Damn, that road to the left must have been the one he wanted. He’s been driving for eight hours and he’s going 130kph in the wrong direction as the sun starts to sink. He needs to make a u-turn. He slows, then slows even more, because a girl is coming round the corner on a horse. She catches his eye, she waves. He can’t u-turn now. She’ll think he’s following her. So he drives a bit further, seeing no good place to turn around, and he keeps going on as the dusk gathers, till he finds himself at the end of his energy in a town so small it’s no more than a whistle-stop, but with one hotel that must serve as bar and shop and emergency roadhouse for the whole empty country for miles around. And then
the locals are unfriendly, he’s a city boy, his car is vandalised, he goes for a walk unwisely, sees things he shouldn’t, horrible stains, guns and chainsaws, they’re after him, heart pumping panic in the dark
heard it before, try something else
the women of the settlement, who haven’t seen a man in years, convey their interest through sidelong glances, brushed half-accidental touches, escalating innuendo, and means still less subtle than this; and our hero, who as we’ve established is a thoughtful and nice sort of chap, can only do his best to accommodate their wishes, which are going to keep him extremely busy over a weekend we will proceed to describe in lavish detail
oh no we won’t, stop right there
tired, jaded and cynical from his uncaring city life, his defences are broken down by the healthy living and hippyish mores of the goat-keeping, pottery-making denizens of the little town; he embraces nature, learns to love again, and in return uses his legal savvy to save the locals from some evil dam-building scheme or other crap of that sort, whatever, we’ll work this part out later
You’ll have to do better than that. Where is this, anyway? The Appalachians?
Australia. Somewhere in outback Australia.
Have you been to Australia?
I’ve spent a few days in Melbourne and Sydney and I’ve seen Walkabout.
You don’t know what you’re talking about. You’d better set this in Ireland.
You can’t drive for eight hours in Ireland without falling off the edge. Anyway, this is a story. I’m allowed to make things up. I can go wherever I like with it.
You can drive a long time in Ireland if you’re lost enough. And there are places where the cut peat stretches out in the dusk like a dank brown desert, or the edges of the roads crumble away into ditches, thorn-shaded, every corner blind. And you might come to a lonely pub – yes, it had better be a lonely pub, with tin signs nailed to the walls and a snug and an open fire – and you’ll find some auld fella sitting at the bar who’s probably been there since Parnell was alive. The city man orders his pint and wonders if the barmaids are talking about him behind his back, but they’re not, of course, because he’s not that interesting; he’s only a stranger. They have their own stories to tell. This is a place that’s tangled and mulched in stories, clogged with the past.
There’s no room at the inn, in fact they don’t take guests, but the landlord phones from the back room and promises him a refuge at O’Shea’s B’n’B: it’s closed for the off-season, but Meabh O’Shea will take pity on a traveller, and as the direct road is blocked to cars by a burst water-main she’ll come to collect him. He nurses his pint by the fire, watching the sparks flare in the peat. Then out of the dark a tall young woman walks in. Her blond hair is tied back in a ponytail; her demeanour is businesslike; she is very thin, so thin he wonders if she’s anorexic, but her fine-boned face is one of the most beautiful he’s ever seen. Indeed he has seen it before, as she was the girl on the horse.
The girl pulls up a stool beside him at the bar, where he’s on his second large whisky (overnight bag safely stowed in his motel room, steak eaten, time now to kill). She is small, curvy, dark-haired, and doesn’t look especially athletic, though she must be reasonably so or she wouldn’t be able to control a horse.
“Hey, I know your face. Where have I seen you before?”
“I think we passed each other on the road, that’s all.”
“Well, how cool we ended up in the same place.” Ironically, given how carefully he avoided seeming to harass her earlier, she is clearly hitting on him. “I’m Amber. What’s your name?”
“Brian.” He doesn’t want to talk about himself, so he lies. “I’m an astrophysicist. And I also play the guitar.” From the way the barman looks up it’s possible he’s spotted what’s going on here, but she seems to have no suspicion.
“An astrophysicist! That’s amazing. Do you study, like, black holes?”
“No, my work is more in modelling processes of star formation. How it all…comes together and starts to shine. In theory.”
“And are you driving out to the desert to, like, make observations?”
“Nah, I was just passing through and took a wrong turn. Blame it on the satellite that beams me home,” he says, but she doesn’t notice the quotation or its depressing connotations. She continues to quiz him about his supposed scientific life and he finds himself telling her that he works at Monash University; that he has studied in Switzerland, England and Florida; that he has his own lab; that, yes, he has a really big telescope. After a while, needing a break, he goes outside for a cigarette; she follows him.
“You must come and see the best place for the sky. We have the best sky.”
“Isn’t it exactly the same from here? The stars in your sky are the stars in mine,” he says, another reference he has no expectation she’ll get. He looks up at the southern cross.
“No, it’s special. There’s a special place, out by the red rocks. The Murri carved on the rocks, and they knew what they were doing, because that’s where you see the aliens.”
“Yes, Mr Scientist, aliens. Wouldn’t you like to see some of those? Imagine what a big medal you’d get, or whatever it is.”
“You’re shitting me.”
“I bloody am not. Come on, come and see the aliens.”
They’ve left his car by the pub and she’s driving him in a threadbare 99-reg land rover. The road twists and slopes, so that he is quickly disorientated; trees bend to enclose them, banks rise on either side. Meabh is silent as she drives. Rounding a corner, the car startles some large creature, too large to be a fox, perhaps a deer, that rapidly skitters from the road. Then the slope bends upwards, they emerge from the deep shade and he sees directly ahead, silhouetted against the moonlit sky, a mound rimmed with trees. For a moment he thinks Meabh is taking him actually into the mound. But no, she swings to the left and there is a white house, a two-storey classical-style farmhouse with a rounded central doorway and a hipped slate roof. Stepping out onto the gravel drive, he looks up and sees the pole star.
His room is cold, unused for weeks. Meabh plugs in an electric heater (quicker than the central heating) and asks if he’d like to come through to the kitchen and have something to eat.
“Sorry about this,” she says. “In the summer we’d have the dining room set up but for now I’m improvising. Anyway, it’s my sister Grainne who does most of the B’n’B side – I do the horses. Are you a vegetarian?”
Told that he isn’t, she brings out sliced ham, cheeses, potato salad and soda bread, and makes up a hearty plateful for herself as well as for him. He concludes that her thinness must be the thinness of someone who is constantly busy, not that of someone with an eating disorder. She is very graceful. They sit together at the big oak table in the centre of the kitchen, warmed by the Rayburn, in the rather dim light of a halogen lamp.
So, whether out of curiosity or whisky or because he felt guilty for lying to her so much, here he is, painfully crammed into the front of an elderly ute with Amber sitting half on his lap and half on the handbrake. The driver is a previously unnoticed lank-haired boy who unfolded from a corner of the bar: her younger brother, presumably. She addresses him as Corey; he doesn’t answer because he’s got headphones on. Corey is a good thing, on balance, as Amber has been drinking rum and coke, but the tray might have been a more comfortable ride, even though it’s full of junk. Also there are potholes.
“Okay, I’ll tell you about the red rocks. There was this woman, not from round here, she was a visitor like you, and she went out there at night to do nature observations or some shit like that, looking for nocturnal animals, night parrots or whatever. Doesn’t matter. Anyway, she went up to the rocks. And it was midnight, like, exactly midnight. Corey what time is it?” Corey ignores her. It’s 21:52 on the dashboard clock. “And she’s up there, and it’s, like, really still, starry night, and she starts to see this weird light. And it gets brighter and brighter, this spooky weird light, and then she’s sucked up into a – a vortex, like a kind of a tornado spout thing. And then she’s in this spaceship with all the aliens looking at her with their enormous bug-eyes. And they told her stuff. Kind of amazing stuff. Her name was – I can’t remember what her name was. But the aliens come back. I like to go out there and see the lights, I’ve seen them shitloads of times. It’s a special place. It’s, like, spiritual.”
They’re in the real bush now, bumping along an unsealed road. The car headlights make the ground beyond their beam seem impenetrably dark. He has no clue where he is (he lost phone reception a while ago) and he wonders if they’re taking him out into the bush to rob him, but as he’s much bigger and older than either of them he reckons he could take them. Though he does feel rather queasy.
Meabh has eaten neatly and fast, in the way of someone who’s very hungry, and now she goes to the sink and runs water into a big iron kettle, which she sets to boil on the Rayburn.
“So then, what brought you out here with no bed to go to?”
“I was driving from Letterkenny to Cork by the scenic route, my phone went dead and I took a wrong turn or five, and then I was too tired to keep driving. I haven’t been sleeping that well the past couple of weeks.”
He tells her his job has ended and he’s taking a last long drive in the car before selling it to his sister in Cork and moving to Canada, because he’s given up on finding a proper career in Ireland. Generation emigration – there’s even a series on it in the Irish Times. He doesn’t describe his last few miserable months brewing for a friend in Letterkenny – a friend who’s no longer a friend, having mismanaged his business and found someone close at hand to blame for it. He’s too sore and unravelled for that as yet.
“You don’t sound like a Corkman.”
“No, I’m a Dub of sorts, Canadian mother, that’s why I picked Canada.”
“Canada! My younger sister is in Toronto. But someone has to stay here, so Grainne and I are staying.”
“It’s a beautiful house – I suppose you don’t want to leave it?”
“It’s a very expensive house. There’s too much land to keep up and too many tiles falling off the roof. But I grew up here, and it’s been in the family a long time…”
Her father, he learns, was a local Fianna Fail TD and son of a TD (the name is familiar when she mentions it), an owner of horses, chairman of committees, maker of speeches, and broker of patronage, who married late and died young, leaving three daughters to inherit his name and his tales. Éamon de Valera had visited the house and patted him on the head when he was a boy; his grandmother had corresponded with Maud Gonne. The stable-block still has the bulletholes where the Tans shot two men against the wall. Now from those stables Meabh trains horses and gives riding lessons; speaking of her horses she waxes almost loquacious. He senses the pride and love she has for them, but also, yes, for this house, this land, after all. He recalls the sight of her, straight-backed and supple, riding through the dusk.
“It must be a lot of work for just the two of you.”
“Oh, we have help, of course. But I’m being rude. I didn’t ask what your job was?”
“Ah, well…I guess I’m a poet. I’m not anything else now. But I have a degree in food science from DCU and I’m also pretty good at lifting kegs.”
“I could do with someone to help with the lifting in the stables. The girls who come in are both small…”
She stops and looks self-conscious at the implications of this. Soon after she says a polite goodnight and ushers him back into the hallway. He hears the kitchen door lock behind him. He climbs the stairs lined with the faces of her ancestors.
Getting out of the car he almost falls because his right leg has gone dead from Amber sitting on it. He stamps around to try to restore the circulation, but Amber, carrying a large torch, is already heading along a narrow path between the tussocky grasses. He follows, thinking about red-belly blacks, taipans, brown snakes, death adders, redbacks, and funnel-web spiders.
The path climbs gently. Shielded from the torch by Amber’s body, his eyes begin to grow accustomed to the dark and the sky starts to bloom with stars. He can see ahead the dim outline of the rocks silhouetted against the moonlight. He hears the crunch of their footsteps, his own breathing, the chirps of the cicadas fading as they leave the scrub. Corey has stayed in the car. The slope steepens as they approach their goal, and then they are standing half on, half at the rocks, which are like a tilted altar of red sandstone. Amber shines the torch onto the surface and he sees incised circles and lines, less pictorial than his usual idea of Aboriginal art, though perhaps it is weathering that has crumbled them into abstraction. Then she turns the torch off. “Now wait.”
They wait. Things rustle and other things squawk. There is a slight but chilly breeze.
“Now,” says Amber. “There it is. It’s starting. Can you see the light?”
And he can. As the white glow rises around him, he can see the light.
In his dream the mound opens. Within it is the red glow of flame and the gold gleam of torques, white arms and white necks of the tall folk who dwell there, who stand ranked to watch him. Meabh takes him by the hand and leads him in. He has eaten her food and he can never leave. He will work for her and sing for her, and she will inspire him to silver floods of poetry, and the world will pass away unnoticed on the outside. She takes him in her arms and they are bathed in light.
What then? Is he going to stay with her? They’ve only just met. By the way, where is Grainne?
I thought Amber was lying? She’s obviously a fantasist, she wants attention, and she’s been drinking.
Well, time goes on. The light fades. He wakes up.
“Holy shit,” he breathes.
“You didn’t see it?”
“Nope. Didn’t see shit. I never do. I don’t even believe in aliens. You’re not really an astrophysicist, are you?”
“No, I’m not,” he says, but he isn’t paying attention to her, he’s too wrapped in beauty and puzzlement.
Suddenly she flings her arms around his neck and presses herself against him, gazing up into his face. About an hour ago, for about five minutes, he might have been pleased about this, but certainly not now, though he puts his hands on her bottom because that’s where they naturally go, when she’s in this position.
“Take me with you! Brian, please, when you go, take me with you.”
“I’m not even called Brian.” He disentangles himself, gently. He feels sad for her, from a distance.
At 7.30 in the morning he goes downstairs. To his surprise, he catches sight of Meabh laying out cutlery in the dining room, but she looks altered somehow, disappointing; then she turns and it’s an older, plumper woman, rather tired and red of nose. This must be Grainne.
“I’m sorry I wasn’t around to look after you yesterday,” she says. “I had a nasty dose, but I’m much better now. Will I make you some porridge? Meabh is out,” she adds.
He eats and pays his bill, and then Grainne points him down the surprisingly short road that leads back to the pub and his car. He has only a small backpack to carry. Walking between paddocks, evading the excavation around the water-main, he cranes around to catch sight, if he can, of Meabh riding, perhaps exercising her charges after their early-morning feed, but he doesn’t see her.
He’s driving south. None of it makes much sense but at least he’s going in the right direction. He’s taken a paper map out of the glovebox and spread it open on the passenger seat.
Perhaps he panicked in the dark
didn’t please the woman of the settlement
learned to love again.
He might make a song about it. The guitar at least wasn’t made up.
Many thanks to Stephen Scott, who generously read and commented on a draft; to Ken’s Aussie cousins, for telling me what the back of a ute is called; and to Ken, for his comments and for recruiting his cousins. Now I probably need some help with the Irish bits… And I should also thank Kris Schroeder, whose tweet gave me the idea.