When I was a kid, I knew more about death than other boys my age. More than most adults if truth be told. By the time I was eleven, death had crept into my days with such regularity that it burrowed deep into my bones, calcifying until I was brittle with it.
My dad was a decorated policeman and—for a short time when I was really little—I believed the world was a safer place because of him. But the depths of western Sydney had damaged him in ways I couldn’t understand. The protective mantle he wore hung on frayed threads that snapped easily and often, exposing the tender underbelly of my childhood.
He began telling horror stories at bedtime when I was only five years old. I’d hide under the covers, trying and failing to block my ears to cautionary tales blurred by whisky and regret. The pregnant woman two blocks over, stabbed to death by her husband. A drunken teenager decapitated by his seatbelt; Dad found his head on the floor of the wrecked car with a cigarette still burning in his mouth. The old lady on Fletcher Street who died alone in her kitchen and was only found three weeks later when someone complained about the smell.
Death is nothing to cry about, boy, he always said. It was part of life. Plants died. Animals died. And people died. Grief was a luxury he couldn’t afford and my mum and I paid the price. The toll was meted out in ferocious increments; every shout, every drunken punch, every thrown plate and slammed door an echo of someone he didn’t save.
From the outside, our house on Franklin Road was the nicest on the street. With weathered but tidy bricks and clear gutters, and a front lawn cultivated to the point of plasticity, it stood immaculate among sagging fences and yards filled with rusted out Datsuns, pushbikes, and snotty toddlers.
Inside, the house bore the bruises of reality—the carpet scarred with the stains from upturned dinners, spilt drinks and split lips. Pot plants and sofas migrated regularly around the house to cover the worst. Almost every wall was patched in one place or another—wallpaper curling around the edges of fresh holes in the plasterboard. They mapped my dad’s rages; a vicious cartography of chair legs, fists, and feet.
On the afternoons his shifts allowed, Dad would stand in the middle of the lawn in his underpants, smoking a cigar with a glass of stout between his feet and the water-hose snaking through a tense grip—a human sprinkler system with a slack belly. In waning sunlight, he’d turn slowly, around and around like a bulbous shadow on a sundial.
Dad didn’t like Asians—something to do with a war I knew nothing about—but he was obsessed with Japanese bonsais. They lined our veranda in shallow pots, their roots feathery but tenacious. I was certain my father held them in check by sheer force of will. Their constrained branches triggered an urge to fill my lungs and stretch my puny arms like wings, reaching for the sky. I felt sorry for the tiny trees but was never allowed to water them.
I stayed well clear of the bonsais until I was seven and a wayward football broke a branch. Terrified and armed with superglue, sticky tape and a brown felt-tip pen, I played amateur arborist. It kept me safe for a week before the tree betrayed me. It withered slowly, the glue spreading like a cancer into the wood. I stared at the traitorous branch in silence while my dad took the belt to me before going back to watering the grass as if nothing had happened.
The kids from school knew not to call for me when Dad was watering, but would occasionally risk it for a dare. He'd let fly with spray from the hose as soon as their bike wheels touched the driveway. Fuck off home, you little bastards. Tyres would spin, tearing up gravel as they'd bolt, laughing and sticking their middle fingers up at him. I wasn't the only one scared of my dad but it was easy to be defiant from the other side of the fence.
For her part, my mum was practiced at smoke and mirrors, dancing a careful choreography of fake smiles, baked goods and P&C meetings. Our position in the community comes with responsibilities, she’d say as she yanked fledgling weeds from hairline cracks in the front path before they took root, grazing her knuckles bloody on the blonde concrete. Appearances were everything. We’d wave to our neighbours whenever we saw them, pretending we were better than them. But I knew we weren’t.
In contrast, our back yard was the picture of neglect. Its parched surface was sucked dry by the thick roots of the ghost gums whose high, flat canopies kept the sun from licking the ground in all but a few places. There were no plants to trigger my allergies so I ran barefoot and free with Rosie. Dad had found her tied up and starving behind an abandoned warehouse and brought her home. It was an unusual kindness but one that didn't last. The extra responsibility exasperated my mother, but arguing was pointless and dangerous. Instead, the dog’s care was palmed off to me.
Despite the dust, the back yard teamed with life. Bantams squawked from a rickety wire run. A hutch, hammered together from discarded crates, housed generations of inbred guinea pigs that would startle and squeal at the slightest movement. Shingle-back lizards, blue-tongues and skinks sunned themselves on logs wedged into a brick pen near the rainwater tank.
The menagerie was all mine—every creature a peace offering, a distraction and a lesson in one. Their lives gave me purpose and their unconditional love was the only thing that kept any remaining sparks of childlike joy inside me from being swallowed. I ruled that yard, a skinny and asthmatic boy king with a Labrador for a queen.
But, with great power came responsibility—disposal of waste, both faecal and flesh. Dad was nothing if not pragmatic and police work yielded surprising wisdom. I was told lime could decompose a dead body and hide the smell and that it worked equally well on dog shit. I dug and Dad supervised—a deep, lime-filled pit in the back corner of the yard that was both graveyard and sewer. When death visited—as it inevitably would—an official procedure had to be followed. Layer upon layer of bones and feathers, excrement and fur—a horrifying mass grave at the back of the yard. A parade of neighbourhood cats wound up down there after my uncle’s visiting greyhound taught Rosie to hunt. I cleaned up after her—an accessory to murder—while distressed pet owners decorated lamp posts up and down the street. I hated that hole in the ground with a savagery I can still taste.
Rosie’s puppies died when I was nine. I supposed it was God balancing the scale. I mourned alongside her as all six of them slid—tiny and lifeless—from her swollen belly. My father scooped them up and disposed of the bodies before they were cold. I remember Rosie nosing along her fur for hours, bewildered. The urge to nurture and protect came in with her milk and I became her surrogate pup. When violence claimed the house, I’d creep outside and crawl into Rosie’s kennel and bury my face in her warm neck. She’d nuzzle my head and lick the salt from my cheeks. Her tongue was rough but gentle, her maternal instinct somehow stronger than my mother’s. Next time we’ll leave, Mum would say, again and again. There was always a next time, but we never left.
Our next-door neighbour, Trevor, blew himself up when I was ten. On most mornings, he’d wave a sinewy arm in greeting from his porch, scalp shining pinkly through patchy hair. He’d smoke as he tapped his foot to whatever music pounded from inside. The day he died was the first time I’d seen his door closed. I remember my mother commenting on the peace and quiet.
Trevor had taped his windows up, turned on the gas and waited a while before striking a match. The explosion blew me out of my bed. I watched my father drag Trevor from his ruined flat as my mother sighed, wondering who was going to pay for our shattered glass. Trevor had been depressed for a long time. Since Vietnam. Maybe he’s better off, Dad said. My mother shushed him but I understood that.
Acrid air hung over our house for days. When my mother complained, Dad bundled me into the car and drove us east. Urban grime made way for the briny tang of the coast as we headed towards Freshwater Beach. My grandparents lived not far from there, at Curl Curl. We’d visit them whenever we could, but it was never often enough for me. Those visits were languorous, glittering days. I’d clamber eagerly into the fig tree in their backyard and lay my body along its monstrous branches, my arms and legs dangling loose. The sun would dapple my back, my cheek resting on the smooth bark. I felt safe there, in the tree’s organic embrace.
But that day it was just me and Dad. Perched on the rocks, with sandy toes and sweaty heads, we threw lines in and foraged for tiny crabs and molluscs. The sun scorched our shoulders as my father fished for a connection, but I was happy to stare at the sky. When his line —and our conversation—snagged, he left me on the rocks. Stay put. These bloody waves’ll take you, sure as look at you, he said. Twenty minutes passed with no sign of him and I figured the sea had done its job. I struck out for Curl Curl, marching barefoot and brave to knock on Nan and Pop’s front door. When they asked where my parents were, I shrugged and said, I think the bloody waves took Dad.
We found him striding up and down in his speedos, yelling through a megaphone seized from the lifeguards. Has anybody seen my son? I’d never seen him panicked. He seemed like somebody else entirely. Somebody I didn’t know. I waved and called out to him and he ran, arms outstretched. Then, reaching me, shook me hard. I thought you were dead. He reminded me about the dunes and the dangers of kids burrowing cubbies into the sand.
I didn’t know who the Beaumont children were but Dad said he wouldn’t be surprised if that’s what had happened to them. I remember him saying the weight of the sand forces your guts out of you with no time to scream. I had recurring nightmares for weeks; breathless dreams of crushed rib-cages and open eyes and mouths, silent and glutted with sand.
Pop died a month later and we made the trek back to Curl Curl to say goodbye. He’d been on something called a low-sodium diet for a long time on account of his heart. It annoyed my Nan more than it should have. Might as well eat cardboard, she’d say. Pop was laid out in the guest bedroom with the curtains closed and the ceiling fan on high. Foil trays in the kitchen were piled high with food so packed with salt it was inedible.
I stood in the gloom, Dad’s hand firm between my shoulder blades. The body on the bed didn’t look like Pop. His face was flat where the skin had melted into slackened muscle. Lividity had made layers of him, reminding me of the pink and yellow madeira cakes Nan baked for my birthday. When I pressed my fingers into the back of Pop's hand, it indented, cold and doughy like unbaked bread. Dad told me not to cry. Only girls cry. So I didn't, even though I wanted to.
We drove back to Liverpool in the heat, our clammy thighs sticking to the hot vinyl. Mum talked about Pop’s will and Uncle Andrew—who was the favourite son and sure to get everything—and what was Dad going to do about it? Dad told her to shut up and she squawked, indignant and refusing to let it go. When we arrived home, Dad reached for the bottle. Mum retreated and locked herself in the laundry and I escaped to the yard.
I was looking for solace, but instead found a speckled chick laying broken in the dirt, its feathers plucked and one eye pecked out. Bantams are savage—even their babies understand survival of the fittest. Rosie stared as I cradled its downy carcass in my palm, ready to follow procedure. My emotions roiled like a worm on a hook. I couldn’t do it. Not today. This death deserved better.
I smuggled a tissue-lined shoe box from the cupboard under the stairs and covered it in Christmas wrap, figuring the festive paper was the least I could do. I imagined that when I died, I’d have a brightly coloured casket covered with frangipanis. I’d want to be buried near the sea.
I gathered my menagerie, loading our old wheelbarrow like the ark. Guinea pigs scurried in the bottom as lizards wriggled their legs up the sides. I ferried chickens one by one, running as they flapped their wings. Our duck waddled in the opposite direction, quacking uncooperatively as I herded him into the chook pen with my feet.
Once gated in, the motley congregation calmed, sensing the gravity of the occasion and watching as I dug a small grave with my bare hands. I delivered a short eulogy, my voice threaded with tears. I told the bird I was sorry its life had been so short and hard; the other chicks hadn’t meant to be so mean; it was just the way they were built.
I knelt and committed the makeshift coffin to the ground. My chest heaved as I patted the earth down and bawled—abandoned to unexpected grief—crying for the chick and for my Pop and for the people in Dad’s stories. For all the dead cats and guinea pigs and even for poor old Trevor. I cried for Rosie’s puppies and for my parents, who were so blinded by simply trying to survive that they could barely see me. Then I cried for myself. Until I was empty.
Rosie guarded the grave—Sphinx-like—while I took my time shipping each animal home and returning the wheelbarrow to the shed. When I got back to the pen, Rosie sat upright, her mud-covered paws spread wide, her nostrils clogged with dirt. The lidless box sat beside her, trailing shredded tissue. She thumped her tail, sheepish. Broken feathers poked from the corners of her mouth. The bantam’s head lay in the dirt, a single cloudy eyeball staring at the sky.
I drew a long breath, defeated. It’s okay, girl. It’s just a bird. I scratched Rosie between her ears and picked up the head, curling my fingers tightly around the tiny, brittle beak as I felt my veins finally run cold. The short walk to the back of the yard felt like a mile. I stood at the edge of that horrid hole and stared into its depths, unafraid for the first time.
What was left of the little bird tumbled from my bloodied hand. It disappeared into the dark as I turned and walked away. And I never looked back.