It seems to me there are only two directions anyone can go in life, towards water or towards high ground. From these two vantage points a person can find almost anything they need: food, drink, shelter, company, clarity, vision, repose. Roos know it, sheep know it, birds, insects, even the rain all know it. If there’s deliverance to be had here on earth, you won’t go wrong in finding it if you know which of the two you are heading towards. That’s my advice, that’s what I can offer. Of course, strictly speaking, water and mountain aren’t always opposite directions. You can find bodies of water settled high at the crests of hills or gathered at the foot of a mountain. You can see water cascade over cliffs and roll through ranges. But either way, if you know which one you need, you can find it.
You see I lived a long time here not knowing this. Would you believe I owned land that had both small mountains and natural rivers and visited neither for 15 years? Perhaps you wouldn’t, perhaps you would, but your answer would say a lot to me about the kind of man or woman you are. I can tell you, we all surprise ourselves sometime. At one stage or another we get shockingly disappointed in ourselves, everyone. And it’s no good, that stage. You just leave that feeling alone, just keep going; when you get the direction, once you know it, you don’t stop for all the guilt in the world. I guess that’s why I’m speaking today; I guess that’s why we try to help other people. It’s like we’re talking to that little self that failed, just before he knew what failure was. But maybe we should just let it be.
I never wanted to take anyone in here but it was for my wife’s sister, Annie. Strictly speaking, there too, Annie wasn’t my wife’s sister; they had taken her in I think, before I ever met Mary, my wife. And Annie had a boy, Rowan. They said he was in such a bad state that the professionals didn’t know what to do with him. Everyone had run out of ideas, this was Annie and her husband, her second husband, Paul, saying this. They said that being in nature was bound to be good for his health, that maybe he’d learn something useful out here, or that at least it couldn’t do any harm. Well I immediately put my hat down and made my case against it to Mary. We weren’t no social workers. The time and energy it’d take me, taking him along with the feeding and fencing, it would drag me down, I said. If he’s not up to much, what can we offer him here? The whole thing didn’t convince me we were right for it but Annie was having a breakdown and putting a lot of pressure on Mary so in the end we felt we couldn’t say no. It was to be a temporary thing, everyone said, so we took their word.
I picked him up from the station. He only had a little backpack, so I guess he wasn’t planning on staying long. He’d come up from Sydney by train and there was not much else to say so I drove him in silence for two hours out to the property. Even though I wanted no part of it from the outset, while I was driving in the car I started to feel sorry for the lad. Be it his presence or what, I don’t know. He was a lowly type of figure, gave the impression he would never ask anything of you, not even if he was in desperate need. He radiated harmlessness, just as children do. It made me want to assist him in what way I could. I had some experience of this type of person to go on from back in the war. He reminded me of a guy called James Gordon, whom we called the Tailor, no idea why, he didn’t sew or such, perhaps it was a reference to his family’s business. The Tailor was a shy fellow, but it was more than that. You could tell he had a great big heart in his chest, though he never did nothing special or tried to prove himself in any way. It was this certainty of his own inability that he shared with Rowan, or so I sensed in that car ride. I heard the Tailor got through okay, though I didn’t know where he went when it was over.
So the boy came home with us and we took him in. I took him with me, with my work, out to the paddocks and I tried to show him a thing or two about the stock. At least if he was handling the sheep, getting outdoors, driving, getting for himself some new experiences, maybe, I thought, it would stimulate some interest in life for him. I thought something might take hold, something he could see the value in, and he could go from there. At that time we were busy as I was shearing by myself, he never got the hang of it, and I was preparing to take another 40 head from a neighbour who couldn’t keep on, so we needed fences fixed quick, which he did assist me with. But I tried to slow down and turn his attention to things that I saw from day to day. I pointed out to him a flower bending towards the sun, simple lessons you can find in nature. He nodded, like he appreciated the gesture, which made me feel foolish and I gave it up.
Still, I was prone to speculate on the source of his unhappiness. Before I knew him I suspected that it was a drug problem. Isn’t that what they’re always doing on the TV? Sending young ones who use drugs out to country houses where they can’t get their drugs, to rehabilitate them? I don’t believe it would work like that, like on TV, they would probably go back to their drugs quick as they could back in the city. But now I’d thrown away my suspicions about drugs with my step-nephew. Perhaps he was gay but felt like he couldn’t say it. Here again I drifted off in my reminiscences of some of my schoolyard friends. A boy we called Drew, my word, if I look at it now, he was most certainly unhappy for that reason, though I hadn’t any clue at the time.
The sadness of young men was well hidden back then, though maybe it still is, which brought me back to Rowan. If not gay, perhaps there had been problems at home when he was young. It had all been told to me in the vaguest way possible; that is, through his mother’s accounts, interpreted again by Mary to what she felt she could confide in me, which in those days probably wasn’t a great deal. So now I hardly had any memory of facts or words spoken, only that the father was generally bad news and made trouble until the stepfather came into the picture and scared him away for good. None of this could be good for a young boy, surely, but it didn’t give me much to go on either.
Up behind the sheds there is a track that winds over a hill and becomes invisible when looking from the ground. This is where we are going now. I take Rowan with me. We’ve been out to feed the sheep, which haven’t had enough feed since the rain stopped, so we give them a little something. Then we return to the sheds to leave the tractor. It’s getting cold and the clouds seem farther and farther away from us the higher we climb. At the top you can see to the west and the north. The grass is as grey as sheep and brittle, but the sky, the sky is a wonder. The sun is low but bright enough; yellow streams of it run long on the fields and cast shadows from the odd tree. You can see dark scrubland growing along the stream. That is all. Mainly the sunshine, that’s why I get myself up here on a late afternoon, and the walk is good for the lungs.
‘It’s really nice here,’ he says.
‘It sure is,’ I say.
I wait for him to say more but he doesn’t. He just seems occupied watching the view, so we stand there. Then we follow the track back down to the house and it’s nearly dark when we get in. After that time I think he might have gone there on his own. A couple of times when we couldn’t locate him, it seemed a likely place. Once I saw him walking on the track; maybe he found some comfort or peace in looking down from those hills. I would like to think so.
One night after he had been with us for a couple of weeks Mary had the tea on and was calling us both to the table. Neither of us could find him in the usual places so I went up that hill, though it was near to dark, to check if he had got lost in thought there at the top. The grass was a nuisance in the dimming light and once or twice I nearly lost my footing because it was difficult to see anything even at close range. He wasn’t there at the top. The sun was gone, only a few pink streaks stretched over the dark. That’s when I felt my face tighten up. It was time we were indoors. Should I call out his name? I had never done so before, I had never even spoken his name, let alone in his presence. But something told me I had to.
‘Rowan!’ A bird flew out of the tree next to me but nothing else moved. In the shed, he might be reading in the shed. I turned to walk back down the hill and as I did I glanced on a figure leaning on a large rock. It was him, sitting up with his back against a rock. I made my way slowly down towards the river in his direction, sometimes I put my hands to the ground to steady myself or leaned on one knee. When I got closer I could sense a lifelessness about him, a stillness that was more impervious than usual, even for such a person. I put my finger on his wrist, so I would know. I said his name and this time I said it quietly and I felt something. I felt like he belonged here, like a word, just one word could conjure up his time here, his possible future here. I felt sad for him. Very sad.
Mary had to go to bed. I called the police. I called Annie and Paul.
‘Hello,’ said Annie.
‘Annie, it’s Richard calling from up …’ I stopped. From up where, was I going to say?
‘Richard?’ she said. ‘What’s happened? Is he okay?’
‘Annie,’ I said. I did not know what words to use. I liked words, but I did not know how to describe this ugliness from among the thousands I could choose. I knew there was no use, her reaction was already coming like a wave, and I was in the maw of it, the roar, the tunnel without escape. I had no power here, I could not fight this.
‘The police are here now, Annie,’ I said. ‘They said you don’t need to come now. They are making arrangements for you to see him. They want you to meet them tomorrow.’
She was screaming when she hung up. I had a daughter, I knew what it meant.
After that I never walked up that hill again, and I never went to the stream either. I fenced off that portion of the land and had no use for it.
Where I am now, it’s a different kind of place. There’s a large fish tank in the common room, which I often sit in front of, I prefer it to the telly, though I can hear that in the back room. That’s the water part for me. And there’s a slope on our street. If I can get out of the place and get someone to help me walk, a nurse, or sometimes my granddaughter, I manage to get a few steps up and look over to see into town if it’s a clear day. That’s my mountain, that’ll do for me. Each morning I choose which I need to be near and I take myself in either direction and I feel close, close to the good earth, which is my home. •