The impossible city

Evie Wyld grew up in London and New South Wales. Her short story, "What will happen to the dog after we are dead?" appears in the anthology, Goldfish, and she is currently writing her first novel, After the fire, a still small voice.

Menzies meat

"Fuckin', I don't give a fart in lemonade if those kids don't turn up." Keena glanced around herself and pulled a thick hand through her wedge-shaped hair. "You an' me we got the mull and the beer to have us an okay nite without those scrawny rednecks." She looked across the lake and squinted at a twiggy bottle-brush shrub. "Wonder if they're in that, watchin'. Fuckin' rednecks."

"Keena, we're rednecks," Elaine said, her eyes closed on the evening sun.

"Fuckin' speak for you self girlie girl, I'm a fuckin' black, me. Fuckin' black gin." Elaine kept her eyes closed and smiled. They were sat on the seats of two orange plastic chairs - the legs torn off so that they wouldn't sink into the mud. Back in her normal voice Keena asked, "You 'right Elaine?"

"Fine - pass the bong?" Something rustled in the scrub to their left - a bandicoot or a rat - and they ignored it.

"Nah, serious, you got all quiet recently. An' you look different. You losing weight?"

Keena handed Elaine the apparatus, a Fanta bottle with a bit of hosepipe sticking from it, some dirty-smelling water and a lighter. Keena was always asking how Elaine had stayed thin while she had, in the last three years, grown breasts and a bottom and a belly. Elaine kept on telling her, "It's just I have a bad diet, Keena; I eat beef for pretty much every meal," which was true. But lately, Elaine had noticed a change in her appearance. When she looked at herself naked in the bathroom mirror she felt made of ash. There was something dry and grey and insubstantial about her body now. Her hair was almost green when it was wet, and almost grey when dry. She was beyond dreary.

Sitting up, Elaine placed her middle finger over the air hole of the bong and chipped the lighter into flame with her other thumb. Holding it to the little pocket of mull, she sucked at the top of the bottle and felt it bubble and fill up with smoke. After drawing it in, she lent back in the orange cup-chair and let the smoke float out of her.

"It's this shitty town," she croaked, with the last of her breath.

"Tell me 'bout it," Keena agreed. "The men in this town don't know their dicks from their elbows."

"Nah, it's not that." The distant noise of a road train drowned out the crack of the cicadas. "I feel like I'm sat 'round here waiting for my dad to die, so I can have babies and work in his shop and die, and then my kids can die in it too." Elaine frowned as she tried to find the words which would make sense of what she wanted to say. "I go to school; work in the shop; then I come out here and get ripped with you. That's what I do - for ever." There was a silence in which cicadas took back the noise again. Keena was looking away across the lake and Elaine could see her jaw set. The air was thick and still and Elaine could feel the blood pumping in her lips. She worried that her stomach might growl loudly in the silence. A gang of white cockatiels whirred and screamed by in the gloaming.

Once, Elaine's dad had seen a jabiru set down right in the middle of the lake, where there was still some pinkish water left. He reckoned it was taller than a tall man, and that when it flew away after a brief sift through the salty water, you could feel the air around your face moving from its wings. Elaine's dad was a good exaggerator, but Elaine always hoped to catch sight of a dinosaur bird like that. It'd be good to feel the fan of its wings; get the air moving again.

Keena busted open with a laugh that sounded like a bang.

"Jesus, you got me all fuckin' sad with you for a sec there!" And then, in a voice that implied some deeper kind of hurt, "Fuckin' hell Elaine! We're sixteen! That's what all sixteen-year-olds do! What, d'ya think you gonna get suited up and join some big lawyer's firm or something if you didn't work at the butcher's?! Fuckin' hell, just have a bit of fun will ya? An' eat somethin' green."

Elaine felt like she'd been caught doing something dirty, and looked at her hands. Her fingernails had blood under them.

When she looked up Elaine could make out the shapes of the boys looming at the edge of the lake. Keena saw them too and ran a hand through her hair. "Fuckit, here they come," she said, and stood up. "Reckon I'm for that Jimmy Colerain tonight." Digging around in her backpack she found a compact mirror and an orangey lipstick. The conversation was off. Elaine felt like she hadn't said exactly what she meant. There was something more that needed to come out of her. She wondered if she even knew what she wanted to say; what it was that was slowly turning her to ash.

The next day, there was meat work to do. A thick plastic fly curtain in the butcher shop's doorway kept out the red dust, the breeze and most flies. The luckless few who got through generally headed straight for the zapper, where they quickly became crisp black dots on its undercarriage. It was like the crumb tray of a toaster. One or two became sloppy from the smell of meat and flew endlessly in a square shape around the ceiling fan. Unfortunately the fly curtain didn't keep out Tom Rydding. Tom had been the talk of Menzies five years before when he had come back from holiday in Perth with a mail-order bride. This little Malaysian woman - Dee Dee - had quietly watched life in Menzies for seven months and then left. Tom never said very much on the subject, but what he thought about her departure was evident from his attitude towards women from then on. Not that his attitude had been particularly admirable before Dee Dee left him, but there was a definite lean towards nastiness now. He liked to stare women out, stroking his crumb-bum beard and not blinking. There'd been a bit of trouble with the police, when he drank too much and got mouthy in the pub.

Elaine would daydream about Tom becoming a serial killer. He came into the shop every Wednesday for tripe and dog bones. Once he ordered some ground steak as well. His teeth weren't up to chewing it himself, he told Elaine.

"Right," said Elaine.

She imagined him waiting out on the lake with a hook or an axe, sometimes just a length of wire rope. She could see him gashing open bellies, chopping off limbs and relishing the struggle of a suffocating body. Sometimes she thought about what he did with the bodies - whether he fucked them before, after, during? Did he insert anything other than himself? A beer bottle? The end of a hammer? Sometimes, probably. Of one thing Elaine was completely convinced - he'd keep the hair; keep it in a little wooden box under his bed, and when the police finally caught up with him, they'd find this little nest of colours; the dead bits of dead women.

This afternoon, Tom Rydding was leant forward on the counter, his gaze resting between her legs while she parcelled up his tripe. His eyelids were sunburned. He didn't pretend he wasn't looking - and why should he? Elaine, when she was younger, had been made uneasy by his leering; but now she just thought, "Go ahead - it's what eyes are for isn't it?" Recently, especially the last two months, she hadn't even registered Tom's swarthy presence as anything different from Mrs Salisbury and her bi-weekly order of rissoles.

Elaine's dad came back from his break chipper, smelling of fried onions and beer. He always had some snippet of information for Elaine that frankly disappeared right out of her mind as soon as he'd said it: there were thirteen budgerigars on the back fence at tea time, or Mackenzie's son on the east coast had been bass fishing and caught a two-footer. That was the outside world as far as Elaine's dad saw it - there was the wildlife and then there were people's relatives who caught fish. This life here in Menzies was about producing decent cuts of powerful meat.

Sometimes Elaine looked at her dad and wondered what was in the butcher's shop that kept him going. What it was that made him think it was where they ought to be.

Elaine's dad liked to think he remembered Menzies before all the people moved out.

"Used to be thirteen hotels here - two breweries - there was over 10,000 people all living here - that was a bit before your grandpa moved here though. It was a grouse place to live." And he'd go quiet and stand at the door looking out at the highway.

Prospectors and fossikers had filled the town with miners. "The miners ate chicken an' fish an' beef an' ham, lamb an' pies an' sausages. People came to stay, an' went to restaurants. Things were greener an' there was more of everything. 'Cept space, an' you can't beat a bit of space." He'd turn round, ever enthusiastic about the ghost town, and Elaine would have to smile back to stop him from feeling hurt. Then he'd stretch his arms out to emphasize the space and go for a stroll around his town.

The gold went and so did the people. Locals still spent time scouting around in the scrub with a metal detector or just a bucket of dust and a sieve. It was gold fever, as far Elaine could see - 'cept there was no gold to be had. Not for the last hundred years.

The butcher's grass that trimmed the window of the shop had been green when Elaine was little. Now it was white, like Christmas tinsel. Everything in town was either red from the earth or white from the sun. Elaine didn't know if it was depressing or not. Looking at it seemed to bleach out any feeling in her stomach, stretch it out and burn it away until there was just nothing.

Jimmy Colerain and his three friends had left with a plan to go shooting and smoke most of the mull. Keena had made sure she and Elaine had enough for one more hit, but neither of them approached the bong. It sat just out of their reach, looking more and more to Elaine like an old Fanta bottle with grubby water in it. Before they left Jimmy and his friends had made a small fire.

"That Jimmy's alright," Keena started and then lit a cigarette. "Didja have a go?"

"Yep."

Elaine had found Jimmy Colerain an exact match to the other boys that regularly came out on the lake.

Keena let out a high growl of laughter. "Jesus, d'ya know what he said? We were just finishing up and that, an' he goes, 'Reckon I'd like to make a girl pregnant - reckon it'd feel good'!" They both laughed shrilly and then let it fade into silence again.

"It's not a bad idea, ay?"

Elaine looked at Keena to see if she was joking.

"What you getting at?"

"Well - lookit - I get sprogged up, and go ta hospital; maybe Perth or somewhere like that - Darwin even - either way it means a trip to the hospital, meetin' a nice doc and all that. It'd be one hellava way out!" Keena laughed again, this time on her own.

"Way out?"

The silence was back and Keena turned her face away from the fire.

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