My husband and my sons are in there now, the bone saw ripping through the corpse, dismembering it. Soon they'll get out the cleavers and the special knives and go to work with the chopping and the cutting and the slicing. My husband is the town butcher, our sons are his apprentices. My husband is six-foot-four. The boys are both six-two, identical twins, eighteen years old, big and hard and hairy. All that rough masculinity every night around the kitchen table as we devour our dead animals and veggies. Of course you know what butchers are like. Bare-armed and charming and always with a sly wink and a let-me-take-you-away-to-paradise-love look. So I fell for a butcher, a dashing handsome butcher, and we got married and had twin sons and now they're both butchers and that's the way of the world.
Let me take you on a tour of my town, Rockley, population 1000, but soon to be one less because tomorrow I intend to scarper, to bugger off, for good, forever, never to return.
So yes, over there, that's the butcher shop, built more than a hundred years ago of the local red brick (as you can see). And that over there is the School of Arts, naturally, and right next to it is the museum, our glorious history (men mining, men constructing, men fighting far away, men at sport, men in the fields, whiskered men, bronzed men, skinny men, ugly men, old men) housed in what used to be the mill. And then next to that, as you'd expect, the pub. And all built of the same red brick. My great-grandfather made those bricks. Or a good many of them at least. His father came to this town when the gold was first found. We've been here ever since, and now I'm the last of the line, the only child of dead parents.
And I took my husband's name at marriage, as is the local custom. So there you go.
Midday already. For lunch, a salad sandwich and a bottle of mineral water. I'm in the town park sitting under a gum tree. The trees here are old, most planted by the founding fathers. On the other side of the river you can see oaks and pines and ashes. Nearer the water are the willows. They've recently done this park up, put in new barbecues and picnic tables and public toilets. On the weekends there are lots of people here, eating, drinking, playing cricket, fishing. I love these winter days, clear sky, sunshine, windless, calm.
I've decided to lay off the booze today. I want to be sober for my final look around the town. And I want a clear head tomorrow when it's time to leave. The drinking usually starts at midday, a large glass of claret accompanied by Days of Our Lives. In the mornings I work—cook, clean, shop. I keep a good house.
I've never had a job outside the house. I've never really wanted one. The women in my family have always stayed home. In this part of the bush it's 1900. Forever 1900. My husband used to say he didn't mind if I worked. But he actively encouraged me not to. 'A woman's place…' So I've kept myself in my place. Of course, he has his little joke: 'I wouldn't mind being able to sit around all day and do nothing.'
The trick with drinking is firstly always to have a ready supply from a safe source, and secondly to have an efficient and secret way of disposing of the empties. By safe source I mean getting it out of town. There's only one bottle shop here and the amount of alcohol one purchases is everybody's business. There are half a dozen big and small towns within an hour's drive and between them there are a lot of grog outlets. I vary my place of acquisition. 'What'll it be today, love?' Any one place knows me only as the occasional buyer.
And then there are the empties. I drink wine casks. Always the same—claret because it doesn't require refrigeration. At any given time there's a half-full cask on show. But I'm always actually refilling from a secret stash. If questioned, the family would have to admit, 'Mum's been on that cask for ages.'
I get through a four-litre cask in less than two days. Plus the beer. I always buy cans, not bottles. That's the key. Cans crush easily. Crush everything and wrap it with the daily garbage and get it into the bin. It just takes a system. I have excellent organizational skills.
My husband never knows how much I've been drinking, even though I'm always tanked by tea time. He and the boys spend two hours at the pub before coming home, but I'm sure it makes no difference. The orbit of their genuine interest in anything does not include me.
And that's the way it is.
One night a few weeks ago I made an announcement. A well-cooked leg of lamb was shining on the table. My husband was sharpening the knife prior to carving. The baked veggies were crisp and golden. The boys were hungry.
I said, 'I'm thinking of becoming a vegetarian.'
My husband stopped carving.
'You know … A vegetarian.'
'Don't be bloody stupid.'
'I'm not being stupid. I'm being very serious.'
'You are aware of what I do for a living?'
'That's got nothing to do with it.'
My husband carved some meat. My sons were silent. My husband said, 'What's put this idea into your head?'
'Nothing. It's just the way I think.'
'You've never thought this way before.'
'I've always thought this way. I've never said anything about it before but I've always thought this way.'
'It's something I feel more and more strongly about. You know, the way that we all…'
My sons laughed. One of them said, 'You're bonkers, Mum.'
At that moment I knew it was possible to hate your own child. My husband has often called me bonkers. It's the word he uses whenever I do or say anything that does not accord with his incredibly broad view of the world. Bonkers. I mean, what sort of a stupid bloody word is that? My husband's mother was bonkers too. And thus it continues.
But anyway, after my son had informed me of the fact that I was bonkers, my husband turned to him and said, 'She's getting more and more bonkers every day.' They all laughed. Then my husband went back to the carving, the boys started talking about work. They seemed oblivious to what had just occurred.
I stared at my plate. Then I looked at my sons, and at my husband as he dished up the meat. I felt as if I'd just been emptied out and crushed. I knew that it was time to leave.
You're probably wondering why the cemetery is so far out of town. Five kilometers, and then half a kilometer up this rough track. Maybe the founding fathers envisaged great expansion. But instead, when the gold ran out the town shrank. If it weren't for the brickworks there'd be no one here.
But just look at how much space the dead get. Paddocks and paddocks. There's a lot of room in the bush. And so quiet.
My family's up here in this corner. Half a paddock to themselves. As you can see there are lots of unmarked graves. Unknown relatives from the nineteenth century. Here's my great-grandfather, the brickmaker. And my grandmother. And my mother.
It's three in the afternoon. Usually by now I'd be deep into the claret and the arvo soapies. I'm not sure why I brought you out here. Maybe it's something to do with the fact my husband is getting into his family history, tracing his family tree.
Of course, he doesn't give a damn about my mob here. I told him so. He said nothing was stopping me from doing my family history. But I told him I didn't really care about that stuff anyway, family history is nonsense. I mean, you don't have to go back too far before you're related to half the people in the world; it all depends what line you follow, six generations back you've got sixty-four direct ancestors all with the same amount of genetic input, one of whom happens to be the great-great-great-great-grandfather you share a name with.
But my husband didn't care for that argument. He's gone back six generations, and he's in Ireland digging up spuds, and he's happy because he knows where he comes from.
One year ago I decided to write a novel, a romance. I announced my decision to the domestic hearth. This time I was not bonkers.
'You've always got your nose stuck in the damned things. Might make a bit of money.'
My mother read Mills and Boon. I inherited her collection—thousands. I'd heard that Mills and Boon had guidelines for aspiring writers. I contacted them. They sent me a booklet, How To Write a Romance. I read the whole thing. There are many categories of romance. I learned the different rules for the different categories. What it comes down to is the stage of the relationship the happy couple is allowed to jump into the sack—after marriage (my mother's books), before marriage, whatever. But remember: lovemaking should only take place when the emotional commitment between the characters justifies it.
The booklet also told me: the successful romance writer will fully understand and believe in the redemptive power of true love.
Five o'clock and here I am back home. Look all you want, you won't find a speck of dust. And the carpets were vacuumed yesterday, the floors were washed this morning.
My husband and sons will be home in a couple of hours. They'll be knocking off about now, and then they'll head to the pub for a while. If you were to stay and meet them you'd probably think I'd been giving you a bum steer. You'd probably say, 'They're not so bad, they're just ordinary blokes.' And I'd have to agree with you; of course they're O.K., of course they're just ordinary blokes. Of course.
Anyway, I need a drink. And yeah, I know I said I wouldn't be drinking today, but let's not be too bloody ridiculous about it. One beer. One can of beer.
What I've got to do is sit and think and work out a strategy. But first I'd better get some tea organized. I'm doing a stir-fry tonight, something simple. Onion, capsicum, Chinese greens, garlic, beef slices, soy sauce, palm sugar, oyster sauce, noodles. It's always a favorite with the boys.
I like slicing and dicing, working slowly and methodically, putting a meal together, sipping my drink. So I'll prepare everything now and when they get home I can whack the lot into a pan and it'll be ready in five minutes.
All done. And now I think just one more beer. All right, so tomorrow's the big day. Tomorrow's the day that I'll be pissing off forever. So have I told my husband and sons that I'm leaving? No. Will I tell them? Absolutely not. This time I refuse to be declared bonkers. I'll just up and leave—when I've packed of course. I'll have to do that in the morning, after they've left for work. So yes, that's what I'll do, I'll pack in the morning.
They'll be home any minute, and then I'll start the cooking. Get that stir-fry going. They'll be hungry.
There's the car in the driveway now. One more drink. I reckon a large claret will do the job. Yes. And tomorrow I'm leaving, tomorrow I am definitely leaving, definitely, I just need a strategy and I'll be all right.
Copyright © John Gooley 2006. Title graphic: "Center Cut" Copyright © The Summerset Review 2006.