Col arrived in a shiny red ute, too shiny for the farm. Molly was at the sheds playing with the puppy with large ears. She watched the ute pull in beside the peppercorn trees; she watched the skinny, long man walk to the back verandah; she heard the flyscreen door open and smack shut. There were two dogs chained on the ute, whining and snuffling. She waited at the sheds, waited and watched for the ute to leave. Then she heard the flyscreen door open again, like a zipper, and Nan called her name.
‘Here she is then.’
She stood in the kitchen with Nan’s hand pressed against her back, and she didn’t know Col at first, but when he laughed she remembered.
‘Hi, I’m your Dad.’
He laughed and lurched on the thin wooden kitchen chair. Molly stood, and Nan stood behind her. Uncle Rodney, who never laughed and rarely smiled, sat drinking tea and chewing a biscuit.
Col had been gone for such a long time that Molly had few memories of him. Laughter was what she remembered, the vibrations of laughter, and a sensation of fear, which puzzled her, for why should she be scared of laughter?
Nan was fluttery that afternoon, never still. Always hopping up to sweep a crumb off the table or boil the kettle again and again. ‘I can’t believe it,’ she said, and ‘you’re the limit,’ as Col talked about Brisbane.
Things were better now, he said, he had settled down. He talked about the wholesalers he worked in, like a huge supermarket, bigger than the shearing shed. The shelves so high you needed a tall ladder to get to the top. The workers wore fluorescent vests so they didn’t get run over by the forklifts zipping back and forth. Putting things on the shelves and taking things off. He’d kept the job for near on twelve months.
Nan was on her feet again, opening the fridge, deciding to make pikelets. Her trembling hands broke the eggs into the flour.
‘Then yesterday morning I just hit the road and drove. Look where I ended up.’
‘What about your job?’ Rodney asked.
He’d chucked it in, it was giving him the shits.
‘Oh, Drat.’ Nan cried. An egg, unattended, had rolled and smashed on the floor.
‘Are you a farm girl Molly? I was never much into the farm, not like Rodney. I couldn’t wait to get away.’ Col said.
‘That’s not true now,’ said Nan, shaking her head.
‘I was more interested in chasing the girls. No luck on that front bro?’
‘Oh cut it out Col,’ Nan said, and Rodney pushed his chair back with a scrape and stood up. He walked to the door, and as he passed, Molly smelt the angriness coming from his armpits.
‘There’re kennels, up behind the sheds. You can put your dogs there,’ he said, as he went out the door.
Col stood behind Nan then, and put his hands on her shoulders. She flicked a tea-towel at him, but then reached up and put a floury hand on top of his. Held on tight, pressing. Molly saw her white knuckles.
‘Lay off Rod. He still hasn’t got the barley in. He’s talking about sowing dry or it will get too late.’
‘Pissing down in Brissie, t’was.’ Col yawned and arched his back.
Molly snuck away from the kitchen, from the house, and followed Rodney down to the sheds, where she found him greasing up the seed drill. He looked out over the paddocks, where the setting sun was a blaze of red, where there was no sign of rain.
‘I think we’ll have to go ahead Moll. We’ll have to go ahead or we’ll miss our chance.’
In the distance, on neighbouring farms, tractors circled the paddocks kicking up a plume of dust, sowing their seed dry and counting on rain to come.
That whole week, Col filled the house with his body, talking and laughing, making it tight and crowded. Rodney woke early and drank his tea in a hurry before Col showed up in the kitchen. He spent his time down in the sheds, getting the machinery ready for planting. Col’s dogs howled and barked at the kennels where they were tied up. Molly sought refuge with the chooks, collecting the eggs. Nan and Col smoked on the verandah.
‘How many today, love?’ Nan asked, when Molly brought the scrap bucket back to the house. Molly showed them her bucket carefully, with the still-warm eggs inside.
Evenings Molly stayed in her room, drawing pictures. Col poked his head around the door, grinning.
‘Can I come in?’
Molly shook her head and looked down at her drawing, waited for him to go. Had an ache. Hated her picture, with Rodney on the tractor going round and round the paddock, the puppy with the large ears running alongside. When the puppy runs he looks like he is trying to fly.
‘Give her time, love.’ Molly heard Nan say, in the kitchen.
Molly watched Col on the verandah, playing with the puppy with large ears. The puppy closed his eyes as Col rubbed his tummy. Molly watched from behind the flyscreen door, wanting, maybe.
In the evening, Molly brought her plate of chops and mash to the verandah and sat beside Col.
‘I might stick around for a while. What do you think of that Molly?’
The puppy, whose chin was on the verandah, pulled his head up suddenly to watch Molly. Even Rodney stopped chewing and waited. She sucked a chop bone silently, shrugged and nodded. Threw the bone to the puppy. Col breathed out and laughed.
At the bowling club the air-conditioning came whooshing down from the high ceiling and made Molly shiver. Col went to the bar to get a raspberry lemonade for Molly and a brandy and dry for Nan. As he bounced across the sticky carpet the men at the bar turned slowly to look.
‘Col.’ They said in flat voices. Then they turned their backs, setting up a wall. Col stared straight ahead then. Molly could see a muscle in his face twitching. Later he drifted over to the pokie machines.
Then the winds started, whipping up the precious topsoil and making the sky bloody and dark.
‘Wouldn’t it break your heart,’ Nan said, looking out the laundry window.
Col stayed up late two, three, four nights; the television rinsing his face in blue light. Molly heard the television drill into her dreams, heard Nan’s bed squeak and groan as she tossed. There were empty beer stubbies and JD cans on the lounge-room floor in the morning.
‘This place gives me the shits.’ Col said.
‘Give it time, love.’ Nan said.
He disappeared during the day, roaring up the driveway in the red ute. The puppy with the large ears sat in the passenger seat. He came home late in the evening, sometimes not at all.
One night when Col was gone the moon was full and swollen, and Col’s dogs barked well into the morning hours. Rodney rose and took the rifle out from under the bed and went outside. Molly heard a series of staccato shots, sharp and final, above the din. Then the dogs were silent. She lay still in bed, afraid to breathe, tasting her own hot blood. The dogs were stupid, but it was as if the bullets had pierced something inside her, the place where tears were kept.
In the morning, though, the dogs were alive and barking as usual at the morning activities. But that morning Col did not come back.
The phone rang in the late afternoon. Molly heard Nan say: ‘Ok love. Ok.’
She got off the phone and went out on the verandah for a cigarette. Molly followed her and stood waiting, but Nan said nothing.
‘Is Dad coming back?’ Molly asked.
Nan had looked at her, then, in a way she sometimes did. As if Molly was very far away instead of right there underneath her nose.
‘Not for a while.’ She said.
He’d taken the puppy with the large ears.
Nan needed a lie down, she said, and went to her room. The house was too large now, too big and quiet. There was cold air in every room. So Molly walked out the back gate, past the sheds. As she walked she began to hear strange muted sounds around her in the earth at her feet. A cracking, like the earth was slowly opening up. She walked on and tiny specks of dust begin to jump on the ground. Rain, so sparse she couldn’t feel it on her own body, so fine it almost evaporated before it hit the ground, was landing on the parched earth like tiny explosions.
Rusty red. Jammed into a corner in the front yard, handlebars askew, frame mangled, seat torn, matted stuffing spewing on to the dirt. Toys spread across the concrete veranda – a deflated ball, broken cricket bat, a baby’s toy faded green and blue. Beside the door, a cardboard box crammed with empty beer cans. The front door is open.
Down the passage, voices jostle for air time. Kids’ voices. A man sounds above the rest.
Tansy, Tansy. Are you getting up?
A child appears at the front door. She is in pyjamas, hair tousled. She stands, staring out, hand on the door. Her eyes meet mine as I walk along the pavement, towards the school. For a moment, we regard each other. I register the pale face, steady gaze.
I had read the notice in the school newsletter – Volunteers needed to listen to children read, help with Breakfast Club.
Small uniform-clad figures cluster about low tables. The smell of toast and warm, milky milo hangs in the air. A shrill pealing sound signalling the start of another school day reverberates from a speaker high on a wall. Kids pile out the door, half-eaten slices of toast in hands, crumb and vegemite – smeared faces.
The girl appears in the doorway. Six, maybe seven years old. She pushes a mass of blonde hair from her eyes, walks up to Leila who is manning the toaster, points to the row of jars.
Cream cheese. No butter.
Please. She adds as an after-thought.
Where are your brothers, Tansy? Breaky at home? Leila jams down the toaster.
Well, glad you came in. Leila hands the girl two pieces of toast. Come earlier tomorrow. I’ll make milo.
The girl nods, balances the toast on one arm, picks up a pink bag featuring the faded outline of a Barbie doll, heads out the door.
Just listen to each child read. Talk about the book.
Tansy pushes open the door, stares at me. She is wearing the school T-shirt, blue and yellow together with what might be cotton shorts or pyjama bottoms, pink cotton, creased and grimy.
Hi Tansy. I hear you like reading stories.
She nods and sprawls on the mat, hair falling across her face. She scratches at her ankle, working at the edge of the faded pink sneaker. Her legs are speckled with mosquito bites and streaked with dirt.
I’ve got no socks. Cooper didn’t put any out for me.
Cooper’s your brother?
Yeah. He’s Grade 3. I got no mum.
- We can get socks.
She shakes her head at the white pair I choose, dives her hand into the box and comes up with socks decorated with fairies.
Back in the reading room, we pull off the sneakers and wrestle with the socks which are a size too big.
OK, how about we read something now?
Tansy nods, settles on the rug.
Not a real dog. It’s a lump of stuffing encased in corduroy. A piece of string is tied around the corduroy dividing it into two lumps, one larger than the other, a head and a body.
Tansy is seated on a chair outside the classroom, knees drawn up to her chin, arms round the corduroy shape, tight against her chest. Her face is closed, eyes down.
She points to the lump of corduroy. I can’t go in. Dog doesn’t want to.
This is your dog?
Does it have a name?
Ok. How could we help Dog come into class?
He wants a drink.
Well, let’s get him one. I’ve got a bowl. I find the lid of a drink bottle in my bag.
Tansy follows, watches the bowl being filled at the tap, pushes the corduroy lump towards the bowl.
Is Dog OK to go into the classroom now?
She nods, pulls at the door, slides through.
A group of children wind their way around the path beside the creek. The biggest child is about eleven, sandy hair, a spatter of freckles across his nose. He is pushing a shopping trolley loaded with cans, tomatoes, beans and fruit, and two loaves of bread. One loaf lurches from its wrapping, spilling white slices of bread over the base of the trolley.
Beside him walk two younger children, a boy and a girl. They are eating slices of white bread, gouging huge holes in the centre with their teeth.
A few metres behind, Tansy dawdles. She has torn a slice of bread into pieces and is trailing crumbs as she walks. I am reminded of Hansel and Gretel dropping crumbs, trying to find a way home. Two sparrows hop along in Tansy’s wake, pecking at crumbs.
The oldest boy recognises me, nods hello. Tansy looks up, squinting into the sun, raises a hand and goes on eating. She stops and watches as I walk by.
Tansy. I hear the older boy urging her to keep up.
They disappear around a bend.
The tooth fairy didn’t come.
Tansy is seated on the rug in the reading room. She grimaces, revealing a gap between her front bottom teeth.
Well, maybe the fairy was busy last night. Did you put the tooth out in a glass?
She shakes her head. Nah, I put it in the beer holder. Dad said to.
Maybe the fairy missed that. How about you put it out again tonight?
Tansy nods, lies down on the rug.
Tansy is too excited to read today. She bursts through the door of the Reading Room, tumbles on to the mat.
It’s Kaiden’s birthday tomorrow. We’re going to the pool. We’re having balloons. My cousins are coming. We’re having a cake. And lollies. Dad’s getting a big cake.
She throws out her arms to show me how big.
Great! Sounds like fun.
I find the book about birthdays. We read it together, Tansy is pouring over the pages, counting the candles and the balloons in the pictures.
We’re having a cake like that one. Kaiden is getting a present.
Next day, Tansy is late. She arrives, pushes the door open with a bang, slumps on the rug.
Hey, you tired from the birthday? How did it go?
Her hair falls across her face and she picks at a scab on her leg, her voice muffled through the hair.
We didn’t go. Dad didn’t have any money.
She looks up, brightens momentarily. We might have a party with our cousins soon. Dad said.
I put the birthday book back in the box. We read a book about African mammals.
The locker with Tansy’s name on it is empty. No grimy pink bag. No stuffed – in lunchbox or reader spilling from a book bag. No bunched tissues or screwed up empty packets.
I loiter beside the locker like a thief.
Breakfast Club. Maybe she is having a late breakfast.
Leila is wiping down the benches. She looks up, pushes hair from her eyes.
No – they’ve gone. They moved. Just up and went. They might come back. Nice kids. I miss Tansy. Poor kid.
She resumes wiping the tables.
The house is closed. Door shut. No voices. No child at the door. The pile of toys has gone. Junk catalogues protrude from the letterbox. On the porch, the box of beer cans has overturned, spilling across the concrete, clumps of green and silver glinting in the sunlight.
I turn to go, and see the bike, still there, jammed into the corner of the yard. Handlebars turned out, frame mangled, stuffing spewing from the seat. It looks stuck, half hidden in the bushes.
I hear them behind me, muffled giggles, shuffling feet, as I turn into the delicatessen aisle of the supermarket. Teenagers, a girl and a boy, arms entwined, heads together. There is something about the girl, the way she holds her head, the set of her shoulders, tangled blonde hair half-caught in a messy bun. They feel my gaze, look up.
Tansy. I move towards her.
They freeze, eyes holding mine. I take in the kohl-rimmed eyes, baggy pants, black jackets and sneakers, the edge of a green tattoo peeking from the neck of her windcheater.
Tansy, it is you?
She hesitates, face frozen. Then the boy nudges her, whispers something too low for me to hear.
She shrugs and turns away. They make their way up the aisle, his arm pulling her towards him. I follow, shopping basket heavy at my side.
At the checkout, I see her hand hover over the magazines clustered on a rack. She grabs a magazine, turns suddenly.
Hey. She looks for me in the queue, holds the magazine aloft.
I can read now.
Her eyes hold mine and we both smile.
He pulls at her and they move through the glass doors to the car park.
And I move on, the shopping basket on my arm, feeling just a little lighter.
My teeth are black from too much red wine. Blue-vein cheese oozes into a puddle on the plate in front of me as sweaty travellers cram the hostel for my going-away party. This too-tight city of towers, shopping malls and rules has chafed my sides until I’m sore. I have to get away.
Most backpackers only stay a couple of nights in Singapore at this terrace house in Old Chinatown, a week at most, but I’ve become as much of a fixture as the rotting cane chairs and the reek from the showers, a permanent resident, the same as my French surfy friend Marie. My trekking boots are buried deep under the stinking pile of footwear at the bottom of the stairs, my thongs and high-heeled teacher shoes slapped on the top.
Marie and I have been sharing a set of bunks in this crumbling hot-box for months, too cheap and lazy to move into one of the island’s many high-rise towers. We call ourselves immigrant workers, not shit-packers like the rest. That’s Marie’s theory. She laughs at all these people, traveling as far as they can from home, trying to outrun the past. Trouble is, she says, no matter how far or fast you go, all the shit you’re running from is still with you, heavier than ever.
I don’t tell Marie, but that’s just what I’m trying to do – escape. I fled my old life on impulse, bought a one-way ticket to Bali with money meant for other things. Survival instinct. Huddled in sweat-sodden bunks, sick but free, I boat-hopped my way across Indonesia, living my new life like a dream, euphoric at how easy it was to change. But when the last of the cash was spent, I was forced to stop dreaming and stay in Singapore, touting at the airport and cleaning the hostel toilets in return for my bed. After a month or so, just before I throttled the next tourist who asked me the way to the bus station, I finally scored a job teaching English.
Now though, half a year later, not even the smiles on my students’ faces can tempt me to stay. My escape has turned sour, too much like real life. The surface of the city is controlled, scrubbed clean, but at night, on the way home from teaching, I smell the true nature of the city oozing up from the drains, the rot underlying the steel and mirrors. Rats and palm-sized cockroaches scuttle from gutters to stairwells as people eat their noodles at night markets. I imagine I can see right into the island’s festering heart, trapped beneath its steel corsets, cancerous under the skin.
Between brown, shining bodies, I see Marie in the middle of a circle of Swedish girls who giggle and toss their hair. I try to catch Marie’s eye, but she doesn’t even glance in my direction. I thought once that we shared some kind of a connection, a tremor of romance that only needed a breath to live. That maybe in her arms I’d be happy. Nothing ever happened though. She didn’t make a move, so I didn’t either, but every night I lie underneath her creaking springs, wishing I could rest my head on her chest and feel her heart beating.
It’s too late now though. I’ve stayed too long and the rot of the city has settled in my bones. If I don’t leave I won’t be able to stop old habits rising to the surface and running like cockroaches into the night.
I read a fairy-tale once about two sisters, one good, one bad. When the good sister spoke, gold coins and blossoms trickled from her pretty pink lips. The bad sister was cursed. Whenever she opened her mouth, rats and toads and insects spewed out, no matter what she said. Marie doesn’t know who I really am. I’ve stuffed the old me, the bad sister, the one full of lies and loss, deep into the corners of my backpack. Shoved her under the bunks, forgotten, collecting dust. Marie thinks I’m only who I pretend to be, a laid-back girl with an easy smile. Clean. Good. Pretty. She doesn’t know how ugly I really am.
Over by the noticeboard, I see Cheryl flirting with some new Aussie boys. She stays week after week trying to become a long-termer, like Marie and me. She thinks she’s like me. But she’s not.
Before she even knows your name she’s lifting her top, flaunting the welts under her ribs and on her back – scars from when she came home one night and disturbed a burglar who attacked her with a knife.
“He got me here, and here, and here,” she says, pointing. “Six times, he got me.”
She takes your hand, forcing you to touch the stab wounds and you can’t help but recoil, tear your hand away.
“Oh,” you say. “Oh. That must’ve been terrible.”
“Yeah. I kind of freaked out for a while. But I’m okay now.”
I don’t think she is.
The other night, Marie and I stumbled up the stairs to find Cheryl sprawled naked on the couch in the foyer, sleeping – a half-eaten Mars Bar on her patchwork belly. The next day she laughed about it, flashing her scars, exposing her wounds, chuckling. Doesn’t she know such things are meant to be kept hidden? I’ve worn long sleeves since my teens, sweltering through the hottest of summers to hide the scars on my skin.
But they’re not the scars that bother me most.
In dreams I see my heart, thick with scar tissue – ropey, hardened flesh constricting the beating of the tiny pink bit still left. Not much bigger than a clitoris and just as vulnerable.
“Why the sad face?” It’s Marie, finally torn herself away from her admirers. She pulls down the corners of her mouth, mocking me.
“Go back to your girlfriends.”
She sits on the floor beside my chair. “Girlfriends?”
I nod towards the blondes who look over, tittering.
“Oh, them. They like my jokes. Why? Are you jealous?”
I swipe back the hair that’s stuck to my forehead. “Ha.”
“Maybe that’s why you’re sad. You’ll miss me soooo much.”
She’s trying to make me laugh, but I’m not falling for it. Not tonight. “You don’t know anything about me.”
She shrugs. “Enough.”
“Only what I tell you.” My throat is hurting. A bad-sister toad is stuck half-way.
I fold my arms across my chest and stare down at the melting blue cheese, pressing my lips together.
“It can’t be that bad.” She smiles and I want to make her stop.
Words rise like bile in my mouth. “Want to see my scars?”
She nods and I want to hurt her, want to make her hate me so she’ll leave me alone. So I don’t have to keep smiling back. Hoping.
I push up my sleeve. Some scars are long, running from wrist to elbow, others criss-cross them, tattoos of self-hate. In the crook of my arm nestle raised lumpy veins and faded needle marks. Liar. Junkie. Head-case. Lost.
Marie is quiet. I tug my sleeves down and set my jaw for the blows that will come.
“I know,” she says, resting a hand on mine. “I’ve seen them before. I was waiting for …”
I jerk my hand away, reach for my wine. She’s supposed to be afraid, angry maybe, not have that stupid look of pity on her face. I throw back my drink, coughing as it hits my gullet.
Marie shakes her head. “Things aren’t as bad as they sometimes seem, you know.” She refills my glass and pours herself one. Takes a sip.
I wish she’d go away. I was stupid to show her. I try to push up out of my chair but my knees collapse and I fall back awkwardly.
“You know,” she says, tilting her head to one side. “It’s just life. All of it. The bad things that happen to us, that we do to ourselves.” She flaps her arms as if she’s covering the whole world. “We’ve all got it. You, her…” She glances over at Cheryl. “Me. We’re not babies anymore. We live. Some good things happen, some bad, some total shit. We do things we are not so proud of. That’s life. Maybe even I’m not as perfect as I seem.”
I have to smile at that.
“We all have a bit of bad in our good, but I tell you something.” She gets up on one knee so her face is level with mine, and scoops melted blue-vein onto a cracker. “Look at this cheese, this wine. They’re a bit bad too. How do you say? Ferment? But that’s what makes them good. Special. Otherwise it’s just grape juice and milk. I know what I like better.”
She takes a bite.
“Lovely,” she says, and edges closer, offering me the cracker.
Her breath is warm on my lips.
Across the road, the old woman has done something to the melaleuca tree in her front garden. From here it appears swathed in toilet paper, wrapped top to bottom, mummified. She’s out there now, fiddling with some of the lower branches.
“What do you think?” She calls out. I hope not to me. She could’ve caught me eyeballing it from behind my newspaper. I feign deafness, absorption in world news.
“I say, what do you think?” She raises her voice.
I put down the paper.
“Interesting,” I say. Tree vandalism would be the more accurate way to describe it. I’ve never seen a tree look so despondent.
“The kids think I’m mad!” She says. “It’s for the Christmas competition, you know.”
“Ah.” I stand up from the porch and wander across the road.
“Cheers the place up, don’t you think?” she says, standing back to admire her handiwork. She pulls her mouth down at the corners slightly. “That blasted rain.”
Up closer I see that what appears to be toilet paper is faded crepe paper of all different colours: blue, red, green. The colours have been leeched away by the overnight rain.
“No, it’s fine,” I say. “Looks terrific.”
She’s put some work into it. There are tiny Santa Claus figures abseiling from the lower limbs on thin gold strings, swinging in the mild breeze.
“You’ll have to do something yourself,” she says, waving a hand in the direction of the flats. She gives my arm a pat as she moves back inside. “An artist like you.”
I’m not an artist. I was working as a chef in Cronulla before I moved out here ten months ago. The word got around that I was some kind of artist, and I can’t be bothered correcting it anymore. Maybe there’s an understanding Sydney is one big artist’s colony. Maybe it’s the catch all moniker for a middle-aged male with clean fingernails and no strong opinions about the footy. Maybe it’s small-town code for ‘does nothing.’
I never planned to do the whole tree-change thing. It just happened that way. What I mean is, I never sat down one day and thought: hell, wouldn’t it be lovely to live in the country, get out of the rat-race, attend the local farmers’ market on the weekend, go gate to plate. No, I just made a bee-line out of Sydney. I had to be anywhere else but there.
It was the roses that caught my eye when I drove through. I wanted somewhere dry, somewhere far enough away from the city, somewhere the tentacles of the food-porn industry hadn’t yet reached. There was a vacancy at the CWA flats in town, a small porch shared with the other tenants, a cramped front garden with three roses at the front fence, gone wild. Worth a chance, I thought.
“We’ll have to clean them up,” the CWA woman tutted, gesturing to the roses as we walked out the gate.
“No,” I’d said. “I like them as they are. Please leave them. If you don’t mind.”
I surprised myself. I don’t really go in for flowers in a big way.
She pursed her lips. I could see it offended her sense of civic duty: to keep things trim and tidy. But then she relented.
“Well, there’s a certain loveliness to them, isn’t there,” she said to me.
About ten years ago I decided to give up on giving up drinking. It wasn’t working out for me. I guess I figured it didn’t have to be such a fight, that it could be a win-win situation. We’d been together so long, we may as well go the distance. I guess my wife, Alison, didn’t see it exactly the same way I did. She reckoned I could drop people with the click of my fingers, but not the lousy bottle. What did that say about me, about us?
At the time I might’ve mentioned that drinking made some people bearable to be with. It probably wasn’t the right response.
My mother calls every couple of weeks and pretends things are normal. She’s careful with her words. She’s sure it’s doing me a lot of good, being out here at Woop Woop or Whatyamacallit.
“All that fresh air,” she says.
The way she talks you’d think all land west of the Blue Mountains was given over to some health and wellness resort. I tell her that as we speak I sit watching a tractor circling a nearby paddock, spraying the canola crop, shrouding the town in insecticidal spray drift.
“But no light pollution, that glorious night sky,” she counters.
“Seen one star, you’ve seen ‘em all,” I say.
She continues doggedly: “…and no city noises at night, I bet you’re sleeping like a baby.”
Here, the town dogs bark all night, and a goods train thunders through at two in the morning and shakes the foundations of the flats.
“Mother,” I say. “The reception’s not great out here. You’re cutting out.”
Graham from the flat next door comes out to sit on the porch beside me.
“Streuth,” he says. He’s spotted the tree.
Despite my best attempts not to, I like Graham. He’s on a disability pension, literally on his last legs: waiting to die. Like me, he has his good days and bad days. He doesn’t make a big deal about it, either way. On not too bad days he feeds me. When I first moved in he saw the empty tins of spaghetti, the baked beans, accumulating in the recycling bin. He showed up at the door one afternoon and thrust a pyrex dish at my chest.
“Get this into you,” he said, moving fast for an invalid, ducking back to his flat before I had time to parry, to block. Or to say thanks.
He doesn’t drink, but he doesn’t mind if I have a couple. The days are pretty long out here, and some days I need more than a couple. There have been days though, since I’ve arrived, when I clean forget to have a drink.
“What do you think about cardboard coffins?” Graham asks. “Biodegradable and all that,” he says. “Cost-effective.”
We sit on that for a while, looking out from the porch over the heads of the roses, onto the empty street.
The yellow roses remind me of Alison.
My mother has her own term for what happened back in Cronulla at the restaurant. Unfortunate. It’s a softening, generous word, it absolves me of any culpability. Actually, I was full as a boot. Actually, I’d been tanked on the job for most of that year. I was an idiot.
Graham and I stroll down to Main Street in the afternoon. Graham is in his flip flops, his legs pasty white skin and bone. The sun is baking us, scorching the backs of our legs.
We buy sausage sandwiches and sit on the curb to eat them. Across the road the pub faces us. Through the open door we can see a couple of cockies perched at the bar drinking their mid-afternoon mid-strength. People don’t do anything to excess out here. There are greater forces to defer to, the sun bearing down, the earth and its seasons. It checks your needs somehow. I’m hot and thirsty, but I don’t get pulled into that bar like I might’ve done a few months back.
When we get back to the flats the old woman is in her front garden.
“Boys,” she calls.
She needs a hand. She holds a rough-hewn star cut from cardboard and sprinkled with glitter.
I need this to go right at the top there,” she says, pointing to the tree.
I stand on the ladder as Graham holds it stable, and I reach up and put the star into position in the upper branches. It’s precarious, but I think it’s going to stay.
“Perfect,” the old woman claps her hands. She stands back and gazes up.
“Now here,” she says, and presses another star into my hand. “This is for your roses”. She gives me a box of trinkets as well, some tiny Santa Claus figures, but mercifully no crepe paper.
“Thank you,” I say.
I place the star at the top of the yellow rose bush. It’s a delicate operation getting your hand in there without getting jabbed by a thorn, but my star is secured, lodged in the branches.
“Nice work,” says Graham.
We put two of the tiny Santas into service, bravely hanging by their golden threads amongst the roses and thorns.