Lying still, Skilton imagines little robotic Pac-Men chomping through the inflamed tissue along her spine. Their mouths, almost half the size of their heads, are gobbling up everything that hurts, swallowing the big glob of shadow she remembers from her X-rays. It’s like they jumped from one of the machines they’ve put in all the pubs and landed in her back, devouring her pulpy tissue like they do ghosts. The vision of them is the one thing she’s retained from the meditation course she did in autumn.
She rolls onto an elbow and pushes back the bedcovers. Holding her breath, Skilton shifts her legs and gets into a sitting position. With a heave, she stands and begins to walk around the house in a loop, rocking like a metronome.
Like other mornings, she implements a ten-minute no-talking rule – easily organised since she lives alone. When her body starts to loosen up she allows herself to think of other things, to cast her mind to a voracious chomping of another sort. Given the news – the young reporter’s voice carping up as soon as she flips the radio on – there’s little chance of avoiding it.
Skilton tries to keep her eye from yesterday’s newspaper. A difficult task, since it’s open on the table. Besides, she’s seen the photographs already: people holding banners, someone camped in a tree, the ugly destruction after the loggers have been in. The mere thought of those pictures is enough to refuel her indignation. There’s also the annoyance of never having done a thing to help. Buried under justifications that none of it – the boycotts, the protests, the direct action – will stop the devastation, she’s remained passive. It’s the same with letters. Yes, she’s sent one or two, but the amount that would be necessary … Well, it’s overwhelming.
She curses. Has been at this point before. ‘No more!’ she shouts, breaking her own non-speaking rule. ‘It’s 1989 for Christ’s sake!’
Working her way along the back of the couch, Daphne Skilton O’Hara, who dropped the Daphne years ago, walks to her little desk. She picks up the receiver and dials the number on a flyer that’s been sitting there for a week.
‘Someone will call you tonight,’ a young woman says. Skilton is left staring into the mouthpiece. She’s just done what she’s been saying she would for a decade.
Skilton has always been interested in the planet, its state of health or otherwise. She’d thought when she moved to Swinfield her concern would diminish. But the polar opposite has happened. Here, it’s in her face: the problems with ragwort, blackberry, die-back, feral animals, domesticated animals, herbicides, super-phosphates. Here, there’s a greater imperative, a greater immediacy. It’s not just that she’s learnt stuff – animals, birds, plants, their names and characteristics – it’s that she’s seen people determined to hold fast, stand united, fight against the big corporations.
It’s a battle they wage for no remuneration and in the face of criticism. Dole bludger, greeny, hippy, no-hoper; she’s overheard terrible things being said by grown men and women. Name-calling followed up with scenes of carnage: ‘Set the moth-ridden lot on fire.’ ‘Herd them into the Gascoyne to drown.’ ‘Down the trees with them aloft.’ Then, turning to her: ‘I’ll have one of those high-tinned white-sliced loaves, ta.’ Or, ‘Crusty baguette, please.’ Or, ‘Cheese stick if ya wouldn’t mind, thanks.’
If they do say something about the planet, it’s a comment on rainforest devastation in the Congo. ‘Should send the maggots over there to protest.’ And all of a sudden the locals are experts about the rest of the world. ‘Now, those people are killing the planet.’
Skilton keeps quiet during these dissertations, shoving scones and Danish pastries into brown bags, hoping the baker, Ted Garnet, isn’t watching as her face hardens into rocky-road pique. Skilton can’t afford to lose this job, financially or physically. ‘You need something that keeps you moving,’ Christine, her GP, had told her before she left the city. ‘A change from the office.’
Skilton had been dreaming of the vegetables she’d grow, the large skies she’d look at from her porch, the trees she’d get amongst; but yes, she couldn’t retire altogether.
‘I was respected in that office,’ she’d wanted to say to Christine. ‘Twenty-five years as legal secretary extraordinaire.’ But she’d kept it to herself.
Skilton wonders about other things she hasn’t said. Wonders if they’ve piled up in her. If that trait – stoicism, she guesses – might have a metaphysical explanation, a Louise Hay affirmation attached to it. Skilton tries to keep away from metaphysics. Besides, she’s been busy gathering actual information. It’s more her style.
Kettle Mountain. The memory of the scar. The reality of the weeds: large infestations of soft green sticky climbers that grow over the stubs of a forest gone. The gash of too much sunlight, the vision of rutted and compacted earth, gouged with tyre tracks and blade scrapes, all of it punctuated with jagged-edged tree stumps. The stark beginning where the gash ends. The dark, calm, protective bush, once a middle, now exposed like an armless creature. If everyone could see that? If city people were brought here and driven around? But that’s one of those tricky things, nobody has the time these days.
At night, Skilton watches the news. A home invasion, a flagging stock market, the flu epidemic, a cat caught in a drain. And then she sees it. Scuffles close up. People chained to trees. A reporter hammering on about a machine that’d been tampered with: fuel tanks violated, hydraulic lines cut, tyres slashed. Charges have been laid. Reputations sullied. It’s a bloody mess.
The publicity gets into her blood, simmers.
‘No-one’s been incarcerated.’ A man called Brendon telephones. ‘It’s a beat up. But to counter it, get people back onside, we’re organising a non-violent protest, a large one. Jane’s worked it out. She’s looking for riders.’
‘Horses?’ Skilton’s voice jumps, ‘I couldn’t possibly …’
‘We need monks, brown cassocks for the cameras. We’re staging a funeral march. Death of the forest.’
‘Oh,’ she says, ‘okay.’
‘You’ll have to get there the night before. Everything happens early so the journos can get their stories on the tube.’
Off the phone, Skilton wonders at that. She gets it, but it starts her thinking about the way of the world, about how these things work.
Skilton doesn’t mind her boss, Ted; warmed to him once she got past the stories of his brood costing him more dough than he’s kneaded in a lifetime. ‘It’s expense after expense,’ he repeats while she, more often than not, is battling a torturous pain in her lower back. ‘And I simply don’t have enough raisins in my loaf.’ Now, Ted’s day is nearly over. He’s packing up, shifting baking trays around the shop in a clashing chorus. He stops. ‘Blimey,’ he crows, ‘Wayne Henkey, my very own stepbrother.’
Skilton’s gaze drifts over the counter. Through the window with its painted border of rope and flowers, she sees a big man pulling himself from the cabin of a ute. Mountain soil streaks his legs.
‘Bloody potheads are in town,’ Wayne says by way of hello, looking even larger in the shop’s doorway. He’s shirtless but for a singlet: fat-armed, hair like ginger bottlebrush poking out from his armpits. ‘That leso Jane’s got some nerve, jerking with us. I’m gunna kill those squawking geese a hers. Now they’re an environmental hazard.’
Skilton busies herself pushing bread through a slicer. The machine shakes and rattles and she flaps a plastic bag to settle over the loaf.
‘We’ve jiggered it for them anyway.’ Wayne’s up at the counter now, his body bringing its aura of warmth to within inhaling range. ‘Planted our own man in there. One of the boss’s sons from Melbourne. Even changed his name from Bruce to Brendon. Makes him sound greener.’ He chuckles. ‘They plan an action, we simply don’t work. Press hate it, go home with nothing. Takes the greenies a month to get them back.’
‘Anything to take the wind from the bludgers’ sails,’ Ted says, his chalky hands clasping the counter, his smile hanging on his face as if someone had thrown it through the door, hit him with it.
‘Another day on the weed,’ Wayne says, laughing. ‘They won’t even notice.’
With over two hundred forms of arthritis available, you, Skilton thinks to herself, happen to have the one that’s more common in men than women. Just your luck! Ankylosing Spondylitis. Sounds like a secret language teenage girls talk to each other in. Forms in the spine and pelvis. Treated with Tylenol, potassium, cortisol, copper. And for all that, you move to the country and start to believe in bee-venom cream and exercise. Damn body still aches. So, you take to doing laps of the patch of bush at the back of your house. Get to know two king parrots, an echidna, a lyrebird and a goanna. It’s not real bush, not like the bush at Kettle Mountain, but as you lumber along the winding path, it sets your mind on nature like the city never did.
‘Jane Trembath please,’ Skilton says to the operator.
‘Private number I’m afraid.’
She rings Brendon.
He scrabbles around making unfriendly noises. ‘We usually keep the phone tree intact. She won’t be happy.’
‘It’s a personal matter,’ Skilton answers curtly to warn him off.
When Skilton rings Jane and explains as succinctly as she can, Jane is serious, quiet.
‘We’ll test it,’ she says finally. ‘Ring back down your list. I’ll call the media. We’ll set the whole thing for the day before. Brendon will be kept out of the loop.’
In town, there’s a meeting about the state government’s policy on forest clear-felling. Helen Caldicott comes, her name pulling people from Barradoon and Menence. Helen begins her speech with the statement, ‘Trees are the lungs of the earth. And saw millers cause shadows in those lungs.’ At the back of the hall someone yells, ‘What’s that got to do with Swinfield?’
When Skilton turns to see the heckler – as the entire audience does – Wayne Henkey, standing with his arms crossed, chin jutted out, catches her eye, his cold stare sizing her up, sectioning her off. Not one to outwardly flinch, Skilton stares calmly back at him.
‘Sorry Skilton,’ Ted says the following day. ‘Can’t have you in the shop anymore.’
‘Why?’ she asks, the image of Henkey trepanning her thoughts.
‘You’re a turncoat.’
‘I haven’t been here long enough to be a turncoat.’
‘Exactly. Can’t have blow-ins telling us how to run things. And I’m not supporting one.’
She pauses, considers him: his round bald head, the splodges of flour up his arms. ‘If this is about me being at that meeting, I can assure you I simply went to hear what was being said. I’ve got no agenda either way.’
He considers this. ‘You weren’t cheering that anarchist on?’
‘I was making sure I know what’s happening in this town, to this town. We’re in a precarious position.’
‘Not wrong about that,’ Ted says.
‘I know how people here make their money,’ she adds. ‘Know the forests are their bread and butter.’
Ted nods, deliberates. ‘Guess I should give you the benefit of the doubt.’
‘Well, since we’re being up-front, I need Wednesday off. Root-canal filling.’
As soon as Skilton knocks off Tuesday, she sets out in her 1980 Chrysler for Bengabbie. For once the ripping pain in her lower back feels reassuring. She arches her spine at regular intervals, stretching from side to side behind the steering wheel, bracing herself. Soon, there will be log trucks. She could have left later, when work would be finishing up, but she doesn’t want to arrive in the dark and she’s got two others to pick up, Jack someone and a Beverly Thompson.
At Jack’s place, two children with matted hair run towards her car.
‘Hel-lo,’ she calls in a singsong voice normally reserved for unfamiliar dogs. Looking past them to the family’s tiny timber cottage, Skilton sees furniture spread out on the grass: a washing machine, a kitchen sink, a lounge suite. These people are living in an un-grazed paddock.
A wiry woman dressed in a cotton dress and a cardigan is smoking by the door.
‘Penny.’ The woman swaps her cigarette from one hand to the other, to shake Skilton’s.
‘Skilton,’ Skilton says, making an effort to breathe warmth into her voice. ‘Here to pick Jack up.’
‘I’d be coming if I could.’ Penny has a whine in her voice.
Skilton grins blithely, and looks at the children – glad, all of a sudden, that they’re there. ‘Where’s your dad then?’ she says. It takes half an hour to unearth him from a shed at the end of the property. Jack’s the spit of his family. Four peas in a dishevelled pod. It’s required that she look at his value-added, show-and-tell items: red-gum bowls, breadboards, bookends – the dense wood beautifully honed and oiled, polished to a highly reflective sheen. While these exhibition-standard objects glisten, everything else is in decay.
‘This is what they should be using the old-growth wood for,’ he says.
Skilton doesn’t know what to say, so says nothing.
In the car, she tells him to put his seatbelt on. The road is open as it snakes along the bottom of the valley but Skilton is thinking of log trucks, heavy thudding missiles that’ll scream past.
At Beverly Thompson’s place – a hut flanked by two skinny palm trees – Skilton bridles at the thought of being held up again. But Beverly bounces out from the front door, bags packed and, after ruffling the shaggy necks of two old collies – both of whom raise their heads, but do little more – they are leaving. Beverly talks as fast as a rotary hoe. Skilton, however, is in her own world. Perhaps writing letters would have been better. It’s not as if she can’t turn a phrase. And protesting, this sort of protesting, well, does anyone take any notice, really? Her thoughts swell until she feels the little Pac-Men turn up, start eating with their gargantuan mouths. Everything is muffled.
At the camp, there’s an air of normality. Beverly quietens as Skilton pulls in beside a Kombi van painted with peace signs and mermaids. Skilton feels daunted by the night ahead. Everyone she clocks looks thirty or less, nubile. She’s an oldie. Beverly and Jack are oblivious, and shift away from the car without hesitation, gear in hand. Another oldie, a man with bad posture and a ponytail, is approaching. The prospect of him is worse than the youngsters. She cringes.
‘Welcome,’ he says as if they’re at a jubilee.
It takes Skilton an hour to set up her tent and blow up her air mattress. Then it’s only a matter of climbing in and making sure she’s warm. She listens to the sound of guitars and people’s voices floating. Skilton is glad she can’t see them. This way she can pretend they’re the trees soughing and the animals chatting.
First thing, Skilton wakes and braces herself. Pain will inevitably dig like knives. Her face heats as she shifts her legs. Balancing herself, she rolls onto her knees. Tears materialise. Soreness is as cruel as a hot whip across her pelvis. She sucks in air, stands as quickly as she can. Blood throbs at her temples. She begins to plan her exit from the tent so she can get moving.
Outside, cars are pulling in. People are huddled in small groups, their shoulders hunched and their hands surrounding steaming mugs. A woman strides towards her: gumboots, duffle coat, her face thin, her head inclined. Jane, she thinks.
After they’ve shaken hands, Jane gives her a brown garment with a hood. ‘I’m not sure who’s going to be working,’ she says to Skilton, ‘but don’t take any chances. You need to keep your head down.’
Skilton nods. Both she and Jane turn to take in the arrival of horse floats, news crews.
‘Good luck,’ Jane says, and she’s gone.
Skilton packs up her things, her eyes smarting from darts of agony.
Half whacked from Tylenol, the march looks more like a primary-school play than a protest. Skilton is watching it on the news. Even when the procession reaches the bulldozers and the men with their chainsaws and hardhats, it looks like a joke. She spots herself lumbering along, hooded.
The reporter’s voice rises. ‘Protestors at Kettle Mountain held a funeral this morning for what they say is the death of the old-growth forest. The clashes came, however, when one of the loggers broke through the parade, grabbing one of the monks.’ The big blockhead, Wayne Henkey, comes onto the screen.
The camera zooms in, and there’s a split second in which Skilton sees her own indignant, owl-like expression appear. And then the crowd fractures. Young people jump on Henkey as if he’s a giant who needs to be cut down. The camera pans back. Other clashes break out between the loggers and the protestors. Police descend onto the fracas, and Skilton sees herself scrabbling back, withdrawing to a large gum for safety, her feet steadfast among its roots, her head up, her mind swirling off into the height of the tree, and up to the sky beyond. And she remembers the moment. Has held it precious all day. It’s the feeling of a great solid living thing holding her up.
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