I’m squinting out at the surf, out to the white spray shooting up off Wedding Cake Island, not looking at the Rock beside me, lying face-down on the sand, his shoulder so close by my hip I can almost feel him there anyway. See without looking the colour he’s got to him, like the red earth after rain, promising . . . nothing I’ve ever seen. I’ve never been further west than Parramatta, on a school excursion I don’t remember, don’t know a thing about the wide brown land except for what you read in a six-penny romance, and he’s going back out there tomorrow, home to Nyngan, going shearing, just as he did last year, and the year before that, and the year before that.
Shearin’ – the way he drops his g’s you wouldn’t know he’s just finished his final exams at the University of Sydney, that he’s going to be a geologist. This is why I call him Rock. Rock Boy. You only get more than ten words out of him at a time if he’s talking about rocks, Gordon Brock, who lives above the rocks of Gordon Bay, which I found funny when he started boarding next door with Mrs Zoc, almost four years ago now, and he looked like a boy, so skinny, such a long piece of string, he looked like the next southerly would blow him back over the ranges.
He’s filled out a bit this year. Shearer’s shoulders, like his father, my dad says, and he’d know. Our dads know each other, from the army, not that I’ve ever met Mr Brock. And not that Dad ever says more than ten words at a time about it, but while he reckons he had what he calls a ‘good war’ for himself, one where he got home in one piece to become a qualified mechanic, set up shop, get married and build a nice little Californian bungalow up from this beach – things he never would’ve been able to do if he’d stayed a bushie in Gilgandra – Mr Brock didn’t have such a good war. He got invalided home at the start, from Gallipoli, then got a soldier’s settlement on the edge of the desert that turned to dust with drought in time for the depression to put him in debt to the bank for nothing forever, and that was after his wife died, leaving him to raise Gordon on his own. Bleeding misery, Dad says, of both the circumstances and the man. But he would never say such a thing to Rock’s face. A fine job that father of yours did with you, son, Dad tells Rock often and with conviction. A degree from the university, Dad says, shaking his head with the miracle of it, as they tinker over the rusty old Triumph motorcycle Dad’s let Rock sort of adopt as his own. Keep out of this war now, son, Dad tells him too, There’s better things around the corner for you, having sort of adopted him. He doesn’t have a boy of his own; only me.
Me and Rock.
Rock and me.
Stop going on and on about it, Bernie. Rock this, Rock that and what he had for breakfast. Stop it.
Dad loves him. Rock got his call-up letter on Wednesday, for this compulsory national service thing that’s been brought in for everyone’s twenty-first birthday, and Dad put it straight in the incinerator. You’ve got essential national service to be getting on with in the woolsheds, son, and you can do it with clear conscience. Where was this Menzies in the last fight, eh? All mouth and no trousers, that one. Dad doesn’t think much of this new prime minister, or anyone that didn’t serve, and he’s not alone. WHERE’S OUR SPIRIT OF EMPIRE? is the question hanging outside the newsagent up at the Spot, looking right at the repat hospital across the road, and someone has stuck a note behind the wire answering, Lost in Flanders. But Dad needn’t worry, not for Rock: he’s safe. Shearers aren’t allowed to enlist, essential industry, and at any rate he’ll soon enough be getting a letter to trump the call-up one. He’s applied for a field position with the Geological Survey, and the recommendation he’s got from his professor says he’s already got the job. A government job; the army will leave him alone then. And the government will send him straight back out bush, looking for essential rocks. In his element. One day he’ll find a rock that no one’s ever found before, they’ll call it Brockite, and it will change the world, cure the common cold, win him a Nobel Prize . . .
That makes me stare with some more determination past Wedding Cake Island. I don’t know what’s round the corner for me, but it’s not Rock, not any boy. It’s . . . What do I want if it’s not Rock?
Certainly not my job in Chalmers department store. Personal assistant to the advertising manager sounds glamorous, but beyond the three T’s – tea, telephone and telepathy – my job is practically only to make Mr Heany’s catalogue copy a little less of a hideosity without him noticing, to make sympathetic noises when the illustrators call to complain about his rudeness and, come summer, to be swimsuit ring-in for mannequin parades, on account of my pins, which I agree to do mostly just to horrify Mum. I want to go somewhere beyond this, here, Coogee, a million lazy bathing Sundays and otherwise spending my time thinking up ways for Mr Heany to make the women of New South Wales desperate to want more and more things they don’t really need.
I want things myself, all right – I want to see things, learn things. I want to do things. I want a purpose. I want a career. Awful as the thought is vague, maybe this war might let me find one. Maybe the world is going to change this time; people are fed up with history repeating like greasy pork chops, fed up with Alexander the Krauts going mad for a conquest of Europe and being asked to offer up their sons for it while at the same time being told that on-the-knee hemlines are the greater scandal. Maybe there’s something for me in all this. An opportunity of some kind. Something beyond the girl next door marrying the golden-haired boy. Something coming round the corner I can’t even imagine yet. Maybe. Maybe I just want to get to the end of maybe and know. Know I had a go. At . . . who knows? I’ll be twenty-one myself next September, officially on the shelf, and maybe by then the army will be desperate enough to want me.
The laugh that bursts out of me startles a gull into the air and Rock says into his towel: ‘Share the joke?’
I glance away north towards the flags, the beach filling up. ‘I was just wondering, do you reckon Mr Menzies would give me a rifle?’
‘No.’ He snorts. ‘He’s not that stupid.’
‘You’re right – if armed, I might quickly become a public menace.’ Or go AWL right now from the pitch of your voice alone: not high, not low, just perfect, just Rock. Just stop it, Bernie; and keep things light, keep the jokes coming. ‘The government’ll probably ban retail for the war effort next and put me out of a job altogether.’
‘Now that could be a risky move,’ he laughs, muffled, into his armpit. Don’t look at him.
‘Is that so?’ I ask the ocean. ‘I’d be a risk without a job to go to at all?’ What’s that supposed to mean? I’m not even worth marrying? Not worth the risk?
‘Not you,’ he laughs some more. ‘I mean . . . banning retail . . . could make the Japs a menace to the public. Probably quickly.’
‘Oh.’ That takes my breath away. The way he speaks. His bits of sentences strung together with long-distance pauses as vast as his brain. He means of course that banning retail would prevent the Japs from continuing to sell us vast quantities of cheap imitation rubbish, which might then be excuse enough for the Yellow Peril to invade – turn all that iron ore we’ve sold them into bullets and bombs. I could reply with the expected quip about Mr Menzies here, otherwise known as Pig Iron Bob for selling this precious ore to the Japs in the first place, but I can’t. My breath remains taken, and inside the crashing of the surf I am remembering the first time Gordon Brock took it.
It was at the end of last summer, he’d just come back from Nyngan and he was standing inside the scoop of honeycombed sandstone under Bare Island, out at La Perouse; we’d gone fishing, caught nothing; it was raining and blowing a gale, and I’d been blithering on about if or when another war was coming and whether or not politicians took a special oath not to talk straight about anything, when he told me that the only truth worth knowing is in the earth, if only rocks could speak. He ran his hand over the swirling caramels of the rock above his head and said: Truth is like gold, not got by its growth, but by washing away from it all that isn’t gold. Tolstoy said that – well, according to Scientific Mind monthly, he did. I wouldn’t know Tolstoy if I fell over him in the street, but I could have fallen for Rock then. His smile: hopeful, truthful. Wonderful. I could have kissed him then. But I didn’t. I got him talking about iron ore instead – he was about to start writing a paper on some type of the stuff for his final year. Paper that has got him the job on the survey, that will take him away from me soon enough anyway. Just let that happen, gently.
I let myself look at him now, and breathe out as I tell the vast expanse of his back: ‘I’m going to miss you.’ That catches in my throat, because it’s true.
He rolls onto his side and opens his eyes. His eyes are grey, cool but warm, a fine overcast, promising . . . perfect weather for anything. His hair streaked with caramel sunshine, needs clipping.
He says: ‘Want to go fishing this arvo?’
No. Never mind gentle. I start lying for all I’m worth. ‘No, better not.’ I can’t tell him the truth: that I can’t go fishing with you because I don’t want to kiss you, because if I do, that’ll be the end of me. I’ll disappear. Fall into the department-store catalogue of marriage, children, and worrying over whether the spuds will crisp while waiting for the postman to bring the next catalogue. Look away. Never mind the kiss. If I hop on the back of the bike with Rock this afternoon, soon as I put my arms around his waist, I’ll have rendered myself unemployable for everything except being his wife. And at the very least I will then get the sack from Chalmers, that’s an irrefutable law, and I will have no shelf to speak of at all.
So I tell him the worst lie I can think of: ‘I’ve got a date. The club social, at the Aquarium.’
To put him right off. He doesn’t think much of the surf club crowd, not that he’s ever outright critical of anyone – he just becomes absent whenever there’s a bunch of posers about.
‘Oh.’ He gives out a sound that stops short of a sigh with a sharp frown. I may as well have punched him in the stomach. A look that makes me want to reply, Well, you shouldn’t have followed me down here this morning, as if this is an unusual event. As if we didn’t discover three summers ago that we share a liking for Sunday morning pre-crowd quiet, right here, at the south end, not too close to the club and not too far from the Niagara for an after-surf, pre-roast dinner sneaky tub of butterscotch whirl. His frown deepens with hurt, and now I want him to say: No, Bernie, you’ll be coming fishing with me. I want him to declare it, put his foot down, so that I have no choice. So that I will say yes, and he will stop looking so terribly hurt, and, most importantly, I won’t be responsible for what happens next.
Instead he says: ‘I’ll take off then.’
Throws his towel over those bronzed Chesty Bond shoulders and he’s gone at a jog, up and into the changing sheds, into the shadows of the line of concrete blocks below the prom, and I’m thinking: Gordon Brock, you really are perfect in every conceivable way, except that you could sulk for Australia. Doesn’t he know by now I wouldn’t go to a club social if you paid me? Tonight’s is for the start of the water polo comp too, opening match between Coogee and Bondi – you won’t be able to move for all the swelled-up blockheads and doubtless there’ll be a fight. For an enormously intelligent man, Gordon can be as thick as all that lot. Come back and call me out on the lie; come back and tell me I’m wrong to let you go. I keep staring at the sheds, wanting to see the shape of him, the way he walks, always going somewhere, always with a purpose. But the glare off the concrete blurs my vision and I don’t see him come out.
By the time I start walking back home, via a long Rock-avoiding vanilla malt at the Niagara, I’ve tried and failed a hundred times to find the words to explain, apologise, tell him the truth, that maybe in a year, or five, or wherever. Maybe might end, I . . . go around and around until I’ve infuriated myself. Then, all the way up the steps of Heartbreak Hill, which has never seemed so aptly named or formed, I wrestle with my envy of his certainty, his doing, his knowing, and my knowing that the distractions that go on and on inside his mind are doubtless certain ones, important ones, about minerals and metals and maths and all sorts of things important to other people, to industry, maybe even to humanity. What am I important to? Baaa. I’ve almost worked myself into a steam of resentment enough to blame him for my not knowing, when I round the corner of our street and find Mrs Zoc at her gate next door, hankie in hand.
‘Oh Bernadetta, what will I do without my good boy?’ she’s crying, as she does every time he goes back home. ‘He did not even eat his dinner before he is gone.’
What? He’s gone gone? He’s not supposed to be gone until tomorrow. I look up the side path for the motorbike, where it’s always leaning against the fence. Gone. Well, that’s not just sulking for Australia, that’s world championship sulking, isn’t it. Incredible. And not: I once laughed at him for knowing what type of granite the pylons of the Harbour Bridge are made out of and he didn’t speak to me for a fortnight.
I put my hand over Mrs Zoc’s on the rail. ‘You know he’ll be back. And he’ll come back skinny, and desperate for your spaghetti.’ I could fall in a great heap myself right now. I look away, out to the ocean, over the cliffs of Gordon Bay. Oh, Rock. What have I done? The right thing. For me. This is good. Of course it is. This is what I wanted, so I can stop going on and on about it now, put my own mind to something more constructive.
Dad pops his head out from under the latest eyesore, the utility truck he’s been working on, out on the street in front of the house. ‘You two didn’t have a falling-out, did you?’
But before I can lie about that, Mum’s barrelling down the footpath from mass. ‘Who’s had a falling-out?’
Dad says, getting up off the ground: ‘Gordon’s just choofed, in a sudden hurry to be home.’
‘Oh.’ I might as well have hit Mum with a brick. Speechless: not a common state for her. I think the last time I saw her face like this was when Dad told her the lad coming up from Nyngan was Presbyterian, and for which Mum gave him immediate dispensation after the opening Pleased to meet you, Mrs Cooper. She drops a string bag full of cumquats on the footpath now; obviously she was going to make him his favourite marmalade to take, visited Mrs Cronin’s tree especially on her way back from St Brigid’s, and I won’t be getting dispensation for a while.
The three of them stand there gawking at me, cumquats rolling into the gutter and disappearing down the stormwater drain. Dad’s big brown eyes are round with disappointment, eyes that have seen more of the world than I will ever know.
I send myself to my room. If you want me, you can find me in the catalogue under D for dill. And you can all start saying it now: Gordon Brock, my one that got away.
Excerpted from This Red Earth by Kim Kelly. Copyright © 2013 by Kim Kelly.
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