Mallawindy, p.35

Mallawindy, page 35



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  ‘Ben’s gone, love. I thought he would have called you?’

  ‘Gone? Where?’

  ‘Away.’ Storm clouds moved, lightning flashed, thunder rolled.

  ‘What do you mean, away?’

  ‘Cape York. And he said that when he got there, he was going to get on a boat and row to China.’

  ‘Because of . . . because they found Liza?’

  ‘Oh, no love. It was before we even heard about that. It was after he cut down his trees.’

  ‘We didn’t notice they were down. Did they reach?’ Both girls were on their feet and looking out the window. They could see the space, but not the bridge.

  ‘He cut them down three days ago. Bob Dooley and Bessy’s Mick were pulling on a rope from the other side of the river, and the trees fell exactly where Benjie wanted them to fall. Him and the others moved them together with young Mick’s tractor, then they set up some pole things in the middle and hammered a few planks on.’ Ellie looked down to her folded hands. She blinked a while at the condition of her chipped nails.

  ‘He was so happy, like a little boy again, running backwards and forwards across his bridge, the heels of his boots making a real racket. He had half the town down here when it was finally finished. They were all helping to build a bit of a rough ramp up to Bessy’s side while Ben hammered on the steps he’d made for our side.

  ‘When he told me to try it out, loves, he looked so proud. He was standing on Bessy’s side, just looking so proud of himself. So I walked across to him. Your Dad came down too. He was being . . . like he always is with Benjie – .’ She looked down at the table, swept some crumbs into her palm. ‘He said, “A drum of petrol should neaten it up okay.” Benjie knew he didn’t mean it, because he just laughed at your Dad. “I’ve done what I set out to do, which is more than you ever did you useless old b-a-s-t-a-r-d,” he said.

  ‘Benjie never swore, and when I spoke to him about it, he said, “There comes a time when a mouse has to know when it’s time to jump off the wheel, Mum.” That’s the last time I saw him. Dooley came down late last night and gave me the keys to Ben’s place – and his message about Cape York and going to China.’

  Bronwyn and Ann had listened this far in silence. Now Bronwyn sat and placed her head on her folded arms, and she laughed, her hair in the saucer of her tea cup. She laughed until Ann joined with her.

  They fried eggs later, and made toast against the red hot embers and they laughed. They made fresh tea, and giggled, trying to control twitching lips, but a word or a glance set them off anew. Ben had broken free. He’d gone off to row a boat to China, and they laughed at the visual image of him pulling on the oars, riding the waves across the ocean. Away, far far away from bloody Mallawindy.

  Ellie smiled quizzically, watched them eat egg, almost choke on egg, and her green eyes didn’t understand their laughter. She shook her head at them. Surely this was not the time and place for joviality, not with little Liza dead; still, she’d been dead a long time, and Jack wasn’t around to see her, and their laughter was infectious. Ben, rowing to China. Goodness me. He’d never leave his land. He was his grandfather’s blood. Her blood. Of course he’d come back to his cows.

  Ellie had a fine big laugh when she let it loose.

  They washed the dishes, scraped egg yolk from the forks. Wiped the old table down with a cloth, then sat again.

  ‘Your Dad is taking it very hard – about Liza.’

  ‘Poor old Dad. As usual, giving comfort where he can – to self,’ Ann said.

  ‘What about you, Mum?’

  Ellie had no reply. For minutes she sat twisting the thin gold remnant of wedding band, still trapped there by a knuckle. Ann watched her, willing the ring to snap, to fall to the floor, through a gap in the floor, to be gone forever into the earth.

  And Ellie twisted, and she twisted, then she cried out as the slim circle split, and the ring was over her knuckle and tinkling to the floor.

  ‘It’s bad luck,’ she said. ‘It’s broken – ’ She sprang to her feet, her eyes starting their old familiar ooze. The trembling mouth, the bowed head. She cried so well over nothing, but she’d had a lot of practice. Tears glistening on soft fabric, gathered and draped by the years. Threads hanging loose where puckered lips were stitched in place. Her eyelids, heavy drooping cowls, folded into the concertina pleating of cheek and weathered jowls.

  Bronwyn found the thing on the floor. She handed it back as she glanced up at the old clock, ticking its life away on the mantelpiece. ‘Jesus! Where did the time go? I promised Nick I’d let him know what I’m doing tonight. Stick it on with a bit of Bandaid, Mum, then get your good dress on. We’ve got to go. Johnny is waiting to see you.’

  ‘I can’t go, love. Give Nick a call from Bessy’s place. Use Ben’s bridge.’ A Bandaid found, peeled, taped around her finger.

  Bronwyn looked at Ann, shrugged. ‘I’d better ring him, Annie. I’ll nick over and use old Fletch’s phone. And you’d better be dressed when I get back, Mum. We’re not taking no for an answer. Put your hair up, and put a bit of make-up on too. I’ll be back in ten minutes.’

  Ann sat at the table, her fingers tapping wood. She tapped until Ellie found something to say. ‘I’ll take it down to the jewellers, get them to add a bit of gold. It was too tight anyway.’

  ‘I like the Bandaid, Mum. It’s a real statement.’

  ‘You come out with some silly things sometimes, love. Smell that rain coming. It will put the fires out, but the wheat farmers won’t be too pleased with it. Mr Watson has a bumper crop, too. I was talking to him in town yesterday.’

  ‘Nothing comes when you want it, does it? We’ve got no control over fate and the weather. Are you going to change your frock, Mum?’

  ‘No, love. I can’t go tonight.’

  Ann sighed. She stood and walked to her parents’ room. Years had passed since she’d been in there. It still smelt the same. She looked in his wardrobe, touched a white shirt, hanging on its wooden hanger. A child again, she sniffed at the scent of aged timber, good solid timber, then she turned to Ellie’s smaller, cheaper wardrobe. Many frocks, all stitched by Ann’s own hands, hung there. A black suit. A grey suit. A soft green floral frock, made for Ellie’s last birthday. Sunday frock. It looked well with her green eyes and her fading sunshine hair. She slid it from its hanger, then searched the wardrobe floor for shoes. She picked up the handbag from the door knob.

  ‘Come on, Mum. I want you out of here tonight. We’ll pick Branny up at Mr Fletcher’s,’ she said, but Ellie had turned the television on, not wanting to miss her show.

  ‘I just want to see what happened to Carolyn’s baby. It was born right at the end of last week’s show.’

  ‘It’s just fiction. You’ve got your own drama right here, and if you don’t move very fast, you might have even more.’

  Ellie glanced at her, but remained in front of the television. Ann walked through to the kitchen, found a plastic bag, folded the frock into it, placed it on the kitchen table. She returned to the lounge room, looking briefly at the large photograph of Liza, posed, over-painted, and below it, to a photograph of Mandy. No comparison, apart from the curls. People never looked further than the surface. People saw what they wanted to see, expected to see. She turned on her heel and re-entered her parents’ room.

  Jack’s briefcase had lived out its life on top of the wardrobe. She could reach it easily now. She took it down, tried her own small key in the lock, and it turned. Her hand beneath the lid touched hair, touched proof. She smiled as Ellie came to the door.

  ‘Annie! What in heaven’s name are you doing with that open?’

  ‘Just feeding the mice,’ she said. ‘You should have trapped them twenty odd years ago, Mum.’ Ellie stared at her. She didn’t understand. Ann closed the case with a snap, and took it with her to the kitchen where she picked up the plastic bag then walked out to her car as headlights became visible on the river road.

  Ellie was behind her. ‘You can’t take that!
Take it back at once, Annie. That’s your dad’s. You can’t touch that.’

  ‘Get in that car. Please Mum. Johnny is planning to come up here. We can’t let him come here and you know it. Please Mum. That might be him.’

  ‘It’s Jeff Rowan, the young policeman,’ Ellie said. ‘He’s been backwards and forwards all day.’ She walked back to the house. Ann followed her, placing her keys in her handbag.

  From the kitchen window they watched the car halt, disgorge Jack. They heard the clink of bottles.

  ‘I hope he hasn’t been on the whisky,’ Ellie said.

  ‘One day you might realise that you have made an art form out of stupidity.’ Two sets of eyes locked on the doorway where Jack would make his final entrance.

  He could always be relied on to make a good entrance, unstable but effective. The step up to the kitchen floor forced a decision to lift his feet, so he leaned against the door jamb, half in and half out, his eyes blinking into the light.

  ‘The whole bloody town is swarming with newspaper men, thanks to you, and everyone of them bought me a drink. Paid me to talk to them. They want to put me on national television tomorrow night.’

  ‘As Bronwyn was saying, play your cards right and you could make your fortune out of this.’

  Jack walked to the table, sagged down to a chair. He looked old tonight. The years were eroding his good looks, absorbing them. Or am I seeing him as old because I have seen the young Jack Burton today, the strong Jack Burton. Head to one side, Ann studied her father, while her hands massaged her temples. She saw the white scar half circling his wrist, and she smiled. ‘Any more tea in the pot, Mum?’

  Ellie passed her the pot.

  ‘Any more tea in the pot, Mum?’ he mimicked. ‘You sit there and pour your bloody tea, and accuse me with your mad bloody eyes.’

  ‘I never accused you. Never once. I blamed myself. Easier to blame yourself,’ she said, adding sugar to her tea, stirring, tasting, adding more. His eyes followed her movements, while from the lounge room, canned television laughter came on cue. ‘They want me to help draw up an identikit photo of Ted Crow. They’ll probably want Sam and May to help with it.’

  He tossed the dregs of a tea cup in her face. She didn’t flinch, didn’t wipe the tea away; she let it drip to the table, her eyes holding his. ‘Get out,’ he snarled. ‘Get to buggery out of my sight, you mud-raking bitch.’

  Ellie took her arm, urged her to rise. ‘It’s better if you go, Annie.’

  Ann shook off Ellie’s touch. Too little, too late had come from that hand. Then she sighed, patted the hand, looked at its Bandaid and at its age. Forgive it. Forgive this hand that never touched. Forgive it. Johnny has come home and the old world is winding down to a halt.

  Tomorrow. Everything will be okay tomorrow.

  ‘It’s my birthday today. No-one has said happy birthday yet,’ she said.

  ‘H – .’ Ellie began, but she closed her mouth, turned away.

  ‘Remember my third birthday, Dad. The ginger kitten. Johnny brought it home for me and you had to wring its neck a week later because Liza poked its eye out with a stick.’

  Jack was on his feet, and Ellie ran to him. ‘Don’t let her upset you, Jack.’

  He pushed her from him. ‘What do you care? When did you ever care how bloody upset I was? When did you ever see anything that didn’t have four bloody legs and a tail?’

  Ellie backed towards the door, ready to run. Jack poured a measure of whisky into a glass, tossed it down, poured more, his eyes on Ann.

  ‘Don’t drink any more, love. You come up here, Annie, and you always cause trouble. You always did. Why can’t you be like the others?’

  ‘Because I’m not like the others, am I Dad?’ Ann turned to her father, watched him drink. ‘Johnny came home.’

  ‘So you worked it out between you. I should have known. What are you doing for an encore? What’s the plan for tomorrow?’

  ‘That it be over.’

  ‘It’s never bloody over. It’s only just started, you stupid bitch. Every newspaper man in Australia is going to be dogging my heels.’

  ‘Just tell them about Ted Crow. Old Mr Crow.’

  ‘That’s what you told the coppers?’

  ‘What else?’ Ann glanced at Ellie who had backed out to the verandah. There were things she wanted to say, that tonight she must say. ‘Go over to Bessy’s, Mum. Tell her about Johnny. I’ll pick you up there. Ask her if she’d like to come down too.’ Ellie remained where she was. Ann turned to Jack, shrugged. ‘Do you want to know the main question I keep asking myself? It’s May. How does she tame you?’

  ‘She makes me look at the world through rose-tinted glasses,’ he said, and he laughed, and refilled his glass, drank again, and Ellie’s voice came from the verandah.

  ‘I saw that on the television a while back. They say they’re working miracles these days with tinted lenses.’

  Ann looked at her watch. ‘David will be home soon.’ She stood, eased the sweat-soaked fabric of her skirt away from her legs.

  ‘You go then, love. Tell Johnny I’ll see him tomorrow. I’ll get Bessy to drive me down. Oh, and don’t you go driving off with all those things in your car.’

  ‘You are a caricature he sketched on a blank sheet of paper. I’ve known you for thirty years, but I don’t know you. Your son has been missing for twenty-two years. Ask yourself why? Ask Dad, why? Or do you already know why?’

  ‘Leave her out of this, you bitch.’

  ‘Were you able to keep it from her, or is that why she made Johnny run, why she wanted to get rid of me?’

  ‘She knows bloody nothing. Leave her alone.’

  Ann reached across the table for her handbag and the car keys it contained. She turned her back to Jack.

  ‘She’s got your briefcase in her car, love,’ Ellie said.

  It was done too easily. It was done too fast. Jack’s hand snaked out, and the floor rushed up to meet Ann.

  A thump. Mind-stealing pain as her eyebrow slammed into the corner of a timber upright. Impact of elbow, of hip on bare board. And embarrassment. Common everyday variety embarrassment of lifted skirt, of lost shoe, of being caught off guard.

  Slowly she gained her knees. Heaviness leaned on her. Easier to stay on her knees, wait for the room to still. Ellie was gone. Jack stood alone in the kitchen. Old king of the beasts. Half god, half bull. Her left hand went to her temple where blood oozed hot and sticky. With one eye, she measured the distance to the moving doorway, but she needed both eyes. She wiped at the blood, partially cleared her vision, then one hand gripping the wall for support, she stood.

  ‘You used to stare at a poor bloody man with your crazy eyes.’ His voice was high, in defence. ‘I won’t say a word, Daddy. I promise Daddy.’ He drank now from the bottle, his face turned to the photograph of Liza, his blemished treasure.

  Ann leaned there, watching him. He drank again, then threw the bottle at Liza’s portrait, shattered it. Glass and whisky sprayed to the floor, and the photograph fluttered free to settle at Ann’s feet. She picked it up, swaying as she looked at it.

  Daddy went to Narrawee to get his Liza and get me,

  But he found her in the cellar, playing with the dirty fella.

  ‘Shut up you bitch.’

  When he tried to kill him dead, he got Liza’s head instead. So he put his golden treasure with the flowers to bloom forever.

  ‘Shut up, you bitch. Shut up.’

  Scraped the blood all off the floor. Locked his Annie with the door.

  Her head throbbed with blood and words. They both wanted out, but her heart was beating out just one word. ‘Danger. Danger. Danger.’ Her hand went to the cluster of cells in her womb. ‘Danger,’ the womb guarding the cells warned.

  In silence, she looked at him. Looked at his eyes. Once the bad was out, and all used up, his eyes would grow as soft as velvet. He was God then, safe. New cells didn’t understand that child cells had once loved him, mat a child had sometimes sat with
him in this kitchen for hours. Much of what she’d learned, prior to Malcolm, had come from him.

  He’d made her read the Wheetie packets at breakfast. He’d made her read the newspaper at tea. He’d made her read May’s letters.

  She had to let the bad out. Let it all out tonight, and then she could ask him why it took so long. She had to ask him. Just watch him, she soothed the cells. Just read him, but be ever ready to run. She removed her second shoe.

  ‘It was my fault, Dad. I should have told May. I knew it was wrong. I should have told May.’

  The bus had arrived at Warran at 8.20. At 8.25, when David entered his back door, he found somebody sleeping in his chair. No introduction was necessary. It had taken the men fifty seconds to decide where Ann had gone. Another fifty and they were in the car, heading out the Mallawindy road.

  Now they were almost there.

  The sky to the west and the north was a blood red ocean, its waves tipped with liquid fire.

  ‘Nowhere else on God’s earth can he paint such a scene of destruction, David.’

  ‘Storm clouds, and smoke from the fire. I could see the fire when I was driving through.’

  ‘A fitting welcome home,’ Johnny said, and the car sped on, the night growing dark too quickly as the sky to the west faded into purple.

  Dark night when they turned onto the river road. No fear of a speeding ticket here. They bounced over corrugations, rattled the boards on the old bridge, then they were at the wooden gate, through the gate, Johnny left swinging wide, and on again, bouncing, bumping down the rutted track.

  Ann’s car was parked in the yard. David had hoped it wouldn’t be there. His heart thumped in his breast. He braked, and was out, while hot tyres breathed an audible sigh of relief.

  Her car doors were locked. He was trying the rear passenger side when the house, previously well lit, disappeared into the night. Afraid now, he turned to Johnny. ‘Turn the lights back on, John. Leave them on high beam,’ he said.

  The yard was deserted. Two drowsy hens with ruffled feathers, eyed the men with suspicion.


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