It was out there, beyond the charred stumps of blackboys and coteries of Karri trees, where things happened. Us boys, held high to the sky, peering down from our eyrie, invincible. Teetering on the edge, always ready to jump. We were young, we knew nothing of the greater world, and it knew nothing of us.
Some days I drive out there, to the ridge, and I climb. Up, onto the speckled granite outcrops that as a kid I would stare at from my bedroom window. At night I used to pretend that the white shimmer they gave off in the dark was a secret beacon that the government snuck in each evening to beam up to the heavens. I used to imagine them calling out to other life forms, of the strange tongues they would use, as my bedroom fan clicked and whirred overhead. In the cooler air of the pink dawn I’d creep out onto our verandah to scan the dusty fields for circles or patterns, left to me as secret messages from galaxies beyond. Every morning I was disappointed.
When we were kids living in Rosa Brook, everything we did stemmed from some sort of magnified boredom that you thought you could see seeping out over the mottled farming flats. It seethed and simmered out there in the summer, when we were let out of school to make mischief for the month of Christmas. We tended to form gangs, not for our safety, but so we could feed off of one another and like any group of young boys, run riot in some sort of covert and undisclosed way. Looking back now, the forests were our mask. If you played in the small and weedy football field beyond the run-down tennis court in town then you were visible to the pensioners and hippies that lived on the main road. If you were smart, you went bush, and that’s just how all this began.
It was the summer that the fires raged through our small corner of the state. I can still remember the way the fields around us seemed to crack and pop in the anticipation that they would be the next to spontaneously combust and burn. Everything alive seemed to hide. I only found one snake that summer; it was coiled beneath the stilts of our house, on the western side. The light of the day was beginning to fade and I could smell the sizzling tomato my mother was cooking in the kitchen beyond. I was looking for scorpions under small rocks when I found it. A big King Brown. It eyed me lazily, unfurled its neck and slunk past as I stood frozen to the spot. In a panic I ran inside to Mum and blurted about how big it had been but she sat me down and shut me up with a bowl of pasta that made me sweat. The roos were the only animals that became more apparent. They huddled in dusty muddles in the middle of fields, ears right up to the sky. They were waiting.
We were all waiting. In our dreams we imagined the fire tearing down the ridge beyond and into our valley. It would jump the road and terrorize us, leaving the one path out as a bubbling mess of bitumen and scorching heat. My parents had the wireless on for weeks. Constant updates on the position of the fires and the direction of the wind would blare at as while we got ready for school, and they’d still be blaring when we got back later, in the afternoon. We learned to live on the brink of fight or flight, ready to pack up our lives at any moment, or stay and defend if we needed to. As stress levels ran high through the adults of every house in town, the tension filtered through to us kids. At school Tiny laid one into Eggie and suddenly I found myself caught out.
Eggie Peggie, whose real name was Edward Pegg, was my fair-haired and wide-eyed younger brother. When we were really little our parents nicknamed us the Golden Boys, as we both had tousled bleached blonde locks. Eggie was the kind of kid who always had bruised knees and a snotty nose, and he followed me around at school like a sheepdog.
‘School’ was a cluster of stained whitewash weatherboard cottages on stilts to one side of the town’s main oval. Eggie’s class was a mixture of the kindy kids and the young ones like himself, and they had their classroom over the other side of the school grounds. Us older boys had our classes in the main school hall, the biggest weatherboard structure that also doubled as the towns church. There was a group of these kids, around my age, notorious in town for discreet havoc. They were the kind of boys who everybody knew were trouble, but nobody ever caught them or could ever prove anything. They lived in a shroud of invincibility.
It was a Friday afternoon and the sky had turned a deep red. With all the grey smoke that had shrouded the horizon for days, everything looked positively apocalyptic. There was no wind, only the pressing heat, and I was sitting on the ramp to one of the classrooms resting my head against the cool concrete foundations and reading my dog-eared copy of Jekyll and Hyde when I heard the babble of a crowd of voices. I got up and turned the corner, and there lay Eggie sprawled in the dust surrounded by a mob of school kids, and Tiny, leering over him.
I went over and helped him up. Evidently the best was over, and the crowd dispersed to continue cricket games and hopscotch, but Tiny turned to face me. He had a face contorted with acne and a grin that would’ve scared the bejebus out of anyone, but was the size of him that let him rule over the school yard and his gang of boys. I let him snarl and snap in my face but he eventually got bored and slunk off with his gang to have a ciggy behind the sports shed. On the way home, as we picked our way across the fields to our own property through firebreaks, I needled Eggie into telling me what had happened.
Nuffin, nuffin happened.
Don’t be stupid Egg, Tiny isn’t laying into you for nothing.
Oright, oright. I went up to the pools.
Whaddya mean you when up to the pools? Without me?
You know that’s dangerous. You know Eggie.
Yeah, I know Matty, but I was chasing a big blue.
The sky had cleared somewhat and the afternoon sun pricked at me. Eggie and his bloody butterflies. A few summers back he’d found a dead Monarch over by the water tank in the grass, an exquisite orange and black papery thing, and it had been the start of his obsession.
In an attempt to dampen this fascination, for I knew what kind of trouble it’d get him in at school, I’d called him all sorts of names: pansy, twit, loony. Still, Eggie had spent his afternoons chasing them in the state forest, drawing them in his room late at night, and incorporating butterflies into his daily shown and tell. Obviously this big blue had been a good one, for him to venture up to the pools by himself.
The pools were the gem of Rosa. They sprung from the brook after which our town was named, and toppled down the ridge, cascading across the granite to trickle their way seaward. As the heat amplified come November, every kid at school dreamt of going up there, but they were exclusive, almost mythical. It was thick, dense bush up there, and there were only thin, twisting animal tracks that wound in and out. The pools were shrouded in tales, of black babies born there, of sacrifice and blood spilt on those rocks, of men who had jumped the waterfall to their deaths. Naturally our parents encouraged these stories; the rocks were unstable, slippery, and the pools deep. Most of us were not strong swimmers. They preferred us to stick to the shallow dams around town, where we could easily be fished out if we found ourselves in trouble.
As school began to wind down that summer, I found myself falling in with the boys who ran as Tiny’s gang. Although I was mostly a solitary person, the looming boredom of the holidays nagged at me, and I found myself hanging out with them more and more. As the only boys around my age in town, they seemed to begrudgingly accept me, and didn’t pay much notice as I began to slink around the bush in their pack. They fascinated me. We’d burn things and build hideouts. Some had the beginnings of beards and talked about dirt bikes and life in the city, things I knew nothing about. I felt as though for once I wouldn’t be so bored with this town.
Those first few weeks of the holidays I learnt just what it meant to be part of their little cult. We’d lope along the main street and kick over bins left on curbs. We’d duck in and out of the bush, skulk across properties and paddocks. One of the boys had knocked off a tin of spray paint from his dad’s garage, and we plastered the side of old George Turner’s shearing shed with strange symbols that the boys later told me represented the devil. In the afternoon we stole fruit and chickens from Mrs. Pompalo’s backyard. I was zapped with adrenaline. We set the chickens loose, running frantically up the main road and smashed the fruit onto the cauterised tarmac where its juices sizzled. People around town began to look at me differently. I began to look at them differently. They seemed to me now to be cowardly folk, galoots with old people’s interests. I felt the town getting too small for me. I grew restless. I’d begun to feel bulletproof.
Eggie idolised me, he always had. If I’d have known what he’d done, I probably would’ve cut loose at him, called him all sorts of names, and threatened to tell Mum and Dad that he’d been up to the pools by himself. I was too wrapped up in my own self-importance. Too wrapped up in bursting into the pubescent world, guns blazing.
When that final day dawned, it was the first day for months with a clear, clean horizon. The fires had died over Christmas, leaving the char black of the forest to strain against the cerulean sky. They’d never reached us. I’d woken early, just before dawn, with the throbbing sense that I needed to go and check the paddocks. The heat was already creeping in. Barefoot and bare chested I stood before the day. I felt good. I felt tingly all over, for even though there were no crop circles, I knew today was the day I got to go up to the pools. Tiny had decided, as he announced to us nonchalantly one morning, that we’d be blood brothers. The idea of us being joined in blood both terrified me and excited me at the same time and that was its allure. I’d never heard of anything like it. I could be different to the rest of the town, to the rest of the riff raff. He’d decided to perform a small ritual with all of us, and where else to do than it at the pools. Tomorrow, he’d whispered, we’ll be real brothers.
The trek up there was a real challenge. The sun had gotten the jump on us, and leered from above. I was feverish with anticipation. It was a solemn tramp upwards, the rest of the boys were silent except for the odd sigh or exclamation about the heat. Flies buzzed in and around the corners of my eyes and mouth as our single file procession made its way up the ridge. The bush thickened and leant against us. At some points it got so bad that we crawled along on our hands and knees. I tried not to think of the ticks.
When we reached the pools I was disappointed. The animal track we’d taken came out at the base of the waterfall, which didn’t fall so much as trickle down a granite face from a small pool perhaps twenty five feet up. From there it formed smaller pools further down, before it wound its way into the valley and into Rosa.
We must’ve looked a motley lot, rampant with sweat and flicking off the flies intermittently with various twigs, awaiting our leader’s instructions. Tiny laid out all his strange paraphernalia on the closest rock, and as I peered over I could see jam jars with strange herbs, what I would later realise was a joint, a scalpel and a whole, dead rabbit. I gasped. He turned and laughed at me. Grabbing the rabbit by the leg he shook its limp and manky body in my face, exclaiming that this would be our blood animal.
Us mob of boys was perched at the very top of the waterfall, blades ready to leach crimson to the bubbling spring. The cicadas sang out around us to salute the peak of the day. Everything seemed to throb, my head with the prickling heat and my veins with the rush of what we were about to do. It was then that he dashed out of the bushes and let out a cry. Eggie had followed us up, he must have been watching, anticipating. He came bounding over the rocks, his sweet hair catching the sun, yelling and howling about how I was his brother and his brother only. You could see it flash across his eyes. God how he loved me. As he lunged towards Tiny, right there at the top of the waterfall, his foot caught and he fell.
We could have been at the edge of the world up there. As the rocks burst forth from the ridge they left us with a horizon unmarred and untouched. On the bluest of days it seemed to span outwards, as if delivering us to the rest of the world. In that moment we were at the edge of our kingdom. I wish I could say that he fell with grace, poised on the brink like some sort of holy martyr, but it was nothing like that. As he fell he clawed at the rock face, eyes wide and face contorted with paralytic fear. No sound escaped him, but his eyes widened and his mouth formed a silent exclamation of “oh!”
Tragedy. Died Instantly. Only Witness. Those were the terms used by the big papers. They shone a spotlight on us for a month or so, before things began to fade. Of course the whispers never did. The moment he’d fallen the boys had scattered into the bush, leaving only me up there on that eyrie. Only me. I quickly learnt the power of words, how they clung to your clothes, dragged you as you walked.
It’s hard to drive through the main street of Rosa now. If we drive down from Perth for the weekend to go camping on the coast with the kids, I prefer to skirt it. Take the old highway. My wife used to ask questions, but I can’t answer them. She’s learnt not to ask anymore. There’s too much buried there for me to keep digging up.
I still have his collection of butterflies. They lay in an old shoebox, carefully resting on cotton wool my mother had given him, in all their feeble and frail glory. The colour has leeched from them, but I can’t bear to throw them away.
I live up in the arteries of the city now, in the grids of housing estates clogged with traffic and noise, but for years I couldn’t escape the land. I couldn’t leave. It was as if something circled me and pinned me there after that day. It felt cowardly to run. When I climb up to the pools now, through larger firebreaks that DEC has cleared, the pools are all but dried up. The rocks instead take centre stage, unmoving and eternal, clawing up through the lanky bush to reach the sky. I often get the urge to return. Like a nagging habit I can’t shake. Some nights I’ll crawl out of my bed, leaving my wife confused yet solemn, and I’ll drive for hours to get to Rosa just as the dawn breaks. At that time of the day the light paints everything new, uncontaminated and untrodden. Out, right out on the edge, I stand and turn my harrowed face to the sky and I listen to the bush press in around me, brimming with life, and he’s there. He’s right beside me.
Our mother’s golden boys. Real brothers, together again.
Australians have an interesting connection with our landscape. In this work I wanted to explore our desire to overcome our surroundings, and couple it with the transition of a character from boy to teenager in a small rural town. The landscape is relentless, and hovers in the edges of the story, always posing danger – but it has its moments of beauty. I wanted these boys to be embodied in summer eternally. Hence, Golden Boys, which evokes the colour of high summer in Australia, when the wheat fields are dusty and dry.