© Derek Byrne
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The Headless Stone - short story for children and adults.
My name’s Gaven with an ‘e’ and today Dad’s taking me and my sister to see the Headless Stone. Dad says it’s in the cement factory in Canberra, so we’re driving there in our bus.
Our bus, I hear you say. Nobody has a bus. Well, we’ve got a bus, our very own and we sleep in it, cook in it, and when we want to pee we go outside. I’m eleven and my sister Rebekah is eight. Her name’s spelt with a ‘k’. Our mum and dad were never much good at spelling.
Our bus is a real bus. Not one of those mini-buses that took us to the swimming pool when I lived at the home. No, this is a genuine orange bus that used to go around the city every day so people could get to and from work. Dad got it at an auction for cheap.
‘What the hell do we want a bus for?’ Mum shouted when Dad drove it into the yard. She wouldn’t speak for the rest of the day, but Rebekah and I thought it was cool. It looked pretty dirty and the noise of the engine sent the chooks squawking all over the place. But when I wiped some of the dirt off with my hand and when I climbed inside and felt her shaking beneath me, I knew Dad had got a good bargain. Smoke was pouring out the back and she smelt like a burning tyre. But at least she worked, which was more than could be said for the Kingswood stuck out back in the shed. When I climbed out of the automatic door, Mum interrupted her not speaking to tell me I was a filthy little bugger and to wash the muck off my hands.
One day we all took off in our bus when Dad got wind of Social Services calling round. That was panic. Quick, said Mum, go and get your clothes and put them in these bags. I almost forgot my knife. Dad’s mate Nat gave it to me. That’s my best weapon, but Dad tells me to keep it out of the way because a flick knife is against the law. Mum emptied the fridge into the cool box and then we were away. Since then, the bus is where we live. Well, half of the time. We still sneak back to the house when we think it’s safe.
Rebekah and I have already been taken away to a home once before, and Mum and Dad don’t want that to happen again. Okay, so that was partly my fault for wagging school. The other kids think I’m strange because I’m small and because my hair comes down to my shoulders. They call me dwarf and bin-kid and they reckon there are nits in my hair. I couldn’t stick it at school so I snuck back and spent most of the day helping Dad fix up the car in the shed. I had to hide whenever Mum came into the yard, or she’d have got mad. Dad’s good like that, more like a mate than a parent.
Dad can’t go to work because he has metal things in his back to hold him together. That’s because of a car crash he had a long time ago, when I was too small to remember. His back was broken and he was in a wheelchair for a while. Now he just uses a stick and takes his time getting into the seat to drive the bus. You should see the scars. Nobody has scars as good as my dad.
A week in the bus was enough for Mum. She caught the Greyhound from Orange to Canberra and went to stay with a friend. Dad told us that Mum needs a bit of space to herself, that living on top of each other in the bus isn’t good for her nerves. I’d more or less worked that out, as Mum had been getting cranky. They need to get back to school, she said, meaning us. I don’t ever want to go back to school. I want to spend the rest of my life in our bus.
The reason we’re on our way to the cement factory to see the Headless Stone is because of Nat. I haven’t seen him for over a year now. I’ll tell you more about him in a minute.
‘Hey Dad, where are we?’
‘The Barton Highway. Not far now.’
If you ask me, the Barton Highway’s the most boring highway in the world, especially when you can’t go faster than sixty Ks. ‘What’s that big space over there?’
‘That’s Lake George.’
‘Lake George? There’s not even any water in it.’
‘It’s just called a lake.’
Well I can tell you, Lake George is the most boring lake in the world. It’s been by the side of the road for at least half an hour, just a flat expanse of grass that goes on for miles with a few sheep and cows dotted about. Maybe when it rains there’s water in it, but now it’s just covered with dead grass. What with the highway that goes on and on and the brown lake, I’m feeling pretty fed up. Rebekah’s started crying and I’m beginning to wonder whether it was such a good idea to go to the cement factory after all.
Anyway, as I was telling you, soon after Mum left, Dad’s mate called round. Nat came from Canberra as well. If Dad ever had a good mate, it was Nat. They grew up together. Went to Melrose High, both of them, and messed around in the cement factory. Dad told us all about it, how they crawled through the underground drains and came up inside the fence.
‘How ya doing, Beaky?’ Nat asked Dad, when he first arrived. I thought that was quite funny, because our surname’s Bird and Dad’s got a big nose. Dad laughed like it was an old joke and I was pleased he didn’t get mad. At least it’s better than bin-boy.
‘What the heck have you got there?’ He said, looking at our bus.
‘Pretty good, eh?’
Dad and Nat talked right through the night and I listened, well, most of the time. I’m a good listener. Nobody thinks I take it all in, but I remember just about everything. I might not be much good at school, but I can tell you, I’ve got a memory like a tortoise and tortoises don’t forget much.
Nat has a wife and three kids and his surname’s Kuisel.
Like weasel, I said and he gave me a thump on the arm. There are only two people in Australia with that name, me and my dad, Nat told me. They talked about old times, when Nat and Dad finished college and went to find Nat’s dad. His name’s Helmut and he has an ostrich farm somewhere north of Sydney, at a place called Failford.
‘Failford, I bet you didn’t earn much money there,’ I said. It was a joke, you see, but Dad and Nat just looked at me as if I was dumb. ‘Fail-ford,’ I said again. ‘Fail.’ They laughed just to please me, but I still don’t reckon they understood.
The ostrich farm didn’t work out so well and Dad and Nat couldn’t stop laughing when they remembered how Nat went after Helmut with an axe. That didn’t sound so funny to me. I couldn’t imagine chasing Dad with an axe. He’d probably wallop me if I tried that.
‘Is this Canberra?’ I ask, because there’s a heck of a lot more cars on the road and houses and playing fields have appeared out of nowhere.
‘Sure is, Gav.’ At least Rebekah’s stopped crying now that she has something more interesting to look at than Lake George.
We’re going to meet Jon today at the cement factory, so he can see Nat and the Headless Stone as well. Who’s Jon? Well, let me tell you about him. I was almost asleep when Dad and Nat started to talk about Jon.
Jon was another mate, but from the other side of the world. It was all a bit strange. Nat talked about the family where he grew up and how unhappy he’d been as a child and about his uncle who was mean and used to hit him.
‘We had to go to church every Saturday,’ Nat said.
‘I thought people went to church on a Sunday,’ I said.
‘My family belongs to a special church,’ Nat said.
His voice went quiet then as if something happened that was so dark he couldn’t talk about it. But Jon came to stay in the flat beneath his house and things changed. It seems like he was almost a dad to Nat; halfway between a mate and a dad. I tried to imagine what it would be like to run away, to leave your family behind. That’s what Nat did when he was sixteen.
Nat looked from Dad to me, as if he had more to say on the matter, but didn’t want to in front of me. I must have fallen asleep. When I woke up, Dad and Nat had gone through the whole crate of beer and both of them were snoring like pigs.
The next day, Nat had to leave. Dad’s eyes were watering when they said goodbye. I don’t know why Nat held his hand for so long. It was as if they both knew something and weren’t letting on.
A couple of months later and we were back in the old shack with the bus parked out in the yard ready to leave in a hurry if we had to. Mum was still in Canberra. I knew something rotten had happened when Dad rushed off one day. He was in such a hurry he took the motor bike and left me behind to look after Rebekah. It must have been serious, because Dad would never leave us alone like that.
He was gone for two whole days and when he came back he was different. I think the next year was the unhappiest time of our lives. Dad hid away in the shed and I hardly dared to go and talk to him because he was always grumpy.
‘I should have known what was going to happen,’ he kept saying.
‘What Dad, what happened?’ But Dad wouldn’t say. All I knew was that it was pretty bad.
Anyhow, things carried on like that for a while until we got a phone call from Dad’s dad. That’s my grandfather. ‘It’s Jon, he’s got in touch,’ Dad said and he wouldn’t leave the phone until it rang again. This time it was Jon and I could tell by the sound of Dad’s voice that he was pleased to hear from him.
‘He’s going to meet us tomorrow at the cement factory in Canberra.’ Dad was in a hurry, like he hadn’t seen this Jon bloke for half a lifetime. ‘We’re going to see Nat.’
‘What about me?’ I didn’t want to be left out of seeing Dad’s mates.
‘We’ll all go, you, me and Rebekah. I’ll ring Mum as well. We’ll meet at the Headless Stone.’
So here we are, going to meet Jon and Nat at the cement factory in Canberra to see the Headless Stone. ‘Wow, that’ s a real lake.’ We’re crossing over a big bridge and there’s a huge fountain spouting water into the air.
‘That’s the new parliament house,’ says Dad, pointing up ahead. And there’s a sight, a building with a lawn on top and a giant flagpole with the Australian flag billowing in the wind. Wow, they know how to do things properly here. Next we’ll be seeing a giant kangaroo bouncing along by the side of the road. We’re turning off the main highway now and down a quiet lane with tall trees on either side. When we get to the car park, there’s just one car there with a man sitting inside. That must be Jon. He looks quite old, older than Dad.
‘Where’s the cement factory, Dad?’
‘What are you talking about, Gav?’
‘The cement factory?’
‘You’ve lost me, son.’
When Dad calls me son instead of Gav, then I know it’s time to stop asking questions.
Dad goes over to Jon and they hug each other like real mates do.
‘This is Gaven and Rebekah,’ says Dad.
‘Gaven with an ‘e’,’ I say, so there’s no mistake.
‘Hello Gaven with an ‘e’,’ says Jon and I groan because everybody says that.
Then Mum arrives and she hugs us, so everybody’s hugging everyone else and Mum’s crying a bit.
‘Why are you crying?’ asks Rebekah.
‘I get like this when somebody dies,’ says Mum.
‘Dies?’ I say, as we pass through an iron gate into a big park with rows and rows of stones all over the place. ‘Do we have to go through here to get to the cement factory?’ A big lawn makes our patch of dirt back home look like a desert. Rows of flowers are neatly planted around the edge and cockatoos are screeching from trees overhead. Across one stretch of grass is a wall covered with metal plaques and a sign on top saying something about a great war. Oh heck, this is where they bury people. Now we’re making our way down a long path with gravestones on each side and when we get to one that looks pretty ordinary, we stop. It’s just flat on the ground with no fancy stone at one end like the others.
‘What are we doing here, Dad?’ Mum’s crying again and Rebekah’s joined in. Dad’s looking pensive and Jon’s eyes are watering; they’re all staring at the stone. I look at it more closely. A name is carved neatly into its smooth surface. Below, there are some dates and a poem that’s hard to read because of all the dust that’s settled.
‘Tibor Szabados, who’s he?’ I want to know.
‘Nat’s in there.’
‘Nat? What do you mean in there? You mean inside the stone.’
‘Under it, more like.’
‘Well, why isn’t his name on it, then?’ That’s when I work it out. It's not a cement factory after all. Dad must have been confused when he explained where we were going. It's a cemetery. They played in the cemetery and now Nat’s in there for good and that’s bloody ironic according to Dad.
‘So who’s Tibor Thingummy.’
‘He was Nat’s uncle; he was in there first.’
‘Funny name he’s got.’
‘They were on Nat’s mother’s side of the family.’ I can see Jon listening as well, as if like me, he wants to work everything out.
‘What about Nat’s dad Helmut?’ Jon asks.
‘His mother had a fling, they were never married,’ says Dad. ‘That’s why he was always the black sheep of the family.’
‘I still don’t understand why Nat’s name isn’t there,’ I say.
‘Mean buggers,’ says Dad. ‘Nat couldn’t have his name on the stone because he killed himself and that’s not allowed in their religion.’
‘Heck, why did he kill himself, Dad?’
‘It’s a long story, Gav.’
‘I don’t mind listening.’
‘One day, Gav, one day,’ and Dad won’t say anymore on the matter.
‘You’ve got your bus, Gaven,’ says Jon and smiles at me. ‘You’ve got your mum and dad too.’ I think he looks old, Jon, almost as old as my grandfather. ‘Nat didn’t have those,’ he adds, rubbing his chin.
‘And is that why he killed himself?’
Dad murmurs under his breath. ‘When it really mattered he didn’t have anybody.’ And I know now what Dad meant when he said he should have known.
Now we’re driving back along the Barton Highway with Lake George alongside. I get to thinking. Someone I once knew is no longer there and that leaves a great big hole, as big and empty as the lake. Will I worry about what’s on my headstone when I’m dead? I probably won’t even be able to see it if I’m flat on my back. At least we left some flowers and I left the knife Nat gave me in a little space behind the stone. I don’t know whether Nat will notice it, or whether some gardener might nick it.
Jon’s flying back to Europe in a couple of days’ time. It’s funny how people come and go out of your life. One day they’re there and the next, they’re gone. I suppose I’ll forget Jon after a while and maybe even Nat. That must be why we put names on stones. We can go back and see them and think, he was part of my life once, he thumped me on the shoulder, we chucked a footy around, and he told me about his dad and the places he’d been.
‘Dad, if I die first, will you put my name on a stone?’
‘Heck, Gav, who cares about that. You’ll always be somewhere, things you’ve left lying around, people who you frigging well hassled with questions so they won’t ever forget you. We don’t need a stone to keep you around, mate.’
Gee, I guess Dad must have a memory like a tortoise as well. That makes me feel better, that even when I’m gone I’ll still be around. Bits of my life will be floating about like dust on the Headless Stone.