Dad used to believe that the souls of the dead rise up into the air and become one with the universe, but doesn’t anymore because he has seen too many minds in pieces, too many spirits crushed, and when I ask him how that happens he says ‘Life’. I imagine it sometimes: all of them looking down from what must be stillness, darkness, quiet, and then through the clouds and the blue sky to the earth and the sea, deep enough to watch the fish turn and flash like so many coins and up here the houses among the ti trees, the shops on the road, people passing the time of day – chinwagging, daydreaming, gadding about – old men in leather shoes baiting lines on the pier and pulling up squid so white they glow in the late light of evening. And the skinny thing with the long legs: that is me, running through the water.
Lawrie goes about the beach barefoot, shambling; I watch him through the brightness off the waves. Cool winds blow from the ocean with mutton birds coming in and yellowness flickers on the cliffs and spindly pines, bent about like ink drawings I have seen. I think again of those high up souls, of gods and angels and creatures of the sky. I wonder if they see us now, me and Lawrie, his footsteps on the sand making shapes like some kind of writing: telling all those things he cannot say in words; me, dancing around, thinking of them while they look at me, wondering if they see us always, carrying on like we do, or if we already made too much noise and fuss and they have turned away.
Dad comes back from the trawler with a bag full of prawns, along the beach past those beaten rocks with their small shelves and hollows, the naked dangling tree roots and Lawrie, who puts his hands in his pockets and yawns and spits and follows in his lounging, raggedy way. I go with them to where the barbeques are, watching those prawns crawling about, I suppose just trying to crawl on home to where the rocks and the seaweed are, all the hiding places and floating places down at the bottom of the sea.
I tell this to Dad and he says poor Clarence once dreamed of such things: of shipwrecks and jewels and dead men’s bones. Dad says he sometimes thinks of Clarence, the first soul he inhabited, or that inhabited him: an actor, as is said, an empty vessel or a legion of souls. And he says how strange it is that of all the heroes and villains, in all the histories and tragedies with their wickedness, cruelty and blood, it was Clarence – hapless, hopeful Clarence – who had such a vision of hell and its torments, who saw himself so terribly punished for his sins.
Dad says he sometimes thinks that somewhere along the way his own life became like a dream, or like death, or a dream of death: as though, like Clarence in his dream, he had died and kept on living, and this was his punishment for being too proud, too selfish, too wilful and blind – this purgatory, this half-life and wandering in which he feels like one of those ghosts condemned to walk the world of the living, to exist unseen in shadows and to speak warnings to which no-one gives heed.
We throw the prawns on the hotplate. They go crazy and stiffen and die.
The pier is lonely in the sea, the water whispers and rolls. Fishermen go about with their rods and nets and torches, and I shiver with the cold. Seagulls fight around us for pink shells, pin eyes, whiskers. We leave at night, me waving goodbye to the ocean and crying, Dad saying I will cry my own ocean of tears. We have been here since winter, when everything was grey and Dad wore a jumper that smelt of fish and the sea. Normally around this time we would be thinking of heading to Uncle Jack’s for Christmas, but this year we aren’t going, Dad says. He says we’re not going now and he’s not ever going back to Windsley Downs, not as long as he lives.
‘Is it because of the argument?’ I ask.
It is night and we are driving.
‘What argument?’ Dad says.
‘The one you had with Uncle Jack.’
‘Didn’t you know that little girls should be seen but not heard? And that curiosity killed the cat.’
‘What cat?’ I ask.
‘Puss-in-boots. The cat that got the cream.’
‘Is it?’ I ask. ‘Is it because of the argument?’
‘It’s because of a lot of things,’ Dad says. ‘It’s because of everything.’
We drive for days, stopping for the toilets or to eat or for Dad to sleep, the Land Cruiser parked near the long lines of trucks coming and going, wheezing and growling and thundering into the night, the drivers sleeping in their dark cabins, now and then illuminated by the passing headlights, showing them suddenly, startlingly, heads over their chests, motionless, as if they were dead: one after the other – as though something terrible has happened to all the world. Sometimes I get out and run wild about the grass, and one of the sleeping drivers wakes and looks through his windscreen at the curly haired girl, tearing about, and he also wonders if he is still asleep and dreaming.
One day we stop in a town called Three Bridges. Dad parks the Land Cruiser outside the Lion’s Club park and Lawrie gets out and goes past the seatless swings with puddles underneath, the rusted slide and the benches scrawled with dirty words. He pisses behind one of the scraggly trees along the train line. I take Becky out and I say, ‘Look, Becky. We’re in a new place.’
‘I’m hungry,’ says Lawrie, coming back.
‘That’s original,’ says Dad. ‘Never heard that one before.’
‘Where are my shoes?’ I ask Dad.
Dad goes and finds them in the back of the Land Cruiser, sorting through the blankets and the saucepans and clothes and books and the old kettles and junk.
‘You put them on,’ I say.
He wipes my feet with his hand and takes his handkerchief out of his pocket, flicking it, and goes to the tap in the park. He washes my feet with the damp handkerchief and loosens the laces of my shoes. I wriggle my toes.
‘Stop wriggling,’ Dad says.
‘They’re dusty old shoes,’ I say. ‘Good for nothing shoes.’
He ties the laces. I wriggle my toes in the shoes, looking at them through the holes.
‘You’ll only make it worse,’ says Dad.
‘Yum,’ says Lawrie. ‘Fish and chips for breakfast.’
‘Good luck with that,’ says Dad.
We walk into the town. On the main street it is bright on one side and shady on the other. There is no-one around except old men who come out of the pubs to spit. Dad has his hands in his pockets and Lawrie follows him with his hands in his pockets too, walking the same as Dad: sort of slow and like everything’s all right. When Dad stops to look in the window of the hardware store, Lawrie walks right into him.
‘Boy,’ says Dad. ‘You’re like a dog at my heels.
A sign says: ‘Three Bridges. An Historic Town.’
We go to the milk bar and Dad buys me and Lawrie a hot pie each in a brown paper bag. The man gives us a bottle of sauce and Lawrie puts so much on his pie that it looks like he’s got a bag full of sauce.
‘Yum,’ says Lawrie. ‘Tomato sauce.’
We go across the road to a pub called the El Dorado.
‘I’m just going in here for a tick,’ says Dad.
Lawrie has already eaten most of his pie and he holds his mouth open after every bite, and makes a noise because he has burnt his tongue. The bottom of his bag has gone all soggy and sauce is dripping onto the pavement and the gutter. A dog that was sleeping under a car comes and licks up the sauce and it sits under the bag looking up, waiting for more. When it drips, the dog tries to lick it out of the air. Lawrie sees me watching and pokes his tongue out at me and his tongue is red with sauce.
It is sunny and hot. Some girls walk down the road with towels over their shoulders. Lawrie whistles at them and they giggle and push into each other and make faces at us. Lawrie puts his hands in his pockets and grins.
‘How come you whistle at them?’ I ask.
‘Because,’ Lawrie says.
‘Because that’s what you do.’
‘How would you know?’
Lawrie kicks at the ground.
‘Because that’s what you do. Everyone knows. Everyone knows except you, because you never been to school.’
He walks down the street and I follow.
‘Why?’ I ask. ‘Why do you whistle at them?’
‘Because,’ Lawrie says. ‘They got tits and legs and bums.’
We go up and down the pavement looking for money, but we don’t find anything except a bottle smashed across the concrete. I pick up a long shard of the glass and look through it, and look at the way it glows in the sunlight. Down the road there are paddocks, dry trees – the high sound of insects. I get bored and go and find Dad in the El Dorado. He is leaning against the bar talking to an old man on a stool. It smells like beer and smoke and sick like all pubs do. There is a long bench underneath the windows, and on the bench there is a big grey cat. The cat is licking itself. I go up to Dad and pull at his shirt.
‘I’m bored,’ I say.
I hold onto Dad’s leg, but he pushes me away. I go and sit on the long bench next to the cat.
‘Cherry picking,’ the old man on the stool says to Dad. He says it without looking at him. ‘Easy work,’ he says. ‘Easy money.’
‘And where was it?’ asks Dad.
‘Pulham’s,’ says the old man.
‘Whereabouts is Pulham’s?’
‘Ask anyone,’ says the old man. ‘Everyone knows where Pulham’s is.’
The cat gets up and stretches and yawns. I hold out my hand and the cat rubs its head against it. I stroke it and it meows and comes over and sits on my lap. It is purring. It is the biggest cat I have ever seen.
‘Never picked cherries before,’ says Dad.
‘Easy money,’ says the old man, staring straight ahead at the rows of bottles. ‘Easiest money you’ll ever earn.’
‘I never picked cherries before,’ says Dad. ‘But I reckon I must have picked just about everything else. Everything except cherries.’
‘You ever picked bananas?’ the barmaid asks.
‘No,’ says Dad. ‘I never picked bananas.’
‘Banana’s the only fruit I like,’ says the barmaid.
The cat has curled up on my lap and I put my ear right on it to listen to it purr. The cat meows and then it starts purring again. When it purrs, the whole cat purrs, and I can’t hardly hear anything else. I can’t hardly hear anything except for the purring.
‘It’s not just picking,’ says Dad, waving his hand in the air. ‘It’s all sorts. I done a bit of everything and all over too. Even did a stretch as spruiker for a boxing tent once. But I’m not afraid to get my hands dirty. Not afraid to use a shovel, me. Not afraid to use a mattock or a chainsaw or a pair of secateurs. Or shear a sheep. I done plenty of shearing. Been shearing all over. Gone out west. In the centre. Done a bit of mining around Coober Pedy. Had a go at opals. Nothing but dirt and miners out in Coober Pedy. Been up North, too. Top end. That’s where I was spruiker for a boxing tent. Up North.’
‘You been around, have you?’ the barmaid asks.
‘Yeah,’ says Dad. ‘I’ve been around.’
The cat is purring so loud and I put my face in its soft fur. I can feel the cat go in and out with the purring. And I feel the cat go stiff and it meows and tries to pull away from me. I hold it tighter, burying my face deep into the fur and the warmth of its body. It keeps trying to get away and I hold it tighter and tighter, and I hear it hiss and something hits me in the face and the cat wriggles out of my arms and runs along the windowsill away from me. I don’t see where it goes.
My face feels wet. I touch it and look at the blood on my fingers.
‘She scratch you love?’ the barmaid asks me. She clicks her tongue and goes out the back and I can hear her telling the cat off. She comes back with a bottle of iodine and a Band-Aid.
‘Are you going to be a brave girl?’ she asks me.
‘I’m always brave,’ I say.
‘They’ve got some sort of special equipment for getting up the top of cherry trees don’t they?’ Dad asks the old man. ‘For the picking.’
‘That’s right,’ says the old man. ‘I believe they’re called ladders.’
The barmaid laughs.
Dad keeps drinking and talking and it starts to get dark in the pub. I take Becky and lie down on the long bench, hugging her. While I am still asleep I can feel myself being lifted into the air and I am moving and it feels nice and makes me even more sleepy. When I open my eyes there is such a bright light that I have to close them again. I push my face against Dad’s shoulder and groan. We are in a fish and chip shop.
Dad is offering the girl a dollar for everything under the glass.
‘It’s closing time isn’t it?’ he says. ‘Better than letting it all go to waste.’
‘I’ll have to ask,’ says the girl.
‘A dollar’s a dollar,’ says Dad.
We buy chips as well.
Dad carries me along the middle of the main street. Lawrie has the fish and chips, wrapped in paper. He tries to balance it on his head. It is late at night and the air smells of dry grass.
‘We’ve got a feast,’ says Dad. ‘A veritable feast. Dim sims, fish and chips, potato cakes, crabsticks, precisely one chicken pie, precisely one Chiko roll, exactly one pasty, approximately two fried potatoes and roughly one quarter of a chicken, both fried and crumbed according to the laws and customs of our people. We have, for desert, a single piece of fried pineapple, which shall be trisected and distributed in the appropriate and ceremonial manner. Did Solomon in his glory ever taste of such a cornucopia? Did Adam and Eve ever pick from the Chiko roll tree? Did the epicures of old taste the crab stick, or a deep fried dim sim? Verily, I tell you―’
‘I bags the chicken pie,’ says Lawrie.
‘Verily I tell you,’ says Dad. ‘Such a feast has never been seen. Not even in the most decadent of ages. Caligula himself never such decadence witnessed, nor dined on such morsels as this. Not Sicilian Verres, who lay luxurious at table. Even the anthropophagi would be glutted by such pies, pasties and potato cakes. The lotus eaters themselves would be turned from the fruit of the many-petalled flower. Why, the ancient Dionysiacs, the maenads drunk with blood―’
‘I bags the Chiko roll,’ says Lawrie.
‘Even they,’ says Dad, ‘would be sated by such fare. Was this the stuff of antic tales, that gave succour to wandering tribes? The manna showered from heaven’s greasy kitchen?’
‘I bags the pasty,’ says Lawrie.
‘By cherubim and seraphim innumerable,’ says Dad. ‘Singing praise eternal.’
‘You can’t bags everything,’ I say to Lawrie.
Lawrie tips his head forward and the fish and chips falls into his hands. I can smell the fish and chips and the vinegar, and I start to feel hungry. The houses are dark in the town and even the dogs are asleep. You can see all the way to the horizon through the gaps between buildings, past the paddocks to shifting clouds and the fine dust of stars. Dad stops shouting.
‘Where’s Becky?’ I ask him.
‘I’ve got her,’ he says.
Watching, carried, the gentle bumps and movement, it is like the town is moving away from me.
We eat at the big wooden table near the swings and everything is dark. All we can see is the white paper, lifting at the sides in the breeze. We reach into it and grab warm things from the blackness. Lawrie is eating with both hands, eating from one hand and then the other, and every time he takes a bite he tells us what it is.
‘Yum,’ he says. ‘Chips.’
‘Yum,’ he says. ‘Crabstick.’
‘Yum,’ he says. ‘Potato cake.’
We get hold of the Chiko roll at the same time and fight over it, and the middle goes flying out into the night.
After we are full, Dad wraps up the leftovers and puts it in the Land Cruiser. He comes back with the water bottle and gives it to me to drink. Lawrie has turned around on the bench and is leaning against the table, looking out at the park and the big black silos behind it, hiding the stars. He wipes his hands on his pants and smells them. Dad leans forward and puts his boot on Lawrie’s back. He gives him a push.
‘Oi,’ says Lawrie, looking back at us.
‘Hasn’t any brains, hasn’t any ideas,’ says Dad.
He pushes Lawrie with his boot again and Lawrie makes an angry noise.
‘Hasn’t any brains, hasn’t any ideas,’ says Dad. ‘You ever heard that one, boy? A great poet wrote that. A great poet wrote that, and he was probably writing it about you.’
‘I do so have ideas,’ says Lawrie. ‘I got lots of ideas.’
He gets up and walks into the park and sits on one of the swings. I give Becky a drink out of the water bottle. Dad watches.
‘How come your doll’s only got one eye?’ Dad asks.
‘Her name’s Becky,’ I say. ‘She’s not just any old doll.’
‘So how come she’s only got one eye?’
‘Because,’ I say.
‘Because that’s how I found her,’ I say.
‘Yeah? Well I reckon the crows must have got at her,’ says Dad. ‘Did you see those crows up on those silos? I reckon they must have come down after her, come down from the silos. Pecked out her eye.’
‘That’s not true,’ I say. ‘Besides, we only just got here.’
‘Must have been some other crow then. Swooped down and pecked out her eye.’
‘That’s not true,’ I say. ‘You’re making it up.’
‘Nothing a crow likes more than a nice soft eye for his dinner,’ Dad says. ‘Yum, yum.’
‘It’s not fair to say that,’ I say. ‘The crows did not peck out Becky’s eye. It’s just how I found her. It’s not true. You’re making it up.’ I am nearly crying. ‘It’s not true and you have to take it back. It’s not fair. You have to take it back.’
‘All right,’ says Dad. ‘I take it back.’
I hug Becky, trying not to cry. You can hear the breeze in the trees and the long grass. Everything is moving back and forth with the breeze. When Lawrie’s swing creaks, it feels like it is the breeze moving it.
‘Isn’t it time for little girls to go to bed?’ Dad asks me.
‘I’m not tired,’ I say.
‘You get into bed and I’ll tell you a story.’
I get into the Land Cruiser and Dad takes out my pillow and blanket and tucks me in. I move about so the seatbelt isn’t sticking into me and put Becky’s head on the pillow next to mine. Dad gets in with us, closing the door.
‘Will you tell me a story about Mum?’ I ask.
‘No,’ he says.
‘You never tell me any stories about her.’
‘I’ve already told you all the stories,’ he says. ‘There aren’t any more stories to tell.’
‘So tell me one again,’ I say.
‘No,’ Dad says. ‘I’m not in the mood to talk about your mother.’
‘Because I’m not. Do you have to torment me with this every night?’
‘All right,’ I say. ‘Will you tell me the story about how you were top of the state?’
Dad nods his head.
‘Where do you want me to start?’
‘Alright,’ says Dad. ‘I owe my acquaintance to Sir Slippery-Slip-Slop-Slip to my having matriculated with an exhibition in Latin in my final year at school. Sir Slippery-Slip-Slop-Slip was the Governor at that time, a knight of the order of henpecked husbands, known to his friends as Sir Slippery-Slip and to his enemies as Sir Slippery-Slop. An abominable villain, wearing the visage of a man. He was, of course, an amphibian.’
‘You told me he was a fish.’
‘Oh, no. There was no doubt that he was an amphibian. I immediately deduced it from his slippery, slimy handshake when he awarded me my prize at Government House. I should have guessed it beforehand from the dankness of the room, the faint miry reek.’
‘Describe Government House to me.’
‘Oh, let me see. Proud. Cloud-capped.’
‘And what was your prize?’
‘A cheque for fifty pounds and a book embossed with the state crest.’
‘What was the book?’
‘A very interesting book. It was An Illustrated History of a Dog’s Breakfast.’
‘No it wasn’t,’ I say. ‘Tell it properly.’
‘No you’re right,’ says Dad. ‘It was A Complete Guide To Shoelaces and Shoelace Tying, in twelve volumes.’
‘No it wasn’t,’ I say.
‘Well, you seem to know,’ he says. ‘You tell me then.’
‘It was called The Myths and Legends of Ancient Greece and Rome.’
‘Ah, yes,’ he says. ‘Sadly lacking in juicy bits and gory details.’
‘You have to tell me the story seriously now,’ I say.
‘Well, then,’ Dad says. He stretches out his legs and leans against the seat, reaching over to stroke my hair. ‘So afterwards my father took me to his club where we ate beef Wellington and poached pears and cream for dessert. I drank lemon squash and my father drank claret.’
‘And what did your father say?’
‘He made a toast. He said, “Here’s to the first of many successes.”’
‘And what happened then?’ I ask.
So Dad tells me about the University, and how he lived at College, and fell in love with the theatre when they put on Richard III. That was when he played Clarence, whose brother Richard hated him. After the performance there was applause and bowing and then a party, and Dad walked around the streets and parks in the still and silence of the night, walking until dawn, and his heart went up and up and up.
He tells me about Algernon Feathers: a tiny man with an enormous head, a Roman nose and a shock of white hair like a lion’s mane, who taught Dad how to speak, to enunciate and round his vowels, and how to talk so that a whole theatre can hear you, even when you whisper. And how to stand and walk and turn and suit action to the word: to be angry and proud and sad and make merry and be triumphant; and how to howl and start in fear when you see a ghost. Dad learnt soliloquies by heart and repeated them over and over again, and they performed scenes together in that little room where Algernon Feathers ate and slept and lived and taught, all piled with books and clothes and pots and pans and never a fire in the grate, not even on the cold winter nights when the sky was clear and the wind howled through the big old house, until one day Algernon Feathers said: ‘My dear boy, I think you are nearly there.’
And he tells me about the people in the theatre, about Billy Baskerville, the comic actor, who used to put on a false beard and order soup at restaurants and have so much difficulty eating the soup and make such a mess that he soon had the whole place laughing. And Archie Cummings, who was so handsome that older women would take him out and give him expensive presents and pay his rent while he made love to their daughters behind their backs. And Felicity Hargreaves, who wore a man’s suit and smoked a pipe and told dirty jokes and could drink anyone under the table. And Henry Ross, who could never get a part and was always saying he may as well throw himself under a train, and one day he did.
I try to stay awake but I am very tired and my eyes keep closing, and when I open them again it is morning and he is gone.