by Dr Jean Foster
Tracey sank onto the granite boulder. It was a hard seat, but she was grateful for the opportunity to rest in the shade while her friend scouted up the rock-strewn hillside to get her bearings. Normally, Tracey assiduously avoided the Australian bush, her view being that it was hot, it was dusty, it was prickly, and if you didn’t get bitten by a poisonous snake, then you would at the very least be attacked by a battalion of bull ants. So far, in the hour they had been walking, she had seen nothing to disprove her views, and she was also able to confirm that December was definitely too late to have the consolation of wildflowers to make the walk more interesting. Unfortunately, Jemma was just getting into her stride and was keen to find the shack she had glimpsed on her last visit, hence her ascent to a better vantage point.
She felt a sudden sting in her ankle and looked down to find a very large ant hanging onto her sock with valiant might as if to finally prove her point. Growling with annoyance, she brushed the creature off and wondered once again why Jemma, of all people, had invited her to come bushwalking in the first place. What had surprised her even more, was the location of the proposed walk – a little known conservation park in the Shire of Brookton. Having been a frequent visitor to her house since primary school, Jemma knew all too well the laws according to Tracey’s mother, and one of the most emphatic, was that Brookton was totally beyond the pale, being the town where Tracey’s father had lived, and as far as anyone knew, still lived. This was the man who had abandoned his family, leaving a mother embittered with too many memories and a daughter adrift with none. So dire where Tracey’s mother’s warnings about him that, to the two imaginative young girls, he had come to represent the very devil and the town that contained him, his lair.
In the end, however, it was her mother’s certain disapproval that persuaded Tracey to go. She was, after all, thirty years old, and in a belated fit of resentment, welcomed the opportunity to break the rules. She now doubted the wisdom of her rebellion, thinking longingly of her usual Sunday morning cappuccino in her favourite cafe on Cottesloe beach. True, she had experienced a brief rally of enthusiasm as they drove out along the Brookton Highway and through the jarrah forest of the Darling Ranges. The thick trees and dense, dark green undergrowth had looked cool and inviting, and she could see her self walking along the shaded tracks. Her hopes were soon dashed, however, as they continued on their way and entered wandoo country. The woodland was far more open, with very little undergrowth, and whilst Jemma had enthused at the opportunity it afforded to see the beauty of these pale barked eucalypts, Tracey had muttered, ‘Just looks sparse and scrubby to me.’
After about an hours of driving, Jemma had turned off down a single lane gravel road. The tree-lined track twisted and curved through the open farmland until she had lost all sense of direction. Clouds of “28” parrots rose up in front of the car, swooping before them in a low flying formation as if sensing her reluctance and wishing to lure her into their secret world of tall trees. Then, they were there, at the entrance to the conservation park, and as soon as they got out of the car, they were hit by the hot eucalyptus aroma so redolent of the Australian bush. Jemma had snuffed it with delight, but for Tracey, it was strangely unsettling. Thinking back on it now, all she could put it down to was that it was simply another reminder of how hot it could get away from the air conditioning. And as the morning wore on, it would only get hotter, Tracey thought to herself as she fanned her face with her hat.
‘I can see it!’ Jemma’s excited cry now came through the trees, interrupting her gloomy ponderings, and was followed shortly by her sweating physical presence. ‘All we have to do is go down the track, follow the valley floor, then climb the other side of this hill.’
‘Then can we have lunch?’ pleaded Tracey, as she stood up and heaved her back pack over her shoulder. She plodded after Jemma, glad that they were at least going downhill. She was just wondering if she could cry off exploring the shack and go back to the car when they rounded a corner, and suddenly, to her utter surprise, everything changed. In front of them lay a carpet of daisies. Only there weren’t daisies. They were strange tufted, fluffy flowers of cream and yellow and rose pink, growing all across the sun lit clearing and lapping the trunks of the pale barked Wandoos. It was so unexpected, so absurdley beautiful and soft amidst this harsh woodland, she felt as if she had walked into a Disney computer graphic. As if startled out of a semi-comatose state, she now saw things she hadn’t noticed before. Beside the track, tiny mauve stars of flowers hugged the ground, slender reeds stood tall with purple flags raised high on their masts and pink urchin blossoms clustered together under logs. Looking up into the trees, she saw their crowns fresh with new leaves, made fluorescent green by the sun filtering through them, and even the prickly dryandras and banksias around her wore their own mantle of bright new growth.
As she stood there, drinking it all in, she was startled to see two kangaroos hopping silently through the far edge of this magical meadow. A memory flew across her mind like a darting parrot, too quick for her to grasp, and yet leaving her with a profound sense of something so nostalgic that it made her feel both happy and sad, all in one instant. When Jemma turned to ask her a question, she was so choked up she couldn’t reply.
‘Are you OK?’ she said with concern, unused to seeing her friend overcome with emotion.
Tracey nodded. It was a few moments before she could speak. ‘It’s the weirdest thing, a kind of de Ja Vu as if I’ve been here before, and it made me really happy.’
‘That’s race memory,’ said Jemma with conviction. ‘It’s in our subconscious. That longing to get back to our roots. We all need the healing that the solitude of nature can bring. Perhaps you’ll believe me now when I say that being out in the bush is a kind of spiritual experience?’
Tracey just smiled. She wasn’t ready to concede defeat just yet. All the same, she started walking again with new vigour and an interest in her surroundings that she had lacked when they started out, and she didn’t even complain when they started climbing the steep hill.
They had followed the gravel track almost to the top before the shack came into view, on the crest of a ridge. It looked a complete shambles, made from a mixture of corrugated iron and old, splintering green fibreglass sheeting, held up by bush posts at irregular angles. Some of them even sprouted branches, as if, having been press-ganged into service, they were rebelling against their unnatural role. Inside, they found an almost complete household – rusted bed frames, an old kerosene fridge, a kitchen sink with tenuous piping from the water tank, table and chairs, and the gutted remains of a lounge suite. Jemma, having seen enough to satisfy her curiosity, went outside to look around, but Tracey lingered behind, strangely drawn to this place. Closer inspection showed that the bush pole frame had been constructed with care and skill, and the building materials had obviously been painstakingly collected and brought here. Large squares of carpet, disintegrating now, had been laid in an attempt to make this a home. It was clear nobody had been here for many years, and the melancholic, neglected air was made more poignant when she opened a cupboard and found a dusty plastic doll in a faded pink dress. As she picked up this sad survivor of a stranger’s childhood, she was surprised to find herself fighting back the tears.
Jemma’s disembodied voice came through the corrugated iron walls. ‘Look at this! It must have been quite the family home. There’s even a dog kennel, complete with the dog’s name painted on it!’
Tracey shook herself out of her reverie and told herself to stop being sentimental. ‘Must be Bonza’s house,’ she called back, trying to sound jovial.
Jemma’s surprised face suddenly appeared around the corner of the doorframe. ‘How did you know the dog’s name?’
On the walk back to the car, Tracey was very quiet. Images of the shack swirled in her head, and somewhere in the corner, another memory lurked, a memory she couldn’t bring to the fore, but one that she knew was important.
They reached the car to find a dilapidated white ute parked across the other side of the road, and an equally dilapidated grey-haired man locking the farm gates. Tracey usually avoided making conversation with strangers, but she went over to him. After a polite exchange of greetings, she asked him if he knew who had lived in the shack.
‘Yeah, that was Terry. He’s been dead and gone more than fifteen years now, but.’
‘Did you know him well?’
‘He helped me out on the farm, so I knew him better than anyone else did, but that’s not saying much.’
‘Why did he live there, in such an isolated spot?’ Jemma crossed the road, also curious.
‘He was pretty much a loner, and there’s no danger of any visitors up there.’
‘Didn’t he have any family?’ asked Tracey.
‘Nah. No parents, no family. Brought up by the Christian Brothers.’ The farmer shook his head. ‘Dragged up, more like.’
‘How do you mean?’
‘He was up at Bindoon. Boy’s Town. Those brothers had the boys working morning till night, carving out farmland and building ridiculous bloody great buildings – cutting their own stone, building their own scaffolding, mixing their own cement, and all with their bare hands and in bare feet. And it gets bloody hot up there, I can tell you. hese are boys as young as ten I’m talkin’ about.’
‘Surely not!’ protested Jemma. ‘There are laws against the exploitation of children!’
‘That’s as maybe, but that didn’t bother the Brothers. They made their own laws.’
‘Why didn’t the boys complain, report them?’
‘Complain to who? It’s out in the sticks, there’s nowhere else to go, and Terry told me the bastards’d hit you soon as look at you, so they soon learned to keep their mouths shut.’
‘That’s awful,’ said Tracey, feeling strangely anxious.
‘It made him what he was. A loner – just him and his dog. Like he said to me – “I don’t like most people, and most people don’t like me, so it’s better this way.” Mind you, he was a good, honest bloke in his own way. He could turn his hand to anything around the farm, and he knew how to work hard – I’ll give the Brother’s credit for that much.’
‘But surely he had a family,’ interrupted Tracey. She didn’t understand why, but his story worried her and she needed to hear more. ‘The shack was all set up for a family, kids.’
‘Well now, that’s not easily answered.’ The farmer took a deep breath. ‘It’s true he had a wife and kiddie, but they split up – and it was all pretty ugly. She never wanted to see him again and wouldn’t let him see the baby. Mind you, he never blamed her. Said he just didn’t know how to live in a family or be a dad. It was the brothers that were to blame for that. And it was more than just the hard life they led. I always knew there was something else, something he wasn’t letting on about. I’ve seen that haunted look before in men’s faces. My Uncle, for one, who was in a Jap prisoner of war camp.’
‘I can guess,’ put in Jemma. ‘We’ve all heard enough about priests and little boys…’
‘Course, I’m talking about the mid-eighties. Back then, the Brothers were still the next best thing to God, according to most people. That was before the shit hit the fan – if you’ll pardon my French. The things some of those mongrels did to the boys…’ He spat on the ground as if words alone could not express his disgust.
‘That kind of abuse can leave children unable to form intimate bonds as an adult,’ said Jemma. ‘I’m a social worker,’ she added, to give credence to her statement.
‘Yeah, well, you would know the fancy words for it. All I know is that he may not have got on with most people, but there was one person in the world he loved. That’s what led to all the trouble.’
‘How do you mean?’
‘It was 1985, and he got it into his head that he wanted to have his little girl for Christmas. Trouble is, like I said, he wasn’t allowed anywhere near her. So he just took her. The wife and I knew nothin’ about this – his photo was on the TV news, police hunting for him, all that caper, but we don’t watch much TV. First we know is when he turns up at the farm with the little mite – she was only three years old and a sweet little kid. He’d had her at the shack for three days, but he realised it couldn’t go on, she had to go back, and he wanted our help. Luckily, the local copper was a good bloke, so we called him up and concocted some story about Terry bringing her to stay with us and that it had all been a misunderstanding, and luckily the police didn’t bring any charges. But they warned him never to do that again.’ The farmer sighed. ‘He knew he’d shot his bolt, and he’d never see her again.’
‘How tragic!’ exclaimed Jemma.
Tracey was silent. She felt strange, light-headed, unreal. She needed to ask a question, but her mouth was too dry to form the words.
The farmer went on. ‘You’re not wrong there—bloody tragic life. “I’m nobody,” he said to me once when he was down in the dumps. “I’m nothing. I don’t exist.” Those words sent a chill up my spine, I can tell you.’
Tracey also felt the chill, and her tears threatened once more.
‘And yet…’ He added, ‘It wasn’t all sad. Having his daughter there meant the world to him – for those three days, you could see he was somebody. He was that little girl’s dad, and they couldn’t take that away from him. He only lived four or five years after that – years of neglect caught up with him, I guess. But you know what? I reckon in those last few years, he found a kind of happiness. We’d taken a few snapshots that day he was here with his daughter, and we gave him one. Carried it with him always, in his wallet. It seemed to be enough. It sort of gave him strength. He still lived alone, but he seemed more content. Like he’d found a way to live with himself. One little girl did that for him.’
Tracey found the courage to ask her question. ‘And the little girl, what was her name?’
‘The wife and I have never forgotten her. It made us real sad that she couldn’t ever see her dad again.’ He paused while Tracey waited in an agony of suspense. ‘Tracey. That was her name, Tracey.’
When the farmer discovered who Tracey really was, he insisted they come back to the farmhouse to meet his wife. When they finally left, Tracey took with her two things – a faded polaroid photograph of her as a three-year-old, sitting on the knee of a man she didn’t recognise, yet immediately knew; and the words of the farmer’s wife:
“Whatever else you’ve been told, there’s only one thing you need to know about your father. And that is, he loved you. He loved his little girl.”
Tracey now knew that she had lost the chance to meet her father. He was long dead and gone. And yet, for the first time in her life, she didn’t feel alone.
Copyright 2021 Jean Foster
Published by Kenneth R. Vickery