Back before I remember, Jaz is in his parents’ back yard preparing to launch. The Hills hoist is strung with white clothes and the grass is neatly trimmed. He’s wearing a Pink Floyd T-shirt that he got for Christmas and his thick brown hair is fluffy. The sky is blue behind him, almost transparent. The sun is shining in his eyes. His olive-skinned face is cast in a permanent frown. His mother, watching through the window, calls out but he doesn’t listen. Jaz reckons he had lots of friends back in high school. He wasn’t a rocket scientist but he was good with his hands. Now he is alone, with no-one but Mum and me. Mum said Jaz was just helping move the furniture out to Uriarra, but he never left.
Jaz is holding a model Spitfire, a single-seat fighter plane. It’s almost as big as him. Jaz is twenty years old, ten years younger than Mum, but he’s tall for his age. The detailing of the plane is perfect; the paint job replicates exactly the bombers that emptied their load across Europe in the Second World War. The wings look like half-moons, the curve smooth and flat. The khaki-green fuselage is shiny and wet. He must have just made it. I can smell fresh paint and glue. He tells me that the glue comes in a little bottle that looks like eye drops. It can stick your fingers together if you’re not careful, or if someone is playing a trick on you. Jaz’s thinking about selling the Spitfire, to get money to fix up his car, so then he can sell it as well. He’s been saving up for a white Pontiac. But for now, we have to make do with his yellow Torana.
Jaz knew all about the twenty, 351 Spitfires made during the war. There were forty variations. The planes were mainly ground-based air fighters but they also flew from sea carriers. They were 9.5 metres in length and the wings spanned 11.32 metres exactly. I wouldn’t be much bigger than the wheels. There’s a photo of us, Jaz, Mum and me taken at the Canberra War Memorial in front of a real Spitfire. It’s in the kitchen blu-tacked to the chimney of the old woodstove oven. The photo must’ve been taken with a cheap camera because our eyes are all red. The room is gloomy and it is hard to make out the plane from the walls. Mum’s thin hand rests on my arm. Jaz’s hair has grown to his shoulders; it’s an unbrushed mess of curls. He’s wearing that Pink Floyd T-shirt, the one with the rainbow and a triangle. It has faded. He seems distracted. There’s a security guard in the background standing by the entrance. A thick rope separates us from the plane. It seems a shame to lock it in like that. It makes me think of the neighbours’ dogs stalking the length of their cage.
I hold onto the glove box as we accelerate into the darkness. There are no streetlights out here. Rabbits scatter like marbles in the glare of the headlights. I count three kangaroos left by the roadside. Jaz reckons that the neighbours cut off bits of the road kill for their dogs, but he wouldn’t do that. The meat’s not fresh enough. He grips a longneck between his knees, one hand on the wheel and presses play on the cassette. ‘Shine on You Crazy Diamond’ begins again. He plays it every day on the tape player in his shed. He spends a lot of time in there, working on his car and banging tools together. When he’s gotten bored of Pink Floyd he puts on Hunters and Collectors, the one about the search for the Holy Grail, about marching in the biggest army the world’s ever seen. The music begins with the sound of wet fingers running the lips of wineglasses. I think I might try later to copy the sound but we don’t have any wineglasses.
Jaz slows down as we near home. The settlement gates are lit by a solitary phone booth. The arrow on the fire-danger sign sits on the line between medium and high. I look up at Jaz. The beer is almost all gone.
‘Mum says you drink too much.’ He doesn’t take his eyes off the white line. ‘Yeah, well, your mum reckons you eat too much.’
Home is a government house in Uriarra, a former forestry settlement at the foot of the mountains. It is a green tin roof and white wooden beams. The grass is yellow and the trees starved of water. Out the front of the chicken-wire fencing a fire hydrant is missing its hose. The air is sticky with the smell of eucalyptus and dust. Mum’s garden used to be full of irises and poppies. She’s too tired now, she says, to be playing in the dirt like a child. And besides, it hasn’t rained in over six months. Nothing can survive without water. The heat won’t let up. Sweat clings to my whole body. The skin between my thighs has begun to chafe.
One of the neighbours’ dogs died last night. They’ve been away on a hunting trip. Beau was too old to take out pigging any more; he could have only been used as bait. They left him with enough food for a couple of days and asked Jaz to go check on him every once in a while. I don’t know if he did or not. Maybe it died of thirst. The smell hasn’t crossed the fence yet. Mum says it’s not our responsibility to move Beau. She doesn’t like the neighbours much. She says that Uriarra’s beautiful, too bad about the people.
Ash and me are up in the back paddock beneath the pines. School’s off for a couple of days until it cools down. It’s against the law to go when it’s over 40 degrees. He’s the only boy I like at school. I don’t see him much because he lives up the other end of the settlement. There are only twelve of us at the primary from kindy to year six. Everyone except me is a boy. Most of them are real rough; kids can’t get expelled here because there are no other schools to go to. Ash is smaller than the rest; they call him Ginger to his face because he can’t fight back. From his bag, Ash pulls out an egg and then another.
‘Rotten,’ he giggles and throws one at the anthill. The yolk warms as it dribbles down the clay. ‘You gonna chuck yours?’ he asks.
‘Nah, save it for later’. I put it carefully in the breast pocket of my T-shirt. It makes a small bulge.
We were going to go down to the dam—a shallow, muddy pond where all the kids swim—but it’s just too hot. It’s a tough ride out there through the long grass. You get bugs in your eyes and sticks stuck between the spokes. It’s on someone else’s property but that doesn’t stop anybody.
‘You know what I heard?’ Ash sits down among the dry needles and picks at the tree bark.
‘That Ben got molested down the dam.’
’What’s that?’ I adjust the egg in my pocket.
‘Dunno. Trent’s dad gave it to him.’ I think of Trent’s dad, the shadow of his face beneath his beaten leather hat. He didn’t seem sick when I last saw him.
‘Do you reckon you can catch it?’ Molested, it sounds gross.
‘Maybe.’ Ash’s voice trails off.
‘Holy Grail’ is up loud when I get home but I can still hear them. Jaz must’ve seen Ash sneaking out through the neighbours’ driveway. He sounds mad so I head straight for my room. He caught us playing doctors once. Ash got sent home and told to never come back. Then I watched as Jaz wrecked the base we’d been making for months. He tore the leaves off the roof and snapped the walls. All that was left when he was finished was the wattle branch for sweeping the dirt and some gum twig guns. Ash’s mum called to get her son’s school jumper back. The next day Jaz made me wear it to school, the tag with Ash’s name written on it sticking out. It sat an inch off the top of my trackies and clung to my chest. Mum says it’s natural for kids to explore things. I’m old enough to want to but it’s not like I’ve got tits yet. There’s nothing perverted about it. Jaz never listens to anything. He’s always threatening to leave over something. If only he saw what the other kids did on the school bush walks, running through the plantations sweating and grunting. They don’t play doctors. They play pigs and dogs, the hunter and the hunted.
Mum’s still talking after Jaz has stormed out to the shed. He puts on a new song, ‘The End’. It goes on and on, the same words, ‘my only friend the end’. The last time I went near his shed, I peeked through the grimy window, the ledge splintery against my fingers. There was a poster of Jim Morrison pinned to the wall. His thin arms were stretched back. The mess of limp hair hung below his shoulders. The Spitfire leant up against the wall was covered in dust and cobwebs. Mum’s voice falls to a whisper then stops suddenly. I walk into the kitchen to see the screen door close behind her. The kettle is steaming on the bench. I place my fingertips against the metal. They get so hot that it feels cold. The smell of smoke from her cigarette wanders in like a stray. The spinach she was going to cook with dinner is already wilting on the bench so I take it to the fridge. I lean against the open door; the air is cool and comforting. The chicken from last night is uncovered on a plate. Jaz usually has the leftovers for lunch but he hasn’t been eating lately. I reach my fingers in and take a fistful of stuffing. Then the breast slips from the bone. Can’t stop until it’s all gone, nothing but a greasy carcass. I take Ash’s egg from my pocket and place it on the plate, next to the bones.
The neighbours are back but they haven’t moved Beau yet. Mum’s been out at the side fence watching them drink beer. They unloaded the pigs yesterday and put the other dogs back in the cage. Between sips of her tea mum says to no-one, ‘It’s so cruel, even if the pigs are a menace.’ Maybe the other dogs will eat Beau, and then it wouldn’t be a waste. One of the guys notices Mum; I haven’t seen him at their house before. Must be a cousin or something. He stares straight at her before turning back to the others chuckling. Seconds later, a long sharp wolf whistle cuts through the air. Then another and another, sounds like sirens. Jaz is not far away but he doesn’t even look up. He’s pulled the Spitfire out and is sponging the dirt off with a damp cloth. Mum turns, her cheeks redder than sunburn. She strides to towards Jaz.
‘Will you do something about this?’ she demands. After what seems like minutes he puts the cloth down and stands upright. He speaks without even moving his mouth, like everything but his music and his war is too much effort.
‘You want to fight with everyone, don’t you?’ Before she can reply he begins to hum. It’s a deep guttural sound. Just like a dog growling.
Mum knocks on the neighbours’ front door. It’s just like ours; the white paint is peeling and stained with fingerprints. She looks at me with a nervous smile and takes my hand. We wait a bit, then she knocks louder this time. The same guy from the back yard opens it. His muscly body occupies almost the whole frame. I can see that the room is dark behind him but nothing else. ‘Hullo,’ he squints.
‘I live next door,’ Mum begins.
‘I know.’ His chest is covered in so many tattoos I can’t tell them apart. I wonder why it’s only boys who get to wear no shirts. Jaz has started wearing no shirt too; he’s gotten skinny and his skin, leathery. The man is staring at Mum while she falters for courage. He works his way down her pink T-shirt, to her cut off Levis. His look slows as it travels along her tanned, thin legs to her painted toenails.
‘You need to get rid of Beau. You can’t just … its not right,’ Mum looks him right in the eye. ‘No problem.’ He says. It seems easier than I had thought. As we retreat barefoot along the concrete path he calls out, ‘Maybe you can tell your husband to turn the music down. It’s been keeping the dogs up all night.’
Mum stops, ‘He’s not my husband.’
The teachers decided to make school go back even though it’s still well over 40 degrees. For some reason though, Mum says I can’t go. Maybe she just wants the company. It’s quiet today, nothing but the sound of the electric fan and the clock on the wall. Me and Mum have been lying on the kitchen floor playing dead ants. The game where you’re dead and the other has to make you laugh. She always wins. Jaz is not here but his car is in the drive and the keys are on the mantle. He left last night and hasn’t been back yet. First I thought he freaked out about the egg. Mum tells me though that he reckons she’s been screwing the neighbours, and supposedly she’s the paranoid one. He reckons as well that something big is coming, bigger than all of us. He reckons he’s found the Holy Grail. The end is here and he doesn’t need anyone. We’re still giggling when the phone rings. I peel myself from the linoleum and go answer.
‘Hi, can I speak to your mummy?’
‘Who is it?’
‘It’s Ash’s mum.’
Jaz is standing in Ash’s front garden. He’s got a security badge and is saying he’s from the air force. Ash’s mum says that he’s already visited all the houses in the settlement asking them to give up their stuff and join that big army. He’s not wearing anything but a pair of old multicoloured trackies. His feet must be hot against the gravel. I don’t think he’s been to the neighbours though, the ones with the dogs. Ash’s mum wants my mum to go get him. Mum tells her that she doesn’t know where the keys for the car are. Besides, it’s not her responsibility. He’s harmless really. But that’s what the neighbours say about their dogs, harmless. When Mum puts the phone down she tells me to pack my bag. We’re going to Nan’s.
I am squashing my oldest teddy into my schoolbag when the music starts again. ‘Shine on You Crazy Diamond’, the sound of wet fingers running the lips of a wineglass. It sounds louder than usual. Jaz has moved the tape player into the kitchen where he is unpacking his tools one by one. Mum pushes my door open with one hand; in the other she is holding a box of bullets. I never knew we had a gun. Maybe we don’t. She leaves sweat marks on the metal handle.
‘He’s cut the phone line,’ she says and tells me to hide the box. She’s going to get the keys. Before putting it under my mattress I pull one out. The bullet is small and cold in my palm, solid like kangaroo shit, I think. The sound of drilling bounces off the walls above the music. Mum comes back and pushes me out the window. It takes ages to start the engine. Mum looks too small to be steering his car. She speeds out of the settlement past the phone booth, past the fire-danger sign with its thick black hand pointing to high.
Weeks go by before Mum decides to go back. Jaz’s car breaks down halfway down Nan’s street so we take a cab out to the settlement. I press my face against the window as we go through the hills. Mum’s in the front seat making sure the driver knows where to go. Out past the sandy banks of the river, then straight all the rest of the way. It takes ages to get there. If Jaz were driving then we’d have arrived already. We pull up out the front. The air feels cooler. Mum tells me that the sound of kookaburras means it’s going to rain.
Something is written in red on the front of the house. It looks like blood but it could be paint. I wish I could read better. The kitchen floor has been dug up. Where the wall was there are now exposed supports. Red bricks from the chimney are piled in the sink and on the bench. Jaz comes into the house from the shed. He’s got that Pink Floyd T-shirt on again. His hair is white with dust and chipped plaster.
‘Just looking for the keys to the Spitfire.’ He places his red hand on Mum’s shoulder. ‘You know, the one in the War Memorial.’
He presses play again.© Jemimah Widdicombe