Nail Can Hill
Joel said they were cargo shorts, that they were like cargo ships, because they carried stuff in their many pockets like the ships carried stuff to Australia in their holds. ‘My cargo pants were cargo in a cargo ship,’ he said and Nelly laughed because the boys did.
The gang tolerated Nelly tagging along. On sufferance. She knew she was smarter than the lot of them – they wouldn’t even know that word.
Joel showed his pants off to the gang and the boys looked really impressed at what he had in all his pockets. String, matches, pencil, gum, a 50 cent coin, three Pokemon cards, the knife with the bottle popper hidden inside the handle, a bandage his granddad washed and ironed after a trip to the hospital for his diabetes. Joel said the stuff in the pockets at his knees knocked on his bones when he ran fast.
The gang ran a lot that summer. No school and no-one to tell them what was off limits. And high school not until next year, which sounded a long way away when you said it like that, though it was only in six weeks time.
They’d race to the top of Nail Can Hill where there were no cans of nails Nelly could ever find. Joel won. Matt almost beat him sometimes but never did. Matt’s granddad’s dad was a kamikaze in the war which meant he’d probably shot at Joel’s granddad’s dad on some island in the Pacific Ocean. They hadn’t killed each other though. The soldiers had come home and done the sex thing or the boys wouldn’t exist. Con was the one in the gang interested in sex. He was a foot taller than Joel and Matt and had the hairiest underarms by a mile.
The boys paused at points up the hill, pretending they were Lords of All They Surveyed so it didn’t look like they were waiting for Tag-along Nelly to catch up. She was slow, collecting rocks and feathers and gnarly sticks on top of having short legs and being a girl. But she could run like a wombat when she wanted: swift and thundering.
From the top of Nail Can the gang could see all the land that was Joel’s Country. Albury had lots of red roofs, a few tall towers and gentle hills which rose in all directions. Hills like hands cradling the town. That would be a good word, Nelly thought, on one beautiful blue-sky-day when the cicadas shut up for a second and the wind could be heard sighing through the gums.
On the hill opposite was the monument. It made sense that it was called Monument Hill. The monument was built like a lighthouse, tall and white, with a light on top that Nelly could just see when she climbed on her roof; well that one time before she was told ‘get back down here, pronto’ by her mum.
This day, the gang contemplated the sun glancing off the side of the freshly painted monument on the hill opposite. It was a war memorial, and memorial had the word memory in it. Which worked well, sort of. They remembered there’d been a war.
‘Did Greeks die too?’ Con asked.
‘S’pose,’ Joel and Matt pondered.
‘Which side were we on?’ Con wondered.
It was one of the mysteries.
‘Smoke signal,’ Matt pointed.
Joel swung his eyes round, assessed the distance and the colour and intensity of the plume. ‘Bushfire over Chiltern way,’ he diagnosed. Summer was explanation enough.
They stayed off the path on the way down the other side of Nail Can Hill. That way it was easy to pretend they were way, way out in the bush, crunching leaf litter and dry bark that stripped off the trees like skin off your arms a week after too long at the pool. Within minutes off the path, the canopy blocked out the sun. Tag-along Nelly was in the lead this time because there’d been reports of a bowerbird nest and it was her dearest wish to find it. The boys too, only they couldn’t openly admit to the lure of bright, pretty blue things in the rugged bush.
There was movement to the left.
‘A cat,’ screamed Matt.
They collectively hated cats. Cats were predators who preyed in the native flora and fauna, to quote unquote their Grade 6 teacher. And they loved cats when their cat padded up the hall and leapt on their bed and purred. Nelly had admitted this once and the conversation had stopped, leaving the kind of silence that fights with itself. She’d seen Joel and Matt and Con in their homes. She’d seen the food bowls on the floor by the back door. They never admitted to anything so soft.
Joel was tough now. ‘Get it,’ he screamed, ‘get the cat.’ He bent down to grab a rock, his fingernails scabbing off a layer of mint green moss.
Matt and Con threw rocks too. Kapow, biff, bang. The rocks grenaded into the undergrowth where there may have been the flash of a black tail.
A rogue thistle scratched Joel’s leg as he followed the retreating shadow. His cargo pockets knocked against his knees. He couldn’t believe it when he found the possum. No way their aim was that good.
The gang of four crowded round. In awe. The dead possum was awful and a thing of wonderment at the very same time.
‘It must have been a princess of the possums,’ sighed Nelly. Not because of the sweet possum face with pink nose and gossamer whiskers. Because of the shiny chains of silver across its neck and crisscrossing its soft back.
‘Do you think my rock killed it?’ asked Matt, a little proud, a little scared.
‘Yeh sure,’ conceded Con. ‘Or mine.’
Nelly said nothing. She was fanciful not silly: the possum wouldn’t have snail trails through its fur if it’d only just been killed.
‘We can cook and eat it like your lot used to,’ Con said to Joel after they’d poked the body with a stick, and squeaked when ants ran out its nose. He said it because there had to be a purpose. Killing was pointless otherwise.
So that’s why they wrapped the possum in Matt’s t-shirt and ended up in Joel’s backyard digging a hole near the lemon tree.
‘It’s called an um,’ Joel said.
‘Can’t you remember?’ Con asked.
‘It is an um, I’m not just thinking,’ laughed Joel. ‘Uncle Ofa told me about them. Aunty Rita’s bloke. He’s from Tonga, they have pit ovens for pigs an’ stuff.’
They were all laughing except Nelly who no longer wanted to tag-along. She thought the possum-dinner idea was horrible. She sat next to the garden tap under the eaves arranging her rock collection in order of shades of grey and green. Slivers of mica were put aside like coins for a rainy day.
‘Do we skin it first?’ asked Con when the hole looked big enough. They stood around staring into the pit. There were bits of roots and some solid apricot kernels from a tree long dead. The soil was thin and light coloured. Outback red would have inspired more optimism.
‘Maybe its skin’ll crack off when it’s cooked,’ suggested Joel hopefully. He had his knife out of his cargo pants but he was reluctant to use it, even though Matt’s t-shirt still covered the possum’s face so it couldn’t watch them with its dead eyes. He knelt and peeled the t-shirt off. The possum quivered.
‘It’s alive,’ shrieked Con at his shoulder.
They hadn’t heard Joel’s other aunty’s footsteps coming down the drive nor the click of the gate latch. She looked intimidating in her Priceline uniform and her hair pulled back in a bun. They got in so much trouble.
‘Don’t you it’s Culture me, kid. It’s cruel,’ she shouted at Joel.
She made them bury the body in the hole they’d spent so much time digging, along with the snail trails and the maggots that had heaved in the possum’s belly in mimicry of life. Nelly put a ring of her smoothest, flattest stones on the freshly laid dirt when they’d finished.
It’d been long dead, she consoled herself as she tried to sleep that night. They hadn’t been cruel. She included herself because she hadn’t stopped the boys.
Which didn’t explain the kookaburra.
The boys were all bolshie the next day as they hiked up Nail Can. They weren’t going to be cowed by a nineteen year-old aunty, even though they had been. This day they were going all out and were intent on making it over to the Monument. They smelled of sweat before they even started.
‘Does she have to come?’ snarled Joel pointing at Tag-along. Nelly and Con’s mum had bit-jobs and bits of Centrelink and still no money for a babysitter just like most of the mums in the street. Nelly gave Joel a steady stare. And she also kept up, all the way past the dirt jumps for the kids with BMX bikes and the town water tank decoupaged with cobwebs.
It was good to finally lie in the shade of Albury’s inland lighthouse, fully stretched across the cool cement that encircled the war memorial.
‘Lest We Forget,’ Joel read from the large inscription.
‘What are we supposed to forget?’ asked Con.
‘Lest?’ said Joel.
Nelly could tell he wasn’t sure what it meant: because, really, it was like a mixture of best and less. Best we forget, less to remember. An inkling suggested perhaps it was telling them not to forget. But she didn’t say because even she wasn’t sure.
A kookaburra laughed in the tree above. It let out a rip-roaring chortle at the stupidity of the world. Which felt like it was having a good laugh at them. So the gang used it as target practice. It refused to fly away. They missed anyway. Dragged themselves the long way home.
Joel complained next day about the bollocking he got from his mother about this. The man from the bakery was driving past and dobbed him in. ‘She said my totem is kookaburra and the Min Min will come after me now.’
‘What are the Min Min?’ Nelly asked, hoping for a the story from the olden days.
But Joel stomped off. She wondered if it was secret men’s knowledge, or if he didn’t know himself, or if she’d just been an irritating little shit again.
The days got too hot. The smoke signals across the valleys got too common. Summer had to end. On the last day before the last weekend of the holidays Matt dared them to do it. Must have been the kamikaze genes.
There were new secondhand school uniforms waiting in each of their homes, and empty notebooks and sharpened pencils – Con was an expert at that, sharpening till the points could take an eye out. The new school year was hard upon them so they agreed with Matt: it was their last chance to stay out all night. To build a fire and eat marshmallows like in a cartoon, at least that was the way he described it.
Joel was still the only one with proper cargo shorts. He put matches in one of his pockets so they could make a fire. Potatoes in the others. The marshmallows were just a pillowy dream though.
At dusk the mosquitoes were a bugger up on the side of Nail Can Hill. They seemed to thrive particularly and nastily in the gully Matt had chosen as their camping ground.
‘Only the female mosquito bites,’ Con told them importantly. He’d got a ‘Super Facts’ book for Christmas from his grandparents in Parramatta.
Joel gave Nelly a pointed look. Soundlessly saying, all females are bad. But her mum was on nightshift at the nursing home so Nelly was an inevitability.
Joel knelt back on his heels to admire the teepee of twigs he’d made as the kindling part of the fire. He struck a match and dropped it under the structure. A sizzle sounded promising, but it ended up a fizzle. It looked a whole lot easier to light a fire on TV shows. And they weren’t lucky enough to be hit by lightening, the other way to go about it according to the constant bushfire reports on the telly.
‘Wish we had that possum to cook,’ sighed Matt.
Con and Joel, kneeling with him around the almost-fire, pretended to stick their fingers down their throats and made mock gagging noises.
‘Didn’t ya see them maggots?’ laughed Joel.
That was going to be the best bit of staying out all night Nelly thought: the stories they’d tell each other while they pretended they were going to sleep. Worth the trouble they were going to get into in the morning.
Matt continued, ‘My dad says in the old days hunters put their possums, and kangaroo and deer and that, up in the rafters and let the maggots get in on purpose ’cos it made the meat softer.’
‘You’re the soft one,’ said Joel as he flung a flourish of matches into the kindling.
Nelly stared at Matt. He rarely mentioned his father – didn’t want to rub it in that he had one, she figured, like you wouldn’t go bragging if you won Tattslotto either. His dad had actually met the kamikaze pilot when he was a boy. Obviously the war had stopped in the nick of time, before his suicide mission.
‘I bet kookaburra would be good,’ Matt continued to cover up his insensitive mention of a father. ‘Cook quick. Taste like chicken.’
‘Nah, kookaburra’d be stringy in your teeth. Cranky birds like that,’ Joel said.
Nelly cast her eyes to the branches of nearby box-gums. ‘They sing like angels in the morning,’ she whispered. She didn’t know what the angels her mum had stuck on the kitchen wall sounded like, but she’d always imagined beautiful melodies like kookaburras.
‘Soft,’ Joel muttered again, dismissing Nelly with a look she just caught in the falling darkness.
Nelly wondered if talk of his totem had reminded Joel too of the Min Min. Her mum had crossed herself when she’d asked about them. As if they were quite the opposite to angels.
Something bit her. She stood up, ran her hands down her skinny legs to dislodge dirt and mosquitoes. The leaves and dry bush litter from where she’d been kneeling had left indentations: her fingertips read eucalypt leaves like sickles and a forked twig and gravel and the scar from falling off a fence when she was four.
She cleared a bit of ground with her flip-flop and knelt back down while Joel continued with the kindling and the matches. Because you needed a campfire for camp stories. He counted out loud: three matches left in the box.
‘Sticks. We can rub sticks together like Neanderthals in the old days,’ Con suggested from the shadows at Joel’s right. Page eight of his ‘Super Fact’ book, complete with illustration.
Suddenly, a noise from outside their dark circle. They were put on pause. They listened keenly.
‘There it is again!’
Who actually spoke? Maybe they all did at once, including Nelly. They’d all heard it at the same time: the kind of scary noise you dismiss when you are at home in bed as the howl of the wind.
Wind grinding rocks with its bare teeth.
Nelly shifted closer to her brother. The gang pretended it was nothing. Joel lit his third last match. The moon nudged a little higher into the canvas above them. In their gully, there were no glimpses of Albury lights to distract them from the awakening glow in Joel’s hand. The match arced from his fingers and fell short of his waiting teepee of twigs. A nest of leaves caught its fall.
The noise growled again.
‘It was something,’ Con murmured. They all stared further up Nail Can where the noise was coming from.
‘Hoons on motorbikes,’ said Matt in disgust. The last thing they needed was idiots up here with them.
As if to confirm Matt’s identification, two lights crested the ridge at the top of the gully. The lights, bluish, intense, were so bright there was no way to see what was behind them. The growl was behind them. The lights moved in unison, dazzling, like eyes in one head. The growl was like angry breath in a monster’s mouth.
A word screamed out of Joel – two words really, one repeated. He’d looked up the Min Min on his mum’s phone. They were described as lights. They flew. They punished transgressors.
Matt and Con weren’t about to hang around to hear about folklore. They lit out, thundering up the gully to the ridge path.
Joel couldn’t get away so fast. His match had done its job, wrong time, wrong place. He was busy stamping a war dance over the licking flames. ‘Sorry,’ he sobbed as he killed them underfoot. ‘Sorry,’ he called over his shoulder as he turned to follow his gang. The lights were almost on him as he slid onto the gravel path. The air around him glowed with an unworldly blue tinge, like the light coming off the electric fly zapper at the fish and chip place in Glenroy. Nelly came last. She ran behind. She tried to keep up. Her own heart’s furious pumping enveloping her.
They reached The Gap Road. Matt and Con were already at the bottom, shadows under the muted street lights. An old ute labouring past, changed down gears with a grinding roar. The noise behind them was only an engine, wasn’t it?
Joel was still ahead of her, his legs pounding, his arms flapping to give him lift – as if he could be his totem. ‘What is it Nelly? What is it?’ he screamed.
Nelly knew he wouldn’t believe her. No-one would believe her. She saw Joel trip. And take flight.
Nail Can Hill
Albury writer Jane Downing is the writer of prose and poetry, shopping lists and reminders of things to do, and not enough letters to her friends. She has stories and poetry published around Australia and overseas, including in Griffith Review, The Big Issue, Antipodes, Southerly, Westerly, Island, Overland, Canberra Times, Cordite, Best Australian Poems (2004 & 2015) and previously in Authora Australis. Her novel ‘The Sultan’s Daughter,’ the creative component of her Doctoral degree from UTS, was recently released by Obiter Publishing. She can be found at janedowning.wordpress.com