A small crowd had gathered near the stinging nettle now, all peeling shoulders and bellies curved over cozzies. Of course they wouldn’t be enjoying this so much if I’d taken the time to talk to them or even just said hello as I walked to the shower block each morning. I don’t know. What does the world expect from me? Anyway, we were in the middle of a drought. Ten years by then, Oliver’s whole life.
‘Get in the car. Now.’
The splotches on his neck had spread to his face. This was always a bad sign, not unlike the vein that pulses on a client’s temple just after I’ve told him there’s no defence.
‘I don’t want to go!’ Oliver reached into the boot, pulled out a bucket of frog-less mud and hurled it. He followed this with a flipper, a plastic bag full of empty VB cans and a pair of my undies, the ones I only use for camping. They parachuted onto the dirt in front of the jabbering crowd.
Louise approached him in the way you would if enticing a kookaburra to accept an offering. ‘If I give you a Tim Tam will you get in the car, honey?’
Oliver nodded. Maybe he even smiled. My clients know when to smile too. He shoved the biscuit in his mouth and ran for the lake. Or at least the place where the lake should have been.
How far did he think a kid could get? He made it to the dunny block.
I grabbed him and slung him over my shoulder.
‘Take me to the house!’
He was struggling and twisting, fighting me like I was about to end his childhood. And he was strong too. He landed a kick perilously close to my groin. Someone in the crowd actually cheered for him.
I lugged him back to the car, pushed him in and slammed the door. To my shame, I picked up the flipper and flung it in the direction of the crowd. I left my undies behind. At least they’d have something to remember me by.
Louise climbed in next to me with a look I found difficult to interpret. I made sure the car spat dust at the crowd. I could see them in the mirror, dispersing now in search of something else to do with their day.
Oliver twisted in his seat and stared back at the flats of dried mud. Then the stringybarks brooded on either side, a guard of honour for my journey back to Melbourne, and work. At last.
‘Take me back!’
A bubble of saliva emerged from the side of his mouth populated by fragments of Tim Tam. He started to scream but lurched into a fit of coughing. Snot shot onto my neck. Finally the coughing stopped. Then he started screaming again.
Before I could stop her Louise produced the Tim Tams and turned around.
‘If you stop screaming I’ll give you another Tim Tam.’
Oliver grabbed the packet and kicked her nose. She reeled back clutching her face.
If Oliver was my client I would probably have argued it was the unintentional consequence of a randomised leg flurry. And that she was to blame for putting her nose in a dangerous situation. But Oliver wasn’t my client. Oliver was an evil manipulator who’d been ruining my life for years.
I slammed on the brakes.
The bush was heavy with shadows and the trees loomed on both sides of the road. I walked round to his door and pulled it open. I lifted him out and lugged him to the edge of the trees.
‘If you want to stay here so badly you can stay on your own.’
I ran back to the car, climbed in and drove away.
Louise was hunched forward holding a handkerchief to her nose. She turned around and saw that her only child was no longer present. ‘What are you doing?’
‘Teaching him a lesson.’
‘What lesson? Pull over.’
I looked in the mirror. I could see the wide eyes in Oliver’s rapidly receding figure. I found this a pleasing sight.
‘I will,’ I said. ‘But first he has to think we’re not coming back. We need to go round that bend.’
Louise wiped her eyes with the hankie, smearing blood on her forehead and cheeks.
‘We’re round the bend,’ she said in a blocked-nose voice. ‘Now turn around.’
‘Just a bit further. It’s not going to work if we go back straight away.’
I eventually eased over to the side of the road. ‘Let me look at that.’
She waved me away. ‘What’s wrong with you? Just go back to him!’
As we rounded the bend I scanned the road for the stupid red Wiggles t-shirt. I couldn’t see him. I approached the spot I’d left him.
‘The little shit. He’s run off into the bush. Why would he do that?’
‘Maybe because he thought we weren’t coming back.’
I stopped the car and climbed out. ‘Oliver! Get back here now.’
The bush was vacuum silent. Louise disappeared into it.
‘Oliver!’ Her voice was muffled by the trees. I followed the sound of her sobs. But there are no pathways in the bush and I couldn’t walk in a straight line. And it seemed her sobbing was coming from all round me.
After a time, I found her leaning against a tree, a hand pressed to her nose. She looked at me with what I can only describe as hatred.
She let go of the tree and stumbled. ‘OLIVER!’ Her chest heaved. ‘We have to call the Police!’
‘Look, he’s just hiding. He’ll turn up soon.’
A bush rustled behind us. I turned. Nothing.
‘Let me look at your nose.’
‘Don’t touch me. Just give me your phone.’
‘We can’t call the cops. How’s this going to look?’
‘You’ll have to explain it, won’t you? And you need to go back to the camp and get some of those people to help us look for him.’
‘Just go over that again, will you, sir?’
This cop was obviously just pretending he didn’t know I’m a defence lawyer. And his eyes had lingered on Louise when he saw blood smeared over her face and down the front of her shirt.
‘How many times do you want me to say it? He needed to go to the toilet so I stopped.’
‘But you’d only left Devil Cove 10 minutes earlier.’
‘Do you have children?’
The cop shook his head.
‘I told him to go behind the tree.’
‘I don’t know. That one.’
The officer gazed at the nominated tree for a time and then scrawled something in his notebook. ‘And then?’
‘He walked behind the tree and he was gone.’
‘Gone?’ The officer looked up quizzically. ‘Did you look for him behind the tree?’
A crowd of campers had gathered along the side of the road. It looked like they’d come for a picnic. One of them even had a beach ball.
‘All right,’ Cop 2 said. ‘It looks like he went off that way, so we’ll pan out in a line and head in that direction.’
The campers and the cops made their way into the trees.
Louise and I sat on a log, some distance apart from each other. I realised that the freckles had come out on her shoulders. But that probably happened a week ago.
Cop 1 moved so the sun was in my eyes.
‘We’re a bit confused,’ he said. ‘We’ve covered a wide area to the west and there’s been no trace of him at all. Are you sure that’s the direction he went?’
Louise looked at me for the first time in hours but I barely recognised her face. ‘If you don’t tell him, I will.’
Cop 1 unsheathed his note book.
‘And what exactly were you hoping to achieve when you drove away and left him all alone?’
I looked at the name badge pinned to her bulky beige blouse. Why would they call it the Department of Human Services when their sole purpose is to take kids away from their parents?
‘He was misbehaving. He kicked my wife in the nose. I wanted it to stop.’
‘Let’s assume for a moment that’s true…’
Cop 9, who was lingering nearby for some reason, took a step closer.
The woman looked at me in the same way I look at my clients. ‘We don’t normally recommend that parents discipline their children in that way.’
‘What do you recommend when a child kicks his mother in the face?’
She took a long sip from her thermos and gazed at me with wetted lips. ‘What message do you think you conveyed to your son by leaving him all alone?’
‘I just wanted to give him a fright.’
‘You wanted him to think you were leaving him in the bush with the Tiger snakes and the eastern browns? There’s a pandemic this summer, you know.’
‘He’ll turn up.’
‘If your son comes back alive,’ she said, ‘and looking at the time it’s getting less and less likely, you’ll certainly be hearing a lot more from us.’
The media pack had been growing throughout the day, with cars and vans parked along Forest Park Road all the way up to the bend I had thought it necessary to travel beyond earlier that day. They hovered like wasps while I sat talking to the woman from the Department of Inhuman Services. I crossed the road and tried to veer round them but they swarmed.
‘Are you worried about your son? Is it true you dumped him on the side of the road and drove away?’
‘He’s hiding,’ I shouted back at them.
‘You’d have to ask him that, wouldn’t you?’
‘What if he dies?’
I stopped and turned. ‘He’s not going to die. He’s got a whole packet of Tim Tams.’
‘But what about the snakes? The bush is teeming with them.’
‘The only snakes round here are you.’
The last glow of the sun faded from the leaves, turning them from bronze to black. I sat on a stump, staring at my phone. More specifically staring at TV footage of myself looking like one of my own clients, trying to avoid the cameras. The words, ‘Ten-year-old boy abandoned in snake-infested bush,’ ran underneath in a continuous loop. And then me, flushed red, spluttering at them about how my son was going to survive because he had Tim Tams. Then turning and sprinting away like a lunatic. A close up shot of the fangs of a brown snake being milked for venom. Then a comment from the CEO of Arnotts.
Cop 13 approached me. Louise was with him, wrapped in a space blanket. I knew by the look on her face that he still hadn’t turned up.
‘We have to stop searching until daybreak,’ Cop 13 said. ‘It’s too dark now.’
I looked at Louise. The blood was still crusted under one of her nostrils.
‘And there’s a circumstance you need to be made aware of,’ Cop 13 said.
A circumstance I need to be made aware of? I thought they only talked like that in the witness box.
‘Oh yeah,’ I said. ‘What?’
‘There’s been a number of threats on your life, of unknown origin. We have reason to believe they’re genuine. You should sleep in the vicinity of the Police vehicles tonight.’ He turned to Louise. ‘And it may be best if you stay away from your husband.’
Louise pulled the blanket tighter round her shoulders. She didn’t need to say anything to me at this point. Her silences had always been more potent than her words.
I crept towards the tent in which Louise wouldn’t be asleep. Her upright shadow flickered against the canvas.
‘Can I come in?’
I sat in the dirt next to her shadow.
‘I hope you’re happy with yourself,’ she said at last. It was a whisper with the intent of a scream. ‘Or do you still think he’s hiding?’
I wiped a hand across my eyes. ‘I know that he hates me.’ I don’t know where these words came from or whether they were even mine.
Louise was silent for a long time. Possibly hours. ‘Why do you think he didn’t want to leave here?’
I didn’t answer. Who knows what motivates a child?
‘You’ve hardly spent any time with him this holiday,’ she said. ‘But it’s more than you spend with him at home.’
‘It was my holiday too.’
‘Well you can take a nice long holiday if you’ve lost him, can’t you?’
Of all the thoughts I have in a day, nearly all are about myself. The rest are for my clients. What would the world want from me if I wasn’t a lawyer? No one understands. No one understands.
There was no moon and the darkness seeped through the trees. In the distance the hoot of a bird. I shivered.
Once, in the crowd at the Easter Show, I turned and my father was gone. I couldn’t see any higher than the show-bags that hung in the throng. To stop being caught in the flow I curled up like a ball on the ground.
I stood in front of the wall of trees, the spot where I’d left him. I closed my eyes and breathed in the air. It smelt of eucalyptus and fear. I crossed the road and headed towards the trees on the other side.
My son was lost in the bush and no one was looking for him. Why would darkness stop them? What were they afraid of finding?
I know my son’s distinguishing features. He has a birthmark on his left palm. I was the first person on earth to see his face.
I heard a noise and turned. A flash lit up a ring of grass around me, the haunches of the trees and my bare arms. I was exposed; naked in the night. A figure scurried towards a van.
Every morning over the last week I had watched Oliver walk away over the mud. Looking for rocks, looking for frogs, sticks shaped like dogs, looking for tin cans and twisted forks that people had thrown in the lake. Looking for whatever it is kids look for. Maybe I was like that once. What does it matter?
The water in Lake Eildon had all but gone, drained away to farms. The water was almost gone and all the rubbish and secrets people chucked in the lake over the years were exposed. As well as bits of homes still standing because when the dam was built and the rain came there was only time to pack a bag and go.
The trees rose around me as I stumbled and plunged. The sound of the barking owl, not barking, calling, calling to who? The rustle of bushes, the shiver of leaves when the breeze breathed. The smell of my father’s skin before bed.
When the water drained away from the lake they even found the bodies of people who had drowned. Drowned bodies on bone dried dirt.
It was Monday now and I needed to be in Melbourne. Melbourne where the concrete and the steel wraps around me and there’s no snakes lying in wait. Melbourne where I know the rules and can look a client in the eye and tell him what he should do. It’s what the world wants me to do, although the world never told me this explicitly.
Oliver and Louise had me in the evenings and those times on the weekend I didn’t have to work. Oliver didn’t need me to read Snugglepot and Cuddlepie to him at bedtime every night. I never wanted that or did I? No, and why wouldn’t my father ever kick a ball with me or carry me into the surf? Into the surf until I couldn’t touch the sand and if a wave rolled over us and he let me go I would tumble in the froth and taste salt and spin out to sea, sucked into the depths.
Oliver always wanted to wrestle with me. All the time he would be at me to wrestle but I was tired so tired after work and eventually he stopped asking and I was relieved. He would never ask me again even if I found him.
Above me, I couldn’t see where the trees ended and the night sky began. No moon and the stars barely pricked the sky. Could I hear a child crying somewhere in the dark?
On The Age website there was a picture of me, the top story. There I was, trapped in a spasm of light, pale, wide-eyed, the trees like a prison wall behind me. I turned my phone off.
Devils River was bereft. The glow of the sun, already warm, lit the flats of mud as I walked across them. I heard people shouting and helicopters in the distance, back towards the road.
I remembered now. He always said so many things to me. Mostly I never listened.
‘Take me to the house, dad. Please.’
‘There’s not enough time today.’
Up ahead, the water had drained away to reveal the relics of lives not lived. Fragments of a fence, a solitary chimney, a rusted iron bedstead. And now a house, a ghost, bleached and bare.
I walked to the door.
An empty Tim Tam packet lay on the mud.