Jamie Derkenne (Macquarie University, Australia)
Once there were old trees all along the Nambucca. Cedar, ironbark, tallowwood, white cedar, figs, white beech, even the sacred Muurrbay. When people started building fences, they started cutting down trees, so many of them that when you looked you could see what your neighbour was doing. Some of those old fig trees were so big they were ringbarked then surrounding trees were felled on top of them, and left to dry. After a year the whole lot would be set alight and burn for months. By the time Thad Shillingsworth bought his hundred most of the old trees had been replaced by rubbish wood: thick lantana, wild olive, camphor laurel, poplar, privet and even willow. When he found his son Frypan carving his tag, being the PAN part, into one of the few remaining old trees, Thad thrashed him so hard with a rain-sodden sapling uprooted on the spot that Frypan’s arms and back came out all welts that lasted days.
Frypan wasn’t usually interested in carving out his tag on wood. He preferred spray cans and the tin walls of the Frank and Eliza Newman Folk Museum. He’d taken out the knife thinking he might cut himself with it, not too much, just to feel a little pain.
‘I shouldna oughta done that.’ Thad would say later, full of shame, but never saying what the thrashing was for. Thad had been a Kinchela boy, which meant Frypan must have done some serious trespassing for Thad to have lost it. Kinchela boys had lost their parents, even though they were still very much living and wanted their boys back home.
There’s one or two things you could say about people like Thad and people often said them. Old Theresa Hendry still sucked her teeth when she talked about that bus full of university students that came into town from Sydney and put ideas into everyone’s heads, leaving decent people like her to clean up the mess. That was the start of all the problems, she’d say to anyone who’d listen: it was all down to some people always playing victim, she’d say. But not even Theresa could ever say kids got treated rough.
Frypan lived alone with Thaddeus, his Dad, on the Macksville Road, which was disconcerting, because most people assumed they lived at the mish like everyone else. Despite being knocked about all through his childhood, Thad had managed to do well at school, and had even gone to university. Thad was smart, and didn’t think either the mish or the middle of town were any good for raising kids. Most of the mish reckoned Thad was full of himself from going to uni on a scholarship. And when he came back, he’d somehow managed to get enough money to buy a hundred about one click from the road. Caused a lot of stubble rubbing, that, especially among the banana growers now that the prices had fallen through the floor.
Thad’s land was all goat scrub and rock, flanked on two sides by one of those Scott spreads, the third by Jesus and Mary Fernandez’s spread, full of thistles, and then huge State Forest lantana bushes on the fourth. The land would sometimes smell dead, on account of the wind blowing across the abattoir offal piles down by the river. No-one could work out why Thad had bought it. And no-one could work out how Thad had got the money. True, he’d a job as a lollipop for a Shire road crew, but some said he only got the job after he had bought the land. Others, smirking, said because he’d been to university the Shire, being a fair-minded equal-opportunity employer, felt compelled to give him the job.
Thad wasn’t exactly Mr Bowraville Of The Year, even though there were plenty who felt sorry for him for being Kinchela. Most of the mish didn’t trust his coconut ways, and didn’t trust the way he was trying to keep old stuff going, acting like a bleeding heart gubba. Most of downtown didn’t like him because of exactly the same reason. A lot of people hung their heads and talked in low voices when talking about Thad. Even his missus, Bogdana, got to not being able to stand it anymore. She rode off to Dubbo shouting ‘Zbogom moj sin!’ to Frypan, but nothing to Thad. She was holding on to the leather waist of a bloke called Rocky.
Frypan’s name was Frypan because he looked like he’d been hit in the face with one. Mrs Ringland at school called him Philip, which is what Thad had named him, but she was the only one. When Margaret Raymond finally got the cinema going again, this time without the fence, and showed Deliverance, because it was renting cheap, lots of people said Frypan looked like one of those banjo boys.
Thad had a Logan-built put on the hundred. Again no-one knew where he got the money. Despite his looks, Frypan was bright, and Thad tried to look after him. He wanted Frypan to have a good education, and a loving home. He wanted Frypan to grow up proudly.
But Frypan didn’t grow up like that. He grew twisting this way and that, just like the morning glory vine strangling the ‘Welcome to Bowraville’ sign. He missed a lot of school. Frypan did occasional odd jobs for Jude Silber, like tending the garden at the Hibiscusland Building Society, or washing his car. The fact that he had a teenage son who was earning his own pocket money in a town like Bowraville would normally have been a source of pride for a man like Thad, but there was something nasty about the relationship, something he couldn’t put his finger in. He even sometimes wondered if Jude was supplying his son with drugs. Sometimes Frypan would go out at night to see friends, and not come home to real late. Thad was sure it was something to do with Jude Silber.
Thad never much thought of buying anything for himself. He saved like crazy, with the vague idea of him and Frypan just leaving and starting a new life somewhere. But not only did he belong to this place, he felt he had to protect it, and to keep its secret safe. The secret was written on the same tree that Frypan was hacking his PAN tag and foo face on. Thad told Frypan the secret by uprooting the sapling, just about bulging his eyes out of their sockets, and thrashing the daylights out of him while roaring like a stringing heifer.
Anyone else, and Frypan would’ve used his knife. But he was kneeling, and it was his Dad. And he deserved it. Frypan had never been hit in his life by anyone except Mrs Ringland, who was fond of laying her pale cold hand across Frypan’s face, in the unshakeable belief that Frypan didn’t belong at Bowraville Central at all. But here his dad was trying to break a sapling across his back. His Dad’s veins were sticking out on his neck.
‘Jeez. It’s just me tag, Dad. Shit. You’re hurtin’ me.’ Frypan cowered, holding up his hands over his red, yellow and green striped beanie to try to protect himself from the blows. He started thinking his dad was enjoying this. Frypan was scared.
Thad paused for breath. He stood there with his hands on his knees, getting air, tears in his eyes. Even though he was a mile or two out of Bowraville, there was a stench in the air. Burning Mountain was alight again.
‘You idiot. You’ve ruined this tree. This is a special tree. And you, you idiot, you carved your stupid name all over it.’
Frypan’s lips trembled. His dad was making him feel like shit again. He’d never ever been this angry. And for what? It was just a tree. It was just a tag. And he wasn’t the first. The tree had a trunk with carving all over it. What was one more tag?
‘Just a bloody tree,’ Frypan whimpered. If he closed his eyes he could see the camphor laurel roots hiding the blanket in the river sand. Just a tree.
‘This isn’t just a tree,’ Thad said. ‘I was going to tell you about it. This tree is us. And you are carving your stupid tag on it. Into our tree.’
Frypan rubbed his arms, and snorted some snot. This was something to do with keeping traditions alive. His dad was always on about this, most of which Frypan reckoned was just in his head. And whose traditions anyway? Thad himself had an Irish mother, and Frypan’s own mum – the one who sent him the occasional Nintendo game or Wailers tape from Dubbo – was Macedonian.
‘Yeah, right,’ said Frypan, rolling his eyes and moving to get up. He was hoping to meet up with some of the mish bros to do some bongs later on. His father grabbed him again roughly. Frypan was not used to the violence. He whimpered.
‘No, you listen. I’ll tell you this only once. This here’s a sacred tree. It’s why I got this place.’
Even Frypan knew this was unlikely. He’d heard of the Muurrbay trees, but they went a long time ago. And he knew there also had once been scar trees, but every time a timber getter or a farmer came across one of those they’d blow it up or burn it down. There was no way this tree could be a sacred tree.
‘When your grandpa – my dad – was alive, you could climb up here and see all the cedar trees going red, just after the winter rains. You could spot them miles away. That’s why they all came here, you know. Red gold. To cut them down and float them away. Down the river.’
‘Grandpa Jacko told you this?’ Frypan asked the question in mock wonderment. His dad really was losing it. ‘Everyone knows this shit.’
Thad had to breathe deep to control his anger. ‘Grandpa Jacko told me nothing. He didn’t even know who I was in the end.’ Frypan looked at his Dad. Thad wanted to say more words, but didn’t. He wanted so bad for Frypan to understand. He felt tears in his eyes. Both father and son had mixed feelings about Jacko. Thad, because Jacko had been stupid enough to stay on the Island at Nambucca Heads when he’d married Thad’s mother, a mistake he didn’t even realise until Thad was seven and Jacko stood in the middle of the road watching him being driven away in a big black government Holden.
Frypan thought for a second. ‘Who gives a shit ‘bout cedar trees?’
‘I’m telling you what Fred Scott told me.’
Frypan snorted. He knew exactly who Fred Scott was, even though the man died long before he was born. The Scotts at one stage kind of owned everything. Fred was shire president for years. It was old Fred’s cousin Simon Raymond himself who made people like Thad stand, for hygiene reasons, in the stalls at the pictures when he was a kid. It was Fred’s aunty who worked with the Church and the Department to push people around from one cruddy dump to the next. For all Frypan knew, one of Fred’s relatives owned that big black car. The only good thing you could say about Frederick Scott was he died years ago.
‘Why would you have talked to Fred Scott?’ Frypan said ‘You a coconut?’ He’d heard his dad called coconut lots of times. He figured at least his dad knew who he was.
‘Fred Scott told me about Grandpa Jacko. It was Grandpa who found him.’
‘Grandpa found Fred Scott?’ This was new. Frypan couldn’t understand it. ‘Why didn’t he just leave him? If I saw a Fred Scott lying under a log, I’d’ve kicked him, spit on him, and left him.’
‘But Grandpa Jacko didn’t. He saved his life and then showed him something.’
‘How you know all this?’
‘Because I was there too. I had to stay with Mr Scott while Grandpa got help. I was a small boy, maybe six. Mr Scott was lying there, all broken. He told me what Grandpa did. It was here. Right here. On this spot.’
Frypan looked around him. There was just the one tree, and it didn’t look like it had ever fallen down.
‘Mr Scott was rescued from here? By Grandpa Jacko?’
‘That’s what I’m saying. Mr Scott come up here ’cause he could check out any cedars all along the valley that hadn’t been grubbed. There was still a few ’round in them days, but you had to know how to look for them. That’s what he was doing here. There was an old ironbark up here as well as …’ Thad pointed to the tree. Frypan looked at it again. The trunk had circles and patterns. In the middle was a pattern that looked like a snake. Underneath it was a gash, like someone had put an axe to the tree, but had given up after a few blows. His tag looked green and fresh compared to the old markings.
‘So you reckon this is an old tree?’
‘That’s what I’m telling you. But you can’t tell no-one. You have to keep this secret. Word gets out and you’ll have some fella chopping it down no time.’
Frypan nodded. Anything to do with old stuff and he knew how the people in town would go. Some years ago old Andy Murray was the talk of the town when he found some skeletons curled up underneath the kikuyu in his lower forty. The only reason anyone knew about it was because he’d blown them up with some dynamite and told everyone at the Royal.
‘Not having some smart-arse ’versity-cated suits poncin’ round my block telling me I can’t graze there ’cause of some old bones. So I blowed ’em up,’ Andy Murray had boasted, waving his rum and coke around for emphasis. Everyone had nodded agreement. Andy Murray was a member of the Freedom Scouts of Australia, an organisation which believed that universities were part of a United Nations conspiracy to rule the world.
‘What Mr Scott say?’
‘He rambled, talking to himself more than to me. But I worked out he was gonna clear those two trees to get a better view. He started with this tree, but after a couple of blows, his axe head goes loose. He was fixing it, about here I reckon.’ Thaddeus pointed to the ground, ‘When the old ironbark just fell on him. Pinned him down good. Here he was trying to chop down one tree, and the one next to it just falls down and clobbers him.
‘It took us a little while to see Mr Scott. He’d been lying there for a long time. You couldn’t tell there was any fella there first – just looked like a pile of old clothes someone tossed. We smelt him before we saw him. Tree had caught his leg. He’s just lying there, sort of moaning. Grandpa gets a rock and a branch, and rolls the tree off him. But he just lies there. Shivering and sweating at the same time.
‘Grandpa Jacko, he kneels down by Mr Scott. Takes off his belt and wraps it around Mr Scott’s leg real tight. Takes out that small flask of Bundy he always carried around.’
‘“You want a drink, Mr Scott?” he says.
‘Mr Scott rolls his eyes and tries to lick his lips. Grandpa holds the Bundy for him and he swigs it. Gets the sun in his eyes, so Grandpa takes off his Akubra and holds it over Mr Scott’s face to give him some shade. Mr Scott starts screaming and then slumps like he’s asleep. Grandpa just looks at him for a few seconds. He then turns to me and says:
‘“You stay here with Mr Scott. I’ll go and get some help. Stay here with him, don’t go away.”
‘After a while Mr Scott comes to and starts muttering something to himself, something about forgiveness. He just lies there talking to himself. I sit there next to him waiting, shying stones. I don’t care what happens to him. But my grandpa Jacko told me to wait there, so I did.
‘Maybe I nod off for a few minutes, because next thing I know Mr Scott grabs my arm real hard.
‘“You hurting me boss, let go!” I says.
‘But he just stares at me and croaks “What’s in the bloody hat?”
‘It takes me a few seconds to work out what he’s talking about. He’s talking about Jacko’s lid. You know the one. Just the old Akubra he always wore.’ Frypan remembered the hat. It was old dark brown rabbit felt. Jacko had bought it in Kempsey.
‘“It’s just my dad’s hat mister, that’s all. What’s it to you? What you see?” I’m thinking Mr Scott is crazy from lying under the tree too long.
‘Then he lets go my arm, goes all weak and says “Everything. I saw bloody everything. Whole of bloody everything. In there. In his hat.”
‘I shrug, thinking Fruit Tingle. “What, all of Bowraville?” He shakes his head. “Don’t know what you’re saying mister,” I says, but start wondering what Grandpa Jacko has in his hat.’
‘Did you ask him?’
‘Yeah, I asked him. I waited until the men put Mr Scott on a stretcher and are carrying him down the hill.’
‘“What’s in the hat?” I says.
‘Your Grandpa looks at me, same way he looked at Mr Scott.
‘“Nothing, just nothing.”
‘“But Mr Scott says he saw something.”
‘“Wasn’t anything. I’ll show you.” Grandpa Jacko takes the hat of his head and holds it up so I can see the inside. At first I think he’s right, that Mr Scott is just seeing things. Then I see some of the felt is worn through, and there’s a little hole in the top. Through the hole, the way Grandpa Jacko is holding that hat, I can see the tree. This one here. And those markings. I can see them.’
‘And they move. The carving is a snake, moving. I shout, but Grandpa just shakes his head laughing and says “You’re just dreaming.” Mr Scott gets taken to hospital. He starts to get a bit better, then gets worse, then he, you know, goes away. All downtown say it’s a sorry business, but all the mish say the Lord Almighty has judged him. But he tried to give it back in the end, you know.’
‘Tried to give what back?’
‘He gave me this block. After Kinchela I was living at the mish when a legal bloke drove out and said this block was mine. Mr Scott must’ve taken a shine to me while I was waiting with him. The lawyer said it’d taken a while to sort out ‘cause Mr Scott’s own boys weren’t having it. It took years more before it was mine legal.’
Frypan shook his head. Just because you get something back doesn’t mean the person who took it isn’t a thief any longer. His dad just didn’t get it.
Frypan never could keep a secret, everyone in Bowraville knew that. Soon after he had mates over for a ride. They dropped their Suzukis and when they climbed up the ridge for a bong, he told them. They all laughed at Thaddeus, but Frypan just smiled, feeling uneasy. After finding what he found by the river, he was starting to think his dad wasn’t so stupid after all.
Wasn’t long after that someone snuck up there with dynamite. Frypan made out that he didn’t care. But Thad wasn’t the same. He couldn’t help thinking who would want to do that? He still did talks and cultural stuff at the Central School for a while, but it was to kids who had lived all their life in town and had never even been to the mish, even though it was less than half a mile from the school. He felt invisible. At night, listening to an old record of Palestrina’s Miserere he couldn’t stop thinking about all the secrets this town tried to bury or keep under its hat. He thought again of his father’s Akubra. Whatever happened to it? Sacraficium Deo spiritus contribulatus: cor contritum, et humiliatum… His own hair was going grey and he didn’t even have a lid.
Jamie Derkenne has published stories in a number of magazines including The Quarry, Birdville, and Ragnarok. He lived in the Nambucca Valley in northern NSW in the 1980s, and is presently studying at Macquarie University.