Wednesday, November 12, 2014
“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.
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.
What is it with me and dead brothers? I should probably go see someone : ) Two stories done in two days though. Woohoo!