In the late afternoon’s dappled shade, the pride of lions lay satiated. With eyes closed, rasped tongues sensuously licked blood and guts, already crusted a rusty brown on their cheeks and paws from a recent kill of wildebeest. Its carcass lay abandoned after the lionesses had brought it down earlier. Flies, from the diminutive to the gargantuan, competed with meat ants as they invaded the remains while overhead a collection of vultures swept the area.
The first vulture suddenly landed in an untidy heap and plunged its head into the residue of bone, gore and hide. One by one, the rest followed, their wings of might stirring dust, leaves and twigs in the process.
Taffy’s head swivelled towards the kafuffle startled by the updraft of wind and debris and backed away in panic.
‘It’s alright boy,’ Andrew caressed the gelding’s face.
Still unsure Taffy snorted, stamped his foot and swished flies from his rump with his tail.
A while ago Andrew had noticed the pride and had led Taffy behind a boulder downwind of the pride, anxious not to disturb the big cats. So far they had shown no indication they had sensed his presence.
He looked at his watch. Time to go he thought and tears he had suppressed all day began to course down his cheeks. He’d just had his last glimpse of the lions. Thanks to his father this time tomorrow Andrew and his family would board the Mombassa bound train from Nairobi. In Kilindi Harbour the Kenya Castle waited to sail them back to England.
With the slightest of pressure on the reins, he backed Taffy away from the lurid yet mesmerizing sight. Savagely he swiped his tears and through blurred vision they stumbled down hill through tufted grass butted against gray monsters of rocks almost twice his height. The plateau where he had dismounted earlier lay ahead and with the pride no longer in sight he paused and gave a regretful glance uphill. He swallowed the lump in his throat and fought back a fresh bout of tears. Distraught beyond belief he tightened Taffy’s girth, mounted and headed home.
Even at fifteen, he appreciated every blade of savannah grass the colour of ripened wheat, acacia trees and the sky so wide it took his breath away. Birds of a thousand varieties wheeled and dive bombed and an assortment of antelope from tiny dik dik to the erect antlered eland ranged the open country. On this last ride, the most crucial he had ever taken through the African veldt, he feasted his eyes, like the lens of a camera on zebra, giraffe and wildebeest as if to etch their images forever in his mind.
Sydney, Australia 1966
‘Mum, I’ve booked a ticket on tonight’s train.’
Andrew had deliberately waited for his siblings to finish breakfast and his mother was alone.
She stood at the kitchen sink, her back to him, but after his statement dropped the plate into the dishwater. She swallowed a sob, raised her head and glanced out the window. How could the world appear normal when her eldest son was about to leave home?
A fairy wren, a male, thrust out its breast and displayed feathers of sapphire then danced across the lawn while a kookaburra perched on the clothesline in deep concentration. Not a single cloud blotted the sky, its hue of blue so rich it hurt the eye and reminded her of Africa where she had raised the children.
So Andrew had decided to go after all! She couldn’t blame him after Arthur’s disgraceful behaviour last night. She wiped away her tears, but Andrew was too preoccupied to notice. She turned from the sink and although she barely reached his shoulder, embraced him. His blonde, tufted hair fell softly across his forehead the way Arthur’s used to.
‘Looks like you’re on your way, lad,’ Anne smiled ruefully.
‘I’m sorry, Mum, you know I have to go.’
She laid her hand across his mouth. ‘Yes, and don’t apologise. I’m proud you have found the courage.’
‘Have you told the others?’
‘Andrew, you must. You’ll be gone by the time they return from school!’
‘I know, but I’m scared,’ Andrew admitted.
‘It’s not too late to change your mind.’
‘I can’t and don’t tell Dad I’ve gone.’
‘I’ll tell him at the weekend,’ Anne sighed.
‘Your clothes are all ready.’
‘Shall I pack for you?’
‘No, I’ll do it, but thanks anyway.’
Anne went into her bedroom, closed the door and slumped into her easy chair strategically placed by a window. Unable to stem the flow of tears any longer her chin sank to her chest. It was not every day her eldest child left home and not only the eldest, but also the favourite.
Mothers shouldn’t have favourites. Although she loved every one of her children, secretly Andrew had always tugged at her heartstrings more than the others. Her torrent of tears eased. She took a deep breath and felt her body slowly relax. Wisely, she knew for the sake of his safety and sanity, he had made the right decision. So far, Arthur hadn’t hit Andrew, but she knew it wouldn’t be long before he did.
‘Mum, where’s my stockings? I’ll miss the bus.’
Carol, Anne’s eldest daughter and a year younger than Andrew, called from the kitchen and broke through Anne’s reverie.
‘I’m coming, dear.’
Abruptly, Anne’s thoughts turned from Andrew. Besides Carol and fourteen-year-old twins Hamish and Jane, her baby, Rorke, twelve, also needed her attention.
She glanced in the mirror. No trace of tears lingered but she noticed her sclera had developed minute red veins. Her crow’s feet looked more pronounced than they had done yesterday and she swore her eyes had faded of late, from the bright azure of her youth to insipid light blue.
She splashed water on her face and ran a comb through her hair: shoulder length and the colour of coal sprinkled with an occasional thread of silver, and went to join the family.
‘Hurry, you three, or you’ll be late for school,’ Anne smiled.
Hamish, Rorke and Jane lingered in the hallway discussing a blue tongue lizard balanced on Jane’s hand while Rorke cautiously patted its head. Anne squeezed passed the trio and as usual wished she were six inches taller. Except for Rorke, lately she found she had to look up at the children when she spoke to them. She sighed and went into the laundry to find Carol’s stockings.
Andrew, almost seventeen, didn’t feel quite so brave in the light of day. His voice sounded shaky and he felt keyed up with nervous apprehension.
Arthur, his father, had severe psychological problems. He had ignored the doctor’s advice to stop drinking and last night as a prime example he had consumed his usual bottle of whisky then verbally abused Andrew.
‘You’re an idiot!’ Arthur had yelled. ‘If you don’t take the printing apprenticeship I’ve arranged you’ll get no more financial support from me!’
Andrew had learnt not to argue and stormed out the room. He hated the idea of becoming a printer’s apprentice, stuck inside a factory. Instead, he yearned for the infinite plains of the outback and skies so high and clear, his spirit could soar alongside wedgetails.
After the argument, he had lain awake for hours, his thoughts resembling numbers rotating in a bingo tumbler. By one o’clock, when the house lay in silence, he sat up. Damn it, he would leave! He found his notebook and pencil and began to make plans.
A month previously he had gone to an employment agency to find work and had read about job vacancies on a cattle property, ‘Nockatunga’, in southwest Queensland. The clerk had told Andrew the government subsidised the wages of youths who worked on the land. To Andrew, money wasn’t important; he just wanted to get away from Arthur.
If he accepted the job he would have to travel by train from Sydney to Cunnamulla via Brisbane and Charleville and from Cunnamulla he would have to hitchhike. In theory, it sounded easy, but the clerk had no map and Andrew hesitated.
The man had laughed at Andrew’s uncertainty. ‘The experience will do you good, young fella! When I was your age I fought at Gallipoli and that was a lot farther than south-west Queensland!’
‘I would like to think about it,’ Andrew replied.
‘Take as long as you like, mate, you’re the first one who has applied and I hope you realise what you are in for,’ he sneered.
‘What do you mean?’ Andrew frowned.
‘Jesus, mate, you must have some idea! Blackfellas, blowflies the size of grapes and the dust! Gets into your pores and up your arse after a while, and can you stand the heat?’
Andrew smiled. ‘Is that all?’
He grabbed the address and directions and laughed at the surprised expression on the clerk’s face.
‘A piece of cake, mate!’ Andrew said and slammed the door on his way out.
Once outside, however, Andrew paused, dropped his cheerful manner and his shoulders sagged. Maybe the man was right, maybe he shouldn’t apply for a job fit only for musclemen.
He had bought a map as soon as he had left the agency and had located Thargomindah, the nearest town to Nockatunga. Jeez, 700 miles beyond Cunnamulla, 2500 miles in total from Sydney! That couldn’t be right, he must have made a mistake. No wonder the agency had conveniently lost their map. Only an idiot or a city kid would accept a job without knowing his exact destination. Andrew fell into both categories.
Despite his reservations, he had written and received an encouraging reply from the manager, Mike Roberts.
Andrew hadn’t told Anne about the hitchhiking and had vaguely implied the cattle property wasn’t far from Cunnamulla.
Now, he sat on his bed and heard his siblings’ prattle as they prepared for school. He spread out the map, and scanned it for the hundredth time and questioned his foolhardiness about such an odyssey into the unknown while his heart pounded in agreement.
‘Into the lounge room, everyone, Andrew wants to talk to you!’
Andrew heard Anne’s announcement, sighed and left his room. Hamish already sat on the sofa reading but none else had arrived.
Hamish looked up and smiled. ‘Andrew, Mum says you have something important to tell us.’
At fourteen, Hamish’s dark Celtic features, inherited from Anne’s side of the family, complimented Andrew’s whose Nordic complexion filtered through from Arthur’s ancestry. Almost as tall as Andrew he stood and laid his arm across his brother’s shoulders.
‘Are you all right?’ Hamish frowned. He wondered if Andrew was ill he looked so pale.
‘I’m fine, Hamish. Where are the others?’ Andrew replied as his stomach muscles clenched nervously.
Before Hamish could answer, Rorke’s laughter echoed along the hallway and he ran full pelt into the room followed by Jane and her lizard.
‘He won’t bite, I promise, Spike.’
Jane had nicknamed Rorke ‘Spike’. His blond hair stood erect despite Anne’s constant brushing.
‘That’s what you said about the guinea pig, Jane!’ he cried.
Jane mirrored Hamish except for his broad chest. Anne had always thought if she had borne twin girls, she could never have told them apart.
Anne and Carol entered last of all.
Arthur had left for work so Andrew was free to speak his mind. His siblings, mischievous but lovable, every one of them, had shared many tough times with him: hidden from crocodiles; buried their faces in their mother’s skirts when threatened by Arabs in Mombasa; laughed over a bidet in Marseilles. Goodbye meant he wouldn’t be here tonight or tomorrow or for the next few months at least.
Jane picked up her school bag, opened the front door and as she turned to Andrew, tears appeared on her cheeks like drips from a candle.
‘I can’t manage without you,’ she cried.
Rorke wept openly. ‘Neither can I.’
‘Thanks a lot, you two,’ Hamish said indignantly. ‘What about me?’
‘I know, Hamish, but you’re not Andrew.’ Jane patted his cheek.
Hamish dropped his head. ‘I know. What will we do once you’re gone, Andrew?’
‘Stay out of Dad’s way and he’ll leave you alone.’
Anne smiled at her children’s wisdom. Andrew had learned about rejection from Arthur years ago.
‘I’ll write as soon as I can, I promise.’
Rorke threw his arms round Andrew’s waist. ‘Don’t be away too long, Andrew.’ His eyes, moisture rimmed, innocent and green as a king parrot’s, gazed up into Andrew’s.
‘Promise to look after Mum for me?’ Andrew purposely changed the subject.
‘Oh, I do. Hamish and Jane and Carol can help too!’
‘Well, children, have you packed your lunches?’ Anne said.
‘Yes, Mum,’ they mumbled and stumbled out the door behind her while Carol brought up the rear. She whispered good luck to Andrew and closed the front door behind her.
Suddenly, Andrew realised how much he would miss them.
When he had planned to leave, he hadn’t thought beyond escaping Arthur’s tyranny. Now the realisation suddenly hit him. He would also have to leave the rest of family behind. Yet a chap could only take so much mental abuse and Arthur had almost succeeded in breaking his spirit.
Meanwhile, Anne and the children had reached the bus stop where Carol caught the bus to work.
‘See you all tonight.’
Carol quickly kissed everyone and ran to meet the bus as it plummeted down the hill towards the bus stop. Agile as a gazelle, she jumped on and turned to wave before it sped round the corner.
The children dragged their feet and continued on to school. Their sad expressions resembled rain-soaked baboons sheltering on the branch of a Mopani tree and Anne wanted to weep.
‘Cheer up, everyone, please,’ she said.
‘But how could Andrew leave us, Mum?’ Jane sounded inconsolable.
‘Jane, you know he and your father continually fight.’
‘And it’s Dad’s fault,’ Hamish interrupted harshly.
‘I know, Hamish, but he’s ill.’
‘You always make excuses for him, Mum,’ Hamish said.
‘Do I? I wasn’t aware I did.’ Anne felt stunned.
‘Well, you do, Mum.’ Jane backed up Hamish’s statement.
‘Goodness, I’m sorry, children. Nevertheless, you know he can’t help his odd behaviour,’ Anne said.
‘Well we – Jane and I – are fed up with him. We wish he’d left, not Andrew.’ Hamish sounded bitter.
‘And me,’ Rorke added.
Anne smiled at Rorke and ruffled his hair. ‘Oh, my babies, I do love you all.’
She held out her arms and folded them in her embrace. ‘Now we’ve cleared the air, go and enjoy your day at school. Who knows, if Andrew stays at Nockatunga we might even visit him one day.’
‘Hooray!’ Rorke’s eyes lit up while Jane and Hamish only grimaced.
Anne watched them enter their classrooms then turned for home, her thoughts once again on Andrew. Did she have the foresight to correctly dictate her children’s path in life? Andrew had reached an age where she felt she could only advise.
Over the last few weeks, he had spent hours at the library studying the life of Sir Sidney Kidman, the cattle king who had left home at thirteen. Sidney was knighted after he had founded a cattle empire between late 1800s and early 1900s. The empire encompassed more square miles than the United Kingdom combined. Andrew didn’t aspire to reach such heights. He only wanted a part of it, and was prepared to work hard to achieve his ambition.
Without any prospects, she wouldn’t have agreed to him going out west but when the agency had offered the job, she sensed no matter what she said he would go anyway. He didn’t care about money – who did at seventeen? He had time on his side and if he changed his mind and came home, it wouldn’t be too late to choose another occupation.
Anne’s life over the last twenty years certainly differed from the norm and she’d managed without much money. Arthur’s character had mirrored their way of life, unpredictable, mercurial but enjoyable, although lately he existed from one bottle of whisky to the next. How she had loved him in the beginning, with strength of mind, which surprised her. She would have climbed Ayers Rock naked and barefoot if he had asked.
Andrew had to find his wings and to her satisfaction, in the last few days she had noticed tiny sprouts of courage, similar to her own, emerge.
Anne returned home only too aware of what lay ahead. She inserted her key and opened the front door. Andrew paced the passageway like a trapped animal. She removed her key, tried to hide her wretchedness and instead spoke brusquely.
‘Come on, I’ll cook breakfast,’ she said.
‘Mum, can you pack for me after all?’
He suddenly smiled and she sensed he would cope with whatever lay ahead.
‘Of course, but first you must eat. Bacon, eggs, baked beans and toast and if you don’t wipe the plate clean you can’t go. Goodness knows how long before you’ll have another decent meal,’ Anne smiled.
She lifted her hand as if to ruffle his hair as she passed behind his chair but immediately retracted her hand. How long since she had done that? Nowadays Rorke received the ruffling, but he was only twelve.
She lit the stove and put on the frying pan. In next to no time the comforting aroma of eggs and bacon filled the kitchen and Andrew salivated in anticipation.
‘Smells wonderful, Mum, not many chaps have an understanding mother who can also cook!’
While he ate, Anne jammed Andrew’s knapsack not only with clothes but also sandwiches, fruit cake, apples and peanuts, a tin of boiled sweets and two bars of chocolate.
By the time Andrew was ready it was almost lunchtime. Anne made him a sandwich but he was too nervous to eat.
‘Here, I’ll wrap it and you can add it to your food supply.’
‘Mum, the bag’s heavy enough already!’ he protested.
Andrew grinned. ‘Yes, Mum.’
‘How much money have you saved from the paper round?’
‘Six dollars fifty.’
‘Is that all! How far do you think that will take you, Andrew?’
He shrugged. ‘The train ticket costs six dollars and with the food you’ve given me I won’t need any money,’ he said.
Anne sighed, reached for her handbag and took out her purse.
‘I was going to give it to you anyway, but you must watch every penny until you get paid,’ she smiled and tucked two ten-dollar notes in his pocket.
Anne ran a comb through her hair.
‘No, Mum, let’s say goodbye here.’
She put down the comb and noticed his serious expression. He has already changed, she thought.
‘Anything you say, son.’
Silently she embraced him and sensed his anxiety when he gently pushed her away. She held her emotions in check while he picked up his bag and walked out the door, closing it firmly behind him. Andrew, she thought, as her tears flowed unchecked, has begun his own trek.
Despite his resolve not to cry, Andrew had also fought back tears. He couldn’t allow Anne to know homesickness scared him far more than the unknown trip ahead.
Arthur’s face wavered before his eyes. Their strange relationship included a kind of love; nevertheless, Arthur had rejected Andrew once too often. When Andrew became a man, he might find the strength he did not possess at this time in his life to confront the old bastard. Today though, Andrew had matters more important on his mind and blanked out Arthur’s stern countenance.
Anne found it impossible to imagine the size of Nockatunga, approximately two million acres of Australia, Andrew had said. Suddenly doubts assailed her. What if Andrew became ill or was bitten by a snake, or was tossed from a horse, perhaps even run down by a mad bull. She had always detested over-protective mothers yet suddenly she had become one. She laughed and felt ridiculous; after all he was nearly seventeen years old.
Hadn’t she left home to follow her dream in 1940 and joined the WRENS at eighteen. Bombs, death, blood and guts became everyday occurrences and her own mother, Hannah, had begged her not to join up. Only now, Anne understood Hannah’s feelings of loss.
Andrew’s vision, on the other hand, seemed tame by comparison. He wouldn’t have to handle bombs but maybe blood and guts.
Andrew erased Anne’s face from his thoughts. He must become self-reliant, concentrate on the future not the past. Excitement and fear filled his belly and he silently thanked Arthur for instigating last night’s argument or he wouldn’t be on his way.
He alighted from the bus in Eddy Avenue adjacent to Central Station, slung his knapsack over one shoulder and joined the queue at the ticket office. When he reached the window, he told the teenager behind the counter he’d already booked his ticket and had come to collect it.
‘Taylor? Ah, here we are,’ he said and read the ticket. ‘Who’d want to go out to Cunnamulla with the dust, flies and blackfellas?’ the youth sniggered.
Andrew was taken aback. ‘Please just give me the ticket.’
‘No need to get snitchy, mate!’
He grabbed Andrew’s money and thrust the ticket through the metal grill.
‘I bet you’ll be back in a few days!’ he laughed.
A stranger next in the queue frowned at Andrew.
‘What a cheeky sod,’ he remarked.
Andrew smiled. ‘I’m fine. I think he’s envious he’s stuck in his cage!’
The man laughed.
‘Next!’ the clerk bellowed.
‘Young man, don’t you dare raise your voice to me!’
The man looked back at Andrew and winked. ‘Good luck.’
He smiled and turned back to the ticket window. Andrew grinned, pocketed the ticket and walked away. The train didn’t leave for three hours so he found a seat, sat down and pulled out his map, already creased and covered in mileage calculations.
It still hadn’t sunk in he was on his way and wouldn’t return home tonight. The cattle station seemed another world away and from now on he would have to travel by instinct and naivety. Yet, hadn’t he trekked the world for most of his youth albeit with family support?
Doubts began to creep into his mind as he scanned the proposed journey for the two hundredth time. Maybe he had, after all, made a dreadful mistake. The ticket in his pocket pressed sharply through his shirt. He withdrew it and looked at the small piece of cardboard.
CENTRAL TO ROMA STREET 16th November 1966 seat no 16
ROMA STREET TO CUNNAMULLA 17th November 1966 seat 22
He could still change his mind, but when Arthur’s face, bloated from rage and whisky, suddenly hovered before his eyes he knew he couldn’t. Come what may, nothing could be as bad as a future with his father, nothing! He refolded the map, replaced the ticket, straightened his shoulders and looked round. A sign pointed to a train museum. He banished all thoughts of failure, stood and followed the signs.
Anne’s brain click-clacked. Andrew had left a void she didn’t know how she would fill. She couldn’t settle so she donned her straw hat and sunglasses and decided to go for a walk to the nearby harbour-side beach.
When the children accompanied her she would smile indulgently at their gasps of wonderment as they spotted tiny marine life captured in the confines of the ridged pools of crystal seawater until the next high tide floated them free.
Alone today, however, she had time to think. Multi-hued shells of every description sparkled in the sunlight and crunched underfoot. Occasionally a crab scuttled away at her approach. She considered this her private sanctuary, where, during the week, she hardly saw a soul. Sandstone rocks formed a natural seat under the shade of a Cadua eucalypt and she became quite angry when anyone else occupied her space.
Gulls, terns and cormorants, busy on their endless search for food, intermingled with countless numbers of assorted parrots. Nectar from the eucalypt blossoms attracted the parrots whose cacophony drowned out seabirds’ plaintive cries in their quest for the freshest flower. Occasionally a blue tongue lizard would emerge from under a rock to recharge in the sun.
Anne adored her children, but she also treasured quiet moments. Here she could view her uncertainties with a clear mind and usually found a solution.
Sister Dean, matron at the local private hospital, employed Arthur as a casual gardener and odd job man. She was aware of his psychological problems and conceded he needed time off work to have treatments.
Arthur had lost interest in the family and no longer inquired about their welfare. Anne tried to accept his gradual withdrawal, but his complete abandonment of responsibility made her angry.
Hamish, Jane and Rorke, too young to understand, avoided Arthur whenever possible. Carol and Andrew, however, did understand, but Arthur had destroyed any trust they had in him years ago.
Arthur wouldn’t miss Andrew, he often went an entire week without speaking to his son, but Anne would keep to her word and only tell him on Saturday about Andrew.
Amongst the wildlife, Anne dangled her feet in the seawater and luxuriated in the gentle breeze as the tide reached its zenith. Diamond bright sparks glistened on the water from the sun’s reflection. Surrounded by such magnificence, unpleasant thoughts melted away. Shade from the eucalypts gently dappled her body. Supine on the rock she stared into the heavens between leaves of varying shades into a cloudless sky, blue as a kingfisher’s wing.
She suddenly wanted to hug the trees, sky and grass. What a ridiculous idea she thought. Still, she couldn’t help the way she felt. Mother Nature accepted Anne’s moods regardless and soothed her fraught nerve ends.
Rejuvenated and prepared to face the world again Anne replaced her sunhat and sunglasses and walked home.
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