The saltbushes kept on snagging Lee’s pants but Andy had no problem navigating the maze of dry shrubbery bursting out of the grey dirt.
Andy always opted to wear shorts, preferring the freedom they offered. But even with bare legs, he never came out of the bush covered in scratches like most kids did. He’d make a game of it, dancing around crops of three cornered jacks on one leg to try to make things more of a challenge. He always shed his shoes as soon as possible, climbing trees without leaving a mark on his feet. Even Paul, the burliest and strongest of them all, couldn’t compete with Andy when they disappeared into the gumtrees, trying, for just a second, to escape the world of adults. Along with the fears which came with that universe.
Andy found the coolest spots when the sun made the ground crack even more and the sand hills too hot to sprint across. All games of Cowboys and Indians had to be called to a halt as Andy led the group further into the bush. Flaky bark from the gumtrees floated down and got lost in his thick, black hair now and then.
They always followed – Lee, Paul, Willy and Jimmy, when he was visiting. Faithful Andy would find the best place to rest without having to return home for refuge.
Sure enough, he would discover a patch of green grass in the grey dust, a shady willow springing out amongst the gumtrees like an oasis. Sometimes, they were able to hear the Darling River nearby if they paused in carving out arrows and swords for their next game. The best spots were by the high banks, where you could peer down and watch as carp and cod splashed about, as though taunting the boys with their cool home.
When they were feeling particularly adventurous, they ventured deep into the trees around the river, home-made fishing lines in their arms, planning on getting a cod or two to take home. Maybe mums or dads wouldn’t begrudge a day taken for themselves if they returned home with bounty.
When the fishing lines would inevitably get tangled, Andy was the only one who would travel into the depths of the river. It was murky from the top, hiding him from the others’ view, but Andy insisted he could see perfectly while he was down there, slithering through the underwater labyrinth of twisted branches like a snake.
Sometimes Paul held his breath when Andy went down to see if he could do it for as long as well. Every time he grew red in the face and had to gasp in a breath, Jimmy, Willy and Lee went into a panic, worried for their leader. Every time, though, Andy would break through the surface half a minute later, calling out that their lines were free. He always emerged more energetic than ever, eyes alight with secrets he alone had seen. The Darling River was like a life force to him. It wouldn’t drown him – it cared for him too much.
Neither blistering heat nor chilling winter kept Andy away from the water for long. Darling or Murray, he would plunge in or craft a canoe, taking pity on the rest because they refused to join him in the numbingly cold water.
If they lucked out on fishing but still weren’t ready to enter back into the adult world, the orange tree groves and grape vines were their next port of call. Deeper and deeper in they’d go, whispering warnings of ‘Look out for snakes, bud’ and ‘Those old Mick’s dogs barkin’? We better be fast about it’.
Of all the endings they had to their adventures, the best one of all was watching the sun set on the Murray River, colours of ethereal reds, violets and gold skimming across the rippling surface. Even if the weather was hot, if they got to escape this late into the day, Andy would always make a fire, its own glittering reds and oranges adding to the myriad of colours in the twilight.
They’d sit around the fire, as close as they dared, poking it with sticks. The smoke was acrid in their nostrils yet each relished in the earthy smell of the burning dry leaves, twigs and logs of the ironbark and ghost gum. When the end of their sticks caught alight, they’d write their names in the air. The fiery ash lasted just long enough to be able to make out what each other had written.
With the water right there though, Andy couldn’t keep away from it for long. He’d slip away to the edge of the river as it lapped at the sand, long cooled down from the hot day. Or perhaps it was even icier, depending on the time of year.
Then, he’d walk in until it lapped at his knees, refreshing against his skin. It was quieter out here, just him and the river. He could hear his friends laughing around the fire. But at the same time, the serenity of the water allowed him to listen to the stray screech of an eagle on a late night hunt or the lone howl of a dingo prowling, hopefully on the opposite bank
‘Hey, Andy,’ Lee called from the bank. ‘Time to go home.’
It was one of those days where you couldn’t get away from the heat. The house was suffocating with its tin roof and tiny windows. Andy didn’t know how his mum could take it, sitting and baking and fanning herself with a flour-covered hand.
‘Jimmy’s family’s coming,’ she said. ‘Got to make sure there’s plenty of mun-noo for them.’
‘There’s always plenty of mun-noo, family or no family,’ Andy laughed.
He left his mum to it, escaping into the grape vines, looking for some reprieve from the stifling heat. The bunches of grapes were almost ready to pick, ripe and heavy with sweet juice and flesh. He knew he would be amongst the workers when they came, picking and sweating and swearing like the rest of them.
For today though, he was free. The vines didn’t give the shade he craved so he kept on walking between the rows until he came to the orange tree groves. There were plenty ripe for the picking too. He indulged himself, stealing a couple that he saw high in the branches, shimmying up as easy as he walked.
His blunt fingers dug into the thick orange peel, tearing it away easily. His hands were calloused like a rugged old worker’s already, despite not being long on eleven. Andy was proud of his hands. They told the story of his years better than he ever could.
He lazed underneath the trees for a while, picking another orange now and then to quench his thirst.
But the heat eventually got to him there as well, slivers of sun piercing through the foliage, burning onto his skin.
It was just one of those days.
And there was only one thing to do on days like these.
‘Hey, Willy! Lee!’ Andy hollered at the little fibro hut he trekked to. Usually it was only a twenty minute walk to his friends’ house but through the groves usually halved it. ‘Oy, you lot, let’s go swimmin’.’
Paul’s cropped head popped out of the window. He almost couldn’t lean out with his broad shoulders.
‘Come on in and try it out, Andy! Willy and Lee got an air con!’
‘Ah, you all gone soft. It ain’t that hot out.’
‘Sun’s melted your brain if you think that, bud.’
‘Seriously, no one’s comin’?’
‘If it drops ten degrees we might.’
‘That’s the point of swimmin’, ya nitwit.’
But even Andy knew he wasn’t going to be able to lead them out of the house that blistering day.
The journey to the river was quiet but not lonely. Andy knew how to fill the silence, making a game of climbing up and over each row of grape vines.
‘Andy, not so fast.’
He glanced back to see Lee’s distinctive dark blond hair bobbing up and down as he did exactly as Andy had, up over one set of vines then under the next, though much slower.
‘Thought you were testing out your air con.’
‘Nope!’ Lee’s smile was always at full charge, no matter what. ‘I’m going swimmin’.’
Andy couldn’t help his own smile. ‘C’mon then. Stay off the road though. The tar’s meltin’. It’ll burn your skin off.’
‘’Kay, Andy. We goin’ to the Murray or the Darling?’
‘Murray. More shade.’
Even the river was warm but the deeper under Andy swam, the more he found the cool pockets. Lee wallowed in the shallows where he was protected by the shade thrown by the gumtrees. Each time Andy surfaced for air, the younger boy would wave at him like it was the first time he’d seen him that day.
After a good hour and Andy was ready to face the heat again, he swam back to where Lee was perched on a partially submerged log.
‘You want to come back to my place for a feed? Mum’s makin’ paddy-pans.’
‘Oh, yes, please. She frying any roo?’
‘What about ngamani? Your mum makes the best ngamani.’
The walk back was decidedly less quiet with Lee chatting by his side but Andy liked it a lot better.
‘Some soursob, Andy!’ Lee grinned, pointing to a crop of yellow flowers by the road. ‘Want a stalk to chew on?’
‘Sure. Stay off the tar though.’
‘I remember, Andy.’
He crouched by the road, blonde hair bright in the sun. Andy lazed in a patch of grass, watching as a car approached. It was a modern one, probably a ’61, maybe ’62. Black, Holden and sedan, it oozed by. It was like the sun was even making that sluggish.
When it stopped though and a man in a suit stepped out, Andy lost interest in the car. He stood up, subtly slipping a couple of rocks into his hand.
‘Hey, fellas,’ the man called. Sweat soaked the armpits of his suit while his chalky complexion was reddened with the heat. ‘Shouldn’t you be in school?’
Lee shrugged, smiling up at the intruder. ‘Probably,’ he said truthfully.
He didn’t sense the danger like Andy did. His hold tightened on the rocks.
‘Day off,’ he said and Lee glanced over at him, hearing the change in tone.
The man shook his head. ‘I don’t think so, boy,’ he said and Andy bristled at the term. He waved a hand at the car. ‘In you hop. I’ll drive you back to school.’
It was said pleasantly enough but Andy knew better. He’d seen enough of his cousins disappear into cars like these and driven a lot further away than the local school.
This time, Lee sensed it too. His smile dimmed. Abandoning the flowers, he stepped behind Andy.
‘We’ll make our own way back,’ Andy said.
He’d made a line on the road in his mind. If the gunjibul stepped across it, he would make his move.
The man shook his head again. ‘No, boy. Hop in.’
He took a step forward then another, which made him officially cross the invisible line.
As all boys his age, Andy knew how to aim a rock.
‘Jesus!’ The man cried out, falling back against his car. He grabbed his forehead where Andy’s rock had made its mark.
Andy didn’t have to yell at Lee to run. He had already disappeared into the orange tree groves. Andy wished someone was there to tell him to run though. Frozen with guilt, all he could do was stare as a rivulet of blood edged its way through a gap in the man’s fingers.
He caused that to happen; he had made a full-grown man bleed.
It was only when the gunjibul’s eyes opened and lost the daze of pain did he find it in himself to run. He couldn’t leave behind the feeling though that something had changed within him at that moment.
Lee was already halfway through the orange tree groves by the time Andy caught up to him.
‘Go to Mum’s house. She’ll know what to do.’
Lee took the direction silently, heading deeper into the grove. Andy went the long way around. He knew the longer he was out, the more danger he was in, but he had no choice. He kept looking behind him the whole time, waiting for the figure in the black suit to come barging through the trees and drag him back into the car.
He banged onto the sides of that old fibro hut, yelling, ‘Willy, Paul, gunjibul, gunjibul!’
He didn’t wait to see what they would do. Run or hide were the only two options they had. Willy and Lee’s parents would decide what the best one was to take this time.
Finally, he got back to his home and found Mum pushing Lee into the crawl space they had in the cupboard, covered up by mops and buckets and brooms.
‘Get in, son, in, in,’ Mum whispered. Her voice shook.
Andy went to dive in but paused. Leaning up on his tip-toes, he kissed his mum’s wet cheek before he entered into the darkness, curling his long limbs around himself as much as he could.
The warmth was a lot more suffocating in here but Andy wasn’t allowed to try to escape it. Lee pressed up against him, a limp bag of bones and sweat. It was too hot to hug each other. The quiet became as claustrophobic as the heat but Andy couldn’t make a noise to push out the silence.
Unfortunately, these sensations weren’t as foreign to Andy as he wished they were. He’d become intimately acquainted with them at just three years old, curled up in the lap of his older cousin, Bryna, listening to harsh voices search the house, missing that one crevice. That was the last time he’d seen Bryna. She left after the ransack was over, running back to her place to make sure her parents were okay.
She didn’t even make it home.
Those voices still haunted Andy. It was why, when he heard them now, he thought they were all in his head, a nightmare in his half-delirious state. But when Lee stiffened next to him, he realised they probably weren’t as imaginary as he wished they were.
Time passing didn’t make the swelter more bearable. Andy couldn’t wet his throat because it felt like he could only swallow heat. There was no moistness in the air. It didn’t even feel like there was air. The second rock was heavy in his hand but he refused to let it go.
Soon, the cupboard door creaked open. Scraping filled the silence as things were shoved aside to let light into the crawl space.
Andy’s grip tightened around the rock. When a hand blindly reached in, he raised it above his head, ready to crash it down onto the bare skin.
Ready to make another full-grown man bleed.
However, it filtered through the hand was covered in flour. Immediately, he let the rock drop, allowing the hand to drag him out into the open and into an awaiting hug.
He leaned into his mum, exhausted with fear while Lee cried into his shoulder.
‘It’s all right,’ Mum sang. ‘The gunjibul is gone. You’re staying right here. You’re safe.’
It was meant to be comforting. A mum spelling all the bad monsters and thoughts away from two distraught children.
But Andy knew, even if they had escaped this time, it didn’t mean that was the end of it.
Though, he guessed, for today, he was free.
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