The Peggy Chapman-Andrews First Novel Award 2014
Caroline Chisholm – Swimming Pool Hill
Ian Nettleton – The Last Migration
Nell McGrath – The Story Library of The Saints
Sarah Hegarty – Beyond the Forest
Sheila Hillier – Whorehouse of the Republic
Caroline Chisholm – Swimming Pool Hill
Christopher Williams – Angel Cake
Claire Askew – Three Rivers
Daisy Radevsky – The Breaker
Ian Nettleton – The Last Migration
Jane Heather – All The Way Back Things
Jenny Quintana – Butterflies and Clocks.
Jez Prins – An Illustrated History of Disappointment
Joel Sawyer – A Million Angry Pieces
Linda Moss – My Fathers Ashes
Magnus Nelson – The carers handbook
Maire Cooney – Nobody said Anything
Malcolm Riley – The Boy Who Painted the Future
Nell McGrath – The Story Library of The Saints
Robert Long – The History Writer
Sarah Hegarty – Beyond the Forest
Sheila Hillier – Whorehouse of the Republic
Stephen Chance – The Alum Maker's Secret
William Weinstein – Family History
Zandra Carrington – My Mother's Daughter
1ST PRIZE – Swimming Pool Hill by Caroline Chisholm (Chapter One-Six)
‘Man lives by measuring and he is measured by nothing. Not even by himself.’ Antonio Porchia, Voices
Sangatte, June 2004
It was after midnight when I saw him, the man who came out of the sea. I walked with Ghulam through the shanty town of tents littered amongst the dunes to the beach, and we kept walking along the dark-tarred sand until the orange haze of Calais sunk low on the skyline. A trail of moonlight laid a shimmering path over the Channel, as if the sea had parted for us to cross, but that night it lit the way for another. On the horizon I could see a small fishing boat and in its sights the man swimming, moving his arms so slowly in the water that for a long while he seemed not to get any closer to the shore. At last he rose from the waves, wading through the shallow surf.
‘Wait here,’ Ghulam kicked off his shoes and ran towards the water’s edge. The swimmer thrust out his hand defensively as if he might strike Ghulam, and although there was no contact between them, Ghulam fell to his knees and bowed as if in prayer. The man staggered on to a rocky outcrop and stood up on the loose stones for a moment raising his arms, before turning towards the open water and swimming back out to sea.
I helped Ghulam to his feet. ‘What did he say to you?’
‘He said, “Don’t touch me.”’
‘You were only trying to help.’
‘No, you don’t understand. “Don’t touch me,” he whispered it. ‘It’s what Isa said to Mary at the resurrection.’
‘It does seem a strange thing to say.’
‘Don’t you see Adeela, it’s a sign.’
I often wonder if two people ever bear witness to the same things; that perhaps the act of looking changes what we see. Whatever we saw that night, I know one thing. Ghulam was right about it being a sign. It was a sign for me.
The Channel was waiting for us when we arrived: Calais was where the land ran dry. On a clear day you could see England across the straits; as if someone had drawn a line of chalk to separate the sea from the sky. I liked to trace my finger along it because it reminded me of the chalk I drew with when I was a teacher. I’d never seen the sea beyond a few glimpses of the water’s edge as we passed by the land locked Sea of Marmara in Istanbul on our long journey from Kabul. In those weeks I seemed to breathe through sound and smell, hiding in the container trucks and trains that followed the route of the old Silk Road, through Iran and Turkey and on through the Balkans and Northern Italy to France. I lived for weeks in those boxes, in the dark and the quiet; the huddle of men, their low voices whispering and with Ghulam beside me. We listened always for the guards through the checkpoints and borders, and the piercing shearing of brakes that might mark an abrupt end to our journey, or announce our arrival in a new city.
In all that time of travelling with Ghulam I knew little more than this: he was 28 - three years older than me – he’d studied engineering and that he’d converted to Christianity. I guessed his faith might have been the reason he left, though he wouldn’t say and spoke only cryptically of his past. Instead, I learned to know him by observing the way he moved; how he would pace as we waited at each stop; the way he ate quickly, holding his food close to his mouth as a squirrel does; how his long fringe was always getting in his eyes, though he didn’t like it cut. I wondered how Allah could have drawn him with so much animation but to have left him mute. So I studied Ghulam to fill the spaces he wouldn’t inhabit, to build a history for him from the handful of clues he dropped.
We made a pact that first day we met in Kabul, to travel as if we were husband and wife. Perhaps our closeness, the easy comfort with which we ate and slept was not authentic, though our silences could be mistaken for a marriage. But it kept the other men at a distance, as Ghulam said it would. In looking at him as a husband for so long, perhaps I fooled myself more than anyone, that I did love him as a wife should. But I didn’t know who it was I loved. Unlike the union my father arranged for me, I’d entered this marriage of sorts willingly, consenting to its terms with so little resistance.
We met Reza on our first night, down by the docks where aid workers were serving soup and bread to dozens of other migrants. I joined the long queue of men behind him, and watched as he rocked gently from side to side as we waited, as if lulling himself to sleep. He must have felt my eyes on him because he turned around and spoke to me in Dari.
‘You’re a long way from Kabul,’ he said.
‘Not far enough yet.’
He shook his head, ‘This is no place for a woman.’
‘Then I should feel right at home.’
‘It’s ok,’ Ghulam said, stepping forward. ‘She’s with me.’ He held out his hand.
‘Reza. It’s good to meet you my friend. Your wife has a quick tongue, but I don’t mind if she sharpens it on me.’
‘Adeela isn’t feeling well tonight. We’ve had a long journey.’
‘Come then my friends, we must eat together.’
At the head of the queue a tall Indian man stood ladling soup into polystyrene cups, chatting all the while without breaking his rhythm. He spoke in English with a strong accent.
‘Ghulam, Adeela, meet Kiru. Kiru is from South Africa. He’s almost one of us – running from his own country. The only difference is he’s happy to put down roots here.’
Kiru laughed, ‘I still love my country from afar. The wind blew my roots clean a long time ago, so they can take anywhere. Home is where I’m needed, and for now that’s here. I see you’ve been introduced to our resident escape artist.’
‘I hadn’t got round to that,’ Reza said. ‘But it’s true, six times unlucky.’
‘He’s the only refugee to have a customs cell named in his honour,’ Kiru said.
‘It saves them cleaning it,’ Reza said. ‘But my time will come.’
‘Do you have anywhere to stay tonight?’ Kiru asked.
‘I will show them where to camp,’ Reza said. ‘You must come with me. I insist.’
Reza led us through the dark industrial wasteland of the docks to the outskirts of the town, where makeshift tents and huts made out of blue tarpaulin and driftwood littered the dunes along the coastline. The camp was quiet, as most people were taking shelter from the mizzling rain; just a few men gathered in small groups, talking and smoking as they huddled over the embers of a fire. There were hundreds of footprints in the sand, as if a great exodus of people had swept through the camp, casting their shadows as they fled. There was always that sense in the camp of passing through, but it wasn’t people passing through, it was time.
‘Welcome to Sangatte,’ Reza said. ‘It’s mainly Afghans here. You’ll find it’s much like home. There are people who are decent, and those who would slit your throat for an afghani. We’re mostly left to our own devices, but the gendarmerie is kind enough to pay us a visit from time to time. You’ll get to know them soon enough. We should sleep now, and in the morning, I’ll show you where you can get some materials to build your own shelter.’
‘Ghulam’s good at building things,’ I said.
‘Ah, a man who works with his hands,’ Reza slapped Ghulam on the back. ‘We have much use for you around here.’
‘I was an engineer, not an architect,’ Ghulam said.
‘Here, you will learn that you can be anything.’ Reza said.
Reza’s shelter was on the edge of the camp, under a wind-bowed beech tree. It was solidly made, with a door nailed together from wooden pallets and lined with felt and moss.
‘How long did it take you to make?’ Ghulam asked.
‘It’s a work in progress,’ he said. ‘It helps to fill the hours. The only thing you don’t need to make here is time.’
‘Is there somewhere we can wash?’ I asked.
‘There’s a hammam beyond the dunes that stretches as far as you can see. You’ll find its waters are very refreshing.’
‘There are no facilities here?’
‘They closed down the Red Cross Centre two years ago. The government thought if they stopped helping us, people would stop coming here, but still we come. They round us up every couple of weeks, and like cattle we are counted and catalogued and set to fend for ourselves again.’
‘Do you have any relatives in the camp?’
‘My cousin was here, he made it to England before I came. I have no friends, I trust only myself. You have each other, that is enough.’
‘But you’ve been kind to us,’ I said.
‘Trust no one. You’ll learn that in Sangatte we are invisible, and if you are invisible then the things that you do cannot be seen.’
We rose early to wash our clothes, following a procession of bedraggled men through the dawn mist to the beach. They stripped to their waists and ran into the sea, yelping with the cold. I crouched low in the surf to clean, making myself less conspicuous. I recognised a man from the journey; he looked over at me for a long time and nodded, though I wasn’t sure if it was a greeting or if he was pointing me out to his companion.
I wrung out my clothes and left the beach with Ghulam. ‘It’s not as far as it looks,’ I said. ‘Reza says it’s just 21 miles at its shortest point. That’s just a few miles further down the beach.’
‘It doesn’t matter how far it is if we can’t get on a boat,’ Ghulam said. ‘We can’t walk on water Adeela.’
We spent the day gathering materials for the shelter. I went with Ghulam to the beach to scour for driftwood and other treasures the sea might muster. Reza left us hunting and returned a couple of hours later with several plastic sheets and a roll of felt.
‘I see your supplier was in,’ Ghulam said.
‘Luckily for you, he was out.’
Ghulam began work on the shelter. ‘He will not work any faster while we are watching,’ Reza said. ‘Here, come with me, I will show you something.’
We walked up from the dunes and across the main road into Calais, where a large area of wasteland was enclosed by a high wire fence, with just the steel skeleton of a large building giving form to the landscape.
‘What do you see?’ Reza asked.
‘A building site?’
Reza smiled. ‘They’re not building, they’re cleansing. This is all that remains of the Red Cross Centre. First they destroy the flesh, then the bones.’
‘We still have our faith.’
‘We?’ Reza said. ‘Don’t assume you speak for others. They know that many of us come here with our spirits already crushed. If yours remains intact then you must guard it ferociously.’
Ghulam worked quickly in the time we’d been away and by the end of the afternoon, he’d built the frame of our shelter. Another box to contain us, I thought.
‘Are you rebuilding the Darul Aman palace?’ Reza asked.
Ghulam smiled, ‘I don’t intend to stay that long.’
‘Yes, yes, we are not building a new city,’ Reza said.
I would find it wasn’t a new city in any sense. Though we travelled only with what we could carry, the camp was filled with the ghosts we’d left behind. They were waiting for us, because the dead are always ahead of you and where they lead you must follow.
Though there was little to do, we followed the same routine each day, walking along the beach in the early morning to collect driftwood, as if the tide had delivered it to order. Sometimes I’d pick wild herbs and grasses and Ghulam made wind-chimes out of old nails and pieces of tin discarded around the camp. He was always happiest when he was making things. It was the same when he talked about the new life that waited for him in England. That it was something tangible, as if he could mould it out of clay.
In the evenings we sat with a fire outside the hut. We talked always of what lay ahead. The past, even the events of the day, seemed to find no place in our conversation. Reza would join us and tell us tales of people from the camp who made it to England. They were always doing something typically English, like playing cricket and drinking tea out of china cups or talking incessantly about the weather. But he couldn’t have known if they made it, because no one ever wrote. If anyone was lucky enough to make the crossing through the tunnel, or by sea, they went to ground. The only certainty was that they didn’t come back.
Reza was the only other Afghan in the camp who made time to talk to Ghulam, and I wondered if it was because of his faith. Christianity was an underground religion in our country, one which you had to wear on the inside. When I think of Ghulam praying to Isa back home in Kabul, I think of him as literally under the ground, like a rabbit digging burrows. If enough burrows are dug, then the ground will fall away. But the greater danger is to the digger, whose tunnel can collapse at any time, with barely a dip registering on the surface.
They came for us at dawn, like Reza said they would, the gendarmerie in their midnight blue uniforms, with truncheons and guns slung from their belts. There must have been two hundred migrants in the camp, so they marched from tent to tent, picking out the new faces for interrogation. I was herded into the back of a van with Ghulam and eight other men, wedged together on narrow benches. As we pulled away I watched the soft rays of the morning light filter through the small barred windows of the van and for a moment I was inside my burqa again, seeing the world through a grille.
We waited in the bright strip-light of the reception room, as they processed and filed away our belongings, before coming for us, one by one.
‘You’re new,’ a tall officer with a shaven head stood in front of me. An interpreter sat in the corner of the room, repeating his words monotonously in faltering Dari. ‘Why did you come here?’
I paused to speak, but he carried on. ‘There are refugee camps in your own country, why did you not go there? There is nowhere for you to go from here.’
He fired his questions one after another, so I did as Reza told me, I lied. ‘I have family in England. They will send me money.’
‘Of course,’ the officer laughed, ‘you all do. There are more Afghans living in London than Kabul. I don’t know what you’ve been told, but no one makes it across the Channel. The ones who try come back in a coffin.’
The officer stopped pacing around the room, and sat down next to me. He sat so close I could feel his leg against mine. He took off his cap, and spoke in a low steady voice. ‘They say you have books with you. You come to this country with nothing but words? Well I have some words you should hear. You think the people in that camp are your countrymen? They’re rapists and murderers. You think they’ll spare you because you are a good Muslim? They are savages and if you stay they will devour you. Go home, while you can.’
‘I have no home,’ I said.
The officer looked at the translator and made a sweeping gesture towards me. ‘I don’t want to see you again.’
Ghulam was waiting for me by the reception desk, ‘What did they say to you?’
I shrugged, ‘Welcome to France, or something along those lines.’
‘Were you afraid?’
‘No,’ I said, though the vitriol of the officer alarmed me.
‘They only have words to use against us,’ Ghulam said. ‘Words will not make us disappear.’
I collected my bag from the duty sergeant, ‘Is this all you have?’ he asked.
I checked through my things to make sure nothing was missing. ‘It’s all there is, it’s not all I have.’
In the evening I walked with Reza to the docks to eat. Reza liked to call the aid workers ‘cleaners’, because they tried to clear up mess that wasn’t of their own making. Kiru was always the kindest to us. ‘What is it to be tonight my friends?’ he would ask when he saw us, his face breaking into a smile. Of course there was never any choice, just stew with rice or soup and bread. But sometimes I would play along, ‘I’ll have some Mantu with Dampukht on the side.’
‘I’m afraid we’ve just run out of that,’ he’d say in return. ‘You can have some of my special Shorma instead, an old Afghan recipe.’ And somehow it tasted better, knowing he took the trouble to imagine it infused with our own spices. Kiru ran favours for us, much in the same way that mules smuggle drugs - at great personal risk and with little discernible profit.
‘Where’s Ghulam?’ Kiru asked. ‘He wasn’t beaten up by the gendarmerie?’
‘No, he’s fine, he wanted to be on his own for a while.’
‘Don’t tell me he had another vision?’ Kiru raised his arms, ‘As if Jesus would waste his time in this God forsaken place.’
I smiled, ‘I think it was just an ordinary man we saw.’
‘You’re both wrong,’ he said. ‘It takes a superhuman effort to make that swim. Dozens of people attempt the crossing every summer from Dover. It’s the shortest route across the Channel to the Cap Gris Nez.’
‘I don’t know why they’d want to come here.’
‘Indeed. But they have to touch down on French soil for the crossing to count.’
‘So why was the man so fearful to be touched?’
‘Just as Islam sets out the moral code by which you must live, so there are rules for how you conquer an ocean. You must make it to clear land without any help, or the crossing will be void. You must touch France, if you like, before France touches you.’
‘If someone touched you, it wouldn’t undo the distance,’ I said. ‘It wouldn’t make it void in your heart.’
I wondered what courage it took, to stand alone before the open sea. I’d never learned to swim. When I was a child the Russians built a swimming pool on top of the biggest hill in Kabul. It looked like a snow-capped mountain in the middle of the desert. And at the end of the pool, there were three high diving boards that stepped up to the sky. They built it so that the Olympics might come to the city. But they didn’t heed the advice of our classic poet Bedil, ‘Water never travels to a high place’: the swimming pool was so far up the hill that they couldn’t get the water to climb. So no one sent an invite to the athletes and they never came. And when the pool was used again, it was not the Olympics that visited us.
My birth was hailed not by a single star, but by many bright lights that burned briefly in the night sky before falling to earth. The invasion of the Russian troops - the Suvari as we called them - heralded a new era for Kabul, and I was to grow up not knowing our land under its own rule. The Suvari paved their way into Afghanistan; they built the airports where their planes would land, they laid the roads that led their troops through Kabul. They say that minutes after birth, a baby is colonized by millions of bacteria. That’s how it was for me. I took a breath of freedom, before surrendering to occupation.
My father Ahmed was a tall and broad man, with a beard so unruly it was difficult to tell if he was smiling or about to break into a rage. Instead, I learned to gauge his temper by the way his brow contracted into folds, like the furrows of a walnut shell. He used to say I looked like my mother Amina and it wasn’t meant as a compliment. My mother was slim and small; too small to bear another child safely. Hers was a lithe beauty so at odds with the homely plumpness of a typical Afghan wife. For my father, I was merely a bad omen. He would sit outside the teahouses he owned and tell any passer-by how his daughter’s birth had opened the gateway to the Suvari and closed the door to a son.
Our house was quite grand, on the third floor of an apartment block in the Wazir Akbar Khan district. In those early days we still had running water and electricity. Not for us, one of the simple mud brick dwellings in the outskirts of the city, where my mother grew up, that still bore the fingerprints of its builders. My father furnished the apartment in the style of his teahouses, or perhaps it was the other way round, with rich red Bukhara print rugs and the finest kelim cushions. The best of these were kept for the hujra, where my father entertained the businessmen and government officials who frequented his teahouses. I was only permitted to go into the hujra once a week to clean it.
On the eastern wall, hung a huge map of Kabul, with our apartment and his two teahouses marked out; the three points forming an almost perfect haft, the number seven in Dari, which was very good luck. My father liked to point this out to all his visitors, as if luck, like a mantra, could be embedded the more times it was repeated.
When I was five, my father took another wife. Publicly my mother bore this shame with dignity, and threw her energies into giving me the kind of education poverty had denied her.
‘It will not help her to marry any better,’ my father said. ‘You don’t need to go to school to learn to run a house.’
‘They’ll be time for marriage later,’ my mother replied.
‘Look what happened to Fara,’ he’d warn. ‘You can’t say that was visited on her for no reason.’
Fara was my father’s sister. She’d trained in medicine and worked as a doctor at the Charsad Bestar Hospital. It was difficult to know what that applied to – the fact that Fara never married, or that she died young, of breast cancer. For my father who was always in robust health, disease was a personal slight by Allah himself, a punishment for flouting the natural order of things. A lingering death, like cancer, was most shameful of all. ‘Allah will take you when you’ve breathed enough air,’ he would say. As I was never sure how much ‘enough’ was, I would often practise holding my breath for a minute or longer, in the hope I might preserve some air for when it was really needed.
Fara died when I was three – at the very age when I might have hoped to remember her. She exists in my mind devoid of colour or smell or movement; a black and white photograph taken at my parent’s wedding. A memory that is and isn’t mine. Her pink silk dress bleached white by the film, she stands like a defiant bride in waiting, as if it is she, not my mother, who will follow her vows to the grave. After my prayers each night I would often think of Fara and ask her things that puzzled me, such as why caterpillars don’t need to eat after they’ve changed into moths and how many times I would need to hold my breath to make sure Allah didn’t take me before I was ready. I would imagine that I could hear her voice in reply, but it never formed itself into words, just a distant note that faded the longer I listened for it.
At school I made friends easily, after I learned that the feeding habits of moths was not a subject the other girls held in much regard, whereas my mother’s gossip from the hammam, which never much interested me, was highly prized. The latest scandal, or at least the kind of scandal that my mother considered suitable for my ears, almost always revolved around dissecting the fallout from a marriage proposal. Even at that age, I knew that a proposal was thinly gift-wrapped; a rehearsal of all the jealousy, shame and betrayal you might experience in the duration of a marriage itself. It was an arrangement to be made in the best interests of both families, its occasion declared to the bride-to-be like an announcement in the newspaper, with silence being the terms of acceptance. But that was not the case with Fara, my mother told me, though she received many proposals. Fara wouldn’t stay quiet to please a husband; Fara, who could only be silenced by cancer. ‘If you make an enemy of your allies, you’ll be alone in battle,’ my father liked to say, as if revelling in the memory of her struggle. And after Fara died, he took her dowry and poured it into his teahouses, and he watched it stew along with leaves of green tea, which he served to the soldiers he cursed her for helping.
When I began my first English lessons, my mother took me to an old bookshop in Kabul where I was to choose three books to last me until the next school year. It was cool and dark inside the shop, a fan in the corner of the room whipped up the dust from the counter. There were more books than I’d ever seen; row upon row of brown and green leather spines ascended out of reach, their pages turned to the wall.
‘We have some good books for children,’ the bookseller turned and lifted a couple of titles from the dusty shelves.
‘No thank you, they’re not the ones I want.’ In much the same way my mother bought clothes for me, I would chose books that I could grow into. ‘Can I look myself?’
The bookseller eyed me for a minute. ‘I think I might still be of some assistance.’ He reached behind the counter and produced a wooden stool.
I worked my way along each shelf until I found the books that piqued my interest: an Afghan-English dictionary and a world Encyclopedia.
My mother picked up an extravagantly bound book with gold tinted pages, ‘How much is this one?’
The bookseller whispered to her under his breath.
‘Oh,’ she said. ‘Is it real gold?’
‘No, but there’s treasure inside,’ he said, ’some of the greatest words ever written.’
‘Can I see?’ I asked.
My mother handed the book to me. ‘The collected works of William Shakespeare,’ I read it out loud, ‘Can I have it too Mama?
‘It’s very expensive,’ she turned to the bookseller with the same pleading look she used on my father.
So it was thanks to my mother’s Magpie vision that I found Shakespeare and because she was easy on the eye, that I took his plays home. From that day, it was always England that held me in its spell; the tales of kings and queens, poets and paupers, called to me like the light of a fading star. And it seemed that I could no more reach out to it, than I could step into the past, but in my dreams I painted England’s green and pleasant land over the canvas of our desert landscape.
After my chores each day, I would wait for my cousin Raouf to arrive to escort me to school. Raouf was many things to me in those days: a companion, a chaperone, a captive audience. He was wiry and full of nervous energy like a street dog, always roaming, always dirty. Raouf was a year younger, but he looked up to me as perhaps a brother might. Not my own brothers, who would quickly learn their place in the family usurped my own standing regardless of age. What I remember most about Raouf as a child was that he seemed to have no concept of boundaries - though a swift clip around the ear meant he was never in doubt when he stepped outside them. Perhaps I’m being unkind to Raouf and maybe it was as much my influence as his youth, but I wonder if I was responsible for breaking down his inhibitions in much the same way that alcohol is used to loosen the tongue.
There was much to be discovered around the city, though we were careful to front each of our missions with its own cover story. Sometimes we would take a longer route through the dusty streets on the way home from school. But it was better to explore on the days when we ran errands for our Nana, Bushra. She still lived in the single story house where she’d been born and my mother and her sisters had grown up; where the sweet smell of Roht bread seemed to ooze through the walls. I sometimes imagined the whole family living in just those two rooms, huddled together to sleep in the small living room, its floor cushions doubling as pillows until the muezzin’s call for namaz ushered in the day.
Nana was small and slightly hunched over and she always dressed in black linen, as a mark of respect to her dead husband, the grandfather I’d never met. She became a little more hunched with each year, ‘Allah is drawing me closer to the grave,’ she would say without a hint of melancholy. Nana was unmoved by the Russian occupation because she’d lived through six regimes. Born at the cusp between independence and civil war, she’d known Kabul as a monarchy, a democracy and a republic. Her fondest memories were for the early years of Zahir Shah’s reign, who kept the Soviets at arm’s length and Afghanistan neutral during the Second World War. ‘We were at peace, when the rest of the world was at war,’ she used to tell me with pride, and her eyes would dim and lose focus, as if she was gazing into her own mind to recall the memory.
Even Zahir Shah drew Nana’s ire when he invited the worst kind of bad luck on the country by putting his image on a coin, when it should have been reserved for the words of Allah alone. To Nana it was no surprise that Shah’s blasphemy resulted in the Russian invasion, only that it took them a full 18 years to get round to it. But the main reason Nana wasn’t fazed by the Russians was because she’d ceased really living in the present, something I’m ashamed that Raouf and I exploited. For Nana, time was speeding up as she was slowing down; the spaces between the routines in her day grew narrower, so that it seemed to her that she was always busy cleaning, praying or eating. So Raouf and I were free to fill her empty spaces with our expeditions, as long as we made sure to steer clear of my father’s teahouses and remembered to bring something back for Nana.
Once, when we’d been stalking leopard geckos at Babur’s Gardens near the old city walls, we forgot to buy anything on our return.
‘Let’s see what you’ve got for me,’ she insisted.
I elbowed Raouf in the ribs and he emptied his pockets which contained only a stone he’d saved for throwing at the crows along the river bank.
‘A rock?’ she frowned.
‘It’s not just any rock Nana,’ Raouf said. He paused, ‘It’s a meteorite that fell from the sky. It was once a bright burning star, flying through space. We got it from the market. They said it would bring good luck.’
Nana was as superstitious as she was religious. She eyed the sandy coloured stone, which couldn’t be told apart from any other stone you could pick up off the street.
‘Was it expensive?’ she asked.
‘We got a good price for it,’ I said, and handed back three of the four afghanis she’d given me.
On our way home I gave the other coin to Raouf. He smiled and tossed it high into the air and it dazzled in the sun as it span. He caught it on the way down, and flipped it onto the back of his hand. It was the obverse side, the afghan coat of arms. ‘That’s means I’ll have good fortune,’ Raouf said. But I sensed Raouf had already used up his luck, because it was the only time his storytelling saved us from trouble, rather than digging us deeper into it.
I did well at school, though in those early days I had little reference for comparison. In my second year our teacher, Rashida, left halfway through the term to get married. I heard from my mother that she accepted a proposal from her cousin whose wife had died, leaving him with four small children under the age of seven. ‘She’s 29 with no dowry, only family would offer such an act of kindness,’ my father said. So after eight years of teaching, Rashida was to swap a life of seeding young minds for a life of feeding hungry mouths. I didn’t think I’d miss her, as I wasn’t one of her favourites. I asked too many questions. There was nothing wrong with asking a question, but you had to be sure the answer could be found in Rashida’s ‘book’. This could be tricky, as Rashida’s book wasn’t a reference manual, it was in her head. ‘Everything I need to know is up here,’ she would say, tapping on her forehead as if jolting loose the layers of data she stashed there. Rashida consulted her book, much in the same way I called on my Encyclopedia, but it wasn’t full of interesting facts like how many Everests would fill the mid-Atlantic trench; instead it was packed with multiplication tables and classic Arabic grammar.
Rashida became very uncomfortable if you asked a question which wasn’t covered in her book. She would begin to flush and stammer and rub her palms together. I told my father about Rashida’s book and he said, ‘There’s only one book worth keeping in your mind and that’s the Koran’. But I rarely saw my father read the Koran, though he professed to know it by heart.
‘Muhammad said that everyone should be educated,’ I told him once.
‘He said no such thing.’
I showed him the hadith, ‘Seeking knowledge is a duty on every Muslim.’
‘It says Muslim, it doesn’t say women.’
‘But women are Muslims too.’
‘They are not the Muslims Muhammad means,’ he said.
After the fire died each night, we would follow the same ritual before sleep. I would pray to the East, and after I was done, Ghulam would kneel on his blanket with his head bowed, gently whispering his prayers. He had such a rich tone to his voice, that sometimes I would be carried away on it, drifting towards Isa. It wasn’t often that Ghulam and I talked about faith. Maybe it was because it was a part of what we were running from. But if we argued, it was always about Isa, and what it meant to follow him, because Ghulam believed in it quite literally, and I didn’t think that’s what Isa intended at all.
There was one book we shared that was a neutral ground between us. Voices was a small volume of aphorisms, that I’d found in the old bookshop in Kabul. An Italian immigrant in Argentina, it was Porchia’s only published work and he was hardly known outside his adopted country. Sometimes I would read about the life he lived in solitary and on the fringes of poverty. How in his later years, he would help a woman he once loved, a prostitute, who was sick. But mostly we would sit quietly before bed and choose a page to read to each other.
‘This one’s perfect for today, with all the rain we’ve had.’ I said. ‘“Mud when it leaves the mud, stops being mud”.’
‘That’s true,’ said Ghulam. ‘Here, mud becomes labour instead.’
I laughed, ‘My labour, with all the washing I do.’
‘Pass it to me,’ he flicked through the pages, ‘“If I did not believe that the sun looked at me a little bit, I would not look at it”.’
‘Perhaps it looks at you a lot,’ I said.
He turned the page, ‘“The flower that you hold in your hands was born today and already it is as old as you are.”’ Ghulam looked over to the corner of the tent where I’d placed a bunch of wild jasmine, bound up with a reed of grass. ‘We’re both dead tomorrow,’ he said.
Ghulam settled onto the floor beside me and curled into a foetal position, facing the opposite way. I waited until I could hear him relax into a light sleep and I lay still and listened to his shallow breathing, willing that he would remain there for a little longer. But as usual he woke in the early hours, sweating and shouting. I’d stopped trying to comfort him because he was always so disorientated and confused, as if he had no memory of the nightmare. Sometimes he would imagine that I’d woken him from his sleep and I’d long given up protesting; it seemed as if Ghulam’s terrible dreams only lived in me.
‘Wait,’ he cried out, ‘Wait!’
‘It’s ok,’ I said, gently shaking him awake.
‘What is it?’ he asked. ‘What’s wrong?’
‘It was a bad dream,’ I said. ‘You can go back to sleep now.’
The things he said in his sleep were always entreaties, to stop, to wait, always to wait. I didn’t know what he was trying to hold back, but I was sure that whatever made him call out in the dark was the same thing that dwelt in his silences during the day.
‘Are you ok?’ he asked.
‘I’m fine, I don’t remember what it was.’
It was then that I felt his arm gently circle my waist and rest down. I was surprised by how heavy it was, as if his hand held the weight of his whole body. In all those weeks we travelled, Ghulam never touched me like that. It was his idea, from the beginning, to tell people we were together. He didn’t think it was safe for me to be around the other men, if they knew I was on my own. And after that I wasn’t on my own. Ghulam was always there, guarding me as a dog might - faithfully, possessively, asking for nothing in return. But he never touched me as a lover would. We lay there without moving for a long time, as if by reaching out to me Ghulam had cast us in that moment, closer than we’d ever been but still an arm’s length apart.
Ghulam was already up when I woke and said nothing of the night before, but I could still feel his hand on my side, like it had left an imprint. It was a warm day with a gentle breeze from the North, so we walked along the coast to the Cap, where we’d seen the swimmer two weeks before. I followed the meandering trail of the high tide mark, inspecting the strange harvest the sea had borne to the beach. The plastic bottles and mangled tree trunks and solitary shoes, always rooted upright, as if the wearer had left in haste. Ghulam liked to walk close to the water’s edge, his eyes drawn to the white strip of coastline. He was always quiet when we walked, absorbed in his thoughts, and I imagined them keeping pace with the rhythm of his stride, roaming freely along the deep stretch of sand that folded out for miles before us, with no obstacles to block their way.
We walked as far as the rocks where we’d seen the swimmer at midnight. Though I’d told Ghulam the man was a Channel swimmer, he never spoke of him as an ordinary man. It became a kind of pilgrimage we would make most days, or if the evening was clear, sometimes at night, when Ghulam would sit by the rocks and wait for the ghostly figure to emerge from the sea.
Ghulam set his bag down on the rocks, ‘It’s a nice day, we should go for a swim.’
‘Where did you learn to swim?’ I asked.
‘I spent some time with my uncle in Pakistan when I was a boy.’ It was as much as he’d given away for a long time.
‘The only problem is I can’t swim.’
‘Then it’s about time you learned.’
It’d been wet and windy most of the time since we arrived in France, or perhaps it seemed that way to me, coming from Kabul’s long hot days and cold still nights. I’d always looked at the sea here as a barrier we had to cross, it hadn’t occurred to me that it was something we could enjoy. Ghulam stopped and began to undress, folding his trousers and shirt in a neat pile over his shoes. Then he ran into the water, diving under the first wave. He emerged a few seconds later, shaking his hair and let out a cry of exhilaration. ‘It’s wonderful, you have to come in.’
‘What about my clothes? I don’t have anything to change into.’
‘Just roll up your trousers, they’ll dry on the way back.’
I was running out of excuses. ‘Ok, but I’m only going in as far as my knees.’ I hitched up my trousers as far as they would go, and left my shoes and socks on the rock next to Ghulam’s.
The water was much colder than I expected. It swirled round my ankles, its scalding numbness creeping into my skin. As I waded a little further, I could feel its weight pressing down on my feet, making each step more difficult, as if gravity were clinging to me and wouldn’t let go.
‘This is far enough,’ I said.
Ghulam waded through the water towards me, ‘Just a little further. Here, take my hand.’ He led me through the breakers that were racing towards the beach, and as each one peaked it swept a spray of cold, salty water in my face.
‘It’s calmer if you come out a bit further,’ he said.
I followed him until I was up to my waist, and though I was past the breakers, the sea swelled in rising currents that raised me off my feet. I looked out towards the white cliffs in the distance and it seemed as though the space between us was much shorter than I knew it to be. And I thought of the swimmer, and how it must have appeared to him that each time he reached the horizon, it would renew itself again taking him back to his beginning.
‘This is definitely far enough,’ I said.
‘Ok,’ said Ghulam. ‘I’ll teach you to float. It’s easy just watch me.’ He leant back into the water, his feet rising to the surface and lay flat on his back. ‘It’s your turn now, I’ve got you,’ he said.
I leant back, as Ghulam had, and felt the sea lift me gently, as if it were offering me up to the sky. I lay there for a while, letting the waves carry me.
‘That’s good, now try it the other way,’ Ghulam said.
‘How can I breathe if my face is in the water?’
Ghulam stood up and bent his upper body over, rotating his arms around mechanically in the air. ‘You take one breath for every three strokes, like this.’
‘Can’t I swim without getting my face wet?’ I asked.
‘Not really,’ he laughed. ‘You’ll get used to it once you get the breathing right.’
I’d found it easy to float on my back, so I thought it would be the same for my front, as long as I remembered to breathe, like Ghulam showed me. And I did remember to breathe, but it wasn’t air that I inhaled, just a mouthful of sea water which made me retch.
Ghulam slapped my back until I stopped coughing. ‘That was a good start.’
‘I only managed two strokes,’ I said, ‘I swallowed more water than I swam through.’
‘You’ll go further next time,’ he said. ‘Swimming is like faith. When you believe it’s possible, everything else will follow.’
While Ghulam swam up and down in lengths that were measured only by his own limits, I practised floating in the water. I lowered myself down until my shoulders sunk below the surface, and lifted my feet off the silt at the bottom. And I found I could keep afloat, if I circled my arms quickly enough, as if gathering the sea to my breast, its cold embrace making me breathe in short, fast gasps. That’s how I learned to swim, by treading water.
My trousers dragged heavily on the long way back, the wet fabric chaffing against my legs as we walked. As we left the beach, Ghulam turned to look out to the coastline once more.
‘We’ll be there soon,’ I said. ‘We’ll walk along the beach in Dover and look over here and remember this time.’
‘I won’t be looking this way,’ Ghulam said.
‘You had a nightmare last night,’ I said. ‘Do you remember?’
‘I remember it was cold, but I don’t think that was a dream.’
‘Was it about your family?
‘I have no family,’ he said, and then he turned to me and smiled, ‘You’re my family now’.
And in a way I was, though we were a family without history. Although Ghulam shared little with me, I would often tell him about the girls I used to teach, or the expeditions I would take around Kabul as a child. He especially liked to hear about Raouf, as I think he saw something of himself in my young cousin. They were not unalike – Ghulam was lean and athletic, as Raouf might have looked at his age, and they shared the same restless green eyes. When I talked about places I know he must have been, I would look at Ghulam for some flicker of recognition, as if from the expression on his face, I could attempt to reconstruct a past for him, as I was telling mine. But it made Ghulam uneasy if I dwelt too long on the details, so I learned never to fix my stories too clearly in time or space. Instead, I would speak of them as if they were always happening; that in the process of retelling itself, I was like a visitor checking in to see how they were getting on and finding all was fine.
Reza would often join us after supper at the docks. He thought of us, as the others did, as husband and wife, and we never corrected him. When Reza was with us, it sometimes felt like I was back in my father’s house, listening to conversations that were sealed away out of reach, where I would no more think to interrupt, than I would try to talk to a person on the television. Even when I’d ask Reza a question, he would turn to Ghulam instead. ‘It’s just his way, don’t be offended,’ Ghulam would say. ‘It takes time for some people to let go of the old ways. Remember, this is a new beginning for all of us. And beginnings don’t have a past.’ But it seemed to me that while we were waiting for our new beginning to start, the old ways were growing in its place like weeds.
Reza promised to let us know when we could join the next shipment going to England, because he knew all the fixers. We’d all be in England before the summer was out he said. And while we waited, Reza would tell us about the attempts he’d made, embellishing a little each time. After several repetitions, it was difficult to distinguish one attempt from another, and I think of his stories like one epic journey, beginning and ending in the same place. According to Reza, there was practically a scientific theory behind choosing the right vehicle, though he had not yet mastered it.
‘Where the lorries are from makes all the difference,’ he said. ‘It’s easier to board the ones from Eastern Europe, but they’re more likely to be stopped. You don’t want to pick a big haulage company either because the bigger the name, the greater the security. And no solid containers, because there’s only a limited amount of air. One delay and you’ll not come out alive. The ones with plastic covers are the best. They can be easily unclipped, or cut and patched behind you, providing the driver isn’t too vigilant. But before you get onto a lorry, you have to get into the docks. You’ve seen the fencing and the patrols. It’s easier to get through in another vehicle. That’s the first hurdle. I’ve been stopped twice in the docks, the first time we didn’t even get out of the van, and you’ve still paid your money upfront. It’s best to go in a small group, but you don’t always know how many of you they’ll be. The fixers get greedy. Six at the most, otherwise someone always gives you away. When you’re going through the customs check, you have to put a plastic bag over your head and hold your breath. They’ve got all kinds of high tech equipment to use against you – carbon dioxide monitors and heat sensors, and the dogs to sniff you out.’
‘What happened the last time? Ghulam asked. ‘How did you get caught?’
‘There was this boy,’ said Reza. ‘He was barely a teenager, and as soon as we were shut inside the back he started hyperventilating and someone tried to stop him by putting the bag over his head. But that just made him worse. He was making this terrible wheezing sound as the plastic was sucked in and out of his mouth. I was sure he was going to suffocate, so I pulled it off, and then the others started turning on me. We didn’t even hear the police until they sliced open the side. Two of the men spilled through the cover backwards, like they’d been cut from the belly of a cow. Then we were carted off to customs. You still have to be processed, even if you don’t get anywhere. Sometimes the magistrates keep you detained for a week or more, especially if they’ve seen you before. I was in the cells for a month the last time.’
‘What became of the boy?’ I asked.
‘He was a minor,’ Reza said. ‘He should have been taken in, but he didn’t have any papers. He was from the country; I don’t think he even knew his own birthday.’
‘Did he make it to England?’
Reza looked down. ‘After I was released I looked for him. Maybe he made it.’
But the boy was never in Reza’s tales of England. He never drank tea out of china cups, or watched cricket, debating the vagaries of the English weather.
‘Perhaps he went home,’ I said, though none of us believed it.
There were some people in the camp who came from countries like Bangladesh. They’d sell their homes and farms and spend all the money on the journey. They were in this no man’s land because they’d been promised a better life and couldn’t afford to return. But if you came to the camp from Afghanistan it was different, there was no going back. And with the coast of England in your sights, there was always hope. Because when you’ve left all that you have behind, you’re not left with nothing. You still have your dreams, but your dreams become everything.
Rashida getting married was fortuitous for two reasons. It meant that her cousin’s children didn’t become orphans when he was killed six months later fighting for the Mujahideen, and it brought Nasifa our new teacher into my life. Nasifa was the most beautiful woman I’d seen apart from my mother. She had light hazel eyes and a proud straight nose and eyebrows that darted when you asked a question in class. ‘Let me have a think about that,’ she’d say and if she didn’t know the answer she would find it. She’d seek out for me why birds didn’t live as long as mammals, ‘faster heartbeats,’ and why elephants and giraffes slept standing up, ‘to stop their internal organs being crushed by their own bodyweight’. ‘Imagine that,’ she’d often finish, her eyes widening, and I did imagine it because of her.
Everyone in the school was half in love with Nasifa, but there was no one who did more to please her than me. I made Raouf wait for me after class as I helped her to clear away the books and she would tell me about the classic Persian writers, and how she thought Bedil was a greater metaphysical poet than Donne. Nasifa didn’t just teach me history, she taught me how to love my own country. She liked most of all to talk about the legion of heroic Afghan women, from Rabia Balkhi, who wrote her last poem in her own blood on the hammam wall, to Meena Keshwar Kamal who founded RAWA, the Revolutionary Association of Afghan Women.
‘Did you know that your aunt Fara was a member of RAWA?’
Of course I didn’t know because I wasn’t supposed to know.
‘I’ll tell you about it sometime,’ she said.
I wanted more than anything to hear about Fara, but as it turned out I didn’t have to wait much longer at all. Nasifa came to school the next week and I knew immediately there was something wrong, because she didn’t have the same lightness she always had about her. I waited until after class, when we were putting the books away, and I didn’t ask what was wrong, because I knew even then that people only told you things when they were ready.
‘My father wants me to marry,’ she said. ‘It’s not what I want. I’d have to stop teaching.’
‘I don’t think you should get married then,’ I said.
She laughed. ‘If I don’t I might have to find somewhere else to live.’
‘You can come and live with us.’
‘I’m not sure that would please your father.’
‘He’s not home much,’ I said.
‘I think he’d notice. I used to see him sometimes, when Fara was still alive. I met her when she came to my school. I’d never met a woman doctor before. I remember her telling us of the protests following International Women’s Day in Bukhara: the women who were raped or murdered, or were threatened with having their children taken away, just for removing their burkas. There was an earthquake that year and they blamed it on the women protesters. To think they believed us so powerful that the earth let out a seismic shudder at the sight of our faces!’
‘Fara was there when we demonstrated against the Russian invasion, the year after you were born. It was extraordinary. There were thousands of girls, not much older than you are now. The Suvari arrested hundreds of us and locked us up; the jails were overflowing with young women, so they had to let some of the prisoners go. Can you imagine it, thieves and murderers let out onto the streets to make room for teenage girls?’
‘What was Fara like?’ I asked. ‘My father never talks about her.’
‘She was an inspiration. I remember she told us, ‘It’s not an easy time to be born a woman. Most women in Afghanistan are illiterate, but you can already read and write: you have a voice. Not all of you will be doctors or teachers, you may leave school to get married and become a mother. But you will still heal and you will still change minds, even if it’s just in your own family.’
And at that moment it was as if Fara had stepped out of the shadow of her photograph and into the full glare of the sun.
The stories Nasifa passed down from Fara became like fables in my mind. I’d revisit them so often that when I looked at Fara’s photograph I could imagine her telling me them herself, though her voice was always like Nasifa’s voice. The more I thought of the women of Bukhara who made the earth move, the more it reminded me of a sura I’d been taught from the Koran.
‘When earth is shaken with a mighty shaking and earth brings forth her burdens, and Man says, ‘What ails her?’ Upon that day she shall tell her tidings for that her Lord has inspired her.’
I often wondered that if Muhammad thought the earth female, then it would be impossible for her to turn against herself. Perhaps the ground shook not in defiance of the women, but in solidarity; when they were silenced, the earth roared with the sound of their voices.
My mother knew all about Nasifa’s proposal because it was the talk of the hammam. ‘Her father is furious, it was a very good match,’ she said. ‘A businessman from Pakistan with several factories.’
I didn’t tell my mother that I knew about Nasifa’s proposal already. ‘Maybe she doesn’t want to get married.’
‘Textile factories at that: think of all those beautiful rugs.’
‘I don’t think rugs interest her Mama.’
‘Rugs interest everyone Adeela.’
‘Did they say why she won’t marry?’
‘She says she doesn’t love him. You should have heard the other women in the hammam. Love,’ she lingered on the word.
‘Why are the other women so against her?’
‘They’re just jealous,’ my mother said. ‘Imagine the house she would’ve had.’
‘Is it wrong of her, to want to choose?’
‘Things were different once, but this is a country that learns its lessons in reverse. There were better options for women when Nana was a girl.’
‘But Fara didn’t marry.’
‘Things were not easy for her; she chose a path she had to walk alone. I hope things are better for you, but hope is not a keen listener.’
It was after I started school that I really got to know Laila. In some ways we grew up together. She was more like a sister to me than a stepmother, a younger sister it seemed at times. For Laila I was a safe confidante; she could ask me anything without risking the wrath of my father or the scorn of my mother. Laila found it amusing that I taught Nadir to speak some English words, particularly as it drew the ire of my father.
‘It’s not right for him to be running around the house speaking a foreign language,’ he’d say. ‘I don’t know what he’s saying.’
‘You don’t mind it when I speak English.’
‘You have nothing to say that interests me.’
While my mother was cooking, Laila would sometimes make me up, though I would have to wash it all off before supper so that my father didn’t see.
‘I wish I had girls,’ she would say.
‘You wouldn’t wish that on them.’
‘But boys are so noisy. I don’t know why they have to be such fidgets, they never sit still.’
‘They don’t like being fussed over.’
‘They never like any of the things I want them to like.’ Laila applied the black kohl around my eyelids. ‘You’re lucky, you have beautiful eyes. You don’t need make up. I would kill for eyes like yours.’
‘Your eyes are beautiful too.’
‘They’re too close together,’ she said. ‘They shouldn’t be so friendly with each other. I wish they were wide and distant.’
‘Like a horse’s eyes?’
She laughed, ‘Yes, like a horse, so I could look all the way around myself. Then I would be able to see your father coming.’
‘And run,’ I said.
‘Like the wind.’
At first my mother was pleased that I found a role model in Nasifa because it meant I spent less time with Laila. But she soon realised Laila was not a threat to her, because she could supervise the time we spent in each other’s company. Sending me to school had always been my mother’s aim, but she didn’t plan on the separation; that we’d be parted not only by the hours in the day but that learning too would keep us at a distance. While I was at school, my mother was often left alone with Nadir and Mateen, while Laila went out to meet with her friends.
‘I’m treated like a slave by everyone in this house,’ my mother said.
‘I don’t treat you like that,’ I said.
‘I could teach you to read. It will give you something to do.’
‘I’m too old to learn.’
‘You’re not too old.’
‘It’s not the way of things. Daughters shouldn’t teach their mothers. I have enough things to do here already.’
Day by day we seemed to become more entrenched: me in my resolve to be more like Nasifa and my mother in her reluctance to embrace anything new. And all the while we were growing further apart, the battles between the Mujahideen and the Suvari crept closer to our door.
‘I don’t think it’s safe for Adeela to go to school anymore,’ she told my father.
‘You’re the one who wanted her to have an education,’ he said.
‘I just want her safe, with me.’
‘It doesn’t matter where she is. Allah will take her when she’s ready.’
I had no intention of stopping my schooling when it had just begun. ‘It’s ok Mama, I’ll be fine,’ I told her. ‘I’m not ready for Allah yet.’
Sometimes we had visits to the school from lecturers at the University or very important people in government that none of us had ever heard of. But when Allah came to our school there was no announcement, and he came for the boy who was least ready of all. Khalifa was always late for class, especially our English lesson. He had no interest in learning his own language, let alone another. ‘I’ll never go to England and I don’t think England will come to me,’ he said and he wasn’t wrong. Khalifa was caught in crossfire outside the schoolhouse. I’d seen him only a moment before, peering through the classroom window, with the same look of surprise he always had when we started without him. There was a rally of shots. I saw him lifted off his feet by the force of the bullets and thrown against the door of the building.
‘Get back under your desks,’ Nasifa shouted. She crawled along the floor and reached for the door handle. Khalifa fell into the classroom, his eyes still wide with surprise. Deep crimson stains pooled through his white Perrahan like ink blots. Nasifa removed her headscarf and placed it over Khalifa’s body and her long hair fell down over her face like a veil. She knelt down and prayed as we waited for the fight to die down and move to some other place where people who weren’t ready to die were yet to be taken. I can’t forget how they looked: Nasifa with her thick black hair covering Khalifa’s lifeless eyes, as is she was trying to shield him from death itself.
Raouf and I went to Nana’s the next day and I told her about Khalifa. ‘He won’t be late for school again,’ she said after a while.
‘He was killed by the Suvari,’ Raouf said. ‘I saw the bullets.’
‘They all use the same bullets,’ I said. ‘We don’t know who’s to blame.’
‘Everyone’s to blame,’ Nana said.
‘Nana,’ I asked. ‘Was Grandpapa ready when Allah came for him?’
‘The day he died, he was going to replace some tiles that’d fallen off the roof in a storm,’ she said. ‘But he sat down in that chair after namaz and he never got up again. If he was ready, I wouldn’t still have a leak in my kitchen.’
Nana gave us a couple of afghanis to buy some flour, but we took a detour and trekked to the top of Swimming Pool Hill instead. It was more of a mountain in size, sitting at the edge of the city like a temple; the pool, a lavish offering to God. But Allah didn’t seem pleased with this gift from the Russians and its vast depths were plumbed only with whirlpools of sand. Even when it rained in Kabul, it was said the swimming pool remained dry and empty.
I longed to see it up close as I’d never seen an Olympic sized pool, or any pool for that matter, beyond the hammam we bathed in once a week. It was forbidden to go beyond the summit of the hill, but after a while, the soldiers seemed at ease with us poking about amongst the rocks; Raouf with his fishing net, and me with my notebook. I think they regarded us as we did the geckos, a harmless curiosity to be studied and recorded, for no other reason than they existed. There was never any conversation between us and the soldiers, as we had no Russian and they no Dari. But Raouf and I often wondered why they guarded the pool with such vigilance.
‘Maybe they’re still waiting for the Olympics,’ I said, though I knew any hope of the Olympics coming to Kabul had long passed.
‘Do all swimming pools have special soldiers to stop people from drowning?’ Raouf asked.
‘They have lifeguards,’ I said. ‘I read it in my Encyclopedia. But they don’t usually carry guns. I’m not sure how that would help someone who was drowning.’
‘Maybe the soldiers can’t swim,’ Raouf said. ‘And they have to reach out to people with their rifles’. He took his fishing net and held it at arm’s length. ‘Like this,’ he said, ‘Grab hold’.
I took the end of the net. ‘I’m drowning, save me, save me,’ I shouted, waving my other arm in the air.
At that point, one of the soldiers came over and spoke to us sternly in Russian. He was tall and pale with a moustache shaped like a hawk moth; his gun slung across his shoulders casually, the way my father carried grain.
‘I’m sorry,’ I said. I nudged Raouf, ‘Say something.’
Raouf looked up at the soldier, ‘Are you one of the lifeguards for the Olympics?’
The soldier frowned and then began to laugh. He called over to another soldier sitting on one of the diving boards and repeated something in Russian, and when he said the word Olympics, the other man started laughing too. The soldier turned back to us and said ‘Olympics?’ as if it was a question, and laughed again.
So Raouf laughed too. But that made the soldier go quiet, and then he slapped Raouf across the face. ‘Otvali,’ he motioned us away with his rifle.
I often wonder if I’d have known half the things I learned from life as a child, if they’d not found a mouthpiece in Raouf. And for these gems of experience, Raouf’s mouthpiece often found itself on the receiving end of the back of a hand. Two weeks after our last visit, the Russian lifeguards took up their rifles and marched down Swimming Pool Hill and out Kabul for good.
When I think back to the days of the Suvari, I see my memories through a heat haze - warm and dusty and carefree. Maybe I was too young to be affronted by the occupation, waking to its legacy only when they left. Perhaps because I never knew anything else, I couldn’t see it as my father did, as an evil wind delivered with my first breath. What we didn’t know then was that those were the last days that Raouf and I would walk around the city without fear. And the geckos of Kabul would go un-catalogued for a generation.
I soon became the go-between for Ghulam and Reza because we found there were places I could go that were closed to them. Some afternoons I would go to the supermarket to buy bread or soap for us to wash as I was the only one to go unchallenged. Reza was only half right about us being invisible. The cool bright lights of the supermarket that beckoned beyond its glass front marked a threshold through which the men couldn’t pass. For the store managers and security guards, migrants were not desirable customers. But in my western clothes, I seemed to go unnoticed amongst the steady stream visitors who were drawn to its doors like worshippers to a mosque. The busy locals in their smart suits and linen dresses who filled their baskets with warm baked bread, fresh vegetables and the finest cuts of meat from the deli. And the tourists, their bare white limbs shining blue-luminous under the glare of the strip lights, stacked their trolleys with crates of wine and beer, more than any person could possibly drink.
There were whole aisles dedicated to cereals or washing powder or every kind of vegetable or fruit that could be processed in a tin. How ordered everything was, how inexhaustible it seemed. Almost everything that was edible was sealed away from sight, smell or touch in packets, plastic and metal. I thought of the vast spice shops back home and the chaos of the markets, where I’d haggle over the last portion of meat to make kofta for my father. There was no bargaining to be made in the supermarket, no interaction was necessary at all. Instead, a silent army of workers made sure that everything was always fully stocked; that each packaged idol was resurrected as quickly as it disappeared.
It was on one of my trips back from the supermarket that I saw the Alhambra cinema. I found it, as you discover most interesting things in life, when I was looking for something else. I was browsing in the bookstores on Boulevard Jacquard and I took a wrong turn down Rue Jean Jaures, and there it was in large Arabic lettering: ‘The Red One’. I’d been to Cinema Park in Kabul with my mother and Raouf before it was closed down by the Taliban. We’d go to watch the latest Bollywood films, and sit captivated for hours as the dark, dusty interior of the building was transformed into the blazing palate of India. The cinema was very old and it rarely screened a film without some resistance by its ageing equipment. We didn’t have intermissions in our matinees as much as enforced intervals: where the film and time itself would unravel and the actors would slow down, frame by frame like clockwork toys, until they were exhausted into stillness. Sometimes the heat of the Indian sun seared through the negatives, melting the vibrant colours into a pool of burnt umber until the projectionist could repair the reel and we would rejoin the film at the next scene.
I went back to Cinema Park only once after it reopened, to see Titanic with my mother. My mother had heard of the Titanic, but she knew nothing of its history. It was my mistake to tell her it was a love story, as it was not the kind of tale that my mother saw any romance in.
‘All those people in search of a new life, their dreams are drifting at the bottom of the ocean.’
‘Some of them made it Mama.’
‘I don’t understand why they couldn’t allow just one happy story to come out of all that suffering.’
‘They’re just characters Mama, they’re not real people.’
‘They’re real to me.’
‘It happened a long time ago Mama, before even Nana was born.’
‘So even the survivors are dead now, is that what you’re telling me?’
‘Some of the younger children may still be alive.’
‘But they’ll have no memory of it,’ she said. ‘Once you’ve died in someone’s memory, you’re lost forever.’
‘Next time we’ll see a Bollywood film,’ I said, ‘Like we used to with Raouf.’
‘You won’t ever leave me, will you Adeela?’
‘No Mama, I’m not going anywhere.’
I would often go the Alhambra after I’d been to the supermarket. I couldn’t afford to go and see a film but I liked to walk round the foyer, looking at all the film posters. The Alhambra was nothing like Cinema Park, with its concrete facade peppered with bullet holes, and the feeling you had when you walked in the building of such sparseness that you somehow felt you were still on the outside. Alhambra had a clean glass front, filled with colourful, neatly framed promotional prints you could only read in close-up. Not the faded, over-sized posters that flapped from the balcony of Cinema Park like laundry in the breeze. There was one film I was drawn to, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. I knew nothing about it, but I recognised the actress from Titanic.
‘What’s the film about?’ I asked the girl at the ticket office.
‘It’s a romantic comedy about a couple who try to erase their memories of each other. It’s good, you’d enjoy it,’ she said. ‘There’s a matinee on tomorrow. Would you like tickets?
‘I’m not sure I can make it,’ I was too ashamed to admit I didn’t have enough money. ‘Does it have a happy ending?’
The girl smiled, ‘That depends on your definition of happiness.’
‘It doesn’t sound like the kind of film my mother would like it,’ I realised I was thinking out loud. ‘She only liked happy endings.’
‘Tell your mother,’ the girl said, ‘Tout est bien qui finit bien.’
When I got back to the camp I found Reza waiting outside our shelter. ‘Just in time my dear, where’s Ghulam?’
‘He’s probably collecting driftwood. He should be back soon.’
‘It can’t wait,’ Reza said, ‘We’ll go and meet him.’
We walked down to the beach past the breakwaters and I could see Ghulam in the distance carrying a bundle of wood on his shoulder, his long loping stride covering the ground quickly.
‘At last, Reza said, ‘I’ve waited all morning for you both and that hasn’t been easy my friends, I’m not the most patient man in the world. I don’t know what it is about good news that there is such a compulsion to spill it immediately.’
‘Well do tell us then,’ Ghulam said.
‘Yes of course. The time is here my friends, we leave tomorrow.’
Ghulam dropped the sticks. ‘Where do we go?’
‘The van will pick us up outside the docks at 8pm. It’ll take us to the diesel station a mile outside the port and we’ll board the lorry from there, while the driver’s sleeping.’
‘How much will it cost?’ Ghulam asked.
‘I was just getting round to that. It’s 400 euro for you. For Adeela it is more, they will need 500.’
‘But I don’t take up any more space.’
‘They say it’s a risk to take a woman. Those are their terms, they won’t negotiate.’
‘It’s ok, I should have enough,’ I had just enough remaining after paying the fixers in Kabul. ‘Will it just be us?’
‘There are two other men, Pashtuns, they should not trouble us. It will all be fine if we follow the rules. Don’t forget to bring some plastic bags. We must do everything by stealth, remember what I told you, even our breathing has to be hidden.’
I don’t remember what I did for the rest of the day after I’d paid Reza. But I do know that time seemed to stretch out interminably, as there was little to prepare and only waiting to be done. It reminded me of when I was a child, and the long wait we had for the New Year celebrations at Nauroz, when we’d have a big feast and the table would be laid out with seven items all beginning with the letter ‘s’ for luck. The sabzeh (wheat) for rebirth, samanak (sweet pudding) for affluence, sir (garlic) for health, sib (apples) for beauty, sumaq (berries) for sunrise, serkeh (vinegar) for patience and sekkeh (coins) for prosperity. The sabzeh was thought to collect all the family’s bad luck, so it was always thrown away into running water, 13 days after the feast. My father followed this ritual religiously, because he believed that bad luck, like disease, could spread the longer it was left untreated. How I longed for Nauroz as a child, though I had to prepare much of the food along with my mother. Coming as it did at the end of winter, waiting for Nauroz was like waiting for the earth itself to thaw.
In the evening we made a final visit to the Cap, for Ghulam to say goodbye. We didn’t speak of the next day though my thoughts were consumed by it. I hadn’t planned how we would live in those first few days. I had plans in the longer-term, to find a house, a job, to teach again. But I didn’t dare to imagine what we’d do once we landed in England because it seemed too big a risk, ungrateful almost, to think too far ahead. Once we’d made it safely over the Channel, then anything was possible.
Ghulam sat for a long time on the rocks with his head in his hands, as if he was waiting for another sign from Isa.
‘Don’t be disappointed. If miracles happened every day they wouldn’t be special.’
‘I wasn’t expecting anything to happen. I just like being here. It makes me feel closer.’
‘You never told me why you became a Christian.’
‘There was a man I met once, who taught me the meaning of humility, of sacrifice. I swore that once the war was over, I would follow a different path. I didn’t choose it, it chose me.’
‘I don’t understand why you had to turn away from Allah.’
‘I needed to start again. I couldn’t live with the things I saw that were done in Allah’s name.’
‘You think it’s so different being a Christian? Half the wars in the world have been fought in the name of Christ.’
‘They were not my wars.’
‘Whatever it is that you saw, that you did, Allah would have forgiven you.’
‘It’s not that simple Adeela.’
‘Allah forgives all who go to him truthfully.’
‘I didn’t want his forgiveness. It is Allah I can’t forgive.’
Ghulam lay close beside me that night and stroked my face gently. ‘I know that you’ve suffered, though you wear it silently,’ he said. ‘You’re safe with me now. You feel secure with me, don’t you Adeela?’
‘Yes. I just wish you’d trust me more. You never tell me things. The few things I do know, like tonight, I feel that you tell me because I insist on it. I wish you’d share things with me because you want to. I don’t really know who you are.’
‘You do know me. You know me as I am now, not who I was before.’
‘I don’t even know who I’ve become in this place.’
‘It won’t be much longer now. And when we’re in England you can write the future for us and it will be greater than all the stories in your books. It will happen because you’ve dreamed it into being.’ He leant over and kissed me softly on the lips.
I lay awake for a long time after, wondering if I’d responded in the right way, if it was right that I should have responded at all.
Ghulam went down to the new portacabins by the docks early to have a shave. I packed and repacked my bag as I waited though it was not for the want of space; the few things I had were so easily contained. My books, a change of clothes I’d dried that morning on the branches of the tree; the plastic bags that would stifle our breathing and render us undetectable to the guards. Before long, I would be stowed away like my things; my fate carried by the hands of others.
Ghulam arrived back in good spirits. He was clean shaven for the first time in weeks and was wearing a blue checked shirt he’d got from Secours Catholique.
‘You look younger without your beard.’
‘Looks are deceptive. I’m a day older than yesterday.’
‘I’m glad you look respectable, we’re going out this afternoon.’
‘What do you mean by out?’
‘It’s a surprise.’
‘I don’t like surprises.’
‘You’ll like this one.’
I walked through the town with Ghulam to the Rue Jean Jaures. I thought we were probably taking a risk walking together, that if the gendarmerie should pick us up we might not be released in time for the ferry. I tried instead not to think about it, because if you could will good things into being with positive thinking, then the same had to be true of the reverse.
I pointed to the Alhambra, ‘That’s your surprise.’
‘We’re not on holiday Adeela.’
‘But it’s our last day. Can’t we do things that normal people do just this once.’
‘We’re not like normal people,’ he said. ‘I don’t like films. All those rich actors pretending to live lives that aren’t their own.’
‘Is it such a bad thing to imagine your life to be different; to be somewhere else, someone else?’
‘Life isn’t like that.’
‘I’ll go and see it on my own then,’ I set off down the street.
‘Hang on. I suppose there’s no harm in having a look.’
The girl in the ticket office smiled when she saw me, ‘The film’s just starting.’
‘How much is it for two tickets?’
’12 euro,’ she said.
‘It’s too expensive,’ Ghulam said. ‘Come on, we can go another time.’
I bit my lip.
The girl smiled and printed off two tickets. ‘There’s hardly anyone in there – it would be a shame to let all those seats go to waste.’
The screen was much brighter and clearer than the films I’d seen in Cinema Park; there were no scratches to obscure the picture or the sound of crackling to drown out the voices of the actors.
The low afternoon sun was still strong when we came out of the theatre, and we walked back, past the park where Rodin’s Burghers stood as a testament to the Hundred Year’s War.
‘The start of the film, where Joel meets Clementine on the beach and her hair’s bright red, that’s really the end of the film isn’t it?’ Ghulam said.
‘Yes in a way – or the beginning of them getting to know each other all over again. But her hair was blue at the start.’
‘I’m sure it was red.’
‘It was red when they were together, before she erased her memory of Joel.’
‘That’s why I don’t like films,’ Ghulam said. ‘You can’t re-arrange your life in any order you want. It just doesn’t make sense. And what did they have to forget? Nothing really happened to them.’
‘But that’s the point, Clementine was bored. She wanted her life to be more exciting, to be different.’
‘Why would you go to all the trouble of erasing your memory of a relationship that was forgettable?’
‘Life’s not the same for everyone – try to think of it from her perspective. Maybe having an uneventful life was intolerable. Have you thought of that?’
‘A quiet life is all I think about.’
‘So would you choose to erase your memories if you could?’ I asked.
‘I don’t have the choice. Anyway, erasing your memory doesn’t undo the act. You live with the things you’ve done, they become a part of you.’
‘Or you become a part of them,’ I paused. ‘There are some things… even the memory of them I cannot forget.’
‘It is not for us to forget but to endure.’
There were memories I had that were on the surface, that I would replay time and again as you might recall a favourite song or a cherished passage from a book. And there were memories that I didn’t visit, that lay beyond the places I chose to go. I didn’t need to find them, I knew they’d come to me; lying dormant as a virus does, waiting to be triggered into life again.
Reza told us to behave as normal, to avoid arousing suspicion. So we did as we always did, we ate supper down at the docks, though Kiru wasn’t serving that night. After we’d eaten we sat on the wooden pallets that were stacked in rugged steps outside the warehouse, until most of the men had left.
‘I didn’t get to say goodbye to Kiru,’ I said.
‘That’s the way it should be,’ Reza said. ‘No one can know about this, not even Kiru. He doesn’t like goodbyes anyway.’
‘It would have been nice, to thank him.’
‘You can write to him when we’re in England,’ Ghulam said.
‘I don’t know where he lives.’
‘You can always come back and help him serve soup to the migrants,’ Reza said. ‘All that trouble to get to England, and already you want to return.’
‘I didn’t say I wanted to come back,’ I said. ‘But maybe I will one day.’
Most of the other refugees had left the soup kitchen to go back to the camp, but a group of young men were playing football across the old tramlines as the last rays of the sun flooded the dock.
‘It’s admirable they can find joy in this place,’ Reza said. ‘In England they have the best football teams in the world. I’m going to watch a match with my cousin when I get to London. He supports the Arsenal.’
‘It’s just Arsenal,’ Ghulam said. ‘There’s no ‘the’.’
‘Arsenal,’ Reza said. ‘It’s a good name, is it not? They sound ready for action. Did you play when you were a boy?’
‘No, it wasn’t encouraged at my school.’
‘That’s too bad,’ Reza said. ‘Perhaps they are playing football again, in the Ghazi stadium.’
Ghulam nodded but said nothing. The Ghazi stadium was a place we all knew, though none of us spoke of it. Perhaps there’d been a time when we were all at the stadium at the same time; walked by each other on the way to the stalls, past the cigarette sellers and the crowds of men, women and children who gathered there each Friday. I tried hard to place Ghulam and Reza in the crowd, knowing that they could never have seen me in return. I wondered if they’d been there that evening when Nasifa and I were loaded into the back of the pick-up truck, half-blind under our burqas, as we were driven across the rocky playing field towards the goalposts. I could still hear the words of the mullah: ‘This is a place for joy. Because when justice is done, that is a joyful event that brings order and security to our society.’
The van pulled up just before 8pm. It was a small, white transit van with the word Dmnagement
s written on its side.
s,’ I said, ‘that’s apt.’
‘Were you expecting a limousine?’ Reza asked. ‘Wait until you see the lorry. The second trip I made we had to travel with a truck full of rubbish. You cannot imagine the smell. This time, so the agent tells me, we will accompany a load destined for recycling.’
‘That is rubbish, isn’t it?’ Ghulam said.
‘There’s a subtle difference my friend. Rubbish is only fit for throwing away. These unwanted items will be repurposed to live another life.’
Like us, I thought, like us.
After the Russians left people held parties all across Kabul but my father didn’t think there was anything much to celebrate because Najibullah was in power and he was ‘a wolf in sheep’s clothing’, and that meant we were all still Communists whether we liked it or not. ‘They leave us with this band of infidels, and what do they expect us to do next?’ my father raged, ‘Open our houses to the poor, give up our land, live as one big happy family on air alone?’ I thought that sounded like a good idea, except for the part about air. As far as my father was concerned, everything associated with the Suvari was to be despised, apart from the bottle of Stolichnaya he kept for special occasions to drink with his friends in the hujra. But I wasn’t supposed to know about that. My father did mark the occasion in his own way, and that was by getting a dog, because Nadir had just turned four and that was the same age my father had been when he had a dog. And Nadir was meant to follow in my father’s footsteps, whether he liked it or not.
My father came back from the market with the dog on a cold day in early March. It was beautiful in a pathetic sort of way, scrawny with a matted fawn coloured coat and the biggest almond shaped eyes I’d ever seen on a Tazi. It was already about five months old and very tall and gangly, ‘He’s all legs,’ my mother said, and he really was, like a puppy on stilts.
‘It’ll be good for the boy, he needs a companion,’ my father said.
‘He has Mateen,’ I said, ‘I need a companion,’
‘You have your books, and Raouf,’ he added as an afterthought, and I couldn’t argue with that.
‘I’ll be the one who’s left to feed it and clean up after it,’ my mother said. ‘She couldn’t even look after that parrot.’
Laila just rolled her eyes. My father bought Laila a parakeet from the bird market when she was pregnant with Nadir, to keep her company when she was confined to the house. But the bird escaped after only three days because Laila left the cage door open and it flew away. I knew better, because Laila told me herself. ‘What was I to do with a parrot, it didn’t even talk?’ The parakeet didn’t escape - Laila let it go on the roof of our apartment block. It’d been very reluctant to leave she said. ‘I held its body in my hands and I could feel its heart beating very fast, so I thought it must be desperate to get away. Then I threw it into the air, like they do in films, but it didn’t fly, it just plummeted to the ground without flapping its wings once and it landed stone dead on the street. I didn’t like the way it looked at me with those red eyes. I think it had a djin.’ Laila wrapped the parakeet in a scarf and gave it to the donkey man to take away with all the sewage. I thought that was a very undignified ending for the parakeet, even if it was possessed by a djin.
‘We should think of a name for our new pet,’ my father said. ‘What do you think Nadir, he’s yours now.’
‘Sag,’ said Nadir.
My father looked downcast, ‘I think we can do better than ‘dog’. He may look harmless now, but wait until he’s fully grown. In the old days Tazi were used to hunt wolves and leopards.’
‘So he’s a wolf in sheep’s clothing,’ I said. ‘Like Najibullah’.
‘Najibullah, Najibullah, Najibullah,’ Nadir chanted.
‘We’re not naming him after that traitor,’ said my father.
‘What about Nku?’ I said. There was a boy in my class that I liked called Nku. He was always getting into trouble, not because he was the naughtiest in the school, but because he was the one who got caught. ‘Always a follower,’ Nasifa said of him, and when I asked her to explain she said his name meant ‘sheep’.
‘Nku, Nku, Nku,’ this time Mateen joined in too because it was an easy name to say.
‘Nku it is then,’ my father said.
So our Tazi became a sheep in name and part of our flock. And the name suited him, because he spent all his time following us, craving for attention, and he loved my father the most, though my father had the least time for him. And Nku never showed the least interest in killing anything, never mind wolves or leopards. He would even let the mice scuttle past him in the kitchen, though he would sometimes put out his paw, not to catch them, but almost as a kind of greeting. I often wondered if Nku became the way he was because of what I called him, or if I’d somehow known to describe what he would grow into.
Nku was not my father’s only surprise that month. He announced that we were all going to visit his brother who lived in Mazar-e-Sharif for Nauroz, the Afghan New Year. We’d never really travelled outside Kabul when the Suvari were there, beyond day trips to the gardens at Paghman or to have a picnic at Qargha Lake.
‘How are we all going to get into that?’ my mother asked.
That was my father’s car, an old beige Toyota pick-up. It was in better shape than many of the cars in Kabul and my father was particularly proud of it as it never broke down and he said it was very practical for carrying things. And by things he meant people.
Since Laila had the boys, she’d replaced my mother in the cab, which meant Mama had to ride in the back with me.
‘There’s plenty of room for all of us,’ my father said.
‘I will not travel in the back with animals,’ my mother said. ‘You can go without me. Besides, my mother is ill so I should stay to look after her.’
This was true but Nana was never well; she was always suffering from some new ailment that eluded both diagnosis and treatment. ‘The pain is hastening me to the grave,’ she’d say but if you asked her where it hurt she would just shrug. Nana’s pain was always non-specific. It wasn’t somewhere but everywhere that it hurt. There was not one inch of Nana’s body that wasn’t afflicted with something.
‘Very well, you may do as you wish,’ my father said, ‘There will be more room for Nku, and Raouf.’
Although I felt sorry that my mother would be left on her own, I was too excited about the prospect of the trip to give it much thought. It was more than 300km away and would take two days to get there. Besides it was only the middle of March, so travelling in the back of the pick-up would be very cold and my mother hated the cold. It would be good to have Raouf for company; someone to talk to, to stop my teeth from chattering.
We set off on Sunday and Raouf and I wore our thickest Perrahans and my mother gave us extra blankets to keep warm. Nku was unsure of getting in the car, so I had to lift him in and he hid trembling under the blanket. I don’t know why my mother disliked being in the back, because once you’d settled into the cold, you had by far the best view. When you rode in the front, the scenery seemed to spring upon you moment to moment, especially at the speed my father drove, and it was gone as soon as you noticed it. But in the back, the world was rolled out like a carpet, always in view. The places you’d driven through held on so long in your sights that they seemed reluctant to surrender to the horizon; as if the past itself didn’t wish to let go.
Once we’d left the noise and dust of Kabul, Nku came out from under his blanket. He sat facing the front, his silky black ears blowing behind him and his cheeks puffed out by the wind, which made him look as if he was smiling, though it was an evil-looking kind of smile. We reached the start of the climb towards the Salang Pass, where a winding road snaked for miles to the tunnel at its summit, and the Hindu Kush mountains lay to the east, covered in mounds of fresh snow. When we reached the half-dome of the entrance we were plunged into darkness, as the lights in the tunnel weren’t working, but it didn’t make my father drive any slower. I felt safer facing the back; sometimes it was good that you couldn’t see what lay ahead of you.
Raouf had never been out of Kabul either, and he was very taken with seeing the mountains up close. ‘Are the mountains like trees?’ he asked.
‘How do you mean?’
‘You can tell the age of a tree by counting its rings. But that mountain over there...’ he pointed to a high range that ended in a sheer face as if it had been sliced through like a cake, exposing layers of yellow, brown and dark grey rock. ‘That one has 27 layers and it’s got to be older than that.’
‘It’s kind of the same,’ I read it in my Encyclopedia. ‘Except each layer isn’t just a year old but a thousand years old, or even a hundred thousand years old.’
‘As old as the dinosaurs?’
‘Some of them are even older - millions of years old.’
‘Why are they shaped like that?’
‘The plates of the earth move against each other and that causes volcanos and earthquakes and the ground crumples up like a piece of paper.’
‘Does Allah make the earth quake?’
‘I think so. Though Nasifa told me that some men used to believe it was the sight of women’s faces, when they took off their burqas.’
Raouf thought about this for some time. ‘If that were true then there would be no cities left.’
‘Well, all women have to take their burqas off at home,’ Raouf said, he started laughing, ‘And a lot more than that.’
I laughed too at the idea of all those naked women flattening whole cities as they undressed for bed. I laughed so much I felt quite dizzy and sick. We were so busy rolling around at the thought of Kabul collapsing like a house of cards that we hardly noticed my father slowing down to pull over. He was annoyed that we were in such good spirits as he had to stop because Nadir really did have to be sick.
After the Salang tunnel, we drove through the wide grasslands of the Asian steppe, past herds of Argali sheep; their thick golden ridged horns hanging proudly in giant coils, like the headdress of a Pharaoh. My father said that we would have to stay overnight in Pul-e-Khumri, and after we’d stopped three times more, once for diesel and to eat the nan my mother made and twice more for Nadir to be sick, I saw a sign for Pul-e-Kumru that said 20km. And it seemed that 20km wasn’t far to go, as we’d driven well over 100km already, and that in itself was strange because just that morning 20km would have been further than I’d ever travelled in my whole life.
Pul-e-Khumra wasn’t an interesting place, my father said, but it was roughly half-way to Mazar-e-Sharif, so it was as good a place as any to stop for the night. It was a small town on a flood plain at the foot of a mountain range that was so sharply folded it looked as if someone had thrown a sheet over a row of giant poles.
‘The Suvari built the cement factory here,’ my father said. ‘The only foundations they got right,’ he murmured, though I didn’t really know what he meant and neither did Raouf.
‘Why do they have to make cement, when there is so much mud and stones to build with?’ Raouf asked.
‘Cement endures,’ my father said, ‘unlike its makers. It is not eroded by the monsoons, or washed away by floods. The secret is in its core: it’s held together by rods of steel, like the bones in your flesh. The only way to destroy it is to blast it to pieces.’ My father lingered on the word ‘pieces’.
‘I would like to be made of cement,’ Raouf said.
‘Don’t be ridiculous,’ my father said. ‘Cement is a poison and if it touches your skin, it will burn you as readily as a furnace.’
We set off from Pul-e-Khumru as the sun rose and took a break in Samangan on the way, which pleased my father as we were able to accommodate eating, filling up the car and Nadir being sick all in one stop. As we passed Samangan I could see the Buddhist caves on the hill, and from a distance they looked like tiny burrows in an anthill, but my father said they looked like that up close too.
We got to my uncle’s house in the late afternoon; it was a small
My uncle and his wife laid out a huge meal for us, Qabli pilaw with raisins, almonds, pistachios and carrots, home-baked nan and some Quemaq chai to drink, which was especially pleased my father as it was reserved for very special occasions only and we never had it at home. I heard my father tell Laila that the tea was too strong and the cream on top a bit thin, but he was still pleased with it because it showed his brother had great respect for him, even if he didn’t make very good tea.
My father and his brother sat talking and chewing Naswar after we’d eaten and they gave Raouf some to try. He’d never had tobacco before and the sharp taste of the lime made him screw up his face.
‘I don’t think he likes it,’ my uncle said.
‘I do,’ said Raouf. He swallowed deeply and then opened his mouth to show it had gone. ‘Can I have some more.’
This made my uncle bend over laughing as you were meant to spit the tobacco into the spittoon.
‘We’ll make a man of him yet,’ my father said. But I hoped they wouldn’t because I liked Raouf just as he was.
‘Adeela is growing into quite a beauty,’ my uncle said. ‘You’ll not be short of offers for her.’
‘I don’t want to get married. I want to be a teacher,’ I said.
‘She will be married in good time,’ my father said.
‘I want to be a geologist when I’m older,’ Raouf said. ‘I want to study what makes earthquakes happen.’ We both laughed but no one else got the joke.
‘The two of them, always with their heads in the clouds,’ my father said. ‘They’ll fall down the cracks in the earth because they never look at the ground.’
Later, as I was helping my aunt to clear the plates away, my uncle came over to me and spoke in a whisper, ‘He’s a good man your father, is he not?’
I paused a little too long, ‘Yes.’
‘He doesn’t take his hand to you or your mother.’
‘No.’ It was true my father never beat us which made him a good man, because I knew many men beat their wives and children.
‘I’ve something to show you,’ my uncle went into his bedroom and brought back a framed black and white photograph. ‘It’s your father and me as boys.’
I’d never seen my father as a child; I found it hard to imagine a time when he’d not been exactly as he was. He still looked cross, even as a boy.
‘I was like your father’s shadow in those days,’ my uncle said. ‘Always following him, trying to do the things he did. Not much has changed since then.’
And I thought that was true, because the most startling thing about the photograph was the figure in the far right of the picture, almost obscured by the frame. It seemed that in life as well as death, Fara was visible only to me.
We woke early to go to the Blue Mosque, a shrine to Hazrat Ali that sat in the centre of Mazar-e-Sharif, and it was covered not just in brilliant blue tiles, but the brightest reds, golds and greens. There were thousands of people there to watch the raising of the janda flag and to pray for miracles for the sick. There were more ill people than I’d ever seen; my father said it was traditional for them to come to the mosque at Nauroz hoping for a cure, but there were so many of them that I didn’t think Allah would have time to answer all their prayers. Some of them were sick with things I didn’t think could be cured, like the beggars with their legs missing, but people were very generous to them because it was New Year, so they were cured in a way because poverty is a kind of illness.
There was a huge dove tower to the east of the mosque, where hundreds of white pigeons flew in and out like bees in a hive. ‘Every seventh dove is meant to contain a spirit,’ my uncle said, but these were good spirits, not like the djin that got into Laila’s parakeet. I wondered if the doves carried the souls of pilgrims that Allah was too busy to save, but my uncle said it was not like that at all. ‘Allah works miracles only occasionally because if miracles happened all the time then they would be commonplace and there wouldn’t be anything special about them,’ he said.
In the afternoon my father had another surprise for us, which was that we were going to watch a Buzkashi match, because Mazar-e-Sharif was the best place in the whole country to see it. Nadir and Mateen were very excited about it, though they didn’t know what it was they were excited about, and when my father said we’d have to leave Nku at the farm, Nadir grew very sullen and said he didn’t want to go.
The stadium was as big as the Ghazi stadium in Kabul, though it was dustier and the stands were much older. It was full of thousands of people, and I thought they were probably the same people we’d seen at the blue mosque. There weren’t so many sick people, but the beggars still came because being poor was not something that you could be cured of in just one morning. I’d seen a Buzkashi match at the Ghazi stadium with Raouf and my father, but Nadir and Mateen were very young and didn’t know what to expect. The chapandaz rode out on their horses and the referee brought on the boz to begin the game.
‘What does that man have in his hand?’ Nadir asked.
‘It’s a goat’s carcass,’ my father said. ‘Each side will fight for possession and to score in the circle of justice,’ he pointed to the pole at the far end of the field. ‘You’ll like it, it’s a very fast game.’
Nadir did not like it at all, ‘Where is its head?’ he asked. ‘It looks like Nku. Where is Nku?’
‘He’s back at the farm, don’t worry.’
But as they scooped up the carcass to play, Nadir started crying, and I thought it did look a bit like Nku, with its thick beige coat.
‘I feel sorry for the goat,’ I said.
‘You shouldn’t pity it,’ my father said. ‘It lived a noble life and had a glorious death. That is more than any of us can ask.’
‘Why don’t they play with a ball instead?’ Raouf asked.
My father was getting very impatient, ‘Because it’s tradition. You think those games that you borrow from the Americans, your football and volleyball, that they don’t use animals for their sport? It’s no less an animal because it’s stretched and sewn into a ball and painted in bright colours.’
‘We play with rubber balls,’ Raouf said, and my father clipped him over the head.
‘This is an honourable game. The boz is not wasted. It’s fed to the poor when the game is over.’
At this, Nadir began to cry some more and he wouldn’t be comforted until we got back to the farm to find Nku asleep in the bright spring sun. One day he too would cut the head off a goat or a chicken and not spare a thought for the animal. There was a silent rage in men that they took such pleasure in killing things that were no threat to them; they could only be satisfied by taking something that was whole and already perfect and cutting it into pieces. I’d seen the way chickens ran around for a few seconds after their heads were cut off and while you could live without limbs, you couldn’t survive without your head. And all the prayers of Nauroz wouldn’t cure you of that.
Our visit to Mazar-e-Sharif was to be the last time I would leave Kabul in more than a decade. I wonder if I’d known that, whether I’d have tried to experience more than I did. To see more things; to keep my eyes open for longer. In the years to come my father insisted that my uncle must have forgotten to throw away the sabzeh after our Nauroz feast, so all of our family’s bad luck remained and spread like a virus until there was no one left untouched. It was like my father to always seek blame outside himself and he was never satisfied until it was duly apportioned.
As it happened, I needn’t have worried that Nadir would turn out like my father. Nadir’s gentle hands would not cut the head off anything because he didn’t live long enough for that.
RUNNER-UP – The Last Migration by Ian Nettleton
There won’t be any violence. That’s what Murray said. Right from the start he promised Lee that. Just a ride to a town on the other side of the Munday Munday Plains – 400 k or so. A place on the map, near a dried up reservoir. We pick this bloke up, bring him back to town. Simple.
And no violence? said Lee.
They were out on the porch in the early evening, Murray sitting on an aluminium camper chair, Lee resting against the side of the house. Across the yard the low tin fence, and over the road the dark shapes of bungalows in the grainy twilight.
And do we tell Roy?
No, we don’t tell Roy, said Murray. Roy doesn’t need to know. Jeez, you know what he’s like. We’ll set off early. Before it’s light. Do you think you can manage that?
Lee nodded. He looked at his brother’s large hands, the oil under the fingernails and in the creases of his fingers, the muscle of his arms, shining with a sheen of dirt and sweat, small black and brown bruises. Under his fold up chair, two hand-sized dumbbells.
Lee pulled his jeans up with the belt loops. Murray was strong, but he was getting thick around the middle, what with being five years older, while Lee enjoyed how tight his skin felt against his stomach muscles. He was barefoot, and felt the heat of the day in the boards. The house was settling, the tin roof tanging and the wooden walls cracking.
And we just bring him back?
What did I tell you? We take him to the Pioneer. Take him round the back, deliver him to one of Jonny Peplinski’s men, and he pays us five hundred dollars.
Yeah. He paused a moment. I could ask someone else. You don’t have to come.
No. No, I’m cool.
Murray watched him, then he slapped both his palms together.
He picked up the dumbbells, tested their weight, and began raising them to his chest, lowering them to his side. Blowing through his nostrils. Lee pushed away from the house wall and walked towards the front door.
Unless, that is, you get bitten by a white tail. You should wear some shoes, you mullet. Better get some food and sleep. We’ll be off early. Lee! Lee turned and looked back. This isn’t turning doughnuts in the desert, yeah? This is money. Alright?
Yeah, I got you.
Lee pulled open the fly wire and went into the house. His mother was sitting at the table in the kitchen, watching the TV that was bolted to the wall above the fridge. These days she always watched TV. A fireman in a yellow florescent jacket took up the screen. Yeah, back pain? I know all about it.
That’s right, she said, and nodded her head.
She used to be slim and pretty, but her pills had turned her into a fat little woman, and he didn’t like to see it. She had jowls, and she wore the same old dress for days. Something in him ached when he saw her looking up at the TV like that. He pulled on his socks and pale canvas pumps at a chair by the door.
I’ll be back in a bit, mum, he said, and she raised a hand without looking his way.
It can get you down. Chronic pain. You ask yerself, Is this ever going to end?
He walked up Lode Street, into the Hungry Jack. The only customer was an old man with the bottoms of his trousers tucked into his grey socks, a cane resting against a chair, sitting slouched over an egg bun, yoke dripping onto the plate. From behind the counter a conversation about artificial sweeteners. A tall boy with a bad complexion doing most of the talking.
Sweeteners are bad for you in certain situations.
Really? How can it be worse than sugar?
Aspergers. If you’re a pregnant woman is can affect the fetus.
Really. It’s been proven.
A large girl he used to know from school was working at the tiled floor with a mop, pulling along a red plastic bucket on wheels. Allie. Or was it Abby? Abby. On her feet a pair of yellow and red canvas shoes that had soaked up some of the filthy water so there was a dark tide mark just below the eyelets.
He bought an XXXL burger and nuggets, and a flat white. They were going to make some money. He slipped into a seat by the window overlooking the street. Five hundred dollars. The town hall bell tolled nine o’clock. The sound had always depressed him. Come to church. Go to bed. Get up for school. Hurrying him along to the next thing he didn’t want to do. But tonight, for the first time, it was the sound of a new life. A turning point. He tipped a good two spoonfuls of sugar into his coffee.
Aspergers, he said to himself, and he thought of Roy with his books and lists and the way he ordered things in his bedroom so everything was where it should be. He’s different, his mum always said. He’s a sensitive soul.
Across the street a cat ran along the pavement, followed by another. The first cat turned, backing against the pale painted wall of the Pioneer’s Club. Lee took a large bite out of his burger.
Hey Lee, said Abby, when she’d finished the square of floor.
He nodded his head.
How y’doin? she said.
She pushed away a lank piece of hair that was stuck to her damp forehead.
Oh, alright, yeah. She didn’t move. She stood there watching him. After a moment he added: Yerself?
Yeah, mate. Taking it steady. She looked at the bucket by her feet. I’m doing a course in journalism. On the internet. I’m funding myself, mostly. Dad’s chipping in.
The cats suddenly made a dash across the street. The doors to the Pioneer Club opened, light onto the pavement, and Lucy Bail walked out. The deputy of police’s daughter. She was wearing a tight yellow cardigan, a short skirt with roses printed on it, shiny black boots to her knees. Her thighs were pale. She walked around a dusty station wagon parked at the kerb and climbed in.
A boy followed her out, skinny, with short sandy hair, a sports bag over one shoulder. He took a moment on the pavement while he lit a cigarette, head to one side. Poser, thought Lee.
He shook the match and flipped it into the gutter, and a thin trail of smoke came from his mouth as he pulled open the car door. He slung the bag onto the back seat. Lee shifted his focus, and looked at himself in the plate glass of Hungry Jacks. He looked okay. But Lucy Bail, she was so fucking hard.
Writing fer the newspapers. It’s a distance course all the way from England.
Lee took another bite of the burger, felt grease and sauce run onto his chin. The boy got into the car.
Abby pushed the mop bucket to one side and sat on a seat at the next table.
Yeah. I’m thinking like maybe I’ll get to work on a paper in Melbourne? Maybe the Herald Sun, eh? What do you think about that, Lee?
Yeah. Yeah, that’d be cool.
He took another look at Abby. Her eyes were large and brown, the corneas faintly pink. At school she’d had bad acne, but it seemed to have cleared up. When the fair came to town a few years ago she asked him to go on the Waltzer with her. When he refused she said she’d pay. Just the two of them. He remembered she was wearing makeup that night. She looked like one of the painted dolls on the shooting range. Smiling at him from the other side of the car as it turned on its rails.
How about you, Lee?
He remembered on the Waltzer, as it spun round and faced out to the crowd of onlookers for one moment, how she waved a triumphant hand to a group of girls – all the ones who never had any luck with the boys at school. It was then he realised he’d been bought and paid for, and for the rest of the ride he avoided looking at her, sitting with his jaw set, his head resting back, watching the coloured bulbs passing overhead.
Ah shit, Abby, I don’t know. I’ve some plans.
He turned his back to her and looked out through the window once again. The boy had started up the engine and was pulling away, turning the car in a wide arc. He listened as the car accelerated away, the exhaust blowing.
I think we’ve made a mistake, said Harry.
It wasn’t an important statement. He knew they were lost, and had been for four or more hours. It was seeing the sun finally sink below the desert in a last burn of yellow that made him say it. His head was lolling against the headrest, the weight of his back slumped into the bucket seat. He could smell and taste a day of heat, dust, unwashed clothes. The back of his neck was slick with sweat. He’d stopped leaning forward to peel the shirt from his back. All the feeling had gone in his lower spine.
The numerals on the speedometer glowed orange behind a thin film of dirt, the needle wavering at a steady seventy kilometres per hour. The rev meter had stuck on zero and no tapping with his knuckles would shift it.
The remains of desert flies spotted the windscreen. Sometimes larger insects hit the glass, leaving a liquid green smear that turned to a dry paste the wipers couldn’t remove. The whole car rattled with loose stones. Now it was growing dark the road rushed towards him in the headlights.
With the sun going down, the dead plain of the desert land was turning a dark purple, spindly trees in silhouette, apparitional ghost gums passing the window.
We’ve made a mistake, he said again, and this time a little louder.
Fifty kilometres back they’d passed a row of tins on posts like animal heads – letterboxes made of milk urns, two litre oil drums, clapboard bird houses – at the beginning of a track leading up to a sheep station. That was the last time he’d seen another vehicle – a large red Toyota truck that flashed reflective sunlight as it turned up the track, pulling a trailer, a red dust spume behind as it rocked up the hill. And then twenty minutes ago he’d seen what looked like a road, and in a moment’s decision he’d turned the wheel.
For a while it was as good a road as the one he’d left, but now the surface was less even. There were potholes, showers of stones that sprayed up from its surface. The further along the road he drove, the more it was turning to dust.
He felt a shimmer of coolness across his skin and looked in the rear-view mirror. Angela was asleep, resting her head against a rolled up fleece, mouth slightly open, moving a little with the car’s motion. He could see her white, perfect teeth. Her skin so dark.
He touched his shirt pocket, and felt the packet of Silk Cut he’d brought all the way from England, the book of matches from Singapore. He put his hand back on the wheel, and gripped it a little tighter. Even though his mouth ached for the taste of smoke. He hadn’t felt this need for over a year, but his few short days in Sydney had been intense and unpleasant enough to send him to the nearest store in Kings Cross. Anyone who smokes is weak. Angela told him that, but her opinion really didn’t matter now.
You asleep? he said, in a low voice.
No answer. The analogue clock set into the dashboard said 8.55pm.
A trickle of sweat ran down his forehead, into his eyebrow. He blinked, and the sweat went into his eye. There was a sharp, acid tang, and he pressed the heel of his hand against the socket. At the same moment one of the tyres caught against something solid with a whump, and the wheel pulled against his hand. The car’s body shook sideways, and sent a new scattering of grit. He heard a deep sigh from behind him, and then Angela was leaning against the back of the passenger seat, her eyes half closed, frown lines on her forehead.
Where are we?
I’m not sure.
He blinked his eye a number of times. The pain continued. He licked a finger end, and rubbed it against the closed eyelid.
You’re not sure?
He blinked again, rapidly, and the pain spread across the cornea. There were bright points of light in his vision. The road was beginning to rise, the tyres growling against a loose surface.
No, I’m not sure. The pain in his eye continued, though it was diluting. A tear pooled, making his sight quiver. Angela was breathing heavily through her nose. The last time I looked we were about sixty kilometres away.
Away? Away from where?
From the nearest town.
Wasn’t that close to the ranges?
Yes. Yes, it was close to the ranges.
Angela looked out through the windscreen.
Well I don’t see them.
Harry shook his head. He closed his eye, kept it closed.
I thought this was the turning.
A tear ran down his cheek. The pain in his eye became a dulling throb.
He felt a sudden shift of the suspension, an uneven jolt as one of the wheels went into one of the holes in the road. Angela reached forward, took the map from the passenger’s seat and flapped it open. She studied it, and took short breaths. On the far horizon there were low hills, purple against the thin stream of cloud.
There should have been a road, he said. She turned the map round. He cleared his throat. We should be okay, he said.
That’s right. No one ever died in the outback.
She looked at Harry for a long moment. The tyres rumpled over the track, vibrations through the steering column.
He kept his eyes ahead. The darkness was coming quickly now. When he’d started on this road it had been sealed. Surely it would become more substantial soon. It was flattening out. All he needed was a glimpse of some streetlights or some evidence of a sheep station, an outhouse, but there was nothing.
The nearest place is Bordertown, she said. There’s a turning twenty kay after that, but it sweeps round a range for a hundred kay. She folded the map in half in one quick movement. This doesn’t look like a road.
She turned and looked back the way they had come.
If you’d been awake you could have given me directions.
What, so it’s my fault?
I’m not saying that. I’m just saying that I’ve been driving for over four hours now without a break.
She folded her arms on the seat and paused a moment. Harry could feel pinpricks of sweat on his forehead.
And why do you think you’ve been driving that long? Who planned the route? Who missed the turning?
I thought this was right. It started off as a sealed road. There hasn’t been a turning till now. I’d have seen one if there’d been one.
But now she doubted him his mind went back to the track that led up the hill to the sheep station. Perhaps what he’d seen was just another farm track. One of the thousand secret routes that led off into the deeper plains of the outback. His face heated up.
So I’m to blame, she said, nodding her head vigorously now. Even while I’m asleep. It’s me, isn’t it? Yes, I’m to blame.
Can we just relax a bit, Angela? It doesn’t matter. We’ll get to the next town. I’ll turn the car round. We’ve got enough petrol.
He tapped the window over the fuel gauge.
And if there’s nowhere to stay? If there’s nothing there but a petrol station and a caravan park? What if it doesn’t exist anymore? What if it’s a ghost town, Harry? What if there’s nothing out here?
It was at that moment that he saw them, just ten yards ahead, gathering on the road. He put his foot on the brake, and Angela grunted as her chest hit lightly against the back of the seat. The car shook as it came to a stop with a hiss of grit under the tyres. A drift of dust shifted into the air ahead and moved through the beams of the headlights.
They sat quietly for a moment, the sound of the engine rising and falling, struggling to keep firing now his foot was off the accelerator.
Dingoes, said Angela.
There were six of them. They all turned their heads to stare, their eyes white discs of light. Harry made his breathing shallow as if he might disturb them.
One of the dogs was larger than the others. As it panted its tongue hung between its front teeth like a loose slice of meat. It looked into the darkening desert to the right. Then it turned and moved into the roadside trees. The other dogs followed, moving off with a slow ease.
We should go, Harry, said Angela, finally. We’re in the middle of nowhere. Her voice was flat and taut.
Harry nodded his head. He watched the retreating animals as they gathered speed now, running between the low, dry bushes. For a short time he lost sight of them, but then he saw them again, moving fast among the barren trees. Because they were pale, and because the light was so poor, they became transparent. The trace of animal outlines. The spirits of wild dogs.
He put the car into reverse, and pulled back slowly. The rear wheels dropped with a gentle thump as they rolled off the road into the roadside dust. The headlights shone through the trees. He put the brake on and sat forward, hands on the wheel, chin resting in the dip between two knuckles. His contact lenses had dried onto his eyes, so that there was a faint, milky mist. He blinked, then squinted to help himself see.
In the headlights the thin pale trunks of trees close to the car. One tree had grown into a bloated, grotesque shape, its trunk expanded and split as though it had erupted. Fallen eucalypts like lengths of bone. The land rose up into a series of fluted mounds with deep fumeroles and basins, the valves of ancient volcanic activity.
Can you see that? He pointed through the windscreen. Out there?
I want us to go, Harry.
No, look, Angela.
She leant forward again.
It’s a car.
That’s right, said Harry.
He had seen wrecks at the side of the road a number of times since leaving Sydney, some of them fifty years old or more, abandoned on a disused track, in the corner of a field of pasture, in the shade of an outbuilding. Something about this one was different. From where he sat it looked as if the car had been driven into a tree. He pulled on the lever, and the door clicked open.
Harry. Harry, what are you doing?
I’m just going to look.
She was leaning on the back of the passenger seat again.
I’m going to see what’s in the car.
It’s a wreck, Harry.
He pushed the door. It was heavy – he hadn’t realised till now, but with the back wheels off the track, the car was on a tilt – and it took an extra effort to get it open. He stepped outside. The air was cooler. The wind blew sand along the track. The creak of warped tree trunks like rope pulled taut. Sand sifted along the low lying earth.
What if the dogs come back? she hissed from inside the car.
He reached in, under the dashboard, and took hold of a heavy duty power torch. He tested its weight.
I won’t be long, said Harry.
He pushed the door to and walked across the track. He took in the open air, the temperature beginning to fall at last. He walked slowly down the slope, dry earth breaking up and falling away from him. The underside of the cloud across the horizon darkening every moment, blooming the colour of blood, the colour of iron ore. The faint smell of manure, from the dogs, from wild goats, from whatever passed here unseen at night.
The ground flattened, small rocks, tall and wiry tufts of grass, far apart from each other to show there had been no rain out here for a long time. He turned on the torch. Stones rattling against each other as he disturbed them, his shoes sinking in the red dirt where the halo of light fell. Walking through a sparsely planted orchard of dead trees.
When he reached the car, in the blue shadows of the flumes, he stood for a moment. There was a deep hum in the air like tinnitus. A burnt out four door Nissan resting with its front axle against a gum tree. A black flare up the side of the tree. The car had deep burn marks above the wheel arches where the tyres had burnt away. The exposed wheels rested in the dirt. A heavy, poisonous smell in the air of oil, melted plastic and rubber.
He moved his light over the vehicle. Much of the paintwork had burnt away, a grey silver exposed. The metal in the dashboard had sagged, and there were oily pools of plastic that had run as liquid and set with a dull shine. Grey and white ash hung like wax from the wipers and the exposed steering column, and was deep as polluted snow in the foot well. The figure in the driver’s seat was sitting with his head against the rest, his mouth open, a black, life sized effigy.
There was another in the passenger’s seat. They were both sitting perfectly upright, but the one in the passenger seat had turned his head away. His arms were thin, his hands drawn up to his chest.
Insects the size and colour of grass seeds moved over the interior, spilling out of the holes in doors. Broken glass on the bonnet like pieces of ice. The sound of insects moved in and out like breathing. As Harry walked around the vehicle, the dark crust of earth broke under his feet.
He brought the torchlight round in an arc through the stark white branches, pointing it back towards the road. Angela was standing beside the car, moving from foot to foot. A sound came from a bird somewhere in the dark, something like, Watch out! Watch out!
His head was beginning to throb with the smell of the wreck, a dull beat, a wave of heat and slowly building nausea.
He shone the torch on the figure in the passenger seat. The deep dark sockets where the eyes had burnt away, the oily black of the head, an exposed skullcap. He dipped the torch and the figure disappeared. He stepped back as if he’d been shoved.
The flies seemed to multiply. They landed on his face, his scalp, in his ears - a sound like electric razors. He kept moving back, rubbing his free hand over his face, through his hair, sweat breaking out, his breath tightening. His foot slipped into a hole, and a sharp pain went through his ankle.
He started walking. He knew not to run, though the car lights seemed far away, blinking between the branches of the trees. He favoured the ankle that hurt as he trod on the hard, uneven ground. Blind insects ran across the earth as his torchlight illuminated them. Flies caught in the beam in silver flashes.
He climbed the slope to the track with some difficulty, his feet slipping, grit falling into his shoes. When he reached the track Angela came up close to him. She looked at him as though she was suddenly wary of him.
Like you said, just a wreck.
She shook her head, looking him closely in the eyes.
There’s something else.
She looked past him, into the desert, and her face had a pale glow from the last light that was filtering away in the west. The air was growing colder. He walked to the car, touching the bonnet with a hand, and rested himself there, the springs settling with his weight.
Tell me what it was, Harry.
I’ll tell you later.
Tell me now.
He held up a hand. He took the packet of Silk Cut out of his shirt pocket and pulled out a flattened cigarette. He pinched it all the way down its length. When he took out a book of matches Angela turned her head and walked round him to the back door.
When you’re finished giving yourself cancer I’d like to go. I’m freezing, and if we’re not lost out here for good, I’d like to find a bed for the night.
The car shook when she closed the door. He opened the matchbook. Changi Airport in gold letters. He tore off a cardboard match and struck it. He closed his eyes, and the light flared red and arterial through his eyelids. The world became a small place – the hiss of burning paper, the smooth smoke in his lungs and the lightness as the nicotine went into his system. Something to take away the taste in his mouth.
Crabs as large as hubcaps. A whole pool full of them, heavy skulled, red as ox blood, cratered with barnacles. When he walks towards them they move away from him, slipping over each other, stirring up the deep green residue in the bowl of the pool as they attempt to hide in the recess of the cavern wall. Their eyes glitter as they watch him approach, and their collective fear excites him. He picks up a rock from the floor of the cavern.
Don’t you run away from me.
The bed shook, a voice in the dark.
Get up, Lee. We’ve got to go.
The smell of car oil on his brother’s skin, his laboured breathing. He felt two short, sharp slaps on his face.
Then the mattress shook, and he was gone. Lee pulled himself round and sat on the edge of the bed and waited there, his head heavy, his eyes closed.
He heard the fridge door hit the work surface in the kitchen, and a low Damn! Through the thin partition wall he heard his mother roll in her bed. He waited, heard the high pitched whine in the air but nothing else. He opened his mouth wide and yawned, and the whine in his ears filled the room for a moment.
As he sat there he thought about Lucy, standing outside the Pioneer. The way she stood against the car, her cardigan tight against her body. He thought about her driving out of town with the boy. Maybe to the closed mine. Somewhere no one could see them. The boy undoing the buttons. He put a hand down his boxers and held his testicles, like a handful of warm dough. He took hold of his penis. He began to slowly pull on it. His mum turned again, the creak of the old springs. A dull rap on the kitchen table.
Come on, Lee, he whispered to himself in the dark. We’re going to make some money. He stood and snapped his boxers against his stomach.
Out in the back yard Murray was filling plastic containers from the standing pipe, water gushing and spluttering over his hand, finger hooked into the plastic loop, tendons tight on his arm as the level rose.
Why’d we need to be so early? said Lee.
Murray looked up at him from his stooped position.
We’ve got to get to him before he leaves and no one can find him. And keep your voice down.
How long’s this going to take?
We’ll be there by tomorrow night if we drive straight.
Do I get to drive?
Murray put the bottle down with a thump on the concrete drive.
Well, we’ll wait till we’re out in the desert. Then, when I’m certain you won’t be able to hit anything, I’ll let you have the wheel.
A large moth fluttered into the light over the back door. It landed on the hot bulb, quivering there, incandescent. A moment later it tanged against the tin cowl, then flew off into the dark.
It’s cold, said Lee, holding his elbows.
It soon won’t be. We’re going to need the esky. There’s some beers in the fridge. But when you get them, don’t, for fucksake, wake Roy. We don’t want him getting all weepy and worried.
What do you reckon I am? Stupid?
Don’t put me in that awkward position.
After he said this he gave Lee a grin.
Lee was carrying the esky out of the back door when he stopped and glanced over the neighbour’s fence. An old habit from when he sneaked out of the house as a boy. There she was, Mrs Wheeler, sitting by the open window in her nightdress.
What are you up to, you little bastard? she said, as though it was daylight.
As he walked away she raised her voice.
Hey? What have you got there? Yes, I can see you. I can see you!
When is that old fucker going to die?
Harry drove them into Bordertown on a road straight out of the desert. A wire fence and concrete posts bordered the redundant mine. On the opposite side were shacks with tin roofs, screened porches, on land overgrown with pale grass, corrugated garden walls leaning sideways, brick and tin chimneys. A car on cinderblocks, a horse box on sunken wheels.
There were no streetlights or pavements until they reached the main street. Here there were shops under the deep shadows of the verandas cast by sodium lights, brickwork ground floors, and upper floors of wood. A pool and snooker hall. Station wagons and Utes parked at angles to the kerb. Dick Smiths Electronics. A red neon sign fixed to the window switched on and off slowly, spelling out Merry Christmas. A glowing Homer Simpson in a Santa outfit.
There was a bar, The Watering Hole, with a door open, two men standing under the veranda light, one leaning against the wall, smoke rising up and drifting, illuminated, hanging in the air above their heads. As the car went by one of the men walked to the end of the veranda to watch them as they passed.
Harry pulled up outside a two storey Victorian building. A sign by the pavement read Crane’s Hotel. At the front of the house, dense bushes were leaning over the stone wall onto the concrete pavement as if the heat of the day had been too much. When he turned the engine off the quiet was sudden and immediate.
Well, said Harry, we won’t be sleeping in the car.
It looks deserted, said Angela.
There’s a light in the basement.
I can’t see it.
There. Through the weeds.
The house was uncommonly tall for the street, with a steep, buckled shale roof. Harry got out of the car. He walked along the front. A yellow light glowed dimly deep inside the house, and showed through the heavy lace in a front window. He went up the front steps, his feet going tup tup tup tup, rubber soles against the wood.
He pressed the doorbell, and an electric buzzer sounded in a room somewhere at the back of the house. The porch roof was thick with cobwebs and the wings of insects like delicate veined winter leaves. Between the pillars a piece of wire had been tacked with unlit Christmas lights, and by the front door a wooden chair, the varnish peeling off in thin papery curls. By its side was a collection of beer bottles, dulled with a thick layering of road dirt and dust.
He looked back at the car. Angela stared up at him from the back window, an expression on her face as if she’d bitten a fly.
That’s right, he said. Don’t, whatever you do, knock yourself out.
The light came on above his head, and a woman opened the front door, pulling it inwards, keeping the fly wire between them. She was wearing a coat thrown over a nightdress, and her dyed red hair was tied back.
It’s almost eleven o’clock, she said. Sam’s in bed. He’ll be around at 6.30 as usual. Come back at 6.30 if you want to speak to him.
We just got here. I saw the sign. We need somewhere to stay.
She brought her face close to the fly wire. A nerve twitched in the corner of her mouth and she blinked her eyes as a thought activated behind them.
You’ve just arrived?
Harry pointed towards the car.
We’ve been travelling all day.
Well that may be so, but Sam’s gone to bed and I’m just about to follow him.
She stood there a moment longer. She sucked in her thin upper lip and chewed it – an action that might have been habitual since childhood. A small revelation of her younger self.
When you say we, what precisely do you mean?
Me and my wife.
She leaned sideways and looked into the street.
The room she showed them to was a large one on the first floor. It had a three-quarter bed under the window, a single pushed into the corner. When Harry dropped the case onto it the springs sang.
The air conditioning doesn’t work, said Mrs Crane, standing in the doorway and looking at Angela, then Harry. She pointed to the box unit fixed to the wall, with its thin metal fins. If it gets too hot, turn on the fan. You can slide the windows open. There’s screens so you won’t let the mozzies in. The bathroom’s down the corridor.
The fan hung from the ceiling, a great copper propeller.
I suppose you’re hungry. All I’ve got is cold sausage.
We’ll be okay, said Angela. We just need to get some sleep.
When Mrs Crane had gone downstairs Angela took her toiletry bag from a case and left the room. Harry stood by the largest window and looked out onto the street. A cloud of flies moved around each light. A bird flew across the street in an angular movement as though it was caught on a wire. It moved in a zigzag, then vanished from view into the dark between two buildings.
He saw again the grinning face, the patch of bone, the hands held against the chest. The way the lips were pulled back, as though the man was remembering a joke. The bird reappeared, rising into the sky, then flitting in and out of view as it crossed shadows and pale facades, and as it darted beneath the window he saw it for what it was – a large, loose moving bat. It swept up, into a palm tree that stood in front of a low wooden building across from the hotel.
The door opened and Angela came back in. She closed the door and leant against it. The shadow of her small breasts pressed against her white shirt, and he felt a pang in his groin. But she wasn’t looking at him. She was looking around the bedroom.
It stinks of old drains, she said.
It’s not too bad.
It smells like someone pissed in here.
There were bleached, worn floorboards, a thin rug, a chest of drawers with glass over doilies, a solitary sink on the wall with an exposed pipe. A mirror above the sink with greasy fingerprints.
What do we do about sleeping? he said. She gave him a look. I mean, there’s a single, but it’s narrow, and the mattress looks worn out.
He touched the window with his fingers, feeling his skin stick to the glass. The room felt like a closed oven.
Harry, don’t start again.
I’m just thinking.
Harry, we haven’t seen each other for six months. What do you think I am?
I’m just thinking this once.
Harry, I’m sick of this. Now I’m tired.
He walked over to the sink, and looked at himself. He looked pale, dark under the eyes, and old. Old. A toilet flushed somewhere under his feet, and then the sound of water running, a whining of the pipes in the roof.
In the bathroom he could smell the liquid soap Angela used. He wanted to breathe it in, a rose scent along with the faint odour of her sweat.
I want to put my mouth all over you, he once said to her. I want to put my mouth all over you, she replied. Do you really want the same thing? I might. I might just be repeating what you said. Her face raised, a smile, eyes closed. Then he took her upstairs and put a pillow against the side of the blind so no one could see into the bedroom. Then he took off all her clothes. She used to let out cries every time, in those times when she couldn’t hold it in.
He lay on the narrow bed in the dark fully clothed, his hands down the front of his shorts, holding himself, and listened to the cicadas. He listened to Angela’s light breathing from the double bed. Beneath him he heard a door opening and closing, and a deep voice speaking for a moment. He fell asleep. When he woke there was a line of saliva on his cheek, a damp area on the pillow. He rolled over, pulled the sheets down and got under them. Throughout these movements his arms were heavy like sand bags. Then he slept again.
When he woke there was a deep blue light in the window. Something whining by his pillow. Without thinking he brought his hand up quickly and thumped his ear, and the shock of the pain and the sound woke him fully. He waited a moment, seeing the imperfections in his eyes like coils of smoke against the pale wooden ceiling. Then there it was again – the angry whine, next to his ear.
God damn you little shit.
He threw the sheets back and walked unsteadily to the corridor. There was a pure deep orange on the rim of the horizon through the window, the rooftops still in darkness, molten red on something metallic on the hill above the town. The walls in the corridor were showing a rose pink glow. He went to the bathroom and urinated heavily. The end of his penis hurt like he was passing ground glass. He stood there a while. The wall throbbed, a pulse in his head grew and subsided.
After washing he went down the stairs and along the hall towards the back of the house. In the kitchen there was a table so worn the wood was rubbed smooth. A yellow flypaper spotted with flies hanging by the window, weighted by its cardboard cap. A hob with a samovar steaming on it. By the window a plywood door with a transparent cat flap, a plastic window and a brown, torn fly wire.
Two men walked across the dry lawn in the half light, one with a metal tool kit that hung from his fingers. Both were in work clothes. One of them was wearing a cap. A cigarette glowed in his mouth. A moment later a pit bull terrier padded along, low to the ground, an oversized head and heavy jaw, its tail short and thin like a deflated balloon.
Everywhere there’s a dog, said Harry.
He poured a coffee into a stained mug. He couldn’t see the sugar anywhere and he didn’t want to open any cupboards, so he drank it black. It was bitter and strong, and only lukewarm, and he chewed on the grounds with his front teeth. He felt like he’d had no sleep at all. Like gravity had doubled in the night. He swallowed the coffee like medicine.
A rattle and a deep huffing came from outside. The cat flap opened inwards. He leant forward and tapped on the window. The dog looked up at him, and rolled its white clown eyes, irises as brown as conkers. Saliva hung in threads from its yellow fangs, illuminated by the porch light. It let out a bark, jolting its head up, and backed away, paws skittering on the concrete path.
Shut up, you little mutt! A shrill voice from round the side of the house.
The dog turned its head and sniffed at the air. It looked at Harry again and gave him another deep bark, a little less certain this time, then walked off, legs bowed and sagging belly close to the ground, back across the lawn and out of view. When he looked through the kitchen window Harry could see Mrs Crane, sitting on a chair with a blanket up to her waist.
He stepped outside. When she looked at him it was with a full look, appraising but also familiar. She was older than he’d thought, but her skin was still smooth, her cheek bones strong.
Have you been sleeping out here?
Only a while. My hubby rolls around sometimes.
She smoothed the back of her neck slowly, her cotton dress pulling against the large breasts that had rolled to either side of her ribcage.
He was restless last night, but I bet he’s sleeping now. Now there’s things to be done.
Whose is the dog?
Ah, it’s the men mending the fence. They’re early. I told them not to come early. But they’re here. They won’t start knockin till eight.
She raised herself from the chair and stretched, the dress pulled tight again. It looked too deliberate an action, and Harry looked away, across the lawn.
I was going to make breakfast, she said. If you want to join me.
He sat at the table with her and ate a slice of boiled ham on toasted bread with salted butter she’d made herself. It’s cheaper and better, she said. I make my own bread too. He drank another coffee – a fresh one this time – and once he’d finished he sat back and breathed in the cool morning air. He could smell flour and coffee and something sweet that reminded him of when he was a boy, though he couldn’t think what that something was.
I came here to live with my children, but they all moved to Sydney, and I stayed on with my husband till he died ten years ago. We set up this place and, pop! He dies. How about that? I got the whole place to myself, including the mortgage. She pointed with a butter knife towards the door just inside the hallway. We’re newly weds. Second hubby. It’s never too late, eh.
This guy we’re looking for, said Murray. He’s Jonny Peplinski’s cousin from Melbourne.
You spoke to Jonny Peplinski? You actually talked to him?
Well yeah. He asked me into his office. It was a poky room. All he has is a plywood desk. You’d think he’d splash out.
In the wing mirror the lights of town were still winking in the shallow valley. The sun was yet to rise, and the air was cool. When Murray drove close to the roadside, grit rattled against the car and dust twisted up on the road behind them and folded away into the dark as though something was following and breathing in the cold air.
I heard Jonny murdered a boy when he was fourteen.
I heard that too. Murray turned to Lee. It’s just talk. It’s what happens in a small town when you’re a stranger and there isn’t enough money to keep people from idle chatter. Anyhow, who cares what he did in Melbourne. He’s an old man now. At least fifty and showing it.
He took a rollup from his shirt pocket and put it into the corner of his mouth.
He’s not as bad as they paint him. He had a couple of sheilas in his office. He was pure kindness itself. Do you want more tea? Are you sure? Can we do anything more for you? He had me waiting there while he fussed over them and he couldn’t do enough. One of the ladies had a baby in her lap. He was doing all the baby talk. Hey little Mikey. How yer doin little Mikey? I was almost embarrassed.
Lee put his feet up on the seat, and rested his knees against the dashboard. He’d heard a lot of talk about Joe Peplinski. When he first arrived in the town he had a gang of Abboes come and work for him, taking crates of drink and other packages to Minindee. One of the Abboes by the name of Bungalow Bill went missing – he was walked out of a bar in downtown Minindee by a couple of men. Lee heard he’d been fiddling Jonny. The upshot was that sometime later someone’s remains were found, out in the desert. It couldn’t be said for certain that it was Bill, for it was burnt up and animals had been at it, but Bill never turned up again in Bordertown or Menindee.
Well, I don’t know, said Lee. Maybe he’s changed. But I wouldn’t want to get on his wrong side. That’s all.
Yer a worrit, said Murray. Nothing’s going to go wrong. I get the feeling Jonny doesn’t even like his cousin. But he is family, so we’ve got to go careful.
He switched on the cab light and in its glow he lit the rollup from the lighter between the seats, touching the paper to the red electric coil. There was the faintest bloom of colour on the ridges, sixty miles away, but the land they travelled through was as cold and grey as a moon.
It was only half-light when Harry left the hotel. The streetlights were still lit, but they made a dull, cold glow in the grey dawn. When he stepped off the pavement the drop surprised him, sending a jolt through his body that knocked his heart. The street was wide, and took a long time to cross.
He passed the electronics shop with Merry Christmas still turning on and off in its window, a bakery with Award Winning Pies, an oversized emporium with a first floor balcony.
Outside the police station was a glass covered notice board. National Missing Persons Week. A two-year-old boy had vanished from a back yard in McLaren. A twenty-year-old girl had been found dead in Queensland. She’d been hitchhiking all the way to Darwin. There was a picture of her, smiling in the sunlight of a suburban lawn, in a zip up fleece and chinos. Go back in time and warn her. Tell the girl in the turn-ups to stay at home, or take another route. A card in the corner gave Harry an address: Out of office hours contact Terrance Bail 3 Argot Street.
Terrance sat and looked at him for a while. On his dining table was a half-eaten baguette and a mug of tea with I’m The Boss in red letters. While Harry spoke Terrance rested back in his wooden chair, chin on his chest. His eyebrows were slightly raised as if he was listening to an elaborate lie and wanted Harry to know he knew that. His glasses were large and reflected back at Harry like TV screens. He had a moustache that needed trimming.
Finally he leaned forward in his chair with a creak of wood and gave a small sigh.
Two dead men. Where did you say?
An hour or two back that way, to the east. When we got back to the main road I saw a derelict house.
I know the place. A bloke used to live out there on his own. He raised his eyebrows higher. Yet he used to come into town to drink. Talked the legs off an iron pot. That is something I never understood.
He raised his head, tilted to one side, inviting comment.
Perhaps he was lonely.
Terrance nodded his head.
Well he ought to have been.
He turned and reached for the phone on the wall. He dialed while talking, the phone between ear and shoulder. Want a coffee? No? Then to the phone. Ah, yeah, is Chief Inspector Tyler there? I’ll hold on. Yeah, it’s important. Yeah, that’s right. It’s Terrance here.
Behind the officer’s head was a hook on the wall by the aluminium sink with a black leather holster hanging from it, the butt of a gun fastened down with a flap and black stud.
Terrance picked up his sandwich again, and was looking at it, wondering whether to risk another bite. Through the telephone ear piece Harry could hear thin music. The air conditioner whirred, a small box on the wall that made the room feel like a walk-in fridge.
Terrance drove his four-by-four at a steady fifty kilometres an hour, down the centre of the road. It was full daylight now. The high, thin cloud was already burning away. Terrance sat forwards, chin close to the wheel, checking the bush land to left and right.
Never drive to the side if you can help it, yeah? He had to speak loud over the sound of the Ute engine. That way you avoid kangas. You want to see the damage a kanga does to a car grill. When you hit one, you have to twist the wheel. It’ll cut them in half. Sometimes you think you’ve run over one and it’s still turning in the road. Sometimes it’s stuck under the vehicle.
Terrance’s mobile was in a cradle on the dashboard. It lit up and began a low hum. He touched it with a forefinger.
He leant forward to check the name on the screen, straightened up and smiled.
What’s the emergency?
Oh, just checking on you. Somebody has to.
Do they? And that’d be your job.
That’s right. That’s what I get paid for.
Is it, indeed? You earning a wage. That’s a novelty. Are we a little bored this morning?
Terrance! Can’t a girl show her concern?
She can if she hasn’t got schoolwork to do. And it’s dad to you.
Okay. Dad. And it’s college work. I left school, remember? I’m all grown up.
Hm. I must have been sleeping when that happened. Speaking of which, where were you so late last night?
The mobile was silent a moment, a faint hiss.
Well, that’s one of those imponderables, Terrance.
Dad. Got to go. Time for my breakfast. Byee.
The screen faded. Terrance shook his head.
I don’t know where they get it from. Are they born with it, or do they learn from each other?
I have no idea, said Harry
They approached the derelict house. It stood in silhouette, light showing through its part boarded windows right through from the broken roof. Terrance turned down the track and soon Harry could see the land that had been invisible in the night. A wide and sparse desert, bushes low to the ground, bare patches of dark vegetation, white trees like totems. Thin pale traces of lines and patterns across the land’s surface where it had sunk and broken in rifts.
See the hills over there? They’re over sixty miles away, said Terrance. They’re over the state line, in South Australia. You can see the bend. You know. He indicated with his hand, described an arc. The curvature. Of the earth. That’s how wide the plain is.
Up ahead a long grey station wagon was parked at the side of the track. A man in pale trousers and a blue denim shirt was leaning against the bonnet, watching as they drew up. He had a mass of white hair that moved stiffly in the wind.
Looks as if the chief is already here, said Terrance, and reached into the well in the door for his cap. He cleared his throat.
He turned the engine off and jumped out, grit rasping under his boots, and pushed the door to. He raised a hand in the bright morning air.
He walked over slowly, and stooped to listen to what the chief had to say. The wind rose and fell over the dry stony earth, the white sentinel trees, the car resting as before, thirty metres from the road.
There was a toot of a car horn. The chief waved at Harry, motioning to him to join them. Harry opened his door. He felt the heat rising up from the ground, the wind blowing his shirt against his chest. He walked over, and the chief watched him approach.
This is the bloke who found the car, said Terrance.
Tyler’s eyes were pale blue, like a boy’s, while the skin of his face was thin and finely lined, dust in the creases.
You drove down here after you turned off the road at the Cottam house. Harry looked from the chief to Terrance. The shack on the hill. You turned down from there. Last night.
That’s right. I thought this was a road.
Well it used to be a road. What made you stop here?
Dingoes. There were five or six of them.
The chief turned and looked back down the track
The chief nodded.
Mind accompanying us to the car?
He led the way down the side of the track. The flies were worse than in the night. They never stopped coming. All three men waved their hands about their faces as they walked.
Chief Tyler stood looking at the car and was still for a moment. He blew out his cheeks.
A Nissan Bluebird. He pointed at the bumper. It must have been a bonfire. The plates are melted out of recognition. You see that?
He took hold of the nearest door handle and gave it a pull. The door remained fast. He walked round and tried the other, with the same result. He pointed at the bonnet.
Think we can get it open?
Terrance pulled a handkerchief out of his back pocket and wrapped it round his hand. He appraised the situation, took a deep breath, then he reached in past the head of the blackened body. Sweat glistened on his face.
Can’t see a lever.
He stepped back again, let the air out of his lungs, pushed it all out.
Have another look. Down by the seat.
Can’t we prise it open? Lever it with a bar?
Tyler turned to Harry.
You didn’t see anybody out here? You didn’t pass any car on the way?
And this is how you found it? He looked at Harry. Alright. Come on.
As they walked back to the track, he said to Terrance:
I want as much as we can get from here before we have to leave. Get your digital camera and Polaroid.
When Lee walked into the hotel bar it was easy for him to see who the out-of-towner was straight away. There were six ladies, all the same comfortable size, sitting on low sofas that had been turned to face each other. They sat knitting and talking. Below the red cedarwood ceiling, fans turned slowly, and people sat in cane chairs by pillars painted the colour of nicotine - reading a newspaper, drinking late afternoon coffee or iced water, blotting at a forehead or neck with a handkerchief or shirt sleeve.
But it was the man at the horseshoe bar that Lee noticed, a squat man with bulging eyes. Receding, sandy waxed hair brushed back from his forehead. He had a newspaper open in his lap and was sipping from a tumbler. He watched Lee right from the moment he walked in. He had the tumbler to his mouth to cover his face.
Big place for a small town, thought Lee. The floor was carpeted in a rough, twist pile. There were palm plants in heavy glazed pots, paintings on the walls of deserts with tussocks of weeds and howling dingoes, and moons over ranges. As if there wasn’t enough desert outside. There was a TV on low above the bar – adverts for health insurance.
He sat in the middle of the bar and ordered a bottle of Victoria Beer from a girl in a starched white shirt. She had a black bob of hair, and an easy smile. While she bent to take his drink from the glass fronted fridge he pictured her on a bed, her arms flung behind her, her shirt unbuttoned.
Good air con, eh? he said. It’s bloody hot out there.
Really? she said, and she kept smiling. At the same time she took his money and placed his change in a tray on the bar. He’d never seen that before. Coins in a tray.
Oh yeah, it’s gotta be forty degrees. I’m sweating like a pig. But I’m sure this’ll help.
He raised the bottle and drank half its contents. He only stopped to take a breath. He felt the beer burn cold down his throat and hit his stomach. The man along the bar was back reading his paper. Murray said if the man’s there, wait and see what happens. Let me know if he leaves. Just send me a text when he does. And if he doesn’t leave, stay there a while until he forgets you’re there.
He took the money he had out of his pocket. He laid a five-dollar bill out on the bar and spread it with his fingers. He took another long swallow of beer, then he rested back. Things were changing at long, long last. And change, even bad change, was better than no change at all.
It wasn’t long before the light through the windows turned red, colouring the papered walls pink. A short time later three men and a woman came in from the street and ordered iced drinks, and for a while there was activity and noise. They told the girl behind the bar that they were touring in a converted bus and were heading for Alice Springs.
We’ve a cockatoo with us, the woman said. Stevie bought it me at the Gold Coast. We put it out at night, in a cage. We’re a regular mobile house.
She placed a hand on the bony chest of the man next to her, but he took little notice, looking in a sullen way at his glass. The woman had a green vest top on and had heavy, tanned arms, but she was still attractive. Her breasts moved loosely when she shifted on the barstool, and her eyes were quick to take in the fact that Lee noticed. She gave him a smile. One of the men – skinny, but taller than the others - kept coming up behind her and putting his arms round her, but she hardly seemed to notice.
Lee wanted to sleep with so many women. He wanted to pull this woman’s vest top over her head to see what she was like naked, take hold of her breasts, squeeze them hard. He felt a twinge between his legs, so strong it was painful. The girl behind the bar rang up an amount at the till. She had slender fingers, a serious, thoughtful face. He’d be able to lift her onto a kitchen surface, she was so small.
The light outside drained away, and the bar grew dark. The globe lights hanging from the ceiling came on and the girl behind the counter turned off the fans. The taller man and the woman went behind the screens to play the pokies. He heard them laughing – the man’s laugh was the loudest, as if he wanted everyone in the bar to hear him and know he was with the woman with the vest top. Yeah, keep on dreaming, mate, Lee murmured, and took another swig of beer.
He turned to look for the toilet. There was a white door in the wall with a fancy figure on it made of brass. The man at the end of the bar was still reading his newspaper, open at the sports, making a note in places with a biro. Lee twisted off his seat, and went through to the toilet, and stood there, swaying, urinating, feeling like he was doing something. He was making money at this very moment. He spat into the urinal and washed the spit towards the drain hole. When he walked back into the bar the man had gone.
A sign on the wall pointed to a door, Guests in italics. He went through and ran up a narrow staircase, two steps at a time. At the top he turned left. Staring at him were the glazed eyes of a possum, crouched on a piece of wood in a glass case.
Round a corner he came to a corridor that was so long it went on into the dark like a fairground illusion with mirrors, doors on either side, pale lights in the ceiling barely lighting the lime green walls. When he walked forward the boards groaned, a deep listing sound as though the whole hotel was a ship. Sweat ran down the groove of his back.
Each doorknob brass, discoloured with the grease and sweat of so many hands. The numbers were printed in italic, peeling off in places or gone altogether. He listened and touched the wall with his fingertips. The place smelt of wood rot and carbolic.
Shit, I’ve lost him, Lee whispered. He strained to listen, to catch any sound. Murray’s going to kill me.
A strip of light appeared suddenly on the carpet, a few steps away from Lee, and the man stepped into the corridor. Despite the heat he was wearing a moleskin sports coat. In his hand he held a carpetbag and a green felt hat with a silk band. When he saw Lee he gave him a smile. Most of his teeth were missing, and his sight was out of true, so that it was difficult to tell which eye to look at.
G’day. How you doing? the man said.
He started forward and Lee stepped into his path. The man stopped and stood there a moment.
I need to ask you something, said Lee.
Well listen, I’m in a hurry, said the man.
Lee might have let him go at that, but the man leant against the wall and slid along it in an attempt to get past. Lee put his hands on the man’s shoulders, and the man dropped his bag and grasped Lee by his shoulders and started pushing, Lee resisting him. Now both were grunting, feet set against the thin carpet.
What are you doing? the man said, and let out a false laugh.
He pushed all the harder, his head against Lee’s chin, the smell of hair wax, cheap hotel soap, his breath rank like rotten wood. His moleskin coat felt old and oily. The man got hold of a fistful of Lee’s T-shirt. The material tore along the seam. Lee forced his own head down, feet planted wide. The man’s cheek rasped against his like sandpaper and it struck Lee for the first time that he might just have a knife.
The man wheeled Lee around, sideways, into the wall – a deep crack of a join in the framework, the rattle of plaster broken loose in the cavity. Someone shouting, Hey! from inside the room.
The man relaxed his grip. Suddenly there was no resistance. They stood there, resting against each other. They straightened up together, the old man blinking at him with bloody eyes, sweat glistening on his face, thin hair standing up like straw. The man’s breath whistled.
You two finished making love?
Murray stood at the man’s back, a gun pressed into his fleshy neck. The man’s eyes rolled sideways, his mouth part way open. Murray motioned with his head.
I think we’ll go out the back way, yeah?
Most people don’t travel this way. They’re usually going the other way. Out of town and never looking back.
Mrs Crane pulled open the back door and pushed the fly wire with her foot, and carried the metal bucket full of ash out into the back yard. When she returned she put a fire blackened kettle on top of the stove.
Some people turn up to see what’s left of the mines. Old miners take them out in minibuses for the tourist office. They don’t get paid, except for petrol. There was ash on her forearms. But what’s there to see? The slagheap and the winding gear. A few galleries and a cafeteria. People don’t stay in town for long. And all the while our young people… She pointed off down an imaginary road. Ziiiip. It makes running a hotel difficult.
The smell of meat fat on the hot plate and burning wood that cracked and spat inside the stove window. Angela had her arms crossed on the table. A night’s sleep, and still weary. Harry had been gone a while now. Not that it mattered. It gave her room to breathe.
Mrs Crane took a lettuce the size of a cricket ball from the fridge. She cut into it with a broad flat knife, exposing the serried white and green folds in cross section, tight as the head of a flower. She cut slices of sausage on a slab of wood.
Yes, I should think it would.
Two years ago I said to Sam, I want to go south, to Adelaide, visit my sister? Sam’s Mr Crane’s given name. He said, You go there, you’ll never come back. That’s what he said. Go there, and I never want to see you again. So I didn’t go. I haven’t seen her for over ten years. I’m no longer sure I know what she looks like.
Mrs Crane glanced towards the door that led to the hallway.
The same things happened last month, after mother died. She had the room you’re in now.
Angela pinched the front of her blouse.
I’ve whitewashed since. Don’t worry. And the mattresses are fresh. It’s sad, but she was gone from us long before she left. So, after the funeral, and we’d sorted through her belongings, I said, Sam, I want to go to Adelaide. I need some fresh sea air, some fresh sights. He told me, If you go, I’ll change the locks.
She watched Angela.
I’m sorry about your mum, said Angela.
Mrs Crane waved a hand.
She wore herself out in the end. She’d just sit there at the window and shout at anything that went by. A dog, a bird. It got really wearing. In the end I couldn’t make her stop. I think she was ready. She used to say they’ll have to shoot me. Still, the house is a bit too quiet without her. It’s good to have new people.
The vents of the Ute hummed, blowing out chilled air. In the distance Harry could see the raised ground of the mine, the hoist at the highest point and a dry house and rolling stock standing against the blue sky. A postbox went past, a milk churn on a white tree stump with the names Schulz and McLehan and 594 painted in red, under the thin shade of a leafless tree.
They passed the petrol station on the edge of the town, the two antique pumps standing side by side, pale with dust, a tin building behind with Crash Repairs painted like graffiti along its side.
There was oil on the road back there, said Terrance. You might want your car looked at. Might have bashed it when you turned.
They pulled up outside the Crane’s Hotel.
Will you need me again? said Harry.
If you call at the servo they’ll have a look at your car. When you’re done, come and see me at the police station. Some time this afternoon. We’ll get down what happened, what you saw.
Harry climbed out, and as he walked towards the front steps Terrance wound down his window.
Can you keep it to yourself for now? I mean, yeah, talk to your wife, but that’s all, yeah? Chances are it’s a local in the wreck.
The car pulled away and off down the street.
In the bathroom Harry filled the sink and doused the back of his head so the water flattened his hair and ran down his face, soaking into his shirt. He splashed himself several times, letting water fall onto the wooden floor and his clothes. In the bowl the sediment of red dust rose like smoke and settled around the plug. He leaned with his hands against the bowl, and looked at his face in the mirror – the veins in his eyes like cracks in enamel, the pale lines on his skin from squinting into the sun.
The man’s eyes had burnt away, and still he continued to stare out through the place where the windscreen had been. His mouth was wide open as though shouting something. His hair was burnt away. His skull shrunk with the intensity of heat.
From behind him there was the creak of wood – someone’s weight on the stairs. He pulled his shirt flap up and dried his face with it. When he walked out onto the landing Angela was standing by the door to the bedroom.
What happened? What did they say?
They just wanted to see.
So, can we leave?
The sun had cleared her complexion from a pale skin with adolescent pimples around the mouth to a healthy smoky colour. Her eyes a clear white.
Not right away. Before she could respond, as her eyes began to lose their clarity, he added: I have to help them fill out a report. And the car needs looking at. I doubt we’ll be here more than a day.
In her face a boredom that had been growing since he arrived. A disinterest. Many years ago he had said to himself, whatever you do, don’t ever let this girl get the upper hand. Don’t ever put yourself at her mercy. Every relationship is unequal, its value related to how much or how little you have to lose.
She walked into the bedroom and he stood there in the corridor. There had been a time when she came to him. When he could walk into a room and she would leave whatever she was doing to join him. It might have always been the way, except for the events of one night that changed the course of their life together. A hot night in August in the centre of Norwich. They had both gone to a club on the Prince of Wales Road and he’d lost her for the last part of the evening but barely noticed, sitting at the tables by the bar with his university friends.
It was when he walked out of the doors just after 2am and crossed the road that he saw her, pressed into a doorway by someone in a smart jacket and trousers. He crossed the road in front of a private taxi, the sound of its horn causing Angela to turn her head. The street was full of people catching cabs, crowding into kebab shops, police in twos with stab jackets, street pastors with bright vests with Jesus Cares in black lettering, but somehow she saw him straight away and stepped smartly onto the pavement.
He walked her up the hill in a burning anger, incapable of talking till they reached the taxi rank by the market. Once they were in the queue the argument began, nonsensical and convoluted, somehow culminating in her being the wronged party:
You ignored me all night. If you don’t want to spend time with me, why are we going out?
If I make you that unhappy, why don’t you finish with me?
Okay, she said. We’re finished.
He stayed with her till they reached the head of the queue, and by this time she was crying. When she climbed into the taxi she turned to look at him and he felt a terrible pity so that, without another thought, he climbed in after her. That night, in the bedroom she had slept in since she was a child, he proposed to her. He realised she had taken him seriously the following week at work, when people started approaching him to congratulate him.
On his wedding day he walked to the registry office from his house with his brother. It was a cold day, despite the sun. There was news of snowfall in the south. The wind cut through Harry’s suit – a blue Italian linen. They crossed the bridge over Grapes Hill and walked past the toy shop where, five years before, he had taken his thesis to a man behind a curtain to bind in black material.
They passed the knapped flint tower of St. Giles and Harry wondered, again, why he wasn’t marrying in a church. It was what he had always imagined, but Angela had said she would feel like a hypocrite. It would be always on my mind, she said. It would feel like I was doing something wrong.
The upstairs room of the registry office was painted a pale cream all the way to the orange coving, high above their heads, tall sash windows that looked out on rooftops and a timber frame house that had once been a high class brothel. The registrar and her assistant stood at a table, before rows of plastic chairs. As everyone filed in, music played on a portable CD player on the head table. Angela had chosen The Arrival of the Queen of Sheba. It seemed too hurried for a wedding, and as soon as everyone was seated the registrar leant over and pressed a button and the music stopped in the middle of a bar. Harry could smell a chemical carpet cleaner, and there was a continuous low drone from a vent in the ceiling and he was aware of this for most of the ceremony.
The registrar took up a yellow book and began the order of service. There was no mention of God, only legalities and vows. He would remember afterwards a sudden and brief surge of emotion when he realised he was married, and whoops and clapping that sounded sharp in his ears, and the way his hand shook so he could hardly sign the register. And that the registrar’s signature was highly ornate, but that she filled in the wrong date.
Does that mean we aren’t legal? Angela asked later.
The music was turned on again, this time something by Dido, and while the people stood and stretched and chatted and took photographs, Angela held Harry’s lapels and rubbed the blue linen between finger and thumb and, without looking at him, asked:
Are you happy?
Is he going to be alright? He won’t die, will he?
The red light flickered in the dashboard. Lee rested his hands on the top of the steering wheel, and over his knuckles he saw roadside rocks speed by, the poles of telegraph wires and a fence that ran on for many miles. Murray didn’t speak straight away. Lee looked at him, a quick glance.
No, there’s enough air.
They travelled on a little longer.
Well, it’s just that he’s an old fellah.
He’s fifty-three. He’s not that old. Dad was nearly fifty-three, as solid as an iron bark. It’s no age.
The car hit a pothole in the road and the red light flickered again. They travelled a few more kilometres before he spoke.
Ah, shit, Lee, are y’goin to talk all the way back?
Good, cause your getting on me tits now.
What about that gun?
Murray leaned back and stretched, and Lee could smell stale sweat coming from his shirt.
Y’didn’t know I had that, did you?
He reached into a plastic bag in the foot well and pulled out the revolver. He pushed the chamber out to the side and gave it a spin, then shook the gun sideways so the chamber clunked back into position.
Aint she a beauty though, eh? He held it up so Lee could see. Even in Murray’s hand it seemed outsized – large and heavy. It packs a wallop, I can tell you.
He had a smile on his face, the first time since leaving the hotel. He turned the gun sideways and rubbed the barrel and frame with his hand.
Let’s have a look, said Lee.
You keep your mind on your driving. I’ll let you see it later.
Strewth, Murray, come on.
Murray was quiet a moment. The car wheels rumpled along the road, the stony desert went by.
Alright. Let’s take the next dirt road and I’ll show you what it can do.
They pulled up and Murray leapt out and directed Lee to move the car off the track, examining the ground, kicking stones. Lee watched him in the headlights, the gun hanging from his right hand. As he turned the wheel the grit crackled under the slow moving tyres. Murray directed him to turn, and a tree came into existence twenty metres away. Murray held a hand up and Lee braked. The red light flickered again. He switched off the ignition and the car instantly shuddered to a stop, right down to the exhaust at the back. The headlights dimmed. Murray walked over to the car, patting the bonnet as he came round to the passenger’s side.
Alright, champ. Hop out. Leave the lights on.
Lee followed Murray. They walked from the car to where the tree stood – a white gum, solid as limestone, fifteen metres tall. Murray slapped the smooth trunk.
Let’s see, shall we?
He crouched down and sifted the loose ground with his fingers, rolling stones and pieces of wood as pale and light as the bones of desert birds. He selected a dark piece of volcanic residue and stood.
He put the rock against the smooth wood and turned it, scoring a circular line but leaving little impression. He looked at Lee, then tried again, then he threw the stone to one side. Ah, fuck it. Alright.
He strode away in a straight line, with his boots kicking up dust in the white light from the car. The light gave him an aura. A brutish but touching transfiguration.
Move over will you? I don’t want to hit your fat head. This made him laugh so he bent and then rocked back, and his bad mood was gone again. Come on, move away. No, over here, you nonce.
Lee walked in a wide curve, squinting with anticipation of the gun going off. The way he used to when his father lit fireworks on Australia Day. He stood by Murray. Murray had the gun in his right hand, hanging by his side, and was staring at the tree. When he lifted the gun, using both hands to steady it, the light shone down the barrel off the blued metal. Lee felt a tingling in his stomach and a feeling all over his skin so tense that he felt he might collapse in a fit.
Best get behind me and put your fingers in your ears.
He put his palms either side of his head, heard a roar inside. The sound of surf on a shingle beach. The tree was stark white, a deep darkness behind, as if this was the only piece of land left in the world. The wind blowing in the space where the world they had known had once stood. Murray held the gun as far from himself as he could.
The gun let off a hollow explosion, and there were bright flashes either side of the cylinder. A moment later a side of the tree erupted into a pale dust cloud, like spores from a puffball. The sound of the revolver vanished. Lee looked behind him, with a sudden fear that they were being watched, but there was no one there.
When he turned again Murray was looking at the gun in his hand as if he was looking at it for the first time. Grey smoke trailed out of the end, and blue smoke hung about him in the air. He held the barrel near his nose and sniffed at it. He turned suddenly, remembering Lee.
See, I told you.
His voice was small, astonished. Lee held out his hand.
Let’s have a go, Murray.
You don’t know how.
You just pulled the trigger. Come on, Murray, it can’t be that hard.
Murray looked at him a moment. He handed the gun over, butt first, barrel pointing to the ground. When Lee took hold of it Murray didn’t let go straight away.
Don’t shoot your foot off.
Lee held the gun at his side, tested its weight. His forefinger against the curve of the trigger. He felt excitement and dread, and an electric feeling up his arm that pulsed from the gun. He raised it and looked from the backsight to the foresight at the end of the barrel.
Use both hands or you’ll break your nose. You saw what it did. You don’t want it knocking you out.
He raised his left hand to cradle the gun, setting his teeth so his jaw muscles tightened. His heart thumped hard in his chest.
Okay, I’m going to…
The gun jumped in his hands. A terrible sound, a bolt through his upper body as though he’d run suddenly into a wall. The bullet was lost somewhere in the dark ahead of him. Particles turning in the air with the gas that escaped the muzzle and the chamber. The flash stayed on his retina, a bright white flare with a darker corona, in the dead space ahead of him.
Murray sat forward in his seat and turned the key once again. The starter motor gave out a raw sound and stopped dead. The red light glowed then faded.
Well, we aren’t going anywhere tonight.
Lee had his knees against his chest, his feet on the passenger seat. His jacket was zipped up under his chin.
It’s freezing out here. His fingers were clammy. He drew his elbows in. It’ll be fine if they find us in a year’s time, won’t it?
Ah, we’ll be okay. Let the engine cool down and it’ll start, no worries.
Where’d you get this piece of shit car, anyway?
This little beaut? Murray slapped the molded dashboard with his hand, and the sound travelled through the wiring. I bought this for $200 from Wan the Chinese kid. I just need to let the engine cool. It’ll start up. I should have drawn the heat off with the blowers. We’ll just be a day late. What’s a day?
A low boom came from behind them.
Shouldn’t we check on him?
Murray took a blister pack out of his shirt pocket and pushed out two painkillers. He chewed the tablets and turned his head slowly.
Nah. He’s quietening down. He’ll be alright. Tomorrow he’ll be off our hands. And we’ll be $500 the richer.
He turned in his seat, reached towards the back seat and lifted the lid of the esky. The ice was rumbling around in there, half of it turned to water. He brought out a bottle of beer, shook it and twisted off the top.
And if he dies.
Then we’re in deep shit. Another boom from the boot. Another. But he sounds alive enough to me.
An hour later, Murray was asleep, a beer bottle in hand. He could sleep anywhere. Late night in the corner of a bar, on a bench waiting for a train. Anywhere.
Lee stepped out of the car and sat on the bonnet and rolled himself a cigarette, the sky open to him, so many stars that he stared till he felt lost in them. He blew smoke into the air, poured his own constellations. Waited while they drifted away.
When he’d finished he threw the stub, a cascade of red embers when it hit the ground. He walked round to the back of the car. He stood a moment and listened. He crouched down, tapped the boot with his finger.
Ey, mate, you still in there?
He put his head to one side. He tried to cut out the sounds of the desert, the blood rushing in his ears. He thought he heard a whispering.
You speakin mate?
Something moved across a rock. All the skin on his face became tight. The release button was crome plated, and had worn through the years. There was a key slot across the stub.
He said this so quiet he could barely hear himself. Then he turned and looked behind him in the desert. A wind rose up some distance away like something living. As a boy he had heard it from the porch or while lying in his bed at night, and known it was something large searching in the dead brush, past the water tank and red dirt, in the uninhabited land past the tin fencing that bordered their yard at the back of the house.
He heard the creaking of his own boots as he walked over to the side door and climbed into the passenger seat. We should get out of here, he thought. The wind shifted direction in the distance and he wished he was in the house and had never left it.
He turned his back on Murray and his low, deep nasal breathing, the beginning of a snore like water draining off down a pipe. The sound he heard in the middle of the night through the thin partition walls. He pulled his knees up, made himself as tight as he could. Looked out through the glass at the surface of the monochrome land, the slow moving star systems.
It’s bloody cold, he whispered.
The light was pale, with ragged clouds that fanned out across the sky above the low rooftops and the post office clock tower. Harry sat back onto the pavement and placed a hand against the side of the car. He lowered himself so his shoulder touched the pavement. The front hubcap was dented like a Christmas decoration. In the grit of the road there was a dark patch.
He stood and climbed into the car. Sweat broke out in instant pinpricks on his forehead in the contained heat. He turned the ignition and the car jumped forward. He pulled the gear lever and tried again, and moved the car a few metres.
He got out and stood in the sun, looking at the dark patch on the road. As he stood there a Ute with canvas stretched over a piece of machinery moved at a slow pace along the line of shops, a boy in the back hanging on to the ties, an older man in a white hat at the wheel. The boy watched Harry as they passed. He watched Harry all the way until the Ute swung in and parked. The boy jumped off, nimble as an ape. The older man climbed out and walked across the street, attended by the boy.
Harry brought his hands together, and rubbed them, one against the other. His skin felt uncomfortable, like it was covered in goose fat. He climbed back into the car and started the engine. He engaged the clutch and pulled away.
The man was in his twenties, wearing a stained grey T-shirt and overalls loose to his waist. He came out of the shadows of the garage, into the light, squinting at Harry like a schoolboy. He raised his head in greeting.
How are you?
The man looked past Harry, at the car parked by the plate glass window of the station, next to the trays of newspapers.
I think it’s got an oil leak, said Harry.
The man pulled a filthy cloth out of his pocket, wiped his oily hands on it, then wiped it across his nose. Then he shook his head. He walked over to the car, not lifting his feet, dragging them in the dust. He pushed at the side of the car with his foot. He was wearing weathered tennis shoes. He rested a hand on the bonnet and eased himself to a kneeling position. All his movements were slow, with a strange and beguiling intensity.
What’s the engine sound like?
It’s been misfiring since we bought it.
And where was that?
He bent his head at an angle to see underneath.
At a car market in Sydney. In Woolloomooloo.
Ah yeah. The car market. You didn’t get it from a dealer at a backpacker’s, did yeh? They’ll stitch you up.
He placed a hand on the ground. With his free hand he reached under, and felt around for a moment. When he brought his hand back out his fingers were covered in a dark liquid. He brought them to his nose, then looked at Harry.
The oil’s milky. See that? That means it’s mixing oil and water. That’s more than a break in the oil pipe.
He reached under again, breathing heavily. Harry’s head began to throb, and specks of darkness moved around in the sunlight. He looked across from the garage, past a drinks dispenser, the two petrol pumps, thin and silver in the sunlight, back down the street.
The road was busier now. A silver station wagon was moving along, following the line of telegraph posts that rose up from the veranda on the left side of the street. The shadows were a flat black, cut clean. Out to the west, low-lying ranges made hazy by the blue and grey heat. Nearer, to the northwest, great hills, suddenly rising up, eruptions on the flat outback plane.
The mechanic turned over, head and chest hidden now by the car. His T-shirt rode up, his belly showing white and egg like. Then the sound of boots, and Terrance came round the side of the building, wearing a bush hat with a check strip above the brim, a pale blue shirt and Raybans.
How are you? he said, walking up to the car, and stopping by the mechanic’s legs. He went down on his haunches. You sleeping under there, Ron?
Yeah. Your mother kept me up all night.
Terrance looked at Harry, mock horror on his face. The mechanic shuffled forward and his head appeared, a smear of black across his clear brow. His expression was as neutral as it had been for Harry. Terrance pointed at the car.
How long to get this fixed?
As long as.
Yeah, but how long?
Ron shook his head as if Terrance’s question was ludicrous. Terrance sighed, and took his glasses off.
A day? Two?
Terrance looked at Harry and raised his eyebrows.
And what’ll be your prognosis?
Well, nurse, it could be the seal on the gasket.
He looked to Harry, back to Terrance.
Could be something simpler.
Yeah. It could, said Ron. He looked at Harry. Where are you staying?
The Cranes Hotel, said Terrance.
Did you just throw your voice? You should take that on the road, you’d make a fortune. Where’s your keys?
In the ignition, said Harry.
Alright, I can’t promise anything but leave it with me.
Terrance looked at Ron a moment longer. Then he nodded his head and stood up slowly, with a faint grunt. He placed his glasses in his breast pocket, put his head back and rolled it, bringing up his shoulders and pushing back his elbows, hands in the middle of his back. He accompanied Harry along the street, and they stood together by the steps to the hotel.
It helps for Ron to know we’re acquainted. He pinched his hat at its peak with thumb and forefinger, removed it, examining the band. He has two accounts running in his head, one for strangers, one for everyone else. No different to the rest of the world, eh?
He placed the hat back on his head.
About the car in the desert. Those kinds of accidents are more common than you might think. More people die from car fires than domestic fires. There are at least six combustible fluids under the bonnet. All it takes is a broken fuel line, loose wiring, cracked insulation. Sometimes someone’s driving along and sees smoke coming through the vents. They pull over, get their extinguisher, lift the bonnet. It’s the worst thing they could do. It feeds oxygen to the flames. It goes up, and it takes them with it. I’ve seen it before.
He looked up into the sky.
Still, there’s some details we can’t account for in this case. Imponderables, as my daughter might say.
He cleared his throat and spat into the dust. He pulled his shirt straight. Then he gave a great sigh, scraped the ground with his heel till the spit was gone.
Well, drop round some time this afternoon.
Angela was sitting out on the veranda at the side of the house, on a striped chair by a side door, reading a cheap yellow paperback. The sunlight glowed in a bright strip along the tiled floor. Angela had tucked her bare feet under her so that the whole of her was in the shade. She looked up as he approached and watched him as he seated himself in a whicker chair.
So what’s happening? she said.
It shouldn’t be too expensive. Maybe a hundred dollars.
I mean, how long?
I doubt it’ll be today. He’s an SUV to work on before he gets to ours.
He could hear a lazy knock knock knock from the other side of the house, the low voice of one man calling to another. A slim black cat came out of the doorway behind Angela’s chair. It looked at them a moment, then moved along the wall below the kitchen window, slipped through the wooden railings and dropped into the garden and out of view.
Another day in paradise, said Angela. She turned a page, turned several, and started reading again. There were footsteps at the back, the sound of the door hinges squealing. Through the window he heard Mrs Crane.
Well, yeah, it’s the heat. Ah, yeah, I heard. It’s too young to lose his teeth. But at least he’s got his life. It’s always a worry with children. She should get him to Dr Ringer. He’s a little lamb, that’s what he is. A little lamb.
The voice becoming thinner, trailing away into the interior of the house. Harry rested his head against the rim of the chair and closed his eyes. The sunlight flared red. The heat seemed to be growing, radiating up from the tiles and from the walls.
It made no difference where you were, what part of the distant world. It always came back to this. A news item, a photograph in a magazine, a piece of music, an overheard comment and the present fell away and you were there once again. And every time it was a relief, however painful or uncomfortable.
He saw the incubator as clear as if he was standing in the hospital. The baby was close to the glass partition. Its innards, a large handful of grey intestinal tract in a plastic bag, resting on the thin mattress beside him. He lay on his side and his chest rose and fell quickly, his fingers spread out as though to take hold of something. Perhaps it would have been better if he’d been stillborn. Perhaps, but perhaps that would have been worse. At least they got the chance to hear him cry. And he cried a great deal, in those days at the hospital, in a room full of incubators.
Whenever they visited, they put on robes and face masks, stood over him as his hands wound and his face creased up. Until the last time, when for some reason Harry went alone. He stood in the corridor, looking through the glass into the room. The male nurse who met him there was irritable when he asked where the baby was.
To this day he fantasied about going back and meeting that nurse once again, telling him what he thought of him. As if that would make a difference.
He put his hand to his mouth and there was a sharp pain in his throat. When it came it was hard to stop. He looked at Angela, reading her novel. He stood quickly and turned and walked round to the front of the house, and stood watching the cars that passed by in the bright sunlight.
He stared at the fine grains of dirt that shifted as he breathed, tiny particles like yeast grains, his face pressed into the earth. This was what he saw first. His vision opened out slowly, along with the growing throb of pain behind his left eye. The underside of the car, a dark grey with oil and road dirt, the black coil of a rear wheel suspension, the exhaust with red layers of rust like lichen.
He turned over slowly and lay on his side. He heard a whine like someone playing a saw harp, and felt a pain in his chest. He lay there a moment. It was hard to breathe. There was something on the ground beside him. The car’s mottled silver jack handle. Fresh blood on the socket end, and a spill of blood in the dust. His blood.
He curled round on himself, feeling the dirt through his jeans, and brought his knees to his chest, let out a slow groan. The joint in his jaw was loose, and saliva ran from his mouth.
He’d seen a man with a broken jaw once, his mouth wired into a scream. He’d been sitting at the back of the lorry on the way home from the mines, rocked to sleep by the sway of the vehicle, and fell over the side, full on his face in the road. When he was a boy. Don’t stare, dad told him. The man sitting on a bench outside the labour exchange. He knew he was being watched, and his eyes moved from side to side as though he was looking for a place to hide.
Lee moved his hand slowly. There was no strength in his arm. The pain behind his eye came and went, close and then receding, coming close again. When he raised his hand to his mouth he disturbed desert flies that had settled on the wound. He pressed his forefinger and thumb into his eye sockets and squeezed, and saw white flashes like flares and grey forms moving in the brief darkness.
He opened his mouth but nothing came out. He turned onto his back, his face towards the sun, and he listened to the breath leaving his lips, his eyes closed tight, behind his eyelids a deep burning red. Finally he let out a long, drawn out breath.
You’re a fuckin idjit, Lee. His voice raw as an old man’s. An idjit.
Murray had gone off to take a shit, and Lee had wandered to the back of the car and asked, How are you? You awake in there? And there was no sound. He looked across the bright open land at Murray, a dark distorted figure, lengthened by the heat, the boiling air. You awake?
He’d crouched and listened. Heard a low sound, a weak whispering like someone praying. The button of the catch, the electroplating coming off through all its years of wear. Putting the heel of his hand on the bumper. The wind stirring behind him. They had a whole day of travel ahead of them. Already the flies were everywhere, the ground dry and heat pouring out of it as the sun rose and burnt away the trail of cloud.
Eh mate? A look over his shoulder. A shake of his head. He put his thumb against the button. Mate? Drew closer, listening. You alright? Nothing now. No sound at all. He pushed the button, lifted the boot, and something uncoiled itself fast as a snake, and he felt an impact on the side of his head and the taste of blood flooding his mouth.
Idjit, he whispered. He heard his own heart, louder than the rest of the world, a thoom thoom thoom and a responding beat from somewhere, vibrations under his head. The flap of leather, rapid breathing.
He opened his eyes, saw Murray running, his head down, hands pumping, trying to build up a speed that seemed to elude him. Lee watched him, running through the thin swaying grass, the heat rising in waves that slowly engulfed him, till the sun made him flat and thin. Then he had to close his eyes at the sharp rainbow spines of light, rolled his head in the dust.
I have royally fucked up.
Then he heard a voice, a shouting in the distance. And then nothing but the dry wind blowing. If he stayed still the heat wasn’t too much. If he stayed still he was wrapped up in it, like a boy in a bed, ill and kept home from school. Aching but comfortable in his room. The burr of a lawn mower, his mum’s voice bright like it used to be, calling his name. Lee! Lee! Something soft in his mouth like a feather. He bit down, tasted something bad, spat a fly sideways onto the desert floor.
He lifted his knees, his heavy pale brown boots in the air. His muscles were shaking. He rolled forward with a dry shift of dust, using the weight of his soles, so he was sitting, and as his head came forward, the pain came too. He groaned and lights went off and on. Then it subsided, and he sat there, breathing and waiting.
He looked at his legs in his jeans, knees akimbo, the rumpled material, the dirt in the creases, the broken line of the cotton stitching, the worn boots facing outwards. Spatters of blood on the denim like creosote and already dry. He lifted his hand, touched his forehead, and looked at his finger ends. A deep, bright red, with black dirt and pieces of straw.
A sound went off across the coarse grass and dried out kindling, like one rock hit against another. He waited, keeping his breath dampened, listening.
After a moment he began to take in more breath, but this was arrested by another sound, higher pitched – like the snap of a dry picket fence post. His heart welted in his chest.
He brought his right leg towards him, bending his knee, then the left, and with his left arm he pushed himself and stood. The whole movement took more effort than any movement he’d made before, and he swayed there, hands on his knees. The dark interior of the car boot yawned, the spare tyre, a yellow toolbox, Jerry cans, a soiled groundsheet.
He raised his head slowly. Across the top of the grass, against the blue of the sky, he saw a figure in the distance. It was like an optical illusion. It moved, yet it stayed where it was. It vanished in the morning haze, the streams of air, the heat carrying seeds and dust motes. Then it reappeared, dark coat flapping, quivering in the heat.
He turned towards the car. His breath whistled. The rays of the sun moved across his sight like wheel spokes. He took hold of the chrome handle but it was too hot. He wrapped his hand in his sleeve and hooked the handle, pressed the button, but the door wouldn’t open, even though he pulled so the blood throbbed in his head. He heard his own voice, a whimpering that he thought he’d left behind with boyhood, as he repeatedly tugged at the handle.
Then the rubber seal came away like duct tape, and the door opened. He climbed inside, head first, the heat in there a hot shroud. The plastic seating burnt his bare palms. He bent to look, but there were no keys in the ignition.
He pulled open the glove compartment and scooped everything out, CDs, tapes, sweet wrappers, into the foot well. He slid along and checked in the compartment by the steering column. Some dollar coins and cents fell and clattered against the silver doorframe. Then he lay perfectly still and listened. Aside from the rushing sound of blood in his ears he could hear heavy breathing close by the car.
He squinted back through the open door. Just the blue sky. Then a shuffling of grit, the breathing closer now, and then the figure stepped in and blocked the light, leaning against the car, which listed sideways.
Well what? A few breaths. What the fuck? More breathing. What the fuck are you doing down there?
Lee pulled himself up slowly to a sitting position. Murray stood there, his face slick with sweat, the coat hanging over his arm. He moved his lips as if swilling mouth wash and spat a pink mouthful into the dust. He wouldn’t look Lee in the eye. He drew the back of his hand across his forehead and looked at it.
He threw the keys onto the passenger seat. A crease appeared in his brow as though a wave of pain had struck, then he blew out some air.
Alright Lee. His voice quiet. Open the bonnet.
Lee pulled the lever under the dashboard, heard the quake of its release. Murray opened the back door and dropped the coat onto the seat. He walked to the front of the car, turned his back and sat against the bonnet. His arms hung by his side as if he had no use for them. The wind blew. His hair was ruffled and dusty. Moving his head ever so slowly. Three birds wheeled across the air in the distance and he followed their path.
He tolled on the bonnet with his knuckles. He stood away from the car and turned and looked in at Lee, his figure divided by the arc of dust on the windscreen. He pointed towards the steering wheel, made a twisting motion with his hand, then searched under the rim of the bonnet with his fingers and hefted it up. Lee put the key in the ignition and turned it. He touched the pedal. The car shuddered and stopped, gave a dry sound and stopped again.
The third time it shuddered into life. The engine speeded up and slowed down as Murray played with the timing. It speeded up so much it became a one-pitched whine. Then it settled, and Murray dropped the bonnet.
He walked round to the boot and closed it. Lee watched him in the mirror. His every movement seemed distracted. He came back round to the passenger seat. He got in slowly, with a small explosion of air from his nostrils.
Come on. Put it in gear and let’s get out of here.
Lee turned his head to look across the plane. Dust blew off the rise and spiralled in the clear air.
Now, fer fucksake!
He snapped the seat back. He pushed on the clutch pedal and put the engine in gear. As he raised the pedal Murray leaned back and said, almost in a whisper, It’s okay. Just get us out of here. The tyres rumpled slowly on the hard earth. Lee let out the clutch and turned the wheel. In the rearview mirror a pale ghost of dust particles rose up, then the tyres caught and they moved away.
Biographies (alphabetical order)
Caroline Chisholm was born in Essex in 1972 and grew up in Buckinghamshire, the Shetland Islands and County Durham. She studied English Literature at the Queen’s University of Belfast and worked for several years in communications for high profile NGOs, most recently for Greenpeace International in Amsterdam. Caroline has an MA in Creative Writing from the University of Manchester, where she developed the early drafts of Swimming Pool Hill. She’s currently studying for a PhD at the University’s Centre for New Writing. Caroline has previously been longlisted for the Mslexia first novel award.
Ian Nettleton lives in Norwich. He has worked as a carer, a book seller, a teacher of English in Prague, in a post room and, after completing a PhD in Creative and Critical Writing at the UEA, he now teaches creative writing at the Open University, the UEA, Wensum Lodge and Cinema City, Norwich. He has worked freelance for BBC TV as a writer/presenter (summarising classic novels in sixty seconds) and appeared on BBC Radio 4’s Open Book. The Last Migration was runner-up in the Bath Novel Award 2014. He is currently half way through a first draft of a novel about a boy whose father is an exorcist. Photo: Martin Figura