Setting the scene: Alan, a fifty-something Hobart man has just resigned his public service job for poorly-thought-out reasons, and is visiting his mother’s brother on the NW Coast. James, also a central character in this story, sets out with his son Ty for a planned weekend up at the family shack. Neither have any idea of the drama that is closing around them:
That Uncle Tadd enjoyed things was evident all around him. But Alan knew that he wasn’t talking about material stuff only. He suspected that the man saw him for what he really was, a shallow failure, yet he was disarmed in the gently accepting atmosphere his host wove about him. He went to bed, deeply thoughtful. He wanted what this man had, this inner contentment, and was reminded once more of that doctor in St Helens. She too, would have that same attitude, an inner freedom that allowed one to take risks without being upended if it should happen to go wrong. But what was this elusive thing? And how did one get it?
Alan stayed almost ten days, trying to fathom the answer. Once during that time, some of Uncle Tadd’s friends over for dinner. Alan could see how carefully his host prepared beautiful food for them, brought a genuine interest to each guest, and how skillfully he, Alan, was included into the group. Referring to his intention to take up photography, Uncle Tadd added:
“You could probably take some very fine pictures, Alan, but I wonder how long it would really satisfy you? I think you may have another talent. Have you considered sculpting? Either in wood, stone, clay, or even casting in bronze? That has such a solid, permanent feel to it, challenging your eye in really positive ways, surely? There would be much to learn, of course, but you’ve got the time now. I can quite imagine you creating some pretty magnificent life-size sculptures…”
The others guests took up the theme, each one having something to say about a sculpture that had impressed them. Names that Alan had never heard of were readily mentioned, and at one point his host brought out a large, illustrated book on the subject.
It was both humbling to realise how much he’d missed out on by not seeking to know his Uncle before, and to observe such a different, satisfying way of life. Perhaps getting it together was not impossible after all – maybe something could be salvaged from the ruins of his own utter stupidity.
When he made his goodbyes, struggling to express himself adequately, Uncle Tadd merely smiled and reminded him that there was always a welcome for him here, anytime. He also handed him the book on famous sculptures to borrow till his next visit.
Alan drove away through the landscape shimmering under the intense February heat. Bush fire alerts had been broadcast. It was Thursday of the last week before school returned, and along the Coast families were crowding to the beaches. In the Northern Midlands, four youngsters from Campbell Town, one with a new provisional driver’s license, decided to take a joy ride in the old farm ute, up the Poatina Road to the Great Lake. North of Fairbourne, just where the quiet country road comes close to the rising foothills of the Western Tiers and the Eucalyptus nitens plantation, one of them threw an empty vodka bottle out of the car. It shattered on a small rock and the clear shards fell down into the tinder dry grass.
That same Thursday morning, James arrived slightly late to collect Tyrone for the promised few days up at the shack. By way of thank you to Cousin Michael for having let them use the place frequently, James planned to replace some of the rusty and loose roofing on the old building. It would teach Ty a few practical things, too, and he looked forward to working alongside the boy.
He had already obtained the roofing tin, and was up early to secure the cumbersome load on the back of the ute, along with tools and supplies. Topping it with a wheelbarrow and two sacks of cement, it seemed a big load, so he crammed some of the smaller items into the cab. Would the ute cope with it on the rough track? Ty might have to walk the last steep bit, James decided, but I think it’ll be ok otherwise.
“Ok, Bonnie, hop in then. Why, what’s the matter?”
His canine companion had aged in recent times, much of the bounce gone from her and her muzzle grey. Usually still happy to join in their adventures, today she just stood there, her tail drooping.
“Can’t you jump into the cab anymore, old girl?”
James picked her up, noting how light she had become. She submitted quietly, for she adored him, and would follow him faithfully no matter what he asked of her. Even today, though every bone in her body told her that something was wrong and they would be far more sensible to stay at home.
“Wow, it’s a bit cramped in here,” commented Ty, as he squeezed himself into the crowded cab of the ute, and hoisted Bonnie onto his lap. “Is she ok?”
“Just getting old, like me,” smiled his father. “And finding the heat a bit much, probably. Still, there’s usually a nice breeze around The Bluff, and the forecast is for cooler conditions generally from tomorrow, so it won’t be too hard to handle the tin. I’m glad to be doing this job – Michael’s been very generous and we can just fit it in neatly before you start in grade 10 and I in that big plumbing job on the new subdivision – a great way to finish off the holiday and be useful at the same time.”
Was he justifying things a bit too much? Just before leaving his house, he had run back to the shed for some working gloves. As he turned to lock up, he felt a strange lurch in his heart. He had hesitated then, wondering if he should cancel the whole trip, but not wanting to disappoint Ty or let Michael down, had pressed on anyway.
In the ute cab, Bonnie curled herself tightly onto the boy’s lap, and whimpered quietly to herself.