When the Boat Comes In
She walks the empty house. Paint peels below the watermark in commas, a scaly flick of fish. She checks cupboards, counting, dividing provisions into days.
Close the cupboards, lock them.
A curtain lifts in a limp breeze and she sees the floodwaters have fallen further.
It will lift, she tells herself. This blindness will lift.
She pauses in a listing doorway, laying her hand on the jamb as though it might speak a reassuring name. A little shoe in the corner says Edie, Edie before she was a bundle in a blanket.
There was a boat—too small, too full.
‘Take the baby,’ she’d said, ‘come for us later.’
There had been no later.
She emerges onto the veranda with Gilbert’s rifle. She’s aware that the man is moving soundlessly beyond the garden, a flicker in a sudden patch of light. Perhaps he lets her see him. Like herself, he patrols alone. Perhaps he waits for when she won’t come out, assume she’s dead. Perhaps he won’t wait.
No matter, first person comes near, she’ll shoot.
She hasn’t checked the outbuildings, nor the washhouse where snakes might have fled. She wonders if the limping man has looked into the barn.
She will not enter the nursery. A little red shoe begs to be paired with its mate but she cannot do it.
There is no order in mud and loss, and no pity.
‘Well, girls,’ Gilbert says lifting his glass, left arm clasping Ellie’s waist. ‘This is it!’
Ellie sees Flo’s face crinkle, her eyes brim.
She shoots Flo a look, not now.
Nell chinks her glass, ‘Good luck, Ellie darling,’ her voice flat.
‘Come on mopokes! We’re celebrating! Last night in the city.’
‘We’re celebrating Gilly,’ Ellie says quickly, ‘see?’
She touches glasses across the table.
Flo’s eyes are on the cloth, her fingertip mashing crumbs.
‘We’re going to miss you, is all,’ she says without looking up.
Says it to Ellie.
‘Of course you are,’ Gilbert says, jigging up. ‘You girls, I know what you’re like.’
A few beers and he’s a card. He clamps a hand on Ellie’s shoulder.
‘Now it’s you and me,’ he says to her.
‘And Edie,’ Ellie says.
‘We’ll be having Christmas there,’ he says. ‘Edie’s first. And in a better place, more suited to a tribe of kids.’
Winking at Ellie.
Nell opens her mouth, shuts it.
Ellie thinks, you can’t provide for this one, let alone any more.
Nell drifts a dry smile across the table. Poor you, she mouths. Then catches Gilbert’s eye and says, ‘So even the bank is finally letting people go?’
Ellie drops her eyes.
‘Got the farm for a song,’ he says, rebutting.
More like all our savings, Ellie thinks bitterly.
The city falls back, mile upon mile fading to rutted tracks until the last bend and a slope where the river sheens in the sun. And that’s it, the incongruous house, innocent as a babe amidst trees and the seething scrub that want it down.
The land in the first state of creation, she thinks.
He pulls the brake on the Willys.
‘Think of it, Ellie, a fresh start!’
Stiff from the jolting and lurching, she sits transfixed as Gilbert unloads a frenzy of battered suitcases and provisions onto the verandah. She smells a latent miasma of rot and mildew and sees listing verandah posts and the drooping eyelid of roof. Windows opaque with dust and broken.
Abandoned, she thinks, that’s why, but Gilbert is all haste and clatter, shouldering open the latchless door that has swollen shut.
‘Needs airing, of course,’ he calls from within the empty shell, a phantom ocean sound one hears pressed close to the ear.
The boarding-house gas ring now replaced by a monstrous Argus wood-stove proffering a host of enamel doors and the appetite of a farm-hand army. No copper or mangle in the lean-to at the end of a blackberry-choked path.
First couple of weeks, Glibert’s busy tackling the surly house, then tired or disheartened, it’s a change.
‘We’re going to town!’
‘But I don’t know anyone,’ Eleanor says.
‘Then meet them!’
Then she’s standing with the baby under a tin awning ticking in the heat. The only ‘General and Fancy Goods’ on the street.
This is Town?
She feels their eyes on her, lean children, flies about their eyes and mouths, whispering.
‘Hello children,’ she calls, neighbourly.
Hot enough already, she’s now conscious of her stockings and heels, her georgette frock and careful hair.
The pointedly disinclined women, barelegged and hung about with babies, hold back.
As the car jangles back along the road, she says to Gilbert, ‘Next time, do your business by yourself.’
‘What? You lost the taste for being sociable?’
‘They don’t like me.’
Next time, he does go alone, returning—passenger —in a truck full of lambs.
‘Made a cracking deal on the Willys!’
‘Enough to start the flock,’ he shouts, jumping down, ‘And if Australia rides on the sheep’s back, then so shall we.’
He stomps dust from his shoes.
The driver alights, rounds the back of the truck to fiddle latches.
‘Meet Mr. Woolcock, love! He’ll bring our supplies,’ Gilbert says. ‘No need for an auto. This is Free Enterprise at work!’
Woolcock nods at her but doesn’t offer a hand.
She lets hers fall, pretending to adjust the baby’s shawl.
Gilbert helps unload.
So sure of yourself, she thinks. Everything like clockwork. A damn clock ticking away in the fearsome wild.
With a shudder, she realizes something more –You believe that resolve alone is enough to take this country in its jaws, crack it like a walnut.
'Pretty baby, Miss,’ Woolcock says next visit, thumping sacks onto the porch.
‘Brought a bit extra. Rain in the air.’
‘Is there?’ she says, smelling only the faded pepper-scent of wattle.
Why be nattering to you, she thinks, not worth the time of day.
And she’s back in St Kilda with Nellie and Flo and morning tea, toast browning on the heater. No butter of course, but jam. Mrs Mathers’ plum, although where she got the sugar is anybody’s guess.
Woolcock barges in, ‘You townfolk can’t tell is all I’m saying,’
‘Can you put that under the shade please,’ she says. ‘It’s so jolly hot.’
‘Rightio,’ he says. ‘Might want to wait before planting these.’
Hands her packets of seed.
‘I’m thinking yer mister has a plan. Done a few . . . repairs?’
That pause is supposed to nettle her and despite herself, she is suddenly embarrassed. Downright embarrassed by the haphazard plywood patching and the salvaged posts propping up the verandah. Everything higgledy-piggledy that Gilbert says will do ‘for the moment.’
‘Knows something we don’t,’ the obnoxious hick says. ‘Not that I can say—no book-knowledge round here is all.’
His face, a bright medallion struck from bronze, grins.
She tucks the baby’s shawl over its head to keep off the sun, looks around.
Her mouth opens. She should say it’s not Gilbert’s fault, he worked in a bank for god’s sake! But swallows the gush of shame—because that’s what it is—not so much at the poor workmanship, but the shame that her husband is now working as a common laborer, and failing.
Why throw it in my face? she thinks. If I was the man, I’d do it properly.
‘Not like folks is exactly rushing to these parts neither,’ Woolcock continues. ‘More likely packing up traps and lighting out.’
‘I can’t say, Mr. Woolcock,’ she says with the finality of one closing the lid on a trunk.
She watches him gone, wondering what Gilbert’s plan actually is and she’s back at the boarding-house.
‘Just think, Ellie,’ he’d said. ‘I’m done with all those double-crossers. It’s them the dealers holding all the aces. A man can’t win! Well, no more and that’s a fact.’ He’d perked up. ‘The queues, Ellie! No more! Grow our own food, we will!’
He’d danced about the room, picking up the baby and singing at it:
’Tha shall have a fishy
on a little dishy,
tha shall have a fishy,
when the boat comes in!’
Snaps back as Gilbert comes up from the barn.
‘So he’s been? Should’ve called me. Give you a receipt?’
Eyeing the sacks of flour, sugar, beans, bottles of oil and kero, tins of lard, slab of bacon, the latest newspaper reposing on the porch. He riffles about, hands shaking.
‘What! I never ordered the half of this. Why didn’t you call me? You daft?’ Kicks a sack of flour. ‘Filthy cheat, you have to keep an eye on the likes of him, and that’s a fact! At least another five pounds he’s done me for!’
‘Hardly five, Gilly,’ she says, ‘you’re exaggerating. He said it was going to rain.’
‘What? Too precious to get his boots wet?’
Silent, she’s counting—weeks, not coin—and the sum means just one thing.
As rain pounds on the roof and continues until she might go deaf, the swollen river comes up, a bruise spreading over the low-lying paddocks then stretching out for miles. Everything submerged and stinking, soaking wet and no escape.
Gilbert’s watching also.
‘It’s all right, El, I’ll think of something.’
Attendant to the ‘something,’ he pokes at a section circled in that last newspaper now lying on the table.
‘Relief works? Madness! You see that? Shelling out to the unemployable masses—give ‘em useless work. Disaster! No matter what Lyons thinks.’
He stabs the paper with a finger, the nail black-rimmed.
‘It interferes with the natural engine of enterprise.’
Drags his hands down his face so she sees him haggard, old.
‘I said it then and I’ll say it now. Commie bastards.’
He burns to outshine the kerosene lamp.
‘You see?’ he says, wiping his mouth, leaning forward, jaw working like he’s got too many teeth.
She shrinks back, but not so he’d notice.
‘Don’t know what I see any more Gilbert,’ she says, averting her eyes.
‘You haven’t my experience,’ he says, ‘Cut you down like a weed, a rank weed, they will!’
Down comes his fist.
‘The advocates of progress, sacrificed on their altar of socialism!’
‘You’re tired, darling.’
Best say it like that. Keep him calm.
He flings back in his chair, face mocking. ‘What can a man expect? Women have no clue.’
He doesn’t mean it. Let it go.
She says, ‘You need to rest. You shouldn’t be out there with that leg.’
He sneers, ‘Are you’re suggesting I go without it? Chop it off?’
Oh God, she’s tasting salt on her lower lip, teeth biting down.
Look around you for the love of God! she thinks. You try to build a levee when it’s too late and now you’ve gashed your shin and god knows what will stop the infection. Insist on wading about in that stinking water. What for?
Her nails dig into the palms of her hands.
And this ‘enterprise’ nonsense? Make it your enterprise to find us some dry wood and you won’t be gagging on uncooked food.
She’s about to stand up, say something, but all that steals into her mind is, what kind of mother brings her baby to a place like this? We’d have been better off on the street.
She shakes her mind clear.
I can’t toss it in now.
She says aloud, ‘Gilly, why don’t you lie down a bit, dear? It’s dark. Shall I look at your bandage? It hasn’t been changed in a while.’
But no, he won’t lie down and the bandage he ignores.
The following night, their raised voices wake the baby.
‘Shush,’ she whispers, ‘shush,’ rocking the cradle.
Don’t hear that other terrible crying. Please.
‘Can’t you let them out? Maybe they can swim to somewhere higher.’
Taking up the rifle, grim but without rage, he heads for the door.
‘Gil, you can’t!
Then she’s running after him, tripping, getting up and running again.
Favouring his good leg he stumbles on towards the barn.
‘Go back,’ he shouts. ‘You’re only doing this to yourself.’
Inside the barn, hand over mouth, she breathes only the stink of fear and shit.
He’s got a match, the kerosene lamp.
Her eyes black out in its sudden light, then he’s back, under a golden dome in the surrounding dark.
She throws herself down between him and the sheep.
‘No, Gilbert. Please.’
‘Get up,’ he says.
Headshake, not getting up.
‘Get up I said!’
He cocks his ear for something beyond the bleating.
‘Listen, the baby’s crying.’
I’m not falling for that! Not leaving you to do this.
She swallows and says, ‘She’ll be all right for a minute, it’s only for a minute, Gilly. We can go back. Let’s just go back.’
‘You go back. I have my responsibilities.’
The baby, Gilbert. Crying.
Watching as he takes rope from its hook, uncoils it and cuts it to lengths.
Then he’s wading in to snatch a sheep, looping one end around its neck, tossing the other over a beam. Heaving.
Her voice splits the darkness yet he gives no sign he’s heard her.
He steps back, aims and fires. Hits it in the head. The body jumps, twitches and hangs still.
Panicked now, the mob plunges and surges against the wall. Eyes glint, but it’s not foxes or rabbits in his wretched temple.
‘You’re scaring them!’
He glares back.
‘Don’t scare them Gilly.’
One by one, he catches them and strings them up. Then he’s lurching along the row and her head is splitting with the sound of shooting.
With the thing done, he’s standing in the bloodied water, a black cutout silhouetted in lamplight.
Under his dome of gold, she thinks, God himself, bestower of life and death.
Wiping his sleeve across his face, he breaks the rifle and pockets the remaining cartridges, turns and limps past her.
She flattens herself against the doorway.
Don’t touch him, he’s filthy with it.
Woolcock’s face is a pale oval moving gently up and down.
‘Gilly, let them take the baby,’ she says. ‘At least the baby.’
And to Woolcock, ‘Mr. Woolcock. Please, I’m begging.’
She thinks, a boat on the tide of outrageous fortune. Too small, it’s full. Just the baby.
As though her throat will break, she repeats, ‘Please take her, come back for us later, if you can.’
Little hands tucked in, a tiny finger curled around hers.
So tiny, I’m sorry.
I’m sorry. I’m sorry.
Don’t cry angel, let them make you safe—not safe here, little love of mine.
Her hands don’t want to let go. Holding on too tight.
Let go for God’s sake, she tells herself. You have to.
And she does it, heart jolting.
Gilbert stumbles back inside the house.
She remains outside and she’s fading, like the boat, into rain.
What had Woolcock said? ‘Leg’s in a bad way, mister.’ But with all this muck, he couldn’t smell it.
Gilbert’s back with the rifle. Stooping, he feels for yesterday’s nick in the veranda post. It’s submerged.
‘Still rising,’ he says. ‘Better get to the barn. I’ll pile up bales.’
Closing her eyes, the sheep are swaying to a lullaby in the air. She grips the veranda post to stop the whole world swaying.
‘Everything’s soaked!’ she says, still clinging to stop from falling. ‘You’ll never lift them.’
‘Will if I have to.’
Despite that putrid leg, she thinks wildly, despite the fever poisoning your brain? Thank God she’s away from you, away from this.
‘You go on,’ she says, slowly loosening her grip. ‘I’ll get some things.’
He stretches his neck, eyes flinty.
‘We’re going to the barn,’ he says, swapping the rifle to the other hand.
His breath is on her, a hot stench. Her stomach heaves into her throat.
Going to be sick.
‘I packed some food. I’ll get it. You go on ahead.’
He sets his chin at her.
Her spine aches with wanting to lean forward and push him down.
He steps down from the veranda, lurching towards the barn, turning halfway to call, ‘Hurry up and come!’
‘In a minute,’ she shouts.
Quick, inside! The box of cartridges.
All right. All right, so it’s like that then? We’ll see if you can make it back.
To herself, Think!
Card table up onto the other one in the dining room, that’s more solid, and blankets, preserves from the pantry and clean water in the enamel jug. Pile it all up, safe, safe from the rotting carcasses in the barn, safe from the rifle.
Flying around the house, locking doors and windows.
Still no sign of him. Getting dark.
Think! she tells herself, get a match, light the lamp.
Her arms hurt. She tenses, listening. Nothing but the rain.
Put the lamp on the table to stop it quivering. And the matches, keep them dry.
He’d said, ‘Hurry up and come.’
‘I can’t come Gilbert,’ she shouts into nothing. ‘I can’t.’
Her voice has barely died and there’s a great thud against the wall outside, so loud she almost screams.
It’s a log, that’s all. A branch. Something floating.
She blinks, the door is wavering. She’s scrubbing at her eyes that are streaming water as though she’s become the ever-weeping sky. Her fingers feel a bunny-rug in her hand. Holding it against her cheek, she leans against the table and buries her face in pink flannelette and the scent of talc.
. . . Tha shall have a fishy
on a little dishy,
tha shall have a fishy,
when the boat comes in . . .
Boat’s come, Edie, she thinks, come and gone, my angel, and there will be no fishy. God knows what there’ll be for us, Edie.
She stands still.
Stop sobbing. At least he’s not come back. Breathe, breathe steady.
She breathes, more deeply now.
It settles upon her, the finality, her finality.
God forgive me, I have to.
She’s commanding herself—get the lamp. The door. Careful now, he might spring out. Down the steps, feel for the steps, careful. It’s deeper now.
Struggling toward the barn as if through treacle.
Here’s the door.
Something glints, hanging from a nail. It’s the rifle and her stomach leaps.
Must have forgotten it! Oh thank you God! Grab it. Thank you God. Sling it over your shoulder.
Thank you God. Thank you God. Thank you.
Pull yourself together. Stop shaking! Where’s the damn bolt? Please don’t be rusted. Careful now, shush, shush, he mustn’t hear you. Put the lamp up and work the bolt. Push hard with both hands.
The long iron bolt budges, then slides firmly into place.
Maryanne Khan was born in Canberra, Australia, and has lived in Milan, Chicago, Brussels, Rome and Washington D.C., before returning to Australia. Her second home is in the North West Frontier Province of Pakistan. Her prose and poetry have been published in anthologies and literary journals in the United States and Australia. Her novel, Walking to Karachi, won a 2008 Varuna/HarperCollins Award.