When I was a kid, I knew more about death than other boys my age. More than most adults if truth be told. By the time I was eleven, death had crept into my days with such regularity that it burrowed deep into my bones. I was brittle with it. Calcified.
My dad was a decorated policeman and for a short time when I was young I believed the world was a safer place because he took care of it. The rough streets of western Sydney had damaged him though, in ways I couldn’t understand. The protective mantle a father casts around his son hung on threads that were frayed to the point of snapping. It sagged, heavy with drink and exposing the tender underbelly of my childhood.
I was five when he began to tell horror stories to me at bedtime, as my mum protested. I’d cry under the covers, trying in vain to block my ears to cautionary tales that were blurred by whisky and regret. The pregnant woman stabbed to death by her husband, two blocks from us. A drunken teenager decapitated by his seatbelt; Dad found his head on the floor of the wrecked car with a cigarette still burning between his lips. The mad old lady on Fletcher Street who died alone in her kitchen, the butt of neighbourhood jibes. She was only found three weeks later when someone complained about the smell.
Death is nothing to cry about, boy, my dad always said. It was simply part of life. Plants died. Animals died. And people died. Grief was a luxury he couldn’t afford and my mum and I paid the price. The toll was meted out in ferocious increments; every shout, every drunken punch, every thrown plate and slammed door an echo of someone he didn’t save.
From the outside, our high-set house on Franklin Road seemed the nicest on the street. With weathered but tidy bricks and clear gutters, it stood immaculate among sagging fences and yards filled with rusted out Datsuns, pushbikes, and snotty toddlers. Our front lawn was cultivated to the point of plasticity, the result of regimented watering and compulsive weeding.
Inside, the house wore the bruises of reality. Nearly every wall was patched in places or punctuated by fresh wounds. Wallpaper curled around the edges of holes in the plasterboard, mapping my dad’s rages; a vicious cartography of chair legs, fists, and feet. The blue carpet was stained from upturned dinners, spilt drinks and split lips. Pot plants and sofas regularly migrated around the house to cover the worst.
On the afternoons his shifts allowed, Dad would stand in the middle of the lawn in his underpants, smoking a cigar with a glass of stout between his feet and the water-hose snaking through a tense grip. In waning sunlight and with his belly slack, he’d turn slowly like a bulbous shadow on a sundial. He was a human sprinkler system, every blade of grass drinking obediently under his watchful gaze.
He didn’t like Asians for some reason, something to do with a war. Regardless, Dad was obsessed with Japanese bonsais. They lined our veranda in shallow pots, their roots feathery but tenacious. I was certain my dad held their size in check by sheer force of will. Their constrained branches triggered an urge to fill my lungs and stretch my puny arms skyward, like wings. I felt sorry for the tiny trees but was never allowed to water them.
I obediently stayed clear until a wayward football broke a branch when I was seven. Terrified and armed with superglue, sticky tape and a brown felt-tip pen, I played amateur arborist. The impromptu surgery kept me safe for almost a week before the tree betrayed me. It withered, the glue spreading like a cancer into the wood. I stared at the traitorous branch as my dad silently took his belt to me then went back to watering the grass as if nothing had happened.
Kids from school learned not to call for me when Dad was watering. He'd let fly with spray from the hose as soon as their bike wheels touched the driveway. Fuck off home, you little bastards. Tyres would spin, tearing up gravel as they'd bolt, laughing and sticking their middle fingers up. It was easy to be defiant from the other side of the fence. But I wasn't the only one scared of my dad.
Mum, for her part, was practiced at smoke and mirrors. She danced a carefully choreographed routine of smiles and baked goods and P&C meetings. Our position in the community comes with responsibilities, she’d say as she yanked fledgling weeds from hairline cracks in the front path before they really took root. She was forever grazing her knuckles bloody on the blonde concrete. Appearances were everything, so we’d wave politely to our neighbours whenever we saw them, hoping they couldn't see the cracks in the facade. We pretended we were better than them, but of course they knew we weren’t.
Equally unseen, our back yard was the picture of neglect. A grassless wasteland, its parched surface was sucked dry by the thick roots of the ghost gums. Their high, flat canopies kept the sun from licking the ground in all but a few scorched and crackled places. Nothing grew to trigger my allergies so I ran wild there, barefoot and free with my dog, Rosie. Whether from lack of care or to appease me, my parents told me, do what you like out the back. So, I did.
Despite the dust, the yard teamed with life. Bantams squawked from a rickety wire run. A wooden hutch, hammered together from discarded crates, housed several generations of inbred guinea pigs that would squeal, alarmed, at the slightest movement. Shingle-back lizards, blue tongues and skinks sunned themselves on logs wedged into a brick pen near the rusted rainwater tank, their thick tongues flicking lazily.
The menagerie was mine; every creature was a peace offering, a distraction and a lesson in one. Their lives gave me purpose, each tiny heartbeat an antidote. At eight years old I ruled that yard, a skinny and asthmatic boy king with a black Labrador for a queen.
But with power came responsibility – disposal of waste, both faecal and flesh. Police work yielded surprising wisdom and Dad was nothing if not pragmatic. I was told that lime could decompose a corpse and hide the smell and that it worked equally well on dog shit as it did on a dead body.
I dug and Dad supervised. The pit would be both graveyard and sewer and, when death inevitably visited, official procedure was to be followed. Little bodies were tossed without ceremony into the hole and buried among the waste. Layer upon layer of bones and feathers, excrement and fur, formed a disgusting mass grave at the back of the yard. I did what had to be done, but I hated that pit with a savagery I can still taste.
A cavalcade of neighbourhood cats wound up in the pit after my uncle’s visiting greyhound taught Rosie to kill. I regularly cleaned up her messes, an accessory to murder after the fact, as distressed pet owners decorated lamp posts up and down the street.
When inbreeding produced a deformed guinea pig, the death sentence was handed down swiftly. But the role of reaper was beyond me. You're too bloody soft, I was told. Dad angrily snatched up the offending rodent and despatched it with an economic twist. My howls revealed an unfortunate case of mistaken identity, the result of too much scotch and failing light. The retarded animal still shivered in the corner while the head of my favourite guinea pig lolled on a neatly snapped neck. Two furry bodies were condemned to the earth that day.
Rosie’s puppies died when I was nine, and I mourned alongside her as they slid, tiny and lifeless from her swollen belly. Practical as ever, my father scooped them up and disposed of them before they were cold. I remember Rosie nosing along her fur, bewildered and expecting to find her babies, the urge to nurture and protect coming in with her milk.
Instead I became a surrogate pup, our relationship mutually gratifying. When the house was too violent, I would crawl into Rosie’s kennel. Curled in the corner, I’d bury my face in her warm fur. In return, she’d nuzzle my head, her tongue rough as it licked salt from my cheeks. Her maternal instincts were more real to me than those of my own mother, who broke promise after promise to me. Next time we’ll leave she would say. There was always a next time, but we never left.
Trevor blew himself up not long after I turned ten. He was our next door neighbour. Most days he’d wave a sinewy arm in greeting from his vantage point on the porch, his scalp shining pinkly through patchy hair as he smoked. He was always tapping his foot to whatever music pounded from the record player inside. The night he died was the only time I’d ever seen his door closed. The first thing my mum said was, I thought it was a bit quiet.
Trevor had taped up his windows, turned on the gas and waited until dark before striking a match. The force of the explosion blew me out of my bed. I’d watched as my father dragged Trevor from the ruined flat and my mother sighed and wondered who was going to foot the bill for our shattered glass. He’d been depressed for a long time. Since Vietnam. Maybe he’s better off, Dad said and my mother shushed him, but I got it.
Acrid air hung over the house for days. When my mother remarked on it, Dad bundled me into the car and drove east. Urban grime made way for the briny tang of the coast as we headed towards Freshwater Beach. My grandparents lived near there, at Curl Curl. We’d visit them when we could, but it was never often enough for me.
Those were languorous, glittering days. Usually I’d clamber straight into the fig tree in their backyard and lay my body along its monstrous branches, arms and legs dangling. The sun would dapple my back as I’d rest my cheek on the smooth bark, soothed by the warmth and the tree’s organic embrace.
That day it was just me and Dad. Perched on the rocks, with sandy toes and sweaty heads, we threw lines into the water and foraged for tiny crabs and molluscs. The sun scorched our shoulders red as my father fished for a connection, but I was just as happy to stare at the sky. When his line snagged like our conversation, he left me on the rocks. Stay put. These bloody waves’ll take you, sure as look at you, he said. Then he disappeared.
Twenty minutes passed with no sign of him. Whether it was wishful thinking or genetically-transferred pragmatism, I figured the sea had done its part. I struck out for Curl Curl, marching barefoot and brave to knock on Nan and Pop’s front door. Asked where mum and dad were, I shrugged and said, the bloody waves took Dad.
We found him frantic, striding up and down in his speedos and yelling through the megaphone he'd seized from the lifeguards. Has anybody seen my son? I’d never seen him panicked. He looked strangely like somebody else. I waved and called out and he ran, arms outstretched. Then he shook me hard. I thought you were gone, he said, adding something about the dunes in an oddly strangled voice. He’d warned me before, about kids burrowing cubbies into the sand.
I didn’t know who the Beaumont children were but Dad said he wouldn’t be surprised if that’s what had happened to them. I remember him telling me the weight of the sand forces your guts out of you with no time to scream. I had recurring nightmares for weeks after that; breathless dreams of crushed rib-cages and open eyes and mouths, silent and glutted with sand.
Pop died a month later and we made the trek to Curl Curl to say goodbye. He’d been low-sodium for a long time on account of his heart. It annoyed my Nan no end. Might as well eat cardboard. She closed the curtains and laid him out in the guest bedroom with the ceiling fan on high. Everybody cried then laughed that hysterical laughter that always turns to more tears. The food piled onto foil trays in the tiny kitchen was so salty it was inedible.
I stood in the gloom in the bedroom, Dad’s hand firm between my shoulder blades. The body on the bed didn’t really look like Pop. His face was flat. The skin had melted into muscle and lividity had made layers of him like one of those coloured madeira cakes. I pressed my fingers into his hand and the cold flesh dented like uncooked dough. Only girls cry, Dad reminded me. So I didn’t, even though I wanted to.
We drove home in the heat, clammy thighs sticking to the Kingswood’s beige vinyl. Mum talked about Pop’s will and about Uncle Andrew, who was the favourite and sure to get everything and what was Dad going to do about it? Dad told her to shut up but she squawked indignantly and kept going on. When we got home, Dad reached for the bottle and I retreated to the yard. As if things weren’t bad enough, one of my flock had also died.
A speckled chick lay broken in the dirt, half its feathers stripped and an eye pecked out. It had always been more feeble than the others. Bantams are savage, even their babies understand survival of the fittest. Rosie stared up at me as I held its downy carcass in my shaking palm, ready to follow procedure. But my breath hitched, emotions roiling like a worm on a hook. I couldn’t. Not today. This little death deserved better.
I smuggled a shoe box from the house and put the dead bird in it before covering it with Christmas gift wrapping. The festive paper was the least I could do to make up for life in our colourless yard. I imagined that when I died I’d have a brightly-coloured casket covered all over with frangipani flowers. And I’d want to be buried near the sea.
I gathered my congregation, loading our old wheelbarrow like the ark. Guinea pigs scurried in the bottom as lizards wriggled their legs up the sides, the warm-blooded trying to avoid the cold. I ferried the chickens one by one, running as they flapped and squawked. Our lone duck waddled in the opposite direction, quacking uncooperatively when I tried to herd him into the chook pen with my feet.
Once gated in, the motley band of funeral guests calmed down, as if sensing the gravity of the occasion. They watched with interest as I dug a small grave with my bare hands. I spoke a brief eulogy, my voice threaded with tears as I told the dead bird how sorry I was that its life had been so short and hard; that the other chicks hadn’t meant to be so mean, it was just the way they were built.
I knelt down and committed the makeshift coffin to the ground. My chest heaved as I turned liquid, snot and spit bubbling over my lips, abandoned to unexpected grief. I patted the earth down and bawled. I cried for the chick and for my Pop, and for the people in Dad’s stories. For the guinea pigs and all the cats and even for Trevor. I cried for Rosie's puppies and I cried for my parents, who I knew were so blinded by their own wounds they could barely see me. Then I cried for myself. When I was done, I stood - my knees and hands muddied - and wiped my face. I didn't care about the dirt.
I took my time shipping every animal home. Sphinx-like, Rosie guarded the grave while I returned the wheelbarrow to the shed. When I got back to the pen, I stopped short and stared. Rosie sat upright now, her mud-covered paws spread wide and her nostrils clogged with dirt as she stared back at me. She thumped her tail, sheepish. The festive box sat lidless beside her, trailing shredded tissue. Broken feathers poked from the corners of her mouth. The bantam’s head lay in the dirt between her front paws, a single cloudy eyeball staring at the sky.
I drew a long, shuddering breath, defeated. And when the air passed out of me, my veins finally ran cold. It’s okay, girl. It’s just a bird. I scratched Rosie between her ears and picked up the feathery remains, curling my fingers tightly around the tiny beak. The short walk to the back of the yard felt like a mile. I stood at the edge of that hole and stared down into its depths, unafraid for the first time. I barely noticed my palm was smeared and bloody as I let the severed head tumble from my hand.
I turned and walked away without a backward glance, as what was left of the little bird disappeared into the dark.
~ the end ~