Under the dark pines the earth is bare, worn bald like skin. The two tyre swings hang barely above the ground, stretched from a decade of the weight of our small bodies. Behind the swings the earthen wall of the dam rises sharply, from its crest you can see clear across the paddocks to the Nyerimilang Road snaking east toward the lake. The dam is low, not much more than a muddy disc, cracking and scabby under the relentless sun. I can smell the wet, fleshy stink of the mud. The pond near the house has evaporated, leaving behind a greenish scunge and the bodies of forgotten goldfish.
The dogs sleep in the dust beneath the house where it’s cooler, though not by much. I’ve dragged my skinny body under there a few times, through the dark and spider webs, sliding myself into the bowl of dirt where the dogs lie panting, eyes bright in the shadows. From underneath I can hear the footsteps of my family creaking on the old floorboards of the house.
I scavenge old wood from the shed and drag it up into the enormous Norfolk pine at the back of the property. Nailing the pieces together, I build a wooden platform wide enough to lie on. I spend whole afternoons perched there like a pirate, reading Narnia novels and eating pears from the orchard. Below, the chooks scratch in their pen and the red and white Hereford cattle from next-door lean against the wire, the fences creaking under their weight. From up here, the two acres of our property look like a forest enclosed on every side by paddocks yellow in the summer heat.
The house is weatherboard, painted in cream and a dark heritage green, chipped and flaking from years of neglect. There is a front door but, for as long as I can remember, we have entered instead by climbing the porch steps and using the side door. There’s an ancient palm tree hulking over the brick paving, which forms a sort of courtyard between the house and the nursery sheds. There are roses, dark red and heavy with scent, growing by the shed door.
The bore water in the tanks tastes of metal and blood and it cost far more than we can afford. The garden has survived the drought so far, but the nursery of native plants that was my parents’ business have withered and died in their colour-coded pots, rows and rows of shriveled saplings in Styrofoam coffins. The hot-house is unbearable, its tattered plastic trapping the heat like a furnace. My sister and I used to earn our allowance washing those pots in the two big red fish bins left over from Dad’s days in the fish market. They were so big we could sit in them while we worked, but there is no point now.
The floorboards, rough with the glue my mother had not been able to sand off when she tore up the carpet, warp in the heat and the nails stick up and snag our socks. The piano sits hulking against the wall of the kitchen, the keys yellowing and sticking down. I train my little sister to fish them up after my fingers, playing Pop Goes the Weasel over and over again. The wedding china, blue and white and bone fine, stays on the shelf gathering dust. My parents fight behind closed doors, drinking and yelling and forgetting our dinner. I stand on a wooden crate to flip pancakes in the frying pan with the loose handle, and we eat them with our fingers off brown plates, the ones with the flowers.
Dad gets out the ancient projector and hangs an old sheet on the living room wall. We watch a James Bond movie, Pierce Brosnan’s face rippling as the sheet moves under the slight breeze blowing in through the open windows. The air has cooled through the evening, but barely. I lie on my belly on the thin rug, propped on my skinny elbows. The springs went in the old brown couch long ago and my parents sink into it, feet resting on the coffee table, a stumpy wooden thing with a scarred surface and a loose board that displaces cups if you aren’t careful. My sister and I crawl around and around the table, under the bridge made by their legs, chanting ‘mookybook’ in some game of our own creation. The huntsman spiders, big as hands, crawl along the walls.
We never had a washing machine, even before the water was gone, so once a week we drive to town to do our laundry and buy groceries. At home mum flings the sheets out on the old hills hoist at the bottom of the garden, the fresh linen flapping in the hot air. I chase my sister through the damp corridors between the wet fabric, feet bare in the long grass, her curly head always just out of sight behind the cloth.
The bathtub is an enormous old kidney with claw feet, chipped and rusted. We draw straws for the ordering of washing, using the same water for all four, and at the end bucketing it out to the garden. The lemon tree has grown monstrous with the bathwater, heavy with puckered yellow orbs. My dad pisses against the trunk, bottom bare in the night air.
My sister and I share a room at the back of the house with worn carpet, moss green with a faded pattern of roses, and a hulking wooden bunk bed Mum has painted an awful dusky pink. She sits beside us and plays Blackbird on her guitar, her deep voice thrumming in the dark.
I fall asleep staring up at the cheap plastic stars glowing on the ceiling.