Anzac Day

Anzac day in any town. In Flander's fields the poppies blow. Drive all night to get away, eyes bleared, ten thousand, no, maybe only ten MacDonald's coffee cups littering across the passenger seat. I want to break you like you broke- oh nevermind. I pull up, park in the dusty street, blown with autumn leaves, on the way to the Cenotaph. The dawn service just gone, Last Post no longer ringing, the bugle echoes only in my head. I passed the parade, drone of pipers, children in school uniforms, veterans, fewer every year of those, brittle and browned around the edges like the fallen leaves, the men and women who served. I rub my face. The sleeve of my red sweater seems like sand-paper against every nerve pressing up under the skin. The day, one of those fragile, luminous days where the glare bounces between the cloud-cover and the ground, slipping behind my eyes, mirror bright, mercury in a saucer, seems barely real. I think I've been up for-. Oh. I don't want to count the hours since you-. The hours since you. I think it's been a year since I last slept. Apparently my caffeine-flooded, tear-drained, aching head is prone to exaggerating. I need to stretch my legs.

I get out of the car. Don't bother locking the door. Anzac day near the war memorial in a country town. No one is going to steal a battered green Fiat with one pink, panel-beaten door. And besides, if they do, if they do then I just run and run until I reach the end of the world. No, I'm not working on the most rational of impulses today. Did you think I would be? Squint down at the footpath. Leaf dust. Cigarette butts. There's a path up the hill to the war memorial. The tall finger of the Cenotaph is black in contrast against the too-bright nacre of the sky, a vertical accusation. I feel through my pockets for that crushed, half empty cigarette packet, stick one in my mouth. Think of nights, and tangled sheets and afterwards. Curse out my anger at you in a low mumbling stream and strike out up the path. Pale concrete, the wiry, flat-bladed grass is encroaching and eating its way in between the slabs. Not so well laid, but swept clean for this day. Swept away the debris of the rest of the year, in memory, in respect.

Light the cigarette, cupped hands. Sit at the foot of the Cenotaph. Under my empty hands, the stone is half warm, not quite blood warm, and rougher than a cat's tongue. I don't need to look at it to know the form of the grey granite. They're always this way, town after town down the old winding road, the same shape, echoing some aspiration of the last century. A flat, square plinth, then a rectangular pillar soaring upwards, sharp, hard lines, converging to that pyramidal point. I don't need to look to know the laurel swags around the top, the stone of them softened where weather carved with slower tools than the artist.

It's been, what, ninety years since the first boys were lost? I know that if I look at the names carved into the Cenotaph, behind the wreaths laid this morning, I'll see the local lads who went away. They were ours, they are gone, so the memorial sings in stone. On the ground, petals fallen from poppies lie trodden, purple and bloody looking where the dawn service was. If I listen, can I hear what was said at dawn this day, for ninety years past? The ceremonial words remembering? I can't hear your voice here, it's drowned by the past, the country's past, the life and death of my people. You seem irrelevant, how you have cut and killed me seems nothing, with this stark shape of collective memory at my back.

I should. I should get back in the car and keep driving, drive to the inevitable truck stop just beyond the city limits, where there a roped off section for the truckies and the rest of us get by slumming it, and food that costs twice as much as anywhere else, and tastes three times as good by the time you stop the car and acknowledge your hunger. I feel in the front pocket of my jeans for the thick roll of plastic notes, hundreds, twenties, fifties, slick and springy. See myself at the ATM somewhere back along the highway last night, under the sodium glare of the truck stop lights. I'll be a cautionary tale for our friends. Your friends, you keep the friends, I'll keep the money. "She took everything, cleaned me out." I should find a motel, shower, sleep. I light another cigarette and breathe in deeply, the acrid warmth better than food or sleep. The sun moves up across the sky, a patch of too-strong light behind the clouds, if I close my eyes it's a burning bronze disc against my eyelids. Maybe I took enough money to keep moving, keep driving until I find a place--

A place where you didn't do this to me, where I'm not hiding bruises under my thin sweater. A mirror world, where I didn't have to pick up and run. What a fever-dream. But maybe I'll keep driving until I hit the sea on the other side. Shoot across the treeless red plain like an arrow, a few days drive as the crow flies, the crows pick from the carrion of our love... Maybe I'll hit the blue wall of ocean and keep driving still, under and under to where the light is green and murky and I can rust with the car. My throat is raw. Excess of smoke, and sadness and anger. The granite underneath me is warming up. Up the hill an old digger walks, medals heavy on his concave chest. Feller looks like he must be a hundred, and hell, today maybe he is, they come out to remember the time when they were young and invincible and so many of them died. He comes over, bums a ciggie. I light up another, keep him company.

"Your car?" he says, pointing with the glowing end of his cigarette.


"Back left tire's going flat, then."

"Ah, shit."

"My nephew Robbie's got a garage in town. We can get that towed for you, but not 'til Tuesday."

I run my hands through my hair, push its short, unwashed mass back off my face. Wish I had sunglasses, that glare is really getting in and needling. A little wind picks up, blows some dust through. Everything feels like grit.

"There a hotel in town I can stay at?" Won't be driving further until the holiday is over.

"Yeah. There's a coupla pubs. Reckon you want Dave's down on Main street though."

I nod. Ugh. The weight of being awake is beginning to bear down on me, if I don't lie down soon I'll find myself pressed flat against the ashphalt around the Cenotaph, leaking away into it.

"Thanks." I pull myself upright, hand the old digger the rest of my ciggies. Gravity pushes me back down the hill at a slouching trot, to the car, he's dead right, that tire's slumping down like a sleeping cat, fat and black and lazy against the road. No spare of course. I kick and curse, pop the boot and grab my duffle. What was left to pack in that rough blue cloth? A few clothes and shitty memories of when you weren't looming like pain on the horizon behind me. Shitty because -- how could we have been-- the sweetness of a thousand falling petals-- it hurts that it's gone. Hurts that I want you like heroin.

Main street will be that long flat stretch I crawled into town on, off the highway. I saw a pub. I shoulder the duffle bag. Lock the car. Down small town streets with clipped lawns and tidy gardens, the tick-tick-tick-tick drumming of sprinklers banging around inside my head, lawnmowers running loud like great mechanical dogs chewing on my synapses. I need to get inside. Main street comes up ahead of me. There are the pale tan walls of the pub, the biggest building on the block, bluestone footed and steady. Ladies lounge is empty. Saloon bar, a wall of talk. War stories and two-up. I forgot about that, the old men and young in a circle around the spinner with his worn-shiny wooden kip, two coins balanced on the end. "Come in spinner", someone yells, and he's tossing the bronze coins high in the air, they catch a gleam off the light, I shuffle through, ignoring the yells of the gamblers as the coins come down, smack hard, heads or tails.

Slide through, men in woolen uniforms softened by years of washing and pressing for this day each year, rows of medals, drooping poppies in their buttonholes. Younger men and women in jeans. Some of the young men wearing suits decked with old medals on the right hand breast of the jacket, in memory of diggers passed on. Wonder if the woman who sewed the uniforms pictured them lasting so long, so carefully preserved. Well, it was a gamble, like the two-up, heads you're in a pub remembering, years later. Tails you're dead on some foreign bloody shore, those fibres rent by bullets or shells. And my own fortune? Two coins tossed and fallen- heads you were the sweetest thing I ever had, tails you beat me so no-one would see the bruises, and I had to run.

Laughter smelling of beer and whiskey. Barmaid leans forward. "What can I do for you, ducks?" Hennaed curls over a sagging tanned face.

"Got a room?"

"Upstairs. I'll show you. Thirty bucks a night, no smoking in your room, you can get counter meals in the bar and we do brekkie."

I nod and follow her up wide, greasy wooden stairs with faded red velour carpet.

The room is small, white painted. Iron framed bed leans against the wall, a thin-curtained window lets in the cloudy light, a view out over the grey-blue corrugated iron of the bullnose verandah. There's a phone on the nightstand, a wood-veneer wardrobe, and a bathroom. I'll shower before I sleep, wash the driving out of my body. Feel through my pockets for a phonecard. Crouch on the edge of the bed, feel the smooth lick of the blue chenille comforter under my hand. Slide my sneakers and socks off, stretch my toes. Call up Mum. Answering machine. "Sorry mum. I had to get out, don't worry about me, I'm on the road. I'll call later." I should call Dawn, get her to cover my shift. But you'll be talking to her, and you'll be crying on her shoulder and she'd tell you, and you'd get hold of me, and honeyed voice tell me you still love me, tell me it won't happen, it won't happen again, you'd remind me we were so good together, weren't we? And then? I'd go flying back like a rubber band being stretched away from you and released to snap back to where I was, I'm stretching myself to break from you and you'd call and I'd--

Stiff as the iron bed, I struggle out of my jeans, and slide off my sweater. Wander over to the bathroom. An old fashioned claw footed tub, a black spot here or there where the enamel's worn away, with a precarious copper pipe supporting the big flat shower head. It'll do. Drop the undies and bra on the floor, god I must stink. Run water, the pressure is like a rain of nails, that's good. And hot. Put my face up into it, let it run away with the trails of tears. Open my mouth, it flows in and through me, hot and sweet. Rain water, from a tank. It feels good to become the water for a while. These are country people though, you don't waste it. I wash my hair, shake it out. Turn the shower off, grab a thick towel. Think I could let go and sleep now.

Coolness. Unutterable softness. So weary. The bed cradles me. So good to be alone. The flannel sheets coo and pat my face and curl around me. Release myself to this, I didn't realise how taut I was holding myself. The aches are a part of me now, like the marks you left. The fields of flowers that were blooming inside me, the seeds that lay there, that you brought me water for. Killed. I'm not going to cry again, I'm going to sleep. Close my eyes against the daylight, the grit washed out, give myself the benediction of the simple comfort of quiet and envelopment. Listen to the soft whisper of my breathing, slowing. Why am I addressing my thoughts to you? I need you out of the center. Maybe soon. Maybe soon I'll push you to the periphery. Press my face into the pillow and stop the derailed train of words and images, and sleep. Not tomorrow, but the next day, I'll drive again.

I can see now, the sky brazen and bare over the desert. The road, straightest continuous stretch in the world, either side of its boiling black tar red dirt, low scrub stretches off, the only thing holding the place down, making it place not whirl of dust. The day after tomorrow I'll be in motion again, shake off this sleep, go somewhere to find a new place, a safe place. Though it's not really somewhere I'm driving to. It's away, away from you, until you're gone from inside me.