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Walking the Boundaries

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Walking the Boundaries



  To Edward Ffrench Dumaresq

  with the hope that one day he will

  walk the boundaries, and to all

  those who walk the boundaries too.




  One: Old Ted

  Two: Setting Out

  Three: Up the Gorge

  Four: Walking the Hills with Meg

  Five: Meg’s World

  Six: Yabbies

  Seven: Fire!

  Eight: Into the Mist

  Nine: A Diprotodont Called Dracula

  Ten: The View from the Hill

  Eleven: Decision

  Author’s Note

  About the Author

  Selected Awards

  Also by Jackie French



  Old Ted

  PURPLE PATERSON’S CURSE LINED the road towards Old Ted’s, along with milky thistles and dandelions and other weeds dropped from passing trucks of hay. On either side of the road the paddocks rolled like bright carpets, covered in a fuzz of phalaris grass, its yellow seeds ripening in the summer heat, broken only by the slash of erosion gullies, orange in a golden land, the taut brown lines of barbed-wire fences, dams like giant puddles and the dusty verges of the road.

  A grasshopper splattered against the windscreen, then another and another.

  ‘Yuk,’ muttered Martin. One buzzed through the window and landed on his arm. Its legs prickled his bare skin. He picked it up with two fingers and thrust it out the window, then wound the window up.

  ‘Should have squashed the little pest,’ said Old Ted, his bony hands spotty brown on the steering wheel.

  Martin shook his head. ‘Have you got grasshoppers like this too?’

  ‘Nup. Too many trees, too many birds. Don’t get them down our way like this.’

  ‘There are trees and birds here too,’ said Martin, gesturing at a stand of old gums by the road. A mob of sheep sheltered under them. Half the branches were dead, gnarled grey skeletons against a clear blue sky. A magpie sat on one, watching the road for carrion left by the cars.

  ‘Hah,’ snorted Old Ted.

  The country changed near Ted’s. The road dropped suddenly through dense trees. Cliffs rose steeply at the side of the road, walls of granite rock that shone with quartz and eagle droppings. Even the air smelt different, no longer hot with dust and the thick sweet smell of cattle, but a sharper mix of hot rock and damp leaf litter and cool water from the creek that cut through the deep gorge, then nuzzled its way through the casuarinas to the valley below and Old Ted’s farm.

  Martin glanced at him. Old Ted’s nose was twitching like he smelt home. He hadn’t said much since he had picked Martin up at the bus stop in town, just nodded in the vague direction of the butcher’s shop across the road, the paddocks behind it, and presumably his valley, and said, ‘Home’s that way,’ before shutting up.

  It was hard to believe that Old Ted was a relative. He didn’t look like anyone he’d ever known. Martin had hoped it wasn’t him, when he first saw him out of the bus window. But he was the only one waiting there. It was either go with Ted or go back home.

  Old Ted looked like he’d dropped out of a TV documentary about somewhere dry and old and boring, the sort you’d never bother to watch. But on TV at least you wouldn’t be able to smell him — Old Ted smelt of sweat and musty clothes and the sweet papery scent of age. The ute smelt worse.

  Other kids’ great-grandparents stayed for holidays, and took them to adventure playgrounds; or the kids visited them in old people’s homes, where they lay under tidy sheets. Other kids’ relatives sent them presents on their birthdays. Not Old Ted. Martin had never even met Old Ted before.

  Mum didn’t like Old Ted — couldn’t stand him, she had explained to Martin as she hurried through the dishes the night before he left. That was why she’d never mentioned him before. For all she knew he could have died years ago. The only time she’d met him was when she’d married Dad.

  ‘Why didn’t you like him?’ Martin had asked, wiping the limp tea towel over the baking dish that had held their frozen pizza.

  His mother had shrugged, her fingers in greasy water. One of her ambitions was to get a dishwasher, as soon as they could afford it. ‘Impossible old man. Mad as a meat axe. Didn’t even get a decent suit to wear to his own grandson’s wedding. He could have at least hired one.’

  ‘Maybe he was too poor,’ Martin had suggested.

  ‘Don’t you believe it. He just liked embarrassing us all. The old man’s sitting on a gold mine out there. The farm must be worth a million if it’s worth a cent. Good thing your father never had much to do with him. I’ll say that for your father’s mother — she had her father-in-law pegged the moment she met him.’

  Martin had wondered what his great-grandfather was like. The only relative they saw much of was Aunty Jean, who wore thick red lipstick that came off on the coffee mugs and interrupted whenever he said anything, as though what kids had to say didn’t count.

  ‘It’d be nice to have a great-grandfather,’ Martin had muttered. But he said it quietly. Mum had been working hard and her temper was short.

  ‘Not one like Ted,’ said his mother, slapping the Wettex against the sink. ‘The old fool’s probably senile by now anyway. You’d have to pay me a million dollars to get me out to his place.’

  A million dollars. That was why he was here.

  He never thought he’d even meet Old Ted. He couldn’t believe it when Dad had rung from Adelaide, where he lived now with his new family, to tell him about Old Ted’s offer. It was a weird offer, but no weirder than Old Ted, Dad had said. It was an incredible offer. It could mean money. Real money. For once Mum had agreed with Dad. She’d let him come.

  The ute twisted round a bend, shaded by squat tree ferns and thick-trunked trees. Old Ted raised a dirty white eyebrow at him. ‘This is the farm’s lower boundary. The other’s over the ridge a way, across the gorge.’

  Martin nodded without speaking. The trees seemed taller here, like a giant’s thighs, too tall to see the tops. The air was sweet with rotting leaves and bark. Somewhere a bird sang, clearer than he’d ever heard. It seemed a long way from one boundary to another, over all those ridges.

  ‘How much land is there, Ted?’ he asked.

  ‘Didn’t your dad tell you?’

  Martin shook his head. He stayed with his father at Christmas and Easter holidays, but Dad was working, mostly. There was never time to talk, certainly not about Old Ted.

  ‘Ten thousand acres. Less than that in hectares. Never bothered to work it out,’ said Old Ted.

  Nearly five thousand hectares! Martin looked at the twisting road, the high green skyline, the wriggling stretch of casuarinas along the creek. A wallaby jumped from the bushes where it had been sleeping, startled by the car, and dived into the steep green banks below, leaving its long black tail like a thick snake poking out of the bush behind it. Yellow flowers dotted the edges of the road, in between red-tipped ferns and tiny small-leafed creepers. The ridges glowed like giant building blocks, sheltering the gorge and river flats below.

  By Monday, if things went well, all this would be his. Then he’d sell it, and be rich.

  TED’S HOUSE LOOKED as though it had wriggled into the hillside a century before and never found its way out. Roses spread thorny fingers over the path, and brown-tailed chooks scuttled through the dahlias. An apple tree sagged across the fence, its branches heavy with fat apples. A handful of sheep raised curious noses at them as the ute pulled up, as though hoping for a bale of hay. Apart from the sheep paddock, the tangled orchard and the garden, everything else was bush.

/>   The kitchen smelt of stale fat. The lino gaped by the stove; the rest was grained brown by mud and boots. Chipped plates hung in the dresser by the wall, next to a calendar that read: Merry Christmas from Simpson’s Hardware, 1982.

  Ted caught his glance. ‘Never got round to taking that down,’ he admitted. ‘The place looked better when your great-granny was alive.’ He nodded at a photo on the dresser of a woman with bright white hair in a halo round her head.

  ‘When was that?’ asked Martin, before he could stop himself.

  Old Ted raised a hairy eyebrow. ‘You mean when did she die?’

  Martin nodded.

  Old Ted seemed to get smaller suddenly. He tramped over to the stove and opened the fire box, and began stuffing bits of wood into the smoky flames. ‘Summer of 1943. One of those dry days when the heat eats at your throat. She’d walked up the gorge a way. Always did that if she wanted to think. She’d got a letter from our Michael — that was your grandfather, your dad’s dad. He was up fighting in New Guinea. That was during the war. She wanted to read it with her friends.’

  ‘Friends?’ asked Martin. He wondered what friends would be up in the gorge. Surely no one lived there. Maybe Ted meant birds and animals and things. He looked crazy enough to think of animals as friends.

  Old Ted ignored the question. ‘A branch fell and killed her. Crushed her head against a rock. She wouldn’t have known anything. Just the cicadas and the water and the smell of rocks and leaves. Then nothing.’

  Martin looked blank.

  ‘You mean the wind blew a tree down?’

  Old Ted shook his head. ‘No wind. A branch just fell off. The sap goes out of trees when it’s hot. Saves their moisture. Pity humans can’t do the same. Lots of times I’ve wished I could stop my sweat seeping up towards the sun. I found her lying there that night. I’d been searching for her. I thought she’d just forgotten the time . . . or maybe she’d . . .’ Ted glanced at Martin. The white stubble wrinkled round his mouth as he shut his lips.

  ‘Maybe she’d what?’ asked Martin.

  ‘Never mind. Maybe I’ll tell you some other time. Maybe I won’t.’ Old Ted looked up from the stove. His face was red under the white whiskers. His eyes were so white they were almost blue. He looked old suddenly, much older than he’d seemed at the bus stop when he’d picked Martin up. It was easy to believe now that he was in his eighties.

  ‘I’m sorry . . .’ began Martin.

  ‘Don’t be. She died like she’d have wanted to. She never knew what happened next . . . our Michael’s death . . . your grandma — that was his wife, may her socks rot on her feet — keeping your dad in Sydney. A flibbertigibbet, out for what she could get, that’s what your grandma was. Still is, I suppose, if the bitch is still alive. Your great-granny died thinking your grandfather would come back from the war, that your dad would walk the boundaries, that the world would go on just like she’d always known.’ Ted caught Martin’s look. ‘You don’t know any of this, do you, boy?’

  Martin shook his head. ‘Dad’s never told me . . .’

  Old Ted frowned. ‘I don’t suppose he knows half of it. He was brought up in Sydney, just like you were. When your grandfather died up in New Guinea your grandma stayed in Sydney. She couldn’t stand this place. Couldn’t stand me either. Said there were too many memories . . . more like too much work . . . Don’t know why on earth he married her . . . wouldn’t have, I bet, if he hadn’t been lonely in the war, so far from here . . .’ Ted’s voice seemed to tail away. He blinked, and looked up at Martin again.

  ‘Your dad came here just once. That was the only time she’d let him come here. He was about your age.’

  ‘Did he come to walk the boundaries too?’

  Old Ted nodded.

  ‘He didn’t make it though,’ Martin said slowly. ‘He said he got sunstroke or something. Everything went fuzzy and peculiar, and he had to turn back. He said you wouldn’t give him a chance to try again.’

  ‘I could have given him a hundred chances and he’d never have made it,’ said Old Ted. ‘Your dad wasn’t the sort to have made it round the boundaries no matter how many times he tried, hard as it is to say about my own grandson. He had his chance. Now it’s your turn.’

  Martin was silent. Ted pulled out a chair and sat down beside him. His hands were as thin as chicken feet on his knees. His breath smelt of sour milk and last night’s meat. Martin wondered how he could politely move away.

  ‘Let’s see if you’ve got this straight,’ said Ted. ‘You understand what you’re supposed to do?’

  ‘I think so.’ Martin moved his chair back slightly. ‘Dad explained it to me on the phone.’ His father had rung from his office last week, after school. That way he didn’t have to pay the phone bill.

  ‘What did he say?’

  ‘He said that all I have to do is walk around the boundaries of this place this weekend, and you’ll give me the farm. It’ll be mine, to do what I want with.’ Martin looked up at Ted. ‘Is that right? You’ll really give me the whole farm if I walk around the boundaries? To do whatever I want with?’

  Old Ted nodded.

  ‘It seems too simple,’ said Martin. ‘I mean, all this just for going for a walk . . .’

  ‘There’s more to it than that,’ said Old Ted.

  Martin nodded. ‘Sure. I’ll have to camp out. I know that. And the country’s pretty rough. But I can manage it.’

  ‘You sure?’

  ‘Of course I’m sure. I’ve seen the “Bush Tucker Man” three times on DVD. I know all about the bush.’

  ‘I’m sure the Bush Tucker Man’ll be a lot of use,’ agreed Old Ted solemnly. A smile seemed to flicker over his face. Then it was gone. His face sank into its wrinkles like a dried apple.

  ‘I wish you were older,’ he said. ‘But I haven’t got the time to wait till you are. I’m too old. If you don’t make it, I’ll have to find someone else.’

  ‘Of course I’ll make it,’ said Martin. He grinned. ‘As long as you’re sure about giving me the farm if I do.’

  Old Ted looked at him strangely. ‘If you make it round the boundaries you’ll get the farm,’ he said. ‘There’s no question about that.’

  DINNER WAS ROAST MUTTON, baked in the wood oven, with potatoes and pumpkin from the garden, and beans from the vines that clambered over the dunny. Martin helped scrub the potatoes and slice the pumpkin. He supposed they were clean enough. It seemed funny getting them from the soil, instead of cleaned and packed or frozen from the supermarket.

  ‘No pud,’ said Ted. ‘I haven’t got much of a hand with puddings. I suppose you get them every day at home?’

  Martin shrugged. There was always ice-cream in the fridge if you wanted it, or frozen cheesecake or something. Mum didn’t have time to cook.

  ‘I wish you’d known this kitchen when your great-granny was alive,’ sighed Ted. ‘It smelt of gravy and fresh scones every time you walked inside. Orange cake and pumpkin cake and gingernuts and spotted dick. It was her ma that made the spotted dick.’

  Martin giggled. Ted looked at him sternly. ‘Spotted dick’s a sort of pud,’ he said. ‘It’s got currants in it. That’s what makes it spotted. Good hot or cold. You can eat it at night and take slices of it off fencing next morning.’

  Old Ted smiled. ‘Those two ruled the place, your great-granny and her ma. Her ma’d be up stoking the stove while your great-gran and I were still snuggled in bed. Or your great-gran’d haul me up at kookaburra dawn to see the sunrise. We’d climb that hill up there and the dew’d drip off the gum leaves and her hair’d look like it was brushed with silver, and we’d watch the sun pop out of the horizon like a great big chook was laying it, and the lyrebirds would be singing to welcome it under the mist in the valley.’

  Martin stared at him. He’d never heard anyone talk like that. He tried to remember if he’d ever seen the sun rise. Maybe he would one day if they could buy that home unit on the harbour. He could watch it from their balcony, bursting out of the sea and

  ‘Then, as we came down the hill,’ remembered Ted, ‘there’d be smoke billowing up from the chimney like someone was puffing out great grey clouds, and I’d know her ma was up and cooking breakfast.

  ‘She used to knead the bread the night before and leave it by the stove to rise. And then she’d stick it in the oven every morning when she went to milk the cow. We’d walk in the kitchen door and she’d yell at me to take my boots off and not make a mess on her floor — and the bread’d be ready and you could smell it all over the house.

  ‘You don’t smell bread like that now. So soft and white it soaked the butter and jam right off your knife, with a black crust on top you’d need an axe to chop through.’

  He shook his head. ‘The bread in town’s all right, but not like that. Not like when it’s your own. Not when you can spread it with great fat slabs of butter from the cow just out the door. She used to use its droppings on the roses,’ said Ted. ‘That’s why they grew so well.’

  He bent down and pulled the baking dish out of the oven. The meat was brown, and smelt good. ‘How many spuds do you want, boy? Three or four?’

  IT WAS COOL on the verandah after dinner. A mist brushed the ridge tops, thin as a hot breath in winter.

  ‘That’s Billy,’ said Old Ted.

  ‘What is?’

  ‘The mist. It’s called Billy.’

  ‘Why Billy?’

  ‘One of the elders of the tribe that used to live here — he was called Billy. That’s what your great-gran said. I never met him. The mist’s like his beard, all thin and white.’

  ‘An Aboriginal tribe?’ asked Martin.

  ‘Course an Aboriginal tribe. Who did you think? Eskimos?’

  Martin was silent. Somewhere a bird began to hoot, deeper than a drum. The noise vibrated through the air, so that even the trees seemed to echo with the sound.

  ‘Powerful owl,’ said Old Ted. ‘Biggest owl in Australia. Not many left now. They need five square miles of bush to get enough tucker. Not many places you can find that now.’

  Martin nodded. Five square miles. How many kilometres was that? And it would all belong to him. He wondered how long it would take to sell it. Would he get the money straightaway, or would they make him keep it in a bank till he was eighteen? Mum had warned him to get all the details straight before he left. You don’t get rich on promises, Mum had said.

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