Ken Little grew up on
He returned to
He resides at Collaroy Plateau on the Northern Beaches with his wife Jenny, (a midwife). He has two children, Stephen, (a graphic designer), who is married to Dani, and Alison, (studying Primary education).
chalk-coloured road was empty. The day was stifling hot. All was quiet except
for the cry of a native bird. Strangled by the heat its song rose then soon
faded away before it had even begun. A kookaburra replied, then stopped, its
laughter breaking down into convulsive croaks. Even the breeze stayed away while
the trees stood by limp and still. There was no sound to be heard, no whisper to
listen to, nothing to wake to, except for a low but distant rumble. Louder and
louder it grew, closer and closer it came until it arrived booming out of a
billowing cloud of dust.
late model car grew larger as it pushed onward through the cloud. Approaching a
nest of trees it slowed down. The curtain of dust seemed to pause then settle as
the car pulled over on to the grassy verge then stopped. As though exhausted by
the heat it waited, dormant, until the driver’s door was suddenly thrust open.
Out stepped a tall athletic looking man. He was in his mid forties but his hair
was blond, his face unlined, and he looked years younger. He was dressed in a
blue cotton shirt, jeans, and on his feet he wore riding boots. In his left hand
he was carrying a small urn and a page from a newspaper. He bumped the door
closed behind him then, leaning back, he took a deep breath. Pushing himself up
to his full height he stared straight ahead then walked slowly over to the
broken-down fence. There he paused and rested on a fence post, slowly shaking
his head as he gazed at the sight before him.
old wooden building stood there, vagrant like, alone and sad, grey timber
peeping out through flaking paint. The red peaked roof chipped and cracked
arched like a sentinel into the sky. Windows that once mixed light and dark with
life and laughter, now stained and blinded by years of dust storms, stared back
the emptiness that lived inside. Grass, which long ago had given up all
pretences of being a serious lawn, had grown into scraggly knee-high tufts,
brown and lifeless in the hot summer sun. The once smartly painted fence lay in
disrepair, tumbled down by years of neglect while the iron gates that had once
yawned open, like a discarded book, were rusted shut.
Hanson’s eyes drifted sadly across the scene. Looking closely, he could just
make out the faded sign, and by filling in the missing letters he knew were once
there, he mouthed the word, “SHEPHERD’S
found a broken down part of the fence and jumped over it. He headed through the
knee-high grass towards a bare area in front of the veranda, while behind him he
heard the car doors slam and the quick patter of children’s footsteps. As he
stood in front of the veranda gazing at the building, he felt a small hand take
looks like the painting in the lounge room, Dad. Just like you said.” Surprise
was evident in the teenage boy’s voice as he spoke. Four people stood there,
staring silently at the building. Then the older girl spoke.
Mark Twain really paint the picture?”
he did,” Matt Hanson said with a smile. Shrugging, the two older children
pattered off to find more interesting things to do behind the building.
that where you used to stand, Daddy?” said the small child still holding her
is,” Matt replied softly.
climbed up on to the veranda and tried to peer into the building through the
are all the desks?” the little girl asked, disappointment in her voice.
gone, Becky. Probably firewood by now.”
sad,” said the little girl wistfully. Matt could understand the tone in the
little girl’s voice. All she had heard about for the last few months were
stories about her dad’s first school. He had described every part of it in
such a personal way that Becky felt like she had actually been there herself.
And now his first visit back after twenty years was tinged with sadness.
did you leave, Daddy?”
closed the school, Beck. They were closing down lots of small schools then. They
still used the school, but as a pick up point for the kids. A bus came by and
took them down to the school at Gratton. It was quite a trip for some of the
little ones. Twenty-five kilometres is a long way in summer.”
old were you when you left?” Becky persisted.
Beck. I had just finished my third year teaching.” Remembering something else
Matt continued. “It was reopened in the eighties, but I heard that it was
closed down again just a few years ago.”
didn’t you come back then, Daddy?”
smiled to himself but before he could answer they were interrupted by a boy’s
voice coming from behind the building.
Dad, here’s the water tank just where you said it would be.”
got to see this Beck,” enthused Matt.
hurried off the veranda to join Matt’s two other children, fourteen-year-old
Luke and twelve-year-old Pip. There they gathered solemnly around an old water
tank. It had been knocked off its stand and was lying on its side, its tap
pointing uselessly into the sky. Matt still clutched the urn as he pointed to
the top of the tank.
opening was covered with a wire mesh. I had to rip it off one day to dunk little
Ricky Thomson in when his body overheated. And that was our only drinking
water,” Matt added.
yuk!” said Pip screwing up her face.
Is that Sammy’s tree?” Luke said suddenly pointing towards the back fence.
They followed his gaze and stared at a large tree.
it is,” said Matt wistfully.
walked over to the tree. “It was only this high when Sammy planted it,” said
Matt indicating waist high. “Now look at it after twenty years.” They gazed
silently up at the seven metre tall gumtree. It stood there tall and upright,
bold and defiant.
me to dig the hole, Dad?” asked Luke.
ahead Luke,” Matt replied. “Just next to the tree, and watch out for the
roots. The shovel’s in the boot.”
this where we’re going to bury the ashes, Daddy?” asked Pip.
right Pip. Right under Sammy’s tree.”
returned from the car with the shovel and immediately began digging vigorously.
Soon his forehead was dripping wet.
it easy, Luke. Don’t want to bust your boiler in this heat.”
after a few moments Matt interrupted him again.
probably deep enough.”
children stood back as Matt knelt and tipped the dusty contents of the urn into
the hole. After a brief moment he stood up and motioned Luke to fill it in. Then
he took the newspaper article with a photograph of a man and a woman on it, and
tacked it to the tree.
you going to say something, Dad?” asked Pip.
left to say, Pip. It’s all been said at the funeral.”
wish Mum could have seen it,” said Becky sadly.
do I, Beck. So do I.”
stood there quietly staring at the small mound. Finally Luke looked up, and
squinting, pointed straight ahead.
that the farm where you stayed, Dad?”
peered off into the distance, across a field of brown stubble, until they spied
some distant white buildings.
it, Luke. See the building on the far left? That’s where Des Thomson penned
Sheila.” The children laughed at that, obviously sharing in their father’s
the other one near that big tree – gosh it’s grown over the years. That’s
the house where I lived.”
way did you drive to school Dad?” asked Pip.
traced the route vaguely with his finger.
house road went that way and was joined by the boundary track about there. Then
I’d follow the track along the boundary fence over there behind that shed. The
track swung around and followed Shepherds’ Creek to somewhere down behind
those trees. Then I’d drive across the creek and come out on the school road
about a kilometre down there.”
was in the dry wasn’t it, Dad?”
was, Pip. When it rained the creek ran a banker. You’d be silly to try to
cross it, although I was silly once,” Matt laughed. “No, I had to go the
long way round which was back up that road eight kilometres, down Poverty Lane
then back down this road to school.”
far was that, Dad?” asked Luke.
we used miles then. The long way round was twelve miles but the short cut across
the creek was just over three. When it was dry it would be three miles but when
it rained, it was twelve.”
know Dad, you should write a book about your experiences here. You’d make
heaps,” offered Luke.
smiled. Maybe he would – someday. And if he did, he knew when his story would
begin. Back in 1973 when he was eighteen. And he knew what he’d call it as
well. He’d call it ‘Three Miles in the Dry and Twelve in the Wet’.
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