Martin had a family. Parents, brothers and sisters. Lots of them, strong and important like him with large flat hands and smooth forearms and a measured way of moving so as to conserve energy for the harvest or sowing or whatever emergency came up. On a farm there are always emergencies. When the old single piston tractor blew up and knocked you father down, you are taught the rudiments of good sense, not, for example, to let petrol get all over the place when you're starting the water pump. Although Martin learnt that by seeing his hands flaming. He thought at the time it was like an exotic fish and felt no pain, put the flames out with an old wet sack, and didn't tell his father. Martin was twelve and should have known better.
He learnt about pumps and engines and how to break a horse. Loved his horses and watched them mate in the yard. The wild strong mare with shiny flanks and her readiness. The stallion rearing up, biting her. Sometimes she biting him. It was dangerous. As a boy he'd linger some way from the yard and pretend not to watch, tweaking up bits of soft new green. Breathe and roar and finish. His body in a sweat he'd race down to the first gully whooping and yelling and slapping his moist thighs and become embarrassed and hide.
Other days he'd walk down to the first gully, an intrepid and serious man. He'd want just to walk, but would take the .22 to give the walk the legitimacy it needed. People, men, on farms don't walk for exercise and boys don't walk to look at nature, they take a rifle with them. They check the sights with careful irony, and pace the gully with a bullet in the breach.
It is permissible to do anything to a rabbit. Inflict any disease, maim, injure, kill. It's not only permissible, it's required. To justify a walk you take a rifle, and to satisfy the inspector you'll do something to keep them down to at least the specified level. A rifle is the least efficient way. And you'll hear the little death yelp over the noise of a bullet. There are lots of stories among the boys of rabbits-they-have-shot. The time the bullet went in one eye and out the other (a side-on shot) and the skin's at home if you don't believe me.
They've have arguments on the school bus about this sort of thing. He and his sister Rosemary would hurl orange peel at the Cochrane kids when they got out at their place. For calling Martin a bloody abo. It wasn't being called an abo that he minded so much, he just didn't like the way they said it. And his sister had that protective things that big sisters get about their little brothers, adopted or half or fostered, or perhaps more because of that.
The biggest Cochrane would get him behind the toilets just about every recess and every lunch and beat him up. Nothing his big sister could do about that. In the event there was a showdown at the urinal and Cochrane let his guard drop, over-confidant. And Martin got him winded him and kneed him in the balls and there was never any trouble after that.
So they could argue and boast and posture on the way home in the rickety bush which ran in a big circle around all the places. Martin and his sister would take forever walking up the drive up to the house. He teasing her about what boys she was in love with and she teasing him about being soft on this particular or that particular girl. She making childish obscene kissing motions with her mouth and he holding his stomach and making puking noises. Girls germs. They'd shriek and laugh and throw sticks at teach other or bits of rock or handfuls of dust. Bully and thump each other but they would never hold hands or link arms because it was almost indecent the way her skin had a papery dryness and his was wet and nervous. After a while she went away to another school and it was then he started to go for the solitary walks with the .22 under his arm.
He'd pretend that it was a station rather than a property and hold quiet dialogues with the boundary men when they came in after weeks. Often he'd revise it and pretend that he'd just come in from an aerial survey of the place and say to his men 'We're low on water out in the far paddock', but he'd have to revise that too because he didn't think they'd use an expression like 'far paddock' on a really big place. They probably had names for the places - like towns. Some of these stations were bigger than countries and there'd be nothing much but the homestead, a few sheds, and the cattle. And the Aborigines. He'd have to revise that too. He didn't know how to handle the image of what he thought of as 'real' Aborigines, tribal Aborigines. He could manage stockmen and women because they seemed in his imagination to be like him - almost white, whether he liked it or not. Almost as white as a white man they said. Almost, they told him. He didn't know what would be expected of him in a situation like that. He became tongue-tied and awkward and embarrassed even in his imaginings and would abandon the whole scene and look for a few rabbits or start the walk back to the house.
The truth was, he couldn't care less about rabbits, dead or alive, multitudes or not. And neither could his father except in that sort of abstract practical way that farmers have. It's just something you have to do. It's a problem to which you must find a solution. But he'd always praise Martin if he came back with something. Not because it was learning to kill, but because it was purposeful behaviour. Martin resented this and almost everything else his father said.
His father seemed to be always with him wherever Martin was around the house and farm. Always wanted to know what he was about to do, and what he had just done. Wanting to know, insisting, insistent about what time he should get up, go to bed, talkative about Martin's indolence or Martin's reading habits, or Martin's table manners, or whatever Martin was doing at the time. He would say in an off-hand manner, almost out of Martin's hearing, If that boy had half a brain he'd be dangerous I reckon. So Martin would get sullen and look at this father with a sort of half-cocked smile which would make his father angry but you couldn't hit a kid because he was smiling at you. You could invent something else to hit him for though, especially if you'd had a few. Even Martin wouldn't smile then.
The worst of it was that his father took it out on his mother. Took it out, whatever it was, whatever imagined grievance, whatever insult or injury he imagined she had caused. Accused her of having affairs with other men, even though he knew she'd been in the house, or around the yard all day and had made him breakfast, lunch and dinner and gone to bed with him at night. She'd yell back at him that If he thought that she'd had time to fool around then he was crediting her with being cleverer than she really was. Which made a nice change. She'd make herself some tea and pour it into the best cup and sit on the back steps listening to the trees and to the frogs under the tankstand.
When his father was drunk and maudlin he'd want to talk. He'd talk to Martin about the ways in which Martin's mother had made him into only half a man, how he'd never be free of it, and how it would ruin his sons' lives as well. He'd talk about his own parents, of a mother who was so domineering because his father had come from England where he'd had a small market garden and consequently had no idea of how to farm in Australia. Hetty had managed the farm, was ambitious and sent the girls to the university in Sydney but the two boys had to stay at home and work on the land whether they liked it or not. He would tell Martin how he could have been a professor but his father wouldn't stand up to Hetty. Finally, one of the sisters had brought home one of their friends and that had been Martin's mother, who always flaunted her superior education. He'd never had a chance to go out on the town and get to know all the women, though, he would confide to Martin, he had plenty of offers and it was only out of duty to Martin's mother that he hadn't taken them up. Not that his mother was much in bed, didn't really like it and thought it was dirty and these days never made a move to it herself. Frigid. And he ought to know. He'd had a few of those town girls when he was young. Tied down to the farm he'd never escape now and it was all because of those bitches. A man just ought to take off and leave it to rot and all his useless sons, and half-cast strays and hangers on, with it. Go to Darwin. Start a new life. Sell the farm, have some money for a change. Women like money. He'd find himself some good-looking women who liked it. He'd have a great time. They'd be all over him like flies. He was still in his prime.
Martin was angry and embarrassed. There was nothing he could do in the circumstances, but sit there. If he made a move or looked as though he might not be listening his father would accuse him of being on her side, faithless, undutiful, disloyal, weak, unmanly, a milksop who couldn't understand a man when he talked straight.
In the morning, his father wouldn't say a word about it, any of the talk, but begin again, getting on his back about something or another, anything. He and his brothers wasting their time at school. Should be out doing a man's work, earning his keep.
Lily, his mother, would be quiet and grey and serve the greasy breakfast.
One night when Martin was about sixteen he came back inside after doing something useful, checking on a disturbance in the yard, or looking at the pigs or something and there was ruckus in the kitchen.
His father had a knife to the youngest brother's throat, roaring that he was going to kill the worthless little son of a bitch. Staggering around the kitchen with the knife and the boy. The boy was white and flaccid and unresisting, with his mouth open trying to breathe. Not struggling to escape.
His mother stood with her back to the corner and the butt of the .303 to her shoulder. She looked at her husband down the warm metal length of the rifle. Let him go, she said.
And then Lily would construct silences until Rosemary too would go away, not wanting to intrude on this woman who had come from a different age, who knew how to ride a horse and could cook perfect cakes without a written recipe, which never had a written recipe, but which always turned out right.
Once, to break the silence, Rosemary would ask to tell her how to make one. But words are not sufficient to Lily's sponge cakes. Their possibilities were endless, not of a kind Rosemary could readily understand. There was an infinite number of possible cakes but only one way to make those infinite number. Rosemary operated the other way around. An infinite number of ways to get to the same point. She papered in her imagination to get what she thought would be a better life. But Rosemary did not let on and so there was another silence between them. There was silence, and her own dreams which gave her potency and form, because in such a family you cannot discern the form of your life. Too many of the structures are kicked away by those series of silences. That which was real was not. That which was truth was either self-evident or ignored. There was no middle ground, and there seemed to be no connections. She papered her imagination and her memories with structures which didn't belong, and which she was pleased could not belong within the worlds she had inherited. Nevertheless, they were more real to her than to Lily, whom she sometimes suspected she had concocted out of recollection or dream.
Martin would become trained into physical strength and resentment by his father, the school, and the town, took it and himself to the places he knew he could win and be something in his own terms.
The carnival people who came through the small town were fantastic aliens, tattooed, strong and sluttish with a thin gauze of dark dust over their skins and over everything in their caravans. In sideshow alley ancient begrimed panda bears which were strapped into their permanent bunkers with invisible fishing line, watched as Martin and Rosemary hung back, fingering coins in their pockets and calculating how many goes and on what.
Once, they ventured into the ghost train - except there wasn't a train - they walked through the haunted corridors of black canvas - he acrid smell of the dye making their noses prickle.
Martin's sister watched, enthralled, enchanted, as pale men with well-developed tattoos handed out money and useless prizes. She watched the smudgy pictures, distorted women with enormous breasts, illegible names, red and black roses quivering on upper arms, dragons, hearts, daggers - which represented their faith in themselves, that they would always feel the same way tomorrow and would always love dragons. It was rumoured that it hurt to have done and so was all the more impressive, this emblematic parade.
At the back of the showground, past the wooden horse merry-go-round, and the steaming cold bins of ice creams, was a roped-off square and a sleazy-looking character who extolled the virtues of the Champ for the benefit of the town's mug lairs who stood around in attitudes of defiance of everything in particular. They gestured to each other with their chins like dogs in a pack, sniffing the air for a new excitement or someone else in their territory.
Martin and his sister hung around on the edge of this, large-eyed and with sticky fingers wiping down the sides of their shorts. The boxer was an unimaginable creature - to be so extravagantly praised in public seemed nearly immoral to them. Impressive.
It was much later, of course, when Martin had gone through the stage of not being seen dead with your sister in public, and then it being OK if she had good-looking girlfriends, and then into the stage of wearing his panic and boredom as if it were confidence, and he was a mug lair who stood around the boxing ring with his weight on one hip and the other leg stretched nonchalantly out like an alert brolga. Sang froid. Sang eyes. Sang hands in pockets. Sang shifting weight from one foot to the other. Sang tedium and wanting something to happen. Sang milk bars, and Saturday nights endlessly. The sang froid boys and the sang froid girls with black leather and strong sweaty cigarettes in stubby fingers with nails bitten back. Sang afternoon. Sang night. Sang the lights of the carnival cool and unfocussed in the air.
Martin stepped in, and his hands were tied up in leather fighting mittens. She looking, unable. His feet heavy and reluctant. The spiv shouting to the crowd, his smelly breath. The first hit to the side of Martin's head, the rash of white light in the black of his vision. His anger. His fists unaware, automatic.
Later he felt sorry for the boxer. The local mugs were supposed to be drunk, egged on by their mates. Legless. In his same there was nothing much Martin could do except join the square of dirty canvas and the spruiker and become part of the carnival.
His sister stood at the back of the crowd, her arms limp by her sides with despair. Silent as a dream.
© 2006 Chris Mansell
Previously published in Meanjin (Australia)