Selected for Best Australian Stories 2007
They had their hearts set on purchasing a piece of land up north, but not too far north. Coastal – or as near coastal as they might afford. Close to a town for supplies, but not too close to a town: they wanted privacy and a sense of having "got away" from it all. This wasn't really a "sea change" (as the trendies and media would have it) – going down to the city had been that, for them. They were country people who'd retired from the farm early and given the city a go. Now they wanted out. But not a place on a large scale. A small property of, say, thirty acres. Grow a few olives, keep a few sheep for hobby shearing, nothing more.
A suitable block came up not long after their search began. They visited a small town close to the Batavia Coast, and had a chat with the local real estate agent. There was nothing up in the sales window, but she had her ear to the ground, as real estate agents do, and knew of a property about to go on the market. The owners had only had it for a year, so it was good luck they were selling – land in the region was at a premium and much sought after. There was a waiting list but, recognising like minds – she was a farmer's daughter – and the prospect of cash on the button, she "juggled" her list.
THE BOY WATCHED HIS DAD'S CAR EMERGE out of the setting sun and speed down the gravel driveway, the back end dropping out in clouds of dust, then pulled back into line. Perched on his trail bike on the hill, he glanced across at the people walking the neighbouring property with the real estate agent. He revved the engine and dropped the clutch, spinning the back wheel and kicking dirt and stones out towards the newcomers. They were too far away to be hit by the debris, but not too far to sense some kind of aggression. They stared at the boy zigzagging over the crest of the hill – that bare property next door ... not a tree on it.
For a moment, the couple basked in the neat mixture of clear space and white gums they were buying. And they had (for in their minds it was already theirs) a small hill as well – looked like an old mine on the far side, to the east, but it'd been filled in or blasted shut. The estate agent said she didn't know much about it, but could guarantee it was entirely sealed and there was no risk of sheep wandering in and being lost. An ex-farmer, the man – or Darl, as his wife called him – took a close look, and agreed. Perfectly safe! At the access road end of the property – to the west – there was a creek, dry mid-summer. Plenty of water too: a well had been sunk and there was a dam in the western corner which would catch the entire flow off their hill, and off their neighbour's. The couple was going to sign off on the deal that evening – one last wander around and chat with the agent.
The boy's dad had only had a few drinks after work, and was in a sardonic yet almost pleasant mood. The boy had to tell him now. If he left it, his dad would go spare. It was the boy's job to keep a look-out. And then, if Dad was really pissed when he discovered for himself – because he would, because all the blokes at the pub were his dad's spies and they'd know quick as lightning – he'd give him a good kicking for holding back the info.
Dad, I saw that bitch real-estate agent with some new people. The boy steadily ripped open a Coke and kept his eyes to himself. The fizz of the can would be the prelude to ... Jeez! What now?! Can't get any privacy round this fucking place. Get rid of one lot and another rolls in. Bitch! Fucking bitch! I've got her number ... give it time, give it time. His dad stopped there and the boy knew the silence meant his dad did have a plan for the real estate agent. She'd keep. And when his dad fixed things, he really fixed things. In the meantime, he sensed his dad switch attention to the problem immediately at hand.
Taking a bottle of spirits from the cupboard, the bearded miner called the boy to get his lazy carcass into the kitchen and cook him a steak. That was the night dad was supposed to eat at the pub before getting home. The boy looked after himself on these nights – he was good at that. Even though he only had his dad – his mum had gone a long time back – he liked it out on the block alone. He was never scared ... only when his dad got back from the pub. The boy started to walk towards his room. Hey, where do you think you're going? Cook your dad a steak!
TO GET THEIR NEW PLACE STARTED, the couple went south to Batavia and picked up an old donga from a construction company. It was to be delivered in a few weeks – enough time to clear a pad for it, and sort out the details of their move from the city. The plan was to live in the donga for as long as it took to get their new house established. They'd always wanted to build.
Though Batavia was much further away than the small town where the real estate agent plied her trade, they stayed in a motel down there because it was easier to get things done. They arranged for workers to go up and build the pad – being on site to ensure it went in the right place, of course. Choosing to work with an architect to design the plans themselves, they shopped around builders for the best product. It was an exciting time, though – somewhat ironically – one during which they barely had a chance to be at the new place.
The couple was out there to see the donga set to rest. And it was then they met the boy on the trail bike ... heard his dad yelling in the distance. A stream of abuse they were unable to interpret. They thought the dad drunk and best avoided. Nonetheless, it was an exquisite day, and it reminded them of their best times on the farm. After the harvest cheque was in, and they didn't have to worry about money for a while. That kind of feeling. And the pressures of the city were gone. Down there, drunks were never far away either – it was no big deal.
But what the boy had to say bothered them a little. Darl more than his wife. Pet, he said to her, these neighbours aren't all there. They're a few planks short of a jetty. He enjoyed sayings like that. He always smiled after using them, even when concerned. To be honest, Darl thought it bullshit and was suspicious of the kid anyway. Looked like a dope smoker. You get them on small properties – Darl hadn't come down in the last shower. But given the place next door didn't have a bit of green on it, he reasoned the boy wasn't growing it there, and that was all he cared about.
The boy was nervous, even frantic around his father. So I told them like you said, Dad. I told them it was an old lead mine and that the tailings are all over the block. That the place is poison. That there's lead in the well-water. Just like I told the other people.
– And what happened? his dad growled. I think it worked. The old girl looked scared and the bloke with a pole up his arse stared at me without saying anything. Their names are Pet and Darl. I've heard them call each other that.
The boy's dad laughed and then repeated to himself, Pet and Darl ... Pet and Darl ... bloody dickheads.
Then, dead quiet. The boy watched his father, trying hard not to tap his foot or do anything else that'd set the burly miner off.
Bastards, the drunken miner muttered. Bastards ... sticking that eyesore there without so much as a by-your-leave. Who do they think they are? Squatters? The landed fucking gentry? He then started yelling again, punching a fist into a hand: No neighbours! No neighbours! No neighbours! The corellas, scratching at the dirt and eyeing the neighbour's spread, squawked en masse and plumed into the air, settling on the other side of the fence.
Pet rang the real estate agent just to check about the abandoned "lead mine". The voice hesitated only slightly on the other end: Don't worry about it, the kid's got a mental problem ... He's known in town for making up stories. Always being suspended from school. My daughter knows him ... says he's weird. Don't worry, though. I think he's harmless. Pet could tell the agent was clutching at straws.
The prospect of coexistence – even distantly – with a drunkard and a weird kid distracted them from the lead business. Darl did say, though, I should probably get the place tested. And Pet carried out a quick internet search at a Batavia cafe, and found that there were in fact lead mines throughout the area, and that lead had been detected in local well-water. Dogs had died from it. She insisted. He said: Well, we haven't got any dogs and we haven't got any small children ... She could hear that he was becoming a farmer again.
But Pet wouldn't let it go. She couldn't. And as they stood in their donga looking out at a blood-red sunset, the drunk next door screaming across the distance, in ragged bursts that punctuated lulls in the fresh sea-breeze: No neighbours! No neighbours! No neighbours! she caught Darl's eye twitching – a sign that he was reaching the end of his tolerance. He wasn't a violent man, but still he had a temper. He'd give that drunken neighbour a run for his money, then there'd be real trouble. Pet felt it in her waters. Well, the town has been drinking the water for a hundred years, so I think we'll survive, Darl said suddenly, and calmly. As if that was that, and there'd be no more talk about the matter. Gradually they both decided they couldn't care less about the lead. Even if it were true, they'd live there. They had once been farmers. Back then, they had saturated their paddocks and animals in poison every year. What was the difference? Real estate agents will say anything. They remained proud of their purchase.
THE DONGA HAD BEEN THERE FOR A FEW WEEKS and workers were already laying the house-pad. The boy's father was mumbling something about the next phase of the operation. The night before, he'd fired rifle shots into the air and played the stereo extra loud.
Funny thing was, the boy had watched the donga being set in place with a dull excitement – almost creeping skin – as the crane hoisted the donga from the semi-trailer. Overwidth, overlength. The cops were there – a car out front, a car behind the load. That'd cost them. And he'd watched in amazement as the ground was levelled for the pad. The boy liked how precise it all was. The old couple – Pet and Darl he drawled their names sarcastically, mimicking his father – weren't there much, but when they were he rode along the fenceline on his motorbike, revving the shit out of the engine as per his dad's instruction. Darl would watch him doing this for an age, and the boy thought he saw the old bloke shaking as if he were really angry once, but it might have been the easterly that had whipped in, hot and burning though it was only spring.
When the truck and workers and new owners were gone, the boy rode his trail bike up to a tear in the fence and wormed the bike through. He rode over to the mine, got off, and threw tailings at the crumpled and suffocated entry. Phase two of his dad's plan to cleanse the district of invaders. Then he mounted up and raced down to the creek. He leant his head so far back he nearly fell off his bike – he was looking up at the sun through white gum leaves, the oil of the trees headier than dope. His dad was a smart man.
IT WAS AN "EARTHQUAKE-PROOFED" HOUSE. A steel frame with single brick and plasterboard walls, built on a sand pad. The boy was fascinated. He rode over and asked the builders about it. Dad was at work and he was wagging school, so it would be okay. He was bored. Earthquake-proof, eh? We haven't had an earthquake here, I don't think, he said to them. A gnarled and bearded builder with tobacco stains around his mouth and moustache, said:
Well, some people like to be prepared, matey. The builder asked the boy to pass him his beer, cool in its foam holder. Yep, nothing like working in the bush, he said, no problem drinking on the job. He hacked and spat as he laughed.
The builder paused as he set a string for a new line of bricks, and said to the boy, who was rocking his bike back and forth so its wheels bit into the dirt, So you've been a bit of a bastard to my employers? The boy looked away and said: My dad doesn't like neighbours.
Yeah, well your dad's being an arsehole. The boy shot a look back at the builder and sized up the opposition: the guy was built like a brick shithouse. Ten axe handles across. Sunburnt and milky-eyed with drink. But still sharp. The boy wanted to say something back, but hit the kick-start with his boot and throttled up, spewing sand all over the place as he raced back to the hole in the fence.
The boy stared at his dad spread-eagled on the couch, watching television. What are you staring at, you little bastard, his father half-asked him.
– Nothing. They're putting the roof on the place next door.
Who gives a damn, his dad muttered, taking the boy by surprise. Dad looked strange. It worried the boy.
DARL AND PET WERE LIVING IN THE DONGA, waiting for their house to be completed. It wouldn't be long now. The summer had set in and it was getting pretty hot even through the nights – they craved the ducted air-conditioning they'd had installed in their dream home. The power was through, and they'd made the massive outlay to have scheme water put on. Darl said: It's not because of this bull about the quality of groundwater around here, just that it's more reliable. It was late, and in the cramped space they were watching television, doing dishes and talking over the plans when there was a knock at the door. The husband called out: Who's there?
– It's me, from next door ... The couple looked at each other. Don't open it, Pet said. Darl looked at her for slightly too long, then shook his head and went to open it. The boy was standing on the step shaking. His hair was slicked to his forehead with sweat. What's happened? asked Darl. Pet was behind her husband's shoulder now, and seeing the boy, pushed her way through and placed her hand on his arm. What's wrong, son? What's happened?
– It's my Dad. He's sick. I mean he's really sick. I think he needs a doctor and the phone isn't working. I mean, Dad broke the phone when he got in from work.
Darl didn't mind paying the extra for scheme water to be piped out to the place. Cost thousands, but peace of mind is peace of mind. Probably nothing wrong, but why go through the worry? The real estate agent's sister – a nurse at the hospital – said tests showed there was nothing wrong with the groundwater. That's what the real estate agent reckoned. But what the hell. And when Darl suggested to the boy's dad he connect his place to the scheme for a few thousand, the ex-drunk surprisingly said yes. I can taste the bloody water now,he mumbled – when we ran out of rainwater, the well-water tasted pretty bad, didn't it boy?
– Yes, Dad.
His dad stared at his boots and then added, Nothing wrong with it, though ... just that my taste buds are shot, like my liver.
Darl spent a lot of time at the old lead mine. Sometimes the boy would come over on his trail bike. He'd dismount and they'd squat near each other without saying a word. It smelt strong, even heady up there in the heat ... assaying the lead tailings, listening to the pasture crackle with the dryness, watching oddly coloured sunsets. Sometimes Darl would ask after the boy's dad. Oh, he's okay, the boy would say. He keeps saying his liver's shot and that's why he got sick. When one of his mates rings and tries to get Dad to go out on the piss, he just says, can't mate, doc says my liver's shot.
After a while, Darl and the boy would hear Pet calling up from the new house – or the "mansion", as the boy called it: Hey, boys, come down and have something to eat and drink.
It was as if they were the only people in the world. It would always be like that. ♦