Outskirts online journal

Joanna Harkness

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Volume 1, May 1996

The Spring

The [Kunderup] district in Western Australia was established around a spring to which Aborigines directed a thirsty party in 1837. The spring was situated on the route between the capital Perth, and the port of Albany and a military outpost was set up for the protection of travellers and mail. A town developed.1

You don't realise what you've got until it's gone, Bob thought as he buried the old bitch. Now, she was faithful. Never stared deep into the eyes. He asked God to forgive him as he impersonated the Priest by making up his own ceremony to farewell the animal. As he dusted the grey nematode-ridden soil from his standard navy trouser, he felt the next train. The tracks tingle and whine.

Hello Love says his wife. She always managed to greet him just as the fly wire door slammed so that the words were inaudible. He's never late. She's never out. His thoughts were still with the smiling dog. It was Thursday evening. She wondered if he will want her. Charlie's Angels always made him come alive. Into the kitchen. Bum drooping, head kicking look on his face. It's her fault that life ends, and hers not soon enough. She sensed his fantasy, faraway. But Father shall take care of his flock. It was best to be church going and going to church.

Back at the station he flicked the pen in and out of itself. He watched the resident spider in its motionlessness. Food came to the spider. Sometimes Bob was attacked in his chest. As though a Boa Constrictor was filling his gullet, hollowing and tightening. He tries to cough it out. He wondered if God was tormenting him. He didn't join the Holy Orders, he knew he would be sent to do mission work. He was scared of the rich white farmers who mocked his accent and took the Aboriginal women as it they were allowed. So he married. And became a Station Master. Sometimes he would contemplate lying down on the tracks. It makes him smile on his outside face.

He took pride in his appearance. It wasn't such a thrill working the railway; it was the foreign parcels and supplies and the glowing, dirty faces of the train drivers. It made him quiver like little birthday boy. They were complicit in working this place. He loved Australia. He could only just remember Ireland, his mother, and the long journey. As the train moved off into the distance his body jerked.

When the trains backed onto one another the assemblage was routine. But the metal and metal chains were divine in their forethought and engineered rationale. They were a fantastic illusion. From this came religion. The railway made sense of the world and no-one could survive without it.

His wife was a local girl. She was held to be a good catch. He caught her and pinned her wings to the head board. She released him from himself for a while, but she embodied a world with which he was at odds; she was not as devoted to the church as he would have liked. He lived with her as he lived. Living dead, dead living. They've been trapped for seventeen years now. In one another's arms. In Kunderup. Tidy Town Winner 1978, 1979.

She mimicked her mother's silence. The heat of the town scrambled thought processes anyway. Haunted by the rightness of the priest and the congregation, she mechanically responded to her life. Resolution and salvation via donation and architecture. Agoraphobia caught and threw her. Dizzy dizzy. Oranges to apples to car door to safety belt reclining. Swimming in heat-sweat-fear. Get home, cold water, cool breeze under Jacaranda.

He'd made the crucifix for the dog's grave. He'd sanded it back twice whilst applying the preservative. He wanted it to last. This crucifix was to be more than the monument of his affection. The dog had made for a distraction from the inevitable day and conversation that may have led others to ponder his boredom. The dog had thought it was a cat. Had chased mice. Had been a runaway. So that became her name, Runaway. Runaway became the subject of many tales, short and long, an addition to his identity that had been consolidated by the small community. They thought they knew him.

That night his wife sat on his lap. He asked her to get off. She lived his rejection as a dog would beg for scraps. She could somehow deal with it you see. She allowed him to control her body. It made no difference. Her body told her the time or her life. Like a clock on the wall she disregarded the urge to study or touch it.

As he inspected the spur-line with Runaway's memory trotting beside him, she packed a bag. Then she unpacked it. And then she packed it again . She slid it under the bed with a casual kick. Click! He'd walked into a rabbit trap set on a boundary fence. Agony overtook the fragile body. The steel teeth desiring his flesh, the spring relieved to be unwound. Her courage grew, if only she and the bag could make it. Make it happen, make it go away. She breathed slowly, deeply. Feet on floorboards creeping, creaking not. Teetering on the verandah as the world kaleidoscoped into Kunderup. Breathing deeply, regaining composure. Yelling loudly, blaspheming, slipping in and out of consciousness as the blood dripped and the tendons tendered. She jumped off the verandah, discarding the three steps. She ran to the bus.

He was found a day later. Delirious, speaking in tongues. Trapped, trapped in trousers and metal traps. Who is hunting, trapping whom? Why? Killing, maiming. It was a bad line. The matron was too busy to tell the story. Where was she? She was unsure. Of course she was at her mothers Guest House in Midland.

She repacked the bag. Back on the bus, treacherous open space flung down both sides of her being. Up ahead more space. Close the eyes. Two hours to go. For a moment the rawness of Kunderup was just ahead, she wanted to scream watch out! to the driver. Thud, thud, thud, as the bus took a kangaroo. Its carcass having to travel the full length of the underside in order to free itself.

Would she stay. That leap stood-up all that time, made the years slip. Now she was in herself, there was no going back. Just until he was better. She would ask the matron to make the necessary excuses to him. Her absence due to illness: Her lie aligning itself with her old body, her old life. Words were there for her now.

Arriving at the house was like putting clothes on inside out, it had stood empty since her departure. There had been no drama here. He hadn't screamed out her name, mourned her loss, searched for the remnants of her smell. The joke was on her. She tried not to dissolve into little pieces, looked down to her feet for comfort. He was a handsome man. She'd cared for him as a brother. She could see his pain. Marrying him had given her a place in the community. It had worked and now it seemed to be unseaming, decaying. She began to doubt herself, ambivalence creeping. She needed to be released but it would appear that the thread was too strong.

A rifle cracked ... probably at the Aboriginal Reserve.

Bob's bleached mind was finding solace in the remote control. He would drop some hints and hope for one at Christmas time. He wasn't comfortable with his immobility, his mind left to ponder the tragedy of his life. No matter how hard he tried to keep his thoughts light and trained, on track, the diversions surfaced and overtook his fragile methodology. The last time he'd been in a hospital he was blowing air into his blue baby, not hearing the doctors decree. He had rationalised the short life and huge emotions by accepting the forces of creation, wherein the prophet will always escape this life in order to help those poor immortal creatures below. He knew he was a poor creature, it was his alibi. The tightening in his chest reminded him of his close connection to what he deemed the truth; that we die a little every day. What could possibly matter more than the private pleasures of a simple life. His body ached.

She was walking towards the hospital, head down. Their courting had been a play of all her unfulfilled desires. The realisation of nesting had left her cup not overflowing. Their covenant of repressed requests became her. The death of their child adding a new layer of heat and pressure to the already vacuumed household. The tightness of skin and attitude was too much. Hollowness had brought her pleasure. She knew she deserved something more, even if it was something unnameable, untouchable. She was terrified by her thoughts, guerrilla warfare in her head.

As she reached the hospital she too suffered flashbacks of the blue baby. Or was it the agoraphobia? It was all so white. She stepped into the air conditioned building, her feet half reflected in the white domestic tiles of linoleum. Everything was so still and in its place. She approached the matrons office as if it was the Tabernacle.

Bob was sleeping - she could see him through the window. There was a drip in his arm, she moved into the ward. She observed his face, but it was the bead in the drip that caught and held her attention. Like a spirit level, maybe a leveller of spirit. He wouldn't Iike that. She sat in the visitor's chair, handbag on knee. The nurse came in and with a loud voice instructed the station master to wake up, he had a visitor. He woke with a start, she was instantly apologetic. Once she'd finished he showed her the remote control. It's great he said. A modern day wonder. She wanted to know how bad the injury was - he reassured her of a speedy recovery. Due out of hospital in a couple of days. And no work until he'd finished the antibiotics.

And where had she been? Oh sick with a bad case of the flu. Was everything alright at the house? Yes. And what was happening down at the station? Oh some man from Katanning would be managing. He went on to tell her that the Priest had visited him each day. The farmer whose trap it was more than apologetic.

She couldn't stop the day from arriving. He arrived, two in the house, the breathing began. She made him comfortable in the living room, propped up on pillows and cushions and TV images. He called when he wanted the channel changed.

She was living out of that suitcase. Part of her wouldn't let those her things back into those drawers and that cupboard. Her mother called and she whispered into the receiver.

On the third night she announced her desire for a trial separation. He dropped his mug of tea. He attacked her. What would she do? She wasn't employable at her age and what skills had she? None. Through the tears she told him that her mother had offered her a position at the Guest House. He made scathing remarks about the types of men who stayed there. Transient types. Truck drivers.

That night he didn't come into the bedroom.

He moved around the house in the early morning, not greeting her, but smiling in his uniform. Off to work he went. She wondered what he was thinking. She stayed in the house, unable to leave when nothing had been resolved. He arrived home late. He'd been to see the Priest. He threatened her with the prospect of excommunication. She had nothing to say, it was obviously his main concern. They could be separated but never divorced. He would not allow her to make him an outcast.

She left the next day. He came home and raged around the house. His mind contorted into a tight ball of fury and lead, screams rendered his body impotent. He skated along the edge of his mind. Sliding down the wall he cried into hands of sap. He didn't know what he was feeling, could not believe she'd gone. He was so convinced that she was doing it for attention, and he wouldn't stand for that sort of behaviour. He won't be bullied in his own house. She'd be back. She wouldn't be able to cope with working in that guesthouse, preparing meals, cleaning rooms. She was his wife.

She locked herself into the allotted room. Her mother told her not to come down until she was ready. That she didn't have to lift a finger. Onto the bed, face in pillow, fists clenched as the jaw groaned unconsciously with confusion and frustration. What to do with this wreck of a body and semi-mutilated mind. She refused to take his calls. He called incessantly, resorting to abuse with that Kunderup tongue.

As the weeks passed Bob surrendered to his solitude. Going to the pub was nightmarish, silences rang cacophonous cymbals in his ears. Everyone knew that they weren't meant to know what they knew, but they knew and he knew they knew. The knowing got in the way of the caring. So he spent more time on his knees in the church trying to find the least rocky path forward. He no longer revelled in the magnificence of the metal and man's reflection therein. The farmers confirmed his shortcomings by the way they spoke, lauding over the peasant station master, the temporary keeper of their golden grains. They had to trust him even if they didn't want to.

She was still refusing all forms of communication. He had to let her go now. It was the letting go that was so difficult. It left a gap. He recollects that powerful feeling of not knowing what you have until it's gone. What did this mean ? How could man be so careless? What control had he over his life?

Later, Bob looked up to the resident station spider only to find an empty web. He was toying with the idea of acquiring another dog. A man needs a companion. He was gradually gaining strength from his solitude, feeling proud of his unneedingness. An uncomplicated relationship, like that between master and dog, was what he now desired. He hadn't heard from her for three months now. The silence was no longer deafening. The community was adjusting a little to the left and a little to the right so that he could find his new position. He'll check with the pound first, he doesn't mind the idea of a stray. After all Runaway had been a stray of sorts. And she'd licked his wounds in a way that no other creature in this world could have. Her loyalty was been beyond imagining.


1. M Bignall, First the Spring (Perth: University of Western Australia Press, 1982)

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