Stir five hundred more

Apparently Nub had, at some point, buried a cow horn full of shit somewhere on the school grounds. Months had passed, the seasons had turned, and it being the spring equinox the horn had to be dug up and the contents ritually diluted in a copper vessel. Today.

The problem was that he couldn’t remember exactly where he had buried it.

What had started as a warm and serenely pompous morning had by lunchtime become a sweaty and somewhat fraught mutilation of a perfectly good orchard. There was a horn of shit in here somewhere and damned if we were going to let it go to waste. The lemons, said Nub, would be rejuvenated by the mixture anyway.

The excavation continued through our lunch hour and into the afternoon. Eventually someone improvised dowsing rods out of a couple of tent pegs and used them to locate the horn on the far side of the first tree we had violated. No I’m serious, that actually happened.

A vast, dented copper pot was produced from somewhere. Bulbous and thin-lipped, lichen-patched with verdigris, this was clearly a pot that had already seen some shit.

The horn was quite large and when emptied into the pot seemed to contain something like very good soil rather than the sloppy black awful I had expected. There was some argument over how much there was. Resolving this involved calculating the volume of a cone while accounting for curvature. Topography not being Nub’s strong suit, it was eventually decided that near enough was good enough and two children carried the pot to the rain barrel at the end of the string of classrooms.

I had been wondering why he hadn’t just measured the shit right out of the horn but this became clear when I discovered that the only vessel of known volume in the school was a one-litre electric kettle. This was then used to dip 31 litres of water out of the rain barrel into the pot.

By now the afternoon was getting on. The preparation was finally ready to stir at 2:45pm. It was supposed to be stirred for an hour. School ended at 3:00.

Everyone was expected to take part. It was very strongly suggested that those of us who were going to catch the bus home stay behind and do our bit. It was always best to heed that sort of suggestion as the consequences of deciding not to could be unpredictable.

Children with incoming parents were told to begin the stirring as they wouldn’t have long. Two at a time were given wooden paddles and directed to stir the dirty water until there was enough of a vortex in the pot that they could see the bottom. Then they were to reverse direction, thrashing the water into a foam.

The second part of this was the hard one.

Creating the vortex was straightforward, just like walking laps in a circular above-ground pool. It got easier as you went. The point of it in a pool was to create a current that would then swing you around the pool like a roundabout. Stirring Preparation 500 properly meant changing direction mid-stream. Easier said than done when you’re eleven years old and have wrists like chicken legs.

My turn in this as in everything came towards the end. My opposite number was Bug, who was tall and thin with long slender hands that could have served him well as a pianist had he not been utterly incurious and as dumb as a brick. When it came time to reverse flow I planted the end of the paddle on the floor of the pot and held on with all the strength my puny arms could muster.

Bug just let go. His paddle vanished into the murk, clunking against mine as it travelled. “Shit!” said Bug. “Language!” said Nub and thrust his hand forearm-deep into the brown. He handed the the now befouled paddle back to Bug, who took it gingerly and helped me get another vortex going in the opposite direction.

Hauling the now very heavy pot to the top of the orchard was a job that took two children to each side. The wire handle cut into us and we had to put it down to change sides and/or personnel about every ten metres.

The sun was going down and the air beginning to chill as we finally got it to where it needed to be. We were dismissed just a few minutes before the last bus and had to run to the stop. Looking over my shoulder as I ran I saw Nub begin to drag the pot over the dewy grass under the trees, flicking the contents onto the ground with a branch. He looked exhausted and forlorn but there was a faint curl of triumph at the corner of his mouth.

The orchard continued to produce its unpalatably sour thick-skinned lemons over the spring and summer, except for the tree under which the horn had been planted.

It died.

*Names are changed regularly to enhance readability

Dammed if you

It rained all summer the year they paved the road.

Our mob were opposed to the roadworks, of course, the natural (such as dirt) being spiritual, and the artificial the domain of Ahriman – who would no doubt be just as surprised to hear he’s not a spirit after all as to find himself specifically associated with tarmac.

Hornsby Shire Council also failed to grasp their reasoning, said some things about bus traffic and paved the road.

The sloping five acre block that was by then the Arcadia Free School had a rich but largely forgotten history and an ambivalent relationship with drainage.

Though it was never ceded by the Dharug, at some point someone with European masonry habits had quarried a fair bit of sandstone out of it, built some wonky walls and a small bridge over a creek at the bottom of the hill then abandoned the project when their incompetent stonework fell into the water.

The creek bowed to form two boundaries of the property. I can’t remember where it came from – a spring, perhaps? A pipe under the road, or some uncharted source on the adjacent property? It’s just another memory I’ve lost.

The original farmhouse looked to have been built in the 50s. The creek ran close by it then a hundred metres downhill past the quarry to a concrete weir. There it became a putrid ditch about two metres deep with a weed-blanketed surface like a bowling green, black and utterly anaerobic.

Being ten years old, Dang and me decided the most fun in the world was to stand in the middle of the weir and release methane bubbles by poking the rotting vegetation on the bottom with a stick. Having made the pond fart we’d try to ignite it by throwing lit matches. Naturally it was me that finally fell in.

Having to strip off my rank, sodden weed-encrusted clothes before Mum would let me in the car was so humiliating that two years later I was still leery of the weir and by extension all the other standing water on the school grounds.

There was the pond full of mosquito larvae in front of the covered walkway between two classrooms, a thriving swamp in the old quarry, and the dam.

The dam was presumably farm infrastructure from the same era as the house and had been used as a dump at some point. Or maybe it was a dump that had filled with water. Either way by the time I turned twelve it was a black pit of tetanus soup.

In dry weather you’d see loops of barbed wire and the filigree knife of a rusted-out 44 gallon drum crest the surface. When we returned to school after that wet summer it was brim-full and completely opaque with mud from the roadworks.

It being early in the term, Wat had yet to come up with anything to teach us. After some furrow-browed pondering he announced we were going to embark on “A test of bravery and common sense.” He instructed us to cross the dam while “avoiding hazards.” Dang shrugged, got his kit off and waded through the mess with the rest of them, having at least come up with the innovation of using a long stick to feel his way forward.

I just outright refused. You couldn’t have gotten me in there by throwing me. Wat was quietly furious and said several demeaning things about my cowardice while everyone else set about proving themselves. Some genius rigged a couple of ropes across it so other kids could teeter across above the surface. I watched through my hands in a nauseous adrenaline chill every bit as bad as I’d felt while stripping off in the car park.

Afterwards as the children sat in the sun to dry off he announced “You have all passed the test of bravery. He, on the other hand,” pointing at me – “Is the only one to have passed the test of common sense.”

*Names are changed regularly to promote plant growth

On Baker-Miller Beach

I think the amnesia must have started not long after my illness. I mean, I knew that. There were the absences I was told I had in the middle of conversations, when I’d just stop

then be back without noticing I’d gone.

There was the difficulty I had in remembering my friends’ names or the details of their lives – oh, I didn’t know you had a brother! Then the fact that most of the arithmetic I’d learned was simply gone and I had no idea what to do with a piano anymore. This, though, this was news.

I woke up one morning in a sleeping bag on the sand floor of a sparse forest. Between vast bare tree trunks the sand undulated around hundreds of yawning burrow mouths. There wasn’t a twig of undergrowth, just trees, sand and holes. Everything was pink.

The sand was pink, the trees were pink, their broad pale leaves, pink, and once I navigated my way out from under them the sky was pink. Perfectly still pink water stretched away from a pink beach to meet the cloudless pink sky. The air, sand and water were all exactly blood-warm.

I stood in the water and strained my ears for a break in the pristine silence. My breath and the slosh of my footsteps seemed contrived, like the sound in low-budget science fiction TV.

Away down the beach an enormous rusting boiler lay half-sunk, round lid open toward the horizon. Nothing moved. I had no idea how I’d arrived there. I tried to pin down the last thing I could remember but it was like trying to recall what you had for lunch last Tuesday.

I’d seen The Quiet Earth. I’d seen Planet of the Apes. I knew what was up. I’d finally sidestepped in the multiverse, all the glitches were at last explained.

Then the rest of my class started to blunder their way out of their bags among the mutton bird holes and the sun finished rising behind the island. The day turned blue. I’d lost three weeks.

*Names are changed regularly to enhance readability

The wrong ostracon

I don’t know what I did. You wouldn’t, though, and you’d never find out.

You wouldn’t see it coming. If you were paying close attention there might have been a day or two of people exchanging subtle eye-rolls when you walked in. A faint, wincing paranoia might have started to snag at you. But you wouldn’t be prepared. Nobody ever was. That might have been the point.

Not knowing might have down to the amnesia. I wondered for a while if might equally have been some sort of social blindness on my part, except that it wasn’t. There were others, victims and reluctant perpetrators, all equally ignorant. When we talked about it later we called it the Silence.

It was a sudden weaponised ostracism. You’d come in one day to find yourself invisible. People would look through you, talk over you, make plans in front of you and leave you out. Buses would sometimes leave without you. If you tried to talk to someone they’d cut you dead or wait serenely till you were out of their path.

There’s a special kind of haunted isolation that comes from being surrounded by people who won’t acknowledge your presence except to pointedly deny you attention. It’s not the sort of soft loneliness you can retreat from with a book, oh no. The Silence would follow you.

Reading or drawing or doing any other thing to keep yourself occupied would somehow turn up the freeze. They’d get louder, more animated, more affectionate toward each other, popping snacks into each others mouths or forming cross-legged conga lines of neck rubs. Without ever explicitly acknowledging your presence they’d work to ensure you knew you were being left out.

The icing on the cake was that when the Silence got turned on me I was stuck on a desert island with twenty of them and none of anybody else. And I still don’t know what I did.

It was apparent from the moment I woke up on that last day that it was my turn in the barrel. I was always late to breakfast, preferring to wait until everyone else was done, but it got packed up in front of me when I came to get some. Questions about the day’s plans went unacknowledged. People started conversations with one another if I persisted in trying to talk to them.

The second last conversation I had was with Obs. I was nominally friends with Obs. His mental health issues hadn’t become apparent yet but he was already as odd as a bottle of chips. At that point we hadn’t connected far beyond some shared interests: D&D, early Pink Floyd records and home marijuana cultivation.

Nobody else was usually interested in talking to him so I imagined that cutting me off would be a kind of social suicide. He did it anyway. It seemed so gutsy that I wasn’t even offended. “I can’t be friends with you anymore,” he told me. “How come?” I asked. “It’s not worth it,” he said. “I understand,” I said.

I didn’t.

I was wrong about it being a bad move though. He got suddenly – if temporarily – much more popular.

My very last conversation was with Bam. We were sixteen. We’d been close since we were nine. “I can’t keep talking to you,” he said, looking over his shoulder. “It’s just not worth it.” “I understand,” I said.

I didn’t.

Thankfully the next day involved a choppy three hour barge ride where nobody else had figured out the trick of sitting in the wheelhouse watching the horizon and eating gingernut biscuits with the pilot so I was happy to be left out of the communal activities. Breakfast didn’t seem like such a missed opportunity either, viewed over.

The Silence lasted the duration of a number of very, very long bus trips then petered out over a few days once we were home. Obs and Bam drifted back to talking to me, teachers started addressing me directly again and everyone else went back to what passed for normal in Arcadia.

I watched poor Obs go through the same thing later that year. He quit school immediately to begin a steady career in full-time pot smoking.

I never found out what he was supposed to have done. You never did.

*Names are changed regularly to encourage younger readers

Tin, lead, antipathy

I don’t know why Tin decided to take the children shooting. He said something about teaching us to respect guns but I’m not sure we learned that. Or much of anything else.

Tin had been some sort of bikie, apparently. Not a dog-pack “individualist” with the brittle dress code that runs all the way to a beard-redacted face, more your Stone bikie, a shiftless denim longhair on a big Kawasaki.

In 1978 he’d rolled into Arcadia chasing a rumour of construction work. The school fast turned him into a Seeker After Truth. They always did. He’d sometimes proudly tell us how he’d put his last cigarette out right there, slept on the farmhouse floor with the rest of them and spent two years labouring for nothing but shared lentils. He’d helped build the arc of increasingly complex polygonal timber classrooms, to perform the rituals and lay the artifacts into the foundations. He’d get angry if you asked too many questions about it though.

When he announced we were going to spend the morning learning to shoot I asked why. It wasn’t received well. “It’s important to know how to respect guns,” he said, as if it would make more sense the second time. He threw the Meaningful Look the other teachers reserved for discussing esoteric knowledge, the one that said “If you’re spiritual enough this will be obvious, so if it’s not obvious then you’re intrinsically defective.”

I shut up and got in the van.

The van had two seats. Tin was in one of them. The other held an ancient single-shot bolt action .22, a cheap K-Mart .410 shotgun and a couple of boxes of ammunition. The kids got to ride in the back.

The back of a 1970s Kombi panel van is short on handholds. It’s a lightless steel box with nothing in it but a corrugated floor.

With the door open we could see it was painted the same slick baby-shit brown as the outside. With the door shut it was the inside of a tumble drier. We shrieked and tried to brave-face glee at the zero gravity moments when Tin hammered over rises in the road but a gut-deep sense of threat sharpened the edges of our laughter.

We were ten years old. Eight or nine of us in the class. We were told we were going to a rifle range. It looked like a desolate bush clearing designed for fly-tippers. It might have been in the backblocks of Maroota or Maraylya.

Clay, asbestos and old TV sets had been bulldozed into stubby berms. Tin propped both volumes of last year’s Yellow Pages against the nearest, one in front of the other. I felt like I was about to witness an execution.

He picked up a bit of what might have once been a Venetian blind and drew a long line in the dirt. “Nobody past here until I tell you,” he said. There was a ferocious look in his eye. That and the presence of of actual death-sticks – heavy and somehow far more intrinsically nasty than they had ever seemed as toys or television – kept us in a sort of shocked and silent obedience.

He set the weapons and ammunition on the bare dirt and lay down beside them. He was about ten metres away from the phone books. It didn’t seem very far. I remember looking at the rocks in the clay and wondering what would happen if we missed.

He loaded the rifle in complete silence and fired it once into the centre of the books. I’d expected a louder sound than its little cough. He repeated the procedure with the shotgun. It made a more worrying but still not very convincingly gun-like sound.

He picked us one by one and made us lie in the dirt while he stood behind. He’d load the rifle and hand it to us. If we missed our one shot we’d be dismissed. Those who hit the phone books were allowed to fire the shotgun.

I was picked toward the end, missed and was dismissed. The somewhat ragged phone books were packed away with the guns and remaining ammunition.

Tin seemed darkly disappointed. We rode back to school in a subdued mood, scrabbling for purchase on the steel floor in relative quiet.

The incident was never spoken of again.

*Names are changed regularly to preserve freshness