When I pulled into the street, I saw him leaning against the ash-grey trunk of a eucalypt in front of the courthouse—faded collared shirt and jeans wrapped loosely around his hunched frame, a cigarette cupped in his hands.
He was following the progress of a ute in the middle of executing a reverse parallel park, calling instructions to “swing harder” and “back out”. The driver seemed not to hear him. I pressed and held the horn until he, and everyone else on the street turned to face me. Another stranger in town, they said with desiccated squints and scowls that suggested limited access to dental hygiene.
He rubbed his cigarette into the tree trunk, waited, then crossed the street, scraping his sneakers on the road as he approached the car.
“Roberto,” he said.
We shook hands over the gear stick column and Andrew’s eyes sunk to a point between us. His grip was limp and non-committal. I released early.
“Got caught behind a semi going up the mountain,” I said, and pulled out into the street before he’d closed the door. “We’ll make up time on the way down.”
“All good,” Andrew said.
“Where’s your stuff?”
He tied his hair behind his head. “Sold it.”
I drove through the town’s high street: a sullen row of bland takeaway outlets, plumbing supplies, an abandoned bank branch, then onto the main intersection, where I waited five minutes for the town’s only set of traffic lights to change to green. Andrew fidgeted with the power windows, opened the passenger door ashtray and the glove box. He scuffed his feet against the new carpet and tugged at the rings on his fingers. The scabs on his knuckles glistened crimson varnish.
“What did the judge say?” I asked.
“I dunno… Have to pull my head in, don’t I? You know…”
“Focus on Bianca, and the baby. Get a straight job. All the usual.”
“And what job will that be?”
“Did a bit of welding for my uncle. After school. Bikes and that.”
“And the guy you busted up?”
“He’ll be alright.”
“You’re bloody lucky you’re not on your way to juvenile prison right now.”
“You think it’s a joke.”
I was pushing a hundred clicks by the time we reached the edge of town. There were two signs: a yellow diamond with the silhouette of a mother duck leading her ducklings, then a larger announcement, pockmarked and faded, and declaring in brown cursive: ‘Thank you for visiting Armidale. Drive safely!’
“You’re welcome,” I said under my breath, and cursed, promising myself never to let my car get this dirty again ever again.
It had been my third trip this side of the mountain, through rain-soaked hinterland and rainforests—up the Waterfall Way. Number one had been to drop off Bianca for her first year of university. She had accepted a place in the law after missing out on Sydney, something which my disappointed mother had pinned down to her “interest in boys”, or, in my father’s words, “the yob lifestyle” she’d assimilated into. My second time, a year later, was to convince my little sister of the merits of abortion, and press her to continue her degree for the sake of her parents. She’d fallen in love, she’d said; fallen pregnant to a local boy and too afraid to tell mum and dad, had telephoned my office and begged me to mediate. Brokership ensued. Supplication at the local parish. The consensus was that Bianca was to return to Coffs for the birth, where her family lived… where she’d be safe and looked after; because that was the way we did things in the Castello family. Morals never needed to be questioned; they’d already been shaped and tested long ago by decades of prayer and marriage and doing what it was you were supposed to do. I understood them. My parents understood them too. It was they who brought the code with them in that Sri Lankan container ship after the war; and they’d lived by them when they arrived in Sydney, holding a dictionary in one hand and a baby in the other; they’d nurtured them in the suburbs, and when they moved north, and now they were ours to maintain. “Australians don’t look after their own,” my father would say in his garbled Venetian over the formica table in the kitchen. “The country types with their utes, unsustainable farming practices, more so. They’re uncivilised, raw—they don’t know how to live to together, isn’t that right, Giulietta?” My mother would invariably agree, as she did on any point made while she was busy scrubbing an oven or blanching potatoes.
Bianca’s pregnancy had caused the expected furore: my father had banned her from the family property once for getting pregnant, then again because ‘the boy’ wasn’t employed, and, worse, not Catholic. And every time mum heard or mentioned Bianca’s name she cried into her handkerchief, and asked the Lord what she had done wrong, and whether she was being punished for not forcing us to speak Italian at home. As the brother and the person with a better command of ‘their’ language, I was given the task of fetching the boy, and priming him for his new life as a Castello, promising Bianca I would be nice to him, and swearing to my father not to be.
Andrew chewed at his crumbling nails.
“Have you been to Coffs before?” I asked.
“Never even seen the ocean.”
He shook his head.
“It’s only few hours drive away. Your parents never took you?”
“It’s big,” I said.
Heat boiled in the distance, over the crests of the highway and beyond. The car swept through tunnels of gum leaves, past unnamed dirt roads, and I was pushing her harder than I normally did. The radio faded in and out, slicing the middle out of orchestras, acoustic guitars, and weather reports—fine here, cloudy there, high UV all over… mania in the vast emptiness.
At the first turn off, we passed a hitch-hiker carrying a swag. He waved in our direction. In the rearview mirror, I saw hands fall to his sides.
“That’s Marty,” Andrew said, as if to apologise on the man’s behalf.
“Mate of yours?”
“I’m not giving him lift.”
“Too late now anyway.”
“I could have stopped.”
“He was probably hitching to Dorrigo. He’s got a kid.”
“Good for him.”
“Name’s Douglas or something. The kid.”
“All that is history now, you know that, right?”
“Whatever… right. Whatever you’ve done… whatever you left behind, you can forget it. You’re going to be a father—God help my niece or nephew. More importantly, you’re going to be a Castello. Part of the family. We’re going to help you, but if play any of that bloody nonsense, the string’ll be so tight around your neck… you- you won’t be able to breathe.”
Andrew sighed and raised his leg to rest his boot on the dash. I pushed it down.
“Well? Have you got anything to say?”
I’d threatened to hit him before—promised it to myself. Told myself I’d have him tied to a tree and strangled him blue… choked that passive stare right out of him. And as I gazed at his patchy facial hair and his knobbly chin, I probably could have pulled over and done it too. Right there in the gravel. But the car absorbed my anger. She always did, and we sailed over a cattle grill, then another, and the smell of cold pine air freshener turned my thoughts elsewhere.
I overtook an empty mini-bus cruising up a hill, and charged around a bend flanked by screes of red soil. As I came out of the curve I saw a shadow slip from the forest gloom. A flash through the bracken. A cinder ghost. There was a dull thump, and the car shrugged something off. Andrew sat up, and I braked. The car skidded into a gully.
“What the hell was that?”
“Roo,” Andrew said, and was out of the car and running back down the highway before I’d understood.
The mini-bus honked as it sped past.
I was wiping away the scratch marks on the passenger doors when he returned, cradling a twitching pelt of red-grey in his arms. His shirt was stained with blood.
“What are you doing?”
“What do you mean? You ran him over… hit him good too, smashed his shoulder by the looks of it.”
“So it’s still alive.”
“The bugger’s still alive alright. We should take him down to the ranger’s.”
“No way. Put him down over there, under that tree. We’re running late as it is.”
“We either take him to the ranger’s or you put him down right here. Find yourself a rock—a good blow to the head should do it.”
“You do it.”
“Would… if it was me driving. But it wasn’t.”
“That’s the way it is.”
I popped the boot and began making space between my golf bag and beach gear. I covered the floor with a towel and mopped up some of the blood that had oozed onto the carpet from the wound on the animal’s shoulder.
“Put the towel over his head,” Andrew said. “It’ll calm him down.”
“It stinks.” As if reacting to my insult, the roo grunted and struck out with its hind legs, missing my ear by centimetres. “You little… how far is it to the ranger’s did you say?”
“Dorrigo National Park. Dunno.”
Andrew sat in the back and pulled down the seat so that he had access to boot.
“Take off your shirt—I don’t want blood to get on the leather.”
The car was thick with the roo’s presence: the stench of dung, the fearful, tortured grunting. With every scratching sound, I gripped at the wheel and leaned further and further forwards, searching for a destination. We floated over the last hill before Dorrigo, and the landscape transformed: scorched bracken became pilose banks of grass, iridescent and glowing. The sky, which only a moment ago had glinted sapphire, was now dressed in swirls of clouds the colour of molten lead.
The town centre was a tired assembly of wood and fibro; a far away place. Time compressed as I slowed to fifty. A woman sat on a bench in front of the post office, scratching at one of her bare feet with a stick. I stopped and asked for directions.
“Down Waterfall Way,” she said, pointing her stick at the road, as if it were the most obvious thing in the world.
The ranger’s office was squeezed between a company of red cedars off the highway just before the start of the mountain descent. It was a demountable hut with torn fly screens and a rusted air-con unit, which poked out the rear and rattled like an old fridge.
“I’ll wait here,” I said, and shifted the car into neutral.
Andrew shook his head. “I don’t deal with forms. You take him.”
“Forms? It’s not a bloody morgue.”
“Uniforms. I don’t deal with ‘em.”
I wanted to retort that ‘I didn’t deal with dying fauna’ either, but I could see the pending judgement in the boy’s eyes: executioner or saviour, they said, and before I knew it I found myself at the car’s rear, angling my arms underneath the animal’s rump.
“Hold him under his hind legs—keep ‘em close. One jerk and he’ll tear your liver out.”
“Thanks for the advice,” I said.
I shouted a ‘hello’ at the hut. Nothing. Voices led me to a clearing where I found two men in tan shirts seated around a picnic table; one was stout and bearded, the other freckled with sun-burned ears. Between them was a green tartan thermos, and by their gaping mouths it looked as if I’d disturbed the telling of some story. They stared at me with their open mouths, and I felt a wave of shame overcome me. How must I have looked to them? With my balding head, white legs, my deck shoes and apricot polo shirt? They could see my weakness; knew that I didn’t belong. I drew the animal to my chest and offered a smile.
“And what ‘ave we got there?” said the stout one, taking off his hat.
“Roo. I found it on the side of the road. Must’ve been hit.”
“You don’t say,” said the other man. “And you stopped to scrape him up.”
“I thought maybe you could help him.”
I laid the animal on the table, and the freckled man pulled at its ear, and spread apart its eyes. “Roadkill,” he said plainly after much consideration.
“It was alive ten minutes ago. Bloody thing tried to kick me.”
“They do that sometimes.”
“What should I do with it?”
With a flick of his head the stout ranger indicated a ditch on the far side of the clearing. “Dump him over there, Stan will bury him later, won’t you, Stan?”
“Sure, got nothin’ better to do,” said the freckled man.
I took the animal over to the ditch, and instead of letting it fall from my arms, laid it down on the wet earth, and covered its body in strips of bark and dried leaves. I stood up to regard the makeshift grave, then bent down to reassemble more dry foliage and rocks so that the body was mostly hidden.
“It’s mighty decent of you,” said the freckled man as I walked back to the table, brushing fur from my clothes. “These days, people hit a roo or a wombat, and don’t even bother to look if they’re alive or dead.”
“I didn’t hit him,” I said quickly.
“Then I’d say it was doubly decent of you.”
Back at the car I saw Andrew’s shadow in the rear seat. He’d fallen asleep. Before we left, I did circle around the vehicle’s front, looking again for obvious signs of a collision—fur, blood, smashed headlights. We had just slipped out of the shadows, snaking down the back of the mountain road when he woke.
“Did you find ‘em?” he asked, still half asleep.
“Yeah. They said they’ll take care of him. He’ll be alright.”
Around a hairpin we passed a cascade of white water that churned over black rock and moss, and disappeared down a drain. I heard the window slide down.
“There she is,” Andrew said and whistled.
“You’re right. It’s big.”
To my left, over the lip of the mountain, the valley reached out in green tapestries towards a shimmering blue mist. The Pacific: the edge of the world. I slowed down the car and turned to look at Andrew. His face was trapped in wonder and confusion, and I tried to imagine myself looking upon something so grand for the first time, pictured how it might have beckoned, stirred in me feelings of fear and liberation. Of new life.
“Big enough,” I said.
“The waterfall. Does go all the way down? To the sea I mean.”
“Where else can it go?”
“Nowhere I guess. Nowhere else for it.”