On the Port Keats Road by Mark Smith
Mark Smith is an educator, writer and surfer (not necessarily in that order) living on Victoria’s West Coast. In the last 12 months he has had stories published in Visible Ink, Offset and Headspring. He has been long-listed for the Fish Prize in Ireland and, most recently, won the EJ Brady Short Story prize for a story entitled Milk For India. (This story was awarded second prize in the FAW National Literary Awards short story category). Unlike every other writer on the planet, he is not working on a novel – or at least he is not telling anyone if he is.
The road ribbons out in front of T-Bone. He looks over the steering wheel and shields his eyes from the sun reflecting off the bonnet. All the straight lines, the metal, the fences, the wire, the hot nights on his bench, all of them behind him now and ahead of him his mother’s country.
Viewed from above, the old Hi-Lux ute is a piece of dull metal pushing slowly west, a vast plume of dust erupting with its passing. After the river crossing the road runs straight for twenty kilometres before it elbows south, corrects itself and heads toward the distant coast. The river curls around behind it like a great snake before it fans out to cover the flood plain. The lush trees and grasses cling to its bank, a green skin slithering between the stony ridges that lead to the dry heart of the continent.
For eight months all T-Bone has thought about is driving west along the Port Keats Road, steering a course between the sharp rocks and the bulldust on the shoulder.
Jimmy sits in the passenger seat of the Hi-Lux. He clings to the handle above the door and braces his body against the constant vibration. The car’s suspension is shot and the column shift is held in fourth by an occy strap that comes up through a hole in the floor. Every now and again he drinks from a water bottle and passes it to his nephew. T-Bone takes it without looking and gulps quick mouthfuls. Occasionally a tourist’s neat and shiny four-wheel drive passes the other way and fills the cabin with dust. T-Bone eases to the side to let them through then guns the ute into the billowing cloud they leave in their wake.
T-Bone is comfortable with distance. He grew up in the back of cars and utes riding high in the hot breeze or swaddled in blankets at night with his brothers, his cousins, his uncles and aunts. His family was always going somewhere. A football match at Adelaide River, a music festival in Darwin or out to shoot geese on Lizzy Downs station. As a child he tried to memorise the road, looking for the washouts and cutaways that spaced themselves between home and Daly River. Each journey threw up a new marker, a burned out wreck, a swath cut through dreaming country by a new pipeline or a turn-off to a camp that only the old women could see. He looked where they pointed, noting the lean of a particular tree or the shape of a termite mound. He found a place for them in the map in his head that slowly filled the gap between what he wanted to know and what the old people knew. Now he marked the stages of his journey home by these landmarks and the memories they held.
Jimmy had barely spoken since he picked up T-Bone in Darwin. He had driven overnight and arrived in the near-empty car park just as the sun crested the walls and caught the wire. Exhausted, he lay down across the seat and fell asleep, covering his face with his hat to cut out some of the light. T-Bone opened the door and stood in the glare. He carried a large duffle bag over one shoulder and smaller bag jammed under his arm. He wedged them behind the seat and tapped his uncle lightly on the leg.
Jimmy didn’t move but spoke from underneath his hat. ‘What kept ya?’
T-Bone smiled, ‘Bin waitin’ long?’
‘Eight months or so,’ Jimmy replied, tilting the hat off his face.
‘Sorry Uncle. Would’ve come out earlier if I’d known.’
‘Still a cheeky bastard then.’
Jimmy sat up and looked at his nephew as he slid in behind the wheel. ‘You put on weight,’ he said before he rested his head against the side column and dropped the hat over his eyes again. He didn’t wake until they were well clear of the city’s outskirts, with only the occasional petrol station to interrupt the monotony of the flat scrubland. The radio was on and T-Bone was driving one-handed, the other hanging out the side window, trailing in the breeze.
‘What was it like in there T?’ Jimmy asked.
T-Bone looked straight out at the road and mouthed the words to the country song that was playing through the one working speaker. He had thoughts for what it was like, but not words. He couldn’t describe how it had emptied him out, broken him open and left him hollow. He wanted to tell his uncle how at first he’d dreamed in colour, the rich green of country after the wet, the dark purple of those big storm heads in the build up, the red and yellow flash of black cockatoos taking off. But slowly the colour had drained away to grey, then nothing. No dreaming, just restless sleep with the sweat trickling off him on to the mattress. He’d spent days at a time in there trying to remember things that didn’t have a place anymore. He couldn’t remember the sound the rain made when it hit the river or how it changed the way it smelled, the way it moved.
‘Food was okay. Three meals a day. Didn’t have to do no cooking,’ he replied.
They stopped at the Daly crossing in the harsh midday light of the dry season. The grey-green river eddied and spilled under the crossing, making its way down under the new bridge that would open up the road right through the wet season. They sat in the shadows up on the high bank and ate the bread and jam they’d bought at the Adelaide River truck stop. T-Bone spread his toes through the coarse sand, burying them up to his ankles. Then he walked down to the water.
‘You watch out for those crocs,’ warned Jimmy.
‘Not worried ‘bout no crocs Uncle,’ he called over his shoulder. ‘They better watch out for me though.’
T-Bone cupped his hands in the water, splashed his face and ran cool fingers through his hair. He was coming into his mother’s country and he wanted his sweat to flow down the river and announce his return, to fan out across the flood plain and let those magpie geese and turtles know he was back. He knew the barramundi would tell his story all the way down to the sea, passing the word on when they rested in the deep billabongs, swimming his name back out into the current where the salt water mixed with the fresh. The water loosened T-Bone’s limbs and quelled a little of the restlessness that had been building in him as his release date had approached. He felt as though he had been holding his breath for weeks. He sat on his haunches and allowed himself a smile only the river could see.
Back in the car they crossed the dry spillway and accelerated up the steep grade on the other side. The country levelled out again and the road broadened, wide enough now for five cars. They passed the turn-off to the mango farm and the fishing camp down river. T-Bone took the tobacco pouch from his shirt pocket and rolled a cigarette one-handed, sealing it with a quick lick of his tongue. He sat it between his lips and pushed the lighter into the dashboard. It sprang out and he lit his cigarette. Seeing a mob of startled wallabies bounding for cover he braced the steering wheel with his knees and, holding an imaginary rifle in his hands, made a cracking sound with his tongue and exhaled smoke from his nostrils.
Jimmy looked at him and smiled. He had forgotten how young his nephew was. T-Bone gave him a sheepish grin and quickly turned away.
‘I forgot all those stories in there Uncle; all those stories Mum told us. Y’know, the ones about the brolga and that old pelican. The turtle and the porcupine. I tried real hard to remember ‘em but I couldn’t. I lost ‘em in there, somewhere in the corners and the walls. I lost ‘em and couldn’t remember ‘em.’
Jimmy looked straight ahead and nodded.
‘You lonely in there T?’ He asked.
‘I felt sick for home the whole time Uncle. Sick for family.’
‘Family missed you the whole time T. Your Mum says you took ‘er heart in there with you. Reckons she hasn’t been able to breathe proper since you been away. She on dialysis now too. Twice a week’
‘She can’t breathe it’s more likely those smokes I reckon. Shouldn’t be smokin’ at her age,’ he said, flicking his cigarette out onto the road.
T-Bone returned his attention to the wheel ruts tracking through the sand and rocks. He thought about the last time he had seen his mother. She had travelled up to Darwin for the court case, slept with the long-grassers and arrived late. He looked for her in the thin crowd but the proceedings began before she got there. He struggled to answer any of the questions because he had no one there to look at. He stared at the floor and said ‘I don’t remember.’ The copper read the charges in a tired voice, his uniform pulling tightly across his belly and his hat on the table in front of him.
T-Bone didn’t hear the sentence but when the guard took him by the arm his mother called out from the back of the room. She spoke in language and the words followed him back down the stairs and into the cells where they got lost in the shouting and noise. ‘You come home now,’ she said. ‘You come home.’
The road flattened out, the blue-green escarpment up towards Emu Plains growing out of the horizon. T-Bone drove with the window open, filling his lungs with the smells of the country. As they approached a track heading off to their left he slowed and pulled the ute to the side of the road.
‘What you doin’ T?’ Jimmy asked.
‘Gotta drop somethin’ off for that Pidji mob. Meet someone here.’ He didn’t know how they would know to be there. It was one thing he’d learned in the last eight months, the things he didn’t need to think about.
He braked slowly and brought the car to a stop, leaving the engine idling. When the dust settled they saw an old man and woman sitting under a yellow-box tree at the side of the track. They waited. The old woman ate from a packet of chips and looked past them to the other side of the road. The old man raised his hand, the palm flat, then tilted it from side to side. ‘What?’ It said.
‘Name T-Bone,’ he called. ‘Got a bag for that Pidji mob. Belongs to the boy who passed on.’
The old man grabbed at a low branch of the yellow-box and climbed to his feet. He stood with his hands in the small of his back and rocked forward a little. He might have been fifty or seventy, his brow covered by a felt hat and his mouth hidden behind a grey beard. He stood there swaying for a while then shuffled over to the car.
‘You got a smoke?’ He asked.
T-Bone handed him his packet of rollies. The old man fumbled with the papers and rolled a thin cigarette. Jimmy and T-Bone watched silently as he took a box of matches out of his pocket, cupped his hands and lit the cigarette. He inhaled and began to cough, leaning over and spitting a lump of phlegm into the dirt.
When he had drawn enough breath to speak he leaned into the car and asked, ‘You know ‘im in there? That boy?’
T-Bone paused, then replied, ‘Sorry Old Man. I didn’t know that boy. The priest, that Father Michael bloke, he give me this bag here and says if I can drop it off for that Pidji mob.’
He reached behind the seat and pulled out the small bag with Adidas written on the side. He passed it through the window to the old man who took it with his right hand and pushed the packet of rollies into his top pocket with his left. He held the bag in his hands for a moment, as though weighing its importance, then walked back, took hold of the low branch of the yellow box to balance himself and dropped it next to the old woman. She undid the zip and emptied the contents into the dirt – a couple of shirts, a pair of black shorts, a bright red and yellow football jumper, a cigarette lighter and a small toiletries bag. She looked back up at Jimmy and T-Bone for a long minute then pushed the items back into the bag, along with her chips and a soft-drink bottle. She reached up and the old man helped her to her feet. Without a word they turned and started walking up the track. The woman hugged the bag to her chest.
T-Bone found first gear and revved the motor. He eased back out onto the road then pushed the accelerator to the floor. He didn’t look in the rear-view mirror.
T-Bone tried not to think about the boy. He had arrived just after the wet started and because they’d known T-Bone’s country was near his they had put them together. The boy had been sentenced to two years for a couple of burglaries in Darwin. They caught him when he found a slab of beer in a garage and rather than carry it away he decided to drink it there. He passed out in the backyard and woke in the police van. All of this T-Bone had drawn out of him over weeks. He was shy around the older boys and T-Bone looked out for him. He’d never had to fight for him but there had been a couple of times he had to make his presence felt. The boy would barely speak during the day but after lights out, in the comfort and safety of the dark, he’d talk about his family and football.
‘I got a big chance being drafted if I wasn’t in ‘ere,’ he said one night. ‘Move down to Adelaide and live with my uncle. He played fifty games with West Torrens. Reckons he could get me start.’
T-Bone had never heard him talk like this. He couldn’t see the boy in the dark but he could hear his foot tapping rhythmically on the end of the bunk.
‘What position you play?’ He asked.
‘Anywhere I can run. I got some pace. My uncle he says I run like a rabbit. Play on the wing most times. Plenty of room to run.’
T-Bone had stayed quiet then. He knew two years inside would kill off any chance of the boy’s dream being realised. The next week he found him in the laundry, with all that dark blood on the stainless steel bench and his clothes soaked in it. He was propped up against the back wall, his arms limp by his side, the gashes along his forearms pulsing blood down over his hands to the floor. At first T-Bone couldn’t look at his face, just the chipped nails on his toes and thick soles of his feet. He didn’t know what else to do so he took his shirt off and started to bind the boy’s wrists. Then he wiped the sticky blood on his shorts and went to raise the alarm.
As they drove further west it seemed to T-Bone that the land was wider than he remembered, the horizon more distant, the sky more blue. In that place the only thing he could be certain of was the sky, the big emptiness of it, but even that ended in coiled wire. He took to standing in the middle of the yard and cupping his hands either side of his face, creating a blue window bordered by skin. Occasionally a bird flew into his hole in the sky, a brown kite or a cockatiel. He would be tempted to follow it but he knew it would end in the wire. So he learned to let them pass through, temporary visitors in his half real, half imagined world. One day at the start of the dry season, T-Bone felt someone standing beside him in the yard. He turned to look at the boy. His hands were cupped at the side of his face and his head was tilted towards the sky. T-Bone couldn’t see his mouth but now, two hundred kilometres away and going home, he liked to think that maybe he was smiling.
With the shuddering and swaying of the Hi Lux along the Port Keats Road, he was putting distance between himself and everything back there, his cell, the concrete, the boy. He felt the grit of dirt between his teeth and saw the dust falling on his skin. He ran his hand along his arm and pushed it into his pores.
High above, a Wedgetail peels off toward the arteries of the Fish River. The Hi Lux is holding sway over the red ribbon road, inching its way closer to the wider expanse of the ocean. The great green snake of the Daly is lost in the haze of heat lifting off the land and filling the air. The word of T-Bone’s return is passing all the way down the river to the sea.