Lachlan Marnoch, 2016
The last boxes are taped up, the rooms are empty, and the walls are bare. The sharp, stale smell of a decade and a half’s worth of accumulated dust hangs in the air.
“Jason?” Mum calls. “Can you take Daisy for a walk before the truck gets here?”
“Sure.” He’s anxious for the move to be over, so he can make the direct train back to uni. But he can spare a little time. He slips through the door and clips the beagle’s lead. She immediately springs towards the opening, tail wagging. She’s expecting the usual routine, through the house and out to the street. He moves to follow, but a new thought occurs. He tugs her away, smiling at her puzzled glance.
“Come on girl.”
Daisy trots ahead of him down the deck stairs. He steps carefully over the nails - he hammered them back in one afternoon a couple of years ago, and they’re now stubbornly worming their way out; they recently tore a hole in his sock.
He climbs down into the grass. With Daisy sniffing everything in sight, they pass a yellowed patch, the former resting place of a rabbit hutch. It was once home to a huge brown rabbit. They gave up on trying to prevent her repeated escapes (aided by Daisy’s habit of breaking into the cage to eat the rabbit’s food), until she returned pregnant one time with five half-feral kits. Her descendants still roam the neighbourhood.
He and Daisy walk through the space between the pool fence and the rear garden, where magpies sometimes took their fledglings to catch food. Instead the birds usually rolled around in the grass until their mother squawked at them. The cubby house was there, with a slide and a sandpit in the base. Mum and Dad planned it as a present for him and his brother and his sister, but Jason accidentally ruined the surprise when he found the construction date in Dad’s diary. The memory still gives him a pang of guilt.
The man and his dog continue their circuit, with the pool at the centre. Jason remembers floating on his back in the cool water and gazing up at the gleaming night sky. When they got it, Ariel, their border collie/black Labrador/Rottweiler, panicked at what she thought were drowning children and tried to pull them out with her mouth. She got used to it eventually. Jason’s sister Chloe accidentally jumped onto Elliot’s cricket bat in that pool, losing one of her baby teeth to it. Why the bat was in the pool was never adequately explained. The three of them often took turns swimming up and down the pool underwater, seeing who could hold their breath for longest. Jason always won.
Along the back fence are the huge trees from which black cockatoos squawked and dropped depleted pine-cones, turning their heads to watch them fall with one eye. Blackberry bushes grew out of control here; when Jason’s family cut them down the farmer with whom they shared a boundary threatened legal action, despite the favour they were doing him.
Jason steps over the shady knoll where Ariel used to lie in the cool grass, and where she is now buried, along with five budgies and two rabbits. Ariel almost swallowed one of those budgies, a friendly bird named Obi-Wan, but when Jason screamed she spat him straight back onto the deck, bedraggled but unharmed. She also protected the rabbits from marauding dogs, foxes and cats. Once she deliberately stepped between the hutch and a much larger, growling neighbour-dog.
Daisy decides that now is the time to mark her territory. While she relieves herself, Jason gazes back into the paddock behind their yard, where a cow stares placidly back. She might have been one of the new calves that delighted them with their clumsiness each year.
Out beyond the paddock is the dirt road which threw up cones of dust in the wake of every ute. He jogged down it sometimes in his occasional bursts of attempted fitness. Beyond stands a tall, solitary gum tree, which was struck by lightning once in a booming, echoing clap that rolled over the house and set Ariel barking until she was hoarse. She always did that during a thunderstorm, sprinting back and forth to ward off the growling sky-creatures that threatened her pack.
The memories grow hot in his chest and behind his eyes. One by one, Jason lets them overtake him, soaking them in. When his parents announced their intention to move, he wasn’t bothered. He hasn’t lived here for two years, after all. But now, Jason begins to realise, he is saying goodbye.
He pauses to let Daisy sniff the slim native trees, from which they hung old CDs to dissuade the cockies from tearing them apart, and in which fairy wrens and rosellas and honeyeaters played. There is the small eucalypt near the front of the yard where, one afternoon, a lost koala found meagre shelter. When WIRES came, the creature had put up an ear-tearing screech, echoing over the whole neighbourhood. Jason touches the scars it left in the bark.
Jason stoops to pick up one of the woodchips he and Dad spread during summer holidays, while Jason listened to Hamish & Andy podcasts on his iPod and stole bursts of Super Metroid during breaks. On an impulse he pockets the chip.
In the middle of the open is a creaky, green and yellow swing set, now dourly faded and which, once the children had outgrown its original purpose, had done nicely as a stand for Elliot’s makeshift rugby goal. Further on, right up against the house, is the revolving clothesline. On the weekend, Jason routinely forgot to hang the washing on until the last minute, doing so in a panic as Mum and Dad pulled into the driveway from Elliot’s soccer games. At birthday parties they would hang cinnamon doughnuts from it and race to eat them with their hands behind their backs.
Walking past the wooden wind barrier he helped Dad build, he peers into the downstairs grannyflat. One spring, while it was still just a dirt floor, it played host to a family of swallows. Once the babies started learning how to fly, the poor, stupid things dashed themselves to death one by one against the glass sliding door.
He treks around the side, running his hand along the rough brick, to the crawl space that leads under the front deck. Through there is where Dad found Ariel dead one morning, after she never came back the night before. They were worried but not excessively, because she sometimes escaped to roam the block and savage the neighbours’ garbage bins - despite every attempt, including an electric fence, to contain her. She could have been asleep except for her glassy eyes.
Jason climbs back up the deck, and turns back towards the yard. The sapphire-blue sky hangs above, marked by an occasional cloud. The breeze is cool on his skin, but he remembers searing heat and biting cold, and gales so powerful that once they’d picked up the trampoline and deposited it in the empty lot to their right, before the new neighbours built there.
How can his family abandon this place?
But of course it’s even harder for his parents. They designed it, paid for it, decorated it, raised a family in it. It has to be done. Still, he knows he will never have a connection to any place like the one he feels for this house. He won’t ever remember it as clearly as this, not without the place to remind him. He doesn’t want to forget.
“Jason!” Dad’s voice comes from the back deck.
“The truck’s here!”
In his trance, Jason didn’t hear it pull up. He looks back over the yard one last time, the yard that was flat and bare fifteen years ago but now, for its next owner, is teeming with native plants and birds, with a pool, a deck, a pebbled garden path. He breathes in that mix of timber, shorn grass and sweet native flowers. Then he leads Daisy inside, and helps his family leave forever.