The Drifter Chapter 1

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When Cate Christie had left the city, she had known it wasn’t going to be for good. And when she drove her tiny car through the vast, open paddocks of wheat and sheep, she knew that she wasn’t going to stay. That this was just temporary. And she knew that, no matter the distance between her and the bright, shining lights of the city, Brigit was still dead, and that she was going to be dead forever.

Cate didn’t belong in the country and neither did Brigit. It was dusty and dying; the old season had finished, and the new one had yet to begin. This was a barren time: the pasture was gone, the stubble from the last crop was trampled into the ground, and the galahs were shrieking about the heat from the trees. Cate found the farm held few childhood memories for her as she pulled up to the old house, which seemed to have slumped into the garden. She turned off the ignition and felt the stillness push in through the car windows. She sat for a moment, gazing about at the house, at the yellowing plants, listening to the sound of corrugated iron scratching against the side of the empty mudbrick house her great-grandfather had built long ago.

She sighed, let her hand pause reluctantly on the car door handle, then yanked it open and got out. She grabbed the box of groceries she’d picked up at the co-op in town, headed down the path to the front door, and knocked.

There was nothing at first, then came the sound of movement and shuffling. She waited quietly, hoping her great-aunt would see what everyone saw: a girl who was full of life and fun, not the brittle, faded creature she had become since the funeral.

Cate moved impatiently from foot to foot in the vanishing day, and thought she could hear a radio playing, then, eventually her great-aunt’s voice singing out, ‘Just a minute!’

She sounded older than Cate remembered. Of course she did. Cate hadn’t seen her in a few years; it had become difficult for Ida to get to Perth, and it had been way too hard for Cate to go bush. Until now.

The door opened and Cate smiled bravely. Ida looked momentarily confused, her short white hair pushed back hastily from her face. She was a small woman, plump and practical. She was wearing a washed-out blue house dress, which looked like it had seen better years. Her eyes were a faded grey, and the skin around them was fragile and loose. She glanced over Cate’s shoulder as if there would be someone there, holding up a clue as to who she was.

‘Aunty Ida. It’s me, Cate,’ she explained through her teeth. ‘Derek’s girl,’ she added, for clarity. ‘Remember I said I was coming to stay for a while?’

Ida looked blank.

‘And you said that sounded nice?’

Ida nodded slowly, as if she was willing to believe anything. ‘Oh! How nice! I must’ve gotten my dates mixed up, that’s all!’ She gestured into the house. ‘Sorry it’s such a mess, dear. I’ve been a bit ill these last few days and I haven’t . . .’ She drifted off into silence for a moment and busied herself shutting the door against the warm air, which was trying to find its way into the lounge. ‘Come in, dear.’

Cate followed her through the dark house to the kitchen, where she dropped her box on the dining table and kissed her aunt, who seemed to be warming to the situation by the moment. ‘Sure is warm out here,’ she said.

Ida nodded. ‘Oh, yes. We’ve had our share of scorchers, that’s for sure. I keep the place closed most of the time to keep out the heat, then open the doors at night to let in the cool air.’ She glanced about. ‘I’m afraid it doesn’t leave me with enough energy to tidy the house,’ she said apologetically. ‘I’m sorry you’ve found me in such a muddle.’

Cate waved her hand. ‘Don’t worry about that. You should see my place – shocking! Clothes everywhere, old cups of coffee, makeup. It’s –’ she hesitated – ‘a real dump.’

‘Well. Tea?’ her great-aunt asked, moving towards the kettle.

‘Ah, no. I don’t really do tea. Never saw the point.’ She grabbed a glass and surreptitiously gave it a good rinse under the tap. ‘A glass of water will do me. But you sit down. I’ll get you a cup and we’ll have a catch-up.’

Her aunt looked pleased. It was never too hot for tea.

 

The house was a mess. As she finally made her way to a spare room, Cate tried to keep from gazing about in panic. There were newspapers piled up from years ago, and it looked like masses of them had never been read. There were layers of dust across everything, and endless pieces of detritus cluttering the rooms and the long central hallway. The windows were grey with dirt, and piles of junk she presumed belonged to her dead Uncle Jack still stood like monoliths in the laundry and spare room. Her aunt bustled behind her.

‘Here it is, dear,’ she announced. ‘We’ll get some of the clutter out and you’ll be very comfortable, I can promise you that.’

‘It looks perfect, Aunty Ida,’ Cate said. ‘It won’t take a sec to straighten out a bit of space.’ She dumped her bag on the old bed and turned. ‘Then I can give you a hand sorting out the rest of the house. It’ll be fun,’ she added hopefully.

Ida looked somewhat taken aback. ‘Oh. I wouldn’t want to put you out, dear. I’m very happy with everything just as it is. Don’t bother mucking about with my bits and pieces. I know where everything is.’

Cate nodded. ‘Of course you do . . . but I’m kind of at a loose end and I guess I’m looking for something to do. Would you mind if I had a look through all your lovely things with you? I find old stuff fascinating,’ she assured her.

She didn’t really. She found much more pleasure in new, glittering things, like perfume bottles, shiny fingernails and the sparkles in champagne when the cork was popped and the party was set free. But whatever it took. Something had changed a month ago, and the bitterness wouldn’t seem to leave her, as if her life was a poorly trained lapdog, and now it kept nipping at her face and crapping on her carpets. She’d had to leave, for a while, to breathe, to pretend she had some kind of control over her life, and that she wasn’t a bad person. That she wasn’t the worst person.

After her aunt had gone, she delved into her bag for her clothes and piled them onto the dusty dressing table. A couple of old Avon bottles fell over and clattered together for a moment. She picked them up and inspected them, then opened the top drawer, in case she could shove them inside. She couldn’t. The top drawer was where old toiletries went to die. She leaned down and peered at the labels. Most of the stuff she saw wasn’t even being produced anymore, and it had a stale lavender scent that was making her gag. She tried the second drawer, pushed aside a pile of kangaroo-themed table napkins and squashed her stuff into the remaining space. As she stared blankly at her designer T-shirts, skinny jeans and lingerie she decided it really didn’t look like it would fit in, and she knew exactly how it felt.

 

The end of the day was welcome, bringing with it relief and melancholy. Cate wandered outside to hear the galahs down in the bush shrieking in the warm air, and to watch a line of sheep heading to the dam, kicking up small tufts of dust under their sharp hooves.

When the sun was gone and the light slowly turned grey, Cate saw the lights go on in the kitchen and heard her aunt open the doors to the evening air. Something touched her leg and she jumped. Glancing down, she saw the smiling face of a border collie looking up at her expectantly.

‘Hello, Mac,’ she whispered, dropping to her knees. ‘Of course I remember you. Where have you been on a hot day like this?’

He seemed to glance over to the machinery shed, or at the tumbling-down mudbrick house. She guessed there was a deep, cool ditch dug there for an old dog to doze away the heat. He was probably in and out of the dam all day. She rubbed his fur, and together they walked to the lights of home and out of the darkened sky.

 

Cate whipped up a couple of very respectable omelettes for dinner.

‘Dinner’s nearly ready, Aunty Ida,’ she announced.

Her aunt smiled. ‘Smells delicious, dear. Shall we watch the news?’ Cate nodded. ‘Sure.’

They settled in the lounge room together. Her omelette was pretty good, Cate had to admit to herself. She’d had a roommate once who’d worked in a popular café, and he’d shown her how to cook eggs. She had treated many hangovers with his egg recipes ever since.

As she gazed about the room, she could still see plenty of reminders of her great-uncle Jack. She recognised his chair still sitting in the corner, and his golf clubs behind the door. The bookshelf was filled with books on the Second World War and animal husbandry, and she could see the battered banjo he had played for her on the back step when she was a child. She glanced back at her aunt, watching the news peacefully, surrounded by the years of clutter. Her eyesight must have been failing now, because she squinted occasionally at the screen and eyed the floor with distrust as she stood to head to the kitchen to make tea.

‘Tea, Aunty Ida?’ Cate asked, leaping to her feet.

Ida paused. ‘Yes please, dear. How kind of you to offer.’ She slipped back down into her chair, and Cate collected their plates and headed for the kitchen.

 

Her bed was awful. Really awful, and she’d passed out in some fairly uncomfortable places in her time. She pulled off the sheets and slept on the mattress cover, with the window and the curtain open to catch any breath of air. After midnight she heard her aunt shuffling down the corridor to the toilet, then to the kitchen. The kettle went on, and the radio. She lay still and willed herself to fall asleep again. It didn’t happen. There was a quiz on the ABC. A truckie from Wagga Wagga was doing rather well. Cate found herself answering questions: Maundy Thursday. Bob Hawke. Independence Day. A Room with a View. She groaned and shoved her head under the pillow.

In the stillness, her mind had time to go visiting, and Brigit was there, opening the door, holding a cocktail she had just invented.

Hey, Cate, check this out! It’s got persimmons in it! Persimmons and three different types of alcohol! Cate, come on! It’s only midnight. Don’t be a bore – let’s get a drink at The Apple Grove!

Her laugh was there still, in Cate’s ears, like a tiny echo. Cate rolled over. Brigit was gone. And Cate hadn’t come all this way to find her; she had come to leave her behind. She was going to sort herself out, somehow, to make sense of it all.

She rolled again in the stale bed as the radio was switched off, the final question unanswered. Her great-aunt shuffled down the corridor to rest at last, and a small light flickered to life over in the abandoned mudbrick house.

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