I miss my mark and the hoe slices through the burr at ground level. That won’t do it. If there’s even a trace of its roots left in the soil a Bathurst Burr will have grown to full height again within five minutes of you turning your back.
I take another swing. And another. It’s not until the fourth time of the blade ripping into the ground that I get the root cluster chipped out completely.
Pricks of things.
I look around at the carpet of them girding the kurrajong I’m parked under, and wonder whether I should keep wading into them for another ten minutes, or have another cone now.
A Hobson’s choice really.
As a broke teen, having a mix was like having a bag of gold dust, and while I rarely smoke anymore, if I do have a bud on me I still find it magnetic: I can’t stop inspecting it, sniffing it, thinking about where I can sneak to for a toke. I won’t be able to think of anything except the mix til I have a cone now.
So back to the Camira I go.
Climbing inside my white rust-bucket, it takes me a sec to find my saddie and pipe in the cluttered glove box. When I do, and have pinched hold of a chunk of mull, I make sure it’s packed tight into the cone-piece. Holding a flame to the mix, I suck a burning lungful. Straightaway it hits…feels like a weight is dragging my brain out of orbit.
Good gear, this.
I got it Monday night, from Kris, one of the latest arrivals to that row of battered fibro houses on Margle Street. Dart had taken me round.
‘Got some good hydro, this mob,’ he’d assured me solemnly, like that mattered to me. He’s the chuffer.
Inside the dim, sparsely furnished house the Morrisons used to live in I met three blokes ranging in age from about twenty to about…well, I still don’t know how old craggy-faced Jimmy is, the hippy-looking space cadet could be anything from a hard-lived 40 to a genuine old-age pensioner. Aside from him and Kris, who’s about the same age as me, there’s Bruce, who’s maybe a decade older, and is a monster-sized dirty-blonde splattered with unoriginal tatts—wire coils and star formations.
Over a few beers we’d watched some twenty-twenty, deconstructed the Aussies’ bowling attack, and attempted a few power plays of our own out in the backyard, under lights. Later, we’d retreated behind closed blinds for a few billys, and settled into some banter and Netflix. Snatch was the choice, Kris was its chooser—unbelievably, he’d never seen it.
‘Is that fair dinkum, ya reckon?’ he’d asked of Brick Top’s insights into pig farmers’ reputation in body disposal.
‘There are stories floating around about this one farmer over in Burrinwell,’ I’d said, side-eyeing Dart. ‘Got questioned about a couple of missing backpackers. Their bodies were never found. He never got charged though....’
It was a good night.
And I made it through without being converted into some crazed ice junkie. Having blown back into Tuperton a couple of days beforehand, I’d already been subjected to the whispers about these latest newcomers. That they were typical of the type of trouble-makers to have arrived in the past 18 months. That none of them worked. That they probably dealt drugs.
Based on the talk I’ve heard at The Royal, and when one friend or another of Mum’s has called in to visit, it’s these people heading out here under the State Government’s ‘Regional Rejuvenation’ incentive that have brought ice to town. Hardly a coincidence it started appearing at the same time as the job seekers, they reckon.
They’re dubious about any newcomer to town now, so the heavily tatted, man-mountain Bruce was always going to put the wind up the local judge-mentals. Wild-eyed Kris does have a sense of volatility to him too, getting about shirtless like he does, rapid-firing chatter at yokels like he’s known them all his life. Not sure about the jump to them being kid-killing ice purveyors though. Obviously they enjoy a billy, but there’s drugs and there’s drugs, and pot was well-rooted here long before this mob came to town anyway.
Still, many yokels have an unshakeable conviction of a positive correlation between tattooed newcomers and trouble. Even Mum and Dad.
‘Saw young Benny Logan coming out the Morrisons’ old house this mornin,’ Dad observed to Mum, the night I got home. ‘He wants to be careful hangin round that mob.’
He didn’t say why. Maybe he thinks Bruce’s tatts are contagious.
I fill my chest again, and hold my breath. When I finally exhale, it’s like I’m blowing out some uptight version of myself. It’s harsh on the throat, smoking from a hash pipe like this, but I’m getting a nice buzz from it.
I better ease up; I know how strong it is from the other night. I’d left the newcomers’ place baked. Accompanied by that rakish best mate of mine Darren ‘Dart’ Paulson, I’d dead-set struggled to keep it together on the way back to his joint, where I’d left the Camira.
‘It’s been a while since you been out here, eh? Too good for us these days?’ He’d sounded almost accusative.
‘First time since the Picnic Races, yeah. Been caught up with assignments. You’re always welcome to come and visit me in Newy.’
‘Maybe, bra. Need to save up a bit first.’ He’d pondered the invitation further. ‘Would be mad to spend a few weeks surfin.’
‘…except that you’ve never been surfing, and don’t know how,’ I’d pointed out. He is getting dizzier this bloke.
‘And I s’pose you can now, Dr Williams?’ he’d snorted. ‘Some sorta Mick Fanning Junior now are ya, just cause ya moved to the coast?’
Dr Williams: that was my new nickname out here, apparently. Not just with Dart; at the Royal, in the shops, at the golfy, everyone had been calling me that. I doubt any given yokel would comprehend an explanation of how an undergrad Arts degree doesn’t earn you that title. If I attempted to explain that, I’d be accused of sounding like an academic wanker anyway.
‘Na,’ I’d admitted. ‘Still don’t know one end of a board from the other. Although a few chicks in my History class have got it into their heads that I’m a demon on the waves.’
He’d grinned at that.
We’d continued through another oasis of dim orange street lighting, and back into darkness.
‘These newcomers seem like good value?’
Dart had thought about that. ‘That Bruce fullah freaks me out a bit,’ he’d said after a moment. ‘He’s a big, mad-lookin unit. And he’s quiet, but always looks pissed off...like he wants to blue.’
I’d looked enquiringly at that freckled face I’ve known forever. It’s different, like something that was there once is missing now. I hadn’t asked him by then if he’d tried some of the rocks that have rolled into town.
‘Kris seems cool though?’
And he had.
As rough as guts, but a competent banterer, Kris was a welcome fresh face to catch up with of an evening, at first. He knew his sport and had opinions on whisky. He also had a strong work ethic, despite what the yokels think—he’d picked up some rouseabouting with Stubbsy and that bloke won’t let you take it easy.
I’d rated the lad.
After spending Tuesday morning down the scrub paddock mustering a mob of wethers for Dad—rogue pricks they were—I’d called in at Dart’s, where I’d learned of a drama. Apparently Kris had taken exception to Mitch Sanders hooning up and down Margle Street the previous night. After a few times of it, he’d come outside. When Mitch had screeched past a further time, Kris had javelined an old star post at his ute.
It had chipped the duco, but otherwise just bounced off the side. But it had rattled Mitch.
Mitch is one of those spoiled farmers’ kids that can be found in every small town—drives a ute that looks like it could connect to the Hubble Telescope, and hoons around too fast in it, chucking doughies like it makes him a hero. Most people around here would have wanted to give the mop-haired wanker a clip under the ear at one time or another I’d reckon. There’s a difference between that and borderline attempting to murder the bloke though.
Still, little flare-ups are hardly uncommon in a small town. No reason to hold it against Kris. I’d continued to call on him regularly.
Not that he’s been around much during the day. In fact, with Maso in the sheds, Jackie working day shifts at the hospital, and Dart pretending to work for the council, my days have been spent mainly at home, doing odd jobs for Dad. I went to visit Dean once, but it felt weird. He has to live with his Mum now and she hovered the whole time. He wasn’t my closest mate but he was funny: I used to get a laugh out of his don’t-give-a-fuck antics, and he had some quality comebacks when a teacher chipped him. There’s no conversation in him at all now. He didn’t seem out of it or anything when I visited, just seemed like his mind was on something else the whole time.
I’ve made the five-minute drive into town a few times, to do a few laps at the pool, or get something from the shops; Damerci’s has bars on the window now. I’ve had a few sessions at the pub too, and met Kirsten’s bub, and visited Nan out at the nursing home. I’ve been bailed up here and there by different people all wanting to find out what I’m up to these days: the old biddies who sit outside the newsagency, Dad’s Lions Club mates, former teachers of mine. Most of these people had pissed me off in my last few years here, minding my business rather than their own, staring suspiciously at me whenever I’d roamed the streets with Dart and Maso, looking for something to do. But I suppose they’ve watched me grow up, and it does sort of feel good when familiar faces light up on seeing me, and seem interested in what I’m doing.
It’s been chilled, and I was enjoying my time back out here.
Until two days ago, when Kris had let me down.
Feeling like a session, I’d been at The Royal. It had been full of cockies conversing about—surprise, surprise—rainfall and the progress of crops. Although nowadays conversations have expanded to cover views about the town going to shit too, and where the latest break-in has been. At old Thommo’s, this week; he’d lost a gun and some petrol two nights previous. Was probably gonna get in trouble for not having shotty locked up, Terry Smith reckoned. Caught me drinking once at the Gymkhana, Thommo did. Never told Mum. Dad always gets him to help with the cattle when he’s trucking a load. He’s a good bloke.
Sorry to hear that, and bored by the company, I’d decided I’d had my quota of cockies’ laments and headed for the newcomers’ once more.
It had been late, but they’d been kicking on. All the newcomers plus some other randoms were in the lounge room, smashed, drinking and bantering. There’d been a familiar face there in Garbo, but he’d been off his nut and singing Rolling Stones songs to himself over on a stained lounge chair in the corner. Garbo’s a lost-cause alcho—once a gun shearer, drink had knocked him out of work by 40. But he’s a Tuperton institution; he’s a danger only to himself, still works when he can, and can tell a yarn.
After a billy, I was into the beers and a yarn with Kris. He’d been telling me about wanting to go pig hunting. I’d nodded and smiled, and treated him to a few anecdotes about monsters I’d caught. Borrowed anecdotes, they were; I have been piggin’ with Johnno and Sean, but it’s not my scene.
‘Yeah, I wanna get some practice in with me shotty soon,’ he’d enthused.
‘You’ve got a shotty?’ I’d asked, mildly surprised.
‘Of course, mate,’ he’d smiled. ‘Picked a new one up last week.’
‘What’d that set you back?’
He’d looked at me with a louche grin. ‘Not much,’ he’d winked. ‘Can pick em up real cheap out here.’
His eyes on me, I’d kept my face neutral, despite my alarm about whether this was connected to Thommo.
As though emboldened, he’d followed up with a counterpunch.
‘Yeah this place has got a few good things goin for it. It’s a perfect place to set up a lab…’
Fuck, I’d thought, I do not want to hear this.
‘…just off a highway, close enough to Wagga to get there, but far enough away for its cops to not come sniffin. And if the in-breds that live in this place ever even did cotton on, they’d be easy to convince to keep quiet.’
I’d given a half smile. But I’d felt deflated, like Kris had dogged me. I hadn’t wanted to write him off—the last thing I’d wanted to be was just another tut-tutting, judgemental local yokel. But I know these ‘in-breds,’ and yeah one or two might be backwards, but these are quality people. And I’m one of them, really.
‘I’d be happy to do some convincin too,’ he’d spat. ‘Think they’re better than us or something, these fuckers out here.’
It seemed his contempt for the locals was growing into something else. Everyone was treating him like shit. He’d been barred from the golf club for knocking a drink over, (‘who hasn’t done that?’), and now from one of the supermarkets, for stealing cat pellets (‘I don’t even fucken own a cat’). Snake wouldn’t open the garage for him last weekend, but Kris knew he had for Birro.
‘It’s like these fuckers have declared war.’
I’d heard the sirens from out the olds’. Multiple texts had revealed the cause, and hours later I’d heard more details up at the pub, where it was the sole topic of conversation. Benny Logan had hit a box tree.
‘He’s in a pretty bad way,’ Jack, the bartender, had told me. ‘Flew him straight to Sydney.’
The Royal had filled up that night. Much of the town had gathered. A fundraiser had already been organised, an Ambrose golf day.
Amongst a sombre atmosphere, I’d settled in at a table with Gilly, Dart and Jackie, and just like every other table, ours was dominated by talk of Loges.
‘Remember that time he climbed through the manhole at the hall on presentation night?’ Dart had grinned at the memory. ‘The mad unit fell through the roof over the stage, would of took someone out if he hadn’t grabbed the curtains on the way down.’
‘Yeah, he’s always been loose,’ Gilly had said. There’d been general agreement with that. But the consensus was that he’d really gone off the rails lately.
‘Some of these maggot druggos that have come to town will have got him on the gear,’ someone suggested.
I wanted to keep my last night in town low-key, but found myself at The Royal anyway.
I set up camp at a table with Brad, Mel and Jackie. When the girls start chatting about that ridiculous rumour that Ed Sheeran is putting on a free concert in Wagga, Brad suggests that his time could be better spent illuminating my inferiority at darts.
Brad was in the year below me at school. We used to battle it out for our footy team’s fullback spot, pushing each other into the centres regularly. I was better at reading the play, but he had me for pace. We got under each other’s skin a bit, but I like Brad, he’s capable of quality banter.
Others drift to and from our table; time slides onwards. The crowd swells, then, after the Joker Draw, subsides a little.
I’m tipsy by the time I spot Kris out in the parlour, buying smokes. He spots me too, and looks like he’s about to yell something to me but Jack’s returned with his smokes and change. While he’s distracted I slip away to the pokie room.
It’s still warm as I head home, even though it’s past midnight and the middle of Autumn. My blood being up probably has something to do with it. Had a rush of it and ploughed way too much through the Queen of the Nile for a broke uni student. But it was shortly after losing…too much, that things had really kicked off. Out in the beer garden, with the hordes of banished smokers, I’d known as soon as Garbo had made the remark about stolen guns that they were going to.
I’d looked at Kris, but he hadn’t moved. He’d just sneered something about Loges, and looked to Bruce. That giant had risen from his seat.
It was a dead-set flogging.
Bruce had come at Garbo to glass him, but missed. Between him and Jimmy they couldn’t get Garbo off Kris any other way either. And everyone came at them. Freddie, Cookie, Brad, me…shearers and cockies too, all sorts…
Kris thinks there’s not a single person in Tuperton who can stand up to him. But Tuperton is more than a single person. You’d think he’d have worked that out.
Still, I don’t know if the skirmish solved much. I doubt the newcomers will leave it there. I’m pretty sure they won’t leave town either, which is what we really want: them to fuck off with their ice. Except ice would still hang around, I know. And when I think about Dart, and Garbo, and Loges, I suppose we’ve got to sort ourselves out too. Reckon I’ll be glad to get out of here again tomorrow.