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Authors: Tim Winton

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BOOK: Dirt Music
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From the wide doorless entrance to the shed Fox sees the shadows of roos in the melon paddock. Behind them, all the way to the river, tuart trees roar in the wind. The dog stiffens, growls, and Fox grabs it by the collar. Confounded by the wind the roos turn their heads and after a few moments, they gather up their haunches as a company and retreat into the darkness.

He can’t admit it to himself but the sight has jolted him. Four figures suddenly out there across the yard with its perimeter of gutted vehicles. He walks barefoot back to the house with his mind knocked out of neutral. The light feeling is gone. He resumes the discipline. These days he lives by force of will.

He fries the dog’s fish first, a marbled slab of morwong that the mutt lowers itself upon lustfully. Fox watches it shunt the tin bowl across the dirt then goes back inside to cook himself a few fillets of sweep which he eats at the sink, standing. Rinses his dishes, racks them up. Opens a bottle of homebrew. Considers a shave. Reminds himself to buy a few drums of fuel in the city tomorrow. Drains his glass. Feels restless. Should just go to bed for the four o’clock start.

Out of ritual, he goes through the old timber house room by room.

He doesn’t know what the impulse is. Checking he’s alone, maybe.

When he knows he’s alone. Doesn’t want to think about it.

The library empty. Keats open like a gull on the seat of the rocker. Wind moans in the chimney.

At the door of the kids’ room he stares at the half-packed cartons. A gruelling collection of dried fish heads on the windowsill. Made beds. Crayons on the floor.

Launches down the hall past his own room to the one with the double bed. All day he holds up. Living in the present tense.

Only to come to this.

Sits on the bed. The smell of stale linen rises up around him.

Looks at the beaten-up Levi’s slung across the pine chair and touches the frayed hem with his toes. Hair rises along his arms.

He reaches out and feels the denim which burrs beneath the calluses of his hand as he squeezes it between thumb and forefinger. Fox pulls the jeans from the chair and sees how they hold the imprint of her body. Held by the belt loops, the denim falls open, fills out as though it’s her very skin. And Fox, again, is powerless before her shape, can’t help but have his hands upon it, to hold it to his face till the zipper bites his lip. He falls back on the bed ground down by the weight of her, writhing up against it until he comes, in a miserable, shaming sweat, and lies there ruined.

You can’t do this, he tells himself reeling for the door, and as he goes he stumbles into the dented steel guitar and leaves the bastard thing falling in his wake to crash to the floor and ring discord at him on his way down the hall.

And it’s hours before he sleeps, ages of lying there in a fever of composure, denial, recrimination. When sleep comes it undoes him again: no grip, no purchase, no defences.

At him come flickering jabs of memory that stew his blood and bones as the house creaks on its stumps and his trees groan.

Gulping creek. Stones alight and ahum. The yellow sand jitters with the chime of that National guitar. It drones, drones in the metal bedframe and at his ear the hot Vegemite 54 breath of a child. Rosin. Brass-wound strings. Campfires, campfires. Spill of dirty blonde. Feral beard up at the end of a pole and his mother crouched amidst a paddock of melons which drink silent as hunkered birds. Basket of eggs: chinking, holy brownshelled bumnuts. And that boyhood feeling, the conviction that nothing bad will ever happen, that things will always be the same.

With the boys gone to school and the morning crashing white from every window Georgie came into the bedroom to dress. She threw the damp towel down beside the clothes laid out on the bed— shorts, knickers, teeshirt—and was struck by how limp, how bleached, how small they were. As if any of that could be a surprise. They were hers, weren’t they? This morning those three adjectives were bang on the money.

She hated mirrors but she felt enough self-loathing to reef back the robe door to expose the full-length glass behind it.

Georgie grew up in a house blighted with mirrors, amongst females who simply couldn’t pass one without turning. Jutland women went to mirrors the way prisoners sought windows. They tottered, it seemed to her, from one to the next, sidling up, confronting, storming them to hold their frames and scowl or beckon, to simper and leer. Her sisters 56 took the lead from their mother who hitched her eyebrows and bared her teeth, drawing them somehow into comparison, even competition with her beauty. At fifteen, the eldest and still a virgin, Georgie swore off the dreaded looking glass and mounted a sniping campaign. As a full-time engagement against her mother it lasted twelve weeks, during which time Georgie lost her cherry but not her guerrilla smirk. She was never quite one of them again.

Now she stared at her body in a manner she hadn’t employed for a long time. Okay, she was small. Compact, that used to be the word. Petite handed you an Alice band and a cardigan, for Chrissake. So, short. Small. Dark hair, thick and glossy, cut straight above her eyes in a way that now looked abrupt, even severe. A little helmet of hair. She was pretty enough, she’d always known it. Dominant upper lip, smallish nose, tanned skin with crow’s feet from the sun and shadows from everything else.

The eyes? She had the stare of a cattle dog. No wonder she’d scared people at school and on the wards. On her shoulders the straplines in her tan ran into the silly whiteness of her breasts. For goodness sake. Even without them your clothes shaped you. She had an inverted navel and an unmarked belly, though veins showed in her legs from years of trudging the wards. Unruly pubic hair.

It was three years since the morning she first saw Jim Buckridge and his kids on the beach at Lombok. From her room at the Senggigi Sheraton, with a tiny pair of salt-stained binoculars, she had picked him out in the crowd and watched him pace along the volcanic sand of the shoreline while his little boys snorkelled in the shallows. She only noticed him because she was hiding from another man. Holed up in her hotel she had nothing to do but keep watch with those daggy little binoculars for somebody she should 57 have left behind two months ago—Tyler Hampton. After sailing all the way from Fremantle with the crazy, seasick Californian—right up the western coast of Australia, enduring hell’s own storm beneath the Zuytdoorp Cliffs and the two-day grounding in the islands off the far-north Kimberley—she should have called it quits at Timor. The man was a handsome, glamorous fraud, a day-tripper who was a danger to himself and others, and Georgie had deluded herself too long. And then, finally, came the ignominious collision with another boat a mile out from the beach at Lombok that tore a hole in the hull and made her mind up. As Tyler Hampton dropped anchor a hundred metres out with the pumps failing she had gone over the side in the last light of day with her wallet, shoes and passport. The binoculars had still been around her neck when she swam in.

From any distance you could have picked Jim Buckridge as an Australian. He had crow’s feet like knifecuts. Handsome in a blocky way, of the sort she usually avoided, he was forty-five and looked it. Georgie gravitated towards lounge lizards, men with pointy sideburns and a cocked eyebrow. Whereas this bloke was a citizen. Although he was an imposing physical presence he looked hesitant, even fearful, as if he’d just woken to a different, a harder world. He shouldn’t have rated a second glance, but that charming desolation so intrigued her that Georgie decided to find a way of bumping into him. She wasn’t interested in a man of any description. At the very least, she needed a breather. But she was curious despite herself. She told herself she just wanted to hear his story.

Back in Perth, a fortnight later, she scandalized her sisters with the news. On hearing that her eldest daughter was moving in with a widower, a lobster fisherman from White 58 Point, their mother laughed with that special trill of disappointment she reserved exclusively for Georgie.

Georgie often thought of that laugh. She wondered whether the fear of that cool trill had kept her here these past months, given her the determination to stay on when it was clear that things had dwindled away to nothing.

She turned from the mirror, stepped up into the cavernous wardrobe and pulled down the Qantas bag.

The whining dog wakes him. He checks the luminous dial of his watch and sees that it’s after four. So much for the timelessness of animals. Hauls himself up. Showers, feels the sunbaked towel rough as bread. The dog rasps at the back door. It knows the rules but lives in hope, as though paradise awaits indoors.

Should break tradition, he thinks, and let it in one day. See lino and die. Piss the place slippery in mortal excitement. Break its heart, too. For somehow the dog believes the others have just been indoors all this time, that they’re here in their beds having a bit of a lie-in. Be cruel to let it inside now. He pulls on some shorts, lights the kettle, and goes out to console the mutt with a few playful slaps around the chops. In the dark, with the easterly stirring, the land smells of fresh biscuits.

There’s a shirt on the seat in the cab and he pulls it on while the truck warms up. He eases out, no lights, with the boat clunking behind him down the white ruts of the drive. Through the gate and out onto the blacktop. Bush and paddocks are indistinct.

There’s no one about. He’s got the jump on them but he’s as twitchy as the dog for the twenty minutes it takes him to reach White Point, where, from the downhill run into town, he sees the boneyard of surf that marks the outer reefs. He coasts through the empty streets to the beach and pulls up a moment to scope the lagoon. Not a soul. He’s got the jump.

Pulls in past the jetty, backs down to the water and slips the boat in. Tosses the pick, lets the boat hang back on the rope and drives the truck out before it sinks. When he’s run the rig up against the foredune he chains the dog to the roobar and drops a chunk of ice into the tin bowl at its feet. The mutt settles, miserable but stoic, onto its belly in the sand.

Fox pushes the boat out till the breeze catches it. He steps up onto the transom, tilts a motor in and starts it. The righteous sound of a four-stroke Honda. He slips it into gear and slides out across the seagrass banks through moored crayboats, keying up his instruments, radio, echo sounder, global positioning system.

The lagoon has the same old enigmatic smell of sour milk that carries over the brine and the bleach and the bait.

He begins to feel good. It’s what he lives for, this feeling, knowing they’re all still ashore in their beds sleeping off the Emu Export and the bedtime bong while he has the sea to himself.

Let em sleep till dawn, he thinks. Give em their coffee and crank in the wheelhouse, their ZZ Top on the stereo. The Foxes still have the jump.

In the passage, nearly a mile out, he pauses to find his marks and starts the second motor. The deck vibrates as he throttles on to send the hull up onto the plane. Picking up 61 speed he senses as much as sees the straight lines of waves converging on the gap in the reef. He blasts out in a welter of spray and hoots as he goes.

Before first light, on ground that he’s left fallow since May, he gets in two good sets. The lines come up so heavy he uses the winch. Blackarse, jewfish, snapper. He kills them quickly and ices them down. A remnant school of southern bluefin rolls by in a killing swathe. He lets them go; they’re a rare enough sight as it is.

There’s still no one out this way so he presses his luck and moves into shallower ground to anchor where he knows there’s abalone. Pulls on a wetsuit, mask, fins.

The water is warm, though blurry with plankton and silt and dim in the half-light. On his way down he equalizes with a little dolphin chirp that exits his ears in a pleasurable fizz. The blood runs thin as copper wire in his veins. The bottom looms and there it is, a long reef crevice just wide enough to reach into, and inside, hidden from casual view, a stippled colony of molluscs. He pulls the small lever from his belt and opens his mesh bag. Fifteen minutes’ work. Everything so vivid, so present, so clear. And sunlight spearing down now, ploughing the water.

Just as he hears diesels on the easterly, Fox gets the boat up off its haunches and steers into the rising sun. He’s obscured by lumping swells but he knows that anybody alert will have picked him on radar by now. Men and boys he knows. Kings of the ocean wave. Likely as not they’ll be steaming out on autopilot with their heads thrown back in a snoring funk of 62 bad breath. Not much to worry about. Still he drops a few points south to be safe and passes without even seeing them.

From out here the land looks like a badly baked cake and all those sandy white gouges in the khaki scrub like random gobs of icing. Fox winds his way in through floats and ropes, veering from the path of every outcoming vessel, until the great undulating white field of dunes marks out the only town for miles. It’s cheeky, coming in this late, and stupid too, but what can he do now but scan the beach for anything unlikely and come through the passage like a regular civilian back from a few hours’ recreational angling?

On the highway, just outside the town limits, his elation peaks like a shimmering mull-hit before the hot wind dries him and a mortal gravity presses down once more. Fox bites into the apple that’s been baking on the dash in the sun and the juice sizzles in his mouth. He steers one-handed. The dog licks salt from his thigh. Wind sears in through the windows; man and dog narrow their eyes against it. The land is jellied with heat. Above the low, grey heath a few Christmas trees seem to swim upright. They tread the current of the mirage to hold their gorgeous orange blossoms aloft. Higher still, hawks throw figure-eights in the octane sky.

At the bend, when he sees the vehicle pulled off onto the shoulder with its hood up, he throttles off instinctively but only a second later he comes to his senses and fangs it. A Landcruiser, for Godsake! Fisheries! Shit!

The dog sits up blearily. Fox scans his mirrors for anyone behind but there’s nothing. Too narrow here to turn around with the boat on. Besides, where can he go but back to White Point? Without the boat he’d have a chance—no one knows 63 the bush tracks and firebreaks better than him—but by the time he unhitched the trailer with its incriminating load he’d be surrounded, buggered well and truly.

BOOK: Dirt Music
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