After We Danced – 14

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Chapter Fourteen

With the weight of the world now lifted from our shoulders, the rest of the week simply flew by.

We had all noticed the change that had taken place among us, which was nothing short of amazing. The inner light which now illuminated not only Matt and his parents, but my own parents as well was shining out for all to see.

With only one exception, things were finally as they should be.

I could only hope that the joy would last, as I still felt, however, as if there was a shadow hanging over me, after having found out that I was only on a waiting list for Southern Star University.

Despite this, I was doing my best to put that to the back of my mind and busied myself with making plans for our move into what seemed, on the surface at least, to be an uncertain future. Regardless of what I was feeling, however, I was determined that my own problems would not drag Matt and me back into the abyss from which we had just climbed.

We had all celebrated after leaving the Court House on Tuesday morning. Matt’s father had insisted on taking us all out for a celebratory lunch, my parents included, and for the very first time that I could recall, this togetherness we shared made it feel like a real family gathering. It was something the likes of which I could only ever remember having experienced at Christmas when I was a little kid.

That may sound strange, but that was just how it felt to me.

Tim and Guy phoned us on Wednesday, to see how things had gone in Court, which I thought was kind of them. They could hardly contain their excitement when we told them our news.

As expected, they asked about my application with S.S.U., and shared my disappointment when I told them I was only on a waiting list.

‘I’ve been accepted to Highlands though,’ I told them, trying to remain positive, but my voice betrayed the emotion I was trying to hide.

‘We’ll keep our fingers crossed for you buddy,’ Tim said. ‘We want you guys to be there with us.’

‘Thanks,’ I said to them. ‘We want to be there too.’

On Thursday, I made the first of what would be many calls to the admissions office at S.S.U., which would only prove to disappoint me again and again and again. And by Friday, we were well back into our same old routine. It was familiar and comforting.

We both had to work for the remainder of the week, which kept us busy and to a certain extent kept my mind off my other problems. By Saturday however, Matt sensed that things were starting to get me down again.

We were lying in bed early that morning, listening to the early morning radio announcer.

He rolled over and faced me, propping himself up on one elbow and just lay there watching me, while I continued to stare at the ceiling, my thoughts obviously elsewhere.

‘I’m sorry,’ he said to me, as he started running the tips of his fingers back and forth along my forearm. ‘I’ve been on such a high this week that I’ve hardly even taken the time to ask how you were doing.’

I rolled my head sideways and looked at him.

‘You don’t have to be sorry,’ I said to him. ‘Things really are good for us both. You are free. Dad is free. And I’m going to a good University. As far as I am concerned that is all that matters.’

‘But they could be better though, right?’

I smiled at him, then said, ‘Maybe, but like I said, that doesn’t matter. We’ve gotten through the worst thing that is ever going to happen to us. We have each other. And that is all I care about right now.’

‘You constantly amaze me,’ he said, then leaned across and kissed me.

I couldn’t tell him that deep down, I was hurting like I had never hurt before. I couldn’t tell him that I was aching for what I knew we were both now going to be missing out on.

I just kissed him back.

When he broke away he looked at me for a long moment, with that same thoughtful expression that I had become so familiar with. It sometimes felt as if it was like he was trying to read my mind.

I hoped that he wasn’t managing to do that right now.

‘How about we go away for the weekend?’ he asked finally.

‘Again? Where to?’

‘I don’t know. Maybe we could just go out into the bush somewhere. Just go camping or something. It won’t cost us anything, and neither of us has to go to work Monday.

Besides, it’ll get your mind off other things.’

Damn it! He knew.

‘Okay,’ I finally answered, then he grinned and leaned in and kissed me again.

*     *     *

      As usual, Matt was right. It did take my mind off things.

After making a few hurried calls, we once again borrowed the tent and some other equipment from Phil, then Matt raided his parents’ cupboards and freezer for some food to take with us.

At about ten o’clock, we headed out of town, on our way out into one of the National Parks. Out into the mountains.

Matt told me about a camping spot beside a river where he had been before as a kid, where we could be ourselves and it didn’t matter what was happening anywhere else in the world. We would have our own little world to occupy us for the next couple of days and all our cares and worries would soon be washed away in some cool mountain waters.

It sounded perfect to me.

It was about an hour’s drive from town and we arrived there well before noon, after following a narrow, winding dirt road along a heavily timbered ridge, down into a valley, over several creeks, up a hill, and then down the side of a mountain into another even more beautiful valley.

‘Wow,’ I said, when we were about half way down the mountain and I saw the entire valley for the first time. ‘What is this place?’

‘Cockatoo Creek,’ he answered. ‘Haven’t you ever heard of it?’

I shook my head.

‘I used to come out here with dad quite a bit. I haven’t been here for a couple of years though, until now.’

‘It’s fantastic.’

‘See the river down there?’ he asked, pointing down into the valley.

I could see a dark line of trees snaking their way through the centre of the valley, which I guessed must be following the line of the waterway.

‘I thought you said it was only a creek?’

‘That was Cockatoo Creek we just crossed. It flows down into that river, which is the Nymboida River. There are water holes along there that are just so deep and so wide. It’s amazing. And when you swim in them late in the afternoon or really early in the morning, the fish are just jumping all around you. You really have to experience it.’

We drove cautiously onwards, dropping down closer and closer to the valley floor.

‘What’s that?’ I said, pointing at what looked like a couple of small sheds, perched atop a low hill.

‘Toilets, showers and undercover barbeque area,’ Matt answered.

‘Showers? Out here?’

‘Yeah. But just cold ones.’

‘Just my luck.’

A short time later, we pulled up near the amenities buildings, which were actually just two tin sheds, side by side . . . one for the boys and one for the girls . . . with the covered barbeque area not far away.

‘Where do we set up camp?’ I asked Matt as we got out and stretched.

He looked around for a moment, then pointed towards a low hill, which was between the river and us.

‘How about over there?’ he asked. ‘We can set it up so we are looking out over the river.’

‘Well, you’re the one who knows all about this camping shit. Whatever you say goes,’ I answered, so we got back in the car and drove the short distance to where Matt had been pointing.

Besides the time that Matt and I had camped out on our ‘schoolies’ trip, the only other time that I had ever been camping was once when I was just a kid, when we had gone on our annual family holidays.

That had been an unmitigated disaster, to say the least, so we had never tried it again.

After my earlier trip with Matt however, I had a feeling that we would be doing a fair bit of this in the future.

*     *     *

      The tent went up easily, then afterwards we set about gathering some wood for the fire for that night. There was plenty of timber around that we could burn, so it didn’t take us long to gather what we thought would be enough to last through the night.

When we were finished, Matt stood up and wiped his arm across his forehead, wiping away the sweat, which had formed there and was now running down his flushed cheeks.

‘I don’t know about you, but I could do with a swim,’ he said to me, as he pulled his t-shirt off over his head, revealing his perfect body.

‘Last one in is a rotten egg,’ I said to him as I started doing the same.

We raced each other to the water’s edge, across dry summer grasses and then a sandy beach, leaving a long trail of clothes scattered in our wake.

The water was cold. Ice cold. But still we waded out into it. Both naked. Both laughing.

‘Ain’t nothing like mountain water to bring you to life,’ Matt said as he surfaced from a dive which took him out into the deeper waters.

When he surfaced he flicked his head from side to side, sending a spray of water in a wide arc around him, which shimmered in the afternoon light.

Sunlight sparkled from the beaded necklace that I had given him on a day that seemed just so long ago now.

Absentmindedly, I reached up and felt the arrowhead that was now hanging around my neck, along with my own necklace, and smiled at the thoughts and memories that came flooding back.

‘What are you grinning at?’ Matt asked as he waded back towards where I was standing, in water which was above my waist.

‘Nothing much,’ I answered. ‘Just thinking happy thoughts.’

‘Well think about this, then,’ he said as he jumped up and placed his hands on top of my head, dunking me.

‘Hey, no fair,’ I protested, when I was able to scramble back to the surface.

‘All’s fair in love and war, pal. Didn’t you know that?’

‘So it’s war now is it?’ I yelled, diving after him.

We laughed and played like that for about half an hour, before finally growing tired of it, then we both swam over to a large flat rock that ran down to the water’s edge, and which was now bathed in the warm late afternoon sun. After hauling ourselves out of the water, we stretched our bodies out to dry.

We felt like two kids playing hooky and we loved it. If only it could last.

‘It’s been a hell of a couple of months, hasn’t it?’ Matt said as he lay on his side looking at me.

‘Hmmm. You could say that,’ I answered.

‘Any regrets?’

‘Not a one. You?’

He shook his head and smiled.

‘Never,’ he answered.

‘Are we going to grow old together?’ I asked him.

That thoughtful expression once again washed over his face.

‘Is that what you want?’

‘More than anything else in the world.’

‘That could possibly be arranged,’ he answered, as he leaned across and kissed me.

When our lips parted he was looking down on me, with that devilish glint in his eye that he did so well.

‘What?’ I asked him.

‘Nothing,’ he whispered. But I knew that look. Nothing was exactly what it wasn’t.

We dragged ourselves to our feet and walked back along the water’s edge towards where we had first entered the water, then turned and started uphill, picking up our clothes as we went, one piece at a time.

When we reached the tent and the car we pulled our shorts back on, but that was all, then finished unpacking sleeping bags and an ice box and a few other creature comforts.

By dusk, we had the fire going well and were soon cooking some sausages, eggs and tomato in a cast iron frying pan.

After we had eaten, we sat by the fire talking about friends and things that were going on in our lives. Neither of us mentioned S.S.U. or Highlands, but it was there nonetheless, hovering in the back of our minds, staying in the background, but most definitely there. We could feel it.

When the log that we had thrown on the fire had died down we decided it was time we turned in and so we retreated to the haven of our tent, where we made beautiful love before drifting off into an uneasy sleep.

*     *     *

      The following morning, when the first signs of dawn appeared in the east, I found myself sitting alone on the river bank, looking out across gently bubbling waters, watching the colours of the day gradually emerge from them.

It was a quiet morning, clear and cool. And it was beautiful.

I had slept only fitfully through the night, waking at intervals that were far too regular and rolling over to see the silhouette of Matt lying peacefully beside me.

Throughout the night, there seemed to be only one thought that kept bouncing around inside my mind, being the realisation of what I would be missing out on and what I would be robbing Matt of.

I had thought that I had come to terms with my own perceived sense of loss, but when you wake in the middle of the night, grieving for something you can almost taste or almost reach out and touch, only to find it so far out of reach and unattainable . . . well, is there anything that can be said other than, it hurts?

And it is then that the sense of loss begins to simply overwhelm you, it crushes you, leaving you feeling helpless, and lifeless.

We had both set our hearts firmly on Thompsonville and the lifestyle that we were sure it would offer us, but now it appeared that our dreams were shattered.

From where I sat, I turned and looked back towards the tent and listened to the gentle snores coming from within.

‘I’m so sorry, Matt,’ I whispered into the still morning air.

Somewhere above me a bird screeched into the dawn.

I looked skywards but saw nothing. Only grey, tinged with faint shades of scarlet and gold, growing ever brighter, but still far from being daylight.

‘Damn bird. What are you doing up at this hour?’ I asked it.

Just then, somewhere near me, something suddenly splashed into the water. I glanced down at the surface of the water but could see nothing. There were no tell-tale ripples radiating out from a point of impact, just a smooth surface, accompanied by the gentle bubbling sound of water trickling over nearby rocks.

For a long, long time, I sat and watched as the morning slowly came alive. I had never in all my life experienced Mother Nature in such a way. Never before had I realised just how beautiful she was.

The colours of the parrots, scarlet and crimson and gold and green, in the branches above me were spectacular. The sounds and sights and smells of the morning brought every sense in my body alive.

It was an exhilarating feeling.

As the sun’s rays peeped over the mountains for the first time that day, I just closed my eyes and breathed in, and listened.

The sounds of the running water and the birds in the trees were like music.

The smells of the eucalyptus and river oaks, mingled with the fragrance of the fresh water, was intoxicating.

For the first time in days it felt good to be alive and finally the thoughts of S.S.U. and Thompsonville were gone from my mind. For how long though, I could only guess.

Somewhere close to me I heard the rustling sound of dry grass and I opened my eyes, thinking that it might have been Matt coming down to find me.

What I was not prepared for, was the sight of two kangaroos not more than twenty feet from me, moving slowly through the grass, picking at fresh shoots.

I held my breath and didn’t move a muscle. I watched them as they moved awkwardly in a motion that defied description. A kind of bunny hop, where they leaned down with their front paws and balanced themselves using their tails while bringing their powerful hind legs under them.

It was the first time I had seen them up close.

If I had moved they would have, no doubt, bounded away in their familiar hop. But I didn’t. And for the moment they were just taking their time, enjoying their breakfast.

Eventually they must have sensed my presence there, as suddenly the larger of the two stood erect and looked straight at me.

We just eyeballed each other. No sounds were made and for a long while, neither of us moved.

Finally the animal just hopped away, with its friend following closely behind, and I watched as they disappeared into a thick stand of trees about one hundred yards below where I sat.

He was almost upon me when I finally heard Matt approach a short time later, before sitting down beside me and bumping my shoulder with his, in greeting.

‘Good morning.’

‘To you too. Been out here long?’ he asked me.

‘Yeah, a little while. Couldn’t sleep much.’

‘Yeah, I noticed. You all right?’

‘Never better,’ I answered. Maybe it wasn’t quite the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, but it would do for now.

‘I’m glad,’ Matt said as he put his arm around my shoulder and pulled me to him.

*     *     *

      After we had eaten breakfast, Matt asked me what I wanted to spend the day doing.

I looked across the fire at him and grinned.

‘Not all day?’ he responded.

‘How about for just some of it then?’

‘Works for me! But first I thought we might go for a walk. You up for that?’ he asked.

‘Sure. Where to?’ I asked.

He shrugged then said, ‘I don’t know. We could just follow the river, either upstream or downstream for a couple of hours, then turn around and come back along the other side or something. Nothing too strenuous, though. I want to save some energy for later.’

‘Sounds cool. Which way do you want to go?’

He came around to the same side of the fire I was standing on, then fished a coin out of his pocket and flicked it into the air. We both watched it as it spiraled upwards then downwards, before he caught it and slammed it down on the back of his hand.

‘Heads we go downstream. Tails, upstream,’ I said to him.

He nodded and then drew his hand back to reveal the image of Her Majesty’s head, which was on the back of all our coins.

‘Tails it is,’ I proclaimed.

‘Yup. Sure is.’

We made some sandwiches to carry with us and then, after we cleaned up our little camp site and packed away any equipment we had out, either into the tent or back into the car (just in case some inquisitive animal like a dingo or possum came hurrying through the camp), we set off along the river bank, heading upstream and with a warm sun beating down on us.

There was very little in the way of a path, so we kept to the open ground as much as possible, even though it often meant heading away from the water.

When the bush cleared we could go back down to the water’s edge, and when we reached the river we found a beautiful water hole, at the far end of which a waterfall was emptying the contents of the creek into it.

‘We’ve got to do this more often,’ I said to Matt as we relaxed beside each other in the shade, while cooling our now bare feet in the water and admiring the view.

‘Camping?’

I nodded.

‘Any time you feel like it,’ he answered. ‘The more time I spend with you, away from the rest of the world, the happier I am.’

‘You mean that, don’t you?’

‘Of course I do. Why do you keep on doubting me? Why do you keep on doubting us?’

He wasn’t accusing in his tone. He was being his usual straight forward and honest self, but it still caught me off guard.

‘I . . . ummm . . .’ I started to say, but couldn’t quite get the words out.

Matt scurried closer to me and took both of my hands in his.

‘How many times do I need to tell you that I love you?’ he asked.

I looked into his eyes and could see the depth of feeling that was there.

‘I guess,’ I started to say, ‘that I still find it hard to comprehend that we are together. I know it sounds silly. But sometimes that’s just what it seems like. It’s something that keeps spinning around in my mind, spurred on by these little voices that keep taunting me. And each time that I think I have gotten rid of them, they keep coming back to nag and haunt me.’

He leaned forward and kissed me then. And he smiled.

‘Banish them. Forever,’ he said. ‘You were there for me when I went through the worst thing that has ever happened to me. Every step of the way, you were there to hold my hand. To cajole me into doing what I needed to do. To hold me when the hurting just got too much. I can’t forget that. I won’t forget that. If you hadn’t shown up on the cliff that night in the rain, I just don’t know what might have happened.’

I blinked back some tears, but one escaped and trickled down my cheek.

Ever so gently, Matt brushed it away with his thumb.

‘I love you, Luke, and I always will. And it doesn’t matter where we are living, or what we are doing, I will always be there for you, just loving you.’

‘I know,’ I answered. ‘And I love you too. I honestly do.’

‘I know mate,’ he said, then he hugged me.

I buried my face into his neck and started to cry again. When we separated, Matt looked at me long and hard.

‘What?’ I asked him, wiping my face with the back of my hand.

He just smiled, then started pulling at one of his fingers.

‘What are you doing?’ I asked him.

‘Nothing much,’ he answered.

‘Don’t give me that shit,’ I said.

He smiled again, then came up with the prize he had been trying to remove from his finger. It was a ring, a plain band, shiny and silver. He had had it for years.

‘What are you doing?’ I asked again.

‘Luke, in a perfect world we could do this and nobody would care. But this isn’t a perfect world, and it is the only world we have, but I want us to do this anyway.’

‘I don’t follow,’ I said.

‘Luke. You know I love you. I love you more than anything. More than my car even.’

I couldn’t help it, I giggled.

He took my hand again and held it with my index finger extended, then started to place the ring on it.

‘What are you doing?’

‘As weird as this may sound mate, I want you to know just how committed I am to you. And to us. If I could say to you that what I wanted was for us to get married, I would. But seeing as that’s not really an option that is available to us, all I can say is that I love you. I will always love you and I want to spend the rest of my life with you.’

He paused and looked directly into my eyes. He would have seen tears again. I can tell you that much.

Suddenly, I could feel myself trembling all over, while around us, there were birds whistling and singing, as if in celebration, and water continued to cascade down onto rocks not more than fifty feet from us.

I saw none of that. I heard none of that. All I could see and hear was Matt. And all I could feel was the touch of silver on my finger, the embrace of his loving arms and the touch of his lips upon mine.

*     *     *

      We fell asleep in each other’s arms, in the shade of a huge old gum tree, with gnarled and twisted branches and exposed roots that ran down along a partially eroded river bank.

It was beside a water hole that was clear and wide and relatively shallow, with a gravel bottom, and after waking up sometime after lunch neither of us could resist diving in and cooling off.

‘This is fabulous,’ Matt said, as he floated around on his back, with his semi-hard cock pointing to the skies.

‘It looks pretty good from here,’ I called to him.

He laughed and swam over closer to me, then quickly shot his arm forwards and into the water, sending a plume of water in my direction.

‘Hey. Watch it,’ I said to him.

‘Or you’ll what?’ he demanded.

‘Hmmm. I’m sure I could think of something I could deprive you of to make you suffer.’

‘You wouldn’t?’

‘Oh, wouldn’t I?’ I threatened.

‘Okay. Okay. You win,’ he laughed. ‘This time.’

We didn’t stay in the water too long and gradually we made our way back to the river bank, where we hauled ourselves out on to the grassy edge and lay in the sun.

‘I wish we could stay down here in this valley forever,’ I said to him as I lay there with my hands clasped behind my head, gazing into the skies and watching wispy clouds float by.

‘I wonder what it would be like to live down here? Away from the world. With no cares in the world.’

‘It’d be magic.’

We both sat up then. Matt looked across at me and I looked across at him. What each of us saw was the naked lover of the other, young and firm and tanned.

Six months ago we would been giggling like the school kids we then were if we had done anything like this, or even so much as thought of doing anything like this.

Obviously a great deal can change in six months.

We weren’t schoolboys any more. We were now two young adults, very much in love, who were just setting out on the journey that would be the rest of our lives.

‘What are you thinking about?’ Matt suddenly asked me.

‘Change. And especially how we’ve both changed in the past six months.’

‘For the better of course.’

‘Yeah. For the better.’

With that, he crawled across the few feet that separated us and sat beside me, looking me up and down, gently caressing my forearm with his fingers.

‘I can’t believe that for all the years we have been best friends, it took this long for us both to slip up and let each other know how we really felt about each other,’ he said to me.

‘And the funny thing is it all happened by accident,’ I answered.

‘Destiny, more like it.’

‘You think so?’

‘Hmmmph. Who knows. But I’m so glad it did happen.’

‘Yeah. Me too,’ I said, as I leaned across and kissed him.

‘I wish I’d known about you sooner,’ Matt said after our lips parted.

We leant our foreheads together, staring deep into each other’s eyes and letting the tips of our fingers delicately skim over the skin of the other, exploring as far as we both could reach, then back again.

‘It might sound strange to you, but I don’t really.’

His head jerked back and suddenly he was looking at me strangely.

‘Why do you say that?’ he asked, almost defensively.

‘Well, I’ve wondered about that a lot lately. And if you think about it, if we’d started fooling around with each other like this, years ago, do you really think that we would be caring for each other in the way we do now? As it is, we were the best of friends and we knew each other inside out before we ever jumped into bed together, and I think that that has made what we have now all the more special. We were friends before we were lovers, and if it had been the other way round, I somehow doubt if it would have lasted. Probably only until the next cute guy came along and distracted one of us or the other.’

Matt’s jaw dropped and he just stared at me. It was a long while before he even moved, and I just sat there, hoping that he wouldn’t be mad at me.

‘Say something. Please,’ I finally said to him.

Finally he just smiled and leaned across and kissed me.

‘I think you’re right,’ he finally said to me. ‘You know better than anyone what I was like from the time I was about thirteen through to sixteen. When the hormones started kicking in about then, all I could think of was sex, and how I could get some. And if I had caught you then, you probably would have just been another conquest, and then I would have moved on to the next one. And if that had happened, we wouldn’t have what we have now.’

I let out a deep breath and just smiled at him. ‘No regrets then?’ I asked him.

‘Fuck no!’

‘Thank you.’

*     *     *

      We got dressed and left that spot on the riverbank a little while later, crossing over onto the other side of the river at a shallow place where it looked as if livestock often crossed. Then, once we were safely across we started our journey back towards our campsite, along a narrow path that had obviously been well worn by animals.

It was a hot day and all that both of us were wearing were our shorts. Matt led the way and I followed behind on the narrow trail, taking every opportunity to gaze at the strong legs, broad shoulders and tanned back, which now glistened with sweat in the afternoon sun.

Every now and then Matt would stop and turn around, making sure I was still following.

He caught me grinning at him a couple of times and instinctively knew what I was grinning at. Once he even hooked his thumb in the elastic of his shorts and slid them down a little for my benefit.

I let out an audible groan and he soon pulled them back into place. I told him he was a bastard for doing that.

We walked on for a while longer along the path. There was scrub on both sides of us, and in a couple of instances we had to break branches off to get through, but it was basically easy going and not too strenuous.

‘Hey check this out,’ Matt said as he suddenly stopped and waited for me to catch up.

When I reached him I found that we had rounded a bend in the river and the scrub suddenly gave way to an open grassy flat on which some cattle were grazing peacefully.

‘Cool,’ I said. We watched them for a few minutes and they lazily lifted their heads and watched us, before deciding that we were an intrusion they didn’t want and then turned and unhurriedly walked away.

‘I wonder what else we’ll see down here?’ he asked.

‘Who knows,’ I answered.

He started walking again and I followed, crossing the flat where the cattle had been, then we headed toward a rocky knoll which jutted out above the river ahead of us.

I figured we were still at least half an hour from our camp site, so if we kept walking we would make it back by mid-afternoon, giving us enough time to perhaps have another swim, or maybe even try and catch a fish for dinner.

When we reached the other side of the river flat, Matt suddenly stopped in front of me and I almost ran into him.

‘What’s wrong?’ I asked as I stopped beside him.

He was looking away from the river. Looking in the direction that the cattle had taken when they had wandered off.

I followed his gaze, but could see nothing.

‘Can you see that, up there?’ he finally asked, pointing to a spot that was somewhere above the far end of the flats, towards some low hills that seemed to rise out of them.

‘I see trees,’ I answered.

‘Come on, there’s something I want to check out,’ he said then in a flash he was off, striding out with real determination.

There really wasn’t much I could do, other than sit down and wait for him to return, so resignedly, I followed.

We walked to the end of the river flat, to where they narrowed and some hills came in on either side. There was quite a bit of scrub around us, but after a little while I could soon see what it was that Matt had seen.

It was a hut. A very old hut.

It was located part way up a hill, about fifty yards above where the river flats ended and at the end of a path that had been worn by countless numbers of animals which rose up into the surrounding hills.

‘Hey, this is pretty neat,’ I said to Matt as we reached the hut, before stepping up onto the creaking boards of its front verandah.

When we turned and looked back down towards the river we found ourselves looking straight out across the top of the tree line. We could clearly see not only the river but also across the flats to our camp site as well, which we hadn’t realised was as close as it was thanks to a bend in the river.

‘Come on, let’s have a look around,’ Matt said to me, as he walked across the verandah and tried the door handle.

I watched as it turned easily in his hand and he pushed the door open.

‘I guess it was a workers’ hut, or something?’ I said to him as we both stepped inside.

When our eyes adjusted to the dim light we found that the hut had been well furnished for one that was so far from civilisation.

There was a bed, complete with an old striped mattress that was badly stained and from which the mice had pulled most of the stuffing.

In the middle of the room there was an old square wooden table, from which the varnish had long peeled off and around which were four rickety chairs.

There was a cupboard, which proved to be empty. And a bench on which there was a pale green enamel kitchen sink. Kerosene lanterns were hanging from the walls in various spots, and a straw broom was propped against one wall.

I ran my hand across the kitchen table and left three parallel lines in the thick dust.

‘Been a while since anyone has been in here,’ Matt said as he watched me brush the dust from my fingers.

‘Hmmm,’ I replied. ‘Well, there’s not too much in here to look at, how about we take a look around outside?’

‘Good idea.’

We went out through the back door, onto another small verandah, then down a few rickety steps.

Looking around us we could see very little to excite us, except maybe a water tank that was so badly rusted you could poke your fingers through the holes, and a half fallen down post and rail fence.

I was about to say to Matt, ‘Let’s go,’ when something colourful amongst the trees managed to catch my eye and I started walking towards whatever it was.

When I called out and said, ‘Hey Matt, come and look at this,’ he was still looking at the water tank.

He quickly caught up with me and when he did we both just stood staring at what must have been the orchard for whoever it was that had lived there.

The first trees we saw were lemon and apples trees, both heavily laden with fruit. Upon further investigation we also found apricots, walnuts and a couple of other types of fruit that we didn’t recognise.

‘Christ, it’s a regular Garden of Eden,’ Matt said in amazement.

‘Not quite,’ I said to him as I tapped him on the arm and pointed off to a distant tree.

‘Wha . . .’ he started to say, before then noticing what it was I was pointing at.

A row of three gravestones, sitting inside a wrought iron fence, and with knee deep grass growing up all around them.

Slowly I started walking towards them. I was totally overwhelmed by the thought that people had lived here, and had died here. So far away from anywhere.

‘You okay mate?’ Matt asked from behind me as I knelt down by the rusting iron fence and looked at the gravestones.

I said nothing.

‘Luke?’

‘Huh?’ I finally said.

‘I asked if you were okay?’

‘Just look at these will you,’ I said to him. ‘It wasn’t just a workers cottage. It was their home. And it was where they died.’

I read the three headstones out aloud.

‘Celia Adams. Born 1867. Died 1904. Beloved wife of John Adams.’

‘James Adams. Born 1895. Died 1896.’

‘William Adams. Born 1897. Died 1915.’

Neither of us spoke for what seemed a long while, then Matt finally said, ‘Christ, Luke, one was only a year old. The other one was the same age as us. I wonder what happened to them? And I wonder what happened to John Adams?’

I just shook my head. Suddenly the whole cycle of life and death and our own fragile tenure on the world that was around us all seemed to fall into place for me.

I reached up from where I knelt and took Matt’s hand. We were both trembling.

I looked up at him and saw the somber expression on his face and realised that we had both come to the same conclusion.

I got to my feet and hugged him.

We took one last look at the graves of Celia and James and William, then turned and walked back towards the orchard, hand in hand, each not wanting to let the other go.

I was still thinking about life and death. And about what it would be like to live the isolated existence that these people must have lived. We both now knew that we wouldn’t live forever, so we needed to make sure that we lived every minute we could.

Matt reached out and picked a large lemon from the tree as we passed it.

‘Hey,’ he said quietly. ‘Do you feel like fresh fish topped with lemon juice for dinner?’

‘Sounds delicious. Only problem is, we don’t have any fish.’

‘I’ll catch one,’ he answered with confidence.

‘Well at least we’ve still got some sausages and a bit of bacon left, just in case you don’t though.’

‘Very funny.’

I slipped the bag from my shoulder that our lunch had been in earlier and Matt dropped a few lemons into it.

‘We may as well stock up while we’re here,’ he said to me, and moved on to the next tree which was an apple tree, covered with bright red fruit.

We picked some of the healthy looking fruits and dropped them into the bag as well.

‘Hey Matt,’ I said to him as he hungrily bit into one of them.

‘Yeah?’

‘What’s worse than finding a grub in your apple?’

‘Don’t know,’ he answered, between bites of the apple. ‘What?’

‘Finding half a one.’

He suddenly stopped eating and looked closely at the apple he was holding, then looked up at me and grinned.

‘Bastard,’ he said.

‘Made you have a look though, didn’t I?’

He threw what was left of the apple at me, which I easily ducked under, then we turned and left the home of John and Celia Adams behind.

I didn’t know about Matt, but I made myself a promise that I would return here one day. Just to make sure that everything was still in place.

*     *     *

      When we reached our camp it was later in the afternoon than we had thought and the sun wasn’t very far above the mountainous horizon.

‘How about you get the fire going again and I’ll see if I can catch something,’ Matt said as I dropped our bag of fruit onto the ground beside the tent.

‘Sounds okay,’ I answered. ‘But I really wanted to see you reel in the big one.’

‘Light the fire and then come down to the river,’ Matt said.

‘I can do that.’

He retrieved his fishing line from the boot of the car and then dug some bread out of one of the packets we had brought with us.

‘What’s that for?’ I asked him.

‘Bait,’ he said with a grin.

‘You’re joking, of course?’

He shook his head.

‘It’s a trick dad showed me once. Apparently the fish in this river love it.’

‘Whatever,’ I just said, still not quite believing him. He just gave me a wave and trudged off towards the water.

I didn’t get to see him reel in the big one, as my rather amateurish fire lighting skills meant that it took me a while to get a decent fire going. About an hour later, though, just as I was satisfied the fire was going well enough, which was just before dark, Matt returned to the camp, all smiles and carrying a huge fish.

‘What the hell is that?’ I asked him as he sat it on top of the fold up table.

‘Silver Perch,’ he said proudly. ‘Well at least I think that’s what it is. And there you were, doubting the bread trick, huh?’

‘I never doubted you for a minute,’ I said to him as I hastily put the sausages back into the icebox. I wasn’t sure if he saw me do that or not. If he did, at least he didn’t give any indication of it.

‘I’ve already cleaned it up, so it’s ready to cook. Can you find the roll of foil in the box of stuff in the boot of the car for me? And the salt and pepper.’

‘There’s a roll of foil in there? As in tin foil, or aluminium foil, the stuff mum uses in the kitchen?’

‘Uh, huh.’

I went and did as he asked, and much to my surprise I found what he wanted. I handed it to him and then watched as he carefully wrapped the fish up in it, along with several pieces of sliced lemon and a healthy shake of salt and pepper.

‘Are you sure you know what you’re doing?’

‘Trust me,’ he said with a grin.

‘Now what?’ I asked.

‘Can you get the shovel and push some of those pieces of wood off to one side, just leaving coals, please.’

I did as I was asked and then when it was ready he brought the foil package across to the fire and placed in on the hot coals. He then took the shovel from me and scooped up some coals, which he sprinkled across the top of the fish.

‘Right then. Now all we have to do is give it about half an hour.’

‘You’re sure about this?’

‘Relax. I’ve done this heaps of times.’

‘Fair dinkum, the more I’m with you the more surprised I get,’ I said to him, still shocked at the skills he had displayed.

‘Don’t you worry about me. I’ve still got a few surprises up my sleeve for you yet,’ he said with a laugh, as he walked away from me towards the car.

‘Now what are you doing?’ I asked, almost nervously.

‘Relax. I’m just turning the radio on. Is that all right?’

‘Sure,’ I answered, quietly relieved. I was sure that Matt had pulled enough surprises on me for one weekend.

Matt opened the car door and inserted the key into the ignition, then reached in and switched the radio on. Immediately the gentle sounds of Garth Brooks wafted out into the still night air.

      ‘We shall be free…’
‘This is what I’m saying to you…’
‘We shall be free…’
‘Because every night and every day I pray its true…’
‘Together, forever…’
‘We shall be free…’

Matt came back over and sat down beside me. He took my hand in his and together we just sat and listened to the words as they faded away, then a familiar voice came on, booming out into the night.

‘You are listening to Radio New England with Grant Parnell, and that was Garth Brooks with We Shall Be Free. We’re exactly half way through our Garth Brooks hour, but first, a word from one of our sponsors . . .’

An advertisement came on then, for one of the local car dealerships, but we didn’t pay too much attention to it. We were too busy holding hands and looking into the campfire, which was still burning, having been pushed away from where we had laid the fish to cook.

When the advertisement was finished another song started up straight away, starting with a guitar introduction that I instantly recognized. It wasn’t a major hit but nonetheless, it was still a favourite of mine.

      ‘It’s only natural with time…’
‘Details can somehow slip your mind…’
‘Something so sweet…’
‘Though incomplete…’
‘You fill the spaces in between…’

Matt got up and moved over to the fire, stoking it up a little and throwing another log onto it, then came back and sat down beside me. He reached across and took my hand once more as we listened to more of the song.

      ‘And to my heart and soul…’
‘This is the way the story has to be told…’
‘That’s the way I remember it…’
‘I remember it that way…’
‘From the day, I was living it…’
‘I remember it that way…’
‘Some of our stories fade as we grow older…’
‘Some get sweeter every time they’re told…’
‘That’s the way I remember it…’
‘That way…’

As Garth sang on, Matt brought my hand up to his lips and kissed me. I leaned across and kissed him firmly on the lips.

I don’t think I heard the remainder of the song, so lost was I in Matt’s eyes, and in tasting him, and in feeling his taut body against mine.

They played some more songs, of that I was sure, but to be honest, I paid little attention to them.

It wasn’t until Matt begrudgingly tore himself away from me and went back to the fire that I stopped and listened again.

As he took the shovel in his hand and gently scraped away the top layer of coals from our meal I heard the familiar introduction to The Dance float out towards us.

      ‘Looking back…’
‘On the memory of…’
‘The dance we shared…’
‘Beneath the stars above…’
‘For a moment…’
‘All the world was right…’
‘How could I have known…’
‘That you’d ever say goodbye…’

It was during this first verse that Matt turned and looked at me. I couldn’t see his expression, as his face was in shadow, but what he would have seen was me rocking gently from side to side.

Leaving our dinner where it was for a few minutes more he stood up and walked back to me then stretched his hand out towards me.

I took it and he pulled me to my feet, then we embraced and just rocked gently from side to side to the music.

      ‘And now I’m glad I didn’t know…’
‘The way it all would end…’
‘The way it all would go…’
‘Our lives…’
‘Are better left to chance…’
‘I could have missed the pain…’
‘But I’d have had to miss the dance…’
‘Holding you…’
‘I held everything…’
‘And for a moment…’
‘Wasn’t I the king?’
‘If I’d have only known…’
‘How the king would fall…’
‘Then who’s to say…’
‘How I might have changed it all…’
‘And now I’m glad I didn’t know…’
‘The way it all would end…’
‘The way it all would go…’
‘Our lives…’
‘Are better left to chance…’
‘I could have missed the pain…’
‘But I’d have had to miss the dance…’
‘It’s my life…’
‘It’s better left to chance…’
‘I could have missed the pain…’
‘But I’d have had to miss…’
‘The Dance………………’

When it was finished he leaned in and kissed me.

‘That was an unexpected surprise,’ I whispered to him when our lips finally parted.

‘What’s that?’

‘You and me. Dancing in the firelight while listening to Garth Brooks, of all people.’

‘I thought you liked him?’

‘I do. But just look at the setting would you?’

‘It couldn’t be better, I don’t think. Could it?’

I glanced around our campsite and then thought for a second. There was only the two of us here. We didn’t have anyone to answer to. And we were free.

I smiled back at him and said, ‘No. It couldn’t be better.’

‘Good. Come on then. I’m starving.’

*     *     *

      I really hated to leave that place, but we both knew that our real lives were somewhere at home waiting for us to step back into them.

At least now I felt alive once more. And I could only have Matt to thank for that.

He brought out the best in everyone around him, and in everything he seemed to touch, even something as simple as cooking the fish the night before. But I have to say that I admired and loved him for more than just his culinary skills.

After having a swim in the early morning, and finally witnessing the phenomenon of the jumping fish that Matt had described to me on the way down into the valley, we cooked some breakfast and then packed all our camping gear away, taking our time in doing so.

‘It’s been a great weekend,’ I said to Matt as we finally packed the last of it back into the car.

‘It has, hasn’t it?’

‘Yeah. Thank you so much for bringing me here.’

He came over to me and put his arms around my waist, pulling my body towards his until our groins were gently rubbing together. Then he kissed me.

‘Anytime,’ he said. ‘Anytime at all.’

‘We’ll have to bring all of the guys down here sometime. Maybe on a long weekend, or at Easter or something. And get Tim and Guy to come up too.’

‘That’d be a great idea. We could all have a bit of fun then.’

I grinned at him, and he grinned back.

A short while later we were in the car and found ourselves heading out of the valley, climbing the narrow track that was the only way in and out.

I turned in my seat and gazed lovingly at the beauty below me for as long as I could, then when I could no longer see the river or the grassy flats I turned and looked at the track we were on.

‘It’s not going to fall off, you know?’ Matt said to me after glancing down at me absentmindedly twirling the silver band which now adorned my finger.

I looked across and saw him smiling at me, which I quickly returned.

‘You left me speechless!’

‘Well, there’s a first time for everything isn’t there?’

‘Very funny.’

We drove on in silence for a little while longer, soon reaching the top of the range, then after traveling a few more miles we crossed the first of the small creeks that we would come to.

‘What are you thinking about?’ Matt asked me as we splashed our way across the first cement causeway.

‘Huh?’ I said, not really hearing him properly the first time, seeing as I was in a bit of a daze.

‘I asked what you were thinking about? You looked like you were a million miles away.’

‘I was,’ I said, managing a faint smile.

‘Where were you?’

‘I was thinking about a place where two guys could get married and no one would care.’

‘Oh.’

‘It could happen one day,’ I said to him.

‘Well, I hope it happens sometime before we are both in wheelchairs. I meant what I said yesterday afternoon.’

‘I know. And I love you for it. And I’ve been thinking about it ever since.’

I looked straight at him and noticed him raise his eyebrows in a questioning gesture.

‘Not now,’ I answered. ‘I might tell you later.’

He nodded and kept driving, all the while wearing this silly grin and glancing back across at me.

I was tempted to say something about what I had read in the newspapers about some countries having passed laws to allow same sex marriage, and the thought that maybe one day, if it didn’t happen here, we might be able to visit one of those countries ourselves. For the moment, though, I thought it best to save mentioning that until later.

A little over an hour later we were back in town. We pulled up at our flat and got out of the car, and Matt’s mother, who had been hanging out the washing, came across to greet us.

We both received a kiss and then she stood back from us, with her face crinkled up in distaste.

‘You stink. Both of you. And you both need to have a shave,’ she said to us. ‘Go and hit the showers. Then come up to the house for lunch.’

‘Yes ma’am,’ Matt said, giving his mother a mock salute.

She dismissed him with a laugh, then went back to her laundry.

*     *     *

      After lunch we decided to call on our friends and see what they were up to, seeing as we hadn’t spoken to them in days.

Dwayne and DJ were home, busily working on some presentation that needed to be sent off to a company in Sydney by that afternoon.

‘So, where have you guys been?’ DJ asked us, almost as soon as we were through the door.

‘Camping,’ Matt answered. ‘Dancing under the stars. Swimming naked in a cool mountain stream. Making love in the moonlight.’

‘Sounds almost too good to be true,’ Dwayne said.

Matt and I just grinned.

‘Maybe we should try it some time,’ DJ said to Dwayne.

‘Maybe,’ he answered.

‘We were actually thinking we should all head there one long weekend,’ I suggested.

‘You can count us in!’ DJ enthusiastically replied.

We stayed for a little while, but we could see that they were busy so soon left them to it.

As we were walking out the door DJ looked up and said to me, ‘Hey, Luke, any news?’

I shook my head and said, ‘Nothing so far. Looks like we’re going to Highlands.’

‘Bummer.’

‘Well, not really. It’s still a good university. I’m sure we’ll do okay down there.’

‘I’m sure you will,’ Dwayne answered.

We left them then and drove around to Phil’s place to drop the gear off and see if he was home. We were out of luck, so then decided to try Hoss’s place. Same story there.

‘You’ve gone all quiet again,’ Matt said as we headed downtown.

‘Huh?’ I answered, only half listening to him.

‘I said you’ve gone all quiet again. You okay?’

‘Yeah. I’m fine. You want to know something? I thought I would get all down when they mentioned the university back there. But I don’t think it bothers me anymore.’

‘You sure?’

‘Yeah. I think so. I mean the future is what we make it, right? So it doesn’t really matter what direction that we head off in, we just have to do the best we can. Don’t we?’

‘That’s my boy.’

I laughed. I think I had finally reconciled with the fact that I wasn’t going to be attending S.S.U. and, somewhat surprisingly, I felt free once more.

In the end, we didn’t find Phil or Hoss, so we called around to my parents place to let them know we were home, then headed into town to catch a movie, finally getting home at about ten o’clock, tired but happy.

‘I don’t know about you,’ Matt said as he collapsed on our bed. ‘But I am absolutely stuffed. It’s actually been a fairly tiring three days.’

‘Ain’t that the truth,’ I said as I collapsed beside him.

‘And tomorrow it’s back to the same old routine.’

‘Uh, huh.’

‘You going to keep ringing S.S.U.? You know, just in case there’s a vacancy?’

‘Yeah. I will, but I think I’ve finally realised that it’s not meant to be. I’ll start tomorrow with making some concrete plans about going to Highlands.’

‘Don’t give up totally. Keep in touch with Tim or Guy. If they’re going to S.S.U. they’ll most likely have organised some place to stay already.’

‘You keep talking as if that’s where we’re going?’ I sighed.

‘I just want you to keep your options open. Don’t give up until the very last minute. Will you promise me that?’

I smiled and quickly kissed him.

‘It’s a deal,’ I said to him.

‘Good. Now get up and turn the lights out, then get your arse back in bed.’

‘I love it when you talk dirty like that.’

*     *     *

      It was back to work again the next day. More shelf packing for me. More backyard mechanics for Matt. I wondered for how much longer we would both be doing this.

Not long, I thought.

At lunchtime we came back to the flat and while Matt made some sandwiches I tried the S.S.U. Admissions Office again.

‘I’m sorry Mr Solomon. There are still no vacancies in your course,’ the same woman said to me.

I thought that they might as well just record it and just play the same message back to me over and over again whenever I called.

‘Still no luck huh?’ Matt said as he placed a plate on the table in front of me.

I just shook my head.

‘It’ll work out mate. Don’t worry about it,’ he said, placing his hand on my shoulder.

‘Well, looks like I better find the number for a real estate agent in Highlands and call them.’

‘What about their admissions centre. Won’t they be able to tell you who to call?’

‘Good idea.’

I found the telephone number while I ate the sandwich, then when I had finished eating I punched it into Matt’s phone.

The woman I spoke to provided me with a couple of numbers to try, so I started calling straight away.

‘What sort of accommodation are you looking for?’ the first guy I spoke to asked me.

‘Ummm, just a flat or something for me and my, errrrr, partner. I’m starting university there soon.’

I glanced quickly at Matt and saw him grinning at me.

‘Hmmm. You may have left your run a bit late, mate. Most of the places that students usually rent are already taken. Can I get your number and call you back?’

‘Fine,’ I said with a sigh. I quoted him the phone number and he read it back to me, then we disconnected.

The next number I tried was even less helpful. I got a straight out, ‘Nothing left I’m afraid. You’re too late,’ the honey voiced receptionist replied.

When I disconnected from that call I put the phone down on the table and just put my head in my hands. I didn’t feel like crying, although to Matt that was probably what it looked like.

He got up and came around behind me and gave me a hug anyway.

‘Just keep trying,’ he whispered into my ear. ‘We’re going to be fine, remember?’

I turned in my seat and looked at him.

He grinned at me and I said, ‘Of course we are.’

We went back to work for the afternoon, for more of the same old routine, and while I was packing shelves I had a visit from Hoss, who it seemed had also spent the weekend away with Phil.

‘So where did you guys get to?’ he asked me.

‘We went camping. A place called Cockatoo Creek. Ever been there?’

‘Once,’ he answered. ‘It’s nice.’

‘It sure is. What did you get up to? You and Phil still going strong?’

He blushed slightly and nodded.

‘We went down to the coast. His family has a house down there at Mermaid Beach.’

‘Sounds like fun.’

‘Well, we didn’t see much of the water.’

I put my hand up to stop him. ‘That’s enough.’

We both just laughed.

‘So, how are your plans going for the big move?’ he asked me.

‘Slowly,’ I answered. ‘We still haven’t found any place to stay though. A real estate agent from Highlands is going to call me back.’

‘No luck with S.S.U. yet?’

I shook my head.

‘Ah well, Highlands is supposed to be a good university, and it’s a nice area.’

‘Thanks. That’s what everyone seems to say.’

I went back to my trolley of boxes after he left, and tried not to think about houses or universities or moving.

It didn’t do me any good though. That was all I could think about.

*     *     *

      The rest of the week was filled with more phone calls, interrupted only by our having to go to work.

The real estate agent phoned back on Thursday to let me know he had found a flat for us. One bedroom. Small. Not fancy. Not too expensive.

Best of all it was partly furnished and had things like a refrigerator, a bed and a kitchen table. I told him on the spot that we would take it.

I didn’t care what it looked like, provided we had a roof over our heads. We could always look around later for something else if we didn’t like it.

By Friday there was still no good news from S.S.U. and so it looked like our destiny would lie to the south after all.

The countdown appeared to have started. T minus 8 days and counting.

Shit, that had snuck up on us quickly.

That night we sat down and made up a list of things we needed to do, right on the very top of which was to book a U-Haul Trailer.

When we got there we would need to organise electricity or gas or whatever it was we needed.

‘We also need to resign from our jobs,’ Matt suddenly said.

‘Surely they know we’re going? I mean we’ve both talked about it at work haven’t we? You know . . . with the people we work with?’

‘Yeah, maybe, but we still have to make it official.’

Suddenly everything seemed so final. Almost irrevocable. We were cutting the ties that had bound us to this town for so long. It was actually happening.

The next morning, while Matt was at work, I went down to the nearest service station, which happened to be an agent for the trailer hire company, and booked a large covered-in trailer.

We had both laboured into the night and composed our official letters of resignation for our respective employers. Matt had taken his with him to work and was going to give it to his boss today.

Mine was in my pocket, and in spite of my not having to work that day, I decided to call in and deliver it anyway.

‘Thank you, Luke,’ my boss said, while shaking my hand. ‘We’ll be sorry to see you go, but I hope that everything goes well with your studies.’

‘Thank you,’ I replied. I was now close to tears myself and couldn’t say much more. After working there for four years, I was actually going to miss it, once I finished my final few shifts over the next week.

Afterwards I called in to see Matt. He was actually worse. I could see that he had actually been crying. He ushered me into the office, where we hugged, which seemed to make him feel a little better.

Matt was giving up a great deal more than I was. And he was doing it for me.

He had been helping out at Auto Stop even longer than I had been at the supermarket, having started making a nuisance of himself there when he was about thirteen, so the owner had taken pity on him and let him sweep floors and throw rubbish away. He had been a fixture there ever since.

As we were leaving to go to lunch we were stopped by Matt’s boss, who wished me well. He knew everything that needed to be known about the two of us, after Matt had told him everything about what had been going on since Christmas. He had been totally supportive of the two of us, and Matt couldn’t have asked for a better boss.

A short while later we met up with the gang at Con’s and told them all about the plans we had made.

‘So, you’re really doing it?’ Hoss asked.

‘Looks like it. We’re finally leaving you,’ Matt answered.

‘We’ll survive,’ DJ added. ‘But if we get in trouble you better come running. Either that, or make some room on your sofa.’

‘Don’t think we’ll have enough room for one of those by the sounds of things,’ I said. ‘So that means you’ll be sleeping in the car if you come and visit.’

‘Huh. That’d be right.’

When we were finished lunch Matt went back to work and I went scavenging for some large boxes and rolls of packing tape. I was going to have to start it sooner or later.

The rest of the weekend flew by and between us we got most of what we would need, at least for the first few months anyway, packed and ready to load.

Our mothers came and helped at various stages, but to tell you the truth, they became more of a hindrance than a help, so they were soon banished. They took it with good grace, but it didn’t stop either of them from popping their heads in through the doors at regular intervals to make sure we were still working.

I had to laugh at them. I mean, what else would we be doing?

By Sunday night all that remained were those things which we would need this week, or would be leaving behind.

The flat now looked half-empty. Only the large stack of boxes by the back door, each labeled with its contents, gave any indication of what was happening.

*     *     *

      We both worked through most of the next week, marking off the days we had left on our calendar.

I tried calling S.S.U. a couple of times, half-hopeful that there would be some news, but time and again I was to be disappointed.

Matt and I planned to leave for Highlands on the Friday morning, so I had booked the trailer for Thursday, to give us the chance to pack it, ready to get away early for the long drive.

At lunchtime on Thursday I finished my last shift and was presented with my very last pay packet, a nice card and silver pen in a fancy case, which everyone had apparently pitched in to buy me.

I thanked everyone, did my best to hold back the tears which were fighting to get out, and then walked out of there for the final time, determined not to look back.

‘Not long now, mate,’ I said to Matt as I joined him at Con’s, where I found him sitting with DJ and Hoss. I handed him the case containing the pen and he opened it, admiring the shiny new object, before showing it to the others.

‘So, tomorrow’s the day, huh?’ Hoss said, as I sat down at the booth.

‘Yeah. You going to come and see us off?’

‘We could probably do that.’

The guys had already ordered and so just after I had sat down our burgers were brought out to us by our old friend Con.

‘Is-a that-a right you-a going?’ he asked Matt and me.

‘I’m afraid so, Con,’ Matt answered. ‘We’re off to bigger and better things, you know?’

The old Greek face broke out into a broad smile.

‘I bet-a I’m-a gonna go broke now,’ he said as he slapped us both on the back, then turned and went back to his kitchen.

‘You got all your packing done yet?’ DJ asked us, between mouthfuls of burger.

‘Just got to pick up the trailer this afternoon and load it up tonight,’ I answered.

‘We’re only taking what we really need. For now, anyway. The flat we’ve got lined up is small and is partly furnished anyway,’ Matt added.

DJ and Hoss simply nodded and continued eating.

Just then Matt’s phone, which was sitting on the table in front of us, started ringing.

He flipped it open and said, ‘Hello.’

‘No, it’s not,’ we heard him say. ‘I’ll put him on.’

Then he passed it to me. I gave him the quizzical who is it look, but he just shrugged.

I took the phone from him and said, ‘Hello.’

The woman on the other end of the line started talking, and I knew instantly who it was.

‘Yes . . . No . . . Uh, huh! . . . Thank you very much.’

That was all I said, but suddenly all eyes were on me.

With trembling hands I flipped the phone closed and handed it back to Matt.

‘Well?’ he asked.

‘We’re not going to Highlands,’ was all I could say.

‘Seriously?’

‘Seriously.’

Matt let out a shriek of triumph and leaned over and hugged me and gave me a quick kiss on the cheek. Right there in the middle of the café.

Everyone looked at us. But we didn’t care. We were going to Thompsonville, where the sea was blue, the beaches were white and life was relaxed and carefree.

*     *     *

      Matt had to go back to work and finish off his last day, so I took the car and his phone, picked up the trailer and headed home.

I decided to call around to my parents’ place first and tell mum the news and found her in the garden, up to her elbows in mulch.

‘What’s wrong?’ she asked me as I walked up the path. ‘You look like you’ve seen a ghost.’

I managed a smile and simply said that there was a change in plans.

‘Oh?’

‘I’m going to S.S.U.,’ I said. ‘I just got a call.’

She jumped to her feet and threw off her gardening gloves then gave me a huge hug and a kiss on the cheek.

‘I’m so happy for you,’ she said, still hugging me.

‘Thanks.’

‘Now come inside. Your father and I have got something for you. A little graduation present, if you like.’

I looked at her suspiciously. ‘Like what?’ I asked.

‘You’ll see.’

I followed her around to the back of the house and we climbed the few steps up into the back room, where I was shown three rather large boxes.

‘Oh, no mum, you and dad can’t afford that,’ I said.

‘Don’t you worry about what we can and can’t afford,’ she said.

‘But . . .’

‘But nothing. It’s yours.’

I walked over to the boxes and ran my hands over them.

‘I don’t know what to say.’

‘Thank you would be a good start,’ she answered.

I went back and hugged her, then tore open the top of the first box, which contained a massive, brand new computer monitor.

‘We told the man at the shop what you would be doing and said we wanted the best we could get. It all had to be up to date. The very latest. Is that what we got?’

I quickly read the specs on the outside of the next box and then tore it open. It pretty much had the works . . . even if it would be outdated within six months, such was the pace at which technology was changing.

‘Yeah mum, that’s about what you got. I don’t know how to thank you. It must have cost a fortune.’

‘Don’t worry about that. You just go and do us proud.’

*     *     *

      So much for packing the trailer. I ended up spending most of the afternoon on the phone.

Matt was going to kill me when he got the next phone account.

I rang Matt.

I rang my father at his work to thank him.

I rang a rather annoyed real estate agent and told him to let the flat out to someone else.

I rang Tim and Guy to let them know about our change in plans.

They were already in Thompsonville and they told me that they had found an old farm house that was cheap. And yes, there was plenty of room for Matt and me.

‘He’s going to be so buzzed when I tell him.’

‘Great,’ Guy said to me. ‘When are you coming down?’

‘Tomorrow,’ I answered. ‘Will you be there at the house?’

‘We’ve got to go into the university in the morning, then we’ll be home after lunch.’

‘I suppose I’ll have to go and finish signing forms anyway. We’re going to leave fairly early if we can, so we’ll be there before lunchtime. How about we meet at the university and then we’ll follow you home?’

‘That sounds perfect.’

We disconnected then, and I just sat on the bed staring at the phone.

Was this actually happening to me? Was everything finally falling in to place?

I pinched my arm, just to make sure I wasn’t dreaming.

Ouch. It hurt. It wasn’t a dream.

There was a knock at the door just then and Matt’s mum called out.

‘Are you in there, Luke?’

‘Yes, in here,’ I called back.

She came in and was all smiles.

‘Matt just rang me. He told me your news. Congratulations,’ she said as she hugged me.

‘Thank you.’

‘So, you’re nearly ready huh?’ she said, as she looked around the room at how little there seemed to be left in here.

‘I guess so,’ I answered. ‘Tomorrow’s the day.’

‘I don’t think I’ve said this to you before, but I wanted to thank you, before you left.’

‘What for?’ I asked.

‘For being there for Matt. And for loving him,’ she said.

‘You don’t have to thank me for that,’ I answered. ‘He’s pretty easy to love, you know.’

‘Yes. He is, isn’t he?’

We smiled at each other and sat down on the edge of our unmade bed. She looked at it for a moment. At the two pillows. At the blankets strewn back.

I nervously looked down and hoped there were no stains showing on the sheets. Much to my relief there weren’t.

‘It took us a while to get used to having you around, you know? I mean . . . you know . . . as more than just Matt’s friend.’

‘Well, I can understand that. I guess we did put everyone on the spot.’

I sat there nervously playing with the ring on my finger. She looked down at it and smiled.

‘Hmmm. You will take care of him for me, won’t you?’

‘I’ll do my best. But it’s him who does most of the taking care of people. It’s one of the reasons I love him so much.’

She put her hands on mine.

‘I’m happy that he has you. Thank you.’

With that she leaned across and kissed me on the cheek, then got up to leave.

‘Oh, by the way,’ she said, as she stopped at the doorway. ‘I’ve been speaking to your mother. Seeing as it’s your last night in town we are all going out to dinner. I’ve already booked, so don’t argue. And your friends are all coming as well. So you and Matt can’t get out of it.’

She left then, leaving me sitting there on my own looking out the doorway of our bedroom, at a pile of boxes stacked just inside the front door of the kitchen.

*     *     *

      By the time it was time to pick Matt up from work, I had loaded all of the boxes and some of the furniture items, like my desk and bookcase, into the trailer. We were almost ready to leave.

Before I started loading it, I had unhooked the trailer and managed to push it close to the door, so thankfully I didn’t have to carry anything very far.

With that done I was now covered in sweat, so I had a quick shower and changed into some clean clothes, then drove down to pick Matt up.

He passed me his going away present when he got into the car. A pewter mug, engraved with the words, ‘To Matt, With Thanks and Best Wishes, from your Friends at Auto Stop.

‘That’s nice,’ I said to him.

‘Hmmm.’

‘You sad about leaving?’

‘In a way. I really liked it there, but there’s no looking back now. We’ve both got new things to do.’

‘We do.’

‘Did mum tell you about tonight?’ he asked me.

‘Yeah. Sounds like they’ve planned quite a shindig.’

‘Yeah. Well, I hope they don’t make a real big thing of it.’

‘Oh, they will. I’m sure of it.’

I started the car and drove us home. Matt had a shower and changed, ready for our night out.

‘And I spoke to Guy this afternoon,’ I said to him as he was pulling on a shirt.

‘Yeah?’

I walked over to him and started buttoning the shirt for him.

‘They’ve found a house in Thompsonville, an old farmhouse apparently, just out of town, and they’ve got room for us. We’re going to meet them at the university at about lunchtime, then follow them out. Is that okay with you?’

‘Sounds perfect. What’s the house like?’

‘Old and cheap. Even if we don’t like it, it’ll do for starters.’

‘Yeah. It’ll be fine though. I’m sure. Well, are you ready for our big send off?’

‘So it’s all finally happening, huh?’

He put his arms around me and hugged me.

‘Yeah, and tomorrow we’re out of here. You and me. We have our future to live. Nobody else’s but ours. If we fuck it up, then we only have ourselves to blame. But that ain’t going to happen, because I have faith in you. I have faith in us. We’ve got a long haul ahead of us and it starts tomorrow.’

I kissed him and said, ‘Thank you.’

Then we went outside and climbed into the car, then drove up to his parent’s house. While I sat in the car, fiddling with the ring on my finger and smiling to myself at just how everything had turned out, Matt got out and went inside, to see if they were ready to leave.

*     *     *

      The big night out certainly was a big night out. We went downtown to a restaurant that I had never been to. It looked expensive, and when I saw the menu it most certainly was.

My parents and little sister were there. So were Matt’s parents. Plus Phil and Hoss, Phil’s parents, DJ and Dwayne and a few of Matt’s other relatives, most of whom I knew, even if I’d only met them once or twice.

It was a great night, which lasted until we were the last group of people left in the restaurant and the proprietors started making noises about shutting up for the night.

‘What time are you leaving tomorrow?’ Dwayne asked us as he and DJ got up, ready to leave.

‘About nine,’ Matt answered.

‘We’ll come and see you off then. You know, just to make sure you actually go.’

‘Smart arse,’ Matt replied.

The rest of our merry crowd gradually dispersed and we finally said goodbye to the last of them on the steps of the restaurant at about eleven thirty.

We were wished well by everyone, and had even been given some small gifts, then we walked the short distance to our car.

Matt’s parents were walking ahead of us and turned and said, ‘See you in the morning,’ just before they got into their car.

We said goodnight and watched them drive away.

‘Come on, there’s something we have to see before we go home,’ Matt said, taking my hand and dragging me the last few steps to the car.

‘What?’ I said, trying to protest.

‘You’ll see.’

We got in and he started it up, then we drove towards home, before turning off and heading for the lookout.

‘It’s too late,’ I said to him.

He looked across at me and in the faint light coming from the dashboard I saw him just shake his head at me.

When we reached the mountain top he parked the car as close as he could to the actual lookout and we got out and made our way up the steps to the viewing platform.

There was a breeze blowing, warm, though refreshing. Above us stars were shining. Below us the lights of the town sparkled in the valley.

I was standing at the railing looking out over the town, while Matt stood behind me with one hand holding the railing on either side of me and with his chin resting gently on my shoulder.

‘It’s funny how things sometimes turn out, isn’t it?’ he whispered.

‘Yeah . . . but in a good way,’ I replied.

‘Yeah . . . especially now that we’ve got everything sorted out and all the crap we had to deal with has settled down.’

‘And the arsehole people who were giving us a hard time are out of our lives . . .’

‘You mean, like Davo?’

‘Yeah . . . amongst others.’

I felt him nod his head, but nothing more was said for a few moments.

‘Do you think it was him making those phone calls?’ he eventually asked me.

‘There’s a good chance it was,’ I answered. ‘But it doesn’t really matter, does it? At least they’ve stopped now.’

‘Yeah. That’s true.’

For the next few minutes we remained silent, just breathing in the cool night air and looking down at the lights of the town, twinkling far below us.

‘You know, this is the last time we will see them like this,’ Matt said to me.

‘What do you mean?’

‘I mean, it’s the last time we’ll be up here on this lookout as residents of this fine town. Next time we come back here will be as visitors. Or even as strangers, maybe.’

‘Next time we see this view it will be the same. But it will be different,’ I added. ‘It almost seems weird.’

‘Hmmm.’

‘Come on. Let’s go home,’ I suggested. ‘There’s something else that we need to do for one last time in this town tonight, at least as residents . . .’

Silently, he took my hand and led me back to the car.

*     *     *

      Don’t you just hate long goodbyes?

The next morning, after a predictably late start, we hooked the trailer back onto the car, but only after being dragged outside by a rowdy mob that had gathered for the lynching.

Our families and the whole gang gathered at eight thirty, knocking on our door while we were still getting dressed.

‘Come on you two,’ Matt’s father called out. ‘Some of us still have work to go to, don’t you know?’

We emerged, still pulling our t-shirts on, to see a group of familiar faces, some smiling, some sad.

Quickly, we gathered up the last of the things we needed, mainly being our suitcases full of clothes and packed them into the trailer.

Our mothers were the first to crack up. Funny that!

They each covered their sons with kisses and tears, then exchanged places.

I looked despairingly at Matt. He was laughing.

We hugged my sister and gave her a kiss. We shook hands with our fathers, then hugged them. Then did the same with all our friends, DJ, Dwayne, Hoss, Phil.

I tell you, there wasn’t a dry eye in the house.

Finally we managed to wrestle free of everyone and made a break for the car.

‘Safe trip.’

‘Take care.’

‘Be good.’

‘Call us when you get there.’

The last thing I remember seeing before I got into the car was them all standing there waving.

Matt started the Commodore and looked across at me.

‘Are you ready for this?’ he asked.

‘Ready as I’ll ever be,’ I answered.

He gave the motor a small rev and started off down the driveway, with everyone following us up the driveway until we readied ourselves to turn onto the street.

As we pulled out onto the road Matt gave them all a blast of the car horn, and as we drove away we waved back to everyone, who were all still waving madly at us from the sidewalk.

Slowly they grew smaller and smaller, until finally we went around the corner and we disappeared from each other’s view.

Matt and I looked at each other and smiled, then with our hands clasped together on the seat between us we left the town of our childhood behind.

The future was ours and it would be what we made of it.

It was only us now.

~ The End ~

 

We Shall Be Free
Performed by Garth Brooks
Written by Garth Brooks and Stephanie Davis.
Copyright: Liberty Records

That’s The Way I Remember It
Performed by Chris Gaines (Garth Brooks)
Written by Tommy Sims and Tony Arata
Copyright: Bases Loaded Music, Universal Music – Brentwood Benson Publ., MCA Music Publishing A.D.O. Universal S

The Dance
Performed by Garth Brooks
Written by Tony Arata
Copyright: Morganactive Songs Inc., Emi April Music Inc.

4 Responses to After We Danced – 14

  1. Chet Thompson says:

    MARK, THANKS FOR A GREAT STORY THAT EXPLAINS A LOT OF WHAT HAPPENS IN OTHER STORIES!!!

    • ponyboy63 says:

      Thank yo Chet. Well, that was where it all started … now I just need to get the follow-up stories re-edited and posted so the whole collection is together again! 😉

  2. Timothy says:

    great story really enjoyed it and cant wait for the follow-up

    • ponyboy63 says:

      Thank you Timothy! The follow-up stories are actually already posted. AWD was the first in a series, all basically set in the same world – that of Thompsonville where Matt and Luke ended up. The others are The Rip, Song For Guy, Thompsonville and A Good Place, in that order. I’m in the process of re-editing SFG at the moment and it is currently being posted on here. Thompsonville will be next. A Good Place is already on here in its entirety! Happy reading! 🙂

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