Life as a fifteen-year-old boy is difficult for Sandy Douglas, who’s not only facing the challenges of girls and friendship, but battling the gut-wrenching grief that came from losing his mother.
With his brother Red, who is constantly filled to the brim with rage and his dad, who, despite his best efforts, struggles with their situation, Sandy endeavours to define himself in the Mallee.
Below is the first chapter of Mallee Boys. To read more, or to purchase the book, follow the link to our website, or visit us at our Mile End bookshop.
Chapter 1: Sandy
New Year’s Day
You know, when you walk into a murky river you could step on anything. I’ve never understood how easily some people will just leap on in when they can’t see a thing. I suppose it’s like life; maybe I could do with just stepping in more and looking less.
We’re staying at Uncle Blakey’s shack. We’ve been coming up here every summer for years. The breeze is baking today but at least the air is moving. It’s too hot to even go for a walk, almost too hot to swim, but the lure of the river is tempting, so I’m thinking about it.
‘Sandy, get your arse in here. It’s fine!’ Dad’s yelling from way out in the water.
He’s bright red. His big bald head bobbing on his big round body. A cheerful, bloody snowman. For a farmer he’s a surprisingly good swimmer. In fact he loves it. When we’re at the shack he gets up early and swims for hours against the flow and then drifts back with the current.
I decide to go in.
I wanna be part of the crowd.
The river is a soft brown colour, a perfect mix of water and mud. There’s absolutely no possibility of seeing anything. The mud squelches between my toes as I inch away from the bank. I’ve deliberately chosen the least reedy stretch but even here I can still feel the slippery stalks stroking my legs. I launch off. I’m not out very deep so the slimy bottom skims my bare chest. Yuck. I kick faster and harder to get away.
I swim like a dog, my neck stuck out as far from the water as I can manage.
‘Put your head in, Sandy!’ I can hear Dad heckling me before he fearlessly ducks down.
No way. Walking and swimming in this is bad enough without getting my head in.
I remember when I was learning to swim Dad used to hold me under and I never really got over it. ‘I’m gonna count to three. Here we go. One … two … three.’ His voice was all muffled as he pushed my head down. My body arched hard against his hand, pressing up, praying he wouldn’t mess up the count. So now that I can swim I never put my head in.
The water is cool and it does feel good. I feel clean, washed free of the summer dust. I roll over onto my back. I’d forgotten, since last summer, how nice it is just to float. To let something else do the work.
Dad’s shouting for me to swim over to him but I pretend I can’t hear him. I know if I go over he’ll start tossing me around and pulling my legs under. Then my head will be in for sure. I can hear laughing. Uncle Blakey and Big Joe Barrel have jumped in. They’re all splashing and carrying on, three old farmers acting younger than me.
‘That boy’s got an old head on young shoulders.’ If I had a dollar every time someone said that about me I’d be pretty cashed up by now. Apparently my mum, Ellie, even said it about me when I was baby. I didn’t have those weird rolling eyes that most babies had. I just looked hard and straight at her with my clear blue ones, which never did turn brown like the rest of them. So, why the bloody hell did they call me Sandy?
Think of someone called Sandy and I bet they couldn’t look less me. For a start I’m a boy. I was told the name comes from some rellie back in Scotland but secretly I think it comes from Dad’s first dog. So do I have blond or red hair? No. Do I have a big friendly smile? Nah, not really. My eyes are still blue, my hair nearly black and I’m tall but not filled out yet. I do smile but it’s one of those shy, less-teeth-showy smiles. I’ve left that to my older brother Red. His real name is Josh. Imagine him: a big handsome redhead.
So, un-sandy Sandy I am.
‘Get back over here, mate!’ Blakey calls.
I’m not going over to them. They wanna duck me, for a laugh. I push the back of my head deeper into the water and scull away from them, cocooned in the muffled silence. I don’t really think of sculling as swimming. It’s keeping me up but it’s more like flying, using little flaps of my hands as I look at the sky.
I’ll be sixteen in July, and Year Ten starts in a few weeks. I can’t believe it. This year is a big one, the last before things really change. Our country school is too small to offer much choice in Year Eleven and Twelve. We either have to leave, do some correspondence study – like that’ll ever happen – or go to boarding school in Adelaide or Melbourne.
I decided long ago I wasn’t going to Melbourne: too many bad memories. I flap out a little further into the river. What the hell am I gonna do next year?
I quite like school, not that I’d tell anyone, especially Red. He couldn’t wait to get out of the place and caused a lot of trouble on his way through too. But for me it’s been alright, once they realised I was nothing like my brother. I like looking at things, taking them apart, trying to figure out how everything works. It doesn’t seem hard. In a funny kind of way school makes more sense than a lot of outside stuff.
Dad’s yelling at me. Off they go again. I can hear them all
through the heavy wet.
‘Sandy, shift your arse! Quick! Hurry up!’
The tone is unusual, not the normal knockabout teasing. There’s a bit more urgency.
I roll over onto my stomach and then I see it. What the hell?
‘Sandy, get out of the way!’ But the warning is too late. The big brown thing is gonna hit me.
I launch into a pathetic dog paddle trying to get away. My legs kick in a frenzy beneath me and my neck stretches out like a llama. I feel a bash on the back on my head and it pushes me under. All the shouting from the bank softens. My heart is pounding as old memories of being ducked as a kid kick in. I can’t get the thing off me. I can’t see anything. I push up with my hands and they find something soft but really heavy. My head keeps butting up into it, trying to ram a way through. I panic. My brain doesn’t know what to do. My lungs are bursting. I’m desperate for a suck of clean, fresh air but don’t dare open my mouth. The burning is excruciating.
I can’t believe I’m gonna drown. Not today, surely?
There’s a jerk on the bottom of my legs. Something is yanking me under. This is too much. I can’t fight it anymore. I surrender with one last kick and then my mouth opens, hungrily gulping in water. My body wants it like air and it pours in.
There’s a bashing on my back, heavy and urgent, shaking me around. I’m floppy, with no resistance. My body stiffens. Rigid. Then the water comes splaying out of my throat and my chest heaves as it sucks in real air. Too desperate, I cough and splutter. I’ve got no control. My mouth sucking too hard competes against the spasms of my lungs spewing the water out. Eventually the craving and the coughing subsides enough and my heart settles.
Exhausted, I take a calmer breath. As I open my eyes I see I’m still in the river.
‘Ya right? Ya right?’
It’s Dad. He turns me round to face him, holding me afloat. I see how terrified he is. He hugs me so tight I start coughing again.
‘Bloody idiot, I had to bash the crap out of you.’
But there are tears in his eyes. He just holds me safe and strong till I settle. As his panic and mine begin to subside, he pushes me away slightly. It seems a bit awkward now for a grown lad to be clinging to his wet Dad in the middle of the river. We both get it at the same time and grin.
‘You’ve always been a crap swimmer, Sandy. Sometimes you get so lost in your own bloody head you don’t know what’s going on around you.’
‘Was it a log or something?’ I ask. ‘I just didn’t see it coming.’
‘No, it was a bloody dead cow! Looks like it died upstream and got washed down.’
I hear cheers and moos from the bank. Looking down the river I see the dead cow.
Bloated, floating and limp from trying to kill me.
Available as both a paperback and ebook, Mallee Boys is the winner of the 2016 Adelaide Festival Unpublished Manuscript Award. It is Charlie Archbold’s first publication inspired by her time living in the Murray Mallee region in Australia.
Richard Zachariah’s Vanished Land is an ode to what once was within the picturesque Western Districts of Victoria. His rich language frames anecdotes of rose-tinted childhood musings alongside despairing soliloquies on the modern state of the once majestic region. With a balance and pace that immerses the reader within the author’s thoughts and understanding, Zachariah opens up a world that has been lost.
A keen July wind touches us. I’m standing at the entrance to Hexham Park, which my old friend David Armstrong sold at a time of rural recession a decade ago. The paddocks are invisible under a plague of pine trees. A hundred and fifty years of the Armstrongs’ Western District hegemony has faded like a rainbow in the sky. The Camelot of my boyhood dreams is gone. No one at this moment feels safe from talk of grief.
When he greets us, David is amiable and brave. Artist Robert Whitson is there with me to paint what is left of the beloved place.
David’s key to the gate doesn’t work. The locks have been changed by the new owners, one of the timber companies whose tax-driven tree ventures have disfigured the Western District. Hexham Park, once a haven of undulating paddocks and river flats, is now a vivid scar of pine trees over sprayed weeds.
David is apologetic as we climb the locked gate and walk the mile long red gravel drive to his forsaken birthplace.
When I think of the towns to the northwest, the contrast is stark.
As a teenager, I knew Streatham, Skipton and Lake Bolac as the heart of a grazing and cropping nirvana, but today those towns are bereft and sinking, while proximity to a big city has handed Birregurra freshly painted cottages, organic cafes, a destination restaurant and a burgeoning future in lifestyle real estate.
Then I see the miracle of crops. Vast areas of sheep country have gone under the plough, defying traditional claims that the wet, heavy soil would drown any monetary return. Farmers have confounded the rules by raising the beds 15 centimetres and creating depressions between them to drain water. Once drained, the rich volcanic soil pushes up white and red wheat in unprecedented quantities interspersed with ripening canola in swathes of ludicrous hi-vis yellow.
Steel mammoths with rubber legs rumble through widened gates where utes once bumped along. Workers give way to machines ruled by laptops and satellites, driven by GPS-RTK auto steer, replacing manpower and emptying the towns.
Visiting outback Australia, the English writer Bruce Chatwin discovered the Aboriginal custom of measuring a journey in songs rather than kilometres. Out of this visit came The Songlines (1987), which lit up an ancient culture by interpreting the dreamtime as a parallel reality that exists alongside our quotidian existence, preceding us and lasting long after our deaths. Chatwin believed that our time-challenged lives would be enhanced if we discarded the angst of measuring kilometres so that a destination became a way of seeing and redefining ourselves.
The Songlines mythology came to me travelling in a car with Peter Learmonth, a fifth-generation Western District dictionary of ownership, bibliography of people and compendium of history. In the spirit of Chatwin, he measured our trips by properties passed and people remembered. Kilometres were irrelevant, never mentioned.
Find out more about this bestseller here.