Now forty-one, Ray works as an itinerant cook and labourer across the remote outback. A practical man in love with history and landscape, Ray leads a solitary life, convinced he's inherited Jim's streak of violence. Ray has spent his life running away from memories of family and home.
When the body of a man is found in a country pub along with Ray's identification, Ursula believes that she can finally lay to rest the search that has defined most of her adult life. After Ursula collects Ray's belongings, she begins to follow the tracks left by Ray across the far-back country, each one leading her closer to understanding the man he became and why he disappeared all those years ago.
The Far-Back Country is an extraordinary story about memory, mistaken identity, false knowledge and how the idea of family can define us.
|Publisher:||Allen & Unwin Pty., Limited|
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Ray was on the edge of things when Delly died. He'd been out there six days. The only sign of life the odd goat or derelict windmill, the tracks of his ute girdling the creek. Now and then, shadow of an eagle, high, hefty, circling, rippling cruciform across the stave of his fence.
The rest was dust, scrub, gibber. Along old wash lines, blue bush, black oak, old man saltbush. Tired green tracing lost water, petering to low mallee, dead mulga. Sly wink of desert varnish, haloes of salt. Beyond that, across thin hills and iron ridges, more gibber, great ribs and drifts and spines of it, stepping a glittering distance, and him with it. Wire falling, hand to horizon, all the way from north bore soak to the edge of the old mine workings, where no stock grazed, no fence ruled.
When he stopped for a breather, he could see every taut and shining hour. Could feel it running through him, a brutal architecture. Leaving this gaunt shadow at his heel.
He bent along it. Stepped a run, laid his string line, checked his level. Stepped it out again.
* * *
If his memory of high-school history was correct, this creek he'd been following all morning was one of Sturt's. He'd tried to pin it to history, with ducks and diaries, maps and scurvy. Water like boiled black ink, he'd written, the image slipping bright down lines of faded copperplate, along the curve of Ray's pick, out into the shadow of his hat. Eyes shut and body braced, he could almost see it, almost feel it. Sweat braiding between his shoulderblades, a cool ribbon in this sea of stone.
Then he struck, the force shattering up his arm, finding every leak and tributary in the muscles of his back. History had sailed on. The only trace of water now the step and rim of ancient crab holes, what old-timers called dead men's graves.
Ephemeral, these creeks. He rolled the word round his head as he worked, letting its fey shape and liquid rhythm carry him, hand over fist, toward the final ridge.
Halfway there, his line met a low stone well. Necklace of goat bones round the old pulley. Shadow at the bottom, hair, teeth, horn, but long gone, like the water. Just the ghost of a smell.
Beyond that, a miner's hovel, all tumbled sandstone and orphaned doorways, the inside evil with barbed wire, broken glass, toilet paper. A black mass, alive with flies. Plotting a wide arc to avoid it, he crossed trails of other lives. Camel rib, ore bucket. Horseshoes so ancient, they crumbled underfoot. A wide leather miner's belt, notched almost to the point of death.
In the last stretch before the drop-off, in a bend of dry creek where shade and water might have grown, his pick hit a grave railing. The tiny mound was embroidered with paddy melon, no stone or cross. Instead, like some strange offering, a fossilised thong.
Digging post holes along the spine of the ridge, he spotted it finally. A white stone chimney topped with a ram's skull, marking the limit of Sam's new land. In better weather, with decent equipment and a proper offsider, about three hours' slog away. But the last fly-by-night had downed tools well short of the boundary and this was jump-up country, no flesh to it, what earth there was flayed with flint, ironstone, mine tailings. Nothing to work with, not even the bones of a fence. And now the sun was a hammer overhead.
For an hour, just the ring of his spade, the crunch of his boots. The sounds shaken out of him, helpless and thorough. Every thump of the post driver darkened the dirt with sweat. The dog's claws ticked back and forth across the ute tray, a ragged metronome to the heat. Whenever he turned to look at it, he found it staring back, all ribs, ears, hot toffee-coloured eyes. He'd considered letting it loose for a bit, but it was too young, too stupid to even get under the tarp he'd rigged from the cabin to give it a bit of shade. One sniff of roo and it'd be off, down into the badlands. If it fell through one of those old mine shafts, that would be that.
Standing up to swig some water, the red world yawed boot-wise, shuttered black for a while. He breathed deep, bent down, worked on. Moving slow as an astronaut, pitting sweat, energy and his remaining water, against the torn muscle in his back, the weight of the sun, the distance to the skull.
Stupid to slog through the worst of it, for a job like this. No feed this far out, so no sheep except dead ones. Putting a fence here was like planting a flag on the moon. But this was Sam's new land and he wanted to mark it and Ray had promised he'd do it, and just this once he'd been paid ahead. And there'd be no second chance. By this time tomorrow he aimed to be as far from here as half a tank of petrol would allow. He wanted clean clothes, cold beer, food that wasn't heat-slimed or reconstituted. Water that didn't taste of ute. Wanted to walk into a room where he recognised nothing and was responsible for no one. Order a meal he wouldn't have to cook.
That reminded him of the shed. All that meat stuffed into those unreliable fridges. All those flies. Between midday dinner and a motley mob of contractors, stock hands and pig shooters, a Pommy grog artist who'd be drunk by afternoon smoko and a fourteen-year-old ginger nut who seemed incapable of washing his hands. Last time Ray left Mick in charge, he had every man down with salmonella and the rissoles not fit for a dog.
Should have cooked some stuff for the freezer. Should have left him a note. But there was no time when it came upon him, the way it always happened. The feeling rising with first light, formless, grey then silver. The urge running through him like a fuse.
* * *
By two pm, big heat, dead heat. Heat so vast, it felt solid, some mineral-toothed prehistoric thing.
He was too far out for radio here, so no news or music. Just the work, the dog, his book. Couldn't see to read once the sun went, torch was going, but he had a good memory, for songs and stories, poems and fables. Anything with a shape to it, an outline to bestow on a place without boundary, except the one he was making, with sweat and fists.
When it got too hot for words in one place not another, it was lists of lost cities and dead languages. Grand Latin names for tiny desert plants. For half an hour, up and down the rigging, all the sails on a seventeenth-century ship of the line. When words failed, scrambled by sun, it was maps, old ones, folding and unfolding, tea brown and intricate, all those spidery, puffing latitudes that had entranced him well before he'd learned to read. When he could, even their names were a sort of magic, to a small boy, alone in the dark. Ptolemy, Ribero, Anaximander. A chant against the void.
In that boyhood atlas, his mind falling open now to those big central plates, he traced Australian river systems, their broken calligraphy. The sepia routes of failed explorers, in glossy fade. On page 42, a certain nest of creek bends like the bud of a tiny fern. So small that when he'd put his childish initials there, he'd erased the home they enclosed.
When he was too tired to see pictures, it was words again, but old ones, those curled so deep, they required no memory, only obedience. Hymns, Bible stories, other fairy tales. Recipes. Cup of this, pinch of that. Mam's voice in his head. Cream butter and sugar until light and white. Flour, eggs, vanilla, ratio two to three, wet to dry. Proper butter, not marg or lard, and get it soft first but don't leave it out all night. Under that tin roof, it'll be soup by dawn.
When the loneliness arrived, finding a man and his dog under relentless sun, it was poetry that returned, rising like the contours of a river revealed by drought. It told the day in new order. Snake shimmer, lizard scuttle. Bright angles, tiny agitations. A world all gleam and shift, himself airy and askance. When he was absent from it, this place made its own kind of sense.
There was dusk, a ruffled blue moment when earth released its grip on the heat. There was sunrise, that same heat blooming from a low spine of hills. There were stars wheeling frozen round the hinge of his firelight, the only certain thing. Even the hardest hottest day out here held the ghost of a curve to it, in the long glitter of a week. A red mouse. A purple flower. Two nights ago, in the middle of the desert, the sound of the sea. Looking up, he'd seen, by starlight and torchlight, a vast tide of cockies, flying a wind of their own making, flowing east. So many, they blotted the moon.
Seeing that war-shaped underbelly, hearing them cry one to the other, ragged, urgent, looping the darkness, gathering it like a wave, he knew he was alone. And it was enough. To feel time passing and him with it, riding that thready edge of change.
Even this fence wasn't straightforward, although it was as plumb as he could make it, following boundaries worked by other men, accompanied by other dogs, long dead. But no matter how careful he was with string line and spirit level, earth here followed its own rhythm, the wire bending through what was missing, an undulation so slight it could be heat mirage. Beneath his feet, the secret mutter of the old mine workings. Old rock falls, ancient exclamations. Caverns so deep and dark no voice or rope would reach the end. Tying off, he felt the echo of it. Held the shape of absence in a palm.
Somewhere out there, another fence joined this one, but right now, it felt improbable, the place eating up any certainty except the horizon itself. This wire might loop on and on until he met himself again.
You'd go mad if you thought about it like that. If you stared long enough against the heat of midday, you'd start to see camel trains, sailing ships, company coming when there was none to be had. Better to stick to the job in hand. After a while, the heat, the sweat, that web of skin between thumb and forefinger which took all the punishment, everything slipped away.
There was this patch of dirt banded with the shadow of four wires. Crows were black notes creaking across it. There was your own shadow, simple as a cave painting on the ground. There was this moment, no other. Your hands took hold of it, wrestled it into place.
Fold in the flour. That's the hard part, you're not making cement. Bit like bathing a baby, swoop and cradle, an easy balance between precious substance and greedy air. Can't say how, words won't hold it. Like cupping water, something vital always slips away. A knowledge whorled into gut and brain and fingertips, like the image of someone standing in such bright morning sunlight, their outline glows even when you close your eyes.
They'll stay there forever, kettle steaming, sun pouring like melted butter through a window. Radio murmuring stock prices, a dusty incantation. Flour dappling the fine hairs on a freckled arm.
* * *
Late afternoon, no amount of water seemed to replace the sweat he was losing. On the far horizon of heat haze, a man wavered toward him, bearing a spear.
With the skull in spitting distance, he was forced to pack it in. Heading back along the creek bed, he rocked the ute through dust fine as cornflour, careful to stick to the tracks he'd made on the way in. One careless turn here and you could end up buried in one of those hot black arteries underground. A finely calibrated safety, like walking in small bare feet on top of someone else's big steel-toe boots, back and back, toward some familiar yet frightening place.
Near the chimney, a little gum gave a bare nod to shade. He tied the dog to it, doused his head and strung the tarp. Sat beneath it, smoking and sweating, while the kelpie, bug-eyed with frustration, tried to wrench the sapling from its roots. To make up for the long hot day it had endured, he threw it the tail of the roo he'd shot the day before. Stupid thing tried to swallow it fur and all. He recognised that, how ravenous you could be, for some rare sweet chunk of life, lived on a grand and momentous scale.
He had a sudden memory of Tilda, aged three, squatting bare-bottomed behind the wood pile, intent on something between her legs. Odd kid Tilly, always peeing al fresco, always taking off all her clothes. When he'd got closer, he'd seen she'd somehow got hold of Mam's special biscuit tin, the one with the young Queen on it, her rouged cheeks and faded diamonds nibbled by scars of his old disappointments, all those nights spent dragging a chair across the kitchen, standing on tiptoe to reach the shelf above the fridge. Thinking, just one, no one would notice, not if you rearranged the layers, only to find Dad had sealed the lid shut with an iron fist.
Tilda hadn't bothered with any of that. She'd just bashed the tin with a rock, got her little fingers under the rim. By the time Ray caught up with her, she'd eaten nearly all the biscuits Mam had baked for Mrs Tangello up the road, who'd had a baby or whose husband had died, he couldn't remember which. Delly McCullough was famous for her biscuits. Won all the local shows.
Wasn't Tilly's fault. Too young to know. And they'd all loved those cockle biscuits, better than sponge cake or even lamingtons. All that butter and sugar, that terrible richness on the tongue. Special occasions only, Christmas or birthdays, or swimming training, when Urs got up with the alarm and did some stealing of her own. Four am, way early in the season, sun not up, brown ice on the river and Ray nursing a middle ear infection but Father O'Reilly wanted that Regional Schools Trophy and nothing would stand in his way. A cold wobble on top of the town bridge, big priest face looming, boiled red as football leather. Stink of old whiskey and stale tobacco, a phlegmy bark of breathe and blow. The whistle like an electric shock. The dive a clear, brief moment, the whole town laid wide, silo to highway, crystal at dawn. Then fierce brown water, the jerk and rasp of the ankle rope. Nut-clenching cold.
He swam for hours against the current, until his arms felt nerveless as tripe. But after, there was always Urs, with her thermos and blanket and royal biscuits. Nothing tasted so good, even mixed with mud-flavoured snot.
Dad caught up to him of course. Had a nose for trouble, Dad reckoned, and though he meant Ray when he said it, what Ray imagined was Dad himself. Standing on the front verandah, one foot on the railing, one hand in his pocket. Head high, nose flared, sniffing Ray down. Dad reckoned he could smell trouble on Ray before Ray did anything, before the thought of doing anything had even crossed Ray's mind. Something in the blood.
Tilly threw up behind the wood pile, where Ray made her hide. Ray vomited too, in time with Dad's belt strokes, shame and acid fizzing in his throat. The salvation of those biscuits, the very idea of them, ruined forever. Stained by sour disappointment and too much self-sacrifice. Keen as an oversharp vinaigrette.
In his stints at shearing sheds and pub kitchens, he'd tried over and over to recapture the taste of those biscuits. Did everything the way Mam used to, even down to putting a fork mark in the batter and sticking a silver gee-gaw on top. Couldn't make them as dainty as hers were of course. Would have been laughed out of town. Had to make them thick and shearer sized, like big yellow pikelets. Maybe that's why they never tasted the same.
No treats tonight, but he had two beers left in the esky and the rest of the roo. It was ponging a bit, because he couldn't run the car fridge without running down the car battery, but those explorers he'd spent his childhood with had eaten all sorts,hadn't they? Sheep's eyes and spoon-soft rabbits, shoe-leather soup. He'd just chuck on lots of chilli, hold his nose and close his eyes.
* * *
Six o'clock. Still too hot to light the fire. Even the kelpie had given up, lying spatchcocked in the shade of the tarp. He lay down beside it, comforted by the yeasty smell of warm dog. Watched the sun begin its long slow slide to where he'd come from, plumping ridges, softening old creek bones, gibbers glowing like round pale flesh. Night would arrive in a lash of shadow beneath that rib of sand.
He closed his eyes to wait it out. Was twelve years old again, Christmas morning, sun just up, sky through sailing ship curtains already brassy with heat. At the end of his bed, the second-hand Brittanicas Urs had smuggled in at midnight, as if she was Father Christmas and he wasn't awake and still believed. Stacked so high, they threatened to topple if he moved. Kill him with love and words.
He wet an imaginary finger, opened the very first volume for the very first time. Could almost taste it, the dense and serious joy of those old pages, and while he dozed, he dreamed, in a place still holding fiercely to the day's heat, of frozen tundra, avalanching mountains, husky liver stew.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Far-Back Country"
Copyright © 2018 Kate Lyons.
Excerpted by permission of Allen & Unwin.
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