I scratched my head.
There was a payphone. One of those solar powered booths. At least thirty kilometres back and probably vandalised, but it was a promise of civilisation. And a long walk.
I climbed back in the driver's seat. The ridiculously designed all-black interior absorbed the sunlight, creating a sauna on wheels within minutes of motionlessness. Filling my lungs with hot air, I snatched the bottle of warming beer from the passenger seat and threw it into my backpack where it rattled against my brushes and pencils.
Then I noticed it.
A shack, almost a humpy, slapped together from slabs of roughly lumbered hardwood and rusty corrugated iron. You'd think a light breeze could cause its collapse at any moment, but it had obviously been there for more years than I'd seen. It was the type of shed you often come across out that way. Once somebody's tool shed, perhaps somebody's hiding place, but now nothing but rustic nostalgia.
I tilted my head and squinted at it. I held my hands up to frame a composition. Gum tree on one side, rusty shack on the other.
Nah. I needed to get rolling. That phone won't dial itself.
But what if I moved closer to the shack? Maybe a simple charcoal-on-paper study of decay. Not particularly original, but surely worth the time it takes for a rough sketch.
I grabbed some paper from the back seat.
Halfway to the shack, the ground warped under my feet. A sheet of corrugated tin lay hidden in the dirt, tufts of grass growing through it. I took a step onto another sheet of tin; beyond that an old length of rough-sawn timber. All around me, broken pieces of greyed and warped plywood scattered the plain, concealed by the grass. The shack was not alone.
To my left, again concealed under soil and grass, a faded sign breathlessly informed me there were sites still available at Hollow Edge.
Welcome to Hollow Edge. A desert Oasis! A new quality of life! A perfect blend of city and bush! A great tourist attraction! A wonderful investment in your future! Town water coming soon!
As strange as that was, what really caught my eye was the warning spray-painted in red over the top.
GET FUCKED ALL OF YOU!
The corkboard by the open door looked almost new, although the articles pinned to it were yellowed with age.
Hollow Edge was hailed as a breakthrough of modern engineering; the most ambitious water transport scheme ever attempted. The estate began to take shape. A few signed up for plots of land, saluted as pioneers, dismissed as dreamers. The underground piping system was laid under kilometre after kilometre of flat, red earth. Then early structural problems and enormous budget overruns heralded a rapid decline. All this history, laid out like some kind of museum exhibit, jogged my memory of news reports from a couple of years back: something about dispersing the shantytowns that grew out of half-completed building project around erratic irrigation outlets.
If this was what's left of Hollow Edge the dispersion must have succeeded, although I couldn't shake the feeling I was at some kind of visitor information centre. I'd been given a crash course in the short rise and fall of Hollow Edge, but by whom?
The open doorway was well worn and grubby. With nothing else to see on the verandah, I ducked my head under the roof and entered. The putrid smell hit with all the force of a wrecking ball, but once inside my expectation of piles of rotting garbage turned out wrong.
A faucet occupied the corner of the single room. A drop of water hung from the faucet, completely motionless. The water looked full of rust. I licked my lips and put my hand over the bottle of beer in my backpack. Under the faucet, directly under so that the drip of water should land precisely onto it, was the carcass of a chicken. Well I think it was a chicken. Decomposition had long set in, the flesh was green, but it was more or less the correct size for a chicken, maybe a bush turkey.
I stepped closer, cautiously. It wasn't just bone. It had been placed there recently. I pulled up the bottom of my t-shirt and held it over my mouth and nose. With my other hand, I reached out to the faucet.
"Don't touch that!"
I screamed and jumped back towards the door, hitting my head on the hotplate roof.
Inside the room, almost blending into the rough timber and bark walls, sat an old, old man. Frozen in the doorway, I stared at him, unable to speak. The old man locked back on my eyes.
After what seemed a long, speechless stalemate, the old man closed his eyes and turned his wrinkled face towards the roof. He began muttering. I waited, head bent, in the doorway: an automatic show of respect to some quasi-religious display.
When his muttering ceased, he grunted once and glared at the faucet. I sweated. Finally, he stood and crossed the room towards the dead bird. He coughed violently onto it and, visibly satisfied, slumped over the faucet, awkwardly arranging his body over it.
A composition formed in my mind; not the landscape, nor the study of decay I first envisaged. It was ambitious, but I figured I could sketch it then and take it home to work on. Picture the old man before the shack, casting his eyes to the heavens, cursing the sun and worshipping the water. Imagine him wet, soaking wet, a pained expression on his face. Consider him as some kind of holy man, on a higher plane of existence, not wishing to be disturbed by the filth that society has washed onto his threshold.
Lost in my reverie, I realised the man had been repeating a question to me.
"I said, who are you? What is your name, son?"
My romantic notions hadn't prepared me for such a straightforward question. I guess I expected him to already know who I was and why I was there.
From somewhere behind him he produced a clipboard with pen attached by a long piece of string. He waved it around and I leaned forward for a closer inspection.
The Government Can Fuck Off!
Quite a slogan. I added my name to a long petition of names, all in suspiciously similar handwriting.
"Where are you from?"
"The city. My car. I was looking for a phone. Or maybe a radio."
"Don't know nothing about cars. Don't have a phone. Or a radio."
A slight pause.
"I didn't know you were here. I'm sorry I interrupted your. . . " I gestured towards the rotten bird.
"What's that in your bag?"
I lifted the bag and opened the top to show him. "Paper, pencils and brushes and stuff."
"Are you an artist?"
"Why the fuck are you carrying around paper, pencils, and brushes and stuff?"
I blinked at him. Apparently I was an artist.
"I left my car on the road," I said uneasily. "I wanted to draw this. . . um. . . place of yours."
"Really?" his interrogative demeanour evaporated into a dry grin. I decided to capitalise on it.
"Would you like me to draw you? I've had an idea for a piece with you in it."
His eyes brightened and widened, no doubt imagining himself immortalised on canvas. The questions quickly followed:
"Will I be hung in a gallery or in someone's home? Do you think I should change my clothes or take them all off? Will you enter this in the Archibald? Can I keep a sketch?"
I chose only to answer the final question. I could spare one of the sketches; I had loads of paper. I set him up in front of the shack and lay my paper out at best I could on the floor.
I drew and drew and drew. I took quick sweeping sketches and smooth deliberate diagrams. At times, I let the pencil navigate its own way across the paper and other times I forced it to follow my lead. I cleared my mind and concentrated with all my effort.
But none of it made any difference. I was unable to capture the image of religious fervour and madness I had intended. The problem was the old man's face. Despite my best efforts, through words, gesture, facial expression and even crude manipulation, I couldn't conceal his pride. He practically glowed and not in a good way.
Eventually I gave up. I thanked the old man for his time, selected the best sketch and handed it to him.
"Thank you, son, thank you for your support." He raised a fist as some kind of gesture of defiance and looked at me expectantly.
"Oh yeah, the petition. No worries." I weakly mirrored his raised fist and added: "The government can fuck off, huh?"
He smiled broadly at this and scurried back into the shack. As I packed away my materials, I glanced back through the door.
He tore my sketch into long strips. I watched open-mouthed as he carried the strips towards the faucet. He rolled each strip carefully into a ball and stuffed each up the ass of the chicken carcass. Although his movements were measured and deliberate, the green flesh crumbled in his fingers.
Somewhere at the back of my flat, concealed between the washing machine and the laundry tub stands a folio of discarded art: half-finished canvases, sketches held to backboards with bulldog clips, their paper browning and curling up at the bottom. Some water damaged. Dig through the folio and you will find repeated attempts at the same work at varying stages of completion, though each one duly abandoned with the same wretched distaste. Over and over I attacked the portrait. Over and over it defeated me with the same result: an ugly tramp standing before a pile of junk.
Eventually I gave up. What else could I do?
While my laundry collects failures, my imagination creates the true story, the true artwork. Blinded perhaps by ego, I failed to recognise it.
But I wonder if it could still be done. Could I convince the old man to stuff another torn up sketch into the chicken carcass?
Hollow Edge is only six hours away.
Simon Groth writes from Brisbane, Australia.
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