Let us take a look at this place. Marshlands. All the way to the horizon. The land drained, but nevertheless sinking. Sinking into nothing, nothing but itself. Frogs volleying noise in the grass unseen. The hazy movement of mosquitoes low to the ground. On a blade of swamp grass a sleek cricket. Blacker than night and – look closely – its antennae twitching. Just think: there must be more of those creatures, in their thousands, perhaps millions, hiding in the swamp grass as far as your eye can see.
Running through it all is the highway: black tarmac dumped on a man-made ridge. Power poles no longer vertical. Wires sagging. And a tarmac bridge, built without so much as a timber railing. Can you see the creek underneath? A seam of brown water between banks of mud. The mud pock-marked with crab holes and mangrove-ridden.
There is firmer land somewhere. Land where cattle stamp the soil with cloven hooves. Where horse hair is torn against barbed fences. Where colossal windmills slice the air. But that is not here.
Now the terror of a road train – listen! Tearing at the asphalt, shaking its steel hinges, like a caged animal, angry only at itself. See how it passes in a tumult of wind. Even the brown water of the creek shudders. Then the swamp grass settles. The frogs resume their hollow soundmaking. The cricket has gone.
Look around in the stillness abandoned by the truck’s passing. There is a cluster of weatherboard houses. Crouched past the bridge in the clearing by the muddy creek. See the white one-room bungalow? With the peeling paint and the skeletons of fish hanging from the porch like a witch doctor’s bunting? That is a museum.
On the walls inside you will find a collection of colourless photographs. Aerial surveys. A fishing boat in a vein of muddy water, closed in by mangroves. A group of moustachioed men. Holding onto the rails of a wooden jetty. Eyeing the camera as if it was an enemy. There is a creature from pre-history, all tendrils and feathery gills, hauled up on a chain next to them. And look: another picture. On the creek bank, a sorry group of men, almost naked, forlorn as the forgotten.
So much for the museum. Do you see, on the other side of the highway, the white clapboard building? It is the roadhouse. The only one for miles around. There is the concrete driveway with oil stains, and the fuel pump, shaped like a teapot, in front. And out to the side, almost lost to the mangroves crawling up from the creek bed, the remnants of a playground. A swing. Its tyre seat hanging low to the ground, where the mangroves, worming unseen, have pushed their stems through the mud.
Do you see the derelict cottage out back? Three sisters live there. Two of them run the roadhouse. Svetlana, the middle sister, waits tables and does the cooking. Oksana, the youngest, works the register and helps with the dishes. The sisters are pale-haired and towering. They wear white blouses and black pants, usually a little too short against their ankles. They keep themselves busy. When the place is empty of custom, Svetlana and Oksana clean the fans and filters above the vats of oil in the kitchen. Scrape the ice from the freezer room walls. Do the bookkeeping on one of the diner tables.
Svetlana and Oksana are in the roadhouse now. Cleaning out the cupboards in the kitchen. Spraying for cockroaches. Setting fresh mousetraps. Putting the crockery back in. Do you see them in there, on their knees on the worn linoleum?
And what about the third sister? Tatiana. The eldest. She keeps to the cottage for the most part. Although some say that they have seen her sitting by the mud and mangroves on the tyre-swing in the bruised light of evening, when the crickets begin their chirruping – first one and then suddenly more, you know how it goes, until the air is thick with their din.
A veil, they say, always covers Tatiana’s face. Have you heard the rumours? Some say that she is the beautiful one. Her beauty deadly as a siren’s. Others that her skin is pocked like the creek mud. That the smell of the creek banks, when the moon sucks the tide away, comes from her mouth. That she summons the clouds of mosquitoes, which swarm up from the marsh when the earth darkens.
It is early afternoon, even though the moon, like a stone, is still visible in the blank sky. The roadhouse looks quiet, but do you see the sign hanging on the inside of the glass door? The place is open for business.
Enter another road train, rattling against its chains, crossing the tarmac bridge. This one slowing into the roadhouse driveway. It stops – do you hear with what relief? – by the diesel pump.
Out steps a man with long, uncombed, dark hair. Grossly overweight. He strolls the stained concrete with a cigarette in his hand. Surveys the cages stacked on the trailers. Teeming with ugly feathers. Throaty noise. There is the reek of manure. Overcoming the tidal odour of the swamp and the stink of fuel.
The truck driver squashes the cigarette underfoot on the concrete, slaps a mosquito that has landed on his hairy hand, and heads inside. There is the surprising sound of the bell as he pushes open the glass door. Like something from childhood. And there is Oksana, standing erect and solemn behind the counter with its cash register. You can take a look at her now. Taller than the truck driver. Pale-haired. Her colour too wan and her skin too thick for men to believe she is beautiful.
The truck driver winks at Oksana as he passes by, brushing aside the plastic strips hanging from the doorway to the dining room. The ceiling rafters are swathed with a creeper, its foliage thinning, its trunk muscular. There are long windows, framed by curtains of moth-eaten red velveteen. And against the walls are half a dozen tables, draped with red-and-white tablecloths.
The truck driver seats himself at a table by one of the windows, facing the swinging door to the kitchen. There is a fish tank on a stand against the wall there. A goldfish floats on its side. Can you see it? Playing silently for time, then struggling? The truck driver cannot. Svetlana has already appeared through the swinging door. She stands in front of him, pen and notepad poised.
The truck driver looks up at her pale, thick-skinned face. Eyelashes next to invisible. She is almost identical to her younger sister, though she might be taller. Do you agree that there is something clumsier about her? The fat man’s face grows a smile. Svetlana returns the man’s gaze, if not the smile. Seconds pass. The sisters are not known for their conversation. Their skills, people say, are still only rudimentary. The truck driver breaks the silence.
You don’t remember me, do you, Love? He pauses. Although I’m fatter. Why not say it? Nothing wrong with talking straight. He looks at his stomach, covered by a flannel shirt, and pats the stretched, checked fabric there.
The odour of the truck driver’s body is mixing with the air. The reek of sweat. Old alcohol. Seeping from his organs, his skin, as if he was pickling himself. Can you smell it? It is hard to tell if Svetlana does. Standing there in her black pants and white blouse, frilled around the collar. Her hair sprayed into a bun.
The truck driver folds his hands over his swollen belly. Looks up at Svetlana again.
My old man was one for straight talking. There was this time when I was a boy. A helicopter crashed on the old farm. Squashed down onto the ground and then burst into flames. The truck driver had pressed his hands into the yielding flesh of his stomach and now lifts them, spreading his fingers in the air. Afterwards there were these black bodies, out in the paddock, in all the long grass. Not that the cows cared.
The fat man returns his hands to his belly and does that slowly spreading grin up at Svetlana again. But before the helicopter came down, we were watching from the porch, and mum turned to the old man and said, ‘Do something!’ The old man said – and here the truck driver puts on a mock-Italian accent – ‘Whadda you want me to do? Catch it?’
Svetlana holds her notepad and biro ready. There is a clock ticking. The one above the swinging door into the kitchen. The clock’s minute-hand shudders every time it registers the passing of a second. The fat man smears his sleeve across his mouth, wiping away the grin. Then he rests his hands on the red-and-white tablecloth, fingers splayed. Begins to inspect them. The nails – perhaps you noticed earlier? – are long and dirty.
Look, get me a steak, will you? You know how I like it.
Svetlana brings the notepad and pen close to her face. She scrawls with her blue biro. Then walks briskly to the swinging doors. Disappearing into the kitchen.
A dry leaf from the vine that clings to the ceiling rafters drifts down to the truck driver’s table. Do you see how the creeper appears to be dying in places? Turning crisp and brown. The fat man flicks the curled leaf from the tablecloth onto the floor.
Then he looks out the long window, framed by red velveteen. The swing is there, planted in the mud, just past the edge of the concrete. And the tangle of mangroves, hiding the brown line of the creek. Most of the water drawn out now by the weight of the moon. Can you see the crabs in the mud? Like the skeletons of dolls, crawling silently from grave to grave. And the hovering mosquitoes? The truck driver cannot. He sees only the swings and the line of mangroves. Looks up at the moon in the pale sky.
Into the dining room drifts the sound and smell of cooking steak. Then the fans above the hotplate in the kitchen are switched on. The fat man calls out.
I’ll be right back, Love.
He manoeuvres himself out of his chair and through the plastic strips into the front room. Oksana is gone now from there. The bell rings as he opens the door and steps out onto the concrete driveway. Suddenly painful as the sky. He shields his eyes and heads for the truck.
The chickens sound dusty. Their throats. Claws. Wings. Feathers in the dark cages. Can you hear them? The truck driver hears nothing. He swings open the door of the cabin. Leans down to the polystyrene box he keeps on the floor to retrieve a tepid can of beer.
Look quickly: up there! A pelican flying across the highway. From the direction of the museum. Beating the air with its wings as if its soul was old and heavy. It flaps over the semitrailer, circles over the roadhouse. Floats down to rest, flapping and grabbing with its claws at the frame of the old swing. The bird clutches the rusted steel, fluffs its wings and sinks its gullet into the rancid feathers on its chest. Blinks its eyes, rimmed like targets.
From there, the pelican watches the truck driver. The fat man slams the door of his truck. Opens the can. After a sharp crack the tin makes another noise. Like the truck did – do you remember? A sound of release.
The truck driver makes his way back to the roadhouse. Pushes open the glass door, once again triggering that small bell. Thrusts aside the plastic strips to the dining room and sees, on the checked cloth of his table, a brown steak on a plate with a pile of yellow chips. All framed by the curtains of red velveteen, eaten by moths and silverfish over who knows how many years. How long do they say that the three sisters have been here?
The truck driver sits down on his chair. Svetlana is nowhere to be seen. He takes a drink of his beer straight from the can and puts the tin down. Picks up his knife and fork. Pulls his chair in. Starts sawing off a portion of the T-bone steak, brown juice and oil mixing on his plate. Do you see that the fish in the glass tank has stopped moving? It floats now, waterlogged. Just below the surface. The truck driver, busy with his food, does not notice.
Enter an old white ute into the concrete driveway of the roadhouse. Watch its slow approach through the windows of the dining room. The truck driver, chewing a piece of steak, watches it too. The ute comes to a stop just outside his window. In a spot near the swing, where the concrete of the roadhouse merges with the mud and the mangroves. And then, further below, the creek bed, crabs clawing their way out of muddy holes. The brown line of water. Soundless clouds of mosquitoes, hovering low.
Can you see that the pelican, roosting on top of the abandoned swing, has turned its attention to the car, too? There is the squawk of the ute door, all rusted around its edges, and an old man emerges. Thin, with bandy legs. He leans on a cane. Closes the car door, which creaks then bangs. Pats the dog tied by a rope on the ute’s tray. The old Labrador, fur like a door mat, thumps its tail.
The old man walks around to the roadhouse door. There is the tinkle of the bell, like a reminder of something, and then the old man is inside. Oksana appears at the front counter – did you see her there just briefly? – but retreats as the old man heads towards the dining room. The old man pushes through the plastic strips. Walks past the truck driver and sits down at a table ahead of the fat man. Notice how the old man is too polite to sit with his back to the other fellow? The truck driver, though, keeps busy with his steak.
The old man looks through the window between the tattered drapes to his dog outside. He notices the pelican, like a creature from another world, roosting on top of the derelict swing. Then Svetlana is there, pale and large, like the bird, standing at his other side. The old man looks up at her with watery eyes. Speaks softly.
Oh, hello there, young lady. Steak and chips, please.
Do you notice how his head rocks slightly? How he holds onto the walking stick, which he has laid on the red-and-white tablecloth in front of him, his hands all mottled and jittery? Svetlana pays no heed to these signs of age. She scrawls on her notepad with her biro. Holding it close to her nose. Then she bustles off, the hems of her black pants hectic around her ankles. Disappears through the swinging door. A leaf from the vine on the ceiling floats to the floor.
Now the truck driver, leaning over the plate, holding onto his cutlery, regards the newcomer at the table ahead of him. The old man is watching his own fingers. Do you see how they look? Bony and unsettled, like crabs, on the wood of the cane. The truck driver, swallowing his steak, decides to intervene.
You’re English, then. Still got quite an accent.
The old man looks up at the bloated face of the truck driver, framed in oily hair, and then down again at his fingers on the walking stick. The wood of the cane is old and dull.
Yes, yes, he says, fair enough. Well, Welsh, actually, but yes, yes.
Like the truck driver, the old man has yet to notice the fish tank on the nearby wall. The dead fish now belly up against a corner. Do you see it there? Washed-out and swollen. Pressed against the glass. As if something – the wind, a tide – had pushed it into that place.
The truck driver wipes his mouth on his flannel sleeve. My old man had an accent. The old man, quaint in his manners, dutifully looks up from his cane. The truck driver, knife and fork in hand, slowly grins at him.
One time, when I was a kid, a couple of Jehovah’s Witnesses came to the door. Two old birds. You know the type I mean. The old man was yelling out at them, and the women looked all confused. They said: ‘Why don’t we go out with our wives?’ The old man yelled – and here the truck driver mocks an Italian accent again – ‘No, I said, why don’ta you get on with your lives?’
The old man looks down at his cane. Scrawny hands curled over the stick. Again there is the sound and smell of frying steak. Then the fans in the kitchen go on. And can you hear the chips spitting in the oil? The fat man’s smile fades, and he studies the steak on his plate. There is a little meat left, hard up against the pale curvature of the bone. The truck driver stabs a chip and stuffs it into his mouth. Suddenly the old man speaks.
Oh, my wife has been dead for years.
Now the dog outside the roadhouse starts to bark. The noise grows. Becomes relentless as a machine. The truck driver and the old man look through their windows, framed in that old, red velveteen. Can you see what has happened? The Labrador has finally noticed the pelican. It reverses on the ute’s tray to get a better view of the bird over the car roof. The rope tied to its neck soon becomes taut. Do you see how the dog’s belly contracts with every noise? And do you hear how with each bark, austere as a gunshot, there is an echo? The noise ricocheting between the mangroves and the roadhouse wall. And listen: there is another noise. In the clamour, the chickens, hidden within the dark cages on the semitrailer, are beginning to stir.
The pelican stretches its neck, jowl emerging from the oily feathers on its sternum. It looks first to the mangroves. The pocked banks of the creek. The pale crabs slipping back into their lairs beneath the mud. The brown water from the tide – coming back in now, do you see it? – trickling in after them. Then the bird turns to regard the barking dog.
Inside the roadhouse Svetlana emerges from the swinging doors with another T-bone and a pile of fat chips. The old man turns away from the window. He makes room on his table. Lays the cane across his lap, still holding onto it. Svetlana places the dish on the checked tablecloth, along with cutlery wrapped in a paper napkin, skin-tight. She goes to move away, but the old man stops her.
Could you cut the steak for me, please, young lady?
The old man makes a tutting sound. Shaking his head. Svetlana unscrolls the knife and fork in a single movement. Lays the curled napkin on the table. Pulls the plate towards her and, hunched over her work, begins carving the steak. So rigorously. Skinning the meat from the bone, where there is still blood. Then dicing up the slab of cooked steak. The dog outside keeps barking.
Suddenly there is an alien noise. Inside the dining room. Can you hear it? Wheezing. No. Weeping. It is the old man. Head down to his chest. Look: his shoulders are shaking.
Svetlana abruptly stops cutting. Stands up from the plate. The cutlery still in her hands. A morsel of brown meat falls onto the thin carpet. Svetlana does not see it. Instead she sees, through the window between the ragged curtains, the barking dog on the back of the ute. And the pelican on the top of the swing. Do you see it there, too? Its head high. Its gullet bulging. Its wings spread as if for flight. Dripping oily feathers from their undersides.
Now it is evening. The sky bleeds all the way to the horizon. The frogs, lying in the marshlands, are sending their echoes. The crickets join in. See how the clouds of mosquitoes are beginning to rise as the earth turns to the night? To the never-ending blackness they call space, where they say that everything – even all of this – began? And look: here come the starlings. One. Three. A dozen or more. Sweeping through the insects. Their noise shrill as panic. Their tiny hearts like ticking bombs.
The highway is black and silent. Beneath the bridge the creek is full, the water still as mud amongst the mangroves. The museum is empty and dark. Across the tarmac road, the sign on the glass of the roadhouse door reads CLOSED.
But look! Tatiana is there on the tyre-swing. Gently rocking. Her feet on the earth, among the shoots of the mangroves, probing their way unseen through the mud. She wears black pants, like her sisters. But as legend has it, her veil is on. There is no breeze to lift it. Can you see how impossible it is, in this shiftless place, to glimpse her face, to get a proper look?
Let us leave her. Look to the marshlands that open up just beyond the concrete driveway and the white roadhouse with its cottage out the back. A flock of ibises have appeared there in the swamp grass. Against the evening light. The silhouettes of their heads like axe-picks.
CONTENTS: MARCH 2012