Around that time I’d spend most Saturdays on the couch watching television. And around that time my younger brother had a habit of nagging me. He’d pull my sleeves or kick my feet and make demands. I tried not to be harsh with him, for my mother’s sake, but also because I didn’t want to damage his view of me. One day soon, when he’d be older and we’d have more in common, I’d like him to nag me again. When I might be more interested.
What he wanted was for me to take him on a hike from our house, over some neighbouring fields and through the scrub to where there was a weather tower at the top of a hill. It was a long walk through a sequence of wild environments. On weekends the tower was unmanned and a little ghostly, the sort of thing that’s exciting for a kid. I’d taken him once a year or two before.
Recently, though, I’d felt content just watching TV. TV was precious to me—I thought it was something I could lose at any time. That it was a privilege someone might all of a sudden realise I didn’t deserve. It felt decadent, to be able to take in all this programming that was no doubt difficult and costly to produce. I liked to bathe in it.
When a young family moved in next door, though, I was forced to reconsider. They had a son, and he and my brother became fast friends. Both boys were the same age. In the same class at school. Pretty soon my brother stopped nagging me and made plans to do the hike with our new neighbour. But it was a long walk and quite remote, so neither the boy’s mum nor ours was too keen on letting them go.
And neither was I really. I knew the terrain. There were tricky barbed wire fences, steep rock faces, paddocks worth avoiding. Mobile reception was patchy. In places there were unchained dogs or large herds of cows flanked by humourless bulls. Sometimes farmers’ kids, loners, wandered their fathers’ fields with BB guns and cricket bats. Aggressive and unsocialised boys. In my memory, they didn’t have faces—I’d always spotted them from far off and sprinted back into the trees.
So I relented. On a Friday I told my brother I’d take him on the afternoon of that Sunday. It was a ninety-minute hike and we’d leave midday. He asked if we could bring the neighbour. I think it should be us, I said. Maybe we’ll take him next time.
In the late morning on that Saturday, my brother was in the front yard with the neighbour. They were playing a game—some impenetrable thing, with rules only they knew. I drank cold tea on the porch and tried to listen in. I got no clues. Once or twice my brother looked over at me. Under my scrutiny, his behaviour with the boy would change. Like he was trying to show me that really he was quite flippant about the neighbour. Could take him or leave him. But then, absorbed by the game again, he’d drop the act. Later I left for work and spent my whole shift in the grocery store pining for television.
The next morning I was woken up by sounds through the walls. My brother was up, packing a bag. I could hear my mother in the kitchen, and I guessed from her tone that she was trying to talk him down. She worried about the dogs, the distance, the new dose of courage. I stayed in bed despite the heat in my room, trying to give her enough time to make her argument. But when I came out—groggy, as though I’d just woken up—he was sitting to attention at the bench. He had a backpack on the stool beside him and a stripe of zinc under each eye. I put some bread in the toaster.
I ate toast and then several bowls of cereal in front of the television. My brother sat with me. He didn’t say anything or even look my way. I sat up straight instead of lying down—to give the impression of commitment to our plans. But really, I hoped that he’d speak up, in an ad break or between episodes, to say that maybe he wasn’t feeling it after all. That maybe for him, too, TV was enough.
Finally, at about half-past twelve, he said something. Asked when we were leaving. I told him soon, I said let’s wait a little while for the heat to fall off. He nodded. At one point, the neighbour’s kid came around and my brother stood in the doorway, speaking to him quietly. The kid left, the door clicked shut, my brother sat back down. Sun became shade became early blue dark. My brother went wordlessly to his room and cried.
At work, stacking shelves, time passed slowly. Often it felt like I was working against the force of a tractor beam. I wanted to cocoon myself in TV. In my most automatic moments, I’d find myself having thoughts like: how is it that somewhere in the world, people can be enjoying themselves, while elsewhere boredom is cooking people in their skulls? I found it hard to imagine anything other than my own experience.
What enamoured me most about TV was a sort of 3-D effect. It wrapped around me. I knew it was a set, that they were actors, that it was light and colour and makeup and scripts. But I could believe in it. I enjoyed being stunned by the illusion of a world. And I liked that events were capped hard at like twenty-one or twenty-three minutes plus ads.
I tried to lie to myself, to say my reason for avoiding the hike was that my attention would have been divided. That I’d have been stuck in that same tractor beam. It wouldn’t be fair on my brother. This was bullshit mostly. I just wanted to watch TV.
A few weeks later, after school holidays had begun, I picked up a late shift on short notice. It had been a hot day and, despite the pedestal fan, parts of me had fused to the material of the couch. I took the shift as much for the money as I did for a chance at some air-conditioning.
Prior to the call, though, it had been a solid day of television. The house had been mine: my brother and the neighbour were off somewhere on their bikes, and my mother was at a working bee for the church. The day slid across me like nothing. I had a cold shower and ironed a shirt. It was almost dark when I left.
When, on my drive to work, I spotted two boy’s bikes chained to a paddock fence, I paused. Slowed the car down and pulled over. Thought about how long they’d really been gone. Then there was a taste in my mouth like batteries. I loosened my tie, undid my top button and jumped the fence. I was furious. I walked through long grass, over rocks, under slack wire fences. The expanding moon stretched new and wicked shadows over the landscape as I moved. By the time it was fully dark, I’d been walking fast for a half an hour. My shirt was sweated through.
I found them some time after that. From a way off I had spotted three figures. A farmer’s kid was there with them, taller than them, my mind said standing over them. The neighbour boy was on the ground in a bad way.
When I got close, my brother said, He’s tripped and hurt his ankle. One whole side of him was grazed up. A cattle-dog, I was told, had chased them. I looked at the farmer’s kid—he looked away. Nearby I saw a dog, tied to the low branch of a tree, curled up and sleeping. The farmer’s kid had come out to help them.
The three of us walked back through the dark, with my brother and I supporting the neighbour on each side. He hopped on his okay foot and bit back tears. From the few quick glances I got at my brother’s face, he didn’t seem sorry. I missed the shift at work and ignored them when they called.
Sometimes, up late at night watching television with headphones, I felt like a creature. The mind took a backseat to some purer expression of the body—I was being driven elementally. I moved back and forth between the kitchen and the lounge, grazing. Sat hunched with my jaw hanging open, being blasted by white light. Nothing moved inside my head—or if it did it was already dislodged from myself, happening despite me. I thought that if someone were to interrupt me in this state, they might have trouble reconciling the vision with who I was day-to-day. It felt secretive and tasty.
I hadn’t slept at all when the sun came up and I went to knock gently on my brother’s door. This time, I thought, we’ll try to get ahead of the heat rather than behind it. He took a few seconds to orient to time and place, but once he realised what was happening, his eyes went wide and his smile was massive. The bag he’d packed that other Sunday was still there, still packed, in the corner of his closet.
I had to force him to eat at least something before we left. On the way out of the house, past the loungeroom, I repeated a kind of mantra to myself: for the next few hours, there is nothing but this.
Of course the sun is massive and quick. It got hot fast, and after only twenty minutes of walking my brother complained about the heft and burden of his bag. This didn’t bother me. He was young and besides, I had a feeling that pretty soon he’d be taller and stronger than I was. I knew I’d have complicated feelings about that when it happened. I took the bag from him and he ran on ahead. He rounded a corner into some trees and for a few minutes I walked on my own.
I discovered that seeing my brother this excited made me happy. I almost had to steel myself against an overflowing of genuine feeling. I found I’d stumbled into a kind of presence that made the edges of things pop. All sensations—warm air on the skin of my arms, the shape of rocks through my shoes, even my laboured breathing—were thrilling. I jogged to catch up.
Past the trees, a short rise separated me from everything beyond it. At the lip, I could see down into a sweeping valley. There must have been three hundred cows standing on and around the winding path. Chewing, making low rumbling sounds. Here and there, young calves were boisterous, running through the grass like dogs. My brother was standing down there in the midst of them, having been admitted gently into their ranks.
Not wanting to spook the bulls, I kind of whispered when I reached him. This is crazy, I said. He turned around and gave me a half-smile. Shrugged. He nodded up at the weather tower way in the distance. Asked how much longer it was until we got there. I said I didn’t know. Maybe an hour.
I might go back, he said.
I didn’t know how to register this. I asked him why but he couldn’t give me an answer. Said he wasn’t really feeling it anymore. Are you scared of something, I asked, is it the bulls? He didn’t know. He said he wanted the bag back. When I passed it to him, I asked what was in it. He didn’t reply and walked back up the way we came.
I continued the walk on my own, mostly because I’d been seized by a new momentum that refused to disappear as suddenly as it had arrived. It was strange. He was the reason I was out there in the first place. Now it was just me, stuck on the path to the tower. I spent a long while up there.
When I got back, it was dark, but none of the day’s heat had gone away. It was as though the lights had been turned off but the basic state of things remained unchanged. My skin was irritated, slick and red. It had begun a process of merging with my clothes. I said hi to my mother as I passed by the kitchen. She said hello through a mouthful of food.
On my way to the shower, I stopped in at my brother’s room. The door was part-way open and the lights were off. I looked inside and saw the backpack sitting on the bed. It was limp, empty. Mum arrived behind me with a glass of water. He’s sleeping over next door, she said. Okay, I said. Goodnight.
I grilled some ham and cheese on open sandwiches and took them into the lounge. The sliding door and the windows had been shut all day—they were foggy from the room’s breath. I sat down, put the fan on, and spent a while flicking through the channels. Nothing really jumped out at me.
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