Bon and Lesley, Lesley and Bon, were driving to the country in love. They coursed through the mountains at the edge of a city. They were travelling west and they would stay in the west. They were moving away from the city, they were going to live a richer life, they were going to have a baby.
They were moving to the country and they were going to have a baby. There was no use doing so in the city: it was all stitched up. A richer life awaited in the country, and it hardly mattered whether the people there were good or bad because they had each other.
Bon could hardly believe that he had Lesley. Lesley could hardly believe that she had Bon. Bon was serious about his life, he was serious about having a good and healthy life. When Bon smiled it was without cruelty, he had a clever and loving smile, a wise and empathetic smile, it was a curious smile. Lesley had noticed during her 19 years that many people had cruel smiles, even if they were smiling at something innocent. Bon had one of the only smiles she had ever seen that did not look in the least bit cruel. During the rare occasions Bon had laughed at someone’s minor misfortune, even then his smile did not appear cruel, by some miracle it appeared more sympathetic and more gentle-looking than any other expression he could have mustered. Reflecting on Bon’s smile made Lesley love him more; she couldn’t believe they were going to live a new kind of life together.
They had started planning a month ago. They were moving to a large town in the Central West of New South Wales. Bon had found a job at the refrigerator factory and Lesley would find work soon enough. Anyway, they both wanted nothing more than for her to get pregnant immediately. They would populate the world with more of each other, it must have seemed the wisest thing to do, for neither had ever believed that love could be like this.
Everyone at their school and everyone in each of their families had agreed that the couple had found a miraculous bond. It was normal to be skeptical about love, it was normal to believe it couldn’t be true. And even those who found something else to call love, something close enough, even those who believed their inferior and improvised kind of love was the real deal, even these famished people, were shocked by Bon and Lesley’s (Lesley and Bon’s) variety of love, to such an extent that, at first, they would simply write the couple off as little theater aspirants, little show-offs. But you had to see Bon’s smile and you had to see the way Lesley’s eyes lost all resemblance to slotted ovals and gained a resemblance to a shimmering portal, or the mouth of a tributary, her burgeoning light upon the world’s souring light, a real force of nature.
Whenever they stopped at a petrol station they stood at the bowser together, and together they walked to the counter to pay. On one of these occasions the shopkeeper, one of those old men who say whatever they want, had said to them: “would you look at you two!” and he had laughed. Lesley could detect cruelty in his eyes but just a little, there was real joy and sadness there as well, amid the customer service gaiety.
It was a good five hour drive to where they were headed, without factoring in rests at every petrol station they passed. There was no need to stop at all the petrol stations, they had filled their tank long before. But Bon and Lesley (and Lesley and Bon) agreed that there was something magnetic about the petrol stations along the Great Western Highway, whether the ones high up in the foggy mountains or else the ones along the roads west of Lithgow, where it was possible to imagine oneself in England. Each stop at a petrol station stretched their journey, for it was important to them that this distance was significant, it was significant to them that they were moving far away from everything and everyone they knew. They wanted that distance to seem much farther than it was. Every stop was an opportunity to take stock of how far they had come. It was a liberating drive, the first major drive they’d ever done, and no matter how finite it would prove to be, their destination contained a whole new set of novelties, chiefly, the arrival at their temporary home, in a flat above a fish and chip shop on a street in a town of the Central West. Their flat was a furnished rental, they’d rented it sight unseen over the internet. Neither wanted to bring anything from their former life with them, no dining table hand-me-downs nor sentimental bric-a-brac. There was no point having a past. The type of love they shared made obsolete any pleasure gained from material goods. They were making a clean break, not from anything in particular, just from any object or sensation, any thread of their short history, which did not concern the two of them together.
At the pub the night before, where they had farewelled the few friends they labored to keep, on the main street of the Western suburb where they’d both spent their teenage years, Lesley and Bon (and Bon and Lesley) had gone to buy a round of drinks. They had stood quietly in the queue hand-in-hand as the crowds before them ordered their trays of schooners and ciders and bistro meals, and upon reaching the bar the barman had smiled at them, he’d beamed at them, and he’d said to them: I have seen you two floating around this pub all night, paying barely a smidgen of attention to your friends, hand-in-hand and glowing. And who can blame you. He shouted across the bar, who can blame them, pointing at the lovers. Who can blame them, he had shouted again, whipping his tea towel over his shoulder in a manner preluding a barman’s speech. The bar had fallen to a murmur and the middle-aged barman had taken a step back and picked up the remote control for the TV, the sound of men commentating over a football match had diminished, and he delivered a short speech about the couple. He said that in this current age we are all eye-ing one another off and we no longer trust. The great powers of the world have converged in such a malignant way that those at the mercy of these powers have no recourse but to turn against one another. The powers that be have converged against the Earth, and we have diverged from each another, he reiterated. Everyone in the pub had more or less taken to attacking each other, he said, they had taken to suspecting one another, they were all waging quiet wars on one another, whether gossip or backstabbing in the workplace, or lobbing political grenades (he said political grenades) at one another, three sheets to the wind either here or on Facebook. The pub is a place for the shedding of anxiety and the search for catharsis, the barman said, but the catharsis turns to stone in your stomach the next day. But this couple — and the barman pointed to the couple — is proof that none of this is the way it truly has to be, for how old are these two angels? Barely out of their teens, and they have mastered a fundamental that few others make the time to study. What is wrong with us, the barman said. What on earth has happened to us? If we were all to find something like this, it wouldn’t matter where the world was headed.
He picked the TV remote back up and aimed it at the football, and everyone in the pub was entitled to a free middy of Carlton Breweries beer in honour of the couple. People in the bar cheered and patted Bon on the back and told Lesley she was the sweetest thing, and it was not worth the raised voice for either Bon or Lesley (or Lesley or Bon) to correct them. It was not worth them saying that no effort had been expended, that no quintessence had been painstakingly sought, that no struggle had been overcome. We just got lucky, they would have said, had they chosen to speak. This is us, we got lucky, we fell into one another’s lives. Even that would be too lyrical: the both of us were just there. But to announce this wouldn’t do. Saying this would not have elicited any kind of mirth from the pub crowd, they both independently surmised. No one would respect them for their luck, they might even be scolded. Embarrassed, they accepted their titles as experts in love, and for the rest of the night people approached the couple and tried to chat with them, like they were newlyweds or celebrities. Everyone wanted to be close to them, because the type of love they shared was not a type that could inspire jealousy: it mowed every resistance and bitterness in its path. And their friends knew this too. Their friends wondered how they could go on without their friends-in-love, who were traveling over the mountains and into the country and had indicated that they’d never return.
They had lived in a Western suburb and they had attended a state school. Back then, they went to school and watched television in the mornings and in the evenings. They played video games and sports and gossiped and rode their bikes at the weekends. They posted photos on the internet of whatever they were doing. They were sometimes punished by their parents. They were inculcated with certain beliefs common in their electorate. They were overall not very interesting children, not very interesting teenagers, neither were especially smart but neither were dumb. And neither were immune to the anxieties of young teenagers, neither were especially good looking or charming, though they each had their charms if you got to know them. Neither had overwhelming interests, none that consumed them, for they were teenagers, neither too smart nor too dumb, neither too beautiful nor too ugly, they had been awash in their teenage life. But their love was bracing to anyone who witnessed it. They disarmed everybody: Bon’s immaculate smile and Lesley’s tributary eyes.
Though neither especially smart nor dumb, Lesley and Bon (Bon and Lesley) both knew that their love put everyone else’s to shame. Lesley had made a game of interviewing Bon as if on a podcast, about his status as a celebrity of love. “So Bon, you are known to be a celebrity of love. You have an unblemished love. A type that doesn’t exist. Tell me, how did you do it?” To which Bon would usually reply something like, “I studied hard and got a good HSC and then focused on getting a good trade under my belt. The trade of love.” And they both found this amusing, they would laugh at this and other questions and answers, they would usually do so on lazy afternoons spent in either of their bedrooms, in either of their parents’ homes in the Western suburb, listening to whatever music came on YouTube. They would just lay there and interview one another about being celebrities of love, while listening to whatever songs came on YouTube.
“So, Lesley, many say you contain a rare gene exposing you to unnatural amounts of love. Would you allow us, live on podcast, to vivisect you and take a look?” And then Bon would wrestle Lesley until she screamed mercy and then they’d have a nap.
Bon had long figured he would work on an IT helpdesk like his father did, and Lesley had figured she would go to university but for who knows what. They had fallen in love during their math class where the teacher assigned seats. It was in year ten and neither were good at math nor interested in it. While they sat there frowning at equations, Bon’s arm brushed Lesley’s and both fell in love. There was no ceremony nor announcement, they just started sitting together during recess and lunch. Then they’d walk home together through the interminable suburban streets. It happened so quickly that the whole school was in shock. The whole school would not otherwise have cared what the likes of Bon and Lesley (Lesley and Bon) were doing, it wouldn’t have mattered much if Bon was suspended for drugs or if Lesley was embroiled in a pregnancy drama, kids might have made mention of it but quickly they’d forget. But the whole school was dazzled by the couple’s love, it carried all the qualities of a supernatural phenomenon. Girls would ask Lesley, girls she had never met, what exactly was going on between her and Bon, and she would simply say that they had fallen in love. For it was true enough. She dared not admit that what they had, her and Bon, might truthfully transcend love, she dared not admit that there might need to be a new word. One girl asked her, the girl Ebony, whether they had ever had a fight, to which Lesley could only reply: never.
One semester in English class, each pupil was required to deliver a speech on a topic of their choice. The girl Ebony gave a speech about Bon and Lesley’s (and Lesley and Bon’s) love. And even this sixteen-year-old girl, sand-haired blonde Ebony from English, who by all rights might have believed every instance of love to resemble that of her friend’s, was capable of knowing at that young age that what the couple had was a phenomenon as strange and illogical as Joan of Arc. It was a phenomenon as strange and illogical as the conquests of Alexander. She said as much in her speech, it was a beautiful speech and she received top marks. Her close observation of this phenomenon piqued her curiosity like nothing else ever had (and likely ever would), lending a profound urgency and lyricism to her delivery. “There will never be another love like Lesley and Bon’s in our lifetime,” she regaled the classroom, “there is a tiny bit of space in a generation’s lifetime for something truly miraculous to happen, something truly beyond explanation. Some generations go without. But our generation, class, we have Lesley and Bon, and from their perfection we can cherry pick slightly scarred parts of it, and perhaps begin to love in a manner close to how they do.” The girls cheered and the boys were quiet and the teacher wanted to cry.
Their love was always causing some or other person to give a speech about it, and while it made them feel sheepish, it was also true that every speech delivered in their honor was made with the utmost joy and disbelief. There was a story about Bon and Lesley (Lesley and Bon) in the local council newspaper, it was a story about how there existed, in the local council area, a love so profuse that a viral video had proliferated on Instagram, a viral video depicting a collage of the couple in the following situations: seated together in the playground; seated together on a park bench in some unidentified park; standing together in the queue at the IMax; Bon pecking Lesley’s cheek in an unidentified dimly lit room. The last frame showed an emoji depicting a heart with a tranquil face floating on a cloud, True Love in a beautiful font beneath. This short fifteen second video amassed upwards of five million views within weeks of being posted by another of Lesley’s friends, and others had also ripped the video and posted it again on Facebook and Tumblr and other social media. Breakfast radio social media accounts shared it, the Daily Mail shared it, various popular culture websites shared it and a television show devoted to airing viral internet videos also shared it. An ABC panel show debated it: is true love obtainable? One tabloid newspaper cartoonist satirised it: cartoon versions of Lesley and Bon (Bon and Lesley), both on hands and knees, scrubbing soiled tiles in a chaotic kitchen, a toddler wielding a wooden spoon to the left, a refrigerator plastered with bills. The words beneath aped the original font: True Love. Unknowable millions had witnessed their love at digital remove, and yet their faces revealed that it was true: Bon’s pure smile and Lesley’s tributary eyes.
Their fleeting moment of fame had not fomented any lofty ambitions. Bon would work at the IT desk, and Lesley would go to whichever university would take her, for whichever degree she was accepted for. Had they never met, it’s possible that adult life would have forced their hands. But they never once cared to speculate, and besides, things had changed. There they were, in the car bought with money saved working at McDonalds, hurtling towards a different future in the country, towards their flat above a fish and chip shop. Many nights they’d spent arm in arm on one or the other’s bed, browsing the map of the Central Western town on Google Maps. They searched the estimated walking times to every worthwhile shop and restaurant. They used street view to simulate these walks, and found that everything worth visiting was a walking distance away. There was a shopping centre one block north; Bon’s factory was a 20 minute walk west through rows of houses. There were two recruitment agencies in the town, and anyway, it didn’t matter much, because the maternity ward was a two minute drive east. They browsed the AirBnb photos of their long-term rental. They imagined awakening in the bedroom facing the main street, then descending the three steps into the large open plan loungeroom and kitchen, the bathroom to the right. Glass sliding doors opened onto a large cement balcony, where they’d drink their morning tea. And they’d descend stairs from the balcony into the back lane when it was time to go to work. They would attempt to simulate these moves within the confines of their bedrooms. It confounded them that sooner rather than later, they would no longer be exiting bedrooms and entering a hall, they would no longer be eating their parent’s chops, they would be exiting to eat whatever they pleased at one of the restaurants along the main street, or else they would be exiting to retrieve vegetables and nice cuts of meat to whip up into meals they’d take every care to make delectable. The jars they would buy! They would buy pickles and preserves and every kind of sauce, they would never be for want of a new sensation. They would always be eating various kinds of cheese with things like cranberry sauce and hommous, and they would buy these from the farmer’s markets rather than the Woolworths. Perhaps they would start to drink wine of a Friday night, perhaps they would start to taste artisanal beers. They would watch movies on the mounted flatscreen television, which also boasted a soundbar. They would lay there on the lounge, maybe with a blanket over them, spooned, and they would watch movies or a serialised television show. And whenever some situation of love unfolded on the television, a situation designed to invoke fantasies among viewers less fortunate, they would hold each other firmer, but they would not speak a word.
It is impossible to catalogue every endearing quirk in Lesley and Bon’s (Bon and Lesley’s) displays of affection. To witness them walking from their homes to the main street of their suburb, to witness the whole 20 minute journey, was to witness a blessed choreography of mutual regard. Their bodies spoke a language independent of thought, a language neither could reduce to description, their bodies pressed and bounced, twirled and grazed. Backwards walking here, a spontaneous jog there. A single hair gently rescued from the other’s eye. A shoelace tied by a radiant shadow. At times they talked ceaselessly, sometimes they were silent. But their bodies resembled the joined components of a life-changing song. These physically separate and independent phenomenons, these mere humans, would collide one moment, harmonise the next, they’d weave and wend in configurations that couldn’t be learned, these most adept dancers, these most focused lovers. Witness how the lovers walk down the street. Notice how they never merely walk. Notice how their faces are ever changing, alert and receptive, concerned and indulged, curious. They were endlessly curious. They were curious about each other, for how could they not be. They were both mysteries, love celebrities, off to get some hot chips.
Within Lesley and Bon (Bon and Lesley), many observers had found new reasons to live. Some adult observers, old enough to accept that nothing would go to plan, studied the couple and found achievable ways to shift their ways of thinking. Many adult observers, those who came of age during times less frightening, struggled with the notion that they lived at the threshold of inconceivable change. The modern young would metabolise this instability, they thought. The modern young were natives to this fear, they would become embittered desperate humans and eat their forebears alive. But once these adults had witnessed the perfect lovers, they found renewed power in faiths long dismissed as platitudes. It scarcely mattered whether the adult observer in question had dismally failed on the matter of love, or whether they had only maintained an improvised version of it. What mattered was that a pressing concern of their era had not died like so much else. What mattered was that the modern young, who had presumably metabolised fear and instability, still shared their waning belief that actually: everything was going to be ok, that there was a rich life to be lived amid the panic. It didn’t mean they could ignore the world, but it offered a vantage point less twisted and bizarre than what had orbited into view, it briefly hampered their deep yearning for a past only moments ago. It may seem impossible that Bon and Lesley’s (Lesley and Bon’s) perfect love could inspire hope, rather than jealousy and greed, among people accustomed to the injustices of the world, among those accustomed to mediocre love. But it crumbled the skeptical defences of all, it lifted all who came in contact with it. It may seem impossible, but that’s the way it was. The exhausted workaday couples, minds lost to the logic of money and domestic upkeep, love lost to the banality of their togetherness, would have cause to remember the moment they touched, the very moment they first ever touched. And they would briefly fall in love again, just briefly, with themselves and their other and with the world immediately around them.
What Bon and Lesley represented to the adult observers must have changed from person to person. To some, their love conjured something other than nostalgia for a life lived far away from any threshold of change, and it wasn’t always a reminder that some had lost sight of love. Others must have marveled at this breakthrough in human ingenuity, for maybe this love was born of a formula or strategy one could learn from a self-help book (if only they’d write one). The less thoughtful among the adult observers might have called it a miracle, but among the many who had put more thought into the matter, was the shared belief that this love was just another symptom of society’s plunge into implausibility. All manner of modern implausibilities, the foreboding and the bleak, had been adopted by reality: why not this one too? It would never tip the scales, but it was a love that seemed destined to reverberate, in the same way coal and oil and warfare had.
Bon and Lesley (Lesley and Bon) were not accustomed to implausibilities, they were not accustomed to believing anything couldn’t happen. Rare were the periods in their lives when some unforeseeable change had not occurred or had not been anticipated. They had both lived in the same houses, they had both attended the same schools, they had both been locked into the monotonous routine of childhood and adolescence, and yet their lives were suffused with the ambiance of constant change.
In the event that Bon followed his father’s footsteps and worked on an IT helpdesk, did he believe he would do so forever? In the event that Lesley went to university and got her degree, did she believe she would work in her field forever? Their souls were suffused with the ambiance of constant change, but both foresaw working forever; neither had given much thought to any event that might dramatically and permanently change what they did each day. Their having grown accustomed to an ambiance of change did not grant them omniscience over the future, and they could not comprehend a life swollen with strife any clearer than the adults. Adult observers given to reflection of an unusual kind, might have wondered why Bon and Lesley’s variety of love hadn’t taken that whole generation by force, because who could they all trust but one another? When all the current facts and all the forecasts were taken into account, how could the young not take refuge within one another with an intensity inconceivable to any that came before? It’s not a compelling matter for debate, whether this would ever be likely. Most would agree it couldn’t be. But one thing was certain for Lesley and Bon: they knew the world did not belong to them. Their lives just happened to be zoned on it.
They were moving to the country and they were going to have a baby. Neither had ever strayed far from the coastline, they’d been to beaches up and down the coast. They longed to be enveloped by land, they wanted their children in a landscape buffered by plains. They wanted to live among the workaday and elderly, they wanted for there to be no unpleasant surprises. And they were doing it now, they were driving, through a landscape they’d never cared to imagine until recently, a landscape they’d learned nothing about. This was not their country, this was somewhere else, it didn’t resemble any countryside they’d ever seen depicted in films. And yet it was ostensibly their country, it legally was, they were people with a country so vast they could not know it, even after 19 years. and the fact of their not knowing their country like they thought they did, promised a future of novelty and delight.
In the car on the way to the Central West their bodies danced. They listened to music from their phone, YouTube music, ethereal modern trance, pitch-shifted saturnine vocals lifted by utopian melodies and thickets of crescendo. The sadness of life, the reported sadness of it, was there in the vocals, but Bon and Lesley’s life seemed more belonging to the music. The music was saturated with life, and the vocals were rescued by that onslaught of life. It was an interminable, never ending viscous pulse, containing cities aglow, lives alight, event after event after event. Everything is going to happen from this moment onwards, the music told them, not thickly and quickly, not immediately, but with a slow burn inevitability, it’s all promise: promise that cannot be reneged.
Faintly audible sighs hid inside the monolithic dyed-bright music, mourning unrequited love. The disembodied voices suffered in their Saturday night cityscapes awash with people on buses and trains or in their loungerooms, each voice yearned for bodies and minds that had rejected them, bodies and minds entwined with someone else, bodies and minds with other plans. Neither Bon nor Lesley (Lesley nor Bon) said it, but both wondered, how it would feel to live a life, a single life, the only one they had, fated to these varieties of love that could be so cruel.
As they coursed across the open plains east of Bathurst, the music’s light-polluted grandeur seemed ill-fitting, every sparkle in its glowing exterior seemed exaggerated, its pulse was out of step with the calm unfolding outside. Lesley supposed they would need to find some new music. They would need to find something else. The music shuttled them back urban-ward, it was throttled with diabolical energy, it didn’t want to leave the coast. There would need to be a new type of music, Lesley surmised, for this music was melting before her ears. The tempo seemed to raise, the arpeggios fell out of step with the beats, the vocals plunged out of key. There was a threshold they had crossed — perhaps at the foot of the mountains — where the music had become warped but ever so slightly, its colors were a shade too bright, its voices were too high here, too low there. The music was infuriated, it was shapeshifting, they had to turn it off.
Was it possible that Lesley and Bon’s love had brought them closer in spirit to the adults and the elderly? Their dreams of delectable preserves and ornate cheeses, might suggest to some that it had. Their dreams of living together in a home of their own, and their determination to conceive a child, might suggest that they were wasting this unusual power they had harnessed. Could they not be more radical? Did they not feel a responsibility? Everywhere lay the hope that teenagers — children — be radical. Everywhere lay the hope that teenagers — children — correct the course. While the obscenely wealthy planned their escape routes, while the insurance companies re-routed, while the politicians joked about water lapping at the doors of Pacific Island homes, and while many wrung their hands, Bon and Lesley were moving to the country and they were going to have a baby. And if the world were drowned, and if the resources were warred over, and if millions of people were to flee their homes and face persecution and death for the very fact of their wanting to survive — if all of this were to happen, which it very likely would, which it possibly already had — Bon and Lesley would be in the country far away from anyone they knew, and they would have in their possession a baby. And if it weren’t true that many others were having babies too, countless billions of others, that fact alone would seem radical. But no: Bon and Lesley were not radical. They shared an extreme kind of love but this did not make them any wiser or any less exposed to ancient instinct. Perhaps when the decline reached its nadir, when it hurtled past the lower threshold of any graph, perhaps then, Bon and Lesley would emerge intact and a new society would bloom in a shape they could choose.
When the television news had broadcast a lighthearted report on the love of Lesley and Bon, the background music was The Dixie Cups’ 1964 single ‘Chapel of Love’. It is a love song about the feeling of being newly and irrevocably in love, whether an improvised kind of love, a desperate kind of love, or a special kind of love — whichever kind of love is unimportant. In the television broadcast the song accompanied a collage of images, cherry-picked from Bon and Lesley’s social media accounts. The reporting was concerned with the phenomena of people’s interest in Lesley and Bon’s love, rather than the love itself. Had the journalist or producer searched the couple out and interviewed them, the music choice would have been very different indeed. Had the selector of the music been directly exposed to their love, they might have applied more care to their selection of the accompanying music. The selector would not have reached for a song so imbued with an older period’s version of passion. The selector would have intuited that the kind of love Bon and Lesley shared was not, after all, a deliberate attempt by two lovers to rekindle the kind of love depicted in old songs or movies.
It’s possible that the sensation of love is not timeless. It’s possible that it changes gradually and sometimes radically with each passing year. In the age Lesley and Bon belonged to, during a time when many resorted to artifacts from the recent past as a source of comfort, it was routine to frame love against old archetypes. Few had given much thought to how its essence might have changed throughout the years. Perhaps this is because love is not considered worth further scrutiny. Perhaps it’s because everyone is expected to fall in love. But love had changed dramatically during the decades between the Dixie Cups’ debut and Bon and Lesley’s birth, it had done so several times, the things it could permit and the things it denied had both broadened in scope. Language had evolved in directions ambivalent to the changing nature of love. There were new words for all manner of new phenomena, there were new words for many other things besides, but if language were capable of capturing with any accuracy and efficiency exactly how Bon and Lesley felt about one another, then there would be plenty of songs featuring that word, but the music would be unrecognisable.
They stopped at the outskirts of the final town before their destination, at a petrol station on the eastern edge. Lesley filled the tank, Bon stood and watched. Then they walked across the gasoline-traced cement from the bowser to the sliding doors into the station. Once they’d paid, and once they’d turned the ignition in their Suzuki sedan, and once the music re-commenced on its never-ending playlist cycle, they both felt more intensely than before that the music was no longer suitable. The beats sounded as slow and languid as the heat haze on the tarmac, and the synthetic melodies, formerly so luminescent, now sounded off-colour and distorted. They were exhausted by the music, the music was exhausted by the surrounds: they had to turn it off and this time possibly forever. Maybe later on, in the loungeroom in their flat above the fish and chip shop, they could browse their phones for more suitable music to play. But the countryside they blazed through at 90km an hour was too transfixing to ignore in favour of a screen. Never had they seen a landscape so repetitive. The road coursed between rugged heat-parched paddocks, and in the background, gum dotted hills in drained shades of green.
The town sign appeared before a bend in the road, and after the bend lay a landscape transformed. The hills collapsed and the horizon stretched away. There was a Supercheap Auto, a Harvey Norman and a Bunnings. Plains surrounded these large buildings, and in the far distance was evidence of modern homes and fences. But the searing depth of the sky cast these buildings as temporary encampments, they appeared noncommittal, short term and expedient. Space seemed exaggerated, the large cement buildings appeared to squat among the dry untended fields that surrounded them. There was not a crane in sight but everything felt under construction; the fields shimmered for the future. They were not fields so much as unoccupied space, they glimmered in the heat, glowered immaterial.
The road continued. Light industry petered off and a strip of houses appeared, overgrown and weatherboard, devalued by the highway. Past the remnant weatherboards, old but not abandoned, Bon and Lesley passed the KFC and McDonalds, and then another strip of car yards and mechanical repair shops. They were not there yet, Bon and Lesley supposed. They were not yet properly in the town. And they were correct: after passing through a crossroads, and then between the raised boomgates of a train crossing, they arrived in the center proper.
They had arrived in the country town. Most of the shops were closed for the weekend but it didn’t matter, nor did it matter that the sidewalks were so quiet. It wasn’t bereft of life. Lone figures wandered here and there. A group of teenagers stood half astride their bikes at the foot of the steps to the Commonwealth Bank. The street ran westward for five blocks, each crossroad serviced by traffic lights ignorant to the quiet. Pubs, solicitors and hairdressers passed them by, and there was a Subway and Flight Centre too, occasionally a cafe. Frayed fairy lights zig-zagged between the building tops above, vertical banners advertised the name and motto of the town. It was their town, it was where they were going to live. And it didn’t really matter whether it looked inviting or not, what mattered was that they would stay there and stubbornly make it their own.
Lesley turned off the main road and into a back lane she had visited many times on Google Maps. She mounted the curb near the polypropylene fence guarding their flat. As she exited the car she felt giddy, it was like entering the landscape of a frequently recurring dream. The lane was just as it had been depicted on her computer screen, and the colour of the sky and the way the sun blanched the green polypropylene was identical to the online photos. Through a small gate, the back door to the fish and chip shop was open and the smell of grease suffused the air. They boarded the cement stairs, reached the back balcony and retrieved the keys from beneath a flower pot sitting on the outdoor table. The owners of the flat lived in the city, in a far off part of the city neither Bon or Lesley had ever visited. So there was no ceremony; they let themselves inside.
What did Bon and Lesley (Lesley and Bon) do the moment they entered their new home? They stood there in the large open plan living area. Lesley’s head continued to swim; she couldn’t tell whether Bon felt the same way. They stood there for a very long time, neither marched through the house opening windows, neither rushed to measure reality against photos like they’d planned. Neither could figure out what to do next, they both understood that reality had changed. If they were being honest with themselves, both were frozen by an unexpected fear. Not a fear of unhappiness, not a fear of feeling out of place. It was a mild fear born of the quiet of the room. They had disrupted the calm absence of a room. The trip had been windblown and loud and anticipatory, and now they were in a silent empty room.
It had a small wooden dining table with two chairs. A couch faced the television, bracketed to the wall next to the stairs to their bedroom. A window above the kitchen sink offered a view of a small lane and the brick wall next door. There was the smell of safely settled dust. Traffic on the main road was faintly audible through the open glass doors to the balcony. There had not been life in this room for a very long time, and if either were being honest with themselves, they might have questioned whether their lives were ill-fitted to a room exactly like this.
Lesley removed her backpack, unzipped it, emptied the contents onto the ground. Bon unzipped the giant suitcase he’d rolled in, lifted it, and shook the folded clothing and toiletries onto the kitchen linoleum. They laughed, Bon dived into the piles. Lesley dived into his body. They thrashed in the pile and pretended they were stuck. They laid there for a while amid the scent of their belongings, rode the diminishing waves of their silent misgivings.
Bon set about transferring all the clothes on the floor into the bedroom. There was a single queen-sized bed in there, two bedside drawers, and a window looking down upon the corrugated awning of the fish and chip shop. The sidewalk across the road was visible and there was the bookshop, a Best & Less and Chemist Warehouse on either side. They stood at the window and stared at the street. Whenever they stopped talking there was the same unfamiliar quiet, but excess speech felt ill-suited to the occasion.
It’s incredible, Bon said.
They laid on the bed and stared at the ceiling. A faint buzzing emanated from the town, maybe the sound of electricity and appliances. A car passed occasionally in the late afternoon. Time had either stopped or had slowed, for the passing of moments was hard to detect as they laid there on the bed. Bon felt as if he had finally secured Lesley; Lesley felt as if she had finally secured Bon. In the unfamiliar silence they laid splayed on the dusty bed, right arm over left arm, each the other’s only feature in the town. They watched as the light of the room changed, it was a phenomenon they had never noticed before. In the scarcely furnished silent room, Lesley noticed the rhythm of breathing and arrived at a strange thought. She arrived at the knowledge that each of them, in that moment, were exhaling the air of the shapeshifting city they’d fled. The dust of settlement, the dust of stasis and remove, would line their lungs instead. They had imbibed the dust of the room, and therefore, imbibed the traces of events that had occurred before they arrived. They could no longer be certain with whom they shared the air.
Lesley understood that living in the town would change everything. No sensation or sentiment would be precisely the same. She wondered whether words could ever mean exactly what they did, back when (the day before) they lived in the suburb. It was likely that everything, from words to gestures and more besides, would need to be reconfigured to adjust to the town. Who would be the first to openly acknowledge it? Who would claim the discovery? Every expression would need to be reconsidered and re-molded, she thought, in order to accommodate the mood of the town. She wanted to test this theory. She wanted to tell Bon the way she felt about him. But his body felt occupied, it reverberated with a mood of acclimatisation, his body was buffering and loading. It was a time for meaningful silence, she supposed.
They watched a movie on the couch that night, laid arm in arm. They ate chocolate because they didn’t want to cook. After they’d watched one movie, they watched another (they might as well, Bon said), and they had two tumblers each of wine. Their young imaginations were still capable of utter absorption in fantasy. They watched a superhero movie and then a science fiction thriller. They watched as evil fell afoul of human ingenuity. They laid there, held each other, as disasters unfolded with cinematic emphasis. These foreboding beginnings, strife-laden middles, ecstatic victorious ends, were the shape of life, they were the truth of life, they were even the truth of single days. But it’s possible Bon and Lesley didn’t believe any of this to be true. It’s possible they had given much thought to the shape of fiction and to the shape of their lives. Both had sometimes wondered whether they lived in a version of fiction, because many had insinuated they did. But on that evening in the flat above the fish and chip shop, in a country New South Wales town they knew nothing about, Lesley reflected on her day thus far, and she wondered about the shape of fiction and and the shape of real lives. Her day had been ecstatic and victorious, and then laden with misgivings, and then, there she was, watching two movies. Who could know the shape of tomorrow, who could know the type of music that would accompany a day like hers, if it were depicted in a film? It could not be the orchestral music of blockbuster action films, and it could not be the ablaze trance they had played in the car. What kind of music belonged in Lesley’s life, now? She wanted music that promised, she didn’t want music that portended. They would need to get into some new music, she thought.
The Town is Ortschaft in Germany. Releasing in June 2020 through Blumenbar.
US edition publishes through Farrar, Straus and Giroux on February 4. Cover image courtesy of Nicolai Howalt.
I wrote about Eve Langley for FSG Work in Progress.
One thing that didn’t seem worth mentioning in the article, but which shook me to the core when I read it, was that Langley transformed into Oscar Wilde in Manildra, the tiny New South Wales town where I spent my childhood. According to her biography she lived there for a short period as a child.
Laid flat across the backseat of a Statesman on the road between Manildra and Parkes