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Australian Capital Territory

We were trying to find somewhere in the city to have sex. It was three in the afternoon and we had been driving through the suburbs for two hours, looking for the right spot. For any spot. We were only visiting Canberra for two weeks. Neither of us had much of a sense of the city, of its layout or its secret places, no idea where might be best to drive towards. My phone was the only one with a functional SIM card, and so I used it to look at the digitised map. There were green stretches all over the capital. Green seemed useful. Green meant bushland. To the north lay the contours of Mount Ainslie and the Black Mountain Nature Reserve. They seemed practicable for our purposes, but we were starting from the south side of the city’s artificial lake. On this side of the map I could see a long corridor of green, from the Federal Golf Club, to a lookout at Red Hill, and then, crossing a highway, Mugga Mugga Nature Reserve, and Isaacs Ridge. Let’s head there, I said, investing hope in a place that was far from the National Gallery and the National Archives, from the High Court and the glassy low-rise government offices where everybody in the city seemed to spend their days. What kind of a city has so much green space, I asked from the passenger seat. Neel moved his left hand across the gear stick to my thigh and squeezed. It had been five and a half days. We were desperate.

We had woken early that morning. I had prepared breakfast in the kitchen and watched Neel crouching on the other side of the untidy dining table, coaxing his nephew out of a onesie and into trousers and jumper and socks. I had spooned unsweetened yogurt and mashed-up banana into the eighteen-month-old’s mouth. We were in the car by half past seven. We drove across Lake Burley Griffin, along Northbourne Avenue with the raised spectre of Parliament House looming over the bridge as we approached. I twisted around to speak to Neel’s nephew in the backseat, pointed through the windscreen, and said, look, there it is. He glanced impassively towards the hill and then returned his attention to the velcro strap of his shoes. I turned to Neel and said, I guess that’s the appropriate level of interest. He was just at the edge of babyhood, a nascent toddler. Soon he would be able to wreak havoc, tell secrets, attempt small escapes, but not yet.

We were in Canberra because Neel’s sister-in-law had just delivered a second baby prematurely. While she recuperated, their first child needed tending, and we could help. We had driven the grim highway from Sydney to the capital, and had signed on for two weeks of care. And so we had become familiar with this early morning drive through the city. For those two weeks, we would sleep in the spare bedroom on a queen-sized bed that left space for little else in the room. The bedroom had big glass sliding doors looking out over a park behind the courtyard, behind which lay a mostly empty playground and the North Lyneham shopping centre – ‘It’s Happening!’ The house was close to bushland, although everything in the city was close to bushland. The heating was turned off in the middle of the day to save money, and so we worked from bed under two duvets and a tartan picnic blanket. It was the start of cold and flu season, mornings of misted breath and dew in spider webs, dusks full of wood smoke, dog-walkers in fleeces and ugg boots. Neel’s nephew, naturally, had a cold. We took a left before Parliament House, and drove through streets named for other Australian cities and states – Brisbane Avenue, New South Wales Crescent – to a nondescript four-storey glass building, behind which was the childcare centre where we were to deliver Neel’s nephew. He sat in the back, strapped into his child seat, showing me his shoes while mucus streamed out of his nose. Nase putzen, I said to him, taking a tissue and scraping it under the toddler’s nose, feeling the wet, gloopy strangeness of another person’s snot between my fingers. The toddler was being brought up bilingual, and in the week we had spent helping to care for him, I had picked up these shreds of baby German. Fertig, I could ask when the toddler had stopped eating and wanted to clap his hands instead. Hoppla, I had learned to say when he tripped over. Mehr was his most commonly called-upon word. He was a child who always wanted more. He would bop up and down in his highchair and repeat the word like other children call for their mothers, never satisfied, wanting more penne, more raspberries, more olives, more brown bread and cream cheese. More, more, more.

Neel and I agreed that it was strange, indeed interesting, to be performing this kind of childcare; feeding and bathing and storying and bedding his nephew. As though in some way we were practising, seeing how we would do it ourselves. We should have a girl, we had said. She will have curly, black hair. We will read her Sherlock Holmes and Paradise Lost. We will do it differently. Every morning I was careful to take the pill at precisely nine o’clock, and sometimes Neel would check, to reassure himself that I had. But there was a fizzy sensation to these jokes and assurances. A way of saying, without quite saying it, that although this was new we were in it for the long haul. Do you want to marry him, my mother had asked after meeting Neel. I had shrugged. Who knows. You two should get a dog, Neel’s father advised. He advised because we had both, after a decade living variously in America and England and Spain and Vietnam, decided at last to move back. A month earlier we had signed the lease on a cold house in the Blue Mountains, west of Sydney. On that day in Canberra we had been together thirteen months. Steady, happy months. We owned Ikea furniture together, had combined our books, were joint owners of a Turkish kilim, a record player, and a vibrator. Maybe we would start gardening. Maybe we would get a dog. Maybe we would have a baby, a girl, with curly, black hair.

In Canberra we had taken to listening to a community radio station when we were in the car. ArtSound FM played jazz, folk and ‘world music’. They hosted a program called the Bach Hour, another called the Tiki Lounge Remix, and the Hit Parade of Yesterday played Ma Rainey, Gracie Fields, and Duke Ellington. We had become fond of the people we imagined ran the station: muddled public servants, Birkenstock wearers, well-meaning retirees like our parents. Even the radio station had a part to play in the reassuring pantomime of that week, when the toddler was in the backseat, when we could pass for his parents. Imagine a life like this, we play-acted to one another: a life where we drive a fifteen-year-old maroon Toyota with an old FM scanner, where we listen to this radio station all the time, and are happy.

Neel’s nephew safely deposited at the day care centre, we had the whole afternoon ahead of us. And so we drove up to Red Hill Nature Reserve to the sounds of late-period Miles Davis. But there were teenagers picnicking on the crest of the lookout, and the golf club was bigger than we thought. Neel drove, and I searched the map. He kept his hand on my thigh, one finger stroking the fabric of my skirt. I moved my hand to the back of his neck and held on. I loved that neck, that skin. He was the first man who had ever asked me to look him in the eye when we were fucking. It had flustered me, when he pointed it out, when he asked me to look at him, the very first time we went to bed together. On the sofa, actually. With a lamp on in the corner, at two in the morning after many hours of separately sitting together in my living room, just talking, too timid to move closer to one another across the vast expanse of the room. Not until he asked me to get up from the floor and come and sit beside him on the sofa, please. That had been the tipping point, that evening thirteen months ago in New York. The clothes shredded, skin wet and soft on a rough blanket, the rising tide of orgasm, and then the shock of another, and another. Meeting his eyes while I came, a kind of unravelling of the thread that had kept me bound. He had unravelled everything I thought I knew about my life, proposed by his very presence a happiness I thought I would never deserve. Now, in the car, it was difficult to keep from looking at him, to stop myself from touching the soft black hair that grew along his cheeks above his beard. From leaning over the gear stick to lick his throat. We kept driving south towards the green spaces on the map. We wanted a long trail road. Somewhere difficult to find.

We drove through the green corridor of Mugga Mugga Nature Reserve, past an animal shelter, a Murray’s coach depot, and an asphalt quarry that engulfed the car in a dark, viscous smell. But there were no turn-offs in sight. I could see trails on the map on my phone, which corresponded to the stretch of bush we passed through, but we could not see entrances to any of the trails. We drove up Long Gully Road, and then back again, before I spotted one.

Shall we? he asked me. I assented.

We parked on loose gravel, at the entrance to a track shut to cars by a yellow gate. Behind the gate a walkable path veered into the trees. Along the ridge to the left of Long Gully Road grew a steep slope of box gum, but beyond and rising above the gums were the high peaks of a pine plantation. The pines were tall. We could almost imagine we were in the northern hemisphere. To the south of the road we could see what I would later learn was the Brindabella Range, when I looked at the map on my phone as we drove back towards Parliament House. There, I thought, touching the green space on the map with my index finger and thumb.

We had both been to Canberra before, separately, and long ago. Neel had visited once, after his brother and sister-in-law relocated, and for two years when I was a teenager my father had lived here. He had taken a job in one of the country’s government departments, and I had visited him three times. I hated it. Go for a walk, my father would insist then, it isn’t healthy for a sixteen-year-old to be in the house all day. I countered that there was nothing to do in Canberra, nothing to satisfy a sixteen-year-old, at least. To mollify my father, I would go off on walks into the bushland behind his house, listening to maudlin British music from the 1980s that did not match the vista of rough buff-green scrub and sandy soil and miles and miles of nothingness. Those were drought years. Fires burned every summer. A few months before my father moved to Canberra, fires had burned the Mount Stromlo Observatory, the Water Quality Control Centre, and many houses. Four people burned alive. Nothing grew, and by the sides of the roads the grass had turned to yellow tinder. But the fields were still full of kangaroos, even then, regardless of the drought. Large families grazed by freeways, on grass verges, in the bushes growing on the median strips. They were known to jump in front of cars. During those years international animal rights groups were accusing the Australian government of animal cruelty. The government, my father told me, would imminently institute a large-scale kangaroo cull in the capital. The animals dented drivers’ bumpers and smashed windshields. The sides of the roads were littered with kangaroo corpses, and that looked bad to visiting dignitaries. They were pests, like rabbits, my father had said, and the animal rights groups overseas, which thought the kangaroos were cuddly, special, and worthy of protection, didn’t know what they were talking about. The cull was carried out, huge numbers of animals shot, but fifteen years later the kangaroos were as prevalent as I remembered. We had seen them in far paddocks, grazing, or in bushland, reclining like Manet’s Olympia.

We had been excited at first – neither of us had seen kangaroos in so long – and we viewed them for a time as though we were foreigners ourselves. But we soon re-adjusted. They became commonplace. On many roads all over Canberra there were warning signs, a black illustration of a hopping kangaroo on a white rectangle, with the warning that we were entering a ‘High Incident’ area. We had not hit one. But we had seen their bodies, the soft brown carcasses. Human-sized. Had seen the flesh shrinking around the teeth in their tightening skulls, and a wound where the red and pink atrocity of organs spilled out of their bodies and into the dirt on the sides of four-lane roads. Check the pouch, I thought, every time we passed one on the roads. The idea of something small, suddenly unmothered, made my toes clench, made my stomach turn. But we never stopped the car to see if there was a joey still alive in the wreckage of the roadside kangaroos, or what was left of them. Kept driving.

We took our affections where we could. We had bought the Sydney newspaper from a newsagent in Manuka and done the crossword together, sitting side by side on a concrete bench looking onto a children’s karate school. We had made a trip to Big W and held hands as we waited by the loading dock to collect the package of baby supplies Neel’s sister-in-law had ordered. We had embraced in the pharmaceutical aisle of the Coles at Jamison Centre, Macquarie. We hugged in the kitchen while we prepared porridge and toast and pasta for the toddler, and I got up on my tiptoes to press my pelvis into Neel’s. You poor thing, Neel whispered in my ear, holding me in such a way that his hands grazed the sides of my breasts. I was shocked, in those moments, at how I responded. How like an animal I was discovering myself to be: insistent, carnal, and vulnerable. I had never felt so close to instinct, pheromones, physicality, as I did in those moments that I wanted Neel. And then his nephew would appear, with a toy he wanted, or on the way to a forbidden drawer he wished to open, or more often, seeing some food, and asking for more. Mehr, he would say, and I would reach for what he wanted. In this way we looked after Neel’s nephew, while his brother worked and his sister-in-law cared for her newest-born, and we did not mind. His brother worked late into the night, his sister-in-law was constantly expressing milk. The time they spent together they sat in the dimmed living room, watching American films dubbed into German, English subtitles stuttering across the screen. This, Neel commented, was the kind of exhaustion we were in for. A bone-sapping tiredness, wordlessness, a going-to-bed-at-nine o’clock life.

I’ll take it, I thought. I wanted that wordless place. I longed for the bone-sapping tiredness.

I’m sorry to have brought you to this weird place, to do these weird things with me, Neel said, kneeling on a foam mat printed with the primary coloured aerial view of train tracks, wiping the shit from his nephew’s bottom. It’s okay, I replied, trying to extricate the Cruskit from his nephew’s mouth while he was lying flat on his back, a choking hazard, I tried to reason with the toddler, alles gut, just spit it out, not knowing the German for it. Really, it’s okay. I’m having a lovely time.

A week earlier we had arrived, and on that first evening in the city we were thrown full-force into childcare. The parents were still at the hospital, the newborn had jaundice, Neel’s sister-in-law had elevated blood pressure. We were on our own. We drove in the darkness down Brisbane Avenue to the childcare centre. Neel had to be added to the secure caretaker list, to allow us to pick up his nephew, and for five minutes we stood at the gate while he fumbled with the security system, the pin he had to enter, the two-factor authentication that didn’t work, and all the while the children played on the astroturf over the fence, paying us no attention. His nephew was ushered to the gate, beaming, holding a half-masticated rice cake in his hand, and continued to beam until he saw that we were not familiar. He burst into tears. I picked him up and he sobbed into my shoulder as we opened the door and placed him in the car seat. Neel fumbled with the straps. Neither of us knew how to work a car seat. His nephew continued to sob until I reached a hand around Neel and patted the child’s round belly. I was wearing two red bangles, which clacked pleasingly against one another. The toddler grasped them, tried the clacking out for himself. The crying stopped. His small fingers stroked my fingernails, where my red nail polish had just begun to chip. He beamed. We drove back to Neel’s brothers house, not precisely sure what we were meant to do when we arrived. For the first fifteen minutes we watched the toddler play on the floor of the living room. Should we take his shoes off, I wondered. What if he cries, asked Neel. We stood side by side in the doorway, as though we might be able to leave. But then Neel’s phone rang, and he bent down, sat with his nephew on the floor and talked to his sister-in-law over FaceTime. He angled the phone’s screen towards the child, who was instructed to be good, in German. In the kitchen I put pellets of frozen spinach and jarred pesto and microwaved ravioli into a food processor, and blitzed it to a green paste. Mehr, the child said, bopping in his seat when it was all eaten. We proffered cheese, a mandarin, some olives, but still he wanted more. He threw his plastic bottle of water from the highchair to the ground, then wailed when it was out of reach. Neel retrieved it, handed it back. He dropped it again. Wailed. Each time he seemed to experience a deep, overwhelming grief at the loss of his bottle, and yet the memory of the grief did not stop him from replicating the emotional experience again and again, so satisfying was the thud of the loss. When we heaved him out of the chair his face and hands were covered in green smears, in mandarin juice, in the thick oil from marinated olives. Upstairs in the bathroom Neel carefully undressed him. My mum said he was hairy, Neel said to me, and she wasn’t wrong. He pointed out the dark hair growing between the child’s butt cheeks, and once he was in the bath we could see the same dark hairs growing all over his back. We dunked warm water over him, scrubbed his back, while the child played with plastic toys that variously spouted, streamed or sprayed water. Do we need to clean his bottom, I asked. We both knelt on the bathroom tiles peering over the side of the bathtub at the child, unsure. Maybe just being in the water is enough? The boy was kneeling in the bath, transfixed by what he had discovered he could do with his legs. Bringing his thighs together and then apart, he watched his penis disappear and reappear. We watched with him, for a few moments. The concealing and revealing. It starts so early, I observed. We dried him in a large towel so that he wouldn’t feel the biting cold of the all-day unheated house, and let him walk down the corridor to his bedroom, past the childproof gate at the top of the staircase. Neel laid him on the floor and attempted to dress him. His hands got stuck in the arms of his pyjamas, and the child wailed. Please don’t cry, Neel said, alles gut, ja, alles gut, and when the ordeal was over the child turned to me and put his arms around my neck, burying his face in my shoulder. I had not experienced a feeling quite like the one I had then, a feeling of deep satisfaction, of tenderness, calm. The surge of dopamine, drug-like and tingly, from his soft, clean skin and the warmth of his head. I want this, I thought. My whole body throbbed with it. I did not tell Neel what I was feeling, but I sat the baby in my lap and held onto him, kissing the top of his head where it smelled so good. I read to him from the books in the room, letting him pick by pointing. The story he chose was about a little girl who gets lost in the bush. It was a board book version of an old classic, one that looked like a hand-me-down from parents of an older child. I knew it – I had grown up reading about the same little girl in the bush. The child put his finger on the picture of the kangaroo and the little girl snug within her pouch. Mehr, he said, and bounced in my lap. Nein, I replied, it’s time to sleep. Half past seven, we had been told, put him in the crib, turn the lights out, close the door, don’t look back. No hugs, no kisses goodnight. He will cry, but it should stop after ten minutes.

From the bottom of the staircase we listened to the weeping. Neel put his arms around me and we stood there, tense, every wail ripping through us. After eight minutes the crying stopped. There was silence. The house was ours. We returned to the kitchen and I poured large glasses of red wine for us both, but Neel reached across the kitchen counter and pulled me into him. His hand on my breast, my hand on his belt buckle. We hurried as quietly as we could up the squeaking staircase to the spare bedroom, closed the curtains over the sliding glass door, and turned on the lamp. The room lit up with soft light. I sunk into the two duvets and opened my legs. Neel did not wait to undress me. It was all too urgent. But I had trouble keeping quiet. Shhh, Neel said, be careful. But as hard as I tried, I could not stop myself from crying out. My noises woke the toddler. We both struggled to orgasm through the sobbing penetrating the shared wall. Neel pulled his trousers up, I pulled my skirt down, and we opened the door to the bedroom where the child was standing in his crib, holding onto the railings, red-faced and still sobbing. I took him in my arms and rocked him. Neel stood beside me, rubbing my shoulder. We both knew we would need to find somewhere else, we couldn’t have sex in the house.

Cars sped by on Long Gully Road, and a breeze rustled the leaves of the box gums lining the ridge. We had a couple of hours, we thought, but no more. I had a fleece-lined denim jacket that I pulled tight around me, although it was not especially cold. Neel locked the car. We hoped our things would be safe. He put his arm around me, and I nestled my head against his shoulder. Entwined, we ascended the hill, in our matching boots, which he had polished for us the night before in his brother’s lounge room in Lyneham while I lay on the grey imitation-leather sofa and read to him from a book about whale song.

From the gravel path we passed beyond the yellow gate and left the sound of the cars behind us. Brown metal signs were nailed to trees along the path, ornamented with insignias of riders, arrows pointing the way. The path ascended steeply ahead of us. He kept his arm tight around my shoulders, where he could bend down, occasionally, to kiss the skin on my temples. I could feel parts of my body begin to tense and light up. A tightness in my stomach, a catching of breath, an anticipation felt in the hardening of my nipples, in the tensing of the muscles of my thighs. We ascended the steep ridge, beginning to pant, with the afternoon sun tending to a deeper orange, west through the pines. At that time of year, the sun set at five in the afternoon. We had only an hour and a half left, I thought, of light.

It was hard to tell how high we had climbed, but we were winded. The sounds of the cars were faint. Ghosts of mountain bikes had beaten up mud that had dried into humps along the trail. We began to look for anywhere flat enough to lie down, a place where the steep slope might level out. We seemed to be the sole inhabitants of the pines. What about those rocks, Neel said, pointing uphill. The ridge above looked treacherous. Stone boulders were interspersed with ironbarks, acacia scrub and stunted tea trees, a slope of deathbed colours rising up and pulling down. Come on, he said.

I followed him. Our boots sunk into the leaf litter. I kept my eyes on my feet, on small holes in the dirt that might have been burrows, on the uneven ground, trying to step where he had stepped. I looked upwards, occasionally, trying to discern where he was taking us. The tall slope of his body, the blue jumper and long, black denim legs.

When I was little, it was my father who had read me the book about the little girl and the kangaroo bounding through the bush, the longer version of the board book I had read to Neel’s nephew. In the long version, the story began with a little girl crying, alone and frightened, when a motherly kangaroo hopped by and offered her help. The kangaroo fed her berries, which gave the little girl the ability to understand the language of the animals. Suddenly the bush was alive with chatter. It turned out that the kangaroo had suffered a loss of her own. Hunted by humans one day, she had not long ago lost her joey. So the kangaroo put the little girl in her pouch, and off they bounded into the bush. The story suggested that the trauma of the loss was erased when the kangaroo found the little girl and tended to her. But the kangaroo’s loss of her joey upset me. Why, I had wondered then, was there need of a hunt? The book told a story where humans learn to recognise they are just one part of the ecology of the bush, no more important than the platypus or the wombat or the kookaburra, but no less valuable either. In the end the little girl’s family creates a waterhole, and the animals of the bush move unimpeded across the property. Coexistence. But I knew even as a child that was not the case in the wide world, knew that the bush was full of horse riders and mountain bikers and dead kangaroos on the sides of the road. The pine forest at Isaacs Ridge where Neel and I were walking was in the middle of suburban sprawl. In the winter, the national park still sent contract shooters into the reserve to cull the kangaroos. They used silencers on the guns, so as not to alert the nearby residents to the slaughter. As Neel led us up the hill, the only sign of other people were the cartridges left behind by the hunters, half buried in the dust and the scrub.

When Neel decided on a rock we were so high above the path we had left we could not see it anymore through the trees. Is this alright? he asked. I kissed him. He made to sit down on the rock, but I stopped him. Hang on. I took my jacket off. I found a stick laying nearby, picked it up, and scraped off the surface of the nearly flat granite, all the dust and pellets of kangaroo shit, as dry and as round as peppercorns. When it was clean enough I lay my jacket across the rock. He grinned, and sat down. He put his hands on my waist and drew me into his legs. My heels dug into the dirt to steady me on the steep slope. His hand went to my hip, and then began to bunch and pull up the fabric of my long skirt. Hang on, I said again. I lifted my left leg, and pulled off my boot. I balanced, my hand on his shoulder, and reached beneath my skirt to roll my winter tights and underwear down. When the tights were low enough I unrolled them over my foot, and put the boot back on. Then I switched legs, and repeated the action. I rolled the tights and underwear into a ball and placed them beside Neel. I could feel the breeze through my skirt, the way it insinuated itself between my legs. He drew me in. His hand went under my skirt. He touched me between my legs, felt what was already wet. Baby, he said, as though it were a gift. He began to stroke me.

He pushed me off his lap and turned me. He sat me down on the jacket, and knelt. The late afternoon light overcame us. He parted my legs and pushed my skirt up to my waist. My feet did not quite touch the ground below, but my toes and the balls of my feet could feel the earth. I pressed down through my boots, to keep my body steady. He knelt. In the light the skin of my legs and pubic bone were incredibly pale, an almost sickly white. I could see the speckles of dark hair threatening to regrow from the previous night’s shaving, and the ghosts of stretch marks running perpendicularly along my inner thighs. Down there on his knees, he examined me. There was a vulnerability to that gaze, all the imperfectability of my body there in front of him, for him to reject or desire as he found fit. He clasped his hands around my thighs, very gently, and then leant forward. I could smell the sweet odour of shit from somewhere behind me. He kissed the wet lips of my labia. Then he began to lick me. I opened my eyes and looked up, to the brilliant sky and the towering pines and all that light. The ranges, brown and surging through the trees.

He had been using the flat of his tongue against me, but now began to use the tip, flicking it back and forth with greater frequency across my clitoris, intensifying the pleasure in the way he had learned. I want to be able to play you like an instrument, he had written to me once, in the beginning of our courtship. It was the kind of cliché that had taken on a life outside itself and formed a peculiar and particular resonance between the two of us, because thirteen months later, he could. The trembling began, the tension in my thighs from keeping my body balanced on the rock caused my legs to quiver, my forearms tense. The orgasm began to shake me, and as my ragged breaths and cries and shouts rang out, even though I loved him, I did not look at him at all. I came to the sight of pines and light and mountains, towards the forest.

He stood up, bent down, and kissed me. The viscous mess of me was smeared through his beard, catching the light. I caught the taste of myself on his tongue. I stood up, so he could sit. I unzipped his trousers, and he helped pull down his underwear. I shuffled forward through the leaf litter towards his groin. I hoisted my right knee onto the rock beside him, but there was not room enough on the left, and so I kept it balanced on the earth below. When I was in his lap he held me tight. It occurred to me that if he were to let go and I was not prepared, I would go tumbling straight down the ridge, to that yellow sandy path we had abandoned below. He used his hand to manoeuvre himself inside me. We were forced to be slow, and this slowness made it difficult, more awkward somehow. It feels so good to be inside you, he said, his mouth at my collarbone. The movement was difficult, with muscles tensed to balance me, and one leg on a rock, and the fear of the fall if he loosened his grip. Gentle, he said, but I was not good at being gentle. I bit into his shoulder, feeling flesh beneath the wool and flannel caught between my teeth. I knew that over my shoulder he could see all that light, those pines, those mountains. I listened to him come, to both of our cries, echoing out all over the ridge.

As we stepped carefully through the rocks and scrub in the direction of the path and the car, Neel stopped me and pointed downhill. Is that a kangaroo? he asked. I focused, and eventually saw the brown shape through the trees. It’s quite small, I said. It might be a wallaby. Neither of us knew the difference, only that wallabies were smaller than kangaroos.

It twitched, and then the kangaroo stood perfectly still. We made eye contact with the animal. It seemed to recognise us for what we were. It sensed the blood pumping through our veins, and the grilled fish from the Canberra Southern Cross Club digesting in our stomachs and the persistent pheromonal yearning legible in the scent of our sweat. The kangaroo saw us for other animals, I believed. Then it turned. We watched it hop downhill, and out of sight, into the dense thicket of pines. A gust of wind rolling down off the Snowy Mountains sent the pines creaking like they were about to fall down. I expected the sound of a shot, some sign of a hunter. But no shots came, and the animal was gone, vanished into the same pines that had sheltered us. I think there was a joey in its pouch, I said to Neel, although I wasn’t sure. I really didn’t know.

Half an hour later the sun was gone. We drove to Coles in Manuka and parked underground. We bought red peppers and chickpeas for a salad. We bought bottles of Fiji water because they were on special, and a packet of caramel slices, because we were ravenous. Beneath my long skirt I still had no tights or underwear, and the tops of my thighs were wet and slippery where they touched. With my liquids, with his. My denim jacket looked clean from the outside, but the fleece beneath was specked with dust and twigs and kangaroo shit. We stood entwined on the escalator, kissing, obstructing foot traffic. We paid scant attention to the barber, the TAB, the shuttered Flight Centre, the harried public servants buying something quick for dinner on the way home. We were happy. The radio was full of smooth jazz and sitars. We drove through the deserted civic streets to collect his nephew, whose nose was running terribly, who coughed all the way home, whose face I wiped, and who I let hold my bangles because he liked the colours and the sound they made. Nase putzen, I said to him, and he showed me, once more, his shoes. We drove north together, the three of us, across Lake Burley Griffin in the dark, over that bridge whose name I never learned and the dark still waters away from Parliament House.

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