>THE GREAT STINGING VELVET, PART 1

>I was happy enough, I suppose, until the end of the week, when my mood would swallow itself painfully and I would have to face that awful, unavoidable encounter waiting for me just beyond the gates. I could leave school earlier or later, I could run or I could crawl, and still it would happen. Three of them appearing, sometimes four. Big stupid mouthbreathers whose sole purpose in life, it seemed, was punching me square in the penis.

If I had any sort of wit about me then, I could may have used this to my advantage; the groinal fixation of my bullies, and one in particular, may have been an effective defense where my feeble body-strength was not. The unofficial leader, a scale-faced thug called Roland, was the one who insisted on reframing my daily physical assault into more southerly areas. Which is not to say I detected any sexual pleasure on his part: I really just got the impression he felt he could lessen the stress on his fists by punching something soft, like genitals, rather than something hard, like my head. For that, I suppose, I can be thankful. Not that it made Fridays any more bearable.

But, in the end, this primary school memory became one of many that faded against the inevitable accumulation of older anxieties, so much so that by the time I saw Roland again, some thirty-four years later, I had all but forgotten it. And as so often happens in that strange mire of symmetries we call a life, there was a certain balance to it.

I had been called out to a small cattle farm on the outskirts of the town I now lived, and I wound down the windows as I drove, trying to put some movement through the heavy stillness of the day. News, as it happened, had been as rare as a cool wind for weeks, and when that call had come through earlier that morning, it felt heaven sent. Being the lucky one nearest the phone, I assured the voice on the other end that I would be out right away. My editor almost wept happy tears when I told him I had a lead. We had one more issue to fill before the sweet vacuum of the Sabbath, and so far our front page (and at least three more nearby) were violently blank.

The cattle farm’s owner met me at the side of the highway; the entrance to his farm being seemingly a four centimetre space in the continuous angry wave of buffalo grass that lined the roads for kilometres in either direction.

“No signs,” he explained. “Don’t need ’em.” He had the hardened skin of a sun-worker, with baby-soft pink trapped between his squint-creases. “Frank Summers,” he said as an introcution. “You’d better get in the ute.” He gestured to what was once probably a white pickup. “You can leave your car down behind the grass. Perfectly safe.”

So we made our way up the clotted stone riot he called his driveway, me placing my notebook quietly under my arse to stop the blood blisters I envisaged as we juddered along on threadbare seats. “When did this all start?” I shouted to Frank over the scream of the engine.

“Can’t rightly say,” he shouted back. “First noticed it ’bout a week ago, though can’t say how long it’s been going on. Damn strange, though.”

We eventually made it up to the main farmhouse on our chariot of corrosion and hope, and Frank took me immediately around the back of the house to the large, wood-fenced cattleyard, a labyrinth of dust and the tan backs of the constantly moving cows. He pushed his Akubra back and rubbed the rusty tuft of hair it uncovered. “Gonna show you the worst one first,” he said. “Can’t see any sense doing otherwise. You up to it?”

I swallowed, feeling real or imagined grit grinding at my throat. “Sure,” I said.

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