ATTRITION by Chris Brophy
There was a man. Let’s call him Roy. Roy, early French for King. Middle name, Peter, the rock on which the church was built. A strong name. The name of a leader. But Roy was no king, no founder of the Christian Church, the only flock he ever led a herd of slowly lumbering Jersey cows, hides like caramel-coloured velvet, broad wet-black noses, and enormous eyes full of unanswered questions.
Roy lived upon a farm, was born on that same farm. A small farm at the foot of a big green mountain that looms large behind a famous strip of Australian sand and surf, a farm inherited from an Irish grandfather, granted ownership by a State Government because he had lived on this parcel of land for just nine years, land that has always been, still is, Wangerriburra land.
Roy’s grandfather cleared and fenced this land. Hand-hewn timber posts linked with long split-timber rails. A carpenter by trade, he built a slab hut with a separate kitchen, its dirt floor swept hard and smooth each day by his Northern Irish bride. The farm grew cows and pigs and horses, and lucerne hay and corn to feed them. It also grew nine children, though only five survived. On the big front gate, a name plate swung: Gulcondah, the vessel that carried Roy’s grandfather from the moist greens of Northern Ireland to this alien sun-scorched acreage in southern Queensland.
Roy’s mother inherited the farm upon her father’s death. A single woman still, at thirty-seven, Catholic, hopeful, waiting for life to happen.
Roy’s father was a horse man, an outback man, born in deep shade beneath a wool wagon in the dry emptiness of western Queensland, a man who packed up his skills and took them to that distant green mountain further south, to build a road, a road that led to the small farm at the foot of the mountain where he met Roy’s mother, and married her, her belly already big with their first child.
Let’s call that first child John.
John is whip smart and into books, his trajectory as oldest son imagined big by an ambitious mother without the financial resources to deliver on her dreams. Still, John reads and learns and grows till at fourteen, he leaves the farm, the first in his family to receive a secondary education. But not at the flash Catholic boarding school where the squattocracy send their sons, not at that prestigious college his mother hoped he would attend, but at the state high school, in the capital city, where his lonely fourteen-year old nights are spent in a rundown boarding house, his only company the other older rundown men who call this sad place home.
Roy, the second son, is not whip smart. But he is solid. He is loving. He loves his Mum. He loves his dog. He loves his gun. Roy becomes a farm boy, not a scholar. No-one asks him what he wants, and since he’s there already, with no other prospects, why not remain? Hard work never hurt anyone, did it?
And then, a third brother, the youngest. Shall we call him Tom? Tom Thumb he was not. He grew and grew to be the biggest of the brothers. Six foot three and seventeen stone. A perfect fit for the Queensland Police uniform he dons at age nineteen.
Roy’s father dies too young. Just forty-eight. A sudden stroke. Staggering by the road till someone realizes the man is not falling-down-drunk but ill. It is too late. All those hard days up at dawn, to milk the cows and feed the pigs and plough the fields, now come to this.
Roy’s mother dries her weeping eyes and hitches up her skirts. There is farmwork to be done. She is now the one awake at dawn, sooling up the languid sleepy cows, her farm dogs nipping at their heels. Back in the farmhouse, Roy and Tom are awake and hungry, and so they learn to cook. They learn to cope. They have survived the no-shoes, no-money years of the Great Depression, the outbreak of World War II. This latest, too, they will survive.
John finishes at school the year his father dies. Now, each day, he crosses Brisbane’s wide brown river to a teachers’ training college. He graduates, a high school teacher. But the war is not yet over, and John enlists, returning home to show off a brand-new uniform of khaki serge in the searing summer heat. A Box Brownie is produced. John poses with a pup. John, too, is still a pup, just twenty years of age, lean, fresh-faced and handsome. Days later, he is on a train that’s heading north, travelling to tiny Horn Island in the Torres Strait where he’ll man the search lights for the ack-ack guns that keep the Japanese at bay.
Roy is a primary producer, exempt from military service, but he serves in other ways, travelling north like his brother, and fetching up on the Atherton Tableland where he harvests spuds prised from the bright red soil with his own bare hands. Roy’s wartime snapshot boasts no brand-new uniform, no handsome face, instead a snaggle-toothed young man, felt hat sweat-stained and wonky, his baggy khaki shorts belted round his waist, a hessian sack bulging with potatoes sitting at his feet.
The war at last is over. Roy comes home, to his mother and his dogs. Working side by side, they are weary but contented. His mother is feeling weak. She is taken to the hospital in Brisbane. Fresh red blood, a pint a day, is pumped into her system, but again, it is too late. Roy’s mother dies eleven days after Roy turns twenty-two.
Brother John is now in Sydney, studying at its big sandstone university, his mother’s dreams at last made manifest thanks to a returned serviceman’s scholarship that pays his fees but not his board. He meets a pretty girl, another teacher, and marries her, working after-hours as a kitchenhand to provide for his pretty wife and their newborn baby girl.
Tom, too, meets a pretty girl and marries her, a country girl from a small town in central Queensland, an inland town with long, straight dusty streets, a sawmill and a racecourse. Tom takes his new bride to the police station in an even smaller town, deep in Queensland’s Gulf Country, that distant place which disappears when monsoons dump their summer load and leave a lake of shining floodwater stretching to the sea, drowned cattle huddled for comfort in huge heaps when the wide brown lake recedes.
Back upon the farm, Roy is now alone. He has his work each day. He has his dogs. He has the Saturday night dances at the top of the mountain and beers with his farming mates. And each Sunday, bodysurfing trips to that nearby strip of sand and surf, where again and again and again, he hurls himself into churning breakers that bear him up and shoot him forward, euphoric and released.
But often Roy is lonely. The nights are worst. His work is done and the hours of darkness long. His mother is gone, his father is gone, his brothers are far away, and the dogs have little conversation. Roy would like to meet a pretty girl and marry her, as his brothers did. But he is not a charmer, not a good looker. The girls, well mannered, will dance with him once on a Saturday night, but rarely twice.
And then, Roy meets a girl. She is a looker. Red lipstick, dark hair, and sophisticated city clothes. She seems to like him. Roy can’t believe his luck. They correspond. She invites him to her home. Roy asks the question and an engagement ring is offered. A small diamond, all he can afford, but still a diamond. It is accepted. A party is held and guests bring presents wrapped in pretty floral paper. It is the fifties, post-war, the beginning of the consumer revolution. Many of the parcels contain appliances for the home. A shiny electric toaster. A smooth-as-silk electric iron. A speckled-green electric jug.
The girl decides it’s time to see the farm. Roy cleans and tidies and fetches her from the station. She climbs the stairs. First room, the kitchen. She spies the big black metal stove squatting in the corner, a stack of neatly split timber at its side. She spies the kerosene lanterns hanging from the ceiling. She walks into the living room and looks for a telephone. She looks for power points. She turns to Roy, astonished. The engagement is called off. The ring and all the electrical appliances are returned.
One winter frosty morning, Roy awakes, his neck and head and testicles alight with pain. He checks the bathroom mirror. His neck is swollen twice its normal size. He knows the symptoms. Mumps. At his age. He drags his body back to bed to wait it out. But next day, he is worse. Burning up. A neighbour calls by, shouting from the kitchen door. ‘Roy! Hey Roy!’ He drives Roy to hospital, where a doctor with a white coat and a serious expression stands at the foot of his bed and tells him that mumps in adult men does not always cause sterility.
Roy comes home to his place that no longer feels like home and decides to move to Brisbane. He leases the farm to tenants and loads up his old grey Peugeot, then off he goes, heading towards his new, big city life.
Roy stays with brother John, his pretty wife, and their two young children, all five squeezed into a small war service home in a Brisbane suburb named for a famous British general. Roy studies want ads in John’s daily newspapers, his farm-bred skills rarely a good match for jobs on offer. He accepts a position in a factory and so now spends his days indoors, working on the line, sweltering in summer and shivering in winter.
John’s wife is pretty, and intelligent, but she is no housewife. Dishes pile high in the sink. Beds are never made. And John’s children are children. Roy does not know what to do with children. He likes them well enough, but they are noisy – fighting, crying, and their mother yelling. The household is chaotic. Roy has had enough. His weekly pay packet may be thin, but he finds a cheap one-bedroom flat that brings him peace.
Roy takes up golf. On weekends, he meets with brother John down at the golf course on mud flats by the bay. Roy feels happy playing golf, outside again, the wind and sun reminding him he is alive, and life is good. The men lug their heavy bags of clubs round eighteen holes, whack! whack! whack! then settle in for hours at the ‘nineteenth’ hole, downing beer after beer, faces growing redder with each glass, laughter growing louder.
Roy rolls out his stories. He is entertaining and can make grown men and women laugh. And children too. He has a knack. He tells the one about bananas: How do you tell legitimate bananas from illegitimate bananas? His audience looks blank. You put them in a string bag, says Roy, and the bastards fall out!! His audience groans. Roy shakes with silent laughter.
One afternoon, telling yet another story, Roy spies a woman laughing. She is sitting with the lady golfers, close enough to listen in. She has heard him tell his joke. She is not a pretty woman – tall, big-boned and capable, but her laughter is full and softly warm. He smiles at her and she returns the smile.
At the golf club’s annual presentation dinner, Roy sees this same woman striding to the stage to accept a major prize. Not only is she taller than Roy, she is the better golfer. Played for Queensland, that one, says John, and takes another gulp of ice-cold beer.
Roy gathers up his courage. He introduces himself. Phyl, she says, and laughs that soft warm laugh. They sit and chat. They get to know each other. Phyl, too, comes from a Queensland dairy farm. They have this – and golf, and beer – in common. It seems a useful place to start.
Roy tells Phyl more stories, funny ones and sad ones. Oh, Roy, she says, and laughs when they are funny; Oh! Roy… she says, more softly, when they are very sad. He wins her over with his stories. She, like Roy, has had a tough, hard life. She, like him, wants something easier and happier.
Roy and Phyl are married. They move from Roy’s tiny, rented flat to a roomy split-level home of timber. Roy leaves his factory job to open up a fruit shop. Often, he dreams of his real home at the base of that big green mountain. Phyl is not so inclined. She knows firsthand the heavy labour and the low returns of dairy farming but is prepared to compromise. They sell their house in the suburbs and buy another house on acreage, working to make a market garden that grows strawberries and lettuces and beans for Roy’s small fruit shop in the Valley. There are no children, but there is a dog, and two cats, there are barbecues with friends, and they seem happy.
But then, the news.
A letter with a Queensland coat of arms in the top corner of the envelope. The State Government, the one Roy voted for, is planning to build a dam, an enormous dam that will flood 999 existing properties below the big green mountain. One of those properties is Roy’s.
The Government is buying up the land to be resumed. The price is low, but Roy decides to sell. In time, he learns the controversial dam will not be built, but much too late. The farm, by then, is gone.
Business in the fruit shop is declining. Roy puts it up for sale. In the past, he has produced milk and cream; now he will deliver it. A milkman, once again awake at dawn, loading up his truck with heavy metal crates full of clanking bottles. In the grey of early morning, he jogs from door to door, dumping full white bottles on the doorstep, picking up the coins of payment and cursing slatterns who neglect to wash their empties.
One morning, tired and wet with rain, he slips, pitching forward into a milk crate, landing on his knee. The bottles shatter, cutting through his flesh. His knee is buggered, but Roy soldiers on, a towel wrapped round his leg. Phyl and brother John work the milk run until the wound has healed. But the knee is never quite the same. Now Roy hobbles from door to door, ever conscious of his pain. He caves to the inevitable, sells the milk round first and then the market garden.
This time, back in the suburbs of Brisbane, a new-built home identical to all of those around it. Blonde brick, low pitched ceilings, and completely bare backyard. To pay for it, a contract cleaning business, both Roy and Phyl each night vacuuming and polishing, emptying and scouring. The work is lighter than the farm, lighter than the milk run, but still it is physical, constant, and repetitive. Golf and the occasional road trip round our big country ease their boredom and exhaustion. They start to count the days till retirement age is reached.
The time arrives. At last a well-earned break. The blonde brick box is sold, and another house is found, this one on top of a different mountain, a smaller green mountain north of Brisbane, behind that other famous Queensland strip of surf and sand.
Now she has the time, Phyl creates the garden of her dreams, digging, potting, pruning, fertilizing. Soon, the house becomes an island surrounded by a brilliant sea of bromeliads and bougainvilleas. They join the local golf club. Phyl takes up contract bridge. And Roy volunteers for the local Meals-on-Wheels.
Roy is a tinkerer, all his cars bought secondhand, his sturdy body forever disappearing beneath an open bonnet or wriggling awkwardly beneath a chassis. While Phyl gardens, he is busy fixing things, mending and cobbling and hammering, in that cool and airy space beneath their high-set Queensland house.
At dawn each day, Roy pulls on his swimming trunks, jumps into his car and drives fast, fast down the mountain to the beach that lies waiting at its base, a beach with a headland no longer with its Kabi Kabi name. Instead, the name of the Danish wife of a philandering English king.
Once more Roy feels the mind-wake shock of cold and crashing waves, the sudden rush of joy when his weightless body shoots towards the shore. Roy is not alone in his joy, the same faces there each day, men similarly addicted to the delights of sun and surf and sand before the tourists are awake. These men begin to nod to him. They begin to chat. Roy has his bodysurfing, he has some new friends, the sun shines in great abundance, and life again is good.
Then, one morning, driving down the mountain, the bright light of a rising sun causing him to squint, he fails at first to see the car oncoming, a car veering towards him on the wrong side of the road. It is too late. An explosive bang of metal hitting metal, shrieking and grinding and crumpling. Roy’s legs are trapped beneath the dashboard. He sits in shock till a siren’s wail restores him to his senses.
The other driver is drunk, drunk at 5am, heading home from an all-nighter sat at the surf club pokies. He’s uninjured and is later charged, but Roy is hurt, one of his legs, the bad one, crushed and bent. Forever after he will struggle, his body now bowlegged, rocking from side to side as he fights to keep his balance when he walks. Beneath the house, he fashions a homemade leather device to brace his dodgy knee. It’s enough to get him up and down the stairs at home, but there will be no more golfing with his brother, no more golfing with his friends. He selects his favourite nine iron from his bag of clubs, tips it upside down and uses it to support his weight, a golfing walking stick.
When Roy drives down again to join his early morning mates, the curling waves crash against his now unsteady body, tipping him and tossing him and tumbling him in a churn of sea and sand that almost ends in drowning. His mates pull him to his feet, but it is a challenge. Roy is not a small man and these men, like Roy, are older, and no longer strong. They shake their heads. No, mate, this can’t go on. It would be too dangerous.
Roy spends more time at home. He eats his breakfast and reads the newspaper. He watches the television. He tinkers and mends, makes his weekly batch of home brew, and feeds the singing magpies that gather on his balcony. Sometimes, the pain is great. At night, the home brew helps. Glass after glass till he falls asleep in his deep padded chair, then wakes and staggers to his bed.
Roy is not the only brother whose retirement dreams have gone awry. Brother John is hospitalised, his diseased bowel cut and sliced and shortened, leaving him a shadow of the man he was, a man who now no longer golfs, no longer smokes or drinks, who spends his days, and his quick mind, sitting on the patio solving crosswords in the Courier Mail, or chatting to his dog, And worse news still. Baby brother Tom, in faraway Cairns, is diagnosed with the cancer that will kill him. Dead before seventy, the youngest of the brothers gone first.
Then more bad news for brother John. Lung and liver cancer. He lingers on nine months, his strength gradually declining, stoically accepting his fate while all the while worrying for the welfare of his still-pretty wife who now, occasionally and inexplicably, shakes and falls from her bed at night, with epilepsy. Ten days after the Christmas he thought he would not see, John dies, the dark and swollen summer clouds opening in sympathy as his coffin leaves the big-domed Catholic church, the mourners splashing to their cars.
So now, it is just Roy. His father gone, his mother gone, his brothers gone – and the home farm sold and subdivided. It is his brothers Roy misses most, thinking of them as he pauses on his balcony, gazing out to that blue ocean far below, an ocean he no longer enters. He remembers that great day all three last came together, a reunion at the base of the big green mountain where they grew, all three brothers standing in a row, their matching beer-fed bellies on display, faces red with sun and alcohol as once again they argued: Who is the handsomest? Who is the cleverest? Who can tell the funniest stories? And all the while, laughing, laughing, laughing.
But then, a shift in fortune. A windfall. In Melbourne, Phyl’s only sister dies. The childless widow of a self-made man, she leaves a portion of her large estate to Phyl, more money than Phyl has ever known, money that is now all hers.
Phyl sets off on a shopping spree. She buys a brand-new red and shiny car. She buys a brand-new house in a retirement village built among canals. Everything inside the house is new as well: the beds, the appliances, the television, everything, that is, except her husband Roy and their ageing ginger cat. The cat, like Roy, prowls this new and foreign space, bewildered and confused.
Now she has the means, Phyl begins to dream of travel. She studies travel guides, consults with travel agents, watches TV travel shows. The Maldives, with its cunning little bungalows hovering over clear as crystal waters of translucent aqua blue. Or perhaps a luxury cruise around Australia’s top end, waterfalls tumbling right up close as the big ship sails on by. She lifts her eyes to Roy, seated in his usual chair at the far end of the room, sipping at his beer, staring into space. More and more he is telling her things, asking her things, much more than once. Her spirits sink. There will be no travel with this man. And she herself is old, too old. The unfairness of it strikes her like a slap.
And so, their lives continue, marooned each night in separate easy chairs, Phyl’s growing fury and frustration like a border wall between them. More and more, Roy disappears inside himself. In the end, confused and alone in his bright white hospital bed, Roy succumbs to the Old Man’s Friend – pneumonia. There is to be no funeral. Phyl tells Roy’s family that ‘we’ do not believe in all that stuff. Roy’s family wonders whether ‘we’ in fact means ‘I’. They collect his ashes from the crematorium.
On a clear sky day in summer, Roy’s nieces and his nephews gather at the base of the big green mountain, in a bare brown paddock with a scatter of gravestones set among grey-green gums and soaring pines. Most of the names on the graves are Irish. Plunkett. Cusack. Barry. Leach. O’Brien.
They find the one they’re seeking, its once-white stone stained and streaked with age. In Loving Memory, the stone reminds them, then lists, in order, those who lie below: Roy’s grandfather, age 79; Roy’s father, age 48; Roy’s mother, age 59.
And now, Roy himself, age 82.
His niece kneels close to the foot of the grave. She pushes a small trowel she has brought with her deep into the soil. She digs a small hole for Roy’s ashes, covers them over carefully and pats the soil back down.