Toby stood up and looked over the front axle of his billycart. His throat was as dry as an outback highway. He tried to swallow. It wasn’t easy.
Oh no. It’s a L-O-N-G way down!
‘What’s wrong, Chicken? Haven’t you got the guts?’
Toby’s cheeks burned red. ‘Shut your face, Kyle. I’m going to go.’
Jarrod smirked. ‘Yeah! When?’ If his mother had witnessed that disgusting look, she would have disowned the boy. He was not a pretty sight at the best of times, but when he screwed up his fleshy cheeks and squinty eyes like that – he was downright ugly.
Kyle, who was no oil painting, either, had to add his bit. ‘Not before Christmas.’ His malicious chuckle brought Toby’s head up in defiance.
‘Stand back,’ he commanded in as brave a tone as his chattering teeth would permit. ‘Get out of my way, Fart Face. I’m going!’
Toby sat down on the plank that served as a seat, took up the rope reins in his trembling hands, and leant forward, taking one final look down the hill.
It was steep. R-E-A-L-L-Y steep.
They called it Slippery Dip, and according to Toby’s great-granddad, boys had been testing their mettle here since he was a lad. Not that Toby could possibly comprehend just how long a time that truly was – but his Pop was old, real old – grey hair, wrinkled skin, purple-spotted flesh, couldn’t remember much, talked a lot of crap – creepy! So, it had to be a LONG time ago. Yet, Pop reckoned Toby’s cart was no different to the ones he had made back in the 1930s. That was hard to believe.
Toby’s billycart was magnificent. It was superlative!
It was possibly about to be become the instrument of his death – or at the least – bring about abject humiliation.
But that didn’t matter. Like the thousands of young boys before him, Toby had scrounged second-hand timber, nails, nuts, bolts, screws, ball-bearing wheels; anything he could hammer, screw or tie, and prayed would hold together. He had transformed all the paraphernalia into what only an enterprising youngster could describe as a work of art. Then, being extremely brave, or more likely, foolhardy he had hauled his prized creation through the streets of his small town, made his way to the only place any serious billycart operator would endeavour to launch his pride and joy, and was steeling himself to take the plunge.
It was just the worst possible luck that Fart Face Kyle and Stinky Jarrod happened to have had the same idea on the same day, at the same time!
‘He won’t do it,’ Jarrod sneered.
‘Gutless,’ Kyle taunted.
Toby glared at the ugly boys. ‘How the hell can I go if you two jerks won’t get out of my way?’
Catching sight of a fluorescent orange flag flapping in the morning breeze, Kyle snorted derisively and pointed to his right. ‘It’s the Old Bugger. Mummy’s Boy couldn’t do it without his great-great-great-grand pappy. Sissy.’
Toby shuddered when he turned and saw the bright red mobility scooter. With his cheeks darkening from red to purple, he dropped his chin onto his chest and cursed. ‘Damn you, Pop.’
The invalid brought his machine to a halt next to the billycart. ‘Hello, Toby, boys. I came to see the lad test his new wheels.’ The hand that he extended to place on his great-grandson’s head was nothing more than brittle bone covered in almost transparent skin.
Toby flinched away from the terrifying thing. ‘You shouldn’t have come, Pop.’
The old man grinned, exposing very yellow dentures, worn almost completely flat. They clicked loudly as he spoke. ‘I had to come and see if the record was going to be broken.’ He admired the sleek billycart the boy had made without help from anyone. ‘Looks like we might get ourselves a new “King” today.’
Kyle snickered. ‘Huh! No chance of that, old man. Toby’s gutless.’
‘That’s for sure. He’s the biggest chicken in town.’ Jarrod made yet another unattractive grimace. ‘No one’s added their initials to the one on that tree down the bottom in over seventy years. This gutless wonder sure as hell won’t be crowned “King of the Mountain” today. He won’t come within cooee of the marker. I can guarantee you of that.’
‘We’ll see, won’t we, Toby?’ There was a look of pride in Pop’s faded blue eyes as he stared down the steep decline. Sweet memories transported him back to the days when he had been the same age as these youngsters, with a fit, youthful body and boundless energy. He too, had sat at the top of this hill, as Toby was now, preparing himself for the ride of a lifetime.
‘I’m going to go,’ Jarrod announced, pushing Toby’s cart out of the way, and shoving his forward. His vehicle did not look sturdy.
The old man smiled whimsically as the boy jumped into the driver’s seat. In the eighty-four years of his life, Pop had witnessed many carts go over this hill. Only the strongest, most carefully constructed ones had survived the rugged ride – and only the bravest, cleverest boys had been able to brag about the feat afterwards. Thinking back to those halcyon days, Pop felt again the exhilaration, the sheer thrill of trundling at break-neck speed down the first half, the steepest, most dangerous section – in a rickety wooden box on wobbly wheels. It was as though he had been flying, almost completely out of control. To this day, nothing compared with it for pure reckless joy. He remembered hitting the dirt road that intersected at the point where the track veered right, where he had actually become airborne. For a moment, he had been a god – a Man God, and then with a thud, had crashed back to earth. Fear, reality – it all hit as he tugged on his ropes and pushed the axle with his feet, struggling to steer his cart. It had not been easy to keep it on the narrow track before it lost momentum as the slope levelled out, finally coming to rest – hopefully – before he reached the road at the base of Slippery Dip.
Pop chuckled to think that in all these years, with all the inventions, fads, and devices man had created to amuse a growing boy, the humble billycart still endured – proving that nothing had really changed.
‘Someone should go and stand down at the intersection,’ Pop suggested. ‘Make sure there are no cars coming along. I wouldn’t want to see you boys get yourselves hurt.’
The youngsters shrugged and looked from one to the other.
‘I’m not going down there,’ Kyle declared truculently. ‘It’s too far to walk back up again. Besides, if Lily Liver won’t go, I’ll go down next.’ He jabbed Toby in the arm. ‘You go and watch out for cars.’
‘Rack off. I’m not going down unless I’m in my cart. And I’m going next, not you.’
Jarrod couldn’t give a damn who was going next. ‘Get behind me,’ he told Kyle. ‘Give me a shove – a good hard one. I really want to fly.’
Both Kyle and Toby got behind the cart and pushed with all their might. The vehicle rumbled over the edge. Jarrod squealed with delight. The three onlookers cheered as the boy and his billycart plummeted down the track, hit the dirt road midway, flew for a short distance, smashed back down to earth, and then gradually slowed and rolled to a stop. Jarrod leapt out, thumping the air triumphantly. He hadn’t reached the tree bearing the initials, but he had come pretty close.
Pop was astounded. ‘I really didn’t think that pile of junk would make it that far.’ The boys weren’t listening, they were too busy shoving each other, battling to put their own cart in the starting position.
‘Get out of it,’ Kyle shouted, elbowing Toby’s ribs. ‘It’s my turn.’
Toby reluctantly placed himself behind Kyle’s cart, and when the boy gave the signal, he dug in his toes and pushed with all his might, rapidly propelling the vehicle over the hill.
Kyle screamed louder than Jarrod had, and travelled much faster. He was airborne for a longer distance, and stopped a good metre further than his predecessor’s mark – but still short of the shrine.
The two boys waited at the bottom, sparring playfully, loudly retelling their adventure.
‘Are you right to go?’ Pop asked Toby.
The boy nodded. ‘Only, I haven’t got anyone to push me off. I’ll have to wait for those two to come back up.’ He shouted down at his cronies. They couldn’t hear.
Pop looked from the billycart down to his mobility scooter. ‘I’ll give you a shove,’ he said, grinning like a ten year old.
Toby knew the old man couldn’t walk without assistance, and he was certainly too weak to be able to stand behind him and give him a push. ‘How?’
‘With this,’ said Pop, manoeuvring the scooter into place behind his great-grandson’s cart.
Toby’s eyes lit up. ‘Hell, Pop. I’m going to fly!’
And fly he did. He hit the dirt road at an alarming pace, flew for several metres, thudded back to earth with his front wheels turned right, and careered down the final slope, passing both boys and landing exactly level with the tree.
‘I did it!’ Toby screamed with delight as he jumped out of his cart and leapt up in the air, punching wildly, jubilantly. ‘I’m the King of the Mountain. Hah! You morons. I whipped your butts.’
They immediately began to wrangle, and argue that the record had not really been broken, just equalled. Kyle was about to smack Toby in the mouth when out of the corner of his eye, he caught a disturbing sight at the top of the hill. He froze.
‘What-the-hell,’ Kyle exclaimed.
The other boys followed his gaze. Jarrod hiccoughed nervously. ‘The silly old bastard, he wouldn’t. Would he?’
The scooter was propped at the top of the slope, front wheels protruding partway over the edge. The old man was grinning like a Cheshire cat.
There was a wild look in Pop’s eyes. He was no longer an ailing old man; he was a boy – ten years old. He was sitting in his billycart, the fine red one that had taken him two months to build.
He laughed. He wasn’t afraid – never had been afraid – not of anything. He’d come home with broken bones, bloodied wounds, but never had he come home a coward, or a loser.
‘Yee-haw,’ he shouted as he pushed down on the lever, sending the scooter over the edge. ‘A-a-a-h-h-h,’ came the following scream as he nose-dived down the steepest section, the small rubber tyres slipped and slewed on the muddy grass. With sheer determination and skill, Pop kept the vehicle on track. Gravity alone propelled him faster, faster, down the slope.
He bounced this way, and that. He laughed. He screamed with delight. Wispy grey hair blew back like a silver pennant. The orange flag whipped wildly behind. His eyes watered as laughter gurgled up in him. His bony hands gripped the bars. He was oblivious to everything but the track falling away in front of him.
‘Oh shit!’ the three boys cried in unison.
A car was coming along the intersecting road. It was coming fast. Neither the driver nor Pop could see each other.
‘He’s going to die!’ Toby wailed. ‘Pop. Stop. STOP!’
The slope was at its greatest pitch. Nothing could slow him now. The scooter was banging and bumping violently. Pop was laughing. Tears of joy streamed down his cheeks.
He was coming to the best part – the intersection – he was going to soar!
The scooter hit the dirt road. It flew up into the air.
The car kept coming.
Whoosh! The little vehicle flew like a great red bird.
Thump! It landed like an albatross.
Screech! The car came to a sliding halt, spraying dirt and stones in its wake, just barely missing Pop.
Rattle, bang, the scooter trundled on down the track, losing very little speed.
The car driver shook an angry fist at the old man and drove off.
The boys watched with hearts in their mouths. The scooter was on the last stretch now! They looked to the end of the track, wondering where it would finally stop, suddenly realising it was going to beat any record ever set.
They began to cheer.
‘Go, Pop. GO, POP,’ they chanted, waving their arms in the air, jumping up and down.
Their cheers suddenly turned to horrified gasps.
Pop was in danger again.
‘The road!’ Toby cried. ‘Pop, stop, you’re going to hit the road. A car’s coming!’
There was a terrible squeal of brakes. The smell of burnt rubber filled the boys’ nostrils. Fear gripped their young hearts. They covered their eyes.
The policeman got out of his patrol car, came around and looked down at the red mobility scooter wedged in his rear door. He glared at the elderly gent, who was thankfully unharmed. The constable shook his head.
‘You silly old bugger,’ he growled. ‘What did you think you were doing?’
Pop grinned sheepishly. ‘Defending my title, Officer.’
The Australian Literature Review