I stand on the edge of the toilet seat while she pisses and look out through the louvres onto the backyard. They must still be warming up the bulldozer and having their smoke in the driveway down the side because the backyard is deserted, bathed in morning sunlight. The only tree, a plum, is showing its first blossom and a wave of genuine sadness passes over me when I realise it will be the first thing to go. She kicks me off the toilet seat and stands up on tip-toe to look herself. I piss in the basin. The plum tree, she says. Yes, I say, and turn on the tap. We climb back into bed just as the bulldozer revs and moves and a shuddering sound can be heard as it turns from the driveway into the backyard, taking the plum tree in its path; backing up, revving, then moving forward again, manoeuvring the laundry into its sights.
We lie in bed on our backs, I put my hands behind my head and she nestles her head in the crook of my elbow. We lie like that for a long time, lost in our own thoughts, then I get up again to make tea and toast. Why not? I say, when she looks at me strangely.
Cracks have already appeared in the kitchen and the stove is covered with a thin layer of white dust. The bulldozer passes back and forth close to the kitchen window. I can see the driver from the chest down, his left foot working the clutch. A voice shouts instructions: Back a bit! Forward!—and I can hear the timber and plaster cracking and breaking. I stand at the kitchen sink waiting for the kettle to boil and watch the big black wheel pass before me, so close that I can see the scars in the rubber and tiny bits of debris embedded in the tread. The kettle doesn’t boil, I check the switch, put my hands around it. I turn on the light switch but there is no light. I go back to the bedroom and tell her—she’s half asleep and doesn’t really understand—then go out the back door and pick up some pieces of wood. A man leans on a shovel—why a shovel?—and I nod to him. He just stares, doesn’t know what to say, then disappears around the corner where the bulldozer is working. I bring the old heat bead barbecue back in from the shed, set it up in the kitchen, arrange some paper and wood and light a fire. When the flames have died down I toast some bread on a carving fork and soon have a saucepan of water boiled. She smiles, having smelt the smoke, then laughs, seeing the blackened toast; we laugh together, so loud that we can no longer hear the dozer or the cracking of timber in the kitchen. We eat our toast and drink our cups of tea.
It’s going to be hot. The sun is already on the window and we can feel the new day’s warmth seeping through the blanket into the room. On these days we’d already be up, drinking our tea in the backyard in the sun. The planes flying in to land at the airport are shedding silver from their wings as they bank towards the runway. Next door’s cat is stretched out on the warm concrete, purring lightly with every breath. The first cigarette is hot and bitter, the smoke hanging in thin clouds above our heads, and the light already so intense that you have to squint to form a shape: the shed, the back fence, the neighbours’ roof. These are the days when we are happy, thankful for what we have. Small black ants march purposefully beneath us, sweet air drifts to us from the jasmine on the shed.
A man is standing in the bedroom doorway. For some reason I think it’s her father, though her father looks nothing like that, then perhaps the lawyer I’d jokingly said we should ask for, then a workman, which it is. He looks so awkward and fidgety that I almost invite him to bed. He stands there fidgeting for some time, she’s not conscious of him so it doesn’t matter, she’s dozing again, it’s obvious he wants to speak but something very firm and persistent has got his tongue. I explain the situation to him as clearly as possible: the house was unoccupied, we’ve lived here undisturbed for over three years, we’ve painted the hallway and the two front rooms, fixed up the front garden, kept the lawn down, replaced three windows, cleaned out the back shed, pruned the plum tree, made a vegetable patch, planted a passionfruit vine along the back fence. He’s lit a cigarette and I realise he’s not looking at me any more and probably not listening either. He’s looking at her, I look at her too; the blanket has slipped down just enough to reveal a breast and a nipple. It’s the strangest thing then, for a minute or so, as he looks from his angle and I from mine at the shoulder, the flank, the breast and the nipple, her hair on the pillow, a streak of morning light on the wall beside her head. The bulldozer starts up—I hadn’t noticed the silence—and the moment is broken. I look at the clock—quarter past ten. That was smoko—he turns from the doorway and goes back to work. I sit there looking, first at the empty doorway, then at her flesh. It’s all going to pieces, I say to myself: I know what I mean and I don’t feel false at all.
I make love to her quietly. She hardly wakes, neither at the sound of my soft moaning nor the shuddering outside. I kiss the nipple that the man had seen but it’s no longer mine, it moves away from me, sinks softly into her breast at my lips’ touch and doesn’t rise again. She’s getting old, I think—how old?—within what seems like an instant her flesh has lost its spring. She rolls away from me, perhaps sensing my thoughts, and I roll away from her. The clock is bouncing on the bedside table and the glass of water is gone. Nothing lasts, nothing lasts; neither this nor anything that comes after. Days dance on a pinhead, months fly up to the moon; already the laundry’s gone. We lie back to back for a very long time.
You’ll have to go now, says a voice. It’s the workman again. I push her gently, whisper in her ear: We have to go. It’s already afternoon. Out the front they have a caravan waiting for us, fixed to the back of a four-wheel drive. A woman is standing with the door open, a clipboard tucked under her arm. She’s very well dressed, her hair is shiny and she gives off a faint scent of green apples. All the neighbours are standing around, restraining their children and dogs; I smile at them as we walk towards the van. Please don’t move around too much inside, the woman says, and she closes the door behind us.
It’s not a particularly new caravan, nor is it particularly clean. I run a finger across the fold-down table and pick up a smudge of black grime. We sit ourselves down opposite each other at the table and the van begins to move; I pull back the curtains a little with my hand and look out; the neighbours are now standing on the footpath in a line, watching us go. My partner reaches into the cupboard above us and finds a can of tuna, I reach into the drawer beside me and take out a can opener and two forks. We eat the tuna, spearing a small chunk each with our forks, first she, then me, in turns, like a tea party; occasionally the tin slides across the table, first towards her, then towards me; we push it back into the middle each time and smile. The tuna lasts a while, there’s nothing else to do, neither of us wants to get up and move about because of the woman’s instructions. We’re very tired, but nor do we want to sleep; we’re both very anxious in a way to see what happens next.
We travel for some time, through the parted curtains I see factories, car yards, paddocks of dead grass, all bathed in rusty twilight. Huge steel pylons march away to the horizon, the powerlines slung between them. On and on, on and on. She looks out her side, I look out mine. I close my eyes and remember the story of a ride in a troika through the vast Russian wastes; thatched huts outside the window, the driver’s greatcoat dusted with snow, the horses’ heads tossing, white breath from their nostrils. I spend some time remembering this story in all its detail before opening my eyes again. The caravan has stopped. Everything is quiet. The woman opens the door. Sleep now, she says, and she closes the door again. We hear a clunk as the caravan is unhooked from the towbar, I part the curtains and peer outside but everything is dark. We let down the table and make up a bed but neither of us can sleep.
I hear voices outside and go to the window at the far end of the van. I can just make out a toilet block with a flickering fluorescent light and people going in and coming out with towels slung over their shoulders. We’re in a caravan park, I say. She joins me at the window and we watch the people coming and going from the toilet block and the woman with the folder scurrying here and there. Will they let us have a shower? she says. I doubt it, I say. We close the curtains again and lie in bed. Take off your top, I say. She does. I cup one breast in my hand and gaze at the nipple. It’s all going to pieces, I say, then say it again. But her eyes are closed, she doesn’t or doesn’t want to hear or hears but doesn’t want to answer and I pull the blanket up over her to the neck and sit on the edge of the bed with my head in my hands listening to the murmuring voices outside. This is our new life, she says, it’s all beginning again. I feel very close to her then but instead of speaking or touching her I remain on the edge of the bed and say nothing. A new life, I think, she’s probably right. Very probably, very probably. She puts a hand on the small of my back.
Then there’s a clunk and the caravan shakes—we’re being hooked up again. She sits up in bed, I look out the window; cars are starting up and headlights are coming on. The first van pulls away and the others follow. I go to the front window. A different car is towing us now, an early model sedan. The van jerks and moves, I hurry back to the other window, steadying myself on the stove, the sink, and cheek to cheek we look out at the convoy moving off into the night.
We watch the dark, our heads start to loll, our eyelids droop, it’s been a big day, cheek to cheek the murmur of the road lulls us into sleep. I don’t dream, I don’t think she dreams either, when the morning light through the curtains wakes us we find we’ve slept top to tail. I stare at her toes and stroke the curve of her arch. We’re still on the road, occasionally we feel a bump and shudder, at other times a gentle swaying from side to side. It’s very beautiful inside the caravan, the glow at the window and the seeping warmth, the gentle swaying, the hum of the road. If this is our new home then I’m happy with it, happy for her, happy for me. From where I lie on my back I purse my lips, blow the curtain back a little away from the window and catch glimpses of blue cloudless sky. Yesterday is already a lifetime away, and the memory of it frayed: a bulldozer came, we slept in a while; then we got up, and the journey began. Brief shadows of branches overhanging the road flicker across my face; a warm draft from somewhere, perhaps under the door, caresses my half-open eyes.
I’m hungry, she says. She’s sitting up. I look at her framed by the window opposite, soft down around the rims of her ears. She’s taken her hair and bunched it up into a mound on top of her head. I love her too much to say anything; she reads my eyes and smiles. There might be more tuna, I say. She screws up her face. Perhaps we should wait till we’ve stopped. We might never stop, she says, and she gets out of bed. The idea hadn’t occurred to me and I lie there wondering about it for a while. She looks through the cupboards, the small gas fridge, on the shelves and under the beds. We’ll starve, she says. She crawls over me and looks out the back. Look, she says. I look too; behind us into the distance a convoy of caravans follows, between each caravan a cluster of cars, waiting for the chance to pass. We close the curtains again. To the slaughter, I think, not quite sure where the thought has come from; uncomplaining, like lambs to the slaughter.
Suddenly we’re on a bumpy road, the curtains quiver, one cupboard handle rattles, through the side window we see a couple of houses flash past, one with a small boy standing at the gate. I pull on my pants, she fixes her skirt, a great feeling of excitement has now overtaken us. The caravan shakes, changes direction, then changes direction again; the surface beneath us is now hard corrugated ground, then gravel, a moment of asphalt, gravel again, we turn sharply, then something soft, perhaps grass. The caravan stops, we hear the door of the car in front slam, other cars pulling up behind. We each put a hand on the wall, trying to adjust ourselves to the sudden stillness. We’ve stopped, she says. Just then the door opens and the woman pokes her head inside. You can come out now, she says. Have we been hiding? I think. The woman’s face disappears again.
We step down out of the caravan and look around. We’re on a football oval, surrounded by paddocks; in the far distance I can see a farmhouse, in the foreground the footballers’ brick changing shed. The caravans have formed a circle, like wagons arrayed against an attack. The drivers are all getting out of their vehicles and gathering over at the changing shed; some slip inside to use the toilets, the others form a close-knit group and start handing around their cigarettes. The woman strides around the circle, the clipboard under her arm, knocking on each caravan door and poking her head inside. The people start stepping out, dazed and confused like us; some old, some young, some with children who immediately start running around together madly on the grass.
Gather round, the woman says; gather round, don’t be shy. She is standing in the centre of the oval on the concrete cricket pitch; she throws out an arm then brings it towards her, as if gathering air to her bosom. Gather round, she says, gather round. We all take a few steps forward. I can see a couple of the drivers chuckling, leaning on the boundary fence. Gather round, she says, as step by step the circle closes in. In an arc, she says, and we somehow manage to arrange ourselves in an arc. A little closer, she says, don’t be shy—and as a group we shuffle forward.
We all stand shoulder to shoulder: behind the woman, beyond the fence, I can see the old timber scoreboard; ‘H——’ above and ‘Visitors’ below, painted in large white letters. H——, I whisper, but someone behind me says Shh! The woman is talking, her name is Polly, she appreciates our patience, we will be eating shortly, there are showers in the changing shed, men to the left, women to the right, this will be our home for a while. Are there any questions? she asks. Someone asks are dogs allowed. The woman smiles and answers yes. A young child breaks away from the group and runs back to her caravan; the dog is let out, it starts yapping and turning in circles. A small ripple of laughter passes through the group. Is there a phone we can use? someone asks. The woman says there’s a public phone in town, a driver can take us there after we’ve eaten. The woman pauses, raises her eyebrows, passes her eye across every face. We look at the ground, or at the sky; no-one has any more questions.
We all move back to our caravans, to freshen up before lunch. The drivers have lit a fire in a cut-down diesel drum, they are standing around it, drinking cans of beer; from behind the shed two of them carry out a big steel grate and drop it on top of the drum. I think I might have a shower, she says. There’s a queue already, I say. But she doesn’t care, she’ll wait, she says: if she doesn’t have a shower soon she’ll die. She takes a towel from the cupboard (Towels and all, I think) and walks back towards the door. What do you think? I ask, as she puts her foot on the step. She turns around and shrugs her shoulders. We’ll just have to wait and see, she says.
I pull the curtains open and watch the goings-on outside. The day is already hot and shade here hard to come by. People are moving to and from the changing shed with towels slung over their shoulders. I see her stop and talk to someone—a young woman about the same age—and they enter the right-hand end of the shed together. For a while I keep looking at the shed, and the dark doorway they have disappeared into. But then for some reason I can’t look any longer and I pull the curtains closed again.
I haven’t eaten since the tuna—that seems like days ago now—and as I lie on my back on the bed again my stomach starts to rumble. I lay one hand across it and the other hand across my chest. I’m trying to calm myself down, though I don’t feel upset at all. All day I’ve felt this calm, this I-don’t-care-we’ll-see-what-happens-it-doesn’t-matter kind of calm. I can’t get excited about anything, or get upset about anything either. As if to test myself I move the hand that was on my stomach down towards my crotch but then my stomach rumbles again.
She comes back freshly showered, a strand of wet hair stuck to her cheek. She sits on the bottom bunk at the far end of the caravan, lays the towel over her head, twists it into a turban and throws her head back. Only then does she look at me, seeing what I think. I let it go, I don’t think anything, I’m looking out the window again; they are carrying a large wooden trestle table out into the centre of the oval. Polly follows, a cask of wine in each hand. People start appearing at the doors of their caravans. Polly flutters around, encouraging them to take a plate and form a queue at the barbecue. Formlessly at first, they do. Are you hungry? I ask. She’s drying her hair now, like out of a painting or a movie, her legs spread wide, her head between them, her hair falling down, rubbing her scalp with the towel.
We go out together, it’s a long time since we’ve been out, and though I know as I think it that it is a ridiculous thought, I think: At least we’re going out. From the trestle table beside the players’ gate you take a paper plate, move forward to the barbecue where you choose your meat, then back around to the other gate where you help yourself to the salads. We choose a quiet place at the row of tables in the centre of the oval but soon we are joined by others. To her left sits an energetic-looking man with greying hair, probably in his early forties. To my right sits a young couple, both dressed in baggy clothes and smelling of sandalwood. The young man leans past the young woman towards me and says: All that’s missing is the string quartet! He lets out a giggle and returns to his plate.
Meanwhile my partner has struck up a conversation with her neighbour. I catch only bits of it—our table is full now, the other tables too, and a lively hubbub of talk has begun. It seems he’s an actor, they’re comparing shows they’ve seen, in particular something from years ago in which, they now realise, they both had a mutual friend. She leans back to introduce me to him: this is
I have chosen the chicken wings but they are not cooked in the middle. Around the joint the flesh is pink and streaked with blood. I look around the table, everyone is eating theirs. My eye falls on Polly. Unfortunately, just as I look at her, she looks at me. There’s something strange about her look, something that actually frightens me—I don’t know why or what it is exactly but I know in that moment that I must take what I’m given and, in a practical sense, I must eat the chicken wings without complaint, no matter how badly cooked. I pick up the bone from my plate again and sink my teeth into the uncooked flesh. Polly goes back to her meal.
A strange thought starts moving through me. We are eating our last meal, I think, and will soon be coaxed into the changing shed perhaps under the pretext of an after-dinner dance where the doors will be locked and bolted and the gas taps turned up full. They’ll get a big bulldozer to dig a big pit, dump us in and cover us over. On top of us they’ll build a shopping centre or a sporting complex or perhaps new municipal offices. For a while those who knew us will try to track us down but they will soon be put off the scent. It won’t take long for us all to be forgotten—this too has been thought out in advance. In thinking all this I’ve managed to amuse myself and am now looking down at the plate of scraps in front of me, smiling. But then the young woman beside me starts nudging me with her elbow and thrusts a long tube of white plastic cups in my face. I take one and pass it on. Two casks of wine follow; one white, one red. I take the white and fill my cup. Now Polly is up, tapping her plastic cup with a fork, a gesture that provokes some good-natured laughter from the crowd. Polly responds. Yes, she says, yes of course, she says, no long-stemmed crystal here. But if I could just have your attention for a moment please there are a few things I want to say. Everyone goes silent and gives Polly their attention. Even the drivers, still gathered around the barbecue, turn and look in her direction and respectfully lower their cans. You have all been very patient, says Polly, and I would like to thank you for that. The problem was that the salads had been left back in
The children are getting restless, one of them has crawled under the table and her mother is whispering angrily at her to get back in her chair. The heat has become unbearable, and that combined with the wine has put blank stupefied looks on everyone’s faces. But Polly is talking again. She talks for a long time, but I understand very little of what she says. It’s as if her words are now being spoken in a room at the far end of a corridor, I’m too tired to strain my ear, something soft and dull inside my head keeps distracting me. I don’t think the others understand much either. Everyone is trying their best, they’re looking at her and listening, but they just don’t understand. She finishes and asks do we have any questions. I put up my hand to speak. Is there something we can clean the caravan with, I say, some cleaning liquid or something? Polly smiles. Come around to the car after lunch, she says. I have stood up to ask the question, without realising that I have, and though I’m satisfied with the answer I feel awkward when I sit back down. I pick up my plastic cup and self-consciously drink the drop that’s left.
When I go to Polly’s car after lunch Polly is not there. I see her hurrying towards me. She’s had a huge day, it’s all fallen on her shoulders, she’s wearing a sleeveless purple cotton dress and I can see the sweat glistening in the creases under her arms and the dark crescent moon stains beneath. She apologises for being late, someone went missing, but they’ve found them now. I almost want to hug her, tell her to calm down. She opens the back of the four-wheel drive and begins pulling the boxes towards her, opening the flaps on the top, then pushing them away again. She finally finds the one she wants. She takes out a bottle of Lemon Jif and a three-pack of Chux Superwipes. What’s all this about? I ask. Polly looks at me, the cleaning items still in her hand. I just explained it all at lunch, she says. I say I didn’t understand and I don’t think the others did either. Polly pushes the Jif and the Superwipes into my hands and closes the door again. I’d advise you not to ask too many questions, she says. She looks me straight in the eye: I’d think yourself lucky if I were you; a lot of people have been working very hard, myself included, to set this up, and I’d appreciate your co-operation. What’s your name? she says.
It’s so hot in there when I get back that I have to open all the windows. My partner hasn’t come back from lunch; she must be talking to the actor she met. The inspiration to clean has now completely deserted me, it’s too hot to do anything, I lie on the bottom bunk and count the wooden slats of the bed above. I can still smell Polly’s faint scent of green apples, I close my eyes and look at her face then try to picture the body beneath the dress. But the body keeps pulling in and out of focus. I open my eyes again. I lie on the bunk like that for the rest of the afternoon, staring at the slats, closing my eyes and letting the pictures come, then opening them again. Dusk falls. The window above me darkens. I hear the grate being dropped on top of the diesel drum. Flywire doors are squeaking, the dog is barking. Everything seems a long way away.