That’s just another scene left smouldering in my vision. Of Des sitting in the cell, his hair swept back the way he likes it, forehead shining, the same way mine does. I plunge my hands into the boiling dishwater, feel for the sponge. Outside, the sky’s burning, baking the driveway and pounding its heat onto the kitchen window. I bring my face down close to the sink and take in the staleness of the air. My hair hangs down, long and brown and as heavy as hell.
I drive down to Patterson’s about five-thirty, the sweat on my legs sticking to the seat. The long green verandah turns the pub into a giant lizard, stretching out on the flint-hard dirt. It looks ten degrees cooler up on Mount Magnus, and probably is.
Inside, my skin quickly soaks up the moist thick air. There are three shirtbacks at the front bar; I recognise Nat Patterson’s large frame almost immediately, and Jamie Pearl, with his dad Kenny next to him. I sit down next to Kenny. He squints at me like he’s peering through a dirty window.
“How ya been Sally?” he says.
“Not bad, Mr Pearl.”
“Up in Stanthorpe yes’dy. Heard ’bout Des.”
“Yeah. Bloody shockin’.”
Jamie turns around to face me.
“Get you a drink, Sal?”
He nods to Nat, who heaves himself up reluctantly and goes behind the bar, his chequered shirt rumpling up in dark creases of sweat.
“Just want ya to know,” says Kenny, from behind the squint, “if there’s anything youse need, from the store or whatever ... ”
Jamie nods, his eyes cast downwards.
“Thanks,” I say.
“How’s ya mum takin’ it?” says Kenny.
“Yeah, she’s okay,” I lie. “A little shaken up, but no real harm done.”
Nat hands me a drink and says quietly, “On the house.”
We sit in silence as I sip at my beer. It’s cold and bitter and God it’s good.
“Elsie comin’ tonight?” asks Jamie.
“Dunno,” I say. “She was still at work when I called her.”
He looks disappointed. There’s a layer of sawdust sitting on the fair hairs of his left arm. I have an urge to run my hand over his wrist and up to his smooth brown muscles.
Soon enough, the pub crowds up with the farmers and the fruit pickers: scores of red faces and thirsty eyes. Kenny goes off to talk to some of the old characters, but Jamie comes and sits with me at a table behind the door. Nat is run off his feet as usual, but keeps his own pace.
Three Italian guys come in about eight o’clock and stand inside the entrance, laughing and talking. I recognise two of them from the police station—cousins, Vince and Paul. The other one I don’t know. They wave their hands at Nat, tell him to hurry up.
“What's the matter barman?” says Paul, throwing his arms in the air. “Can we get a drink in this town, or what?”
Nat ignores him.
Paul takes off his jacket. He wears a white singlet tucked into his jeans: a bright, brilliant white.
He says, “Can’t be that hard to pull three beers, can it mate?”
Nat says, “Wait your turn, mate.”
Jamie rubs his jaw and watches the Italians.
“Fuckin’ wankers,” he says loudly. “Whadda they fuckin’ have to come down here for?”
“Don’t worry about it,” I say, staring intently into my fifth beer. But it’s too late. Vince, in a luminous blue shirt, swaggers over to the table. His hair’s thick with something, the light swimming over his head in little ripples.
“You got something to say?” sneers Vince.
I see the tension growing in Jamie’s arms. I keep my head down, hope things go away.
“This pub’s for locals,” Jamie growls. “F’people who do an honest day’s work.”
“You a funny man? You a funny man are ya, country boy?”
Paul and the other Italian peel away from the bar. Jamie stands up.
“The only things that’s funny,” he says, “is your fuckin’ shirt.”
Vince ignores him. He looks straight at me, and sneers.
“Hey Paul,” he says, “remember this little chicky?”
“Yeah,” says Paul, puffing out his singlet chest like a songbird. He turns to the other Italian.
“Hey Gino, this little chicky’s brother was the one screwed over your Uncle Stefo.”
Gino stares at me with his glossy shit–brown eyes.
Jamie moves right up into Gino’s face.
“Why don’t you fuck off back to your zucchinis,” he says.
“You still working for your papa, country boy?”
“You still stickin’ ya cousin, faggot?”
Gino’s mouth explodes and he throws a punch. Jamie ducks it and charges into Gino’s stomach. He grunts in pain and Paul and Vince haul Jamie up by the shoulders and Paul knees him in the groin and Gino cracks his the palm of his hand into Jamie’s face and his neck snaps back with blood like a visor and he’s kicking with a cutting arc and Nat and Kenny and the others pull them away as they flail and swing in animal violence and I lose my breath and my thoughts are too many molecules and they jump and spin together with hate and pain and fear and all I can smell is the sweat.
I sit on the deck with the lights off as the sky fills again with spearing breaking thunder, the bulging clouds waiting desperately for rain’s release. Elsie’s footsteps come creaking up over the timber. She’s wearing woollen slippers with her nurse’s uniform. She hands me a mug of coffee and for a moment the lightning illuminates her wide face. It’s eleven-thirty at night and she’s so tired but she’s still beautiful. She sits down next to me on the cane lounge with a familiar squeak. It’s the sound of a year’s worth of late dinners and last drinks and easy words.
“You going to tell your mum?” she asks.
“Suppose I’ll have to now.”
“That was pretty stupid of Jamie.”
“He gave them what they came for, I guess.”
There’s the scene of Jamie being led away, with a teatowel over his broken face. The blood creeping steadily outwards against the white. The sawdust on his shoes.
Elsie puts her feet up on the flimsy rail that wraps around our deck. It bends out under the weight.
“You want me to drop you at court tomorrow?” she says.
“Yeah, I guess.”
I sigh with a wavering breath and close my eyes.
“Hey,” says Elsie. “It’ll be all right.”
She puts her arm around me and I cry into her soft shoulder. We sit like this for some time. The rain never arrives.