A dynasty of square standers was first published by Vignette Press/Mini Shots in 2008. It later morphed into the novel, A wrong turn at the Office of Unmade Lists.
We set fire to the shrivelled Christmas tree and we squat by the edge of the basketball court to watch it burn. It’s starting to rain so I turn my collar up to stop the water dripping down my neck. From a pub behind us I can hear football – it’s getting colder and I guess cricket season must be over by now.
By the time we hear the sirens the tree is already just smouldering black. I’m disappointed by how quickly it’s all over.
As they’re hosing down the tree, we head for the underground station. All along the sides of the roads people asleep over vents, dogs curled up outside tents and one guy, arms out of his sleeping bag, wrapped around a sleeping Rottweiler, spooning his Rottweiler.
‘Get your dick out of that dog,’ I tell him. But I knew he didn’t really have his dick in the dog. He was just hanging on to it. Like I said, it’s getting cold out, these days.
Down the escalator into the station. We slip into the bathroom while the attendant isn’t looking, me and Simon, both of us in the one bathroom (women’s: the men’s stinks) and light cigarettes and wait while they start closing the place down. He sleeps a little, curled on the cold floor. I draw pictures on the tiles with the end of a burned match – a tree with a cow under it, a squirrel as tall as the cow’s ear. The squirrel is whispering something to the cow, but the cow can’t hear it. Or maybe the squirrel’s saying something the cow doesn’t want to hear – I don’t really know.
He’s pretending to be asleep.
I roll pellets of toilet paper between my fingers, wet them in my mouth and drop them into his ear. Some of them roll out on the floor; some stick there quite nicely. I fish through my bag for a pencil. I write messages onto pieces of paper from out of my pockets; roll, wet, drop. I want to push them into his head, into his brain.
I hate this part, the part with the sitting, and the slow, slow waiting. With Simon pretending to be asleep.
The lights go out.
‘OK,’ he says. ‘Let’s go.’
He can see better than me. We slide down the handrails on the escalator, jump off the platform and head into the tunnels. He kicks rocks and mutters to himself as they bounce off the rails.
Our stuff is right where we left it.
‘Did you mark off the zone over by the park?’ Simon asks me as I go through our bags, looking for something to eat.
‘Yeah. Geeze, why do you always ask me things like that?’
‘Like, did you mark off the zone over by the park?’
‘OK, well I did, alright?’
‘Alright,’ he says. ‘While you’re there can you grab me something to eat?’
‘We only have muesli bars. Lemon and yoghurt’
‘Do you want one?’
‘No. I’m going to bed.’
I eat my muesli bar slowly. I wish it was chicken casserole. I wish I had something to read.
‘Let’s say I had a dog. Simon? Let’s say I had a dog, OK?’
I don’t think Simon’s listening, curled down in his sleeping bag, woolen hat pulled over his eyes.
‘Simon, just for argument’s sake. Let’s say I get a dog from somewhere. No, wait, let’s say someone gives me eight hundred bucks, and the only thing I’m allowed to spend it on is a dog. OK? Right. So I’ve got eight hundred bucks and the only thing I can buy is a dog. This is enough to buy a car, you understand? I could buy a terrible, terribly crappy car with this eight hundred bucks, but I’m not allowed to.’
‘How are they going to know what you buy?’ he mutters at me from under his hat.
‘I don’t know how they know, they just know.’
‘Why do they want you to buy a dog, anyway?’ He sits up.
‘I don’t know. Because I’m a little girl, I guess. If I was a 19-year-old girl, maybe they’d want me to buy a car, but I’m a little girl and I’m supposed to want a puppy and anyway I can’t drive.’
‘Why don’t they give it to your parents to look after, the eight hundred bucks? You know, till you’re old enough to buy a car, or something?’
I stare at the back of his head, give him a filthy look, but he doesn’t notice. So I keep going, ‘Because they want me to have a dog, alright? I don’t know, they just have this spare eight hundred bucks sitting around that they have to get rid of. Maybe they won it on a horse race they weren’t even supposed to be betting on and if they get found out they’ll be in a ton of trouble, or they feel guilty about it or something. Anyway, they have to get rid of it and they just think, well, heck, won’t the world be a better place if this little girl has a puppy, you know? Won’t I be a good person?’
‘OK, sure. Eight hundred bucks. For you. For a dog. Eight hundred bucks so the little girl can buy a dog.’
‘Yes. Thank you. God. OK, so I have eight hundred dogs. No, eight hundred bucks; I have eight hundred bucks and I have to get myself a dog. And I know what I want. The only thing I want, in the whole world, is a bulldog. I want a British bulldog, and I want to name her World War Three.’
‘You’re an idiot.’
‘So, I take my eight hundred bucks to the bulldog kennel, the British bulldog kennel…’
‘Get on with it, will you?’
‘You have somewhere to be?’
‘I could be sleeping. I could be working on my needlepoint.’
‘You don’t know needlepoint.’
‘I could so easily have learned by now.’
‘Oh, please. Just get on with it, OK? Eight hundred bucks, and you go to the kennels…’
‘And anyway they tell me, not eight hundred, but twelve hundred. TWELVE HUNDRED BUCKS for a dog. Twelve hundred bucks. Do you believe this?’
‘No. I mean, it’s not true.’
‘OK, sure, I don’t have eight hundred bucks. But if I did – even if I did – I could not buy myself a British bulldog and name her World War Three. Because they cost twelve hundred bucks.’
‘That’s a lot for a dog.’
‘Yeah, you’re not kidding.’
‘You should get a different dog.’
‘I don’t want a different dog. I want World War Three.’
‘OK. I want a lot of things.’
‘Not like this. Not like I want this. This is fate. And four hundred bucks stands between me and fate.’
‘Sure. Except no one ever gave you the eight hundred bucks in the first place.’
‘No. But in the story they did.’
‘Oh, for Christ’s sake.’
‘And even in the story I can’t afford to get my dog.’
He just stares at me.
‘My life sucks.’
‘Oh please, Sarah.’ He slides back down into the sleeping bag.
Later, when I think he’s sound asleep: ‘How much do Rottweilers cost?’ Simon asks.
‘I don’t know.’
‘You could get a Rottweiler.’
‘Oh, they probably cost twelve hundred bucks too.’
‘If they cost twelve hundred bucks that guy could never have afforded one.’
Simon rolls over again, pulls his hat over his eyes.
‘I don’t have eight hundred bucks anyway,’ I remind him.
We’ve been doing this now for three years. Well, longer, I guess, if you count the time before his dad died, but three years now on our own. I lost interest a long time ago, but Simon, I don’t know, I guess he feels like this is something he has to do for his dad. I have nothing better to do. Where would I go? Simon is all the family I have. Not just all the family; all the anything.
‘Are you awake, Sarah?’
‘You want to go get some groceries? I thought maybe we could pack up this stuff and go get some groceries.’
‘Yeah, OK,’ I say. ‘We could mark off the area over by Vic Markets.’
I can hear him staring at me.
‘I…Oh, never mind.’
‘It’s just, look, you know, if…’
‘If what, Simon.’
‘You know. If you’re not going to be serious about this then why bother at all? Why not go work in a plant store or something?’
‘A nursery, butthead?’
‘Whatever. Just do whatever. You know, if you’re not going to take this seriously.’
‘Oh for…. What? What? You know I’ve been doing this just as long as you have. Did I ever say I wanted to go work in a nursery or something? Did I? God, who died and left you in charge?.’
We both know the answer to that.
‘OK, but you know, we went over the plan yesterday morning, and we can’t do Vic Markets till after we do Flagstaff. You know that, you were there. We went over this together yesterday.’
Like I ever get a say in anything.
‘Yeah, I know. I just thought, well, while we’re over getting groceries we might as well…’
‘No! God! You know how easy it is to miss areas. That’s why we have a plan. You know that. God, don’t mess it up now. Not now. We’re so close to finishing.’
We’re nowhere near finishing. We have years of this. Years. But we can’t talk about that, so I don’t.
‘OK. Alright. Whatever.’
‘OK. Good.’ He’s squashing up his sleeping bag, pushing it down into its stuff sack, methodical as always. ‘OK, maybe you have a point. Can you wait a bit for breakfast? If you can wait a bit, maybe we can mark off around Franklin St, then go get the groceries, stop at the market for a coffee, and mark off that area. Would that work? Can you wait? Can you wait that long?’
‘I can wait that long.’
‘Good. That’s great, Sarah. That’s great. Do you need a hand with your stuff?’
‘No, I’m fine.’
Three years of this, plus infinity; I’ve been doing this since I was three. Since my parents and Simon’s dad got together over dinner one night, dinner and a slide show (I think it was my parents’ honeymoon trip to the Daintree, the slide show) and decided it would be a great idea if our families went on a little trip and, you know, saw the country. Someone pulled out a road atlas, and they all started poring over it. Drunk as hell, I’m sure they were.
‘Let’s see the country’, someone suggested.
‘Yeah’, someone else chimed in. ‘Our kids should really see the country. This great country of ours, our kids should really see it.’
‘Yeah, really see it.’
‘All of it.’
‘You mean all of it?’
‘All of it. They should really see the country. All of it.’
‘All of it?’
‘Yeah, all of it,’ I think someone else piped up right about now. ‘I mean, if we say we’re going to see the country, well, who are we to pick and choose between this state and that state, this national park and that national park? Who do we think we are, saying any part of this great country is any better than any other part of this great country? What, you think Wagga Wagga has nothing to offer? Really, you think Wagga Wagga has nothing to offer?’
Drunk as hell. Did I mention that?
‘You think they do absolutely nothing over there in the New South Wales Riverina to make this great country great? Is that what you’re saying? Well, is it, Mr ‘let’s spend a few months seeing Uluru and the Great Barrier Reef’, is that what you’re saying? Who do you think you are? God almighty?’
The way I imagine it, some things would have got broken. Some heated words would have been exchanged. Eventually, somehow, it was agreed that, given that no one person was in any way wiser or in any way above any other person, and given that no part of Australia has any greater merit, importance or worth than any other part of Australia, then: yes. Yes, it would be necessary to see all of the country. And to really see all of the country.
All of it.
I remember right after his dad died, Simon got obsessed with watching the video. He’d scrape together enough money so that every few days we could stay at a motel, a motel with a VCR in every room, and watch the video. I didn’t remember it being made – I guess I’d been maybe seven or eight, old enough to have paid attention. For maybe two months, these three filmmaking students had followed us around, taping us, interviewing Simon’s dad over and over. A Dynasty of Square Standers they’d called the documentary. Simon’s dad loved that someone knew what he was doing was important, cared that it was done right – you could see it on the tape.
There was a favourite part Simon had, that he’d watch over and over: His dad, leaning on the minivan, looking off over the cameraman’s shoulder, rubbing his chin. Saying this stuff like maybe it was the first time he’d ever really thought about it.
‘The problem was,’ Simon’s dad was saying, ‘the problem was, you see, that Wendy and David had decided to measure things differently. You know: they’d redone the calculations and recalibrated the benchmark. So now they were working with squares of eight by eight metres, whereas I’d been realistic and measured each square off at five by five.
‘I mean, honestly: an eight metre square? You can’t see to the boundaries of an eight metre square. Any fool can see that (well, any fool within less that eight metres, that is). Oh sure, yeah, if you’re working in desert, something with a far-off horizon and groundcover that consistently falls below knee level, well then – of course – you can set your square at eight metres. But that’s not the point, is it? I mean, how often do you come across those ideal conditions? Not very often, let me tell you. I mean, I’m a bit of an expert on these matters, and I can tell you that within Australia – not counting Tassie – you wouldn’t come across those sort of ideal conditions any more often than, say, once every 16 weeks. Oh, we had a great run one time around Coober Pedy, it’s true – mile after mile of dead-flat land, horizon around 60 kays off and nothing, I mean nothing to break your line of sight. In all honesty, we could have stretched the boundaries to well over 100 metres square. But it’s the consistency of the thing that counts, you see? You set your boundaries for the worst possible conditions – say, one of those gorges round Wittenoom, you know the ones? All canyony and dark. Oh! Or the forest round the Franklin River, that stuff is thick – and then you apply those boundaries, consistently, no matter how easy it would be to stretch them.
‘You understand? It’s the consistency of the thing that counts. When we finish this thing – or rather, when my grandchildren finish this thing, because we’ve done the calculations and it’s going to be 128 years from start to finish, this project…’
Simon would always try to turn the video off before he said ‘128 years’. He’d hit ‘stop’, then ‘rewind’. Then he’d go to the bathroom, comb his hair for a while. Or he’d watch TV for a minute, five minutes. Act all nonchalant. And then, after a while, he’d say, ‘Man, there’s never anything on. Oh well, might as well…’ and he’d hit ‘play’. He’d hit ‘play’ and he’d try to stop it before his dad said ‘128 years’. And then sometimes, when he went out to walk around, smoke a joint, I’d hit ‘play’ again, watch it all the way through before he got back.
‘…finish this thing, because we’ve done the calculations and it’s going to be 128 years from start to finish, this project – we want to know the job’s been done properly. No shortcuts, you understand. No shortcuts.
‘If Wendy and David hadn’t taken shortcuts we wouldn’t have had to get rid of them and start all over again. I had a handle on this whole process. We’d covered a good portion of eastern South Australia, done almost Adelaide up to Innamincka. But then Wendy got ideas. I mean, honestly: eight by eight metres? And there was Wendy telling me that, hell, this job could be done 35 years quicker if we’d just up the measuring to eight metre squares. That we’d still have seen, well, 95 per cent of the country. Maybe even 97 percent. And that, hey, who was counting?
‘Yeah, well, I’m counting, Wendy. I’m counting. And because I’m counting, and because I believe in a job well done, I’m doing all this bit all over again. Yeah, that’s right: from Wilpena up to Lake Eyre, I’m remeasuring all of Wendy’s squares, and I’m standing in each of them, and I’m making sure I can see right to the edge of each and every one of them. Because when I say I’ve seen Australia, I want to be sure I’ve really seen Australia.’
And then I’d hit ‘rewind’ and go comb my hair for a while.