THERE’S A LIGHT blearing hazy through the glass behind her brother’s head, the red-blue red-blue of a police car or ambulance. A fire truck. The siren whirs, sings, sets off the great, lumbering sheep dog at her father’s feet, barking at the door until she pulls it open.
‘Mee-mah-mee-mah,’ her niece cries, her little feet pounding against the unpolished floor. Ash pays her no mind, leaning against the doorframe, fingers itching for a cigarette as she watches her father’s dog race over the Mars-red dirt of the farm, leap the paddock fence and disappear through a flock of newly shorn sheep.
‘Probably a bush fire,’ she says, and she feels her brother nod more than she sees it, feels him step into the hall – doesn’t see him until he comes to a stop behind her, hooking his chin over her shoulder, digging it sharp into the valley between her bones.
‘There’s no smoke.’
Sirens are still unusual this far west. There’s little crime – or at least little crime requiring urgency – in the remote farming town of Boodjamulla. Still, it’s not a sound Ash is unused to after so long in the city.
The smell of the Easter roast curls down the hallway, too hot for this weather, but her father is a man of tradition. She glances back at him, to where his head is folded onto his chest, lulled as if he’s asleep. He’s had too many beers already, coached on by his sons and by the new woman on display at his side.
‘I used to know a paramedic who’d turn his siren on just to get around traffic.’
Or not displayed. Ash thinks: displayed implies a passivity, a doll-like sensibility – like something found or bought, but ultimately kept. There’s nothing especially passive about Elizabeth, who sits cross-legged on the arm of her husband – their father’s – chair, her spidery fingers massaging his sunburnt shoulders through the cheap polyester of his Sunday best, all while she’s looking at Ash and Abel.
She plays her part well. She’s svelte figured, her thin leg nude to the knee, smooth and pale as the stones Ash used to skim with her brothers up at Lake Moondarra. But looking at Elizabeth doesn’t leave thoughts of pebbles, but of the creepy-crawlies that lived below. The ones that’d crawl up Ash’s arms and over her hands when she was just a girl, their wriggling bodies leaving a trail of thin, black dirt across her skin.
Abel hooks his chin a little further, dips it and grins, like he and Ash are teenagers still, eyeing off the slim, make-up saleswomen who’d come knocking and leave hours later – the zips on their corporate skirts not quite done up.
‘I’m sure you did,’ Ash replies dryly, and she can feel the look her father gives her across the room.
IN THE KITCHEN, the light shifts through, slinks down between the curtains creating a path through the dusk. The room is barely big enough to house its furniture, and it reminds Ash of the crowded teeth of the children she’d interviewed in the rougher corners of Sydney’s west.
She watches Abel crack open the fridge, pull out a longneck and then, pressing her back to the counter, watches her oldest brother, Geoff, make stifled small talk with Elizabeth.
She’d met Elizabeth once before. Thin and wobbling in her yuppie pumps like an unbroken filly. Her eye shadow had been too dark for the day and rested like powdery slugs below her thinly tweezed brows. The ring of contact lenses visible around her watery irises.
‘I was sorry to hear about your mother,’ she’d simpered, like she hadn’t started fucking her father long before then.
‘Your father and I are planning a holiday,’ Elizabeth says now, dropping a hand to the counter. ‘I’ve always wanted to go to Thailand. Laze about on a beach all day.’
Ash snorts. ‘Dad won’t ever leave Boodjamulla, let alone the country.’
‘We’ve been talking about it for a while. He’s well past retirement age. There’s no reason for him to still be rooted here now that Geoff’s taking over the farm.’
Ash arches an eyebrow at them both, and Geoff shrugs.
‘I’m going to check on the baby,’ Geoff settles on finally, and Ash follows him out.
GEOFF HAD BEEN the only one to follow their father into farming, and the decision had treated him well. The wiry body of the brother she’d known in childhood had grown to be barrel chested and strong. He’d married Rosie, his schoolyard sweetheart, who fitted the role of farmer’s wife wonderfully with her tenacity for getting earth and blood out of clothes, for driving flat-backed utes loaded with rollicking sheep, for how far she could hit a cane toad across a paddock with a golf club.
Ash follows Geoff down the hall and into the bedroom where the baby sleeps. He doesn’t even pick her up, just drops a hand into the crib, holds it close to her pink, open mouth and waits for the breath to warm his skin.
‘Our mother died less than a year ago,’ Ash hisses, and Geoff – big brother, ever the mediator – holds up his hands in surrender.
‘He needs some comfort. Company.’
Like it’s an answer.
Ash opens her mouth to reply, words burning up on her tongue, but the door creaks open and a twist of blonde hair peaks through.
Geoff has three precocious daughters, pretty as lambs with the sunburnt shoulders and laboured hands of all the outback children who’ve come before them. They could drench a sheep before they could write their names.
‘Daddy,’ Lacey calls, the oldest and prettiest, clammy fingers leaving their imprint against the doorknob. ‘Mum wants to know if you want green beans or just peas.’
Crouching down onto his haunches, Geoff opens up his arms, inviting Lacey to fold her chest against his, to collapse easily, confidently against him, and giggle when he heaves her up.
‘What do you want?’ Geoff asks easily, and Lacey hums dramatically, tapping her chin in thought, and Geoff widens his eyes, holds a heavy breath, like this is the most important thing he’s likely to hear today. Before she can stop the thought, Ash wonders where he learnt it – this ease, this steadiness, this genuine attention, because it certainly wasn’t from anyone they knew. The thought spikes in Ash’s gut, briefly boils into something ugly – that her nieces would get from Geoff what Ash never got, that they would grow to be better because they had Geoff and not...
She needs another drink.
THEY’RE SATED FROM lunch, and Ash leans back at the table. Now that the dishes are cleaned, drained and stacked, she’s back to work. Her editor wants this piece by Tuesday – a long, heavy feature on budget cuts to rural healthcare. The understaffing at hospitals. There’s no door in the frame between living room and dining, and the sounds of Lacey and her sisters singing off-key to advertising jingles bleeds through.
Geoff’s wife, Rosie, is sitting on the couch, her head back and her hair piled up, pilling like loose threads in a jumper. Her eyes are closed. Beside her, Geoff has an arm around her, his fingers tracing light, heady patterns onto the back of her neck.
It’s hypnotic, and it’s intimate, and Ash files it away for another piece. For a memoir she won’t ever write.
Abel’s on the other side of the couch, their father back in his chair, legs propped and longneck in hand. Her brother looks stern, his sun-browned skin the colour of potato peel. There’s a spot on his neck she’s pretty sure is cancer. He won’t tell them if he has it. Will suffer silently, like their father did. Like the men out here are told to.
The static of the news broadcast stutters to life. Ash glances up, expecting the usual reporter with her patented smile and permed hair, but is surprised instead with a sombre expression, and then Rosie’s gasp. Ash gets to her feet, strides towards the couch.
‘Turn it up,’ Ash says, and Rosie fumbles with the remote, pressing awkward fingers into stiff buttons. The sound erupts, crackles through the speakers.
The woman, yet to be identified, was shot dead outside a local grocery store. Her infant, who survived the attack, has been placed in police custody until authorities identify a next of kin.
A sound cuts through, a hacked-off sob, and Ash glances down to see Rosie’s neck now blotched red, a burn beginning from the inside, swelling below her skin.
‘Turn it off, Rose. No one needs to see this.’ Abel reaches over to grab the remote and Ash leans down to take it before he can. He glares at her, but says nothing. He was always a soft touch. Behind him, Elizabeth comes into view, her eyes drawn to the television.
Locals are shocked by this attack.
A crackle. A new voice: This sort of thing just doesn’t happen out here. We’re a community. It’s unthinkable.
A new voice: It has to be an outsider. Not here. Not in Boodjamulla.
‘I doubt it’s an outsider,’ Ash says. ‘It’s too personal. Too targeted. Why would an outsider just shoot one woman? A woman with a baby?’
No one answers, and Rosie’s sobs slow, slur – but her breathing hoarsens, flaps about like wind with a loose sail.
‘Probably a domestic,’ Ash says. ‘Probably a sheep gun.’
‘Jesus, Ash,’ Geoff says quietly, standing, pulling his daughter up as he does, her spaghetti-legs wrapped around his belly. It’s Abel who leans over the back of the couch and jerks the remote from her hands, turning off the television with a click.
She shrugs stiffly, unable to stop herself. Her investigative mind seeking motive and reason, dissecting the body of the incident. The twisted one of the victim.
‘It’s probably a one-off at least. I doubt it’ll be the start of anything more.’
She sees Geoff tighten, wind up and then he’s leaning down to jerk Rosie off the chair, tug her limp, hunched body out of the living room; sees Elizabeth slide into Rosie’s vacated seat, eyes on her, but Ash isn’t able to stop. Now that she’s started, she’s whirling into overdrive, her mind trying to piece together an article. Something she can take back to the city when she leaves here.
‘He must have experience with it. It wasn’t an amateur kill. He got her in one.’
It’s her father then, who stands up, voice gruff. ‘I think the boys are right, Ashley. Time to stop.’
‘Thought you liked hearing your kids talk shop.’
It’s sharp, they both know it. Their father likes hearing the boys talk about shearing seasons and marsh flies and tractor mechanics. He doesn’t like hearing about dead women and shrinking newspaper industries. She could tell them of horrors beyond this, beyond the here and now of a dead woman and the child who’ll grow up without her, but Ash’s reality is not theirs. She turns her head.
SO SHE LIGHTS a cigarette.
And then another. Puffs out heady circles of smoke into the thick, hot air. Kicks the dirt until it stains the toe of her boot red. She feels fifteen again, talking about studying in the city, talking about leaving, talking about the line that bursts the Boodjamulla bubble, to her mother who’d nod, who’d give her books, who’d talk it through with her father – who’d crack another beer.
The back door creaks open behind her, and Ash drops her cigarette, stubs it out, not ready for Abel’s jokes or Geoff’s inevitable lecture, only it’s neither of them. It’s Elizabeth, carrying two wine glasses that sweat in the heat, her face going through a myriad of looks when she sees her – like she isn’t sure which mask is the right one – bashfulness, politeness, familiarity – before she settles on a dry, unapologetic expression that might be the closest to honesty.
She holds out a wine glass, and Ash takes it, shuffling sideways as Elizabeth stops beside her, looking out over the farm. They’re quiet for a moment – the only sound the thrum of cicadas, crickets, the distant rumble of road trains. Vaguely, Ash can hear the clink of dishes as Rosie potters in the kitchen. Geoff’s humming as he rocks the baby, Abel and their father watching a gameshow and getting the answers wrong. She takes a tight-lipped drink.
‘Well?’ Elizabeth asks. ‘What happens next?’
Ash turns enough to stare at the other woman in surprise, and she sees it – the way Elizabeth’s shallow eyes suddenly dip, like the clear of the ocean until it’s not, and she doesn’t look like their mother, who had the look of something stormy, cloud covered and raw. Dark hair, sun-browned skin. Ash had always joked her mother was more brumby than woman. She had the air of a wild horse. Long faced and maned. Her eyes were like glass. Could be clear or fogged over depending on how close you stood to her.
‘You have the same look,’ her father had told her once, tipping his longneck at her until the wind brought down the sweating stink of yeast. ‘We could squeeze you, tag you and jar you and all we’d have would be madness in a bottle.’ She had growled at that, smoked, told him he was a misogynistic prick. ‘You hate women with an opinion,’ she’d told him, but she knew he didn’t. Half the reason he’d married their mother had been she could rise to meet him, no matter what he did.
Elizabeth is not like them. She doesn’t look like them or think like them or act like them, but right now, it’s Elizabeth’s attention Ash holds, and before she can stop them, the words slip out like Ash knows they shouldn’t, her mind rotating through process and media, through court trips and the bodies, the one left living and the one that will be cut open beneath a mortician’s scalpel, stitched up and then buried again, and Elizabeth, timid and lame no more, listens.