I can’t believe it. Where’s me sleep-in? First day of the hols tomorrow, and I’ve set an alarm… Me new alarm clock - the one that Nanny gave me. It’s a great clock, with numbers clicking over one by one. But when I can’t sleep, it clicks too loud. I’ve packed cheese sangas in me bag, I’m hiding under the blankets in me clothes - CLICK - I know it’s getting late. Mum’s just gone to bed, and Dad’s crashed out watching ‘Prisoner’ on the idiot box. He’ll be snoring before Mum… It’s shearing time, and he’s knackered. He’s built the fire up big - I can hear it crackle. But it’s the end of first term - CLICK - and I’m glad I have the extra blanket.
Here’s the train. I could set the new clock by the big goods train… Every night - ten to ten. It’s huge. Dad reckons on a cold frosty night, you can feel it ten miles away. I dunno ‘bout that. I know I can hear it when it hits the big bridge over Watsons Creek, and that’s a long walk. If I’m still awake - like tonight - I always try and count the trucks as they hit the bridge. One… Two… Three… - CLICK - bloody clock. I give up counting, and picture the bridge. When you stand under it, it looks near high enough to touch the sky. It’s a lot higher than it is wide, and I’m lost in its criss-cross frame. That’s where we’re headed tomorrow. I don’t feel crash-hot. I don’t know how it happened - CLICK - but that’s where I’m going.
All through the last day of school, passing notes, and on the long bus ride home - yak, yak - he wouldn’t let up, “Let’s do it… Let’s go down the bridge tomorrow, Turner.” Davo always calls me Turner, never Craig. I know it sounds rude. But he’s me mate, and mates do that. His real name is David Broughton. He’s two years older than me, but we’re in the same combined class at school. Well - that’s until next year anyway, when Davo goes off to high school in Goulburn. I s’pose he might repeat again. Then we’d both be in year six… And I’d finally catch him.
All up, there are fourteen kids on ‘Willowdale’. But six are girls, and five are little squirts. And Billy’s away at boarding school most of the time, anyway. He and his folks live in the massive posh house - we don’t even go in the fancy gardens, unless we’re invited. They own ‘Willowdale’, and lots more as well. ‘Willowdale’ is a flash racehorse stud, but my Dad and Mr Broughton look after the sheep side of things… I suppose Mr Broughton works for my Dad, who works for Billy’s Dad. It’s complicated. Dad reckons “Sheep pay the bloody bills”, and whinges about the boss - says we’re “treated like serfs” - but he likes his job, really. When it comes to proper kids’ fun, it’s always down to Davo and me.
“Really? The bridge? Billy’s home as well. Why don’t we get everyone together for a kick?”
“Nah… William is a wanker”, he says “William” like the Queen. “Just you and me Turner - down the bridge. Don’t tell ya folks.”
“Yeah, right. Like I’d tell.” I don’t remember saying yes. But - it’s on.
The plan never changes - same bat-time, same bat-channel. Six o’clock at the wool-shed cattle-grid - then head north, up the track next to the row of big pine trees. Those huge pines must’ve been planted a million years ago. It’s a windbreak for the shed. This is ‘Willowdale’ - so windy, a chook can lay the same egg three times. Dad has other jokes about wind. Davo keeps me waiting, then leaps out of the fog like bloody Ben Hall, screaming “Stick ‘em up”. I jump out of me skin, even though I know it’s coming. It’s an old joke, with a new twist…
“No way Davo - you’re kidding”. He’s holding his old man’s twenty-two magnum.
I’m really scared now, but he’s already walking ahead, “We’ll pop a bunny on the way”. I’m still trying to catch up, when I see him crouch at the last pine tree - raise his left hand.
I whisper-yell, “Not here!” The farm has eyes - I know it.
He points at a bunch of tussocks on the edge of the gully, then shoulders the rifle - CRACK. I hear the sharp twenty-two smack back at us from the northern ridge, and echo across the paddocks.
“You’re fuckin’ mad!” He’s not listening. By the time I catch up, he has cracked squealing bunny dead on a half-buried rock, and is now peeling off the skin… A sock from a steaming silver-pink rabbitty foot. No luck for Bugs. “You’re mad. It might be misty… But they’ll hear ya.” I puff, as he flings guts across the paddock, and catches me face in the spray, “Aw - gross.”
“Better than cheese sangas.” He’s talking to the rabbit, not me… He’s already across the gully, and headed north for the scrub. I wipe me face on me tracky sleeve, and hurry after - always bloody chasing.
He’s going over the ridge. Any ordinary idiot would follow the gully down to the bridge, but I know this game too. He leaves me for dead in a scramble up and down - through the scrub, over the bald-rock top, and down the other side. I only really see him when he springs from hiding somewhere to scare me shitless.
“You arsehole…” Even carrying the gun and bunny, he leaves me for dead.
“Pull ya finger out, Turner” he yells “We’ll be late.”
“Plenty of time.” I know I can’t catch him… But I can’t let him go.
By the time I hit the creek flat, he’s already underneath the rail bridge. It’s always bigger than I remember. I slug at the water bottle, hot now in the late morning sun - and walk. Eventually, I fall down on me back, right beside rifle and rabbit.
“Heaps of time” he’s smiling, piling sticks in the mouth of a wombat hole under the bridge. “Let’s get cooking”. He lights the fire, and skewers Bugs with a bent green stick. He hands him over “Time to earn your name, Turner… Roll him ‘round slow and steady - don’t burn him.” So now I’m cooking.
Davo is stripped, and in the creek before I can say a word. It’s been a pretty good autumn, and there is decent water. Davo tears up stream, runs out along the trunk of a downed River Gum, falls in face first… Yeah - I know - Davo’s drowned. He’s gunna let the muddy creek roll him back down under water, and hide himself in the willow on the opposite bank. “Ha ha… Funny bastard. Good one - now - enough. Stop arsin’ around. Shit… Shit… Davo?”
Then I hear it. The prick is laughing, right above me head. I dunno how he’s bloody done it, but he has climbed right up into the bridge without me seeing. Now he’s shaking creek water on me head.
“Oh - you arsehole!”
“Pass up the bunny.”
We’re both laughing now, but I’m not feeling real good. We sit in the bridge frame, and chew black and pink rabbit off the bones. Not bad tucker. But I’m really starting to feel crook.
Davo looks at my watch. “Time to go, Turner.” We feel the train before we hear it.
“Yeah - righto.” I hate this bit.
We climb. Up we go. Its Davo’s favourite game. He swings, part monkey - while I clamber on up behind. Always chasing. It’s a long way to the top, but it’s a bloody lot further looking down. I try not to do that. It feels like we’re climbing for hours - I don’t suppose it’s that long - and the train is tearing on its way… Sydney to Melbourne. I always think of the passengers as I climb, caught up in their newspapers and magazines… No idea of the games us kids play.
“Come on, Turner. Don’t get left behind.” Davo is at the top, laughing like a bloody lunatic. The train is loud now. I’m really concentrating hard, trying to remember Dad’s climbing rules - always have three holds… two feet and a hand, two hands and a foot - careful as I go, moving just one at a time… until…
“Extra treat today, Turner”
I look up. I can’t believe it. Davo has swung himself right up under the track, on the tiny pylon cap, and is sticking his head through the sleepers.
“No way!” I stop, dead-scared.
Davo turns and looks at me, his goofy noggin between the stripy sleeper shadows, big glaring sun behind. “Come on Turner - it’s huge fun!”
“No fuckin’ way!” I don’t like to look down, but that’s what I do. The little fire is sending smoke signals curling up through the bridge frame, and I’m planning my retreat.
“I dare ya, Craig.”
I’ve had enough. “He called me Craig?” The bridge is shaking now, and I’m holding on. I look up again, yelling “Get outta there, you idiot!”
“Ah - ya fuckin’ yella dog coward - get up here!”
I can’t hear him now. He’s yelling, the bridge feels like a ride at Luna Park, the train is roaring, and he turns into the sun - to stare down a bloody train. The horn blows long, like the world is ending, and I’m already climbing down. When I get to the bottom, I just keep walking… back home along the gully, eating cheese sangas, like any ordinary idiot.
I get back to the wool-shed just in time to catch the old man at knock-off, and score a ride home. Mr Broughton asks me if I’ve seen Davo. I dodge this one, saying I left him walking back home in the gully paddock. I hope I’m right. Dad’s pretty stuffed, and he’s had a blue with the boss - so there aren’t too many hard to answer questions there. I think back on all the fun I’ve had with Davo - all those adventures, the crazy days… I never really said yes. I s’pose it’ll be different now. I’ll cop it when I see him at the wool-shed dance for cut-out next week. But as Dad drives the ute through the home paddock gate, I don’t feel too bad at all. I said “No” to Davo, and I feel - alright. Sorta bigger. Maybe I caught up with him at last.