Through all his years away, when Robbie remembered his country he thought first of the white summer sun that seemed to light the land from within, sucking out all green and leaving only grey and brown and gold. He thought of his grandmother and her rose-petal perfume, and the sun striking the wooden kitchen floorboards in the House of Many Promises. And he thought of a horse screaming.
Apart from his grandmother, and Jonathon of course, Ella was the only person who knew the story of the horse.
‘Tell me something that is only about you,’ she said sometime in their first year together. ‘Not a country, not a war, not a woman, not a politician, not a scandal. Something that is only you. A once-upon-a-time story.’
Robbie had left the bed and walked over to the window. The curtains were open to let in the light of the stars and the moon, which were only the ghostliest glow under the fog of the city’s fumes. There was the smell of the sea and diesel and garlic frying somewhere and the scent from the giant ginger flowers Ella had bought two days earlier from a street stall. The big bedroom of the borrowed apartment, with only the massive bed and their bags and computers on the floor, seemed to float above the world. Robbie looked at the play of the night lights and the soundless shifting of the South China Sea far below. He understood what Ella was asking.
‘Okay,’ he said. ‘Once upon a time, when I was a little boy, perhaps eight, no, nine, I had a horse, a pony really, small, all black. I called him Timmy. I just loved that horse. I really did. You know, the way you love something when you’re a child, like it’s the whole world.’
He kept his back to her and she lay on her side on the bed, tangled sheet around her ankles, listening.
‘One day my father held one of his long lunches. It seemed endless, like they always did. I can’t remember who was there. My stepmother, the neighbours, maybe some of Dad’s business mates from Sydney. Everyone got very drunk. I stayed in my room for most of the afternoon but I could hear their voices getting louder and louder, the music getting louder. I remember someone dropped a bottle of wine or beer. Anyway, my father was the drunkest of them all, as usual. He decided it would be hilarious to take Timmy out for a ride. I remember him shouting for me, telling me to saddle up the horse and bring him to the front of the house. What could I do? I knew it was crazy, but it was never worth arguing with my father when he was drunk.’
Robbie drew in a deep breath and then sighed. There was the slightest breeze, sticky and warm, through the window. He remembered his father standing in the doorway of the kitchen, blocking out the light, leaning against the frame to stay upright. He remembered walking through the dry grass to the back paddock to get Timmy, blinking through his tears, taking the small cracked saddle from the bench in the open shed that served as a stable of sorts, wood bleached grey by the sun. He could smell again Timmy’s warm neck, damp and sweet in the heat. He could smell eucalyptus and dry grasses and the hot wind from the west that whipped the dust. He saw his own little boy hands, brown, nails bitten, shaking and slick with angry tears, pulling the girth strap as tight as he could, letting down the stirrups, all the time telling Timmy to be brave, be strong, get through it. Most of all he remembered Timmy’s mute dark eyes.
Robbie turned around to look at Ella. From the sea far below a ship’s horn sounded.
‘My father climbed onto Timmy. It took him three goes. He couldn’t even get his foot in the stirrup, he just kept kicking at Timmy’s flank, and the first time he managed to get on he just slid over the other side. Timmy was stepping back and then forward, trying to edge away, ears way back. I was holding the chin strap, just whispering to him, telling him everything would be okay. I couldn’t watch what my father was doing. I could hear him grunting and laughing and I could smell him, sour beer and wine. Finally he got on and stayed on. People cheered and clapped and there he was, this huge man sitting on little Timmy, swaying, laughing his head off. I could see Timmy roll his eyes back and try to settle the weight on his front legs. My father kicked him and Timmy tried to rear up but he couldn’t, so he set off at a trot down the driveway, my father pulling too tight on the reins just to stay on. And then Timmy collapsed. One of his front legs snapped straight through. I saw it, saw Timmy buckle, then straighten, then the bone and the blood through the skin, and then he fell. Have you ever heard a horse scream, Ella? It’s horrible, just horrible. My father was fine, the bastard. He lay on the ground laughing. And Timmy was on the ground too, shaking, foaming at the mouth. He’d try and pull himself up and then he’d scream again and sink back.’
Robbie remembered Timmy’s eyes rolled back in fear and pain, soft black lips bared, the grey-white bone sticking through the flesh and blood, and his father like a whale beached on dust, belly shaking with laughter, face florid, dribble on his chin, the gasps of the other adults suddenly sobering up. He remembered he had taken off the bridle, gently easing the bit from the hay-smelling froth and foam around Timmy’s lips.
‘Get away. Get out of here,’ Robbie had screamed over and over at his father, and finally someone had helped his father up and led him away, and someone else had said they would call the vet.
Robbie was left in the dust with Timmy, and he stayed by him, waving the flies from the blood, and cried as he had never cried before or since, whispering constantly through heaving sobs he’d felt even then were breaking his own body and heart in ways that would never quite mend, ‘I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry’.
Ella sat silently on the bed, watching him. Robbie looked at his hands, as if perhaps they held the end of the story and then at Ella as she shifted her heavy hair from her shoulders. ‘And then?’ she had asked, gently.
Robbie sighed and shook his head. ‘I waited with Timmy until the vet came and put him down. It must have been a couple of hours. I don’t remember anything except the smell of him and holding his neck, stroking him, and saying sorry over and over, just trying to calm him while we waited. I wouldn’t let anyone near. I told them all to fuck off. It was the vet who held me in the end, after he gave Timmy a needle. He was a young guy. He had some kind of weird birthmark on his cheek, and incredibly blue eyes. Jonathon was his name. He took me into the kitchen and sat me down and held me while I cried and cried. I could see the disgust on his face, the way he looked at everyone and all the empty bottles and the mess on the stove and the benches, the way he switched off the music.’
He smiled and shrugged. Enough, he had wanted to say. Enough. ‘And then?’ Ella asked again.
‘I went to live with my grandmother after that. It was actually the vet who called her. He made me pack a bag and he took me home with him for the night. I don’t think anyone even tried to stop him. We had to leave Timmy lying in the driveway and Jonathon promised me he’d come back and take care of him. I remember he reached over and took my hand when he said that and held it tight. Anyway, he called my grandmother and I guess they had a long talk. It was about an eight-hour drive to where she lived, still lives, and he took me halfway the next day. We stopped by a river and ate peanut butter sandwiches for lunch while we waited for her. His wife tried to be so kind that night I stayed with them. I remember she cooked me sausages and mashed potato for dinner, and she kept patting my shoulder. I tried to eat, but I felt so sick and I wanted Timmy back.’
Ella threw the sheet off and went to him. She took his hands and smiled and kissed his fingers. ‘So,’ she said softly, so softly he had to lean into her and the smell of her light peppery sweat. ‘Well then. This is why I ask for stories, my love. They help me to understand.’ She ran a finger over his lips.
Robbie looked down and then past her to his travel bag in the corner. He sighed. Ella would return home to Switzerland tomorrow and he would head to Cairo. Then where? The Africas again, probably. That was the panic of the month; the world tilting crazily from one food war to the next. More weeks and weeks of travel, of not seeing Ella.
There was the lonely bellow of a horn from another ship. The whole world is lonely, he suddenly thought, lonelier than it has ever been.
Ella leaned against him. ‘Come to bed. There are still ten hours before we have to leave. Come and rest.’
When he finally fell asleep, head against her back, he dreamed of bones and light: bleached bones falling through white light; the grey broken bone pushing through Timmy’s skin, wet with blood and veins and muscle; a horse’s skull crying tears in moonlight; the crack of bone upon bone, body thrown upon body, in a grave that stretched to the centre of the world.
** This except is published by Hachette Australia. If you'd like to purchase the book, move your curser mid-bottom page to click through on the Buy link.
The inaugural winner of The Richell Prize for Emerging Writers.
Conjuring a dark future for Australia, Closing Down gives us a glimpse into a world fractured by a financial crisis and the effects of global climate change. This is extraordinary and timely debut novel from a compelling new Australian voice.
What would you do if all you held to be familiar was lost?
Australia's rural towns and communities are closing down, much of Australia is being sold to overseas interests, states and countries and regions are being realigned worldwide.
Town matriarch Granna Adams, her grandson Roberto, the lonely and thoughtful Clare - all try in their own way to hold on to their sense of self, even as the world around them fractures.
The past is long gone. The question now is: do they have a future?
'a disturbingly good read' - Marie Claire
'a polished, accomplished, imaginative novel' - Sydney Morning Herald
Sally Abbott is a former journalist and a PR Director who lives in Central Victoria with her partner. She was the inaugural winner of The Richell Prize for Emerging Writers in 2015. Closing Down is her first novel.