The first time Glad Downe manipulated electricity she nearly had a heart attack. She also suffered severe bruising and a variety of lumps from landing hard up against her crockery cupboards. The jolt had sent her flying.
Through the open door she could see the fox. A moment ago it had been salivating over her chickens. Now its tanned fluffy coat was a charcoaled smoulder. The animal – burnt with such ferocity – stood upright in death, stiff from incineration. Trailing skywards from its back was a ribbon of peace-pipe smoke and behind it the chickens squawked and ran frantically around their pen.
Glad rolled onto her knees, gathering her strength to push herself onto her feet. Trundling outside, she looked from her verandah across the stretch of blackened grass. There could be no doubt. The ghastly strike of fire had come from the electrical terminals that sat outside her property. The substation, with its necessary gadgetry, had not been there long, arriving about a year ago without so much as a letter of explanation. It was similar in size to her house, a strange addition to the secluded stretch of country road. She supposed she was meant to think of it as a neighbour. The grey boxes and rubbery coils, the insulated wires and steel girders certainly had a presence about them, and now, given their help, perhaps she should.
Crossing the yard she dragged the burnt remains of the fox past the rows of corn and potatoes to the edge of her garden where a clump of naked ladies were beginning to shed their petals. The sky was glassy, the sun low as she gouged a grave with her shovel, her eyes lifting now and again to the terminals.
A power surge, she told herself as she pulled earth over the corpse and raked leaves from the shedding liquid-amber. Blown fuses, crossed wires, something sparking something else. Surely someone would come, someone who had noticed something. They would turn up to make the necessary adjustments. After all, it might be dangerous.
Someone did eventually come, letting themself in through the wire gate that was always locked, always secure. Glad watched the man, the cup and saucer she was holding rattling in her quivering hand, a ripple passing across the milky surface of her tea. The man went about his business, checking the boxes and noting things on his clipboard. But in the next minute he was locking the gate again, leaving without having given the scorched grass any attention.
Odd, she thought, a flutter of excitement (one she didn’t dare decipher) moving through her and her afternoon brew all over again.
She took herself back to the telly, back to the game show she’d been watching. On The Wheel Of Fortune a contestant had just spelt out the phrase, KEEP IT UNDER YOUR HAT.
The second time Glad Downe manipulated electricity it was more of a surprise than a shock. The weather was sultry and, despite a fly net covering her face, her broad hands waved about, shooing pests away.
She was digging hurriedly, trying to get her broccoli seedlings planted before the autumn storm erupted. Muddy clouds, thick with the weight of water, were amassing above her and the skirl of a plover drilled painfully into her ears. Circling repeatedly overhead, she barked at the bird to shut up. When it paid no attention, continuing to swoop and screech and dart about, wrath swelled in her, stretching her freckled skin and parched lips as she grimaced and bit down. Glad locked her eyes onto the bird and growled. Then, with little fanfare – not to mention the unexpected accuracy of an Olympic archer – a rod of lightning shot from the terminals across the flight path of the plover scoring a direct hit. The bird shrieked and fell to the ground, a flame floating above it, reminding Glad of the Christmas puddings her mother used to make, the way her dad would light them up and the flame would dance over their upturned humps.
Glad didn’t fall back this time, nor did she worry about her heart. And when a few short weeks later, her broccoli just heading and her sister, Beatrice – Beat for family purposes – on her doorstep, Glad felt linked to a great source of power sitting just outside her fence. If fear existed it was in the muted realisation that something far more powerful than she had declared itself an ally.
Beatrice Downe was a very different woman from her sister Glad. She had moved from the small town of Durham into the city many years ago, saving her wages to buy properties that made her income multiply and her status amongst financiers rise. She was a proud woman, proud of what she had achieved. Success, she felt, had freed her.
There were, despite differences, a small number of things that tied the sisters together, the most important of these being that they were not so much lonely people as people alone. They had no family except each other, and neither had developed friendships past the necessary acquaintance stage: agents and advisors in the case of Beatrice, neighbouring farmers when it came to Glad. In keeping with the sisters having little in common however, while this aloneness suited Glad, Beatrice had found herself thinking it was a failure, one she would like to rectify even at this late stage of her life.
Beatrice knew it would not be easy. The sisters had not seen each other for years. Eight, to be exact. Not since the death of their parents in a disturbingly quick event that, for all its finiteness, left indelible scars on them both. Glad in particular. This was hardly surprising given she was with them when the ghastly incident occurred, all three drinking tea and eating orange sponge while they waited for an aerial show to begin. That was when it happened, when a gnarly limb had fallen from the trunk of a giant red-gum, obliterating her mother and father as, cake in hand, Glad had been left sitting upright, twigs garnishing her head and knees, her eyes agog and frozen open. Except for a scorch from her hot tea and a couple of bad scratches, Glad had been unscathed.
The air display had gone ahead, planes diving and twirling as she watched the authorities make their determinations and clear away the wreckage. Standing ossified, a blanket draped over her shoulders, shock galvanised in Glad like steel cooling. A St John’s ambulance volunteer replaced her picnic cup with a Styrofoam one and her cake with a Butternut Snap, but it made no difference. For days she was caught in a catatonic state unable to cry over her loss. When Beat turned up to help organise the funeral Glad could neither talk nor look at her. Beatrice, not only misinterpreting Glad’s behaviour but also not accepting it, was furious.
‘That’s it,’ Beat had said all those years back as she left, the little gathering they’d had in the house over with and Glad still not having uttered a word. ‘If you’re not going to give me the common courtesy of even a few words, I won’t be bothering with you again.’
Beat had not been back since. Then, a week ago she’d told herself it was time to see if she could patch things up. And given Glad wouldn’t be venturing out to find her…
Now, a little unsure if the light was playing tricks, Beatrice was peering through the scalloped-glass door wondering if the brown blob she could see on the other side could be anything other than Glad. She knocked and knocked, called and called. And as she was about to go back down the stairs and around the house, there, standing on the grass looking like a rollie-pollie market gardener, a potato picker or worse, was Glad.
‘Well!’ said Beat, turning to consider her. ‘You are home!’
‘Front door’s gummed up,’ Glad said, standing her ground, looking at her sister, knowing it was better to be bold than shy.
Beat leant forward. ‘I’ve come to make peace. See if you’re alright.’
Clutching the bottom of her soiled apron, Glad said, ‘Everything’s the same. If you want you can come inside, check for yourself.’ She sniffed and swung her head in an uncharacteristic movement. And then she turned, happier in flight than to remain to be judged.
Glad’s eye was caught though, drawn to the terminals. They were reflecting the midday sun, winking at her and humming in their usual rhythmical drone. She quelled a growl, swallowed against an uneasy sensation. Beat is to be loved, she told herself, loved and admired.
Inside, with a sweep of her arm, Glad pushed household items to one end of the table.
Beat was through the door in the next minute, crowing and nodding, ‘Very nice, very nice.’
‘Make tea, will I?’ Glad said, listening to her sister’s heels clacking on the boards as she walked around the kitchen peering at everything. ‘There’s teacake. Fresh with cinnamon. We’ll have that.’ And Glad pulled the tea canister towards her, opening its lid and dipping a spoon into the dry leaves.
‘I’ve got some news, Glad,’ Beat said, switching in her staccato way, her eyes on Glad’s back.
‘I’ve retired. Given up my job and hired people to manage my properties. I want to go on a trip and I’ve come to ask if you’ll go with me.’
Glad let out a breathy sound – high and full of humorous wonder – after which she pressed her lips closed and bowed her head.
‘I presume,’ Beat said tacitly, ‘that means no.’
Glad turned, catching a glimpse of Beat and intending to convey that she didn’t mean any disrespect. What she saw, however, what foiled her plan and stayed in her mind as she switched back to the kettle, were the lines on Beat’s face, the indentations of age and worry and ambition mapped out like the page of a city street directory. Glad, pulling at her T-shirt with her free hand to smooth it over her largeness, took the singing kettle from the stove and poured boiling water into the pot.
‘You don’t have to decide straight away,’ Beat said. ‘I’ll stay the night. We can discuss it over dinner.’
‘I won’t change my mind.’
‘Glad, I’m trying—’
‘Uh!’ Glad lifted a stern digit, crowned, Beat noted, with a bitten nail.
Beat frowned. Glad stared. Both squirmed, mouths tight-lipped. Finally Glad shook her head. ‘And there’s only beef for dinner.’
‘You know I don’t eat meat.’
‘It’s good and fresh. Harry Godfree butchered it himself. Man can turn his hand to anything, fix a tractor, sink a bore. Handy, that’s the word for him.’
When Glad fell quiet, bringing cups to the table, Beat – remembering her quest – tried to restore conviviality, saying in a teasing tone, ‘Sounds like you fancy him.’
‘G-l-a-d,’ Beat cajoled.
‘His big old sausage’d have bacon grease all over it from the exercise he gives it.’
‘Oh, how would you know? You’re just being disgusting for the sake of it.’
Glad looked up – an unscripted expression of surprise on her face.
‘Where’s the cake?’ Beat barked.
Glad pointed to the cupboard and Beat crossed the room to rummage between the items on the shelves, unearthing a large tin, which she took to the table. Next she found a knife and a cutting board, and, in the same fussy manner – her movements as exacting as usual – she dug out the cake and proceeded to cut through its softness.
‘We’ll sit outside,’ Beat said.
From the back verandah they could see the clouds stockpiled at the edge of the sky. They looked like a frill on the bottom of a dress, the blue dress of the sky. The sisters sat at a small table, tea and cake between them. Beat nibbled, Glad quaffed. When they finished, Glad got up and disappeared into the house, re-emerging with two decks of cards. She held them up like a magician about to do a trick.
Beat shifted on her chair in tiny jagged movements. ‘Are you going to be nice?’ she asked.
Glad smiled falsely, a smile her sister knew and accepted.
‘We need something to score on then,’ said Beat, her head tilted as she afforded herself a smile back, a moment of victory as Glad disappeared inside once more to rummage for a pad and pencil.
Canasta was an old habit: a game they had enjoyed when they were girls, the one thing that brought peace. Now, a fan of cards in front of them, a warming sun dipping below the roofline and reaching their faces, they settled in to begin.
As Beat had dealt, Glad went first, depositing two red threes on the table and picking up three cards from the pack.
‘S-o,’ Beat said, intent on trying to be sisterly, ‘I suppose it’s stupid to ask if you’re still happy living here.’
Glad threw a four on the discard pile.
‘Personally,’ Beat persisted, ‘I don’t know how you do it. All these years. Don’t you want a change? To live somewhere else?’
Beat was placing four kings on the table, throwing a seven on top of Glad’s four, which Glad picked up.
‘I did have this idea of moving to St Kilda.’
‘St Kilda! That’s a nice suburb.’
‘There’s a show on telly. It looks pretty good.’
‘I could set up house on the end of one of those piers. Fish off the edge.’
‘Oh, Glad,’ Beat was being liberal but not utterly excusing. ‘You couldn’t possibly live on the end of a pier. Don’t you sell-up here thinking that’s the answer.’
‘I’d get a red lantern, hang it from the railings.’
‘A red lantern? You’d be attracting every dero loser, not to mention the perverts, right up the pier to you.’
‘I’d have my fishing knife ready.’ Glad giggled. ‘Chop off their long johns before they knew what had happened and turf them into the bay for the banjo sharks to nibble on.’
‘Oh, that’s obscene! Imagine thinking something like that. I refuse to listen. It’s your shot. Just let’s play.’
Beat’s face was even more crosshatched than it had been earlier and her eyes had squared. Glad stopped laughing and lowered her head to consider her hand, to resume the game. She pulled three sevens and a joker from her fist of cards and laid them carefully out.
‘Means you can’t go out with a misère,’ Beat said instructively.
Glad glanced at her and then, after a moment’s consideration, put down another seven and two twos, then four tens, four fours (one of which she’d had to pick up with the seven) one black three and threw out a king. She smiled widely, her tongue showing behind her small straight teeth.
‘Means I just did,’ she said.
‘Why didn’t you put your hand down straight away? I can stand to see you win, you know, Glad.’
A titter of amusement escaped Glad as if she thought just the opposite.
‘I’ve come all this way and you’re as rude as you ever were.’
‘It’s a joke,’ said Glad. ‘Just a game. I don’t mean anything.’
‘No, you mean to be nasty.’ Beat was sitting forward, her body trembling. ‘I try to be civil but you continue with your silly pokes and dirty talk.’
Glad dropped her gaze, but there was something in her pose that made Beat suspicious. ‘Don’t try the boohoo routine with me,’ Beatrice said.
‘I’m not a weakling, Beat.’
When Beatrice didn’t answer, Glad looked up. And perhaps it was her expression, her open and uncluttered look, this small but nevertheless defiant act that got Beatrice moving, because in no time at all she was on her feet, taking her good shoes off and stepping into gumboots that stood at the back door. ‘I’m sick of your insults and asides,’ she said, her voice high and abrasive. ‘And it’s time I handed out some of my own. I can be cruel too as it happens.’ And with that she stepped from the verandah and strode across the yard, her skirt pulled to its limits as she marched towards the wire-mesh of the chicken coop.
Alert but cautious, Glad stood up, calling to her sister in a gentle plea. Beat, however, took no notice.
‘I’ll show you,’ she shouted. ‘Just watch me wreak havoc amongst your precious hens.’
Unclear what Beat might do – Glad certainly didn’t want her upsetting the chooks – Glad took a few steps forward. Beat had picked up a garden stake and was wrenching open the little doorway of the huge pen. ‘I’ll stab one of the little squawkers,’ she hissed. ‘We can have it for dinner. Just have to choose which. Maybe two, maybe I’ll get two.’
‘Please, Beat!’ The words jumped from Glad.
‘We need big ones,’ Beat ignored her. ‘So we can smother them in mustard.’
‘Don’t!’ Glad’s voice broke as she hurriedly stepped from the porch and crossed the lawn. ‘My chickens don’t like to be upset.’
‘Should have thought about that before. Been a bit nicer. Shown some control!’
‘I never meant…’
‘You meant everything,’ Beat shouted having stopped momentarily. Then she hooked the stake maniacally at one of the hens who was squealing and stalking speedily away.
‘Please,’ Glad begged.
‘Stay back!’ Beat yelled as she began to run riotously around the enclosure, chasing the chickens, their heads jutting forward, their small wings flapping as they shrieked. Glad’s heart chugged solidly, her brain buzzing, and her skin heating. Every second or so, her gaze strayed to the electrical terminals and then sprang back to Beat. And she could hear the depot crackling and hissing, ticking and drumming in the cool clear air. The equipment seemed to be vibrating, rumbling as if stirring from a deep sleep, as if she was waking a terrible monster housed inside all of those upright boxes. Then, quite ahead of a conscious thought, a spinning torch of fire leapt from the terminals and sped through the wire fence of her property, shooting in a straight line all the way to the chook pen.
The flames ran around the perimeter of the cage, igniting the long grass that grew against the mesh. Dry leaves that were caught in the wire sizzled and flew upwards, the flames making the air warp and swim. The chickens ran even more frantically in a loose circle at the centre of the pen, their wings flapping and their throats open as they squawked in alarm. And in the middle of it all, like a witch at the stake, Beat screamed a murderous bellow.
‘Hold on!’ Glad shouted, turning to get the hose as hurriedly as she could, pointing its thin spout of water onto the flare. And, as the ring of fire shortened, as the flames started to dip and shrink, Glad could see Beat’s streak of body quivering, her face red and her hair stiff from the heat and fiery wind.
When the blaze had quelled Glad dampened the remaining flames by stamping them into the ground. Beat was whimpering and Glad wanted to say something pleasant to comfort her but the words were clag in her mouth and the most she could do was offer her sister a hand, some assistance to walk over the burnt grass. They hobbled silently back to the verandah, small sounds of shock and agitation coming from Beat’s dishevelled body.
Glad helped her sister lower herself onto her seat before pulling her own chair from around the other side of the table to sit beside her. She looked across to the scar the fire had left. The hens were tottering precariously about in their pen as the last of the flames danced about before dying.
The words of ‘sorry’ or ‘I didn’t mean it’ were stones on Glad’s tongue. Her eyes wandered to the terminals, the grey boxes containing, it seemed, her inimical power. She turned to Beat whose face had begun to bubble with tiny blisters.
‘Had to calm things down,’ Glad said before looking away, focussing ahead.
And with that, the sisters sat dubbed with quietness, which gave Glad a moment to think. When she looked back at Beat – whose tears were now leaking over the rims of her lower lids – she moved her coarse-skinned hand over to her sister’s slim manicured one and squeezed it. And together they watched the sun sink, listening to the sounds of the first night insects begin to tick and fizz as it went.