We begin and end with an image. A boy crouched on the edge of a tall concrete tank, staring at a face in the filthy water. His face. Overhead, the sky, faded and flat; close by, skirting the high chain-metal fence, a dusty track fringed by scrub. And silence, too, for nothing moves, not even the figure in the water. Yes, the boy above is no Narcissus; the face he beholds is not a reflection, but solid and real. Look closer. Study the looks on the faces. Are they not identical, like their features? There, around the eyes, shock and dismay; there, in the eyes, sadness and a shadow of hope. Now look down. Yes, the boy has his hands in the muck; yes, his hands are on the shoulders of the other. Effortlessly, the boy holds him under; effortlessly, one boy holds the other boy up.
Quite a image, you’ll agree. Yet there is more to it still, for what we see is not one vision, but two, each identical in appearance – just like the boys. Only in age do the images differ. In the fine upstanding world of fact, the first is Then, the last is Now, and the two are separated by thirty unyielding years. In fiction, though, the first is Now, the last is Later, and a few thousand words intervene to unite them.
Stories, we know, turn the world on its head.
So, the first image stands, like a standard, before us; we venture, now, behind it, back to its beginnings. But first, the boys must be named. We shall call one Adam, because he is the foremost. The second we shall know only as his other, for that is what he is. Now as we prepare to set out, keep one thought in mind: although Adam and his other are, in God’s grand design, unremarkable, they are special to us, and rightly so. Without them, there is no me; without me, no you.
‘I was born in a place called Australia,’ Adam tells us. ‘In a time known as the Twentieth Century ad.’
Of the things his parents lacked – experience, education, maturity, prosperity – love was not one. Sadly, it was a desperate and demanding love, the kind an infant harbours for its mother, the kind that taints as it colours.
‘They were orphans, you see,’ Adam explains, ‘their own parents being too old and stiff and tired to cope well with kids.’
His home town was big and sprawling – a rural metropolis – but his world was small and self-contained, an unreal realm dominated by industry, order, conflict and constraint.
‘My mother was king. Thin, strident, obsessively active, she ruled from the kitchen with an iron mitt. My father was mostly distant and morose. When at home, he sought refuge outdoors or behind the ramparts of a book, as did I.’
Can we see them now? Yes, we can: they are strewn around the little gas heater on a winter’s night, drowsing in the unfamiliar warmth of companionship, talking about the past as if trying to plumb their predicament.
‘Mum,’ we hear Adam ask. ‘How did you and Dad meet?’
‘We lived in the same street, silly. Dad had had his eye on me for years – hadn’t you, father? Wake up, you lazy prick, and talk to your kids.’
A grunt from the figure in the armchair.
Adam toys with his book.
‘So why did you get married?’
‘Stop asking stupid bloody questions. To escape from our parents, that’s why.’
Are they happy? In their own way, we suppose, as each of us must be.
Before we move on, Adam catches our eye.
‘There’s a key,’ he hisses, from behind his book. ‘Around my mother’s neck. She never uses it herself – nor ever will – and my father is too scared to take it, although he fights her for it from time to time. If you can get it, do, because I need it to get out.’
We are reminded, of course, of the sword in the stone, and other such symbols. But more of that later.
As ever, money was in short supply in Adam’s family, and to ease the strain his father took a job ‘out west’, in a tiny town called Charleville. His new life came as a revelation to Adam; within days, his world expanded. It was hot in the town, and the front door of their small weatherboard house seemed always to be open – open to the wide dirt road which led to the town’s centre, open to the unending bushland beyond, with its myriad tracks and hollows.
‘Oddly enough,’ muses Adam, ‘the doors of other houses always seemed closed.’
Gradually, the conditions wore his mother down, and she relaxed her hold on the family, allowing Adam to range further and further afield. As for his father, he was rarely at home, his job requiring to him spend most of his time on the road.
‘My growing freedom sometimes made me think of the key,’ says Adam. ‘My mum still wore it around her neck, but sometimes she seemed ready to take it off. She’d toy with it at the dinner table, her food untouched, and look at me with a strange light in her eye.’
All was going well for Adam. And yet the move that promised, at first, to be the making of his family, now threatened to break it. For into this fairy tale – or is it a creation myth? – a demon now flits. Enter a young daredevil called Kim, whose powers seemed limited only by his imagination, which was prodigious. By turning everything into a game, he made the unreal real, the impossible possible.
We see them now, at school, in the out-of-bounds space their minds have transformed into the Tardis.
‘I’m going to be a pilot,’ Kim says, bored with playing.
‘Me too,’ says Adam. ‘I like planes.’
‘Ever been on one?’
Adam shakes his head. The idea is ridiculous.
‘You know the Fokker Friendship?’
Adam nods, hoping Kim is asking about the plane that flies over every day.
‘I help clean it, as a job. I’m also learning navigation, from a pilot.’
‘I’ll give you a map. I’ve got heaps.’
‘All right,’ says Adam, trying not to sound too excited.
‘I could get you a job, too, if you want. Cleaning.’
And he would have – if Adam’s mother had let him.
‘You’re twelve years old,’ she snapped, later on. ‘You don’t need to earn money. That’s why we never see your fucking father. Anyway, I don’t want you anywhere near that or any airport.’
Kim isn’t surprised when Adam tells him.
‘She’s stupid,’ he says. ‘We’ll go out tomorrow and see the Fokker.’
So they did. Adam, though, didn’t have the guts to ever do it again.
Our first image now looms, as does the undoing of Adam.
We find ourselves in the devil’s playground, a small sewage works that had taken Kim’s fancy.
‘Don’t slip,’ he says, as they clamber around the lips of the tanks, dropping rocks into the mouths of pipes, pushing rows of sprinklers into their foaming pens. ‘Don’t slip or you’re dead.’
Ah, the innocent destructive games they played, the worlds they invented, as if their elevated position opened heavenly vistas before them, rather than exposing them, instead, to a dark and hellish death.
They are playing there as we watch – although Adam now has stopped.
‘Who are you?’ he asks the figure that has appeared without warning at his side.
The figure stares back at him boldly, but in silence.
‘He’s your other,’ says Kim, admiringly.
‘My other what?’
‘Something bad’s going to happen. That’s why he’s here.’
‘Haven’t you read any books? In a minute you’ll be fighting. If the fight’s over fast, you might not get caught. But if it isn’t…’
Adam looks confused.
‘But why would we fight?’
‘Over the key, you idiot.’
‘The key?’ Adam stops and thinks. ‘Get caught for what?’
Kim shakes his head.
‘You’d better stop asking stupid questions and get ready to fight.’
Adam turns back to the silent figure.
But before he can finish, his other is upon him – the fight has begun.
It is a close one. Eventually, though, one of them falters. It is Adam. It is he who loses his balance; it is he who plunges, with a terrified cry, into the filth; it is he who struggles to climb out.
‘Nice fight,’ says Kim, gravely. ‘But you took too long.’
With a shrug, he disappears.
‘Help,’ Adam splutters.
His other crouches and reaches down; placing his hands on Adam’s shoulders, he shoves him under.
‘No,’ Adam shrieks, his cry cut short.
Here we pause, the image complete, the identities of the two boys revealed. We have reached our first destination. Now, though, it is more than an image – it is action. It is the opening of an invisible sluice, a great sucking rush of water, and the drawing under and away of Adam.
It is the opening of a car door and a cry from below:
‘Get down from there – it’s dangerous!’
It is the undoing of Adam; it is not, though, his end, despite his dire predicament, because it is a law of human nature that what goes down must come up.
Thus the next part of the story begins – the part that brings us to the second image.
Having vanquished Adam, his other gets less than he bargained for.
‘He got caught,’ says Adam. ‘They were going to charge him over the vandalism – it cost thousands to fix – but never did, thanks to my mother’s pleading. She saved him from perdition, as she told him time and time again. Of course, he didn’t get the key – that chance was gone.’
In disgrace, the family returned to their home town, and tried to carry on. Years passed and, unbeknownst to his mother, Adam’s other fell under the spell of a kindly wizard, who put him to work cataloguing his collection of herbs. Surrounded by goodness, Adam’s other began to weaken and loosen his grip; gradually, Adam gained in strength.
‘I was never really gone,’ he explains, ‘just held in suspension, waiting for the day I would rise and return.’
A decade or so passed; the wizard and his helpers kept on working their magic, until, one day, Adam felt he was ready.
We follow him as he approaches the wizard.
‘Sir,’ he says, ‘it’s time I was going.’
‘My boy,’ replies the wizard, ‘you’ll be missed. But you’ve been free to go from the moment you arrived.’
Adam looks surprised.
‘But the door,’ he says. ‘I don’t have a key.’
The wizard laughs.
‘My boy, my boy, there are no locks. Look closely. This and every door is open.’
And so they are.
With sadness and gratitude, Adam leaves the wizard’s house in the woods. Where does he go now? Again, let’s follow him and see.
Back to the devil’s playground, of course.
‘There had to be another fight,’ he says. ‘Like Kim said – haven’t you read any books?’
We arrive on the Fokker, whose pilot flies without maps. We stride through the town’s centre and along the wide dirt road; we stride, our pace lengthening, through the unending bushland and along the dusty track. We clear the high chain-metal fence and Adam and his other climb to the top of the concrete tank, where they face each again on the narrow lip.
As we watch – from a distance, as the demon once did – they fight, like brothers wrestling. It is a long tense struggle, but finally one falls, with a cry, into the muck, and all is still.
Again, the image confronts us. A boy crouched on the edge of a tall concrete tank, staring at a face in the filthy water. His face.
We try to step around the vision so that we can glimpse its aftermath, but it – like the future – is an impenetrable barrier.
Here, then, we must stop and wait. When next we meet it will be on the other side of the image, where all will be known.
It isn’t much of an ending, but life, we know, is like that.
We’ve read all the stories.