The rains broke but it was too late. They’d approached from horizons, shadowy and slanting, turning, and billowing. I’d watched them from the veranda. Timbers moaned like crows under my feet. The rains passed along distance and I studied their transit the way I’d followed birds that used to migrate every August. I thought the downpours would never reach my property but one night they came. I’d left doors open, waving my arms in hallways shooing out heat. It propelled out lumpy and old, rippling past in waves. I’d turned on fans to hurry it. They rattled, slicing heavy air into portions that brushed over me like Jodie’s breath when she leaned across pillows to kiss me. But that night the rain swirled through windows, swelling down the hallway. It landed musty and humid against walls.
Jodie gave in first. Ten weeks ago. I knew the exact date as I’d written it hurriedly in my journal. “She blames me,” I’d scrawled, right after I’d written the drought was killing us. Dust piled in drifts against the side of the house, wind leaving ripple marks on mounds like lines across foreheads. Mud in the dam dried up. I walked over the broken ground barefoot, blunt cracks against soles of feet. On the crusting surface I found the hip bone of a cow and spools of fishing line.
“Packing is easy,” Jodie said, tearing old dresses off hangers. She said nothing’s worth taking except records of electricity accounts we’d requested extensions on. I’d followed her into the bedroom. Watched past her thin neck as she slid out suitcases from under the bed. I was ashamed she’d never bought anything nice. Nothing that would show off her fingers like piano keys when held together. A dress that complemented the long tendons of her throat or an off the shoulder top highlighting her arching shoulders.
I tried to stop her. Caught up as she turned from me into the hallway. Placed my hands over the knots of her shoulders. Steered her back to me like gently taking the handlebars of a child’s bike and facing it away from danger. She stopped but only briefly, so that all I had time for was to glance into her fierce eyes.
In that week before she left, I’d passed myself in a full-length mirror. I’d once stood facing my reflection in a wedding suit, another time cradling my baby nephew to preview what I’d look like as a father. Now I blurred while rushing past the glass, like someone out of focus at the back of a photograph.
The train departed three times weekly. Tracks ticked and hummed as the diesel approached. Its thrumming tapped in my chest like footsteps. No one else stood on the platform except a bored guard. The train juddered in with its baritone engine. Doors trembled open. I sat in cold seats, peering out through windows fogged with dust. The train lurched forward, carriage jolting and banging. Paddocks jerked past, before the movement smoothed. Outside rain whipped by, ringing against glass. I thought I’d hallucinated it. Grassless properties shone dully with puddles. I picked up an abandoned newspaper.
My sister expected me. Her husband Rick met me at the door. He shook my hand briefly and, in my grasp, I thought his bones would dislocate. He stepped back to let me in.
“It finally rained?” my sister said. She set down a coffee in front of me. The surface spun slightly from stirring.
“Smelt it coming as I locked up,” I said. “Needed it three months ago. May as well have rained asteroids by the time it came.” Sarah smiled.
“Couldn’t live like that,” Rick said. “Every time birds fly over and poop on the roof, you’d rush out thinking it’s a downpour.” We watched him go outside.
“What happened to Jodie?” Sarah said. “I used to like her. Although she was quiet.”
I nodded. I’d slept against Jodie’s back so often the outline of my ribs must have shaded her skin, how a wall looked after furniture propped against it a long time was moved.
“She left. Never took any photographs or ornaments. Nothing that would remind her of the life she had with me.”
I told Sarah did what I could. But a year ago the marriage started failing. We frittered away the pittance saved from previous harvests. Stopped discussing plans to have three children. No longer said let’s travel every time Paris appeared on television. Black hail falling seemed the final straw. Shattering on the car’s bonnet, cracking across the porch, and pelting along the front path. It fell as if debris from a volcanic eruption.
“Smoke,” a neighbor said the next day. He explained smoke burned from a fire through red river gum trees, spiraling upwards, creating its own weather pattern, forming black hail. He shook his head. “God must hate us.”
I blanked out anything else he said. I pictured the storm dark and heaving through skies. Lightning twitching. Thunder so close it grated against bones. I watched him standing round shouldered, raised dust, and stunted trees in distance behind him. I wasn’t used to someone speaking so much. Around here people said the minimum. “Rivers a bit low.” “Fish dying out.” “Warmest winter I can remember.”
Rick dithered in the backyard. He passed windows grasping garden shears. Sarah said it was what he needed after cooped up in an office all week. His only sunlight was what shone through the windscreen. On weekends he roamed the rectangular backyard. He walked rows of wilting flowers, pouring thin streams of water from a watering can.
I tried to find Jodie. Left tinny voiced messages on her mobile. Pleaded for her to speak to me. Said I wanted to hear her voice when she was tired, when I knew she needed comforting. Missed how she leaned into me on the couch. The way she lifted lids to smell sauces I cooked for Sunday lunches.
I used to wake early in mornings. I’d work outside before the day’s heat. In my sister’s home I also woke early. Boiled a kettle in the laundry so its shuddering and whistling wouldn’t disturb anyone. Squeezed a door shut against dirty clothes piled on floor. Drank coffee outside, dew mottling windows. Rick’s straggly herb patch smelt like a Thai curry. Cars swished down a street the other side of the fence. Inside I rinsed the cup.
“What’re you going to do?” Rick said that night. After his day in the office all that changed about him was his tie and shoes coming off. He sat on a recliner, wiggling toes as if checking he still had feeling. I told him I was working it out. Had started looking for a job. Didn’t want to be a burden. He nodded.
I wasn’t familiar with the light here. It squeezed through roof lines, falling in pointy shadows that turned like sundials through the day. The light I knew was ceaseless between dawn and dusk, still burning even when behind clouds, so bright my hat spotted greasily from where I kept pulling it down against glare. Where I’d lived, after sunset light seemed to ebb out of the trunks of bending gum trees and horizons.
“Can you help Rick this weekend?” Sarah said. She sat at the outside table chalky with pigeon shit. “He’s planting tomatoes. Doesn’t exactly have green thumbs. I thought as you were a farmer…”
The next evening Sarah invited her friend Lana. Lana had been divorced last year. Her ex’s lawyer had spoken on his behalf so many times she said it was divorcing two people.
We sat around the dining table. I watched Lana’s hands. Lines crossed them like in bark before it sheds. She tilted her head when talking, as if listening rather than speaking. She flushed red around her neck.
After Lana left my sister stood in the bedroom doorway, telling me to call Lana. Said she’d been through a lot but remained a warm person.
In bed I felt smaller. Sheets bandaged over me tightly. I heard Rick and Sarah’s voices as if they spoke underwater.
“Can’t stay here forever,” Rick said. “I know he’s had it tough but it’s not a bed and breakfast. He has to work out his life. What’s he going to do?”
“Why don’t you show a little compassion?” Sarah said. “Try to connect with someone outside of your management meetings.”
Two punnets of tomato plants waited on the grass. I prised seedlings out of the first. They popped out in a single sod, my fingers already smelling of them. I broke the soil holding them together down the middle like cracking a biscuit, passing half to Rick. He looked dismally at the plants. I imagined him more at ease if I’d handed him a tax return or laptop. I knelt, gouging out a hole into earth.
“This deep,” I said.
Rick lowered to knees. I asked if he was sure those were the right pants for gardening. They looked too new for soil to stain.
“You’re probably right,” he said. “Usually play golf in these. Hang on.” He stood, slapping at dust sticking to knees. “I’ll be back.”
Rick strode towards the house. The sliding door rumbled open and clanged shut. I hurried the planting, scratching out holes and kneading each plant in. By the time he returned only two remained.
“Wow,” he said, even though his voice remained flat. “You work faster than one of those tractors.” He stood over me as I planted the final two.
“Let’s tell Sarah you did it,” I said, winking. “Just grind some dirt under your fingernails.”
I rang Lana. She sounded out of breath. Lana said she was cleaning the unit out. Mostly her ex’s last possessions. She laughed emptily. Throwing out sandals, a coat with the logo of a football team he supported, two straw hats and a box of bow ties. I didn’t know how to reply. Lana’s breathing feathered into the phone.
“Come over tomorrow,” she said. “I’ll cook something. You can peel vegetables. I’m a bit shy though. You’ll have to do the talking.”
I called a real estate agent I used to drink with. We’d propped in the pub once as a dust storm blustered in, turning skies an orange, I’d only seen behind eyes when screwing them shut against glare. I hadn’t calculated the inevitable loss the farm would cost. It’d mean no superannuation. No home of my own. Holidays impossible unless that cousin in Perth offered a couch. No investment properties or car with that smell of new upholstery.
“Let me see what I can do. We won’t get our hopes up. People aren’t looking for a three-bedroom weatherboard home that comes with a dustbowl.”
I borrowed Sarah’s car to drive to Lana’s. It smelt of the cigarettes she hadn’t been able to give up. On my way to Lana’s, I became lost, time after time turning down wrong streets.
Eventually I found Lana’s house. It was small, almost lost behind trees. Lana cupped my elbow as I entered, kissing me on the corner of my mouth. She said she hoped I liked Italian cooking. She’d attended two cooking classes in Tuscany years ago. Did I want the recipes?
I opened the wine. It tasted vinegary but I said it was delicious. Then I stood next to the sink, peeling potatoes so that their skins fell coiling into the basin. Lana started explaining about her husband and at first her voice faltered, as if the punctuation was wrong. “How much did that cost?” she told me was all he ever said.
“You have a wonderful sister. Sarah was such a help to me. She took me out for coffee. Told me to stop using his name and start calling him bastard. I said that’s too good for him. I wanted something nastier. So that if I ever said it to him, he’d feel the word strike as if I’d thrown a vase.”
After dinner Lana said she’d clean up. Then I felt her hands shyly on my arms, landing lightly. She told me not to speak. In her bedroom Lana pushed me so that I tipped over onto the bed, bouncing slightly. She covered her mouth, gasping in horror before laughing. Then she undressed hurriedly, tearing her bra off, and scrambling into bed as if I shouldn’t see her. I glimpsed the flowing bones of her body and the machinery of her joints. I reefed off the doona and rolled in next to her.
Later Lana slept. I touched the slight hollow in her chest. Her heartbeat pressed into my fingertips.
I dressed in the morning. Lana had dragged the blanket onto her side. Shards of light angled between where curtains didn’t meet.
“Next time I need potatoes peeled I’ll ask you back,” she said. I tied my belt. Lana held a sheet over her chest as if I’d walked in on her. “You could’ve stayed longer if you wanted.” I said I had to return Sarah’s car. She or Rick might need it. I bent and kissed her lightly under an eye, her skin rounding and warm.
The smell of cigarette smoke still hung in Sarah’s car. I thought of her looking slyly at me, asking with her eyes how it went with Lana. I imagined Rick’s exasperated glance at me as I came through the front door. I wondered where Jodie was, probably shoving her phone in a drawer every time my name came up when ringing and of Lana dressing, possibly watching me through a window as I left.
I walked towards the car, digging keys out of a pocket. Sun glared with that light I hadn’t yet adjusted to, as if I’d always be a stranger here.
Most nights Peter Farrar can be found writing, eyes bloodshot from trying to add one more paragraph when he should be in bed. He can't build anything, doesn't read maps well, is reckless with money, has a drinking problem and dresses badly. Writing is his only hope really.