Authors: Chloe Hooper
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t started with a letter he wrote, sent that April care of my uncle’s estate agency. A thick ivory envelope with my name in elegant type. There was always something too formal about his advances, as though this man’s intentions were disguised even from himself. He enjoyed the civilities, but they made me uneasy. Wasn’t the etiquette a suit of armor to keep him safe while calling me to battle? I read it standing by the shredder.
Dear Liese (or whoever you are),
Before you leave Australia to pursue your travels, I wonder if it might not round your experience to see life outside the city. Every visitor should take in the Bush. Warrowill, my sheep and cattle property in western Victoria (itself the third-largest volcanic plain in the world), is close to much pristine bushland and any amount of wildlife.
I propose you join me on the long weekend of June 11–14, and calculate for three days of your time payment would be $
Upon your meeting me on the Friday afternoon, half this fee will be given to you in cash, the other half transferred to your bank account on Monday afternoon at the end of your stay.
Kindly consider this proposal and let me know at your earliest convenience if terms are agreeable.
It was a ridiculous amount he offered, enough to delay my departure for two months, and so it was a relief when, at the appointed time, Alexander, dressed in a blazer and business shirt still creased from the shop, finally picked me up around the corner from the office. He stepped from his oldish Mercedes without meeting my eye. Taking my small suitcase he opened the passenger door, closing it behind me with a deferential nod. He was nervous. I was brusque, lest this whole weekend slide immediately into farce. The dashboard clock read 3:04.
He handed me an envelope. “Do you want to count it?”
Inside would be cash in those bright colors like play dollars. “No, I’m sure it’s all in order.”
“Perhaps you can now tell by weight?”
“Yes.” Turning, smiling, it was the usual surprise to see his face. He had the kind of looks I regarded as typically Australian: untroubled, slightly sunburned, slightly elsewhere. If you looked at each feature individually, as sometimes I had for long stretches, they had their complications—an oversize nose; fleshy, inanimate lips; and one blue eye a fraction smaller than the other—but the combination was attractive, probably more so than he realized. He was forty-five, I guessed, his sandy curls now turning gray. I struggled to believe someone this tall and thin could be so preoccupied by flesh. My body, strapped into the car seat’s beige leather, matched his sharp angles with hips and breasts. It didn’t hide its interests.
“Thank you again for coming.”
“Not at all.”
“I hope you’ll enjoy yourself, that this, this won’t seem all work to you.”
“That’s very thoughtful.”
“I’ve planned a few things.”
I waited. “Things for us to do?”
“Yes.” He cleared his throat. “Things I think you’ll like.”
We traveled along the freeway through industrial parks and long, weed-ravaged patches toward the setting sun, and all the time Alexander clasped the wheel with both hands. I could hear him breathing carefully, reminding himself to exhale. He was close enough for me to smell the cedar-scented soap he used, and I knew how his skin would taste, and where that taste changed from the great outdoors to something gamey.
How often does desire arise to cover having nothing to say? Just under my skin I felt that old insinuating heat. Being clothed now seemed more awkward, as if drawing attention to the times we had not been. These three hours in the car would be the most we’d ever spent together, and neither of us was used to talking, to making regular conversation at least. We’d had perhaps twenty meetings and in the beginning most of them were held in near silence. Long sessions with just a request, or—if he was in another kind of mood—a command. When we became better acquainted there were episodes of make-believe, but that was just sex talk. Afterward, as we reassembled ourselves, I did not ask too many questions, and when he did they were banalities I took for deflection. We were both contriving to forget the fleeting things we’d just seen in the other. This man was shy and I sensed a code of conduct written in the air around him, which I tried to decipher and obey.
Through the car window came country towns—a church, a pub, a war memorial. Then strangely angled farmland. Paddock fences leaned askew; sheep clung to slanted grass (like everything was unstable and tilting). This was a pockmarked version of the country I knew: the broads, the fens, all the sodden monochrome ground of Norfolk. And soon it was just as flat. A giant bulldozer or lava flow could have passed through once, long ago, and removed any rise or dip. The sky had taken over, stunting the hills and leaving no space for anything else. In the last hour we barely saw another car.
“Is this what you call the bush?” It was more subtle than I’d hoped.
“Patience,” he replied.
I shut my eyes.
The decision to leave Australia had been sudden and, in my head at least, part of me was already gone. I’d bought a new, larger suitcase, shipped home the bulkiest things I’d accumulated, and begun buying little presents for my colleagues in the office. With some of the cash in the envelope I’d purchase an airline ticket. I planned to go via Shanghai, and as we drove I was calculating how long I could afford to stay there.
Alexander hummed, a tense mechanical sound, without seeming to realize. Out the window the sky and land were the same tawny color, the road still a narrow single strip. In the middle of this void stood a Neighborhood Watch sign, a kind of joke. No houses were in sight, except for those that had been abandoned.
Once I noticed one, more became apparent, and every few minutes I caught sight of a wavering weatherboard cottage moments from falling down, or a careful border of trees surrounding a pile of rubble like rails around a grave.
“What happened to these places?”
“Oh.” Alexander sounded surprised I’d asked. “The old stone ones were possibly shepherds’ huts; the others belonged to soldier settlers. The great sheep stations were broken up for returned servicemen after the First World War. Someone had a starry-eyed dream of creating a yeoman class . . .” His voice trailed off.
Fifty-year-old ruins were sadder than ancient ones. I felt a pang seeing fruit trees someone had planted, but Alexander viewed them as inconvenient. “My family had to cede land, thousands of acres. Waves of smaller farmers have come and gone, they didn’t have a chance, but we’ve stayed.”
“How long has your family been here?”
“A hundred and sixty years. I suppose that’s not long where you’re from.”
“It’s long enough. Not that this doesn’t seem a lovely spot.”
We’d just driven over a rise and seen the mountains. It was as though a backdrop had fallen, perhaps the wrong one. Crags rose up out of the flat grassland, deep purple against the dimming sky. The sun’s angle hid any detail on the rock, and the jagged peaks brought to mind a graph of economic doom.
“Behold, the Grampians!” announced Alexander.
“I thought they were in Scotland. Did someone move them?”
A tight smile. “The native name is Gariwerd.”
“Are they the volcanoes?”
“When did they last erupt?”
“Four thousand years ago. The other mountains are sandstone that’s faulted and shifted.”
I expected him to say more, to play the tour guide, but he must have been tired from driving. Shadows were settling on the road, and his face had changed in the light, although his features did not soften. Staring straight ahead, he gripped the steering wheel with hands that were muscular from farmwork, each finger knocked about, the skin around the nails raw pink from being scrubbed so vigorously, while his shirt cuffs were white and starched.
“Three hundred million years ago this was inland sea,” he said, squinting as though to picture it. “So there were layers of sand and mud and silt, and later earth movements made them lift up and fold over.” Releasing one hand at last, he arched it, wavelike.
I put my hand down on his thigh.
Slowly he smiled again, and I suddenly realized I was actually enjoying myself. I was enjoying myself because soon I’d be leaving, and this excursion, amid the ancient rock, was already lit sentimentally. And so when flocks of bright pink birds flew up from the side of the road, they seemed fantastically exotic; and when a kangaroo the very color of the darkening paddocks appeared seemingly from nowhere on the bitumen and leaped effortlessly over a fence, some part of me felt light too.
“Did you see that?” My hand didn’t move.
“A kangaroo, wonderful.”
“A wonderful pest. But I’m glad you liked it.”
There was a sign for the Grampians National Park, which was a few miles on, although we turned off down a corrugated dirt road, red gravel hitting the sides of the car. This land had been cleared for grazing. I could make out the gray stumps of felled trees, and those that remained looked vigilant. If I glanced away, then back, they seemed to shift on the horizon.
“Who’s that up there?” Determined to be a genial guest, I pointed to a bird waiting on a wire.
“A hawk of some kind,” he answered. “It’s the hunting time.”
“He’s picked a desolate position.”
“This is my land, actually.”
“I didn’t take it personally.”
There came a low bluestone wall framing a driveway. A wooden sign hung here, marked in faded black cursive
. We turned and the driveway stretched on, a road unto itself.
“So this is home?” I asked, bewildered.
Ahead of us was a stone building with a pitched roof, machinery strewn around it.
“No, that’s the old woolshed.” On the other side of the drive Alexander pointed to a windowless wooden cottage with a series of blank doors. “And there are the shearers’ quarters.”
The driveway became an avenue of poplars, their thick trunks sending up hundreds of leafless sticks. White cockatoos clung to these branches, and the air was filled with their dinning: a killing sound like nothing I’d heard before.
Alexander was driving slowly, reverentially. We turned a corner—there was a spread of lawn and then the house rose up from the bare treetops. The second story came into view: eight upstairs windows and each chimney intricate as a small mausoleum. As the car pulled onto a landscaped circle of gravel, there was the rest of the house. The physical fact of it struck me first: a grand Victorian mansion seemingly carved out of gray-black volcanic rock. The logistics of its construction seemed as complicated as that of a temple in a jungle. Erected in homage to the Old Country, to replicate a stately home, the house had all the period refinements one would expect—a columned vestibule, finials on the roof, classical molding around the windows—but it was also swathed in a cast-iron veranda to shelter the ground floor from summer heat. I wondered how much the whole place, land included, would be worth.