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At 10:30am, the air is buzzing with excitement. As the first race is going to start soon. There has been no signs of a dust storm and everyone seem to have forgotten about it. The participants are cheering and getting ready for the race while groups of tourists are wandering about, taking pictures of the teams and the folks in costume. People came from as far as Mexico, Italy and Macedonia.
Because of the harsh conditions, miners were usually males back in the days. But there have always been teams at our little town’s festival ready to include women and children because they were usually lighter and it was easier to push the carts around on the tracks. Since a few years, there even have been full female teams, and they were pretty good too.
Prune arrives with her new fancy reflex camera she got at her last birthday. She wants to take our picture in front of our cart. At Joe and Callum’s surprise, I try to talk her into joining our team and be part of the fun. I get out of the cart a spare hat and a wig I had prepared for her, but she says today she’s doing a reportage about the festival. I know she wants to be on the lookout for our father, and keep an eye on the Inn’s guests. She told me yesterday something was off with that Liana Parker who kept snooping around and asking questions to townsfolk about Howard and Fred. And, she heard the two other girls talking about Liana being a Finli and a nun.
I frown. I haven’t told the boys anything about my father or suspicious guests with false names. Prune knows I’m not too keen about letting my little sister following people around on her own. I told her something could go wrong, but she brushed it aside explaining it was the perfect occasion because people wouldn’t pay attention to someone taking random pictures during a festival. She’s got a point, but I’m still her big brother. I had to try.
She asks us to strike a pose in front of our cart and tells a few jokes. When we laugh she takes a picture of our all male team, I’m the one in the center, Callum’s on the left and Joe on the right. I’m glad despite all the concern, I look like I’m having fun.
Checking her camera screen, Prune says: “You guys remind me of the Clockwork Orange with your hats, but more colourful and less creepy.”
Callum and Joe look at each other, each having one eyebrow raised. I snort. I’m sure they don’t understand the reference.
“You’re ok,” she tells them. “It means people will notice and remember you.”
“Spread the word! We’ll crush them all!” Callum shouts.
Prune looks at me. “You’re still frowning,” she says. “It’ll be fine.”
“Ok,” I say. “But at least take the hat. You can’t dress as yourself during a Cart and Lager festival, or you’ll pop out of the crowd.”
She raises her eyes to the sky and sighs. Then, she takes the orange hat from my hands and puts it on her head.
“There, happy? Consider that an endorsement of your team,” she says with a wink.
Joe and Callum hoot and whistle loudly. “Miss serious is running wild! Anything can happen today.”
We all laugh. Their enthusiasm is contagious.
“Hey! You’re mother is about to talk,” says Joe to Callum. “She’s hot.”
“Don’t speak about my mother like that.”
The mayor has climbed on the central stage and she’s talking with an all dressed up woman with a big hat that makes her look like the Queen of England. She sure seems out of place in our little town’s festival. Flanked by two bodyguards in black, I guess it’s Botty Banworth who’s provided that expensive sound system the mayor’s trying to use. “One, two, three… Is it working? Yes. Ok. All the participants are expected to bring their cart to the depart lane. We’re about to start. In the meantime let me introduce Miss Banworth who’s been very generous and allowed our festival to get to another level. She’s going to help us rehabilitate the abandoned mines and open a museum.”
A roar from the crowd. The woman’s lips are so thin and red that the smile she puts on her face looks like it’s just been made with a razor blade. I shiver. She’s the Queen of England turned by a vampire.
Someone bumps into my back and knocks the air out of my lungs. I almost fall on my sister.
“Hey! Watch out!” says Callum.
I catch my breath and look up. It’s Betsy, dressed as a miner too, with extra sequins and gummy stars on her dungarees. She looks confused and mutters some excuses but doesn’t stop. She walks as if she has had a few lagers already.
“Hey, Betsy,” calls Prune. “You seem like you just saw a ghost.”
“Someone… near the mines… It can’t be…” says Betsy.
“Who did you see near the mines?” shouts my sister.
With the noise around us, I almost didn’t hear Betsy’s answer.
I look at Prune. I see in her eyes we’re thinking the same thing. Dad’s really here. We nod at the same time and I move my lips: “Be careful.” She nods.
“You three, win,” she tells us before leaving.
“You heard her?” I asked Callum and Joe. “Let’s move our limo.” As we approach the tracks with the other participants, a gush of wind almost knock my hat off my head. There is some commotion coming from the central stage. A guy climbed up and is shouting something that I don’t understand, pointing at the sky behind us. When I look back like everyone, tourists and teams, I understand.
“Dust! Dust’s coming!”
And right from the direction of the abandoned mines. Dad what did you get yourself into?
It’s 10:55am and I’m pretty sure we’ll have to put off the race.
I can’t believe the cart race is tomorrow. Joe, Callum and I have worked so hard this year to incorporate solar panels and wind propellers to our little bijou. The cart race rules are clear, apart from thermal engines and fossil fuels, your imagination is your limit. Our only worry was that dust storm. We feared the Mayor would cancelled the race, but I think she won’t. She desperately needs the money.
Some folks thought to revive the festival as a prank fifteen years ago, but people had so much fun the council agreed to renew it the next year, and the year after that it was made official. It’s been a small town festival for ten years, and would have stayed like that if it hadn’t been for a bus full of Italian tourist on their way to Uluru. It broke down as they drove through main street – I remember it because I just started my job at the garage and couldn’t attend the race. Those Italians, a bunch of crazy people, posted videos of the race on the Internet and it went viral, propelling our ghost town to worldwide fame. We thought it would subside but some folks created a FishBone group and we’re almost as famous as Punxsutawney once a year. We even have a team of old ladies from Tikfijikoo Island.
All that attention attracted sponsors, mostly booze brands. But this year we’ve got a special one from Sidney. Aunt Idle who’s got a special friend at the city council told us the council members couldn’t believe it when the tart called and offered money. Botty Banworth, head of a big news company made famous by her blog: Prudish Beauty.
Aunt Idle, who heard it from one of her special friends at the town’s council, started a protest because she thought the Banworth tart would force the council to ban all recreational substances. But I have it from Callum, who’s the Mayor’s son, that the tart is not interested in making us an example of sobriety. She’s asked to lease the land where the old mines are and the Mayor haven’t told anybody about it.
After Callum told me about the lease, it reminded me about the riddle.
A mine, a tile, dust piled high,
Together they rest, yet always outside.
One misstep, and you’ll surely fall,
Into the depths, where danger lies all.
Then something else happened. Another woman stopped at the gas station earlier today. I recognised one of the Inn’s guests, the one with the Mercedes. With her mirror sunglasses and her headscarf wrapped around her hair, she already looked suspicious. But as it happened, she asked me about the mines and how to go there. For abandoned mines, they sure attract a lot of attention.
It reminded me of something. So after work, I went to the Inn and asked the twins permission to go up to their lair. When dad disappeared, Mater went mad, she threw everything to the garbage. The twins waited til she got back inside and moved everything back in the attic and called it their lair. It looks just like dad’s old office with the boxes full of papers, the mahogany desk and even his typewriter. For whatever reason, Mater just ignores it and if she needs something from the attic, she asks someone else to get it, pretexting she can’t climb all those stairs.
I was right. Dad left the old manuscript he was working on at the time. A sci-fi novel about strange occurrences in an abandoned mine that looked just like the one outside of town. Prune said it’s badly written, and it doesn’t even have a title. But I remember having nightmares after reading some of the passages.
I’ve always felt like the odd one out in my family. Growing up at the Flying Fish Inn, I’ve always felt like I was on the outside looking in. My mother left when I was young, and my father disappeared not long after. I’ve always felt like I was the only one who didn’t fit in with the craziness of my family.
I’ve always tried to keep my distance with the others. I didn’t want to get too involved, take sides about petty things, like growing weed in the backyard, making psychedelic termite honey, or trying to influence the twins to buy proper clothes. But truth is, you can’t get too far away. Town’s too small. Family always get back to you, and manage to get you involved in their shit, one way or another, even if you don’t say anything. That’s how it works. They don’t need my participation to use me as an argument.
So I stopped paying attention, almost stopped caring. I lived my life working at the gas station, and drinking beers with my buddies Joe and Jasper, living in a semi-comatose state. I learned that word today when I came bringing little honey buns to mater. I know she secretly likes them, even if she pretend she doesn’t in front of Idle. But I can see the breadcrumbs on her cardigan when I come say hi at the end of the day. This morning, Idle was rocking in her favourite chair on the porch, looking at the clouds behind her mirrored sunglasses. Prune was talking to her, I saw she was angry because of the contraction of the muscles of her jaw and her eyes were darker than usual. She was saying to Idle that she was always in a semi-comatose state and doing nothing useful for the Inn when we had a bunch of tourists arriving. And something about the twins redecorating the rooms without proper design knowledge. Idle did what she usually does. She ignored the comment and kept on looking at the clouds. I’m not even sure she heard or understood that word that Prune said. Semi-comatose. It sounds like glucose. That’s how I’m spending my life between the Inn, the gas station and my buddies.
But things changed today when I got back to my apartment for lunch. You can call it a hunch or a coincidence. But as we talked with Joe about that time when my dad left, making me think we were doing hide and seek, and he left me a note saying he would be back someday. I don’t know why I felt the need to go search that note afterwards. So I went back to the apartment and opened the mailbox. Among the bills and ads, I found a postcard with a few words written on the image and nothing except my address on the back. I knew it was from my dad.
It was not signed or anything, but still I was sure it was his handwriting. I would recognise it anywhere. I went and took the shoebox I keep hidden on top of the kitchen closet, because I saw people do that in movies. That’s not very original, I know, but I’m not too bright either. I opened the box and took the note my dad left me when he disappeared.
I put the card on the desk near the note. The handwritings matched. I felt so excited, and confused.
A few words at the bottom of the card said : “Memories from the coldest place on Earth…”
Why would dad go to such a place to send me a postcard after all those years ? Just to say that.
That’s when I recalled what Prune had told me once as we were watching a detective movie : “Read everything with care and always double check your information.”
On the back, it said that the image was from a scientific station in Antartica, but the stamp indicated it had been posted from a floating post office in the North Pole. I turned the card and looked at the text again. Above the station, a few words were written that sounded like a riddle.
> A mine, a tile, dust piled high,
Together they rest, yet always outside.
One misstep, and you’ll surely fall,
Into the depths, where danger lies all.
It sure sounds like a warning. But I’m not too good with riddles. No need to worry Mater about that, in case of false hope and all that. Idle ? Don’t even think about it. She won’t believe me when I say it’s from dad. She never does believe me. And she’ll keep playing with the words trying to find her answer in the shape of smoke. The twins, they are a riddle on their own.
No. It’s Prune’s help I need.
Working at the gas station gave me the possibility to not only be confined at home but also at work. At least I could enjoy the transit between places, that’s what I told me everyday. And better go to work than turn around all day in the studio I rented since I left the Inn.
You can’t imagine how many people need gas during the confinement. It looks like in this part of the country people don’t have as many dogs as them in the big cities, so they do all sorts of crazy things to be able to get out.
A man came to the station this morning. I’m sure it was to give the equivalent of a walk to his brand new red GMC Canyon, you know, treating his car like she needed fresh air and to get some exercise regularly. From behind the makeshift window made of transparent wrapper, I asked him how was his day. You know, to be polite. He showed me the back of his truck. I swear there was a cage with two dingos in it.
The guy told me he captured them the other day in case the cops stopped him in the street with no reason to be out. At least, he said, I could still say I’m giving them a walk. I told him them being in a cage would hardly pass as a walk but he answered me with a wink and a big grin that cops weren’t that intelligent. I’m glad we have makeshift windows now, at least seeing his teeth I didn’t have to smell his breath. I’m not sure who’s the less intelligent in absolute terms, but in that case I’d rather bet his IQ would fail him.
Well that’s probably the most exciting thing that happened before I went home after work. As soon as I got home I received a phone call from Prune. On the landline. It’s like she has some magical means to know when I’m there.
Anyway, she asked me if I washed my hand. I told her yes, though I honestly don’t recall. But I have to make her think all is ok. She started to talk again about Jasper. Each time she mention the subject I’m a bit uncomfortable. I’m not sure I fancy having a brother, even if it’s kind of being in a TV series. She said she had looked for him on internet, contacted some adoption agencies, even tried a private called Dick. That’s all that I remember of the private’s name. Dick, maybe that’s because he never answered her calls. Might be dead of the pandamic I told her. PandEmic, She corrected. I know, I told her, I said that to cheer you up.
We talked about Mater too. That made me laugh. Apparently Idle saw her in a fuschia pink leotard. Prune half laughed herself when she mentioned the leotard, but she said : Truth is I don’t know what Dido had taken when she had seen Mater outside. I suspect the om chanting was simply snoring.
There was a silence afterward. Maybe Prune was thinking about age and the meaning of life, I was merely realising I was hungry. I swear I don’t know what crossed my mind. I have a tendency to want to help my sister even if I think there is no hope. You know, I told her, about Jasper we could still go and ask that woman in the bush. It’s like she already knew what I was going to say. Tiku? I knew by her tone that all the conversation was fated to lead there. Yeah. I can drive you there after work tomorrow.
Of course, we didn’t even have to go there after all.
I have never seen so many guests at once at the Inn. Even old Bert is ferreting around, I’ve seen him many times near the shed or near the garage door. Mater knows about it of course. I’ve seen her looking at him from the corner of her eyes. I wonder if she knows about the hidden gold. I’m sure Bert knows, and that’s why he’s always been lurking around when we were kids.
Mater, she hadn’t said anything when I came back and took my old room as if I never left. She just grunted and gave me some work to do.
“It’s not good to stay idle all the time,” she had said, making me chuckle as I saw aunt Idle sneaking out to take care of her weed plot in the back yard. As if Mater didn’t know about it. I know she tried to chew some when Idle was in India and she didn’t like the taste of the raw plant, so I had showed her how to smoke it. After the coughing spell had passed, she had seemed to enjoy the experience then, but I don’t know if she had ever used some again afterward. She’s as stern as she used to be. But I like her that way. She’s the spine of the Flying Fish Inn. I’m not sure Idle could manage it all, especially I doubt Finly would stay more than a few days if Idle was the manager here.
Although, I’m suspecting Finly to sell weeds to the guests. She’s been acting weird and I’ve come upon her and Idle arguing in the kitchen upon a loafed bush lizard. Dido was accusing Finly of stealing her last crop and Finley… Well, I don’t really care about what they do.
I’ll just have to find some quiet time to go inspect the cellar. If what the man on the Harley had told me is true, I want to find the tunnels below the Inn.
I’d never have thought I would come back to the Inn. I had left believing I could make a fortune out of digging opals in Boulder, you know, finding the big one worth thousands. I didn’t miss my family and their odd attachment to the dead Fish. I guess except Prune, she had an ambition, of sort, meaning she wanted to get out of that black sucking shithole. And she always had crazy ideas. She knew how to think differently.
In Boulder, instead of fortune I found dust, sweat and booze, also lots of suspicion and jealousy when anyone found something. I was sucked in the local habits. Bad habits if you ask me, the kind that suck the life out of a man. But I did it anyway, there was not much to do. It soon felt as suffocating as the Inn, and it was not because of the dust. It was just another shithole, ‘tis all.
I was saved from dying from boredom when that strange man arrived on his Harley Davidson. He stayed for some times always telling stories. Crazy mad stories. I think he was a little paranoid, always believing he was followed or that some people were in danger. I asked him once why he was speaking so loud if he feared he was followed.
The man laughed and said: “It is a mean of self preservation son. They won’t dare make me disappear or it will prove I’m telling the truth.”
The kind of self explanatory stuff that you can never prove wrong or false, would have said Prune. Well with a better choice of words I’m sure.
Anyway, the man and his stories are part of the reasons I came back because he talked about that Dead Fish Inn, and a goldmine.
There is something creepy about that new maid.
“I think she’s got a crush on me”, I said to Joe the other day. “That bush pig’s putting porn red lipstick when she knows I’m coming to the Inn.”
Actually I hadn’t really noticed it until Prune mentioned it. Not with those words, of course, she’s too sophisticated to use such words. I used them because I knew it would catch Joe’s attention and make a better story. But truth is, there was not much of a story to tell.
T’was pathetic and oddly arousing at the same time to pretend I would be interested in catching the maid in the laundry room and give’er the bone on the washing machine.
“She’d slap my face with her feeders…” You know how boys are. We can be stupid when excited.
It was something to make jokes about it in the barn with Joe, but I had a hard time at Christmas trying to avoid her. I caught more than once an amused look on Prune’s face when Finly would bent over lower to serve me some stuffing. I’d swear she had no bra and no knickers. It could have been exciting but her armpits smelled of fried onions, barely masked by her cheap perfume.
After diner, I pretended a headache and went to my room. That’s when I heard that strange noise in the corridor. It was coming from room 8.
I found Joe near the fallen bridge. He was sobbing. I approached silently and put my hand on his shoulder.
“Are you alright, mate ?”
“Yes I’m alright”, he snorted. “You remember when we used to play there ?”
Of course I remembered, we called it the bridge to nowhere. I’ve never really understood why Bert had built that bloody bridge. Jasper told me after the blast that the old man also made sure nobody could use it again. That was no surprise. Old Bert was a tight as a duck’s ass when it came to his craft. That’s why he never could make it in his trade, if he didn’t like what you did of one of his creations he’d rather smash it up so that no one could use it afterward. Always the sneaky one.
“I remember”, I said. “Your face looks like a Panda.”
He snickered. “You know my father. He’s got a liking for China.” He laughed, but it felt forced. Anyway, I laughed with him. There was no point in bringing up the gloom, we needed fun.
“Let’s take a dive!” I said. Hoping to change his mind. He tried to smile but cringed as his face must have hurt badly. When he removed his shirt, my heart sank as I saw the dark marks on his chest and back. No pushing him in the water.
“Last one to reach the other side of nowhere!” he shouted before jumping in the cold water.
“That would be you!” I roared. Naked in the wild, at least as close to the wild as you could have here, I felt like a lion, full of strength, dangerous.
When I left the Inn this morning, Mater seemed upset. I regularly kisses her on her forehead before going to the gas station, as I know it pisses her off, but today she seemed lost in her thoughts and she called me Fred. I don’t like it when she does that, it gives me the impression she’s losing it. I wonder who’s going to hold that crumbling place when she’s gone. Certainly not Dido, she can’t focus her mind on a project for more than a few minutes, and it usually does not pass the stage of smokey ideas. I see clearly her game, she’s messing around with Mater for God knows what twisted reasons. They never seemed to appreciate each others much, and I’ve only known them for eighteen years. Looking at how it didn’t evolve much during that time, I bet it had been like that for quite some time. Family relationships are boring, and usually quite messy.
Take Joe for example, he’s crazy. His father is crazy, and his grand-father well he spent so much time in the mines that his family didn’t really miss him when one of the tunnels collapsed while he was inside. They never found the body. The Mining company gave the family a ridiculously small amount of money as an indemnification. Joe’s father lost it in some fracking wallaby race. Bad luck had stuck to him his whole life. Jasper once told me to avoid him. I would have, even if it was not for my dead brother’s warning.
Joe’s working at the gas station with me. He had been working there since he was sixteen when the school told his parents it was a waste of time [for them] to try and teach him anything valuable. His father beat him to keep up the appearances, but they were glad they could put him to work to bring in some more money.
Joe is nuts, but he’s not dumb. He just likes to experiment. He must have a good star watching upon him, unlike his father, because each time he manages to make something explode or break in a real bad way, but he always gets out without a scratch. He’s excited, he’s finished working on his last project. He wants us to borrow a gas tank and go to his place after work. I’ve rarely seen him so excited. We’ll have to put off the hockey with Callum.
Working at the gas station was the only way I found to get away of that dead fish Inn. That and hockey.
Ever since Jasper died, I’ve tried to escape the stifling atmosphere of the family. I felt barely annoyed when mother left, I was already empty.
I tried to come back a few times, but it was too hard to look at the twin girls growing together, whereas I was denied this chance with my brother. Oh! I didn’t have anything against them, I would play the role of the caring and protective brother whenever necessary at school. But it was easier to stay outside and play hockey with my best buddies Joe and Callum.
When dad left, I felt betrayed. I still wonder why he didn’t take me with him on his adventures. Jasper says I’m better here at the moment. I don’t know what’s better, but that’s the only place I can be with no money and no education.