Afflicted – 02: Chapter 1

The afternoon was sunny, and the area sheltered from the breeze that kicked up along the top of the rise far across the river. An afternoon as lazy as any Wednesday could be. Perfect for fishing, in fact, something that a group of these three mates did whenever they have the opportunity. They often did it when they don’t officially have an opportunity too, like today: ditching small responsibilities, like school, and going fishing anyway. Fishing’s not a hobby, it’s a way of life; especially on an afternoon like this.

This group was lounging around underneath a big old man river red gum. One was asleep; one was smoking a rollie, reading a book, and making an occasional sketch; and one was tying a hook to the end of his line and getting frustrated with the fact that every time he tried to pull the knot tight, the hook, which admittedly was far too large for the purpose and was multi-barbed, wedged itself in his hands somewhere. First it was the cuticle of his thumb, then it was the webbing between his fore- and middle fingers, and then it was his palm. After the fourth time this happened, he took the hook off the line, threw it into the long reeds at the edge of the river, kicked his rod over, and went and pushed over the dude who was reading, before making his way over to a black backpack that was sitting in the shade on a rock some hundred metres away. A couple of hundred metres away from them up the hill a cattle track ran around to the west. The track was so rutted that it was more like a series of speed-humps that terminate abruptly, followed by large pot-holes that in the winter fill with grasses growing in the stagnant ponds in the middle. From the state of it, it looked as though even Old Mack’s cattle hadn’t used it for years, and in the dry Old Mack was the only one who would send the cattle out here rather than spend a buck to buy ‘em some hay. Beyond the track the hill rose steadily, flattening out at the top to a long-disused, and nearly dry reservoir. It’d been so long in disuse that the fences were starting to fall down where they weren’t reduced to gaps, and cattle from the immediate area had been in and destroyed the banks of it. The Trespassers Will Be Prosecuted sign hung by one bolt, its surroundings mocking it.

Around to the east, the river wound itself through and past a long bend. The lapping waves at the river’s edge rose, sparkled, and gently fell back, emitting a faint spray in the breeze, the river muttering to itself and shushing itself by turns. Eventually the bend straightened out and the river bolted downhill towards and through the town—which sat five k’s away—with the first bridge around the next bend in closer towards the town centre. But here there were no roads, no bridges, no people. The occasional snake, a plethora of noisy cockatoos, the occasional magpie or bellow of a bull from up the hill, and of course plenty of fish, but no people. It was the middle of the week, and nobody was water-skiing or bumming around in a boat, so the atmosphere was quiet and peaceful. Directly opposite the hill rose in a steep, bluey-green scrubby incline, replete with rocks, boulders, hundreds of metres of shale decorating the surface upwards from the water. Getting down to the water on that side wasn’t impossible if one wanted to slide on one’s arse, but it was really bloody inconvenient trying to get back to the track home without getting bitten by a snake in the reeds. Heading back around the river’s edge through the reeds was the only possible way on that side.

The kid with the backpack yanked out a lunchbox and tackle box and headed back down to retrieve his rod and try another hook. At the same time he got stuck into some sandwiches that had, because of the heat inside the backpack, gone soggy. By the time he’d finished eating, a much smaller hook had been knotted in place without stabbing him. Just as he put his lunchbox down, a foot in the back sent him sprawling sideways. It was the kid who was asleep. He motioned to the other kid’s sizeable lunchbox, which he can see has another two rounds of sandwiches, three pieces of quiche, an apple, a pear, a mandarin, and a pile of chocolate biscuits that were melting on the inside of their gladwrap, leaving the chocolate on the plastic and the biscuit sitting by itself in the middle.

At the scowl that was turned up at him, he said,

‘I believe it’s your turn to cater. Gunna share arsehole, or do I have to fight you for it?’

The kid who brought the lunch, and who was sprawled on the ground, picked himself up and reluctantly handed over the plastic box of food. His mood was totally ignored, like it was something that everyone dealt with all the time, and had learned to ignore.

‘Thought you were asleep,’ he grunted.

‘Do I look asleep?’ The kid took the box of food and went back to where he’d passed the previous half an hour asleep. The third kid, who was still sketching and reading, hadn’t taken much notice.

Sorting through the lunchbox, the kid grabbed the best piece of quiche, the mandarin, and the best round of sandwiches. ‘Bevan,’ he yelled out.

The kid with the pencil and book looked up vaguely before going back to his work.

‘Bevan yer fucking poof!’ yelled the first kid, down next to his rod.

Bevan turned his face up straight away, expression impassive.

‘What?’

‘D’yer want yer lunch?’ called out the kid with the lunchbox. ‘Yer better eat it before Jack stuffs it all in his greedy gut and tells yer there isn’t any left, like he did last time.’

‘Fuck off,’ returned Jack.

‘Yeah alright.’ Bevan marked the place in his book and put his sketching aside before he moved up alongside the kid with the lunchbox. ‘Thanks Rick.’

Rick nodded absent-mindedly, half-way through his sandwiches. Bevan sat next to him and they ate without talking. Rick cast his glance around aimlessly, casually, before it came to rest on Bevan’s rod. He sat there, watching it nodding. He pointed with his right hand. ‘Ma’e,’ he chewed. ‘Recko’ yer go’a fi’.’

‘Uh?’ Bevan followed Rick’s pointing finger and stood up, spilling his entire lunch into the dust at his feet in his eagerness to get to his rod. ‘Oh fuh,’ he cursed at the dusty food, through his sandwich. In a few minutes he’d expertly landed a large redfin, decapitated it, and wedged it tail-up in the sand to drain. Then he rinsed his hands and went back to rescue his lunch, thanking Rick for the heads-up.

After Rick and Bevan had eaten, and Jack had retrieved his lunchbox and what remained to him after the others had had their lunch with much ill humour, they dispersed again and lounged around for a couple of hours. By the end of this time, Bevan had about seven more fish, most of which were gutted and cleaned, and the others had none. Rick didn’t seem to mind; he had spent most of the afternoon asleep anyway, and wouldn’t have been able to get to his rod in time, even if he had caught anything. As it was, the fish population had probably enjoyed the bait as their hors d’ouvres, and Bevan’s bait was the feast.

Jack was in a foul mood. As with the hook that he’d been unable to knot onto his line earlier, he managed to stuff up his reel, bend an eyelet on his rod, scratch the beautiful paintwork that he’d had done on it—it was a custom rod, which he got for his last birthday—and he hadn’t caught any fish, despite bragging all that morning about how many he’d catch. Bevan, being a quiet pacifist with a wussy nature, a gay name, a tendency to dob, and a tendency to tears, was naturally the butt of the boys’ friendship triangle. And, as a result, was the butt of Jack’s ill humour. Jack roughly packed everything into his backpack and threw it down, glaring at everything as though nature had given him the greatest insult, and how dare it just exist. Rick noticed that Jack was looking like a thundercloud, and discreetly moved out of his way, heading back over the rise to water the grass; when he returned Jack was still standing around irritably, so he kept his distance and watched. Bevan, however, being who he is, and being as busy as he was, didn’t notice. He was drawing and reading or cleaning fish, his attention much more concentrated elsewhere, to notice that Jack was building himself up.

The very fact that Bevan was doing two of the girliest activities in the world: reading and drawing, was enough to make Jack uneasy. The fact that Bevan was doing it while he was fishing, combined with the amount of fish that he’d caught in a short space of time, was positively infuriating. Eventually, when Bevan hadn’t noticed Jack stomping around, huffing and puffing, and generally being a bit of an arsehole about things, Jack grabbed Bevan’s pen, kicked his books, and pushed his mate over.

Bevan, utterly surprised, lay there agape. He didn’t even bother to pick himself up. He just sat there with a stupid look on his face and teary eyes.

‘What’d you do that for, Jack, you arse?’

Jack imitated him in a high-pitched voice. ‘What’d you do that for Jack you arse? What do you fucking reckon I did that for, poofter boy?’

Bevan sat up and started to collect his things into one pile, noting with dismay that the picture he’d been working on for over half an hour was now irreparably damaged.

‘Oh fuck it,’ he muttered, throwing it in a pile. He stood up, sighed and said peaceably, ‘Calm down for fuck’s sake. Don’t be an arsehole, Jack.’

Jack would not be placated. ‘Why do you fucking well do such fucking gay things yer wanker? Fucking drawing and shit. Fucking girls do that. And what’re yer reading, maths homework or something?’ Jack picked up the book and looked at the cover, which did have ‘maths’ in the title. He threw it down in disgust and turned on Bevan again, who was rubbing an eye where dirt had gotten into it. ‘Oh don’t fucking cry about it!’ he yelled, exasperated.

Rick had by this time come back from where he was skulking in the background and tried to defuse Jack before he laid into Bevan. It wasn’t rare that Jack would get worked up about small things, specially if he was stressed out, but he was a violent chap and Rick wouldn’t have been surprised if he had taken his mood out on Bevan to the point of injuries being involved. So, he stood between his mates.

‘Chill, Jack. Come on, don’t be a total arsehole.’ He held out his mate’s backpack, like a peace offering. ‘Neither of us have caught anything here for about a fortnight. Bevan was lucky enough to have his rod near that log over there, see?’ He pointed out a submerged log that was a haven for fish, and which stretched far out into the river. ‘And because you got here last, it’s your fault you didn’t get the sweet spot.’ Rick eyed Jack carefully. ‘What’s worryin’ you, mate?’

Jack grabbed his backpack, threw it on his back and glowered, but he didn’t say anything for a while.

The air was charged but neither Bevan or Rick said anything or moved, waiting for their volatile friend to calm down to a point where he might see reason again. Eventually he did.

‘Yeah, right,’ he grunted. ‘Nothin’ much.’

‘Anyway,’ piped up Bevan, who was in the process of lighting a skinny rollie, ‘the fish probably are onto us by now. Reckon we oughta move on.’

Rick sighed, because he could see utter disbelief in Jack’s face. What a thing to say. What a thing to say right now.

‘Whattaya mean the fish are ‘onto us’ yer fuckin idiot?’ Jack guffawed. Rick tried to keep a straight face. ‘They don’t have a fucking memory, do they. How the fuck would they be onto us?’ He snorted with scorn, while Rick giggled at the idea.

Bevan, who’d had an afternoon of Jack’s calling him a poofter and trying to get him riled, managed to stay calm. He stood up with the items to pack into his bag, and looked Jack straight in the eye. ‘All I mean is that we should perhaps try another spot? Somewhere that there are a few more hiding places for the fish? We’d probably have better luck.’

He walked down to the edge of the river, and reeling in his line, which had yet another fish on it.

‘Luck? You don’t need more luck you bastard,’ Rick called to him, jealously watching him reel in, kill, and clean his eighth fish.

‘Yeah but you do. Reckon a new place’d do it,’ Bevan called back over his shoulder, breathing through his smoke. He didn’t offer the others any of his recent kill. When they first started fishing together down here, they agreed that what they land they take, as a matter of honour. Unless one or the other would get in a lot of shit for being out too much and not catching anything.

‘Whatever,’ grunted Jack. ‘I’m off.’ And he headed back up to the cattle track, and back to where he’d ditched his bike about two k’s further along.

Rick packed up his rod and tackle and sat back on his haunches watching Bevan repack the fish in his cooler, with plastic-covered ice-bricks throughout them.

‘Jack is such an arsehole,’ Bevan muttered, to nobody in particular.

Rick lit a smoke and sighed as he exhaled, watching the shadows lengthen on the other side of the river. When Bevan had finished packing everything up and had brought all his gear back up to where Rick was sitting, Rick said him,

‘Reckon you’re right.’

‘Course I’m right,’ snorted Bevan. ‘Take a deaf-and-blind cunt not to see how much of an arsehole Jack is.’

Rick looked up, startled. After a moment a grin spread over his face. ‘I wasn’t talking about that. I meant about this place being done. Whaddaya say that next time we head up around that bend about three k’s further that way?’

Bevan looked in the general direction that Rick indicated, his eyes coming to rest on a knot of trees that clustered together at the water’s edge right on the bend. By the looks of things, the bush was denser, and there were probably more obstacles in the water, meaning, therefore, greater possibility of fish.

‘Yeah, might be a good idea. But you can tell Jack. I can’t be fucked.’

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