Ironbarkby Barry Jonsberg
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I'm miserable and sixteen. In that order. Sixteen can be a tough time. And it's almost unmanageable for a wisecracking boy whose temper is white-hot. As a consequence he is sentenced to a time-out with his reclusive grandfather in a primitive shack in the forest. There is little to do except chop wood and watch the red-eyed wallabies gather at dusk. They are an unlikely couple: a taciturn old man who prefers the simple life, and a volatile boy addicted to the technology of the 21st century—and yet a bond blossoms between them. But denied access to much he desires, and feeling provoked by a local cop cynical of city folk, the boy's frustration grows. And when he encounters situations he can't control, anything could happen.
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By Barry Jonsberg
Allen & UnwinCopyright © 2008 Barry Jonsberg
All rights reserved.
I'm miserable and sixteen. In that order.
We are taking the night ferry and Bass Strait is cutting up rough. So is Dad. He can't get a cabin at short notice. He asks at the ticket office and some dude with bad hair and a goatee gives him the flick. Absolutely guaranteed to rattle Dad's cage, big time. Rejection doesn't figure on his radar unless he's dishing it out.
So once we're on the boat, he corners a guy in a white suit trimmed with fancy braid at regular intervals. Dad gives him the full finger-wagging routine: the I've-got-an-Armani-suit-and-you're-a-piece-of-excrement-in-fancy-dress treatment. Maybe he's hoping the guy'll evict a couple of random tourists or build an extension. Whatever. He gets the brush-off there, as well.
Normally I'd laugh, but I'm too depressed.
So we sit in reclining seats that don't recline and I concentrate on keeping the contents of my stomach safe. At around three in the morning, I get an urge to spew – preferably all over Dad's suit – but I can't be bothered. I doze instead.
When we land, the world feels like it's still rocking. We drive in silence. Not one of those silences like the ones in old movies where they glance at each other periodically with warm, companionable smiles, but the kind tinged around the edges with conflict. So I plug in my iPod, crank it up loud and watch the Tasmanian scenery unroll. In about thirty seconds we've left the town behind. They've got car parks in Melbourne that are bigger than this fleapit. And then we're on a country road, deserted except for the odd Kombi van every twenty minutes. It looks to me like it's the same Kombi van. After a while, I'm glad to see it. A welcome break from trees.
There are trees everywhere. I never knew there were so many trees in the world. There probably aren't that many trees in the world. I reckon it's a special effect.
For nearly two hours Dad swings around hairpin bends like he's been doing it all his life. We climb one mountain after another, along roads that switch back on themselves so alarmingly I worry we're going to disappear up our own bum-holes. Eventually, he sweeps onto a dirt track that stretches forever, followed by a clearing, two run-down shacks, a barking dog and a wrinkled dude sitting on a battered chair. Dad pulls up in a cloud of grey dust and waits for it to settle. The dog barks. The wrinkled dude sits. When Dad decides it's safe to expose his threads to the Tasmanian air he gets out, brushing imaginary specks from his suit.
The dog barks. The old guy sits.
Dad stands beside the car, as inconspicuous as poo in a punch bowl. I get my gear from the boot. No one says anything. Finally, the dog loses interest, plops its sorry backside under the old dude's chair and falls asleep. Most excitement for a decade, I reckon. Then Dad – I swear to God – nods at the ancient geezer and the ancient geezer nods back. I splutter laughing and that wakes the dog up. Briefly. I tell ya. The suit and the antique specimen. I'm struck by a vague memory of someone on TV referring to their in-laws as 'outlaws' and the canned laughter is way out of proportion. But for Dad and his father-in-law, right there in the middle of the Tasmanian forest, it's kinda appropriate.
They're a pair of tired outlaws, nodding at each other like macho losers.
I lug my bag over to the main shack and think about joining in with the general nodding. But I don't. Finally, Dad speaks. It's a relief to know someone can.
'I appreciate it,' he says.
Granddad nods. Nodding is his strong suit.
'Sure,' he says in a voice long past its use-by date.
'I'll be off, then,' says Dad and we all go in for more nodding. Then he eases into the leather of the BMW and restarts the engine. The window purrs down and he gives me this serious look.
'You know what you need to do,' he says. 'I expect you to follow the program exactly. Do you understand?' I nod. It seems to be the custom in these parts. Then he's away, with a hint of wheel spin and another cloud of dust.
I stand for a while, watching the space he's left, listening to the silence descend.
Tasmania. Notorious for nature, wine, cheese and a history of housing the dregs of the criminal classes, the worst of the worst. A prison of sea and forest, crammed with pain and suffering. Not much has changed, I reckon.
I turn on my mobile, but there's no signal. Of course there isn't. For a moment I get a thrumming in my ears – the sound of blood pulsing round my system. This is great. Just great. I almost get the urge to laugh. Almost.
I've been here five seconds and it's a disaster already.
Once – and I don't know why; don't ask me – I watched this feeble reality TV show where a bunch of yuppies tried to live like nineteenth-century settlers. You know the routine: making shelters out of ironbark, stringy-bark, whatever-the-hell-sort-of-bark, starting fires by rubbing two wombats together, eating invertebrates, that kinda thing.
I'm living the nightmare.
For starters, there's no electricity. Well, not proper electricity. Granddad has rigged up solar panels and there's a tangle of wires ending in switches that look like they're recycled from car parts. Pushing in an old cigarette lighter gizmo sparks up a tiny fluoro light. But that's it. Not enough juice to power a proper appliance. No television, no stereo. Just an old radio that runs on batteries and that's as high-tech as it gets.
The water is brown. Apparently, it gets pumped from a nearby dam. I don't know how, with no electricity, but it dribbles from the taps and stains the chipped sink. There's an outside dunny with only two walls. You stand with your old fella in your hand and stare at the trees, hoping no one will stroll past. Unlikely. We are wedged firmly in the butt cheeks of the world. At least there is a cistern and it flushes the same brown water. The drinking stuff comes from a rainwater tank. It's reasonably clear and I can't actually see things swimming in it. I try not to think about the water running down rusted roofs, along guttering filled with possum droppings. I wonder what odds I'd get on the presence of filtering systems, but in the end I don't want to go there.
I've gone back in time. A hundred years. Minimum.
But I'm getting ahead of myself. Like I say, I stand and listen as the forest swallows the sound of Dad's engine. Then it's as if he has never been. I turn towards the wrinkled dude on the chair. His eyes are fixed some place in the distance. Maybe some other time in the distance. I sit next to him. There's nothing else to do.
My grandfather. My jailer.
He's just another stranger with his own agenda.
'So, what do you do for entertainment around here, Gramps?' I ask. A muscle twitches at the corner of his eye and I know he doesn't like being called 'Gramps'. I file the information away.
'Entertainment?' he says, rolling the word like it's in a foreign language. He turns his eyes towards me, all watery and flecked with red. Old man's eyes. I can tell he resents my presence and I've only been here six nanoseconds. It's like he's real reluctant to share his patch of bugger-all with anyone, let alone a sixteen-year-old from another planet. I wait, but he must've forgotten the question because he doesn't say anything else. I wasn't holding my breath for a sensible answer anyway.
I fish a packet of cigarettes from my bag and light up. I don't offer him one because a) I haven't got many left and b) it's just the devil in me. I'll need more soon. You don't have to be Einstein to figure that 7-11s are thin on the ground out here. I have no idea what the go is with shopping. For all I know, Gramps is self-sufficient, chomping root vegetables straight from the ground and chasing down the odd wallaby. Then I remember we will have to go into town in the next couple of days for me to report to the cop shop. I reckon I've got enough smokes to last a couple of days.
'I'm going for a walk,' I say. 'I'm meant to go for bushwalks regularly. Part of the program.'
'Why?' asks Granddad. It's a good question. Trouble is, I'm wobbly on the answer.
'Supposed to be good for me.' I wave my hand in a vague way. 'Peace, tranquillity and all that guff. So's listening to music. Soothing the savage beast, you know? And writing, apparently. We just need a rock concert in the middle of the forest for me to hike to and write about and I reckon I'm cured.'
Granddad doesn't reply and I can't blame him. I wouldn't reply to that garbage either. So I get to my feet and head off through this random rickety gate. It looks like Granddad might have whittled it. There's about a hundred k of fencing surrounding the two shacks. God knows why, unless it's the final touch in the penitentiary motif. I walk along the track that brought me here. It's as good a direction as any and I can't get lost. After a couple of minutes, I round a bend and there is nothing but trees, stretching to infinity. My stomach has nearly settled after all the travelling, but I still have the urge to throw up.
I keep walking. Scenery scrolls past me on an endless loop.
I walk a long way, find a trickle of a waterfall and sit for a few hours, smoking. I'm hoping the change of scene will bring a couple of bars of signal on my phone, but it looks like I've got more chance of finding a Maccas in the next clearing. It's kind of peaceful here. Not that I'm a scenery sort of person, but never let it be said I can't adapt. I watch insects skim the water, small flashes of brilliant colour. Birds are kicking up all around, their songs mingling. It's weird. After a while I can detect individual songs, probably individual birds. It's a worry. If I spend too much time here, I could turn into one of those fossils you see on the Discovery Channel spouting about red-throated, lesser spotted river warblers. Not that I watch Discovery. I'm just using my imagination.
There's one birdsong that sounds human. I swear. I listen for a while and it's as if someone is out there, hiding in the trees and moaning. And that's when I get the feeling I'm being watched. I know. Sad. Too many B-grade horror movies, probably. But there's this low moaning and a feeling in the small of my back, an itch of eyes on me. I saw this old movie once. Deliverance. It was about these dudes who get caught up in a wilderness area, not too dissimilar to the one I'm in. They're being tracked by inbred hillbillies. It was fairly scary, actually. So I can't get this feeling out of my mind. That there's someone out there with a hatchet or something, watching. I even reckon I can hear a sound, way off in the distance, like an axe thudding into wood. I could be shredded into fish bait and it would be years before anyone'd find me. You get the impression Jesus was a little tacker the last time anyone set foot around here.
Anyway, there's nothing like feeling you're being watched by a homicidal maniac to ruin the one-with-nature experience, so I start the long haul back. Trouble is, I can't resist the urge to keep looking over my shoulder. A few times I think I hear twigs snapping, and once, off to my right, I see the dense shrub move like something is pushing through it. An over-active imagination can be a curse, take it from me. I can't shift the notion I'm being tracked.
When I get back to the shacks, face lumpy with mozzie bites, it's cold and dark and I'm happy to be inside. Some way short of deliriously happy, mind you. Granddad is setting the table as though I'd made a reservation. A wood stove has made the room toasty. Don't get me wrong. I'm still miserable, but hunger and cold can make you grateful for small mercies.
See, I've learned something already. How's that for personal development?
Granddad can cook. Slightly. The steak was clearly good quality before he fried it for two hours and turned it to leather. The broccoli is mush, but the sweet potatoes are almost edible. We eat in silence. I try not to watch Granddad. I know it will be kinda gross, all loose lips and ... Anyway, the wet smacking sounds he makes are enough for me. I focus on my plate and ignore the onset of lockjaw that comes with chewing the steak. When we finish, Granddad scrapes the remnants into a bucket.
'Water'll be hot, now,' he says. 'Wear the yellow gloves. No thermostat here. Close to boiling.' He takes the bucket and shuffles out.
I guess I've been nominated for the dishwashing. Must have missed that discussion, and the vote.
The water is brown and hotter than molten steel. The gloves are definitely not my colour and they don't complement my outfit, but I pull them on and resist the urge to hunt for an apron. I'm not convinced the water will make the dishes any cleaner, but I scrape and scrub and rinse. At least there's no drying duty. These puppies are dry after about ten seconds on the draining board. I peel off the gloves with the satisfaction of a job well done.
Granddad is sitting on his chair on the verandah. I find another saggy specimen with one loose leg and drag it close. He's lit three humungous candles and the air is sweet with citronella. It makes the dark darker somehow. We sit in a pool of yellow light and beyond it the night is solid.
'Beer?' he says.
Granddad gets up, all slow and deliberate, and disappears into the darkness behind the house, returning five minutes later with two cold stubbies of Boag's Draught. I pull out a smoke. We sit for a while, chugging on the beer in manly silence. Eventually, Granddad clears his throat and I suspect a conversation is looming.
'So what exactly did you do?'
'To get sent here.'
'Dad didn't tell you?'
'Nothing specific. Said you were in a mess and needed a time out.'
I snort. That's typical of Dad. He never gives up more than he needs to. A tight sphincter, whichever way you look at him.
'And you didn't ask for details?' I say.
'Didn't want to pry.'
'You are a prince among men, dude.'
'So what did you do?'
'You didn't want to pry with Dad but it's not a problem with me?'
'Keep your hair on. Just asking is all.'
I try to roll my eyes up so there's plenty of white showing and put on this husky American accent, like the voice-over in horror movie trailers. 'Don't get me angry, Gramps. You wouldn't like me when I'm angry.' I can be fairly sad at times. I'm the first to admit it.
Well, I think it's funny, but Granddad doesn't respond. There's a three- minute silence, then he chips in with, 'Not sure if I like you when you're not angry.'
That cracks me up.
I finish the Boag's and drop the ciggie butt into it. I wave the empty about in an expressive fashion, but Granddad doesn't offer me another. I'll buy my own stash when we go shopping. You can't rely on freebies, particularly from an old codger. Seems like I've killed the conversation, though, which apparently suits Granddad. He doesn't even clear his throat. We sit there, a couple of candle-lit statues, and I'm wondering how long I can put up with this when there's a clumping and scuffling from the darkness. Close. I lean forward and hear it again.
'Wallabies,' says Granddad. He reaches down and pulls out this hardcore torch, points it into the night. A pool of light shows two wallabies sitting outside the fence, their eyes demon-red. Granddad sweeps the beam and there are others, all along the perimeter.
'Reason for the fence,' he says. 'Not that it keeps 'em out. Bastards'll be in during the night, having a go at my vegies.'
'Language, dude,' I say.
He stares at me, his face a puzzled maze of wrinkles.
'What?' he says.
'The B word, Gramps. Unnecessary. And apt to stir up feelings of aggression.' I like the word 'apt'. Got it from some random counsellor in Melbourne and I try to use it whenever I can.
He chews on that, washes it down with the last of his Boag's and the silence gathers again. I feel a twinge of guilt, so I try to kick-start the stalled dialogue.
'How do they get in?' I say. 'The wallabies, I mean. Dig a tunnel?'
Granddad stares at me again like I'm some kind of idiot. 'They jump,' he says. 'They're wallabies. That's what wallabies do. Jump.'
I get this wild vision of wallabies queuing up outside the fence, poles in their stubby little forearms, vaulting over the fence. I haven't got the energy to share it.
Excerpted from Ironbark by Barry Jonsberg. Copyright © 2008 Barry Jonsberg. Excerpted by permission of Allen & Unwin.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Barry Jonsberg is the author of Am I Right or Am I Right?, The Crimes and Punishments of Miss Payne, and Dreamrider.
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