KYD’s First Book Club pick for November is Lois Murphy’s literary thriller Soon (Transit Lounge). Set in the isolated, almost deserted town of Nebulah, Soon is the story of the death of a haunted town, and the plight of the people who either won’t or simply can’t abandon all they have ever had.
Apart from the usual tattered cardboard boxes blowing round the shopfronts (God only knows where they come from), Pearson Street is unchanged. The pub bolted and the post office security-shuttered; the rest a medley of broken windows and sheets of warped untreated pine.
So far the truck’s behaving itself, but I haven’t covered much distance. At the end of Pearson I turn left for the highway, thinking that a twenty-k jaunt and back should give a fair indication of its capabilities. I’ve only covered about eight k’s and I’m concentrating on gunning the engine and watching the temperature gauge, so when the blue Camry passes me I’m taken by surprise. I don’t get time to take down the rego or note anything more than the fact that it only seems to contain one person.
A woman. Heading into town.
I keep driving, watching the gauge which has started to rise steadily, the Camry’s presence an added ripple of concern.
After another five k’s I turn back, unable to shrug the car’s presence off as someone who’s just taken a wrong turn. Usually sightseers, if they bother to come at all, are in groups. Nebulah’s not the sort of place people tend to visit on their own.
Something about the car has me worried – you don’t spend as much time on the force as I did, albeit with my head in the sand, without learning to follow your intuition.
Which isn’t always fail-safe. I’ve left it too late; the temperature gauge’s needle suddenly stirs from its usual position, hovering just over halfway, and creeps towards the red zone.
To keep driving would be madness. I have to pull over. And wait.
I let the dogs down and lift the bonnet, listening to the ominous sound of water boiling in the radiator, the engine’s unhappy tick. I have a smoke, then cover the cap with a thick towel and slowly release it, liberating a geyser of steaming liquid. When it’s subsided I start the engine and top up the radiator, willing myself to take it slowly and not become careless in my haste to get back to town.
The drive back is agonising. I have to cruise at around thirty, the needle shivering about three-quarters of the way up the gauge. Finally I turn back into Pearson, my shoulder muscles by now curled rigid with tension. There is no sign of the Camry. I take the first left and start to slowly cruise the blocks that run parallel to the main street. I haven’t got far before the gauge is up in the red. There’s nothing for it. I have to rest the truck again.
This time I tell the dogs to stay. When I lift the bonnet, steam is hissing from the radiator cap. It needs a substantial rest, not just a cigarette break. Cursing, I reach into the cab for a water bottle and call the dogs down. They immediately lope from fence to fence, stopping to inhale gateposts and patches of weeds. Fingers crossed they’re old scents. At least it’s not cold; the sun is enough to keep the air temperature up. At another time, in another place, it could be considered quite pleasant. I head off in the direction of Mason’s Reserve, off the other side of Pearson, thinking to give the dogs a good run.
At another time, in another place, it could be considered quite pleasant.
I’ve just reached the main street and am lighting a smoke in my cupped hands when I hear the car. I look up instantly, but even then I’m too late, it’s turned left out of Middle Avenue, several blocks away, and is driving slowly away from the shops, towards the east of town. The cemetery. And the significance of it coming out of Middle Avenue isn’t lost on me, either – it’s the through road to Hobson Street.
Sean answers his mobile on the second ring. He doesn’t know of any official visits to Rolf’s, a blue Camry doesn’t sound like anyone he’s aware of.
‘Got the rego?’
‘Didn’t get close enough. Just thought I’d run the vehicle past you, see if it rang any bells.’
‘Not with me.’ There’s a flurry on the other end of the phone, voices. ‘Sorry, I’ve got to go, mate. Keep me posted.’
I’ve only been gone from the truck for twenty minutes. I turn the ignition, just in case, but any optimism is ill-founded: the gauge is straight back into the red. It’s a forty-five minute walk to Li’s, where I’ve left the Land Cruiser. I reach for the mobile again, but then feel, in my pocket with the phone, my car keys. There’s no point phoning Li to drive down and get me.
I can leg it there or stay with the truck and try it again in half an hour or so. The truck’s clock says it’s now after three. There’s no guarantee that half an hour will be long enough to cool the engine. My shoulders are aching something shocking. The idea of sitting here, not doing anything, is unbearable.
The idea of sitting here, not doing anything, is unbearable.
I don’t bother locking the truck behind me.
The dogs enjoy the walk, weaving around the streets following scent lines, any training regarding the crossing of roads long forgotten. The walk is helping me loosen up too. It’s probably nothing, the first ghoulish sightseer from Woodford since news of Rolf’s suicide broke. There’s nothing to suggest that there’s any more to it than that.
When I finally reach Li’s place out on Dickson Road it’s well after four o’clock and I’m dismayed at the way I’m puffing like an old man. I’ve really let myself go. I am reminded of Sean’s concerned comments the day before. Tomorrow I will go for a jog, something short and not too strenuous, but a beginning. For now, though, I need to get my breath back and have a smoke.
There’s no sign of Li when I reach the house – I can see her wheelbarrow over at the third shade house. I’m too concerned with the passing time, I pause only to let Gina have a drink, and grab a glass of water myself. Li appears from the shade house when she hears my car, shielding her eyes from the sun, but I don’t stop to explain about the truck. I’ll call her later.
I’m halfway back to town when I see Tom and Gail’s Honda approaching, heading out to Li’s. Typically, they’ve left it to the last minute to pick up their supplies, obviously expecting to have their stuff delivered. Tom slows and waits for me to reach them. As I draw up to a reluctant stop he winds down his window.
‘Li get back okay?’ he asks, beer already evident on his breath. I want to say that it’s a bit bloody late to be asking that, but instead I just tell them they’ll find her in the shade houses.
‘You haven’t passed any vehicles on your way out?’
Tom shakes his head no, uninterested, and beside him Gail is fidgeting, impatient to get back home.
It’s already almost five when I get back to the centre of town, and it occurs to me that I’ve forgotten my own supplies – they’re still lined up by Li’s back door. There’s still about an hour of daylight – if I spot the Camry early and there’s nothing untoward going on, I should have time to get back for them.
I swing by Rolf’s place first, and do a quick circuit of the outside. The house is locked and there’s no sign of any attempt to get in. There’s nothing to suggest anyone’s even been there. Already the place looks as if it’s been empty for years; it and Liz’s place next door are mournful with loss of life, like cluttered rooms suddenly cleared out and reduced to walls, devoid of intimacy. I decide I’ll make a point of avoiding this street from now on.
I’m just turning back towards the car when I catch a glimpse of unexpected colour nearby. A blue straw hat is lying in the garden, to the side of the porch steps. It’s as if someone had been sitting there and taken the hat off, laid it beside them and either knocked it off or it blew away unnoticed. It’s a woman’s hat, battered and unadorned. It’s not Milly’s. I toss it onto the back seat of the car.
There’s no way Rolf’s name or personal details would have been publicised with the news of his death, and aside from Ernie Rogers, Rolf’s GP in Woodford, I couldn’t think of anyone else who would know his address. As far as I know, Rolf barely ever went to Woodford. Could Liz have asked someone to check on him for her? I decide that’s unlikely: if she was at all concerned for him she would have contacted one of us. I couldn’t think of any reason a stranger would be visiting Rolf’s empty house, or any means of them knowing where it was.
I ring Sean again. ‘Rolf’s address hasn’t been made public, has it?’
‘Not that I’m aware of. Rudy Clements from the local rag wants a brief, but he’s out of town for now so I haven’t spoken to him yet.’
‘Confidentiality clause. Against their code of conduct to give out information like that. Nick’s pretty professional about these things.’
‘How green is Denham?’
Sean barked. ‘As fucking astroturf. But he’s a complete by-the-booker – reckon he sleeps with the frigging training manual. He wouldn’t have given anything out to anyone.’
‘Someone’s been at Rolf’s. A woman.’
‘The blue Camry?’
‘Beats me. As far as I know, they haven’t even begun to trace the cousin.’
I check my watch. This can wait. ‘I’d better get going.’
‘I’ll ask around. Holler if you need anything.’
The cemetery is only minutes from town. When I turn into the parking area I’m geared up, ready for my approach, but I see immediately that the car is not there. This is not a relief. I can’t just assume the woman has left.
I stop the Land Cruiser by the chained gates, which hang, rusty and sagging as if they recognise their defeat, and the heavy chain is just another weight pressing down on them. They might stop people getting in, but they certainly have no effect on anything coming out.
I stop the Land Cruiser by the chained gates, which hang, rusty and sagging as if they recognise their defeat, and the heavy chain is just another weight pressing down on them.
I rest my elbows between the spiked points of the fence and scan the area. It’s a typical, fairly nondescript country cemetery, not even particularly old. The old miners who keeled over before the thirties tended to be planted out beyond Mackenzie’s Rise. Most of these graves are from around the fifties, when Nebulah had a more substantial population, before the mining ceased and the services were gradually whittled away and relocated to the larger centres.
An unkempt gravel path divides the area in two, Catholics in a smaller plot to one side. A large plaque stands at the end, a memorial to those lost in the various wars. Carved names in rows like a library catalogue, as solemn and soulless as the museum’s mouldy taxidermal offerings. Of recent graves there are only a handful. Once the hospital closed, elderly residents who became infirm would be shipped off to nursing homes in urban centres – if they were lucky, close to their kids, who would prefer to have them eventually buried where the Mother’s or Father’s Day graveside visit wasn’t such a trek. Sun-faded pots of dead plants and dirt-coated plastic flowers dot the scene, adding to the sense of neglect.
I can’t help looking towards a simple green stone, veined marble, although as always it gives me an awful creeping chill. It is elegantly understated, its unadorned letters reducing an entire life, all its experiences and energy and emotions to a tiny, plain: Gavin Pryor. 1934–1982. PEACE.
Five letters. So little to ask. If only they’d known. Poor Milly.
I’m still leaning on the fence, lost in my drifts of thought. Somehow, in spite of everything, I always find this a peaceful spot, hard to understand in a place so diabolical. But when all that has dissipated, while the sun is up, it’s strangely calming to stand at the core of so much danger and know you are safe, at least for now. There is such a flatness to the place, accentuated by the absence of birdsong, and its sheltered position protects it from the extremes of storms or strong sun.
Somehow, in spite of everything, I always find this a peaceful spot, hard to understand in a place so diabolical.
It’s easy to get lulled here, to hang upon the gate till the sun just begins to slide beneath the trees and suddenly you realise that the twilight has crept upon you unnoticed, like the darkening of a room when you are engrossed in a book.
Even though the surrounding gums are quintessentially Australian, sprawled to the sky like unbound floral arrangements, they always put me in mind of that Enid Blyton book, the one about an enchanted wood, in which the trees sing to each other: wisha-wisha-wisha. It’s a horribly twee English book, full of well-behaved children and bread and jam, but I used to love reading it with Julie, my daughter, when she was little, just for the sound of those trees, the peace it evoked. One of those little things that sneak into your psyche, speaks to you somehow. I often think of it out here. Although I can’t imagine Miss Blyton’s wood was ever shattered by the shrieking cries of Australian corellas, swirling through the landscape like dervishes, as rowdy as toddlers full of sugar.
I stand straight and flex my shoulders; they’re still tight. I’ve been dreaming too long –I’m cutting it fine, probably have less than fifteen minutes to get home. I had last seen the car heading out here, and the fact that it’s not here now means the woman has probably left town: I hadn’t seen the Camry on my way through Nebulah, so it’s unlikely to still be around. And if it is, really, it’s hardly my responsibility. I’ve made enough of an effort to find her, warn her off.
I’m carefully not thinking of the alternative scenario, that the blue car has disappeared out here, dissolved into the unrecognised, unidentified void that swallowed the men in their solemn convoy and gave us the mist in return. Even recognising the possibility at the corner of my mind is enough to make my shoulders stab with pain, and the pain in my stomach is already distinct rather than shadowy.
But it seems unlikely. An old Toyota and a battered blue straw hat don’t seem to carry the same formality or threat as the anonymous suited men in their unmarked cars.
I stretch a final time and rouse myself. I’m tired and stiff. It’s been a bad few days. A long, hot bath with a new bottle for me. And then I remember my supplies, languishing in Li’s kitchen. It’s far too late to get back there now – in fact it’s almost too late to get home, I realise with a jolt. I’m dawdling far too long, must be my mood. Being out here this late is a helluva risk.
I turn to leave, and my heart seizes on me.
Standing between me and the Land Cruiser, barely twenty feet away, a bareheaded woman is watching me. Her eyes are piercing.
She has given me such a fright I feel winded; I can barely speak for a moment. She waits briefly, then breaks the silence. ‘Isn’t it dangerous to be out here at this time of day?’
She smiles. Behind her the sun drops towards the horizon.