Tim had always said that the gum trees, when they were shedding bark, looked like maidens with flowing robes draped over their limbs. I had always said that they look like bloody trees, Tim.
We climbed up on the fence to watch the tree men hack them down and feed them into the chipping machine. No matter how much they put in, it always wanted more. By the time the sun was starting to droop, the lot next door seemed empty and barren. The curves and hollows of the ground were exposed.
“Let’s investigate,” I said to Tim. I checked my mum wasn’t watching from the front window, and then we scrambled over the low part of the rickety fence.
Tim paused and put on his poetic voice. “The lingering sighs of dead trees taste like vinegar; their ashes drift down like moondust,” he proclaimed.
I grasped a fistful of the white sawdust from the lumpy ground and rubbed it into Tim’s hair.
“Aah!” He squirmed away. “Stop it!” He screwed up his face into a knot and shook the powder out of his springy brown curls. He launched a counter-attack, but he couldn't catch me. He sprawled on the ground, panting.
Pretending that my limbs were encased in a spacesuit, I mounted one of the tree stumps and planted an imaginary flag in the dense wood. “One small step for girl, one giant step for girlkind. I now claim this land as Louisa's territory!” I yelled.
Tim raised an eyebrow, his arms folded.
“Lou-lou!” came a voice from the little round head that had popped over the rim of fence. “Remember what Mum said - that’s someone else’s property!”
It was my little brother.
“Don’t be a wuss, Mase. Get over here.”
Mason began to scurry around the fence.
“You can’t do it the easy way just because you’re little! Go over the top.”
He changed course and began to haul himself painstakingly over the metre-high barrier. I rolled my eyes.
“Dunny,” said Tim, “This was a pretty terrible massacre. I think we should hold a funeral.” My nickname was Tim’s idea. He thinks he’s just so clever.
I shrugged. “If you say so.”
Tim was the leader of our group, even though he would never have admitted it, and neither would we. He could be annoying, but I would have followed him to the end of the earth (otherwise known as the postbox at the corner of our street).
“Dunny, you get Island. Mase, go get a recorder. I’ll get Blaise. Meet back in five minutes.”
Island’s real name is actually Ai Linh. She lives across the road.
I snuck into their garden, which was screened from the path by a wall of tangled bushes. I crawled through the flowerbeds and crept around the side of the weatherboard house, keeping my head below the windowsills. I stood on a cracked flowerpot so I could peer into Island’s room. Her shiny hair fell in a curtain across her homework.
I tapped at the glass. She looked up at me, startled, and immediately glanced at the door. I gestured for her to come out. She shook her head. I gestured more violently.
Island rolled her eyes, but pushed up the window, taking care not to make a noise. “What, Lou?” she whispered.
“We’re holding a funeral. Bring your violin,” I hissed.
“It’s a bloody viola.”
“Well whatever it is, bring it.”
“Who died, anyway?”
“Didn’t you hear the machine going all day? Come on.”
“Ohhh, right. OK. But the thing is, being a musician is a high-risk occupation. What're you gonna pay me?”
I scoffed. “Seriously?”
“I could get in deep trouble for sneaking out. This is due on Monday. I have to be covered for a broken neck and a sore butt. You wouldn’t want me to sue.”
Island’s parents want her to be a lawyer. She practically already is one.
“Ugh, fine. I’ll give you two dollars.”
She chucked me her violin case and slid feet-first through the window to land in a heap on top of me. I led the way through the bushes. We forced our way through the scrabbling twigs and into the street.
“Make that eight,” said Island. “My viola case just got scratched.”
Tim was dressed in what looked like a dirty painting tarpaulin, and he held a thick book called “Australian Birds: an Illustrated Guide” against his chest. Mason was holding my recorder, the sparkly green one. I glared at him, and he hugged it defensively. Blaise was sitting on a tree stump, fixing sticks together with string to make crosses. She held one up to examine.
“They’re a bit crooked,” she apologised.
Blaise’s full name is actually Charlotte Blaise, but Tim thinks Blaise suits her better because of her fiery orange hair. If it had been anyone besides Tim, she would have gone away and sulked. Like the time she showed me one of her abstract paintings and I asked her if she had eaten raw fish for lunch, because you know how that can sometimes make you puke.
Tim said, “We will conduct the ceremony, and then place the crosses in their positions.”
None of us had been to a funeral before, so we agreed.
“Dearly beloved –“
“Tim,” interrupted Blaise. “You're forgetting.”
"My mum and dad say we always have to remember the traditional owners, you know, like they do at assembly."
“Oh, OK. Fine. First, we acknowledge the traditional custodians of the land, the Wurundjeri people, and their elders both past and present. No fidgeting, Mase. This is serious.”
“OK. Dearly beloved gathered here on this tragic occasion. It's unfortunate that seven trees, who were - “
Here he stopped to count the rings of the stump he was standing on. We waited. A car rumbled past, and I could feel curious eyes on us. Mase covered the holes on my recorder, slowly and deliberately, with his chubby fingers.
“ – round about 47, met their end at the hands of Jim’s Tree Removal Company. They didn’t live particularly fruitful lives but they were good citizens who served the community by turning oxygen into carbon dioxide.”
“It’s the other way around,” said Island. Tim ignored her.
“Sadly, we never really got to know these dear souls, since playing here wasn't allowed by higher authorities, a.k.a. our parents. However, their memory will keep a special place in our hearts. May their remains be thrown on someone’s flowerbeds to feed other baby plants. Amen.”
“Your heart would have to be really big to fit all those trees,” said Mason.
“Don’t be silly,” I said. “It’s a memory, and memories hardly take up any space at all.”
“Music please,” ordered Tim. Island pulled out her violin, and I snatched my recorder from Mason.
“It’s mine anyway,” I justified.
“No it isn’t, it’s meant to be both of ours!” He was about to have a tantrum. I didn’t want to be embarrassed in front of Tim, so I took the moral upper ground and gave Mason the stupid thing.
“Remember not to blow too hard, Mason,” I said with a voice of liquid gold. You little brat, I thought.
We visited each stump solemnly and respecfully. Blaise passed me the crosses, which I wormed into the dirt, and Tim then spat on them. “In tough times, we must make do with improvised Holy Water,” he explained. The music in the background really added something to the occasion, I thought. It sounded like a footy ref trying to get a game to stop while dipping a cat in boiling oil.
We all turned around at the purr of a powerful car's engine. It pulled up at the sidewalk, sleek and grey. A short man in a charcoal suit and another man in a checked shirt got out and slammed the doors. Tim took off his tarpaulin, and Island put away her violin. We prepared to escape.
The short man’s eyes bulged when he saw us. “Hey! What are you little shits doing here?! Get off my property!”
We ran in all directions like rabbits which had heard dogs barking. I bundled Mason over our fence, and ran to the backyard where there’s an apple tree growing near the boundary. He followed me. I hoisted myself up and watched the men, concealed behind the yellowing leaves.
“What are they doing, Lou-lou?”
“Nothing. They’re just talking.” They were gesturing as if there was already a house there that only they could see.
“Now the angry guy just kicked over all our crosses. No respect at all.” I shook my head in disgust. “Bloody- bloody-“
“Bloody bastards?” said Mason.
The next afternoon, we were playing Mark's Up in the street when we had to move out of the way for a truck. Two men in orange shirts and heavy work boots blocked off the front of the vacant lot with weighted wire fences. They fixed a sign to it saying:
PRIVATE PROPERTY – No Trespassers
“They can’t keep the birds out,” commented Blaise.
The streetlights came on and we retreated inside for dinner. But first, I found my recorder and wrote LOUISA on it with a permanent marker.