Fresh Air by Mark O’Flynn
Mark O’Flynn’s most recent collection of poems is Shared Breath, (Hope Street Press, 2017). He has published a collection of short stories as well as four novels. His latest The Last Days of Ava Langdon (UQP, 2016) has been shortlisted for the 2017 Miles Franklin Award.
They hardly ever left the city these days, so it was time. They hadn’t seen their cousins since summer and Naomi and Brent were jumping with rabbity excitement. Perhaps trepidation better described the type of excitement they were feeling. The cousins lived in the country, just beyond Cowra, and were trying, in their way, to be farmers. Naomi and Brent had many sleepless nights in the lead up to a visit to the farm. Darren Twomey, their father, had not spoken to his sister for a long time. Each time, between visits, he wondered if their relationship was reverting to that old enmity, their childhood status quo. As adults it had indifferently thawed. They had gone separate ways. They were so at odds that they each wondered at times how the other managed to survive. Since the death of the parents, long ago, all their battles suddenly seemed old ones. Distant memories. There was no point fighting about them. They were now able to talk to each other as equals. And since the birth of their children, (Lil had three), they had become, well, for a while Darren had thought the word was close.
He felt remiss about not getting the kids out of the city more often. When they were littler Naomi and Brent loved their cousins, although now they were getting to an age where they, too, were finding their lives leading elsewhere. The cousins had not one, not two, but three tree houses. They had their own quad bikes. They had animals. Cats and dogs, of course, but also a constant stream of little yellow chicks, which Naomi would snatch up feeling their hearts vibrating in her hands. Also goats, a peacock, a few cows, a sheep and a great big bull all by himself in the front paddock. Lil and Carlo, her husband, were trying to be diverse-interest farmers. Trying – they were pretty good at it. They wanted to do everything for themselves, grow their own food, make their own clothes, as well as supply what they could to the nation. Subsistence farming was not a phrase Darren could readily throw at them. Nor was impossibly romantic. It must have been hard work. For Lil it was about the survival of the planet, even her clothes were about the survival of the planet, whereas Darren believed the planet would still be here long after he was done with it. Yet they were modest. Lil worked at a high school in Cowra while Carlo, following in his family’s footsteps, worked the land. Not much of interest to Carlo happened beyond his ploughed acres. Lil had an old, self-deprecating joke she would trot out when she thought people had forgotten it: What do you call a successful farmer? One married to a teacher.
The first time they had seen the bull, after the long drive from Sydney, it had its long, pink pizzle out swinging in the breeze. Their mother, Mara, had tried to get them to stop laughing – pizzle was such a funny word, but their father was laughing just as much.
Carlo knew farming. You couldn’t knock that. Darren was slightly envious of his ability to fix, well, anything. His practicality.
‘We’ll twitch it up with a piece of fencing wire.’
That was the panacea he applied to any situation. No problem was too big. Plough up forty acres before breakfast, no worries; change the tines on the harvester, done; slaughter a piglet for dinner, easy. He was the one who had built all the tree houses. An estate of them. Darren resented his own inability to provide as much for his kids. You couldn’t build a single tree house in their inner city back yard no bigger than a couple of picnic blankets. He could barely build a lean-to for the lawnmower. He didn’t need a lawnmower. Carlo did not think much of that. Carlo would have hated being able to hear the neighbours playing their radio, washing their dishes – just there, through the wall. It was one of Darren’s secret pleasures, to see Carlo’s discomfort, on those rare occasions when they came to the city, perched on the edge of a chair as the morning filled with sirens and truck engines and aeroplanes passing overhead. Darren could work the phones and move stock and do a deal on futures trading, but he could not twitch up a tree house with a length of fencing wire.
Naomi at least loved coming here. Lil’s boys were older, closer to her age. Brent was more wary. No one could say they loved the long, dreary drive, but the whole occasion was, for Darren, a shot in the arm. He could leave his phone at home, something that always made him feel liberated, if a little naked. It was as if time sprained its ankle and slowed down. They always slept well. All that fresh air. The vegetables they ate were, frankly, stupendous.
Mara did not love it quite so much. The insects. The animals in general were not her style. If she walked across a paddock she was bound to tread in something. At nighttime it was too dark, the bull shrieking somewhere out there in the blackness like something wounded in no-mans-land. Mara preferred the glow of streetlights coming in the window, the wheezing traffic on rainy roads. She was in her element at a busy intersection, timing her dash across the road.
If she was quizzed closely what it was that disturbed her she was forced to admit she was scared of snakes. And spiders. All the creeping, poisonous wildlife with which the countryside was plagued. She was fearful of wasps and stick insects. She was fearful of sticks that looked like insects. In fact she wasn’t too crazy about sticks in general. And she was certainly no fan of the bull’s pizzle.
‘But there are spiders in the city,’ Darren rationalized.
‘Yes, but they know their place,’ said Mara. ‘They don’t try to dominate the conversation. And they understand spray.’
That was Mara’s panacea – spray.
‘There’s an eagle,’ said Naomi from the back seat and Brent leaned across her to see.
And the house, Mara thought to herself. It always seemed to smell of ash. That would have been because of the open fires. Swallows sometimes flew down the chimney and darted about the room. Every floorboard in every room creaked. You could hear each footstep in the nighttime squeaking their way to the toilet, which took a long time to fill after it had been flushed. Those floorboards were something Darren enjoyed for some reason – talk about irrational. If you looked out any window to any point of the compass there was nothing but grass. Grass, which made Mara sneeze, if they happened to visit during the spring. The first time they had come out here Naomi had cried: ‘Where are the shops?’
Darren had laughed, but Mara knew what she meant.
The joke about how primitive it all was had worn pretty thin after several days of complaint. Carlo found more and more things that needed repair, activities that kept him away from the house for long periods of time. No, he didn’t need any help. He could be seen at odd times bouncing along the horizon on his tractor.
‘There’s no reception,’ said Naomi, shaking her phone and peering at it.
Darren said he would not bring them back again if they were going to whinge and be such scaredy-custards. All the cousins protested at that, so Darren had to back down and rescind his threat. Mara and Lil looked at him, sadly. Brent sniveled most of all because, like his mother, he had become anxious at the unfamiliarity of everything. His cousins had made him stick his finger in a calf’s mouth and he had cried at that strange sensation. He needed some traffic noise to calm him down.
‘What’s that smell?’ Brent asked, his gap-tooth whistling on the sibilance of the word smell. The tooth had come out during some rough-and-tumble with his sister. Hadn’t there been a fuss about that! Mara was like a raptor or the proverbial tigress on the look out for danger to her cub. Poor Naomi had been flayed alive.
‘That’s fresh air,’ said Darren. ‘It’s good for you.’
This nervousness all came back, it seemed, to spiders. The fact that they could kill you. Snakes also, but snakes were more exotic. You wouldn’t expect to find a snake indoors, in your shoe. Spiders were more commonplace; danger lurking in every nook and cranny, in every cupboard where the biscuits might be hidden. This was the kingdom of the spiders.
‘If you leave them alone, they’ll leave you alone,’ said Aunt Lil.
‘But what if you want a biscuit?’
‘You ask for one.’
Brent’s formative consciousness went through a terrible struggle every time Darren announced they were going to visit their cousins. Attractive as the tree houses were, they were full of biting, stinging, lethal bugs. Snap out of it son, he wanted to say, although he knew better than to declare these views in which he heard his own father’s conservative voice. Okay, okay, it was fine for the boy to cry. He didn’t really have to steel himself at all. Manhood still years off. Be a kid. Enjoy it.
Darren bit his tongue. Mara had read all the books. Yes, sensitivity was a virtue, he agreed. If Darren felt that Mara was babying the boy, she for one would not hear of it. Her upheld palm, her whittled disdain, could puncture Darren’s resolve in its womb. He could so easily be reduced to a cliché. All he wanted was for his son to take on the world, not to shy away from it.
So when the long weekend arrived Darren was the least ambivalent about jumping in the car and taking off into the wide green yonder. He would have been happy to go alone, but that was a pathway fraught with its own repercussions. Mara would have grizzled that she was being abandoned to do the child rearing, while he waltzed off on his merry own to enjoy himself in the country. Where was the equity in that? She had a job too you know. They had had this squabble before. Complaints about the wild life, the discomfort, the leaky toilet seemed to be the piper he had to pay to shore up the complaints about neglected responsibilities. He neglected nothing. He thought about everything all the time.
He packed the car with far more than they would need for three days. God help them if they had to get to the spare tyre with all this crap on top of it. But then would he have really known what to do if that need arose? He was ready to leave a full half hour before anyone else. There was make-up to be applied, last minute phone calls to be made. Finally they hit the trail. Stop – Naomi had left her flash drive. Stop – Brent had left his DS with its latest uploads. Stop – Mara had forgotten to set the alarm. There was a hold up on Paramatta Road that delayed their departure even further. They were like pigeons, Darren thought, trapped in the city by the electromagnetic radioenergy of the metropolis. Or something. Where had he heard that theory?
They crawled along in first gear for twenty minutes through the grey fumes of the traffic. Darren watched the temperature gauge climb steadily. It was just approaching the red when the traffic opened out and they were able to speed up. The needle went down, and Darren’s simmering level of stress also subsided.
‘Just wait till we get out to all that fresh air,’ he said, more brightly than he felt.
They played a game where they had to name things they saw in alphabetical sequence. They always got stuck on Q.
Soon enough they fell silent. Naomi listened to her i-pod, lips moving in silent song. After an hour of playing his electronic game Brent said he felt carsick.
‘Look out the front window, mate.’
‘I’m gunna be sick.’
‘Stop the car and let him walk around in the air for a little,’ said Mara.
‘He’ll be fine. Just look out the front.’
‘I’m gunna vomit.’
‘Don’t vomit in the car,’ Darren raised his voice more than was necessary.
‘Then stop the damn car. Let him stretch his legs.’
So Darren stopped the damn car and Brent, looking green about the gills, walked in circles by the side of the road.
‘Brent is gunna spe-ew,’ chanted Naomi, making her own entertainment.
‘I’ll spew on you,’ said Brent, now red in the face.
‘Be quiet,’ snapped Mara. ‘Leave your brother alone.’
‘Why do you always take his side?’
Darren drummed his fingers on the steering wheel. Traveling with the children, and with Mara for that matter, always made the journey so much more tedious. No need to go into detail.
In the town of Blayney Naomi observed that the entire town appeared to be closed. Beyond Cowra they turned off the highway down smaller and smaller roads, winding through paddocks revitalized after the breaking of the drought. Finally a corrugated dirt lane brought them juddering in a cloud of dust to Lil’s gate. Mara began to sneeze. The bull was standing in the front paddock staring at them.
‘Hey Brent,’ said Darren, ‘hop out and open the gate for us.’
‘There’s a big bull,’ said Brent.
‘He’s not that big. I bet he won’t even move. Just shut the gate behind us and hop straight back in the car.’
‘Can’t you do that?’ Mara asked.
‘Brent can do it. He’s old enough.’
Brent reluctantly stepped from the back seat. He stood at the gate and fiddled with the chain. Darren loved those chains, although he could not have explained why. If you lived here, he thought, that chain would be the sort of everyday thing you would take for granted. He wondered if Brent would have the gumption to stand on the gate and swing its wide arc like the kids did in the films, but Brent simply walked it open. The bull stared at them like a wharfie at a picket line. Darren drove through and idled a little way up the track. There were potholes full of water, puddles, he supposed you’d have to call them. Probably full of tadpoles. He would like to look. In the rear-vision mirror Brent had his head bent over the chain at the strainer post. The sun came from behind a cloud and the grass, in an instant, appeared luminously green. Then the back door was open and Brent dived excitedly in.
‘That cow’s comin’,’ he squealed.
Again in the mirror Darren saw the gate behind them slowly swing open and the bull ambling towards it.
He honked the horn, but this only had the effect of making the bull trot forward through the gate, out onto the road.
‘What’s wrong?’ asked Mara.
‘The bloody bull’s got out. Didn’t you shut the gate?’
‘I thought I did,’ said Brent.
‘Jesus Christ. Come with me.’
Darren got out of the car. His tone did not allow Brent to object. Mara’s lips were thin. She stared straight ahead. Brent followed his father. The bull was wandering up the road, what did Carlo call it, the long paddock?
‘What part of shut the gate don’t you understand?’
Darren began to trot after the bull. Brent lagged behind. Darren wasn’t quite sure if this was a wise thing to do, to chase after a bull of unknown temperament, but he could not arrive at his sisters, having not seen her for so long and say: ‘Sorry I’ve let your bull out the gate.’
What would Carlo say? Carlo would think, as he had always thought, that Darren was just another city idiot, about as bright as a pigeon pecking for crumbs in the city square.
Puffing now, Darren caught up with the bull, making sounds as if he was trying to reason with it.
‘Wait. Hold on. Wait up.’
The bull suddenly stopped in the middle of the road, tall grass growing up on the verge at either side. Giving it a wide berth Darren circled around it with the idea of herding it back towards the gate. The bull stared at him. No movement.
‘Go on. Shoo. Move.’
The bull stared. Darren waved his arms. He did not know the preferred method for getting a bull to move. He picked up a stone and threw it at the animal, hitting it square on the forehead with dull thud. The bull blinked. Darren picked up a bigger stone and threw that. It hit the bull on the shoulder. Suddenly the bull turned and snorted and began to trot back down the road.
‘Yah!’ Darren ran along behind it, and there in front of the great beast, the much smaller form of his son standing in the middle of the lane.
Everything happened quickly after that, yet at the same time everything slowed down. Seeing the animal coming Brent turned and ran. The bull, seeing nothing but a smaller, fleeing figure, gave chase. The lane was too narrow. All three of them were running at full pace down the road when the bull caught up with the boy, treading on his heel and sending him spinning. Brent tumbled beneath the hooves of the bull, which ran right over him, legs whirring, and kept going past the gate in the opposite direction. In a moment Darren was there, his son on the ground, gouts of blood pulsing from his mouth with every cough, his left foot twisted at entirely the wrong angle, his eye yellow with dust, staring up at Darren, pleading, too stunned to cry. In the distance, Mara, running down the track from the stationary car, her screams shrill and faint like some hysterical bird in a far off flaming tree, but coming, coming.