They stop at the servo before beginning the death strip. A section of road Erica’s always hated driving, four hours with not a kink in it.
‘This place is weird,’ says Jane, her daughter, tucking her long hair behind her ears in the exact same way she did as a child. She nods to the attendant they can see through the glass. He’s staring at them.
‘Come on, this place could make anyone crazy,’ Erica says.
They get out of the old Jeep. It is steaming up in there. Everything she’s brought with her is damp. It was pouring when they left. The kind of rain that’s heavy enough to divide two people, even when they’re standing close. The back of the car is filled with bags she packed quickly and without thought.
She can’t remember what’s in any of them. Their shoes have orange mud up the sides. It has already dried and turned to dust, leaving a line like a high tide mark. Erica’s cotton pants are ruined from the mud, too. She’d slipped, rushing to put everything in the car and be gone before he got home.
Jane had watched her from the verandah, dry and chewing the arm of her sunglasses.
‘Ready?’ Erica said, dripping and muddied.
‘He doesn’t know you’re going?’ said Jane.
Erica shook her head, not trusting herself to talk.
‘Giddy-up,’ said Jane and sighed, walking through the rain to the car.
Jane fills up the tank, leaning on the side of the car.
The servo’s bathroom is in a shed. At the entrance, orchids droop down from the shade cloth, mouths open. Erica smells the off-egg of bore water and the urine cake from the men’s. A row of caged lovebirds twitter as she passes. Feathers bright as a carnival. In the bathroom she splashes her face and avoids looking in the mirror. Washes her hands with a squirt of pearly soap.
When she emerges, Jane has moved the car from the pumps and is waiting, slugging on a cold bottle of water.
Erica takes the bottle of water from her daughter, the hospital smell of the soap on her hands as she takes a sip.
‘Do you think he’s murdered people, you know, late at night?’ The attendant is still watching them.
‘He just looks like a murderer.’
‘When I went in there it was like he was undressing me with his eyes, but right down to my bones, skin off and everything.’
Jane takes the bottle back. The servo door opens and he steps out into the heat of the day. She chokes on her water. Spits, coughs.
‘You are so ridiculous,’ says Erica and gets into the car.
He is walking towards them. Still coughing, Jane jumps in the driver’s seat and accelerates away, spraying the man in grit and dust. He holds his arms up to his face. Jane laughs, still coughing, and swerves onto the highway.
‘Sometimes I can’t believe I birthed you,’ Erica says.
Erica jolts awake, a patch of her own drool on her shirt.
‘You were having a nightmare,’ says Jane.
‘What did I say?’
Erica looks over at her.
‘I couldn’t understand the words, you just sounded scared.’
‘Well, I am scared.’ She runs her fingers through her hair. Her fringe is stuck with sweat to her forehead. ‘So what, I’m scared.’
If she could just cry then she might feel better. She looks out at the landscape, cleared, dried to a husk and then blown away. She half closes her eyes, makes it all blur into one: gums, fence posts, sky, paddocks.
‘Mum, he would have still done it, whatever we did.’
Jane has a vision of her brother, at the waterhole they liked to swim at in the summer. He must have been ten, because he still had that gap-toothed smile. He’s looking at her and he says, ‘Watch this,’ before grabbing the rope swing and leaping out. At the last moment he lets go of the rope and in her mind he’s suspended there in midair. The dappled light making golden spots on his skin and her there ready to grab the rope on its swing back, ready to watch him fall.
‘Pass me the chips,’ says Erica.
Jane shoves a handful of salt and vinegar chips in her mouth before passing them across.
‘Mum, I’m sad too,’ fragments of chip fly from her mouth.
‘I know Jane, but it’s different.’
‘I’m just worried.’ Jane gives her a look.
‘Since when did you become the mother?’ The question hangs between them, a clear balloon they can see through but not over. Behind her sunglasses Jane is rolling her eyes in a perfect imitation of her teenage self.
‘Please don’t roll your eyes at me,’ says Erica.
‘You don’t know what it’s like.’
‘But you’ve still got me,’ after a long pause, ‘and Dad.’
Erica blames the death strip for this conversation. The shiny black lick of a road that shimmers in the heat, pretends at an oasis ahead.
‘Let’s swap drivers,’ Erica says.
‘I’m waiting for a rest stop.’
‘Janey, pull over.’
Jane stops in a shower of rocks, crunching down through the gears.
‘You drive like your father,’ Erica says.
Jane pulls her hair roughly into a ponytail and walks the long way around the Jeep. Outside the air is blistering. Erica stretches her legs. Looking past the wire fence to earth that is carved out by wind. She can see salt. It makes lines on the ground like sweat bands on an old hat. They get back in the car, and Erica carefully negotiates her way back out onto the highway.
Jane fiddles with the radio. It fuzzes in and out of stations. On the only clear signal there are two men talking about sheep.
‘I’m bored,’ Jane says.
Erica laughs. ‘Are we there yet?’ she says back, with a grin, but not looking at her, trying not to make her relief too obvious.
‘This. Road. Goes. For. Ever.’
‘Do you think he’ll call when he gets home?’
‘Dad? Of course he will.’
‘I don’t know what I’ll say.’
Erica is kneeling, her legs ache. She can smell incense. It smells to her of share house. The temple is really just an open wooden shed with a shrine at one end. The beams painted gold. Frangipanis float in shallow bowls of water. She can’t stop thinking about the police station in Barcelona. All those pretty girls with their lost cameras, the mock horror on their faces, holidays ruined. When they looked at her, they averted their eyes, quickly. In the bathroom mirror she assessed herself. It wasn’t just her smudged mascara – bad fashion choice for a grieving mother – or her pink lipstick dried into the flakes of her broken lips, it was her eyes. It was how her cheeks hung. She smeared fresh lipstick upon her downturned, clown mouth.
Beneath the incense, she smells fart. She looks at the faces opposite her in the circle, trying to detect guilt. Concentrate on the breathing, she chastises herself and closes her eyes. She imagines her breath in the shape of infinity, a sloping number eight inside her. The breath travels and never stops. Her mind drifts to a hot dog. Cracking the sausage skin. Her stomach grumbles audibly. She laughs out loud. The ones who acknowledge the sound, look at her disapprovingly. When she closes her eyes again she still sees the hot dog but this time it turns over and it is her clownish pink frown. She holds her breath, opens her eyes, stumbles up. Her legs, cramped and dead, fail her. Despite herself she blushes. Hobbling out of there, down the wide wooden steps. At the base of the stairs she waits for feeling to return, stamping her feet.
When they’d welcomed her, the monk had said, ‘Meditation is like hanging out your dirty laundry. You can see what is bothering you, because it keeps coming back in, disrupting the perfect vision of a bright pink lotus.’ The monk’s head was shaved, but her face had the doughy look of a suburban mum.
‘Did you walk out on your husband?’ Erica asked her.
The monk wrung her hands in her robe and Erica saw her fingernails were bit right down to the quick.
‘That was a long time ago,’ she said.
‘I’m sorry, that was so rude,’ said Erica. It was a new habit, this wanting to shock.
They were sitting on a bench under a jacaranda tree. There was a purple carpet of fallen blossoms all around them.
‘Does it still, you know, come back, when you meditate?’ said Erica.
‘Sometimes.’ Her face had regained its serenity – the look of someone concentrating on pissing. Erica was learning. It takes concentration to let go.
Erica walks to her room, puts her shoes on. The grounds are pretty, an undulating green hill, a dirt road the only way in and out. A vermillion dragonfly hovers in the warm air. Black cockatoos screech over the treetops. It means rain. They make her feel at home and homesick in equal measure.
She walks down the steep track to the main road. She can feel a blister growing and rubbing raw in her shoes. She knows it will be okay as long as she doesn’t stop walking or take her shoes off. Sweat drips off her. Sexy, she thinks with a laugh that she lets out and up into the gum trees, where it stays, hanging off the shiny limbs like shed bark.
When she hears the growl of a car she steps to the side, and without thinking holds her thumb out for a lift, something she hasn’t done since she was sixteen. The ute slows and stops a little ahead of her. She trots to the window, and leans in.
‘You want a lift?’ he says.
She laughs, nervous suddenly. ‘Yes,’ she says and pulls the heavy door open and climbs up onto the seat. The car smells of manure. His dog is in the back, sitting straight, bright tongue lolling out.
‘Where you headed?’
‘Is there a shop?’
The road makes a tunnel between the trees. They don’t say anything. Dust sticks to her. She looks over at him. The wrinkles around his eyes, reach for his ears. She can see the veins in his arm. She puts her hand on his leg. There are burrs stuck to the denim. She can feel his thigh taut as new fence wire beneath her hand. He looks at her, a blush on his cheeks, and then quickly away. She leans further towards him, putting her hand against the inside seam of his jeans.
‘Miss?’ he says. He gives her a grimace that is too crooked to bear.
She takes her hand away. They sit in silence. The engine heat seeps through the hood. The shop stands lonely on the corner. He parks a little way from it, as if wary of being seen with her.
‘I’m sorry,’ she says, and gets out. He doesn’t look at her. The dog yips as he drives away. She feels like howling, but swallows it, and walks to the shop.
With the dingle of the little bell on the door, an elderly man looks up from the paper, glasses perched on the end of his nose, nods and goes back to his reading. She stares into the ice-cream freezer, before realising she’s left without her wallet. She feels around in her pockets. 60 cents. She walks out. The old man tuts at her. In the lee of the shop is a phone booth. She calls Jane.
‘You have to come and get me.’
‘Mum, are you okay?’
‘I’m fine. I just want you to come and get me.’
‘It’s supposed to be hard.’
Erica hears the coins drop through the machine and the line cut abruptly. A magpie hops towards her, ‘Don’t poke your beak at me,’ she says to it and starts the walk back up the hill.
The ute rolls to a stop in front of her. The dog wags its tail, barks. Old friends.
‘No,’ she says to herself, shame coming up like bile. She makes herself walk up to the window.
‘You might as well get in,’ he says, not looking at her, just down at the steering wheel that he holds tightly with both hands.
‘Well, thank you,’ she says, but she doesn’t get in.
‘We could go to my house,’ he says, still not looking at her.
She picks at the rubber window seal. There is a thick layer of dust over everything.
‘I’m married,’ she says, ‘I can’t, I was just being – silly.’ Her shoulders slump low and she shakes her head. She gives him a smile as apology, and he finally returns her gaze.
‘Okay, you still want a lift?’ He seems relieved.
‘Sure,’ she says and wrenches open the door.
After a while, ‘You from the hippie commune then?’
‘I guess you could call it that.’
She hangs her arm out the window, reaching out to the tall grass.
‘You want to lose an arm?’ he says. She brings it in, childlike. She used to tell Jake the grass would cut his arm off, if he leant out too far.
‘I’ve taken a vow of silence,’ she says and grins. He smiles at the corner of his mouth and shrugs. The ute hugs the edge of the narrow road, ‘What are you having for dinner?’ she asks.
He looks over at her, shrugs again.
‘They only give us soup.’
He doesn’t say anything.
‘I’m hungry,’ she says. Her white hands, palm up in her lap. Two hunks of meat.
He drives, a cloud of dust following them. He lets her out at the wooden gate that sags by the driveway. She feels like a child abandoned on her first day of school.
‘Thanks for the lift.’
She gives the ute a weak wave as it drives off. The dog barks bye.
The vegetables float forlornly in her bowl of broth – something about the lightness of the meal corresponding to the lightness of being. She closes her eyes and it’s there. She can taste too-sweet tomato sauce, mustard and feel the crack of red sausage skin under her teeth. The cloying soft white bread. She feels sick.
Watch your bag, he had said, her husband, the father of her children.
She looked down at her handbag, just there beside her sandalled foot. The sun beat down on them dryly. The cafe umbrella did little to shade them. She stared for a long time at the bag before hooking her foot through one of the straps. Her nail polish was a blood red, it made her feel ill to look at it, to think that she had applied it happily on the front steps of their verandah – a kookaburra, as if it had already heard the news, laughing at her from the railing.
You’d think in Europe we could get a good coffee, he had said.
We should have ordered a Coke, she said.
All around them, smiling young people were drinking Coca-Colas with lots of ice and big wedges of lemon. The yellow of the lemon screamed refreshing.
You want a Coke?
He looked up for the waitress.
It’s okay, Erica said.
We’ll get Cokes.
She stared at her lap. She was crying silently, the tears dropping to her silk skirt surprised her. The last time she’d cried at a cafe was a break-up, she was nineteen, maybe twenty years old and they’d gone there to talk it through. He ordered their Cokes and it was only when they arrived, and he shoved his straw into the ice that he noticed.
Darling, he had said. Grabbing her arm across the table. Scraping his chair closer. She looked up at him – the table, the Cokes, the silver napkin holder, the pepper and salt, a little vase with a fake rose in it – all these things between them.
She can hear the cicadas. She opens her eyes, looks at her broth, spoons it into her mouth, slowly, bit by bit, until she catches sight of the bottom of the bowl. She slurps the last of it and gets up to clean, dry and put away her spoon and bowl. She washes noisily, clanging her cutlery on the sink. No one even twitches. She is surprised they don’t just fall on into their bowls, trying to catch sight of their own reflection.
In the shared bathroom, bugs swarm around her, drawn by the fluorescent light. In the toilet bowl, a beetle. She watches it swim circles. Every now and then it attempts to climb the porcelain. It’s a big bug, almost sentient, she thinks. She watches its spindly legs paddling. She isn’t supposed to hurt any form of life. She watches it for a good while, then flushes.
In the morning, instead of meditating, she walks. The creek falls into a soft spray of bubbles. She sits on a round rock, flecked with quartz, and takes off her shoes. Her feet look as soft and pink as sea anemone. She scrunches her toes into the damp carpet of leaves. She steps into the shallows and lets the water run over her feet. It’s cold. She wonders what the beginning of the creek looks like. If it springs from the earth, or falls from the sky.
She walks up the centre of the creek, jumping from rock to rock and then plunging through the deeper water. On one rock, there’s a little pile of carefully folded belongings, muddy boots standing sentinel. As she comes closer a whipbird throws its call through the trees. She looks down at a bath-shaped pool. There is a man’s body submerged, naked. The dappled sunlight plays over skin that is unblemished but for the passing of a leaf across the surface of the water. Still as a corpse.
She sees him then, Jake, how he looked when they took her to identify his body. If it wasn’t for the star shaped scar over his eyebrow she would have refused him – not my son she wanted to scream at them. Someone else’s son.
She stumbles into the water. The man opens his eyes and breaks the surface. She screams, falls back. The creek runs over the top of her lap.
He gasps, the man from the ute, water pouring off his face.
‘Sorry,’ Erica says.
Always apologising now, like it’s her birdcall. He covers himself with his hands.
‘Who’s the hippie now?’ she says, managing a half smile. She sits across from him. With his back to her, he begins to sharpen a knife, the thuck, thuck, thuck sound of it. The oven is held closed with a broomstick wedged against the cupboard. He places the knife on the tabletop and unhooks the broomstick, opens the oven. Smoke from splattered oil, and the smell of lamb and rosemary. Her mouth waters. He uses a stained tea towel to pull the meat out, places it on the stovetop. He lifts the lamb from the tray to a plate and sets the steaming hunk of meat on the table in front of her.
‘We’ll just let it rest,’ he says.
Blood pools on the plate. Boiled potatoes in a pot. He throws them into a colander and then after a heavy one-armed shake he puts them back into the saucepan with a fistful of salt and a hunk of butter. Tosses them with a flick of his wrist.
‘Two different types, I pulled them up today,’ still wearing their scrubbed skins. ‘In the summer everything rots but they’ll grow for a bit yet.’ His hair is still damp, slicked back, revealing his pale forehead.
He puts the pot on the table and stands over the meat. Thin slices with a bullseye of red at their centre. She holds her plate over and receives her pile. She forks potatoes out of the pot onto her plate.
‘Oh,’ he says, ‘greens.’ He opens the fridge and passes her a little crystal jug with mint sauce in it. She guesses he is joking, but doesn’t want to risk a laugh.
‘Pretty,’ she says instead.
She pours the sauce over and lifts a hunk of lamb. Chews the flesh. It feels strange. She bites hot potato, so much it makes her cheeks fat; she chokes it down. He watches her, only occasionally chewing on his own forkful. His teeth are big and square and fill up his mouth.
She scrapes her chair back. Runs out of the kitchen to the verandah. She doubles over. The nausea sudden and overpowering. Sweat breaks out all over her.
‘Are you okay?’
She crouches on the edge of the verandah. She holds her hand out at him, as if to say, Yes, wait.
She feels the meal rise in her throat. She vomits it into the daisies. A long line of spit connecting her to the expelled lamb. They look down at it.
‘Sorry,’ she says, again. He leans down beside her and rubs heavy handed circles on her back.
‘Guess you gotta chew.’
She sits back on her arse and wipes her mouth. ‘I’m disgusting.’
He shrugs, ‘Yeah,’ and laughs, ‘I’ll make some tea.’
She wonders what her husband is doing. Rattling around the house. Watching the rain with that new blank look he’s been wearing. Eating cold meats and chutney, tinned pineapple and a torn hunk of lettuce for dinner, with lots of salt. Jane would have rung him the second she dropped her off. Rung him and talked about how crazy she was, how she was losing her mind. She imagines them laughing about her. Those two, always such an ease between them, they could walk beside one another for hours and not need to say a word. She wipes her mouth on her sleeve. They’re not laughing about me, she tells herself. They’re just trying to help.
‘No tea,’ she yells to the ute man – they haven’t even exchanged names. ‘I’ll try again. I’ll chew.’
She sits there, legs crossed beneath her, the sound of a cicada loud enough to distract anyone. That arsehole, she thinks, arsehole cicada. Stuck under the earth for seven years, climbs out, cracks open its casing, spreads its wings, lets them dry in the balmy evening air, flutters them, doesn’t even fly away, just sings in her ear. She opens her eyes. Everyone else’s eyes are closed. The sky outside is that neon, bad nightclub blue. When she closes her eyes again, she concentrates on the hum of the cicada, imagines it alongside her breath, making that sloping figure eight in her chest. There’s room in there and when the hot dog rolls its way in, she makes room for it too. She lets it stand shining and brilliant pink in her mind, against a brilliant blue background. She lets the sausage frown, there’s no use pretending. She concentrates so hard on the sad sausage that she forgets she’s concentrating and all she feels is the hum of the cicada. She is the cicada.
‘Mum,’ she hears him, ‘What’s for dinner?’
He’s calling up at her. She hears his school bag hit the floor.
‘You call that a hello?’ she yells down at him. She never tells him. She hates it when he asks, when it’s the first thing he says as he comes into the door – but now he’s asked so often, it’s a joke and instead of making her angry, it makes her happy. She knows they are both smiling.
When she opens her eyes it’s night.