This story was first published in the 2013 UTS Anthology The Eveninglands
Alone, parked on the shoulder of the road in the middle of nowhere. I stare with blank eyes out the car window as I work mechanically through the doorstops of ham and mustard Peter made me before daybreak. Neither of us could sleep after the shrill ring pierced the night. The call is now on a tape loop in my mind, its alarm still jangling my nerves.
I had not heard that raspy voice for ten years. Despite Peter’s palm between my shoulder blades, my voice trembled in reply. Of course I would come. Of course.
I unscrew the lid off the flask of coffee, also prepared by Peter while I numbly contemplated my empty sports bag. From my cocoon of leather and cooled air I gaze out at a different reality. Yellow-stalked paddocks riffled by gusting topsoil. Fireweed. Flat horizons. Scourging wind driving the cotton-dry clouds.
I sip the coffee, knowing I need it, but all I’m aware of is the smell of plastic rising from the cup. I wrap up the rest of my sandwich. Peter always overdoes the mustard, but I can’t taste a thing.
‘Get up ya bloody pansy, ya not hurt.’
I was glad I couldn’t see my father’s eyes in the shade of his hat. Allan had galloped off to collect my horse and he was leading it back as I struggled up, my fingers smearing tears and dust over my face, which was hot with shame.
‘You useless shit.’ My brother threw me the reins. ‘None of them books teach ya how to ride a horse, smart arse?
It took me three shaky hops to hoist myself back on.
We rode for endless miles that day, me always trailing in the dust of my father and brother, wishing I was at home. Apart from the odd scraggy gum that reared up, the scenery was desolate. We were at the ends of the earth; well beyond west of Bourke, well beyond anything. There was nothing in this world but this.
When we finally located the lost steers, Allan went careering off to the side to bring them in from behind. For a moment my father just watched him and I could see his pride in the thin line of his mouth.
The moaning of the cattle filled the silence on the return trip and I was glad to plod behind. I was already imagining the warm bath where I would sluice out the stinging grit from every sweaty crease and cut, and rub my latest bruises in private.
That evening I sat down to dinner with my hair slicked into place. My father and Allan’s dusty forearms hemmed me in on either side, both of them still rank with sweat. I was still pushing the last soggy potato onto my fork when Allan threw his plate in the sink on his way out to help with feeding the dogs and shutting up the chooks.
Since my mother’s death it had been my job to wash up and keep the house tidy. I didn’t mind if it got me out of doing things that I hated. But in his angrier moods my father would drag me off – riding, fencing, branding – as if the humiliation or boredom would turn me into a man.
I looked out the window over the sink as I scalded the cutlery. I could see the glow of two cigarettes hovering around in the dark until finally they met over near the shed, hanging there together until they went out.
As the road thins down from double to single lane and the towns diminish in size, I feel my outer layers peel away. Ten years of carefully fitted protection dissolving just like that – my career, the respect of my peers, my happy home life…everything gone, leaving me raw and naked. The defences required for this world are the kind I’ve never had – a hard heart, brute force, and above all, what passes as normal in a tinpot town stuck in the fifties.
Back at my lunch stop I’d switched off the radio and flipped through the sleeves of the CD holder. I wanted something big. Some vicarious release. I slipped Beethoven’s Ninth into the player and immediately felt comforted by the tempestuous sounds of brass and percussion. That had been close to an hour ago, back when there had been some distant views of hills corralling my vision on either side. Now, further west, the view is flattened, the sky huge.
I can’t imagine what the old man went through before he picked up the phone to call me. After all these years of no contact I felt the same old fear prickle my stomach as if I’d seen him only yesterday. There was no small talk. He relayed the facts, issued terse instructions. You can have your old room, he said. This was followed by a heavy pause that I’d felt obliged to fill. I’ll come alone, I said.
The road is unfurling ahead of me like a ribbon of black crepe and will soon turn to dust. On the horizon, piled up in this weighty blue, bulbous clouds bear down on the end of the road, but the rich high notes of Ode an die Freude propel me forward in my winged chariot, lifting me, lifting me. And I will not be held down.
The last thirty kilometres have been corrugated dirt roads and even with the windows sealed, fine dust has created a film on the Audi’s dashboard. Gravel spits from under the wheels as I finally turn off the road and rumble over our cattle grid, driving through more airborne topsoil. Queasiness has progressed to nausea and I’m worried about what he will think, how he will react after all this time. I had made no attempt to dress to fit in, assuming it would make me look even more ridiculous if I tried. My lime green polo shirt is the only fresh green in sight and my beige chinos are crisp and unstained. My attitude when I had dressed this morning had been fuck you; now it was just fuck.
The house and farm buildings come into view. I’m surprised to see a few straggly adolescent gums allowed to remain standing close to the house. I pull up in front of the verandah and stay in the car, waiting for him to come out. After a few minutes I get out and close the door, loud enough to hear within a good distance of the house. I stand there stretching my legs, wondering if he’s watching me from behind a chink in a blind.
A blue cattle dog bounds up and starts jumping on me and I hear a guttural, ‘G’down Bluey!’ from the doorway of the hayshed.
Still tall and angular, his clothes bag off him and his face, as always, is shadowed by his hat. He jolts towards me, all bone and leathery skin, his work boots clomping on the hard ground.
‘You’da been here an hour ago if you hadn’t been pampering that poncy excuse for a car,’ he grunted. ‘Surprised it’s still in one piece.’
At least I don’t drive it when I’m drunk.
‘Nice to see you too, Dad.’ I concentrate on giving Bluey’s head a good rub. ‘I’ll bring my stuff in.’
My old room has dusty boxes piled up and an old saddle propped under the window. A poster of a Ferrari has half peeled off the wall, its sticky tape a urinous yellow.
I dump my bag and step back into the hallway. I turn toward the kitchen but hesitate at the doorway of the room opposite. The bed is made and Allan’s boots are lined up in a row against the wall. A sports jacket and trousers are laid out on the bed. A corner of red and white protrudes from under his pillow. A Penthouse? Knowing Allan, more likely a Horses Downunder. The squeal of the kettle pulls me out of my reverie and back to the kitchen.
I sit at the table and watch the old man move between sink and cupboard. He levers the lid off a cake tin and throws some Arrowroots on a plate. I notice the latest clods of dirt his boots have trailed around the kitchen and feel a perverse sense of satisfaction that it’s not my job to clean it up any more. The thick old-man smell of the place has me longing for a whiff of Peter’s lemon-scented skin.
‘Nothing’s changed,’ I say, in an effort to break the silence.
‘No need for it,’ he says.
‘Here.’ He slops a mug of milky tea complete with swirling tealeaves in front of me. It wouldn’t occur to him that I might drink it any other way.
I sip my tea. Sweet dishwater. I tip my head in the direction of the hallway. ‘So, the outfit…?’
He focuses on his mug, stroking the handle with his gnarled fingers. ‘Gotta take it into Pemberton’s this afternoon.’
I take another gulp of the awful tea, each small action a pebble echoing down the well of each drawn out moment.
‘So,’ I say finally, running my index finger around the rim of the biscuit plate, ‘in the morning we just head straight for the church? Do you expect many people?’
‘A few mates. Some locals.’
I sense I’m wandering into dangerous territory, but I can’t help myself. ‘No uh…no girlfriend?’
The dregs of my tea aren’t supplying me with any conversational ideas. In desperation I reach over for a biscuit, but retract my hand quickly when he clears his throat.
‘So how’s er…what’s his name?’
‘Peter?’ My heart lifts at this change in the conversation. ‘He’s well. He was up at four with me this morning, helping me get ready. I should give him a call to let him know I arrived okay.’
‘Hmpf.’ He throws back the last of his tea. ‘What’s he do again?’
‘He’s a nurse at Prince Alfred’s.’
His eyebrows go up and down and I actually see the whites of his eyes, but he says nothing.
‘Do you mind if I use your phone to call him? There’s no reception out here for mine.’
‘You know where it is.’
He gets up and takes our empty mugs over to the sink. He then heads back out to the hayshed; I walk over to the hall table where the phone sits.
‘Hey, it’s me. Yeah, got here all right. How’s your day been?’
Peter doesn’t want to talk about his day. He’s worked himself up into a lather worrying about me and he needs assurances that I feel safe and that nothing untoward is going to happen. This is understandable, given the things I’ve told him about my childhood over the years. I spend the whole conversation trying to calm him down.
‘Look, I’ll be back home before you know it. I’m here to throw my fistful of earth, then I’m gone.’ Glancing through the front window, I see the old man making his way back to the house. ‘I have to go. I’ll call you on my way home.’
He’s standing on the front verandah rolling a cigarette. Without looking up he says, ‘If you’ve got nothing better to do you could take those clothes into town.’
There’s a pause while I recover myself. ‘Sure.’
The old man is still on the verandah facing down the drive when I come back out. He watches me in silence as I lay the clothes out on the back seat and he’s still watching as I drive off.
George Pemberton is a precise little man. There’s not a hair out of place in his comb-over. He gives me one of his delicate hands to shake and takes the outfit from me. He inspects it, running his hands over the rough tweed of the jacket.
‘Yes, yes. This will do nicely.’
‘Probably hasn’t had much wear,’ I offer, smiling.
Mr Pemberton looks me up and down, his watery blue eyes adding me up to some private total. ‘Well, yes. You boys were always very different.’
He folds the clothes over his arm and looks at me expectantly. I look down at my feet and around the room. ‘I don’t suppose…would it be okay–’
‘Come this way.’
I follow Mr Pemberton into a room that would have felt refreshingly cool had it not been for the faint smell of chemicals. Allan is lying on a gurney covered with a sheet.
Mr Pemberton reaches for the edge of it when I stop his hand. ‘My father didn’t tell me anything. Is he very badly injured?’
‘We’ve tidied his face up. I don’t think you need to see any more than that.’
He pulls the sheet back to the top of Allan’s shoulders. The first thing I notice, oddly enough, is the grey in his hair. There is a purple contusion on his forehead and a line of stitches down his left cheek. What really upsets me though, are the stitches sealing up a gash in his top lip. The puckering has him sneering at me, even in death.
Mr Pemberton gently pulls the sheet back into place. He gives my arm a squeeze and leads me back out to the reception area.
I’m in no hurry to go home, but it’s not like I have a lot of options. I consider the pub but decide against it. I’m not in the mood to be a spectacle. Across the road people are coming and going from the Co-op and it reminds me that it’s been hours since I’ve eaten anything. I realise I have little to look forward to in the evening meal if the old man is preparing it.
I walk in and as I grab a basket I wonder if Aunty Sadie still does the checkout. The familiar odours of hessian and root vegetables immediately take me back to being a four-year-old tagging behind my mother shopping. In those days I never let her out of my sight.
There’s a pretty, round-faced girl at the cash register. Her beaming smile totally cancels out her limp blonde hair and frowsy dress. ‘We don’t get many visitors here. Where’re you from?’
‘Sydney.’ I start handing her vegetables, aware of her critical appraisal. ‘Mrs Cooper retired now?’
The girl pauses with a squash in each hand, fresh interest in her eyes. Without taking them off me, she tilts her head back and yells, ‘Say-deee! There’s someone out here from Sydney who knows you!’
An old lady, much smaller than I remember, appears from out the back. ‘I was wondering who that posh voice belonged to!’
She bustles up and grabs me by both arms, staring up at what must be for her, a great height. ‘Oh, Robert,’ she says after a long pause, all her emotion channelling into her fierce grip. ‘Still so handsome.’ Remembering herself, she lets me go and says in a lowered voice to the girl, ‘This is Robert Stapleton. Allan’s brother.’
We talk for a bit, exchanging gossip on what has happened to the people we know. ‘I suppose I’ll be seeing you tomorrow?’
‘Of course, dear. The whole town will be there.’
I lean forward and kiss her grey hair. ‘It’s lovely to see you Aunty Sadie.’
She touches her cheek and smiles. ‘You’re the only one who still calls me that.’
I’m walking back down the aisle when I hear her loud whisper, ‘He always had such beautiful manners. A fairy, you know.’
I am woken by my own scream. My heart is bulging in my chest and I’m gasping for breath as I stare out into inky darkness. What happened to the streetlights? I am in a strange bed and unable to feel where the fuggy air ends and my damp skin begins. It takes me a moment to get my bearings and untangle my legs from the sheets. I feel my way out to the hall, grateful to hear the old man’s continuous snoring.
Outside, I lower myself onto the front step to breathe in the earthy night air. I clench and unclench my hands to stop them trembling.
After all these years the nightmare is exactly the same. I am pinned to the ground by a multitude of hands and heavy bodies. I can't see and my teeth are broken shards in my mouth. Long hard fingers clamp around my neck stopping me breathing and a large sweaty palm seals my mouth. The sound of my brother laughing, not doing a thing to help me. So much for having healed and moved on. Just like a cancer you think you’ve beaten, lying in remission just waiting for the right conditions to rage again.
My heart rate has slowed down but the pounding has been replaced by an anguished burning. The night air is feeling heavy in my lungs. I need a drink. The old man rarely touches the stuff but there’s bound to be something of Allan’s lying around. I find a bottle of bourbon with about three inches left in it in the bottom of his wardrobe and on my way back out, grab a tumbler off the kitchen sideboard. Back on the front step I toss back a large gulp. It replaces the screwed up ache with a real burn. My empty stomach can barely handle it. I pour what’s left into my glass and stare over the grey paddocks.
Allan’s mates had all gathered out in the back paddock where he had built a bonfire and cleared an area for their swags. He’d set up a keg and some barbeque grids – it was going to be a long night. Our father was off droving again, so I shut myself in my room with The Return of the King.
In the middle of the night I woke up to the sounds of grunting and whooping right under my window. I launched out of bed to look. Two shirtless men were wrestling on the ground. When my eyes adjusted to the moonlight I could see one of them was Allan, the other, his best mate Andy Fairmont. The fighting wasn’t serious – more drunken horseplay than anything. I was so astounded I forgot that I could be seen, my nose pressed up against the glass.
Allan staggered up at one point clutching Andy against him and seeing me, he froze. I ducked down, but it was too late.
They thundered in and pulled me from under the bed and started laying into me, calling me a pervert and a poof. In the process of them yanking me around my pyjamas were shredded. They half dragged, half carried me, kicking and yelling to where the others were.
‘The little woman has come to join us!’ one of them jeered.
They held me down and poured beer over my head and made jokes about me having the body of a girl as they prodded and kicked me around. I was experienced at being beaten; I knew the quickest way for it to be over was to remain as passive as possible. Then one of the louder voices said, ‘This little house bitch needs to get some real-man experience!’
I was lying face down, beery mud in my eyes and my mouth. I was aware of them standing closely around me as they made jokes about their own size and masculinity, grunting and guffawing. By the time I realised what the sudden wetness on my bare legs and back meant, someone was pressing glowing embers into my backside and I could smell my own burning flesh. I screamed until I passed out.
It’s hours later when a thin sword of light splits the sky from the horizon and I still haven’t moved.
My wrist is stiff from holding the tumbler out over my bent knee. I blink at its pale yellow contents and toss it out over the dirt. My stiff knees protest as I lever myself up, the sun already glaring in my eyes.
Today I will bury my brother.