Excerpt from Chapter 1
I’m on a bus that’s half full of strangers. Encaged in the quiet comfort of the air-conditioned cabin, we hurtle at breakneck speed down a pot-holed highway that leads into the dark guts of an old continent.
The night is tar paper and silver sparks. The huge bus is all glass and speed—too much glass. If we crash, there will be a bloodbath.
I huddle in the window seat of the third row, left. The cloying artificial wildflower scent of air freshener competes with the nicotine smell on the clothes and breath of seasoned smokers. The headlights chew up the black asphalt and hurl it back into the cloud of darkness we drag along behind us. The darkness clings to the back of the bus like bulldust on the tailgate of a ute travelling hard on a dirt road.
The night is surreal and some might find it magical. But I don’t. This night is too much like depression—another kind of blackness that swallows you up. But that one replaces you with a hollow replica holding little of yourself you can still recognize.
Night just spits you out wherever it ends. Night can’t end fast enough for me. The fires of dawn can burn it to oblivion and maybe even throw a bit of light into the face of the mind-born darkness.
I’ve been sick in the mind for a long time—probably always. I can’t remember many times when my mind wasn’t heavy with bad thoughts and my heart wasn’t a lead weight in my chest. “They” tell me it’s chemical. “They” can go and root their boot. I know enough to know this sickness is as individual as the people who have it, which is why it is so hard to treat.
We stop at a small town just as dawn breaks. I emerge from the bus and take a deep gulp of fresh air. The air is cleaner and sweeter than the city air I’ve been used to these past few years.
Breakfast for me is two bacon-and-egg McMuffins and a cup of lukewarm coffee. The coffee could be hotter, and it has a funny taste to it that is most likely dishwashing detergent. It is wet though, so I drink it down without complaint. When I finish eating, the craving for nicotine hits hard. It’s been two months since I quit, and mostly I’m okay, unless I eat something or drink a beer. I’ve always found it hard to give up bad habits. I’m good at giving up good habits though, or maybe the good ones give me up? Doesn’t matter. It’s all much of a muchness and the end result is the same. Funny how the sickness makes you give up the things good for you but embrace the things that are bad.
Back on the bus, passengers straggle past me. We’ve lost a couple of last night’s passengers and picked up three new ones. One is a young woman who hesitantly takes the seat beside me, throwing me a nervous half-smile as she does so. She’s slim, with longish dark hair, and she wears jeans and a pullover. She’s not pretty in the accepted way. Nothing Hollywood about her—not even much Woman’s Day. But there is something in her face that draws the eye. She’s what people used to call striking. I turn my head and pretend I’m interested in what is happening outside the window. We are probably going to be sitting together for many hours, so I know I should make polite recognition of her and maybe say hello. Such things are hard for me. I am not normal.
The bus grunts and groans back into positive motion. The small town slides away until we are past the last of the scattered houses. The dry open “downs country” rushes along beside the bus. The hills in the distance look like islands in a sea of yellow Mitchell grass. Then I remember we are driving over the bed of an ancient inland sea and the hills actually were islands once—islands dotting warm shallow seas.
My face stays turned towards the windows, but my eyes roll back and my gaze shifts inward. What the heck am I doing? I’m heading back out to the mining town where I was born. I know that much. But why? I think I’m going back to see if I’m still there. I know that doesn’t make any sense, but it’s how I feel. I know I’m not here, and I know I’m not “back there” behind me. So I have to be somewhere…right?
I must doze off for a while. I’m a kid again. I am standing in a doorway looking into a bedroom. There’s a woman in bed with a man. When they notice me looking at them, the man shouts at me. Then the woman gets up from the bed and chases me away. She doesn’t have on any clothes. I can’t see her face, but I know she must be my mother. She slams the bedroom door in my face. I run out of the house and down the street. I want to go and play in the park, but the park is full of men dressed as clowns. They look evil and scary. One in a suit striped with red and yellow tries to catch me. His teeth are white and huge. I run from him, and his big funny boots slap the footpath behind me. He’s just about caught up with me when I wake up. I’m back on the bus.
“Would you like a chocolate?” says the girl. She’s holding out an opened bar of Cadbury’s milk chocolate. The pleasant fragrance mingles with her features. Sweetness and her face will always be linked now in my mind.
I have to meet her eyes. There’s no way out of it. I raise my eyes quickly and my eyes meet her gypsy-brown ones. I shake my head, try for a smile, and feel my lips twist, so maybe I manage it. She puts a piece of chocolate in her mouth. Her tanned cheeks hollow around the morsel. I can taste the milky sweetness from here. It’s plain to see she enjoys chocolate a lot.
Then she tries again. “Where are you headed for? Iris?”
Bugger! She’s not going to give up easily. I hesitate, then answer. “Yes, I’m going to Iris.”
“Me too!” she says and smiles. Her dark brows arch over those lovely gypsy eyes and her teeth are white and even. Her lips form the smile easily. She is someone who smiles a lot, I think. “I’ve got a job out there. Working in a chemist shop.”
I guess I keep up my side of the conversation because I find out her name is Beverley, and she has never travelled away from her hometown before. I can feel her nervousness, but I can also sense the hope within her. She is excited and afraid at the same time. Her friendliness is hard to ignore, so I try to be genial and appear interested in her story. Her mother has just remarried, and she doesn’t get on with her new stepfather or his family. It is time to move along and try to find a new life. She asks about me, but I don’t tell her much. She wouldn’t be interested. I wonder what it would be like to be 25, scared, and excited. Instead I’m twelve years older and mostly emotionless. There’s enough of a man left in me to see how smart and attractive she is though. That only makes me hate myself more. I like her, but I’m too old for her, too tired, too ugly, and too messed up in the head.
Lunch is a burger in another small town that I wash down with lemonade. Beverley has hot chips and a coke. She hangs around near my table then sits down with me without asking. We eat our food in silence, but she’s studying my face as she chews. I feel like curling up into myself and vanishing. People who look at me closely can see through my skin and to the ugliness inside. I don’t like people doing that.
After a few minutes she speaks. “You look very unhappy. Want to talk about it?”
Bloody hell! Not another one who thinks if you tell them what’s wrong they’ll be able to fix you. I don’t need another shrink. I just need to be able to find out who I was before I became sick, and then pour all that knowing into myself—fill up the great hollow space inside me and feel human.
I’m saved by the driver calling everyone back onto the bus. A few more hours, and we’ll be in Iris. I haven’t got a place to stay there, and no one will remember me, but that’s okay. I’ve slept in plenty of parks and alleys before. Plus I have some money. I won’t starve.
As we take up our seats on the bus again, I do a quick inventory. I’m wearing jeans, a clean shirt, and pretty good sneakers. I’m only about twelve hours past the last shave and two weeks past a haircut, so I probably don’t scare her too badly. I’m glad of that. I haven’t been as close to another human being for this amount of time in years. I usually avoid places where I can’t get up and leave quickly when I feel uncomfortable.
Beverley dozes, her chest rising and falling beneath her pale pink pullover. I take the time to study her from head to toe, committing her to memory. She is so bloody attractive and so nice! An ache presses the underside of my ribs. If only I were normal.
This yearning is new for me—like a tight hollow I can’t fill.
I shake my head and turn away, staring out the window at the monotonous sameness of the great inland plains of Western Queensland. I’m too much of too many bad things to think a woman would find me attractive. With a bit of luck, Beverley will find a nice bloke in Iris, get married, have kids—all that kind of stuff. That’s if all those things are what she wants, of course. Maybe she just wants a good life by herself. Either way I hope she finds it.
It is dark when we get to Iris. I wait near the bus for my duffle bag to be unloaded. Beverley waits below the amber station light until the driver unloads her blue suitcase. When her girlfriend arrives I watch the reunion between the two old friends with envy. Beverley grabs her suitcase, and they hurry off together, giggling like school girls.
I find my way down to the dry shallow bed of the river that splits the town in two. It’s too early in the summer for the flash floods that every now and then claim a life, so I’m safe from that. The river bed has long been a place of refuge for the homeless. This night is no different. Little knots of people huddle over small fires. They drink and argue. Sometimes a fight breaks out. Navigating through scrub, I pick my way as far as I can from other people, finding a space near a small tree where I lie in a sandy hollow using my duffel bag as a pillow.
Sleep doesn’t come easily. I lie watching the stars through the scattered cover of the leaves and branches above me. The smoke of the fires my homeless neighbours have lit to see by, and if they are lucky, cook by, hangs in the air. Tonight’s aroma carries no cooking smells though. There is probably a lot more cheap wine being consumed along the river bed than food.
The sand under me is not too uncomfortable for sleep. I’ve slept on harder ground. In fact I feel somehow more at home here in the river bed than I’ve felt on many a hard lonely bed in the concrete and glass caves of the city.
It must be the early hours of the morning when I finally doze off, drifting into the dreams that torment my nights. Sometimes my dreams make sense to me. Sometimes they don’t.
In one I see the girl from the bus. She’s in earnest conversation with a young version of my mother. They shake their heads at a shared sadness or puzzlement. Are they talking about me? In my dream I decide they are. I call out to tell them I’m okay, but I have no voice. I try to go to them, but I can’t move. My feet are rooted to the ground. Then black jets fly overhead, round black eggs falling from their bellies. Bombs! I have to hide. But of course I can’t move to hide. The bombs explode in rows of two that creep towards me.
The sunrise breaks my sleep. My neighbours are quiet lumps of blankets spread along the sand. A couple haven’t even bothered with blankets and lie like corpses. Maybe they passed out before they made it to their blankets. Perhaps one or two of the figures actually are dead! Life is hard here for the homeless. Quite a few probably never wake up after a big night, particularly if they have sunken to the ultimate level of becoming methylated spirits drinkers.
This line of thought isn’t pleasant. I shake the thoughts from my head and decide to see if I can find a place to clean up a bit. Throwing my duffel bag over my shoulder, I climb the ragged red soil embankment to the sidewalks of the drowsy town. There’s a public toilet in a small park with a hand basin but no mirror. Good. I hate mirrors like I hate photographs of myself. I wash my face and finger-comb my unruly hair. My clothes still look okay. I’ll leave them on. What’s the point in putting clean clothes on a dirty body?
A concrete bench in the park provides a place to wait for the town to wake up properly. A bright good-morning voice blares from a radio. The early morning smells of real people cooking breakfast drift on a breeze coming from town. A couple joggers trot by. They ignore me.
A bush cafe is just down the road. When I can no longer ignore my empty belly, I leave the park and walk down the row of shops that line the opposite side of the street to the river, past the post-office, a real estate office, and hairdresser’s salon. I’m trying to make my money last as long as possible, so I just get a half-litre carton of iced coffee. The milk will do me good, and the sugar will give me an energy lift. At least I hope it will. I also get the local paper. I need to find a bed. That’s priority number one. Priority two is finding work. Priority three is hazy and veiled in my mind, but it has something to do with finding out something about my origins.
There are a few rooms for rent in the paper, but they are expensive. There’s one offering just a bed. That sounds closer to what I want.
The man behind the counter at the cafe gives me directions on how to find the place, and I head off carrying my bag. The address is a sprawling old timber house of the type common in Iris. It sits heavily on low wooden stumps. It is probably about a five bedroom house with gauzed-in verandas covering all four sides. The old house seems to glower at me from under its corrugated iron roof that had been too long without a lick of paint, an old lady who had probably once been home to a large family. She had fallen upon hard times lately, it seemed to me. I stiffen my back and take the three steps up to the door. There is an old cow bell hanging from a bracket, just off to the right of the door. I give it a soft push, let it go, and gentle chimes ring in my ears.
A large woman with curly blond hair opens the door. I don’t think she likes the look of me too much, judging by the way her eyes narrow and her mouth pinches as she scans me head-to-toe, but she leads me around to a gauzed-in side veranda and points to a bunk bed with a short chubby finger. The place is some sort of guest house. All the rooms are full, but she must have figured she might as well rent some space on the verandas as well. The steel-framed and chain-wire-slung bunk, which I’m sure will be hard as a miser’s heart, is uninviting. Even the mattress looks thin and hard. However it is made up with clean sheets and a thin grey wool blanket, and there’s a single pillow. There is also a dressing table I can use for my stuff.
She shows me the shared bathroom and shared kitchen. The verandas have wooden slats that can be closed to ward off rain, or the worst of the sun. The accommodation is rough, but better than the river bed. I pay for a week. She doesn’t give me a receipt. I don’t think the taxman will learn of our transaction.
I wait, sitting on the bed and thinking until I get a chance to use the shower. Finally the male bathroom is vacant. I grimace at my reflection in the fly-stained mirror above the porcelain wash basin. I look like someone who has lived hard and has spent last night sleeping in the bed of a dry river, no surprise there. I also see how my unkempt appearance helps highlight my ugliness. My attempt at hand-combing my hair at the park toilets early this morning hasn’t worked very well. The rash of dark whisker stubble across my face looks bad, too. I can’t do much about my looks, but at least I can tidy up my appearance a bit. I wash, shave, and put on clean clothes.
Back on the bed I pull the zip-up folder of papers from my duffel bag. Inside the folder is a piece of note paper with an address scrawled in pencil. I think I can find the address okay. I was only eight when I left here, but my memories are coming back. The piece of paper has my mother’s name on it, too. Not that I needed to write it down to remember my mother’s name. I’m not sure why I wrote it down.
Judy Morris. As I read the name, her image forms in my head—a good-looking woman, curvy and fair. Men must have liked her a lot because even now I can remember there were a lot of men. Lots of beer too—and vodkas and lemonade. My mother didn’t have a husband. She didn’t have a full-time man either. I guess she must have believed in the old saying, “Why make one man miserable when you can make hundreds happy!”
When I was born she didn’t name a father on the birth certificate. Maybe she didn’t know who my father was for sure, or maybe she didn’t want to know. She never did tell me anything about who he was or might have been. I asked her about him when I was twelve, but she wouldn’t say anything. She was angry with me for asking. She died not long after, so my father’s identity was a closed subject.
I lived with an aunt after my mother died. She was a kindly enough woman, but her husband was a vicious drunk. He used to beat her up often—me too if he could catch me. I ran away when I was 15 and never went back. They still could be alive, I guess, but I’ve never felt the inclination to go back to find out.
My birth certificate is in the folder, too. I take it out, unfold it for the millionth time, and read it. There’s the name my mother gave me. Shane Elwyn Morris. I wonder where she picked the names. Maybe there’s a clue in there about who sired me. Maybe not.
So here I sit, a 37-year-old useless excuse for a man on a hard bed on some stranger’s veranda. It has been a long road from 15 to here, but I’m here now, and I think I’m meant to be. Maybe it’s the end of the road, or…the start of a new one? Buggers me!
There’s no way of locking the flimsy brown particle board dresser. I want to leave my stuff there, but I’m paranoid someone will take it or just rummage through it. The less you have the more important it becomes to you. The truth is no one would want my shit, but truth and logic are two things I don’t always use. I don’t unpack my bag. Instead I push it out of sight under the bed. My bag will be as safe there as anywhere else on this veranda.
The house where my mother and I lived stands three streets over from the guest house. I walk there in the mid-morning. Already there is a hard haze to the sky from the chimney stack at the mine. The air is dry and dusty with an unidentifiable smell—something metallic and unnatural. At least the gardens in front of the homes lining the streets are lush and pretty, and the lawns are mostly well-kept and green. I don’t remember it being that way when I was a kid. But your memory can get tainted over the years. Bad memories seldom feature nice lawns and gardens.
A police car slows as it approaches me, and I see the two coppers inside the car study me. I’m doing nothing wrong, but I feel guilty. But it isn’t a crime to walk down a road, not even if you are ugly and useless and messed up. They throw me a last hard look and move past. I guess they couldn’t think of a reason to give me a hard time.
The old house is still there. It has only changed in superficial ways. Fresh cream paint coats the fibro cement cladding, and the small front lawn and garden are neat and tidy. A tiny ornamental windmill spins noiselessly near a bird bath. A pair of peewees use the water to wash the dust from their pied plumage. I stop and stand near the chain-wire front fence as a tidal wave of memories sweeps over me.
I must have been spaced out for a few minutes because, when my mind clears up a bit, I can see a boy playing with toy cars near a tree in the yard. He looks about eight—the same age I was when I last played in this yard. He looks a bit like me, too. I open my mouth to speak to the boy then clamp it shut. A weird-looking man trying to strike up a conversation with a young boy would be frowned upon. Questions would be asked.
I’m about to turn away and head back towards the main-street area of town when a woman comes out of the house. She’s maybe 35 and looks nice and motherly in her floral dress. She looks at me with concern in her eyes.
“Can I help you?” she asks.
I don’t want to talk, but it will raise even more concern if I don’t, so I try to look normal. In as even a voice as I can muster, I say, “Sorry. I was just looking at your house. I used to live here years ago.”
Curiosity replaces the concern in her eyes, thankfully. “How long ago?”
“Must be nearly thirty years, I think.”
“That’s a long time. Do you have family here? I might know them. I was born here in Iris.” This time she even smiles. Her smile is attractive and friendly.
I don’t often trust people who smile at me, but I can tell she’s genuine and small-town friendly. “No, I don’t have any family here. I was just curious to see if the house was still here.” I give a half-hearted wave of the hand and make my escape. She probably thinks I’m a bit strange for hurrying off.
The interaction worries me as I walk back to Main Street. I don’t like to be noticed. People want to know about you if they notice you, and everyone who knows you takes a little piece of you away with them. I haven’t got a lot of pieces of me left, and I need what I have.
You can get Heartland as an ebook from Amazon and Smashwords. The print option is coming to Amazon soon.