By Lauren Forner
Our fiction editor, Lauren Forner's, narrative explores the deep resentment and claustrophobia that stems from finding yourself in a life you don't want. Set against the backdrop of a has-been property, this rural tale won Lauren the Writers Victoria's Rural Writing Prize and featured in The Victorian Writer in 2016.
She blinked, forcing her eyes to focus on the stationary grey gums in the hazy distance, the blurred outlines of their trunks a result of monotonous hours of the same parched landscape. The plain stretched out before them lazily, each bend revealed only acres more paddocks raped by drought. The sanded, lacquered palings of the suburban fences in their previous life were pushed from her mind, gnarled and twisted into the kilometres of rusted wire; in places, the tangles were completely absent even of the star pickets that once tamed and ordered them, the last indication she needed of the futility of any attempt to contain life within these paddocks.
The repetitive bars of Pearl Jam were intermittently interrupted by the jolt of a velour lounge chair or the thud of the sturdy oak bookcase against the trailer’s gate. He had been silent, she noted, for eight hours and twenty-six minutes of their journey. Each time she casually glanced at her wrist, she felt his eyes slide from the bitumen to assess her calculation of the time to their destination.
“I’m not lost, you know.” He was indignant, answering what he considered an implied accusation.
“I know.” Instead, she counted the seconds in her head.
The grind of the brakes of the secondhand Land Cruiser he was insistent on them buying roused her. As the darkness blanketed them, the thick bugs assailing their windscreen were the only indications that the landscape was a strange one. She was disappointed to find the velvety depths of the night, veined with deep blue, remained unchanged by her relocation. She was reminded of a multitude of clichéd sentiments about her significance relative to the universe.
She followed the sound of her husband’s footfall on the gravel and watched him fumbling around the doorway of the asbestos cottage for keyholes and switches that would magically transform the house, if not her situation.
“We should sleep. We can unpack in the morning.”
She subconsciously glanced at her watch.
Without waiting for a response, her husband disappeared and reappeared with two swags from the undulating piles on the trailer. She dragged hers to an empty carpeted room, which she assumed would be their bedroom. He didn’t follow.
As the morning light broke, it was the silence she was disoriented by. She felt a strange stiffness in her neck and examined the patterns and indents on the carpet beside her as she tried to stretch and massage the pain away. The only furniture that remained in the bedroom was a scratched tallboy, solid and heavy, left in the house, she knew, only because it was too inconvenient and cumbersome for her husband’s brothers to scavenge when they stripped the house.
She listened for her husband’s heavy tread, knowing he would be eager to immerse himself in this new venture and push from his mind the sense of impotence which had dogged him for the last year.
There was no trace of his swag when she finally rose and the trailer sat undisturbed. She set about unfolding, folding, rearranging, dusting, dislodging, shaking. She decided to leave the three remaining pieces of furniture in their resting places; the tallboy, writing desk and sideboard were all of the same ilk, their circular carvings providing a safe haven for decades of dust, fibres and ash from the open fireplace. They would have been wedding presents to his parents, she supposed, knowing that her father-in-law would not have purchased such substantial pieces, or those with such intricate detail inlaid; indeed he was not the type of man to have seen the need to procure a sideboard at all.
It took the snap of the fly screen door for her to realise she had not uttered a single word to another being since waking that morning. The soft pinks of the clouds, reflecting the swirling particles of topsoil within them, began to swallow the final orange fingers of sun. Instantly, the unbearable heat was relieved and the evening coolness rolled in with the chirrups of the locusts.
He had brought with him a length of greased chain and several tools that she wouldn’t guess at the names of. She was the first to break the silence as she saw him surveying her day’s labour. “Did you go down to the shed today?”
He gestured at the tools that he had heaped into the corner of the kitchen in reply. “You do all this yourself?”
She bit back the retort. Who else would help her out here, where he had dragged her? She simply nodded. “There’s those leftover sandwiches from yesterday in the fridge.”
He took the last three, leaving the fridge empty, and continued his tour of the house. She heard the gurgle of the hot water system and, then, their customary silence.
She had resolved to greet the new dawn with hope and, so, unfurled herself from the mattress she had barely managed to cram into the room the previous day. The pillows on the left side of the bed remained plump and even, the quilt and linen unruffled.
She stood, in the middle of the cramped kitchen, completely still. She strained over the sound of her own breathing for some indication of her companion - the whirr of an engine, the hacking of a tool against wood or steel – but the tools he had brought home so proudly, a warrior back from his hunt, left only black oily traces of their existence on the linoleum.
She met the gravel road reluctantly but in the cool of the morning she could breathe easily and freely. She had no sense of where she was jogging, and so made sure to remain on the widest road. She swatted at the flies as she ran, and slowed for kangaroos, remembering horrific stories of their drowning Labradors and not doubting they could do the same to her with their brute strength. She saw who she guessed was their closest neighbour; the grit of the billowing pink powder his beaten Land Cruiser spat at her mingled with the slick of sweat on her chest. The day’s heat emerged, stealthily, as a cold-blooded reptile might slither from underneath a rock or a discarded piece of tin. The din of the cicadas gradually grew as she neared the cottage, the lofty gums amplifying their mating screech.
She washed and rinsed, washed and rinsed, in what had become a familiar rhythm of her solitary days. The pile of files she had fervently assured her manager she could review and have couriered to the Sydney office had been shifted to several different locations as she had cleaned that week. Here, they seemed inconsequential; they were figures on sheets of paper, attached to no one and nothing. Her assurances that she could maintain her work rate in a remote office now rang false. She resigned herself to a year of this choking sensation as her desperation and helplessness crept up into her throat and slowly strangled her.
He returned, nightly, with a souvenir from his day’s toils; he would deposit the tangled links of chain, or the spanner which needed oiling, or the piston of a tractor he had dissembled, in the corner of the kitchen. It would be gone again when she woke in the morning. The only evidence of their existence was the seeping oil stain, gradually growing, its edges bleeding.
Headlights beamed at her through the window above the sink as the suds and forks swirled between her hands. The vehicle, cloaked in night, rattled to a halt at the gate. Her husband’s curiosity was piqued and, for a short moment, he forgot the worn iron part which had been an object of such focused attention all evening.
“Evening.” A brusque, red-bearded, flannel-clad farmer filled the door frame of the small farmhouse. His skin spoke of the years he had spent tilling soil and whispering prayers for rain. “You must be Dave’s other boy.” He extended his hand, but did not intrude further into the home.
Chair scraping in his haste, her husband awkwardly met his greeting. “Yeah, ah, Rob. Neighbour, are you?”
The visitor removed his hat, suddenly aware of her presence as she turned at the sink. “Can I trouble you for a cuppa, love?”
She cursed herself for wearing the tired apron she had found amongst the meagre belongings of her mother-in-law. To men of his generation, this must be confirmation of the self-effacing female that she was not. She busied herself with the kettle and foraged for a packet of Scotch Fingers she knew they had brought with them.
“Dave wasn’t sure you’d come. He thought you’d sell the place, probably. Would’ve been your bad luck, you wouldn’t’ve got two brass razoos to rub together for it.”
“Know him well, did you?”
The stranger laughed. “Mate, I only had three friends: my cruiser, my sheepdog and Dave. Not much else around here that’ll keep you company.” He quietly saluted her with his tea and set about dunking half his Scotch Finger. She was not sure whether she was welcome at the table, though both men eyed her suspiciously when she hovered around it instead.
“What’re you gonna do with the place?”
“Thought I’d stay for a year, see if I can make a go of it. Got no job to go back to in town.”
She was shocked by his sudden admission, so casually, of the problem that had plagued him for almost a year before his father’s death. It seemed brutally wounding to her, that he could summarise the source of each sleepless night, each anxious rumbling, each uninitiated argument that hung like a poison vapour in the air, so decisively in a single sentence.
The conversation continued, despite her vacant expression. Her husband had disappeared in search of paperwork and the stranger fixed his eye on her. “It’s too late in the year to be sowing wheat, love. You’d want to be talking him out of that.” He sipped the tea with surprising delicacy, holding her gaze over the rim of his cup.
Her throat tightened at the premonition of another failure. “What do you recommend, then?” She attempted to sound reasonable and measured, but her voice was forced, betraying her.
He pushed his empty cup towards her and brushed the crumbs from his fingers. “Put a feed crop in. Get some sheep in there. Don’t bother with cows, they’re not tough enough to get through the dry. Sheep don’t need much watering, see?”
She nodded. “But where would we get the sheep?” She knew that the beasts had their price and, from the dwindling figure in their bank account, they could not match it.
He rattled off a list of saleyards that would be holding auctions over the next month. She assumed they were names of towns or stations nearby, but couldn’t repeat them because they moved so awkwardly around her mouth.
Her husband returned with a thin manila folder he had unearthed in his late father’s writing desk, signaling the end of her clandestine conversation with the stranger. He spread the sheets over the table, asking questions about the previous financial year. She slipped away to the bedroom, mumbling about preparing for some activity the following day. She was sure they were not listening anyway, absorbed by the business of the land. That night, in an effort to get to sleep, she was not counting sheep but counting their cost. A close second was the year’s remaining weeks.
She stirred, the next morning, to the sound of his presence in the house. She had become accustomed to waking to silence, or a thoroughly entertained kookaburra. The whistling and creaking boards made her wary.
He was the cleanest she had seen him in recent memory; his shirt was crisp and his stockyard boots gleamed against the faded flooring, the stiffness of the leather eschewing the particles of paddock dust that wanted to claim their place there; claim him. She stared for a moment too long.
“Going into town,” he defended himself. She sought the refuge of the kettle and stationed herself there, drowning his steely tone in its rumble.
She reached for the three sheets she had fixed together with packing tape. “Do you think you could just pick these things up while you’re there?”
His eyes scanned the list - jam, carrots, self-raising flour – he thrust it back towards her. “I’m only going to the stock and station agent. That’s all.”
She turned her back to him and forced her features into an expression of nonchalance. She inhaled the rising steam from her mug and was grateful that the billowing clouds of it obscured her from his view. He continued to forage through the cutlery drawer, snatching at items at random and examining their size, or shape, before plunging them back into the sea of mismatched utensils, his frustration increasing. “Couldn’t even leave a bloody Phillips head… Even the desk is bloody broken - ”
“What’re you getting in town?” she interrupted his perplexing monologic mutterings, recalling the seeds the gruff neighbour had planted with her last night; how could he leave her with such a responsibility? Her uncertainty in her ability to redirect his enthusiasm grew like the heads of wheat; she heard them rustling their susurrus, taunting her with their existence.
“Need to check out the price wheat is getting at the moment. I know the yield won’t be great, but if I can get it started this year, the next crops’ll be better…”
She heard nothing beyond the suggestion of remaining at the outpost beyond the agreed-upon year. The heat of her mug scorched her hands, raw from her attempts to scour the years of dust from the architraves and skirtings. But she didn’t dare relax her grip as she boldly took her chance. “Isn’t it a bit late in the season to be planting wheat?”
His pose became rigid, like an engine that had suddenly seized. “I didn’t know you knew anything about farming. God knows you told me so enough before we moved here.” He spoke to the cabinet he faced but the chill underneath his words reached its target nonetheless.
The drawers’ stiff rollers resisted the slam that ended the discussion.
She waited for the chug of the diesel engine before she began poring through the scant pile of paperwork they had been bequeathed. They had both looked at the executor of his father’s will with incredulity; they were expected to resurrect the farm on this? Besides the Title deeds to the farm, now transferred into Robert’s name, the only documents she could make sense of were the farm’s inventories and bills from debtors yet to be discharged. Scanning the abundant itemised list of machinery, tools, tractors, parts, chemicals and maintenance supplies, a small vestige of hope took root inside of her.
She kept the inventory aside, wanting to peruse it further, and shuffled the remaining papers back into the manila folder, absentmindedly closing the desk drawer with a quick movement of her hips, a relic of her days as a skilled multi-tasker, but found that it met her with resistance. She bent over and shook the drawer gently to dislodge the obstruction, knowing how temperamental antique furniture could be. She peered in behind the drawer, where the runners extended into the dark recesses of mahogany. She ran her fingers along the grooves, hoping to find the impediment; a lost sheet of paper, a pen lid, something she could remove swiftly, along with any trace of her investigation into her husband’s management of the property. Her fingernails caught on a screw, partially displaced. She attempted to loosen it, but the angle wouldn’t allow movement.
In a sudden moment of unbridled frustration, a strangled groan escaped her. She wanted to step outside her adult self just briefly; she envisioned the release that could come from hurling the chair in front of her across the cramped dining room, its loose black plastic wheels spinning in a fury. Instead, she prodded at the offending screw with a butter knife, trying to align the thread, or even send it further into the depths of the drawers below. The futility of the operation, with simple tools and limited vision, was not lost on her. Couldn’t leave a bloody Philip’s head, indeed. The knife clattered into the sink and she pulled on a pair of the scuffed sandshoes she had designated ‘farm shoes’.
She knew the general direction of the shed from the house and could spy the structure’s pitched roof above the treeline but she had not yet been invited into the den that consumed so many hours of her husband’s time. Reading the inventory list earlier, she realised she had unfairly assumed that he was wiling away his days moping in the shed, grateful to escape her watchful eye, relieved to be freed from her enquiries about job applications and follow up phone calls and resume rewrites and networking opportunities. She now imagined that the sheer volume of machinery must have occupied his last four weeks; he would have been intimately acquainting himself with the methods of operating and maintaining each one, committing to memory their manuals like he had the details of each insurance policy he had once pushed upon his clients. She wondered if he would share some of his burden with her, let her into the musings of his mind and his grand plans once again. She supposed she could be taught to drive a tractor and sow a crop, even if it was against the advice of their seasoned neighbour.
The brittle earth was cracked and scarred beneath her feet as she slowly picked her way around the patches of dried catheads to the chorus of cicadas. The vivid green of the weeds that had pushed through rendered the charred remains of the last crop her father-in-law had harvested even more symbolic; she saw that here, the strong and the ruthless survive. Any nourishment was taken by force, rather than offered kindly.
As she approached the structure, she noticed the corrugated iron sheets were patched at odd angles on the shed’s exterior; the repair jobs were temporary solutions at the expense of its stability. The patchwork on the far side was gradually pulling the wall away from the roof but the problem seemed to have been recently addressed; a new nylon rope secured the unruly dissenter to a stable timber rafter. Perhaps her husband had inherited more than just the farm from his father, she smiled wryly.
The bolt that secured the door was on the ground next to it, the door flapping on loose hinges as if to offer an eerie invitation. She expected, upon entering the cavernous darkness, to find the floorspace and workbenches littered with tools and parts. She hesitated as her eyes adjusted to the weak strains of light filtering stealthily in through the odd break in the tin which had escaped, unnoticed, or was deemed not to warrant mending.
She was acutely aware, in this moment of transition, how isolated she was. Even the silence seemed to have left her momentarily. Not a living, breathing soul knew her whereabouts. If she was not standing at the sink, suds swirling around her hands, would he even bother to look for her beyond the four other rooms in the cottage? Or would the mild inconvenience of her absence be eclipsed by the suddenly light air he inhaled, the taint of guilt and sacrifice that was smothering them both, gone.
Beyond the darkness, there was only more emptiness; the floor was neatly swept, its endless concrete dullness broken only by a length of chain, newly greased; its links laid out with painstaking care and precision, qualities she considered wasted on oil-streaked steel. In the far corner, in shadow, lay an engine of some description – or what she imagined an engine would look like – its plastic tubes protruding like tentacles from the recesses beneath. The workbenches, immaculately clean also, held none of the promise she had imagined only a short hour ago. She mumbled as she tugged at its drawers and patted shelves; where were the manuals he had been reading? And she spun, endlessly, dizzingly, in the centre of the concrete, convinced she had overlooked it all; the machinery, the lists of tools, the multitudes of chemicals, the inventory of building materials.
And in place of all these beacons of hope was that familiar sense of abandonment. She knew that the post-war wrought-iron bedframes and carefully turned antique dining table now took pride of place in her brothers-in-law’s homes, and that their farm sheds, too, overflowed with pesticides and wire-cutters, diesels and screwdrivers, sheep drenches and scarifiers.
She wandered back, dazed, into the scorching white light which bleached her retinas and drained her image of the rustling, full heads of wheat of its vitality.
The distant splutter of the Land Cruiser’s engine did little to soften the throb of the cicada chorus as she gazed out across the impenetrable soil.
She imagined being plunged into the earth’s crust, drilled and covered like a seed, suffocated by clods of its bitter particles, her lungs full of dirt and his head full of the dreams of wheat.
And over the hiss of the radiator as the Land Cruiser cooled in its resting place, she felt the dry rasp of the cockatoo sink, down, into her weathered bones.
This place would bury them.