Old Orphan Creek

Up here, the cold permeates. It presses against you and breathes itself back in. You like the way it stings your fingers, how every inch of your body is forced to feel. Arterial, the roads pulse you along, each town you pass fleeting and unacknowledged. You think that every place must have a road named Station Street. You cross Old Orphan Creek. The air is thinner than you’re used to.

It’s evening when you pull in. Your headlights cut through the mist, tyres grinding the gravel. You sit in the car, unmoving, as it ticks and cools around you. You don’t know for how long.

The house is set back from the road, a thick garden shadowy around it. It has wide verandahs and wood damp with rot. Knobbly carpet, worn along the common tracks. The house breathes around you. You feel exposed, somehow, as you pad your way to your small bedroom; you see no other people but can feel their presence here. The house is silent. The house is musky. You clutch against your chest the scratchy towel and tiny bar of soap the receptionist has handed you.

You stand under the shower for far too long, your mind beautifully blank. Step out, and steam flounces around your body. It melts quickly, and you watch your reflection emerge, rippled with distortions, in the pockmarked mirror. Goosebumps on your belly, on your breasts. You didn’t lose anything. Nothing will change. You sleep deeply, even though you aren’t expecting to sleep at all.

Morning, and you walk through the wide streets of the town: steep stone kerbs and rows of shrivelled trees, all of that sky. There’s frost on the windshields of cars, wet air. You’re shivering. In the lit-up shop windows you can see the cashiers chatting, sipping from oversized mugs that steam; the occasional fat cat, proprietorial over a heater.

An op shop on the corner, and the woman at its counter smiles crinkly as you enter. Her face is powdery. She doesn’t say a word, small mercy, and the shop is otherwise unpeopled. Just an overcrowded press of bric-a-brac and china, rocky landscapes painted on rough canvases. You brush against a clothes rack. Imagine this boat-necked dress abandoned on a bedroom floor, how it might slither off the skin, a finger run across the clavicles that it had left exposed, all night. This coat, woven from a thicker wool than you are used to. Up here that would make a difference. You don’t want anything to make a difference.

The woman at the counter knits quietly. Something tiny, palest yellow. She drops a stitch, and swears.

A man unloads flowers from a van; they slap plumply on the ground. There’s a streak of pollen underneath his cheekbone. Tulips, maybe. Bulbs, at least. Something that loves the cold, that lies for months, latent, beneath the soil. You don’t know what you’re doing here. You know you had to leave. You walk. You walk until the town gives way again to bushland.

The track, despite your gripless shoes. Damp earth that holds your footprints, however slightly. Hard yellow flowers on a spiny shrub, and bracken fern. You hear a distant waterfall, and its tumbling sounds like excavation, those grinders that have been tunnelling beneath your house for weeks now, making way for a new ring road. That hollowness unseen beneath your feet but growing bigger by the day. The track slopes downwards, and the sky is lowering too. You feel the cliffs growing taller above you.

You pass thickets of thick-skinned banksias with their blank-eyed seedpods. A rocky outcrop off the path, worn away along the windward side into an overhang. It looks almost like a cave, and you know you shouldn’t leave the track, but you can’t help but climb beneath it, sit inside. You still there, breathe there. There’s water on your face. You rub it away.

The waitress looks you in the eye and it is disconcerting. A table by the fireplace, and she brings you soup, ladled from a tureen as round and heavy as her belly, a slice of buttered bread thick as a dictionary. You watch her as she navigates the tables. You watch her face, but she gives nothing away. Behind the till she stretches, arcing, her hands pressed into the small of her back. The soup scalds your tongue. You watch her as she stops to chat at a table with a woman in a striped cardigan, her pinned-back hair streaked with grey. The woman pats the waitress on the belly and you see her grimace, though she hides it right away.

You’re tired already, bone-tired, but you feel yourself propelled still, this momentum that you don’t quite understand. You walk back to the house, your feet so cold they feel like they are burning. You tell yourself to rest. Strip off your clothes and lie there, still, on top of the pink bedspread. You stand, you open both the windows to the cold air, you want to feel it. You can feel it. Your skin, and everything that it remembers, that it can imagine, long for. You haven’t lost anything. You ache. A bird chitters in the garden, somewhere.

Your car protests when you turn the key, once, twice. But the engine catches, it always catches; you run the windshield wipers to clear the dew. An empty cup of service station coffee still in the console beside you. Your phone charger, unplugged. You’ll see how far you get today, further in and further on. Another unfamiliar bed, another town. You know you’ll turn around eventually. You know you have to, just not yet. 

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on June 12, 2021 as "Old Orphan Creek".

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