© Perry Iles
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The Light from Stars
Ipswich Farm covers a thousand square miles of bugger-all with sheep eating it. Humanity spreads itself pretty thin out here. Imagine one of those three-dimensional things they use in physics - you know, those wooden balls with long rods joining them all up. I think they had one at the Festival of Britain over in London last year. It was for showing off atomic structures or something. That’s what it’s like. Alice Springs is the mid-point ball on the sticks that connect Adelaide with Darwin, and the sticks are the railroad. There’s a bunch of two-dog towns strung out along the tracks, but that’s about all. Stray too far off the lines and you’re into dusty red nothing, all rocks and no water, and you’ve had it.
I don’t need a watch in here. I’m in the shack, and the sun shines in through little holes in the roof where the rust has eaten away the corrugated tin. It shines in bright pinpoints onto the inside walls, and as it gets higher in the sky the tiny points of light move downwards. It’s not a good way to measure out your life, but I can think of worse ones. When the lowest spot of sunshine gets to the bit where the wall meets the floor, it’s time to get out. It means its lunchtime, too, and you always have to shift yourself by lunchtime because the place’ll be an oven from then until sundown. When you first get outside, it seems cooler because you haven’t noticed the slow build-up of heat that’s been growing all morning inside the shack, and there’s a few minutes of relief before you realise how hot it still is.
I’m watching that lowest speck of sunlight now. It’s still a couple of inches up from the floor, and all I’m getting is static and hiss from Alice, a hundred and thirty miles south of here. Twist the dial a touch, strengthen the signal. I’ll check the cables this afternoon. That’s the pattern of my day. Morsing signals up and down the line in the growing heat of morning and getting out into the country for the hottest part of the day to check the wires and the poles. There’s nineteen repeater stations between Adelaide and Darwin. The radio signals fade over distance. Every hundred and forty miles or so, they need a repeater to pick up the messages and pass them on.
I wonder if the messages that get to Darwin say the same thing as they did when they left Adelaide.
The government pays for the station that’s on Ipswich Farm and they pay me to run it. Communication, that’s my business. There must be a world out there because I get messages from it. But Neil Stone tells me his aunt Aggie gets messages from the dead, so who’s to know about the outside world except Ruth, and I probably won’t hear from her again. I’ve just got a photo now, the new black and white one she had done in a studio in Alice when she went with her dad. I keep it on the wall inside the shack and the spot of sunlight gets to it at twenty-three minutes past eleven and goes off the bottom edge thirty-two minutes later.
I timed it once. It was a slow day. Maybe there’s a use for watches in here after all.
When I finally get out of the shack, I take my hat off and rub my forehead with my upper arm. Away from the buildings, it’s all lines and blocks of colour. The sky’s a steely kind of blue-grey, and the earth, below the flat horizon, is red. Gunmetal blue over rust. The roads are straight and so is the railway. For hundreds of miles. Sunlight sparks off the metal of the jeep, and the brightness is painful because I’ve been inside for six hours communing with the living. I bend down in the tiny patch of shade cast by the shack and pick up a handful of earth. It’s hot and dry and a whisper of wind sifts the dust out of it and carries it away as I let the dirt trickle out of my fist. It’s my land, my country. It’s big and empty, but I’m used to it. I thought Ruth was, too. The place feels even bigger now she’s gone.
I brush my hands clean and stand up. Maybe I’ll get as far as Alice this weekend, soak up a few cold ones and cut loose for a night, but I’ll have to make myself do it because I don’t really want to, not now Ruth’s gone. Last time we were there someone said this Pom had just written a book about the place. Neville Shoot or something, his name was. Don’t reckon he’ll get much of a market for it, there’s only a few hundred people there to read it. We used to go to Alice together sometimes, me and Ruth. Maybe once a month, just for the day of course, nobody would’ve let us stay out for the night or anything. She’d get a haircut and buy books and magazines and I’d maybe get some new boots and stock up on ammo and ciggies. We’d have supper somewhere, in an air-conditioned bar with a view looking out across the desert. And I could see it in her face then. I could see the way she’d look out through the window over my shoulder when I was talking to her. It was like I could see her imagination working, wondering what it might be like away across the world on the other side of here. I was telling Ruth we could have a bigger farm with the money the government paid me for running the repeater station and she was saying how much fun it’d be to live and work somewhere else where it wasn’t always hot and dusty and she would say funny things like how she wondered what snow was like at Christmas.
We weren’t talking to each other, we were kind of talking past each other and not meeting in the middle. That’s the way I remember it, when I think about it, now that it’s too late. I guess there’s a difference between planning and dreaming, and I’d thought she’d been dreaming when she’d been planning all along. Bending that curl of hair away behind her ear and pushing out her jaw the way she does when you know she’s not going to do what you want. Sipping her cream soda and staring out over my shoulder with that distant look of hers. If I’d have been a bit more observant, maybe I’d have seen it coming. Like I said, communication is my business. Shame I’m not very good at it.
Put it this way, I’d make a crap prison guard.
So I won’t go to Alice just now. I’ll go up north instead. Get some wind in my hair, try to forget the things I don’t want to remember any more. Check the lines, check the poles. It’s half the job anyway, making sure the equipment’s working so the messages get through.
I hop into the jeep and drive off, and a trail of red dust hangs in the air for miles behind me.
When I get back, Ruth’s dad is waiting for me. Neil Stone’s old Ute is parked in the shade and he’s asleep in the back. He’ll be on his second bottle by now, so I reckon there’ll still be some sense about the bloke. The sound of my jeep wakes him and he sits up. He looks around, sleepy-eyed and a bit groggy for a second or two, then he sees me.
‘Gav! Hey Gavin,’ he says. ‘Got a letter.’
The distances swallow time. Across the world in England, Ruth’s written, but the letter’s taken two months to get here. Her words come like light from a star; a capsule from the past, feelings that might have blinked out by now. Neil hands me the letter. His eyes are pleading, the rest of his face is stern, not wanting to show he can’t read that well.
I play along. ‘Mind if I read it?’
‘Yes, mate, read it out if you like, the eyes aren’t what they used to be.’
He’s been saying that for as long as I’ve known him, which is since I was born. Ruth was reading by infant school. Dreaming since long before then, I reckon. Or planning. I turn the letter over in my hands. It’s a foreign object from as far away as you can get without starting to come back again. The King’s head looks sideways across the front of the envelope. He’s my king too, I guess, but I’m grateful I was too young to go to war for him. The letter’s a thick one. It’s cost her one-and-tuppence to send. It’s strange we use the same money, so far away. I see her handwriting, and I remember the note she left me - I can’t just stay here and watch my life tick away. I’ll miss you. I think of the sunspot on the wall of the shack, crossing her photograph as it moves down towards lunchtime. It’ll be doing the same tomorrow, and next year.
I read the letter to her dad, telling him the gist of it as I’m reading. ‘It’s from Ipswich. Ipswich, England. She got a place at a new hospital there. They’re setting up something called the National Health Service, where everyone gets free doctors. She says it’s wet and cold, and the nurses’ station is like a dormitory. The matron complains like an old chook and makes sure they behave themselves.’ I don’t know why I’m relieved to read this. ‘Ipswich is in Suffolk, about eighty miles from London.’
‘My great-grandfather came from Ipswich. Named the farm after it,’ Neil says. I know this already, of course, but maybe that’s why she chose the place. Maybe there’s a bit of her that’s homesick.
‘She says she can get a job anywhere in Britain when she finishes her training. Reckons she fancies Scotland. She’s seen pictures of it and it’s green and wet and cool, and it’s full of trees and sheep. She says they don’t need repeater stations over there. They’ve got telephone exchanges and operators and lines by the side of the road, and sometimes in the winter the storms blow them down and they need engineers to put them up again.’
‘Sounds a bit like a hint to me, mate.’
We’re standing in the shade of the hut now. I look out across the miles of flat, baked red nothing. It’s quiet with her gone. I remember her hair, curly and copper in the sun like the snipped off ends of telegraph wires. I remember her serious face, her bright, intelligent eyes. And now she’s written to her dad. Maybe she guessed he’d bring it to me to read it to him, but it’s probably best to put those kind of thoughts out of my head.
‘She said she wanted to see a bit more of the world. She made her mind up, Neil.’
‘She did nothing of the sort, Gavin Renshaw. You’re the only bloke her age in a hundred miles. Maybe she wanted to make sure it was you she wanted, not just the fact she didn’t have an alternative.’ Neil uncorks his bottle and drinks until it’s empty. He’s giving me that same level stare that Ruth used to when I’d said something wrong. Even two bottles in, it’s obvious to me that he feels the need to defend her.
I wave the letter in the hot air, fanning my face with it, trying to catch the scent of her from across the world. ‘It’s a long way to go to find that out,’ I say.
Neil Stone looks at the horizon. ‘Yeah, well you know what she’s like, mate. Even I couldn’t tell her anything. But the night before she left she couldn’t stop crying. Course, you’d made it your business to be as far away as possible, fixing wires up north that didn’t need to be fixed, I’d reckon.’
He's right, I hadn’t taken it well. She wanted to see the world, she wanted to swim against the tide too, I guess. Our government is paying the Poms to immigrate. They’re offering them work and free passage if they’d only come here and populate the place. The joke we tell them is that they don’t even need a criminal record any more. I used to look at pictures of Britain that Ruth would show me from her books and magazines, all wet and cold, and I’d sometimes wonder why the whole damn country didn’t pack its bags and come over here. Then I’d remember the heat from the shack. The heat and the emptiness, and the fact that you’re a bit hard up for options out here on the edge of nothing.
So the next day I watch the spot of sunlight sink down the wall, crossing Ruth’s photo as I tap out messages from Alice out towards Darwin and back again. The photo’s already gone curly at the edges, like a memory that’s fading and taking on a shape on its own.
I’ve heard talk that the Americans are going to put a satellite up in space - unless the Russians beat them to it. People say one day they won’t need the repeaters any more. They say a lot of things without really knowing what they’re on about. But one thing I do know is that the road train south will be passing through in the next week or so. I could catch a ride to Adelaide, get over to Melbourne or Sydney, find out how to get across the world. Ruth did it, and she’s just a girl. How hard could it be? I turn Ruth’s letter over and over. I’ve read it so often that I’ve got it off by heart now. Neil’s let me keep it. He’s a patient bloke, Neil Stone. He’d make a great fisherman if we only had a river. The heat from the shack has made my hands sweaty and the pages are dog-eared and damp. Is she trying to tell me something? Of course, she could have written to me herself, but when it comes down to it, she’s just as stubborn as her old man. But over in England there were big towns, cities full of men, and none of them would have sweaty hands or dust in their hair.
That night I can’t sleep. It’s not the heat, because it’s always hot. When I do manage to drift off, my sleep is shallow and full of dreams. He’d be handsome in that British way, like Trevor Howard. He’d have strong features, maybe a salt-and-pepper moustache, because he’d be a bit older than her. He’d drive a convertible sports car with wire wheels. When it rained, they’d laugh as they put the hood up. He’d smoke a pipe and wear a trilby hat. They’d get a cottage in the countryside with a big dog and an apple tree. Hair like snipped telegraph wire? He’d pay her better compliments than that. He’d call her beautiful. He’d tell her a little sheep station in the middle of nowhere was too small to contain her, and he’d be right. The world is changing. Girls just don’t do what they’re told any more. And maybe that’s not such a bad thing. Would I rather she had stayed, ridden down her dreams, settled here with me to raise babies?
In the morning I read her letter again, looking at the words that reflect a pinpoint in time weeks before. Would she still feel the same now? Could you chase a woman half way around the world just because she wouldn’t behave herself? I know men who would laugh at the thought, but those men will still be here in twenty years’ time, propping up the bars in Alice and going slowly crazy in the heat. Ipswich sounds okay. It sounds like a place with a bit of history to it. And Scotland sounds good too - somewhere where the hills roll and the soft rain keeps everything green. Somewhere where the summer would be a bearable thing, somewhere where the winter cold could be kept out by a log fire.
And Ruth’s hair would glow like embers in its light.
‘I’m off, Neil.’ Three days later, we’re in the shade of the radio shack again. Neil looks at me and then back at the half empty bottle on the seat of his Ute. After a minute, he reaches back in, uncorks it and takes a sip. He coughs and wipes his mouth. He takes his sweat-stained hat off and squints into the sun. There’s dust in the furrows on his forehead.
‘Thought so, Gavin. Soon as she left, I thought you’d go after her. When are you going?’
‘Soon as the company sends a replacement. I’ll take the boat; the planes keep on crashing. Reckon I’ll be there in six weeks or so. It’ll take me a while, but we don’t really do things that fast around here, do we?’ I walk into the shack. Neil follows, and sees the picture of Ruth that I’ve tacked onto the wall. He smiles, and it seems to me as if he’s just got confirmation of something he’s known all along.
‘Do me a favour, Gav.’
‘Don’t bring her back, mate. It’s too small for her.’ He’s blinking now, so he takes another drink, and coughs to give himself an excuse to rub his eyes dry, but the pain in the old man’s face betrays his feelings. I nod.
‘And do me another favour, eh?’
‘If I can.’
‘Name your firstborn after me.’
I reach out and clasp Neil Stone’s hand. ‘Only if it’s a boy, OK?’ I say, and I see my reward in the laughter that belies the old man’s tears.