A short story: Part Two of Two – Read Part One here
The train rocked to a gentle stop. Gravan leapt onto the platform.
Two women staggered off the train and scrambled across the gap. The baggage cart rolled up, and the women collected five boxes and four suitcases. Locals coming home from the city? Or visiting relatives bringing vital supplies to family stuck out here?
Neither woman bore any likeness to Gravan.
He unpacked his new phone, set it up, and checked the online satellite images. One main street in the mid-sized country town. Amenities? One supermarket, two chemists, three pubs.
Would he find his place in this nearly dead ghost-town? Zoomed in. Sharp-edged paddocks crept up on three sides. To the north, the service station bordered wheat stubble grazed by sheep. South, the school oval sported more rough-shorn animals than seats. Zoomed out. To the west were black splotches, blank spaces. An old gold town, old mines, old secrets. Dozens of stories of immense wealth.
To the east were unsealed roads that split bigger paddocks, with an occasional house surrounded by blue eucalypts, huge sheds and clumpy patches of green peppercorns winding along creek lines.
Would it be one of them?
Gravan swung his pack onto his shoulder and sauntered along the main street.
The Town Hall was closed, but the library was open until eight p.m. He went in and glanced around. A woman with purple-framed glasses teetering on the tip of her nose sat at the desk, and an older, white-bearded man with a blank name tag looked up from the newspaper stand when the door banged shut.
No browsers wandering the aisles.
Nothing to disturb his work.
No directional signs. The section Gravan wanted was always tucked away at the back, as if history should be hidden.
He leaned on the counter. The woman sniffed and closed the book on the desk. The old bloke moved away, his clouded blue eyes squinting.
“Are there any genealogical records for the original settlers of the region?” Gravan fluttered his eyelashes in a gentle flirt.
“They’re kept in the safe.” She glanced up with a scowl that would menace a bushranger. “If you’re not family, you don’t get access.”
“I’m a student,” Gravan said, “and I’m interested in the original settlers because they may be relatives.” He lowered his eyelids and gave her his best dimpled grin. “Doing Honours. This is for my grandmother. I know a lot of the general history, but need to do the initial investigation before writing up the proposal.” Now for the clincher. “And primary sources for my supervisor to sight. Copies only, of course.”
The woman raised her head and glared. Her gaze assessed him as if he were a prize bull on the auction block. “Who is your family?”
“Oh, it would be distant. Nan isn’t all that sure about who it was, only the region, but that may be her keeping the secrets of the family gold.” He watched her eyes widen. “I doubt I’ll find anything, but if there are any direct descendants, it would be a great gift for her before …” He chewed his lip and blinked rapidly, lowering his chin for effect.
The woman’s hand slid to the drawer under the desk. A click, and it popped open. She lifted out a long key and a clipboard. “Sign here, licence number, phone number, and bring it back when you’re finished.” Her eyes narrowed to slits. “It’s in the bylaws, an offence to remove anything from the archives, or to fail to return the key. No excuses, no exceptions.”
Gravan signed the form, produced a licence, and scribbled an old phone number.
“Arthur!” she yelled. “Come sit on the desk while I show this lad the archives.” She strode ahead, motioning Gravan to follow.
The door was behind a locked metal compactus. A fire-proof steel door with several extra security measures, including a double deadlock and tamper-proof hinges. She dragged it open, handed him the key, and pointed to the scratched timber desk surrounded by locked storage for the microfiche reels.
A windowless room. The silver-nitrate smell caught at the back of Gravan’s throat. Not the worst he’d experienced, nowhere near as bad as the one with nicotine-stained walls and crackly carpet tiles.
The woman blocked the door open with a thick wedge and pointed to the angled mirror.
Gravan nodded and put his backpack on the floor, pulled out the old, clunky-looking laptop with all-new internals, including four-terabyte storage. He spun the chair and waved at the distorted mirror-image of the woman at the front desk.
The first container he unlocked was the land registry. Names and businesses, changes in ownership. Gravan dismissed any with overseas affiliations. He wanted the original settlers, the landowners of large sections that hadn’t been broken up, squatters. All the old-money names with history attached.
Names, school photos, newspapers. He focussed on facial shapes, zipped through as fast as he could in case the old bitch decided to call someone. Pages and years and sections of each record. An occasional stop to double-check names against faces, faces against names, years against events, and who did what when. Student records and achievements. Any record with faces to compare to the distinct features he saw in the mirror each day.
That one? He enlarged the view. No.
This one? No, the jaw and chin were wrong.
One sharp nose, one high arch to the brow, a delicate point to the ears with or without the red birthmark, anyone who might have deep-set, black-coffee eyes … but he found nothing in any of the hundreds of faces.
These were not his people.
An obstacle, but not insurmountable. Where was the closest hospital?
There were two, now one. He pulled the records, checked the birth registers. None on his birthday. None for the same week. Fifteen for the same month of that year. Twelve girls. The three boys he checked. They still lived in the area. Still alive, with families.
None were abandoned.
This wasn’t his home. Gravan’s journey wasn’t over. He used the phone to book a ticket to the next dot on the map.
A new year, a new start. He walked into the student union office full of noise and fresh-faced hopefuls.
A new city, a new campus.
The eagerly bland helper behind the table pushed a sheaf of papers at him. He signed his name, Rankin Forbes, and handed it back with student ID that made him four years younger than last year. A transfer with an Arts degree. Less chance of suspicious professors trying to dig up his background, sneaking hard surfaces under his fingers. Less risk of battles with Norosk types.
“Welcome, Rankin. Great name. Where are you from?” She gave him an enhanced moue for a smile.
“Overseas transfer,” he said, and casually watched her eyes graze his features.
“I’m sure you’ll fit right in.” Her face brightened as she returned his card. “Come to the student bar tonight — seniors get discounts the first month if they bring a shadow.”
“How deep is the divide?” He’d been one of the unmoneyed hopefuls who took scholarships from those better placed to put such things to a higher purpose. Shadows. The voids with no history. Russian had been the wrong strategy. The ploy had garnered interest, a breath of fear, but it didn’t get him in.
“Deep. They’re never in contention, count on it.” She laughed, covered her mouth with a hand. “Can’t let our team down, can we?”
It didn’t matter where he went. The name, the background, and Gravan — whoops! — Rankin had only a brief opportunity to reinforce and stabilise the reality of his identity.
Regardless of which name he wore, which credentials he faked, he was the sucking emptiness of the nothingness before time.
It would stay that way until he found his home, a place of acceptance with family and history. One tiny detail, even a small mark on an ear. He’d work with it, create from it, remodel, reshape to suit, as long as he was in.