My pop, my grandfather, lives on the edge of a small town near Broken Hill in Australia. The name of the town doesn't matter. It's unpronounceable, a higgletypigglety mess of syllables, like most Australian town names. It's barely a town at all. More a collection of weatherboard houses held together by rough people who are set in their ways and live out there for a reason. It's country where Mad Max was filmed. It's all red sand and rocks and bush dust, huge clear blue skies as far as you can see, dirt tracks leading to the featureless horizon. Land covered with ugly bush, barren trees and home to animals that will kill you if given a chance. Earth that cracks open under a terrible sun that beats down relentlessly. Heat like razors, like needles, like lasers. If you stand still long enough, you'll smell your skin roasting. It's not unlike suckling pig.
Then there's the flies. I don't miss the flies. They're not thick like way out back, but they're around enough for the locals to have adopted a habit of speaking without really opening their mouths. So they kind of mumble in a mildly comprehensible dialect of Australian English, rich in slang and slander.
A town at the edge of the desert, where society is disintegrating and threatens to be reclaimed by rocks. Everything exists within a colour palette of fire - red, yellow, orange, blue flame. This is where my pop lives. My nan lived here too.
'Kev had to put down a bunch of good cattle last week. Dam's near empty. Hay's too exxy,' my pop takes a swig of his beer. 'Poor bugger. It's a bloody shame.' The glass sweats and warm drops of water run down, saturating the coaster.
'It's so dry, the goannas are carrying water bags, y'know?'
'It's always been,' I say.
'Yeah, nah, they don't call it a 'sunburnt country' for nothin' do they,' and on and on he goes. The tired ceiling fan making pointless circles above us, stirring thick heavy air and mixing it with the smells of other people in the pub. A couple of German tourists are perched uncomfortably on bar stools, wincing as they drink our poor excuse for beer out here. There's a couple of local seniors red-faced from the lawn bowls courts, savouring a chicken parmigiana and making my mouth water. Midnight Oil is playing on a radio somewhere in the kitchen and I can only hear Peter Garrett's tinny vocals.
'One more for the road?'
My pop likes a drink. He's got a big, wide, red nose with large pores, dead giveaway for someone who likes a drink. He never gets drunk though.
After a last bevvie for the road, we step into the furnace outside. The street is deserted - no one except for guys playing cricket would make a point of conducting business in the middle of the day near Broken Hill. Life happens before 10am and after 3pm. But today, my arrival in town is somewhat an event for Pop. He's not had a visitor since nan died, and I've been travelling since finishing high school a couple of years back.
Pop opened the ute door and waited. It was a beat up old thing, once white and now bleached a weak yellow cream colour. The bonnet was smudged with red dust. Someone had written in the dust 'Wash me, yobbo'. The tray table in the back was equally beat up. I remember sitting in the back as a child, with one of his cattle dogs, Tiger, as we bounced over dirt tracks heading to the dam to catch yabbies.
We wait for the hot air to get pushed out by the weak air con.
'Bloody car's hotter than a shearer's armpit,' says pop. 'Mind the buckle. You'll burn your gonads off if you're not careful.'
Seat belt buckle burns were a weapon of war in sibling rivalry. I still have a burn on my leg where my brother sat on me and pressed the searing hot buckle into my calf, branding me a wuss. He got a belting for it. I feel almost nostalgic about it now, strangely. Like the way the bottoms of my feet are tough as nails, from challenging my brother to stand on the hot cement footpath after lunch in late January for as long as he could manage. He got second degree burns, and another belting for being a bloody idiot. I got revenge, and it tasted sweet, even after my own belting.
Childhood in this place left scars on me.
My pop's town is dying. The main street has a few little houses. The residents of this town are no longer house proud. I don't think they ever were. You couldn't afford to be, living out here, out back. Hard enough just to get through each day. The house paint is faded and coming away in chunks, being eaten away by neglect and the desert. Front gardens are abandoned. Some might have had grass at some point, this has dried up, turned yellow and brittle, then brown, then ultimately blown away, reclaimed by red dirt and rocks. Every house has a cheap metal fence. They are purely functional, intended to mark the boundary of one's private property, which seems a little pointless given there's hardly anyone living here anymore. The fences are caked in thick layers of red dust. They haven't been opened in an age. The windows have sheer white curtains hanging in them, and no signs of life beyond in the gloom.
Approaching the stretch of shops, the footpaths are cracked and the road gets bumpy with pot holes that were never mended after the last flood, maybe years ago. Pop makes no attempt to avoid the pot holes, and he whinges about them every time he hits one.
The store fronts are filthy. Every one is vacant, barren, and abandoned with some evidence of speed. Shelving units still stand, the better goods having been looted, the trash left behind. Some with broken windows. Several weeks and months worth of mail, bills, maybe letters, shoved under doors until the postie gave up. The police station is closed up. There's not even a pub here anymore. Everything is cloudy and red as the wind picks up and there's reports of a dust storm somewhere near.
There's no one else walking around, braving the early afternoon sun. There's no one else driving. There's nowhere to go.
We drive past a couple of dark skinned, long limbed youths in threadbare t-shirts and loose shorts. My pop grunts and mutters something casually racist about drunken Indigenous youth and delinquency. I choose to ignore him.
It's a vision of the apocalypse. We are the Road Warriors, my pop and I.
Pop pulled over at the cemetery. 'Out ya hop. Pay your respects. Nan's been waitin' for ya.'
The late afternoon air is heavy with dust. My lips are cracked and dry. My skin, my clothes feel crusty. I can taste dirt. The red sand and dust kicks up with every step. The long grass is blonde and dead. There are empty beer bottles and brown paper bags cast about, evidence of late night meetings for 'drunken youths'. There's broken tombstones with dates like 1897 and 1903 carved into them. There's a half-destroyed war memorial on the edge of the cemetery too, with a handful of names engraved in a dull bronze plaque. A lot of names for a small town.
Nan's grave is an oasis in the wasteland, though. It's a little patch of grass, lush and green. There's a garden bed of rich, moist soil and some orange and pink geraniums. The space is carefully weeded and cared for.
Pop pulls out his handkerchief and wipes the dust off the headstone. For a moment, he is quiet. We hear only the breeze crinkling the brittle leaves in the gum trees around us.
Memories of my nan are seared in my memory, like the image you see when you close your eyes after staring into the sun for too long. Visions and sensations.
There's nan hanging the washing on the line, where it'll dry within the hour. Glimpses of her hands and grey curly hair through sheets and shirts and sparkling sunlight. The smell of laundry liquid and fabric softener.
There's nan holding my hand late at night, when the air is rich with the rare scent of water. The night sky is ablaze with lightning, the roar of thunder like creatures from Dreamtime stories. Nan hushes me and holds me close. She smells like pot purri, mixed with desert dirt and hot air and rain.
She was there when I was born, when my mother named me Banjo. It smelled of bushfires that day, they used to tell me. Fires on the horizon and black, choking clouds reaching up to touch the sun.
I never got to say goodbye to her.
Nan and pop's house creaks, as though the structure itself is riddled with arthritis. It struggles through each day. It sweats through the early morning, as whatever dew and relief the evening brought with it evaporates. It aches through the day, as dust beats against it, as the hole in the ozone layer lets more radiation through. It retains heat, it swells. It gives off a shimmer if you look at it from a distance under the midday glare. In the afternoon, it groans. Its noises are muted by the sounds of making dinner and cleaning up in the evening. Once the world goes to sleep, the house comes alive again. It cracks its brittle bones. It exhales and sighs. It coughs.
I always found it hard to sleep at night in this house. And tonight is no exception. I toss and turn, listening to the house.
It whines about my pop's bad company, worse now that nan's gone. It complains about his complaining about this shit town and this shit weather and this bloody climate change and the yuppie backpackers and the taxes and bloody arrogant politician bastards and the plight of the Aussie battlers and the useless footy players who take all those steroids and keep touching underage girls instead of playing bloody football.
The house wails about the slow, sad demise of my nan. A catalogue of body parts cut away to slow the spread of cancer cells. Of chemicals and nausea and pain and exhaustion. It laments and weeps her loss.
My nan was sweet morning sunlight. My pop was the smouldering ball of flame lashing the earth with hellfire for hours on end.
The house reflects on the land, that for thousands of years saw only footprints instead of fences, that was never meant to be cultivated and took its vengeance on farmers who thought they knew better. On these Indigenous youths who have nothing now, language extinct, culture evaporated, ancestors exterminated by intention or accident or sheer lack of will to survive against a slow, steady invasion. And all the politics behind it, apologies without action. Nothing left but the fumes of overpriced petrol from a plastic container. I am haunted by their eyes in my dreams.
The air is still and cloying each time I wake up. The sheets are crusty with dried, salty sweat, and my pillow is wet with fresh sweat. By 2am, I give up and turn on the air conditioning. I am not a desert dweller, and I am at peace with that.
My mum wants me to convince pop to move closer to our family down in Sydney, so they can look out for him. Or at least to Broken Hill, to an old folks' home, so someone else can look out for him.
'Oi, ya drongo,' pop shouts, banging on the bathroom door while I'm in the shower. 'You're not in a bloody 5 star hotel. Shower's 3 minutes or less at chateau de pop!' and he rambles about Kev and his cattle and the price of hay again.
I save my breath and skip the conversation about Sydney or the old folks' home. Pop is too wild. He is too fierce. He can't be tamed, and shouldn't be. He'd piss everyone off. He'd drink too much and make a pass at a nurse or, God forbid, someone else's nan.
Pop bangs around in the yard, tinkering in the shed with his tools, fixing and mending old cars or engines till the heat drives him back inside. And there he drinks a few cold beers, and listens to the cricket or the horse racing on the radio. He falls asleep and dreams about nan while the house is sandblasted by the wind.
He'll be an old man in the desert till the end. His skin will be encrusted with red dirt till the moment his body is entombed in it once and for all. He will become one with the desert that looms ever closer. He will be reunited with nan. All will be red dust and sunlight.
(Writer's note: Bet you picked up some weather related words in there. Sorry, not sorry!)