Winter had passed into spring. Frost still bit the ground occasionally, snapping at the lawn’s mid-year excess, but the jasmine had started to blossom. It walled the cutting yard, clouding it in toilet freshener. A halo of new life circling a stack of dead wood, the space where the dog had met its end. The boy didn’t know where the dog was buried. Just knew where it had died. Wasn’t sure how to pay his respects so each Saturday he sat in the chopping enclosure. He wasn’t religious, hadn’t been to church a day in his life. Most times at school he found an excuse not to attend R.I. He wasn’t sure how to pray, he just sat on the block where it’d happened. Spent an hour mumbling apologies for his father’s actions. For his own inaction. Thought it might help, knew it couldn’t hurt. Felt the jagged surface of the wood block, all the toothy axe scars, bite into his bum. Somehow knew this wasn’t something that could be done comfortably. He picked apart the red wood chips littering the ground like tears. Split them along their grain until he held one sliver. Then pricked it into his palm.
In time he walked inside. Seemed he’d walked in on something. The mother and father stood at opposite ends of the kitchen. The father’s face was red. The mother’s wet. They both turned to face the boy. He felt their gazes. Felt an intruder. His mind turned to the dog. The boy wondered about his own fate. How they would get rid of him? On the chopping bock? Probably not.
The father harrumphed. Walked past the boy. Out the door. Blundstones thudding. First heavy on the lino, then hollow on the wooden porch.
The boy closed his eyes. Listened to the father fade away. Raised his eyes to his mother. Saw the imploring face. Clumped his own way across the kitchen floor. Opposite direction to the father. Left the mother with her hand stoppering her mouth.
In his room, the boy sat hidden within the built-in robe. Cradled his clarinet. Thought of the lunchtime lessons he’d missed. Thought of the school music room with its Row Your Boat sing-a-long posters and its wet carpet smell. Thought of the stupid bitch teacher who didn’t know how hard it was. The boy pulled out the reed. Ran his thumbnail the length, creasing a seam into the fibres. Put it in his mouth. Bit hard. Felt the wood tear. Started to chew. Began to unscrew the instrument. Placed the pieces in a pile, next to the long forgotten box of Lego. Studied them. No longer a functional tool, just bits of wood with holes. Smiled. Scrambled onto his knees. Unzipped his fly. Pissed on the dismembered instrument.
The family sat at the kitchen table. Each was silent. Their cutlery clinked against plates. Occasionally a pop emitted from the wood stove.
The boy pushed his Brussels sprout around the plate. The weak leaves falling from the mini cabbage, leaving a trail in the cooling mustard sauce.
The father stood, coughed past a mouthful of silverside. Dumped a pan of briquettes in the stove. Sunk back on his bench with a sigh.
The mother attempted conversation. Referred to an item in the local newspaper. An item of discussion at the supermarket. Surprised the father hadn’t heard. A local boy. Missing. Peter Henderson. Did the father know them?
He nodded. Tough family. Talk old man Henderson was a bit rough round the edges. Boy’s just done a runner.
‘How long’s he been gone?’ the father asked.
The mother thought two days.
‘Be back by tomorrow,’ was the father’s verdict.
They turned their attention to the boy. Did he know the Henderson lad? The boy kept his head bowed. Gave the slightest shrug of his shoulders, which communicated nothing, and squished his Brussels sprout into his mashed potato.
The boy stamped through the ankle-high grass. It was his job to mow the yard but he’d been lax in his chores. Knew he could be. The father, usually a disciplinarian about these things, had been easy of late. Seemed reluctant to enforce anything since he had cut the neck of the dog he no longer wanted. The boy knew of the reluctance and he was going to exploit it. Felt it was his duty to exploit it, felt the father deserved it to be exploited.
And he was angry, the boy. He was angry about everything but most of all he was angry with Miss Albrecht at the moment. Detention again. Teachers were meant to know everything. Be guiding lights. The older he got, the more he knew they were as thick as the mother and father. What good was a fucking music lesson?
He kicked out. Dispersed a cluster of dandelion. Watched the spores float up in the air and felt a sudden sadness at having caused their destruction. He caught a spore in his palm and silently apologised. Apologised for the unintended damage. He put the spore in his pocket for future reference.
The boy found the entry point to the hedge and climbed in. The hedge ran the back length of the property. Three metres high. Two across. He hauled himself up the spine. Emerged at the top, flopping out on the interwoven branches. He spread himself out. He’d seen people make snow angels on the television. This was his hedge angel. His fingers searched through the branches. Found a solid limb. Took hold and rolled to the side. For a moment he was free-falling over the side. Then the branch retracted and he flung softly into the cushioning pine wall. Let himself drop. Landed softly on the balls of his feet. Re-entered and climbed back up. All around him, in his clothes, his hair, his nostrils, the scent of pine. The sound of a car pulling in. The old valiant coughing to a stop. The boy peered through the fern. Begged to be left alone. Could see the mother. Ducked his head.
‘She won’t see you.’
The boy almost tumbled over the side. Regained balance. Edged his way around. The Henderson boy was sat snuggled in the hedge.
‘You’ve runaway,’ the boy said. It was a statement not a question.
Henderson shrugged. He looked pale, cold. His hair was damp.
The boy wriggled out of his school sweater. Handed it over. ‘Why?’
Henderson accepted the sweater. Placed it beside him. ‘Can’t tell, just had to.’
The mother was calling. Had seen the boy’s school bag. Knew he was home.
‘Have to go.’
Henderson shrugged again. ‘Everyone goes.’
‘I’ll be back.’ The boy felt obliged. ‘I’ll bring some food.’ He shimmied down the trunk.
‘Don’t tell anyone.’ Henderson peered down at him.
The boy nodded.
The boy put the last dish away. Hung the tea towel on the stove. Could hear the tele in the next room. Father watching the news. In the cupboard, he took down a packet of arrowroot biscuits. Took a juice box from the fridge. Put them up his jumper. Folded his arms. Headed towards the hallway. The father diverted his attention from the television. Wanted to know what the boy was up to.
‘Music practice,’ he replied, eyes averted, head down.
And his school jumper, the mother wanted to know where it was. Was going to put it in the wash.
‘Locker at school,’ he said and continued up the hallway. Stopped by the linen closet. Checked that they weren’t following him. Took down an old blanket. Draped it over his shoulder. Quick steps to his room and closed the door behind. He bundled the loot into an old sports bag. Left it by the window. Sat on the bed and waited. Watched the staccato movement of the alarm clock digits. How they stared blankly at him, as though stuck in time and then jerked forward. As each ticked by he felt himself clench in unison. Didn’t know what he was waiting for. What would be a good time? Mesmerised by the glowing red numbers. Vision blurred. Didn’t hear the father’s footsteps on the floorboards. The door opening.
‘Thought you were practising?’
The boy jumped a little. No time for composure.
‘Mother thought I should hear you play.’ Still standing by the door, holding the knob.
The boy stared blankly.
The father raised his eyebrow. Grew tired of looking at the mute boy. Saw the old sports bag by the window. The one he’d given the boy to carry his football gear. The boy had quit. Wouldn’t need it anymore. He could do with it back. Strode over.
‘I’ll have this back,’ he said and picked it up. Felt the weight. ‘Whatcha got in here?’ Unzipped.
The boy followed the movement, said nothing.
The father took out the blanket, let it fall to the floor. Held the arrowroots in one hand. Dropped the bag. ‘What’s with this?’
The boy stayed silent.
‘Running away? With a pack o’ bloody biscuits and a blanket.’ He shook his head. ‘What’s going on, mate? Eh?’
The boy couldn’t take his eyes of the father’s. Gripped the Transformers quilt.
The father broke the contact. Brushed aside the curtain. Turned the key in the window lock. Dropped the key in his pocket. ‘Going to say something? Cat got your tongue?’ The father shook his head. ‘Running away never helped anyone.’ He scooped up the bag and the blanket. Walked to the door. Over his shoulder, ‘Mother doesn’t need to know.’ Tossed the arrowroots onto the bed. ‘You can keep those. Bloody awful.’ Flicked off the light, closed the door.
Days were clear but mornings still snapped at uncovered extremities. The father, up early, would light the woodstove before leaving for work. The sun only beginning to peak over the horizon. He was long gone by the time the boy sat at the table, lethargically dabbing his spoon into porridge. The mother always in a rush. Never enough time to make the boy’s lunch, have a proper breakfast and get off to work. Had to be there by eight. Shop assistant at Australian Geographic in the big multi-plex toward the city. Not much of a career. A limp clasp at a schoolgirl passion for the Earth and the environment. She banged out the porch door. Yelled back a reminder. ‘Don’t forget that sweater.’
The boy waited until he could no longer hear tyres on gravel. Dumped his full bowl in the sink. Strode out to the hedge, an apple in hand, school bag over his shoulder. Dropped the bag. Called out as he ascended. Had the apple in his mouth. Needed both hands to get up. Didn’t think Henderson would mind. Up top, couldn’t see Henderson. The sweater laid in a crumpled heap. He felt it, held it in his lap. It was soaked through with last night’s dew. The boy sank back in the ferns. It was a clear crisp day. In the embrace of the entwined branches, he closed his eyes. Thought of nothing but the pale red hum of his eyelids. Dozed.
Woke with a start. Henderson sat across from him. Had the apple. Thanked the boy but didn’t bite into the fruit. The boy gathered himself, wiped the sleep from his eyes.
‘Not going to school?’ Henderson asked.
‘Waste of time.’
Henderson nodded sadly.
‘What about you?’ There was accusation in the boy’s voice. Felt judged.
‘Didn’t help me.’
The boy relaxed. Liked Henderson. Was a few years older than the boy. Maybe 13. 14. At school they wouldn’t speak. ‘You’ve been in the news.’
The boy shrugs, ‘The local paper.’
Henderson nods. ‘Makes sense.’ Wipes his damp fringe from his face. Seemed paler than yesterday. Colder.
The boy watched a mosquito settle on Henderson’s forehead. Henderson ignored it.
‘You should put the sweater on.’
Henderson shrugged. ‘It’s wet.’
‘So why’d you runaway.’
The boy wanted a better answer. Knew he wouldn’t get one. Had to push on. ‘Dad says you’ll turn up today. Will you?’
‘Be a few days yet. Do you ever feel like running away?’
The boy hadn’t expected to be quizzed. Wasn’t sure how he felt. Said, ‘Sometimes.’
‘To get back at your parents. Get back at your dad for killing your dog?’
The boy’s eyes widened. Cheeks reddened. A fresh wound. ‘How’d you know?’
Henderson smiled his doleful smile. ‘Whole town knows. Knows he put it’s head on the chopping block.’
Tears stung the boy’s eyes.
‘You want to get back at him?’
The boy nodded. Didn’t look up.
‘I used to want to get back at my parents. Want to know what I did?’
The boy was eager for instruction. Some wisdom from this pale prophet in his hedge.
‘Hurt myself. Tells them they can’t hurt you, ‘cause you control it.’
‘Burn yourself. I did it with cigarettes. Just butt it out on your arm.’
‘Doesn’t it hurt?’
‘That’s the point.’ Henderson sighed. Looked over his shoulder. ‘Anyway gotta go.’
‘What?’ The boy reached out his hand. Withdrew it just as fast. He wanted more. ‘Where will you go? Home?’
Henderson laughed, the sorrow lifting from his face. ‘Not home, not yet. I told you, in a couple of days they’ll find me. Just have to hang out for a while by myself.’ Eased himself onto the main trunk. Disappeared into the heart of the hedge.
The boy sat at the window. Watched the mother pull from the drive. A shroud of drizzle heavy on the valley. Focus drew back to the window pane. Droplets ran and expired down the glass. His vision blurred before he snapped himself from the stupor. Took his bowl. Rinsed the soggy flakes in the sink. Paused at the bench. Knew he had to go to school but the previous day had given him a taste. Maybe he could avoid ever going back. But not today. He would have to plan that eventuality. He pushed off from the bench. Left his inertia behind. Began compiling a sandwich. Peanut butter and jam. Made a second. The first glad-wrapped and shoved in his school bag. The second left on the bench. One more task to complete. He took the fire stoker. Opened the heavy stove door with a mitt. Damped down the coals. The orange beads would smolder through the day, ready for re-stoking upon his return. He withdrew the stoker. Just put it in the stand and then out of there. His hand hovered. The tool raised before him. With teeth, he drew back his sleeve. Touched the burning metal to his forearm. Squealed. Dropped the stoker to the floor. Panicked. Grabbed at it. His palm snatched at the hot tip. Forced another yelp from him. Eyes burning. Tears welling. Deep breath. And another. Calming. The acrid smell of burning linoleum. Measured now. Picked up the tool. A black smudge melted into the lino. Steeled himself. Sank the stoker into the glowing coals. One. Two. Three. Four. Five. Six. Seven. Eight. Nine. Ten. Withdrew. Touched the metal to his inner-forearm. More prepared this time. Fought the urge to recoil. Body trembled but still held in there. Emitted a low growl rising in pitch. Howled like a wolf and slammed the stoker into its stand. Studied the weeping skin. Light headed. The boy felt faint and then a rush. Almost invincible as the endorphins released and the adrenaline slapped him on the back like an over-eager coach. Light on his feet. Snatched up his bag, the sandwich from the bench. Crashed through the porch door. Crossed the yard at a trot. Slung the sandwich up into the hedge.
The boy sat at the table; clarinet in hand. The mother leant against the bench; dish cloth in hand. Wanted to hear the boy practise. Didn’t believe him when he said he did it in his room. Didn’t know what he had previously done to the instrument.
It felt sticky in his hand. A faint sour whiff close-up. He’d replaced the reed but the mouthpiece tasted salty. The pieces had struggled to fit back together. The wood had swelled. Air escaped through the joins. The boy kept stopping to scratch his arm. A ferocious, insatiable itch. The scratching drove the mother wild. More so than the bum notes being hit. Repeated enquires. Repeated brush-offs. The boy blew. Stopped. Scratched. Blew again. The notes were like jangling nerves tearing the air. The mother reacted. A tether frayed. Flopped the dishcloth down. Snatched at the boy’s arm. He recoiled. The clarinet dropped to the floor. Discarded. Rested against the leg of the table.
‘Show me what’s wrong.’
The boy hard up against the windowsill. The porch door clanged. The familiar tattoo of door banging, boots clumping, oil-skin rustling. The father entered the kitchen. The boy pressed further into the corner. The father eyed him. Considered the situation. Felt the tension but couldn’t gauge the intensity. Let it drop. Kissed the mother. Burning cheeks on his lips. Snatched open the fridge door. Used it to support his weight. The interior light illuminated his grey-flecked stubble. Retracted a beer.
‘They found the Henderson boy.’
Suction of seal on door. Skittered the bottle cap across the bench.
‘Oh.’ The mother felt the tone. Knew it’s more than a simple runaway. ‘Where?’ Disgusted with herself. Wanted to let the conversation slide by but couldn’t. Needed the information, the details. How else would she cluck and sigh with the others in the supermarket aisle.
‘By the river. The bo…’
The boy heard no more. Already in the yard. Striding across the lengthening lawn. Wet grass seeds pocking his school trousers. Up the trunk of the hedge. Snagged halfway. Jerked free, fabric tearing, skin grazed. Crested the hedge. Flayed his hands through the fronds. The sandwich. Nestled in amongst the branches. Still in plastic wrap. Unopened, untouched. Took hold. Flung himself over the edge. Hit the ground running. Out the side gate. Onto the narrow bitumen. No sidewalks. Just street bordered by grass. Drizzle fell. Hair plastered to his forehead. Stumbled on the uneven tarmac. Dim lights well spaced. Instinct the only thing guiding him. Somehow knew which part of the river. Down the hill, past the cricket sheds, across the unused paddock and on to the bank. Across the way the tennis courts, cracked and dishevelled. Tennis courts you would find after the termination of man.
Puffing. Not knowing what happened next. Crouched on the bank. Eyes closed. A noise. At first, maybe, the sound of fish breaking the surface. Then closer. A persistent lapping. Too loud to be the gentle melding of drizzle with river. The boy opened his eyes. Something moved closer. Hendo. Thigh deep in the water.
‘Knew you would come,’ Hendo said, moving closer.
‘Adults talk shit.’ Hendo was emphatic.
The boy hugged his knees. Bum hovered just above the sodden bank. ‘Why’re you in the water.’
‘Saw it in a movie. Means they can’t track you.’
‘Thought you wanted to be found.’
Hendo shrugged. Was close enough the boy could make out his blue lips. The boy felt as cold and wet as Hendo always looked. ‘What now?’ he asked.
‘Gonna get away. Don’t want to be found no more. You comin’?’
The boy smiled. Pulled back the sleeve of his jumper. Even in the dark the welt was obvious. Raised, weeping. Hendo winked. Turned his back. Began to wade. The boy looked over his shoulder. The last chance for adult intervention. The dark was empty. He slipped off his shoes and socks. Even in recklessness he was cautious. Tied the laces together and slung them around his shoulders. Slipped his left foot into the river. Warmer than he would have thought. The sediment stirred around his foot, enveloped it. Hendo was moving away. The boy committed the other foot and followed.
The Australian Literature Review