By Tina Baker
Eli shifts on the wicker chair and it creaks beneath his brittle bones. The taste of carbon-monoxide and stale coffee hangs at the back of his throat. The trigger of the gun feels smooth as it connects with the inside of his forefinger. This one, he decides, as the car approaches. Eli judges it to be doing eighty, maybe ninety. He aims the gun. The pure note of the flying bullet sings before it shatters the empty beer bottle.
‘Eli!’ The call of his wife surfaces, a call he has heard a thousand times before but never in this exact moment. Slowly, he turns to look at his wife who now stands a few feet from him on the veranda with a phone in her hand, waving it like a flag. The car flies by. The deep bass consumes the noise of its engine making it seem that the vehicle is powered by music alone. Eli stares at its trail of blue-black smoke and wonders how much a subwoofer costs compared to a new exhaust.
‘It’s Peter from the bowls club. He wants to know if you’re playing today,’ his wife says, then notices the gun on his lap. ‘I wish you wouldn’t.’
He takes the phone from her and looks away. ‘Hello Peter…not today…tomorrow, maybe.’
Eli’s wife slowly shakes her head, its movement imperceptible, and takes the phone from his outstretched hand and parts her lips to speak, but today his head is full of the past and she knows there is no room for her, even though she’s one of his memories too. She turns and moves into the house.
There was a time when this road was quiet. Once it was a dirt road, narrow, straight and long, and it dipped before it carried on up and over the distant hill into the city of Melbourne. In summer it was lined with grevilleas and other flowering natives, and you could hear the song of the birds and pick out every note. Then, ten years ago, the local council declared that Eli’s road was dangerous. Within two years the bush was cleared, the wattles and the grevilleas ripped out. Now the road is lined with drains and fast food wrappers and all that can be heard is the roar of traffic.
Wearily, Eli unlocks the safety catch of the gun and blinks so slowly that to the occupants of the car racing past he appears to be asleep. With one hand he slowly unbuttons the top of his shirt then turns to stare at the back of the large rectangle board. Eli’s home is for sale.
We should be nearer the kids, his wife had argued.
You have a lovely property, the real estate agent had said.
It was a lovely property ten years ago with enough fertile land to grow tomatoes, apples, kiwi fruit and grapes; enough room to nurture four children and six grandchildren; enough peace to hear their laughter and enough silence to offer prayers of thanks. But now the grandchildren have moved with their parents to Sydney and Perth, and the fruits taste bitter.
Melbourne’s population was expanding rapidly and land was needed, and land on a straight road to the city, a short drive to the beach, was needed most of all. God knows Eli and his neighbours had fought but their petitions and legal appeals had fallen on deaf ears. Once the road was sealed with tar it paved the way for subdivisions and starter homes. The McCarthy family, who had lived on four acres for over forty years had been the first to leave, and it wasn’t long before others followed.
‘Do you want anything?’ Eli’s wife asks on her way out to the new supermarket built on the land that once was an orchard. Eli wants to tell her what he wants but he shakes his head instead, and watches as she turns the car around in the dirt drive and waits, and waits, until finally she manages to pull out to join the fast moving traffic, kicking up dust in her haste.
He resents his wife spending money at the new supermarket. But it’s convenient, she had reasoned. Charlie Goodman’s General Store had been convenient. He had run it for over fifty five years. His store was the heart of the community. When the developers ripped it down they discovered an old penny dated 1933. It had lain in the dark beneath the floorboards waiting to be found and spent. Charlie Goodman was seventy-six years old, as fully grown as a man could be, but he had cried like a baby when he locked his store for the very last time.
Eli looks at the gun on his lap, closes his eyes and thinks of God; miraculously he has survived. The white weatherboard church, once surrounded by blue gums, has been uprooted and replanted weatherboard by weatherboard on the far edge of town. It sits sandwiched between two fast food restaurants.
Now progress is hammering on Eli’s door; planning permission has been granted for twenty four houses to be built on the vacant block beside his. He worries what will happen to his land when he’s no longer there, as resting beneath his soil are some cherished pets. There’s a baby possum that his youngest daughter found at death’s door by the side of his old dirt road when she was seven, and a rescue dog called Stick, his favourite.
The autumn sun drops behind the skeletal frame of a half built house on the opposite side of Eli’s road. Once, he could watch the sun slide all the way down to the horizon and slip off the edge of his world. He feels the trigger cold against his finger. Very soon the sun will set.