‘Coober Pedy: Jewel of the Outback’, the sign reads. The hot wind smells of dust and clay. Screams of laughter and bass-heavy music echo from the nearby pub, and it feels wrong to be here, like we’re breaking a curfew. We walk past an opal shop and Mum and Georgia lean close to the glass, pointing out the jewels they like best. If Dad were here, I’d roll my eyes and he’d say what a couple of featherheads. Now, it’s them versus me.
‘Sophie, come and look,’ Mum calls. I sulk, go to the window. Pretend to give a shit about jewellery. The opals are arranged on velvet cloth, shimmering under the hot beam of an office lamp. Occurs in the fissures of almost any rock, the note card says, most commonly in limonite, marl, basalt, rhyolite. Before they’re mined, opals run deep underground, seamed through the earth like irregular veins. These stones look dead on the black cloth, as if prepared for reburial. Vitreous to resinous. Opaque, translucent, transparent. The words sound like symptoms of disease. A burst of savage laughter from the nearby pub makes me shiver, even though the air is hot and dry. I picture my own body arranged on velvet cloth, my nose and mouth brimming with dust.
We drive up a steep hill beside a sandstone cliff. Our hotel is carved into the rock face, a line of dark caves like open mouths. Georgia fakes a smile but I won’t give Mum even that. I don’t know why we’re on this trip, in this place. Sun rays blast off the stony ground, off the mullock heaps and rock piles and cliffs. It’s so hot we could ignite at any moment. All the smarter folk are underground, waiting for us to burn.
‘G’day,’ a voice says, making me jump. A man stands behind us in an olive green shirt and shorts. He presses his lips together as his eyes roam up and down Mum’s body.
‘Are you the manager?’ She smiles stiffly, smoothing her dress.
He gives me a cursory glance. Lingers a little longer on Georgia.
‘I’m here with my boys. You alone?’
‘Dad’s on his way,’ I say quickly, and Georgia snorts.
Mum’s smile stays fixed until the man walks away. I watch her light a cigarette, sucking deep on the filter like a baby with a bottle. When I was little, Mum looked like Marilyn Monroe with her ice-blonde waves and blue eye shadow. Now, she looks ugly and old.
‘Dad always hated you smoking, you know that?’ I say.
Georgia calls our attention to the view, trying to defuse another fight. We follow her gaze to the town centre, and for the first time, I notice the lack of trees. The bone-coloured ground is cratered with excavated mines, dirt piles, scrap metal and abandoned cars.
‘It’s like we’re on the moon,’ Mum says, sounding wistful.
Our room stinks of dirt and insects, the smell ineffectually masked by a dousing of lavender carpet freshener. Mum opens every drawer and cupboard, pretending it’s a five star resort.
‘Isn’t this spacious, girls? And two televisions, how about that?’
Georgia takes the top bunk and I take the bottom. The sandstone wall beside my bed looks frothy like a wave, but when I touch it the texture is scratchy and sharp.
‘She worked overtime for three months so we could stay in a cave?’ Georgia says.
My pillowcase has a large brown stain and I flip it over, finding a similar stain on the reverse side. ‘Dad would hate it here.’
‘Yeah, well. Dad doesn’t give a shit about us.’
I kick the bed frame, making the bunk rock and groan.
‘That’s bullshit. She’s trying to turn us against him.’
Georgia doesn’t answer. She won’t switch sides, and neither will I. My chest feels tight as I stare at the frothy ceiling, the only barrier between me and a mountain of dirt.
Mum dangles her feet in the hotel pool while we swim. Georgia pretends not to watch the two boys fiddling with their bikes nearby.
Mum says whoever holds a handstand the longest gets to choose what kind of pizza topping we have. I’m so busy holding my handstand under the water that I forget to count. When I come back up the boys are here. Georgia tidies her hair as they wade into the pool. They close in on her from opposite sides, silent and smooth in the water like sharks.
Mum’s talking to the man in olive green. He jams his hands on his hips and his gut strains towards her. I turn away, feeling sick.
While I practice my diving, the younger boy paddles about, watching. I show off a bit, jumping higher and higher each time.
On my third cannonball, I nearly hit the bottom. As I kick upwards, I feel a hand on my ankle and a sudden, painful pinch between my legs. The boy bobs in the water underneath me, bubbles erupting from his laughing mouth. I kick at him before swimming up to the surface. The place where he pinched me throbs as I climb out of the pool.
Mum calls my name as I open the gate but I don’t look at her, or anyone. I grab my towel and wrap it around me, covering as much skin as I can.
I dream that I’m lying on a sheet of scrap metal, surrounded by boys pinching and biting. They take little pieces of my insides away until I’m nothing, an empty mine.
I wake up calling for Dad. Mum is standing beside my bed and I follow her out to the kitchen. She pours a glass of water, hands it to me, and then waits. The cave walls seem to move as if they’re drawing breath, exhaling more dust in return. The smell is of dead moths, silky wings crumbled into a delicate substance, light enough to be inhaled.
‘That little fucking creep,’ Mum spits, when I tell her what the boy did. She swears again, then snatches her car keys from the table. I follow her outside, feeling like I’m still in a dream. Her lace nightie glows white in the darkness as she gets Dad’s toolbox from the boot.
In the dim light of the reception sign, Mum quickly and efficiently removes the tyres from the smaller BMX. Then she marches over to the edge of the car park, launching the wheels off the rock face.
We peer down, as if we could follow the tracks of the wheels in the darkness. Small orange lights litter the outskirts of town, and Mum says they’re there to warn people of open mine shafts. The globes swing from the light posts like nodding heads. She hugs me and I panic, fighting the urge to push her away. But her arms are warm and strong and in the stillness, I breathe in and breathe out.
We leave early the next morning, while the other occupants of the Desert Cave Hotel are still sleeping. The morning air holds the freshness of a leafier place. As we pull out of the car park, the man in olive green comes out of his room for a smoke. Mum beeps her horn and when he starts to smile Georgia gives him the finger. I laugh so hard I get a stitch.
We stop at an opal shop on the way out of town. As Georgia raises a water bottle to her lips, the saleswoman grabs her arm.
‘When we arrived here from Poland we had five litres of water. When that ran out, we had to wait for another delivery. No wells here, no water tanks. Nothing,’ the woman says. Her hair is shockingly white, the colour burned away.
Mum examines the opals. She considers each jewel carefully, index finger placed in the centre of her lips.
I ask if she likes any. Mum looks up in surprise before pointing to a teardrop-shaped opal on a silver chain.
I pick it out of the display box. The Polish woman is too busy with Georgia to notice. I reach around Mum’s neck and place the pendant at her throat, careful not to catch the clasp on her hair.
‘How do I look?’ Mum asks, turning around.
Forcing myself to glance up from the opal, I meet the stillness of her gaze.
I say the word, beautiful. It catches on the dust in my throat.
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