Authors: Tim Winton
Back in the kitchen he makes a meal yet can’t bring himself to sit down and eat it. He walks into the library but the air feels gritty and oppressive and somewhere in the room a moth struggles against a smooth surface, frailing, hidden from view.
He goes out onto the verandah and lights a couple of mosquito coils. The dog comes around the stumps of the house and mounts the steps. The paddocks thrum with cicadas, crickets, birdwings.
Up from the creek comes the chirr of frogs. He sits and lowers his head to the battered 87 table, queasy as a man with a hangover. Yes, that’s the feeling, a diffusion of anxiety, disgust and regret.
Jim Buckridge, he thinks. Could it be any worse? Could I be any more stupid? A whole year without even a close call and now this.
He thinks of the way she lay there looking at him, studying him while he shucked off his jeans, how she pulled him to her by the cock like a rider leading her horse. Had she been doing nothing else from the moment he pulled over on the highway this morning?
Leading him into something? Was it Fox paranoia or was this some kind of set-up? He’d as good as admitted to poaching. But Buckridge and his lackeys wouldn’t bother with a confession.
They’d be filling their jerrycans before asking any questions or having someone ask for them. Boats scuppered at their moorings, sheds alight, he’s seen it all.
Had he run today or did she turn him out? It bothers him.
That and the fact that he liked her. Smart. In your face. In control yet strung-out somehow.
Fox feels the air chafing at him. He knows what it is, knows the feeling and why. You put up a tent to make a space you can deal with. You know the whole night’s still out there—the land, the sky and every creeping thing—and you understand how thin the fabric is, what a pissy pretence you hold to, but with your tent blown open you feel more exposed than if you’d lain down on your mat beneath the stars. You can’t see what’s coming.
Fox wakes to the sound of someone in the kitchen. It’s late morning by the feel of it and the dog hasn’t made a sound. He scrambles out of bed and grabs a pair of shorts, all the time looking for something to defend himself with.
Morning, the woman says, suddenly in the doorway.
Fox covers himself with the shorts he hasn’t had time to pull on.
She’s barefoot in a short black skirt and a sleeveless blouse.
She gives him a washed-out grin.
Got any coffee?
You look awful.
Don’t be familiar with me, young man. I require coffee and aspirin.
How… how’d you get here?
Hired a car. Something small and red. As one does.
You know where the kitchen is.
I could only find instant.
You strike me as the instant type.
Oh, cheap. Let me look at you.
No, he says, holding the shorts to his lap.
I’m still a bit pissed. A real citizen wouldn’t have driven.
So, Fox murmurs. Why did you?
See if I imagined you. Mind if I lie down?
She flops onto the narrow bed. Confusing, isn’t it?
Yeah. That’d cover it.
She rolls over and buries her face in his pillow. Sit down, she says.
Fox hesitates, sits on the edge of the bed, his shorts in one hand.
Didn’t sleep, she says, muffled by the pillow. And now it’s so hot.
Fox looks at her. The skirt rides up on her thighs.
There’s an old vaccination scar high on her arm. A smear 89 of vermilion lipstick brightens the pillowslip.
You left your dinner out, Lu. Waste of linguini.
The dog’ll get it.
When I’m better will you cook something for me?
When will you be better?
When you’ve touched me.
I’ll make some coffee, he says.
Sleep, he says, watching her lift her head with a smile sliding off her face.
Oh, be a sport.
Geez, how much did you drink?
See, you sound all concerned. Actually I drank everything. It’s less than you’d imagine. For the money.
Fox puts his hand on her leg. She sighs.
He slips his hand beneath the elastic of her pants. She sprawls a little and murmurs approvingly.
You don’t mind if I just lie here, do you? Tired. And you could do with some initiative-building.
Only if you shut up, he murmurs.
Fox slides his hand into her. She feels like hot, wet earth. Her pulse beats in his hand. She lifts against it, enfolding it. She twists on it, muttering, clenching. He climbs onto the bed properly and kneels to her with his hand clasped.
Don’t run away, she says. You don’t have to run away.
He doesn’t mind her talking. It reminds him that she’s real and not something he’s dredged up from longing.
Fox pulls his hand from her with a sound like a gasp and slowly, joint to joint, as he holds her by the hips, they rock in 90 his creaking child’s bed, slippery with sweat, while the dog scratches beneath the window outside.
Georgie found him out on the verandah with a split watermelon.
It was after midday. He stared at the melon whose seeds, she noticed, ranged in curves.
Is it like reading tea leaves?
He started. Geez, you’re a creeper. Here.
Georgie took the half-melon he offered. She could barely hold it.
As she bit into it she thought she could feel the sun still in it and the sugar sent a ripple through her.
I’m used to it out of the fridge, she said, dripping some on her rumpled top. Spose it’s like wine. When it’s cold you only half-taste it. You look sad.
This sort of compounds things, doesn’t it.
In for a penny—
In for a compound.
He smiled and Georgie felt her hangover lift as though it had only been a mood.
What’re we gonna do? she asked.
It’s hot. How about a swim?
I meant about our… situation.
I know, he said. So what about the swim?
In the river?
The sea, he said.
Well, we can’t go in to White Point.
I know. C’mon. Grab a towel.
Georgie quickly knew she’d been optimistic about the 91 demise of her headache. The paddocks were white with heat. The truck rattled and lurched toward the highway and when they got out onto the smooth relief of the blacktop he only drove a few seconds before pulling off onto the other side.
Get the gate, will you? he murmured.
Whose place is this?
You mean you don’t know?
Georgie shrugged. Flies came in through the open door.
You’re kidding, she said.
It was more a firebreak than a track. They swayed and jounced uphill in four-wheel drive along a fenceline between grasstrees and acacia scrub.
This is the northern tip, said Lu. Most of this end was never cleared. Goes right through to the coast.
I thought the farm was long gone.
The original place, yeah. They sold in stages to some developer.
This end still hasn’t settled.
Is… is it safe?
There’s a house another kay or so south. Got a manager in but the place’s in limbo. He’ll be inside watching the cricket, don’t worry.
Georgie held on, absorbing this news until the sand of the trail turned white. They slalomed up the back of a dune and drifting down onto a hard pan of beach behind a scrubby headland. He just got out and walked into the surf while she sat there watching.
The sea was still smooth in the offshore breeze and in the calm beyond the breakers where he lay it was sandy green. It was too hot to sit in the cab so she stripped off and scuttled down to join him.
This strikes me as somewhat reckless, she said, hearing the attempt at irony transmit as prissiness.
He spouted water, lay on his back.
You enjoy it too much, she said. What’s the history here?
Just neighbours, you know.
A feud, I take it.
My old man. He wasn’t the deferential type.
All that stuff in your house. You were married?
He shook his head.
The kids’ stuff, all the photos.
Lu rolled over and stroked away. He was good in the water.
Georgie looked back at the truck on the beach and the wild scrubby country that ran down to it as far as you could see. She wondered what else she didn’t know about Jim Buckridge. She was sober now and jittery. She stood on the sandy bottom and waited for him to turn back to shore. The melons, the fruit stand, they rang a bell but she couldn’t think of the connection. He swam back and dived. He surfaced beside her with his eyes open.
My family, he said. There was an accident.
Jesus, she blurted. You’re that family? The musicians, she thought. The rollover.
As they stood there the sea changed colour and the wind died.
Within a few moments the first cool breath of the southerly was upon them.
I don’t know what to say.
You’ll think of something, he said.
Georgie remembered the party at Gilligan’s, one of those rare occasions when she’d bothered. The keg hissing on the 93 verandah. The groom’s father rolling his eyes at the endless delay. The band, the bloody band. Someone rigging up a stero in the meantime. The beery vibe rising, the celebration going on regardless. The bride throwing someone through an asbestos wall.
Coloured lights raining onto the yard admidst all that laughter.
Just White Pointers running amok. She remembered Yogi ostentatiously taking a call. Shoeless in flares. Sidling off with the keys to the ambulance. And then, so much later, on their way out, with Gilligan and his bride gone and the first real fights brewing, the news rolling up the lawn. The musos. Right in their own bloody driveway. In a ute. Three of them dead and one of the kids critical. People sat around on cars to drink and speculate. Jim took her by the hand and was silent all the way home.
C’mon, said the shamateur. Time to go.
I never heard you play, she says, still towelling off from the shower. People say you were good. The three of you.
Fox slides the omelette onto her plate and proceeds to wash the few dishes on the sink.
Don’t keep shrugging like that, she says. It’s infuriating.
I didn’t notice, he says.
You rolled down the shutters, Lu.
Sorry, he says unapologetic.
I’ve crossed the line, then?
Fox catches himself smiling, thinks: Lady, you’re all over the place, you’ve never seen a boundary in your life.
I guess I should go?
Eat your omelette.
Tell me about his kids.
Jim’s? she says only pausing a moment from loading her fork. Nine and eleven. Boys. Nice kids, really.
I’ve… been very fond of them.
So you’re the one after Debbie.
Yes. That’s me.
Ever want any of your own?
Georgie Jutland chews for a while and swallows. No.
Fox wipes his hands.
My sisters, she says, had all the babies. It looked to me like accessorizing. I’m the wild aunty.
Fox looks at her. Even fresh from the sea and a shower she looks spent, as though she should go to bed with a fan until tomorrow.
Despite the sweet, tousled hair there’s a wound-up look to her that gives you the idea she’s forgotten how to rest.
And you don’t work anymore? he says.
Ran out of puff.
Be a hard job, nursing.
You’re the first man I ever met who can scrub a bath properly.
Well, it took years of study. Did it all by correspondence.
Good omelette. And look at that stove. Christ, you’re completely domesticated.
Even shit in a sandbox.
Play me something. Just to ice the cake.
I don’t play anymore, he says.
Not at all?
He shakes his head and takes the empty plate from her. All this talk feels dangerous, worse than the stuff about fishing.
Like being caught in a rip. Half of you knows it can’t kill you but the rest of you is certain it must. You stay calm, swim across it not against it. Sooner or later it’ll spill into placid water.
So what did you play?
I mean, what kind of music.
Oh, I dunno. All kinds, I spose. Anythin you could play on a verandah. You know, without electricity. Dirt music.
As in… soil?
Yeah. Land. Home. Country.
You can’t mean country and western?
Nah. Though we’d play Hank and Willie, Guy Clark. Plenty of bluegrass and some Irish stuff. Whatever felt right with a guitar, mandolin, fiddle. But mostly it was blues. Country blues, I spose. You know—Blind Blake, Doc Watson, Son House.
Um, she says blankly.
Rootsy stuff. Old timey things.
I spose. No, not really. Well, I dunno.
My mother made me do piano lessons, she says, scrutinizing him.
Same. We had to take turns. Darkie used to lift the lid and pull the strings. The old man brought home a guitar he found in a pawn shop in Midland. That was it. Borers got the piano. He was the real player. Darkie.
Your brother? That was his name?
So where did Darkie come from?
Dunno. That’s what we called him. Except Mum.
Dead. When we were kids.
And your father?
Mesothelioma. I was seventeen. He was at Wittenoom before we were born. Mining asbestos.
Jesus, she murmurs, I probably nursed his mates. Him, even.
All dead. Weird, you know. He was dyin our whole life. But we didn’t know it.
I did wonder. Later.
It’s his library then?
Mum’s. The old boy didn’t care for books that couldn’t show you how to fix an engine or save your soul. Bumfluff, he called it.
Was… was Darkie a reader?
Nah. Could hardly even read music. But you’d play him something and he could crank it back at you.
That’s a gift.
Fox finds himself uncoiling somehow, as though he can’t pull back once he’s started. He babbles at her about how they practised to tapes and LPs on the verandah instead of doing their homework.