By Louise Omer
Edited by Veronica Sullivan
She leans her head against hard glass, her body swaying with the train’s long metal shimmy. Eyes closed, sunlight flickering softly through eucalyptus leaves. Her limbs buzz – they have been too long beneath fluoro lights, too long in workplace stillness. This is her first chance to throw off the city like a heavy jacket and dive into the world of green.
His eyes had glittered like dark coals as he tilted his schooner. The hum of chatter, the pub’s heating against the chill, the dark coals glittering. Her cheeks were red and her belly was fire and her wine glass was cool.
‘Go talk to him,’ Natasha hissed, tucking straw-like hair behind her ear. They were seated at the bar and he stood at a table with his friends, over Natasha’s shoulder.
‘I can’t.’ She glanced at the close-shaved beard, the tailored blazer, the elegant fingers gripping the glass. Would they be cold when they touched? Would they – his eyes met hers again, summoned by the heat of her lust. Perhaps he liked the shape of her leg, bent like this on the stool. Quick! Back to Natasha.
‘Look – he needs to come to me. He needs to want me‘
A dull moaning behind her. Not moaning – singing, amongst the train’s rhythmic clatter. ‘Nah, nah, boys like girls, nah, nah, boys like girls.’ A daytime-deadened rendition of a nightclub beat. She turns to the nasal, monotonous singer, only to be met with a stare that makes her shiver, the whites of his eyes like blazing headlights. A hulking figure with a long and dirty jacket, he looks uncomfortably similar to someone she once slept with. Damn it – she knows better than to establish eye contact on public transport. Her heart beats like a rabbit’s.
A woman clacks her knitting needles. ‘Nah, nah, boys like girls.’ The rocking of the carriage.
The train pulls up at Upper Ferntree Gully station and she hoists her backpack, breathes deep and steps metal to concrete, grateful for other passengers. The man with the long jacket is beside her.
‘Hey gawjus,’ he croaks.
Ignore. Look away. Headphones in – or out, depending. Keys in hand. Feminine lore – not exactly passed down, but learnt all the same; stories of near misses.
She pulls off her backpack, rests it on a bench, fossicks through it. Dawdles. The man in the long jacket overtakes. She sighs in relief as he turns the opposite way at the exit ramp.
Emerging from the brick tunnel, she pushes on sunglasses and peers at the sign. 1000 Steps trail, 1.2km. Sometimes she needs to feel the trees breathe. Sometimes she needs to get out and hear the wind whisper her name. Further into the scrub, away from steel tracks and electricity lines, away from the roar of the main road and its demand for vigilance.
At the carpark, asphalt meets white gum. Tourists with tanned skin slam car boots and joggers in lycra kneel to tie fluoro runners. At the entrance to the 1000 Steps trail, trees stretch up like praising hands towards a rich sky. In this place she is welcomed. In this place she is whole.
A man with a septum ring and dark lashes steps onto the path ahead. His body is compact muscle, a pit bull. He pulls up his black running shorts so they sit on his hips and cup round buttocks. She thinks of childhood trips to the zoo, and the lion who liked to ‘display’ to his visitors – a mating ritual, the sign said. A display of his body’s power; was it a threat or a promise? Nevertheless, when this man steps off the path to fill his drink bottle – removing his delightful display from her line of vision – disappointment blooms.
She begins the ascent, stone steps on a narrow path between scrub and gum. Strips of old bark hang from high boughs like snakes. The scent of eucalyptus and water in the air. A thousand invisible birds make a collective song like the twinkling of sunlight on ocean.
At the first resting spot a man with enormous thighs covered with curly red hair squats low to the ground. In alarm she thinks he is dropping a turd. He stares down intently, his face crimson. Oh – stretching, a test of endurance, perhaps like the lion’s display. She imagines him still there hours later, trembling in the light of dusk, a single bead of sweat rolling down his temple as the air darkens around him.
A PE teacher used to visit her when she worked at the surf shop during university. The skin around his eyes crinkled when he smiled. He did his shopping on Wednesdays after he finished school, and always used to ‘drop by’ to buy socks or look at boards. She was a conquest, she knew instinctively. She imagined him with groups of male teachers at recess, mug of Nescafe in large hand, boasting about his cheek-kissing, his tight hug on arrival, his palm on the small of her back when he moved past. Or once, only once, when he saw her at a local cafe, sat next to her while he waited for his takeaway, put his hand on her thigh and stroked, stroked. Was it a promise? On Wednesdays she wore nice bras, tight jeans, examined the mirror with burning eyes. She thought of what he could do to her, of how he could take her hand and lead her to a secret place and push her up against a wall.
After the surf shop, a Facebook photo appeared years later (that stroke on her thigh). Midway through an enormous deadlift, his stony gaze at the gym’s mirror. She could have sworn – and she did zoom in – that he was hard.
Ferns line the side of the gravel path, brushing her shins. She stops, peers at a grand old stringybark, bright moss crawling up its trunk. A lyrebird’s chirp whips in the green air, calls her higher, higher up the trail. The narrow path is not suffocating like the brick tunnel at the station; here, she is gathered safely in.
There are steps close behind. She smiles, imagines it is the pit bull man arriving to press his shapely arms around her, to mingle his sweat with hers. The gravel crunches, slides. She hears the cadence of his pace. Does he watch the swing of her hips, the bounce of her hair? She turns – it’s not him. This man has glasses. And he is close.
A helicopter thuds in the sky somewhere. When she was small, the chop of the blades would make her dash outside to examine the heavens. Mostly the aircraft was from the news, or on its way to the hospital. Once, though, at bedtime, a giant searchlight sliced neatly through black air. The beam was searching for an escaped prisoner, her sister whispered. A wanted criminal. Maybe even a pervert. They scampered inside, giddy with the possibility of danger. Even now, whenever she hears a helicopter at night, she imagines herself scaling fences, dodging clotheslines, pressing flat against brick walls as the searchlight swings in pursuit.
The hopeful fear of being wanted.
The footsteps match her pace. She slows. So do they. She quickens. The gravel crunches harder, faster. His scent reaches her, man amongst nature. She hasn’t passed any other walkers for over ten minutes – her armpits are wet. Is this shadowing a fitness game? She keeps to the left on the tight path. Still he breathes like a wolf at her neck. She knows he can hear her panting. Perhaps he will push her down that slope. Her back will break in the tumble and the forest will consume her and the helicopter will search but it will not find, and the lyrebirds will stand on her back and they will sing their forest song.
She stoops. Ties up a shoelace that wasn’t undone. He almost falls on top of her, but strides past, turning to look at her as he disappears around a bend. She glares back from the ground.
The rest of the track, the memory of him rests heavily on her back. The top of the trail is near. It curves and opens wide: hikers in various states of exhaustion rest on rocks around the edge of the clearing. She sits alone and the cool wind chills the damp of her t-shirt and she listens for the helicopter. She doesn’t have her glasses on, but she’s certain they’re all here: the shadower, the squatter, the pit bull – even the PE teacher and the man in the long jacket and the man from the bar, too, his elegant fingers gripping his pint, those dark coals a-glitter. They are lying and stretching, squirting water bottles into their mouths, virile repose on display. Some do sit-ups.
Think of what they could do to you. All of them. Every damn one. She throbs. To be desired – that’s all she’s ever wanted.
Above, the mountain wind disturbs a thousand leaves and they shimmer in the light.