As I recall there was never any mention of the last comment made by the other boy, which was something that both Billy and I were grateful for. We weren’t even sure if anyone else heard it, or if they did, if they managed to connect it with the two of us.
The slaps on the back for both Billy and me continued for quite a while afterwards. We even had our photographs in the newspaper and everything.
The following January was the highlight for us though, even though things had died down within a couple of weeks after the initial event. January twenty sixth was Australia Day, and at a special ceremony on that day both Billy and I were presented with special medallions for our bravery in saving the life of Justin, who even came back to Thompsonville with his parents so that they could be there for the ceremony. They even booked in at our caravan park, although they hadn’t actually stayed there previously.
The three of us were all embarrassed by the whole thing and were glad when that day was over. At least Billy and I got to know Justin a little, and he proved to be a nice kid. He never once mentioned having walked in on us, and we didn’t mention it either.
Some things were just best left alone.
And as for Billy and me?
Well, a few weeks later we did get to continue what we had started that day in the showers, only this time we made sure that no one else could walk in on us.
The two of us went camping out in the National Park one weekend, just after Christmas, hiking up along the river for a while and finding a good big clearing, which looked out over a bend in river.
It was getting late in the afternoon by the time we pitched our tent, so while I gathered some firewood Billy headed off down to the river to try and catch a fish for our dinner. He was hopeful. I was skeptical. But I had a couple of cans of stew in my backpack, just in case.
Much to my surprise he came up trumps, wearing a grin from ear to ear when he walked up over the river bank toward the tent about an hour later, holding up a rather large Perch, already scaled and gutted and ready for the frying pan.
‘Wow,’ I said when I spotted him and his fish.
‘And you were doubting me?’ he joked.
By the time he had returned it was almost dark, and I had already lit the fire, so within a few minutes we had our dinner on the fire and we both settled down with our backs up against a log staring up at the mountains which towered above us.
Billy reached up and put his arm around my shoulder and I soon dropped my head onto his.
‘You remember that day in the showers?’ he said to me.
‘How could I forget?’ I replied. ‘That day is going to live with me for the rest of my life now, and for more than one reason too.’
‘Yeah, I know what you mean. I was thinking though, what would have happened if we had gone someplace to finish what we started. You know, like you suggested.’
‘Shit. I’d almost forgotten about that.’
‘If it hadn’t have been for you, that kid would have been swept out to sea and drowned for sure.’
‘No mate, if it hadn’t been for us! Not just me.’
‘You were the one who spotted him though, and dived him and grabbed him,’ he said.
‘And you were the one that found the rope and float ring.’
‘Well, let’s just say we were all lucky that day.’
‘Yeah let’s,’ I said, as I reached up and cupped his cheek in my hand and then drew his face towards mine. We were both nervous, and inexperienced, and neither of us had any idea if we were doing it right, but we enjoyed what we did do . . . even if it was just a kiss.
We ate our meal by the light of a campfire, listening to the steady flow of water cascading gently over rocks accompanied by the more traditional music of the night, being crickets and other assorted bush dwellers.
Above us there were only stars. In front of us was the promise of what was still to come. The promise of taking up where we had left off those few weeks earlier.
Billy picked up our empty plates and put them aside, before coming back and sitting down beside me.
I looked up at him and saw the firelight dancing off his handsome features, and wondered what it felt like to be in love, unsure if this was what it felt like or not.
Slowly, I reached over and placed my hand on Billy’s leg, letting my fingers explore his inner thigh, roaming up and down, before finally coming to rest on his lap. Through the material of his jeans I could feel him hardening already, but I didn’t take my eyes of his smiling face.
‘It doesn’t take much to get you excited,’ I said to him.
‘No it doesn’t,’ he replied, before reaching across and repeating the actions on me.
‘If we stay out here and do this we’re going to be eaten alive by mosquitos,’ I said to him.
‘Let’s go into the tent then. The only thing that will be eating you tonight is going to be me!’
‘Sounds promising,’ I said to him.
He just grinned and got to his feet, holding his hand out towards me. I reached up and placed my hand in his and allowed him to drag me to my feet, and together, with hands intertwined, we made our way into our tent and zipped it shut behind us.
* * *
I wish I could say that after that night we lived happily ever after. But I can’t.
We stayed together for quite some time after that enjoyable weekend, going away together like that at every available opportunity, and somehow managing to keep our relationship secret from everyone, including our closest friends.
As quite often happens in small towns like ours, however, reality slaps you in the face every now and then, and in the case of our group of friends we soon found that there just weren’t enough jobs to go around after we left school. Within six months of being presented with our medallions our small group was no more, as one by one we all came face to face with the real world.
Chris and Robert were the first to set out to make their own way in life, with Chris choosing to try the pro-surfing circuit and Robert moving into Macquarie Harbour to attend the local Technical College. Billy stuck it out the longest, I guess that was at least in part because of me, but he too eventually succumbed to the desire to succeed in life and not long afterwards he joined the army.
Our last night together was something special though and I will always remember it. And while he always promised to return to me, in all these years I have only ever spoken to him on the phone a few times and have seen him just twice since that night.
So I guess that just leaves me now.
Let’s see. I’m twenty seven years old. Still single. And now managing the caravan park that my parents own, while they enjoy their retirement in a two bedroom unit on the Gold Coast, overlooking a golden beach, and not far from the famous casino.
Don’t get me wrong here. I am actually enjoying my life. But sometimes I just can’t help but wonder what may have been.
* * *
One morning a couple of months ago I looked in the appointment book to see how many sites we had booked out for the coming night and I noticed a name there that I hadn’t seen in quite a while.
It was Black.
I wondered if it could have been them, but figured that most likely it wasn’t and so I went about doing what I did every day . . . cleaning shower blocks, tending gardens, replacing light bulbs, repairing things that needed fixing.
After that time I had pulled their son from the water I had seen the Black family every year when they returned for their annual holidays and had gotten to know them quite well. Originally, whenever they were in town, they used to stay in some units on the far side of the lake but after that summer they started coming to our caravan park instead. That was until about four years ago I suppose, when they didn’t returned for their Christmas holidays, and I hadn’t seen them since.
Justin turned out to be a nice kid and he and I got on quite well. He could be a little moody at times, but I figured that was just him coming to terms with growing up. I took him fishing quite often when he was here. I even took him and his father camping out into the National Park, and to tell you the truth, in the first year that they didn’t return I felt kind of lost, but hey, that was their business. Right?
As I went about my jobs that day my mind kept drifting back to all those I had known who were no longer around, mainly Billy and Justin. I guess I was just yearning for some of those old feelings from those happy days to return to me, in one way or another.
I was kind of hoping that it would be the Blacks returning this summer, but I wasn’t holding my breath waiting for it to happen.
‘What’s wrong with you today, Scott?’ old Mrs Johnson, a permanent resident from van number five, asked me as she came shuffling past me heading in the direction of the kiosk. ‘You’ve been moping around here all day. I think you’ve weeded that garden bed three times already.’
I looked up at her and smiled. ‘Nothing much Mrs J. I guess I’ve just been wandering down memory lane again and feeling sorry for myself.’
‘Hmmmppff,’ she snorted. ‘What have you got to feel sorry for yourself for? You’ve got a good job. Your boss leaves you alone. And you live in heaven.’
I grinned at her and said, ‘Yeah I suppose you are right, but . . .’
‘Ahhh . . .’ she said. ‘But your bed gets cold at night? That it?’
I think I blushed, and the old woman started chuckling to herself.
‘Well, I know this nice young girl . . .’
‘It’s okay thanks Mrs J,’ I said, cutting her short. ‘I think I’ll manage.’
‘Ah, suit yourself then,’ she said, and turned around and started heading back towards the caravan she shared with her husband.
‘Hey, weren’t you going to the kiosk?’ I asked, calling out after her.
‘Was I?’ she asked, as she stopped and turned around. ‘I wonder what it was that I wanted.’
She stood there thinking for a moment, then shrugged and shuffled back towards her van, while I turned my attention back to the flower bed, chuckling to myself.
A little while later I heard a car pull up outside the reception area and so I stuck my head around the corner and looked in that direction to see who it was. A dark blue Ford was parked there with several people getting out of it.
I stood up and straightened my back and thought that they looked familiar. Then it struck me. It was the Blacks.
They all looked a little older and a little greyer, and the surly looking teenager that stood behind them had to be Justin. I started toward them and when they noticed me it didn’t seem to me that they were all that pleased to be here, although Justin’s father did step forward and greet me.
‘Scott, so good to see you again,’ he said as I shook his outstretched hand.
‘You too, Peter. Hello Mrs Black, Justin.’
Justin’s mother smiled and said hello, but Justin’s half a smile was forced, before then returning to the same surly scowl that he had started with.
‘Suit yourself,’ I thought to myself, then returned my attention to his father.
We spoke briefly about how the town hadn’t changed any in the four years since they had been here last. They told me about Justin’s older brother (the kid that had been with them on the beach that day nine years ago) and how he was now in the Army. I told them about my parents who had now retired and left me in charge, and about Billy being in the army also.
All the while however, my eyes kept darting back towards Justin, who had grown into an attractive young man, even if he was still wearing a scowl, and acting as if this was the last place on earth that he wanted to be.
He had grown taller than I thought he would be, but he wasn’t built like a bean pole; he had a good build. The dirty blonde hair had become brown, but was now sun bleached on the tips, and his eyes were also brown to match. He was wearing a purple Sydney Kings basketball top and had his arms folded across his well developed chest, accentuating his strong arms.
I couldn’t help but be impressed by what he had grown into, but his attitude left a bit to be desired.
‘So, have the tourists been good to you this year, Scott?’ I heard Peter Black asking me.
‘Huh. Oh, yes and no,’ I replied, bringing my attention back to the conversation. ‘You know what it’s like around here . . . it never really gets that busy.’
He nodded in polite agreement.
‘Well, I can’t keep you folks standing here talking all afternoon,’ I said to them. ‘How about we find where we have you booked into and organise a key?’
‘Thank you. That sounds like a good idea, Scott. It’s been a rather tiring drive up here,’ Jenny Black answered, while casting a somewhat despairing look in the direction of her son.
* * *
I watched them from my office window as they unpacked their car and carried their belongings into the on-site cabin that I had given them a key for, while at the same time feeling somewhat sorry for Justin’s parents. They seemed to be doing all the work while their moody teenage son stood around with his hands thrust deep into the pockets of his cargo pants.
I felt like going down there and giving him a clip under the ear and telling him to wake up to himself, just like I had done on a few occasions when he was considerably younger and had gotten out of hand, but he wasn’t my problem and I figured that they would just have to deal with him as best they could. It was none of my business after all, but for some reason, I suppose partly because he was the boy I had plucked from the currents all those years ago, I sort of felt responsible for him.
‘Hmmm, he’s nice,’ a voice whispered into my ear as I stood there watching them.
‘Not a chance in hell of him being the one,’ I said, turning around to face Sally Reed, my part-time secretary-cum-office assistant-come-shop keeper.
She was the only person in the whole town, as far as I was aware, that knew I was gay, after having walked in on me one day while I was browsing through a magazine. She had told me that she didn’t care and had promised never to reveal it to anyone, and I had no reason to believe otherwise.
‘Who is he?’ she asked, pulling back the curtain ever so slightly.
I picked up a framed photograph from the shelf beside me and passed it to her.
‘You’re joking,’ she said.
‘Nope. That’s the boy. In person.’
‘He looks like a cranky little shit.’
‘Hmmm. I feel like going down and clipping him under the ear or something.’
‘Why don’t you?’
‘None of my business,’ I answered.
Sally let the curtain fall back into place and then leant with her back against the filing cabinet and faced me, then said, ‘But?’
‘Come on. I know you better than that.’
It was true. She did know me better than that. Better than most people knew me actually. She had this uncanny ability to know what was troubling me just about all the time. It annoyed me, and sometimes even freaked me out.
‘Well . . .’ I began. ‘It’s just that seeing as I saved him that time, I sort of feel responsible for him. Weird, ain’t it?’
‘I wouldn’t say that. I’d say it’s perfectly natural. You going to try and find out what’s eating him?’ she replied, handing the picture back to me.
‘Like I said. It’s none of my business,’ I answered, then turned and walked over to my desk.
She left it at that and went back out to the reception area, just as we both heard the bell above the door ring.
An elderly couple wanted a caravan for the night and then, after filling out their forms for them (‘Sorry love, I forgot my glasses’) and sending them on their way with a key to van number seven, Sally came back to the door of my office and just stood there, staring at me.
‘What?’ I asked her.
‘They’re here for two weeks,’ she said to me.
‘Who? That old couple? I thought they said they only wanted a van for the night?’
‘No, silly. The Blacks.’
‘Oh. Are they?’
‘Yeah. So I just reckon if you’ve saved this kid once, you’re going to need to do it all over again. Only differently, this time.’
‘Sally, what the fuck are you talking about?’
‘You’ll figure it out,’ she said, then turned and went back to her duties.
I watched her for a few moments, then glanced back up at the photograph sitting on top of the shelf beside the window. It was taken the day that Billy and I had been presented with our medallions and showed both of us smiling, holding a laughing Justin in mid-air between us.
I couldn’t help but wonder what the Black family were all doing here now, especially after having been absent for however many years it had been, but I guessed that if they wanted to tell me, well, they eventually would.
* * *
A few days later, having seen the Blacks coming and going from time to time, and giving them an occasional wave, I found myself walking along the edge of the lake one afternoon, scattering seagulls as I went, only to have them fly up and land back in exactly the same spot once I had passed them.
I looked up toward the old Moreton Bay Fig tree on top of the hill, which seemed to me as if it had been there forever, and noticed that someone was sitting alone at the picnic table. It was the exact same table that had been there nine years ago, and still proudly bore the initials of my childhood gang.
After a moment I recognised who it was. Justin. Sitting alone, with his head in hands.
Up until this point I had deliberately kept my distance, figuring that he wasn’t really my problem, but after seeing him there all alone, looking, well, I wasn’t sure how he looked exactly, I just figured he needed someone to talk to. It was then that I decided I was as good a person as anyone to try and talk to him at least, and so I started climbing the hill towards him.
‘Mind if I join you?’ I asked him.
‘It’s a free world,’ he answered defiantly. ‘Did they send you after me?’
‘Who do you think?’
‘Your parents? No, I just felt like a walk on the beach, then decided to come around this way before heading home. I just saw you sitting here all alone,’ I answered truthfully. ‘Thought that you might be able to use a friend.’
‘Hey mate, I’m only here as a friend. I haven’t seen you in like, four or five years, so whatever your beef is with the world, don’t go taking it out on me, all right?’
He looked straight at me, and all I could see was pain and hurt in his expression.
After a few moments he said, ‘Sorry, man. You’re right,’ then looked away again.
‘Okay then. Just so long as we understand each other. So, what about you? What are you doing up here?’
‘Out here in the open? From who? Your parents? Whatever for?’
‘I just need to get away from them every now and then. That’s all.’
‘Oh,’ I replied.
The silence between us stretched on for a few minutes.
‘So, did dear mummy and daddy tell you why we’re here?’ he asked eventually, doing nothing to disguise the sarcastic note in his voice.
‘No. They didn’t,’ I answered.
He just nodded and remained silent.
After a few minutes I said, ‘Do you want to tell me?’
‘Dunno. Maybe later.’
He simply shrugged.
After that, there was more silence, during which time we both sat and studied a guy on a sail board skimming effortlessly across the surface of the lake, then he said, ‘It seems that my shrink thinks it would be a good idea for me to come back to some place where I was happy.’
‘Your shrink?’ I asked, turning to face him.
‘Yeah. Shit man, didn’t they tell you anything? Jeez, they are slipping. They normally tell everyone. I think it’s so that everyone will take pity on me.’
‘Tell everyone what? What have we all got to take pity on you for?’
‘Because I tried to kill myself. Here see,’ he said, holding out his wrists and showing me his jagged, self-inflicted scars.
As I stared at the hard lines of tissue across his tender wrists I suddenly felt as if I had just been punched in the stomach. All I managed to blurt out was, ‘Why?’
‘You wouldn’t understand if I told you,’ he said quietly.
‘You could try me,’ I replied.
I looked into his eyes. As he held my gaze I could see him thinking about it, but then he blinked and looked away, back down towards the lake.
‘We’ll see,’ was all he said, before he then got to his feet.
I didn’t move. I think I was still in something of a state of shock.
‘I’ll catch you later Scott,’ he said back over his shoulder as he started walking away.
‘Justin!’ I called out after him, making him stop and turn around to face me.
‘If you ever want to talk about it, or about anything at all, just come up to the house, okay? Anytime!’
He nodded and said, ‘Thanks Scott. I appreciate it.’ Then turned and walked off, shoving his hands deep into his pockets and heading down towards the river.
To be continued . . .