Sunday, 25 October 2015

Fugue


“What the …? Who the hell listens to this shit?”

He pushed the gearstick, dropped the clutch and the wheels started spinning, screaming smoke.

Landcruiser. Expensive, but the guy could afford it, judging by his fancy shoes and the cut of his hair, looked like he had more than a few pennies in the bank. Christ, the look on his face as they took off.  Shouldn’t have left the keys in the ignition. Hadn’t he been listening to the news on the radio? Nah, this stupid music.

“Change the station will ya?”

“What?”

“Change the friggin’ station. Get the news, Wanna hear what they’re saying about us.”

Lou looked at the console – buttons, knobs and neon-coloured displays. He hit a button and the music stopped.

“I didn’t say turn it off. I want to hear the fuckin’ news, ya fuckwit”.

Lou pushed the button again and the cabin filled with music.

“The news, not this shit”.

Lou’s brain moved slowly and tended to grind to a halt when pushed, leaving his fingers hovering dumbly over the radio. He stared at them, black and grimy from a fortnight in the bush. A spot of dried blood on the end of his index finger caught  his attention; the shape of it reminded him of something from years ago but he couldn’t remember what.  He instinctively shoved the finger in his mouth – his father had told him to suck the blood off a cut finger, said it helped it heal.

“What the .. what ya doin? Change the friggin station ya imbecile? Shit, nearly missed it.”

His father screamed on the brakes and directed the car off the highway onto a  bush track.

“I cut my finger?”

“What?. When? Give us a look.”

Lou showed his father the blood on his finger.

“Skinning rabbit … last night. Did ya cut yourself skinning the rabbit last night?”

“No, I don’t think so.”

“Then it’s rabbit blood. Ya sucking rabbit blood. Just turn the radio off”.

Lou hit the button again.

“So, let’s see what this thing can do. Probably never been off the bitumen before.”

Fiddling the gears, he put the vehicle into four wheel drive. He knew this area, worked it for years, had it worn into his skin. Lou’s father was just over fifty but looked sixty, his skin faded by the years in the scrub. Thin grey hair hung down from his balding head, a beard grown from lack of soap and  razor covered his face. Inside that, though, was a man that knew everything. No matter the trouble, his dad would get them out. He knew the bush and the farms and the tracks no-one else knew, the places the police would never go. A new vehicle, full of fuel; he’d have them far gone before anyone even knew they were there. Down in low first gear he worked the car up a steep pinch towards their camp.

Sunday, 13 January 2013

Blakey's Reef



The day was softly fading into night. A gentle swell pushed the Willow against her anchor. Matheson stood astern, washing away the debris of the day’s work with a blast of icy salt water. His face showed the years at sea, skin cut deep with salt.
He turned off the pump and the world fell silent. It was time to go below and fry some sausage and eggs for his dinner, maybe read a bit before turning in for the night. He looked up at the first stars and the moon emerging from behind a thin layer of cloud that sat above the beach. The white shadow of broken waves could be seen marking the reef. He had laid twenty pots that afternoon. He’d have a good catch tomorrow; get up early so he could haul the pots in time to make the city market.
Matheson noticed a figure making its way through the shadows on the beach, disappearing each time the Willow fell behind a wave and reappearing as it rode over the next one. The night grew darker as the moon fled behind the clouds until he could see nothing.
* * *
Blakey’s is a spooky place. The beach doesn’t really exist – there is nothing more than a narrow strip of round black rocks that the waves just dump on. To get to the beach you have to cross the Blakey farm. The place hasn’t been worked since the night Blakey drove his tractor down to the bottom paddock and walked into the ocean. The house, windows boarded over and tin lifting from the roof, is littered with broken bottles and rubbish. A few gulls wander the chicory weed chocked paddocks.
Offshore is the reef. The surf is beautiful. The wave jacks up, grabs you, and you find yourself falling down a near vertical wall. By the time you hit the bottom the wave has become a swirling tube of water. The sound changes, becomes a muffled hiss as you ease your weight onto your back foot, stall the board, and drop deep into the barrel. The wave spins and spits and then flattens out over deeper water. And all the time the world glistens like it has diamonds studded through it.
***
I am swimming across the bay. Below me, deeper in the water, is my father. He looks up at me, a shell in his hand, a large conch, and beckons me down to look at it. With a kick I plunge down through the water. My mask fills with the salty stuff. I cough, close my eyes and feel his arms around me, lifting me back to the surface. Gasping, I breathe the air again. I am twelve years old.
* * *
We spend every summer at the beach camping in the council caravan park by the inlet alongside all the other families. Steve and I share the annex with a breeze full of the warm smell of fish heads and rotting seaweed. Dad spends most of his time fishing; Mum sits on the beach reading. Steve and I play on the foreshore until our skin peels. When we are older we dive from the jetties, stirring the diesel, oil and salty water.
Sometimes Dad would take us swimming with him. We would put on our fins and masks and snorkels and hook ourselves around his neck. I remember how I could feel the strong slow movement of his arms and shoulders as he swam. If the swell wasn’t too big Dad would take us out into the surf. Once we saw a shark. Safe with my father, I watched it slowly drift along below us. I was nine years old.
The town is caught between the inlet’s brown waters and the brown hills behind. The caravan park marks the end of town and the start of the spit. Beyond the spit is the ocean and the surf. As soon as we were old enough Steve and I scrounge some boards and learn to surf.
***
The summer seemed so much hotter that year. The hills behind the village were burnt a more golden brown than ever before. The sun had bleached everything until the whole world lost its colour and grew brittle. Steve and I surfed every day. Our limbs were brown skin over taut muscle. The summer went on and the surf stayed up.
At night, our parents went to a neighbour’s van to play cards over a couple of beers and talk of the fish they did or didn’t catch. Steve and I headed down to the beach and sat on the dunes, tired from the day’s surfing, and hoping that the swell and wind and tides would provide another good day tomorrow. Steve usually managed to score some dope and so we would lie back on the sand, stare at the stars and quietly get stoned.
***
Steve called me inside the caravan. Two lines of white powder sat neatly on the table next to a gutted biro.
‘Who’s first?’, he asked.
It was a game. Steve knew it. He was playing at being cool—knowing that I’d be jangling. Smiling, he took one of the lines. I took the other in two shots.
‘Don’t sneeze or you’ll blow the lot’.
The hit came slow and warm. I didn’t know whether to sit or stand or lie down. I stepped outside and the warm wind and stars in the sky bombarded me. Back in my bunk I listened to everything. For the first time I actually heard everything.
I wake late the next morning, the sun high and a light, hot breeze blowing. Steve is already up, eating breakfast, talking of the wind and the tide and the swell. Blakeys Reef would be pumping.
We are silent as we walk across the farm. Standing on the beach and waiting for a lull in the swell so that I can launch myself beyond the shorebreak I am overcome with nausea. A wave crashes in front of me and races up the beach, covering my feet and ankles and calves. The ocean behind it is black. I can feel the rocks beneath my feet rolling towards the ocean, carrying me as the wave recedes. The sound of the ocean deafens me. Slowly, the sea rises up again and I feel myself falling. The next wave sweeps over me.
I drift in the current below the water, looking up through the blue-green sunlight streaming through the ocean. The light grows stronger as I drift. I quietly float up, break the surface and am bathed in the light. In the distance, I see Steve easing himself across a green wall of water. It feels good to feel my muscles flex as I paddle out.
***
Woolamai. Later. The nights aren’t so warm anymore. Nothing is. Clouds hide the stars. Clouds seem to inhabit me as well. A single seagull stamps in the shallows.
Sue’s strung out in the back of Ronnie’s wagon. She’s crying. Ronnie’s holding her, trying to comfort her but he’s too smacked out. I’m sitting on cold, damp grey sand. The darkness puts a distance between us all. I wonder if that’s why cities are always so well lit, to try and fill the holes between the inhabitants. No-one speaks. Any words would probably be sucked into the darkness anyway.
***
Saltwater Creek is about as far away from anywhere as you can get. It has surf, you can scavenge oysters from the reef if you are lucky, and hardly anyone goes there.
I want to be strong; need to be. It’s summer again. I have my board, a tent and some food. I camp for about a week beneath the towering sand dunes. I surf. I immerse myself in the ocean. The ocean is alive. When I immerse myself, I come alive.
The days bend together. My body aches from the lack of a hit. I can hardly control my legs to walk. But I swim. Like a fish, I move through the water. On the sixth or seventh day I awake feeling it’s time to head home.
* * *
I am swimming again. Below me is the house I grew up in, the backyard I played cricket in, the house my father built, cutting every plank of wood, hammering home every nail. My father is good at building things, good with his hands. Now, below me, I can see him. He is in the front yard, standing over my wasted body slowly growing cold on the grass, tears falling from his eyes; his hands, those hands that could do anything, motionless. In the distance is Blakey’s Reef. I lazily start swimming towards it.

Pudberry

I don’t know how ... I... it was Pudberry I thought I’d killed ... it was Pudberry that I wanted to kill.
Dave had become a real shit. We were lovers. Pudberry screwed everything. Dave and I met in a pub in Ireland in ’92. We were both half pissed. We started travelling together and fell in love. When we got home to Australia we moved into a place in Carlton, a wonderful old rambling house. Neither of us had a job so we’d huddle in bed until lunch time then spend the afternoon in the garden, planting vegies and trees. It was a huge yard, overrun with weeds when we first moved in. We transformed it. One day we were going to have a house of our own and we’d be able to watch the trees grow old.

We first met Pudberry in the pub one night. There was something about him that I didn’t like, a real sense of sleaze. He came over to us and said that we looked like we needed help – I guess we were pretty desperate looking. He said he liked us and rambled on in this old, small voice like he knew us. The weirdest thing was he said things only someone who knew us would know.
I remember looking at Dave and Pudberry. Dave is tall and thin with a huge mass of red hair, and always full of energy. Pudberry was obese and colourless. He almost seemed to lack life, like he was against the laws of nature.
Pudberry put his bag on the table and pulled out a half a sandwich, a grotty looking thing, in plastic wrap. I remember it because it looked so old. I also remember it because of the way Pudberry looked at it. He studied it, seemed surprised to see it. Maybe he thought he had thrown it out weeks ago. Anyway, how put it back in the bag and then pulled out a bundle of notes – twenties – also in plastic wrap. He put the bundle on the table and slowly unwrapped it.
It was painful to watch. At first I thought he was doing it so slowly just to tease us. Then I noticed his hands. His fingers were short, too short to bend or grip properly. Pudberry eventually unwrapped the notes and pulled out a couple and left them on the table. Then he wrapped them up again, just as painfully and slowly. With a smile, he left. Dave had a stupid grin on his face. He’s a bastard when it comes to money.
I’m normally a fairly good judge of people – I start off not trusting them; that way I never go to wrong. With Pudberry it was more intense. Dave was the opposite. Dave liked him.
Dave became unbearable, a real shit and impossible to talk to. It seemed like he and Pudberry were always sniggering at some private joke. I became an outsider. Dave was never home. He was spending most of his time with Pudberry.
It came to a head yesterday. Dave and I had spent the whole day arguing. At least, I argued. I was sick of not knowing what he and Pudberry were up to. Dave just taunted me. “Don’t worry”, he said. “Take the money and run”. I just collapsed into bed. The pillow stunk. Every night for the past week or so I’ve been getting hot, feverish, as soon as I fall asleep. Last night I woke up sweating. The sheets were damp. Then I crashed out again.
I dreamt. I dreamt I was in the garden. I was in the garden and the sun was shinning down, hot. Dave was laying on the banana lounge in the backyard. It felt so nice. It has been so long since we had spent some time in the garden together. I looked at Dave and felt really happy. When I woke I felt as if I hadn’t slept at all. I ached and stunk. I had a bath. That helped a little.
It was about ten when I got out of the bath. Dave and Pudberry were in the kitchen, drunk and laughing like idiots. Dave looked at me, trying not to laugh. He was repulsive.
The coffee pot was on the stove so I went to pick it up, pour myself a coffee, but the bloody thing was hot and I dropped in onto the floor. Coffee went everywhere. That’s how I burnt my hand. I watched it turn red and start to blister. A thin layer of skin bubbled, first pale then turning red, like it was lit from beneath. It swelled up and burst. Pus seeped out. I looked at Dave. He didn’t react, just looked kind of serious and flat.
I looked at the coffee pot on the floor and bent over to pick it up. My brain registered that something was happening, but I couldn’t work out what. Dave and Pudberry both started laughing. Then Pudberry picked up the whisky bottle that was on the table. I never realised how bad his hands were. His fingers were fused into clumps of brown meat. They looked like they had been through some horrendous fire.
His face was red. Beads of sweat hung on his cheeks. They seemed to burn his skin like acid, making it seem even redder. Just above his eyes were two massive blisters. They were growing as I watched and then they burst and two pieces of white bone pushed through his skin.
I had a knife in my hand, an old bone-handled butter knife. I can’t remember picking it up, but it was in my hand. I killed Pudberry, I’ll admit to that. I pushed the knife into him like he wasn’t there. He just laughed and said do it again, so I did. I stuck the knife into him again and again. It went in so easily. I pushed it in – all the way to the handle. The funny thing is, he didn’t bleed. Not a drop. So I pushed it in further. My hand went into his body, inside him. And he just kept laughing.
But I didn’t kill Dave.

Tuesday, 8 January 2013

clearfelled




“I’ve found the old man’s bike”. Marty was leading me across the yard to an old shed at the far corner, barely noticeable under a mass of ivy. He pushed the door open and I followed him into the darkness. A workbench covered in splashes of paint and boxes of tools ran along a wall beneath a window that the light couldn’t find for the layers of ivy. Rusty tools – a sycth, an old axe, a broken shovel – hung on the far wall, blending into the dark interior. To our left was a pile of canvas, which Marty tugged at to reveal the machine.
 “Neat, huh.”
Flecks of dark green paint covered the frame, though most was stained with orange rust. Marty brushed the dust off the seat and sat on the bike, a big grin across his face.
“I’m gunna get it going. Wanna help?”
I spent many hours in that shed over the next few weeks as we stripped the bike to its workings. Marty handed me alien looking bits of metal instructing me to soak them in tubs of oily petrol and scrub them with a toothbrush. He found new pieces to replace old ones. His ability amazed me. Engines are a mystery to me. As he pulled the motor down he explained how each part fitted in: pistons, valves, gaskets. When I got home each night my hands were filthy with oil and grease. The dirt beneath my nails made me feel like I was doing something real. My dad always tells me to keep back when he’s working on stuff at home.
Marty wasn’t older than me, but it felt like it. He was thin and strong and always moving, like he was nervous or looking for something. I always had the feeling that some sort of excitement hung over him. I think that’s why I enjoyed being around him. Neither of us had any real friends – apart from each other. And neither of us talked much. Marty was quiet. We found out that neither of us liked footy much. Or many of the kids at school. We talked of riding the bike. Mostly we just worked silently. I guess we just didn’t need to say anything; or have much to we wanted to talk about. We shared our time with each other because that’s where we were and the other one of us was just there as well. 
We sat on the back porch, eating the last mouthful of lunch, sandwiches grubby from our hands. Everything had been stripped from the bike, fixed, cleaned, and put back again. We had spent the last hour trying to get it to kick over. There was spark and compression and fuel. We had primed the carbie and the motor sputtered for a while then died. Marty was getting frustrated. I ran my eyes over the bike again. 
“Let’s try it with the fuel tap on.”
Marty laughed, turned the tap and watched the fuel line fill. A couple of kicks and the motor turned. Blue smoke blew out as the bike found its voice. Marty threw his leg over the seat, dragged in the clutch and kicked it into gear. 
“Jump on,” he called.
I climbed on behind him. He let go of the clutch and we took off around the yard, past the lemon tree, ducking as we went under the jacaranda, and almost coming off when my foot hit the ground. Dogs somewhere barked at the noise. The noise, the backyard whirling around made me dizzy. I yelped and hooted.
Marty rode down the drive and stopped at the front gate. He shouted something, but I couldn’t hear him over the motor. Then we were in the street, heading along the back road, past the scout hall, to the highway.
On the highway Marty opened it up. I looked over Marty’s shoulder, but the speedo wasn’t working, so I had no idea how fast we were going. 
We turned off the highway into Castle Rock Road, below the escarpment and into the forest. Dust and noise flew out behind us. There was nothing else.
We climbed higher onto the mount. Ash forest towered above us as we left the valley. To our right, below us, the Little River wound through the farms that merged into scrub at the bottom of the range. We rounded a ridge and I saw a cloud of dust ahead of us, lazily floating across the valley. The sun shone through it turning it red. The movement of the bike made me feel like I was also floating across the valley. A screaming of metal tore me back. Marty hung the bike over the edge of the road. A logging truck flashed past and we found ourselves encased in dust. My eyes, nose and mouth felt like they had been stuffed full of sand. He swore and laughed, I think; I couldn’t hear for the noise of the bike.
We rode on and came to an area that had been logged. A few trees remained; the rest had been carted off to town. Branches and rotten logs lay on the ground. Marty rode to the top of a small hill and cut the engine. The silence hit me.
“They’ll burn this before winter,” Marty said. “Those trees are left for seed, and possums. All this crap gets burnt”. I stared at the mess. A small bird flew out of a pile of branches when Marty started the bike again.
We rode deeper into the forest. The track circled around a gully and then into a stand of small trees. Marty stopped the bike again. This time, we got off. It felt good to move my legs around.
Marty walked to the edge of the forest and pushed on through the trees. I followed. The forest was all young trees growing close together, each about the thickness of your arm, making it hard to get through. It wasn’t possible to see very far. I heard rather than saw were Marty was. 
The bush thinned a bit. Marty had stopped walking but the vague path he had left made it easy to follow him. He was lying on a flat granite boulder, staring up at the few clouds that were in the sky. I lay down as well. I was hot. There was no wind and my clothes stuck to me from the sweat. I could smell my perspiration. Nearby, towering above the young forest, stood a single, old dead tree. Its burnt limbs touched the sun and cast fingers of shadow over the rock.
“So, the trees that get left get killed by the fire?” I asked.
“Some do. This was probably logged about ten years ago. You can tell by the size of the trees. My dad was a logger. When I was a kid, he’d take us bush, we’d come out to collect firewood, and he’d tell us about the forest and the animals and stuff, and where he’d worked, and how it was all coming back again. He told us about fighting bushfires and jumping jacks and snakes. He reckons the Aborigines used to survive tiger bites by just staying still. They reckon that if you don’t move, the venom doesn’t get around ya body and after about three days its gone.”
Silence. I closed my eyes and let the sun warm my skin. I felt Marty move a little and half opened my eyes. He was sitting with his knees drawn up under his chin. The dust from the road was pasted onto his face with sweat. 
“Dad got hit by a tree when I was about ten. These ash are all twisted inside sometimes. It’s the way they grow. This tree, he was cutting it and it just twisted its way down. A chunk came out and ripped his guts apart.”
I sat up and looked at Marty. He was seventeen but at that moment he looked to me an old man with a face covered by grey shadow. The image shook me. I realised that one day we would both be old. I think he felt that too. I think he felt very old just then, old and weary. 
“I didn’t really know him. Mum and Dad had split and we were living in Melbourne. This guy knocked on the door one day and told my mum that dad was dead, just like that. Mum cried and cried. Shit, she was always calling him a real bastard, but she couldn’t stop crying. So, we moved back up here, back into the old house. Mum loved that house. The mill gave mum a job – give me one if I wanted it.”
The sun had begun to fall below the edge of the plateau. We made our way back to the bike. In darkness, we rode home.
My mother looked at me hard when I walked in the door.
“Where the hell have you been?”
“Up bush.”
“Certainly looks like it.”
I went to the bathroom. I was filthy and cold. The shower slowly warmed me. In bed, I closed my eyes and found myself back at the rock, the sun shining on me. The dead tree turned its fingers down and ripped my body. Blood ran over the rock and into the bare earth and ashes.