Thursday, November 13, 2014

Lost

I was in Sydney, in the CBD, walking with my daughter, Melissa (she’s nine) when she said “Dad, the man in that shop was stealing things”.

I stopped and looked at her. “What shop?”

She pointed to a gift shop a few doors back.

We started back towards it. As we approached I told Melissa to keep walking and look straight ahead. I, however, looked in.

It was a small shop and there were two males inside. One was talking over the counter to a middle-aged, female shop assistant, the other was at the rear of the shop, his back to me. We walked past the shop and stopped. I told Melissa to wait there while I went in.

As I walked past the lady behind the counter, she looked at me; she was on her own and she was definitely anxious. A young man was at the counter, looking at various items that she had obviously got out for him. I nodded briefly to her to try and assure her that I knew what was going on and went to the rear of the shop where the other man was looking at things along the back wall.

I went and stood a few metres from him, pretending to look at things on the same shelf. With my peripheral vision I saw him slip something down the front of his trousers and cover it with his coat. I sidled up alongside him, still looking at things on the shelf.

“I would suggest you turn around right now and leave the shop and take your mate with you”  I said quietly without looking at him.

The man kept looking straight ahead, then turned and headed towards the front of the shop. As he walked past the other man, he deliberately brushed him with this elbow. This man then looked up at the sales lady, smiled, said “thanks very much” and followed the first man out.

As soon as they were gone, the lady came out from behind the counter. She was clearly distressed. “Thank goodness you came in” she said, “I didn’t like the look of them”.

“The one down the back pinched something” I said.

“Did he? I thought he was up to something - his friend was obviously just distracting me”.

I went with her to the rear of the shop and she immediately pointed to a spot on the shelf. “There – there was a clock right there”.

I told her I couldn’t tell exactly what it was he took but it didn’t look like a clock – it was something thinner.  She told me it was a digital clock – more or less like a small photo frame.

Suddenly I remembered Melissa, excused myself and headed out to the street. She wasn’t there. I went inside the shop next door thinking she had probably gone in to amuse herself while she waited. Nothing.

Back out on the street, I could feel the horrible dread that every parent knows when they can’t find their child. I went to the next shop and looked in but she wasn’t there either. And the next - same thing.

I started jogging now past shop after shop, then turned and went back the other way doing the same thing. Still no joy.

I was starting to feel a mix of fear and anger – fear for my daughter and anger that those two shoplifters had put me in this situation. I thought of my wife. What on earth was I going to say to her?

I ran across the road and checked the shops on that side. Surely she wouldn’t have tried to cross – it was a busy road – but I had to check.

I ran back to the gift shop in case I had missed her somewhere and she was now back there looking for me. The sales lady was on the phone – to the police judging from what she was saying. I stood in front of her and indicated that I needed to speak to her urgently. She asked the person on the other end to hold, then covered the mouthpiece with her hand.

“Sorry”, I said, “but my daughter’s missing. I left her outside when I came in before. She didn’t come in looking for me did she?”

“Blonde girl in a blue dress?”

“Yes”

“She just left”

“Did you see which way she went?”

“Sorry”

I raced out of the shop and looked up and down the street both ways. To my right, about fifty metres away, I briefly caught a glimpse of the back of Melissa before she disappeared out of sight again, swallowed by the throng of pedestrians. 

I ran down towards her, pushing past people, apologising profusely, trying desperately to get a view of her again before she turned off somewhere. 

I must have gone a hundred metres - way further than she could have got in that short amount of time - before I stopped.  She must have gone into a shop or down a lane. I turned and started working back the other way, against the tide of pedestrians, looking in each shop and down each lane as I went. I was conscious that I was bumping a lot people but I just kept apologizing and looking sideways. I got all the way back to the gift shop and still hadn’t found her.

I could feel myself getting close to tears now from worry and frustration. This just didn’t seem possible. It was like she was playing some sort of cruel game with me. I stood outside the shop puffing and sweating, trying to think what to do. Instinctively, I headed back in the direction I had just come from. It was the only direction that made any sense to go. I had definitely seen her. 

I pushed and shoved and looked in all the shops yet again until I got to where I was before. I ran across the road again, nearly getting run over in the process, and repeated the procedure along the other side of the street.

I was really heaving now. The physical exertion plus the mental stress was getting to me. I was standing with my hands clasped behind my head, looking wildly up and down the street, seriously close to panic, when a voice behind me said “you looking for your daughter?”

I turned around. It was a street hobo, a homeless man. He was wearing a long trench coat and was unshaven and dirty.

“You’ve seen her?” I said.

“I seen a young blonde kid in a shiny blue dress, if that’s her. She was just over the other side there lookin’ lost”

“When? How long ago?”

“Two minutes ago – she was just there”. The man pointed directly across the street. “I was sittin’ here on this bench. I seen her clear as day”.

“Where did she go? Did you see?”

“Well, yeah. A lady came along and she went with her”

“A lady? What lady?”

“I dunno, just a lady”

I moved close to the man and grabbed the lapels of his grubby overcoat. He smelled bad but I didn’t care. “Where did they go? Please….”

“Whoa!” said the man, raising his hands, “I’m just telling you what I saw. I don’t know nuthin’ else”

I let go of him and raised my hands myself. “Sorry - sorry mate, this is just getting a little bit desperate. Can you tell me what this lady looked like?”

The hobo pushed me away and started to wander off, muttering to himself. I walked alongside, pleading with him to describe the lady. He pushed me away again, so I got round in front of him and blocked his way.

“Mate, this is serious – tell me what the lady looked like. Tell me!”

The hobo suddenly went red in the face and started screaming.  Foam started coming from his mouth and bits of it flicked into my face as he went in to a melt down.

I tried to calm him but anything I said only seemed to make him worse. 

He was starting to stagger around wildly and was getting dangerously close to the traffic so I reached out to pull him back.

When he saw my hand coming at him he stepped backwards into the road, straight into the path of a car. Someone screamed as the car hit him and flung him into the air. He crashed into the car’s windscreen, bounced over its roof and landed heavily on the road.

The car screeched to a halt and the driver got out and ran back. It was a young woman. People just stood around in shock so I went over to see if I could assist.

The young woman was crouching down next to the man who was moaning and bleeding from his mouth and nose. “Call an ambulance” she said to me. “Have you got a phone?”

“Ah, yes”.  I fumbled around in my pocket. “Whats the number?” I asked stupidly.

“Triple zero - ring triple zero” she said.

“Yes, of course - sorry”. I tried to enter the code into my phone to unlock it but my hands were shaking so much I couldn’t do it.

“Here, give it me” the woman said, holding out her hand. I passed her the phone. “What’s your PIN?”

I went blank. “Ah….sorry, hang on.”

“Its OK” she said. She looked at the other people who had now started to gather round.  “Can someone please ring triple zero and get an ambulance here?”

“Hi Dad. Is that man alright?”

The familiar voice jolted me. I turned around. Melissa was standing right behind me, staring gravely at the injured man, seemingly oblivious to the trauma she had caused me.

I stooped down, pulled her close and shut my eyes. A huge wave of relief surged through me and everything suddenly changed, everything suddenly became clear.

I crouched down alongside the woman and started to take a closer look at the injured man.

The woman tried to fend me off.

“Its OK” I said to her quietly.


I put my hand on the man’s shoulder. “Its OK mate, there’s an ambulance on the way, you’re going to be fine. I’m a doctor”.


Author's notes:
Yes! Three days, three stories. This one was a struggle I must admit. Several false starts and I came close to giving it away. But I stuck with it and it came out.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Vincent

“Always dry your hands on the towel Vince because if you don’t, germs will breed on your skin and make you sick”

That’s what my mother used to say to Vince when he was little because he would always run off with wet hands after washing them.

Vince is dead now. He only made it to twenty. It was a life that started off so sweet and joyful yet ended so sadly. He was a rare human being. Blessed – perhaps cursed – with an exquisite sensitivity to everything around him: the beauty of the natural world, of music and writing and all the arts, but also to the harshness and cruelty of life. When I think of Vince, I always think of that line in the Don Maclean song “Vincent”: “I could have told you, Vincent, this world was never meant for one as beautiful as you”.

Vincent Anderson was my younger brother. We were born in rural Australia in the 1950’s. It was in many ways an idyllic upbringing. We were farmer’s sons and lived free – well, free apart from the hard work that farmer’s sons do. But we didn’t see that as in any way curtailing our happiness. It was just what you did. It was what my father did and his father before him. It was in the Anderson blood. We were happy.

Looking back I can see now that there were early signs that Vince was different, but in those days such things were ignored or, worse, ridiculed. Things like playing with his sister and her friends and all their dolls and stuff. I must admit I didn’t really understand that. I would rather be outside catching tadpoles or something and yes, I could give him a bit of stick about it as well.

Don’t get me wrong, Vince wasn't effeminate or anything: he loved to mix it up with the boys too. He was never particularly good at sports and outdoor stuff but there was never an unwillingness in him to have a go. Vince got himself knocked about as much as the rest of us – even broke an arm once jumping off the garage roof trying to “fly like Superman”.

But there was no denying he was different. He would spend hours lying on his bed just staring out the window. Or alone in a paddock just wandering around with his thoughts. He liked to write too – poems and things. They all just seemed like random words to me but he was very protective of them and got really upset if people mocked them.

One day after school, we were out riding our motorbikes and went down to the creek that formed one boundary of our farm. We leaned our bikes against a tree and I walked out onto a log that crossed the creek. I turned around to see if Vince was following but he wasn’t. He stood on our side of the creek watching.

“Come on” I said, but he didn’t move. “Its OK, old Summers won’t be down here”.

“Old Summers” was Ron Summers, our neighbouring farmer. He was a prickly customer and we’d had a run in with him once before for being on his property. We weren’t really doing anything, just having a look around, but he got upset and told Dad, who gave me and Vince a bollocking. It didn’t bother me too much – I could see Dad felt like he had to do it even though he thought Summers was a cranky old fool too - but Vince took it badly. He didn’t like any sort of upset, especially when it was mum or dad who were upset. And he felt it double if he believed he was the cause of the upset. He went pretty quiet for a couple of weeks after that and Mum had to work hard in the end to reassure him that everything was OK. I overhead her telling Dad one night to go a bit easy on him, that he was sensitive and took things to heart. I didn’t hear what Dad said but I reckon from the tone of his voice he thought Vince just needed to toughen up a bit. I didn’t think Vince needed to toughen up. I thought he was already tough. He was just sensitive as well.

“Come on Vince, it’s OK, we won’t go far this time” I said, trying to coax him on to the log. But he just stood there and stared at me, refusing to budge. I walked back and got off the log.

“We’ll just go along Summers’ side of the creek for a bit to see if there’s any marron. We won’t go far”. I bent down to Vince’s level and smiled at him. He still wouldn't speak but I detected a hint of resignation so I put my arm around his shoulder and led him to the log.

When we got to the other side, we glanced around for Summers, just in case. Apart from the trees and bushes lining the creek, there were clear paddocks as far as the eye could see, which was good.  If anyone was approaching, we would know well in advance.

We started along the creek, stopping wherever a tree or log had fallen in to the water, creating a potential hiding place for marron. The water was tea brown but perfectly clear and shallow so it was easy to see them if they were there. I had gone on ahead of Vince a few metres when he called out.

“Here’s one”

I went back to where Vince was pointing with a stick. A marron was halfway out from under a log in a pool of calm water. It was a big one too. Normally when they see you, they retreat quickly into their hiding place, but for some reason this one didn’t. I knew it wasn’t dead or anything because it was waving its claws and antennae around.

“If I come up from behind it, I might be able to catch it” I whispered.

“No! You said!” Vince cried, pulling away from me.

“Sshhh!” I said, “you’ll scare it”.

I went into the river some metres away and waded very slowly towards where the marron was, coming at it from behind. When I reached the log, I lay across it on my chest, leaving my arms free.

“You said!” Vince said again, but in a whisper this time.

I motioned with a finger to my lips and inched a bit further forward on the log so that I was now looking straight down on top of the marron. It still hadn’t moved. I very slowly lowered my hands towards the water - and then pounced as hard as I could. Of course it didn’t work. Marron have lightning reflexes and it would have been well under the log before my hands got anywhere near it.

“What do you think you’re doing?”

The unexpected voice gave me such a start I nearly slipped off the log into the water.  I looked up to see Ron Summers’ sons, Kiefer and Raoul. With our concentration on the marron, we hadn’t noticed them approach. There was no bike or vehicle so they’d obviously come on foot along the creek edge. I looked across at Vince. He was wide-eyed with mouth open.

“What are you doing?” Kiefer repeated. He was about sixteen, Raoul a few years younger. “This is private property.”

They were standing alongside Vince who continued staring up at them, clearly afraid. I waded out of the water, went over to Vince and placed an arm around his shoulder.

“We're' not doing anything, just looking” I said bravely, though I was feeling a bit scared myself.

“What’s wrong with your side of the creek?” said Kiefer. Raoul was now staring down at Vince in a way which was making me uncomfortable. I pulled him closer.

“Nuthin’ – we’re just looking, that’s all” I said and started moving off with Vince towards the log across the creek. It was about twenty yards away. Raoul moved ahead of us and blocked our way. I stopped and stared at him. I still had my arm around Vince and I could feel him starting to shake. I heard Kiefer come up behind us so that we were now trapped between the two of them. Vince heard it too and twisted his head around to look but I pulled him forward and made to go around Raoul, who still wasn’t looking at me, just Vince. He moved sideways to block us again. I stopped and stared hard at him but he wouldn't look at me, only Vince.

I turned around to see where Kiefer was. He was still behind and now had a grin on his face. I was starting to get really uncomfortable.

I turned back to Raoul. “Excuse me, we’re leaving now” I said.

For the first time, Raoul looked at me. “Oh, excuse me” he said. “No, you’re not”. I didn’t like Raoul. Even though he was the younger brother and probably only a year older than me, there was something sinister about him that scared me more than Kiefer. Vince sensed it too and was terrified of him.

Kiefer now came around to the front and stood alongside his brother, still grinning. Raoul wasn’t. He had a vicious sneer on his face as he started staring at Vince again. I could feel my heart starting to pound and my hands getting sweaty. I tried to think of how we might make a break for it but I knew whichever way we went we probably wouldn’t get far against these two. I would just have to try and talk my way out of it. But the look on Raoul’s face was dark and terrifying and I was struggling to get any words out, let alone clever ones.

As it turned out, it didn’t matter. Before I could think of something , Keifer was upon me, breaking my hold on Vince and knocking me to the ground. He knelt down with one knee on my chest and the other one on my right arm, pinning it to the ground. He grabbed me around the throat with his right hand to hold my head down.

I was able to turn my eyes far enough to see what was happening to Vince. Raoul had him in a headlock and was leading him away from the water's edge. Vince was small for his age and, without a mean bone in his body, offered no resistance. But I knew he must be in terror beyond words. I tried to call out to him but Kiefer’s grip on my throat wouldn’t let any sound out beyond a squawk.

I watched the two of them disappear behind some bushes a dozen yards away and felt a fear that I had never felt before. I struggled with everything I had to break free but Kiefer was too strong. Tears of frustration and fear flooded my eyes which only made Kiefer grin all the more. Through the watery distortion he looked strange, grotesque almost, as he brought his face closer to mine. I felt like I was going to vomit.

Then, suddenly, Keifer looked away, not to where Raoul and Vince had gone, but in the other direction. He let go of my throat and stood up.

“Raoul!” he yelled, “come here”.

I sat up and wiped my eyes as Raoul came out of the bushes alone. I looked to where Kiefer was pointing. It was a cloud of dust in the distance, on our farm; a vehicle heading towards us. Kiefer and Raoul didn’t say anything but just ran off along the creek.

I got up and ran over to the bushes where Vince had gone. He was lying on the ground, curled up and sobbing. His shorts were down around his knees. A new wave of nausea swept through me as I crouched down alongside him and moved the hair out of his eyes.

“Its OK mate, they’ve gone” I said, trying to sound calm. “Come on”.

I stood Vince up and helped him pull his pants up. He kept sobbing but was trying bravely to control it. I led him back to the log and we crossed over to our side.

“Grab your bike,” I said, “I think its Dad coming.” The cloud of dust was now much closer, probably half a mile away.

We started our bikes and headed off down the firebreak towards the approaching vehicle. It was Dad. He pulled up alongside us and wound his window down.

“I thought you might be down here. Mum’s looking for you; you’re due at a birthday party apparently”.

Dad craned his neck to look past me to Vince who was trying to hide so that Dad wouldn’t see he had been crying.

“What’s wrong with him?”

“He’s OK, he just slipped at the creek and hurt himself. He’ll be fine.”

Dad looked harder. “You OK mate?”

Vince nodded but kept his face down.

“Hey, Vince, look at me” Dad said.

Vince looked up. His eyes were red but they had a fierce look in them. “I’m fine Dad”, he said.   A big swell of pride went through me right then. I was nearly moved to tears myself at Vince’s courage. I never forgot that.


Vince and I didn't talk about that incident again but something unbreakable bonded in us that day. We got in plenty more scrapes over the years as boys - and young men -  but we never feared after that, as long as we were together. 

It was a sad day when I heard he’d finally gone. Sad, but not surprising. He never did belong here. Don Maclean was right,Vince: this world really didn’t deserve someone as beautiful as you.


Author's notes: 
What is it with me and dead brothers? I should probably go see someone : ) Two stories done in two days though. Woohoo!

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Robert

My brother Robert and I were avid hikers when we were young. We often did short weekend hikes but would then do really long ones during our holidays. I’m talking fifty years ago when we were nineteen, twenty. Rob was a year older than me and was a police cadet. I worked in a bank. For both of us, getting away to the bush was what it was all about.

In 1966 we decided to hike from Denmark to Albany along the south coast of Western Australia. It was late autumn - the best time to be down there; cool, still days and fewer flies. Our plan was to walk along what is now called the Bibbulmun Track. It's a great route. You emerge out of thick bush to breathtaking vistas of rugged granite headlands running straight down into the huge swells of the Southern Ocean. In other sections you come across white sandy beaches that you can walk along for miles without seeing anyone.

Rob and I carried a two-man tent and made camp each night in any clearing that was neither under gum trees (“widow-makers”) nor where vehicles could harass us during the night.

By the third night we were well into a routine and it was all starting to feel natural and comfortable. We set up the tent in a swale behind some large coastal dunes. The sea was roaring about a hundred yards away and there was a stiff breeze, but tucked away in our little hollow we were fine.

We went about the usual tasks of setting up the tent, collecting firewood, getting a fire going and preparing some food. The last bit never took long – it usually consisted of opening a can and dumping the contents into the little aluminium frying pan we carried.

After eating, we played cards and talked. Rob told me he was thinking of quitting the police. He was in the second year of his cadetship and was struggling. He said it wasn’t really anything like what he had thought; that he’d formed a romantic idea of it as a boy but the reality was a bit of a rude shock. I asked him what he would do if he left. He didn’t know, but it got us thinking, and we talked a lot that night about the possibility of setting up a business running hiking tours for tourists. We got really fired up about it and mapped out a lot of the details. I reckon we just about had a complete business plan in our heads by the time I checked my watch and noticed it was nearly 1am. We turned in, excited and hopeful, and looking forward to the rest of the hike with a whole new perspective.

I woke the next morning around five. Rob was still out to it so I lay on my back for a while and went over the things we had discussed the night before. After about half an hour Rob still hadn’t stirred so I crawled out of the tent.

A beautiful, autumn morning was just starting to appear. The wind had dropped out during the night and the cool air was heavy with salt.

I headed off down a narrow track through some Peppermint trees to check out the beach. The sea was grey and calm, shining. Small waves were breaking well out and running gently in to shore in long white lines. I went for a walk up the deserted bay, sticking to the firm sand near the water’s edge, enjoying the combined smell of sea and coastal scrub that always seemed stronger in still, moist air. I thought some more about our business idea; getting to do this every day definitely sounded better than working in a bank.

I must have got well and truly lost in my thoughts because it was about an hour later when I walked back up the track to the campsite. I expected to see Rob up and about and, hopefully, heating up something to eat. But there was no movement. I thought he might be in the bush somewhere, collecting fire wood or having a leak. I checked inside the tent. He was still in there, unmoved it seemed from when I left.

“Come on sunshine – we’ve got some miles to cover today", I said.

No movement.

“Oi!” I said, tugging at his foot inside the sleeping bag.

It was at that moment that something very dark went through me. I think I knew right then that this was very bad.

I crawled into the tent and rolled Rob onto his back. His eyes were open but there was clearly no life. 

I rushed back out of the tent and paced around trying to calm myself. Part of me wanted to race off through the bush and find help but I had no idea how far away that would be and I wasn’t sure that it would do any good anyway. 

I didn’t want to, but I went back inside the tent and checked Rob’s neck for a pulse. Nothing. And the cold flesh clearly didn’t belong to a living person.

The next period is a bit of a blur. Looking back, I was obviously in deep shock, but I must have eventually pulled myself together sufficiently to realise that I had no option but go find help, because the next thing I remember, I'm tramping through the bush looking for the road. It must have been hours before I finally found it and flagged down someone - a country sales rep who drove me in to Albany police station.

                                                                     *

It was dark when I eventually arrived back at the camp site with the Albany police. As two of them brought Rob out of the tent, a third one shone his torch on him and I saw ants crawling over his staring eyes. That was a horrible sight and something I still see. 

It turned out Rob had had a massive brain bleed during the night. They said he wouldn’t have known anything about it and just didn't wake up. I grieved pretty bad for Rob; he was my brother and my best friend.

I was a lost soul for a while after that and drifted - until about eighteen months later I got called up for military service and was sent to Vietnam. During the worst moments of that bloody war I couldn’t help but think that maybe Rob was better off out of it.


I’m nearly 68 now. I still go to the south coast a bit. For all the change and turmoil that has happened in my life, that country still looks exactly the same as it did when Rob and I were there. And I’ll bet it even looked the same when it was just the black fellas wandering around there thousands of years before that. It helps me to go. The timelessness of it seems to put things back in perspective whenever I get a little crazy. It’s still a wonderful world despite our best efforts to stuff it up.


Author's notes:

OK, time to 'fess up: I got called away to something three quarters of the way through this one and came back and finished it a few hours later, so not strictly one sitting. Must plan time better to make sure I'm not interrupted….