On Fire or Under Water

Minden was a place of extremes. Depending on the year, the barren, clay-packed hills and fields were either ravaged by terrible bushfires, burning the already brown grass black, or terrible storm fronts that would lift sheds in the air and submerge whole buildings under a torrent of filthy water. Growing up there, I don’t remember a time of calm or peace. There was always a looming threat, a pillar of smoke or a bank of green clouds just over the edge of the hills on the horizon.

The two-lane rural highway that the pale orange school bus drove to take me to school had a kill count to fill a professional Call of Duty streamer with mad envy. Riddled with potholes and blind corners, and haunted by trash heap Skylines piloted by plastered teenagers with their feet welded to the accelerator. Every morning, the bus packed to standing room only, and rocketed down Lowood-Minden road filled with unsecured and unsupervised high-school hellions.

My stop was at the entrance to a cheap, colour-by-number housing estate just off the Warrego. I was a wretched fourteen year old, thin as a whip from sharing a single income through a family of nine. By three-quarters through my second year of high school, I had firmly trimmed my tall and sensitive poppy and hid in the grass from the predators that moved through the early naughties school system.

I shared the stop with my main school bully, a hefty, freckled redhead with a heart of violence. For the 45-minute journey to Lowood, I was his to enjoy.  Whether through impossible to navigate word traps, or good old fashioned clenched fists, he would have his fun until we were dropped off, then go his separate way past the homebrew alcoholics and unleashed Dobermans that were our neighbours.

That morning, in the middle of bushfire season after a long drought, we weren’t alone at our stop. A new family had moved from The Gap, seeking cheaper rent after a bitter divorce. The new kid was the same age as me and my bully, but taller and somehow scrawnier, as though God had pulled him like chewing gum from the bottom of a school desk. For the first time since I had started walking to that corner, the bully had a new target.

I kept my head down as the bully probed him for weakness. The new kid was more confident than me, worldlier and socially capable. By the time I saw the flash of pale orange come around the corner, the bully was growing impatient with the new kid’s stalwart self-assurance.

The bully continued his attack on the new kid as I took the empty seat furthest away from the both of them. The new peace of an unexamined 45 minutes was a godsend. I stared out the window at the passing hills and cow paddocks, blackened by daily fires. My mind wandered beyond self-preservation, into creative and constructive territory. When I reached school, I actually felt ready to learn and progress, rather than tired and jumpy.

I had a brief glimpse of what school was actually for, shaping and growing. Where classes were opportunities and broadened horizons, rather than a list of tasks to survive at the end of my rope. I finished the day with a rare lightness and optimism, when I’d be usually planning a way to make myself throw up and get out of going to school the next day.

On the trip home, the bully took the seat right behind me. The bus rattled as we ploughed along the highway, the yelling and cursing of the densely packed students deafening. I tried to ignore him, tried to get back to a place of peace and solitude, watching the scorched earth flick by the window.

I felt something wrap around my throat. Thin wire bit my skin and blocked my airway.

“Hey cunt,” the bully whispered in my ear.

I scrambled to try and get my fingers under the wire, felt the blood failing to circulate through me head. I gurgled, trying to shout for help. My vision dimmed.

“What the fuck are you doing?”  The new kid dove over. He wrestled the wire out of the bully’s hands. I wheezed.

The new kid and the bully shoved each other. The bus driver swore at them. I moved to a seat on the other side of the bus. Tears stung my eyes so I pointed them towards the burning paddocks.

When we got off the bus, the pair started shoving each other. The new kid put his guard up as the bully started swinging meaty fists at his face. The new kid slapped his punches away, eyes wide, stumbling as he stepped backwards.

I walked away, leaving the both of them, shame digging into my core and twisting. I didn’t talk to either the next morning, waiting for the bus while standing on the edge of a blade.

Two years later, both of the bully’s parents died in a car crash on that same highway. I didn’t see him at school again, had no idea whether he’d dropped out, if he had family to look after him or if he had to try and make it on his own. All I knew was that I wasn’t a target anymore.

The floods came after that, washed away all the ash and the local service station. Replaced it with silt and a new form of destruction. Through the flood I stayed locked at home amid a turbulent ocean, and tried yet again just to survive,

Looking back, I don’t know where I’d begin to try and fix that place. I don’t think it’s possible short of a biblical redux, short of humans becoming a different animal.

Violence is unsupervised, life is unsupervised, no amount of school programs or anti-bullying initiatives could change that.

I don’t hold that bully, that kid, any ill will. He was just another broken piece of a broken place, like me. More I hope that he found his own healing, as I later found my own courage.

I like to think maybe now, after the fire has scorched us and the flood has washed us away, we could both be different animals.

One thought on “On Fire or Under Water

  1. Jes says:

    Love the adolescent angst. i had those exact vibes trying to stay under the radar but i didnt have a bully, i was my own bully. love the tension built towards the end. excellent storytelling

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