Toothpick balanced on his lip, just so. Hair slicked down with practiced precision. But despite the evil eye and air of menace he fancied he gave off, Rachel Duccini couldn’t help but smile. Gerard Marron, for all his sneering attempts at brooding ominousness, reminded her a hell of a lot of the Lollipop Guild Munchkins from The Wizard of Oz. The way he squinted, the pant legs too short to cover his ankles, and the way he had his hands in his pockets, thumbs out pointing at each other across his groin.
For the time being, though, she tried to be Glinda. The Good Witch, smiling inanely as the inhabitants of Munchkinland danced about in exaltation at the death of the Wicked Witch of the East. Had Gerard happened at that moment to step forward and present an oversized lollipop to some bewildered giant girl in a duck-egg blue pinafore, carrying a cairn terrier and a wicker basket, Rachel thought, well that would be just about perfect. When she pictured him stepping away, throwing self-clasping handshakes over his shoulders singing, “Tra-la-la-la-la, la-la-la, la-la-la,” she had to bite the inside of her cheek to stop from snorting.
Then Len Cordy walked through the door and she could almost have sworn she heard someone scream and imagined she saw an explosion of red smoke when he came in.
* * *
“Ya can’t put a price on these kinds of sunny days, Rachel. Life’s so short. And you can’t come back twice, ya know.”
Rachel nodded. Too right, she thought, watching Len finish his cup of tea. Then, with the slightest move of his head, Len made Gerard jump. Gerard pushed himself off the kitchen bench with his backside, hands still in his pockets, and strode over and opened the door. This required the deft repositioning of the toothpick with lips, teeth and tongue. The sneer and squint were gone, however, replaced with a blank look. He’d have to practice the evil eye a bit more, Rachel thought. Doesn’t come naturally. Not like the toothpick.
“Shall we?” Len gestured toward the door. “Shouldn’t leave it too late.” He stood, waiting as Rachel got up from the table. “Least, I wouldn’t if I were you,” he added.
Hang around Len long enough, Rachel thought, Gerard might learn a thing or two. Len has brooding ominousness in buckets. There’s nothing forced about this bloke.
* * *
The levy down in the bush paddock, running in a perfectly straight line east to west astride the boundary of the state forest, has a track along the top, worn bare by generations of cattle and kangaroos. Looking down its length, that straight line – framed by fifty-odd years of grey and black box eucalypt, occasional red gums – has always seemed to Rachel, to go on forever, leading west for eternity. In reality it traverses barely a quarter-mile. Criss-crossed by ‘roos, mudlarks, cockatoos and kookaburras, resounding in bull-ants and bullshit.
“Nice place, isn’t it?” Len remarks as they walk. Gerard trails behind. The impenetrable bush and endless bulrushes and grass-trees through the fence to their right has always been a wilderness too wild to contemplate, the domain of eastern greys and red-bellied blacksnakes. At dusk a million frogs get up an amphibian hullabaloo, and crickets chirp away in a rhythm only they can follow.
All year round the distant throb of the sawmill, a sound felt as much as heard. You never heard it start up in the morning or stop at sunset but noticed when you couldn’t hear it. Rachel thought her favourite time of year here was probably winter. The chugging sawmill in the fresh, crispness of a frosty morning, cows breathing vapour by the steaming irrigation channel, and willy wagtails and blue wrens flitting about on the icy white lawns by the house. But there was something about the sawmill and the sedative buzz of blowflies and moaning crows at the height of Summer too, when emus loped out in the paddocks and spoonbills waded in the channel.
“Yeah. It’s not bad,” says Rachel.
Now the sawmill throbs amid the frantic whining of mosquitoes, which are always bad after rain or when the bush is in flood. Gerard swats and smacks at himself. Rachel knew better, slapped on some Bushman’s before they left the house. There was a mob of kangaroos back past the dam, and flocks of cockatoos, then corellas, and galahs come roaring and screeching out of the bush to block out the sky as they walk. It truly is an enthralling, fascinating place. Such a hypnotising sound-scape. As they approach the lopsided little hut Rachel knows she will miss it all. This will hurt. A lot.
* * *
“Ya got the bags?” Len asks, and Rachel shrugs off her rucksack, crouches to open it and pull out two full plastic blood bags. She hands them up to him and then removes a folder of papers and a plastic lunch-box, zips the bag and stands.
“Remind us to get ya a cuppa tea when we get back, ‘ey,” Len says, a pint of Rachel’s blood in each hand.
“Yeah. Might need it,” Rachel replies, balancing the lunch-box on the folder. She feels light-headed.
Len turns toward the hut. “Gis a hand, Gerard,” he says, and Gerard jumps forward. “Grab that, will ya. Might as well chuck a bit out here too.”
Gerard takes the folder and lunch-box. Unclipping the lunch-box he scatters a few clumps of Rachel’s hair, flakes of skin, fingernail clippings. A muffled thump comes from inside the hut.
“Ya might wanna wait for us back at the house, Rachel. This’ll be pretty rotten,” Len says.
“Yeah, alright,” Rachel says, and she turns and walks away, back along the levy.
It occurs to her that today Gerard seems more like one of the Wicked Witch of the West’s flying monkeys than a larrikin Munchkin. He’s eagerly hopping about with her identity under his arm while he sprinkles bits of her into the dust, and she half expects him to let out an excited screech.
As she walks she thinks of Dorothy, Glinda waving her magic wand around the back of her head, and taking one more look back at Len and Gerard as they step into the hut, she thinks, “There’s no place like home. There’s no place like home. There’s no place like home.”