‘Holding On, Letting Go’ was shortlisted for the 2018 Commonwealth Short Story Prize.
She is lost in the landscape. The road reaches away like an outstretched hand, one slender finger pointing into the hollow between hills dried to a golden blankness. Oily clouds loop across the tops of the mounds and a barometric blanket presses down around her. She inclines her face towards the louring sky, feeling the breeze lift the hair from her bare shoulders, hearing it rattle through the trees that crowd behind her. She shivers. It’s five thirty and the light is failing. She wishes she could disappear into the wind.
She hears the car before she sees it: a murmuring speck slowing growing as it draws nearer. For Jim, his hands resting easy on the steering wheel, the woman emerges slowly: through a window fogged with breath, rubbed clear with a forearm. He notes the rigid stance, one shoulder dipped back towards the bush like she’s keeping her options open. Jim wonders about the protective arm slung across the swell of her belly and sees uncertainty flicker in the corners of her eyes and mouth as he slows the ancient truck. She sags a little as he stops. Jim leans across the passenger seat and hauls the window.
‘You alright?’ He leans back, levering off his bony arm, one elbow cranked around the steering wheel, eyeing her from beneath the greasy brim of his Akubra. A wisp of hair limps out from under, sticking to his forehead. She squints through the silence, one eye on him, one eye on the rust crusting the passenger door.
‘Yes.’ A beat. Another. ‘No. Not really.’
‘Well, which is it? You alright or not?’ Jim rubs his palm over the wheel. The sky darkens.
‘You’d better get in.’ Fear moves over her face like fog. He fights the urge to lift his forearm and wipe it away. Instead he reached across, clunks the handle, hears it release. Her eyes skitter. First, she petitions the sky, then the road back the way he came, finally flicking a glance over her shoulder at the bush. It’ll be dark soon.
Jim waits, hands back on the steering wheel at eleven and two.
The woman rubs her belly through her lard coloured jumper. She looks hard at the handle.
‘That a swag you got?’
‘You want I can toss it in the back for ya?’
‘No. I’ve got it.’
‘Bullshit you do. I’ll get it. You get in. It’s almost dark ‘n I don’t like the look of them clouds.’ He flicks his wrist and the rumble of the motor coughs into silence.
Jim’s boots crunch the meagre asphalt. He shoves the swag onto the tray, up against the cab, wedging it between the cooler and his toolbox. He tosses a tarp over and ties it off.
‘Which way you headin’?’
She turns to the window, a clot of fringe hiding the tops of her eyes. Jim thinks he sees a shake of her head. He pushes on.
‘I jus’ mean I could take you to town. If ya want. It’d mean heading back the way I just come, but it’s not like I got anythin’ better ta do.’
Jim thumps the side of the tray. The distant hills squat dumbly on the plain, fading to silver in the dying light. He swings the hat from his brow, leaving a red dent that stretches the breadth of his forehead. There’s a flash of blue eyes as he passes the windshield, dragging his hat rim across the bonnet, cramming it back on his head one-handed as he reaches for the door frame. Easy does it.
‘Not town. I came from there already.’ Her breath slides softly through her words.
‘Well there’s bugger all in the other direction.’
‘That’s where you’re going.’ Accusing. Jim stretches his neck, the engine ticking.
‘Yeah. But I live out there. And I’m pretty much it. You could stand out here for a month-a-Sund’ys and never see another car.’
‘I can’t go back to town.’ Her voice lifts, flattens, drops.
‘Yeah? Why’s that?’
Her eyes scan her hands, the fingers furling into white-knuckled lumps.
‘He’ll find me.’ Fingers unfurling, they lie splayed and bloodless against denim.
‘An’ I’m guessin’ you don’t wanna be found.’ One hand drifts towards the handle. Jim clears his throat, looks straight ahead. ‘Makes no diff’rence to me either way. None of my business.’
‘It’s… I don’t want any…’ She gathers her hands back into her lap. This time she tilts her head and looks right at him, seeing the deep ravines of cheeks dusted with white stubble. ‘I don’t know you.’
‘Yeah. Look. I’m seventy-eight and countin’. Too old to be any bother, so you don’t have to worry ’bout that; I’m harmless. But damned if I’m leaving a pregnant girl standin’ by the side of the road with a swag and not much else. Not with night fallin’. Not with that weather comin’ in. Nope. You’re comin’ home with me. Sleep in the warm. Give you a decent feed. What you do after that’s your own business. No concern of mine. That clear?’ She straightens her spine and pushes back into the seat.
‘Yeah. Okay. If you’re sure.’
‘Sure I’m sure.’ Jim cranks the motor. It groans, sputters, turns over. ‘I’d appreciate a bit of company. Don’t get much these days.’ He pulls out without bothering to look.
Fingers of lightning glint through cracks of cloud. Wind tears at the ute, creaking it hard against the decaying shoulder, flinging fistfuls of hail against the windows. The headlights tunnel through grey wash as they hobble over ruts and slush, wipers clunking.
‘I’m not a girl.’ She has to push her voice to be heard over the racket. Jim half-turns his head, eyes back on the road after no more than a flicker.
‘Back there. You called me a … a pregnant girl. I’m twenty-four years old.’
‘I didn’t mean anythin’ by it. You just look young, I guess. At my age ‘most everyone looks young.’
‘Well I left school seven years ago and I haven’t really thought of myself as a girl since.’
‘Sure enough.’ Jim chances another glimpse, but she’s looking out the window and there’s just the back of her head, one grimy finger twisting at a hank of hair. ‘I never told you my name, anyhow. I’m Jim. Jim Anderson.’
A sudden patch of corrugation jolts through their bones until they hit the slick downhill, smoothing the ride. She’s looking at him. He can feel it. The unspoken question mists the air between them. The wipers clunk. Clunk again.
‘You don’t have ta tell me. No law against keepin’ yerself to yerself.’
‘I want to say. I do. But I’m just …’
‘You’re on the run, eh? Is that it? Don’t wanna get dobbed in by some do-gooder old codger who blows in outa nowhere.’
‘You’re onto it, I guess. That sounds mean, though. Makes me sound like a bitch. I’m not.’
‘Never said you were. That’s your words, not mine. I just reckon I get it – about not wantin’ to be tracked down. Half the bushies I ever met are layin’ low for some reason or other.’
‘I’m no bushie.’
‘Didn’t think you were. I’d ‘ve smelt ya before I got outta the car.’ Her smile is quick to come, quick to go.
‘I just have to get away for a bit.’
‘An’ you don’t like the idea of bein’ tracked down.’
‘Not right now. No.’
‘Like I said before – none of my business.’
‘It’s not like I killed anyone or anything.’
Jim’s laugh hocks up from his gut, a bark busting through a sudden grin.
‘Wasn’t my first assumption.’ She looks at him sideways. Jim squints through the murk, brakes, changes down through the gears. ‘Just lookin’ for the turn. Here we go.’
Silence grows inside the cab, except for the wet slash of heavy leaves and reaching grass dragging at the body of the ute, ancient wheel ruts falling into mud as the rain sludges down. Jim’s small cabin leans back against rock and forest, headlights fracturing glass as they swing around at the end of the track. Jim reefs on the park brake. A rattle of rain slams the windscreen.
‘Tell ya what. I’ll grab your stuff, open up and get the lights on. You sit tight ’til you see the light, then come on over. No sense two of us getting soaked. Take it easy, though. That grass gets slick when some weather comes in. Don’t you dare go fallin’ down. We’re in the middle o’ sweet Jesus nowhere out here.’
‘I’m not an invalid.’
‘Never said you were. But there’s no mistakes out here. Understand me?’
She blinks beneath her hair.
‘Yeah, alright old man. I get it. I’ll be careful.’
The driver’s door creaks like torn metal. Jim thunks it hard, crouching against the hammering rain. Bloody weather sure chose its moments. He squints at the mud and gluggy grass. She’d been right about him being old. Best to practise what he preached. Fat lot of good he’d be to her, or anyone, flat on his back, starin’ up into the weeping face of God.
Once the stove is crackling along to the hum of the battered kettle, the cabin feels downright homey. Jim swipes at the inside of a mug with the tip of a tea-towel, lifts the pot, pours a tannin stream. He glances over at the folded frame of the girl—she is still a girl in his eyes, despite her protestations—lifts the mugs and stands beside her. Heat presses into his seams. He moves the skin inside the leg of his pants, steps away a little, then leans forward, his hand out.
‘Here ya go. There’s honey in it …’
‘But I don’t …’
‘Yeah well, ya do now. Tonight anyways. It’s cold, it’s wet and you look like three pounds o’ skun rabbit except for that belly of yours you keep tryin’ to hide from me. So quit yer yapping and get that tea into ya.’
‘You’re a bossy old coot.’
She sips, her eyes fixed on him. Dart back down that warren if you want, girlie, but you’d be better off up here. ‘Not too strong?’
‘No. It’s pretty good, actually.’
‘You get yourself a name yet?’
‘Ya never told me yer name. I reckon you’ve got one. Most people do. You might not want to bandy it about, but you’ve had a fair whack o’time to make somethin’ up by now.’
‘I don’t have to tell you my name.’
‘Fair enough. But be buggered if I’m sayin’ hey you for the duration. Either ‘fess up or make it up – either way’s fine by me.’ A moment passes. A log pops and she jumps, sloshing tea against the rim of her mug. She pushes wet hair against her forehead. What the hell.
Dawn is a faint scrape of orange beneath a contusion of cloud when Jim finds Rosie down by the woodpile. Waking to empty silence, his first thought is that she’s done a runner, but there’s nowhere to run to: nothing for miles but cold and granite country. Rosie bunches the blanket tighter around her shoulders, rolling her neck into the folds. Bush crowds in, the tops of trees blank with early mist. The clear-throated carolling of a magpie opens around them. Their breath fogs the air.
‘It’s beautiful here, y’know.’ Jim smiles and Rosie nods, the sky lightening as sun lifts gently through cloud and mist. ‘God’s own refuge.’ He rubs his palms together. The knuckles on his bony hands glow red. ‘Well I don’t know about you, Rosie, but the wet’s soakin’ up into my boots and I can’t feel me toes no more, so let’s get inside and put a coffee on.’
‘Yeah. Alright. Bossy old coot.’ He offers his arm, and she takes it without protest.
He moves through the day to the sound of her story. She seeks no advice, so none is offered. Letting her talk is the easiest thing in the world and rounds out the sharp corners built by isolation. Rosie confides in him how it bothered her, that when the moment of choice presented itself, indecision had immobilised her—moving forward and moving backward seemed equally impossible.
The direction of travel had been clearer to Josh: a baby meant marriage, marriage meant a house with a back-yard barbeque, and cars with matching licence plates. In his vision, their future was laid out like train track. He loved her, no doubt about it. And she loved him. So what was her problem? Rosie had stared out the window as the train pulled into the station, watched the doors open, the people flow across the tiles and up the stairs. She listened as the doors closed with a hiss, saw Josh’s face in the gathering of grey, drained faces, his eyes scanning, felt the pulling lurch of the train, the gasping brakes releasing and propelling her forward like an arrow from a bow, frozen in her seat. It wasn’t that she knew where she was going; she just knew that this wasn’t her station.
‘So he loves you, this bloke?’
‘And he wants to marry ya?’
‘But you don’t want him. How come?’
‘I did. For a long time. I just don’t anymore.’ Rosie smooths her palm in a circle on the worn wood of the kitchen table. ‘You think I’m mad, don’t you? Passing up a good thing.’
‘I reckon – in my humble opinion – that if you wanted to be with Josh, you wouldn’t be sittin’ in this old bloke’s kitchen drinkin’ tea.’
‘But what if I’m making a huge mistake? What if I’m ruining this baby’s one good chance to have a proper family?’
‘Jesus, girl – this wouldn’t be the first kid born on the wrong side of the blanket. The baby’ll be fine. You’ll be fine.’
‘You think so?’
‘Sure. Why not, eh?’
‘I don’t know.’ Inside her mind, dark eyes search for her, drowning with secrets. ‘It’s complicated’
‘Of course it is. Women over-think everything.’
‘And men think everything’s simple. Straightforward.’
‘Not always. I’ve been through a bit of complicated in my life, too, y’know.’ The kettle grumbles on the stove. Jim swipes at the back of his neck, scratches an ear. ‘Yer can’t always fix something broken.’
‘You’d have to want to.’
‘Even then, there’s no guarantees.’
‘So much of my life feels broken, I don’t know what to fix and what to let go of. What should I do, Jim? I need to know what to do.’
Here it is, then: wisdom of the elders. He’s been summoned. Jim walks to the sink, fills the kettle and sets it back on the stove. He opens the firebox and shoves a round of wood onto the coals.
‘I’m not in the business of givin’ out advice. You’ve got ta do what’s right fer you. Buggered if I’m knowing what that would be.’ Rosie looks at the clock, out the window, then back at the clock. Jim stretches and brushes the bark off his pants. She gathers the plates and takes them to the sink. ‘Want this water for the dishes?’ She nods.
When dark begins settling in like a chook gone to roost, Rosie is still sitting on the lumpy couch, her chin resting on her bony knees. Jim comes in and feeds the fire, rattling around in the fridge for a bit before tossing a couple of steaks onto the draining rack. She’s settling in too; they both know it. When there’s no going forward or back, you stay put. Sit it out. He knows about that; he’s been doing it most his life, one way or another.
Rosie sits and walks and sleeps. She washes dishes, helps with cooking and not much else, because Jim is an old-fashioned bloke about women in her condition and, besides, he’s used to going about his day without concession. She rises from the couch early, stepping into the raw dawn where quiet opens out around her. Time breathes more slowly here. She returns to the cabin when smoke crumples out over the roof, pressed down by heavy air, smoothed with fingers of cold. Jim’s morning greeting comes with a nod and a mug of coffee. Rosie’s shell is thinning, but at the same time she feels herself turning inwards, linking with the child who rolls and sways on a secret sea. Jim ebbs and flows through days, watching and waiting.
‘It’s so still in the forest,’ she tells him one morning, coffee steaming in her cupped hands. ‘Down at the pond the reflection of the trees makes a ring around a circle of sky. It’s really beautiful. I could sit there for hours, just looking. I don’t even need to think -just sink into the silence.’ Jim lets himself be led into his own quiet, guided by her words. He has watched the pond himself a time or two.
Once, in failing light, he climbed the valley wall’s crumbling granite to witness tiny headlights grazing the rim of the horizon: lights moving down and away, leaving Jim crouched inside deepening darkness, remote and estranged. That night he had felt grief flooding his lungs, choking, crushing, cheating him of breath. Sometimes, even now, the tears came back like a haunting. Some things can’t be escaped, no matter the abyss gouged out by passing years.
‘They say that time heals all wounds, but that’s crap. You get further away from the pain, but it’s still there. Where’s it goin’ ta go? Got nowhere to go. It just waits. Then somethin’ reminds you, and there you go again.’
‘Damn. I was hoping that saying was true.’
‘Well, it’s not. Least not always. Guess it might be true for some.’
‘What makes it different for you?’
‘Maybe it depends what you’ve lost. What you’ve had to learn.’
For Jim, it was finding out that losing certainty was harder than losing love: it pulled the rug out from under you, slammed the door on the future. What good was love without that?
Jim’d called their love the magic bullet because of the way it had stopped them both dead, ripped them away from where they’d been going and flung them together, like it or no. He’d understood at the time that choice hadn’t had a lot to do with it.
‘I was about your age. I walked in the room and bam! Dropped me like a gunshot. Wasn’t lookin’ for it, but it found me anyways. I was twenty-three at the start, twenty-nine when it all went to hell.’
Jim had once thought of love as something you did, but really, it was something you were in, like they said—in love. His youthful soul had believed that finding ‘the one’ would make for the easiest loving, but in truth it felt more like being trampled by cattle; he was half crazy from it the whole time. But life and love surged through his veins, propelling him forward. For sure knew he was alive, and there’s no price on that.
Jim leaves the room, comes back with a photo and drops it onto the table in front of Rosie. The paper is slick and faded, 1961 inked on the back.
‘That’s us. Only photo I kept. Me and the love of my life. Six years. Six fuckin’ years. A lifetime ago.’
It’s a shock she’s not expecting; the image sears her fingers, pulling pain into her throat. She swallows it down.
‘Which one’s you?’
‘Bloke on the left.’ Rosie traces their fading jawlines with a finger, smiling at the hairstyles and the clothes. The photo could have been taken in 1923—it looks like the sixties never made it out this far.
‘We was both jackaroos on a station up Queensland. Horses ‘n cattle ‘n that.’
‘You look so happy.’
‘Yeah, well. What did we know? We was young. We thought we was invincible.’
‘But you weren’t.’ She studies the photo, feeling Jim’s eyes on her, bristling with challenge. The truth was out; retreat was no longer an option. ‘Did people know?’
‘Nobody ever come right out with it, but after a while … I guess they suspected. We took off anyways, and headed south. We bought this place here for next to nothin’.’ He sighs, deep and long. ‘You don’t get away from it, though. It follows you. I never let it bother me what people said. What they thought. Fuck ‘em! But not everyone’s like that.’
‘No. That’s true. Some of us … we can’t face the fight.’
‘So you run. Clear off.’
‘Is that what happened?’
‘Yeah. Listen, you can love someone that doesn’t love you back. I’ve done that one too. But just you try lovin’ someone that does love you back, but clears off anyway.’
Tears swift and hot press behind her eyes.
‘It must’ve been hard.’
‘Beginning to end, but worth every minute.’
Rosie sits the photo against her empty mug, staring, trying to recognise true love and commit it to memory.
‘You don’t reckon I should have taken off, do you?’
‘I think if you loved that Josh fella – really loved him – you’d’ve stayed and got married. And if you didn’t, you’d’ve told him so. It’s not him I’m thinkin’ of. It’s the bloke who put that baby in yer belly that yer wondering whether ya should’ve walked out on.’ She eyes the wood grain in the table, scraping her thumbnail along the edge.
‘How did you know?’ Her voice is small. Strangled.
‘Worked it out. I recognised the look. Seen it in the mirror enough times. The magic bullet can do a lotta damage. I figured there must be reasons you couldn’t hack it. But none of my business. Tell – don’t tell. I don’t have no rules about it.’
Rosie picks up the photo, and hands it back to Jim.
‘How long after you two met did you know that this time it was different?’
‘Straight away. Like I said – drops you like a bullet. Didn’t stand a chance.’ Rosie feels the clear truth sink in.
‘Love at first sight?’
‘You bet. It can happen. Happens all the time. But people don’t believe it, so they let it get away.’
‘Or they run. Like me.’ Blood rolls through Rosie’s body like the clubbing of distant surf. Jim’s hand brushes the top of her head and settles on her shoulder. She looks up.
‘And you never found someone else?’
‘I had a go. Nothin’ came to much.’
Truth was, Jim knew, no one’s staying around to try and live up to a ghost, broken heart be damned. So if you can’t go back and you can’t go forward, you just stay put. He was still sitting it out.
Rosie stays, as waning days wax into swollen months. When the birth surges come she surfs their crests and rolls in their foam. Jim knows the protocol, having played midwife to plenty of horses, and leaves her to it. Even so, he stays close enough to reassure her with the rhythm of distant wood splitting and the constant murmur of the replenished kettle on the stove. A day and a night pass. Rosie sways and walks and dozes, drifting inward, letting go. The baby enters the world on a cry like a black cockatoo in high flight, and his newborn eyes are deep and full of secrets. Rosie overflows with wonder; she holds in her arms the child that ties her to love, and reminds the world that not every truth can be hidden.
Jim cradles them both in his approbation. Love comes upon him like a thunderclap: he is a miracle, this baby, with his smear of black curls and sable skin as dusky as the fingerprint of evening sky framed by the kitchen window. Jim weathers the blustery, wailing nights with good grace, at home with the smells and sounds of fecundity. He watches Rosie opening, shrugging gently into the soft blanket of motherhood.
Days lengthen, warming the soil. The baby suckles and grows fat as butter. Jim likes to press his nose onto the top of his sweet head, pulling in the scent of him.
‘Elixir of life,’ he says, and dabs a gristly thumb on the baby’s chin. ‘Ain’t that right, little fella?’ Then to Rosie, ‘You ever goin’ ta give this kid a name? Told you before how I feel about referrin’ to people as hey you.’
‘I remember.’ The words sit like a cat’s tongue between her lips. Jim waits. ‘I was thinking I could name him after his father. It’s a tradition in his family. He told me about it. First-born sons and all that.’ Jim snorted.
‘You could do that, but don’t kid yerself—yer pissing on your territory. Least that’s what it sounds like. Yer worried that if the father don’t know about your baby, he’ll give the name away to some other kid later down the track, so yer getting’ in first.’
‘That’s not fair.’
‘Am I right, though? ‘Cause there’s another way of dealin’ with it. You could take him his kid. Introduce ’em. It’s a sad thing to go through life not knowin’ who yer dad is.’
‘Jesus, Jim. I’m not you. I’m not the brave one.’
‘Maybe he’d be brave enough fer both of you.’ Give him a chance, girlie. Go on. He can’t show you if you don’t let him.
Rosie wakes the next morning with her lover’s face so clearly before hers, she almost believes she could reach out and touch it, but the vision diminishes into soft, empty breath. She thinks of Jim’s photo, imagining the image fading, blurring slowly as days and years shudder past.
‘I didn’t know for sure,’ she tells Jim. ‘When I left. Who the father was, I mean. I had a fair idea the baby was Geedi’s, but I couldn’t hang around to find out. I was afraid.’
‘So now you know. Tell him.’
‘I can’t just show up and drop a son in his lap and say, here you go.’
‘Sure you can.’
‘No! He wouldn’t want me. Look at me, Jim! I’m not the one for Geedi: wrong colour, wrong religion, wrong family. You can’t always fix something that’s broken; you said so yourself.’
‘So you run away and hide? That’s no answer neither.
Tall stands of forest fringe the horizon like lashes against an upturned cheek. Cattle clump under trees, their hides smudged with the windy shadows of retreating storm clouds. Jim mutters curses as the ute grunts over the crest of the hill, its gears grinding.
‘Nearly there. We still got about twenty minutes. Do ya want anythin’ from the shops?’ Rosie’s fingers press the brown paper bag in her lap. She holds it up to him.
‘Nah. I reckon you’ve got it covered. Sandwiches. Apples. Thermos of tea. Kitchen bloody sink.’
‘Yeah, well. It’s a long ways you two are goin’ and you don’t want to be eatin’ that crap from the truck stops.’ She feels the true meaning behind his gesture, and holds it close.
The swag thuds down beside her legs. Jim folds his creaking knees and sits beside her on the bench. A glance at his watch gives them five minutes, tops.
‘Here.’ He folds the notes between his fingers and tucks them into her jacket pocket.
‘Don’t Jim. No. After everything you’ve done…’
‘For the road. The baby might need something.’
‘Please. Let me. Please.’ He blinks at his knuckles, frowning.
‘Okay. Thanks. I owe you.’
‘No.’ Suddenly fierce, he eyes her from beneath his Akubra. ‘You’ve been my sunshine, girlie. You and that baby there, eh little man? This old bloke didn’t see you comin’, but he’s glad you got lost where ya did. You don’t owe me nothin’.’
‘Fair enough.’ Her eyes blur and waver. She blinks.
‘Now you take care. That’s an order.’
‘Bossy old coot.’ But she’s smiling as the coach hisses into the curb, grey water swilling onto the footpath.
‘You’d better believe it. Now get on that bus.’
As the driver stows her swag, Rosie rubs a forearm against the fogged glass. Jim lifts his hat, rubs a hand around his neck, and she sees the pink glint of scalp through thin wisps of grey. Her heart aches. She watches him step back, hat in hand, his eyes rimmed with red, as the coach pulls away and he climbs up into the cab of the ute. No backward glance. Go get him, girlie.
Down the road, remnants of lightning skitter across the tops of the arid hills. Sun halos dirty clumps of thinning grey cloud. The baby chortles, drool pooling on his chin. Rosie wipes it away with her thumb. Gum trees and wattles press against the verge, nodding as the bus rumbles past. Ahead, the crooked finger of road unfurls like a question mark in the dissipating storm.
Photograph by Sandra Norsen.