To say that I went to school with Oliver Nickell is stretching things a bit because he was expelled halfway through my first year at high school. That would make it 1970, I suppose. I doubt that I saw him more than five times in his grotty hybrid uniform but I was awestruck when I did. We’d all heard about him back in primary school. The local bad boy, a legendary figure. And suddenly there he was, fifteen and feral-looking, with brown eyes and brown hair in a mullet. In his Levi’s and thongs he had that trucking stride, like a skater’s wade, swaying hip to hip with his elbows flung and his chest out. He had fuzz on his chin and an enigmatic smirk. His whole body age off a current of sexy insouciance. To me, a girl barely thirteen, he was the embodiment of rebellion. I wanted that - yes, right from the first glance I wanted it. I wanted him. I wanted to be his.
I watched him swing by, right along the lower-school verandah with a bunch of boys in his wake - kids who seemed more enthralled by him than attached to him - and I must have been pretty obvious about it because my best friend, Kelly, stood beside me with her hands on her hips and gave me a withering look.
“No way,” she said. “Mel, no way.”
Kelly and I went back forever. We were at a cruel age when we clung fiercely to girlhood yet yearned to be women, and everything excited and disgusted us in equal measure. Sophistication was out of reach yet we could no longer remember how to be children. So we faked it. Everything we did was imitation and play-acting. We lived in a state of barely suppressed panic.
“I was only looking,” I said.
“Don’t even look,” said Kelly.
But I did look. I was appalled and enchanted.
Oliver Nickell was the solitary rough boy that country towns produce, or perhaps require. The sullen, smouldering kid at the back of the class. The boy too brave or stupid to fear punishment, whose feats became folklore. When he strutted by that day I knew nothing about him, really. Only the legend. He was just a posture, an attitude, a type. He represented everything a girl like me was supposed to avoid. He posed some unspecified moral hazard. And I sensed from Kelly that he was a peril to friendship as well, so I said nothing about him. I went on being thirteen - practised shaving my legs with the old man’s bladeless razor, threw myself into netball, tore down my Johnny Farnham posters and put David Bowie in his place. I had a best friend - I shared secrets with her - yet they felt inconsequential once I saw Oliver. Oliver was my new secret and I did not share him.
I don’t know what it was that finally got Older expelled from school. He did set of pipe bombs in the nearby quarry. And there was, of course, the teacher’s Volkswagen left on blocks in the staff carpark and the condoms full of pig’s blood that strafed the quadrangle in the lead-up to Easter, but there were plenty of atrocities he didn’t commit, incidents he may have only inspired by example, yet he took the rap for all of it. With hindsight, when you consider what happened later in the seventies when drugs ripped through our town, Oliver’s hijinks seem rather innocent. But teachers were afraid of him. The despised his swagger, his silence. When he was hauled in he confessed nothing, denied nothing. He wore his smirk like a battlemask. And then one Monday he was gone.
The rest of us heard it all at a great remove. Everybody embellished the stories they were told and the less we saw of Oliver the more we talked. Much later, when there was a fire at the school, he was taken in for questioning but never charged. I heard he went to the meatworks where his old man worked in the boning room. On Saturdays Oliver lurked in the lee of the town hall or sometimes you’d see his mangy lumberjacket wending through cars parked around the boundary at the football.
At fourteen Kelly and I began to be dogged by boys, ordinary farmboys whose fringes were plastered across their brows by built-up grease and a licked finger, and townies in Adidas and checked shirts whose hair didn’t touch their collars. They were lumpy creatures whose voices squawked and their Brut 33 made your eyes water. We were more alert to their brothers who drove Monaros and Chargers. But we weren’t even sure we were interested in boys. We were caught in a nasty dance in which we lured them only to send them packing.
The drive-in was the social hub of the town. My parents never went but they let me walk there with Kelly and we sat in the rank old deckchairs beside the kiosk to watch Airport and M*A*S*H and The Poseidon Adventure. We wore Levi cords, Dr Scholls and 4711 ice cologne. Neither of us would admit it, but in our chaste luring and repelling of boys, Kelly and I were locked in competition. There was a tacit score being kept and because she was so pretty, in an Ali McGraw kind of way, I was doomed to trail in her wake. I kept an eye out for Oliver Nickell and was always thrilled to see him trucking up toward the kiosk with a rolly paper on his lip. I kept my enthusiasm to myself, though there were times on the long walk home when I thought aloud about him. I was careful not to sound breathless. I did my best to be wry. I aped the new women teachers we had and adopted the cool, contemptuous tone they reserved for the discussion of males. I was ironic, tried to sound bemused, and while I waxed sociological, Kelly lapsed into wary silence.
At about fourteen and a half Kelly started letting a few boys through the net. Then they became a steady stream. Our friendship seemed to survive them. I tagged along as though I was required for distance, contrast and the passing of messages. She made it clear she wasn’t easy. Nothing below the waist. Friendship rings were acceptable. No Italians. And she did not climb into vehicles.
I must have been fifteen when Oliver Nickell got his driver’s licence. Suddenly he was everywhere. He wheeled around town in an HT van with spoked fats and a half-finished sprayjob in metallic blue. That kind of car was trouble. It was a sin-bin, a shagging wagon, a slut hut, and as he did bog-laps of the main drag - from the memorial roundabout to the railway tracks at the harbour’s edge - the rumble of his V8 was menacing and hypnotic. Sometime he cruised by the school, his arm down the door, stereo thumping.
Kelly and I walked everywhere. Outside of school there was nothing else to do but traipse to the wharf or the beach or down the drab strip of shops where the unchanging window displays and familiar faces made me feel desperate.
“I wish something would happen,” I often said.
“Things are happening all around us,” said Kelly.
“I didn’t mean photosynthesis,” I muttered.
“By the time anything’s happened, it’s over.”
“Well,” I said. “I look forward to having something to remember.”
We were in the midst of one of these ritual discussions when Oliver pulled up beside us. It was a Saturday morning. We stood outside the Wildflower Café. I had just bought a Led Zeppelin record. In the rack it had been slotted between Lanza and Liberace. Over at Reece’s Fleeces people were buying ugg boots and sheepskin jackets. The passenger side window of Oliver’s van was down.
“Melanie,” said Kelly.
“Nothing wrong with saying hello,” I said.
Even as I turned toward the mud-spattered car growling and gulping at the kerb, Kelly was walking away. I saw the blonde flag of her hair as she disappeared into Chalky’s hardware. Then I stepped over and leaned in. Oliver’s smirk was visible behind a haze of cigarette smoke. I felt a pulse in the roof of my mouth.
“Ride?” he said, just audible over the motor.
I shook my head but he wasn’t even looking my way. He squinted into the distance like a stunted version of Clint Eastwood. Yet he must have felt something because he was already putting the car into gear and looking into his side mirror when I opened the door and slid in. He seemed completely unsurprised. He peeled out. Heads turned. I clutched the LP to my chest.
Oliver and I drove a lap of town in silence. We idled past the pubs on the waterfront, the cannery, the meatworks, the silos. We passed grain ships on the wharf, the whalers on the town jetty and eased up by the convict-built churches on the ridge where the road wound down again toward the main beach.
I tried to seem cool, to make him the one to break the silence, but he seemed disinclined to speak. The van was everything you’d expect, from the mattress and esky in the back to the empty Bacardi bottle rolling at my feet. Feathers and fish bones hung from the rear-view mirror. Between us on the bench seat was a nest of cassettes, tools, and packets of Drum tobacco. I knew I’d done something reckless by climbing in beside Oliver Nickell. I’d made something happen. What frightened me was that I didn’t know what it was.
We didn’t stay at the beach - didn’t even pull into its infamous carpark - but wheeled around beneath the Norfolk Island pines and headed back to the main street of town. We slid into a space outside the Wildflower and a dozen faces lifted in the window. The big trucked-up Chevy motor idled away, drumming through the soles of my denim sneakers.
“So,” I said. “How’s things at the meatworks?”
He shrugged and looked up the street. Kelly stood in the door of the café, her ensnared by a rainbow of flystrips. Her face was clouded with rage. I wanted to prolong the moment with Oliver but could think of nothing to say.
“Well,” I chirped. “Thanks for the ride.”
Oliver said nothing. He eased in the clutch and scoped his mirror, so I got out and hesitated a moment before shoving the door to. Then he took off with a howl of rubber and I stood there hugging my record in the cold southern wind with a jury of my peers staring out upon me from the café.
In the doorway Kelly did not step aside to let me in. She tucked her hair behind her ear and stared into my face.
“I can’t believe you.”
“Don’t be wet,” I said.
“Mel, what did you do?”
I took a breath and was about to tell her just how little had happened when a jab of anger held me back. The crossly-folded arms, the solemn look - it wasn’t concern but a fit of pique. I’d ignored her warnings. I’d let her walk away without giving chase. And now, worst of all, I’d upstaged her. The realisation was like a slap. She was jealous. And this very public interrogation, the telegraphed expressions to everybody inside - it was all a performance. We weren’t friends at all.
All I gave her was a sly smile.
“Oh my God,” she murmured with a barely-concealed thrill.
“What?” I asked.
I shrugged and smirked. The power of it was so delicious that I didn’t yet understand what I’d done. With little more than a mute expression I’d just garnered myself a reputation. I was already Oliver Nickell’s moll.
It was a small town. We were all bored out of our minds. I should have known better, should have admitted the unglamorous truth, but I didn’t. I discovered how stubborn I could be. The stories at school were wild. I wasn’t ashamed - I felt strong. I found a curious pleasure in notoriety. The rumour wasn’t true but I owned it. For once it was about me. But it was lonely too, lonelier for having to pretend to still be friends with Kelly. To everybody else her protestations about my purity looked like misguided loyalty, friendship stretched to the point of martyrdom, though from the chill between us I knew otherwise, for the more she said in my defence the worse I looked, and the further my stocks fell the faster hers rose. By the end of that week I wanted the rumours to be true. Because if I was Oliver’s jailbait then at least I had somebody.
After school I stayed indoors. I went nowhere until the next Saturday when, in a mood of bleak resignation, I went walking alone. I was at the memorial roundabout when Oliver saw me. He hesitated, then pulled over. I will never know why he did, whether it was boredom or an act of mercy.
He pushed the door open and I got in and through the sweep of the roundabout I had the weirdest sense of having been rescued. I didn’t care what it took. I would do anything at all. I was his.
Within five minutes we were out of town altogether. We cruised down along the coast past peppermint thickets and spud farms to long white beaches and rocky coves where the water was so turquoise-clear that, cold or not, you had the urge to jump in fully clothed. Wind raked through our hair from the open window. The tape deck trilled and boomed Jethro Tull. We didn’t speak. I ached with happiness.
Oliver drove in a kind of slouch with an arm on the doorsill and one hand on the wheel. The knob on the gearstick was an eight ball. When his hand rested on it I saw his bitten nails and yellow calluses. He wore a flannel shirt and a battered sheepskin jacket. His Levi’s were dark and stiff-looking. He wore Johnny Reb boots whose heels were ground off at angles.
The longer we drove the stranger his silence seemed to me. I couldn’t admit to myself that I was becoming rattled. We drove for thirty miles while I clung to my youthful belief that I could handle anything that came my way. Slumped down like that, he looked small and not particularly athletic. I knew that while he had those boots on I could easily outrun him.
We drove all the rest of that day, a hundred and fifty miles or more, but no beach, no creek nor forest was enough to get him out from behind the wheel. Now and then, at a tiny rail siding or roadhouse, he slid me a fiver so I could buy pies and Coke.
At four he dropped me at the Esso station around the corner from my house. There was no parting speeches, no mutual understandings arrived at, no arrangements made. Oliver left the motor running. He ran a hand through his hair. The ride was over. I got out; he pulled away. It was only after he’d gone that I wondered how he knew this would be the best place to drop me. I hadn’t even told him where I lived. I didn’t expect him to be discreet. It didn’t fit the image of the wild boy. I was as irritated as I was flattered. It made me feel like a kid who needed looking after.
But that’s how it continued. Oliver collected me and dropped me at the Esso so regularly that there arose between me and the mechanics a knowing and unfriendly intimacy. They knew whose daughter I was, that I was only fifteen. Like everyone else who saw me riding around with Oliver after school and on weekends, their fear and dislike of my father were enough to keep them quiet. Perhaps they felt a certain satisfaction.
My father was the council building inspector. It wasn’t a job for a man who needed to be popular. Dour, punctilious and completely without tact, he seemed to have no use for people at all, except in their role as applicants, and then he was, without exception, unforgiving. For him, the building code was a brach of Calvinism perfected by the omission of divine mercy. His life was a quest to reveal flaws, disguised contraventions, greed and human failure. Apart from dinner time and at the end-of-term delivery of school reports, he barely registered my presence. My mother was passive and serene. She like to pat my hair when I went to bed. I always thought she was a bit simple until I discovered, quite late in the piece, that she was addicted to Valium.
My parents were lonely, they were insular and preoccupied, yet I still find it hard to believe that they knew nothing at all about Oliver and me that year. If they weren’t simply ignoring what I was up to then they truly didn’t notice a thing about me.
I loved everything about Oliver, his silence, his incuriosity, the way he evaded body contact, how he smelled of pine resin and tobacco smoke. I liked his sleepy-narrow eyes and his far-off stares. The bruises on his arms and neck intrigued me, they made me think of men and knives and cold carcasses, his mysterious world. Sometimes he’d vanish for days and I’d be left standing abject at the Esso until dark. And then he’d turn up again, are down the door with nothing to say.
He never told me anything about himself, never asked about me. We drove to football games in other towns, to rodeos and tiny fairs. When there were reports of snow we travelled every road in the ranges to get a glimpse but never saw any. Out on the highway, on the lowland stretch, he opened the throttle and we hit the ton with the windows down and Pink Floyd wailing.
It’s not that he said absolutely nothing, but he spoke infrequently and in monosyllables. By and large I was content to do all the talking. I told him the sad story of my parents. I filled him in on the army of bitches I went to school with and the things they said about us. Now and then I tried to engage him in hot conjecture - about whether David Bowie was actually gay or if Marc Bolan (who had to be gay) was taller than he looked - but I never got far.
We drove out to the whaling station where the waters of the bay were lit with oily prisms and the air putrid with the steam of boiling blubber. I puked before I even saw anything. At the guardrail above the flensing deck, I tried to avoid splashing my granny sandals. Oliver brought me a long, grimy bar towel to clean myself up with. He was grinning. He pointed out the threshing shadows in the water, the streaking fins, the eruptions on the surface.
“Horrible,” I said.
He shrugged and drove me back to town.
Although everyone assumed that Oliver and I were doing the deed every time I climbed into his van, there was neither sex nor romance between us. Kelly and the others could not imagine the peculiarity of our arrangement. There was, of course, some longing on my part. I yearned to kiss him, be held by him. After the reputation I’d earned it seemed only fair to have had that much, but Oliver did not like to be touched. There was no holding of hands. If I cornered him, wheedling and vamping for a kiss, his head reared back on his neck until his Adam’s apple looked fit to bust free.
The closest I ever got to him was when I pierced his ears. I campaigned for a week before he consented. It began with me pleading with him and ended up as a challenge to his manhood. One Sunday I climbed in with ice, Band-Aids, and a selection of needled from my mother’s dusty sewing box. We parked out off the lowlands road where I straddled him on the seat and held his head steady. A few cars blew by with their horns trailing off in the distance. The paddocks were still. I pressed ice to Oliver’s earlobes and noticed that he’d come out in a sweat. He smelled of lanolin and smokes and that piney scent. When he closed his eyes, the lids trembled. I revelled in the luxury of holding him against the seat. I lingered over him with a bogus air of competence. Like a rider on a horse I simply imposed my will. At the moment I drove the needle through his lobe I clamped him between my thighs and pressed my lips to his clammy forehead. He was so tense, so completely shut down in anticipation of contact that I doubt he felt a thing.
For a few weeks my riding with Oliver brought me more glamour than disgrace. The new hippy teachers gave me credit for pushing social boundaries, for my sense of adventure and lack of snobbery. To them my little rebellion was refreshing, spirited, charming. They preferred it to my being the dutiful daughter of the council inspector. I knew what they thought of homes like outs with the red-painted paths and plaster swans. Their new smiles said it all. But when my experiment proved more than momentary their Aquarian indulgence withered. They despised boys like Oliver as much as my parents would have, had they known him, and after a while my feisty rebellion seemed little more than slumming. Oliver was no winsome Woodstock boy. He was a toughie from the abattoir. My young teachers’ sisterly hugs gave way to stilted homilies. Free love was cool but a girl didn’t want to spread her favours too thin, did she. I grimaced and smirked until they left me alone.
The gossip at school was brutal. In the talk, the passed notes, the toilet scrawl, I sucked Oliver Nickell, I sucked other boys, I sucked anybody. And more. At the drives Oliver hired me out, car to car, Melanie Martinez meatworker. Slack Mel. The slander hurt but I bore it as the price of love. Because I did love him. And anyway, I thought, let them talk, the ignoramuses. Part of me enjoyed the status, the bitter satisfaction of being solitary but notable. I was, in this regard, my father’s daughter.
I could bear the vile talk behind my back, but all the icy silence on the surface wore me down. I had enough remoteness at home. And Oliver himself barely said a word. I craved some human contact. The only people who would speak to me were the opportunists and the outcasts, boys newly-emboldened to try their luck and hard-faces sluts with peroxided fringes who wanted to know how big Oliver’s bone was. The boys I sent packing but the rough chicks I was stuck with. They were a dim and desperate lot with which to spend a lunch hour.
At first they were as suspicious of me as they were curious. I was a cardigan-wearing interloper, a slumming dilettante. Their disbelief at Oliver’s having chosen me was assuaged in time by the incontrovertible fact of it, for there I was every afternoon causing by in the van. I didn’t challenge the legend. On the contrary, I nurtured it. By nods and winks at first and later with outright lies. I told them what they wanted to hear, what I read in Cleo and Forum, the stuff I knew nothing about. It seemed harmless enough. We were just girls, I thought, faker, kids making ourselves up as we went along. But the things I was lying through my teeth about were the very things that these girls were doing. That and much more. And they had the polaroids to prove it.
Only when I saw those photos did I begin to understand how stupid my play-acting had been. One lunchtime five of us crammed into a smoky toilet stall, our earrings jangling with suppressed laughter. The little prints were square, felt gummy in my hands, and it took me several moments to register what I was looking at. God knows what I was expecting, which fantasy world I’d been living in, but I can still feel the horrible fake grin that I hid behind while my stomach rolled and my mind raced. So this was what being Slack Mel really meant. Not just that kids thought you were doing things like this with Oliver Nickell; they believed you did them with anybody, everybody, two and three at a time, reducing yourself to this, a grimacing, pink blur, a trophy to be passed around in the toilets and toolshed all over town. All the gossip had been safely abstract but the polaroids were galvanising. With all my nodding and winking I’d let these creatures believe that I was low enough to have momentous like this myself, conquests that would bind us to one another. I’d never let so young, so isolated, so ill. Those girls had already lived another life, moved in a different economy. They understood that they had something men and boys wanted. For them sex was not so much pleasure or even adventure but currency. And I was just a romantic schoolgirl. Maybe they suspected it all along.
I didn’t go to pieces there in the fug of the cubicle but afterwards I subsided into a misery I couldn’t disguise. I had always believed I could endure what people thought of me. If it wasn’t true, I thought, how could it matter? But I’d gone from letting people think what they would to actually lying about myself. I’d fallen in with people whose view of life was more miserable and brutish than anything I’d ever imagined. It was as though I’d extinguished myself.
I went to class in a daze. The teacher took one look at me and sent me to the sick room.
“Are you late with your period?” asked the nurse.
I could only stare in horror.
You can imagine how the news travelled. I’m sure the nurse was discreet. The talk probably started the moment I left the class. Mel went to the sick room. Mel was sick at school. Melanie was bawling her eyes out. Melanie’s got a bun in the oven.
It wasn’t that I refused to answer the nurse’s question. I was simply trying so hard not to cry that I couldn’t speak. And saying nothing was no help at all.
During the final term of that year I went back to being a schoolyard solitary. I spent hours in the library to avoid scrutiny and to stave off panic, and the renewed study brought about a late rally in my marks. I heard the rumours about my ‘condition’ and did my best to ignore them. The only thing more surprising thinly good marks was the new pleasure they gave me. It was all that kept me from despair.
I still felt a bubble of joy rise to my throat when Oliver burbled up but it didn’t always last out the ride. On weekends, as spring brought on the uncertain promise of the southern summer, I took to wearing a bikini beneath my clothes and I badgered Oliver to let me out at the beaches we drove to. I couldn’t sit in the car anymore. I wanted to bodysurf, to strike out beyond the breakers and lie back with the sun pressing pink on my eyelids. I wanted him there too, to hold his hand in the water, for him to feel me splashing against him. But there wasn’t a chance of it happening. He let me out but I had to swim alone. The beaches were mostly empty. There was nobody to see my flat belly. The water was cold and forceful and after swimming I lay sleepy-warm on a towel. The best Oliver could do was to squat beside me in his Johnny Reb boots with a rolly cupped in his palm.
I began to demand more of Oliver. Perhaps it was a renewed confidence from good marks and maybe it was a symptom of a deeper bleakness, a sense of having nothing left to lose. Either way I peppered him with questions about himself, things I hadn’t dared as before. I wanted to know about his family, the details of his job, his honest opinions, where he wanted to be in ten years’ time, and his only responses were shrugs and grins and puckering and far-off looks. When I asked what he thought of me he murmured, “You’re Melanie. You’re my navigator.”
I didn’t find it charming; I was irritated. Even though it dawned on me that Oliver was lonely - lonelier than I’d ever been, lonely enough to hang out with a fifteen-year-old - I felt a gradual loss of sympathy. I could sense myself tiring of him, and I was guilty about it, but his silence began to seem idiotic and the aimless driving bored me. With no one else to speak to, I’d worn myself out prattling on at him. I’d told him so much, yearned so girlishly, and gotten so little in return.
The weather warmed up. The van was hot to ride in. The upholstery began to give off a stink of sweat and meat. I found shotgun shells in the glovebox. Oliver wouldn’t discuss their presence. I found that a whole day with his left me depleted. I missed being a girl on foot, I wanted the antic talk of other girls, even their silly, fragile confidences. Oliver wouldn’t speak. He couldn’t converse. He couldn’t leave the van. He wouldn’t even swim.
I tried to find a way to tell him that it wasn’t fun anymore but I didn’t have the courage. One Saturday I simply didn’t go to the Esso. On Sunday I helped my startled mother make Christmas puddings. The next week I stayed in and read Papillon. I watched ‘Aunty Jack’. When I did venture out I avoided places where Oliver might see me. It was only a few days before he found me. I heard him ease in beside me on the road home from school. I felt others watching. I leant in to the open window.
“Ride, Mel?” he murmured.
“No,” I said. “Not anymore. But thanks.”
He shrugged and dragged on his rolly. For a moment I thought he’d say something but he just chewed his lip. I knew I’d hurt him and it felt like betrayal, yet I walked away without another word.
Every summer my parents took me to the city for a few weeks. I was always intimidated and self-conscious, certain that the three of us were instantly identifiable as bumpkins, thong I loved the cinema and the shops, the liberating unfamiliarity of everybody and everything in my path. That year, after the usual excursions, we walked through the grounds of the university by the river’s edge. The genteel buildings were surrounded by palms and lemon-scented gums and here and there, in cloisters or against limestone walls, were wedding parties and photographers and knots of overdressed and screaming children.
I sensed a sermon in the wings, a parable about application to schoolwork, but my father was silent. As we walked the verandah he seems to drink in every detail. There was a softness, sadness to his expression that I’d never seen before. He rubbed his moustache, wiped his brow on the towelling hat he wore on these trips, and sauntered off alone.
“What’s with Dad?” I asked. “Did you guys have your wedding pictures taken here, or something?”
My mother sat on a step in her boxy frock. Sweat had soaked through her polka dots to give her a strangely riddled look.
“No, dear,”she said. “He wanted to be an architect, you know. Thirty years is a long time to have regrets.”
I stood by her a while. Despite the languor of her tone I sensed that we’d come to the edge of something important together. I could feel the ghosts of their marriage hovering within reach, the story behind their terrible quiet almost at hand, and I hesitated, wanting and not wanting to hear more. But she snapped open her bag and pulled out her compact and the moment was gone, a flickering light gone out.
On the long drive home that summer I thought about the university and the palpable disappointment of my parents’ lives. I wondered if the excursion to the campus had been an effort on their part to plant a few thoughts in my head. Consciously or not they’d shown me a means of escape.
In the new school year I more or less reinvented myself. Until that point, except for my connection with Oliver, I had believed that I was average; in addition to being physically unremarkable I assumed I wasn’t particularly smart either. The business with Oliver was, I decided, an aberration, an episode. For the bulk of my school life I’d embraced the safety of the median. And now, effectively friendless, with the image of the university and its shady cloisters as a goad, I became a scowling bookworm, a girl so serious, so fixed upon a goal, as to be unapproachable. I never did return to the realm of girly confidences. Friends, had I found them, would have been a hindrance. In an academic sense I began to flourish. I saw myself surrounded by dolts. Contempt was addictive. In a few months I left everyone and everything else in my wake.
Of course no matter what I did my louche reputation endured. These things are set in stone. Baby booties and condoms were folded into my textbooks. The story went that Oliver had dropped me for not having his child, that he was out to get me somehow, that my summer trip to Perth had involved a clinic. Last year’s polaroid tarts were all gone now to Woolworths and the cannery, there was nobody to share the opprobrium with. Yet I felt it less. My new resolve and confidence made me haughty. I was fierce in a way that endeared me to neither students nor staff. I was sarcastic and abrupt, neither eager to please nor easy to best. I was reconciled to being lonely. I saw myself in Rio, Bombay, New York; being met at airports, ordering room service, solving problems on the run. I’d already moved on from these people, this town. I was enjoying myself. I imagined an entire life being beyond Oliver Nickell’s moll.
Oliver was still around of course. He wasn’t as easy to spot because he drove an assortment of vehicles. Apart from the van there was a white Valiant, a flatbed truck and a Land Rover that looked like something out of Born Free. Our eyes met, we waved, but nothing more. There was something unresolved between us that I didn’t expect to deal with. Word was that the meatworks had sacked him over some missing cartons of beef. There were stories about him and his father duffing cattle out east and butchering them with chainsaws in valley bottoms. There was talk of stolen car parts, electrical goods, two-day drives to the South Australian border, meetings on tuna boats. If these whispers were true - and I knew enough by now to have my doubts - then the police were slow in catching them. There were stories of Oliver and other girls, but I never saw any riding with him.
Town seemed uglier the year I turned sixteen. There was something feverish in the air. At first I thought it was just me, my new persona and the fresh perspective I had on things, but even my father came home with talk of break-ins, hold-ups, bashings.
The first overdose didn’t really register. I wasn’t at the school social - I was no longer the dancing sort - so I didn’t see the ambulancemen wheel the dead girl out of the toilets. I didn’t believe the talk in the quad. I knew better than to listen to the bullshit that blew along the corridor, all the sudden talk about heroin. But that overdose was only the first of many. Smack became a fact of life in Angelus. The stuff was everywhere and nobody seemed able or inclined to do a thing about it.
It was winter when Oliver Nickell was found on Thunder Beach with his legs broken and his face like an aubergine. They made me wait two days before I could see him. At the hospital there were plainclothes cops in the corridor and one in uniform outside the door. The scrawny constable let me in without a word. Oliver was conscious by then, though out of his tree with morphine. He didn’t speak. His eyes were swollen shut. I’m not sure he even knew who I was. With his legs full of bolts and pins he looked like a ruined bit of farm machinery.
I stayed for an hour, and when I left a detective fell into step beside me. He was tall with pale red hair. He offered me a lift. I told him no thanks, I was fine. He called me Melanie. I was still rocked by the sight of Oliver. The cop came downstairs with me. He seemed friendly enough, though in the lobby he asked to see my arms. I rolled up my sleeves and he nodded and thanked me. He asked about Oliver’s enemies. I told him I didn’t know of any. He said to leave it with hem; it was all in hand. I plunged out into the rain.
I visited Oliver every day after school but he wouldn’t speak. I was chatty for a while but after a day or so I took my homework with me, a biology text or The Catcher in the Rye. For a few days there were cops on the ward or out in the carpark, but then they stopped coming. The nurses were kind. They slipped me cups of tea and hovered at my shoulder for a peek at what I was reading. When the swelling went down and his eyes opened properly, Oliver watched me take notes and mark pages and suck my knuckles. Late in the week he began to writhe around and shake. The hardware in his legs rattled horribly.
“Open the door,” he croaked.
“Oliver,” I said. “Are you alright? You want me to call a nurse?”
“Open the door. Don’t ever close the door.”
I got up and pulled the door wide. There was a cop in the corridor, a constable I didn’t recognise. He spun his cap in his hands. He was grey in the face. He tried to smile.
“You okay, Oliver?” I said over my shoulder.
“Gotta have it open.”
I went back and sat by the bed. I caught myself reaching for his hand.
“Least you can talk,” I murmured. “That’s something.”
“Not me,” he said.
“You can talk to me, can’t you?”
He shook his battered head slowly, with care. I sucked at a switch of hair, watched him tremble.
“Don’t remember,” he whispered. “Gone.”
“Talk to me,” I said in a wheedling little voice. “Why do you want the door open?”
“Can’t read, you know. Not properly. Can’t swim neither.”
I sat there and licked my lips nervously. I was sixteen years old and all at sea. I didn’t know how to respond. There were questions I was trying to find words for but before I could ask him anything he began to talk.
“My mother,” he murmured. “My mother was like a picture, kinda, real pretty. Our place was all souls, only spuds. She had big hands all hard and black from grabbing spuds. I remember. When I was little, when I was sick, whence rubbed my back, in bed, and her hands, you know, all rough and gentle like a cat’s tongue, rough and gentle. Fuck. Spuds. Always bent down over spuds, arms in the muck, rain running off them, him and her. Sky like an army blanket.”
“She’s… gone, your mum?”
“I come in and he’s bent down over her, hands in her, blanket across her throat, eyes round, veins screaming in her neck and she sees me not a word sees me and I’m not saying a word, just looking at the sweat shine on his back and his hands in the muck and she’s dead now anyway. Doesn’t matter, doesn’t matter, does it.”
Oliver gave off an acid stink. Sweat stood out on his forehead. I couldn’t make out much of what he was saying.
“Sharks know,” he said. “They know. You see them flash? Twist into whalemeat? Jesus, they saw away. It’s in the blood, he had it, twisting all day into hot meat. And never sleepy, not really.”
“Sacked me for catching bronzies off the meatworks jetty. Fuck, I didn’t steal nothing, just drove one round of the forklift for a laugh, to put the shits up them. Live sharks, still kicking! They went spastic, and I’m nuts, said I’m irresponsible, unreliable.”
The bedrails jingled as he shook.
“But I’m solid,” he said. “Solid as a brick shithouse. Unreliable be fucked. Why they keep calling me unreliable? I drive and drive. I don’t say a word. They know, they know. Don’t say a fucking word. Don’t leave me out, don’t let me go, I’m solid. I’m solid!”
He began to cry then. A nurse came in and said maybe I should go.
Oliver never said so much again in one spate - not to me, anyway. I couldn’t make head nor tail of it, assumed it was delayed shock or infection or all the painkillers they had him on. When I returned the next day he was calmer but he seemed displeased to see me. He watched TV, was unresponsive, surly, and that’s how he remained. I had study to keep up with. The TV ruined my concentration, so my visits grew fewer, until some weeks I hardly went at all. Then one day, after quite a gap, I arrived to find that he’d been discharged.
I didn’t see him for weeks, months. The school year ground on and I sat my exams with a war-like determination. As spring became summer I kept an eye out for Oliver in town. I half expected to hear him rumble up behind at any moment, but there was no sight of him.
I was walking home from the library one afternoon when a van eased in to the kerb. I looked up and it wasn’t him. It was a paddy wagon. A solitary cop. He beckoned me over. I hesitated but what could I do - I was a schoolgirl - I went.
“You’re young Nickell’s girlfriend,” he said.
I recognised him. He was the nervous-looking constable from the hospital, the one who’d started hanging around after the others left. I’d seen him that winter in the local paper. He was a hero for a while, brought an injured climber down off a peak in the ranges. But he looked ill. His eyes were bloodshot, his skin was blotchy. There was a patch of stubble on his neck that he’d missed when shaving, and even from where I stood leaning into the window he smelt bad, a mixture of sweat and something syrupy. When I first saw him I felt safe but now I was afraid of him.
“Just his friend,” I murmured.
“Not from what I’ve heard.”
I pressed my lips together and felt the heat in my face. I didn’t like him, didn’t trust him.
“How’s his memory?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “Not too good, I think.”
“If he remembers,” said the cop. “If he wants to remember, will you tell me?”
I licked my lips and glanced up the street.
“I haven’t seen him,” I said.
“I go there and he just clamps up. He doesn’t need to be afraid of me,” he said. “Not me. Tell him to give me the names.”
I stepped away from the car.
“I only need the other two, Melanie,” he called. “Just the two from out of town.”
I walked away, kept on going. I felt him watching me all the way up the street.
Next day I hitched a ride out along the lowlands road to Oliver’s place. I hadn’t been before and he’d never spoken of it directly though I’d pieced details together over the years as to where it was. I rode over in a pig truck whose driver seemed more interested in my bare legs than the road ahead. Out amongst the swampy coastal paddocks I got him to set me down where a doorless fridge marked a driveway.
“I know you,” he said, grinding the truck back into gear.
“I don’t think so,” I said, climbing down.
I glanced up from the roadside and saw him sprawled across the wheel, chewing the inside of his cheek as he looked at me. The two-lane was empty. There wasn’t a farmhouse or human figure in sight. My heart began to jump. I did not walk away. I remembered how vulnerable I felt the day before in town in a street of passing cars and pedestrians while the cop watched my progress all the way uphill. I didn’t know what else to do but stand there. He looked in his mirror a moment and I stood there. He pulled away slowly and when he was a mile away I set off down the track.
A peppermint thicket obscured the house from the road. It was a weatherboard place set a long way back in the paddocks, surrounded by sheets of tin and lumber and ruined machinery. I saw a rooster but no dogs. I knew I had the right farm because I recognised the vehicles.
As I approached, an old man came out onto the sagging verandah in a singlet. He stood on the top step and scowled when I greeted him.
“I was looking for Oliver?” I chirped.
The old man jabbed a thumb sideways and went inside. I looked at the junkyard of vehicles and noticed a muddy path which took me uphill a way past open sheds stacked with spud crates and drums. Back at the edge of the paddock, where fences gave way to peppy scrub and dunes, there was a corrugated iron hut with a rough cement porch.
Oliver was startled by my arrival at his open door. He got up from his chair and limped to the threshold. Behind him the single room was squalid and chaotic. There was a oxy set on the strewn floor and tools on the single bed. He seemed anxious about letting me in. I stepped back so he could hobble out onto the porch. In his hands was a long piece of steel with a bronzed spike at one end.
“What’re you making?” I said.
“This,” he said.
“But what is it?”
“You, you spear sharks?”
“So how are you?”
“Haven’t seen you for ages,” I said.
Oliver turned the spear in his hands.
“I hitched out,” I said.
He was barefoot. It was the first time I’d seen him without his Johnny Rebs. He had hammer toes. Against the frayed hems of his jeans his feet were pasty white. We stood there a long while until he leant the spear against the tin wall.
“Wanna go fishing?”
I didn’t know what to say. I lived in a harbour town all my life but I’d never had the slightest interest in fishing.
“Okay,” I said. “Sure.”
We drove out in the Valiant with two rods and a lard bucket full of tackle and bait. Oliver had his boots on and a beanie pulled down over his ears. It took me a moment to see why he’d chosen the Valiant. He didn’t say so but it was obvious that, for the moment, driving anything with a clutch was beyond him.
Out on Thunder Beach we cast for salmon and even caught a few. We stood a few yards apart with the waves clumping up and back into the deep swirling gutters in a quiet that didn’t require talk. I watched and learnt and found to my surprise that I enjoyed the whole business. Nobody came by to disturb us. The white beach shimmered at out back and the companionable silence between lasted the whole drive back into town. I didn’t tell him about the cop. Nor did I ask him again about who bashed him. I didn’t want him to shut down again. I was content just to be there with him. It was as though we’d found new ground, a comfortable way of spending time together.
We saw each other off and on after that, mostly on weekends. Theses were always fishing trips; the aimless drives were behind us. We lit fires on the beach and fried whiting in a skillet. When his legs were good enough we’d climb around the headland at Massacre Point and float crab baits off the rocks for groper. If he got a big fish on, Oliver capered about precariously in his slant-heeled boots, laughing like a troll. He never regained the trucking strut that caught my eye on the school verandah years before. Some days he could barely walk and there were times when he simply never showed up. I knew he was persecuted by headaches. His mood could swing wildly. But there were plenty of good times when I can picture him gimping along the beach with a bucket full of fish seeming almost blissful. No one was ever arrested for the beating. It didn’t seem the bother him and he didn’t want to talk about it.
I didn’t notice what people about us in those days. I wasn’t even aware of the talk. I was absorbed in my own thoughts, caught up in the books I read, the plans I was making.
During the Christmas holiday in the city, I met a boy at the movies who walked me back the long way to the dreary motel my parents favoured, and kissed me there on the steps in the street. He came by the next morning and we took a bus to Scarborough Beach and when I got back that evening, sunburnt and salt-streaked, my parents were in a total funk.
The boy’s name was Charlie. He had shaggy blonde surfer hair and puppy eyes and my father disliked him immediately. But I thought he was funny. Neither of us had cared much for The Great Gatsby. Charlie had a wicked line in Mia Farrow impersonations. He could get those eyes to widen and bulge and flap until he had me in stitches. In Kings Park I let him hold my breast in his hand and in the dark his smile was luminous.
The first time I saw Oliver in the new year he was parked beside the stem cleaner at the Esso. The one-tonner’s tray was dripping and he sat low in his seat, the bill of his cap down on his nose. I knew he’d seen me coming but he seemed anxious and reluctant to greet me. A sedan pulled up beside him - just eased in between us - and the way Oliver came to attention made me veer away across the tarmac and keep going.
The last year of school just flew by. I became a school prefect, won a History prize, featured as a vicious caricature in the lower school drama production (Mae West in a mortar board, more or less).
Oliver taught me how to drive on the backroads. We fished occasionally and he showed me the game-fishing chair he’d bolted to the tray of the Land Rover so he could cast for sharks that night. His hands shook sometimes and I wondered what pills they were that he had in those film canisters on the seat. I smoked a little dope with him and then didn’t seem him for weeks at a time.
At second-term break Charlie arrived with some surfer mates in a Kombi. My mother watched me leave through the nylon lace curtains. As I showed Charlie and his two friends around town I sensed their contempt for this place. I apologised for it, smoked their weed and directed them out along the coast road. We cruised the beaches and got stoned and ended up at Oliver’s place on the lowlands road. But nobody came out to meet us. In front of the main house stood the blood-stained one-tonner, its tray a sticky mess of spent rifle shells and flyblown hanks of bracken. When Charlie’s mates saw the gore-slick chainsaw they wanted out. We bounced back up the drive giggling with paranoia.
In my last term I lived on coffee and Tim Tams and worked until I felt fat and old and crazy. Charlie didn’t write or call. I remembered how short of passion I’d been with him. When he kissed me or held my breast I was more curious than excited. I wanted more but I wouldn’t let him. I wasn’t scared or ashamed or guilty - I just wasn’t interested. There was none of that electricity I’d once felt with Oliver squeezed between my thighs as a fifteen-year-old. I felt annoyed, if anything, and Charlie’s puzzlement curdled into irritation. I didn’t consciously compare him to Oliver. Even Oliver was someone I could sense in my wake. There was something shambling and hopeless about him now, something mildly embarrassing. I had got myself a driver’s licence. I hardly saw him at all.
The final exams arrived. The school gym buzzed with flies. The papers made sense, the questions were answerable. I was prepared. The only exam I came unstuck was French. I knew I’d done well at the Oral but the paper seemed mischievous, the questions arch and tricksy. It shouldn’t have mattered but it made me angry and I tried way too hard to coat my answers with a sarcasm that I didn’t have the vocab for. I wrote gobbledy-gook, made a mess of it. I came out reeling, relieved to have it all behind me, and there in the shade was Oliver parked illegally at the kerb beneath the trees.
“Ride?” he murmured.
“Thanks, but I’m going home to bed. That was my last exam.”
“All except French. I was in beaucoup shit today.”
“Beaucoup. It’s French. Means lots of.”
I pressed my forehead against the warm sill of his door.
“Made you something,” he murmured.
I looked up and he passed me a piece of polished steel, a shark that was smooth and heavy in my hand.
“Hey, it’s lovely.”
“Friday,” he said. “I’m having a bonfire. Massacre Point. Plenty of piss. Bo-coo piss. Tell your mates.”
“Sure,” I said. But what mates did I have?
A teacher cams striding down the path.
“You better go,” I said.
He waited until the teacher was all but upon us before he cranked the Chev into life.
I didn’t tell anybody about Oliver’s party. I felt awkward and disloyal about it but there wasn’t anybody I cared to ask. It was so unlike him to organise something like this. He was probably doing it for me and I hated to think of him disappointed.
When I got out to Massacre Point in the old man’s precious Datsun, Oliver’s fire was as big as a house. The dirt turnaround above the beach was jammed with cars and there must have been a hundred people down there, a blur of bodies silhouetted by flames. As I made my way down in my kimono and silly gilt sandals the shadows of classmates spilled from the fire to wobble madly across the trodden sand. I thought of the shitty things these kids had said about us. They were the same people. Fuck the lot of you, I thought. I’m his friend. His only friend. And only his friend.
All of Oliver’s vehicles were there. At the ready was a pile of fuel - pine pallets, marri logs, tea chests, driftwood, furniture, milepegs and fence posts. Stuck in the sand in the firelight was the school sign itself with the daft motto - SEE FAR, AIM HIGH - emblazoned on it. More like FAR OUT, GET HIGH tonight, I thought.
Beyond the fire was a trailer full of ice and meat. On old doors between drums were beer kegs, bottles, cooking gear and cassettes. There were cut-down forty-fours to barbecue and a roasting spit with a beast on it.
Oliver’s Land Rover was backed down near the water and the tray of the nearby one-tonner was crammed with with tubs of blood and offal that boys were ladling into the surf to chum for sharks. Oliver had a line out already. I saw a yellow kero drum adrift beyond the breakers and his marlin gear tracked at the foot of the game chair on the Landy. Pink Floyd was blasting across the beach. Everybody was pissed and laughing and talking all at once and I was remote from it, just watching while Oliver moved from the fire to the water’s edge trailing crowds like a guru. When he finally saw me he grinned.
“Jesus,” he said. “You told everyone!”
I found a bottle of rum and followed him down to the shore-break to wait for sharks. While we stood there kids burnt kites above us and fireworks fizzled across the sand. The air was full of smoke and of the smells of scorching meat. It was the beach at Ithaca, it was Gatsby’s place, Golding’s island. My head spun.
About midnight the beef on the spit was ready and we hacked at it, passed it around and ate with our hands. Everyone’s eyes shone. Out teeth glistened. Our every word was funny.
Then the big reel on the back of the Landy began to scream. While Oliver gimped up onto the tray, a boy from the Catholic school started the engine. Oliver’s earrings glittered in the firelight as he took up the rod, clamped on the drag and set the hook with a heave. Line squirted out into the dark. The drum set up a spray and a wake and Oliver leaned back and let it run. After a while he banged on the tray and the St Joe’s boy reversed down to the water so that Oliver could bullock back some line. It went on like that for hours - backing and filling, pumping and winding - until the Land Rover’s clutch began to stick and the radiator threatened to boil over. The first driver was relieved by another boy whose girlfriend sprawled across the bonnet to pour beer down his neck through the drop-down windscreen. Now and then he backed up so far that there were waves crashing on the tailgate and I half expected the shark to come surfing out into Oliver’s lap.
He looked beautiful in the firelight, as glossy and sculpted as the steel carving he’d given me. When the shark bellied up into the shallow wash, Oliver limped into the water with his inch-thick spear and drove it through the creature’s head and a kind of exhausted sigh went up along the beach.
The fire burnt down. We drank and dozed until sun-up.
Within two days I was gone and it was a long time before I looked back.
During my years at university, I met my parents every Christmas in the dreary motel in the city. We had our strained little festivities, the walks through the campus and down along the foreshore. They told me stories of home but it didn’t feel like home anymore. I saw a few old faces from down there but never let them think that I remembered them. I liked the expressions of hurt and confusion that came upon them. I got a satisfaction from it. I heard that Kelly began teacher’s college, but dropped out, married young and had children. One summer afternoon she pestered me on a bus the entire length of Sterling Highway. She was fat. She wanted to catch up, to show me her brood. I got off two stops early just to be rid of her.
When I finished my Honours I drove south just the once to please my parents. The whaling station was defunct. The harbour stank of choking algae. I saw Oliver parked in an F-100 outside a pub the tuna men liked. He blinked when he saw me. He was jowly and smelled nasty. He looked a wreck. His teeth were bad and his gut was bloated.
“Mel,” he said.
“What are you doing here?” I asked, forgetting myself enough to lay hands on his sleeve along the window sill.
“Quiet life’s the good life,” he mumbled, detaching himself from me. “Wanna ride? Go fishing?”
“Gotta meet my oldies in five minutes,” I said. “Why don’t I drive out tomorrow?”
“I’ll get you.”
“No, I’ll drive out.”
When I drove out the next day the Nickell place was even more of a shambles than I remembered. The old man sat on the verandah, frail but still fierce. I waved and went on up to Oliver’s shack and found him on his cot with a pipe on his chest and the ropey smell of pot in the air. He was asleep. On the walls were sets of shark jaws. The floor was strewn with oily engine parts. I almost stepped away but he sat up, startled. The little pipe hit the floor.
“Me,” I said.
He looked confused.
“Mel,” I said.
He got off the bed in stages, like an old man.
“One day I’ll kill him,” he said. “Take my sticker down there and jam it through his fucking head.”
“It’s Melanie,” I said.
“I don’t care. You think I care?”
I went east for postgrad work and then left the country altogether. I did the things I dreamt of, some diplomatic stints, the UN, some teaching, a think-tank. I took a year off and lived in Mexico, tried to write a book but it didn’t work out; it was like trying to fall in love. I was lonely and restless.
Then my father died and my mother went to pieces. I was almost grateful for the excuse to fly home to escape failure. I came back, sold their house and set my mother up in an apartment in the city. For a while I even lived with her and that’s when I discovered that she was an addict. We didn’t get close. We’d got a little too far along for that but we had our companionable moments. She died in a clinic of pneumonia the first winter I was back.
For several months I was lost. I didn’t want to return to being a glorified bureaucrat. I had no more interest in the academy. I had an affair with a svelte French woman who imported antiques and ethnographic material for collectors. As with all my entanglements there was more curiosity from my side of it than passion. Her name was Celeste. She must have sensed that my heart wasn’t in it; it was over in a matter of weeks but we remained friends and, in time, I became her partner in business.
It was 1988 when I got a call from the police to say that they had Oliver Nickell in custody. They asked whether I could come down to help them clear up some matters relating to the death of Lawrence Nickell.
I flew to Angelus expecting Oliver to be up on a murder charge, but when I arrived I found out that he was not in the lockup but in the district hospital under heavy sedation. The old man had died in his sleep at least ten days previous and an unnamed person had discovered Oliver cowering in a spud crate behind the shed. He was suffering from exposure and completely incoherent.
“There’s no next of kin,” said a smooth-looking detective who met me at the hospital. “We found you from letters he had. And we know that you went to school with him, that there’d been… well, a longstanding relationship.”
“I knew him, yes,” I said as evenly as I could.
“He was in quite a state,” said the detective. “He was naked when he was found. He had a set of shark jaws around his neck and his head and face were badly cut. His shack was full of ammunition and weapons and… well, some disturbing pornography. There was also a cache of drugs.”
“What kind of drugs?” I asked.
“I’m sorry, I’m not at liberty to say. Ah, there was also some injury to his genitals.”
“And is he being charged with an offence?”
“No,” said the cop. “He’s undergone a psychiatric evaluation and he’s being committed for his own good. We need to know if there’s anyone else, family members we don’t know about, who we might contact.”
“You needed me to fly here to ask me that?”
“I’m sorry,” he murmured. “I thought you were his friend.”
“I am his friend,” I said. “His oldest friend.”
“Good,” he said. “Good. We thought you could accompany him, travel with him up to the city when he goes. You know, a familiar face to smooth the way.”
“Jesus,” I muttered, overcome at the misery and the suddenness of it. I was determined not to cry, or be shrill. “When?”
“Ah, tomorrow morning.”
“Fine,” I said. “Can I see him now?”
The cop and a nurse took me in to see Oliver. He was in a private room. There were restraints on the bed. He was sleeping. His lungs sounded spongy. His face was a mess of scabs and bruises. I cried.
That afternoon I hired a car and drove out along the lowlands road to the old Nickell place. The main house gave off a stink I did not want to investigate. All the old cars were still there, plus a few that had come after my time. The HT van was up on blocks, the engine gone. I looked around the sheds and found broken crates, some bloodstains.
Oliver’s hut looked like a cyclone had been through it. The floor was a tangle of tools and spare parts, of broken plates and thrown food, as though he’d gone on a rampage, emptying drawers and boxes, throwing bottles and yanking tapes from cassette spools. His mattress was hacked open and the shark sticker had been driven into it. They were right, he’d lost his mind. A squarish set of shark jaws lay on the pillow. It took me a moment to register the neat pile of magazines beside it. On impulse I reached down to pick one off the pile but froze when I saw it. This was the porn they’d told me about. The cover featured the body of a woman spread across the bonnet of a big American car, her knees wide. There were little holes burnt in the paper where the woman’s anus and vagina had been, as though someone had touched the glossy paper with a precisely aimed cigarette. On the model’s shoulders, boxed in with sticky tape, was my face, my head. A black and white image of me at sixteen. Unaware of the camera, laughing. I felt a rush of nausea and rage. The fucking creep! The miserable, sick bastard.
I didn’t even touch it. I went outside and sucked in some air. I felt robbed, undone. The ground was stable underfoot. I had to sit down while something collapsed with me.
When I left I hadn’t really got myself into good enough shape to drive but I couldn’t stay there any longer. I was halfway down the rutted drive when another car eased in from the highway. At least it was twilight. At least I wasn’t crying. As the car got close I recognised the cop from earlier that day. There was another detective with him, a taller man. They pulled up beside me.
“Everything alright?” the cop asked.
“Just wonderful,” I said, wanting only for him to get out of my way so I could get the hell off the place and find a stiff drink in town.
“You need to talk about it?”
“No, I don’t need any talk. I’ll be there in the morning. Let’s get it over with.”
The cop nodded, satisfied. His mate, the tall redhead, didn’t even look my way. I wound up my window and they crept past.
Next day I sat beside Oliver in the back of an ordinary-looking mini-van with another woman who I could only assume was a nurse. We didn’t speak. What I’d seen in Oliver’s cabin made it difficult for me to sit there at all, let alone make conversation. During the five hours, Oliver mostly slept. Sometimes he muttered beneath his breath and once, for about half an hour without pause, he sobbed in a way that seemed almost mechanical. The only thing he said all day was a single sentence. Eat though young. Perhaps it was thy young or even their young. I couldn’t make it out. His mouth seemed unable to shape the words. I couldn’t bear to listen. I dug the Walkman from my bag and listened to a lecture on Buddhism.
Oliver was never released. He didn’t recover. Even though I drove past the private hospital almost every day I only ever visited at New Year. I went because I conceded that he was sick. He hadn’t been responsible for his actions. I didn’t go any more frequently than that because my disgust overrode everything else. When I went I wheeled out into the garden where he like to watch the wattlebirds catch moths. He had an almost vicious fascination for the Moreton Bay fig. He said it looked like a screaming neck.
Over the years there were visits when he was hostile, when he refused to acknowledge me, and occasions when I thought he was faking mental illness altogether. He had been lame for some time but after years of shunting himself about the ward in a wheelchair he became so disables by arthritis that he relied on others to push him. His hands were claw-like, his knees horribly distorted. When I realised how it had become, I sent along supplies of chondroitin in the hope that it might give him some small relief. I don’t know that it ever helped but he seemed to enjoy the fact that the nasty-tasting powder was made from shark cartilage. It brought on his troll-laugh. He’d launch into a monologue that made no sense at all.
The visits were always difficult. The place itself was quiet and orderly but Oliver was a wild, twisted little man; an ancient child, fat and revolting. And of course I was busy. The import business had become my own when I bought Celeste out. I travelled a lot. I sold my house and the weekender at Eagle Bay and bought a Kharmann Ghia and an old pearling lugger. I lived on the boat in the marina and told myself that I could cast off at a moment’s notice. I would not be cowed by middle age; I was my own woman. And I valued my equilibrium. I didn’t need the turmoil of seeing Oliver Nickell more than once a year.
This year on New Year’s Day, I wheeled Oliver out among roses and he slumped in the chair, slit-eyed and watchful, before we got to the tree that provoked his usual spiel about his mother’s screaming neck, he began to whisper.
“Santa’s helpers came early for Christmas.”
“What’s that?” I said distractedly. I was hungover and going through the motions.
“Four of the cunts. Same four, same cunts.”
“Oliver,” I said. “Don’t be gross.”
“Cunts are scared. Came by all scared. Big red, he’s lost his hair. Frightened I’ll dog him. Fucking cunts, every one of them. Come in here like that. Fucking think they are?”
“Someone visited?” I asked.
“Did you know them?”
“Wouldn’t they like to know?” he said with a wheezy giggle.
I stopped pushing him a moment. The light was blinding. Already his hair hung in sweaty strings on his neck. The sunlight caused him to squint and he licked his cracked lips in a repulsive involuntary cycle. There were scars in his earlobes where he’d torn his earrings out years before. Despite the heat he insisted on a blanket for his legs.
“So, did you?” I asked. “Know them, I mean.”
“You put me here,” he said.
“I’m your friend.”
“Friends be fucked.”
“Your only friend, Oliver.”
“You see that tree? You see that tree? That tree? That’s my mother’s screaming neck.”
“Yes, you’ve told me.”
“Screaming neck, not a sound. You can hang me from that tree, I don’t care, you and them can hang me, I don’t care.”
“Let them do it, let them see, the pack of cunts. Never know when I might bite, eh. Even when I’m dead. Shark’ll still get you when you think he’s dead.”
“Happy New Year, Oliver.”
“Get me out, Mel. Let’s piss off.”
“You are out. See, we’re in the courtyard.”
“Out! Out, you stupid bitch.”
“I’m going now.”
“You’re old,” he said mildly. “You use to be pretty.”
“They said it, not me.”
“I have to go.”
“See if I fucking care.”
“I really have to leave.”
“Well it’s not fucking right. I never said a word. Never once.”
“Oliver, I can’t stay.”
“Just driving, that’s all I did. Never touched anything, anybody, and never said a word - Jesus!”
“I’ll turn you around.”
“Please, Melanie. Let’s ride, let’s just arc it up and go.”
Both of us were crying when I wheeled him into the darkness of the ward. He slumped in the chair. I left him there.
A week later he was dead. The hospital told me it was a massive heart attack. I didn’t press for details. Looking back I see that I never did, not once.
There were six of us at the cremation - a nurse, four men and me. Nobody spoke but the priest. I didn’t hear a word that was said. I was too busy staring at those men. They were older of course, but I knew they were the cops from back home. There was the neat one in the good suit who’s called me about Oliver’s breakdown. Two others whose faces were familiar. And the tall redhead who’d asked to see my arms when I was sixteen years old. His hair was faded, receding, his eyes still watchful.
I began to weep. I thought of Oliver’s fire, his twisted bones, his terrible silence. I got a hold of myself but during the committal, as the coffin sank, the sigh I let out was almost a moan. The sound of recognition, the sound of too late.
I walked out. The redheaded detective intercepted me on the steps. The others hung back in the shade of the crematorium.
“My condolences, Melanie,” he purred. “I know you were his only friend.”
“He didn’t have any friends,” I said, stepping round him. “You should know that, you bastard - you made sure of it.”
“I’m retired now,” he said.
“Congratulations,” I said as I pushed away.
I drove around the river past my office and showrooms and went on down to the harbour. I cruised along the wharf a way and then along the mole to where the river surged out into the sea. I parked. The summer sun down but I was shivery.
The talk on the radio was all about the endless Royal Commission. I snapped it off and laid my cheek against the hot window.
I didn’t see it whole yet - it was too early for the paranoia and second-guessing to set in - but I could feel things change shape around me. My life, my history, the sense I had on my self, were no longer solid.
All I knew was this, that I hadn’t been Oliver’s friend at all. Hadn’t been for years. A friend paid attention, showed a modicum of curiosity, made a bit of an effort. A friend didn’t believe the worst without checking. A friend didn’t keep her eyes shut and walk away. Just the outline now, but I was beginning to see.
They’d turned me. They played with me, set me against him to isolate him completely. Oliver was their creature. All that driving, the silence, the leeway, it had to be drugs. He was driving their smack. Or something. Whatever it was he was their creature and they broke him.
I sat in the car beneath the lighthouse and thought of how I’d looked on and seen nothing. I was no different to my parents. Yet I always believed I’d come so far, surpassed so much. At fifteen I would have annihilated myself for love, but over the years something had happened, something I hadn’t bothered to notice, as though in all that leaving, in the rush to outgrow the small-town girl I was, I’d left more of myself behind than the journey required.