This piece appeared in the 2017 edition of Antithesis. Many thanks to Georgia Coldebella for her incisive editing. The author retains copyright.
The bus is sick with the stench of unaired bodies. Thick-soled, black work shoes lumping fungus on fetid feet. Sweaty darkness lined heel to toe. Front to back. We boom past decrepit spray-painted suburbs. Tired heads rock in silhouette. Depressing skyline smearing to an unfocussed nothing.
The bus: to the city it daily casts me. Hauls me up nightly, spent.
The door crushes open. The driver grunts. I walk the route I’ve walked a thousand times before.
I hear Sam and a woman in the kitchen of our house. Their voices funnel out a broken window. Strange. Sam didn’t tell me we had a visitor. We haven’t had a girl over in a long time. Not in the longest time.
‘Water’s not free,’ Sam says as I push through the front door. ‘It’s one of two things. Twisted by a gorge or riverbanks, forced this way, that way. Otherwise it’s trapped. Then it might as well be dead, pinned down between mountains.’
I hang my jacket beside the hanging ivy. Take my cap off and throw it away into the leaf-whispering lounge room.
‘But, eventually,’ says the strange woman, ‘it all escapes. Out to sea.’ Her voice is low, uninterrupted.
‘No. Not really escape to the sea. Seas are just a store of rivers.’
Down the nocturne passage I slide my socked feet. Pausing at the fern fringe of the kitchen door. Peering in.
They’re sitting in near dark.
Two faces beneath the towering wooden shelves with its flowing, off-kilter bric-a-brac. Pale shapes barely rescued by the lamp flickering, no more powerful than a candle under its spider’s web shade. On the table between them lies an overturned glass. Ocean spreads out from its mouth, out over the mouldering wood. Sam uses his hands to block the advance. Left. Right. Top. Bottom.
The woman stares, expressionless.
Cautiously I enter the room.
‘Paul! You have returned! Welcome Paul.’ Sam doesn’t look up from his table top game. ‘Sally and I. We were just discussing water problems.’ He waves a wet hand towards the sink. ‘Plumbing shit itself again.’
His dark glasses ripple the light into golden bands.
The woman nods at me. ‘Hi Paul. I’m Sally.’
I smile and say something.
I imagine her working at the office next to my kitchen. Quietly working. At work I bet she supresses that shiny black-brown mane. Hides it in a ponytail or some sort.
‘I just moved in,’ Sally adds. ‘For a few days.’
Sam nods agreement. The silence seems cosy between them.
So we have a visitor for a few days.
‘Well. I’m off to the drum,’ I say. I need to bathe away the bus. And think of other good things to say in company. We don’t get so much.
Sally’s eyebrows lift.
‘We use the drum when the plumbing goes.’
‘How often does it go?’
‘Whene’er the Plumbing God sayeth,’ Sam mutters.
‘Least twice a week.’
I switch on the porch light. No porch light; force of habit.
Step into the backyard.
The drum is just visible through the moonlit, swaying green. An old tin circle haloed in the night, heavy-set and wide, a stone Aztec altar. Red rust sculpted on the rim.
We stole the drum from the tip about three days into our first standoff with the schizophrenic water pipes.
I sort of like it when the plumbing dies.
The tree tangle eats the overpass noise. Only the silent stars left, and me. Breathing out gentle mist.
I strip off my shirt and pants, hurl my socks into the nearest sinkhole. Naked.
Feels like I’m the only person left in the world. A nimbus cloud glides over the moon’s face. She winks at me in slow motion.
I pull myself up on the edge of the drum and test the ripples. Cold. Not unbearably so. I slide into the echoing water. The larvae floating on the surface shift, and then embrace me.
* * *
At least, I think.
A morning not long since I arrived here with Sam and Paul. All the clocks are broken and my phone battery died. Time spreads without a counter.
Sam and I take our breakfast onto the backyard porch. Paul’s gone in to work at his vague job in the city. I breathe in and listen to the vague growl of the motorway. Copper-black clouds frame its concrete spine as it looms over house rooves. The atmosphere hangs on my face like damp, heavy paper.
‘I like this old house,’ I say to Sam.
He looks at me, I think. He’s yet to take those stupid glasses off.
‘Me too.’ He flicks specks of egg at the ant columns marching relentlessly along the weatherboard. Reinforcements headed for the clay citadel in the study. Sam showed me where they wage war against the wasps that live in the rafters. Their little deaths are imperceptible to the human ear. Every morning, I find mixed insect husks piled five deep on the attic stairs. From such total slaughter only the spiders win. Bulldozing away empty shells, making obsessive piles, feasting on remains.
‘It’s uninhabitable,’ he says. ‘That’s the attraction.’
I bite down on a crust slapped raw with vegemite.
We chew in peace.
‘Was that what drew you?’ he asks, swallowing. ‘The desolation?’
‘Yeah. I guess it was.’ Maybe that’s what it was.
‘Echoes of primitive? Unruly nature? The great unknown?’
‘All those; close enough to freedom without getting hurt.’
‘What do you want that for?’
The flyscreen screeches unexpectedly, its ragged claw holes winking in an impulsive breeze. I try to remember how I felt when I saw this place from out in the street.
‘Well I want to—hope to—write a book.’
‘It doesn’t really matter. A good book.’
He nods. Nods again, turns to me and smiles, lifts his Ray Bans and looks at me for the first time with mismatched eyes—one grey, one blue. I imagined he had nicer eyes.
‘I get it. We’re similar. And Paul, too, of course.’
‘Not many people want this.’
He waves his hand, encompassing it all.
‘It’s a bad way of living, out here.’ He covers his eyes again, studies my expression, and then looks away. ‘Yeah. But it’s right if you’re near underneath. Looking for a new floor.’ He nods and puts his plate on the bottom porch step as if to demonstrate. Ants crest over it and wash it clean.
‘Close enough to freedom without getting hurt,’ he echoes me.
A snail slicks along the porch, unaware of the storm clouds.
The sky continues to gather. I watch from the porch, under incandescent light that seems to emanate from the entire sky all at once.
Later, the power goes out. There’s still no rain to break the building heat.
Then Sam leaves me.
Somehow I assumed he never left the house.
‘I need freedom—liberty—for a day or two,’ he says, as if that explains it. His feet are waiting outside, his torso wedged back through the front door. ‘Maybe three.’ He sounds tired.
I don’t ask where he’s going.
His broken, faded car—who knew he had a car? Who knew this place had a garage, in the mangrove round the side?
His broken, faded car chugs down the street.
I’m left alone. Proper alone.
In the darkening house I shuffle some scrawled notes on a sheaf of pages that I’m going to, somehow, alchemise into a book. Shouldn’t be too hard. I find a beer in the bathroom.
I try for a while then put down the pencil. Can’t write this. Somewhere upstairs a clock is ticking. I can’t write them, my new companions. I don’t have a story to write and these two are ready-made characters. If I were tough enough I would write this all up as a tragedy, or a comedy. But the house is too close even though they aren’t.
In an uncharacteristic fit of guilt I attack some of the dishes on the counter. Finish those, and move onto the plates mounded in mouldering foothills along the wall, out onto the porch.
One slips through my sodden fingers and smashes. An ant column bears the fragments away. Battlements. The idea seizes me; I grab more plates and break them. More battlements. The spiders needn’t win. Build the walls high, little soldiers.
Feet shaking a little, ears fluttering, I retreat to the table, elated and edgy. Proper alone. I hide my scribbled pages. The sky glares, orange, through the empty windowpane.
Tomorrow maybe I’ll just leave.
Find another story to write. Or go back to my old life; admit this is just one of those things, an avoidance tactic for avoiding the need to start again.
I wish Paul would come back.
* * *
Now the bareness of the way Sally and I talk is obvious. All the spaces he would’ve filled gape empty. The kitchen doesn’t help. Along with the thunderheads outside it’s a dour, terse colour. Sweat slides vertebrae to vertebrae.
The moon shimmers metallic crimson.
Sally rolls her fork round inside her can of baked beans. We’re eating one each, cold, at the kitchen table. Expecting lightening.
‘I was a lawyer,’ she says. ‘Okay, paralegal. But I was studying for the bar.’
Cold beans sit in the stomach badly. I tried putting food cans on the fire the first time the power went. They exploded. A nuclear smell still haunts the backyard when the wind turns suddenly.
‘I hate office work.’
She puts the spoon in her mouth. Pulls it out slow. ‘All the lawyers and the folders full of papers. No one ever reads all those papers. Stupid clock on your desk while you collate folders. You punch on your hours? Yeah, they actually have those little clocks.’
Better—but only barely better—than listening to the attic trapping and playing with the wind. The attic is a sadistic freak with what it does to the wind.
The heat is becoming a hostage situation. No water. Plumbing’s gone again. Thinking ‘bout the cool embrace of the drum. Her t-shirt is gone. Replaced with a singlet top.
‘Why move in here?’ I ask.
‘I’m not sure, really. Really don’t like my apartment. So much effort keeping it—presentable—you know? And no-one ever comes over.’
Bean juice isn’t water. I suck it and try pretending it is.
‘Why’d you move in, then?’ she asks me.
I think back. ‘Found this place, must’ve been, the last little part of uni.’
Uni feels like years ago.
‘Can’t let it go?’
‘I did like uni.’
There’s more of the red stuff left but I throw the sloppy can in the overflowing bin. Remembering good times has eaten what appetite I managed to scrape together. I look at my hands on the table.
Well, there’s not much else to do.
‘Come on,’ I say, ‘I’ll show you something.’
‘Show me what?’
‘Something about living here.’ I catch her quick expression. ‘Nothing weird.’
The corridor presses us together.
I take her out back. Unlock the door with a key on my keychain. Sam has one too. This is the only door we bother to lock.
I turn the key, push. Pull the lichen apart.
Her breathing stops then resumes, a little faster than before.
This is our room.
Sam’s painting room. He likes red and black, orange and yellow. He calls them his visual voice.
My breaking room. Everything broken: all the windows, the wallpaper, overrun furniture. Everything except canvas, paint, brushes. My old high school baseball bat is propped neatly by the door. I pick it up and give it to her.
This is why it’s our house. I came here once, for this type of fun, and stayed.
‘Break whatever you want. Any thing. It’ll all be gone, soon, anyway.’
Someone wedged a demolition notice under the door. Sally’s not a renter. We aren’t. No one’s rented here in years.
Sally has a few swings at the wall.
I take the bat out of her uneven hands.
‘It’s okay. Gets easier.’
She wants to. This place attracts the particular types of people we are. This house that everyone else has forgotten, out here on the fringes where they stopped building. So deep in the mire that only the type of squatter that wants to metamorphose comes here. The ones that need filth and space to prepare for second chances, second lives, new places, new directions.
This is the compass center for space needers, a gift for people like us. The amenities are still hooked up somehow. We weeded the bills out of the midden and we paid them. Everything else, we take and break and use, as we will.
Sally and I go out into the lounge room.
To give her a rhythm, I shatter the light hanging over the volcanic debris of the coffee table. Nourishing crunch. Eggshells breaking.
Then I smash the old trophies on the shelf. The finch brood wakes and they screech joyfully in the hidey-holes in the sofa.
I hand her the bat again.
After a few minutes she gets a rhythm.
I leave her and climb to my room.
She carries on through the house, through the abandoned ecologies we never use, where we rarely tread. Foliage thrusts. Stray dogs mumble. Odd, unidentifiable paws scrabble as another squatter flees.
I lie on my bed and try reading a book. My adrenaline’s gone feral. The room spins. The words heave.
The sounds stop. Maybe she feels remorse. This was once a beautiful house; you can see its silhouette sometimes. Sometimes I feel that remorse. That what if? Deep, creaking silence.
Ragged breathing trickles up the stairs.
Feet pad on carpet.
My hairs stiffen.
She opens the door.
Bat still in hand, singlet torn and stuck to her skin with sap and sweat. My, my, Sally. You’re home here, even more than I could’ve guessed.
She drops the bat. Jumps on me on the bed. Her hair makes a tunnel between our faces. I grab her by the hips and throw her on the floor, then jump after her.
* * *
Night time. Still, like the day bustle will never resume.
When I was a little girl I wanted to be a painter. I kept wishing for that until high school, right up till first art class. Then I sat next to someone who could really paint. I snapped my brushes—a gift from grandma—when I got home that night. And it went from there.
I found a torch and exhumed the garage where Sam’s car lives. Stumbled on a trove of painting gear. Hidden away for the next person to find, a gift from an anonymous former resident.
I thought maybe there’d be a body back there, based on the possum shit smell. This isn’t a movie, though. Only dead cats and dust shrouds. I gave the possums strips of plastic cheese, and then they were amenable and let me rummage though the paints in peace.
I smear the house gold.
The coarse stone softens. The sun is still beneath this bit of the earth. But the bright yellow paint makes its own light.
‘The storm never came.’
His hoarse, deep voice is behind me.
He’s wearing shorts and thongs, a jumper from a different millennium. Holding a pile of old kindling in his arms with a box of matches balanced on top. Can’t think what to say. The toads answer for me in moist and rippling harmony.
I grab another handful of gold and add it to the first.
Last night, I went through the house with the bat until I couldn’t keep going. It was exhausting, the act of the breaking: contrary to everything I’ve ever been taught. But it was amazing, too. Reclamation, I think. When I couldn’t sleep I walked through every room, amazed, stepping on glass and fragments, looking at patterns in the damage I caused. I caused this. This is I.
I start using orange.
Watching him from the edge of my eye.
He is so young. In his own space, he had looked it. Lying on his bed reading Catcher in the Rye surrounded by the reclaimed shell of the life of an undergraduate, still in its packing boxes. What I could see of it was posters and unused textbooks and strange utensils and rumpled clothes: grimy and deliberately threadbare like him.
He looks at my mural and wades through the weeds over to the fire pit, sits down in one of a pair of broken folding chairs facing the mountain of ash. He slings the dead wood onto the slopes of the pyre and sets a fire in its black and white centre.
Then he leans back and stares at me.
‘This place’ll be a hole in the ground soon.’
I saw the demolition notices under the wild shoots in the decaying compost of letters beside the letterbox. I walked past it anyway, toting my knapsack. Knocked on the door.
I trace my finger in red.
This will be the sunrise.
This house needs one.
I want one.
The crown of the real sun is now peaking over the roof-tipped skyline. That belongs to other people, though.
‘We’ll be gone,’ says Paul. ‘Floated away. Other places. On to new spaces and new lives. New beginnings.’ He sounds deflated. The demolition will probably be good for him. Push him into whatever he’s afraid of.
I dab some mauve at the extremities. Us; this is us.
This sunrise will bruise the sky.
‘Where’s Sam?’ I ask.
‘He’ll come back when he feels worse.’
‘He lives with his parents. This place is his refresher, his home away.’
Smoke spirals out of the pyre. The flames catch an acid taint in the air. Sparks free themselves; metastasise in the understorey of wild plants.
Cartwheel into oblivion.
Paul puts the matches away and pulls out a book. He leans back in his chair. A stinging nettle tall as a person obscures his body.
I try balancing gold, orange, red.
‘What’ll happen to you two, after this place is gone?’
‘Maybe his work’s good enough. Maybe he doesn’t need places like this.’ Paul’s answer comes from somewhere in the jungle. ‘And I can’t live in places like this much longer. They’re all going down, sooner or later, for new apartments. Maybe I’ll find something I like before they’re all gone.’
‘All hoping for maybe, then.’
A sun rises.
For a moment, this is ours.
Feature photo: ‘Abandoned house’ by Krzysztof Dąbrowski. Used under creative commons without modification.