Don’t Tell Mum
Short story by Michael Botur
My first video is of dad trying to put the key in the ignition just to drive to Brisbane Airport. He tells me to turn my phone off and quit filming every goddamn fucking thing. Years ago dad would’ve smacked me one, but something schizo has been happening. See, the more gangsterer dad’s been getting, the less he’s been smacking me and mum, cause his crew’s got a war on and they’re all about being soldiers and discipline and going out into the bush for a weekend, crawling on their bellies and shooting automatics. Thing is though, Dad’s had a gutsful of smoking crack 12 hours a day to keep him alert so he can guard the clubhouse, and he’s pledged to go on this desert detox dealio to sweat the shit out of his system and keep mum from leaving us to go live with her sister in Perth. So yeah, my first vid is me filming Dad trying to get to the airport after he hasn’t had a drink or a pill in like a day and a half and his muscles are all greasy cause sweat’s bursting out of his tats. In my vid, he eels the car through traffic, gripping the slippery wheel, yelling at people at traffic lights, daring them to fight him. He seems way more aggro withOUT a smoke of crack than with. Dad’s way more chill on his Harley, but he’s not supposed to be Riding-with-a-capital-R anymore. That’s the point of this whole escape-to-the-desert mission. No more bashings, no more booze, no more bikes.
The vid ends with Dad toeing my passenger door with his big steel boot then strutting confidently over towards the terminal and going, ‘You comin or not, Junior?’
I used to think Darwin was a hole in the middle of nowhere, but it’s a heap better than where we end up in my second vid. Darwin’s at least got Hungry Jack’s and Pizza Hut, and we drive past this humongous sports shop with this real amazing aluminium softball bat in the window display that I beg dad to buy me but he doesn’t even answer. There’s girls and beaches and phone reception is mint in Darwin. But nah, dad’s taking us out to nowheresville to detox, driving the only red car he could find, a gay-arse Hyundai. There were tonnes of awesome Fords at the Avis rentacar place but dad’s not allowed to drive Fords cause Ford’s colour is blue and all his enemies are blue.
But yeah dad makes me get up soooooo freaking early for the drive. In my second vid I can barely hold the camera up. I’m begging him to let me sleep in, the motel’s got ESPN, but we’re on the road before the birds wake up, driving into the sun, and it’s like literally evening before we hit this town called Mataranka and crash for the night. Next day we do ten more hours of just road and orange desert and I clock Lego Star Wars on my phone and I’m so bored I just play it again from scratch and by the time we get to the ferry at this town called Numbulwar, facing towards Groote Eylandt out there in the middle of the ocean, I don’t even give a fuck. I may as well be on Mars.
I kinda thought I could take advantage of dad while he’s detoxing, get some extra pocket money. Get him to buy me some good shoes and a new phone. But he’s in a funny mood so I just pop my Adderall, munch lollies, play my games, fill in the multi-choice questions in my homework folder so he doesn’t give me a smack in the chops.
It’s like three whole days before I stop and wonder how dad got the energy to drive for those big long sessions. Maybe his last smoke wasn’t his last smoke.
By my third video, I’m about as far from Brizzie as you could imagine. I’m talking to people my age in – fuck this shit’s hard to pronounce – Al-Yan-Goo-La. Alyangula. Man Abo stuff’s weird. To be fair, though, the Abo dudes on the streets walking barefoot in the dust seem just like me: bored, that is. It’s not to do with my ADHD either. Groote Eylandt’s just a shithole.
I decide to find someone to bash. I wanna be like I picture my dad when he’s primed to bash someone – arms all wide, throat puffed up, eyes pink with rage – but I go into this spacies parlour and try to eyeball some Abos and they just laugh and sneer. I go and drink a Fanta in the dusty corner and this one Abo asks me like ten questions and I give up trying to be gangsta. I keep not-getting the guy’s name so he asks me if I want him to spell it out in English, and I’m like What fuckin other language is there? and straightaway he’s like Enindhilyagwa, Nunggubuyu, there’s Yolngu language, there’s Iwaidjan, Umbugarla, depends who my dad’s yarning to, and I just Psssht and sip my Fanta. He tells me his name’s Yiliyarr and he’s a rapper and he’s my man if I need shrooms, weed, crank, booze, anything. Yiliyarr’s got big dent in the middle of his face and he’s had the top of his ear bitten off. He wears an Iron Maiden t-shirt and says that’s what his mob’s called, the Iron Maidens. Yiliyarr asks what the fuck I’m doing in his town and I want to talk about how my dad’s getting away from being a soldier, so I just tell Yiliyarr my dad’s taking a holiday. Yiliyarr’s mates have all got split-open knuckles and hungry eyes and they look disappointed that I’m not going to scrap after all. My dad had this thing not long ago after his footie team got in a brawl at full time and it spilled into the car park, and soon enough there were drive-bys and Molotovs and the pigs got involved and since Dad’s born in New Zealand they were gonna 501 him which is why Dad’s gone and taken himself like 5000 miles away from Brizzie, like totally removed himself from the booze and bikes. He even stuck his crack pipe under the front tyre of mum’s car and drove over it to crush it into little pieces. Tomorrow Dad’s beginning his indigenous cleansing course in this funny little village called Anindilyakwa or something. Dad asked me to video him. Reckons he needs the evidence for his lawyer to prove to Minister for Immigration And Border Protection Peter Dutton that he’s an alright bloke and they shouldn’t deport him. So I spose on top of helping out my old man, I’m making one of those David Attenborough documentaries where he shows you the last of a dying breed.
I could tell all this to Yiliyarr but I don’t really think he’s my sort of people, he says his dad’s this hard-out respectable hunter, so I give him the rest of my Fanta and say Laters.
The road out to Anindilyakwa is all red mud. The rain comes down and the road melts yellow. We see one last Aussie wearing boots, and the odd shoeless blackfella, but it’s pretty empty, even for an island. Dad only talks once an hour, and it’s always in these little two minute spurts. He turns back to me from the front seat of the taxi where he’s sitting and gives a massive yawn and explains he needs to live Indigenous for a month. He elbows the taxi driver and says he reckons that’s where Aussies have gone wrong. Dad says he spends all day every day sorting out Lebos and Greeks and Vietnamese and Jews and he’s barely bumped into a single Abo his whole life and maybe that’s how come he’s got into this mess, flinging Molotovs through people’s windows at two in the morning. Dad promises the taxi driver he’s gonna live native, for real, a solid month, no backing out, and the taxi driver makes eye contact with me in the mirror to see what I think of Dad’s rant. He’ll be valuing food a lot more, Dad reckons, living off the land for 30 days, sweating his demons out, becoming more chill. No more black and gold, no wheels, no leather. No chains, no hammers, no glass pipes, no stench of burnt Jif. We’ll show the feds, and we’ll show mum. She’s even more mad at Dad than the government is. Dad’s gonna bring me home a warrior. I’ll learn bushcraft, spears, blades, snares.
We stop at a shop and the food grosses me out. Big sacks of tobacco but dad’s off the ciggies. Tea, flour, sugar, and tins of everything. Tinned spam, tinned Irish stew, corned beef, tinned mackerel. Bark paintings. Bags ornamented with bird feathers.
It’s just rained and there’s not even a road anymore, just a pond you gotta drive through. By the time we get to our cabin in Anindilyakwa, Dad’s so desperate for a smoke and a beer he asks me to sit outside on the steps cause there’s something he doesn’t want me to see. I listen to him doing a mixture of praying and smashing and punching himself in the skull. I wish mum could see how badly dad’s trying to change. This fat blackfella lady called Petal who never stops humming comes to change dad’s sweaty sheets in the morning. I ask her if dad’s dead and she says nah. Sleeping for 18 hours is normal when you’re on a desert island detox. She tells me some Papinjuwaris crawled out of dad’s pores in the night. Papinmuwaris are demons. It’s good news when they leave your body. Dutton oughta 501 the demons and leave my dad alone.
When I run out of lollies and waterbombs, I have to face facts: I’ve got three – THREE! – science assignments to get through in this stinkin-arse sweaty cabin and if dad doesn’t wake up and help me, I’m screwed. My assignments are these black and white photocopied 40-pagers with diagrams on the left side and paragraphs on the right, and I’ve gotta fill in the blanks in the paragraphs. I’m trying not to bother dad while he has his 18 hour sleeps but I just totally do not get how or why radioactive isotopes are unpredictable and I throw my book at the window and go stomping into the scrubland looking for bugs to squish. There’s a wood pallet with land crabs living on it and I’m trying to prise off a slat of wood with nails sticking out of it to go burst someone’s eyeball – Yiliyarr, his mob, anyone – when dad squeezes the tendon in my neck. I look up and the way the late afternoon light’s hitting him, his skin looks purple. I let dad lead me back inside and he collapses on the door step. He only had enough energy to catch me and bring me back. Now I gotta nurse him. I bash a coconut with a brick til it opens and make him drink the thin white sweetness. When Dad’s stopped shaking, he asks for a pencil. There’s this letter about his 501 personally signed by Peter Bloody Dutton that’s been bugging him, but he turns the letter into a lesson. On the plain white back of the letter, Dad draws a picture of an iron atom and tells me iron is one of easiest metals to understand. When it’s emitting radiation, what’s happening is little mini-atoms called isotopes are splitting off – just like how his mob split from the Bandidos in Ipswich one by one but then kinda regrouped as Diablos then the Comancheros patched them over for protection so the Bandidos wouldn’t waste dad and his mates for breaking the Stick Together, Back Down Never rule they always go on about.
Dad turns over his forearm and rubs the burn as if it still hurts. He’s got DIABLO on the underside of his left arm and JUNIOR on the underside of his right, same six letters in each name, as if my name and his club’s name are equal. But they’re not equal, he tells me, leaning over. I flinch cause one time he headbutted me, but instead dad gives me a peck on the cheek and tells me he loves me way more than the club. I tuck it in the vault inside my brain where I store my little stash of mushy stuff.
Dad tells me he’ll drive while I watch, and he fills in all the pages about chemical reactions for me, breaking down the nerd-words, checking every few seconds to make sure I understand. Dad rattles my bottle of Adderalls. I can tell he wants to tell me off for having drugs here, but he knows how bad I need them to get my assignments completed. He sighs and draws me a diagram of the arrangement of the carbon, helium and fluorine atoms. He starts talking about dextroamphetamine then goes ‘Sorry, June: Adders. Adderall is dextroamphetamine. Spelled D-E-X-T-R-O. Plus there’s a little sugar in there. All pill’sve got sugar in ’em, boy. Free calories.’ He says he cooked dextro for years, with a tweak here, a touch more carbolic acid there. He rolls the pill bottle back across the table at me, tells me not to abuse them. ‘Adderall,’ he says, snorting at the name. An adder is a poisonous snake, don’t forget. He tussles my hair and I giggle. He gets so happy helping me with my assignment he starts humming even though I don’t think he notices.
I secretly unlock my phone, prop it against the kettle and I make a video of dad being all chill. I’m gonna Snapchat mum when I get reception. I’m gonna tell her to witness the real creature that lives inside dad, not the animal with booze for blood. This creature right here who’s chuckling cause he’s just showed me a diagram of a nuclear fission chain reaction but he can’t figure out how to operate my pencil sharpener. There’s no demon in my dad.
I film dad creeping, head down, from the prow of the boat to the arse-end to chat with Yiliyarr and his dad, Gaypalwani. It’s a tiny, cramped unstable space and there’s no way off the boat and we’ve got hours of boringness ahead of us on mud-coloured water. Fuck I miss Brizzie. My local Hoyts had a megascreen that was bigger than an Olympic swimming pool. Going hunting in a boat’s supposed to toughen you up but to me it’s kinda gay and boring. I pop one of my Adderalls so I don’t go nuts. We talk and drink Coke. Yiliyarr makes a joke in English, ‘Who brought the whiskey?’ and my dad cringes and the old Abo man squeezes his shoulder. We talk about hunting instead. Gaypalwani is surprised I haven’t been through an initiation ceremony to make me a man. Dad hushes us, says everything’s in order. He’s got a plan. He will make his son a man when the time comes.
We come across a pattern of bubbles. An animal’s been here. Dad really wants to be the one to throw the first spear, whatever the beast is. Gaypalwani’s slicing his finger across his throat. Could mean stingray. Could mean dugong. They’ve given dad a spear hand-carved from stringybark trees. Gaypalwani spreads his feet for balance, staring hard-out at the water, then grunts at Yiliyarr. Their spears creep into their fingers. The boat is still as a stone. The brown shell of a massive sea turtle crests the water. Within a second, they’ve speared it without even rocking the dinghy and dad volunteers to wrestle it. It’s not that the turtle’s shell’s soft. Dad actually cuts his fingers on its edge as he tries to flip the turtle on its back so they can push a chain through the middle of the turtle and tow it back to land. Dad’s been ordered not to go in the water. A saltie will take him, almost definitely.
My video is pretty funny. Who woulda thought a hard nut would be challenged by a turtle? Dad’s skinnier than ever and some of his muscles sag like the arms of an old fat lady. It’s an hour of giggling between the three guys before the tip of our boat noses into the soft sand, we hop out, drag the turtle up where salties can’t reach it. Dad insists he wants to dig the cook-hole himself. The village women in their tank tops, squinting their chubby cheeks against the sun, empty sack after sack of charcoal into the pit dad digs and pour petrol onto some sticks.
Once the fire’s roaring, me and Yiliyarr huck big stones on the embers, then put the turtle on top. Its blood sizzles and pops as it leaks. Dad’s given a steel hunting knife, spiky on one side, and allowed to cut off the first chunk of cheek. The men all cheer and whoop. Dad pops the pink flesh into his mouth. He doesn’t think it’s a delicacy and doesn’t think it’s gross, either. I zoom in on his face. All that’s on dad’s mind is the knife. He turns it in his hands as he chews. He used to use knives quite a bit to cut problems out of his life. Everyone’s tearing flaps of sizzling skin off the flippers, pulling steaming turtle guts out of the flames, breaking off turtle-toes. Me, I’m watching dad, slowly chewing, scraping the knife against the soft flesh under his left arm. I’ve heard the Abos telling Dad they don’t think Balandas, which means Aussies, are corrupt or polluted or anything, it’s just that they hate devils and demons, and that’s really bugging the crap out of dad considering if you look at his back the top rocker says COMANCHEROS and the bottom says DIABLOS. It’s cool that my Dad wants to get the devil out of him, but I want there to be some Dad left.
They knock on my dad’s door in the morning to tell him there’s a funeral on. First thing he asks is ‘Is there gonna be piss?’ He’s spooked, but they tell him nah, mate, the only alcohol on the island is the alcohol hand sanitisers in the portaloo down at the pier. Everyone laughs, but they’re proud. There’s not a drop of demon drink in town, bro. Even the petrol, Opal, is odourless stuff the kids can’t sniff.
The funeral is ten days of dancing and I’m shaking my head. The adventure’s over. I wanna be doing something fun, not dancing on desert dust. It begins with the most epic feast ever – crab, crayfish, stingray, puffer fish, shark, dried snake, every kind of food you could want. I run around with the wee ones, playing footie, except every time I glance up there’s Yiliyarr, wearing a cloak of shadows, on the edge of the flames, grinning with evil teeth. He calls to me and we duck into the bushes. He’s sniffing meths through a cloth and he offers me some. An icy finger pokes right up my nose and tickles my brain and I turn and bang into a tree and spend the night on my back. The sun’s coming up by the time I realise Yiliyarr’s gone into the church. I crawl in after and the shattered eggshell of the world slowly comes back together. Even in church wears their best footie shirts. Yiliyarr picks broken glass out of his crusty feet. He can’t sit still. When church ends, the didgeridoo begins outside on the lawn. A bloke sits on the ground cross legged. Two other blokes help position it so the sound comes out nice. Dad gets a pretty good sound out of that thing. I capture this on video. New dad. Spiritual dad.
The funeral party continues as the men smear themselves in white and dance to clapsticks and chant and hum and stomp their feet and form caravans. I spot a stingray dance, a jellyfish dance, a parrot dance, a shark dance. Dad – now painted white – surfs on the hands of these men, then they lay him down in a husk of paperbark tree. They blow smoke on him and pray for him and do a song especially for him while he lies there, arms crossed, eyes closed like he’s passing through the afterlife.
I can’t stand the boredom and the noise so I shut myself in the cabin and get on with my homework. The courier has already taken one batch of assignments on the mail plane and sent it to my school. It cost Dad about 60 bucks but he didn’t complain. Dad’s just completely chill, here – so chill I can’t stand it. I need a bad man around me. I need danger.
The closest I can find is Yiliyarr. Each night, he takes me away for a little more warrior training. We torture his little 10 year old brother, tickling the kid with a fern frond til he pees his pants. Yiliyarr’s mum’s a hoarder and the house is crammed with old TV Guides and it’s too gross to find any fun there. Yiliyarr shows me a secret stash of alcohol under a tarpaulin and some bricks in his backyard, but he says he’s more of a gasman, and squirts some lighter fluid on a hanky and offers me a sniff. Then he takes me for a hike in the woods, finds a friendly marsupial, strangles it and we play tug of war til its head pops off with a squirt of blood. On our way back Yiliyarr karate kicks a rotten tree, finds a bigarse worm inside, thick as a pencil, pinches it and slowly tugs it out. He dares me to eat it, says it’ll make me a warrior. I flinch so he starts hoeing into it. He’s gobbled over half of it when I finally agree to give it a try. It tastes like cold rice pudding. Yiliyarr says I’m doing not too bad. There might be a warrior in me, deep down, like maybe in my undies.
In the morning, dad turns up amongst the smog of the low fires. He has a massive contented grin on his face. Dad’s beard is fuzzy and his eyes are mellow. Dad’s stoned on relaxation. Stoned on life.
I wake at dawn, bad dream, screaming for dad but he’s not there. I charge out into the sand. I sprint all the way to the beach. I run along tree trunks. I peer under the waves. I squint against the rising sun.
I run down to the pier and beg Gaypalwani and Petal to tell me where he could be. They put down their coffees and smokes and stare out different directions. This land is huge, they tell me. When the land ends, there is ocean.
‘Where’s your boat, Gaypalwani?’
He nods across the water to a shoal.
I jump into the slimy brown lagoon. My phone’s in my pocket and my Adderalls too but fuck it. Clothes, shoes, helmet, salties, fuck it. Some people have got two daddies, but not me.
I swim desperately, looking side to side all the time for anything that looks like a pile of leaves drifting towards me. I’m pedalling and hands of mud are tugging me down and the water is thick and soupy. A lump rises and I piss myself, then the animal goes under and I keep swimming.
I spot the dinghy dad’s pinched and stumble ashore. I have never been this exhausted. There’s some sort of melty acid burning my shoulders. I lurch across the sand, following dad’s tracks. I don’t mind counting every single metre. If it gets me to my daddy, it’s worth it. I’m up to 2300 steps around the edge of the island when I hit the boat again. Amongst the mangroves is a trail of snapped branches. They whack and slap me as a I push them aside. For every three steps forward, I sink one foot into the mud and have to haul myself out. Finally there’s a mound of bones and a cone of windblown sand. This is the centre of the island. A tiny miniature desert the size of a rugby field, surrounded by bush, with water looping everything. Here is where dad has collapsed. His skin’s red and blistered, half-burned off, and it looks like he’s mutilated his arm overnight. The tat reading JUNIOR is still there, my name is safe, but he’s half-burned the Diablo letters with a dirty blade, messed it up, and now the skin from his wristwatch to his elbow is all yawning and stretching and dribbling. It glints. There must be crystals of dirty sand in the wound. Dad is shivering. He hasn’t had a blanket all night. His lips are dark purple and sandpapery. He’s sleeping heavily, except I can’t see his chest rise and fall.
I cuddle my dad and rock him. Tomorrow is the end of the month. We are SO close to beating dad’s disease. I hug his torso, even wrap my legs around his midriff. I scream in his ear. His legs withdraw up into his body. His eyes are in the sand. Medicine, medicine… I run to the bushes, find some stagnant water that’s more mud than water and scoop it into my hands. I’m just about to run it back to dad when it slips through my fingers.
My daddy is dying. I need to be strong right now. Be a warrior. I kick and shove and push against this desert oak tree and when it finally rips, I find this black, woody cold goop inside. I scoop my hands in it, clench them tightly, carry the precious drips to dad’s lips. The tree has three scoops worth in it. I make three trips, from the rotten water to the slab of my dad.
When he wakes, he hardly talks, and won’t sit up. My phone is behaving weird, it’s gotten soaked even though it’s supposed to be water resistant. The videos seem to be storing alright, though I can’t get reception.
I realise the air’s become purple and the sun is spearing the sky with blades of orange, then the sun is gone and the air is blue. We’ll have to spend a second night here. I find one of those fat worms in the broken tree and make dad eat it. I snap the legs off a crab and urge dad to suck the guts up. The only other edible thing is my Adderalls. Dad said any pill is mostly sugar. There’s gotta be at least one calorie in there. I unscrew my little brown bottle, push my last three Adderalls inside dad’s lips then sprint to the broken tree, stick my face in the moist rotting wood and suck the last water into my mouth.
It tastes like cold diarrhoea but I don’t spill any. I put my lips against dad’s and kiss the water into his mouth, rubbing his throat the make the pill go down. Then I lie in the sand and give up.
Dad’s up and standing in front of a full moon and an indigo sky and his teeth are chattering as he chants. ‘Let’s go, June, let’s go! Stick together, back down never, stick together, back down never!” He drags me out of the sand and walks over the little mangrove stumps like he can’t even feel them pricking his feet. I’m still waking up, my head’s pounding and I can’t see straight cause I haven’t had my pills in ages cause dad scoffed them all. Dad fans his hand across the black water where the moon is mirrored. The boat’s right there and I tug the crank on the outboard and it still works no problem but Dad’s preoccupied blabbing about some mirror, the magic mirror, pausing every few seconds to gulp sea water. Dad paces around me like a circling hound. He explains how you can see your warrior-self in the mirror only when you’re on drugs – which is why you ABSOLUTELY GOTTA TAKE YOUR MEDICINE, BOY. He leans in so close his nose brushes mine. He doesn’t blink. My dad’s bit his lip real hard and blood’s trickling down.
See, son, you can synthesise happiness, he goes, walking 50 metres away, coming back, walking away again. Shit, I did it for years, boy. Words don’t really represent reality unless we CODIFY them. Code code CODIFY! CODIFYyyyeeeeee! Dad’s stumbling through the mangrove mud shrieking. When I finally get boat in the water and get the motor going, Dad refuses to join me unless I tell him I can feel my warrior spirit rising up.
Can you feel it, son?
I rattle my Adderall bottle, praying for one more pill to get me through this bullshit. There’s some white smear at the bottom. My pills were wet – it’s wet dust. I lick my finger, stick it in and suck it.
Soon as the boat hits the pier, that’s us. We don’t even bother to tie up the boat. The sun’s coming up and everything’s changed. We’ve found our true warrior spirits. With our feet on land again, Dad struts the pier, rattles the door of the port office til it opens, finds the cleaning supplies. He guzzles a container of alcohol hand sanitiser, doubles over in pain, gags and drinks another. I can only manage half, but Dad reminds me to Warrior-up. I glug the rest and chink bottles with dad. ‘Don’t tell mum,’ he says with a wink. I let Dad know there’s real liquor at Yiliyarr’s place. We sprint with glee up the street. It’s only 500 metres. He’s in his backyard, stoned on petrol, and he starts groggily getting to his feet as Dad approaches.
‘This the fella with the booze, Junior?’
Dad picks up a brick and Yiliyarr bolts into the scrub like a rabbit. There’s a tarp in the backyard covering a few crates of beer and half a bottle of vodka. Dad stands there and guzzles it thoughtfully, like he’s judging it. When the bottles empty, he wobbles and takes a couple steps. He shushes me so we don’t wake Yiliyarr’s family up. His grin is slow. He hiccups.
We take Yiliyarr’s and Gaywalpani’s bicycles and hoof it through the village til we find a single taxi and knock on the window to wake the driver up. Ferries start at 6am cause that’s when the roughnecks start shift at Gemco. We’re on the boat and on the Adders and on the mainland by 7, and it’s time to upgrade to some better vehicles. Plus we’re gonna need patches, and food, and we HAVE to hit up some pharmacies for some more Adders, dad says. If they don’t wanna share their sugarpills, we’ll make ’em share. Also there’s a sporting goods store at Nhulunbuy, the Yellow Pages in the phone booth tells us. Dad’s gonna get me a real good bat. Cause my phone’s munted, I don’t have videos of any of this final stuff to show mum, but then again, we might not see her for a while yet.