Ariella Van Luyn is a writer, researcher and teacher living in Townsville, North Queensland. Her fiction has appeared in Voiceworks, The Lifted Brow, Overland and Lip Magazine.
This story first appeared in Issue Eleven of Tincture Journal. Please support our work and the payment of our contributors by purchasing a copy.
The soot from the cane fires had washed up underneath the benches and Callum was down amongst it. Doris could feel him behind her feet. He was fiddling with the back of her shoe, pressing his fingers up against the stitching. Doris watched him arch his fingers, walk them forward. He touched her skin. She twitched and Callum drew his hands up into his chest for safety. He surprised her sometimes with these little gestures of fear, the way his breath became shallow when he brought her a torn exercise book or his muddied uniform.
Doris looked away, down the bush track, where a ute rounded the corner of the cane fields and pulled up opposite the station. When the door opened, she saw it was Lester Banes, their neighbour, who hurled his stubbies and rotten pumpkins into the gully that bordered their properties. Doris went down once, to where the refuse pooled between two rocks. She found a woman’s perfume bottle, wrapped with metal fretwork and studded with enamel flowers the colour of violas. Up against the light, the stylus was visible inside, holding the last drops of perfume. Lester wasn’t married and this gave her the idea of him as a secretive man. She often watched his car, wondered how he got the women onto his property without her seeing. Lester sat in the driver’s seat with his head against the headrest and his arms out in front of him.
Doris heard someone on the platform. What she noticed first about the man was his way of walking, leaden-foot, like the girl she had known at school with a caliper bolted to her shoe. The girl used to lift her foot at the knee, not at the ankle, like most others. This man too had some heft at the ankle or calf. He sat down too close to her, his elbows wide on his knees and his hands clasped. Doris—who shook hands at birthdays, moved to the wall to let her husband pass her in the hallway—shifted.
Under the bench, Callum knew his mum had turned away from the man. He could see the length of her shoe now, the laces corded like rats’ tails, and the little heel worn down at the back so her foot hung over.
The man was moving his leg up and down. When his leg went up, his trouser went up with it. Doris saw he wasn’t wearing socks. His leg was strangely hairless, welted with mosquito bites.
“I knew it,” the man said, and Doris didn’t know if she should answer.
The man took to walking up and down the platform.
Doris hauled Callum out from under the seat by the elbow. She dusted him down harder than she meant, paddling his back as though he was the carpet flung over the branch of the frangipani. Callum grizzled. The man looked over at them. Doris stopped, felt the heat on the back of her neck suddenly, the sweat between her breasts. She mistreated Callum sometimes, without meaning to, hit him harder than she realised. When he was a baby, she loved him fiercely. A few times, looking at him, she shocked herself with visions of holding a gun to his head and shooting him. She tortured herself imagining his blood on the bassinet, and had to turn away. These visions unsettled her deeply, and she would find herself, when he was a toddler, moving away from his footsteps, hiding inside rooms so he would waddle past her. She didn’t love his dad in that way, had never loved anything like that before. But Callum—silent, dog-like—demanded to be fed.
Her mother said to make the milk flow at night she needed to cultivate loving thoughts, but she tensed up, could only express when she was covered with a shawl or blanket, even in the half-darkness.
Once her husband, woken with Callum’s crying at last, came in to find her weeping with the empty bottle in her hands.
“I can’t,” Doris said.
Her husband brushed his hands over the backs of hers and she pushed him away. When she’d met Simon, she’d surprised herself with the intensity of her feelings for him. She had desperately wanted to touch him; his chest, in particular, she was drawn to. And his penis. When they first married, she would lay in bed with her arms and legs all over him. She undressed for him, something she had never done, not even for herself in front of the mirror to practice, as she knew some of the other girls did. She’d kissed his knuckles, the patch of skin beneath his ear, his ankles. She became creative in a way she wouldn’t dare in real life. She knotted her handkerchief around his wrists, cupped his balls. She kept her underwired brassiere on, but pulled her breasts out over the top of the cups, allowed them to press into the flesh of his belly.
His lack of an erection froze her. She couldn’t work out if she should pull her bra back up or take it off completely—which would save more face. After it happened a few times, she took to laying perfectly still, eyes shut. She found he liked it better that way. Sometimes in the middle of it, she found herself caught up in the movement. Then she would bite him, fiercely, on the shoulder or upper arm and he would laugh at her.
Simon was relieved by Callum’s birth, Doris thought. Now he didn’t need to scrabble for things to talk about. She carried the brunt of having the baby.
When Callum started to talk it became easier. She didn’t feel the same fear. He would say things to her—“I hate you,” “No,” “But why?”—that complicated her emotions for him. She could be angry at him for a reason and this reassured her. It put Callum on a level with his dad, made these emotions recognisable, manageable.
Callum climbed up on the bench with her, put his knee in her gut doing so. She felt his bones.
“Stop it,” she said.
Callum turned himself. She grunted.
“Don’t wriggle,” she said.
Callum quieted, ground his bum into her. The man approached them again.
“He yours?” Nodding to Callum.
“Yeah,” Doris said.
“Didn’t see him before,” he said.
Doris shook her head, put her arms around Callum’s shoulders.
“I’ve had enough,” she said to Callum.
He slid down, squatted at her feet.
“You from up here?” the man said.
She pointed back into town. “Ingham.”
He nodded, ran his finger under his fringe. She saw he was wearing nail polish. Now she was looking she realised his trousers were wrong too, tight at the thigh and crotch. Poof. She looked away. On the other side of the train tracks, Lester was lighting a fire stick, his back pressed up against the tray of the ute.
“Is there much going up here?” the man said.
“Is there any work?”
Doris looked at the man and couldn’t think of anyone who would want him up here.
“You’re asking the wrong person,” she said. “I’m stuck at home with him.” Lifting her hand, palm out to Callum, who was crouched down, lining up the desiccated bodies of insects along the edge of the platform.
The man swivelled his head, as though looking for someone else to ask, but there was no one. Doris pressed her hands together, felt her ring against her palm.
The ring was her mother’s. She’d always wanted it. Stole it even, as a child, wore it round the kitchen, with her hands out in front of her, fingers spread, to get the best effect. When their mum died, Doris had fought with her sister over that ring.
“She promised it to me,” Doris said. A vision of her mum in the bedroom with the curtains drawn and a wet tea towel slung over the pedestal fan. Doris pressed her sweaty body into her mum’s side. Her mum played with Doris’s fingers, sliding her hands over the knuckles, transferring the ring from her finger to Doris’s.
“When I die,” she had said to Doris, “You can have that ring.”
Doris had been filled with joy at owning the ring, had hugged her mum. As a teenager, she remembered this scene with a kind of burning embarrassment, how she’d been so happy when her mum had said she was going to die. She’d taken to resurrecting these kinds of memories at sixteen, a way of building the growing dossier of evidence that she was a deeply unlikeable person.
After Callum, she began to understand her mum’s ability to talk about her death so calmly. She felt the need to warn him, to prepare him early, and could do this knowing that he would be there after her; she was almost certain of it.
She didn’t say any of this to the man who was rocking on his ankles.
“When’s the train coming?” he said.
“It’s late,” she said.
He screwed up his nose, lifting his upper lip, revealing a yellow canine.
Lester was in the near paddock now, dousing the outer stalks of cane. The acrid smell of petrol made her queasy.
“There’s no work here,” he said, looking at Lester. “Not ’til next year.”
“No,” said Doris.
“That’s what they told me,” he said.
“Yeah,” said Doris.
“Your husband, what’s he do? He want workers?”
“He doesn’t employ anyone. He’s a carpenter at the furniture centre.”
The man stuck a finger under his hat, lifted it up, turned away from her to scratch his scalp.
“Picked cane before,” he said, away from her, into the smoke that was billowing out and towards them, Lester getting into his ute, sliding off along the twin tracks worn into the ground by wheels.
The man plucked at his cuffs with those painted nails.
“When’s the train coming?” he said.
“I dunno,” she said.
“Do you know of any work in Townsville?” he said.
She thought of her aunt and her husband out there in West End, with the cemetery sprouting up behind their house, the banyan trees plunging roots through the graves, and the grass so tenacious it could survive on the headstones by clinging to the shallow grooves made by lettering. The grass sent out tendrils that themselves grew roots; you could pull one and find yourself a metre or more away with the shoot still in your hand and suckers heading off in all directions. Her uncle only had the house there because he was caretaker at the cemetery, and more than once she and hers had made the trek down to help clean up because it was getting away from him, and they looked like losing the place. At these times she thought her uncle could do with someone there, that the intense blasts of work were a surface-fix only. The last time, she’d uprooted a dense clump of gamba grass, revealing to the sky a twisting nest of arrow-headed adders. She had beaten them with the flat of the shovel, watched the snakes writhe, thought of the bodies underneath them, decaying, and realised she’d be better off with the shovel on its side, the blade sharp enough to sever their bodies. That night, leaning in the doorframe, she had told Simon she didn’t know how much longer she could keep on doing it.
She thought of this man with his painted nails on her mother’s grave, sweeping his fingers over her, and she hesitated. She didn’t think her uncle would like him.
Callum called her and she got up quickly. She stood between him and the man, aware of her backside in her dress, bending over to look at the husks of insects. Callum had arranged them by size: the huntsmen descending to cicadas and then the dried-up bodies of flies with their legs curled. It was hotter, closer to the fire. She felt the smoke clinging to their hair. They would stink by the time they got to Townsville.
“Can we take a picture?” Callum said.
Doris held up her hands. “How?”
Callum stood up. She could hear the breath at his nostrils. He kicked at the line, tumbling the bodies on to the train tracks.
“You didn’t have to do that,” she said to him.
He looked at her and kicked the rest over and went back to the bench where the man was sitting. The man looked at Callum, who had pushed himself right back into the bench so it held his knees up and, straight-legged, only his feet stuck out over the edge. The man said something to Callum but the boy only crossed his arms.
Doris went back over to them, fished a shawl out of her bag. She sat back in the seat and spread the shawl over her face. The heat was on her, the sweat in the creases of her elbows and knees. She felt Callum moving next to her, the tug of the shawl as he crawled underneath. She opened her eyes. Light condensed at the intersections of warp and weft. She shut her eyes again, felt the sting of smoke at her nostrils.
She must have drifted for a moment. She felt Callum’s sticky palm on her cheek.
“Mummy, mummy, what’s he doing?”
She pulled the shawl off her face, felt dizzy for a moment, her vision spotted. The man was off the platform now, silhouetted against the flame.
“What’s he doing?” Callum said.
“Maybe looking,” she said.
“Can we look too?”
“No, it’s too hot. The train might come.”
“Isn’t he hot?” Callum said.
The smoke hung above the cane, a heavy mass of it. There was a kind of pop as a stalk burst. She thought this would stop the man, but he kept on.
“Oh god,” she said.
“What?” said Callum.
A clump of cane on the outer edge collapsed right there in front of the man, and embers fell down with it, caught his shirt. Doris called out. She wrapped her hands around Callum’s eyes and shouted to the man at the tickets. He came out and then she heard his voice on the phone. In the cane fields, the man had his arms out and the fire was on them, he was flapping his arms like wings, like he would fly, but he was on the ground by the time they got to him and she felt it was safe to let Callum go.