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Verge 2012: Inverse


Peter Donaldson

‘The echidna is the disgruntled grumblebum of the bush,’ my mum used to tell me gleefully whenever the topic came up, and it came up far more often than it probably should have. We lived alone, me and her, for most of my childhood, on a little bush block on the edge of the desert in the Mallee. Dad had died when I was still too little to remember. That was the official line anyway, and I never questioned it too much. Still don’t, and I’m pushing 40.

‘No point dwellin’ on the past boy,’ mum would say, ‘he’s shuffled off and there ain’t nothin’ you or I can do to change that. Best to look at what’s in front of you right now.’ And there was always something in front of us out there, there always is for those with an eye for it. And mum sure as anything had an eye. Every morning after the jobs were done we went walking, and she could spot anything from a mile. I would always be daydreaming, then suddenly she would turn to me with that quick glance of her bright brown eyes, and I would know something was up. ‘Follow me, boy,’ she’d announce, grabbing my wrist with those wiry hands and dragging me off at a gallop to some far corner of the bush to see a red-cap robin, a baby emu, or a shingle-back. She got no end of joy out of invoking the overreactive tongue-hiss of the shingle-back. I can still hear her calling out, ‘Ho ho ho, hey boy, check out this fiery little proud bugger,’ as she poked in its general direction. Her whole thin body would convulse with laughter, and she would give me a bear-hug and ruffle my hair to celebrate. She was happiest around animals.

She was different when other people were around. They weren’t often around, though. But she had to ‘deal with ‘em’, as she put it, at the markets every Saturday. We grew pistachios, walnuts, almonds, and vegies at the block. On Saturdays we were always up at sparrow’s fart picking and packing as much as we could into our little trailer, attached to mum’s bike. It was always facing slightly downhill, so she could ‘get the bugger rolling’. And roll we did, and bump and jump, the couple of hours it took her to pedal into town, with me bouncing around in back with the pumpkins and potatoes. Once I was old enough, I was in charge of ‘customer relations’ at the market. I learnt to say ‘hello’ and ‘goodbye’ and ‘thank you ma’am’ and give the correct change. Mum said my smile sold a million nuts and that she was better off in the background. And in the background she stayed, only emerging from the shadows of the stall tent to top up the walnut or almond crate occasionally. She looked different in town. Smaller. Older. Every now and then a customer and she would coincide ‘out front’ while she was topping up. I recall one day in particular when one of the customers said, ‘How are you, Enid?’ which confused me as I had no idea who that was. To my surprise, mum answered, ‘Good,’ with eyes downcast, and shuffled back to her usual spot. The same day, when returning to the stall after going to the toilet, I went past some women chatting and giggling under the old red gum by the amenities block. As I approached them I heard one of them say, ‘Poor old nutty Enid, she’ll never be the same. Thank heavens she has the boy to look after her though …’ She trailed off as she caught sight of me and I pretended not to hear and hurried back to the stall.

Later on that afternoon when we were back at home, I decided to ask mum some questions. After we had finished unpacking, I said, ‘Mum, why don’t you talk to anybody in town?’ She shot me a quick glance and let out a small sigh. ‘Lets go for a walk, boy.’ Mum did all her ‘serious talking’ on walks, and so we set off. That evening as the sun was dropping over the desert it gave out a deep peachy glow that weakened above us and reflected bright pink off the low clouds and big old pines behind us. We headed slowly toward the sun, weaving through the banksia and tea-tree, dead leaves crunching into the sand beneath our feet. The heath country here was all about chest height, with the odd cypress, stringybark or yellow gum silhouetted against the setting sun. Mum was walking in front, me behind – single file was the only way to get through these bits – and the brush scraped our sides as we squeezed through.

‘The reason I don’t talk to ‘em …’ mum began, ‘is that that’s all they do. Talk I mean. They all talk, an’ they talk, but they don’t talk about much that ain’t pointless or mean. Times in the past I have talked with some of ‘em I regretted it later. Can’t keep their traps shut.’ Mum’s own talk was cut short at that point, as she heard a nearby rustle in the undergrowth. ‘Hello!’ she nearly shouted, and jumped over a broombush towards the source of the noise. ‘Ha Ha! Just as I thought, it’s the disgruntled grumblebum!’ She reached back over and pulled me towards the scene of the action. She gave me one of her glances and I could see that the previous discussion, and her care-worn expression had been abandoned in an instant; her eyes shone and it was as if 20 years of worry had been shed from her face. The impatience of her explanation was child-like, ‘Look! Look! See him burrow down into the sand! That’s how he protects himself from us.’ The echidna had indeed burrowed himself into a little hollow so that only his raised spikes were showing to the world above the earth. ‘The silly thing is, we wouldn’t have even heard him if he wasn’t already trying to hide from us,’ she continued, ‘but then again they wouldn’t have evolved with us humans in mind as predators. You know how long they been around? Since the dinosaurs. Can you imagine? Maybe that’s why they’re so bloody angry. Maybe the world has gone on an’ left ‘em behind. Most of the year they get around grumbling to themselves – they pretty much spend all their time alone. They walk around like long nosed bulldogs with sawn-off legs, getting annoyed at sticks that get in their way, annoyed there aint enough termites to eat. But sometime you see ‘em in groups during the breeding season. And if you think their walkin’ style is funny you should see ‘em swim! Once I saw a whole train of ‘em cross the river here. Wasn’t that a sight! A troupe of spiky balloons bobbin’ slowly across! But they got there eventually. They always do. Here, come here and sit down, sit there …’

I did so, positioning myself to the left of mum. The echidna had burrowed it’s little half hole with its nose poking under an old grey log, below a banksia. We sat in a small semi-circle around it, wriggling our bums into the still-warm sand for comfort. ‘This might take a while,’ mum said, ‘have you ever played the echidna game?’ She looked overjoyed when I admitted I hadn’t. ‘It goes like this. We are now locked in battle with Mr Grumblebum here. He feels safe curled up in his little ball there, but he don’t like it. It’s uncomfy for him to have his legs, claws and nose all curled up under himself like that. He wants to unroll himself, but he has to learn to trust us first. Or maybe it’s more like this; his uncomfiness needs to outweigh the risk he reckons we pose before he works up the guts to shuffle on. If he outlasts us he wins, if we outlast him we win!’

With the rules of the game established, there was nothing for it but to sit and wait. The stillness closed in quick. There was absolute quiet, broken only by a bit of goodnight bird-chatter. The sun fell below the desert skyline, and a heavy twilight wrapped everything with its magical silver. The rising moon was nearly full. The heat was climbing up out of the sand into the sky as the cold damp descended, slowly coating everything with it’s earthy smell. As time wore on, the discomfort of the echidna became more obvious. His back wriggled and he muttered whilst adjusting, trying to find a more comfy position. ‘They’re pretty patient buggers,’ mum whispered, ‘I’ve waited over an hour before and still been pipped’. I looked over at mum. She was laying on her back now, looking up at the sky as the stars began to reveal themselves. The image of her laying there is still burned into me. She was looking over at the echidna occasionally, before chuckling quietly to herself and resuming her night-sky vigil. She looked more pale than ever in this light and the bared parts of her skin seemed to merge with the white desert sand. Her faded floral market frock was like a misplaced garden-bed, and as her coarse-straw hair fell in amongst the leaves and sticks, it seemed to draw some more of this matter into itself each time she moved. The grey half-light was kind to her face; it had a levelling effect. The brown spots on her face formed a lizard-scale web, and the moon bounced back out of her eyes. Suddenly, her eyes darted back to the echidna, ‘Mr Grumblebum is on the move.’ she whispered. Sure enough, the echidna, whilst still partly buried, had raised itself onto it’s stumpy hind legs, and was stretching them as if to see if they still worked, and could be tested without any interference on our part. Having run this first test successfully, the echidna examined one front leg, then the next, stretching each for a seemingly set period of time. Finally, with abundant muttering and grumbling, the echidna shuffled off in visual protest against it’s prior detainment. Mum grabbed my cold right hand with her warm left, and said with a secretive smile, ‘It looks like we win tonight boy. Looks like we win.’

As the silver twilight began to fade, I fell in line behind mum as she headed back. With one arm holding the back of her dress, my spare hand was brushing over the serrated leaves of desert banksia. I could feel the dew beginning to form.

Verge 2012: Inverse

   by Samantha Clifford and Rosalind Mcfarlane