Perilous Adventures
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Olvar Wood Writers Retreat


Dirt Angel

Karen Hollands

Dad and I did a lot of digging today. My muscles are aching and my hands and face feel dusty but the front yard looks like a real garden now, especially since I planted the last of the snake plants. That’s what Dad called them anyway. The name on the tag said Sansevieria trifasciata, but Dad couldn’t pronounce that. He said the long thin leaves reminded him of green tree snakes. The garden would have looked better with flowers. I wanted daisies or pansies or chrysanthemums, lots of different colours, but Dad said no way. He liked my idea for garden gnomes though – we got three. Dad called Uncle Dane and he turned up with them, he said that they fell off the back of a truck.  I’m never sure what he means when he says that, but Dad always laughs, so I laughed too.

We had a lot of fun naming the gnomes. I called one of them Grandpa-give-us-another because its rosy red cheeks and fat red nose reminded me of my grandpa, and whenever I walk past grandpa, he always holds out his empty stubbie and says “gives us another would you, lad?”  Dad sticky-taped an empty stubbie to the gnome. Even now, with the street light reflecting on it, it looks really funny. One of the other gnomes is leaning against a big red and white-spotted mushroom looking all sleepy. Dad said it must have been a magic mushy so he called the gnome Dopey. The third one is standing very straight with his hands behind his back. He has a pipe in his mouth. I said he looked like he was telling someone off. Uncle Dane said he was probably a pig. Dad said, “Let’s call him Porky,” and he made the squealing sound of a pig and did this funny walk around the garden. Uncle Dane and I cracked up. 

After we’d named them, I chose the right spot for each gnome and dug holes for the snake plants while Dad and Uncle Dane had a few stubbies. As Uncle Dane was leaving, Dad gave him some of Mum’s pills as a thank you for the gnomes. Later in the afternoon Mum came outside to look at the garden. She loved the gnomes, especially the one of grandpa. And she was happy for me. Happy that I’d finally got a garden, after going on about it for so long.

It had been a really peaceful afternoon. Dad carried the barbie around to the front porch and we had sausages in bread for lunch and sat admiring the garden. Even my little brother, Zeke, stopped playing on his Xbox for a while and came outside. After lunch, Mum and Zeke went back inside. Zeke to his bedroom, Mum to the living room and her TV. She prefers to stay inside. Sunlight gives her headaches.

Aunty Cheryl turned up just as it was getting dark. I was watching Australia’s Funniest Home Videos with Mum and Dad in the living room when we heard her bang on the door and yell out,

“Gavin, Gavin, open the bloody door, let me in.”

Dad went to the front door. I followed close behind. Mum turned from her position on the couch. When Dad opened the door and saw Aunty Cheryl he said, “Fucking hell, Cheryl.” He took her gently by the arm and led her into the living room. Mum stood up and said, “Jesus fucking Christ,” and helped her sit down. Laughter rang out from the TV as someone ran into a tree on their bicycle.

Aunty Cheryl’s right eye was puffed up and red and purple. There was dried blood all around her nose and her face was smeared with make-up. As she sat down, she started crying. She made loud sobbing sounds. Soon the dried blood was mixed with snot. Mum told me to get some toilet paper for her, and some Panadol. Dad said to get the Bundy from the kitchen too.

I ran to get the toilet paper. On the way, I poked my head into Zeke’s room and said, “Aunty Cheryl’s here, she’s covered in blood, you should come and see.”

Zeke dropped his joy stick and ran to the living room. When I went back into the living room, Dad was punching his fist into his other hand and muttering things like “fucking prick,” “little turd.” He poured a Bundy for Aunty Cheryl, then took a swig from the bottle. Mum gave Aunty Cheryl some Panadol and told Zeke to wet a towel and bring it to her.

I watched Mum dab the towel around Aunty Cheryl’s eye. She was really gentle.  She stroked Aunty Cheryl’s hair back away from her face and helped her lie down, like she used to do to me when I was younger and feeling sick. Made me wish I was little again. Aunty Cheryl looked up at Dad the whole time. He smiled at her, told her it would be alright.

Aunty Cheryl always came to our house when she needed help. She told Mum once we were the first people to ever treat her like family. She didn’t have any family of her own and she loved the fact that Zeke and I called her Aunty. 

Dad handed me the bottle, took his phone out of his pocket and walked outside. I followed him, still carrying the bottle. He punched some numbers on his mobile. He talked to Uncle Mick, asked for help to sort someone out.

Then he called Wozza. Wozza is really strong. He can pick me up and hold me above his head with his arms out straight. He works as a bodyguard at a nightclub. After the phone calls, Dad put his phone back in his pocket, took the bottle from me and walked back inside. He took another swig of the Bundy and said, “I’m going to pay that prick a visit.”
Mum pleaded with him not to go. She said Uncle Dane wasn’t worth it, that Dad should just leave him alone to rot in hell. But Dad said, “no, this time he’s gone too far,” he said that beating up a chick was gutless and he couldn’t stand by and just let it happen. That was my Dad, always trying to do the right thing, trying to be a gentleman and look after the ladies.

Holding the Bundy in one hand, Dad picked up his car keys and walked towards the front door. Mum walked after him, still pleading. Aunty Cheryl called out from the couch, “Gavin, he knows.”

“Knows what?” asked Mum.

“Nothing,” said Dad.

He looked at Mum for a long time before he turned away. He pushed the bottle of Bundy under his arm and walked out. The sound of the door closing was drowned out by Zeke’s laughter as he watched blindfolded people on the TV swinging at piñatas with baseball bats and sticks and inadvertently whacking their friends and relatives.


I came outside to get away from Mum crying and Zeke laughing. I don’t know why he is laughing so loudly and for so long, it isn’t that funny. I pick up the hose and start watering the garden. The spray from the water blows back onto me. I can feel droplets forming all over my face. My tears feel warm as they mix in with the droplets. I let the water spray on me until I get too cold, then I turn off the tap, wipe my face and nose dry with my t-shirt and sit down against the house. I can still hear them inside but they aren’t as loud now. The noise from the cars and trucks that go along our road has taken over. There’s always people coming and going to the shopping centre on the other side. It feels better being outside. I’ll be the first to hear Dad arrive home. The first to make sure he is OK.

I hear voices and footsteps and quickly stand up. A gang is walking along the footpath in front of the house. I step back into the shadows of the house, hoping they don’t see me. There’s six of them. They’re yelling things out and pushing and shoving each other. Some of them are holding cans of drink. One lets out a loud burp then he stops in front of the low brick wall in front of our garden and faces the house. He just stands there staring. I can feel my heart beating fast. Maybe they’re friends of Uncle Dane’s? He looks up at the house, then down at the ground. He reaches down to his jeans, then pulls out his dick and pisses onto one of the snake plants. While he’s pissing, he spots the pig-gnome and aims for that. His piss runs over its head. When he’s finished, he walks off down the footpath after the others.

I stand really still, unsure what to do. I’d like to wash the gnome, but I don’t want to go that close to the road. I could go inside, but I want to wait here for Dad.  I wish Dad was here. What would he do? He wouldn’t have let that guy get away with that.  

I sit back down, under the window of the living room. I can feel my heart beating. I feel all wound up. That’s what Ms Benson calls it. Sometimes when we come back into class after play time, she says we’re too wound up. She gets the class to sit on the floor in a circle and close our eyes. She tells us to focus only on the sounds we can hear – not to think about them, just to acknowledge them. We do this for a few minutes, then we move to our desks and start our work. I try it now. I close my eyes. At first all I can hear is my heart beating, then I start to hear cars passing by, the brakes of a truck, a TV show. The whirring sound of a siren fills my ears. By the time it passes the house, the noise has wound me back up tight. I sit upright, my eyes open wide.

After a while, I walk around to the back of the house and go in through the back door. Mum’s in the kitchen. She’s been trying to call Dad on his mobile but he’s not answering. She puts her phone down, shaking her head. I look down at her phone and notice that her hands are shaking too. 

I reach out to hug her but she rubs her hand on the top of my head instead. Then she reaches up to an overhead cupboard and takes out a bottle of pills and a glass. I walk through to the living room and see Aunty Cheryl asleep on the couch. Mum has covered her in the doona from Zeke’s bed. The TV is on with the volume turned down low. There’s a movie on and I stand at the door and watch it for a while. It is a car chase. It looks cool. Two guys are being chased by cops.

When there’s an ad break, I walk down to my room to get a jumper. When I turn the light on, I see Zeke asleep in my bed. I give him a push and say, “Hey, what are you doing in my bed?” He doesn’t answer me. I get my jumper and flick the light off but instead of going back outside I decide to watch TV. I turn the lights off in the living room and sit in the armchair near the window.  I’m starving. I think about asking Mum if there’s anything for dinner, but I don’t move. After a while, I feel my eyes getting heavy.

I wake up just in time for the final shoot-out. Another car chase and a gun-fight, and the cops win. Just as the credits roll, the glare of headlights breaks through the window and hits the corner of my eye. Dad.

I run to open the door. He walks straight past me. He shakes Aunty Cheryl awake. Mum comes in to the room. Dad paces around, rubs his hands over his face and up through his hair. Mum asks him what’s happened.

Mum’s looking at Dad but Dad stares at the floor. He breathes out noisily. After a while he says, “There was a fight. Dane got cut.”

I step back and lean against the doorway of the living room. Mum is still staring at Dad but he doesn’t look at her.

Mum says, “How bad?”


Aunty Cheryl gasps. I look up at her. She can only see out of one eye. Her other eye is so swollen that all you can see is a straight line with a few eyelashes sticking out. She is looking at Dad with her good eye.

“Cut where?”

“In the gut. Wozza called an ambulance then we left.”

Then Mum vaporises Dad. That’s what Zeke and I call it. It is a look she gives when she is beyond furious. It feels like bright laser beams are coming out of her eyes and vaporising you into thin air. It is a look she gave Zeke when he hid her tablets because she took his x-box away. It is a look she gave me when, as a seven-year-old, I let her think I had run away from home. I sat on the roof watching while she searched the neighbourhood for hours. It is the same look she is giving Dad now.

She speaks quietly, slowly and carefully, “Who cut him?” she asks.

“It was an accident. I cut him. With the Bundy bottle. Accidentally.” Dad is still looking at the floor.

“You could go to jail for this. What the fuck are you going to do now?”

I start to feel dizzy. I feel like lying down on the couch, having my hair stroked. I feel sick, probably because I am hungry. I step out of the room and sit down with my back against the wall. I can’t believe that my Dad might go to jail for accidentally cutting someone in a fight. I can’t believe my Dad has been fighting Uncle Dane.

Mum and Dad start yelling at each other. I go back outside and water the garden again. I wash the piss off the pig-gnome. Dad and Aunty Cheryl come out. I quickly wipe my face. They walk towards the car.

“Dad, where are you going? Dad, don’t go out again.”

I’m crying but he doesn’t seem to notice. I watch the car reverse out of the driveway and take off down the road. Then I slowly walk back inside and close the front door. I walk around the house looking for Mum. The bathroom door is shut. I hear her crying on the other side. I go back to the living room, turn off the TV, pick up Zeke’s doona and head for his bed.


We are only 15 minutes late for school. On the bus, Zeke talks about the cops coming around looking for Dad in the night but I didn’t hear them. I slip into the classroom and sit at my desk. Ms Benson asks me why I am late. I say I missed my bus. She asks to see my homework. I say I forgot it. She complains that this is the fourth day in a row that I haven’t brought in my homework. I explain that I have lost my homework book and am still looking for it.

We do Maths. Nothing makes sense to me. Ms Benson is talking about division with decimal remainders. I hear her voice saying, “Remember, it is more accurate to express the remainder as a decimal” but I have no idea what she is talking about. I keep thinking about my Dad. When everyone is working on their own sums, Ms Benson calls me over to her desk. She asks if there is anything wrong. I tell her I am tired. She asks me if everything is alright at home. I tell her my Aunty came over last night and was a bit upset and we had all gone to bed a bit late. I tell her I’m sorry I haven’t done my homework. I offer to do it at lunchtime, if she can give me another copy of the work.

After lunch Ms Benson hands out a science test. It is on forces and motion. I read the first question. It says Explain what is meant by the centre of gravity. I think about the time Mum and Dad took me and Zeke to a fair. Dad, Zeke and I went on a ride called the Circle of Terror. We stood inside a cylinder tube and held onto handles by our sides. The tube gradually picked up speed until we were spinning like clothes in a washing machine. As the cylinder spun, we were pinned helplessly to the back of it, once it stopped, we fell forwards onto a mat. It made me feel sick and happy.

When we got off, pale and ready to vomit up the hot dogs we’d had for lunch, Mum said we’d defied gravity. I write, “when you’re balanced enough so that you don’t fall over” for my answer. Then I think about Mum yelling at Dad last night. I read through the other test questions. My head is full of words and images. Force. Gravity. Momentum. Dad. Jail. Police. My garden. I can’t think of any other answers. I feel sick. I put my head down on my desk. The room is so quiet. I can hear someone’s pencil scratching on their page.

The sound of Ms Benson’s voice near my ear takes me by surprise,

“Dexter, are you sure you are feeling OK?”

I tell Ms Benson I have a headache. She calls my Mum and I go home early. As we pull up into the driveway, Mum tells me that Dane’s brothers came over this morning. I wonder if Uncle Dane is dead. I wonder where Dad is. Mum stares through the window screen and says, “They took your gnomes, Dex. Reckoned they belonged to Dane.”

“My gnomes?”

I get out of the car and walk over to the garden. They are all gone. Even the pig-gnome. I think about the guy last night who pissed on it and wish I hadn’t washed it. Mum tells me that Dad is in trouble with the police for beating up Uncle Dane. He’s going to Court tomorrow. I ask her where Dad is now and if he is coming home. She doesn’t tell me. I don’t think she knows.

Mum sleeps for the rest of the day. I watch TV and try Dad’s mobile. At four o’clock I wake Mum and go and sit out on the front wall to look out for Zeke getting off the bus, which stops down the street. I watch the cars go by. I wonder where everyone is going. A large truck slows down in front of our house. It has sixteen wheels, eight on each side. I wonder what it would be like to be run over by a truck like that, to step out off the footpath just as it comes past. I try to imagine having my body run over eight times. Would the same part of my body be squashed each time, or would eight different parts get flattened by the different tyres?

Dad doesn’t come home that night. He doesn’t call. Zeke and I catch the bus to school the next day. My class works in small groups. I can’t think of anything to contribute so the kids in my group suggest I be the scribe, but then I keep forgetting to write down their ideas, or they complain that my writing is too messy, so someone else takes over.

On the way home, as the bus from school goes past our house, I look out the window and see Dad getting into his car. I yell to him through the window but he doesn’t hear me. I push the bell on the bus over and over and yell at the driver to stop, but he still drives down to the bus stop, seventy metres or so down from our house.

I don’t wait for Zeke. I run as fast as I can. But by the time I get there he’s already pulled out and driven off into the traffic. There are tracks of dirt in the driveway. Some have been flattened by tyre tread. We studied planets and space in science last year. The teacher, Mr Simpson, showed us photos of the surface of the moon. It was barren except for some craters here and there. I remember at the time thinking that the craters looked like holes where trees had once lived. I’d imagined giant aliens walking around pulling out all the trees. A moonscape, Mr Simpson had called it.

Last Sunday, Dad said we were landscaping. Now, the gnomes are gone, and the plants are gone. Not a single plant left. Our garden has gone from landscape to moonscape.

Zeke walks up the driveway. He stops next to me and looks around.

“What happened to your garden?”

I am still panting from running and can’t answer him. He walks towards the house.  My legs feel rooted to the concrete. I wonder if I am going to be sick.

As Zeke reaches the front porch, I call out to him, “Zeke, I think Dad did this.”

“Dad?” Zeke doesn’t believe me. “Why would Dad do this?” He shakes his head and walks inside. I force my legs to follow him.

Mum’s in the kitchen. Her eyes are puffy and her nose is red. She looks up at me and Zeke. She looks like she’s trying to remember how to smile. I wait for her to speak, to tell me why Dad’s not here, why he drove off, why he pulled up the plants, when he’s going to jail, but she just looks at us. She looks like she’s going to cry.

Then Zeke says, “Did Dad pull up the plants out the front?”

Mum looks at me and says, “He took all of his stuff, Dex, everything he reckoned he paid for – not just the plants.”
By the time I have tucked Mum up in bed, wiped her face and given her a few pills, she has explained to Zeke and me that Dad has been charged with assault and released on bail and is waiting to hear how long he will spend in jail, could be months or years. In the meantime, Dad has gone to live with Aunty Cheryl.

I sit on the side of Mum’s bed and stroke her hair until she falls asleep. Then I go outside and find the rake. I rake the dirt until all the craters have been smoothed out, until it looks like a big, brown, flat square of nothing. I’m not going to school tomorrow. I’m going to ask Mum for some money and I’m going to walk over to the Garden Centre over the road. I’m going to buy flower seeds, as many as I can afford.

I look up. There’s a full moon out. I lie down in the middle of the dirt and stare at the moon for a long time. I can see a few stars, but apart from them, and the moon, it’s a pitch black night. I move my arms and legs in and out, like I’ve seen people do in the movies in the snow, making angel patterns, and I smile as I wonder if I’m the first person ever to make a dirt angel.

About the Author

Karen Hollands was one of three joint winners of the 2011 Perilous Adventures Short Story Competition.

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