Sally Abbott’s debut novel Closing Down (Hachette Australia) imagines Australia in the near future. It’s an Australia in which climate change and its geo-political repercussions have wrought social breakdown in small communities across the country.
Abbott will be at the Sydney Writers; Festival this week talking about the novel and she is included on the panel “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World: Visions of Dystopia” session and “A Gathering Storm: The Rise and Rise of Cli- Fi”.
You can read an interview with Abbott here and the first chapter of Closing Down is published below.
Through all his years away, when Robbie remembered his country he thought first of the white summer sun that seemed to light the land from within, sucking out all green and leaving only grey and brown and gold. He thought of his grandmother and her rose-petal perfume, and the sun striking the wooden kitchen floorboards in the House of Many Promises. And he thought of a horse screaming.
Apart from his grandmother, and Jonathon of course, Ella was the only person who knew the story of the horse.
‘Tell me something that is only about you,’ she said sometime in their first year together. ‘Not a country, not a war, not a woman, not a politician, not a scandal. Something that is only you. A once-upon- a-time story.’
Robbie had left the bed and walked over to the window. The curtains were open to let in the light of the stars and the moon, which were only the ghostliest glow under the fog of the city’s fumes. There was the smell of the sea and diesel and garlic frying somewhere and the scent from the giant ginger flowers Ella had bought two days earlier from a street stall. The big bedroom of the borrowed apartment, with only the massive bed and their bags and computers on the floor, seemed to float above the world. Robbie looked at the play of the night lights and the soundless shifting of the South China Sea far below. He understood what Ella was asking.
‘Okay,’ he said. ‘Once upon a time, when I was a little boy, perhaps eight, no, nine, I had a horse, a pony really, small, all black. I called him Timmy. I just loved that horse. I really did. You know, the way you love something when you’re a child, like it’s the whole world.’
He kept his back to her and she lay on her side on the bed, tangled sheet around her ankles, listening.
‘One day my father held one of his long lunches. It seemed endless, like they always did. I can’t remember who was there. My stepmother, the neighbours, maybe some of Dad’s business mates from Sydney. Everyone got very drunk. I stayed in my room for most of the afternoon but I could hear their voices getting louder and louder, the music getting louder. I remember someone dropped a bottle of wine or beer. Anyway, my father was the drunkest of them all, as usual. He decided it would be hilarious to take Timmy out for a ride. I remember him shouting for me, telling me to saddle up the horse and bring him to the front of the house. What could I do? I knew it was crazy, but it was never worth arguing with my father when he was drunk.’
Robbie drew in a deep breath and then sighed. There was the slightest breeze, sticky and warm, through the window. He remembered his father standing in the doorway of the kitchen, blocking out the light, leaning against the frame to stay upright. He remembered walking through the dry grass to the back paddock to get Timmy, blinking through his tears, taking the small cracked saddle from the bench in the open shed that served as a stable of sorts, wood bleached grey by the sun. He could smell again Timmy’s warm neck, damp and sweet in the heat. He could smell eucalyptus and dry grasses and the hot wind from the west that whipped the dust.
He saw his own little boy hands, brown, nails bitten, shaking and slick with angry tears, pulling the girth strap as tight as he could, letting down the stirrups, all the time telling Timmy to be brave, be strong, get through it. Most of all he remembered Timmy’s mute dark eyes.
Robbie turned around to look at Ella. From the sea far below a ship’s horn sounded.
‘My father climbed onto Timmy. It took him three goes. He couldn’t even get his foot in the stirrup, he just kept kicking at Timmy’s flank, and the first time he managed to get on he just slid over the other side. Timmy was stepping back and then forward, trying to edge away, ears way back. I was holding the chin strap, just whispering to him, telling him everything would be okay. I couldn’t watch what my father was doing. I could hear him grunting and laughing and I could smell him, sour beer and wine. Finally he got on and stayed on. People cheered and clapped and there he was, this huge man sitting on little Timmy, swaying, laughing his head off. I could see Timmy roll his eyes back and try to settle the weight on his front legs. My father kicked him and Timmy tried to rear up but he couldn’t, so he set off at a trot down the driveway, my father pulling too tight on the reins just to stay on. And then Timmy collapsed. One of his front legs snapped straight through. I saw it, saw Timmy buckle, then straighten, then the bone and the blood through the skin, and then he fell. Have you ever heard a horse scream, Ella? It’s horrible, just horrible. My father was fine, the bastard. He lay on the ground laughing. And Timmy was on the ground too, shaking, foaming at the mouth. He’d try and pull himself up and then he’d scream again and sink back.’
Robbie remembered Timmy’s eyes rolled back in fear and pain, soft black lips bared, the grey-white bone sticking through the flesh and blood, and his father like a whale beached on dust, belly shaking with laughter, face florid, dribble on his chin, the gasps of the other adults suddenly sobering up. He remembered he had taken off the bridle, gently easing the bit from the hay-smelling froth and foam around Timmy’s lips.
‘Get away. Get out of here,’ Robbie had screamed over and over at his father, and finally someone had helped his father up and led him away, and someone else had said they would call the vet.
Robbie was left in the dust with Timmy, and he stayed by him, waving the flies from the blood, and cried as he had never cried before or since, whispering constantly through heaving sobs he’d felt even then were breaking his own body and heart in ways that would never quite mend, ‘I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry’.
Ella sat silently on the bed, watching him. Robbie looked at his hands, as if perhaps they held the end of the story and then at Ella as she shifted her heavy hair from her shoulders. ‘And then?’ she had asked, gently.
Robbie sighed and shook his head. ‘I waited with Timmy until the vet came and put him down. It must have been a couple of hours. I don’t remember anything except the smell of him and holding his neck, stroking him, and saying sorry over and over, just trying to calm him while we waited. I wouldn’t let anyone near. I told them all to fuck off. It was the vet who held me in the end, after he gave Timmy a needle. He was a young guy. He had some kind of weird birthmark on his cheek, and incredibly blue eyes. Jonathon was his name. He took me into the kitchen and sat me down and held me while I cried and cried. I could see the disgust on his face, the way he looked at everyone and all the empty bottles and the mess on the stove and the benches, the way he switched off the music.’
He smiled and shrugged. Enough, he had wanted to say. Enough. ‘And then?’ Ella asked again. ‘I went to live with my grandmother after that. It was actually the vet who called her. He made me pack a bag and he took me home with him for the night. I don’t think anyone even tried to stop him. We had to leave Timmy lying in the driveway and Jonathon promised me he’d come back and take care of him. I remember he reached over and took my hand when he said that and held it tight. Anyway, he called my grandmother and I guess they had a long talk. It was about an eight-hour drive to where she lived, still lives, and he took me halfway the next day. We stopped by a river and ate peanut butter sandwiches for lunch while we waited for her. His wife tried to be so kind that night I stayed with them. I remember she cooked me sausages and mashed potato for dinner, and she kept patting my shoulder. I tried to eat, but I felt so sick and I wanted Timmy back.’
Ella threw the sheet off and went to him. She took his hands and smiled and kissed his fingers. ‘So,’ she said softly, so softly he had to lean into her and the smell of her light peppery sweat. ‘Well then. This is why I ask for stories, my love. They help me to understand.’ She ran a finger over his lips.
Robbie looked down and then past her to his travel bag in the corner. He sighed. Ella would return home to Switzerland tomorrow and he would head to Cairo. Then where? The Africas again, probably. That was the panic of the month; the world tilting crazily from one food war to the next. More weeks and weeks of travel, of not seeing Ella.
There was the lonely bellow of a horn from another ship. The whole world is lonely, he suddenly thought, lonelier than it has ever been.
Ella leaned against him. ‘Come to bed. There are still ten hours before we have to leave. Come and rest.’
When he finally fell asleep, head against her back, he dreamed of bones and light: bleached bones falling through white light; the grey broken bone pushing through Timmy’s skin, wet with blood and veins and muscle; a horse’s skull crying tears in moonlight; the crack of bone upon bone, body thrown upon body, in a grave that stretched to the centre of the world.
Clare McDonald, giant woman, walked the streets of a town called Myamba. It was what she did most nights. When she couldn’t bear the sound of Phil chewing his food for another second, or when she lay on the sofa under her blankets, eyes wide open, cold but sweating, sleep impossible, listening to the creaks of the ratbag cottage in the night winds and Phil’s snoring from the bedroom, she would heave herself up, put on her boots and jacket, and set off. Broad shoulders straight, hands in grubby pockets, one foot in front of the other, Clare just walked. Silently, steadily. Thinking, or not thinking. It was the moving that mattered.
She knew every back track into town, the shape of the footpaths, their lumps and holes, where the darkest shadows fell, where dogs barked and cats hissed and ghosts whispered, the good streets of solid bluestone and brick houses, and the mean streets where at two in the morning there might be a roar of rage, the smash of a bottle and the crack of a hand against skin.
If it was early in the evening, she would walk the streets south of what had once been the small river that neatly divided the town in two, and stop and look through the windows of houses as if at photographs of a world entirely unimaginable and incomprehensible. She saw the glow of computer screens, a small chandelier laughing with light, sometimes shelves with books, a gleaming wooden table set for dinner, beds with plumped pillows, a piano, boots and bicycles left messily by front doors. She smelled comfort and wood polish and food and money. She heard music and voices, even fragments of conversations. She enjoyed the looking and the wondering. Pieces of lives, she thought. That’s what I see.
She wondered what it would be like to sit in a particular house, to be served food from the heavy red casserole dish sitting on a white dining table, to sip wine from a glass so delicate you could bite through it. She imagined knocking on a door. ‘Please,’ she might say. But then what? ‘Could I just sit down for a little while? I won’t bother you. I’m so tired.’ And perhaps that might be enough, if she knocked on the right door. ‘Yes, of course,’ a smiling woman would say, shirt crisp and clean. ‘Come in and make yourself comfortable. Sit down there. Would you like a cup of tea? Or some water? You’ve been walking all these years, of course you’re tired.’ And Clare would sit on a plush sofa and run her hand across the rich fabric, feeling the textures of a home.
On some nights she found herself drawn north, over the bridge that crossed the muddy river bed, away from the town centre, through the wrong-side-of-the-tracks suburbs and onto the highway. She walked past the auto centres and used-car dealerships, the garden-supply store, the hardware store with rusting metal gates fencing in lawnmowers and tractor parts no one wanted any more, everything half-price or less. She walked past a petrol station with its peeling plastic bunting hanging from every pump demanding permits and proof of identity, past a sandwich shop shuttered with a faded for-sale sign, past all the two-bit businesses – biscuit factory, cabinet maker, the Heaven Scent soap store, the picture framer with lurid blue and gold seascapes and sad portraits of forgotten grandmothers hanging in its dirty windows, water-recycling supplies, the concrete vault maker (Protect Your Precious Possessions From Fire and Flood Forever) – that hung on to the fringes of the long wide road that headed north, on and on across the wind- scarred plains and through the newly mapped inclusion zones and the slowly emptying closing-down towns; and all of it, the businesses, the sorry signs and the highway, were a tumbleweed wasteland in the dry, dusty night.
Clare would stop when she reached the rows of electronic billboards right on the edge of town where the road widened into a four-lane highway that had once been busy and noisy. The billboards were like a small army in the darkness, bristling silently under weak solar-powered floodlights that looked like giant stick insects, deformed and fragile.
Thank You for Visiting Myamba, Last Year’s Fastest− Growing Inclusion Zone Town Your Government: Building Strong and Safe Communities. Water−Safe. Fire−Safe. Food−Safe. Ready for the future TODAY! Are YOU Eligible? Assistance Available NOW for Relocation. Call Your Land and Housing Relocation Management Authority TODAY! A NEW ERA: Energising Rural Australia Travel Permit Essential for Highway Three. Heavy Penalties Apply
Clare would read each sign, standing back so she could gather in the huge letters that glowed weakly in the dark. She would mouth each word slowly, to touch it and understand it. And then she would shrug and walk on, through the electronic tollway booths that hummed as if talking among themselves, and down the dark highway.
Forever, it seemed, Clare had always walked. She walked in the chill and the wind and wet of the flood years, and in the searing dry of the drought years. She walked through autumn leaves and over summer grasses that crunched like paper. She counted the trees that came crashing down across the town over the years, exhausted by too much rain or none at all. She counted the houses that were being built in the new designated estates and subdivisions, the businesses that opened, the businesses that closed. She counted the steps she took, the nights that would pass until the next full moon, the good things that had happened to her and the bad, and every futile dream she had ever had.
On the worst of the summer nights, when the searing north wind roared and the air sat hot in her throat, she let her heart turn to stone so it could not burn. She closed her eyes and ears to the chance there might be a shattering crack of flames and an explosion of trees. She barely breathed, in case her breath fanned a fire. Just walk. Just walk. One step and then another. Head down against the wind and dust.
And every night, when she was tired enough to return to the ratbag cottage, she would lie on the lumpy sofa scrounged from a footpath years ago and write in her journal of all the small and useless things from her day and her night: the half-moon hanging and the imagined rattles and footfalls of ghosts, if she had seen a kangaroo or a fox or a cat or a horse, what she had eaten for breakfast and what she had cooked for dinner, if someone had said hello to her, what the temperature was and if there was a fire warning, if she had lost weight or gained it.
How have I come to this, she would think. How has it all come to this? She would fold her hands between the familiar soft vastness of her breasts and the magpies would begin their dawn singing as she finally closed her eyes.
One night when Clare stood near the signs, leaning against a wind that was blowing in from the south, her eyes stinging from the cold autumn dust, she was startled by a voice beside her.
‘Bullshit, isn’t it?’
The man standing next to her was tall, as tall as she was, and she could see in the moonlight that appeared and disappeared between the rolling clouds that he had a short beard and was wearing a sturdy canvas jacket. He carried a backpack that seemed close to bursting.
‘Those words,’ he said, nodding at the signs, ‘bullshit words. Bullshit signs.’
Clare looked at his heavy walking boots, and then at his face, which looked tired in the grey light.
‘Yeah,’ she said, after a minute or two. ‘They scare me somehow.’
‘It’s like they’re telling us how much things are changing and trying to make it normal,’ the man said. ‘They just sit like they’ve always been there. But they haven’t.’ His voice came and went on the wind so it was loud and then soft. ‘I’ve been walking a long way. Hell of a lot of signs around. All bullshit.’ He unbuckled his backpack and shrugged it to the ground.
‘Walking where?’ Clare asked. She watched two empty beer cans and a flurry of leaves roll across the highway.
‘Been round different parts of the city for a while. Then up to here. Heading north. Going to walk till I come to somewhere. Still got to be a somewhere left.’
‘But they’re closing it down. The north. The west. Most of it.’
‘That’s what they’re telling us. They been telling us that for a few years now. Not so easy, I guess.’ He bent down and took a thermos from a pocket of the backpack. He undid the red plastic lid and poured something hot. She smelled tea on the wind. He took a sip then handed the cup to Clare. ‘Have some. It’s fresh. Made it this afternoon.’
The tea was strong and sweet and it warmed her throat.
He took back the cup. A beer can clinked up against the foot of a post supporting one of the billboards. A cockroach appeared in the opening of the can and Clare watched it struggle to pull itself through the space. She imagined she heard the rasp of its body against the tin.
‘You know,’ the man said, ‘four years ago I had a wife and a house, kids, a job. Taught at uni. Natural science. The environment. Things like that.’ He gave a bitter laugh. ‘Anyway, job went. Should have seen it coming. The wife wasn’t happy. Then the house went. They just came in and bought the whole block, bought six blocks. Eighty houses. Paid nowhere near what anything was worth. A thousand apartments going up now on the land. Couldn’t have fought them even if we had the money to. They’ve changed all the laws. Anyway . . .’
He sipped the tea and watched the cockroach. After a minute it gave up and retreated. A thick dark antenna waved weakly from the opening. ‘How the hell did it get in there if it can’t get out?’ Then he shook his head. ‘Anyway,’ he said again, ‘we found somewhere new to live, but the rent was a fortune. Kids had to change schools. Nothing seemed to work any more. It was too much for the wife. She buggered off with the kids, back to her mum’s. Left twenty thousand dollars for me in the account. That doesn’t buy anything any more. I could have fought her, but they told me the waiting list to get the case heard was three years. Didn’t want to spend three years waiting or hoping. So, I’m walking.’ Some of his words were lost in the wind but his voice was strong. ‘Plenty worse off than me left in the city. It’s crazy what’s happening.’ ‘But how can you go north?’ Clare asked. ‘They’re moving people out.’ ‘Like I said, that’s what they’re telling us.’ The man sighed deeply, and shifted on his feet, as if to ease muscles that were aching. ‘I don’t believe they can close down half the country. Don’t want to believe it. Everything that’s happening ‒ it makes me feel strange. As if I’ve lost my footing. Figure I’ll find an empty house somewhere and lie low, wait for things to change. I know how to get by in the bush. Always have.’ He laughed. ‘I did get a new job, you know. Landfill quality monitoring officer, out at one of those new dumps past the airport. That was bullshit too. Thought they might want me to actually test for what’s in the stink that’s over that whole place, but no. Foraging for scrap metal and wood was about all they wanted me to do. Anyway.’ He looked at her. ‘Why are you out here?’
Clare looked at the signs, at the dark road ahead. ‘I walk a lot,’ she said. ‘Something to do.’
He didn’t respond.
Clare wondered about his wife, about how some women seemed able to throw away one life and find a new one. It was something that had always been beyond her.
‘And I like to look at things. Watch things.’ She shrugged. ‘Then I can think about them. I walk most nights.’
‘Do you get afraid?’ ‘Of what?’ ‘The dark, maybe? Of the other people who are walking?’ ‘I never meet anyone. I’ve never seen anyone. You’re the first person I’ve talked to.’ ‘You need to be careful,’ he said. ‘There’s lots of people walking.
Walking away from the cities. For every hundred people they bring in, a dozen walk away. And they’re not all like me.’
The man bent and pushed the thermos into a pocket on the side of his backpack, adjusting a strap. He was getting ready to leave. His movements were steady and certain. A plastic bag tumbled past them. Clare pulled her jacket down hard across her shoulders.
‘Animals,’ the man said. The wind fell suddenly so his voice was almost a shout.
‘They’re on the move. Too many left behind all over the place. They’re acting weird. Everything’s weird. Be careful is all I’m saying.’ He looked directly at her and smiled. ‘You married?’
What was the honest answer to that, Clare thought. That there was a shadow of a man in her house? ‘Sort of.’
‘Seems you are or you aren’t.’
Clare shrugged. ‘I don’t think there’s much any more that’s either one thing or the other,’ she said slowly. She surprised herself by asking, ‘What about you? Do you get scared?’
‘Not any more. When my wife left me, I was scared. Not now.’ He was pulling his backpack onto his shoulders, swaying to adjust it. ‘Anyway, I have a knife. Big old hunting knife. Used to belong to my granddad.’
‘Would you use it?’
‘If I had to. I’ve thought about it. I don’t know. You can break a life with just words. Why is using a knife so bad? In these times, anyway.’ He seemed ready to leave, rocking on his heels. The wind swirled around them again and the moon briefly appeared, throwing a bright light on them both before clouds rolled across. There was a brief roar of aircraft far overhead. Military most likely, Clare guessed, from the droning weight of the sound. The man started speaking again. ‘You know, one of the guys I worked with for a bit at the landfill, he was on security, used to come on as I was leaving, but we started talking. He said he couldn’t believe how many people came out in the night to see what they could scrounge. He said it was really sad.’ He looked at his feet. ‘Anyway, he told me that one night he heard this huge crashing sound, like a massive hail storm or something. Out of nowhere. He comes out of the security hut and he can’t believe what he sees.’
‘What? What did he see?’
‘Bones.’ He looked at Clare as if expecting her to laugh, but she was listening carefully. ‘That’s what he said. This crazy heap of bones just tumbling down from the sky, crashing onto his office, onto all the rubbish and the piles of tin and wood and cans. Five, ten minutes this went on. He nearly shit himself, he said. Like it was some sort of ghost scene. He sat in a corner of the hut on the floor all night. In the morning there was nothing. No bones. But he swore that’s what he saw. And his car had three huge dents, on the bonnet and the roof. Nothing could have caused them, he said, except things falling onto it. Crazy, huh?’
Clare thought for a minute. ‘I guess.’
‘Even crazier, I believed him. Don’t know why. But I did. I still do.’ He stepped forward so that he was in front of her. ‘I’m going to keep moving. Patrols could start soon and I want to get off the highway. So, good to talk to you.’
He held out his hand. Clare looked at it, then reached out to shake it. His skin was warm.
‘Be careful,’ she said. ‘You too. Strange woman in the dark.’ His smile was gentle. He started walking down the black highway and Clare watched him until he disappeared. She turned to walk home. A small black cat was sitting in front of her, staring gravely at her knees. Now it looked up to her face and its eyes were a vivid green. Clare stared back, and then the cat stood up and suddenly darted off down the highway, following the man.
Clare walked slowly back into town, thinking about the man and what he’d said about bones and about carrying a knife, and she remembered the warmth of his skin when he had shaken her hand. She wished she had asked his name. That was a conversation, she thought. A real conversation. It would be something to write about when she got home – what he’d said, what she thought about the things he’d said, what might be in his backpack.
Clare felt and then heard a convoy of large trucks coming into town from the north and she stepped off the road. Their headlights cut briefly through the night, and as they passed her, over the whine and shake of the engines, she heard animals screaming, a wail of pain and distress, and she saw the heads and tails and ears and wild eyes of pigs and sheep and cows and, in the last and largest truck, horses, all of them straining against the bars of the double-decked containers, broken legs hanging out like sticks, snouts and muzzles bloodied and mangled. Some animals seemed to be upside down, Clare saw, or sideways, or hanging across the backs of other animals sagging and crumpled beneath them.
When the unbearable noise and stench had passed, Clare realised she was crying. Too much, she thought. Much too much. She started walking again.
A few blocks from home, a patrol car pulled over and then drew away as the officers recognised her. They used to ask for her identi- fication, watching quizzically while she held her phone to the scanner, but now they could rarely be bothered. Clare imagined them laughing. She’s weird, that one, they’d say.
Over the next few weeks and months, as autumn became a too brief winter and spring edged in, it became clear to Clare that the walking man had been right about the people and the animals. Or perhaps she was paying more attention. She went regularly to the blinking, silent billboards and began counting the silhouettes trekking silently north, skirting the road and following instead the darker lines of fences and scrub. Only one or two people on some nights; some nights none at all; but more on others, and twice at least she thought she saw a child.
One night she heard the faint pull of rubber on the road behind her. Turning, she watched a woman pushing a heavy pram steadily up the middle of the road. She stopped when she saw Clare and there was a sudden shrill wail from the pram, but it subsided as soon as the woman, with a toss of her head, began walking again. It seemed she would walk past Clare and the signs, just keep walking down the lonely highway, but she stopped when she was level with Clare. There was another brief cry and the woman rocked the pram gently with one hand and swept back her hair with the other.
‘Are you a walker?’ she called across to Clare.
The night was still and so the words were loud and sharp, like a glass breaking. It seemed to Clare the soundless shadows and shapes that darted through the low scrublands by the sides of the highway stopped and stiffened.
She shook her head and then realised the woman probably couldn’t see the gesture. ‘No,’ she called back. ‘Where are you going?’
The woman was silent for a minute. ‘There’s places. That’s what they’re saying in the city. Places. You know.’
The baby in the pram cried again. The woman bent over and touched it and the crying stopped.
‘We’ll be right,’ she said. ‘They’re selling stuff, you know, in the city. For people who are walking. It’s like a black market. Special maps. A thing that blocks the drones spotting you. Tablets that clean water. Lots of stuff. I pawned my jewellery and sold the car and bought everything I could. The city stinks anyway. It’s crazy. Too many people coming in. We’ll be right.’
Clare didn’t know what to say. ‘Sure,’ she said with a shrug. The woman nodded and set off again, crooning softly to the baby. Clare followed her. ‘You have to get off this highway,’ she said with an urgency prompted by a feeling that she wanted, somehow, to be kind. ‘Take the left three kilometres along, and then the first right. It’ll keep taking you north but it’s safer. They don’t bother patrolling so much.’
The woman raised her hand to acknowledge she had heard and kept walking. The lights from the billboards behind her spilled across the pram and for a few seconds Clare could see the baby, one tiny arm raised stiffly. She saw that it wasn’t a baby but a plastic doll, red mouth and empty eyes open, black plastic curls on an oversized head that jerked from side to side. Clare shuddered as the woman disappeared into the darkness.
The next night a pack of dogs walked past the signs, single file. They were thin, collars hanging loose, and they ignored Clare, simply walking patiently towards the town as if they knew where they were going.
On another night a few weeks later, she stood outside the high mesh and barbed-wire fence surrounding the vast old canning factory. When she had first moved into Myamba she had liked to come here and watch the lights and trucks and the people smoking on their breaks by the factory doors under the signs that read No Smoking and breathe in the sweet smell that on certain days had scented the air across Myamba with a syrupy fruit salad perfume. Phil had even scored a month’s work their first December here, and for those few weeks had seemed happy and busy, using some of the money to build her a couple of garden beds. But the factory had closed just a year later, a few years before all the rumours began about the closing-down towns and inclusion zones and cities and the buy-outs of farms and forests and water by one day China, another day the US or the Arabs, whoever, who knew? For years now the factory had sat empty in the shadows of weak floodlights and the red blinking of an alarm system.
On this night, Clare was startled by a sudden hissing and growling that seemed to be coming from the empty car park. She walked the long length of the fence, through empty plastic bottles and bags and fast-food wrappings and dry leaves, and stopped at the corner. She sucked in her breath. Dogs were circling a mob of kangaroos. The kangaroos stood tall, ready for flight. A large lean dog, growling deep in its throat, leaped forward and slammed against one of the kangaroos, burying its teeth into the animal’s side. As the kangaroo reared up and forward the dog sprang back, ripping flesh and blood with it. The kangaroo screamed and a frenzy of growls and hisses and screams was unleashed, animal against animal. A dog stood in shock, its entrails at its feet, ripped open in one brutal swipe, and then it fell. Another kangaroo screamed as it collapsed under the force of muscle and jaws of dogs gone crazy. Clare smelled blood and wildness and she shrank back against the fence as finally the remaining kangaroos took off, thudding past her.
At the same moment a truck roared into the car park, headlights on high beam. Dogs fell back into shadows, but some remained at the body of the kangaroo, too intent on meat and blood. Clare watched as two men in council uniforms got out of the truck, immediately raising rifles to their shoulders. There were six quick quiet shots, each a punch into the night. Then there was silence, except for the hum of the truck engine. One of the men lit a cigarette while the other made a phone call. They stood for a few minutes before putting their rifles on the back of the truck. They climbed in and the truck moved away, down across the field.
Clare looked at the bodies of the animals and shook her head. Later, when she lay on her sofa, a mess of blankets around her, she thought of the dead animals lying lonely on the cold, hard cement and the screaming, bleeding animals in the trucks she had seen on the night she met the walking man and her heart ached in a way she couldn’t have explained.
When she fell asleep towards dawn she dreamed of cockatoos flying backwards down empty midnight streets, a cat and a possum curled together on a car bonnet, kookaburras laughing at the moon, a hen killing a fox, pecking out its eyes and nose. A small boy cradled a dying horse, crying. The images rotated repeatedly, one after another, every detail clear. Pay attention, Clare, a voice kept saying. A gentle voice. Clear and careful with the pronunciation of each word, as if this was not a first language. Listen now, Clare.
She thought about the images throughout the day that followed and the kind singsong voice and wished she could talk to the walking man.
You can buy Closing Down here