It keeps us busy all day long. From the time we crawl out of the gauze nets we sleep under, to the time we return to them exhausted at night, we battle with sand. It pours into every crevice, gathers in every fold, cascades from the joinery in our ceilings like a hundred hourglasses tipped and pouring onto silent piles on the floor.
My mother fights it with a broom. The knock and bump of her broomhead about the furniture is like muffled shell-fire in the mornings. My brother fights with shovels, scraped and dragged across the brickwork around the walls of the house. I fight the sand with dreams fed by television and plans for escape. With eyes on the road to the capital and the coastline which I know are there. But the road itself is often not visible. Only when the bulldozer comes and goes do we see the long, straight shadow reaching to that point on the horizon. Over the weeks we watch as it is erased again.
The children in our town don’t say much about sand. It is a world they accept and they are well-adjusted. Their gait accommodates the softness and their feet are broad and muscular. But the older people talk from time to time. My grandmother, battling for years in a house on the corner of our street, told me what she knew. The dunes, she said, had always been coming this way. Her father had ridden out to see them when she was just a girl. He returned with the warning that they were moving and might one day swallow the town. She said she had feared something sudden, something violent and final like Pompeii. Instead there was simply more sand, year after year, and when she died we buried her in it, like a queen in the Valley of the Kings.
There are storms of course. There have been famous storms. My mother likes to talk about the bad ones with names like the Seventy-Four and the Eighty-Six. They filled the streets completely, she whispers, and the light in the room seems to darken at once. They smothered the doorways and snuffed out the fires. The people choked, first on sand, then on smoke. You couldn’t see across the street, she says, and then you couldn’t see across the room. And when the wind finally dropped, after days of bleak light, the people worked quickly to dig themselves out and rebuild the town on the roofs of the old one. Like Troy.
So our house has cellars with rooms just like ours. My mother’s girlhood is entombed beneath us. It is into these rooms that the sand pours when she stirs it with her broom. Sometimes she taps on the floor and listens. ‘Still there,’ she mutters. ‘Not quite full.’ It seems to give her sweeping purpose because the sand down there is trapped and held while sand swept out the door comes back. Like a wily cartoon character, it raises itself up to trickle again down the chimney or whittle at the cracks between the weatherboards, snickering and determined.
We still have storms, but these days we know what to do. We have gauze to stretch over the windows and cracks when the horizon blurs and darkens. We swathe the satellite dishes in gossamer and bucket water into our tubs because the sand will choke up the springs for days. Then, thankfully, the springs prevail, dark patches spreading on the new sand like bloodstains. Water is running within the week. We don’t panic about the springs any more. We know how it happens.
People came from the capital one day. They drove here in seven green jeeps, wearing light-weight trousers and strong, brown boots. They quickly built a project house where they lived and held their meetings. And they cleared out the public bathing house, which had been locked up and buried for years—ever since the council decided that we could be trusted not to waste water and could have our own tubs in our houses. But the project women preferred the public bath house. One said it was the nicest thing we had here in the town. Quaint, she called it, without realizing that it was not our custom, but theirs.
Our women were suspicious of the project women and their preference for the bath house. They quizzed me because I worked there each afternoon, filling the tubs to the authorized depth, measuring out the Condy’s crystals with a spoon.
In the late afternoons, they would sit around the walls of the small front room, wearing only their towels, waiting for their turn to bathe. Behind ragged plastic curtains, in the gloom, the cool, shallow water slopped and swung inside the concrete tubs and fell from the women’s limbs when they moved, chortling like music.
The waiting women swapped stories of a day of frustration. They talked about the project men. And one of them had a little song she always sang, softly chanting the words to the ceiling.
‘If seven maids with seven mops
Swept it for half a year,
Do you suppose,’ the Walrus said,
‘That they could get it clear?’
The women folded their arms behind their heads, drew up their knees and sighed.
‘I doubt it,’ said the Carpenter …
They read letters from the capital out loud. They discussed remedies for eye irritations, chapped lips and roughened skin.
‘What do you use on your skin?’ they asked me.
I shrugged and then remembered a television show on ancient Egypt. ‘Oils,’ I lied.
The women conferred among themselves. ‘What kind?’ they wanted to know.
So the project women wanted coconut oil rubbed into their bath-cooled skins. Massage. It was such a good idea that they were willing to pay. Within weeks I was pummelling ten of them a day. My arms grew hard that summer and my hands soft from the oil they sent for from far away.
They didn’t speak to me much, but I grew to know them well. I knew their bodies better than I knew my own. Their shape, the colour of their skins became ordinary to me.
And sometimes, when I returned to my family’s house in the evenings, I missed their talking. My family never spoke of things beyond the town, not even when the television was on. Tigers in Bengal, lions in Africa, swamp monitors and secretary birds. From our front door I could see the lights of the project house where they were eating and drinking and laughing together. I wanted to visit them but I never did, even though they were always polite to me. Perhaps they would only have been surprised.
They were working on the problem of the sand, of course. Where it came from, how to stop it and how to save our town. They said our situation provided an interesting opportunity for research. They would examine and experiment and bring down their findings. They showed us graphs and maps and protested loudly when our council announced that we would all build on the roofs of our houses again. The project people said we must look to the cause and understand where the sand was coming from. They didn’t know that my grandmother had heard of the dunes from her father, that they had always been riding towards us, borne on the wind like waves.
They built walls and we planted trees and marram grasses to hold the dunes in place. We co-operated. We wanted the project people to stay. As long as they were there, there was money and supplies came from the capital. As long as they stayed, the road from the coastline was kept clear and I knew there was hope for me.
I did my council sweeping in the middle of the morning, trailing behind my mother, dragging my broom through the street. We would meet other women at the corner and lean on our brooms while we talked. They would drop little hints to my mother about marriage and when she turned to smile at me I would strike out down a side street, pushing my broom before me. I thought only of the afternoons, of the rarefied air of the bath house, the secret money I was making with massage and the talk of other worlds. Mine was a job with a future, or so I believed.
But nothing held the sand down. The walls built by the project people shrank as the ground level rose. The tiny trees were soon stripped and bent by the quickening winds. We started to build on top of our houses and the council street-sweeping was no longer required. My childhood too would soon be buried beneath us and my mother’s rooms finally full and gone.
The project people prepared to leave. They presented a final report at one last public meeting, and we all sat on chairs which sank and tilted on the softly rising floor. They announced that the town would be nominated as a national treasure. This way we could survive, they said, because the tourist buses would keep the road clear and tourist money would pay for our supplies. They had graphs and tables on the wall. They had glossy mock-up brochures on the table. We all drank tea and browsed and one week later they were gone.
The project house has all but disappeared now, and of their retaining walls not a trace remains. The bath house is closed. The tubs have filled with sand without me there to swill them out so thoroughly each day.
I miss the women. I missed my chance with them. On the day they talked about leaving, I listened with glittering eyes. The one with the tiny tattoo, which maybe only I have seen, said she was off to India and I told her the sorry story of the Bengal tigers.
‘Well, I’d better watch out for them, hadn’t I?’ she said with a honking laugh.
‘I’d like to go too,’ I told her. ‘I’d like to see the ocean. I could come with you if there’s room.’
‘There isn’t room,’ said the tattooed woman. She sat up then, rolled up her hair and thrust a pin through it. ‘It’s not a good idea.’ And buttoning up her shirt, she refused to speak further.
I dreamed that night. Dreamed I climbed to the top of a dune and flung myself down the other side. The roar of the wind obscured all sounds but the deafening flicker of spinifex grass. I skittered down to the flat, smooth, wet sand, as wide as a plain, as shiny as glass. There were molluscs and crustaceans and shredded green weed and my feet slapped across the surface and my footprints wobbled and sank. Then in front of me, a wave swelled huge and broke open. Inside it were tigers, sleek as otters, and lions shaking their big, wet heads like dogs, leaping, paws smacking at the roaring, snarling surf. I dived in amongst them, head down and hands forward, right down into the cold, deep, drinking-water sea.
We don’t know if, in fact, we are a national treasure. We have never heard. I had great plans for a bath house if the tourist buses came, but now I doubt that they ever will. As we feared, the project’s failure brought about a malaise in the capital. They no longer clear the road for us and now the only way out is to leave on broad, well-adapted feet across the dunes to the west.
I don’t have feet broad enough, but my children do. As soon as they are old enough, I have promised myself that I will show them the point on the horizon where the road used to go and set them on their way.