Authors: Tim Winton
How they taught themselves from liner notes, how they played J. J.
Cale and early Bowie at high school bong parties in empty rope sheds, after which Sally Dobbins began to hang around with a mandolin and an old Rod Stewart record. And suddenly there were three of them. Endless afternoons of tuning and de-tuning, of arguments and sudden breakthroughs. They got hold of bootlegs— Skip James, Robert Johnson, Blind Willie—and found a Taj Mahal record at the White Point rubbish dump. Darkie taught himself banjo and then the fiddle. They found a washboard in the shed and made guitar slides from the necks of plonk 97 bottles. Sudden watersheds, like the first time they made it all the way through “Cripple Creek”; the moment they heard Ry Cooder.
Deckies heard them play on somebody’s porch and then they played for beer at parties. Skippers’ wives began to book them for twenty-firsts when everybody expected punk or disco. They played a few country halls where farmers wanted Glen Campbell. But in the end, despite the fact that they were Foxes, there came a grudging respect. Not everybody liked the music but people admitted that they played like demons.
He tips back against the sink appalled at this outburst.
Always envied people with languages and music, she says with a wry grin.
I need a walk, he says. Feel like a walk?
Think I’ll go. You mind?
Will I need shoes?
Georgie followed him across the ragged paddock where runty melons grew wild. The grey sand was hot underfoot and the afternoon sun roasted the back of her neck until they came to a grove of tuarts whose shade and pad of fallen litter offered some relief. From there, with the dog trotting between them, Lu led her down the rutted yellow riverbank, mottled by the shadows of melaleucas.
You had a market garden, she said joining him in the lee of a cantilevered paperbark.
God, there must be money in it; that’s a nice boat you’ve got.
In melons? Nah. Not at the rate we were growin em, not 98 after the old boy got crook. Even before that things were pretty lean. The old fella used to cut through that Buckridge land, slip out with the dinghy and liberate a few lobsters from the pros’ pots. Boil em up, sell em on the sly down the highway.
Like father, like son.
Anyway, he must have suspected somethin about the cancer, cause he insured himself. We didn’t know until afterwards. Darkie got the pay-out. He was the eldest. Blew most of it on sixties Holdens and Fords, vintage guitars. We lived for years on what was left. That and melons, and the occasional gig, but playin never paid much. Last summer I sold everythin up, a whole shedful, and bought the boat. Figured I could get by.
So. The disreputable Foxes.
Georgie looked down into the shallow tea-coloured water. It was cool here. The southerly shivered the leaves and hoary bark.
I don’t understand what you’re doing, she said. Living like this.
I mean, why stay on?
Things, places, they’re hard to shake off.
Georgie tried not to grimace. She had never understood the grip that places had over people. That sort of nostalgia made her impatient. It was awful seeing people beholden to their memories, staying on in houses or towns out of some perverted homage.
I did think about goin north, he said. Just wanted to leave everythin and bolt. You know, disappear. I already felt like a ghost.
Like I was dead anyway but the news still hadn’t got through to my body. Like in a bushfire that rolls over you so fast you’re cooked inside but still running.
But then I thought, I’m gone already. Why not disappear without leavin?
You’ve lost me, Lu.
I came back from that last funeral and burned all my papers.
Licences, any ID, school reports. Never had a tax file number anyway. Just go off the grid, you know. Live in secret. Be a secret.
But what’s the point?
Privacy. Privacy. Sooner or later your secrets are all you have.
The Ghost Who Walks.
So you poach on the high seas and read books and play music out here on your own.
You really don’t play anymore?
Don’t even listen.
You can’t or won’t?
Lu gave her a pained, defiant smile and she could see the boyish refusal in him. It was hard to hold it against him but you could only sense it bringing trouble down on his head. He was stuck.
And all the more endearing because he reminded Georgie of herself.
You ever have that dream, he said, when you were a kid, that everyone’s got back in the car and driven off and forgotten you?
I know exactly the one, said Georgie bitterly.
He smiled and Georgie couldn’t account for it; she had no idea where a smile like that could come from.
How about a place? he said. Ever have a special place?
As a kid, no. Though I liked the river where we lived.
But no special spot.
Georgie felt as though she was failing a test of some kind. He obviously had no notion of how different they were. He was some autodidact farmboy and she was a refugee from the winners circle, a girl who chose nursing to thwart the old man’s dreams of a doctor in the family.
I’ll show you something, he said.
The dog rose from its belly and looked at him.
She caught herself looking at her watch.
Fox takes her up the hill above the quarry. The dog rifles through the dry grass chasing something unseen.
I should have worn shoes, she says.
You want a piggyback?
I don’t mind. You’re only little.
I’m forty bloody years old! By the way, how old are you?
How old did you think I was?
About that. You getting up or what?
Fox hoists her up with his arms through the crooks of her legs.
God, the weight of another living body. She holds him round the neck and presses into his back.
Won’t take long, he says.
Who’s in a hurry?
You can be back before dark.
Who says I’m going back at all? she says sharply.
You are going back. You’re just testin the water.
Little bag full of lipstick and credit cards, come on.
Put me down.
You were on the way back, he says. Be honest. You needed time to get yourself straightened out.
Let me down! she yells, tugging at his hair and ears. He stumbles and the dog barks and they go sprawling into the dirt.
Jesus Christ, it bit me!
The dog retreats a metre or two to look doleful and contrite.
You scared him, Fox says, trying not to laugh.
Has he had his shots?
Only shots around here come from a rifle, lady.
Don’t fucking lady me.
He picks her up and kisses her hair. She wipes her eyes on her arm.
Georgie followed him up to the clump of stones in silence. The yellow sand was soft and cooled by the shadows that streamed from the pinnacles. The stones were encircled by grasstrees whose fronds twitched in the wind.
Came here as a kid. Bird liked it too. My niece. Here, look.
He stepped up to the tallest stone and pulled something from its side. Then hesitated.
Just a tin, he said. Her secrets.
He put the container back without opening it and looked at her confused, embarrassed, it seemed.
There was somewhere once, said Georgie, from pity as much as solidarity. A place I got stuck in. Up north.
Stuck how? he said.
In a boat. Aground, no less. There was an island and mangroves, boab trees, birds. I had this feeling of dj… vu about it, that it was a place I’d always known.
You’re a sailor, then?
If I was a sailor I wouldn’t have got stuck on a mudbank for two days.
Show me sometime. In an atlas.
Coronation, she said. Coronation Gulf.
And it’s way up north?
In the tropics.
He smiled again and Georgie knew, even though she was headed for White Point any moment, that she wanted him. You couldn’t trust an impulse like this.
What’ll we do? she said.
We should be sorry we met.
You can trust me.
I will. Fuck, I have to, he said. Just be careful.
But what’ll we do?
It’s a long life.
What does that mean?
I’m not goin anywhere.
The stone shadows interlocked now like a maze at their feet, and the dog panted over the sound of crowsong while Georgie considered the unlikeliness of anything working out between them.
It was futile even to think of it as anything more than an interlude, a simple accident you had to leave behind .103 When she’s gone Fox heads back along the river with the dog in tow. He doesn’t understand the impulse but he feels driven out of the house, compelled to retrace his steps, the path they took this afternoon. What is this lurching, plunging sensation, this panic that alternates with a new fatalism descending upon him?
And this return, is it some kind of purifying ritual which some part of him thinks might reclaim the safety and solitude he had until twenty-four hours ago? All that work, the hard exercise of discipline unravelling even as he stands there.
Wind ruffles the water. Trees groan and lock horns above him.
How might he have told her that the way he lives is a project of forgetting? All this time he’s set out wilfully to disremember.
And some days it really is possible, in a life full of physical imperatives you can do it, but it’s not the same as 104 forgetting. Forgetting is a mercy, an accident. So it’s been no triumph, but it’s got him here, hasn’t it? Through a whole year without burning up.
He stares along the dappled bank. As a boy he thought the place was alive somehow. At night in bed he felt the ooze of sap, the breathing leaves, the air displaced by birds, and he understood that if you watched from the corner of your eye the grasstrees would dance out there and people wriggle from hollow-burnt logs.
Those days you could come down here and stand in the water on the shallow spit and clear your mind. Stare at the sun-torched surface and break it into disparate coins of light. Actually stop thinking and go blank. It was harder than holding your breath.
You could stand there, stump-still, mind clean as an animal’s, and hear melons splitting in the heat. A speck of light, you were, an ember. And happy. Even after his mother died he had it, though it waned. Later on only music got him there. And now that is gone there is only work. It’s a world without grace. Unless the only grace left is simply not feeling the dead or sensing the past.
The dog looks on puzzled but patient. It follows him up to the stones in the weakening light.
Fox pulls the tin out and looks at Bird’s shared secrets. Amidst the shells and blossoms the little folded bits of paper. Each piece bears a single word—SORRY—in blunt pencil. He’d found them beneath the house. Fallen through the boards perhaps, or posted through cracks. He’s since found them too in the crook of the peppermint tree in whose shade they plucked roosters at Christmas. Also in the freezer. And one night on his pillow. He’d slammed the dado above his bed in a fit of grieving rage and had it fall in a pellet beside him. SORRY.
Bird was perfect. Funny, fey, sharp. What does a six-year-old have to apologize for? And who was she writing to? Did she know something? See her death? And his failure?
So much that he nearly, almost said to Georgie Jutland. He stands there in the last light divided by relief and regret.
A small white car pulled out of the drive as Georgie coasted in to Jim’s place at dusk. The glare of lights obscured its driver and Jim turned from the step and watched Georgie park the renter.
What is it with women and red cars? he said as she climbed out and locked the door.
What is it with men and fishnet stockings?
Who was that?
Some local pissant.
Georgie followed him up, conscious of the Qantas bag over her shoulder. In the kitchen he had a pot boiling. He dropped peeled potatoes into the steaming water.
Saves cooking time if you chop them, she said.
Jim simply looked at her and she knew she’d overstepped badly.
I’m sorry, she said. I was a bit stir-crazy, that’s all. Did you fish today? Did Beaver pick up the Tojo? I don’t know what came over me, Jim. I feel awful about the boys, not being here. Are they downstairs? I just needed a breather.
You only had to say so, he said unwrapping some chicken pieces.
Unnerved by the calm, Georgie poured herself an orange juice.
It won’t happen again.
You sound like a governess. Like an employee. I was worried, that’s all.
Georgie reached into the freezer for the Stoli. Plain orange juice just wasn’t going to cut it tonight. She’d prepared herself for fury, not this mournful understanding. You can hide in someone else’s rage—it blinds them. But this. He was right, though. Her life was reduced to an arrangement. On the drive back this afternoon hadn’t she resolved to tell him she was leaving, that she planned to do it gradually, placidly, for the sake of the boys? Now the idea sounded like nothing more than a month’s notice.
Obviously, he said, flouring the chicken awkwardly, we need to talk.
Yes, she said. I suppose we do.
But not tonight. Let it go tonight.
Bloody Cruiser. I don’t know what it was. They can get us the moon but can they get us to the shop.
You look awful, Georgie. Get an early night.
The Star. It’s pretty bad.
Did Debbie like Bette Davis?
Jim looked up at her. I don’t know, he said. I never asked.
Georgie downed the vodka and orange and felt a twinge of 108 apprehension. At the mention of his dead wife’s name, Jim’s eyelids had lowered somehow and his posture bespoke an anger she rarely saw. She poured herself another drink while Jim fried the chicken. Jesus, she thought, maybe I should leave tonight.