Authors: Glenda Guest
Glenda Guest grew up in the wheatbelt of Western Australia, and that landscape still influences her writing. Since leaving the west, she has lived in cities and country towns in Victoria, New South Wales, the Australian Capital Territory and south-east Queensland, all experiences that add to the richness that writers draw on for their fiction. She is currently living in the Blue Mountains, enjoying being a âmountain-woman'.
Glenda has had stories and poetry published in various anthologies and journals, and has been invited to contribute to experimental group writing. Chapters from the novel
have been published in the journal
Coastlines Cultural Magazine
, which is a joint Australian-Indonesian venture, and the online magazine
. She has had support from artsACT, the arts support organisation of the Australian Capital Territory, for time-out at Varuna, in Katoomba, where the first draft of the novel was written. Glenda works as a freelance writer, reviewer and editor, and teaches occasionally at Macquarie and Griffith Gold Coast universities.
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted by any person or entity, including internet search engines or retailers, in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including printing, photocopying (except under the statutory exceptions provisions of the Australian
Copyright Act 1968
), recording, scanning or by any information storage and retrieval system without the prior written permission of Random House Australia. Any unauthorised distribution or use of this text may be a direct infringement of the author's and publisher's rights and those responsible may be liable in law accordingly.
ePub ISBN 9781742743608
Kindle ISBN 9781742743615
A Vintage book
Published by Random House Australia Pty Ltd
Level 3, 100 Pacific Highway, North Sydney NSW 2060
First published by Vintage in 2009
Copyright Â© Glenda Guest 2009
The moral right of the author has been asserted.
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted by any person or entity, including internet search engines or retailers, in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying (except under the statutory exceptions provisions of the
Australian Copyright Act 1968
), recording, scanning or by any information storage and retrieval system without the prior written permission of Random House Australia.
Addresses for companies within the Random House Group can be found at
National Library of Australia
ISBN 978 1 74166 640 3 (pbk).
Cover design by Sandy Cull, gogogingko
For my family, Colin, ZoÃ« and Michael,
who thought this was the never-ending story.
The day of the week that Macha came home became a source of contention, with some saying Saturday and others saying Wednesday. Someone even suggested a Sunday, but everyone knew better than that as there are no trains on a Sunday. What was generally agreed on, however, was that, unlike many who went to that war, Macha Connor came home.
WHEN THE TRAIN REACHED THE TOP OF ITS CLIMB
Macha threw the jacket out the window, where it caught in a tree at the side of the track. There it hung like a khaki ghost. At the one and only river crossing the shirt, tie, belt, trousers and underpants landed on the dry river-bed, looking for all the world like abandoned body parts as they spread across the grey sand and rocks.
The train pushed on slowly all that day and into the night, until it arrived at the small tin shed and water tower that was the junction between northern and eastern lines. There the driver uncoupled the engine, which steamed away to the north leaving behind the wheat bins, goods carriages, and the passenger dog-box.
There was no moon this night, and no sound. Not a dingo howl nor a soft cough of kangaroo, and the dry inland night was undisturbed by the wings or cries of night birds. Macha stayed at the window sighting up at the angle of stars she knew as the Southern Cross, trying to match the rifle's cross-hairs with the dead light of five
stars as they made a slow and icily glittering cartwheel in the sky.
The return of daylight saw Macha still kneeling at the window watching past the horizon, the rifle loosely cradled in one arm and the other warming across her naked belly. During the night another engine had arrived on the eastern line, and the train bumped and groaned before it settled into a long, slow rock on rails that ran as straight as a die for a hundred miles.
At the beginning of the plains the animals started. A giant red kangaroo lay against the fence beside the track. A little further on there was another, with two emus and a wombat all in a heap, then more, and more. The fence held them back, the piles of dead animals with pelt and flesh diminishing into strips and scraps that would blow across the flat paddocks and roll into fur-balls, to catch on the strand of barbed wire. The telegraph wire, drooped between leaning poles, sagged under the weight of dying birds with glazed yellow eyes, watching the train pass. From the crossbars of the poles, bats with wings folded in penitence hung like black pears rotting from the frost, dropping, as they died, with a dull smack onto the parched ground.
Macha watched the bones appear, protruding from the mass of bodies like white shoots from damp earth. She raised the rifle to a naked shoulder and sighted the familiar cross-hairs at the mass of fur and feathers.
, she said softly.
And so she stayed at the window until the train stopped at the siding before the town of Siddon Rock.
Feeling the steadiness beneath her, Macha stepped down. When the train moved on suddenly, leaving her standing in the powdery dirt, she marched along the centre of the narrow road that ran next to the railway track, towards Siddon Rock.
The town was quiet at this time between close of business and tea-time. There had been a small crowd waiting under the welcoming banner when the train arrived at five o'clock. They were perplexed and a little annoyed to find the small passenger carriage at the rear of the goods van was empty, and now they had gone home or to the pub.
The banner was draped across Wickton Street, the main street of Siddon Rock, anchored between the war memorial and the eaves of the Farmers' Co-op.
Welcome home Mach
, it said, and between
was a likeness of Winston Churchill, recognisable by the large cigar held between vee-d fingers. The painted smile was not quite right, and there was a disturbing suggestion of a sneer in the crescent of red paint. It was this that Macha blew apart as she entered the town.
Ever since that day, people in the town remember that when Macha came home she walked into town as naked as the day she was born, except for well-worn and shining boots, a dusty slouch hat, and the .303 rifle she held across her waist.
It was the shot, they said, that disturbed the rock and set off strange vibrations. The bullet tore through Churchill's
face, hit the silo at the far end of Wickton Street, ricocheted off the rock from which the town took its name, and in its dying fall struck a glancing blow at the three-faced clock in the war memorial obelisk. The story goes that the hands of the clock-face in the centre spun madly and finally came to rest together, holding each other up, so to speak, pointing to the number twelve â even though the other two clock-faces showed it was just after six-thirty.
The sound of the shot shattered the dense inland twilight, that time when the world is muffled between the clarity of day and the dark softness of night. The white cockatoos that had settled in the pepper trees of the station-yard erupted upwards with banshee screeches, throwing themselves indignantly around the war memorial and tangling in the damaged banner. Up they swarmed above the town, a squarking, squalling gang bullying its way through the fluttery brown wrens, willy wagtails and sparrows. Up they soared, up and up again, a fractured, clamouring ghost spiralling into the greying sky above the town.
It's God's-eye view here. A little further up, another circle of the spiral, the edge of the world will appear. But here is enough; no need for more. Look one way and see the darkening heart of the inland; look the other way and there is the pink reflection of the setting sun on the horizon. Below is the brown land, the skin of the earth. Near the town, paddocks make a subdued mosaic: the ochre of neatly ploughed furrows contrasts with the pale stubble of last
year's harvest. Dark patches of uncleared bush appear too raw and threatening against the neatness of the farmlands. The salt lakes spreading across the southern ends of the farms of Young George Aberline and Brigid Connor glitter pinkly in the last rays of the sun.
Directly below is a pile of rocks that from here looks like a handful of dropped stones. The locals call this pile the rock. At the border of the town and the rock a tall wheat silo stands, a stone finger to the sky. The small grid of streets that form the township of Siddon Rock runs into the tracks winding through and around the rock, tying each to the other in a mobile sort of way. The railway track is a stitching of neat needle-marks across the land, coming from where you cannot see, and disappearing into the dark of encroaching night.
It's quiet now. The cockatoos have formed into a silent wheeling pattern, waiting to return to their pepper trees.
In a few moments Abe Simmons will start the town electricity generator, and the hospital and the pub will light up like twin beacons. Marge Redall jokes regularly that the town will always be here, clustered around those two places. People need the hospital to heal broken bodies, she says, and the pub to tend to broken minds. But where the hotel kitchen is bustling in preparation for evening meals, the kitchen of the hospital will stay dark, as Old Nell has well and truly finished for the day â she's dried the tea-time dishes, hung the tea-towel on the rail in front of the fireplace and walked out the door. Now she's heading to the path that will take her home over the rock.
At the pub Marge, Bluey Redall and Kelpie Crush work the bar for the larger than normal crowd of drinkers. Kelpie moves quickly and quietly among the tables collecting glasses, emptying ashtrays, generally rounding up the rubbish. The bar is dusky with smoke, from cigarettes and from the fire that Peter Mather has put a match to. He's possessive of the fire, is Peter. Bluey Redall allows Peter to think of it as his, as he does of the chair next to it where he sits every night, summer or winter.
The town settles, turning on lights and pulling curtains, putting up the barricades against the encroaching night. At 16 Whistler's Way, Gloria Aberline lights the ready-set fire in the lounge-room grate. The kerosene-soaked lighters catch easily and the reflected flames dance a bizarre rhythm on unshaded window-glass. Next door her friend and only confidante, Martha Hinks, pours herself a sherry â sweet â and opens the local newspaper at the kitchen table. In the house by the railway station Mister Placer, who likes his evening meal early, shakes out a table napkin and waits for his wife Mary to bring the plates. Siggy Butow, in the manse opposite the Methodist church, is checking the boxes delivered from the Farmers' Co-op that morning, rummaging â that's the word Siggy uses, ârummaging' â around for ingredients to make a meal. He'd have more choice, if he shopped for himself.
Doctor Allen opens the door of the surgery attached to his home near the hospital. He ushers out Mrs Abe Simmons and the door shuts behind them with a tired sigh.
Doctor Allen holds her arm as they walk the few steps to the street.
The baby's doing well, you know
, he says.
Just make sure you rest with your legs up during the day.
Mrs Simmons turns towards the power station, and Doctor Allen heads to the comfort of the pub and two fingers of scotch whisky. He never takes any more, in case he's needed during the night. As he passes the school he calls to Harry Best, who bookmarks where he's at in Ovid's
, and joins his friend. Harry is in no rush to go home; he always looks forward to their conversations.
In the last house on the last street before the town turns to farmland Maureen Mather struggles to get off her bed. The cockatoos' shrieks disturbed her from her aspirin-induced doze, and she has woken sweating and trembling.
, she calls thickly.
I'm coming. Just gotta get awake first.
She is still in her nightmare of broken bodies and minds in a makeshift tent-hospital, and her patients need her; but her legs are not cooperating as she reaches for the wheelchair at the side of her bed.
Way over, hidden from the town by the bulk of the rock, Sybil Barber's house at the edge of the lake is dark. Sybil is still at Barber's Butchery & Bakery scrubbing the blocks and counter ready for the next day. Sybil's shop is the only one showing light as Albey Carey the pharmacist and the Farmers' Co-op both close at five-thirty sharp. At Meakins' Haberdashery and Ladies & Men's Apparel, Alistair Meakins stands in the recess of the entrance where his black suit â which, the town ladies whisper, makes him look like an undertaker â blends with the shadows.
In the darkening silence the cockatoos drop back to their roost in the pepper trees in the station-yard, and the town appears to settle into its normal night.
Alistair was a mathematical type of person: he liked rows of figures and neatly tidied shelves; his daily records of sales were immaculate and his ledger was a wonder of precision. Ladies' shoes were always easily to hand, arranged strictly in their code numbers and half sizes with the front of the boxes just touching the shelf edge. The messy items of haberdashery, such as lace and elastic, buttons and hooks-and-eyes, were stored in shelves of glass-fronted drawers so they were neat and tidy, but also easily seen by Alistair's customers.
Alistair saw the world as intersecting lines and spaces. His window display often had a background of ribbon lattice in suitable colours, usually bright yellows and greens for spring, russets and gold for autumn displays and cool blues for winter. He rarely used summer colours, saying to his customers,
Summer is a blast from hell without red blaring into the street, to make us feel worse.