The Best of Times Short Story Competition

Spring\Summer 2006 Results

Dead Hearts in Paradise

Copyright © Brooke McReynolds 2006

Seated on a park bench in Airlie Beach, 3 a.m., trying hard to get stoned but smoking something that tasted, quite frankly, of horseshit. Airlie Beach, where European wannabees became easy marks, where fagots and fools were knifed in cheap resort hotel rooms and where dope was cut with manure.

Petey Smith thought about going back to his caravan but it was raining and, besides, Baby G was there and she was a lot easier to take when he was stoned, a condition that wasnít happening at the moment. He hadnít paid much for this pocketful of weed so he probably shouldnít have expected much but, still, it had been his last $20 so what could he do now?

A car drove past, gave out a rebel yell and threw a bottle at him, which was a bit of luck because the bottle was half full of bourbon. With another stroke of luck, the rain stopped. He had a good drink of bourbon, hopped on his bicycle and pedalled happily back to the caravan park. Baby G might be awake enough to give him a quick blow job and then heíd sleep fine.

Sometimes he felt so down and out that no place to go seemed like a good destination. Sometimes he wanted to go home, when he could remember where that was. Ever since heíd been shot in the head, heíd suffered from a sort of intermittent amnesia and something like that could really fuck up lifeís perspectives.

Baby G finished the blow job and rinsed her mouth with the little bit of bourbon that Petey had brought her. He fell asleep but she was awake now and turned on the telly but only religious programs were on at 4 a.m. They were looking after this caravan for a bloke theyíd met who was doing 18 months on a drunk-and-disorderly charge - not his first. It was only a 17 footer and didnít have toilets or cable TV.

She went outside into the muggy January night, sat cross-legged in the grass and waited for the sun to rise. When it rose it would illuminate a dark blue sea; rosy, wet clouds; a yellow sand beach and green, leafy palms with silver-grey trunks. It would make her long for the barren dry scrub of her home. She could never forget where sheíd been raised, in the desert: dead centre of the country. She missed her mum, all her cousins, uncles and aunties, and she missed bush food so badly that sometimes sheíd find herself chewing on a banana leaf just to revive the memories.

She and Petey had been in Airlie for over a year now, mainly because staying was easier than moving on. They knew that something would come up but it could be exhausting, waiting for whatever that thing was to happen, especially when they ran out of money.

Baby G was 21, a pretty girl with long brown hair and wide green eyes but that was another thing. People around Airlie didnít know she was Aboriginal because she looked so white and sometimes that really pissed her off. Usually, of course, she realised that she was being treated better than any indigenous woman would have been.

The sun never came up, the rain came down instead. It came down in buckets, in sheets, in torrents. She went back inside and curled up next to Petey but the din of the rain on the metal caravan negated the possibility of sleep. The strong wind buffeted their little shelter and, when she did doze at last, she dreamed she was inside a tin can that was being kicked around by the children in her community.

They both woke up hungry for Red Rooster but getting it would mean going out in the weather.

"Why donít you take your bike, pick some up and bring it back here? We could have a night in, eh, and smoke a little of that dope in your pocket."

"Donít bother smoking that shit. Youíd get a better high off a Winfield super mild."

So Petey pedalled in to a very crowded Red Rooster take-away. Everybody in town seemed to have had the same idea. He lined up behind a skinny lad wearing a Drizabone coat that looked about 50 years old.

"That is such a fantastic coat," Petey said.

"Yeah, it belonged to my grandad, would you believe?"

"Get out!" Petey said. A friendship was born. They got their chicken and walked across the road to a park shelter where they could eat and talk. The lad carried the food while Petey pushed his bike.

Baby G waited at home for over an hour before venturing out into the rain to find her boyfriend and her dinner.

"Hey, Petey, Iím starving here," she whined when she found them. "And wringing wet. Where you been?"

"Sorry, Babe, you know how it is when blokes get to talking. Here, snuggle up by me where itís dry. I saved you a couple of burgers and chips."

"Iíve got another bottle of Coke here," said the lad.

"Thanks for that." Petey opened the coke while Baby G got stuck into the food. "This is Josh, heís new to Airlie. This is my fiancé, Baby G."

"So, what do think of this rain?" Josh asked.

"Hate it," she answered through a mouthful of lettuce and bun. "I want to go back to the dry desert, back to the Territory," she added as she licked a bit of mayo off her chin.

"Yeah, I been picking bananas in Tully till I got so much fungus growing on my feet it looked like extra toes!"

"Weíve been thinking about Tully, eh, Babe? We hear thereís always plenty of work there picking bananas."

"Donít do it, itís a mugís game. To make matters worse, I was stuck living in a house in the middle of a cane paddock with a bunch of Jesus freaks. No dope, no alcohol, no cigarettes, even. It got so bad Iíd end up smoking dried banana leaves!"

"I know that hunger," said Baby G.

"It seems like thereís nothing much thatís smokeable around at the moment."

"Not true at all, my man, not true at all!" Josh smiled and patted one of his flapped leather pockets. "Iím not one to brag, but one roll of this weed made up for 6 weeks in Tully."

"No shit! What do you think about letting us have a go?"

"Right here?"

"Absolutely. These Airlie coppers like to stay dry as much as the next guy."

Still uncertain, Josh kept his hands under the table as he filled a paper with a green, leafy substance. He licked it, stuck it, lit it, sucked it, smiled and passed it around. Nobody said anything but 'wicked' for awhile.

"And where did you get this, my good man?" Petey asked once the final wisp of smoke had been gratefully inhaled.

"A guy I met picking. Turns out bananas arenít the only thing they grow in Tully."

"Wicked cool," said Baby G. "Maybe we should go up there if it ever quits raining."

As if on cue, the downpour slackened and the trio took advantage of the let-up to walk back to the caravan park. They stopped along the way for Josh, the one with money, to pick up a carton of beer, which they strapped to the back of the bicycle.

Josh, who was between residences, was impressed. He particularly liked how an awning had been extended from the top to cover a concrete slab, making a sheltered outside area. Inside, he spoke loudly.

"Itís noisy in the rain, I agree, but itís dry and itís private and I see the amenities block isnít too far away."

"It is if youíre pregnant," Baby G said.

"Get out!" Josh said. Petey smirked and gave his balls a little jiggle. "Hey, this calls for a beer! But should you be drinking, Baby G? You know, being preggers and all."

"Itís still real early." Her tinnie opened with a hissing spray, protesting the bike ride. "Itís not like the kidíll be born drunk from me having a drink tonight."

They all had a laugh, then the rain started falling heavily again, making conversation impossible inside so they went out, settling into the various car seats and benches that made up the patio furniture. Josh stretched out his legs and heaved a big sigh of contentment.

"So, how did you come by a name like Baby G? You a secret rap star or something?"

"Naw, my real nameís Baby Goanna. Me mum found me when she was out hunting goannas."

Ruby, despite having had several boyfriends and a husband, had never fallen pregnant. She eventually got over wanting men but she never got over wanting a baby. One day, while hunting for meat in the desert scrub, a miracle happened.

She spotted a big goanna digging a nest in the sand and crept up quietly to capture it. The lizard was alerted and took off. Ruby was about to give chase when she heard the faintest mewling cries coming from near the nest. She investigated the sound and found a baby, covered in sand. It was a white baby, pale, dry, dirty and nearly dead. Ruby picked her up and loved her. She had a daughter at last.

"What about them that left you? They never came back looking for you?"

"Naw, they didnít care. Look here." She flicked back her hair and pulled the sleeve off her left shoulder, revealing savage, ugly scars around her neck and upper chest. "This is all I know about what happened before I got adopted. Mum reckons the goannaís clawís scratched me when she was digging but Gumby, Mumís brother whoís a tracker, swears they were made by a dingoís teeth. Somebody fed me to a dog, eh!"

She shrugged back into her blouse and turned to Petey. "Honey, I wanna go home. Mum and the others, theyíll all want to know about this baby."

Petey reached out and rubbed her leg. "I know, Babe. Iíd like to go home myself and I donít even know where that is."

"Pommie-land, judging by the posh accent," Josh offered and they laughed.

"I believe youíre right, sir, but where? I canít remember things too well. There are times when I think that everything will be as clear as day in just one more minute and then, in the next second, itís gone again. There was one thing, though. The night Baby G got pregnant I dreamed I was a kid, playing in the snow with my brothers. I went looking for my mum and woke up crying, didnít I, Babe?"

"He woke up crying for his mum," she confirmed.

"I donít remember much, but I remember I liked snow better than this fucking rain."

"So why donít youse go back to the desert, back to the dead heart, as they call it."

"Only the white fellas call it that," mumbled the girl.

"I donít know, really. Airlie Beach gets you like a bad habit - we donít exactly want to be here but weíve had no reason to leave."

Baby G opened another beer. "What about you, Josh, where are you from?"

"Down around Bacchus Marsh." He shifted in his bucket seat and felt briefly out of place. He was the only one here who knew and remembered every detail of his story and he was the only one who would never, ever, want to go back. Even the stinking jungle rot of North Queenslandís big wet was better than home. He hadnít even gone back for his own motherís funeralÖ

"Iím all right here. I donít mind staying on, seeing what comes up."

The rain was coming down harder than ever. It found tiny holes in the canvas awning and dripped through. The wind was picking up and sent the occasional sheet of water across the patio.

"Weíd better go in," said Petey.

"I gotta pee," said Baby G. Holding the cardboard beer carton over her head, the boys escorted her to the amenities block.

Back in the caravan, Josh hung his coat on the door. Underneath, his clothes were as dry as a bone. Petey and Baby G got out of their wet clothes. Petey searched through a pile of clothes in the corner and got a sarong for himself. Baby G, who was beginning to feel a chill coming on, wrapped herself tightly in a blanket and lay on the bed, listening to the boys talk. Petey opened two more beers while Josh rolled a joint.

"You say you know where thereís plenty more of that stuff?"

"I do. I know where thereís a truckload. The grower wants to open up a market in the NT and heís trying to talk me into driving for him. Moneyís good, top dollar, but I donít know if I want to move on yet." He pulled a long drag and passed the joint to Petey.

"You like it here that much?"

"I do, in fact, but I also have another small problem in the form of an outstanding warrant on me in the NT."

"Have you been a naughty boy? Have you done this sort of thing before?"

"Itís a living." Josh shrugged and giggled.

"Itís my recollection that I may have done a bit myself. See this baby face? No self-respecting customs officer would think twice about trusting me."

The baby face was round but there was no trace of innocence in it. The cheeks were brown and leathery and pale bags of fluid hung beneath the eyes, but mostly it was the scar - a thick, ragged keloid of a scar starting just above the right eye, continuing across the scalp like a deformed natural parting, poorly disguised by the long dark roots of his bleached blond hair. Petey frowned slightly and fingered it. A memory was trying to make its way through.

"In fact, I got this on the last job I did. That wasnít dope, though, that was pills of some kind - ecstasy, I think - and everything went really bad."

"That looks like a bullet wound."

"Yeah, things got totally fucked on that one. I remember it was dark, I remember a gun, then the next thing I remember was when I woke up in this old Aboriginal guyís bed."

Gumby, Baby Gís uncle, had found Petey hidden deep in the desert, buried in dry dirt and dry scrub. Maggots were crawling through the scalp wound, indicating that heíd been there awhile, and vicious bruises coloured his body, like heíd been given a good kicking. He showed faint signs of life, though, so Brumby hefted him over his shoulder and carried him home, where he and Ruby carefully nursed him back to health.

"And that is how I hooked up with the beautiful Babe. You know, mate, I really loved the people in that community, they were seriously fine, if you know what I mean. I stayed around for a couple of years but thenÖ I guess I got restless about not knowing anything so we took off. For all the bloody good it did."

"Have you been to the cops? They might have a missing persons report about you or something."

"No cops. Thereís no telling what they might have on me. This is the really weird part, though, every time I think Iím getting close to a breakthrough, I get scared and duck for cover. How fucked is that?"

The new mates carried on talking into the night. The girl slept feverishly, once waking up to ask for some Panadol. At 3 a.m., Petey crawled into the bed and curled up around her.

"Got good news for you, Babe. Iím taking you home."

Theyíd been surprised at how obvious the answer was. Petey Smith and Baby G would drive the truckload of dope to Alice Springs. Josh would stay in the caravan until the owner got out of prison. The baby would be born on traditional homeland where nobody would even notice what colour she was.

"Hey, Josh," Petey called sleepily from the bed. "You hang around here long enough and things do come together."

The lovers fell into a peaceful sleep, dreaming of their return to the Simpson Desert, with its vast spaces where a body could hide itself forever, if it wanted to, within the slow beating of its not-so-dead-heart.