Friday 6 December 1974
I wake when Abby shouts. She reaches across me and grabs the steering wheel. A car horn brays. White beams flare at us then pitch to the right. For an instant, a rump of blue metal shines in our headlights. I elbow my sister out of the way and take the wheel, leaning back hard so I don’t slam my head into it. Abby flattens her hands against the dashboard as I brake and strain to control our sideways skid. She screams my name. We sling to one side of the narrow dirt road and the other car slings the opposite way, like wrong ends of magnets made to meet. We slide to an angled stop, pointing into scrappy bushland.
Dust swirls in front of our headlights, the only movement in a frozen moment. My window is open but I don’t hear a sound from the surrounding bush, the cicadas and creaky eucalypts dumbstruck. Abby and I stare through the windscreen at the dust, panting, coughing.
Neither of us moves until the cassette ejects with a clunk, having played its silent end, giving way to static. Abby hits the off button, fumbles to get out of the car and walks through the settling dust. I don’t follow her straight away. I’m clocking what just happened. What the hell just happened? I turn off the engine, feel the thumping drum of my heart, the heat where my jeans sink into ridged vinyl, a breeze through the open door. I watch my sister walk away, her long hair splayed across the back of her singlet like a web.
Once I get out, I cross the road and stand on the thin verge, shaking my sore wrists. Down in the ditch, Abby stands next to the crumpled car. A blue Holden Premier, stopped on the cusp of a roll, one front wheel and one back not touching earth, the bonnet crunched against the trunk of a white gum, headlights still blazing. Abby’s on her toes, yanking at the driver’s-side doorhandle. I slide down to join her. ‘Help me,’ she says. Instead, I go to the front of the car, worried she’ll pull it down onto all fours, onto us. But it’s pushed so firmly into the tree, pug-faced, there’s no chance of that.
I can see the driver, a woman, slumped across the steering wheel, glowing under the internal light. She has thick blonde locks shot through with caramel and gold. Blood oozes from her head. She’s coated in shards of glass.
‘Charlie, help me. We have to get her out.’
‘You’re not supposed to move –’
‘It’ll blow up! I’ve seen it on TV.’
We stand side by side and pull on the handle, yelling at the woman to come to, poking her limp arm through the open window, until the door gives. I’m jammed into the join of door and car when she falls out onto Abby. They hit the ground together, a mess of bloodied skin and hair and glass. Abby screams. ‘Get her off me. Get her off.’
I shove the car door away from my chest, then squat beside them and lift the woman so my sister can get out from underneath her. We lay the woman on the ground’s coat of leaves, sticks and bark. She’s honey-skinned, with a spray of freckles across her nose and cheeks, and her hair is incandescent even away from the light. She’s beautiful, and heavily pregnant.
I look across at Abby. We’re both open-mouthed, mirror images of shock.
‘Charlie,’ she whispers.
‘Wake up,’ Abby says, kneeling closer to the woman. She shakes her by the shoulders.
‘She’s not sleeping.’ I speak more loudly. ‘Hey, lady, hey! Can you hear me?’ I stare at her. I’m not sure but – ‘Is this Stevie Nicks?’
‘No, you idiot.’ Abby places two fingers on the woman’s wrist.
‘It might be,’ I say. ‘You don’t know.’
‘No pulse.’ I hear panic in her voice.
I put my hand on the warm skin of the woman’s neck, pushing aside hair, but I’m shaking and can’t be certain if I feel the throb of blood. I scan for movement under her closed eyelids, block song lyrics from filling my head.
‘See if you can feel her heartbeat.’
‘Why me?’ Abby asks.
‘I’m not touching her boob.’
‘It’s not a grope. We need to know if she’s alive.’ She rests her palm on the woman’s chest while I wait in silence. ‘Nothing.’
‘Fuck,’ I exhale. ‘Holy fuck.’
Abby moves her hand to the woman’s belly. The rolling lump lifts her fingers like a wave pushing a board up and over. A shoulder maybe, or a foot. She jerks her arm back.
‘We need to get to a hospital. We’ll drag her up to the road, move the car closer. Charlie?’
It occurs to me that we didn’t check if there was anyone else in the car. I yank open the heavy door, haul myself up onto the front seat. There’s a bag on the floor of the passenger’s side but nothing and no one else.
‘Charlie!’ Abby shouts.
‘It’s not going to blow up. That doesn’t happen,’ I call back.
I clamber out and go to her side. ‘She’s alive?’
Abby is holding up the woman’s limp wrist. ‘Mum’s ring.’
‘No way.’ I frown at my sister. ‘How?’
‘I don’t know. Obviously.’
‘Obviously.’ I mimic her, knowing this is stupid. Even now, in a disaster, I can’t help myself.
Abby narrows her eyes at me. ‘A cleaner, a neighbour.’
‘Or Dad’s . . . no.’
‘We’d know if he was seeing someone.’ Her voice quiets at the end of her sentence. Then, as if it’s the next logical action, Abby tries to twist the ring off the woman’s finger.
‘Don’t do that, Abby.’
‘When you’re pregnant, you swell up and –’
‘Why, you think I’m hurting her?’ She starts to cry, and in her frustration tugs the ring hard enough to almost pull the finger out of its socket. I touch her arm but she shakes me off. ‘Got it.’
When she’s freed the ring she examines it, pushes it deep into her jeans pocket, and closes her eyes for a moment. ‘Okay.’ She wipes her cheeks with the back of her hand. ‘Okay. Let’s get her up to the car.’
‘Hang on. I need to think.’ I look away from her, into dark bushland dotted with anthill mounds. ‘Where would we take her, Abby? There’s nothing here, no hospital for miles.’
‘We’ll drive back to Chinchilla and find a doctor. Take her arm.’
‘No.’ I shake my head. ‘I’m not doing that. I’m not driving into some strange country town with a dead body. That’s a bad idea.’
‘What’s the alternative? You want to leave her here? Charlie, the baby’s alive. We can’t leave her!’
I scramble up to the road, drop into the driver’s seat and close the car door. I wait for what seems like an eternity – radio on, immediately off, glove box open, closed, looking for any distraction – before giving in to the fact she’s not following me.
By the time I walk back, she’s decided to drag the woman up the slope by herself, making small gains then sliding again into the ditch.
‘It wouldn’t live,’ I say. My voice sounds too loud, doesn’t belong here.
‘You don’t know that. She’s seven or eight months. The baby’s still moving.’ She persists a few minutes more then shouts up at me in exasperation. ‘Get down here and help. What is wrong with you?’
‘Let’s go, Abby.’
‘What the hell?’ she yells, now standing upright. Her words cut through the silent night, ricochet between the trees. ‘You are not serious.’
I am though. Usually Abby calls the shots. Older sister, younger brother. But I’ve never felt so sure in such a weird, dark situation. We need to leave. I watch her bend down once more with renewed determination. She holds the woman’s arms and pulls. It’s hopeless. I don’t know why she’s not seeing it. Even with my help we couldn’t get the body to our car.
Abby flicks her head up when rain begins to tap onto the dirt around her. It’s light at first, then quickly becomes insistent and heavy. I stand still, watching my sister. When she’s so wet that her shirt hangs forward like a billowing sail and her hair forms a long slick, when I can smell the leather of my watchstrap, the grease on my scalp, and I can see the woman’s dark nipples through her cheesecloth smock, I shout Abby’s name again. This has to stop.
Abby sits on the wet earth, her head slumped forward. She folds the dead woman’s arms low across her belly, removes a piece of glass from her hair and throws it into the bush.
The crashed car’s headlights go out.
Abby hits the driver’s-side window with her fist until I wind it down.
‘A doctor could save the baby.’ Her voice turns to a plea. ‘We can’t leave her.’
‘Get in the car.’
‘It was an accident. It’s the worse thing not to help her. And what about the ring? Dad must know her somehow. Stop – what are you doing?’
I wind the window up while she presses her fingers down onto the glass, pulling out at the last second. I point to the passenger’s seat but she yells insults at me to the effect that I should never drive again.
I slide over, then glance at the back seat, where I’d put our carton of beer. Crushed empties litter the floor. How many did I have? I resist the urge to open a fresh one.
Abby drops onto the seat, all wet air and fury. She’s about to speak again when she sees where I’m looking.
‘I said two, two. Is that what happened? I thought she’d – I thought she might’ve been asleep. You were asleep?’
‘You were asleep, too.’
‘I was the passenger. My God.’ She rests her forehead on the steering wheel.
‘I’m not that drunk. I haven’t slept in days. It wasn’t my fault.’
She jerks her head up. ‘You can’t possibly think this is anyone’s fault but yours.’
‘You let me drive.’ Even to my ear this is bullshit. She punches me in the arm. I shove her off. She thumps me a few more times then takes a deep breath, stares out the rain-slashed window. ‘How long was I asleep? How far are we from Chinchilla?’
I shrug, dig around in Abby’s bag for the cigarettes she made such a big deal of buying for me at the bottleshop.
‘Charlie, I’m driving us back there. We’ll go to the police and they can come get her.’ ‘Where will you send them – third tree after the rock?’
We could be anywhere you’d call ‘the bush’, on a road to nowhere except Dad’s farm. There’s not a single thing in my sightline that makes this place different from the miles of other bushland we’ve passed through. And Abby knows it. It’s not like it’s a straightforward trip back to that couple of chopstick roads she’s calling a town either. We took a lot of left then right then left to get on this road before she fell asleep, and that was when it was light. I think, though, we’re about an hour and a bit from Dad’s farm. I’d followed the few signs she’d said would take us close, planning to wake her up once her map let me down. The baby will be long gone before anyone gets to this place.
‘How old do you think she is?’ Abby asks.
‘Mid-twenties maybe, our age.’
She hits the steering wheel. ‘Damn it, damn it.’ She climbs out of the car into the rain, back to the dead woman.