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Authors: Tim Winton

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BOOK: Dirt Music
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Jim loved to fish but he wanted his sons to do something else. He didn’t want them to follow the standard White Point trajectory which meant bumping out of school at fifteen to end up in seaboots or prison greens. Bill had sent him to board at an exclusive school notorious for its alumni of politicians and white-collar criminals. Neither Josh nor Brad would ever need to work a day in their lives if he didn’t insist upon it, but Jim was a stickler for hard work, for education and upright behaviour. All of which made him even more an exception at White Point. Down off the rooster perch of the bridge he was a fair, articulate, thoughtful man. And he’d always been kind to her. He was capable of, sometimes compelled by, a special, almost fearful physical tenderness. He was blokey and, yes, a little dull, especially of late, but he wasn’t a narcissist or a whiner. She’d had her share of supposedly reconstructed males, and after them Jim was a breath of fresh air. They were an unlikely pair—she’d always enjoyed that. The shame of it was that recently, each time she catalogued his virtues like this, it left an odour of self-persuasion, and she feared that as a couple they grew less likely by the day.

After dinner Jim stepped out for a bit. He came back with a video from Beaver’s garage. Georgie and Jim were on a Bette Davis bender. The great, hairy retired biker specialized in the campest years of Hollywood. Beaver was the closest thing Georgie had to a friend in this town.

All About Eve, Jim said. Her last really good one. And Marilyn Monroe.

Aha.

So sue me—I’m a bloke.

Georgie helped him put the boys to bed. Josh, his face softened by the nightlight, looked at her imploringly.

Dad says I have to save for a new board.

I’m sorry, love, she murmured. But it was an accident and you know we’ve been trying to get you to put it away.

A hundred and fifty dollars, but.

I’ll help you out.

Yeah?

Are the wheels okay?

Think so.

Then it’s just a new deck.

Josh pulled at his buttons thoughtfully.

We’ll have a look at the surfshop tomorrow.

Don’t tell Dad.

Why, love?

He’s mad at me.

Well, you were mean to me. It hurts, Josh. I have feelings, too.

The memory of the S-word lingered between them. Things had been rocky these past weeks in its wake.

Night, he said abruptly.

Josh?

Yeah?

Thought you might say sorry.

It wasn’t me who did it.

Georgie got off her knees and left him. Up in the livingroom Jim was asleep with the weather fax and the TV remote in his lap. The southerly caused the windows to shudder.

The house felt like a plane powering up at the end of a runway.

Or maybe that was wishful thinking. She sat down and watched the movie anyway. Marilyn Monroe came and went without him, twitching those lips fit to beat the band. Georgie worked through the bottle of chardonnay hating Anne Baxter, wondering how Miss Davis seemed forever old, raising her glass to the deliciously cold George Sanders.

The tape played out and rewound automatically and when it was done she sat in the ambient hum of other domestic machines.

She got up unsteadily, checked her email in vain. There was only rubbish: perverted strangers, hawkers, the usual dreck. She padded downstairs and looked in on the boys. Brad slept with his head flung back like his old man. He’d lost his infant cuteness.

She supposed Josh was in the process of shedding his. You could see why women teachers retreated into the pleasing compliance of the girls in their care. After nine, from what she could see, boys didn’t care to please. In his room Josh slept with his sheet off. He lay in the starfish position, a gentle nickering in his throat. She wanted to touch him while he was disarmed but she resisted the urge.

What was it with him? Did he sense her withdrawal? Was his behaviour some kind of pre-emptive strike? God knows, he’d been through a storm of grief as a six-year-old. Did he feel it instinctively, this change? Had he really caused her to drop her bundle this winter, or did he just pick up on her beginning to let go?

And where was his toughness now? Not that she could hold it against him. A bit of grit was useful. As a girl she’d had it in spades, hadn’t she? She despised her sisters’ girly meekness, the cunning, desperate way they strove for cuteness out of fear of losing favour. They were strategically pliable. And Georgie was not. Yet she was the loner in the family. An uncle once said she had more balls than her father. He was the one who felt her up when she was fifteen. She went upstairs to her father’s desk and showed him a business card which caused his eyes to widen. His boss, the editor of the newspaper he worked for, was her father’s sailing partner and here were his private numbers. If her uncle ever entered a room she was in without another adult present, she told him, she would make the call. That certainly pepped up Christmas gatherings in the Jutland house. She learned to steel herself. Georgie took that martial bearing onto the wards of a dozen hospitals. Along with a sense of humour, it helped when you were extracting a Barbie doll or a Perrier bottle from some weeping adventurer’s rectum. It immured you from the sight of your favourite sister’s nails bitten down to the quick. Or the gunshot sound of a camel’s legs breaking when run down by a speeding Cadillac. It mostly protected you from the sensation that you were making do, that your own soul was withering. But having a child turn away from you, nothing could steel you against that.

Georgie trawled about in the wee hours. Cyberspace was choked with yearning, with fantasies and lust and bad spelling. The chat rooms were full of pimply boys from Michigan or the daughters of Indian diplomats who wanted to converse like Lisa Simpson. They drove her out into the real night again.

She walked in the dark hollow between sandhills listening to her own breath as she went. Long before dawn she saw the shadow of a man easing his boat into the lagoon while his dog skittered along the shore. For a moment the dog paused, propped, as though sensing her crouched in the dune behind them. She heard the cough of a four-stroke behind her as she scrambled low in the direction of home.

After a week of watching the shamateur launch, Georgie knew that she’d let it go too long. She couldn’t tell Jim or anyone now without condemning herself. A couple of times she’d even fed the bloke’s dog; unleashed it again and swum in the lagoon. Somehow she felt complicit and it left her exposed, nervous.

Acting out of some oblique guilt about this, she sneaked Josh the money for his skateboard, but Jim found out and made the kid take it back and return her money. He could not believe, he said, that she would undermine his authority like that. She could barely credit it, either, but she did not feel contrite. They worked their way through Bette Davis with a funless determination.

Georgie considered speaking to Beaver about the bloke with the boat. She loved their pumpside talks about the Golden Age. Beaver was gross in a comforting sort of way. His beard had gone the colour of steel wool and his tatts gave his chest and arms a bruised look. He favoured black 501//s and blue singlets which displayed his bum crack and his monster gut.

Overalls, when he conceded to wear them, hid the arse but enhanced the pot. He was short a front tooth and the remainder weren’t long for this world. A Dockers beanie hid his balding pate but from its rim a plaited rat’s tail dangled the length of his sweaty neck. His steelcapped boots were scarred and blackened with oil. Georgie tried to imagine him taking them off at night—what strange, naked things his feet must be in the moments before bed.

There was some mystery to his retirement from bikerdom. She couldn’t get him to talk about the stripping of his patch, the loss of his colours. He was, on his day, a scream, but there was something sad about him.

Today the forecourt was empty. She found him in the workshop with someone’s shitbucket Nissan up on the hoist.

Petrified Forest, he said without turning around.

Well, you rented it to us, she said.

Leslie Howard. Fucksake, eh? What an ugly bastard. How’d he get there with Bette, you reckon? To make her look better? Was that the best the English could offer the big screen between the wars?

You can’t even blame rationing for a runty bugger like that.

Well, said Georgie. Now they have Jeremy Irons.

Cher-rist!

Oh, he has his moments.

Don’t they feed the pricks? And Ra-a-a-fe Fiennes, fuck!

Beaver wiped his hands on an old teeshirt in order to receive the video she was returning.

You ever, she began, you ever see anything odd round here, Beaver?

Getcha hand off it, George! This is White Point. Odd? That’s me job. Doing odd-ometer readins and windin back the dial.

She laughed. Oddometer.

Seriously, though, she continued. In the mornings, I mean. On the beach. Before dawn.

Not a thing, love.

Never?

Ever.

She watched him degreasing his hands. Noticing her interest he spread the cloth for her to see. It was a Peter Allen tour shirt.

Beaver wriggled his eyebrows. She didn’t ask.

High on the property, beyond the ruined melon paddocks where the quarry gives onto the riverbend, Fox stands amidst the limestone pinnacles smelling the baked dryness of the land and the tang of abalone slime on his skin. The briny southerly rushes, full of crowsong, across the hill and the upright stones whistle. He pulls out the wallet. Looks at the dud licence and fake papers.

Slips out the fold of notes. Steps up to the leaning stone and shoots his arm into the fissure. Finds the square tin with his fingertips and pulls it out in a shower of dirt fine as baby powder. A tea tin, Twinings Russian Caravan. Pops the lid, sniffs again. Regrets it.

In the tin is a thick roll of money bound in a perishing rubber band. Also a few sand dollars, an abalone shell the size of a child’s ear, some dried boronia blossom, two cloudy marbles and the beak of an octopus. Beneath them some tiny wads of paper folded into pellets. Fox considers putting the shell to his ear, thinks better of it. He adds his money to the roll. The rubber band contracts without conviction. He snaps the lid on and replaces the tin in its hidy hole. Doesn’t linger.

Boris went back to work. Georgie slept badly, prowled, drank and did not go down to the beach in the dark. Outside the post office one afternoon she saw a woman in a bikini with a child on her hip tear the wipers off a Hilux. In the cab another woman gave her the finger, wound her window up and locked the door.

Georgie found herself courting Josh. She felt like some bimbo wheedling her way back into a fortune. She despised herself. And the kid wasn’t having any of it anyway. He returned his school lunches uneaten, avoided eye contact, left rooms when she entered. You had to admire his grit.

Eventually she cornered him in his room where he lay on the bed with a photo album. She sat beside him with an arm across his shoulder to detain as much as to comfort.

What about we organize some jobs you can do to earn back the dough?

It’s Christmas soon anyway, he said.

True.

I’ll wait.

It took her a moment to process what he’d said. Georgie spluttered in her effort to stifle a laugh at the child’s nerve, his certainty. But instantly she felt him tense up, his whole body recoiling at her laughter. He took it as ridicule. She could have bashed her head against the wall.

Josh ripped back the adhesive cover of the album page and scraped off a photo of his mother. He held it at her face a moment and then raised it over her head in some awful priestly gesture she didn’t understand. His arm trembled with fury. The image felt like a jug of something he might tip over her at any moment.

Stranger danger, he said through his milk teeth. Stranger.

Danger.

Georgie compelled herself to meet his gaze and he began to swat her with the photograph. It wasn’t forceful, just a casual batting about the ears and mouth and nose, a contemptuous motion that brought tears to her eyes.

Then both of them became aware of Brad in the doorway. He seemed galvanized by the image of his mother.

You don’t even remember, he said to his brother.

Do so.

Put it back.

Josh returned the photo to its gummy space and pulled the cellophane sheet back across. A tear drop appeared on the surface.

And you better say sorry.

He’s sorry, said Georgie. I know he is.

Josh breathed, closed the album.

Brad stepped aside to let her by. He smelled of oranges. He looked away as she passed.

At dinner that night the four of them paused a minute to watch a boy on the jetty reeling in a gull.

It was sometime after midnight when, out of some ancient reflex, Georgie looked up from the computer to see Jim’s expressionless face reflected in the window. He was across the room behind her and, unaware that she could see him, he stood there some time with his hip against the corner of the stairwell, scraping his chin with the back of his thumb. His expression was not the indulgent look of a man secretly observing his lover. He looked closed and intense, impossible to read, and a ripple of uncertainty, of fear, even, went through her.

Hi, she said at last, startling him.

Late, he said. It’s late.

While he coils droplines back into the tubs and racks up tarpon hooks by their crimped traces, the diesel generator drones behind the wall. He stows the gear up on the boat, checks his batteries and steering, tilts each motor up and down before wiping off the screen and console. Already the wind is in the east. Tomorrow will be hot as buggery, the sea flat, the water clear.

He climbs down from the ladder at the transom and scratches the dog’s head as he passes. The long shed wall is festooned with tools—shears, shifters, scythes, saws, stirrups—most of them the old man’s, which is a laugh when all the coot ever used was a pinchbar and a roll of fencewire. A twitch of wire was his answer to every conundrum, mechanical, agricultural, theological. Above the bench in its jacket of dust is the plaque that once hung in the kitchen .52 Christ is the head of this house The unseen guest at every meal, The silent listener to every conversation Alongside it a stringless mandolin, a stove-in Martin dreadnought and a fiddle case covered with stickers and stains.

BOOK: Dirt Music
13.93Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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