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|Publisher:||University of Queensland Press|
|Product dimensions:||5.00(w) x 7.75(h) x 0.60(d)|
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After the Carnage
By Tara June Winch
University of Queensland PressCopyright © 2016 Tara June Winch
All rights reserved.
By morning someone would die, but at that moment I couldn't have known. The only thing I did know then was that I was feeling overwhelmingly out of place in her bathtub. A set of horse hooves brushed against the back of my head before the plastic animal dropped into the lukewarm water. She had her very own bathroom now; I felt a pang of something like pride, seeing how the tiles fitted all the way along the walls. This was my mother's Act Two, Scene One, and I had come into possession of unwanted tickets (the reviews had been unforgiving in the past). She'd invited me in the hope I would rewrite my companion guide to us.
I was always going to come and see her, of course; it was so rare, the invitation. Despite the circumstances I still loved her.
'Tommy, just come on up, I'll have your stepdad collect you at the depot, you can stay the weekend, I'll cook you hot meals, you can meet your little brother. Will you, bub, for him – do it for little Joe.'
I told her I had never met Darryl and he wasn't my stepdad and she said, 'Well, technically he is,' and then I thought it best not to argue her logic since I was paying for the interstate phone call.
I arrived a week later at the bus depot; Darryl was there, waiting in a button-down that was tucked into jeans. My mother had told me he'd be waiting at the red ute, which he was. He was wringing his hands as I approached him and for a moment I thought he might be readying himself to clip me around the earhole or throw me an uppercut; my best defence was striding toward him with a hand outstretched to shake his. I never knew what to expect with her man of the moment.
There were rock ballads wafting on low volume, almost imperceptibly, on the stereo. Besides some unruly sideburns, Darryl was clean-shaven.
'Your mum talks about you heaps, Tom.'
I leant back into my seat and closed my eyes and listened to the V8.
In the bath, I remembered the ocean roaring when I was a kid; most nights I'd dreamt of riding my BMX down my street, riding toward the sun being blocked out and a tidal wave coming toward me, I never turned back in the dream, I just kept riding and then woke up on impact. I remembered everything my mother didn't. I remembered when my sister was being born in the hospital and the midwife said to push, push, push, and then she pushed and the midwife cried and my dad ran out of the room and some other woman's baby was born at the same moment, and that woman's baby was crying instead. Mum just looked at the midwife and said, 'Isn't that the most beautiful sound?'
I remembered the taste of coins, house keys, zipper ends – sometimes I could lick a brass key and all of my childhood would return. I remembered I used to pry conch shells off the reef, collect hot wattle flowers and suck out the honey inside; I used to feed the possums that came near my bedroom window at nights. They'd scratch at the fly screen until you pushed a bread crust out, I'd save them from school lunches. I remembered coming in from playing late, this time of night, then I would see my mother standing in the hall, leaning into the wall – she was always like that, she never rushed forward for an embrace, never bent down at the knees.
I remembered my real dad would come back after working seasons in the bush and bring huge gifts; once, I got a massive soft serpent and draped it on the end of my bed, it was taller than me. Our life on the coast was good, on our land. Then after I was initiated and Dad hadn't come back for three years and I was twelve, Mum said I was all grown up then, said I was a big man and didn't need her anymore and then she left. That was the cruel summer before my new life at the new school, the one that I got sent to in Sydney, the boarding college. I went to bed at 8.30 every night and woke at 6.30 every morning. I did homework almost every day, I graduated, and now I was halfway through university and the only thing that had ever been more than ordinary was visiting Mum every other summer. Wherever she was.
'You done in there?'
'Getting out now,' I hollered back.
I stepped out of the bath, dried myself with the stiff towel, put the same clothes back on and went into the kitchen.
'Listen, bub, the fuc – the stove is on its last legs, like the showerhead, THANK YOU HOUSING COMMISSION! So Darryl and Joe are going to stay in and have micro stuff. How bouts you and me go to the RSL for a baked dinner?'
'Sounds good to me,' I said.
'Alrighty, gimme five,' Mum said as she nipped into the bathroom.
'So how's university, mate?' Darryl asked.
'It's good, it's different a bit.'
'Yeah? Lots of parties – I hear they have big parties at university?'
'Not so much,' I said, wiping steam out of my ear with the towel end as I leant down and tickled Joe on the tummy.
'Don't!' he screamed at me and ran to the TV.
'You want a beer?'
'Alright, thanks,' I said.
'So you studying science?'
'What job you get after that, mate?'
'Hopefully, um, become a doctor.'
'Waah, that's huge!'
'Hopefully,' I said in a little voice so he wouldn't think I was trying to be a big man under his roof.
'Let's go then.' Mum appeared with dark lipstick on and a nice floral dress.
'Watch out!' Darryl yelled, eyeing Mum.
Mum clip-clopped in her high heels to Darryl and put an arm around his waist and said, 'I bought it for Tommy! You know Tommy here, when he was a little fella he always used to cry when I picked him up from school, he'd say Mummy why can't you wear flower dresses like all the other mums – hahahaha I'd always be in me snooker shark gear, tight black jeans and stuff – he hated it!'
'Did ya, mate? Was she an embarrassment?'
I laughed with them and acted as if my young self was an idiot.
'Give us a lift, hun,' Mum said, grabbing her handbag.
'Alright, alright, but get a cab home, okay.'
'Course, be good, Joey,' Mum said, leaning down and putting lipstick on the top of his forehead.
'He's staying here?' I said at the door.
'Yeah, just be two minutes, mate, he's watching telly.'
'Let's bring him in the car?'
'Honest, mate, two minutes, he'll be fine.' Darryl and Mum were already out the door. I looked back at Joe watching a DVD of Nemo about a metre from the screen.
I pulled the door behind me and heard the deadlock click between my half-brother and me. I climbed into the ute next to Mum and the whole world felt out of place.
We arrived at the RSL quick enough and I went to the bathroom while Mum stood in line to order the roasts. In the bathroom I called the latest house number that I had of hers.
It rang for a long time, too long, and then finally someone was there yelling and out of breath: 'Yeah?'
'It's me, Tommy, Mum just asked me to call and see if you got back to Joe alright.'
'Everything's fine, mate.'
'Okay, bye then,' I said and quickly hung up.
I joined the line, next to Mum, and she handed me a tray with cutlery.
'This is like school.'
'Is it? Whattya gunna have?'
'I dunno, rissoles and chips?' I announced it as a question to see if she approved.
'Good as, Tommy, the rissoles are killer here.'
We took our food and schooners out into the beer garden so Mum could smoke.
'So, whattya think of Darryl?'
'I don't have an opinion yet, he seems nice.'
'He's nice, Tommy, I promise you, not like the others, this one. Good as gold.'
'That's nice to hear.'
'So cheers.' She lifted her beer toward me and we clinked glasses. 'Cheers to your first visit since high school!'
'Yep, cheers,' I said, making eye contact with the head of the beer.
'You remember everywhere you visited me?'
'I think so,' I said, cutting open the hard, dry rissole while Mum lit a cigarette and took a good go at her own beer.
'The first place I went for work was the rig, but you couldn't visit me there.'
'Tell me about the places you lived at, I'd like to hear.' It was true, I liked the past, I liked remembering it and letting it go; it was like bringing down the walls of a dilapidated house, salvaging the frame.
'So the first place I went to was the rig, it was board included, had to pass the test first, but passing wasn't easy – I was up against men; even though my job was just going to be in the kitchen you still had to pass the training if there was ever gunna be an emergency – had to know how to escape from a helicopter, see, since that's how we went there from land. We were in a simulator one, and the helicopter rolled over as it landed; I had to remove the window, had to unlatch my seatbelt and my body just kind of glided out and everyone followed me through the window. Floating to the surface felt like it took ages, but once I took that breath at the top I knew I'd bagged the job.'
'Hold on, it was underwater?'
'Oh yeah, yep, underwater.'
'That's impressive, what happened afterward, in the job?'
'Okay, well, my room, the window was small, could see just the ocean, no land at all. And those things move, they're not just stuck in the ground, they bob around and you get seasick just like on a boat – I had to cook too, for about a hundred men, day and night, twelve-hour shifts no matter how high the seas were, still had to cook. Our cooking team, we were also the medics on board, so when something went wrong – and it did all the time, mate – we'd have to stop cooking and run out and help some bloke and then come back in and keep cooking. Even in the green eye.'
'What's green eye?'
'When the ocean is high and the whole rig is moving and you turn green, you just need to vomit – even then we still had to cook and serve the meals – we had rubber on the bottom of the plates, so they wouldn't move, see. On me third week there the alarms sounded, everyone put on their survival suits for emergencies so I threw on mine, bit slow – thinking it was a drill. I get out there, no fucking drill, young bloke with kids at home, he's pinned under some bit of machine from the crane. His face, I won't forget it, just sorrowful, just so sad because he knew. All we could do was comfort him, clean him as best we could, give him a painkiller while it took Medivac four fucking hours to arrive. He lost his legs, both of them, that bloke. I left the rig after the next month's contract, I was done after that.'
'Where'd you go then?' I asked, gesturing to the waiter with two fingers and mouthing the word same.
'Sydney, found an advert for barmaid with a room upstairs and I didn't have no house so it suited me. Bub, you can't ask the kitchen hand for beers! I'll go.'
'No, I'll go, you eat.'
I ordered two schooners again and returned to her finished plate. I was glad she'd eaten something.
'Then what happened?' I asked, lowering myself onto the picnic bench.
'Well, the pub in Sydney, I had you out to visit the next summer, you remember?'
I did remember, I remembered being a year in at the boarding school and having no place to go, and my room buddy had a magic 8-ball next to his bed and I shook it most of the year when he wasn't around. I'd whispered is my mother crazy? It read it is decidedly so. I shook again and whispered will she ever come back for me? The 8-ball read don't count on it.
She did though.
'So yeah, next place was the pub, shitty place, you remember – no kitchen or bathroom, just the basin?'
'Just a shared bathroom down the hall. My window saw a colourful row of shops. One was a Chinese restaurant – very good Chinese food! It was a hotel, the place I worked in. Not the best hotel in town, just the corner pub with accommodation where all walks of life would hang out, don't get me wrong, bums mostly. Parties all the fucking time. Someone wins the pokies – party; someone wins the trots – party. Someone dies – party – I mean, they were mourning, but after a few hours it's just another fucking party. So then one day I hear this noise, young woman crying. I knock on the room door, her man comes to the door, No fucking problem here, yeah right I think. I look at the girl, she's sitting on the filthy carpet, holding her cheeks in her fists, just bashing herself, she was bleeding alright. Un-con-sol-able that girl, so I called the local hospital, they sent out a team and off she went to psych ward – hope she's alright now.'
'Did you find out if she was okay?'
'Nup, kicked him out the next day, not my fucking problem. Got enough.'
'What did you do next?' I asked her as I slid my inedible meal away.
'Got a job at Marble Bar, middle of bloody nowhere. Fifty degrees most days, twenty rooms to clean. Also cooked with the other women breakfast, lunch, dinner, and pumped petrol. Reckon I helped run the whole town, thinking about it! You liked it, that place, there was a swimming pool, you remember?'
I did: I'd stayed at the swimming pool, head underwater to try to get away from my mother's drinking at the time. 'I remember.'
'It was pretty gorgeous there, all that red dirt, but it was more dangerous. Different, like, there were scorpions a size bigger than a big man's boot. There were snakes every-fucking-where and roos taller than the communal clotheslines! I got used to it though. Then it rained sometimes and the frogs sang for days. I could sit at my room window and watch snakes going for it with the frogs. Couldn't stop nature. Then a Category 5 came, Cyclone Chris. Jesus fucking Christ, I was alone at my window with only a dingo pup who could see what was coming. Socks I named him. He was a good stray, I'd kicked him out of my way so many times but he always jumped on my legs in time to save me from stepping on baby brown snakes or whatnot.
'Socks followed me into a room that night, to hide from Cyclone Chris. The wind was strong. The power went. I picked up the phone but no signal. I was feeling really lost and scared. I was crying then and was real scared, truly. Socks jumped from the mattress he was sitting on and landed on my belly doing triple somersaults until I laughed myself to sleep. He knew. He knew what I was feeling like, shit scared and stuff.'
'What happened with the cyclone?' I asked, genuinely interested.
'Aw, after a couple of hours the sun came up for a bit and the phone rang – one of the local roadhouses had been flattened and the eye wasn't even with us yet. Pete, my supervisor, drove me out with him to the stock unit, and the dingo pup Socks ran off in the scrub. When we got to the stock shed the roller door at the dock out back was starting to cave from the rain suddenly arriving, pouring rain! If this door goes the whole building will go and take us with it – that's what Pete said to me. Whatever we could find we stacked against the door for two hours straight while the door would bend in and rain ran like a waterfall down the sides. The boxes were collapsing, we were exhausted, and then it stopped, the eye was on us then and it was still, no sound, no wind. Like everything that was alive had gone and everything was dead. We couldn't speak, we walked to the door on the corner side of the building and then it started again. We just ran inside and held down the roller door until Chris rode out of town and left us alone.'
'What happened then?' I said.
'I gotta go to the ladies, gimme a sec.' Mum ran into the RSL. Before I could reflect on anything she was back with two more schooners. I knew I couldn't stomach any more beer but I thanked her to be polite.
'So after I left the desert I went to more desert!'
'Where'd you go?'
'Got the East-West mail plane to take me to Tom Price, I thought it was a good-luck job, having your name and all. Anyway, it wasn't glamorous, you never came there, I was a security guard. I was live-in as usual, no kitchen, no bathroom, but good for me to save some money, except there it was hell. On country you see, brothers and sisters got money from the government every Thursday and then shit shows for four days. I even went to the local council and said will you please bloody give them grog money on fucking Monday when the pub's closed! They didn't listen, they didn't fucking care.'
'GUBBA-ment, Tommy! Anyway, I kept working there, I learnt their lingo, they called me sister, so all good, right? Wrong! One night, bloody fight breaks out over fuck knows what and everyone's throwing pool balls and fucking cues. Deadly weapons if you ask me. People were even smashing chairs. I came in the middle of it, the middle of the bar and screamed stop now! That's enough! – and one bitch come up to my face with a glass, wanted to glass me. I said you think that's a good idea? That's all I could think to say at the time. Luckily some of the brothers come up then and said no, she's a sister or something. I can't remember, I was so scared. Next thing I knew I was out in the carpark shaking hands with all those crazy violent bunch and wishing them well on their way home. I don't even know what came out of my mouth that night, but I wasn't killed, the staff weren't killed, I still reckon to this day a spirit came and spoke for me, stopped me from getting my face slashed apart!'
Excerpted from After the Carnage by Tara June Winch. Copyright © 2016 Tara June Winch. Excerpted by permission of University of Queensland Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
The Last Class,
After the Carnage, More,
Failure to Thrive,
It's Too Difficult to Explain,
The Proust Running Group of Paris,
A Late Netting,