In Nepal my friend Cliff is trying to keep the wind away. A tiny disease has taken his face. Nothing that won’t repair, he assures me, that a month on the farm won’t fix. But it hurts to be alive.
This makes me want to scribe something long-winded and a little brutal to the diplomatic corps. I’d send it off to the Congress on Human Rights, to Amnesty International, take Cliff’s cause to a greater power. A headline or two wouldn’t hurt either: ‘Asian Prison Hell’ or ‘Nurse Rutledge Speaks Out’. Cliff would be fit if a nurse’s advice had been taken: if they’d rotated the places where prisoners sleep and fixed the dilapidated shutter behind him to stop the draft.
Of course, there is the fact he committed a crime in the first place, stole from the Tibetan people only to be caught smuggling their gold across a Himalayan border.
Cliff is a small man. Thin. A Fred Astaire type. Sixteen kilos of precious metal strapped to his calves must have looked bulky-as. His stick legs, fattened by the small gold bricks, would have been hard to lift. He’d have shuffled towards the border checkpoint wiping sweat from his brow from fear, the ingots chafing and knocking against each other as he lumbered forward.
But that’s how I’ve imagined it, how I’d have made the last nervous kilometre. Cliff would have been smiling, singing and whistling something out of date: Otis Redding, Roy Orbison, Marvin Gaye. I’d even go so far as to say he’d have been joking to himself that he was an early Christmas present to himself, full of cheer and celebration to come. That is, before the rifles were lifted, before he was ordered to lie facedown in the little office with the wooden louvres – before he’d been told to stretch his arms above his head, fans circling like paddles over him. Then it would have dawned on him that he was in a truckload of trouble, that with foreign words being thrown about above him – indecipherable and aggressive – there was only one response open to him: silent obedience. All that, and the knowledge he’d helped to deface a developing country. That’s what would have descended on him, those vile and uncomfortable realisations like sticks beating down on his back.
Don’t know what I was thinking, he writes. And now I’m dying of cold sores.
I send Zovirax but he doesn’t get it. The guards at the jail open everything, strip the letters.
It wouldn’t work anyway, he writes. It’s too far gone. I look like a leper, the cold sores are down to the bone. Chilly air, he’s told me, shoots directly from the summit of the Chulu Peak through the cracks and unpluggable holes of the shutters, its dry-ice freeze rushing onto his sleeping face. I never thought, he says, I’d die from too much fresh air. Anyway, only forever to go now. His trial hasn’t come up yet and I’ve got a throat-gripping dread they’ll forget to have it. Look after me bottles, he writes, which means his house. It’s over the hill, nestled in a sunny spot at the bottom of the property he and Benji and I own, built of glass-flagons joined by a slurry of red mud.
At home, our own version of the gold-sovereign scheme is coming under attack. Benji, his neck stretched tortoise-like towards the river, is cursing the farmer, Doug McDougall, who’s driving his tractor on the rim of the river’s cutting. He’s spraying blackberries. But what’s worse – and what’s causing Benji to have a rather severe meltdown – is he’s in a position to spot the illegal crop we’ve planted on the north-facing bulge to the west.
Benji paces under our small veranda, one hand running through his stringy hair, his unlaced boots – snaffled from hard rubbish – rattling, their long tongues and side-flaps slapping like a loose saddle on a bolting horse as he strides back and forth.
‘Effing farmer,’ he says, his face twisting. ‘Shouldn’t be spraying. Bloody blackberries’ll just grow back twice as thick. Probably immune to the stuff.’
I’m bathing our little boy, Joel, in a huge plastic tub on the grass in front of our tiny hut. Joel, who, from the optical he’s just given me, understands his dad’s in a whirlpool of stress. There’ll be no hands-and-knees play on the floor this morning despite the freshly-empty mull bowl that usually brings on such an occurrence.
‘The cretin,’ Benji goes on, ‘should be fixing his dodgy fences, making sure his cows stay on his property. He’s never usually down there. And the crop’s just started to head. Wouldn’t bloody read about it! On his fucking tractor! Poisoning!’
I pour water over Joel’s back, wonder how much of the conversation is being decoded behind his translucent blue eyes, his soft curls. Benji paces, his clothes bending around his thin frame, niggling at his skin.
‘Are you listening to me, Ronnie?’ he shouts. ‘We’re about to be busted. Our mortgage payments are about to be spotted by a farmer who’s poisoning the planet.’
‘You’re lucky he can’t hear you,’ I say. I don’t mention Joel, even though he’s on my mind, even though I’m worried he could arrive at kindergarten with the news of “a good bud” on his lips, a subject I’ve written to Cliff about in code more than once.
Those kindergartens are full of middle class people, I say, checking the language is cryptic enough for the guards to miss. Very conservative types. A toddler’s slip of the tongue is possible and we couldn’t blame Joel. But there’s nothing I can say to Benji even though I work away at it in my mind, grind it over. He would never be told to keep his verbals to himself.
Doug McDougall doesn’t seem to notice the crop but he does notice us. I guess he’s thinking it’s time for a cuppa and he’s happy to do the neighbourly thing and walk over the summer-diminished river up the hill to our tiny mud-brick cottage. His trousers, as always, are below his hips. Hips, we’ve joked, he’s had surgically removed for ease of pulling his pants up, for the convenience of less breakable parts.
Benji manages to keep his hands from his hair, but there’s lots of nervous huffs and anxious posturing. Out of the bath and standing beside me, Joel clutches a toy truck so tightly his chubby fingers are motley from lack of blood. He watches Doug McDougall suspiciously. The farmer scratches his baldness and leans towards Joel laughing, ‘What a little man! Who’s the tough guy? Put up ya dukes.’
‘Boy’s gunna be a Hercules,’ he says looking at me. ‘Be good around the property. Help ya fix it.’
I take this as a direct insult. Nod. Don’t smile.
Then it comes up, just when we’re thinking he’s paid no attention to anything on the riverbank, except its edge so his tractor doesn’t tip and tumble over the fists of blackberry to the water below.
‘Got yaself some weed on that knob, Benjamin?’
And I can see panic rip through Benji like shock treatment as he jerks about, sucking air noisily into his lungs and generally feigning surprise. ‘Don’t think so. What sorta weed?’
‘Sort that’s worth a lot of money. How much you think you’ll make, twenty, thirty grand?’
‘No idea what you’re talking about.’
Doug McDougall scratches his head again, looks into the distance. ‘Way I see it,’ he says. ‘When you’re ready ta harvest, we’ll talk about an arrangement. Enough in it for both of us, I’d say.’ He smiles, moves to ruffle Joel’s hair, who, detecting that an unfriendly silence has replaced the niceties, is now glaring at him. Doug McDougall puts his hat on and laughs to himself before turning to walk down the hill, scissoring his legs in their hipless state over the tufts of native grass.
‘Thinks he’s some fucking Afghani warlord,’ Benji says as we watch him go.
There are long gaps between letters from Cliff, gaps that ruin his face and patch it alternately in my mind.
The fantasies are most vivid when I’m at home on my own, like today. Benji has left me here as lookout while he’s in town with Joel, shopping for hardware. The dope is only a few days from being harvested, growing in a soft green furze that’s sure to bag up well. We haven’t seen Doug McDougall for five weeks. ‘Doesn’t mean,’ Benji’s told me, ‘he’s lost interest.’
I’ve got instructions to keep a hard eye out for anyone lurking. If it looks like a farmer I’m to distract him with a cuppa and friendly chitchat. If it looks like cops I’m to pretend I’m blind – an absurdity I only agreed to because Benji had been working himself into a full-blown psychotic episode before he left. But there are no visitors and my thoughts are soon diverted by a familiar fishtail-scurrying from a goanna heading for our chook pen. The long-tongued animal’s mid-morning snatch has become a daily ritual: goanna versus our fresh eggs. The sight of them in her neck as she raises her head to swallow is strychnine to my mood.
I leave the dishes, the view of the crop and march down to the pen, my dress showing the grooves of my nuggetty fitness like I’m Cathy Freeman in a body suit. I swing open the cage door and land a hand firmly around the bitch’s scaly tail. I back out. She’s gripping the ground with her stunted legs, her giant claws, her body creating a gutter through the dry dirt.
When we’re out of the enclosure I take hold with both hands, swing her up into a hammer-throw twirl and pitch her out into the paddock. She flies, her great goanna-chops flapping. I swear there’s a look of surprise on her face as she soars, lands, her body momentarily deflating into flatness. And because she’s been sailing through the air, coasting in a gentle arc from my spin, she’s spun around so her face is pointed towards me. As if knowing where safety lies, however, she turns her prehistoric body around and runs, her back twisting over her frenetic feet.
A kind of glory fills me as I watch her go, so that I’m unarmed when I turn around and come face to face with Doug McDougall’s veined cheeks and rubbery mouth.
‘Veronica Rutledge!’ He smiles. ‘Champion chucking. No messing with you, I see.’
‘Doug!’ I can’t help a distracted glance up to the house. ‘Ben’s not here.’
He shrugs. ‘Searching for me cows. Been down that way.’ He jerks his head south. ‘Wouldn’t want them in ya garden.’
‘Or in the river, Doug. My understanding is they shouldn’t be able to get to the river.’ I’m noble-eyed as I say this, full of information and rural bylaws. I don’t want to give him any excuse to think I’m being nice.
He stares back from sun-pushed-in eyes. ‘I’ll be walking over that way.’ He points in the direction of the crop. ‘No need to worry, they won’t be far.’ He smiles, scratches under the rim of his hat.
‘I’ll have to keep going, Doug,’ I say.
‘Course! Wife takes her opportunity to do her work when I’m out as well.’ He shifts his hat, turns. I watch his bum-crack ride between his too-short shirt and the top of his anti-gravity pants. I know he’s got his eye on our weed.
Cliff writes that there is one tap between 218 prisoners. The faucet is half a metre off the ground. It’s a matter of the ultimate crouch if you want water to run over your body.
I walk to his house, the letter clamped in my hand. I feel struck by a deep brain-sore sentimentality, the sort that wells and sends heat to your face.
At Cliff’s house I check the stumps, the uprights. There are borer in his bottles, tiny white ants eating through the timbers that stand every metre or so between the flagons. They’re turning the wood to marshmallow. The house is going to fall down.
‘Can’t do anything about it,’ Benji said when I told him. ‘Not till Cliff gets back.’
I sit in the house, cross-legged. The late sun is molten inside, green and congealed. I’m staring at a spot in one of the bottles and because of the way the glass is shaped it looks like a drop of water is suspended among the cobwebs and carapaces. I try to bestow Tantric, Rastafarian soulfulness on myself, to imbue my mind with the notion of peace and goodwill without the Wise Men being involved. I meditate: breathe in, breathe out. My mind is attempting to clear itself, trying to be still and uncluttered, all-pure. But unnecessary minutiae crowd into my grey matter, first gradually, then in a grand prix of rush. I must ring my parents, the washing has to be brought in, the chickens need to be locked up for the night, I have to expand my recipe repertoire – if I eat rice and vegetables one more time I’ll lose the last taste buds I own. Tranquillity has failed.
I try all over again, begin this time by saying goodnight to Cliff, wishing him a pleasant sleep, a windless existence, an extra skin across his wrecked nose and, for good measure, patches over his eyeballs to keep out the pain of the naked light bulb that’s always on. A trial, I remember suddenly, please grant him a trial. I wonder if my prayers will make a difference and then something else is in the way. The crime: the fact that Cliff was a mule for thieves who strip away a people’s icons, melt down their religious statues, steal a country’s wealth.
This thought snuffs out my reverence as powerfully as if Doug McDougall had his nozzle in here, was pressure-spraying poison around. There’s nothing for it but to get up, pull my heart back into its spot and mother on. I close the door on my way out, checking to make sure it’s latched because I don’t want a snake entering the coolness.
Coming over the ridge – deciding to make a pie because I’ve got flour – I see clouds of asthma-inducing dust billowing up from the valley. I run. Disaster is registered in my mind so when I see the source of the dust, it’s almost laughable – until the second rush of panic strikes in a sickening surge.
I shout, wave my arms about. Doug McDougall is sitting high on his tractor. Benji and Joel are in the front of Benji’s Bedford truck, the vehicles nose to nose. Benji’s face seems set in blind determination. Joel – strapped into his restraint – is harder to make out. Still, I know he’ll be frozen with fear, know he’ll nod his head later when I ask him, were you scared?
The truck pushes on Doug McDougall’s tractor, nudges it towards the cutting. Both vehicles jerk. Benji bears down, the wheels of the Bedford spinning so that the backend drifts right. Doug McDougall is shouting for him to stop, to back off, to not be so stupid. Benji takes no notice, continuing to rev his engine as Doug McDougall holds ground, his fist up as the wheels on his tractor dig in. And I’m thinking that an arm wrestle would have been simpler, would just as easily have sorted through the demands that the farmer had made and Benji was determined not to give-in to. It also would have left out my little boy.
My jumping and shouting – ‘What the hell are you doing? Don’t be a dickhead!’ – are impotent. The tractor, less Doug McDougall who has jumped from the seat, slips backward and then tumbles over the bank of the river, trampling a path as it goes wheel-over-gearstick through the great cushion of blackberry down the embankment. There’s a crunching of thick stems, a sighing and creaking of machinery as it cartwheels off.
Pivoting at the water’s edge, it comes to a halt. Benji doesn’t hesitate. Turning in a big circle, around and up, his Bedford disappears over the crest of Doug McDougall’s property, trundling towards the road to make the forty-minute trip home via McDougall’s bridge.
Cliff’s next letter announces he’s had his trial and was sentenced to two years, seven months of which he’s already served. A deduction of sorts, he announces brightly. The lights are still on all night and there’s only ever going to be one tap, but I’ll be home by Christmas next year. He and Benji will rebuild his house. The farm will help heal and reconstruct his face.
Summer stretches and Doug McDougall drops the idea of bribing Benji. The tractor is winched out of the gully and nothing more is said, as if brutish behaviour settles things amongst men. For a moment, especially when the crop produces a bounty previously unknown in our case, I think things are in top form. But for all the joy, all the one-season good luck we have that year, there’s a niggling concern, a concern as tiny but persistent as the virus decimating Cliff’s face.
I go about my chores: washing, cooking, cleaning, mothering, but something’s changed, something’s eating at me, something that has stained my view and coloured the paddocks. And it’s something the land can’t cleanse itself of.
I watch the goanna shift unafraid across the veldt grass to the chooks’ enclosure but I can’t find the energy to march over there and stop the inevitable. I turn away rather than see her let fly among the chickens, knowing that one by one their eggs – our eggs – will roll down her long neck whole.
And as I’m allowing this, I’m thinking Doug McDougall is one thing but the law is a whole petrifying shift on from there. And at the heart of it, Benji could be locked up. Cliff already is. That’s what’s going to stick, I realise, from this long summer of realities. That’s what will, unlike Cliff’s face, not repair.
I turn again, unable to totally ignore my assailant, the egg-eating goanna. And I’m weighing all this up as if I’m going to have to decide what price I’m prepared to pay, what crimes I’m happy to back up or turn a blind eye to. And, most significant of all, what kind of world my baby, Joel – who isn’t really a baby anymore but a little boy – is going to see.
I throw the dish-cloth I’m clutching into the sink and exit the open door to stride across the paddock towards the chicken coop where I’ll take the situation in hand; where I’ll put what’s wrong right beginning with the small crimes and ending with the big. The goanna sees me coming, switching her head around as if she knows what’s about to happen.
I pull open the cage door as she manages to slip under a loose bit of wire and scurry away so that I eye the hole she’s escaped from, taking in exactly where the enclosure needs to be knitted together, secured against unwanted forces, where it needs to be made safe and shored up. And I nod and breathe more easily and watch the grass flicker where the last of her form can be seen shifting away.