In February I posted if you don’t risk anything, you risk even more, mentioning the 1500 word short story I was writing for the Australian Country Style Magazine’s 2013 competition, “referencing directly or obliquely, the idea of ‘chance’”, and commented how the inspiration came to me via a dream.
“This dream… worked hard to convince me what it had to tell was inspiring rather than annoying. Three times I extricated myself from its grip. Three times it dragged me back. Over Sunday morning coffee, I told the G.O. “I had the worst dream last night. It felt awfuI. It wouldn’t let me go”. As I recounted the dream, I felt my gut wrenching over again. I asked “Why would I dream something like that? God forbid it ever happens. What chance would we have?”… as realisation dawned.”
As I was writing the story, I relived the feelings and thoughts of the dream whereby the G.O., me and our dog (who was my real dog until about 10 years ago) had to flee our home, stopping only to say goodbye to my aunt and uncle. I woke up at that point and had to make up the rest… What would you do, where would you go, and how, if you had to flee?
This is my version.
The room is warm but I slip my arms into a robe, tie it around me before walking to the front of the house. I unlatch the bolts on the door, tug it open onto a coolroom quiet empty street. Brittle air crackles and frost sheens the ground. The usual drone of city traffic is muted. I haven’t seen or heard a bird since last weekend.
I woke to unaccustomed twilight. Jerked upright with feet on the floor it’s too late panic until the knowledge it’s Saturday resolved the confusion. Alongside me, still, my husband and beside the bed on the floor, dog, both breathing evenly although I know they listen within their one-eye-open slumber.
In the kitchen the microwave LED panel flashes 12.02 pm. I check my watch, 6.30 pm. Power cut. We needed to sleep. We’re not late. There’s plenty of time. I turn the radio dial. Each station emits muzak. I open the laptop, click the Internet Explorer icon, No Connection Available.
I pick up my phone, press Last Number Dialled. It rings until a synthetic voice suggests I leave a message. Yet again I don’t bother. Nor do I go to the television. Broadcasts devolved to repeats of soaps, and hourly news bulletins saying not much but somehow saying enough.
I can’t think about this yet. I need coffee. I pour the last beans into the machine and add fresh water. Noisy grinding summons my husband and dog. They greet me briefly; my husband with a kiss, the dog runs her head under my hand, before moving on to attend to nature’s call. Vin unlocks the door to the yard for her on his way to the bathroom.
Coffees in hand I follow the dog. From the back step I see Zee; halted, head up, intent, listening. Movement causes her to turn around. She barks softly, skips across to bump her nose into my leg, hard. I follow her gaze to assess the sky, sunlight obscured by a film of cloud tinged with bruised colours.
Vin appears, reaching for his coffee. His other hand rubs his ear. “It’s getting worse”. I know he means the hum. For me it’s a low continual resonance. The effect on Vin whose tinnitus it amplifies, and super-ears Zee is torment. Zee repeats her nose bump on Vin’s leg. He acknowledges her, “We will”.
I listen for movement in neighbouring yards. The dogs are inside, or gone, possibly their owners also. Tuesday’s washing on the line signifies little. We walk to the fence, peer into the lane. The bins line up, lids upright, last emptied on a long-ago Monday. The blue car hasn’t moved. There was talk. Now there’s not even that.
Vin swigs the dregs of coffee, walks into the house, calling quietly “Let’s do it”. ‘It’ has been the subject of endless conversation, constantly turning over in my mind, but my gut is unprepared. I sink onto the step, Zee immediately at my knees. I thread my fingers through her thick undercoat and take a breath. “Ella. Come on. There’s no other way” echoes Vin. I know. I don’t want to concede reality.
The ample time passes far too quickly and much too slowly. I know what I need to do. Reluctance to launch into uncertain circumstances immobilises me. It’s only the thought staying put is just as dicey that propels my legs.
We committed the plan to memory. Once I begin, it’s better not to think. I pull from the bottom of the wardrobe two timberwolf grey pigmented backpacks. In case we needed to move quickly they’ve been packed for months with winter hiking gear. Our outfits for this evening swing above.
I hear Vin’s movements outside in the lean-to. He is taking care of family business. Beneath the foundations he buries the remaining mementos of our lives. I offer up a prayer of hope that when, if we come back we will be able to retrieve them. If we don’t return, there’ll be no-one to mourn their loss.
I tidy the house then shower. Vin calls out reminding me “We need to eat”. The daypacks contain five days of bare rations for three. Food after that, if we need it, means taking out the precious contents sewn into the daypacks and clothes, or our chances.
I prepare a passable dinner of beef, vegetables and rice. The meal is difficult, for me at least. Zee inhales her biscuits and share of the stir fry. Vin practical, cleans his plate and won’t let me leave mine.
Afterwards Vin showers while I clear the kitchen, wash and dry dishes, turn in circles and wander through rooms. Zee shadows me. We’ve been spending our days like this since I lost my job. Vin emerges dressed; says we need to return a book to our old friend Jorge.
The fuel gauge indicator hovers below half on the dashboard of Vin’s ute. We have no choice but to use the remaining drum of biodiesel tonight. The route takes us along shadowy deserted streets. Vin parks alongside the few vehicles in front of the building. We scan the vicinity, lock Zee in the cab, step out across the footpath into a dimly illumined vestibule and press the buzzer.
Entering the community club through fingerprinted glass doors transports us into a stage set of dated normality, underwritten by a sound system playing Celine Dion’s Because You Loved Me, and a silent episode of Dallas on a giant wall mounted screen.
An octad of cardigan clad citizens sit at a long table; a grey-haired collective playing Rummy. The card players see questions in our eyes. “Speak of nothing. It’s not safe” murmurs Pearl, Jorge’s neighbour. Her husband motions us to sit and deals cards. We play two hands then get up to leave. As Jorge leans across to kiss us goodbye, he whispers at our faces “Go now. Be far away by morning.”
I hug Jorge as I hand him the book. Vin shakes his hand. He tells me much later, he slipped into Jorge’s pocket a slim package containing my mother’s marcasite watch. It had been stashed with her remaining jewellery, and mine amongst the secreted cash. Of negligible value, there was little point in taking it to sell or barter. When, if we return, if Jorge still is here, if he still has it, the watch will be all I have. So many ifs.
We walk out looking straight ahead. In the ute Zee has taken control of the driver’s seat. As Vin unlocks the door, she returns to her place in the rear cab space. It’s then I notice the daypacks, coats, boots and carry bag.
My question remains unasked while instead of taking the direction of home, Vin heads the ute across the main road. I figure out what eventuated. Vin was prepared for Jorge’s sentiments. While I was searching for the book, Vin moved the gear. My mind travels to home for a mental goodbye. The only kind I’ll make.
One hand on the steering wheel Vin places a worksite safety beacon on the roof. Chill air entering the cab gets my attention. We’re hiding in plain sight, appearing to have legitimate purpose but keeping to back streets and roads, avoiding highways which are monitored.
Vin drives north, not our ultimate destination but if we get to the river, our ticket to the next leg. There’s scant traffic and we’re not stopped. We follow the signs and impossibly quickly it seems, Vin is turning the ute toward a roadside park.
We avoid several scattered vehicles but their proximity and the icy temperature means our sojourn outside to change clothes, and Zee’s comfort stop is swift. I check my watch. We’re early. It feels too easy.
Half the night might’ve passed from where I was sitting but it’s barely an hour until Zee’s ears prick, and we see oncoming lights. A dual cab F250, its metallic charcoal paint dusty, slows then stops. Fifteen minutes later, a man wearing a wool hat and checked jacket approaches on foot. I’m clammy and flushed regardless of cold air blasting in as Vin gets out.
My fight or flight mechanism is conflicted. Zee attempts to follow Vin. “No”, we both say. I witness muffled conversation before Vin tosses the ute key to the man. He opens the door, “Let’s do it” which has the same effect as earlier but I grab the packs and coats. The dog sprints to Vin who shoulders the packs as I walk away from the ute without looking back and step up into the rear seat of the F250.
F250 man gestures at his chest “Bern. Relax. It’s about an hour from here”. It feels like ten and despite intentions of vigilance, weariness flickers my eyelids annoyingly. Finally, pre-dawn we see an old punt tied to an older wharf. Before we leave the F250 Vin passes an envelope to Bern “The ute and five G’s, the dog travels free”, and gets a slight smile in response.
As Zee and I board the punt Vin pauses, looks up, whispers to the sky “Old Ones, you brought our families here this way. For what? We have to go. I’m sorry”.