Prize-winning Story: The 2017 FAW NSW Marjorie Barnard Award

The Dark Road Home

by Gabrielle Leago

When we were young we ran laughing through storms. Now we shamble hip to hip, stepping carefully over puddles, scowling into wind-blown rain, his bones sharp against me. In the car park I’m cheered by the sight of the stolid ute, by its rusty dings, its fleecy seed-threaded seats. I switch the heater to full blast as we peel off layers.

On the way, creeks edged towards the highway till finally they covered it. I wanted to brave it but Dave said not to. Caution’s caught up with him. Can’t say I blame him. Going home, we’ll likely face a few more detours.

I look at Dave in the dashboard light, at his bloated face, at his neat, hairless skull. I want to take him in my arms, tell him he’ll survive, but that would be more for me than for him. I’d call his demeanour Zen-like if I didn’t know better.

We negotiate neighbourhood roundabouts, joining commuters past car yards, warehouses, factories and the last of the street lamps. A stream of tail-lights festively flows ahead, peeling off to the freeway until I’m peering into needles of rain in the darkness.

My thoughts slide around like cows on ice. I’m anxious about everything and nothing in particular, exhausted with the effort of not showing it. Tight shoulders, loose bowels and a silly twitch above one eye betray me. Maddened by a rash, I saw the GP. He spoke of mindfulness.

“I’d prefer unconsciousness,” I said.

He gave me the number for a counsellor and wrote down the name of an ointment.

***

Leafing through a magazine in chemotherapy, I was waiting for Dave when the oncologist asked me into her office. I’d only ever glimpsed her in passing while a nurse battled his veins. Fingering a mouse, she did that annoying clicking thing with her tongue while she peered at Dave’s notes through outsized specs. “The dietician reports that he needs more nutrition to supplement his PEG feeds. I assume you purée his food?”

If she’d had children, she’d have recognised my tone. “Well, yeah.”

Percutaneous endoscopic gastrostomy: a surgically inserted tube in the abdomen through which a pump pushes liquid nutrition. Knowing that our know-all son would quiz me, I’d committed it to memory.

“External or internal?” he’d asked.

“The pump?”

“Well, yeah.” See where I get it from?

The oncologist uncrossed her legs and leaned back, her silk blouse sighing softly. “As I’m sure the dietician has advised, you need to serve his food with plenty of gravy. And don’t be afraid of seasoning.”

I’m scared of quite a few things but seasoning isn’t one of them. Her assumption that I was uninformed, incapable, made me want to shout at her. “He says everything tastes of nothing,” I said instead.

She nodded. “That’s normal. Once the treatment ends, and he starts to feel better, his sense of taste will likely return. In the meantime, he needs to gain weight.”

“Better.” Yes, she had definitely said that. For the first time since this nightmare began, here was a glimmer of hope: a dazzling flower among untended plots of despair, a best-case scenario after the worst. Bubbles of joy filled my head. I felt weightless, ecstatic.

“Cancer patients can die from malnutrition,” she said as she typed. The bubbles all burst at once, replaced by that lumbering monster, dread.

Dave, set free from the needle, looked thinner than ever. Buttoning his shirt cuff, he looked up at me. “Well?”

“She said you’re doing fine.”

***

We’re in open country. Blasts of wind veer us sideways. Sleet rattles the duco.

“If this doesn’t let up,” I say, “we’ll burn the last of the logs.”

Dave doesn’t speak.

I throw him a glimpse. He’s closed his eyes.

“You all right?”

“Yep.” His voice is low, gravelly. At twenty-three I fell in love with the sound of it. Some of it’s still there. The rest I’m getting used to.

“You okay?” he asks.

“Yep.”

I wish our children were here. Mark flew down in April and drove out to the paddocks with feed. Over lunch he bellyached about the state of the road, warning me to be careful when it rained. I told him I learned to drive on roads torn up by gravel trucks and, anyway, it hardly ever rains here. He persisted, lecturing me, in minute detail, on how to negotiate potholes, but when he started talking tyre technology, I suggested he stack the firewood. He got through most of it before his editor phoned.

“Something big’s happening in Canberra,” he said when they’d finished speaking.

“When’s it not?” I was annoyed he was leaving so soon, but it was just as well, really, before Dave could pass judgement. Dave builds beautiful walls of firewood, more like works of art. He’s pretty particular about his stacks. Mark lacks his patience and doesn’t take criticism well.

The mid-sized logs have all gone, only the biggest are left now. I’ll be wheeling them up to the house in the rain, or the sleet, or whatever fresh hell is delivered next, but at least I’m spared the feed run. Our few remaining head were sold last month. When the pastures come good, maybe we’ll offer them up for agistment. But I should stop thinking too far ahead.

Rache will be down in the holidays with John, unless he joins mates in Byron. She says he lacks the empathy gene and I want to warn her off him. I stop myself, though; it’s her affair. All heart, she fails to see fault in others. She takes after Dave in that regard.

If the bridge in the gully is under, we’ll turn back; same, too, if the ford at the crossing is gone. If only I’d thought to bring Dave’s meds we could’ve stayed the night somewhere, but there’s no room in the ute for all his gear. Our days of being intrepid are gone, ditto spontaneous. All I want now is for Dave to survive.

He’s been so ill, I thought of having The Talk. You know the one: favourite music, preferred place of rest, invitations. I couldn’t bring myself to do it. If he doesn’t raise it, I won’t. I’ll just have to wing it.

Speaking of wings, the northern paddock is now a wetland with swans, herons and ibises feeding in its shit-rich tide. This morning the water crept towards our road and might now cover it. When the weather warms up there’ll be mozzies and potholes galore. There I go again, thinking ahead.

Dave’s parents ran cattle. There were orchards and dairy herds here in those days, all gone now. In the city he yearned for the days he’d spent on the farm as a boy and managed to rope me into his dream. And here we are: on a hundred and fifty acres with a rundown house and a gang of overactive mutts. They’ll be half-mad with hunger by the time we get home.

Dougie, grizzled and arthritic, was just a pup when we arrived. That spring, the paddocks were lush with Phalaris and rye grass. European trees sprouted bright new leaf and annuals crowded the pretty garden. Certain we’d done the right thing, we brought in fifty head and a few cows with plans to increase the herd, buy more land. But that mild spell segued into scorching heat and by mid-summer the pastures had withered to straw. Wood smoke filled the town with panicked talk. Dust devils swirled across the country like prophets of doom, and I felt as jumpy as the stock as they bellowed through the hot still nights.

On a blast-furnace day, with a northerly straight from hell, the sunlight turned deep orange. Smouldering gum leaves started to fall. As I slopped buckets out to the deck, Dave tore home from a feed run and while we frantically tamped out embers with mops, a convoy of CFA trucks screamed down the road. They caught it before it reached the forest but only just. A fool with an angle grinder copped the blame.

In the dry bitter seasons that followed, when winters delivered hard frosts but no rain, Dave and I fought constantly: about the farm, about the house falling down around us, but mainly about the lack of money that made it impossible to do anything with either. When Dave refused to sell up, I threatened to leave. Taking his only option, he sold most of the herd. After that, he’d retreat to the shed to smoke and throw back beers. At the table we didn’t speak.

About a month ago, a classified appeared in the local paper wishing him a speedy recovery “from all your friends and neighbours”. Dave’s pretty private but I could tell he was touched. The “all your friends” bit baffled us, though. Soon after our move here, friends flew down from Sydney, curious to see where we’d landed. From a safe distance, now, they sometimes email to ask how we are. I try to sound stoic.

Looking back, I suppose we should’ve made an effort to socialise, get out more, but we were poor company for each other let alone for anyone else and, anyway, the remains of the herd kept us busy. We ended the day exhausted, staring vacantly at TV till we fell asleep in our chairs. Cold and stiff in the early hours, we’d drag our cricked necks to bed.

“You should pick a team to go for,” Len told Dave, as he waited for Marg outside the supermarket. Dave nodded but I knew that he wouldn’t.

Len is a cheery, weather-beaten sort. That day he was decked out in a hand-knitted blue and white scarf and matching beanie: Marg’s handiwork I guessed.

They talked feed prices and drought until Marg turned up with bags of shopping. I’d seen her helping him and a young bloke in the paddocks, driving a trailer piled high with lambs’ tails to a spot under the pines. A no-nonsense, salt-of-the-earth woman with work-worn hands, she urged me to join her quilting group. “It’ll help keep your mind off things.”

“I’m not into sewing,” I said. “Besides, I’m not much of a joiner.”

“Oh well, your loss.” Sniffing, she turned away, as if looking for someone better to talk to. I realised how rude I’d seemed.

“We have two children,” I said, hoping for common ground, “a girl and a boy. Grown up now of course. Rachel’s a teacher and Mark’s a journalist in Canberra.” Aware of the district’s low aspirations, I tried not to sound too proud. “Do you have children?”

She sniffed again and counted them off on her fingers. “One’s a grazier in the Western District, one’s an agronomist near Tamworth, one’s a hydrologist in Tasmania and the twins are vets in the Central West. Connor, our eldest, has a masters in land management. Him and his family help Len and me run the farm.”

Until then, that was the most we’d said to each other. Lately, though, she calls every so often to ask how we’re going and if there’s anything we need. Dave reckons we’re probably a hot topic at the “stitch ‘n’ bitch club”, as it’s known around town.

***

Looking into a long scope down Dave’s throat, the specialist made worrying noises then sat down to tap out notes. Swivelling around, he said: “Well, David, I think it’s safe to say that your singing days are over.”

When I laughed too loudly and for too long, he raised an eyebrow at me before moving on to the body blow. “You’ll need further tests but I’d say that it’s possible you’ll lose the larynx, part of the trachea and maybe some or all of the thyroid gland.”

Detaching, I floated away like a lost balloon. From somewhere far away, the words “surgery”, “radiation”, “chemotherapy”, “voice prosthesis” were spoken. “In the end it’s often down to luck,” he finally said. Then he looked at me. “And good support, of course.”

My voice emerged in a frightened whisper. “Of course.”

In the golden, late-afternoon sunshine, a caul of pink cloud floated across the deep blue sky. An avenue of trees glowed yellow. At another time, it would have been a moment to savour but right then, with each of us ensnared in our numbness, I felt the loneliest I had ever felt. I wondered how we’d get through.

At the ute Dave folded me into his arms and hugged me tightly, as if one of us were about to depart. Since then we’ve journeyed such a long way together.

***

Some nights, at the kitchen window, I stare into darkness. I imagine my life without him, without the shared routines, the structure to our days. I can’t see how it, or I, will be. I tell myself it’s stupid to think about things that might not happen. I should think only of what is.

But alone in bed my gut ties itself in knots. Only a fortnight of treatment left but what if the cancer comes back? What if he has to go through it all again in a year, two years’ time? What if he can’t take it? What if he refuses? I “what if” like this for ages till exhaustion mercifully puts me to sleep.

In the morning I awake in fright, my thoughts defaulting to panic. Has he survived the night? Has he reacted badly to the last dose of chemo? Will we again have to rush to emergency? I throw off the covers, heave lumpen limbs out of bed and rush to the spare room.

He sits upright and smiling. The pump’s switched off, the feed bottle’s empty. He throws back the covers and I climb in to snuggle up to his bony warmth. I ask how he is and stroke his face. “Not bad,” he says in his growly, night-clogged voice.

***

The other day, where the road cuts through the forest, we stopped for a family of choughs. Big black birds, they travel in groups of a dozen or more. The worst they do is to rake out plants and make a racket till I run out shouting to chase them.

They shambled over the road like a clutch of griping nuns. Worried we’d be late for Dave’s session, I hurried them along, rolling slowly forward while they shrieked in protest. They’re endearing, really, when they’re not destroying the garden. I’d just begun to pick up speed when a straggler, who’d opted to fly, hit the grille. I slammed on the brakes. If it was injured, I needed to help it. If it was dead, I should move it off the road.

I once hit a cockatoo. In the rear-view mirror, a cloud of angelic feathers floated down onto the road. Shocked and appalled, I stopped and moved its still-warm corpse and I cried for it.

That day, crying was the thing I most needed but the thing I least wanted, and I clenched my jaws, gripping the wheel so hard my nails dug into my palms. I watched rain run down the windscreen in tiny rivulets. “Angel tears,” Rache as a six-year-old had called them. “They’re kept in the clouds and angels pour them out to make the flowers grow and flowers make us happy when we’re sad.”

The memory of my darling little girl was enough, and as my gut convulsed in a spasm of grief, I slumped against the wheel. In wrenching sobs I cried in terror of losing Dave, in sadness for all that he’d lost. The emotions that I’d carefully hidden from him were now on display, big time.

Alarmed, he unfastened his seatbelt and took me into his arms. His breath was warm and small on my neck, as once our babies’ had been, and when his tears joined mine I was shocked. Only once I’d known him to cry, when Mark was born. Words formed in his ravaged throat but failed to emerge. In their stead he comforted me with caresses. Time flowed around us until a car slowed down and stopped. I opened the steamed-up window to a blast of cold air and waved them on. The look on the driver’s face made it clear that my own was a sight. Dave cleared his voice prosthesis while I wipe rivulets of mascara from my cheeks.

I knew I should get out but I didn’t and summoning the vision of desiccated, chough-raked plants, I callously pulled away.

In the side mirror, Dave examined the view. “Nothing on the road, darl. Reckon you just clipped it.”

***

You know when you arrive somewhere and can’t remember the journey? Well, I can’t remember the detours we took tonight, when the rain stopped, or when I switched off the wipers.

We’re on our road’s greasy clay when the ute starts to slither. I grip the wheel, yanking it first this way, then that, but we slew uncontrollably. My heart skips beats.

“Easy,” Dave urges, “go with it.”

I stop pulling on the wheel and allow the ute to glide a little, steering into the skid. We’re heading towards the ancient gum tree near the gate; in front of it, a crater brimming with muddy water. I hear Mark’s voice as clearly as if he were with us. “Brake just before you hit a pothole, never in it.” At its rim I push my foot down hard on the pedal, lifting it as we sink.

Our headlights show indents in the massive trunk, a history of hard knocks. Mud slides down the windows. Dave’s loony grin makes me laugh and I release the breath I didn’t know I was holding.

 

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