I know I shouldn’t have gone back. In my defence, at the time I had convinced myself that my childhood had been ordinary. But the past is like flypaper for the living, so when I returned to Pearce for my dad’s funeral I stayed longer, and remembered more, than I meant to.
I like to blame Phil, my brother. He should have been at the funeral, but the antagonism that existed between him and my dad was so great that even dad’s death couldn’t dissolve it. So I had to make all the arrangements, and afterward I was sole executor for the will, and then I was solely responsible for clearing out the old man’s house for sale. This last was a task that deepened my grief and opened gates to the past I thought had been locked decades before.
Truth be told, the real cause of what happened after the funeral wasn’t my dad’s death or my brother’s intransigence. It was a single black-and-white photograph of five boys that I found in a drawer, hidden under a pile of yellowing papers. Five boys, all between ten and thirteen years of age, standing on a hillside and looking as if the future was already theirs.
Mick, who was everyone’s best friend and the unelected leader of the band, saw it first. He said “Fuck!” so loudly it made the rest of us stop in our tracks.
Around us rolled the brown humps of Mt Taylor’s northeast flank, our territory, stretching from the big water tank around to Torrens, the next suburb. We were the Mt Taylor Patrol, assigned by ourselves to protect our turf from villains. Villains in this case were mostly other kids, whom we called the Koga Ninja. Every incursion by the Koga Ninja had to be met swiftly and sternly, with bad language mainly, but if that didn’t work then with a hail of the palm sized rocks that littered the sides of Mt Taylor like confetti at a church wedding. As a measure of last resort against particularly persistent foes, we each had our own special weapon, something we individually practised with until we were so lethal with it we scared ourselves. Mine was an old leather belt, as soft as velvet, I’d converted into a sling. Mick had a two dollar fishing knife he insisted was a commando dagger. Phil had what he called shuriken, but were really a motley collection of twenty-cent pieces and old pennies. Jag had a quarter-staff he’d shaped from a scribbly gum branch he’d found on the ground. Our newest member, Gaspar, had the claws. Well, his hands, really, but his fingers were so strong he could use them to rip caps off bottles and crush steel drink cans. He was the smallest of us, the wiriest, and the strongest. He didn’t speak good English, but back then I’m not sure any Australian kid spoke good English. Still, he picked up the swear words without any trouble. Gaspar was still on probation in the Patrol; there were things about him we weren’t sure we liked. But on this day when Mick made his discovery, there were five of us.
“Fu-u-u-ck,” Mick said again, drawing it out because because he liked the sound of the word, and only yesterday had found out what it really meant. “Fu-u-bloody-u-ck.”
We hurried over to see what he’d found.
“What is it?” Jag asked.
“It’s a sheep, you drongo.”
“A dead sheep,” Phil added.
What hit me first was how big it was. We’d all seen dead dogs and cats, run over by cars or savaged by their own kind, but nothing bigger than a male tabby. This carcass had mass. It must have weighed as much as Gaspar or Phil when it was alive. Now it was a canvas of wounds and daggy pulls of wool. Blowies heaved in a cloud above it. Some of its intestines had spilled out and looked like pools of spoiled yoghurt.
“Dogs,” I said. “Dogs must have done it.”
“Mr Climpson said there was a feral pack on the other side of the mountain,” Mick said. Mr Climpson was a retired farmer who lived on our street and knew about such things. “They must have come over.”
Jag was studying the ground. “No spore,” he said.
“No what?” Gaspar asked.
“Y’know. Tracks, droppings. That sort of thing. There’s no animal prints.”
I looked down and saw our Dunlops left a good impression in the dusty soil. As far as I could see, though, they were the only marks. Not even the sheep had left any sign of its passing.
“Wait,” Jag said. “There’s a blood trail.” He nodded to the ground in front of him, then traced it with a finger as it went uphill.
“That’s weird,” Phil said, and edged closer to me. I hated it when he did that. It meant that what ever he was afraid of was probably going to go for me first. I pushed him away.
Mick snorted. “C’mon, Jag. What you know about tracking wouldn’t fill a bubblegum card.”
“I read a book about it,” Jag said, and followed the trail. I had to admit, my curiosity was up, too, and started after him.
“Wait on, dickheads,” Mick said. “Jag, I thought you said there were no tracks. So what’s that?”
Jag came back and bent over the spot Mick was pointing to. “Bloody dog,” he said in disgust. He frowned and knelt down to get a better look. “Bloody big dog.”
“Yeah, right,” Mick said dismissively. “Big compared to what?”
“You remember I showed you one the paw prints of Riff and Raff?” Jag said.
“They’re German Shepherds, right. Big dogs.”
“Of course they’re big dogs. They’re mine.”
“This one’s more than twice as big as either of ‘em.”
Now Mick knelt down to have a look. “Maybe,” he said.
Jag was moving around us in circles. Suddenly he was down again. “And here’s another.”
This time the rest of closed in a for a look, and Jag couldn’t help grinning. He may have been the smartest one among us, but that didn’t count for too much among kids our age, so it wasn’t every day he got a chance to show off.
I didn’t want to eat a meal in my dad’s home – it would’ve felt too much like haunting my own past – so most nights I ate dinner at the local Thai. That’s when I saw Gaspar again. I didn’t recognise him at first. I’d just paid my bill and was getting ready to go when he appeared by my table.
“George?” he said. “George Hourigan?”
I looked up, surprised anyone in Pearce could possibly know me after all these years. There was something familiar about the man standing there, but I assumed it must have been because I’d met him in the tangle of days immediately before and after the funeral.
“You don’t know who I am, do you?” he said, wearing a smile that showed he’d have been surprised if I had. He was short, wiry, dark hair buzz cut. He was dressed in slacks and short-sleeved shirt. The muscles in his forearms moved like thick electric cables under his skin.
“I’m sorry … I know we’ve met before, but there’s been so many faces over the last few days – ”
“Gaspar,” he said. “Gaspar Attard.”
The accent was so broadly Australian that it was a long moment between hearing the name and figuring out he was talking about himself.
“Bloody hell,” I said, and then, “Gaspar?” I stood and shook his hand. My fingers felt like they were caught in a closing bus door.
“I heard about your dad. I’m sorry.”
“That’s okay. I mean, not okay, but … ” My words were tumbling over each other.
“I understand,” he said. “You moving back?”
“Nah. Just clearing out the old house.”
Gaspar nodded. “That’s kind of sad,” he said wistfully. “You know, I’m the last one there is.”
“The last one?”
He grinned, sheepishly. “The Mount Taylor Patrol. I’m the only one left in Pearce.”
I don’t know what made me ask, but suddenly it seemed important to me that Gaspar knew. “You heard about Jag?”
“Yeah. I met his sister a few years back. Bloody shame.”
And then we were out of words. We stood awkwardly in each other’s presence for a moment. I said had to go. Lots to do. House to pack up.
“Sure,” he said, and watched me leave.
We made sure we got back in time to watch The Samurai at 5.30 pm. It was a repeat of the first series, so we got to watch the secret agent Shintaro meeting the Iga Ninja, Tombei the Mist, for the first time. Dad came home while we were watching, glanced at the television, shook his head and moved on. As far as I could figure out, no adult understood what we saw in it. Sure it had shonky voice-over work, and the acting was straight from Opera Master Class, but it had martial arts, and ninjas leaping backwards into trees, and flashing shuriken and slashing katana, and a real sense of almost supernal menace. Among us, only Gaspar didn’t seem totally entranced by it, and he would sometimes silently get up and go home. The others didn’t seem to mind to much, but I found his unwillingness to stay with the group a mark against him.
At 6.00 came The King’s Outlaw, my favourite show on television, since it was about the heroic and skinny (just like me, I reasoned) Thierry of Janville and his fight against the English invaders during the Hundred Years War. Using a sling, he could swat the helmet off an English soldier at two hundred metres.
At 6.30 pm, Dad turned channels to watch the news. The gang would go outside and practice with their weapons until dark. Mostly we crossed the road to the foot of Mt Taylor. Either side of us stretched quarter-acre blocks with their cream-bricked homes and fading green lawns. An early autumn sun, still well above the horizon, bloomed in the sky. We wallowed in heat, but it didn’t bother us. Around us we could hear currawongs, flies and the chit-chit-chit of sprinklers. The world smelt new in Pearce. We were the frontier, the newest suburb. You could see where the latest construction was going on because brown veils of dust kicked up by tractors and earth movers hung in the still air like a distant rain shadow. Below us spread Woden Valley with its half-finished streets and town centre, and behind us grazing land with a scattering of merinos and a few Hereford. The horizon was largely clear, and the few telephone poles and television aerials looked like black writing against the blue sky. We didn’t spend much time appreciating the newness of our suburb. We just expected it. We were growing up in synch with towns and cities and suburbs all over the country. Everything was new, and if there was anything old we didn’t see it and we didn’t know anything about it.
In the daylight left to us, Phil practised throwing his shuriken, mainly with the pennies because it got expensive losing twenty-cent pieces in the long undergrowth. Jag would flay grass with his quarter-staff, but it was getting so old and dry that every time he hit something more solid than grass – a tree or a slow ninja, for example – bits of it would fly off like shrapnel. It was getting shorter by the month, and Jag was considering turning it into a katana.
Mick and I would find a good sized tree to practise on. I’d let him go first, because his knife-throwing could be erratic and I wanted to be well away if it bounced off the trunk and spun back towards us. Then I’d unloop my special belt, fit a stone, swirl the sling above my head and let go. Most times the stone went in the right direction. Once I accidentally struck Phil on the noggin, and Dad walloped me so hard I couldn’t take my pants off that night without crying. Sometimes, though, the stone hit square on, leaving a brown powdery scar on the tree; that was the most satisfying thing in the world, I reckoned, hearing the stone smack into wood.
Gaspar watched us, mostly. When we told him he had to practise with the claws, he would pick up a rock and squeeze it with both hands, but his heart wasn’t in it. I got the feeling his heart wasn’t really with Mt Taylor Patrol, but didn’t say anything. One day he wasn’t even pretending to be interested. He was standing up straight, stretching his neck to see further.
“What is it?” I asked him. “What are you looking at?”
“Who lives over there?”
I tried to see what he was looking at. It was a row of back yards inhabited by Hills Hoists and surrounded by wooden fences. There didn’t seem to be anything special happening. “Who? Where?”
He pointed. There was a man in one back yard hanging up washing.
“Oh, him. That’s Sweep the Creep.”
“That’s really his name?”
“Of course it is.” Gaspar seemed impressed and dubious in equal measure, which made me feel guilty. “Of course it isn’t. I think his real name is John Sweep. But he is creepy. Just look at him.”
Sweep’s face and body were long and thin, like two brushstrokes end to end. When I saw him up close at the shops or when he was gardening out front of his house, his features were unsmiling, grim. A great leaden brow hung over his eyes, and he seemed to breathe in sighs. There wasn’t a kid in Pearce who didn’t know him as Sweep the Creep.
“He looks sad,” Gaspar said. “He looks lonely.”
There was a moment then when I thought Gaspar understood what it meant to be lonely, but it was nothing more than an intimation. It was enough to make me think even less of him; loneliness was an ally of strangeness, of alienness. I decided then, I think, that I didn’t like Gaspar Attard.
I got back home and grabbed a beer from the fridge. I sat at the dining room table, covered with piles of papers and bric-a-brac, and found myself staring at the photograph of the five of us. I don’t remember who took it, but the landscape looked like it was in autumn sometime. I was the oldest among us, almost fourteen, so it would have been taken about ’69, or maybe ’68. I was wearing jeans, and everyone else school shorts, so it had been taken on a week day. We wore Dunlop tennis shoes without socks, except Phil who wore socks even when he had his sandals on. There was Mick, the tallest, his knife in his belt, Phil with his pouch of coins, Gaspar, loose-limbed, smiling crookedly, me, and at the end of the line, Jag with his quarter-staff. I got to know Jag through Mick. The two were inseparable, brothers in everything except surname. Wherever Mick went, Jag followed, which is how he got his nickname. I don’t think I ever learned his real first name – I wouldn’t be surprised if he’d forgotten it by the time he topped himself.
Jag was found one miserable Sunday morning at the bottom of multi-storey car park. His own car, a rebuilt E-type, was in the last bay on the top level, and forty metres below was what was left of Jag, his wonderful brain pulped like papier-mâché. I often wondered what it was he knew that we didn’t, and if perhaps that’s why he jumped, but in the end came to the realisation that was just my way of sidetracking what I suspected was the truth, that he jumped because being smart in this world wasn’t enough to live for. At his funeral we discovered he had a twenty-three year old daughter who knew less about him than we did.
“You bastard, Jag,” I told his face. “You jumped out on all of us.”
On thinking about it a little longer, I decided it must have been dad who’d taken the photograph, because mum was always on afternoon shift at the hospice during week days. Dad loved the fact we were members of a gang. He said it was the same when he was growing up in the Sydney suburb of Paddington, when he was in a Catholic gang that kept the working class stronghold clear of Protestants. I remember him telling me that some Protos were okay, like Quakers and Jews and Moslems, but Anglicans were right out, and Presbyterians not far behind. I once told him him that Jews and Moslems weren’t Protestants, but he said I didn’t understand what it meant to be Irish Catholic in Australia in the 1940s. I couldn’t argue with that; I couldn’t even understand what it meant to be an Irish Catholic in Australia in the 1960s, except we had to go bloody mass every Sunday.
I slipped the photo into my shirt pocket and finished my beer.
The day after we found the sheep we went back to it. Lots of things had been munching on it, from ravens to bush flies. It was on the nose, now, and had a puffed-up look about it. Jag jabbed it with his staff, but the hide just bounced back.
“Gas,” he said. “If I pushed hard enough it’d probably fart.”
We all laughed. The idea of making a dead sheep fart was humour at the top of its form. But the day was young and we didn’t want to spend it with a carcass. We wandered uphill, waving blowies away from our faces, glaring into the blue sky shimmering above the hill. We were on patrol, and vigilant, and brave, and knew we could never let our guard down. We got halfway up and rested for five minutes, drinking plastic-tasting water from overheated plastic canteens. Below us in a wide swathe rested Woden Valley. From this altitude it did not seem remotely artificial, but a part of the landscape like Mt Taylor. The new suburbs had a dry, brown simplicity that appeared as if they had grown from the soil like saltbush and gumtree. A hot wind blew around us, wound its way to the summit, grew into a dust devil and whirled down the other side. We watched it go, and at the moment it disappeared we heard the dogs.
Jag said, “I wonder … ”, but his voice trailed off when he realised he’d spoken aloud.
Mick smiled thinly, stood up and slapped grass off his shorts. “I was wondering, too. Let’s see if it’s the feral dogs Mr Climpson talked about.”
“I dunno,” I said.
“What do you mean?” Mick asked.
“I’m not interested in seeing a pack of dogs.”
“He’s scared of dogs,” Phil said.
“It’s true, though,” Mick said. “You don’t like my German Shepherds.”
“That’s ‘cause they don’t like me.”
“Feral dogs don’t like anyone,” Jag said.
Mick pursed his lips. “Maybe I should get Riff and Raff.”
“Brilliant,” I said. “Other dogs just love Riff and Raff.”
That made everyone pause. Something about Riff and Raff set off every other dog they came near; walking around Pearce with them meant listing to a dog chorus the whole way. All of us then were imagining what a pack of feral, sheep-killing dogs might do if Mick’s German Shepherds came within cooee of them.
“Better not,” Mick decided.
“I’m gonna see,” Gaspar said, and started off.
“Wait on!” I called after him. I didn’t want any of us to go because that way I didn’t have to, either.
“Wait for me!” Phil shouted, and ran after him. Then so did Mick and Jag.
“Aw, fuck it,” I said, and followed them.
We made it to the top in record time, panting and sweating, but we didn’t hear the dogs again. Mt Taylor’s southwest side was completely different from the northeast. It was windward, for one thing, and got lots of rain, so trees actually grew in clumps, and after a heavy downpour a creek would trickle down the main rise, burbling and bubbling over rocks and channels until it dispersed into the farmland below. There was no sign of suburbia here. It was all paddock and fence line, and from the summit sheep looked like cotton buds.
“See anything?” Jag asked.
We were all peering into the trees.
“Not a thing,” I said. “Let’s head back.” I looked up into the sky. The sun was halfway to the horizon. “Goddamn, it’s late. If we head back now we won’t miss Captain Scarlet – ”
“Shut up, George,” Mick said. He squatted on his heels, and as if it was a signal the rest of us did the same. “Let’s all listen for a minute.”
We listened for several minutes. Not a peep from any dog. Not even from insects or birds. The heat deadened any sound, even when a wind caught in the trees and made them move. It was like watching a silent movie. Gaspar started edging his way downhill, like a crab. This time I didn’t say anything, but I watched him resentfully. I wished I was that brave.
“There is something,” he said. He stood up and walked quickly under the trees. Dutifully, we all followed. We lost him in the sudden dark under the canopy and stopped, and didn’t catch sight of him until his face turned sideways and flashed white in the shadows. He was looking down at something. The way he stood made us approach cautiously. I could see it was another dead animal, but it was too small to be a sheep. When I got closer I saw the head, and realised it was a dog.
“Blue Heeler,” Jag said.
I saw it’s hind legs, and realised it was way too big for a cattle dog. “No Blue Heeler was ever that long.”
The others looked at me almost with pity. I looked closer then and saw that it had been torn in two. There was a bloody, glistening gap between its hindquarters and the rest of it.
“Christ,” Mick said.
“Don’t do that,” Gaspar said sharply. “Don’t do that ‘Christ’ and ‘Jesus’ thing, okay?”
“Not as bad as ‘fuck’,” Phil pointed out.
“That show what you know,” Gaspar said, almost contemptuously. “There is no thing worse than using God like that.” He swallowed. “Especially here.”
“You don’t know what you’re taking about,” I said, automatically defending my brother.
“And that show what you know.” He was getting jumpy, hopping from leg to leg like he wanted to go for a pee.
“What do you reckon did it?” Mick asked Jag.
Jag was already studying the ground around the dog. He bent down a couple of times, followed some trail a little further downslope, then rejoined us. “Same as before,” he said.
“You mean the same thing that killed the sheep?”
He pointed to the ground. “Look there.” And again a few feet away. “And here. I recond it’s the same print.”
“This dog’s got no collar,” I said. “It’s feral, maybe.”
“Fell out with the group,” Mick suggested.
That’s when we heard the pack again. They sounded like they were just outside the trees.
“Let’s go,” Phil said, edging closer to me.
“Back up to the summit,” Mick ordered, and drew his knife.
I unlooped my belt and checked the ground for any likely stones, picking up a couple. Jag readied his staff. Phil’s hand disappeared in his pouch, but he must have figured that pennies would be as useful as earwax at stopping feral dogs, and instead started collecting fist-sized rocks and stuffing them down his pockets until his shorts hung from his hips and his bum crack appeared. Gaspar watched us for a few seconds, then joined in the retreat, but he seemed very casual about it: while we backed up, he just sauntered through the trees. When we reached the edge of the copse we stopped briefly and looked for the pack, but with no more success than we’d had before. We continued climbing back to the summit. As it became apparent we were not going to be charged by feral dogs we started relaxing. I relooped my belt, Mick put away his dagger and one by one Phil dropped the stones he’d stored in his pockets. We got to the top and looked back one more time.
“Who’s that?” Gaspar asked.
The rest of us didn’t see anyone.
“You’re imagining things,” Mick told him.
“No,” Gaspar said, shaking his head. “I do not imagine things. Someone went into the trees. Someone waiting for us to go.”
Mick and I exchanged glances. I could tell that like me, he was having second thoughts about Gaspar’s membership of the Mt Taylor Patrol.
We missed the first half of Captain Scarlet, which pissed me off mightily. I took it out on everyone, and one by one only Phil and I were left in the house.
“Brilliant,” Phil said. “You were just brilliant.”
Phil shut-up, but he glared at me the way a cat glares at a snake, so I retreated to my bedroom and shut the door. Phil knew that crossing into my room when the door was closed meant death by stomping, so he stayed away. I threw myself on my bed and sulked, wondering when dad would get home. I stared outside my window so I could see his car come up the street. That’s when I saw Sweep the Creep coming down the hill. He appeared first by the water tank, disappeared in the grass, then popped up again near our street. He paused there for a second, looking left and right, and in between saw me looking at him. He looked right back for a long second, then went on his way. I hurried out of the room to rejoin Phil in front of the television.
I was in the garden writing up a check sheet for the house auction. I’d done the backyard, cataloguing the mature trees (including the apple tree I fell out of when I was ten, breaking an arm) and making sure the Hills Hoist still went up and down, and was about to start on the front when an old ute pulled up and out got Gaspar. I watched him head for the front door, and knew if I wanted I could slip around the side of the house and he wouldn’t know I was here. Before I made a decision I heard myself say, “Hiya”, and I was waving at him with my pen. He waved back and joined me in the middle of the yard.
“Thought you might have some rubbish to take to the tip,” he told me. I couldn’t get over how Strine he sounded; he could’ve come from Whoop-Whoop. “I’m doing a run later on, so thought I might be able to help.”
“That’s good of you,” I said lamely, still trying to catch up with myself. “Umm, I’ve got some boxes in the garage.”
Together we moved ten boxes of junk into the back of his ute. While he used an ockie-strap to secure them, I argued with my conscience.
My conscience won. “Would you like to come in for a coffee?”
I hoped he’d refuse. I had no idea what we’d talk about, except the Mt Taylor Patrol, and I didn’t want to talk about that and I’d have been surprised if he wanted to. I wore the “I’m asking out of courtesy” expression.
Gaspar chose instead to pay attention to my words. “Sure,” he said.
Dad tried to keep us away from our mum. She worked the late shift Monday to Friday, then spent most of Saturday sleeping. On Sunday we all went to morning mass, and then mum made her only meal of the week – the Sunday roast – and took the afternoon off to recover from the experience. She needed time to herself, we believed that even if we didn’t understand it, and dad made sure she got it. He took us fishing near Tharwa, or swimming at Deakin Pool, or museum visiting at the War Memorial, or shopping at Monaro Mall. Mum was someone we saw briefly at breakfast and intermittently at weekends. Because of this, she made a greater impression on us that our dad did, the way something rare makes a greater impression than something that’s common. Even though I haven’t seen her for nearly forty years – she could be dead now for all Phil or I know – I can still see her face in my mind’s eye more clearly than my dad’s face, who only just died.
One day she went to work at the hospice and didn’t come back. No explanation, no goodbye note, no weepy, long-distance phone call. She disappeared into our memory, never to be seen again. Dad never talked about it because he didn’t know what to say. He was wounded so deeply he couldn’t think about her without confusion and loss. I’m convinced he loved her until the day he died, and the hardest thing he ever did was have her declared dead when he first found out about his cancer so the house would be safe to leave to Phil and me.
I remember two conversations with her. The first was when dad was in hospital with pneumonia, and she had to take time off work to look after us. We had just finished the first evening meal she had ever made for us and were sitting around the table staring at our plates.
“Well,” she said, meaning “What comes next?”
“We do the washing up now,” I told her. “Dad washes up, I wipe, and Phil sweeps the floor.”
We started the washing up when I said, “Jupiter.”
“Jupiter. Your turn.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Connections. Dad and I play connections when we wash up. I say a word, and he says a word that’s connected with it in some way, then I say a word connected to that, and we go on until the job’s done and we see where we end up.”
“Yes. Last time we started with ‘elephant’ and finished with ‘Jupiter’, so I’m starting where we left off.”
“What’s ‘saint’ got to do with ‘Saturn’?”
“The rings around Saturn are like the halos around the heads of saints.”
“Bloody hell,” she muttered. “All right. Marilyn Monroe.”
“What’s ‘Marilyn Monroe’ got to do with ‘saints’?”
She laughed. “That’s just it, she wasn’t one.”
“I don’t think that counts,” I said.
“Anyway, ‘Marilyn Monroe’ is two words.”
The next night she made sure Phil and I did the washing and wiping and she swept the floors.
The second conversation happened on a Sunday afternoon. She was laying on the couch in the lounge room reading a book. I was standing by the large lattice windows trying to figure out a question I could ask that would be worth interrupting her for. I saw Sweep the Creep walking down the street. He had a strange stiff gait as if he was borrowing someone else’s legs and wasn’t used to them. As he went by our house he turned his head and once more caught me staring at him. He held my gaze fraction too long for it to have been an accident, before turning away and heading up Mt Taylor towards the water tower.
“Sweep the Creep,” I said.
“Don’t say that,” my mum said curtly. She was looking at me over her glasses, frowning.
“Don’t say ‘Sweep the Creep’. He’s no creep. You don’t know anything about him.”
“What do you know about him?” I challenged.
“I know his father is in our hospice and is dying, and that John visits him every second day. I know his mother is a cripple, and he looks after her at home. I know he has very little money, and what he does have he uses to make sure his parents are comfortable and get all the medical attention they need. Does he still sound like a creep?”
I shook my head. “But he looks creepy,” I pointed out half-heartedly.
“Don’t exaggerate. He looks perfectly normal.”
“He moves creepy,” I continued, trying to find something about him that wasn’t right.
Mum snorted and returned to her book.
“Sweep the Creep,” I said under my breath. In my head, the fact that my mum defended him made him twice as bad. I wasn’t sure how that worked, but wasn’t interested in figuring it out, either. Maybe even then I knew mum couldn’t be relied on. And maybe even then she knew she wasn’t going to be sticking around.
We sat on the couch in the lounge room with our coffees, staring out the lattice windows so we didn’t have to look at each other. Other than the single bed I was sleeping in, the dining room table and a single chair, the couch was the last piece of furniture in the house. When I walked around my footsteps echoed along the hallway, and when a floorboard creaked it sounded like the whole house was subsiding.
“I never realised it was such a big place,” I said to make conversation.
“I always thought it was huge,” Gaspar said. “I never felt really comfortable in it, to be honest. I felt like I didn’t belong in anything so grand. I don’t remember much about it, except you had a television against that wall there.”
“Where are you living now?” I asked quickly.
“Up the street.”
“Your parents still in Pearce?”
“Sure. Same house they’ve lived in since moving to Australia, God, forty years ago? Long time. Most of their lives. They still speak Maltese at home, y’know, and eat pasties stuffed with peas all the time, and kusksu and that stuff.”
“Your accent’s gone,” I said. “You sound more Australian than me.”
“I am Australian,” he said softly.
“I’m sorry, that’s not what I meant – ”
He waved his hand. “Don’t worry about it. As I grew up I adopted camouflage, y’know? Like an Australian accent. And I changed my last name from Attard to Atkins, legal like. It made things easier when I started a plumbing business.”
“You’re a plumber?”
“Nowadays I manage the business, mainly. Brings in good dosh. What about you?”
“Public servant,” I admitted. “Up in Townsville.”
He nodded towards the view across the road. The block across from us was still an access route to the water tank, so was never built on. I could see the rim of the tank, and the hill rising brown and severe behind it. “That hasn’t changed, y’know. Still the same place. Nothing changes on Mt Taylor.”
“Still kids patrolling it?” I said before my brain could stop me.
He barely hesitated. “Yup. I spy groups of ‘em up there now and then. Not as many as used to be, though.” He swirled the dregs in his cup and swallowed them. “I gotta get goin’. Thanks for the coffee.”
“Thanks for taking the rubbish,” I said, showing him the door.
It was Saturday morning and we were watching the cartoons when dad asked me to come to the shops with him to help get the groceries. I whinged and he belted me and I still had to go with him. I was angry the whole time we were away. When I got back I slammed a door and mum came out of her bedroom cranky as a magpie in spring and I got whopped again. By the time I returned to sit in front the television, feeling humiliated and twice as angry, Mick and Jag were there. A few minutes later the front door opened and in stepped Gaspar.
“Who said you could come in?” I demanded. “Don’t you know about asking? Or even just knocking?”
I could see the hurt on his face. His mouth opened to say something but no words came out.
“Come on, mate,” Mick whispered behind me. “Fair go.”
“Fuck fair go,” I spat. “Get out, Gaspar. Go home.”
Gaspar stared at me, then at each of the others. I could sense their embarrassment, but no one said anything to defend him. He turned and left, gently closing the door behind him.
“Brilliant,” Phil said. He started to stand up to go after him.
By now I was blushing beetroot red. I was angry with myself, and my stomach dropped into my bowels. I held Phil down. “No. I’ll go.”
I saw him from our front porch. He was running up Mt Taylor, and I could tell by the way he hung his head he was crying his heart out. I called out, but he didn’t hear me or didn’t want to hear me. He just kept on running.
I followed after. He was faster than me, so I loped after as best I could, hoping he’d pause for breath sooner rather than later. I reached the water tower, took the high slope behind it, spotted Gaspar’s head about a hundred yards in front of me, still climbing, still running. I stopped first, about halfway to the summit, and knew I’d lost him. But I couldn’t go back home and face my friends. It was a lack of courage that kept me going.
By the time I reached the summit the sun was right overhead. The trees on the windward side were as hard as stone, their shadows gathered underneath them like skirts. Even the ravens and blowies had settled on branches. I called out his name again, but the sound fell like lead to the ground. Something moved among the trees, something too quick to be a sheep. Gaspar. It had to be him. He was trying to hide from me. Not that I blamed him.
I tumbled down the slope, concentrating on not losing my footing on a loose stone. By the time I reached the line of trees I was almost sprinting, so grabbed hold of the first trunk I could reach and swung to a stop, almost wrenching my arm out of its socket.
Deeper among the trees a shape lurched.
I moved further downhill. Then I saw him. Crouching? Still crying? Then the shape changed, got bigger, and I realised it wasn’t Gaspar at all, but a man. He turned towards me, wiping his mouth as he did so. It was Sweep the Creep. He swallowed quickly, as if he had a chunk of something in his mouth he need to clear.
“You’re Susanne Hourigan’s boy,” he said. I’d never heard him talk before, but the voice didn’t sound as if it should come from a man as grim looking as John Sweep.
“My mum knows I’m here.”
He smiled slightly. “Glad to hear it. You’re looking for your friend? The little fellow?” I nodded. “He’s down at the other end of the trees. I can hear him. He’s crying.”
“I did it,” I said suddenly.
“Made him cry. Didn’t mean to.”
Sweep seemed to consider this for a while. He sniffed long and hard as if some scent had caught his attention, then said, “You want to apologise to him? Now maybe is not the best time. I don’t think he wants to listen to anyone.”
“He shouldn’t be here by himself.” Sweep’s eyebrows rose by way of a question. “I mean, because of the dogs. Feral dogs. Mr Climpson says there are feral dogs here.”
“You’re very brave, wanting to protect your friend like that. Feral dogs can be unpredictable.”
“Don’t know that Gaspar thinks I’m a friend anymore.”
“Probably not,” Sweep agreed. “Being without friends can make you lonely, and being lonely can make you feel … ” I saw his cheeks push out as his tongue rolled around inside his mouth. “ … resentful. Loneliness is not a good thing, George Hourigan.”
“No. I’d guess not.”
“But I tell you what, I’ll look out for him. I’ll be up here for a while. No dogs will harm him, I promise.”
Later on, when I was not much older but a whole lot smarter, I recognised that at that precise moment I’d reached a point from which nothing after would ever be the same. My place in the world became what it is because of the decision I made standing there, watched by John Sweep as if he was offering me a choice, not simply a way out of the responsibility I felt I owed Gaspar.
“You’ll make sure he gets home all right?”
“I promise.” He crossed his heart. “Nothing will hurt him.”
“Okay.” I backed away. “Umm, thanks.”
As the distance between us increased, I could see behind him. There was a shape on the ground. Another dog. Broken. And it was hard to tell in the shade under the trees, but I’d swear I saw blood streaked on the back of one of Sweep’s hands, the one he’d used to wipe his mouth.
“You promise nothing will hurt him?” I shouted at him as I kept on backing away.
“I promise,” he said, and still talking turned away from me so I’m not sure I did hear the words that followed, “Nothing will ever hurt him again.”
I ran all the way home. I was so full of wind, so full of cranked up fear, that I think I sprinted the whole distance. When I got to our front porch I must have blacked out for a moment, but when I came to again I was standing on the porch, looking back at the mountain. I wanted to tell dad what had happened, but was afraid he’d be angry with me for the things I’d said to Gaspar. I wanted to tell mum, but she knew John Sweep and in my heart of hearts was certain she trusted him more than me.
I stood there for two hours. It was so hot I couldn’t hold the railing without scalding myself. Phil and Mick and Jag came out and tried talking to me, but I wasn’t listening, so after a while they went to Jag’s house.
Gaspar came back over the hill about mid-afternoon. Wiping his mouth. I was going to wave to him, but somehow couldn’t lift my arm. He saw me, I know, but he ignored me and went on home.
I waited some more, but didn’t see Sweep. In fact, I never saw John Sweep again, even though he just lived up the street from us. It was as if he’d melted into the landscape that hot autumn Saturday. Maybe he was avoiding me, but I think it’s truer to say my conscience wouldn’t let me see him.
The Mt Taylor Patrol ended that day, as well. There wasn’t a vote on it or anything, and no one actually said “That was a bloody stupid game, let’s do something different”. It’s just that none of us felt very brave anymore. Over the next few years, Phil and I slowly lost contact with Mick and Jag. The last time we saw Mick was at Jag’s funeral.
I saw Gaspar now and then, at the shops or on the street. But I never said anything to him, never acknowledged his existence. I’d made my decision on Mt Taylor, and in the way that some decisions are irrevocable, I knew I couldn’t go back.
I made it through adolescence the way most people finish an afternoon amble, without fanfare or excitement, or reason to remember anything about it except mum disappearing halfway through, and that was more a bump in the road than anything else. At that age I had no idea about the pain my dad went through. I never even considered that Phil might have been hurting, too, and building up the resentment that would later tear him and dad apart. But that’s what George Hourigan was like. I shot through life from childhood to middle age like warm butter on Teflon.
The house sold for a good price at auction. Phil and I would both get a pretty sum from it. I had no family, so would spend it on myself. Phil had a handful of kids, and now could put them through uni; dad would have liked that.
On my last day in Pearce I watched a woman in a business suit paste a “SOLD” sticker across the “FOR SALE” sign in the front yard, and understood I would never again come back here, never again see Mt Taylor, never again see Woden Valley shiver under a hot sun, never again be so close to the lives of people I once called friends. The woman gave me a cheque and a smile and drove off.
I finished loading my car with the few things from the house I’d claimed for Phil or me, then paused one more time before leaving. I didn’t feel sad that I was going for good. What filled me up was resignation. I took the black-and-white photo out of my shirt pocket, tore it in half and threw the pieces away.
“All finished, George?” said Gaspar’s voice behind me. I wasn’t surprised.
“Yup.” I turned to face him and put out my hand. He took it. “I never said sorry. I should have.” I didn’t have to explain what I was talking about. “I’m glad you’re still here. It seems right, somehow.”
“This is my home. Always will be.”
A thought flittered into my brain and buzzed like a mosquito. I hooked a thumb at the house. “You didn’t buy this, did you?”
He laughed. “Would it worry you if I had?”
“No,” I said, realising it was the truth.
“It wasn’t me. I hope whoever moves in has kids, though. There’s not enough kids in Pearce anymore. Once upon a time, there were kids everywhere, playing footy in the street, riding bikes, breaking neighbour’s windows, running wild on Mt Taylor … ” He paused, took a deep breath, and said, “I already got a nice house further up. John Sweep’s old place.”
“John Sweep’s house?”
“Yeah. Remember him? You used to call him Sweep the Creep.”
“I wasn’t a great success as a thirteen year old,” I admitted. “Did he stay in the area or move on?”
“His mum died almost thirty years ago. About a month after that he was found dead up on Mt Taylor.”
I should have left it at that. I should have gotten in my car and driven off, but I felt my past running away from me like floodwater and I I didn’t want that. I didn’t want to be left with nothing but the present. “He killed himself?”
Gaspar shrugged. “Lots of stories at the time, but nothing official. Later on a cop told me he’d bled to death; he reckoned he’d been attacked by dogs. George? You okay?”
I was holding on to the car roof. “Yeah. Sure. Just surprised. You never expect anything like that to happen to anyone you know.”
“Not that any of us really knew him,” Gaspar said evenly. “He was a lonely man, I hear.”
I opened the car door and got in. “Goodbye, Gaspar.”
“Travel safe,” he said, and closed the door for me.
As I drove off I looked in my rear vision mirror and saw him walking back to his home, walking stiffly as if he was using someone else’s legs and hadn’t yet gotten used to them.
[“Sweep” first appeared in Sprawl, ed by Alisa Krasnostein, Twelfth Planet Press, 2010.]