The man had driven for ten hours without a break.
He crossed the border in the early hours and knew that the ocean was somewhere to the east, beyond the bush. He wound the window down out of habit, but wasn’t tired. The peppermint fragrance of the car pleased him, and so did the smell of the bushland, dense and sure of itself. His left hand on the wheel, the fleshy part of the palm, and a cigarette in the other. He’d quit smoking long ago but now seemed a good time to take it up again. In between puffs, he ran his tongue over his bottom lip and in the corner of his mouth could feel a bump starting, just beneath the surface, throbbing with intent.
His father had come from this part of the state. He grew up in a small town beyond the hills to the west, a place of fire and fruit and slang. He wouldn’t have time to visit his father’s birthplace, not now. He smelled wood smoke on the wind. Every now and then he passed crosses or bunches of flowers on the roadside. No houses, just the road stretching on, purple and strange. An hour before dawn, he passed a hitchhiker with a shock of blond hair, almost white. Looking once in the rearview mirror, the man drove on.
He had always loved driving. One of the reasons he’d been so eager to take up a job at the police station was its remoteness, the long roads unreeling endlessly beneath new vehicles, their wheels handling bitumen or corrugated track with equal ease. He loved doing errands in the town, too, waving at the little Aboriginal kids who wandered the streets, leaning out of the window and calling them by name. He knew their mothers and fathers, he knew their fishing spots and hiding spots, which ones were good at footy, which ones were good at school. And he was well-liked, as well-liked as a cop could be. But it wasn’t as easy as he thought it’d be.
Just before dawn, he pulled over at a roadhouse. Red dust blew around his feet as he climbed from the car. A single fuel pump stood sentinel on the concrete. He went to the roadhouse window and looked in. The inside was dimly lit and he could see a dark-haired woman behind the counter. She was sitting upright but he couldn’t tell if she was awake or asleep. He walked in. Confectionery, out-of-date roadmaps and soft drinks: the place was threadbare but immaculate. He went to the counter and coughed. The woman opened her eyes immediately.
‘Morning,’ she said.
‘Morning. How much is a coffee?’
‘Two bucks, darl. Which way did you come from?’
‘North. Sorry to wake you.’
She looked down at his strong hands for a moment and then up at his face. ‘I heard there’s been trouble up north. Real trouble.’
The man scratched behind his ear, then nodded towards a row of mugs on the sink. ‘Black. Extra strong, extra sweet.’
‘No worries, darl.’
He put his wallet and keys on the counter and watched her turn on the kettle and tip coffee into a plunger. She worked quickly and deftly. She brought back a steaming disposable cup of dark coffee. They both looked at it for a while.
‘How was the road?’ she said at last.
‘Long,’ he smiled, ‘just like it’s supposed to be.’
She stared him in the face again, keenly, as if recognising his for the first time. She suddenly spoke with a maternal softness. ‘Been a lot of crashes lately, so be careful, alright darl? If you feel tired, pull over and have a sleep. Not safe to keep going for so long without a break.’
‘Thanks. I will.’
On the edge of the car park the man saw a sand-coloured dog, standing perfectly still with bright eyes. It was so motionless he thought it might be a statue until it blinked. The man went into the bathroom and took a long piss. There were bars on the windows. He looked away and spat against the wall, his saliva trapping a fly that was trying to climb it. The fly was struggling. He reached up tentatively with his fingers and felt the bump blooming on his lower lip. The bump was now the size and shape of a small button. He looked into the polished steel mirror as he washed his hands and saw it, a red and shiny cold sore. When he came out the dog was no longer there. He walked to the car, opened the back door. His stained, crumpled uniform lay on the back seat. He leaned past it, searched in a bag and came up with a CD.
The whole night he had neither been passed by nor overtaken another car. It comforted him that the ocean was so near, and he thought to turn off, but no, the road was enough. As he drove and sang to the music, he thought of high school. He could have played professional football or become a musician. Instead he had chosen service. Service. The word soothed him momentarily.
He was with his father: they were crouching down to watch their pitbull bitch give birth, the creature breathing heavily. ‘Service is different to responsibility, mate,’ his father said. A dark circle gleamed and dilated beneath the bitch’s tail. ‘Service is better, because it is responsibility enacted. Service is what keeps us from going to hell in a bloody handbasket. It greases the cogs of civilised nations, it magnifies each and every one of an individual’s actions.’ A slippery ball fell from the bitch, and writhed in a pile of old towels. ‘But son, don’t ever think that service makes you a servant. Service also goes hand in hand with power.’
He looked up, eyes glittering. The bitch chewed the cord and licked its tiny pup clean. His father’s thin lips had set again, his face withdrawn once more into itself, unreadable. The boy set his lips like his father and repeated the word service in his head as the pup squealed and writhed. Again and again he repeated it, treading through life as a boy, as a teenager, and now as a man, never forgetting the word that went with it, power, tightly restrained power, like water behind a levee. There would be explaining to do, no doubt about that, but the man felt very calm now. He slowly ran his tongue over the hot, blistering sore. Right in the corner, they were always right in the corner.
Pre-dawn was a gradient of blue and rosewater. A single low star sat above the hills to the west, a tandem journeyer that kept pace with him. As he rose over the crest of a hill, he saw a smouldering field below. He couldn’t tell if it had been back-burned or if a bushfire had come through. He slowed down and was mesmerised by the feverland of red and orange and black, a pulsing, maddening colour. He saw what looked like a jewelled black shawl slowly moving from the edge of the field across the road, carrying a ball of light. He stopped the car, leaned forward and observed it: an enormous column of black ants, bearing a clean skull which turned ever so slowly as it went. He got out of the car so he could follow the strange procession with his eyes, watching it pass completely. After a moment, he shook his head vigorously, swearing and fumbling to light a cigarette.
As the man drove on, he considered. Violence was mathematical and certain, black and white. Different to an animal’s, savage and instinctual, a man’s violence was conscious and could contain great ecstasy. It was a right, a warrant, a fact. Like the way a liver cleaves in two over a spine. Like the trapdoor from rapture to fear.
The sun was up, advancing over the hills and coming in white and keen. Not far to go now. As he rounded the corner, he could see the city trembling in the distance. On the edge of town there was a minor traffic jam. He switched on the radio, then immediately switched it off and lit another cigarette. He flicked it out the window and drummed his fingers on the steering wheel. The coldsore throbbed now. The tip of his tongue wet it, pushed at it, pressing into the pain, then easing. He did this again and again. The traffic jam cleared in twenty minutes and he drove on as the sun rose. As he entered the city limits he saw a man by the side of the road with a shock of white-blond hair. He thought it was the same hitchhiker but when he looked back he couldn’t be sure.
There had been too much movement and noise in the humid cell. There were voices yelling, one of them might have been his own. He saw himself moving from afar. He knew the drunk, even liked him. Knew his kids. He was belligerent now, hard to restrain. At the beginning, he had taken his hat off and tried to talk calmly. Suddenly, he wasn’t talking anymore. At first he tried to punch in a way that would leave no bruises, no breaks, but soon he didn’t care, the levee broke and he could not stop himself. When he did stop, he stood breathing for minutes, bewildered. Then he left.
The man arrived at a house in the suburbs as people were leaving for work. He took his bag and uniform out carefully and carried them through the unlocked front door, then walked into the lounge room and put them down. An old man was sitting at a table drinking tea. He did not look surprised to see him, or the stained uniform crumpled over his bag.
‘Tired?’ his father asked.
‘You will be. Better rest up.’
‘Yeah. You want a smoke?’
‘I thought you quit.’
They smoked silently. An old dog walked into the lounge room and nuzzled the man. He ruffled it behind the ears and smiled.
His father spoke. ‘You know they’re rioting already. They’ve burned down the station.’
‘I thought they might,’ said the man.
His father took him by the elbow and with a powerful grip steered him to his old room.
‘Everything is in there, just like it used to be.’
As he lay on his childhood bed, the man felt time tilting him in many directions, like an egg running over a pan. The old dog was curled up at his feet. Every now and again, the dog raised its head with a high tight whine, so he stroked its head and ears to quiet it, to reassure the animal. ‘Everything will be okay, everything will be alright,’ he heard himself whispering. He ran his tongue over his lips and felt the throbbing pain now replaced by something fiercer, searing. The cold sore had cracked and broken open. It was weeping.
The man lay in the clothes he had driven in. The old dog lowered its head and slept and, finally, the man did too.