Fiction

Justine and Col and Mr Heggarty

The mango trees are behind Mr Heggarty's milking shed. I can see them from the road, three dark cut-out shapes against the sky. I think about biting into the squishy fruit, the sugary juice. My mouth begins to water so I clear my throat and spit.

Mr Heggarty is our neighbour. Sometimes him and Col cart hay together.

I keep walking. Because I'm not wearing shoes, I have to hold my breath against the sharpness of the stones. Just before the road winds up the hill, I slip sideways between the rusty fence wires, making sure I keep close to the wattles so I'm hidden from the holding yard. I don't want Mr Heggarty to see me because he might tell Col and if Col found out he'd kill me.

Well, not kill exactly, but he'd get really angry.

Like that time at the chemist shop. The lipstick was called Pulse. It had a musk-stick smell and a shiny gold case. But when I was outside on the footpath, a man in a white coat grabbed my elbow. He didn't take me to the police station, just made me wait in his office at the back of the shop – ‘until we can contact your husband,' he said. When Col finally turned up, he marched me straight to the counter and made a big show about paying. A whole eighteen dollars and ninety-nine cents. The girl at the cash register didn't speak, just kept her eyes down as she put the lipstick in a paper bag and folded the top closed with sticky tape. Col then made me say I was sorry – louder the second time so everyone in the shop could hear.

‘Promise me you won't do it again,' he kept repeating on the drive home. But I didn't say anything. I just held my stretched-out fingers through the truck window against the rush of air.

Because the top part of the paddock is mostly covered in lantana bushes, I have to tuck the hem of my skirt into the legs of my underpants to stop the material from catching on the prickles. I tread carefully, making sure I miss the mud and the splatters of cow shit. The penned-up cows sound really angry now. Their udders must be almost bursting. Halfway down the hill, I move away from the cow track and on to the grass. Because I can walk faster, my canvas shoulder bag bangs against my hip with each step. ‘Won't do it again, won't do it again,' I say Col's words out aloud to myself, ‘won't do it again,' until the meaning is swallowed by the sound. Words are funny like that. There are some sounds with words trapped inside them like the noise of Mr Heggarty's cows. I try to work out the words trapped in the bellowing. Last week it was to doto do,but this morning, no matter how hard I listen, I can't make out anything.

Sometimes Col reminds me of a cow. He's got brown moo-cow eyes and his lashes are as stiff as paintbrush bristles. His forehead is wide and he's got a little wheel of hairs that makes his fringe stand on end. A cowlick, he called it when we first met and I thought he was being funny. But I soon learnt his cowlick made his hair difficult to cut and I was the only one who knew how to do it properly.

On the first Saturday of every month, I set him up on the back porch with an old towel covering his shoulders and some sheets of newspaper under his boots. Neither of us speaks. There's just the grind of the scissors, the rustle of his hair falling on the paper. Recently I've noticed bits of grey mixed in with the brown, but I've never said anything. Col is proud of his hair. He reckons it isn't bad for someone close to forty. The best part is when I shake the sheet over the veranda and scrunch up the newspaper because that's when he calls me his own clever girl.

The creek makes a laughing noise as it rushes over the stones. The water is so cold the bones in my feet hurt but I have to wait till the milking machines start up so I know Mr Heggarty is busy in the shed. Mr Heggarty bought me a drink last night when I was waiting for Col in the Ladies Lounge of the Northern. The glass was wet from the ice and it had a pink striped straw and every time I sipped it made a slurping sound. Mr Heggarty stood close to my chair watching me. I looked at him when I'd finished, a little sideways look, but the shadow of his hat meant I couldn't see his eyes.

I kick at the creek and try to think about other things, like the plop-plop of the falling lilly pilly berries and the squashed-ant stink of the lantana leaves heating up in the sun. From here the mango trees look like three giant lollipops. I check the bare skin of my legs for ticks and leeches. But as soon as the milking machines start up, I scrabble up the bank and run as fast as I can.

Everything changes under the mango trees. The air is shadowy and soft. Talcum powder dust sticks to my wet feet. There's no fallen fruit, though. The cows have gobbled everything up, even the pips. I tilt back my head and turn slowly. Because the light is broken into pieces by the leaves, it's like being inside a kaleidoscope and 
I have to hold out my arms to stop the dizzy feeling.

The middle tree is best because the branches are low, but you still have to work hard to swing yourself up. After that the mangoes are close, just hanging there above your head. Today they smell like coconuts, which makes me think of the shampoo I sometimes buy at the new supermarket. I reach up. The leaves shake as I tug and the mango is so big it fills up my hand. I nick the skin with my teeth, peeling downwards, trying to keep my tongue rolled back so it doesn't get the taste. I hate anything bitter. Even mango skins. They remind me of the medicines I had to take at Highview: the slimy taste of cod liver oil followed by some dark, bitter stuff. I don't know what it was called. Something to do with worms or vitamins.

Col said if I married him I could choose wherever I wanted to go for our honeymoon. He even wrote me a cheque for eight hundred dollars.

‘Surprise me,' he said.

But in the taxi to the bus terminal, when I showed him the tickets, with my hair still dropping confetti, I thought he was going to cry.

‘The Gold Coast,' he kept saying. ‘Justine, for Christ's sake, the place is full of germs and wogs.'

For weeks before we got married, he kept leaving leaflets about fishing trips on the dashboard of the truck, sometimes even slipping them into my handbag. I hate thinking how I didn't get the hint. On that score, Col is right. I can be thick as a brick.

We met when I was fifteen. Col was the driver for the Highview laundry truck. I'd left school by then and was a helper in the kitchen. For some reason, I started noticing things about him: his bow-legged walk that told me he knew how to ride a horse, the clink of the keys he kept clipped to his belt. There was the thrill when he called me over – nobody else – to the side of his truck and gave me a cigarette. That went on for weeks, Col leaning back against the driver door with his legs crossed at the ankles, smiling as I talked to him through the smoke. He made a plan that we should meet one night down by the creek and I said yes. It was dark but I had no fear as I waded through the bracken past the gate. I remember the way the sky was filled with stars, millions of little suns – I learnt that when I was in primary school – and there was a moon on its side with the shadowy part perfectly clear. Col was waiting beneath Robson Bridge like he promised with a rug spread over the grass. In the faint light, I could just make out the shapes of the tartan. We talked in whispers even though there was no one about, just the rumble when a car crossed over the bridge. And then he got me to take off all my clothes before we'd even kissed.

I lean forward and bite into the mango. Juice squirts into the back of my throat, making me cough. There's something Col does to me over and over that reminds me of this, something I hate. I bite harder. But mango juice is different. It's sweet and it doesn't burn your throat or make your eyes sting with tears. Mango juice doesn't make you choke. I keep eating. Juice begins to dribble down my neck, to dry on the skin between my fingers. I start on my second mango. Bits of fruit get caught between my teeth but I don't care. There's just me and the mangoes and the leaves sparkling in the light.

The mooing is fainter now, which means Mr Heggarty must have almost finished the milking. I lick my fingers then edge myself up until I'm standing with my back against the tree trunk. I pick quickly, dumping the mangoes into my bag. I know when I get home I'll have to hide them in the linen press, the cool dark cupboard at the end of the passage. A place Col never visits.

The milking machines stop. I can hear the thud of hooves on the grass as the cows head towards the creek. My bag is heavy and pulls on my shoulder. There's a mango for the walk home plus seven more – enough for a whole week if I'm not greedy. My knee scrapes against the bark as I slide down. As soon as my feet touch the dirt, I press myself flat against the tree trunk. Mr Heggarty is washing down the yard with his hose and the water makes a hissing sound as it hits the concrete. I know this is the important part – to wait until he's gone before running to the creek.

But suddenly he turns and stares in my direction. I can feel blood dribbling down my leg but I don't move to wipe it away. He keeps on staring. I start to think about what would happen if I stepped out into the sun, the way he would lean back and turn off the hose while he watched me walking towards him. I'd have to show him the bag of mangoes. After that he'd probably ask me into his house, saying he was going to make us a cup of tea. But I don't let myself move. And then he crouches down next to the pump. The hose switches off and he walks back to the shed. The clang of the milk cans tells me I'm safe.

Down at the creek, I dab at the blood on my shin then put my fingers into my mouth and suck. The taste is sharp and salty. Nothing like mango.  ♦

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