Mandy kicks her feet through the autumn leaves of election week and smiling faces scatter along the pavement. She leans back against the fence and despite her negligible weight the chain-link bends and squeaks. I watch the freshly kicked Opposition pamphlets eddy onto the road, circling around oblivious early morning voters, bleary-eyed and baby-burdened. Four thick-waisted ladies sit perkily behind picnic tables just inside the school gates, acres of lamingtons and orange cake strewn before them.
Mandy watches with her hamster eyes as people walk past her, their faces nervously flicking away as she thrusts a pamphlet out to them like an eager relay runner. The weight of individual responsibility compacts so many shoulders that slump past. Only the taught-legged pensioner wearing day-glo running shorts shows any interest, taking a how-to-vote card from Mandy’s hand with flamboyant relish, winking at me as he walks past, flashing the glossy-printed candidate’s face at me like an entry pass.
This is our demographic, says Mandy under her breath.
Eventually our shift ends. By now, though, it’s lunchtime, and the line of people waiting to vote backs down the street. We both silently agree to join them. It’s the first time either of us will vote. Somehow, a fat man with a backpack gets between us in the queue and I don’t quite know what to do. I’ve only known Mandy for five hours, and I don’t know if this gives me permission to stand next to her. I wait, awkwardly, focusing intently on a badge on the fat man’s backpack that says ‘Honk if You’re Horny’.
I flash my eyes up and Mandy’s watching me looking at the badge. She rolls her eyes. Come on, she says, grabbing my wrist, pulling me into line next to her.
Thanks, I say.
You were just going to stay there, she says, weren’t you?
I didn’t know whether … you know …
After all we’ve been through this morning? She punches me in the arm. We’re in Solidarity, remember?
I smile at her twisted slogan and we wait in silence for a few more moments, teetering along with the rest of the democratic dominos. Mandy’s cheek flushes knife-wound red in the chilly air, knitted beanie jammed low over her head, blonde hair curling up to catch the light.
This is strange, I say eventually. Voting, I mean. I used to play cricket on a Saturday, but it seems all a bit …
Saturday’s my holy day, says Mandy, and I almost laugh until I realise quickly she’s serious. It’s my Sabbath, she repeats, scratching the back of her arm.
So you’re pretty religious?
Jesus’ll sort that out, she says, when he comes back.
We eventually reach the polling station. The booths are spread out along the walls of the school basketball court, where everything seems too thin to keep out the cold. I notice the long, high windows, diffuse with collective human heat. I stare at Mandy’s neck, at the light fuzz of her jumper. The queue splits up into four tables where people sit with electoral rolls.
A woman looks up from her table. Name?
Mandy reappears in my life exactly one week later, standing on my front doorstep, peering out from behind her father.
Here to check the mains, says her dad. Water restrictions.
I take them out the back, where mum’s turning the compost heaps. She and Mandy’s dad start to talk permaculture. Mandy comes and stands next to me. It feels wrong to be talking outside of election day.
I say, How’s your week been?
Not too bad. I got into trouble for throwing away Opposition voting cards. Not as if they were going to win, though. Not as if we were going to lose this electorate.
I imagine a McInley dinner table piled high with political discussion: late night debates of conscience and free trade.
We perch ourselves on the truck tyres that house mum’s cherry tomatoes. Mandy lets her thongs slip off into the grass.
Do you go around to all the houses with your dad? I ask her.
And she says, Not all of them.
I swallow thoughts that fall down the back of my head. I’ve never seen you around before, I say.
No, you haven’t. She grins, then. The first time I have seen her smile.
Night has cooled the road. We lie in opposite directions, our heads aligned on the bitumen. The streetlights are long since broken, filaments burnt out from overuse. Mandy and I bask instead in the glow of winter’s midnight. Freshly crept from our sleeping houses to meet here, to talk.
It’s a big red dusty truck, Mandy says up into the night sky, on its way through from Sydney. The driver’s been awake for thirty-five hours and his mind’s all fucked up with drugs. I can hear the scream of a diesel engine overcooking. I can taste the molten heat of exhaust. She says, This town’s just another dot on the map. It’s nothing special to him, just more dark empty roads. He doesn’t see us lying here. He doesn’t notice until we’re underneath his wheels. And then she’s quiet. She doesn’t know I’m no good at this game.
I sense the hum and rumble of distant tyres through the ground. See the lolly-bobbing head of the driver, his eyes rubbed thin into petrol stains. I get up and walk over to the safety of the nature strip. Mandy remains where she is—Mandy, the midnight creature, white legs played in a tartan skirt, body open to attack. I sit down and stick my hands down the sides of my shoes. The silence is so obvious it throbs.
It’s some time later, weeks maybe, before I let my voice unlatch. Way out beyond the fence line, in the hollow of a gully, we’re sitting together in silence. The way I tell it, the word jack-knife stabs the air violently, when really it should be slower, less definite. I tell Mandy I always imagined the worst part to be the moment before the truck ignited. Hearing the Chinese whispers groan of metal from back axle to cabin, smelling the fuel as it dripped from some rough-edged puncture. Mum says it was over in an instant, but I know about the terrible wait.
Mandy takes my hand in hers and says, I’m sure he didn’t suffer.
She asks to see a photo of my dad, but I can’t think where one would be. We were never a family of frozen moments.
Mum just pissed off with a guy in a campervan, says Mandy. Now that’s a bad way to go. She winces as soon as she says this and I can’t work out if this gesture is contrition or her own memory.
She asks me to take off my shirt, and I do. Then she’s running her fingernails right down my back, and up again, tracing eight electric paths. I almost cry out, but I’m afraid my voice will echo.
I’m writing on your back, she whispers.
I stare at the sky, imagining the invisible edges of stars. Mandy traces constellations in my freckles. She moves closer, so her breath is hot on my neck. Her hands move around to my chest and I feel her pressing into me, like a vice.
We come back the day after. This time we’re above and the gully is below. I stare over the cliff’s edge, looking longingly at the flattened grass below us, picturing Mandy’s naked back, white, red-striped, rolling over, beneath me, my mouth a silent howling circle.
She is quieter today. When I try to take her hand she wrests it free, not unkindly, more like a magnet unconsciously repelling. We’re so deep in the Olsen’s property, so far from East Street, that even the sky looks different.
I want you to trust me, says Mandy. Can you trust me?
Yes, I tell her. I can.
You can, or you do?
I fight the urge to kiss her there. I do.
She puts her hands on my shoulders and says, Close your eyes.
The world turns brilliant grey and yellow behind my eyelids. Mandy twists my body suddenly, and I nearly fall. The cliff’s edge is only a few steps away. But she keeps me up, and I realise she’s turning me around in circles. Keep them closed, she says. Keep spinning until you can’t work out which way you’re facing. And, despite myself, I obey her. The sun flashes through my eyes, wiping against me like torch beams, and gradually, quickly, as the light gets faster, my mind wipes away any reference and I lose the sense of where I am. It’s then I hear Mandy’s voice, right beside me: There’s no safety net now. Her hands slap my shoulders to a halt.
I open my eyes and vomit twenty metres down, off the cliff, over the rocks and grass and spindly clinging weeds. Mandy pats me on the back and pretends to pull us off the edge a few times, laughing.
I brush her away and collapse on the ground, letting the firm certainty of rocks dig into my back, letting my breath feed itself through a fissure in my throat. Mandy walks off, and through my squinting eyes I watch her hitting the back of her arm against the rough skin of an ironbark, counting out loud the procession of blows until she draws blood. Fourteen. Fifteen. Sixteen.
Mandy’s dad comes back to our house quite often. Mum shows him how she rotates the chicken coop around our five different vegetable plots. Mandy always follows, sometimes arriving with her dad, sometimes later.
I’m in the kitchen making tea when she arrives. I hear her clack open the flyscreen door and I picture her walking through the lounge room, tracing a finger along the top of every chair. She comes into the kitchen and kisses me, her face folded up strangely.
What’s up? I say.
She fixes me with a stare.
I blink, waiting.
Do we create our own reasons for being here? she whispers.
I turn away, shifting the kettle slightly on the stovetop. What do you mean?
I mean, do we have to invent things to keep us here?
To keep us alive? The kettle begins to gently grumble.
To keep us thinking we’re alive.
I don’t think we have to invent reality, I say, scooping tea leaves into the pot. It’s just there, isn’t it?
But what if we don’t know what reality is? How can we say what’s real and what’s not?
The kettle starts whining. I picture the water turning, tumbling inside it, whirligigs of roiling movement. I should get the cups out.
How can we risk not knowing?
They’re just in the cupboard behind you.
How can we test our knowledge?
The kettle screams for relief. I let its noise fill my ears. The cups? I shout, moving towards her.
How do we know what we know?
I push past her, sick of her questions, opening the cupboard, calmed by the sight of the china cups sitting right where I knew they’d be, upside down, resting with blue handles pointed towards me. Then the room falls silent.
I turn around, expecting to see Mandy, back to normal, holding the kettle, smiling. But the first thing I see is the kettle sitting on the benchtop and this is wrong because it’s started hissing again. Then I see Mandy’s face against the hotplate. Her left arm slaps against her leg and her hands are convulsing like plucked dying birds and I hear heat crackling the skin of her cheek and all the time those pale strong eyes look straight towards me.
Things are stretched then. I seize Mandy by the shoulders and try to pull her off the stove but every time I touch her a ferocious jolt from her limbs wrenches me away. I try again, my fingers digging into her skin. Whether she is stuck, or truly stubborn, I don’t know.
I run outside, shouting, the sun tugging at my indoor eyes. Mum and Mandy’s dad are standing together the garden, peeling leaves from a lettuce, laughing. I shout again, Mandy’s name, and the air cracks from her dad’s face. He sprints into the house, moaning, choking, screaming her name. Mum seems glued to the dirt. She turns the lettuce over vaguely in her hands. I leave here there and run to the top of the driveway to open the gate for the ambulance.
I lift the log-splitter high into the air and let gravity do the rest. There’s a splintering crack, and the wood divides cleanly in two. The axehead buries itself deep in the chopping block, its wood worn soft and fibrous from a winter’s work. I pick up the fresh kindling and place it in the brass wood bucket. My ears burn, for some reason, in the night air.
It’s then a figure appears at the top of the driveway, in purple stockings, a dark definition against the white gravel. A scarf obscures her face, but I recognise the curled stalks of blonde hair.
I was watching you, says Mandy. You chop wood very well.
Thanks, I say, as I can think of nothing else.
Come for a walk, says Mandy, moving towards me. She links her arm into mine. We walk up the driveway and out onto the road. I feel warm, even though I’m wearing no shoes.
How are you feeling? I ask.
Had to have a skin graft. Took bits off my thigh. Mandy pulls down her scarf and her cheek actually looks okay. There’s a patch of skin that’s darker: not a circle shape, like I’d expected, but a long irregular oval. The skin’s pinched and scarred in places, like the eroded edges of a lake. It was strange, she says, when I was stuck there. It wasn’t hurting in my cheek, but there was a pain somewhere on the top of my head, and in my arms.
We get to East Street.
Let’s go down to the cliff, Mandy whispers. I’ve got something we can do.
I follow her visible breath through the fence. A piece of barbed wire catches on my shirt and drags itself through my skin.
Mandy takes a sip first, and it looks like death she’s enjoying. The bottle in her hand is so clear it’s invisible. Then there’s silence, as the air fogs up in front of me. Dead grass creaks underneath my bare feet. Mandy’s eyes have a film that appears thick in the moonlight.
Here, she says. Try this.
As I lift the bottle to my lips, I recognise this moment as one I can pin down with certainty. A point in time to hang from the rest of my life.
It’s different spinning at night. Different with half a bottle of vodka inside you.
Love and death, they’re just different things to different people, right?
You’re just afraid because you’ve lost something and can’t find it.
Our parents should just get together and have a good time.
Why do you feel you have to hurt yourself like this?
What did it really feel like to live with the pain?
We should fuck right on top of those rocks.
Do you love me because I’m suffering?
We should drive away somewhere.
Does this prove that I’m real?
What is it you believe in?
I love that you’re here.
This is so exciting.
I’m lost now.