Sport 42: 2014
Victoria Cleal — Running to the Ghost Town
Running to the Ghost Town
He watched them—Gina eating her early dinner, the low sun through the window tangling in her curls. And Denise, pushing a cup of juice to Gina, her arm brown from layers of summer days. The transistor buzzed and a blowfly scrambled on the window ledge and Denise and Gina’s murmurs about kindy lulled.
He said he had news.
Denise’s eyes wide open could still startle him, as if he was peering into the waters of a northern bay. He told her and she shrieked and they hugged in a toppling sway. Gina pranced around them and he lifted her to peer into her sea-eyes too.
I’ll make something special, like a casserole, Denise said. Are you hungry yet?
No, he was not. He said he could wait.
And yet he could not. She sliced onions and they talked and he dug out the Blue Nun, but something was stretching inside him and demanding to come out.
I’ll go for a quick run.
She put down the knife. She looked at him, hands by his sides, fingers twitching, and smiled. Be back in the hour, she said.
Running down the hill through the village, the restless feeling lifted into joy. He always felt it strongest, wrongly, when he was alone.
Most days he took a left at the end of the road, past the chicken farm and the cornfields to town. But it was too late for town errands, and the traffic would be heavier this time of evening. He turned right, past the jail.
Callaghan was meant to let him know either way the day before, but Hemara and Dowling had tried to escape on a tractor, and between the excited crims and the amused local rag, Callaghan was kept busy.page 195
Today had been calmer, but still no word. At knock-off at two, he went to Callaghan’s office. He had never gone unsummoned, and Callaghan looked up from his papers as if wondering who he was.
Just seeing if a decision’s been made. Sir. His voice sounded tight, like bad ventriloquism.
Callaghan twined his hands behind his head and swelled out his gut.
Youngest DO in my memory, Callaghan said. You’re in long trousers now, son.
Cars rumbled up and passed and the air was calm again. He jogged on the shoulder of the road past round hills, the low sun tarnishing the fields. It was a tamed and padded land, cows dotted, no more real than the plastic ones in Gina’s farm set. Yet this was the border country and beyond it soon turned rugged.
Wild lands. Even when first married, even after Gina was born, he would go bush with his mates for a week or more. They walked all day with the tracks always steep and seldom got a view above the trees. They carried pikaus and slept in the open when they could and after a few nights they would begin to tell stories. They tramped far in search of nothing more than weariness, and every morning they woke as strong and alert as the day before.
The last time he tramped, he returned home in the late afternoon and Denise was still in bed with messed-up hair. Gina was lolling on the covers, her face covered in snot. He knew then that he had set a path, and stepping off it unravelled everything.
He jogged up a small crest. He could see the nearest mountain, a dark brow far way.
They had often talked about building their own house on the edge of the town and now they would be able to. He could not complain about prison wages. They would have three bedrooms and a double garage and an open-plan living room facing a deck. Denise would have her bantams and he would have his vegetable patch and Gina her swing set.
Coming down the crest he heard a car from behind, but it didn’t see him as it ripped over the hill. He swayed in its drag. He stopped page 196 and watched it tear away. The sun would soon set and he would not be visible even on the flat. He jogged down the hill and took a left down a smaller road.
He did not remember coming here before, but they must have driven this way. They had driven everywhere on his days off, searching for picnic spots, swimmable streams, learning the land and hoping it would yield surprises. Somewhere different every week.
The road sloped into a valley. The hills were closer and higher and a knot of rock jutted from the nearest. The farmland was already more unkempt and scrubby. A goat roamed unleashed on the roadside.
He kept running, not weary yet, knowing it was time to turn back but telling himself he could not leave until he recognised this place. Some memory of it hovered out of reach.
He came to a house, unlit though the sun was setting. Then a row of fibro cottages, black-windowed, the curtains gone, the lawns all weeds.
It was the fifth cottage that reeled the memory in. They had bought their dining table from a family here just a year ago. There had been a lot of kids gambolling through a sprinkler on the lawn and the father had brought the table out to the driveway so they could see it better. Too small for a growing family, he had said.
He turned left down a track to the river. He remembered the whole story now. This was the village that would be submerged within months. This river, fast and sure of its path, would be halted and harnessed.
He walked back up the track and through the darkening village. Dozens of dead homes, all to be carted elsewhere. He looked in a window at an empty living room, just the carpet left, worn in a strip in the middle where people had padded past their furniture for decades.
Imagine if they didn’t take the houses away. He saw the water rising over them. The carpets rotting. The timbers swelling. The roofs peeling off. Imagine, better yet, not a slow rise but a great wave surging in and scouring the valley. The river a magnificent fist of water smashing through all of man’s flimsy work.
He breathed in the vision. His heels lifted, and he sprinted through the last of the village, southwards, as night seeped into the valley. He page 197 ran towards the raw hills still angry at their stripping, rocks jutting like broken bones.
He had his wallet and it was all he needed. He didn’t even need that—he had his body, young and burning, and his wits and his will.
He hit a bigger road. How far to the railway town? It didn’t matter— he could run all night. And it was night now, the stars sharpening above. A car approaching had its headlights on full. He looked away too late and the light left discs of blankness on his retinas. The car slowed. He sped up, but the driver called to him.
Need a lift?
They recognised each other at the same moment. Thought I’d found another crim on the run, Rangi said. I’m just out for a jog.
Now that he had stopped, he felt giddy.
You’re going to be road kill, tearing around in the dark.
Rangi waited. Now that the giddiness was waning, he only felt light and empty. He got in the station wagon. He melted into the sheepskin seat cover. Outside he could not make out any shapes at all.
It must have been the adrenalin, he said. You just don’t stop.
Now it was an effort to keep his eyes open. He could easily fall asleep in this warmth and softness.
I went to the village they’re drowning, he said to keep himself awake.
They’re closing that road off soon. He doubted that would stop him.
Back at their village the lights of every house were on. He told Rangi to go only as far as his own place. He walked around the corner to his street and there his house was, brightest of all with the kitchen curtains still wide open. And there were Gina and Denise, waiting at the window in the light that led him home.