Edition 14: Bones by Michelle Jager
Mervyn travels along the deserted pathways of life, always looking for an opportunity. On the desert highway, he meets his match and finds that the past is never truly buried. SY
may God have mercy on your soul
It is written on the urinal wall amongst the piss and graffiti in a clear blue print. Written directly next to it is: Bobs a ball licker. And below: for a gud time call Big Titz Sally. A smudged number follows.
Mervyn grins, shakes, and zips up his jeans.
He washes his hands, lathering up with the small dirty-white nub of soap left on the edge of the sink. At least there is soap. Toilets at these outback service stations are lucky to have working taps, let alone soap.
Mervyn wipes his hands on his trousers, checks his reflection in the grimy mirror, fixes his hair and steps out into the blinding sunlight.
Out here in desert-land, he reflects, time seems to have stopped. And not because the people are backward. Not that old cliché. These tiny towns that break up the relentless stretch of nothingness, are as varied and complex as cities. Some of them are laid-back and welcoming, curious about those who come through, open-minded and progressive, while others are hostile and don’t like strangers. And some, well, some don’t give a shit either way. It’s the luck of the draw. So no, it’s not that. It’s more to do with accountability. Out here, time stands still or appears to, because in a way there is a lack of accountability. With all this open space it is hard to monitor and track everyone. You can become a law unto yourself. You can step out of your life, remove yourself from responsibility, do things that no one else need be the wiser to.
Mervyn has been out here a while, stepping out of time for an extended period. Moving, never staying too long in one spot—I’ve been feeling restless, I’m going travelling. A road trip across Australia, that’ll do me.
That’s what he’s told them back home.
Home is a distant memory. Another world. He’s moved in and out of it before, seemingly unchanged. Slipping back into the current—working, partying and then intermittently taking breaks to ‘find’ himself. Do some soul searching. Friends have offered to come along but he’s always declined—I like the freedom, he tells them, I like the down time. The aloneness. It’s good for a bit of self-reflection.
Mervyn takes plenty of photos to show them when he returns, plenty of documentation, mostly done in the first week and the last. Panoramic shots of barren landscape, or close ups of solitary trees with peeling bark or blackened, twisted branches, or dilapidated buildings, abandoned, forgotten. Shots full of light and shadow and texture—Aren’t you artistic, darling? Don’t you just have an eye for that sort of thing? My pet, my sweet boy.
And then there are photos with pretty girls in pubs and bars, beers in hand, their breasts spilling out of their tops. An acceptable, expected pastime for a young man: shagging and boozing—Check out the tits on that one, Merv. Fark me, you did alright. Those Brit chicks are begging for it, hey?
He’s never had a problem talking to girls. He’s never had a problem talking to anyone really. Mervyn is affable, amiable, a laugh, one of the boys—a larrikin. He has an easy smile. Kind eyes.
“You got kind eyes,” a girl had said in one of the pubs, “puppy dog eyes. Aw, bless, I just wanna take you home and take care of you.” She had grabbed her friend, a plump bosomy girl with a laugh like a car backfiring, and pulled Mervyn’s cheeks down.
“Get a look at them eyes,” she said, thrusting him forward for inspection, “Don’t you just wanna eat him up?”
Her friend had pawed at his arms and chest and pinched his bottom before declaring him ‘a bit of alright’.
Girls liked him. Guys liked him. So did old men and old women.
Children did not.
This had surprised Mervyn initially and he tried every trick he could think of to get them on side, even the promise of lollies or toys. But they eyed him warily and stood at a distance often finding excuses to leave the room and escape him entirely. Children were a grey area for Mervyn. His feelings towards them were ambivalent; they did not excite or interest him. But their dislike of him was irritating. It made him think that people would suspect him a fraud. Not really the nice guy they imagined. Animals were not fond of him either. But he attributed this to his fear of them. Or at least this is what he told others.
One girl he had dated back home, her dog had nipped him. Sidling up from behind, sneaky thing that it was, it had darted in while he was sitting with the girl, watching TV. Its teeth had only grazed his hand for he had pulled away quick in fright. But the bloody thing had still drawn blood. The girl apologised repeatedly, astonished, for the dog had never done that before.
“She’s such a gentle thing normally,” she told him earnestly as she locked the dog outside.
Mervyn had smiled, told her not to worry, but all the while he waited for the girl’s manner to change. And there was something, he was sure of it, a look that was more guarded, a stiffness in the way she moved. Something. He was sure. Mervyn had stopped seeing her after that and she had sounded surprised, even hurt, on the phone. But he couldn’t be sure; she could just have been putting it on. People are like that, he thought, they say and do what is expected of them when they are thinking just the opposite.
A buzzer sounds as he walks into the service station. It is a small compact space. The walls are covered with the usual bags of lollies, hats, sunglasses, and toothbrushes. And then, nestled amongst them, surprise items like haemorrhoid cream, shoe polish and gang bandanas. There are two sets of shelves in the middle of the room and a rack of magazines by the door. Amongst them are a few titty mags brazenly on display. Some of them look as if they are straight out of the seventies with bush visible on the cover. He smiles: perhaps time really has stopped?
Mervyn grabs a bag of Burger Rings, a Mars Bar and a litre of Coke. At the counter there is a glass cabinet with a variety of dubious looking sandwiches, meat pies, chiko rolls and deep fried chicken wings to choose from. There are also some squashed lamingtons—pink and brown—which might be a safer, salmonella-free option.
The man behind the counter watches Mervyn steadily as he tries to make a decision. He is a burly man, with a gut that implies he has tackled many of these delicacies and survived. His moustache is no less impressive than his massive paunch: a dark handlebar affair, it takes up a large quantity of his face. The blue wife-beater singlet and faded tattoos are the final, brilliant strokes on this masterpiece of a man. He is like one of those guys out of the movies. Off of the news: a shady-looking photograph of his face appearing alongside the names and photos of countless missing backpackers. He is just how you picture them in outback Australia.
Mervyn imagines some of those Brit girls he’s met along the way, coming in here and shitting themselves over this guy. Huddling together and whispering loudly about ‘Wolf Creek’ and ‘Ivan Milat’ before buying the Tim Tams they are so fond of with the rest of their crap and quickly legging it out the door, laughing and grabbing at one another over their lucky escape.
Mervyn smiles to himself and asks for a lamington.
The man behind the counter says, “Pink or brown?”
“Surprise me,” says Mervyn. And to his surprise Handlebars’ face breaks into a smile, and a warm one at that.
“Gotta be a pink one for a pretty boy like you,” he says grabbing the soft spongy cake with a hairy paw and shoving it into a bag. “Bet you don’t have any problems with the sheilas.”
Mervyn smiles back and hands over a note, “Not any that I can complain about it.”
“Where ya headed, mate?” the man asks.
“Here and there. Wherever the road takes me,” says Mervyn.
Handlebars laughs. “Bloody good, that’s what I like to hear. I travelled a lot when I was your age and never did any planning. That’s the best way. The only way, if you ask me. Presents opportunities that you might’a otherwise missed.”
“That’s what I reckon,” Mervyn says nodding in agreement and grabbing his change.
“Although,” says the man, fondling his moustache, “maybe I missed a few of the better ones seeing as I ended up here, stuck behind this counter, serving you.”
Mervyn smiles. “Could be worse. You could be dead.”
“Could be dead,” the man chuckles and shakes his head. “Cheeky bugger, not sure that would be worse. But that’s life, hey?” He sighs and looks beyond Mervyn to the doors, “Well, have a good one, mate.”
The buzzer sounds.
A girl is standing in the doorway when Mervyn turns to leave. She is small and thin and angular. Her head is shaved which accentuates the dark smudged look of her eyes and the sharp lines of her face. She is wearing a black singlet, army pants and heavy boots. As Mervyn walks passed her, he notices how soft her skin looks, how touchable, in contrast to her attire. He looks back as he walks out the door and sees, starting from the shadow of her hairline, a tattoo that appears to cover her back though it is only partially exposed. It is a tattoo of bones; a delicate map of the spine and ribs; an exoskeleton imprinted on her flesh. Even with the breathless heat of the day, it sends a shiver through him.
Mervyn loves bones. Loves the different shapes and sizes. Loves when they are clean of meat and sinew, how pretty they look. How they can be put together like a puzzle to make something bigger. How they are what is left when everything is over. Bones buried all over the landscape: a little piece of you here, a little piece of you there. Imagine if they dug up the whole of Australia, the whole of this place they so casually refer to as ‘The Outback’. Imagine what they would find. How many bones? How many pieces of puzzles thought forever lost would be revealed, naked and gleaming in that harsh white glare?
Mervyn throws the food and Coke on the passenger seat of his car and then goes around to the boot. He pretends to check things as he keeps one eye on the door of the service station. The girl comes out moments later and hops into a ute. As she starts it up music blares out: AC/DC’s ‘Thunder’.
Mervyn grins. This is one angry girl, he thinks. Probably a leso. He might have to use a different approach with this one. But he’s unperturbed. He likes a challenge.
He waits a moment and then takes off after her. He stays at a distance but it is not uncommon for cars to follow each other for miles and miles out here.
After driving for an hour Mervyn has lost her. He doesn’t know how, can’t believe it. True he had hung back but he always had her in sight—and how can you lose a car like that when it’s so flat out here? So bare. It’s the sun, he thinks. The sun plays games. Blurs lines. Creates chasms.
He had watched the midday sun turn the horizon into an oily oasis. The ute had passed into it and winking out of sight once, twice, it had disappeared; swallowed up and presumably regurgitated somewhere out of sight. Out of his line of vision. You could almost believe in UFOs and all that weird shit when you were out here.
Whatever had happened, he was cursing himself. Maybe he would find her in the next town. Maybe not.
It is now that he notices the silence. It creeps out of nowhere, filling the spaces in his mind, getting inside him. In his bones. In his flesh. The sweetmeats inside. It lingers and worms its way in and through, burrowing. He can feel it on the tip of his tongue, behind his eyes, this sudden emptiness.
Strange, he thinks, strange how you can hear things in the silence.
Echoes. They resonate in those hollow spaces. They get louder.
He turns on the radio. Static, broken intermittently by a word or two from a song, blares out making him jump. He fiddles around with the stations and having no luck, puts a CD in.
With eyes on the road, Mervyn reaches over and grabs a bag of chips. Steering with his knees, he opens it and begins to eat. He’s famished: all that chasing, particularly without pay off, is hungry work. He knows that once he has finished the packet the hunger will still be there. Will still gnaw at him. It is, after all, a hunger that can’t be satiated by chips, no matter how tasty.
He remembers reading about internet porn and how men with previously healthy sexual fantasies and desires would become dissatisfied with run of the mill offerings and turn to more and more perverse scenarios to get off. Something to do with the porn stimulating the desire for sex in the brain but never providing the required gratification. They became immune. Normal sex was no longer adequate—the internet provided them with the tools to seek out new pleasures but not fulfil them.
Space, he thinks, that’s what people need, space to be themselves. He looks out at the vast, unending scape before him and smiles: an old and trusted friend. Like a best man at a buck’s party, it provides the forbidden and keeps the secrets, too.
Up ahead in the rippling haze, he can see something. A white shape with a smaller darker shape moving about beside it.
The girl and her ute.
She sticks out her hand as he drives up and he pulls over in front.
Walking up, he can see that she is pissed off. Her mouth is a hard, angry line. She flicks her head in a sulky gesture of acknowledgement.
“Got any jump leads?” she asks nodding towards his car.
He does but where’s the fun in that?
“No, sorry, I don’t.”
“Shit,” she says, and kicks one of the tires. “Piece of junk battery. Pulled over for a bit and now it won’t start. Can you give us a lift?”
“Sure,” he smiles. “Take you to the next town, shall I?”
Looking at her close up, taking her in in a way he could not before without being obvious, he can see that while she is small, she is also muscular. Ready to spring. But this is of no consequence really, for he is larger, stronger, prepared. Besides, he likes a challenge.
“Thanks, I appreciate it,” she says, “I’ll just grab my stuff.”
“Need any help?”
Mervyn turns and walks back to his car wondering how he should play this. Should he just drive her out somewhere and start from there? Or is it best to knock her out straight away? Perhaps he could slip something into the Coke and offer it to her—no mess that way. But not much fun either.
Lost in thought, he does not hear as she slips up behind, smooth and sneaky as a snake in sand. It is only the shadow that gives her away and by then it is too late. He sees the silhouette of the club-lock coming down, fast and hard.
She hits him once. Twice.
Mervyn wakes and does not know where he is. For a moment he does not know who he is, there are so many voices echoing in his mind. The voices subside, only to be replaced by a painful throbbing and the awful knowledge that he is hanging by his arms. He wriggles but the chains are tight. Chains, he thinks, just like the movies. His vision is blurred but slowly his surroundings come into focus. A room with bare wood walls; abandoned by the looks of it. Everything is covered in a fine layer of cobwebs and dust. The former catches and sparkles in the faint light from windows covered with thin sheets. There is a chair in the middle of the floor, on its side like a fallen animal.
And there is the girl.
She sits in the far corner of the room away from him. She does not look at him, seems not to even notice his existence as he wriggles about. This is a joke. He feels like he has been placed into a movie but the casting is wrong. He should not be chained up. He should be where she is.
Mervyn is not scared, just confused. The girl must be confused, too. Why would she just sit there not doing anything otherwise? From where he is she looks, for a moment, like someone else. Perhaps it’s because he is seeing her in profile—the nose, the jut of her chin, seem familiar.
“Oi!” He yells at her, “Let me down.”
Still she takes no notice. He twists and his wrists rub painfully against the metal of the manacles.
“Look, if you let me go, we can just forget about this. Pretend like it never happened.”
The girl turns her head at this. It is a strange movement, almost alien in its execution: head cocked to one side at an odd angle. Listening. Watching. She does not speak and the rest of her body remains completely still. Go on, she seems to say, persuade me.
He is looking at her now, like this, and wondering—she? Maybe I have been mistaken. The face, the body, seem suddenly masculine. The lips smile and Mervyn gasps, yelps and closes his eyes. That smile, that face—it cannot be. The boy. The only boy. A year ago it was. He cannot have been more than sixteen. A runaway. The soft lisp, stooped shoulders, and those eyes: scared at first, warming only when Mervyn had taken him under his wing. Acted the big brother, even flirted with him a little. He had all but forgotten the boy.
They are all forgotten in a way. They are all just bones in the end.
Mervyn opens his eyes and the girl is standing now. Facing him. Yes, the girl. He can see small breasts swell beneath her singlet.
“People will see my car out there on the road,” he stammers, “They’ll see it and come looking. My friends, family, they know I’m out here.”
Lines from a script. Clichéd. Hollow sounding. And even as he says them, he thinks: futile. Because where is here? Here is such a vague place when it covers so much ground. He doesn’t even know where he is. Here could be anywhere.
The girl is coming towards him with a slow, easy gait. Her shoulders are back making her seem stronger, taller. Mervyn starts to swing and kick—maybe he can pull the ceiling down? The place looks ready to collapse, anyway.
“Do you like my tattoo?” asks the girl.
Stunned, Mervyn stops. Perhaps she’s just some kinky bitch and this is one of her sex games.
“Ye-eah,” he stammers. Not knowing what else to say or do.
He is just hanging there now as she stands in front of him, her face level with his. Sweat runs down his back, his shirt is sticking to him, he is thirsty, his mouth dry. Only now that they are looking at one another directly does he notice the heat. It is like an oven. He’s surprised that the whole place doesn’t just burst into flame.
Mervyn tries to smile. Tries to make it charming. Up close, he can’t believe he had mistaken her for a boy. There is something very sensual about her eyes and mouth, about the way they fit in with the sharp cheek bones and jaw line. His brow creases, her skin is much darker than he realised. He wonders if she is Indian or Sri Lankan. He has met a few out here, making their way to the big rock in the middle and beyond. She leans in close and licks her lips. Her teeth are slightly yellow like paper that has become discoloured with age. He feels her breath on his face and with it the faintest hint of something he can’t quite put his finger on, something familiar. Damp earth, he thinks, earth after it has rained or been freshly turned. Yes, that is the only way to describe it. Not unpleasant, sweet actually, but unexpected. He looks into her large, dark eyes and—the face changes. It darkens. The lips seem fuller, eyes wider. A known face. He gasps, can’t help it, as he is confronted with the image of an Indian girl. A girl he met, picked up, two years ago. He remembers the pleas of her distraught parents on the news. They had begged for any information on their daughter, an international student, a girl in her final year of medical school. Their desperation had repulsed him. Such an overwrought display in public. Have some self-respect, he thought.
Now, looking at her, this girl he thought was dead, Mervyn wonders, how many lives, how many countries and continents have I inadvertently touched?
The girl’s smile widens and her head flicks back like a cobra striking at its prey. Bone meets bone as she shatters his nose with her skull.
When Mervyn wakes this time it is to darkness. It is to a desert-cold night. It is to pain. He is shivering, the sweat has dried on his body and he is freezing. His face is swollen and sticky with blood. His mouth is dry and he is thirsty, so thirsty he could cry. In fact, he realises, he already is. His own sobs, alien at first to his ears, echo around him and for the first time in many years, he is scared.
A flame flickers, warm and yellow, illuminating the girl’s face as she lights a cigarette. Crouched in what he thinks is the same place as before, she takes a drag and blows out smoke with a sigh. The act and the sound are so human that he feels oddly reassured. People smoke, flesh and blood people, not phantoms. Not the dead. The faces, his memories of her changing, must have been a result of dehydration and the blow to the head. He watches her, the motion of hand to mouth, hypnotic and soothing, only broken when she pauses and makes a deep guttural noise in her throat. The girl turns her head towards him, looks straight in his eyes, and spits. One final drag and she flicks the butt. Sparks fly in the air and she is swallowed up from sight.
Mervyn holds his breath and listens. All he can hear is the sound of his heart and he wills it to be quiet as he strains to hear the girl, although he is not sure what would be more reassuring—the sound of her movement or silence.
Moonlight, soft and silvery, gleams through the cloth over the windows. Everything is still. There is no sound, no movement. Am I alone, he wonders, alone to starve and rot?
And then, from the shadows, something rises in front of the window—the silhouette is all wrong, the shoulders too thin, the head too angular. For one horrifying second as his brain catches up with the image and the light outside disappears, he thinks: where is the nose?
Panic stricken, he thrashes in the dark, flings himself around. Now he can hear movement, something is making its way across the floor towards him.
The flame appears beneath the girl’s face—blue eyes, fine features and fair brows. Darkness. Light again and closer this time, the face of an older woman: the skin pinched around the mouth and eyes, the cheeks hollowed. Dark. Light. Faces. Changing faces, coming towards him. He begins to laugh.
“Fuck you,” he cries out as he laughs. “Fuck you all. You are nothing. You are bones.”
Nothing but bones and memories, he thinks, swinging back and forth. No substance, just a trick of the mind.
The light stops. The sounds stop. Mervyn stops. The urge to vomit from hunger and exhaustion comes over him but he just hangs there, unable to do anything else.
Then, by his ear, he feels it. Hears it. Breathing. In and out. Rasping breaths. In and out. Tickling his ear. Dank like mildew. Like mouldy leaves, wet and sopping. He gags but he is too dry, too empty, to bring anything up, not even spit.
And then, one long, slow, quivering intake of air. And with its release, a voice.
“You like our tattoo. You like our bones.”
Not a question this time.
Something moves in the darkness and touches the back of his neck. And Mervyn feels them on his flesh. Cold, bony fingers pulling at him. Pinching at first, and then starting to scratch. To tear.
And amongst his screams, Mervyn hears a whisper, alien and yet achingly familiar—“And now, we’d like to see yours.”
Michelle Jager is currently undertaking a Master of Philosophy in creative writing at the University of Adelaide. Her story ‘Jar Baby’ was published in Midnight Echo Issue 8, and she has two due to appear in the Paroxysm Press anthology, 100 Lightnings.