Authors: Tim Winton
The Ford’s V8 purrs with feeling as he approaches. But he’s done and he knows it. Never outrun them on the blacktop with this load. The Cruiser looms, pulses with glare. Your own fault, he thinks, you cocky bastard, you had to lairize around like you owned the bloody bay.
As he blows past, rigid with anticipation, he gets a glimpse of a woman’s bare legs hooked in the polished steel of the roobar.
She’s head down bum up beneath the hood. In denim shorts. A civilian. He hits the brakes.
Jack-knifed onto the gravel shoulder, Fox sits there a while, craning at the nearside mirror. The woman hauls herself out from beneath the Cruiser’s bonnet and looks his way across her shoulder. She climbs down onto the gravel and waits. Hands on hips if you don’t mind.
The dog tenses up. It rises onto the windowsill and whines. Fox sucks his teeth. Damn, damn, damn. He knows he should drive on.
There’ll be other cars by before too long. She’ll be okay out here for a while; it’s not that hot. And it could still be a set-up. That banksia thicket beside her might be full of khaki shirts. He puts the Ford back in gear. Sorry lady.
Then the dog launches itself out onto the gravel and takes off.
Fox stalls the truck in surprise and chucks his gnawed apple after the mongrel in disgust. God Almighty.
In the mirror he watches as the mutt bounds up to the woman who bends to greet it. She has short, dark hair, wears a white teeshirt, denim shorts and tennis shoes. No one he knows. A tourist maybe, but the big, metallic gold, luxury edition 4;84 is no renter. And the dog is all over her. He pulls properly off the highway and gets out to face the music.
The gravel is hot and sharp underfoot. He has to high-step it to keep going and he wishes to fuck he had some shoes to lend himself a bit of dignity.
He who hesitates is lost, she says, shielding her eyes from the sun.
It just choked and cut out like it was out of juice, she says.
Gauge shows half a tank but it’s like there’s nothing getting through. I’ve nearly killed the battery turning it over.
Fox hitches his shorts nervously.
Ah, injectors maybe?
Dunno. It’s one of these turbo diesel thingies. Even the cigarette lighter looks computerized.
Fox looks from the trophy Cruiser to the gravel and then to her.
Shadows under her eyes. Sun enamels the thick bowl of her hair.
She pulls the sunglasses down from her brow and he sees himself reflected. Not a reassuring sight; he looks feral and fidgety.
Sorry to be a pain, she says.
I spose I… I spose I could run you back into White Point, he utters with difficulty.
Just the prospect makes his head light. What a cock-up.
Thanks, she says, but you see, I’ve gotta get into the city.
Well, I can’t tow you with the boat on. Don’t spose you’ve got one of those mobile phones?
The dog presses itself against her legs. Fox could kick it in the slats. He hops from foot to foot, as the woman pats the mutt.
Listen, she says, I’m not fussed about the car. I can call someone later to come and get it. I’m supposed to be in Perth.
Shit a brick, thinks Fox, this really isn’t good. No towns between here and the city, not even a fuel stop until the outskirts. I can’t abandon her in the sun, can’t take her to White Point without a bloody scene and anyway she won’t go, and I can’t drive her to Perth without getting rid of the boat and that means taking her home first. She’s leaving an eighty-thousand- dollar Tojo by the roadside. So maybe it’s stolen. She’s in a hurry after all. Looks kind of strung out. And here’s me with a shitload of illegal seafood.
Look, I’m really sorry, she says. You look busy.
No, no, I’ve just been fishin. Day off.
Oh, this and that. Nothin you’d brag about.
It’s hot, eh.
Fox smiles. The weather, yeah. Listen, I gotta go into Perth as it happens.
You’re not from the city, then?
Fox looks at her, wondering if that’s a smile fading off her face or a twitch caused by the flies.
No, he murmurs. I’m from down the highway a few minutes. Gotta unhook the boat and stuff but I guess I can take you after that.
She sighs. That’d be brilliant. Thank you. I’ll just get my bag.
Fox stands there in the murdering sun while she leans into the Landcruiser and grabs things. He feels sick at the idea of taking her home. He hasn’t even tried to start this woman’s engine but he’ll look like a prick if he doesn’t take her at her word. He’ll need to think how to get the catch from the boat 66 and onto the truck without her twigging to anything. She doesn’t look like Fisheries. Sunglasses not polarized. Silly straw hat she’s pulling out. But that’s a dive watch on her wrist. She hoists a Qantas bag out and a linen jacket.
You gunna lock it?
Oh. Yeah. She points a gadget at the 4;84 and the lights flash.
Well, she murmurs, that much of it works.
Get off her, dog. Sorry, he’s a bit familiar.
Oh, we’re old mates, she says. He’s a friendly dog.
He’s bloody craybait, thinks Fox, firewalking back to the Ford.
Georgie sat in the withering dogfunk of the shamateur’s cab and tried not to smirk at the irony of it. God knows she was glad he stopped but, given his situation, had the shoe been on the other foot, she’d be blowing on down the road and to hell with simple decency. She couldn’t believe he’d take the risk. He hadn’t the least idea who she was, who she lived with. She had to be, through no fault of her own, his living, breathing nightmare. Was he cocky or just soft in the head?
She stared at the crushed beercan sprouting from the mouth of the cassette player. It was the sole trashy touch in a truck so clean and shipshape. No crap on the floor, no classic mire of tools and receipts and wrappers rolling across the dash. He was fastidious.
There was no conversation. The shamateur looked too mortified and she had a headache that felt like a trepanning.
Ten minutes passed, fifteen. She couldn’t work up the effort to shove the dog’s head from her lap.
Eventually they slowed at the skeleton of an old fruit stand which seemed dimly familiar from all those roadtrips to the city; and turned up a dirt drive through the lumpy paddocks of some sunblasted farm. It wasn’t much: bellying fences, uncut hay, a few olive trees. As they bumped down the ruts, you could feel his discomfort intensify like an ear-popping change in altitude.
Georgie took a look at him while the dog rose and made a fuss. He was tall, lean, brown from the sun. His hair was short and light brown but bleached by weather at the ends. He had small ears and a boyish face with blue eyes. The outdoors had taken the shine off him but he still had his child’s face. What a wide-eyed thing he must once have been.
He drove to a wide sandy yard surrounded by casuarinas and junked machines, and as he wheeled about to reverse the boat toward an open shed, she saw the unpainted weather-board house that hunkered on its stumps in a parched field of melons. The dog raked her with its claws on its way through the window and the shamateur got out without a word.
Georgie sat there a moment, uncertain as to how to proceed.
The heat was killing. A tap creaked and there was the sudden blurt of an outboard. Bugger this, she thought, getting out.
Before she even got into the shed he was in her path.
There’s shade over there, he said, pointing to the trees across the yard.
I’m fine, she said, pulling on the straw hat which suddenly felt a bit Laura Ashley. Wouldn’t have an aspirin, would you?
Better come over to the house, he said reluctantly.
A few hens bustled out from beneath the verandah as they 69 approached. He paused at an aluminium bin by the step and threw them a handful of pellets.
The kitchen was cool and dim after the blinding yard. It smelled of cooking oil, fried fish. Everything orderly and simple, a woman’s kitchen if ever she saw it.
From the old Arcus fridge he pulled out a bottle of water and poured two glasses. Opened a drawer. Shook out two pills. Georgie thanked him and looked at the label and then at the tablets themselves. Paracetamol. What she felt like was codeine phos. And a tall glass of Margaret River semillon. She drank the pills down with the water, whose metallic chill caused her headache to flare horribly for a moment.
Rainwater, she murmured.
Shit-free, he said.
He led her down the hall a few doors to a big room lined with books.
Cooler here, he said. Just be a few minutes.
Yes. And thank you.
Georgie didn’t move until she heard the screen door clap shut at the other end of the house. The room was walled with jarrah shelves that looked to her like recycled floorboards. And they were real books up there, serious books. George Eliot, Tolstoy, Forster, Waugh, Twain. She saw a fancy collected edition of Joseph Conrad, big quarto volumes of natural history art books, atlases. On a small table lay a heavy scrapbook of pressed botanical specimens, each leaf and blossom annotated in mauve ink with a calligrapher’s nib. On a sea trunk under the window, beside a sunbleached upright piano, was a stack of yellowing sheet music.
The only wall without books was taken up by a brick fireplace on whose mantelpiece were some old black-and-white photos in cheap frames. A formal wedding shot from, say the 70 fifties, and two studio portraits of the same pair. Handsome people. The man shorter and more intense. Stacked beside these images was a wad of fading colour snaps of kids swinging in a tyre across a muddy river, babies with chocolate-smeared faces.
The shamateur with a kid in the seat of a tractor.
Georgie flicked through till she came upon a shot of a woman in her twenties with ropy blonde plaits which fell across her halter top. She had a glossy complexion and a thick mouth. The way she leaned like that in a doorway, hands in the pockets of her jeans, gave Georgie a jolt. Such lazy native confidence. Like girls she’d seen on the train on her way to school. Honeys in hybrid uniforms blowing gum and sunning their legs in an effortless sexual arrogance Georgie once associated with state schools. As a teenager she’d grown a crust and tried to be fearsome, but how she envied those girls their slutty self-possession. It stirred men and boys like the smell of food.
The outboards went silent. Georgie lifted the book from the rocking chair and sat down. Keats. Yeah, right. Though she never did read him. Jesus, when was the last time she’d read anything?
The family bookworm, her father called her. She tried to read a poem. It went on for pages, dense as her headache. No use.
The back door whacked again. Georgie put the book down, heard another door slam, a tap running. This wasn’t a good idea. Being here. Alone with this bloke so far from the highway. God, she knew better than to get into a situation like this.
Christ, if only she had her own car. After a few tax-free years in Saudi it wasn’t as though she couldn’t afford one. It was just laziness. For the entire Jeddah posting she’d been 71 forbidden even to drive a bloody car and now here she was still dependent. What kind of passive fog had she subsided into? What a triumph for the mullahs she was, what a rattled scatty thing she’d become.
She went through the kitchen and eased the screen door shut behind her. The dog was delirious to see her again. The truck’s keys were not in the ignition .72 Shame you didn’t bring your dog, she says, still breathless.
He just drives. Capstone. Banksia. Tuarts.
Does he have a name?
Fox shakes his head and strives to be nonchalant.
Seagoing dog like that. Should have a name.
He sweats in his jeans, thinking five things at once. She’s having a dig or sniffing around. Yes, it’s a disgrace having a nameless dog but it was never his to name. And it’s no use explaining that the mutt doesn’t come on the boat because it leaps overboard to tackle fish and he’s gaffed the prick twice already. Besides, he doesn’t buy this new tone. She knows more than she’s letting on. That friggin dog.
Had the place long?
Been there all my life, he says.
Big reader, then?
Yeah, it passes the time.
So tell me, she persists. Tell me who you read.
C’mon, she says. It passes the time… Okay, I’ll shut up.
The empty road feels like a tidal race he’s working against, its surface dimpled with mirage-current.
Steinbeck, I’ll bet. And Keats, obviously. What about Conrad? I see you have a set.
Fox squints neutrally.
Never could stand Conrad, she says. Too… strangled, or something. And earnest.
He purses his lips to defend the old Pole. Holds off.
The horror, the horror! she declaims. Is it a bloke-thing, you think?
It stays with you, he murmurs, that’s why.
Fair point, she says with a smile that strikes him as gloating.
It’s one thing I remember from school. Mr Kurtz, eh? So you are a fan.
What is it? The sea? Manly honour? The heartless heart of nature?
Well, it seemed like a lot of huffing and puffing to me.
Ha. So what about women writers?
What about them? asks Fox, a little disoriented. For a year his conversations have been procedural exchanges only. It’s making him giddy.
I mean, do you read them?
You live at White Point?
You’re changing the subject, she says. Yes, I live there.
What makes you think that?
Fox wonders what dream he’s been in. No teacher can afford a rig like the one she just left on the road. She stinks of lobster money. The sideways knowing look. What possessed him?
Nurse by trade. Oncology, she says. Know what that is?
Yeah. As it happens. Get out and walk, he thinks, ever heard of that?
And your old man’s an exporter or a fisherman.
They drive in silence for a while.