Saturday, December 31, 2005

The Valley of Tears

At 1.28 am she wakes up, hearing the woman scream. She can hear the scream as it falls along the cliff top. She can hear it cascading down like something from a movie. The cry starts loud and high and ends, fades out dimly, lower and softer. She can’t tell where it came from. She thinks it is from the cliff but can’t be sure. It’s the falling tone that makes her think so.
       She imagines some woman throwing herself off the escarpment into the tops of trees and the rocks underneath, or perhaps some man has pushed her. A lover, she has been keeping secrets from and who now wants to be rid of her. And perhaps the woman will drown in the light air on the way down as the scream drowns in the night air too. She listens but can’t tell. The scream had surrounded her and now it is falling.
      The scream falls down the cliff-face into the valley below. She can hear the woman scream. The woman must be falling, the scream falls with her. Is it here? The woman should fight back. If it is indeed, a lover, the woman should shield her face with her hands. But the scream is a scream of defeat. A fear-sharp edge of scream which embraces fear as if there is nothing else. Is this what the final scream of courage sounds like as it leaves a body? Is the scream the tearing a person makes when the end of their courage has been reached? The falling off before they have really begun. Is this where all the trouble comes from - a simple finishing of the last reserves of courage?

The young woman swears that she was already awake when she heard it. The scream, the tear. This is not a story, not a scream that you can hear alone. She goes upstairs to her mother and becomes younger than her sixteen years. Mother, Mother, Mummy, did you hear it? The scream?
      The mother has not heard it. The mother has been damply asleep, lying next to the step-father. She has been dreaming of disturbing things, things she does not understand, nothing, however, about screaming women, no voices falling off the edges of cliffs. Leave me alone, she says. Leave me alone and brushes her hand against her daughter. Leave me alone. The mother wants to be left alone, to sleep, to find the thing which has disturbed her in the night. To finish the dream. But the daughter won’t go away. Yes, the mother says Yes, yes, what is it? because the girl is her daughter and the daughter thinks she has heard a scream, a woman, in pain.
      So then, the mother wakes the step father, and he looks around the borders of the house. Stepping lightly on the dewsoft maidenhair. He looks. He doesn’t see anything, not even the light of the only other farm they can usually see from their house. He listens like an animal, one ear tilted higher than the other. Like a cat. There is nothing. He goes downstairs to the other daughter, and hears her sleeping breath, in out, calm, not disturbed by screaming. Her skin is almost luminescent in the low light.
      Then, without warning she wakes, sees the man’s face hardly lit at all in the quiet bedroom and screams screams in fright until the man is forced to turn on the light and calm her. It’s me. It’s me. It seems silly to ask if she had heard a scream, she had been asleep, he could see it. Nevertheless he asks her and she speaks incoherently about a man in a yellow robe, something she has been dreaming he supposes. A man with wispy hair. He comforts her and she turns back to her warm sheets. Mother, mother bed, hold me, comfort me, the man with the yellow robe is here she says to herself. She goes back to the dream, to the man in the yellow robe, who holds her in his arms and strokes her hair. Gently. Gently.

By now everyone else is awake. The two half-sisters, the half-brother. None of them heard anything. The others look everywhere for the source of the screaming which the daughter insists is real, really happened, but they find nothing. They call out into the dark from the balcony, but no one answers their anonymous cries. They think someone might have fallen and have vague fantasies about rescue attempts before they go back to bed, to sleep their unworried sleep.
      The step-father privately thinks that the daughter has dreamt it all, although she says she hasn’t. She says she had been watching television and nodded off only for a moment. Was the scream her own? She can’t believe it. Was it she who cried out between the babble of infotainment and advertorials? Was it she who could not stand, any longer, the bouffant hair, the American teeth, the tight blanc mange faces, milky and gelid even on television? She hopes not. The young woman stays awake holding the papery hand of the step-father who is ill and sleepy. Never mind he says to her.
      Then the young woman wants to call the police but, as the step-father points out, she is the only one who heard it. The next nearest house has its lights off, they are still asleep, and no one has found any evidence of any commotion at all. No trace of anything. Is she sure? But it is getting very late and she is losing her ability to discriminate. She had been sure.
      They do not ring the police. Even the young woman thinks how absurd it would be - the conversation with some police officer. She knows what they would think, bored on the end of the phone.

Deep in the valley, Ruth wakes.
      She is used to her insomnia, she has lain with it as long as she can remember. Usually she wakes, reads books, her scientific journals, or works on some theoretical problem which calms her. Mathematics and the tiny cosmologies of physics have a grace and motion of their own which sates her and she falls asleep again an hour before she has to be up. She doesn’t worry if the night consists of small slivers of sleep and large slabs of reading and thinking. She’s used to it and doesn’t fret.
      Tonight though, she frets. She keeps turning and worrying. She does not know why she has woken so early. Normally she wakes at three. This morning it still seems night, and there is a discord in the air. The sheets are twisted. The stillness that lovers have remarked on has deserted her, and her body is alive with something she cannot name. Her mind full of panthers and lynxes. Stalking and then reappearing, close to her face. They do not make any sort of noise. She cannot call up her friendly spirits, her protecting agents, and she feels bereft and lonely in the world more than she can say. Ruth, Ruth, she says to herself in a gentle voice but her voice sounds strange, and not at all comforting. She doesn’t sleep, nor can she read. She turns and turns and frets about things which can’t be changed. She gets up and makes herself some tea and stares at the night garden. Finally, she turns to the cards. Not that she believes them exactly, but she is lonely and it gives her something to bounce off, something to react to. She is talking to herself through these cards she knows that, but she believes that there is something, many things, about time which she does not understand and maybe through the agency of the cards she will learn something. Her rational, blinkered mind scoffs at these fanciful justifications.
      She lives in the valley, believes that she has a guardian angel, three of them in fact, and she talks to the cards late at night when the world’s time is twisted like an insomniac sheet, wrenched around and creaking in the night. Where there are tears and rips in the fabric of things and where she can sometimes slip a card between the many universes so tightly packed together.
      She does this with questions. She wants to know whether things will get better. This will be a good question. She will try to understand what the cards seem to say, and although she cannot always understand what is being said, she always tries to be an apt pupil, an attentive conversational partner, if only with herself.
      Tomorrow she will go on a journey, and she is anxious in a way that makes her think that she is having a premonition of danger, don’t go, don’t go. She reminds herself that it is always like this before she steps out of the valley, and so far she has always returned, although not always unchanged. The world out of the valley is different, and she is a stranger there. She is a different person, a singular person, not someone who is part of the fabric of the valley, not someone socially related to just about everyone she meets. Someone with a position, however insignificant, in the scheme of things.
      Actually, she is afraid of the cards, and she hasn’t opened their tiny box yet.
      She has had this box of cards for a long time. They’re small, half the size of normal playing cards. Sometimes she thinks she has the gift of insight and understanding. There is much she understands, but much, even about herself, that she doesn’t. Sometimes, though, she sees, without understanding, in a whole phrase, a whole vision. She did not hear the scream.
      She is afraid, because the world does not seem to be hanging together as it should. Something is amiss. Something is wrong although she doesn’t know what. Perhaps it is her. She is too afraid to open the box. She leaves it on the table and goes outside and looks up at the escarpment and feels ill. Perhaps it is the feeling of a scream that she has. Perhaps it was she who screamed.

The next day, in the daylight, the scream has disappeared. In its place is a tenuous grey light which Ruth feels much happier in. She packs her clothes, it’s only a few days, she will be home soon she says, and forgets the prescience she thought she felt on the previous night. She puts everything in a little bag, and decides not to take a camera. She is sick of the idea that everything needs to be recorded. She orders her papers and packs her linen handkerchiefs even though she is a plain woman, who wears plain clothes she likes some lace in her life: lace edged linen handkerchiefs is about the extent of it. And French perfume. An affectation.
      She has to catch a train and then a bus, and then an aeroplane, and then a bus, another train and then a taxi. She prefers not to drive to the airport because it disrupts her concentration. If she is on a journey she wants to be absorbed in the process of the journey. In the isolation even a routine journey gives. She has brought with her the work of Chaung Tzu - styled ‘a Chinese mystic’. She knows nothing about him or his work other than that he is a follower, and a deviator from, Lao Tzu the much more famous philosopher-mystic. The train is full of teenaged women talking about clothes. They’re silly, but she doesn’t judge them particularly harshly - this is what young women do at their age. It’s about mating she thinks. Young men kill themselves in wars or cars, and the young women adorn themselves so as to attract a good range of males to choose from. The girls wave at young men out of the window of the train but the young men don’t see them.
      Meanwhile the varying ridges and sharp edges of the escarpment file past the window of the train.

Of course Ruth did not die or come to any sort of grief on the journey, and it revealed only what she had taken away with her. She needn’t have gone anywhere, perhaps, to learn about how things were put together. With what tenuous and odd connections things draw strength and cohesion. She had slept little and strange fits of crying had broken up the hotel nights. The smooth table tops of the professionally made beds looked as if made for virgins. Nevertheless, the panthers lurked in the hotel closets and she imagined their fur.
      The world remained itself, ordinary, she got on the buses and planes and came home to sit in the garden.
      At this time of the year, the poppies were out: big headed and long-limbed like schoolgirls, they stood about with excellent indifference. Oranges hung from their tree, lemons from theirs. She walked into the township and bought bread from the young woman in the bakery, who smoothed back her thin hair with the back of her wrist and passed over the change with the other hand. And Ruth could feel the soft touch of her skin, warm and comfortable. This was the young woman who had heard the scream.
      They smiled at each other politely. Warm enough for you today? said the young woman, and Ruth replied that it was, or that it would get hotter, or that it wouldn’t, but the young woman was already serving another customer. Ruth took the bread, went out, crossed the road and bought some milk then walked down the road to her home.
      Everything remained in place.
      The houses had a solidity which she had never noticed before. They sat on the earth so deliberately. Cars went by with absolute purpose and had anyone noticed Ruth they would have seen an unremarkable woman coming home from the shops carrying bread and milk, walking easily in the warm morning sun.

When Ruth reached the front door, there began a terrible screaming. It was as if the fabric of the world was suddenly wrenched, as if all the metal things were abrading all the other metal things. Vision slipped and the door was no longer a banal rectangle of ornamental wood but a rhombus. Fight! Fight! She could hear her own voice in her ears. Fight! Fight against this! She looked at her immobile hands and they became slow and unable to move the key into the lock. She did not know how to fight. There were too many things impinging on her, too many things she did not understand. She could not understand how her ordinary life could suddenly become so twisted, and did not know what it took to straighten it out again. The noise tilted in her ears. She did not feel afraid. She knew that this thing was external to her. She knew that nothing she could do, or any prescience she might have would affect the outcome one way or another, and that, brilliant as people thought her, she did not have the capacity to unravel this thing.
      She wondered in this strange warping whether it was just her, or whether the world had in fact shifted and that she was one witness among many. There was no way of knowing. People would not say. Or would say: I had a bit of a turn on Saturday, or, I think I have a migraine coming on, or ... any one of a number of things. But she felt that it was bigger than the circumference of her body and that the tension she felt, the tears, the feelings of foreboding were not a sign of madness but a response to something amiss, something strange in the network of things which she could not understand.

The world straightened again. It might only have been a millisecond, a nanosecond, that it had been adrift but the objects in her house seemed to have a new disposition. It seemed like the house of a stranger and she was surprised that she still knew her way around the house, and knew where all her usual things were. The teapot, the knives.

In the following weeks the young woman on the escarpment often had the sensation that the mountain was shifting. She said to her mother: Was that a tremor? but the mother was taking care of the step-father and simply said distractedly: I don’t think so dear. The young woman went to the job in the bakery and watched the world as if it were about to explode. She didn’t want to go out with her friends because they seemed, for no particular reason at all, to be grotesque. She couldn’t understand them, or what she had ever seen in them. She watched late night television, and let the dark circles grow under her eyes.
      After five weeks, both the young woman and Ruth had become accustomed to living in this shifting world. They made allowances - like a sailor becoming accustomed to the uncertain motion of the deck under the feet. It was not exactly equilibrium but it was a way of negotiating the tricky surfaces of things.
      In the sixth week the screaming began again.
      The young woman on the mountain ran out to the edge of the escarpment looking for whatever wild beast or woman it was in pain. She stood on the edge as much as she dared and called out until her throat became rough with calling. Ruth paced the floor of her bedroom like an animal. Her sleek skin riding over the muscles. The palms moist and vulnerable. She walked in the garden in the night. Brushing the poppies with her dressing gown as she strode with long steps through the weeds and among the over-hanging trees. She was alert, analytical, distanced when the man in a yellow coat stepped into her path. What do you want? Ruth asked him. She was startled, but not afraid. What do you want? It was almost as if she had been expecting him or someone like him.
      He stepped forward and at that moment the screaming began again. The earth seemed to be shifting its axis. The young woman on the escarpment shifted and swayed, wild eyed on the edge. What do you want? Ruth called out. What do you want? She looked at his eyes and knew he was part of it. The one wrenching the world around. She did not understand how he was there or what he would do. He came closer and was saying her name, Ruth, Ruthie, in a soft breath like a lover. What do you want? Ruth asked him again. He lifted his hand as if to caress her face or assault her - she could not tell which. She could not tell whether he was evil or whether he was some benign saving force. And then the earth screamed with a wrenching scream again and all Ruth’s passion and sleekness, her fear and her courage combined, leapt into her until she could not tell whether she herself were evil or benign. She stayed pivoted on the ground as the earth shifted and moved. He moved his hand closer to her face and she was suddenly joined with something she didn’t understand. Her hands became strong. She took him by the hair and flung him into the poppies, beating him wildly with her fists. He was an old man and held up his hands in front of his face. Lady, lady, he said. She picked up a stone and beat him with it, smashing the smooth skin of his forehead. Blood ran into his thin hair. She ground his eyes and broke the old yellow teeth of him. She beat him. She could hear herself screaming at him although she could not understand what it was she was saying. She beat him until he didn’t move and no longer spoke. She beat him until she herself was exhausted, and then lay on his body like a lover until her green dressing gown was wet with dew and until the screaming stopped.
      The woman on the escarpment cried deep tears, and Ruth stood up. There was nothing more to be done.
      Ruth went inside and looked at her beautiful mathematical papers. She moved the figures and symbols around and became absorbed in the beauty of it. The elegant creatures on the page aligned themselves in patterns which were deeply charming to her, which covered any rift. Then she slept, her head resting on her work in the still early morning never dreaming she would see him again.

© 2006 Chris Mansell
Previously published in Westerly (Australia) and The Antigonish Review (Canada)


Martin had a family. Parents, brothers and sisters. Lots of them, strong and important like him with large flat hands and smooth forearms and a measured way of moving so as to conserve energy for the harvest or sowing or whatever emergency came up. On a farm there are always emergencies. When the old single piston tractor blew up and knocked you father down, you are taught the rudiments of good sense, not, for example, to let petrol get all over the place when you're starting the water pump. Although Martin learnt that by seeing his hands flaming. He thought at the time it was like an exotic fish and felt no pain, put the flames out with an old wet sack, and didn't tell his father. Martin was twelve and should have known better.
      He learnt about pumps and engines and how to break a horse. Loved his horses and watched them mate in the yard. The wild strong mare with shiny flanks and her readiness. The stallion rearing up, biting her. Sometimes she biting him. It was dangerous. As a boy he'd linger some way from the yard and pretend not to watch, tweaking up bits of soft new green. Breathe and roar and finish. His body in a sweat he'd race down to the first gully whooping and yelling and slapping his moist thighs and become embarrassed and hide.
      Other days he'd walk down to the first gully, an intrepid and serious man. He'd want just to walk, but would take the .22 to give the walk the legitimacy it needed. People, men, on farms don't walk for exercise and boys don't walk to look at nature, they take a rifle with them. They check the sights with careful irony, and pace the gully with a bullet in the breach.
      It is permissible to do anything to a rabbit. Inflict any disease, maim, injure, kill. It's not only permissible, it's required. To justify a walk you take a rifle, and to satisfy the inspector you'll do something to keep them down to at least the specified level. A rifle is the least efficient way. And you'll hear the little death yelp over the noise of a bullet. There are lots of stories among the boys of rabbits-they-have-shot. The time the bullet went in one eye and out the other (a side-on shot) and the skin's at home if you don't believe me.
      They've have arguments on the school bus about this sort of thing. He and his sister Rosemary would hurl orange peel at the Cochrane kids when they got out at their place. For calling Martin a bloody abo. It wasn't being called an abo that he minded so much, he just didn't like the way they said it. And his sister had that protective things that big sisters get about their little brothers, adopted or half or fostered, or perhaps more because of that.
      The biggest Cochrane would get him behind the toilets just about every recess and every lunch and beat him up. Nothing his big sister could do about that. In the event there was a showdown at the urinal and Cochrane let his guard drop, over-confidant. And Martin got him winded him and kneed him in the balls and there was never any trouble after that.
      So they could argue and boast and posture on the way home in the rickety bush which ran in a big circle around all the places. Martin and his sister would take forever walking up the drive up to the house. He teasing her about what boys she was in love with and she teasing him about being soft on this particular or that particular girl. She making childish obscene kissing motions with her mouth and he holding his stomach and making puking noises. Girls germs. They'd shriek and laugh and throw sticks at teach other or bits of rock or handfuls of dust. Bully and thump each other but they would never hold hands or link arms because it was almost indecent the way her skin had a papery dryness and his was wet and nervous. After a while she went away to another school and it was then he started to go for the solitary walks with the .22 under his arm.
      He'd pretend that it was a station rather than a property and hold quiet dialogues with the boundary men when they came in after weeks. Often he'd revise it and pretend that he'd just come in from an aerial survey of the place and say to his men 'We're low on water out in the far paddock', but he'd have to revise that too because he didn't think they'd use an expression like 'far paddock' on a really big place. They probably had names for the places - like towns. Some of these stations were bigger than countries and there'd be nothing much but the homestead, a few sheds, and the cattle. And the Aborigines. He'd have to revise that too. He didn't know how to handle the image of what he thought of as 'real' Aborigines, tribal Aborigines. He could manage stockmen and women because they seemed in his imagination to be like him - almost white, whether he liked it or not. Almost as white as a white man they said. Almost, they told him. He didn't know what would be expected of him in a situation like that. He became tongue-tied and awkward and embarrassed even in his imaginings and would abandon the whole scene and look for a few rabbits or start the walk back to the house.
      The truth was, he couldn't care less about rabbits, dead or alive, multitudes or not. And neither could his father except in that sort of abstract practical way that farmers have. It's just something you have to do. It's a problem to which you must find a solution. But he'd always praise Martin if he came back with something. Not because it was learning to kill, but because it was purposeful behaviour. Martin resented this and almost everything else his father said.
      His father seemed to be always with him wherever Martin was around the house and farm. Always wanted to know what he was about to do, and what he had just done. Wanting to know, insisting, insistent about what time he should get up, go to bed, talkative about Martin's indolence or Martin's reading habits, or Martin's table manners, or whatever Martin was doing at the time. He would say in an off-hand manner, almost out of Martin's hearing, If that boy had half a brain he'd be dangerous I reckon. So Martin would get sullen and look at this father with a sort of half-cocked smile which would make his father angry but you couldn't hit a kid because he was smiling at you. You could invent something else to hit him for though, especially if you'd had a few. Even Martin wouldn't smile then.
      The worst of it was that his father took it out on his mother. Took it out, whatever it was, whatever imagined grievance, whatever insult or injury he imagined she had caused. Accused her of having affairs with other men, even though he knew she'd been in the house, or around the yard all day and had made him breakfast, lunch and dinner and gone to bed with him at night. She'd yell back at him that If he thought that she'd had time to fool around then he was crediting her with being cleverer than she really was. Which made a nice change. She'd make herself some tea and pour it into the best cup and sit on the back steps listening to the trees and to the frogs under the tankstand.
      When his father was drunk and maudlin he'd want to talk. He'd talk to Martin about the ways in which Martin's mother had made him into only half a man, how he'd never be free of it, and how it would ruin his sons' lives as well. He'd talk about his own parents, of a mother who was so domineering because his father had come from England where he'd had a small market garden and consequently had no idea of how to farm in Australia. Hetty had managed the farm, was ambitious and sent the girls to the university in Sydney but the two boys had to stay at home and work on the land whether they liked it or not. He would tell Martin how he could have been a professor but his father wouldn't stand up to Hetty. Finally, one of the sisters had brought home one of their friends and that had been Martin's mother, who always flaunted her superior education. He'd never had a chance to go out on the town and get to know all the women, though, he would confide to Martin, he had plenty of offers and it was only out of duty to Martin's mother that he hadn't taken them up. Not that his mother was much in bed, didn't really like it and thought it was dirty and these days never made a move to it herself. Frigid. And he ought to know. He'd had a few of those town girls when he was young. Tied down to the farm he'd never escape now and it was all because of those bitches. A man just ought to take off and leave it to rot and all his useless sons, and half-cast strays and hangers on, with it. Go to Darwin. Start a new life. Sell the farm, have some money for a change. Women like money. He'd find himself some good-looking women who liked it. He'd have a great time. They'd be all over him like flies. He was still in his prime.
      Martin was angry and embarrassed. There was nothing he could do in the circumstances, but sit there. If he made a move or looked as though he might not be listening his father would accuse him of being on her side, faithless, undutiful, disloyal, weak, unmanly, a milksop who couldn't understand a man when he talked straight.
      In the morning, his father wouldn't say a word about it, any of the talk, but begin again, getting on his back about something or another, anything. He and his brothers wasting their time at school. Should be out doing a man's work, earning his keep.
      Lily, his mother, would be quiet and grey and serve the greasy breakfast.

One night when Martin was about sixteen he came back inside after doing something useful, checking on a disturbance in the yard, or looking at the pigs or something and there was ruckus in the kitchen.
      His father had a knife to the youngest brother's throat, roaring that he was going to kill the worthless little son of a bitch. Staggering around the kitchen with the knife and the boy. The boy was white and flaccid and unresisting, with his mouth open trying to breathe. Not struggling to escape.
      His mother stood with her back to the corner and the butt of the .303 to her shoulder. She looked at her husband down the warm metal length of the rifle. Let him go, she said.

And then Lily would construct silences until Rosemary too would go away, not wanting to intrude on this woman who had come from a different age, who knew how to ride a horse and could cook perfect cakes without a written recipe, which never had a written recipe, but which always turned out right.
      Once, to break the silence, Rosemary would ask to tell her how to make one. But words are not sufficient to Lily's sponge cakes. Their possibilities were endless, not of a kind Rosemary could readily understand. There was an infinite number of possible cakes but only one way to make those infinite number. Rosemary operated the other way around. An infinite number of ways to get to the same point. She papered in her imagination to get what she thought would be a better life. But Rosemary did not let on and so there was another silence between them. There was silence, and her own dreams which gave her potency and form, because in such a family you cannot discern the form of your life. Too many of the structures are kicked away by those series of silences. That which was real was not. That which was truth was either self-evident or ignored. There was no middle ground, and there seemed to be no connections. She papered her imagination and her memories with structures which didn't belong, and which she was pleased could not belong within the worlds she had inherited. Nevertheless, they were more real to her than to Lily, whom she sometimes suspected she had concocted out of recollection or dream.

Martin would become trained into physical strength and resentment by his father, the school, and the town, took it and himself to the places he knew he could win and be something in his own terms.

The carnival people who came through the small town were fantastic aliens, tattooed, strong and sluttish with a thin gauze of dark dust over their skins and over everything in their caravans. In sideshow alley ancient begrimed panda bears which were strapped into their permanent bunkers with invisible fishing line, watched as Martin and Rosemary hung back, fingering coins in their pockets and calculating how many goes and on what.
      Once, they ventured into the ghost train - except there wasn't a train - they walked through the haunted corridors of black canvas - he acrid smell of the dye making their noses prickle.
      Martin's sister watched, enthralled, enchanted, as pale men with well-developed tattoos handed out money and useless prizes. She watched the smudgy pictures, distorted women with enormous breasts, illegible names, red and black roses quivering on upper arms, dragons, hearts, daggers - which represented their faith in themselves, that they would always feel the same way tomorrow and would always love dragons. It was rumoured that it hurt to have done and so was all the more impressive, this emblematic parade.
      At the back of the showground, past the wooden horse merry-go-round, and the steaming cold bins of ice creams, was a roped-off square and a sleazy-looking character who extolled the virtues of the Champ for the benefit of the town's mug lairs who stood around in attitudes of defiance of everything in particular. They gestured to each other with their chins like dogs in a pack, sniffing the air for a new excitement or someone else in their territory.
      Martin and his sister hung around on the edge of this, large-eyed and with sticky fingers wiping down the sides of their shorts. The boxer was an unimaginable creature - to be so extravagantly praised in public seemed nearly immoral to them. Impressive.

It was much later, of course, when Martin had gone through the stage of not being seen dead with your sister in public, and then it being OK if she had good-looking girlfriends, and then into the stage of wearing his panic and boredom as if it were confidence, and he was a mug lair who stood around the boxing ring with his weight on one hip and the other leg stretched nonchalantly out like an alert brolga. Sang froid. Sang eyes. Sang hands in pockets. Sang shifting weight from one foot to the other. Sang tedium and wanting something to happen. Sang milk bars, and Saturday nights endlessly. The sang froid boys and the sang froid girls with black leather and strong sweaty cigarettes in stubby fingers with nails bitten back. Sang afternoon. Sang night. Sang the lights of the carnival cool and unfocussed in the air.
      Martin stepped in, and his hands were tied up in leather fighting mittens. She looking, unable. His feet heavy and reluctant. The spiv shouting to the crowd, his smelly breath. The first hit to the side of Martin's head, the rash of white light in the black of his vision. His anger. His fists unaware, automatic.
      Later he felt sorry for the boxer. The local mugs were supposed to be drunk, egged on by their mates. Legless. In his same there was nothing much Martin could do except join the square of dirty canvas and the spruiker and become part of the carnival.
      His sister stood at the back of the crowd, her arms limp by her sides with despair. Silent as a dream.

© 2006 Chris Mansell
Previously published in Meanjin (Australia)

The Island

The mist rises from the lake like prophesy: you can't hold it, and you can't make it change. I know. I watch for it. Sometimes there are curves of mist that stick to the leaves of the surrounding trees. Caught by the hair. Other times there is one single animal lolling around the surface of the water. Each time the mist rises it reveals the island, although, in truth, it is not an island, but an arc of land which juts into and quells the lake.
      It is not even a natural lake. At the bottom there are a million stones which have been skimmed across its surface. Each stone bouncing off the water. Flicking the ligaments. Each stone succumbing, flat, flat, flat, then into the dark green, almost black, where it settles. And then another.
      And below that the large stiff debris of construction and blasting; the miscellaneous cast-offs of the workers and their families as they moved on to the next construction site, dam, tunnel, bridge, lake, railway. Their backs willing for the work or their pockets for the money. When they move they leave behind what wrecked cars, what children's high chairs broken in the back or with one leg shorter (inexplicably) than the other now, or what old wheels, or smashed billy carts. Anything.
      And underneath all that, what? Silt made up of rotting vegetation, yes, and then the remains of the town I grew up in. Buried there the memories and memorials, the lanes, the streets and secrets.

The island is not so much an island as a thin promontory, an arc of stones, curving into my own private sea. I know it is not an island because I made it. Every day since they left I have added stone to stone, pebble to pebble, sand to sand and pushed it out further, into the wide blue ocean. I am trying to make the valley. I will build it and then make the hills and mark in every street until it would be familiar to anyone. I will be home and keeper of secrets.
      Most of the secrets are my own it is true, but secrets are not secrets without circumstance. Circumstance changes truth to lies, and lies to secrets.

She lived in a little valley. She lived in a little valley which grew many vegetables and green things, did not have a dentist, a pharmacy, or a butcher. It did have a saddlery, a woodworking shop (called a 'cabinet makers') and a place that sold bread, the newspapers, and gave away the local talk. Inside this shop her people wandered about aimlessly cleaning and moving boxes around and counting money from the till. Sometimes she also pressed the buttons of the till and smiled at anyone at all who came through the door. In those days she was as fresh as any young girl should be. I saw you and I loved you. You smiled at me to know you. I loitered around the front verandah of the shop as if with intent. You did not notice me. You smiled at everyone who entered your shop; you smiled at everyone who left - you bruised yourself with the hard corners of conversation, your white teeth closing so precisely together I always expected to hear a little click as they shut.
      The big frill of your coloured skirt rustled behind the counter. I cannot imagine what it was that you did to that skirt to make it sound like that. The way a nurse's skirt might rustle, but loud, like a bride's dress.

In the valley, there was a post office and a small school. When the children got older, they would have to go to boarding school or take a bus every day over the several mountains to the nearest secondary school. The bus was modern but the mountains were rickety. As we drove back and forth up the big gullies the sky opened up. It was possible to drive all the way to the clouds, and they would envelop us like dust.

She had the most beautiful plaits. It was such a shame when she cut them off - still a woman has to be a woman some time and you don't get to be a woman with your hair done up in pigtails like a school girl.

She was always a schoolgirl. I liked the way her hair was parted in the middle: the plaits long and loose and drooping as if there was nothing to stop her being fifteen all her life.
      But it was such a shame, nevertheless, when they had to go. It was the only time I ever saw Harry cry. He couldn't believe that his little girl. Wait til she gets married I said. But it's always the mother who does the crying then. Always the mother. An ally gone you see. Left alone with the husband again. It's like that. The two old ones left alone. Look at us I say. Just look at us.

The old parents doddering around. You never knew where they'd turn up. They'd stand up close to you as though inspecting you. They'd say.
      And how are we this morning dear.
But it wasn't a question and I wouldn't answer. I wouldn't let on. I hated the way they said 'we' when they meant me. I did not know how to answer. She'd look on and smile and then her plaits would fall across her cheek and I'd want to put my hand out and touch.
      Don't touch dear.

I never would touch because she seemed so far away and so adult. I'd wait until late afternoon, closing time, and sit in the cool valley air as the sun disappeared over the ridge and I would tell myself that soon she would be coming outside. I would sit on the verandah and feel the texture of the skin on my knees with my tongue. It would taste blue, but like metal nevertheless. Like salt.
      Then she would come out and she sit beside me and rest her chin on her knees too and we would not talk. Our breathing would begin to synchronize and our hearts pulse at the same rate. We could both hear the ringing, sizzling noise of the quietness.
      What are you two doing out here at this time of night.
Finally, the air would go soft and she'd go back inside and I'd go home.
      Whatever it was, it certainly wasn't Maisie's doing. She was not the sort of girl to go off and get herself into trouble. There were scrapes of course but it would always be Maisie who looked after the others. She was a good girl, no matter what anyone said.

And what didn't they say about my Maisie my love eh. What didn't they say. That she was a moon-face, precocious little cow. That even so young she was a bitch on heat and no better than she ought to be. And she'd do some man great damage before she was finished. You mark my. Butter wouldn't melt. Led them all astray. As if we were so many dogs, or sheep, or children of Hamlin to be taken off into the hard mountains to emerge years later in the miserable reaches of Transylvania still dressed like children, gabbling and chattering, as soft-eyed and dopey as we had been when we'd dissolved into the solid rock.
      I just wanted to be near her. A girl like her: there was no right or wrong in it.
      One hundred per cent charisma that girl.

We just wanted to be near her.

On the fourth day after the fourth night the ranks of the press cameras had already begun to thin. There was no news. Nothing continued to happen. They couldn't get a decent meal or refills for their asthma sprays - the local post office couldn't fax anything anywhere. No meetings. No lunches. They got bored. They wanted to go home.
      Fourteen children went missing and there was nothing anyone could do. There was no hint, no clue, no one knew exactly when they had gone. But by tea time fourteen had disappeared.
      Most blamed it on Maisie. She was the oldest: silent, sulky, old for her age.
      She was always into mischief that one.
No-one could imagine where they might have disappeared to. Triangulated maps were pulled out, laid flat on the bonnets of Landcruisers, helicopters called in. Sympathy expressed by politicians, but then the dollar went up (or down) or there was another drought (or flood) and the cameras and journalists were wanted elsewhere. Even the searchers eventually wandered off and the police went on with more ordinary things.

I like to think of the layers of it as layers of memory caught under each stone. You take each one and give it to a child and the child holds it in their hands and plays the game. I was the one who came back.
      It is always the one who's not quite one hundred per cent who's spared.
Blessed. That's the way it is.
      The stones are a jig saw puzzle, you see how they fit. Then they make up a picture. You take them down to the river. And pretty soon the construction workers arrive and we submerge all our memories.
      The valley is very deep where the river was. My little stone bridge will take a long time to reach the original bed.
      My arc, my island, my stepping stones: the little plip as each one drops in; the water understanding, holding each one flat.

© 2006 Chris Mansell
Previously published in The Age Monthly Review (Australia), Dandelion (Canada) and Eat the Ocean ed. Lizz Murphy (Literary Mouse Press, Perth, 1997)

Lot 20 Shadenvale Road

Whatever he thought of me he did not say, but spoke to me sideways, like someone out of a 1950s movie - slow and cool - with his eyes locked into the valley.
      From the Imperial Majestic you can see it all he said. From the beginning to the end, but you cannot understand it. From the spine of the valley smaller valleys stray off, there, under the tree canopy and file up into the mountains. There are a lot of these. A lot, he said as though I had disputed him, which I hadn’t. They disappear back into the trees and finish in the sides of the escarpments and that’s where the really interesting people live. It had never crossed my mind that anyone, interesting or otherwise, lived there. From here it was a sort of benign Australian valley where nothing much happened. Where even the wildlife was affable. Calm, and unthreatening. I looked then, and in the flat of the valley I could see the agricultural green squares. Orchards, he said. There are a lot of orchards down there. We had another cup of tea - it should have been coffee or beer - but I had stopped off on my way to something unimportant, I can’t remember what now, and had hoped, even from a place as majestic as the Majestic that I could have a thin bitter tea - and was disappointed as usual.
      He came and sat with me, although we were the only people in the large cafeteria this early in the morning. “There’s a secret life,” he said, and gestured with his tea cup - milky - three sugars I guessed - towards the valley, “under that canopy.”
      We sat for a while. I tried to imagine what he did for a living. Sales rep for a horticultural supply company? He could have been a younger version of my father. Hygienic. Brushed. Religious?
      I’ll take you there one day, he said as if we were long acquainted. My woman-antenna twitched. Just another come on - the 524th in an infinite series of unconvincing lines. I didn’t respond. He could be a serial killer for all I knew. Besides, he wasn’t all that good looking.
      I remembered that every picture I’d ever seen of a serial killer, a mad gun man, a twisted woman-hating sadist looked like this. Normal.
      We sat in the cafeteria of the Imperial Majestic for some time, and then he left. There was no more mention of taking me anywhere. We didn’t even introduce ourselves. A Geoff, or a Brian perhaps. He left his teacup and a neatly folded paper serviette in the saucer, and I looked into the valley with its hidden valleys and hidden people.

I can’t remember where I was going, but I suppose that I went there, and I came back and continued to do the things that I had to do to keep myself together, but there are always those secret restless unknown things which itch and irritate under the psychological skin until you do something about them. Most of the time you don’t even know that they’re there - although they manipulate your living, distort your reactions and decisions, and eventually, if you’re lucky, one day get you to hear them. You discover yourself singing the same song day after day, you read articles which, if asked, you would have said were not your sort of thing. You pick fights with lovers until, in the end, you understand that you want something else. It’s as if your own psyche is an insistent child pulling your sleeve until you answer it.

I woke one Saturday - a day full of sun - a perfect Saturday for getting the fat papers and buying a bunch of flowers and hitting some really heart-threatening coffee in some place you could watch without being watched. Indulge in something wicked. And of course I tried to do it and it wouldn’t work. The glare annoyed me, the papers where full of shit, the coffee dissolved your teeth. And the child was there nagging away in an incomprehensible language until you had to answer it. Or, perhaps, like a mobile phone lost in the hidden parts of your personal baggage.
      I cancelled the weekend, transferred the seven jonathans from the fruit bowl to a plastic bag, and took off in the car - to I don’t know where, with a feeling of uneasiness and restlessness I still couldn’t place.

When I ended up in the Imperial Majestic again it was no surprise. Half the world had, apparently, felt restless and ended up in the Majestic by lunch time that Saturday - and I was in no mood for company, talk, or the miscellaneous Geoffs and Brians of the planet. I ordered a light, not lite, beer - an imported bitter tropical almost transparent lager with a kick like the proverbial, but a taste as clear as a knife - and looked down into the valley again.

By the time I’d figured out how to actually get there, not as easy as you might imagine, it was already dark, I was more or less lost, and I couldn’t work out which direction to go to exercise my plastic on somewhere to sleep - so I slept where I was, uncomfortably in the back seat of my not very luxurious and not very large car, under the picnic blanket I had in the boot.
      In the morning it was as if the whole world had ignited with a luminous green. I was parked beside the road, God knows where, but with enough petrol, I imagined, to get me somewhere, and all the glories of the world coming in at me. That’s what I thought: “Glories of the world.” Bear in mind that I am not a religious person, far from it, having been inoculated against it at various times by various hypocrites and mean-spirited religious fanatics. But this phrase “glories of the world”, repulsively gelid as it was, kept on coming back in a loud song - as if the incoherent child had finally found a phrase to say.
      I roamed around that day like a besotted lover. The green was greener here, the water more watery, the sky more like sky. I was alone and I didn’t care, I drove up and down the anonymous roads until I couldn’t drive anymore, until I found a signpost, then another, and landed back home at some ungodly hour of the night. I slept the sleep of angels and went to work on the Monday like someone in love. Nothing mattered. I grinned a lot. And didn’t give a stuff about things that three days before I would have had an ulcer about.
      I didn’t know what was happening to me. And, totally out of character, I didn’t care either.

The next weekend I was away by Friday night - pissed off a few people breaking promises, but, I was in love, or so it seemed, with a road, a sense of being lost and it not mattering. I drove down those roads, camped on the side of some other road or another which I knew I’d never find again. Ate fresh oranges. And by some miracle it was still good. I was still in love.

By the time spring had really come I had thrown in the job, and taken myself a little place in the valley. I knew no one, had a hell of a job getting the electricity connected, and sat in the little linoleum-floored kitchen watching the bush through dirty glass louvres. Here you could live for a long time on what money I had. Here you didn’t need to buy flowers for the house, or go to movies, or have people over to eat expensive foul smelling cheeses and/or ridiculously expensive cakes and express yourself in tired phrases of desperate ennui. Here you could sit in your pyjamas in the garden and read all day if that’s that you wanted to do. Night could be day or day night and you regulated your life, insofar as it was regulated at all, by your own rhythms of sleeping and eating.
      My friends thought I was having a nervous breakdown and, who knows, maybe I was. It felt good to me though.

One night I was inspecting the garden. I had grown to love planting things - although, it had to be admitted, I didn’t know much. I was learning. I observed the plants I put in - vegetables mainly - with a manic intensity - as if they would tell me how it was, how they needed to live. I was looking at the latest bed of vegetables - lettuce, a varied selection bought from the Produce Store ‘in town’ (two shops and a post office agency) - when I had the feeling that someone, or something, was nearby - watching me probably.
      Not being religious I can’t say that I felt the presence of evil - but it was certainly something as close to evil as you could get. A blackness that was at the same time completely empty and completely full of fear - not the observer’s fear, but an innate fear that it fed on. That belonged to it and nurtured it and pulled down anything within its range.
I stopped contemplating the lettuces pretty smartly and would have fled back into the house except that I know you’re more afraid when you run. By the time I was back to the appalling lino my hands were shaking, and the very first scratch had appeared in my idyll.
      I bought a stronger torch at the Produce Store and ten bundles of garden stakes - a hundred individual stakes. I couldn’t have said what for, but when I’d got them out of the boot and carted them round the back I knew what I had to do. Bits of primary school so-called education came back at me. Masai warriors, fortified villages. Ridiculous I know, but, nevertheless I pounded in the hundred stakes, too widely apart to protect anything I knew even as I beat them into the earth with the back of the axe.
      That night I sat in the garden and watched the perimeter I had made. I didn’t use the torch yet, but held if firmly in a grip ready to beat someone or thing with it at the shortest of notice. The moon was nearly full and I sat there all night, illuminated enough by its light and saw nothing, felt nothing.
      The next morning I inspected the garden for ... I don’t know what. But everything appeared normal. Nothing disturbed, nothing out of place. The drying lettuce. The errant golden corn seedlings, the tiny rhubarb, the beginnings of a potato patch. The empty beds waiting to be filled. Not a flick, not an ash out of place.
      By noon I had convinced myself that I had an over-active imagination, and that perhaps my poor forsaken friends were right, perhaps I was having some sort of breakdown.
      But when the darkness fell I knew that I had to go out into the garden again and watch for whatever it was that had come.

The night was cool and I sat on the bench I had made myself and clung to my torch again. There was not a cloud in the sky. The bush outside my perimeter seemed to be lit by some Hollywood technowhizz of a few generations ago. I expected Gene Autry to come strolling in with a couple of cowpokes and a gi-tar and sing things in neatly pressed harmonies.
      No I didn’t. I was scared shitless. And no amount of cosy post-modern pseudo-chic actually stopped me thinking that there was someone/thing out there to get me.
      I was reduced to childhood again. Step on a crack, break your back. Yea though I walk through the valley of d-
      I watched.
      I watched, this time, most of the night. Several times I thought I heard something or another move beyond the perimeter. Then, before I knew it, before I could imagine it or understand it, there was a black absence somewhere on my left, close to me.
      I’m convinced time slowed down. I can almost see myself turning to look at this thing that stopped my breath in my gullet. I turned, with the heavy torch, held up in front of my face, instinctively protecting myself from whatever it was. This blackness. I could feel its bloom, its energy. I could feel it breathing its long slow breaths. Its nothing shape its absence dark dark in the pearl grey night.
      There was a noise I suppose was me, and the thing fled as fast and fluid as a dream through the pathetic pickets, away into the bush.

I had been too afraid to run. I stayed there until the grey light changed to the pink and mauve before dawn.
      There was a choice. Several choices. I could consider myself mad. I could refuse to make any judgment and leave the place which had been my personal paradise. I could believe in evil and choose to fight it or flee. This is what I thought. I didn’t consider telling anyone. I didn’t consider that it might be real. This was a metaphysical thing. A manifestation. Perhaps I had been alone too long.

It came back. This absence, this fearful pit, more than once. It moved like india ink, fluid and long. It breathed with a white stench that made me think of teeth and carrion, and of flesh torn from bones.
      I couldn’t give up this place. I put the axe near the back door, and enquired at the Produce Store about getting a gun licence - which provoked a bit of humour. Things had a way of getting back - I don’t know how, and there were already theories about all those garden stakes. I’d have to see the local constabulary I was told. Constabulary? Cops? Here? That’d be right - arrest a few wombats. A joke. Very amusing. The bloke at the Produce Store gave me a number to call.
      I didn’t want to explain what I wanted it for. Protection. That’s all Protection. I didn’t have a gun, didn’t know what sort of gun I wanted, didn’t belong to a pistol club (in the valley? Sure.) and didn’t have any idea how to use one. What did I want this gun for, the officer on the other end of the line wanted to know, to hit intruders over the head with? Enough. I should come and collect the form. Long directions, over the cattle grid, the creek.
      I arrived at the pleasant family home. A sandpit. A reassuringly normal, ordinary house. His wife answered the door and called over her shoulder, “Geoff! Geoff! The woman about the gun.”
      It was Mr Clean himself, I hadn’t thought about him since the time in the Imperial Majestic. But here he was with this clean fingernails and pressed trousers. Mr Gleam. Geoff. He didn’t remember me. Why should he. Made no gesture of recognition, perhaps I’d imagined it. A different man. A different Geoff. He would send the form away but he could tell me now that he wouldn’t be recommending it.

Maybe I’d over-reacted. Maybe it was nothing. Nothing. A few nights later it was back again. This time coming closer to the house. I could hear it scraping itself against the back door. I imagined I could hear its footfall on the linoleum. I lay still in my bed, remembering that I’d left the axe near the door.
      More than once it happened. More than once I woke with the white stench in my face but nothing to prove it with. Now I kept the axe under the bed.
      I went into the shop, collected my mail - a refusal of the gun licence.

I rang Geoff to complain. He’d better come out he thought. Ok, all right, anything, yes, I said.
      I think you’d better tell me what you want this gun for, he said, sitting in my kitchen drinking his sweet white tea.
      What could I say? That I had been frightened by an absence, and by a smell? Afraid of an odour?
      It’s just that ... I said. Living alone ... I said unconvincingly.
      Don’t you like living alone? he said.
      Is this another line? I thought and looked at his face but couldn’t read it.
      He wanted to have a look around. Show me, he said.
      I showed him the garden.
      A lot of stakes, he said.
      I showed him the shed and the kitchen, lounge room, bathroom.
      And? he said.
      I showed him the bedroom, trembling, trying to think ... something to say.
      Why are you nervous? he said. A pretty woman like you...

We came back into the kitchen. I offered him tea. Milky and sweet. He said, I know there’s something you’re not telling me. I think you should. I tried to think where I’d moved the axe to now. There’s no danger here, he said. Unless... he said, and faded out.
      What, ‘unless’, unless what? I thought but couldn’t say. Oh, I said
      There’s stories, he said, local stories. I wouldn’t believe them if I were you.
      I stirred the sugars into his tea, the teaspoon bitting the sides of the cup. Tink. Tink. Tink.
      What stories? I sounded bored, irritated even.
      Myths really. People say they see things. In the night, they say they see things, panthers, black leopards, that sort of thing.
      Oh, I said sounding bored. Do they? Do they really? Would you like some cake? I said.

(c) 2006 Chris Mansell
Previously published in Influence ed. Peter Skrzynecki (Transworld, Sydney, 1997) under the title ‘Under the influence of Lot 21, Main Road, Schadenvale’

Another Story Altogether

She can see them skinny legs riding away on their bicycles, their little bums in their shorts going up and down and them standin up on the pedals of them old bikes, boys bikes too, not good for a girl to be riding, do themselves a damage.
      Still, they were her girls, and they could be worse, she supposed. Runnin around with boys or drinkin or up to god knows what. All those two wanted to do was go fishin. Even the boys don't go fishin around here. Well, she never seen them anyway. Them stupid girls. The only time they ever come back with anything it's catfish and she makes em throw it away. Filthy stuff. They whinge about it of course, but she says to them, she says I don't want to be poisoned by my own daughters, you get those filthy fish outta here right now and why don't you go inside and do your hair you look like a pair of broomsticks in the wind. They laugh and throw themselves down into the shade under the tankstand. The coolest place in the summer they reckon. God knows what they was cookin up, but you can be pretty sure it wasn't plans for helping their mother around the house.

The girls sat under the tankstand and waited she went inside before they got out their packet of Peter Stuyvesant and lit one each and lay down on their backs so they could see the underside of the tankstand and bits of the galvanized iron tank between the boards. They felt happy there - just like the women in the advertisements before the movies. They ran the silk-bodied cigarettes between two fingers and tapped the ends. Sometimes the Peter Stuyvesant ads., real moving pictures too not slides, were better than the films themselves. Anyway, they felt really suave, and stretched their freckled teenaged thighs and dreamed of having money, and a tan, and a boyfriend who drove a big car and did something in the city - they didn't know or care what. And they would visit each other, they said, and be rich and travel together too, and always keep each other's secrets. Susan thought she would probably marry first, because she was the oldest, Francie agreed because she was only thirteen and wasn't quite sure what happened when you ran away with a boy, especially one from the city, who didn't understand anything and looked at you as if you were an idiot. 'Yeah, but what do you do out here?' one of them had said to her and looked up and down the main street. She'd looked too and couldn't see anything then, although her days seemed full enough, even in the Christmas holidays. 'I ride my bike,' she said and he looked blankly, so she said 'sometimes' and he'd got back into the big blue car and folded his arms.
      She couldn't imagine going anywhere with him although he had rich skin. As if the money rubs off on it. As if he spent mornings rubbing twenty dollar notes into the skin so the yellow brown golden dye came off, rubbed in, until he was burnished with the money. Brown. And a clean white shirt that was so clean he must just have put it on. He treated her like a cousin. No, Francie couldn't run away with someone like him.
      She wanted someone like. She couldn't imagine. Someone like. Someone who didn't treat her like a cousin. Someone who was exciting and could see down the highway as far as it would go and make her breath slide out of her. He'd take her hand then and they'd just walk away. Somewhere, down the highway. But she couldn't imagine just what then. She pictured herself and this apparition dissolving in the heat haze, gone forever. She couldn't see what might happen over the rise. She wanted some dry hand to hold to understand the big acres around here with. Not around here, somewhere, somewhere where no one knew her, where she could be a princess. Opaque, even to herself.
      She agreed, yes, they would run away together, she and Susan. They would go to the city together. They would have adventures. They would get married and visit each other always. Yes. Someday.
      Susan went on and on about it though, so Francie agreed again. She had nothing else to suggest. Really. She was happy now lying under the tankstand and smoking cigarettes while the world was outside and they were alone and secret. Francie liked secrets. She was excellent at keeping them, and sometimes invented them for herself just so she would know something that no-one else knew. It was something you could be certain of, that was real, a secret that you had invented yourself. It had a privacy, a wholeness that was hard to contradict.
      Sometimes she invented secrets about her family. Sometimes about Susan - but she never told her, never. Susan would have laughed anyway, told her she was an idiot, dug her in the ribs with her elbow and laughed again, breaking the fragile clever secret thing.

Francie never told, that's why Susan felt so safe talking. Anything, she could say anything and Francie wouldn't tell. This was due to the smoking, Susan thought. If Francie told anything, Susan would dob her in about the cigarettes. That's why Susan always made Francie look after them. No-one would think of looking under Francie's mattress for anything. Francie knew nothing about nothing, and was scared of boys, and would do whatever Susan told her to do.
      She'd take her to the city and the boys would all come then. She's the pretty one, but only thirteen yet. No tits, but the boys liked her best. Because she didn't care about them and they could sense it. Like animals, that's what boys were like. You could smell it in their clothes, on their hair. The way they were afraid, the way they would shift their eyes away from you and look down the highway like it was going somewhere. She would go down the highway some day, she would take herself off and go. Just like that, with pretty Francie to be with. They would go to the city and get a nice little flat, with hot and cold taps in the kitchen and have a toilet inside and everything would be really new and clean and the boys would come to say hello to Francie and then they'd fall in love with her, Susan, instead. And she would take a long time to choose. She would choose the tallest one, the handsomest one, the one with the most money. A nice car. They would drive off to a bigger, clean house and Francie would. Francie would come and visit and put her little soft hands around the fragile tea cups and drink it in small sips like she always did. So elegant. Private. She would close the door and she and Francie would talk about secret things all afternoon. They would talk softly, their voices barely rising over the blue carpet. They would in soft eddies with such intimacy. And then Francie would go home to their flat. Then Susan would be her own self again, filled up to the hard edges.

Susan couldn't wait to get out of this dump where everyone knew your business - if you went with anyone they called you a slut. A slut. What would they know. Even so Susan was saving herself until she went to the city and found someone worth being called a slut for. Someone who knew something, been somewhere, understood things she didn't.
      She flicked the end of her cigarette so that the ash flew off, intact, onto the ground, a trick she'd learnt from a boy who came from Sydney. She remembered that boy. His blond hair, his tanned wrists, paler on the inside she noticed as he flicked the cigarette.
      Sometimes, when she rode her bike, she dreamt of having that calmness, that belonging in the world, that manner of understanding. But for the moment she couldn't get away, had no money, nowhere to go except the stinking city their mother said wasn't worth visiting. That was full of dangers and problems and noise and waste. The city that was No Place For Any Daughter Of Mine Do You Hear Me My Girl.

Susan and Francie finished their cigarettes and washed their mouths out at the tank tap, the wet dust splashing up on their feet, and went inside to face their baggy old mother. Her dress hung around her body like the skin of a large animal. She moved around in the kitchen getting tea ready, not looking at them, her girls, the ones she loved more than even a mother was supposed to. When Jack took off and things got really tough she'd sit on the front verandah and dream of getting away, from the girls, from everything, sending the kids away to a home, giving them up. But it wasn't decent, no matter what, they all said, she loved those girls and would do the best she could for them. 'You two come and help with the tea. You should've been home hours ago.' The girls looked at each other and rolled their eyes. Their mother grunted her own reply 'Set the table and hurry up about it.' They moved towards the cupboards, and laid out the knives and forks on the laminex table, salt and pepper in the middle. Glass of milk for them each, their mother said they were too young for tea drinking. Teacup for Mum. Susan sat down and stared at Francie doing something at the sink, Mum giving her a nudge with her elbow 'Move over luv.' Her mother's hips moving Francie's flesh. The fabric of their clothes making a small hushing sound together. Too much woman flesh. It made Susan's skin crawl.

By the time winter had come, and the town grown greyer and more isolated than even the summer holidays, Francie's breasts had grown a bit and Susan had decided to leave school and get away, whatever the cost. She saved any money she could, conning Francie into paying for the cigarettes. She packed her old globite schoolcase with as much as it could fit and went down to the highway to wait.
      Francie saw her go and knew that the dream was happening right now. She stood out the front, in the yard and didn't say goodbye but watched as cool as a scientist watching a secret betray itself.
      Susan waited on the highway, sitting on the old globite like she was waiting for the school bus. She looked up the highway, expecting something, but not knowing what shape it might be. Her knees poked out from under her dress and she scratched her dry skin, her nails leaving white tracks. She wanted Francie beside her, but wanted to be alone too. It wouldn't be right. Susan didn't know, some secrets are so secret, she thought, you can't even let on to yourself.
      Francie supposed she would have to tell Mum, but not now. Later. When she could think about it. When she had time to understand; for now she wanted to see her sister on the highway, soak it up before she forgot. The light, the trees. The unlikely gleam off the globite. The thin legs. She could already hear her mother. 'Youse girls, I knew you'd be in trouble sooner or later,' she'd say, with Francie standing innocent before her with the box of matches hidden in her palm.

(c) 2006 Chris Mansell
Previously published in Australian Short Stories (Australia) and New Quarterly (Canada)

To read 'Bright tells the truth about Paradise' go to University of Canberra, Monitor on line,