In the spotlight of a half-moon, the sixteen-year-old tan Subaru Forester almost looks dark blue. It’s parked between the front porch and a pile of mulch that’s awaiting distribution.
The keys are tucked into the centre console. If necessary, I could get to driver’s seat in a sprint. I know the curves of the gravel road out of here and could gun it without skidding into any of the tea tree on the long driveway. Then all I’d have to do is speed the 10K towards town on the sealed road—not hitting any kangaroos, wallabies, wombats, or rabbits—and I’d be safe.
But what sanctuary can Venus Bay offer me? The one main street is already closed for the night, but someone should be around. Kids congregating for a smoke, retired Mafia characters scanning the road. It doesn’t matter. A living person would be there, at minimum. But the houses out where I am, near the pointy end of the land, are strictly for weekenders, and it’s Thursday.
So there’s just the dog and me for the next three nights, enjoying the gift of a friend’s house. The days are for writing, allegedly. The nights are for relaxing, allegedly. Perfect quiet, my friend promised, and perfect quiet I get. There’s barely enough of a breeze to carry the white noise of the surf over the dunes into this yard.
What if there was a distinct sound? For instance: a knock on the window? Or: the conversation of strangers walking up the driveway?
I lock the front door.
The plan is to think happy thoughts and to not even think about taking a phenergan to get to sleep.
Inside, all is ostensibly cheery. The white tongue-and-groove wall has ceramic kookaburras kingfishers flying around on it. Imagine my blood splattering across them? The fire in the Rayburn is going full force, loaded with enough red gum to go for hours. Ready to burn me, the place, and the peninsula to ash.
The B-side of ‘Young Americans’ is on the record player, some funk to fend off the silence.
Wylie, a kelpie-collie, lays half-off his mat with his chin on the floor. He watches me with mild curiosity, only because his eyes happen to be open.
I nest on the couch, wrap my feet in an itchy brown blanket and cuddle up with my phone. No wind means at least two bars, so I’m not completely abandoned here to die. The Guardian diverts me toward more realistic fears: I browse the usual suspects—civil war, nuclear war or climate emergency—before putting down the phone in search of something more chamomile. From the shelf: I scan the first page of a novel I’ve meant to read—times are hard in suburban Sydney; then the first page of another—times were also hard in medieval England.
I cannot think about focusing because the song “Fame” has come on. The descending distortion near the end as Bowie repeats fame sounds like a mantra, but also, on these old speakers, like a nightmare of falling. He was cocaine jittery then, drawn thin like a zombie, and doesn’t even remember recording it. Not hard to see him dead, his blue bell bottom suit hanging off of him, his sepulchral makeup smeared. I convince myself that behind the music I can hear him limping up the driveway. The song ends and I swap the album for ‘Hejira’.
I rescue a copy of The Good Weekend from the kindling pile and read every word. My heart is momentarily warmed. I do the quiz.
The dog’s ears spike. He looks intently across the room. I follow his gaze to the across the room. It’s the reflection in the window of me on the couch. There I am in the surveillance monitor. Is this what he’s looking at or is there something on the other side of the glass?
I get up and lock the back door—pointlessly. If someone wants in, this house is far enough from the road that the crack of a door being forced, or glass breaking, or for that matter, any scream I might be able to scream, would not carry to the next property—which, as has been noted, is unoccupied.
A Scotch is justified. Wrapping myself in the brown blanket and carrying the shot glass like a binky, I survey each room, closing every curtain and shade as I go. There: I can’t see the car or the woods or the shifting crowd of people outside.
To the outside world, however, my shifting shadow is backlit against the curtains. A short study should be enough to assure a blood-hungry Bowie or a hopped up ice addict that a home invasion here would be a cakewalk. Why anyone would get hopped up and come out here to commit a crime is a mystery. A mystery that makes the prospect more unsettling.
What I do know is this: the sharpest thing in the house is the bread knife in the kitchen. Even with my steadiest hand though, it couldn’t slow down the drug-fueled, or, my luck, the undead.
As per the fire plan, I could flee. Assuming whomever it is is composed of matter and chooses to push in the front or back door, I could stay alert enough to unlock the opposite one and escape into the bush. I have enough knowledge of the paths and clearings to hide out until the threat is gone. Assuming I don’t startle the copperhead that lives around here. And assuming my would-be assailant doesn’t have red-eyed night vision. Or the ability to smell fear.
There’s a chainsaw in the shed. I try not to think about what I will do when I hear it suddenly grind into action.
Realistically, this whoever is most likely the wombat in the hole near the barbeque, whose main interest is drinking from the water bucket on the porch. This is the only sort of home invasion that will get a rise out of this “working” dog.
I grew up in New York City on the ninth floor. At any hour of the day there was traffic, sirens, airplanes and helicopters, the thumping of neighbours and the shouts from crazy people on the street below. Cocooned in that nightly hum, I could fearlessly read Stephen King, and lose myself to the array of horrors that befall a person alone on a chilly night in the empty forest. The spoiler, learned from every story: The forest wants you to think it’s empty.
I part the curtains. No face on the other side of the glass. The car is still ready to go. Unless my assailant gets to it first.
I check my phone. No Service. Great, nuclear winter.
No panicking, no. The cloud of fallout would take a while to get here (and me with only a few day’s worth of pasta).
I turn the lights out, one by one. At least my movements won’t be visible through the curtains anymore.
When beckoned, the dog follows and curls clockwise twice before settling onto his burlap bed, adjacent to mine. I have deployed hot water bottles strategically under my doona and pillow. The tenets of good sleep hygiene dictate that I don’t even check mail, much less The Washington Post, before tucking my phone more than an arm’s length away. Yes, it shouldn’t even be in the room, but—safety first.
I switch off the last light. Not even the neon light of a standby mode button to be seen.
Wylie is snoring. How did he drift away from me so fast? I am alone.
Possibly the oddest of the Watergate conspirators, G. Gordon Liddy, wanted to conquer his fear of lightening when he was a child, so he sat in a tree during a thunderstorm. He was also scared of rats, so he caught and ate one. Surely going to sleep in a warm bed with a dog at my side should be survivable.
I came here with a fantasy, that I could be at ease in the bush, gloriously free, while all around me the nocturnal and crepuscular bushland go about their evening. The possums in the gum trees, the kangaroos and wallabies nibbling the grass almost out of existence, and the owls keeping lookout. Every now and then they notice the smoke coming out of the chimney, give a helpless smirk. Foreigners.
With my head between two pillows I can’t hear the silence.
The hot water bottles are no longer hot and the house is still dark. The phone tells me it’s four, which tells me nothing of use
I wrap myself in the blanket. The floor creaks its middle of the night creaks as I lead Wylie outside to pee. More clouds have moved in front of the moon. What was dark blue is grey. Wylie understands the purpose of our mission and follows me to the lemon tree at the top of the driveway. We pee together.
And then he trots off down the driveway.
I call, but he’s on the scent of something good. Summoning all the gravitas I have, I command him to come back. He gives me a courtesy glance before darting off the road into the woods. My next call is a notch more anguished and is met with the cracking sound of him running through the woods. I walk under the canopy of tea tree until the world is all shades of black. At the spot where Wylie left the road, there’s a kangaroo track. Wrapped in the blanket, I lean over to peer into the low gap in the trees. After a few feet, it fades to black.
I call again. No response.
Finally, here’s the clarity I’ve been waiting for: I am the ghost that is haunting these acres of Gippsland. Whatever I was afraid of before I went to sleep has already happened. The burglars who didn’t even mean to kill me, the snake I surprised, the meth head who got jittery with his knife, the army of dead Bowies. It turns out my death was painless. All I know is I don’t have to go back to the house because there is nothing there for me. No more terror at the setting sun. No writing to do in the morning.. From now on I will wander, barefoot and naked under my blanket, searching in the darkness for my dog.