Always, Never

This story was published in Antipodes (USA) and broadcast on ABC RN in 2006, 2007.

 

It’s that Boss.  When I look at him I feel a clench in my chest. If I don’t get out of this house I think I’ll smash something.

Matt’s gone to work. We had breakfast at five to beat the heat. He takes the dog in the truck, throws some hay in the back and goes. He never comes back till late. Well, almost never. I suppose he takes food, a piece of cold roast mutton with a smear of pickle and some slabs of bread and some cake if I’ve made one. He’ll check the men employed on the place, the stock, the dams, the fences. He’s got Stumpy the dog for company. It doesn’t matter what I do all day. I often sit in the early shadow of a veranda post, spinning time into unnatural skeins.

Boss hop-steps about the dry-bone yard, peering from angry-looking eyes as if from a great height, chain dragging from one leg. Boss used to intrigue me. I never heard of a pet like that. Now, I can’t bear it. I see the other wedge-tails high in the blue, soaring against the wind, higher higher, wings motionless, tail feathers fanned. Perhaps if I had eyes like Boss I’d see the small adjustment of a wing-tip, the subtle spread of feathers, the questing head; a slight shift of direction.  Boss watches too. The eagle’s memory cannot hold the fledgling taken from the twiggy leaf-lined nest; knows only the chain.

 

I grew up in the nearest small town. Or the farthest. It depends where you’re standing.  I had known Matt all my life: same school, same friends, same dances and movies.  He was my first, my only boyfriend.  We didn’t just have it off in that car, we shook the windows out!  Then Matt’s family bought him a place even further out west.  I said goodbye, broke away, went on with Uni.

An autumn stillness hung about the city.  The door of my flat was open, letting in that gentle, leaf-scented air.  And Matt.  He stood there smiling with felt hat, soft suede jacket, moleskins.  ‘I’m missing you, Babes,’ he said.  My flatmate said, ‘God, he’s gorgeous!  How can you let him out of your sight?’  I can’t, I replied, and I married him.  I’d missed the intensity of his lovemaking; I wanted to be with him every day, always and always.  I couldn’t see over the edge of my flat world.

Matt was part of the cedar and silver outback gentry.  Always the best.  Except the best had to come from Brisbane by truck or train.  I married into a niche whittled for me by a queue of women.  His mother, her mother.  Hers.  I knew I had broken the mould the first day I woke up in my four-poster bed, looked across the garden and into the glittering, foreign plain.  I touched Matt’s cheek as he lay asleep, the sheet pulled over his bare skin against all the tiny flying biting things that pass through the gauze each evening.  He opened his eyes, piercing blue under the hawkish brows, smiled the smile that had led to my being with him in the beginning. ‘Come here, Babes,’ he said.  And as he took me into his arms I heard the slow chain dragging on the courtyard bricks.

 

These days I talk to Boss as he stands in front of his peck-worn perch, an eye cocked on me, an eye cocked on the pullets scratching in their cage by the fence.  I would like to sit close, run my fingers down the long dark feathers, smoothing them, but his curved beak appalls me and those talons jutting from the scaly feet.  Lizard feet.  His leg feathers and those of his tail are frayed with all this hopping about on brick, clipped to the chain by a single ring.

We had some pups once, out of Matt’s good brown bitch but sired by a passing mongrel so that all of them were rewarded by a bullet.  Except one.  It appealed to him, I don’t know why:  short nose, short neck, short legs.  ‘Truck dog,’ he said, whacking the meat cleaver through the joints of its long tail.  Boss got the scrappy thing, while the pup whirled in agony after its bleeding stump.  He laughed, while I….  Boss almost got the pup until Matt kicked it away to howl and Become Tough under the house. Boss stood on the piece of tail, ripping with his incisor beak.

 

I got out of my big new bed one mid-summer dawn, opening doors to go outside.  The east glowed with pale light, a glow of sun beyond the rim then up came the great shape, the giant fiery sphere like I’d never seen before.  Never awake so early.  Never lived out so far.  It carried with it all power and poetry, fixing my feet to the boards.  Look at the sun! I called.

He came, hauling on trousers, buttoning shirt, casting his bale gaze.  ‘It’s going to be bloody hot!’ he said, dismissing it.  Miracle made odious, I turned to the shadowed kitchen, took cups and bowls, poured milk, made toast with eggs.  We ate without speaking, listening to the munching of our jaws, the radio burbling liver fluke and fleshing abilities.  His hand briefly on mine.  See you later.  By seven, all my jobs were done, the washing from last evening taken in, clothes smoothed and placed in drawers.  So much day.

I lean my cheek against the post where I always sit, bare legs against cool boards.  Did I imagine once I’d be a teacher?  I’m too far from anywhere for anything. Except to wash the dust and stain out of Matt’s clothes and cook our meals… Matt’s extension, stunned by circumstances into a sort of accepting limbo.  All life that I led before marriage is non-existent to his family and friends.  Two hours from town is passport country.  The women covertly watch my silhouette for signs of pregnancy.  They try to be friendly but we are flying on different thermals.  I am higher higher, unreachable.  They wave their fingers at me, their recipes, their childcare books.  And if any one wished for greater things, she kept it to herself.

I reckon I’ll quit, I tell Boss, but I never do.  I’m always telling myself, You don’t have to put up with this shit, kid!  I pack my bags, phone my mother five hundred kilometres away and she says, ‘Oh dear, do try again.  What are you doing that upsets him?’

I tell her, I never do anything.

That’s what he says, too.  He yells, ‘You never do anything around here!’ as he whacks me in the side of the head.  ‘You’re always out in the paddock doing something stupid.  Or reading your bloody book!’  My ears ring.

I phoned the police once, quietly next morning after Matt had left for work.  ‘No visible marks of violence?’ they said.  ‘Can’t charge him with anything.’  I wouldn’t say my name.

I slam my hat on my head, bang shut the door of the house.  Boss has left scraps on the path and I tread and trip on a bony knuckle.  He lurches towards his perch, big bird fashion, one shoulder before the other.  I slam the garden gate.  Beyond the shed drifts the beat of the generator and the shizzing sound of a metal grinder working a panel of the truck.  Away quickly, because the heat, the heat… mid-morning sun is already sucking up moisture; by noon the hardiest workers will creak about their jobs, spitting flies from dry lips, sweat running in trickles.  The dust sticks.  By afternoon the heat invades the mind, eyes glitter beneath wide brimmed hats; houses show blinded windows to the sun and women will stand in darkened rooms cracking ice in their mouths.

I walk to the creek.  An easy half hour’s walk.  My boots kick puffs of dust between the patchy grasses. Crunch crunch.  Into the trees, sandalwood and wilga, myall weeping long leaves, and groves of belah.  I pick a sprig and it whistles in my shirt pocket, like all she-oaks.  I see other oaks along an estuary, remember a cool sea-breeze, recall the creak of sand beneath my feet, grey spinifex catching at toes.  Laughing into the surf; my old friends.  The smell of mangoes.

A warm wind picks up grit and sticks, hurrying into a willy willy that’s here and gone.  Ridges lie between red clay pans, ridges that I’ve learned to see without lying on my stomach.  But when the creek comes down, foaming and gushing, flooding the black and brown snakes from under their logs, then the ridges stand out, and the animals – roos, rabbits, emus, sheep and cattle, horses – all cluster on those ridges.  So Matt tells me.  I’ve never seen a flood.

The creek banks are smooth, as if a gully-raker tore away the rough edges.  Some fallen trees are angled in the slough.  Creek!  That’s funny.  If it were not so terrible, so same.  Matt, Oh Matt, where is the man who showed me the colours of new crops, the emu’s egg, the fires of sandalwood in a room lit with candles?  Some wild young pigs are scroffling on the far bank.  I count four, seven, eleven, Ha!  Little perfume pigs!  They are trotting about, chipping dirt, watching their snouts, dusty pigs, mud-fringed from the lignum country.  Not like their elders with yellow curved tusks ready to rip, or angry sows that would charge a horse.  I clap my hands so that they take fright and scatter all in a bunch, away and into the trees.  Power over pigs.  Power.  This is the way the world turns.

It’s quiet back at the shed.  The truck’s gone.  Voices carry across the flat.  Matt has never liked me helping in the yards.  Perhaps it spoils his image to have the wife working, or does he resent the innocent glances from the men, their shy greetings?  Perhaps they wonder at the feel of soft cotton against my skin.  Though not the Kooris, who turn their eyes away.

I fill the water dish for Boss, tossing a cooling splash across the bricks and flowers.  Where the chain moves, has moved for years, is smooth, and beyond the brick the ground is swept and hammered hard.  If in the dark when birds are quiet, sleeping, heads turned under wing or tucked into the groove of shoulder. If.  If I could creep towards him, a dark hunch in the moonlight.  He knows my voice.  Hush, Boss, hush.  Never so close.  I can feel the chain hang through my hand.  Slowly, carefully up to the feet all knuckled on the perch.  I touch the ring seeking some join, some way of release and the head whips down in a slash across the back of my wrist.  My reflex is fast but a gash wells dark as I leap backwards to the veranda, the light haloed in buzzing zipping things.  Ah!  It hurts.

Matt has hurtled out the door with the eagle’s shriek and he hauls me into the kitchen to pour neat spirit on my wound.  Jesus, Matt!

‘You’re such a fool, Babes,’ he says, upset and angry.  ‘What for?  Boss isn’t a toy.  If you want a pet, get a dog!’

Matt gets me a dog.  A nice dog with a keen eye for work.  My dog goes every day with Stumpy in the truck.  My pet.

I’m sorry, Boss.  I would’ve set you free.  Didn’t you know?  Couldn’t you tell?

I lean against the post.  My leaning post.  This timber’s cracked and open from my conversations.  I sit here, have sat, reading about Europe and the Balkan kings.  Kind King Boris.  Zog ‘The Bird’ and blood feuds.  Royalty and dictatorship did not go well together in the nineteen thirties; this was the age of the strong man with a fist.  The screen door squeaks open.  He hasn’t hit me for a week.  Not since the accident.

‘Which war today?’ he grins under the slouch hat.

‘I’m going to town,’ I reply.  ‘I’ll have to see the doctor,’  The wound leaks, with a hazy red line crawling from my wrist.

‘You should’ve let me put more of that stuff on it,’ he says.  ‘Give it a few more days.  You’ll get better.’

Maybe.  But I’ve bathed it every day.  I’ve taken care.

‘No,’ I say.  ‘I’d rather go to town.’  And I add, ‘I might be back late, there’s a bit to do.’

He’s gone.  Gone with the men to the far paddock to haul up a bore that’s broken, the windmill turning uselessly, the dam drying to a yellowy sludge.

The pattern of coincidence is perfect.

His rifle is heavy.  I manage the bullet, the sleek and golden 245, set the barrel towards the reflection of my pain.

I feel the trigger beneath my finger, the throb of blood in my arm.

Boss, today I’m not making a mistake.

 

One comment

  1. Robyne Clark says:

    This story is one of loneliness, sorrow, caring, agony of smallness stuck in remote nothingness — and I love it.
    Julia has penned something beautiful out of dryness and tears, creating it as reality, and leaving the reader numb and longing for more, but wishing it was over at the same time. Just as the main character does.

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