Millie found her sister hunched over the grill, poking the narrow end of a wooden spoon into a length of hosepipe fitted to the end of the grease tray. The diner was empty except for Peter Hewler. He sat over his steak watching a cowboy movie on the little television mounted on the far wall.
‘Chelsea,’ Millie called, loud enough for only her sister to hear. Chelsea heard her, but kept working to unblock whatever was lodged in the hose.
‘I told you not to bother,’ she said.
‘I came to walk you home.’
‘I know,’ said her older sister, straightening. She tossed the wooden spoon across the kitchen into a pair of steel wash tubs, hefted a bucket of scummy water with both hands. ‘Now get out of the way, Big Woman.’
Chelsea waddled towards the screen door where Millie stood. Millie held the door in, pressed herself flat against the passionfruit vine climbing up beside the doorway. Watched Chelsea edge by and carefully descend the two steps at the end of the concrete landing. The scum splashed over the brim of the bucket onto the toe of Chelsea’s white running shoe. Her sister cursed, splayed her feet wider and set off crab-like for the end of the yard.
‘I can help,’ Millie said, tagging after her.
‘Go away,’ her sister huffed. ‘Go home.’
‘You’ll scald your foot if it gets inside your shoe,’ said Millie. ‘I can take this side of the handle.’
After they’d emptied the bucket against the same gnarled pepper tree as the previous day, Chelsea returned to the kitchen to sweep the floor. Millie crossed the yard, scattered three crows from the picnic tables.
She watched Peter Hewler climb down the front steps of the diner with a lit cigarette in his hand to stand by the roadside, gazing up and down the old highway. He wore the same grey coveralls he always wore, opened to reveal a silver neck chain and his bare chest. The coveralls made no sense to Millie. He wasn’t a mechanic. He’d closed down that side of the business when he paid out Blaze Driscoll. But Chelsea said the customers liked to think it was still a working garage – part of the charm that got them in from the new bypass. So every day Peter Hewler got dressed up in his costume and slid open the big wooden door to the workshop where everything was covered in as much dust as grease.
George Riley said Peter wasn’t right. Right before he barred him from the tavern. And Millie was certain she knew why. Peter Hewler drank too much and he drank too quickly. And when he drank he became so smart he sneered at whoever he was drinking with. Sometimes he’d drink until he dribbled on himself. And then he’d keep drinking.
But after Riley barred him, Peter got a deal with one of the bus lines. Next thing he was hiring people to work in the diner. He opened longer hours. Offered late night and early morning shifts. Hired more and more local girls. Then he was hiring their boyfriends and husbands to fix the roof and do his gardening.
‘Hey, Big Woman!’ Chelsea called. She’d changed out of her white work tunic into tight black jeans and a t-shirt that kept slipping off her bare left shoulder. Her straight mousy hair was loose, getting in her eyes as she walked. Millie hopped off the picnic table to meet her.
‘You seen Pete about?’
Millie pointed at Peter Hewler standing beside the empty roadside, sucking hard on his cigarette and now staring vacantly at the sunlight flaring off a pale granite bluff high on the eastern ridge.
‘Peter!’ Chelsea called out and when he turned Millie saw he had a glass flask in his other hand.
‘I’m heading home,’ her sister told him.
Peter raised the bottle in appreciation, staggered back half a pace as he took a steady swallow from it.
They crossed a derelict paddock without a word, Chelsea leading the way and treading heavily to ward off any snakes while Millie plodded behind nurturing her suspicions of Peter Hewler. The sun glowered fiercely in the western sky and both girls were relieved when they reached the shade of camphor trees lining the riverbank. They paused for a few moments to cool off. Dry brush crackled deep inside the lantana thickets. Cicadas thrummed. Mullet slopped in the river.
When they started along the shaded track towards Boundary again, Millie began to mock her older sister’s walk. She squared her shoulders, dipped them absurdly. And then exaggerated the seesaw motion of Chelsea’s hips. She giggled so loud her big sister caught her.
‘Why are you walking like that, Big Woman?’
‘It’s how you walk.’ Millie said and hammed it up some more. ‘Just like this.’
The sisters began to laugh at one another.
‘I don’t walk like that,’ Chelsea said.
‘Yes you do.’
‘Well, you walk like this.’ Chelsea started wriggling her arms and bobbing her head like a rooster.
‘No. You walk like this,’ said Millie, frenetically thrusting her groin. ‘You walk like this for Grinner White.’
‘What!’ Chelsea protested. ‘I definitely do not!’
‘Yes you do!’ Millie said. ‘Just like this! Just like this!’
Grinner White had circled their house for months before Chelsea started at the diner. Around the block he’d go, doing burnouts in his bombed-out Holden with his shirt off and the stereo turned up real loud. Then he’d park it outside their front door and pound the heavy bass rhythm on his pigeon chest. If he caught Millie staring, he’d grab himself and waggle it at her and tell her to get Chelsea to come outside to go driving with him. Millie knew what he was up to. That heat glistened in his wonky eye. But what really worried her was that Chelsea didn’t seem to mind.
Suddenly serious, Chelsea warned her to quit teasing.
‘I can’t stand him,’ she said, sternly. ‘I can’t stand any of them around here. Not one of them. You think I want to hang around here with them? No way. Because that’s what always happens. Get caught up and best case, you might make it down the coast like ma. But just look at us, Big Woman. Back in Boundary.’
‘Well sometimes it looks like you like him! Like you want him hanging around,’ Millie blurted.
Her sister scoffed. ‘He can stand out front of the house all he wants,’ she said. ‘He can hang around work all he wants. He can bring me all the stupid little things he wants. He can drive me home as many times as he wants. But he’s never going to get what he wants. Never. Why the fuck would I like Grinner White?’
There was an opening in the scrub where the old bridge met the northern bank. A patch of cracked asphalt remained, resembled a crocodile skin flecked with dandelion flowers and lanky fleabane weed. The patch of old road was a popular area for snakes and lizards to sun themselves of a morning, but the afternoon’s high heat had induced them into the refuge of the undergrowth.
The remnants of the old bridge abutted the bank. A pylon of heavy timber, weathered smooth and coated in pale red silt dust. Crested dragons lazed on the dry woodwork. Sunlight glinted off the river.
Chelsea walked to the edge of the bank, where the busted concrete and bitumen crumbled into a bullnose of gravel and red earth. The tide receded through the reeds below, ebbed swiftly at the base of the pylon’s thick posts.
‘What do you remember about ma?’
Millie wandered over and stood beside her sister. She looked down at the running water. Watched the tide purl through the long reeds at the bottom of the bank.
There wasn’t much. A second-story fibreboard unit. Faded bed sheets billowing inwards from the windows. Cigarette burns in the carpet. The tide ripping by the rocks along the breakwall.
She remembered her mother’s dark, slender hands, the nails so white and her palms almost orange.
‘Not much. What Nan’s told me mostly,’ she replied.
‘Do you remember where we lived?’
Chelsea began loosening a slab of the old road with her foot. ‘Well you’ve lived there and you’ve lived here,’ she said, breaking a piece away. ‘That’s it. That’s all you know. That’s all you know of the entire world. Two places, fifty clicks apart.’ She stooped and picked the slab up. The water dragons turned their heads, blinked their leathery eyelids. Chelsea weighed the chunk in her hand. ‘That’s all ma knew. That’s all Nan knows. And that’s as much as you and me know. Fifty clicks down that way, and up-the-fuck here.’
The lump of asphalt struck the side of a pole and burst into a shower of bitumen and gravel. Dragons plunged into the water and the cicadas fell silent as the knock echoed up river.
Grumbling green-tinged storm clouds hung low over Boundary when Millie got out of school the following day. The twilight was too early, but the heat was heavy and the ground still dry. She walked by the old convent neighbouring the schoolhouse, then cut across St. Veronica’s churchyard to Mill Street. Riley had paid her two dollars for sweeping the tavern’s front veranda that morning and her mind had been set on a couple of cherry-liquorice straps since recess.
The derelict houses along Mill Street were all unpainted, buckled board and rusty tin. Only half of them were still homes. Overgrown wisteria vines and long grass had claimed the rest. She walked to Perret’s disused machinery shed and turned up the gravel lane that led to the old stable yard at the rear of Nancy Chisholm’s general store. She climbed through the paling fence and crossed the yard. Climbed out into the spare block that ran up the side of the store.
The jars behind the counter were almost all empty. Most of the shelves in the store were empty too. There was milk and newspapers, loaves of sliced bread and cigarettes. The big store up near the new bridge had taken the rest of Nancy’s business.
It took an age for the old woman to shuffle in from her living room. She reminded Millie of a heron. Riley said that before the store, Nancy used to travel with a rodeo. He said she was a famous barrel racer who toured the countryside. But Millie had never seen her outside. Not even out front on Falls Road.
One strap was gone before Millie reached the bottom of the hill. She started on the second immediately. Walked through the empty timber yard spitting goopy red juice on the bare, diesel-soaked ground. White cabbage moths fluttered frantically through the gloom.
Riley was hunched over the bar listening to the radio, his big hands buried in the sides of his bushy, pied beard. The bar room was empty, save for Frank Hobbs smoking his foul-smelling tobacco and staring blankly out the back window at the river. Her grandmother was wiping the liquor shelves, wiping under each of the coloured bottles and setting them in their place again. Millie dumped her schoolbag, climbed up on a stool. She knew better than to interrupt the race call.
One race ended and led right into another. She huffed and glanced around at the old photographs of Boundary hanging between the saw blades and bullock yokes and the oil paintings of timber-men in felt hats, puffing tobacco pipes in front of giant tree stumps. There was Perret’s machinery shed with smoke streaming out of every chimney. There was the timber-yard with piles of hewn poles. Stock drivers carted raw logs down busy Mill Street. Horse buggies and coaches filed along Falls Road.
‘What time is Chelsea finishing today?’ she asked when the radio finally lulled.
Her grandmother groaned, placed another liquor bottle in place. ‘Leave that girl alone,’ she said, without turning.
‘I thought you’d be down that ol’ garage already,’ Riley said with a ponderous drawl.
‘I’m going,’ said Millie.
‘Well,’ Riley continued. ‘That cross-eyed hoon-billy was in here a quarter-hour back. Said he was headed on over there.’
Millie broke from the scrubby bank and darted across the open paddock. The air was dead-still. Nothing stirred in the dismal light below the heavy clouds. She ducked under the hanging tails of the pepper trees. Stumbled onto the lawn gasping for breath. A hard block of light filled the frame of the diner’s rear door. Blue steam spilled from the crooked flue, streaming skywards.
‘Chelsea,’ she called into the kitchen, expecting to see her sister scraping down the grill. But her sister was gone.
Peter Hewler whirled around, a flask of brown spirit sloshing in his left hand. ‘Little sister,’ he said simply and took a hit of the liquor. The burn made him grimace, smack his lips together. White match-heads of spit formed at the corners of his smirking mouth. ‘How’s the run this evening?’
His chest heaved as heavily as hers as he surged across the kitchen floor towards her. His blue eyes glistened like wet shells as he propped beside the doorway and caressed the top of the jamb with his free hand. Sweat stained the underarms of his grey coveralls. He snapped the door open and Millie teetered back a step.
‘Already gone,’ he said, grinning. ‘Took a ride with that buck-toothed fool.’
‘But she doesn’t like him,’ Millie said.
Peter Hewler snorted, brushed the rump of his thumb down the side of Millie’s cheek.
‘Little girl, that’s got nothing to do with it,’ he said, slipping his drinking arm around her neck and drawing her firmly to him. His coveralls smelled of hot grease, booze and cigarettes. Millie twisted her face to the side, tried to squirm loose, but he squeezed more tightly. The brown liquor danced inside the bottle as he covered her face with the flask.
‘Nothing to do with it at all.’