Fiction from the Vault: Christos Tsiolkas

11 September 2014 Christos Tsiolkas

Fiction from the Vault: Christos Tsiolkas

Photograph by Shaun Gladwell

 

Salt

It was Gracie, the new girl at the supermarket, who had first told her about the three young hitchhikers who had come into town. Gracie was barely an adult but she already had a tightly drawn pinched face, tiny smoker’s wrinkles were forming on either end of her mouth, and her hair was a mess of black roots and rusty platinum. “They’re all pretty cute,” she whispered excitedly to Sheba. But Sheba had paid her scant attention. She had the shopping to do, wanted to check in with old Mrs Alexander before she started her shift on reception at Dr Zygur’s clinic. Her only thought about the strangers had been, why in God’s name would any one want to stop here?

It was a blazingly hot day. The north wind was fierce and scorching, but even so only patches of sky were visible above the solid clouds rolling up into the heavens from the coal stations: the elongated mouths of the mammoth chimneys endlessly belched out a pall of gaseous waste. The town was built for coal, ran on coal and would die when the last of the wretched mineral was excavated from the earth. When she was a young girl the coal clouds used to terrify her, portents of disaster and apocalypse. Her father had worked in coal, as had her mother, and now her husband. She had promised herself as an adolescent that coal was not to be her destiny; and because she felt it a half-broken promise – she had never worked in coal but she had never escaped the town – she was even more insistent that it was not to be the future for her daughter and her son. As she left the supermarket, dark thick shadows danced down the main street, cast off from the vapours above. They remained alien to her, like some mysterious extraterrestrial mother ship that had always hovered above the town. She had lived all her life under the clouds and still they remained strange to her. Her mouth was set to a grimace as she piled the shopping bags into the boot of her car.

Mrs Alexander was also full of talk about the three strangers. She had watched them out of her window as they had walked the length of her street. Two of the young boys sniffing petrol on the street corner had approached the men.

“Asking for money, I bet. It’s just too sad.” Mrs Alexander’s weatherboard house, with its low ceiling and tin roof, was suffocating in the heat, but the old woman still wore a crimson hand-knitted shawl around her shoulders.

“They didn’t have any money on them. You should have heard the abuse those little bastards spewed out. The whole street could hear them. That Bobby Renfrew threw a can after them. Got one of the men fair square on the side of the head.”

“Maybe they gave Bobby lip?” Sheba remembered the youth as a child she had babysat, the boy who jumped into her lap at the sound of thunder. She couldn’t blame Bobby and his mates, couldn’t blame them for numbing themselves to a future that led only to cloud.

“Bah, of course they didn’t!” Mrs Alexander snorted, her eyes fixed on the television. It was an old set, with a curved screen; the tube was going and on the bottom right of the screen a murky grey spot was growing. Cloud, Sheba had thought when she first started cleaning for the old lady, the cloud gets to everything. “Those little so-and-sos don’t need no reason to make mischief. What do you expect – no fathers, their mothers all boozing or worse.” The old woman’s eyes snapped away from the television and looked over to where Sheba had begun dusting the mantelpiece. “Make us a cuppa, love, will you?”

It makes no difference whether they have fathers or not, thought Sheba as she placed three tea-bags from the rusting biscuit tin into the lime green pot and switched on the kettle. It’s the same whether the mothers were alcoholics or sober, whether they took ice or were pious and conservative, whether the parents worked or were unemployed, whether the families went back to Dreamtime or to the First Fleet or whether they were newly arrived immigrants. The kids all grew up the same. There was only one way out: on the highway, driving, driving for hundreds of kilometres till the town and the cloud were left behind for good. That was the only escape. She filled the pot with the boiled water and took a tray into the living room. A woman from Weight Watchers was on screen, her mouth and eyes an exaggerated clownish smile. Mrs Alexander had muted the sound. Sheba poured out the tea. The old woman took her cup and blew on the surface of the liquid. A slow smile spread across her face. For a moment the wrinkles and the criss-cross pattern of veins on her nose and under her eyes seemed to vanish, as did the sparse silver-grey hair, the fine blonde bristles on her chin. As Mrs Alexander took the first sip of tea, all smiles, Sheba could glimpse the pretty girl she had once been, the same pretty girl who smiled in the black-and-white wedding photo that took pride of place on the mantelpiece.

“They came knocking at the door.”

“Who did?”

“The hitchhikers, of course.”

“What did they want?”

“Asked me if I had any spare rooms”

Mrs Alexander chuckled at Sheba’s bemused stare. It was definitely odd. Inexpensive motels sat at either end of the highway, in and out of town.

“What did you say to them?”

“That I don’t let strangers into my house,” the old woman replied with pompous glee. “Cheeky, I call it.” She set down her cup. “They said they had no money.”

Sheba laughed.

“They’re not going to get far in this town then.”

“No.” The old woman’s grey eyes wavered across to the television. She lifted the remote control and the room was flooded with sound. Sheba rose and continued her cleaning.

 

The waiting room was full when she got to the clinic. Sheba slid behind the desk and quickly scanned the computer for the afternoon appointments. Every single consult was filled. Old Mr Kassab was reading the paper, wheezing, his lungs desperately forcing themselves to work. Jemma Price was also there, with her young boy, Luke, who was sniffling; Rick Palozzo was draped over the edge of the sofa, staring blankly ahead, his knee twitching, waiting for his methadone script to be refilled. Carrie, who worked full time for the clinic, grabbed her bag and wallet as soon as Sheba had taken her seat.

“Sheebs, I’m going to go to lunch, you cool?”

“I’m cool.” Then the phones started ringing.

There was a lull just after two o’clock. Dr Zygur had just finished examining a young woman in a vinyl black mini- skirt, with a tattoo of a snarling tiger up her left arm. Sheba finalised the invoice and the woman tore it from her hands. Sheba heard her mutter the word “cunts” as she kicked open the door. Dr Zygur had come up behind Sheba and was filing a report into the cabinet.

“What’s wrong with her?”

“I wouldn’t renew her prescription for more Tem.”

“Oh.”

It was one of Dr Zygur’s gifts as a doctor that his face never gave anything away. Sheba had no idea what he thought of the young woman who had so rudely, so violently stormed out of the clinic. It had almost shocked Sheba, the aggression, the anger. It had almost frightened her. Almost. Except that in this town, you got used to it. It was always there: the adults let it out on alcohol-fuelled brawls and punch-ups on the weekends; the little boys by kicking and thumping other little boys after school. Only the other week, a little girl had come into the clinic with her face bleeding, thick gashes slashed across her cheeks, weeping pus and blood from where another little girl had scratched her. Dr Zygur’s face had remained impassive even then. He was as old as Sheba’s father except that Dr Zygur had not worked in coal, so his face had not aged as had her father’s, his back had not stooped as had her father’s, he was not dying as fast as was her father.

“She said she was going to get one of her brothers to fire- bo...bo...bomb the clinic.” Dr Zygur had come to the country as a youth soon after World War II but he still stumbled over certain english words. The hard ‘b’ words: and he was still uncertain of what exactly Australians did with the pronouncing of ‘h’.

“Maybe we should call the police.”

The doctor and the receptionist looked at one another, momentarily surprised. Then they burst out into loud, complicit laughter.

 

She had picked up Taylor from creche, Kelly from school, had started dinner – with this heat, a salad would do; some chops and fish fingers for Taylor – and still Andy had not come home. The kids had started to whinge; Kelly had twice stolen a mini Mars Bar from the biscuit tin. She checked the time, it was close to six, and she quickly dialled him. When he answered she could hear shouting, music, the banging of fists on a bar.

“Are you getting pissed?”

She couldn’t hear him.

“What?”

He was yelling.

“...a second...going outside!”

The phone went dead and then within seconds her husband’s name and photo flashed across her screen.

“Are you drunk?” she demanded.

No noise, no shouting, no obscenities. Just the sound of the town, the silent town under the cloud.

“No, of course I’m not drunk.”

“Then why aren’t you home yet?”

“Sheebs, listen to me, I’m inviting these blokes home tonight...”

“Which blokes?” she interrupted.

“These three blokes, they’re new in town, they can’t find a room...”

“...You telling me all the motels are full?”

There was a pause. She lit the stove and spilt a dash of oil over a pan, then reached for the packet of fish fingers.

“They have no money.”

She tore open the packet with the nail she kept long on her ring finger.

“Who are these guys?”

“Dunno.”

Behind her Taylor had started to wail. Kelly was sitting opposite him, a big smile on her face, her mouth full of Mars Bar again.

“Kelly, don’t.” She smacked her daughter’s hand and picked up the phone.

“Andy, there’s no room, there’s nothing to cook for them.”

“Sheebs, please. otherwise Victor Prescott has offered them his place.”

It was the height of summer, and the light, trying to pierce through the heavy grey balloons of cloud overhead, was splayed in rays of auburn and orange, of gold and mercury.

“Okay, okay, bring them over.”

The fish fingers were sizzling and spitting in the pan. Taylor was looking at the stove with ferocious glee, his eyes following the fork in her hand as she turned them over. He took after her and Kelly took after Andy. The cloud was already getting to her husband, was ageing him, sneaking into his lungs, making him old from the inside out. But the cloud had never gotten in deeper than the skin and blood and muscle and sinew and bone and marrow of Andy Jackson. Something had stopped it from getting in too deep, from making him over, from turning him into someone like Victor Prescott. It was what had made her cling to Andy from when they were in class together in high school, the way he never used rough language around her or the other girls, the way he never got too drunk, too out of it, too angry: always with a smile, shaking his head, no, no, four beers is enough for me, mate; never with aggro, never making the other man feel slighted or small or smelling the trace of contempt. Though that did not always work, not with guys like Victor Prescott, who had once beaten up Andy so badly that when Kelly had seen his face the next morning – his lips, his nose, everything bloated, his eyes like two distended black and purple leeches – she had screamed and screamed, Where’s Daddy? Where’s Daddy? Daddy’s here, sweetheart, Daddy’s here. No, she had screamed back, Where’s my daddy? She had struggled as he had taken her in his arms, she had punched him, pummelled him, so much so that Sheba had been scared she would hurt him more and tried to wrestle the girl from him. But he had not let her go till her sobbing stilled and she lay limp in his arms. Daddy’s here, Daddy’s here.

 

She quickly fed the kids, placed them in front of the television and then walked around the small house, thinking where she could put the three strangers. Taylor would sleep with her and Andy; she’d put the cot up for Kelly in their room. Two of the men could sleep in the children’s bedroom. The beds would be small, it would be crammed, but it would have to do. She quickly got to organising, taking the folded cot from behind the vacuum cleaner in the laundry, changing the sheets on each of the children’s beds. She looked up at one point to see Kelly at the door, watching her.

“Who’s coming, Mum?”

“Some friends of your dad’s.”

“Which friends?”

I don’t know, Kelly, I don’t bloody know. Strangers.

Her daughter’s eyes were daunting. There was suspicion there, fear there. She could sense the question forming, the question she herself was trying not to let loose, trying not to let come out of her. What if she exhaled, what if she did let it loose? Why us? Fuck them. Fuck them. If some stupid fools had come into town with no money and no sense, let the Victor Prescotts and the Sam Fellows and the George Pappases and the Cal Clarkes do what they wanted with them. She could see Kelly’s mouth begin to open, it was forming a word and as that word took shape Kelly blinked; and when her daughter’s eyes opened again it was as if Sheba was looking into Andy’s eyes, it was as if she was looking at Andy.

Before the word could come out Sheba quickly said, “They are people in need and we are helping them, do you understand?”

Kelly was standing still in the doorway.

“They are strangers in our town and we are showing them kindness. You understand that, don’t you?”

Her daughter turned her head round, her attention now on the blaring of the television in the living room. She was nodding her head.

“Can we watch all of Idol tonight?” This time Sheba nodded. “All of it?” Kelly’s face was breaking out into a smile. “All of it.”

 

She was on the front verandah, sneaking a cigarette away from the gaze of the kids, when Andy’s car swerved into the drive. He was the first out of the car and she quickly stubbed out the cigarette underfoot as she rose to greet the strangers. They were all tall, well over six foot, thin and long-limbed, but they stepped out of the car with astonishing grace. They made her think of antelopes. The other thing she noticed was the paleness of their skin, how delicate it seemed on their faces, on their hands. The three of them wore shirts of fine white cotton, jeans, black runners with white laces, and the skin on their arms too seemed never to have seen sun. At first Kelly and Taylor had eyed them with suspicion, only barely glancing away from the television; but slowly, by asking the children questions and waiting to hear the answers, by including them in their gratitude for being given shelter for the night, the three men had won them over. Before long two of them were on the floor building blocks with Taylor, and the third was reading a story with Kelly. What about food? Sheba mouthed to her husband.

“I’ll order pizza,” he whispered back.

In the end the strangers barely ate any of the pizza, refused all beer and wine, drank only water. They had not stopped asking questions and before long Sheba found that she had told them everything about her life. In the middle of it she had found herself ringing her father and inviting him over, and Andy’s parents had come as well. She had tried to ring her brother, but Joel wasn’t answering his phone. She glanced at her mobile. It was time for the children to be in bed. It was the time by which her brother would be well and truly drunk, toasted, stoned, chasing his second or third line of meth. She wished he could be here, the house was full of music and chatter and laughter and tonight it did not seem small, did not seem to cage her in, tonight it seemed alive and full of air. She switched off her phone and put the children to bed.

 

She was having another cigarette on the front porch when two utes screeched down the street and came to an abrupt stop in front of their gate. For a moment she had thought they would smash into it. By now it was dark, two thick plumes of cloud from the coal station were shining silver from the light of the moon, and even in the shadows she guessed who the men would be. It was Victor Prescott, it was Sam Fellows, it was George Pappas and it was Cal Clarke. George had not been driving, he was in the back seat of Fellows’ ute and as he tumbled out he fell on his knees and vomited. The three men with him immediately began hollering. George sheepishly tried to rise to his feet.

“Fuck yas, ya cunts.”

In a flash Andy was beside her. And behind him, towering over them, the strangers.

The fumes kept rising, forming black and grey mushroom bulbs in the night sky. There was the smell of the thirsty couch grass on the nature strip, the last squawks of the cockatoos and the first calls of the possums. The four men looked up, had fallen silent, they were squinting in the glare of the porch light. Victor Prescott pulled back the canvas from the back of his ute and struggled to pull out a slab of beer.

“Hey, Jacko, you’re having a party we hear. Mind if we come in?”

They would always come in. They were men of cloud and they would always get in.

“Fellas, you know you are always welcome, but it’s late and the kids are in bed. The party’s over.” He was smiling as he spoke; but beside her, she could sense him trembling.

Cal Clarke came up into the drive.

“Come on, cuz, just a few drinks. Where’s your hosp’titness?”

George Pappas was laughing, wiping vomit from his mouth.

“It’s hospit-AL-ititeness you dumb boong.”

Cal turned around and laughing, raised a finger.

“Who the fuck are you to teach me Australian, you dumb wog cunt?”

“That’s enough. There are women here.”

Her father had come out onto the porch, Andy’s father following him. Her father placed a hand on her shoulder; he wanted her to go inside, inside with her mother-in-law and the kids. She wouldn’t, she was going to stay. She would not be conquered by these men of cloud.

“One drink, one drink, before we all hit the sack.” Victor Prescott was insistent.

One of the strangers moved alongside Andy.

“We don’t drink.”

Victor Prescott roared with laughter.

“When you’re in this town, mate, you fucking drink.”

Sheba stepped down from the verandah. Andy tried to grab at her but she shrugged him off. She walked up to Victor Prescott. She walked up so close that she could smell the coal and the day’s work on him, the beer and the cigarettes and the bongs and the speed on him.

“I’ll come drinking, Vic, we’ll go to the pub, I’ll drink with you.” She would drink with them till they were smashed, she would stay with them till they were paralytic, vomiting, had wet themselves. Till they were too comatose to do anything, to her, to her kids, to Andy. Till they were too far gone to hurt the strangers.

She knew Victor Prescott was smelling her too. His nostrils had flared, he was stroking the red bristles of his beard. He was sniffing her as if she was a dog, the way he had sniffed at her all her life, the way he sniffed at her at school, on the street, at the pub. He sniffed now and then, sneering, he shoved her aside. A hand broke her fall.

“I can go drinking with your missus anytime I want, Jacko. I want to get to know these new blokes.”

She wished she were smoke, she wished she were ash, she wished she were wisps of cinders that could float higher and higher above the earth and disappear into the cloud.

The stranger beside Andy had stepped off the porch, he had come up beside her. It had been his hand that had steadied her.

“And what will you show us of the town?” he asked. “What will be the nature of your hospitality?”

She could tell him. everyone in this town could tell him. It was never spoken but they could all tell it.

Tell him of a face that is broken, as they had broken her husband’s face and the face of God knows how many men, God knows how many women and how many children.

Tell him of a spirit that is shattered, as they had shattered Angela o’Hagan’s spirit, the night eleven of them had kept her locked in the back room of Stewards Hotel, fucking her one on one, fucking her in pairs, fucking her in threes and fours and fives.

Tell him of a soul destroyed, like young Flynn McGee, who used to dress in his sister’s clothes as a boy and as a teenager wore lipstick and dyed his hair blue, who Victor Prescott and Sam Fellows and George Pappas and Cal Clarke had taken drinking after school one night and the next morning had left him on the side of the road with his trousers around his ankles and his rectum torn, bleeding. Sixteen stitches, Dr Zygur had told her, he had heard that by the time Flynn McGee had got to the hospital, he had needed sixteen stitches.

What did they expect, they whispered in the town, the way that slut Angela o’Hagan flirts with the men; and that boy, such an outrageous faggot. They had it coming, we all know they had it coming.

Next to her, the stranger no longer seemed tall. He seemed small next to the force of Victor Prescott, tiny against the relentlessness of Victor Prescott, insignificant compared to the sheer bulk of Victor Prescott. He would be taken, and he would be broken. As she had been. She knew, standing in between the two men, that she had not escaped it, that the cloud had come in, that it had conquered.

She turned away, did not look at either her husband or her father, she mounted the steps and entered the house and closed the door to the men.

 

It was just past dawn, a shaft of sunlight had deceived the cloud and was shining straight through the window of their bedroom. Andy was shaking her awake. “Come on,” he urged, “Come on, get dressed.” Still half asleep, she could not understand what he was saying to her. Something about having to leave, about her father coming with them, about waking the children, about the strangers being ready. At the mention of the men she snapped fully awake.

“What happened?”

“They’re fine.”

“What did those pricks do to them?”

“Don’t worry... They’re gone.”

“Where did they go? Did they sleep here?”

 “No, no,” Andy gestured towards the door. “You don’t understand, Victor and Sam and George and Cal, they’re gone. We need to get out of here.”

She didn’t understand. How could Victor Prescott be gone? The Victor Prescotts in this town were never gone.

“We’ve got to go,” Andy pulled her out of the bed. “There’s little time left, Sheebs, we just have to go.”

 

The strangers led them out of town, the three of them walking abreast and the rest of them following in a single file behind. In front there was Andy, a backpack on his shoulders, then it was her father, and then her father-in- law; her mother-in-law was holding onto Taylor’s hand and Kelly was following behind them: she kept wanting to turn back and look. Andy placed a warning hand on her shoulder, “Don’t sweetheart, we’re going away forever, you don’t ever have to look back.”

The sun was on Sheba’s shoulders, on her neck and on her arms. They were following the strangers and it seemed to her, for the first time in her life, that what she could see before her was open sky, no shadows, no gloom, just that vast deliquescent blue. She looked at Taylor holding his grandmother’s hand, looked at Kelly skipping ahead of her: she had kept her promise and their future was not to be cloud.

She could feel it behind her, could feel the weight and the pull of it. It would be rising high into this blue sky, overwhelming it, until the sky would have to surrender, submit to the force of the cloud. Joel would be in the cloud, he would be at work, working with the coal that became the cloud, he would be thinking of the end of his shift, of how good that first beer would feel as it touched his lips, touched his throat, melted inside him. Dr Zygur was in that cloud, taking a break from his patients, coming out into the anteroom and wondering where she had gone. Mrs Alexander was in the cloud. She would also be waiting expectantly, waiting for the sound of her key in the lock, waiting for her to put on the kettle, to pour the tea. There was Dr Zygur and Mrs Alexander, there was Gracie at the supermarket, and there was young Bobby Renfrew kicking against a future that only led to cloud. There was Angela and Flynn, there were the mothers who she spoke to picking up Kelly from school, there were the old men trying to enjoy the final years left to them after a life working in the coal and in the cloud. There was the whole town behind her. There was a whole world.

Sheba paused, halted, and the moment grew until her husband and her father and her in-laws and her children were becoming small dark specks against the massive blue sky. Only the three strangers, their strides long and graceful, seemed to have shape and definition. She turned her back to them, to the gaping sky.

 

She walked back towards the cloud. It was no longer belching from the stacks on high, but it seemed to be coming out of the very ground itself. The balls of cloud were expanding, cloud was begetting cloud, like the chain of soap bubbles the children would blow out into the back yard. She moved into the cloud and she felt it tighten around her but it did not hurt and it did not frighten her. She inhaled and the cloud came inside her and as it passed her lips she realised that all these years she had been mistaken, that the cloud was not smoke and ash, but that it tasted of the earth, that

It tasted of the earth from which the coal came. The cloud was on her lips and it tasted dry, it tasted sour. Why, she thought, of course; it tastes of salt. She moved into the cloud till all she could see was the cloud. There was no town before her; there were no bodies, there were no souls. The cloud engulfed her and she was gone.

 

With thanks to Natasha Soobramanien.

 

This story was first published in The Big Issue Fiction Edition #359.

Authors