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An Australian love story
By Sarah Hay
Allen & UnwinCopyright © 2008 Sarah Hay
All rights reserved.
All for a strip of rocky ground
Susannah could see that something was not quite right on the road ahead. The way the lights were tilted seemed wrong. To begin with they were tiny, winking in the far flat expanse of the night, beyond the thin band of bitumen road that was lit up by their own vehicle's headlights. And it was impossible to tell whether the lights were on the earth or above it. She glanced at her husband's profile. It appeared in the greenish glow of the dashboard as an outline and not a real face, but the angle suggested determination and fearlessness.
'Can you see that?'
'What do you think it is?'
His eyes didn't leave the screen. 'Maybe a smash.'
She stared hard through the dark, and the lights disappeared.
But before they did she saw that there were two of them, one on top of the other, and they were on her husband's side of the road. A set of reflector posts flashed past. And then they reached it, captured by the high beam of their vehicle: a truck lying sideways and cattle on the road. It had come from the opposite direction. Her husband stepped hard on the brake and she was thrust into her seatbelt, seeing through the windscreen the bull bar touching the rump of a bullock. She put her hand out as though to prevent her children from falling, but they were strapped to their seats. He slowly eased the vehicle onto the gravel, the headlights finding the stunned eyes of cattle, several on the edge of the bush. They must have escaped from the truck. The one they hit was seemingly unhurt, its flank disappearing into the darkness. John turned off the vehicle's engine.
'Barely touched it,' he said.
He opened the door.
'What are you doing?'
'I'm going to have a look.'
'Mummy, I'm thirsty.'
'Shush. Be careful.'
He stepped out, slamming the door too hard so that the impact of metal on metal jarred, and crossed the road, the darkness folding him away. She hoped no one was injured.
A child moaned irritably. There was a short hard sound and at first it didn't register. But when it sounded again, she knew that noise: it was a gun being fired, like when the roo shooters were out at night on the boundary of her parents' farm. She sat forward in her seat, feeling her skin shrink.
She wanted to be sick and her stomach hurt. There was a figure in front of the overturned cattle truck.
'Be quiet, be quiet,' she said urgently.
Her husband opened the door and climbed in. He stared straight ahead and turned the key in the ignition.
'What is it?'
He drove slowly back onto the road.
'Some cattle were injured. In the truck,' he added.
'So who was it, were they all right?'
'Some things you're better off not knowing about.'
'Were they thieves?'
But her husband concentrated on the road in front of him and she wondered what he was thinking.
About two hours later their headlights picked out the white painted posts of a fence. A generator throbbed through the night air and a dog barked. The dark and its density engulfed her. The car engine clicked as the metal cooled. He gripped the wheel and turned towards her. She looked over her shoulder to avoid the hesitation in his eyes. The children's limbs were loose with sleep, fat and smooth, revealed by the triangle of light that shone from the roof. One of them seemed to sense the change in motion and stirred a little, muttering. He opened the car door and she watched him disappear around the side of the house. She climbed out, almost falling. Barefoot in the soft warm dirt, she stretched and the blood flowed to the rest of her body; silent, conscious of her breathing, in and out, feeling crowded by what lay beyond the artificial light.
John returned with a shorter, square-shaped man who wore a shirt with sleeves ripped from the shoulders. His forearms were thickly veined. He told them they weren't expected until next week. John walked behind their vehicle and began unloading the bags and the other man stepped forward to help him. Ned started to cry, waking his brother. She reached into the car to get the boys out of their seats, lifting them, one at a time, and placing them on the ground beside her, holding their hands in the darkness. They were irritable from being woken again. The men gathered their odd assortment of suitcases and bags and headed towards the veranda. She followed, coaxing the children to walk with her. They reached a doorway and the man turned on a switch and held open the flywire door. The twin fluorescent tubes flickered and hesitated before they became a strong white light. Something scuttled out of sight and the door scraped the concrete floor as it closed behind them. They were in the kitchen. It smelt of old blood and burnt animal fat. The surfaces looked greasy and were dotted with dead insects. A thickset timber table, its top covered with faded green, red and yellow linoleum, was in the centre of the room.
Mismatched chairs surrounded it. A small gas oven and cook top stood dwarfed in the recess where once there would have been a wood-fired stove. The render behind it was splattered brown. Obviously no one had ever bothered to clean it. She turned to the small man who remained in the doorway.
'Are there any women here?' she asked.
Texas He shook his head. 'No, only blokes. Camped out at number eight bore.'
Her husband avoided her eye. She let go of the boys, and the men returned to the car to finish unpacking. She heard them talking on the veranda.
'They would've been cattle duffers, maybe contractors, you know, with their own truck,' the other man said.
She sat with the children at the table, tracing the patterns on the lino. Clouds of green overlaid by dashes of red and yellow stripes. She told them a story. The stripes became birds in a tree talking to each other about how they had flown a long way north and how they would need to build a new nest. They were like the green and black parrots from home, she said, but the boys couldn't remember them.
She spread the camping mattresses out on the timber floor of the sleep-out, away from the bad smells of the kitchen and the dark musty bedrooms where each doorway was barred by the thin invisible lines of a spider's web. She turned off the light, hoping the twins would settle quickly. After she tucked them into each side of her, their bodies gradually softened in sleep. The man had said the generator would go off in the early morning. He'd told them his name was Gerry and that he was the bore mechanic.
Later her husband lay against the wall in his swag. He may have been asleep but there was too much between them for her to be sure. She had no idea of the time now but she knew the trip from town was supposed to take about three hours. They'd stopped to eat at a roadhouse at around six. She'd wanted to stay at the motel, to come out in the morning so that she could see where she was. There was a time when she would have argued with him, when her mother was still alive, before the boys were born.
Through the flywire she could see the shapes of trees against a lighter shade of darkness that was the sky. Something scrambled in the branches close by. In the early years of their marriage she'd wanted to be involved in what he was doing. She'd wanted to talk about them, their relationship, their future, anything. He always said he was too busy, that there were jobs to be done. Eventually she stopped trying and now the voice in her head kept quiet most of the time. But she was only here because he wanted to be. She pulled the flaps of the swag closer and folded them up so they became more of an obstacle for anything that might crawl across the floor. The canvas was stiff and new. They'd bought it from an army surplus shop in the city. At the time she hadn't thought she'd need it because she wasn't going to be working in a stock camp, but John had wanted to sleep under the stars on their way north to show the boys what it was like and he wasn't interested in why she didn't want to. She wasn't scared of animals, only the men who might be on the road at night. John accused her of imagining the worst, but even though she hadn't mentioned the accident, she'd been right. She knew what the country was like.
After breakfast John left to find the other men. She had served tea and toast on the lino table once the sticky dirt had been
Texas wiped off, now she stepped around the cardboard boxes and the esky left beside the cupboard and walked back to the house where the children still slept on the floor. The house was separate from the kitchen. To reach it, she followed a path of concrete slabs with grass growing between the cracks to another flyscreen door. She opened it slowly but it still creaked. Her children hadn't moved. Ned, always the hotter one, his hair stuck wetly to his forehead, lay on his back, covers off, arms raised above his head. Ollie lay bunched on his side. A gentle breeze filtered through the walls. She could see that this area of the house had once been an open veranda but now it was built in with flywire, shady and cool. Beyond the flywire walls were trees and lawn and then, on the other side of the fence, were long blond spears of grass and bare dirt. The lawn needed watering; it had yellowed in patches of neglect.
The pale green interior wall was marked with brownish stains and discarded spiders' webs that looked like white spots from a distance. Louvre windows opened into the sleep-out, some missing and broken, sills covered by a band of thick dust. Beneath the ledges huddled little brown frogs. Last night Susannah had pushed a cane couch and two chairs with stained and flattened covers into the corner of the room so she could put their bedding on the floor in there. She entered the dim, musty interior where cream-coloured walls had darkened into a sickly yellow, leading to high ceilings and light fittings covered by a rope of dusty cobwebs. Through the hallway into the middle of the house, her thongs slapped the timber floor. Open doorways revealed rooms with camp beds, one with yellow foam leaking from a floral mattress cover; another had a double bed with a white headboard plastered with peeling stickers and a dark-wooded dressing table with the mirror scratched and wardrobes with open doors, the little ornate keys long since lost. The windows were all slatted louvres jammed at different angles — some opened fully, others almost closed — looking out onto the veranda or the sleep-out, and beneath the louvres were beetle shells, legs dried brittle, crossed neatly.
In the bathroom a petrified frog lay in the bottom of the shower recess, its droppings spotting the surface. There were more live frogs huddled in the corners beneath the ceiling, like little mounds of wet dirt. The washbasin was a dusty bowl, and soap was caked hard in the dish by the taps. She wondered briefly whose hands had been washed by it. They hadn't brought much with them; they didn't have much to bring. They were told the house would be fully furnished. She wondered at the people who lived there before them, their rubbish like the clues to a game. She'd grown up on a sheep farm and when the shearers left she remembered that they too had left behind hints of themselves. Sometimes the smell of the sweat of their bodies lingered on months after they'd gone.
At the end of the hall was a small room with a yellowed floral curtain. The window behind it was open and the fabric moved slightly. There were grey blankets and a foam mattress torn in half with bits shredded on the floor like large crumbs and books with cowboys on the covers. She picked one up and turned it over. She thought at first they were comics but in fact they were small soft-cover books with pictures of the
Texas Wild West on the front. The book in her hand flicked open to the first page. Texas was never beautiful in the sense that the rich green and red lands of Montana or Colorado were beautiful, but fairness and splendour were there if a man cared to take the trouble to look.
Susannah scrubbed the walls of the kitchen while the boys were asleep. When they woke they wanted to help her but they soon became bored and then they asked again and again where their father was. She brought out their tricycles and let them ride around the kitchen floor, watching them move in aimless circles. Her eyes were drawn to the pattern in the lino. The cloudy green blurred into a lawn, which her father was mowing. Brightly coloured beach towels lay on the grass. She and a friend were on their backs, home from boarding school, darkening their skin and watching fat white clouds and the stream of a jet passing from east to west. They'd go riding in the afternoon, saddling up the little grey mare and the chunky bay to amble along the fire break. When they reached the granite rock they tied the horses to a shrub at the base and climbed to the top. The granite smelt of squashed ants because there were always so many nests, marked by coarse pink sand surrounding the holes, that it was impossible not to tread on them. Once she stood on a nest while trying to undo the knot that tethered her horse to a tree. It felt as though hundreds had crawled up her boots and along her legs and almost to her crotch before she could get her jeans off. They were meat ants with a stinging, burning bite. A small truck drove across the table and through her thoughts. Ollie had found the bucket of Matchbox toys.
In the afternoon she sat on the grass beside the children as they paddled in their plastic wading pool beneath the yellow fingers of a rain tree. Her eyes traced the papery flowers of a bougainvillea climbing over the roof of the washhouse. It was a small shed separate from the house and the kitchen and it opened out towards the clothes line. She'd discovered earlier that it contained a twin-tub washing machine and a hand-operated wringer beside two concrete troughs. The vine above it was in full flower, its soft bright petals hiding the long thorns that grew along its branches. The grass was short and spiky beneath her bare legs.
The boys were splashing in the pool. She hadn't noticed Ollie climbing out but when she looked back towards them he stood with his bucket, pouring water over what seemed to be a long brown stick on the grass. Then it moved. She watched the diamond shape of its head, poised. Ollie was flinging his bucket and the snake struck the blue plastic and she was running to his side. She had Ollie then, scooped up in her arms, grabbing the other one too. Ned squealed, squashed against her body as she ran into the house with them. She could have left them in the kitchen and gone back to kill it, she'd killed a snake before. When she was much younger, on her parents' farm, she'd taken the saddle out of the shed and was walking towards her horse as a dugite slipped through the grass by her feet. She'd dropped a rock on its head and thought no more of it. This time, she shook by the louvres, peering through the slotted glass. The worst of it was she couldn't imagine where there might be other people; the workmen, John, or another Texas woman in a homestead beyond the hills. The snake had gone. But as she glanced through the window she saw in her mind what might have happened. She didn't even know how to contact the Flying Doctor.
They wanted to go outside again. Their demands brought her back and she was reminded that she was their mother. Ollie's face was striped with dirt. Ned, the smaller of the two, was dark-haired like his father. She felt a surge of warm responsibility. It didn't happen often. Sometimes she wondered if there was something wrong with her. Ollie turned to his brother and moved his fat hand across his brow in a way that an adult might. Ned watched his mother too. When she brought out the blocks, he stood at the window while Ollie sat down amongst them. He looked back over his shoulder. Just as she thought he would sit down, he turned back to the window and asked: 'Who planted the trees?' She didn't answer for a minute. She didn't believe in God, not after what had happened to her mother. Her mother would know what to do with this place. It would be clean. She might even have baked some bread by now and the smell would have leaked into the corners and softened the sight of paint peeling from the walls. She began to answer but realised she was talking to herself since Ned was sitting down and playing with Ollie. Long shadows striped the dirt and the colour of the trunks of the bloodwood trees had deepened. John would be home soon.
That morning she'd unpacked the food from the esky and the boxes bought from a dirty supermarket in a small town they'd passed through, and stored it in the cold room, which was a large refrigerator with shelves and hooks that hung meat.
When she opened it now it smelt of stale blood and she took out a wooden crate and leant it up against the door so it wouldn't close behind her. Rather than hang a whole beast, someone had cut it into chunks. She wasn't sure whether the piece she picked out for dinner was rump or something tough like blade. She closed the cold-room door and walked back into the kitchen, slapping the heavy slab of meat down on the benchtop. She looked under the bench to the shelving below where pots and pans and crockery were stacked. Beside them was a plastic tray separating the cutlery, which normally would have been kept in a drawer, except there weren't any. She couldn't find any sharp knives. She went back to the cold room, wishing she'd started dinner earlier. She looked along the shelf.
Excerpted from Texas by Sarah Hay. Copyright © 2008 Sarah Hay. Excerpted by permission of Allen & Unwin.
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
ContentsAll for a strip of rocky ground,
Determined to stand tall on the untamed frontier,
Fate threw them together,
Men fell prey to her angel eyes and her killing ways,
For the heir to triumph the father must fall,
With a gun in his fist he was ten feet tall,