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By Robert Schofield
Allen & UnwinCopyright © 2014 Robert Schofield
All rights reserved.
'Let me ask you something, alright? You ever see a snake eat a kangaroo?'
Ford turned away and sighed. 'Can't say that I have,' he said.
He looked out of the window, through the film of red dust that caked the glass, at the train passing outside. It had been loading all night, the diesels purring low, the lights from the lead locomotive shining into the prefab office. The end of the train was out of sight, but he could see ore trucks going slowly under the bin and hear the steady rumble of ore passing through the chutes, the boom as it hit the empty truck, the noise in the hopper changing in pitch as the truck filled, then a minute of quiet while the train inched forward and the next empty wagon moved into place. A cloud of iron dust hung around the train, glowing orange in the sodium spotlights and the first weak light of dawn. He checked his watch and then the clock on the wall.
Pollard was still talking. 'That's what I'm saying,' he said. 'Nobody ever believes you, until they see the photo.'
'I'm still not picturing it,' said Ford. 'Not a full-grown kangaroo.'
'Well, maybe not that. Not a big red like you see out on the road. It was one of those rock wallabies. Much smaller, but still a big mouthful. Still an impressive thing for a snake to eat.'
'So you're telling me it was a very small wallaby, and a very big snake?'
'Big snake, yeah. Olive Python. Bastard must have been five metres long, stretched out down the rock face. Sneaking up on this kangaroo, wallaby, whatever. It's down the bottom of the gorge, head down, drinking the water. Doesn't hear the snake coming up behind it.'
Ford yawned. 'You were watching this?'
'We were up the top of the gorge, in the shadow, maybe two hundred metres away, but I'm watching this through the long lens on the camera.' Pollard held his hands up, looking at Ford through the circle he had made with them, twisting his hands to pull focus. 'I got pictures. You must be the only one on this mine hasn't seen them.'
'That's my problem in life,' said Ford. 'I'm always out of the loop.'
He sat down at the control station and watched the flickering symbols on the computer screens, toggled through several layouts and satisfied himself that the plant was running smoothly, that there were no issues worth mentioning to the day shift. He switched the screen to show his racing-form spreadsheet and picked up the newspaper, which he had folded to the horses, where he had already ringed his picks for the next meeting.
'How come you never went out to the gorges? Karijini?' said Pollard.
Ford put down the paper. 'Never found the time,' he said. 'Too hot now. Maybe if I'm still here in the winter.'
'I heard you were in Kalgoorlie. Heat shouldn't bother you.'
'It's hotter here. We're way further north.'
The temperature outside hadn't dropped below twenty-five all night. The forecast was for forty-two, and Ford was grateful he would be indoors asleep through the height of it, with the air-conditioner at home running full bore.
'Maybe you're right,' said Pollard. 'There's not much water in the gorges this time of year. Be more to see in the wet season.'
'More to see than here?' said Ford, waving at the view outside the window.
'That's what I'm telling you. You got to get out and about, explore the bush. You stay in Newman all the time, just going from the town to the mine and back again, you'll go stir crazy.'
'Maybe when Grace is a little more settled we'll go. She thinks Newman is wilderness enough after Perth.'
'You could go out there with the guys,' said Pollard. 'Leave Grace with one of the families. Some time out there can help clear your head.'
'Yeah, I know that, I know what the desert can do, but I've seen enough of it. Did years of fly-in fly-out.'
'This place is different.'
'Yes, yes it is. It's more settled here. A town rather than a camp. Schools, friends, families. We need something stable now Grace is in pre-primary.'
Pollard tried an expression that he thought would convey sympathy. 'Not the best place to bring a little girl,' he said.
'She'd be better off in Perth.'
'No work for me there.'
'Then why didn't you stay in Kalgoorlie?'
'Not welcome there. The gold industry is a closed shop for me now.'
'Why's that?' asked Pollard. He'd forgotten about showing sympathy, and now he looked bored.
'I got caught up in the Gwardar robbery. Cleared eventually, but shit sticks.' Ford watched Pollard to see his reaction. Most of the people on the mine knew his involvement, his name had been in the papers, but once he had told the story in the pub it had become just another tall tale. It was twelve months ago now, and there had been new workers moving through, fresh stories to listen to.
Pollard didn't seem to hear. 'There's boarding schools,' he said. 'Fancy places in Perth. Make a little lady of her.'
'I never saw the appeal of those places,' said Ford. 'They always look like it's just about the uniform. What is it with those hats?'
He felt his belly rumble. He usually waited to eat until he got off the night shift. He'd have a shower, eat breakfast with Grace before taking her to school, then go to bed for the day.
Pollard was contemplating the sandwich wrapped in foil on his desk. Every day he arrived on shift with a Subway bag containing three foot-long sandwiches, and he'd eat them at four-hourly intervals through his shift. He brought an apple and the same three sandwiches, with the same fillings, every day. This was his last sandwich: meatballs and tomato sauce. Pollard considered it breakfast.
'This snake, right, he opens its mouth wide, head big as your hand.' He lifted his forearm, flexed his wrist, trying to make the motions of the snake. He opened his hand and curled his fingers to show the teeth bared. 'Grabs this wallaby round the neck. Sinks its fangs right in there.'
'I didn't think they were poisonous,' said Ford. 'I've seen the poisonous ones. They're not big enough to eat a wallaby.'
'He's only getting hold of it so it can't run.'
Pollard lifted the sandwich from his desk, caught up in the theatre of his snake. 'Wraps itself around the kangaroo in three big coils. The middle of this snake is as thick as your thigh. Breaks this kangaroo's bones by squeezing it, then kinda compresses the thing into a long cylinder like this sandwich.' He held it up in front of his face, both hands around it, twisting and raising his elbows. Ford could see he was drooling.
'You want me to mail you the photos?' said Pollard.
'Don't bother. I'm enjoying the mime.'
'So this snake unhinges his jaw, and slides himself around the head of this kangaroo, then works himself down the whole body. He's like some huge green condom, sliding down over a giant hairy brown cock. By the end there's just this tail hanging out of the snake's mouth. We walked down to the water to get a closer look, and the snake's too big now to move. Just lies there in the sun looking at us like it doesn't give a shit, all his energy taken up trying to digest this fucking huge thing bulging inside his body.'
Pollard opened his mouth wide and slid the sandwich inside lengthways. When the tomato sauce started to run out of the corners of his mouth and down his chin, Ford had to turn away.
He walked across to the far side of the office, weaving through the maze of desks crammed into the space, stepping over trailing computer wires, and looked out of the opposite window down the railway.
The lead locomotive was past their office now, and Ford could see the parking lot on the other side of the compound, lit up by the train's lights. There was a long line of identical Toyota LandCruisers parked side by side at the top of the embankment overlooking the railway. They were all kitted out to the same mine specification: the company logo on the door, radio call-sign number in large letters across the side panels, a rack of flashing lights on the roof and the long pole with an orange flag that allowed them to be seen by the haul trucks. They were all reverse-parked against the chain-link fence in accordance with health and safety instructions, all except one.
A Nissan Patrol was parked at the end of the row facing the office, dark paint where all the others were white, and no lights on the roof. There was someone sitting in the driver's seat. As Ford watched, the driver's face was lit up a ghostly blue from a phone he held in his hand. Ford tried to make out the man's features. He was looking his way, maybe watching the trains, maybe watching Ford.
'How long's that guy been sitting outside in the Nissan? He waiting for someone?'
The sandwich had disappeared but Pollard was still chewing.
'Fuck knows,' he said after swallowing. 'You're the guy spends his shift staring out the window.'
Pollard had the apple now, holding it like a cricket ball in the gap between his first and second fingers. He flicked out his wrist, snapped his fingers and the apple shot upwards, spinning fiercely. Ford had seen this routine often enough, but had never seen him eat the apple. He checked the clock again but the hands hadn't moved.
'Alright, that's close enough,' he said. 'If the day shift can't be bothered showing up a few minutes early, then I can't be arsed hanging around waiting for them. You can do the handover on your own.'
Ford went to the door, picked his hard hat off the hook and plucked his safety goggles from his shirt pocket. He stuck his head outside to feel the heat. It was like opening an oven door, and the iron dust made him sneeze. He stepped back inside and felt the cool breeze from the air-conditioner.
'Where'd Grace stay last night?' asked Pollard.
'Over with Suzi Johnson. Grace is in her daughter's class. They asked her for a sleepover. It would be nice for her if that became a regular thing. Suzi and Brad have been in Newman ten years, since before their kids were born. Maybe some of that stability will rub off on Grace.'
He fished in his shirt pocket for his cigarettes and lit the last smoke of his shift.
'See you tonight,' he said, and let the pressure from the air-conditioner slam the door shut behind him.
He stood in the breezeway behind the office taking deep pulls on the cigarette and watching an ore truck pull into the maintenance yard for the shift change, the roar of its diesels drowning out the train, its headlights throwing Ford's shadow against the wall of the prefab. The driver shut it down and killed the lights, then stepped out from the cab. He saw Ford and offered a casual wave. Ford didn't recognise him. He wore the same orange work clothes as everyone else, the same hard hat and safety glasses, but without a beard or moustache as a clue, Ford couldn't identify him. He raised his cigarette in reply and gave the faintest nod of his head.
Ford walked briskly towards the security gate, swiped his card at the reader beside the gate and pushed through it into the car park. As he reached the rank of vehicles he noticed that the end bay was empty, the dark Nissan gone. He looked along the row of identical white LandCruisers and could not decide which was his. He found his key, popped the lock button and the lights on the third vehicle winked at him in recognition.
He opened the door and threw his hat and lunchbox on the passenger seat, then lifted himself into the driver's seat. The air inside was warm and stale, baked overnight and smelling of iron dust and the last trace of new-car smell: hot plastic, glue and sickly sweet air freshener. He turned over the engine, cranked the dial on the air-conditioner to full, and sat with his eyes closed, feeling the heat of the seat through his pants and the blast of warm air on his face slowly growing cooler. He jabbed the control arm on the steering wheel to start the windscreen washer jets and ran the wipers to clear the thick coating of red dust from the glass in front of him. When the air in the Cruiser was something approaching fresh, Ford took a deep breath, put it in gear, and slowly pulled away.
The gravel road ran parallel to the railway and the train was now clear of the mine and picking up speed. As he pulled alongside it he passed out of the shadow of the hills and the sun appeared behind him, reflecting off the mirror into his eyes. He squinted and pushed the mirror aside, sliding his sunglasses from the visor and putting them on.
He pulled ahead of the train as the road left the track to join the highway. As he turned south onto the bitumen, the road crossed over the railway and the train sounded its horn as it passed under the bridge. Ford adjusted the rear-view mirror so he could watch the locomotive appear on the far side of the bridge, but instead saw the dark Nissan following him. He could see now in the sunlight that it was blue, but the driver was a dark silhouette, the car too far behind for him to read the licence plate in the mirror.
Ford took his foot off the gas and let his car slow, but the Nissan matched his speed and kept two hundred metres behind him. Ford turned off the highway into Newman Drive and headed into town, the broad curve of Mount Whaleback ahead, rising from the desert. Above it hung a cloud of dust from the mine that was slowly devouring the hillside, creating a series of terraced tenements.
Ford kept an eye on the mirror and watched the Nissan make the turn behind him. He decided not to turn towards his house, but let the road take him around the town centre, passing the health centre and the football oval. The only vehicles on the road so early were a few other mining company vehicles, all white, making the Nissan in the mirror stand out.
When the curve of the road took the Nissan out of sight, screened by the gum trees in front of the hotel, Ford did a hard right into the shopping centre. He raced through the empty car park and flung a sharp left into the laneway in front of the hardware store, ignoring signs barring entry to the one-way street. He shot across the next junction and was into the network of residential streets flanked by identical nondescript weatherboard and corrugated-iron houses. He took two more quick turns, then pulled over and waited. When the Nissan failed to appear he let out a long breath.
He fumbled for his cigarettes and struggled to light one, his hands shaking. He inhaled deeply, then put his hands on the steering wheel and flexed his fingers, trying to shake the numbness. A twinge ran up his arm to the site of the bullet wound in his shoulder, and he raised a hand and massaged the scar through his shirt. The smoke calmed him and, as he stubbed out the cigarette, he wondered how long it would take him to not keep checking over his shoulder. He thought about calling the Johnson house, but it was still too early for Grace. He put the car in gear again and headed towards the rented house he was still learning to call home.
As he followed the curving streets towards the outskirts of town, the houses became newer and larger. The weatherboard made way for salmon brick walls and red iron roofs, a poor imitation of a typical Perth suburb, only the thick layer of dust, the dying lawns and the relentless heat to remind him he was a thousand kilometres north of the city.
He pulled into the driveway of the house, a squat bungalow with a roof so low it sat directly on the window lintels, with no overhang that could offer shade. The windows were blanked out by yellowing blinds and shielded by torn fly-wire. There were no plants in the front yard; it was mostly red dirt with a shrinking oval of coarse lawn struggling at its centre. The only item in this spare strip was the steel mailbox, leaning at a dangerous angle on its slender post. He parked next to Harding's ute, hoping his lodger had not switched to the night shift as well. He wanted to have the house to himself once he'd got Grace off to pre-primary.
He walked around to the back of the house, into a back yard that was as sparse and parched as the front, a single Cocos palm leaning against the chain-link fence that separated the yard from the neighbour's. The screen door was standing wide open and the back door was ajar, the air-conditioner beside it sending out a steady whine as it tried to cope, a stream of condensed water snaking across the cracked concrete patio and pooling under the plastic table. Three moulded green chairs made up the full complement of furniture in the yard, their arms pitted and melted where cigarettes had been stubbed out. Ford caught the smell of cigarette smoke and looked in the can of sand near the leg of the nearest chair. There were a couple of butts of his brand in there, but they were old and dried out. He followed his nose through the back door, thinking how Harding didn't smoke and knew he didn't allow smoking indoors around Grace, angry that the door was open and the air-con was struggling.
He stepped inside and the kitchen was dark and airless. He flipped on the light and saw the cigarette on the edge of the table. It had burnt down to the filter, leaving a scorched black stripe across the Formica top. He walked through into the living room and felt something crunch under his boot. He leaned over and picked a shard of broken glass out of the rubber tread, saw the light spilling through the kitchen door reflecting off fragments of glass strewn across the floor, among scattered books and the splintered remnants of the coffee table. He peered through the gloom and saw a man slumped on the sofa, one leg propped up on the arm, his face just discernible in the weak light leaking around the edge of the window blind. Ford stepped closer and saw that it was Harding. His eyes were closed and there was the sweet smell of sweat and bourbon coming off him. Ford kicked Harding's foot off the arm of the sofa and punched him lightly on the shoulder.
Excerpted from Marble Bar by Robert Schofield. Copyright © 2014 Robert Schofield. Excerpted by permission of Allen & Unwin.
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