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Authors: Jon Bauer

Rocks in the Belly

BOOK: Rocks in the Belly
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Jon Bauer
was born in Wimbledon. His short fiction has been broadcast on national radio, performed for the stage, and published in the
Sleepers Almanac
The Bridport Prize. Rocks in the Belly
is his first novel.

Praise for
Rocks in the Belly

‘This is such a beautifully choreographed, sensitive and accessible novel, it's hard to believe it's Bauer's first … his orchestration of grief and comedy, innocence and pessimism … has emotional honesty that matches the best Helen Garner.'
Australian Literary Review

‘Anybody who reads this book and isn't instantly a fan probably wasn't paying close enough attention.
Rocks in the Belly
is both a masterpiece and a very challenging piece of writing … With this beautiful novel, Bauer teaches us the meaning of “too little too late”, with an ending that is sure to bring a tear to even the most stoic reader's eye.'
Australian Bookseller & Publisher

‘Jon Bauer tells his dark, psychological story obliquely and with dramatic precision … what dazzles most is Bauer's eye for physical and emotional detail.'
Sydney Morning Herald

‘One of the most unsettling novels I have read in a while, with an emotional sharpness that hurts. Oh, and it's quite funny too.'
The Australian

Rocks in the Belly
, a debut novel of considerable power, covers rare territory and culminates in scenes of tenderness and compassion that are never sentimental.'
Australian Book Review

‘A powerful book … It is marked by candour, humour and sadness, and seethes with so much frustration that in parts it becomes difficult to read. However, its ultimate sentiment moves towards compassion.'
The Weekend Australian

‘This is compelling reading, and provides great scope for discussions about the nature of good, evil and love. The narrative voices are superb, as is the characterisation …
Rocks in the Belly
is a beautiful and profoundly disturbing novel.'
Good Reading

‘Bauer perfectly catches the uncertainty of a deeply insecure child who does not want to share his mother's love, and neatly displays the ambiguity of the situation … This is a largely tragic book, but it speaks in a mesmerising voice a brutal truth about the intensity of family relationships.'
The Sunday Telegraph

‘This is either going to be one of those amazing breakthrough novels or it's going to be something that gets handed around at book clubs for a long time and becomes a quiet cult hit … This is a remarkable coming-of-age story.'
The Courier-Mail

‘An ambitious, darkly disturbing, challenging and well-written debut novel.'
Marie Claire

‘This is a stark, painful, yet beautifully observed novel and not one that you'll forget in a hurry; a hint of redemptive catharsis before the end saves it from being oppressive and frees the reader to appreciate the considerable skill with which it has all been done.'
The Advertiser

‘A disturbing yet deeply moving debut novel … Brilliantly inhabited and told.'
The Big Issue



A complete catalogue record for this book can be obtained from the British Library on request

The right of Jon Bauer to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted by him in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988

Copyright © 2010 John Bauer

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior permission of the publisher.

First published in 2010 by Scribe Publications Pty Ltd, Melbourne, Australia

First published in the UK in 2012 by Serpent's Tail,
an imprint of Profile Books Ltd

3A Exmouth House

Pine Street

London EC1R 0JH


ISBN 978 1 84668 845 4

eISBN 978 1 84765 811 1

Printed and bound in Great Britain by Clays, Bungay, Suffolk

10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1

Carried, but never held.

I used to tell people I was a foster child. As a boy I'd tell every new stranger until it started burrowing into me as a sort of truth. A truth that's still here, keeping me from belonging.

I used to tell people I was a foster child even though I was the only one in our home who wasn't fostered. And now I'm supposedly a man, everything about me is still fostered — my country, the history I tell people.

I can't even bring myself to belong to my own childhood.

But I can still feel it, despite moving overseas, disavowing myself entirely of my past. It doesn't matter where you go, or what you do with your feelings, your truth lies in wait. My childhood haunting me in much the same way my fists haunt my hands.

Moving away hasn't allowed me to leave my parents behind either. I carry them in those remembered moments they inflict on you. Mum especially. Funny that of all those steeped-in memories, the one where she's most vivid is from a day of supreme greyness. The day we buried Robert. Everyone gathered round the television to watch that video of him.

Not the Robert who'd come up our path years before, hiding behind the social worker. Not that thoughtful, clever little Robert.
little Robert. But the Robert we turned him into.

I remember the TV was turned up too loud, Robert full of gangly smiles towards the camera while they strapped him up. His played-back face looking right at me. Someone making a comment
about how great he looks in his orange outfit, and Mum managed a smile too.

Then Robert's hair was fluttering on the screen, both him and the man behind him wearing goggles. Robert all tongue and teeth and movement, his trembling brain fidgeting him with excitement.

There is a rough edit.

His hair is really blowing and he's strapped to the man and screeching with a mix of fear and happiness. They shuffle him along on his bum, and from the movement of the camera you see Robert, the walls, Robert. Then, through the open door, the clouds. Great, billowing clouds in a vast sky. Robert of the Clouds, Dad always used to call him, or Robert McCloud. Our lounge bursting with people. All of them dressed in black, and carrying the colour as if it were heavy. Everyone crying over Robert's happiness coming at us from inside the TV. From back in time. Crying because that's all that was left of what he might have been.

The camera pans to Robert perched on the edge.


His tremors are still there, his eyes smiling. The man tells him to put his head back and Robert's exhilaration erupts as a giggling squeal.


He is totally still. I remember the whole room stopped too. Everyone who'd come to bury him held their breath.


I walk out of the train station and down the hill, dragging my suitcase along this familiar parade of shops. The whole time I've been overseas they've just stood here, in all weathers. People sitting inside them, waiting for a livelihood to trickle in. Everything here having remained painfully familiar and yet undergone the subtlest, almost imperceptible changes, as if the shops are oozing slowly, glacially down this hill.

A million years and they'll be collected into a melted pile at the bottom.

I look behind the sheltered bus stop and my graffiti is still here, the faded marker pen signalling change like lovers' initials engraved on a tree. The lovers having long since split up, just like I've lost touch with the me who used to wedge himself in among the litter and undergrowth back here, sniffing thinners from my blazer sleeve instead of going to school.

The bus comes and I stick out an arm.

I pay the driver, wondering if he was at the helm seven years ago when I rode this bus in the other direction, and whether coming back will unravel all the work I've done while overseas — striving for some kind of invincible.

I lift my baggage onto the rack and lurch down the bus as it takes off, an old woman staring at me from the front seat and two school kids stewing at the very back, out of school, feet up on seats — their own small version of invincible.

My home town passes outside the dirty windows, the glass vibrating the image as the bus accelerates, then refocusing it all as the clutch dips for the next gear. I fall into staring, feeling what being here does to the vibrations in me.

When we reach the top of Hawke Street Hill, I slowly stand, push the button for my stop.

There's that house of my childhood. I get off but the driver nods back behind him and I climb up again, blushing, retrieve my luggage.

The bus leaves me in a fumy quiet, my suitcase trundling along behind then throwing itself off its wheels, yanking my wrist over. I stop to right it and walk on, the houses quiet, just the sound of little plastic suitcase wheels.

I reach our gate but pause at the threshold. I recognise this moment I'm standing in. This is the moment before. This is the breath you take.

I look from the front door in its rotting frame, up to the clouds. I had my childhood under this bit of sky with its fairy-floss athletes, white rabbits and all the other bulbous shapes that floated by on invisible air streams. The Loch Ness monster came by once.

But most of our precipitation came with the foster children. Lost souls carried between these hedges to the aprons and hugs of my mother. Children with pasts I was supposed to pity them for.

I used to park my little bum on that front step there, trying to hit makeshift targets with stones while Dad stepped back, sipping from his mug of tea, a few privet leaves gracing his wayward hair. He never let me use the hedge-trimmer but he kept me in money for sweets and catapults if I lugged black bags full of trimmed hedge.

I automatically lift the gate to open it, like always. The hedges
obscure the path now so I have to weave my way by, carrying my suitcase to silence my approach. I set it down at the door, iron out the red marks it has pressed into my palm.

After I've knocked there's a silence.

I go and look through the front window at the posh dining table we never used, the dust on it like the coating that settled over our lives after Robert. We had no use for the special occasion table then, only the beaten family one in the kitchen.

Now there's the sound of someone shuffling down the corridor. I adjust my posture, flatten my hair. The footsteps reach the other side of the door and I make myself still in front of the little security eyelet — my insides held. The eyelet darkens. I try for a smile but it comes out sad.

The door opens slowly like something out of a horror film. As if it should be Igor standing there and lightning going off, but it's a shiny day and not Igor although it does look like Frankenstein in a dress. Dad used to say that about ugly women. He said that about my Auntie Debbie especially. Auntie Deadly he called her.

‘Hello, Mum.'

She looks like somebody impersonating my mother. Or Mum in disguise. Looking at me with the same blue eyes but her face bloated and unsure. She thinks she knows me but isn't certain — something drying at the corner of her mouth.

We stand here and I'm trying not to gasp at how inclement time has been to her — that or the illness, the reason I'm back here.

I close the gap between us, shutting out the trembling of the moment by moving in and hugging her, my hips held away from hers.

She smells of clothes that have been wet too long then dried, her body swollen but bird-like, frail. I stare out from the hug, looking at the hallway, every detail of it cut like a hill trail into my brain — the vase full of my grandfather's homemade walking sticks;
that ominous lump of mica rock; someone like me staring out from old photos on the wall — that uncomfortable face.

She breaks the hug and leans away, her hands on my upper arms to keep me at a close distance, her eyes scanning from one to the other of mine, drinking me in.

BOOK: Rocks in the Belly
4.8Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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