This week’s story follows last week’s, so if you want to fill in the background – which isn’t altogether necessary – read Walking Man first.
It’d been well over two years since Chris had been escorted from the pub. He’d been released from the hospital into the care of his parents. As a condition, he was required to remain with them for a minimum of three months after which, provided that there were no hiccups, he would be a free man.
Kate had visited Chris every month or so. She was the first person he phoned to say that he’d been released and she immediately reminded him that he still had a place at the pub. Before the end of his three-month probation he was on the phone to Kate working out his start date back at The Willows.
He had grown very close to Amy, his eight-year-old daughter, and saw her almost every weekend. Sarah, Amy’s mother, remained distant and refused to take any responsibility for Chris’ mental state nor did she take any part in his rehabilitation. She had found a new boyfriend and was happy for the freedom when Amy spent the weekend with Chris. Kate and Amy had become friends so, knowing that Amy could visit, Chris was more relaxed about moving back to the country.
The leaves were just starting to turn in The Willows and in the courtyard Kate sipped her first coffee of the day. The earth smelt rich and full of promise even though the plants hadn’t had much more than the occasional watering through summer.
A few minor cosmetic changes inside gave the pub an air of starting afresh and gave Kate a feeling of hope, almost for the first time since she had taken over the reins twenty years before.
Chris’ train was arriving at ten – the Sparrowfart from the city, she called it. She was nervous about seeing Chris. When he was in hospital things were simple and structured, easily controlled. Now that he would have a will and freedom, part of her wondered how long he would be happy to stay. For the briefest moment she remembered her uncertain childhood and how it felt not being sure of much at all.
A knock at the door dragged her up. She opened it to find Chris smiling on the veranda.
“I missed the train,” he said. “But got here faster hitching a ride on a couple of trucks.”
Kate hugged him. They’d become good friends over the last couple of years.
“Dump your bag in your room and I’ll fix you some breakfast,” she said. “You must be hungry.”
“Starving!” He yelled as he ran up the stairs.
The conversation wandered around Amy, how hard it was to stay with his parents, but how grateful he was that they were there for him and Amy, how much he appreciated Kate’s visits and a dozen other things.
Kate let the words wash over her; she sat with a smile on her face for the whole time, at one point letting her mind wander to the thought that she had never had a girlfriend that she could talk to like this. Then, in the same space she realised that she had never given time to anyone the way she had given time to Chris. At that her smile changed just slightly.
By the time the first customers began to drift in at lunchtime, it was as if Chris had never left. Some of the locals remembered him and welcomed him back; Old Jacko greeted him like a long-lost brother, but everyone was Jacko’s friend.
It was a quiet day but by its end, Chris was exhausted.
“Thanks for your help today,” Kate said. “But I should’ve told you that Monday is supposed to be your day off.” Even though he knew Kate was joking, Chris got serious.
“I’m just grateful to be here, Kate. Without your help I don’t know what I’d be doing.” He trailed off.
“Oh, you’re a good worker, Chris. I’m sure you would’ve found something. Besides, working in a pub isn’t exactly the pinnacle of achievement.”
“I’m not talking about the job,” he responded quietly. “I…I know that I have Amy and I’ve been learning again how to be a Dad for her, even though I’m hundreds of k’s away now.”
“You know she can come as often as she likes, mate,” Kate interrupted.
“Yeah, yeah…I do,” Chris said quickly. “Thank you.” He looked at her and smiled before he continued. “What I mean is that…you have actually been the one who – even though you’ve been out of the family loop, maybe becauseyou’ve been out of the family loop – you’ve actually been the one who’s made me feel OK, like I’m a decent bloke. Not just a patient…or a sick son, or a messed-up dad.”
They both stood quietly as tears appeared in Chris’ eyes. Kate didn’t move towards him. She recognised that he needed to speak. He blinked and looked up at her.
“I don’t think you could possibly know what it’s meant to me.” He stopped and smiled coyly as if wanting to say more; instead, he simply said goodnight, turned and went upstairs.
Kate made a cup of tea and sat for a while. She knew that it took guts for Chris to say those things, but she was troubled.
It made her ponder why she stood by Chris when others, even some of his closer friends, just walked away. She thought of visits, conversations and the day she told him that there would always be a job for him at The Willows. Mostly, she knew that she didn’t really think about it; she just went with her gut.
She had thought about these things over the two years that Chris was in hospital, of course, but it always came down a matter of belief, and she didn’t believe that he was sick; maybe he was confused, tired and hurt, and it had taken him three years on the run to get up the guts to finally tell Sarah what he thought of her and how she’d treated him; but he wasn’t sick.
Maybe she related to him and it was more a brother/sister thing that she felt. In any case, by the time she went to bed she was none the wiser.
Tuesday dawned overcast and humid, as sometimes happened in the Willows in Autumn. The weather bureau had been talking about rain for over a week.
Chris was sitting quietly with a coffee in the courtyard when Kate came down. He had a few old local newspapers and was flicking through them.
“Just catching up on the big news,” he said with a smile. “There’s not a lot of other reading material around here.”
“Oh, where did you get them?” Kate asked, trying not to show concern. She quickly picked them up. “I’ve been meaning to put these things in the recycling for ages. I thought I had everything tidied up for you!” She smiled.
“The rest are in the kitchen store room,” he said. “I’ll go and grab them.”
“No, no,” she hurriedly responded. “Err…why don’t you take today off, seeing you worked yesterday? Set your room up and get comfy. I can always yell out if things get busy.”
Chris went to get up. “Well, I might get some breakfast then, if I’m not allowed to do anything else.”
Kate made herself a cup of tea while Chris fried eggs.
“So, what was in the local paper that you didn’t want me to see?” He asked. Kate considered continuing the charade but thought better of it. She sighed.
“After you were arrested there was a lot of coverage and discussion, for want of a better word; some of it – most of it – wasn’t very pleasant. I didn’t want you to have to face it so soon.”
“Thanks,” he smiled. “But I’m a big boy.”
Kate smiled weakly. “There was a lot of gossip around town too. Of course, no one had the guts to talk to me directly.”
“Then they’re not worth worrying about,” said Chris. Kate was silent. She’d had a lot of fights and simmering feuds over the years, with people whose noses always seemed to be stuck in her business; she didn’t know if she was up for another long-term battle. Chris put his hand on her shoulder.
“I’m sorry, Kate. Seems like life would’ve been a lot simpler if I’d stayed away.”
Something stirred in Kate at the injustice of his words.
“Simple is nice,” she said. “But it wouldn’t be right. I know you’re a good, decent man…so they can all get fucked!”
Chris smiled. “Well, let’s see what we can do about that after breaky,” he said. Kate laughed and hugged him.
“It’s good to have you back,” she said.
The days went by and everyone seemed to be glad that Chris was back. Amy came every second weekend and, now that Chris had his licence back, they went horse-riding or borrowed the ute to go fishing in the dam. Amy and Kate got on well and enjoyed their meals together and the occasional walk to the bakery. Amy thought the pub was fun and looked forward to her visits. So did Kate. There were a few gossipers that Meg from the bakery overheard now and then; she usually reported them to Kate over a cup of tea and a laugh. Apart from that, all seemed to be quite peaceful in The Willows.
One morning, Vaughan, the Kiwi postie, brought a large letter that needed to be signed for. In Kate’s experience, such letters never contained good news. This was no different. On a letterhead of The Willows/Burrandeena Chamber of Commerce was written: “For the attention of the proprietor of The Willows Hotel concerning attached petition.” Kate flipped the page to read,
“We the undersigned wish to protest the presence of Christopher Douglas in The Willows. He is a convicted criminal and a potential danger to women and children. Because of these things we demand his immediate dismissal and expulsion from the vicinity of The Willows and Burrandeena.”
At the bottom of the page were several poorly printed photographs of Chris that were clearly designed to make him look like a criminal. After that were a total of four hundred and ninety seven names and signatures. Kate read through them and noticed that the great majority rarely visited The Willows and were from the larger neighbouring town of Burrandeena. Of the dozen who gave their addresses as The Willows, three were octogenarians who only came to the pub for the wake of someone they knew, five were teetotalling members of the local Methodist church who had always looked down their noses at Kate anyway, three were from outlying farms and whom Kate didn’t really know, and the final was old Bert at the local store, an old friend of Kate’s. At that, Kate was furious.
“Right,” said Kate as she stood. “Let’s see what you’ve got to say for yourself, Bert, old lad.” She marched out the door and down the hill to McKinlay’s-Everything-Including-the-Kitchen-Sink store.
The bell nearly jingled off its hanger above the door as Kate flew in.
“G’day Katie!” Said Bert.
“Don’t you g’day me, Bert McKinlay! What do you call this?” She threw the petition down on the counter. Bert glanced at it.
“Buggered if I know,” he answered.
“Well your name’s on it!”
Bert looked again and saw the letterhead and the signature of Garth Beazley, the head of the local Chamber of Commerce.
“Oh, that’s the one that Garth was on about. Apparently some criminal in town or over at Burrandeena – a child molester.”
“That so-called criminal is Chris!” Said Kate. “And he isn’t! All charges were dropped and he was never a child molester.”
“Chris?!” Said Bert. “Is that his full name? Jeez. If I’d known that I wouldn’t’ve signed it. And you say it’s bullshit?”
“I’d stake the pub and my life on it. I’ve known him and his family for a couple of years now and you won’t meet a more genuine bloke.”
“That bloody Garth is a mischievous shit, isn’t he? ” Said Bert.
Garth was a mischievous shit. It was his father who tried to take the pub from Kate back when her own father died. There’d been bad blood between them up until old Beazley died a couple of years before. It seemed that Garth had put on his father’s shoes.
“I’m sorry, Katie,” said Bert. “If I’d known who it was about I’d’ve given Garth a boot up the arse then and there!”
The next stop for Kate was the police station to show Kev, the local cop.
“That’s not right,” said Kev, referring to the “convicted criminal” phrase. “And he’s not a danger to women and children. Looks like Garth got all the nastiness of his Dad minus the brains. This is libellous.”
That was all Kate needed to hear.
“Is there anything you can do about it?” Asked Kate. “I mean, Garth told old Bert that Chris was a child molester.” Kev shook his head.
“Let me talk to a couple of them,” he said. “Starting with Garth Beazley.” He shook his head again. “I just don’t understand what he thinks he’ll get out of it.”
“He wants my pub, Kev. The bloody Beazleys have had their eyes on it for twenty years. He’s trying to turn people against me. Fortunately, the good ones know better.” She stormed back to the pub.
“Where have you been?” Asked Chris as Kate walked in. She looked around, saw that there were no customers yet and thought quickly.
“Grab a couple of beers and meet me in the courtyard. We need to talk.”
Kate explained the situation to Chris as quickly as she could, that the Beazley family had been looking for ways to get her pub for twenty years and now they were using Chris as a pawn to turn people against her.
“Why do they want this pub so much?” Asked Chris. “I mean…I love the place, but…”
“Yeah…I’ve asked myself that a lot over the years. Well, it’s the only pub in town for a start; there are three over in Burrandeena, so there’s no competition here, But, I think the real reason is that they’ve felt entitled to it.
“See, when my Dad died he owed a fair bit of money to Old Man Beazley that Dad had borrowed to feed his own habits as it were. He used the pub as security. When I decided to take over the business, Beazley demanded his money immediately. I didn’t know what to do…didn’t have any money to fight it or pay him back. No banks were interested. Some of the kind locals took up a collection but it was only a fraction of what I needed.”
“So, what happened?” Chris asked. “Must’ve been some sort of miracle!” Kate laughed.
“Yeah, it was! Turned out that Dad had a sort of wealthy, feminist, philanthropist cousin who heard of my plight through the family grape vine and offered to lend me the money interest-free. Saved my life! She even came out to have a look at the place and gave me a couple of business tips. She was a sweet old bird.
“I had her paid off in five years. She was thrilled…not that I’d paid her back, but that I was making a go of it. When she died I found out that she’d intended to forgive me the debt, but I’d already paid it back.”
“So here we are,” said Chris. He looked at Kate. “This can’t be serious, can it? I mean, it’s total bullshit.”
“True,” said Kate. “But people get into government on bullshit; in fact they seem to run government on bullshit.
“I’m not worried about The Willows, but I get a fair bit of business from Burrandeena, especially weekends when people come for lunch and stay over. I can’t afford to lose it. I think we’ve got to work out a way to turn this back on him.”
The next afternoon Meg from the Bakery bustled up for a cup of tea, eager to fill Kate in on the latest news.
“I’m sure you know about the petition by now.” Meg began. “A couple of the old church ladies, Gem and Jan, seemed very proud of themselves when they were nattering about it.”
“Yeah, they were on it,” said Kate. “And it’s full of lies. We’re exploring our legal options at the moment, but it’s going to be expensive. The only nearby lawyers are in Burrandeena and Beazley will have all of them in his pocket.”
“Well,” said Meg. “I’ve decided to do something that I’ve been thinking about for a long time.”
She’d put her penchant for gossip to good use and offered to write a weekly column for the Burrandeena Times called, News from The Willows. “Here’s my first one.” She pulled a folder from her bag and passed it to Kate. It was headed, “Good old Chris is back at The Willows.” Kate read parts out loud that spoke of Chris in glowing terms as a near-tragedy survivor, loving father, hard worker who’s good with a joke and much-loved by the locals at The Willows Hotel.
“I had to interview him, of course,” Meg smiled blushingly. Kate looked up from the page.
“Meg Martin, I don’t think I’ve ever seen you blush!” Kate handed the page back. “It’s perfect, Meg. Every little bit will help sway public opinion.”
Jacko was sitting at the bar talking to Chris about the death of cricket and other sports that had gone “over-the-top” professional.
“It’s one of the reasons I drink so much,” he explained. “Once upon a time there was integrity and sportsmanship. ‘It’s just not cricket’ was a saying that meant something; now with all the carry-on in the game it could actually mean the opposite!”
Chris nodded and chuckled in assent as all good bartenders should; but his mind was elsewhere. He’d been formulating a bit of a plan; a simple plan that he knew couldn’t fail.
After closing, Chris and Kate sat and talked. She liked his plan but thought that it might require more than she had the ability for. Chris assured her that he’d be right behind her lending support.
Kev dropped in to the pub the following evening after he knocked off. He sat at the quiet end of the bar and Chris set him up with a beer.
“So, did you catch up with Bugalugs Beazley,” Kate said as she sat beside Kev.
“I did…and he wasn’t backing down from his position; mind you, his position is completely untenable. I explained the legal ramifications. Of course you would need to bring an action against him – actually against everyone on the petition – but the law would be on your side.”
“I don’t know if I can afford it, Kev,” she responded. “Either the money or the grey hair.”
“Yeah, I’m sorry, Kate. Wish there was more I could do. Just between us, the guy is a huge fuckwit, if you didn’t know already. But he’s got everyone in his pocket over there, including the local paper. They’ll be a bit more careful than him about what they put in print though.”
Kate’s eyes focussed a little more keenly on Kev’s last words. She looked across at Chris who was wiping the bar but listening to the conversation. He caught her eye and smiled.
“Yeah,” she said. “Well, let’s see what they will print. We’ve got a couple of ideas. Thanks Kev; you’re a champ.”
The next morning at nine there was a knock on the office door. Kate opened it to see Garth Beazley and his offsider standing on the porch.
“Just you, Garth,” she said. “That was the arrangement. I won’t be bullied; your little mate can wait in the car.”
Garth nodded to the offsider, who retired as Garth stepped inside.
“Sit down, please,” said Kate as she sat behind her desk. “I’ll cut to the chase, Garth. I need you to do something for me, and before you give me an answer, I want you to go away and think on it.” She paused for effect. “Now, I know that thinking isn’t your strong suit, as the last few days have shown…” Beazley went to protest but Kate continued over him. “But I think we might have something to get that old, withered, walnut sparking again.”
“Listen Kate, I came in good faith because you asked me. I didn’t come to be insulted.”
“Fair enough,” said Kate. “What I want you to do is print a small retraction – nothing big, a quarter-page would be fine – on the front page of the Burrandeena Times, apologising for the petition.” Beazley laughed but Kate continued. “You don’t have to say that you lied if you don’t want to; you can say that you were misinformed by your sources or something like that. I can write something up for you if you’d like.”
Beazley was about to respond when there was a noisy clatter from the kitchen. Kate yelled through the half-open internal door.
“That you Chris?!”
“Yep!” Responded Chris, his ear glued to the conversation through the kitchen intercom.
“What’s going on?!
“Just…ah…just sharpening the chef’s knives!”
She thought that Chris’s theatre was a little melodramatic but observed that Garth was wriggling a little uncomfortably in his seat. She watched him and began on a different tangent as if the thought had just occurred to her.
“You know, Garth, there’s no telling what Chris might do under pressure. I know that you have security cameras everywhere but they won’t be much good if you’re…well, if you’re dead.” She shrugged on the last words and felt it was a nice touch. “Sorry to be blunt…but remember, Chris has already been temporarily insane. He said that the hospital was quite nice; anyway, he’d get out after a few years.”
Garth began to stand.
“Is that a threat?” He blustered. “I’ll report it!”
“I’ll just deny it, Garth. Remember that you’re the one who lied in print. But that would save me a lot of expense in bringing it to court, and when it comes out that you lied to get people to sign that petition, I don’t reckon there’ll be too many on your side…especially not the judge.
“Plus I believe you used the term ‘child molester’ as well – and I have a witness who is very keen to put you in your place. Defamation is a very serious matter. It could end up costing you a lot more than this little pub is worth…”
Beazley started sputtering and fuming but Kate was on a roll now. She got up into his face and spoke quietly but intensely.
“You picked the wrong people to cross, Beazley. Now you set it straight or we will.” She opened the door and he bustled out. “I look forward to hearing from you by lunchtime. Email is fine.” She called after him.
As she closed the door, Chris came in. “You were amazing!” He said. She collapsed into the chair.
“I might be tough,” she said. “But that nearly killed me.
“Now it’s my turn,” said Chris. “Phase two!”
A little after eleven that same morning, Burrandeena’s Senior Constable Rick Harris was on duty. He had just gotten off the phone to his friend, Sergeant Kev Holman from The Willows, who had just filled Rick in on the petition and Garth’s inappropriate actions. The phone rang again.
“And what was the petition actually saying?” Rick was squeezing Beazley.
“Well, a number of people have been unhappy about Mr Douglas being there, especially with regard to his criminal record…” Rick interrupted.
“Mr Douglas doesn’t have a criminal record to my knowledge. The police are normally informed in such instances. Is there some information you have that we should know, Mr Beazley?”
Beazley stared at the policeman, unsure of what to say next. He opened his mouth to speak when Chris came out of the hardware. Senior Constable Harris signalled to Chris.
“Good morning, sir,” said the policeman. “I wonder if I could have a few minutes of your time.”
“Sure,” said Chris. “What’s the problem?”
“Might I ask what brings you to Burrandeena?”
“I often come here to shop and today I just needed something from the hardware,” said Chris. “A whetstone, actually, for sharpening knives.”
“I see,” said Rick. “Well, Mr Beazley here was under the impression that you had threatened him.”
“Mr Beazley?” Said Chris. “Oh, is this Mr Beazley? I’ve never even met him, but it would seem that he has actually been more aggressive towards me lately. How do you do, Mr Beazley…” Chris reached out his hand towards Garth, but Garth shuffled in behind the policeman.
“You two have never met?” Asked Rick; he turned to Beazley. “Then how did you know it was Mr Douglas?.”
“I….err…,” Garth fumbled for words. “I saw some photos.”
“Whose photos?” Asked Chris.
Garth was finally speechless
“Hmmm…” said Rick, deliberating. “Well, I don’t see any evidence of threat, Mr Beazley. There is some suspicious behaviour but it isn’t on Mr Douglas’s part.” Garth looked horrified.
“Are you going to let him go?” Garth seemed incredulous.
“Nothing you have said has persuaded me that I should do otherwise, sir.” He turned to Chris. “Thanks for your time, Mr Douglas.” Chris nodded.
“I’d better get back; it’s nearly lunchtime.” He looked straight at Garth with a smile.
“Nice to meet you, Mr Beazley.”
Lunchtime came and went at the pub without event. Kate checked her emails every few minutes but nothing had come from Beazley.
At three o’clock Kate sidled up beside Chris at the bar. “What do we do now?”
“Give it time,” said Chris. “He was absolutely shitting himself this morning. The cop was brilliant and we didn’t even set that up. Fortune is smiling on us.”
“All the same…” her words trailed off.
At three seventeen an email arrived from Garth’s secretary in somewhat cryptic language:
I agree to your terms. It will be on page three. That is the end of the matter.
Kate laughed out loud and couldn’t help but respond with:
We’ll decide if it is the end of the matter.
Chris laughed too as Kate hugged him. “One up for the good guys!” She said. As it turned out, Fortune was smiling on them because although Garth’s retraction wasn’t on the front page, it was right next to the first edition of News from the Willows, full of praise for Chris, which made it sting that much more for Garth. It was also a great advertisement for the pub and the bloke who worked behind the bar.
Thanks for those who sent feedback after last weeks week’s story, Looking for Rain. While this week’s story is self-contained, it will be followed by a sequel next week. Enjoy.
Chris crossed the creek and passed the willow sentinels on either side of the bridge; the road climbed and the town opened up slowly, like a movie set. Dust was still settling from a car that had long gone up a dirt side-road, a young boy with turned ears and a bad haircut sat in the back of a ute staring at him; farther on a large girl in bare feet hurried across the road; a workman used a hand-saw to trim the edges of new steps that led up to the church entrance.
Where the road crested and levelled off, the pub stood like the grand old lady of the town; as far as he could see, it was the only building on a concrete slab. A narrow alcove with a door opened into the office and a middle-aged woman stood behind the counter, writing in a book.
“Need a room?” She asked as she looked up.
“Well, actually, I need some lunch,” he responded. She was about to direct him into the bar when he continued. “But I don’t have any money. Do you have any jobs that you need done?”
She had a tough face, but her eyes softened as she took in the situation of the still-young man who’d obviously done some hard yards.
“You can wash my car and I’ll give you lunch. After that, I’ve got some crates need moving. If you’re interested, that’ll buy you a room for the night.” He smiled and nodded, thankfully.
After lunch, as he put his plate on the bar the woman introduced herself.
“Kate.” She reached out her hand.
“Chris,” he said as he took it.
“In case you hadn’t noticed,” she said. “I’m the owner of this place…inherited from my ancestors, along with all its debt and drudgery. What brings you to The Willows?”
“It was the next town,” he smiled.
“Pick up your plate,” she said as she showed him the way to the kitchen. “If you’re interested, I could use a hand for a bit. The young bloke who works here came off his trail bike last week. He’ll be pretty useless for a while.”
The thought of a few dollars in his pocket and a real bed was tempting.
“Thanks,” he said. “I appreciate it.”
Apart from the crates, there were kegs, cleaning and even bar service when things got busier in the evening.
His room was plain but comfortable with a view of the street. Most of these towns were in a straight line along the main street with a few shops, houses and not much else; the bulk of the population lived on surrounding farms.
Beyond he could see the creek where it wound down the valley. In the light of the following morning, it cut a meandering green swathe through the dry, straw-coloured pasture land.
Downstairs, Kate sat at a table doing bills. Chris picked up her empty breakfast plate.
“Thanks,” she said. “Help yourself to what you find in the kitchen. Cook’s not in till eleven so it’s fend for yourself until then.”
The sun was still low and lit up the whole main street. The fresh smells of morning and the cooler air anchored him in the moment. He sat on the steps of the pub with coffee and toast as Kate’s voice edged in to the silence from behind him.
“It’s beautiful until people come along and mess it up.” He looked around. “Sorry,” she said. “I didn’t mean to interrupt.”
“Pull up a pew,” he said. “But it sounds like you don’t like people much.”
“Yeah, that was a bit obvious wasn’t it?” She laughed as she sat. “This town hasn’t been particularly nice to me, that’s all.” She laughed again. “But most of the mean shits are dead now.” She paused and looked at Chris. “What about you? You seem like a nice enough bloke. What’s your story, all on your lonesome?”
He looked down the street at an old truck slowly rolling into finding a gear for the run up the hill from the bridge. “Just needed to get away, I s’pose,”
“Been travelling long?”
“A few years.”
“Shit,” said Kate. “No wonder you’re so skinny. I’ll make sure you get something decent into you for lunch. I won’t get a full day’s work out of you on a couple of bits of toast.”
The work was physical but he enjoyed earning his keep. Days turned into weeks. Kate was grateful for someone who didn’t need a boot up the backside every ten minutes; in fact, Chris’ ideas in the cellar made changing the kegs much quicker. During the rush times on weekends it made life a lot easier.
As well as the money, the certainty of a place to sleep each night took a weight off his shoulders that he hadn’t been aware of. Being productive, helping someone and being appreciated stirred things in him. He got on well with Kate, in fact he found himself liking her.
It had been nearly a month since he’d arrived when Kate asked him to pick up some groceries in the ute; he said that he didn’t drive. But she remembered later that she’d seen a driver’s licence in his wallet.
He was a good worker and seemed to be honest in all of his dealings – over-honest, if anything, even wanting to pay for beers that he’d poured for himself at the end of the day. But one thing that she’d learnt from life in a pub was the ability to keep relationships on a superficial level. Besides, she liked Chris; he was one of the best, easiest-to-get-along-with workers that she’d ever had and she didn’t want to scare him off. If he wanted to talk or not, that was his business.
Ethan, Kate’s young employee who’d come off his trail bike had used his time off to find a job with “more opportunity for advancement” in another town, so Kate decided to offer Chris a full-time job. On Monday afternoon, she broached the subject slowly.
“You’ve been here over a month now,” she said. “Nothing else to see in The Willows that you haven’t seen already.” She paused between each statement. “Guess you must be thinking about moving on.”
“You kicking me out?” Chris said with a smile. Kate realised how it could’ve sounded that way. She decided to leap into the breach.
“Actually, Chris, I’d really like you to stay on. You’re a good worker – very good. And with Ethan not coming back, I can afford you full-time.”
Chris looked up to see if it might be pity. Kate recognised the look and changed tack.
“Of course, it’d be useful if you could drive.” Chris shifted a little.
“Sorry, I can’t,” he responded. Kate decided to push it a little.
“I thought you had a driver’s licence.”
“Yeah, I do, but I…had an accident. Hit my head…and I’m not allowed to drive anymore. They punched my licence full of holes but I keep it for old-times’ sake…and ID.” Kate paused then smiled.
“Oh well, it’s not a big deal, I suppose. I’d still like you to stay.”
“Can I have a think about it? I mean, don’t get me wrong, I appreciate it, I just…” His words faded out.
“Sure…I’m in no hurry.”
Over the following days, Kate found herself thinking about Chris’ story of hitting his head and whether that had anything to do with why he was such a loner. She thought about her own need to look after the ”birds with the broken wings”, as she called it. Ever since she was a little girl, after her mother shot through, she’d bring home all kinds of wildlife that needed attention and more often than not, nurse them back to health. When her Dad gave in to the bottle and ran the pub into the ground, she’d find solace in caring for animals.
After her Dad died and she took on the pub, plenty of drifters turned up having heard about the not-too-ugly owner of The Willows pub who might need a bloke to share her inheritance. She showed them all the door, along with some of the self-entitled nobs around town who thought that they were going to pick up the pub for a song after her Dad was off the scene. They were horrified when his twenty-year-old daughter made it her project to save it. Kate figured it was a legacy that she wouldn’t get any other way.
Although Chris was a drifter too, he seemed to be different. It wasn’t about money for him; but Kate didn’t know what it was about.
The weekend came and Chris still hadn’t given her an answer. She had said that she wasn’t in a hurry but she didn’t know why it could be so difficult for him to make a decision.
Late afternoon, in the quiet period before the Saturday evening blitz, a knock came on the office door; a grey-haired man with a worn face stepped in and asked for a room.
As she handed back his licence and gave him the room key she asked, “What brings you to the bustling town of The Willows, Mr Douglas?”
“I’m sorry, it’s been a long day,” he replied with a smile as he turned to leave. Then he stopped, wearily turned back and proceeded with a well-rehearsed line. “But maybe you can help me.” He pulled a dog-eared photograph from his shirt pocket. “Have you seen him? A bloke over in Burrandeena said he thinks he might’ve seen him in this pub a couple of weeks ago.”
In the photo, Chris was holding a little girl about three years-old and stood beside a pretty woman. He looked younger and happier.
“I’ll ask around,” she said as she directed him up the stairs to his room. “Is he in trouble?” The old man shook his head.
“No…no, not at all.”
Chris was sweeping the courtyard and setting the tables out for the evening. It’d been a warm day and wasn’t going to cool off anytime soon. He’d been thinking since Kate had offered him the job and began to like the thought of resting in The Willows for a while. When she appeared he brought it up.
“I’d like to accept your offer,” he said. Kate nodded and smiled.
“Glad to hear it, Chris. But you didn’t tell me that you had a family.” Chris looked at the ground and what seemed like a long time passed before he spoke.
“He’s here, isn’t he?”
“Is he your Dad?” Kate responded.
“The photo?” He queried. “The question about whether or not you knew where I was?”
Kate nodded and Chris sighed.
“Poor old bugger; it was only a matter of time,” Chris said as he shook his head and looked into Kate’s face.
“So do you want to explain what’s going on?” Kate said, more than a little confused.
He continued to look into her face, as if he was revisiting a decision that he had already made about whether or not she could be trusted.
“You’ve been good to me, Kate,” Chris responded. “You probably deserve to know what’s going on.” He paused and began slowly.
“Three and a half years ago I was in a car accident; I was driving. I was arguing with Sarah, my wife. I didn’t see the light turn red and drove through the intersection. We were T-boned on Sarah’s side. I heard the truck’s horn and turned to see it plough into Sarah’s side of the car. The airbag pushed her head into mine and then I blacked out.
“I woke up in the hospital three days later. They told me that Amy, my little girl who’d been in the back seat, didn’t survive.” Chris paused and bit his bottom lip before continuing. “Sarah hadn’t regained consciousness. She never did.” Chris stopped and sighed.
Kate smiled gently. “Thanks, she said. “I appreciate your trust.”
“Mum and dad loved Amy and Sarah. My older brother died about ten years ago in a surfing accident – broke his neck and drowned. He was only a few metres off shore with no one around to help him. That’s what they said. Can’t imagine what that would’ve been like, not being able to move to stop the water from flowing into your lungs…” Chris wanted to continue but was interrupted.
“Hello, mate.” The old man stepped into the courtyard. “You’ve led me on a merry chase.” His voice cracked and he had tears in his eyes as he spoke.
Chris stared until he managed to eke out, “G’day Dad.”
Kate, surprised, began to explain to the old man how she needed to talk to Chris first, but he stopped her with his raised hand and said, “That’s as it should be. You don’t know me from a bar of soap. I’m glad Chris has found a friend.”
Kate smiled awkwardly, muttering something about leaving them to it. She looked towards Chris as she left. Chris and his Dad stood facing each other until the old man said, “I kept all your letters.”
Chris wrote to his parents once every couple of months. As they sat down together, his father explained that from the postmarks he would try to work out where Chris might be headed.
“I’ve been going country nearly every weekend for a year now. Sometimes your mum would come with me, but now she just reckons I’m nuts. But I’ve found you.” Chris looked down as his father continued. “We wanted to know that you were OK. Letters can lie…or hide the truth.” He paused as if he was finding it hard to speak. “What you did, taking off back then…I understood, but…you didn’t come back…” He shook his head. “You can’t just…”
“Apart from you and Mum,” Chris said gently. “There’s nothing to go back to.’
“But there is. You can get help to start again.”
Chris closed his eyes. “Maybe I am starting again.”
“You have a family, Chris!” Chris clasped his hands together tightly but tried to stay calm.
“No, Dad. They’ve gone. It’s taken me nearly all this time but I’ve finally come to terms with it. Sarah would’ve wanted me to move on…and Amy…well maybe I haven’t quite come to terms with that yet.”
His father winced at where this was heading, but he didn’t know how to not go there. After a while he spoke quietly.
“Amy’s in school now, Chris.”
Chris shook his head. “Dad, don’t start this again. I can understand why you and mum don’t want to go there; but this is exactly why I can’t come home. I can’t deal with this!”
Kate appeared and put a couple of beers on the table. The men sat in silence opposite each other; Kate felt the tension and thought better of talking about food.
“Thanks Kate,” said Chris. “I’ll be about ten, if that’s OK.”
“Take the night off, Chris; spend some time with your Dad,” she said as she headed back to the bar.
“I think we’re nearly done.” He looked at his Dad. “We’ve been over this too many times, Dad. It’s the main reason I don’t want to come back.
“I like it here…and Kate’s a good boss. I don’t want to have to move on again just because you won’t leave me alone.” He spoke more slowly and directly. “I really think that you need some help, Dad.” Chris stood up. “Kate’ll organise some dinner for you. I need to tend the bar. Please give my love to Mum; I’ll write again soon.”
Chris’ Dad went straight to his room. Kate came up to Chris at the bar.
“Are you ok?” Kate put her hand on his shoulder.
“Yeah,” said Chris, looking a bit anxious.
“It doesn’t look like it’s going to be too big a night; If you want to talk later, I’d be happy to.”
There were only a couple of stragglers left when they finally sat together. Chris was tired and Kate noticed that he still seemed on edge, with his back to the wall, occasionally scanning the bar and looking past to the stairs up to the accommodation.
“He’s really done a number on you, hasn’t he?” Kate commented.
“I wish what he was saying was true,” Chris said softly. “But it’s taken me years to start functioning again. I can’t talk to him…it’s too hard.”
“He seems like a nice enough old bloke; what’s he saying that’s so terrible?”
“That they’re still alive, that Amy’s started school…” Chris started weeping; Kate held his hand as he quickly pulled himself together.
“Sorry Kate,” he sniffled. “ You were right; he’s done a number on me.” He chuckled as he wiped his eyes. “The crazy thing is that this…being here…is the happiest I’ve been in years.” He looked up into her eyes as the last two customers walked up to the bar. Kate looked away.
“Wanna fix up your tab boys?” She grabbed the opportunity. As she bustled to the bar she felt strange. She hadn’t allowed herself to feel anything for anyone else for a long time; but Chris was different; in the six weeks he’d been there he’d shown nothing but integrity and care for her and the customers.
After the men left she stood for a moment with her hands on the cash register and her back to the room. Chris got up and bolted the front doors. When he turned back Kate walked up and put her arms around him. He held her in return.
“You’ve had a big day, mate,” she said as she patted him on the back with her head on his chest but facing away. “Things’ll be different tomorrow. Let’s have another talk when the dust settles.” With that she straightened, patted him on the chest, smiled and turned for the door.
Sunday was sleep-in day and the pub didn’t open until midday. Kate was in the office at 9.30 when Chris’ Dad dropped his key in. Knowing what she knew made her uncomfortable when he walked in.
“I’m sorry for any disruption…I’ve been looking for him for a long time. He hasn’t been the same since Jeremy, his brother, died.”
“Chris told me about that; I’m so sorry.” Kate replied.
“He blamed himself for years. They were supposed to be going surfing together but one of Chris’ mates rang up with a spare ticket to the football.
“Then when the car accident happened and he was driving…it wasn’t even his fault, but he made it his fault.”
Kate spoke up. “Chris said he drove through a red light.”
“There weren’t any lights. The truck went through a stop sign. It could’ve been so much worse.”
Kate smiled and nodded. The father half expected her response and took out his phone.
“I understand that you don’t believe me but let me show you something.” He turned the screen towards Kate. “This is Amy at her first day of school with her Mum. You can see the scar just above Sarah’s brow from the accident. That’s the only leftover, except…except for Chris.”
Kate stared at the picture, confused.
“But why…he must have seen them…alive,” Kate asked incredulous. The father nodded.
“In the hospital, every time Sarah and Amy came into the room he screamed uncontrollably, as if he was in a nightmare. Then as soon as they’d leave everything went back to normal as if he’d never seen them. It became too much, especially for little Amy.
The doctors said that it would eventually settle down, but we could never convince Chris, even after weeks. Then one day, he’d just gone.”
“What about the doctors; couldn’t they do anything?”
“Short of committing him to an institution, not really…they said he was suffering paranoid delusions from the head trauma but by the time we were deciding what to do, he’d shot through.”
There was silence for a moment; Kate was processing this new information as Chris’ Dad picked up his bag.
“Chris is a good bloke…one of the best; he won’t let you down. He just needs some help…but I don’t know how to get it to him. He seems to create his own stories and fuses them into actual memory somehow. Now that I know where he is, maybe I’ll explore what we can do legally to help.” He turned and left. Kate followed him out; she handed him a business card.
“Could you send me that picture?” The old man nodded with gratitude.
“Say goodbye to Chris for me.” From above, Chris watched the exchange from his room.
By the time Kate had finished in the office, Chris was in the kitchen drinking coffee. He was guarded as Kate walked in.
“Good morning,” she said. She was about to ask how he was feeling but thought better of it.
“Morning,” said Chris. “I see that Dad got away.”
Kate decided to be upfront. “Your father showed me a picture before he left. It was of Amy’s first day at school.” Chris sipped his coffee coolly.
“It could’ve been any kid.”
“She was with your wife….I saw the scar…it was the same woman as in the picture with you Chris.” Chris sat impassively. “And it was the same little girl, just older, bigger…her hair was shorter.” Still Chris wouldn’t respond. “Doesn’t it bother you that she is growing up without you?
“Even if you could just write to her, Chris. Let her know that her Dad loves her. A little girl desperately needs that.”
“I’ve written to her heaps of times to tell her how sorry I was. Told her how much I miss her. How she left too soon…then I’d put them into the campfire and watch the smoke go up into the sky and hope that somewhere she’d be hearing my words… feeling my love.”
Kate watched Chris as he spoke. He seemed completely absorbed in the truth of what he was saying. She’d known liars over the years and Chris wasn’t one of them. She decided to take a different tack.
“What about your wife? Sarah, isn’t it?”
“I’m happy here, Kate. You’ve accepted me just as I am.” He shook his head. “It’s taken me years to leave that life behind. As well-meaning as he might be, don’t let the Old Man dredge it all up again.”
Kate thought about the levels of meaning in what Chris said; she decided to leave it alone for a while.
“Well,” she chirped up. “All this deep and meaningful isn’t going to keep the pub running!” She paused. “I’m glad to have you here, Chris. Anything I can do, as a friend…you know.”
Instantly Chris seemed to relax; he smiled.
Chris headed down to the cellar while Kate went back to the office. She stared at the picture that had arrived in her messages
”Why doesn’t he want to be with you?” She said to herself.
Chris was back to his old self quickly; but Kate kept pondering his situation. She couldn’t understand why he wouldn’t even consider that his wife and daughter were alive, that he wouldn’t even look at a picture. She felt that there had to be more to it than a “hit on the head”.
A week or so after Chris’ Dad had left, Kate received a phone call.
“This is Sarah Douglas. I’m Chris Douglas’ wife.” Kate was taken aback.
“Sarah…hi. I…er…how can I help?”
Almost immediately Sarah began to cry. Between her sobs she apologised. Kate tried to put her at ease.
“It’s OK, Sarah…I’m…I’m glad you rang. I want to help in any way I can, but…other than being a friend to Chris…I don’t know how.”
Sarah had gathered herself and began with what sounded like a long-rehearsed address.
“When Graeme, Chris’ father, told me that he had found Chris, I was scared. Amy and I have been on a long journey over the last three years. So has Chris. I…think that he might be unwell…” Sarah paused. “ But I’m not sure; I know that’s what his parents think.”
“What do you think, Sarah?” Kate asked. There was a long silence.
“I think,” she began. “I think that he’s running away from me.” She sighed as if she had begun something that she regretted but knew she couldn’t stop. “You see, I’ve had a lot of time to think.
“After Amy was born I had post-natal depression. Chris picked up the slack; in fact as I thought about it, he was amazing. He was going to work, getting up through the night for the baby, shopping, cooking, cleaning…all for me and Amy.” She paused as her voice cracked. “But I was an absolute bitch. I pushed him away.”
Kate began to wonder if this was just about Sarah assuaging her guilt.
“But Sarah,” said Kate. “You were unwell.”
“Maybe,” sniffed Sarah. “But even after I got better, all I could see was what he wasn’t doing, what we didn’t have…” She stopped to clear her throat and continued more calmly. “I’ve grown up a lot in the last few years.”
There was a knock at the office door and Chris came in.
“Excuse me just a moment,” Kate said as she looked up, surprised.
“Sorry,” said Chris. “There’s a delivery – a couple of cases of some ale I haven’t heard of.”
“Oh…yeah…no that’s fine. We’re just giving it a try. It’s a new local one.”
“Everything OK?” He asked, seeing Kate’s expression.
“Yeah,” she covered the mouthpiece. “Just a friend who’s having a bit of a rough time,” she mouthed in a loud whisper.
Chris nodded and left. Kate waited until he was well away before she continued.
“I’m sorry, Sarah.”
“Was that Chris?” she asked.
“Yes…yes, it was.”
“I’m sorry for dumping on you like this, Kate. I must sound like a mad woman.”
“No, you sound like someone who’s been through a lot and you don’t know what to do. I get that.”
“The problem is, I know exactly what to do but I don’t know how to do it.
“I actually just wanted to make contact with you…and I don’t mean to put you in an awkward position.” Kate smiled to herself wryly. “I know I have to apologise to Chris, but…I know it has to be so real that it’ll wake him up…make him realise that we’re alive…for him.”
There was silence for a few moments until Kate said, “I don’t know what’ll wake him up, Sarah, if that’s what needs to happen; but I’m here…Chris is a good man.”
Kate sat in the office for a long time after the call. She thought of the irony of her concern: whether or not the person who is supposedly in her right mind is being honest.
Giselle, the cook, was sitting at the kitchen bench looking at how she could make the dinner menus a little more exciting. Kate put the kettle on and sat down with a sigh. At that moment Chris walked in with an invoice from the delivery.
“How’s your friend?” He asked Kate. Kate looked blank before she caught on.
“Oh…I think she’ll be OK…she has to apologise for something but she doesn’t know how.”
“Tell her to just do it,” Chris said. “Life’s too short.” Kate smiled again as Chris continued through to the office.
She wondered how it got this strange for her and how she was going to help get Chris to “wake up”, as Sarah called it.
“I feel like a bloody psycho-matchmaker,” she said quietly to herself. “With no previous experience.” Giselle looked at her askance.
“How do I get a bloody beer ‘round here?” The call came from the bar. Kate stepped out of the kitchen and literally bumped into Chris. It sent her off balance and he threw his arm around her to stop her from falling. For the briefest moment they looked into each other’s faces.
“Sorry,” said Chris as he continued to the bar.
“Me too,” said Kate. She looked across at Jacko, the old regular who stood at the bar. “How’s your health, Jacko?” Kate asked as she straightened herself.
“Slowly declining thank you, Kate my sweet!” He responded with a laugh as Chris handed a beer over.
A few days later Kate received an email from Sarah. She began by apologising for the earlier phone call and how she felt she’d presumed upon Kate and put her in a difficult position.
She said that she had worked out what she wanted to say to Chris and wanted to know when was the best time to come. Kate responded and immediately felt as if she had betrayed Chris.
Sarah arrived the following Sunday morning. Kate let her in to the office and fetched her a cup of tea. Chris was sitting in the courtyard enjoying the morning sun when Kate called.
“Chris! Got a minute in the office?”
As Chris walked in, he froze. Sarah was standing nervously by the desk. Kate was behind the desk but stood to leave.
“I should leave you both to it, I guess,” she said.
“I’d feel more comfortable if you stayed,” Sarah responded. Kate looked at Chris. He seemed to be completely present. There was nothing of the fear or anger that his father had spoken of. She wondered what that was about.
“I have nothing to say,” said Chris.
“That’s OK,” Sarah spoke up. “I’m the one responsible for this.” Kate sat as Sarah gathered herself and looked at Chris. Chris stood motionless and impassive.
“It’s good to see you, Chris,” she began. “I didn’t know if I would ever see you again.” Chris showed no emotion like a store mannequin waiting for someone to move him. “But I didn’t come just to see you…or to bring you back.
“I realised that for so much of our lives together I pushed you away.” She began to tear up and sobs began to interrupt her words. “I said things to you that were horrible; I put you down when all you wanted to do was love us and look after us.” She was weeping and Kate handed her a tissue. Kate looked at Chris; his face was hard and he was staring at the wall behind Sarah. But Kate thought that she saw a tear in his eye. Sarah cleared her throat and continued.
“I have so many things that I want to apologise for. We made vows to one another when we were married and you were the only one who kept them. All the time I was making it harder and harder for you.” She looked into his face. “Chris, I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.”
The tear had run down Chris’ cheek but still his face was hard. When he spoke, his voice was calm.
“I’ve spent three years trying to forget the things that you said to me; and I’ve pretty well managed it, but the thing that stays with me is what you said that morning of the accident. You said, ‘You’re useless! I’ve had enough! Our marriage is over!’”
Sarah went to speak but Chris held up his hand. He continued calmly.
“That was when I snapped,” he said. “I don’t know what happened exactly. I just thought to myself, ‘I’ll show you what the fuck over is!’ Then I saw an opportunity with the truck.”
“What are you talking about?” Said Sarah. “The truck went through a stop sign! It wasn’t your fault!”
“I saw it,” said Chris. “I had plenty of time to avoid it, but what was the point? Instead I accelerated into its path.” Sarah was stunned. “The stupid bastard braked. If he hadn’t,” he looked into Sarah’s face. “Then it would have been over.” Sarah was speechless as Chris continued. “After three years, that’s what stays with me; I couldn’t even get that right.”
“You were trying to kill us?” Sarah was aghast as she fumbled for her keys and backed towards the door. “Oh God…oh God…” she repeated as she stumbled out the door.
The room was silent as Kate watched Chris carefully, shocked by the sudden revelation. Chris turned back to her.
“Well,” he said after looking at her for a moment. “Standing around won’t get the field ploughed.” And he smiled as he turned to start the day’s chores.
Kate sat in the office pondering what had happened in the year since that strange morning. Sarah had been hysterical and went straight to the Police Station. Kev, the sergeant on duty, was a regular at the pub and knew Chris; but he also knew his duty and sat Sarah down while he went to talk to Chris.
Kate fully expected to be brought into it as a witness but that wasn’t required, as Chris didn’t deny anything. He was charged with attempted murder then, after an uncontested argument of temporary insanity all charges were dropped. He was committed to a psychiatric hospital where, by all reports, he was a model patient. After a few months he was allowed visits from Amy and Sarah. Sarah chose not to visit but allowed Amy to go with her grandparents. Amy had no memory of the time before Chris left and grew to like her Dad and his stories of walking the countryside and sleeping under the stars.
Kate missed Chris, even though he had only been at the pub for two months. He was a good worker and a decent bloke; she liked him. She wondered what might’ve been if Sarah had just stayed away.
In her visits she could see that Chris was progressing well and she wasn’t in a hurry. There’d be a place for the bird with the broken wing in good time.
It’s been along time between drinks on this blog. I have been writing but not doing much in the way of venting or discussing. However, having just heard that over half the population of this country, Australia, is in lockdown, I thought it might be appropriate to put some short stories out there. This has a twofold purpose: 1) it makes me publish some things that have been sitting and growing on my computer for far too long, and 2) they might help you pass the time.
Most of the stories are unmistakably Australian but you don’t need to be Australian to appreciate them. Having said that, this first story has a lot of colloquialisms and terms that may be unfamiliar to some so I’ve included a glossary at the end, just in case. The stories vary in length but I’m starting with the longest.
A word of warning: As these stories are about real people, they sometimes use language that may not be palatable to some. Do with that what you will. Feel free to pass the URL on to anyone that you think might be interested. I hope to publish one per week. All feedback is appreciated.
Looking for Rain
A boy is lost in the Outback but he is on a mission
Most people couldn’t remember the last time it’d rained, ’cause if it’s been rainin’ off and on for a bit, you usually only notice after it’s been gone a fair while, and by then you can’t remember. But I could.
It was the day before my tenth birthday. It’d been stormin’ and rainin’ all week. I was gettin’ down, ’cause we were gunna have a party down at the river and play cricket and swim and stuff, but Mum started talkin’ about everyone goin’ to the Burger Barn instead ’cause of the rain. I wanted the rain to stop so bad.
The next day – my birthday – it was amazin’. I looked out past the rooster on the fence, and the sky was so clear it looked like it had just been scrubbed clean. And the sun was comin’ down from the top of the hill so bright and warm it was makin’ all the sheep shut their eyes and smile up at it. I couldn’t believe it. It was magic.
Five years on, and in all that time it still hadn’t rained. I reckoned it was my fault. So, on the day before my fifteenth birthday, I decided I’d get up before the sun and go lookin’ for the rain.
I left Mum and Dad a note. They’d’ve thought I was out of me tree, ’specially Dad. He’d been pretty narky since he’d started workin’ for the Council – mowin’ lawns in town. He knew it was charity, ’cause the grass didn’t grow anyway; but he needed the money. Least he got somethin’. Jimbo’s old man had to sell up, and they had to go over to Bungaweenah to live with Jim’s uncle, who was an ambulance man. Banks suck. Jim’s dad was born on that farm.
Our creek’d been dry for ages, but I still reckoned the best way to find the rain was to follow the creek up as far as it went, ’cause that’s where the rain’d be most of the time; otherwise the creek wouldn’t have gotten started. I’d never been all the way up, but now was the time to give it a go.
Just before dawn, I nicked up behind the house and cut along the back ridge just inside our top fence. It was pretty dry; just a few tufts of sandy-coloured grass in rock-hard ground, ’cept for where dogs had scratched under the fence – and that was dust. I felt bad, like the ground was real sad and sayin’ to me, “Why didya do it?”
Down the other side of the ridge there was a gully with some spindly green grass in it near a rock wall. That was the top dam. Through the ti trees on the other side, the slope went up to the top of Bonnie’s hill – that was named after Dad’s old bluey who died when Dad was a kid. She got struck by lightnin’ chasin’ a possum in a storm. Grandma reckoned Dad bawled for days, but he said that Grandma was ravin’ and that the dog deserved it for bein’ so stupid. I reckon that’s pretty hard on the dog myself.
From the top of the hill you got a fair view of everything. Out to the left you could see the roofs over at Jim’s place; ’cept Jim’s not there anymore. Past that and a bit further left, you could see green trees and the top of the church. That was town. Down in front, the creek came back around the foot of the hill and headed up the valley to the right and just kept goin’ as far as you could see, through hills of brown and dirty gum green; and over the top, a hot shimmerin’ dark blue roof that didn’t look like it’d let a drop through, even if God turned his fire hose on it.
In me backpack were four lamb sandwiches, three apples and a big bottle of cordial. I took a sip and screwed the cap back on. I felt a bit funny inside when I looked at the food, ’cause I realised that when it ran out, that’d be it. The strange thing was that I don’t think I minded all that much, ’cause if I didn’t find the rain, I reckoned it’d be better if I was out of the way anyway. I’d spilt the beans to Mum and Dad in the letter, so there was no hidin’ whose fault the drought was anymore. They’d say things like, “Don’t be silly, Tim! The drought’s not your fault!” – and stuff like that. But I know the truth: six hours before my tenth birthday, I’d wished on my life that it’d never rain again – and it hadn’t.
I skidded down the slope to the creek bed and sent a few sheep skitterin’. They were skinny, mangy lookin’ things. Jeez, everything I saw reminded me.
It took half a day to reach the top end of the property. It normally only took about quarter of an hour or so in Dad’s ute.The fence was down in a couple of spots I could see. Dad hadn’t checked it in over a year. On the other side of the fence, the brown hills started – easy at first, then they got pretty steep and rocky. But the creek bed twisted its way around them, and it wasn’t real hard walking, ’cept there was no wind, so by the time I got to the swimmin’ hole I was so hot that I’d stripped down to me shorts and boots.
There was no water; just the same white sand and rocks I’d had most of the way up. There was a bit of shade though, where the cliff went pretty well straight up, and the shadow stretched out for a few metres. I put my back against the cliff-face, and it was cold. It felt good. I cooled down a bit before I had another sip of cordial. I remembered that from Scouts – you don’t drink as much that way. Across the other side, near where I’d come in, a red-belly moved into the shadow of some big tree roots. Apart from the sheep, it was the first livin’ thing I’d seen all day. Down at my feet, I noticed a rock that me and Jim had scraped our initials in a few years ago. We’d thrown it into the deepest part of the swimmin’ hole, and we couldn’t find it after that. There I was, sittin’ where heaps of water used to be. I wished Jim was there, but if he was, I’d have to tell him everything, and then he’d hate me. I was pretty sad, lookin’ at that rock. I left it where it was.
This was almost as far as I’d ever been up the creek. A bit further, and the cliffs started to close in on both sides, and then you got to the falls. Me and Jim had been to the top of the falls before, but we didn’t go any further, ’cause it took so long to get there that you had to start goin’ home pretty well straight away. I’d spent half me day walkin’ to the fence, and that’s as far as Dad normally drove us, so I reckoned that I’d probably spend the night at the top of the falls.
There was a bit of water at the top; probably just enough to keep half a dozen frogs alive for a few more days. Last time I’d come up was with Jim, and it’d looked like one of them oasis things in the desert then – lots of green and runnin’ water and birds and stuff. Now it was so quiet and brown. The sun was slippin’ behind the scrub on the nearest ridge. I’d never seen over there, but there was a thin, stretchy cloud right where the sun was, and I had to believe that’s where the rain was too.
For years we’d watched the weather on the tele. All those lines on the map and all. I know they think they’ve got it all figured out – where the rain comes from, or where it doesn’t come from – but I don’t reckon it’s that simple. I reckon there’s more to it, like it’s something spiritual – sort of like what Pastor Mick talks about – and they can’t show that on a map.
Out here it’s pretty spiritual. I mean, it’s still real, where you can touch and feel it; but the rocks and trees and the hills – there’s something more goin’ on. The land and the wind don’t care if there’s rain or not; just us – the animals and people and trees – and we’re just passin’ through.
I didn’t have any matches, and I was hopeless at all that Scout-type stuff, so I had to do without a fire. I was pretty lonely, and I missed Jim. I thought that maybe he might understand, you know about the drought and all.
The backpack wasn’t much of a pillow, but at least I’d brought a jumper, ’cause it cooled off a fair bit as the night got older. It was so dark, the only thing I could see was the sky. I wondered about the letter and what Mum and Dad had made of it. I reckoned Dad wouldn’t start lookin’ for me until tomorrow at the earliest. The stars were so thick that I kinda got lost in them before I fell asleep.
I got up before the sun. The cordial was cold, and I had half a lamb sandwich while I sat looking at the sky again. I saw six shooting stars. There wasn’t much else to do except start walkin’, so I did, as soon as I could see where to put my feet.
I headed towards the ridge, and after about twenty minutes or so it started turnin’ gold with the risin’ sun. The creek made a vee in the ridge, like if Mum pulls the cotton too tight when she’s stitchin’ the bottoms of me pants’ legs. In Science they said it took the creek millions of years to carve its way through, but I don’t see how it could’ve. That would’ve meant that the creek would’ve had to start up as high as the ridge is now, so where did the rest of the land go? Anyway, it’s pretty hard to imagine that much water flowin’ now.
Thinkin’ about water made me thirsty. I had about two-thirds of a two-litre bottle of cordial left. I remembered gettin’ dehydrated once. It was the middle of summer, and I was coming back from town in the ute with Dad. He took one of his detours to check out some new fencin’ wire or somethin’ that old man Morgan was usin’ in his bottom paddock. We never got there, ’cause the ute started hissin’ and steamin’, and then it stopped. We were twenty k’s from anywhere and it was over forty in the shade. Dad didn’t believe in mobile phones, so after we’d waited half an hour for someone to come by, we started walkin’ back to town. By the time we got to the main road, it was three hours later. Dad had me sit in the shade back from the road while he stood and waited for someone to come along. My head felt like it had an axe buried in it, and I was throwin’ up.
Mum was spewin’ too when we got home. She went right off at Dad about it. I remembered that no matter how much I drank, I was still thirsty. I looked up at the ridge. I didn’t much fancy feelin’ that way again.
It couldn’t’ve been much more than about half past six, but I was really cookin’ so when I got to the only gum tree for ages, I sat in its shade for a while. Saltbush seemed to be the only thing that was happy up here. Even the tree seemed ticked off. Maybe it’d gotten word that the little bugger who started the drought was on his way through.
Once, when our family was on holidays, we stayed at my cousin Scott’s place. His dad owned the local servo in the town where they lived – right across the road from the Council pool. It was a stinkin’ summer, so I reckon we spent every day there. It was great, ’cept one day the local hoods were waitin’ for me and Scott. They grabbed us and took us around the back of the dunnies and thrashed us pretty bad. When we got back home Dad and Uncle Dave were drinkin’ beer in the backyard. They just laughed and told us it’d toughen us up. I didn’t go swimmin’ for the rest of the time we were there. I didn’t feel any tougher; just scared and a bit lonely.
It was kinda nice sittin’ in the shade and closin’ me eyes, knowin’ I could still see everything if I wanted to. Not like at night. Out here at night it feels like you’re shut tight inside your own skin, and everything around isn’t all that safe. In the day it’s different. It feels like you can stretch out as far as you can see, and it’s OK to close your eyes. That was my mistake.
It was the hottest part of the day when I woke up covered in bull ants. I jumped up and started slappin’ myself all over and rippin’ me clothes off. The buggers were everywhere. I had bites on my legs, belly, neck, ears – even one on the inside of me leg, at the top, right near my parts. That would not have been good.
After I got ’em all off and started scratchin’, I looked up at the tree and reckoned it was probably laughin’ at me. It was a paperbark, and like a goose, I’d forgotten about the beasties that live under the bark, especially when it’s this dry.
I stood in the shade for a bit to try and cool down before I started walkin’ again. I got an apple out, ’cause I felt like a different kind of sweet to the cordial. Besides, the sweet of an apple seemed to last longer too. After a couple of bites, I suddenly remembered that it was my birthday. Mum’ll care; Dad’ll just be pissed off that he’d have to spend the day lookin’ for me. Maybe he wouldn’t bother after he read the note.
I’ve thought a lot about what it means to wish on your life. It hasn’t rained since I did, so that must mean it’s a pretty powerful thing. I’ve tried to undo it, but nothin’ works. And even if I did find where the rain comes from, I didn’t really know what I was gunna do then.
The more I thought about it, the more confused I got; and I got tired too, like I had weights in my boots all the time. Sometimes I thought that if I did ever get there, I’d just lay down and go to sleep forever, ’cause at least I’d’ve tried, and maybe that’s what it’d take to undo the wish.
The vee in the ridge didn’t look much closer, but I knew I’d have to get there by sunset; I didn’t have enough cordial to last any longer. It was funny, but I wasn’t scared about dyin’; the thought of just fadin’ away was kinda peaceful. Out here I felt more like I belonged. The trees mightn’t’ve liked me much, but the land felt like it didn’t care about rain; it could be strong with or without it. It sort of made me feel safer, like at least I had a friend.
The sun was so hot that it was like being under a magnifyin’ glass. My neck was already burnt from the day before, ’cause I’d forgotten a hat. I never wear one at home. I could’ve put my shirt on my head, but then I’d burn everywhere else, so I used my backpack and clipped the straps under my chin. It wasn’t real comfortable, but it was enough to keep the sun off. I must’ve looked like an idiot.
After a couple of hours I stopped at a bunch of trees at the edge of the creek bed. I hadn’t followed the creek, ’cause it wound around too much, and I reckoned that the quickest way was a straight line. Apart from a few wombat holes, it was pretty level with just a few ups and downs.
The trees were tall and straight with white bark, and the creek bed there was mostly made up of big river stones, with only a bit of sand. The vee was a lot closer now, and I could see the creek pretty clearly, ’cause there were quite a few patches of green as it wound up towards the ridge.
There weren’t any roads; the land didn’t belong to anyone, ’cept the local tribe, and they don’t reckon they own it anyway. They had stories about goin’ out here for somethin’ to do with dreamin’ and sacred places. I reckoned those trees might’ve been a sacred place; the air was different around them: cooler and a bit sort of friendly but kind of important; not scary like I thought a sacred place would be. Anyway, what would I know?
I sat in the shade, makin’ sure there weren’t any ants and had a whole sandwich while I cooled down. I tried not to eat too fast, but it was hard. There was only about three centimetres of cordial left, so I only had a mouthful after the sanga.
I reckoned that I had enough to get me to the vee, but even if I changed my mind, I didn’t reckon I could get back anyway. It was too hot. I felt kind of peaceful about that. I wasn’t so confused anymore, ’cause there was only one hope, and if that didn’t work out, I guess they’d find me some day.
I closed my eyes and thought about Mum and how upset she’d be. They probably wouldn’t have got the note till they’d gone into my room after I didn’t come home that night. I hoped Dad didn’t find me. He’d be goin’ off about how stupid and selfish I was and “look at what you’ve done to your Mother.”
Then I heard a voice sayin’, “Whatcha lookin’ for, fella?” There was an old tribal bloke standin’ beside me.
“Lookin’ for rain,” I said
“Hmmmph…no you’re not,” he replied, almost as if I’d lied to him. I started to tell him the story, but he just walked off. I went to stand up to go after him and ask him what he meant, but I looked down to find my left leg was missing.
I woke up, and my leg was asleep; I’d had it crossed underneath me. Still, the dream was a bit weird.
With all the green, I decided to follow the creek from here on, just in case there was some water. I didn’t really want to die of thirst; starvation maybe, but thirst would suck. I stayed up on the bank to walk ’cause there were too many big stones in the creek. There were plenty on the bank too, but they were easier to get around.
After an hour and a half, the vee became a few folds in the ridge and mostly-brown hills, but the sun was makin’ the edges of them gold by this time. I had another mouthful of cordial and took out an apple to eat while I walked. The ground was goin’ up now and the creek went up in steps. It was a bit sad ’cause you could see how the stones were and that there must’ve once been pretty waterfalls and things there.
I was sweatin’ like a three-day-dead pig, but when I finally looked back, I was well up above the plain. Above the trees I could see the top of the falls where I’d started that mornin’. It seemed a long way away and a long time ago.
The sun wasn’t far off goin’ down, and it was gettin’ hard to see in some of the gullies that I was workin’ through. I had to use my hands a lot ’cause by that time I didn’t have a choice but to be in the creek bed. There were no paths and too much scrub on the banks. Besides, sometimes the banks were too bloody steep.
Once I’d gone with Dad to help free one of the sheep that’d got caught in the fence in the lower gully. It was just after dark, and our torch’d died just after we got down there. I was s’posed to hold the sheep while he tried to get its leg free. He must have hurt it ’cause it jerked out of my grip and knocked Dad over. He ripped his hand up on the barbed wire and used some pretty choice words at me for lettin’ go of the sheep.
My hands were pretty sore now and grazed from trying to get handholds on rough stones. Sometimes I thought I could hear water, and then I’d climb up another dry waterfall to more sand and stones. I’d heard that sometimes creeks can flow underground, and all you have to do to get water is dig down a bit, but I didn’t have the energy. I only had half a sandwich left and about a mouthful of cordial. I had to get up higher.
Then it hit me. Did I really think I was gunna find the rain? I stopped, and it was so quiet I reckoned I could hear my hands throbbin’. I thought of the old bloke in my dream. Why didn’t he believe me?
I was so tired, but I realised after all that tellin’ myself that if I didn’t find rain it’d be better if I was gone, I really didn’t want to die just yet. I closed my eyes and cried a bit.
After I’d settled down, I was about to keep movin’ when I heard a new noise. It reminded me of a time when I was a little kid, and there was heaps of water around. Dad was washing the car, while me and Jim were playin’ with the hose. I was wavin’ it towards Jim, and curls of water were goin’ splat, splat, splat on the ground. I remember that it hadn’t sounded like water. I lifted my head and saw what looked like waves of river sand bouncing off a great boulder above me.
I got a bit scared and climbed really slowly to try and get a better look. I turned my head on its side to see between two big stones. A rock wallaby was busy diggin’ in the creek bed a bit further on and flickin’ sand in the air. I must’ve let out some kind of noise, ’cause he looked up and saw me and shot off like a bullet.
I went over to where he’d been diggin’. He’d made a pretty big hole, and the sand further down was wet. Water was starting to make a little puddle. I got down and dug it out some more. In about ten minutes I reckon there was enough water to about half fill my bottle. I finished the cordial and laid the bottle in the puddle. It was amazingly clear when I lifted the bottle up. I drank that and then half-filled it a few more times. It felt like my body was soakin’ it up like a sponge. But while I was sittin’ and waitin’ for the water, I kept on thinkin’ about my dream.
The sky was still blue above, but it was gettin’ darker by the time I ate my last half sandwich. My mind was a bit better, and even though I wasn’t sure about too much, I wanted to keep goin’. I reckoned another half an hour would do me before I found somewhere to sleep. I managed to get my bottle two-thirds full and headed off. There was a steady wind blowin’ from the northwest, right into my face, and though it cooled me down a bit, I knew that it was dryin’ me out too.
After half an hour it was pretty dark, but I wanted to move on. The ground seemed level, but I knew I hadn’t reached the top of the ridge yet. I reckoned that if it was level then I didn’t really need to see, and I could make some extra ground before I stopped. I had my hands out in front of me in case I tripped, but I wasn’t expecting the ground to just disappear.
I wasn’t in the air long, but when I hit it hurt a lot. My head was OK ’cause it hit the sand, but my hip and shin hit rock, and I was squealin’. When the pain eased off a bit, I started feelin’ around to see if I was bleedin’. I didn’t seem to be, and I thought that was probably a good thing.
I tried to stand up, but my hip felt like it was on fire, and I reckoned that my shin bone was broken, so I managed to drag myself into a spot that was all sand and got myself as comfortable as I could to wait until the sun came up.
It was about the worst night I can remember. It felt like everything from my belly down was throbbin’ and nothin’ I did made it any better, just worse. When first light came, I couldn’t believe how stupid I’d been. The creek bed was level, but I’d gone up a bit on one side where the ground sloped up behind a fallen gum tree to a drop of about two metres. If I’d been ready for it I could’ve jumped. As it was, I had a lump the size of a tennis ball on my shin, and I don’t know what was goin’ on with my hip, but it wasn’t good. There was no way I was goin’ anywhere.
Back near the foot of the fallen gum, a big bush spread out low over the creek bed. It took about half an hour to drag myself into its shade. I cried ’cause it hurt so much, and I realised that this was probably it; I wasn’t gunna find the rain, and I felt like I’d failed in that. But another part felt OK, ’cause I reckoned that I’d given it my best shot. I still had half a bottle of water, and if I could get my mind off the pain, I might’ve been able to sleep.
The sun climbed higher, and I saw clouds come and go; I dozed a bit and heard some animals in the scrub. I thought I saw that old tribal bloke again, but he didn’t say anything.
After a while, the pain only bothered me when I moved, but before too long I was so tired I couldn’t even lift my arm. The water was gone, but I heard thunder once and some black cockatoos goin’ somewhere. Black cockies always seemed to be goin’ somewhere. I started to feel cold and I thought I heard voices; then it was quiet again. The next thing, I felt drops on my face, and I smiled.
Geoff Jackson – Tim’s dad
Most of the blokes around here were born and raised on their farms, at least the ones who still have farms. Shelley and I took the farm over when my Uncle Stan fell off the perch. I was his only family.
Shell was pregnant and we knew bugger all about sheep; but we were young and weren’t scared of hard work. What they don’t tell you, though, is it doesn’t matter how hard you work if it doesn’t rain.
Old Stan had let the place run down by the time we came along. A lot of the sheep were crook or had wandered off. But the land was good and there were two full dams.
When we moved in, Shell wasn’t far off dropping the baby. The nearest hospital was an hour and a half away, so we decided to go with the local midwife. She was older and had delivered most of the kids around here. Unfortunately, Shell had complications. The baby was born OK, but Shell got ripped up inside. By the time the ambos got her to hospital, it was touch and go. After that we couldn’t have any more kids.
It took a couple of years, but we got the farm going pretty well. People around here helped out, and we made some good friends. We actually started to feel like the farm was ours. There was plenty of rain back then; everything was going well.
We’d had some issues with Tim as a little fella; he was a bit late in a few ways, especially walking and talking; he didn’t say much ’til he was nearly four. But with numbers he was amazing! Takes after his mum; that’s why she does the books and not me.
Timmy needed a bit of help at school with socialising and helping other kids to learn how he ticked. It didn’t work too well; kids are kids. But James seemed to understand him – he was the son of our friends Pete and Karen – and he and Tim spent a lot of time together. All it takes is one good friend, I reckon.
The rain stopped about ten, twelve years ago, when Tim was just a little bloke. We had a few days of it about five years back, just enough to make a few puddles and turn the dams into mud traps for the sheep. We haven’t had a drop since then.
Last year things started to bite, and Pete and Karen had to sell their place. That farm had been in his family for generations. We didn’t owe much at all on ours, just what we’d borrowed for extra feed for the sheep. It didn’t seem right that us relative newcomers still had our farm.
One day, Tim went walkabout. We didn’t know it at the time; he often took off with a sandwich and spent a day out with the sheep, or climbing trees, or he and Jim would catch frogs down by the town bridge.
I was at work – looking after the gardens in town, just to help make ends meet – and Shelley was talking to the accountant, which seemed to happen a lot these days. It was the day before Tim’s birthday, and he usually liked to keep an eye on things if there was a celebration coming up, especially one that involved him. So, when he wasn’t home for dinner, we thought it was a bit unusual.
Shell was worried, so I hopped in the ute and went into town to see if anyone had seen him. No one had. I wasn’t surprised; since Pete and Karen had left with young James, Tim didn’t really go into town much.
When I got back, Shell was sitting on the step crying. She’d found a note that Tim had left in his room. I didn’t know what to think when I read it; part of me thought it was a joke, but joking’s not really Tim’s way.
Dear Mum and Dad,
I know things have been tough for a while now with the farm and all. This is really hard to say cause I know that you’ll tell me that it’s nothing to do with me. But I know different.
See just before my tenth birthday it’d been pouring all week, and it looked like my party was gonna have to be inside. I knew all my cousins were coming and Jim and stuff and I really wanted to have the party outside down by the river so we could play cricket and have a fire. This is really hard.
The night before my birthday I wished on my life that it’d never rain again. And it hasn’t.
I know what you’re gonna say but it’s true. I know for a fact that it hasn’t rained since then and I know it’s my fault. So I’m heading out to find the rain and I’m not coming back until I find it.
I really hope I can bring the rain back. I’m more sorry than I’ve ever felt about anything. I know it’s my fault and I hope I can fix it.
Shelley was beside herself. I was thinking about where he might’ve gone; where I would’ve gone, ’cause part of me felt a bit strange, like I totally got what he was doing. But the stronger part said that he was crazy. With Shell blubbering her face off, I thought I’d better keep that notion to myself.
I rang the cops over at Bungaweenah, and they said they’d send a bloke over to help. I had no idea where Tim had gone. Of course, he might come back on his own, but his mind worked in strange ways, and usually once he’d decided something, that was it; so there was no guarantee that logic was gonna have anything to do with where we’d find him.
A thousand thoughts ran through my mind. When you’ve got all this stuff to do – working, running a farm, keeping everything going – you do what’s in front of you. I guess I didn’t have a clue about Tim – what he was thinking, how he was feeling. I sort of hoped that Shell was looking after all that… I mean, I know I was his dad and all, but Shell was better with that sort of stuff.
It was nearly midnight before Dave, the cop from Bungaweenah, showed. By then a few of the blokes from town had rallied as well. A couple of the women made sandwiches and cups of tea. I heard them talking about Tim and how it wasn’t true that it hadn’t rained in all that time. I told them that if Tim said it hadn’t rained in five years, then it hadn’t. He checked the rain gauge every day, even if he was crook. I hadn’t realised why he was doing it; I thought it was just one of his quirks.
Dave said that if Tim hadn’t shown up, or we hadn’t found him, within twenty-four hours, they’d be able to get a helicopter out from the city. Because he was a bit older, they weren’t too worried. I was itching to get out there, but after we’d read Tim’s letter again, we couldn’t agree about which way we should head. Shell was too upset to even think; most of the blokes reckoned that Narraba Peak was where he was headed ’cause that was the highest ground around, and it’d sometimes get rain that nowhere else would.
I wasn’t so sure; I knew what they were on about, but Timmy didn’t know that neck of the woods. It was a long way off, and it was a few hours walk before you even left the road. There hadn’t been any reports of him on any of the roads, and they’re the quickest way to Narraba.
I reckoned that he’d headed up the creek; it just seemed to make the most sense to me. For most of his life, that’s where the water had been, so I figured that’s where he’d go to look for the rain.
Still, it was pretty hard to argue. All I had was a gut feeling, and I wasn’t real happy about trusting it.
In the end, we decided to split up. I was gonna head up the creek from our place with Mick Partridge, the minister from the local church, and the others were gonna go towards Narraba Peak. We agreed that if any of us found evidence of Timmy, we’d join up.
They decided that they’d wait until first light, but I wasn’t having a bar of it. If my boy was out there on his own, I wasn’t gonna wait five hours before I started looking for him.
Mick made the most sense; after the others headed off, he looked me in the eye and said to me, “Geoff, I’ll go with you anywhere you want to go. I’m here to find your boy. But I’d hate to think that we missed a clue because we didn’t have enough light.”
I thought about that. It wasn’t winter; Timmy’d be OK through the night. It made sense. Plus, it was gonna be rugged, and no vehicles would be able to get in, so we’d need to take supplies, possibly even enough to spend a night if we needed to.
Mick and I drove up just before first light. We got to the top of the farm after about twenty minutes. The track wasn’t the best; I hadn’t been up there in a while.
We took backpacks with water, food and the CB radio; phones were no good – no reception. Shelley stayed back at the house to run the radio. I knew that she’d rather be out looking, but she’d be the best one to know for sure if any of us found anything that we thought belonged to Tim. We took sleeping bags too, just in case. I didn’t want Tim to spend another night out there, but there was no telling.
After about half an hour, we got up to the swimming hole. I hadn’t been there in years, and I nearly didn’t recognise it. What was once a pool a couple of metres deep was now just a sand pit by a steep, stone wall. The sun was edging in, and I looked around for any sign. I found a rock with some initials on it: JB and TJ. As soon as I saw it, I knew that there must have been an argument. Tim would not have been happy letting Jim Bradley put his initials first.
Between the rock and the stone wall were two small, shallow wells in the sand; they were barely noticeable, and maybe they were nothing, but they might’ve been where he’d sat. It was an odd moment; I didn’t know whether they were footprints, but I became aware that Tim was doing this thing that had sort of taken him into another world – a world that could just as easily have killed him as let him live. Even then, I didn’t know if he was alive, but everything inside me was willing him to be. At the same time, I was getting this guilty feeling growing in my guts about all the years and all the work, and that if we didn’t find Timmy, none of it – including the bloody farm – was worth a sheep’s turd.
Shell radioed that Pete and Karen had arrived. They’d been out when I rang the night before, so I’d left them a message. Karen would be good for Shell, and Pete was going to join Mick and me.
It was nearly an hour before Pete got to us; he’d brought Jim, which was just as well, because Jim knew the way to the swimming hole. Pete said that Shelley had checked Tim’s room to see if she could work out what he’d taken. He had his backpack and boots, but she couldn’t tell what else was gone, apart from half a loaf of bread and some lamb from the fridge. That made me feel a bit better; it’d probably be enough to keep him going until we got to him. But the weather was pretty warm already, and I wasn’t real happy that we’d had to hang around waiting for Pete. Mick and I had used the time to check all around for tracks, but there was nothing for sure. Before we left, I saw Jim pick up the rock and put it in his backpack.
Even though we’d had to wait, it was good to see Pete; I’d missed him. It must’ve been hard for him to come back to help with all the memories around here. He said that Gordon and Sheila – Shelley’s parents – had just arrived. Gordon had gone straight out to join the others on the Narraba track. That was a relief; I didn’t need him chipping in his bloody opinions. He probably chose Narraba so that he wouldn’t have to be with me anyway.
I’d never been to the top of the cascades. I remembered Tim had told us about it once over dinner. I was in a crap mood for some reason and cut him off for going so far from home, even though I’d been the one who dropped him and Jim up at the fence in the morning. I felt this kind of pain in my chest at the thought of it and wished I hadn’t been such an arse.
We got to the top of the cascades just after one. When I saw how brown it was, as far as you could see, the hopelessness of it all kicked me in the guts; I felt sad for Tim, looking for rain in a giant dirt oven.
A couple of scrape marks on the ground could’ve been from boots, but could just as easily have been from a roo. There was nothing in the mud and the rest of the ground was so hard none of us left footprints anyway.
I’d asked Jim if Tim had talked to him about his plan, but he was as clueless as the rest of us. When I searched up ahead, the binoculars didn’t show anything either, and the thought of heading out into that heat without something more to go on was pretty daunting. Then Mick spotted something not far from the scrape marks we’d seen earlier. He was squatting down and sniffing his fingers.
“You can thank the ants for the clue,” he said.
Ants were swarming around a little reddish-brown spot on the hard clay, about the size of a dollar coin.
“It’s almost gone,” he continued. “But I’m pretty sure that’s tomato sauce.”
I pressed my finger into the almost-dry spot and sniffed; there was a faint odour of tomatoes and dirt.
“You reckon?” I asked. He nodded.
I knew Tim had lamb sandwiches, and I also knew that he liked tomato sauce on them. I used to tell him it was sacrilege to put sauce on lamb, but that day I was glad he did.
I got on the radio to tell Shell. It wasn’t much to go on, but at least it was something. The Narraba Peak mob heard our conversation; Shelley’s dad’s voice came out of the speaker.
“Are you sure, Geoff? Or is it just going to be a wild goose chase?”
I bit my lip and suggested that he keep looking where he was, just in case. It would’ve taken them too long to meet up with us anyway. There weren’t any roads, and the only vehicle access was an old fire trail about eighty k’s north that eventually wound its way down from the northwest. But it was such a goat track that it’d take even a four-wheel drive a full day. That worried me a bit. If we needed to carry Tim out, we’d have to get a chopper, and who knows how long that’d take?
I stood staring into the distance and thinking about why Timmy was such a loner. I remembered one evening a couple of months back when we were watching TV after dinner, some show about Africa. A herd of zebras had been spooked by lions and was stampeding. Some of the young ones were falling and getting trampled by the herd. Tim was upset.
“Why are the little kids the ones that get run down? Why aren’t their parents protectin’ them? The lions’ll get ’em!” It took a while for Shell to calm him down. I just sat there watching him. Shell was holding him and mouthing at me, “What is wrong with you?” Good question.
Pete touched me on the shoulder, “Are you OK, Geoff?”
“Yeah,” I said. “Let’s just find Timmy.”
Pete and Jim took the left bank, while Mick and I took the right. It seemed like a bit of a joke to keep going with just a spot of what might’ve been tomato sauce as our only clue.
After about half an hour, Mick spoke up.
“Shelley’s father sounds like he’s not coping too well. How are you holding up, Geoff?”
“I reckon old Gordon’s got more of a problem with me than anything else,” I said. “He’d probably blame me for the bloody drought if anyone’d believe him.”
The irony of what I’d just said only hit after it left my mouth. Gordon had that effect on me.
He didn’t forget anything. When Shelley and I were first married, we’d bought the service station franchise over in Canning Point. It had seemed like a great opportunity, but within six months the oil company told us that they’d be opening a new centre on the town bypass. It would’ve cost us four times as much to buy in and we just couldn’t do it; so we got bugger-all for the sale of the servo and had to sell our house to pay off our debts. Then we moved in with Shelley’s parents, and I got work at the local abattoir to make ends meet.
I hated it. Gordon made no secret of the fact that he thought it was my fault that we’d lost everything. He reckoned I hadn’t planned properly. I probably hadn’t; but I was only a kid, and he hadn’t offered any help.
When Stan left us the farm, Gordon reckoned we should’ve sold it and made a fresh start in Canning Point. “What do you know about sheep, Geoff?” He said. “You only know how to kill things.”
Even Shelley went off at him for saying that. I couldn’t wait to get out of there.
Mick was looking at me. I’d been alone with my thoughts for a bit. “Yeah, but how are youholding up, Geoff?”
I stopped and looked at him and shook my head. “I don’t know, Mick; ask me when it’s over.”
All the while we were searching for clues like they were half-buried hundred-dollar notes; some sign of something – anything – that’d tell us we were on the right track.
“Look, Geoff,” Mick began again, “I don’t know what Shelley’s dad’s beef is…a-and I know that I haven’t spent a lot of time with you and Shelley, but from what I’ve seen, you’re a great husband and father. And you’ve kept the farm…”
I stopped walking.
“Are you serious, Mick?!” I interrupted angrily. “I’m mowing lawns and doing odd-jobs for Council so we can eat! And if I’m such a great father, why the fuck has Tim shot off into the never-never with the weight of the world on his shoulders?!”
The silence was like cotton wool; all I could hear was the pulse in my ears as tears pooled in my eyes, and I turned away. Mick put his hand on my shoulder.
“Mate,” he said. “All I’m saying is that you’ve got to go easy on yourself, otherwise you’re not gonna make it. You’re the one who looks like he’s got the weight of the world on his shoulders. And it’s grinding you into the ground.
“We’ll find Tim. Then you can start again with the whole father business, if you want.”
For all my grandstanding, that seemed about right. I apologised to Mick, and he just laughed it off and made me promise that I’d tell Gordon to fuck off. I laughed because I’d never heard him use that kind of language before.
Pete came over and suggested that we stop in the shade of the trees up ahead and make a plan. The reality was that even if we turned around right then – which I wasn’t about to do – there was no way we could’ve been back before nightfall, so a plan sounded like a good idea.
Jim got to the trees ahead of us and came running back, pretty well straight away.
“It’s Tim’s!” He yelled.
He was holding a bundle of something that looked like tiny streamers.
“It’s Tim’s lunch wrap! He always does this.” He said.
It was true. After a sandwich, Tim would sit and painstakingly tear his paper wrap continuously to see how long he could get it before it broke. I’d never been so grateful for one of his crazy habits.
When we arrived under the trees, I radioed Shelley and the others. It was already late in the day, so there was nothing that they could do really, except Dave, the cop, started asking questions about how much food we reckoned Tim had. I told him that water was the real issue. We’d gone through half of ours, and there was no sign or even promise of anything in the creek; and following it was about to get rough as it wound up into hills and higher country.
Dave said that he’d already been in touch with the chopper and they’d be down at first light. I reckoned too that we were going to need help to find Tim in that rough country – and if we were going to survive the heat ourselves.
Apart from the lunch wrap, it was pretty clear that Tim had stopped under the trees. After no trail at all, to see bent grass and scuffed ground was like a gift. We decided to stay overnight on the flat up ahead, below the ridge; that way the chopper could land nearby.
As we pressed on in the fading light, the wind came up, hot and dry. Tomorrow was going to be a stinker; not good for us or Tim. When we arrived on the flat I spent a few minutes calling his name up into the hills, but the wind in my face made sure that he wouldn’t be able to hear it.
One thing that we could count on was that there wouldn’t be any rain, so the soft sand of the creek bed was the best place to sleep. I wondered where Tim was sleeping; probably in the creek bed too. As I lay there in the firelight with those three fellas, for some strange reason I found it hard to thank them for helping me. Normally you’d just thank people with beer; but this time I had to use words. Something inside made me feel like I wasn’t being true as I thanked them, but I know that I was. What was that about?
“You’d be the first to help us, Geoff,” Mick replied, while Pete and Jim just looked down and half smiled.
They were all asleep in no time. Poor blokes must’ve been totally buggered; I know I was. But I was thinking about Timmy, up there somewhere underneath the weight of all those stars.
I thought about whether I’d ever taken him camping, and I couldn’t remember. I know that he’d done a bit with school, and that he and Jim had done a fair bit around our farms together.
Once he asked if we could go to the beach for a summer camping holiday; the only time he’d seen the ocean was one winter when we went to the coast for my mum’s funeral. I told him that there was nothing special about the beach. The truth was that we couldn’t afford to go anywhere. He just dropped his eyes to the floor and nodded. Shelley flicked me a dirty look, and I quickly said to him, “But maybe we’ll make a plan for it down the track a bit, ay?”
Tim wasn’t stupid; that was my department. He left the room, and Shelley started into me about always “robbing the boy of hope”.
“That may be your problem, Geoff,” she hissed. “But don’t you dare make it your boy’s.”
I guess she sees the stuff that I reckon I’ve got buried. Lying there, nothing felt real except the feeling deep in my guts telling me that Shell was right; and I didn’t know what crazy hope was driving Timmy; I just needed to find him.
Before I went to sleep I wanted to talk to Shelley. In spite of the guys that were with me, I felt alone and thought that she was probably feeling the same. I turned the radio on and before I said anything I thought I heard Shelley crying; she must’ve left her radio on. I didn’t know what to say. Then I heard the door and Gordon’s voice in the background. He’d probably just arrived back from Narraba. He must’ve seen Shelley crying.
“I knew I should’ve gone with them,” he said. “This just isn’t good enough.”
“What a bastard,” I thought. That was the last thing that Shelley needed. But she spoke up.
“Leave it alone, Dad.”
“But they should’ve found him by now.”
“Dad, leave it!” She was getting riled up. I’d never heard her get angry with Gordon before. “You’ve never had any time for Geoff,” she said. “Well, he’s a good man. Even if he isn’t you.”
She was defending me to the old bastard. I felt like cheering and crying at the same time. But Gordon wasn’t finished. He started with his usual line, “All I’m saying is…” but Shelley wouldn’t let him finish.
“All you’re saying is what you’ve always said, Dad – criticism from the bloody sidelines!”
Gordon got all defensive.
“Where did this come from?” He asked. Then Shell let him have it. She was crying by this time.
“It’s been twenty years coming…you always have advice for us, so here’s some from me. If you haven’t got anything good to say, then shut the fuck up!”
There was silence before I heard Sheila’s voice telling Shelley gently that she’ll call her in the morning. The door closed and Shelley cried. Then she must’ve noticed that the radio was still on.
“Geoff?” She said weakly. I didn’t answer. I still don’t know why. Then she turned the radio off.
I went to sleep thinking about Shelley and taking her on a holiday to play cricket on the beach with Tim and me, after I’d made a deal with God.
I got the fire going before first light so the chopper wouldn’t have any trouble finding us. The nor-wester was springing up again, and it was pretty warm already. Dave radioed that they were on their way; they couldn’t get here quick enough as far as I was concerned. With the temperature rising quickly, I was getting worried about Tim. You can normally survive for a few days without water, but not in this sort of heat.
When the chopper came in, dust flew up everywhere and stuck to any exposed, sweaty skin. Dave jumped out with a bag full of bacon and egg rolls that the local church ladies had made for us. I hoed in ’cause I knew I needed it to get through the day, but the truth was that I felt guilty eating while Timmy was still out there.
The State Emergency Service pilot shook my hand as he introduced himself and started speaking all official.
“Geoff, I’m Jordan from the SES. Tim’s been missing for thirty-six hours as far as we know. That’s why we have the helicopter. I’d like you to come with us, because you seem to have a fair idea of where Tim might be headed.”
That made me stop. I assumed that Tim was headed up the creek bed, but I didn’t know for sure.
“Actually,” I said. “I haven’t got a fucking clue. So far, we’ve been lucky; but to be honest, how would I know?” I started to crack. “I don’t know him…” Then I cried. Real crying, not just little sobs. I wanted to find Timmy so badly, but realized I didn’t really know him. Pete cam up beside me beside me.
“Mate, what are you on about?” he said, as he held me around the shoulders. “We’ve found a couple of pretty good clues. I reckon we’re on the right track.”
Half a day’s hiking was covered in a couple of minutes in the air. The ground was rugged and difficult, gradually getting higher in giant, boulder-covered steps, as what must have been a beautiful series of waterfalls once, gained altitude towards the vast brown plateau beyond.
“What’s that?” Jim called out. He was pointing to a dark blue object hidden in shadow at the foot of a boulder in the creek bed below. The pilot brought the chopper around, but the overhanging gums wouldn’t let us get too close. I did some quick calculations in my head and reckoned that, if that object were Timmy’s, he couldn’t have been there much before yesterday afternoon. It was worth a look; it might give us a clue.
Jordan, the pilot, went up higher to look for a place to land. A few hundred metres to the north there was a flat apron of open sandstone surrounded by scrub, which formed a level ledge on the slope. It wasn’t much bigger than the bowling club car park in town, and the wind was buffeting us all over the place, but he brought us down safely.
I was out like a shot, headed towards the creek bed. Mick and Pete were yelling at me to slow down. The trees ahead signalled the approach of the creek, and I felt a kick of adrenaline. I passed the first river gum about the same time as the ground turned steep. I took a few steps in the air then tumbled downhill, bouncing off a few large rocks and small trees as I went. When I finally stopped, I was still focussed on the blue object, which was fifty metres away on the other side of the creek bed. I didn’t notice the gash in my head nor the cuts and scratches on my legs.
Pete skidded down beside me, stood and grabbed my arm.
“Mate, I’m with you,” he said. “But you’re gonna be useless if you kill yourself!”
I looked down to where the pain was coming from in my thigh and saw the torn shorts and blood trickling out from under them.
We got to Timmy’s jumper. The ground nearby was damp where it had obviously been dug out.
“Clever boy!” said Jordan, still panting from the run. “Found himself some water.”
“Good on ya, mate.” I whispered to myself.
There was no telling how long ago he’d been there, so we had to work out whether to go on foot or in the chopper. To be honest, I felt more in control on the ground following a path, but if Tim was even half a day ahead of us, there’d be no catching him until it was too late.
I stared for a bit, thinking about what “too late” might mean, while the others discussed what to do. A few black cockies screeched on their way past, and brought me back to reality.
“I think we should take the chopper,” I said.
Everyone nodded, but Jordan reckoned that a few of us ought to continue on foot.
“That way, if Tim’s hurt or hiding, he’ll be easier to spot,” he explained. “The chopper’s good for covering ground quickly, but if he doesn’t want to be seen, it’s not hard for him to hide from it.”
Jordan suggested I go with him, and we would find somewhere further up to land and then walk back down.
“That’s if we don’t spot him from the air first,” he said.
Pete sent Jim with us too, ’cause he reckoned it’d be too hot for him as they climbed. Jim protested a bit but came anyway.
From the air it felt a bit like watching a movie, as the creek bed slowly went by. I found myself quickly looking back, after we’d passed, to try and catch Timmy hiding behind some rocks or trees. It had never occurred to me that he might not want to be found. I didn’t know how I felt about that. I had so many questions about why he’d gone; I knew that his brain worked differently, but I couldn’t help feeling that if he’d been happy or…I don’t know…more comfortable with us at home, that he might’ve been able to talk; or maybe he wouldn’t have even felt like he was to blame in the first place. I felt guilty, stupid, angry and anxious, all at once.
I just wanted to get down onto the ground and find him.
The creek bed got narrower, and gum trees and acacias made it difficult to see some parts. We could’ve been right over Tim and not known. Jordan decided to head further up, beyond where Timmy could’ve reached, to look for a place to land, so that we could head back down on foot and intercept him.
The wind had gotten stronger and landing wasn’t easy, but Jordan seemed to know what he was doing. As soon as we got down I was itching to get going, but Jordan insisted on doing his checklist. It was still early, but already over thirty-five degrees. With the wind steady all morning from the northwest, it’d easily be pushing forty by midday.
Out to the southwest, some dark clouds were brewing. That didn’t normally mean much. We’d had too many years where dark clouds would come and go, lightning would flash across the sky, and half a dozen big drops would fall; then nothing. The storm front would go on and make its way to the coast, where it’d dump a shitload of rain where no one needed it.
I didn’t like the look of those clouds. Although rain was pretty unlikely, they could’ve been bringing a nasty, squally change with random lightning strikes and trees blown down; I wanted to get going. Finally, Jordan came out of the chopper.
“OK. Geoff, before we go anywhere, I’m going to have to have a look at those wounds,” he said.
“Mate, I’m fine,” I replied, more than a little agitated. “Let’s just get going, ay?”
“Sorry Geoff, but I have a protocol to follow, and I have to make sure that the whole team is fit for the considerable task ahead of us. I don’t make the rules, mate, but I do have the right, by law, to enforce them.”
He got a little serious on the last bit, and I could see that he wasn’t kidding. My head had a bump and a gash, but after a bit of a clean-up, it was deemed to be OK. Jordan didn’t like the look of the leg wound, though.
“You’ve gone down into muscle on this one, Geoff,” he said. “You’ll probably need a bit of surgery on it.”
“Like hell!” I said.
“Settle down, mate; I don’t mean right now. I can’t do it anyway, but I will have to make sure we’ve stopped the bleeding and then strap it up.”
He got to work, while Jim stared, looking a little queasy. I was getting more impatient by the second. The nor-wester was picking up even more, which probably meant that the storm front was pushing its way closer. The thought of not finding Tim before it hit was making me almost scream inside.
“Jordan, I can’t wait any more,” I pleaded.
“I know, Geoff. I’m sorry, mate. Almost done. I want you to make it too.”
The leg seemed to hurt more after he had finished with it, but at least we were moving. This country was where the creek began, with lots of streambeds coming in at different places. The creek bed itself was very rough with steep sides.
It was tough going, especially with me favouring one leg, though I did my best not to show it. After about twenty minutes, although the banks were steeper, the bed levelled out and became sandier.
Dave was on the radio asking how we were going. Jordan explained the delay, and that we were headed down at a pretty good pace. They hadn’t seen anything, just some inconclusive tracks that could’ve been an animal’s. It bothered me that they might get to Timmy before me, but it also bothered me that they hadn’t seen any sign of him. They had to have been going for at least an hour.
“Did you look behind things – you know, rocks and trees?” I asked. “In case he didn’t want you to find him…”
Their answer didn’t fill me with confidence that they’d checked everywhere. I started to feel a bit frantic, like I had to look everywhere, under everything. Jim was giving me strange looks. I started to feel like I was losing control.
My leg was worse and I was struggling to stay on my feet in places. Jordan finally said something when he spotted blood trickling down my leg.
“Mind if I have a look at your leg, Geoff?”
“I’m fine, mate,” I snapped back at him. “More important things to worry about.”
Jordan got serious. “Don’t make me pull rank, Geoff.” I blew my stack.
“Listen Jordan, I don’t care if you’re the fucking Queen of Sheba! Just try and stop me!”
We stood looking at each other for what seemed like an hour. He was looking at me like he was weighing up his options. I noticed myself breathing hard. Finally, he spoke.
“Well, at least let me have a look at it. You can’t be losing blood like that, mate.”
I knew he was making sense and I knew my leg wasn’t good.
“OK,” I said. “Five minutes.”
I sat on a rock and he started to undo the bandage; it was soaked in blood. He’d just about got it off when I saw some movement ahead.
“Timmy!” I yelled, jumped up and started running. After a dozen steps, the movement had stopped, and I stared at Mick, Pete and Dave, while Jordan came up behind me.
“Time for a planning meeting, Geoff.”
Everyone stood around while Jordan worked on my leg and conducted the meeting at the same time.
“Well, it’s not what we’d hoped for but at least we know more than we did. It looks like Tim might’ve struck out from the creek after he reached the plateau.”
I wasn’t convinced.
“Are you sure you looked everywhere?” I asked them all again. “Tim’s been using the creek as his guide for over two days. Why would he just light out into the saltbush? There’s no rain out there!” I could feel my throat starting to tense up and my voice crack. Jordan spoke up.
“OK, here’s what I reckon.” He stopped and stared like he was putting it all together in his head. “A few of us backtrack to the chopper, make sure we didn’t miss anything. Then we’ll do some wide sweeps from the air.”
“I just don’t think he’d leave the creek,” I said.
“Right. Well that’s why you should continue down the creek and double-check. But first things first.” He looked at my leg, “This is pretty swollen above the wound.” That’s where it was hurting.
He told me it might hurt as he pulled open the wound with forceps. He wasn’t wrong.
“How did I miss that?” He said and told me to hold tight as he dug in further. It felt like he was trying to pull my thigh muscle out. He produced a sizeable chunk of wood before flushing the wound with water then packing it and wrapping it firmly. He stepped back to survey his work.
“OK,” he said. That’s the best I can do. You shouldn’t even be walking on it until you can get it stitched.
“It’s OK, mate. It’s all downhill from here,” I said.
“One more thing,” said Jordan. “He jabbed a hypodermic into my leg. “That’ll keep you going for a bit. “Alright then,” he continued. “Who’s coming with me?”
“I’ll go with Geoff,” said Pete. Then Jim chimed in, sort of looking at his Dad but speaking to me.
“If Tim’s hiding, he might come out for me.”
“Come on then, mate,” I said, suddenly really grateful, but also really embarrassed; Jim had been such a good friend to Tim, while it was slowly becoming clear to me what a bloody tool I’d been over the years.
Jordan gave us a two-hour maximum
“We’ll have to be out by the time that weather comes in,” he said, pointing to the southwest. “I’m sorry, Geoff.”
We took a radio and headed off straight away.
I figured that being quiet and keeping our eyes peeled was our best bet; but a big part of me didn’t think that Tim would hide. That just wasn’t like him. Then another thought hit me. What if he wasn’t meaning to hide but was sleeping or hurt?
“Let’s search around everything,” I said to the others. “Every rock, every tree.”
After about twenty minutes, we came around a bend where a large stony ledge made a step a few metres high across the full width of the creek bed. Below, some larger rocks were grouped in a couple of piles and about fifty metres beyond that, a huge gum tree had fallen right across, from one bank to the other.
Jim was on the right as the three of us were spread across the creek. He was the first one down the step and called out.
“Is that you, Tim?!” He started running towards the base of the gum tree; then he suddenly stopped.
Pete and I caught up; Jim was scared as we looked to where he was pointing.
“Is he dead?”
From underneath a bush, Tim’s boot was sticking out. I ran, yelling to Pete to call the chopper.
I was finding it hard to see, then I realised that I was crying and calling out Tim’s name. I got down on the ground and crawled in. Tim was still and I couldn’t tell if he was breathing. Then his eyes flickered and I grabbed him and held him.
I gave him some water and he winced. His leg was swollen and blue. I didn’t like the look of it. Pete came up and told me that the others were still fifteen minutes from getting back to the chopper, but they’d be as quick as they could.
The water was helping, and Tim was able to open his eyes.
“How are you, Timmy?” I asked. “You were a hard bloke to find.”
It was another twenty minutes before Jordan and the others arrived. I felt helpless as I watched Jordan get Tim stabilized; then we carried him to the chopper. I’d radioed Shelley and she was going to meet us at the hospital.
The storm front was nearly on us as we took off. Jordan radioed ahead, and flew straight to the hospital in Canning Point.
It was all a bit of a blur when we got there. I hobbled in with Tim but they stopped me at the entrance to the operating theatre. A nurse walked me back to the waiting room just as Shelley arrived with Karen; Gordon and Sheila had come separately.
I collapsed into a chair next to Mick, and Shell sat beside me. Then Dave walked in.
“How is he?” He asked me. I opened my mouth but nothing came out. Mick answered for me.
“He’s just gone into the theatre; we won’t know for a while.”
“Well”, said Dave. “Jordan sends his best to you.”
I felt like how I reckon a zombie would feel, but I was sorry that I didn’t get to thank Jordan and say goodbye to him. Then, Shelley grabbed my hand and I looked at her face. She’d been crying but she looked beautiful. She kissed me on the forehead.
“Thank you for finding our Timmy,” she said.
I rested my head on her shoulder hoping that we hadn’t been too late when a nurse bustled in and told me that they were ready to fix my leg.
After I came back it was still an hour or so before the surgeon appeared and told us that Tim was going to be OK. He’d broken his femur up near the hip and a piece of bone had nicked the artery. But they were able to fix him up. We were lucky.
When the surgeon left there was a ripple of relief that went around the waiting room. Mick grabbed my arm with a huge smile on his face. Even little Jim came up and gave me a hug. Next thing I knew, Gordon was standing in front of me with Sheila beside him.
“Ah, Geoff…Shelley,” he started but looked pretty uncomfortable. Sheila whispered in his ear but he brushed her off.
“I…I’ve been wrong,” he continued. “I’ll try to do better.” Then Sheila whispered in his ear again trying to get him to say sorry. I decided to put him out of his misery.
“Well, Gordon,” I said. “I have a message for you from the pastor.” I could feel Mick squirming in the seat next to me. “And he reckons I should give you a seven out of ten for trying.” Mick chuckled and Gordon reached out his hand. It was weird, almost like he had to do it but didn’t want to. I looked at his face, this old bastard who’d been the fly in our ointment for too long. He couldn’t look me in the eye and that made me feel a bit sorry for him. I thought about Shell…and Tim, and thought better of taking his hand.
“I think we might have a few things to work on first, Gordon,” I said. Shelley squeezed my arm and put her head on my shoulder.
Tim healed up pretty well but his leg was in a cast for a long time. One night, about a month down the track, he was sitting on our veranda watching the sunset. Pete, Karen and Jim were coming over for dinner. Shell was putting the finishing touches on things and I took a drink out for Tim because he still wasn’t too mobile. I could tell he’d been pondering something.
He started straight up telling me about when he was out in the dry; he’d had a dream about an old indigenous bloke who laughed and didn’t believe him when Tim said that he was looking for rain.
“What else would I be doing out there?” He asked me. That question sort of hit me in the guts and I didn’t know how to answer it. It was just out of the blue. I teared up a bit and he got worried.
“Maybe…we were looking for each other,” I finally said.
He got this kind of puzzled look.
“But I was going in the other direction,” he said.
“Yeah, well…maybe I needed a bit of a boot up the arse to help me get looking. I’m not the sharpest tool in the shed, mate.”
Then it was quiet for a while and I went to go back into the kitchen.
“Dad?” Tim was frowning, so I got down beside him. “Did we find each other?”
On that he looked straight into my eyes, something I couldn’t ever remember him doing before.
“I reckon,” I said.
The corner of his mouth turned up just a bit, like he was pretty happy with that.
All measurements are metric: one litre is a little over two U.S. pints; forty degrees Celsius is one-hundred- and four-degrees Fahrenheit; one kilometre is about two-thirds of a mile.
Abattoir – slaughterhouse
Ambos – ambulancemen/paramedics
Arse – British, Australian and New Zealand for ass/backside
Black Cockatoo/Black Cockies – very large, native parrot with distinctive call
Bugger all – next to nothing
Bugger off – leave
Buggered – exhausted
Bull Ants – large, slightly venomous, biting ants
Cordial – fruit syrup and water; squash
Cotton Wool – soft, fluffy cotton, like cotton batting
Council – Local County
Crook – Sick, unwell
Dreaming – Religio-cultural worldview in Aboriginal Australian beliefs
Dropping the baby – giving birth
Eighty K’s – Eighty kilometres – about fifty miles
Going off – A fit of rage
Gum trees – eucalypts
Jumper – woollen sweater
Narky – irritable, short-tempered
Never-Never – remote, desolate country
Nicked up – slipped by, ran
Paddock – enclosed field or pasture
Paperbark – type of eucalypt with loose bark that resembles paper
Red-belly – red-bellied black snake – venomous Australian reptile
Rock Wallaby – large marsupial, similar to a small kangaroo, that lives and hunts in rocky areas.
Roo – Kangaroo
Sanga – Sandwich
Scrub – low, bushy growth
Shitload – an enormous amount
Tomato Sauce – tomato ketchup
Torch – flashlight
Ute – Pick-up truck
Walkabout – a journey on foot of indeterminate length or destination
The other night, I went to see Jackson Browne in concert. As is usually the case these days I went with some close friends who, like me have walked the Jackson-Browne journey for many years. The venue was the old State Theatre in Sydney, a beautiful space crafted in a peculiar blend of Gothic, Baroque, Nouveau and Deco that seems to lift you out of time when spending those few hours within its walls.
Over the last forty-plus years, I have seen Jackson Browne in concert in excess of twelve times that I can remember. It’s been a bonus that he has visited Australia so many times; one of his sons, Ryan, now in his late thirties, lives here.
The first time I saw him live was in about 1977 just after the release of his fourth album – The Pretender – and just before Running on Empty.
Of course, to most people reading this, these album names don’t mean much. Jackson Browne’s music floated in and out of the mainstream, never staying too long. Occasionally, a song on the radio like Doctor My Eyes, Take it Easy or Running on Empty might jog a memory, but the gold I have found in a generation of being a part of Jackson Browne’s music has been hidden in the beauty of lyrics woven impossibly through often unusual and far-from-mainstream melody lines.
But as they say, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and it just so happened that for me the beauty paralleled the path of my life.
As a confused but arrogant teen, in those moments of silence in time alone, I related viscerally to These Days and the words written by a sixteen-year-old Jackson Browne:
These days I sit on cornerstones
And count the time in quarter tones to ten, my friend;
Don’t confront me with my failures, I had not forgotten them.
And in the turbulence of late teens, identity crises and the mystery of discovering and losing love, the poignant Love needs a Heart gave me a place of troubled understanding:
Love won’t come near me,
She don’t even hear me;
She walks by my vacancy sign.
Love needs a heart, trusting and blind,
I wish that heart were mine.
It’s been said that the career of Jackson Browne was the reverse of Dylan’s, starting out deeply personal and moving through to politics and activism. I think that’s pretty simplistic as much of the attraction for me was JB’s ability to bare his soul honestly and deftly and to recognise our connectedness and social responsibility.
The mass market sees a differentiation between the personal and the political, but Jackson Browne doesn’t. There is a strong connection that has flowed through his lyrics that has only strengthened as he has matured. For Ev’ryman was released in 1974 and hints at the notion that, although each of us has our own journey, the truth is that we’re all in this together:
Seems like I’ve always been looking for some other place
To get it together,
Where with a few of my friends I could give up the race
And find something better.
But all my fine dreams,
Well-thought-out schemes to gain the motherland,
Have all eventually come down to waiting for Ev’ryman.
Although I have always given assent to the numerous environmental, social and political causes that JB actively works for and espouses, it’s really only been in the last decade or so that for me the penny has finally dropped: To truly believe means that activism is not an option; it is a natural outflow. It is not good enough to merely argue a case. It is not good enough to merely sit on my hands, pray and hope, because those things just shuffle my responsibility off into the ether. I must invest my life, time and money in what I believe to be true, otherwise I clearly don’t believe it. Activism is simply accepting my responsibility and “acting” on it.
One of the real, refreshing beauties that I have appreciated in Jackson Browne’s music and lyrics is a tolerance of those who may not see what he sees – a rare quality amongst activists. He sees that part of his responsibility is to “stand in the breach” on behalf of others. In fact that is the title of his most recent album – Standing in the Breach:
We rise and fall with the trust and belief
That love redeems us each
And bend our backs and hearts together standing in the breach.
You don’t know why it’s such a far cry
From the world this world could be
You don’t know why but you still try
For the world you wish to see
You don’t know how it will happen now
After all that’s come undone
But you know the change the world needs now
Is there, in everyone
Through all these years of following his career and in some strange way building a relationship with a man whom I’ve never met, I came to a realisation the other night as I contemplated the fact that he would be turning seventy this year; to countenance the loss of this “brother” who has walked alongside me spiritually and given voice to my feelings and contemplations, is more than sobering. I realised my gratitude and the fact that those who walk the truth-seeking path need such poets to give voice to the multitude of feelings and frustrations that accompany such a walk.
In many ways the music and lyrics of this man have been my soundtrack, to use a well-worn cliché. But unlike others who have become jaded or burnt-out or have just plain shuffled off the scene, Jackson Browne retains the innocence and poignancy that he had way back when I first started listening to him a generation ago.
I have lots of friends who are teachers. We have some interesting conversations from time to time, often about specific kids and their challenges. Most of the time we speak empathically about the kids involved and their struggles academically and socially but occasionally we diverge into the area of parenting and protectionism.
Most of us will have seen those posts on Facebook that talk about all the things that those of us who grew up in the ‘60’s and ‘70’s experienced and survived: drinking from garden hoses, riding in cars without seatbelts, riding bikes without helmets, going out to play in the neighbourhood for hours on end as long as we were home before the street-lights came on, and the one that had me reminiscing, hitch-hiking.
I had actually almost forgotten about it, but a flood of memories came back. Before I was old enough to drive – so in my mid-teens – hitch-hiking was the quickest and easiest way to get around. Many of the things that I did socially involved getting to places that weren’t particularly well serviced by public transport, so hitch-hiking was the mode-de-jour. Granted, my mother didn’t particularly like it, but it was so very convenient. I’d walk a block to the main road, stick a finger out (Note: always the index finger; never a thumb as they do in America), and usually before too long, a complete stranger would stop, there would be a brief exchange of the direction each of you were headed, you’d jump in and get part or all the way to your destination. But I digress.
My son made a comment about my generation that did all these “dangerous” things without dying or, in the case of the garden hose, without even getting sick. He said, “Yeah, well you guys may have done all that but how come you became the ones who made the crazy rules that robbed our generation of the same freedom?”
It was true. My generation was the one that changed the rules and started getting very protective about our own children. Why? What happened? Most of the stats don’t show that the world is any more dangerous now, so why the generational knee-jerk?
OK, seat-belts in cars I can understand. I can kind-of understand bike helmets, especially considering that my youngest son was saved from almost certain death by one. But I wonder if we have become somewhat over-protective when it comes to the next generation, and if that could be doing them a profound disservice.
Many of the rules and practices could be construed as sensible, like the aforementioned seat belts and helmets, but as far as the practices of and towards our children are concerned, have we gone too far?
I hear of parents who send their kids to school with water bottles (presumably because they could contract typhoid from the school bubblers) and hot/cold packs to keep their gourmet lunches at the right temperature; many of these same parents will insist upon whom their children sit next to in class, indeed will insist on which particular class or teacher their little ones have.
Perish the thought that kids should leave their water bottle, gourmet lunch or homework at home. If that happens, they’ll be on their smart phone texting mum or dad to bring it up to school, which mum and dad obligingly do.
Now, I am a parent too, and yes, I’ve raced something to school that a child had left at home. I get that. But there seems to be something much deeper going on here.
Most educators will acknowledge that one of the key elements in learning is the ability to make mistakes, to understand that they were mistakes and then to learn from them so that they don’t happen again.
Obviously, this shouldn’t apply in life-threatening situations, such as wearing seat-belts in a moving vehicle, but there are some areas where I believe we have overstepped the mark on what we think is looking after our kids.
I may seem like a grouchy, old man, but how will a child ever learn not to leave things at home if she/he is continually bailed out by a parent? How will a child learn the depth of application required for excellence if everyone gets a ribbon for just participating? Moreover, how will a child learn to discern good work from rubbish if everything they do gets unqualified praise?
Let me say, I’m all for encouragement. But we shouldn’t confuse encouragement with flattery. For instance, if a ten-year-old brings home a piece of art that they’d created at school and shows it to you, most of us, myself included at one time, would say, “Oh Joey, what a beautiful piece of art. How wonderful! You must be very proud!” or words to that effect.
Now, the piece involved is, in reality, a confused mess of colour, completely lacking in an obvious subject. Such a response on my part is probably irresponsible, because there is now no way for that child to discern the difference between that response and the equal response given when they actually may create something good.
This is flattery, not encouragement, and it ultimately causes difficulty for a child because they gradually become inured to praise, and unable to see the value in “lifting their game”; furthermore they come to expect praise for any level of effort. It could well be that over-encouragement has been a contributor to the “entitled” generations that are so complained about by employers: “Hey, I’ve been here for six weeks! Where’s my pay rise and promotion?!”.
So what should I do when Joey shows me the art?
I read a study recently that talked about this phenomenon. The suggestion would be when they bring something to you that doesn’t have any observable merit other than the fact that they did it, the first thing you should do is look at it and, in a positive way, ask questions about it. “So, you did this in class, huh? And what did the teacher ask you to do?”
“Uh-huh,” you respond. “So, tell me about this piece…”
Eventually, you ask them how they feel about it, whether they might have done it differently if they’d had more time, whether they like art, etc, etc. By the end of the conversation, hopefully Joey will not only have a better grip on how to do better, but also feel affirmed in his ability to do so, knowing that his parent loves him.
Over-encouragement – flattery – or misplaced encouragement is a form of protection. We don’t want our kids to feel bad, so we tell them that what they do is great, even if it isn’t. But this protection will ultimately hurt them.
I often joke about the “soft-fall”, rubberised playgrounds that will see us with a whole generation of adults with broken bones and fractured skulls because they never felt what it was like to land on hard ground and therefore didn’t learn to fall safely. I know it’s a long bow, but it is a kind of metaphor. How can we expect our kids to be resilient if they never get a chance to learn resilience?
The son of a friend of mine is the coach of an under-fourteens football team and to encourage the kids, he awarded points each game throughout the season: Three points to the best player, two for next best and one point for third best. He ensured to the best of his ability that he was even-handed in awarding the points. One of the parents called him and told him in no uncertain terms that his son hadn’t been awarded enough points and what was he going to do about it. It was a real quandary for him. He was just trying to be genuinely encouraging, yet here was a parent who expected that his son deserved unmerited encouragement.
I heard recently that Australia has overtaken the U.S. as the most litigious society in the world, and from what I hear, a good chunk of that is parents suing schools, councils, sporting associations, etc., because little Katy tripped on a tree root a broke her wrist, or Alvin didn’t make the first-grade team, or the Principal wouldn’t let Emily go up a year even though she was clearly a very bright child.
I know, I know, I’m a grumpy, old man. I also know that for those of us with kids, they are our most precious assets. We want the best for them; we want to be their champions; we want to ensure their success. But we need to be careful that in our zeal we don’t keep them from the very things that will help them to be successful.
Let them encounter the troubled kid in the class who might be a bit disruptive – it will help them fit into society more graciously and productively knowing that it takes all kinds. Let them fall down and graze their knee; eventually, they’ll learn respect for how hard the ground is and when to walk instead of run. Let them go without lunch for a day; most kids will share anyway, or a teacher might spring for a couple of bucks at the canteen; they might even be upset with you for not dropping everything to take their lunch to school; but eventually they’ll learn not to forget.
Just about all of the teachers that I know love kids. They want to support our kids, most of them believe it is their calling, so let them do the teaching with our support and encouragement. They have a tough enough time wrangling thirty kids every day without having to wrangle a dozen parents as well.
We have a responsibility to let our kids learn resilience and understanding from everything and everyone that they encounter, so that they can become resilient, understanding adults. We owe it to them and to ourselves, because they’ll be running the country soon and if it all turns sour, they’ll be looking for someone to blame; and it just might be us.
– Matt is a father of three boys and a grumpy. old man, so is well-qualified to write on this subject.
“The greatest Ottoman victory of the First World War,” began on the 25th April 1915. Over the course of the eight-month campaign, over one hundred thousand lives were lost. Through this battle, the tiny new nations of Australia and New Zealand, who were disproportionately represented, were stunned into self-awareness, with the pride of our youth sacrificed on the altar of British military arrogance and foolishness.
That day – Anzac Day – was officially commemorated the following year; this year marks the one hundredth anniversary. It has become, at least here in Australia, our Holy Day, having so much more significance in our national psyche than Christmas, Easter or any other religious or non-religious festival. It was our national crucifixion without the resurrection.
Combine this with the desperate defence of our own shores during the war in the Pacific against Japan which began less than thirty years later and we found ourselves very rapidly with an entrenched understanding of who we are based on tenacity, rigour, perseverance and the ability – at least in WW2 – to fight and win.
Perhaps this is one of the reasons why, that in this century, we have endorsed successive governments’ cruel and inhumane treatment of those who have been attempting to seek asylum in our country. We have seen them as invaders; perhaps those in power have tapped into that which is so much a part of who we are and distorted it, so that we have come to believe that these desperate people, fleeing for their lives, are actually our enemy – illegals. In fact, Facebook posts from some of those private contractors who have been entrusted with the “care” of those imprisoned on Manus Island and Nauru have at times called their charges just that – the enemy.
Or am I drawing a long bow?
Ever since I was a kid, Anzac Day was where we showed our respect and gratitude to those who gave their lives so that we all might share in the freedom in which we now stand.
What a tragedy that those who are fleeing injustice and persecution – in many cases at significant risk for them and their families – are treated as the enemy when they arrive at our shores.
It is a sad, terrible irony that at the same time we commemorate the fight for freedom, we imprison those who are fleeing regimes very much like those that our forbears fought. Have we really become that selfish?
I have no desire to hijack Anzac Day to have an opportunity to jump on my own soapbox. I too, honour those who have fought on our behalf. My own father was such a soldier in New Guinea.
But freedom is given to us not so that we might be selfish, arrogant and hateful, but rather that we might show mercy, compassion and grace to those who are not blessed as we are. In the words of William Shakespeare: Mercy “blesses him that gives and him that takes. It becomes the throned monarch better than his crown.”
This Anzac Day, let us remember the values for which our forbears fought and be gracious with our freedom, so that we may give thanks with a clear conscience.
The doctor said that everyone responds differently to radiotherapy. It’s not very comforting to hear that; it means that the yardstick by which I might gauge my progress is somewhat bigger than a yard and with indistinct measurements. However, four weeks into what will be a seven-week program, I feel that at least I have a kind-of rhythm going. The best part of it, I am discovering, is walking out of the Friday treatment (treatments are daily Mon – Fri) knowing that there will be respite on the weekend; and not just from the monotony of the daily trek to hospital, but from the more intense side effects; a weekend lets one’s body take a breath, as it were, although fatigue seems to be gaining momentum with a general energy shortfall getting larger by the day.
So far, the prognosis is good with everything going to plan. But, of course, cancer is a waiting game, with the tap-on-the-shoulder, if not anticipated, always lurking. The reality is, however, that apart from getting plenty of rest and eating well, I can’t do anything about it, so I tuck it away, do what I do, and keep moving. Thanks for your support, love and prayers.
For those of you who have been following this blog, you will know that I have committed to document the process of grief, having lost my wife, Ngaire, in the middle of last year. In a couple of weeks I will be saying, “the year before last.”
While what I have written is far from exhaustive and therefore shouldn’t be used as a road map for the process of grief, it is nonetheless the documentation of my story. I have tried to be ruthless, open and honest so that those who follow this blog may be able to relate and glean as much as possible. From the feedback that I have received, this has largely been the case.
Time marches on. When it turned 2014, I remember the melancholy of knowing that this would be a year in which Ngaire never existed. Now, as 2015 looms, I no longer have that same melancholy; now it is a given and an understood sadness that she is gone and that life goes on. In the process of living through grief we gradually begin to assimilate the loss and incorporate the sadness into the rest of life.
I actually believe that this incorporation gives fullness to those other aspects of life – love, hope, joy – that we may not have seen or felt before. Certainly that has been my experience.
In a post earlier this year I brought up the subject of moving on. It is timely for me to revisit this with a quote from it:
“I have noticed over the years that part of this process of “moving on”, specifically about beginning another relationship, is almost a taboo area, and about which many people have strong opinions. I have seen people, including myself, who have been hurt and angry when someone close has begun a relationship with another, sometimes within a time frame that may be considered too soon. From my pondering [here is something] to consider:
In looking at my own judgement of others in the past, I realised that, even though it may not have been conscious, I had made an assumption of, “How can they just forget their wife/husband like that?” It is almost as though I had felt them to be discarding or cheating on their spouse.
One thing I hadn’t allowed, is that the journey of the bereaved person is one of which I had no context to help me even remotely understand. The depths plumbed by a grieving spouse are simply beyond those who haven’t been there. Plus, how that person deals with and processes the pain of their life is entirely their business and I have no right to judge them.
For me personally, I know that I will always carry my love for Ngaire with me and… hope that this love be respected in any future relationship.”
The reason that I said it was timely is that I now stand in that future relationship. I am at peace to say that in this, my relationship with Ngaire is not only respected, but also known and honoured. Indeed, I am blessed to have found love with someone who was/is a close and treasured friend of Ngaire’s and mine; but it’s not that straightforward is it?
There was quite a degree of “navigation” before we reached this point. For the purposes of this blog, I should just refer to the places that I went in my heart and head in order to be OK about taking this new step. After all, I’ve been documenting the journey of grief, and the ability to finally reach that point of moving on is crucial.
Of course, I haven’t done this before, although I have read and half-read a few books on grief, but I have a sneaking suspicion that this current passage into the “new land” is the last one on this journey.
There will always be moments – birthdays, Christmas, Mothers’ Day – and in February when our first grandchild will be born there will be particular poignancy, because I know how much Ngaire was looking forward to grandkids.
But this is as it should be. Much of who I am, and all of my boys, are a memorial to Ngaire. She lives on in us, especially in her boys.
I have used numerous metaphors over the last year and a half to try to explain the feeling of loss after Ngaire died: standing inside half a house staring into the void where the other half had been, having a leg amputated, even disembowelment. Overlaid on all of this was my struggle to understand how much of who I was, was because of her influence. I would ask questions like” “What would she think? Would she like this? Would she approve?”
All were a regular part of gradually understanding and coming to terms with losing her and in recognising, to some extent, the degree to which her validation and opinion was important to me in how I lived life day-to-day. Such questions are good and helpful in the process of loss, but I am discovering that they are not helpful in the process of moving on.
When I first contemplated the idea of moving on, I actually went to Ngaire’s grave. I have found it a helpful focal point for our discussion over these months; when I say “our discussion”, I realise that only one of us is speaking, but it has been helpful.
In these last days, I have seen that there are two Ngaires in my mind. One is the Ngaire who lived with me and loved me. It is this Ngaire who would have struggled with me moving on, because the thought of me with someone else would have been devastating for her.
The other Ngaire is whom I now see as the “altruistic Ngaire”, that Ngaire extant in another dimension, free from the bounds of earthly constraints, and only wanting the best for those of us left behind.
Of course the latter Ngaire is the only one with whom I could “converse”; the former has gone, and while I felt validated by what I imagined the latter would say in her desire to see me happy, loved and fulfilled in a relationship, I felt a strange discomfort about this.
You see, through this process of grief, I have had to relearn some simple things, the control of which I had abdicated to her or her opinions. Things like buying clothes, birthday presents, even a new car, now had to be done from my perspective and informed by my opinion; because, although I trusted and admired her taste and opinion, the reality is that she is no longer here. To continue making choices from that perspective is ultimately unhealthy.
In the same way, the choice of a new love is not hers to make.
I will always love Ngaire, but I have discovered, in a good way, that the rest of my life is not to be determined by what I might perceive her opinion to be; it should be determined by what I think, floated on the wisdom of those whom I love and trust, here and now. With regard to that, my boys are very happy too; they love my new “special someone” and have done for a long time.
This is hard stuff and no one tells you about it, except to use terms like, “when you’re ready.” It is a different type of saying goodbye, where your feelings stay the same, but your way of operating changes.
That is how it is, and I can honestly say that I feel happier and more at peace with myself. In fact, I haven’t felt this happy for a long, long time; and that’s coming from a guy with cancer.
But this “moving on” is not just about a new relationship, it is about becoming at peace with my voice and my heart making and affirming decisions about my future.
The past informs all of our lives, but we can’t live there forever. Grief requires us to live there for a time, but there is a point where we need to heed the call of the present. It is time.
I often wonder what it would have been like to lead a life in which everything went to plan. It’s pretty clear now that I’ll never know.
Many people think that life is all about following a belief system that explains or even “pre-explains” everything that happens to us. To a large extent I think I was one of them, but I don’t believe in that way of thinking or “believing” any more.
In the millions of possibilities with which we are presented each day, it is the mistakes, the unexpected and the surprises that really inform us and help us to grow.
A couple of nights ago I was presented with just such an opportunity. After a delightful evening with a dear friend, we had finished dinner in East Sydney and just left the restaurant. This part of town is a strange mix of history, eateries, old terraces, the homeless and addicted. As we approached my car, an older lady was using buckets to water some plants on the footpath out the front of her small terrace-house.
We made a comment about how beautiful her flowers were and, as she turned and stood upright to face us, I found myself being reacquainted with an old enemy.
It was not the dear little lady but rather that from which she suffered. She began straight away to tell of her difficulty in carrying buckets of water because she had emphysema.
However, I didn’t need her to tell me that she had lung disease. I recognised those familiar symptoms: the bluish tinge of the skin on her hands and around her lips (cyanosis) from lack of oxygen, gasping for breath before her sentences were completed and the depression which appeared at the base of her throat with each inhalation, the increased fatty deposits from long-term use of cortisone that make the face seem broader and “puffier”, and finally, as I watched her speak expressively with her hands, the curved fingernails – a phenomenon known as clubbing – from a lack of oxygen to the extremities.
Her name was Evelyn and she had lived in the same house for forty-five years. She spoke of the great difficulty that she now had in doing simple tasks like watering her plants because no one understood how difficult it was with her breathing difficulties. I wanted to tell her that she had no idea how well I understood, in having walked a very similar path watching my own wife’s ability to breathe inexorably diminish to nothing over the last ten years of her life.
I thought better of it. Evelyn had no need of someone to tell her how this would end. Ultimately, that would have been the message, should I have shared my understanding with her, and she would have been well aware of her destiny.
Rather she needed someone to listen and validate the life that she still had, now. So we listened to her tales of letters to the local paper, of the goings on with council over her garden beds on the footpath, of her full-sized Constable reproduction (which she showed us), hanging in her lounge room and a beautiful collection of life treasures that flowed from her lips and were strangely moving, including that she wouldn’t remember us next time she saw us; the stroke of twenty years before had rendered her unable to remember new things that had happened since then.
It was a beautiful meeting. My dear friend, who regularly visits a number of her friends who live on the street, said that when she first began walking this path of befriending and helping homeless folks, she was frightened that she wouldn’t know what to say to them. But she soon realised that all she needed to do was listen.
This shows love more than anything. One of the greatest ways to validate a life and show them that they are loved is simply giving them the time to listen to them.
I wanted to give Evelyn something before we left so I asked if I could shake her hand. I really wanted to hold it and somehow tune my spirit to hers; she commented on how warm my hand was – as hers were so cold – so I put my other hand on top. She laughed, and I think that somehow I felt life flowing from me to her.
Things that we don’t plan are often those that have the most profound effect on us, like that half hour with Evelyn. On another night, with a busier mindset, we may have walked right past her.
For those of us who live in the Western World, plans and dreams are often synonymous. Following your dreams is almost a mantra of the post-Christian west. But as I mentioned to my boys recently, “Don’t hold on to your dreams too tightly, because they might have you missing out on love, and that’s what we’re really here for”.
The thing that whacked me in the face was the Radiation Oncologist’s statement:
“We’re here to talk about treatment options for YOUR cancer…” (capitals mine, because that’s how it sounded in my head).
Through the whole process of tests that had brought me to this point, perhaps the one thing that I had been keeping at arm’s length was ownership of this condition/disease/whatever-you-want-to-call-it. Who wouldn’t? But the reality is that it is my cancer and me owning it has made it much more manageable and, if not pleasant, tolerable.
In my prior visit to the urologist, he told me that although the cancer was contained and not elsewhere in my body, I was in for some interesting times ahead. I also began to realise that none of these medical professionals were offering guarantees or even calculated guesses at what my revised longevity may be. That was a little sobering. So what was it? Five years? Ten years? Could I hope for fifteen?
As I sat in the car afterwards with a dear friend, feeling a little shell-shocked, I considered this lack of guarantee, and had something of an epiphany:
None of us has any guarantees.
We live in a world that reminds us constantly that our lives and our futures are the stuff of choice, ambition and dreams, when reality is far from this. Sure, we live longer than ever before thanks to hygiene, medicine and diet but we are still subject to the unexpected, unexplained or incurable.
Strangely enough, I found that understanding quite comforting. The only difference for me is that I have something inside me now that has been identified as a potential killer. So, there is a little less “unknown” for me.
In any case, the doctor was confident and thorough and, after lists of all the statistics, side effects and costs, left me with hope that this thing is completely treatable and beatable without radical surgery. There will be potential ongoing consequences, but that’s OK; at least I’ll be alive, hopefully for many years to come.
But I’ve been thinking about this problem of guarantees.
I spend most of my days in the world of the mass media – particularly promotions and advertising, which has at its core the premise that, if you can make people feel something, they will buy it, or watch it, or identify with it. It’s almost never about information, but about how that product is going to make you feel; it might make you feel more important, manlier, more feminine, have more value or more sex appeal. It is a subtle (sometimes not-so-subtle) form of manipulation in which all of us are well practised, since the time we first cried to elicit sympathy in order to get what we wanted.
One of the things that the media has taught us quite well is that we are the most important person in the world. In fact, an insurance company had a campaign not so long ago with that as a tag line: “The most important person in the world: You”
With so much around geared to telling us how important we are and how in control we are, we could be forgiven for thinking that happy, trouble-free immortality is just one purchase away. Of course, we are only in control if we have made the correct purchases; if we haven’t then we are doomed to be inadequate fringe-dwellers until we do.
As a yardstick, I often consider what someone from a different, simpler culture would make of these social straightjackets that we insist on wearing. For example, what would the rice paddy worker from Cambodia make of my desperate need to have the right brand of jeans, toothpaste or hair gel? (For those of us who are fortunate enough to have hair).
In our free-market, capitalistic world it seems that we have allowed options to muscle out contentment and gratitude to the point where, in our abundance, what we don’t have is always more important than what we do. It’s how this system, which is really perpetuated by our feelings of inadequacy and not ever having enough, fuels itself.
Cobbled in with all of this are my choices, ambitions and dreams. Like most of us, they relate generally to family, love, and friendships; but of course, there is a critical element in all of those things in order for choices, etc., to become functional; that element is time.
With a cancer diagnosis, suddenly time becomes the most important factor. Everything in our lives that we plan or dream about is framed around the sleeping assumption that we will have time for it. When an external factor – like cancer – overrides our choices with regard to how much time we may or may not have, all of those choices, ambitions and dreams become very focussed and rapidly prioritised. All of that is to say, the journey of what does and doesn’t matter becomes a little easier.
To learn to live with an understanding that there are no guarantees for how long any of us has on this planet is actually very freeing: a refocussing on how to live and love well and how to leave behind the things that encumber.
That’s a nice little media-style catch-phrase to finish with: LIVE, LOVE, LEAVE BEHIND. “Matt’s Three L’s for the next stage of life.”
Just to fill you in, I hope to begin a combination of internal and external radiotherapy in a few weeks; that will last for six weeks. After that, I hope to be cancer-free. I’ll keep you posted.