The Town

Shaun Prescott

Barnes and Noble

This is Australia, an unnamed, dead-end town in the heart of the outback—a desolate place of gas stations, fast-food franchises, and labyrinthine streets: flat and nearly abandoned. When a young writer arrives to research just such depressing middles-of-nowhere as they are choked into oblivion, he finds something more sinister than economic depression: the ghost towns of Australia appear to be literally disappearing. An epidemic of mysterious holes is threatening his new home’s very existence, and this discovery plunges the researcher into an abyss from which he may never escape.

It was only possible to see the full extent of the town if you spent many years there. Only then could you see the barriers shimmer at its edges, and know what the edges meant.

It was only possible after many years in the town to notice the strangeness of certain aspects of familiar visions. Only then could you stand at the foot of a quiet street and at a certain time of day, and from a very specific angle, pretend that you were somewhere else. It was possible to stand at the foot of the old gasworks, and to stare upwards, and to believe that briefly you had gained access to one of those speculative worlds outside of the town.

When inside certain towns, the rest of the world disappears. So it only makes sense that to the rest of the world, certain towns are forever disappearing—or else they appear as a figment, or as a ghost town, or as a spot on a map purely decorative. A spot carefully placed by a cartographer anxious to fill a lonely space.

When inside certain towns, the rest of the world disappears. So it only makes sense that to the rest of the world, certain towns are forever disappearing.

• • •

When I arrived in the town I needed to find a café in which to regularly sit, and which would serve as headquarters for friends once I had made them. Searching a shopping plaza, I chose a Michel’s Patisserie in view of the Big W. At the head of the escalators a man sold Australian-flag fridge magnets and tea towels. I sat inside the café and thought: well, this is a start. I now have a location to meet people once I have met them and it is civilised.

The plaza was typical of plazas in towns of the Central West, and belonged to one of two major corporations competing for dominance in the area. I drank my first coffee and thought about my journey there, as a means to reward my past self with acknowledgement of how, back then, only hours ago, I had suspected in the back of my mind that I would not arrive anywhere at all.

Later on I wandered the plaza. I looked at the Sanity and thought about the CDs I would buy once I had found a job. Then I browsed the Angus & Robertson and made mental notes of the books I would purchase, and read, and discuss with the people I would meet in the café opposite the Big W, once I had met them. Then I bought a cheese-and-bacon pull-apart from the Bakers Delight and sat in the food court eating.

The main street of the town ran five blocks, each block bordered by minor thoroughfares that were also lined with shops. I had dreamed about this town before. In my dream there was a second-storey flat on one cross-street. The flat overlooked a petrol station, and I sat on the balcony with a woman. We smoked cigarettes there, and sipped from schooner glasses of beer. I suppose this dream was born of the journeys I had made through this town in the past, along the main street, travelling from one town to some other, never stopping on the way, not even for refreshments.

This dream was not a catalyst for my arrival in the town, but when I arrived on that day I tricked myself into believing it was. It was an important dream, I recall thinking, hoping to lend gravity to the occasion, though I knew at the time that I was lying to myself. It was a harmless thing to lie to oneself about.

• • •

I moved in with a person named Rob. He sublet me a room in a townhouse near the school, advertised in the local daily paper. Though I was eager to meet people I was not eager to know more about Rob, as he was very enthusiastic about sport. He asked what team I barracked for and I said Australia. Occasionally Rob and his friends would watch sport in the lounge room while drinking. They exchanged earnest appraisals of each sportsman, and spoke of these sportsmen in a manner that suggested they had mingled with them in real life.

I paid rent directly to Rob, who delivered it to his landlord parents. Every week I left a sealed envelope in the kitchen drawer marked RENT. At times when it was impossible to avoid coming into direct contact with Rob we would talk about our plans for the weekend, even if it was Tuesday. Once I told Rob that I was writing a book about the disappearing towns in the Central West region of New South Wales. He told me that he was going to have a beer.

Rob showed no interest in me until one night after some grand final, when arriving home late he found me cooking my dinner in the kitchen. He told me he was surprised how rarely I left the house, and that a grand final offers the perfect occasion to “get among it.” I lied that this day was the anniversary of my father’s death, and that besides, I was working on my book about the disappearing towns. This time he seemed to admire that I was attempting to write a book, and asked whether he would ever be allowed to read it. I told him he was welcome to read it whenever he liked, finished or not, because this book was falling from my mind to page in what I believed at the time to be a fully formed state. I doubted I would even need to edit it, let alone write a second draft, because this book was a very easy one to write. It would be no masterpiece, but it certainly would be a book. Rob said he would like to read some of my book right that very second, so I led him into my bedroom, sat him in front of my computer and flicked to a passage I believed to be especially interesting.

The passage was about the town Meranburn. I had written it in a daze. Days previously I had written it feeling as if I were sitting cross-legged in the dirt by the derelict station at Meranburn. Rob read it, and wanted to know where Meranburn was, so I told him that it was necessary to speak of Meranburn in the past tense, since it no longer existed. He suggested that it was a ghost town, to which I replied that it was not a ghost town, not as he understood what a ghost town was. Meranburn had not deteriorated economically, its residents had not flocked to the closest regional towns in search of work, the buildings had not been dismantled. Meranburn had simply disappeared. Hence the name of the book, Rob said, The Disappearing Towns of the Central West. He did not go on to say whether he enjoyed or disliked the passage, only that he was now curious about the town of Meranburn. And, he said, that actually, it’s not really disappearing, is it. It’s disappeared.

• • •

I got a job stacking shelves at the Woolworths. I bought a personal recorder so that I could record myself reading at home, in order to listen as I carefully placed items. As a shelf-stacker I was not much called upon to communicate with people, though customers would often ask for help finding this or that item, to which I would always reply that I did not know where it was.

Sometimes I would become disaffected with my book while listening to my dictations at the supermarket. I wanted there to be a section, or a chapter, or even just a passage, which would truly horrify people. I wanted there to be something embedded in my writing that filled a reader with dread. I wanted there to be a single passage which would reflect my vague notion that the disappearing towns of the Central West of New South Wales needed to be as important to the reader and the world as they were to me. During these fits of disaffection, a certain image would appear in my mind: a crisp green grass plain, and standing in it naked people being flayed by a cloaked figure. I supposed, during my evenings packing the shelves, that it might be interesting to have that scene conclude my book, that it could be the culmination of all my isolated chapters about each separate town. Maybe each citizen of each town had been abducted and flayed in some remote field towards Dubbo. The location of this plain was always the same: in the region just before the green slopes and plains give way to the browner flatness which prevails much farther into the rest of the country. The book would contain eight chapters of flat journalistic prose describing what may have occurred in the disappeared towns of the Central West. None of these eight speculations would be particularly violent or even interesting, but then this final ninth chapter about the naked people being flayed by the cloaked figure would close the book, and in doing so it would manage to create the effect that this scene was somehow factually related to everything in the book that preceded it. It would never be explained, but it would be true. The reader would believe that the chapter was intrinsically related to the stories about the disappearing towns of the Central West of New South Wales.

• • •

I visited the library after a couple of days in the town. I was looking for books about the town, but I was also hopeful that I might find books about towns that had disappeared.

After a thorough search through the shelves and stacks I inquired at the desk about the local history section. The man behind the counter wanted to know why I sought the local history section, so I told him I was writing a book about the disappearing towns of the Central West of New South Wales. I wanted to borrow as many books about the town as possible.

The librarian wondered if I thought his town had disappeared. I speculated aloud that it was possible but unlikely, because towns don’t disappear in the modern age unless they cease to serve a purpose, and surely this town had a purpose. I wanted the local history section because I wanted to know the purpose of the town. Surely it was built for a reason. If not for a reason, then why exactly here?

There are no books about this town, the librarian told me. What we need is someone like you to write one, but then, it wouldn’t exactly be a bestseller. Nothing of note has ever happened in this town, and by the time it does, there will no longer be any point in remembering it.

Nothing of note has ever happened in this town, and by the time it does, there will no longer be any point in remembering it.

The librarian explained that many comparable towns have stories about how they were founded, stories about how they once served some wider purpose in history. Some towns even had fictional stories set in their streets. This town is just here, though. No one remembers how it got here, or why the presumed founders built it, except maybe the really old people, who are too addled by old age to speak in complete sentences. The town has no books of its own because there’s no reason to know about it, so far as anyone can tell. Books are generally about phenomena, he said, and there is nothing phenomenal about this town.

He admitted that he himself had tried and failed to write a book about the town. He’d always disliked the town, ever since he was a kid. He’d always intended to leave for the city or abroad, but it was impossible, so there he was, working in the library.

Lacking any of the life experience one needs to write a book about any other topic, he’d decided that he would write a book about the town, because it was where he had spent all of his life. It would be simple, he had thought, because all of the source material was right under his nose, and there were plenty of old people to interview. Most importantly, no one had written a book about the town before. Maybe his town would seem strange to those living in other areas, those areas more commonly depicted in books.

He did not know at first how his book would take shape— whether it would be a straightforward history or something resembling a memoir—but he thought that writing this book would offer him the opportunity to address some of the issues that had affected him personally throughout the years—for example being uninteresting, and therefore lonely. He would write the book in a manner that would communicate to the reader that he was lonely. It would ostensibly be a history or memoir about the town, but it would truthfully be a book about his loneliness. It would not be explicit, but it would be the theme that critics and exceptional readers would seize upon, and he hoped that one day a commentator in the city, or perhaps abroad, maybe in a newspaper or magazine, would label his book an authoritative account of loneliness.

Even before he started writing the book he thought too long and hard about it, and so lost hope of being read by anyone of consequence. But he thought he might at least attract the interest of people in the town. He spent many months researching the town before he wrote a single sentence. He discovered many facts, but none of them were interesting. He learned about the local MP who had died from lung collapse, and the various shops that were on the main street back in the olden days. In the council chambers he read about the opening of schools and banks. He found images of quaintly dressed men and women standing in the main street, gawping at the camera, as some or other politician snipped a ribbon. He read about disputes pertaining to the layout of roads and the development of shopping centres. He found anecdotes about certain prosperous farming families, stories that could only be of interest to people in the relevant families.

He soon discovered there was no way for him to use a history of the town to elicit the type of emotion in readers that he wanted to elicit. People would not be able to get past the first page of his book without knowing how dull it would be throughout. He could not open the book with “The town was founded in so-and-so year by so-and-so explorer or colonist”, because no such facts were anywhere to be found. He could not even give a rough estimate to any of it.

He insisted that in order to write a history he would need to have these simple facts. And he could not open his story with the earliest known fact he had, because it was an especially boring one: that there was a drought in 1932 and Joe McGee lost all his cattle. As far as he understood, the way you start a book is meant to signal what the book will be about, whether quietly or otherwise. Dead cattle did not belong in the book he wanted to write.

He then resorted to the memoir angle, but encountered similar problems, chiefly that he was not an interesting person. He had been born, he went to primary school, then high school, and then he started working at the library as a shelver before being promoted to the front desk. His life had been trying, draining, without intense pleasure, but also without the variety of struggle that readers delight in reading about.

It’s true that he had felt many sensations and seen plenty of sights, some of which had left a deep impression. For a while he tricked himself into thinking he could present these feelings and visions in a way that would affect other people. There were many details in his life that appeared dreamlike to him, piquant and modestly resonant, like passages in song that seemed rooted to the essence of everything. Maybe if the people in this town were more artistically minded he would have written a book about these small details alone, but they were not. Things would need to happen in his book. Interesting things.

There were many details in his life that appeared dreamlike to him, piquant and modestly resonant, like passages in song that seemed rooted to the essence of everything.

But he soon discovered that he was unable to make up good stories. One failed story involved a political conspiracy involving many of the shops on the main street, and he deluded himself into thinking that he would scandalise the town while simultaneously writing about his loneliness. He would please his tiny audience, he supposed, simply by depicting them in some fashion or another. They would be intrigued enough by these depictions that they would reach the final page, at which point the topic of his loneliness would be impossible to ignore. But he didn’t understand how politics worked, nor did he have the ability to write dialogue or shape compelling narratives. Ultimately he decided that he was probably not a writer.

The problem then, he said, was that he still had nowhere to deposit his loneliness. It was just inside of him being wasted. He could not relish being lonely because he could not use it, and nor could he share in it with an empathetic reader. Talking to me about it wasn’t enough—and I remember him then pointing at me, rather too firmly—for he needed to turn it into something important. But the time when a person such as him could write a book like this had long passed. It was no longer sensible to write books at all, he said, unless they were capable of reflecting the misery of towns and cities far away, places where the weight of the world collapsing is felt as a prolonged, agonising decline. Unlike in his town, where such trauma will likely not be felt at all, unless as a suspected fiction, or as a series of cold charts and numbers.

Another customer came into the library and caught the librarian’s eye. I was finished with the library anyway, seeing as there was not a local history section. There were many books about the big city on the coast, full of black-and-white images of men and women lying on the sand, lifesavers lined up in front of their surf clubs, and stern women serving fish and chips across beachfront counters.

Shaun Prescott is a writer based in the Blue Mountains in New South Wales. He has self-released several small books of fiction, including Erica from Sales and The End of Trolleys, and has been the editor of Crawlspace Magazine. His writing has appeared in The Lifted Brow, The Guardian, and Meanjin, among other venues. His latest novel is The Town.