John Marsden

While I live


We were halfway up the spur when we heard it. Homer and Gavin and I, just the three of us. The spur was steep and the rocks were loose; we slid back two metres for every three we climbed.

It was about 1.15 p.m. A warm afternoon in May. It had been a hot autumn. Surrounding us was the bush, an army of twisted trees standing to attention. They wore grey-green uniforms and waved their bunches of leaves in endless useless motion. They were the army that never went anywhere, never did anything. They were the army who cared about nothing.

Sometimes the bush is quite silent. Not often. But sometimes, around noon on a January day, when the temperature is in the high thirties and the gumtree leaves are hanging tired and limp, and the birds stop flying and the insects hide in shade, then all you hear is the cracking of stones and the grizzle of a lost fly and, if you’re in a paddock, the shuffle of a steer as he moves slowly to a better patch of grass.

But on this May afternoon there were the usual background noises, none of them loud, just humming away. Bees and wasps and beetles; tree branches rubbing against each other; magpies and rosellas, wagtails and wrens. Mum had a friend from the city come to stay once; I think she’d had a nervous breakdown or something, and on the third day she ran into the house with her hands over her ears crying, ‘I came here for peace and quiet and it’s nothing but noise noise noise.’

This particular day we were making so much noise ourselves that I hardly noticed the sounds of the bush. The clicking and rattling and clatter of sliding stones blocked out nearly everything else. And then there was the puffing and panting, from Homer especially. He was getting pretty unfit lately.

He stopped and leaned against a tree; half a tree really, because it had lost most of its upper branches. He grinned at me. His face sparkled with sweat. I stopped and grinned back. Ahead of us Gavin, head down, relentless as ever, ploughed on.

‘You’re getting slack,’ I said to Homer.

‘Race you,’ he said. But he didn’t move.

I walked on a dozen steps. Now I was just ahead of him.

‘I win,’ I said.

‘Remind me again why we’re doing this?’ he asked, wriggling his shoulders to make his pack more comfortable.

‘Fun,’ I said, as firmly as I could. ‘Fun, pleasure, recreation, sightseeing, enjoyment.’

He sighed. ‘Some people swallow a dictionary,’ he said. ‘You have to swallow a bloody thesaurus.’

It was on the word ‘thesaurus’ that the shots began.

They came from the bottom of the valley, echoing up the hillside, then around the valley. To be mathematical about it, I’d say there were fifteen shots in the first volley, evenly spaced, lasting about twenty-five seconds. Then there was a pause of maybe ten seconds before three ragged groups of shots that went for a minute. After that there were occasional random ones, probably thirty in all, for about five or six minutes.

Five or six minutes. By the end of five or six minutes we were halfway home again. It seems incredible when I think about it. After all, we’d taken about two and a bit hours to get that far. Of course that was uphill and this was nearly all downhill, but even so, considering I lost at least half a minute going back for Gavin…

Gavin’s profoundly deaf, which doesn’t mean totally deaf, but then according to his teacher, hardly anyone’s totally deaf. All I know is that Gavin’s very deaf. He can hear loud yells, semitrailers going past, explosions, and helicopters at close range. He can’t hear TV or music or conversation. He definitely can’t hear anyone telling him to clean his room or do his homework or set the table. He can’t hear me telling him he needs to get a move-on or he’ll miss the bus, but he can hear me saying, ‘Gavin, get your ass in gear right now or I’ll kick you all the way to the bus-stop,’ which I tend to say fairly often.

He can’t hear shots that are a couple of kilometres away. I’d forgotten that. I remembered it after I’d turned and run down the spur a hundred metres. When I remembered I stopped, irresolute. I’ve always liked that word. I’ve just never had a chance to use it before.

I had a flash in my mind of the scene in The Silver Sword where Jan abandons his dog Ludwig in order to help the girls save the little boy Edek. The author says that this is the point at which Jan begins to grow up. When I was a kid and I came to that moment in the book I hated Jan, I hated him for leaving his dog to die in terror and loneliness and the knowledge he had been betrayed. Now I had a similar problem. Similar but even more difficult. I knew, as surely as I know winter follows summer, that the shots came from my place. I knew they meant something terrible was happening, and that I had to get home as fast as I could, in order to help my parents, perhaps even to save their lives.

But I also had to remember that Gavin was only a kid, tough little bugger though he was, and I couldn’t leave him to walk on up the spur, not knowing where we’d gone, not knowing what was happening, certainly walking into loneliness, possibly walking into danger.

Because suddenly nothing was safe now, and these mountains were alive with frightening possibilities again.

So tearing at my heart with my hand, literally, grabbing at it as though I wanted to pull it out of my chest and throw it on the ground, hating every step I had to take in the wrong direction, I turned and ran back up the spur.

Ahead of me Gavin walked on and on and on. When I got within twenty metres I grabbed a handful of pebbles and chucked them. Every single one missed. Frustrated and desperate I bent and picked up another handful but as I did Gavin saw one of the first lot bouncing past. He turned around.

I didn’t know how to communicate to him what Homer and I had heard but one thing about Gavin, he’s quick on the uptake. Boy is he quick. Or maybe it’s just that I was such a scary sight. One look at my face and he was bounding down the boulders towards me. Apparently I didn’t need to say anything. I swung around again and started down the hill. It seemed like only a couple of seconds before Gavin reached me and actually passed me. I stopped worrying about him then, and put on a sprint. He sent the flint-stones flying, but the pony kept his feet,

He cleared the fallen timber in his stride,

And the man from Snowy River never shifted in his seat -

It was grand to see that mountain horseman ride.

Through the stringy barks and saplings, on the rough and broken ground,

Down the hillside at a racing pace he went;

And he never drew the bridle till he landed safe and sound

At the bottom of that terrible descent.

Well, unlike the man from Snowy River I didn’t have a horse, but we all had a terrible descent. I don’t know how we didn’t break six ankles between the three of us. Seven ankles even. The rocks that had slid under our feet as we climbed slid even worse as we came down. In the first couple of minutes there were waterfalls of stones cascading away from me. As I concentrated on them I was nearly wiped out by a fallen tree at the height of my neck. I ducked that, but only at the last second: I scraped my forehead going under it.

Lower down the spur were a few damp areas that never saw the sun. I skidded on one of those and went down on my haunches, feeling my knee crack — my left knee of course, it always had to be the bad one that took the punishment. My right knee bore a charmed life. I skidded two metres or so trying to keep my balance, and somehow I did and I was up and off again from the squatting position, instead of rolling sideways, which would have cost more time.

Bends in the track, rabbit holes, and then a series of fallen trees, four trunks, one after another, just a metre or so apart, and all the masses of dead branches that went with them. We’d laughed as we struggled over them on the way up. Now I hurdled the first one, jumped onto the second one, took a leap from there onto the third one,

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