I don’t want to be me.
I don’t want to be Dave Martin, loser, parked at his mailbox under the river gum: two beers’ drive from Stony Creek Pub, half a state from Sarah, and at least eighteen months past useful.
But there’s only one way I can stop, and I’m not ready for that.
I step out of my ute into the heat, and notice, again, there is a faint organic stink on the air, like a whiff from a long-dead animal. I can’t place it, and don’t care to.
I know that summer is supposed to be finished, but no one told the sun and its mate, the wind that blisters off the plain, making me feel like a dry frog stranded between water points. But I see the plains grass is still green, the dust is holding low, and the kurrajong tree leaves are shaking their shiny vigour, so perhaps the last few months haven’t been that hot. Can’t say I’ve been paying attention.
To the east, a scattering of large eucalypts prevents me from seeing my running-down homestead, expansive and red-roofed, and its messed-up, park-sized garden, even though it would take a crow less than a minute to flap its ungainly way from here to there.
A police car cruises past on its way towards town, tyres scrabbling for authority in the loose gravel. The driver, a woman I feel I might know, does not wave, or raise a hand or an eyebrow in acknowledgement. That’s odd. Everybody around here waves, one way or another — especially strangers. I have only seen a police car on this road once. I hope it doesn’t mean someone has died. At least it won’t be someone I care about.
But that is not important.
What is important is that the mailman is supposed to deliver three times a week — Monday, Wednesday, Friday — even if there are floods, fires, or public holidays. But our current mailman couldn’t give a proverbial. If the weather on the TV says bad storms or even good storms are likely, he stays in the pub, his bedroom, at his gaming desk, or wherever he dwells when he is not delivering the mail. It’s not right.
When I was a little fella, we had a mail-lady called Mrs Crowther who talked with a slow Australian drawl that you don’t hear anywhere anymore. Mrs Crowther would get the mail to us, no matter what. And not just mail. She delivered groceries, tractor parts, and even messages from friends ten properties away. There wasn’t a natural disaster or a government indisposition that could stop her. On our small colour TV, American cartoons had mailmen who said things like, ‘Wind nor rain nor sleet nor snow, the mail must get through.’ We knew Mrs Crowther watched the same cartoons. Not this bloke. I’m guessing he watches Asian porn and truck-smash videos on his phone, and delivers the mail when he feels like it.
But today I open the lid to find he has bothered to come, and on time, and left me a large box that just fits in my over-sized mailbox. Everyone out here has a big mailbox, courtesy of those Mrs Crowther days and before, when everything came by mail. In these parts, we were long-distance shopping well before the internet came about.
My latest thing is buying cheap machinery online (I mean immorally cheap, like $80 chainsaws that even at a local hardware barn would cost $250) just so I can get the parcel in the mail. It’s a small pleasure, but these days there aren’t many opportunities for pleasure or even distraction. I do not drink anymore, because the morning-tea beers were taking a hold of me. So I hardly ever go to the pub. I no longer have staff. I don’t have anyone to talk to or share things with. The only other person here is James.
I lift the parcel out, and place it on the passenger seat. It’s like Christmas for losers. A present delivered to my mailbox is thrilling, even though the wrapping paper is brown and without decoration, I know the contents, and the person who sent it is probably an algorithm. Although, given the companies I have been buying from, and the prices I’ve been paying, what is inside is usually a weird surprise: parts missing, specifications wrong, assembly backwards. This time it is supposed to be a submersible pump: $85, including delivery. A small one (half a horsepower) for a failing bore. At the price, it was worth the risk, even though I knew it might come without something significant like, say, the pump. Anyway, I drive the box home as if it really is a Christmas present from someone who cares about me.
My house is huge and beautiful, but decrepit. My family has owned it for five generations. It has sweeping verandahs, multiple roof angles, and large rooms with high ceilings and wide-board timber floors. It has five bedrooms and three bathrooms, a huge kitchen, a living area, a dining room, and a couple of other rooms that at times had TVs, overflowing bookcases, games, soft couches, and room for people to relax on their own. The only rooms I use are my bedroom, the kitchen, and a bathroom. All this is surrounded by the verandahs broad enough for ping-pong tables, dining tables and chairs, and hammocks. Outside, there is a meat house that is just one room, a cool room, and extra quarters that used to be for maids and cooks.
In earlier times, it featured on glossy pages in fashionable lifestyle magazines: the backdrop for my parents, freshly washed, seated, looking attractive and significant at an artisan’s timber table on that verandah above a lush, colour-filled garden. Even though the articles featured the house and the ‘flair’ that was evident in my mother’s decorations, as well as the garden she reinvigorated and toiled in to create effortless beauty, the photos revealed it as no more than a humble offering to my father. Nothing, no matter how beautiful or hard-worked-for, existed without his approval. Once you passed this mailbox and crossed the front ramp, everything was owned by him. That was my father: squattocrat and autocrat.
These days, my house would not grace the pages of a giveaway newspaper or a failing website. The roof needs work. The bathrooms need work. The stumping needs work. I don’t have the money, the skill, or the patience to fix these things, and since Sarah left, I don’t have the inclination. So if the roof leaks, I put a bucket under it. If the floors lean, I lean back.
I take the box home as if it was long-awaited (four working days for delivery, actually), and put it on the kitchen island. It looks a little worse for wear, as if they had run out of new boxes and had to use a second-hand one. Entirely possible. I get a knife from the drawer, insert it in the top line of the box, then cut, rip, and tear like a birthday-blessed six-year-old. There is probably three times the amount of packing tape these companies normally use, but let’s face it: opening is half the fun, right?
A submersible pump is a stainless-steel cylinder that usually comes in two parts, both of which might be mistaken for a silver flask. There are no stainless-steel cylinders in this box. When I finally get the packing removed, I find flat stacks, big bricks of something solid. Six of them. They are wrapped in a type of thick plastic film that seems to be from another era. I have a bit of a chuckle to myself. The ways that these companies come up with to cheat me are ingenious or monumentally lazy, but always entertaining. I guess the bricks contain plain old paper-fill, and it does seem like a kind of justice. I rip back the last film of unneeded protection, and look at what I have paid for. What I see is $100 notes in stacks, like in the movies, neatly packed and wrapped. Weird green-blue in colour, thirty centimetres high, three wide, two deep. The only time I have seen more than two $100 notes together at one time was at the races with my father when he bet big on a long shot just to show off.
I jump back, curse in rapid fire, and then lean forward and shove the box hard, off the bench, and away from me. It thuds on the floor without losing a note. Is this a nasty trick? I need money. Everyone knows that. Has someone sent these bricks of cash, undoubtedly fake, photocopied, to ridicule me? Could Sarah, my wife, now in the city, have done this? No, never. But who else? A local business? The truth is, I’m not significant enough for people to hate me. I’m no longer a big-enough player for local businesses or any of the other farmers to pay much attention to me. The only time I come up in their conversation is when they ponder how long I might hold out for before selling up. They’re greedy buggers.
I take a few steadying breaths, pick up the box, and check the lid and the outsides for letters conveying a prank, or threat, or at least an explanation. There is nothing — no directions, no explanations. If the money is real, I must have received someone else’s mail: a drug dealer, a bikie, a crooked cop. Very soon, they will work out that their money has gone missing, and will come looking for it. They will have no trouble finding it or me. I can look forward to being bashed or killed, or both. But I am making assumptions. The only knowledge I have of this sort of carry-on is from the TV.
I check the name and address: Dave Martin, Five Trees. It is mine. It has been sent to me. This makes no sense. Do I have a rich, long-lost, underworld uncle who was looking out for me? Sending me boxes of cash? No chance. I examine the notes. They feel like the right sort of polymer material that bank notes are made from. Maybe 3D printers could do this sort of thing. I unearth my computer from a topsoil of books, magazines, and chip packets, then do a web search on how to identify a $100 note. I find a useful video, and, following its directions, I check the window on the notes for clearness, examine the image in those windows and the micro-print near it, and the raised type, as well as the shadow image of the coat of arms, and everything else they suggest. If these dollars are fake, they are bloody good ones. I try to pick a few notes randomly from the middle of the pile. They seem to be genuine, too. Fuck. What to do? I estimate there is around $250,000 in the box. Not much to an underground criminal, but a bloody fortune to me. I take the box off the bench and place it in the cupboard. It is unnerving me and stopping me thinking clearly.
Should I tape it down and stick it back in the mailbox? Pretend I have never seen it? Or leave a note on it saying ‘Wrong address — I didn’t order any parcels’?
But this money could make a huge difference to my life. I could reduce some of my bank debt, pay the rates, send an expensive present to Sarah, offer to take her on an overseas trip, and explain that my fortunes have changed, I’ve got my act together, and I am keen to get her back. Very, very tempting. But, one way or another, it is stealing. And the people I will be stealing from are likely to be very upset. Not much point making a huge improvement to a life that no longer exists.
However, I know I will never get my hands on this sort of money again. Not unless I sell the farm, and I can’t do that because James is here. I know the box of cash isn’t worth dying for, but nobody would honestly say my recent version of living was worth fighting for either.
And then, out the window, I see a huge, new, white four-wheel-drive ute — shiny, chromed, and tricked-up — come meandering up my driveway, crossing the ramp, and coasting to a halt. Christ, I think, they’ve come for me already. My rifles are locked in the gun cabinet at the other end of the house. By the time I could get to them, unlock them, and get them out, the bad guys would have a rifle barrel shoved up my arse. I step back from the window, and watch, remembering there’s an old set of golf clubs in the garage, and a cricket bat somewhere that might be useful for self-defence.
But the person getting out of the car isn’t the tattooed hard man I was expecting. It is a shapely woman with brown, straight hair, slim in tight jeans, and wearing a loose top. She loosens her hair and looks in my direction. It is Elaine Slade, a farmer from two properties down my road towards town. Elaine is the sort of woman who is immaculately, effortlessly turned out, even in work clothes. In my community, it is agreed that she is beautiful, but for me that is academic. I can’t see beauty; it only makes me think of Sarah. So when she gets out of her car, shakes her hair back, and stretches her lovely neck, my only emotion is relief. Elaine has not come to heavy me over the money. She’s probably come to ask to borrow a piece of machinery; although why she would want to borrow any of my broken-down machinery, I’m not sure. I see her step up to the front door, knock, and step back. She says, ‘Hello’ to no one, extending the ‘o’ just a bit, and waits.
When I open the door, she smiles brightly. ‘Hi, Dave. How are you?’
I tell her I’m well, and do not mention that I’ve just received a quarter of a million in cash in the mail.
‘I’m glad I caught you. I thought you might be out in the paddock somewhere.’
I say something about lunch, and she nods understandingly. Lunch is one of the few legitimate reasons a farmer can be in the house in daylight hours.
‘I am sorry to bother you, but it’s just that I’ve had a parcel go missing in the mail, and it’s overdue and very important to me. It’s crockery, from my great-aunt. Not really so valuable, but important to me, and very breakable. The mailman said he left a parcel in your mailbox, and I wondered if you’d mind checking that it wasn’t my missing one?’
What I say without a moment’s consideration or reference to the idea of giving the money back to keep myself alive is, ‘I’m really sorry, Elaine, but I don’t know what the mailman is talking about. I didn’t get any parcels in the mail today. Just a few bills, and a couple of farm-machinery catalogues.’ I laugh at the paltry nature of my mail.
She looks concerned. ‘Are you sure?’
‘Absolutely positive. That new mailman is bit of an idiot, though. He probably got confused.’
Elaine is confused.
‘Grant? I can’t believe that. Why would he say he dropped it here if he didn’t?’ She’s a little scary with her glamorous certitude.
‘Maybe he took it.’ It is a kind of brave, historical punt: blame the mailman. But she ignores the suggestion.
‘Do you think someone else could have got to your mailbox before you?’
‘I can’t say I pay much attention. But it’s possible. Although, why they’d want to … I mean, it’s not as if there’s ever going to be anything in my mail worth stealing.’
She doesn’t fall for the self-deprecation.
‘Grant said you get boxes all the time. Every few weeks there’s something. From overseas. And today there was one that wasn’t from overseas.’ She looks at me, and even though the look is not unpleasant, there is a steeliness in the way she says the words. She seems surprisingly close to ‘Grant’.
Elaine is relatively new to the district. Never been in farming before. Had an uncle on the land she used to visit when she was a little girl. Rode horses, collected eggs. Couldn’t get it out of her system, or so the story goes. Can’t say I’m close enough to her to have even heard it second-hand. She’s lived here three or four years. Her husband was a well-known potter, but died in an accident somewhere, on business, six months ago. A small plane crash in Africa or something. I can’t remember, but it made the news at the time. The obituary was significant, or so everyone said. I didn’t read it. Apparently, he was quite a big name as far as pottery went (even if she’s the one with the money). A ‘ceramicist’ or something, he was supposed to be. Made all kinds of kooky stuff: weird animals, huge human-like figures, funky kind of urns, and normal-looking plates, and cups and saucers.
I knew him a little bit. Tito was his name. Used to see him round a bit, and one day after he’d been living here for a year or so, he calls me, out of the blue, and says he needs a big favour. He told me he wanted to become ‘more a part of our community’, and asked could I help him. He wanted to be a local, and not an outsider or the ‘artsy, city guy up the road’. So he came and had a beer at my place. Elaine was away somewhere. We chatted about things, and I liked him. He asked me about the community, and maybe I talked it up a bit too much. I told him about my friends, and one friend of James’s in particular. I said they were people who cared about other people. I think it was the beer talking. Anyway, I ‘took’ him to a community meeting, a field day, and to the pub where I tried to introduce him to locals. He was a nice enough bloke, a bit wound-up, but friendly. After that I wasn’t much help to him, because I had my own issues. And then he was dead before the locals got to know him.
I guess we’re always suspicious of newcomers. What are they up to? Are they going to hang around? Are they going to refuse to pay their bills like other city people? And someone like me needs to hang on to the belief that money won’t buy you farming cred. You have to have lived it for a lifetime, or at least a good long while. No matter how much money you’ve got, you’ll never be a real farmer like me. Bullshit, of course.
‘It’s never anything special,’ I say to her. ‘Just machinery parts, and small pumps. I’m afraid I can only afford the sweatshop versions.’ There’s a nasty half-joke there, but she does not laugh or express understanding. She steps up close to me, her skin perfect, her teeth white and untampered with. ‘If my parcel turns up, you’ll let me know, won’t you?’ It’s not quite menace, but it’s a very close cousin. Or is that her version of a come-on? Either the money is hers, or she really likes crockery.
I am unreasonably calm.
When her car is gone, I sit with my head in my hands on the front step. If she’s missing a box of crockery, then I’ve really done no wrong. It would have been wrong to involve her in the knowledge of the cash. That would be incrimination. But if the money is hers, I have stolen it from her. Which means she’ll be back, or someone will be back in her stead.
So why was the box addressed to me? A trick to avoid detection, obviously. And why the story about crockery? Because she didn’t want to involve me. That would be incrimination.
But without being bothered by conscience, I have possibly created a problem.
I get the box from the cupboard, take the money out, put it in two green garbage bags, and put the bags in one of the guest bathrooms (I never have guests). Then I go to the garage, and find the last present I bought myself: a four-in-one hammer drill, $120, free delivery. At the time, it turned out to be much smaller than I thought. It was supposed to be a jackhammer. But now I know it will fit, in parts, into the box. I put the parts in the box with the packing material, and masterfully add the instruction booklet, then tape it up. If Elaine or one of her minions turns up again, I will say I found the box after all, someone must have picked it up accidentally, realised their mistake, and then replaced it. This seems extraordinarily brilliant to me. If Elaine does own the money, she might believe that the box had been picked up and swapped with the hammer drill by someone who knew what she was up to. I am just a neighbourly fuck-up. There was no way she would suspect me of being that clever or daring. I will present it to her unopened, saying I hadn’t ordered anything, so the box has to be hers. Perhaps we will open it together, or maybe I will leave her to it and wait for a response.
And then I hear another engine, and a ute rolls into my driveway and parks in the same spot Elaine had. It is a dirty-yellow, battered tray-back that I know belongs to Ben Ruder, who owns a swag of country at the other end of my road. He’s a successful prick, self-serving, hard as nails, and the sort of person never embarrassed into doing anything for his community or his fellow man. Ben has never bothered to hide his feeling that any farmer with my sort of financial troubles is an idiot and a layabout. He makes his way casually to my front door, not limping, but moving with the cautiousness of someone who could. He is in khaki shorts-and-shirt work clothes, a floppy, grease-stained hat, and looks like he might be down to his last dollar. It is a ruse. He is as wealthy as anyone hereabouts.
Ben is the one person I know capable of being involved in illicit deals that might include boxes of large amounts of money. He used to have a piggery on the farm, and everyone knew there was something not quite right about it. He shut it down some years ago. Rumours have it that he owns dodgy real estate ventures, brothels on the coast, and a holiday resort for paedophiles in Asia. Probably not true, but you get the gist of the bloke. No one makes up stories like that about popular, good-natured people.
‘Ben. What can I do for you?’ I’m not wasting pleasantries, and I know he isn’t expecting me to.
But, ‘Hey there, Davey boy. How’ve you been keeping?’ My alarm bells are clanging air-raid warnings. Ben is affable and relaxed. He is visiting an old friend he hasn’t had a chance to catch up with in a long while. I’ve not seen this version before.
‘Okay. You?’ I am suddenly aware that, except for James’s area, the lawn is long, and the garden beds are a mess. There are branches down, and leaves in piles everywhere, backed up against walls and tree trunks. The couch and the kikuyu have taken command of the veggie garden, and the timber fence along the north side is rotted and collapsing. Someone only has to drive into my garden to know what state I am in. It makes me sad to think what my mother would feel when she saw this mess. But why do I suddenly give a toss?
‘Oh, you know, all right. Getting on a bit, slowing down. Everything seems to hurt first thing in the morning when you’re my age.’
I can’t think of anything to say except, ‘Tell someone who cares.’ I refrain from comment.
‘But, like they say, it’s better than the alternative.’
‘Being six foot under. Being dead, mate. Being dead.’ I think it’s meant to be a joke.
‘Yeah.’ We look at each other for a few seconds, and I guess he decides his approach is a waste of time. He’s never actually done anything wrong by me except treat me like someone of no account. Maybe that’s enough reason to hate him. And he is basically a shit human being who gets to feel like he is a part of a good community, has people who talk to him and humour him because they believe that is their duty in a small community. If he lived anywhere else, the only reason anyone would have anything to do with him would be money. At least that’s what I think.
‘I’m missing a box. That internet tracking thing says it was supposed to come in the mail today, but it didn’t. It’s got precious stuff in it. Precious to me, anyway.’
‘So how can I help you?’ Or perhaps you could bugger off.
‘The mailman said he dropped a box off here, so I was wondering if there was a mistake, and you had my box.’
‘I don’t think so.’ I respond too quickly, and he reads me easily. He squints, and points past me through a gap between me and the doorway, to the box recently taped up, sitting on the kitchen island. ‘I see a box on the bench in there.’
‘That’s right. It is addressed to me. Nothing to do with you.’ His eyes are faintly bloodshot, and I’m thinking he’s a man who is used to drinking heavily on his own.
‘It looks like it could be mine. Can I have a look?’
I know how this will go. I will deny him entry, he will insult me, accuse me of being a thief, threaten legal action, and say he will get me one way or another. He’s that sort of guy. I don’t need drama like this when I have quarter of a mill in crisp notes in my bathroom.
‘How can it look like it’s yours?’
‘It just does.’
I take my time examining his face — the thickening weathered skin, the multiple folds around the eyes — knowing I could take all my feelings of rage against the world, the piercing fury of injustice, out on Ben Ruder, and not feel any remorse. I could hit him over the head with a baseball bat, watch him slump, and know that the better people of the world might not be cheering me on, but they would understand. But instead of belting him, I say, ‘Have you got a knife?’ Cool as.
His hand goes to a pouch on his belt.
‘It’s not been opened. You’re welcome to have a look.’ I extend an arm to show him the way. I’m getting good at this. If he’s looking for the money, I’m willing to bet he won’t want to open the boxes in front of me. But if he declines, how would he ever know, short of having someone steal them from my house?
He removes his hat, takes a pocket knife from his pouch, and steps forward. ‘I’d appreciate that.’
We stand on either side of the island, and look at the box. The phone starts to ring, and I let it. Ben is focused on the box. He checks the address panel, and runs his hands expertly over the cardboard and tape surface. Then he stabs the knife into the seam in the top, and cuts backwards the distance of half a hand. He peers into the box, and then pushes a hand in the gap. I can’t see what he is finding. He pulls his hand back out, and says, resigned, ‘It’s not mine. Some sort of hand tool. Did you order one?’
A man’s voice on my answering machine says something about boxes.
To block it out, I say loudly, ‘I don’t think it’s any of your business.’
He gives a half nod, and a shrug as if to say If that’s the way it’s going to be, and turns and walks towards the front door. It lights a little fire of rage inside me.
‘What precious thing are you expecting in the mail? A gimp suit?’
‘Fuck off, you loser.’ He says it over his shoulder, my insults nothing to him.
‘The souls of abused Asian boys?’ I am yelling it from the doorway as he gets into his ute and puts the finger up at me.
I walk across the lawn following him, bad-mouthing him all the way out of the garden and down the road.
Then I stride back up to the garden shed, and drag the mower out, fill it, check the oil, and proceed to mow the perimeter of James’s area.
After the mowing, I play the message on the answering machine. It says nothing about boxes. It is a man from the Department of Agriculture doing a survey on whether I am baiting foxes.
Exhausted from the mowing and the stress of the day, I decide I will have a drink. I’m not an alcoholic, so it’s not like I can never drink. It’s just that I choose not to. But when I choose to, it is a serious decision. So instead of dinner I have a beer, and then another one, and another few. I open a bottle of red and drink it, and then manage a couple of scotches, because there is some in the cupboard. I pass out on the couch in my clothes.