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While I Live (extract)

The Ellie Chronicles
by John Marsden

We were halfway up the spur when we heard it. Homer and Gavin and I, just the three of us. The spur was steep and the rocks were loose; we slid back two metres for every three we climbed.

It was about 1.15 p.m. A warm afternoon in May. It had been a hot autumn. Surrounding us was the bush, an army of twisted trees standing to attention. They wore grey-green uniforms and waved their bunches of leaves in endless useless motion. They were the army that never went anywhere, never did anything. They were the army who cared about nothing.

Sometimes the bush is quite silent. Not often. But sometimes, around noon on a January day, when the temperature is in the high thirties and the gumtree leaves are hanging tired and limp, and the birds stop flying and the insects hide in shade, then all you hear is the cracking of stones and the grizzle of a lost fly and, if you're in a paddock, the shuffle of a steer as he moves slowly to a better patch of grass.

But on this May afternoon there were the usual background noises, none of them loud, just humming away. Bees and wasps and beetles; tree branches rubbing against each other; magpies and rosellas, wagtails and wrens. Mum had a friend from the city come to stay once; I think she'd had a nervous breakdown or something, and on the third day she ran into the house with her hands over her ears crying, 'I came here for peace and quiet and it's nothing but noise noise noise.'

This particular day we were making so much noise ourselves that I hardly noticed the sounds of the bush. The clicking and rattling and clatter of sliding stones blocked out nearly everything else. And then there was the puffing and panting, from Homer especially. He was getting pretty unfit lately.

He stopped and leaned against a tree; half a tree really, because it has lost most of its upper branches. He grinned at me. His face sparkled with sweat. I stopped and grinned back. Ahead of us Gavin, head down, relentless as ever, ploughed on.

'You're getting slack,' I said to Homer.

'Race you,' he said. But he didn't move.

I walked on a dozen steps. Now I was just ahead of him.

'I win,' I said.

'Remind me again why we're doing this?' he asked, wriggling his shoulders to make his pack more comfortable.

'Fun,' I said, as firmly as I could. 'Fun, pleasure, recreation, sightseeing, enjoyment.'

He sighed. 'Some people swallow a dictionary,' he said. 'You have to swallow a bloody thesaurus.'

It was on the word 'thesaurus' that the shots began.

They came from the bottom of the valley, echoing up the hillside, then around the valley. To be mathematical about it, I'd say there were fifteen shots in the volley, evenly spaced, lasting about twenty-five seconds. Then there was a pause of maybe ten seconds before three ragged groups of shots that went for a minute. After that there were occasional random ones, probably thirty in all, for about five or six minutes.

Five or six minutes. By the end of five or six minutes we were halfway home again. It seems incredible when I think about it. After all, we'd taken about two and a bit hours to get that far. Of course that was uphill and this was nearly all downhill, but even so, considering I lost at least half a minute going back for Gavin…

Gavin's profoundly dead, which doesn't mean totally deaf, but then according to his teacher hardly anyone's totally deaf. All I know is that Gavin's very deaf. He can hear loud yells, semitrailers going past, explosions, and helicopters at close range. He can't hear TV or music or conversation. He definitely can't hear anyone telling him to clean his room or do his homework or set the table. He can't hear me telling him he needs to get a move-on or he'll miss the bus, but he can hear me saying 'Gavin, get your ass in gear right now or I'll kick you all the way to the bus-stop,' which I tend to say fairly often.

He can't hear shots that are a couple of kilometres away. I'd forgotten that. I remembered it after I'd turned and run down the spur a hundred metres. When I remembered I stopped, irresolute. I've always liked that word. I've just never had a chance to use it before.

I had a flash in my mind of the scene in The Silver Sword where Jan abandons his dog Ludwig in order to help the girls save the little boy Edek. The author says that this is the point at which Jan begins to grow up. When I was a kid and I came to that moment in the book I hated Jan, I hated him for leaving his dog to die in terror and loneliness and the knowledge he had been betrayed. Now I had a similar problem. Similar but even more difficult. I knew, as surely as I know winter follows summer, that the shots came from my place. I knew they meant something terrible was happening, and that I had to get home as fast as I could, in order to help my parents, perhaps even to save their lives.

But I also had to remember that Gavin was only a kid, tough little bugger though he was, and I couldn't leave him to walk on up the spur, not knowing where we'd gone, not knowing what was happening, certainly walking into loneliness, possibly walking into danger.

Because suddenly nothing was safe now, and these mountains were alive with frightening possibilities again.

So tearing at my heart with my hand, literally, grabbing it as though I wanted to pull it out of my chest and throw it on the ground, hating every step I had to take in the wrong direction, I turned and ran back up the spur.

Ahead of me Gavin walked on and on and on. When I got within twenty metres I grabbed a handful of pebbles and chucked them. Every single one missed. Frustrated and desperate I bent and picked up another handful but as I did Gavin saw one of the first lot bouncing past. He turned around.

I didn't know how to communicate to him what Homer and I had heard but one thing about Gavin, he's quick on the uptake. Boy is he quick. Or maybe it's just that I was such a scary sight. One look at my face and he was bounding down the boulders towards me. Apparently I didn't need to say anything. I swung around again and started down the hill. It seemed like only a couple of seconds before Gavin reached me and actually passed me. I stopped worrying about him then, and put on a sprint.

He sent the flint-stones flying, but the pony kept his feet,
He cleared the fallen timber in his stride,
And the man from Snowy River never shifted in his seat -
It was grand to see that mountain horseman ride.
Through the stringy barks and saplings, on the rough and broken ground,
Down the hillside at a racing pace he went;
And he never drew the bridle till he landed safe and sound
At the bottom of that terrible descent.

Well, unlike the man from Snowy River I didn't have a horse, but we all had a terrible descent. I don't know how we didn't break six ankles between the three of us. Seven ankles even. The rocks that had slid under our feet as we climbed slid even worse as we came down. In the first couple of minutes there were waterfalls of stones cascading away from me. As I concentrated on them I was nearly wiped out by a fallen tree at the height of my neck. I ducked that, but only at the last second: I scraped my forehead going under it.

Lower down the spur were a few damp areas that never saw the sun. I skidded on one of those and went down on my haunches, feeling my knee crack - my left knee of course, it always had to be the bad one that took the punishment. My right knee bore a charmed life. I skidded two metres or so trying to keep my balance, and somehow I did and I was up and off again from the squatting position, instead of rolling sideways, which would have cost more time.

Bends in the track, rabbit holes, and then a series of fallen trees, four trunks, one after another, just a metre or so apart, and all the masses of dead branches that went with them. We'd laughed as we struggled over them on the way up. Now I hurdled the first one, jumped onto the second one, took a leap from there onto the third one, then had to get down and wrestle my way over the last. That's one thing the bush is good at: passively resisting human beings.

Quite early on I'd left Gavin well behind, and at some point I passed Homer and then I was on the flat and running through a paddock, Burnt Hut, with sweat flying from me. The paddock felt airless and the heat was stealing my energy. I started to wallow, to run heavily, that horrible sensation that you're running on the spot, running like crazy but not getting anywhere. All the way down the spur I'd heard the scattered shots, getting closer as I got closer, and all the way down I tried to think of reasonable explanations for them, and I couldn't think of a single thing that made sense.

Not one single solitary thing. My father didn't do a lot of shooting. He was a bit allergic to it I think. All he had these days was a .222 and he used it for knocking off the occasional fox, or for putting down dying cattle, or to shoot kangaroos that had been hit and left for dead by cars. He didn't even have as much ammo as I'd heard in those five or six minutes.

Ploughing across the paddock I listened for more shooting but there wasn't any. I didn't know if this was good news or bad news. I took a glance over my shoulder and saw Homer and Gavin a hundred metres behind, and about level with each other. I didn't look again, couldn't afford the energy.

To get to our house, from where we were coming, you go across a cleared paddock, One Tree, and then into my favourite paddock, Parklands. Dad never liked Parklands, because it didn't have much feed for stock. That's because the old driveway to the house runs through it, and many years ago the drive was planted with European trees, so what with those and the gums that had been allowed to stay, the grass doesn't get much chance.

This time I loved those trees like never before, because they gave me good cover. I didn't know what I was running towards, what I was likely to find, but I knew with every fibre of my being that it would be bad. The war was over. It had been over for four months. But you don't get dozens of rifle shots four months after a war finishes without feeling sick to the bottom of your feet.

There's a vehicle bridge over the creek, but when I was a hundred metres away I thought it mightn't be a good idea to use that. Too exposed, too obvious. Already I was getting back into the ways of thinking that had kept me alive during the war. It's like riding a bicycle - you never forget. You click back into it without a moment's conscious thought.

So I swerved and crossed the creek a little further down, where there was a footbridge half lost among the periwinkle, an old yellow bridge where the boards had been rotting for years. It had been slippery with dampness and mould, but Dad had just replaced the planks. I could smell the creosote. Then I raced up the bank, at an angle, so I would keep the two big water tanks between the house and me as I approached.

At first I thought nothing was wrong. It seemed peaceful. It seemed quiet. There was no movement. But of course that was wrong. At this time of day it should have been quite busy. Mum should have been hanging out washing or weeding the herb garden or heading off down the drive to look for mail. My friend, Mrs Mackenzie, who'd been staying with us, should have been with her, keeping up the endless supply of chatter that Mum found so exhausting. Dad should have been drilling boltholes in the new rails for the cattle yards or servicing the ute or chainsawing the fallen blackwood down at the gate into Nellie's.

The silence that I talked about before, the silence you sometimes hear in the bush around noon on a hot day, that was the silence of my home now. It engulfed me. It felt so real that I could have been running into a huge wall of cotton wool. It felt so real that I almost bounced off it.

And there was something else. The smell. You always get a smell after you fire a rifle or shotgun. The strong, almost sweet smell of gunpowder, that drives out everything else, for a little while at least. The smell of rotting kangaroos, or petrol, or a hundred sheep in the year, it drives them all out. And the roses and the lavender and the gum trees - they don't stand a chance.

Even though it had been, I don't know, a bit more than five minutes since the last shot, the smell was still heavy in the air.

I ran straight into the house. I knew the risk. I had a fair idea by now what had happened. I knew gunmen might be in there. I knew it might be an ambush. But when it's your family, what else can you do? It's like they say, 'You turn your back on your family, you're no good.'

'Girl turns her back on her parents, that girl's no good.'

Then every thought was driven from my mind. Even the fear of the gunmen. They could have come in and shot me as I knelt on the kitchen floor. I don't think I would have heard them. I don't think I would have even felt the bullet.

Funny, some things, even though you're expecting them, even though you've known for the last five minutes what's probably happening and what you're likely to see, when you're face to face with them you realise that nothing, nothing, nothing on God's earth can prepare you for them.

My mother was lying on the floor, on her back, twisted round and looking up at the ceiling. I could really only look at her legs. I thought, 'She's still very thin.' Everything above her legs was too terrible to see. Whatever bullets these people used were high-powered. They'd done a lot of damage. There wasn't much left. Blood and stuff had gone everywhere.

I stood up again. I felt myself falling apart, coming to pieces, right there on the spot. But I tried to hold together. I told myself it was too early to react, to feel anything. There were other things I had to do.

Homer and Gavin came bursting into the kitchen. I didn't look at them, didn't say anything, just turned away. I heard their gasps, could imagine their horror. I think Homer said 'Oh Jesus, no.' Right there and then it was almost easier to imagine their faces than to have my own feelings. I saw Mrs Mackenzie's feet and legs sticking out of the pantry door. Steeling myself, clenching my fists, trying to find some kind of composure, I went over there.

As I looked at her body I felt something in my throat rise like it wanted to force itself up, like there was a slimy animal who'd been living inside me and now wanted out. It slithered up into my mouth and I had to clamp my teeth and swallow it again.

At least Mrs Mackenzie hadn't been torn to pieces like my mother. One bullet had been enough.

I guess I was in some kind of trance by then. I half ran outside to find my father. I suppose, looking back, I should have run flat out in case he needed first aid. But I was emotionally in a dead state. And I was physically wrecked from the run down the spur and across the paddocks. And I was terrified about what I might find. And I was. . . oh a thousand other things.

But I also knew I couldn't stay in the house and hide in my wardrobe, which a lot of my instincts were telling me to do. I had to find my father. For better or for worse I had to find him.

The men who had done this thing, who had attacked our farm, were professionals, no doubt about that. The odds were that they'd done the same thing to my father as they had to my mother and Mrs Mackenzie. I went to the shearing shed and ran past the empty stands, sobbing a little, my fists clenched, my stomach jammed solid, like I'd swallowed wet cement. I went past the old woolpress and the classing table, into each of the dusty little rooms. I went to the machinery shed and checked round the back of each tractor, and even the plough. I hesitated between the old barn and the new feed sheds for the turkeys and geese, the ones Dad had built as part of our short-lived attempt to diversify, and I chose the feed sheds.

I cut across the gully to get there and suddenly almost tripped over a body. It was lying face down. It wasn't in uniform but I knew where he was from. Blood still oozed from under him.

I jumped over it and ran up to the shed. Two other bodies lay in the long grass. I felt my throat block like two hands were closing around it to strangle me. Dad had gone down fighting. He was in the shed, his body in pieces, like Mum's. There was blood everywhere. Another body was in there with him, almost lying on top of him. It was hard to tell what had happened but I think somehow Dad had got one of their rifles off them and done what damage he could before they killed him.