Friday, 8 November 2013

The Plains: A Short Story


 
 

Ouroborus is a tiny outpost in a vast sea of nothingness. No one can remember how the town got its name or why it took root like a desert flower on the Hay Plains in NSW, Australia, where only low bushes and clumps of brown, tussocky grass thrive beneath a barren sky. Lizards and snakes take shelter beneath the bushes from the heat and scorching winds that whip across the plains, but these are the only other living creatures to be found for miles.

The landscape around Ouroborus bears more resemblance to the moon than the earth, and for some, the sheer magnitude of the emptiness is soothing to the soul. They can lose themselves in this no man’s land and forget who they are. For others, the desolation of the land gives them nowhere to hide, and it is their own fears they try to outrun as they hurtle through the void in air conditioned cars, their eyes on the distant horizon.

***

“God, is this it?” said Danielle as they pulled up in what passed for a main street in the shitty one-horse town. There was nothing but a general store, a post office and a derelict looking pub. “What a dump. I won’t be long.”  Tom leaned back against the headrest with his eyes closed, his hands still on the steering wheel as if they were frozen in that position. She hadn’t wanted to stop here but he’d insisted he needed a break, and she couldn’t very well argue considering he’d done most of the driving since they left Adelaide.

“Get me a coke,” he said as she opened the door. These were the first words he’d spoken in almost an hour. The conversation had petered out when they got to the plains, and after a few attempts to revive it she’d given up and stared out at the flat, ugly scenery. She was still glad they’d decided to drive to Julia’s wedding instead of flying because it gave them more time alone together. They had a long way to go yet but it had done them good to catch up with old friends.

They were booked into a motel a couple of hours away for the night, and she hoped Tom didn’t want to stop here for too long. In years to come they would both look back on this day and recognise Ouroborus as a very significant landmark in their lives but now Danielle just wanted to get across the plains and back to civilization. Being out here in the middle of nowhere gave her the creeps.

The heat assaulted her as she stepped out of the car and she could feel her skin shrivelling beneath its onslaught. No wonder all the people they’d seen on the road looked so dried up and defeated. Nothing could thrive in this sun; it sucked the life out of you and left you feeling like a piece of old meat. She raised her hand to her face. Her skin felt paper thin beneath her fingers, like her grandmother’s when she’d stroked her cheek as a little girl. She immediately pictured Rebecca with her dewy, supple glow of youth, and she made a mental note to book in for a chemical peel as soon as they got back to Sydney.

Danielle realised she should have brought her hat, but she couldn’t be bothered going back to the car for it when she was already halfway across the street. She kept going, glancing around at the deserted town. It was just after three in the afternoon and apart from a couple of ancient cars parked in front of the pub, there was not a single sign of life. Even the breeze was absent.

Pushing open the door to the dim general store she expected to find some relief but it was even hotter in here. The shelves were filled with tinned and packet foods and there was a small fruit and vegies section. She looked around for the drinks fridge but it was behind the counter. There was no one in sight and she drummed her fingers on the laminated top and wished she had her phone to look at while she waited. A fly began buzzing around her head and she waved it away.

She could hear movement out the back and she cleared her throat a few times then called out, “Hello, is there anyone there?” A soft dragging sound came from that direction, as if someone very old was shuffling towards the front of the shop. A tingle danced down Danielle’s back as she waited to see who or what was going to emerge from the backroom. She smiled at her overactive imagination. She would have to tell Tom about it because it was the kind of thing they used to laugh about all the time.

Before the mysterious person could come into view something outside caught Danielle’s eye and then drew all her attention to the window. It was a long black hearse gliding slowly down the street, right past their car. The glare from the shiny vehicle was intense in the hot sun and she raised her hand to shield her eyes.  The driver wasn’t visible behind tinted windows but in the back the gold-handled coffin was covered with wreaths of red and white flowers. Danielle drew her breath in at the vision which was so unexpected it almost seemed like death itself had come calling.

 “Funeral in town today,” said a voice behind her, causing her to whip back around. “It must have just finished.” A lady with silver hair pulled back in a bun and a faded smock over her clothes stood behind the counter. She was old but not quite the withered crone Danielle had been imagining.

“Oh,” was all she could think to say.

“Sally Brown. Only 35. Three kids. Breast cancer’s what took her. Terrible disease.”

“I’m really sorry to hear that,” replied Danielle.

“Real nice lady she was, not like some of the other nut jobs around here.”

Danielle began searching through her wallet for money.  “I’m just after a couple of cold drinks. Coke will do.”

The woman didn’t answer immediately but turned and took something from a shelf behind her. “Can’t help you there, I’m afraid,” she said as she turned back. Danielle looked at her in confusion. “The power’s been out since early this morning and I don’t want to open the fridge. You’ll have to go to the pub, they’ve got a generator.” It was insect spray she held in her hand, and as she spoke she walked around to the front of the counter and took aim at the fly that had followed Danielle in. It dropped to the ground and the woman moved over to the fruit and vegetable display and waved her hand over it. A cloud of tiny insects rose up and scattered in all directions. “Damn bugs,” she muttered as she pointed the can over the top of the food and sprayed. Danielle watched in horror as the fine mist drifted down over the vegetables like summer rain.

“Okay, thanks,” she said, trying not to let her disgust show as she turned and left the store. The sound of the fly’s death throes followed her out the door. She was still shaking her head as she crossed the road and wondering who she could report the woman to when she saw that Tom was leaning against the car, smoking a cigarette. He looked so handsome in profile that the sight of him caused her heart to jump slightly in her chest. After all this time he could still affect her.

He flicked his ash as she approached then dropped the cigarette on the ground without bothering to stamp it out.

“What happened to the drinks?” he asked.

“We have to go to the pub. There’s no power anywhere else.”

“Suits me just fine. I could do with a beer.”

***

Danielle expected the pub to be deserted like the rest of the town and she was surprised to see there were over thirty people in the front room. The walls were covered with old black and white photos and it smelt of smoke, sweat and dust. Cobwebs trailed along the ceiling like wispy clouds. A couple of old men were seated at the L-shaped bar and they glanced up from their beers as they entered and then looked away without interest. Behind the men was a pool table that separated the main bar from a long section furnished with faded lounges and a wooden table with a lace cloth over it.

 Most of the people were gathered in this area and it wasn’t until they’d found a seat near the door that Danielle noticed that only the men appeared to be drinking alcohol. The women wore old-fashioned floral dresses and head scarves and all of the men had beards. They must be some kind of church group, she decided. As she continued to observe them she noticed a photo on the table of a dark haired woman. There were flowers around the photo and the table was laden with plates of homemade food.

“Oh no, we have to get out of here,” she whispered urgently to Tom. “We’ve walked into a wake.”

“Oh shit. Well, they wouldn’t have let us in if it was private,” he whispered back. “We’ll just stay out of the way over here.” Feeling very uncomfortable Danielle tried not to stare at the mourners as she sipped her drink, but there was one man she couldn’t look away from. His sadness was etched so deeply into his face that he looked like a statue of grief. Three children, including a little girl with long blonde hair in plaits clung to his side and she guessed they were Sally Brown’s family. The girl was around the same age as Emily and Maddy. Danielle smiled gently at her, but she turned away and buried her head in her father’s sleeve. Oh, what a waste of life to be taken so young, she thought. And those poor children left without a mother. The unfairness of it tore at her heart and reminded her of how important it was for them to work things out for their own girls’ sake.

Pulling her eyes away from the melancholy scene she told Tom about the strange woman in the store. He just grunted in response. “Can you imagine living somewhere like this? It would be so hard,” she said, trying to coax him into conversation.

“I don’t know, it might be nice to escape from all the stress,” he replied.

“And what do you have to be so stressed about?” she asked, her tone light and teasing. “I think we’ve got it pretty good compared to a lot of other people. At least we have each other.”  Unconsciously she glanced back at the bereaved husband.

Tom didn’t answer for a long moment but just stared into his drink. “You’ve really got no idea have you, Danielle,” he said finally, looking up.

“I was just kidding, we all have stress from time to time, it’s part of life,” she said, trying to divert the conversation away from the dark alley he seemed intent on dragging it into.

“It’s more than stress. I haven’t been happy in a long time but every time I try to talk to you about it you just don’t want to hear.”

 A lead weight dropped onto her chest. “My God, you’re still seeing Rebecca. That’s what this is about, isn’t it?”

 “No.” The word was said softly but it came from a place of such deep anger and frustration that it exploded in her ears. “This isn’t about Rebecca, it never has been. It’s about me, about us and what we’re going to do.”

“But we’re fine, everything is fine between us now. This trip is proof of that. Haven’t we had a good time?” she said, her voice rising.

“This is exactly what I mean, Danielle, you never listen,” he said. “You never listen and you never see what to see what you don’t want to see. I can’t do this anymore.”

 “What do you mean you can’t do this? You can’t just give up like that. I thought we agreed you need to focus on your family and get over this early midlife crisis or whatever it is before you destroy everything…….” The rest of her words were drowned by a deafening roar from outside.

Tom swallowed his beer in one gulp and stood up abruptly. “I’m getting another drink,” he said. Danielle watched as he walked towards the bar but then kept going right past it. He disappeared through a door leading out the back. She wanted to follow him but his words had been like a punch in the stomach and she couldn’t stand up. As she tried to compose herself the front door of the pub flew open and a man with the black leathers and tattoos of a bikie stood on the threshold. Behind him were two other men dressed the same way. They didn’t appear to be locals and as they entered they glanced around like animals staking out their territory before claiming the pool table as their own.

Danielle barely noticed them or the tiny bugs struggling to stay afloat in her drink as she stirred it mechanically with a straw. As her shock subsided, anger arose to take its place and she stood up and walked out the back to the beer garden where Tom had gone. There was nothing out there but dry grass and the skeleton of a lizard trapped beneath an upturned glass on one of the tables. Back inside she asked the middle aged barmaid if she’d seen Tom. The woman was wearing a sleeveless singlet top and her upper arms wobbled as she pulled a beer, reminding Danielle of her own loosening flesh. Was that why he didn’t want her anymore, why he’d found somewhere younger and firmer like Rebecca? She could have worked harder to stay toned, and she still could if he’d just give them another chance.

The barmaid hadn’t seen him so Danielle went back to the car in case he’d gone there, but it was locked and empty and Tom was nowhere in sight. Her phone was in her bag inside the car so she had no option but to go back to the pub and wait for him there. This time she sat outside on the veranda and watched the trucks roar through town, barely slowing down even though it was a 50km area. The air was thick with diesel fumes as they passed.

“It’s the UFOs, you know,” said an old man with a white beard sitting a couple of tables away from her. He was the only other person on the veranda.

“What?”

“On the plains. That’s what brings them here.”

“I’m sorry, I don’t know what you’re talking about,” she replied, hoping he’d take the hint and leave her alone.

The man got up and moved to the table next to hers. “Them lot in there. They’re waiting for the UFOS to come and take them away to somewhere better. They think if they wish and hope for it enough it will come true. They spend their whole lives preparing.” Danielle vaguely remembered reading something about a religious cult that lived out this way, but it was the last thing she cared about at this moment.

“I don’t believe in UFOs,” she said dully.

“But you should,” he moved his chair closer, scraping it across the cement. “It’s not like that lot think, but they do come at night. I’ve seen the lights on the plains.” His eyes shone and Danielle flinched as he leaned in closer to her. “They might come tonight.”

“I have to find my husband now,” she said, getting up and stumbling towards the door leading back into the bar. Her eyes were stinging with unshed tears and she wasn’t watching where she was going when she crashed hard into someone coming the other way.  The man was built like a road train, and even before she looked up she knew it was one of the bikies who’d come in earlier. As her gaze moved over him she noticed he had a large tattoo on his upper arm of a serpent swallowing its tail. She expected him to be irritated but to her great surprise she found only sympathy in his expression.  

 “I’m sorry for your loss,” he said, steadying her with a hand on the shoulder. He had obviously mistaken her for one of the mourners and she shook her head and tried to correct the mistake.

 “Oh no, I’m not …...” For some reason the words wouldn’t come. The tears she’d been holding back spilled down her cheeks instead.  “Thank you,” was all she could manage to get out as he patted her on the shoulder before and moving away. She had lost something and she could no longer deny it. Tom might still be in their marriage physically but in his heart he had left her a long time ago, and no amount of wishing and hoping was ever going to change that. It was time for her to accept the fact that her marriage was over and that her husband didn’t love her anymore. This was one thing she’d never be able to fix not matter how hard she tried.

***

She found him an hour later in a tiny park on the edge of town, just staring into the distance. The afternoon shadows were beginning to stretch over the land and the temperature was dipping with the sun. She took a seat beside him without saying anything. There was nothing to see at all out there except emptiness, but for some reason she couldn’t look away.

“You could just walk into it and disappear,” he said softly. “No one would ever find you.”

“You don’t really want to disappear, do you, Tom?” He turned to look at her, shook his head almost imperceptibly.

“Come on, let’s have one more drink,” she said, standing up. She was not in a rush to leave now. There was no reason to hurry. The old man was still sitting on the veranda when they returned to the pub. He called out to them as they passed him.

 “They’ll be here soon, I can feel it in the air. The planets are aligning and there are big changes coming. You do believe me, don’t you?”

 Danielle tried to smile at him as Tom held the door open for her and she stepped back into the pub. The UFOs might not come tonight but there was some truth in the man’s words. Nothing would ever be the same again.





 

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