They’re called lyrebirds but the sound they make is more like a whistle, sharp and thin as a line. She knows this because as they walk, the birdsong pierces the valley air. Smoothly. She and Matthew are climbing a steep bushy trail that leads, perhaps, to nowhere.
Matthew carries four Carltons in the skin of a six-pack, and her pockets are loaded with the makings of rollies. Her phone pulls on the weight of her pants, too. Not that a phone is much use out here. She keeps grabbing the elastic waistband to tug her crotch up every few lunges as she treads through the scrub.
After the two beers they had on the pub balcony where the clientele glared at them – such city slickers, she had joked – and then the two from the six-pack that’s now four, she feels tipsy, which isn’t far, for her, from feeling drunk.
‘I’m drunk,’ she says, putting one thonged foot in front of the other. ‘Shiiit.’
‘But you only had two beers,’ he says.
‘I’m small,’ she says. ‘I’m like half of you.’
They pass a cabin made of corrugated iron with orange op-shop curtains peeking through its window. Beside it a rusted mini minor gives itself up to the bush.
‘Can you really just dump cars in the bush?’ she says. ‘Jesus. I mean I guess you can. Probably no-one cares what you do here.’
He doesn’t look back at her. Doesn’t say a thing. He just keeps climbing up the hill with his much longer legs than hers. She feels her face flush piggy pink.
A few days before she’d left to go camping with her friends, without Chris, she had…well, she had snooped through Chris’s phone while he was in the shower. And what she found was what she now realised was what she would inevitably find (oh, fucking Chris): evidence that he talked to other girls. Met up with them. Didn’t tell her about it.
She couldn’t confirm exactly what level of bad this was, how far any of it had gone. So, not enough evidence for a full-on break. But enough for a crack, enough for the acid to flood her guts. A scene, at least.
Her hands trembled all morning with her newfound knowledge. She waited till he left her place for work. And then she texted: who’s Katie.
You’re a psychopath, he responded.
If she were a psychopath, she thought, she probably wouldn’t feel so liquid, so uncontained like this.
If she were a psychopath, she thought, she probably wouldn’t feel so liquid, so uncontained like this.
She thought of his stupid pink lips and his hair that lay in a golden pile on the pillow she’d wake up to and smother her face in and how could he do that and then she imagines the women, the hundreds of others, laying themselves naked, supine, shining, at his feet and of course he did that. Oh, fucking Chris. And she called the airline and waited through twenty-three minutes of muzak to cancel her ticket that was supposed to take her away with him. And she texted Carmen. Fuck Chris. I’m coming with u guys.
When they reach a level clearing, Matthew sits on a fallen branch. There is only room for one on the bough, so she perches beside him on the ground like a frog. She asks him questions about his life – he lives, most of the time, in New York City – and all the places he has been. That strange privilege of the young and affluent in the twenty-first century. But he doesn’t give her what she wants. He doesn’t let it leak.
So she sucks at her cigarette and starts running her mouth, letting tendrils of smoke seep out between the words. This, she thinks, knees splayed out, spreading the plumpness of her thighs, and holding the smoke like it’s a joint. This looks cool.
She tells him about the year she spent in western Sumatra and then East Timor, staying with people who had expectations of her because of where she came from, but which, if she was really honest, she had no intention of meeting. She doesn’t want him to think she’s a dickhead. But she keeps talking. ‘I guess it was illuminating to live for a time with the reality of just how fucking hard it is to get dinner on the table and to go and get water every day, you know? Made me see for the first time what ease my life is.’
Oh god, my beer-addled brain, she thinks as this information unravels from her mouth.
There’s a gap in the conversation, a silence which Matthew should patch up with stories of his own, but he’s reticent. Then he says: ‘Do you have white guilt?’
She pauses. What’s that in his tone? Like this experimental film-maker living in New York has something on her.
‘I don’t know,’ she responds. ‘Guilt? No? Like some disappointment maybe at my…complicity. Like I’m a product of my culture, and that culture is oppressive. Maybe all culture is oppressive, maybe that’s what culture is. I mean…I don’t even know what country we’re sitting on right now.’
He smokes and lifts his soft brown eyes to the gaps between the gum trees.
She pulls it back: ‘Do you have white guilt?’
Matthew laughs at her and takes a swig from her bottle.
‘Guilt isn’t useful. Everyone’s just trying to live their lives.’
‘Well,’ she says, ‘you certainly can’t argue with that.’ And she doesn’t argue with it. But she feels as though her clothes have unravelled, fibre by fibre, since they started walking up this shitty hill.
So she says, ‘Do you wanna just finish these beers, then, and go? We should make it to the camp before dark.’
‘Well,’ he says, ‘I might actually be over the limit now. But we can camp here or somewhere on the way.’
‘My swag’s in the other car,’ she says.
‘That’s cool,’ he says. ‘I have stuff.’
Matthew’s throat is lean and stubbled and lumpy with cartilage. Despite herself, she wants to stroke the length of it. She wants to run her lips, soft, over the bump, and breathe in.
Matthew’s throat is lean and stubbled and lumpy with cartilage…She wants to run her lips, soft, over the bump, and breathe in.
Oh, fucking Matthew, she thinks.
But instead they tramp down the hill, climb back into Matthew’s Hilux, and drive on. The solo camping option doesn’t come up again, because who knows what whose intentions are? Chris is on the other end of a phone call she doesn’t have reception for, and he is, despite the fractures, hers.
She realises now that the only thing she and Matthew have in common is that they both ‘make art,’ so they talk about that because talking about it is easier than actually doing it. He has done his time in New York City, he tells her, and his next move is to build a cabin upstate, where he will live in isolation.
‘Hmmm…the universal male fantasy,’ she says, laughing a little. ‘Building a fucking house in the country. I mean…’
His mouth closes into a line and so she softens, again. And thinks to herself: Is it true? That women learn to take power by humiliating guys?
‘Hey, it’s not a bad fantasy,’ she says. ‘It’s a pretty productive one I guess.’
Back-tracking is not one of her strengths.
‘Yeah,’ he says. ‘There are lots of artists doing it now. New York is so expensive, and you just need independence to be an artist.’
‘There’s still cheap land up there.’
‘And there’s a collective of film-makers I’m going to join who all live within an hour’s drive from one another.’
She wonders what his ‘experimental films’ are like. She pictures black and white, old-fashioned film stock, melting shapes and dancing lines. No, not dancing. Slowly moving, with steady calculation. She wonders if he saves up all his emotional output for his films, if that’s where it goes. But she suspects that he doesn’t, suspects it doesn’t go anywhere.
She pictures black and white, old-fashioned film stock, melting shapes and dancing lines. No, not dancing. Slowly moving, with steady calculation.
When the blanket of the sky turns grey, they’re about an hour’s drive away from the camp. They’re passing through a beach-town called Eden. They pull into a car park at the edge of the water. She launches out of the car – her first coastline in a while – and the ocean air pulls her towards its purity. She stands there for a long time looking out at the auburn headland, then down at the string of ants marching by her toes.
There’s a cemetery across from the road, A Seaside God’s Acre, it says. She finds out later that the cemetery was made by sailors, for bringing their dead in for burial. She walks between the rows of headstones, stepping on the soil of resting bones. Behind the sunny synthetic flowers, radiant colours glowing in the dusk, names like Robinson, Mitchell, Pears, Hirst and Knight are engraved in the marble. She goes to the concrete public toilet block and runs water across her face.
Back on the road it is suddenly dark, and the car’s headlights bounce white off the straight trunks of trees. The roads wind, and the car builds unsteady speed. A dead roo appears in the middle of the road. He swerves quickly as she gasps and holds her hand to her chest.
She and Matthew can’t (won’t) find their footing.
‘These forests,’ she says, ‘when I was a kid I’d have nightmares about forests like these, this kind of colour scheme, but there’d be human skulls and bones laying around.’ She giggles. Then, ‘It was terrifying.’
‘I reckon you’d have been an anxious child,’ he responds.
She laughs politely, but it’s not true, really. She had been a happy, placid child. Had never really felt the gravity of things until gravity tunnelled its way in.
In the recurring nightmare, she and her mother were in the family station wagon being pursued by an unnamed force with nowhere to go, just speeding deeper into this grisly forest. She remembers looking over at her mother, her knuckles white on the wheel, a bush of black hair, glasses chain shining silver in the grey moon. Sometimes in the dream, her baby sister was in the car with them too.
As a teenager, when she began to reach her hand between her legs at night, she’d recall this dream as a fantasy. In this iteration, though, the car would drive itself through the nightmare landscape, and she’d be huddled in the boot under a blanket with a faceless lover who held her, breathed in her hot air, felt the swell of her climax with her.
She had been a happy, placid child. Had never really felt the gravity of things until gravity tunnelled its way in.
The theme, she later decided, is that security is not guaranteed. As if a dream needed an excuse to haunt her.
‘Coming out of childhood,’ she often declared to friends who would listen, ‘is learning that there is no safety net. That your mother can’t protect you.’ The feeling of security is taken away and if you want to feel safe again you have to reinstate the feeling yourself, with fantasy.
She turns to Matthew again and looks at his face, the side of his face, as he drives, and she can see the pale moon dance around his eyelashes. She is sitting cross-legged, and she edges her knees out more. She presses her chest forward and curls her neck into a soft stretch. Looking now at his lips, parted a little, she wonders if she will kiss them.
She wakes the next morning with frost on her swag – too tired to make or find a tent to crash in, she’d slept under the stars – and her pillow is cold and damp around her head. She’s the first one up, along with the bellowing cows and the mist rising off the dam. She trudges up to the camp quarters.
As she makes coffee she looks around for evidence of Matthew. Did he pull his swag up near hers? Maybe he jumped in a tent with his ex, who he said would be here.
She sits with her coffee at the card table. As the rest of the campers awake, troops head down to the beach. Matthew appears at the table next to her and says, ‘I should go get ice from town. Wanna come?’
(Actually, she wants to go to the beach with Carmen and the kids.)
She gets in his car, and in town they load the bags of ice in the giant eski from the camp. On the way back in they stop at a narrow creek at the bottom of a fire trail.
On the bank, she peels her swimsuit off her shoulders for maximum tan. She offers to read him something of hers. He says yes. This morning, she and Matthew are friends. She finds on her phone a poem she wrote when she was younger with high sexual content. Fluids and tender bits and the growl of talking dirty. Matthew listens quietly. When she finishes reading, laughing at her own language, he doesn’t say a thing.
‘You’re controlled,’ she tells him. ‘I mean. Would you describe yourself as controlling, Matthew?’
The sunlight is pleasantly scorching their skin, and their backs are pressed, warm, against the hot sand.
‘Not controlling,’ he says back. ‘But maybe I’m a bit conservative.’
He’s referring, no doubt, to the poem. Then he says it. ‘Is that poem autobiographical?’
She says, smugly, ‘All writing is autobiographical, you know? Even your experimental films.’
‘Yeah. But…is that what you want?’
She tips her head back, resting all on her elbows tucked behind. ‘Desire is so secret.’ She is almost whispering. ‘How would I know what I really wanted?’
He stops a while. ‘I think you know what you want,’ he says.
She can’t tell if she’s misreading things. She turns around, plants her belly on the sand. She holds her fist to her cheek, summons some courage. ‘Are you interested…in fucking me, Matthew?’
There had always been clues that she wasn’t really safe – the dreams of her mother being taken, pursued, unable to protect her daughter against nature. These were dreams about femaleness, which is to say they were about weakness.
There had always been clues that she wasn’t really safe – the dreams of her mother being taken, pursued, unable to protect her daughter against nature.
Then when she was sixteen on exchange in Florence, she snuck out with her billet sister one night to meet boys. They went to an apartment where no parents were home, and Ana had disappeared to the bedroom with the most handsome one.
Hours passed. Was it hours? She sat up waiting for Ana in the living room with the boy’s friends, smoking cigarettes and drinking coffee after coffee until their hands all shook and she felt sick.
Then another boy came, a boy closer to eighteen or twenty, and took them all to another apartment in the neighbourhood where he lived, it seemed, alone. The apartment block looked just like every other building on the street.
They all sat round a table in the tiny brown apartment and began drinking whiskey, the foul bitterness obscured by all the cigarettes. She fell, eventually, to sleep on the couch. When she awoke it was to the three boys shouting in Italian, pulling her body this way and that, wearing just briefs with their erections poking through.
She cried from her throat as they tried to peel her clothes from her body. She wriggled and screamed and stomped. She felt inhibited, though; when she went to launch her foot at one of the boy’s groins, something held her back. She was afraid that she’d hurt him.
And then one of the boys got flustered. The pornography playing on the television she hadn’t even noticed became clear. He left the room. While they screamed drunkenly at each other she grabbed her pants and bolted, ran from the apartment, and lost herself in that neighbourhood of sameness.
At eight in the morning she found her own apartment, went up, and collapsed, belly first, in bed next to Ana.