Eunice feels the caravan behind them, tugging at the back of the car when Simon takes the corners too fast. She pictures them overturned, the caravan belly up behind. She touches Simon’s knee. He flicks her a look and she decides to say nothing.
When the Bruce Highway peters out on the outskirts of Innisfail, Simon pulls up and manoeuvres the caravan – flipping around on the end of the towbar like a fish on a hook – between two Sarsaparilla trees. The van settles on its haunches. She looks out at the warp and weft of palms and paperbarks and wonders what she’ll do when Simon leaves in the morning to meet the other Main Roads men. A barred pigeon, feeding in the grass, calls out: whoop, whoop. She feels tired. Her sweat gums her to the car’s leather seat.
Simon traces a circle for a fire with his toe, comes over, grabs her wrist, hauls her out of the car.
‘Move,’ he says.
His pull is gentle enough and she leans into it, half-falls out of the car into him. He kisses her under her jaw. She feels his teeth. He lets go, moves off to gather twigs and dried leaves, and some bigger logs too, dashed down in the last storm. She pulls a canvas chair out of the car, settles into it, listens to the engine click over. She feels her thighs spilling over the edges of the chair and wonders what she must look like to him, the fat in her body moving like a time lag, always taking a second to catch up with the rest of her. A mosquito buzzes next to her ear, lands on the lobe. The sharp pinch of the sting and then the droning again.
Simon comes back with an armful of wood. He flings the logs down. One lands on her toe and she flicks her feet up to her chest.
‘Watch it,’ she says.
‘You haven’t started yet?’
She shrugs. ‘You hurt me.’
She looks at her hands and hears him grunt.
He serves them damper slapped into alfoil and undercooked, poked too often by a man with nothing else to do.
It’s the first night they’ve slept together outside her mother’s home. Before, they only had her mother’s double bed – damp still, Eunice imagined, with the sweat of Mother’s fever – and Eunice’s single with the cast iron bed ends. On the night of her wedding reception, she’d come back to the house drunk and nauseated; Simon was still out and not showing any signs of letting up. She went to her single out of habit and woke to Simon rolling her onto the floor. Her body felt woollen – limp and furred. She sprawled, knocked him over, so his head hit the floorboards. She imagined her mother was still alive, calling to her from the bedroom, telling her to stop, for god’s sake, stop moving so the whole house shook. Simon tumbled her down, manoeuvred himself on top of her. His kisses had the weight of gravity behind them. He knelt with his legs straddling her, spat into his hand and slicked his penis, slipped and tried again. She kept waiting for something to happen, for her body to respond to him in some way, even when it was over.
In the caravan, she lies still. Driving up, Simon pointed out another Main Roads man’s campsite, where he’d set up with his wife. As they drove closer, they saw the caravan jiggling on its suspension.
‘Roger’s having fun,’ Simon said.
She giggled – didn’t know how else to respond – but she hated that he had to comment. She didn’t want to be spoken about in that way. She wasn’t sure how to say this to Simon. She didn’t think he’d understand. She lets him touch her in the dark.
She wakes in the middle of the night and hears the waterfall for the first time, wonders why she didn’t pick up the sound before. She holds Simon’s hand, hoping he’ll move at her touch, but he doesn’t and she lets her hand slide off.
She wants to find the waterfall. A couple of times she starts walking through the palms, arms out to protect her face. But the scrub’s too thick. She gives up, wanders back to the campsite. She reads the June ’51 Women’s Weekly all the way through, even the long articles she normally skips over. She learns about a book club for women trapped in the far reaches of the country. City women donate their old books to them, romances they’ve already read, the occasional classic. Eunice doesn’t like the idea of it – another woman’s book with her handprints, maybe her blood or snot all over it. Doesn’t read much anyway. At her mother’s house, with nothing else to do, she often wandered around the rooms, picking objects up, looking at them. Once she broke a porcelain doll this way, turning it over and over, tracing her fingers over its moulded legs, the dimples on the back of its knees, until it slipped through her fingers. The doll shattered on the wooden floorboards. The only thing left intact was its hair, golden ringlets that took on an animal-like appearance unattached to a body, as though they would bound off. Eunice burst into tears. Her mother found her crouched over the hair and weeping. Her mother slapped her so hard her ears rang, but that wasn’t what distressed Eunice. She cried at her own clumsiness, and in the end, when her mother said, ‘For god’s sake, it’s just a doll, Eunice,’ she thought she’d missed the point of something.
Her mother painted Eunice’s nails with chilli to stop her biting them. After her mother died, Eunice tried stopping for a while, but without the chilli, she gnawed her nails so the skin around them broke and peeled – stepmother’s blessings. Eunice met Simon because she forgot about the chilli. She spotted him at the Burdekin races. She liked his arms, the width of his shoulders. He sat near her in the grandstand, on the edge of a group of Main Roads men. He had a bowl of strawberries and cream balanced on his knee, slid each berry carefully around the bowl so when they reached his mouth they were coated with cream, dripping. Eunice liked the delicate way he ate, in contrast with his big hands. Then she bit her fingers. When Simon looked at her, he thought she’d been crying. He didn’t know what else to do so he took her behind the back of the grandstand and gave her rum out of a Coca-Cola bottle, one of his hands on her breast.
Eunice’s aunt arranged the wedding for her.
In the florist shop, with arum lilies and the purple spears of wild ginger flowers all around them, her aunt patted Eunice’s arm.
‘It took a while,’ her aunt said. ‘I wasn’t sure, the way your mother mollycoddled you. But you turned out alright in the end.’
Eunice didn’t want to throw her bouquet away. The younger girls teased her, called her greedy, but now she’s glad she kept it. She takes the bouquet out of the caravan, two-steps around the clearing with the dried flowers locked between her interlaced fingers, imagines herself in the church again with everyone looking at her. They all said how beautiful she was, her waist squeezed up into a corset. One of her cousins put her hair in rags the night before, pinned it up so the spirals fell around her face. No-one had ever touched her hair except her mother.
Simon catches her pretending, spoils everything by laughing. She hates the way he says out loud when he sees her, ‘What the fuck?’ and looks like he really cannot imagine.
She holds the flowers awkwardly pulled into her chest.
‘I’m pretending,’ she says.
Simon shakes his head and laughs. She thinks of throwing the flowers in the fire but can’t. She flings herself into the caravan, locks herself in.
He knocks on the door for a while but she’ll lose face if she lets him in. He hasn’t apologised. He’ll be getting into the booze he keeps wired under the van’s axils. She gets hungry after dark, but feels too sluggish to cook. She pierces a tin of condensed milk with a knife, sucks it up through the hole and lies on the little fold-out bed. She hears him in the night whispering through the walls. He trips and swears at her. She feels the side of the van tip where he holds himself up. She pictures him pushing the whole thing over, finding herself pinned to the ceiling, the dirty plates stacked on the sink tumbling around her. He leaves for work in the morning without speaking to her.
For a long time after, she’s too tired to find the waterfall. She lies in bed until the sweat beads across her chest and around her waist. She doesn’t even bother to change, just moves outside, spreads the sheet on the ground, lies with her legs apart to catch the breeze. No-one can see her. The bed fills with grit and Simon, shifting around in it at night. He calls her a pig and she lies very still with her back against the bond wood panelling. No part of her touches him.
The mould drives her out eventually. The smell of it gets into her clothes when she pulls them, all crumpled up, from the back of the cupboard. She puts a glass to her mouth to drink and finds a U of white fur where her lips earlier touched the rim. A galaxy blossoms inside the breakfast bowls, speckled across the pots already black from the fire. She doesn’t know what to do, doesn’t think soap would be enough. She thinks of all the dishes and cutlery jammed into the caravan’s cupboards. She can’t imagine how she can get through them all. She walks out, leaves the door wide open, the cupboards ajar. She tears through the forest, snapping the branches with her arms, her legs, her chest, swearing when the thick ones hold her back, refusing to splinter under the weight of her body.
She puts her foot into a hole and falls down amongst the fronds and strips of paperbark, the curled fern stems. She sees the creek in front of her and half-slides, half-falls into the water, thinking it will be easier going. Her leather boots fill up. The water is shallow, hot and soupy. A fish moves past her ankle. The rocks are slippery with moss. She picks her way over them, feet heavy.
A snub-nosed turtle extends its neck from the water, prehistoric, watching her. She throws a rock and it ducks back under the water. She imagines it treading the current towards her, its neck snaking round her ankle. The forest seems empty beyond the creek. All the creatures cluster around this twisting rope of water, teeming at her body, her feet and knees submerged.
The forest has already healed the path she made in it. She tries to haul herself up, scrabbling at the fingers of roots sunk into the water. The trunks are damp, too smooth, and she slips backwards, hits rock, feels the moss under her fingernails. She brushes against a furred bush and the leaves sting, leaving a welt across her forearm.
A kingfisher skitters over the surface and when she looks up she can see the waterfall, as if she’s able suddenly to piece together the parts seen from between the branches, make sense of the whole.
She follows a bend in the river and comes on it fully. She realises with a little lurch that people are swimming in the pool underneath the falls. The crash of the water drowns their voices. The heads of swimmers gather around a man in a boat with the oars in his lap.
She gets used to the sound of water, can pick out voices underneath it. A man calls out as he sends a ball sailing over the heads of swimmers. It lands belly first, making a woman screech. A group of swimmers moves closer and a girl seems to wave at Eunice, water flicking off her fingers and catching the light. A woman in white sits on a bench at the opposite side of the pool, the shadow from the brim of her hat encircling her face. Beyond her, Eunice catches a glimpse of another building. She makes her way along a weedy path skirting the pool. Halfway round, the path disappears and Eunice puts her foot on what she thinks is solid ground and finds waterweed. She slips in up to her thigh. She puts both hands out, scrabbles at the ferns and lawyer vine on the edge. One of the fronds breaks and she goes in sideways.
In the water she feels less vulnerable. Only her head is visible, like the rest of them. She swims up to where she thinks the girl who waved at her was but she doesn’t recognise any of the faces. She feels a man’s hairy leg slide across hers and she moves away from the group, towards the waterfall. The current is stronger there and she’s pushed backwards. She tries to touch the bottom with her toes, finds nothing, goes under deeper than she means, struggles to keep her head up.
She sees a bunch of swimmers hauling themselves out of the water at a platform skirted by cement railings and crowned by pots dripping with ferns. Eunice allows the current to push her backwards, grazes her knees against the pebbly cement of the stairs. There is a crush of bodies as swimmers push past her, gather their bundles of clothes. She hauls herself out of the water, gluggy and aware of her dress clinging to her thighs and rear end.
She follows the swimmers up another set of stairs, speckled with damp footprints, to where the grounds open out. Here the men and women separate to get changed, the women moving off between the ferns. Eunice hesitates. In front of her is a café, the biggest she’s ever seen, arranged like an Incan pyramid, with three levels, each getting smaller, and stairs cut right through the middle. The top layers are green and Eunice realises it’s grass up there, not paint. Bromeliads and electric fern the colour of scales tumble from pots built into the railings. On the bottom floor a fountain, triple-tiered, echoes the shape of the building, and people sit around it drinking tea. She pictures the tea, pale and hot, served in cups like her mother’s, painted with violets and rimmed with a line of gold leaf. She walks right up to the café, but stops outside the doorway, not sure what to do next. Her hem is dripping, forming a little wet circle around her feet.
Someone presses into her back.
‘Excuse me.’ A flat hand against her waist. ‘Are you all right?’
He’s a slim man, bones clustered at the knuckles and wrists, the scoop of his singlet visible beneath his cotton shirt. His voice embarrasses her, its properness. She realises he must be educated. She isn’t sure what to say to him.
‘I fell,’ she says.
He takes her elbow, moves her out of the way of the people backed up behind her, waiting to go in.
‘Are you cold?’ he says.
She shakes her head, but he gives her his jacket anyway. She isn’t sure how she should wear it, fumbles with the sleeves. Once on, the cuffs come past her fingers. She holds the sleeves up for him to see and laughs. He wears a beard, grins with the hair on his upper lip.
‘Tea?’ he says.
She looks again at the fountain inside, symmetry in miniature. Ferns are trimmed around its edges. She imagines clear water, the lazy curl of goldfish. She goes in.
The waitress threads her way between the tables towards her.
‘There’s children around,’ she says, pointing at her. ‘You need to put on proper clothes.’
Eunice panics for a second.
‘She’s all right,’ the man says to the waitress.
The waitress is huffy about it, but she lets them inside to a table in the corner, away from the fountain. On the other side of the shuttered windows is an oblong pond, curved at the ends and surfaced with lilies as big as Eunice’s palm. Six jets of water arch upwards. A man with a cement roller flattens the tennis courts beyond. There are termite mounds forming at the edges and he runs the roller over them, pulls it backwards and has another go.
The man is at the counter ordering. She doesn’t remember saying what she wanted, and is glad he didn’t ask her to pick something. There are too many things she wants.
He introduces himself when he gets back to the table, extends his hand. His fingers are dry.
‘William,’ he says, and she nods.
The waitress brings tea, a blue-and-white pot on a tray with three cups clustered at its feet. The parts where Eunice’s dress touches the chair are hot and damp.
‘I wish my mother was here,’ she says.
‘Do you? Why?’ says the man.
‘She liked places like this. Everything nice.’
As a child, Eunice was not nice. She was clumsy, she knew that, and got sick too easily. Her mother had no patience for little girls curled up with headaches and fevers. Bodily fluids revolted her. She would haul Eunice out of bed, make her tidy the house, then clip Eunice across the back of the head when she was so fluffy-headed she couldn’t move her fingers properly. When Eunice was seven, a stray cat bit her, left two neat tooth marks in her arm. She knew her mother would be angry, and the wound was ugly-looking, so she took to wearing long-sleeved blouses. She thought it would heal in the dark but the pain got worse, a burning itch. She would slip behind the tank stand and press her arm against the cool metal. She felt soothed in the space between the house and the tank, where the tree frogs, dark green from the winter, gathered in the curl of corrugated iron. Her mother noticed eventually. She sat down next to Eunice at the dinner table and sniffed. She picked up Eunice’s hand – still holding a fork, steamed broccoli skewered on the prongs – and sniffed her fingers, her wrist. She turned back the cloth of Eunice’s sleeve and found the bite, festering now, the two pinpricks swallowed up in the swollen skin. Her mother asked the doctor to come to them, in the days when they still did house visits, so no-one would see them at the surgery. She knew the secretary was a gossip, would have it all round Townsville that she’d neglected her daughter.
The waitress brings out a plate of sandwiches, pale white triangles gummed with a pink paste – salmon, Eunice thinks. She realises she’s hungry but is careful to eat in small bites. She keeps her eyes on the man, who is looking out at the courts where a pair has set up, started a match.
‘What a shot,’ he says but Eunice has missed it.
She puts her hands on her stomach, feels the prickle as the material of her dress begins to dry.
A man climbs the ladder to the umpire’s chair and calls to the players and they position themselves on the lines. The server jogs the ball, flings it up suddenly and hits. The shot skids past the receiver’s racquet.
William turns to her, grinning. ‘Did you see it, Eunice?’
She smiles; she doesn’t understand the game but likes his expression, the upward movement of his ears when he grins, mouth half-open. He puts his hand on her knee and jiggles it. He leaves his hand when he turns back to the court. Eunice turns clammy. She spreads her fingers under the table, feels a piece of wood come off beneath them. She moves the wood into her vision underneath the tablecloth, finds it chewed through and rotten. White bodies crawl over the surface, plunge back into the cavities laced through the grain.
She puts her hand under the table again, feels another piece crumble into her fingers. She lifts the cloth, finds a black mass of rot, luminous fungi growing in a smear, the whole bottom writhing with wet bodies. She shifts the piece of wood between her hands, feels the sandwiches heavy in her stomach.
She lets the tablecloth fall and stands up quickly.
‘Where are you going?’ says the man.
She thinks of the mould back in the caravan too, beginning to bloom underneath the bond wood, lifting up the panels, rotting them from the inside out, and then of Simon returning to a caravan half-eaten away. What he’ll do to her then.
‘I need to go,’ she says.
She flops her hand, directionless. She feels silly, panicky.
‘I’ll drive you,’ he says. ‘Just let me finish my tea.’
He takes her wrist and she lets him.
‘See? You’re almost dry,’ he says.
He leads her outside and up a flight of stairs made of the same cement as those at the pool, wet from the spray of the waterfall. She brushes her hand over a fern that curls up its leaves at her touch. They walk under a metal archway, the words ‘Paronella Park’ made out in metal, scooped above them. He holds her hand.
He drives a Holden, cream, fronted with a grilled fender. Mud has splattered upwards on the mudguards, which puff out wide above the wheels. William wipes it off with his handkerchief.
‘Not that it’ll make much difference,’ he says.
In the driver’s seat he has the stance of a grey hound, shoulders up, too much white in the eye. Once they’re clear of the Park’s lawns, he cups his hand over her thigh, drives one-handed.
They turn a corner and Eunice sees a yellow bulldozer parked on the side of the road, panics, but can’t see anyone there. Closer up, she doesn’t think it’s Simon’s. She doesn’t recognise the registration.
‘It’ll be better once the highway’s finished,’ William says. ‘Open up the whole area.’
‘Yes,’ Eunice says.
Simon let her drive the bulldozer once, before he proposed to her. He took her to where the machines were parked, fenced in with mesh. Simon rolled the mesh aside, held it for her as she slipped through. She was terrified when he started the machine up, its engine so loud in the night. She was scared the police would come and she’d be arrested. With her mother dead, there would be no-one to come and get her, to make sure she was safe. But when she took the wheel and Simon moved his hands away, she felt the rumbling power of the machine, the winding out of the caterpillar treads, and she thought for a moment that things would be okay with him, this man who was strong enough to hold this machine. Now, in the car, with the bulldozer already hidden by the forest, Eunice thinks she might make it back to Townsville before they sell her mother’s house.