The forest trail ran through the overgrown gulch in back of Josh’s suburb of BMW four-wheel drives, barre classes, and conversations about competing private schools.
Leafy back decks of big houses looked down over the creek at the bottom of the gulch. On weekends, the houses’ people bonded over barbequed meat ‘from that new butcher shop’. Guests politely inquired about their hosts’ architect of choice. Talk turned to whether organic wine was drinkable yet, the incompetence of governments compared to business, and plans to ski. ‘Japan, or Whistler, or Switzerland, this year? Or, staying at the beach house?’
Josh had grown up in a similar house with similar parents, Richard and Elizabeth Merewether. Stockbroker dad who’d been active as Treasurer and under-12s coach of the local rugby club, the Stags. Stay-at-home mum who embraced the digital advent of on-line anthropology courses. ‘It makes our holidays so much richer to better understand the host cultures – though your father says I’m overthinking things and should just enjoy,’ she’d offered by phone from overseas a few years back.
She’d called to remind him to water the camellias in the shady back corner of their garden. And, she carefully remembered to ask what his boss had thought of his presentation in Melbourne earlier that week. Like she was reading it off the “to do” list on her iPhone.
The call was from an airport transfer lounge somewhere in Asia. She and his father were headed back to Europe. Something about Biennale. It was right before they got on the plane that a dictator’s idiots put a missile through and littered the Ukrainian steppe with bodies, baggage and Barbie dolls.
Now, Josh opened the safety latch on the gate from the street to the gulch for his parents’ kelpie. Another orphan, he supposed. The dog burst through the gap and rumbled downhill to the start of the trail. ‘A friggin fur-covered avalanche’, Josh thought.
Everything the dog did seemed like it was its best ever experience. That annoyed Josh, but at least the dog moved at a fast and furious pace. Chasing the dog made Josh push harder when he ran in the mornings before his daily commute to the city.
Josh ran like other people drove. Encased and reinforced. In his case, he wasn’t wrapped in steel and glass, but plans and ambitions.
It seemed to him that the faster he ran, the faster the ideas and the goals came afterwards on the train. Send an email to the Perth client so the guy gets it first thing Western time. Re-cut the Excel spreadsheet on Harrison’s project to show the possible efficiencies that old fossil was too lazy to look for. See if the new marketing girl was interested in the soccer team he organised for lunchtimes in the Domain. And where her interests might extend.
Josh wasn’t blind to his own black and white way of being. He was proud of it. The laser-like focus on specific targets and specific ways to achieve them. Staying concrete and ‘keeping it real’. He did it because it worked for him and because he knew his internal GPS struggled to maintain aim in the ambiguous alternative.
The grey zone of self-awareness, mindfulness, empathy and the other things the shrinks had talked to him about after the crash. He didn’t discount any of it. It was perfectly logical to recognise the emotional. And, nowadays for him, it was perfectly logical to consciously ignore it as well. ‘Fit for purpose,’ Josh thought.
He’d been 26 when he’d moved back in with his parents to save money for an investment unit in Hobart ‘where prices are really accelerating, Dad, so it makes sense’. His parents had taken their new kelpie’s bed out of Josh’s old upstairs bedroom as a welcome gesture.
Lying there on a Sunday morning after a pub night with former rugby First XV schoolmates, the next call after his mother’s was from a senior Department of Foreign Affairs official in Canberra. Something about a tragic incident. More details to come as soon as possible. Factual and strategically supportive. Like the official was reading from a prepared Q&A document that some other public servant had wordsmithed.
Josh was hungover and thought it was another prank by Thommo, the keg-like prop on the school team, who played stupid to suit the stereotype. Even though he was an ophthalmologist in Lindfield now. Josh pressed end on the phone and went back to sleep.
He woke up to polite knocking on the front door and a thin young woman with a killer red pants suit and a Channel 9 microphone.
‘I’m so sorry for the intrusion, Mr Merewether. I just want to extend my sympathies from Channel 9 for your parents. I know it’s very early still, but we just wanted to give you the opportunity to say something if you wanted to,’ the reporter offered.
Josh noticed her eyes were coked up and her skin was pock-marked under heavy make-up. The camera’s recording light on her crew’s gear was blinking red.
He stood there in only his dark green cotton Canterbury rugger shorts, tousling his bed head, and blinking back. The kelpie bounded between his bare legs and sniffed the reporter’s black Manolo’s. Josh’s bleary eyes kept blinking. The journo crew kept recording.
‘Devasted, distraught and speechless North Shore son’ is what Josh became on that evening’s 6 o’clock news. To others, he seemed to stay that way for months after. Through overly enthusiastic hugs at the memorial service from his rugby mates. Through his aunt bringing him tuna casseroles that ‘aren’t as good as your mum’s, I know’. Through the boss telling him ‘mate, you do whatever you need to do and we will be here when you get back.’
They all treated him like he was away. But even as he sat in psychologists’ waiting rooms and leafed through their Art Gallery of NSW members’ magazines, Josh knew he was completely there, but not in their way. The shrinks explained the stages of grief – the sorrow, the anger, the emptiness, and the uncontrollable emotions. Josh made earnest eye contact and nodded; they thought he was listening.
But, after a few teas with milk and several sessions, what he was actually doing was crossing out emotions that he did not wish to have. He didn’t see the practical point of feeling any of what they described. And, he didn’t feel “numb” either. He was just being pissed off that the dog and its stray droppings on the back deck, like a Morse Code message in shit, came with the five bedroom house.
The house was good. It was a checklist he could get his head around. Gutters to clear, lawn to mow, hedge to maintain, garage to reorganise, solar hot water heater to replace, and utility bills to meet. ‘Stain the deck for the dog to shit on some more’, Josh thought.
Josh weighed up the right timetable and process for clearing out his parents’ possessions. The stack of dozens of yellow-bound National Geographics in the downstairs rumpus room. The billiards table with the worn felt and the table tennis with the broken paddles. His mother’s handmade, colour-coded spice rack. Red for paprika. Orange for turmeric. His father’s collection of vintage Leica and Olympus cameras. Josh developed criteria for either keeping or off-loading all the stuff: emotional value, e-Bay value, no value.
‘The dog doesn’t fit the categories’, Josh thought to himself as the kelpie surged into the creek. He watched from the trail as the dog snapped at floating twigs and leapt at a dragon fly that hovered near the water’s surface like a pre-historic drone. Josh observed how the dog’s kinetic energy impacted on and displaced the creek’s contents: half of an object’s mass multiplied by its velocity squared. ‘Stupid animal’, he thought.
For four kilometres, they ran through a scrub tunnel of lantana. The dog would use its speed to sprint ahead and would then stop suddenly to sniff at hollows and hideaways. Josh’s lime green Asics trainers steadily and smoothly moved across the trail’s crushed, grey gravel. He thought of a piston-driven steam engine. How it gained force through fluidity. As he closed the gap on the dog, Josh didn’t focus on the distance covered or even the heart rate on his runner’s watch, but on getting each stride the right length and on making each footfall firm. It was the inside game of performance and survival.
He turned a corner of the trail where the lantana thinned out. From his daily runs, Josh knew to steeplechase over a fallen tree trunk in one bound. He overtook the dog, who had to take the jump in two touches. It was now panting and pushing to stay apace.
Then, there was a short steep descent where Josh hit his internal accelerator. He wanted momentum for the upcoming hill that climbed through a stand of ghost gums. Strands of maroon bark – like wallpaper come loose in a long-abandoned house – peeled from the trees. It was on this hill where his discipline and determination usually beat the dog’s enthusiasm and loyalty. Mind over mutt, Josh thought.
Josh gunned it to the top of the rise. He stopped and turned to face the trailing kelpie, who was now only half-trotting uphill with its pink tongue sluicing saliva on to the gravel. The dog wagged its tail when they made eye contact. He waited for the dog to get to the top of the hill and then he kicked gravel at it. It skittered back and whined, as Josh turned and ran harder toward the Funnel.
Just short of the five kilometre mark where Josh always turned back to home, the Funnel was a two-metre wide, above-ground, cement drainage pipe. It was fully covered with ghetto graffiti by non-ghetto kids scrawling a ‘fuck you’ in spray paint to their executive parents.
Inside, there was usually a trickle of scummy water down the middle of the big pipe. But during the occasional flooding of the creek, the Funnel kept the neighbouring houses from getting hit. Torrents of water would rise up its circular walls and flush out its contents. Silvery goon bags, broken glass from scotch bottles somebody had pinched from some lawyer father’s stash, Dominoes’ pizza boxes eaten clean by rats, a crusty sofa cushion, used condoms. The lonely detritus of suburban teenager angst.
For years, the Funnel was where the emo kids from the local public high school, those who somehow hadn’t made the cut to wear private school boys’ straw bowlers or girls’ cashmere scarves, had gotten wasted. The next generation did nowadays. Occasionally, the Funnel’s nearest neighbours would complain loud enough for the cops to come down either end with torches in hand on a Friday night. They would bust kids with mascaraed eyes for having rubber hose bongs. Or, one time, the Council cemented bricks at odd angles to make it harder for anyone to sit down anywhere.
‘Looked like the insides of a meat grinder’, Josh remembered as he ran closer to The Funnel. He had only hung there a couple of times when he was at school. Sarah, the indie girl from the bus stop – shaved head, nose piercing and a hot body her black leather jacket could not hide – had asked him to come down and hang. Josh liked her, but he wasn’t sure why when he compared her to the posh girls he normally went with. Girls who never had cavities; now, they were well-married girls who ran essential oil businesses on Instagram while raising their own kids without cavities. Sarah seemed different. Josh had once watched her skilfully kicking a soccer ball for an hour against the side of her family’s four car garage. In a Ramones t-shirt and an old pair of Volleys. But the First XV had been more compelling.
Josh strode to the lip of the Funnel. He resented having to slow down, but his overwhelming aim – getting to 5ks and turning around – kept him moving. It was always dark inside the Funnel. The sunlight 30 metres away at its other end made it even harder for the eyes to adjust. He didn’t see the edge of the bundle his foot landed on.
Josh’s ankle rolled underneath him. He stumbled to his right and slid down the curved cement, using the outside of his outstretched hand to try and slow himself. The dog came bounding. It caught up, jumped at him, and tried to lick Josh’s face as the Funnel water seeped into his Nike running shorts. His hand was scraped and starting to show blood; his ankle was hard to straighten.
‘Fuck off, asshole’, Josh yelled as he punched the dog in the head to move it away. ‘Goddamit.’ He clutched at his ankle and rocked his torso to ease the discomfort. As he did, he made out the bundle he’d up-ended himself on.
It was a kid wearing a black hoodie that covered much of his face and a long, military-style woollen trench coat that covered much of his body except one of his bare, skinny arms. One of his dad’s holiday images flashed up: like a Greek Orthodox monk in a catacomb.
‘Jeezus,’ Josh said to the kid. ‘What the fuck’. He wanted to throttle the shithead and reached over to grab at the coat’s wide collar which was studded with band pins from another century. Clash, Sex Pistols, Buzzcocks.
As Josh pulled at the collar, the kid’s head lolled sideways. A needle dropped from the kid’s exposed arm and rolled down to the Coke caps and cigarette butts at the base of the Funnel. ‘Fucking shit’, Josh thought to himself. ‘I should fucking leave this problem to somebody else’.
But he knew the scraped hand and rolled ankle “placed” him there. He pressed the stop button on his running watch and, from his knees, tried to rouse the kid. There was no response from the pale face with the purple half-moons under its eyes. Josh found a pulse on the kid’s freezing cold wrist. He noticed the waxing and waning moons tattooed in black ink on the kids’ knuckles. Josh unvelcroed his mobile phone from his bicep.
The dog trotted back toward him. Josh lashed out with a foot that caught the dog in the ribs. The kelpie moved back and bared its teeth.
‘Motherfucker. Motherfucker’, Josh thought to himself as he gave the 000 operator the location and the situation. She told him to look for some identification in the kid’s pockets.
The kid groaned as Josh shifted him and reached for a wallet in his back pocket. The dog growled. Josh started pulling cards out. Library, Opal, FBI radio membership, but nothing with a name on it.
‘Have you been able to find anything? Maybe, a Medicare card?’ asked the operator who was keeping him on the line until the paramedics and the cops could get there.
Josh found the green card and saw the embossed name in small raised letters on it.
‘Joshua. Joshua Merewether,’ he read out to the operator. It didn’t register because he was using his free hand to chuck a piece of brick rubble at the dog who was inching forward with the hair on his back brittle and raised.
The dog madly barked. It crouched down as if to leap. Sirens from the nearest cross street filled the Funnel.