“Said the art wasn’t realistic enough.” Robert champed on that, as though somewhere inside it might have a harmless core. “Sydneysider, he was. Shoes polished clean as his arse, and ten to one he’d never even met a bloody Abo.”
Robert had met me at the airport, nodding from behind the luggage carousel. He was a nuggety sort of man, about forty, with nicotine-stained hair and a leathered face as dry as dubbin wax. Now he rammed the ute up a gear to guide us over a rise, and in the valley ahead I saw silvery mirages flicker and run.
“So I told him where to get off.” He settled back in the seat; spread his legs with satisfaction. “Sold them elsewhere.”
But he looked away, and something in the way he said elsewhere made me think he was lying. Robert was a postcard artist, turning out delicate sketches of bunchy-cheeked Aboriginal children flawless as dollies. They were charming, those dollies, with their bush tucker walks, their games of footy and then home and buns for tea. I’d seen some of the cards at the airport, glossy white strips in a “Welcome to Western Australia” travel pack.
“You here for work, then, love?” His eyes were slitted, almost lashless as they caught the gleam of streetlights. We’d driven through outer suburbs barnacled with hardware stores and retail parks, and were heading east now into a wash of indigo sky. Lantanas crept close, holding up clusters of vivid, heatless flowers, and in the distance blackboys shook like monstrous porcupines.
I nodded. “Anthropology fieldwork,” and saw him frown. “Like – studying family relationships, Aboriginal customs. That sort of thing.”
I’d found his name tacked up on the university noticeboard when I was looking for a local hotel. Robert & Marie Gundarsson, with an address and an offer of airport transport thrown in. Someone had added a spidery note: Good host, once you get used to him. And that was that, leaving me to walk around the sentence, and wonder just what it was I’d be getting used to.
“Families, hah! Bloody weird, if you ask me. They won’t even say someone’s name after he dies, those Abos.”
He smacked the word fruitily off his tongue and I coughed, my knees knocking together in their stiff new jeans. Next to Robert I felt prissy, felt soaped and civilised, as though my teeth were too large and white in my mouth.
“It’s just… research, mate,” I said in the end, flabby as a boiled egg.
“Research.” He leant back, steering with the tips of his fingers. “Waste of time, Net. There’s no original thought now; no original thought.”
He called me Net instead of Annetta, as though I were a trap spread out to catch him, and glanced over with a sneaking, no-flies-on-me satisfaction. The blackened twists of spinifex jostled behind our wheels, and somehow I drifted off to sleep and then woke again to hear Robert sigh, “No original thought.”
By the time we pulled up at his house it was dark, and our shadows were faint tidemarks under the yellowing streetlights. Robert limped up the cracked path. I’d noticed at the airport that one leg was shorter, but the way he moved made the deformity seem new, as though his limb had shrivelled during the drive. From inside I could hear a hiss of steam and a muffled, sudsy clatter.
A young woman came out onto the boarded verandah steps, bleached grey against the kitchen light. She sniffed and wiped her nose before offering me a hesitant hand.
“Sorry, love. It’s these onions.” She gestured back helplessly into the kitchen as Robert climbed the stairs, landing a jolly, smacking kiss on her slipping smile.
“Maybe I should have washed them first or something…” Her voice trembled with weariness, with an exhaustion that pulled at her slackened skin. There was a smell of cheap perfume and under that, a sort of soaped-clean sickness.
“We’ve put you in the sleep-out, Annetta.” She clawed at her scalp with her fingertips, wincing a little. “Get freshened up and I’ll see about tea.”
The sleep-out was at the back of the house, separated from the verandah by a folding partition. Someone had tried to turn it into a guest-room, with apricot-crocheted clothes hangers standing to attention in the plywood wardrobe, but the wool was already thick with dust. One of Robert’s pictures lay crumpled on the desk, a half-drawn sketch of white teeth and crinkled black eyes, as though he’d given up before finishing the smile. A fluorescent tube cast sharp blue shadows over everything, filling the room with the knock and sizzle of dying moths. When I switched it off I could see myself in the filmy shadows of a mirror, trembling with a jelly-fish frailty.
The kitchen seemed bright after that, a scrubbed and salted place where Marie’s onions rolled in the sink like life buoys. I heard voices in the living room, and found Marie crying, crumpled into a brown velvet sofa while Robert sat stiff in a matching chair. A tasselled shade swung overhead, casting bobbing shadows over everything except Robert and Marie adrift on their little raft of light.
“Net, right, let’s get cracking.” Robert jumped up when I came in, bouncing from good foot to bad with his fists raised in an up-and-at-‘em salute. “Come up the butcher’s and we’ll get some snags for tea, eh?”
There was something false about his smile and the way his face strained at it. That smile and the too-loud voice and the chopping fists all seemed flimsy somehow, like the mirages on the road.
“Robert.” Marie lay tipped against the sofa arm, with one hand pressed deep into her side. “We’ve got snags here, no call to go up Joe’s.” Her voice shook, and she scratched at the driftwood bones of her wrist. “In the deep-freeze, can have them done in two shakes – ”
But he was already striding out, leaving her stranded there with her hands clutched in on herself and her eyes raw and swollen. She wiped her cheeks and said in a dry, dirty voice that didn’t quite suit her, “You’d better go with him, Annetta. I’ll see to those onions.”
Robert was waiting outside, by an old wooden shoe rack clotted with spider webs. He picked up one of the boots and shoved his hand deep inside it.
“Know about spiders, Net? Snakes?” he asked, and thrust his face at me with a bullying sort of jeer. “They can’t bite in the dark. It’s scientifically impossible.”
“Bullshit, you hear? Scientifically impossible. Those Abos around here, they pick ‘em up at night – funnel webs, tiger snakes, dugites.”
But funnel webs lived only in the eastern states, and Robert’s face was twitching as his fingers worked deeper in the shoe.
“Go on, Net.” He pushed another boot at me, jerking his head so his throat swelled and dropped like a rooster’s crop. “Don’t have the guts?”
I took a deep breath and pushed my hand inside the shoe. Something moved, a scrabbling just beyond my fingers and my heart kicked as a gecko dropped out on the floor.
“Copped it! Should have seen your face, love!”
I put the boot down with shaking hands. Robert’s tobacco-slabbed grin was splitting his face, and beneath the kitchen’s clatter and steam I could hear Marie sobbing.
Spangles of light shone through the blackness outside; a soft yellow porch, a kitchen drained and scrubbed, a blue-white and beseeching bedroom. Bats wheeled across the cross-stitched stars and on the nature strips kangaroos were frozen in the moonlight.
“Look – Marie, she’s not feeling so good, right? Shouldn’t we stay with her?”
“Nah, she’ll be right.” He’d brought along a walking stick, thick and twisted as a choko vine, and it stabbed into the crackling grass. “Get a shift on, Net. No point standing round like a coupla pork chops.”
We’d come to a short driveway that led past a square brick building and back into the bush. A wind had picked up, twisting the dangling strips of silverbark that gleamed wan among the trees. Behind the building I could see a fenced-in yard that looked like a poultry run, littered with tufted paws of kidney weed. A sandwich-board lent against the wall. Joe’s Egg and Meat Shack.
“Shack, hah. Got that right.” He bit the last word savagely, the way he’d said “No original thought.”
“Right, Net. Snags, eh?”
The door was splintered, gouged at waist height by a series of jagged pits like the grassy scars from Robert’s stick. Fresh paint flaked off around our feet and a latch held the door closed from inside. Robert coughed, then spat cleanly onto the doorstop and reached through the buckled gap to snap the latch. It looked practiced, that twist, and when the door swung open he thrust his shoulders back and shook the stoop out of them like a performer waiting for applause.
Inside was a single, square room, lit by another buzzing fluorescent tube. The walls were glossed white, and the ancient yellow counter had been wiped till it shone. An esky sat near the front, the lid snapped tight on a piece of card. NO TRESPASSING, it read. POLICE NOTIFIED, with each letter level and scalpel-sharp. There was a rustle in the air, a slithery, unsettled sense of movement.
“Bloody Abo shopkeeper.” Robert hefted his walking stick and jabbed at the esky, sending it tumbling it to the floor. The lid cracked open, bouncing under the counter to spill out a puddle of greyish water. An enormous huntsman spider skittered out from under the lid and Robert swore, then flipped it on its back into the shallow pool.
“Robert?” The air stirred again, and my voice scraped in my throat. He was standing in the corner by another door, this one hung with dangling strands of plastic to keep out the flies.
“Go on, Net. Out the back, eh?” He sounded gentle now, as though he were asking a favour. His mouth was a chew of raw skin, and though he shuffled his feet loudly he didn’t move away from the door.
Through the plastic strips was a tiny back room, crisp with the dry smell of straw. A throbbing murmur came from a low poultry house along one wall, and opposite it a misted ice-box held scraps of meat and jigsawed bones. The only light came from the main shop, and my shadow threw a blackened length against the far wall. I could feel Robert behind me, his breath sucking damp through his teeth.
“So, Net. Got a boyfriend, back east? Or kids, you got kids?” He shuffled closer, bringing a reek of sweated leather. I took a step away, a tippy-tapped no-offense-meant shuffle that ended up as a panicked scurry. Once you get used to him, I thought.
“No, mate.” Now I was next to the wall my shadow had shrunk back down to normal size, and the tawny sound of the hens rose and sank with my heartbeat. I folded my arms, faced him square. “How about you and Marie?”
He seemed to sag in on himself, all the swagger crumpling and his hands hanging limp as waterlogged gloves.
He hobbled over to the corner where the poultry house lay in shadow. “She’s crook, Net. Real bad. Something up with her insides, they said. She can’t have kids.” I could only see his eyes, pale and dimly wet as he sank down against the mesh. He breathed in and held it, like a child left scared in the dark.
“I’m sorry.” I hadn’t expected to be sorry for him, but something about the way he spoke had sounded scoured and comfortless. “Look, and we’ve left her all alone, right? Come on, let’s get home.”
“We had a dog, though.” Robert didn’t move. “Close enough, eh, Net? Good enough for us.” His smile was stretched, with a terrible sort of cheerfulness. In the cage next to him a tumble of warm, brooding feathers stirred and pressed against the wire.
“He was a little scrapper, that pup. Used to come up here to beg for bones, but Joe wouldn’t have a bar of it. Said he put the hens off laying. Chased him off with a stick.” Robert cracked his own walking stick against the cages, and the birds hissed and fluttered inside.
“And then one day the little fella never come back,” he said. “So Marie got on at me after tea to come and have a look here, ‘case a snake had got him.” He swung his head from side to side with a sort of bullish disbelief.
“Scientifically impossible,” I said. It wasn’t a joke, not quite, and he nodded at me through the dark with sober gratitude.
“Place was lit up like a cricket pitch when I got here,” he said, “Joe’s motion lights were on and the chooks were still out. And there was this noise, Net, by the fencepost out back. Like a kid crying.” He turned back to the cages with a grimace that showed his brownish teeth.
“There he was, biggest bloody rooster I’ve ever seen. Big as a fighting cock. And the dog too, trying to dig out a hole to get away. They must’ve been scrapping, ‘cause there was blood thick as guts on the ground. And then the rooster snaps his beak, comes away with a bit of fur and the dog gives this howl. Like he can’t do anything but scream.”
Robert stopped for a second, and slipped his fingers in through the wire mesh. He stroked at the bird’s wing almost gently; then with a stiff tug some feathers slipped free. The hen scuffled, hunkered down against the cage floor and I saw his knuckles swell with a jagged scratch.
“By the time I got him out it was too late. Poor little tacker kicked the bucket before we got home.”
He looked down at me with the lost look of someone who’d got in amongst the roots of everything, and found it all wanting.
“Marie never mentioned him again, Net. Never even asked how he died.”
The fluorescent light through the doorway buzzed and dimmed, and a great soft moth began to splash against the plastic strands. I slipped my arm through the crook of his elbow and felt the tender slick of our skins together.
“Joe bought some postcards off me the next day,” he said eventually. “They don’t understand, you see. The Abos. They don’t have the words for it.”
One of the birds in the poultry run squawked, sharp as nails, and I thought of Marie’s sliding tears, and of Joe coming back through the silent bush with a clutch of Robert’s black-faced dollies. Almost everything Robert had said today had been wrong, had been cross-grained and vicious, and yet there was a sort of salty truth in the feel of his arm through mine.
“Go home, Net,” he muttered. Something in the telling had disappointed him, as though he’d expected more of it. He humped himself free, his bad leg stuck out stiff and shrivelled as a cuttlefish bone. Somewhere behind that dry face and chewed-up mouth there were feral, wordless things happening, and as I left his fingers clutched silently at something just out of reach.
Back in the main shop the spider was huddled in a sodden knot against the counter. The door swung loose, letting in a streak of rustling night and the glimmer of a distant streetlight. The nature strips outside were empty now, but above it all the bats still danced and the fog rose grey and bloodless, and the tar-black sky still offered up a slice of moon as though nothing had been its fault.
A few months later someone took Robert’s scribbled card down from the university noticeboard. No longer letting rooms, our secretary said as she picked at her teeth, not since his wife died. Marie, I said, her name’s Marie, and the secretary shrugged inside her cardigan as she clipped away down the corridor. They say it brings bad luck, to name the dead, but like Robert I had expected more.
I tried to tell the story to my husband once, when I was first married and beached safe on the sands of my own life. But the freshness had gone from it, and all that was left was the memory of some apricot-crochet hangers in a silent room, and a sense that somewhere we had all gone wrong.
C. G. MENON is the 2015 winner of the Asian Writer prize, The Short Story award and the Winchester Writers Festival award. Her work has been shortlisted for the Fish short story prize and published in a number of journals and anthologies, including The Lonely Crowd, the Willesden Herald anthology, Words and Women, and anthologies from Siren Press and Dahlia Press. She is currently working on her first novel, while studying for a creative writing masters at City University.