My Dad My Hero
I love my dad. He’s a great dad.
He’s probably the best dad in the whole, wide world. I know that because I’m in Grade 3 and we had Grandparents and Special Friends Day and a lot of kids (like me) brought their dads to school. You’re supposed to bring a grandparent, but some kids (like me) don’t have grandparents, so you can really bring anyone. I think that’s why they added ‘and Special Friends’, so kids like me wouldn’t feel too bad.
I saw a lot of dads that day and my dad was definitely the best one.
He’s cool. Like, really cool. Most dads wear boring, old suits, but not mine. He’s not embarrassed to wear cool clothes like his old band t-shirts from the concerts he’s been to. He wears denim jackets and sneakers and always has a cool haircut. He tells me, “Be yourself, Ty. Everyone else is taken.” I think that means it’s ok to be different, even when people look at you funny.
We do lots of fun things together. I know heaps of kids probably do fun things with their dads, but my dad and I have this thing, and it’s just for us. Every so often he’ll pull me out of school for the whole day. Yeah, I know right? How awesome is that? It’s always on a Friday and we call it Fun Fridays. I never know what he’s got planned. Sometimes we go to Campbell’s Cash and Carry and fill one of those big tray trolleys with as many chip packets and lolly bags as we can. He lets me sit on the trolley and he runs down the aisles really fast. It’s the best. Sometimes we go to Hoyts and pick a random movie without even watching the trailer first. We buy the biggest size popcorn and we have competitions to see how many pieces we can stuff in our mouths.
My favourite part about my dad is his stories. He’s the best storyteller out of everyone I know, even my teacher Miss Martin, and she puts on whacky accents and can read upside down. He tells me a bedtime story every night, but not from a book or anything. He doesn’t need them. He gets me to pick three things: a name, an animal, and a place. And then he makes up some awesome adventure with the things I choose. Like, last night he told me a story about a racoon named Polly who saved her best friend, an elephant, from an evil scientist in Missouri. I’ve never been to Missouri, but I think it’s in America. I actually haven’t been overseas at all, except if you count Tasmania (which is across the water), but I saw it in a show the other day and I liked the way it sounds.
My dad loves watching the footy, and so do I. Well, I sort of do, but dad goes nuts over it, and I love hanging out with him, so I don’t mind. We both go for the Bulldogs because that’s the team his dad and his grandad went for. It’s like a family tradition. If I ever have kids one day (ew, gross), they’ll have to go for the Bulldogs too. Sometimes dad takes me to the footy which is pretty fun. We dress up in all our Bulldogs gear and ride the train into the city. It’s not as good as Fun Fridays, though, because he always gets just a little too into it, and some of his beer somehow always ends up on me. It’s gross and it smells funny, and then I have to be all sticky the whole train ride home.
A few weeks ago, we had parent teacher interview night. There must have been a footy game on or something because dad showed up pretty late. Mum and I were already there when he came in. Everyone knew when dad came because he slammed the door and they all looked at him. I’m not sure why he didn’t see us straight away (I was waving at him), but he started shouting our names to find us. Some kids were staring at me and a few of them laughed. It was kind of embarrassing. I think mum was embarrassed the most, though, because she kept looking down. She looked pretty sad, too. I hate seeing mum sad. I told her it was ok to be different even when people look at you funny.
The bad thing is last week mum told me I have to go to a new school. She said, “It’s a new beginning, Ty. A fresh start. That sounds good, doesn’t it?” It doesn’t, not really, but I didn’t tell her that. I haven’t told her that it took me pretty much the whole year to make friends with Josh and Chi, and that a ‘fresh start’ means I’ll have to start all over again. She told me that everyone needs a bit of help now and then, even dads. “Especially dads,” she said. She told me sometimes the bravest thing a person can do is ask for help.
Being the new kid sucks. I should know, I’ve been the new kid twice already. And in Grade Three, everyone’s already got their circle of friends. We had a new kid, Ryan, join our class last term and no one spoke to him for two whole weeks. He just kind of walked around by himself at recess and lunch. I felt bad for him because I know what it feels like to spend lunch by yourself, so I invited him to play downball with me and Josh and Chi. He’s pretty cool.
So, yeah. I’m pretty bummed about starting a new school. But it’s not the end of the world. That’s something dad always says. Whenever something bad happens (like when I got really mad at my baby sister for ripping up my rare Pokémon card) he says, “It’s not the end of the world, Ty.” I think he means no matter what, there’s always something even worse that could be happening. Like, the whole world exploding. That would be pretty bad.
I guess what I’m trying to say is even though I have to leave my school and my friends, it’s not the end of the world. I’ll still have the best dad in the universe. We’ll still have Fun Fridays and the footy and bedtime stories. Dad will still be there for me when I’m sad or lonely or angry, just like I’ll always be there for him. Me and dad are a team.
I didn’t tell mum and dad that I don’t want to leave my school because I’m trying to be brave. And maybe mum is right. Maybe going to a new school will be a fresh start. The kids might be really cool and invite me to play with them. Miss Martin gave me a Super Bounce downball as a goodbye present, so maybe I could take it to my new school and see if anyone wants to play with me. Hopefully I’ll meet some kids as nice as my old friends.
If dad can be brave enough to ask for help when he needs it, I can be brave, too. He is the coolest, smartest, funniest, nicest, bravest dad in the whole entire world, and I love him more than I love my rarest Pokémon card.
That’s why my dad is my hero.
By Ty Miller
Great job, Ty! You are a fantastic writer. Your dad sounds like a wonderful person, and he’s right. Always be yourself. We are so sorry to see you leave Hills Primary School, and we wish you all the very best at your new school. We will miss you! We would love to hear from you when you have settled in – maybe you could write us a letter? I know Chi and Josh would love to hear from you. Hopefully your new teacher can read upside down as well!
Lots of love,
I heard a knock and thought it was my probation officer, but when I opened the door, two men in suits stood on the front porch.
My mother yelled down the hallway. “Tell them to fuck off, Roger. We don’t need that Mormon bullshit today.”
“We’re not Mormons,” one of the men said. He had a long, serious face. “I’m Stan, and this is Sam. We’re holding some gospel meetings in your area and wanted to invite you along.”
I was about to follow my mother’s advice when I remembered the only exemption apart from work, doctors’ visits, and the bloody Bridge programme was attending church.
“How often are these meetings?”
“Every Thursday at 7 pm.”
I told my probation officer I’d need three hours each Thursday evening because I’d have to walk there, obviously. He gave me his usual spiel – any breach or drinking, he’d make sure I was locked up before I could say Jack Daniels, and how lucky I was not to be inside already after what I’d done.
“You can’t have spent much time with my mother,” I said.
The gospel meeting was in a hall, and the preachers sat up front side by side behind a wooden table while everyone else sat on chairs arranged in rows with an aisle down the middle. The women were in dresses and had long hair done up in buns. The men wore suits and ties and short back and sides. I felt a bit underdressed in my jeans and Def Leppard tee shirt. Someone passed me a hymn book, and I sat beside a family with three kids in fancy clothes and waited for the show to start. On the dot of seven, a woman started banging on a piano, and everyone stood up to sing a hymn.
Stan’s sermon was boring as hell, and I was glad I’d taken an OxyNorm before leaving home, but Sam was different. He read a short passage from Matthew about the shepherd who lost one sheep from a flock of a hundred. Sam closed his bible and held it in front of him, hand on either side and for the next twenty minutes with his soft, mesmerising voice, transported us back in time to a place where shepherds kept sheep around Jerusalem, and Christ walked on the earth. I could see it like a movie, what the shepherd went through to save that single silly lost sheep.
A few of the congregation, not just the kids, were sneaking a peek at me. On the other side of the room, a couple of rows up, a chick aged about twenty craned her neck and stared at me with sparkling blue eyes. I could see all her neck because her blonde hair was twirled around and sat atop her pretty head. I smiled, and her head jerked straight ahead. After a while, despite the OxyNorm, I realised I was the lost sheep surrounded by the flock the shepherd was trying to bring me back to after he saved me. With my long hair and tatts, I felt more like a goat, a special one, nevertheless.
After a final hymn, there was much handshaking and introducing, and I felt like Prince William instead of common scum with an electronic bracelet around my left ankle.
I started to go to the meetings every week. It got me out of the house and away from Mum for a few hours. Even though the rods in my leg still hurt like a bastard, the exercise was good for me. I walked past the Red Fox on the way, and I can truthfully say I never felt like going inside.
I learnt the blonde chick was named Verity and I got talking to her a little.
She asked where I worked, and one Saturday, she came to the supermarket where I was allowed out to stack shelves three days a week. We sat outside in the sun during my break, and I told her I’d been a chippie but had to give it up because I’d hurt myself in a car accident. I didn’t mention my boss canning me, way before the court case, and saying he never wanted to see my fucked-up face again.
“Just like Jesus,” Verity said.
“Jesus was a carpenter. He’ll help you heal if you let Him.”
I asked her a little more about the Way and how it worked, and she told me she had professed a year ago, which meant she walked with God and got to speak in Sunday morning meetings that were just for the Friends and not for outsiders like me. Being a Friend meant you put aside worldly ways such as drinking, smoking, watching television, and listening to rock music.
“I’m not really into getting fucked up anymore,” I said.
I wondered what the Friends did in their spare time apart from praying and reading bibles, but then I looked at Verity’s sweet face, and I could think of plenty of things.
Later that month, Stan and Sam made another visit. I stubbed out my cigarette, switched off the TV, and chucked Mum’s empty gin bottle in the rubbish.
“We hope it’s okay to pop around like this,“ Stan said.
“Of course,“ I said. “Cup of tea?”
“We’ve noticed that you’ve been coming along regularly to our little meetings,” Stan said.
I told them how much I’d enjoyed coming along.
“We’ve been wondering if you’ve heard God speaking to you and if you might be ready for a next step.”
I told them I’d been thinking a lot about Paul, how he’d been quite the sinner before he found Jesus, and how I’d like to put some stuff behind me and start again like Paul had.
“Well, that’s wonderful,” Stan said. “Next week is our final mission meeting. We want to give anyone who has been spoken to by God and would like to walk with God, the opportunity to profess it.”
I asked if I would get a certificate.
“A certificate?” Stan looked shocked. “God knows everything you have done, Roger. He doesn’t need to give you a certificate.”
I said I’d been through a bad patch and was hoping to do better like Paul. Specifically, I wanted to move to the Gold Coast and get a new building job, but I had a tough probation officer who probably wouldn’t let me off supervision after my home detention finished unless he believed I’d really changed.
I could tell from the look on Stan’s face that he hadn’t dealt with many sinners up close. But Sam’s eyes were bright, and with a jolt of clarity, I realised that the deeper shit the sheep was in, the better the save for Sam.
“I did something bad,” I said.
“What was that, Roger?“ Sam said.
I told them I’d killed my best mate. I didn’t know what happened because the last thing I remembered was being in a kitchen at some party drinking tequila shots in between sticking my tongue down some chick’s throat. After that, I couldn’t remember, but I’d heard day after day in court how Jake had said I was too pissed to drive, but I’m sweet, I said and drove into a power pole, and Jake flew through the windscreen, and his head smashed into the pole. I told them I’d drunk every day since I was twelve and only stopped because I’d spent a month in hospital with my femur broken in three bits. How the judge said he was tired of me, being back in his court, and this time I’d hurt someone else, and the only reason I wasn’t getting a custodial sentence was the prisons were overflowing.
I had tears streaming down my face.
“I’d be glad to talk to your probation officer,” Sam said, his eyes shining like stars.
At the meeting, Stan stood up and thanked us all for coming the last few months. He said they would play a hymn, and if anyone had been spoken to by God and wanted to profess, they should stand up.
God is faithful to his chosen.
A bug-eyed kid about twelve leapt up, followed a minute later by a girl whose long hair still fell around her shoulders.
New each day are his mercies.
I felt heat rising up my neck, felt the joy, felt Him.
I rose to my feet.
Afterwards, it was handshakes all around. I saw the delight on Verity’s face. She hugged me and whispered now I could come to her parent’s house for Sunday dinner. It didn’t seem the right time to mention my ankle bracelet.
Walking home, I felt the best I could remember since all the shit happened. Euphoric, as if nothing could make me feel better. But I knew one thing could, and this once, this last time, on this special day, it would be okay to celebrate with just a couple of beers in the Red Fox
I thump garbage bags down the front stairs of the flats and wrap my jacket tighter against the cold. This garage sale has to work. I need the money to leave.
Dust mites whirl as I spread blankets on the footpath and start tipping books and toys and old clothes onto them. Before I’ve even had time to do more than empty the bags, shoppers start picking over my things, early birds scratching for worms. I exchange my belongings for the money they give me, jamming it into my pockets.
I spread out my books, my hand lingering on Pride and Prejudice. It’s been a safe and beautiful world to hide in, an escape from the ugliness of my life as a junkie’s wife. I loved Mr. Darcy. Pity he isn’t real.
When I first met my boyfriend Dave, I thought he was my very own Darcy – a rock aristocrat – superior, arrogant, perfect. He sang at the front of his band, moaning words of love and pain as if he knew what they meant, as if he was someone who’d understand what I’d been through − how grief stripped away your skin and left you raw. After the show, we stayed awake all night talking. His father had died a few months earlier, mine a year before, and we huddled together, two lost children. I unwrapped my heart and gave it to him whole.
When we woke tangled together the next day, he opened a pack of pain killers and took a whole sheet. Swallowed them down with a couple of beers. Alarm bells were going off somewhere, but I didn’t hear them above his whispers of love and the touch of his lips on mine.
My old friend Pete comes bouncing down the street, ready to help with the garage sale.
‘Hi Beck. How’s it going?’
‘Good, look at this.’ I pull out crumpled notes.
All through the morning, as customers rummage through my things, I have to fight the impulse to say, ‘Sorry that’s not for sale.’ It feels as if I’m selling the last of who I am. My freaky toy collection is the hardest to part with; I’ve had them for years, rescued from scrap heaps – my misshapen family. Amelia, a three-foot-tall doll with a naughty smirk. Old Yella, a scruffy dog on wheels. I say goodbye to them all.
People buy toys I thought no one would ever want. Except Ugly. No one wants her. They look at her and laugh. I cradle her in my palm, pulling her matted hair into a topknot, trying to prise out eyeballs that have been pushed back into their sockets. Ugly stares back with such a sad look in her wonky eyes that I can’t bear to leave her out to be laughed at again. With a quick glance around, a shoplifter at my own stall, I slip Ugly into my pocket.
Gary, my boyfriend Dave’s best mate, comes rolling down the street with a couple of bottles under his arm. ‘Gidday Beck. Whatcha doin’?’
‘What’s it look like?’
‘Give us something then?’
‘No.’ He’s putting customers off.
‘Aw come on, Beck. We’re mates, aren’t we?’ He starts rifling through the records. ‘Jeez, you sure have some crap.’
‘I’ll give you a hand. I’m a born salesman.’ He dances around the blankets.
I knew Dave was a user when we met, but he’d just come out of rehab and was clean. He made promises. Then Gary turned up. They went off together and Dave didn’t come back for days. When he did, his eyes were pinned.
I knew better than to get tangled up in junk, the mess it made. But, over time, I was worn down, little by little, till it didn’t seem such a big deal to have a hit on special occasions, then every weekend, then every day or so. Then I spent my last ten dollars on scratchies trying to win enough to score but didn’t. So, filled with shame, I rang Pete and begged the fifty from him, pretending it was for rent. I grabbed his cash and rushed off to the park to wait for my scrap of powdered hope. Trouble with that kind of hope is it only lasts a few hours then you’re back in the same hole, a few feet deeper.
It’ll be a relief to see the back of these bitter streets with the smell of smack on every corner. This isn’t how my life was supposed to be. It took all the courage I had, but I told Dave we were leaving, going home, going straight. He isn’t happy about it. Then again, he’s never happy.
I only have to make it through tonight, then I’m out of here. I’m sticking to my plan. No last hit, no matter how badly I want one. The money is for leaving and nothing else.
Gary hangs around tormenting customers.
‘Go wake up Dave.’
‘You sure are a bitch today. Got your period?’
‘See what I mean?’ He shrugs at Pete.
‘Can’t wait to see the back of him,’ I whisper under my breath as Gary skips up the stairs to the flat.
A girl buys Pride and Prejudice and suddenly I feel lighter, as if a weight of impossibilities has been lifted from my shoulders.
The shadow of a church reaches all the way to where Pete and I lean against the wall, counting money. Over two hundred and forty dollars. More than enough for bus tickets. All I have to do is get both Dave and I on the morning bus.
Pete goes upstairs to use the loo, but is back in a hurry, looking worried. ‘I’m not sure if it’s anything, but I can’t see Dave and Gary is asleep on the phone. You go. I’ll hold the fort.’
My stomach leaps to my mouth. I race up the stairs to find Gary lying on the couch, drool strung from the corner of his mouth onto the phone that’s still pressed to his ear. Dave’s legs are poking through the half-closed bedroom door. I shove it open. His lips are blue.
‘What’s a….’ mumbles Gary, coming to.
Dave’s not breathing. With my fingers deep inside his throat, I scoop out ropes of mucous. I roll him onto his side but he’s still blue.
‘Here lemme help,’ Gary says from the doorway.
I roll Dave onto his back, tilt his head and pinch his nostrils. It isn’t the first time I’ve given him mouth to mouth. Luckily, I had training, or he’d be dead three times over.
‘Breathe, Dave. Come on.’ Strange. I’m not crying like I did when he OD’d the last two times. I feel like I’m a doctor in one of those emergency shows, detached, saving the life of a stranger. I put my lips over his, blow air into his lungs.
I never want to do this again.
On the fifth breath, Dave coughs and takes in his own air, but his eyes keep rolling back into his head.
Gary mumbles in the background.
‘Help me get him up.’
Together we pace Dave around the room, then we bundle him, fully clothed, into the shower. That does the trick.
‘Fuck. What ya do that for?’ Dave splutters through the water.
‘You OD’d again.’ I’m tired of playing doctor.
“You could’ve died.’
‘Hey, lay off him.’ says Gary, holding Dave tighter round the waist.
Unhooking Dave’s arm from around my neck, I leave them both in the shower and find Pete.
At six in the morning the alarm goes off and I reach over Dave to turn it off.
‘Hey,’ I say. ‘Time to get up. The bus, remember?’
He groans but doesn’t make a move, so I shower and get dressed, same damp jacket as yesterday. Everything else is packed.
Dave’s still lying there.
‘It’s time to go.’ I shake him. ‘The bus.’
He puts the pillow over his head.
I stand staring down at him. One minute. Two.
‘Aren’t you coming? I’m leaving now.’
Reaching into my pocket for the keys to leave behind, I find Ugly, my garage sale stowaway. I kiss her fuzzy hair and put her next to Dave on the pillow with the keys, then drag my suitcase down to the street. I look up the road at the sky streaked with pink.
I can’t leave like this.
I bound up the stairs two at a time, run through the hallway to the flat.
Dave’s still sleeping, snoring softly. I stretch out my hand towards him, snatch up Ugly and tuck her into my pocket.
I slam the door behind me and run back outside whooping, feeling like I’m ten years old again. Not fresh, not clean, and nowhere near beautiful. But almost new, a second-hand doll with a chance at something better. I grab my suitcase and start the long walk up the hill, into the new day.
In the late afternoon sun, Jack and his mates trudged through stringy bark forest to come upon a scene that was beyond all description. Thousands of tents stretched through the gullies for miles in every direction. The ground was full of immense holes and the surface cut up by cart tracks. They had arrived at the Ballarat diggings.
‘Streuth, looks like a giant ants’ nest!’ Mark gasped.
‘All right, fellas. Let’s see what we make of this, eh?’ Jack’s voice was strained. He should have been excited. It had been his bright idea to make the gruelling trip from Adelaide through bush to the goldfields.
A fine drizzle persisted as they passed through the edge of the shantytown, turning into a downpour as they rode in closer.
‘Have you got your licences?’ a gruff police officer asked, pulling on his rain hat. They had to pay thirty shillings each for one that lasted one month.
‘Daylight robbery,’ Sam muttered but the policeman was used to such a response.
‘Move yourselves along, fellows, and don’t go causing no trouble,’ he ordered.
The four of them braved the rain to search for a free spot to set up camp. It wasn’t easy since the place was overrun with miners already. Finally, after sloshing through the puddles, Jack persuaded one of them to move his cart over and make a space.
‘Better put up the tent quick smart before he changes his mind,’ Jack suggested.
The new neighbour stuck around, complaining about the license fee. ‘If they have to take money off us, they should base it on what gold we find. A fellow could pay his thirty shillings and not find a blasted speck of the stuff in that month,’ he complained, showing off a piece of paper covered in mud. Young Owen gave it a cursory glance but pressed on with banging tent pegs into the soft ground.
‘You have to carry the damn thing with you ’cause if you’re caught without it there’s trouble. But see how wet and filthy it gets in your trouser pocket?’
Owen looked up at his soggy paper and gave him a nod. It didn’t stop the rant. ‘And now, guess what, the blasted governor has put a license on liquor! Can’t a man have any pleasures in life, I ask!’ He realised he wasn’t getting much of a response and walked off exasperated.
As soon as the tent was up, Jack unloaded the dray, lifting the cooking gear and bedding in one go with his strong arms. Mark took the sacks of hay to feed the horses. Owen and Sam picked their way through the muddy pathways to find a store to replenish their supplies. They had to dodge the piles of horse manure, steaming in the sun now that the rain had stopped.
The men set out the next day to look for a claim but the whole place was jam-packed with diggers already working on their shafts. ‘Get out of ‘ere,’ the filthy fellows yelled as they approached.
It was a dejected group that slunk into the Eureka Hotel to drown their sorrows that night. Even Owen swigged back his ale although Jack cautioned him with, ‘Steady on, lad. You know you can’t hold your drink.’
Owen had joined the group of immigrants when their ship docked in Adelaide six months earlier. The lad had been one of the sailors and he’d jumped ship. Jack noticed how completely out of his depth he was in The Anchor Inn, and had taken pity on him.
‘You’re right, Jack,’ Owen said now. ‘I know I shouldn’t drink. Might tell a few too many secrets. But I’m not sure I can take any more challenges.’
The next few days brought no more luck in finding a claim and this coincided with a rise in the diggers’ anger across the camp. Notices appeared on trees, announcing public meetings outside the Eureka Hotel. Jack, Owen, Sam and Mark went along.
‘Listen up, my friends,’ a voice boomed out across the diggings. ‘Are we going to stand for this latest insult?’
‘No, no, indeed, we’re not!’ Owen shouted along with the crowd. Jack stood back, sizing up the situation. Mark and Sam got bored and went back to searching for a claim.
Peter Lalor stepped up on a box, squinting into the mid-day sun. He was tall with blue eyes that took in the huge crowd. With a clear voice and an Irish accent, he called out: ‘Fellow miners, a man who was servant to a parish priest has been wrongfully arrested by the police. We must protest against this!’
The crowd roared approval, boosting Lalor’s enthusiasm. ‘I call upon any of my fellow miners who feel as strongly as I do about these wrongdoings to step forward and form a committee with me. Let justice prevail!’
Owen moved forward. Jack tried to pull him back but the lad was adamant. He knew about the Chartists who fought for justice back home in Wales. Some of them were here now, and he was determined to join them in this protest. It wasn’t just about a man wrongfully arrested. That was just the tip of the iceberg. The real complaint was the way the government was treating the miners, making it nearly impossible for them to dig for gold.
The 40th Regiment came from Melbourne to set up their camp and then a detachment of the 12th Regiment arrived, only to be attacked by angry diggers. The sight of all those soldiers in their red jackets with gold trim, and tall black hats, was daunting but Owen wasn’t going to let that deter him from sticking up for the workers’ rights.
Lalor ordered his men to build a stockade using slabs, logs, timber, boulders and everything they could get lay their hands on to construct a barrier. It was intended to house the headquarters of Lalor’s men but it turned out to be too flimsy for that.
Lalor got his hands on some rifles and called for volunteers to make a kind of army. On the first Sunday in December of 1854, the four mates were drinking in The Eureka Hotel when Lalor ordered ‘his men’ to the stockade.
‘I’m off, then.’ Owen’s words slurred as he pushed his glass into Jack’s hands. ‘And don’t try to stop me.’
Owen crouched inside the stockade, shaking with fear as the Government troops charged over the edge, attacking with their muskets. Lalor’s men were like sitting ducks and only a few of them were armed. Lalor shouted orders but chaos reigned and in the mayhem that followed, Owen was wounded and unconscious by the time Jack, Mark and Sam found him.
The delirious young Welshman protested violently when his mates carried him back to their tent. ‘Hold still, lad,’ Jack coaxed as they lay the wounded ‘soldier’ on his stretcher inside the sweltering hot tent. ‘Mark’s gonna find you a doctor. You just rest now.’
Owen accepted a tot of whiskey that Sam bought from one of the sly grog dealers and then passed out. He woke to a pair of hands touching his head and moving down his body. In his delirium he muttered, ‘No, no, keep your hands off, leave me alone.’
Jack stroked Owen’s head while the doctor probed further, trying to find the bullet that had lodged itself in Owen’s thigh. The pain was agonising and Owen lost consciousness again.
When he came around, his leg was bandaged and his three mates were looking at him with long faces. ‘What is it? What…?’ he stammered.
‘You just rest now,’ Jack told him. ‘We’ll be heading for Melbourne tomorrow. It’s not safe here any more. You’ll be all right on the dray. Get some sleep.’
The next morning, Owen woke to a bustle of activity. His mates were packing up. He’d had nightmares about hands roaming over his body and he’d needed to stop them. The billy was boiling and Mark brought him a rusty cup of tea.
‘Hold on now, lad,’ Jack said softly. ‘I’m gonna lift you onto the dray. Mark and Sam will take the tent down and then we’ll be off.’
The smell of wood fires and damp grass filled Owen’s lungs. He lifted himself up on one elbow to look across the diggings, questioning his decisions.
As Jack lifted Owen onto the dray, he brought his face closer and whispered, ‘Don’t you worry. I can keep your secret. Damn it, you’re the bravest young woman I’m ever likely to meet.’
The secret was out. The secret Olwen Jones had kept since leaving Wales one year earlier, intent on sailing to Australia to make a new life. Now, she would have to face up to the truth. When she got to Melbourne, she would find women’s clothes and start again. She hoped Jack, Sam and Mark would give her the same support they’d offered back in Adelaide. It was time for a fresh start.
The waterline ebbs and flows with the low midday tide, wrapping around my bare feet, sucking away the sand, leaving white foam and debris from last night’s storm: seaweed chunks, driftwood and a single sun-bleached sneaker, its owner forgotten.
The elongated shadow before me dances in the waves and I wish the sun would transform me into this tall thin dancer, free with her movements and humour, able to disappear in the bright noon light.
My black Labrador, Hugo, bounds into the sea, jumping waves and diving for the rocks I throw, excited by the loud plunk as it hits the water. He’s grown so big, the Seven Mile beach walks, small town living and endless drives through northern New South Wales in search of chemists suits him.
I’d talked Mum into leaving Brisbane six months ago, abandoning a stressful job and overcapitalised house with its accompanying mortgage for the coastal living of Lennox Head. I’d thought by lessening stress, anxiety, we’d be rid of the need for OxyContin.
I hadn’t counted on it following us, mounting to the point of whole packets swallowed in a week, the gap between scripts filled by over the counter medication.
Every afternoon I hunt for Panadeine Extra and Mersyndol, but I take the mornings for myself, for Hugo and me and the endless stretch of coastal beauty and a charity store novel. The vast shoreline is so much bigger than I am, briny, sticky air curls my hair, bringing back the essence of the wild child. We walk, swim and play bloated whale carcass. Floating with the waves, washing up on shore, waiting to wash back out. The flow, the repetition of tide helps distract from the loneliness of this responsibility.
Hugo’s wet sandy head bumps my leg.
You staring off moodily again? Hugo’s penny brown eyes ask. He can say a lot with the lift of an eyebrow, the turn of a head, a gentle nudge of a nose.
‘Yep,’ I answer, scratching behind his ear.
He drops a slobbery ball at my feet. Well stop, it’s time to play. Three years old and full of sass.
I throw the ball as hard as possible, chasing after him, baying laughs of independence and exhilaration as our footsteps reverberate on the hard sand. We race pass sand dunes thick with spinifex and banksias, shaped by wind and sand. Breathless, tasting salt and sunscreen, I stop, shading my eyes to look south along the beach, past a barely submerged sculpture of black rock to beyond the Pat Morton lookout where Mum waits, anxiety pinching her beautiful face, wondering how far we’ve walked today, and how long it will take me to get home via the chemist.
I know it’s wrong, and I know I shouldn’t be doing it, but I need to protect her, to keep it quiet. Everyone else has left.
‘I know you’ll one day be telling a therapist about this,’ Mum says around a mouthful of Diet Coke and Panadeine extra tablets.
‘Does that make you want to stop?’ I ask, watching her.
‘I hope so.’
Waves surge, drenching my shorts and taking with them the memory of Mum’s sharp features.
The sea wants to meet you, Hugo barks, insisting, head butting my knee.
With eyes shut, I walk into the water, every sensation magnified as the waves drag me deeper. Sinking into the foamy sea, my clothes wrap around me, pulling and tightening the edges of myself until I can feel every curve, every bone. The essence of me held together by the currents and a stubborn black dog paddling at my side.