I lived in a small town called Kinglake, where there is no lake. Cars would drive into town with their boat attached to the tow ball and the windows down. They’d pull over beside me on my BMX bike, me trying to do wheelies down the main street. There’d be a girl in the passenger seat with a Melways open on her lap and a confused look on her face and the driver would lean out with his sunglasses on top of his head and say, Hey mate where’s the lake at? There is no lake. No serious, where is it? And I’d give them directions that led to nowhere. Left at the end of the street, right after that, somewhere.
It’s one of those everyone knows everyone towns that you hate to imagine exist just because of the cliché. My parents owned a shop that sold souvenirs of tiny wombats and pictures of green trees. Sometimes on the school holidays they’d leave me to tend the front counter when they wanted to check on my brother and sister or have an important meeting. This was the year that I was eleven.
We lived on a dust road that made my mother’s flowers brown and my hair feel heavy. I’d ride my bike down the hill and leave a trail rising into the air behind me and I’d pretend it was smoke from me going too fast, setting the ground on fire. I’d go to the old, deserted house ten doors up, go inside, and flick the switch on the wall, as if one day the lights would come on.
This was my castle, my real cubby house that had windows and always felt like ghosts. It smelled like cracked concrete and chalk and burnt carpet. From the outside it looked lived in, but the grass was long and the leaves were gathering on the gutters. And in there, it was like the people had just left all of a sudden, left a few clothes, old chairs a broken bed, a TV that I’d smashed, and a table. Even forks and spoons that I used to scrape paint off the walls. It was like and empty suitcase of someone going nowhere.
And I’d pretend like I owned it.
It was a day when I was digging into the flooring in the lounge room, tunneling I think, that I heard a car crunching its wheels onto the driveway. Ran straight out the back door, swinging it behind me, screaming on its hinges, and I cringed at the noise, hoping no one else might hear. From behind a tree and lying on the grass, bike at my side, I heard a woman singing and talking and singing again. I didn’t know the song but figured it to be old. I could see her squeaking her across windows and tapping her foot on boards. She was looking out over the backyard, her eyes meet mine for a second, I thought, then she went inside, still singing. A man followed after her and I could hear his deep voice intensified through the empty walls. They were tapping walls and doors and creaking the floor and making sounds like dragging things and her singing. With my heart beating and my mind creating what they might do to me, I got on my bike and rode past their car and home, the dust rising behind me.
Because it was summer, my Mum would make salad, being too hot for normal meals, and we’d take what we wanted from bowls and plates while outside was still shining, far from night. Some nights, my parents closed the shop early and came home but my father still wouldn’t stop talking about it. He’d be on the phone or watching TV talking about money or sales. Sometimes Mum would sit outside in the heat and scratch her legs where mosquito’s had bitten her. I’d bounce on the trampoline, watching my reflection on the kitchen window, trying to get high as I could, and ask my Mum questions watching the clouds roll on to the next day. And because we lived under a flight path, I’d bounce up and wave at the plane passengers as it dragged its earth shaking sound across the sky.
People would walk into our shop in thongs and dirty feet and ask for directions to a national park or public toilet block. Some people would come in and use my parent’s first names, but I didn’t know who they were. I’d beg Mum to give me twenty-cent coins to buy paper bags of lollies or waste on video games, and usually when people came in she did. I forget where Dad was, always out meeting people. I’d ride up and down the streets and skid to halt to see how much of a mark I could leave. This was how I heard the singing again, with my bike at a halt outside the old house. The grass was shorter and you could see through the windows, the leaves were gone. I had my bike in the grass around the corner and touched my feet on the ground as gently as possible, pretended I was on a secret mission to the backyard of the house. I pulled myself up on the side window and felt my fingers straining to hold me up and look. The lady was echoing inside, sounding louder, grander through the emptiness. She was dragging a paintbrush up the walls. There was no car in the driveway. She’d hit high notes like my mother and I wondered if she knew any other songs. She contentedly coloured over my pretend world and sang her own life into it, with the windows open and she smell of cut grass and paint everywhere.
My brother was poking an ant nest in the old stump at home and I asked him why he did that when we had both gone to bed and were staring at the ceiling at night. He said he didn’t know. A plane flew over our roof and rocked my bed with its noise. My brother a story about the ants going to war against his stick, then he told me his Christmas list that he’d revised again, because it was only 23 more sleeps away. He flipped up the curtain by his bed so the full moon shone onto our floor and asked what I wanted. I told him I didn’t know.
One morning my Mum was at home. My Dad was somewhere else. I asked Mum if the shop was open and she said no. She drank a glass of water and my brother went out to fight the ants in his bike helmet. I don’t know what Mum was thinking that day. I don’t know where dad was to ask her.
The old house was looking better now, alive. The insides were still being worked on and the man was carrying wood to the backyard wearing overalls. He was yelling through the window at the woman who I could not see or hear. The man got back into the car and reversed across the stones out to the road and drove towards the main street. The wind whistled through the house for a moment, clapped a door closed out the back, then I heard singing again.
An old man in a singlet with tiny hairs curling off his shoulders and a face like leather asked me where my parents were. I told him I didn’t know. Our shop was dark and there was a local paper stuck under the door. At home Mum was hanging wet clothes on the line. My brother was flowing water from a hose onto the ants. I told Mum the shop was closed and she nodded and smiled to me as if I’d just drawn a picture of her.
Dad came home when the day was orange and red and he and Mum talked so I couldn’t hear. They went to their room and closed the door. My brother changed the channel on the TV. I went on a secret mission out into the dark to listen at their window, and with the crickets creaking so loud it was vibrating my ears, it was hard to hear anything but my Mums voice being high and Dad’s being deep. But I could hear Mum crying. And I got onto my bike and raced up the dirt, left smoke in my wake.
At the old house, the door was wide open and the man was yelling loud inside. The lights were bright and they lit up the trees, with no curtains, and I smiled to see what they looked like working. I crawled up to the side window and sat with my back on the wooden wall listening to the man and sounds of metal on the floor and tins and heavy things moving. The man yelled and screamed the hinges of the back door and made his car growl in the driveway, made his tyres dig holes in the stones. Then he was gone. I could feel my heartbeat in my hands and legs. My fingers strained on the open windowsill, pulling myself up to see in. To see how she had filled the house. And she was there, sitting on the floor, not moving. Not singing. She’d spilt paint on the floor next to her. Her long hair had paint in it too. She sobbed deeply and did not look up from staring. My fingers hurt and I had to lower myself down and put my back on the grass and sticks that made me feel like a rash. Blood shooting through me like bullets in my veins. I heard her whisper to herself, something, words I couldn’t understand. Just a sound of her voice. Help me, she said at one part. I tried to look through the wall and see her sitting on the other side. She was crying and I felt my eyes tingle with her. I whisper are you all right? Deliberately too quiet for her to hear over the wind and crickets and the leaves swaying in the treetops. And it was like her song belonged here. And I sung it out to the open window. She stopped crying but I could hear that she didn’t move, the floorboards. Every word she’d sung through the night and the window and the summer. I heard the floor as she stood and, wiping her eyes, blocked the light from the window.
Her hair hung over the ledge and she looked at me singing the last words. As if I’d just drawn a picture of her, she smiled. And I never saw her again.