Absolution, Leigh Coyle

Mack didn’t say a word either. We just watched as she swept the meat ants away from the dead man’s body, working a perimeter of clear space around him in the red dust. A pig dog, frenzied by the smell of blood, wrenched at its chain and she raised her broom at it and shouted.

Her task was pointless and she knew it.

I didn’t know the dead man with his booted feet sticking out into the afternoon, but then, I didn’t know anyone else on that property. Even Mack I’d only met a few weeks before when we were both walking in the same direction. Mack was one of those bull-headed men who can’t think around corners. He wore black clothes in the heat and any spare bit of skin was covered in smudged tattoos, like he’d done them himself. His front teeth were cracked off right across the middles, a long time ago, if you cared to see the worn down edges of them, and he had a face that was all collapsed in on itself. Mean bugger though.

By the way Mack held himself, his body tense, the way he muttered and moaned in his sleep, how he couldn’t look me in the eye for longer than a second, I knew he’d been inside. But the good thing I’d discovered about Mack was he didn’t ask questions. I liked that much about him and, by sticking together we seemed to find more work. That’s why we were there on that property and why we’d heard the single shot which had cracked open the dawn and for a few moments stilled the day.

Mack’d said, ‘That was no 22.’

I’d said, ‘Yeah, think you’re right.’

Then we’d gone about getting ready for the day’s work, pulling on trousers, sweat-stained singlets, hats bent to the shapes of our heads. It wasn’t our business, so when we went past the house on our way to the horses, we didn’t ask questions, even though we could already see the body motionless with the woman sweeping in circles.  We just wanted to get where we were going.

And when we came back in the afternoon, salt-smeared and thirsty after driving posts into the ground all day, we still didn’t want to find out anything about it, except she yelled out to us and we stopped near the gate, me leaning on the fence and Mack shuffling his boots in the red dust. She was blotchy-faced and sweaty, reddened by the dirt so it was hard to tell what colour her hair was, or whether she’d ever once been a looker.

‘Know what this bastard did?’ she said, letting the broom drop against her thigh.

‘Nuh,’ said Mack, with all the effort of someone who didn’t want to know.

‘Shot himself,’ she said. ‘Right here.’ She glanced back to the house as if allowing it the chance to break out of its ongoing silence. ‘And I’ve spent this whole stinking day trying to keep him nice, waiting for some bloke in a suit to come and tell me he’s dead.’

‘Jeez,’ said Mack.

Mack looked at me as if I had the words he needed, but didn’t want to share them out, so on his behalf I asked, ‘Why’d he do it?’

‘Why does anyone do it?’ she said.

I looked at Mack and thought I saw something disturbing in his eyes, but he was that sort of bloke.

‘Beats me,’ I said.

The woman resumed her sweeping. ‘You’re right there.’

We started to walk off towards the sleeping shed, but her sharp voice continued.

‘We hid all the guns, you know. Every last one of ‘em. My husband put the strychnine up in the roof so he couldn’t get to it, I put all the knives in my undies drawer. Last place he’d look, we reckoned.’

We waited while she snatched a dirty hanky from her apron pocket and wiped at her eyes.

The afternoon was stretched red-tight and all I wanted to do was get to the shed, lie down on my bunk with my toes free from boots and think of nothing much. Mack looked uncomfortable with the woman’s tears and fidgeted with his belt buckle. I saw something familiar in the way her face toughened as she spoke again, a sour tinge to her voice.

‘Made no difference in the end,’ she said. ‘This morning, he just grabbed a rifle from the back of Ron Strodeor’s ute before we had time to stop him.’

She paused as she gazed at the mad-eyed dog. ‘Wish we’d get rid of this bloody useless mongrel,’ she said.

I coughed inside my throat to break the mood and gave her a little nod. ‘Well, we’ll leave you to it,’ I said, stepping closer to Mack so we could both turn and escape in one slick manoeuvre. But the stupid bugger had stopped there, unmoving, so I was forced to stay put too, with the snuffling grunts of the dog and the fading heat of the afternoon sucking up the very last drops of moisture left on earth.

‘He just grabbed the rifle,’ she said. She dropped the broom onto the ground. ‘He just cocked it, put it in his mouth and pulled the trigger.’

Her face was lined by the sun and any womanly softness had been worn away by the weather and too much hard work. She looked like someone I’d known once, but I couldn’t quite remember who. She wept and her tears seemed obscene with their wetness, then she folded at the knees and hunched herself over beside where the dead man’s head was covered by a hessian sack.

‘We did everything we could,’ she sobbed into the dirt. ‘But in the end, it was impossible.’ She began to wail, a great heaving bawling which made her body quiver and I didn’t know where to look or what to do. I wanted someone to come out of the house and take the woman away, relieve her of her futile vigil, let the night press its darkness down upon her. But the place seemed deserted.

I glanced over to Mack for help and he gave me one long desperate look like he was seeking my permission to do something. Then that big tough bloke climbed over the fence into the yard where the woman knelt next to the dead man and he crouched down beside her, his huge tattooed arm covering her back, so their three bodies were butted up alongside each other in the dirt like rusty sardines.

Even then the woman continued to talk, as if her words had been caught up somewhere deep inside and were being flushed out with her tears. ‘We were the ones who told him to come. We’re the ones who promised to look after him. He just about blew his head off.’

She paused and then took in a long exhausted breath.

‘He was my brother.’

Mack’s black-haired hand was stroking down the woman’s back as he muttered to her. I couldn’t hear what he was saying, just the sound of his soft voice curling out into the last flare of sunlight; he was saying more to her now than I’d heard him say in all the weeks we’d been together. The woman remained curved over, but was silent now, listening.

I was useless, worse than that ugly crazy mutt, which still thought it could bust out of its lockup. As I stood there watching Mack with the woman I realised that the expression I’d briefly seen before on the woman’s face belonged to my wife, when I’d finally told her I was leaving for good.

For one blinding moment, I let myself understand I was a million times less worthy than that thug Mack, before I grunted loudly in disgust and left them to it.


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Leigh Coyle

The Tin Man, Leigh Coyle

Usually, after I said ‘good morning’ we stood politely smiling at each other until our business was complete. Today, she stayed behind in the shadows and invited me in.  I had to hurry to catch up with her as she walked down the hall.  I said to her back: ‘How are you?’ because that’s what I would have said to her face at the door.  She didn’t answer me.  Her bare feet made sucking sounds on the floor as I followed her along. The hall was dim so I couldn’t see much, which frustrated me as I’d often wondered what was in there. One of the rooms opening into the hallway must have been her bedroom, but I never found out which one. 

Then we were in the kitchen, which was disappointingly filthy and cluttered. My hands wanted to find a sponge to clean the dirty dishes on the sink. Still facing away from me, she pointed to a table and chairs and filled up two glasses with tap water.  I sat down and put my tin on the table.  When I rested my elbows on the plastic tablecloth, some crumbs stuck to my skin so I sat back and straightened my tie.  Ants made a line on the wall.  My nose searched out an odd smell. A radio wasn’t quite on the station.  I crossed my ankles under the table, counted the circles on the lino and divided this number by five.

When she turned around, the bruises revolted me – blotchy purple and yellow half-moons under her eyes and at the edges of her mouth.  They didn’t match her dress.  She looked older than the last time I’d seen her; that sudden aging which happens when you don’t see someone often, although she somehow looked younger too. I stared at her trying to work this out, while she sat down opposite me and sipped at her water.  You’re not supposed to stare.

I said: ‘I need to go to the toilet.’  I couldn’t think of what else to say, especially as there was still beauty in her face. She said: ‘It’s just down the back stairs and to the left.’  I must have looked worried, because she also said: ‘I’ll look after your tin.’ There were six stairs, so I went up and down twice. Outside, I breathed in and out a lot and didn’t go to the toilet.  Her garden was horribly muddled, like her kitchen.  If I’d had time, I would have found a hoe and done her edges.  I wondered whether I could leave by the back gate, but she was clever by keeping my tin.  There were fourteen pots with dead plants in them.

I went back inside and sat down at the table.  Her dress was loose at the top so I could see her breasts rising each time she breathed in. I stared at them instead of at her face.

‘And you’ve been well?’ she asked. ‘Busy?’  As if nothing was different.  The skin on her chest gathered in the centre and made a dark triangle. She said:  ‘It must be hard for you. Particularly now.  People are such mean bastards.’

I nodded three times quickly. ‘I’ve been pretty busy,’ I said.  I drank some water for something to do, turning the glass around when I noticed greasy marks on the rim. She tried to smile for a moment, but her lips went flat over her teeth. I heard a noise coming from another part of the house and my fingers gripped onto something sticky underneath the chair.  I could tell she wasn’t bothered about the sound, the way she kept twirling her hair around her finger. I wondered whether I could ask to use the toilet again.  A cat came into the kitchen and tried to rub itself against my legs.  I kicked it away. Her glass was dirtier than mine.  It disturbed me how she sucked away at the germs. She had seven matching cups hanging from a hook, plus one on the sink which was a different colour.

Then she said: ‘Come with me a minute. I want to show you something.’ I got my tin and she led me away from the kitchen back along the hall and into the doorway on the right.  This room was dark purple like her bruises.  It suited her better, but it wasn’t her bedroom, because in it there was only a purple couch, a table with a lamp, some white screens and ten wall photographs in frames.  The people in the photographs were laughing at nothing, except for a baby all by itself who just looked startled.  I sneezed four times on account of the cat, or maybe the dust.  There was a mirror on the wall too.  In it, my face looked small and pale like it was far away.   She left me standing there while she went through a door at the back of the room.  In there, was a dark rectangle, until she turned on a light and I could see her bending over, hair flopping forwards.  I kicked the cat again and it made a squeezed noise. She came back carrying a large piece of paper, carefully like it was valuable.  ‘Come closer, into the light,’ she said.  I put my tin down onto the table and stood beside her near the lamp.  I’d never been that close to her before.  She smelled like cinnamon and cat. I could reach her breast and grab it if I wanted to. ‘See what I took of you?’ she said.

Under her pink thumbs, stretched out on the paper, was a photograph of me waiting at Central Station.  I was standing beside the fourteenth light pole from the end, in the brown pants I was wearing now and my white shirt and tie, holding my bag in front of me. I looked bored, like I’d been waiting forever.  I was narrow like the pole and the camera looked down on me. I wondered if she’d taken the photograph from the sky, from the back of a bird.  People had left a circle around me, not standing too close. I hadn’t noticed that from down there.  I started to count them, but she put the photograph down on the table, next to my tin.  She reached for my hand and tried to hold it.  She said: ‘I love your face.  I want to take more.’

All I could think about was the slitty eyes of the cat and her breasts. I felt dizzy.  I said: ‘I need to go to the toilet,’ not out loud, just inside my head.   My hand was in hers and it was rougher than I’d imagined, scaly, not moist. My suit pants felt too tight and that wasn’t right.  She leaned in closer so her bruises seemed to cover more of her face.  I wanted to press them.  Again, she stopped her smile part-way saying: ‘Ouch.  The surgeon told me not to do that.’

Then the doorbell rang; a shrill sound that scared off the cat and made me think of the other noise from before.  She looked at her watch.  She said: ‘God. Is it that time already? Sorry.’

She dropped my hand and I grabbed my tin and held it to my chest, feeling my heart beating into it. I followed her back up the hall.  I imagined that each doorway was hiding other parts of me I would never see. I counted my footsteps trying to understand.  She opened the front door to a bunch of white lilies spiked with a handwritten sign which said: ‘Looking Better Already!’ and three giggling women pressed into her with kisses and penetrating voices. As I slid past them and the sick smell of flowers, she pushed some money into my tin.  Without laughing, but in a pleased way, she said to the women: ‘Just doing my bit for charity, but we’re all finished now.’


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Leigh Coyle