Authors: Barry Jonsberg
I'm woken by a thin sunbeam turning the inside of my eyelids pink.
When I open my eyes it takes a moment or two to make sense of what's around me. The unfamiliar room, a drift of grey ashes in a fireplace, a chair wedged under a doorknob. I blink against the light streaming through the window. The blanket must have fallen off the curtain rod some time in the night.
I remember why I put it up there. I remember why I blocked the door with the chair. Dumb, dumb, dumb. It's weird the way the morning light cuts through scary stuff. My grandmother once said that darkness eggs on the imagination, but light smacks it on the bottom and tells it to grow up.
Actually she didn't say that. But she might have. It's the kind of thing grandmothers say.
Scared of a wallaby, huh?
I check my mobile on the off-chance a random gang of workmen rocked up in the middle of the night and built a transmitter tower in the forest. Turns out they didn't because the phone is still flatlining. But I have an idea. And that doesn't happen every day.
I go to the outside dunny with my toiletry bag in hand. Turning on the tap over the cracked washbasin â there's only one tap, and it doesn't inspire confidence â I listen to it dry retch for a while. Then it splurts a few times and finally a thin trickle of brownish water appears. I turn it off, dry-brush my teeth and examine the strange contraption Granddad has built next to the dunny. It's got this small solar heating panel, a maze of pipes, a rusty shower head and views of various clearings among the surrounding forest. I give my armpits a quick sniff. Listen, it's not a bed of roses there, but I'm not completely desperate. We are talking a
solar panel, not much sun and too many trees.
I can't find Granddad anywhere. I check the main shack and find a bowl of rapidly setting porridge. He's not in his bedroom. Neither is Goldilocks. I go around the shacks to the vegetable gardens, but everywhere I go is where he's not. Finally, I track him down at the back of the property, outside the fence. Well, not strictly the back of the property, since apparently he owns close to a hundred acres, but it all merges into the State Forest and he doesn't have a marked boundary as such. Makes you wonder how he knows what is his property and what isn't. Probably doesn't care. Dad would. He'd have it all fenced off, down to the last square centimetre. State-of-the-art security measures, guards in treetop turrets with machine guns to waste any unsuspecting rambler who accidentally breached his boundary.
Dad believes in property.
There are sheds out here. Actually, rickety old lean-tos. And there's also a beat-up old ute, a hardcore tractor and a motorbike â a 250 that's seen better days. I nearly defecate when I see all this technology. It's confirmation I'm still in the twenty-first century and haven't got stuck in some time warp. I give the motorbike a good eyeballing, but I don't say anything to Granddad, who's tinkering with a pile of machinery. He turns around with this serious chainsaw in his hands.
âKnow how to use one of these?' he asks.
âLet me guess, Gramps,' I reply. âThere's a mutant hillbilly family over the rise and a blood feud that goes back generations. We are going to visit and even up a score or two?'
He just looks at me.
âWell,' I say. âI've seen it done on the telly.'
Granddad grunts, as if I've broken wind in church. He lashes the chainsaw to the back of the tractor, eases up into the seat and cranks the engine over. It coughs and splutters before firing with a big belch of diesel fumes.
âFollow me,' he yells over the noise, and reverses the monster out of the lean-to.
âAnd a good morning to you, too,' I mutter.
He takes off along a bush track and I trudge behind.
Actually, I wanted directions to the top of the mountain. I have this notion that the higher I go the more chance I've got of getting a signal. I also have no idea if it's true. But Granddad doesn't look in the mood for negotiation and I figure I'd better keep him as sweet as possible.
I thought earning your keep went out sometime after World War II.
The tractor goes surprisingly fast and I have to quicken my steps. It's still fairly early in the morning, but the sun is cranking up and I'm covered in sweat after about five minutes. Finally, Granddad stops the tractor by this huge fallen tree that has a big nest of roots sticking up to the level of my head. Granddad frees the chainsaw and sizes up the tree. He pulls the cord and the chainsaw buzzes into life.
He slices that puppy up, I can tell you. I sit on a log and watch him. He might be older than God's dog, but there's power in those stringy muscles. In no more than ten minutes there's a heap of logs. The air is sweet with the smell of resin. He's a piece of work, I guarantee it. He wipes sweat from his forehead and nods towards the tractor.
âYour turn,' he says. âLoad 'em up.'
There's this kind of trailer arrangement on the back of the tractor and it takes me longer to fill it with the logs than it took him to cut them. My arm muscles are aching like crazy and I have to take off my shirt, I'm sweating so much.
We head off back to the homestead, him way in the lead with the tractor and me strolling along behind. I'm looking forward to a cold glass of water, but then I remember there's no town water and no refrigerator. I light up instead and note I'm down to fourteen smokes. I need to get this organised.
Granddad tilts the tractor tray and dumps the logs just outside the fence. He turns off the engine and eases himself down.
âEver split logs?' he asks. âNot on the TV. In real life?'
Yeah right. In Melbourne? But I just shake my head.
âThis here's a blockbuster,' he says, pulling out a serious metal wedge â like an axe on steroids â from a pile of junk by the lean-to. âYou put the log on the stump, like so, and whack the hell out of it. Shouldn't be a problem for a fit fella like you.'
I get the feeling he's extracting the urine. That's cool.
âThe fire in your room last night was courtesy of me. The rest of 'em is your responsibility.'
âCan't we just get a delivery?' I say, but he ignores me and shuffles back to the house.
I hate to admit it, but splitting logs is fun. At first, I get the axe-thing stuck in a log and have to lift it all up, axe and log together, and bring it down again. I come close to tearing a few muscles. Then I work out where to hit it, along the grain. I find a rhythm and after a while my body slots into it. There's something satisfying about a clean hit and seeing the wood split sweetly. Before I know it, I slice through a log in about three hits. Don't get me wrong. I haven't found my mission in life or anything. But it's okay. For an outdoorsy thing.
I stack the split logs onto the woodpile inside the fence. There's enough there to last . . . well, I don't know how long, but there's gotta be at least five days worth of serious pyromania.
I've developed a raging thirst and my arms feel like they're filled with lead, so I wander over to the main shack. Granddad is sitting on the verandah, of course, gazing into the distance. The rickety chair is still beside him, so I sit as well. If I'm expecting words of praise for my efforts, then I can forget it. In fact, he doesn't say anything, doesn't even clear his throat, so I have to make the first move.
âWell, I've nailed those suckers,' I say. âWhat now?'
âI'm going for a nap,' says Granddad. âYou do what you like.'
Grumpy old sphincter.
âI thought I might try to get to the top of this mountain you mentioned,' I say. âAssuming it's not, like, a serious mountain or anything. The kind where you need an oxygen mask and a random Sherpa. Where do I go?'
Granddad points a gnarly old finger towards the bush.
âThataways a spell. Takes about forty minutes. Take Jai with you. It's easy to get lost.'
It takes me a moment to realise he's referring to the scrungy old dog of his. I'd forgotten his existence again. I duck my head down and see the tip of a nose under the verandah.
âNah, I'll be right,' I say. I don't do dog-walking, but I don't tell him that. Plus, I'd probably have to carry him back in a homemade litter.
âKeep to a track and you should be right. Don't wander into the forest. Ya get lost, it could be days 'fore anyone finds you.'
A cheery thought.
âNo worries, Gramps.'
âYou can lose all sense of direction out there.'
âListen, I'll be right. I'll stock up, okay? Go have a nap.'
He doesn't say any more, but lifts himself out of the chair. He looks like he's in pain, that it's a real effort to shift his sorry shrivelled backside. Probably shot-to-hell joints, or something. I tell you, when I get to his age I hope someone will have the decency to put a gun to my head. I don't want to end up like that.
After he's gone I get a glass of water from the container in the kitchen. It tastes musty, but I'm parched and try not to think about it too much. Hour and a half round trip. Shouldn't be a problem. I'm not in the best shape, on account of having skipped every Phys. Ed. class for like ten years. But I'm betting this isn't a proper mountain, the kind with jagged peaks and a snow-capped summit, all
Lord of the Rings
vistas without the orcs and random mutant critters. A gentle climb, I reckon. Anyway, I can always turn back if it gets too hard.
When the going gets tough, give up. That's my motto and it's never failed me yet.
The path is gentle and if I was a different kind of person I'd get into the way the sun shines through the leaves of the trees and makes dappled patterns on the ground.
Luckily, I'm not a different kind of person.
After a while, the track gets difficult to follow. It's not so much a track, more like flattened scrub, as if animals â wallabies, wombats and whatnot â have passed through regularly. The only âwilderness' walking I've ever done is in those sad places where everything has wooden boardwalks with railings and plaques at the side that give you all the information you never wanted about flora and fauna. Even then, I'd find a bench and try for a high score on my hand-held before Dad would find me and deliver a lecture on the appreciation of nature. Yeah, right. Like he cares. All he ever sees in nature is the potential for the view to increase property value. I don't want to appreciate it. As far as I'm concerned, I won't bother nature if nature doesn't bother me.
There's something relaxing about putting one foot after another, though. It's that body rhythm thing again. Sometimes, the track blurs into the forest and there's a slope with fallen rocks or carcasses of trees and I have to scramble over them before I find the path again. After about twenty minutes I stop for a breather. The air's heavy with rotting vegetation. I hear rustling twigs and leaves, I sense skittering across the forest floor. I try my mobile again, on the off-chance I'm high enough to get a signal, but there's nothing doing. Not even the glimmer of a bar.
I push on and the ground gets steeper. After a while, the backs of my legs are cramping with strain and any traces of fun have vanished. Each time the track disappears I branch to the left or right and pick it up again. There's a little voice in my head that tells me I'm not following the same path, but picking up another and then another, but I'm not bothered. I've come pretty much in a straight line and I'm confident I can re-trace my steps. I've passed at least four clearings that'd be impossible to miss on the way down.
The trees thin and I reckon I'm close to the summit. I consider checking my phone, but I don't want to jinx it. I'll wait until I'm as high as I can go. It's certainly getting steeper. I even have to put my hands on my thighs and kinda push off them to help my aching muscles. Talk about a cripple. I can't rid myself of the notion that Granddad would probably scoot up this slope like a rat up a drainpipe and I resolve to cut down on the smoking. I'm really in terrible shape. Put me on
and I'd be stretchered off in around thirty seconds. Then I remember I'm cutting down on the smokes anyway. I'm concentrating so hard on putting one foot in front of the other that I don't even notice I've hit a clearing. But the lack of an incline gets my attention eventually and I stop.
The summit. It's not huge. It's not spectacular. But it's there and so am I.
I sit on a random rock with a view and pull out my smokes.
I like views as well as the next person. Well, probably not quite as much as the next person, but it's not bad up here. Only trouble is, the lack of variety. All I can see are trees. True, up here it's the tops of trees, all spread out like a green shag-pile carpet, rather than tree trunks, but they're still trees. About as interesting as the current state of the Indonesian stock exchange in my book. I look around to see if I can spot a town. Anything that lets me know civilisation is still out there somewhere, that the rest of Australia hasn't been wiped out by a nuclear strike. But there's nothing. I can't even see any powerlines and it's not often you can say that. So it's with a sinking feeling that I turn my phone on. With no hope of a signal, I'd taken to turning it off to save the battery. It boots up and, glory-be, Holy-Mary-Mother-of-God, there's a bar of signal. It turns to two bars as I watch. I'm so excited I don't know whether to poo my pants or wind my wristwatch. I settle for punching in Kris on speed dial. I hear the click as the connection is made.