balls with the tip of a stick at hollows in tree boles—unless I spot my favoured target, a bird’s nest—all the while scouting for rabbit-dung middens. Fresh droppings mean I’ll trace the spoor to the warren and return with traps this arvo. Skins can fetch four and six a pound; even more in winter. With that sort of dough I needn’t flog the ole man’s baccy.
It’s just my luck. The one promising trail leads into the notorious dry gully—the one place on the property from which Sam and I are banned. The truth be known, if I hadn’t been forbidden I would’ve been turned back by the gagged entrance. With mud-brown fingers I button my sleeves before contorting myself through the narrow impasse. Inured by resentfulness, I ignore the chiselled, rocky floor tenderising my feet, push past groping twigs, raspy lantana and hedge around stinging-tree sentinels. Soon, my rancour is submerged in excitement with the morning’s events abandoned at the gully mouth.
I am Allan Quartermain and the rank foliage shrouds a deserted goldmine. Why else would the ol’ man not want us to come up ‘ere. He probably thinks I’d fall down a shaft. Clambering onto a fallen log, ahead I spy an opening to a horizontal adit and its tailings pile. Upon approach and with owl-like eyes and convulsive breath, I stop dead. I look around as if having almost stumbled into an ambush. There she is, sitting partially exposed in the tailings, as obvious as ‘thumbs up’: an overlooked nugget the size of a fist and washed half naked by rain. I rush to the bonanza and just as quickly decide to keep my trap shut. I’ll bury it under the farmhouse. I’ll tell no one, especially big-mouth Sam. And when I turn eighteen I’ll buy a Quarter Horse colt and the best stock saddle money can buy. I see myself relaxed in the saddle with a stalk of paspalum in the corner of my mouth and staring down at the respect in my father’s face. Then he’ll give me a wink and a twitch of the head, usually reserved for grownups. I’ll nod back, then turn the colt on ‘is hindquarters and gallop away.
In reality, when I reach the gully head my enthusiasm drains like sluice water. The congested approach spills me into a precipitous rock amphitheatre where I make my début playing the fool. At the base of the far wall is a low pile of shattered boulders. The broken and dried out carcass of a roo is contoured upon the rocky mound, and shrubbery covers the remaining ground. There is no goldmine, no tailings, no shaft; no nugget. Even the rabbits’ burrows prove elusive. The bleak scene is quiet and still as a picture, the shade tattered, the air as broiling as Jim’s anger. With all the saliva I can muster, I swallow the spit up puke which burns like Father’s neat whiskey. Slumping onto a sandstone ledge I console myself with a matchbook and package of crumpled newspaper. Careful in unpacking it, I rub the contents into a sorry-looking rollie with its unaccustomed lantana smell. Pinched last night, for Jim doesn’t miss the baccy when he’s pissed. Not a wisp of breeze and the white smoke hangs like traces of morning mist on a swamp. Maybe it’s the eerie stillness, and smoking stolen tobacco in a forbidden place that has me ill-at-ease. When I finish the durry I’ll rack off and check the handline.
Blowing smoke rings between coughs, I notice something high up the amphitheatre rock face, on the edge of a small grotto and in the shadow of its beetling roof. Twenty feet up, its size gets my attention: what resembles the knuckle of a large bone is too prominent to belong to a rock wallaby’s skeleton. Boy! I could do with the shanghai now. I’d hit that from ‘ere. On the balls of my feet I take my last puff. A cow or a roo couldn’t end up there even if it fell in. Bandings of rock ledges, like steps, burn as I traverse the wall, but it’s a piece-a-piss: only slightly harder than climbing into bed. I pause, rocking from foot to foot, at the lip of the grimacing mouth of a shallow cave. Slowly I stretch, having a good stickybeak. A snake might have beaten me up here. Strewth! Across the grotto floor only big enough for one person to shelter in, dun-coloured leaves are scattered amongst a jumble of long bones; limbs covered with a chalky, crimson tinge and irreverent guano. There’s no second guessing they’re human; five or six skulls in the commune. Empty eye sockets … dead people … I retreat to the gully floor. My chest aches, my skin sweats, and a deafening buzz stops my ears. Spooked, a destructive urge wants to smash the bones. I’ll pelt ‘em onto the gully floor, but I’m repulsed by the idea of touching death.
I grab a stiff branch and retrace the climb with the intent of flicking the bones out onto the gully floor then crushing them with boulders. Before I reach the cave, however, a loud, thrashing noise falls from above and behind me. I hear it bound off the gully rock face, tumbling and cracking onto the ground like gunshot. My recognition that it’s falling rock isn’t calming and, mad as a cut snake, I descend the gully wall and scuttle towards the gully entrance—out into space and cool air.
I return to the river with nothing but scratches, the flies on my back and a full case of the heebie-jeebies: the presence of having been at someone’s final resting place stalks me. I wonder if there were bones of a mother in that cave. Nobody better have messed with Mum’s grave. I picture kids stoning Mum’s headstone; piddling on her grave. The ratbags remind me of myself, and straight off I am relieved that I unwittingly escaped doing something else wrong—desecrating a grave. I suppose Mum looks more like them bones than she does in her picture. I gotta find where she is. Father could take me; if he won’t I’ll find someone who will … I bet if Sam wanted to go he’d take ‘im. Mum was better than ‘im; she didn’t ‘ave favourites. I love her but I don’t love ‘im … She’s me favourite …
The first time I was conscious of myself I was combing my hair at a mirror and wondered how I’d managed to do it hundreds of times before without noticing me. I knew then that I would never be the same again. Up until that moment I had believed all things were possible. So, now I face the mirror again, and I don’t like my reflection.
I’m just like ‘im. I ‘ave favourites like he does. But surely it’s different because I like Mum more as she’s a nicer person … Is that why Father likes Sam more because he’s a nicer son? Nooo … I’m like the old man.
Now the sleeping willows and the verdant bush hemming the opposite bank appear sinister—suggestive of screened haunts, of snoops. Behind me, trees look more like erect skeletons, looming boulders and shadowy corners seem to be harbouring elusive stares, while the caws of curious though wary crows mock me. I cower like a reluctant skinny-dipper and on a school day—not too many days far off—I hear the slight of ‘hypocrite’ for the first time. It displaces me back to this spot-in-time with a jolt.
I don’t like it about Father; I like it even less about myself. This makes it hard for me to hate him for it. The mirror shows me that seeing him as the problem isn’t the problem. It’s that his problem is the same problem I have. Don’t get me wrong, I still don’t like him but I can live with him. Just as I have to live with myself.
Jittery, like I’d just scoffed a packet of birthday Minties in one sitting, I reach the house paddock and gingerly side-slip through the barbed-wire fence as if negotiating one of Father’s interrogations. Sam is admiring his over-the-shoulder rifle pose in the water trough’s reflection and neither faces nor acknowledges me. I can’t blame him, and leave off asking for a turn—I’ve lost the hunger for fun. It isn’t so much fun when you walk over a mate to get it. The land teaches you to be cautious in approaching a wounded animal so tomorrow, when he’s not smarting so much, I’ll make it up to him. Maybe we can trap and skin rabbits together—fifty-fifty—that way I’ll save for my own rifle and Sam will have money for slugs.
Inside, I’m draped on the lounge holding Mum’s photo, my eyes stroking her image. The thunder of size 11 boots falling on tallowwood flooring heralds Father’s appearance, and he darts me with a shrill, askant stare. Blinking, he twitches a glance at the picture’s dust-framed void; then lightly tosses the shanghai onto my lap with an unexpected gentleness. “There ya go Jimmy. Ya must’ve dropped it.”
To my surprise, “Thanks Dad,” pops out, natural like.
2014 Honourable mention
Our Feet on The Dash
By Sophie Overett
They pull up at a petrol station along the Pacific Highway. A Caltex with blown lights; only the e is properly neon, and it stands bright and coarse against the black tar sky. Cyndi and Madonna both get out of the car, stretching their legs as Hank fills the tank, dusting his hands on the legs of his pants.
He watches the two of them walk out and separate, Madonna bee lining for the station store and Cyndi stretching her arms at the edge of the highway, all lurching legs and brittle bones. She’s whippet thin, has been since childhood, but there’s a wild look to her eyes now that reminds Hank of races with scrawny, twitching horses or snarling hounds. She’s always smoking, at least has been since they left Brisbane this morning, and reading dog-eared airport thrillers with tight, easy prose and cracked spines. She climbs back into the car, contorting into the passenger seat and throwing her bare feet up onto the dashboard like she’s fifteen still and not in her thirties.
He pays at the machine and gets back behind the wheel, waiting only minutes until Madonna is walking back towards them, holding a pack of cigarettes and one of those ninety cent exercise books you buy for children, with thick blue lines and pages like tissue paper. She rolls it up easily, forcing it into the back pocket of her jeans as she clambers into the backseat, promptly throwing the cigarettes over the headrest in front of her and onto Cyndi’s lean stomach.
“Gangrene, nice,” Cyndi says, eying the health warning, before slitting it open with a long nail, knocking a cigarette out with a tap. She winds the window down, but waits until they’re on the road again to light up. Through the side mirror, Hank sees the smoke whip passed, back towards the station, back towards home.
This is how they start.
He had found out about the new housing estate a month ago from Bruce, who had been his neighbour when they were both boys. Redevelopers had purchased most houses along the street in order to knock them out in exchange for a retirement village. Over the phone, Bruce had laughed, voice hoarse with age and the throat cancer he’d never been able to shake, said almost lucky and talked about checking into the place and dying in the same street he was born on. Hank had not been quite so enthused. Cyndi and Madonna had never been to his childhood home, so he had called them, quite out of the blue, and asked them if they would road trip with him to Cape York. For farewells sake.
It was Cyndi who had quipped at the irony of the exertion. Of traveling the 1300 miles to say goodbye to a house when he had not been able to walk the few metres to Cyndi and Madonna’s room to farewell them as children.
He had said nothing else on the phone, and Cyndi had left it alone, distracted suddenly by the coo of the baby he keeps forgetting she has now. She had come though, he thinks, letting himself glance at her in the passenger seat, her feet on the dash and her headphones on. Her eyes are shut, but her breath is unsteady enough that he knows she’s not asleep.
The highway out here is some impossible stretch of long road, cupped between tall eucalypts and fat, pineapple-headed grass trees. The heady smell of smoke from back burnt bush fills up the car, soaks into their clothes and Hank knows it’ll be that way for days.
It’s another few hours drive before they stop for the night, tiredness weighing at Hank’s eyes, the girls both asleep in the car. The motel they find is tired, all old, flaking paint and arching windows that yawn down at them. The carpet print is schizophrenic at best. It’s virtually empty too barring the gum-snapping receptionist who’d handed them a room key attached to a short piece of plywood, the number 2 scratched on thinly.
Madonna cracks her knuckles, and Cyndi fiddles with her suitcase, pulling up the lever and jerking the handle up higher until she’s able to drag the whole thing behind her.
“The Shining,” Cyndi says after a minute.
“Psycho,” Madonna adds.
“What the fuck is that?”
Cyndi grins. “A hotel thriller set inside John Cusack’s head where he brutally murders his multiple personalities.”
Madonna laughs out loud, startled, and runs a hand back through her hair.
“It’s just a night,” Hank says finally, but it still irks him later when Madonna tears a page out of her notebook and sticks it to the bar fridge, the words all work and no play makes Hank a dull boy scribbled on in her chicken scratch handwriting.
They’re back on the road in the morning.
He remembers the last time he came home – back to them – how he’d fucked it up with the anxious, wandering feet of a Kerouac or a Hemingway. The nomad in him stretching out the muscle of his heart, forcing his legs forwards and around and away. He remembers Cyndi, fifteen, at the window as he’d left. A look he couldn’t read on a face he didn’t know. He tells himself it’s the rip of the sea that he feels, and it is, and he does, and it stretches at him and pulls him out always.
They make it to Townsville on the second day.
The sun here is relentless, a force to be reckoned with, and it beats down on the ground and the houses and on them until the steering wheel of the car is too hot to touch anymore. They pull over on the roadside and empty out their belongings, wandering out until the ground opens up like a mouth, the water crashing against the hard rocks that sit firm and clenched like teeth.
It’s Cyndi who kicks off her shoes and clambers down the face, clutching at the rocks until she can dip her bare, bony feet into the water. Madonna shields her eyes from the glare, watching as Cyndi lowers herself down.
“Is that safe?” Madonna asks finally, and Hank shrugs. The water out here is something that’s always made sense to him, more so than anything else, and the thought of it as being dangerous is something he struggles to align in his own head.
Cyndi has dropped now anyway, is sitting against one of the rocks with her head out to sea. The breeze is light today, but it blows up the salt until it’s all Hank can taste, and he follows finally, climbing down the rocky surface to meet Cyndi. Her olive skin is much like Hank’s own, just not quite as worn out, stretched and weary from years pulling nets full of fish out of the sea and docking ships at harbours. He has a long scar up his forearm where he had a cancer cut out years back, and the cut of it is still some blistering old thing, ugly like a grimace.
Madonna is different from him and Cyndi, with creamy skin instead of olive. She burns quickly, but she doesn’t seem to mind, lets her skin turn streaked red beneath the northern Sun. She’s followed them down now, clutching thick, plush towels which she passes to Cyndi, before leaning forward to drop her ripening toes into the cool, swell of water below them. After a minute, she sits properly, pulling out that notebook again.
“You’re burning,” he says, and Madonna glances back at him. She’s holding onto a pencil, some stumped thing with the end chewed up. The notebook in her lap is marked up with her chicken scratch scrawl. A line has been scribbled out angrily.
She doesn’t reply, just leans back and pulls Cyndi’s big, flopping hat off her head and then puts it on her own, tugging down the back to cover her bare neck and shoulders. Beside her, Cyndi snorts a little in her sleep, rolls over and bares a red, marked up cheek from where the towel has left its imprint across her fine features.
He talks to them about bait, about fishing in the deep seas and the long, scaly salmons he’d catch off the coast of Tasmania, the hoki from up north. He had taken Ira out once with him when they were very young, and she had not fallen in love with it like he had, had hated these fish who flopped blindly in nets and suffocated away from the womb of the sea, had hated the men more who’d pulled them out with sharp hooks.
“Don’t think like that,” he’d said, and Ira had just frowned. When they’d gotten home, she had left him for a week and moved in with her mother and he had gutted the fish he’d caught and brought home and ate alone.
They spend the day in town, out of the car and off the road. Madonna disappears for hours with her notebook and purse, and Hank wonders if Cyndi will disappear too, take off like her little sister. She doesn’t though, just changes into swimmers on the roadside and starts for the beach.
“You can come if you want,” she tells Hank, fixing her goggles on her forehead. He follows blindly, making it to the edge of the sand when Cyndi takes off like a bullet, like the greyhound she is, and leaps full-bodied into the surf.
She laps out until he can barely see her except for the curve of her arms above the water when she freestyles against the current, breaking through it with the long, heady strokes of someone who’s not just lived in water, but out here in the surf. In the wild.
Hank goes knees-deep, lets the water lap at his legs and push him eagerly back to shore. He almost goes back to the car, but Cyndi makes her way back to him before he has a chance to, heaving herself out of the water and lying flat on the sand. She rips off her goggles and lets the water climb her body every time the tide heaves in. He wonders, suddenly, if she was showing off, showing him what he’s missed, but he shakes the thought from his head. Moves closer and lies beside her slowly, his old, aching back protesting as he shuffles down to the compacted sand.
Cyndi watches him unrelentingly, before finally smiling, some small, sad thing that unhinges him.
They decide to stay overnight again, and Hank checks them into a bed and breakfast instead of a motor inn, paying more maybe than he’d like, but still insisting that the girls contribute nothing.
Madonna leaves it, and drops quickly to the bed, falling asleep almost inhumanly fast. She’s much more sunburnt than he’d realised earlier, a look that Cyndi jokes is traffic light red.
She glances back at Hank, says, “I’m going to have a cigarette,” and ducks out to the balcony. He watches her as she lights up and takes the long, hollow-cheeked drags of a practiced smoker, and then pulls out her mobile. He doesn’t mean to eavesdrop, but finds he can’t help it when her low voice gets suddenly tight.
“Jesus, Tony,” Cyndi says. Her shoulder twitches and she stumps her cigarette out hard onto the concrete ground of the balcony, drops it. She buries her face in one hand, the other still pressing the phone tight against her ear.
“I know,” she says down the line. “I know. Put Abby on.” There’s a beat of silence, and then, “Well, wake her up then. Just this once.”
Hank knows he’s imposing, that this moment of intimacy for Cyndi is softening, sanding down her rough edges. He wants to see this, but not in a way that isn’t allowed. He’s sick of stealing moments, wants them to be given to him freely.
He knows Cyndi has a daughter, some toddling thing. He has seen one photo of her, which was sent out for extended family and friends only shortly after she was born, and he’d been surprised in that moment not to see the hard-edges of Cyndi but the softness of Madonna in the baby’s round face – Madonna’s hazel eyes and thick lashes. Congratulations he had sent back, I can’t wait to meet her, and Cyndi had not replied.
On the phone, Cyndi has started cooing in a soft voice, rubbing her eyes with a free hand and fumbling nervously with her lighter. Hank looks away.
He remembers when Ira had Cyndi, the way she’d looked, smelt. Ira had been a mess in labour, all straining neck and heels she’d dug into the empty air, her ankles twisted in the stirrups. She had smelt like sweat and oils and the jasmine perfume she’d put behind her ears every morning. Her hair had been greasy to the touch, slimy in a way that a pond surface gets when there’s too much living beneath it.
Cyndi had been early. Small and sharp angled even then as the doctor had tugged her out and told them it was a girl. Ira had laughed and cried and reached for her and all Hank had said was “What do I know about daughters?”
Later, he’ll suppose that that was probably the actual start.
They’re on the road first thing in the morning, the sun at their backs and Cairns on the horizon. Madonna spends a lot of time fiddling with the radio before giving up, finding it dominated by talking heads or static or the dull thrum of electric pop.
“Lame,” she says with a sigh. There’s ink on her face – a sharp fleck at her temple from where she must have tried to push some of her hair back. When he’d woken up that morning, Madonna and Cyndi had swapped – the latter being passed out in the bed, snoring softly, and Madonna on the balcony, curled up into herself with that notebook.
It had taken him by surprise, the seriousness with which she sat there, the obliviousness to the world that was outside the scratch of her pen on the paper. It was just her there, the sea breeze grasping loose at her dress and her hair tangled and her skin red and salty. She looked in that minute alone, a mirror of her mother.
“What do you write about?” he asks her now, and Madonna shrugs. The sunburn at her neck has just started to peel – to flick up at the edges like a well-read page.
“Anything, I guess.” She grips one of her hands in the other and then stretches them forward, arching her spine until her back cracks. Hank thinks again of Ira. Not the straight backed, sullen-faced one that he’d left, not her, stinking of talc and baby shit who’d play loud eighties pop ballads to yell at him in the ways she couldn’t. The old one – the young one, the one he met by the stage of a Divinyls concert, her hair teased in waves of bleach blonde and her skin sticky with body glitter and sweat. They’d kissed against the wall and then fucked in a toilet with her tulle skirt hitched up beneath her still pert breasts. He’d come out smelling of hairspray and that jasmine perfume and had glitter all over his cock and his thighs. She’d looked back at him after, her lipstick smudged and her eyes soft and reached out for him with a warm hand and he’d thought maybe this is it.
He doesn’t even know what she looks like now. It’s been so long.
“On the Road,” Madonna hums after a second, and from the back, Cyndi stirs.
“Into the Wild.”
“Thelma and Louise.”
They stop in Cairns and eat fish and chips in the park, the mangroves firm underfoot and the kookaburras swooping down in perfect arcs to steal the sausages of a family barbequing further down the green.
Madonna gets fat prawns with coconut crumbs and Hank won’t touch them – he knows too much about them from work and he’d tell them if he thought they’d want to know. Cyndi’s phone rings, and she leaps to answer it, rising from the table and wandering off through the park towards the car. Hank and Madonna sit in a silence that’s not entirely uncomfortable, picking greasy fingers over greasy food. Her hair is long now, longer than when they started. He knows because he doesn’t stop watching them, trying to find the parts of him in these women. These grown things that came out of him and Ira. Wants to map out his genetics like they’re doing this trip, say, we’ll take a left at your mother’s nose, walk the inches through my smattering of freckles to that ear that’s all your own. On the way we should get out to see my inability to commit and your incapacity to connect.
Madonna hears none of this, just flicks out her thick hair and looks just like Ira in her youth and like no one Hank knows.
Cyndi comes back, holding her mobile out to Madonna.
“Mum,” she says simply, and Madonna brushes her hands off on her pants and takes it, clambering off the seat and mirroring Cyndi’s path towards the car.
“Your mother…” he starts, but Cyndi cuts him off, voice curt.
“I don’t need you to tell me anything about my mother.”
For a moment he sits there like the fish he’d caught as a boy up in Cape York, open mouthed and gasping, then thrown back to sea where the swell of water took them elsewhere. He is not given the same courtesy.
Cyndi doesn’t watch for his reaction, just sighs, purses her lips and glances out at where Madonna is now leaning on the hood of the car, her arms crossed and her sunglasses on. She’s smiling and her posture is easier, more relaxed than Hank thinks he’s seen it.
“Mum’s not perfect,” Cyndi says finally. “But she was there and she came to my fucking bullshit debating when I was thirteen and Madonna’s tennis games and she was there when we were sick and when Abby was born, and that still matters.”
“I’m not perfect either,” he says, and Cyndi looks back, eyebrows raised and a deprecating smile twisting her lips.
“No shit,” she replies, and then, “This trip isn’t a Band-Aid. It’s the first pill in a long treatment. Realise that.”
They get to Cape York four days after they set off. The sea here is a perfect blue, the sand nearly white and it edges forwards to meet the surface, an arch of a spine towards bed sheets. The air is clearer than in Brisbane, and he wants it in his chest. Wants to suck the salt out of the sea, the grit from the air and leave all things smooth.
Cyndi drops beside him, her weight heavy and her feet caked with white sand. She rummages in the pockets of her capris for her lighter, but it’s out of fuel and only splutters as she flicks the wheel of it. She curses, then, like a catapult, pulls back her arm and tosses it. It soars through the air, arriving in the water with a small splash. He wonders at the casualties at the water surface, the microbes that Cyndi would’ve sobbed about as a child, until Ira would pull her away with the promise of ice-cream and afterlives.
“It’s beautiful here,” he says instead, voice gruff from disuse. “When I was a kid we used to make boats with the bark off the gumtrees and try and sail them. No matter how far they went with the rip they’d always wash back up in the surf. We kept trying though, like we could send them onto other continents. No better than sending bottles out to sea, but at the time it seemed like the best idea.”
Cyndi’s watching him properly now, her green eyes bright beneath the harsh cape sun. He wipes the sweat off his brow before getting up, shifting his weight and wandering out. The waves are gentle at this time of morning, lapping more like a dog than anything, some keening animal nosing the back of your thigh. Hank walks until he’s shin deep and looks out. The water is endless, miles of blue rising and settling and always moving, on to other bays and ports and harbours.
He turns back. Cyndi has cupped her mouth, is calling to him. He’s waist deep and hadn’t even noticed, the water soaking at his clothes and seaweed curling around his ankles. From here, he can see Madonna on the hood of the car. She’s stopped scribbling in her notebook and is moving off, standing on the ground. She moves her hand to shield her eyes, and for a second, it’s Ira looking back at him, grinning wild and egging him on, not his daughters, beckoning him back.
“Hank!” Madonna calls. “The rip’ll get you!”
With one last look out to sea, he drops beneath the surface and swims back to shore.
He shows them the house he grew up in, some tall Queenslander high up on stilts. It has a family in it still, with a great loping retriever who barks when they pull up, its tail swinging in low half circles. There are boxes everywhere, packed full of the lives of these people. Hank points out the fence where he’d impaled himself as a boy, the garden bed where his mother’s cat is buried. The girls are courteously interested, he thinks, but when they pull over and climb out, he sees Madonna run her hand over the fence and Cyndi light a cigarette. She flicks ash into the garden, a habit he’s starting to recognise in her as a nervous sort of ownership. He leans back against the car and watches them watch this place, lay claim to a version of him that hasn’t had a chance to ruin them yet.
Madonna rocks back on her heels and buries her hands in the pockets of her shorts, glancing back at Cyndi.
They drink cheap beer and eat fat fries in a pub he and Bruce would sneak drinks out of as teens, and the girls laugh, heads close together as they swap their own stories of childhoods spent misbehaving, a life he locked himself out of.
Cyndi goes to get another pitcher, and Madonna rises quickly, ducks outside, and Hank follows her quietly, keen for fresh air. The night is crisp and warm, humid from an afternoon of tropical rain. The outdoor pub light is flickering on and Hank hadn’t realised it was so late. Beside them, two possums spit and screech at each other, the rap of their paws on the tin roof achingly loud.
“You asked me what I wrote about,” she says suddenly. Madonna doesn’t smoke, but she has one of Cyndi’s cigarettes lit between her fingers and when she takes a long, practiced drag, he wonders if maybe she’s just better at hiding it.
“Anything,” he quotes, and Madonna grins, eyebrow raised, like she’s surprised he remembered. She puffs out the tobacco smoke in a perfect O.
“You’re good at that.”
Madonna just hums, flicking the ash from the end of it and glancing sideways, brushing her long hair back with her free hand.
“I don’t really smoke anymore,” she comments. “Just sometimes.”
“It’ll kill you.”
“Plenty of things will. Besides, Cyndi’s the one rocking the pack-a-day habit.”
He sighs. The outdoor lamp from the bar flickers and, for a second, he worries it’s going to go out entirely, forcing him and Madonna back into the dim light of the bar. It soldiers on though, and when he glances back, Madonna is staring up at it too, a look he can’t place on her.
“You, mostly,” she says after a minute, taking another drag on the cigarette. Her gaze hasn’t shifted.
“What I write about.”
He hesitates, unsure what to do with this information, and Madonna doesn’t even look at him.
“Not in a weird way,” she says. “I mean, all my protagonists aren’t balding guys in their fifties who abandon their responsibilities. It’s just. You seep in there. So does Mum and Cyndi and the guy I was married to for a month in York. But you’re there. Sometimes just your eyes – the fact that they’re too close together and green like the river in flood season, or your skinny limbs and how much they’re like Cyndi’s. You both have these fucking circus stilt legs. Sometimes more. Sometimes your punk look in your wedding picture with mum or the way your voice is so thick with love when you talk to us, and it should be comforting, like a blanket, and it is, only someone’s holding it too tight and it’s suffocating. Or, the fact that you left us and it cut out my dumb, ten year old heart.”
He doesn’t know what to say, so he says nothing. There are birds tweeting and the staccato noise of cicadas. The squawk of fighting possums and then the rap-tap-tap of their feet on the roof above them.
“Everything feels different out here,” Madonna says after a while, dropping the cigarette and stumping it out with the flat bottom of her shoe. “All I can taste is saltwater.”
They load up the car, pack it with Madonna’s battered suitcase and Cyndi’s, which is covered in sand and faux purple snakeskin. His own bag looks small between theirs, a light packer naturally.
He starts the drive home with a lag, an ache in his chest that he can’t quite pinpoint, whether it’s leaving a home soon to be demolished, or this trip with these women who he’s just starting to know. Madonna’s in the front, playing with the radio again. Cyndi checking her phone in the back.
All of a sudden Jann Arden comes on the radio and Madonna throws her head back, laughing loud and Cyndi covers her face in her hands, her shoulders shaking. Mirth, some God-given thing, and suddenly the girls are singing, some great, dumb nineties ballad, complete with hand gestures and head swinging, Madonna’s feet stomping on the dashboard in rhythm and time. He smiles at her, and she smiles back, something real that makes her look like a child again. Something in his chest tightens impossibly, and he doesn’t know the words, but it doesn’t matter.