By Jamie Derkenne
This story was shortlisted for Right Now’s Fiction Competition, judged by Anna Funder and Tony Birch. Read the shortlist here.
One time after the autumn floods, when Ivan Platonov was away again, Anna reckoned she should do something about the teeth grinding. In the grounds of the Central School were several old pine trees, perhaps planted by that pioneer William Scott himself, as sorry for all them cedars he hacked out. Every morning, while herding Tibby and Kayla to Mrs Ringland’s classroom, she would walk past the pines, keeping a watchful eye on the bulging and spiky white bulbs erupting from the ground. They grew fast. In a matter of days they had large red caps with white spots, the sort you see in storybooks.
One morning they were ready. Taking a little curved knife from her pocket, Anna took in her harvest. Jesus, leaning on the school fence, his white dress still wet from walking across the river, watched her as she carefully cut them close to the ground and placed them on her skirt, which she held up to make a basket.
“Don’t eat those,” Jesus said, wagging a finger at her. “They’ll kill you. What you want are the little golden ones that turn blue when snapped. You want the sort that grow in the Noble paddocks. The gold tops. Not these. No es bueno.”
Anna ignored Jesus. She reckoned he was illegal anyway, and didn’t like the way he’d have an opinion on just about anything, just like Ivan. Just because he spent 40 days in a Bolivian jail didn’t mean he was any expert, even though just about everyone else in Bowraville assumed it did. Anna didn’t want to dream. She didn’t want to watch visions. She wanted anger. She wanted to do things.
Anna reckoned she came from Karelia, but some reckoned she was also a Kneebone girl from Burnt Bridge. She never knew her mother. Her daddy had been a sleeper-getter in the Macleay Gorges. He’d come from Russia with his mother, who would sit Anna on her knee, stroking the dark blonde hair, telling her stories of walking through birch forests in hazy late summer twilight searching for those red and white balls. She’d warn Anna to boil the magic out. “If you do not my Myshka, then you will be – Petya what is the word? – Da, beserk!”
Now Ivan, he was a piece of work. Didn’t hit more than the next bloke. True, Anna sometimes wore sunnies at night, but the bruises that stayed weren’t from his fists. He’d use words like they were knives. Rumour was he had a past, and maybe was Italian or Russian, but Beryl Newman, who knew more about some people than they knew about themselves, said he actually came from Queensland. No one ever asked Ivan, because he looked like the sort of bloke who didn’t like being asked questions. So no one knew for sure whether Anna and Ivan were legal or not, though the amount of time that Ivan spent travelling suggested he had to be, and the fact that Anna, who had children to mind, never went anywhere, suggested maybe she wasn’t.
Back home, she sliced up her harvest, and put them on paper on a metal tray under an old windscreen that was lying in the paddock. In a few days they shrivelled to almost nothing. She filled a coffee jar with the dried slices and stopped the lid. All she needed now was a full moon. Doing what she wanted to do by day would attract too much attention. People would talk. Her children would notice. Community Services might get involved. She had to be careful, discreet.
Anna waited until her children had been fed their banana cake for supper and were sleeping. She walked down to the creek and selected a handful of small white pebbles which she put in a skirt pocket, and dug a handful of white clay out of the creek bank. She then sat down resting her back against a she-oak, and took out several slices of toadstool wrapped in paper. She ate them slowly, chewing each bit carefully. She waited. While she waited, she fashioned a little statue of Ivan, sitting on a Paraquat tin. You could tell it was Ivan because his legs were spread far apart, an imperious samurai. Ivan always sat like that, like he was ready to take on the world, or tell Anna what to do.
After a while, she could feel herself becoming lighter. Anna rose, and walked over to the Noble paddocks, which gently sloped down to the North Arm Road. She started running downhill, slowly at first. As she ran, she started leaping. The leaps became longer and longer, more a pushing off from the earth than a fall, until she found she could float many yards before kicking her heels again.
Satisfied with her progress, Anna returned to the creek. In a circle of she-oaks she put down her clay figure, and kicked her heels. She soared above the tree canopy, took out her pebbles, and shied stones at the figure before gently settling to earth again. She flicked her wrist as she threw the stones, throwing like a man.
“Heeya!” she cried, as a pebble landed near the statue. She kicked her heels and soared once more. “Take that, you bastard,” she cried.
Tibby had waited in her bed, listening for the sounds of her mother crawling under the tank to her own bed. But the sounds never came. Her mother was up to something. Curious, she crept out, and silently followed. She saw Anna in the clearing, hopping over the little lump of clay, shying stones at it. She never knew her mother was that agile, especially as she was still wearing her gumboots. Thinking her mother had finally flipped, she stole back to bed, wondering what would become of her and her little sister now.
The next night, Anna crept off again, but Tibby didn’t follow, preferring the comfort of her bed to the craziness of her mother. Anna picked up her stones, ate her toadstools slices and waited. There would be no practicing tonight. Tonight she would fly.
As soon as she felt the toadstools working Anna stood up, and with a mighty kick of her heels soared into the air. She floated still for a few seconds, and then leaning forward, started moving to the north east, slowly and first, but getting faster.
Every so often, Ivan would go off somewhere, leaving his family to fend for themselves. Anna had no money, and no income. Everything she bought she bought with money that Ivan gave her from an immense roll that he kept in his pocket. She had no idea where all the money came from. Usually he said he was off to Kempsey or Coffs Harbour for a few days, but this time he said he was going somewhere like Italy, for weeks.
“I’m off to Rome,” Ivan said. “Spending some time with an old friend from Lithgow days. Lives there now – not so much heat.”
“You’ll have to give me some money for food. Tibby needs a new dress.”
“I can’t give you any, Na. I need it for my trip. You want money, get a job.”
It was an old conversation that Ivan always won. There were no jobs in Bowraville.
“But Ivan, for God’s sake, what will we eat?” Anna knew the answer to that question before she even uttered the words. Bananas. Ivan would make them eat bananas.
Ivan had six acres of bananas on the north-facing slope where they lived. He’d get his kids to spray them with Paraquat, and occasionally he’d fertilise them too, but it made no difference. What bananas grew were small and spotty, so much so that often the agents would reject his entire crop. When that happened he would simply stop giving Anna cash and make her and the kids eat them. He often called her Na, and smirking at his own joke would say before leaving “They are supposed to be really good for you, Na Na!”
Just about everyone in Bowraville would know when this happened, and more often than not when Anna walked to the North Arm Road to collect her mail, she’d find tins of food and packets of biscuits in the mail tin, or even a basket of food and clothing sitting by the tin, covered in a cloth to keep the flies out. Every time she saw the kindness, tears would come to her eyes from thankfulness, but also from terror. Anna lived in fear of Ivan coming home one day and finding she’d been getting handouts.
Still, Anna believed it was her husband’s duty to look after her, not the duty of an entire town. Stones would be cast. Friend in Rome indeed. One of his girlfriends no doubt. She’d make him hop skip and jump when she caught up with him.
The night air was cold, especially given the altitude and speed Anna was travelling. She had planned for this, and wore long woollen socks underneath her skirts. On her feet she had the only footwear she owned, an old pair of gumboots.
It took next to no time for her to see the twinkling lights of Rome below her, the black snake of the Tiber twisting through the centre. She slowed to a stop, and hovered above the city, searching. She soon sensed him. She could feel his warmth glowing from a small wine bar near the Basilica di San Pietro. She floated down to get a better look. In front of the building were chairs and tables, and it being summer in this part of the world, people sitting in the cool of the evening enjoying themselves. One of them was Ivan. He was with a young woman. They were both laughing, sipping their pinot grigio.
Anna was beserk with fury. How dare he! How dare she! Enraged, she took out her pebbles and started throwing them with all her force at the laughing couple.
“Take that!” she screamed, but even though her aim was true, the pebbles seemed to have no effect. Soon her pockets were empty, and weeping with frustration, Anna felt Bowraville and the she-oak forest tugging at her, the elastic ties pulling her home.
Ivan came home several days later, much earlier than expected. He didn’t say anything about the wine bar, and Anna didn’t either.
“My mate, he got sick. Must have eaten something bad. They got him in hospital on a drip so I thought I’d come home.”
Anna regretted that it wasn’t Ivan who was sick. She hadn’t figured that her actions might lead to Ivan returning early. The fact of the matter was she and her children were better off with Ivan away. It’s not that he hit them often, or let them go completely hungry. It was just that living among the ruins of a half-unpacked kit home feeling like a storm was about to hit was no way to bring up children. And he was cruel with words. He thought nothing of telling Anna she was useless, no good for anything and that she was ugly. It was all true, Anna thought. She was useless. She was no good for anything. She was getting old. She couldn’t even take revenge in her dreams.
Ivan would sit on an upturned Paraquat tin, legs wide apart, warming himself by the fire. “Na,” he would bark, “Na!” and hold up his cup. She would get up and take the kettle off the fire, rinse his cup of the old tea-leaves, pour a steaming cup and humbly present it to him. He would take it silently, not even looking at her.
Being Bowraville, Anna’s situation was noticed. Beryl Newman had even had a quiet word with Constable Beaumont.
“Can’t you arrest him or something?”
“He hasn’t been violent. No reports of him ever hitting anyone. What can I do?”
Constable Beaumont hated feeling helpless. He toyed with the four brass rings on his desk, thinking to himself that even a quiet talk with Ivan would be enough to make Anna’s life a misery. And just a word from Anna would be enough to put him away again.
That’s when Ivan had his little accident. Not much of an accident, just got run off the North Arm Road by one of Geoff’s steers. Car was sufficiently pranged that Ivan was stuck behind the wheel. Beryl Newman, who had been nowhere near the North Arm Road, was the one to raise the alarm.
Constable Beaumont rang the ambulance and fire brigade, grabbed a medical kit and drove fast down High Street, turning left into the North Arm. Both ambulance and fire brigade were based in Macksville. It would be 20 minutes before they got there. He soon found the car lying in a ditch, its front crumpled. The steer was still alive, and trying to get up on broken legs. Ivan was trapped behind the wheel, but looked unhurt.
“My leg’s stuck. Bloody cow came out of nowhere. Should be a law against cockies who keep dodgy fences.”
Constable Beaumont looked Ivan over carefully for any injuries. He was unharmed. There wasn’t a scratch on him. The fire brigade would have him out in a matter of minutes. He walked over to the steer, took out his pistol, and shot it in cleanly in the head.
Constable Beaumont fingered the four brass rings on his right hand. He never had them on when in uniform, as officers weren’t technically allowed jewellery while on duty. They were, he said, to remind him of family. One for his wife Nicole, and one for each of his baby triplets. He returned to Ivan’s car, pushing each ring down so they were tight on his fingers.
“Heard you’ve been overseas.”
“What?” Ivan shook his head, looking puzzled.
“Italy or somewhere. Isn’t that where you’ve been?
Ivan banged his head against the steering wheel.
“The stupid fucking cow. I can’t believe this. I fucking told her I was going to Roma. As in Roma Queensland.”
Constable Beaumont raised an eyebrow. Ivan didn’t want any cop trouble again.
“Yeah, look: I was visiting my ex and my kids for a holiday, but that’s between you and me, OK?”
Constable Beaumont nodded.
Constable Beaumont was astonished at how upset Anna was when he told her her husband had been injured in a car crash. There’s some people, he thought, that you just can’t help.
“He’s OK, really Anna. There’s nothing to worry about. Lots of cuts and bruises, and is in a bit of shock, but that’s about it. He’ll be out of hospital in a day or two. I can drive you there if you like.”
Anna shook her head and sniffed.
“I’ll go in later when I pick the kids up from school. Someone will give me a lift.”
Constable Beaumont nodded.
Anna didn’t visit Ivan after school, and didn’t even tell her children. They were used to their father disappearing for days, if not weeks, at a time, so asked no questions.
Later that night, she took the last of her dried toadstool, picked up her pebbles, and waited. It didn’t take long. She flew low, just above the treetops, following Wilson Road down the Nambucca towards Macksville. Below her she could see all of Bowraville in the moonlight: Dagmar, her naked skin silvered by the moon, walking up North Arm. Geoff driving his darkened tractor. Jesus, arms outstretched, in front of a large bonfire. Stefan heading for the camphor laurel forest over Christina’s paddocks. Saucepan and Jude arguing by the riverbank. It was all there, so far below her that it all seemed incredibly distant and meaningless. She sighed. She still had to do what she had to do.
It didn’t take long for Anna to find Ivan’s hospital room, on the second storey. She floated outside the window, a hand on her pebbles, and peered in.
Ivan lay alone, the blue from the ceiling-mounted TV flashing on his face. He must have heard her, because he switched the TV off, and looked out the window, straining to see in the dark. Constable Beaumont was right. There were a lot of cuts and bruises, especially around his face. One eye was swollen shut, as if he had been punched.
“Look at you Ivan,” she snorted. “You look like you’ve lost a fight.”
Ivan’s eyes grew wide.
“What? How?” he whispered.
“It’s no more than you deserve. I’m your wife, and I’m going to make sure you remember that.”
Anna took out some pebbles and started lobbing them at Ivan. She didn’t want to injure him, just frighten him. Maybe hurt him a little. She aimed for the legs and arms.
“Ow, shit, please. Can’t you see I’m hurt? For God’s sake you stupid cow.”
“You should drive more carefully.”
“You think I got this from some fucking car accident? Please. Shit. Ow.” Ivan started wailing.
A nurse, hearing the commotion, came into the room and saw Ivan writhing on the bed.
“She’s throwing stones at me. At me!” he wailed, pointing to Anna.
“Ivan, there’s no one here. I’ll get the doctor.”
Anna waited for the nurse to leave before chucking another pebble. It missed its target, hitting Ivan on the temple instead.
“You’ll kill me. What have I ever done to you? Why are you doing this?”
“Think about it Ivan,” Anna said, before allowing the elastic longing of the she-oak forest to draw her back to Bowraville.
Of course, Ivan and Anna never talked about what happened that night. What was there to say? Anna thought it would be pushing her luck to mention it, and the way Ivan talked, you’d think it never happened.
Constable Beaumont didn’t expect his chat with Ivan would have any lasting effect, but did feel justice had been done. If you asked him he’d say, talking in the abstract of course, that it was all a matter of dealing with the recidivist personality. The sociopathic mind had no choice. It came down to Ivan believing he couldn’t help himself. So it wouldn’t be right to say Ivan changed his ways because of his talk with Constable Beaumont, or because of Anna’s pebbles. But sometimes, late at night, listening to the crack of fire embers and the sigh of she-oaks, Ivan sensed Anna about to get up to pour the tea and would offer to pour it himself.
Jamie Derkenne lives in Sydney and has published stories in Birdville, The Quarry and Ragnarok.