The Crack of It
‘Bubble, bubble, toil and trouble,’ one would think, watching the woman grind the tiny pills to white dust – finer than dust, the stuff real dust sticks to. She runs the pestle down the inside of the mortar and finishes with a swirl in its base. This action has a ritualistic feel. Has she missed her calling, missed her epoch, and wound up respectable from a lack of options? The glass of red wine stands by her elbow. It is a rich-flavoured merlot – strong enough to hide the taint of pills, or so she is told. As for the sleeping tablets, she has heard stories. They either make one sleep soundly in one’s bed or else jump from windows to meander in front of trains. Tonight, she will leave the sliding door open in case the latter is his preference.
The Crack of It
A woman stood in the long paddock gazing at an enormous tree. A farmer too, but his gaze was directed so far, it had turned inward. If not for the hump of a small hill between them, he would be staring at the woman’s left cheek. As it was, only the cows, which ambled down the paddock to the shade of the tree, were aware of the two. If both the farmer and the woman had set out with a purpose, they were long since forgotten. The woman was preoccupied with breathing, taking in large lungfuls of air. While there was no intention to touch the gods in any way, this is what had occurred. She was, at this moment, blank. Not so, the gun-toting farmer. In his mind, he had travelled far and was knee-deep in a South-East Asian rice paddy, the ghost water around his legs warm as blood.
The sound of a car disturbed them both. It brought the approaching cows back to the woman and an awareness of the dry, hard earth to the farmer. He strode down the hill into the dip where rainwater had accumulated and turned the grass rice-paddy green. Then, he mounted the small hill before him. From its crest, he could see the woman turn away from the tree toward the sound of the vehicle she could not yet see. He watched as she waded through the long grass toward the old farmhouse and the overgrown dirt track which lay before it. The farmer shifted his attention to the red car approaching in the distance. He lay flat between the tussocks of grass, pressed the rifle against his cheek, and sighted the car through his scope. It was low-slung and struggling over the heap of dirt and grass in the centre of the rutted track. The farmer lowered the gun and watched the drawing together of the two parties – the woman and the car. His mind plotted the point of their intersection. He watched, still as a stone, as the woman climbed awkwardly through the barbed-wire fence and the car drew to a stop outside the farmhouse. He looked on as the back doors burst open and two boys, one small and round and one tall and long-limbed, crossed the distance to the woman. The farmer saw them merge. Only then did he rise to his feet and move on.
Fiona stood on the verandah of the dilapidated farmhouse. Her gaze still rested on the tree in the paddock. She thought it might be bigger than an elephant, possibly taller than a tipped-up whale. If it weren’t for the trunk, the farmhouse at her back would fit under its canopy. Beyond it, there was a grouping of smaller trees, fringing the unseen creek. She supposed this, but she couldn’t know for sure. She knew a creek bordered one edge of the property. That was all. She thought of gravity. The gentle downward slope of the paddock extended to the line of trees, making it possible a creek might lie there. She would take a walk later with an easy diversion past the tree. She would stand right under it, be encompassed by it, no longer an outsider.
There was a rattle behind her, followed by, ‘Jesus, Fi! This door is a nightmare!’
Fiona yanked on the screen door to release her sister.
‘It may need to be rehung. It’s a hinge problem, don’t you think?’ Julia said, bursting onto the verandah.
‘Yes.’ Fiona didn’t shift her gaze from the tree.
‘Perhaps Graham could look at it. I remember him doing something with a door at home. Should I ask him?’
Julia placed her hands on her hips. ‘Well anyway, I think I’ve found a great spot for the sofa.’
‘Thanks. That’s important.’ Fiona smiled at her sister then.
‘Yes, it is.’ But Julia didn’t smile back. Instead, she focused on the weed-ridden garden in the foreground and the tree beyond. Fiona felt the air around them grow still and heavy.
‘Are you sure about this?’ Julia asked.
They stood there for a time, looking out from the verandah. Fiona felt her older sister’s presence at her shoulder, right where she had always been.
‘What about your work?’ Julia asked. ‘Won’t it suffer with you being this far out?’
‘It’s okay. I can do a lot from here. Just a couple of meetings in town each week. It will be good.’
‘And the kids?’ Julia’s voice broke, as if she might cry.
The sound of Fiona’s sons floated to her from around the corner of the house. She leaned over the railing and glimpsed Hugh as he jogged back behind the house, his route holding firm to the circumference of a suburban block. Amongst the bushes bordering the side fence, Lochie crouched sifting dark soil through his fingers.
Fiona knew they were here because she was here and because they trusted her.
Julia turned away from the yard and placed her hands on Fiona’s shoulders. ‘It’s just that it’s seventeen years of marriage,’ she whispered.
Fiona felt the crack of it. A severing had occurred. She could not go back, even if she wanted to. She wanted more than anything for Julia to leave now, so she could go to the tree and examine the trunk and feel the cool air and then wander down to the river she wasn’t sure was there. She knew she had to wait. There was a rhythm to such weighty conversations. They stopped time and the pause must be given its due.
‘Do you remember us back then?’ Julia prodded. ‘You’d finished high school and I was in second year. We’d just had that big bong when Richard walked in. God, we were off our tits.’
The room is classic university dorm with a communal living space. Art prints are thumb-tacked crookedly to walls. The furniture is pine and spare and so uncomfortable any lounging, TV-watching or bong-smoking is done sitting on the floor. Fiona is giddy from her big sister’s invitation to join her and, while she has already arrived, she doesn’t feel it is real yet. The bong is her first ever and that will also take time, better experienced in retrospect.
A figure appears slouched against the door jamb. He is a hazy presence through the smoke both inside and outside her head. Richard appears to glide toward them. He takes the bong and the cigarette lighter from her hands and says something to Julia. Fiona thinks it is, ‘How irresponsible, Jules.’ He smiles to show he is joking. It is right then, in the way he singles her out for his concern, that she starts wanting him.
It was cool and dark under the giant tree. With its trunk at her back and two of its buttress roots twisting out on either side of her, Fiona was supported enough to feel nothing. It was the prickling of goosebumps on her bare arms which brought her back.
As much as she fought it in public, this tendency to drift off happened often. She would come to at her desk or waiting in line somewhere or in her car at the traffic lights and not know where she had been. She wondered if this was what a nervous breakdown felt like. But then, no, a breakdown couldn’t feel this good. The world had taken to vanishing. It was as if her brain said, ‘That’s enough now,’ and drew the blinds. Fiona didn’t feel distress in these moments. She felt it when the world came back. Her hands shook as her heart bore the shock of it. Like all travellers in space, it was the re-entry which proved the most challenging.
Fiona heard Lochie before she saw the dark outline of his stocky little body against the setting sun.
She stilled her breathing and clasped her quivering hands in her lap as he approached. His excitement reached out ahead of him but stopped just short of her.
‘We found a creek. It’s awesome! You have to come see it.’
‘I will. I’ll do it tomorrow,’ she said. ‘It’s getting too late now.’
Lochie’s attention skipped on. ‘We found an old chook shed too and Hugh reckons there used to be a veggie garden around the side of the house.’
Lochie planted his feet in front of her and placed his hands firmly on his hips. ‘I think it’s going to be cool living here.’
Fiona had rented the house out of desperation. It had a roof and walls. That was enough. She had not expected them to like it. On her first and only visit, the junior estate agent engaged in none of the usual banter. Instead, he stood in the centre of the sitting room, battered, she imagined, by memories of past rental applicants who had walked in and straight back out again. It was she who asked the questions.
‘So, three bedrooms, yes?’
‘Two and a half,’ he said, pointing toward the sleep-out on the enclosed back verandah.
And that was that. She said yes because the rent was low, and it was someplace else. The estate agent ended their deal, smiling and shaking her hand. He led her out of the front door to the verandah. It was there he pointed out the finer detail.
‘It’s owned by an old farmer over the hill,’ he said. ‘And there’s a creek on one of the boundaries. Quite nice, really,’ he nodded, enthusiastic now that the deal was done.
‘Could we have chickens?’ Lochie asked, standing above her under the tree. ‘Hugh wants some, and maybe we could fix up the veggie garden too?’
Lochie reached out his hands to pull Fiona to her feet. She pushed herself forward with his help and for a moment their faces were only centimetres apart. It reminded her of a time when Lochie could sit on her lap, his face close enough to read through the skin. She saw anticipation there now ... and hope. Fiona was struck by it. She wanted to feel as though she had gone somewhere with a purpose. She wanted it to mean something, but she was afraid it didn’t.
She followed Lochie up the hill toward the house knowing, of all feelings, this one predominated. Things, which used to matter, didn’t now. There was no one watching to see if she got it right.
She was still preoccupied when Lochie came to a halt in front of her.
‘Look,’ Lochie whispered, pointing ahead to where the slope steepened beyond the house and formed a small knoll.
Fiona made out the silhouette of a tall, thin man against the lowering sun. He was staring beyond them into the distance with what looked like a gun resting at an angle on his hip. Fiona turned and followed his gaze back toward the tree. Cows were gathering there, rocking themselves into lying positions. She raised a hand to wave hello and saw the abrupt shift in his posture. The gun came down and she was sure she heard the thump of the rifle butt against the ground. Then she supposed she saw the smallest of nods in their direction, a tiny tip of the head before the farmer raised the gun onto his shoulder and disappeared over the rise.
‘Weird,’ said Lochie, his eyes big.
‘Not really,’ answered Fiona.
‘But he had a gun.’
‘Well, farmers do have guns, Lochie. They have to protect their stock from predators – dingoes and such.’
‘Should we get a gun?’
‘We are not farmers.’
‘We’ll have chooks. Dingoes like chooks too, don’t they?’ Lochie asked.
‘No,’ Fiona lied.
They continued on.
This time it was Fiona who stopped. ‘Where’s your brother?’
‘Dunno. Probably gone back to the house,’ Lochie said, still trudging up the hill ahead of her.
At the front gate, Fiona heard a hollow knocking coming from around the side of the house. She found Hugh, his shirt discarded, with an old hoe in his hands. On either side of him were piles of cracked garden edging and a cleared line where the edging must have been. Fiona followed the curve of it, and saw it formed a circle with spokes to divide the garden into segments.
Hugh stopped working and posed beside his hoe, his chest thrust out, one bicep clenched. ‘It’s cool, hey?’
She almost didn’t know him. Something had happened. A gap had formed between the boy she knew and the young man she was yet to meet. ‘Yes, it is cool. Where did you get the hoe?’
‘Did Lochie tell you about the chook pen?’
‘Yes,’ she said, trying hard to read him.
‘It was in there. A shovel too.’
Fiona nodded, ‘Right.’ Her mind drifted in and out of the feathered leaves of the pepper tree behind her son.
Hugh shifted his position. ‘So, Mum? Can we put in a vegetable garden and get chickens for eggs? We might as well. It’s all here.’
It was, but even as it was laid out in front of her, Fiona couldn’t see far enough ahead. ‘I’ll need to ask permission first.’
Hugh shook his head and frowned at her. ‘Why?’
‘Because we don’t own the land, Hugh. The farmer does.’
Fiona lingered out of Hugh’s sight and listened as the hoe struck the earth again. Her attention wandered to the spot where the farmer had stood on the hill. She watched the sun travel down, quicker now that it was almost home.
Inside the house, there was much to do. Boxes teetered behind the sofa, but Fiona didn’t care. They could wait. Indefinitely, perhaps. She walked past them to the kitchen at the back of the house. There, she sat at an old table, pushed against one wall to allow passage to the back verandah. The evidence of this was visible on the curling linoleum floor. Two grime-filled gouges showed where the leading legs of the table had dug in.
Fiona heard creaking footsteps and the swing of the back door. It was Hugh coming in from the sleep-out, a narrow room with louvered windows and a floor which sloped away from the rest of the house as if it might disconnect itself and wander off.
She realised some time had passed since Hugh had ceased to hoe the garden. He had showered. Part of her mind had recorded that, the cessation of the heavy thump of metal on soil, the running water in the bathroom, the hammering in the pipes. Since then, an impenetrable darkness had fallen. It was unlike anything in the city. It crowded at the windows now, looking in at her.
‘Don’t you think we should cook something to eat?’ Hugh said this as if he were breaking bad news.
‘Yes, yes. Of course.’ Fiona drew herself up. ‘Yes. What about eggs? We could have them scrambled with some bacon, if you like?’
‘That would be great. Breakfast for dinner.’
Hugh leaned against the tiny kitchen bench with his arms folded, bigger than she had ever remembered him. Closer too, now Richard was gone.
‘I’ll find a whisk and the frypan, if you get out the eggs and cream, okay?’ she said.
Lochie crouched behind the television in the sitting room. He peaked out at her with a bunch of cables in his hand. ‘Just setting things up,’ he said.
‘Thank goodness for that,’ Fiona said. She picked out a frypan from a box marked pans and found a whisk in another marked implements. She saw the handwriting again as she folded the cardboard flaps back down and tried to work out if it were Julia’s or her own. It hardly seemed to matter, except that these tiny facts anchored her.
‘Mum, are you okay?’
Lochie emerged from behind the television and stood in front of the sofa staring at her.
‘Yes, yes. I’m fine. Scrambled eggs in ten minutes, okay? And I want you at the kitchen table to eat it.’
Lochie screwed up his face. ‘Why can’t I have my dinner on the sofa just this once? Come on, Mum.’
‘I said come to the table, Lochie, and I meant it.’ Honestly, she didn’t care. Her drawing of lines was indiscriminate now.
Lochie positioned himself on the sofa with remote control in hand. ‘No. I don’t want to!’
Fiona heard the footsteps in the hall.
‘Lochie, you will sit at the table, like Mum says!’ Hugh was beside her.
Fiona heard Richard in his voice.
‘I don’t have to do what you tell me!’ Lochie yelled at Hugh.
Before Fiona could stop him, Hugh launched himself over the back of the sofa and landed on top of his brother.
Fiona ran to them. ‘Stop it. Stop it, both of you!’ She pulled at Hugh’s arm which had curled itself around Lochie’s neck. ‘We can’t have this here. Do you understand? Not ever!’
Hugh released Lochie abruptly and left the room. She heard the door slam and the sleep-out louvres rattle. Big tears gathered in Lochie’s eyes, dripped and ran down his cheeks. ‘I hate him,’ he sniffed.
‘You don’t hate him, Lochie. He’s your brother.’
‘Yes, I do.’ Lochie stood, walked up the hall to his room and closed the door behind him.
Fiona cooked bacon and scrambled eggs, hoping the smell would coax them out again, but it didn’t. She wished she could talk to them like she used to, but they were too raw now. Their anger was so close to the surface. Hers too.