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Authors: John Marsden

While I Live (21 page)

BOOK: While I Live
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Robyn was heavily into Christianity but she’d never have done that kind of stuff.

Nick went a bit red and tried to look straight at me.

‘Not really,’ he said. ‘If people asked me, I gave out some literature. That was all.’

I wasn’t too sure that I believed him.

‘You want to make those phone calls now?’ I asked him, as Homer came back into the room.

‘Oh yes, thanks very much.’

He was on the phone a long time. It was terrible of me but I couldn’t help thinking ruefully of my telephone bill. Now that I had to pay stuff like that myself, I’d taken a slightly better attitude to wasting money. It still seemed to pour out the door and windows anyway. Even all the fuel we’d used on this raid – the four drums we’d exploded, along with the amount the bikes had used – it was all money, and I didn’t like my chances of Liberation or anyone else offering to reimburse me.

Half an hour later I felt really guilty for thinking that. I was on the way back from putting Gavin to bed and I heard Nick crying on the phone. It made me sympathise a lot more with what he’d been through.

Homer had gone home, borrowing my Yamaha. He was still trying to work out how to explain to his parents the complete loss of his motorbike. Lee was waiting to get to the phone, to check that his brothers and sisters were OK. My energy levels were like my bank statements, in the red. Feeling depressed I went to bed.

I slept for eleven hours. Another missed school bus, another missed school day. I took another hour to get out of bed. I was still so exhausted I could hardly walk in a straight line. I don’t think it was physical tiredness so much as the aftershock of yesterday’s danger and excitement. At least I managed to reach the kitchen OK. I sat waiting for the electric jug to boil, thinking of the cattle and how hungry they’d be, trying to motivate myself to get out and deliver their hay.

A scrunch of gravel outside did wake me up. It was the scrunch of car wheels.

My first reaction was fear. Could this be a reprisal already? Who’d be visiting at this time on a school day? I peeped through the kitchen window, but there was only an old Falcon. A man and a woman were getting out. They were both tall and stringy. I realised then who they were.

I went out, wincing as the cold air hit me. ‘Hi,’ the woman said, holding out her hand and giving me the chance to inspect every tooth in her mouth. ‘You must be Ellie.’ She took a deep breath. ‘Thank you. Thank you. We’re so grateful that you answered God’s call and brought Nick back to us.’

‘So you’re Nick’s parents?’

The man had been busy locking the car but now, as she nodded, he came over too and shook my hand. ‘We owe you a lot,’ he said.

I was deeply embarrassed. This kind of stuff had never happened during the war. In those days it was all survival. There wasn’t time for anything else.

‘Well,’ I said weakly, wondering why he’d locked his car, and still trying to function properly, ‘would you like a coffee? I don’t know whether Nick’s even up yet. We were all pretty flattened when we got back last night.’

But Nick came into the kitchen at a half-run so I guess he’d seen them from his window. I figured this was an absolutely excellent time for me to feed the cattle so I did a quick change and headed out the door.

It was good to get back to the natural rhythms of life. I don’t know what it is about cattle. They’re so different to sheep. The original beasts Dad bought had been in such poor condition and now they were fattening up nicely, putting on some serious kilos.

I’d gotten to know them well. They were a motley crew. There were quite a few escapees among them, two especially. They were both on the small side but they kept pulling off escapes that would have made a World War II prisoner proud. They could have taught Nick a thing or two. It didn’t matter how many times I improved the fences, they kept getting out. Usually leaving their calves on the other side of course, which wasn’t very considerate of them. Sometimes they took one with them. I’d get rid of both cows in the first draft I sold, just as someone had gotten rid of them to us. They were too much trouble.

Then there were the ones with poor forequarters or the ones whose back lines were out, or the ones who rejected their babies or were too aggressive towards Gavin or me. In my mind they all got pink slips. I had to build up some decent bloodlines again, as soon as possible. We used to have a reputation for that. I was a bit embarrassed that these beasts would be sold with our name on them.

Still, for all their faults you always end up feeling affectionate towards them sooner or later. As with any mob there were characters. We’d given nicknames to a lot of them, and some of those were for obvious reasons: Dribbles, Patches, Fatso, Sticky-Beak, Big Tits. Big Tits was Gavin’s choice, needless to say.

Some of them weren’t so obvious. Phar Lap got her name because she could out-gallop the others. If you turned up with hay at a time when they didn’t expect it she was the first one there. Casanova, because even though he was a steer he was always on the back of other steers. Winfield, because he blew great clouds of steam on cold mornings.

OK, they were pretty dumb names, but you’ve got to do something to entertain yourself when you’re out in the paddocks on those same cold mornings.

By the time I got back to the house everyone was up and about. Nick was waiting to say goodbye so I got that over and done with. He said some pretty sickly things, but he couldn’t help that – I’d probably have done the same if I’d been in the hands of guerillas all that time, not knowing whether I was going to live or die.

To tell the truth I was proud of how we’d managed it. I mean, just over twenty-four hours ago I’d been getting ready for another boring week at school. But I was feeling a little inner glow at the fact that I could still do it, that I still had it. Whatever ‘it’ was. I even thought that if the farm failed – and there was every chance it would – I could look at a career in the military. Didn’t know what I’d do about Gavin in that situation.

With Nick and his folks out of the way I could at least sit down in the kitchen, build up the fire, and relax with Lee and Gavin. Lee had negotiated by phone with the people looking after his brothers and sisters, and he was staying another two nights. Gavin was delighted about this. I was happy but wary.

Homer turned up just before lunch. Trust him. He could smell food from ten k’s, and that was on a still day.

I just chucked bread and marg and stuff at them and told them to make their own sangers, but it did give me the chance to hear what had happened to him.

‘Yeah, it was pretty embarrassing really,’ he said. ‘I was sneaking down the hill and the next thing there’s a rifle jabbed in my back and a voice telling me to drop my gun.’

‘How did that happen?’ I asked.

He looked disgusted and embarrassed and amused, all at once.

‘He was taking a toilet stop in the darkness, in the bushes to my right, sitting there quiet as a mouse, as you do, when I came sneaking past, quiet as another mouse.’

We all laughed. ‘You should have smelt him,’ Gavin said.

‘Yeah, well, I did a moment later. A moment too late.’

‘These guys have a bit of a toilet problem I think. They’re always doing it. Gavin and I almost got caught by one of them taking a leak.’

Gavin held his nose. ‘Yeah, they stink,’ he said.

‘So what is it with Liberation?’ I asked. I hate not to be part of a secret or a mystery. Homer knew that, and it maddened me to have to ask him straight out, because it guaranteed he’d enjoy telling me as little as possible.

‘Hey, I told you, it’s all secret.’

‘Don’t we get automatic membership for saving your ass?’

‘Do you want to join?’

‘I don’t know.’ I sat back and considered.

Gavin piped up: ‘I want to join.’

‘Look,’ Homer said, ‘it’s not like the Secret Seven or the Famous Five. We’re not some club with passwords and secret handshakes.’

‘Oh. Well, in that case I don’t want to join,’ I said.

‘But seriously . . . ?’ he asked.

‘I’ll be totally honest with you,’ I said slowly. ‘Yesterday was frightening. Trying to get that hole to open up in the demountable, thinking that at any moment these guys would pop around the side and start shooting, yeah, on the terror scale that was right up there with the best of them.’

‘But . . .’ Homer said, staring at me, knowing there was more to come.

‘OK, yes, there is a but.’

‘And I bet I know what it is,’ Homer said.

‘It was bloody exciting,’ I said slowly.

‘Exactly,’ Homer said, leaning back in his chair.

‘I know what you mean,’ Lee said. He leaned back too, and folded his arms.

‘So are we turning into thrill junkies?’ I asked. ‘Do we have to put our lives on the line every few days just to get a bit of satisfaction in life?’

Homer shrugged. ‘Why are you acting so surprised? Didn’t you know that already?’

‘No, I didn’t as a matter of fact.’

‘Think back to before the war,’ he said. ‘If you can remember that far back. The way Sam Young jumped on the bull in the stockyard? Or Jamie Anlezark and Melissa Carpenter surfing on the cattle trucks as they came into the saleyard. Or you and me playing polo on the motorbikes? Without helmets? How many times did we come off? How come we didn’t kill ourselves sixteen times over? What about that time you knocked yourself out on the rock? I thought you were dead then.’

I shuddered. ‘Don’t remind me. And we agreed not to tell my parents, because we thought we’d get in so much trouble.’

Homer went on: ‘Why do you think people went canyoning before the war? Parachuting? Bungy jumping?’

‘OK, wise guy, you tell me why.’

‘It’s because the only real enemy humans have is death. Every other enemy, like a kid who slags you off at school, or a cop who pulls you over, you think they’re enemies, but they’re not really. They’re just, I don’t know, irritations. But death, that’s the serious one, because you know he’ll win eventually. And that makes you, like, you’ve got to try to beat him. The bigger the challenge, the harder you try. That’s true of anything. In a way our enemies aren’t these soldiers themselves, our enemy is death, and the soldiers are just his little local representatives.’

‘Yeah,’ Lee said. ‘You know fun parks, all those rides. People think they’re spitting right in the face of death when they go on those things. They’re not of course, but they think they are.’

‘So you’re saying that we’ve got to do this? To prove we’re immortal?’

‘Well, it’s not that simple. It started off that we had to do it. But even though we were so scared and sick and confused, right from that first day I can remember something else: just a little tingle of I don’t know what . . . “We’re on our own and this is a massive adventure”. Something like that.’

‘And then it did become a bit of the death-defying stuff,’ Lee said. ‘Along with a lot of other things.’

‘Yeah, I admit I was aware of that at times,’ I said. ‘At Cobbler’s especially. And the airfield. But ninety-nine per cent of the time I was like “I hate this, get me out of here, I want to go home to Mummy and Daddy”.’

Through the window I could see Gavin, who’d given up on this discussion and gone out to the courtyard. He was up on the high wall doing the tightrope walk to the other end. Just like I’d done when I was his age.

‘Oh sure,’ Lee said, ‘we were all “Help, I want out”, most of the time. But you can’t just choose that out of the war and say it’s the whole story. People are always doing that. They announce that teenagers do drugs because they’re bored. Or because of peer-group pressure. Or because, I don’t know, because they get coded messages when they read a magazine in reverse or something. Well, here’s a bit of Asian wisdom for you. It takes many ropes to make a fishing net. And what’s more, if one rope’s missing, you don’t get no fish.’

‘So one of our ropes is that we love danger and we want to defy death?’ I asked.

‘Yeah, I think so,’ Homer said.

‘Hmm, one time I would have laughed at all this. But now . . . I don’t know. Yesterday I was more aware of this stuff than I was before. I knew I was on a high at the same time as I wanted Superman to fly in and do the job for me.’

‘So do you want to join Liberation?’ Homer asked.

‘But why do you need Liberation? Why can’t the Army or someone do it? What do they do exactly?’

Homer shrugged. ‘That’s easy. There’s no way official Army units or people can go over the border for this stuff. If they were caught and interrogated and it turned out they were in the Army, it’d be a disaster. It’d be obvious the government had condoned it. It’d mean another war. But there are a lot of occasions when people are needed to go over the border, like to get Nick Greene, nice geek, I mean guy, that he is. So there’s actually quite a bit of unofficial encouragement for groups like ours. It’s my guess that we’re getting information from the Army about what’s needed and where to go and how to find people.’

‘I can guess where that would come from,’ I said, thinking of Jeremy Finley. I could imagine a line stretching right across the Tasman, from the Australian military to General Finley in New Zealand, and the line coming all the way back across the water to Stratton or Wirrawee.

Ignoring me, Homer went on: ‘For example, we even knew what hut Nick was in. Usually Liberation’s intelligence is pretty good, although sometimes they make mistakes, or of course things can change between their getting information and us arriving on the scene. I think a lot of it comes from paying people on their side. It all seems pretty corrupt.’ He shrugged. ‘Anyway, I’m just repeating what I’ve been told really. I’ve only done two of these raids. And the first one was easy. Four of us went and it was tame. See, the thing is, their Army’s kind of slack. That group holding Nick seemed a cut above the average.’

‘They weren’t bad,’ I said, remembering how quickly they’d fallen in when their boss yelled at them. ‘But why do they get young people to do this stuff?’

‘Why not? Plenty of people our age have been involved in wars over the years. But in fact I think most of the other Liberation groups are older people. There are at least five groups in other districts. We’re known by different colours, like Green, Purple. We’re Scarlet, just as a joke, after the book. And our head honcho, the Scarlet Pimple, happens to be a teenager who happens to be in a unique situation to do it. Also, don’t forget what our little group achieved during the war. We did get kind of famous for five minutes, remember. In fact nearly ten minutes. We basically did a better job than any other group operating behind the lines.

BOOK: While I Live
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