One year, when the drought was still new, a swimmer came to Bishop. His name was Stephen, but he went by Tan. He was the nephew of Ken and Wendy Groff. He had broad shoulders, and always stood with one foot out front, like he was about to jog away. He had a familiar face, one from television: first as a star, then as a drug cheat. He was on the run, I suppose. But we were polite about it. The men of the town told Tan they didn’t follow sport; the news was full of shit, anyway. Even Olive Riley, who owned the servo, had pretended not to recognise Tan. It must have hurt her to do this, she was mad for all things Olympic. During the Rio Games, she had flown an Australian flag over the pumps. For the troops, she’d said.
Tan did not seem to mind what we said. He was there to swim, and if he could do that he was happy. He said the bay was special, clearer and calmer than anywhere. It was a lie—the water muddy with the run-off from the farms—but whenever he professed the beach’s beauty, I wanted to believe it.
‘I’m hoping you might put up with Tan for a couple of months,’ Ken said.
It was August, a month before Tan’s arrival, and we sat on Ken’s verandah drinking beer and listening to bugs pop in the zapper. Ken had grown cotton here once, but switched to wheat when the water restrictions hit. The crops looked sick, bent weak under the violet sky.
‘We’d have him ourselves,’ Ken said, ‘but once he knew you were on top of the sea he seemed keen to stay with you.’
Ken was a bombastic guy; he usually spoke directly. His no-shit attitude was what I liked about him—it had, partly, convinced me to rent his nan’s old place. When he’d led me through that long-abandoned beach shack at the end of his property, he pointed to things broken with time or neglect, slapped the asbestos walls and told me the locals called the house ‘the shoebox’ because of its brownish colour and shoddy construction. For much of my twenties, I had drifted along the east coast, and had come to expect dodgy agents who explained away flaws. I found Ken’s honesty refreshing. I said I wanted the place there and then, and we shook on it, the dust spinning gold between us in the afternoon heat.
The blue light of the bug zapper flickered and hissed.
‘That’d suit me fine,’ I said, although I was happy alone. But I knew from Ken’s indirectness (I’m hoping you might put up with Tan) that he was embarrassed to ask, and his request wasn’t unreasonable. He and Wendy were on the rocks and probably did not want the strain of a guest—besides, I was behind on rent. The drought had been disastrous for the local where I occasionally worked, the farmers kept away by hand-feeding stock well into the evening. This favour was the least I could do.
Ken groaned in approval, and rose to grab another beer.
‘It’ll be good for you,’ he said. ‘Shame he’s a bloke.’
I hadn’t shared my space in years. I have always found that the sacred lingers in the simplicity of domestic loneliness, in the grinding of coffee with the mortar and pestle each morning, or in the slow consumption of a meal. I did live with a woman, once. Her name was Helen and we sort of ended up going in on the lease together by accident, rent being so expensive. She was a kindergarten teacher; I worked at Bunnings. We would often drink into the early morning, and I knew she thought I was funny, which puzzled me; I had never thought of myself this way, before or since. I came to love Helen as I got to know her, but I think it went the opposite way for her. On our first Christmas together, I bought her an apron because I didn’t know what else to get, and she got me a ticket to see the whales out at Phillip Island, which was something we had talked about. On our last Christmas, I saved for months to buy her a Tokyo bicycle because I knew she liked the baskets. She gave me a diary, which I never used.
Years passed. Then I ended up in Bishop.
Tan didn’t talk much, and spent most of his day helping Ken about the farm. He was fastidious, taking the time to clean his nails each afternoon on my back step with a Q-tip. At dawn, I would hear him rise and stumble through the house towards the ocean. I am a light sleeper, and the clap of the screen door as he left would always wake me. Since I’ve never required more than four hours sleep this did not bother me, but if he saw me before his swim he became testy and stayed that way for the rest of the day. So when the screen door slammed I would wait, eyes fixed to the ceiling, until I was sure he was gone. And if he didn’t return for something forgotten (his goggles, a towel), I would stumble from bed to make us breakfast (two cheese sandwiches and coffee), which I carried down to the beach. He never asked me to do this, and I assumed the sandwiches were hardly an athlete’s meal, but if I did not offer he seemed to never eat at all.
I would wait for him; sometimes he swam for only a short while, but on other days he seemed to be gone forever. I’d often fear that he had drowned or been attacked by a shark, and I’d want to run to the house, call the police. I wanted to rush into the water, to try and find him. But all I could do was wait. And, soon enough, he would appear on the horizon, his pale body charging toward the shore.
He came up from the water flushed, gulping air, the hollow of his chest convulsing like that of a fish asphyxiating. Together, we would sit on the sand, where we ate and watched the sea slosh about.
‘I could die for this,’ he said the first time I bought him the meal. Blue veins pulsed under his skin with such ferocity it frightened me. It seemed impossible that a body could contain such strength.
After breakfast, we would climb into my 4WD and drive the twenty minutes to Ken and Wendy’s place. Tan worked there through the afternoons, though Ken insisted that he did not have to. Tan always wound the window down, pulling dust and the neglected smell of the baked earth into the car. Sometimes he would nap, the car rattling beneath us, though he always stirred as we approached the homestead.
‘Catch ya later,’ he’d say as he slid from the seat, slamming the car door shut before I could answer. Outside, the incessant crick-crack of the wheat being eaten by mice.
‘Funny place you’ve got out here,’ Tan said the first time I met him.
It was late in the afternoon; Tan had flown into the Merimbula airport that morning, and Ken had picked him up. The air conditioning was shot in Ken’s 4WD and they looked worn out from the drive.
‘Not in a bad way,’ he assured me.
While Ken ran to the ocean to cool off, I led Tan to his room, which was small and only recently furnished with a mattress Ken had found at Vinny’s. It was a cheap thing, and I thought the room looked like a place where somebody might have died of consumption, or an overdose. Tan went to the window right away and peeked through the blinds.
‘What’s going on out there?’
Coming to his side, I saw that he was looking to the tangle of chicken wire and sheet iron and batting I kept there.
‘I make sculptures.’
‘You’re an artist?’ he said.
‘I build animals from wire, crocodiles, deer—I sell them to nurseries.’ When he said nothing, I shrugged. ‘It’s a hobby.’
There was the thwack of the screen door as Ken came in. He was wet from the sea and smelt vaguely of something dead. He threw an arm over my shoulder, said, ‘You take care of this one, right? He’s a national treasure.’
I was always aware of Tan’s movements through the house, how his enormous feet clomped over floorboards, the creak of the bedframe shifting in the spare room as he settled for the night. He mostly kept to himself, but, still, I found his presence disquieting. When you live in a place for a while even your own decorations become invisible. I had tacked posters on the wall—or, rather, pages from the newspaper that had brought me joy for whatever reason: Collingwood winning the grand final, the Mars rover, and a positive review for Lottie’s Prospect, an independent film in which I’d once played a minor role as a deli clerk. I often caught him staring at these things, and through his eyes their peculiarity was suddenly sharp and painfully embarrassing. He thought I was strange. I’d spied on him as he took photos of the buckets I kept under every faucet, the egg-timer I had glued to the shower. In my yard there was a great shiny tank, and he would follow me out each evening to smirk as I whacked the tin with a stick to test the level. I don’t think he could comprehend my terror as the water diminished, the echo ringing louder, and the fear I may have to leave.
I once asked him why he swam.
‘It’s all I’m good for,’ he said, then laughed. I did not believe this was the whole truth. He seldom offered anything of himself unless I asked.
Tan would come home late from Ken and Wendy’s. Often he would go straight to bed, but sometimes he came to find me in the living room where I read late into the evening. The sound of the sea was loudest there, and we would stay up listening to the ocean beat its familiar rhythm. I can’t remember which books I read during Tan’s stay, although I suppose looking at my shelf now I can guess that it was likely André Breton or Murakami. I liked The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle especially; how the lonely domestic was always at risk of slipping into a strange unknown. Tan would sometimes just watch me read, sitting shirtless in the velvet chair opposite, from where he’d later stare out the window into the navy night beyond.
‘Did you tap the tank today?’ he would ask, his voice soft and sounding far away. I sensed he was trying to breach the air between us. I could have tried to figure out what he wanted, but it was pointless. Come Christmas, he would be gone.
A quiet hovered between us for a while.
‘Making breakfast tomorrow?’ he would say.
‘I should go to bed. Early start.’
‘You should,’ I’d say.
‘Yes. I should.’
One Saturday, Ken and Wendy invited Tan and me to join them out on the bay to fish. Tan and I sat close on the bow. Tan had never been on such a small boat before, and I could see he was nervous; his pale hands clasped to the front of the plastic seat. It was the only time I saw fear in him. In the cabin, Ken drove with Wendy beside him; she smoked rollies to the nub, stabbing them out in a cracked mug before they burnt her fingers. When Ken slowed and turned off the engine, the sudden sound of the waves lapping against the boat was astonishing.
The fish didn’t bite much that day and so we spent most of the afternoon lounging about, our lines bobbing useless on the water. Ken drank with a steady consistency and was soon showing the effect of the alcohol, his face absent and splotchy. Between long bouts of silence, he boasted of past catches: three buckets of flathead in a single afternoon, a three-kilo mullet that tore two ligaments in his shoulder in the struggle.
‘Nothing like that now,’ he would say. He didn’t mention that it was the run-off from farms such as his that had likely caused the exodus of fish, but I knew it was pointless to correct him. He’d suck at his stubby, then say: ‘What a fucking travesty.’ And we would all agree.
Tan tired of fishing before the rest of us and lay on the deck with a cap over his face. His skin radiated with the auburn hum of the light, and when I lay beside him I could smell his sweat, a pleasant vanilla stink that blended with the oily coconut of his sunscreen. Watching him doze, I wondered how a person came to be like Tan: polished and exactly executed, living as if everything he did had been practised for an audience. As a star, I supposed that he had become used to people watching his body turn through the water. But this performance, him splayed and glittering, felt unrehearsed.
Tan lifted the cap from his face and rolled to face me, and it was only as his gaze met mine that I realised I had been staring. He smiled, showing a little teeth, then rolled back to his position. The sea rocked slow and quiet.
Early in our time together, I had seen the ridges of scars that crossed Tan’s thighs. Like the burnt spoons I had found stashed under the house, the wounds reminded me that we were strangers to each other.
We had started to linger in my living room after his swims. He always sat by the window watching the beating sea, and I’d lie on the floor, to stretch out my back. Sun poured through the grubby windows, setting everything alight with the scalpel-brightness of late spring. Long, weedy grass grew right up to my door and Tan and I would listen to the effervescent hiss it made as the wind rushed through. One morning, he explained that the wind does not make a sound until it hits something. I didn’t think much of it at the time, but long after he left, the sound of the wind shaking things—the sea, my shack, the sand—felt profound. I thought, This is the howl of a still thing shaken.
The summer came in November with a blast of wind through the house like a hot breath. I looked forward to those days, the evenings magical with their endless twilights. But that year the wind was drier and did not bring the humidity of elsewhere with it. It stirred in me a sickness, and for days I found myself unable to eat with the stress of it.
The pub was frantic by December, and I worked most evenings. I missed Tan, but the rush was unusual for that time of year, and I needed the money to repay Ken and Wendy. There were more men and women coming every night, it seemed, people who saw no point in harvesting dead crops. Many of the farmers had taken the government’s money to cull their stock. Drinking became a way to fill the time.
Tan came to the pub every Tuesday with Ken. He’d drink to the end of my shift, listening to one of the drunks ramble at him, before I drove him home. It was on one of these evenings that he ended up sitting at the bar with Murray Wright, a right weed of a man who’d sold his stock at the first sign of dry.
The heat of the evening was incredible and everybody was drinking to cool themselves off. I could hardly keep up with the pace of it; it seemed we were always running low on fresh glasses, and I couldn’t fill drinks fast enough. Murray had been talking at Tan for some time and with great enthusiasm, but Tan’s attention was on me; I could feel the pressure of his gaze as I stacked the dishwasher, wiped benches. Near the end of the evening, as the crowd thinned, I overheard Tan tell Murray that he was flying to Europe before Christmas; he had family there. He looked to me after he said this. I didn’t know what he wanted.
I gave him a little nod and kept wiping down the bar, before stepping out back. The night was bright with stars and the yellow moon, and then all of it was blurry with tears. I knew that he would leave, but it was not until he pressed me with that stare that I realised how much I’d miss him. We had lived together for four months. Before bed, or heading out to work in the morning, we would hover in doorways after saying goodbye to one another. He had taken to whacking the tank with a stick after me, having taught himself how to hear for the emptiness. And now he’d be gone by Christmas.
When I came back inside, Tan had disappeared, leaving Murray to sleep on the bar. Lucille was gathering up empty pints, and she tilted her round face at me with concern. I waved her away, and she accepted this, heading for the bar’s end where a group of men huddled around Les Knight, who was drunk and sad, his head limp like a stalk of overcooked asparagus. The bank had taken his land.
‘It’s like somebody has died,’ he kept saying. ‘It feels like a death.’
Tan’s swims were getting longer. The mornings were hot now, and the sand radiated a dull heat, like dampened coals after a fire, as he charged towards shore.
‘It’s like the end of the world out here,’ he’d say as we watched the waves. ‘I like it.’
I’d run my hand through the sand, pushing close enough so that I could feel the force of his light body impress onto the beach. He would gulp his coffee, close his eyes; performing joy.
‘It scares the plain shit out of me,’ I’d say.
He’d laugh. He had a strange laugh, almost like a snort that came from the back of his throat, loud and high-pitched. A coughing fit would follow, and as he covered his mouth with his forearm I could see every muscle in his back twitch.
I wanted to say, Stay.
The day of the storm started peacefully, the clouds a fleshy grey and crumpled like tissues. I had not checked the weather—too depressing—and so I did not expect it. To say that it just rained, however, would be dishonest. I am not a supernatural person, but I struggle not to think of that storm as a kind of spell.
I had come home from an afternoon shift at the pub to find the tap on my tank gushing. Water spread out and across the cracked soil with terrific force, and from the wide circle of mud that had spread by the side of the house I knew the tap had run for some time. The earth squelched as I strut across the lawn to shut off the faucet. Tan must have heard my truck come in because when I turned off the tap I noticed him watching from the door, his body half-obscured by shadow. I called out to him, but he slinked into the house.
I knew that he must have tried to run the tank dry, but I was not angry. Something about the way he had slouched in my darkened door worried me.
I paused at the threshold and listened. The sound of water roared and echoed and smashed and slapped; without moving, I knew that every faucet in the house was running. With a calm efficiency, I made for the laundry, twisted off a tap, and then for the kitchen where I shut off another. I was about to head for the shower when the sudden darkness snatched my attention.
At first, I thought it was another dust storm, but when it held on I peered out the window. It was as if I were staring at the top of a cavern, the sky thick and the colour of moist soil. Then there was the smell, a sting of earthly sweetness that opened pores in the air. I did not hear the first drops because of the running shower, but when it started properly the blast of rattling rain was deafening.
There was a hand on my shoulder and I turned to find Tan in his underwear. He beckoned me to follow, so I did. He led me to the bathroom, and when I paused at the door he reached out and pinched the front of my shirt to guide me inside. The shower was running hot, the steam fogging up the window. I pulled off my shirt, my boots, socks and jeans. He leaned forward and shrugged the underwear from my hips. Then he removed his own.
The water was blistering as it struck our bodies, the drops ricocheting between us. A powerful gust hit the shack, and I swore that I could feel the walls moving. My chest rattled with terror.
He did not reach out to touch me, so I did not touch him. His penis was small and flaccid, like Michelangelo’s David. It was beautiful. Again, the shack shook with the wind, and the lights of the bathroom flickered, then held. I wondered if this was more than a storm; a cyclone, or something similar. But even if we were in danger, there was nowhere to go. We were as safe there as anywhere else.
We stayed beneath the shower for a long time, even after the hot water ran out and I started shaking. Tan reached out and held me, first with one arm, and then with another. He was shorter than me and pressed the side of his head to my sternum. I think he was listening to my heart. I kept expecting him to say something, but he never did. The ball in my throat had expanded and I could not bring myself to speak. The rain broke late, not long before dawn.
As I drove Tan to Ken’s the following morning, I could see how the force of the storm had flattened any remaining grass or scrubland. Squinting through the bright haze the shining puddles threw into the horizon, I waited for the sacred to slip between us and stay. And I waited. Tan slept the entire way, and when I stopped to let him go he slid out the car door as he always did, slamming it shut before I could say a thing.
That was the last time it rained. The grass has thinned now, leaving loose patches of earth that the wind throws about on restless days. It makes me restless too, the wind, how its tendrils finger through my home, brushing papers from desks and cigarette filters aside. I have long given up trying to plug the shack’s holes—there are too many.
Ken says the dry has led to fewer flies, mosquitoes. It’s also led to eerie evenings, where darkness falls and you know you’re truly alone, no birds or cricket calls to keep you company. Ken is thinking of selling the farm. He won’t get much for it, not even enough to cover his debt. When the bank comes, they will take everything, including my shack, and I will go elsewhere.
I don’t know what happened to Tan. When I look up his name, there are only the articles from long ago, photographs of him in a yellow swim cap, his fist charged in victory. But when I strike the tank and listen for its echo, I think of him, small and hollow, rising from the water.