Ardberg lived in the shed on the farm behind us. Ma said no one could live there, it was too far gone, she reckoned, but then Ardbeg lived there one day.
He lived there with his Ma, too; like me. But I never saw her, not like my Ma. My Ma was always there at home, on the lounge with her legs up watching the mysteries and the cricket, or then on the balcony listening in the cricket through the window. I heard Ardberg’s Ma once, shouting on through the house there and we shouted back and then I never seen her after that, but Ardberg liked her plenty. He had plenty good things to say for her.
Ardberg didn’t have no TV, and he didn’t like so much for cricket like the other kids. Seemed you had to play cricket or have a BMX or no one wanted to know ya round there. I didn’t have any BMX and I bowled left handed and bat right handed but I may as well a had ’em both the other way round because I wasn’t much use this way or that.
First time I saw Ardberg I checked in on that building on the farm, seeing that there was some commotion there: cars and moving vehicles and the such, and we met and shook hands right there in the entranceway of that shed. They made it their home from then. It was simple, but there was the fire there in one corner and the table in the other and always that TV on and a cigarette sitting on the edge of something somewhere with a mood hanging around it like you were hanging on it falling just to see the ash kick around everywhere, but you’d be hanging on a belting from his old lady, too, even if we never seen her or seen her smoking those cigarettes. But, you knew.
He didn’t come to school with the rest of us from Burrell Creek. I’d see him back there before school when I walked through the yard to the bus stop. I walked with my sister but she’d not check in with me there, even though I knowed she liked to have a cigarette and could have had one from Ms Ardberg, no problem.
I’d see my sister off at the gate there and catch up a little later when the bus was coming by. Then I’d see him on the way back when he’d usually be waiting at the creek and we’d catch tadpoles and pull the tails from them and maybe set a yabby trap. We always set them back, on account of his Ma not taking a liking to eat yabbies and my Ma thinking that was food for poor folk. Plus, we can catch em bigger the next time, we’d say to each other like a chant every time we parted ways there and shook hands on it. We talked about fly fishing and we’d make us some rigs and even a rod there once but there was no landing that fly on the Burrell Creek – it was only a few feet wide, even if they named a town for it.
I’d be back in from seeing Ardberg most nights when dinner was on the bench and I’d eat it on the balcony by my room and look down the fields. Ma didn’t mind so much, so long I didn’t come back with a note from school for fighting or such, and she didn’t mind either not hearing from Mrs Ardberg. I was about to visit at another kid’s house some time, Ben N Miller, son of the mechanic, and well the Mother called my Ma and asked all range of questions and then I didn’t visit at all. Ma told me that Miller family think they’re made out of marble and they’d be right seeing as how cold they are, that’s all she’d say and would say nothing more on it, she said. She was upset about that call, though; whatever they told her. I was going to clip him one at school, that Ben N Miller, but I didn’t want no note or call and upset my Ma even more that summer, so I put a big old river rock in his bag one time outside class and he tried to pick that thing up and about fell over and then tried again and jeez we all laughed and the teacher, too. He told me he was sorry, after that. He said he had a Dad, but didn’t mean his was much good, and he was sorry, all the same. I never even told him it was me with the river rock, but he knew.
Summer of year 3, when Mr Wolf taught us and told us about the Indigenous and the hunting they’d do, Ardberg and I camped out on the ridge and figured ourselves for natives. We carved out some boomerangs and we had a rotted old bit of fallen branch that we thought we could didgeridoo outta, but we got no sort of didgeri or doo out of there at all. We wanted to come after a fox, or a wombat or a yowie. Ardberg said they was bigfoot type arrangements with hair and the screaming and all that. I reckoned we were mad to be out there with the didgeridoo all full of holes and barely loud to scare a ant, and the boomerang that barely threw, let alone a boomerang that threw and come back.
But we set up, up on the ridge there, all the same and we got a few dark hours into it. We lit up the camp with the didgeridoo – it made for good fast burning wood with all those holes and all rotted out. We didn’t see any yowie or wombat or fox, even, but Ardberg reckoned he heard a fox howl – like a tiny wolf howling at the sky, is how he said it. He forgot the tent, so we laid up on the grass and curled up my parker for a pillow.
Not long after that my Ma came tearing up behind my sister and the spotlight like a little angry motorbike; two wheels spinning and screaming and flying mud everywhere they were so upset. You can’t be up here like this, they both say. My sister kicks dirt over the fire and stamps out the last of the didgeridoo in her gumboots and I follow them back down there behind them with my boomerang until my sister sees my holding it tight and throws it in the creek.
I ain’t allowed out after school, after that, and I don’t see Ardbeg so much. Ma keeps me in doing my bookwork and tries me reading from the bookshelf. We have Moby Dick and Dick Tracy and that’s it. All we got is Dick? I say one day and she clips me on the ears so my head sounds like the radio station when they turn off for the night.
Over Christmas I don’t see Ardberg at all. There’s no school and we don’t go to the bus stop, and Ma won’t let me go over to the farm. She keeps me at the house doing chores and watching the Ashes with her. England lose and she just really loves that.
We have cousins stay over for a few weeks that summer and we play different games – they have dolls and bikes and things, and we ride to the store with coins for candy from my Uncle. Mum dresses up and the TV’s off and we have a bbq on the balcony one night and my Uncle asks me about all range of questions. My sister pulls me up after one dinner and tells me not to say nothing about her necking the boys and cutting school – she’s gonna go back with this Uncle and go to school there on the Gold Coast, and I better not ruin it for her. I’ll look after Ma, she says, and it’s time to grow up, and I say OK.
Ma’s outside that night crying while the tennis is screaming on the TV inside the window. She’s got her feet up on the window sill and she’s holding her face in her hand. I go out and I take her hand. I hold it and she rubs my face and laughs at me a little. I lean in and she says that it’s just us and we’ll be tough, we’re all we need and she looks at me, longing like. I don’t know what she wants me to say, but I say yes. I think about Ardberg, and it’s him, too; I wish she knew that. Because I need my Ma for sandwiches and sporting commentary and the way she cuts my hair and tells me I’m handsome and I should talk to the kids at school; they’ll love me like she does. But I need Ardberg too, I reckon then. I need Ardberg to talk to about the shapes you can see in the stars from your room at night, and the way the stairs groan like an old man waking up in the afternoon and his joints are all little hinges and he needs an oil. And to chase after the footy with me, and to talk on things you can’t tell your Ma.
When school goes back in, my Uncle and cousins are gone and my sister’s gone like she reckoned and my Ma walks me to the bus stop. I’m excited to be out with Ma and I almost forget Ardberg and walk right past the old farm shed in my new shoes and backpack that my Ma gets me. They’re blistering my toes and my hair gel is all hard on my head in the sun.
My Ma puts her hand behind my neck and squeezes it and smiles at me as we’re getting near the far fence and the road, and then I remember Ardberg. I ask if I can run back there; I say I have enough time before the bus. Sure, she says, run in there real quick and I’ll keep on ahead.
Ardberg is gone when I get in there. He’s been gone the summer, for sure. There was no Christmas had in there. You know when presents have been open in a house like your Ma knows you didn’t eat your lunch. The window’s smashed up a bit and dusty, and the furniture’s all turned over and someone’s even burnt a bit of a chair up in the fireplace. There are bottles on the ground among the long grass in the middle of the room: whisky and gin and other things. I pick one up and look at it then, read the label and turn it over and throw it in the fire. I’ve seen it before.
I turn around and my Mother’s there. Come here, darling, she says. She holds me and I try to turn back and point at the bottles and the fire and she holds me tighter.
It’s just us, she says. It’s always just us. Come on darling, the bus is coming.