Hayley loved the sounds the hotel made when it was empty. It breathed and sighed like an old lady remembering the events that had coloured her life; events that gradually became less potent the further they drifted into the past. Hayley would have preferred the hotel to be empty all the time, but she and Richard couldn’t afford to live there without welcoming paying guests. She believed she made a convincing show of welcoming these guests warmly when they arrived, before they’d been given free rein to sully their rooms. After two years behind the reception desk, she could judge at a glance how much mess they were going to make. Lone middle-aged men released by their wives for a weekend of prospecting were the worst. They left sodden towels around the room like dollops of melting ice-cream; on the bed, over chairs, in heaps on the bathroom floor, where they absorbed soapy overflow from the shower. They left the bed sheets twisted and the pillow cases stained with grease from their sweaty scalps. The severed bristles of their morning shave clung to the sink like iron filings, dark rings on the bedside tables marked the trail of spilled coffee mugs. Hayley was happier when these men brought their wives with them; sturdy, no-nonsense women practised at containing their husbands’ excesses as they moved through the world. Many times she’d resolved to employ a girl from town to clean up the mess for her, but help was a luxury they couldn’t yet pay for.
The Silverton Gold Prospecting Club had occupied fifteen rooms over the weekend and it had taken her all day to restore them to their original state. She smoothed out the creases from the last freshly made bed and stood up straight, stretching her aching back. Through the window she saw that the falling sun had turned the solid blue sky of another parched day into the transient, fiery bands of sunset. She looked at the boundless outback like a ship’s captain surveying the ocean. She knew danger waited not far beyond the walls of this one hundred year old hotel, no matter how inviting the softening light of early evening made the desert appear. The scattered bushes might look green, the stony ground soft, and the distances between the sparse trees short, but go too far, linger too long, and you were sure to drown in the unforgiving sea of red sand.
In the distance a cloud of billowing dust caught her eye. A car had turned off the main road onto the dirt track and was driving towards the hotel. Richard had spent the afternoon in town, seeking out the various bits of hardware he needed to keep this historic building from falling down. Jackson Creek had been declared more of a one-horse outpost than a town by their Sydney friends, but it provided life’s essentials, which were fewer than city people realized. Since they’d moved here, Richard had become an expert at fixing things: a rotten floorboard here, a leaking tap there, a hole in the roof, a short-circuit in the basement. That this handy-man had once been a suit and tie-wearing banker, who’d spent long days working in an air-conditioned office, barely seemed possible to Hayley now. It was the banker she’d fallen in love with, but she preferred this new man; the one who was good with his hands.
She looked around the bedroom one last time, then picked up the bucket filled with cloths and cleaning sprays and stepped out into the first floor corridor. She walked towards the central landing, stopping along the way to straighten a porcelain vase that stood on top of a hefty nineteenth century dresser. She put the bucket into the laundry closet and went down to the ground floor, the old wooden stairs creaking under her feet.
Visitors to the hotel came in through the main entrance and stepped straight into its heart: the bar. It had been a dark and dusty room when Hayley and Richard moved in, the daylight struggling to penetrate the layers of dirt that had built up on the small glass window panes over years of neglect. When cleaning these panes failed to lift the gloom they had new glass put in, which did the trick. Richard managed to get hold of enough period tables and chairs to accommodate forty people, as many as they were ever likely to need, and Hayley bought a collection of black and white photographs of the town’s gold mining heyday to decorate the walls. They continued their careful renovations throughout the hotel, which was described as “charming” in the latest edition of the Free Spirit travel guide.
Hayley walked into the bar just as the car pulled up outside and now she saw that it wasn’t Richard’s pick-up truck after all. It was a conspicuously new four wheel drive, the type that made brief forays into the bush before heading back south to the comforts of Broken Hill and the cities beyond. It was red, a brazen man-made crimson as inappropriate in nature’s untarnished landscape as graffiti on a national monument. It was the colour of danger and Hayley was unprepared for it. She didn’t have the energy.
A young woman and a boy got out of the car and made straight for the hotel entrance. In their shorts, T-shirts and sandals they looked no different from all the other holiday-makers who stopped there. They were both blonde and pale-skinned, people who burn and peel but never tan. The woman’s hair was pulled back from her face in a loose ponytail, her eyes shielded from the fading sunlight by an enormous pair of sunglasses. They were the latest fashion, an unfortunate seventies revival. Some things were just better left in the past. Hayley gauged the boy’s age from his height, which was about the same as that of her eight year old son, Alex. He pushed open the door and the small bronze bell above it rang out.
‘Hello,’ the woman said brightly, seeing Hayley behind the counter. She pushed the sunglasses on top of her head and walked towards her. ‘We’ve had a really long drive and I’m afraid the first thing we need is the toilet. Do you mind?’
‘No, of course not. They’re through there, Ladies on the left, Men on the right,’ Hayley said, pointing to the hallway leading from the bar. This far into the outback the desperate didn’t need to wait for a toilet, but some people couldn’t bear to feel the sun’s rays on their backsides.
‘Thank you.’ The woman smiled again, white teeth and pale blue eyes gleaming. She was one of those effortlessly sociable women, the kind who breeze into a room full of people and instantly stir up the atmosphere. Such a woman was better suited to entertaining hotel guests than Hayley, who snatched bursts of solitude like a drowning person gasps for air, but such a woman wouldn’t dream of living out here. She’d see it as a sentence.
As Hayley watched her disappear into the Ladies toilet the bell rang again. A tall man in jeans and a checked shirt stood in the entrance, holding the door open as he looked at her. He was perfectly framed by the doorway, his body frozen for a moment against the reddening sky.
‘Hayley,’ he said.
She had seen Patrick so many times in strangers who had walked through that door and others over the years, that it wasn’t until she heard him say her name that she believed it was him. He walked towards her and she began to see him more clearly, like a blurred image coming into focus. He looked well, still handsome, still athletic; he must have kept up the swimming and the running. Time had added touches of grey to his dark hair and taken a little softness from his face, but it hadn’t changed the warm brown eyes that had once caused her to lose her way. Looking at them now she suddenly became aware of being appraised herself. How had she changed after so many years? Nine years, almost a decade; a quarter of their lives. Did he still see the woman he loved, or just someone he used to know? Whenever she thought about the day they parted it seemed to slip further from reach, the way her dreams could unravel the harder she tried to recall them. That day always felt so distant, as though it had never happened, or had happened to someone else. Now it didn’t seem long ago at all.
‘I can’t believe it,’ he said. He smiled, a nervous smile that almost became a laugh. It revealed his crooked front tooth, the way it overlapped its neighbour ever so slightly. A sharp stab of regret ran through her because she had forgotten it, this detail that had once been so familiar. It reminded her of all that she had lost.
‘What are you doing out here?’ he said. ‘In the middle of nowhere?’
‘I was going to ask you the same thing.’
‘Well, I’m on holiday, heading up to Sturt National Park. And you?’
‘I live here. I own the hotel. Well, my partner and I own it.’
‘I didn’t know you’d left Sydney. You couldn’t have chosen anywhere more remote,’ he said, his dark eyes searching hers.
‘No, I guess that was the idea. We wanted to get away from all those cars, all that concrete.’
‘Back to nature,’ he interrupted.
‘Yes, I suppose so. And we were both fed up with our jobs; we wanted to have our own business. We found this place for sale and thought we could make something of it.’
‘Looks like you were right,’ he said, glancing around the room. ‘So now you’re an hotelier.’ He smiled again, his curving lips and creasing eyes disarming her the way they used to.
‘More chambermaid than hotelier most of the time, but I do enjoy it.’ She paused for a moment. ‘And what about you? Who are you with?’ she asked, suddenly remembering the woman and the boy, but before he could answer they were walking back into the bar.
‘Thanks,’ the woman said to Hayley, ruffling the boy’s hair as she added, ‘it was a bit of an emergency. Have you asked about a room for the night?’ she said, turning to Patrick.
‘No, not yet.’
Hayley was too busy trying to make sense of things to notice that there had been a question she was supposed to answer. It was the awkward silence and the expectant eyes that got her attention.
‘Yes, of course we have a room for you,’ she said at last. ‘All our guests left this morning, actually.’
‘Oh, that’s great. We’ll need one with a bed for Charlie,’ the woman said.
Hayley gave them the room at the far end of the single storey extension to the main hotel, the one furthest from where she and Richard lived. After they left the bar she went into the office next door and watched them through the window. Charlie ran towards the room while his parents – what else could they be? – got their bags from the back of the car. It was such an ordinary scene, one she wouldn’t normally have noticed, but she watched it compulsively, drinking in every detail until her stomach felt sick and heavy, as if she had swallowed molten lead.
Hayley had only met Patrick’s wife once, a brief introduction more than a decade ago when they had both been the same age as the blonde woman who now walked by his side. She’d had dark hair and olive-skin, a mother of two daughters who would have been teenagers by now. Where was the family he said he could not leave?
Hayley was still sitting in the office when Richard’s truck pulled up outside. She might not have noticed, had the beams from the headlights not swept through the room, making plain the darkness that had engulfed her, a darkness that would be hard to explain. Quickly, she leant forward and turned on the desk lamp. She heard the doorbell and then the heavy steps of Richard’s work boots as he crossed the bar’s wooden floor. She’d been nervous of his return, afraid she wouldn’t be able to act normally, but when he appeared in the doorway all her doubts dissolved. His face was so familiar, with its kind eyes and easy smile, his blonde hair grown free and careless now the banking world no longer owned him.
‘Hi,’ he said breezily, as if the outside air had blown him inside. ‘Sorry I was gone so long, but I ran into Matt. His brother’s visiting from Adelaide and I joined them for a beer. His brother’s a nice bloke, but he’d never be able to live out here; he’ll be lucky to survive the weekend,’ he said, raising his eyebrows.
Hayley managed to smile. ‘Did you drop Alex off okay?’
‘Yeah, he ran straight up to Scott’s bedroom, barely looking back to say goodbye. You don’t have to worry about him feeling homesick, that’s for sure.’
‘No, I didn’t think I would.’
‘I told Jessica I’d pick him up tomorrow afternoon,’ he continued. ‘Anyway, I see we’ve got guests.’
‘Yes. A family.’ She had to force the words out and the effort left her feeling too light, untethered to the world around her.
‘One room or two?’
‘Well, everything helps.’
They were interrupted by the beckoning call of the bar’s doorbell and Richard instantly obeyed it. Hayley heard Patrick’s voice, confident and unfaltering, no sign of disappointment at seeing Richard instead of her. The two men chatted easily, like old friends, or rather like strangers who wouldn’t know each other long enough to become friends. Patrick asked if there was somewhere good to eat in town. Richard recommended Danny’s Grill. Hayley was grateful he hadn’t suggested they have dinner at the hotel as he normally would. Perhaps he’d noticed that she wasn’t up to it. She heard Patrick close the door behind him when he left and then Richard came back into the office.
‘You look a bit pale,’ he said. ‘Are you feeling all right?’
‘Yes, I’m fine. Just tired after cleaning up after all those men. I don’t want to see them back here any time soon. Baboons would’ve left the rooms in a better state.’
‘But they wouldn’t have paid their bill,’ Richard said, laughing. ‘We did very well out of those guys.’
‘They got their money’s worth, believe me.’
‘Why don’t you let me cook tonight?’
‘Thanks, but I’m not really hungry.’
‘Are you sure? It’s probably food that you need.’
‘No, honestly, I had a late lunch.’
‘All right. Then why don’t you go upstairs and let me take care of things down here? I sent the family to Danny’s, so we should be off the hook for the rest of the evening.’
Hayley went up to the second floor where they had their private rooms. She sat in her favourite armchair in the living room and opened a book, although she had no intention of reading. She had so many questions for Patrick, questions she knew there were no good answers to; no answers she would consider good, anyway. She put the novel aside and walked across the corridor into the bedroom. She wanted to look out of the window. The bright lights of Jackson Creek flickered in the pitch black emptiness, coloured pinpricks hovering just above the ground, like a spaceship about to land. Such impossibilities didn’t seem so impossible in the outback. If she stood by the window at the right moment she would see the headlights of Patrick’s car coming towards the hotel. She thought of how long she had wanted him to come back to her. Now she knew there had been a time when he could have driven down some other road in some other town to be with her. But he hadn’t.
She heard Richard’s footsteps on the stairs and hurried back to the living room.
‘Here, this is what you need,’ he said, offering her one of the glasses he’d brought with him.
‘Oh, thank you,’ she said, grateful for this act of kindness. She’d resisted the urge to have a drink because she wanted to keep a clear head, but now she accepted the alcohol like medicine from a doctor. She enjoyed the silky sensation of the brandy in her mouth and how it smoothly lined her throat with warmth when she swallowed. A pleasant glow spread through her body, calming her nerves a little, lessening the weight in her stomach.
‘I agreed to help Matt repair the fence on the south side of his ranch tomorrow,’ Richard said, sitting down on the old leather settee opposite her. ‘We need to start at dawn if we want to have it fixed before the sun gets too hot. You’ll be all right here without me, won’t you?’
‘Yes, of course; you know I will.’
‘Once that family has checked out you can put your feet up.’
‘I can’t wait,’ she said, trying not to think of Patrick being gone. ‘What time will you be home?’
‘I guess we’ll have to stop by midday whether we’re finished or not; then I’ll pick up Alex, so we should be back by one at the latest. I’d better have an early night or I’ll never get myself out of bed in the morning.’
‘I don’t mind staying up until the family gets back.’
‘There’s no need for you to do that; they’re not likely to need anything tonight.’
‘Well, you never know. They won’t stay out late anyway, not with a young child.’
‘Why don’t you come to bed with me?’ Richard said, standing up. He knelt down in front of her and gently ran his hands along her thighs. ‘We’ve got the perfect opportunity with Alex away for the night.’
She stroked his unruly hair and looked into the eyes that had never betrayed her. ‘I can’t remember him ever having cramped your style.’
‘That’s because you don’t know what I’m capable of when he’s not around. Why don’t you let me surprise you?’
‘Surprises are over-rated,’ she said, quietly. ‘They give you a quick thrill and afterwards you just have to learn how to live without them again.’
‘Alex was a surprise,’ Richard said. ‘So were you.’
Hayley returned his smile. ‘Perhaps I’m just too tired for surprises tonight.’
‘All right then; I’ll just have to save my naked fertility dance for another day,’ he said, kissing her on the forehead as he stood up.
When Richard got ready for bed, Hayley went downstairs and sat in the office again. The green shade of the desk lamp concentrated the light in a small rectangle over the reservations book, allowing her to see out through the window. At the first sign of headlights she switched off the lamp and stood up to get a better view. She couldn’t resist the desire to spy on these lives that had taken possession of her mind and pushed everything else out. This was not how the future had been supposed to unfold: his car pulling up outside, this woman sitting so surely in the passenger seat.
Hayley watched them exchange a few words before they parted; the woman and boy went to their room, Patrick walked towards the hotel entrance. She had known he would come to see her. How could he not? Her hands were trembling as she went into the bar and she steadied them against the counter while she waited for him.
‘I hoped you’d be here,’ he said. ‘Can we talk?’
‘Yes. Richard’s gone to bed. Do you want a drink?’
‘Yes, thank you. I think that’s a good idea.’
She didn’t know if he meant the drink was a good alibi or necessary fortification; perhaps both. In any case she needed something to stop her from shaking. She placed two glasses on the bar and was generous with the brandy.
‘I told Rebecca I’d agreed to have a drink with Richard.’
‘Will she come looking for you?’
‘No, but I can’t stay long.’
‘You never could.’
The accusation made him hesitate and he concentrated on his glass as he twisted it in circles on the counter, seeming to search for the right words before the wrong ones slipped out.
How she wished he hadn’t turned off the main road that afternoon but had just kept on driving. After all this time, nothing had changed. He was still fitting her into the narrow cracks that appeared in his life, leaving her behind once he was ready to move on.
At last he picked up his glass and gulped the brandy before meeting Hayley’s eyes, which waited for him, impatient for answers.
‘I didn’t want to separate from Laura,’ he said. ‘I wanted to keep my family together.’
‘Then why didn’t you? You said your children were the most important thing in your life.’
‘They were and they still are. But it wasn’t only up to me. Perhaps I didn’t do a good enough job of putting you out of my mind. Maybe I wasn’t the same after you left, because things just began to fall apart. It was Laura who wanted a divorce, not me.’
‘Why was that? Did she find out you were having an affair with Rebecca?’
‘No. I didn’t have an affair with her,’ he said, upset by her accusation. ‘I was only unfaithful once, Hayley. It was special, what we had together; I wouldn’t have risked so much if it wasn’t.’
‘But not special enough to look for me after Laura left you.’
‘I did look, and I found out you were with someone and had a child. I found out that it was too late.’
‘How could you have been so sure? Maybe I would have wanted to be with you. Maybe you should have let me decide if it was too late.’
Patrick reached across the counter and took her hand. He might just as well have reached inside her and touched her heart. The tears welling in her eyes were in danger of spilling over.
‘It didn’t take you long to find someone else, did it?’ she said, her voice suddenly cold with bitterness, ‘or to start a new family with her.’
Patrick withdrew his hand. Its abrupt absence caused the life to drain out of her, leaving a terrible feeling of emptiness. He was abandoning her all over again.
‘Charlie was four when I met Rebecca,’ he said, his words slow and heavy. ‘I adopted him when we got married last year.’
Hayley took a deep breath. She hadn’t wanted him to drive away without telling his story, but now the truth was flowing too quickly, tearing open a wound that had barely healed.
‘I’m sorry, Hayley. It’s been hard seeing you again. I made a new life, because what else could I do? You don’t know how much I missed you.’
Suddenly Hayley heard the stairs creak under the weight of footsteps. She wiped her eyes and pressed the cool backs of her hands against her flushed cheeks. She glanced towards the hallway. Patrick understood.
‘Anyway, we’ll be leaving first thing in the morning,’ he said, a little too loudly, ‘so I’d like to settle up now if that’s all right.’
‘Yes, that’s fine. You can leave the key in the room.’
‘Hello again,’ Richard said to Patrick as he came into the bar.
‘Hi. I just popped in for a quick drink, but I heard you’d turned in for the night.’
‘Yeah, I did, but I couldn’t sleep,’ he said, walking behind the counter to stand with Hayley. ‘I agreed to help a friend tomorrow and he expects to see me at dawn.’
‘Well, I was just explaining that we’ll be making an early start too, so I’d like to pay for the room now, if that’s all right?’
‘Sure, no problem. Fancy another drink?’ Richard asked, looking at the glasses.
‘Oh, no thanks, I’ve got to get back. I said I wouldn’t be gone long.’
‘Okay. I can take care of this, Hayley. You’ve earned the rest of the night off.’
‘I don’t mind, really.’
‘Go on, I know you’re tired.’
She gave him a weak smile, conceding defeat. ‘All right.’ She held out her hand to Patrick. ‘Well, it was nice to meet you. I hope you enjoy the rest of your holiday.’
Later she would try to recall the touch of his hand, but the contact had been fleeting, the moment far too brief.
Her legs felt heavy as she went upstairs; she had to force herself to lift them. She hesitated at the top, reluctant to move, but when she heard the men say goodnight she hurried to the bedroom. She willed Patrick to look up at her window but he just walked by, back to his room. Back to his wife.
‘Seems like a nice bloke,’ Richard said as he got into bed again. ‘It’s not like you to have a drink with a guest.’
It wasn’t a question in need of an answer, or an accusation that demanded an explanation. It was just a remark that would float away if she simply let it.
‘Come to bed and let me hold you,’ he said. ‘I couldn’t sleep without you here.’
She climbed in beside him and he pulled her close. Over the years she’d come to feel safe in his arms, to believe that was where she belonged. She wished the past hadn’t returned to question her certainty. Despite Richard’s warm embrace, she felt incredibly alone when she heard the steady deep breaths that told her he had fallen asleep, as quickly and easily as he always did.
For Hayley the night was long and the thought of daylight didn’t make it pass any easier. She needed to see Patrick again before he left; there was so much she hadn’t heard and too much she hadn’t said. Was he lying awake too? Did he also feel like a prisoner, bound to his bed?
Hayley pretended to sleep through the tinny beeps of the alarm clock, keeping her eyes closed while Richard got dressed. But the instant she heard his truck rumble to life she got up and went to the window. The horizon glowed reddish mauve with the promise of sunrise, as Richard drove down the sandy track to the main road. She was relieved to see that Patrick’s car was still parked outside.
She got dressed and went downstairs to make coffee. She felt disconcertingly light-headed; exhausted and wired at the same time. She needed the caffeine to wake her up but it set her nerves on edge, making her so agitated she couldn’t think straight or keep still. She returned to her bedroom because it had the best view of Patrick’s room. She’d spent the night struggling to think of a way to speak to him alone again, but had come up with nothing. It was down to him, just as it had been the night before. Just as it had always been.
She was on her third cup of coffee when the door to Patrick’s room opened. Charlie skipped out first, wide awake and full of energy, followed by Rebecca and finally Patrick. Hayley’s heart began to pound, as if it suddenly had to force her blood through a blocked artery. She watched the three figures walk to their car, saw the boy and his mother get in while Patrick put the bags in the back. She could see now that Charlie was not his son. The boy’s hair was too blonde, just as Alex’s hair was too dark for Richard to have been his father. Patrick and Richard; they had both taken on other men’s sons.
Patrick slammed the door shut and Hayley noticed him look towards the bar as he started walking. She put the coffee mug on the bedside table and was about to rush downstairs when she saw him stop by the driver’s door. He hesitated, but his eyes didn’t find her up at the bedroom window. He pulled the handle and got into the car.
‘No,’ she said. He couldn’t just drive away.
The sight of him sitting next to Rebecca would prove impossible to erase. It pushed all the memories she had treasured into a dark space and she would never be able to look at them in the same light again. It was as though she had been made to identify his body and been condemned forever afterwards to remember only the cold face of death. Why hadn’t he come to her when he was free? How could he have deserted her in the years between wives?
The car reversed in a short arc and then turned onto the track. It pulled away slowly, but still kicked up a large cloud of dust as it headed for the main road. Hayley did not move from the window. She watched the car as it turned onto the tarmac, followed it as it drove towards town, and held it in her mind long after it had disappeared from view.
The sun rose quickly, a fiery disc that would soon smother the desert in an oppressive heat. This was the time of day when the creatures of the outback busied themselves with their survival. Later they would be forced to sit and wait for the sun to fall, to show mercy. Those who failed to pace themselves wouldn’t make it.
Hayley knew she should tackle the day’s chores before it got too hot. But she didn’t think she had the strength to take the sheets from that bed.
Corinna Weyreter asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work