Read The Low Road Online

Authors: Chris Womersley

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The Low Road

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SILVEROAK BOOKS is a trademark of Sterling Publishing Co., Inc.

© 2012 by Chris Womersley

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without prior written permission from the publisher.

ISBN 978-1-4027-9864-1

Originally published in Australia in 2007.

First published by Sterling Publishing Co., Inc., 2012.

For information about custom editions, special sales, and premium and corporate purchases, please contact Sterling Special Sales at 800-805-5489 or [email protected]

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For my mother, my brother and my sister
who know something of the roads I have travelled.

A man's character is his fate.

—Heraclitus,
On the Universe

Part One

Sometimes they lay on their beds, stared
at the marks on the ceiling and wondered
about their lives and how they had ended
up here.

1

L
ee woke slowly, coming to consciousness from seemingly oceanic depths. Almost just a dream of waking, fluttering and knockkneed. The room was quiet, as if waiting to accommodate him. He lay on the bed with his eyes closed behind quivering eyelids like a backyard golem, stiff and ancient.

When he was a child he would lie in bed at night afraid of something, afraid of everything, and try to breathe in such a way that whatever was out there wouldn't notice him in the dark. Just shallow inhalations and exhalations. As if he could remain invisible to the phantoms that roamed the highways and byways of the night searching for children to devour. There was even a stage, when he was about fourteen, when he would awaken with the sensation that the entire night, having been torn from its hinge, was barrelling through space. When this happened his sister, Claire, would appear at his bedside, place a hand firmly on each of his shoulders and wait until he ceased his whimpering. She wouldn't say a word. There was nothing, they both knew, to be said. Not after all that had happened.

And Lee tried now to remain as still as possible, to make himself small in the universe, convinced that the potential disturbance of his waking could ripple outwards and determine the manner in which this day would be lived. He would need to get it right. He remained still a little longer. Warm air murmured in his lungs. He licked his dry and flaking lips.

After some time he allowed himself to breathe more evenly and opened his eyes. The unfamiliar room had a bloodshot cast to it, of morning light filtered through a thin gauze curtain. Grimy yellow paint on the wall, aluminium window frames. A motel room, by the look of it.

His body felt constructed of material other than skin and bone, something altogether more industrial, like canvas and wire. Pieces of illfitting wood, things scrounged from beside the road and ragged ends of sticky tape. A low, grieving pain had taken up residence in his joints and he became aware of a space in his body where memory would normally reside, a solid persistence of sorts, but of what exactly he couldn't tell.

He felt he had been here for a long time, lying on the bed wearing bloodstained clothes, waiting for his life to come back to him, waiting for his situation to make sense. Was it days or merely hours? Occasionally an elderly woman muttered about the room. She leaned over him and appeared to listen for his breath. Checking if he was still alive. She smelled of cigarettes and talcum powder.

Now alone, he stared at the ceiling. Waiting is laden with possibility but he was unsure if this was even waiting. He heard the hum of distant traffic, occasional voices talking nearby. A woman called out, as if to a dog. The curtain billowed out from the window, looming with the promise of life. Is this what it's like to be as yet unborn? Everything was ruined. If it wasn't before, it surely was now. He closed his burning eyes and stared into the darkness. Fuck.

2

A
lthough it was sudden, Wild wasn't entirely surprised to find himself leaving the house he had shared for so long with his wife and daughter. He'd long ago lost track of the man he was supposed to be, anyway. Even leaving in the middle of the night was now in character and he consoled himself with the thought that everyone else had fled, so why shouldn't he? But really, he knew some departures couldn't be undone, and this was one of them.

He moved through the grey, unlit house, negotiating past furniture and around corners by memory and touch alone. Through the warm bedroom doorway and along the narrow hall with its framed black-andwhite photographs of family life: Alice as a stern toddler, the prototype for the teenager she had eventually become; Jane on a wind-blasted cliff in Greece. To the right his study emanating its comforting smell of ink and paper, with its hundreds of books brawling for shelf space: medical books, art monographs, biographies, poetry. So many books that there were tottering stacks of them on the floor, waiting to be sorted. All that learning, of so little use to him now.

He packed a bag of clothes, hoarded as many medical supplies as he was able, turned out the lights and locked the door. When he squinted into his rear-view mirror as he drove away, there was just a bruise of grey exhaust, lingering on the night air.

Wild slept in the back of his car for two nights before checking into a motel at the frayed hem of the city, where buildings are practical and low to the ground. He knew he should try to get further away but was unsure of where to go. He had never been on the run before. Besides, it would just be one night. Just enough space to allow him to think.

The crone on reception peered at him for a long time through her cloud of cigarette smoke before leading him to a room on the first and uppermost floor. There were no forms to fill out.

I'm Sylvia, she offered over her shoulder. I run this place.

Wild nodded. Where's the park?

What?

The park? Isn't this place called Parkview Motel?

Sylvia ignored him. She coughed into her fist and listed the attractions in a flat drawl. You've got most stations on the TV, even though it's black-and-white. Fiddle with the antenna if it plays up. Hot water, 10.00 a.m. checkout and all the peace and quiet you can stomach. Forty bucks a night, she said as Wild put his bag on the sagging bed. Cash only. Payable in advance.

He handed over two nights' rent. Sylvia counted the money, grunted and left without closing the door. The sound and rhythm of her slippers as she shuffled away along the concrete walkway was like sandpaper.

He scratched at his thin beard and looked around the tiny motel room. It smelled of old people. A few desiccated moths and flies lay curled on the aluminium windowsill. He opened the wardrobe and considered the jangling wire coathangers. The shower dripped onto the tiled shower recess in the bathroom, making some sort of mysterious, monotonous point.

Wild had stayed in plenty of motels in his life. Usually, the first few moments offered an erotic charge of being somewhere new and private, where you could bounce on the bed and burp without reproach, jerk off over the big-haired, daytime soap actresses and take half-hour showers. Not this place. Normally, he would switch on the television for the reassurance of some ambient technological murmur, but he was sure it wouldn't even work here. It was better, he reasoned, to save some disappointments for later.

In the bathroom, he splashed cold water over his face and flushed the toilet just for something to do. The pipes groaned as the cistern refilled, as if some massive, distressed creature were embedded in the foundations. His black medical bag sat on the bed. He didn't really remember packing and wondered if he'd brought enough clothes or toiletries. Enough for what? It was cold.

He stepped out onto the walkway overlooking the car park and rested with his hands on the wet railing. Stretching into the distance was a relentless urban grammar of rooftops, antennae, wires and flickering lights. A flock of birds rose and arced against the clouds like a slow throw of pepper. A horseracing call whined from a nearby room.

The world is full of these kinds of places, he thought. The suburbs that fringe every city of a certain size look pretty much the same. Sites of halfway use. Places of failure and suspicion and neglect. Car parks humming in their fluorescent silences, all angles and dark solids. Ribbons of highway unravelling through neighbourhoods. The bus shelter with a scuffle of soft-drink cans beneath wire seats and the stink of domestic misfortune. There's always an abandoned rail yard with rusted segments of track lying in the long, damp grass. The rotunda of a local park where, once upon a time, a kid was raped by a bunch of other kids. Airports with their undersound of TVs and language that one becomes aware of through senses other than hearing, a process of bodily absorption, like a photograph developing in a tray. Shopping centres, churches. Hostels with their congregations of wandering men. It isn't that things don't happen here, it's just that different sorts of things happen, and to different sorts of people. And now perhaps I'm one of those people, he thought as he gnawed at a thumbnail.

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