Books Ex­clu­sive ex­tract of Char­lotte Wood’s new novel; the ver­dict on Sal­man Rushdie’s latest book

In this ex­clu­sive ex­tract from the open­ing of Char­lotte Wood’s new novel, The Nat­u­ral Way of Things, two young women find them­selves in a wak­ing night­mare

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Contents -

So there were kook­abur­ras here. This was the first thing Yolanda knew in the dark morn­ing. (That and where’s my dur­ries?) Two birds break­ing out in that loose, sharp cackle, a bird call be­fore the sun was up, loud and lu­natic. She got out of the bed and felt gritty boards be­neath her feet. There was the coarse un­fa­mil­iar fab­ric of a night­dress on her skin. Who had put this on her?

She stepped across the dry wooden floor­boards and stood, cran­ing her neck to see through the high nar­row space of a small win­dow. The two street­lights she had seen in her dream turned out to be two enor­mous stars in a deep blue sky. The kook­abur­ras daz­zled the dark­ness with their hor­ri­ble noise.

Later there would be other birds; some­times she would ask about them, but ques­tions made peo­ple sus­pi­cious and they wouldn’t an­swer her. She would be­gin to make up her own names for the birds. The wa­ter­fall birds, whose calls fell tum­bling. And the squeak­ers, the tiny dart­ing grey ones. Who would have known there could be so many birds in the mid­dle of ab­so­lutely f..king nowhere? But that would all come later. Here, on this first morn­ing, be­fore ev­ery­thing be­gan, she stared up at the sky as the blue night light­ened, and lis­tened to the kook­abur­ras and thought, Oh, yes, you are right. She had been de­liv­ered to an asy­lum.

She groped her way along the walls to a door. But there was no han­dle. She felt at its edge with her fin­ger­nails: locked. She climbed back into the bed and pulled the sheet and blan­ket up to her neck. Per­haps they were right. Per­haps she was mad, and all would be well.

She knew she was not mad, but all lu­natics thought that. When they were small she and Dar­ren had once col­lected mounds of moss from un­der the tap at the back of the flats, in the dank cor­ner of the yard where it was al­ways cool, even on the hottest days. They prised up the clumps of moss, the earth heavy in their fin­gers, and it was a sat­is­fy­ing job, lift­ing a cor­ner and be­ing care­ful not to crack the lump, get­ting bet­ter as they went at not split­ting the moss and pulling it to pieces. They filled a crack­led or­ange plas­tic bucket with the moss and took it out to the verge on the street to sell. ‘‘Moss for sale,’’ they screamed at the hot cars go­ing by, gig­gling and ges­tur­ing and clown­ing, and, ‘‘Wouldja like ta buy some moss?’’ more po­litely if a man or woman walked past. No­body bought any moss, even when they spread it beau­ti­fully along the verge, and Dar­ren sent Yolanda back twice for wa­ter to pour over it, to keep it vel­vety and springy to the touch. Then they got too hot, and Dar­ren left her there sit­ting on the verge while he went and fetched two cups of wa­ter, but still no­body bought any moss. So they climbed the stairs and went in­side to watch TV, and the moss dried out and turned grey and dusty and died.

This was what the night­dress made her think of, the dead moss, and she loved Dar­ren even though she knew it was him who let them bring her here, wher­ever she was. Per­haps he had put her in the crazed or­ange bucket and brought her here him­self. What she re­ally needed was a ciggy. While she waited there in the bed, in the dead-moss night­dress and the wide si­lence — the kook­abur­ras stopped as in­stantly as they be­gan — she took an in­ven­tory of her­self.

Yolanda Ko­vacs, nine­teen years eight months. Good body (she was just be­ing hon­est, why would she boast, when it had got her into such trou­ble?). She pulled the rustling night­dress closer — it scratched less, she was dis­cov­er­ing, when tightly wrapped.

One mother, one brother, liv­ing. One fa­ther, un­known, dead or alive. One boyfriend, Rob­bie, who no longer be­lieved her (at poor Rob­bie, the rush of a sob in her throat. She swal­lowed it down). One night, one dark room, that bas­tard and his mates, one ter­ri­ble mis­take. And then one gi­ant f..king un­holy mess.

Yolanda Ko­vacs, lu­natic. And that word fright­ened her, and she turned her face and cried into the hard pil­low.

She stopped cry­ing and went on with her in­ven­tory. Things miss­ing: hand­bag, ob­vi­ously. Cig­gies (al­most full pack), pur­ple lighter, phone, make-up, blue top, bra, un­der­pants, skinny jeans. Shoes. Three sil­ver rings from Bali, rein­deer neck­lace from Dar­ren (she pat­ted her chest for it again, still gone).

Yolanda looked up at the dark win­dow. Oh, stars. Stay with me. But very soon the sky was light and the two stars had gone, com­pletely.

She breathed in and out, longed for nico­tine, curled in the bed, watch­ing the door. In a patch of sun­light Verla sits on a wooden fold­ing chair and waits. When the door opens she holds her breath. It is another girl who comes into the room. They lock eyes for an in­stant, then look away to the floor, the walls.

The girl moves stiffly in her strange cos­tume, tak­ing only a few steps into the room. The door has closed be­hind her. The only spare chair is be­side Verla’s, so Verla gets up and moves to the win­dow. It is too much, that she be put so close to a stranger. She stands at the win­dow, look­ing out through a fly-spot­ted pane at noth­ing. There is bright sun­light com­ing into the room, but only re­flected off the white weath­er­boards of another build­ing just me­tres away. She presses her face to the glass, but can see no win­dows any­where along the length of that build­ing.

She can feel the other girl be­hind her in the room, star­ing at her pe­cu­liar clothes. The stiff long green can­vas smock, the coarse cal­ico blouse be­neath, the hard brown leather boots and woollen stock­ings. The an­cient un­der­wear. It is sum­mer. Verla sweats in­side them. She can feel it dawn­ing on the other girl that she is a mir­ror: that she too wears this ab­surd cos­tume, looks as strange as Verla does.

Verla tries to work out what it was she had been given, scan­ning back through the vo­cab­u­lary of her fa­ther’s seda­tives. Mi­da­zo­lam, Lar­gac­til? She wants to live. She tries wad­ing through mem­ory, logic, but can’t grasp any­thing but the fact that all her own clothes — and, she sup­poses, the other girl’s — are gone. She blinks a slow glance at the girl. Tall, heavylid­ded eyes, thick brows, long black hair to her waist is all Verla sees be­fore look­ing away again. But she knows the girl stands there dumbly with her hands by her sides, star­ing down at the floor­boards. Drugged too, Verla can tell from her slow­ness, her va­cancy — this run­away, school­girl, drug ad­dict? Nun, for all Verla knows. But some­how, even in this sweep­ing glance, the girl seems fa­mil­iar.

She un­der­stands fear should be thrum­ming through her now. But logic is im­pos­si­ble, all think­ing still glazed with what­ever they have given her. Like the burred head on a screw, her thoughts can find no pur­chase.

Verla fol­lows the girl’s gaze. The floor­boards glis­ten like honey in the sun. She has an im­pulse to lick them. She un­der­stands that fear is the only thing now that could con­ceiv­ably save her from what is to come. But she is cot­ton-headed, too slow for that. The drug has dis­solved adren­a­line so com­pletely it al­most seems un­sur­pris­ing to be here, with a stranger, in a strange room, wear­ing this bizarre olden-day cos­tume. She can do noth­ing to re­sist it, can­not un­der- stand nor ques­tion. It is a kind of dumb re­lief.

But she can lis­ten. Verla strains through her se­da­tion. Some­where be­yond the door is the jud­der of some do­mes­tic mo­tor — a fridge, maybe, or an air-con­di­tion­ing unit. But the place is stink­ing hot, prim­i­tive. She has no idea where they are.

The room is large and light. There are the two wooden fold­ing chairs — empty, the other girl did not sit — against a wall painted milky green and a black­board at the other end of the room with a vinyl rolled blind high up at the top of the board. Verla knows with­out know­ing that if she tugged on the ring dan­gling from the cen­tre of the blind she would pull down a map of Aus­tralia, coloured yel­low and or­ange with blue wa­ter all around. The map will be faintly shiny and faintly crack­led from all the years of rolling up and down, and would some­where con­tain the fact of where she has trav­elled to all those hours. When her mind is in or­der again she will be able to think and she will work it out, she will take charge of her­self, will de­mand in­for­ma­tion and go to the high­est au­thor­ity and not rest and some­how get to the bot­tom of this fact of ap­pear­ing to have been ab­ducted right into the mid­dle of the nine­teen f..king fifties.

Out­side, a sin­gle white cock­a­too shrieks, closer and louder un­til the sound of it fills the room like mur­der. She and the girl lock gazes again, and then Verla peers back out­side, up at the slot of sky. The bird flaps across the space be­tween the build­ings and then is gone.

She tries again, and this time through her sticky, jel­lied rec­ol­lec­tion Verla drags up the loom­ing shape of a ve­hi­cle in the night. Is this re­call, or dream? A bus. Gleam­ing yel­low in the gloom. Pur­pose­ful, firm hands lift­ing and push­ing at her. Wak­ing at some time in the dark, un­fa­mil­iar velour of uphol­stery against her cheek. Head­lights il­lu­mi­nat­ing a long, straight, empty road. Did she stand up, sway­ing? Did she shout, was she pressed down? She rubs her wrist at the dream-mem­ory of hand­cuff and rail. Im­pos­si­ble. Another dream sense — be­ing hauled from

the bus, held up­right, try­ing to speak, rough hands grip­ping, tast­ing dust in the dry and stat­icky night. She was far from home. Now here she is, in this room. Verla lis­tens hard again. It now seems lis­ten­ing might be her only hope. She hears the creak some­where of a door, a bird’s cheep­ing. There will be a car en­gine, a plane, a train, some­thing to lo­cate them. There will be foot­steps, talk­ing, the pres­ence of peo­ple in other rooms. She stares out the win­dow at the weath­er­boards. There is noth­ing. The mo­tor jerks — it is a fridge — and clicks off.

Now there is no sound at all but the other girl’s slow, solid breath­ing. She has moved to sit now, on one of the chairs. She sits with her legs apart, her fore­head in her hands, el­bows on her knees. Her black hair a cur­tain, reach­ing al­most to the floor.

Verla wants to lie down on the floor­boards and sleep. But some an­cient in­stinct claws its way to the sur­face of con­scious­ness, and she forces her­self to stay up­right. Min­utes pass, or hours.

At last the other girl speaks, her voice thick and throaty. ‘‘Have you got a cig­a­rette?’’ When Verla turns to her she sees how fresh the girl is, how young. And, again, fa­mil­iar. It seems to Verla she has known this girl once, long ago. As if Verla had once owned then aban­doned her, like a doll or a dog. And here she is, re­turned, an ac­tor on a stage, and Verla there too, both of them dressed in these strange prairie pup­pets’ clothes. It could all be hal­lu­ci­na­tion. But Verla knows it isn’t. The doll opens her mouth to speak again and Verla says, ‘‘No,’’ at the same time as the doll-or-dog girl asks, ‘‘Do you know where we are?’’

There are voices be­yond the door in the hall­way and in a sud­den rush of clar­ity Verla re­alises she should have asked the girl where she has come from just now, what is out­side the door, re­alises she has squan­dered her last chance to know what is to come. But it is too late. The voices are men’s, loud, cheer­ful, worka­day. Just be­fore the door opens the other girl darts across the room to Verla’s side, so they stand to­gether fac­ing the door, their backs to the win­dow. As the door opens the two girls’ hands find and close over one another.

A man clomps into the room. Sounds of life and move­ment bloom up the hall­way be­hind him: another man’s voice, the sound of mov­ing cut­lery, or knives. Del­i­cate me­tal sounds, in­stru­ments clat­ter­ing into a sink or bowl.

Verla’s legs weaken; she might drop. The other girl’s grip tight­ens over hers and Verla is sur­prised to learn this: She is stronger than me.

‘‘Hey,’’ the man calls mildly, as if he is em­bar­rassed to come across them there. Thick brown dreadlocks fall to his shoul­ders, fram­ing a hip­pie boy’s va­cant, golden face. He shifts in his blue boiler suit, big black boots on his feet. The suit and the boots look new. He is un­com­fort­able in them. He stands with his arms folded, lean­ing back now and then to look out the door, wait­ing for some­one.

He looks at them again, ap­prais­ing them in their stiff, weird clothes. Cu­ri­ous ob­jects. ‘‘You must feel like shit, I s’pose.’’ A husky, lazy, potsmoker’s voice. He stretches, rais­ing his arms high above him with his palms to­gether, then drop­ping from the waist, head touch­ing his knees, palms on the floor, he breathes, long and smoothly. Salute to the sun, Verla thinks. Then the man straight­ens up and sighs again, bored.

‘‘It’ll wear off soon, ap­par­ently,’’ he mur­murs as if to him­self, glanc­ing out the door again.

The girls stay where they are, hands grip­ping.

Now another boiler suit strides into the room. Bustling, pur­pose­ful.

‘‘Right,’’ he says. ‘‘Who wants to go first?’’ Propped up against the win­dowsill, hold­ing that other girl’s hand to stop her fall­ing to the ground, Yolanda’s throat was raw and thick as though some­thing had been forced down her gul­let while she slept. It hurt her a lit­tle to speak, but she heard her­self say, ‘I’ll go first.’

For what, she didn’t know. Only prayed they would crank up the dose of this shit first,

and if not she would spit and claw un­til they did. The man came to her and bent to clip a lit­tle lead to a me­tal ring at the waist of her tu­nic (she hadn’t no­ticed it un­til then), which made her let go that chick’s hand. For the first time she looked at the other girl prop­erly, stand­ing there against the win­dow with the light halo­ing her soft red­dish-brown curls. Her blue eyes widen­ing in terror, her freck­led cheeks pal­ing even whiter than the light out­side. Yolanda wanted to say, I’m the one be­ing taken, you dumb bitch, it isn’t hap­pen­ing to you.

But she knew she was tak­ing the eas­ier path: she would find out what was com­ing while that girl en­dured another minute or hour or year in that room, wait­ing.

When the man sat her in the next room with a mir­ror and clipped the other end of her leash to that heavy pedestal chair and then left, she looked around for wires and plugs, for f..k knew what else. She was fac­ing death, maybe tor­ture first. She be­gan scream­ing for drugs.

When she came to again — she was get­ting used to the fade, out and in — she be­came con­scious of sev­eral things. That it was the stoner with the dreads now stand­ing be­hind her, it was him she saw in the mir­ror, and that in his hands flashed a glint of steel. She closed her eyes in the thun­der­ing slosh of nau­sea — and then adren­a­line ex­ploded into re­lief, her in­nards turn­ing to wa­ter, as she un­der­stood her throat was not to be slit. She was get­ting a hair­cut. In the re­lief she slumped and yes, nearly shat her­self but didn’t, just went out to it again un­til it was over. For those mo­ments she felt only the oily, woolly tips of the stoner’s dreads brush­ing against her neck and shoul­ders as he worked. Felt her head tugged at and re­leased, tugged and re­leased, sur­ren­der­ing to the touch as the scis­sors ground away at her hair, and she felt each new hank of cool air ar­rive on her skin where hair used to be.

In the flood­ing re­lief — it was a liq­uid, heavy and cold and sil­ver like lead, kind of like another drug — she thought, that poor girl back there. But also de­spised her for the way her fear had leaked and spread. Find some­one

else’s f..king hand to hold, was what Yolanda thought then, there in the chair, clos­ing her eyes again.

She heard the stoner mur­mur, ‘‘These scis­sors are f..ken blunt.’’ And Yolanda swore there were foot­steps, skit­tery fe­male foot­steps, be­hind her on the lino floor. She could smell a woman, a cos­metic fe­male smell, and heard a soft gig­gle, and then that all sank away and Yolanda with it, un­til the cold burr of an elec­tric ra­zor be­gan at the nape of her neck, shock­ing her awake once more.

If there had been any woman she was gone. There was only the stoner in the mir­ror again, frown­ing down at his work, shav­ing her head now, trac­ing her skull, peer­ing at the wide tracks the ra­zor made on her fine, fine skin. Yolanda gasped aloud at her own half-shorn head. The ra­zor stopped for a mo­ment, held in mid-air. The stoner looked at her re­flec­tion, ir­ri­ta­ble. He frowned and said, ‘‘Shut up.’’ And then ex­per­i­men­tally, as if test­ing the word, as if he’d never said it be­fore, had just learned it, added, ‘‘You slut.’’

She looked down at the floor. Hair was only hair, as it fell. But there was so much of it, first in long shin­ing straps, then lit­tle glossy black humps so the floor­boards were cov­ered in small dark crea­tures, wait­ing to be brought to life there on the ground.

When it was done the man stepped back, flexed his shoul­ders and stretched his arms high above him again, like he’d done in the other room. The ra­zor glinted in his hand — he was bored again, and tir­ing. He shoved at the chair so it jolted for­wards, tip­ping her out. She fell but stum­bled, re­cov­er­ing, up­right. All the stoner’s placid­ness was gone now; he shoved at her, his strong hands at her back, yelling, ‘‘ Next,’’ as he forced her through a dif­fer­ent door and Yolanda went sprawl­ing, ex­actly as a sheep would stum­ble down a slat­ted chute into the shock­ing light and shit and terror of the sheep yard, un­til she found her­self in yet another room. Full of bald and fright­ened girls.

Ex­tracted from The Nat­u­ral Way of Things by Char­lotte Wood (Allen & Unwin, $29.99).

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