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  • Published: 26 March 2024
  • ISBN: 9781761342127
  • Imprint: Vintage Australia
  • Format: Trade Paperback
  • Pages: 336
  • RRP: $34.99

What I Would Do to You


Sometimes you find a piece of yourself you never knew existed. Scary, isn’t it, when that happens? Unsettling. Like the time that, on my fiftieth birthday, I felt a sharp prick deep under the skin of my heel. Turns out it was glass. I remembered instantly the broken wine bottle I stood on when I was a kid. I never knew a tiny, spiky green fragment had remained in my tissue all this time. It had been with me most of my life. A part of me. Yet I was shocked when I found it.

Is that how they’ll each feel if they do this? As if they’ve discovered something jagged below their surface, something they didn’t know belonged to them, something that could do damage?

These thoughts distract me while I sit sideways in my armchair, legs draped over the edge, the coffee table pulled in close as I prepare for tomorrow. The towering stacks of papers on the table are the sentencing transcripts. They tell of the whos, whats, wheres and hows, but so far they seem unable to account for the whys. There is something else always notably absent from these documents: a certain record of human experience. They describe the proceedings, sure. But they do not capture the visceral experiences of those listening to them unfold. They do not mention the haze of emotion which hangs unseen over the courtroom at the judge’s weighing-up of the crime; an invisible, suffocating fog creeping above the gallery of bowed heads. An insidious fog which follows you home afterwards and hovers over you as you collapse, wrung out, into your bed. A fog which settles over your body as you fall into a twitchy slumber, drifting up your nostrils to create a disorienting murk-world of dreams.

I wonder what it will be like to meet the first two family members tomorrow. Will they even want to talk to me? I wonder if they’ll be afraid that I’ll share their secrets with the others. I can’t, of course, not without their permission. Maybe they’ll be fearful that I can stop them. I picture myself explaining it while they assess me watchfully: I can’t prevent you from doing this. Only the judge can do that. I do need to advise him if I’m concerned you can’t make an informed decision to participate, though; for example, if you have advanced Alzheimer’s or are acutely psychotic. I imagine them nodding at this, dismissing what I say because they don’t have dementia and they certainly aren’t crazy. Then I would add that I must also tell Judge Gorski if they say that doing this might cause them to inflict harm upon themselves . . . or someone else. Again, I see them nod, saying they would never do that, exceptions being what they are.

Perhaps they will want my guidance about what they should do. I plan to explain up front that it’s not my role to steer them, one way or the other, in making their decision; I tell them that I will merely hold a place open – like a bookmark keeping a journal page – for them to consider their course. At a time when everyone’s eyes are on them, perhaps they will find comfort in my neutrality, see me as their safe land. Their Switzerland, blanketed and nestled snug, separated from France by treacherous ranges, from Germany by an icy river. If I am not confident in the fortitude of my borders, I will not betray them by letting it show.

I gulp a mouthful of cab sav from the cheap tumbler I received in an office Secret Santa. The one that reads Wine: Because punching people in the face is illegal. I snooped around and uncovered the gift-giver. My receptionist. I still have mixed feelings about the glass. Was it intended to be generic and funny, or targeted, a passive-aggressive way of letting your boss know what you’d like to do to her? Anyway, it’s bottom-heavy and I’ve only knocked it over twice since I’ve had it, which makes it my drinking mainstay.

As I turn page after page, living out this courtroom drama in excruciating detail, I wonder if it was a relief even for him when the legal proceedings finally exhausted themselves. Four years and six days from the day when everything was decided for her to the one after which little was possible for him. Is he the one having the terrible dreams now? Is he woken in the sharpest, deepest part of the night, torso sweaty-slick, heart thundering, mouth gaping, suffocating like a freshly caught fish? Does he picture the tacky silver tape that he kept, shaped like a hill and a valley?

When the reading gets too tough, I soothe myself by stroking Bob’s wiry ear-and-a-half. The mats in his fur are just starting to re-knot after my last hack job. You’d never tell from how little I brush him how pathetically obsessed I am with this dog. My friend Susie helped me pick him out from the shelter four years ago. There he was: enormous and bear-like, sucking on a baby’s pink dummy. Seriously. We figured that some unlucky toddler must have pushed it through the bars of his pen. He held that damn thing between his teeth the whole car ride home. Sitting on the back seat with drool thick as stalactites hanging from his cave of a mouth, his honey eyes met mine in the rear-view mirror, a slow-blinking mix of shame and defiance. His coat is so grizzly-thick that it wasn’t until I sudsed him up for his first bath that I realised half his left ear was missing. Susie said I should have requested a partial refund, but I view imperfection – in the right context – as an upgrade.

He looks at my hand pleadingly as I return to flipping pages. The weight of the paper I turn over is nothing, almost a feather, but as the story unfolds each white slip becomes a fraction heavier than the last, until my hands feel as if they are lifting unhewn bricks from the bottom of the ocean. I glance at the clock: 11.47 pm.

As I snuff out the pooling candle and get up to toss the dregs of red from my tumbler into the sink, I think about the concept of neutrality; about how I need to avoid taking a position on the terrible thing on which they must decide. I must remain detached, avoid being drawn, monitor my words and expressions so they neither encourage nor deter. As I pad down the hallway to the bathroom, put a blob of toothpaste on my toothbrush and remember that I need to replace the shaggy-bristled thing, I wonder whether this unbiased state can extend to my own mind.

I awake with my brain and body feeling bright: no twinges to remind me of the heavy emotional weights I lifted last night. Bob snores on the rug, his vibrating black nostrils highlighted by the sun that peeps through my haphazardly drawn curtains. My neighbour – a lady with hair down past her bottom, called Shirley – once warned me, awkwardly, face slightly flushed, that she can see me getting undressed at night because my curtains don’t always meet in the middle. I expect in making me aware of the situation, she intended that I would obscure future nakedness with correctly drawn drapes. I can empathise with how unsettling it might be to witness a nightly display of breasts that are now more like the dough than the cupcakes. But, to be honest, I can’t be bothered to change the way I close the curtains. I hope she remembers to look away.

The muscles in my neck become taut when I think about the day ahead, and I tell myself to relax; I can handle this. I am driving two hours south-west of Brisbane, to a property near Warwick. There, I’ll meet the mothers, Stella and Matisse. It is unusual for me to see clients outside of my consulting rooms, but this contract requires me to conduct appointments at a place of the client’s choosing. This, for the mothers, is the family home on their cattle farm. The time spent out of the office – which will go on for at least a year – means reducing my overall client load, but the government remuneration for this job is generous.

Besides, I am doing this for me. As I plod down the stairs to make my first flat white of the day, I reflect on how much my career feels like the men’s underpants I wear until they are faded and saggy. It’s not a fetish or anything; it’s just a habit that started decades ago after a chance discovery. I was in my second year of uni and, after two days of smoking weed and having mediocre sex in my boyfriend’s musty man den, he suggested we attend a lecture to avoid being kicked out of our course. He offered me all he had in the way of clean clothes, which was a pair of faded black briefs with a small hole at the waistband. And what a discovery that was. Soft cotton. Giving elastic. So practical. So freeing. Such a departure from my assortment of nylon lace and dental-floss G-strings. I’d never realised men had it so good – at least not in this particular way. Since that revelation, I’ve been wearing men’s undies until the colour is blanched and the elastic waistband is saggy. The pouch barely gets to me. I’ve contemplated swapping over to women’s boylegs, but after all this time I’m too attached to the briefs. And so it is with my career: once an exciting discovery, it is now comfortable and familiar and hard to change. But in these past couple of years, I’ve realised I need to let go of convention again. Switch it up. Now I’ve come home with something new and wildly risqué to wear, something that makes me feel exposed, nervous and anticipatory as I slip into it.

I dress hurriedly and check that the doggy door is unlocked. Realistically, I may as well leave the house wide open, because Bob’s entry is big enough for any small adult with a regular yoga practice to crawl through. After kissing Bob on his furry head and telling him not to miss me too much, I rush out to the car, managing to drop my satchel twice on the way. I open the door of my Mina Electrica and say a silent prayer that the battery will make it there and back without a recharge. Even though the range is much better than back when we all did the big swap, I tend to push things to their limits. I start the engine and see I have plenty of charge. I tap the address into the GPS and I am on my way.

About thirty minutes out of the city, I notice I am the only vehicle within eyeshot. This feels oddly freeing, as if I finally have space, as if when I breathe the air into my lungs nobody else is fighting me for it. I have my windows down. I cannot remember the last time I did that, and it is a double freedom because I recently cut my thick hair to a shoulder-length bob, and the cool air brushes against my scalp as the strands lift in the wind. I suck the air greedily, taking great breaths between choruses of ‘Take Me Home, Country Roads’. It was the first song I learnt in primary school choir. On our initial attempt at a full rendition, Raelene – who was sitting next to me and who herself sang terribly through a long, ferrety nose – covered her ears and then relocated to sit next to Janice, leaving me in no doubt that my vocals were the cause. This was especially insulting because all the kids knew Janice smelt like a lunchbox-sweaty egg sandwich, poor girl, and thus we avoided her as much as possible. The memory doesn’t stop me though: I crack out the song every time my sister and I take a day trip. In a predictable countermove designed to shut down my performance without saying it directly, Olive, who works in a nursing home, explains that she can’t stand to hear John Denver because it’s all they play on Seniors’ Music Morning. Though I’m not fooled by her flimsy ruse, I usually take pity on her and turn on the radio instead.

Nobody’s here to stop me now, and I let my mind drift to the task ahead as I belt out the lyrics. I wonder what Stella’s daughter – Matisse’s stepdaughter – is like. Just a touch younger than I was when I had my underwear revelation, she still lives at the family home. Hannah’s chosen not to see me today, which is what provokes my curiosity. Unlike the other family members, she is not compelled to attend sessions, and I have been instructed that she will contact me if she wants to make use of my services. The son, Sebastian, is a veterinarian who lives in Brisbane. He is electing to visit my rooms on Monday evening for his first appointment. As well as being convenient for me, this choice makes sense for him. If I were a young man, I would not want an unvouched-for middle-aged woman poking around in my home as well as my head.

My attention is drawn back to the road when a wayward peewee swerves at the last second to avoid flying in the driver’s-side window. I’d not previously considered the possibility of a collision with a bird in midair, and immediately re-engage the glass shield between me and the world. I notice a sign that reads Welcome to the Township of Aratula and realise I’m near the halfway point of the drive. I love the sound of the placenames on the signs that line this strip of highway: ‘Ara-TULLE-a’, ‘Tanny-more-RELLE’, ‘Mudda-Pill-eee’.

As I come into town, I touch my foot on and off the accelerator, equivocating. Probably nobody would stop at Aratula if not for the bakery flanking the highway. My parent–angel and toddler–devil argue on my shoulders.

Should I stop?

NO, I told you last night. You’re. Not. Going. To. Stop.

But I didn’t have breakfast. I’m huuungry.

Well, whose fault is that? You’re not stopping.

What about an apple turnover? They’ve got fruit. I could just eat half – throw the other half away.

No, that’s wasteful. Distract yourself. Look: lovely old trees.

Ten minutes later, with the comforting tastes of cinnamon-y apple and sweet cream flashing across my tongue, I do look up at the century-old bunya pines towering over my picnic table. Take me home, country roads . . . I roll the lyrics across my mind to distract from my guilty mouth.

Standing up, I brush the dandruff-like pastry flakes off my pale pink shirt. I’m making an attempt at looking country. Nothing excessive: dressy jeans, long-sleeved shirt, belt and a pair of scuffed brown riding boots. I have these because Susie insists that our annual holiday together is always spent on the back of a horse. Luckily, she doesn’t mind where we go so long as her hips are swaying to that clip-cloppedy rhythm, and I enjoy getting to choose the scenery even if I could take or leave the horses. This year, it was the Canadian Rockies on quarter horses. Next year, it will be the west coast of Scotland on Clydesdales. These boots are the only true farm item I own, and I hope they’ll keep me from looking out of place.

I walk back to the car and turn on the radio. The ABC National News top stories draw me in as I rejoin the road. The reporter’s polished voice tells of remote horrors we listeners – at least the fortunate majority of us – realistically cannot digest. A train crash in India kills one hundred and eleven people. An Adelaide man stabs his wife and three-year-old son before slicing his own throat. He survives, they do not. Then the usual autumn public-service announcement from a concerned fire chief, reminding us there is ‘plenty of time over winter to prepare for what might be the worst summer bushfire season yet’. I picture myself standing in my suburban backyard, watching the tiny patch of crisp shrubbery go up in flames while I fumble with the mini fire extinguisher from the kitchen. Even as I make a mental note to refresh my knowledge of its use, I know I won’t. Summer is a long way off.

The presenter wraps up the news and introduces Environment Hour. I’m usually at work when this program is on. I’m tempted to turn it off; what person experiencing the afterglow of a morning pastry wants to face the fact that their earthly home might expire? The presenter, a man with a phlegmy voice, tells me that today we will look back on the Australian legislative changes of the past fifteen years and ask ourselves the question, ‘Was it enough?’

My hand hovers over the ‘off’ button as he lists the ways we’ve tried to save ourselves: shutting down coal mining, swapping to almost completely renewable energy sources, removing petrol vehicles from the roads. But then he mentions beef production, and I think instantly of where I’m going today – a cattle property – and let Mr Post-nasal-drip drone on in the background while I contemplate Stella and Matisse’s farm. Well, I don’t even know that it is their farm. Are they simply managers, or were they one of the tiny 15 per cent of beef farmers who won the government lottery and were granted a perpetual production licence? One of the small-timers who resisted selling out to the big corporations in exchange for the long-term gains of being part of a production chain that now sells a steak for the same price as a pair of R. M. Williams boots? Which is perhaps the somewhat frivolous exaggeration of a fillet mignon–deprived woman, but then I think about the seriousness of the protests, the chaos in the streets when the government announced it was spending billions upon billions of dollars to buy up farms and livestock-related businesses, and to compensate farmhands, transport drivers, saleyard and feedlot staff, and abattoir workers for lost income and retrain them to work in other industries. At the time, it seemed unfathomable that we could give up our Big Macs, our beef in black bean sauce, our $19 pub steaks and our Bunnings sausage sangas, in exchange for savouring a T-bone as an annual birthday treat. Still, those of us not directly affected by the industry changes adapted and moved on to the next thing within months.

If they’re not licence holders, perhaps Stella and Matisse were raised on the land, and have the requisite skills to manage someone else’s enterprise. Or maybe they’d proven their management skills in other industries, then chose a tree change so their family could live a freer, safer, more wholesome life. Given their current circumstances, I hope this wasn’t their motivation. Being surrounded by the natural beauty of the land and the animals and the vast blue skies would be a daily reminder of that dream turning to a nightmare.

The country gets drier the further south-west I travel. Farmers have piled dead wood in pyres that dot the surrounding paddocks. Fields stand fallow. Crisp stalks of flaxen grass and moistureless tree branches cling to life and would carry a blaze through here faster than stampeding brumbies. My GPS is routing me around Warwick – known as the Rose City, although I’m sure it’s closer to a large town than a city, with a council that’s highly unlikely to permit its finite water resources be used to cultivate roses.

I’m prompted to take a left turn and then a right. The roads narrow. I dip down over a creek choked with duckweed, then I follow the bitumen up, up, up the side of a mountain.

After a few minutes I am up high. The greenness here is in stark contrast to the dust bowl below. Thin veils of cloud, fine as spun sugar, blow over the car. Having calmed down from the near-miss with the bird, I wind my windows down and the freshening air touches me, making little bumps on my forearms. The land on top of this mountain looks as if it’s been tucked into bed with a green blanket, Mother Nature slipping her hands into the creases and folds, making sure no part of the earth is left exposed. The grass – almost vulgar in its shamrock glory – clearly has its own invisible watering can hovering above it, freely giving sips of water while half the country dies of thirst.

Around a bend, ten or fifteen red-and-white cattle appear, raising their heads at the sound of the car, little green moustaches of grass poking out the sides of their busy mouths. The GPS tells me the next right is Sullivans Lane, which appears on cue. I turn onto the lightly corrugated dirt road and rumble along for a few hundred metres until I reach the dead end which Matisse, giving directions on the phone in a lightly accented – South American? – voice, had told me to expect.

I cross the cattle grid and see a sign to its right featuring the peaceful head of a Hereford, underneath which is written Heathwood Farm Highest-Welfare Beef. I wonder what makes it highest, but am distracted from this thought as I round a bend and see my path is blocked by a white pony. Though I know from Susie that most white horses are referred to as ‘greys’, as they are born a darker colour and lighten to white over time, while their skin remains dark or pigmented underneath. This one has a dark mane and tail, and stands a few metres from my vehicle, right in my path, staring off into the distance and paying me no mind. I drive a bit closer, thinking it will move, but it doesn’t seem to notice. I drive closer still, cautiously, my car almost touching its ample belly. The single acknowledgment of my presence the pony gives is a pinning back of its dainty ears. I wonder if it will kick the Mina if I beep. Just as I place my hand on the horn, the pony drags its feet a few steps forwards, sloth-slow, throwing me a backwards glare. It wants me to know it only moved because it was planning to anyway.

I duck around its hind end and continue for a couple of hundred metres and there, set up on a hillock, nestled between two camphor laurels, is a white cottage. With its corrugated iron roof, worn sandstone chimney and blooming garden, it is picture-book lovely. I rattle over crushed stone into the fenced yard. Weatherboards gleam with fresh paint. Two sizeable windows front the house, and I squint to see what I think is a stained-glass fairy wren on each.

Between the windows there is a glossy vermillion front door. The raw wood planks of the wide verandah support a rocking chair, a pair of Adirondacks and a daybed. This place is old-school Australiana with a dash of modernity. It is a cosy hidey-hole where you could devour mystery novels while sipping endless cups of tea, made in a pot; a refuge where you could take satisfying naps under a crocheted blanket that smells comfortingly like your grandma’s lavender drawer sachets. This is my fantasy retreat. I want to curl up inside this cottage’s walls on a rainy day, snuggle in front of the fireplace and disappear. But, alas, I cannot continue this daydream because a woman with a huge mop of black hair emerges from the door, waving, a red dog at her heels.

Her hair moves as a separate animal. It bobs and billows as she approaches the Mina, smiling with warm brown lips. I take in the denim overalls, floral-print gumboots and giant earrings – blue and gold macaws. I grin inwardly. This woman looks fun.

As I get out of the car, she beams at me as though I’m a good friend, and her olive skin crinkles at the edges of her eyes. I feel warmth radiating from her, as if she has been basking in the sun and now exudes the solar energy she absorbed.

‘Welcome,’ she says in her soft lilt.

I extend my hand to shake hers, but she pulls me into a hug. I never usually have this type of physical contact with clients, but I’m caught off guard and I sense that bringing it up now could disrupt any tentative rapport we've established over the phone. She steps back without self-consciousness, as though embracing a stranger is the most natural thing in the world.

‘I’m Matisse,’ she says.

‘Octavia Tate,’ I say, smiling.

‘I’ve been looking forward to meeting you, Dr Tate.’

‘Octavia, please.’ I wave my hand.

‘Do you mind dogs?’ she asks.

I notice that the dog, a shiny kelpie, is sitting a couple of metres behind her. It’s wriggling on its haunches, shaking with the desire to get loose.

‘I love dogs. I probably have dog hair on me right now,’ I say, laughing and automatically wiping my jeans.

Matisse gives a hand signal, which frees the dog. It bursts from its spot and makes it to me in three big bounds. It leaps up, front paws on my chest.

‘Down,’ Matisse commands.

Immediately, the dog withdraws its paws and sits, but does not look chastened. Its tail wags so fast it becomes a blur.

‘Sorry,’ she says. ‘He’s only young. Still learning.’

‘It’s fine,’ I say. ‘He’s gorgeous.’

‘His name is Arnold,’ she says.

Arnold the kelpie. I love pups with daggy human names – hence Bob. I reach down and pet his head. His ears are dusty and silky. His eyes, translucent green, stare into mine as if he knows my secrets.

‘How was the trip from Brisbane?’ Matisse asks.

‘Good,’ I say. ‘But it’s sad to see everything looking so dry. It’s beautiful and green here.’

‘Yes, we’re lucky. The part of the farm that’s on this side of the mountain gets higher than average rainfall, which is what sustains the national park. Did you see the entrance as you came up the mountain?’

‘Yes, on the left,’ I say.

‘You can bushwalk in the park, but camping’s prohibited. That’s why Stella put the B & B here. People wanted a nice place to stay after hiking all day. It was popular when it was operating.’

‘Ahh,’ I say, nodding. I knew about the B & B from the court documents, but I didn’t realise it had closed.

‘If you kept going up the road past our place, you’d have come to a dead end. That’s where the prettiest rainforest is. There’s a locked gate that only the ranger’s meant to enter, and there are no walking tracks, but one of our paddocks backs onto it.’

She pauses as though she’s about to say something further, and then shakes her head.

‘Most of our land is actually on the other side of the mountain, which is much drier,’ she explains, gesturing to a ridge a few hundred metres past the house. ‘It gets less rain and more sun, and it’s heavily cleared. We’re planting trees, though the kinds that can survive those conditions take forever to grow.’ She shrugs. ‘Mr Molly-Pants’s place is at the bottom of that side of the mountain, and he says he’s never seen the drought so bad.’

‘Mr Molly-Pants?’ I ask, intrigued by the name. She chuckles and shrugs again.

‘Nobody knows why he’s called that. He’s lived there his entire life. I don’t know how old he is, but he looks ancient. Hannah says he’s a wrinkled avocado seed that’s been left to dry out in the sun.’

I smile, hoping I’ll have the opportunity to meet her stepdaughter one day.

My view lingers on the front garden. Flowers ramble over each other. Lavender and roses and dahlias, and other pink and pastel beauties whose names I don’t know. Bees buzz, and the air smells divine.

‘It’s beautiful,’ I say, inclining my head in that direction.

‘Thank you. I love being in the garden. The flowers won’t last much longer, though, being May. We’re not that far from Brisbane, but it’s got as low as minus seven here in winter. But I wait for spring, and they come again. And I enjoy having them inside the house, you know? Bringing in something wild. Will you come in?’ She holds her hand out to the verandah steps.

As we walk towards the cottage, I wonder where Stella is, as she has the first appointment.

As if answering this thought, Matisse says, ‘Stella’s inside. I’ll introduce you, and then go over to the cattle and come back for my appointment at eleven.’

‘Maybe give it until eleven-fifteen. These first sessions sometimes run slightly over,’ I say.

‘Sure,’ she says.

I told Matisse on the phone that it was important they each felt as though they had privacy for their sessions, even from each other. She said we wouldn’t need to worry about Hannah, because she’s usually at school in Warwick on weekdays. I said that I hoped Hannah would ask to see me if she wanted to. She explained that Hannah is reluctant to talk, that she is quite a self-contained young woman who doesn’t tend to share her thoughts and feelings openly. She said she’d see what she could do. It didn’t sound promising.

What I Would Do to You Georgia Harper

A compulsively readable debut novel for those who could not put down Dirt Town or Before You Knew My Name.

Buy now
Buy now

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