You’re three months sober if you don’t count Sundays and you don’t count Sundays. On Sundays, you drink cider with Lauren’s grandparents and help with the jobs they’re too old to do. Lauren is not your partner anymore but she’s not not your partner either. You’re working things out. You think the Sundays are part of that, like you’re making up for something, but really Sundays are about cider. Today is a Sunday, that’s why you’re on hands and knees, stalking a suburban chicken through a patch of rose bushes while Tony heckles you.
‘You stupider than a chook or what?’
He has forgotten this is a favour. He was a union man. But he fought his own bosses as much as other people’s and now he can’t find one at all. That’s how he tells it anyway. A lifetime of conflict can form habits that are hard to break. You know not to complain about your working conditions.
Your teeth clench and grind and you picture little marble temples sanding each other to nubs. Your dentist has noticed, your shrink too. One prescribed a mouthguard, the other breathing exercises. You make use of the second prescription. Breathe in one two three. Breathe out one two three. You relax, a bit.
The fowl looks you up and down. Scientists haven’t yet established the domestic chicken’s capacity for judgment but you reckon this one might prove a breakthrough. Chickens in glass coops. You fix your eyes on the bird’s beak, or the jagged keratin shards of what’s left of it, the reason you’re chasing the feathery bastard.
Tony’s been told not to let them run free around the yard. They’ve already laid waste to Vera’s garden beds, turned up the fledgling grevilleas on their hunt for squirming treats.
Last year, one caught its neck in a mouse trap, the spring-loaded kind. If you didn’t think traps were inhumane before, you would after that. The poor bugger dragged around the trap on its cracked neck for six hours before it passed out. Tony was unperturbed. Who knew they ate peanut butter?
The beak can’t be fixed. It doesn’t matter how many backwoods super-glue veterinary procedures you’ve watched on YouTube; the bird will have to be put down. You tell Tony.
‘Stuff her then, she can either come to us or starve.’
She’s only a little chook, not yet fully grown, probably yet to lay an egg. Tony will talk tough about eating her, but he hasn’t got the heart, plus there wouldn’t even be enough for a schnitzel. You back out of the rose bushes. The chook averts her eyes, like she’s embarrassed for you.
Outside the bramble, Tony’s in a deck chair sheltering under the veranda, adjusting his colostomy bag. Smoko. Sitting there slouched over, he looks melted. His sweat-crusted t-shirt bunches above a translucent bladder and bowel. He fingers the edge of the organ, folding it away from himself, preventing the pink chafe on his belly from spreading.
You approach, brushing grass stains off your knees and collapse into the deck chair opposite. A fly-screen door swings open and Vera steps out backwards.
‘It’s better for my knees,’ she says.
You imagine a strong breeze picking her up and carrying her away, only to be snatched back by a tether attached to the melting man’s intestines.
A glass of viscous golden liquid is deposited in front of you. You wrap your hand around it and feel the frost centre you. Thin fingers run through your hair.
‘You’re a good boy for helping.’
You want to tell her that you’re not a boy anymore but you don’t have it in you.
‘How did it break its beak?’ you ask.
The melting man says something about a chicken’s brain being the size of a Malteser.
Vera assumes her ex-schoolteacher tone. ‘It’s instinct to peck at the ground. It’s how they learn to find worms and seed in the earth. But it doesn’t work with concrete. That’s why you shouldn’t let them run free.’
Tony huffs to his feet and wanders off to the orange steel wood-chipper in the centre of the garden. He slams on the motor to punctuate his point and it shudders and shakes before roaring awake.
‘I’m not paying you to sit on your ass.’
‘You’re not paying me at all.’
You turn to Vera and she slips loose a smile. The cider has tinted the afternoon gold and you’re not ready for more work. You want to savour the Sabbath, not desecrate it.
‘I just need the bathroom first.’
Tony lifts his shirt and juts his colostomy bag towards you, ‘Can you go for me?’
On the way back from the bathroom you stop to look at the photos in the hallway. They’re filled with faces you don’t know. Mostly old comrades. Among them, you spot Lauren nestled in her grandmother’s tiny arms. You feel the urge to reach out, to try to break through and stroke the faded Nikon past, but you don’t. It feels too silly, too small a gesture to mean much. Do grandparents become grandparents-in-law? It doesn’t matter; you never actually married.
Some stories are repeated so often they become hard to distinguish from memories. There is a film that plays in your mind. It’s set a while ago. It’s stained yellow, like nicotine fingers. It’s of a family in a room, brown carpet and floral-patterned armchairs, the other details are vague. You have a hard time picturing faces and although you know who the family is supposed to represent, you can’t identify them.
There is a little girl playing Lauren and she’s sitting at a plastic kid’s table, her dark hair pulled back into a ponytail and she’s arranging coloured beads on a necklace. She works slowly and silently, the way people work when they’re trying to communicate distance.
Tony approaches, he’s younger though not young, and he’s shaking off the residue of sleep. He enquires about the girl’s work in beer-kissed breath but she remains silent. He places a heavy hand on her shoulder. And she shrugs it away.
The family says nothing but you know they’re thinking about the old man and the girl. They’ll laugh about how it later, how she will try to train him to be present, train him to stop slinking away into sleep and reverie, train him to stay there. And you wonder if this is what she’s trying to do to you.
Tree branches pass through the spinning jaws of the chipper. A flurry of grit and timber sprays onto the grass. You don’t know why Tony has you here to help. He does everything himself, except the jobs nobody would want, those are yours. The muscles of his forearm are still visible through loose greying skin; they remind you of insecurities hiding in baggy clothes. You don’t want to work alone. He always comes out with the same story. Railway labourers’ camps, 1965. Somewhere between Perth and Kalgoorlie. His first home after he got off the boat. I asked a man where I could hang my clothes to dry. He pointed to a telegraph pole and handed me a rifle. You’ll need this, he said. He reckons he stayed up the whole night guarding his pants from would-be thieves. You need mates to look out for you.
The chipper sits silent as Tony shovels tanbark into a wheelbarrow. In the distance, high above him, a raptor climbs the sky. You’re awed by the size of it: the heavy grace of its wedged tail feathers cutting through the dusk.
Underneath the first fly two more. One a similar size and the other diminutive. You watch the first eagle continue to rise and rise, until it drops something from its claws. The thin silhouette runs down the orange horizon, the smaller eagle rushes for it, misses. The larger, lower bird dives, catches it and begins to climb, as the other falls to take her place. They repeat this dance: rising, dropping, swooping, falling, rising.
Vera appears with fresh drinks, and you show her the birds.
‘They’re teaching the eaglet to catch prey.’
This is how they learn to snatch rabbits from the ground and smaller birds from the air. You don’t like this. What if they never learn? What if nobody is there to teach them? What will they do then? You’re grinding your teeth again. Breathe in one two three. Breathe out one two three. It’s not working. You remember the cider and gulp. Old habits.
Tony isn’t slowing down with the shovel.
‘You’re gonna hurt yourself.’
He just works on, filling the barrow, wheeling it to the garden-bed, wheeling it back, filling the barrow. Thick compost seeps into the air and then you see it: the dark wet colonising his shirtfront.
Tony sits shirtless in the deckchair as Vera detaches the torn bag from the stoma. She wipes a damp towel over the puckered red opening, and it shines like glossed lips before she inserts a new bag, flat and clear, into the hole. When it’s settled in the skin, Tony lifts a glass to his lips and swallows. Let’s bet on how long it takes to reach the bag. You laugh. There’s movement in the rose bushes and then there’s a chicken at your feet. She spreads her shattered beak wide and clucks. You swear she’s laughing too.
You quit drinking for real, including Sundays, the night Tony dies. Sometimes you think he died because you quit drinking but that’s not real. You know he died because his liver got sick of him.
Vera requests that you sit with the family at the funeral and you sit next to Lauren and feel like partners in grief.
When people ask how long you’ve been together, you tell them that you’re not. We’re still working things out. Somebody offers you a cider, but you decline.
You ask them if they know how eagles learn to hunt.
Overland’s Friday Features project is supported by the Copyright Agency’s Cultural Fund.
Photo by James Wainscoat