My Sister, My Own

 

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The Letter

Norm had grumbled in, last night, late again. Sullen again. She’d stood back not knowing how to react, what to say, if she should say anything at all.

He’d just used be Norm. Her Norm. Now, in the last few years, he’d become Norm the Storm. A quiet rustle of leaves at first, the storm had grown momentum, day after aching day. First, just bluster. Then silence. Then complaint. Then silence. The stop-start tempest had grown. A few leaves blown about. Then fine sand in her face. And, lately, the rocks had started to fly. The really did hurt.

Last night it was back to the silence. Quiet before the storm, she knew. She desperately tried to remember the good things they used to do, to remember the happy Norm. These memories had cheered her in the past but the gathering storm had blanketed her once-happy landscape with a growing layer of grit. She couldn’t remember any more.

At times, when he’d sneak money from the bank account, be caught where he said he wasn’t, be with someone he should be with, he became Norm the Worm. Her dwindling list of friends knew more than she did of his activities and their reports on him dwindled, it seemed, as his worming ways increased.

Other times he was Norm the Gorm, when he did the stupid things. Illogical things like telling her who not to talk to. Like checking on her movements. Like asking about her petrol usage. Didn’t he have better things to do with his time, she always wondered.

So it was Storm, Worm or Gorm. No longer just normal Norm.

And the alcohol. He’d always liked a drink after work. That was fine. But … well, she couldn’t explain it. It was like it now seeped out of his pores. A constant fug of fumes that no longer disappeared after a wash and teeth-cleaning. It nearly drowned out the stink of deceit. She didn’t know the secrets he held but knew they were there. Knew they were growing.

So she went to the lounge while he ate his reheated dinner, yelling out, “So ya don’t wanna’ talk to me then?”

She then sat at the table, waiting for a conversation that didn’t happen. Head down in his roast, he ignored her. Like a stupid school-boy game, she thought. He’d gone to bed alone and, an hour later, demanded she join him. With the alcohol wearing off, he might be in the mood for sex, she faintly hoped but, as usual for the past year, he rolled away and snored till the sun got itself up.

She made his breakfast and the snores had become grunts. No conversation.

She showed him yesterday’s mail and he flipped through it, grunting.

“There’s one from the bank,” she said, hoping to find out what had happened to their money. Her money. He pocketed that one, threw the rest in the bin and stomped off with the lunch she’d made for him. No thank you. Just, “Another day at the salt mines,” and he was gone.

So, when the envelope arrived he grunted, biffed it in the bin and went back out to work.

When he had disappeared with Grumpy, his Australian terrier and best friend, Christine fished it out of the rubbish and went to open it.

She looked out the kitchen window, furtively, knowing Norm was long gone but not trusting to chance. His dog was gone and there was no sign of either of them. She opened the back door to be sure they’d left and realised her heart was pounding loudly, like it was knocking to get out of her chest. She stopped and took some calming breaths and wondered what her anxiety was about – Norm’s possible reaction or the possibilities in the envelope? Both were just possibilities, unknowns, yet some part of her psyche knew the future. There seemed to be an inner knowing, some little excitement brewing in her gut, that the envelope would bring her just what she wanted, whatever that was. Whatever was in that envelope, however – a million dollars or whatever – she wasn’t prepared to risk Norm’s moods. She’d had enough black eyes and bruised ribs for a lifetime. She wasn’t having any more. She couldn’t bear it. It was bad enough being stuck in this stifling house all day, except for groceries and necessities … this stinking hot dump of a house in this stinking hot dump of a town in the middle of nowhere, the middle of hot, dusty nowhere. She’d had it with them all. They’d never believe it if she told them how he treated her. He was everyone’s mate in this nowhere town, the good bloke everyone liked who saved up all his niceness for others and his frustrations for her.

She blinked and shook her head, bringing herself back from the brink of anger and the smothering inertia that had kept her in this useless existence, fifteen miles from town and ten to the nearest neighbour.

She quickly looked past the sagging verandah to the red dirt distance and Norm was nowhere in sight. She shut the door with a sigh and thought, “Damn it!”

She switched on the jug and got out the coffee plunger and special coffee that Norm didn’t know about. This envelope might be something or nothing, opportunity or disappointment, but she might as well make a wee ceremony of it. Delayed gratification. She got out her Tim Tams, the chocolate biscuits Norm reckoned were a waste of money and didn’t know about and put on that calming meditation CD he didn’t know about. She sat and stared at the envelope. Then opened it.

She couldn’t decide if the letterhead was from a government department or some company. It was just a Queensland Post Office box number. Maybe she should have known better but desperation clouds our vision.

Dear Sir,

As a valued member of your community, we’d like to invite you to benefit from the windfall of a major and anonymous benefactor. A man of immense wealth, who wishes to remain out of the public gaze, is intent on giving back to those who support their own communities in various ways.

Many have helped this man to billionaire status and he is determined to give to those who would benefit and give benefit, as he has and does.

The money, currently held in a bank account in Papua New Guinea – a country in need of financial resources – and simply requires your request and authority to have it released to you or your nominees.

The release from overseas, to your Australian bank account, requires legal documentation and you simply need to nominate the amount you require, send us 1% of that to cover legal fees and the money will be in your account within fourteen working days.

More details were included, along with testimonials from famous people she’d never heard of.

She read the letter several times, enjoying the beauty of the unaccustomed words, the musical flow of the phrases. She sipped her coffee slowly, determined to prolong the pleasure. The Tim Tams began to melt in the heat so she popped them back in the freezer, behind the steak, and took out one at a time.

Yes, a part of her doubted the whole thing as a charade but the large, hungering part of her, needing escape and drama, fell for it eagerly.

She hatched a plan and filled the afternoon and half a notebook with it. Open a bank account – not at the only bank in town, where she and Norm banked but at the Post Office. It had to be a long term plan as Norm kept a close watch on the money she spent. She’d sneak a little money in there each week – just a few dollars – until she had fifty dollars to send off and get five thousand back … enough to get away and live on while she got her new life in order. £5,000! She licked her lips and smiled as she savoured the scent of that magic sum.

The next day was grocery day and she stood outside the Post Office, her heart beating and her courage failing her. She walked away, berated herself and walked back, faltering just long enough to turn away again. The Post Master popped his head out, looked at her quizzically, about to ask if he could help. She dashed inside before either of them could utter a word. She opened an account, saying it was to squirrel away money for a secret trip she was planning for their twentieth wedding anniversary. The Post Master nodded and smiled. She was unsure if he believed her. Too late. It was done now.

She couldn’t take any more time or Norm might notice her absence. She rushed home and sat at the table panting and looking furtively out the window. Norm was too far away to notice the dust from the car arriving back later than usual but she never knew if he might turn up unexpectedly. She hurried to prepare his dinner while planning her next move. She had a bank account with a pound in it. A pound from saving on a few luxuries he didn’t know about. What next?

The next week she deposited two dollars into the account while the Post Master, kind man that he seemed to be, smiled benignly at her. Or was he smiling knowingly? He was so helpful and it was nice to be near a man who didn’t smell of sweat, cigarettes and alcohol.

The next week the Post Master appeared at her side as she was writing out her deposit slip and asked, “Are you alright, Doreen? You look pale and shaky.”

The quiet voice in her ear startled her. She leapt up, bumped into him and promptly sat down again, heavily.

“Oh dear, I’m so sorry. I scared you,” he said. “My name’s Edward and please ask if you need any help.”

“Sorry, I’d just realised the time and my sister will be arriving soon,” she said, trying not to look as flustered as she felt. Norm had forbade her family ever visiting and her quick excuse clicked into a long-held desire. She completed the deposit slip, gave it to him with a two pound note and dashed out.

She’d been on high alert and as nervous as a rabbit in a dog run since the letter had arrived. Each day seemed to be worse than the last but, somehow, she felt more alive than she had been in ten years.

Thankfully, Norm came in late and a little drunk most nights that week and he didn’t seem to notice anything. It terrified her that she’d set something in motion – something forbidden – that she didn’t want to back out of and that she couldn’t predict the consequences of. But she was alive. The heat, dust and captivity didn’t bother her now and she found herself counting through her clothes, throwing out those she didn’t need and making mental piles of those she did, imagining them fitting in her battered suitcases.

The next week she took a petrol can from the garage and had it filled up and secreted back at home as her adrenalin climbed to a new level. Norm kept the car near empty so she couldn’t go far. Another week and another can of petrol. Another week and a few more dollars deposited. Weeks went by with little extra errands each week, as directed by her note book plan. Her adrenalin climbed but she just couldn’t bring herself to stop, to back out. It became a drug, an obsession, risking Norm’s discovery and meeting the nice chap at the Post Office.

In fact, she often wondered what was the most alluring part – the desire for freedom, risking Norm’s wrath or the Post Master. None of it made any sense but she felt impelled to keep at it.

It didn’t take long for her savings to mount up. Sneaky amounts from the grocery money and cash that Norm left behind in his trousers, when she washed them, soon turned into thirty seven dollars. After fifteen short weeks – well, one week was as long as ever, usually but, now she had a plan, the weeks had become shorter – she realised her target was possible. She could escape! Norm has stopped yelling at her and had stopped the violence, for some reason. His mind seemed to be somewhere else. When he did come home for dinner, he was sullen and thoughtful, barely saying much at all.

It was another flat day in this grim house but Doreen was unable to feel the remorseless heat or the speechless boredom. She’d gone for so long without any real conversation – beyond the pointless remarks about the weather and the price of groceries – that she’d long since stopped talking to herself and the walls.

But now there was hope in the air. It bounced off the walls, played with her hair, made her smile about nothings and had her behaving irrationally. She found herself, one anonymous morning, braiding her hair and applying lipstick. It was as if her body knew she was going out; not to the usual grocery store or petrol station but to somewhere special. Nowhere special existed round here and she stood mid-swipe of lipstick and smiled stupidly at herself in the mirror. What did her body know that her mind didn’t?

The current fad, she heard on the radio, was that your body and life followed your mind – think happy and you have happiness and vice versa. But then some experts thought your moods were defined by what you ate – gut intelligence and all that – so maybe there was no chicken and egg, no before and after, and all our separate parts are just one.

My God, she thought, these were questions she’d chatted long and deep with friends over lattes and wines in that other life … the one before she fell for the selective charms of Norm the bushman, as her friends called him without humour or kindness. Maybe she should have listened to them instead of bucking their expectations and wanting to be noticed for being a rebel. Well, she didn’t get noticed at all in this bleak back-water without water. This depressing thought quickly evaporated as she looked up at her half-coloured lips. Trying not to smile, she finished the face-painting and then smiled broadly, letting hope bubble up from nowhere for nothing, while realising she’d have to remove it all before Norm returned for dinner … if he did return for dinner.

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The Visitor

Then a strange sight caught her eye. She turned to see a plume of dust headed her way, kicked up by a green car, not Norm’s white ute. She watched in wonder as it bore down on her. It was so long since she’d seen a strange vehicle out here and she twisted her fingers together, tighter and tighter as if to hold an uncontrollable world in place. If it was a mate of Norm’s, she should wipe off her makeup but, by the time she decided not to, there wasn’t time to remove it anyway.

A familiar figure approached the door and she quickly realised it was Mr Rose, the Post Master.

She stumbled to the door, opened it and stared. Intelligent, welcoming words wouldn’t come. No words would come. She smiled crookedly, opening and shutting her mouth like a gasping trout. He did the same.

If it was a battle of the embarrassments, it was a dead heat. She waved him in, wondering what he was here for. Wondering what she should do next. Wondering if she was safe from Norm’s wrath. If either of them were.

“It’s hot in here but at least it’s out of the sun,” she finally uttered, waving him inside.

“Yes … aah … thanks,” he said, removing his Akubra hat. She tried to shut the door but he hadn’t come far enough in and blocked it. He stumbled back and stepped forward as she swung the door in random and unhelpful sweeps. He finally stood inside the slammed door with the look of a man with a grave message he’d just forgotten.

She offered him a cup of tea and led off to the kitchen without waiting for his uncertain mumble.

“Look, I’m not sure I should be here …” he started saying as he pulled a chair out.

“Well you are,” she said with more sharpness and less humour than she intended.

“Yes, yes, I am aren’t I.”

She fumbled with cups and biscuits as she waited for him to finish. He stood there about to sit but not finishing the job.

“Look, sit down, collect your thoughts and I’ll whip up a banquet of Tim Tams,” she said, trying to smile through her nervousness.

He sat while she made tea amid a fog of nervously unsaid words.

“So, start from the start and finish at the end,” she suggested as they each wiped their brows and gathered their crockery around them, like battlements to hide behind.

“Yes … well … aah …”

“You already said that,” she said, attempting a chuckle. It sounded like a hag’s cackle. She really was out of practice with this social discourse, she mused.

“Of course,” he said grimly as his nose dived towards the teacup. God, he’s more embarrassed than I am, she thought. But he had the courage to drive out here. That must count for something.

“Sorry, I meant that as a joke,” she said, trying out a chuckle again, more successfully this time.

“Okay,” he said, looking up with defiance. “I probably shouldn’t be here. You know, interfering.”

“But you are. Why?” she said, trying to hide her growing irritation.

“I am, yes,” he said indistinctly. “Yes, I was concerned that you were upset the other day, weeks ago, and I had a strange persistent feeling you needed help with that bank account.”

“Mmm,” she said, wondering where this was headed. Wondering if she should confess all. He seemed so caring, so concerned and his honest blue eyes spoke of nervous naivety and consideration.

“Um, I don’t see you around town, except once a week to pick up groceries and I … well … I wondered if you, you know, need any help.”

“I’m beyond help, I’m afraid,” she said, batting his concern away with a vicious swipe of humour. She immediately regretted her recalcitrant mouth. She realised he had been watching her, spying on her, and should have felt spooked but, weirdly, she felt comforted by his attention. It had been a long time since anyone had noticed her.

“Just someone to talk to. Bounce ideas off, unless Norm’s helpful for that.”

Crikey, she thought, he knows Norm well.

“Look, I’m not sure what you’re suggesting but I really appreciate you coming way out here,” she said, determined to squelch any rising humour. “But Norm’s not going to be happy you’re here if he finds out.”

“Oh dear, I’m sorry,” he said, scraping the chair back. “Should I go?”

“He won’t be back for at least four hours so sit back down …” she said, unable to finish the sentence that was clamouring to escape her mouth. She couldn’t just blurt it all out, could she? Not to a complete stranger … well, a relative stranger … no matter how kind and trustworthy he seemed to be. But, God, she really wanted to tell someone. Anyone, really.

“Whatever it is, I promise not to breathe a word to anyone,” he said and his words fell clear and cool across her heart. They caressed her face and, despite any misgivings, she knew she couldn’t hold her story back any longer. She told him, start to finish and he listened without interruptions, without judging and a wave of kindness washed her soul as her story unfolded from her tongue in this hot and dreary kitchen – looking for opportunities, the letter, the reason for the bank account, the deceit with Norm. But not her need to escape. Not her escape plans.

As she finished she saw he was looking down at something fascinating in his empty teacup while he fiddled with the handle. His face was contorting weirdly and she realised she’d done the wrong thing in confessing her sins. Wrong time. Wrong person. She fought the rising nausea, knowing she couldn’t push her words back down, knowing she couldn’t control his actions now, knowing she had nowhere to go. How stupid, backing herself into hell with no friends to bring her back. She was trapped.

He finally looked up and a stupid smile crept along his face. Then a chuckle. Then he burst into laughter, leaning back in his chair, shaking his head and clutching his stomach. All she could do was wait in the fog of her confusion.

“I’m sorry, Doreen. I’m really sorry,” he said, shaking his head as he regained control. “I’m not laughing at you. I’m just … gosh, what a story. What a cheek! What a coincidence. This is amazing. It really is!”

“It is?” she asked, feeling lighter but still confused.

“Look, some people will say you’re doing a stupid thing,” he said, still trying to get his big grin under control. “But I’m guessing you’re desperate and, at the same time, very creative. Probably not the best idea but, what the heck, maybe worth a try. I won’t tell a soul, I promise.”

“Thanks and I feel so much better now I’ve told you,” she said. “Lighter. Cleaner.”

“Yes, we’re as sick as our secrets.”

She realised he was on her side and felt like hugging him as relief swam through her veins.

“I mean, it might not work but … can I ask? What’s the coincidence? Is it about you?” she asked, looking round the room and out the window. No sign of Norm.

“Yes, it’s about me. Similar story to yours, I suspect,” he said, hesitantly.

She wondered how much more she should say and knowing, somehow, she didn’t have to explain a thing. He seemed to guess what no one else in this decrepit town couldn’t and her heart leaned into the feeling of support that gave her.

“You tell me yours and I’ll tell you mine,” she said, hoping her humour was better placed than last time. She realised how sore her jaw was when she let it relax. And her shoulders. And her hips. And her whole damned life. She felt like collapsing into something cool and deep. And not coming out again. Ever.

She let her head collapse into her arms, spread on the table, and heard a distant chair scraping and then a gentle hand on her shoulder, a butterfly’s whisper. She should have raised her head but needed to savour the moment just a while longer.

“Are you alright, Doreen?” the butterfly asked and it was sweet to hear her own name, the name her husband seemed to have lost somewhere in the bush. Or the pub. The whispering touch moved across her back and she lifted her head, reluctantly.

“Alright? Probably not,” she said. “But peaceful? Yes. First time in ages.” The wings of the butterfly flitted back to her shoulder as he scraped out the chair next to her and sat, his scent of wood and cut grass wafting by.

She knew his name from the label on his desk but the many times they’d met had been a s moth to a light bulb – he quiet and steady and she flitting, anxious, nervy, looking out for Norm’s bellowing intrusion. She’d not had time to ask him questions – just deposit each small, forbidden amount and then dash home. The lack of a wedding ring didn’t mean he was single but she suspected he was. She knew nothing of his history, his interests, his dreams or his nightmares. She didn’t need to. She just felt right in his presence. She could relax and the furtive weekly meetings were as much about a three-minute haven of peace in a week of boredom and nervousness as they were about setting herself up for escape and survival.

Sand here he was, in her house, and it felt like he belonged, that they belonged. Strangely, in this moment, romance didn’t come into it. It just felt like he was someone she’d always known, a kind brother, father and friend all rolled into one.

She felt a foreverness about his presence but knew there’d be no forever today. He’d have to go soon. But the inevitable forever flowed around her like a warm, sudsy bath.

And, all the while, knowing without saying, the pulling apart of their separate lives would bring something else together. It didn’t need to be said but she knew she should give it voice.

“For the record, I’m single. And your change?” he asked tentatively as his hand reached across the table, stopping just short of hers; the only clean, manicured hands she’d seen in a long time. A very long time. Her chipped nails remained where they were, afraid any movement might take her where she wanted to go.

“Not entirely sure,” she said, unable to look into those deep blue eyes lest she drowned in their concern. “Well, I know what I want change from but not what to change to. What about you?”

“Same, really. I’ve put in a transfer request and am happy to go north to Alice Springs, south to Adelaide … anywhere, really.”

“You don’t like it here?” she asked, curious. “So why did you come?”

“Aah, I was sick of the city, the hypocrisy, the loneliness and I had the romantic notion there’d be more community, more connection here. And that I could make a difference bringing people together, somehow. It seemed logical at the time but … aah, I don’t know. I feel like I’ve gone backwards.”

“Backwards?”

“Yes, more loneliness, more hypocrisy, more back stabbing, more abuse, more cover up …”

“Really?” she asked, wide eyed. “I envied those in town. They all had friends, shared jokes and had a contentment I never had out here. I’ve had enough loneliness and hypocrisy in this dump and I envied all of you.”

“Nothing to envy at all,” he said and she realised her fingers had grown a will of their own. They were resting gently on his, fingertips on fingertips like butterflies shyly flirting. “The town’s in this bubble of indifference, everyone tiptoeing around pretending nothing’s wrong and, whatever it is, hoping it will just go away if they smile and look the other way.”

“And I come in and prick the bubble every week,” she said, unsure what she meant.

“You might dent it but it’ll take more than that to burst it. I mean, everyone’s in on it – the publican, the storeman, the drivers, the cop …”

“The policeman?” she asked, shocked, as her fingers gripped his.

“Look, I don’t know what it is but I do know your Norm doesn’t earn all his money erecting fences.”

“What?” she asked as her bubble wobbled, ready to burst. She felt faint. She needed action to steady herself. “I need a coffee.” She rose to make it and her legs turned to mud. He was there, quick as a snake bite, holding her as she faltered. She batted him off, her arms disobeying her heart as shock commandeered her body.

“I’m … I’m sorry,” he said, his arms by his side.

“Sorry, sorry, I’m not pushing you away, I don’t think. Pushing reality away, probably. Give me a minute.”

He sat as she fussed over coffee and tried to force reality back into the bubble she’d built for it. It wouldn’t fit. It bloody wouldn’t fit. She fumbled the milk, spilt some and then wished he’d come to her rescue. He didn’t.

She looked through her blurry eyes to see he was wiping his.

“Christ, after seven years drought in this forsaken dump, there’s still water to spill, huh?” she said, placing the coffee mugs down.

“Pardon?” he asked.

“You. Me. Crying.”

“Oh, yes, sorry …”

“Don’t you ever apologise for crying. Okay?”

Aah, yes,” he said, uncertainly, wiping again.

“I’ve had a belly full of dry, hard men pretending they’re tough and they’re just frightened.”

“Frightened?”

“Frightened to be honest. Frightened to admit they’re lost. Frightened to cry. So they cry out with their fists rather than look in with their honesty and frailty. I wish they’d all just crack up and bugger off!”

He stared at her for an uncertain moment and then a smile crept across his face. It grew to a quiet laugh of relief then to the laugh of a school boy who’s put a worm on his unsuspecting teacher’s chair. Uncontrolled. The more he stifled it with his hands, the more it exploded, filling the room with effusive silliness … filling her with mirth for no good reason but that mirth was good.

Eventually they wiped their eyes and sat back limply, giggling stupidly at each other.

“Damn, I needed that,” she said. “I haven’t laughed in years. I haven’t cried in years. I thought I’d cried myself out in the first five years here and had nothing left. A dried up leaf being trampled to dust. But I’m back!”

“We both are,” he said, his square, clean hand landing squarely on hers. “The dried up petals opening to their own rain.”

“Have your coffee and I don’t care if you don’t like coffee, or my coffee. Have it and tell me what I’ve been missing out on in town,” she said defiantly. “If I’m to make changes, I need to know which way to go. Where the obstacles are. What’s the safest, cleanest way to go.”

“Sorry, but, to be honest, I don’t know what they’re up to,” he said, suddenly serious. “I see trucks through the town at night. Big trucks. And strangers popping in and locals greeting them like they’re mates. And whispered, cut-off conversations and frightened eyes. I know something’s happening and no one’s talking. Could be to do with the military base up the road. Could be anything.”

“And no one’s speaking up? Not even to the law?”

“Especially not the law. I know the bastard’s … ooh, sorry, I don’t usually swear.”

“Bastard’s fine, Edward. Get on with your story,” she said, impatiently.

“Yes, well, I know he beats his wife and has affairs with others. Not sure if they want to have affairs with him, if you know my meaning.”

“And on it goes.”

“Yes, on it goes. You can’t turn to the law for help – everyone knows that – so the bullies come out, the rest are scared and the screw turns down. The more we pretend it’s okay, the less okay it becomes. There’s secret meetings in the Post Office back room and I’m supposed to turn away. Pretend they’re not there. There’s funny smells and I think they’re smoking opium, drugs or something. Pub’s open later than is legal. Fights going on all hours of the night and often it’s your Norm pummelling someone round the back. I see some giving him money for it. The good bloke who everyone likes and, if you don’t, you make out you do. And a lot of the town’s strangers have American accents which is why I think it’s related to the military base at Pine Gap. I don’t know – it’s just so creepy and I’d love to get to the bottom of it but there’s no one to ask and it’s probably bottomless anyway.”

“And all this was going on and I didn’t know a thing! Nothing at all. I thought I was hard done by out here!” An uncertain silence crept into the room and neither knew what to say next. The story had become so big neither could get their mouths around it. Or their heads around the next move. Then the grey mist of indecision parted into its separate black and white components.

“Okay, we first decide if we’re in or we’re out,” she said, eventually. “We either get to the bottom of it, get to the truth, or we run and leave them to it.”

“Just remember, Doreen, they’re as stupid as Tasmanian devils …”

“Tasmanian devils? Australia’s favourite critters? You can’t call them stupid, not in polite company, anyway,” she said, smiling.

“They’re stupid, Doreen,” he said, evenly. “They snuggle up together during the day, all cuddly like and then, at night, they find food and lose all control. Snarling and biting each other on the mouth, sometimes causing viscous injuries and guaranteeing the spread of every disease round the pack. Round the whole population. And these people are like that; pretending to be buddies and passing on their vileness when the spoils of fear are offered. Do we risk being infected?”

“We keep talking about we, Edward,” she said slowly, dragging reluctant words before her. “Are we in this together, whatever it is?”

“I’d like to think so. I really would,” he said, uncertainly.

“Oh, Edward, give us a hug and let’s work out how to get the hell out of here. Sooner the better.”

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The Return

As their chairs scraped back and they lurched into each other’s arms, she heard the door squeak. Her heart chilled. Their bodies froze in near-clinch and she looked around. All her new hopes dropped and shattered on the dusty floor.

“Weren’t expectin’ me, huh?” sneered Norm, his blood-flushed eyes glaring triumphantly out from under the battered brim of his Akubra hat like a cop catching a thief after tedious weeks of staking him out. His stubble did nothing to disguise his snarl and he did nothing to disguise the double-barrelled shotgun casually dangling from his arm, as if he might soon look down and wonder how it got there.

“Youse thought ya safe, huh?” he said, his quiet menace more threatening than any wild rage ever was. “Snoopin’ round our meetings, spying at night, Mister Know Nothing Postman? Yeah, we bin snoopin’ on you, see. Communist lover, red under our beds, Aboriginal rights. A bloody stirrer come snoopin’ in our town and now you wanna’ take our women.”

“Oh, Norm, he knows nothing and nor do I,” she said with a sigh. “I just can’t live chained up here like this. I can’t do it.”

“Well ya bloody have to, now,” Norn snarled. “Ya know what’s goin’ on and ya don’t get out.”

“Look, Norm, I don’t know anything at all,” said Edward, fumbling with her hand. Then she realised he was pushing keys into it as he sneezed. She grasped them knowing, somehow, they were a clue to her escape. To their escape, to their survival. “Yes. I’ve seen these secret meetings, secret beatings, trucks at night. Other stuff. But I have no idea what it’s about. I’d love to but I don’t. I really don’t.”

“Maybe, maybe not, but we can’t take chances,” said Norm, shifting the shotgun up a little.

“Actually, I bet you know nothing either, Norm,” she said, knowing he couldn’t resist a challenge. “The bully boy following orders.”

“You think I know nothing …”

“I know you know nothing,” she said as she slipped the keys into her pocket, hoping to delay him.

“Look, bitch, if you knew what I knew, you’d shit ya self.”

“See, you can’t tell me anything because you know nothing.”

“Heh, ya think I know nuttin’ about the Abos getting’ uppity about their rights and wantin’ to stop mining on ‘their’ land,” he said, leaning back against the door frame; the master of information about to give his captive audience a lecture, she knew. “Their land? Their bloody land? Christ, they’ve never done nuttin’ with it and there’s untold prosperity in it. Mor’n you can ever dream. Shit, all these big farmers think they doin’ okay but the government’s got other ideas.”

“Government?” asked Edward. “What’s the government …”

She squeezed his hand, knowing dares worked better with Norm than questions.

“He knows nothing about government or anything, Edward,” she said, sitting down. Edward sat too and she squeezed his shaking hand again.

“I know nothing?” demanded Norm, fishing tobacco and lighter from his pocket and rolling a smoke. “Jeez girl, an’ it’s not even the Aussie government runnin’ things. The Yanks got all our politicians wrapped up. Pay ‘em to shut up, lotsa’ benefits to go along with the shit. Shares in mining and drug companies then force everyone to take the drugs and immunisations and what not. So there’s more sales of drugs, good profits, good pay-outs and the population goes quiet, dumbed down. Drugged stupid.”

“You’re making this up, Norm,” she taunted, desperate to learn more as the sickening reality sank in. Desperate, too, to delay while she thought of a way out.

Norm puffed expansively on his smoke like he was the Professor Norm, Knower-Of-All, about to educate the stupid masses. Doreen looked quickly at Edward, putting her finger to her mouth to quieten him while Norm looked down to put his tobacco back in his pocket. Her crooked smile was meant to reassure Edward but he still looked like he’d been spooked by the ghost of Lucifer.

“Makin’ this up? You think I’m makin’ this up, ya silly bitch!” he said, spitting the words out like they were acid on his tongue. “You think I know nothing about the black beer …”

“Black beer?” spluttered Edward. “What’s that?”

“You don’t know about that?” Norm asked, obviously surprised. “Hell, everyone knows about that.”

“I don’t,” said Edward, meekly.

“Maybe you don’t know as much as we thought but, hell, it’s the stuff they sell to Abos, the beer they fill with fluoride. You know, the stuff the Russians fed their prisoners of war on, in the water, to keep them placid. Compliant.”

“Fluoride?” asked Edward, looking quickly at Doreen as she squeezed hard on his hand. She wished she could silence him but his naivety was his undoing. “In beer?”

“Just the black beer. Not the stuff we drink. So, when they stop bein’ pissed from alcohol they stay placid. Useless buggers layin’ about in the Todd River and other places, botherin’ no one with wingeing ‘bout their land rights an’ shit.”

“But you can’t do that …”

“Too latey matey,” said Norm, smiling smugly while drawing on his smoke.

“But you don’t know anything about the Yanks, really, do you,” she challenged.

“Na, sister, I know nuttin’ about weird poisons they bringing in and the machinery to make, like, hovercraft things to poison the water an’ the cattle. Some even say they spray the sky … whataya call them … chemical trails, yeah, chem trails, tryin’ out on controllin’ the weather, make droughts so the farmers all piss off an’ sprayin’ above towns and cities with all sorts of poisons like fluoride and stuff. It just goes on …”

“But you don’t really know any of this, Norm, not really,” she challenged. “Just overheard conversations.”

“Look, bitch, I know enough to be dangerous and you’re both getting’ that way, too,” he said, straightening up, squeezing the cigarette butt between his fingers and tossing it out the door. “Anyway, I got a job to do with Mister Ladeda Edward Postman so up ya get, we’ve got stuff to do.”

Edward stared at Norm as if he was nailed to the chair; paralysed and wide-eyed.

“Get moving I said!” shouted Norm, his white anger turning to red.

“You’ve got to go, Edward,” said Doreen, knowing there was no reasoning with Norm – knowing that resistance was worse than compliance – now that he had the belching fire in his eyes and the shotgun pointed steadily at them. She scrabbled round in her mussed up mind for a delaying tactic, a diversion, and found none. She stared at Edward, willing him to look back and see her mouthing go slow, go slow.

Norm stormed across the kitchen floor, belted Edward in the face and he collapsed on the floor, blood oozing from his nose or mouth or both. Doreen screeched and felt a back-hander across the side of her head. She flew from her seat and slammed against the wall, immobile.

Her eyes were blurry and she blinked and rubbed them to clarity and realised she’d lost a moment of life in a blackout as she saw that Norm was disappearing out the door, Edward’s thick hair in his hands as Edward stumbled then fell down the three steps. As she groped her way up the wall she heard a thump and a curse. Probably Edward being kicked upright again, just as she had been on countless times before.

“Get in ya fuckin’ car!” yelled Norm and Doreen realised the Red Ogre, as she called it, had woken and taken Norm over. He was out of control, now, and the only way to stop him was to drop him. She rushed into the spare bedroom and saw his two rifles were gone from the gun rack. He must have been planning this, she thought, and wondered how long she’d been watched. She looked out the window and Edward was on the ground, again, with Norm rifling through his pockets.

“I don’t know where the keys are,” Edward pleaded. “They must have fallen out somewhere …”

“Ya useless shit!” yelled Norm, dragging Edward up by the shirt front and hauling him over to Norm’s utility vehicle. As Edward stumbled into the vehicle, Norm stomped round to the passenger seat, yelling. Then Edward stalled twice and puttered off indecisively.

Doreen’s ice-cold logic cut in and she threw everything in the freezer and fridge into bags and then rushed to the bedroom to pack the two cases she’d done dozens of times in her mind over the last two weeks. Her checklist ticked itself off in no particular order – passport, panties, purse, shoes, address book, Post Office bankbook, hat, dresses, pants – until the list was smaller than her fear. As she rushed out the door with the first of her bags she saw the distant dust plume of Norm’s vehicle disappearing over the brow of the hill. She didn’t know if she was looking after herself, after Edward or what she was doing, really. She just knew she had to get out and wouldn’t be back. Edward’s green Zephyr 6 looked like it’d stand a longer trip than her rusty old crate. She assumed one of the keys was for his car and loaded it without checking. She hopped in and then remembered the two petrol cans she’d been storing away. God knows how much petrol was in Edward’s car and only He knew how long she’d be driving for. She risked the extra few minutes of backing to the shed and loading the petrol, hoping she wouldn’t see a returning plume of dust. Ever again.

When there’s only one way out of hell, you take it, praying the devil’s not coming the other way. As she crested the rise a strange thing happened. Splots of water landed on the windscreen. Big splots of water. Then they stopped. The wipers hadn’t needed to work for seven years and she couldn’t find the lever for them, immediately, so focussed was she on the red road ahead.

As she sped and rattled along the dusty track she happened to glance down the valley to the right, to the dried-up river that drew its arid, snaking line along its distant crease. In the distance was Norm’s ute and two men. Norm must have made Edward drive off the road through the scattered bush to the small clearing below. Tempting fate and losing precious time, she screeched to a halt and the universe closed its vicious jaws around her heart as she saw what was happening. Edward was digging and Norm was standing guard; a bizarre and surreal Western movie she couldn’t believe was real. She couldn’t take her eyes off the two men – one probably gloating and the other terrified – too far away to see their faces. Through the fog of disbelief she desperately tried to think of a plan. With too much time – just how long does it take to dig a grave? – and no implements or ideas, she watched in paralysed horror as her one chance of freedom, of gentleness and, who knows, of love, dug itself to death.

She remembered the accident, as a twelve-year-old school girl, on the front seat of the bus with Megan, her best friend. A mother was yelling at her child in a Mini, driving from their right. Unaware of the looming bus, the mother failed to stop at the Give Way sign and disappeared under the bus as metal and road screeched and groaned and scraped against each other. Though it had taken less than a minute – maybe only a few seconds – time swamped itself with paralysis and seemed to go for hours while the girls found themselves unable to scream, unable to react, unable to help or stop the inevitable calamity. The bodies were eventually cut free; the mother dead and the child too badly injured to even scream. The child apparently survived and Doreen always wondered what effect that had on the child’s brain and on its life.

Then a strange and parallel universe unveiled itself, as if time was enfolding on itself, repeating chord sequences in another key; Edward the mother, Norm the child. One to die, one to carry the scars. Death seemed so impersonal, so implacably calm and she knew that, later, her emotions would fire up. But not now. Not today, not for some time.

Though Doreen found she could speak about the accident before Megan could, it took both girls some weeks before they could look each other in the eye, as if they were afraid to look at their guilty reflections and claim responsibility for not stopping the bulldozer of fate. The heartless train of time had thundered through their lives, leaving them stranded and wondering beside the tracks while everyone else carried on as if no train existed, as if no gaping rip was left in the fabric of their lives. Though they had each other to share the healing, it was weeks before they could start to mention it in stolen snatches of conversation. Probably months before their young minds could absorb the enormity of that stolen, tiny minute and the massive ripping it caused; a ripping so long unrepaired.

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The Stranger

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The Prodigal

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The Husband

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The Prisoner

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The Eviction

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The School Friend

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