It’s funny how the most inspiring and powerful elements of life can never be fully appreciated until they have unfolded in their entirety. The budding of a flower, the creation of a mountain, the story of a person’s life. What can seem the most ordinary of human lives- whilst being lived- can potentially reveal greater truths about a generation than the celebrated lives of the powerful, rich and famous. Ordinary human life does not begin from a template, nor does it require a marketing plan or complicated spin doctoring. Ordinary human life is real, like the life of Steffan Clopham.
One might argue that all things that ever happen are real, but I would argue otherwise. If anything can be learned from Steffan’s life, it is that reality should be defined as things that happen by chance. Judgements on humanity’s self-regulating spawn- society– is best left for those who follow in our wake, once it has unfolded in its entirety. What Steffan managed to achieve after the siren had sounded on the best years of his life, was to circumvent fame and fortune; inadvertently covering a mountain with flowers without anyone realising that he was doing it. Purely by chance.
The life of Steffan Clopham began in the small, Welsh town of Haye On Wye. Hay, as it is more commonly known, is the book and literature hub of Wales with over 20 bookstores. The town annually hosts a major book festival, which is ironic, because Steffan was pronounced dyslexic from a very young age and never read a single book in his life. Pronounced and diagnosed are very different words. Steffan’s father- Gareth- pronounced it when he found out what dyslexia meant because he hated that everyone thought his son was stupid. Gareth, incidentally, found out what the word meant over a pint at The Old Black Lion. He couldn’t read or write a word to save himself either, but he was strong as an ox.
Gareth started teaching Steffan everything he knew about bricklaying from the tender age of 13. Brickies got paid like dogs in those days, and it only got worse with all the Africans coming in and doing labouring work for scab money. On the plus side, Steffan grew strong like Gareth and could lay bricks as fast as anyone. Short and stocky with blonde hair and hard, brown skin from working outside, he fitted in well after moving to Australia. It took a while for his accent to taper off so people could understand him without constantly having to repeat himself, but soon enough, Steffan Clopham was a dyed in the wool, true blue Aussie.
Australia in the 1970s was still in its formative years; culturally; and immigrants like Steffan played a large role in how it all changed. The country was beyond returning to the ways of its original inhabitants and was quickly moving further and further away from recognising that Aboriginal culture had any relevance moving forward. People were coming from all around the world with different religions, and different ideas about food, politics, law and every other part of what it is to be alive. They all moved into suburbs filled with people of their own ethnicity, so the ideology of multiculturalism was questionably little more than another win for the spin doctors. Unlike people, systems of government are born from templates and years of planning and philosophying. It’s the cards we’re dealt in spite of those systems that provide us with something real beneath the surface. At the age of 65, in the year 2017, Steffan Clopham found himself faced with a system that he no longer believed in, and a life that wasn’t set to last much longer. There was nothing physically wrong with him per se. He just felt old.
Deep in the backstreets of Parafield Gardens, South Australia, Steffan sat in his lounge-room watching the cricket on television. His three kids had all moved out to start families of their own, already more cashed up than he ever was, driving new cars and building new houses. Not that he didn’t want that for them, but he never felt as though they appreciated what he’d done to lift them up there. Mary, his wife of thirty-seven years, said he was just an old grump. Maybe he was, but no one could tell him not to be. Steffan stopped caring about what everyone else thought years ago. He understood how the world worked and knew how to circle around each system without getting caught. That was all that mattered.
More blackfellas lived in Parafield Gardens than at any point over the thirty-seven years Steffan and Mary lived on Burrajong St. There had always been a few Aborigines around the place, but now there were Indians and Africans and all sorts as well. Steffan was an immigrant himself but his wife was born an Aussie and they were both white, which was how the suburb was supposed to be when they bought their block. With all the Housing Trust complexes being built, the place was slowly turning to shit but they couldn’t afford to move. Fortunately, Mary seemed happy enough.
As long as Steffan could watch sport on television, he would survive. The first session of cricket had been unusually boring on one particular day, dwindling painfully into the lunch break. England came to Australia to defend the ashes but were barely putting up a fight. Steffan hated the English anyway. Bunch of wankers. His beer was cold and Mary had emptied a packet of chicken chips into a bowl for him before she went to the shops. The old, brown couch was ugly but bloody comfortable and Steffan had settled in for the day, only intending to get up when he needed another beer from the fridge or to go to the bathroom. It was the start of another heatwave and the ceiling fan was turning slowly because with the price of electricity, airconditioning was getting too expensive. Steffan was only wearing his old blue work shorts. It was bloody hot.
Something rebounded off the front window and nearly sent Steffan jumping through the roof. He looked outside and saw a young boy; probably about 8 years old and wearing a white turban thing; standing on his front lawn near the road, because he was obviously too afraid to come any closer to retrieve whatever it was that hit the window. Another kid stood further down the street, the same age but with bright red hair and holding a cricket bat, issuing instructions for the kid with the turban to go and collect what was obviously their ball. The red headed kid became tired of waiting and eventually strode casually across the lawn and picked up his cricket ball from the concrete path against the house. At this point, Steffan noticed a crack in his window.
“You little pricks!” he cursed under his breath before standing up angrily and barrelling to the front door. He swung the door open and yelled at the red headed kid who was already half way back to the kerb. “Hey you! Your ball broke me bloody window. Whose goin’ to pay for it?” He pointed furiously back at the large crack.
The kid with the turban was frozen with a look on his face of sheer terror and obvious guilt. The red headed kid wasn’t so worried.
“Not me! We didn’t even do that,” he said, lying with the consummate ease of an experienced criminal. “Our ball only rolled over on the grass.”
“Like hell it did,” Steffan roared back, stunned by the kid’s staggering ability to lie right to his face. “Where do you live, boy?”
The read headed kid stood defiantly and said nothing until Steffan stepped down from his concrete porch toward him. He turned quickly and ran, but the kid with the turban was too afraid to move.
“Come on, Rana. Run!” Rana finally snapped out of his daze and took off.
“I know where you live, you little prick,” Steffan screamed after the kid in the turban, falling back into his distinctly Welsh twang that got stronger as he got angrier. “Tell your old man I’ll be comin’ to see him.” Rana only lived three doors down, so Steffan would have no trouble finding him. The worst of it was that Rana’s family had lived on the street for five years and Steffan had always managed to avoid talking to them. What would he have to say to them anyway? He had nothing in common with the bastards and wasn’t sure if they even spoke English. At least when he arrived in Australia, he could speak the same bloody language.
He went inside and put his singlet on. It was getting a bit tighter since he retired because a significant beer gut was starting to emerge, but he was still an intimidating man, barrel chested and large red dragons of his Welsh heritage tattooed across each shoulder. Steffan was keen to send a wave of fear and uncertainty through the turban headed people if that’s what it took to get them to pay for a new window. The bastards were probably sitting on a stack of cash anyway, hidden where the government didn’t know about it. Steffan knew how the world worked and they couldn’t pull the wool over his eyes.
It was as hot as hell when he stepped outside which did nothing to improve his mood for the short walk down the street. The lawns were all dried off and yellow, more like crop stubble than grass. Only the gum trees and red bottle brushes seemed comfortable in the steaming oven of a South Australian summer. The best part about retiring for Steffan was not having to slave away in 40 degree heat anymore. He just wanted to watch the cricket.
Several cars were parked in the concrete driveway and out on the street in front of Rana’s house. There must have been some sort of Indian festival going on. Again, Steffan hated how they didn’t celebrate their religious stuff on the same days as the rest of the country. The cars were boiling hot and Steffan clipped his leg against a tow bar as he tried to avoid the car behind it, taking some skin off and leaving a dribble of blood running down his shin.
“Jesus!” He yelled angrily, grabbing at his leg. He leaned back in pain and fell against the bonnet of the car behind him which sizzled like a frying pan against the back of his legs. “Aaaah!” He jumped forward and hopped out onto the dry grass, almost tripping on the laces of his old work boots that he hadn’t bothered tying up.
The front door opened and Rana’s father- complete with white turban- stood in the doorway, clearly concerned about the large, angry old man jumping around on his lawn.
“Are you okay, Sir?” he asked Steffan nervously.
“No. I’m not bloody okay. Your son and his mate broke me window with their cricket ball. The little, red headed bugger tried tellin’ me they didn’t do it but I was sittin’ right there when it ‘appened.”
The man turned and called out into the house. “Rana. Come here. Now.” He waited patiently for his son to arrive in the doorway beside him and looked up with equal measures of concern for Steffan’s mood and annoyance with his son. “This man says you broke his window. Is this true?”
“Yes, Papa-ji,” Rana answered honestly.
“Then why have you not told me? We do not treat people this way. Do you hear me?”
“Go now. We will talk about this later.” Rana slunk back into the house with the weight of the world apparently on his young shoulders. His father was still watching Steffan who had calmed considerably, but still wanted to address the issue of his broken window. “Can I make the arrangements to have the window fixed for you, Sir? I know a glazier who may be able to replace it today.”
Steffan couldn’t complain. That was what he thought any decent neighbour would have done. “That’d be good. I’ll be home all day if you tell ‘em to knock. I’ll see ‘em comin’ anyway.”
“I will do that. And I apologise for my son’s behaviour.” The Indian guy seemed genuinely sorry. It all went a lot easier than Steffan thought it would. At least they spoke English.
“Yeah. Don’t worry about it. Thanks.” He walked away, keen to get out of the heat and back to his beer. It wasn’t so much the turban kid he was angry at as much as the red headed one, but in the end, he just wanted the window fixed.
The rest of the afternoon went more to plan. Steffan’s window was fixed, the cricket rolled on through the afternoon and Mary came home in time to cook tea. He explained the whole affair with Rana and his Dad and the red headed kid, and true to form, Mary was absolutely mortified by what he had done, instead of the little window breakers.
“Don’t you think about anyone but yourself?” she scolded in a not so unfamiliar manner. “Honestly, Steffan. Open your eyes. That poor man and his son having to deal with you. Today, of all days.”
“What are you talking about, woman? The kid broke our damn window.”
“His mother died yesterday, Steffan.” Mary’s blood was boiling. “How could you not know that? She’d been sick for months.”
“Well, no one told me. What am I? A bloody mind reader?”
“Mind reader? You don’t notice anything. The whole world could burn down and you wouldn’t notice until your tea wasn’t on the table.”
“I don’t stick my nose into other people’s business and we’d all be better off if more people would do the same bloody thing. The window’s fixed and nothing else has got anything to do with me. End of story!” Steffan sat back down in the couch and finished his beer. Mary couldn’t tell if he legitimately didn’t care or whether he was hiding it out of pride after she berated him. He always dug his heels in when she got mad, but she couldn’t help it. His behaviour reflected on her as well.
“I’ll go over tomorrow and pay my respects,” Steffan conceded out of nowhere. “He seemed a reasonable bloke, and his kid wasn’t the one who hit the ball anyway.”
Mary was quite speechless. It was one of life’s rare moments for her husband to back down so graciously, even though it was obvious that he should have. She felt like telling him how proud she was, but that would only have served to ruin the moment.
“The red headed boy would be Lance Wilson.” She explained. “He’s Sheila’s grandson.” Mary knew most of the local kids from her voluntary work at the school canteen. The Wilsons were a large, Aboriginal family that lived in the area, and most locals knew of them one way or another.
“Nah,” Steffan said. “This kid was white as a ghost with freckles and everything.”
“I know who he is, Steffan. It would definitely be Lance because he’s Rana’s friend and just lives around the corner. And yes, he’s Aboriginal.”
“Yeah, well I hope I never see him ‘round our place again. He’s nothin’ but trouble.”
“Reminds me of someone else,” Mary mused. Steffan was no angel himself.
By morning, the driveway at Rana’s house was empty but for his father’s car. Steffan was seriously considering his first option of letting sleeping dogs lie and going back home, but he did feel sympathy for the kid at least. He lost his own mother quite young and had to put up with Gareth all alone after that. It wasn’t always easy.
The turban people’s house at number 3 was exactly the same as Steffan’s at number 7, but in reverse, with the carport on the right-hand side instead of the left. Every house on the street looked similar because they were built to one plan, simplifying the process and reducing costs. Steffan actually did the brickwork on quite a few of them too. He remembered doing number 3 because it was originally the one he wanted for himself. He even had a deposit on it, but for some reason, the rules changed and it was designated as Housing Trust so he had to move to number 7.
Believing number 3 was going to be his own, Steffan did a few things better than he normally would have. He didn’t employ any tricks of the trade that Gareth taught him for starters. He also had the truck driver secretly pick up a different batch of bricks to all the other houses on the street. The bricks were from a company that were trying out new techniques in the insulation properties of clay bricks by using different additives that were going to revolutionise the industry. Their sales rep offered a side deal to Steffan if he agreed to be part of the programme and it was too good to refuse. He did get the side deal but unfortunately, not the house. It was a fair assumption that the additives didn’t work because he’d never heard of the company again. The rep moved on to selling windows.
Like peeling off a band-aid, Steffan stepped up to the front door and knocked gingerly. There was a strange floral wreath around the doorknocker so he couldn’t use it to knock. He looked down at what Mary made him wear to look more respectful for the occasion. Clean shorts and a collared t-shirt with sneakers. It was the best compromise they could come up with because he hated collars and shoes. If Mary had her way, she would have had him walking around looking like some queer fashion designer. That was never going to happen.
The door eventually opened and Rana’s father looked out forlornly from the emptiness of his home. He was still uneasy being confronted by Steffan on his doorstep, even if he was wearing a collar and shoes.
“Hello, Sir,” he nodded respectfully as Steffan quickly studied the turban, thinking how much hassle it must have been to put it on all the time. “Did your window get fixed well?”
“Yeah. Thanks. I only came to offer my condolences about ya wife.” Mary had coached him on exactly how to say it or else he would have stammered out something completely nonsensical. “I didn’t realise or I wouldn’t have bothered ya yesterday. Ya know.” He fumbled for fitting last words. “Sorry, anyway.”
“No need.” The man shook his head in that quirky, Indian blend of yes and no whilst waving the apology away with his hand. “Rana must learn to take responsibility for his actions. There is no excuse for running away like a criminal. He will learn from this.”
“It wasn’t really his fault, actually. It was the red headed kid. That cheeky little prick’s the one who needs to be taught a lesson.”
The man neither agreed nor disagreed. Lance was not his child so he was in no position to judge. Steffan peered down the passageway and noticed that the back of the house seemed bigger than his, but he remembered building them both and they were exactly the same.
“Have you extended this place?” he asked. “Sorry. What’s ya name?”
“My name is Ganak. And yes. We added a living room at the back about three years ago. It seems to have been part of the reason for my wife’s ill health.”
“No kidding? How’s that, if ya don’t mind me askin’.”
“My insurance company has been looking into the construction of our house and found the bricks to have a higher silica content than would normally be expected. Charu must have breathed in too much dust during the renovations which lead to her lung cancer. There seems to be no other explanation.”
“But wouldn’t everyone have breathed it in?” Steffan felt his chest tighten. The idea that the experimental bricks could have killed someone was an obvious conclusion, but it may well have had nothing to do with it at all.
“Rana is also being treated for early stage lung cancer. He is expected to make a full recovery but no one can guarantee that, as you may well imagine. If I could have taken it for either of them, I would have, in a second.”
“Yeah. Shit.” Steffan was speechless. If only they had let him have the house, he never would have extended it. No harm would have come to anyone.
Rana walked out from his bedroom and looked toward the front door. From where he stood, Steffan could see that there was no hair underneath the boy’s turban. Mary hadn’t warned him about that. How had he not noticed it before? It’s so much easier to see things when you already know what to look for. He nodded at Rana who nodded in return before walking to the back of their house.
“Anyway, I just wanted to thank ya for gettin’ the window fixed so quickly. I appreciate it,” Steffan said.
Ganak nodded and reached out his hand. Steffan shook it, riddled with guilt for a crime he never could have foreseen, knowing there was no one else to blame who wasn’t acting upon their own best intentions. Intentions of improving the insular properties of bricks to lower power usage and save the environment. Intentions of blending public housing into society to stop the formation of ghettos and racially based suburbia. Intentions of adding a larger room to raise a young family. Intentions of saving money on the bricks for what was to be his own home, and trying to provide the best life he could for his family. No one was trying to kill anyone. It was just chance overriding another string of society’s pointless attempts at self-regulation.
“Can I ask ya somethin’?” Steffan needed to clear his conscience, if he could. He was looking for something or someone to explain it all away.
“Sure,” Ganak answered agreeably.
“Are you guys Muslim’s?”
“No.” It was actually an incredibly uneducated question, but Steffan couldn’t read, so most things he knew were from hearsay and television. Ganak was not overly surprised or offended; the turban issue seemed to confuse a lot of people around where he lived. In some ways, it was good to be able to clear up the confusion, for the sake of generations to come if not for himself. “We are Sikh.”
“Is that the one with Buddha?”
“No.” Ganak actually laughed at the thought. “We believe that all Gods are the one God, but others may not agree, especially those who do not have a God at all. Our beliefs are all similar in some ways. Are you a religious man-?” his question fell short as he searched for a name.
“Steffan. Nah. Never have been. I just wondered if it helps ya for this kind of stuff.”
“It will in time, but it is very hard now. I do not believe in death, Steffan. Charu will find life again, but Rana is still too young to understand. All we can do is follow our traditions and stay true to our beliefs. In time, our path will reveal itself.”
“Yeah. I guess so. I have to go. The Missus has some jobs lined up. Tell Rana I hope he gets better.”
“I will. See you again.” Ganak sounded genuine when he said it.
Steffan lost interest once the conversation turned to being reborn and finding a path. He believed that life is followed by death and that’s all folks. All he wanted to do was walk back to his life of retirement in his comfortable couch with a cold beer, but he couldn’t. He never made it home. Mary was working at the school so he jumped into his old ute and drove. No plan. He couldn’t think of anywhere he wanted to go, but for the first time in years, he was thinking about life. Funny how that happens when you see a kid like Rana facing the end before he gets his chance to live. Steffan had done everything he planned to in his life, but now that it was all behind him, his world didn’t seem much different to Rana’s. They were both hanging by a thread. Memories are not so different to things that never happened at all when you’re hanging by a thread.
Steffan Clopham drove aimlessly through the hills for an hour or so and ended up at the Kangaroo Creek dam. He turned off the main road onto a small fire track that lead through the bushland to a secret fishing hole that his old mate Benno showed him. It was the best place he knew of to get away and be alone. As long as there weren’t any bushfires, he could sit on a log by the water like he was in another world away from all the bullshit.
It was a few degrees cooler than the day before, but still hot enough to force him back into the shade of a small gumtree. The flies were bad. No doubt a few brown snakes were slipping about as well. There wasn’t a puff of wind, as magpie warbles echoed through the silent, deep valley like babies crying at a funeral. Australia couldn’t have been more different to Wales but Steffan had come to terms with seeing out his final days there. His kids had no connection to Wales at all.
A shadow moved across the walking track from his car. It formed the shape of a man’s head and shoulders, followed soon after by a torso. Then, the man himself appeared, dressed in a sharp looking black suit with one of those weird, brimmed hats the gondola drivers wear in Venice. He looked completely out of place in the bush and Steffan readied himself for anything.
“Hello, mate,” the guy said very correctly. “Nice day.”
“Yeah.” Steffan replied abruptly. He went there to be alone and was trying to restore that situation as quickly as possible.
“I’m not sure if you’re aware, but this is crown land and it is illegal to drive along the fire tracks without a permit.”
“Nah. Sorry, mate. I didn’t realise.”
“Not to worry. I will have to ask you to leave though, I’m afraid.” He talked the same as he looked. Like a lawyer.
“Fair enough. Do ya have a badge or somethin’?” Steffan puffed his chest out to make sure the guy knew that he would only be leaving of his own accord.”
“Sure,” he answered confidently, unfazed by Steffan’s aggressive stance. He reached into his suit jacket and pulled out a small black wallet which he opened and held out for Steffan to see. “Could you please read what it says beneath the registration numbers.”
“I already did, mate. What’s ya point?”
“Could you please read it out loud. It’s a legal thing. Like a verbal contract to say that-”
“I’m not readin’ it to ya. I’ve gotta leave. I get it.”
“I don’t think you do.” The guy was persistent and Steffan was losing his cool. “You can’t read it, can you Steffan?”
“How the hell do ya know my name?” Steffan leaned forward and grabbed hold of the guy’s lapel.
“I will be happy to answer your questions,” the guy remained calm, “but you should remove your hand before I am forced to remove it for you.” He returned Steffan’s fierce glare with calm indifference. If he was bluffing, it worked, and Steffan let go. The guy straightened his lapel and began to explain. “You have lost your way, old boy. I have been watching your reaction to the recent events with young Rana and it has been underwhelming, to put it mildly.”
“Are you with some insurance company?”
“No. I am not on a witch hunt. I have more pressing issues, such as the life of a young boy that is soon to end. I know you still understand how precious life is.”
“What do you know? Are ya Rana’s doctor or somethin’? Tell me the truth or piss off, mate.”
“I know you are not a religious man, so think of me in terms of how you see the world. I am like a filter.” The guy smiled smugly to himself. “Yes. I like that. You may call me the Filter Man. Even life itself needs a clean-up every now and then, and my job is to bring clarity to the point of it all. Isn’t that how you see the world, Steffan? All things having a point to them?”
“Jesus, mate. You’re an idiot. I’m headin’ off. You go and do whatever it is ya do, and good luck to ya.” Steffan barged past the guy, quite happy to knock him with his shoulder on the way. He couldn’t get away from the crazy prick fast enough. A large crack sounded from above them so he stopped, looked up, and saw a branch falling from a gum tree just ahead. A second later, it landed across the path, exactly where Steffan would have been if he hadn’t stopped. It was common for gums to drop the odd branch in really hot weather, but that was close.
“Apparently the filter concept was not dramatic enough to draw your attention. You don’t have much time, Steffan. A young boy is dying, sooner than anyone would expect. You have the chance to make a difference in what time he has left. Don’t waste it.”
“What am I supposed to do? I don’t know anythin’ about him or his bloody religion. And if you’re this Filter Man ya claim to be, why the hell would ya need to clean out a little kid, anyway. You’re sick in the head, mate.”
“I will leave it with you, Steffan. Either do something about it, or leave it to chance. It’s up to you.” The Filter Man turned and walked off into the bushes, disappearing in the opposite direction from which he came.
Steffan returned to his car and sat for a while before starting the engine. Filter Man, he thought to himself. What a wanker. I should have smacked him one when I had the chance. He barely knew what to do with his own life anymore, let alone some Indian kid. But as much as he tried to bury the whole concept behind a brick wall of denial, the look in that guy’s eyes was stuck in his head and he couldn’t get rid of it. Just like Mary looked when she ripped into him about stuff. He hated that look, but it worked.
“Don’t forget to hang my washing out, will you, Steffan. Steffan! Did you hear me?” Mary was about to leave for her canteen duties and Steffan was still moping about, trying to work out whether or not he was going to do anything about Rana.
“Yeah. I heard you.” He did hear, but wasn’t really listening. She said something about not forgetting something.
There was a knock at the door.
“Steffan. Can you get that, please? I’m running late.”
“Yeah. I’ve got it.” He begrudgingly made his way to the front door and opened it. Standing on his concrete porch was a small but stern looking Aboriginal woman. She was about his age, well and truly grey on top, and she meant business. The red headed kid was standing right beside her but was clearly not there by choice.
“Are you Steffan?” she asked directly.
“Yeah.” He didn’t offer any lead in for a conversation.
“My daughter’s boy has somethin’ he would like to say.” She looked down at the red headed kid and tore strips off him with her eyes. “Tell ‘im, Lance. Now.”
Lance looked up and glared indignantly at Steffan. “Sorry about ya window.” That was it. Only what he was told to say and nothing more. Steffan said nothing and looked back at the woman. He understood that she was trying to teach her grandson a lesson, but the kid’s eyes didn’t show any signs of having learnt anything. Mary appeared right behind Steffan’s shoulder.
“Hi, Sheila. Are you working today?”
“Yeah. Hi, Mary. Sorry about ya window. Ganak just told me last night so I brought Lance ova’ to apologise.”
“That’s fine. You didn’t have to make him do that, but thank you anyway,” Mary said comfortingly. Steffan looked at her quizzically.
Of course she should have made him do that. Why the bloody hell not?
“I’d better go,” Mary chirped at Sheila. “See you at school.”
“Yeah. Seeya, Luv.” Sheila answered. Steffan thought the encounter had run its course, but he was wrong. Sheila turned her attention back to him. “What can Lance do to make it up to ya? Do ya need any weeds pulled out?”
Steffan looked around his dead patch of grass and the empty garden beds in front of his corrugated iron fence. There was nothing alive on his property at all. “Nah. Doesn’t he have to go to school?”
“He never stays in his classroom for more than ten minutes. I reckon the school’d be happy not to have to put up with ‘im for a day. Good for the kids who do what they’re supposed to be doin’, ya know?”
Then it dawned on Steffan. There was something Lance could do. He could tell him about Rana. “Actually, if you leave him here for half an hour and then take him again, that’d be long enough. I’ve got a problem he can solve.”
“He’s not too good at solvin’ things,” Sheila warned with a look of concern. “Just doin’ easy stuff, ya know. Like weeds an’ that.”
“Just leave him for half an hour.” Steffan closed the door behind him and stepped onto the driveway. “Follow me, boy.” He knew better than to let the little prick into his house. He’d probably steal something.
Lance followed like a prisoner being walked to the electric chair. He could have run again but Sheila obviously had some kind of hold over him. Grandmothers seem to command more respect than parents in most cultures. The power of a mother multiplied by however many children she has, multiplied by how many children they all have. That’s a lot of power.
Steffan sat at the outdoor table beneath his small pergola off the back of the house. Filtered light from the tattered shadecloth overhead made their faces, clothes and everything else seem green like in a tropical rainforest, but it wasn’t any cooler. “Sit over there,” he said to Lance, pointing at a chair on the opposite side. Lance plonked himself down angrily. “Don’t worry, boy. I don’t want ya here either.”
“Then why’d you make me stay?”
“Because I need ya to tell me about Rana. I want to do somethin’ to help him and his old man out but I don’t know anythin’ about Indians. What sort of stuff do they like doin’?”
“I dunno. They’re weird. Rana likes playing cricket, the same as me, but we don’t talk about anythin’.”
Cricket. No kidding! Steffan already worked that much out for himself.
“He looks after plants and stuff at school, too,” Lance suddenly remembered a little more. “Even at recess and lunch. I told ya, they’re weird. He stinks like dog shit too ‘cause what he eats.”
Steffan laughed. He agreed with Lance about that. Mary tried cooking him a curry once and it did taste like dog shit. He couldn’t even see what was in it, like it had already been eaten before. Their own kids ate curries and Asian food because they thought they were smarter than him, which was funny, because none of them could read Chinese writing off a menu. That made them the same as him; for a few seconds, at least.
“What are you talkin’ about, anyway?” Steffan teased at Lance jokingly. “Don’t you and your people eat witchetty grubs and wombats?”
“Who eats wombats?” Lance seriously didn’t understand the question because he had never seen a witchetty grub or a wombat.
“Don’t worry, mate. It was a joke. I reckon I know what I can do for Rana, anyway. I can build him a vege garden.”
“Can you build things?”
“That’s about the only thing I’m good at. You can help me and make up for what ya did to the window.”
“Now?” Lance asked incredulously. “It’s gonna be boiling hot today.”
“No. I have to sort it out with his old man first. Might even get ya another day off school.”
Lance didn’t seem to care either way. He did whatever he felt like doing whether he was at school or not. Steffan kind of liked the kid in a way. He didn’t care what anyone else thought about him and he wasn’t the sharpest tool in the shed. A bit like himself at the same age, only worse.
“How about over by the fence there,” Steffan suggested. “It’ll get heaps of sun which is what ya need.”
“That’s fine,” Ganak approved. He was bewildered that Steffan cared enough to be making such an effort for his son. Mary was glad to have him out of the house and to say goodbye to some of the bricks left over from when he finished working. There were pallets of the stupid things sitting next to the shed that she thought would be there until hell froze over.
“If ya could chip in for some soil, I can do the rest.” Steffan was genuinely excited about having a project with a point to it. Like the Filter Man said, that was how he looked at things.
His trailer was loaded with aggregate, sand and cement. The old concrete mixer was ready to fire up again, and all his tools were back out of the shed. Then, the greatest of all surprises, Lance appeared from around the corner and stood by the trailer. He looked at Rana who was watching from the front seat of Ganak’s car, waiting to go to school. Ganak insisted they were going to get their lives back on track as soon as possible; Charu would have wanted it that way. Rana had been feeling well enough since his last round of chemo to play cricket in the street, and Sikhs are not prone to prolonged periods of mourning, so it was time for Rana to resume his studies.
Lance’s mother really didn’t care about the value of studying and he only ever made it to school at all because Sheila forced him to go. But even Shelia could see that he would learn more from one day with Steffan than he would from a whole year in a classroom. Particularly in light of the fact that he turned up by his own choice. Ganak didn’t agree with a boy so young missing out on a proper education, but he was pragmatic enough to recognise that it takes all kinds to make the world turn. Someone has to lay the bricks.
Steffan instructed Lance on the purpose of each tool, with Rana watching from his window as Ganak reversed out of the driveway and took off down the road into the distance. They worked on the garden bed over two days, levelling a concrete base and building a low, rectangular wall on top. There were drainage holes at the bottom and it was deep enough for a decent root system to establish. The ground beneath was all heavy red clay so a load of new soil was ordered to be delivered on the third day. Lance turned up early each morning, happily skipping school until all the dirt was all shovelled in. He even came back later in the day to help Rana plant some seeds and water them in. Steffan walked past as they were watering and realised that he had done something that actually made him feel good. Just to see Rana so involved in what they had built was probably better than building a whole house.
Then, he remembered why he decided to build the garden to begin with. Because of what the bloody Filter Man said about Rana’s limited life expectancy. Even if it was all bullshit, it did motivate him to get out of the house. Unfortunately, the job was finished and he was right back where he started; memories being no different to things that never happened. He needed to find something else to do.
“Hey, Steffan,” a voice called out from across the road. “Nice job, mate. You wanna chuck one of them on my front lawn as well?” It was Bob Grouter from across the road at number 2, kidding around in his we’re really good mates kind of way, though Steffan had always thought he was an annoying prick.
“If ya pay for some of the materials, I’ve got a stack of bricks. I can do it if ya want.”
Bob wasn’t expecting that response. Normally he was lucky to get anything more than a dismissive nod and a grunt. “Well, yeah. I guess. Sharon would love it. You can do it any time you want. How much?”
“One hundred should cover it. I’ll have a rest day tomorrow and do it on Thursday.”
Lance bobbed up beside Steffan and made him jump. “How much do I get?”
“Jesus, Lance. Ya nearly scared the crap our o’ me. Ya can’t keep skippin’ school, mate. Sorry. I’m not doin’ it for the money, anyway. Ya can chip in after school for fun if ya want.”
Lance’s face turned instantly red to match his hair as he vented his feelings toward Steffan. “You’re just a dickhead like everyone else. I hate school.” He stormed off, close to tears.
“Don’t talk to me like that, ya cheeky little shit,” Steffan called after him. “Calm down and use ya brains.”
Rana was watching from the garden bed, not overly surprised by Lance’s reaction. It must have happened a thousand times at school. Steffan watched Lance walk away with steam coming out of his ears, hoping he wasn’t calling an end to their unlikely friendship. He did like the feisty little guy.
“So, your happy at least Rana, I hope?” Steffan asked.
“Yes,” he replied timidly. “Thank you for my garden.”
“No worries, mate.” Well,I helped one of ‘em, he thought. You can’t please ‘em all.
Thursday came and Steffan had everything ready to build Bob’s garden bed. They’d agreed upon a good spot in the sun and Sharon had asked for it to be even bigger than Rana’s. She’d always wanted her own vege patch. Even though Steffan didn’t have to explain anything to anyone, the job wasn’t as much fun without Lance helping. Funnily enough, he saw the little guy watching from the corner of the street within an hour of starting the job.
“You’re not going to school anyway, are ya?” he called out. Lance didn’t reply. He was obviously still angry. “Come on then. Ya might as well give us a hand.” Lance didn’t move. “I won’t keep asking, mate. Do ya wanna help or not?”
Slowly, Lance advanced across the street, trying his hardest to hide how keen he was to be involved again. Without either of them revealing a hint of a smile, they continued on from where they left off building Rana’s garden. Steffan remembered when he first started working and became a part of Gareth’s world, and he knew that Lance was feeling that same self-importance. His own son never showed any sign of it. And fair enough too. He had book smarts that he inherited from Mary and you’ve got to go with what you’re born with. Lance, on the other hand, had energy and it was wasted at school.
One by one, each house in Burrajong St ordered a garden bed, some in the front yards, some in the back. Rana’s veges were growing quickly because he took great pride in looking after them. Watering, weeding, picking off the bugs. It seemed to have given his life the lift that Steffan was hoping for. Half the brick pallets were gone from the Clopham’s yard and more neighbours kept knocking on the door. Mary wondered why he had never thought of doing it before, but it was only by chance that he ever did. A cricket ball hitting the window. A woman dying of lung cancer. A strange guy in a suit walking through the bush. A little red headed kid trying to skip school.
Steffan and Lance were eventually building their tenth garden bed and had it down to a fine art. This time, they had to do a curve shaped bed for Mrs, Panco at number 16. The base was down and they were about to begin the first course of bricks when a white sedan pulled up behind the trailer, looking every bit a government vehicle. Steffan hated government dickheads. They were always inflicting rules on people whether they agreed with them or not.
A young woman, in her late twenties and exuding enough confidence to be ordained the first Queen of Australia, stepped from the car and removed her large, gold rimmed sunglasses. Steffan stood up and watched her strut around the car before she inspected the lawn for walkability, then stepped from the kerb like she was testing a hot bath with her toes.
Lance thought she looked stupid. “Why are ya walkin’ like that? Is something wrong with ya legs?”
“No, it’s these new shoes,” she grimaced with each awkward step, before turning her attention to Steffan. “Hi, my name is Sandra Collie from the Department of Education and Children’s Services. How are you?”
“Yeah. I’m good.” A little bit less good now you’re here.
“Wonderful. I’m responding to a complaint by one of the local residents with regard to Lance’s truancy. Apparently, he has been working with you quite regularly over the last month or so- Mr Clopham, is it?”
“I don’t know about any truancy. I’m not a doctor. The young fella just likes givin’ me a hand, so ya would have to ask his grandmother about it.”
“I’m sorry,” Sandra was confused. What do you mean about a doctor?”
“For his truancy.”
“That means not being at school.” She tried not to sound condescending but it was poorly disguised.
“I don’t go to school anymore,” Lance chimed in. “School’s for idiots.”
“Well, no one’s sayin’ that, mate,” Steffan defended the situation. “We’re just doin’ some good while we can. You’ll have to go back some time.”
“He’ll have to go back tomorrow,” Sandra insisted. “It is the right and obligation of all children in this country to be given a proper education. Today, we are choosing to issue you a warning, but as of tomorrow, we will be forced to take action if this behaviour continues.”
“I’m not goin’ there anymore,” Lance argued more forcibly.
“Keep calm, Lance,” Steffan said quietly. He knew the little guy could flare up any second, so tried moving the pompous cow along as quickly as he could. “Ya really need to talk to his grandmother. She works at the school, anyway.”
“I intend to speak with someone in his family, but you cannot allow him onto your worksite any longer or you will be in breach of child safety laws. It is a serious offence Mr Clopham.”
“Yeah, well I don’t give a shit about ya laws because I don’t get paid for this so it’s not a worksite. It’s just a front yard, so leave me out of it.”
Sandra began her awkward walk back to the car. “Please do the right thing, Mr Clopham. We have tried to be reasonable.” Soon enough, she lowered the giant glasses back onto her nose and drove away.
Self-righteous bloody Princess, Steffan muttered under his breath. “Ya might have to cool it for a while, mate,” he said to Lance. “Neither of us wants those bastards on our tail. Can ya just go back to school for a bit, until it all blows over?”
“No! I’m not goin’ back. They can’t make me.” Lance’s face had turned bright red again as it always did when he was angry.
“Well, at least stay at home and give me some space for a bit, would ya. Those pricks’ll probably fine me or somethin’. I can’t afford it. Let’s call it quits for today, mate. I need to go home and think about it.”
Lance threw his trowel at the fence and stormed off.
“Don’t throw me bloody tools,” Steffan bellowed at him. “Jesus, Lance. Stop it with the temper. You’re not helpin’ anyone.” He tried calling him back but Lance was beyond being reasoned with for the day. He always cooled off by the next morning so Steffan let him go.
When Mary got home, they talked for a while about what he could do for Lance. The little guy’s troubles reached way beyond truancy or a bad temper, but Shelia had spoken to Mary already about how much his behaviour was improving since he was working with Steffan. Lance’s own father was abusive and lived between their housing trust home and his mate’s place in the country. Lance’s mother was an alcoholic and could barely look after herself, let alone a child. Shelia was left trying to pick up the pieces on her own. But she was getting older, and Lance was becoming more difficult.
“I know you hate rules Steffan, but truancy laws are designed for the best interests of hundreds of thousands of children. It is impossible to single out one child for a different set of rules.”
“It’s just hard because the same rules would never have worked for me, and they won’t work for him either.”
“You don’t know that. Nobody can know until he’s been given the best opportunity society can give him.”
“Yeah. And that ain’t bloody school.” Steffan was deflated. He sat back in his couch after tea and drank a couple of beers before turning in for the night.
Rana was doing well by all accounts, just like his garden. But no matter how hard Steffan tried to help Lance, it just wouldn’t work out and he had to accept it. The worst part was feeling like he was the kid’s only chance and he’d let him down.
Steffan started back working on Mrs Panco’s garden bed soon after the sun came up but he struggled to stay motivated, looking up regularly in the hope of seeing his little mate strolling up in a better mood. By ten o’clock, it seemed that it wasn’t going to be the case. Hopefully he went to school. At least that would keep the vultures away for a while.
Steffan was moving along at a fair pace, until somewhere in the rhythm of his tired arms, it dawned on him that without Lance helping, it was just like he was working at his old job again. But for bugger all money. The neighbours could all have paid someone else to build garden beds if they really wanted them. He decided not to do any more after Mrs Panco’s, even if they wanted to pay him more.
As Steffan soldiered through another row of bricks, the white, government sedan pulled up again behind his trailer. It was the Queen again. He could’ve spotted her massive gold sunglasses from a mile away. What now?
Sandra Collie stepped out of her car, this time walking like a normal person with an older pair of shoes on. She had the serious Queen face on again, too. Steffan knew she wasn’t there to thank him.
“Hello, Mr Clopham. How are you today?”
“Yeah. Good. As you can see, I told Lance to get back to school so ya can go and bother someone else now.”
“Yes. I guess so.” She didn’t bite back, which surprised him. “I actually haven’t come to speak about the truancy issue today.” She hesitated through what she was trying to say without the overconfident air of the previous day. “I have just come from Lance’s house. It seems that he was very upset about being made to go back to school.”
“No kidding. He doesn’t hide it when he gets upset.”
“No. But he took it harder than any of realised and decided to run away from home in the middle of the night.”
“Do you know where he is?”
“We do. Unfortunately, he was trying to cross Salisbury Highway and ran in front of a car. One of their headlights wasn’t working so he may have thought it was a motorbike, but we don’t really know.”
“Is he alright? Where is he now?”
“I’m sorry, Mr Clopham, but Lance passed away this morning. The doctors did the best they could but they couldn’t save him.”
Steffan’s chest puffed out, but not with aggression. He couldn’t breathe. He hurled his trowel at the fence, realising as he did that it was exactly the same place Lance threw it. “No-no-no-NO,” he yelled. It was like the world was sucking him into a hole, as a surge of blood rushed to his head making him feel dizzy. He turned his anger upon Sandra, tensing his neck and shoulders as the dragons faced menacingly forward. “This is your fault!” She stepped away, confronted by a rampaging gorilla that easily could have crushed her.
Steffan saw the fear in her eyes and knew that behind her practiced air of superiority, she was just a girl, trying to do a job. He always hated how people like her act as though they know what’s best for everyone. Nobody knows. They’re all just sheep, following the leader into the slaughterhouse.
“Get out of here.” He wrapped his hands behind his head and doubled over from the pain in his chest.
“Will you be alright? Do you want me to-”
“GET OUT OF HERE!”
Sandra could see that it was better to leave him. She was scared, and with good reason. Steffan was ready to explode.”
He looked up the street to the corner that Lance always came from in the morning. He looked at his own house and the stupid, dead lawn. He couldn’t see Rana’s garden because of the fence, but he thought straight away about that pompous lawyer guy up at the dam who set him on the path of getting to know those kids. Do something about it, he said. What good did it all come to?
Steffan went to his car and started the engine. It was stupid to think he would find that guy again but he couldn’t sit around without at least trying. He reversed out of the driveway and took off at full throttle, heading straight for the hills. The traffic was quiet so he sat well over the speed limit, pushing every red light and overtaking anyone in his way. In the hills, he raced around each bend as fast as his tyres could without sliding off the road. Finally, he reached the fire track, losing nothing of the ache in his chest for what happened to Lance. At the end of the track, he got out and marched through the wattles, long grass scratching at his legs until he made it to the clearing. The guy was nowhere to be seen so he sat on a log by the edge of the water and waited.
The magpies warbled and it was hot, no different to the last time the guy walked by. And sure enough, the shadow appeared of his brimmed hat, his torso and then the Filter Man himself.
“Steffan. Good to see you again.”
Steffan leapt from the log and ran at him like a cannonball, his Welsh rugby background coming to the fore in the ferocity of his attack. At the moment his shoulder was set to impact the guy’s ribs, he was swatted away with the silken poise of a Matador and sent crashing head first into a scrubby wattle.
“Not the welcome I was hoping for but I’m sure we can work through it.”
“Ya pompous piece of shit.” Steffan sprung back out of the bush and set himself for another attack.
“Get it out of your system if you must. After all, that’s what Lance would have done.”
That remark was enough to send Steffan into another fit of rage. He ran forward again, aiming straight for the middle of his suit jacket but keeping a closer watch for the side step. The result was the same, but this time he was sent hurtling straight into the dam water. By the time he walked out like a creature from the deep, he had accepted the futility of trying to attack again.
“Are you quite finished locking horns, Steffan?”
“Are you finished shittin’ on my life?”
“I gave you the opportunity to play a part in the final moments of a young man’s life. You took that and did everything he could have wanted from you, and more. Those moments defined his life, Steffan.”
“I thought you were talkin’ about Rana,” Steffan shook his head, “like it was some message about me hatin’ blacks. But I never hated them, mate. I just didn’t care.”
“If I told you it was Lance, nothing of what you did would have been by chance, would it? You genuinely cared for him without any reason to. If anything, you had reason not to.”
“So, what happens now? Have you done your thing and cleaned us all up?”
“That’s not for me to decide. Lance was not an impurity that I was here to filter out. My job is to remove the emptiness. Not the faults, Steffan. There is no singularity in human life. We are all part of one life, coming and going in our different forms. Some call it God. Others, like yourself, have no definition for what it is at all. But we need each other, just as Lance needed you to remove the emptiness from his life. Surely you could see how much of that boy was, in fact, you, Steffan.”
“Yeah. But I’m still here. Not him!”
“Yes, you are still here. A man who resented the mere existence of blacks as you would once have called them, defending the life of an Aboriginal boy who you met trying to help an Indian boy. There is a point to it.”
“That’s bullshit and you know it. I could have ended up right where I am without any of this crap.”
“Could you? You are sixty-five years old and until that ball hit your window, you hadn’t learned a bloody thing. How else could this have played out. A letter in the mail? A documentary? It’s all been done before Steffan, and you never listened. Without a belief in God, there is no fire and brimstone to threaten you with. Without eternal life, there is nothing for you to seek. All that’s left to motivate you is your fear of death and the emptiness beyond it. Well the emptiness is here and now. That is what all this has been about. You could have saved us all a great deal of heartache by embracing the lives around you. There are no spots on the apples when it comes to human life, Steffan. Hopefully, Lance’s life meant more to you than that.”
Without another word, the Filter Man walked away. Before he was out of sight, he turned, pointed angrily at Steffan, and called out one final instruction. “Go and visit Shelia. Even you must know the emptiness that now surrounds that poor woman.” Then, he was gone.
Steffan was alone and the magpies warbled as if nothing had happened in his life since the last time he was there. The whole valley was filled with life from grasses by the water to the tops of hundred-year-old gum trees. The only emptiness was air between the slopes where the wind blew new life from one tree to another. Where bees floated about in service of their colony. Where the warble of magpies echoed back and forth. There really was no emptiness at all.
“Would you like me to come with you?” Mary asked, hoping Steffan would say yes.
Traditionally, his answer would have been a resounding NO, but he saw in her eyes that she wanted to come with him. Shelia was her friend, after all, and there was no reason for her not to go with him. “If ya want.” He didn’t want to make too much fuss. Letting her come was enough of a step forward.
“Just let me grab my bag. And we should get some flowers-”
“Are you coming or not?” Steffan was already regretting saying yes. “Ya can do flowers later if ya want. I’m just callin’ in to pay me respects.”
“Well, could you at least try and show Shelia some empathy. Lance really was the only happiness in that poor woman’s life.”
Steffan had nothing but empathy for that sentiment. Not that he didn’t love his own wife and kids, but for one brief moment, Lance lit everything up with his honest appraisal of the world around him. He refused to hide his enthusiasm or disappointment, and by laying each card on the table as it was dealt, he dared Steffan to show his own. That kind of honesty is hard to find.
Mary suggested that they walk to Sheila’s house because it was only around the corner, unknowingly forcing Steffan to walk past Rana’s garden for the first time since Lance died. Everything was perfectly organised into a small patch for each vegetable. There was no sign of caterpillar activity because Rana removed every bug and damaged leaf religiously. It was as much a tribute to his mother as anything, with the chillies, mint and coriander. Ganak probably did all the cooking since Charu was gone. Steffan was glad that he never had to cook for his kids. They would have got fish and chips.
Around the corner, a walkway was cleared between the fence and a bunch of council bushes. It was the path that Lance always used. Mary lead the way to the end of the path which turned onto a street almost identical to their own. Sheila’s house was three doors down and Steffan realised straight away that it backed onto their house. His big garden shed ran all the way across the back fence, so he had never taken much notice of who lived in the house behind.
Mary strode up to the door and knocked. Soon enough, Sheila opened it and she looked a complete mess. Loose grey hair hung over her face and the bags beneath her eyes revealed the weight of her grief. Mary hugged her warmly and did her best to stay strong. Steffan stood back and watched, feeling completely out of place.
“We are both so very sorry to hear about Lance,” Mary said. “How are you coping?”
“Not too good. I can’t go to the school this week, Mary. I’m not up to it.”
“No. Don’t even think of it. You need to look after yourself, Sheila.”
“Do you want to come in?” Steffan was hoping Mary would say no.
“We would love to.”
No, we wouldn’t. Steffan thought.
Sheila leant on the door and made a path for them to go inside.
“Go on through to the back yard,” she said. “It’s a mess inside.” As they wandered along the passageway, they saw a young woman, probably Sheila’s daughter, sitting in a couch with a cigarette in one hand and glass in the other. A bottle of whiskey was on the ground beside her. She stared coldly at Steffan and looked away. If she was Lance’s mother, he wanted to pick her up and throw her out into the street where she belonged. She didn’t deserve to have a kid like that. She probably didn’t want him anyway.
The back yard was as dead as any other around the place. There was a clothesline with two tea towels on it, torn and faded like they had been put there and forgotten. Two worn out old wooden bench seats ran along the back wall and the galvanised roof of Steffan’s shed towered over the whole back fence. And standing alone in the back corner was a garden bed, just like the ones he’d been building with Lance.
“Did Lance do that?” he asked, utterly astonished by what he was seeing.
“Yeah,” Sheila answered dryly. He was doin’ it all that week before we lost ‘im.”
An old, steel folding ladder was leaning against the back fence and Steffan’s curiosity got the better of him. He had to climb up and look over, and what he discovered was even more astonishing. Lance had jumped the fence behind his shed and built a step out of bricks to get back over. He must have been stealing bricks from his pallets to build a garden bed for himself, or Sheila more likely.
The little bugger. Steffen couldn’t help but laugh. He looked at Mary to see if she’d worked out what Lance had been up to as well, but she was too busy glaring and waving discreetly for him to get off the ladder. A tear or two actually welled in Steffan’s eyes and he wiped them away with his wrist.
Lance never got the chance to fill his garden bed or plant anything in it, but it was infinitely more important than any of the ones they built together. That garden bed showed how much life can be passed on from one person to another. What happens after that is irrelevant because the future doesn’t belong to us. Life doesn’t belong to us. Take it, live it and pass it on to the generations that follow.
So, what became of the mountain that Steffan supposedly covered in flowers? Well, it was obviously a metaphor. The mountain was his life, and the flowers grew from every, single thing he’d ever done. Some blossomed while others shrivelled, but they all evolved completely by chance because he couldn’t have planned any of it. Tucked away in the streets of Parafield Gardens, away from the eyes of the world, he defined the one thing about his generation that could only be seen once it had unfolded in its entirety.
Over the course of Steffan Clopham’s life, the world changed. Every race, religion and gender configuration recognised the escalating need to accept each other. Regardless of anything that had happened in the past- like it or not- they had to learn how to live together. It was only the beginning, but as Steffan learned, you don’t need to make a documentary to pass on what you know. You can do it by quite simply building a garden, and leaving the rest to chance.