One night in late summer, two of Lucy’s brothers take her to the park to show her what men and women do together. Their cousin comes, too. Lucy is eight and has never before been invited to leave the house with her brothers after dark. She’s frightened, but that’s not unusual; she’s often frightened. The park is brighter than she expected it to be, perhaps because the moon is almost full. The boys, who are all older—brothers Peter and Danny, cousin Colin—lead her to the big boulder with dirty words painted on, and they hide behind this boulder in order to watch what men and women do together. No southerly wind has blown in to relieve the heat of the day, and the cicadas are so loud Lucy feels as if itchy swarms of them are hiding in her damp hair. She scratches at her scalp and stays quiet, as instructed, and she waits. Lucy doesn’t know exactly what she’s waiting for, only that it’s secret and monstrous, but also funny, and coming for her whether she likes it or not.
Eventually, a man and woman come stumbling through the dark and fall to the grass in front of the boulder. They look, to Lucy, like a single, many-legged creature, which squirms on the ground, groaning and hissing, laughing occasionally, and finally, after a shout that may come from either the man or the woman, growing still. Behind the boulder, the boys grin. The couple stands; the woman pulls out a compact and tilts it to the moon, checking her makeup. She’s only a girl, really, with a wide, worried face, concentrating on the application of her lipstick as if something vital depends on it—at least, this is how Lucy will remember her, much later, as Lucy herself stands in the moonlight, correcting the smudges of her own bitten mouth. The man begins to walk away through the park, and the girl, seeing this, snaps the compact shut and hurries after him.
Behind the boulder, the boys snort and spit. They dig bony elbows into one another’s bony ribs.
“D’you see now?” they ask Lucy, but she doesn’t see. The park, which she’d thought she knew well, is too strange, like a place she’s never been before and will never visit again. She can make out the lights of houses through the trees, but they seem very far away.
The next couple to arrive is quieter. They’re pressed up against the trunk of a tree, and all Lucy can see is the dim flash of a man’s bare backside moving in the gloom. His trousers hang just below his hips; they look as if they should slide to the ground, but never do. A mosquito lands on Lucy’s arm, and she slaps it instinctively. The boys hush her; her cousin pulls her hands behind her back, holding them so she won’t do it again. The couple doesn’t seem to notice. The man’s pale backside continues to move with regularity, into and out of the darkness of the tree, accompanied by the faint tinkling of his belt buckle. This goes on for some time, until murmured discussion leads to a shift in positions: the gleaming arse is replaced by the back of the woman’s head, which resumes the in-and-out motions.
“Get a load of that,” Peter whispers, but anxiously, as if he’s just testing the phrase. Danny cups his own crotch and hops about on silent feet. Colin, whose less-assured status as cousin seems to require some additional assertion of authority, holds Lucy’s wrists tighter until whatever is happening at the tree is over.
The couple walks away, and Lucy hears the man say, “A bit of bullshit, eh,” but softly, as if it were an endearment. The woman laughs. Once they’re gone, Colin releases Lucy, and she rubs at the ache in her shoulders.
“We’d better get her home,” Peter says.
“Give it another minute,” Danny says. He’s sweating—Lucy can see the shine of it on his forehead. They wait in silence for what seems like hours. Bored, she sits cross-legged in the grass and begins to pick at the scabs on her knees. When mosquitoes land on her arms, she shakes them off.
Finally, Colin says, “If it gets too late, all we’ll see is queers.”
The boys cut through the bush, along the track they’ve created by coming and going from their house to the park and the bus stop and the shop. Lucy follows them, stomping her feet to frighten snakes and wondering if she’s behaved well, if she’ll be invited to sneak out with them again. She didn’t enjoy herself, but that doesn’t matter; what matters is to be invited.
When Lucy and the boys reach home, the house is dark, and Robbo is smoking on the front veranda. He’s the oldest brother, fifteen. He sits on a milk crate with his long legs stretched out in front of him, tapping his shoeless feet. He sees the boys and takes a deep, final drag of his cigarette, then flicks it into the grass.
“Where’ve you little shits been?” he asks, in the listless way he has that manages to communicate both contempt and indifference.
“Give us a fag?” Danny, ever hopeful, dances up to Robbo’s feet. And Robbo might hand over a smoke, he really might; he’s given to moments of unexpected charity, which appear as suddenly as his temper and are almost as overwhelming. But then he sees Lucy and swears, kicking out at Danny’s ducking head. The boys scatter when Robbo springs off the veranda. He squats at Lucy’s feet.
“Where’d they take you?” he asks. “What’d they do?”
She recognizes tobacco and beer on his breath. The smell reminds her of their father, who died six months ago and whose brother, Hal, recently moved in to take over the market garden.
“Well?” Robbo says.
Lucy closes up the back of her nose as if she’s about to jump into the river, and says, “Nothing. We were only walking around.”
He looks at her without speaking, as if waiting for her to stumble and reveal the truth. She keeps her face still and her eyelids heavy.
“All right,” he says. “Bugger off to bed. And I better not catch you out at night again.”
From inside the house comes the sound of Uncle Hal shepherding all the phlegm in the world to the back of his throat, ready to expel it into a tissue.
Uncle Hal and Colin sleep out on the back veranda for about a year; then Uncle Hal moves into Mum’s bedroom. Lucy never sees him kiss Mum, or even touch her with anything like tenderness, but he does make appreciative remarks about her figure and look around as if daring the boys to object. Danny mocks him behind his back, much to Colin’s outrage. Peter becomes quiet and watchful at the dinner table. Lucy hears Uncle Hal’s comments about her mother’s legs and chest and feels a keen, swollen shame about her own small body.
Only Robbo stands up to Hal, on the rare nights Robbo’s home for tea. One night in September, when Robbo and Hal begin to shout across the table, Peter tugs Lucy’s arm so she’ll follow him outside, and they crouch with Danny and Colin beneath the kitchen window. Lucy can’t quite catch the words of the argument; it’s as if Robbo and Uncle Hal are speaking Polish or Croatian. Still, she feels as though she can hear the spittle flying from Uncle Hal’s mouth, and also every snarling inhalation Robbo makes through his twice-broken nose.
There’s no sound out of Mum, not even when a glass shatters, or when someone shakes the table so that everything on it jumps and tumbles. But she’s at Robbo’s side as he slams out of the house; she walks him down the drive to the road and links her arm with his, the way girls do with their friends at school. Robbo will go off now to sleep the night at a mate’s or in his car or in the bush. Peter releases a noise of disgust and slinks away into the garden. Danny punches Colin in the arm, says, “Your dad’s a real piece of shit,” and then the two of them are grappling in the dirt. Mum runs up from the road, and Uncle Hal comes out bellowing, loosening his belt. Lucy waits a moment to see if Robbo will return; when he doesn’t, she goes inside to start clearing the table. Soon afterward, Danny and Colin, thoroughly strapped, are marched through the kitchen by Uncle Hal. Peter sneaks by later, just as Lucy finishes the dishes.
The next morning, the boys are up early as ever to work in the garden before school. When, itchy with lime powder, they come back to the house, Uncle Hal takes change from his trouser pocket, jingles it in his hand, and throws it into the grass as if scattering seed. As Peter, Danny, and Colin scramble for the money, Uncle Hal sets a coin in Lucy’s palm—presses it hard, as if he wants to sink it into her flesh. Mum fries sausages and brings them bursting to the table on a glossy plate.
A few days later, Robbo and some of his mates break into a service station at North Ryde and go into hiding out bush. Uncle Hal waits for the police to arrive at the house, as they always do when anything is burgled or burnt or beaten in the area, and rats Robbo out in a loud, clear voice. Lucy hears him from the kitchen, where Mum sits stony-faced at the table. Immediately after Uncle Hal tells the police exactly where they’ll find Robbo, Lucy detects something like anger and love and sadness on Mum’s face, but then it’s gone again, as though it were a cloud that passed for an instant in front of the sun.
Lucy falls on the school’s asphalt playground and breaks her arm; waiting in the sick bay with two scratching girls, she catches chicken pox. The long days at home alone with her mother—Lucy daubed in chamomile lotion, scraping at her cast-bound pox with a knitting needle—are some of the happiest of her life. One afternoon at the kitchen table, Mum drinks two beers and asks Lucy how she’d feel if they left the market garden, the house, and Uncle Hal. When Lucy asks where they’d go, Mum only laughs, considers the empty bottles of beer, and taps the neck of one so that it topples onto the table and rocks back and forth in its own amber shadow.
Lucy, recovered, returns to school. Uncle Hal wins an award for his beetroots at the Royal Easter Show. Colin, newly obsessed with flight, has plans to join the air force, and Mum conceals from Uncle Hal how often Danny is playing truant. Peter spends a lot of time making strange, soft noises out in the dunny. No one ever mentions Robbo, who’s in some sort of prison farm in Emu Plains.
Mum starts to brush her hair in the mornings and hum to herself as she mops the floors. She seems happy, and Lucy doesn’t know why until Mrs. Blasevic comes from next door to smile with her crowded mouth on the blessing of a new baby.
Danny brings home the yellow Pontiac Chieftain well before he’s legally allowed to drive it. That wouldn’t deter him, but the car is missing an engine, among other things, so it rests on bricks in the front yard for months as the necessary parts are acquired. Lucy, eleven now, knows better than to ask where from. She’s never actually seen the boys steal a car, race it, aim it at letter boxes and fences and cats, bounce it over paddocks shooting at rabbits and roos with Uncle Hal’s guns, or roll it down to the river, or set it on fire. She has, however, seen the burnt-out cars smothered in lantana, which seems to grow up overnight to conceal them, and she knows which items in the house are the spoils of these goings-on. Some belong to her now: a white purse with a tube of apricot lipstick and the stub of a bus ticket inside; a pretty chain she could attach to a pair of glasses, if she wore glasses; a small knife with a mother-of-pearl handle. She sometimes finds these gifts on her bed, and knows not to acknowledge their existence.
The Pontiac is ready around the same time Robbo gets out of Emu Plains Prison Farm. Danny stands proudly beside the big, yellow car as his eldest brother strolls up the driveway, carrying a knapsack and followed by a wiry boy who looks to be about Danny’s age. The heads of both Robbo and this boy are so close-shaven it’s as if they’ve simply rubbed dirt into their bare scalps.
Lucy sits on the edge of the veranda, swinging her legs. Mum comes through the front door. She stands beside Lucy, wiping her hands on her apron long after they must be dry. Uncle Hal is out in the truck, delivering the beans that the boys started picking at four this morning.
Robbo raps on the lustrous bonnet of the Pontiac.
“This car is a magnet,” he says. “You know what for?”
“Pussy,” Danny says, grinning.
Robbo ignores him, turning to the wiry boy.
“Cops?” the boy offers.
Robbo shakes his head. “Bugs,” he says. “Creepy-crawlies. They love yellow cars. Drive this thing at any speed, and it’ll end up fucking filthy with insect guts. Only an absolute bloody idiot would drive a yellow car.”
Then he walks to the veranda and catches one of Lucy’s kicking feet in his hand. He’s wider than she remembers.
“How’s my little chook?” he asks, smiling, but not looking directly at her face, which makes him seem shy.
Lucy scrunches one eye closed and says, “All right.”
Robbo drops her foot. He glances up at Mum and says, “Is he here?”
Mum shakes her head.
The wiry boy steps forward and introduces himself as Keith. He’s a smooth one, this Keith, despite his big ears and freckles. He compliments Mum on her looks, on the house, on the smell of roasting beef that seeps from the windows, and asks her permission to stay a day or two, just till they’ve gotten their heads screwed back on.
Lucy watches him beam and twinkle. He reminds her of Donald O’Connor, the bloke in Singin’ in the Rain who isn’t Gene Kelly. Mum, powerless before charm of this kind, invites him in.
“Just a day or two,” repeats Robbo. “Then we’ll be out of your hair.”
Mum says, “As long as you need. You know that.”
From inside the house, the baby emits the scrawny, reluctant cry he produces
only at the end of his midday sleep; his nighttime cries—shrieks of panic—wake everyone and send Uncle Hal crashing through the kitchen and out the back door to smoke in the truck, just to get a bit of bloody peace. Mum often lacks patience at night, especially when Uncle Hal is angry, so Lucy gets up to look after the baby, to hold him and walk back and forth. She’s sick of his pinched, inconsolable face.
“S’pose I’d better meet this new brother of mine,” Robbo says, and he climbs the steps to the veranda, where he kisses Mum on the cheek. Keith, following, turns his head, looks Lucy in the eye, and winks.
Once Mum, Keith, and Robbo have gone in, Danny—still standing by the Pontiac—hocks up a great wad of spit and ejects it with some force into the grass.
On starting high school, Lucy acquires a best friend: a girl called Sylvia, whose father works at the flour mill and whose mother has red-dyed hair. Sylvia is short and blonde. One of her eyes turns out when she’s tired, but she refuses to wear glasses. She’s a great flirt. Lucy is aware that Sylvia has befriended her in order to gain access to her older brothers, but that doesn’t matter; she’s grateful for the way Sylvia pets and bosses her, for every note passed in class with her name on it, for Sylvia’s head on her shoulder while they watch the after-school footy game down at the oval. It seems to Lucy as if this game never had a beginning and will never reach an end, and that her brothers are playing it even as they work in the garden, sit at the dinner table, and do whatever they can to stay out of Uncle Hal’s way.
Colin is bad at football, and Danny is decent, but Peter’s a natural. He moves as if he lives two seconds further into the future than anyone else. Each time he scores a try, he shakes the sweat from his hair so that it flies in little droplets, any one of which Sylvia would apparently be happy to taste. Lucy watches Sylvia watch Peter as he flicks back his wet head, his Adam’s apple rolling in his bullish neck. He’s gotten much larger in the past year—taller, broader—and looks more and more like Robbo, who hasn’t been heard from since announcing, last Christmas, that he and Keith were heading out west to work as jackaroos.
When Peter joins a junior footy club with the promise of a premiership career, he vanishes from the local oval. Lucy assumes the after-school game will fall flat, that Sylvia’s attention will drift. But Peter’s absence seems to release the other players: free of the burden of true excellence, they roar and butt across the grass, they preen and swagger, and if Danny goes down in a tackle, his knees smeared with dirt and blood, Sylvia is ready to leap up, to leave Lucy, to run breathlessly to his side.
Mum says she wants to bake a sponge cake, needs baking powder, and sends Lucy to the shop with the baby. He can walk, but not well, so Lucy puts him in the pram and studies him as she pushes it along the bush path. His resemblance to Uncle Hal isn’t striking—he takes, everyone agrees, after his mother—but Lucy looks for the Hal in him all the same, ignoring the fringed blue eyes and the rumpled pucker of the top lip, and focusing instead on the puffy nose, the steep, meaty forehead, the obvious effort involved in moving such a cumbersome head. She’s wiped every part of his body, worn his vomit, swallowed his sneezes, and been too slow, while changing his nappies, to stem the sudden fountain of his urine. In the privacy of her thoughts, she calls him the Goblin. Everywhere else, he’s Charlie.
At the shop, Lucy buys baking powder and cigarettes—the other item on Mum’s list, and the real reason for the trip. Collecting the change, she notices two women looking at her and then at one another, tutting.
“So young,” says one, who’s grown plump around her wedding ring.
The other says, “Getting younger all the time,” and squints at the label on a can of peaches.
It’s not until Lucy leaves the shop that she understands: those women think she is the mother of this sturdy child, that she not only pushed it out of her body but allowed a man to put it there in the first place. The Goblin is delighted by the furious way she takes the bush path. With every forceful jolt, he seems to rise higher in the pram, as if ascending under the steam of his overinflated head. She vows never to have a baby.
When they reach home, Mum takes Charlie and the ciggies with some urgency and asks Lucy to leave the baking powder on the kitchen table. She doesn’t bake the cake.
Lucy is fifteen and hears that Robbo and Keith are back from the bush, tanned and hairy. But Robbo won’t come home while Uncle Hal is on the scene, and Uncle Hal is always on the scene, dirt lodged deep in his nails and his knuckles, the lilac veins in his calves growing knottier by
One scorching Saturday morning, with Hal and Colin away as usual making deliveries, Lucy hears an unfamiliar car pull up to the house. When its driver lays into the horn, she runs onto the veranda and sees a green Beetle, with Robbo at the wheel; after one last, jubilant honk, he calls, “Get dressed—we’re going to the beach!”
“We” includes Keith, who leans from the passenger window, green-eyed, no longer wiry, his head shaggy with curls, a cigarette tucked behind one ear. He holds out a hand, and Lucy, without thinking, walks down the steps and takes it. He pulls her close to the car and says, “What d’you think you’re up to, being so sweet?”
Sylvia emerges, flushed and buttery, from the room Danny shares with Peter, and invites herself along; Danny, following as always at her heels, resigns himself to the trip. Peter is off with his footy mates. Mum shifts Charlie on her hip and peers down the road, as if Uncle Hal might materialize at that very moment. Robbo tries to convince Mum to come; Keith volunteers his seat, and Lucy feels a deep, tidal tug at his suggestion that she sit on his lap in the back. Mum refuses. Uncle Hal’s been blaming her, recently, for the fact that Charlie hasn’t started to talk yet.
It’s so hot that, as Lucy gathers her things, the flies seem to collide with the sticky slopes of her arms, cling for an instant, then roll away. Several find their way into the car and set out with them on the excursion, staggering between Robbo and Keith up front, and butting against Lucy, Sylvia, and Danny in the back. Danny, relegated to the status of passenger, is gloomy throughout the drive. Sylvia leans forward from the middle seat, laughing so close to Robbo’s ear that her breath ruffles the hair above it. Lucy makes a concerted effort not to think about Uncle Hal, or Mum, or Charlie’s face smeared with food and snot. The windows are mostly down, the hot air pours in, and the flies, exhausted, lie sizzling against the glass.
At the beach, Keith chooses Lucy: he snaps out her towel and lays it on the sand; he reclines beside her with his head pillowed on his coppery arms; he buys her a cone of slightly gritty chocolate ice cream; he coaxes her into the water, where he dives under and pulls at her feet. At first, unaccustomed to this kind of attention, Lucy is bewildered and embarrassed. She reassures herself that it has come through no fault or flirtation of her own.
Later, though, when she sees that Sylvia is jealous of Keith’s showy devotion, a sense of powerful cleverness expands inside her. It feels connected, somehow, to the waves and the weather, as if she might today have some say in the direction of both. Sylvia, in response, redoubles her efforts to beguile Robbo, which continue to fail. Danny, fuming, strides into the surf, slapping at its surface as he goes, and stays out beyond the breakers, his small, dark, furious head rising with every swell.
Keith doesn’t take Lucy quite so far. Pressed against him in the churning water, she feels a hand at her waist; it dips lower, running first over one cheek and then the other, before returning to her waist, which it squeezes.
By the time they leave the beach, Sylvia and Danny are in the silent stage of a vicious fight, and Robbo is drunk. Keith drives, with Sylvia in the front seat. Lucy sits between her brothers in the back, where it seems as if a strange, sleepy enchantment has been cast over the three of them: Danny in his mute grievance, Robbo in his slurred contentment, and Lucy in the stupefying spell of their mixed moods. Noise, light, and happiness live in the front of the car, where Keith and Syl laugh about the veterinary student who—running with a makeshift torch fashioned from a chair leg, a pudding can, and a pair of kerosene-soaked undies—managed to convince a crowd, a police escort, and the lord mayor of Sydney that he was bearing the Olympic flame. About ten minutes from home, Syl—in the course of a casual gesture—places a hand on Keith’s knee and leaves it there.
Lucy, seeing the muscles of his thigh twitch, shakes off her stupidity and leans forward from the back seat.
“Keith, whose car are we driving?” she asks.
Sylvia laughs and withdraws her hand.
“Who knows,” he says, and he smiles gleefully, conspiratorially—a smile that is not, Lucy sees, for anyone but Robbo, whose eyes Keith is meeting in the rearview mirror.
Sylvia is pregnant. Her father throws her out, so she moves into Danny’s room, and Peter—who’s rarely home—joins Colin on the veranda. Danny and Sylvia are very private about their room: they spend whole afternoons in there with the radio on, and no one is welcome unless invited. After each of their many fights, Danny emerges looking haughty but oddly slippery in the face, as if he’s just been bathed by an over-friendly dog. And between fights, Sylvia sends him out for the peaches she craves. She lies for hours on the bed reading magazines and leaves little plates of sucked peach pits outside the door, which Lucy collects before the ants can find them. When Sylvia does appear, she seems to sail through the house without touching anything. Her pregnancy infuses her with a languid radiance over which Mrs. Blasevic from next door can’t help but fawn, despite her disapproval. Even Uncle Hal is gallant, calling her Syl, opening doors and pulling out chairs, as if she’s too precious to risk the use of her own hands.
Sylvia and Danny marry in June. Sylvia’s family don’t attend, and Lucy, dressed in sickly pink, is the only bridesmaid. Charlie, five now, is ring bearer, and Peter a distracted best man, indifferent to anything that isn’t footy; he’s due to make his first-grade debut with South’s next season. Colin sulks. Robbo, who drives trucks these days and has no fixed address, preferring to rely on the temporary goodwill of a series of mates up and down the east coast, sends a telegram to toast the happy couple. Peter reads it aloud at the small reception, lingering on Robbo’s statement of disbelief that any woman would be willing to marry Danny. Danny reddens, so caught between agreeing with and being offended by his brother’s message that he can do nothing but grin lopsidedly. Uncle Hal and Mum both look very smart, and Lucy finds herself feeling proud of them.
Sylvia’s baby, another boy, is born in November. He’s a redhead, as if Sylvia’s mother’s hair-dyeing has had unexpectedly biological consequences. His name is Norman, but they call him Nonnie, and aside from his ginger hair, he resembles the prime minister: the same pouchy jaw and upswept eyebrows. Sylvia loves him so much that she’s reluctant to let anyone else hold him; as a result, Lucy isn’t expected to care for him as she was for Charlie. Instead, she’s free to simply like this baby. She likes his rosy skin, his greedy mouth, and the curt little adult gestures he makes with his fisted hands. She likes watching his miniature moods gust through him like weather. Most of all, she likes playing little to no part in the management of those moods.
Sylvia, convinced that Nonnie will catch the Asian Flu, gets Danny to quit his job at the flour mill—too many foreign workers, she says. An uncle of hers offers him work in Grafton, and they move north not long before Christmas. Once they’ve gone, Lucy assumes the house will feel quiet, but it doesn’t. Mum seems hardly to notice; she never took to Sylvia and is occupied now by Charlie’s belated yet endless chatter. Colin and Peter both vie for the vacant room until Hal, proud of Peter’s sporting prowess, decides in his favor, and the matter is settled. Colin, wounded, stays on the veranda. The room soon acquires Peter’s steady musk of sweat, grass, and wet tin; he’s taken a job as a garbageman, because the early-morning shifts leave time for training. Lucy still catches herself keeping an eye out for peach pits in the hallway.
The road outside the house is busier than ever with traffic, and Uncle Hal hires a crew of Italians to build a farm shop on the strip of land alongside. Lucy, seventeen now, has finished school and, without knowing what else to do, is willing to be installed behind the counter, which is as good a place as any to wait for the husband that will take her far away from it. Uncle Hal begins growing gladioli to sell, setting out the gaudy blooms in buckets to attract passing cars. Once the shop is established, he gives the responsibility for its running to Colin, who struts about like a princeling, ordering Lucy to polish this and sweep that, and scolding her for being cold with the customers.
“They’ll spend more if you smile,” he says, pressing at her cheeks with his index fingers to force the upward curvature of her mouth.
Then he falls for a Croatian girl with dark, curling hair and a tiny waist, and Lucy rarely sees him at the shop. When he does show up, he brings Marija with him and takes her into the storeroom. Twenty minutes or so will pass, and he’ll emerge looking dazed, then go to smoke in his car. Marija always appears a few minutes later, not a hair out of place.
One day, Lucy compliments her on being so put together.
“What do you think we’re doing back there?” Marija asks. “I’m not stupid enough to let him stick it in me.”
Lucy shrugs and pushes her tongue hard into her cheek.
“No, no,” Marija says, and laughs. “He does me, with these.” She wiggles her fingers.
Not long after, Marija’s brothers put it about that Colin is a dead man. He disappears overnight. The brothers come to the house looking for him, all of them muscled and dark-haired in white T-shirts, smelling of tinned peas, so eerily similar it’s as if they’ve been replicated in the canning factory where they work. Uncle Hal stands at the front door with his .22 and tells them that Colin left last week to be a ski instructor in the Middle East.
Now that Uncle Hal has run out of sons to employ in the garden, he hires immigrants. They’re unreliable, he says, but in such endless supply they can easily be replaced. At six every morning, he drives to Chatswood Station and collects any men he finds waiting there. His departure always wakes Lucy, and by the time he returns with a clutch of workers bouncing in the tray of the truck, she’s dressed. The men look pale and grim, and each sits staring ahead as if alone. Later in the day, though, when the sun is higher, they joke together in Polish or Hungarian as they weed the onions or fertilize the spinach. Occasionally they sing. Most bring their own lunches, but sometimes they come into the farm shop to buy a drink or a sandwich, and they’re unfailingly polite. Lucy gets to know a few regulars: the sandwiches they prefer, the names of their sweethearts. Still, she holds herself aloof from them. Hal has never liked to see her talk to men.
One of these regulars, who calls himself John, comes into the shop almost every day. He’s at least ten years older than Lucy, with thinning hair and a permanent squint. The hair is a shame: it was clearly once a gorgeous thicket. He invariably buys an egg sandwich. Their exchanges are brief, and he’s painstakingly courteous toward her, as if he has studied gentlemanly manners and is intent on their demonstration. When he’s not in front of her, Lucy never thinks of him. She thinks, instead, of being married. Her husband takes the vague, devoted, glimmering shape of Elvis Presley, only because Elvis is so continually offered to her imagination. She spends most of her time picturing the home she’ll make and manage—its quiet privacy.
One day in spring, John appears at the shop’s front window with his left hand wrapped in a bloodied handkerchief: he has, apparently, crushed the tip of his finger with a hammer, and Hal is bringing the truck around to take him to hospital. Lucy goes out to him. She moves buckets of gladioli off the bench and maneuvers him to sit; then, she sits beside him. For five minutes, she catalogs every foolish way she, too, has injured herself in the course of her life, including the arm she broke at age ten on the school playground. John, whose lips have gone white, listens intently, holding his bloody hand aloft like a candle. Then Hal arrives, his face as red as the beets he grows. When John tries to climb into the bed of the truck, Hal honks the horn and shouts at him to come up front. As they drive away, it occurs to Lucy that she’s never before seen her uncle allow a worker to ride next to him.
She assumes John’s gone for good, but he returns less than a week later, with his left index finger very firmly bandaged. He resumes his visits to the shop, as reticent and courteous as ever, as partial to egg sandwiches, except that now, periodically, he refers to Lucy as his nurse.
Keith turns up at the shop one afternoon and starts calling Lucy the Mona Lisa of Mona Vale Road. He bothers her at the counter, kissing her cheek and begging her to come out with him. She expects Hal, and therefore her mother, to disapprove, but they’re busy these days—expanding the garden, renovating the house—and they surprise her: yes, she can go alone with Keith to the pictures, to the beach, to Peter’s games, and by extension to the park at night, where she checks behind the boulder for crouching children. The innocent thought of Keith’s hand against her bottom four years ago makes her blush, then makes her laugh, then vanishes altogether in the wincing muddle of her first time. Her second time, she’s yielding. Her third, demanding. Lucy, on her back, meets each thrust. The moon is full above the park. The boulder, scrubbed of its ancient obscenities, glitters with mica.
“Fuck,” Keith says, loudly; then again, but quietly, “Fuck”; then he comes inside her, though he’s promised not to. In that moment, Lucy senses a kind of hilarious pleasure in having given herself up, just this once, to chance; it might be the only accident of her narrow, decided life. Later, however, she’ll come to think of her whole life as an exercise in chance, and she the victim of many accidents: the accident of those parents, of that uncle, of those brothers, of that husband and that son. But for now, tonight in the park with Keith—who’s still glazed with bliss, fumbling through apologies, manhandling his slippery prick, straightening her clothes but hopelessly, as if he’s forgotten how skirts and buttons work—tonight, Lucy feels for the first time older than he is, as if she were the one who once sweet-talked him into the water and pressed against him in the surf’s shaggy foam. They vow, of course, never to let it happen again, but ten days later, when her period arrives, Lucy is almost disappointed.
The weather turns cold. Keith, now always armed with protection—he calls them rubber soldiers—is strangely coy about where he actually lives, so they make do with the cramped confines of whatever car he’s currently driving. They park in secluded spots all over Sydney—bushy, hidden places, which Keith somehow knows about. There are no more trips to the pictures or the beach; it feels as if there’s time for nothing but their urgent back-seat encounters, which usually begin with Lucy kneeling between Keith’s thighs and end with his frantic, exultant face collapsing into the space between her neck and shoulder.
Before dropping her home, he likes to pull over half a mile down Mona Vale Road and double-check that her clothes, hair, and makeup are all in order. One night, she asks if he does it because he’s afraid of Hal.
“That maggot?” he scoffs.
An intimate mood has come over them, as it tends to, afterward in the sultry car.
“It’s Robbo,” he says, and gives her earlobe a little tug. “Robbo would kill me. He’d gut me like a fish and watch me bleed out.”
Keith tucks a strand of Lucy’s hair behind her ear. Then, with a small squeal of the tires, he pulls back into the roadway, so that an approaching car is forced to slow.
There’s a glut of vegetables on the market, and Hal chooses to plow his back into the ground rather than let them go at a loss. Other farmers dump theirs at sea. Subdued in after-dinner lamplight, he talks about selling up and moving to the Shoalhaven, where Colin lives these days. The land down there is cheap. Lucy waits for someone to mention that the house and garden actually belong to Mum; but who’s going to say it, apart from herself? She’s the only one of her father’s children left at home: Robbo’s driving for the mines at Mount Isa; Danny’s in Grafton; Peter’s moved closer to the South’s ground at Redfern. Hal relies entirely on men like John Biga, who’s remained loyal despite the crushed finger, and on Lucy, who’s still in the shop. Charlie, Mum says, isn’t old enough to work yet.
There was a time when the routine of dusting the counter, arranging shelves, and making sandwiches pleased Lucy, because she thought of it as a rehearsal for being Keith’s wife. But Keith has disappeared. He stopped visiting weeks ago, without word, and now her days are made up entirely of the shop and the house. When she’s in the shop, she longs for the house; in the house, only the shop seems tolerable. It takes her three minutes to walk between them, and it’s in those three minutes that something like life is lived, because she gets to feel the sun on her face, or exchange pleasantries with John, or scold the mynah birds as they chase kookaburras from the clothesline.
Early one evening, Sylvia shows up at the house. She’s carrying Nonnie, who is three and looks more than ever like a tiny politician: tense, apologetic, and waggish in turns as he squirms on Lucy’s lap. His red hair swirls around his crown like a drawn storm on a weather map. He talks a great deal about a dog with fleas, then falls asleep. Lucy sits with him on the veranda while Mum and Sylvia argue in the kitchen. Danny has kicked Sylvia out of their place in Grafton, and she has nowhere else to go.
“I’ve never,” she declares from the kitchen, “I have never in my life even looked twice at another man.”
Charlie stands at Lucy’s side. He is eight now, and veers unpredictably between sweetness and casual cruelty. At this moment, he’s sweet, leaning against her leg and gazing at Nonnie’s sleeping form.
In the kitchen, Mum pleads with Syl. She says, “You can’t expect me to side against my own son.”
Charlie studies Nonnie. “Is he my cousin?”
“He’s your nephew,” Lucy says. “You’re his uncle.”
Charlie nods, thinking this through. Then a look of shrewd elation crosses his face. “I can boss him,” he says.
Lucy holds Nonnie a little tighter. “You can’t,” she says. “He’s a baby.”
But Charlie gallops away singing, “I can boss him,” rotating one arm above his head as if readying a lasso.
Sylvia comes slamming out of the kitchen. “Your mum can be such a bitch,” she says, gathering Nonnie into her arms. “She clearly doesn’t want us here. Her own grandson.”
Nonnie blinks, yawns, and snuggles against his mother’s chest.
“What did she say?” Lucy asks, although she knows exactly what Mum said: no. It’s unlike Mum to say no, and Lucy feels both pride in her mother’s firmness and pity for her friend. Still, it’s been many years since Sylvia passed secret notes and lay her head on Lucy’s shoulder.
Sylvia ignores the question. “You know what I’ll do?” she says to Nonnie, jogging him so that his tipsy head jiggles. “I’ll wait for Hal. Hal will want me here. Yes, he will, baby boy, he’ll want me here. Won’t he? Won’t he? Yes, he will.”
Yes, Lucy thinks, he probably will, and Mum will give in to him, as she always does. Then Hal will pull out the flashy manners he reserves for pretty, young women: he’ll treat Syl like a queen, he’ll make insinuations and find excuses to touch her, he’ll ingratiate himself with Nonnie and laugh at his own son’s slight lisp, and all the while Mum will be there, washing Hal’s shirts and cooking his chops.
John Biga walks past the veranda. He has his own car now and often works late. He calls good night as he goes, tips his hat, and Charlie returns a yeehaw from out by the clothesline.
“Who’s that?” Sylvia asks, appraising.
“He works for Hal,” Lucy says. “He’s very old-fashioned. Syl, did Keith ever come to Grafton?”
“Keith who?” Sylvia leans in close to Nonnie’s face and kisses him on the mouth.
“Robbo’s old friend,” says Lucy.
“Oh!” Sylvia cries, as if addressing Nonnie’s nose. “Yeah, a few weeks back. They were around for Danny’s birthday.”
“Did he have a girl with him?”
“No, it was just him and Robbo. But get this.” Sylvia gives Lucy a sly, pleased look over the top of Nonnie’s head. “You can’t breathe a word of this to anyone, but Danny swears he saw the two of them—you know—going at it. Out the back garden. Keith was against the shed, Robbo was kneeling and . . . well, sucking. Slurp, slurp, slurp. It was dark, but Danny swears it.”
Lucy feels suddenly as if words and bodies have nothing to do with one another. In fact, she no longer believes in bodies at all: not Keith’s, not her brother’s, and least of all her own, which sits shivering on the veranda, though the evening isn’t cold. Lucy has nothing to do with her body, just as its shivering has nothing to do with the temperature of the air, or with the sweep of John Biga’s departing headlights, or with the brave way Charlie yells, “Daddy!” as Hal comes striding into view, grinning madly. Sylvia passes Nonnie to Lucy and readies to greet Hal, smoothing her skirt and shaking out her pretty hair.
John Biga asks Lucy to marry him in January. This isn’t a complete surprise: he’s been preparing to leave Hal and set up on his own, and he’s always been attentive to her in his stiff, courtly way. The proposal itself has a rigidity to it, as if it’s a plank of wood he’s been instructed to hold perfectly flat. They’re sitting together on the bench outside the shop, just as they did when he crushed his finger. He keeps his eyes on the ground and talks, almost apologetically, of the injustices of Soviet Poland, the immigrant indignities of Australia. His Polish name, apparently, is Jan.
Lucy, looking at the smooth stub of his shortened finger, wonders if he knows any women in Australia other than herself. He describes at length a cat his mother would feed at the kitchen door, although his father had forbidden pets, and Lucy can’t help but think of him, too, as a kind of stray: shy, grateful, less shiny than he might have been under different circumstances. She’s noticed him, though, be hard on the other workers in a quiet, forbidding manner that seems more effective than Hal’s bluster, and once or twice, he’s watched Sylvia saunter off and muttered a word beneath his breath that Lucy knows, without speaking Polish, means “whore.”
Lucy asks him if she might have some time to think about her answer, and he agrees—he isn’t leaving immediately. He seems to interpret her reluctance to refuse him outright as a kind of pity. This would infuriate a man like Hal, but not John, who appears to take that pity and make space for it among all the other disappointments of his life. Lucy is almost sure that she won’t marry him.
In February, a letter comes from Mount Isa saying that Robbo has been badly beaten, that he was found unconscious early one morning in a public park, that his injuries suggest multiple attackers, and that while he’s expected to “pull through,” he’ll need “a certain level of care that is best provided by family.” It’s signed by a union rep.
That evening, at tea, Hal says, “What the hell was he doing in a park so late at night?”
Sylvia shoots Lucy a meaningful look, and Lucy recognizes in herself a stubborn refusal to accept the fact of Robbo and Keith in the Grafton dark. She now feels that refusal falling away.
Mum says, “We’ll have him here.” She speaks casually, barely glancing at Hal, although it’s clear that her whole being is intent on him. There’s something withered about her, Lucy thinks. But every now and then, she unfurls herself.
Hal nods sagely above his sausages. “He can help Lucy in the shop,” he says, his brow furrowed as if with concern. “He can give change. If he can still count to ten, that is.”
Mum’s chair squeals against the lino as she pushes it back, throws down her knife and fork, stands, and leaves the kitchen. Hal laughs, Charlie echoes him, and Hal swats out at his son, cuffing the back of his head. Then Sylvia leans across the table and places her hand on Hal’s forearm. She has gained weight and is prettier than ever, and careful, Lucy knows, to dance just out of his reach. Watching the two of them, she finds herself recalling the Polish word for whore.
Charlie is crying. Nonnie stares at him with stricken awe. Sylvia speaks in soothing whispers, stroking Hal’s arm.
Lucy is disgusted by all of it, and mostly by what she recognizes as the stinginess of her own heart, which twists at the thought of Robbo and his “certain level of care.” Already she can see him at the table, drooling, with his stunned and stupid face. Danny won’t visit; Colin’s useless; Peter, the footy star, pretends the family doesn’t exist. Keith’s gone. Lucy will, she knows, be left to wipe and feed Robbo, to dress him as she did Charlie, to comb his hair and kiss the top of his head, even when the smell of it turns her stomach. She sees herself years from now, still in this kitchen, loving Robbo, fretting over him, and sunk in steady hatred.
Across the window, across the table, comes the bright bubble of John Biga’s headlights. He’s leaving for the day. He might leave forever. What a thought: to leave forever. Lucy pushes away from the table, stands, and runs to the veranda, where she waves her arms above her head. He’s almost at the road, and she doesn’t think he’s noticed her. But he stops the car, opens the window, leans out, and looks back at her, uncertain. Then she’s down the steps, across the lawn. His head withdraws from the window. She runs, afraid he’ll drive away. He doesn’t. He waits. The passenger door swings open, as if by magic.