Among the steel brush-like weeds and sun-baked bark lies an ocean of red sand. Deep red, almost brown. It gets in every crevice and crease. It gets under your skin and stains it. The history of this red sea is raging and brutal, as rich with violence as the gusting whirlpools. The red is punctured by large mounds of dying stone that stand feebly in the path of the wind’s assault.
And here I am. Looking at all this and drinking it in.
My feet are encased in leather. Leather that was harvested from this land: just one of its many casualties. Men come and corral cattle; less than 10 km from where I sit cows are stripped of their skin which is then tanned, oiled, and packaged. And here I return with them, with them wrapping and bolstering my feet, feet that have spent the last eight hours trekking around the Flinders Ranges.
Ironically these toughened boots wrapped tightly around my ankles—and this resolute land—have wrenched my heel around, twisted it, shattering the joint.
As I sit on the hot rocky bed of what was once possibly a creek, the sun relentlessly burns my face. And yet the breeze cools my sweat covered body.
‘Are you going to lie there all day?’
His voice is raspy and emanates from his throat slowly.
Rick: my travelling companion, whose company I had forgotten, whose company had momentarily been burnt away by the dry heat and shocking pain.
But there he is looming above me.
‘Well c’mon then.’
His hiking clothes cling tightly to him, stained and worn with dust and sweat. They are covered in zips and pockets and rugged with reinforcements. He holds himself upright tightly, stubbornly fighting fatigue. He is glazed in sweat yet has the look of a pillar, an unmoving—unfeeling—pillar of strength.
‘I can’t move my ankle,’ I finally manage to reply after staring at him, trying to comprehend him.
I try to swell myself up, my pride fragile as I once again find myself prostrated in Rick’s shadow. In the years that I have known him I cannot remember a time when I was not in his shadow.
As I become one with this red sand I gain qualities I never knew I possessed. Now I find myself able to define myself without him. Now feel as free as each individual grain, a part of a greater whole yet complex and sturdy on my own. I am forming callouses. Perhaps my life has been a dream and only now I am starting to wake up.
I am waking up to find myself in the Flinders Ranges, on an ancient creek bed, with a shattered ankle. But the sunlight is so bright it has washed away the day.
‘I’m sure it’ll be fine. Can you help me up?’
‘Yeah sure—fuck you’re heavy.’
‘I slipped on some loose rocks. Watch where you put your feet.’
‘Alright, let me stand on my own—ugh, no—I have to sit down.’
‘Look you go ahead. I’ll just stay here and set up camp.’
‘Are you sure?’
And that was when I knew that everything had changed. I looked at Rick and saw someone different, and I saw someone looking at me in a way that I had never seen before.
When we were young we both attended a child care group while our parents were at the pub. I remember the hallways were so big. We were only a few feet tall at the time and barely measured up against the etchings on the door frames. Even then Rick was bigger than me.
I couldn’t talk. I was unable to make my muscles do the work. I made up for it with the keenness of my eyes and ears, but words didn’t come. Rick spoke enough for us both. He had a name for me, he called me Day. He was always so excitable and hurried that he shortened my name, he didn’t even have the time to say Dave.
During those early days it felt like it was always daylight. Sunlight spilled through the long windows in the halls revealing a forest of dust motes. It became a land of wonder for us to carve paths through. As our play grew bolder our legs hardened, they started to form into thick stumps that propelled us forward, almost out of control.
We began to build our own hallways among the trees, behind the shrubs, along the fence, and winding behind the sheds and sand pits. These hallways were secret, shaded and hidden from the day. They became our refuge, and then they became our nightmare. We had them stolen from us by an invader: the neighbour. He saw us running along the fence and reached in, grabbed at us through the windows of our hallway. We thought it was a game, but he didn’t. And as the days passed we became terrified of the garden.
By high school we had started to drift apart.
I was put in Yorke, the yellow house. My head of house was a rake-like man, a bespectacled old science teacher. His name was Mr Spurling. He pottered around the front of the room, talking to us meekly. From my seat at the back of the room he looked so frail. Some of the boys in the class would heckle him, snickering and saying:
‘Pull your socks up, Spurling.’
They would imitate his gesticulations and poke fun at his long socks and bushy grey eyebrows. I found myself hanging my head, blushing with a mixture of rage and shame. Yet I’d bottle it up and imagine what Rick might have done, how he might have stood up. He was in Torrens house, the blue house. Which he told me was such a spineless house, then he exclaimed that ‘Blue is a weak colour,’ and stormed off. On those days I didn’t understand him; most days I didn’t even see him.
Rick had no friends but everyone knew of him, they just couldn’t remember seeing him. He became like a ghost in those years. An unseen apparition; except in my dreams of the school hallways.
Rick later confided in me that he had been high almost all the time at school. His mother’s boyfriend always had pot lying around. It was a time when Rick fell into a hole of lethargy that trumped his hatred of being at home. He would lie in bed watching the morning light refract off filthy coke bottles and homemade bongs. His room was stagnant, swampy with the thick stench of ash and tar. It became a blue-walled prison.
I visited once, only once. My nose wrinkled up and my eyes swelled. Not at the smell but at the sight. Seeing Rick like this, being so corrupted by this man in his mother’s life: Pete. He was a mountain. Covered in thick black curls on his chest and arms, but his head was devoid of hair. He permanently had blue bags under his eyes; they hung cold and heavy, deadening his gaze. Accosting me in the hallway he’d said:
‘What are you doing here you little pissant?’
I retreated from him into Rick’s room but after too long in there I began to gag and choke.
The next day I saw Rick as I was walking to class. He was in a hallway with a boy who was wearing blue shoes. Rick pushed him, I could hear their raised voices. The boy swiftly punched him in the stomach, causing him to double over. I felt ashamed looking on at him crumped in a heap on the floor like that, but I couldn’t bring myself to help him. I was afraid. I didn’t have the strength then to pick him up, so I slunk away.
At the end of the hall I turned around and looked back. He was on his feet punching at the window, crashing his fist into it—it was reinforced and almost a centimetre thick—small pinpoints of glass flaked off and burrowed into his hands.
I left school in year 11. At the start of the year I gave up before even trying. I left with a girl, dragged her away from school with me. I had known her for a month.
We turned my bedroom into a refuge like Rick had. Only ours was musty with the smells of sex and alcohol. For two years we stayed in bed together, engorged ourselves on each other until we got sick. And then we deteriorated in our illness together waiting for the whole thing to fall apart.
Her name was Amanda, but I called her Mandy. She was firm and stringy, with stretched limbs and long hair in coils. It was as though I had unwound her from the rack.
Whenever we had friends around we stayed in bed wearing loose clothes that made us look skeletal. The conversations were so banal because we had nothing to talk about. We drank and smoked and I waited for people to leave so that I could touch Mandy. All I thought of was how to get under Mandy’s skin and find out who she really was.
I never could.
My influence got into her, though. It twisted her and made her meek and paranoid. But I learnt nothing from her, except to look at myself with shame.
One day she told me she was pregnant. I turned my back and hid under the covers while she stormed off to the clinic.
In the sudden silence I felt a sense of shock. Her breath on my neck was gone and I knew I’d lost her. And I had: she grew increasingly aloof. In order to cope, my mind returned to thoughts of Rick. I hadn’t spoken to him since school but his words began to bounce around in my head.
‘You should be strong enough to cope on your own.’
‘How can people care about you if you don’t even care about yourself?’
But his words were warped now, far from how I remembered them. I couldn’t place when he had even said them, but they were his words, they scratched at the inside of my ears as though he was in the room. Although now they were stripped of the unshakeable optimism I coloured him with.
I made a promise to myself. I would drag myself out of my melancholy and find him. I would return to his shadow one day, but this time I would hold him up. I would repay him for our childhood.
I found work as a labourer for a builder. He paid me in cash, and paid me poorly. The work was physically demanding, yet it was controlling my mental state that was the hardest. During the day I would wrack my body lifting stone and digging holes. I would cower at the exasperated screams of the builder. Whenever I ruptured water pipes, left tools caked in cement and dirt, or dropped a wheelbarrow he would grow red and imposing, and seem to double in size.
I found myself keeping my head down, avoiding eye contact and only murmuring when spoken to. The work became physically easier but I was still lost in my own head. I only really woke up when one morning I found Rick. He was at the corner shop buying a meat pie when I came in for coffee. We spoke and he didn’t remember me; I tried to laugh it off.
He said he was living out of his car. He’d been forced to when his mother died of lung cancer. It crushed me seeing him so numb. I told him I felt sorry for him, and for everything that had happened between us. I apologised for relying on him so heavily when we were children. He just looked at me and laughed and then took me to meet his dealer.
From then on my days fell into a pattern: getting my pay after work and then buying pot from Rick’s dealer. I’d then nervously knock on the window of Rick’s car and smoke with him until late in the evening. The car grew worse than his bedroom ever was, the air grew so thick with smoke that we blended into it, we couldn’t see each other or ourselves and just faded away together.
When I lost my job I packed my things into Rick’s car and we left Adelaide. We caught up with a girl he knew from high school. She said her name was Ren. She’d moved out near Port Augusta, among the yellowed grass and hay strewn fields of rural Australia. Rick and I followed her there, along the winding roads and into the windy plains we buffeted in Rick’s small Suzuki Swift.
The clear air of the outback ripped through my lungs, it was as though I’d never truly been outside before. Rick was like a madman behind the wheel, he glowered at the road ahead and chewed it up. I sat in the back with Ren. In the brief moments of the drive when we could engage Rick we all became hysterical cackling hyenas. And then my focus would return on the passing fields, my finger nails, or a speck of lint. Ren would return to her drawings; and Rick returned to the road—increasing his pressure on the throttle and gripping the wheel tightly—as though he wanted to tear it apart and decimate the car.
Ren had thick thighs and wide hips that she would wiggle in Rick’s direction. When I looked at her I found myself getting lost in her puffy red lips, lips that curled up at the edges—as though mocking. I tried to avoid looking at her. Ren was intimidating, she was so focussed. I was envious of her passion. She was going to be a tattoo artist; she was going to be a great artist. Just the concept of being so driven was alien to me.
I slept on her couch for a few months. I saw little of Rick during that time. He had found comfort between Ren’s thighs, she had wound them around him tightly and crushed the weakness out of him. It felt odd for him to be in another room and yet feel even more distant than the years we were apart.
Sometimes I caught a glimpse of his eyes and saw a forest of points of light that looked like the dust motes that we used to play in, he had found them again and he’d rediscovered the outdoors. I was embarrassed at how I coveted his spirit. I would shrink away when he returned covered in sand and sweat. The smell of the day clung to him like his new deep red leathery skin. He became more like an interloper each day.
Around this time Ren became frenzied in the backyard. She was madly reforging herself in paint while I sunk further into the couch.
As the months passed I finally started to feel the plains calling me, to feel anything calling me. We were about 150 km from the Flinders Ranges and they had started to tug at me—as though the great mass of stone, sand, and hardy life had ensnared me in its gravity. I began to notice the outside creeping in. Small mounds of leaves grew near the door, rocks began appearing in the couch cushions, and weeds climbed in through the walls.
I began to feel trapped between my housemates. Ren’s paint splashed through the back door into the kitchen, she was like a whirlwind spitting coloured oils on every surface. And Rick traipsed through the front door like a golem of red stone.
One night I woke to find an echidna burrowing under the couch and a blue tongue lizard crawling along the wall. The front of the house had crumbled, the pillars holding the roof had fallen and the windows were blown in: tree branches had forced their way inside and up the hallway.
I grabbed Rick and told him we had to go. We had to go to the Ranges, we had to heed their call. I don’t know how I convinced him to come with me, but I tore through the house and gathered Rick’s outdoor gear then threw it in the Swift. He was barely in the back when I sped off up the road. I felt ravenous behind the wheel. A strange sense of power surged through me as I propelled the car up the arrow-like roads at 130 kilometres per hour testing its limits, testing my limits. The windows shook and my hands went numb on the vibrating wheel. We careened through the entrance to the Ranges and the car took off from under me, spinning on a corner, twisting around across both lanes and landing in a ditch.
My teeth clenched together and I lost control of my vision. The horizon contorted through the smoke rising from the engine. Rick’s voice sliced through the ringing in my ears as he dragged me out of the car.
‘Well that’s just fucking great.’
‘Look what you’ve fucking done man—gah get out of the fucking car!’
‘What, oh it’s smoking …’
‘Yeah you idiot, it’s fucked—it’s written off!’
‘yeah but we’re fine—how good does that air feel.’
‘You’re insane. You’ve lost it … What the hell where you thinking David?’
‘I … I dunno, I just wanted to go somewhere fresh and clean. Know what I mean? Let’s go for a walk, follow me.’