By Edward Hodge
The ghost gums swayed in the raggedy wind and rustle, rustle, rustle went their pompom skirts. Bark like bones. Bleached beneath the dusk.
The hills were as familiar as my mother’s own hip. Last time I saw them, it was summer and Clem had just planted the gumtrees. Now, mid-autumn browned the fields and the landscape was haggard and cold. Fat brown Herefords brayed in the paddock. A little brown dog barked by the house.
Mum’s old house seemed to sag beneath the weight of its second storey. It was her father’s old place, and his father’s first and it was as real as meat on your plate.
I was terrified to see Clem and Horace again. To be amongst the hills in clip-sharp boots, a guitar around my shoulder, and a long black coat on my back. I’d dyed my hair to soot. It looked like a wig. I had nothing else with me, but handfuls of wrinkles and crinkles in the crooks of my eyes. I’d wasted all my love on open-mics and opening acts for high-schoolers and all my money had been spent on anything that could trick me into thinking that maybe I could make it. Tricks didn’t work amongst the hills.
Here, lies were not Christmases. Pub gigs were not funerals. Self-interest was not a healthy thing for an old man to have. I’d returned with none of the substance I’d thirsted for. Sixty years of life, and I’d never felt so adolescent. Wanting to make amends showed growth, but it was a selfish growth. I was here for my own sake.
The gate had been repainted. And there were Clem’s blue tulips. They should have died a long time ago to some winter snap, or a drought. That they hadn’t meant Horace still cared for them, which was more than I’d ever done for Clem. More than I’d ever done at all.
The little brown dog by the house barked again and my knuckles went white on the gate. I’d wanted to knock, to be the one to surprise him, but the little brown dog kept barking.
‘Quiet, girl!’ I hissed.
I doubted it was the same dog from last time. Like Clem’s flowers, that mutt should be long dead. Its replacement wouldn’t shut up. A light came on, behind the downstairs curtain. I froze behind the gate. The curtain swept up and I saw Horace silhouetted like an angel. His details were bright black, but I recognised the way he stood.
He was my brother. A third of myself. We stared at one another for a long time.
At first, I wasn’t sure if he could make me out. It’s hard to see someone in the dark when you’re in the light. But then he stood there too long, and his posture was too still. He’d seen me; his old, rockstar brother come back to the farm, empty-handed.
For me, the staring was a competition. I wanted to outlast him. But perhaps Horace looked at me only because he wanted to look at me and maybe because he wanted to think. Perhaps I was the only one playing the game.
The curtain fell back and then the door opened up. Yellow light spilled into the yard. Horace had on a patchy black dressing gown. I suddenly felt foolish in my coat. I’d wanted to impress him, the way you could in the city. Here, amongst the hills, that didn’t work.
I opened the gate and crossed the yard.
‘Horace,’ I said, raising one of my hands. I hoped he didn’t notice the way my voice trembled. Like a boy’s.
The years had blighted his face, as it had done mine. It suited him. Eyes never change and he’d always had the eyes of an old man. His glasses were the same; thickly rimmed and with thick glass so his eyes looked large, like the wings of moths.
The minutes between our births must have been infinities for our souls. It was hard to believe we’d come from the same place, and the same mother. It was hard to believe we had the same sister, a sweet little sister born right on our heels. It was hard to believe we’d turned out so different.
‘Surprised to see you, Perce,’ my brother said. He spat on the ground, like Clem used to.
‘I just came to see her,’ I said. ”’Bout time I did.’
Horace worked his jaw. I felt like a beggar.
He hissed through his teeth, like she used to. Light from the house made the hair on his head white as snow. His glasses glimmered and sparkled. My brother closed his eyes and flicked his head to the hills.
‘She’s under the gumtrees.’