There once was a boy whose mouth would erupt in a grin that flattened his pouting lips and grew chubby mountains between their edges and his ears. His eyes were wide as the sunshiny sky with centres as brown as the colour of his skin. Silas was thirteen. He was kind. He was smart. And he was my son's friend.
That year, we’d left the rolling green hills of West Gippsland, where my spare room looked more like a laundry than a place to house visiting friends. Our sea change took us from a land of too much rain, to views that coloured the world red, and never demanded worry about how I would get the washing dry.
Northern Australia can be a brutal place when you don't know how to live in it. Up there, the world was hot and heavy. The dirt was enflamed with dead grass and Kimberley Bindies that meant a bike couldn’t be ridden without special tyres to stop them bursting. It was Silas who'd told us about the bindie-resistant bike tubes. “You get 'em at the caravan park,” Silas had said. “Same place as medicine.” He pronounced his ‘th’s more like a ‘d’, and spoke as though every word contained only one syllable. He also told us the only place to buy an ice cream was at the Butcher's.
While Silas and my boys rode their bikes, I hid from the world. I baked mostly; the air conditioner murmuring and the nutty smell of melting butter wafting through the house. I wore bare feet and my hair in a bun, always. I was never scared, but I should have been - not for me, not for my husband or children. I should have been scared for Silas.
Across the road from my refuge, Silas’s fattened home was bursting with sisters and step brothers and stepsisters and cousin-sisters and a cousin-brother who only stayed when Silas' stepdad had gone walk-a-bout. They were all family and they acted like it too, fighting out on the street under the cover of nightfall. But look out if one of them got in a punch up at school - it wouldn't be long before Silas would be throwing himself in there to defend them. That was the kind of kid he was.
Though a kid, well, maybe Silas never really got to be much of a kid.
We'd been living across the road from them for months before I realised that there were members of that household spending far too much time at the pub at the end of our street. They went to the other side of the pub, the side we Gardia were told never to go to. I would have liked to have gone to their side, just to see; they said we'd be right, that they would never hurt us because they knew we were in town to try to help. But still, there had been a stabbing there not long before we arrived and so we did what they said, and stayed away.
At some point, Silas's siblings caught wind that I was happy to share samples of the day's cooking. I'd have faces appear at my front door sometime after school, pressed up against the mesh. With big smiles they'd call out, “Got any biscuits, Miss?” I'd send one of my boys down to unlock the door and they'd file in, their dusty feet swishing and patting along the white-tiled hallway.
I liked our little routine. I liked the way the kids’ eyes goggled the Tupperware container being passed around, their teeth shining and their eyes getting bigger as they saw the chocolate cake, the jam drops, the gingerbread families decorated with coloured icing. 'Can I take one for me little brudder, Miss?' one would ask. And I'd smile and nod and they'd eat the biscuits like they were the best thing they'd eaten since the day before when they stood in my kitchen doing the same thing.
I loved the way food spilt from their mouths as they ate because their smiles were so big, and how they would try to hide their eyes wandering around the room, eager to see how us Gardia lived. I hated that we had so much stuff. I hated that I didn’t know how to go about making the sort of change The Kimberley was asking me to make.
After a while Silas would appear at the front door. 'Are the kids here, Miss?' he'd call out, opening the front door because he knew that they would be in my kitchen. Then a sister-cousin would be chosen and he’d swat her behind the ear, scolding under his breath, ‘I hope you thanked the lady’. I loved how Silas would remind them to use their manners and to thank me, because he knew that was the way my world worked. He was thoughtful and considerate like that.
That's why Silas didn't belong in the town. He was better than the alcohol restrictions, the barbed wire on the top of the school fence, the ATM machine that was always short on cash. He was better than the joblessness, the dead-endness, the hopelessness that the town offered him.
Silas deserved every bit of his free-ride to a boarding school in Melbourne. He'd got his scholarship by working hard and going to school just about every day, when he wasn't suspended. He listened to his teacher, he ignored other kids' hand signals under the table, he wrote in his notebooks and he read books from the library. He deserved something different.
I'd heard about the draw; the pull that makes leaving difficult and staying away even harder. Family is so strong; it is so, so strong. And this life is all they've known. It's easy to say how lucky some of the kids are to get out, to get a chance at a normal life – but what is normal? And how can normal be normal when another type of normal is the only normal you've ever known?
The need to stay and the need to leave, equal in their intensities. What would Silas's path have looked like if he had taken his chances in Melbourne? Perhaps he couldn't see it. Perhaps he hadn't wanted to see it. To leave was to move away from everything he had ever known and loved and felt comfortable in. His family, his town, it was a part of him like the rolling green hills of West Gippsland are part of me. How could it be separated? It would have gone with him even if he had wanted it to stay.
I can still see his face when I close my eyes. That big round face with the shining eyes and quiet disposition. We'd left town, moved on, because I'd been unable to stand living in the middle of nowhere in the top end. I had resumed my life, picking up where I left off - with wet washing, trying to get it dry. I went back to enjoying the greenery and the days that would run into each other in a blur of wet misery. As I hung the sheets around the house with the central heating on, I looked longingly out from my bar-less windows onto fabulous grey skies. This was my normal, the normal I knew and loved.
But as I walked the streets of Leongatha, things didn't feel normal. I couldn't deny that the tiny town in Western Australia had changed me. I just hadn't realised how much, until I got that phone call.
The phone call asked if I'd heard the news. I was totally unprepared for what she said. Not Silas. How could he possibly? It couldn't have been right. It must have been some other Silas, because what could possibly have gone on in his thirteen-year-old head that would have caused him to come to the conclusion that there was no way out, that life was not worth living, that death was a better option?
I couldn't believe it. I still can't.
A rope and air that cannot hold up a child's weight had taken more than just a life that had been special to me. It stole from me the pearl of hope I had seen standing, grinning, on my white kitchen floor.
His big brown eyes haunt me as I wonder if things would have ended differently for Silas if we'd stayed. Could I have done something, shown him something about life that would have helped him see there was hope, that there was light and life in the years that he had before him? Did I miss my chance to make a real difference in someone’s life? I wish I could have shown him that his road could have been different. That his life would have been different.
But mostly, I just wish that things had ended differently. For Silas.