Mallawindy, page 36
So this was it. So this was the day of reckoning. Johnny Burton placed his feet on home soil. Slowly he stood and faced the river, smelt the water. He looked at the shape of the willow two hundred yards away. Crickets chirped, bull frogs courted, their chorus echoing along the banks of the river. The building, dark against the overgrown shrubbery took his breath away.
‘Has it been twenty-two years, or was it just yesterday I left?’ he said, and he walked purposely towards the house.
But time is a strange and variable commodity. It can’t be bought, nor trapped, nor borrowed. Only the telephone company can sell time. Bronwyn placed five dollars on Malcolm’s hall-table to pay for her time.
Conversation can be worth five dollars, but kind minutes fly too soon, and as she looked at her watch in the half light of the lounge room, she noticed the time.
Malcolm was in his study, its bay window wall gave an unrestricted view of the Burton property in daylight hours. He sat over his typewriter, a puffed-up toad tormenting a fly. His pursed lips moist, his breathing fast, his interest was centred on the window. He repelled Bronwyn as always. Only by exercising inordinate willpower while in his presence did she manage to keep up the pretence of respect for this bloat of man. She did it for Annie’s sake, but it wasn’t easy.
‘How is your sister bearing up?’
‘She was bad this afternoon, but tonight she’s on a high. Maybe a false high. Johnny coming home has sort of pushed this Liza thing underground, I think. I’ve left the money on the table for the call, Fletch.’
‘I am not a pauper, Burton,’ he replied, not allowing his gaze to stray from the window.
‘Can you see something out there?’ she asked, peering at the dark mirror and the reflected image of the toad.
‘There has been some considerable movement of traffic across the road. I noticed a police car a while back. There is another car there now, and the house lights are out. A wire come down, do you think?’ He rolled back on his chair, and with effort, stood, took up his walking stick. Bronwyn followed him outside.
They heard the voice as they watched a truck trundle by on its way to no place.
‘That sounds like David. What is he doing here? And where the hell is Annie?’ Bronwyn’s voice overrode the distant call, and Malcolm prodded her into silence with his walking stick, but a night bird was calling to its flighty mate; words had no chance against the sounds of the bush. A noisy place, the river’s bend in the dead of night.
‘Silence!’ the old headmaster bawled and forest things stilled. They heard the voice again. Bronwyn ran, leaving the fat man to make his own way across the road.
run for the river
Ann had snatched up the old gun when she saw David’s Ford; she knew Johnny would be with him. She killed the lights at the main as she ran down the passage, then she swung left, and ran around the side of the house to the river. Dark. Black as pitch.
Sensing the moisture beneath her bare feet, she lifted the heavy gun, tossed it like a javelin, and she heard the satisfying splash. Giant fish splash. And it was gone. Easy.
‘You crazy bitch of a bloody girl.’ He wasn’t far behind her.
It was yesterday. She was running from him again. It was all her yesterdays, but she had to get across to tomorrow. Her left eye was closing, halving her vision, but she didn’t need to see. Smell the river, smell the mud, smell the chickens. She ran along the river until her fingers found the chicken-wire fence; they followed it down, down to the shallows where it was only a token, and easy to climb.
Up to her knees in water, the sucking squish of mud to her ankles, it was memory, everything was memory. Smell of cows. Smell of wood-smoke. Over the fence she clambered, finding toe holds, hand holds, unchanged in all the years she’d been away, then she turned and followed the wire back to the bank, back to the main fowl pen and to the cave of darkness behind it.
It smelt of yesterday too, of old dung and feathers. She rested there, and he came to stand only metres away.
‘That was my father’s gun. It was worth money, you mad bitch.’
‘It was my father’s too, and now it’s not worth anything.’ She listened. They were calling again, voices from two directions.
‘Ann. Where are you?’
And Branny’s voice, concerned. ‘Annie! Are you out there? Go back inside. Go back to the light.’
The distant house was now ablaze with electricity, but it had no hope against this night. Then lightning lit the land, and Ann backed deeper into the shadow of the fowl pen.
‘Annie? Annie, love? Ann – ’ Johnny’s words lost anew as the heavens rolled, gathering power for a mighty thunderclap that shook the land. So close. So close tonight.
‘He always hated my guts,’ Jack said. ‘Going to dob me into the cops back then. Get rid of me. Always too smart for his own bloody good. He saw me washing out the car boot the day I got back. “What did you have in there, Dad,” he said. “A bloody mongrel dog,” I said, and I spoke no lie.’
‘It should have ended in Narrawee,’ Ann whispered. ‘Why bring the body up here?’
‘Where better to hide the perverted bastard’s bones than in the Abo’s bone yard? I burnt him. I stripped my brother and fried him so Jesus Christ wouldn’t recognise him.
‘I knocked out every bloody tooth in his head and chucked them in the river. No-one would have looked for him out there – anyway he wasn’t missing, was he?’
‘It should have ended in Narrawee, Dad.’
‘Should have beens don’t count for much now, do they?’ he said. ‘The depraved bastard needed a bigger hole than we could cover up.’ He sighed, and a hand reached for his pocket, felt for cigarette, lighter. ‘I searched for his bloody ring. I searched the boot. I sifted the sand for hours, looking for it.’
‘It was growing on a reed, like a black and gold flower,’ she said softly. ‘I picked it up to give to you, but my pocket was sewn up. Then Johnny saw it.’
‘Burton. Where are you child?’
‘Annie. Annie, love.’
She wanted to go to David, wanted Johnny, wanted the sanity of the fat old man, and the rock of Branny, but she was leaning against the rough timber of a fowl house, hiding from them, hiding with him.
Her legs were trembling; her knees were urging her to slide her back down the wall and sit on the cool earth, hide in the dark place of unknowing again, be the child again and make the world go away. She breathed deeply, rubbed her heel in the dust, trying to rub out the world, make them all go away, and give her time. David had come home too early. Johnny had not slept long. Their coming altered everything, confused everything.
Too weary for more words, her hands moved, made the easy words. Not easy for Ellie. Was she afraid of what she might see on those moving hands? Poor Ellie – a little golden girl turned into a wooden puppet by this man. Or had she turned herself into a puppet so she didn’t have to know?
She sucked on air, moist now with rain, sucked deep, striving to draw strength from her roots, buried deep in this land. Warmth trickled over her eye. She wiped at it, felt the sticky blood, as his cigarette lighter flared, died, only feet away.
‘Too long?’ she signed. He didn’t see her hands. ‘It took too long,’ she said. ‘You promised me. May promised me that she’d come back. She promised me there would be one dark, and when it got light, she’d unlock the door. I waited through the dark and it got light, but she didn’t come back. I waited all day.’
‘A bloody man’s world is ending and you want to talk broken promises.’
‘Why didn’t she open the door, Dad?’
‘Bloody Jesus Christ,’ he moaned as thunder rolled across the sky, circling Mallawindy, hemming it in. Hemming him in. No escape now. They were all out there, baying like a pack of dogs for his blood. Newspaper men everywhere. The game was up.
May knew this would happen one day. Only three months back she’d been at it again. ‘Make t
And Ellie. He’d loved her once. Fell in love with a shower of golden sunshine, and a dream. But her hair had turned to straw, and the dream became a nightmare.
‘I want to go home,’ he said. ‘I’m too old to fight, to old to play bloody games. I just want to go home.’
‘One dark and one light, she said – then I fell and the dark came back.’
‘Shit,’ he said. ‘Shut up about it. Shut up.’
Voices, more distant. A cow lowing. Truck on the road.
‘Tell me, Dad.’
‘Tell you more bloody lies.’
‘Tell me the truth. All I want is the truth.’
‘Everything took time. He was booked on the plane to Brisbane on the Wednesday and we had him loaded in the boot of my bloody car. We were running scared, running blind, making crazy plans as we went. He had to go to Brisbane, May said. It was our only chance. Get the bastard to Brisbane, then decide what came next.’ His voice was low, beaten. He sucked on his cigarette, and it lit his features. She stared at the glow of a partial face, then his hand was at his side, the glow hidden behind his palm. ‘I followed her car to the Toorak flat. She locked it in the garage, and we drove into the city, parked the bastard in a Collins Street carpark. May bought a wig at Myers and I got the moustache from a theatrical supplier. I put them on while she drove me to the airport. I pulled out the old actor, put him en stage again, and he had to give the performance of his bloody life.’ Again he sucked on his cigarette. ‘I stepped into that role, born for it, and by the Jesus, I made my brother into a better man.’
‘Shush,’ she warned, and he lowered his voice.
‘I sneezed all the way to Brisbane, the mo tickling my nose. May drove my car to Daree.’ Jack sucked on his cigarette, and Ann saw his mouth, his nose, in the orange glow. ‘Shit,’ he said. ‘Shit.’ He was back with his memories now, reliving that day as he had every day since Liza and Sam died, died in the cellar, died together.
‘I hired a ’65 Falcon Fairmont in Brisbane, booked Sam into his hotel, then headed back to Daree, my foot planted to the floor. We switched cars on the highway. May drove back to Toorak, and I took the perverted bastard to Mallawindy, out to Dead Man’s Lane and burnt him. And I rejoiced in his burning. I danced in his smoke and watched him fry, and I rejoiced – that dirty defiling bastard.’
‘She was just a bloody loving little baby.’
‘A greedy baby. You made her greedy. “The old black cat had her kittens in the cellar, lass. Come down with Uncle Sam and see them. Uncle Sam has got a big bag of lollies for his special girl. Come into the cellar, lass, and I’ll give you the biggest apple in the box. Who’s going to come for a ride on the horse with Uncle Sam?”’
‘I knew what he was when he was bloody sixteen. I caught the bastard molesting young Barbara Dean, and I nearly killed him for it. “Don’t tell,” he said. “Don’t tell, Dad.” Snivelling bastard. Then the old man belted me, for hurting his boy. And I didn’t say one bloody word. That’s loyalty for you. And where did it get me? I curse myself every day of my life, for my misguided bloody loyalty. I could have become the old man’s white-haired boy that day. Could have got the lot.’
‘It doesn’t work that way, Dad. Was I your white-haired girl when I told tales on Liza?’ He made no reply, and she turned away, watching the wild display in the northern sky, and she waited, waited for the thunder clap to die. ‘Why did May go along with it?’
‘Why wouldn’t she? He couldn’t make it with a woman. Never could. She only married the bastard because she couldn’t have me. She told me that on her wedding day. “But you’ll be my brother, Jack, and we’ll all live together in Camelot,” she said. That’s what she always called the old place. Her Camelot. A nineteen-year-old kid, tying herself to that piece of shit, and I couldn’t stop her.’
Ann could hear his tears, and they still hurt her. Why? Love? He made it into a four-letter words. She breathed deeply, trying to get under the hurt, trying to hate him, then she sighed. ‘I ate his apples that day, Dad, and I only ate the biggest ones. I measured them with my hands, and I ate them with the juice running down my chin. I found his bag of lollies and ate them for free. I counted minutes. I made up poems, then I built a staircase out of packing cases and I looked out the window, but May didn’t come. I thought the night was coming back – that she’d forgotten me.’
‘It was one thing to want the paedophile bastard dead, another one to do it. She was out of her mind when she left me in Daree, and she had to get the hire car back to Toorak and hide it. I thought she’d crack.’ He sighed. ‘But she didn’t crack. She still had the sense to call in at the bakers for a bloody loaf of bread! It wasn’t until she opened the cellar and you weren’t there waiting for her that our plan went to hell. She panicked, called the cops, and sent me a telegram. ‘Both girls missing. Sam in Brisbane.’ I didn’t know what she was up to. I rang her from bloody Bessy’s, but the cops were with her. She was bawling, saying, “I have to contact Sam.”
‘She was two steps ahead of me, but I caught on when she gave me the phone number. Then I sat on that phone for two hours, leaving my own bloody messages for Sam. I made sure I drove the poor bitches on reception stark raving mad before I slotted in a quick call from Gentleman Sam. Said he was calling from Goondiwindi. He picked up his messages. Told them to tell May when she rang back that he’d left for home and to send his bill and luggage to Narrawee.
‘We’d formed this half baked plan to let Sam go missing in Brisbane. The flight record would prove that he’d flown up on the Wednesday, and I’d be in Mallawindy when the telegram came on Thursday. But it worked out better.’
‘Better for you. It was two days. I was in that cellar for two days.’
‘I knew you’d be in there. I got the bus down Friday morning and picked up the hire car at Toorak. It had the miles on the clock. Sam had been in Brisbane all right, and the poor bastard had driven day and night to get home too. He still had his hotel key. It was perfect. All I had to do for a few months was be in two places at once, and there were a lot of pubs in Melbourne where poor broken hearted Jack was wiping himself out while Sam played coppers’ helper in his wig and mo. They kept asking, why he didn’t fly back. He said Goondiwindi was half way home – .’ Jack cut his sentence short. The voices were closer now. Too close.
‘She’s probably run for Ben’s bridge. I’ll go over to Bessy’s.’ Branny ran by only metres away.
‘I’ll check my house.’ Fletcher’s voice. ‘She may be over there.’
‘We didn’t plan for it to go on forever,’ Jack kept his voice low. ‘We were going to wait for a few years and send Sam to Central Australia, let him die in the desert. Then I took off when young Linda died, and May got used to having Sam around. Jack was dead, she said. Drowned, the poor bastard, gone for fish food. It might have been all right too – if not for your mother. She wouldn’t let it alone. The coppers kept calling, asking bloody questions, so Jack came back to Chook-Shit County, and it was so bloody good to be able to hold his head up again, he wouldn’t give it up. That kid is still down there, in Narrawee, little Barbara Dean, grown old now, but every time she looks at Sam, my gut turns to water.’ He cried then, and his body shook with his tears.
‘Shush,’ she said. ‘Shush.’ Her hand reached out, but she drew it back.
‘People don’t forget. She won’t ever forget. I won’t wear that perverted bastard’s name to my grave.’
‘That land belongs to Jack. It’s been his for twenty-four bloody years and the poor God-forsaken bastard couldn’t have it.’
‘What’s it matter? What’s the bloody use of anything now?’ he said, but his voice had lowered. ‘What are you doing hiding here, anyway? Get out there and bay for my blood with the rest of the bastards.’
‘I’m not hiding. Not any more.’
‘You used to look at me with those bloody big eyes. Kill me with those bloody eyes. Why didn’t you talk to me? I had enough guilt to carry around without that.’
‘Everything got mixed up in the dark. The Ted Crow story. The bird was a man, but he wasn’t a man. “Red herring”, she said. “We need a red herring, just in case.” And May saw the crow in the garden. “Old Ted Crow,” she said. “He’s our red herring, Jack. He rode off into the forest on his motor bike.”’
‘She drummed it into you. Sandy hair, about forty, came from England. On a working holiday. He locked you in the cellar and took Liza for a ride.’
Her tears were trickling now, child tears, woman tears, all one and the same. So many tears. Too many. Where was all the water coming from?
‘Sam was dead. I knew he was dead, but he wasn’t dead, because he came to the hospital, so it must have been you who was dead, but you came to the hospital too. I didn’t know what was dream and what was real. I didn’t know what was sleep and what was wake, so I pushed it all away – pushed it back into the cellar where it belonged and waited for the dark to be over, but it wouldn’t be over, because the dark had crept into my head.’
She sniffed, wiped at her eyes with her wrist. Rain was coming, thundering across the paddocks. Lightning was splitting the black sky.
‘I went there that day to bot a few quid to get me home. I didn’t know they’d taken you and Liza down there. You tried to keep me away from the bloody cellar, but I opened it and I caught the bastard at her. He hid behind her. He lifted her up as I swung at him. He hid behind that little girl, used her as a bloody shield. I didn’t mean to hit her. I wouldn’t have hurt her for all the world. He killed her. He killed her.’
Other author's books:
- Trails in the DustMoth to the FlameDiamonds in the Mud and Other StoriesThe Seventh DayThorn on the RoseJacaranda BlueWind in the WiresMallawindy
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