With the windows down and the autumn breeze in their hair, Pete and Ashlee wound up through the valley past vineyards and fruit stands and ramshackle craft shops toward the scarp where the morning sun was still in the trees. She drove. He was tilted back amidst the pillows she’d wedged around him, oblivious to her sidelong glances, the way she chewed her lip. He was preoccupied with memories. After three weeks in a darkened room, they were a swarm he could neither evade nor disperse. He let out a snort.
“What?” said Ashlee, winding up her window.
“I used to play basketball.”
“Wasn’t any good, of course. In the city I’d always played football. Took me half a season to understand that I wasn’t allowed to tackle the opposition - you know, knock blokes over. They made me a guard. I thought it was like being a fullback. Man!” Pete said with a laugh.
“A defender,” said Ashlee. “That’s you all over.”
“Couldn’t shoot for peanuts. My lay-ups were rubbish. If I somehow got a clean break toward our own basket I’d pound down the court, sick with dread, knowing that I was gonna throw a brick. But I loved stopping the other guys getting through. Always did love a zone defence, you know, a real keyway lockdown.”
“Ah,” said Ashlee wryly. “The old keyway lockdown.”
“We used to play these Aboriginal kids from St Joe’s,” he continued, unabashed. “They always flogged us. So arrogant and graceful and hostile - just all over us - you know, and then somehow, chirpy as you like, they’d con us into walking them back to the hostel afterwards. I think they were afraid of the dark or maybe something they had to walk past.”
Ashlee let the window down again. Her queasy sense of dread was back. Maybe this weekend wasn’t such a good idea. She was convinced that they need to be with close friends. But fond of Pete as they were, Marie and Joe were more her friends than his. She didn’t want him to feel ambushed, outnumbered. Trouble was, he had no real friends. They were colleagues, comrades, but no one intimate.
“I saw one of them again last year,” said Pete. “One of the boys. That school case we did in the Pilbara? He’s a teacher there now. Must be the only black fella I knew who made it through school.”
“That you know of,” Ashlee said.
“Teaches phys ed. He saw me and just laughed.”
“You didn’t tell me about it.”
“It was kind awkward. I mean I always liked him. I was glad to see him. God, I almost hugged the guy and congratulated him for being a big success.”
“Just think of the odds. In our day, from that town. The others’ll be dead or in jail. Making it to forty’s an achievement. But, no, I didn’t do anything stupid. Still, I wanted to catch up with him, buy him a drink, but I fudged it. It suddenly got too… complicated.”
“Complicated?” Ashlee asked. “What’re you saying?”
Pete felt her looking his way now. She had the wrong idea but he had no confidence in his ability to explain himself. His face began to tingle with a hint of neuralgia. He sank back and closed his eyes a moment.
They came into the jarrah forest, a wall of grey on either side of the road, and the air was cool and sharp with eucalyptus.
“You should go back there some time,” said Ashlee after a long silence.
“No, the old town. You should deal with these things. God, last year I was down there every month.”
“The old town,” he said bitterly.
“Well, you were like a zombie.”
“My parents died.”
“Sure. But it was more than that. You know it.”
“Just small-town shit, Ash.”
“Which you haven’t dealt with.”
He sighed and looked at her long arms draped on the wheel, the hair licking back over her ears in the slipstream.
“You should have come with me,” she said fiercely. “You should have.”
“For your sake?”
“Both our sakes. You’re stuck, Pete. You won’t admit it but you are. Which, in case you hadn’t noticed, leaves me stuck alongside you.”
“Stuck with me, you mean.”
“That’s not what I said,” she murmured. “You’re like someone under siege. And I know it’s all these sudden memories. But are they coming because you’ve been sick, or are you sick from remembering? Like you’ve held it out too long.”
“You’re a fundraiser, not a therapist.”
“Well, pretty soon you might need both!”
“What does that mean, Ashlee?”
“Do you realise that every vivid experience in your life comes from your adolescence? You should hear yourself talk. You’re trapped in it. Nothing you do now holds your attention like the past. Not me, not even your work, these days. I feel like I’m getting less real to you by the day, that I’m just part of some long, faded epilogue to your real life. Last year I put up with it. It was lonely, Pete, but now it’s worse. Shingles, twice in two months. That’s a physical breakdown. How long before you cave in altogether?”
She drove. He licked his chapped lips. Each of them sensed the uneasy crossing of a boundary. There was relief in it - they’d been like two people holding their breath so long, but they were fearful of where this might lead.
“Why are we going away this weekend?” he asked.
“A change of scene.”
“A change of company?”
“That too,” she said with a sigh.
“You’ve started going to church again.”
“How’d you know?”
“I found a pew sheet.”
“Well, last year I went whale watching. This year I thought I’d try the Anglicans.”
“I’m not sure that’s an evolutionary progression.”
“I don’t think you’re in a position to talk about progress, Pete.”
“I thought you’d never go back to all that nonsense.”
“Well, it’s not quite the same brand of nonsense. And I’m sorry you’re threatened by it.”
Pete took a breath but said nothing. He put a hand to the welter of scabs on his face. He could feel the others itching at his scalp and eyelid but he resisted the impulse to claw at them. The neuralgia was well and truly back. The deep, prickling heat was, he now understood, a warning sign. He took his hand away and looked at his wife. She was crying, blinking furiously, tears streaking back across her temples in the wind.
“Sorry,” he said.
“I’m being a dickhead.”
“I have to pull over.”
Ashlee braked and eased them onto a wedge of pink gravel. She switched the engine off and snatched up a tissue from the box on the dash. She looked away but she sensed him slumped beside her.
“Last year,” she said. “Those weekends in Angelus. I had an affair.”
“It was stupid, and wrong. I didn’t plan it. Lasted a few weeks. I’m so sorry.”
“That’s why I should have come?”
“No. Well, part of me thinks so, but I know that’s not fair.”
Ashlee gripped the wheel until her hands burned. She hadn’t meant to tell him yet and not nearly as bluntly. For someone in his condition the timing was about as bad as she could have managed. She’d wanted to tell him so she’d be free of it, not to spit it up in a moment of anger.
He opened the door and got out. The forest sighed. There was a mineral whiff of gravel. For a moment she thought of him bolting out into the blur of trees and leaving her there by the roadside. Could it be that she wanted it? A scene? An end, even?
But he went no further than the drainage ditch, round-shouldered, hands in pockets, blowing like a man who’d already run a good distance.
When they bounced up the long winding drive and came to the house, Joe was out on the grass with the hose and the kids were in an old cattle trough, squealing as he sprayed them down. Capering about in his floral board shorts, the dark beard dripping, that chest hair plastered awry, Joe looked huge and ungainly, so unselfconscious in his foolery, and Ashlee and Pete exchanged glances and smiled despite themselves.
“God,” she said. “Look at that.”
Marie came down off the verandah. She was barefoot and her cotton dress only contained her breasts intermittently.
“Don’t mind my husband,” she said pulling open the driver’s side door. “His idea of farming is to water the children.”
“We were just admiring his movements,” said Ashlee.
“Ever seen such a physique?”
“Like a Greek God.”
“How are you, Marie?” said Pete.
“Better than the two of you by the looks of things.”
“How do things look, then?” he said.
“That poor face of yours? Like she dragged you behind the car the first fifty miles.”
“What about my face, Marie?” asked Ashlee.
“Like you drove the second fifty miles feeling guilty about it.”
Pete and Ashlee caught each other’s eye a second time. Marie saw it. He realised that Joe and Marie were already privy to Ashlee’s secret.
“C’mon,” said Marie. “Or so I have to haul you both out?”
Marie made an enormous pot of tea and set down a tray of Anzac biscuits by the window from which they could keep an eye on the children. Joe weighed a biscuit on his upturned palm and raised his impossible eyebrows.
“Anzac,” he said. “Now there’s a biscuit with the ballast of history.”
“They’re perfectly good biscuits,” said Ashlee. “She’s getting good at them.”
“And even if I’m not,” said Marie. “He still eats them. Behold, Pete, the weight of loyalty.”
“Yeah,” said Joe, slapping his belly. “The waist of loyalty.”
Marie and Joe were bots vets. They’d sold a thriving suburban practice to come here. Marie had grown up on the place and took it on when her father grew too frail to keep up with the orchards. Pete looked out at the hard noon light on the hills and the almost shadowless lines of trees and he wondered how Joe and Marie would manage here. Joe was alarmingly impractical. Animals and children loved him but he knew nothing about horticulture or even simple gardening. Marie, who’s been away from the place since she was seventeen, had plans for an organic operation and maybe biodynamic poultry as well, but they seemed out of reach at present. There had been hidden debts, unforeseen expenses. Pete thought there was something manic about Joe and Marie’s optimism. At times they struck him as just plain careless with their energies. Still, he admired them for striking out in a new direction, for having dreams. They were only five years his junior. So why did they seem so fresh?
“Oh, look at you,” said Marie. “You poor love.”
“He’s looking so much better,” said Ashlee. “But it was frightening. Especially when it got close to his eye.”
“Nasty,” said Joe. “You can go blind.”
“They know that, Joe.”
“I was thinking aloud. I had a cousin with shingles once.”
“Thanks for the tea,” said Pete. “You mind if I duck up to the cabin for a bit of a lie-down?”
“I’ll drive you up,” said Ashlee.
“No, I’ll be right.”
“Bed’s made, love,” said Marie. “Listen to me, I sound like my mother.”
When Pete was gone, Ashlee made herself another cup of tea and watched Joe go out to the kids again.
“What a goose,” said Marie settling in beside her, resting her head against her shoulder.
“They’re so lucky to have a father like him.”
“Yeah,” murmured Marie. “I suppose they are.”
Joe climbed into the trough. Only his white feet were visible as the kids climbed on him.
“You must see the other sort too much,” said Marie. “At work.”
“Yeah. But I was thinking about what it would be like. Being a little girl again, with a dad like that.”
“Speaking of fathers, tell me about this priest you’re seeing. What’s he like?”
“It’s a she, actually. She’s very unremarkable.”
“What’s remarkable is you seeing her. After everything they did to you. Please tell me it’s not just guilt that’s sent you back.”
“Oh, I don’t know. Maybe it was at first. It’s been so awful, Marie. I’ve felt so horrible about it.”
“Well, you should have told him earlier.”
“He was a wreck. His parents had died. After God knows how long, he sees them together in the same room again only to bury them both within a few weeks.”
“Telling him would have pulled him up,” said Marie. “It would have given him something more immediate to think of.”
“Maybe. I dunno. I mean it’s just so grotty. The bloke was the motel manager. He was such a sleaze. I kind of sank into it.”
“Well, Christ, you were lonely.”
“Stop defending me. You’re worse than Pete.”
“He’s making excuses for you?”
“You know him. Circling the wagons on everyone else’s behalf.”
“It’s endearing,” said Marie, switching the dregs in the pot.
“And it’s a problem, Marie, a curse. You can’t compensate for everyone all your life. In the end you have to demand something of people.”
“Listen to you,” Marie said. She got up to tip the tealeaves into a slopbucket beside the ancient wood range. “Isn’t that your story, too?”
Ashlee smiled, conceding it. She thought of the long years past, of Pete finding his father after so much time and the way his past seemed to assail him. She’d tried so hard to understand his obsession that she all but entered into it. She drove to his hometown and trudged its streets and beaches like a researcher imagining herself into his world and the slow wreck of his teenage years. In the end it was a kind of indulgence. There was nothing to show for it but more damage, more complication.
“Pete’s problem,” said Marie, “is he’s still the dutiful boy. Doing the right thing by his poor mother. Letting himself get screwed by the labour movement year in year out without a squeak. How long can you keep that shit up without a little bit of bad faith creeping in?”
“Yes,” said Ashlee. “But I suppose I could see myself in the same light. At what point are you just pretending?”
“Well, you’ve already blown your good-girl credentials.”
Ashlee put a hand to her temple and managed a smile.
“Will you stay together?”
“I don’t know,” she said. “I love him.”
“Well,” said Marie, flapping her sweaty dress. “He’s probably worth it. All things considered.”
Pete lay in the guesthouse with the windows open and the cries of birds and children drifting up the ridge. The cabin was built of corrugated iron and clad inside with local timber. There was a slate floor, a wood heater, a little bathroom. He liked it. But he was sure that Joe and Marie couldn’t really afford it. The debts would eat them alive and the thought made his head race. Their bucolic existence was precarious. They were good people, yea-sayers to life, but they exhausted him. He supposed it was rude getting up like that, ten minutes after arriving, but he’d felt so sapped by everyone’s solicitude that he had to go before he became too enfeebled to move at all. And they knew about Ashlee. She’d told them first. It made him more of an invalid than he could bear.
The neuralgia rattled him. It was usually the precursor to a relapse. And, God, he didn’t want to return to how he was at Christmas - the searing headaches, the blisters. Ashlee was right to be afraid. It frightened him too, this total collapse, because he felt his mind teetering at its limit. He’d been this close before but he’d never told her. At this great distance he could still see himself, the boy behind the curtain, cradling death in his arms. He was only thirty-eight but he felt just as helpless. He knew what the boy didn’t, that you couldn’t keep soldiering on indefinitely. But beyond that, even at this age, he still didn’t know the first thing about saving himself.
When Pete woke it was the middle of the afternoon and all the shadows had moved so far across the room that it seemed he’d woken in a different cabin. The ghostly pain in his face was gone. He got up, put on his shoes and some sunglasses, and went out onto the little terrace of slates and river rocks. But for a solitary child bumping up and down on the trampoline, there was nobody visible down at the main house.
He walked out into the orchard. The air was cool. He knew he should probably go back for a jacket but he pressed on through the sloping lines of trees not wanting to interrupt this feeling of freshness, of respite.
But within a minute he was reviewing the morning’s conversation in the car. His blathering about basketball. Ashlee’s forbearance. His needling. Then her sudden news, the awful smarting shock of it. There was only the faintest trace left now. Did it mean that, deep down, he expected it, even thought he deserved it? That he forgave her already? Or that he felt so little because he was so attracted, as far gone from her as she feared? He knew it was completely absurd, yet what had festered in his mind wasn’t the adultery at all, but something Ashlee said before that. What he told her about the Aboriginal teacher. Her reaction to his confession that he’d wanted to take the bloke for a drink but baulked.
Even though he was used to Ashlee’s exasperation, he’d never heard such raw dismay from her before. She thought he was a racist.
He knew it was bizarre that he could bear being cuckolded - yes, in time he probably could - but for your wife to think that of you? No, he couldn’t take it; it was too much. Yet, Christ, what kind of a stiff did that make him? It was sort of funny, in a sick way, and so typical of him. At a time like this, still anxious about his good name. He knew what other lawyers called him behind his back. The Redeemer.
He wanted to have it out now, to explain himself, clear it up, but he knew what a self-absorbed lunatic he’d look. It would prove Ashlee’s point that he was ensnared in the past. It would make things worse.
Anyhow he probably was a racist in other ways. He had an involuntary reaction against white South Africans. He didn’t care for the shape of Slavs’ heads - they tended to be flat at the back.
With his thoughts bolting away from him now, Pete tramped through regiments of trees until a child stepped out from behind a trunk and caused him to shriek.
Joe and Marie’s little girl stumbled back onto her bum and began to cry without a sound. After some hesitation he patted her fine brown hair that stuck out at all angles from her head. He tried to hold the child’s hand but she wasn’t having any of it.
“We both got a fright,” he said, trying to remember her name. “I’m such a duffer. I’m sorry, I didn’t see you coming.”
She was four - no, five - years old. She took such a long time to take a breath and make a sound.
The child’s name was Ruby. Eventually she took his hand and they walked through the orchard in the dreamy latticework of shadows. A hundred yards away on a parallel course across the slope Marie and Ashlee walked hand-in-hand along a separate row.
“Are you looking forward to school?” Pete asked.
“I don’t know,” said Ruby.
“I suppose you’ll go on a bus?”
“Or Marie will drive me.”
“Yeah, or Marie will drive you.”
He realised he had no idea what to say to a child. Ashlee had nieces but he never saw them.
“What happened to your face?” said the girl. “Did you fall off your bike?”
“Yes,” he lied. “I came a cropper.”
“What’s a cropper?”
“I… I really fell off bad. I stacked it. I came a cropper.”
“Joe’s chubby, you know,” said Ruby. “But it doesn’t matter.”
“No,” he said, his voice catching. “Nothing like that matters.”
He wanted to hug her but he would only frighten her.
At the end of the ridge they waited for Marie and Ashlee. Marie took the child downhill in a long tumbling run toward the house.
“You should have seen the pair of you,” said Ashlee. “You looked like Charles Windsor on a meet and greet.”
“She held my hand,” he murmured.
“Maybe she thought you’d get lost.”
“You ever regret not having them?”
“Ask me when I’m too old to have them. I’m not quite thirty-four, Pete. The door hasn’t shut yet.”
He nodded and she saw that she’d surprised him. Something had gone through. She just couldn’t be sure what it was.
“I want to explain about that Aboriginal bloke.”
“The bloke I knew as a kid.”
“Oh, yes,” she said, wearily.
And he told her again about the basketball and the walks to the hostel and how the black fellas bounced ball off the arses of their defeated escorts. And the confusion he felt, seeing their cheerful, cocky ringleader as a grown man. It wasn’t race, he said. Not quite. It was the jangling memory of a long drive to Perth when he was fourteen and not yet aware that his old man was beginning to go to pieces. There was the old cough medicine he swigged and the rash of odd errands like this one, delivering a juvenile to Longmore. The prisoner was a dark, smouldering boy who pretended not to know Pete. His record was, according to Pete’s father, as long and spattered as a painter’s ladder. For five hours Pete sat beside him. The boy was uncuffed - unreachable, it seemed. And Pete was anxious, conflicted, afraid the whole time, long before the boy bolted at the last moment, at the very gate, whereupon he had to chase him down himself, dogging him like a fullback through a pine plantation until he got a tackle in and sprawled with him onto the bed of needles. The boy called him five kinds of fucking cunt while Pete held him there, not knowing what else to do until his father limped up, weeping with relief.
“We never spoke about it,” said Pete. “And I never told Mum. I knew that I’d saved the old man’s bacon somehow. That time, anyway.”
"You shouldn’t have had to.”
“But the point is that when I saw that bloke again, this big lanky bugger, and he’s slapping his thigh and I’m trying to remember his name and all I can see is myself at fourteen, picking pine needles off my shirt and leading his little brother in cuffs to prison, I just felt sick. I couldn’t deal with it.”
“Pete, you are the fucking Book of Lamentations.”
“Oh. Yeah. Is Job in that?”
She looked at his scabby face and grimaced. She didn’t know whether her rage was for him or against him.
“I just needed to tell you,” he said. “That’s all I had to say.”
“Good,” she said curtly, despite herself.
“You know, our basketball coach was a Mormon.”
“Actually there were two of them. Elder Harley and Elder Wendell. Yanks, of course. We hated them. They just turned up and wouldn’t go. In the end we burned their bikes and hung them on the fence.”
“Yeah, I suppose it was.”
Ashlee headed downhill at a pace she knew was uncompanionable. It was perverse to be disappointed by a lack of drama, the tears and screams and recriminations she’d dreaded, but she was strangely deflated. She would have preferred a burning bicycle, come to think of it, some straightforward conflagration.
They didn’t speak. All the way back to the house he hung at her elbow, kicking stones, panting a little, not quite matching her step for step.
On the lawn Joe had a skeet trap set up. There was a shotgun broken over his arm.
“What’s this?” asked Ashlee.
“Dad’s stuff,” said Marie. “There’s boxes of those clay pigeon thingies in the shed.”
“I’m not much good,” said Joe. “But, by God, it’s a lark.”
Pete and Ashlee looked at one another.
“You used to shoot,” said Joe. “Didn’t you, Pete?”
Pete looked at Ruby who lay on a warped garden bench with an Archie comic. Marie held the other child, another girl, who fished out one of her breasts and began feeding. She looked too big, too old, to be breastfed. Marie sat on the bench beside Ruby whose grubby feet rested against her little sister’s head.
“Weren’t you in the army cadets?” asked Marie.
“Yeah,” said Pete. “Believe it or not.”
“You want a go?” Joe asked, who looked incongruous in his floral boardshorts and khaki disposal shirt.
“I haven’t fired a weapon for over twenty years,” he said nervously. “To tell you the truth I was a little creepy about it, once.”
Pete remembered that Tasmanian kid a few years back, the way he calmly strolled about shooting tourists like they were some kind of sport. The chill of recognition he felt seeing the poor dumb kid’s face on TV. The dull eyes, the shoulder-length hair, the total confusion. It might have been him at fourteen or fifteen, gun-happy and afraid.
“Dad used to shoot birds,” said Marie. “The fruit, you know.”
“Is that thing still registered?” asked Ashlee.
“Love, you look horrified,” said Joe heartily.
“There’s a rifle, too,” said Marie. “Vet work, it’s different in the country.”
“We’ve never had to use it yet, thank God. You wouldn’t want to be the local RSPCA officer, though.”
One side of the valley was dark now but the sun still lit the eastern slopes, bronzing the trees in their staggered lines.
“But this,” said Joe. “Trap-shooting. Nothing gets hurt but your eardrums.”
“You go ahead,” said Pete.
“Can I pull?” Ruby asked.
“Yeah,” said Marie. “But you know the rules.”
The little girl slid off the bench and rooted around in a box for a moment before pulling out a couple of pairs of earmuffs. She passed a set to her father and pulled some on herself. Pete felt Ashlee take his hand as Joe loaded up from a carton on a rickety card table and faced out across the valley bottom.
Two discs whirred out, climbing a while, only to sink into the valley untroubled by Joe’s shots. The noise of the gun was quite shocking but the baby fed on, untroubled.
“I suppose if he was any better at it,” said Marie, “we wouldn’t be able to walk around next day collecting the skeet from the driveway for next time.”
“Still recyclers,” said Joe, stepping back to eject his shells onto the grass.
“Doesn’t it stop your chooks from laying?” Ashlee asked.
“The sound of 98 Degrees,” said Joe, “is the only thing I’ve noticed that puts those fowls off their game.”
“Come inside for a drink, Ashlee,” said Marie.
Ashlee let go Pete’s hand and went in with her. The girl, Zayda, groaned sleepily, almost drunkenly, it seemed to Ashlee, as she lost the nipple. She closed the door behind them and let Marie pour her a glass of homebrew. The gun went off again and again while they sat at the table beneath the window, the light dimming around them.
“So what did he say?” said Marie, passing the child to Ashlee while she hoisted a leg of lamb from the fridge.
“Nothing, actually,” said Ashlee, looking down at the girl who watched her sombrely. “It was all a bit… civilised.”
“Well, I’m sure it hurts like fuck. I know it does.”
“What did you do?”
“I smashed one of his guitars.”
“Did you… did you catch him or did he confess?”
“He came clean. I never like that guitar.”
“He spent all last year pining for dead people. His parents. Kids he knew at school. Some girl with a birthmark he loved. He left me behind.”
“So it was revenge?”
“No, it was an accident, a mistake.”
“And now you’re even?”
“Seems vile to think so.”
“Oh, look, he’s taken up arms.”
Ashlee looked out at the scene on the lawn. Pete in his earmuffs. Joe crouched behind the awkward-looking tripod. The things wheeling out across the evening sky and Pete’s body pivoting smoothly. The small spattering disintegrations as he hit both. Joe hooted.
“He’s good,” said Marie.
“Of course he’s good,” said Ashlee, oblivious to the child tugging at her top.
Pete cleared the breech of each barrel and sniffed the old reek of cordite. His hands trembled a little. He stepped back with elaborate care and took up two more cartridges.
“You mind?” he asked Joe.
“Blast away, Maestro.”
The little girl, Ruby, looked at him with renewed interest.
“Funny,” he said. “In all those years I never fired a shotgun.”
“You’re a natural.”
Pete wondered what that could possibly mean. As a boy he used rifles. Before the age of sixteen the state had trained him to shoot four kinds of automatic weapon and assemble a 7.62 self-loading rifle in the dark. Until the school rules changed head fired at human outlines, targets with hearts. They were grooming him for war without the slightest inkling of the turmoil inside him. They didn’t know that he sat by the window with his father’s .22, sat there with it loaded and cocked, waiting for something to happen. He was only a breath away from something hideous. He was a ticking bomb. And when the old man ran away and took the rifle with him the fever broke. He’d never touched a weapon since.
He led but did not fire. He thought of the boy lurking behind the curtain. The skeet hummed off into the twilight. It was important to know he could resist the urge.
“Again?” called Joe.
“Yeah,” said Pete. “Pull.”
He hit both targets and felt his face crease into a smile that tested every scab. This was different. It was strangely untroubling in its pointlessness. Joe was right. Nothing got hurt.
He stood there firing until Ruby went inside and the smell of roasting lamb wafted across the grass. He blasted away, pull after pull after pull, until he was covered in sweat and they were out of ammo and he realised that darkness had fallen around him and he was happy.