The day after the Russians shot 269 people out of the sky, Tim took a can of baked beans and put it in his cave.
The next day, when Ronald Regan called it a massacre and a crime against humanity, Tim took a second tin of baked beans and his dad’s torch. Back-up batteries would be needed. The torch was always flat.
After a month, he had 30 tins of baked beans and spaghetti, along with the torch, some matches and a blanket. It wasn’t enough, but it was a start. Now, when he left his house in the bruised dawn light, he set his watch to timer. 10 minutes it took him to scramble down the ravine, his knees scraping on rocks and scratching against the shrubs. Gasping so badly. Lungs breaking his ribs apart.
10 minutes to get to the cave.
Not fast enough. When the Russians came, there wouldn’t be much warning.
He’d walk back slowly. Back to the smell of his Dad’s aftershave and the loosely folded newspaper on the kitchen bench. During the week, they didn’t see each other much. City job. But Dad left that paper out like a hanging comma and more often than not Tim read a bit of it over his cornflakes while his mum showered. She was working full-time, now that he was in high school. Most mornings, he heard her singing in the bathroom, which he blocked out by focussing on the newsprint.
It said the people on that Korean airplane were alive when it hit the water. 12 minutes it took, from when it was first hit by the missile to when it crashed. 12 minutes. Gasping. Lungs crushing through ribs. That’s how those poor people would have felt.
Next month, the rain came and the dry sclerophyll forest wasn’t dry any more. It smelled of menthol and dank muck and the ravine was a mud slide. When it stopped, Tim picked out a tin of spaghetti. By the time he got to the ravine, the sun was boring into his eyes. Wouldn’t be long before it was dark. Might have to break the 10 minute barrier to get there and back in time. He slid down, mostly on his bum. Mum wouldn’t ask about the mud cause he was always filthy from footy training anyway. It was quiet. Just him panting. The forest rustling. The sun making its silent journey.
At the entrance to the cave, he stopped. Waited to let his eyes adjust. Took a couple of steps. Stopped again. Something else was breathing.
Tim’s heart boomed into his collarbones.
‘Hello? Is anyone there?’
‘Faaaaark. Off.’ The voice was low and guttural. Tim dropped the spaghetti and took off. At the back steps to the house, he dry-retched and checked his watch. 9 minutes. A personal best. That night, he dreamed of a dog, snarling at him through darkness, invisible except for the whites of his eyes. In Tim’s hand, there was a cane, and he beat the dog until it whimpered.
High school smelled something shocking – Mr Sheen and sweaty footy socks. Nothing like the pie-warming smell of his junior school, St Marks.
In maths, Mr Akers stalked up and down the classroom. He was describing the difference between mean, median and mode. To Tim, it all sounded like ‘middle’. He tuned out and started scribbling a note for Cleary, asking him to come over after school. He hadn’t shown the cave to anyone yet. Didn’t know them well enough but he sure as hell didn’t want to confront whoever was in there on his own again.
Akers was over him. He burped, and the smell of stale coffee settled on Tim’s shoulders.
‘Making social arrangements are we Rogers?’ He held the note. Suddenly, Tim’s stomach felt like a dark, empty cave. Hollow and gnawing. ‘You know the way, don’t you Rogers?’ He handed Tim the discipline note for the headmaster and pointed to the door.
Until high school, no one had ever called him by his surname. Now, it was his only name. As he passed each classroom, he allowed himself a brief glance through the little windows on each door. Boys. Heads down. Bowed. Cowed. Teachers droning away. He clenched and unclenched his fingers, digging his nails hard into the white flesh of his palms. If he hurt himself now, it might hurt less later. Everyone said the second stroke was the worst. Having paper in your undies helped but if you got found out you’d cop an extra strike or two.
Tim checked his watch. Twenty minutes until recess.
At least the toilets would be empty so he could cry, afterwards, in peace.
In the afternoon, he went back to the cave. The trip was slow. His arse was too sore for sliding on. He had to be sure of each footfall. Caring took time, and he wasn’t in a real hurry anyway. He hadn’t asked anyone. No one really talked to him after maths. They knew he’d cried. The bloodshot eyes.
At the mouth to the darkness, he stopped, flicked on the torch and waved it into the nothingness. The light caught on something white. Eyeballs.
‘Kid, I thought I told you to fuck off.’ Hands over eyes. The light too bright.
‘This is my cave.’
‘Kid, it’s fucken not your cave.’
‘It’s my cave.’
‘You fuck off now or I’ll do you.’ The tangle of clothes started to move and Tim ran. ‘You forgot the tin opener, ya dickhead.’ The words faded behind him, like people, falling from an aeroplane.
He said his name was Fred, but Tim wasn’t sure because he paused before he said it, like he was thinking up a lie.
‘What’s the food for, kid?’
‘It’s for when the Russians come.’
‘In case there’s a war.’
‘Kid, there’s already a fucking war.’
But when Tim asked him about the South Korean airliner and whether he thought the Russians shot it down on purpose, Fred said he didn’t know anything about it. ‘And anyway, who gives a shit what I think. Hmph.’ He had this way of finishing every sentence with a little grunt.
Tim always took the newspaper but he didn’t know if Fred read it or used it as kindling for the fire. Mostly, he visited in the morning. Got up. Got his wet sheets and pyjama pants into the washing machine before his mum could notice and scooted down to the cave. Fred knew a lot about plants – the ones you could eat and the ones that were poisonous. Once, Tim took down a bottle of sherry he’d found hidden up the back of the pantry. Whenever he went to the city, the hobos there were all cradling brown paper bags. The sherry had a layer of dust, so he didn’t think his mum would miss it.
But Fred didn’t want it.
‘Gettin’ dry, brother.’ Clasping and unclasping his hands. ‘Grog’ll killya brother.’
Tim took the sherry back but asked if Fred wanted to have a shower sometime when his folks were out.
‘Nah, brother. This brown don’t wash off. Hmph.’
Because of all the rain, the forest started blooming. Heaps of little purple and yellow flowers. Everywhere. Even the creek had water, and occasionally, Tim wore his board shorts and had a quick dip, while Fred hunted round in the bush for more tucker. He was getting a bit sick of the tins and Tim’s mum seemed to be wising up to the fact that too many were disappearing.
In October, the Americans invaded Grenada and Tim had to use his atlas to find the tiny island. When he discovered it was no more than a speck in the ocean - one hundredth the size of Tasmania – he felt a little better. But Fred was getting antsy. He thought someone was after him, watching him in the bush, and that he’d have to move on.
‘You haven’t told anyone, have you kid. Hmph?’ He grabbed Tim around the throat. Not hard. But hard enough to make Tim’s legs feel a bit weird. Just the shock of it.
Not you too, he thought.
Later, he checked his neck in the mirror. No marks. But he didn’t see Fred the next day. Or the day after that.
On November 2, the Soviets put their nuclear forces on high alert. The Americans were doing some kind of war game exercise but the Russians thought it might be for real. Tim scrambled down the ravine to tell Fred.
At the cave’s entrance, he stopped. No breathing. It had been so long since Tim had been there on his own, he’d forgotten the hushing noise the cave made. The slow drip of water that you could never see, only hear. Fred’s gear was gone, along with all the tins. That night, as he lay in bed, he thought about where Fred would be lying and realised he’d never asked about his family.
After that, he started asking mates down to the cave. They were loud. They shot catapults at the kookaburras. Lit little bushfires and scratched their initials into the bark of the gums. Later, he could see how each little act of destruction helped build some weird kind of bond between them. Were he more confident, he might have talked to his new friends about it. Told them about America’s policy of Mutually Assured Destruction. MAD. Everything was mad.
But he didn’t want them to think he was a nerd, so he shut-up about it all and when his friends started bringing alcohol down to the cave, he didn’t say anything about Fred, but he thought about him and wondered how he might be getting on. Whenever he went to the city to see his dad he kept an eye out, especially around Central, but he was never there.
At 17, he had his p-plates and he didn’t go down much to the cave, except to check on the marijuana crop he’d planted just outside the entrance. It grew pretty well, given the quality of the soil.
By the time the Berlin Wall started to come down, the crop had been harvested and dried. There was no newspaper any more. His mum had cancelled it as soon as the divorce papers arrived. But Tim knew what was going on from the TV. He saw the footage. Kids as young as him taking that wall apart with their bare hands. The next day, on a sunny spring afternoon in the November of 1989 Tim rolled his first joint, sat outside his cave to smoke it, and felt like a fucking king.
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