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, 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’