Wallman illustration for Philps story
Type
Fiction

Agistment

I drive to see our cattle. I park in front of their new paddock and curl up to watch them. It’s been seven months since Dad signed his name on the back of a carton of Gold. Our cattle were moved to someone else’s land because our paddocks are dust. I watch them from my car for hours. My battery is getting flat from running the aircon in neutral. I pretend to call Ellen and hold my fingers like a phone to my ear. It’s been ten months since she’s been home. My neck is red because I know I look crazy. I tell her everything I see: The cattle are content. They move across the grass and swallow water with soft, wobbly throats.

I drive home and pack my backpack. I carry it to the car. Sarah is standing beside the shed. She’s far enough away that I can pretend that I don’t see her wave. Sarah is twenty-four and used to live up the range, in Toowoomba. Dad hired her to help him around the property when Ellen left for uni and Mum got a promotion and had to work longer hours at Heritage Bank. Sarah waves again and I turn my head towards her. When she sees me look she walks over.

‘Are you excited to see Ellen?’ she asks.

I open my backpack and check how many pairs of undies I’ve packed.

‘Do you want me to pack you some snacks for the drive?’

‘It’s only an hour,’ I say.

‘Oh.’ She leans against my car. She’s tall. She can rest her elbow on the car roof. Her elbow is crusty; she doesn’t moisturise.

Sarah puts her elbow on everything. On the back of a horse, on your shoulder, on the table. I know the table bit because she stays for dinner when Mum is back late at work. Sarah makes bacon bone soup. She puts her crusty elbow on the table and drinks from the bowl. She tilts the bowl back and her throat is suddenly large and flat, slithers of blue veins visible under her skin when she gulps. I pick up each bone with my fingers, suck out the marrow, and watch Sarah wipe the corner of her mouth with a paper towel. Sarah has a prosthetic left leg. Dad told me she lost it in a motorbike accident along with her boyfriend. When she wears shorts the prosthetic leg is a few shades darker than her skin.

‘Do you want breakfast before you go?’

‘No, thanks.’ I put my backpack in the boot.

‘Do you want me to get your Dad so you can say goodbye?’ she asks.

‘I already said bye to him.’

‘Oh. Well, drive safe.’

‘Thanks’, I say, and get in the car.

I watch her walk away in the rearview mirror, her prosthetic leg stiff. She looks back when I’m far enough away that she probably thinks I can’t see her.

When I pass the bend, I pull over and get out of the car. The air is hot but thin, not thick and overdue like in summer. My underarms still sweat as I walk through our crops. If you squint your eyes the brassicas turn into fuzzy green shapes that look like they go on for acres. At the end of the row I squat and shovel earth over my feet like I’ve seen kids do with sand at the beach. When I hear Dad’s tractor, I stand and shake the soil off my feet and walk to the car. The rest of Laidley is quiet. The sky stretches above, pink and orange like thick, wet flakes of salmon.

 

Ellen’s share house is on the corner of Kent Street and Davidson Terrace. Brisbane smells like jacarandas. I get lost and drive twice down a one-way street. Ellen’s sitting on her front steps. She throws her arms around my neck and I rest my forehead on her collarbone.

 

Inside, she shows me the bathroom, the kitchen and her bedroom. She sits on the bed and I sit on the floor.

‘When did you move here?’

‘Two months ago. I like it.’

‘I like your room.’

She snorts, looks at the pictures of people I don’t know and her pink sheets. She has a potted palm near the window. I walk over to it and draw tiny pictures in the soil with my finger.

‘How long are you staying?’ she asks.

‘A couple of sleeps. If that’s okay.’

‘Yeah, course.’

She lies back on the bed and puts her feet on the wall. I have soil from the palm on my fingers and I rub my thumb and forefinger together to feel the tiny sediments roll between my skin.

‘It’s so good to have you here,’ she says.

We eat cheese and bacon Shapes for dinner. Her housemates come home one by one. They mostly nod but one girl hugs me.

‘She’s nice,’ I say.

We climb out a window and pull ourselves onto the roof of the house.

It’s past midnight but everything is still light. The street, the units across the road, the traffic lights. Ellen bites into the insides of a mango, the juice running through her fingers and down her arms. She passes it to me and shakes her arms out in front of her. Droplets of nectar glisten before they fall.

‘No stars tonight, Pinky.’

I bite into the mango flesh and look up. She’s right.

 

In the morning, our lips still sticky with mango, we talk.

‘Why agistment?’

‘No food, no water.’

‘Who to?’

‘The Martins.’

‘I hate them,’ she says, and puts her face into the pillow.

It’s quiet for a few moments and I listen to the traffic outside. Ellen moves, and I realise she’s been asleep. She lifts her head and spit dangles from her mouth and drips onto the sheets.

‘How much are we paying them a month?’ Her voice is thick.

‘Dad won’t tell me.’

‘I talked to Dad yesterday and he didn’t fucking mention it.’ She rolls out of bed and checks her phone. A piece of fluff is stuck in her hair and I pick it off.

She goes to have a shower.

 

We go to a café for breakfast. Ellen orders us coffee and eggs and the barista talks to her about a boy she brought here for breakfast last week.

Ellen chooses a table near the back, where we can watch the street from the window. When we get our coffee I move to pour two sugar sachets into Ellen’s but she covers her coffee with her palm.

‘Nah, Pinky.’

I try having mine without sugar. It’s terrible.

Ellen watches the street. There are a lot of mums wearing tights and bright Nike shoes. Ellen puts her hand on my wrist and leans close. Her breath is sour, acidic.

‘Those tights cost more than my rent.’

‘Who’s the guy you brought here for breakfast?’

‘Chris.’

‘Is he your boyfriend?’

She laughs. ‘No.’

‘What is he then?’

‘Do you have a boyfriend?’

‘No.’ I take a sip of coffee and want to spit it out. Ellen takes a bite of egg. There is yolk, wet and orange, on the corner of her mouth. I wipe it off with my finger. She tries to bite me but misses and I flick her in the cheek. Ellen chews the rest of her eggs steadily. She reminds me of our cattle standing under the trees in their new paddock, and the little calf among them. I look at her chewing and I imagine the calf eating and drinking from the troughs. Face full of muscle, strong and lean.

‘I dunno. I just always thought we’d talk about it if we had boyfriends.’

‘We are talking about it.’ She looks at me before draining the last of her coffee.

 

In her room, Ellen slips in and out of skirts.

‘What time do you start work?’

‘In like, 20 minutes.’

‘Want me to drop you?’

‘Nah, it’s the restaurant at the end of the street.’ She pins on a name badge.

‘When you coming home?’

‘Dunno. Nine.’

She looks at my reflection in the mirror as she puts on earrings. She’s wearing thigh high stockings that make her legs look discoloured, a creamy orange. She finishes putting on her earrings and gulps down the glass of water left on the floor until it’s empty.

When she hits the rim of the glass against the wall, I think she’s trying to break it. She slaps it onto the wall with a loud, sharp sound. She twists the rim to the left, grinding it down, before removing the glass. I only notice the little limp body when it falls to the ground.

Ellen stares at the spot of blood on the wall. Then she squats down low, her eyes on the floor.

It’s a gecko. The body looks soft and fatty; the head’s been chopped clean off. Ellen stands and grabs a tissue. She spits on it and dabs at the blood on the wall.

When she leaves, I shut all of the windows and turn off the fan. I get under the blankets and wait for the room to feel hot like Laidley. I face the wall and whisper all that I can remember from the conversation. I press my nose against the wall and it feels like I’m talking to someone. I feel my neck go red and I put my face into the bed sheets and scream.

 

She gets home at ten and tugs my hair until I wake up.

‘It’s bloody boiling in here, Pinky.’ She opens the windows and puts the fan on high. She takes off her shoes in the dark and crawls into bed beside me. She turns on the TV and I drift in and out of sleep. When I’m awake, I watch her face. The TV makes light dance across it, like the shadow of the calf’s tail as it gently swats away flies. She’s watching infomercials when I wake up properly.

‘Reckon we should get Mum this for Mothers’ Day?’

‘No,’ I say. She laughs. When the infomercial is over she turns it off.

She falls asleep but I can’t. The skin of her back is warm against my arm. I watch the ceiling and try to find patterns. When a car goes past and the headlights flare through the thin curtains, the ceiling is a place of texture and stories. But when the headlights leave I can’t find a thing.

I turn my face to Ellen. She smells milky, like a child. Her hair is still damp from the shower and there are tiny curls starting at the nape of her neck. Her hair is thin and falls out easily. There are strands, almost translucent, lying across her pillow and on her shirts. The floor is covered by them, a land of lost hairs. When we were little I would run my fingers through her hair and watch the strands come easily into my palms. I fall asleep and when I wake Ellen is staring at me, her eyes the same blue as mine.

 

It’s eleven the next night when she says, ‘Let’s go out.’

‘Where?’

‘I dunno.’

She gets me up and tosses me clothes. We do our makeup in the bathroom, and I sit on the edge of the bath while she helps me with my eyes. I tell her she’ll poke me. She tells me to look up. The mascara brush wriggles over my bottom lashes. Her housemates are asleep and we lock the door behind us. We walk side by side, but when someone passes us I walk behind her to make room on the footpath. It isn’t far to the Valley. Ellen tells me to get out my driver’s license. We’re in the line for a club for twenty minutes. I don’t know what the club’s called, but the light is neon and blue. I look to the laneway beside us and I see a bird lying on the bitumen.

‘Where you going?’ Ellen says.

It’s an ibis. I squat beside it. There are no visible injuries and for a second I think it’s alive. I think its eye moves to look at me. After a second I realise it’s just the reflection of flies, their wings moving as they eat the eye.

 

The floor is sticky inside the club.

Ellen and I dance. She moves like fluid and I don’t. Ellen says something to me but I can only see her lips moving. We line up at the bar and order gin. Every song sounds the same. There are so many bodies that Ellen and I become separated. I can see her head bobbing away from me and her eyes searching for my face. I line up for another drink and am knocked over. On my hands and knees, I look up. In front of me is Sarah’s prosthetic leg. The exact shape, the colour. Someone is trying to get me to stand up. I let them pull me by my armpits. They’re saying something to me, something in my ear. I can’t stop looking at Sarah’s leg.

‘Is she okay?’ A girl with long brown hair is staring at me. She moves and I see that both legs are tanned the same fake orange colour.

‘Sweetie, you good?’ She’s asking me a question. Someone is still holding me up by the armpits. I nod, step out of the arms.

‘Sorry,’ I say. She nods and says something to the person behind me. I don’t see who they are. I turn and move into the crowd.

I’m sitting on a couch when Ellen finds me. Her breath is hot on my face.

‘I’m gonna be sick, Pink.’

We go to the bathroom and the line is only two girls who go into the same cubicle. When a cubicle is free we go inside. Ellen leans over the bowl and I lock the door behind us.

‘You’re not gonna be sick.’

‘I am.’ She starts crying.

I sit on the floor against the door and read graffiti to her: It’s Court Bytch. Up up the Broncs.

She sits on the bowl and breathes deeply. I put my fingertips on her knees.

‘Sorry,’ she says. The cubicle is hot and my shirt sticks to my back with sweat.

Someone bangs on the door.

‘Let’s go,’ Ellen says.

We walk back to the dance floor and Ellen tugs at my hand. She mimes getting another drink.

‘What? No,’ I say, but she’s already taking her hand out of mine. She moves into the crowd and she’s gone.

I wait but she doesn’t come back. People are putting their hands on my waist but I move away. I go towards the bar and scan every inch. She isn’t there. I go into the bathroom and call her name. I watch each girl come in and out of the cubicles until they’re all empty.

 

I wander around and don’t know how much time has passed. The crowd at the club is getting thinner. I search the couch area but she isn’t there. I see the woman with the fake tan on her legs and she smiles at me.

I go out to the street. Everything is loud. I smell McDonald’s and people are pushing me forward. I stumble and walk with the crowd. There’s gum and vomit on the footpath. When I look up I’m outside another club. It’s quieter here, less people. The bouncer grabs my arm.

‘You okay?’ His voice is deep and his hand is cold.

‘I don’t know where Ellen is.’

‘Have you called her?’

‘I didn’t bring my phone, we were staying together.’

‘Do you have money?’

‘Yes.’

He tugs me behind him and I realise that I don’t know where I am. I try to get my arm free.

‘Relax, girl,’ he says. A cab is driving past and he sticks out an arm. He opens the front door of the cab.

‘She’s drunk, get her home.’

The driver nods.

‘Wait, I’m not,’ I say. The bouncer pushes me into the cab and tells me to say my address. I don’t say anything. The bouncer tells the driver to go and that unless I want to end up in the middle of nowhere I should tell him a suburb.

I tell him Ellen’s address.

When we pull up outside Ellen’s house, I pay and he leaves. The sky is pale. I use the spare key that’s kept in a pair of old joggers and I open the door and go inside. In the hallway there is sunlight coming through the windows and it lights up dust particles in the air. I take off my shoes and walk up the stairs quietly. I am outside Ellen’s door when I hear groans. I put my ear to the door and hear the sound of the bed creaking back and forth.

If I opened the door Ellen would look something like how Sarah did near the water tanks, bent over backwards, her prosthetic leg moving slightly with every thrust. Her undies were around her ankles, a slither of lacy blue so delicate they might dissolve. Her shirt was pushed up and her belly and hips were red from rough hands. Dad’s legs were hairy.

I go out of the house and walk to the street corner where my car is parked. I sit on the gutter beside it, my feet under the car and my head resting on the passenger door. A few people go past and ask if I’m okay, so I unlock the car and sit in the driver’s seat. I put my hands on the wheel and keep them there until they sweat and slip off into my lap. I pretend our cattle are still in our paddocks. I pretend our paddocks are green and lush. After an hour, I see someone come out of the house and walk to a car. They drive away. I go inside. Ellen is in the kitchen, eating a packet of Kingstons. She puts the biscuits down and pulls me close. She asks me where I went and how I got home. She asks if I’m okay and I nod. She gives me a biscuit and I take a bite but I can’t swallow. It turns soggy and grainy in my mouth. She takes the packet into her room and we go to sleep.

 

When Sarah calls in the morning and tells us that the calf has died, Ellen takes the Kingston packet from beside her bed and splits the last one in half. We eat slowly. I ask Sarah how and she says it was a tick. Ellen lies down in bed, crumbs and specks of icing stuck to the blonde fuzz around her lips. She moves her tongue over her teeth. Her tongue was like that: rough, and wet, and always moving.

 

 

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Alex Philp recently completed her honours in creative writing at QUT. She likes to write about female experiences and rural Queensland.

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