Shadows and Wonders

Year eleven is biding your time, playing Kelly Pool and stuck on the problem of the square root of minus one, which sounds more like poetry than maths. I get poetry but not maths pretending to be poetry. And not the teacher looking at me like it's funny that the boy who thinks he can do anything is defeated by something. Enough of this. It's time to catch the freezing midnight train to Coolabah. We make it to the station via a cigarette-smoked taxi. Here comes the rolling, banging contraption, nicknamed the Midnight Mole. I make my way to a dog box with a foot-warmer! So love these huge steel encased cylinders—full of acid and sand. I wrap my whole body around it to keep warm. A banging, shunting night of sleep passes. A station sign says Coolabah. It's just me with no brothers this time. Dad takes ages. It's hot. There he is: in his new Toyota smiling under that big hat. ‘Had some good rain,' he says, throwing my gear in the back with petrol drums. ‘Uh huh,' I say, looking around at red dust. We get into a cabin that's layered in red dust and smelling of gun oil. The ABC news is up loud and we're hammering our way along the red gravel road home. I doze off and wake just as Dad stops and gets out. ‘Look at this,' he says, examining some fresh green shoots. ‘Reckon we might have more rain on the way. ‘Reckon so,' I say. Another forty minutes and we're home: passing hundreds of acres of green paradise, kangaroos and sheep. A piece of livestock bliss that astonishes my sleepy sixteen year old eyes. As usual, while we've been at school, Dad—the magician—has conjured beautiful farm land out of thick masses of box and mulga scrub. Audacity is what this is. Mostly what I'm remembering is drought, dead sheep and misery. And then this grand plan: Dad bulldozing trees, windrows of dead timber and a green paradise. And field days with crowds of admiring block-battlers from all over. Dad parks the ute in the big shed. Days of stock work and fencing pass. Bruises and cuts accumulate. Clothes are torn. The lovely smell of red dust is in everything. A quiet day comes. I'm on a step in the shaded side of the house, facing the dam and the big pepper trees. This is a good think-time spot. The old black tom cat brushes past me. A thousand thoughts rush by. Just can't seem to get my head around it. Mum's gone. And look at this place! The filthy kitchen, the greasy dining room. The grime. Those old wheelchair marks against the door frames. This monster of a world seems to have a thing against us. Dad walks past and—in his friendly way—wants to know what's on my mind. I ignore him. He keeps walking. I'm sulking: rivetted on that red and green expanse and beyond that, the shadowy secrets of the box flats and the mulga: my painkillers. More days pass. We talk of plans for our other block, up north. ‘We've got some mustering to do at Bre,' Dad says, smiling. ‘Okay,' I say. The block at Bre is the one that's saving us. The ute is loaded with bikes and, of course, rifles. There's always plenty of pigs there. We make the hundred and sixty kay trip and set up camp. The stars come out. The fire is lit, the steak cooked. Such juicy steak! And we talk. Do we ever talk. The sulk fades. This big, fat beast called the world isn't so bad after all. If you have a go. Just jump in. Nothing lives long. Go hard as you can before it dies too. Even if you get killed in the process. Might as well. What else is there? Dad falls asleep. I'm by the fire, taking it all in. Especially the shadows and the way they play with the moon as she touches the skin of the trees, and those dead-pan, dead-still leaves. This my real home—here in the dark with the silver. Kookaburras announce a new day and away we go. Me on my bright green motorbike with a rifle and a pig that's going hard through deep grass. This is more like it. Bang! We've hit something. Up in the air, high over handle bars. The bike falling away. Crunch! Headfirst at a low angle. Face ploughing through dirt like a cow-catcher. Everything blanks out. I wake up. I'm alive! Tasting dirt and blood. Lying here for a bit under a hot blue sky, waiting. It's okay. Just need to find water, to wash the mouth out. Time for school. Back on the train. Feeling silly with this great scabbed face that's scrubbed the surface of the planet. What will they all think? And now, we jump decades into the present to a room and a chair by a fire: me, the old man growing old, together with his wife. Astonished at how Dad won my heart. And how he, the moon and Bre turned the shadows into a wonder. And even now, over there on the wall of this room: a photo full of shadows. A woman in a long dress (my son's wife) walking through a glade of trees like some great queen. And three children running and laughing: one of them—caught in mid-flight—her feet off the ground, like a faery floating on air.

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