Every birthday since I can remember, my grandad gave me a large cardboard box which I’d open to find scrunched up newspaper, and within it another, smaller box, which I’d open to find scrunched up newspaper, and another, smaller box, which I’d open to find more scrunched up newspaper. I’d get to the smallest box, open it, and find a tin of Nestlé’s condensed milk.
I figured my grandad must have a whole lot of cardboard boxes and newspaper. Piercing the tin lid with two triangular holes, I would suck out the liquid white chocolate. This would last me a day. When he and I went bush, a couple of tins had to last a week. He’d windmill the billy around his head before pouring the tea into enamelled mugs. Spoonfuls of condensed milk followed, one for each of us. We’d sit, watching the fire, while the leaves settled.
Thirteen. I’m sitting in the shack at Ora Banda facing my grandad across the worn pine table. Its legs stand in fruit tins, half-filled with water to discourage the ants. The night is quiet after the loud heat of the day. We’ve been dynamiting diggings south of Broad Arrow. Pounding the yellow rock in the dolly. Sifting and panning. Rumbling back across salt-and-pepper flats in the Landrover, twenty miles or so to the shack, through ghost gums and mulga scrub. Ghost gums were always my favourite, with their eerie white bark and leaves like new green moons. Widowmakers, they will silently drop a branch on the stillest of days.
Midday we’re swimming in the tanks at Grant’s Patch, where they use cyanide to get at the gold. Then out past Carbine, up the back way towards Riverina or some place. He never takes a map. Afternoons are spent poking and pounding rocks in a quartz outcrop, a low ridge above claypans.
Quiet now, you can hear mice scratching away behind the whitewashed hessian walls. He pours two glasses of water from a squat, square plastic bottle, and carefully refits the lid.
He drains his glass and says, I found my mate Bert dead, three weeks back, out at his shack at Grant’s Patch. He’d been drinking metho. Don’t know how long he’d been there dead like that.
He pauses to study the calloused tips of his fingers.
Tried to lift him up. My fingers went straight through his skin and meat and hit bone.
He looks up at me.
Metho will do that to a bloke. Steer clear of it.
I nod a mute promise.
He goes outside. I hear him clanging about in the dark. The screen door flies open, and he comes back carrying a heavy, steel flask. It thuds onto the table. Clinking through empty jars under the meat safe, he takes the lid off a tall one and puts it on the table.
Hold that still, he says, and unscrews the lid of the steel flask.
As he lifts it to the horizontal, a sudden, bright, heavy stream pours noisily into the jar. Carefully replacing the lid, he hands the jar—surprisingly heavy—to me. From nowhere, a birthday card. These always say the same thing.
May you live long and die happy.
Living long strikes me as the easy part, as I swirl this liquid metal around, thirty years on. Every time I move house, which is often enough, the jar reappears. This time it waits quietly in the tall teak bookshelf, hidden from view by a few old hard covers. Just as before, I lift it carefully from its resting place. Just as before, I feel the sudden shift in weight as I tilt it on its side. And just as before, I wonder: What am I going to do with this stuff?
I look down at an old wooden drawer out of a Singer filled with lenses and filters and things. I scrunch some newspaper and pack the jar carefully inside, then place this box inside a larger cardboard box packed with more scrunched up newspaper.
Living long is the easy part.
- Mark Roy, 2005