watch, read, listen, observe, absorb
Between two droughts Charlie and Phil search for a new beginning. Phil drives their hire car, a modest two door Nissan coupe, through low slung mist hanging in the shallow valleys of Carlsruhe. She is Phil to herself, but always Pippa to Charlie. He hates the muscularity of ‘Phil’; it makes him uncomfortable though she knows he’d never dare say so. She is content to let him call her Pippa as a concession to their familiarity, hot breathy moments shared over the past ten years. Moments that once stretched to hours but are now only minutes, few and far between. And for now that’s enough.
They’re looking for a property to buy; acreage, nothing too ostentatious, enough to give them privacy and an escape from the stale city. They’ve been travelling for days, spiraling inward within the triangle of Melbourne, Bendigo and Ballarat, closing in on a patch of Carlsruhe that should’ve been Pipers Creek. The border between the two areas is like a jigsaw, the property that interests them is on the interlocking tab. It’s the wrong piece of the puzzle in Phil’s opinion. Piper’s Brook has a sparkly, lively quality to it. Carlsruhe is where used car salesmen go to die.
Taking a bend too fast the car fishtails. She lifts her foot off the pedal, ready for his reprimand.
Charlie swipes obsessively at his tablet. House after house slides by, screaming promise; a renovators delight, a stunning renovation, your dream home, your new life starts here! They can’t afford what they want, he knows this. He doesn’t want to be labelled a pessimist but Pippa is a dreamer. Border line delusional. He’d never say it out loud.
He’s glad that he isn’t the sort to believe his partner perfect. His partner. She’d resisted marriage with vehemence that smarted, claiming in that arch way he detested, that it was ‘so 20th century darling’. Now the thought of subscribing to such an archaic institution embarrasses him, but at the time she had seemed so ephemeral he wanted to pin her down. A move to the country is the next best thing, something they both want. No longer will they be two singles together but a couple with a shared goal.
Charlie resents that this makes him so happy. He catches Pippa looking at him.
That’s a weird face, she says.
He pokes out his tongue. It doesn’t fool her.
I really want it to be the one, that’s all.
Don’t worry. She takes his hand and kisses it. I’ve got a good feeling about it.
Rhonda the Real Estate Agent had told them about it as an afterthought. They were already walking out the door of a shocker. It’s lovely, they’d lied, just not for us. The French provincial pretension, low ceilings and skeeter infested lake were claustrophobic and cloying. Less than fifty metres from the front door a semi-trailer sounded its horn. He could smell the brake fluid. Rhonda had shrugged. Her smell was dirt and old tobacco. Afterwards Pippa had said she thought the agent was stoned. It’s a good sign, she told Charlie. If we move down here we’ll want a spliff or two.
When, he’d corrected her. You mean when.
The jokey German accent. It’s on the list of irritants he’ll raise when they’re on solid ground.
He imagines the moment. It will be late on a drizzly Sunday afternoon, they’ll be lazing around the kitchen table with a bottle of 1990 vintage Montepulcio D’Abruzzo. On the Aga is a duck cassoulet he’s been nursing since morning. He’ll beat Pippa at chess. She won’t mind of course, she’ll be impressed at his cleverness, his deft moves only matched by his prowess in the bedroom. Then he’ll suggest, in a serious yet relaxed manner, that in the spirit of honesty and deepening their love they should each name what they feel the other to be lacking. Pippa will demonstrate her delight with this idea with an admiring laugh. He’ll list everything that causes him annoyance, and she’ll commit to making these a thing of the past.
He checks the GPS.
Correction Road doesn’t appear, he says.
Google maps. Can’t be trusted.
Then they see a sign and she brakes, swerving across the soft shoulder, narrowly avoiding a ditch. Charlie adds driving skills to his list.
Unlike most things in recent times, they find the property without issue. The gate is closed and Rhonda’s circa 1972 Toyota Hilux is parked nearby, tilting on its half flat tyre. Red rust stains run from its headlights like tears.
Perhaps it’s an omen. Phil says, wishing immediately she hadn’t.
For god’s sake Pippa, must everything have a meaning?
Must everything not?
Masking her irritation by climbing over the gate, she lands lightly on earth padded by native tussock grass. Inhaling deeply to distract her from Charlie’s puffing, she notices the scent of blue gums and pungent winter wattle, amplified in the damp air. As they head up the driveway a large red kangaroo takes off, drumming a heartbeat through undulating hills, crunching twigs with its great pads and thick tail. Phil pictures the property as a body, they are penetrating its guts. A gust of wind groans past them, confirming her thoughts. She shivers and lets Charlie wrap his arm around her shoulders, mothering her.
By the time they reach the house the world seems more concrete. It is now a matter of air flow and aspect, bedrooms and bathrooms, curtains and carpeting. The ABCs of real estate she endures Charlie telling her, as though it were a witticism.
Rhonda is waiting for them. Earlier they’d shared a cruel giggle at her deep smoker’s voice and large hands. They’d debated her gender before abruptly changing the subject with the shame of it. Now, sloping against a wall, Rhonda’s long lean limbs are artfully arranged, a lit cigarette dangling from her fingertips. In a flush of recompense Phil now sees her as an artist’s muse.
Rhonda pushes herself off the wall to greet them, extinguishing her smoke by rubbing it between her fingers, popping the spent butt in her pocket. Phil knew Charlie would think that disgusting but she’s glad Rhonda hadn’t flicked it into the garden. It’s a good sign and she warms to the Agent, the place and the possibility of it all. Unlinking herself from Charlie she whirls expansively and laughs; a great release of tension.
I love it already. Where shall we start?
Charlie swallows his disapproval. Pippa should know better but he’s happy that she’s pleased. He’ll take her aside at the right moment to remind her of the appropriate behavior. He watches her run downhill towards a dam, coat and leggings and scarf flying, more colours than he can count. He prefers her in black.
Rhonda laughs, hooting like a horny owl, her neck disappearing into her shoulders. You’ve got a live one there, she says. Pippa has turned into a dot on the horizon, erratically appearing above and below the far dam wall. He strains to bring her into focus but it’s no good. He adds a trip to the optometrist to his list of concerns.
He and Rhonda approach the house from behind to find a network of aviaries. She explains that the owners were bird fanciers, chickens, pigeons, finches, that kind of thing. But the old man died. Cancer of the pancreas, took him fast. She slaps her hands together, making him jump.
There’s no telling when your time will be up, Rhonda says. Wake up one day and you’re dead the next. Just like that.
The aviaries are many different sizes, some as big as shipping containers, others just tall enough to stand up in. They are in better shape than the house, a faded weatherboard. Charlie counts thirteen. This is unfortunate because Pippa will attach significance to it. He gestures to Rhonda that he wants to see and leads the way. They walk between the aviaries and after a while he notices the reedy chirp of the birds. The sound is persistent and he’s puzzled as to why he hasn’t heard it before. The damp in the air has become a light rain, water drips from the aviary roofs which are covered in vines and gum leaves, causing the ceilings to sink. The floors of the aviaries are matted with bird crap and feathers, the tangy smell of ammonia from the decay oppressive. As they pass the birds beat their wings against the walls of their confines, stopping only to hang on to the thin wire with tiny claws, plucking at their prisons with impotent beaks.
They think you’re going to feed them, says Rhonda. Ain’t that darlin.
Fighting his urge to rip open the cage doors Charlie is drawn to a small empty aviary for respite. There’s something different about the smell here. He forces himself to look, holding his breath against the funk. A rainbow lorikeet rests on the bottom of the cage, its face a death mask, avian eyes already eaten by ants. In death it is still beautiful, its chest puffed with colours of saffron and turmeric. But he knows it’s rotting, right before his eyes, cell by cell and nothing can be done.
Phil treads lightly upon the earth, almost skipping her way toward the others when she hears a branch crack close by. She stops and searches, moving only her eyes, taking calm shallow breaths. A kangaroo with her joey are less than three metres away. The joey is pushy, gangly, surely too big for the pouch but his mother lets him squirm his way in. They regard Phil with their liquid eyes. Lonely, melancholy eyes. She wonders where the joey’s father is. Phil squats down onto her heels then rests on her haunches, waiting for them to tell her something.
With more body than mind she’s reminded of her feelings for Charlie. It’s the first time in a long while, a dry rusty love. A rush of grief expands from her gut to her throat, it’s a wild yearning like she hasn’t seen him for months. She imagines him gone from her life, having left her, or worse. It’s terrifying. Standing she brushes away the remnants of bush clinging to her bum and passes the kangaroos without waiting for another word.
Charlie hears Pippa approach before he sees her. Rhonda has been explaining the grey water recycling system which kept the straggly climber roses going through the drought. Drip watering and plenty of mulch she tells him. Pippa’s footsteps sound uncommonly purposeful, like she’s heading straight for him. He turns to greet her, cautious. She emerges into the space, vivid, alive, a force of nature. She launches herself at him, wrapping her arms around his neck and he can feel her hot breath on his mouth as she speaks.
Darling, we need to talk.
Charlie couldn’t have put it better himself.