NORM STEVENS SENIOR tells me I’ll never get that truck off my land. He says it’s too old, been there too long, the hoist will try to lift the thing and it will break apart into red stones of rust.
“Leave it,” he says. “Let it rust away. One day you’ll look and it won’t be there anymore.” He gives me a sideways glance. “Like husbands. You look away and when you look back they’re gone, right?”
“So have you heard from the bastard?”
“And you’re getting by all right? For money?”
“I’ve got more money now than when he was here.”
We both laugh.
“Now, Loretta, you know I can take the kids for a night if you need some time off.”
“I might take you up on that. I’ve got a prospect. A biker, but a nice one, not a loser. On a Harley, no less.”
“A Harley?” He raises his eyebrows. Whenever he does that, a pink scaly half-moon of skin above his left eyebrow wrinkles. He reaches up to touch it.
“You should have that looked at, Norm.”
“Yeah, yeah, and I should give up the spare parts work and get out of the sun too.”
He gestures around his junkyard. There are tractor parts, rolls of wire, tires, mowers, corrugated iron sheets all rusted and folded, bits of cars and engines, pots and pans, gas bottles, tools, toys, bed frames, oil drums, the chipped blades of threshers and harvesters. Some of the machinery is so bent and broken you can’t even tell what it was meant for. In the center of the yard is a lemon tree, the only greenery in sight. It always has lemons. I’m sure I know what Norm does to help it along, but I don’t ask. He’s got four guard dogs too, tied up around the yard, vicious snarling things. As if anyone would want to steal any of this crap.
“Well, I’d better pick up the kids,” I say. I don’t want to pick up the kids. I want to send them to an orphanage and buy myself a nice dress and learn to live the way I used to, before I turned into the old scrag I am now.
“Don’t you worry about that truck.” Norm stretches out his long, skinny arm and pats me on the back. “It’ll go back into the land.”
I get into the car, pump the accelerator like I’m at the gym, and turn the key three times before the engine fires. I should have that looked at, I think. There’s half a kilo of sausages on the seat beside me, and I realize they’ve been sitting in the sun for half an hour. When I unwrap the paper and have a sniff I get a funny sulfur smell. They’ll cook up all right, I tell myself, and I gun the Holden and screech in a U-turn onto the road. I can’t get used to this huge engine—every time I take off I sound like a pack of hoons at Bathurst.
It’s three thirty already and Jake and Melissa will be waiting at the school gate, ready to jump in and whine about how everyone else’s mum always gets there before I do. Maybe I will drop them off at the orphanage.
• • •
WHEN I GET to the school gate the kids are both standing with their hands on their hips. I wonder if they got that from me; old scrag standing with her hands on her hips, pursing her thin lips, squinting into the sun. You could make a statue of that. It would look like half the women in this town. Dust and a few plastic bags swirling around its feet, the taillights of the husband’s car receding into the distance. They should cast it in bronze and put it in the foyer of Social Security.
“Mum, we have to have four sheets of colored cardboard for the project tomorrow.”
“And me too, Mum, I have to have a lead pencil and I don’t want bananas in my lunch anymore because they stink.”
As I steer the great car down the highway toward home I have a little dream. I’ll swing into the driveway and sitting next to the veranda will be a shiny maroon Harley-Davidson. I won’t dare to look, but out of the corner of my eye I’ll see a boot resting on the step, maybe with spurs on it. Then I’ll slowly lift my head and he’ll be staring at me the way George Clooney stared into J.Lo’s eyes in Out of Sight and I’ll take a deep breath and say to him, “Can you hang on five minutes while I drop the kids at the orphanage?”
What I actually find when we get home is a bag of lemons sitting on the veranda. Norm must have left them while we were at the newsagent.
“Who are these from?” Jake asks.
“How do you know?”
“Oil on the bag.”
I bought Norm a cake of Solvol soap once. Delivered it to the junkyard wrapped in pretty pink paper with a bow. He rang to thank me. “I think you’re insulting me.”
“It’s for your own good, Norm.”
“You’re a minx. If I was thirty years younger . . .”
“Fifty, more like,” I told him, “before you’d get those paws on me.”
That night, when the kids are finally settled in their rooms doing their homework, I get on the phone for the usual round of begging.
“Are you coming to the meeting tomorrow?”
“Oh, Loretta, I’m sorry, I completely forgot. I’ve made other plans.”
I can imagine Helen’s plans. They’ll involve a cask of white and six changes of clothes before she collapses on the bed in tears and starts ringing her friends—me—asking why she can’t find a man. Is she too old, has she lost her looks? It helps to leave the house occasionally, I have to remind her. She certainly hasn’t lost her looks. Auburn hair without a single gray strand. Straight white teeth. A country tan. Unlike mousey-haired skinny scragwoman me, she even has a cleavage.
“The grade-three teacher’s coming,” I tell her, certain this will change her mind. “And Brianna’s offered to mind all the kids at her place. She must have hired a bouncer.”
“He’s told you he’s coming?”
“Yeah, he left a message on my machine,” I lie.
So Helen’s in. After I herd up seven others with more lies and false promises, I put the sausages on. Sure enough, the sulfur smell fades once they start to burn. I used to enjoy cooking quiche and fancy fried rice and mud cake. Gourmet, like on the telly, the boyfriend would boast to his mates. Then we get married and it’s, “Listen, darl, I wouldn’t mind a chop for a change.” Now the kids think gourmet is pickles on your sandwich. They won’t even look at a sun-dried tomato. Last time I tried that, Jake picked them out of the spaghetti sauce and left them lined up like red bits of chewed meat on the side of the plate. “Gross,” he said, and I had to agree, seeing them like that.
• • •
THE MEETING’S IN the small room at the Neighbourhood House because the Church of Goodwill had already booked the large room by the time I got around to organizing tonight’s meeting. We’re sitting pretty much on top of each other, trying to balance cups of tea and Scotch Finger biscuits on our knees. Maxine is supposed to be taking the minutes.
I thought I’d made it up, but the grade-three teacher has come, and Helen’s paralyzed with excitement and terror. She’s wearing enough perfume to spontaneously combust, and the smell’s so overwhelming that Maxine has to swing the door open. Two minutes later the noise from the meeting next door starts up.
“Yes!” they all shout. “Yes! I do, I do!”
“Well, I don’t.” Maxine swings the door half-shut so that we’re dizzy with perfume but still having to shout over the frantic clapping of people being saved next door.
I give the list of apologies and welcome everyone who’s come, introducing the grade-three teacher in case the others don’t know him. Helen’s gone as pink and glistening as a baby fresh out of the bath. She’ll have a seizure if she’s not careful. I can’t see the attraction. The teacher’s five foot four, stocky, and always says “At the end of the day.”
“At the end of the day,” he says when I introduce him, “I am totally committed to this cause. Our jobs are at risk too.”
Just in case, I look down at his feet, but no spurs. I read out the list of agenda items. Brenda sighs loudly.
“Do we have to do all this agenda crap? And the motions? I motion, you motion. My Mark’s doing motions you wouldn’t believe and I have to be home by nine in case I need to take him to Emergency.”
“Yes, we do. Because we’re trying to be bloody official. And as you well know, an emergency department that closes at ten in a town half an hour away is one of the reasons we’re here. Soon this town will have no services for a hundred kilometers.”
“Oh, yes, ma’am.”
I roll my eyes. Maxine rolls her eyes. For a moment I think of us all rolling our eyes like a bunch of lunatics in the asylum and I almost cheer up.
“Item one. I’ve written a letter to the member for our local constituency about the closure of the school.” I pause for the inevitable joke about members, which, to my amazement, doesn’t come. “We need everyone who has kids in the school to sign.”
“It’ll never work.” Brenda is the optimist of the committee.
“Does anyone know how to drain the oil from a sump?” Kyleen pipes up.
Only another half an hour, I think, and I can pick up the kids from Brianna’s, drop them at the orphanage, and drive straight down to Melbourne. With the experience I’ve got, I’ll land a good job in a center for adults with attention deficit disorder.
• • •
WHEN I PULL up at Brianna’s, the kids run to the front door, looking pleased to see me. They’re way too quiet in the backseat. They must have done something horrible.
“So did you have a good time?” I ask. I speed up to catch the amber light and the Holden roars with the might of a drunken trucker. I can’t make out exactly what Melissa says, but I might have heard the word fight. I think back. Were they limping when they got into the car? Was there blood? I can’t remember anything like that so I turn on the radio and keep driving along the dark highway, listening to the soothing sound of a voice calling race seven of the trots, something I’ve learned to love since the radio got stuck on this station.
“Mum?” Melissa says as we pull into the unsurprisingly Harley-free driveway.
“I don’t ever want to leave this house.”
“I thought you wanted to live in a hundred-room mansion with ten servants and a personal homework attendant.”
“I know what it is—you love what I’ve done with the place.” My children were so impressed when I fixed the damp patch beside the stove with a hair dryer, a bottle of glue paste, and three of Jake’s artworks. I had been calling the agent about it for months, but my house is clearly outside the real estate zone of care and responsibility.
“Mum, I’m serious. If Dad sends a letter and we’ve moved we won’t get it.”
I want to believe he’ll send a letter—to his children, at least.
“Well, that’s settled. We’re staying.”
When we get inside, the kids brush their teeth without a single protest and climb into bed.
“You OK, Jakie?” I lean down to kiss him good night.
“Brianna and her boyfriend had a fight,” he whispers. “I think he hit her.”
I kiss him twice, then again.
“I’m sure she’s all right. I’ll call her tomorrow. You go to sleep now.”
“I don’t want bananas in my lunch.”
“I wouldn’t dream of it. Bananas stink,” I say as I turn out the light.
• • •
NEXT MORNING, AS I’m packing bananas into their lunch boxes, I realize I forgot to thank Norm for the lemons.
I drop into the yard on the way back from the shops. He’s down the back of the block with three other blokes, all of them standing in a line with their arms folded, staring at the body of an old tractor. This would be the matching statue to mine: bloke standing, feet apart, arms folded, staring at a piece of broken machinery. No idea how to fix it. We could put Him and Her statues either side of the highway coming into Gunapan.
I wait beside the shed while the delicate sales negotiations go on. I’ve never understood exactly how the communication works. Perhaps the meaning is in the number of head nods, or the volume of the grunt as the customer shifts from one leg to the other. After they’ve stared at the tractor body in apparent silence for five minutes, Norm sees me and ambles up.
“Don’t tell me you’re going to sell something, Norm?”
“Not bloody likely. Every month these three clowns are here with some new scheme for making money.”
“None of them happens to ride a Harley?”
He doesn’t even bother answering, just nods his head at their ute on the road. We step inside the shed for a cuppa. The radio’s on the racing station.
“Harlequin Dancer made a good run from fourth in race seven last night,” I remark.
“You need a new car. I’m working on it, love. Shouldn’t be too much longer.” Norm hands me a cup, covered in grease, and a paper towel to wipe it with.
There are enough parts in Norm’s yard for him to put together ten perfectly good cars, and he has been trying to build me a new one for years. But his specialty is disassembly rather than assembly. As soon as the collection of engine parts and panels begins to bear a resemblance to an actual car, he decides it’s not right and has to pull it apart and start again.
He takes a noisy slurp of his tea before he speaks. “Sorry I didn’t get to the meeting.”
“The school’s not your problem.”
“Course it’s my problem. It’s everybody’s bloody problem.”
We drink our tea. The three blokes wave as they pass the shed. There’s a protest at Randwick in race two. The jockey on the second-place horse is alleging interference from the winner at the final turn.
“I’ve got money on that horse.” Norm turns up the volume.
“The one that’ll buy you a bottle of bubbly if it wins the protest. Long odds. Very long odds. Bring me luck, Loretta.”
The day’s starting to heat up and blowflies are banging against the tin roof of the shed. Norm picks up the trannie and holds it to his ear. I look out at the heat shimmering over the piles of junk. Norm’s touching his crusty forehead as he listens for the outcome of the protest. He must win against the odds sometimes, I think—otherwise why bother betting?
The Fine Color of Rust
Set in the Australian bush, a wryly funny, beautifully observed novel about friendship, motherhood, love, and the importance of fighting for things that matter.
Loretta Boskovic never dreamed she would end up a single mother with two kids in a dusty Australian country town. She never imagined she’d have to campaign to save the local primary school. She certainly had no idea her best friend would turn out to be the crusty old junk man. All in all, she’s starting to wonder if she took a wrong turn somewhere. If only she could drop the kids at the orphanage and start over . . . But now, thanks to her protest letters, the education minister is coming to Gunapan, and she has to convince him to change his mind about the school closure. And as if facing down the government isn’t enough, it soon becomes clear that the school isn’t the only local spot in trouble. In the drought-stricken bushland on the outskirts of town, a luxury resort development is about to siphon off a newly discovered springwater supply. No one seems to know anything, no one seems to care.
With a dream lover on a Harley unlikely to appear to save the day, Loretta needs to stir the citizens of Gunapan to action. She may be short of money, influence, and a fully functioning car, but she has good friends. Together they can organize chocolate drives, supermarket sausage sizzles, a tour of the local slaughterhouse—whatever it takes to hold on to the scrap of world that is home. Warm, moving, and funny, The Fine Color of Rust is “a story about love: where we look for it, what we do with it, and how it shows up in the most unexpected packages” (Big Issue, Australia).
Read an Excerpt
Reading Group Guide
Loretta Boskovic is a woman struck with the Gunapan curse—her husband, Tony, ran off after ten years, leaving her with only two resources to bring up her children in this small Australian town: a part-time job and a robust sense of humor. When the government threatens to shut down Gunapan’s only school, Loretta leaps into action to rally the community around the cause. And when she and her unlikely friend, the old junk man Norm, sense suspicious activity within the city council, Loretta finds her way through the corruption to uncover the real truth. She may be short on money, influence, and glamorous outfits, but with the help of her devoted friends and unflagging spirit, Loretta is ready to defend the true beauty of her imperfect home.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. O’Reilly describes the Japanese word sabi in the book’s epigraph as “the simple beauty of worn and imperfect and impermanent things.” How does this theme manifest itself in The Fine Color of Rust?