© Derek Byrne
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Looking for colours - short story
No need to hide now. The photograph stuck on the bill-board outside the police station has faded with the sun and in any case, people forget, and no longer care after a while.
Another fly bursts across the windscreen. Cassie smothers the glass with the water jet. The gunge and the frenzy of light leave her blinded, until rubber squeaks and beneath two arched eyebrows she can pick out the road again. The murderous streaks of blood that remain will have to be worked off with a cloth. Arthur will expect her to do it; to scrub the headlamps as well and to get the dust from under the seats.
Alongside her, with all his whims, the boy tugs at the seat belt. Now he can see again, he wants to break free. Dragging his hand across the glass, he follows a Sandman Van with the tips of his fingers.
‘Gah, gah, gah.’ He bangs the window as the car disappears out of sight behind them.
Sunglasses hide Cassie’s eyes and a baseball cap casts a shadow across her freckled face. At seventeen, she’s old enough to drive, even if she doesn’t have a license. She pulls over and slots the vehicle into the angled parking alongside the supermarket. The drop from the pavement into the gutter is steep, so she has to judge distance carefully across the Ford’s wide bonnet. Hats are out today and tyre marks glisten in melted tar. This is the best time to come to the store, the listless wait for evening, when a quiet and sweaty indifference hangs in the air. Only two other cars are parked nearby. Mrs Sawyer is in the postal section, smoking her pen, deliberating over forms or the crossword. Cassie leaves the boy in the car. If only she had a harness for him, a means to stop him doing something outrageous.
On the other side of the swing-to barrier, tabs of colour glow in the dimness. The displays are without inspiration. There’s no other store in town to compete with. Cassie pulls the scrunched up list from her pocket and begins to fill the trolley.
The air is languid and cool along the aisles. The smell of fresh lettuce and cut ham tempt her, but they’re not on the list and money is short. A bottle falls and squashes the bread as the inevitability of Mrs Sawyer plays on her mind. It’s not the lady’s nature that bothers her, English though she is, with a basket of hair to prove it. Her warm accent and gentle manner are not unkind, but they disguise a probing interest, a search for clues that may serve later, when one of her friends from the bowling club passes by, or the policeman’s wife. The letter slotted into the back pocket of Cassie’s jeans makes her draw saliva over her dried out lips and leaves her lingering in the biscuit section. The flap is stuck firm, but the address and her own inky hand will catch the woman’s eye.
‘Hello luv.’ Mrs Sawyer’s voice is cheery, full like her smile. Sitting in the shop at this time of day must be tedious, although the air conditioning creates a cool breeze that might make the chore worthwhile. ‘How’s Mr Muhler, then?’
‘Aw, not so bad.’
‘Still got his back?’
‘Yeah, keeps him at home.’
‘Well, lucky he’s got you around to help him out.’
‘And what can I do for you today, young lady?’
‘Letter to post.’ And it comes out too quick and Cassie feels her face flush.
‘Writing to the old folks, back home, eh?’ Mrs Sawyer takes the envelope casually and puts it on the scales. She is an expert at her job. Cassie’s mouth constricts. Bugger it. Caught by her own guilt and the lady’s innocent sing-song voice.
‘How’s your brother?’
‘Fine.’ She glowers sullenly at Mrs Sawyer now. The stupid woman, making her feel guilty.
‘Not having one of his turns?’
‘He doesn’t have turns.’
‘No, of course not, but he needs someone proper to look after him.’ Someone to look after him properly, doesn’t she mean? But then knowing Mrs Sawyer, she said exactly what she meant.
‘Mr Muhler’s no longer up to coping with youngsters.’
‘Everything’s fine. Arthur’s going to take us down to Coffs to see a doctor.’ To shut her up.
‘Well, that’ll be thirty five cents, dear.’ And closure is Mrs Sawyer’s way of saying that lies don’t pass her by and this one has been noted.
Cassie is jiggling change in her hand when the crunch comes. It is slow, deliberate and strangely abstract above the hum of the air-conditioning. The tinkle of shattered glass is just an afterthought.
Mrs Sawyer draws in breath and looks straight at Cassie, her mouth crisp, her eyes round, questioning. Cassie drops her head to get a look through the clear strip at the bottom of the opaque window of the store.
‘Back in a sec.’ And she leaves Mrs Sawyer shaking her head and turning the letter over in her hand.
On the way back, after the turn-off that leads to the house, Cassie pulls over to examine the damage. When she went back into the shop to collect the box of groceries, she told Mrs Sawyer that it was her fault, that she didn’t pull the handbrake hard enough, although the skepticism in the woman’s eyes was plain to see. The front fender is buckled and the headlamp has lost its glass. Arthur will make a fuss.
The boy climbs out of the car and gets down on his knees. Just two years younger than her, but by the look of him, you wouldn’t think her brother was into his teens. He picks a stone out of the clay and examines it. Cassie watches as he scratches dirt off with a fingernail and rubs the rock against his shirt, trying to get a shine on its red back. Not a hope, kiddo. With a cry of disgust, he throws the rock back down and grinds it into the earth with his dusty boot, until there is just rubble and the stain of his shadow. Turning his head, the boy looks up. Cassie scrambles to take hold of him, to pull him towards her so she can put her hands over his eyes. He wants to look into the sun.
‘No, Gav, don’t,’ she says, but the boy just giggles and tries to get free, as if it’s a game. Ducking down, he wriggles through his shirt, so she tries to pin him round the chest, but then he bites her arm. Fuck. She hits him across the face and pushes him to the ground.
The boy lies there, sulky, dragging his fingers through the dirt. His head is bowed. All she can see is a tangle of hair and the gleam of saliva on his bottom lip. Angry and tired, she shakes her head. How’s it all going to end? After a while, she hauls him up by the armpits and coaxes him back to the car. Kicking over the engine, she slips the vehicle into gear and they pick up the track once more.
The car crunches over grit towards the old stone cottage. Arthur is sitting in the porch, waiting for them to come back. She takes the car round the side so he doesn’t notice the broken headlamp.
Get the groceries out of the back, kick the door shut. Don't even look at him, because she’ll find his gaze on her body, touching her through the inverted image in his mind. If only Mrs Sawyer knew. She carries the box up the steps and would walk right through, but the fly screen blocks her way. She has to put the crate down and come round, for the boy would never cope and the old man just watches and gives her that sickly smile. In any case, better that he stay where he is, down in the wicker chair.
The boy is chattering his way along the trellis work, edging his fingers over slats of wood, finding whorls and cracks and the dead stem of the climbing callistemon. His head is bobbing up and down, as if he’s singing to a tune, but only strange sounds come out, hubba, hubba, bubba.
‘What’s up with him,’ the old man grunts, like a belch from his belly.
‘Saw one of those cars again.’ Her voice is quiet, surly, showing her resistance.
The man lifts his eyes and looks at her. ‘Car? What car?’
‘Dunno.’ She has to meet his look for a while, even though she’s got one foot wedged in the door and her shoulder as well. His eyes are shrunken by the weight of skin and his jaw sinks into a neck swollen by idleness. Skin without blood and moist lips hanker under the felt hat. ‘Reckon it’s the size of them.’
The old man gives a small laugh. ‘He’s a strange one.’
The boy is down on his haunches, scraping with a stick, finding stones again. Cassie allows herself a smile, to appease, so she can get away.
‘Get the vegetables in the washroom and the milk in the fridge,’ the man says. ‘And turn the water heater on,’ as an afterthought.
Inside, the plaster on the stone wall is bumpy; collecting shadows, so it seems gloomy after the bright sunlight. Cassie has to walk through the lounge to get to the kitchen and she wrinkles her nose and leaves the door open, so the wind will blow through. The sitting room is part of the old house, with its thick mortar walls and stone floor. The rug gives some comfort, but the bed, its head against the wall, facing the television, still offends her. A sofa is missing, nowhere to settle, no easy chair; just the bed, the table and wooden stools. An old chest has been pushed against the wall. On top lies a photograph album and some tatty magazines. Remnants of a life.
The living room is the stalwart of the dwelling to which other bits and pieces have been stuck on; the weatherboard kitchen, the one bedroom where she and the boy sleep; a small rectangle of space with its solitary window whose view is blocked by the water butt, so the room seems dank, even in summer. The corridor in between and the door at one end is an escape route into the garden, so she doesn’t have to pass through the lounge at night to get to the outside toilet.
Cassie leaves the checkout slip and the change on the kitchen table. She believes in trust and honesty, still. And the old man gives her money at the end of each week, as a token, to keep them there.
The boy is in the doorway of their room, looking at her expectantly.
‘Don’t worry, Gav, it won’t be long now.’
‘We need more money.’
‘Yeah, money.’ She nudges him along, trying to get the words out of him.
‘The Sandman’s coming.’
‘Yeah, the Sandman.’
‘The Sandman,’ the boy shouts, and a growl from the old man drifts through from outside.
`Shh,’ the boy breathes in unison.
Cassie puts some music on, pressing the button on the old cassette player, so the boy will listen and go silent while she lets the tune carry her along a dim corridor of her mind, searching for memories. The escape. Nathan.
Lifting her feet onto the bed, she lies back and rests her head on her hands, looking at the ceiling. Gaven comes in and sits on the edge of the foldaway, being careful not to be too close to the edge so it would tip over and leave him in a giggling heap. At least he’s learned that much.
What chance the letter will get there? The address was just a guess. The family name, the town. Just on the off chance that Nathan found his way back home. They were mates once, her and Nathan; until they had to split up. The running boy, she called him, after he tracked down a lost jumbuck at the station where they both worked. He was good with Gaven, treating him like a regular kid; sticking up for her brother when the others made fun of him. After Nathan taught him how to drive the utility, she watched with admiration as Gaven faultlessly reversed it into the shed. But that seems such a long time ago now, before all the trouble; before they stole the car and took off.
He would have made it, for sure; because of the tint of his skin, because Nathan’s a native, forged from the earth.
‘Yeah?’ Cassie sits up, surprised that Gaven should lead, making his own sound. That he should say her name. For a moment she sees him, behind the glasses, behind the eyes. She sees the boy as he once was.
The treatment was supposed to help. Castle Hill Mental Asylum. Christ, what a name. Once, when she went to visit him, she couldn’t understand why he wanted to break through the shutters. A man had come into the room and given him medicine. His eyes glazed over and he became sane for while. Like a zombie.
All that time ago, the three of them on the run. Before the vehicle got stuck on a sandhill. The accident with the gun. Only it wasn't an accident. Gaven curled up in the sand. Dead, she thought. Loss of oxygen to the brain, leaving him ga-ga.
Dissociative disorder, synaesthesia, the doctor explained to her, but she didn’t know what the words meant and she didn’t care. All she wanted was her brother back. After Nathan took the utility, they waited by the fence until Gaven was outside with the other kids, dumb, not sure who they were at first. But when he saw the car he remembered. As they sped off down the highway, it was as if he was waking up for the first time and couldn’t make sense of the world outside his head. And from time to time a sign that he could be coming round, like today, when he recognized the Sandman.
But now he’s giggling again and slapping the bed like he wants to beat all the clogging dust from its pores. The dust is coming up into the air, so the air is like soup, full of bits, and the music plays and takes her down again, with a sigh.
It’s no good. They’re lost here, where the trees shore up the hillside, where the grass takes over in winter and softens the hard earth, where the sugarcane carpets the valley on the other side of town. The rich green leaves ought to convince her there is a reason to stay. They seem so full of life as they sway in the breeze on top of their long stalks. The road rolls through, up and down, sometimes hidden by the tall plants, heading off the plateau, down to the sea. She’s seen where it tips over, briefly touching the sky before is sinks into the forest. It’s awesome looking into the blue. But she hasn’t dared go close, not yet, not sure how the sea would look after all this time.
‘Why do you do it, Gav?’ And she has to talk to herself, because the boy just giggles, and hiccups into his hands. ‘At the sun, why?’
‘For what we are about to receive may the Lord make us truly thankful.’ The stains on the man’s T-shirt are repulsive, and the saliva that has collected in the corners of his mouth. They dribble both of them, the boy and the man, but only one makes her stomach turn. Maybe this is how a person becomes when they are old, or maybe he no longer cares about what other people think. Cassie wonders how long he’s been like this, alone, and why his children don’t come.
She bows her head as Arthur says grace, out of respect, hoping Gaven won’t make an obscene noise again. The man has cooked for them and for that she should be thankful, and she was the one who peeled the potatoes.
‘Saw Mrs Sawyer again, in the store.’
‘Waddid she want?’
‘Wanted to know if Gaven was all right.’
‘Gaven? She knows his bloody name.’
‘No, it’s just me brother, she calls him me brother.’
The man serves himself with vegetables. ‘Nosey old cow. She should mind her bloody business.’
‘I told her we were taking him to Coffs Harbour to see a doctor.’
‘Waddaya mean, taking him to Coffs Harbour? Who’s going to Coffs Harbour?’
‘Nobody. It’s just what I told her.’
‘Too bloody right. Nobody’s going to Coffs Harbour and nobody’s going to see any bloody doctor.’
She could feel sorry for him, trying to cling on, trying to keep them there. He hasn’t touched her, not after the first time, when she made it clear there were some things she would not tolerate. She expected him to throw them out after that, but he hadn’t and even then, as she felt sick with revulsion, she had a sense of pity for him as she saw his eyes turn away in shame and watched him shuffle into the backyard to see to the horse. It was as if he’d violated one of her most precious memories, one that she would never relinquish.
‘You’re not thinking of leaving, are you?’ Arthur is looking at her suspiciously.
‘Let’s go,’ says the boy.
‘Shut up, Gav.’ Might know the boy’s reason would come when she least expects it. ‘Nah, course not.’
‘Cos if you are, I’ll have the police after you.’
It’s his only threat and she knows it’s worthless. They eat now, silently, the boy picking at his potatoes, turning them over. The wedge of pie is all that he will swallow.
‘Left-overs, like me.’ The old man pushes his plate away. Patting his belly, he belches. Cassie isn’t sure if he’s rambling or if she’s expected to respond.
‘What do you mean?’ she asks.
‘We’re all over the place. People with nothing left.’
She looks at him warily, knowing his game, sensing that he suspects and that he will try any trick to keep them. He’s looking at the boy, watching him chop without eating.
‘You’ve got the house, and Sally,’ she says. Sally the horse, but she won’t say they are a part of his life, her and the boy.
‘The house? Bugger it. Where’s the land, the birds?’
Ostriches. He farmed them once, took their feathers and their eggs and their scrawny necks in his hands.
‘Then why do you stay? You could go to the city.’
‘If I was fucking rich, perhaps.’
‘Or your family.’ but she says the words too quietly, thinking them, almost, scared of what they might mean; for her or for the man.
‘Clean up, miss. I’m gonna get a shower.’
She begins to put things away, working around the boy, because he’s still turning potatoes, or stones, in his mind.
‘Can we watch the telly?’ And she turns it on anyway and sets the boy in front. She leans against the whitewashed wall by the sink with the dish towel in her hand and looks through to the living room. Gaven lies on his front on the carpet and stares at the old portable television set. Over the back of his head she watches the screen, bland like his glasses and she wonders if he just sees dots moving or the people behind. And whether his colours are her colours.
Cassie wakes to see the old man framed in the door. His face is in shadow, but she knows he’s looking at her and she wonders how many times he has looked. Night-time is strange, the way shadows stretch like a fine veil across the faces she knows so well, the picture over the table, the pattern on the vase. If she closes her eyes and sings in her mind, she can call the light of the stars and make him go away. That is the beauty of darkness, you can let it become what you want; you can allow it to hum in your ears, so the only sounds are the ones you want to hear.
When the man has gone, she gets out of bed and goes over to where the boy sleeps. It is the time she likes best, when his eyes are no longer roving, his lips no longer bubbling. The face of a child, small and peaceful. She would love it if she could, if she could bring back the time before. Before the day they took her brother away. She would love the face if she could see through those eyes out of the darkness.
The boy has wet the bed again and there’s going to be trouble. The smell lingers in the stagnant air that collects in their room. The old man has noticed as well and his grumbling grows like the approaching storm. Mutterings, banging, an acid scrape across the floor as he thumps out of bed. The kitchen door slams and slippers slap across tiles. Water thunders into the sink; the towel snaps off its rail.
Gaven tries to grasp the sheet, but it keeps slipping through his hands like baker’s dough. Heavy and restless, he throws it down again. The air in the room is close and the light strange, tinged with the orange of his urine. Sitting on the mattress, he looks around, perplexed. The sheet has been forgotten, but he’s found the stickiness between his legs. Lifting his hand to his nostrils, he sniffs, like a dog picking up a scent in the bushes.
‘The fucking little shit.’ Arthur wants them to hear, even from afar, what he has to put up with. Gaven’s head tilts over, as if it's going to fall off his shoulders.
‘It’s okay, I’ll fix it,’ she says. ‘I’ll fix it.’ This time she yells, so Arthur can hear. But the man’s coming through the lounge, into the bedroom, barking like a dog.
‘What did I tell you? What did I tell you about him?’ He can say things because he doesn’t believe that the boy can understand. ‘He’s a half-wit.’
‘Don’t call him that.’
‘I’ll call him what I want, young missy. Half-wit, thick-head, goon.’
‘Oooon,’ Gaven crows, peering up through his spectacles. The man lurches forward and strikes the boy with the back of his hand.
‘That’ll teach you.’
She lurches as well, trying to grab the old man’s arm, while the boy shrieks.
‘Stop it.’ she cries, as Arthur batters the boy’s head with both hands, his spindly elbows flapping. Gaven, curled up into a ball, wails, hiding himself in the pit of the rancid mattress, breathing his own putrid smell, as the man thrashes the back of his head, as she struggles with them both.
‘It’s not his fault. He can’t help it.’
But Arthur keeps on, until he’s sobbing himself, until she can no longer cope. And then he’s hugging her, his hands clutching her round the back, his head pressing into her shoulder. The stale smell from his armpits is worse than piss. She wrenches herself free and steps back. They're both fucking helpless.
A white flash silently forewarns, coming off the water butt, illuminating Arthur’s puffed out face for a moment, dabbing powder on his cheeks, wiping them clean. The storm arrives, bruising them with a gloved fist. A crack of thunder brings the old man to his feet, while Gaven shrieks again, holding his head, not knowing where the blows are coming from.
‘Oh my God,’ Arthur moans, as the tin roof clashes above them, as a gust of wind rips through. An image frozen. A belly hanging over slack shorts, a trembling arm held up by a piece of string. The face turned towards her, looking like a powdered mannequin. Then it has gone and all that’s left is a hole where somebody once stood, and the wall behind. The rain begins to thunder overhead.
She takes her brother out through the back door to escape the noise. As they skid across the lawn, the cloud wrings water out of its sodden heart above them. They sit down on the stone wall, side by side and allow the shower to pummel them until they are drenched. Beneath the heavy sky, caught in the scatter of light, rivulets run down the boy’s face. He could be crying. And that’s a relief, because she can’t remember when she last saw tears on his cheeks.
Water runs along the guttering into the tank, gurgling as it goes. The branches of the spotted gum droop under the weight of sodden leaves. Sally stands like a statue in the small paddock, her mane matted down, looking forlorn. But the horse must be content to have fresh water to drink. Arthur will be pleased too, because of the garden, because of the rose bush. She wonders how the old man’s coping with his own foolishness. She glances towards the house.
He’s standing outside the kitchen with nothing on, his skin hanging in folds, wet and milky like soap. His pecker hangs down slack and wrinkled. Gaven is staring, open mouthed. She’s caught by surprise. She’s never seen nakedness like that before, old and shapeless. Arthur shouts at them cheerfully.
‘Nothing like a good shower to get things clean.’
A breeze blows through and the branches of the tree spring back into place. Sally shakes her mane loose and ambles over to the water trough. The old man suddenly becomes conscious of his starkness against the whitewashed walls of the house. He shuffles back inside.
They leave on a draught of sunlight, as swords of colour clip the wings of galahs shuffling in the branches of the spotted gum. Dew drops give the grass a frosty look and their footprints are left in the moist springy carpet as an oversight. The night hovers still, beneath their thighs, so they have to wade through shadow to get to the car, lifting their arms above the slow swell. As they hurry across the lawn, damp weeds press into the spaces between Cassie’s toes and cold tentacles tickle her ankles. She smiles as the boy makes skid marks with his feet and turns cartwheels with his eyes. He’s slipping into the present. They leave as the mists of dawn pull away from the small hill that rises from the back fence, as the call of a shrike plucks the telegraph cables, as pipes begin to blow from the fringing trees.
The air moves with the sun, lifting out of the valley, helping them along. Their old car, the utility, trundles over the earth, getting caught in a small hollow, struggling over a tuft of grass. She grunts and heaves, as the boy follows the lines in his mind. She wonders if he’ll remember how, if those movements which come automatically with habit, will still be there.
‘Turn the wheel, Gav. Turn the fucking wheel.’
And the wheel turns, so they are on the bitumen and the ute is freewheeling down the hill. She has to let go then and watch, as the sun bounces off panels and small stones fly.
She almost weeps with relief when the engine kicks over and smoke billows from the exhaust. She has fire in her lungs as she runs down, slapping the tarmac with her thongs, lunging after them, the ute and the boy.
And now they are driving towards where the road plunges down, where the tops of trees are on a level with their eyes and where the sky is a blank canvas tinged with the cream of early morning, waiting for colours, waiting for the future to arrive.