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Red

It was the first week of 1976 and she had just turned 17.

 

The day school let out her parents packed the car with suitcases, a plastic tree, a big box of tinsel and a smaller box of gifts, and they drove the family north. It was too hot in the new house in Strathfield, they said. Better to have Christmas by the beach. Which was her mother’s way of insinuating that Christmas lunch that year would not be roast pork and gravy but a supermarket ham and potato salad crunchy with sand.

 

They hadn’t realised when they moved back to Sydney three years earlier that building a house on a block of land a few dozen kilometres into the Western suburbs – farther West than any of them had ever been before – also meant being out of reach of the sea breeze. In the summer the days got hot and the house got hotter. There was no afternoon reprieve. Her brother and sister would lie in their underwear, next-to-naked on the golden filigree carpet, in the path of the wood-panelled air conditioner. Their father periodically ducked his head through the roller door, addressing his offspring sprawled across the floor, and reminded them that cool air was a privilege. That thing cost a fortune in energy bills.

 

Christine did not lie on the carpet. She didn’t appear in her underwear in front of anybody anymore. She was, her mother said, ‘of that age’.

 

Her parents bought the beach house in the early ’60s, when it was cheap. They had held onto it after they sold the house in Brisbane and moved back to Sydney. Each year when they came back for the summer the house was musty and sand had blown in under the door and mould dotted the spare set of sheets in the linen cabinet. They wasted away the first day of the holidays in cleaning.

 

Her birthday was Christmas Day, and they spent it eating pudding and brandy custard on a picnic blanket beneath the pines. It was hot. Her father brought out a thermometer and measured it, in Fahrenheit, because he would never get used to the new system. ‘Metric. Bloody disgrace.’ Over a hundred degrees in the shade. She did not want to be there.

 

The whole country was talking about Whitlam. More than a month had passed but the debate wouldn’t die. There were still pieces on the television at night, scraps of the speech he had made on the steps of Parliament House. The nation maintained their rage all through that summer, the hinge of the 1970s. Her father sermonised at night after dinner from his place at the kitchen table. The government, too, was a bloody disgrace. What was the country coming to, he asked, clutching his third bottle of Crown Lager. How dare some monarchist flunky bastard sack the Prime Minister of this fine country? ‘What made him think he had the right?’ Her mother, sipping a cup of tea, said that Governor General fellow had every right. Though it had, she admitted, been ill-mannered of him. Making such a fuss over the thing, as he did.

 

When her father had gone to bed, Christine stood in the empty kitchen, washing up the five sets of plates. Her mother stood beside her, drying the glasses too forcefully, muttering, ‘Your father has always supported the unions, but he’ll come around, you mark my words.’ Christine nodded.

 

Her mother was right. By the time Hawke was elected, both her parents were staunch supporters of the Liberal Party. But her father never forgave the Governor General.

 

On the Wednesday, when they’d been there two weeks, she asked to drive back to Sydney. She had her licence; she got it in May. There were months of stalling in car parks in Homebush while her father bellowed from the passenger seat. But she had the hang of it now. She was a careful driver. They trusted her.

 

She was about to start sixth form. She insisted she needed the summer to study. She couldn’t study in This Place. They couldn’t expect her to share a room with her 11-year-old sister if they wanted her to do well in her exams. She needed quiet. She’d drive carefully. She wouldn’t do it all in one stretch. She could drive to Coffs Harbour and stay the night with her mother’s sister, the one nobody liked. They had driven up in two cars, she pointed out, so that her younger brother could get some practice in Mum’s cheaper, clunkier car. She’d call as soon as she arrived back in Strathfield.

 

The request induced a subterranean panic. Her parents argued, muted behind doors. Her mother was white with anger. Her father admired her commitment to academics. They relented. He said it was fine as long as she made an overnight stop, stayed with her aunt in Coffs Harbour. He’d telephone that she was coming.

 

*

 

She had seen him two days after Christmas, sitting on the sea wall.

 

The Liberals had won in a landslide. Her father was in a rage again. He’d been reading the papers. Her brother’s crumbs of peanut butter sandwich trailed across the kitchen counter and her mother was tidying in the back rooms. The air in the house quivered with dread. She said she was going out.

 

She drove down to Coolangatta and went to the far end of the beach where the pines grew. The surfers were bobbing in the waves, their women stretched out all brown and blonde on their towels. The girls’ tits peeked out of their bikini tops as they waited for their men. They kept watch over the ham sandwiches, the cold beer in blue eskis. They seemed happy.

 

Christine kept her distance. In the middle of the burning sand she spread out her towel. She rubbed baby oil into her freckles, watching her calves shine in the sharp light. Sand blew across in a gust of salty air and stuck to her legs like a thin dusting of sugar. She puffed out her hair on the towel, lay down and looked around her.

 

She could see him from the sand.

 

He sat beneath the pines surrounded by a small group of people. Mostly girls. Someone had a guitar, and they handed it to him through the throng of bodies. He began to play. His feet were suntanned, filthy and very beautiful.

 

She did not approach him. It would never have occurred to her. But, once, she felt as though she had caught his eyes. Felt like they were looking straight at her. She looked away. She wasn’t bold enough to hold the gaze of the things that might hunt her.

 

She dozed a little in the light. She let the sun soak into her freckles.

 

A voice roused her. ‘You’re burning, Red.’

 

The man from the seawall was standing over her. The sun was behind him. ‘Mind if I sit with you?’

 

She didn’t, and so he sat.

 

He had a cigarette between his fingers, and as he turned he grinned and waved it in the direction of a thin, blonde woman, who kind of drifted towards him.

 

‘Hey,’ she said. ‘Hey,’ he replied. She giggled, and then, as if she was satisfied, she drifted somewhere else along the shore, looking back, beckoning him to follow her.

 

He stayed with Christine, beside her in the sand.

 

He had an orange in his pocket. When he was done with the cigarette he took a penknife to the orange, hacked it into quarters, and he suckled on its skin. The juice trickled in sticky rivulets down his wrist.

 

She couldn’t keep herself from looking at him. She wanted to touch his guitar. He looked at her sideways. He smiled, a little. He wasn’t a smiler, really, she could tell. He handed her the instrument. ‘You can play it,’ he said, as though he could hear what she was thinking.

 

She knew, then, that he was what she had been searching for.

 

*

 

She got in the car at nine in the morning and waved at her mother’s reflection in the rear-view mirror. She drove toward the intersection. Currumbin was sand-strewn and white. At the shop that sold the apple pies that were making her sister fat, she did a u-ey. She rolled the windows down. She was following him north.

 

She was a smudgy girl. No purpose to her. She merged into the stream of things. She disappeared into all the other girl-shapes in the concrete schoolyard, before you much noticed she was there. Nothing distinguished her. She liked short skirts and blue eye shadow and Led Zeppelin. Everyone did.

 

She had never made decisions before. She had never formed a plan. She went where the others went. She did what she was told.

 

He told her that he was hitching up to Airlie Beach, up ‘round Proserpine way.

 

‘It’s paradise, up there,’ he said. ‘Never gets cold. You can sleep out under the stars every night of the week.’

 

She pictured him there. On the white sands by the water so blue it was hard for the heart to bear. Lying there in the dark, with a tropical moon rising at his bare feet. A beach that was magical by virtue of its emptiness, and his presence, asleep on its sands. Somewhere full of stars and solitude and touching.

 

She didn’t know what she’d do when she got to Airlie, only that she’d find him.

 

*

 

‘There’s a power in redheads, man,’ he said to her, nodding. ‘A kind of cosmic thing. Ask anyone. It’s mythical. The best kinds of women are redheads. Queen Elizabeth, Mary Magdalene, Helen of Troy. Yeah,’ he nodded again, looking out at the waves as though they were affirming him, ‘there’s power in redheads.’ She followed his gaze along the beach, inhabited – exclusively, it seemed – with blondes. The waves formed and reformed, perfectly. The surfers rode the barrels into shore.

 

He turned back to her and his eyes grew shiny, a look she couldn’t quite penetrate. ‘You know, you look a little like Squeaky Fromme.’

 

It took her a moment. He didn’t explain.

 

The Manson Family girl had been arrested a few months earlier for pointing a loaded gun at President Ford. She was locked up now, awaiting trial. Secret Service wrestled her to the ground before she could shoot. A slip of a thing in long skirts, red hair ablaze in the photo lens as they took her down. It had been in the papers.

 

‘Friend of mine used to work as a medical assistant in the hospital,’ he went on. ‘He said redheaded women always needed more anaesthetic to go under. They always had to give them more, otherwise they’d wake up during surgery. You’re sensitive, Red. You’re buzzing around inside.’

 

He told her a lot of things. He told her he’d been in prison a few times – petty theft, carrying a weapon, disturbing the peace. Small things. His rap sheet was evidence only that he didn’t give a shit about the establishment, about any of the laws or institutions or people who told him what to do.

 

He told her that in prison the pimps were the best guys to hang around. They were better than the rapists and the murderers, that was for sure. The pimps taught him about how women think. Girls who have low self-esteem, he said, will attach themselves to any man who gives them just the littlest bit of attention. Not too much. Too much they get greedy. They’re gluttons for love.

 

He told her death and life were a continuum, and the only way to get any answers was to give up everything. Embrace your vulnerability, your precariousness in the world.

 

It sounded like heresy.

 

He put his hand on the curve of her shiny calf, sliding up into the crook of her knee, then down.

 

It felt okay. It even felt good. This touching thing.

 

This, she supposed, was what going with the flow was.

 

Keep it there, she thought. Keep it there some more.

 

The wind started up as the light tended west. The crowds thinned on the sand. Pubs opened. She could hear the Skyhooks drifting through some open door. Horror movie, right there on my TV. Over and over again.

 

She lifted herself on her elbows to look at the man beside her. She could not pinpoint the source of his magic. It was something about his aura maybe, his presence. The air that hung around him. It pitched her into disarray, into an uncontained state of wanting. Whoever he was, and who could really say, he seemed at that moment like father, lover and God mingled loosely into one. And if this night teaches my mother anything, if anything sticks to her once he’s gone, it’s the insidious secret that love is not brotherhood or communion. No. Love is sex.

 

Along the beach the after-work surfers were gathering, coming together on the sands. It was beautiful. Excruciating.

 

*

 

She drove north. In an hour she was in the centre of Brisbane. She followed the traffic. The roads were busy with holidaymakers heading south. The highway was quieter going her way, north. The green road signs counted out the kilometres. Towns slipped by. Caboolture, Nambour, Gympie. The scrubby roadside. The dun-coloured monotony of the landscape.

 

At Gin Gin she stopped and bought a meat pie. ‘Best Pies in Queensland,’ said the sign above the awning. She didn’t know about that. She smothered the thing in tomato sauce to hide the gristle and the weird taste of spoiling meat. She ate the pie standing up, resting her elbows on the burning roof of the car, watching Queenslanders pass by – sun-scorched, dry-skinned, with thin, tight lines in their faces that did instead of smiles.

 

She drove. Miriam Vale. Calliope. Ambrose. The towns slipped by and the road got quieter. She saw some hitchhikers, no-hopers, but she didn’t stop for anybody. The only other car she saw was parked on the side of the road, abandoned, dented, its number plates gone. Somebody had smashed the windshields in and the broken glass on the tarmac glinted in the afternoon sun like dashed crystal. Fruit stalls along the side of the road sold mangos and bananas. She saw two little girls in red plastic chairs sitting beneath a beach umbrella, under which they had erected a shakily-drawn ‘Homemade Lemonade’ sign beside a pitcher sweating on a fold-out camping table. After that there wasn’t much of anything to see.

 

The radio reception was patchy. For a little while she listened to the local stations, but the music got gospel the farther north she drove, and the stations fizzled out into static. She rolled the dial back and forth, watching the marker tuning into nothing. After a while she settled for silence.

 

The country was eerie when looked at it in silence. It conspired with her mood. She fell into herself. He was, she thought, the only man she had ever met on the face of the earth.

 

*

 

The tarmac was wet from morning drizzle. Nothing moved, and no cars or bodies came. The clouds clung to the horizon. Cicadas screeched. Funny how they were always louder after a storm. She watched the road peel away into the skittery, late-afternoon sunlight.

 

She noticed that when the road curved in a particular way, brutish shafts of steam seemed to rise up off the hot tarmac in the rear-view mirror, pursuing the car. She scanned the landscape, left and right. The stunted trees. Tangles of barbed wire. Rusting sheds. Muddy grass. A brown, scrawny animal or two, far away, open-mouthed. She couldn’t tell what kind.

 

The sharpness of salt and brine that had accompanied her from the coast she realised, then, was gone. There were three or four hours of this, she guessed, until she got somewhere she might sleep.

 

*

 

That night, in the dinnertime hours, when couples and kids began to gather on picnic blankets eating fish and chips, he took her walking. The neon lights were slowly flickering on to illuminate the dusk. She read the letters as they passed them by as though they were divine prognostications. She was trembling. Everything she saw took on a deeper meaning. ‘Fiesta Restaurant’, ‘Tog Shop’, ‘Paul Stafford’s Bikini Bar’, ‘Belair Holidays’, ‘Corroboree Cabaret’. On the other side of the street there were no signs or shops, just scrubby trees growing out of the thick, sand-clogged sea grass. The light was red and green and violet and it danced across her skin. She was wearing her bikini, still.

 

They walked into the quieter streets lined with beach houses just like her parents’. There were banana trees in the lawn and oleander exploding through the low wire fences. The fibro was weather worn and the day’s wet swimmers were drip-drying with the beach towels over the railings of the verandas.

 

He told her he wanted to make love to her. He said it just like that. ‘Make love.’ His accent was broad. A Queensland accent, though he could have been from anywhere. An economy of syllables and a combative inertia in the muscles of the throat.

 

Boys at school were crude and talked about fucking and rooting and doing it but they never talked about making love. It sounded beautiful. Like an American thing people said in movies.

 

He took her back to the strip. They cut through a car park and walked up a set of rickety wooden steps to a red plywood door in an L-shaped orange brick motel. When he closed the door she heard the hum of the ceiling fan and the cars on the busy road.

 

He told her to take off her clothes, and she did it. Then he said, ‘Come here.’

 

There was a mirror next to the dresser, with rust around its edges. ‘Look at yourself,’ he said.

 

She didn’t want to. Couldn’t bear to. Her stomach was too big and she had chicken legs and there were freckles stretching the length of her body like leper’s sores.

 

But he took her by the shoulder and he led her there gently. ‘Really look at yourself,’ he said. She did. He stood behind her, fully clothed. In the mirror her eyes met his. His big hands rested on her shoulders. ‘You’re perfect,’ he said. And she saw it. For the first time she could see it.

 

*

 

At a service station she stood watching the other cars through the murky window. The ceiling fan scrambled the stale air inside. She stood in line behind an Aboriginal man in cowboy boots, waiting to buy $10 worth of petrol and a Sunnyboy.

 

They were all men, parked in the petrol station. They were standing around talking to one another, leaning on the hoods of their cars. One guy had a ute with a tarp pulled over its bounty. She thought of all the things that could be hidden beneath it. Guns, dogs, kangaroos, human bodies. The men idled over the cracked concrete like they had nowhere else to go.

 

The man ahead of her paid, making a wide arc around her as he stomped back outside, as though she were so visible he had to pretend she wasn’t there in order to keep things running smoothly.

 

She pointed to the bowser by her mother’s car through the window and slid the icy orange pyramid-shaped packet across the counter.

 

‘What’s your name, love?’ the man behind the counter asked as he rang her up. He had liver spots all up and down his arms, and very fine white hair combed down a neat parting, held in place with a modest thumbful of Brylcreem.

 

‘Roux,’ she said.

 

‘Nice to meet you, Roo.’ He extended his hand across the till. She shook it. ‘Where you headed?’

 

‘Airlie Beach,’ she said.

 

‘Oof! That’s a long way. You comin’ from the city?’ She nodded.

 

‘Well, you don’t look like you’re from around here.’ He beamed at her, a wide white smile.

 

*

 

‘What’s your name, sweetheart?’ he asked her. They were walking back to the beach, to where she’d left her mother’s car.

 

She told him. ‘Christine.’

 

He shook his head. ‘That the name your parents gave you?’

 

‘Of course,’ she said.

 

‘That’s not your name then,’ he said. ‘You’ve got to name yourself. Now, what’s your name?’

 

She didn’t say anything. She couldn’t think of a single name. Her mind was a blank slate.

 

‘See, you have to get free of the past. How can you ever be free in your mind with the past still holding you back? You’ve got to forget the names of everything anybody has ever told you. Names have power over you, over your thoughts. How are you going to see the world any differently when you keep calling it “the world”? Call it “the moon”, call it “a rose”, call it “cunt”, and see what happens inside your little head. It’ll blow your mind, Red. The first step towards changing your life is changing the names of things you think you know. You first. You gotta blow yourself up.’

 

She couldn’t speak.

 

He lit a cigarette. The wind off the sea was fierce. The flame from the match wavered in the cave of his hand, casting shadows, wide gestures.

 

‘You’re a good girl, Red,’ he said. ‘You can have any name you want.’

 

He put his arm around her, guiding her towards the line of cars parked beneath the trees on the other side of the road. The pine needles rustled in the night breeze.

 

‘I’m gonna call you Roo,’ he said to her. ‘You speak French?’

 

She shook her head. She had taken French until the year before but her father had advised her that French was ‘fit only for hippies and pooftas’. She had four years of French and too many freckles and a small lifetime of good girl’s knowledge but it felt right then like she didn’t know a single thing.

 

‘La Roux,’ he said. ‘Means the red one. That’s you. My red one.’

 

Somewhere along the way he had lost his guitar. His hands were empty.

 

*

 

Two years earlier the cyclones had been terrible, the man at the service station said. The farmers had stocked their crops right up to the banks of the rivers. When the floodwaters receded from the plains they took all of it with them. All of their assets. Not just grain and sugar, but tractors and cows and dogs.

 

It was because of the clearing. For years, since the War, the land had been cleared of the acacia trees and the scrub that had inhabited it for thousands of years. The rich soil was like gold. It made the wheat grow thick and tall. Brought the money in, built the farms and towns. But the yields began to dip when the nutrients had been sucked from the topsoil and there were no more trees to keep the land fertile. Instead, the blades of ploughs and tractors had cut up the acacia roots and left them scattered through the soil, a repressed thing ready to return. Then the rains came. The floods destroyed the farms one by one. Even though the farmers were getting back on their feet, ‘Good Aussie battlers they were’, their lands were riddled with sprouting acacia trees that destroyed the wheat and their cattle were slipping and keening in the mud.

 

*

 

Night was coming on as she drove through Rockhampton. She scanned the landscape, but couldn’t find anything worth seeing. The badlands receded just outside the glare of her headlights.

 

On the edge of town she saw a white tessellated brick wall and a steel spire. ‘Tropic of Capricorn,’ she read as she crossed it. She knew that the tropics had no seasons, just variations in the quality of heat. A heavy wetness, or a dry that stoked the fires. She passed the quarter-point of the earth and kept driving. She wondered if her aunt in Coffs Harbour was missing her yet.

 

A murder had happened the year before, on this road, just near here, if what the man at the service station told her was correct. A couple on their way to a sky diving carnival in Rockhampton had been found murdered on the highway. Or one of them was. The woman was missing. The man, still seatbelted into the drivers seat, was sitting there with holes in his head and neck. There were bullet holes in nearby road signs and one beside him on the headrest, gushing white foam from where the killer had just missed. It took three weeks for them to find the woman. Some poor bloke trying to take a piss chanced upon her by the banks of a creek bed, bloated and waterlogged from the heat and floodwater.

 

The local newspapers cited three things. The eeriness of the roads, the increase in gun purchases in the weeks following the murder, and the way the crows sounded the morning they found the woman.

 

The country itself, around here, was a killer. It was the kind of place where people were rootless, and hunting. Quick to be gone.

 

The police arrested some dropouts from the south three months later, though the knowledge that the criminals were now being held behind bars hadn’t seemed to dampen the unease and suspicion people felt around the highway. In September there was a trial. Life sentences for the men. Eleven years for the woman who was with them, who called herself Gypsy. She had named herself, though. You had to give her that.

 

*

 

‘Golden Sun,’ the motel along the highway was called. Beside it was a palm tree, illuminated in green and gold. It flickered against the night sky.

 

She sat in the driver’s seat, in the flat grey car park, for a moment extending itself into the dead light. White wooden beams held up a precarious balcony, suspended around the jaundiced concrete blocks. The paint was peeling from the bars. She listened to the world outside the car. The cicadas were wild. She breathed in mangos and sweat and decay. She opened the door of her mother’s car and the humidity outside almost knocked her down.

 

The man in reception didn’t even look at her. The TV played in the background as he handed over a blue plastic key. It too, had a palm tree printed on its surface. Its paint was chipping off. In the tropics it’s hard to get a thing to stick.

 

She had never been in a motel room alone before. She sat on the bed and looked down at the stains on the floral bedspread, the two glasses on the bench, upside down. Nobody in the world knew where she was. For a moment the loneliness crushed her, and she slumped, dug her fingers into her knees just to have something to hold onto. There was a gecko on the wall, very still.

 

She figured she’d be able to find something to eat, somewhere. She had $10 left over, after the motel and the petrol and the pie. The shops by the highway were sparse and shuttered up.

 

Walking in the grassy ditch beside the road, she passed a little fibro shed with a steeply pitched roof and a wooden veranda, reeking of wet. It let out a light through which she walked. She could see down into a green church hall where a man stood and his voice cried out over the sunburnt blowsy heads of seven or eight men and women, gathered in fold-out picnic chairs.

 

He spoke in a cadence he must have learnt from the radio. His belly spilled over the belt of his trousers. The sweat patches spread darkly in his armpits when he raised his hands to speak.

 

‘Lust defiles the body,’ he cried out. ‘It corrupts the mind. It desecrates the house of the imagination. It debauches the heart. It stupefies the conscience. But most importantly, my friends, it damns the soul. To give in to those images and visions which lust attempts to lodge deep in the mind, is to invite a curse. It is to invite the devil into your body. And once he has entered it is almost impossible to tear him out, ladies and gentlemen. The devil does not leave easily.

 

‘My friends,’ he began to crest, ‘Are you ready for the questions God will ask you? My friends, will you be pure and good when you stand before him? My friends. Will your mind be easy when you face him?’

 

As she passed she looked up at the roof. Rust was eating away at the eaves, closing in on the shed like temptation.

 

*

 

In the morning she watched the storm come in from the motel room window. The gusts lifted the palm fronds into feverish arcs. In the bruised light she could see the unilluminated ‘No’ written next to ‘Vacancy’, underutilised. The banana leaves were shaking. Black dust lifted up from the roads and smudged everything.

 

She lay down on the unmade bed. She stared up at the yellow patches that leaked through the panels in the ceiling. The gecko blinked. It, too, was static.

 

She did not want to drive anymore. She did not want to be alone on the road. It was the night that did it. The black so thick you could lose yourself in it. Because in the darkness, the night before, along the highway where the land was ruined and bodies and bullets dotted the road, all she saw in that blackness was what might happen if she went too far.

 

She was afraid of the monster in the wilderness just beyond her headlights. The terra nullius beyond the edges of the light. And she realised, as the leaves broke off and came at the windows, that she did not even know his name.


ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR

has published essays and fiction in The Los Angeles Review of BooksThe BelieverThe Lifted BrowMeanjin and Vox, among others. Her novella, Afraid of Waking It, won the 2015 Griffith Review novella competition. She lives in New York.

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