Stand Still

Mora drove up the familiar hill on the way home from the supermarket in Shepparton. Dry yellow paddocks, scorched by the sun, lined either side of the bitumen road. The road shimmered in the heat. Mora’s sky-blue Cortina glistened, to the point where the clouds could reflect off it. She’d been to the carwash and, while cocooned in soapsuds, had watched the monstrous brushes wash away the country dirt.

It was pension day, and her car rattled along on the solitary trip. One headlight was smashed from when she’d hit a ghost gum near her rundown weatherboard house. Her house was nestled beside the country highway, half hidden by a yard full of equestrian course remains. The rusty drums and wooden planks, tipped sideways and swept over with guinea grass like a forgotten playground.

In her periphery was the bluestone church and cemetery. It split her head, trying to avoid glancing at the flat marble headstones, some with fresh flowers, some without. She forced her gaze to lock on the no-overtaking line in the middle of the road, and squeezed the doughy flesh under her left armpit at what felt like a fish bone stuck in her heart. She’s in Argentina… She’s in Argentina…

In the distance, white smoke lingered above the trees and into the sky like unsettled road dust. Mora wound up the car window and thought, bit hot for burning off. She flicked on the air conditioner and the vents churned out warm stale air. Her sweaty sausage fingers gripped the steering wheel. The skin pulled tight at the knuckles. She circled her wrist with her thumb and forefinger and remembered when she could touch them together. When she could slide her boot into a stirrup, position her body on the saddle, legs controlled, as she cantered towards the hurdle to demonstrate a competition worthy show jump. Back when she was a capable country widow.

Mora shifted in her seat, adjusting the hefty weight of her thigh against the gear stick where the skin had gone numb. Her bare foot was on the accelerator. The moist pedal pressed flat to the floor and the speedo pointing to eighty. The road was empty. The supermarket had been dead as well. She wasn’t sure where everyone was, summer holidays maybe. Ash dropped softly onto the windscreen.

The windscreen wipers smeared the ash flakes across the glass into a charcoal like rainbow. On either side of the road she felt the evergreen trees watching her as if she were on parade. The sun disappeared. She took off her sunglasses, flicked on the faulty headlights and checked her wristwatch on the dashboard. It was 3pm.

A voice, calm and determined, said, ‘It’s too dark.’

The odour of damp horse blankets filled the car. A shadow took form in the passenger seat wearing black jodhpurs and a grey hoody. Mora shook her head out of habit at the girl’s laced-up boots propped up on the dash. It was the first time the apparition had appeared in the car, and spoken. Mora had seen her at the house, stirring minestrone by the stove and, once as a child, running towards her in the hall wearing a My Little Pony nightie. Mora didn’t know whether to sob or smile.

‘You shouldn’t be here,’ Mora said. ‘It isn’t right. No, not right at all.’

‘Turn around, Mum,’ Blair said.

‘But I’m nearly home.’

The accelerator went slack. A bang in the engine reverberated in the car and steam escaped out from under the bonnet. The car spluttered to a stop. Mora tried to turn the engine over but the ignition only clicked, dead. Mora snapped on the hazard lights and lifted up the bonnet. She paced around the car. A smoky grass-fire cloud enveloped her. She knew it was hopeless to call RACV. There was no mobile coverage. Mora glared at her fluid filled feet. She had left her slippers at home.

‘Someone will stop, I guess,’ Mora said, while ash dropped on her skin like torn tissues. Her eyes and sinuses swelled. She lifted her tank top over her nose, exposing a roll of stomach flesh, which was folded uncomfortably over her elastic shorts.

Through the open driver’s side door Blair said, ‘You think?’

A crackling roar from behind the church caught Mora’s attention. She stood on the white line in the centre of the road to get a clearer view. A chest-high wave of orange fire raced across the paddock. The blackened grass and scrub popped like fireworks. The hot air above the flames shimmered, mirage-like. Mora froze, the blistering soles of her feet welded to the bitumen. She licked the roof of her mouth. It was parched and gritty as if coated in chimney soot.

The wave swept past and missed the church. It continued on to the next field, leaving steaming mud-like clumps of dirt in its wake. Mora’s knees bent, one after the other, and her body swayed side-to-side trying to hold the mass of her upright. The wind cut into her flesh like an industrial fan spitting woodchips. A horn blasted and a white SUV sped out of the smoke, swerving, sharply, to miss her. She flapped her arms about like a frantic puppet, but the car drove on.

Mora’s heart throbbed, and chubby arms and legs swung in unison, winding her up to exploding point. ‘You’re supposed to be jumping in Buenos Aires. Damn it, no, Blair. I didn’t get to say goodbye.’

‘You know where I am.’

‘No. No. No.’ Mora’s arms pumped across her chest, crossing at the elbows. The tufts of forearm skin knocked together like two oscillating pendulums. Sweat and grot painted her face. The fish bone leaped into her throat and tore open something mournful inside her. Mora arched backwards, thrusting her face and chest skyward.

‘What… do… I do, without you?’

‘Mum. Stand still.’

The intensity of the command shocked Mora. She ceased rocking. A siren wailed and flashing lights poked through the smoke drifting across the road. A fire truck came to a halt, right in front of Mora. She reached out her hand and touched the headlight. The globe was white hot and stung her weeping eyes. She squinted and moved her head to a different angle, where the light didn’t hurt as much.

A woman in an orange padded suit and yellow hardhat ushered Mora to the side of the fire truck. She held Mora by the waist, to steady her, as Mora struggled to climb the giant metal steps into the cabin. Once inside, Mora stumbled onto the backseat and collapsed, panting.

‘Are you okay? Is there anyone else with you?’ The woman said, in a hoarse voice. She held Mora’s hand, patting the plump skin as if Mora were a child woken from a nightmare.

‘No. Yes. I don’t… know,’ Mora said, catching her breath and staring through the scattered smoke at the cemetery. Can I keep Blair alive in Argentina and visit her here? Mora promised to push herself, and stand still at her daughter’s grave, to see. Bring flowers even. When the car was fixed.