← reading Scrublands benefits ← Book By Chris Hammer ❑

← reading Scrublands benefits ← Book By Chris Hammer ❑ ← reading Scrublands benefits ← Book By Chris Hammer ❑ Christopher Hammer lives in Australia and has been a journalist for over twenty five years He has been an international correspondent, the chief political correspondent for The Bulletin, and a senior political journalist for The Age.Prologue The day is still The heat, having eased during the night, is building again the sky is cloudless and unforgiving, the sun punishing Across the road, down by whats left of the river, the cicadas are generating a wall of noise, but theres silence surrounding the church Parishioners begin to arrive for the eleven oclock service, parking across the road in the shade of the trees Once three or four cars have arrived, their occupants emerge into the brightness of the morning and cross the road, gathering outside St James to make small talk stock prices, the scarcity of farm water, the punitive weather The young priest, Byron Swift, is there, still dressed casually, chatting amiably with his elderly congregation Nothing seems amiss everything appears normal Craig Landers, owner and manager of Riversends general store, approaches Hes going hunting with his mates, but theyve stopped by the church so he can have a few words with the priest beforehand His friends have tagged along Like Craig, none of them are regular churchgoers Gerry Torlini lives down in Bellington and doesnt know any of the parishioners, so he returns to his four wheel drive, but local farmers Thom and Alf Newkirk mingle, as does Horrie Grosvenor Alfs son Allen, surrounded by people than three times his age, joins Gerry in the cab of his truck If anyone thinks the men look incongruous in their shooting gear, astrange mix of camouflage and high vis, no one says so The priest sees Landers and walks over The men shake hands, smile, exchange a few words Then the priest excuses himself, and enters the church to prepare for the service and don his vestments Having said his piece, Landers is keen to leave, but Horrie and the Newkirks are deep in conversation with some farmers, so he walks towards the side of the church, seeking shade Hes almost there when the babble of conversation abruptly ceases he turns to see the priest has emerged from the church and is standing at the top of the short flight of steps Byron Swift has changed into his robes, crucifix glinting as it catches the sun, and hes carrying a gun, ahigh powered hunting rifle with a scope It makes no sense to Landers hes still confused as Swift raises the gun to his shoulder and calmly shoots Horrie Grosvenor from a distance of no than five metres Grosvenors head ruptures in a red cloud and his legs give way He falls to the ground like a sack, as if his bones no longer exist Conversation stops, heads turn Theres a silent moment as people struggle for comprehension The priest fires again, another body falls Thom Newkirk There is no screaming, not yet, but there is panic, silent desperation as people start running Landers bolts for the corner of the church as another shot goes screaming out into the world He rounds the end of the wall, gaining momentary safety But he doesnt stop running he knows its him the priest most wants to kill one Riversend Martin Scarsden stops the car on the bridge leading into town, leaving the engine running Its a single lane bridgeno overtaking, no passingbuilt decades ago, the timber milled from local river red gums Its slung across the flood plain, long and rambling, desiccated planks shrunken and rattling, bolts loose, spans bowed Martin opens the car door and steps into the midday heat, ferocious and furnace dry He places both hands on the railing, but such is the heat of the day that even wood is too hot to touch He lifts them back, bringing flaking white paint with them He wipes them clean, using the damp towel he has placed around his neck He looks down to where the river should be and sees instead a mosaic of cracked clay, baked and going to dust Someone has carted an old fridge out to where the water once ran and left it there, having first painted a sign on its door free beerhonour system The red gums along the banks dont get the joke some of their branches are dead, others support sparse clumps of khaki leaves Martin tries lifting his sunglasses, but the light is dazzling, too bright, and he lowers them again He reaches back into the car and cuts the engine There is nothing to hear the heat has sucked the life from the world no cicadas, no cockatoos, not even crows, just the bridge creaking and complaining as it expands and contracts in thrall to the sun There is no wind The day is so very hot, it tugs at him, seeking his moisture he can feel the heat rising through the thin leather soles of his city shoes Back in the rental car, air conditioning straining, he moves off the bridge and down into Riversends main street, into the sweltering bowl below the levee banks There are cars parked here They sit reversed into the kerb at a uniform forty five degree angle utes and farm trucks and city sedans, all of them dusty and none of them new He drives slowly, looking for movement, any sign of life, but its like hes driving through a diorama Only as he passes through the first intersection a block on from the river, past a bronze soldier on a column, does he see a man shuffling along the footpath in the shade of the shop awnings He is wearing, of all things, along grey overcoat, his shoulders stooped, his hand clutching a brown paper bag Martin stops the car, reverses it assiduously at the requisite angle, but not assiduously enough He grimaces as the bumper scrapes against the kerb He pulls on the handbrake, switches off the engine, climbs out The kerb is almost knee high, built for flooding rains, adorned now by the rear end of his rental He thinks of moving the car forward, off the concrete shoal, but decides to leave it there, damage done He crosses the street and enters the shade of the awnings, but theres no sign of the shuffling man The street is deserted Martin regards the shopfronts The first has a hand painted sign taped to the inside of the glass door mathildas op shop and antiques pre loved clothing, knick knacks and curios open tuesday and thursday mornings This Monday lunchtime, the door is locked Martin inspects the window display Theres a black beaded cocktail dress on an old dressmakers mannequin atweed jacket with leather elbow patches, hem a little frayed, held aloft on a wooden clothes hanger and a garish set of orange work overalls draped across the back of a chair Astainless steel bin contains a collection of discarded umbrellas, dusty with disuse On one wall theres a poster showing a woman in a one piece swimming suit luxuriating on a beach towel while behind her waves lick at the sand manly sea and surf, says the poster, but it has sat in the window too long and the Riverina sun has leached the red from her swimmers and the gold from the sand, leaving only a pervasive pale blue wash Along the bottom of the window is an array of shoes bowling shoes, golf shoes, some well worn riding boots and a pair of polished brown brogues Dotted around them like confetti are the bodies of flies Dead mens shoes, Martin decides The shop next door is empty, ayellow and black for lease sign in the window, the outline still legible from where the paint has been stripped from the window hair today He takes out his phone and snaps a few photos, visual prompts for when hes writing The next store is entirely shuttered aweatherboard faade with two small windows, both boarded up The door is secured with a rusty chain and brass padlock It looks as if its been like that for a lifetime Martin takes a photo of the chained door Returning to the other side of the road, Martin can again feel the heat through his shoes and he avoids patches of oozing bitumen Gaining the footpath and the relief of the shade, hes surprised to find himself looking at a bookstore, right by where hes parked his car the oasis bookstore and cafe says a sign hanging from the awning, the words carved into a long slab of twisting wood Abookstore Fancy that He hasnt brought a book with him, hasnt even thought of it until now His editor, Max Fuller, rang at dawn, delivering his brainwave, assigning him the story Martin packed in a rush, got to the airport with moments to spare, downloaded the clippings hed been emailed, been the last passenger across the tarmac and onto the plane But a book would be good if he must endure the next few days in this husk of a town, then a novel might provide some distraction He tries the door, anticipating it too may be locked Yet the Oasis is open for business Or the door is, at least Inside, the shop is dark and deserted, the temperature at least ten degrees cooler Martin removes his sunglasses, eyes adjusting to the gloom after the blowtorch streetscape There are curtains across the shopfronts plate glass windows and Japanese screens in front of them, adding an extra barricade against the day Aceiling fan is barely revolving the only other movement is water trickling across slate terraces on a small, self contained water feature sitting atop the counter The counter is next to the door, in front of the window, facing an open space Here, there are a couple of couches, some slouching armchairs placed on a worn rug, together with some book strewn occasional tables Running towards the back of the store are three or four ranks of shoulder high bookshelves with an aisle up the middle and aisles along either side The side walls support higher shelves At the back of the shop, at the end of the aisle, there is a wooden swing door of the type that separates kitchens from customers in restaurants If the bookshelves were pews, and the counter an altar, then this might be a chapel Martin walks past the tables to the far wall Asmall sign identifies it as literature Awry smile begins to stretch across his face but its progress is halted as he regards the top shelf of books There, neatly aligned with only their spines showing, are the books he read and studied twenty years ago at university Not just the same titles, but the same battered paperback editions, arranged like his courses themselves There is Moby Dick, The Last of the Mohicans and The Scarlet Letter, sitting to the left of The Great Gatsby, Catch 22 and Herzog Theres The Fortunes of Richard Mahony, For Love Alone and Coonardoo, leading to Free Fall, The Trial and The Quiet American Theres a smattering of plays The Caretaker, Rhinoceros and The Chapel Perilous He pulls out a Penguin edition of A Room with a View, its spine held together by adhesive tape turned yellow with age He opens it, half expecting to see the name of some forgotten classmate, but instead the name that greets him is Katherine Blonde He replaces the book, careful not to damage it Dead womans books, he thinks He takes out his phone and snaps aphotograph Sitting on the next shelf down are newer books, some looking almost untouched James Joyce, Salman Rushdie, Tim Winton He cant discern any pattern in their arrangement He pulls one out, then another, but there are no names written inside He takes a couple of books and is turning to sit in one of the comfortable armchairs when he is startled, flinching involuntarily Ayoung woman has somehow appeared at the end of the central aisle Find anything interesting she asks, smiling, her voice husky Shes leaning nonchalantly against a bookshelf I hope so, says Martin But hes nowhere near as relaxed as he sounds Hes disconcerted at first by her presence and now by her beauty Her hair is blonde, cut into a messy bob, fringe brushing black eyebrows Her cheekbones are marble, her eyes sparkling green Shes wearing a light summer dress and her feet are bare She doesnt belong in the narrative hes been constructing about Riversend So whos Katherine Blonde he asks My mother Tell her I like her books Cant Shes dead Oh Sorry Dont be If you like books, shed like you This was her shop They stand looking at each other for a moment There is something unapologetic about the way she regards him, and Martin is the first to break eye contact Sit down, she says Relax for a bit Youve come a long way How do you know that This is Riversend, she says, offering a sad smile She has dimples, Martin observes She could be a model Or a movie star Go on, sit down, she says Want a coffee Were a cafe as much as were a bookshop Its how we make our money Sure Long black, thanks And some water, please He finds himself longing for a cigarette, even though he hasnt smoked since university Acigarette Why now Good Ill be right back She turns and walks soundlessly back down the aisle Martin watches her the whole way, admiring the curve of her neck floating above the bookshelves, his feet still anchored to the same spot as when he first saw her She passes through the swing door at the back of the store and is gone, but her presence lingers the cello like timbre of her voice, the fluid confidence of her posture, her green eyes The door stops swinging Martin looks down at the books in his hands He sighs, derides himself as pathetic and takes a seat, looking not at the books but at the backs of his forty year old hands His father had possessed tradesmans hands When Martin was a child they had always seemed so strong, so assured, so purposeful Hed always hoped, assumed that one day his hands would be the same But to Martin they still seem adolescent White collar hands, not working class hands, somehow inauthentic He takes a seata creaking armchair with tattered upholstery, tilting to one sideand starts leafing absent mindedly through one of the books This time she doesnt startle him as she enters his field of vision He looks up Time has passed Here, she says, frowning ever so slightly She places a large white mug on the table beside him As she bends, he captures some coffee tinted fragrance Fool, he thinks Hope you dont mind, she says, but I made myself one too We dont get that many visitors Of course, he hears himself saying Sit down Some part of Martin wants to make small talk, make her laugh, charm her He thinks he remembers howhis own good looks cant have totally deserted himbut he glances again at his hands, and decides not to What are you doing here he asks, surprising himself with the bluntness of his question What do you mean What are you doing in Riversend I live here I know But why Her smile fades as she regards him seriously Is there some reason I shouldnt live here This Martin lifts his arms, gestures at the store around him Books, culture, literature Your uni books over there, on the shelf below your mothers And you This town is dying You dont belong here She doesnt smile, doesnt frown Instead, she just looks at him, considering him, letting the silence extend before responding Youre Martin Scarsden, arent you Her eyes are locked on his He returns her gaze Yes Thats me I remember the reports, she says Im glad you got out alive It must have been terrible Yes, it was, he says Minutes pass Martin sips his coffee Its not bad hes had worse in Sydney Again the curious longing for a cigarette The silence is awkward, and then its not More minutes pass Hes glad hes here, in the Oasis, sharing silences with this beautiful young woman She speaks first Icame back eighteen months ago, when my mother was dying To look after her Now well, if I leave, the bookshop, her bookshop, it closes down It will happen soon enough, but Im not there yet Im sorry Ididnt mean to be so direct She takes up her coffee, wraps her hands around her mug agesture of comfort, of confiding and sharing, strangely appropriate despite the heat of the day So, Martin Scarsden, what are you doing in Riversend A story My editor sent me Thought it would be good for me to get out and breathe some healthy country air Blow away the cobwebs, he said What The drought No Not exactly Good God The shooting Again It was almost a year ago Yeah Thats the hook Ayear on, how is Riversend coping Like a profile piece, but of a town, not a person Well print it on the anniversary That was your idea My editors What a genius And he sent you To write about a town in trauma Apparently Christ And they sit in silence once The young woman rests her chin in one hand, staring unseeing at a book on one of the tables, while Martin examines her, no longer exploring her beauty, but pondering her decision to remain in Riversend He sees the fine lines around her eyes, suspects shes older than he first thought Mid twenties, maybe Young, at least in comparison to him They sit like that for some minutes, abookstore tableau, before she lifts her gaze and meets his eyes Amoment passes, aconnection is made When she speaks, her voice is almost a whisper Martin, theres a better story, you know Better than wallowing in the pain of a town in mourning And whats that Why he did it I think we know that, dont we Child abuse An easy allegation to level at a dead priest Idont believe it Not every priest is a paedophile Martin cant hold the intensity of her gaze he looks at his coffee, not knowing what to say The young woman persists DArcy Defoe Is he a friend of yours I wouldnt go that far But hes an excellent journalist The story won a Walkley Deservedly so It was wrong Martin hesitates he doesnt know where this is going Whats your name Mandalay Blonde Everyone calls me Mandy Mandalay Thats something My mum She liked the sound of it Liked the idea of travelling the world, unfettered And did she No Never left Australia Okay, Mandy Byron Swift shot five people dead You tell me why did he do it I dont know But if you found out, that would be a hell of a story, wouldnt it I guess But if you dont know why he did it, whos going to tell me She doesnt respond to that, not straight away Martin is feeling disconcerted Hed thought hed found a refuge in the bookstore now he feels as if hes spoilt it Hes not sure what to say, whether he should apologise, or make light of it, or thank her for the coffee and leave But Mandalay Blonde hasnt taken offence she leans in towards him, voice low Martin, Iwant to tell you something But not for publication, not for repetition Between you and me Are you okay with that Whats so sensitive I need to live in this town, thats what So write what you like about Byronhes past caringbut please leave me out of it All right Sure What is it She leans back, considering her next words Martin realises how quiet the bookstore is, insulated against sound as well as light and heat He can hear the slow revolving of the fan, the hum of its electric motor, the tinkling of the water on the counter, the slow breath of Mandalay Blonde Mandy looks him in the eye, then swallows, as if summoning courage There was something holy about him Like a saint or something He killed five people I know Iwas here It was awful Iknew some of the victims Iknow their widows Fran Landers is a friend of mine So you tell me why dont I hate him Why do I feel as if what happened was somehow inevitable Why is that Her eyes are pleading, her voice intense Why Okay, Mandy, tell me Im listening You cant write any of this Not the stuff about me Agreed Sure What is it He saved my life Iowe him my life He was a good man The distress eddies across her face like wind across a pond Go on Mum was dying, Igot pregnant Not for the first time Aone night stand with some arsehole down in Melbourne Iwas thinking of killing myself Icould see no future, not one worth living This shitty town, that shitty life And he saw it He walked into the bookstore, started his banter and flirting like usual, and then he stopped Just like that He looked into my eyes and he knew And he cared He talked me around, over a week, over a month Taught me how to stop running, taught me the value of things He cared, he sympathised, he understood the pain of others People like him dont abuse children how could they There is passion in her voice, conviction in her words Do you believe in God she asks No, says Martin No, neither do I What about fate No That Im not so sure about Karma Mandy, where is this going He used to come into the store, buying books and drinking coffee Ididnt know he was a priest at first He was attentive, he was charming and he was different Iliked him Mum really liked him He could talk about books and history and philosophy We used to love it when he dropped by Iwas disappointed when I learnt he was a priest Ikind of fancied him Did he fancy you Looking at her, Martin finds it difficult to imagine a man who wouldnt She smiles Of course not I was pregnant But you liked him Everyone did He was so witty, so charismatic Mum was dying, the town was dying, and here he was young and vital and unbowed, full of self belief and promise And then he became than thatmy friend, my confessor, my saviour He listened to me, understood me, understood what I was going through No judgement, no admonition Hed always drop by when he was in town, always check on how we were doing In Mums last days, at the hospital down in Bellington, he comforted her, and he comforted me He was a good man And then he was gone as well More silence This time its Martin who speaks first Did you have your baby Yes Of course Liam Hes sleeping out the back Ill introduce you if youre still here when he wakes up Id like that Thank you Martin chooses his words carefully, at least he tries to, knowing they can never be the right words Mandy, Iunderstand that Byron Swift was kind to you Ican readily accept he wasnt all bad, that he was sincere But that doesnt equal redemption, not for what he did And it doesnt mean the allegations arent true Im sorry His words do nothing to persuade her she merely looks determined Martin, Im telling you, he looked into my soul Iglimpsed his He was a good man He knew I was in pain and he helped me But how can you reconcile that with what he did He committed mass murder I know Iknow Icant reconcile it Iknow he did it Idont deny it And its been messing me up ever since The one truly decent human being I ever met besides my mother turns out to be this horror show But heres the thing Ican believe he shot those people Iknow he did it It even rings true, feels right in some perverse way, even if I dont know why he did it But I cant believe he abused children As a kid I got bullied and bashed, as a teenager I got slandered and groped, and as an adult Ive been ostracised and criticised and marginalised Ive had plenty of abusive boyfriendsalmost the only kind of boyfriends I ever did have narcissistic arseholes capable only of thinking of themselves Liams father is one of them Iknow that mentality Ive seen it up close and nasty That wasnt his mentality he was the opposite He cared Thats whats fucking me up And thats why I dont believe he abused children Hecared Martin doesnt know what to say He sees the passion on her face, hears the fervour in her voice But a mass murderer who cared So he doesnt say anything, just looks back into Mandalay Blondes troubled green eyes. 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    • $0.00
    • 272 pages
    • Scrublands
    • Chris Hammer
    • English
    • 2017-06-20T17:12+03:00