The beginning of a story… James is 20, it’s the hottest summer on record…
Last holiday James Cameron had driven his car all the way from Sydney to the Gold Coast. Sometimes he’d stopped to pick up a traveller, persuaded by an interesting face or the brown length of a girl’s arm or leg. The stories they told intrigued him. The route to Cairns. Three thousand kilometres from Sydney. Backpackers’ paradise. He imagined dreaming on the Esplanade one tropical evening as he listened to the languages of the world and wandered the palm-fringed beaches of this unspoilt paradise that he had read about in travel brochures. He would take a cruise to the Reef, he would see the countless varieties of tropical fish, the splendour of exotic corals….
The expedition became a challenge. He bought a rucksack, a sleeping bag and a green tent from Paddy Pallin’s camping shop.
His work mates looked at him with surprise from behind their computers. ‘What for? Perfectly good car, mate. Why stand on the side of the road with your thumb stuck out?’ Their briefcases snapped shut click like their opinions. They were neat, successful looking in their business suits and crisp shirts.
Later, they joked with him in the Arizona Bar, ‘You want to meet a gorgeous Nordic blonde?’ Wink. ‘You’ll probably come back a bearded drop-out.’
‘I’ll see you in four weeks.’
‘We might never see you again.’ the loudest said. ‘Like that couple from Victoria who disappeared, never seen again. Out on the lonely road, never know who’ll pick you up.’ He pointed, ‘Can’t you see the headlines? Well-known Sydney businessman…’
‘I’m not a businessman. Or well-known,’ James laughed.
‘It makes a good story. Well known…’
‘You guys are just jealous because I’m off to Queensland tomorrow.’
They laughed, punching his arm. ‘Lucky bastard. You’ll be far away when the Yanks drop the first bombs on Baghdad.’
‘Yeah, goddammit,’ someone faked an American accent. ‘They should nuke the lot before Saddam Hussein can hit the button first.’
‘Do you think he’s got nuclear weapons?’ They clustered, serious, hands around their Cascades, their Tooheys Reds.
‘Sure they have. The Israelis knocked out a reactor years ago, so we know the Iraqis have the technology to build them. And they were caught smuggling electronics out of England. A trigger for a nuclear missile.’
‘He’s got chemical weapons. Look what he did to the Kurds. Killed his own people, remember? Something like five, maybe six thousand people gassed. Dead in five minutes.’
‘Bush should hit him with a small nuke,’ one of them suggested. ‘Show him the Yanks mean business. The world can’t stand by while Iraq just walks over Kuwait.’
‘That’s right. He’ll be into Saudi Arabia next, then who knows where. He’s already threatened to burn Israel off the map. He’s mad. He’s got to be stopped.’
‘I’m going, guys,’ James interrupted. He swallowed the last of his beer, picked up his briefcase. ‘I’ll send you a postcard.’
They waved their drinks, shook his hand, laughing, ‘Go for it, Jimbo!’
‘Head for Queensland. Escape the nuclear winter.’
The door swung shut on the sour, smoky smell of the bar. He left them, turning the corner into the warm summer night, already sensing a new dimension, Reeboks on his feet, pack on his back, part of a different tribe. It felt good.
* * *
Out on the road…
‘Storms forecast,’ the sales rep closed his window against the rain. Car lights cut the gloom. Across misting paddocks the shapes of farm houses, sheds, cows, hung in space. Soon the guys would switch off their screens, shut down for the day.
They were slowing, stopping. The rep sounded apologetic. It was getting late, he was changing his schedule. He would leave James at Nabiac, at the service station. There’d be plenty of traffic; he could shelter while he waited. Sorry.
The service station was too far from the road. James pulled the extra-lightweight neatly folded waterproof jacket from a pack pocket and slipped the hood over his head. It was too hot and it hid his face so he pushed back the hood. Water ran down his neck.
Cars zipped past, their wheels spitting on the wet surface. He looked at each driver. Sometimes they stared back blankly. Once a woman waved as if to say she would if she could but she’d been told not to stop.
The letters on his sign daubed and dribbled until he threw the blur into the bushes. The road became a dark shining streak into the misty distance. Bugger the rain. Why didn’t somebody stop? They could see he wasn’t the sort to carry a knife.
With a crush of gravel, a car braked hard. Abruptly reversing, it just missed hitting his pack. A faded Kingswood, it had grey-painted, half-beaten panels. Peering in, James saw a mass of wild hair and black clothes; a man’s lanky thighs angled under the steering wheel.
A chubby face peered back at him. ‘You’re getting wet. Get in out of the rain,’ the girl said, her voice raised over the music, the dinning exhaust.
‘Where you going?’ Jerking the long hair off his face, the driver screwed around to stare as James shoved his heavy pack across the back seat.
‘I was hoping to get to Coffs Harbour.’ He wondered if they could hear him. It was good to get out of the rain, although the car smelled of mould.
The girl hung over the seat. ‘We’re going as far as we can,’ she said, her breath coming in warm little puffs. ‘Get it, Roddy?’ She poked the man and he laughed, looking back in the rear vision mirror. ‘Actually,’ she added, ‘we’re going to Daarwin!’
Roddy drove lazily, his wrists draped over the wheel, the backs of his arms tattooed with knives and roses. He was good looking, in a dark, gothic kind of way.
The highway wound around corners, through gullies with tall white-timbered eucalypts and palmtrees, along forested ridges. Skid signs glimmered bright yellow in the lights. Heedless of rules, the driver veered from lane to lane. The bulk of a semi-trailer loomed on a hilltop. As it whipped past, smacking their windscreen with grit and slick, James felt the soft whistle of his own breath.
‘No worries.’ the driver said, glancing again in the mirror. ‘I’ve done this trip a hundred times. Never had a prang yet. Give’s a cigarette, Cath.’
* * *
Aphra, beautiful, enigmatic, ambitious… lives next door to Roddy’s Aunt Irene…
Aphra stands in the centre of the room, wearing only a big white T-shirt, her feet spread apart. She is standing in front of her easel, with the white whitest paper clipped. As usual, she has the black curtains pulled over the windows; a fluorescent light blazes on her blond head. A Walkman hangs off a cord on the easel, connecting her to it with black electronic threads. One foot draws closer to the other, rubs its sole across an instep. She shakes her head, slowly.
Nothing is happening on the fresh paper. Across the floor is a flick of scraps bearing earlier erraticisms in dark pencil, coloured pencil, waxy crayon.
Confronted with her fresh white paper with nothing happening, Aphra considers, define Nothing. So, I haven’t made a mark, even a dot, dash, smear. Rien. It doesn’t mean Nothing. I’ve fiddled all night… I know it’s there, in my head… somewhere. Get it out. Get it on paper. It’ll come. Turn up the radio. Get the static, a bit of chacka-whistle. Louder. The tuner reaches the edge of a station and behind the fuzz she can hear the corrupted beat of a song. She hums, not hearing her own voice, deaf behind the headphones. The Deaf Woman sings, she thinks, and raising her hand she strikes a note, a line, a pause, onto the whiteness. It stands there, alone in anguish, and her striking hand crosses it with another, and more and more. The paper is filling with sharp dark energy, angled off Aphra’s hand – her fisted, fingered stub of inky stuff – striking and smearing and dipping. Sharp edges as her hand turns abruptly in a new direction. Not blue not black, a mixture of inks. The colour is so dark yet still blue against the purity of paper. She frowns with the static in her ears and in the ruthless light her face has lines that are invisible in daylight.
Most of the ink comes off her fingers under running water in the basin. The light is off now, so that the room is dingy grey even though the sun is well up. Aphra takes a single aubergine from the fruit bowl, carefully shuts the back door behind her and goes next door to visit Irene.
Coming across the paving stones of the courtyard, by Irene’s chair she sees the small round stains. Dark like the aubergine in her hand. What colour fruit? Purple/brown. Is it blood? What colour blood? Baked mahogany.
Something sticks to her foot. Here in the back doorway, this stain is wet. A trickle like treacle in the before-noon dark of the passageway.
Irene is busy at the kitchen bench. She is fiddling with the mushroom box, preparing a new batch to hatch their little pin-pricks of fungus. Her back is to Aphra, but she knows the footsteps, the soft brush of bare feet on polished boards, the almost-silence of Aphra’s approach. ‘Hi there.’ she says.
Aphra sidles alongside, peering at Irene’s creation. ‘The Mushroom Marchesa.’ she jokes. ‘What are you up to?’
Irene breaks open the bag of peat moss and holds it under the tap until it fills with water. ‘Making more babies,’ she smiles a small lopsided smile. Then she spreads it evenly, very neatly like damp soil over the top of the compost, dusted already with its white haze of mould after days in the cupboard under the sink. ‘Sylvia Plath wrote a poem about mushrooms. Bland-mannered mushrooms…. Nudgers and shovers… Irene laughs, patting the last of the peat moss.
‘You’ll turn into a mushroom,’ Aphra tells her. ‘You eat so many. One day you’ll just wake up and instead of your own body you’ll see this giant white fleshy fungus.’
‘With little pink pleats in my private place.’ Irene nods, ‘Little hidden folds, tender and damp.’
‘You’re very rude, Rene,’ Aphra laughs.
‘Not as rude as you. Have you got anything on under that T-shirt?’
Aphra crosses her knees and pulls down the shirt as far as it will go. ‘Nup. What for? I’ve been home painting.’
Irene gently pats the crumbly stuff, smoothing it, and stoops to put the box back under the sink. ‘There you go,’ she says.
‘What’s the blood out the back? And down the hall?’
* * *
Roddy must take Fit the ferret back to his Dad in Taree
Heat presses down on Taree, the flat disc of the river sliding below its iron bridge, the glare of a wide blue sky as the Kingswood turns right after passing the Hospital Hill and continues towards the end of Cornwall Street near the train tracks.
Roddy pushes in the half-open front door, haversack hanging over his shoulder and the ferret cage suspended from one hooked finger.
‘Yo! Anyone home?’ His yell bounces around the walls of the house, causing Roddy’s Mum to spring from her bed, where she lies every hot afternoon, fanning herself with a magazine.
Roddy’s Dad is on holiday from driving the goods-train. He sits out the back of the house in his aluminium armchair, idly playing a hose across paths and lawn, radio tuned to the Fourth Test from the Adelaide Oval. It is much too hot in the house. He paddles his bare feet on the cooling concrete. The neat lawn is short as a two day growth of beard.
‘You and Dad’ll have a beer, I suppose?’ Mum enquires.
‘I suppose, eh, Dad?’
Mum comes out with a tall glass jug and two glasses. She places them by the radio on a small table, and settles herself into a chair with a cup of tea.
They are out the back of the old shiplap timbered house where narrow concrete paths have been laid in neat geometry from back door to clothes-hoist to garage to shed to ferret cages.
‘No glass for yourself, Mum?’
‘No, thank you, Rodney. I still like my tea, even on a hot day. And anyway, I’m getting far too fat. Don’t you think I’m getting fat?’
‘Not since I last saw you. Cheers, Dad.’
‘Good brew,’ Roddy says, wiping his lips. ‘How many bottles you make this time?’
‘Four dozen. Perfect for drinking right now.’
‘You’ve got another earring,’ Mum regards her son with displeasure, over the rim of her tea-cup.
Roddy returns her look, coolly, one eyebrow cocked. Doesn’t speak. Drinks. Thinks. Leave me alone, Mum.
‘I hope you’ll put on a shirt and cover up those tattoos when Roslyn comes over later.
‘So who’s Roz when she’s at home?’
‘It’s Roslyn. A friend of mine you haven’t met. Just tidy yourself up a bit, will you?’
‘Sure, Mum,’ tipping back his head to tilt down the last of his beer.
‘Have you been watching the war?’ Dad asks, refilling Roddy’s glass.
‘Yeah. The daily serial. I think it stinks.’
‘I thought you’d be smarter than that,’ Mum says with a frown. ‘We can’t have things like that happening in the world. That awful man says he’ll use those poor boys, those pilots, as human shields against attack.’
‘That’s a crime,’ Dad joins in. ‘It’s against the Geneva Convention on the protection of prisoners. Did you see that, son?’
‘No. I saw the scud missile laying on the street in Riyadh. Reckon it looked like a burned out Kingswood.’
Mum sips her tea. ‘You’re awfully silly, sometimes, Rodney.’
‘This whole war could be called silly, Mum. Oil isn’t the future, it’s the past. Coupla hundred years and the oil’s all gone.’
‘Until then,’ Dad frowns, ‘we depend on it, and you can’t have one man dictating to the world.’
‘Getting rid of some cars would help. We could have electric cars, gas cars. Solar cars. Solar power all over Sydney.’
‘That makes sense, what you’re saying…’
‘I feel sorry for the kids,’ Mum goes on. ‘What are they to think? All this war dished out twenty-four hours a day, it’s not good for them. Pictures of soldiers and guns, and people putting on gas masks. The poor little loves will think it’s the end of the world. It isn’t nice.’
Roddy drums his fingers fractionally. ‘Give’s another beer, Dad.’
‘Rene chewed my ear off about your ferret this morning. You’re not too popular, young Rodney.’
‘Yeah, you could say that.’
‘I hope you don’t think you can dump her back here. I’ve got enough to look after.’
‘Sure, sure. Looks like you’re going back to Sydney, Fit,’ Roddy says quite happily. ‘Is it okay if I take the rifle tomorrow, Dad?’
‘As long as you put it back nice and clean the way you find it.’
* * *
and so on….