A matter of instinct

THE ESTATE AGENT suggests a three-month lease to start. 'A bit isolated. Usually rent it out as a holiday place to families.' And for a moment the woman thinks he will ask about her family. About a husband, children. But he just shows her where to sign and takes her money. He tells her the house has a heritage listing and goes by two names, depending on which generation of local you talk to. The Witch's House. The Doll's House. In the mid-1800s it was owned by the Reverend Barkley, who hanged himself from the balcony. Apparently without rhyme or reason. The agent waits for her reaction and is disappointed to find she's more interested in the sister she's heard about. The one who inherited the house, who kept the diary now preserved for holidaymakers. As he turns to leave he tells her: 'Don't mind the noises at night, in the roof. That'll just be the possums.'

That first night she learns something of daily life in the nineteenth century for a woman living on an island off an island off an island. She pores over the diary's decorative handwriting as if it holds the clue to her own survival here. The weather, then as now, dictated the structure of the day. Good weather meant wash day. There were letters to write and answer; mail seemed at times to be the only connection to civilisation. Boys at military camp. Men at war. A cow calving and the milk to look forward to. Converting forty pounds of apricots into jam. Baking bread and bottling hop beer. Killing snakes. The occasional porpoise washed up on the beach and, once, a whale. Thirty-odd feet of it. Harpooned.

When the Parks and Wildlife officer climbs back down through the manhole in the kitchen ceiling, shaking his head, she closes her eyes. When he tells her 'Love, those possums you want me to get rid of are rats,' she swallows hard. She isn't afraid of possums or dolls or witches. But rats – why does it have to be rats?

Once, on the mainland, after a nightmare about rats, she typed rat attack into the Google search engine. She read about a mother waking to find a rat in the bedroom nibbling at her baby's face, attracted by a tiny spit-up of vomit. Scavengers. Survivors. Even though it was a pro-rat article, emphasising the vomit and not the baby as the food source, the woman knows what desperate times call for. How instinct can still kick in after years of hibernation.

The second night in the house she dreams vividly about the boy and the old woman. The boy has a painted face and dances a story she cannot follow. The old woman smiles, lifting a billy from a fire and offering her tea. For you, she says, referring both to the tea and the dance. The woman wakes crying and remembering the daily struggle to live a life not her own. To be the kind of wife and mother everyone had said would come naturally to her. Her declaration after twenty years that she wasn't sure she had been the right person for either job. Then leaving. Just like that, they will be saying. But they will be wrong.

On the second night, looking up from the kitchen sink, she sees a man's silhouette against the curtain. She hears his voice in place of a knock, as if his hands are full, as if (she will later think) he wants it known from the start, so there can be no later recriminations, that the first visit was a friendly one. That he came bearing gifts. This man who must come from the fibro shack she was told was deserted. This man, she suddenly realises as the first bubble of panic begins its assent, who is her only neighbour for miles.

'Cooee,' calls her neighbour through the glass sliding door that separates them. 'Anyone home?'

The woman switches on the back porch light and parts the curtain. The man is not tall. He is not a big man but hairy – he is a mass of shoulder-length hair and beard, so much so that his eyes are the only naked thing about him. Little rat eyes, she thinks, then stops herself from dramatising further. He could be the perfect neighbour. But the perfect neighbour would call in daylight hours. Wouldn't he? There is a six-pack of beer in one hand and an open can in the other, and though she has not yet opened the door the woman senses that there is already too much beer on his breath, in his voice and – she suspects – deeper still. She unlocks and slides open the door just wide enough to be polite. Just narrow enough to let it be known this is not an invitation. He smiles widely so that his eyes momentarily disappear. His teeth are hidden behind his beard and she cannot help but imagine them being bad.

'Gidday, thought I'd come introduce myself...maybe have a beer with the hubby?' The man lowers his eyes as if suddenly remembering some formality may be expected, but as he lifts them the word 'hubby' becomes a searchlight travelling up the woman's body. Over her bare feet. The terry towelling dressing gown. Fixing itself on her face like a barely discernible dare, or something more intimate. The woman finds herself momentarily caught between her learned role as hostess and the much older one of survivor.

She struggles with her first words, hesitating just long enough for the man's eyebrows to shoot up as he shakes his head from side to side. As he puts the six-pack down. As, still clutching the can, he opens out his arms in a gesture of innocence and says – wounded, defensive – 'What? No hubby? Well, you coulda fooled me. I mean a woman out here on her own...if I'd known I never...'

Should she try and explain that she is trying to be just that – a woman on her own? In this house, on this island. That she has plans for a vegie garden, chooks, long beach walks. That she wants to learn how to fish. Remember how to pray. Discover what the ocean bed has to reveal at low tide. How strong she can become swimming against the current. If she says, 'I have come here to heal' – what then?

And the woman thinks again about the rats, about them gnawing at her weak spots until she is utterly exposed. Until she must own up to her part in everything past and present. Suddenly she wants to say yes, of course there's a hubby, and he'll be back soon with our two grown-up sons – but she knows it is too late for stories, that the man has already picked up her scent of fear.

'Look,' she says finally, 'I'm sorry but this isn't a good time for me. I'm not too well...I'm just heading off to...' But she can't bring herself to use the word 'bed'.

'What? Oh god, you don't think I'd have come over if I'd known you were on your own, do you? Is that what you think?'

'No, no...I just...'

''re not scared of me, are you? That's it, isn't it? I've scared you. You're scared of me.'

The woman lifts her slight frame up as high as she can without standing on tiptoes and looks the man in the eye and says, 'I don't scare easy,' like she's a character from an old western or gangster movie and if they were friends they might laugh at this over a beer. But they are strangers who have only undisclosed grief in common.


THAT NIGHT THE woman cleans the kitchen. She cleans quietly by candlelight. First the fridge, then the bench tops, shelves and cupboards. Making sure that any food not in tins is secured in plastic containers with tight-fitting lids. As she cleans she thinks about the packet of rat poison and the rat traps under the sink and knows soon she must choose. To corrode from the inside out or to break bones? Neither way guarantees a quick or painless death. The pacifist in her resists premeditating harm. It would have to be self-defence or nothing. She would have to wait for the rats to make the first move or she would learn how to live with them as she would learn how to live with herself. When she is done cleaning the kitchen she showers until the hot water runs cold.

In the middle of the next day the man is over again, this time with a bag of pinkeye potatoes freshly dug from his own patch and a little boy with skin the colour of golden syrup dangling at the end of his arm, wiping his nose with the back of his hand and staring at his feet. The man says, 'Here you go,' and hands the woman the bag. 'Sorry 'bout last night. I'd had a few. Sorry.' He tells her to boil the potatoes and to eat them with butter. He doesn't say anything about the boy. When he leaves the woman wonders if his eyes are more rabbit– than rat-like after all, and what kind of trap this might be. And for who.

That night he returns, drunk again and angry. He paces outside her kitchen window while she stands just out of view with her arms folded, fingernails biting into her palms. 'Think ya too good for me, is that it? Huh? That what ya reckon? What's wrong with ya, anyway?'

The next morning an old woman who has the man's eyes and the boy's skin appears at the door.

'My son,' she says. 'He doesn't mean any harm. A good boy. Only, the wife left. He's just lonely, that's all. Why don't you give him a chance? Come on over for tea. If you don't mind me saying, it's not right – a woman alone out here. Beggars can't be choosers, and he's a good boy once you get to know him. Sooner or later you'll be glad for the company. You'll see...'

On the fourth night he's back and she can hear through the glass door that he's sobbing. She sits in the dark at the kitchen table facing the closed curtains and the locked door and listens as he thumps the heel of his hand against the wall. Desolation has taken the place of anger in his voice.

'I juz wanna talk to ya, juz talk is all – won't ya come out, won't ya? Less work it out. Less talk about it, come on, eh? Why do ya hate me? Why?'

She imagines the boy and the old woman asleep and wonders if they dream about her. If lives can be connected in ways that only reveal themselves once the connection has been broken. If she plants apricot trees now, it will be three to five years before she makes her first pot of jam. She thinks again about the possums being rats. About the harpooned whale. About the implications of doing no harm. And long after the man's voice and footsteps have faded, as night morphs into day, she wonders who will go this time and who will stay.

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