First published, The Third Script (Transportation Press)
By Robbie Arnott
Imagine a cat that is better than a cat in all ways. It’s faster, cuter, deadlier, and has much more pizzazz. It’s covered with reddish brown fur splashed by large white spots, with a narrow face, a wet pink nose, and a tail that’s as long as it’s head and body combined. It has tiny sharp teeth and it lives in forests on the eastern seaboard of Australia, although it’s not often seen, because it’s nocturnal, arboreal, and terrific at hiding from humans. It hunts possums, sugar gliders, rabbits and birds, although it will also eat road kill. It kills by
ambushing its prey and delivering a fatal bite to the top of the neck or base of the skull. Its mating sessions can last for up to twenty-four hours, during which the male will repeatedly bite the female’s shoulder and emit a series of alarmingly loud growling sounds, which is where it gets its name – the Tiger Quoll.
Now, imagine that you are a child – one of those curious, twig-haired, trouble-finding children who are obsessed with animals – and that your favourite animal of all is this wild super-cat, this Tiger Quoll. But you’ve never seen one. They’re elusive, while you are loud and clumsy. They’re nocturnal, and you have a bedtime. And thanks to Europeans and everything involved with Europeans arriving in this country, they are rare, while you, your pasty skin, your corn-coloured hair and your stretchy vowels are common. Very common.
And now: imagine you have a brother who doesn’t like animals anywhere near as much as you do, but he’s willing to pretend he is, because you’re his little sister. He follows you into the bush, knowing you won’t see a quoll, but trudging alongside you anyway. He listens to your endless, inane lectures on the habits and behaviour of carnivorous marsupials. He helps you mark out trails and hide cameras in trees. And you never question why he’s going to all this effort, why he’s devoting his time to you like this, because you are caught in a net of childish, inescapable self-obsession. You’re not old enough to see a world outside of the one you experience.
And later, after the event, force yourself to remember where it began. Those walks in the bush. The absence of gloomy, idea-starved adults. The wonder and the kindness and the quietness of your brother. Because that’s where the problem started: with his quietness. And it ended with a Tiger Quoll.
* * *
Now, while still holding this idea of yourself as a small, creature-loving girl in your mind, turn some more of your imagination towards this older brother of yours. He is, let’s say, five years older than you. You have no shared interests, but that’s ok, because neither of you are that interested in playing together. Apart from the quoll tracking, you’re just happy to be in each other’s company. Most of your friends don’t like their older siblings much – they all fight and bicker and bully each other – but your older brother only ever shows you gentle guidance and muted affection. You take this for granted, of course. You’re a small girl, after all – shouldn’t everyone be gentle and kind towards you?
So when this changes, you don’t take it well. As he retreats away from you and your wild little world you are hurt and angry and full of blame. How dare he refuse to go bush with you? What’s he thinking, telling you to get out of his room and to leave him alone? Doesn’t he know there are Tiger Quolls out there? Who does he think he is? Why is he pretending to be so angry when you can tell he’s actually sad, for some reason, sad in a way that’s deep and brutal and furious? And why can no one else see through his act?
* * *
Keep imagining now: you’re still in primary school, while he’s halfway through his high school career. Through grades seven, eight and nine he didn’t change much – he kept to his loose routine of homework, sport, friends, fantasy novels and video games, the way most teenage boys do. But then he enters year ten, and that roster of activities shifts. He’s suddenly done with the games, movies, books and friends, and he’s stuck on the two things that are strictly school related: sport and study. Sport translates as football – two nights of training a week, with games on frost-sheeted ovals every Saturday morning. Study translates as time alone in his room. What a dedicated boy, your parent’s friends say. He’s going places. But where are these places? And why is going to them? Because from what you can tell – based on your skills of spying and snooping – he doesn’t want to go anywhere. He just wants to chase a leather ball until his legs can’t carry him any further, or sit in his room and read textbooks until the words blur and huddle together, making him so angry he throws the heavy hardback at the wall, which you hear, every night, this roof-rattling BANG that is always followed by a few hacked and desperate sobs.
And every morning, over his Weetbix, he tells you he is fine.
* * *
The next part is easy to imagine: all this study and training pays off for him, in a sense. He morphs from a flukey, semi-skilled forward pocket into a gut-running tagger, relentlessly hunting down the silky opposition midfielders and crunching them into the frozen dirt. Players from other schools used to barely know him, but now they fear his merciless attention. His school loves him. He smiles and nods and accepts all the plaudits for his dedication, but you can tell it doesn’t matter to him, because he doesn’t care about football.
How do you know this? Because when he gets home from football on one Saturday afternoon you see him banging his boots against each other, toothy stud to toothy stud, much harder than is necessary to dislodge the clumps of matted grass and mud that are stuck to the soles. You’ve just returned from a local nature reserve – no quolls, as usual – and as you swing your body over the back fence you see him hurl a boot at the thin green metal wall of your father’s shed. A tinny clang echoes up the driveway, quickly eclipsed by a repeat of the same sound as the second boot follows the first into the metal. He stares at the boots for a full minute, his chest swollen, his face strawberry, before closing his eyes and walking inside, not slamming the door; he never slams the door.
During the evening he lies on the couch, icepacks strapped to his quads, his eyes vaguely pointed at the Attenborough documentary you’ve put on as his phone periodically trembles with messages from his teammates: congratulations on how well he played and invitations to parties. He lets it rumble away. You don’t say anything; what would you say? Attenborough descends from the canopy of a rainforest into its understory, talking about monkeys, and your brother pulls himself off the couch and trudges out of the room, muttering goodnight in your direction, leaving the icepacks to congeal in gloopy puddles on the coffee table.
At three am you are woken by the sound of his pillow muffling his screams.
At seven am you decide to tell your parents.
* * *
But you can’t get the words out, not in the way you want to. Saying he’s really upset and I’m worried about him and somebody needs to talk to him all sound compelling when you rehearse it in your head, but when you repeat the words out loud, into the stale kitchen air that surrounds your breakfasting parents, they are devoid of urgency or power. Your parents stare, puzzled. Are you sure? He seems fine. You nod and stare back, widening your eyes, rubbing your wrists and muttering please please please do something, until your father says Ok. Alright. I’ll talk to him.
The talk happens that evening, behind the door of your father’s study. You pretend to read a book in the living room, waiting for them to emerge. The voices leaking under the doorway are calm and soft. After five minutes both of them emerge; your brother heads straight to his room, carrying a textbook, and your father waits until he has turned into the hallway before saying to you: It’s good that you were worried about your brother. Your mother and I are very proud of you. He pauses, letting a calm-yet-condescending smile crease his face. But there’s nothing wrong with him. He’s just taking school very seriously. Your face shows that you don’t believe him, so your father continues: Stop worrying. He’s just going through a phase. It’s normal. It’ll probably happen to you as well.
* * *
It never happens to you.
* * *
But it keeps happening to him. The rage and sobs and numbness accompany him every moment he’s not at school or football, where he manages to maintain his friendly-yet-aloof demeanor. You stop looking for quolls and start following him around the house, mixing him Milos, refreshing his icepacks, forcing him to talk to you, doing anything to distract him from the gloom and anger. If he notices this extra attention, he doesn’t acknowledge it. You think you’re successful – maybe. It’s hard to tell; you can’t be beside him for every moment of the dya.
And then a moment you’ve been waiting for finally arrives: his final year of schooling comes to an end. No more study and no more football, at least for the summer. Everyone assumes he’s going to University, although which University and what he’s going to study are questions he’s never answered. Other students would be under pressure, but nobody’s worried about your brother. That he will be as successful in adulthood as he has been at school is something everyone is taking for granted.
The final school event he has to go to is Speech Night, the annual celebration of the school year attended by all the students, teachers, parents, staff and various local dignitaries. The performances and presentations carry on, as boring as they are every year, until the Year Twelve leavers are called onto stage to receive their graduation certificates and individual awards.
A mood buzzes through the crowd as the lesser awards are read out; everyone knows what’s going to happen. So when it does, nobody is surprised. Your brother is named Dux of the College, Champion of Sport and Valedictory Student (you don’t know what the last title means, but it’s apparently important). He stands up to collect his swag of certificates from the Principal, then turns to face the crowd. A wave of polite applause crashes into him. The fuzzy yellow lamplight splashes his face, revealing that the polished, humble smile he always wears at school has melted away; it has been replaced by the numb stare you are so used to seeing around the house.
You look to your parents. They are smashing their hands together in staccato whacks and grinning like kindergarteners at a zoo. Tears are cutting riverbanks into your mother’s cheeks. Your father is half out of his chair, his knees bent, his back arched, curving and rising in pride as his son is blank and hollow.
* * *
After this he never comes home. And all he leaves behind, other than a football reputation, a school record that’ll never be bettered, a pair of soul-exploded parents and you, his quiet (now much quieter) little sister, is a cool clean stretch of unblemished asphalt behind his car, free of brake marks or skid scars, that leads smoothly off the road and into a tree that anyone could dodge, no matter how drunk or unskilled they were – the sort of tree tourists pull over to look at, marveling at its height and girth, saying to each other Makes you feel small, doesn’t it?
And finally, imagine this: next to that tree is where you find him. When he doesn’t come home after Speech Night you go looking for him on your mountain bike, fanging around the coastal road you know he likes to take when he wants the solitude of a long drive. And when you find him he’s lying ten metres from the crumpled sedan, thrown through the windscreen, although you don’t know it’s him; not right away. All you see is a car and a corpse. And perched on the body, spotted from snout to tail with white fur and bright blood, holding a thin strip of scarlet flesh in its mouth, is the first Tiger Quoll you ever see.
* * *
From THE THIRD SCRIPT, stories from Iran, Tasmania & the UK.