And Then She was One of Us – Part 2
A Serial Fiction by Steph Conroy
“Get the fuck back in the tent.”
It was the first time I had ever heard my dad say that word; maybe not ever, but certainly to me. His body was rigid, ears pricked. I had been wavering in the opening of the tent, but my small body had stalled at the sound of that word. I was only ten years old then. We were camping at a place my dad called the Eye Cave. He found the Eye Cave with some unruly mates when they were in their late teens, and what I’ve gleaned from stories since is this was a place where they had piss-ups and smoked weed and lit their farts on fire. They listened to Peter Frampton and the Doobie Brothers and shouted things like “no way get fucked fuck off!” into the quiet sea of Eucalyptus that encircled them.
“It was magic Steph,” he told me one night, sipping at his beer. “There was no one around for miles and miles and miles.”
“Spooky though,” he added.
Now when I look at photos of my dad in his 20s I think he looks like a character from a quintessential Aussie crime show. Reedy. Dark tousled hair that fell to flannel collars. Handlebar moustache. Smiling. Aloof. He said he used to surf but I don’t believe him. In my favourite of the many pictures he’s shown me, he stands with hand on bony hip in the backyard of a white, weatherboard house. Shirtless, he is surrounded by a group of similar looking young men, all squinting into the sun, grimacing at the person with the camera. Sponges and buckets in hands, cigarettes hanging from burnt lips, they wash motorbikes. Paint peels away from the weatherboard behind them. The sun thumps down. It’s weird to think that that happened once, in the late 70s, before everything that came after. I wonder: How did he think it would all turn out?
He returned to the fabled cave with me and my brother, twenty years later, thirty kilos or so heavier. We drove, towing dirt bikes in a rusty blue trailer Dad got the year I was born. We drove. And drove. Unlike me, Dad never got lost. Even when the tarred road turned to dirt and the sparse clumps of trees flanking either side of the road suddenly became dense and blew out as far into the distance as I could see, he knew where we were. And then we pulled up beside a tree that had been split open by lightning.
“This is it.”
“This is what?”
“I can’t see it!”
“It’s down in the gully, but in here is where we’ll set up the tents.”
“And then we’ll go see the cave?”
“And then we’ll go see the cave.”
We marched down into the basin. There was no path and so we forged one, tamping down the mess left by the trees. I saw a pile of giant rocks. I saw something jutting out. It was an old jaffle-maker, its long handles poking out from where it had been wedged into crack in the rock some years before.
“We’re here,” Dad breathed.
Dad was right. The cave was magic. Approaching it from the back, it was obscured by boulders and thick scrub. Bracken snatched at the leg of my jeans as we rounded corner and faced it. My mouth opened automatically as I craned my head up to take it in. It was a shallow cave, oval shaped, and big enough for about fifteen people to sit inside comfortably. On the surface of the rock there were markings which dad swore were made by the first people, thousands of years before. And a pile of sticks.
“No one has been here. Not in thousands of years,” he said.
“Except you and your mates,” I said.
“Yeah, except us. Isn’t that spooky?” He said again, looking around behind him, as if someone would come now. Then he whistled as he exhaled.
The Eye Cave was about a kilometre from the flat area we camped atop. Sometimes we walked down and sometimes dad took us on his dirt bike. I never worried about snakes then. I never worried about anything in the bush, really. There was no question. Dad would always keep us safe.
“Get the fuck back in the tent. Now.”
“Steph, you coming?”
I was brushing sticks and bits of shit off the underside of my feet. I had just changed into my bathers. My skin was dry and my body flabby. Chubby, yeah, chubby. I hesitated before throwing a t-shirt on over the top.
As we drifted down to the river my gaze never left Laura. She looked afraid. She spoke to Tom distractedly. It took her too long to laugh at the jokes Daniel was making about the men from the other campsite being serial killers. They had gone to get firewood “and actually asked if we wanted to go with them,” Daniel was saying. “Ha! I’d rather not die today, thanks. They’d probably torture us like that dude in Wolf Creek.”
As fucking if. He was wearing on me like the seam of underwear on my shaved bikini line.
I wanted to take a beer in the river with me but these were not the kind of people who condoned that sort of behaviour. They’d never say anything, but they’d never need to. Sometimes you just know. Cicadas opened their little spiracles in chorus as the sun emerged from behind the clouds. There was a smell of hot dirt and old tea towel. On the bank of the river there was shade. I chucked my towel down there and heard the familiar flat flip flap as I removed my thongs. I waded in up to my hips without a fuss because I wanted to appear calm and fearless but I all I could think about were parasites worming their way up my urethra. Once my friend told me someone her mum knows went to Bali and got a tick lodged in her arm, “and she died! Two weeks later they came home and she got really sick and just…died.” I couldn’t think of anything worse. Some tiny creature munching away at you from the inside. Eating you alive.
The water was wonderfully cool and as I let my whole body slip into its embrace, I felt that overwhelming, self-conscious sense of belonging again.
“The grandma.” Laura had paddled over to where I was perched on a rock. She stood beside me and I thought about her feet touching the sludgy bottom.
“Whose grandma?” I laughed.
“Theirs. The one in the tent.” She looked at me conspiratorially.
I thought for a moment before it clicked. The woman who had not yet, at all, left the tent. The one with dementia. I had forgotten her.
“What about her?”
“This morning, I heard those guys. I was walking to the toilet. And they were talking.” The words escaped her, thick and clunky. It was unusual for Laura to be so inarticulate. “I think something is going to happen to her,” she finished weakly.
“What? What’s going to happen?” I asked, breathless. A cold hand closing on my throat.
“I’m not sure, but he said,” she nodded in the direction of Cooter who was up on the embankment, squatting in front of the four-wheel drives parked outside his tents, “that it was time and that they would need to do it tonight.” In the distance, Cooter stood and squinted down at us, as if he’d heard us. Laura’s face reddened and head receded beneath the water, a ring of bubbles rising to the surface in its wake.
“That could be anything!” I scoffed when she surfaced. I was relieved. I heard the echo of Cooter cracking his third can of Jim Beam for the day. “Maybe he meant they would go hunting, or collect more wood, or fuck, I dunno, explore their budding sexual curiosity with one another.”
“They’re cousins!” Laura was laughing now, too. We spent the next hour paddling and remarking on how wonderful it was to be out here. In nature. Blah blah. But a hook had caught in my mind and was reeling my thoughts back to the old woman. If they did want to kill their grandmother, maybe this wouldn’t be a bad place. Sure, there were tents peppered across the campsites but all they’d have to do is head out at night. Drag her into the bush. Find a hole somewhere- maybe one they’d prepared earlier- chuck her in. Cover it with dirt. Let it fill her startled, gaping mouth. A white-fingered hand, the skin taught over the knuckles, coming unearthed with the next lot of rain. It moving. A ghost, come to-
“Let’s grab some lunch. Tom’s made falafel wraps. And there’s kale!”
More pita bread and a wad of wilted green mattress-smelling superfood. Whoop-dee fucking do.
“Dangerous corner where yas’ve chucked the tents up,” Cooter bellowed as we returned to the campsite. “Dumb cunts come screechin’ in, middle of the night; could take out the fucken lot of ya.” He scratched his head and cleared his throat, collecting the phlegm. “That’s why I park ‘em like this- the trucks that is.” He spat. “Helps protect us.” Laura couldn’t bring herself to look at him. She scratched at a mozzie bite on her ankle, then brought the hand up to smack at a fly on the back of her neck.
“Anyway if yas need anything just let us know.” And with that his narrow body disappeared into his tent.
“Look, they’re a bit rough around the edges but I think they mean well,” Tom offered condescendingly as he piled kale on his plate. The others laughed and I suddenly felt ashamed.
I could feel a stone of misery sitting in my gut with the bread, and the beer I’d just cracked. I wanted to go home. I wished these people would disappear. No, I wished they were different, that was all. It’s strange to find you’ve been looking a person one way, seeing what you think is wholly them, then they’re flipped over and for brief moment their pale wriggling underbelly is exposed, ugly legs thrashing in the air, and they are no longer the creature you thought they were. I wondered if I could still believe they were good, after I’d turned them back.
A movement caught my eye in the tree above our tent. Wrapped around a low-hanging branch, diamonds of cream and yellow splashed across its black body, was a snake.
“Shit shit shit shit.” I kicked my folding chair out from under me and leapt to the side. The others scrambled around behind me. I immediately looked at Cooter and he was looking back over at us, ears pricked. He’d been practising target shooting with a bow and arrow over near his campsite and now he strode over and someone was yelling “no, don’t shoot it!” And I was thinking yes, fucking shoot it, and he reached up and in one fluid movement he grabbed the snake by its head and took off into the scrub. We all breathed a collective sigh of relief. Someone laughed nervously. No one thanked him.
A car came thumping down the dirt road, Celine Dion blasting from the car stereo and I knew it was Becca. She’d said she might come down. I liked Becca. She was loud and crass and seemed to ooze a sort of confidence that meant she could handle whatever situation she’d find herself in. And she kept her judgements to herself. Her arrival punctured the confusion left in the wake of the snake.
As Becca pulled up to the unpractised squeals of adult women I glimpsed the back of Cooter and I knew suddenly that I would follow him. I skirted around the edge of the campsite and Tiny lifted her small head and her tail began to wag. I held a finger up to my lips.
He wore a hat like a trucker, little tufts of matted hair poking out around the bottom. His bare back was covered in pockmarks and dark irregular shaped moles that will probably turn out to be cancerous. He still gripped the snake tight, his thumb pressing firmly on the small scaly head. On he marched. Mottled sun filtered down through the trees as the bush became denser. I crept from tree to tree, keeping a distance of about twenty metres between us. Dry leaves crunched under my feet. My heart leapt around in my chest.
What if this is where grandma is? Shut up. Shut up. That’s scaredy yuppie talk.
“You might want to watch out back there, I’m about to let ‘er loose.”
I froze. He was looking back over his shoulder; looking straight at me. I brought a hand up slowly to my mouth and the beer and bread and fear made my stomach gurgle. I closed my eyes and wished myself back to the campsite. Back to Melbourne. Back to my unremarkable existence on a quiet suburban street where there are no snakes or wild men or great gulfs between people because everyone is the same.
“I know you’re there,” he said loudly. “Steph, isn’t it? Might as well come help.” And when I still didn’t emerge he added, “I’ve been doing this shit a long time mate, hunting that is. I got ears like you wouldn’t believe.” I stepped out from behind a trunk of snowy Eucalyptus and walked guiltily towards him. If I’d ever stolen something- which I haven’t because I’m terrified of being caught- I imagine this is what it would feel like.
“I’ll let her go near these rocks so she’s got somewhere to hide. You can see she’s a girl by the plugs on the slough, see here,” he pointed to a smooth area near the tail. I nodded. My throat had apparently closed over and I could only produce some indistinguishable hmm-ing sounds. There was a smell of sweet alcohol on his breath. As he let the snake go, he raised his arm in triumph and I caught a whiff of his sweat and I breathed it in.
I actually liked it.
As if he knew, he put an arm around my shoulder. I was horrified and yet I made no move to remove it.
“Now, yer mate Laura,” he began, and the contents of my stomach which had been flipping over and over now burbled up toward my oesophagus. “Is she alright?”
“Last night, I was taking a piss- middle of the night- and I saw her wander off into the bush. I thought she was pissing too but then later when I heard those hoons and went to scare ‘em off I spotted her come back.”
“What?” I asked again, mystified. “When?”
“Well, that’s the thing. She must have gone about twenty minutes before I started firing warning shots off. And she didn’t wander back till after. Maybe an hour or so later. So she-”
“So she would have been out there when they went off,” I finished. “She would have heard them.”
“I didn’t say anything this morning cause she was pretending she knew nothin’ about it. Figured she had her reasons.” His eyes swivelled to the side in their sockets and he seemed to lose balance for a moment. “Might need to keep an eye on that one. It was spooky the way she just, walked off.”
He took his arm from off my shoulder and part of me wished that he wouldn’t because it has been a long time since anyone touched me like that and we walked back to camp together under the fading sky.
I could hear Becca’s voice over the others. She was telling the women a story about her co-worker who just fell pregnant.
“A single mother.”
The men were fanned out around the campsite drinking craft beer in their leisure wear. The trees behind them framed them, their solid figures stark against the smudges of hazy greens and browns. The leaves whispered as they rustled against one another, just like the trees surrounding the Eye Cave. And I suspect lots of other places out of the city. It’s easy to forget they exist when you’re surrounded by pavement and fencing and weatherboard.
“Where have you been?” I heard Becca cry as she spotted me. Unsurprisingly, there were damp patches of wine on her shirt.
“Just getting wood,” I replied distractedly.
And there was Laura. She watched me emerge with Cooter who proceeded to lurch towards his Esky. Her eyes flitted between me and him. Her face darkened.
“I call bullshit. You’ve been coping a feel from that bogan.” Incredibly, crassly, she raised an eyebrow and motioned fingering with her slender hands while baring her teeth in a haughty grin. “I’ve seen you staring at him. We all have. He’s your type, isn’t he?” She moved toward me. “Not like us city snobs.” There was no warmth in her sapphire eyes.
Becca erupted in hoots of laughter, failing to recognise this new malice in Laura’s voice. “More wine!” she shouted gleefully.
A mug was thrust into my hand. The fire was lit, chairs were arranged around us. Someone turned a radio on.
Laura and I stood; a surreal face-off, unnoticed by the others.
“Why did you say that?”
In a moment where the fire made the night glow, I saw that Laura’s face had dropped.
And there it was again. The look I couldn’t pick earlier.
It wasn’t fear.
It was guilt.
“Get the fuck back in the tent, now.”