Jack sometimes slept on his back, one arm flung across, face buried in the crook of his elbow. He lay still, hardly breathing. Their bedroom might have been any room, anywhere, but for the smell of wattle-blossom coming in through the fly-screen. And the heat. The night was seamless, inky. It poured into the house, filling up the space between walls, muffling. Lara lay in the dark beside Jack, listening to frog-song with clenched jaw. There was always a mosquito, more than one. She bunched the damp sheet in her fists, wringing. She could feel the heat coming off Jack’s body where her thigh ran alongside his. He was so still. Sometimes Lara believed that he might have smothered himself with the weight of his own limb.
‘I’ve just bought a house,’ were his first words. He shouted them over the bar, bleary-eyed, a good six pints in, celebrating. Lara, who didn’t waste time with drunken customers, who hated their sloppy arrogance, had turned away, sighing, wiping her hands on the damp tea towel hanging from her apron strings. Conversation surged over her; she was submerged.
A row of men, several so drunk they were dribbling or else looking for a fight—one who was passed out with his ear in ash; another pounding his fist, hard, on the bar to make a point, growing red as tinned beet in the face—were waiting to be served. Lara brushed back a loose strand of hair. In her cheap shoes, the bones of her feet felt broken. She spoke to an old bloke whose eyes looked in two directions at once. He lolled at the bar, muttering to himself, waving a five-dollar note in the air.
‘Garn, garn ya bitching bitch,’ she thought he said, flecks of spit gathered on his lips.
‘What you like?’ She never heard the reply. Jack reached out, took her wrist. She felt his fingers encircle the bones; whipped at his touch, open-mouthed with annoyance. She saw his lilac eyes, the sweetness in them. Her reprimand fell away.
He smiled. One front tooth was golden brown, a kernel of corn. To Lara it felt as though the volume on the world had been turned down. All she could hear was her own breath and blood and Jack’s voice.
‘I said: I’ve just bought a house,’ he said. Only the weight of his legs was keeping him from falling headfirst to the ground. He was a tall man, torso stretched full-length to catch her at the joint. There was something in his posture, in his outstretched arms, the earnest, unabashed hope in his face, that brought to Lara’s mind the biblical illustrations of martyrs from her childhood. On the back of this connotation—gut-felt, unanalysed—she made a decision. Not to shout for help, but to smile. And on the basis of this, their relationship. How painful it was to recollect now. At night when Lara cried, she raked over this beginning. I’ve bought a house, he said, looking beatific, earnest, kind. And she, knowing nothing of him but these two things, his posture and his line, was already building in his body the idea of some other man entirely, a fiction. So she smiled, stole his heart and consigned herself away.
Jack was not a bad man. Yet when they emerged from the bush in the borrowed truck, her suitcase and easel roped in the tray, when they crested the ridge and she saw his farm for the first time, she felt fear. The grey-green land seemed to unroll like cotton on a dropped spool. Her eye scanned the valley. She sensed then that land could be a void. It was so quiet. Beyond the rumbling truck there was … nothing.
‘There, see. Told you.’ Jack put his hand on her knee, ground the gears and grinned. He said, ‘Beautiful, isn’t it?’
Lara could only swallow, noisily and bring handkerchief to eye. ‘Ah, love,’ Jack said, ‘don’t cry!’
She let a sob escape, putting her face in her hands. Jack hesitated then pulled the truck over. It skidded a little in the gravel at road’s edge. The engine ticked, cooling. He turned in his seat to face her, took her by the wrists and pulled her hands away. She squeezed her eyes shut. Tears oozed from beneath pinched lids. Birdsong came to them faintly from somewhere beyond the cabin. To Lara, the notes were all wrong. She did not recognise these voices.
If I stay still, it won’t be real, she thought. Jack was staring at her. She could feel it. ‘Lar.’ He spoke quietly, voice tender, cracking with emotion. Whatever she had expected of him, it was not this surprising depth. He dropped her wrists, gathered her face, scooping in under the hair hanging down around her shoulders. He cupped her wet cheeks. She clocked the tears in his eyes. His hands trembled a little; he used a thumb to stroke one velvet temple. Later he would refer to it like that, adoring.
‘I’m just so glad,’ he had to break off, coughing to cover his clenched throat. He shook his head as if in disgust at his own weakness, reddening. ‘Sorry,’ he said. ‘I’m just so glad you like it here.’
Lara had to fight to keep from revealing her horror. Mind racing, she stared in silence at the way Jack ran a hand through his unkempt hair, naked with happiness. Observing the way he searched her face, literally glowing with love, making her feel false, cruel, Lara thought then that it might be possible for her to be better than herself. It wasn’t that she didn’t love him in her way. But it was impossible to ignore that he felt something more for her.
While Jack scrambled for the words to express what was all over him—in his face, his touch, the triumphant set of his shoulders—Lara understood with a jolt that she could not simply open the door and pelt away as she wanted to. She would break her own heart before she broke his. Knowing this, she allowed herself to take what comfort she could in his kindness, in the way his touch made her feel: wanted. Underneath, what pinned her to her seat was a desperate wish simply to keep him from knowing how awful she was. At the same time, she sort of believed in it herself, that she was not awful really. After all, hadn’t she travelled halfway around the globe to escape that story? She self-soothed with the notion that she was just tired and too far from home to think clearly, half-believing that she probably did love Jack just as much as he said he loved her.
So Lara leaned in, hungrily, hands in his hair, on his face, at the buttons on his shirt. She kissed him and he responded. Jack put his arms around her waist, pulled her to him. She slid across the seat. Her rose-print dress snagged on the gear-stick. She was in his lap, feeling the steering wheel in her back, Jack’s tongue in her mouth, his lips at her throat and her collarbone. He smelt of wax and sweat. His cheeks and mouth were rough with stubble; she liked the way it felt, sloughing her skin.
Jack moaned, one hand running up her thigh. He fumbled the handle on the door; it creaked open. Lara broke off from the kiss, looked at him. Her arms were around his neck. He buried his face in her breasts.
‘Wait,’ she began, but he slammed his mouth against hers, silencing her. His body was hard with the muscles that come with being poor, years of work in each arm. She bit his lip, sucking. He manoeuvred his legs from the truck; she hung on. They were awkward together, tangled. He lifted her down and set her on the shoulder of the road. Side by side they were the same height.
‘Hang on,’ he said, backing away. She obeyed. There was nowhere to go. Her legs felt weak. He ran around the truck. Peeled back the tarp. Took his jacket from the tray. Ran back.
‘Come with me.’ He took Lara by the hand. It was afternoon. A damp breeze picked at the fabric of her skirt. Jack pulled her over the shoulder of the road, down the embankment on the other side. Goosebumps rose on her bare arms. The road was cut into the side of a hill. They skidded down, away from the truck. Lara slid on loose gravel and giggled. But the laugh was not giddy, flirtatious. She sounded panicked. Jack reached the bottom of the slope, turned and caught her. They embraced. She felt his heart through her chest.
It was cooler again at the tree line. Birdcall burbled like bubbles rising. A word came to her, warble, but she had no idea what it meant precisely; there was no direct translation. The trees seemed human in their colouring, their posture. Their bark was like skin, either smooth, silken or hanging loose, in strips. Blemished with spots and scabs, grey and tan and cream-coloured trunks loomed, supporting branches that like fingers groped one another and the sky.
‘Wait,’ she said again. ‘Can we please just hang on?’ She yanked her hand from his. Wrapped her arms around herself.
‘You right, love?’ Jack stared at her over his shoulder and smiled, reassuring. Lara saw how he drew back the branch of the nearest tree so carefully, gently. She felt his kindness on her chest and glanced back up the rise to the truck. It seemed so far away. Something in the grass by her foot croaked, snapped. She gave a start, skittered forwards and clutched the sleeve of Jack’s shirt, wide-eyed. Her heart felt like it wasn’t pumping blood but rolling over and over in her chest. There was sweat on her face. She shivered.
‘You’re beautiful,’ Jack said, kissing her hair. He gave her his hand so that she would not trip and ushered her into the forest—the bush. She was giddy with fear. Her knees were loose.
‘Here,’ Jack said, throwing his jacket over earth thick with leaves and bark. Lara put her fingers in her mouth, watching him spreading the garment out. He would always, she suspected, be a man who tried to do things right. It made her heart break a little to watch him, kneeling on damp litter. So earnest. The back of his neck was brown; hair hung unevenly at the nape. So, he cut it himself. She put a hand on his shoulder, steadying, drawing comfort from his lean frame. His skin was warm through the cotton. He swivelled to press his face to her stomach. She had a hand at each of his broad shoulders.
It was gloomy beneath the trees and when she looked up she saw sky like scraps of blue cloth through the leaves. There was a smell, acidic and sharp, not unlike mint. The physical chill of the scent made the back of her throat taste cold. Jack ran his hands up her calves, stroked the backs of her knees. He touched her carefully, like she might rub away beneath his hands.
‘What is it?’ she said. She couldn’t place it, the scent. The woods around them seemed to be alive with whispering, the buzz of insects, twigs snapping underfoot, shifting leaves.
‘What’s what?’ He took her hands from his shoulders and pulled her down. She allowed it, was glad to surrender to the warm circle of his arms, the jacket. He undid the top button of her dress, then the next. She put her hands on his chest to stop him and moved her face so that he was forced to make eye contact.
‘What’s that smell, I mean?’ she said.
‘You know,’ she said, waving her hand to take in the trees, the dry leaf litter, the spindly grass like steel wool. ‘This place. Here.’
They were motionless for a moment, her fingers splayed on his chest. A white bird in a yellow crown flapped down onto a branch. Lara drew her brows together, waiting.
Suddenly Jack grinned. ‘What, the bush you mean?’ He leaned back and laughed. Roared with laughter, Lara knew that phrase, had heard it said at the pub. Now she understood it. He threw his arms around her. Kissed her cheeks, her nose, her open mouth. He was still chuckling as their teeth clicked.
‘It’s eucalypt,’ he said. He wiped his eyes on his sleeve. ‘Haven’t you been to the bush before?’
Her mouth on his was filled with the mint-cold taste of the trees. She took her hands from his boyish neck just long enough to unbuckle his belt. He sighed, shifted, laid her down. The white bird called out.
Back in the truck Lara felt nothing really. She held Jack’s hand on the cracked upholstery and avoided looking at his triumphant face. His words ran over one another. She stared fixedly through the windscreen, not listening. He pointed out the features of his land—there was a dam: a kind of pond. Natural, he called it. Not man-made. This body of water seemed to bring Jack great joy, though as far as Lara could tell it contained barely enough water for paddling. They wound along the boundary. In places the fence line disappeared in trees or else was simply not there.
‘A lot of work to do,’ Jack said.
The sentiment seemed to thrill him. She smoothed her skirt with her free hand. The fabric was stained with grass, with dirt. There were small leaves in her hair. Her underwear was wet, sticky. She shifted awkwardly on the seat. Lara tore up the recalled words in her mind: I’ve just bought a house. She wiped away hope for the inner-city terrace, the contemporary apartment in the city, the riverfront home, and replaced each with the muffling trees. With flies.
‘Something wrong, sweets?’ Jack moved his hand to knead the back of her neck. He turned from the road, concerned. She could not look at him. Each spasm of her heart brought her one second closer to hurting him.
‘I am happy,’ she said, wiping her eyes, defeated. ‘Just … happy.’
‘There’s the house now,’ he said.
She looked where he pointed.
‘Three bedrooms,’ Jack said proudly. It was bigger than any place she had ever lived in before, but situated as it was in the vast uniformity of trees, it looked minimal as a child’s coffin. She tried to smile.
‘Lovely!’ Her voice came barely a whisper. Only months ago she had completed her studies at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris. Her mother had arranged for delivery of a box of chocolates from a famous chocolatier, three tiers of confectionary more ornate than Lara’s cheap jewellery. The card was inscribed with a single word, Congratulations, scrawled in an unfamiliar hand. Shopgirl writing, Lara thought, allowing the offering, at once too much and too little, to slide untouched into the oily waters of the canal. She still carries the brand of her father’s fist on her cheek.
In the heat Jack sometimes grinds his teeth, a sound like claws being sharpened. With his gaze turned inward behind closed lids, Lara finds the space to believe that it is, perhaps, not too late to leave. Jack might be sad for a while but he will recover, she tells herself, cupping the notion like light. Then she thinks not of her parents somewhere behind her on the other side of the planet, but of the work she might finally do away from the unending chores that bring Jack such pleasure. She imagines huge canvases splashed with the colours she most longs for but can’t locate in the khaki and silver landscape: royal blue, evergreen, the dry umber of autumn leaves.
But by the time dawn breaks, Lara’s reverie is already fading, washed out by the flow of harsh coral light pouring in through the open window. Flies are already buzzing, knocking gently against the plaster. Another blistering day.
‘You look tired, love,’ Jack says, waking with a smile to kiss Lara’s cheek. He places his palm on the mound of her belly, already starting to swell. Lara lies still under his touch.
‘I’m okay,’ she says.•