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Short story: Young Boys Take a Short Walk Through the Kingdom of Heaven, by Kirsten McDougall

“Mum. Are you coming to the camp?”: a school trip, by the author of She’s A Killer

 

“How come you’re sitting?” she said.

The tiny kid with the massive backpack was down on the dirt, his head tilted to rest on his knees. His face perfectly resolute.

“I’m so tired,” he said.

“You’re almost there,” she said.

That was a lie. This was the first hill. There was the second hill with the steps to come. And the third hill. Maybe you weren’t supposed to lie, but you were meant to encourage small accomplishments. The kid was wiry as. A kid who could escape through a tiny hole in a fence, or climb up a drainpipe and shimmy along the guttering of a school roof if the situation required.

“Your bag is huge,” she said.

His bag was bigger than her bag and she was in the full bloom of middle-age. The confusion of youth had departed, replaced by something complicated but less acute. She tested the handle on his bag.

“You didn’t take your books out?” she said.

He shook his exhausted head.

“It was a good idea the teacher had, to take your books out,” she said.

The kid gave no response.

“Cos books make your bag heavy.”

The kid sighed and put his head back down on his knees.

“If I carried your bag up the hill, you could catch up to the others.” She wondered if this was allowed. You weren’t supposed to do their work for them.

The kid shimmied his bag off then shot up the hill like a terrier on a scent. She picked up his bag and put it on her front. Now her front was heavier than her back.

She could hear Stevie starting up again at the rear.

“I hate walking! Bloody walking is dumb!”

She’d been tasked with bringing up the rear but she’d seen the rear belonged to Stevie and his mum. Stevie was going for it, but she didn’t turn and look. His mother didn’t need her gawking. People must have been gawking at them for years now. Stevie had what her old speech and drama teacher called “good projection”. She’d seen Stevie’s mother’s face, a seawall in front of his opera.

“Why are we even doing this fucking walk!”

In front of her was an adult the kids called Curly. He looked like he’d been dealt some bad cards and maybe he’d helped himself to a few, but he was always there on excursions often with a well-behaved, overweight pitbull. He knew all the kids names. She wanted to grow some parent help unity with Curly. She wanted to see what he was about.

“Did you see that kid run?” she said, pointing at the tiny kid.

“Yeah, that’s Jack D, he’s a ninja. He’s a good kid.”

“I took his bag,” she said. Was she expecting Curly to congratulate her? “I knew he’d be able to run if he didn’t have it. He’s a monkey.” She was expecting Curly to congratulate her.

“He’s a ninja,” said Curly.

Curly started to chat with the boys around him again. He made no effort to pull her into the conversation, not even eye contact. She could not be a part of it because she was not one of them. Her shoes, her casual-day hoodie, all of a different category. And she had to stay near the back because that was her job. She’d told Matua that she was crap at walking slowly, that she usually ran.

“That’s why we need you at the back,” he said making herding motions with his arms. “I’m training for a marathon myself.” He had a good teacher’s smile.

The dwardlers were in Curly’s ambit now, Boston and Jase. She hadn’t dwardled for years, maybe since she was a teenager. Don’t dwardle home, her mother would say. How come she’d grown up to be a long distance runner? It was impossible to spot a future runner in a pack of dwardlers, but they’d be there, as she had been.

Boston and Jase were making smokes out of some plastic tubing they’d picked out of a drain earlier. Boston was wrapping some card around the plastic tubing and a stone. He stuck the tube in his mouth and sucked.

“You’re smoking are you?” She said it like smoking was fun. The two boys smiled at her naivety.

“Nah! We’re vaping.”

Curly turned around. “Oh you guys, vaping’s gay.”

She should say something.

“It’s got all that stuff in it,” said Curly.

“Not nicotine,” said Boston.

“Yeah it’s got nicotine in it. Why would ya do it if it didn’t have nicotine in it?” said Curly. “It’s gay.”

Say something, her mind told her brain. Anything.

“Nah, Dad, I’ll tell you what’s gay…” said a pink-faced kid. She hadn’t realised he was Curly’s kid. Of course he had a kid though, just as she had a kid. Anybody could have a kid. That’s why they were here. But her kid was up the front with the other kids that followed instructions. Future leaders, Matua called them. People who followed instruction.

She missed the rest of the conversation. She was watching the stains on Curly’s track pants. They were deep stains in a sagging fabric that no amount of soaking would improve. They were trackpants she would cut up for rags. There was the outline of a giant mobile in his pocket. Her mind argued with itself over why she wasn’t saying anything. She could say something and Curly and the kids could stare at her and then ignore her for the rest of the walk instead of inviting her into their gang. She could offer up alternative adjectives. She didn’t want to be in their gang. She said nothing.

“Hey Curly!” Boston did a half skip to catch up to him. “I know an eleven year old who smokes. Actual.” Curly’s kids looked at Boston. “Yeah. He smokes marijuana and cocaine.”

“That’s not cocaine,” said Curly. “That’s crack cocaine if he’s smoking.”

“Yeah, he smokes crack cocaine in his cigarettes.”

Boston and Jase took deep puffs on their vapes and giggled.

Curly nodded. “You shouldn’t smoke anyway, it’s bad for your lungs.”

Their small group was breasting the hill. The kids started exclaiming and pointing. Below them the village was spread out, iron roofs, squares of green, a long parade lined with trees.

Boston threw his arms wide. “Hey!” he shouted at the vista. “Hey!”

“There’s the marae,” said Curly.

“There’s the sea,” she said.

“There’s my cousin’s house,” said Boston, pointing. “It’s so beautiful!”

Boston turned to Jase and smiled. He had the widest smile in the universe. At that moment the world could turn on Boston’s smile. He started to walk slowly back the way they’d come.

“Hey, Boston,” she said. “That’s not the way we’re going.”

He ignored her.

“Boston!”

“I’ve got to do something,” he said over his shoulder.

“Well, do it this way,” she said.

“No,” he shook his head. “I’ve got to tell Stevie something.”

She looked back at Stevie. He was almost at the top of the first hill but he’d stopped. He was throwing his hands in the air and yelling at his mother. Stevie’s mother was yelling back at him.

“I don’t think Stevie needs anymore distractions,” she said.

“I need to tell him something,” said Boston.

She thought she should protest because that was her job, but she let him go because maybe she was a border collie with tired legs and maybe Boston was a stray sheep who would return of his own accord. She was not doing what Matua asked her. She could not bring up the rear. She was an unsuccessful border collie. Boston started shouting at Stevie.

“Hey, Stevie!” shouted Boston.

Stevie and his mum stopped shouting and turned. Stevie scowled at Boston.

“Come here and look!” Boston held his arms wide, displaying the scene. “It’s beautiful!”

Stevie’s mum smiled at Boston. “Stevie will look soon.”

“Stevie come now, you can see my cousin’s house. You can see the sea!”

Now was when Stevie should walk up to Boston and stand there looking, brothers in arms. Never will I forsake you. But he didn’t move. Stevie stood by his mum.

Still, something had switched. Something had escaped the tops of all their heads and flown south, to the sea.

“He will. He’s seen it before,” said Stevie’s mum gently. “Thanks Boston.”

Boston turned and ran with unanticipated speed up the hill past her. When he reached Jase he stopped and Jase handed him back his vape. Behind her, Stevie started yelling again.

The kids were in training. They’d divided them into boy groups and girl groups and they were training for a walk Matua was taking them on at camp next week. Matua wanted them to walk for two hours. It had taken them half an hour just to leave the classroom.

Her son had told her in the past about Stevie. He said, “Stevie has anger management.” Stevie was a nest of angry ants. What must his mother take to get through a day?

Sweat was running down her back and front, through her shirt onto the tiny kid’s backpack. He would take his bag home with another mother’s sweat. Because it had gone quiet she turned around and saw that Stevie had his hand in his mother’s hand, and they were walking peacefully. They were just out on a walk. Boston was right, it was beautiful.

The kids ran down the other side of the hill. They were all naturals. She was taking paid lessons on running down hills. Lower your centre of gravity, bend your knees slightly, widen your legs and don’t brake, fall. These kids just fell, naturals, on their feet. Anyway she couldn’t run with the extra weight on her front and because of her new glasses, which made things look sharp but also reoriented the space around her. The edges of everything had come back—fencelines, rocks, leaves, the spirits of the recently departed, the wing tips of birds flying overhead. There was all this detail. The world hadn’t had outlines like this since she herself was a kid, and back then, you didn’t notice it. Sunsets, wingtips—it was just all part of the day back then. A bird was a bird.

Soon her eyesight would deteriorate again and she’d get used to birds for a while until the optometrist told her she had to do something about it, but today, her sight was the best it could be. She remembered the first optometrist she ever had telling her that some shortsighted people preferred not to see the world clearly. At seventeen this had struck her as deeply philosophical. As if being short sighted meant she was entitled to a special category of blindness. When she didn’t wear her glasses, because she didn’t want to be someone who wore glasses, she now had a philosophy for it.

And the fact was, it was tiring being able to see so much.  All that visual input hitting the back of her brain then bouncing back to the part where it got sorted into threat or reward she could never remember the biological names. Her brain was coping with more data than it had in many years. All those rocks in different shades, plastic tubing, sweatpant stains, she could see it all. If she tripped and fell and broke her glasses all that data would evaporate.

At the bottom of the steps a couple of kids had asked her to take their backpacks as well, and she said no. She was expecting to have to push or pull them up, but they accepted what she said and just walked. They’d found their stride.

She caught up with Clem. He was friends with her son.

“Hey Clem, you’re doing well,” she said. “This is a tough hill.”

Clem puffed at her. She could see the walk was hard for him. He walked straight-legged, like his legs were paddles he rowed from his hips.

“Do you have any water?” he said. “I don’t have any water.”

“I do, but I had a cold,” she said. In her mind she slapped her own face. What part of her couldn’t just give Clem her water?

“You know,” he said. “In the civil war in America in the nineteenth century, soldiers died from heat exhaustion. They weren’t even shot at, they just fell over and died.”

“Yep,” she said. “Heat exhaustion is—”

“They didn’t even have water,” said Clem. “They just fell over on the spot, right in the middle of a field.”

“Yeah,” she said. “Did you not bring any water with you?”

“I was staying at my dad’s,” said Clem.

“Oh.” She stopped and pulled out her water. “I’ve had a cold,” she said again, offering it to him.

“I don’t care,” he said. He drank the water like a dehydrated soldier.

She looked around to see who needed help, but they were all just walking. Even Stevie was moving along and talking normally with his mum. Finally, on the hardest part, they were just doing it.

Clem called out to Boston. “In World War 2, one American soldier was worth two Japanese soldiers,” he said.

Boston ignored Clem. This often happened, not just to Clem. People said stuff and other people acted like nothing had been said and everything just continued.

“I’m going to Nitro Circus,” said Boston to nobody.

“Yeah, because of how they could fight, American soldiers were good at fighting,” said Clem.

“Hey, Curly,” shouted Boston. “Are you going to Nitro Circus?” He ran up the stairs.

As they walked up the stairs Clem talked to her about soldiers and a type of dagger called an F-S. She only half listened. At the top, a loud noise was starting up.

When she got there she saw a kid was sitting on a log, bawling loudly. She presumed the noise was Stevie but it was a different kid, dressed in grey. She hadn’t noticed him in the group. He was pulling his cap off and scrunching it up between his legs and he was giving it up to his grief so fully and publicly, it was uncomfortable but also glorious. The sound he made. Where could one learn to cry like that again?

The other kids were standing round.

“What’s wrong with Simon?” Said Boston.

“He’s a bit sad. He’s just worked out his mum can’t come on the camp,” said Matua.

“Oh.” Boston turned to a few other kids who were staring at the bawling kid and made a loud announcement. “His mum can’t come to the camp.”

“My mum can’t come either,” said Jase. Then he screwed his face up and tears dripped down his cheeks. “She can’t come even though I asked her.”

“Neither can mine.”

“Mine can’t come either.”

About five kids started to cry in a symphonic viral sorrow. This made Simon go louder. There they were having made it so far to the top of fifty-two steps and two hills, with only a third small hill to go but the darkness at the end of the second act was upon them.

There was a tap on her arm. “Mum. Are you coming to the camp?”

She didn’t know what to say. Why people chose to sleep in tents when they had waterproof houses was what she wondered whenever she went camping.

“Yes,” she lied to her son. 

“Ok,” he said and ran off to play with his friends who were climbing a fence into a paddock of gorse.

Matua was squatting on the ground bearing witness to the grief of motherless boys.

“I don’t know how you do your job,” she said.

“I used to think excursions were a great idea.” He looked tired.

“They are,” she said, arranging her face into something like enthusiasm. “I mean, out doors, exercise.”

“Ah, but the health and safety regulations, the extra parents.”

“Yeah,” she said. The teachers were striking the week after next which meant she had to take another day off her job taking orders from people who never quite looked her in the eye. But a teacher earned the same as her and they had to answer to the grievances and hopes of around twenty seven children.

“Hey,” said Boston, who wasn’t crying but had been spinning around and around. Now he stopped on a tilt to ask a question. “Hey, the world is always turning, eh?”

He asked her because adults knew such things. Now was the time when she could impart some facts about axies and gravitational pull and tides and phases of the moon but nothing came to mind.

“Yep,” she said and smiled to encourage such thinking.

“I told you so, Jase,” said Boston.

But Jase had turned away from Boston’s sunny righteousness. He took an indifferent puff on his vape and started to walk up the third hill, away from the felt cries of his fellow prisoners sitting out their sentence of childhood on the second hill.

*

As she walked home she saw a couple wander out from the dry house across the road. It was a good place that house. They’d turned a large section of blackberry into a surburban Eden, where people from all over the neighbourhood came to grow potatoes, rhubarb, silverbeet, a few romantics planted strawberries. Only occasionally did late night disorder issue from the house of retrieved homeless men, barely recovering alcoholics whose mothers most likely had never come on camp.

The couple wandered slowly across the road to sit by the now defunct bus stop. It only functioned as a school bus stop on days when enough drivers turned up to take the kids to school. They weren’t being paid enough to turn up regularly.

Out of her newly acquired sense of community spirit, a feeling that beneath this grand charade all humans were connected by the moon and tides, she thought to go tell them that there was no bus. She was starting over when she saw the guy fiddling with a strap on his arm. His friend hovered over him protectively as he stuck a needle into the exposed flesh and then after a moment or so, leaned to rest against the leg of his confidant, his eyes closed as a wave washed over him. It was an intimate and tender scene in which she had no business so she walked around them and into her own gate.

Soon her son would be home from school with about five other kids as usual and they’d be exhausted from all the walking and crying, so she started to toast two bags of crumpets. She’d give them extra butter for the effort and however much honey it took to soothe the hearts and legs of those who were, after all, inheriting the earth.

Next week’s short story is by Devonport author Graeme Lay.

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