And then she was one of us

by Steph Conroy

A serial fiction.

Part One

I like to think I’m a person who takes the back way to places. And that’s what I’d decided to do that afternoon, but mostly it was because I didn’t want to take the Monash freeway because I knew the traffic would be shit. So I drove and I drove and at one stage I got lost and had to stop for directions at an IGA in one of those towns where there isn’t much more than a church and a pub.

I barrelled in through the exit brandishing my laptop, mistakenly cutting the queue as I tried to wave down a shop assistant. I whimpered an apology and scrambled to the end of the line, taking my place behind three muddy looking women who glanced humorlessly over their shoulders.

“My phone is dead,” I said, offering them an explanation for my bizarre performance.

They couldn’t have cared less.

 

I propped the laptop up on one knee and flashed a print screen of Google maps instructions at the girl operating the cash register and asked if she knew where Something Street, Somewhere was. She stared at me plainly for a long time and I looked at back at her, pleading, before my gaze fell beyond to a bucket of gerberas wilting in plastic sleeves. It was hot and confusing. The term “city folk” buzzed maddeningly in the forefront of my mind like a helpless fly stuck between a window and a curtain. But a man behind me knew, and I repeated his instructions to myself as I retreated to the car.

 

By the time I arrived the rain was falling, gentle and steady. Gravel crunching under the tyres, I pulled into a car park at what I thought must be the camp site. Behind me, a man with long, greying hair was tugging a tarp over his tent and attaching it to the roof of his aging Nissan Patrol. He looked up briefly and I thought that he must do this all the time. Smoke spiralled upwards from his well-tended fire.

I turned the key in the ignition and the engine stopped abruptly. Rain flecked the windscreen, tiny dots appeared and multiplied as each second passed. In front of me and to the left was a nondescript green car with a two-man tent erected beside it. It didn’t look like anyone was inside.

Laura apparently hadn’t arrived yet.

I felt nervous, getting out of the car. An outsider, as conspicuous as my white Mitsubishi Lancer, which had skidded lamely over 5 kilometres of pocked road that wound down into the gully, rocks pinging up against the superfluous “sports kit” that wrapped around the car. I wore leggings on the bottom, a bohemian blouse with flowers on top, and Birkenstocks; hallmarks of a wannabe.

It was quiet. Just the patter of rain and the faroff calls of birds and the hiss of wet campfire. I slammed the door behind me, an unconscious attempt at bravado. I hoped it said something like, I belong here, too. I headed straight for the drop toilets and as I approached I remembered a story Dad told me.

 

“There were two of them, out that morning,” he’d said. “They were standing there, fishing rods in hands and one bloke said to the other ‘reckon I need to head for the dunny can soon!’ The dunny can!” He exclaimed this last bit, revelling in the hilarity of the expression. He said it reminded him of when he was a kid. He said that they didn’t have ‘regular’ toilets then. In the backyard at his house in Rooty Hill, there was a dunny can. I tried to imagine him, a child, needing to pee in the middle of the night, slinking out to the toilet in the backyard in threadbare pyjamas, probably scared to death. Dogs howling. Bindis catching in his soft, young feet.

A man, the dunny man, came once a week to collect the tub of waste. The sound of it, sloshing against the sides of the tub was something my dad claims he will never forget.

“And the smell, Steph!” He cried, theatrically holding his nose.

 

I thought about the stench and braced myself as I entered the toilet. The dunny. When I was little Dad always took us on bushwalks or walks around gardens. Gardens. I don’t even know if there are any in Melbourne or if people do that. But he took us, back in the Blue Mountains where I’d grown up. The only place I was ever- will ever be- a kid. There were usually pit toilets at these sort of places too. I always thought I’d fall in. Even when I’d grown too small for my clothes and my hips and belly got big. Nan usually came with us. She’d walk with me to the loos and I’d peer around the corrugated iron door and the smell would hit me and the hole looked like it would swallow me and I’d start to panic. Really panic. Once I refused to go in and Nan stood guard while I peed in the bushes. She didn’t tell me until after that I was very visible to cars travelling over the bridge above us. We did that a lot until Nan’s emphysema or us kids growing up took the wind out of Dad’s enthusiasm.

I felt that fear as I levitated my arse above the seat of the toilet at the camp ground. 27 years old and still worried about falling in.

 

I strode purposefully back to my car and sat in the driver’s seat. I watched the sun dip lower in the sky and felt the first pangs of fear set in.

Was this even the place?

I got out again, frantic and feeling foolish. I locked the car and began to walk down to the river; that would pass the time until someone showed up and we could worry together. Rain was falling steady now and I wished I’d packed a rain slicker. Wished I’d owned one, more like. As I passed the bend I saw another carpark. I quickened my pace and as I approached I saw Laura and my chest swelled.

“Mate!” I cried into the blissful dusk.

“Mate!” Laura echoed. Her face breaking into a smile.

She had been setting up tents and her face was flushed with the effort. I spotted her dog, Tiny, tied to a tree, a long rope around her neck. I don’t like her dog. I think I’m jealous of it or something. It’s nonsensical but it is what it is, I decided. I feigned amusement at the dog’s bounding and barking.

“Let’s get your car.” Tom, Laura’s boyfriend appeared holding an armful of wood. He walked with me to retrieve it and I admired his decisiveness, his aura of capability and I thought Laura was lucky.

 

I was unpacking my car when I first saw the man. He ambled over, overzealous and brash and inexorably captivating. His shirt, unbuttoned, revealed a stomach taut with beer and marked with scars and sun and hard work. His belly button was an outey and I immediately noticed the curve of his pelvis. He looked strong and reedy and terrible all at once. And my eyes feasted on the sight of him.

The impetuous stranger.

I want to recount what he said, when he first advanced, but I’ve forgotten. Lost in the moment. I remember him introducing himself as Cutter. I remember him commenting on Tom’s Jeep, saying he had one too, but a better model. I remember Tom rolling his eyes incredulously once the man had looked away and took to ripping the ring off a can of Jim Beam. I glanced over to their camp site, 30 feet from where Laura had set up ours. Two old Nissan Patrols parked in formation. I’d later find out they were parked carefully, deliberately. When he staggered away Laura told me this man and his cousin Reid were camping with their elderly grandparents. The woman was holed up in a tent, her body withered by dementia and a stroke she’d suffered a few years earlier. The grandpa, a man of 80, was virile, wearing an Akubra and a denim shirt, beard stained with smoke, was softly spoken and kind. I noticed Laura marvel at these men who were insistent on helping her collect wood and build a fire.

Simple men. Kind men.

 

The sun sank behind the tree-covered hills and I saw where I was, really saw it for the first time. Trees lined the horizon, a uniform-green tangled mess dipping and rising in waves that broke the skyline. When I focussed my eyes harder I saw thin leaves in their thousands gently pawing the air and bobbing matter-of-factly in the breeze. I drank it in as though each breath of this clean air would fix me and make me better, help cure me of the city. I was conscious that I was thinking this and I was uncomfortable with how aware I was of myself and my body in this place. I shifted in my seat like the movement would allow me to slide out from under my need to actively acknowledge any occasion where I’d found myself in nature and thought this is where I should be. Sometimes I feel like my adult life is nothing more than a series of contrived moments like these.

 

The sun was down and the dark enveloped us. We sat, huddled around the fire that the men had helped us build. I found myself wishing Laura’s other friends wouldn’t show. Worse, I’d hoped they would get lost and have no option but to sleep in their cars next to some winding curve of road. I liked feeling that this place was private, as if the couples who were due to arrive would somehow spoil the special atmosphere we’d built.

But they arrived, headlights piercing the dark. Figures barrelled out of cars and joyous shouts met our ears and once they were there, sitting, gazing into the fire clutching plastic cups of wine, it was like they’d meant to be there too. I felt the knots in my stomach relax a little. Everyone in their right place. We ate something Tom cooked on the gas stove.

“It’s vegan,” he said, and I tried to detect smugness in his voice but there was none. Just contentment with what he’d created for us. Metres away, Cutter and his kin talked loudly and I strained my ears, seeking out snatches of their conversation. I couldn’t make it out. Their laughter told me they were happy.

We drank wine and talked. Logs were tossed onto the fire. And suddenly it was time for sleep. Lovers brushed their teeth together by the light of their phones. Because mine was dead, and because I was alone, I ushered toothpaste onto my brush, blind. And I receded into my tent, bringing my sleeping bag up awkwardly over my body.

***

“Did you hear it? The gunshots?”

I opened my eyes to pale dawn spilling in through the window of my K-Mart tent. Bugs clung lazily to the mesh and I felt my head throb as my eyes adjusted to the light. My mouth tasted bad. How much had I drunk the night before?

“Yeah, I heard it. Sarah woke me, she was fucking terrified.”

I slid a pair of trackies over my hips and threw a jumper over my thermal top, pausing to sniff my armpit- the smell was stale- before jerking the flimsy zippers and scrambling from the tent.

“What happened?” Came a voice to my left. A group of Laura’s friends were gathered around the embers of the fire like the unlikely survivors of some natural disaster.

“I heard gunshots.”

“First there was the car though, and the yelling. Did you hear that?”

“What the fuck happened?” Laura emerged from her tent, looking collected in her active wear. Tom followed in tow, handing her a glass drink bottle. She seized it and took a swig.

“Well, I heard a car, right, near the lake”. It was Daniel, Tom’s younger brother. “It sounded like it was doing doughies or something. Next thing I hear that guy from the campsite over screaming ‘fuck off’, then a gunshot.” He paused before adding, “it was fucked. They’re crazy.”

“They have guns?” Laura shifted uncomfortably. “Those guys?” I saw her glance over to the campsite next to ours, trying to square her memory of the helpful men from the previous night and the gun wielding maniacs being described to her. “I’m so sorry,” she said automatically, as though this was somehow her fault. I blinked indignantly. Daniel’s story seemed unreal. The city folk were spooked, that was all. They didn’t know about camping. It was probably some four-wheeler backfiring.

“I didn’t hear anything,” I said firmly, pitching dichotomy like a tent.

He looked at me, his expression marked with disbelief.

 

We ate breakfast in silence. The world was two dimensional. Trees in the distance like the painted backdrop of a high school play. The roar of the river. Us and them, I thought, absently chewing through a disc of pita bread. These people didn’t get it, the bush.

And you do?

Shut up, I thought.

 

“Cutter, what happened last night?” I looked up. Laura had approached the other campsite. Her back was to us. Daniel’s girlfriend slunk by, a roll of toilet paper in her hand. Her arse wiggled about in velour pants. Let’s see her use the dunny can, I thought, feeling sudden surge of malice.

I jumped up and followed Laura, eager to hear their exchange.

I’ve spent my life following the women I admire. The first instance occurred when I was 15. Before then I had a group of girlfriends but my admiration of them was dwindling. I had become interested in boys and these girls had no experience with boys. None had so much as kissed one. And nor had I. Thus, our conversations about them had not developed further than the excited, purely theoretical musings we’d exchanged at 11. But then when I was 14, a new arrival at our school, Ashley, took a liking to me. She thought I was funny- “hilllarrrious”- and she knew about boys. So I clung to her and she told me about things, like how it felt to pash. She told me about fingering.

“You mean, he puts them…inside,” I recall remarking, my face flushed, feeling a strange sensation like a tadpole squirming around near my arsehole.

Everything changed then and I wanted to know all that she knew about boys. I wasn’t terrible looking, but I was an awkward, chubby kid- ‘chubby, yeah, chubby, not fat,’ some other girls had remarked once- and the world of boys deeply fascinated me, despite my feeling it was desperately out of reach. It was at 15, when I had decided that after I had finished school, I would take a trip to Ireland and in the gulch of some desolate pub I would proposition an anonymous drunk man to take my virginity, that Amelia thundered into my world, eclipsing Ashley and everyone else. She was incredibly clever, particularly at the things that I liked. The things that made me special. And she knew about sex. My admiration was tinged with jealousy.

I coveted her.

I fervently eavesdropped and discovered a number of things we had in common. I tried, in vain, to talk to her on several occasions. She was oblivious to my advances.

It wasn’t until weeks later, during some extravagantly loud conversation in the locker room about the band Crowded House that I threw all reserve to the wind and interjected-

“Have you heard Neil Finn’s solo stuff? I think it’s much better than anything Crowded House ever did.” She had. And she was impressed. And I followed her for years.

 

A plane soared overhead. A jolting reminder that we were just two hours from the city.

The man, Cutter, was really named Aaron. His eyes were glassy and milky and unfocused. When I came to stand beside Laura he was rambling something nonsensical, sound escaping through the gaps in his teeth where Jim Beam, presumably, had rotted away the small bones. He explained to us that some shit-bloke-hoons had invaded the campsite last night and him and Reid had scared them off. Our saviours. I nodded firmly. Laura narrowed her eyes, as if measuring his words. Then she looked at me meaningfully and when I smiled back, she shrugged. I knew with the simple lifting of her shoulders that she had accepted the stranger’s explanation.

One of us, I thought, proudly.

Her eyes lingered on mine again, only for a moment, before she turned and strode back to our campsite. I faltered. In her gaze I saw that she had betrayed her instincts.

She knew something.

And the fledgling tendrils of some dangerous secret felt their way into my heart.


To be continued in Issue 3.