Papa said, ‘This must be the place,’ and I knew from the last three announcements of, ‘This should be it,’ ‘Here we are,’ and, ‘We’ve finally made it,’ that this backwater railroad pigsty was not the end of the line but another in the succession of refuges for us wanderers. Somewhere around, ‘This; this is our home,’ I realised Papa’s reasoning that we were escaping the threat of the Japanese had lost its integrity or, at the very least, I reasoned that a stretch of desolate ghost towns several hundred kilometres from Adelaide did not hold high in the priorities of the Axis’s quest for domination.
Papa had led us to a clearing nearby the river and left us with our luggage while he went upstream to talk to the landowner’s for permission. I got to work unloading the tent – now more a Frankenstein shelter of materials than a uniform sheet of canvas – while Melanie decided in her aloof manner to walk Scampy down to the river. Melanie understandably treated this entire ordeal as if we were in a travelling circus, and both the garish tent and Pap’s joking talk did nothing but feed her fantasies. She’d now pulled out her copper wire hoop and she, the ringleader, was going to have her lion Scampy jump through the ring of fire to an audience of river toads. It had been a good three months since she met anyone even five years within her age. It had been since Adelaide since I’d met another in their twenties, let alone teens.
That night Papa made a campfire much to my surprise. He’d killed a few rabbits out across the railroad and said he’d spotted a good half dozen roos on his way back from the landowners. Big ones, ones that Scampy should stay clear of. This was fertile land, he said and assured us while wielding his rabbit haunch haphazardly that Melanie and I could expect to be staying well fed and warm for a long while yet. Melanie protested for a second, but only to point out Papa didn’t mention Scampy, whom he then immediately threw his haunch to and assured Melanie that the shaggy black mutt would be the fattest of us all.
They retired early and I was left to douse the flames. When the smoke cleared I could vividly see the stars in their cluttered thousands illuminating the flat land in front of me. Papa used to convince us that the stars were more numerous out in the country because they were there to keep us company. All I could think now is that they weren’t a resplendent family but garish gloating fools waltzing at a party that was behind closed doors. We four outsiders were down here alone, in a tent tucked between a muddy river and a ghost town.
With every announcement of a permanent home came Papa’s attempt at salesmanship: ‘This is the town of the big apple, girls!’, ‘Stuart’s expedition came through here… twice!’ and of course his ace in the hole: ‘You kids are going to love the colonial bridge.’ This town’s source of unending awe came quite early as we trekked down the dust trail and Papa’s eyes lit up as he pointed. ‘This place even has a candy shop!’ he yelped, and motioned a hand that was almost like granting us permission, as if we were suddenly sold ecstatically on the idea of confectionery and were struggling against the chains that denied us it. But as Melanie disappeared leaving a trail of dust and the front door swinging I realised I had only thought for one of us.
Inside was nothing like Adelaide’s sugar wonderlands. Like outside it stunk of dry manure. The air was heavy with flies. The candy man was in fact a burly woman, dressed not in stripes but a flannel shirt and denim pants that I thought positioned her as the matriarch of this empire of dust and shrubs. Melanie had already adjusted though, and had now much to the amused chagrin of the shopkeeper adopted the role of magician in her imaginary troupe, trying to make the candy in the shop disappear. The woman eagle-eyed her, and Melanie must have felt her eyes as she whipped around suddenly to face her accuser. She screamed ‘Thief!’ and pointed at Scampy before chasing him out the store repeatedly framing him at the top of her lungs. All the woman could do was heave a coarse laugh. She turned to me.
‘You two are Arthur’s. Mm, mm.’
I realised then that Papa had disappeared before I had even entered the store.
‘You know my father?’
‘I knew Arthur Speck as a boy but I ain’t sure about the bearded man that walked into my house last night.’
‘He didn’t cause any trouble did he?’
She heaved her laughter again.
‘Not at all girl. Not that man. He’s still a hoot, still managed to send my husband tittering like a hyena. He’s just changed a little is all.’ She started to busy herself around the shop like bored jitters, though the place seemed spotless as it could be. ‘He’s still as mad as a mad dog.’
She seemed a blunt woman, though it didn’t make me uncomfortable. The kind of woman that offered an unseen aura of protection. She also seemed the kind to talk to herself when no one was around and considering the half a dozen empty shacks on the way I reasoned that would be often.
‘Your father is thinking of building a house here. Nothing big. He wants my husband to help him out. I didn’t think anyone would want to live in this bastard of a place, excuse my language. Especially you girls.’
This was the first I heard of it, and the look on my face betrayed my surprise to the shopkeeper who turned her head with a kind of pity.
‘I’ll fatten you two up, don’t you worry. It’ll be nice to have some kids around. Even my husband barely visits me down here these days. The rotten coot.’
She jostled herself around and heaved a laugh half-heartedly. I felt a strange sympathy in return.
‘Y’like candy, girl?’
I emerged outside hands full with humbugs I didn’t ask for, in pursuit of a sister I couldn’t be expected to take care of. Melanie wasn’t far though, having apprehended Scampy who fruitlessly tried to lick her face. She whispered something in the dog’s ears as if they shared a secret I wasn’t in on; she was absent in her own mind as usual, as content to stage her own production of the world around her as Papa was to embrace its true mundane existence. It left me to strike a balance and all it gave me was suction on my skin and a grind against my bones. Obliged to help but too tired to empathize. I was ground, boiled and stewed old before my time.
The heat licked our heels and melted the humbugs into something edible as I fed them to Melanie. We searched for Papa, though in these arid flats it was just a matter of separating the silhouettes of cactuses from those of people. The rest of the landscape a sordid assortment of burnt out houses and splintered signs, wattle trees and endless railway. The horizon did offer one oddity: a strangely guarded wall of dense trees.
Inside lay a clearing and at the background was my Papa kneeled over busying himself amongst the grove of crumbled stone and splinted wood crosses. It barely deserved the title of a graveyard. The heap of dirt mounds weren’t so much solemn as they were plain depressing; their ruins not made for remembrance but for fading away gracelessly into nothingness. Even Melanie seemed hesitant for a second, but as Scampy ran forward to quell the unseen demons with his urine she followed quickly. I approached Papa, and I now saw him with tools chipping away at the only two bits of stones that resembled monuments to the dead. He was inscribing names upon the first one. ‘Howard Jonathan Speck’ was now legible.
‘What are we running from Papa?’
‘Running?’ He kept his eyes on his work.
‘We have been moving for so long.’
‘We’re not running from anything. We’re going home, Grace.’
‘I’m not happy, Papa.’
He wheeled himself around and I could feel my eyes burning up as he looked at me. It felt like he hadn’t looked at me in years, and his hazel stare dug deep.
‘I’m not.’ I tried to avoid his eyes.
‘Okay, I understand.’ He turned his back to me yet again and resumed his scribing. All I could do was swallow hard and turn to Melanie, who now hung off the branches victoriously as a trapeze artist, presumably having conquered the graveyard’s assortment of zombies and living skeletons.
‘Your grandparents used to come out to that railroad every day with their sheep and try to flag down the trains and sell to the passengers. They’d be lucky sometimes, sometimes not. Y’know that sweater of yours, Grace? The pink one? That was your Nanna’s knitting. By golly, she was a fantastic knitter.’
The wind was striking up, catching his words and scurrying away with them into the distance.
The next day Papa had gone off to the candy lady’s estate, taking half the camp with him. Only the tent remained and a billy can. I wondered what he expected us to do in the meantime, though Melanie was already busying herself in her own realms. The confectionery shop enticed me, if only because I felt a need to talk to its owner some more. But, soon enough, I found myself heating some beans upon a small fire while Melanie shouted and pranced about with Scampy in happy tow.
‘Whereeeeee’s dad, Gracey?’
‘Gone into town I think.’
‘Down, down. Town, town.’ She walked off sing-songing to the riverside and I went away for a moment to inspect a curious hole near our campsite I’d found the day prior. Accustomed as I was to Adelaide, I treated everything to tenacious caution out here, but I felt that it served me well. I grabbed the heated billy can filled with boiling water and took it over. There could be snakes or spiders or who knows what creatures ready to spring on us in the night. Melanie was brave, but only against the phantoms in her head. I hesitated though, as I poured the water, fearing there might be something cuddlier in there and then a barking erupted in a distance. A combination of yelping and splashing followed that culminated in a blood curdling scream. I raced back and stared down at the river where Melanie stood hapless as a kangaroo, perhaps six foot tall, bent itself over in the river shallows holding something down.
‘Melanie stay away!’
I ran into the tent to grab Papa’s rifle but it wasn’t there and I emerged, panicking, my breath sticking and my heart pounding at what I should do. I snatched at rocks and pelted them at the roo who flinched but an inch and I was helpless. It stood for a few seconds more then bounded off into the distance completely unfazed. In its wake the body of Scampy floated to the surface.
I shouted and I cried long into the afternoon and evening. I blamed myself for leaving and then I blamed Papa before I let my anger onto Melanie, who had sat the whole time in an incredulous state sobbing. Her imagination was no defence and all she could do to be brave now was grip the dog’s body with all her might. I tried to reconcile myself and apologise to her but then my regret came back full circle and I pounced back upon her mercilessly with all the hatred of the past few months screaming out of my throat. Then was Melanie uttered not a word in response I fell backwards, and all of a sudden, for the first time, I felt trapped.
Papa came back to the campsite as the sun set. The look in his eyes as he stared at us two wiped a grin off his face. He saw Scampy, and rushed to Melanie. Something in his eyes and voice soothed her and at once, in his compassion, I saw my father again. It was a minute but felt like much more. Then he looked at me with an ugly concern. The flickering familiarity relented and retreated into the night.
Later he regaled Melanie some mourning tales around the fire as they ate the stew given by the candy lady. He announced that this was indeed going to be the place, our home, and that we’d give Scampy a proper funeral in the morning and visit him every Sunday. Melanie stayed sullen, and I knew then that even Papa could not rouse her from this state, at least not permanently. Later, they retired early, and as I doused the fire I thought of running to anywhere but here, this now tainted place. The smoke cleared and the stars were out again, gloating at us three alone, in a tent trapped between a muddy river and a ghost town.
The Australian Literature Review