It was just Suzy and I, in the end, who drove down to Damboon on the Friday night. I picked her up after work in the big old navy-blue bogan-mobile station wagon I’d bought cheap off my uncle’s widow a couple of months before.
Heavily laden, we staggered down the garden path – the others were all now coming on Saturday instead, in the one car, and needed us to take some of their bags for them. Her house was a narrow Victorian terrace half-sunken into the ground, with faded Tibetan prayer flags above the door. Partway down the path, I got my sleeve caught on the thorny tentacle of a leggy, ancient rosebush. I wrenched myself free and stumbled. I would have backed up into the bush on the other side, but Suzy caught me.
‘Ta!’ I said.
Then I got stuck at the rusty gate.
‘Let Daddy do that,’ Suzy grinned and said. She shuffled past me, smelling like old-fashioned men’s cologne, with her leather jacket and her buzzed hair.
‘I think you should know,’ I said, ‘I don’t get along with Daddy.’
‘Daddy loves you, baby,’ she protested, winking. ‘You just let Daddy take care of you.’ She ushered me through the gate with a bow.
‘Oh, ho, ho!’ she hooted when she saw the car. ‘Bogan-mobile to the max!’
‘I told you.’
I had got breath-tested the other day, and the cop had looked at me – a woman in a cheesecloth dress with a pen in her hair – and said, ‘You are not who I expected to be driving this car.’
We put the bags in the back and got in.
Suzy threw her motorcycle boots up on the dashboard and said, ‘Well, fuck this holiday shit, let’s go down to Commercial Road and cruise for chicks.’
‘Hell yeah,’ I said, ‘I can put the back seat down and everything.’
I fired up the ignition. ‘Oh, baby!’ Suzy said.
‘Shit,’ I said, ‘someone’s parked behind me. I can’t manoeuvre this thing for shit. If I run into that car, you can’t tell anyone, alright?’
‘What are you going to do for me?’ she asked.
‘Not tell your girlfriend that you talk to me like this.’
Suzy clutched her chest like I’d shot her in the heart.
I was fizzing inside about this trip.
I had been living with my ex-girlfriend Steph and two of our friends when Steph told me she was seeing someone else. I left, and was thrown on the skids in a serious way, with nowhere to live and no money coming in, in the middle of summer when there was no sessional work going at the university. Now perhaps that time was coming to an end. First I had become a person who had a car. Now I was once again a person who could go on holidays.
Granted, the holidays were with people whose idea of a good time was talking in a circle about the difference in their experiences of faith between Buddhism and Christianity. Before I knew them all, Suzy’s housemates and my housemates had once been one giant household, which had been all-lesbian, all community service workers, and had kept chickens, shared all the cooking, and had house meetings every Sunday night to work out their issues. Then they’d been evicted from the very large house and had to split into two smaller ones. I had taken a room in one of the smaller ones less than a year ago; I was the only one who had come via an ad in the paper and had not known any of them before. My household had inherited the chickens, and we had the Sunday house meetings too, but they were usually about something I had done wrong, such as putting a half-full mouldy sauce bottle in the bin instead of washing it out and recycling it.
By contrast, most of my friends over the years had been people I’d met at the university while studying subjects like Power, pleasure and the body in Renaissance Florence. My sort of people nominally belonged to the same side of politics as my housemates, but mine were the sort who liked to get drunk on cheap wine and crack up at double entendres about phallocentrism. If one of my friends had ever said while eating a bowl of lentils, ‘I just really think you can feel the energy of the earth,’ as my Buddhist vegetarian housemate once had, it would have been a joke.
But I didn’t seem to have any of those friends anymore, so the housemates it was.
We were in sheep country that dipped and rose like a green quilted doona, when Suzy said, ‘Roo!’
I chanced a look. But my eye had gone straight to Suzy, to the soft light on the t-shirt fabric stretched over her left breast.
Admittedly, I had looked at that breast before.
I wasn’t so confident travelling at a hundred and ten that I could chance a second look away from the road. ‘Where was it?’
‘Over that way.’
I kept a watch on the black-green stands of bush along the fence-lines of the paddock. I could just imagine a dark shape detaching itself and streaking in front of the car.
It was just before sunset when we crested the hill above Damboon. A plain, low, post-war holiday town, upstaged by a great bolt of Prussian-blue sea with a froth of white lace at the hem. Great, black cypress pines marched in an even line down the main street, which ran along the foreshore.
In town we passed a pub, the light in the disc-shaped Carlton Draught sign beginning to twinkle in the twilight, then a fish ’n’ chip shop and a servo. Then we turned right into the residential streets.
The house was salmon-pink fibro cement, single-fronted with a peaked iron roof. Its yard was runner-grass with bald patches of ochre sand.
Car unloaded, we stood in front of the open door of the elderly, chrome-trimmed fridge and looked at the groceries we’d brought with us. This would be the moment when the evening took a sudden turn for the depressing. Suzy would want to cook something like my housemates liked: a purgatorial pile of vegetables topped with two teaspoons of grated cheese, shoved in a baking dish and called a casserole, or a vegetarian meatloaf made entirely of unseasoned lentils cooked to mush, L.S.A. mix and grated carrot. Something that bore its wilful ignorance – or perhaps refusal – of culinary art, its denial of pleasure in eating, as a badge of some sort of hippy, pseudo-Puritan honour.
‘Don’t suppose you want to go to the pub?’ Suzy said.
‘You’re a genius,’ I said.
On the beach, there was still a blue glow on the horizon between the black arrows of the cypress pines.
We passed beneath the trees onto the sand. I took my shoes and socks off and rolled up my jeans, while Suzy waited, serene in her high-zipped boots.
The breakers came in low and regular. I rushed to the water’s edge.
Further down the beach, the sand ended in dark shapes of rocks. Beyond that, the land was treed and rocky right down to the shore, ending in a distant point where lights illuminated parts of a wooden structure.
‘What’s out there?’ I said.
‘Dunno,’ Suzy said. ‘Too far to check it out tonight.’
‘Yeah, I know,’ I said. And then, ‘It looks like elves live there or something.’
Suzy smiled, hands in her pockets.
‘Or pirates. Or it’s where the ships come in from Avalon.’ I began to run in a circle around her, arms out like an aeroplane.
I wanted to do something explosive, something more than running around in a circle. But I couldn’t think what it should be.
I stretched my arms above my head and pretended to look out to sea.
A couple walking beneath the cypress pines were looking at me. I let my arms drop.
The pub was like the country-town pubs from when I was a kid: wood-panelled throughout with maroon carpet stamped black along traffic ways. Along the row of dull-brass beer taps sat local men in their high-visibility gear from the power plant over the hill. They were watching the TV over the bar, so uninterested in each other they might have been a family alone together in its private lounge room. For a long moment, when Suzy and I walked into the taproom, they reacted with almost the surprise of that family, if strangers had just let themselves in the front door.
If I’d known it was this much of a small-town pub, I might have tried to deflect Suzy from coming in. I had taken my hair down and put on some dangly earrings to come down here; I didn’t look like a local but at least I was a recognisable kind of woman. Suzy, on the other hand, might have been the only female person ever seen in this town who could have passed for one of the T-birds from Grease.
‘G’day,’ Suzy said, to the first of the row of rude stares. The whole row of them startled into brief, embarrassed animation.
‘G’day,’ the first bloke in the row returned. Some others nodded. Suzy sauntered though to the Ladies Lounge with me scuttling at her heels.
We were on our second pint by the time we finished dinner, when in walked two blokes from the taproom.
‘You ladies want a game?’ one of them said, gesturing at the pool table.
‘Aw yeah,’ Suzy said. ‘I’ll give it a go.’
The table was covered in a cloth. The two blokes put things to rights with an air of familiarity.
‘You blokes live here, do ya? You just lie down under the table and have a nice sleep at the end of the night, then get up in the morning and start again?’ Suzy mimed pulling a beer from a tap.
They laughed. The leader said, ‘I wish.’
They were big fellers: broad and thick around the middle, wearing navy-and-orange high-vis shirts, navy trousers and work boots. Lightly grubby all over. The leader was the ginger: Damian. The other was thicker-set, dark-haired: Chris.
We paired off for the game. Damian broke with an almighty crash, following through till there was more cue in front of his hand than behind.
‘There’s gonna be balls on the floor, later, is there?’ I heckled.
‘Balls on the floor,’ Damian parroted.
‘That’s a bit personal,’ his mate piped.
Each time either of them said anything funny, they would look at both of us for a reaction, then look at each other and twinkle, as if to say, Did you see what I did there?
Suzy shook her head.
‘Can I’ve a crack at this?’ I said to my partner, Chris.
‘Yeah, go for your life,’ he said.
‘Can’t resist some low-hanging fruit,’ I said, and dropped the ten ball in from where it teetered on the threadbare lip of the far centre pocket.
‘Aw!’ Damian hooted. ‘We’ve got a pool shark here.’
‘Aw, no, you’re not supposed to break it out till later!’ Suzy remonstrated with me. ‘When we’ve got ’em laying bets.’
‘Ha,’ I said. ‘Well, I’m going to miss this one.’ The only thing still out in the open was the eleven, back towards the centre of the table.
‘Nah, you’ll be right,’ Chris said.
‘Nah, I can never do these ones.’
‘Think positive,’ Chris said.
‘We can all think fifty-dollar notes are about to start falling from the ceiling if we want, but that doesn’t mean they will.’ I took the shot and missed, dribbling the eleven into a hopeless position flush against the cushion. ‘Where’s my money? You obviously weren’t thinking positive hard enough.’
‘You didn’t give me enough warning,’ Chris squawked. ‘You gotta get a run-up on these things!’
‘Alright, let’s try again.’ I made a face like I was taking a shit, and he copied me. ‘Is it working yet?’
‘I dunno,’ Chris said. ‘Keep going!’
In the background, Suzy was shunting balls away like they were on rails. ‘Are you lot right?’ she said, leaning over with one knee up on the cushion to take a shot. She potted the ball with a crack, and Damian hooted like a kid in a dodgem car.
‘We’re trying,’ I said witheringly, ‘to make money fall from the ceiling.’
‘Well, then,’ Suzy said, ‘carry on, by all means.’
Finally it was Chris’s shot. He surveyed the pickings.
‘So youse are from the city, are ya?’ Damian said.
There was a pause. Chris didn’t take his shot.
They could have been fighting words.
‘Yep,’ Suzy said. ‘I grew up in Newcastle. Came down here when I dropped out of school.’
‘I’m Melbourne-born and bred,’ I said. ‘You blokes always lived here?’
Later, when we were quite a bit drunker, Chris leaned over to me and said, ‘She’s, ah, not into blokes, I take it.’
‘You’d take it right,’ I said.
‘Is she your missus?’
‘Nah. She’s not my missus.’
‘Are you into blokes, then?’
‘Love ’em,’ I said, ‘for lunch, with a bit of tomato sauce.’
I watched him bending over the table to take his shot, ponderous and careful. There were traces of black at his orange collar like pencil rubbings. You imagined a building falling on him, and him emerging with a bit of dust in his eyelashes and an expression of mild consternation. No doubt he didn’t mind how other people sorted the recycling.
I could fuck him.
All he probably wanted was someone who’d make him wash his sheets and buy some proper coffee. He’d probably quite like showing off to his friends about what a smarty-pants I was. I could take him to Christmas, to drinks at work, and absolutely no one would be weird about it at all.
He sunk his shot with a sharp tock.
‘Score!’ his mate called.
When Suzy and I shouldered in the front door, Suzy said, ‘I’m going to turn in.’ The bathroom door closed behind her.
I had half been thinking we were on a kind of date, and this was just the next phase of it.
I went and sat on my bed with the door closed.
When I heard the bathroom door open and Suzy’s door close behind her, I got up and used the bathroom myself, then got ready for bed.
The bed sagged in the middle, and the sheets had gone transparent with age.
As I got sleepier, I lost the leash on my mind.
I imagined Suzy turning me over, pressing my face into the pillow. A mother cat controlling her kitten.
I dared to roll to my hands and knees.
I imagined somebody coming in and seeing me that way and instantly, violently threw myself onto my back again. The hairs on my arms had risen in shame.
I had thought about a place like this for a holiday house for Steph and me: a cheap family place that the owners had filled with their terrible brown seventies crockery and mismatched wooden salad servers with burn marks. It would become our place, the way Rest’s Creek was my parents’ place, the way they started all their stories with, One year, down at Rest’s… Once we were sure we liked it, we would get our friends to come down too, and then it would be everyone’s place.
But those friends weren’t my friends anymore; they were Steph’s. I suppose I could have made it up with some of them. There was a period there where I would tell myself I was just going to try calling someone. I would try to plan what I was going to say. But I couldn’t get far enough through the plan before I would start to cry. So I had stopped trying to do that. Now I just didn’t think about it at all.
I was awake again. The air was dark blue, too dim to make much out.
I shambled out of bed and pissed explosively in the rust-streaked toilet. On my way back, I saw Suzy’s door was standing open.
I went to the kitchen. The back door was open onto the dark.
Outside, she was leaning on the railing of the back porch, smoking in a singlet.
She carried her shoulders so square and still, in that masculine way – beautiful.
I went out to her. When she noticed me, she moved a smidgeon. I leant on the rail beside her.
She offered me her cigarette, whole hand curled around it. It was almost exactly how I remembered a high school boy trying to style himself as he hit on me. She sold it utterly.
When I did not take it, she turned her body towards me in question.
I was seeing it: her bra-less breast beneath the white singlet, lovely as a tear-drop.
Heat was crawling on my scalp.
‘Who’s going to know?’ she said, smoky-voiced.
She was looming over me, within a hand’s breath. Her face was a collection of shadows.
‘You would,’ I said. It was not a suave voice.
The shadows of her face emitted a huff of breath. I realised her hand was on my back.
‘Also, your girlfriend’s here in the morning,’ I said.
She recoiled. ‘So what? It’s just a ciggie.’ She strode off to the end of the railing. Only then did her silhouette say, ‘Settle down.’
‘You settle down,’ I said, and heard her gather breath for a retort.
I said, ‘I’m going back to bed,’ and left.
I was woken in the morning by Suzy’s two housemates barging in to leave their bags – now that more people had arrived, they would be taking this room while I, a single person, got booted to the bunk room. People were crashing around and calling to each other in the house.
The bathroom was occupied, so I went to the kitchen. All the seats were taken by either people or bags. My housemates were all there, unpacking things.
‘Hello, you,’ one said. ‘We’ve invaded!’
‘You sure have!’ I said, and ducked out the back door.
In the backyard, Suzy’s girlfriend, Tracy, was doing lunges in white leggings with a pink handprint design on the bum. Suzy lay on the grass, theatrically ogling her. Tracy looked down at her, shaking her head.
I took a swift detour and made for the gate at the side of the house.
The latch was rusted shut.
‘What are you doing, mate?’ Suzy called.
‘Uh,’ I said cheerily, ‘there’s people everywhere and I can’t even get in to pee. I don’t even know, really.’
‘You can pee here,’ Suzy leered. ‘We don’t mind.’
Tracy laughed and booted her in the side with her runner. Suzy made a show of coughing.
The latch came unstuck. I dashed through the gate and shoved it closed behind me.
The side fence only came halfway up the property line. I was essentially out on the street.
‘G’day, love,’ said an elderly man in shorts and thongs who was checking the next door’s mailbox.
‘G’day,’ I said, conscious of my boobs in my pyjama top, and let myself back in the front door.
I had walked a cigarette butt in on my bare feet. I picked it off.
I peered down the hall – the bathroom door was open at last. I dashed for it.
Showered and dressed, I made my escape quietly out the front door and scarpered to the beach.
I climbed onto the rocks at the end of the sand. As soon as there was no one in sight, I began to cry. I lurched from rock to rock, sobbing – one good sob to each rock. The light off the water clattered like a sack of new nails.
Eventually I dried my face in the wind and came back up to the street.
The squinty morning made things offensively present: a rubbish bin with its palings falling off; a jumble of Jim Beam cans on a picnic table, gathering ants. I sat down and watched the water froth and bash, shunting the seaweed back and forth.
A man’s voice, very ocker, was shouting for a woman with the same name as me. My neck prickled.
Provoked, I chanced a look. A figure stepped out from the fenced yard at the side of the pub, waving. It was Chris from last night.
I got up and crossed the sandy street. ‘Allo-allo! I was like, who’s this hoon shouting at?’
‘Ha. Come and have a drink?’
‘Geez, you blokes start early.’ I followed him into a runner-grass and sand beer garden.
Two men and a woman sat before a row of Bacardi Breezers at a picnic table. Chris pulled me up a plastic lawn chair to sit on the end, beside him.
The men were Chris’s brother, his mate, and his mate’s sister. ‘G’day,’ they all said.
‘G’day,’ I said.
I had expended my You blokes start early line prematurely. If I’d saved it till I’d sat down, it could have been an opener. Now I had nothing.
They all leaned forward, waiting for me to perform. When it became clear I had missed my cue, they waited a few, polite seconds longer to see if I would recover. I did not. As one, with the complete ease and indifference of siblings in each other’s company, they turned away and went back to talking among themselves.
‘Get the lady a drink, mate!’ Chris shouted at someone inside.
‘Nah, nah!’ I said.
‘Come on!’ he cried, rather too loudly, making a rousing gesture to the rest of the table. The chorus of support he must have hoped for did not arise.
‘I could go a lemon squash,’ I conceded. He waddled inside in the crabwalk of a bulky tradesman.
I smiled up the table at the mate’s sister. She looked me over mildly and sucked her fag.
‘Here y’are,’ Chris said, putting down my lemon squash.
‘Ta,’ I said.
He sat down. ‘You alright? You look a bit…’
‘It’s just the wind on the beach.’
He was dressed as if from a rag bag, in a mis-buttoned chambray shirt and some ancient board-shorts with torn hems – a lot like my dad on the weekends.
‘It’s depressing, actually,’ I said. ‘I’m staying in this holiday house with all these couples, and my girlfriend broke up with me a while ago, and… yeah.’ My voice had gone reedy.
‘Oh. That’s no good,’ he replied with an echoing, embarrassed quaver.
‘And, like. We were friends with the same people and so now I don’t even have any fucking friends, you know. So I’ve taken up with these people I don’t even get along with. And it’s just… fucked.’ I could hear myself: an unkind parody of a sooking woman.
‘Yeah, nah. That’s no good,’ Chris said again.
‘What about your mate from last night? She seemed alright,’ he said, rallying.
‘Don’t even fucking ask, mate. Just don’t even fucking ask.’ My voice was steadying.
‘Is that right? Sounds like a story.’
‘You do not want to know.’
‘How do you know what I want to know?’
‘Just imagine…’ I said. ‘Just imagine the most sordid possible situation you can imagine, and that’s about the size of it.’
‘Aw!’ he squawked. ‘I wish you’d tell me, but.’
‘Just think,’ I said, ‘how much you didn’t want to hear it when I dumped all that shit on you a minute ago. And look at us now!’
‘It’s not that I didn’t want to hear it, precisely.’
Later, on the beach, I balanced on a concrete bollard and jiggled from foot to foot. I had been talked into a Malibu-and-pineapple at the pub, and it was warm in the sun, and I had cried so much earlier, I was sure there was nothing left in the tank. It seemed quite safe to call Steph.
I had rung her a lot in the early days and hung up just as she answered, or hung up in the middle of the voicemail message. I would start out feeling that I was finally going to tell her – finally going to stick it to her. Then the second I realised it was really happening and now was the time to speak, it was like I had woken up from sleep-walking with one foot over a cliff. My scalp would try to leap off my head. Once when the phone screen wouldn’t wake up fast enough to let me press end call, I tore the battery off the back and threw it across the room.
Now I felt I was just an observer. I was just calling to see what would happen.
Four rings passed. I braced myself to get the voicemail.
‘Hello,’ Steph said, picking up. Then, cautiously, she said my name.
‘Hi. I’m just ringing to say hi.’
‘Oh, hi. How have you been?’
‘Yeah, pretty good. I’m actually down at Damboon – on the east coast? – with my housemates. And some bogans in a pub just talked me into a Malibu-and-coconut at, like, eleven thirty in the morning. So I’m like, whee!’
‘That sounds cool. Not too much is different with me. Still the same job. Still living in the old house.’
‘Well, nothing wrong with that,’ I said.
‘You should come and see us all at the pub one Friday. People have been saying they haven’t seen you for ages.’
They had not said this to me. Not a one of them had called me since the breakup.
‘Yeah, um, maybe,’ I said. ‘I’ll think about it.’
‘You totally should!’ she said.
‘I’ll think about it.’
It struck me that they were all a pack of dicks. Just a complete pack of dicks. Luckily, it didn’t seem to have much to do with me.
Back at the house, someone was hiding under the one tea tree in the front yard. It was the no-carb housemate, with the baggy-thighed jeans and the mumsy, short-back-and-sides hair. She was wiping under her eyes with the pad of her middle finger.
‘Hey,’ I said.
‘Sorry,’ she said. ‘Just… too many people.’
‘You don’t even like it when people sit on the couch cushions wrong at home, and now there’s this whole house full of lunatics running around.’
‘Yeah,’ she said. ‘I feel like an idiot, because I organised the whole bloody thing.’
‘Never mind. They’re all having a good time.’
‘You did alright, anyway,’ she laughed. ‘You did a runner hours ago.’
‘Yeah. I’ve been having a cry myself, down the beach. Can’t cope either.’
‘Would have been a good idea.’ She sniffed.
‘Listen,’ I said, ‘I’m going to go for a drive to the point. There’s a building out there and I want to see what it is. Do you want to come?’
I held my finger to my lips and made for the car in a cartoon-cat-burglar stalk. She shook her head in her school-teacherly way and followed.
A couple of bends of the highway out of town and we were in the national park. The trees closed in overhead: tiger-barked eucalypts draped in their own debris.
I started to talk. ‘There was this bloke in the pub last night, when Suzy and I were there. Just some country bloke. But he liked me. And I suddenly thought, I could have sex with him, and then I would be normal again and everything would be easy.’
A car whooshed past in the other direction.
‘Sometimes I think that, too,’ she said.
I looked at her. She looked almost exactly like a member of a nineties boy-band on a casual day. ‘That wasn’t what I was expecting you to say.’
‘What?’ she laughed. ‘You think I came out of the womb in a flannie?’
We were out of the national park, and there was a tin-shed servo coming up. ‘Do you want to get a Chiko Roll?’ I said.
‘I’ll have a peanut,’ she said.
‘What, one peanut?’
‘I’d take a packet in a pinch,’ she said, patient.
Out towards the point was a turn-off to a dirt road, which we followed to a clearing. Here was the boatshed I’d seen from the beach, attached to a long jetty leading out onto a reedy mud flat. There was a wretched stink of fish guts and tidal swamp cooking in the sun.
The smell improved out on the jetty. A wide, shallow river mouth stretched away behind the point. Beyond it on the coast was opaque greenery right down to the shore, except for one tiny beach, a pale toenail of sand.
A man in a khaki hat was fishing on the end of the jetty. We stopped near him and nodded.
‘Wonder how you get out there,’ the housemate said to me, looking at the beach.
‘Yeah,’ I said.
The man spoke up. ‘Gotta take a dingy out at high tide.’
‘Christ,’ the housemate said, broad and low, ‘it’s alright for some.’
I’d forgotten she was from Queensland. I’d heard that broad version of her voice when I’d first rung up about the room for rent – when she’d said, tactfully but emphatically, like a person accustomed to breaking unwelcome news, ‘So, we’re all gay.’ It had been clear she was a good egg.
‘You get out there and there’s not a single footprint in the sand but yours,’ the man said.
‘I don’t think I’m ever going to be a person who has a dingy,’ I said. ‘But that’s alright. The idea’s probably better than the practice.’
‘Don’t be so sure,’ the man said.
‘I’ve got an uncle with a dingy,’ the housemate said. ‘He goes out with his mates and a slab of beer, and they’re all old fellers, and they fall asleep and the dingy drifts onto a sandbar. Has to get towed off.’
‘Good on him,’ the man said.
We looked out at the beach, desiring the place we could not go.
Belinda Rule is a Melbourne writer of poetry and fiction. Residencies and fellowships include Varuna, Bundanon Trust and Squaw Valley Community of Writers, USA. Her work has appeared extensively in journals and anthologies including Meanjin, Australian Book Review, Westerly, Island, Cordite Poetry Review, The London Magazine and Best Australian Poems.